As I emerged from the inside skin of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, I was immediately assaulted with the daily aroma of shipboard life: a mix of sweat, jet fuel, hydraulics, rubber, and salt air combined and entered my nose, quickly registering in my brain and producing an ear-to-ear smile across my face.

Well into my second combat deployment, I was an Aircraft Commander in the E-2C Hawkeye with Carrier Air Wing Eleven. My crew and I, along with the other members of the CAG-11 Barbwire team, were taking the fight to the terrorist groups in Afghanistan and had been doing so for many months.

Thoughts of home were replaced with the rare joy of getting to fly during the day, and the fact the weather was good only made it better. As I strode to my flying chariot, I could not help but walk a little taller knowing how lucky I was.

That should have been my first clue that Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law fame) was going to make an appearance before the day was over.

601 sits on the flightdeck of the U.S.S. Nimitz (CVAN-68). (Courtesy of author’s personal collection)

The Takeoff and Departure

After completing a flawless man up and taxiing to the bow, I followed the yellow shirt as he lined me up on catapult number two. Less than 60 seconds later, after sharply saluting the shooter, my crew and I were accelerating to flying speed within 100 feet, and aircraft 601 was off on mission profile.

My crew went to work while my co-pilot began running fuel numbers. I concentrated on flying the correct departure profile and deconflicting from the 25 other aircraft that were taking off or preparing to land on this beautiful day.

Minutes later we reached our profile altitude. I brought the throttles back to set my fuel flow, ensuring the aircraft would fly the exact profile needed to provide the Naval Flight Officers the best radar picture for the flight. I reclined my seat and let my mind wander, taking in the beautiful clear day outside and thinking about the sandwich I threw together after my brief over an hour ago.

Mr. Murphy, I Presume?

That’s when Mr. Murphy thought it would be a good time to bid us welcome to his schedule of events.

It started with a low oil pressure caution light. Immediately grabbing my attention, I scanned the engine instruments to find that the oil pressure on my left (and critical) engine was beginning to fall. I brought the left throttle back to idle to help save the engine and gain some time.

My co-pilot immediately grabbed the pocket checklist and made sure we covered all our procedures. Meanwhile, I coordinated with the mission commander in the back and talked to the Hawkeye representative on the ship to work an early recovery.

My major concern at this point was we were working blue water operations, which meant there wasn’t a suitable divert field we could fly to. My fighter counterparts had the option to mid-air refuel, but for us–the crew of 601, we had no choice but to land back aboard the carrier.

Well, I say that, but we did have a choice: we could always bail out and go for a swim while the rescue helicopter came to get us. This was an option that all of us knew, but none of us were thinking about. We had a job to do.

My crew worked professionally, setting ourselves up behind the ship at 10 miles for a daylight straight in approach, just in case we lost the left engine. We secured the radar, dumped fuel down to maximum landing weight, coordinated with the ship to move all the aircraft out of the landing area, and spoke with the landing signals officers explaining our current emergency.

About this time I was beginning to feel like I had beaten Murphy and his stupid laws for today. This was going to be an uneventful landing that, in the long run, would only cost us a little flight time. It would create a little more work for the maintainers while they figured out what was causing the engine problems, but ultimately, we would be good to go.

It was around this time when I learned that you should never underestimate Murphy, because the nasty little bastard had clearly remained aboard.

601 with the Nimitz underway in the background. (Courtesy of author’s personal collection)

Noises Like That Don’t Belong In An Airplane

Leaning slightly forward in my seat to adjust my view of the ship 6 miles aft, I heard and felt an audible “pop” that I will never forget. I looked to my right to see if my co-pilot had heard it too, and I was met with his return gaze and wipe open eyes looking back at me in complete disbelief.

When I asked him what the noise was he responded that my shoulder harness, which keeps me strapped to both the aircraft and my emergency parachute, had de-rigged. This essentially meant that nothing was holding me into my seat.

This would not normally be a big problem – unless I had to bail out of the aircraft since I was no longer hooked to my parachute.

Of course, the other time that I needed to be strapped in was the exact moment that the tail hook of aircraft 601 would catch one of the four cross-deck arresting wires. This would cause my aircraft to go from 120 KIAS to 0 in about two-seconds.

It was becoming apparent Murphy’s plan included seriously ruining my day, and probably my face, by launching me into the instrument panel and windscreen. There was nothing pleasant about that contingency, and I tried to force it from my mind and concentrate on getting us back aboard.

Now my mind was racing trying to compartmentalize and figure out my options. I could discontinue my approach and try to reattach all the cables in my seat, but it didn’t look like that was a viable option, and I had a crew to think about.

One engine had already proven to be unreliable and just about this time the other one was starting to overheat.

When my co-pilot asked me what I wanted to do my mind was already made up.

We would trap.

Time to Smack a Wall

After a quick crew brief explaining the situation and making sure my crew knew exactly what was going on, we finished our landing checklists and called the ball. Flying as smooth of an approach as I could, I tried not to think about the wall I was about to fly into when the whole aircraft, and everyone in it, would stop.

Except for me.

I did not have to wait long before my body confirmed what my mind knew about this pending trap aboard the Nimitz.

As the tail hook grabbed the number three wire, aircraft 601 immediately started a deceleration that brought everything to a complete stop in less than 200 feet. A split second later my body was thrown forward, only stopping when the yoke caught me right between the legs and my head and shoulders hammered into the glare shield.

As quick as it happened it was over. Adrenaline helped me quickly refocus my mind and get the aircraft out of the landing area and shut down.

In true Naval Aviation fashion, I believe it was sometime after I shut down engine number two before my co-pilot stopped laughing at my landing. Luckily I was seasoned enough to have a thick skin and take it all in stride.

My crew and aircraft were back safe and, other than a sore neck and crotch, I wasn’t in too bad of shape. Of course, finding out that the flight doctor had left me a large bag of pain pills that looked like they were for horses certainly helped my mood.

We all lived to fly another day, which is always the ultimate sign of a good landing.

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About Author

T.R. Matson is a seasoned aviator with over 17 years of both military and civilian flying experience. After receiving his Navy Wings of Gold in 2004, T.R. went on to complete multiple combat tours flying both the E-2C Hawkeye and F/A-18C Hornet. He was a flight instructor on multiple tours in the T-45C Goshawk, finishing up his active duty time as the Lead Landing Signals Officer in charge of all student pilot carrier qualifications. After moving into the civilian sector, T.R. is now a line and instructor pilot with a major US carrier flying the A319/320/321 aircraft.

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