There are very few things to admire about a 0500 brief on a Saturday morning. The Weapons School lost some sorties during the course of the week due to weather, and quality being the measure by which all things are reckoned, they would have to be made up. But still.
Fifteen degrees Fahrenheit on wake-up. Pitch black skies. A division of sleepy fighters in the brief, and seven to eight sleepy bandits. My chief contribution was departure/spin procedures for the jet: “Controls neutral, pitch trim one second forward, check speedbrake in, throttle as set. Passing 180 knots recover, passing 6000 feet recovery not initiated eject. In a spin, stick full into the spin mark in the direction of turns, throttle smoothly idle, recover at 180 knots, passing 6000 feet recovery not initiated eject.”
Unlike the far more advanced customers we service, the aircraft is dead simple. If she starts, and the hydraulics are serviced, you’re good to go, and that in maybe 2 minutes. I spent a good half hour in marshall waiting for the various fourth generation fighters to sort out various grievances before finally it was time to launch.
The upside to a cold day is that the jet leaps into the air – relatively speaking – cold air being denser. I only had time for one impatient glance at the airspeed indicator on take-off rather than my customary several. Once the wheels came up and I accelerated to 300 knots, the vertical speed indicator was pegged at 6000+ feet per minute rate of climb – better than a vertical mile per minute.
My role was to serve as an ambush CAP, hugging the valleys between mountain ranges, hoping to hide myself from the glittering rays of radar beams and their associated lances of radar missiles. I was joined by an F-16, piloted by one of the TOPGUN instructors, who took the lead.
Despite our best efforts, we were detected, and rather than sneaking up behind the fighters and stabbing them in the back – much the preferred tactic in air combat – we were forced to take them head on. The lead got a radar lock and before you could say Nob’s your buncle, we were merged with two Super Hornets.
My lead was offensive on the first one we saw, and I was nobbut a high speed cheerleader. Until I saw another FA-18 sweeping lead’s wingline from the north. It had been a while, gentle reader, since I have had the occasion to tell a wingman to “Break left!” But I spit it out nonetheless and it would have done your soul good to see him hold the two of them off for six or eight months in fighter time. (Maybe a minute and a half. Maybe two.) I was hoping to spit out of the fight a bit and re-enter unobserved, for I can’t win in a turning engagement with an FA-18 who sees me, and those are the hard physics of flight. This hope was dashed in the event, for malgre my tailpipe defense to the fight and my very small visual signature I was found and shot: The breaks of naval air.
Headed back to the field down low to stay out of the way. With plenty of gas left I hugged the deck and shot the gaps between mountains and foothills. Popped up when clear of the fight to fly a ground controlled approach, just for the training that was in it. It’s important to work hard at such things when the conditions are easy to ensure that you can do them when they’re not. And yes, the controller overshot my turn to final. I was on deck by 0830 or so, having flown more Kfirs before 0900 than most will fly in their lifetimes.
At the early brief that morning, one of the TOPGUN instructors asked me when I had been on the staff. Ninety-six to ’98, I told him, adding that I was just thinking of that myself. For the Navy lieutenants and Marine captains had seemed young men back then, back when I was a commander. And that was 14 years ago. The names change, but the faces almost appear the same. They are at once somber and light-hearted, serious and casual.
Some things have changed, but not the important ones. In the debrief, some trivial bit of buffoonery will require pointed ribbing, and all will take it in good humor. But if there’s something that really needs to be said, and heard, the “who” is removed and the “what” is underlined. No one else might have noticed it, but then again they might have. And everyone learns that way.
They’re hard on themselves, I guess they have to be. It’s the price of excellence. If there’s a deviation from the script, they’ll ‘fess up on themselves, because at least that shows they recognized their error(s). Far better to call yourself out on having made a mistake rather than have someone else call it for you. “Viper 2 came out of block with a visual, but no tally”, meaning the wingman had been in sight but not the foe, a potential safety-of-flight violation. The debrief room can at times feel like something of a confessional.
It’s not absolution they’re after, not really. Not even respect, or recognition. It’s the standard of excellence. The awareness of it, and the desire to asymptotically approach that standard. Knowing that perfection can never be anything more than a goal rather than a destination.
And by God, it’s refreshing.