Monday, September 25, 2006

Air Combat

I woke up bright and early yesterday for Air Combat school. Keith picked me up at my grandparents’ house and we headed over to the school, which was flying out of the Santa Barbara airport.

The pre-flight briefing was pretty short. First they gave us a couple of flight suits (well used, and mine a bit short in the legs. I’m a little tall to be a fighter pilot). Nails, the chief pilot, gave us a brief run down on the safety equipment (parachute and Mae West vest), and the bail-out procedures for the aircraft. Afterwards he grabbed a couple aircraft models and briefly discussed the maneuvers we would practice in the morning session, which were the high and low yo-yos.

Afterwards we hung around the facility (a receiving area for private/corporate jets) and waited for the aircraft to come in from the previous session. The aircraft we would fly in the day are Marchetti combat trainers, which are propeller aircraft built to handle more like a jet fighter.

For the morning session, Keith flew with Nails, and I flew with Obie, a former F-16 pilot. We practiced some formation flying on the way out to the practice area (out over the water), and I immediately found that the Marchetti is far more sensitive than a Cessena. The smallest movement sent me drifting towards or away from the other aircraft, and I had to learn to make very small corrections to keep in place.

Once at the practice area (an arbitrary dot in the middle of the ocean), we set up drills. We would take turns being the bogey (target) and the fighter (aggressor). The bogey aircraft would fly in a constant bank turn, and the fighter practiced high and low yo-yo maneuvers, which allow a faster plane to maintain separation while setting up a good position on the tail of the bogey. The idea of the yo-yo is that you go high and then low (high yo-yo) or low and then high (low yo-yo), and turn tighter than the bogey during the low-energy part of the maneuver. At least I *think* that’s the idea of it. In light of the fact that both Keith and I are engineers, Nails told us during our briefing to “just do it” and not over-analyze what was going on.

After our drills we flew back to the airport, again in formation, although I got to try a barrel roll back on the way in. Fun.

The afternoon was the “practice” part of our theory & practice setup, so after flying out, we spent just a short amount of time running drills (I did two more yo-yos, and then a barrel roll on to target), and then we went on to the real thing. Or the simulated real thing, at least. We swapped up instructors – Keith flew with Obie, and I flew with Monk, the third instructor who was present that day.

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they’re different.

The dogfights were tough work. The basic idea is you line up and head at each other, with the opposing aircraft on your left. As soon as you pass, the instructor calls “fight’s on!” and you immediately go into a maximum-G left turn and try and turn in behind the other fighter. If you can turn faster than the other plane, you keep doing this until you get behind him and line up a shot. Once the shot is lined up, the instructor radios “guns guns guns!,” the target aircraft pops smoke to acknowledge, and you set up the next engagement.

The first engagement was short and sweet. I turned, but not at max rate, and Keith dropped in behind me and got the kill. Note to self: turn harder.

The second engagement lasted longer – I kept pulling hard, and we spiraled around until we hit the soft deck, at which point I backed off and Keith tagged me.

The third time, having lost twice in a row, my instructor had me try something new. Instead of doing a hard left turn, I pulled straight back into a loop, then rolled out into a turn. At this point I had a few angles on Keith, so I kept doing yo-yos to work the angles down. Eventually he flew straight into the sun, but I managed to line up a shot on him anyways and ended the engagement.

The fourth and the fifth engagements were similar – more difficult fights, as I started to figure out the dynamic. One win each for me and Keith’s plane (now flown by the instructor, as Keith was feeling a little green).

The final engagement was the longest and most difficult of the bunch. I managed to get an early angle advantage, but Keith’s plane still had altitude on me, and our speed was low. We started with a hard bank, I think we did a loop in the middle (it’s a sign of how much attention you’re paying to the dogfight when you suddenly find yourself inverted, and only know you are inverted by feel), and then we got an angle advantage and started doing yo-yos to work it down. The problem was at this point I was about 50-100’ lower, and slow, so every time I tried to pull up to make the shot the plane would start to buffet (edge of a stall). So at that point we would have to dive and turn it into another low yo-yo. I finally managed to line it up and end it, but everyone was pretty beat by that time.

I had chatted some with Monk about my (limited) time in the Cessena, so he had me fly the approach into SBA while he worked the radios, finally taking the aircraft about 500’ from the runway to flare and land. By this point I had become somewhat accustomed to the Marchetti, so I was no longer weaving about like a drunken sailor trying to maintain a heading.

It’s hard to describe feeling of doing the dogfights. For starters, I would say that it’s way, way, way cool, except that that’s not enough “way”. It’s also seriously hard work. Once the fight’s on, you’re pretty much pulling 2-4Gs until you win (or lose), because if you’re not doing a max-rate turn, you’re toast. Also, if things are going OK, the opposing aircraft is directly above you, so you’ve got your head cranked all the way back to keep him in sight while you’re loading on the Gs (if it’s *not* going well, of course, he’s *behind* you, and even harder to see). And the plane is moving all over the place, as you do lots of maneuvers to try to line up or shake the other guy. Fortunately, I’m nearly immune to motion sickness, but anyone with any susceptibility is likely to get queasy.

We have the whole dogfight on video, so I’ll be editing up something as soon as I’m back from traveling, but as I have nearly four hours of footage to sort through from the two planes, it may take a while.

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