A Day in the Life: F/A-18 Naval Aviator, Dylan Aaker
My aviation career began at the University of North Dakota, where I majored in Commercial Aviation and graduated in 2011. After graduation, I attended Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, RI, where I was commissioned as an Ensign (the rank of a junior commissioned officer) in the United States Navy. Following OCS, I spent two years completing different phases of flight training in multiple locations across the United States, ultimately earning my wings and moving to Lemoore, CA, for initial training on the F/A-18 Super Hornet in April of 2014.
Following initial training on the F/A-18, and aircraft carrier qualifications in November of 2015, I was immediately deployed to the “Royal Maces” of VFA-27 homeported in Japan and attached to the aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan. I spent the next four years living in Japan and deployed frequently aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, accumulating one year and eight months of sea time. After departing Japan, I was sent to the “Vampires” of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine (VX-9) in China Lake, CA, where I currently serve in an operational test role flying both the F/A-18E/F and E/A-18G.
A Day in the Life
A day in the life of a Navy pilot can vary significantly depending on where you currently are in your career, what your ground job is, and whether you are on a shore tour or sea tour. That said, I can only provide a narrow perspective of what my daily life is like. This blog is based on my specific shore tour which varies vastly from what life was like living on a ship or in Japan during my sea tour.
A typical Navy squadron flight schedule comes out sometime between 1400-1900 the day prior, and while you may have a sense of what your next day or week may look like, you generally won’t know for certain until the assigned flight schedule is distributed. I generally try to be at work no later than 0800. However, I will show up later as required to stay within 12 hours of crew rest if I am scheduled for a night flight.
For a typical flight, we begin our pre-flight procedures 45 minutes prior to our scheduled takeoff time. We spend about five to ten minutes with maintenance personnel to sign for the jet and review any issues. Next, we proceed to the Aircraft Survival Equipmentmen (PR) shop where we put on our G-suit, harness, survival vest, and helmet, which generally takes about five minutes. When walking up to the jet, a plane captain, who has prepared the jet for flight, will give us a quick briefing on the jet and then close up the side doors as we complete our walk around.
After strapping in and pending any issues, it generally takes 10-15 minutes to get both engines started and finish the full range of pre-flight checks that are conducted with the plane captain, although this can vary depending on the mission and what weapons may be loaded on the aircraft. Once we taxi out of the operations area, we’ll generally wait in a designated marshal zone until all members of the flight are ready to taxi, as we rarely fly single aircraft formations. For takeoff, we usually depart with 10-second spacing between aircraft, even though we can takeoff in formation. Generally, if the weather is bad, the preferred takeoff is one nautical mile radar trail to avoid having to fly close formation through the weather.
Takeoff distance is normally 1,700-2,000 feet with a rotation speed of 135 knots in our standard configuration and full afterburner. Full afterburner at sea level is a little more than 30,000 pounds per hour of fuel burn per engine (60,000 pounds per hour total), which is just under 10,000 gallons per hour. We’ll retract the landing gear immediately after takeoff to prevent over speeding the gear at 250 knots. Typically, we’re around 300 knots by the end of the runway, which is our normal climb speed. Climb rates vary with conditions and configuration, but eight to ten thousand feet per minute is pretty normal at military power (full power without afterburner), which will slowly decrease as we climb.
The F-18 is remarkably easy to fly. The jet auto-trims to 1G, so we very rarely have to trim the aircraft. The flight control computers limit the aircraft to the load limit of 7.5G, so it’s relatively difficult to overstress the aircraft unless we override the computer. We generally carry 16,500-17,500lbs (two seat or single seat) of fuel, which can last nearly three hours if we’re flying at max endurance, or only 45 minutes if we’re flying the jet hard.
When returning to the field, our typical overhead speed is 350 knots and we’ll utilize a 180-degree overhead break to slow the aircraft and configure for landing. Landing is a breeze with no need to flare for a carrier-type landing; although most shore-based pilots will flare the aircraft to put less strain on the gear and aero brake to help slow down and prevent hot brakes.
A flight could really be anything from a bombing, close air support, to an air-to-air event completely depending on the day and overall squadron test schedule. Flights are generally 1.5 hours in length but could be as short as 30 minutes, or over six hours depending on the flight and whether or not we have airborne fuel. After landing, the debrief could be as simple as a five-minute chat to three to four hours of debrief depending on the type of mission being executed.
Once we’re done flying for the day or perhaps before our flight, there is always a ground job that’s begging for our attention. This could entail meetings, checking email, or studying to keep up on the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures. The bottom line is that there is a lot more work involved than just flying an airplane.
Advice for Aspiring Aviators
Despite some of the potential drawbacks of some long days and a ground job, the flying itself can be extremely rewarding. Flying a high-performance jet aircraft, especially from an aircraft carrier, is definitely a unique experience and one I’ve never regretted. For anyone looking to pursue a career in Naval Aviation I definitely say go for it. But understand there’s no guarantee you will have the opportunity to fly fighters if that’s your goal, so you must be ok with flying whatever platform you’re ultimately given. Additionally, there’s a lot of time away from home as well as limited communication while deployed on an aircraft carrier so setting appropriate expectations with family is important.
Lieutenant Aaker has accumulated over 1,300 hours in the F/A-18E-F and has over 400 aircraft carrier arrested landings. He has had the distinct honor and privilege to serve with and beside the hardest working and most highly motivated men and women this nation has to offer, in defense of our shared values and way of life.
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