Flying over enemy SAM sites and hostile forces on the ground is plenty scary for Navy pilots, but unless there are a lot of capable aggressor jets in the air, the mission might be the easy part for a carrier pilot. That's because, after hours in the air supporting friendly forces, they have to land on a deck heaving in the sea.
What's the most dangerous part of the mission for a Navy pilot? Flying over enemy forces? Dodging hostile jets? Well, when the enemy isn't ready for the full might of the U.S. Navy and what the sea state is, the most dangerous part of the mission might be landing on the ship when it's time to go home. That's because the sea can move the ship's deck 30 feet.
PBS had a documentary team out on the USS Nimitz when it hit rough seas in the Pacific and got to watch pilots, many of whom had experience flying missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, get nervous when they were sent out for some peaceful training.
But it was still some of the riskiest flying that many of the young pilots had done, because the waters were so rough that the ship's deck—the thing the pilots had to land their planes on—was heaving up and down and rising as high as 30 feet. Just dealing with that altitude is a big deal, but it also means that the angle of the deck their landing on or taking off from is changing as well.
Time it wrong, and a takeoff could throw you straight into the water.
"This is absolutely more dangerous than it was flying missions in the gulf," an unnamed pilot told the film crew. "We got lucky in the Gulf; the seas are calm. But out here, pitching decks, this is scarier. Still gotta get back and land on the boat."
"It'll kill you in a second," said a Navy commander.
But it's still worth it to the Navy to do risky training like this, because it needs the pilots able to fly and fight in the worst seas they can possibly handle, because that reduces the types of weather that can weaken the Navy against an enemy like China.
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