By lex, on January 12th, 2011
When I was a lad, my first hack at aerial gunnery was in the mighty T-2C Buckeye, a high performance radial interceptor. It didn’t have an actual gun, of course, but the jet did have a pseudo high tech laser optical gunsight to score “hits” on a banner towed a couple thousand feet behind an instructor in his own T-2C. Which didn’t work, of course.
I wondered at the time how much we paid for that gunsight.
Gunnery in the T-2C was executed in what was known as a “straight line” pattern. The tractor pilot flew a constant heading for 50 miles or so at 200knots. Gunners started from a “perch” couple thousand feet above and to the right of the tractor aircraft also at 200kts, same heading. From there you rolled in a left overbank until nose on to the banner.
Nose on and accelerating, you’d reverse back to the right for a 20-30 angle off tail firing run. Cease fire occurred at about a thousand feet from the banner, still stepped up a few hundred feet. As you came off the attack run, you pulled up to pass above and behind the tractor. Once safely deconflicted you pulled to parallel his fight path before commencing a right hand climbing turn across his flight path with a left hand reversal back to the perch. Once there, you rolled back in again.
If it sounds a little complicated, it’s because it was. What made it more difficult was that there were three other students in the pattern with you. Each of them – having successfully passed his gunnery checkride – solo. We joked that the carrier training squadron and the gunnery squadron at Meridian – the duties were split – competed to see who could pass out the highest number of “downs” in those two, most advanced stages. When it was running smoothly, it was a thing of beauty though. When it wasn’t the tractor pilots really earned their flight pay. The gun pattern was an excellent way of turning the aerobatic training we’d previously received – complete with varying control forces, g and feedback that came with increasing and decreasing airspeed – into something pragmatic.
My next bout at air-to-air gunnery was in the FA-18 training squadron, where we employed a much simpler circular pattern. Deconfliction was simpler, and obviously you needed far less airspace to execute – crucially important due to the fact that we were live firing the 20mm cannon, and sprinkling 20mm shells over vast distances was considered poor form.
The Hornet’s gunsight was nut’s on accurate with a radar lock, and the real risk was that of shooting the banner off the towline.
Which is an absurdly retrospective lead-in to this bit of news:
The 82nd Aerial Target Squadron officials here are replacing the use of Lear jets for their banner tow missions with the F-4 Phantom, creating an air-to-air target that aircrews in training can safely evaluate, develop and test their weapons systems.
“We developed the idea to use the F-4 for the banner tow missions to ensure our combat fighter aircrews could continue training and developing their aerial gunnery skills,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Luchsinger, the 82nd ATRS commander. “Due to costs, the Navy contract for use of the Lear jets was being cut, and we had no other way to accomplish this training. The F-4 was the perfect platform to tow the banner and ensure we kept their aerial gunnery proficiency.”
The F-4 models in use by the 82nd ATRS range in age from 36 to 42 years old and are flown and maintained here. New procedures for attaching the banner to the jet had to be developed to ensure safety and effectiveness.
“We did our research and came up with new procedures for attaching the banner,” said Maj. William Hope, the 53rd Test Support Squadron Assistant Director of Operations and the F-4 banner tow project manager. “We adapted them from an old Navy banner tow system of another F-4 model and made some minor changes to the equipment to make it safer as well.”
First, I am surprised to learn that there are still F-4s operating to drag banners. Mostly, however, I am shocked to learn of any business model by which it can be more efficient to tow gunnery banners with Phantoms than Lears.
Somebody must have been making quite a tidy profit on that little contract.