Acid Test

By lex, on October 10th, 2009

When I was a nobbut aviator, only freshly winged, I was assigned to the FA-18 training squadron in sunny Lemoore, California. The CO at the time was a bear of a man, had played football in college and was a Vietnam veteran. My student cohort held him in awe: We’d been told that he had received an Air Medal during the war for saving a squadron mate’s life, or his liberty anyway. The latter had come off target badly hit and managed to limp only as far as the harbor at Hai Phong before his machine came apart. The pilot had been forced to eject and was floating in his raft a mile or so off shore, when he saw an NVA patrol craft bounding out to seize him. The unlucky aviator was contemplating the austere amenities of the Hanoi Hilton when our CO roared overhead at 500 feet, firing a Shrike missile in boresight mode.

The Shrike was an anti-radiation missile that was intended to guide on pre-selected surface-to-air missile frequencies. It had a relatively low yield warhead and was never intended for use as a direct fire anti-shipping weapon. Flown to the point where it could not miss – and the point where the pilot doing the shooting would be danger close to his own target – it ended up serving pretty well in the role however. The CO scored a direct impact, the patrol craft was destroyed and the downed aviator was soon thereafter rescued by a Navy helicopter.

If you look up the word “indecisive” in your dictionary (or in the pages of today’s newspapers), you may find that commanding office’s picture there in mute antonym. A long career flying single-engine attack jets in peacetime and combat operations had given him the seasoning and wit to make quick judgments, and when he made them, they were pretty damned final. You didn’t want to get athwart his hawse; you were either on the CO’s train or getting run over by it. There was no room for spectators.

I’d never received a “down” in flight training, but in the fighter weapons phase I ran into a bit of a rough patch. As was the custom, I flew with the same instructor a number of times, and we just weren’t on the same wavelength. It started pretty early in the 1v1 phase, I was flying against an A-4 Skyhawk on a 1.5 NM abeam set up. Came up with the lovely notion of getting the first shot at the fight’s on call by bending her around hard and poking a forward hemisphere AIM-9M Sidewinder in my adversary’s nose. The training rules of the time proscribed forward quarter missile attacks within 9000 feet, the Scooter jock bent his jet around as well, and it was only afterward that I realized that 9000 equaled 1.5 nautical miles. Voila, instant training rule violation.

There was never any real danger of collision, but it spooked my adversary and distempered my instructor. And a training rule violation is a pretty serious affair, they are all written in blood. Lesson learned, and I vowed to be more careful in the future.

A week or so later I was on a 1v2 intercept to engage hop against a pair of Scooters. Got a good radar picture of them in echelon left but a visual identification was required by the rules of engagement. The A-4 was a nimble little minx, and you’d have your hands full fighting even one if you got slow and climbed into his phone booth with him. 2v1 the hard way was no way to go through life, and I determined to do what I could to even the odds at the merge.

There were a couple of reasons that they put us at a numerical disadvantage in those early intercept-to-engage hops. A nugget could learn to run his radar, go through the voice comms with an imaginary wingman and paint the picture without having to also fly formation. It saved gas and fatigue life. And it could also serve as a lesson in humility: Tangle with a pair of Scooters flown by trained adversary pilots on an equal footing and it was better than even odds are you’d get your butt handed to you. You always get slow in a turning fight, the Skyhawk was an excellent slow speed fighter and they were damned small machines. Hard to see compared to an FA-18, and if you lost sight, well: You’d lose the fight. So a 1v2 was an efficient building block in learning how to tactically employ your aircraft and excellent way to demonstrate that you probably didn’t want to do so by yourself.

Not if you were going to fight fair.

Like most aircraft, the A-4 cockpit visibility wasn’t great under the nose, and they weren’t radar equipped, so at around 15 miles I ditched down and to the left to hide in the clutter of the Clan Alpine mountains near Fallon, Nevada. Came into the merge with a bag of knots, picking up the first bandit from his right one o’clock and low, hoping to get a good VID on the lead and then shoot the trailer – guilt by association.

There was never any doubt in my military mind that the lead aircraft was an A-4, but we were supposed to get close in and make it look good. I’d gotten a little cold during the turn in for my intercept and had to turn harder to close the distance and verify what type of aircraft I’d be tangling with. Sometimes they threw an F-5 in there as well, and if you miss-ID’d the bandit and called a shot there’d be hell to pay. A man who might label an F-5 an A-4 in training might shoot down a friendly in combat.

In my hard right turn I could still see the bandit wingman close to the lower canopy sill at about 10 o’clock. I knew that if I lost sight of him even for a moment I’d find him parked at my six. He was stepped up above his lead in altitude and as I called “Shoot, shoot – A-4!” to my imaginary wingman I ended up with enough lateral separation to simulate a shot against the lead with a Sidewinder. With a good tone from the ‘Winder, I changed the game plan, took the shot and called him out. He’d never seen me, and now I was 1v1 with an advantage.

As I was calling my shot on the radio, the instructor pilot in my back seat asked, “Do you see the other bandit?” His voice grating.

“Yeah, he’s below me,” I grunted under g, which was, I admit, an incautious use of terminology. In my hard right turn, the bandit was below my wingline, but above  me vertically. The IP took this to mean that I had made a blind turn in front of the bandit wingman, which would indeed have been a dangerous maneuver had it been true. He called a “knock-it-off” even as I reversed my turn to target the wingman.

I was profoundly disappointed at the knock-it-off call, not knowing at first why my IP had terminated the fight – things had been going so well. When my instructor began chastising me on the intercom in unkind terms, I tried to describe what I had meant by the wingman being “below” me. But the front seat/back seat configuration has its limitations when it comes to making eye contact, a pilot has to talk with his hands to make that kind of picture clear, and my hands were still full of twenty ton fighter. My IP had a picture set in his mind that my words couldn’t shake, and he was starting to believe that I was not merely aggressive, but also dangerous.

We set up for another run, the IP in the back still fish-wifing me. For my own part, I was starting to get a little hot under the collar.

On the next hack I once again got lucky and eliminated one of the bandits at the merge – possibly frustrating my IP, who I was beginning to suspect wouldn’t have minded seeing me treated to heroic doses of humility. I ended up engaging the remaining A-4, and the fight eventually degraded into a rolling scissors. I was holding up my end and even starting to eke out an advantage when my instructor called me on the intercom – “Watch the deck!” We were getting close to 10,000 feet above ground level, the artificially set floor for air combat training. Breaking the hard deck was simultaneously considered both a kill and a training rule violation.

I was in full grunt and about 20 degrees nose low with 35 degrees of angle of attack on the jet as I checked my HUD – about 1000 feet above the hard deck, I should make it, I remember thinking. “Watch the deck!” he cried again at 500 feet above the deck, but at 35° AOA I didn’t have anything much left to offer and anyway the altimeter was slowing its rate of descent, pausing, starting to wind back up again. It was going to be close, but we were going to make it.

“There!” he cried triumphantly. “You broke the hard deck,” calling a knock-it-off on the radio. I was surprised, my HUD altimeter still showed greater than 10,000 feet and if Bitchin’ Betty had said anything about our height I must have missed it. I really had thought we were going to be OK.

I deselected afterburner to save some gas and eased back stick to reduce AOA – there was no reason to risk departing from controlled flight below the hard deck when the fight was over anyway. A few moments later I heard Bitchin’ Betty on my headset: “Altitude, Altitude.”

The altimeter bug had been set for 10,000. It turned out I had not broken the deck, or at least I had not prior to the IP telling me I had and calling a knock-it-off.

I could see where this was going, and I was pretty steamed. But my IP was a lieutenant commander, I was a mere frocked lieutenant and he had his mind made up. I was getting a down.

I had the whole thing on my HUD tape, and after we landed I offered to explain to my instructor what I had been thinking and seeing. He wasn’t interested. I was going to see the CO. This was serious.

I was still pretty angry an hour or so later when another instructor wandered by, a Marine major who was in charge of the fighter weapons phase. He’d heard that I’d been grounded, and asked what had happened. I told him I thought it was all bullsh!t, and tossed him the HUD tape. He raised his eyebrows at my display, but said not a word as he plugged the tape into a playback machine and watched the fight unfold. I started to explain what I had seen, but he rested his chin on his hand with one finger across his mouth as if to say, “hush.” Watched the tape play with a thoughtful look on his face. Left the debriefing room without saying anything.

A couple of days went by, and I was still waiting around for my flight back to Lemoore to face the CO when I was surprised to find myself back on the flight schedule, this time with a different instructor. By the end of the week I had successfully passed the phase, flown back to Lemoore and was preparing for CQ.

The Marine major called me to his office back in Lemoore, asked me to sit down and then told me he had to step outside for a few minutes. Make myself comfortable. A few minutes passed as I waited idly, looking around the room. On the desk in front of me was an open file, and as my eyes rested on it I was surprised to see my own name on the cover sheet. It was my down check paperwork.

I looked around me guiltily – no one around – saw my original instructor’s description of my misdeeds, frowned. Peeled the coversheet back and found the endorsement page. The chit had swiftly gone all the way to the CO, who had written one question in bright red pen: Would you want him on your wing in combat?

Each endorser in the chain had answered back: Yes.

Again in bright red pen, one word, underlined: Press.

He was a good, perhaps even a heroic man. I do not know if he was a complex one. His test, at least, was a simple one.

One of my classmates had been recycled back from an earlier class, having goobered up an emergency procedures simulator and getting a down. He and I looked very much alike, we were of a height, hair coloring and build, we both had the ubiquitous fighter pilot (wannabe) mustaches of the time. He got another down after having frightened his instructor in a four ship rendezvous – collision avoidance maneuvers had been required by others in the formation, it had been dicey. The CO apparently took a disliking to him, and a Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board, or FNAEB had been convened. There was a strong sense that the skipper expected a certain outcome, and when the board came back with a recommendation that the young man continue in training, it become apparent that they had gotten it wrong. The board members – all instructor pilots – were immediately re-assigned out of the squadron.

A few days later, I passed the CO in the hallway, and he absently addressed me by the other pilot’s call sign. I went home and shaved my mustache off.

A few weeks later, the troubled aviator again had some violation of flight discipline. A second FNAEB was convened. Perhaps mindful of the fate of the first board, this one duly decided that the young man should be relieved of flying duties. The paperwork was sent down to the three star admiral in San Diego who finally adjudicated the fates of those unfortunates caught up in the FNAEB system.

A great deal of money had been invested in the young aviator by this stage. Perhaps concerned that the CO had exerted undue influence on the FNAEB board members, or that he had taken a personal dislike to the young aviator, the admiral instead re-assigned him to the east coast training squadron to complete the training syllabus. He graduated successfully, went on to the fleet and six months later shot himself down during a low angle strafing mission. He’d flown such a low and flat pattern that the required “in range” cue on his HUD didn’t appear until he was in the frag pattern of his own cannon fire. A round had ricocheted off the target, pierced his engine nacelle and caused a fire.

He survived the ejection, but not his third FNAEB.

I think I learned something about leadership from that.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Naval Aviation, Neptunus Lex

3 responses to “Acid Test

  1. Pingback: Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Loyalty and Risk-Taking

  2. Pingback: Index – The Best of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

  3. Pingback: Neptunus Lex: Essays On Leadership | The Lexicans

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