The choreography of air group support on the vessel's deck sees personnel work within "coloured vest" specialisations to direct aircraft to taxi within inches of each other and the deck edges. They also operate quickly and smoothly across a flight deck surface live with jet intakes and exhausts, turning propellers, extending and retracting arrestor cables, operating catapults, open armament and aircraft lifts and many other potential dangers. Their ability to do so is the product of hard-earned experience, strict adherence to procedures and the currency of unbroken operations. This normal deck tempo was maintained during a 12h uninterrupted shift over a six-day week, for up to two months at a time without a break.
The carrier, meanwhile, must co-ordinate its launch and recovery operations with escorting vessels to negate surface, sub-surface and above-surface threats, maintain navigational integrity with regard to obstacles or territorial borders and avoid weather that could compromise flight operations. These factors add layers of operational complexity not encountered by an air force base or station headquarters.
Landing guidance in poor weather or at night can be provided by the advanced carrier landing system, which datalinks information from the ship, or the older antenna-based instrument carrier landing system, and with aircraft using the options of autopilot or auto throttle coupling, if so equipped. But since these auto-systems do not have the same levels of multiple redundancy found in civilian commercial aircraft, they cannot be relied on operationally and cannot always compensate for deck movement. As a result, the great majority of landings are still made fully manually, placing critical importance on the ship's Landing Signals Officers (LSOs), known colloquially as "Paddles".
Each LSO team of around four to six personnel works as a fully integrated unit. Some of these look exclusively at the aircraft, while others view the deck to ensure that it is not fouled. They are backed up by a system of deck lights and radio calls from the Flying Commander, or "Air Boss", to "gate" the landing aircraft at the 100ft and 10ft "wave off" heights. Airspeed, angle of attack and pitch attitude of an aircraft, along with its height on crossing the round down point, are all critical to the landing hook accurately engaging the number three wire.
Using this system, the LSO team will see approach problems developing externally before the pilot recognises them, and give instant correction instructions to improve landing accuracy, safety and pilot confidence.
For the pilot, meeting a landing slot and matching fuel planning requires ongoing calculation throughout the flight, and especially during extended strike sorties, unlike when making a direct recovery to a land base as a singleton or as part of a small battle formation.
Aircraft are recovered into a vertical "stack" above the ship as per standard operating procedures, which place the F/A-18C lowest and E-2C highest. An individual Super Hornet is normally stationed above the stack to act as a tanker, but its fuel offload is limited and could not hope to cover a strike package numbering over 20 aircraft, or if the air group was in the mid-Atlantic with no diversion airfields available.
The "push down" of aircraft within the stack as others descend or break over the ship and turn to land is decided and conducted by the pilots themselves, without radio transmissions or direction from any shipboard air traffic control.
Tactics, latest intelligence on threat systems and weapon employment recommendations across the squadrons are standardised across the navy's carrier air groups through the service's Fighter Weapons School (still nicknamed "Top Gun") via monthly updates. The USN's squadron structure also ensures that corporate knowledge of aircraft and tactics is properly interwoven and self-sustaining.