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franklin county times

Traps,' Cats' mark pilot training

By By Craig Ziemba/Special to The Star
April 11, 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 are being published in The Meridian Star.
One of my favorite things about being an instructor in Meridian is leading students to the ship for their very first arrested landings (traps) and catapult shots (cats). Our students go through a lot of training before we ever take them to the ship, but you still never know how they will react until they get there.
In every other phase of training, the first time a student does something new, there is an instructor in his back seat. But not when it comes to landing on the ship. The first time he lands on the ship, he does it solo. It's sink or swim, and there is no simulator or field practice that can totally prepare you to land on a 120 angled runway that is moving up, down, and away from you at 26 knots.
On my first hop this morning, I had to chase down a frazzled student who couldn't get aboard and help him fly a proper profile back to the beach before he ran out of gas. He was on the wrong radio frequency, not talking to anyone, headed the wrong direction, etc … Very frustrating.
Then, I manned up again and led three more solos to the ship and they did great. I even got a couple of traps myself and then we spent the night aboard ship playing cards and telling sea stories.
I love seeing the smiles on the faces of the students after their first cats and traps. They definitely have that "been to the mountain" look, and it is extremely fulfilling to be their guide to the top. If things go well tomorrow, they will become qualified tailhookers, get their wings of gold, and soon graduate to a fleet aircraft. Then, they will start all over again at the bottom of the pile as nuggets (rookies) and learn to survive life at sea.
In the fleet, aviation is much different than in training. For example, while Landing Signals Officers are always at the ready to give power or lineup calls to pilots on final approach if necessary, we always try to operate Zip Lip (bare minimum radio calls only). Sometimes we go through an entire launch and recovery of 20 aircraft without a single radio call. The discipline is basically a carryover from the old days when radio transmissions could give away the location of the ship.
With today's satellites and radar, we know we can't hide an aircraft carrier, but the process of launching airplanes solely by means of hand signals from the deck crews still works great. It's also pretty amazing that twenty some-odd jets can orbit overhead at prearranged altitudes and without any tower coordination can sequence themselves into the pattern to keep the interval 45 to 60 seconds between arrested landings. The teamwork between pilots and flight deck crews required to make that happen is nothing short of awesome.
Our students aren't there yet, but one day they will be. Until then, it's up to us to keep them off the ramp and out of the water.
Walking past the barber shop on the way to the wardroom tonight, I couldn't help but remember shipboard haircuts and chuckle. We had rather mediocre hairstylists on the Enterprise, but no matter how bad the haircut was, you always had to smile and say it looked great. After a particularly bad haircut, one of our pilots, dubbed the "Best hair in Naval Air," once made the mistake of dressing down the barber and accused him of intentionally butchering his head before we pulled into port.
From then on, anytime he went in for a haircut, he got scalped. An officer may outrank his barber, but experience shows you should never tick off anyone who cuts your hair, cooks your chow, or washes your laundry.
This same pilot, also made the mistake of bringing a hair dryer onboard and using it one morning while his roommates were asleep. His roommates promised to float check (throw it over the side to see if it floats) if they ever heard it again. He pushed his luck the next morning and when he came back from his flight the hair dryer was gone.
He demanded to know where it was and in response began receiving Polaroid photographs of his hair dryer in compromising situations all over the ship, including one of it blow drying the amazingly long hair on Thumper's back.
In Naval Aviation, comedy is our stock in trade and sarcasm the legal tender. We all live on the same floating locker room, eat the same slop, and face the same danger every day, and there's a bond between us that's hard to describe.