By lex, on September 12th, 2006
In primary flight training you learn how to fly. In basic jets, you learn to fly jets, and carrier qual for the first time – day only. In advanced jets you learn how to fly a high performance jet, drop bombs (a little), fight (a little), and CQ again.
When you go to the fleet replacement squadron, you learn to fly the airplane that you’ll fly in the fleet. You’ll learn how to land her at night. But when you get to the fleet?
That’s when you really learn to fight.
I remember coming off target after a training mission in Fallon, Nevada, back in my junior officer days. We’d fought our way in successfully, hit the target with precision, and bugged out of Dodge, putting the spurs to it, hauling the mail.
It was always off-target that strikers got bagged. Bagged by SAMs they’d disregarded on the way in, or bandits that had snuck in after they’d come off target. Going in they’d have had the advantage of a well-briefed plan, a good radar picture, and excellent situational awareness provided by the airborne E-2. In the final attack run, they’d be focused with laser-like intensity upon getting fuzed ordnance on target, on time (with acceptable losses). Coming off target was always a swirl of getting good bomb hit video, checking six, re-forming in ranks, re-building the picture, getting the hell out. Those were crowded, unforgiving moments, and they were often where we’d suffer our losses, in training as in combat.
So that summer’s day in 1988, I was off target, flowing north, building my SA, building the knots, trying to climb back out of reach of the (virtual) anti-aircraft artillery that was reaching up with glowing tendrils to drag me back down to earth. Ten miles north of the target, making good time, starting to feel comfortable again, I turned around in harness once more to check six and ensure that I was clear of the fray. Coming back to flight path, I caught a glimpse of an F-14 in planform, breaking right. Looking harder, I saw the much smaller visual signature of an A-4 Skyhawk, about to live in his shorts. Another F-14 broke into the vertical, trying to extend up away from fight center for a shot. In trail of him was yet another A-4. This was all about five or six miles away.
I grimaced, shook my head, continued on – not my problem. There was nothing worse than getting anchored off-target in a defensive swirl. The bandits would be excited, restless, ruthless. If you turned to engage one group, another would be on you in moments, almost always unobserved. Killing you.
You didn’t engage off target, if ever you could avoid it. You ran. You ran to live and fight another day.
These guys had chosen to engage, they’d either win or lose, there was nothing to be gained by putting my snout in a mature engagement, I thought.
I was wrong.
In the debrief, I’d mentioned that I’d seen the fight in which both the lead Tomcat and his wingman had been “shot down.” I mentioned that I had decided to decline the fight, not feeling good about it. It’s always tough to enter a mature engagement – no one in the fight sees you, and you can’t be sure you see everyone else who’s there. It’s dangerous. A man could get killed.
After the debrief ended, I sensed a certain chill in the air. We got back to our squadron spaces, and the CO – a man who I respected and admired, pulled me aside: You never leave a guy behind, he said. You never give up on a shipmate. You see a man in trouble, and you go and help him, you go and bring him back. Or else you go down in flames beside him, you pull the handle, make a stand on the ground and you keep pulling the trigger on your .45 until you’re out of ammo, or out of blood.
Never come back without your honor, he said.
And I learned about flying from that.