Air Combat U
At the USAF Fighter Weapons School in 1957, the instructors were mean, but the aircraft were meaner.
- By Robert A. Hanson
- Air & Space magazine, January 2002
(Page 2 of 5)
On Wood's second check-out flight, unfortunately, he found out what "out of control" really meant. Wood was climbing from takeoff through 18,000 feet when his instructor pilot advised him that he was losing fuel. "Here I was just getting some small level of confidence after that first wild takeoff, and he goes and says that," Wood recounts. He turned back toward Nellis, but halfway through the turn, the fuel gauge hit zero.
"It got quiet," Wood says. He set the glide speed at 220 knots so the RAT, or ram air turbine, would get enough air blowing through its ducts to supply hydraulic and electric power after the engine quit. "I was coming down like a rock, and on short final somebody said, 'Pull up and bail out.' [Another voice] said, 'No, don't. You'll never make it.' Later, when I listened to the tapes, [I heard myself saying] 'Will somebody make up their damn...'
"I hit really hard, and the airplane broke in half just behind the cockpit. I jumped over the side and ran until my oxygen mask, which was still attached in the airplane, spun me around. I disconnected that and then realized I hurt pretty bad, so I lay down. A few minutes later, a medic from the chopper bent over, looked at me, straightened up, and yelled in an incredulous voice, 'Hey! He's still alive.'"
Wood as back flying after two months in traction and six weeks of rehab.
Once he survived our three check-out flights in the Hun, we moved on to the basics of the fighter pilot's craft: air-to-air gunnery, and air combat maneuvering, or ACM, a term recently coined for what all of us knew simply as dogfighting. For our air-to-ground training, we dove at a shallow angle and strafed a 20-foot-square cloth target with a huge bull's-eye on a desert range. Air-to-air gunnery training was a little more challenging. We'd go up in a flight of four—one instructor and three trainees—to shoot at what we called "the rage": a six- by 30-foot rectangle of nylon mesh, marked with a bull's-eye and towed on a 1,200-foot cable by a T-33. The idea was to sit on a perch at about 1,500 feet—almost even with the target and about 3,000 feet away from it. We'd then make a graceful, descending, reversing turn into the banner, closing at an angle of about 30 degrees until we were within 800 to 1,000 feet of the target. Then we'd fire a short burst from the Hun's four 20-mm cannon, relax our pressure on the stick to release the Gs, roll up and over the banner toward wings level, and climb back to the last position in line, always alert for for the other three aircraft in the pattern, since the drill was continuous.
The bullets for each airplane were dipped in paint of a distinctive color so they would mark the banner as they went through the mesh, thus identifying the shooter. After the tow plane dropped the rag back at Nellis, we retrieved it to assess our lethality. The drill required some serious precision flying (and was really great fun), but not many of us students got more than a few hits.
To show us how it could be done, Captain Cal Davey came down from the school to fly air-to-air with us. Davey was one of the best guns in the Air Force, according to Hinton. He had been a member of the Winning Nellis team at the 1955 U.S. Air Force Worldwide Gunnery Meet, a competition among all the Air Force fighter groups. The Hun had a small radar, part of a lead computing sight that helped the pilot aim its four 20-mm rapid-fire M-29 guns, but Davey didn't need it; he could see the bullets on their way to the target and adjust his aim point. He would brag that he could put a grease pencil mark on his windscreen and hit the target 98 percent of the time. And he could. He briefed us on speed control, G control, closing, aiming, tracking, countering yaw, breathing—all the finer points a pilot has to keep in mind while pursuing a target.
During these briefings, Davey, who thought about and flew tactics in three dimensions while the rest of us were still operating in two, would get very excited about the theories of aerial gunnery he was explaining. He would wave his arms and talk a mile a minute. "He worried that nobody would understand him," Hinton says, "and of course, nobody did."