Amphibious assault carrier USS Tripoli (LHA 7) transitioned to conducting night flight operations demonstrating another element of the ship’s versatility.
“You can’t really see which felt weird at first, but over time it started to feel normal,” said Airman Taylor Perry. Perry is one of the “blue shirts” on the flight deck responsible for securing aircraft to the flight deck with chocks and chains. “We did more preparation ahead of time, so we could just grab what we needed and go.”
Tripoli’s flight operations are controlled from primary flight control (Pri-Fly), located high above the flight deck. The officers on watch in Pri-Fly look down on the aircraft taxiing, launching and landing from large windows that allow them to see the entire length of the flight deck. Pri-Fly is similar to a control tower at an airport and teamwork between the Sailors on the deck and in Pri-Fly is essential. At night, that teamwork is even more important.
“We take for granted that we have a bird’s eye view of everything that’s going on up here, but at night we have limited visibility,” said Lt. Brian Isbell, Tripoli’s safety officer. “Pri-Fly personnel do have night vision goggles, but say it is still difficult to see. “We really have to rely on the yellow shirts below to tell us what’s going on.”
Yellow shirts serve as aircraft directors, shooters, and landing signalmen-enlisted. They guide the aircraft while taxiing, give launch signals, guide the aircraft back on deck during recovery and are in charge of any additional aircraft movements on the flight deck. Because of the noise on deck, they use hand signals to communicate with pilots and other Sailors on the flight deck.
Hand signals are not the only means of visual communication on the flight deck. The crew still has other cues they can rely on, such as deck lighting that helps determine the status of the deck where the aircraft needs to go. Those same cues also help the pilots. For them, flying at night from a ship at sea is a whole other world.
“Landing on a ship at night is a unique challenge,” said US Marine Corps Capt. John Mensch, an F-35B Lightning II pilot assigned to Maine Strike Fighter Squadron (VMFA) 121. “One of the biggest challenges that comes with that is spatial orientation. You can’t see where the horizon is,” said Mensch.
Another challenge is the way the ship looks at night. “When you see it a few miles out, it’s just lights suspended in space,” said Mensch. “You have to trust your instruments and trust your landing signal officers (LSO) to bring you aboard safely.”
LSOs are pilots who stand watch in Pri-Fly and provide essential guidance over the radio for launches, landings and help trouble shoot if there is an emergency. LSOs only work with fixed-wing aircraft like F-35s or its predecessor the AV-8B Harrier.
Working in the dark does have some advantages though, such as a break from the South Pacific heat. Another is seeing what the flight deck and the environment look like at night. The deck glows from the various lights that aren’t needed during the day. The stars are visible with remarkable clarity due to the lack of light from other sources. Aside from the deck lighting, another source of light are the lighted hand wands the yellow shirts use to signal the pilots and crew during night operations.
“When you are first learning to communicate with wands, it feels confusing, but it’s actually easier,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Lawrence Pivec, one of Tripoli’s aircraft directors or yellow shirts. “The vocabulary with wands is smaller, and it’s a lot easier to see signals with them farther down the flight deck.”
Eventually flight operations shifted back to the bright light of the sun, after Tripoli’s crew proved they could accomplish any mission asked of them, day or night.
Tripoli is operating in the US 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with allies and partners and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific region.