HMAS Melbourne was steaming into the wind in the placid water of Jervis Bay. Al Videan was now my co-pilot, checklist card in hand. I was in the left seat of the Tracker, and I was expected to get the aircraft safely aboard. Tense and excited, I turned towards the ship for my first carrier landing.

Approaches to HMAS Melbourne were flown from the ‘Charlie pattern’, which was the equivalent of the traffic circuit of a land airfield, but the Charlie was flown at just three hundred feet – or one hundred metres – above the waves by day, and a little higher at night. I flew upwind with the grey-green bulk of Melbourne sliding by to my left. After a short interval, I turned in front of her in a level continuous turn onto downwind, airspeed dribbling back. The ship was steaming on her ‘aircraft recovery course’. I had now established our Tracker on a short, downwind leg (short because the ship itself was moving ahead), and there was just enough time to carry out  the pre-landing checks before another left turn towards the final approach path.

Not what one would normally do in a land-based aircraft, I had already slowed the Tracker to its landing airspeed of 95 knots and trimmed the controls. Before that I had extended the landing gear and set the big flaps to ‘full’. But I had left the arrester hook retracted. This was to be a ‘touch and go’ landing on Melbourne’s deck. Now counterpointing the engines’ roar was the buzz of the propellers set at high rpm in an unsynchronised ‘rowrr, rowrr, rowrr.’ This was standard procedure in order to have the aircraft set up for a ‘wave-off ’, a touch and go or an unplanned ‘bolter’ where instant response and power from the Cyclones would be vital. The hatches directly above our seats were slid open as they were for all operations at the deck, in order to be able to escape after a ditching. Day or night, rain or shine, the open hatches gaped above our heads when we operated ‘at the deck’, with the blare of the engines and the buzz of the propellers even louder, and the buffet of the airflow above adding to the noise and distraction.

After mere seconds, I had to turn towards the carrier at the pattern’s ‘base’ position (that the Navy called the ‘one-eighty’), but strangely, it was from almost directly abeam the ship: I had remembered that Melbourne would move forward as I turned towards the approach to her deck. It was an odd sensation to be turning in from immediately abeam a landing point. With the aircraft set up and trimmed for its landing speed, I was free to concentrate on ‘crossing the wake’ and picking up the ball as the aircraft carrier steamed forward.

The instructors had emphasised that a landing carrier pilot had to positively cross the ship’s wake in order to correctly align with the final approach track. Melbourne’s landing area was angled that five degrees to the left to enable ‘touch and go’ or ‘boltering’ aircraft to safely clear all those obstacles to its right: the grey and black towering steel of the island, the pack of chained-down aircraft, and any launching aeroplane at the catapult. The eye was always drawn to the arrow-straight wake, but this was deceiving because it ran from the fore-and-aft axis of the ship. With the landing area angled to the left, pilots had to positively cross the carrier’s wake well to its right in order to line their aircraft up properly with the yellow stripe of the landing centreline. Melbourne’s captain, eyeing the wisp of steam leaking from the catapult track that ran to the bow, would have set a course so that the ‘wind over the deck’ comprising the natural ocean breeze and the airflow generated by the ship’s forward progress would blow the white plume directly down the angle of the landing area.

In a level turn towards the ship at three hundred feet with the wake positively crossed, I picked up the ‘meatball’, which was the orange blur that, at that moment, sat below the green lines of the datum lights on either side.

‘Eight Four Five Ball, Carr, twenty two hundred,’ Alan radioed to the LSO.

‘Roger, ball,’ he replied. I kept the level turn going, nudging the throttles up to maintain that precious ninety-five knots. Now the ball was climbing towards the datum lights as I flew to the glide slope… I needed to catch it and come back with the power to descend with it and, at the same time, level the wings – a little blip on the elevator trim to compensate for the power change … Then, I had  to watch that ‘line up’, which was critical, as there were only three and a half metres between the right-hand wingtip of a Tracker on the centreline, and the steel of the island, or less if you drifted to the right. After that, I checked the speed … The scan ‘meatball, line up, airspeed’ had been dinned into us. My gloved fingers ‘walked’ the throttle levers back and forth in tiny movements and the engines’ buzz rose and fell while I ‘flew the ball’, keeping it centred between the green lights, catching it with power if it sank, more power to get it back to centre, and then a little power off to keep it there, an endless cycle of almost automatic movements as the glide path defined by the ball funnelled in. It was like flying formation on an aircraft that got closer and closer, the adjustments becoming smaller and more exact while the carrier loomed.

Airspeed was critical. Too fast, and the ‘flatter’ attitude of the aircraft as it approached the deck would cause the dangling arrester hook at the tail to be higher, increasing the chance of missing the wires: a bolter. In the event of an arrest, the excessive speed would place even more strain on the aging ship’s arresting gear. Being slow was not worth thinking about: a more nose-up aircraft attitude, more drag, less control and excess power available. That would put speed near the stall: a potential disaster for a carrier aircraft and, indeed, the ship itself, hence the technique of having the aircraft at its landing speed prior to turning towards the carrier, requiring only small adjustments of trim with power changes, which allowed a pilot to concentrate on his approach.

I was now in the ‘groove’ (the final approach path), but the ball had sunk low.

‘A little power,’ the LSO radioed.

I corrected as I would have done during Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) at Nowra, and the ball settled between the green lights while the ship bloomed, and then I backed off the power to keep it there, but not so much as before. I tried to block out the distraction of the open hatches and concentrated on the ball, the thick yellow stripe that marked the centreline of the landing area and the Tracker’s air speed indicator. I was ever aware of the curved steel of Melbourne’s green-grey stern that was topped with the dark lip of the round down. To my left, the blue and white Wessex slid out of my peripheral vision as we closed towards the carrier’s creaming wake and a stream of funnel smoke.

‘Right for line up,’ came from the LSO as I drifted a little to the left, seduced by the wake. Hurriedly, I corrected the aircraft to the right, making sure to keep the ball level with the green lights as the glideslope narrowed and became ever more sensitive. Now I was ‘in close’, and for the first time, I felt through the controls the ‘burble’ of the disturbed air near Melbourne’s stern. Fly the ball! There was the sulphurous smell of the stack gas. The deck loomed in the windscreen, grey sea beyond. Now the ball was dropping a little again. It was too late to put it where it should be, all I could do was to just stop it dropping further. Another correction for line up … still a little left, but now the ‘cut’ lights flashed on. I was to come aboard by smartly pulling the throttles back to idle while holding that nose attitude which would tend to drop, still watching the line-up. Ker-rashh! The Tracker fell and its main wheels hit the steel, the high-pressure tyres and shock absorbers soaking up the impact. The little nose wheels were forced onto the deck with a bang and a rattle just below our feet, then it was up with the throttles in an instant for the touch and go, ensuring not to over-boost those powerful engines. The Tracker leapt back into the air. The few metres of deck ahead fell away as the grey-green of the island with its black masts and radar flashed past our right, and again we climbed away over the marbled surface of the bay. It had all happened so quickly. I banked left for another pattern. There was more work on the throttles and trim to stabilise level at 100 metres from the water, and Alan set the propellers’ RPM. While I made the turn, the ship had moved further into the wind, so again, ‘downwind’ was short. I set the Tracker up for landing as I had done previously, but now established in the ‘Charlie’ pattern, there were even fewer seconds of ‘straight and level’ before it was time to turn again towards the carrier as she steamed inexorably away. Three more times I would come aboard for a touch and go, the arrester hook staying retracted, but at last Flyco radioed, ‘845 hook down.’ The arrester hook would be extended for one arrested landing. After that we would taxi up to the catapult, then launch for Nowra.

Again came the now-familiar burble and smell of sulphur as we neared the gently rolling stern of the ship. The ‘cut’ lights flashed, and I smartly pulled the throttles back to idle. The Tracker fell a few feet, its nose high, and the main wheels hit the deck, but just before impact, the dangling arrester hook at the tail caught a wire. The hook bit, and Alan and I were flung forward against our harnesses. Then the nose wheels crashed down with even greater force than previously, and the aircraft snaked a little as the wire ran out, the hook now horizontal behind, and the deceleration violent. In no time, we were rolling back slowly as the arresting wire rebounded. White-jerkined sailors rushed up to us, one giving frantic signals: ‘brakes on’ – now that the wire was clear of the hook – and ‘hook up’, so Alan pushed up the hook-shaped lever on the overhead panel into its niche behind the throttles. My feet trembled on the brake pedals as I maintained pressure on them to ensure that our aircraft did not move in the tight confines of Melbourne’s deck. I was mindful of the knife edge before a twelve-metre fall to the water. Now the ‘bear’ was waving at me to taxi forward with no time to be lost, because the carrier would soon have to be turned around in the confines of Jervis Bay. While  I taxied, Alan called the ‘challenges’ of the checklist and I made  the ‘responses’.

Now we were at the catapult. The handler used little movements of his head to guide us in aligning the Tracker, its engines beating  at idle, with the catapult track: the steaming rust-red slot in the  deck that ended at Melbourne’s square bow. Unseen, other handlers looped the wire strop that joined the aircraft’s belly hook with the catapult’s shuttle. Sharp steel propeller blades would be slicing by just centimetres from their heads. A sailor slid one end of a frangible steel ‘hold back’ fitting into a slot under the Tracker’s tail, its other end clipped to a fitting in the deck. The catapult would soon be ‘tensioned up’ by the ‘stokers’ of the catapult crew, who would gently nudge steam valves to move the huge pistons slightly to pull on the strop. Now that was done, and the aircraft slowly tilted and sat cocked up on its little tail wheel, the twin nose-wheels high off the deck. Under the tension on the aircraft’s launch hook, we were now restrained only by the hold back fitting at the tail. Now, I doubly made sure that my feet were off the brakes. A petty officer had been standing just outside Alan’s window directing the sailors with his signals, but now he stood clear, to be replaced by the flight deck officer, who was holding an incongruous little flag on a stick which he now waved in circles above his head. This was the signal for me to set full power. I pushed the throttles up and the gentle motion of the ship was now unnoticeable as the Tracker quivered at full power. The tall fin and the wide tailplane would be vibrating furiously behind. Noise blared through the open hatches as my right hand held the throttles forward at maximum permissible boost. I had two fingers curled around the pull-down catapult grip. I knew that the acceleration of the launch would be so violent, that gripping this little inverted T-shaped handle would prevent my arm from involuntarily pulling back on the throttles during the catapult stroke. We remained ‘in tension’ and at full power while I checked the instruments and warning lights in the vibrating panels as best as I could.

In the event of an engine fire or failure just before starting the take- off roll on a land airfield, a pilot can reduce the engine power to idle and sort things out. But not so when under tension on the catapult of an aircraft carrier. Then, there is no guarantee that the device will not fire should the launch need to be ‘aborted’: one of the unique hazards of naval aviation. Against all logic and survival instincts, in the event of a major problem, all a pilot can do is to remain at full power on what engines were available, violently shake his head, call ‘cancel, cancel, cancel’ over the radio, and hope that the impending launch can be stopped. A fire? Still, he must remain at full power in case the catapult fires and he is hurled from the deck regardless: he has to try to keep the aircraft flying clear of the ship for at best a diversion to land or, at worst, a ditching. Following a cancelled launch, only when the flight deck officer himself steps directly in front of his aircraft can a carrier pilot be reassured that the catapult will not fling his aircraft from the ship. The wire strop would have fallen from the belly hook after gentle movements of the deck shuttle under control of the catapult crew. Now the pilot can reduce power, plant his feet firmly on the brake pedals, and deal with the problem.

But this time there were no warning lights, and the engine instruments looked good. We were ready. I nodded at Alan, whose left hand backed up my right on the throttles. We pressed our heads back into the headrests and he gave the Flight Deck Officer the standard signal that we were ready to launch: a snappy salute. The FDO continued to twirl his little flag in the air as he checked Melbourne’s bow, which nodded gently in Jervis Bay. When the moment was right, his flag went down to touch the deck: the signal to the catapult crew to initiate the launch sequence. My fingers tightened further around the catapult grip. A heartbeat later, the catapult fired.

It is difficult to describe the feeling of accelerating from zero to flying speed in the space of thirty-four metres. A giant hand seemed to slam us forward and, momentarily, our bodies were subject to almost 3 g of force – three times our weight – but unlike the force that had crushed me down into my seat when manoeuvring the Macchi, this force was horizontal. I had sat through Alan’s launches previously, but it was still a bizarre feeling as the Tracker accelerated violently down the deck, shuddering with a higher and higher frequency as the speed built up over just a few seconds. The increasingly frantic rattle of the landing gear could be heard over the noise of the engines and bizarrely, the flight controls instantly came alive in my hand. I concentrated on the horizon, with my helmet forced back into the headrest and making sure that I held that catapult grip to maintain those throttles at full power. With the carrier’s steel deck having raced away beneath us, now there was nothing but water below and the horizon ahead – we were flying.

Simultaneously, we felt a ‘thump’: it seemed as if the aircraft had slammed to a halt in mid-air. But all that had happened was that  the strop that joined us to the catapult had let us go. The cessation of the violent acceleration had fooled the body into thinking that everything had stopped. I concentrated on setting the climb attitude. The momentary violence of the launch had flung us from a world of oscillating grey steel and white and yellow jacketed figures into a routine climb over the sea. We brought the Cyclones back to climb power, and turned for the shore.