On an aircraft carrier the only task as important as landing an aircraft safely is preparing for the next one due in 45 seconds. That’s why the recovery cycle begins before the current aircraft rolls to a stop.
Most people seeing an F/A-18 Hornet landing a few yards ahead will not feel an urge to make an all-out sprint towards a roaring jet. Yet that’s the job description of a hook runner. After the F/A-18 snags its tailhook on the arresting wire, the pilot powers down and the tension from the wire releases, typically causing the Hornet to roll back a few feet until its hook falls away. If the tailhook doesn’t disengage on its own, the hook runner ducks under the searing tailpipe to pull it off by hand.
The arresting system can be reset in as little as 35 seconds.
Today’s arresting gear can recover aircraft that are faster and heavier than any in Navy history, but the interval between landings of 35 to 60 seconds has barely nudged from the era of piston airplanes. Last year when the F-35C Lightning began landing trials on the Nimitz-class carrier, Lockheed said it met the “perfect interval” of 45 seconds.
In August, the unmanned X-47B and a piloted F/A-18 Hornet were catapulted off the deck in quick succession and flew a pattern around the carrier. The pair were recovered within a 90-second interval. A hook runner stood by for the unmanned X-47B but its software automatically retracted its tailhook, and the hook fell from the wire.
Beyond the immediate flurry of landings, the components of an arresting gear system take time and grueling labor both above and below deck to maintain, re-spool, reweave and replace.
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