With the bomb now airborne, the hardest and most dangerous work has to be undertaken. The nav has at most 30 seconds before the bomb hits the ground. All his or her attention must be focused on the instruments: the infrared scanner to find the target, and the aircraft's laser, which must be held on the target until the bomb hits. All the while the pilot is still climbing, and the aircraft, now also banking as much as 90 degrees, is highly vulnerable to ground fire or air attack. "But it's the busiest time for flying the aircraft," says pilot Matt Sibree, "so there's no time really to think about it."
The job is tougher at night. Forty percent of the Strike Reconnaissance Group's training missions are low-level night sorties. Night attacks require "absolute faith in instruments, computers, and terrain-following radar," says Doc Millar. They also demand split-second coordination between pilot and navigator during the run to the target, when the pilot is monitoring the TFR and principal flight instruments and the navigator is in the feedbag. "Each has to know when to expect 'climb' [or] 'dive' commands from the TFR and what to expect from each other," Millar says. "This is before you add the complexity of formation, ground-based air defenses, air threats, weather, et cetera."
The complexities can lead to what air crews call "task saturation," something several American crews of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing experienced in April 1986 during the first offensive air operation conducted by the U.S. Air Force since the Vietnam War. Stationed at Lakenheath Air Base near London, the 48th provided an attack force for a U.S. raid on Libya, which was a retaliation for Libyan-sponsored terrorism against the United States. Of the 20 F-111s that attacked, only four scored hits. Though one aircraft was lost (cause unknown) and the raid failed to kill Libyan leader Muammar Qaddhafi, it clearly caused him to lower his profile and turn down the volume of his inflammatory anti-American rhetoric. An unpublished account of the raid (the author requested anonymity) suggests what an F-111 cockpit is like during combat:
"Remit 32 [the aircraft's call sign] had a very experienced pilot paired with a relatively new but promising WSO. The spectacle of massive quantities of anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles flying one way, HARM [high-speed anti-radiation] missiles fired by Navy A-7Es in response flying the other way, and the unexpected use of parachute flares by the Libyans, turning night into day, rattled the WSO. When the pilot realized they had gone too far without beginning their toss maneuver, they aborted their bombing run and roared across Tripoli at rooftop level.
"Remit 33 had a moderately experienced pilot and a highly experienced WSO. Without functioning TFR, they approached the target at 1,000 feet, using their radar altimeter until the parachute flares made it possible to fly visually. Then their Pave Tack pod malfunctioned, so the WSO did what WSOs had done before they had Pave Tack pods. He did a radar toss, which put their bombs squarely in the barracks courtyard, although they didn't cause any significant damage. The malfunctioning Pave Tack pod did manage to capture the launch of an SA-8 missile at these intrepid aviators, which impressed them to no end when they saw it during their debrief."
Maintaining "situational awareness" is the most crucial survival skill in combat and the one that RAAF training most emphasizes. It means that every moment, pilot and navigator together have a clear picture of the terrain, obstacles, and threats.
Some crew members would prefer tandem seating to make it easier to see threats from behind. But the majority of pilots see advantages to having someone next to you. Side-by-side seating offers fast visual communications about actions that would otherwise have to be confirmed verbally and thus take more time when time is extremely tight and concentration on systems vital.
"[Low-level night attack] is probably the most dangerous and complex form of aviation after night carrier operations," says Millar. "We have killed five percent of our air crew over the years in this flight regime."
In 28 years the RAAF has lost eight -111s, five in fatal crashes. The last four were at night and involved the military euphemism "controlled flight into terrain." "One went in at a 40-degree angle at 500 knots," says an RAAF pilot who asked not to be identified. "Not a pretty sight."
Though investigations haven't yielded conclusive proof of what caused any of the -111 crashes, Millar says the Strike Reconnaissance Group believes all were the result of human error, either "loss of situational awareness or failure of crew coordination." The group has since started a new program, Crew Resource Management Training, to improve crew coordination. And before any mission takes off, a complete risk assessment of the flight profile is mandatory, including reviews of technical and operational airworthiness.