First fighter jet launch and landing on new USS Ford was “almost like a scene from ‘Top Gun’ “

By Courtney Mabeus

First catapult. First trap.

First skidmarks.

Lt. Cmdr. Jamie “Coach” Struck left his mark – several, actually – on the new USS Gerald R. Ford when his F/A-18F Super Hornet hooked the No. 2 cable on its flight deck Friday. He became the first pilot to land an aircraft successfully using the first-in-class carrier’s Advanced Arresting Gear.

About an hour and a half later, Struck snagged another first, when he steamlessly catapulted from the Ford’s deck in its first successful jet launch using the new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, known as EMALS.

“I’m so excited,” Struck said Tuesday after returning to the Ford’s flight deck to recap the experience. He’s a test pilot with the Patuxent River, Md.-based Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 and previously flew with the Strike Fighter Squadron 131 “Wildcats” at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.

“It’s the highlight of my career to be a part of this.” 

Friday’s jet launch and recovery was a milestone in getting the $12.9 billion Ford battle-ready, and came less than a week after the carrier’s July 22 commissioning at Naval Station Norfolk attended by President Donald Trump.

But it came after years of setbacks and cost overruns with the two systems, which are expected to be installed on the next two carriers in the Ford class, the John F. Kennedy and the Enterprise. The Navy has said the new launch system and arresting gear will help it launch a larger range of aircraft quicker while requiring less manpower.

Trump previously criticized EMALS during a visit to the Ford at Newport News Shipbuilding in March. He slammed the system as too costly and “no good”, and said the Navy should continue using steam-powered catapults.

With all eyes on him, Struck said, the pressure of being the first to test both systems while flying a multi-million-dollar fighter jet made sleep the night before “hard to come by.” 

Struck completed four launches and landings, or “traps,” catching each of the Ford’s three arresting cables while it operated off the coast . He did so while using a relatively new flight control software meant to simplify carrier landings, called “Magic Carpet.” Testing with manual approaches is expected later in the fall, Struck said.

Struck said he noticed few differences while landing using the AAGs, which use energy-absorbing water turbines. But catapulting from the Ford’s deck was smoother than with the previous steam-based system, which could get “kind of violent.”

“There’s all that steam, all that energy built up,” Struck said.

The tests were completed without the fighter’s 480-gallon external fuel tanks, which limits its range. Naval Air Systems Command announced last month that it has developed a fix that will be installed on the Ford in 2019, about two years before its anticipated first deployment.

Data from Friday’s tests will be analyzed to determine risk, reliability and maintenance issues, said Capt. Rick McCormack, the Ford’s commanding officer. That’s something that’s still in its infancy, he added.

While Struck may be the Ford’s most visible symbol of its latest milestone, sailors who have spent years learning and practicing with the new launch and recovery systems said the tests validated all that work.

Video released by the Navy shows sailors pumping their fists in the air and flashing thumbs-ups after Friday’s firsts. 

“There was so much energy in the air that when the aircraft first arrested, it was almost like a scene from ‘Top Gun’ at the end where everybody was pumping their hands – they’re getting really excited,” Petty Officer 1st Class Jeremy Stoecklein said.

Below deck, where Stoecklein was working on EMALS, was a mix of nerves, excitement and anxiety. After feeling the aircraft catapult from the deck for the first time, “everybody hugged and shook hands and were yelling with excitement,” he said.

“After that, it was just, ‘Let’s do it again. Let’s do it again,’” said Stoecklein.

Petty Officer 1st Class Reginald Leonard was above deck, retracting the AAG’s cables.

After 13 years spent working on arresting gear, the last four of which have been on the Ford, he’s glad to leave behind the grease and hydraulic fluid .

Watching AAGs come to life was like “building your house from the bottom up, and actually get to get in it, live in it and see it work,” Leonard said.



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