There are few words so immediately blood-chilling in their effect upon tactical aviators, as these: “mid-air.” It is an abbreviation for “mid-air collision,” and conjures up images of once sleek, purposeful and lethal high performance aircraft reduced in a moment to odd pieces of flaming trash, fluttering to earth – instant chaos from order.
Mention that you have recently heard the news of a mid-air and prepare yourself for the customary, almost involuntary response: “Did anyone get out?”
There are many ways to die in fighters. The most common is controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT. It’s a long term that essentially boils down to “dummy flew too low.” While we can and do mourn people who die this way, we also have a tendency to shrug a bit, mentally. After all, you can only tie the low altitude record. Should have known better.
Mid-airs can occur between flight members, as someone’s attention drifts or gets over-channelized; the wingman has primary collision avoidance responsibility, but a poor flight lead can certainly contribute by behaving unpredictably in a moment when a flight is task-saturated.
They can occur in a slow-speed fight, when the aircraft are performing at their aerodynamic limits and nothing is left to draw upon when one or both combatants miscalculate the vector – these can have a slow motion, nightmarish character of inescapable doom that hasn’t quite happened yet. One pilot may survive such a collision, much more rarely both will. The aircraft themselves, of course, are almost always destroyed.
But the third and most lethal form of mid-air collision is the head-on. No one ever survives a head-on collision. Closure rates are so very high that the moment is over before conscious thought can form, and the forces are catastrophic. And I think that’s what so frightening about the head-on collision: pilots are essentially control freaks, in charge of their destinies. But in the moment you realize that you are approaching a head-on collision, a moment that transitions seamlessly between “in control, looking good” to a red wave of panic, there is often only one chance to escape, one last-ditch move and whether or not you live through the next instant will depend entirely upon what the other guy does: If his reaction mirrors yours, it means instant, unknowing death.
One fine morning in Key West, Florida I briefed and led a large force adversary flight against a squadron of Marine F-4′s, the venerable Phantom II. The Phantom had been a workhorse fighter in Vietnam, but by the early 90′s, its prime was long past, and this particular squadron was composed of reservists – airline pilots mostly – on their last detachment from home base in a storied aircraft they had grown to love.
I was flying the F-16N, a true joy to fly, with thrust to spare and as much “g” available as a man could stand. The “Viper” was fast, beautiful and lethal, the Phantom fast, muscular and obsolete. In a close-in fight, there was no contest – it was like killing baby seals.
Everything had gone according to plan during our take-off, rendezvous and transit to the operating area. It was a perfect day in the Bay of Florida, the sky and sea a kaleidoscope of brilliant blues and azure greens. The horizon seemed etched with a diamond bit in the distance, almost impossibly fine and clear. It was a glorious morning for a fight.
Since it was a large force fight, with multiple fighters and multiple bandits, my bandits and the fighters were on separate frequencies – we’d need all of our radios to control our own flights, and a controller on the ground would pass any inter-flight communications to his counterpart in the next chair. Our procedural training rules were to serve for flight path de-confliction – we would remain in separate altitude blocks until we had visual contact with our adversaries. A left-to-left pass at the merge was prescribed, unless setting that up required us to cross flight paths – in that case we would exaggerate our turn away to port to set up a right-to-right pass. We would preserve no less than a 500 foot “bubble” between aircraft. We would take shots pre-merge, but all kill removal was to occur after the merge.
We called “ready in the west,” to our controller, and he responded that the fighters were “ready in the east.”
I called my four-ship into a starboard turn to face the threat head on, some 40 miles away. Once on course, I shook them out of cruise formation, spreading them to tactical. At my signal, four General Electric F110 engines went to full afterburner, each generating nearly 24,000 pounds of static thrust. As we slipped through mach 1.0, I felt a tiny bump as the compressed air from the transonic shock wave detached from my wing.
Our radars swept the skies, and soon we had contact on the lead flight of Phantoms. The radar warning receiver on one of my wingman’s aircraft lit up, with it’s distinctive “cricket” sound – he was targeted. My RWR remained silent – I smiled grimly inside my mask.
In short order I had broken out my target from the rest of his flight and taken a final lock-on for a missile attack. The closure velocity was instantly displayed in my HUD: 1300 kts Vc. We were closing range at rate of more than a mile every three seconds. Tally-ho (target in sight) at 6 miles, 15 seconds to the merge. Switching to the heat-seeking Sidewinder missile, the cool rasp of the missile rising instantly to a loud whine as the seeker locked on to the target. The dot on the horizon grows quickly into a wingform, then into a recognizable shape – a Phantom – I took a shot at three miles, eight seconds to the merge.
The Phantom pilot checked into me slightly at two miles – he had picked me up visually and was seeking to neutralize the merge. Four seconds. His jet grows larger in my field of view – I can distinguish his jet intakes on the wingline.
He seemed a bit higher than me, but displaced neither right nor left. In my mind’s eye a game plan forms: I’ll take my 500 feet of separation below him – as I pass under his nose he’ll lose sight briefly – a nine “g” turn from under his belly, he won’t see me again until after I clear his tail in the vertical, with advantages of 90 degrees in angle, and 1500 feet in altitude – all that a flashing series of images, no textual thought. Three seconds.
Vertical separation not quite 500 feet, I bunt the sidestick controller forward, seeking to build separation. As the jet unloads, I float gently off my seat, retained by the harness straps. Two seconds. Still not enough separation, increase forward stick pressure – now my head hits the top of the canopy.
His jet grows larger in my windscreen – there is no relative motion – CBDR flashes in red lights in my brain – Constant Bearing, Decreasing Range. We’re going to hit! Full aft stick, full left stick, turn belly up, blind – a missile defense at 1/2 mile, one second to impact – I close my eyes.
I come out of the displacement roll with the Phantom’s belly just above my head, a shadowy blur of engines and wings and fuselage missiles that blots out everything and is then gone, leaving only the sound of his engines echoing in my ears and the thump of his supersonic shock wave across my wings.
And so I learned the distinction between panic and fear – fear is rational, panic is instinctive. I cleared the fight, told my wingmen that I was going home, hoped that the shaking stopped before I had to land. It would have been a distraction. It does.
Later in the debrief, I freeze the tape at our merge – it’s recorded on the air combat training system. Two pods, one on each of our aircraft, continuously report back to ground stations on position, velocity, angle of attack. At the moment of our merge, the two pods show 15 feet of separation from each other. His pod is on his left wing, mine is on my left wing tip. They would have been at least 15 feet apart if we had in fact hit each other.
So yeah, I learned about flying from that.