A pilot's life: By the people – Training for the fleet
By By Craig Ziemba/Special to The Star
March 14, 2001
Craig Ziemba lives in Meridian and works at Naval Air Station Meridian and Key Field's Air National Guard base. He wrote a cover story for the recent "Profile 2001: By the People" edition. Ziemba has written a book about his experiences, portions of which will be published in The Meridian Star in coming weeks.
After earning my wings at Meridian, my new bride and I moved to Virginia, where I would spend the next four years on the tip of the spear flying A-6 Intruders. The A-6 was the workhorse of the fleet, and we flew our low-level bombing missions in any weather, day or night.
My initial carrier qualification (or C.Q., where we land on and catapult off of the ship) in the A-6 was interesting.
I did well enough to be paired up with "Rocco" Mariani, a student bombardier/navigator instead of an instructor. I had never landed an A-6 on a boat, and he had never trapped in anything.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, the only carrier available was the George Washington. The G.W. was leaving for a six-month deployment in 10 days and needed to pull into port right away to give the crew a few days to spend with their families. In other words, "Hurry up, you have 48 hours to day-and night-qualify."
Weather rolled in, and my day traps were with 47 knots of wind over the flight deck, which was way over the limits for initial C.Q. Our landing signals officers told us in the briefing to reach down and grab hold, "Trick or treat, welcome to the fleet."
I was the first jet to the catapult for the night launch, and I told Rocco, "There's no way they are going to launch us in this mess." One second later the catapult officer gave me the take tension signal (telling me to get ready for the catapult shot), and I methodically went to full power. I looked my jet over and couldn't find anything wrong with it, so I flicked my external lights on, signaling I was ready to go and boom down the catapult I went into the dark and stormy night.
I came around for a trap or two without scaring anyone too badly, and then the ship drove into a thunderstorm. I was 6 miles aft of the boat with my hook down when I heard an F-14 ahead of me get some blood-curdling radio calls to add power and then adamant instructions to wave off (discontinue) the approach.
My pulse quickened while I tried to concentrate on the task at hand, when all of a sudden I felt what seemed like a giant hand push my Intruder towards the water. A microburst from the thunderstorm had me in a fully stalled angle of attack.
I jammed the throttle to full power and retracted the speed brakes, but could only watch helplessly while my altitude plummeted from 1200 feet to 1000 feet, 800 feet, 600 feet, 500 feet, 400 feet. In a split second, I told myself that if it hit 300 feet I would pull the handle and eject us both before we hit the water, but just that fast we came out on the other side of the microburst.
By this time the ship controller noticed my altitude and yelled over the radio that I was low. "No kidding," I thought. Once I got the plane climbing I kept going to 2000 feet and overflew the ship without attempting to land and told the tower that I had experienced wind shear on final and recommended we knock it off for awhile.
We flew around awhile as the ship tried to get out from under the storm, but eventually ran out of gas before we could try it again and diverted to Oceana.
We refueled, finished up later that night, and the G.W. got a few days in port before going on cruise. If we had lost an airplane out there, the ship's commanding officer and a lot of other people down the line would have been relieved for flying nuggets (rookies) in that weather. But I can't blame him for making the hard call and doing everything he could to give his crew of 3,000 a few days off before deploying.
Sometimes your only choices are crummy ones. Sometimes you get away with breaking the rules. Sometimes doing the right thing may be the wrong thing and vice versa. How can you know for sure?
Ultimately you have to rely on experience and gut feeling, do the best you can, and rise or fall on the outcome. In most flying jobs, the pilot in command of the airplane makes the decision to launch or not, but in carrier aviation the pilot is just one small but important part of a huge team. The coach in the tower calls the plays.
Once airborne, Navy pilots have incredible freedom and autonomy compared with the other branches of service. But when it comes to the launch, "Ours is not to question why, ours is not to give reply…"