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Zip, zap and boom
Trapped and shot out, faster than Rajdhani Express

Recently on board the USS Nimitz: Between the “trap” and the “shot” there is the Nimitz. You are trapped into it. You are shot out of it. Somewhere in between, the bottom falls off.

Landing by aircraft on a ship is not an everyday experience for most.

The C-2A Greyhound that took off from the Chennai airport is far from the sharp-looking fighter aircraft that are parked on the Nimitz. It bears comparison with the Indian Air Force’s workhorse, the Antonov 32. Both have two turbo-prop (not jet) engines that have to be revved up to the right RPM (revolutions per minute) for take-off; both deliver cargo and personnel and are not built for combat.

The Greyhound is more squat and its nose is flatter — more Bulldog than Alsatian. Inside the Greyhound, the seats are turned away from the cockpit. Passengers sit facing the ramp in the rear rather than the front of the aircraft.

The two crew members who sit in the passenger cabin hand out “cranials” — helmets with earmuffs that wrap tightly around the head — and goggles that are like visors. Then there is the horseshoe-shaped life jacket that has to be draped around the neck and zipped up.

The seat belts are harnesses. They have to be strapped and buckled not only at the waist but also from the shoulders. They are designed to clasp the passenger into the backrest of the seat. You understand why later.

The cabin has just two windows like portholes. Even the passengers who sit by them will be lucky to see through them.

In the 90 minutes that it took from the Chennai airport to seas beyond the east coast of Sri Lanka, the atmosphere inside the Greyhound was relaxed but expectant. The flight is smooth and the drone of the turbo-props infuses a drowsiness that cannot be easily fought down.

When the aircraft begins to lose height the crew put on their life jackets. Theirs are more elaborate and they wear helmets with speakerphones built into them. Each checks the other’s. They are thorough. Then they harness themselves to their seats. After a sharper drop, one of the crew signals that we are going to be pulled back and he will wave his hands and signal wildly.

“NOW”, he shouts and waves his right hand. In a flash, the spine presses against the backrest, the lungs empty of air, the head is pressed against the headrest and suddenly it’s all over. One moment you are compressed and then something gives. The aircraft has come to a standstill in three seconds. The crew says that’s the time it takes to go from 150 knots to 0.

If that doesn’t quite explain it, how about this: The maximum speed of the Rajdhani Express is 130kmph. The speed at which the aircraft was landing on the Nimitz was 277kmph. From that speed to a standstill it took 3 seconds.

How' What happened is this:

As the aircraft is aligned to the deck of the ship for landing, the pilots give it full power. This is a safety measure. A tailhook has sprung out of the rear bottom of the aircraft. Even as the power is maximised the aircraft is losing height and the tailhook has to take one of the four arrester cables on the flight deck of the Nimitz. Full power is applied because if the hook fails to catch the cable, the aircraft must still be able to take off.

In our instance, it has been perfect. The arrester cable is released with tension as the tailhook grabs it. The hydraulic-mechanical pump pulls back the aircraft that is lunging ahead to the sea, a 60-foot drop from the flight deck. The aircraft takes just 300 feet to stop. If it were not for the arrester cables, it would need 6,000 feet of runway.

The ramp opens. You are on the flight deck of the Nimitz. Trapped into it.

By the time it is time to leave the next afternoon, there have been nearly 100 sorties from the flight deck of the Nimitz. From noon till midnight, aircraft scream off into the blue, land with a thump and swoosh to a stop. The crew on the flight deck are always wearing cranials and earmuffs and goggles and coloured shirts — blue for plane handlers and aircraft elevator operators, green for maintenance and catapult and arresting gear crews, yellow for plane directors and white for safety observers.

In the early afternoon the C-2 Greyhound with us — among the passengers are five Indian Air Force officers, an MP (Navin Jindal) with his minor son, the chief executive of GE in India and a vice-chairman of Cognizant Technologies — is lined up again. Like the Hornets and the Superhornets we have seen, it is at the bottom end of the catapult.

We can’t see it but the “launch bar” has stuck out from under the cockpit and hooked to a piston. This is the catapult’s piston. We are harnessed. But this time we have to hold our harnesses, crossing our arms across the chest. A little while back, in the pilot’s “Ready Room”, Lt Commander Tim Tibbet has said taking off is like a “roller-coaster ride”. Pilots have to work harder while landing. That was kind of assuring.

The crew inside the cabin is now ready, the ramp folds up, encasing us.

“Now”. A ton that must be a block of hard steel lands on my back. The glasses have shot out and hit against the pane of the oversized goggles. The legs want to separate from the body that is bent forward at the waist, the lungs empty of air, and rise up to the throat. And there’s a thud like the seat has fallen out of the bottom.

That — the seat falling out of the bottom — is the all-clear. It has taken all of 1.8 seconds. The crew sitting in front look back and give a thumbs-up. GE chief executive congratulates Cognizant vice-chairman who congratulates MP.

What happened was a “cat-shot”. Like an arrow pulled back on a taut bow-string, the C-2 Greyhound was shot out of the Nimitz. It went from 0 to 170 knots in 1.8 seconds.

Forty minutes later we land at the Chennai airport, another C-2 that has been shot out following right behind ours.

In the Nimitz, commanding officer and “Old Salt” captain Michael C. Manazir whose call sign is “Nasty”, said they had done more than 2,26,000 cat-shots and traps.

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