NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Approximately 105 pilots, maintainers and support people assigned to the U.S. Navy’s “Fist of the Fleet” Strike Fighter Squadron 25 from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., are here participating in the two-week long U.S. Air Force sponsored Red Flag 13-2.
One of the squadron’s most important and busiest functions during the exercise is the daily launch of their F/A-18E Hornets.
A team of Navy aircraft maintainers known as plane captains work in harmony with other specialists to ensure the aircraft launch safely without delay.
A plane captain has many responsibilities in daily flight line operations and with the upkeep of the aircraft to ensure it is 100 percent mission ready. Plane captains are the eyes and ears of the pilot for safe ground operations near or around their aircraft.
Once the pilot is in the cockpit, the most important aspect of pre- and post-flight ground communication is done through hand signals.
“A plane captain is in charge of the aircraft until the pilot salutes and takes off,” said U.S. Navy Aviation Ordnance 1st Class Martin Hardwick. “We do not have the luxury to have a headset to communicate with the pilot.”
Hand signals are used for launching, recovering, securing and general Navy flight safety during land and aircraft carrier operations. The efficient and coordinated efforts of everyone are vital to the success of the operation.
“The pilot and plane captain have an unbroken trust regardless of rank when working around the aircraft. The use of hand signals is to have each other’s attention.” Hardwick said.
The standard position for the plane captain is in front of the aircraft and in line with the wing tips. A general rule is if the plane captain can see the pilot’s eyes, the pilot can see the signals. All signals must be understood and used in a precise manner. Poor execution can lead to damage to ground, aircraft equipment and possible casualties.
According to Aviation Electrician Mate 3rd Class and F/A-18E plane captain Colleen Shine, “I am the eyes for safety outside the aircraft, as opposed to the pilot inside the cockpit. Basically, I tell the pilot [through hand signals] what engines to start up and what aircraft surfaces to move. If there are people under the aircraft, I will let the pilot know not to move any surfaces that are unsafe. I will also let the pilot know the surfaces are moving correctly.”
“I love my job as a plane captain especially at sea,” Shine said. “After two deployments, I am the first person the pilot sees, and I have heard first hand stories after they dropped bombs in Afghanistan.”
“Red Flag is giving my guys the ability to learn how the joint military works and hone their ground operation skills,” Hardwick added.
Red Flag 13-2 began Jan. 21 and ends Feb. 1.