USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, At Sea -- Nathan Shuey banks left as he prepares for his first aircraft carrier landing. The familiar feel of G-forces drive him down into his seat as he rehearses his rhythmic breathing. He flexes his grip to remind himself that he is in control, then he corrects his heading as he hears the air traffic controller granting him permission to land.
His aircraft rapidly approaches the carrier. The flaps go down. It's a mile away. He pulls back slightly to slow the jet, never removing his eyes from the heads-up display. Seconds away from landing, Shuey eases off the throttle and drops altitude. He feels the thud of touchdown and slams the throttle forward. The "trap" tries to rip the aircraft from beneath him as it slows from 130 miles per hour to zero in just over a second. Shuey eases back the throttle and breathes. Success.
Lt. j.g. Nathan Shuey was among the pilots of Training Wing (TW) One and Two who completed take offs, landings and taxiing maneuvers onboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Oct. 31, en route to their carrier qualifications. For the pilots of TW-1 and TW-2, it was an honor to make their first aircraft carrier landing on TR.
"The first pass was absolutely terrifying," said Shuey of TW-1. "It was a touch and go and your nerves are so high you kind of forget what you're doing."
Pilots practice carrier landing and taxying on a simulator before flying out to a ship. The simulator is extremely lifelike, but it does not compare to the visceral experience of the real thing, said Shuey.
"The Landing Signal Officers always teach us to 'fly the ball to touchdown', which means keep your eyes on the lens and be aware of everything else. So, when you approach the wires, don't follow them with your eyes. Don't look down or try to catch a certain wire. Keep your eye on the ball until you slam forward in the cockpit. You honestly fly until your jet stops moving. I just kept saying to myself, 'fly the ball to touchdown, fly the ball to touchdown," said Shuey.
Being a pilot was always a dream, but Shuey never thought to actively pursue it until his senior year in college.
"I went to Naval Air Station Oceana for an event with Penn State [Reserve Officers' Training Corps]," he said. "There was a squadron of F-18s there, and I got to ride in one. I knew from that point on that if I could make [flying] an occupation, I wanted to do it. That's when I got really motivated to work towards it."
The path to becoming a naval aviator is long and challenging.
"I actually trained with the Air Force for half a year and that was pretty challenging because I moved to a place that I never expected to be," said Shuey. "I was in Oklahoma for that at Vance Air Force Base and that was pretty rigorous training. I chose to go there and was hoping it would set me up to fly jets, and it actually worked out but was really difficult."
Pilots complete an aerobatics course designed to boost confidence and familiarize pilots with the aircraft's limitations after more than a year of training.
"I'm sure every pilot can appreciate their first aerobatic solo or aerobatic flight," said Lt. j.g. Daniel Knight, a helicopter pilot assigned to the Dragonslayers of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 11. "You are basically given the controls with a training pilot and are told to do flips and barrel rolls. Then you are told to go up and do it again alone. It's meant to build your confidence as a pilot. It's terrifying but also a lot of fun."
Aviators receive their gold wings at the conclusion of their nearly two year training pipeline.
"It was a lot of relief knowing that I made it through the program and a good amount of pride knowing what I had accomplished," said Knight. "Also knowing my family was there and that they had been looking forward to it for so long. It was a great sense of accomplishment, much more so than obtaining my bachelor's degree. It wasn't something someone told me to do, it was something I sought out and that made it much more rewarding."
As he steps out of the cockpit, Shuey is reminded of the countless hours in a simulator, days of actual flight, weeks away from home and years of education and training that led him to this point. He fills with pride at the thought that soon he will join the ranks of elite naval aviators.