An excerpt from One of the Few. Click here to receive updates on the release in November 2015!
If you can manage not to get blown off the ship while navigating the crowded and dangerous flight deck while trying to find your jet, you’ve won half the battle. The landing pattern is different at night and allows for a straight-in approach with the aid of the automated carrier landing system. Similar to a civilian instrument landing system, the equipment provides course and glide slope information to get you to the ball at ¾ of a mile. With the use of coupled autopilot and auto-throttles, the F/A-18 is capable of landing itself on the carrier without pilot input if needed.
Beyond the greenish glow of the cockpit lighting was complete darkness. The sea joined the sky—the horizon cloaked by a moonless night. Looming in solitude was a single light marking the meatball’s position. The surrounding ship was invisible—no more matchbox planes, no more flight deck crew—just a small amber light amidst the gloom. I boltered several times after sending the ball up and off the lens by adding too much power.
It was after midnight, and I was the only Hornet left in the pattern. I only needed one more night trap to complete my qualification. “Bingo, Bingo,” came through the headset from the aural warning system. I checked my fuel and reset my bingo number for the established divert. If she squawked at me again, I would be heading back to shore for the night. I only had one more chance to catch a wire.
There I was, bingo on the ball, at night, alone and unafraid. Well, alone. I knew what was at stake. Aircraft carriers have been likened to floating cities. If I boltered again, this city of 5,000 would continue to float in place all day and all night so Lieutenant Ladd could get his last night trap (or so I thought—It’s possible the carrier had other objectives in addition to my carrier qualification).
I glanced down at my kneeboard and thought about checking my divert numbers. I reached halfway down and stopped. No. You’re not going to divert. You’re going to trap. I put my hand back on the throttle and breathed deeply through my oxygen mask. Floating cities and divert procedures would have to be compartmentalized for the next 60 seconds while I focused my attention on lineup, power, AOA, and the ball.
I called the ball at ¾ of a mile and started down on glide slope. I couldn’t bolter again, but bracketing low is the last thing you ever want do at the boat. How much time do you have to fix a low ball at night? The rest of your (short) life.
I had a slightly high ball and worked to chip it down. I pumped the throttles in short spurts being careful not to bring them back too far for too long. The ball crept down towards the datums and sunk one ball low. Easy . . . not too much. I jabbed a short burst of power to arrest the downward trend. Up the ball went. Get it back . . . don’t lose it now. I cut power in small chops lasting fractions of a second. I was over the ramp. Lineup was good. One second to touch down. I glanced one last time to the left to see the ball heading for the top of the lens . . .
Approach on the glidepath. For wide is the corridor and broad is the path that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the landing zone and narrow the path that leads to the 3-wire, and only a few find it.
I had earned the coveted Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, and after completing flight school, I earned wings of gold. But I was also searching for something else that could never be earned. I was landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier, but I didn’t know how to make sense of the world. I was seeking wisdom, purpose and some way to know what is true. I was seeking God. I had become a seeker.