An Aircraft Carrier’s Cable Guys

It takes muscle to stop and stow a 25-ton fighter.

A carrier crew pushes an F/A-18C into a tight parking space. (US Navy/Tyler Caswell)
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When Eugene Ely made the world’s first shipboard landing, on the USS Pennsylvania on January 18, 1911, his Curtiss Model D was brought to a stop by a pair of 50-pound sandbags tied onto the ends of a rope. After Ely cut power, the biplane settled onto the deck, and a metal hook on its landing gear snagged several in a series of 22 ropes and held on until Ely stopped 10 feet shy of the captain. As Ely climbed out, sailors removed the hook, hauled in the ropes, and swept up the sand.

Today’s rope is braided steel. Stretching about 120 feet across the deck, the arresting wire is connected at both ends below deck to 1,100-foot purchase cables. Today’s sandbags are mechanical monsters called arresting engines, weighing 43 tons. The system can bring a 50,000-pound jet flying 149 mph to a stop within 344 feet in two seconds. In the span of 45 seconds, today’s sailors straighten the arresting wires, guide aircraft to a parking space, and ready the deck for the next arriving jet.

All Clear

A green paddle signal from flight deck supervisor Lieutenant Walter Massenburg on the USS Harry S. Truman means that the deck is ready for the F/A-18F Super Hornet about to land. The triangle is lifted after the previous aircraft has taxied past the line between the active deck and parking area, and the purchase cable has been retracted into position. On cyclical operations during daylight, a carrier lands aircraft 35 to 45 seconds apart; at night, the interval is about a minute.


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