It’s a Navy thing. More, it’s a CV thing, ‘CV’ being the code for carrier, the kind of carrier that has cross-deck pendants and planes with hooks. The Sh!t Hot Break: if you know what it is, you’re smiling already.
When you hit the fleet and get to the Boat during the day, it’s a completely VFR, no comm (generally) environment. The fast movers marshal overhead at 2,000 feet in twos and fours, gathering from all directions on squadron mates or like aircraft. The rest of the planes stack overhead every thousand feet with the slowest at the top–the mighty and much-loved E-2 Hawkeye. The lower planes hawk the deck, trying to set themselves up to “break the deck.”
It’s an unstated jockeying for position to be the first to leave the overhead stack, drift back behind the ship, turn back in following the wake and hit the break timing it just right so that the landing area goes green as you’re rolling into the groove, just 15-18 seconds from touchdown. Too early and you have to go into the spin pattern, cluttering up the entry for the birds behind you. Definitely inelegant.
Wait too long and the other players in low holding will snake down in front of you for the honor and glory. But if you managed to time it just right, with skill and nerves of steel, you can swoop in for a SHB and get the trifecta; an upgrade on your landing, the thrill of an impromptu air show with all eyes on you, and a little added adrenaline to the cocktail already swirling through your system.
It’s important to know that every carrier landing for the last 50+ years has been graded. Every last one. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands all scored, recorded, tabulated and debriefed. It is art, science and voodoo shaken together, day and night, calm seas and rough–no mercy. Those grades are posted for each squadron member in each of the Ready Rooms for all to see. When you walk into a Ready Room, you glance at the ‘Greenie Board’ and get an instant impression of who is leading the race for the Air Wing Top Ten.
It is called the Greenie Board because pilots get a little dot the size of a nickel for each arrested landing. The color for a 4.0, OK pass, which is Above Average, is green. The best pilots have a string of green dots after their names. The rest have some dispersion of yellows, turd browns and reds indicating Fair (3.0), No Grade (2.0) and Wave-Offs (1.0). At the opposite extremes are the OK or OK-Underline (5.0), which is a perfect pass (Or an emergency landing) and the dreaded Cut Pass, which is an unsafe pass which still managed to achieve a landing (0.0).
Carrier landings, day and night, are exercises in repetitive perfection. During each and every approach the pilots strive to fly the perfect pass, one where the plane rolls out perfectly on centerline, at the correct altitude (~250 feet) with the desired rate of decent (~ 700fpm) exactly on speed for optimum AOA (L/D Max). The really good ones roll out with nary a wing wag, dip of the nose or modulations of the throttles.
The LSOs just watch the plane approach, magically appearing bigger by the moment until it smashes onto the deck dragging the hook between the 2- and 3-wires. The Controlling LSO will look at the writer and say something like, “A little high fast start, a little too much power on the comedown, a little fast flat at the ramp. OK pass.” And just like that, another green dot hangs on the Greenie Board for that pilot.
But when you break the deck, there is a little dispensation given for the strict parameters, the unwritten mindset being that with an eye towards being expeditious, and shortening – even if it’s just by a few seconds – the amount of time the carrier must steer a dangerously predictable path into the wind, we are going to give this person a little leeway on the rigid parameters. But just this first person. So naturally, from the pilot’s perspective, it’s a license to steal. As an LSO, I would stand on the platform in eager anticipation with my team, waiting and watching for the first plane to break the deck. The best I ever saw was Nasty Manazir, and really, it’s not even close.
Nasty perfected the SHB. Distilled it and repeated it with maddening regularity.
His signature maneuver was to approach the Boat at 600 knots and 600 feet. Not all that unusual in and of itself, but Nasty would bring his section of F-14s in 30 degrees inside the wake so that he would have more than 180 degrees to slow down. He would hit the intersection of ship and wake and snap, knife edge over the platform, both saluting and taunting the LSOs who stood slack-jawed with necks craned staring up at him. No plane ever looked more beautiful than the Tomcat in the break, wings pinned back to 68 degrees like a supersonic dart.
Nasty would hit the abeam a little fast and wide, but nailing 600’. He would give the nose one more emphatic reef, slowing down enough to spread the wings and drop the gear. With 90 to go the flaps would be fully deployed and Nasty would be on profile, though still about 20 knots fast. He would roll into the groove a little high and fast, and work it down with such patience and precision that it was a joy to watch. After the inevitable 3-wire, I would turn to the writer with a big smirk and say what I always did, “High fast start, little high fast in the middle. OK pass.”
I loved breaking the deck myself, and the game-within-a-game joust of low holding. But my efforts were a little more all over the board. The one I remember the most was after a particularly successful port call in Hong Kong. Needless to say, I wasn’t at my finest. I managed to time the entry perfectly and hit the stern at 600’, planform over the LSOs just as I intended. From there things got a little squirrely.
I knew I was going to shine when I felt a little gray on the peripheries even though it was only a 6G break. I was assholes and elbows from the moment I hit the abeam till I rolled out behind the ship 20 knots fast and a ball high. Awesome. Five seconds later, in the middle, I was still a ball high but slowing down nicely, though still mentally well behind the plane. As I arrived on-speed, I bunted the nose just slightly to nudge the ball down to center. But I was late adding a little power to catch it.
It was as if a trap door opened under my big, beautiful Tomcat. The LSOs were way ahead of me with a “Power to catch it” call, but I didn’t heed them in time. In close I went from a ball high to a ball low and still sinking as I slammed into the deck, skipped the 1 and snagged the 2-wire. As I raised the flaps and pinned back the wings taxiing into the de-arm area, my RIO – Mongo Monger – said, “Well at least they know we’re here.” Our Ready Room was directly under the 1-wire.
Later the LSOs came by to debrief the passes. Mine was spot on, “High fast start, high in the middle, not enough power on comedown in close, low at the ramp. No grade.” I had nothing to say about the pass, but “What about the upgrade for breaking the deck?” They all laughed as they walked out of the Ready Room, “That was an upgrade!”
Ah well, any landing you can walk away from…