Meatball – Line-up – Angle of Attack, Revisited.

Have you ever wondered what Navy jet pilots are thinking as they approach an aircraft carrier for landing?

Wonder no more — here is the phrase (and thorough explanation!) of what they think about and execute as they approach the carrier:

“Meatball – line-up – angle of attack.” – As a pilot approaches the carrier, this phrase is on a loop in their minds, going through each check many, many times every minute from the start of their approach to catching a wire.

Meatball – The very first thing a pilot does as he or she approaches the carrier is to visually locate the lens (pictured below; see this article for more information). The lens is an optical device to visually assist pilots’ landings on the carrier, and it is located on the left side of the landing area near the LSOs (for more information about the location of the lens, see the diagrams below) (for more information about the roll of the LSO, see this post). The lens is bright enough that an approaching pilot can see it from at least 3/4 miles away. The central light on the lens is called “the meatball.” Making visual contact with the meatball is necessary when coming in for a landing because the pilot uses it to know where he or she is on glide slope, meaning the correct/safe landing angle to the landing area on the carrier (more information about glide slope can be found here). When the pilot makes visual contact with the meatball, they “call the ball” so that the LSOs know that the pilot can see the meatball. If the pilot cannot make visual contact with the meatball, they call “Clara” and the LSOs will talk them down or they will “waive off,” meaning that they abort landing and re-enter the landing que with the other jets. The meatball should appear centered if they are on the correct glide slope. If they are not on the correct glideslope, the ball will appear too high or too low. There are other lights on the lens that can indicate actions to incoming pilots. The LSOs control the lights on the lens, in addition to talking with the incoming pilot through the radio, as a way to communicate information to the pilot.

Lights on the lens (actually named a Fresnel Light Optical Landing System). Note the line of yellow lights in the center, and the orange “meatball” light.

Line-up – The second thing a pilot thinks about as they approach for landing is their left to right alignment to the landing area on the flight deck. The pilot steers the jet to line themselves up with the landing area of the ship. The landing area appears as a landing strip with lines delineating the area, much like lines on the road. The pilot wants to line themselves up with the center line along the landing “road” on the carrier deck. If a pilot lands too far to the left or right, they will be in danger of crashing into parked aircraft.

You can see the LSO platform situated on the top left of the carrier (at the stern), with the landing “road” right next to it. The pilot lines-up to land on the dashed-line in the middle of the road.
Here is another look. The LSO platform is on the bottom right of this diagram, and the lens is located on the bottom, slightly left of center. The pilot would line up to land on the white/yellow line in the center of the landing area.

Angle of attack (AOA) – The last thing pilots think about is their AOA. I’m a nurse scientist, and the science of AOA boggles even my scientifically inclined mind. The AOA is the airplane’s wing angle relative to its path through the air. Pilots can change the angle of their wings as they fly using wing flaps, which allows the aircraft to fly at slower speeds while still being controllable. Each aircraft is designed to land at a specific AOA, which corresponds to a specific speed for that aircraft’s weight at the time. Landing too fast will potentially damage the aircraft, and flying too slow will potentially result in the plane stalling and the pilot losing control. The LSOs monitor an aircraft’s AOA, but the pilot is ultimately in control of their landing. Here is a much more detailed description of AOA.

Now you’re an expert in landing a jet on an aircraft carrier. Congratulations! Here are a few videos of jets landing on a carrier. Enjoy!

One last thing – here is a much better writer discussing the Meatball in Air & Space Magazine.

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