If you’ve ever seen Top Gun, you’ve seen Maverick and Goose return to the carrier, and the Landing Signal Officer calls “Three quarters of a mile, call the ball.”
The ball call in naval aviation tells the LSO far more than simply that the pilot has the optical landing system in sight.
The reply is as shown in the title, Tracer 601, ball, 3.2. First, let me steal a post in it’s entirety from Steeljaw Scribe.
Since the E-2A went to sea in the early 1960’s, “Hawkeye” was the name used for the ball call to the LSOs. Later iterations of the E-2C continued that practice but distinguished the a/c type by markings on the nose (a white “II” for Group 2 E-2s, or a “+” for H2Ks today). The Advanced Hawkeye, however being heavier than the E-2C required something more than just “Hawkeye” but kept to a single word. In doing so, VAW heritage was called upon and just as “Steeljaw” has been used for special evolutions for the new Hawkeye, the E-2’s predecessor, the E-1B Tracer (or WF – ‘Willie Fudd’) was called upon. Now, with an E-2D on the ball, you’ll hear “Tracer, ball…”
Click to much greatly embiggenfy.
The first part of the reply tells the LSO (and more importantly, the arresting gear operators) what type of aircraft is on approach. That matters, because the arresting gear is adjustable, providing varying amounts of braking power based on the weight of the aircraft being arrested. The arresting gear is always set to the maximum permissible landing weight for a given type of aircraft. But if the engine weight is set wrong, the result can be a broken aircraft, a parted arresting wire, or a failure to stop the aircraft in time. All these possibilities can lead to damage or loss of an aircraft, or worse, loss of life.
The second element, “601” is the aircraft’s MODEX number. Each squadron in an airwing is assigned a range of numbers, starting with 100 for the first squadron, 200 for the second squadron, and so on. With 5 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes in a squadron, you’d normally see the MODEXs assigned as 600, 601, 602, 603, and 604. Calling the MODEX lets the LSO know which crew he’s dealing with, as well as helping the Air Boss keep track of which crews he has airborne, and which are recovered.
The final element, the “3.2” is the remaining fuel on board the aircraft, measured in thousands of pounds, in this case, three thousand, two hundred pounds. Telling the LSO (and the Air Boss) the fuel on board helps keep them informed. Should the aircraft bolter (that is, not make an arrested landing, for whatever reason) knowing the fuel on board lets them know how much longer the aircraft can stay airborne. That helps them decide when or whether to send the plane to a tanker, or “Bingo” them, that is, divert them to a shore base.
A ball call can also contain a final element, either “Manual” or “Auto.” This tells the LSO if the plane on approach is manually controlling the throttles, or letting the autothrottle (actually the Approach Power Compensator) control the approach. Which method is used impacts how the LSO controls the approach and what calls he makes for corrections on the approach.