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Key Takeaways

  • Whilst some small civilian aircraft can technically land on aircraft carriers, it’s not recommended
  • Instead, aircraft carriers can help civilian planes through like talk down landings and search and rescue
  • A civilian carrier landing has only been done successfully once, in 1975, by a South Vietnamese pilot fleeing the country with his family in a Cessna O-1
  • Commercial airliners cannot land on aircraft carriers chiefly because they are too large

Aircraft carriers are almost exclusively for military use only. However, are there any times when an aircraft carrier may help a civilian plane?

It ultimately comes down to how you define “help”. Civilian planes are generally advised not to perform a carrier landing. However, should a civilian plane go down near an aircraft carrier, they will do all they can to rescue survivors.

As an experienced pilot and someone who’s been involved in flight operations for many years before and since that, I always wondered how military aviation can help their civil and commercial counterparts, and have personally asked myself this question many times.

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Can A Civilian Plane Land On An Aircraft Carrier?

At least according to the United States Navy, no civilian plane is allowed to land on an aircraft carrier. This is the same even if an aircraft is in distress.

They have this policy for two reasons: safety and practicality.

  • Safety: Any pilot who’s experienced an aircraft in distress can tell that it’s not easy, and if bad enough to force an emergency landing, chances are that aircraft won’t fly again anyway, so there’s no point destroying both the airplane and a multibillion dollar aircraft carrier.
  • Practicality: Aircraft carriers spend most of their time in the open ocean, not near major population centers, so chances are that most civilian airplanes, even those in distress, won’t ever come near an aircraft carrier to land on.

However, the only caveat to this is wartime. As with many other things, rules change, or are completely ignored during war. This likely includes this policy.

Chances are that if there was a serious threat to life (either to the pilot or to the crew) if the aircraft couldn’t land, or the person onboard the civilian aircraft was high profile enough, they’d be permitted to land.

The One Time it Happened

All that being said, there’s only one reported time when a civilian aircraft has successfully landed on an aircraft carrier runway.

The date was April 30 1975. It was the end of the Vietnam War, and the US and what allies of their remained were hastily executing Operation Frequent Wind: the operation to evacuate all US personnel and their South Vietnamese allies from the country by helicopter before North Vietnamese forces took the capital of Saigon.

Unable to get on one of these helicopters, South Vietnam Air Force pilot Major Buong-Le made a decision that would ultimately save not only the lives of him and his family, but inadvertently make aviation history also: He’d steal a plane and land on a US aircraft carrier.

Heading for Con Son Island, Buong-Le hotwired a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, a militarized variant of the Cessna 170. Cramming his wife and five children into the aircraft (which was only designed to seat two at most), space was limited to say the least.

Once airborne, he headed towards the South China Sea in the hopes of finding the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet.

Running low on fuel, experiencing severe turbulence and being harassed by much faster North Vietnamese jet fighters the whole way, Buong-Le eventually caught up with the US Navy. He immediately set his sights on the USS Midway.

Aware that hundreds of helicopters were attempting to land and takeoff from the aircraft carriers there, and that the US Navy may accidentally shoot him down thinking he was an enemy, Buong-Le made a series of slow, low-altitude flyovers to show he wasn’t a threat.

On these flyovers, he made several attempts to pass a paper note to the crew on the flight deck (as the radios were not working, and everyone was working on different frequencies anyway), explaining who he was and asking for permission to make an emergency landing.

All of these attempts all of which were unsuccessful and blown into the sea.

On the last attempt, Buong-Le put the paper note in his pistol holster with his pistol, and dropped it. Unlike the others, this attempt worked, and the ground crews were able to relay his note to the ship’s command.

Understanding the pilot wouldn’t have enough room, the ship’s commander ordered $10 million worth of helicopters be pushed into the South China Sea.

Once this had been done, Buong-Le was given the greenlight, and after making two flyovers to inspect the runway, made his carrier landing. He, his wife, and their five children all survived and later resettled in the US. The aircraft was also completely intact.

His flight went down in history as the only successful landing of a civilian aircraft on an aircraft carrier, and was solely due to his experience as a pilot during the war.

How Can An Aircraft Carrier Help A Civilian Plane?

Like any ship, whether military or civil, aircraft carriers have to follow the laws of the sea. One of the oldest and most important laws is that ships help people in trouble at sea. For aircraft carriers, this comes in two main forms:

Search & Rescue (SAR)

If a distressed aircraft is experiencing problems near an aircraft carrier, nearly everyone recommends you ditch your aircraft in the water rather than attempt to land on the aircraft carrier.

As aircraft carriers have multiple observers (who may even have instructed you to ditch), the aircraft carrier will be aware of your crash and dispatch a rescue helicopter (or rescue helicopters depending on your size) to help you.

These helicopters will deliver specially-trained divers, who will help pull everyone out and clear of the wreckage, whilst smaller boats come to take the pilot(s) and passengers to the aircraft carrier.

Because aircraft carriers are basically a floating small town, each has their own medical teams who can tend to the injured until they can be transported to port, either by the aircraft carrier itself, or by the rescue helicopters.

Talk Down Landing

Although aircraft carriers spend the majority of their service life nowhere near land, when they are near land, the fact that there are literally dozens of some of the world’s best pilots onboard, means that they may help with a talk down landing.

For example, a group of friends are going flying with their friend who’s a pilot. During the flight, the pilot becomes incapacitated for some reason, and the friends contact ATC for help.

ATC will guide them to the nearest land airport before passing on to a pilot who will guide them on how to perform a successful landing. They’ll do everything from helping them line up the descent, the speed they need to land at, to even calming them down should that be necessary.

If an aircraft carrier is the nearest source of sufficiently qualified pilots, they may help land the civilian aircraft.

Can A Commercial Plane Land On An Aircraft Carrier?

To answer this simply: no.

Even if an airliner were to be fitted with the arresting gear or the aircraft carrier had a barricade large and strong enough to catch it, the fact of the matter remains – airliners are too big.

Aircraft carrier runways aren’t known for being particularly wide, and the wingspan of your average commercial airliner would make it impossible to land as the wings would be torn off the side facing the control tower.

And that’s assuming the fuselage and landing gear are able to land on the deck in the first place.

Regardless, most commercial pilots do not have the skills to safely land on an aircraft carrier when their aircraft is carrying anywhere from 19 to 800 souls on board, even if they have thousands of hours under their belt. I like to think I’m an experienced pilot, and know I certainly wouldn’t be able to do this!

If I were ever in this scenario, I’d personally risk a water landing (even though they’re extremely dangerous as well) at a suitable distance from the aircraft carrier. I’d then ensure they came to rescue everyone on board. I’d never try to land my aircraft on the carrier deck, even in perfect flying conditions.