By lex, on July 27th, 2004
A tale of a training mission into the Sultanate of Oman.
In the late 80′s, while on deployment in the North Arabian Sea, I was fragged as a section lead in a larger, multi-division strike package of FA-18s and A-6s to an Omani Air Force airfield, well inland in the desert. We had a four-ship of F-14′s serving as Migsweep to clear the route and target of any air opposition, and an EA-6B electronic support aircraft, as well as an E-2C for long range air search.
Opposing us would be the surface-to-air defensive systems around the airfield, as well as the Omani Air Force.
In those days the Omanis had quite a number of British expatriates who flew with them on contract, to train their pilots and serve as a part of the Sultanate’s defensive forces. They were superb and daring pilots even though they were hampered by older equipment. They were also accustomed to routinely flying at very low altitudes in the relatively flat terrain of Oman.
There was one piece of geography that held a strange and illicit allure to certain of the US Navy pilots who trained over Oman in those days – a long, twisting canyon that started close to the coast, heading westwards for many miles, and carving a couple hundred feet below the surrounding and utterly unpopulated, inhospitable desert. It was very similar to our own Grand Canyon, if perhaps not quite as wide, and nothing like as populated with troublesome tourists or pesky park rangers. We nicknamed this crevasse “Star Wars canyon,” since flying in it was an experience akin to piloting Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter through the Death Star’s trench to deliver his fatal blow against Dearth Vader’s galactic instrument of destruction, or so I am told.
But that fatal blow in itself was analogous to what might happen to an aviator’s career, if he was found by the gray heads to have been flat-hatting in the canyon. For some though, the temptation was too hard to pass up — and once inside the canyon, no radar would reveal the pilot’s location. He would, for all intents and purposes, vanish from the face of the earth, until the canyon petered out or he lost his nerve, pulling sharply back on the stick and vaulting his eager craft into the sky at a 90 degree flight path angle –vertically up and up in full afterburner until he ran out of airspeed at 15 or 20 thousand feet or so.
The canyon walls on either side were at times breathtakingly close to a pilot’s wingtips, passing by in a blur, and the canyon itself wove its way back and forth as it unfolded in front of him at 500 knots — a speed at which the turns themselves could just be negotiated.
It was exhilarating, or so I have heard.
Because you have to understand that I myself, would never do so rash a thing. Even in my long-passed, oft-lamented youth.
As much fun as such flying apparently had been, we had nothing on the Brit expats, when it came to flying low. The “standard” altitude for a low-level route is about 500 feet above ground level (AGL). Experienced crews could, in authorized airspace, fly as low as 300 feet AGL. A special qualification was required to fly to 200 ft AGL — during that qualification process, an instructor in the back seat of a two-seat FA-18 would coax the student down as low as 100 ft AGL (but no lower) — an altitude at which 100% of the pilot’s attention is exclusively focused upon terrain avoidance: He does not work his radar, or check six, or fly formation, or monitor his fuel at 100 feet. He tries to avoid hitting the ground, and that is all he does. Even twice as high, at 200 feet, the mission cross-check time is measured in a (very) few seconds.
All this to lead in to the strange fact that we all had heard many stories of attack pilots flying low levels in Oman, at the very limit of their abilities and confident that they were invisible to radar, find themselves surprised to see an Omani Jaguar or Hawker Hunter fly up from underneath them.
On the day of our strike, we rendezvoused the strike package, and those of us who would need extra gas received it from the tanker. As we approached the Omani coast, the attack jets started our descent to low altitude, while the fighters swept in front of us up high. Our low altitude route served to mask our position, and so our approach to the target was uneventful. Several miles away we began an afterburner climb to avoid the target’s terminal defenses, and help us acquire our individual aimpoints. These now visible, we rolled the jets on their backs, eight of us at once, each focused on his weapons symbology, on the altitude numbers scrolling in a blur on the HUD, in the proximity of the other birds of prey swooping down, on our still-silent radar warning receivers — we had achieved surprise.
Pulling off target, and heading back to the east, back to the sanctuary of the open sea at medium altitude. The A-6′s, who had stayed low, followed after us to the target, timing their arrival to be shortly after our bombs would have impacted, enough time to let the frag pattern settle back down.
Off target was where it would get interesting — now the Omani’s knew where we were, and would have a pretty good idea where we were going.
We had the F-14′s up high and many miles in front of us as the first line of defense. Our FA-18′s, now relieved of their simulated air-to-ground ordnance were unleashed to act as fighters, now that our primary mission of attack was complete. We shook out into an eight-ship wall of fighters, and feared nothing at all. The A-6′s remained low off target, seeking to hide in the terrain while the air defenses focused on those of us more easy to see.
A few minutes later, half-way to the coast the right-most element called, “Engaged”and then added, “defensive.” A pair of Omani Hunters, loitering in the dust below, had come up from beneath their formation, and was at the very brink of a firing solution when they were spotted. I looked over and in one glance took it all in — a tough spot for the Hornets from their defensive positions. I rocked up 90 degrees to starboard, giving a wing-flash to my wingman, wordlessly signaling my intent to engage in support. In moments we were in a hard turn, then a delirious swirl, first climbing, then descending, six of us locked in a tight circle of (simulated) death.
A Hawker hunter, in Swiss colors.
The first two FA-18′s were fighting for their lives, their Omani adversaries still offensive and fixated on their destruction to the exclusion of all else. My wingman and I arrived from the north at high speed as avenging angels. I shot a simulated missile at the further Hunter, calling him out of the fight, and reversed left, in a hard, climbing for a guns kill on the remaining adversary. The Hunter, in planform in my HUD as I walked the gun pipper to his wings, looked amazingly like a MiG-19 from some bygone era, and I momentarily smiled in my mask at some received memory from another time and place. He spit a flare nearly in my face as I closed to 1500 feet, but the 20mm cannon would have nothing but contempt for infrared decoys.
Just as the hammer came down, and I called, “Guns kill,” my wingman, who had been keeping my six clear, and circling the fight, called for me to, “Break left! — A pair of Jaguars had joined the fray, as unobserved to us as we had been moments before to their Hunter colleagues.
A Jaguar, in Swedish colors.
After the previous engagement, I had very little airspeed left with which to perform a break turn, but gave it my very best. The Hornet is a superb slow-speed fighter, and she responded beautifully, neatly pivoting around to face the coming threat — I was momentarily neutral, but at a tremendous airspeed disadvantage. I would need help.
The Jaguar two-ship flashed by me, bracketing my canopy on both sides — whichever way I turned, I would be offering a shot to one or the other bandits. I had to get some airspeed.
Full afterburner, nose low, check six — one Jaguar is in a climbing turn across my tail, the other I can no longer see — and it is always the one you don’t see that gets you. He must be turning nose low, probably across my tail as well, so I checked into the assumed threat sector and called my wingman in for support. He was already on his way, and having maintained a good airspeed package, made short work of the nose high Jag, calling him out.
The remaining Jag (who had in fact turned nose low across my tail) had ended turning directly in front of the original two-ship of FA-18s that had been jumped. They seized this morsel as a chance to repay our kindness, while salvaging a bit of their own dignity.
So yeah, I got lucky. In this business, it’s just as important to be lucky, as it is to be good.
We cleared the area of the fight before anyone else could stumble into us, and made our way to the coastline as quickly as our depleted fuel stocks would carry us. Once clear, I climbed to a very high altitude to save fuel, timing my idle-power descent to the last possible moment. I saved a thousand pounds of gas in the descent, took one lap around the overhead pattern and landed on my first attempt — the plane captain aboard the flight deck, now steaming hot in the middle of late-spring Arabian Sea day, was at first surprised, then gratified, to feel how chilled the aircraft’s skin was. It was still super-cooled from my high altitude return.
And for me? I was gratified to have had such a great hop. Low-level nav to a target, bombs off, on target, on time, two kills, a clean get away and an OK-3 wire. It just doesn’t get any better than that.