MiG-29s, on the other hand, have special engine intake louvers that block foreign objects, so the Malaysians don’t rank FOD removal nearly as high in priority as U.S. aviation units do.
In Air Warrior engagements, each side consists of one to three aircraft; sometimes the two sides are equally matched and sometimes they are lopsided, with one aircraft, for example, trying to defend itself against two opponents. Regardless of the number of aircraft, all engagements begin the same: After takeoff, the MiGs and Hornets climb to 15,000 feet. Traveling at 350 knots (about 400 mph), they maintain a separation from each other of about a mile. The agreed-upon “hard deck” lies 5,000 feet above ground level; if a fighter flies below 5,000 feet, it has “crashed.” The two sides split, and once out of visual range, the high-G dance begins: Each turns toward the other, with each pilot trying to get a tactical advantage over the other, putting his aircraft in position to fire its weapons. (The U.S. fighters are equipped with Sidewinder missiles stripped of motors and warheads. The MiGs are flying “slick,” without their usual array of air-to-air missiles.)
While each engagement evolves uniquely, both sides follow the same approach: Work the aircraft for all of its advantages over the other, and try to deny the opponent from working his advantages over you. Since the MiG-29 and F/A-18 are fairly evenly matched, victory usually boils down to pilot skill.
“The Americans have better radar, better weapons, so we try to get in close,” says Major Patricia Yapp Syau Yin of the Malaysian air force, recounting a one-on-one engagement she had against a Hornet. “Try to defeat their radar capabilities by doing aggressive moves—zooming in. We have to try to roll in behind them, not roll in front of them. Weapon-wise, software-wise, they are one up. But power-wise, we are one up.” The MiG-29N that the Malaysians fly has a top speed of Mach 2.3 and a climb rate of 65,000 feet per minute; the F/A-18D’s maximum speed is Mach 1.8 with a climb rate of 50,000 feet per minute. The Hornet, however, is a more maneuverable aircraft, with a fly-by-wire control system and more advanced avionics and cockpit displays.
Captain Matt Wieand, a Hornet pilot who flew against Syau Yin, says: “You make the turn in and come into the merge, and you feel the adrenaline. It is like a high-speed chess game, and a little like a dance, that ultimately is all about energy management. You assess the MiG’s status, and if you misjudge the MiG’s energy state or its pilot’s options, you can get killed. You can trade potential energy [altitude] for kinetic energy [speed], and you always have to be thinking ahead. In this business, airspeed is life.”
Just minutes after training to shoot down one another, the MiGs and Hornets fly side by side, refueling. With a para-drogue-tipped fuel hose coursing behind the two refueling pods of a KC-130J Super Hercules, an F/A-18 and a MiG each plug in to refuel, with less than 50 feet separating the tips of the fighters’ wings. Each Hornet fluidly connects to the fuel line; the MiGs, however, which have been retrofitted with NATO standard fueling probes, have a tougher time, though after a few jabs, most of them eventually succeed. “This was my first time [refueling during Air Warrior]—not that good an experience,” says Major Nasruddin Khalid. “I plug in, and the hose disconnected. I tried twice until I reach my bingo fuel, then came back alone.”
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.”