So, There I was…….* At Cope Thunder, in the midst of a many to many furball, just gunned an F-5 and am exiting the fight, looking back over my shoulder checking my wingman’s six and making sure I see any remaining bandits trying to chase us down. I see the remaining bandit but based on his nose position and apparent size, he’s rejoining with the guy I just shot. My wingman is in formation and his six is clear. The F-16s we’re protecting are in good formation just to the left of my nose and about 3 miles ahead. Low and exiting. Quick glance in to look at the radar, looks like everything ahead is friendly and AWACS agrees. Looks like we’re going to successfully egress. Make it to the exit point, begin the climb and start the RTB, come down initial with two Eagles and 2 Falcons in formation. (Approach likes 4 ships on initial, easier to sequence than two flights of 2.) Pitch out and land. Feeling pretty good about the mission, feeling like I’d had good Situational Awareness (SA) throughout the flight.
Standard practice at this point was for individual flights to debrief and review film so when the Mission Debrief was conducted, it was easier to put it all together and learn from mistakes and successes.
We’re reviewing gun camera film to make sure all shots were taken within valid parameters, that they were taken against adversaries and not friendlies and that any kill shots called were in fact valid and not “ASIWYWD”. Pronounced Ash-Wood, it stood for Aw S#!t, I wish you were dead. I’ve reviewed my gun kill and had confirmed that the piper was stable, I was in range and the trigger had been pulled for a sufficient time to put enough bullets on the target. A valid kill. I’m getting ready to fast forward through the rest of the mission, since nothing of significance had occurred. I thought.
My wingman says “Wait, what was that?” We roll the tape back and play it again. There appears to be a flicker in the tape. “Right There”. Back it up again and roll it through frame by frame. Nothing, Nothing, Nothing, Wing of a silver F-5, Nothing, Slab of a silver F-5, Nothing. I am chilled to the bone. The wingspan of an F-5 is 27’, or 13.5’ from centerline to wingtip. I had passed in a 90 degree pass within less than 50 feet of another aircraft and never known he was there!
|Obviously not actual photographs of the event, it's not silver for one thing.|
The Aggressors had only one silver F-5 so finding the other guy wasn't going to be difficult. I walked over to their debrief and asked the pilot if he’d look at the film with me. He did and turned white as a ghost also. The film was of the underside of his jet. He hadn't seen me either.
Our SA, which both of us at the time thought was excellent, had in fact been, unbelievably and almost tragically, very low.
I read other blogs which describe dangerous incidents on the ground and using various Codes try to describe participant's SA level and what they should have done. I get what they’re trying to say. Even on the ground you've got to have your wits about you and know what’s going on in your immediate vicinity. Absolutely true, but there is not some smartphone app that evaluates and reports your SA level. ("Ding, Ding, Attention Juvat, your SA is low approaching critical".) It’s up to you to constantly evaluate your SA and my experience, to include the incident described above, has been that every time I think my SA is good, I'm wrong. I've also discovered that once my SA is gone, it is extremely difficult to get it back while in the situation. (AFAIK, it may be impossible, I've never gotten it back without exiting the fight and rebuilding it.)
A couple of days later, I've got a day off from Cope Thunder. I was giving my wingman a flight lead upgrade ride the next day and, since he would be briefing, he had the day off to prepare. I’d be on his wing, so I pulled SOF duty in the morning and had the afternoon off. I decide to go out the gate to Angeles City and do a little shopping.
The situation had been a little tense lately, with communist guerrillas acting up in the general vicinity, but not really in Angeles City. There had been 3 Americans and a Filipino killed in ’87, but nothing in the ensuing 3 years. The Filipino police had a fairly overt presence in Angeles City so there were no restrictions on our activities downtown.
I’m walking down the sidewalk and things look absolutely normal with the usual street traffic as well as pedestrians and bicyclists. Shop owners are in their doorways trying to entice you in to purchase whatever they had to sell. I've got a specific store in mind, having received explicit instructions from Mrs Juvat on what she wanted me to purchase while I was in the PI. The store was at the end of the street near where the Filipino police had a check point which they occasionally manned.
After about 20 minutes in the store, searching and haggling, I've made my purchase and exit back out onto the sidewalk and am making my way back to the base. Haven’t gone very far when I start getting very concerned. Something is very wrong. There is NO traffic on the street. No Filipino to be seen anywhere. I've walked about half a block from the store and realize I have no idea what it is, but something is definitely going on. The store to my left has the door open but I can't see anybody there.
I enter the store and shut the door behind me. I then walk to the back of the store and sit down on the floor against the back wall. As far as I can tell there is no one in the store but me. I look around and I am sitting in the back of a Women’s dress store. Sitting on the floor, and looking under the displays, I can see the bottom of the door, but not the window, so I can see if someone comes in, but they shouldn't be able to see me from outside.
Sit there for about 10 minutes and then hear a siren and some rumblings outside (later I would find it was the treads of a M-113), wait another 10 minutes and I start to hear traffic noise again. Finally the door opens and I tense up. I hear Filipino voices and cautiously look under the dresses. It’s an older Filipino man and woman. I stand up, and darn near cause them a heart attack. They had been across the street when everything started going south and rightly decided to stay there. They said they’d seen me walking down the street and that I had suddenly disappeared. They assumed, “that it was me”.
I’m still a bit rattled from the weirdness of the situation and didn't really know what had actually happened, so didn't think much about what they had said at that moment. I took a look outside and the street looked normal. Told them goodbye and walked as fast as I could back to the gate and back on base. Once back at Chambers Hall, there were lots of rumors and hearsay going around, so it was very hard to figure out what happened immediately. The one absolutely certain thing we heard, was we were confined to base for the remainder of the exercise. Whatever it was, was bad.
Come to find out, one of the Pilots from Clark, who was participating in Cope Thunder was driving home. He got to the checkpoint close to the store where I had made my purchase and which was now manned by folks wearing the Filipino Police uniform. The checkpoint was not manned around the clock, or even on a scheduled basis, just when the situation dictated. So having it manned by Filipino police at this time was not cause to raise the alarm. As he pulls up, in his Porsche 911, the “officer” draws his weapon. The pilot floors the Porsche and leans over towards the passenger seat as the guy starts firing.
I talked to him later about the incident and asked him what had happened, (at the bar of course). After he'd told me, I explained where I was in relation to him and what I did. He then pulled out the wallet he’d had in his left breast flight suit pocket. The one with the bullet hole in it. When asked about it, he shrugged and said “Porsche…There is no substitute.”
Neither his nor my early assessment of the situation had been wrong. When I left the base, things in Angeles City appeared normal as I made my way to my destination. Likewise for the guy from Clark, as he approached the checkpoint, things were not completely out of the ordinary. Both of us, however, recognized something was not right in the reality of the situation and both of us made a decision on what we were going to do. Then, rather than waste time reassessing or worrying about implications, we executed our respective plans.
Without a doubt, a great deal of luck was involved in both of us getting out unscathed. My luck was probably that the shooters never knew I was in the area. Had they known, they likely would have had time to deal with me and still escape before the authorities arrived. His luck was more along the lines of Patton's “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
Or, as Ras used to say, "I'd rather be lucky than good. Luck is more reliable."
*An influential member of the audience says the whole world knows what this means. While I don’t agree, I’ll allow for the possibility. Suffice it to say, the stories are true and details are as true as my memory allows. As Sarge says, “others may remember them differently”.