By Lex, on Tue – February 15, 2005
If you’re going to fly at seven miles a minute, three hundred feet above the ground (or so), in mountainous terrain, at night –
Well. It helps to have technology on your side.
When you first start flight training, most of your missions will be in the day time. As it was pointed out to me by one of my first instrument instructor pilots (IPs), the best artificial horizon in the world is the actual one.
But eventually you “get” to fly at night.
Oh, the instructors will all tell you that you’ll eventually grow to love it – traffic is easier to see, it’s generally less turbulent at night and there’s a zen-like feeling of calm, once all the visual references to terrain have been removed. (Terrain fascinates pilots – most of those of us who die don’t die flying. Rather, they die when they stop flying – striking the terrain when unprepared is a big contributor here. And the really cool thing about terrain is that it’s there even when you can’t see it. Terrain, you see, is kind of like God. You don’t have to believe in it – it will still believe in you.)
There’s also a sneaking suspicion that the IPs are looking over your head and winking when they talk about these sorts of things – how wonderful it is to fly at night. That, coupled with the certain knowledge that any story which starts, “Now, this is no sh!t,” is much more likely to be “interesting” when you find out, “and this was at night!” and you’ll sense the vague outlines of the night snakes.
Talk to anyone who’s been in the cockpit for a while, and eventually he’ll tell you about the time he had to “kill some snakes.” Picture the image of a man stuck in a relatively confined space, strapped to a seat, and using his flight control stick to kill loose reptiles, down and around his feet. He’s banging the control stick around full throw, trying to keep from getting bit. That’s killing snakes in the cockpit.
But killing night snakes? That’s a whole other category of exciting. When something’s going wrong, and you’ve got to do a large number of complex tasks all more or less at the same time, flawlessly, in order to keep breathing for just a few more moments, at night, then – well, then you’re killing night snakes.
Which isn’t quite as much fun as maybe it sounds.
Eventually, when you get to the fleet, at least a third of your flying will be done at night. In the old days, we looked at charts and saw what the highest vertical obstruction was in a 100 nm circle, and just flew above that, adding a thousand feet or so for mom and the kids. But later on, we were treated to night vision devices – NVD’s. Goggles *.
Initially we flew at the same high altitudes as before – only now we could see the terrain that previously we only knew about intellectually. The goggles were a huge builder of situational awareness, and a net contributor to safety. You could see air traffic (if they had any lights on) at 50 or even 100 miles away. You could fly formation on your wingman much more easily. Anyone shooting at you with SAMs or AAA were far easier to spot, and defend against. They didn’t quite turn night into day (only the sun can do that), but we loved them.
There were some down sides to them – you had to do a lot of fine adjustments very precisely when putting them on your helmet, or else you could pretty much guarantee yourself a blinding headache. The field of view was much narrower than your normal visual scan – depth perception was problematical, and you’d never see traffic off your nose unless you turned your whole head (not just your eyes) to look for it. And then, to ice the cake, someone found out that those army guys were flying helicopters way down low, nap of the earth, using goggles. At night.
Wouldn’t that be neat?
At first, your humble scribe was somewhat cool to the notion. So, helo pilots were flying down low at night on googles. Bully for them. Except that helos fly low perforce – they have a hard time getting to what a jet jock would describe as “medium” altitude, far less high flight. It’s not like it’s their fault or anything, there are, I understand, certain physical limitations on what a whirling rotor can do for you, when the air gets thin. Night or no.
So flying low, at night, in a helo, was nothing but making a virtue of necessity, for those would fly helos, at night. Plus (and this was the kicker, in my view), army helo pilots were killing themselves graveyard dead in non-trivial numbers flying on goggles at night, down low. At 150 knots.
A speed at which a Hornet pilot has not yet rotated the nose up for take-off on a normal day. Or night.
We don’t get going, really, until we’re going twice that speed. And no one would describe as “tactical” anything to do with flight at less than 400 kts.
So you had to forgive me for being singularly unimpressed, when I heard about a training program to teach FA-18 pilots to fly low, at night, on googles.
At first we were all going to learn how to do it. Then we promptly killed a few guys, and changed our mind – only those who were very experienced would do it. Which was all well and good, as far as I was concerned (up high, wearing goggles, smiling in my mask), until one day, I became one of those very experienced folks.
There’s no good way to say “no” to advanced qualifications. Whether it’s a strike leader ** qual, a functional check flight ** designation, or an NVG (Low Altitude) certification. Some you volunteer for. Some you accept. None do you decline. It simply isn’t done.
So I got trained to be a night, low altitude, NVD pilot.
Max kudo’s to the instructors over at the fleet replacement squadron who carried my sometimes unwilling, and always unenthusiastic weight through the training process. Even more to those who, unencumbered by the bonds of family and friendship, or incapable of imagination, agreed to ride in the trunk of the two-seat trainer while I eased myself down to low altitude for the first few training events. In the mountains. At night. (Did I mention the mountains?)
Because one of the bewitching things about flying down low with NVDs is that the lower you get, the better you can see the terrain you’re flying over – the more nearly it appears “real.” The lower you go, the more comfortable you are, flying low.
But you’re not safer, down there. You’re just more comfortable.
We have lost quite a number of tactical aviators to low altitude flight, at night. They all died very comfortably.
But your humble scribe was blessed with both the ties that bind and an (over?) active imagination. Grudgingly did I descend to the low altitude structure, with the mountains all around. With a heavy heart did I re-set my radar altimeter warning “bug” at ever lower altitude settings. Carefully did I prick my ears for the warning hisses of those night snakes. Oh, how I yearned to plug the blowers in and point the nose up into the cobalt blue (dark green, on goggles) sky and get the hell away from the unyielding, uncaring terrain.
A job to do though. And a night to do it in.
So no, it’s not all beer and getting the girl, flying fighters.
* 07-05-18 Link gone; substitute found. I don’t know if these are what Lex used, though – Ed.
** Link gone; no substitute found – Ed.