By lex, Wed – June 2, 2004
In air combat, there are no points for second place, and the winner is he that combines arduous training with luck and opportunity. When you’re in a long-range fight, you use your radar, along with your air intercept controller, to calmly build your situational awareness (SA), employ ordnance with advantage (warheads on foreheads), and mop up the survivors.
Mopping up operations can be quick (seconds), or they can be protracted (two minutes is a LONG fight), but they almost always involve high-speed contact, gut-busting high “g” turning in full afterburner, in multiple planes of motion, and altitude changes measured in tens of thousands of feet. When you engage at a merge, you have entered a very small room with only two exits – one marked life and the other death – and everything you are and everything you’ve ever learned is wholly and exclusively focused on the exit marked life. The only way to get to that exit is to force your adversary through the alternate door. And while no one was supposed to actually die in training missions (hopefully), you treated every engagement as though your life depended upon it, because the only way you’ll fight in combat is the way that you have trained.
The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.
At the conclusion of such a brawl, your awareness of the airspace just outside visual range is virtually negligible, and you have to survive on good flight discipline between flight lead and wingman, and sharp eyes looking in every quadrant for emerging threats because it’s nearly always the bandit you don’t see that kills you. For a few minutes, until you’re well clear of the fight, you’re in Indian Country.
In the old days (wow, listen to me!) aboard aircraft carriers at sea, far from land, we used to set up our own little free-fire zone for dissimilar air combat training – a place where anything went, and everyone was fair game. Once you crossed the boundary of Indian Country, it was fight’s on, and may the devil take the hindmost.
The airspace would be briefed on the shipboard closed-circuit TV, along with the all-important “training rules,” guidance written in blood over the years, to keep the training as realistic as possible while minimizing the risks of mid-air collision, loss of controlled flight and subsequent ejection. Generally speaking, Indian Country was for an alternate mission, somewhere to go after you’d completed your primary training requirements. But when Indian Country was active, no fighter pilot (and few others) worth his salt walked to his jet without thinking about how to save some gas for the fray, and a game plan he’d use once “in country.” You never knew who would show up to play, or how many wingmen he would bring. And that was part of the fun, as was the requirement to use only close-in weapons.
There would be fighters of course, at various altitudes and speeds, circling like sharks, while looking behind themselves for threats, or “checking six.” They would be always looking for an advantage, any advantage – the airspace “up sun” frequently got crowded – while keeping an eye out for the unwary. Sometimes an S-3 Viking, a relatively slow aircraft specialized for anti-submarine warfare, would show up to test his mettle, or perhaps a lumbering A-6 bomber. And although the odds were very much against them due to their airframe design, woe betide the low and slow fighter pilot who got shot by one of these worthies at the end of another engagement – he would never live down the shame and humiliation.
It is unwise in such a scenario to be the first to engage – once the fight starts and the turning begins, fighters rapidly lose airspeed, or altitude, or both, and even pilots flushed with victory in an initial engagement are ripe fruit for the plucking by a high speed attacker that swoops in upon them at the end of a fight, slow and disoriented, trying to clear the fight, regain airspeed, regain SA.
There came a day when my wingman and I, a roommate through two deployments and with whom I was closer even than a brother, had a mission that we briefed, dispensed with quickly, and headed over to Indian Country. Approaching the boundary from the east, we worked our radars assiduously, building the picture, and communicating our observations to each other.
We declined an easy fight low and to our left, turning to meet head-on a pair of attacking Tomcats coming from the northwest and out of the sun, but whom we nevertheless held on radar. Clearing the merge, the faster F-14’s bugged clear of us, declining a neutral engagement with our more nimble FA-18s. We turned to pursue them, in case they bit off on the low engagement coming to conclusion in the southwest, but aware of our intentions, they circled clear to the west, waiting for an opportunity.
My wingie just couldn’t stand it any more, so he pounced upon an FA-18 from our sister squadron who had just emerged victorious from a short 1v1 engagement with another F-14. I faded low and to the west to maintain SA on the first two-ship of F-14s, while keeping sight of my wingie, and clearing his “six.” As the range quickly opened, maintaining mutual support became more difficult, but just as I heard his call his kill on the UHF radio, I glimpsed an A-6 swooping in from the east, down low by the wave tops, and moving as fast as he could go. I called for my wingie to execute a hard, defensive “break turn” back into him to counter the threat. At just that moment our original F-14 flight pitched back in, clearly imagining the both of us to be engaged. My wingie would have to dispatch the A-6 on his own; I had two Tomcats to kill.
I got a belly-side, low-to-high entry on the northern F-14, quickly got a shot off and called him out. The backseater in the southern F-14 got a tally on me, and called his pilot into a hard defensive turn. He met me left-to-left, somewhat defensive positionally, but with an airspeed advantage due to my energy bleeding low-to-high initial engagement turn.
Still thinking himself defensive, he continued to try and turn across my tail – a fight I could not win at slow speed. I redefined the fight by doing a “split ‘S’” turn in the pure vertical, nose low. The sun scribed crazy arcs through the sky as the F-14 turned nose low to counter, and I lost all SA as to my wingman, the airspace around me, even north or south as the F-14 and I turned in an increasingly smaller circle of death.
We were burning gas at an incredible rate as I slowly gained advantage. Closing in for a gun kill, my wingie, who had killed the A-6 and found his way to our fight, called me off for his own missile shot. I was at first hesitant, having struggled mightily for this position, but a guns kill takes time, and time in a dogfight is at a fatal premium. I turned away from the F-14’s tail to clear the fight and allow my faster wingman the kill, taking the opportunity to regain my airspeed while he took the shot, and setting us up for a high speed disengagement low and to the east.
We cleared the fight and elevated, slowly re-building our SA.
As we reached the airspace boundary, we turned back in, fangs bloody, but still looking for fresh meat. But nothing did we see on radar, and visual checks behind us showed us apparently clear of any threat. Just then we got a very unusual call from the carrier, asking us if we were returning to land. A strange question, so I checked my watch – 15 minutes until the recovery started, and told them, “No, not yet.”
“Roger,” came back the reply.
And still we swept the skies, but no adversaries did we find to engage.
Taking another turn, now from west to east, I grew uneasy. No bandits in Indian Country. And then there was that strange question from the ship, asking if we were coming home. I switched up the approach control frequency, and asked them if the recovery was in progress.
“Affirmative,” came the reply.
“Who’s in the pattern now?” I asked. If they were still landing fighters, the recovery would have just commenced, and maybe no one would notice us sneaking in at the end. Being late for a recovery is considered very bad form indeed. Apart from a deeply ingrained cultural insistence upon promptitude as naval virtue, eighty thousand tons of aircraft carrier and 5000 men, some of whom were quite senior (and therefore predisposed to be grumpy) in the organizational hierarchy, would be waiting to go back on course, and go back about their lives, as soon as the recovery ended.
“We have the E-2 on final.”
The E-2. The last aircraft to land. Except of course, for two FA-18’s led by your humble scribe.
My wingman, my roommate, my more than brother, flying in perfect defensive position on my wing, was immediately presented the no doubt unedifying view of my jet’s belly as I quickly flipped the jet inverted, plugged in full afterburner, lowered the hook and raced back towards the ship, some thirty miles away. Even at supersonic speeds, it would take us nearly ten minutes to get back overhead to land, ten agonizingly long minutes – there was no time to waste in perfect formation, it was now every man for himself, a game of “catch me, fork me.”
Or something like that.
Anyway. A radar sweep of the airspace over the carrier confirmed in fact that there were no aircraft still in the landing pattern. As I started my final turn to the overhead pattern, I provided my wingie with useful airspeed calls to help him with his rendezvous. Upon consideration I realized that the only thing worse than being late would have been “looking bad over the ship,” while also being late.
“550 knots. Now 500. 450. 425.” He made into perfect formation just before I called, “One’s breaking.”
Into the pattern, and a good look from the downwind at an unnaturally crowded, unhappily idle flight deck, all pregnant with expectation. Nothing heard as yet on the radios, no reproach, no recriminations. On final, landing checklist complete – must land the first time, it would not do to bolter.
WHAM, on deck, taxi clear, and there’s the wingie in the wires at full power. Mission accomplished!
“401, tower.” The Air Boss.
“401, tower, after shutting down, the Captain would like to have a word with you on the bridge. Don’t bother getting out of your flight gear.”
I know what you’re thinking: “Cool! He gets to meet the carrier’s Captain! Probably the Captain just wants to tell him what a great job he’s been doing.”
Not so, gentle reader. I had been summoned to do the “climb of shame,” up six decks worth of ladders wearing 40 pounds of flight gear and carrying an almost incalculable weight of disgrace. This would be no dialogue, no frank and open exchange of professional ideas.
This was to be a one-way conversation, brief but very exciting.
Still, it had been a great hop.
Up until the very end.