Every strike fighter pilot worth his salt has a dream, a very simple one: In this dream he will launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea loaded for bear. Having marshalled the forces at his disposal – the dream is scaleable by experience and qualification: The forces at a wingman’s disposal are himself, his jet and the weapons he is carrying, while a strike lead may have 18-20 other aircraft attuned to his every whim – he will navigate his craft towards a target, acquire the target successfully and deliver his ordnance precisely. He will capture the moment of the target’s destruction on video tape in his cockpit, a kind of scalp-taking for the digital age – call it: Proof of death. Having successfully cleared the defenses around the target – if it was worth attacking, it was worth defending – he will regain situational awareness to his team members, reset the formation and head back to the ship, making good time.
And then it will happen: Having transitioned out of air-to-ground mode and back to air-to-air, he will dig something out of the ground on the margins of his radar, something that doesn’t make sense, not one of us, moving fast, climbing – heading our way. Or else the watchful eyes of an E-2 NFO will report a pop-up contact between his group and the ship, altitude low, identity unknown. Or maybe even something at six o’clock, moving fast. Moving very fast. Closing.
The strike fighter pilot will ask terse questions of the E-2, his wingman, do the math quickly in his head, compare it to his pre-briefed commit criteria. Here we are, that is where we are going – he is over there, this is his reported speed, those are the intercept angles. Having done the calculations, his eyes momentarily unseeing even as the airspeed builds on the jet, he will decide: Commit, or run away.
It may sound easy, but it’s not: An off target commit is necessarily defensive in nature – although you’d prepared for every contingency, the mission had been to strike targets that day, not bag MiGs, and for the last several minutes you had been wholly obsessed with the former.
A commit means turning to find the threat on radar, evaluating his composition – one bandit or two? Assessing his position, airspeed, altitude and target angle – am I being led into a trap? Employing weapons successfully and then separating from the wreckage – do I have enough fuel remaining? What if I get in a brawl? All these things sound simple in theory.
But in practice they are strenuously cramped and crowded moments, with the outcome ever in doubt and your very life on the line. It should be simple to find the threat, but sometimes you do not, or there may be others in company you did not find. It should be simple to execute the weapons employment, but sometimes weapons fail, leaving you up close with an agitated foe in a visual engagement, a kind of aerial “Thunderdome” where the rules are simple: “Two men enter, one man leaves.” And yes, my love – those are the only choices.
Everyone wants to paint a MiG planform on his jet, but no one wants to die, or – what might be worse – spend an indeterminate time as the imprisoned guest of a brutal and tyrannical regime. Fortune may favor the bold, but sometimes discretion truly is the better part of valor. And after all, you have by now done what you were asked to do, the target is destroyed – he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.
But running away is no sure thing, not when a bad guy has angles on you, and perhaps a speed advantage as well. There comes a point when it is too late to commit and your only remaining choice is to strain around in your seat and check between your tails, to wait for the sight of missile smoke at six o’clock, and pray that you can defeat the threat, for when a bandit has closed nearly to weapons release range any turn you might make will only help him solve his problem.
Some times you cannot run away. Some things are best dealt with while they are merely hard, rather than waiting until they are nearly impossible. Nothing is certain in life but death and taxes, and when facing these kinds of binary choices, it is always comforting to have at your side a good wingman.
(to be continued…)