When the plane is ready to go, the catapult officer opens valves to fill the catapult cylinders with high-pressure steam from the ship’s reactors. This steam provides the necessary force to propel the pistons at high speed, slinging the plane forward to generate the necessary lift for takeoff. Initially, the pistons are locked into place, so the cylinders simply build up pressure. The catapult officer carefully monitors the pressure level so it’s just right for the particular plane and deck conditions. If the pressure is too low, the plane won’t get moving fast enough to take off, and the catapult will throw it into the ocean. If there’s too much pressure, the sudden jerk could break the nose gear right off.
When the cylinders are charged to the appropriate pressure level, the pilot blasts the plane’s engines. The holdback keeps the plane on the shuttle while the engines generate considerable thrust. The catapult officer releases the pistons, the force causes the holdbacks to release, and the steam pressure slams the shuttle and plane forward. At the end of the catapult, the tow bar pops out of the shuttle, releasing the plane. This totally steam-driven system can rocket a 45,000-pound plane from 0 to 165 miles per hour (a 20,000-kg plane from 0 to 266 kph) in two seconds!
From Catapulting an Aircraft
Photo courtesy U.S Department of Defense
An F/A-18 Hornet launching from the USS George Washington