At the risk of offending the world I will share my conviction that there are essentially three kinds of pilots in TACAIR – tacticians, show-offs and engineers. Well, there are also plumbers and farmers, but my tale does not concern them.
Most of the engineers look at flying as an exceptionally complex mathematical problem. They know that if they could only control for all the decision variables and fully understand the constraints, that the linear application of force “x” will always result in desired output “y.” They get a distant, dreamy expression in their eyes when they talk about things like “mean aerodynamic chord line,” and the “Reynolds number.” Discussions on the implications of Bernoulli’s Law can send them into raptures, but they never quite understand why – despite their superior understanding of the machine and the fluid in which it operates – they so very often end up defensive in a 1v1, looking over their shoulder as their adversary closes to guns. Engineers pray at the altar of Test Pilot School.
Many showoffs live for the glamor of flying, their joy comes in the joy they give, the excitement that reflects back upon them by their acts of aerial derring-do. A showoff always needs an audience and if he does not have one, he will either create one in his own imagination – “if they could only see me now” – or he will practice for the time when he does have one: “Wait ’til they see this!” They are very often excellent aviators because they are always on stage, always performing, even if only in their own minds. Showoffs pray at the altar of “dynamic air demos” at air shows, and the very best, most motivated and most affable will end up as high priests at the temple of the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron – the Blue Angels.
Finally we come to tacticians. A true tactician lives only to fight, he devotes himself to the art and science delivering precisely aimed ordnance – whether it be air-to-air or air-to-mud – exactly upon the point of maximum effect. Tacticians tend to be somewhat boring, fixed and even grim devotees of arcane knowledge – they bury their heads in the employment manuals, spend hundreds of hours analyzing the threats, learn how to maneuver their airplanes and those of others to optimize their lethality. They’re smart and they’re hard and they can be tricky bastards: They’ll scratch and claw for the slightest advantage, attempt to get into your head from thirty miles away just to mess with you and they’re not above cheating because they know deep in their hearts that in combat there are no points for second place, and that you will fight like you have trained. Tacticians worship at the altar of their typewing weapons schools, and their high priests are the shaolin monks who stride the prestigious halls of the original: The Navy Fighter Weapons School – TOPGUN.
There are no engineers in the showoff cohort, and damned few showoffs are actual tacticians, although some will for a time pretend to be. And while there is some cross-over between the engineer and tactical pools, I only ever knew of one man who was first a tactician – and TOPGUN instructor – before achieving the eminence of showmanship: He became a Blue Angel. His callsign was “Cato,” and I guess you could say that his flying career was blessed. He was a Marine FA-18 pilot at the school back in the early 90′s, built like an Adonis with piercing eyes and a Buzz Lightyear jawline. Women tripped over themselves to get next to him and men wanted to be his friend. He was a damned good pilot and instructor too. It almost wasn’t fair.
There was a deep undercurrent of tradition at TOPGUN, a reverence for those who had gone before, taking at least 5 enemy aircraft with them to earn the coveted title of “ace.” There was an equal opportunity pantheon of dashboard saints to which the Jedi masters and their paduan learners made obeisance: Israeli Air Force fighter pilots had equal billing with World War I German aces, and the words of each of them, and all the others, had an almost mystic power over the school’s devotees. For many years after the Phantom had gone into the night, but before the Hornet had ascended to the throne, the place was run by Tomcat pilots and RIOs, guys who could take lethal shots into bad guys at such long ranges that the bandits themselves wouldn’t even be in radar range to know that they were in trouble. But deadly as the F-14 might have been at a distance, the jet was a beast in a close-in fight, especially the vanilla F-14A model. It was awkward, underpowered, and had terrible slow speed handling qualities, a series of deficiencies only remedied when they re-engined the jet for the A+, B, and D versions. And all of them had huge visual signatures, a distinct disadvantage in a turning fight.
But fighter pilots who want to win – and there aren’t any other kind – don’t blame their gear for holding them back, they find a way to succeed despite it. And so it was that one of the more famous quotes to grace the halls of the school to somber approbation was this one by the Red Baron himself, Baron Manfred Von Richtofen:
“The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.”
You saw it on photographs in the hallway, on lecture screens and heard it in conversation during debriefs. It was as close as you could come to dogma. The attitude behind those words explained a great deal about why good F-14 crews could be as successful as they were in training and when the opportunity arose to execute in combat. They believed in themselves because they had to – you want that spirit in your fighter pilots.
Now, the Viper pretty much had it all: Thrust-to-weight, digital flight controls, reliable engine, clamshell canopy and a reliable, if relatively underpowered radar. It was a handful when flown by a competent pilot, and the TOPGUN instructors were thoroughly competent. The Super Fox on the other hand, was sneaky mean. It had a huge engine for a small airplane – it had been re-purposed from the much heavier EA-6B line – and was an exceptionally agile slow speed jet in good hands, although you had to respect the jet. It would gladly break a plumber’s neck, throw him to the curb and snarlingly spit on his corpse. But most of all, it was a pilot’s airplane: You got out of it what you put into it and there were no flight control computers to make Mongo look good.
One day Cato was out flying red air against some students in the class, and, having completed the first hack, the bandits were marshalling for the second push. He didn’t show up at the rendezvous, and neither the flight lead nor the bandit range control officer could contact him on the radio – they assumed that the A-4′s somewhat brittle radios had crapped out forcing Cato to work his way clear of the fight and back to Yuma for a comm-out approach and landing. It wasn’t until they’d finished the second hack and were heading back to get set up for the third that one of the bandit sections saw the oily smoke and ground fire characteristic of an jet airplane crash.
The lead bent his jet around and slowed it down, looking around the wreckage, looking for some sign of life. On his second pass of the crash site, he saw Cato standing like an oak tree a couple hundred yards away from the fire with his legs spread and his helmet tucked under his arm, not a hair out of place. A sheriff’s truck was barreling down a dirt road to pick him up. He was OK.
It turned out that as he was clearing the first merge, he’d turned hard to engage a Tomcat that hadn’t even seen him. His jet had recently come out of maintenance for an engine replacement, and somehow the mechanics had contrived to re-assemble the jet improperly. It broke in two under his g-application, right at the fuselage joint. One moment he was crossing a Tomcat’s tail with an advantage, the next moment he’d left his wings and engine behind and was tumbling through the air, encased only in a suddenly uncomfortable cockpit. Ejection made good sense, and fortunately he wasn’t much barked up by the experience. The sheriff even took a picture of him standing in front of the still-burning wreckage, a smile tickling the corners of his mouth.
That photo also graces the halls of the prestigious Navy Fighter Weapons School to this day, unless I am much mistaken. On the matte is this quote:
“The quality of the box matters little. But it does matter.”