By lex, Tue – April 5, 2005
I never met a fighter pilot I didn’t want to gun.
BFM – Basic fighter maneuvers. Dogfighting. Mano a mano. One versus one.
Play hard or stay home.
There’s nearly nothing a fighter pilot would rather do, completely sober, than try himself against another fighter pilot in the physical and mental test of skill that is man-to-man air combat. Sure, there’s a great deal of job satisfaction to be had by shacking a weapons cache from 20,000 feet, and seeing secondary explosions – it’s lovely, in fact. But it’s not personal, it’s just business. And yes, the sensation of a near-perfect landing aboard the ship is as close as one can come to le petit mort while fully dressed. But that is a part of what we do. And it is true that in a many vs. many air combat brawl there is to be found the kind of fey, wild joy that was only paralleled perhaps a hundred years or so ago in the clashing collision of cavalry troops, there is the element of chance: You could do everything right, in a big fight, and still get killed.
Because in a huge fur ball, as a mature, multi-plane engagement is known, victory and defeat are only partly attributable to skill – engagements which follow tactical intercepts are rarely ever entirely neutral – there is always an advantage accrued to one side or the other in position, angle or altitude. And there is only so much information the human mind can process in a four vs. four or 4v6 engagement, at seven and a half g’s, with the sun scribing crazy arcs in the sky as the heavens and the sea alternately fill and fly from your windscreen. Odds are, having accepted the challenge to enter that dangerous environment (as you must – you are, after all, a fighter pilot) you will, over time, lose track of a friend, or worse – lose track of a foe. And when you lose sight, you lose the fight. It is exactly that simple. Because when you lose sight, you will most likely suffer a missile attack to the belly, a place you cannot visually clear, a place where you are blind. A place you cannot, therefore, defend. Because it’s always the one you don’t see that kills you.
Many v many fights are more like quantum mechanics than Newtonian physics – there, you take your chances, and you play the odds. If you are very good, you will mostly emerge victorious. Mostly.
But nothing is certain. Because sometimes you get the bear. And sometimes, the bear gets you.
Not so in a neutral 1v1. There, you and your adversary are perfectly matched in angle, airspeed and altitude. When the fight starts, when you accept the engagement, you will quickly enter a small space of air, bounded by the turning radii of your aircraft. It is a virtual “knife fight in a phone booth” – and while two can enter, only one will leave victorious.
In 1v1 BFM, your opponent does not shoot at your airplane – he shoots at you. When you brief the fight, you are measuring each other up. You are looking at your friend, and imagining innovative ways to kill him. You are striving for any advantage – terrain, altitude, the angle of the sun. This is not just business – it is personal.
Once airborne, on the way to the range, you’ll complete your combat checklist, to ensure that every system is optimized for the struggle ahead. The last thing you’ll do is a g-warm up: Four g’s one direction for 90 degrees, six g’s back on course. This serves to inflate your g-suit, and raise your heart rate and blood pressure – you’ll need them all.
Having reached the pre-agreed altitude, you’ll maneuver the jet to the correct distance abeam – a nautical mile and a half, quite frequently; nine thousand feet. And then you’ll strive to get exactly the right airspeed, often 350 knots. Because in a moment, the lead will make the radio call “Tapes on,” referring to the on-board video recording system – this system will capture all your weapons symbology, to ensure that any missile or gun attacks are valid. It will also record your altitude, heading and airspeed. Which you want to be exactly at the pre-briefed number. Because if you are five knots fast, and you win, it will be thought that you cheated. Which will erase the victory.
You check your orientation to the world. You look up, and fix the position of the sun: east-northeast, and 80 degrees high. Because you don’t want to let your adversary use it after the merge to hide. Because, if things work out, you’d like to use it for yourself.
“Three, two, one – fight’s on!”
At “three” you’ll maybe creep the throttles up a bit. At “two” they’ll be on the mil power stops. At “one,” you’ll push them into afterburner, and raise the nose just a bit, to keep from accelerating past the target airspeed. Because once the fight starts, you’ll want the blowers fully engaged, you’ll want every advantage you can gain. From this point onward, it’s tooth and nail, hammer and tong. Just you and him, alone together in the phone booth with an exit just big enough for one.
Some have said that the art of 1v1 BFM is antiquated, a leftover from the time of airborne knights and aerial chivalry. A legacy of times past that ought to be forgone: It is useless, it is dangerous. Missiles will do the killing work at range. Sometimes when we maneuver to the edge of the performance boundaries, as we must in BFM, we cross them. Having crossed them, sometimes we crash.
Sometimes we die.
Realists say that missiles can be defeated. Purists will say that nothing teaches so well the desired attributes of aggressiveness, the desire to win, the knowledge of the airplane, the knowledge of one’s self. Others will note that from the time you see your foe in combat, and he sees you, you are 1v1 in a real, personal and very intimate sense. When you both accept the engagement, and agree to “grovel” in a full-blown fight, you have agreed that today only one of you may live, and that the other must die. With today’s weapons systems, there is no other alternative. Once you open the door, and walk into the room, it is win or die.
It is no longer business. It is personal.
At nine thousand feet of separation, your turning circles do not yet intersect. No point in trading precious airspeed for position when your adversary can take the angles back without a concomitant sacrifice. You are just too close to exchange missile attacks head on, and training rules prohibit you from forward hemisphere gun attacks. Because, while these are valid in combat, in training they would lead to far too many crashes, too many deaths, as each pilot strove for advantage.
At 1.5 miles separation, you are seven seconds away from each other.
You turn in slightly nose low – to maintain airspeed, to build turning room in the vertical. The airframe is moaning from the airspeed, the afterburners throbbing behind you – your g-suit inflates and deflates as the spring-bob which controls the valve is alternately depressed and released. You look over your shoulder, with a fixity of purpose that’s maybe only paralleled in a surgical ward: You must not lose sight.
He’s in the HUD – a left-to-left pass. Check the sun – no advantage, either way. Check airspeed – slow! Bunt the nose down. Better. Grit your teeth, he’s coming. He’s coming.
Pull the stick back in your lap, groan under the sudden onslaught of g – your 150-pound body now weighs well over a thousand pounds. The blood is pulled from your head, down towards your abdomen and legs. The g-suit inflates, fighting it. Your vision narrows, it dims. You strain, and grunt, willing the blood back up, back to your optic receptors. You must not lose sight. You fight to breathe against the strain, against the g-suit pressing on your thorax. You gasp for air. You drown.
Hard, hard across his tail, and down now, more g, striving for advantage. The earth fills your windscreen, but it’s far, far away – 20 seconds at least. Life is measured in much shorter periods in a fight. Ten seconds is an eternity.
He counters high – you dare to smile through gritted teeth inside your mask: A mistake. What goes up, must come down. What must come down is predictable. What comes down must fight against the earth’s own g force when coming back up again. A g against him, and one for you as you add your pull to earth’s own. That’s two g’s to you.
Too close now for a missile attack. It will be a guns kill, unless he rashly tries to flee: He doesn’t. He can’t. There’s time still to spend, long seconds. but it’s all over now, all over but the crying. He made a mistake.
You only get one mistake in air combat.
You have the angles, you add the pressure. You beat him down, merciless, pushing hard – now he’s out of altitude, nowhere to go. Now he’s out of airspeed, no way to get there. You switch to guns, pull lead, solve for plane of motion, solve for range. You pull the trigger. You call him out. It’s over.
There’s nothing quite like a guns kill: Missiles are mechanical – guns are aimed, guns take skill, guns require mastery.
A guns kill is personal.