It’s Not Over, Until It’s Over!


It’s the middle of April in the North Persian Gulf. The air wing has been on deployment since the middle of November and flying sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) since late December. We’re pulling into Dubai in the morning for the third time, but between now and then my wingman and I have been tasked with one more seven-hour close air support mission in Syria.

After giving the mass brief, my wingman and I head back to the ready room in order to brief our element specifics. As you might expect by month six, I brief admin and tac admin as largely standard. We do take a few minutes to talk about the impending Case III recovery and the basics of the CV-1 approach that I expect us to shoot. We also cover operational risk management (ORM) for the flight to include fatigue following a seven-hour combat flight, complacency as we look toward our currently scheduled and fast approaching departure from the AO, and, of course, the fact that it’s the last scheduled event prior to pulling into port. After that, the main focus of the brief is on the OIR mission and weapons employment.

We launch on time, complete our mission in accordance with our tasking, and begin the return to the ship. We meet our final Air Force tanker and take our gas for the return to base (RTB). As I contemplate the fuel/time/distance problem in order to make the recovery, I recognize that we’re going to be a few minutes late and will likely return in time for the tail end of the recovery but definitely won’t make it back for the initial pushes from marshal. Sure enough as we check in with marshal, we hear the last of the stack commencing on the CV-1. I detach my wingman so that we can each receive radar vectors to a right downwind instead of executing the standard recovery.

The weather is nice and the quarter moon is above the horizon but I ultimately decide around this point that I’m going to execute a Mode 1 approach. After configuring my jet for landing and getting a hook to final bearing, my approach controller confirms that he has my aircraft locked up at 5nm and asks me to say needles. I confirm that I am showing “On and Up” meaning I am on centerline and below glide path which is to be expected. Once we verify we’re each seeing the correct indication, I couple up to let the SPN-46 radar do the work. At 4nm, the controller reports he’s dropped the radar lock and I take over manually until he is able to reacquire just prior to tipping over from 1,200 feet at 3nm. After going through the mode 1 couple procedures and communications one more time I again let the radar and the jet take over while following the controls with both hands in case I have to take over again.

The approach is one of the smoother mode 1s I’ve seen to this point and seems to be keeping up with both glideslope and azimuth. At 3/4 of a mile I make the ball call and report coupled to paddles. As I follow the control inputs to the in close position I start to feel that I’m now slightly right of centerline but still on glideslope. I also recognize that since I’m not doing the actual work, my normal scan is a little slower than I’d like. As that thought crosses my mind, I see an E-2C Hawkeye parked in the “hummer hole” that is getting larger in my peripheral vision than I’d like and notice my jet is no longer making corrections back toward centerline. By this point I’m at the ramp. I click out of auto throttles and uncouple from the mode 1 so that I can stop the drift with a big left wing down correction. I’m now well right of centerline and no longer drifting further off course, but unsure if my wing down correction is enough to keep from crossing the foul line. During this final two to three seconds of the flight, my left hand on the throttle hasn’t moved as I’ve been so focused on the centerline corrections and when I trap it stays at mid-range for longer than paddles likes. As I roll out (right of centerline but thankfully inside the foul lines), I get a stern call from paddles about my throttles which I then move up to mil power.

Mostly happy, I haven’t put my right wingtip across the foul line into the E-2C or any of the Hornets in the 6-pack, I taxi out of the landing area and shut down. Upon reviewing both my tapes and the SPN-46 data with the air operations officer, it appears the SPN-46/jet combo stops making lineup corrections just prior to the in close position but, due to my scan breakdown, I don’t recognize and subsequently take control until at the ramp. Following further analysis by the carrier certs team back in the U.S., the blame is put on the jet’s ACLS beacon, which is replaced by maintenance.

The bottom line is no matter how long the flight is, how smoothly it seems to go, or how ready you are to land and get mid-rats, flying around the ship is a dangerous business that requires constant attention at all times. At no point can you let your guard down, especially when what you’re doing no longer falls into the standard category.

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