By lex, on May 11th, 2004
The optimum narrative myth in tales told by fighter pilots occupies a fairly homogenous niche: First off, he’s always the hero of the tale, with the naval variant catapulting off into the ocean skies on a routine training hop. Then, when hostilities suddenly arise, he vanquishes numerically superior adversaries in a pitched battle where the outcome is very much in doubt and the world trembles in the balance. And afterwards, after an OK 3-wire arrested landing, he gets the girl.
Getting the girl was always problematical, in my early days at sea. Combat warships were not yet gender integrated. Come to think about it, it’d still be problematical today, but for different reasons.
Anyway, these kinds of stories are what makes fighter guys smile in their sleep.
There are a thousand stories like this one, all taking place in the training environment since no one comes up to play, anymore. Sigh.
But this is not one of them – this is a story of a career decision.
I first started flying the FA-18 in 1987, when the airplane was still quite new to the fleet. Our weapons systems were comparatively simple at the time – we mostly carried dumb iron bombs for ground attack, and for self defense, infra-red homing AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. Oh, and the cannon – a 20mm Vulcan/Phalanx gatling gun. So while the aircraft itself, with its multiply redundant, electronically controlled fly-by-wire flight control system and hexadecimal weapons and integrated mission computers represented a technological great leap forward from the Vietnam era aircraft it was designed to replace, the weapons themselves would have been very familiar to an F-4 Phantom, or even an F-8 Crusader pilot.
Practice ordnance, which is to say “things that don’t go ‘boom’ but carry the same shape” are painted blue, showing that they are inert. We often carried blue Sidewinders to train with, since the variety of audio tones that the Sidewinder provides require a certain level of exposure to ensure that a pilot would employ the missile effectively. We rarely carried practice Sparrows, since all of the weapons symbology could be simulated in the cockpit by selecting a display pushtile, without the penalty of dragging around the “great white hope,” as the AIM-7 was sometimes called by its waggish detractors.
In the pilot’s heads up display, or HUD, a radar lock on a target in range would generate a “shoot” light, along with other cues, to inform the pilot that a valid opportunity to employ ordnance was available. Often in training missions, or just when flying to or from the training range, students would be encouraged to lock onto various targets and pull the trigger, in order to familiarize themselves with the way that altitude, airspeed and target angle (which is a measure of where your aircraft is, referenced from the target’s nose) impacted upon missile kinematics and times of flight. As long as they were in the “sim” mode, they would get all of the same cues as an actual missile launch, and of course the aircraft weren’t armed with real missiles, so there was no danger.
“Sim” was also a “gotcha,” in that once selected, and for safety’s sake, no ordnance can be released, either air-to-air or air-to-ground. If you wanted to get weapons off, you had to both raise the master armament switch, and ensure that “sim” was not selected. It’s a multi-step process to ensure that weapons only come off when they’re supposed to, when you really, really mean it.
So anyway, I joined the fleet in the summer of ’87, aboard an aircraft carrier already at sea, and nearly half-way through deployment and stationed in the North Arabian Sea, south of Iran. The very first thing I noticed as I climbed out of the transport plane, was that all the FA-18′s on the flight deck were carrying missiles, both on the wingtips, where the Sidewinders were customarily mounted, and on the fuselage stations, where Sparrows were to be found. But there was something different, and it took me a moment to recognize what that difference was: The missiles were not painted blue. They were gray, like the aircraft themselves. I had never, in training, seen a gray missile.
These were not training missiles, they were live missiles, war rounds. And every aircraft had several of them mounted.
It was a sort of eye-opening, you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore-Toto “welcome to the fleet.”
When a new pilot checks aboard a squadron, he will go through an indoctrination period with the squadron’s senior leadership, the several department heads, the executive officer and the CO. It is designed to both ensure that the new guy gets the benefit of all the accumulated wisdom of the most senior squadron aviators, and to give that same leadership the opportunity to assess his skills, attitude and intelligence. This is especially important when the air wing is already deployed and on the line, since the opportunity to do scripted training in a simulated environment is passed. And in a single seat aircraft, it’s pretty hard to tell how a new kid is doing in there, all by himself.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and first impressions are generally enduring, so the new guy is always under both real and self-induced pressure to excel. Everyone else has worked together and trained together for many months, both ashore and at sea, so there are multiple chances to shine parts of your anatomy that you’d prefer to leave covered.
My second fleet flight was with the squadron commanding officer, The Skipper, The Man, he-who-will-be-obeyed, God’s chosen vessel, etc, etc. It was to be a “routine training flight,” words which will sensibly send shudders down the spine of any pilot with any degree of experience, especially if he has seen the movie, “The Great Santini .” We would launch, rendezvous overhead, get a couple of thousand pounds of gas from the overhead tanker and go off to one of our escort ships which was dragging a sled target well aft. We would drop some “blue death,” or 25-pound practice bombs in her wake. Once the mission was complete, we’d rejoin, head back overhead the carrier, and wait for our opportunity to land. Pretty straightforward.
The weather in the North Arabian Sea in the summertime tends towards extended periods of sharply reduced visibility due to persistent haze. One-and-a-half to two miles vis was the norm. The Skipper briefed low altitude pop attacks, in an extended, race-track pattern. At any given time we’d be from 3 to 5 miles away from each other. We’d race around the pattern at 500 feet and around 400 knots. Approaching the target, we’d pull sharply up and away from the tow ship, and then roll inverted back down towards the target sled. After a few seconds of tracking time, we’d use our CCIP (constantly computed impact point) weapons system to deliver our ordnance as close as we could to the moving sled, to the awe and amazement of the idlers standing about on her weather decks.
The launch went fine, I found the skipper on radar and followed him to the tanker. I managed to get into the basket on my second attempt, without looking too much like a pig trying to have sex with a greased football, so I chalked up phase one as a mission success. Off to the tow ship on the CO’s wing, visual on the target and he broke away from me, into the racetrack pattern. After seven or eight seconds, I followed him. At the pop point, roll, pull, reverse – target in sight, master armament switch to “Arm.” Now the weapons system was hot, and I could concentrate on my solution. I hit the bomb “pickle” at the appropriate time and began my breakaway from the theoretical frag pattern, taking my eyes off the CO for a moment to spot my hit – bullseye! They’re gonna love me…
Rejoining the racetrack, I found that I’d lost sight of my lead – this is considered bad form, by the way – so I quickly got out of the air-to-ground mode by selecting the AIM-7 on the stick mounted weapons control switch.
The multi-mission FA-18 flawlessly brought me into the air-to-air mode, and another flick at the HOTAS (hands-on-throttle-and-stick), and I was in a close-range auto-acquisition mode – Bingo! Got the lock, three miles away, tail aspect. Perfect.
With the lock came a shoot light in the canopy bow on a receding target. Instinctively, as a product of hundreds of hours of training in simulators and training aircraft, my finger began to tighten on the trigger, to check out the missile kinematics for a close-range, tail aspect target. But there was a nagging voice in the back of my head that kept the trigger from being pulled fully past the commit to engage detent. Internal monologue:
Evil Lex: “Shoot light, pull the trigger.”
Good Lex: “Something’s not quite right.”
EL: “Pull it – five more pounds of pressure.”
GL: “Why do we have a shoot light if we’re not in the sim mode?”
EL: “Hmmm.. you’re right, we’re dropping bombs and we couldn’t do that if we were in sim…”
GL: “We shouldn’t get a shoot light if we’re not in sim, except when we’re armed up, with LIVE MISSILES ON BOARD.”
All of that took place pretty quickly of course, probably in less than a second. But I was about a second away from shooting down my commanding officer on my second flight in the fleet. Which would have made a pretty poor impression.
Which would have been, of course – a career decision.
Oh, I know you’re going to ask: Did you tell the CO what happened? To which I must answer, “What are you, nuts?”
Single seat, baby. No slack in fighter attack.