Single seat fighter aviation

By lex, on July 5th, 2004

When I first joined the fleet, there was a heated debate between F-14 crews and FA-18 pilots about the relative merits of single-seat versus two-seat fighter designs. With the retirement of the F-14 looming in the middle distance, and the decision to replace only half of the remaining squadrons with two-seat FA-18Fs, that debate seems largely over.

I remember several flights distinctly in my training process, even though I went through it many years ago. The flights that stand out in sharpest relief were my first solo’s in each of the airplanes I flew. After 13 familiarization flights in the T-34, I got safely airborne, unlocked my harness, screwed my head around and visually confirmed what I knew intellectually to be true: The back seat was empty.

My first FA-18A solo was even cooler. There was no back seat to look into.

There is a certain swaggering charm about being in sole command of your destiny in a fighter. No one is there to back you up in the cockpit, and if it’s going to get done (whatever “it” is) you’re going to have to do it yourself. Which means that if you fail in some critical step, the failure is yours alone. But this also means that you are not required to share any element of your successes, apart from that which goes along with your wingman, if you are wise and politic.

FA-18 pilots considered themselves the heirs to the long-mustachioed cowboys who had ripped the sky apart in the F-8 Crusader, the last of the gunfighters. F-8 jocks, although flying an aircraft that was much less sophisticated than the F-4 Phantoms which eventually replaced them, racked up impressively favorable kill ratios over the skies of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, at least as contrasted against the F-4 crews.

F-8 pilots had maintained an almost monastic devotion to mastering the art of close combat and aerial gunnery, always flying their machines to the performance limits. Their mishap rates were subsequently much higher than that of the new (and much more expensive) Phantom crews, who trusted their medium range missiles to do the killing work for them. Designed by engineers as a missile platform, the Phantom did not even have an internal cannon, or gun – a fact that, combined with the poorer maneuvering qualities of the F-4, caused the Crusader pilots to look down their noses at this innovation, and by extension, those that flew them.

The radar installation in the Phantom was sufficiently complex to operate in the proto-computer age that an extra seat was required for the radar operator. When the nascent radar missile technology proved to be a somewhat flawed vessel into which to pour all hopes, the principal value of the back seater in actual combat seemed to be his ability to “check six,” while the nose gunner (pilot) maneuvered the airplane into killing range with an infra-red homing Sidewinder missile. In fact, quite a number of engagements that might have gone poorly for the F-4 community were saved or even turned around by an alert Radar Intercept Officer, or RIO, looking over his shoulder in an engagement, and picking up a bandit closing in for the kill. But the pilots desperately bewailed the lack of a gun – a cannon shell cannot not be defeated by jamming, and has nothing whatsoever to say about an infrared decoy, or flare. Too, there is something comprehensively triumphant about maneuvering your jet into a “guns kill” position – this is not the work of engineers, pressing buttons. It is the work of warriors, wrestling in the mud for advantage.

So when it came to pass that a replacement airplane for the Phantom was envisioned for the US Navy, the fighter crews decided that they wanted the best of everything: A more maneuverable aircraft (the F-14 has variable geometry wings), a larger, more powerful radar, with computer aided processing, an internal gun (the 20mm Vulcan Phalanx – for when you care enough to send the very best) and two seats – one to operate the aircraft, one to operate the weapons system – and check six. They also adopted the “pure fighter” mindset of the Crusader pilots. While the Phantoms had been pressed into moving mud in Vietnam, the F-14 community explicitly eschewed any bombing mission for the Tomcat. They would specialize in air-to-air, ground attack being seen as beneath them.

The problem was that, apart from being a hideously complex design, the F-14 is also a very large aircraft for a fighter. Visual signature is a disadvantage in a turning fight, and the Tomcat would not even fit on some of our smaller carriers, like the Midway and Coral Sea. Also, the single-seat A-7 Corsair ground attack aircraft was getting a little long in the tooth, so the FA-18 was purchased as a replacement for both the Phantoms on the older carriers, and the A-7 on all of them. It would carry both missions, fighter and attack, specialization on the crowded carrier flight deck being seen as a liability.

So over the course of a single generation of re-design, the debate had gone full circle, and then turned ironically back upon its head: The two-seat F-4, which had flown both ground attack and fighter missions, was replaced by the two-seat F-14, which was designed as a fighter only, with fleet air defense (as opposed to overland air superiority) as its raison d’etre. The single-seat F-8, designed as a fighter only, was replaced (at least in spirit) by a single-seat FA-18, designed for both roles. The actual father of the FA-18 community were the single seat A-7 jocks, whose hallmark was flight discipline, and whose motto was, “No slack in light attack.”

And fighter pilots being fighter pilots, the debate raged as to which was the better fighter. The FA-18 certainly had better technology – the degree of sophisticated computer integration in the flight controls and weapons systems had largely obviated the need for a second operator, and the cockpit layout was the first design that explicitly targeted fitting the fighter to the pilot, rather than the other way around. The FA-18′s engines were far more reliable and the airframe itself much more maneuverable. It’s smaller size presented a smaller visual and radar cross section, still important in an arena where the first “tally-ho” often leads to the first shot opportunity.

But the Hornet, like all fighter designs, is a series of compromises, some of which carried disadvantages too: its smaller size meant a smaller radar antenna. Smaller antennas have implications on such arcana as radar beam width and peak power out that I won’t bother to go into (beyond the scope of this text), except to say that in this case, at least, size matters. The Hornet, being smaller, also carries less fuel than the larger Tomcat, which doesn’t sound like such a very big deal until you run out of it. And finally, the pilot workload in a Hornet can occasionally overwhelm the mere mortal. Not that this has ever happened to me, but I’ve heard reports from reliable sources who tell me that at 500 knots and 200 feet above ground level, in mountainous terrain, with a radar warning receiver buzzing SAM alerts in your ears while running an air-to-air radar search pattern and arming an air-to-ground weapons system, while navigating to a target defended by anti-aircraft artillery, a man can get a little over-stimulated.

That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.

So on and on the debate would rage, two seats versus one, and the RIOs at least seemed to take it personally that anyone could imagine fighter combat without one of them providing radar and visual support. When I’d had enough of this sort of discussion, I’d usually close the argument by saying this:

“I think RIOs are great. Every pilot who needs one should have one.”

No slack in fighter-attack.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Lex, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Single seat fighter aviation

  1. A very enjoyable read, thanks for posting.

    Your last line about RIOs is really the crux of things. It comes down to personality of the individual; some like the teamwork, others like to go it alone and room should be there for both.

    It reminds me a bit of a TV series from Britain back in the early 80s called “Fighter Pilot”. It was about 10 or 12 episodes long and followed a group of fellows who wished to be fighter pilots from initial selection all the way to operational assignment.

    It was very enlightning, particularly with regards to how important individual personality is when assigning a role to someone. The fellow who got through it all was ultimately assigned to the two seat Buccaneer strike aircraft and was quite happy about it.

    One scene that sticks with me from it was when the instructors were deliberating his strengths and weaknesses and one said: “Well, he’s not going to set the world on fire.” and suggested a two seat fast jet assignment might be best for him.

    There was another guy in the group who opted to shift over to transport flight training as the demands of fighter training were putting too much strain on his family life.

    It’s all very individual in the end.

  2. Granted, I have a biased point of view. Flew the 2 seater ugly, the A-6, and without a doubt appreciated the other guy in the cockpit with me immensely.
    Will eschew the single seat ethos based on words that I on occasion (rare occasion, at that) heard from the right seat that carried great gravity for me–
    “Hey Stupid what are you doing?”
    The words were appropriate and timely, always.
    Single seat guys don’t get that extra personal kind of interface.

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