On their cross-country peregrinations, Addison Airport is a frequent stop for U.S. Navy F-18s. When the weather and traffic at the airport allow, they arrive in a fashion unlike that of civilian aircraft. The jet (or jets) enter the traffic pattern by flying directly over the runway, reverse their direction with a snappy 180-degree turn in a steep bank, followed by another 180-degree turn that puts them on final approach to the runway.
It may look like showboating, but it’s the safest, most efficient way to get a number of airplanes on the ground in the shortest amount of time and it minimizes the time the jet flies at slower speeds. That snappy turn is the break, and the steep bank angle increase the g forces on the airplane, which gobbles up its forward energy, or speed.
As described by the F-18 NATOPS (aircraft operating flight) manual, at the break the pilot reduces thrust and deploys the speed brake as needed during the downwind turn. “As the airspeed decreases through 250 knots, lower the landing gear and place the FLAP switch to FULL and ensure that speed brake is retracted.”
From their first day of training, naval aviators are taught to control airspeed by angle of attack (AOA), which is controlled by pitching the nose up or down. Power determines altitude; with a set airspeed (AOA), adding power results in a climb and reducing it establishes a descent. If the jet sinks below the desired final approach glide path, the aviator corrects this by adding power, which is why the engines’ volume sometimes changes on final approach.
An AOA indicator in the aviator’s field of view coincides with the desired on-speed for landing. NATOPS says: “On-speed without external stores and 2,000 pounds of internal fuel is about 125 knots [144 mph]. Add about 2.5 knots for each 1,000 pounds increase in fuel and stores.” Final approach concludes with “a firm touchdown at least 500 feet past the runway threshold.”
That “firm touchdown” is another hallmark of naval aviation. If it looks like the aviator is flying the airplane into the runway without flaring to land, that is essentially what he or she is doing. And it’s for a good reason; it assures that the jet will put its main wheels—and tailhook—on the deck in a small area defined by an aircraft carrier’s arresting wires, known as cross deck pendants. This touchdown accuracy has reduced the number of arresting cables the Navy is installing on its new aircraft carriers, starting with the USS Ronald Reagan and USS George H.W. Bush, and all the new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers will also have three wires.
When approaching an aircraft carrier, F-18s and other carrier-borne aircraft fly a traffic pattern similar to the overhead approach they make to Addison Airport. There are two significant differences, however, First, Addison’s Runway 15/33 is not steaming away from the jet as it makes its final approach, and it is not heaving up and down in proportion to the seas the boat is driving through. The second is best described by NATOPS:
8.2.16 Arrested Landing and Exit From the Landing Area. Fly the aircraft on the glideslope and ON-SPEED all the way to touchdown. Advance the throttles to MIL as the aircraft touches down. When forward motion has ceased reduce power to IDLE and allow the aircraft to roll aft. Apply brakes on signal.
MIL is full military power, with afterburners, which ensures that the jet will have the necessary thrust for flight should the tailhook fail to snag a wire, which is known as a bolter. Once off the deck, the aviator reenters the pattern for another attempt.
Ashore or afloat, to save time, a lead jet and its wingman will often enter the pattern together and then break for the turn for landing at different times. At their approach speeds, a few seconds provides the necessary spacing intervals. This works with any number of airplanes, as the Navy’s Blue Angels demonstrate. The only aspect of it that is not standard operating procedure is the six-ship delta formation. Otherwise, the overhead approach and break to landing is right out of NATOPS, just like the F-18s fly on their arrival at Addison Airport.