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 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.

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