Fly like a fighter: Live to fly another day

May 8, 2013

Shortly after passing my checkride and earning my status as mission ready in the F-15, I had my first experience flying in a 10-ship training fight. There were four F-15s up against six F-5s, and I will admit I was nervous. The rules of engagement for the day were that if an F-15 was “killed,” we were out permanently, whereas if an F-5 was killed, they could regenerate and re-enter the fight. The point was to simulate being vastly outnumbered.

In addition to the challenge of being outnumbered by the F-5s, it was also difficult to see the small fighter. It is even more difficult to spot them if they approach you nose-on from behind your radar; they essentially disappear unless you happen to be looking in their direction or they get close enough that you can finally see them.

Our first engagement started fine as we found the group of them on radar and we approached each other with a closure rate of about 1,000 knots. I locked on to my assigned target and took a missile shot. My target started maneuvering away from the group, so then I had the challenge of keeping sight of my flight lead while following my target until my missile display counted down to zero. After my missile timed out it was apparent that all six F-5s were turning every which way, and I couldn’t quite follow the chaotic radio calls that were streaming into my ears.

That’s when my radar warning receiver started blaring, indicating that an F-5 had me locked from behind. About the same time, I saw the immense furball begin with F-15s and F-5s swirling and turning around each other in a dogfight that looked like too much fun to miss. But I remembered the stern lessons from my instructors, so since I couldn’t see the F-5, and my flight lead had his own hands full, I lit the afterburners, turned away from the furball, and headed downhill to get as fast as I could. I hit about Mach 1.3, doing small check turns from one side to the other to try and find the F-5 chasing me.

By then I was really frustrated. I wanted to turn back and get in on the action, but I knew better. The F-5 eventually gave up, broke lock, and turned away, which is when I was finally able to see him 2 miles behind me. The knock-it-off call came shortly later.

In the debrief, I felt like a chump. Then I found out one of the other wingmen had the same thing happen to him—but he turned back to join the furball and was promptly killed by the F-5 chasing him that he didn’t see. My flight lead then said to me, “You kept an F-5 occupied so he couldn’t attack us, and you did what you were told and stayed alive to fight another day. Good job.”

How many fun missions do we have planned in our general aviation aircraft—to attend a fly-in, visit family, or use those tickets to a playoff game? If the weather, fuel, level of difficulty, or other circumstances aren’t quite right, are you willing to call knock-it-off and maybe miss out on the fun events? Yes, it is okay to land, cancel, or postpone your flight so that you too may live to fly another day.

Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,700 hours total time during his 33 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”

Topics Pilots