Smoke Light Approach

One day I was flying a helicopter off the USS Wasp (CVS-18, the revamped World War II carrier, not the modern Wasp LHD-1) in a dense fog. Returning from a tactical flight, I flew down the approach path, guided by the calm voice of the radar controller. When we got to minimums the carrier was still shrouded in the fog, I could see nothing. I followed the missed approach but realized this wasn’t going to be any more successful a second time and I was low on fuel.

The controller had me go back to the radar approach but instead of descending at a gentle angle, I descended, using the radar altimeter as a reference, until I could see the water and slowed down far below normal approach speed. I was still being directed toward the carrier but at about twenty feet above the ocean. Someone on the carrier started dropping smoke flares off the stern. A smoke flare floats, has a readily visible burning flame just above the surface, and emits a lot of smoke.

As I slowly flew up the track of the ship I started seeing the smoke flares, just like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, leading to the ship I followed the trail of smoke flares up the wake of the ship until I got so close I could see the water roiled up from the screws. I climbed fifty feet until I was above the flight deck, then eased slowly forward until the carrier appeared out of the mist. I set down on spot 9, the furthest aft helicopter landing zone on the flight deck. I couldn’t see anything forward of spot 8 through the fog. We had about 250 pounds (roughly 30 gallons, about what my SUV holds) of fuel remaining. Enough to fly another fifteen minutes. Piece of cake!