Hornet v. MiG
U.S. Marine aviators to Malaysian MiG pilots: Show us what you got.
- By Ed Darack
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
(Page 3 of 3)
Major Josh Vance, the operations officer of the refueling squadron, points out that during some missions, three Hornets and three MiGs were flying just yards from one another off the rear of the tanker while awaiting clearance to connect to the fuel hoses. Tight formation flying, the MiG pilots’ unfamiliarity with the KC-130J and the turbulence patterns generated by its six-blade propellers, and language issues (all Malaysian pilots speak English, but many have strong accents) make for an environment where a mishap—even a disaster—can happen in a fraction of a second.
But in the midst of the high-risk training and detailed coordination of aircraft and ground crews, the Malaysian and American aviators find common ground. “We talk the same language,” says Major Sebastian William of the Malaysian air force, referring to “pilot speak.” “Whatever we talk about is understood by both parties.”
“You have your comedians, your jokers,” says Marine Corps Major Chad Sund. “You have two groups of people who grew up in different cultures, but there are so many similarities.”
By the end of Air Warrior, the Marines had won virtually all of the air-to-air fights (with a few draws). But the Malaysians say they appreciate even the losses. “Every year we learn something new from the Americans,” says Major William. “With the limited number of assets, we can train only so much. Everything that we can take from the Americans, we will take.” The Hornet pilots too value the experience. “Training here is looked at the same way as training back in the States,” says Peter McArdle. “It doesn’t matter if we ‘killed’ everybody. We evaluate how we did and try to determine if and how we could do it better next time.”
Though he has more than 2,000 hours in the Hornet, Shipley was grateful for the opportunity to rack up more air time. “It’s as real as it can get without an AIM-9 actually coming off the rail,” he says. “I was excited. The guy I fought was actually pretty experienced. He was [call sign] Taro. We’re more experienced than [the Malaysian pilots], as we do a lot more practice. But Taro did a lot of out-of-plane maneuvering, not often seen from the Malaysian pilots. He was really good.” Shipley hopes to participate in a future Air Warrior.
“These exercises are tremendously valuable,” says retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, a global military strategist and author. “They strengthen alliances at both the political and practical levels, but they also allow us to identify and address a wide range of problems in interoperability, from fuel nozzle mismatches to radio incompatibilities—the sort of down-and-dirty details that can make a huge difference in a period of crisis. Human relationships remain critical in 21st century warfare, and these exercises do at least as much to build trust between individuals as they do to rehearse common flight procedures.”
The learning and bond-building will continue, but—starting this year—with new equipment: The Malaysians are replacing their MiG-29s with the newer, more advanced Sukhoi Su-30, a fighter/attack aircraft flown by a number of countries, including some with which the United States has had tense relations (China and Venezuela). While Malaysia is officially neutral, it certainly leans toward friendly these days—due in large measure to Air Warrior.
Writer and photographer Ed Darack wrote the book Victory Point (Berkley, 2009).