Are you insane? Runways exist, why on earth would you try and do something so crazy?
One of two things has likely occurred, either you purchased the DCS F-18 module or the ice caps have melted and Kevin Costner gave you takeoff clearance and a good luck call.
Assuming the former, let's break it down with some Tips from HellhoundTM
*DISCLAIMER* This is written less than a week after the module released as Early Access. Because it's both Early Access and programmed by Slavs, there's a lot wrong with it. Patience is key, frustration is normal. Also I assume you're familiar with some concepts like AoA and some lingo like bolter. If not, watch top gun/youtube, or ask around because this isn't the place to learn every little detail.
All of this will be for normal, Case I recoveries, so basically VFR. This is going to be about 75-90% actual procedure and 25-10% modifications/leeway given because stay arcade.
We shall skip over marshalling, holding, etc all of that because as you are not a part of a carrier air wing of 80 aircraft of various types, missions, schedules, etc, it probably doesn't matter. We'll assume that the mission maker did his/her job and the ship is steaming into the wind (ideally you want 25 knots or so over the deck), with a functioning TACAN, and is on your "side" so you can actually see the ball. If any of the above doesn't apply the best you can hope is to take these ideas and shwag it into something workable, but that's not good training.
Before you even begin to line up, dial the jet to the ship's TACAN and enter the ship's course (NOT the angled flight deck heading) or BRC - Base Recovery Course to the course line in your HSI. Set your Radar Altimeter (RALT) to ~380' and put your hook down (unless doing touch and goes). Turn your anti-skid to off (at the time of writing this sometimes caused problems on deck so YMMV) and your hook bypass to "CARRIER" (this makes your AOA indexer flash when your hook is up as a final sanity check). On your UFC set the altimeter switch from BARO to RADAR. This changes the source of your altitude in your HUD, and the RALT is the only one that matters when landing. If you are in a formation you should be in RIGHT ECHELON
Align yourself so that you are paralleling BRC at 800' AGL (off your RALT). You want to pass just right of the ship, so that it basically slides down your left canopy rail. You want to be able to look down and confirm 1) that's a boat 2) I can land on it [deck not foul]. Try not to go any faster than 350 knots. 300 is a good place for starters, you can increase it as you build confidence. Fly upwind at least a mile or so, but do not hesitate to extend this if you're new before entering the next portion, the break.
Note, max landing weight in DCS for the F/A-18C on the ship is 35,000lbs. The easiest/most realistic way to reach this point is to dump the rather cheap fuel rather than rather expensive bombs. Go to your checklist page on an MFD where it says your weight. Figure out how much you need to lose and adjust your bingo appropriately. Set your bingo then start dumping fuel (it will auto shut off at bingo) to reach desired weight. Figure 500-1000lbs of fuel per pass at the ship, so leave plenty to get to a tanker or divert field if you're having a bad day. Don't fly it to the absolute minimum, always better to take more gas or a field landing and re-cage yourself.
I once again want to re-iterate here, do not hesitate to extend upwind. A lot of the information I give predicates you being able to control the jet in a regime most of you are mostly unfamiliar with. You can't extend your approach turn/downwind, but you are more than welcome to extend upwind to give yourself all the time in the world to get ready.
The break is a level pull to the left maintaining 800'AGL. Your end state is to end up on a course that is 180 degrees opposite BRC ("downwind") on a path that is 1.1 - 1.3 nm abeam (beside) the ship's BRC. As in, two parallel lines 1.1 - 1.3 nm apart. There are two ways to make this happen: 1 - maintain a G load approximate to 1% of your airspeed (so I start at 350 KIAS, I'll pull until I hit 3.5 G then as I decelerate gradually let off on the G maintaining a level turn). You should be at idle for this. The other option is to try and maintain 8 units of AOA until "it's the right time" which comes with experience and seeing the sight picture. So let's focus on the first.
As soon as you decelerate through 250 knots, immediately drop your gear and go flaps to full. This is the last time you will ever look at your airspeed. Ideally you'll still be turning so you'll have the most authority and feel the least of the ballooning currently present in the module when you go flaps full. As you do this, add power (you don't want to be at idle as you go wings level because you'll fall of the sky).
Note that if you are returning as a flight of 2 or more aircraft, each aircraft shall break no sooner than 17 seconds after the preceeding aircraft. The US Navy has fancy ways of getting this down but for our purposes that is not necessary.
Final warning, if this part is hard for you, extend upwind next time.
As soon as you roll wings level out of the break with your gear/flaps down or in transit, start your descent to 600' AGL. No sooner (as in don't do it in the break). At this time, you also want to be slowing to "On speed". That's a reference to your AOA indexer or E-bracket, whatever you prefer to use, see below from a different sim (but you get the idea)
But HellHound, how do I fly on speed? Power controls your altitude, pitch controls your "speed" (AoA). Power controls your altitude, pitch controls your speed. POWER CONTROLS YOUR ALTITUDE, PITCH CONTROLS YOUR SPEED. You want to be HOLDING 600' AGL and HOLDING "on speed". If you see Red chevrons, you are fast (red = slow down!) so pitch the nose up (notice how the arrows point up?). If you see green, you are "slow" and need to SPEED UP. (pitch the nose down, follow the arrow). This isn't the same as the F-16 in BMS, but it's not nearly as important for the F-16 in BMS as it is the F-18. If you have an "amber donut" (on speed) but the Velocity vector is below the horizon, add power. You may have to adjust the nose slightly to compensate, and vice versa for above the horizon. DO NOT TRY AND CORRECT AN ALTITUDE ERROR WITH THE NOSE OR A SPEED ERROR WITH THE THROTTLE. You can quickly fall behind the aircraft which best case means you're waving this pass off before you even start or worse case means you're crashing into the sea/ship.
I made that section big deliberately because it represents the fundamentals of setting the hook angle on landing which represents the fundamentals of flying the F-18 in DCS. You don't land on a carrier by getting the hook on deck and hoping for the best, you land by getting the jet in the right position at the right time to do so.
Trim the jet for on-speed at this time. This will make the rest of your landing infinitely easier.
(I lied) If you are having problems here holding 600' AGL WHILE on-speed WHILE "dirty" (gear/flaps down) WHILE 1.1-1.3 nm abeam ships course, extend your upwind.
If you find you are tight/wide, it's better to correct early. You want to make sure you are on the reciprocal of BRC when you start the most crucial part of the landing evolution, the approach turn.
The Approach Turn
This is the most crucial component of flying the ball. If you fly a crappy pattern and a crappy approach turn, flying the ball gets infinitely more difficult. If your pattern is good and your approach turn is money, flying the ball is a mere formality to get you on board.
Let's assume you're on-speed, on-altitude, 1.1-1.3 nm abeam BRC. You look to your left (take a mental snap shot of this sight picture so you can re-visit it on later attempts) and see the carrier, no one in the wires (or someone ahead of you will get out of them quick enough). You're now looking for the round-down to start your turn. What's the round down? Examine the following image:
The round-down is the thick white band at the very aft end of the landing area of the flight deck, right side of the image. See how it curves, or "rounds" down? Now you know how it got it's name. Once you are looking straight down it (so about where that image is but extended outwards) START YOUR TURN. This position is known as "the abeam" as in "abeam the landing area".[Note that if this is field ops, pretend the round down is the approach end of the runway and count 15 seconds - 1 second for every knot of wind down the runway before turning).
For the turn, add a smidgeon of power and bank left for 27-30 degrees Angle of Bank. You want to set about 1-200 fpm at this point in time on your VSI. Visually, the Velocity vector should make a "v" with the "tail" and "right wing" touching the artificial horizon line, just beneath it. Hold this VSI until you hit "the 90". That is, a heading 90 degrees off of both BRC and your downwind course. This position is about a mile behind the ship, so if you start your turn late but are 90 degrees off, you are not "at the 90". At the 90 you should be at 500' AGL (no lower than 450'). Up to this point your turn should be entirely internal off of instruments (namely, the HUD). At the 90 take your first glance at the back of the ship and judge how your turn is looking. This part only comes with experience but now is when you tell if you are going to undershoot (or "angle") the deck, i.e., fly up the ships wake sliding right to try and find the landing area (LA). Alternatively you may overshoot, which means you were too tight or didn't have enough angle of bank, meaning that as you continue your turn you will come out right of course, past the LA angle. You want to adjust you angle of bank at this point (usually briefly) so that you roll out wings level behind the ship (as in behind the landing area angle, NOT UP THE WAKE) perfectly in line with the LA. Again, this simply comes with practice and getting an eye for the sight picture, so don't be surprised if you angle/overshoot initially.
(IF THIS PART IS HARD FOR YOU BECAUSE YOU FEEL RUSHED, EXTEND YOUR UPWIND).
Rolling through the 90 and adjusting your angle of bank, ideally you want to cross the ship's wake (This referes to a line extending aft of the BRC, not the literal ship's wake because it may be short depending on ship's speed) at 320-380' AGL (I prefer the high or "happy" side). You'll know this is working out because your RALT bug from earlier goes off right now. Note that because the angled flight deck is, well, angled (9 degrees or so), you are turning MORE than 180 degrees. YOU ARE NOT FLYING UP THE SHIP'S WAKE, as unnatural as that looks. The wake of the ship should be to your left as you finish rolling out.
OF VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: You want to maintain on speed (amber donut) this whole time. Only the slightest of power adjustments is necessary. Flown properly, the band of power you need from downwind through the approach turn to the trap is only +/-5% of 89% RPM. If you find yourself going into burner or chopping to idle you've already done too much and are about to pay for it.
The moment of truth. Flying the ball.
So you've managed to get everything right. You flew your pattern on altitude on airspeed at the proper abeam. You turned at the round down. You hit 500' at the 90 and 380' at the wake, coming out just right of said wake. The ship is less than a mile ahead of you. I like what you've got, good job.
Oh shit. It's close. It's small. It's moving left to right. You've got this.
On the left side of the LA is the IFLOLS (acronym not important, thing very important). This is a visual aid to you, the pilot, of the appropriate glideslope. It looks like this
And works like this (older OLS pictured but principle the same)
THIS IS THE BALL. The horizontal bars are "the datum" representing the artificial horizon. The middle vertical line represents glideslope, shown by amber and red lights reflective of your position in relation to the horizon/proper landing position (mutters something under breath about angles). If you have a stable ball on the lens and are on-speed at touch down, you will "trap" (land). The other lights on there are wave-off/cut lights which you can read about elsewhere as they are not implemented in DCS. The lens has a glideslope of 3.5 degrees although this can be changed IRL for reasons.
Of note currently the Datum lights are too bright in DCS and the ball is not bright enough. IRL the LSO can adjust these to make it easier on the pilot so if you have a hard time seeing the ball that's probably why (assuming you don't suck).
The "groove" is the last straightaway section just before takeoff. This should take no more than 15-18 seconds from the time you go wings level out of the approach turn to the time you trap in the wires. It goes faster than you think and looks shorter than you expect (so to speak) so if it feels way too short it's probably perfect. Remember, if you're flying directly up the ship's wake you are not "in the groove" and angled your approach. You suck and should go back to F-16s. Just kidding, I have a tendency myself to angle a bit but it's VERY dangerous to fly up the wake and take a last second cut to the left to try and catch the angle. Great way to die horribly. Don't do that.
As soon as you enter the groove look for the "ball" on "the lens" (the IFLOLS). IF AND ONLY IF YOU SEE IT "Call the ball". For UOAF purposes it should sound like this "Colt 11 Hornet Ball 4.3 HellHound". Where "Colt 11" is my in-mission position, Hornet means I'm in an F/A-18C (this would be Rhino for a superhornet, Tomcat, Hawkeye, Greyhound, etc for other carrier aircraft not implemented)., 4.3 means I have 4300 lbs of gas, and HellHound is who I am to remove all ambiguity. Once again, this is only the call IF YOU SEE AN AMBER BALL SOMEWHERE ON THE IFLOLS ON THE SHIP. Just because you have rolled out somewhere behind the ship does not mean "call the ball" (Note, the "3/4 of a mile call the ball" radio call from Top Gun is not a real radio call made by the LSO so don't expect it). If you call the ball as above and there is an LSO on station, he will respond "Roger ball". This is a verbal contract that you as the pilot are taking responsibility for flying the glideslope to touchdown. The LSO may give you "sugar" or advisory/helpful calls to work you on but should not be expected.
But HellHound, what if I don't see the ball on the lens at this point? If there's an LSO on station you would make the very short and simple radio call "Clara". At this point, the LSO will work with you step by step to talk you into a point where a ball will appear somewhere on the lens. If you have been talked onto a lens after calling "Clara" you would say, simply "Ball". The LSO would respond with "roger ball" and shut up. If at any point while flying the ball you "lose" the ball (either off the top or the bottom) you immediately call Clara and the LSO will work as previously identified.
Note that an LSO likely will NOT be on station, especially in DCS as there are very few people out there who know what they're talking about as an LSO. I wrote this guide and have IRL experience flying tailhook approaches on the ball and I barely feel qualified to do so, so just because some guy has 200 hours in the FSX super hornet doesn't mean a lick. Keep that in mind. As such, it's important you know how to fly the ball without an LSO on station.
The scan for the groove is "Meatball, Lineup, AOA". The meatball is your glideslope based off the IFLOLS. Your lineup is your UNCAGED velocity vector's relation to the Landing Area (NOT SHIP)'s centerline. Keep this centered the whole way with slight right wing dips (it's really almost subconscious). The sight picture is weird, a good approach will have your VV past the wires, so it's important not to try and flow off the VV for anything besides lineup. Your AOA should be on-speed from downwind (did you extend if you are having problems?) through the approach turn and into the groove. Flown properly you don't need nearly as much power or nose adjustments as you think to land. Don't fly the ball with trim, trim for on-speed on downwind and use the nose for slight corrections. Trust me it's easier.
There are 7 rules that are gospel for flying the ball
1. Never lead a low - If you have a ball showing below the datums, add power to start moving it upwards. Wait until it is past the datums before pulling power to try and work it back to the middle. The worst place to be is consistently below datums, or low.
2. Always lead a high - If your ball is above the datums you want to pull power to work it down, however, add a shot of power to try and slow/catch the descent before it hits the datum or descends below. It's always always better to be on "the happy/high side" of the datums rather than below, and it's easier to work a high ball down than a low ball up.
3. If you're high and fast fix the fast, then the high. - You won't trap with AOA showing fast, and your corrections to lower the ball will be wrong if you are off-speed. Fix the speed then start working the ball down
4. If you're low and slow fix the low, then the slow. - A low ball means you're about to die. Don't do that. Add power and get it above the datums so you are safe, then pitch forward to capture on speed. If you go from slow to on speed while low you'll probably just die at a lower angle.
5. Never re-center a high ball in close. - If the ball is stable on the lens, high or low, you'll trap. If you're "in close" (this is a specific term but essentially means what it sounds like) and pull power to lower a high ball, you'll fall out of the sky, probably end up low and/or crashing into the ship. It's safer to accept a stable high ball and either catch a 4 wire or bolter safely.
6. Fly the ball all the way to touchdown. - Use the velocity vector to correct for lineup BUT NOT where you will actually land (referred to as "spotting the deck"). As you near the ship you will have bought your lineup, have the AOA indexer in your peripheral based off color and will focus all your effort to flying glideslope off the IFLOLS. You will probably be staring at JUST the IFLOLS the last 3+ seconds of the groove. IRL, LSOs watch your head and make sure you are not looking forward but actually left at the lens, and this factors into your grade.
7. Paddles is always right. - If somehow there is a good LSO on station, listen to him to talk you down. But keep in mind once again almost no one actually knows how to be a good paddles.
There are 4 wires on the Carrier in DCS. The 3.5 degree glideslope has you aligned with the #3 wire. When you catch the wire your eye is actually about 13-17' higher than the hook, so it's not the sight picture you expect.
Don't flare. Seriously, don't. That's how you miss the wire. If you're fast (as per AOA) on touch down, expect to bolter. If you're slow (as per AOA), expect a hook skip bolter. It's crucial that you're on speed (AoA) because that means the hook angle to your eye/glideslope is right to catch the wire. Do not cut power in close to the ship or in the wire. As soon as you hit the deck go to full power (afterburner is okay but not necessary). If you catch the wire, you will stop, and if not, you will have the energy to go around and try again. Don't try any fancy tricks at the last second because you will likely screw something up that means you might have actually trapped.
Trap Trap Trap
The jet has come to a sudden stop on the flight deck (i.e. not somewhere wet). You've done it. You damn well better be at full power at this point. Once the deceleration/stopping is apparent, immediately chop throttles to idle. Tension of the wire will actually roll you back a few feet. Only after this point do you raise your hook (to early and it won't actually disengage the wire delaying your move). Immediately engage Hi-gain NWS to get away from the landing area and to the bow cats/parking/fueling area, just ensuring you're clear. Don't waste time folding wings yet because the carrier likely isn't IRL crowded and someone is probably about to land on top of you.
Bolter Bolter Bolter
Goddammit I missed the wire that's bullshit I was perfect.
Maybe your AoA was off, who knows. This is why we immediately add power and rotate back on the stick (too late and you're going swimming, too hard and you stall and die). Fly upwind a bit (extend as much as you need), and climb to 600' AGL REMAINING WITH GEAR, FLAPS AND HOOK DOWN. Start a 20-30 degree angle of bank turn to the left at 140-150 knots to place yourself 1.1-1.3 nm abeam and repeat the process. Think about your last pass and try to correct. If you angled, use less angle of bank in the approach turn. If you were low in the groove, use less VSI. This is why it's important to fly on speed the whole way, and why a good approach turn is so crucial. It lets you account for variables.
This diagram is a great visual example of the Case I recovery, just remember that the ship moves forward, so in the diagram where it says "approximately 30 degrees angle of bank" at the approach turn, the ship is not where pictured, rather it is directly across the oval where the last jet is pictured.
You're probably passingly familiar with grades from the LSO (ok, fair, no grade, etc). This has almost NOTHING to do with what wire you catch, so bragging about a 3 wire means nothing. The LSO grades you on your pattern and whole approach, the wire being a small piece of that. So the last thing you should worry about is your grade because most likely someone capable of giving you a valid grade isn't around. So seriously, stop worrying about it.
This has been a semi-formal, mostly stream of thought summary of tips/guidelines I use around the boat. If you have questions, post them here or reach out to me on discord. I won't go into anything not publicly available and it's entirely valid that you may get a "don't worry about it" response if I deem it not necessary due to real life or game concerns.