Landing a plane on an aircraft carrier is a very dangerous task. Even the movies recognize this – remember the harrowing crash that kills off Charlton Heston's character in Midway? So, just how easily can a carrier landing go bad?
Very easily. Take a look at all that's involved: Unlike landing at an air force base, the target is moving. There's also a lot less space. Yes, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is four and a half acres of sovereign United States territory, but that's still much smaller than Mountain Home Air Force Base.
An Attack Squadron 56 (VA-56) A-7E Corsair aircraft bursts into flames after a ramp strike on the aircraft carrier USS MIDWAY (CV-41). (U.S. Navy photo)
There's also a much shorter stopping distance. Mountain Home Air Force Base a has a runway that's 13,510 feet long. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is all of 1,092 feet long — the angled deck used for landing doesn't even span the length of the carrier. A plane landing has to catch one of four arresting wires and, if it does, there's always a chance the wire might snap.
Managing that landing is rough, too. If you're too high, you don't catch the runway. Too low, you have a ramp strike.
If you've seen Midway or The Hunt for Red October, you've seen this crash that Navy test pilot George Duncan survived. (U.S. Navy photo)
There's a reason that carrier landings, especially at night, have caused naval aviators stress. A 1991 Los Angeles Times article noted that these nighttime landings cause pilots more anxiety than combat. The risk is always there, no matter how much training and technology goes into improving the skills of pilots or making things easier.
Technology breaks, planes can be damaged (as was the case at the end of Midway), or some pilot's luck just happens to run out on some cold night out at sea. When carrier landings go bad, the pilot's only recourse is to trust in an ejection seat and the luck that's betrayed him once already. Check out the Navy training video covering these horrible mishaps below: