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Inherent Dangers

Since launching the Fighter Pilot Podcast over three years ago I’ve been afforded many interesting opportunities: speaking at gatherings, moderating panels, commentating virtual BFM derbies, and being a guest on other podcasts, to name a few. But being asked to write on behalf of others is particularly venerating—in late 2019 I was honored to endorse FPP friend Kevin Miller’s historical fiction, The Silver Waterfall, and last year I was flattered to pen the forward for a book of ‘lessons learned’ flying stories.


Fletcher McKenzie of the New Zealand-based AVgas Group was compiling 1,000 such stories in several volumes, with one dedicated solely to Naval Aviation. The global pandemic delayed the project, but Fletcher hopes the book—featuring stories from A-4, F-14, and F/A-18 crews—will go to print later this year. The forward, repurposed here, was intended to make the case that naval aviation is a dangerous pursuit but that learning from others can lessen the risks.

 

Captain A. G. Lamplugh famously said, “aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”


The year was 1931. Captain Lamplugh was chief underwriter and principal surveyor of the British Aviation Insurance Company, and, in that context, his assertion made sense. After all, man had been plying the seas for centuries and the associated hazards were clearly understood. Powered flight, however, was still in its relative infancy. At the time it was generally accepted that aircraft, as a rule, took off from terra firma and later returned there as well. It is little wonder such returns would come to be known as a landings.


But 20 years earlier, audacious young pilots had already begun mingling the sea and air in ways Lamplugh must not have fully appreciated. Eugene Ely, the first American pilot to launch and recover his specially-modified aircraft aboard a converted warship, ushered in an era of aviation—naval aviation—that forever changed warfare. With this new era came the unique hazards associated with flight operations at sea.


With all due respect to the captain, make no mistake, naval aviation is inherently dangerous.

Human error, material failure, and environmental conditions are among the factors most attributable to aviation mishaps. At sea, these challenges are magnified: an airfield’s-worth of people scurry around a chaotic 4.5-acre flight deck; aircraft depend on complex mechanical contraptions to launch and recover; and in addition to the usual weather hazards to aviation (thunderstorms, icing, and fog to name a few), naval aviators also must contend with a moving runway, rolling and heaving at the whims of an angry sea.


Over the course of my career, I spent more than three years at sea during five aircraft carrier deployments and it was not until my fourth that we finally did not crash an airplane or kill somebody. On my first deployment two F/A-18 Hornets collided while joining on an aerial refueling tanker at night. A 16-year veteran pilot and father of two was killed.


On my second deployment an S-3 Viking crashed moments after leaving the catapult. I watched in shock as two friends perished.


On my third deployment an EA-6B Prowler caught fire shortly after launch. Mercifully the four occupants ejected safely and were promptly recovered.


Between deployments, my airwing and others suffered cold cats, parted wires, ramp strikes, OCF, CFITs, and a host of other mishaps so frequent that naval aviators have their own vernacular for them. The hazards are there every single day, and they are real.


Sure, abiding by established policies and procedures is a good start but it is the retelling of near misses, close calls, and other “sea stories” that equips junior pilots to handle the myriad risks. As a new pilot in my first squadron, I remember listening to stories from senior pilots in the ready room. Stories usually began with “there I was…” and went on to tell of some new way certain death and destruction was otherwise cheated.


One night on my first deployment I was watching the ship’s closed-circuit television—Danger TV, we called it when our squadron executive officer was next to land. His aircraft was “coupled up,” meaning the autopilot was flying as the Hornet followed a homing beacon from the ship for a theoretical perfect landing. I almost quit watching because coupled passes are typically not as exciting as those manually flown but as the XO’s aircraft approached the back of the ship, it pitched up slightly and then abruptly nosed over—a potentially catastrophic maneuver.


Also observing the landing, but from a different vantage near the back port side of the flight deck, was the team of landing signal officers—pilots whose collateral duties are to ensure the safe and expeditious recovery of aircraft. The controlling LSO did not miss a beat, quickly waving off the XO who overrode the autopilot to narrowly miss the back of the ship and sure disaster.


After safely recovering on the next pass, the XO, LSOs, and curious onlookers (like me) debriefed the incident extensively, watching and re-watching the Danger TV recording I had seen live. The XO explained what he experienced in the cockpit, the LSOs described what they observed from their vantage, and the concern was later voiced to higher headquarters back home. The ship was directed to perform no further coupled approaches until the carrier suitability team of test pilots could come out to investigate.


This experience, as well as the hours of sitting around sharing stories—first listening as a young pilot, later telling my own as a more seasoned aviator—was invaluable. In fact, this fleet-wide practice was formalized into a periodical known as Approach Magazine which, to this day, widely disseminates such lessons learned throughout the fleet for the benefit of all pilots. Fletcher has assembled a version of that here.


On the pages that follow are harrowing and, at times, unbelievable sea stories from the ranks of naval aviators with hundreds of years of cumulative experience. While you may never land a high-performance jet on an aircraft carrier (…then again, some of you might!), you can learn from others by internalizing the lessons shared on these pages.


Because in the end, both sides of the argument are correct: yes, aviation is terribly unforgiving of mistakes but, also, naval aviation is inherently dangerous. Let these stories offer you a glimpse into the naval aviator’s world and entertain and educate you to be a professional and safe pilot. You owe it to yourself and the generations that follow.


Vincent Aiello

Retired U.S. Navy Fighter Pilot

 

Vincent became enamored with military aviation while attending his first airshow at eight years old. He earned a commission into the U.S. Navy after participating in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he graduated with a degree in Applied Mathematics.


He spent the next 25 years flying all models of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, the F-16A/B Fighting Falcon, the TA-4J Skyhawk, and other training aircraft. He was an instructor pilot at the Navy’s fabled Fighter Weapons School, better known as TOPGUN, and accrued 3,800 flight hours and 705 day and night carrier landings over the course of five aircraft carrier deployments, and one more on the ground in Afghanistan.


After retiring from active duty, Vincent went on to a career with a major U.S. airline and is the founder and host of the Fighter Pilot Podcast, the internet radio show that ‘explores the fascinating world of air combat: the aircraft, the weapons systems, and—most importantly—the people.’



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