Night landings on aircraft carriers are never a piece of cake. Today's pilots can speak for themselves, but I understand the big CVA's are now lit up like Christmas trees, that they have centerline lights and even strobes to go with an angle deck and a flight deck mirror to guide the pilot.
They tell me that there is something called ACLS to switch on in the cockpit and this essentially helps with an automatic landing. And you can always go back up and take on a load of fuel to try again. Taking nothing away from today's Naval Aviator let me describe some night carrier work in WW2 and again in Korea flying from the old straight decks and with a Landing Signal Officer (LSO) decked out in somewhat of a luminescent stripped pair of coveralls and holding a couple of paddles while he danced around on the aft port side of the flight deck ready to dive out of the way into the safety nets.
Prior to deployment in WW2 and beginning in mid 1944, each Naval Aviator was expected to make at least two night landings, if a carrier deck was available for qualifications. This was to give us at least the flair of night carrier operations and since my squadron was at Boca Chica in the Keys for Torpedo dropping final training and a small CVE was in the area looking for German subs, we were selected to get our night landings just prior to heading for WestPac and Lexington, CV-16. As the youngest and the junior Ensign in the squadron, I had to wait on deck at the LSO platform until the senior folks trapped and then I was to run up to the plane while still in the arresting gear, climb up the wing with the engine running and 30 knots of wind over the deck and relieve the now night qualified pilot, strap in and deck launch for my two traps. This worked until my turn. As the plane came over the ramp, it was evident that the pilot had forgot to lower the wheels and he made a beautiful arrested landing on the belly. Consequently I had to come out to the ship again to get my night qualification.
Fortunately, we did not have to make any night landings during our combat tour. We had a small detachment of night fighters aboard Lexington, but I do not remember them ever flying at night, just sitting on the catapults ready to go if needed. There was one "night carrier" in the task force but they got to fly very little since big day strikes were the thing.
Korea was another matter. Each deploying carrier was augmented with a special VC-35 trained team of Night Attack pilots flying AD4N's. We had a three-plane detachment and five or six highly trained pilots, each with two enlisted combat designated aircrewmen. The mission was to run the roads and rail lines in North Korea at night to interdict logistics and generally make life miserable for the enemy. We were not popular with the North Koreans. My carrier, BOXER, CV-21, had no center line lights on the flight deck and a set of what was called dust pan lights along the deck edge which were really guide lights for the flight deck crew and could not be seen from the air. The ship was completely blacked out since they perceived an ASW threat. A destroyer was stationed 1000 yards off the port beam with one light on the masthead to give us our turning point from downwind. When we found the carrier we would go upwind at about 400 feet to make a 180 and come over the DD at 100 to 150 feet and about 90 knots airspeed starting our turn we dropped down to 75 feet at the 90 degree position where, if we were lucky, we could spot the florescent glow of the LSO's paddles. The flight deck was 55 feet above the water so our approach from here in was supposed to be flat. If the paddles were frantically waving back and forth or if the LSO disappeared it was time to try again. Operating in the middle of the Sea of Japan with no divert fields, and low fuel from a four hour mission left us with little alternative. The LSO's cut was our signal to dip the nose a hair and flare hoping to catch a wire. Almost every landing was a blind shot dependent upon the guess of the LSO that we could catch an arresting cable. A bounce or hook skip meant going into the barricade since aircraft were parked forward. Bad weather or a pitching deck at night contributed to the hazards.
One night returning from a mission the weather had deteriorated badly. I had a wingman and two night-fighters with me trying to find the carrier. My aircrewman had the ship on our radar but we could not even see the wake so I had to execute a missed approach to bring the flight lower and break out under 400 feet to see the ship. I broke off the F4U5N's first since they had less fuel, then my wingman, and I gave them a lot of room before I began an approach. The first Corsair waved off but the second landed, followed by my wingman, Jamie Morris. I let the lead Corsair try again and he hit the ramp and only got half the plane on the flight deck with the tail going into the spud locker on the hangar deck. The engine and cockpit half rolled up the flight deck to be stopped by the barricades. The pilot, Butch O Hara, was not seriously injured but that ended his Korean tour. It also left me hanging in the air with low state, a fouled deck and bad weather. Tilly took twenty minutes to clear the wreckage. With a clear deck Charlie, I got aboard on the first pass with twenty gallons of fuel to spare.
The aircrewmen in the belly of the AD4N had only one small window on each side and these young men put their life and trust in the fellow up front. They never knew how scared we really were operating at 110% capacity with no margin of error available. Those VC-35 aircrewmen deserved a lot of recognition for their courage.
After Korea, I flew off the first angle deck carrier, the Antietam, CVS-36. What a difference. Then came the landing mirror, better instrumentation and gyros, larger carriers with better lighting, aircraft refueling probes and PLAT which was really a center line TV camera that recorded every single landing for pilot debriefs and for closed circuit entertainment in pilot ready rooms and through out the carrier city.
Just before Vietnam became serious, I commanded an A4D-2N squadron, the Blue Tail Flies, aboard the Coral Sea, CVA-43. What a difference a decade made. All pilots were day and night qualified and the carriers could operate on a 24/7 basis.