Though noisy, the recent training at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort ultimately could mean the difference between life and death for the pilots of the air station's lone Naval squadron.
The 16 pilots of Strike Fighter Squadron 86, the Sidewinders, are practicing field carrier landings to prepare for deployment on the USS Nimitz next summer.
The training, which requires pilots to land F/A-18C Hornets on a small patch of the runway to simulate landing on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, is essential to developing the pilots' motor memory, said Cmdr. Geoffrey S. Gage, the squadron's commanding officer.
"We devote a lot of time to it in a training environment because there is no margin for error," he said. "In a word, it's vital. If we didn't do this training, we'd be killing guys at the ship."
The training increases noise around the air station because pilots are flying lower over residential areas, but Gage said he hopes those affected understand the importance of the exercises.
"We have to prepare to go to the ship, but we're sensitive to the residents in this area and we try to minimize the impact that our training has but it's got to get done," he said. "Beaufort and the Lowcountry is such a pro-military community, and we don't want anyone to think that we take that support for granted."
The training will continue through Wednesday.
Training on land for deployment at sea
Four at a time, pilots take to the skies in the squadron's single-seat F-18s, to practice flying patterns and perform more than a half dozen touch-and-go landings on the runway during a half-hour period.
All of this is done under the watchful eye of the squadron's lead signal officers, who sit in a shack on the shoulder of the runway.
"I can see what's going to happen before they can," said Lt. Doug Gray,one of the squadrons' LSOs. "You just watch them over and over, and you can get a feel for what he's doing. They all might have looked the same to you, but they were all very different to me and very different to the guys flying."
On the carrier, it is the LSO who will sit at the back of the ship and assist incoming pilots as they attempt to land on the flight deck.
"He's trying to hit that spot, that 3-foot by 3-foot spot on the carrier deck, going hundreds of miles an hour on a ship that's going crooked, according to his perspective, at 30 miles per hour," Gray said. "Landing is the single hardest thing they do. It's a very perishable skill."
The training helps solidify the important relationship between the pilots and the LSOs, said Lt. Josh Larson, one of the squadron's pilots.
"It helps to build your habit patterns so you know how to effectively and safely respond to calls from the LSO, who will keep you alive," he said. "You trust them, and they know how to keep you alive. They're going to prevent you from hitting the back of the boat."
During a six-month carrier deployment, pilots will perform 80 to 90 takeoffsand landings, Gage said.
"During the day, you get a little more confident because you can see everything, but at night, you don't see anything until you're behind the ship," said Lt. Colin Quirino.
The deployment aboard the Nimitz will be Quirino's first cruise as a Navy pilot. Quirino said his carrier experience is limited to 14-day trips aboard the ship for carrier qualification training.
"Carrier qualifications are a little more scripted, and it's a pretty controlled environment," he said. "I haven't attempted to land on the boat after flying a six-hour mission, but this is what I'm trained to do."
The average mission time over Iraq and Afghanistan for pilots aboard aircraft carriers can be six to eight hours.
In addition to flying at night, Gage said pilots also practice landings using degraded systems to simulate technical emergencies or malfunctions that could happen in the field.
"We'll have them turn off their heads-up displays, but there is no added risk to the people around here," he said.
Larson said training on the airfield gives pilots the chance to practice landing in a controlled, real-time environment.
"Before you go to the carrier, you can't just show up to the carrier your very first time and practice, so going out to the field and doing exactly how the pattern is at the boat builds your habit patterns," he said. "You can't get anything closer than this. Being out on the field, it doesn't get anymore real than that without actually being at the boat."