On the signal from a 20-something Sailor you advance the throttles forward and feel the machine come to life. You don’t hear much because the noise is all behind you. You quickly scan the engine instruments, not actually reading them so much as scanning for anything that looks different — different is bad. There are no red warning lights or beeping alarms — this is good. Satisfied that all appears normal, you advance the throttles a little further, through a small bit of physical resistance. This opens valves that spray fuel into the already hellish infernos that are the exhaust stages of your engines — afterburner. Beautifully terrifying cones of flame rage out the back of your machine — perfectly shaped, parallel to the deck, blue transitioning into hues of orange.
The machine seems to be begging to be let free of the deck, held in place by a small piece of metal straining against the violence. Sixty-thousand pounds of machine shaking, howling, and with the flip of a switch near your left pinky finger you consent to its release. The small “pinky switch” controls the exterior lights. When you’re ready to unleash this thunderous fire-belching beast, turning the exterior lights on tells that 20 something to tell someone else to tell yet someone else to push a button. The button sends a surge of steam pressure through countless pipes and valves up to a large piston connected through the deck to that small piece of metal holding everything in place. That surge of steam pressure is just enough to exceed the tensile strength of the connector — and now there’s nothing holding you back. The piston screams down its track, taking the machine with it, and you.
At first, it’s just a clunk from under your seat, but then the acceleration begins. You already trimmed the flight controls so they’d bite into the wind and create a positive climb angle away from the water, so you’re right hand is holding onto a handle up by the canopy. You actually don’t have your hand on the control stick for this ride. Your left arm however, is outstretched, elbow locked, holding the throttles forward and bracing against the forces trying to push everything back. You don’t want the throttles coming back! Back is bad. The acceleration continues to build. Life’s coming at you quickly now. Zero to 175 mph in less than two seconds. You feel the weight of a house on your chest and you’re either straining your neck to keep your head forward, or you’ve already had it pinned back to the ejection seat. The younger pilots are still quite capable of holding their heads forward against the forces. The older ones have been doing this too long and know better; sore necks make for poor sleep. The lights behind you disappear quickly as you reach the end of the flight deck, and then you’re thrown forward as the acceleration stops, or slows, and you’re flying. Positive rate of climb. Positive rate of climb. Positive rate of climb. That mantra will keep you alive.
For the first time, you dare take your left hand off the throttles long enough to raise the landing gear and flaps. With significantly less drag the machine climbs quicker and the airspeed builds. The only comfort you find is regaining control of your machine — and your life — as you move your right hand down to the stick and transition back from passenger to pilot.
There’s nothing (NOTHING!) outside to see, nothing to look at except the small symbols in your forward field of view — your heads up display — showing your flight path, altitude, airspeed and heading. Positive rate of climb. Away from the ocean — you know it’s down there, you can sense its enormity, but you can’t see it.
Hello darkness, my old friendI’ve come to talk with you again — Simon & Garfunkel
As children we thought our bedrooms were the darkest scariest places imaginable after the nightlight went out. Maybe the coat closet during a game of hide-and-seek. Maybe you’ve stared out the window of an airliner on a long-haul red-eye. All this to say, dark is a familiar concept; however, there is no dark like the darkness off the front of an aircraft carrier. If you turned off all the lights, stood in that same coat closet, and squeezed your eyes shut you might get halfway to the darkness you’re experiencing now. We often perceive darkness as the absence of light. This darkness is more. It’s not the absence of something, it’s an actual present thing — a darkness so complete that you feel it — and it’s heavy. You’re not passing through it as much as you’re a part of it. But, mercifully, it begins to change — slowly.
As your brain begins to process numbers, words, and radio calls you start to notice the tiniest flickers of light. You even have a second now to consider not just the life choices that brought you to this moment, but also some other stuff...like how the light of those flickers left its source, in many cases, millions of years ago — so you could see it now. It’s enough to make a confident jet pilot feel awfully small…By the time your machine’s delivered you to altitude you can see the Milky Way, Venus, and maybe a sliver of a moon that seems to taunt you as it sets below the horizon. It’s still dark, but the world is beginning to make sense again. There’s dark below and light above. The old ladies at Sunday school had no idea how right they were…
There’s been much written and said about the challenges of landing aircraft on ships in the sea at night. And, let there be no confusion, it’s not easy nor is it particularly fun, but there’s one element that most experienced pilots will admit makes it much more comfortable than the catapult shot described above: you’re in control of the landing. You fly the aircraft through the paces of the approach to landing; you make the countless small, almost imperceptible, control inputs. You fly the aircraft into the ship. You’re in control, and being in control matters to the kind of people who do this job. The extent of your control off the bow ends at turning your lights on and accepting your fate.
The number of people, most of whom were high school students a frighteningly short time ago, that have to do their jobs correctly is enough to keep your lights off. The number of hot, tired, dehydrated people that have to get the dozens of calculations right, balancing aircraft weight, asymmetric weapons loading, air temperature, wind speed….it’s enough to keep your lights off. You hope that the last person pushing the button has enough good sense to time it with the up and down heaves of the deck, but this assumes there’s enough of a horizon for him to even perceive the heave…it’s enough to keep your lights off.
You hold your outstretched arm firm against the throttles, you brace your head and neck, you wiggle your toes, and you say a quick prayer. Your lights have been on for what seems like the longest three seconds of your life. Please God, please have allowed all of these people to have done their jobs well tonight. And in an instant you’re fired into that all-encompassing abyss. Positive rate of climb. Positive rate of climb. So far, so good. Everyone did their job tonight. And you? Against all reason you turned your lights on and it’s time to go do your job.