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
POWER IS SET AT 80 PERCENT. I've been briefed that setting the thrust any higher while holding the brakes is dangerous because the tires could rotate around their rims. I glance at the engine gauges, then look to my right, at my instructor's airplane. He nods; he's ready. I look ahead, down the expanse of the two-mile runway at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, release the brakes, and advance the throttle to 100 percent. The acceleration presses me back in the seat as my eyes dart down to check the instruments again. I flick the throttle grip outboard to light the afterburner. As my instructors warn me, there is an immediate loss of thrust, and I go forward against the harness. But suddenly, there is a tremendous bang behind me and I'm nailed back in the seat as the afterburner kicks in. Airspeed increases rapidly: 120 knots, 140, 160, 180. Pull back on the stick, rotate the nose up about 15 degrees as the fighter becomes airborne. Gear up. The runway falls away behind me, and I steepen the climb to reduce airspeed. I pull the throttle grip inboard to bring the engine out of the afterburner at 300 knots and get on the climb schedule—a strictly prescribed flightpath with specific altitude and airspeed callouts—that I was taught only a day before. My instructor's aircraft is behind me and I ease the throttle back and start a shallow right turn so he can join up.
I'm flying the North American F-100A Super Sabre for the first time. It's September 20,1957.
My classmates and I, at Nellis to master the first of the now-legendary Century Series fighters, were at the bottom of a steep learning curve. The aircraft we had been flying—T-33s, F-84s, even F-86s—were either designed or conceived during World War II. The F-100, on the other hand, represented a new generation of fighter aircraft, the first to make use of the knowledge gained by the Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558 supersonic research programs. The Super Sabre was the first operations fighter capable of reaching Mach I in level flight. Speed that a few years earlier had been the sole province to stars like Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield was now being made available to use rank-and-file fighter pilots.
Our education in the F-100 would be revolutionary in another sense. Our training class arrived at Nellis just three years after the Air Force had transformed its Fighter Gunnery School there into the Fighter Weapons School, built around a core of visionary Korean War aces who believed combat maneuvers could be quantified in terms of energy transfer and therefore standardized. The Fighter Weapons School instructors were the best fighter pilots in the Air Force, and they frequently came down to the training squadrons to fly with us trainees, sometimes using the training flights as practical experiments in the emerging science of aerial combat. We could hardly know at the time—many of us reported to Nellis on our way to our first fighter wing assignments—that we had stumbled into an opportunity in our careers that would never be repeated. Our short time there—six weeks and a mere 30 training flights—had a profound influence on us and ultimately paid dividends when we flew combat missions in Southeast Asia a decade later.
The 3595th Combat Crew Training Group at Nellis was made up of the Fighter Weapons School, which was organized at its own squadron, and five training squadrons, which introduced pilots to the F-100. Group commander Bruce Hinton had led an F-86 squadron in Korea and was the first F-86 pilot to shoot down a MiG in that conflict. Before the war ended, he had bagged two more MiGs and damaged seven. Hinton was always ready with a word of encouragement for us students—an unusual trait in a group commander.
We were given three flights to learn how to handle the F-100—we shortened it to "the Hun"—before our training in combat operations began. Those introductory flights were brief—less than an hour—and were intended simply to give us a feel for the airplane. Its wings were only a foot longer than those of the F-86F I had been flying, but the fuselage, which housed a Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine, was nearly seven feet longer. In full afterburner, the J-57's power—16,000 pounds of thrust—was more than three times that of the General Electric J-47 in the F-86, even though the Hun was only 3,000 pounds heavier. It was pure fighter. It could climb to 40,000 feet in four minutes. But it was also vicious.
Chuck Wood, one of the young lieutenants who started his training several classes ahead of mine, had a close call in the Hun and ended up finishing his training in my class. We all remember our first takeoff in the F-100, but Wood's introduction may have been a little wilder than most. "I flew the F-84 at Luke [Air Force Base]," he recalls, "and it accelerated so slow on takeoff you could deal a deck of cards while waiting for something to happen. Well, that first takeoff in the Hun, I was just hanging on. My instructor called and said, 'Raise the gear, shut off the [afterburner], and wait for me.' Man, I was out of control."
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."
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.
His technique was to pull very high Gs and, using the horizontal stabilizer for a speed brake—slow suddenly for no apparent reason. Boyd would yank the stick back—wham, wham, wham—repeatedly deflecting the stabilizer, which moved as a single surface, during a high-G turn. His pursuer would overshoot him every time. This was a maneuver you tried only if you knew how to get yourself out of the extreme attitudes that resulted.
Another of Boyd's favorite maneuvers once you had closed on him was to pull up into a vertical climb. Of course you followed. He would shoot straight up until he ran out of airspeed, then do a rudder reverse, an input that caused the airplane to go from nose up to nose down, and you would be looking straight up the intake of his F-100. It was frightening, to say the least. Later, during one of his violent maneuvers, Boyd blew out the hydraulic system's pop-off valves—they relieve the pressure when the system exceeds its maximum design limits—and lost his controls. He had to eject. His commander grounded him for losing an aircraft, but Boyd was able to prove the loss had occurred because of weakness in the system's design. Reinstated, he continued his explorations.
Lesser pilots weren't as lucky. The F-100A was a brute. It sat back, squatting on its haunches with that gaping intake and looking as thought it might take a bite out of you if you got too close. The Hun took a bite out of quite a few. Nearly 25 percent of the total number of F-100s produced were lost in accidents. We were briefed on some of its quirks, which were being ironed out but still needed to be respected.
One problem was that modulating the power in afterburner could cause the burner to go out. The solution was to not modulate power on takeoff. We were directed to take whatever we got. If an aircraft happened to have more power than the leader's, that aircraft's pilot would take over as lead. Once safely airborne and out of burner, we would sort out the positions. It made formation flying a little awkward, but we got good at join-ups.
The Hun also introduced us to compressor stalls, which occurred when a pilot, flying at max power and pulling heavy Gs, got the nose too high and the speed too low and starved the engine inlet of air. The combination of too much fuel and too little air caused an explosion in the engine's turbine section. Inside the cockpit, the pilot felt a horrendous BAM that struck the floor with enough force to lift his feet off the rudder pedals, and the airplane would slow drastically. An observer would see flames shoot out both intake and exhaust. The pilot could clear the condition by releasing pressure on the stick and getting the nose down—increasing airflow through the engine. Of course if an attacker was behind you at the time, you were dog meat.
Nine F-100As were lost before our class arrived at Nellis, and a few more were lost after we left, but my class was lucky. We lost none.
After training, I arrived at the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing at Turner Air Force Base in Georgia a couple of days before Thanksgiving, ready, or at least willing, to fly the F-100D. The first thing I learned was that three friends of mine, in the training class just ahead of me, had already been killed in F-100 accidents at their assigned units. It was not a forgiving airplane.
The Fighter Weapons School continued to develop, and it turned out the best fighter pilots in the world. In 1968, a cadre from the school went to Naval Air Station Miramar in California and helped the Navy establish its Top Gun School. Today, the school has dropped "Fighter" from its name. The New Weapons School offers instructor courses in many combat aircraft, including the B-1, the B-52, and even HH-60 helicopter. I imagine it's still a pretty exciting place.
North American F-100A
A 45-degree wing sweep allowed the Super Sabre to slip through Mach 1 with ease. The F-100, with its four M-29 20-mm cannon, was initially designed as a day gunfighter, but it flew in the attack role throughout its operational history. Hundreds were sold overseas to NATO allies and to the Nationalist Chinese air force. Some aircraft were equipped with systems for toss-bombing nuclear weapons. Leading edge slats were operated aerodynamically, extending and retracting as airflow and angle of attack dictated in order to enhance maneuverability and reduce landing speeds. The Pratt & Whitney J57-P-21 generated about 16,000 pounds of thrust with its afterburner lighted. A two-position exhaust nozzle was operated pneumatically and opened when the afterburner was operating. The Hun got its first exposure to combat in Vietnam and had a long service life, finally retiring from the Air Force in 1979.