Golden Gate Bridge

NAS Alameda, located east of San Francisco, provided all of the ambience of the Bay Area.


The process of getting ready to qualify aboard an aircraft carrier is like preparing for an important sporting event; it requires lots of practice. Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) is a flight which consists of 10 to 12 touch and go landings on a simulated carrier landing area placed at the end of a runway. For efficiency there are usually three to six airplanes in the pattern, touching down at 40 second intervals. The nickname for such a pattern is a "Bounce Pattern." Each pilot will fly about six day and ten night bounce flights, each with about ten landings before being signed off by the Landing Safety Officer (LSO) to go to the carrier to qualify. At the carrier, each pilot will do ten day traps and six night traps to qualify. Some of the day landings may be touch and goes. FCLPs are usually started about a month before the scheduled carrier time to ensure that all the pilots have obtained their training.

Alameda Naval Air Station (NAS) was located on Alameda Island right between San Francisco and Oakland. In such a congested area, the jet noise is a problem, So the Navy had an outlying field, Crows Landing, located in the farm country south of Gilroy in California's Central Valley. We would leave in the afternoon and get in one or two daytime bounce flights, refueling after each one, and then go into the night bounce pattern, getting home often after midnight.

The carrier landing area is a very small space and landing safely requires precision. As with runways, there is a center line painted in the area which helps the pilot to land in the center of the area. To help the pilot touch down at a certain spot, without landing too far down the landing area, or too short, which risks hitting the back of the ship, the mirror landing system is used. A horizontal row of green lights provides a vertical reference. In the middle of the row is a mirror. About 100 feet from the mirror, a yellow light shines into the mirror and is reflected up the flght-path that the aircraft will follow as it descends to the ship. This is set at about 3 degrees upward, and creates the 3 degree glide path. If the pilot is flying right down the 3 degree glide path, the yellow light sits in line with the row of green lights. We call that "a centered ball." If the pilot is high, the ball will appear above the row of green lights. If it is sitting one ball width high, that is pretty high and the pilot will squeak off a little power to settle the jet back down to the glide path. One ball width low and that is quite low and the LSO will be calling "power" on the radio. More than one ball width low and the yellow ball changes to flashing red. That is an automatic wave-off. The pilot immediately adds full power and flies back up to 600 feet altitude to try another pattern.

All landings are graded by the LSO, both when doing FCLPs as well as when landing on the carrier. All grades on the carrier are public and posted in the ready room. That creates tremendous incentive for a pilot to do the best job possible to not look bad in front of the whole squadron. Appealing to individual pride helps to improve the overall safety of the air operation.

Here are some photos of one day of FCLPs, which originated at NAS Alameda and were conducted and NAF Crow's Landing. The aircraft is the A-3 Skywarrior, the largest plane that was used on aircraft carriers. Specifically, these are EKA-3B Skywarriers belonging to the squadron VAQ 135. These planes did in-flight refueling as well as jamming of enemy radars. I did two major cruises with VAQ 135, both to the Mediterranean.



Suiting up for FCLPs.

Here a Naval Flight Officer, who navigates and operates aircraft systems, fastens his torso harness. He will use this harness to snap into the parachute when he gets into the airplane.


Pilot getting ready.

The pilot has finished his walk-aroound and checks his harness. On his shoulder is the VAQ 135 squadron patch.


Engine start

The pilot follows the direction of the plane captain to sequence the start of each engine. In this case, the maintenance officer is directing the start.


Huffer starting the engines.

The maintenance crew operates the GTC-85 "Huffer." This is a small jet engine which provides air at high volume and pressure to spin up the aircraft jet engines for start. The bombay of the A-3 is still open and will be closed once the engines are running and hydraulic pressure is established.


Turning base at Crow's Landing

The carrier pattern is flown at 600 feet of altitude. Here the pilot is turning through the 90 degree position, has completed the landing checklist by now and will be squeaking off a tiny bit of power to establish a descent which will intercept the 3 degree glide path


Farm house on approach

Turning past a few houses. The shape of the pattern varies depending on the wind.


Flying through the 45 degree position.

Approaching the 45 degree position. The little box on the glare shield is called the chevron indexer and has three lights. If the aircraft is at the correct approach speed, it will have the right angle of attack through the air and the center light will be on. If the aircraft is a tiny bit slow and cocked up too much with respect to the oncoming air, the upper light is on and the pilot squeaks on a tiny bit of power. Too fast and the low light is on. The A-3 was such a heavy aircraft that landing on the carrier just three knots fast risked breaking the arresting wire and ending up in the ocean.


On final

On final, lined up and on glide path The center of the carrier landing area is at the center of the left half of the runway. One can see the green lights of the mirror landing system and the ball is centered.


Short final

On short final. The landing safety officer is sitting next to the cart left of the mirror landing system. The aircraft is lined up and has a centered ball. The pilot will not flare. Navy planes are flown straight into the runway to attain the necessary precision. Note the black skid marks on the runway which show how closely each touchdown occurs to the target landing area. On most runways, the skid marks are sprinkled over the first 2,000 feet of the runway.


A-3 about to touch down.

Here an A-3 is about to make a touch and go. The horizontal white line is where the back of the ship would be, so one can see that being low is not an option.


At night everything is more challenging, and for FCLPs that is good training. On an overcast night at Crow's Landing, the hills would disappear and the farmland was black except for the scattered lights on various farms. When we were using the opposite runway, our downwind leg was right against the hills and we were only clearing them by 300 feet. After a touch and go, one must do a climbing turn on instruments leveling very soon at 600 feet, meanwhile, maintaining the turn to the downwind heading. The heading must be corrected for wind, which was invariably either pushing the plane too close to the runway, or moving the pattern too far out. The approach turn was made on instruments until about the 45 degree position when we would transition to the ball and make our call to the LSO, "603, A-3 ball, 4.6". On the carrier, the type of aircraft is important so that the arresting gear officer can make sure to have set the arresting engine to the correct weight. The 4.6 was our fuel state, i.e., 4,600 pounds of fuel. We would burn about 200 pounds of fuel for each lap in the pattern.


Oakland and Lake Merrit

Coming into the break for runway 27 at NAS Alameda. We are descending to 1,000 feet. Here is Oakland and Lake Merritt. Alameda Island is the first island visible. Beyond that is the peninsula where Oakland International Airport is located.


I hope that this small description of FCLP practice helps explain why Navy airplanes are making noise in various places. I did not cover the role of the maintenance men and women who keep the airplanes flying. Slamming a plane into the ground repeatedly certainly provides stress, and many maintenance man hours are spent by very well trained mechanics to fix leaks, change out faulty equipment, do frequent inspections and change-out consumables. Not only do the aircrew need to be ready for the precious carrier time, the airplanes must be in sound flying status as well. A squadron may be about 150 people, and they work as a tight knit team to make everything come together.

Don Webster

CDR USNR Retired