"Defining PUCKER FACTOR"
By G. Warren Hall
Six night landings in the F3B "Demon" during my Carrier Qualification phase are still as vivid in my memory as the 10 day landings are hazy.
As I climbed into the Demon that first time, my concept of a "black night" darkened a hundred or even a thousand-fold. A carrier deck illuminated only by red lights qualifies as one of the darkest places in or out of the world. The darkness was oppressive.
Until then, the nights around Key West, Fla., had seemed dark, alright, but they didn't compare with the near-total, frightening blackness of the USS Lexington's mildly pitching deck that night. That kind of darkness was the bogeyman from the proverbial dark closet of my youth, the monster lurking behind the rustling tree beside the dark road and the center of the rocklined well, with its black water 50 ft. below. It was all my fears come true at once.
Even the familiar glow of the cockpit's red instrument lights provided little consolation. Every nightmarish story about the dangers of night carrier operations raced through my mind, reverberating with increasing, terrifying intensity. Back when I'd dreamed of becoming a naval aviator, I had failed to imagine the stark reality of what faced me at this moment. The basic Cro-Magnon response of fight or flee took on a new meaning. I was experiencing "fright and flight" simultaneously. I was scared to death and willing to admit it.
I tried to push the night's blackness to the back of my mind and set about preparing for my first night catapult launch. Still, the inky blackness continued to flood my consciousness. A quite private conversation with GOD Lord if this is the end, may I please come to be with You? was my final consolation.
I followed the waving, ghostly, yellow wands skillfully manipulated by the deck taxi director, my mind slowly responding to the task at hand. Once I was positioned on the catapult, the wands extinguished. Again, total blackness; not a single light in front of me. The seat of my pants registered a light heave of the deck, but my eyes perceived no motion whatsoever. The world I knew no longer existed. I imagined how a sailor during Columbus's time must have felt, given the era's "flat-Earth theory, " as he sailed slowly toward a nonexistent black horizon, thinking his tiny ship might fall off the Earth's edge at any moment and dump him into the black abyss beyond.
The catapult officer's green wand flashed to life, rapidly twirling in a small diameter circular motion. With calculated reluctance, I pushed the throttle full forward, carefully checked each instrument as the J-71 engine slowly spooled up to 100% rpm., hesitated a moment and selected full afterburner.
Make sure everything is perfect, before you touch that navigation light switch, I cautioned. Unfortunately, everything looks okay, I decided. I pressed my head hard against the headrest, took a deep breath and flipped the switch to "on. " The catapult officer's green wand made a vertical-circle slice, touched the deck and disappeared into the black. In an eternity of less than a second, the catapult's enormous, steam-generated force pinned me against the seat, accelerating the Demon into that black nothingness. My full attention and trust were focused on the red glow of a dimly lit black-and-gray attitude indicator mounted in the center of the instrument panel. My life depended on its flawless performance. My internal accelerometer judged the acceleration along the catapult as normal, while my brain admonished in slow rhythm: Fly those instruments, fly those instruments. When acceleration ceased, I rotated the nose 10 deg. up, tried to hold the wings level and without looking reached for the landing gear handle and flipped it up.
As the altimeter climbed slowly through 300 ft., I deselected afterburner and started a gentle left turn downwind. My heart was racing. The intimidating blackness went unnoticed, for the moment, as my eyes never wavered from the comfortable familiarity of tiny, round instruments behaving quite normally. Only after leveling off at 600 ft. on downwind did I dare risk a glance to my left, hoping to catch sight of the carrier. No such luck.
"Fly the instruments. Check your heading. Come left another 15 deg. Fly the instruments, " I intoned, creating my own airborne litany of guidance. Incredibly, it was even blacker out here than it was on the ship. I sneaked another peek outside. A red light on the Lexington's mast was barely visible, but I had no idea how far away it was or in what direction it was steaming. The "Fox Corpen" (the ship's course) was only a notation on my kneepad. Up here, it was impossible to judge distance. Again my brain cautioned: Fly those instruments believe those instruments.
With welcome relief, a voice in the headset interrupted my singular concentration. "Alpha Delta 107, turn left, heading 175 deg. ; perform your landing checks, over. " The ship's radar controller sounded calm and professional. I relaxed in micro-degree, slowed the aircraft, extended its landing gear, checked the fuel and dropped the hook. Three tiny green lights assured me the gear was down, and the lack of a red light in the hook handle confirmed it has extended.
"Alpha Delta 107, turn left, heading 060; say your fuel state, over. " the radar controller continued.
"Alpha Delta 107, 4,200 lb., " I answered, trying to match his calm. With my heart pounding faster than the airplane was flying, I didn't fool anyone especially myself.
"Alpha Delta 107, come further left, heading 330 deg. The ship will be 1 mi. at your twelve o'clock, over. "
"Alpha Delta 107, roger. " As I rolled out on heading, I sneaked another peek straight ahead. He was right; there was a small white light out there, with an even smaller red light suspended above it. Unfortunately, the lights had no shape, not direction and no motion. They were merely two small pinpricks of light in a black, black sphere of intimidating nothingness. I now believed in the light at the end of the tunnel, but I never expected it to be so small or so far away. I don't have enough fuel to fly that far! I thought. I modified my normal instrument scan to include an occasional peek over the nose, trying to reassure myself that the light at the end of the tunnel really was still there. Fortunately, it was.
"Alpha Delta 107, half mile; call the ball, " the radar controller ordered. I acknowledged, took my eyes off the instruments, and tried to make sense of the tiny pattern of lights ahead. Green datum lights of the landing mirror where clearly distinguishable, but there was no definition to the runway lights. I focused my attention on the mirror and guessed on the lineup. As the yellow "meatball" appeared between the two lines of green lights, I eased the power back and the ball abruptly disappeared, going low.
"Power! Power! " I made my own LSO (Landing System Officer) call. As the meatball reappeared, I let it ride a little high and radioed, "Alpha Delta 107, ball; 4,000 lb. " The familiar and friendly voice of the VF-101 LSO answered. He didn't have to ask whether my hook was down; the steady angle-of-attack indexer lights relayed that information. "One-zero-seven, you're a little high; start it down. Your lineup is good, " he stated.
Small consolation. I liked the "little high" part, but my lineup wasn't at all obvious. Gradually, the centerline lights separated into individual points, but provided little additional information. I was surprised at how slowly I seemed to be gaining on the ship. The landing area didn't seem to be getting any bigger.
LSO: "A little power now; hold what you've got. " In the last few hundred feet, the runway lights exploded in one rapidly expanding motion and accelerated toward my airplane. I was lined up slightly right but it all happened so fast, it was impossible to correct in such a short time. The meatball slid rapidly left and high as the F3 slammed onto the deck. I felt that lovely, firm, hard tug as the arresting wire dragged the Demon to a stop, while the engine responded to my demand for full power.
I had made my first night carrier landing. It was exhilarating, but terrifying, too. It had all happened so fast! I was powerless to know what I had done, right or wrong, but there was little time for reflection. The flight deck director's yellow wands impatiently signaled me to raise the hook and start a right turn from the arresting gear. If my heart had been racing after the catapult launch, that was only a slow trot compared to what it was doing now even tempered by the relief of being safely aboard. I still had to do this five more times. There was no doubt night carrier landings were not going to be my favorite thing!
The radio interrupted my thoughts. "Alpha Delta 107, turn your lights off, " a stern voice commanded. Ooops! I did. We all use term "pucker factor, " but I can't think of a situation where the term is more appropriate than during a night carrier landing. Pucker factor is not a simple term; it's a combination of many elements. The margins for error in any carrier landing are small, and an accumulation of small mistakes can easily and quickly create a situation from which recovery is high unto impossible.
The information available to a pilot at night is dramatically less than during the day, too. A naval aviator always makes an instrument approach to a visual landing on the carrier's tiny landing strip, which seems even smaller at night. After all, it's only three short rows of lights that show little relative motion until you're almost on top of them.
Pucker factor is knowing you're betting your life on a nearly perfect performance but with less-than-perfect information, in a harsh environment, with anxiety at its peak, and when you don't feel comfortable because you don't fly enough at night to feel comfortable or proficient. On top of all that you're scared to death. That pucker factor.
G. Warren Hall is a NASA test pilot and a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. After graduating from college, he joined the U. S. Navy and flew F3B Demon and F-4B Phantom II fighters, logging more than 300 carrier landing. Hall has flown more than 65 different aircraft types, including the X-14B, XV-15, X-22A, AD-1, Swing Wing and three versions of the unique Rotor Systems Research Aircraft. He completed 28 years of military service as the commander of a California Air National Guar d Rescue Group, retiring at the rank of full colonel. Hall also has written 73 technical reports.