Air Combat U

At the USAF Fighter Weapons School in 1957, the instructors were mean, but the aircraft were meaner.

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"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.

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