A Pilot's Tale
At sea with 90,000 tons of diplomacy

Navy pilot Douglas Hamilton '86 with his wife, Sarah, and their son, Craig.

Standing on the newly resurfaced deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower 60 miles off the coast of Norfolk, Va., last spring, I watched a group of F/A-18 Hornets approach from the southeast, three black crosses against a pale sky. The enormous ocean lay flat and gray in the morning haze, and as the three crosses assumed their more familiar and menacing shapes, I tried to imagine the reverse perspective of the pilot intending to do well what almost no one can do at all—land a jet on a ship. I had come to see Lt. Cmdr. Doug Hamilton '86, an old college friend, undergo two days of landing exercises, and although I'd been aboard the carrier for only a short time I'd begun to appreciate the odds in favor of a fatal accident.

More than three football fields long, the deck spreads across four and a half acres, as do the decks of the Navy's seven other Nimitz-class carriers, the largest warships in the world. The ship's "island" rises from the starboard side to the height of a seven-story building, housing the flight tower and observation platform and capped by seven radar antennae, one of them the size of a minivan. Bigger and heavier than the Titanic and longer than the Chrysler Building is tall, the Eisenhower is powered by two nuclear reactors that will run for at least 20 years before the uranium needs to be changed. Six thousand sailors live onboard, nearly half of them providing support for the pilots, like roadies do for the Rolling Stones; the hangar deck holds at least 60 aircraft.

As the carrier turned slowly into the wind, the angle of the sun shifted, and my attention focused on Doug, who would have to land on a deck moving 30 miles an hour away from him, into what the pilots call the "trap," zeroing in on a target 18 inches long. The "arrested landing" is a seemingly crazy idea: a 20-ton plane moving 170 miles an hour snags its four-foot titanium "tail hook" onto a giant cable connected to hydraulic cylinders belowdecks, and stops in a mere 300 feet.

Even a single bad landing exposes the pilot to the heckling of his squadronmates. More serious landing mishaps, when the pilot must eject from the airplane, often result in sudden death and an unrecoverable body; or, if the pilot survives, three separate Navy investigations and the possible termination of the pilot's career.

Doug broke off his flight pattern directly overhead the Eisenhower and turned in a steeply banked oval at an altitude of 600 feet. The ship increased its speed to "catch" as he lined his plane up with the enormous wake and glided toward the flight deck's center line. His wheels touched down, and the hook from his plane snagged the number 3 arresting wire. Landing—perfect.

I hadn't seen Doug in a long time. We met in 1982, in college. After we graduated and he'd begun his flight training in 1986, I consoled myself that he hadn't known what he was doing when he joined the Navy, that he was some nonpolitical flyboy and had backed into some profession for the pure joy of flying. We attempted to stay close through our early 30s by exchanging letters and e-mails, but as time passed, what I read in the newspapers about our American military contradicted what I thought I knew about Doug, and what little he said in his letters revealed only mystery and paradox. I knew, for example, that he was called Hambone by the other pilots, that he used such phrases as "implications our job has on the world's security" and "as we stabilize this hemisphere." But I was perplexed. If the birth of his new son made him so obsessed with safety, why was he constantly risking his life? If he only lived to serve our country, why had his ego grown to the size of a cathedral?

When Doug explained that he could get permission for me to come onboard the Eisenhower, I sensed not just an opportunity to see Doug's world and answer my questions but also a chance to find out whether I still, really, knew him at all.

I knew that being a carrier pilot required extraordinary ability. Doug had always been an athlete, a great downhill and water-skier, and since joining the Navy he'd become a nationally ranked triathlete. After going through aviation officer candidate school and learning to fly, he began to practice for carrier landings at the Naval Air Station in Kingsville, Texas, dropping his plane onto a runway painted like a ship's deck. Then Doug had his first try at the real thing, a carrier off the coast of Florida, and failed. He caught the number 1 wire twice, which means that he was landing too short. He was given three more weeks of practice, 150 landings. In need of a friend, he wrote me a letter telling me that if he were to catch the number 1 wire again, his career would be over. No more practice, no third chance, no Navy commission, no job as a pilot of lesser status, no wings, nothing. He would have to leave the Navy and start from scratch.

Never again would Doug come so close to failure. He returned to the ship and passed with honors at the top of his class. At the conclusion of advanced training, he again earned top honors in his carrier qualification. In his first assignment in the fleet, flying the two-seater A-6 bomber, he again came out at the top of his "nugget" class, and was called up by an A-6 squadron going right to sea that was in need of a pilot.

Doug spent a total of 42 days at home in 1994; the rest of the year he was on deployment or training. He and his wife, Sarah, tried to honeymoon in Europe while Doug's carrier was deployed in the Mediterranean, but the ship never showed up at scheduled ports of call. After crisscrossing Europe, Sarah went home alone.

Now I watched Doug walk slowly across the deck, and although I sensed his relief, I knew also that his perfect daytime landing only delivered him to the much more difficult task of a night landing. For months Doug had hoped that the two night landings required of him would take place at dusk, when visual clues outside his canopy would help in the final moments before touchdown. When Doug first found out that his night landings would be under a new moon—which is the absence of moon—he told me, "I hate night landings. Flying around the carrier in the dark is an act of insanity." For good measure, he added, "We're all scared of it. Not just me."

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