Becoming a naval aviator is a process that does not end until you retire. On my last flight, I learned something. But, early in the process the milestones come quickly. For me, one significant milestone was my first jet carrier qualifications. The drill is to transition to the TF-9J, a swept wing Grumman Cougar trainer version. The Instructor sat in back and had full controls, but horrible visibility. When used as an IFR trainer, the TF-9J instructor sat in front and the student in back with curtains in back to obstruct the view. On IFR flights, the student would take over once the plane was off the ground and fly until close to the ground when the instructor would land. It was actually a good IFR trainer. As a carrier trainer though, it was not so good. The instructor had a poor view and could only give the most basic of help to the student up front. Frankly, the LSO was of more help. To make matters worse, the TF-9J was woefully underpowered on hot days. I can only imagine how tough the F9F was when it was used in combat.
Anyway, for CARQUALS, the instructor and I would meet go over the pattern speeds, expected weights and AOA index on final. We reviewed all the procedures including the procedure for requesting fuel aboard Lexington. Of course it was a hot humid day. I never drew a nice cool winter day for CARQUALS. In the Navy you never need to practice being uncomfortable. Just as soon as you get a little comfortable, the Navy will arrange something to disrupt that feeling. We suited up and waddled out to our plane. Takeoff from a land base is not a big deal in the TF-9J, usually. Long runways, by Navy standards, are available.
The carrier was where she was supposed to be, sailing into the wind, what wind there was in the Gulf of Mexico. I sighted Lex's wake and then her smoke smudge before I sighted the carrier. Typical of the Gulf, haze limits horizontal visibility to a little more then three miles. Above the haze layer visibility might be unlimited. Not down low. It doesn't matter, enter the pattern on speed. Abeam the bow, left turn level out, hook down - gear down, flaps approach. Pitch for AOA. Abeam the LSO, power to fight idle. (Remember the ship is sailing in the opposite direction at about 25-30 knots to assure adequate wind over the deck. Descend, and turn toward the ramp. Don't strike the ramp. Class A mishaps are usually traumatic career ending events. Line up, the deck is moving away and to the left. Call the ball. Keep the ball centered, fly through the burble. I love nukes, clean and easier to fly. No such luck for me that day. Last gear check, check the AOA. On slope. Over the ramp go to full power. If I bolter, then the engine will have spooled up enough for a go around. If not, an unscheduled swimming test.
Wham! the hook grabs a wire and in less than 300 feet 16,000+ pounds of jet trainer stops dead and starts rolling backwards. The marshal signals hook up and taxi forward. I've got enough fuel for a catapult launch and recovery. (No in flight refueling, so diverting to land is the only alternative.) I taxi forward to the No. 1 cat. There, I get hooked up. Signal the launch officer my weight and wait for him to adjust the cat. When he's ready, he checks the plane's underside to make sure we're hooked up correctly. (The deck crew is full of trainees too.) He checks the weight board, interlock signals and last, but not least, he checks the cat track to make sure it's clear. Then he looks back at me and signals to spool up. I check the track too, advance the thrust lever to the stop. Check the gauges. Everything is in the green. Grab the handle with my left hand. Look at the Yellow Shirt. Salute. (That means I'm ready to launch.) He takes a knee and points down the track. In the turret, the cat operator fires us off. Whang - Zero to 110 knots in a couple of hundred feet. Then the TF-9J sags, it usually sinks a lot. Finally, the wings grab hold and we begin an anemic climb back to the pattern.
Two more times and then back to the base. The last time, I signal I need fuel. Last launch, my instructor gives me a little talk about watching AOA off the bow being almost as important as on final. The TF-9J has to be flown just right, or it won't climb on a hot day. I nail the AOA and am rewarded with a better climb. My next trip to the boat will be solo!