May 26, 2024

Here’s why it’s an aircraft carrier tradition to catapult a pair of boots

The US Navy has many unique traditions, such as painting sailors’ noses blue when operating in the Arctic Circle or putting “pollywog” sailors through a series of disgusting initiation rites while crossing the equator.

Among the peculiar practices is launching a pair of boots off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in a special ceremony known as a “boot shoot.”

What is a boot shoot?

A pair of boots prepare on a carrier flight deck
A pair of boots prepare to be launched off the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. 
US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Madison Cassidy

A “boot shoot” commemorates the end of a tour or change of command for a catapult officer aboard an aircraft carrier.

Launching their own pair of boots off the deck of the carrier symbolizes the sailor’s final departure from the ship.

Signal for takeoff

Lt. Nicholas Woodworth and Robert Wilkerson prepare to shoot their boots off the flight deck of USS Carl Vinson
Lt. Nicholas Woodworth and Robert Wilkerson prepare to shoot their boots off the flight deck of USS Carl Vinson using the ship’s catapult. 
US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adrian White

Catapult and arresting gear officers give the final signal to a pilot before takeoff — colloquially named “shooters” after their distinctive, crouched pose before a fighter jet catapults off the flight deck.

Beyond conducting an aircraft launch through a series of hand gestures and poses, shooters have a number of other responsibilities to ensure a safe takeoff.

“The catapult officer is responsible to ensure the catapult is prepared and ready to launch aircraft, the aircraft is properly configured to launch, all personnel are in their proper position, and any observers are behind the foul lines,” Lt. Cmdr. Robert Neff, a shooter aboard George Washington, told DoD News.

“We inspect the entire catapult system, the jet-blast deflector, and input our calculations for wind to determine how much steam is needed to launch aircraft,” Neff added.

‘The conductor of the flight deck’

A US Navy catapult and arresting gear officer signals for the launch of a T-45C Goshawk training aircraft
A US Navy catapult and arresting gear officer signals for the launch of a T-45C Goshawk training aircraft aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. 
US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mick DiMestico

Shooters are best known for giving “the signal to get the jet in the sky.”

“The Shooter is the conductor of the flight deck — but their batons glow in the dark, their symphonies are afterburners, and their instruments are million-dollar fighter jets,” according to the Navy.

Yellow shirts

Lt. Cmdr. Alex Cleaveland secures a pair of boots to a catapult to be launched off a carrier flight deck
Lt. Cmdr. Alex Cleaveland secures a pair of boots to a catapult to be launched off the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. 
US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Madison Cassidy

Flight deck crew are identified by the colors of their shirts. Shooters wear yellow turtlenecks, signaling to others that they are leaders on the flight deck.

Yellow shirts are also worn by enlisted aviation boatswain’s mates, the air boss, and the mini-boss.

“Air department is the biggest department on the ship, with nearly 750 sailors,” Neff said. “When we’re not out there on the flight deck shooting aircraft, we’re running our divisions and leading our sailors.”

Highly trained personnel

Cmdr. Dennis Metz prepares for a boot shoot
Cmdr. Dennis Metz, the mini-boss aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, prepares for a boot shoot on the flight deck. 
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bill M. Sanders

Naval aviators undergo months of training in order to become a shooter.

“For us, it’s all about being around flight operations and continuing to do so,” Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Kreutz, George Washington’s lead catapult officer, said told DoD News. “All of us come from different backgrounds as naval aviators, and being a shooter is a completely different job than we’re used to, so it’s nice to see a different side of the aviation world and control flight operations.”

Final sendoff

Sailors signal the catapult launch during a boot shoot
Sailors signal the catapult launch during a boot shoot on the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. 
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Nicholas Burgains

Now-Cmdr. Kacee Jossis described her own “boot shoot” in 2014. Jossis, then a lieutenant, served as a V2 Division Officer aboard the USS George Washington when it was forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan.

“For my last shot on the flight deck, I was able to shoot my boots to signify my completed tour as a shooter,” Jossis told DoD News. “It was a nice way to send me off and onto my next command.”

A bittersweet farewell

Sailors observe boots being launched during a "boot shoot" on the flight deck
Sailors observe boots being launched during a “boot shoot” on the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. 
US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Clayton A. Wren

“If you’re going to come to a carrier as a pilot and not fly, shooting is the best job you can have,” Jossis said. “I really enjoyed working with everyone in Air department. It’s bittersweet to leave, but I’m ready to fly again.”

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