“Signal Charlie.” Those are the two words on the radio that student naval aviators most look forward to hearing for the first time. They are about to make their first landings on an aircraft carrier, thereby joining what carrier aviators consider to be aviation’s most exclusive club: pilots who have earned carrier qualification.

“It’s what I wanted to do most in my entire life, all I ever wanted in aviation. There’s nothing like going to the boat for the first time. I was nervous, but really excited,” says U.S. Navy Lt. (Junior Grade) Robert “R2-D2” Thompson, a third-generation carrier pilot who earned his initial carrier qualification in a Boeing T-45 Goshawk aboard the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) operating off the San Diego coast in November 2010.

Thompson flew solo, just as thousands of other first-time carrier aviators before him have done. Departing NAS North Island, Calif., to the southwest, Thompson’s flight sighted the Nimitz 10 min. after takeoff. “When I first saw the boat, I was grinning from ear to ear.”

Tightly tucked into right echelon, Thompson’s three-aircraft formation passed close abeam the starboard side of the ship, or “boat” in naval aviation parlance, at 800 ft. for a sequential overhead left break into the landing pattern.

Eight seconds after the lead aircraft broke left, Thompson also snapped his Goshawk into the overhead break. He extended landing gear and flaps, and led down to 600 ft. on the downwind leg. But he left his tail hook retracted. The first two landings on the Nimitz would be touch-and-goes to give the landing signal officer (LSO or “paddles”) final checks of Thompson’s flying skills before OK’ing his first attempt at an arrested landing.

Thompson stabilized the aircraft downwind precisely on speed for landing, as gauged by the angle-of-attack indicator. He hawked the triad of angle-of-attack indexer annunciator lights atop the glareshield to make sure he kept the “yellow doughnut” indexer illuminated, indicating he was flying at optimum angle of attack.

A few knots too slow and a green V-shaped chevron would illuminate, telling Thompson to add power and lower the nose. Slightly too fast and a red chevron would appear, indicating the need to reduce thrust and raise the nose. Safe and consistent carrier landings demand much more precise speed control than runway landings.

Thompson knew that “paddles” would wave him off if he were not precisely on speed, on glidepath and lined up on the centerline of the landing area on final approach. And there only are 15-18 sec. of wings level time to make final adjustments once a carrier pilot has completed the turn to final and has rolled the aircraft into the “groove” behind the ship.

Passing downwind abeam the round down, the aft-most edge of the flight deck, Thompson started his constant-rate turn to align his Goshawk with the angled deck for landing. He intentionally crossed the wake of the ship during the last part of his turn to final approach and aimed at the centerline of the landing zone on the angle deck. It is offset 9 deg. left of the ship’s longitudinal axis to provide a clear zone that enables an aircraft to fly safely away from aircraft parked on the flight deck, if an approaching aircraft’s tail hook misses the arresting gear. That’s known as a “bolter.”

During the turn to final, Thompson picked up sight of the Improved Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System (Iflols) he would use to gauge his position on glide path. “Three two zero, Goshawk ball, two point two, fox nine,” Thompson transmitted when he acquired sight of the Iflols image. This informed the ship of his call sign, aircraft type and sighting of the glide-path indication, fuel state in 1,000s of pounds and carrier qualification identification number.

Thompson’s instructors had advised him to fly slightly high on glidepath during his first carrier landings. Flying above optimum glidepath would give him margin to correct for the sudden, but momentary, sinking of the aircraft when it passes through the “burble,” an area of disturbed airflow just behind the ship caused by the aerodynamic wake of the ship’s “island,” or 14-story-high starboard-side superstructure.

Rolling into the “groove,” Thompson repeated to himself, “Meatball. Line up. Angle of attack,” reinforcing lessons learned from months of flight training and drilled into him during two weeks of intensive field carrier landing rehearsals on simulated aircraft carrier flight decks painted on concrete runways.

Thompson elected to fly with the Iflols “meatball” precisely centered on the green datum or reference lights, positioning his aircraft on the optimum 3.75-deg. glidepath. The Navy uses a steeper glidepath for shipboard landings, rather than the typical 3-deg. glidepath for landings ashore, because of the 25-30-kt. headwinds that must be generated for carrier landings.

The Nimitz was steaming through the water at better than 20 kt. to generate that much wind because prevailing breezes were light that day. That caused the angle deck to move away from Thompson’s flight path. He had to correct the aircraft heading slightly to the right to maintain track on centerline with the landing zone. Experienced carrier aviators say that maintaining proper line-up is one of the biggest challenges of landing aboard ship, especially during instrument-flight-rules conditions or nighttime.

Thompson concentrated on line-up, frequently cross-checking angle of attack and glidepath on the Iflols.

The 20-kt. speed of the ship also caused a strong burble that interrupted the smooth 25-kt. headwinds about 0.25-0.5 mi. astern of ship. Seconds before Thompson’s Goshawk slammed aboard the Nimitz, he flew through the burble and felt his aircraft suddenly sink as though he had encountered a low-altitude wind shear.

Thompson shoved in a fistful of throttle, but it was too late. However, he slowed the sink rate enough so that the aircraft was only slightly low crossing the threshold.

Bam! Thompson’s Goshawk hit the deck near the second cross-deck arresting gear cable or “two wire.” By rote, he rammed the throttle to the forward stop for maximum power for the go-around and rotated the nose up for the initial climbout. He climbed straight ahead to 600 ft. and when he was 1 mi. ahead of the Nimitz, he turned downwind for his second touch-and-go.

This time, he flew slightly high on approach to compensate for the sink of the burble. When he flew through the zone of disturbed air, he was ready to jab forward the throttle and tweak up the nose attitude.

It worked. The Goshawk hit the deck at the ideal spot on the second touch-and-go, precisely at the point needed to engage the optimum third cross-deck arresting cable or “three wire.” Thompson now knew he was better prepared.

After the second touch-and-go pass, he heard, “Three two zero. Hook down next pass,” from the LSO, confirming Thompson was ready for his first “trap” on the boat.

Almost ready. When he trapped aboard, he was surprised by the deceleration shock of the arrested landing. “It was a lot more violent than I expected. The aircraft stopped and I still had full power. I had tunnel vision.” Several seconds passed.

“We got you, 320,” the air boss called, telling Thompson he was safely trapped aboard Nimitz. “Only then did I come back on the power. I was shaking and I couldn’t taxi very well,” Thompson recalls. Most first-time carrier pilots experience similar sensations.

Clear of the wires, the name carrier pilots give to the arresting gear, Fly Two, the senior aviation boatswain’s mate assigned to direct traffic amidships, guided Thompson’s Goshawk to parking near the island. Once chocked and tied down with chains, the air department’s refueling team, known as the “grapes” for their purple jerseys, topped off the Goshawk in preparation for Thompson’s first catapult launch.

Not long after, the flight-deck crew guided Thompson’s Goshawk to catapult No. 2 on the forward deck. Once the launch bar of the Goshawk’s sturdy nose engaged the catapult shuttle, the “shooter” (catapult officer) spun his fingers high over his head, telling Thompson to advance the throttle for takeoff. Thompson pushed the lever against the forward stop. He checked the engine instruments. With everything in the green, he saluted the shooter.

The second shock of the day was about to happen. An invisible elephant soon stepped on Thompson’s chest. In reality, the catapult fired, accelerating the Goshawk from a standstill to 125 kt. in 275 ft. The cat shot lasted less than 3.5 sec. But to Thompson, it seemed an eternity.

After takeoff, Thompson again climbed to 600 ft. and 1 mi. ahead of the ship and he turned downwind for his next arrested landing. He repeated that procedure over a three-day period until he had logged 10 traps and 10 cats. Then it was “Signal Bingo,” the radio call he heard that directed him to return to NAS North Island, where he easily could land on 7,500-8,000 ft. of pavement. On the way home to the shore base, Thompson swelled with pride, knowing he had accomplished his goal. He had become a tail hooker.

So, welcome to our club, R2-D2. You are now one of us. You have earned a special qualification shared by few aviators during the last 100 years.