If you’ve ever attempted to land a plane before, perhaps in a simulator or maybe even in real life, you know that it takes a significant amount of runway length to bring a plane to a complete stop. If an entire runway of such a great length is required for an aircraft to land, then how do fighter jets land on aircraft carriers where the runway length is just a mere fraction of the length of actual runways at airports? In this article, we will explore how fighter jets can go from high speeds to stationary in just a matter of seconds.
To begin with, let’s put into perspective how short the runway on an aircraft carrier actually is. Typical runways at airports range from 8000 feet to 13000 feet in length, but an aircraft carrier’s runway is only around 500 feet long. This means that airport runways are 13 to 26 times as long as aircraft carrier runways.
With a runway this short, the pilots of these aircraft carrier fighter jets must follow a strict procedure to ensure their safety and the safety of those on the deck of the carrier:
- Before being cleared to land, fighter jet pilots must circle around in an oval pattern somewhere near the aircraft carrier. The air traffic controller on the carrier will then decide which jets are qualified to land first based on their fuel levels. The jets will exit the pattern one by one and wait their turn to land after the runway has been vacated by the previous pilot.
- After an aircraft is cleared to land on the carrier, the pilot will lower a device known as a tailhook on the end of the plane. This device is exclusive to carrier-based aircraft and consists of a metal pole with a hook on the end.
- As a fighter jet pilot approaches the aircraft carrier, a mechanism known as the Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System activates and guides the pilot on a safe path down to the carrier runway. The Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System shoots out beams of light that indicate to the pilot if he or she is flying too low or too high. The pilot will see a beam of amber light in relation to green lights. If this amber light is above the green lights, the pilot is approaching too high; if the amber light is below the green lights, the pilot is approaching too low.
- In the last moments before touchdown, the pilot will align the fighter jet to catch one of the arresting wires on the runway of the carrier using its tailhook. These arresting wires are made of several interwoven high-tensile steel wires and are attached to a hydraulic system below the deck of the carrier. There are usually 3-4 parallel arresting wires on the deck of the carrier, each spaced around 50 feet apart. Pilots are instructed to aim for the 3rd wire, although any of the other ones work. As the fighter jet hits the runway and pulls on one of the wires, it will prompt the lower hydraulic systems to absorb all of the energy from the speed of the plane and bring it to a stop. These wires, along with the hydraulic systems, are highly effective in absorbing the immense amount of energy when a fighter jet lands on the carrier and are able to stop aircraft in a matter of seconds.
- After safely on the runway, the deck crew on the carrier will move the plane to the side of the carrier and secure it down to the deck.
The process of landing an aircraft safely on an aircraft carrier is never guaranteed to be completely flawless. There are always plenty of risks associated with performing such a task. One of the practices that pilots are instructed to do when landing on an aircraft carrier is to push the aircraft to full throttle as soon as it touches down on the runway. This is to ensure that if the pilot misses the arresting wire, they will have enough speed to take off again and try again. Powering the engines to full power when landing won’t be an issue for the arresting wires since the hydraulics are capable enough to overcome this force.
Pushing an aircraft to full throttle right in the vicinity of ground personnel is undoubtedly a dangerous move. As a result, the deck crew assisting with these landings are equipped with a variety of safety equipment, such as self-inflating life jackets in case they are blown into the water by engine blasts.
In the scenario where an aircraft attempting to land on the carrier has had a malfunction or a failure of some sort, the deck crew will raise a crash barricade made of sturdy wires to try to stop the aircraft. The deck crew will also be waiting with a multitude of fire-extinguishing tools, just like at a normal airport, if this happens.
Landing on an aircraft carrier is undeniably a risky and perilous task, but with these procedures in place, the chance of failure or death can be significantly lowered. However, even with these careful steps, landing on an aircraft carrier is not guaranteed to be a safe operation, and remains to only be performed by the best of pilots.
Cover Image: Sandboxx