In the first part of this series, Fridge shared some thoughts on Tactical Formation Flying. Here he and near_blind fly a mission to practice and demonstrate those tactics in a real simulated flight.
The mission is a fairly straight forward combat air patrol (CAP) over the EC East and EC West areas of the Nellis Training Range.
Our two-ship element of F-15C fighters will be departing Nellis equipped with six AIM-120 AMRAAMs and two AIM-9M Sidewinders. The enemy we will be facing consist of one element of MiG-29 fighters and a section of MiG-21 fighters. Both groups will pop up some distance from our entry point when we cross into EC East. Enemy capabilities are unknown but are assumed to be air-to-air loaded with medium and short-range missiles.
Our element will fly up the Sally corridor and turn west into the engagement area. We will be focusing on wingman-paired flying and fighting … at least until the fight breaks down after the merge. En-route through the Sally corridor we will be flying in a loose wing formation switching to a tactical line-abreast formation when we enter the engagement zone. These concepts have been described in part 1 of this series.
It was a beautiful day in the virtual skies as near_blind and I departed Nellis, climbing above the clouds to angels 20 while en-route through the Sally Corridor. Not much traffic was in the air: a tanker running its route in case we ran into fuel issues and an AWACS (call-sign Overlord) escorted by a pair of Vipers.
Turning into the engagement zone, we set lights off and I kicked out into tactical formation with near_blind working the radios with Overlord. We turned toward the initial group of contacts — the 4 ship MiG-21 threat — when the MiG-29 element popped up on the radar warning receiver (RWR) off to our two o’clock.
Once we reach the CAP area, I turn our flight to a bearing of 240 in an effort to find the bandits AWACS is calling. No sooner than we make the direction change and we get a RWR spike on our two o’clock (~60 degrees to our right) which complicates the situation immensely. Outside of AWACS calls, we have not actually observed the flight at 240 via radar or RWR, meaning that they are either slow, small, and flying EMCON (EMissions CONtrol, i.e. no sensor emissions) or have a so weak a radar our RWR cannot yet pick them up. The glaring “29” on the RWR indicates an aircraft equipped with some variety of the Russian “Zhuk” radar which has moderate to good beyond visual range (BVR) capability, meaning the flight on our 2 o’clock is the greater threat, and the group I want to kill first.
The fact that the AWACS has not yet called out the new group of -29s and is focusing on the original group is worrisome. I decide to continue on our new bearing of 240 to try to identify the southern group’s composition on radar at least before I shift my attention to the -29s. Guessing that anyone trying to kill us is going to have to fly towards us to do so, I switch my radar to high pulse repetition frequency (PRF ) mode, which will allow me to pick up any aircraft flying towards me further out than in the default interleaved mode.
It takes about a minute and a half before the big APG-63 in the nose of the Eagle is able to pick the southern contacts at a range of forty miles, closing rapidly. We’re still not picking up any emissions from them, which in of itself does not indicate much. However that, combined with the fact that we didn’t pick them up until they were within 40 miles makes me think we’re dealing with something that’s small and fast, on the order of a MiG-21, -23, or Su-17. Regardless, there are many of them: at least two, more likely four.
As it stands, I have what looks to be a four ship of small, non- or low-emitting contacts on my nose, and a pair of gen 4 Russian fighters inching towards my three o’clock. Deciding the southern group is the lesser threat, I plan to orient the flight on the emitting group to the west, kill them as quickly as possible, and then re-orient rapidly to face the southern group before they run us over. I order Fridge to turn right and try to rapidly communicate to him to pertinent parts of the plan.
Note: I did not have my APG-63 radar in High PRF mode mode and so I pick up the MiG-21s at a much shorter range than near_blind. I felt that asking “What’s High PRF mode?” at this point in the fight was not going to help!
We pushed on toward the initial AWACS contacts, moving the tactical formation to the left as directed by the vectors while near_blind and I worked our radars. By the time we finally picked up the contacts, the MiG-29s off to the west were determined to be the greater threat. Slewing the formation back to the right we pressed toward the MiG-29s, picking them up on radar almost immediately.
No sooner than we complete the turn but the ticking of my RWR increases in tempo, revealing that the MiGs have now locked us up. A few sweeps of the radar reveal that they are 40 miles out, about the same distance from us as the first group. I quickly flip my radar into track while scan (TWS) mode as it will give me more information about the bandits, as well as aid in sorting them out. TWS reveals that there are two contacts, both at 35,000 feet and hauling ass towards us with one trailing slightly behind the other. I tell Fridge to engage the trailing hostile. I lock the lead hostile, tell Fridge to shoot at twenty miles (I actually say thirty, but the intent is apparently understood), and order a right crank.
I reach 20 miles and fire my first AIM-120. As I execute my crank, I realize I’ve made my first major mistake of the engagement. Fridge is on my right wing, by virtue of the random number of tac-turns we’ve made during the flight. He’s also closer than typical tactical formation calls for, being 0.5 nautical miles off my right rear quarter as opposed to the prescribed 1 nautical mile abreast. I haven’t cracked down on this because Fridge is new to both the F-15 and new to the sort of tactical flying that myself and the people I fly it with do, and also because I have difficulty spotting things visually. What this means is I’m going to be directly in front of his aircraft when he shoots. Still, it is a big sky and both I and Fridge’s missile are small objects within it.
He shoots, I am in front of him, but it doesn’t hit me, and the engagement continues. As I continue my crank, I notice the rate repetition of pings from the hostile’s radar decreases, meaning he’s no longer locking me and is probably defending against my missile. Fridge has not called out that he is defensive, which I assume to mean his bandit is also evading, and decide to press my engagement by turning back in towards my target.
It is worth noting here that pressing in on the target is not always the pertinent action. If my bandit had launched at the same time I did, or maintained lock, or had his wingman engaged me, I probably would have taken a more cautious move here, opting instead to turn away from the bandit and either let Fridge clear my six, or have both of us run to try to open up the distance and re-engage when it’s more advantageous.
I turn back in and launch another missile. Almost simultaneously, my RWR lets me know that my target has launched his own missile in response. I immediately make a hard break back to my right. I want to put the missile on my beam (3-9 o’clock line), a maneuver to both increase the distance the missile has to fly, increase the G it has to pull to try to hit me, and to try to get lost in the “notch” (reducing my relative speed so the bandit’s Doppler radar cannot distinguish my F-15C from the ground behind me).
At this point me and the bandit are also close enough my AIM-120 has gone active as it came off the rail: it is effectively “fire and forget”. Rapidly the bandit detects my second missile launch, and decides that trying to save itself is more important than killing me. He aggressively executes his own defensive maneuver, but is not successful and falls prey to the vaunted AMRAAM. Without a radar to guide it, his missile goes dumb and transforms itself into a fantastically expensive glider.
Near_blind sorted and assigned the contacts and, at roughly twenty-five miles from target, we launched our first missiles toward the threat, cranking to the right far enough to allow the radars on our F-15Cs to continue to track the targets while retaining some closure rate and providing us with some defensive options. We did not expect these shots to hit: instead they were intended to keep our adversaries busy while we closed the distance.
Cranking back into our targets when our missiles lost most of their energy advantage to the maneuvering MiG-29s, we launched a second volley well within the higher PK (probability of kill) range. Both of these shots scored hits but only one appeared to be a direct, immediate kill while the other continued to fly with both engines on fire. I began attempting to maneuver with this contact, looking for a Sidewinder shot to finish him off. I overshot but shortly realized, with near_blind’s help, that the surviving MiG-29 was not maneuvering and was heading down.
Fridge calls out two missile impacts and I’m not sure which one is his bandit and which is mine. I crank my head back around to observe the tumbling mess of junk that used to be “my” Fulcrum, and another trail of smoke that appears to be struggling along despite all efforts. I order Fridge to down the stricken MiG and move to position myself behind him for support. This is my second, and most grievous, mistake of the engagement.
Time dilates severely in the moments leading up to the merge. What in my head seemed like ten seconds from assigning targets has actually been about two minutes of time, in which the southern group has been steadily closing on us. Compounding this is the fact they were actually closer to us than the Fulcrums at the time of engagement. I should be assuring the second Fulcrum is dead and then rapidly turning our flight south, trying to reform into a formation, and beginning our engagement with that group. Instead I leisurely follow Fridge as he overshoots the stricken Fulcrum and neglect to take my own shot because I don’t want to seem like a kill hog. All the while the southern group is rapidly eating away at the distance between us until the reality is now we have four bandits directly on top of us, and neither of us know it.
He calls that he has overshot the ailing MiG and for me to shoot. I’d already committed to staying with him so I too am out of position to shoot. At this point it dawns on me that I’m traveling moderately faster than Fridge, the MiG-29 is not escaping but is instead in a terminal death glide, and that the MiG-21s are probably much closer than I suspect.
I order Fridge to ignore the Fulcrum and begin to search for the Fishbeds and at the same time lose him as my greater speed carries me forward and below him. He disappears in a cloud to my high three o’clock. I execute a shallow climbing right hand turn to try and break Fridge’s aircraft out of the murk while looking for Fishbeds. Unbeknownst to me, Fridge is executing his own climbing left hand turn, firmly placing him out of the area that I’m searching visually. I level out to try and expedite my re-acquisition of Fridge however he is now on my six on an almost reciprocal bearing. In short, we each have no idea where the other is.
In my increasingly panicked searching, I spot the telltale trail of a missile plunge behind me, erasing all doubts as to the location of the MiG-21s.
With the MiG-29s finished, we turned our attentions in different directions. Near_blind remembered the MiG-21 threat and started talking to the AWACS to develop a mental picture of the threat area while I, having started to fall behind my jet (task saturated), started to pull away to a safer area to gain altitude and speed, preparing to re-enter the fight. Unfortunately for me, a MiG-21 that had maneuvered well within my safe zone launched on my F-15C from under my nose. Needless to say, I did not see this launch until it was painfully obvious and I had taken damage.
Rolling inverted I pulled for the deck, looking to add speed, energy, and distance to my unknown adversary. I fired off chaff and flares, tucking my tail between my legs and ran my wounded jet to safety.
After spotting the first missile trail, I immediately crank hard right, then right again while dropping flares, and make another frantic scan for Fridge, whom I am still very convinced is to my south and who is actually very much to my north. I continue to fly relatively straight (this is another mistake with an as of yet unseen MiG somewhere behind me). Around this time Fridge is hit, and in short order I realize that he is to my north, heading north out of the area. A quick scan of my own HUD reveals I am flying south-west. I realize the enormity of our goof, and immediately turn back around to try and clear Fridge’s six while he escapes.
I quickly pick up two contacts on the radar and, after assuring myself neither shot will endanger Fridge, dispatch them both with a pair of rapid AIM-120 shots, ending this part of the engagement.
If you have made it this far through the adventures of near_blind and Fridge as they tackle Tactical Combat Flying, I applaud your dedication and you need go no further. I hope that this article was able to provide something of a learning experience or, at the very least, provide some entertainment.
In the next part, the possibly less exciting third act, we will briefly cover some of the lessons that we learned after analyzing this mission in the cold, hard sunlight of 20/20 hindsight.
You can continue the adventure with the next chapter, Tactical Combat Flying for Two – Part 3: The Debriefing!