By lex, on April 23rd, 2011
So it was back sometime in the early 1990′s, and your host – having successfully concluded his first sea tour flying the FA-18 Hornet – was an adversary pilot at NAS Key West, Florida. I was a lieutenant on the cusp of making lieutenant commander, which in a naval sense meant that I was in the very throes of my transition from adolescence to adulthood. There were three types of jets to fly, and on a given day we might fly a sortie in each of the F-16N, F-5E or venerable A-4E Skyhawk – God’s jet, to a stick and rudder man.
And it was all basic fighter maneuvering and air combat maneuvers, the first being the 1 to 1 match of man and machine versus another, the latter being of the multi-plane variety, first in 2v2s, then 2vmany, then four-ship engagements versus practically the whole squadron. We were taught to emulate Soviet air combat doctrine, and just as the US fighters of the time were greatly more technologically advanced than the Fitters, Fishbeds and Floggers which were widely scattered and strewn over various Third World hellholes, so too were our FA-18 and F-14 opponents flying greatly superior aircraft to our A-4 “Scooters” and F-5 Tigers. The technological disadvantage narrowed when we replicated the MiG-29 Fulcrums and Su-27 Flankers making their Third Generation way on stage with our F-16 “Vipers,” but our blue forces depended upon their superior training – which it was our role to give them – initiative and boldness: “Only the spirit of attack born in a brave heart will bring success to any fighter aircraft no matter how highly developed it may be.” –Adolf Galland
Our F-16s were still outgunned in forward hemisphere engagements, so we used guile, deception and carefully choreographed maneuver to confuse the blue force’s air combat picture, enabling our superior numbers to overwhelm the blue force fighters. Once we were “in the phone booth” with the foe, our superior familiarity with the mission often carried the day for the Scooters and Vipers, while the Tigers – which were not as maneuverable in a close-in fight, but small and very hard to see nose or tail on – prowled the edges of the fight, looking to pounce on the unsuspecting.
“Know the enemy and know yourself,” said the Chinese general Sun Tzu in the 6th Century BC, “and you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” We had flown the fleet aircraft ourselves, and knew their capabilities and limits, we were trained to a fever pitch in air combat, practicing nothing else for 30 to 40 hours per month, and it was many the F-14 and FA-18 pilot who learned to his dismay what it meant to get tied up in a slow-speed fight with Scooter, or to try and turn tail and run from an 800KT Viper.
Which was all to the point: Our adversary squadrons taught the fleet what it meant to engage a wily and experienced foe, who often had the advantage of numbers. Pick your fights carefully, engage with advantage, get slow at your peril and always, always check six. At the beginning of a two-week detachment, the blue force would often be bloodied and humbled. At the end, having carefully learned the harsh lessons of war, in lectures, in flight and in comprehensive debriefs, they would emerge lethal and victorious. Fight to victory over some of the Navy’s finest fighter pilots and you could be sure of dominance in any peripheral scrape.
Although the pilots of the 45th Fleet Adversary squadron did not deploy for months on end to sea with one another, with all of the intimacy that such enforced proximity engenders, we were still a pretty close knit group. We had flown with and against each other time and time again, we were well trained and disciplined and we knew what to expect of one another. Having exhaustively debriefed the fighters at the conclusion of each flight, we would often spend another 15-30 minutes debriefing ourselves, going over the fine points of our execution, and internalizing lessons for the next time. We trusted one another, as much as you can trust any man hurtling through the sky in close and swirling proximity, flying a 20,000 pound machine full of jet fuel at various g-loadings and at speeds from 150KTs to four or even six hundred.
So it came to pass one day that I and five of my compatriots manned up our various aircraft, each with a red star painted on the tail over Soviet-style camouflage. A flight of four FA-18s taxied out in front of us, lean and deadly, their aircrews carefully programming their weapons systems and radar set-ups for engagements near or far. After a decent interval designed to allow them 40 miles or more of separation from us once on our combat air patrol stations, we followed them into the sky.
Our game plan for the first engagement was to set up an azimuth problem for the fighters up front, with a trailing element coming in low and fast behind them waiting to pounce on any blue force fighters that too long engaged the forward decoys. The fight axis was oriented east-west, and I was in the northern arm of the decoy element forward, flying my trusty, single-seat Scooter, an airplane with a cockpit so small and cramped that you strapped the airplane on rather than strapped into it.
I was heading west towards the fighters at nearly 30,000 feet and cooking along at pretty close to 0.9 Mach, which was about as fast as you really wanted to go in the subsonic Skyhawk. Having only one radio, and without dedicated ground control of our own, we silently monitored the fighter’s communications, both for safety of flight purposes once engaged, to call our kill-shots once we had them and also to provide us some situational awareness of the fighters’ intentions. Thus it was that I came to learn that I had been targeted by one element of the blue four-ship, and that they had indeed launched a simulated missile salvo at me at an appropriate range.
It’s never good to die as an adversary pilot, even in simulation. Not unless the blue force had earned it, and this I fully intended to make them do. I maneuvered sharply back to the north, the airframe shuddering slightly in the thin air, before rolling the jet inverted and diving for the deck. A quick glance at the airspeed indicator passing 20,000 feet showed that I was perilously close to going through the number – in transonic flight, the A-4 tended to dive into what was known as a “Mach tuck,” and recovery could be difficult, since elevator authority was compromised. The only way to recover the jet to the horizon was to trim the entire horizontal stabilizer nose up, which could easily result in a g-overshoot.
To avert this occurrence, I thumbed out the fuselage-mounted speedbrakes using the throttle switch. Which is when things got just a little bit worse: Trusty as my 35-year old steed might have been, the utility hydraulic lines that supplied 1600PSI pressure to the speedbrakes groaned at the loads imposed on them in that high-speed dive before giving up the ghost entirely. A yellow annunciator light on my instrument panel labeled “UTIL HYD” illuminated, informing me that I had experienced a failure in that system’s integrity. There would by hydraulic fluid pooling and swirling around hot parts where it had no decent right to be, and with that the concomitant risk of fire, but my most pressing concern was that I was still going downhill like a sonofabitch, and Plan A had failed.
The fighters bearing down on me from the west were now the least of my concerns as I hauled back manfully on the controls, gently tickling the electric stabilizer trim coolie hat atop the stick. Her nose started to nod up and down a bit before finally coming back under control and popping back above the horizon: Success! And I didn’t even over-g.
I radioed a “knock-it-off” call on the shared frequency, and turned my wounded machine back towards NAS Key West, limping back home over a cerulean and indifferent sea. My flight lead, an experienced test flight pilot, joined me on our squadron common frequency to provide mutual support during my return to base.
Crew coordination in single-seat fighters consists of the pilot with the emergency executing his memorized “boldface” procedures while his supporting wingman backs him up using a pocket checklist. My wingie dutifully read the steps and I dutifully complied, first slowing to 200KTs, and then reaching for the flight control disconnect handle as he directed. Before a nagging thought stopped my hand: “What page of the checklist are you on?” I asked.
“Say again?” the wingie replied.
“The checklist, what page are you on?” Because the Skyhawk had two separate hydraulic systems, one for utility purposes such as landing gear, speed brakes and spoilers, and one for the flight controls: Elevator, ailerons and rudders. I already had one hyd system failure, and disconnecting the flight controls from their associated hydraulic system would have made for a compound emergency.
Turned out that my more experienced mentor, who routinely flew checkflights requiring flight control disconnects, had himself been running off memory and experience rather than using the pocket checklist with its detailed procedures. I felt a little smug at having caught him out on checklists, and he got a little less directive on the radio.
I chose an off-duty runway for my straight in approach, and lowered the arresting hook to engage the approach end arresting gear. The wheel brakes would still have worked just fine, but without wing spoilers the Scooter could be a little tricky to handle on deck at high speed.
I had by that time a few hundred arrested landings, most of them in the FA-18. In the Hornet you were supposed to lock the restraint harness that kept you strapped securely in the ejection seat before landing – it was a part of the landing checklist – but it was no big deal if you didn’t: There was an inertial reel incorporated within the seats of all carrier aircraft that would sense sudden decelerations and apply the brakes. The Scooter had one too.
Only that inertial reel, like my poor, wounded utility hydraulic line, was also 35-years old. I landed safely at about 125kts, took the gear at maybe 115 or so and was thrown violently forward in the cockpit, getting a face-full of the 8-day clock mounted on the canopy as the airplane came to a sudden stop, the arresting wire snaking and hissing behind it. It was a sunny day, fortunately, because my helmet visor was down and took the brunt of the collision, cracking in two places, or otherwise I would present an entirely different face to the world to this day. I was momentarily stunned and a little bruised, but none the worse for wear as the aircraft ticked down in the cable and the fire trucks raced up alongside me.
And I wasn’t feeling quite so smug about checklists.