Editor's note: By now, we all know USS Gerald R. Ford's first catapult and trap was a success. We've heard from Navy leadership about the success of the program and that it was one of many historic moments that will happen upon the ship. But, we haven't heard from the pilot who made history. In our efforts to capture history as it happens, the Naval History and Heritage Command asked Coach, LCDR Struck's call sign, to give us a play-by-play of the day as it unfolded for him. It's as close to being a part of naval aviation history as most of us will ever get and we know you're going to enjoy reading it! Thanks, Coach!
I never imagined I'd be part of something like this . . .
I never imagined I'd be part of something like this in such a pivotal role in Tailhook aviation history. But here I am. I've had a long Navy career: enlisted in 1991, served as an engines and related systems mechanic (AD1(AW)) for eight years before entering a commissioning program and going to school at San Diego State. The road to become a test pilot was long and sometimes painful but so rewarding. I now serve as the Carrier Suitability (CVS) department head at the Navy's premiere developmental strike aircraft test squadron, VX-23 in Patuxent River, MD (PAX for short). My carrier experience until getting this job has been less than extensive, but since being in this particular job I have accrued over 300 carrier landings, most during test and evaluation of ship landing systems and approach handling qualities of Super Hornets and Growlers.
How did I get to be the first?
Well, being the senior pilot in CVS has its perks but I think I was the most qualified too; having been in the department the longest, having had the most exposure to AAG (Advanced Arresting Gear) and EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System)
testing in the last two years with intimate familiarity with the intricacies of these new systems. I have lots of test pilot experience in general as this is my second tour at VX-23 and I had great tour as a USN Test Pilot School instructor.
Want to know more about USS Gerald R. Ford's catapult launch system, EMALS? Click here!
I thought I could handle the pressure easily.
Until the night before the big day, I thought I could handle the pressure easily. That night though, I kept waking up thinking, "what if X happens, then here's what I'll do," or "I wonder if?" and so on. Breakfast and lunch did not go down easy either, trying to find room in my stomach with all the butterflies in there was difficult. But after I thoroughly briefed the flight with my photochase crew, 'Geppetto' and 'Erok', we walked and took a few pics before starting up, I felt more calm. This is what the practice was for. This is what it had been leading up to. But still, I had packed an overnight bag in case things went poorly and I got stuck on the ship. Weather was fine, but the forecast for that evening was poor, expecting heavy rain in thunderstorms up and down the east coast. I'm not a very religious man but I also made sure the small cross given to me by a friend of my parents was tucked in my helmet bag.
Well, here goes nothin?!
I left from Pax River and headed for the ship at sea. We get airborne and I realized that we were going to be early enough to remain overhead the ship and try to take some epic photos (courtesy of Erok - thanks!) - and boy did we ever! Some of the best overhead ship pics I've ever seen. But the Air Boss, the person in charge of aircraft operations on the flight deck, eventually called "Salty Dog 123, Charlie," and I had to come out of the relative comfort of 2000 feet and hurl myself at Navy's newest Aircraft Carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford.
Since this was my, and really anyone's, first approach to a ship with an unfamiliar island configuration, and a small heart of the envelope to aim for, I was approved to use MAGIC CARPET, a landing mode that has improved approach handling qualities. MAGIC CARPET took some of the pressure off, but the nerves still remained. I told myself, "don't mess this up," at the end of each procedure I had running through my head. I made the ball call, "123, Rhino ball, 8.9, path." I got the "Roger ball" and I felt calm.
As I approached the ship, seeing a steady centered ball at touchdown, I knew I caught the target wire and let out a "WOOOOOO!" I clearly felt the two-stage characteristic of an AAG trap, where the deceleration profile is shaped to reduce hook loads on the jet. It was something I've felt dozens of times during AAG testing in Lakehurst. Once clear of the landing area, the butterflies were gone, and I felt calm, even calm enough to break a smile and fish out the VX-23 CVS coin in my helmet bag I brought for the Captain. He also had a runner bring me one of his command coins, something I'll give to the Ford project officer, Judas.
Then it was time to do it again.
After the successful trap, it was time to get airborne and do it again. I all but forgot that this would be another first, the EMALS catapult takeoff express. But since we had tested EMALS only six weeks prior, it seemed like business as usual. And, as from EMALS, I got the ride airborne I expected; a holdback release and steady acceleration less abrupt and smoother than the C-13 steam catapult shot. Then we did it three more times, getting at least one trap on each of the three wires just like we planned. Before the last cat [catapult] and trap sequence, my tower rep [representative] Yip Yip told me that I would be shot to Oceana because the weather in Pax was terrible. So to Oceana I go, but first, a flyby. If anyone reading this was onboard that day with their cell phone secretly recording my flyby, find me. I wanna see it. I heard it was a good one and it looked good from my seat!
I know the first arrestment and catapult flights are the sexy part of this story. But I only did what I have been trained to do as a test pilot. ALL the credit goes to Commander Plott, his Air Dept, and especially Bos'n Cole and his Sailors. They helped install and maintain these new ALRE (Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment) systems to operational readiness. Carrier aviators take ALRE systems for granted so we can get off the carrier and do our mission, then recover safely. The Aviation Boatswains Mates do their thankless job day after day literally with blood and sweat. The success of this event was proof of their hard work. I ended my day by climbing away from the ship at 600+ knots, the FUEL HOT caution I had seen earlier reappeared. I got out my pocket checklist while going through my ship-to-shore checks. LAND AS SOON AS PRACTICAL that's my plan. I shot a precision approach to Oceana and finally saw the runway appear after clearing the clouds at 350?. What a whirlwind day! The best part was when I got a call from the ship. "We are all done, don't need you to come back out tomorrow." I caught an Uber to my friend's house and joined them for a few beers.
"So why are you here tonight, what did you fly today, Coach?", they asked. "Well, let me tell you..."