Air Wing Prepares for Patrol aboard USS George Washington
Pilots, maintainers and air crew personnel assigned to the seven fixed-wing aircraft squadrons of Carrier Air Wing 5 (CVW-5) spent 10 days on Iwo To, Japan (formerly Iwo Jima), May 9 – 19, preparing for the upcoming patrol aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) by completing field carrier landing practice (FCLP).
“In order to even sit in the cockpit and get in the position to land on a carrier, the pilots have to go through thousands of hours of training and thousands of landings at an airfield doing field carrier landing practice,” said Capt. Dennis Mikeska, the assistant chief of staff for operations, planning and operations for the U.S. Naval Forces, Japan. “The amount of experience that is required to get there and the proficiency is what makes this such a challenging mission. It’s almost like a pro golfer going on the PGA tour; the only difference is, without practice the golfer may not win, for an aviator landing aboard an aircraft carrier, without practice, he or she is only seconds away from death.”
During FCLP, pilots are required to fly through a minimum of 21 day and 21 night landings over a three day period. Landing grading is done by pilots who currently fly, but have a special designation as a landing signal officer (LSO). They are responsible for grading each pilot’s ability to maintain centerline, approach at correct glide slope, maintain correct aircraft attitude and follow direction while exercising “touch and go” landings during the day and night.
“The landing signal officer’s job out here is to make sure the pilots’ performance is good enough to fly on the carrier,” said Lt. Travis Thomas, an LSO assigned to the “Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 115. “We’ll grade them on their performance then debrief them on it and make sure they are up to speed. It’s important that we come to Iwo To because we have the appropriate equipment to make sure the pilots are ready and flying safe.”
According to Mikeska, due to its distance from any other safe landing site and its severe weather unpredictability, CVW-5 requires a safety waiver from the Chief of Naval Operations every two years to operate at Iwo To. About 600 nautical miles from the nearest divert airfield of Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsgui, Japan, the island is one of only two FCLP sites used by the U.S. Navy that provides realistic flight deck training, the other being the island of San Clemente, Calif.
“Completing the necessary number of FCLP landings close enough in time to actually flying to the ship is not only prudent, it is a requirement by our Naval Aviation Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) and that requirement is one of many that has been written in blood in Naval Aviation,” said Capt. William Koyama, commander, CVW-5. “Iwo To presents a special hazard because it is isolated and once airborne with a FCLP fuel load, there is nowhere else to land except Iwo To. If the weather drops down rapidly or unpredictably, which happens occasionally, we can end up with our aircraft airborne over the Pacific with nowhere to land. If we were as conservative as would normally be the case, we would seldom have the weather to operate from Iwo To, so we require a waiver in order to reduce the margins of safety but accomplish the mission and be ready for the ship when the ship is ready for us.”
The U.S. Navy has been using the Iwo To facility for FCLP since 1989, but despite its disadvantages, unlike CVW-5’s home of NAF Atsugi, Iwo To has no local population which allows pilots to fly day and night at an altitude that resembles the actual operating altitude when flying with George Washington at-sea.
“FCLP, when flown in accordance with Navy standards, is very loud,” said Mikeska. “We like to train at Iwo To because we don’t have to worry about noise. If we do FCLP at any other location, we have to fly at higher pattern altitudes in order to reduce the noise to the local population.”
According to Mikeska, Iwo To is not a permanent FCLP site.
“U.S. and Japan governments are working together to find a permanent FCLP site that will have emergency divert airfields close by,” said Mikeska. “As of 2008, Japanese government proposed Magashima, Japan, and island in Japan’s southwest, as a candidate site. We are still working to investigate the possibility of Magashima.”
Press Release, May 22, 2014; Image: US Navy