Truman Thursdays: A Look at Night Flight Operations

Posted 03.18.2010

At this risk of reading like the opening line of a really bad novel, this post begins with the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The thing is, it actually was. On my January trip to the USS Harry S Truman, we had the opportunity to observe nighttime flight operations from the flag bridge. The weather that night was terrible.  There was a complete cloud cover with no moonlight, rain blowing sideways and choppy seas that had the deck rolling from side to side. In the midst of those conditions, Truman pilots and crew were launching and landing F-18 fighter jets about every 45 seconds.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to work with some Navy admirals and talked over lunch with a couple of them who were carrier based pilots earlier in their careers. We were talking about night ops and one of the admirals made the point that it’s not something that anyone really enjoys. Because it’s dark, you lose your normal visual references and only have a few lights in the middle of the ocean to line up on when you land.  When you’re flying night operations in bad weather, it gets even more tense and complicated.

Needless to say, as you watch this video you’re going to see a lot of darkness. Look closer though and you’ll see the reflective clothing and signal lights of the crew on deck. Think for a few moments what it would be like to be on a rolling flight deck in the wind and rain while jets are taking off and landing a few yards away from you. Look closer still and you’ll see planes moving off to the edges of the deck after they land. Imagine what it would be like to be sitting in the pilot’s seat of an F-18 and following the signals of the young guy on deck who’s waving you to keep moving your plane forward so the nose is hanging over the edge of the deck as they get you positioned to park. All of that takes a lot of systems, processes, competence and trust.

In the first 3:30 of the video, you’ll see two jets take off and one land. The last 40 seconds is an additional segment that I inserted so you can see how cool it looks when a pilot fires his afterburners when launching in the middle of the night.