Practice Makes Perfect
In a remote stretch of the Pacific Ocean, on the isolated and historic island of Iwo To (formerly Iwo Jima) the roar of jet engines can be heard cycling repeatedly from take-off through landing.
This evolution, known as Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) occurs annually on Iwo To and is a vital training requirement conducted by Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 prior to every deployment.
“FCLP ensures pilots are capable of meeting the high level of precision required to land aboard the aircraft carrier safely,” said Commander Naval Forces Japan (CNFJ) Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations Cmdr. John Pitta. “While the landing area on a carrier is 200 meters long, only roughly 50 meters of that space will result in an aircraft stopping by grabbing an arresting wire.”
To complete FCLP, a pilot must successfully execute a series of touch-and-go landings similar to arresting on an aircraft carrier.
Each landing is graded by a Landing Signal Officer (LSO), a pilot who is specially trained to make evaluations on approaches and arrestments.
Landing cycles take place during the day, but must also launch at night, giving aviators the experience of operating in total darkness.
“How dark it is here mimics the night conditions very well because there’s not much ambient light, just blackness. This is as close as we can get to what the carrier is like at night,” said Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27 Lead LSO Lt. Taylor Oakes.
Carrier night operations test the limits of an aviator’s skills when pilots face the most difficult and dangerous conditions, according to Pitta.
“Landing on the ship at night and in bad weather is incredibly hard. That is one reason why the United States is the only country that does this. That is also why we train so long and so hard at night,” he explained.
Oakes stressed that completing FCLPs in the most realistic conditions of an aircraft carrier helps pilots and LSOs fully prepare for the rigors they will face on deployment.
“We are building muscle memory with each bounce and the ability to know exactly what to do in each individual circumstance as it’s presented to us,” said Oakes.
Pitta echoed that practicing in Iwo To allows pilots to hone the same skills they need for specialized flight operations they conduct while out to sea.
“We can fly the same carrier flight pattern here, which is low altitude and slower, things we aren’t able to do back on mainland Japan. This improves the quality of our training and the safety of our pilots,” he explained.
Oakes added that in addition to safety, FCLP also builds a partnership between the LSOs and aviators as they prepare to deploy.
“We develop a trust and a understanding of how each other works in order to ensure that both LSO and pilot are feeling confident behind the boat, which is one of the most hazardous areas,” he explained.
CVW 5 will embark upon its summer deployment aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington en route to San Diego to complete a hull swap with aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). Upon completion, CVN-76 will return to its new home port of Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan.