Getting back on the carrier is indeed the ultimate challenge. It’s precision flying but no one even pretends to be a soft lander.
You fly until the deck comes up and you hit it and what has loosely been described as a controlled crash. Immediately applying full engine power in case you fail to snatch the wire. A 50-ton pull on the tailhook brings the airplane to a jolting halt. Everything wants to keep going forward and for a second or two you think it will, but the backlash quickly nulls itself out. That’s the way it was designed.
A carrier airplane is a rigid structure. Like all structures distorts under load. It twists and bends every time it leaves the deck and every time it returns. You can’t see it but when the landing gear hits, the whole fuselage bends momentarily under the impact and the wingtips want to reach down to the deck.
The gear itself literally springs back after impact and imparts a reverse loading on the structure. Quite a difference from land-based aircraft which descend at a reasonably flat angle into a smooth landing with runway in front of them as far as the eye can see.
By comparison a carrier landing calls for a slow steep approach with engines and flight systems synchronized for maximum controllability. Exceptional over the nose visibility is essential to pick out the visual landing aid system or “meatball” and to establish the correct line up so critical for safe landing. The aircraft must also be especially responsive to changes in thrust and attitude and slow approach speeds are desirable because they give the pilot more time to make corrections.
Carrier airplanes use about 10 percent of the runway required by land-based aircraft. To make this possible requires a heavy-duty landing gear and supporting structure. An arresting hook system integrated with the fuselage to withstand a deceleration force up to 6G’s on some aircraft and a fatigue life that will see the entire structure safely through some 6,000 carrier landings.