What Happens if you land on the wrong Aircraft Carrier?

It’s a long-standing US Naval custom that should a pilot unintentionally land on the wrong aircraft carrier, their comrades make every effort to keep the occurrence under wraps to avoid publicizing the situation. Of course, there have been instances where they’ve made an exception and opted to send the hapless aviator back with a fresh bit of “nose art.”

F9F-5 Panther "Dopey" of VF-111
F9F-5 Panther “Dopey” of VF-111

How do you even land on the wrong carrier?

Seems unlikely right? The carriers are usually patrolling at various locations now and rarely cross paths. However, in the past, they used to sail in formations, and after a long operation, a pilot might’ve easily mistakenly landed on the wrong carrier.  This was a particular risk during night operations or in poor visibility when visual cues could be limited. Additionally, a pilot who was low on fuel or had suffered damage to their aircraft might have had no choice but to attempt a landing on the nearest available carrier, which could potentially be the wrong one.

What’s the big deal? Let them land wherever they want! 

It is a pretty big deal as it can cause many problems for the crew of the carrier and the pilots. While a runway may be clear if a pilot was to mistakenly land on the wrong carrier. They may occupy the runway for some time which may result in a ‘native’ pilot having to land on another carrier further complicating the situation. Additionally, depending on the deck arrangement, there may be no room for the “invasive” aircraft. 

F2H-2 USN Banshee
F2H-2 USN Banshee

Grab your paint brushes!

Most pilots weren’t fond of the idea of returning to their carrier with such graffiti, so they would attempt to guard their aircraft against crewmen. However, all it would take was a higher-ranking officer calling them aside to scold them for their mistake; the crewmen would scribble all over the aircraft in mere moments. 

The pilot would now fly back with words mocking their skills, the names of the crewmen, or jokes and messages directed toward the maintenance crew of the other aircraft, with arrows pointing towards the areas with improper maintenance. 

Must be an Air Force pilot!

A common graffiti for mocking such pilots was crossing out the “Navy” decal on their aircraft and replacing it with the “Air Force.” Such incidents were seen as embarrassing and potentially dangerous, and the use of the “Air Force” decal was likely meant as a joke suggesting that the pilot would have been better suited to flying with the Air Force. After all, landing on the wrong airbase would be less likely than landing on the wrong carrier!

"Must Be Air Force" A U.S. Navy McDonnell F2H-2 Banshee
“Must Be Air Force” A U.S. Navy McDonnell F2H-2 Banshee (BuNo 125019) of Fighter Squadron 62 (VF-62) “Gladiators” from the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea (CVB-43) after it had landed aboard USS Wasp (CV-18) in 1952