Last Friday I asked people if they would rather be a US Navy or a US Air Force pilot. The US Navy itself replied with this video of an F-18 night landing on an aircraft carrier. Hard to argue with that. It's terrifying.

Sure, the pilots now have night vision and instrument landing systems, but it is still an incredibly difficult operation. And those electronic aids can malfunction, so they train to do it old school if needed. And old school is extremely hard.

Old school

The Navy has been doing night landings for a long time. The first night landings happened aboard the USS Langley (CV-1/AV-3), their first aircraft carrier. That was on April 1925, off the coast of San Diego.

A few years later, in 1929, every pilot had to practice night landings, which were truly terrifying. They had to do four per year, and most of the time the training was under the light of a full moon or with the sun setting.

The carriers had landing signal officers on board for both day and night landings. At night, they had to determine the attitude and approach speed of the inbound fighters based only on the lights of the plane and sound of the engine. Depending on the colors of the lights—which changed from green to yellow to red depending on the plane's altitude—the LSO gave the planes indications like too high, too low, too fast, etc. You can imagine the experience.

Because of their extreme difficulty, during World War II the Navy tried to stay away from night landings as much as possible. There were some night takeoffs just before dawn, but those were straightforward and weren't as dangerous as the landings.

Still, sometimes they couldn't be avoided. To give you an idea on how dangerous things were, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Navy lost 20 planes trying to sink the Japanese carrier Hiyō. After the Hiyō sunk, they lost another 72 trying to land at night. Incidentally, none were lost on the Yorktown because of the work of the Lt. Dick Tripp, the landing signal officer aboard that carrier. Apparently, Tripp was considered the best LSO in the Pacific—and rightly so, according to this incident.

During the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, night landings became standard, with pilots specializing in night attacks. Still, those landings were terrifying too. Here's a first-person account of one by Lieutenant Bill Raposa, who received two Navy crosses and the Distinguished Flying Cross during his tours of duty in World War II and the Korean War:

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.

Indeed, those guys had steel balls. As do the Navy pilots today who continue to land small planes on narrow, seaborne runways night after night after night.