By lex, on August 20th, 2006
In the good old days of flying bogies at the Conch Republic, it was routine for the bandits, flying F-16’s, F-5’s‚ and A-4’s to run the fighters “out of gas”. They had to CAP at tactical airspeeds, and for the most part we didn’t. We’d run our presentations, fight, kill and die like good bandits, and then head back to our own CAP to wait for the next hack. The fighters on the other hand, were required to pretty much rage around in full grunt from the commit to the knock-it-off, since speed is life and unlike bandits, fighters aren’t supposed to die.
So after two or three runs, maybe four if we were up against Tomcats, the fighters would bingo back to the field, leaving us with whatever we had left to do whatever we might desire.
Which generally speaking, was fight some more.
Sometimes we’d let a pair of our radar equipped F-16’s run against the A-4s and F-5s, especially if one of the Viper jocks was an F-14 pilot new to the jet, and still working on running his own radar. More often though, we’d run a 1 v everyone, where it was you against the world, who was also against the world, and to make it interesting we’d limit ourselves to rear-aspect weapons, AIM-9P’s and guns. While no one would ever plan to go into combat alone, there was always the chance that you might have to get out of a fight by yourself if you and your wingie got separated, or if, God forbid, he was shot down.
It was a great lookout drill, and also very useful to develop the critical mental skill of plotting, grabbing a snapshot of where an adversary was headed, left turn or right, nose high or nose low, one-circle flow or two – and then scanning other visual quadrants threats while mentally advancing his position across the sky. Easy to do with one adversary, harder with two, pretty damn hard with three, especially while continuously checking six, flashing a wing for a belly check and the other tasks that come with handling a high speed fighter in three dimensions, under g.
The real key to success in such an affair is to keep everyone else in sight – lose sight, lose the fight – keep your speed up (that whole life thing again) and to try to be the last to engage. When a fighter engages in 1v1 air combat, especially from a neutral start, he loses airspeed rapidly, while also becoming predictable. Low, slow and usually target fixated, the first two guys who lose their patience and get into a phone booth are generally easy pickings for the rest.
If there were only three in the group, a poacher might wait until one of the other two had gotten defensive, and then pounce first on his pursuer. Using the advantage in airspeed he’d then roll in on the defensive bogey, making short work of what was left. It should probably be pointed out that not every engagement was inadvertently premature: Although it may surprise casual readers, it has been defensibly asserted that fighter pilots as a group are gifted with a perhaps regrettable excess of personality. Conflicts arise and sometimes there are grudges to be settled. To hell with the rest of you.
It gets a little harder when there are four jets out there. With all of those circles being scribed in a sphere of maybe two or three mile radius, it’s almost inevitable that one or two will intersect, causing one pilot to think he’s got the opportunity for a quick shot and a bug out, or another to feel like he has to honor the threat and execute a break turn – and a break turn in that environment is like blood in the water to a school of sharks. Once the first guy broke it was game on, and the devil take the foremost.
A variation on the theme was called, “fight center”. The bogey lead would call out a fix based on the local TACAN, and an altitude band thusly: 275 (degrees) for 35 (miles), 15 to 20 (thousand feet) to arm, and then it was each pilot’s task to tag up at the fix before jumping into the fray. The fix was never far enough away for anyone to build a radar picture, so the fight would always be based on a visual pick-up.
The A-4’s would usually circle warily at medium altitude and relatively slow speed, since, although they were subsonic jets, built for attack, they were superbly nimble at slow speeds in well-trained hands, with high turn rates and a vanishingly small turn radius. The sleek F-16’s would often hit the fix at mach 1.0 and then stand it on the tail, trying to extend vertically into the sun, looking down behind them in the climb for a target opportunity, a chance to reverse back down, make a slashing attack, and bug out of the fight, regain their knots and make another attempt. The F-5s, neither as powerful as the Vipers, nor as maneuverable at slow speed as the Skyhawks, presented such a small visual signature either nose- or tail-on that we used to call sneaking into a fight that way, turning on the cloaking device. The F-5’s would typically shoot through the arming fix at high speed in a similar fashion to the Vipers, but separate horizontally rather than vertically, out to visual limits before bending it around again to see if any interesting tail pipes offered themselves up on the pass through.
I remember one bright and shiny day over the Bay of Florida where two of the Vipers crossed fight center at almost the same time, jumping into the sun and building vertical separation. They had their heads strained back over their shoulders no doubt, looking for your correspondent in an A-4, and another fellow in an F-5. At almost the same moment, the two F-16 jocks looked across the horizon and saw each other for the first time, perhaps two thousand feet apart, 90 degrees nose high, airspeed diminishing. They each hesitated, neither one of them knowing quite how to turn such an unusual position to advantage, while the F-5, seeing his opportunity, crossed the arming fix and headed up after them. He shot one of the Vipers in the tail, freeing the other to react defensively, pitching back down into the F-5, alas, too aggressively. The F-16 jock, nose high and slowing through 30,000 feet, immediately put the airplane into a deep stall during his break turn, and became fully, fixedly and silently preoccupied with recovering from that. The F-5 pilot, sensing an advantage, tried to extend past the fluttering Viper as it passed him by, extending into the vertical. But no, an F-5 is no F-16 and it was not to be: Passing 30,000 feet or so, with the airspeed dwindling below 150 knots, both of his oxygen starved J85 engines softly sighed, and suddenly died, taking with them both AC generators and the cabin pressurization. With one F-16 and out of the fight, the second trying to pitch rock himself out of a deep stall and the F-5 pilot required to demonstrate an unnatural degree of patience, the airstart envelope for the F-5 topped out at 25,000 feet so he had to wait for what seemed like an eternity with the lights out before attempting a restart, your humble scribe was the last man standing before he even had a chance to call a shot.
I guess you could say I was lucky in my choice of adversaries that day. It’s always better to be lucky than good.