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 3 of 5)
In 1958 Davey was on another winning gunnery team, this one a competition within the Tactical Air Command. Hinton, who led the team that year, remembers Davey's method during the competitions: "Cal would always fly number four so that on his next to last pass, he could check to see if there were good hits from all the team members. If it didn't look good, he would shoot the banner off the tow cable so it would be lost over the desert and the mission declared invalid. Then we would get to fly it again."
Sadly, the great Cal Davey was killed in Germany while flying an instrument approach in bad weather in an F-100F. That accident has always seemed to me one of the cruel ironies of this business.
Air combat maneuvering was the most strenuous—and dangerous—subject in the syllabus, and our textbook was written by one of the most celebrated fighter pilots of the day, Major Frederick "Boots" Blesse, who achieved double-ace status in the Korean War. Following his success in Korea, Blesse became a training squadron commander at Nellis and wrote a tactics manual, Not Guts, No Glory, that soon became the bible of aerial combat throughout the Air Force. (Almost 20 years later, it was still being distributed to tactical units in the field.) Each of us carried a copy, memorizing the rules, visualizing the maneuvers, and planning our future kills.
We had many occasions during our training flights to practice the principles in Blesse's manual—and even develop variations on them. "Find the con level," Blesse advises early in the manual. "When possible, cruise with your high element just below the con level and you'll quickly see any attack made on your flight from above." The "con level" is the altitude at which the air is cold enough to make the engine's hot exhaust condense and form smoke-like contrails—condensation trails. Instructor John Bennett and I one day used that bit of advice as the nucleus for a devious plan.
I was number two, on Bennett's wing, in a flight of four. We were heading out to the Air Combat Maneuvering area, looking for a fight from some of our classmates. Bennett and I decided to leave the element, easily seen by their contrails, was attacked, we would be able to swoop in before the attackers knew our presence. We made it to 48,000 feet with the element conning heavily around 35,000 feet before we saw the cons of flight headed for our bait. When the attackers closed, the element broke into them and Bennett went screaming down, with me in a fighting wing position. It really worked. The attackers broke and we split the flight, but suddenly there were F-100s everywhere. Another four-ship had joined in. John was closing fast on a flight of two, in a left descending turn. They were pulling hard, up into us, streamers off the wingtips, when suddenly the wingman did a quick roll over the top and off to the right. Inertial coupling had struck. In the F-100, this was the result of high-G maneuvering—a hard turn, usually to the left. The Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine produced such torque—16 stages of turbines revolving 38,000 times a minute—that the airplane wanted to roll around the engine. Add that to the centrifugal force resulting from the bank, which caused the nose and tail to swing out perpendicular to the rotation axis, and the aircraft departs. The F-100 also had a tendency toward adverse yaw, an aerodynamic coupling of the roll and yaw axes of an aircraft so that a pure roll input, for example, could cause the nose to slice right. When the two coupling phenomena ganged up, the pilot was only along for the ride. By releasing the back pressure, you could fly out of the condition, but the fight would then be well behind you.
When I saw that wingman, straining to hold on to defend his lead's tail, tumble over the top, I laughed out loud, imagining the expression on the pilot's face. We would all experience it during our training.
These were the kinds of misadventures we would analyze and reanalyze in the debriefing following the flight and re-analyzing at the officers' club following the day's flying. The nightly discussions of maneuvers, mistakes, and triumphs—and you missed "beer call" only if you were dead or close to it—were sometimes as valuable as, if much louder than, the post-flight analysis. (Sometimes they weren't valuable at all, but there was never any shortage of opinions.) And of course we hung on every word as Hinton, Davy and the other instructors explained their theories and told their war stores. Blesse, who had been transferred to Combat Crew Training Headquarters at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, spent a lot of time back at Nellis and was frequent guest of honor at these bull sessions. One of the most colorful of that crowd eventually became the driving force for the development of the F-16 lightweight fighter and played an important role in the development of the F-15 as well. Captain John Boyd, who had degrees in economics and electrical engineering and spent a good deal of his time in the Air Force agitating commanding officers and otherwise bucking the system, was larger than life, boisterous, profane—and an incredible pilot. He had a standing bet—"40 seconds or $40," which meant that within 40 seconds he could turn the tables on a pilot who had "gotten at his six" and collect $40. If it took Boyd longer, he'd pay the pilot.
To my knowledge Boyd never had to pay up. I flew with him once, for one-on-one training in combat maneuvering. He put me at an altitude above him and let me make a clean pursuit curve to his six o'clock. All the while, Boyd was increasing his Gs in a turn, just enough to keep me from pulling lead—getting in a position to aim my guns above and ahead of him. Boyd let me begin edging up, getting the pipper (an electronic light super-imposed on the windscreen) on his canopy. On the radio, he asked repeatedly, "You hacking me, buddy?"—Did I have my sight on his canopy?—and I, pulling Gs to out-turn him, kept grunting, "Not yet." When finally I said, "Yes, I'm hacking you," his Hun did the most incredible flip-flops right in front of me and disappeared—only to end up behind me.