The Rainbow Colours of the Flight Deck

In between the orchestrated chaos of the Flight Deck, lies the most complex, immaculately choreographed symphony of personnel who are the musicians that make the music possible.  The Carrier Flight Deck Personnel each assigned critical duties, and each wearing the coded colour shirts that allow others to know what they are doing there.  In an environment far too loud for verbal communication, and far too deadly to risk a mistake, these crew members use a complex system of hand signals that turn the most dangerous place on earth, into a graceful technical ballet of professionalism and precision…

Yellow Shirts:
Flight Deck Officers and Plane Directors: These are the only crewmembers on the flight deck authorized to move aircraft, or to give hand signals regarding taxiing the a/c, or movement. 
Also known as shooters, catapult officers are Naval Aviators or Naval Flight Officers, and are responsible for all aspects of catapult maintenance and operation. They ensure that there is sufficient wind (direction and speed) over the deck and that the steam settings for the catapults will ensure that the aircraft has sufficient flying speed at the end of the stroke.
In final preparation for launch, a series of events happens in rapid succession, 
indicated by hand/light signals:
  • The catapult is put into tension whereby all the slack is taken out of the system with hydraulic pressure on the rear of the shuttle.​
  • The pilot is then signalled to advance the throttles to full (or "military") power, and he takes his feet off the brakes.
  • Checks engine instruments and "wipes out" control surfaces.
  • The pilot indicates that he is satisfied that his aircraft is ready for flight by saluting the Catapult Officer. At night, illuminates the aircraft's exterior lights to indicate he is ready.
  • During this time, two or more Final Checkers are observing the exterior of the aircraft for proper flight control movement, engine response, panel security and leaks.
  • Once satisfied, the Checkers give a thumbs up to the Cat Officer.
  • The Cat Officer makes a final check of catapult settings, wind, etc. and gives the signal to launch. The catapult operator then pushes a button firing the catapult. 
  • Once the catapult fires, the hold-back breaks free as the shuttle moves rapidly forward, dragging the aircraft by the launch bar. The aircraft accelerates from zero (relative to the carrier deck) to approximately 150kts in 2 seconds.
Blue Shirts:
Flight deck crew, work under the direction of a Yellow Shirt Director as part of a designated crew. Plane pushers/handlers; Chocks and chains, Aircraft elevator operators, Tractor drivers, Messengers and phone talkers
Green Shirts:
Operate, and maintain the Catapults and Arresting Gear. Squadron Aircraft Maintenance, Air wing maintenance personnel, Air wing quality control personnel, Cargo-handling personnel, Ground support equipment (GSE) Troubleshooters, Hook runners, Photographer's mates, Helicopter landing signal enlisted personnel (LSE)
Brown Shirts:
Squadron personnel, in particular Plane Captains. (No ship's company wears brown shirts.) Air wing Plane Captains: squadron personnel prepare aircraft for flight, Air wing line leading petty officers
Red Shirts:
Aviation ordnance crews. Load and "arm" those weapons on the aircraft. Sometimes referred to as "BB Stackers", or "Ordies".  Crash and salvage crews, Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), Firefighters
Purple shirts:
Aviation fuels people. Referred to as "Grapes". Fuelers, Aviation fuel handlers
Operate & maintain carrier avgas/jet fuel/ Oil systems.
Checker shirts:
Squadron maintenance Quality Control people. Responsible for final overall checks of a/c readiness before launch. Final checker - Trouble Shooters
White shirts:
Quality Assurance (QA), Squadron plane inspector, Landing signal officer (LSO), Air transfer officers (ATO), Liquid oxygen (LOX) crews, and Safety observers. Mail and people handlers for carrier on-board delivery (COD). White shirts with a Red Cross: Medical corpsmen assigned to flight deck during flight quarters. White shirts with a Red Cross operate as crash crew. Mail and people handlers for carrier on board delivery (COD). Final checker - Trouble Shooters

The Line up with the landing area is achieved by lining up painted lines on the landing area centerline with a set of lights that drop from the back of the flight deck. Proper glideslope is maintained using the Fresnel lens Optical Landing System(FLOLS).

The LSO provides input to the pilot via a radio handset, advising of power requirements, position relative to glide path and centerline. The LSO also holds a “pickle” switch that controls a combination of lights attached to the OLS to indicate "go around" using the bright red, flashing wave-off lights. Additional signals, such as "cleared to land", "add power", or "divert" can be signalled using a row of green "cut" lights or a combination thereof. Often, pictures of LSOs show them holding the pickle switch over their head. This is done as a visual reminder to the LSOs that the deck is “fouled” with aircraft or personnel in the landing area. Once the deck becomes “clear”, the LSOs are free to lower the pickle.

Immediately upon touchdown, the pilot advances the throttles to full power or full afterburner so that a touch and go (known as a "Bolter") can be executed in the event that all trap wires have been missed. Ideally, the tailhook catches the target wire (or cross deck pendant), which slows the aircraft from approach speed to a full stop in two seconds. As the aircraft's forward motion stops, the throttles are chopped, and hook is raised on the aircraft director's signal. 
The aircraft director then directs the aircraft to clear the landing area in preparation for the next landing. The remaining ordnance is de-armed, wings are folded, and aircraft are taxied to parking spots and shut down. Immediately upon shutdown, the aircraft is refuelled, re-armed, and inspected, minor maintenance is performed, and it is often re-spot prior to the next launch cycle.




  • David R Snyder

    I have wanted to know the colors on the flight deck and their meaning. This at first glance is for the untrained ey , chaos, but now it is poetry in motion!!!

  • Fred Reed HMC (AW/PJ) RET

    You forgot the other White Shirts that save your _____ when on the deck. My brothers and sisters were white with a Big Red target on it for all who needs use call us “DOC”, the Flight Deck Corpsman. P.S. VA-81 on USS Forrestal and VA-34 on USS America and a few others.

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