Warning Area 465
Over the Atlantic Ocean
“Gator 11 is ready.”
“Gator 12 is ready.”
“Gators, check forty five right.”
First Lieutenant Cal Martin’s heart was racing as he maneuvered his F-16 into position behind his flight lead as they made a forty five degree check turn. It was his first flight with his new squadron, and he wanted to make a good impression. A Reservist, Martin was the first Gator hired off the street to make it through the training pipeline in over ten years. Aside from the active duty pilots assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron, Martin was the most inexperienced pilot in a squadron full of thousand plus hour combat veterans.
“One point nine,” Martin called over the radio as he took a radar lock. They were doing an offensive 9K as part of his first Mission Qualification Training upgrade flight. His flight lead would give him the initial advantage from a perch setup and his job was to maneuver from a mile and a half behind his flight lead into a position to get a guns kill.
His flight lead reversed the direction of the turn to set up the appropriate aspect angle. With perch setups, Martin had been taught that the initial parameters were the most important. It was essential for both aircraft to be at the same airspeed, altitude, and aspect angle to ensure the right sight picture for follow on maneuvering. It was part of a building block approach to move from canned, controlled setups to more dynamic high aspect dogfighting where the student could then apply the sight pictures he had seen before.
“One point eight,” Martin said as he watched the range count down in his Head Up Display. Martin was nervous. He was flying with the squadron’s weapons officer, Major “Magic” Manny. A good gradesheet from Magic would set the tone for the rest of his Mission Qualification Upgrade Training. A busted flight or “Below Average” would set him up for more scrutiny from other Instructor Pilots. It was time to show off what he learned in the F-16 Basic Course at Luke AFB.
“One point seven.” He wiggled his fingers and toes, trying to relax and concentrate on keeping his flight lead’s F-16 under the boresight cross in the HUD. At a range of a mile and a half, he was starting the fight outside the other aircraft’s turn circle. He would have to roll out, recognize the turn circle entry cues he had been taught, and then successfully enter the imaginary turn circle the other aircraft traced across the sky. Enter too early, and his attacker would create too many angles for him to solve and eventually neutralize him. Enter too late, and he would go from offensive to neutral or even defensive as the attacker reversed.
“One point six.”
“Fight’s on!” Martin said as the range reached 1.5nm in the HUD.
Martin rolled wings level and selected full afterburner as he watched Magic’s F-16 enter its defensive break turn and pop out flares. Martin drove straight ahead as he looked for his turn circle entry cues – at first Magic’s jet would look like it was just rotating in space, and then it would suddenly go from rotational to translational motion as it zipped past. Just before that, his instructors had told him, he needed to be rolling and pulling while starting his Anti-G Straining Maneuver.
As Martin neared that point, he cross checked his airspeed. He was going way faster than he wanted to. He had flown heavier F-16 Block 42s with smaller engines in school, but this Block 30 F-16 was a hotrod. Its thrust to weight ratio easily exceeded 1:1 in its current configuration, and the big General Electric engine had no trouble accelerating the slick F-16 through 500 knots – way too fast.
Martin tried cycling the throttle from full afterburner back to military power, but it was too late. He had to start his turn in that instant or he’d fly right out the back of Magic’s turn circle and he’d be defensive. Martin took a deep breath as he prepared for the onset of G-forces and squeezed his abs and legs.
As Martin started his pull, the jet stabilized in the turn at a sustained 9G pull. He was now feeling the force of nine times his bodyweight pressing against him, pulling the blood from his brain into his feet as his G-suit inflated against his legs and torso. Martin strained against the G-forces as he took short breaths every three seconds. If he exhaled completely, he wouldn’t be able to get air back in his lungs, and would eventually starve of oxygen. He strained as hard as he could as the G-forces caused his vision to tunnel slightly.
Magic reoriented from slightly nose low to a more oblique turn as Martin continued his turn. Martin tried to maintain his position of advantage as Magic spiraled toward the crystal blue Atlantic Ocean below them in an attempt to shrink his turn circle and keep Martin from being able to employ weapons.
As Magic neared their training floor of ten thousand feet, Martin maintained an altitude advantage, waiting for Magic’s turn circle to open back up as he could no longer go downhill. Once Martin had his attack cues, he traded his altitude advantage and saddled in behind Magic. As they transitioned to the floor, the G-forces subsided and Martin focused on his gun employment.
Martin pulled his nose around to put the computed gun pipper on Magic. Seeing that Martin was in a gun employment zone, Manny immediately rolled into a tuck under jink, forcing Martin to reposition before he could saddle in and shoot. As Magic rolled out, Martin squeezed the trigger and watched as the imaginary bullets went through the fuselage of Magic’s aircraft.
“Gator 12, kill Viper left hand turn,” Martin said over their fight frequency.
“Copy kill, Gators knock it off, Gator 11 knock it off,” Magic replied, signaling that the set was over.
“Gator 12, knock it off,” Martin responded as he repositioned his aircraft in a loose formation behind Magic.
As they climbed back up to their starting altitude for the next set, Magic did a fuel check over the radio and set them up for another fight.
“Not too bad,” Magic said, offering a real time assessment of the previous set, “just a little slow to get to a guns track, and a slightly late turn circle entry.”
“2,” Martin replied sharply. It was not a discussion.
“You’re going to want to get the quickest kill possible, in case the bandit’s buddies are in the area,” Magic continued.
“Let’s try it again, any questions?” Magic asked as he gave Martin the visual signal to move out to a tactical formation.
“Negative,” Martin replied. He was determined to make it right. He had to show Magic that he could get the quick kill. He wouldn’t screw it up this time.
Once they reached the appropriate altitude, they each called ready as before and Magic called the check turn. Magic reversed his turn as Martin started calling down ranges.
“Fight’s on!” Martin called as he reached a mile and a half. He lit the afterburner and rolled out as he drove toward Magic’s turn circle, but this time he started a shallow climb and checked away to slow his acceleration.
The sight picture was just different. As Magic continued his break turn, Martin rolled into a descending turn and sliced back toward him. The visual cues were different than what he was expecting, but almost immediately he saw what he thought to be attack cues – Magic’s airplane was nearly as long as it was wide.
Martin continued to pull Magic’s F-16 toward his HUD. It was going to be a high aspect gun shot. He had one chance to get it right before Magic could reverse, but with the higher aspect angle, Martin had more of Magic’s aircraft available to shoot.
Martin pulled with everything he had and tried to stabilize Magic in the HUD. He squeezed the trigger, raking the pipper through Magic’s jet as it screamed by him. Once he let off the trigger, he tried to pull up to maintain his advantage, but Magic had already capitalized and the two were now side by side jockeying for position.
“Gator knock it off, Gator 11 knock it off,” Magic said over the radio.
“Gator 12 knock it off,” Martin echoed.
“We can talk about that one on the ground, let’s move on to the next set,” Magic said after confirming their fuel state. Martin’s face felt flush. He wasn’t sure if he had gotten enough of a stable track to count as a kill, so he hadn’t called it. Either way, he was afraid Magic now thought he was terrible for not maintaining the offensive. So much for making a good first impression.
“Questions on the brief?” Magic asked as he stood in front of the white board in the small briefing room.
“None,” Martin responded.
“Questions on the motherhood?” Magic asked, referring to the administrative portion of the mission getting to and from the airspace to fight.
“No, sir,” Martin replied. He was still thinking about the first two sets. He had done fine in the subsequent short range 6K and 3K sets, but he feared that the first two would be enough to give him his first bust as a Gator. Not a good way to shine as a new wingman.
Magic laughed. “Don’t call me ‘Sir.’ This is a Reserve squadron, we’re all bros here.”
“Yes, sir,” Martin replied. “Dammit, sorry!”
“Ok, let’s take a look at the tapes,” Magic said as he pulled up the computer debriefing program. The “tapes” had long since been replaced by Digital Video Recorders, but years later, people were still calling them tapes.
As they watched the first set, Magic paused the DVR as he watched Martin accelerate toward the turn circle. “You see your airspeed? You’re way too fast here. That’s why it takes so long. You’re not getting a good rate and your turn circle is huge.”
Martin nodded and took notes as Magic hit PLAY again.
“And that’s why you’re sustaining 9Gs for so long. That had to hurt,” Magic said, wincing.
Martin looked at his forearms. The tiny ruptured capillaries, or G-easles as they were known, that peppered his arm were evidence of that.
They continued watching the fight as Magic gave Martin pointers on how to fix it properly.
“Any questions on that set?” Magic asked after confirming that Martin’s guns track was valid and sufficient to call a kill.
“Ok, let’s watch the second one,” Magic said with a frown. He advanced the DVR to the start of the second set.
“Your parameters look good at the start, but why the climb?” Magic said as he paused the DVR. The HUD showed Martin ten degrees nose high.
“I was afraid to get fast again, I wasn’t really thinking,” Martin replied flatly. He didn’t want to make excuses. Good wingman didn’t make excuses or try to explain what they were thinking.
“Copy. Try modulating the throttle or speedbrakes next time,” Magic said as he hit PLAY again.
Magic let the DVR play through as Martin went from nose high to slicing back down toward Magic’s jet. As Martin pulled Magic’s jet into the HUD, Magic stopped the DVR.
“Straight to the HUD, huh? Did you have your attack cues met?” Magic asked.
Martin shook his head without saying anything. It looked right in the air, but he couldn’t say that. The book answer was that he did not have the appropriate cues to execute an attack. The cues were specific and definable. Gut feelings were not.
“This will lead to the ninety-degree off overshoot and subsequent reversal,” Magic said as he hit PLAY again.
They watched in silence as Martin stabilized Magic’s aircraft in the HUD and the display showed the simulated bullets hitting Magic’s aircraft.
“Wait, you tried to shoot here?” Magic said, pausing the footage and rewinding.
Martin said nothing as Magic hit the rewind button. He stopped as the green dots simulating bullets started to hit his fuselage, then started advancing the footage frame by frame to count bullets.
As he reached twenty five, he stopped the DVR, staring at it. Martin had more than exceeded the required number of frames to call a kill.
“You gunned me off the perch in a 9K set,” Magic said, stunned. “Wow, kid.”
Martin looked up from his notes. He had been wincing as Magic slowly went through the gunshot. He knew that this was a pretty big make or break moment for him.
“I’ve only known a few people that could pull that off,” Magic said, “and none of them were brand new lieutenants.”
Martin tried not to smile as he realized the compliment. It was a pretty big deal to hear that from the squadron weapons officer.
“Were you trying to do that?” Magic asked. “Or was it luck?”
“I guess it was just luck,” Martin said humbly, “I just did what looked right.”
Magic considered the statement for a moment, creating an uncomfortable silence as he seemed to look Martin up and down.
“Well, luck or not, it was a good shot. But I wouldn’t make a habit of it. We teach lag BFM for a reason. We want results you can replicate over and over, not lucky shots. This is a bit too aggressive. If you miss a shot like this in combat, you’re dead.”
After asking if Martin had any further questions, he advanced to the next set. They debriefed the final four shorter range sets the same as the first two, and then Magic sat down across the debriefing table from Martin after recapping their objectives.
“Overall, I’d say you did a good job today. Definitely above average,” Magic said leaning back in the chair.
Martin exhaled as the words “Above Average” hung in the air. He had been worried during the entire debrief that he might have to refly the flight. He definitely wasn’t expecting such praise.
“You’ve got good hands and a good attitude. I saw your pilot training gradebooks. You’ve done well. You might be a little too aggressive, and that could get you in trouble, but I can work with aggressive. It’s way easier to throttle someone back than try to make them more aggressive.”
Martin nodded sheepishly. He didn’t know how to respond to such high praise.
“Has the boss talked to you yet?”
“About what?” Martin asked, tilting his head to the side.
Magic looked at his watch and said, “About why it’s six o clock and there’s no fucking popcorn yet.”
Martin’s faced reddened. As the most junior guy in the squadron, his additional duty was to keep the squadron bar cleaned and stocked with beer and snacks, and ensure fresh jalapeno popcorn was ready every evening.
“No excuse,” Martin said stoically.
“I’m just giving you shit!” Magic busted out laughing. “I meant about the F-22 thing.”
Martin gave him a confused look.
“I guess not. Well, don’t be surprised if the boss talks to you about it. I know you just got here and everything, but the Reserves are standing up their F-22 associate program and looking for a young wingman with good hands to be the first young Reserve guy in the community. Think you might be interested?”
“Hell yes!” Martin replied. His stoic demeanor was replaced by a childish enthusiasm. He couldn’t contain himself.
“Keep doing what you’re doing, and you might just be that guy,” Magic replied.
Martin was grinning ear to ear. This squadron was awesome. He couldn’t wait for his next flight.
“Now go make some popcorn!” Magic barked.