Monday, August 3, 2015

Cannae at Mach 1.3

So,  There I was.....* about to brief what, unbeknownst to me at the time, would be my final time at the controls of a Fighter.  I was off to Intermediate Service School, a critical box to check in any officer plan to progress in his career.  I was selected to go to Ft Leavenworth for the Army's Command and General Staff College, so a little extra prestige.  I'd do my year, then a Staff Tour and be back in command of a fighter squadron before you know it.  But two things happened to derail that plan.  Saddam invaded Kuwait and Billy Jeff discovered the Peace Dividend, gutting the military.

But this post is not about that, this post is about one of the best missions of my life.  I'm scheduled for a 2 V 2 dissimilar against a pair of F/A-18s off USS Midway. 

First a little background.  When I came aboard from the F-4 and AT-38, the common tactic in the F-15 community was  4 ship line abreast, ID at long range and Shoot.   My F-4 squadrons and LIFT were populated with Vietnam Vets who had learned the value of unpredictability, no matter which airplane you flew.  Some of that rubbed off on me.  I had gun camera film taken of me in the Phantom, but...I also had some beautiful video of the Eagle.

When I got to Kadena, the wall of Eagles was still a standard tactic.  Yet the NORKs had Mig-29s.  Going Mano a Mano with Fulcrums was not something that would play well in Peoria, but explaining that put me in the dog house.  As more and more non-cradle Eagle drivers transitioned, tactics began to emerge.

As I read through the articles about Cannae, one quote rang a bell with me.
In short, Roman tactics were non-existent at Cannae. The Roman force acted with brute force, charging at its dangerously clever opponent like a bull. (Source)
That's what I felt we were doing, no adjustment to reflect changing adversary capabilities. The Aggressors were good at teaching new enemy tactics, but the F-5 wasn't quite good enough to simulate a Mig-29.  I did a lot of studying about Mig-29 capability and how I could simulate them.  Some folks got peeved when I didn't fly bad guy profiles the way they briefed, but when called into the Boss's office, I would point out what I did on a given sortie and what the Mig was capable of, I tended to get a pass. 

So, back to my last sortie.

I don't recall whether Midway was at sea and they got a bit of shore time or if they'd flown down from Atsugi and it doesn't really matter.  It was a LT and a LCDR.  The LT was getting an Air to Air checkout as Flight Lead and we were providing Red Air.  The LT would try his hand at briefing, so they had deployed to Kadena for the weekend arriving on Friday Morning.  We're going to launch around 1400, so brief at Noon.

I get with the LT before hand to see what he had planned for the sortie.  He seemed a little lost, so I helped him with the area set up, frequencies, altitude separation, arrival and departure procedures etc.  Then I asked him what type adversary he'd like us to play, Mig-21 (turns on a dime, limited weapons), Mig-23 (Faster than snot, limited munitions, can't turn for squat) or Mig-29 (Turns good, fairly fast, reasonable munitions).  He said F-15.  Kid's got 'Nads.

Bones and I sit through the brief on the Navy side of Kadena, then head back over to the squadron.  Bones, although now a fully qualified Flight Lead and Mission Commander, has volunteered to be my wingman for this, my final sortie.  To be frank, I'm honored.

He and I have flown together in various roles for more than two years.  We click.  Our brief is fairly simple.  Start, Taxi, Formation Takeoff, Departure, recovery to initial, landing, dearm, taxi--standard.

Weather is fabulous.  No haze, Cons are in the 40's and there's a 250 knot winds aloft out of the North West.  Perfect!  I begin to put on my commie hat and see if I can't enhance the LT's training!

But I brief Bones, I want no face kills.  We don't call someone dead until we take shots behind their three/nine line (rear hemisphere). 

I brief the tactics I want to use and we're done.  Step to the jets, and the Boss and Maintenance NCOIC have given me probably the sweetest gift a Fighter Pilot could get on his Sawadee flight.

I walk out to preflight and there are no external fuel tanks.  Bones and I are flying clean Eagles!  Nothing but inboard pylons and a Aim-9M simulator.  I can probably pull 6G sitting on the ramp.

Fire up, taxi out and blast off in formation a few minutes before the Hornets, because we've got the Northwest (farthest) point as our start.  Halfway between the two points, I pitch up to get about 10K above Bones.  I tell him to hit the chaff dispenser and we dispense about a quarter of our chaff load.  With 250K of wind, this will compound the acquisition problem at the merge.  Both F-15 and F/A-18 have what's called the "notch", an apparent airspeed where a target is not shown because it has the same relative closure as the ground.  250K is well above that.  Our opponents will see the chaff and have to figure out whether that is us or not.  Complicates the thought process.

We drive on out to our point, and pretty soon hear the F/A-18s check in on common.  The LT calls "Fight's On" and we turn hot.  Bones is in close formation with me, so we present only one radar return with several about 30 miles closer.  They've got a problem to solve.

As we turn hot, we've got an obvious two ship in line abreast, easily sortable (we can each lock on to a separate target, ID and shoot if needed) 
The Roman force acted with brute force, charging at its dangerously clever opponent like a bull.
We're presenting two targets, one hot at 40 miles, one cold at 20 miles, what do we do now?

While I didn't realize it at the time, I'm presenting the F/A-18s the same picture Hannibal presented to the Romans.  A lot of confusion in the center, while their flanks were being swept.

As we get to 25 miles, I tell Bones to split.  He noses over to 45 degrees nose low and dives 15 K.  I light the burners and climb 15 K to just below the cons.  We are now outside their radar scan width and the chaff is right in the middle.  Vis is such that I can still see Bones and He, I. We have mutual support.  We continue on to the Merge.

Bones and I call tally's (we see the bad guys). I commit him on one guy and I'm on the other.  RHAW (Radar Homing and Warning) is quiet, so they don't have us on radar.  We start our conversion turns.  I'm 90 degrees through the turn before I take my first shot.  A heater at about 50% max range, steering dot in the middle of the envelope circle.  90%+ Probability of Kill, take a second , now 99%PK.  Still no reaction.  Pull my nose into lead and close on in to guns range.  Have squeezed the trigger and have a Time of Flight indicator settling in on the target (Bullets are now at this point in space) and am about to call Knock it off when they begin their break turn.

Saddle up and ride, We're in clean Eagles, I look and they've are fully loaded with Battle Rattle (3 bags of gas and assorted external stores).  This is going to be a long day for you guys.  Take another heart of the Envelope shot and call Knock it off.

Confirm separation and opening vectors.  Get a fuel check and head back out to our respective start points. 

As we head out, I call Bones and say, Guns only next engagement.  He rogers.

We seed a little more chaff at the mid range and get set up again.

I decide we'll show them the exact same picture in hopes they'll adjust, but the result is the same.  If the first time you see a 4th (or 5th) generation fighter is 2000' astern, the best you can hope for is a bailout and rescue by friendly forces.

We're out of gas, so we RTB, come down initial, pitch out and land.  I'm met by the squadron, dosed with fire extinguishers and champagne and my flying career is over.

Head in to the squadron, change flight suits, pick up 8 beers and walk in to the debrief.  The LT is chagrinned.  I hand him a beer, load up the tapes and walk him through.  A couple of hours and a few beers later, we're ok.  We've walked through our tapes and his, he's seen what he missed and he'll be a significantly better Lead for the episode.

The LCDR also thanked me for the sortie.

Damn I miss that!

* SJC (for Skip!)


  1. Great story, well told. You're becoming a master Juvat.


  2. What PA said.
    btw - you forgot to asterisk ...or is it the Sarge who handles those duties?

  3. "First up's Lead and brief on Guard" is damn hard to compete with that one Juvat! Well done, regards, Alemaster

    1. Bones and I's brief was not very far from that. We'd flown together so much, there wasn't much more to it than "Action at 25, side to side sort, no kills until aft of 3/9. We had to sit in the briefing room for a requisite period of time, so we brought lunch. Most of that time was spent shootin the bull and eating chow.

  4. Kinda, sorta understand the technical part you are describing but think you were using the tried and true war game mode, "If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying". Sincere, of course and strictly for the "teachable" moment, but a lot of fun sticking it to the squids.

    1. Well, I wouldn't have wanted my last sortie to be one where I got my butt handed to me, so yeah it was a lot of fun, but I did try to make sure he understood where he made the mistakes. He really did glom on to the chaff, when he should have just sampled it,(briefly logged on and saw that it was slow, slower than was likely for a fighter about to get within visual range). But it was fun!

  5. I can't help but wonder if either of them had been through Top Gun, it sure doesn't sound like it... And they were definitely BA on headwork! I don't think I EVER saw a clean F-15 take off at Kadena. :-)

    1. The only time I saw them was during a Functional Check Flight after the jet came out of major maintenance. That was the only time I got to fly one and it was an entirely different feel. Sl;ightly less than Mil Power for formation takeoff and the takeoff roll was shorter than a burner one with tanks on.

  6. A very fine tale, finely told. Properly inspired I am.

    1. Thanks Aaron. I enjoyed reading about your first lesson yesterday. Looking forward to the next edition.

  7. Love the flying stories Juvat. You and Bones really trashed those Nasal Radiators.

    1. Yes, well, I had an advantage or two. Not the least of which was I'd been flying strictly Air to Air for 3 years. That's a highly volatile skill and having to maintain proficiency in air to ground as well, means the other has to suffer. Like I said, I think they learned from it and were better off afterword (plus they got free beer).


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