Three priorities are drilled into every fledgling naval aviator’s head from the day he starts flight school: Aviate, navigate, communicate – in that order. The first and eternal priority is to maintain control of the aircraft and try to keep it in the middle of the sky, staying clear of all the edges.
Having done so, it’s considered good form to be aware of where you are from moment to moment, mostly so that you’ll get to where you hope to be going but also so that you don’t go anywhere you’re not supposed to be. When you’re cruising along at 0.9 indicated Mach or so, it’s easier than it looks to get off track if you don’t pay attention, which is why the Navy invested so much money in digital moving maps and GPS-aided inertial navigation systems.
Finally, while maintaining aircraft control and boldly proceeding along the pre-planned track, you’re supposed to maintain cheerful exchanges of data with your wingman, air traffic control or tactical controllers. Occasionally they’ll have significant things to tell you, such as vectors, holding instructions, approach clearances, formation changes, SAM launches and, oh, yeah: Terrain avoidance instructions. For those times when your mission takes you to one of the sky’s edges.
If you get task saturated – and eventually everyone does – the idea is that you shed the lesser priority tasks in sequence. But you never give up the “fly the jet” bit.
In the late fall of 1987, I had returned from my first deployment and the squadron was in the middle of a readiness bathtub, with parts, flying hour money and even whole aircraft being surged forward to squadrons preparing for deployment. We were also shaking out some of the kinks in the then-new FA-18A aircraft design, such as landing gear planing links that failed to plane the main landing gear along the aircraft longitudinal axis when the wheels came down. A planing link failure could and did cause aircraft that were otherwise performing nicely to depart the runway on landing, veering off into the brambles. We were also working through the replacement of landing gear axle lever arms, which had an alarming tendency to break on landing aboard ship, causing the machine to collapse in the arresting wires and foul the flight deck. There were issues with the GE F404 engines too, including afterburner liners that blew out, and compressor turbine blades that would crack, spin off, get trapped against the whirling compressor section until white hot and then shoot out the side of the compressor casing. Some times these molten slugs went outboard, where no additional damage was done apart from violent stalls and casing fires on the offending engine. When Murphy got his vote, the slug would cut inboard through the fuselage, merrily severing hydraulic lines and electrical cabling before squirting in to the compressor section on the opposite engine, where the whole process was duly repeated.
The first case left you flying on one engine, with an elevated heart rate from all the bangs, beeps, squeaks and red warning lights in the cockpit, accompanied by Bitchin’ Betty’s dulcet tones, “Engine Left, Engine Left,” or if you were really having a blast, “Engine Fire Left, Engine Fire Left.” The second case doubled your pleasure and left you only the option of performing the Martin-Baker approach to landing.
The engineering re-work took a little time, and we were still sixteen months away from our next deployment. The long and the short of it was that in November 1987, I flew precisely one hop, for a grand total of 1.5 hours of flight time. I followed that up in December with another singular flight of 1.3 hours. In late January I added my third flight in the rolling three month period for a whopping 2.1.
Twenty-five hours in a month was considered pretty good work, string them together. Eighteen to twenty is probably closer to the average, these days. Three-point-nine hours in a single-seat fighter wasn’t diddly-squat, and we were all of us pretty much dangerous, from the old heads down to the rawest nuggets.
In February of 1988 we got the word that Things Had Changed and we’d be deploying again in six months time – the resources tap dutifully opened up again to get us up to speed. That month I flew eleven flights for a total of 17.3 hours, and in the middle of the next month (27.3 hours) nearly killed my wingman.
I was a new section lead with a case of the a** to get back on the step and fly the aircraft the way it had been designed to fly, up against its limits. He was a fresh-faced nugget just out of the fleet replacement squadron. Nice kid, lovely young wife. Baby on the way. Going into March, the old heads were still preaching the virtues of “crawl, walk, run” as we struggled to regain our proficiency. Don’t do too much, don’t push too hard. Somebody could get hurt. But they were old men, with all the innate caution of old men. The skipper was 40 years old, for God’s sake. Even the department heads were doddering oldsters, some of them were in their mid to late 30s. They knew a lot of stuff, but we junior officers knew two things for certain: We were young, and we would never die. What we didn’t know was that we were also stupid. Or ignorant, anyway. Combined with reckless.
So, pretty much stupid.
Having had three months basically off, and having flown that whopping 17.3 hours in February working about the landing pattern and sprinkling practice bombs upon the unsuspecting target area from high altitude, your correspondent decided it was time to take the gloves off and get down into the weeds, raging around down low at 400-500 knots or so. Our low altitude two-ship tactics involved visually navigating through the Fallon, Nevada range complex with the INS backing us up. Weaving through the canyons, popping over mountain ranges and then flipping back over on our backs to dive for the desert floor. Giving her the spur all the way, because speed is life and more is better.
It was about as much fun as you could have with your pants on.
Approaching the target area we would employ complex shift and veer attacks to split the two-ship up. These tactics ensured a multi-axis attack geometry for our pop-up maneuvers and attacks. Staying low until the pop up kept you out of sight from the target’s defenders, while the pop-up maneuver aided in target acquisition and bomb delivery accuracy. A multi-prong attack kept you from taking fire – following your lead into the target wasn’t a very good idea, since the gomers on the ground might have been sleeping when lead went by, but were probably pretty stirred up by the time dash 2 got to them.
We also built timing separation into these maneuvers for frag avoidance, because if you came upon your flight lead’s impact point anywhere between five and 30 seconds after he’d released a live weapon you’d get a ringside seat to upwards of 500 pounds worth of rapidly expanding blast and frag. Depending on the breaks, that might be the last thing you’d ever get to see, and even if you did survive it, you’d have some ‘splaining to do when you put your jet back down at the home base. Like, “Where did all them holes come from?”
We’d run a couple of these attacks more or less successfully and I was working out the kinks, although I could sense that my new wingman was pretty much holding on by his fingernails. He wasn’t getting very good hits on the target, he was slow getting back into a tactical formation off target and he was flying higher than our briefed altitude of 500 feet above the ground, highlighting himself to such entirely theoretical target area defenses as MANPADS and Triple-A.
After our third attack, we re-joined to a respectable combat spread off target and were flowing away at nearly 500 knots, through a valley and towards a mountain range that would provide us some pretty good indirect terrain masking. Setting us up for our next attack, I called on the Aux Radio for a “tac left” turn. As the wingie was on my starboard side, he would initiate the tactical turn by turning 90 degrees left, crossing just slightly above me. Just after he was through about 45 degrees of turn, I’d make my own left turn and we’d roll back out in perfect combat spread on the new heading, cruising down the desert floor at 500 feet with a bag of knots, laughter in our hearts.
Only he didn’t turn, and the mountain was growing larger in my windscreen.
“Viper-2, tac left,” I repeated on the aux radio, more urgently. Still nothing. “TWO, TAC LEFT!” as the mountain leapt at us with frightful speed. My wingman was still pinned there in formation, clearly frozen. If he didn’t turn in the next two seconds I’d have to pull directly up into the vertical to avoid hitting it myself, with every anticipation of finding a smoking hole in the mountain side after I’d recovered. I burned to reach across the mile separating us and choke him, while simultaneously banking his machine to the left – it was like something from a nightmare.
Almost out of ideas, I abandoned our flight call sign in favor of his first name, shouting into the radio, “BREAK LEFT!”
That broke the spell, and he climbed sharply to the left. I called a knock it off, and we rejoined for an administrative return back to home base with three practice bombs left unexpended on each of our wings, which would ordinarily have been something of a disgrace but these were not ordinary circumstances. It was pretty quiet on the radio for the twenty or so minutes it took us to fly home, each of us lost in our private thoughts. I was thinking how I would explain to my commanding officer why I had led the squadron’s newest pilot to his death by pushing him past his limits. Trying to think what I would have said to his widow. What she would have said to his unborn son, when he got old enough to wonder why all the other kids had fathers, and he didn’t.
I think I learned something about being a flight lead from that.