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By the People… Let me tell you about landing jets

By By Craig Ziemba/Special to The Star
March 21, 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 based on his journals, portions of which will be published in The Meridian Star in coming weeks.
It is Sept. 22, 1996. Sandstorms over the desert dropped visibility to 1 1/2 miles and covered all of the jets on the flight deck with a fine, yellow grit even though we are 40 miles off the coast.
What a miserable part of the world this is. If you eject over water, there are sharks and poisonous sea snakes galore. If you punch out over land, you will be captured by Moslem militants who hate your guts because you are an American.
This ain't Kansas, Toto
The approach into the ship tonight felt like I was hurtling down a mine shaft. On a dark, moonless night like tonight, I absolutely dread taxiing around the flight deck.
After landing, we turn off all external lights, fold our wings and follow the yellow wands of our taxi directors perilously close to other jets and the edge of the flight deck. It's like having someone guide you to the edge of a cliff with no guardrail and no headlights. Add to that scenario a pitching, rolling deck, jet exhaust and a little rain to reduce your traction, and it's no wonder I've sprouted a few gray hairs.
On more than one occasion, the yellow shirts (taxi directors) have emphatically given me the "brakes!' signal and I have stood on them all the way only to have my jet continue slip-sliding forward toward the edge. l really feel sorry for my bombardier in the right seat. He has no control over the jet. There's nothing he can do but hold on to the ejection handle between his legs and pull it if we go over the side.
After shutting down, my bombardier and I walk through the obstacle course of tie-down chains, taxiing airplanes, whirling propeller, and hot jet exhaust that will blow you over the side of the ship if you aren't watching what you are doing.
Once safe below decks we laugh about the night and wait for the landing signals officers to debrief and grade my approach to the ship.
Reputations on the line
On the wall of every Ready Room in the fleet hangs a board on which the grade of every landing that each of us flies is recorded for all to see.
Above-average passes are graded as OK, worth a 4.0 in your squadron grade point average. Average passes are graded Fair and are worth a 3.0. If your hook misses the wire, you are given a Bolter worth 2.5. Below-average passes are called No-Grades worth 2.0. If your pass is so ugly that the LSOs won't let you land, you get a Wave-off worth 1.0. And finally, heinously dangerous landings are graded as Cut Passes.
OKs are recorded with green dots, Fairs get yellow, Bolters are blue, No-Grades are brown poop stains, Wave-offs red and Cut Passes white the color a guy gets after flying one.
Seem childish? Whether it is or not, our reputations as pilots hang on the Ready Room wall for the world to see. Naval aviators would rather die than look bad, so we work our tails off at the back end of the boat to fly OKs, or at least Fairs.
If someone has bad landing grades, the dots beside his call sign on the board will be full of poop stains and his performance described as "colorful" or worse.
No punches are pulled, and rank doesn't matter. This isn't one of those pee-wee soccer leagues where everybody gets a trophy at the end of the game… I haven't made it into the Top 10 aboard ship (out of 100 or so pilots), but I've been consistently above fleet average, and I'm grateful for that.
Mid-air pit stop
Tanking, or aerial refueling, off the KC-135 earlier today reminded me of an interesting afternoon in the Adriatic on my first cruise.
Clouds from the surface to 33,000 feet clobbered the tanker track, and our strike package of F-14s and A-6s was having a difficult time finding the tanker. We had the tanker climb up and down to get out of the clouds long enough to rendezvous and finally all got joined on his right wing.
Then he went back into some thick clouds and all I could see was the wing of the Tomcat I was following a few feet away. "No problem," I thought, "just as long as he doesn't lose sight of the tanker." The guys ahead of me cycled through, getting plugged into the basket every time we broke out of the clouds long enough to see the tanker.
Right before my turn, when I was just sliding across the tanker boom into position, the tanker flew into a cloud so thick that I lost sight of him. All I could see was the last few feet of the boom, the short hose and basket. Usually you reference the belly of the huge tanker and the boom to fly formation, but I had no idea which way was up or down.
My whole world was a milk bowl with a few feet of hose and a black basket. It was like a scene from the twilight zone. I waited there for a minute for the visibility to improve, and it started to rain, so I took a stab at the basket while I could still barely see it and to my surprise plugged on the first try.
Bonus! We topped off and the visibility improved to about 40 feet, so I was able to slide down the wing of the KC-135 until I got sight of my lead through the goo. I crossed under him, and we got out of there. What I would give for a video of that…