The Air Boss

Originally published in Boys’ Life – November 1997

Navy jet pilots get all the glory on an aircraft carrier. But without guys like Dick McCrillis, they would be lost at sea.

An F/A-18 Hornet is on its way back from a mission enforcing a “No Fly Zone” over hostile territory. An aircraft carrier awaits somewhere in the ocean, ready for the pilot’s return.

Suddenly a cockpit warning light flares, and a signal pings in the pilot’s helmet speaker. The airplane is low on fuel. The pilot pushes the switch to the microphone: “This is 110 on approach for landing. I have a ‘Bingo’ situation.”

Air Traffic Control on the Water

“That’s one thing I don’t like to hear when I’m on duty,” says United States Navy Commander Dick McCrillis, an Air Boss on the U.S.S. Stennis, one of the Navy’s newest aircraft carriers.

“Bingo” is the alert signal to the Air Boss to juggle airplanes out of the way and give the Bingo jet a straight shot to the carrier deck.

As Air Boss, Dick McCrillis, 47, is airport manager and air traffic controller rolled into one. He is in charge of sending the $30 million jet fighters on the missions and bringing them safely on board after they are done.

I Have to Land This Jet on That Deck?!

McCrillis, a former Scout in Troop 7, Fairfax, Calif., was a Navy pilot before he became an Air Boss. He used to fly off an aircraft carrier earlier in his career. He knows exactly what each pilot is going through.

Think it’s easy to land a jet on a carrier? Think again.

“Place a flat pink eraser, like the one you have at school, on the floor, and then back away about 10 feet,” McCrillis says. “That’s what the aircraft carrier looks like to the pilot.”

Now imagine approaching the “eraser” at 150 miles per hour, like a jet fighter pilot. And don’t forget that the ship is moving, pitching and rolling in sea swells.

Nice View – and What a Crew

The Air Boss’ office is perched high above the flight deck in the “island,” or superstructure, off to the side of the carrier.

“I have the best seat in the house,” Commander McCrillis says.

He has a panoramic view of the huge flight deck – 1,092 feet long and 257 feet wide – but his office is sparse.

The most important tool is the radio set. McCrillis must stay in contact with the commander of the ship, key personnel on the deck and pilots ready to take off and land.

More than 250 men and women have workstations on the flight deck during a mission. Add fully loaded, roaring jet fighters to the scene, and you know why McCrillis needs to stay alert.

“It’s a very stressful job,” he says. “I seldom get a chance to sit down during a work shift.” And his shifts can run 14 hours.

Always in School

An Air Boss serves his ship for 12 months, doing his job and training his replacement at the same time. McCrillis taught the Stennis’ current Air Boss, Commander Chris Powers, and Powers will train his replacement.

Training is an important part of working on a carrier. Lieutenant Commander Mike Moan, an Eagle Scout, is the chief training officer on board Stennis.

“Being an Eagle Scout taught me to focus on the task ahead of me and to get it done quickly,” he says.

The ship’s crewmembers – as well as the pilots – have to be able to help out in an emergency. Moan sets up training sessions for pilots stationed on board the carrier.
“Everybody is dependent on everybody in a carrier emergency,” Moan says.

Carrying a Load of Work

Even though the pilots top the news during wartime, the carrier can’t function without her crew of 6,000 men and women. They are specialists in everything from nuclear propulsion to cooking.

It takes years of work and training to get on board. Once selected the training continues.
Aircraft carriers usually stay at sea for six months at a time. Training continues throughout the cruise. The pilots practice takeoffs and landings. Crewmembers hone their skills.

Practice, Practice – and Zoom

McCrillis’s first try at landing on an aircraft carrier was on dry land. “There was a painted carrier landing area on the regular runway,” he says.

McCrillis practiced landing on the mock carrier deck with the help of the “meatball” – the Fresnel lens light system on the deck that helps a pilot find the best way down. Green lights on the meatball tell the pilot he’s lined up properly with the carrier and can land. Red lights say he’s too high or low to make a safe landing.

When McCrillis made his first “real” carrier landing, he says, “It was a thrill. I hit the deck and the whole aircraft was shaking. I remember screaming: “Yeeaah, this is great!’”
But he did not have much time to celebrate on the ship. McCrillis was immediately waved over to the start ramp and readied for his first catapult takeoff.

“The catapult is like a giant slingshot,” McCrillis says. “It takes an aircraft from standstill to 150 miles per hour in about 2 seconds. I screamed with joy when I was catapulted out over the ocean.”