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Gods Among Men
I don’t share a lot of old stories. This project has always been about who I’m becoming, not who I was. I told myself I don’t want to be the person whose best years are behind him. So instead, I hid them away and wrote about what I’m learning and who I’m becoming. And hell, who really wants to hear about dumb things I did in airplanes anyways? Especially without a pint.
Thankfully, good friends are the antidote to dumb ideas. As I talked with my friends, I kept hearing “you need to tell these stories.” As much as I refused, they pushed and prodded. They refused to let me off the hook.
Maybe I can be the person exploring what it means to live a good life, a life of integrity and meaning, while also being the guy who did dumb things as a 25 year old Navy pilot. Maybe I need to own my past to move forward. I hope you enjoy this week’s story. Just imagine we’re sitting at the bar, cold pint in hand, and this will instantly be a better experience.
Landing Signals Officers (LSOs) are gods among men. They defy the laws of physics and decorum alike, to ensure Navy carrier pilots land safely. Their tools include a keenly calibrated eye, a smooth radio voice, and an exaggerated swagger – all essential for bringing pilots home safely every time. Three feet high and a pilot won’t land. Fourteen feet low and things get really bad. Call their parents to confess bad. All at 140 mph, on calm sunny days and stormy nights where the ship is see-sawing 40 feet in the air. LSOs keep pilots in that 17 foot box. They are the worst teachers and the best friends a pilot ever had. Every young pilot wants to be an LSO. It was a hell of a job.
Watch the first minute of this video for a feel of what it was like.
In 2010, we were preparing for deployment. After a year of training, we had one last exercise before the Navy sent us into harm’s way. 11 airplanes, one target, and a safe landing. If the mission succeeded, we would come home for one month of rest before we left; if not, one of two things would happen. We’d spend Christmas trying again. Or we wouldn’t deploy.
Those 11 airplanes had spent the last three hours fighting a simulated strike. In a mission to destroy the target, they had flown two and a half times faster than a Formula One car only 500 feet off the ground, avoided missiles itching to shoot them down, dropped bombs on a target the size of a Model S, all within five seconds of the plan, and fought enemy airplanes to escape. Just like in Top Gun Maverick, except no one got to fly under a bridge. Everyone was exhausted. And they still had to land.
Landing on a carrier is the most basic of tasks, if that task is riding a unicycle on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. Carrier pilots train for years to master the 15 seconds of landing. In the opposite of every other plane in the world, they hold their tailhook, a small piece of steel ten feet behind the back of the plane, at a precise angle to make sure they catch a wire that will stop them. In those 15 seconds they make 90 frustratingly precise adjustments in all three axes. All while the ship is moving at an angle away from them. The margin for error is miniscule, and the consequences are catastrophic. The 11 pilots would have to push through hours of exhaustion and mental pressure in order to perform this dance tonight.
This is what every landing felt like for 11 years. I still get goosebumps watching it.
It was my team’s job to make sure they did just that. As the pilots waited for their cue at 10,000 ft overhead (Angels 10 in Navy talk), our team of LSOs walked the cavernous halls of the ship. It had been an hour since the last landing. In that hour, the sea had asserted her will. Where the yellow sun, the warm Southern California air, and flat as glass ocean had been, 20 feet waves and dumping storms now filled the void. As the waves rolled, the platform on the back of the ship was moving – left, right, up, and down, often at the same time and unpredictably. A dark night with a moving runway. There was only one thought. Fuck.
The first ten planes landed uneventfully. One after the other, 90 seconds apart, they wore the same path down the glideslope1 and handled the ship’s movements with ease. Our team watched this ballet, ready to help when needed. With every plane that landed safely in the wires, we relaxed a little bit. One plane left to land. We’d be joining our buddies for a late dinner before we knew it.
LSOs are trained to look at the airplane's position to predict what will happen. We study every different plane, the nose to tail angle, the position in the sky, and the sound its engines make. Each plane on the carrier looks different when it’s landing, so we memorize everything about all of them. At night, all those visual cues are lost. The only thing left: 3 lights. The angle of those lights in relation to each other, at 300 feet and ¼ mile away, are everything LSOs have. When the ship is moving, those lights look like they're moving a lot more.
As the F-18C hornet - a single seat fighter with a brand new pilot– flew towards the ship, the waves answered our hubris. The three lights on the plane were moving more than we would have liked. The roller coaster ride of the waves explained some of the movement. But not all of it.
Four seconds from landing the ship pitched up hard. An experienced pilot, one who was on his A-game at that exact moment, would have held what he had, knowing the ship would soon pitch back down and meet him. As an experienced LSO, I should have told him as much on the radio. Unfortunately, neither of us were on our A-game, and he instinctively added power to get away from the ship.
He didn’t stand a chance. It was time to try another pass.
The second attempt looked just like the first. As the flight deck pitched up at exactly the same point, I tried to talk him out of adding power. His adrenaline and exhaustion won. Mistake number two. As the night grew darker, he flew around the landing pattern to get ready for one last pass. He was “trick or treat”, meaning that if he missed, there was no more trying again tonight. He’d go back to the beach for the night and we’d explain to our family’s that the last year away didn’t mean a thing. We were finally fully awake. This pass had to go right.
“Hey buddy, it’s Slurpee.” I reached out to him over the radio in my smoothest midnight jazz DJ voice.
“The ship kind of fucked you on the last two passes. That’s okay, we’re going to get you on the next one. If you hear my voice, I need you to ignore what you see outside and just trust that I’m going to get you home. Don’t you even start dreaming about beer at the bar without me. You understand?”
“Yes paddles” his voice cracked as he responded. Not a good sign.
The only thing darker than the night sky was the thought ringing in each of our heads during the three minutes until he came back. The fear and the pressure he was feeling in the airplane were palpable. Ours hung just as heavy. We all tried to remember what a perfect pass looked like, knowing that our voice and our judgment were the only things between him and fate. Not aggressive enough, start stringing the Christmas lights around our rooms. Too aggressive, no one wanted to think about that.
Finally, the F-18 appeared at three quarters of a mile. “You’re on and on. Call the ball.” The ship’s call let the pilot know he was cleared to land. He needed to fly perfectly for the next 15 seconds. We needed to be on our game for those 15 seconds. Everything that wasn’t that airplane faded away.
After three seconds the flight deck started moving again. This wasn’t getting any easier.
Immediately it was time to start talking to him. “The ship’s moving. You’re on glideslope.” Now responsible for everything he did, we needed to be ahead of his plane and his mind.
“You’re a little high.” He had added power, just like the last two passes. We needed to talk him back down if he had any hope of landing. “Going higher.” As a wave brought the ship up toward the sky, he was only feet from crashing into the back. He needed to ignore that and trust us. No easy feat.
“Easy.” The words shot more emphatically than I meant. They broke through his fear, and he took power off his engines. More power than any of us meant. As his engines went silent, all of our hearts sank. The ship was falling down the back side of the wave. In five seconds it would come back up to meet him. He would be right at the wires, descending fast. If he missed, it might take three seconds for his engines to spool up. Three seconds at 140 mph would put him in the ocean. It was everyone’s worst nightmare
As loud as we could, everyone screamed “Power!” Please god let him react.
Another wave lifted the ship to meet the plane. With it, his F-18 crashed hard onto the deck. His tailhook caught the wire. Just as it started pulling him back, his engines started spooling back up and the 30,000 pounds of steel stretched between the opposing forces of his thrust and the ship’s weight like a modern version of a torture rack. He had landed. We could relax.
As we congratulated ourselves on a job well done, the phone rang from CAG’s office. It’s never a good sign when the Captain calls. Shuffling in front of his desk, we could feel his anger suffocating the room.
“What the fuck was that? That’s a $30 million warplane. Do you know what it’s going to take to get it flying again?”
My mentor stepped on this one.
“No clue sir. That’s not my job. In case you care, the pilot is home safe.”
Telling these stories is a new experience for me. If you want me to share more, leave a comment, consider clicking ❤️, and subscribe below.
There's a huge concept in Judaism about love and fear. The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, says that fear and love are the wings of keeping Torah and Mitzahs.
if you want to see what this looks like, follow the link to this drawing. Reach out if you really want to know what it means.