I posted on Instagram recently about my husband’s role as an LSO, or Landing Signal Officer, also known as a “Paddles”. Becoming a LSO is a job specialty for Naval Aviators (pilots) because it relates specifically to the process of landing on an aircraft carrier. Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) can not become LSOs.
LSOs are carrier landing experts; as part of this qualification, LSOs learn about the physics of landing a jet, as well as the dynamics of wind speed, carrier speed, carrier direction, and jet speed/attitude, as well as landing safety and accident mitigation.
Teams of LSOs assist in the recovery of airplanes on the carrier, meaning they assist the pilot in landing his or her aircraft on the carrier. Their role is “the safe and expeditious recovery of aircraft” (so says my husband!). It is the responsibility of the LSO to ensure the pilot maintains a safe glide path all the way to touch-down on the deck of the carrier (I wrote all about this topic previously – see my post here!). The LSOs have a radio to talk to the pilot if needed, and a trigger they can pull to initiate a series of red-flashing lights indicating they want the aircraft to abort its landing attempt, which is called a wave-off. They also have a TV display which is used to help ensure the aircraft stays in the center of the landing-area. Every landing is graded by the LSOs and debriefed to the pilots.
Training to become a LSO is typically initiated during a pilot’s first fleet tour, and it is completed while on deployment. Every fixed-wing carrier-based squadron has approximately 3-4 LSOs (think Hornets, Growlers, Hawkeyes, etc). To become qualified as a LSO, the pilot must go through training with their own squadron, attend LSO School, which is located at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, and then they will receive their final qualification while on deployment. If they pursue the path to the fullest, they can become training-qualified LSOs as a flight instructor, a staff LSO working for a carrier air wing commander (CAG Paddles), and finally become the head LSO for the entire Naval Air Force (Force Paddles).
Here is an example of the LSO career progression:
- First Fleet Tour: Become a squadron-qualified squadron LSO; attend LSO school.
- First Shore Tour: Become training-qualified LSO as a flight instructor/LSO at a FRS (Fleet Replacement Squadron) or a training squadron.
- Second Fleet Tour: CAG Paddles.
- Second Shore Tour: Force Paddles.
The LSO qualification is an aviation specialty qualification, just like attending Top Gun or Test Pilot School (TPS) is a specialty qualification, though it is less formalized than those two. In all instances of specialty qualifications, there is a unique career path within the community that will keep the aviator on track for becoming a squadron XO/CO and beyond. Not every aviator decides to earn specialty qualifications; aviators without specialty qualifications have a path to becoming a squadron XO/CO, but they will perform different jobs than a LSO or Top Gun graduate. It is not uncommon to become a LSO and attend Top Gun or TPS, but Top Gun/TPS graduates then follow that career progression, rather than the LSO career progression. You will never see a Top Gun graduate working as a CAG or Force Paddles, but many Top Gun graduates were LSOs before attending Top Gun. To serve in any LSO tour, like CAG or Force Paddles, a pilot must have LSO qualifications and experience.
There are lots of interesting LSO videos on YouTube, but this one is the very best I’ve seen:
Below is a video from 1987 where the most famous LSO in history, CDR John “Bug’ Roach, helped a crippled A-6 Intruder crash-land during bad weather with a pitching flight deck. His is the first voice on the video. For questions about what he means by, “fly that ball” and for more information about landing on an aircraft carrier, see my post Meatball – Line-up -Angle of Attack. The plane actually lands at 10:41:
Here is the Wikipedia article about LSOs. It has a lot of great information, and I recommend giving it a read if you have questions or want more information.
Feel free to leave any questions about becoming an LSO as a comment!