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Authors: Richard Herman

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“Rog,” Stansell replied, “contact bogies.” The radar contacts were their “adversaries,” two other F-15s from Luke AFB. The colonel was vaguely aware that he was breathing very rapidly.

“Just do it as briefed, sir,” Captain Greg Donaldson, the instructor pilot in his back seat pit, cautioned. Donaldson was worried about the colonel. He hadn’t been doing well in Air Combat Tactics.

“Toro, Lobo One and Two entering air-to-air now, North Point, ready.” Snake Houserman called over the UHF radio, checking them into the area on the flight frequency. Snake was Lobo One and Stansell was Lobo Two. They were flying straight and level at 500 knots Calibrated Air Speed. Snake was at 15,000 feet and Stansell at 19,000.

Snake was a very young captain who was showing promise of being an outstanding fighter jock. Stansell was envious of the young man’s potential, already more than anything he had.

The bogies checked in, “Lobo, Toro One and Two entering air-to-air now, South Point, ready.”

“Roger, Tom,” Snake answered, “fight’s on, tape’s on.” Stansell tried to control his rate of breathing, knowing he could hyperventilate. They still had over two minutes before they came together in the merge, lots of time. His fingers played the piccolo, those series of switches and buttons on the throttles and stick that gave the pilot control of everything he needed in combat. He blipped the range button down, decreasing his radar range to forty miles. He moved the Target Designation Control switch on the left throttle and drove the acquisition bars on the Vertical Situation Display over the left target. He mashed the TDC button and immediately released it. The radar system did as it was commanded and locked on.

“Too early, Colonel,” Donaldson told him. Stansell grunted, conceding the instructor pilot was right. In combat the radar-warning gear in the enemy’s cockpit would be screaming “lock on” at the pilot, giving him ample time to react and avoid a head-on medium-range missile shot. Stansell broke the lock on, losing the capability for the launch of an AIM-7M Sparrow missile. “Sort the formation and don’t take your final lock until the range is about fifteen nautical miles,” Donaldson said.

Stansell waited, working to control his breathing for the seventy seconds it took for the range to decrease from thirty-five to fifteen miles. He selected a twenty-nautical-mile scope and drove the acquisition bars with the TDC to the left target and mashed it. But this time the radar wouldn’t lock on and stayed in the scan mode. Either the system was malfunctioning or Toro was jamming him.

“Go for a Fox Two,” Donaldson commanded, hoping the AIM-9L Sidewinder could acquire a heat signature off the approaching F-15’s intakes for a short-range, front-aspect missile shot.

The colonel broke his attempted lock and used his left thumb to toggle the weapon switch on the side of the right throttle to the middle detent, calling up the Sidewinders. The characteristic growl of the Sidewinder filled their earphones, masking all other communications. Stansell had made another mistake. He reached for the volume control knob and turned the tone down just as he visually acquired the on-coming F-15s. Once a visual contact was established, they were free to maneuver and engage the bogies in a turning engagement.

“Tally two, left ten o’clock, seven miles, slightly high!” Snake radioed. At least his eyeballs were no better than Stansell’s.

At the same time, another voice broke into the radio transmission. “Tom One. Fox One on the west F-15 at nineteen thousand.” The Interceptor symbol on Stansell’s Tactical Electronic Warfare System scope was flashing at him, warning him that the pilot in the approaching F-15, Toro One, had just taken a simulated ALM-7M shot at him. How had he missed the audio warning on his own TEWS? The Sidewinder’s growl must’ve overridden it. Another mistake. In action a Sparrow with a sixty-six pound high explosive warhead would’ve been streaking toward Stansell. The smoke trail that “The Great White Hope” left behind it would get any pilot’s attention and force a violent evasive maneuver, anything to break the radar lock-on guiding the Sparrow.

Almost immediately, the same cool voice announced, “Tom One, Fox Two on the west F-15 at nineteen thousand.” Now Stansell had a Sparrow and a Sidewinder coming at him.

“Break right!” Donaldson shouted. “Honor the goddamn threat, Colonel!”

Stansell didn’t hesitate and for the first time, he reacted quickly. Burying his right foot in the rudder pedal; he pushed the stick forward and to the right, starting a Split-S maneuver toward the ground and reversing course. “Put your nose on him, colonel. You’re solving the goddamn problem for him,” Donaldson bellowed, the strain of grunting against the six Gs they were pulling laboring his voice. Stansell pulled the nose of the F-15 up and reversed course to meet his pursuer head-on, but he was too heavy-handed and snatched over eight Gs on the F-15, causing the Over Load Warning System to activate. He was so engrossed that he did not hear the double rate beeper and then the computer-activated female voice saying, “Over-G, Over-G, Over-G,” to warn him of the excessive forces he was loading on the jet.

Stansell grunted hard to fight the Gs, exactly the way most people fight constipation. While not very elegant, it did work. Stansell could feel a granddaddy slip out, making its presence known in the cockpit.

It was too much for Donaldson. He keyed his mike and transmitted for the other aircraft to hear. “Lobo Two, knock it off, knock it off,” while he toggled his oxygen regulator to one hundred percent oxygen, cutting off all cockpit air to his mask. The four Eagles immediately flew wings level and checked in with their call signs. “God, Colonel,” Donaldson muttered over the intercom. “You over-G’d the jet with that last maneuver. Call an over-G and head for home.”

Stansell keyed the radio, “Lobo Two, RTB at this time. One hundred and six percent overload. Level two on the wings—8.2 Gs.”

“Rog, Two.” It was Snake’s voice. “Land from a straight-in approach”

The short colonel scanned his instruments and wings. “Roger.”

“I’ll give you a battle damage check,” Snake told him, slipping his aircraft under Stansell’s for a visual check. “You look OK. Recover single ship. See you in debrief.” Snake peeled off and headed back for the center of the area to set up the next engagement with the other element of two aircraft.

“He’s going to have some fun now,” Donaldson said. “Two-vee-one is Snake’s idea of an interesting fight.” The “vee” was shorthand for “versus” and two against one would tax every skill Houserman possessed. The captain knew the other three pilots would go to the backup mission of low level intercepts they had briefed in case Stansell aborted. They would drag the fight down to five hundred feet—exactly as in combat—into the environment where they excelled and none of their potential opponents ever trained in peacetime, making the first few days of any war that involved F-15s something of a turkey shoot until the opposition got the message. But at the moment neither Stansell, Snake or Donaldson knew how close one of them was to having a chance to show just how good the F-15s were.

Stansell relaxed into his seat, drenched with sweat from the aborted engagement. He lifted the green tinted visor of his helmet and rubbed the sweat from around his eyes with the back of his glove. His right ear itched, demanding a scratching. The colonel fought the urge. After all, it wasn’t there. I’ve heard of that reaction he thought, but never believed it until now.

The recovery into Luke AFB was uneventful, and Donaldson relaxed as he evaluated the way Stansell flew the graceful fighter down final. The colonel wired the airspeed at 145 knots and the Angle of Attack at twenty-one units. It was a smooth and relaxed approach and the colonel’s voice and breathing were as normal as an airline pilot’s. “A wonderful thing, the CAS. It made anyone look good,” Stansell observed, more to himself than Donaldson. The Control Augmentation System sensed pitch, yaw and roll rates; AOA, lateral and vertical acceleration. It then automatically adjusted the electrical inputs into the control surfaces commanded by the pilot, relieving him of the constant task of trimming for changes in control surface pressure when the aircraft’s speed or G forces changed. Stansell squeaked the landing.

Captain Donaldson wasn’t flying with just any other newly-minted colonel who had grown rusty after serving time in some desk job in the Pentagon that guaranteed promotion. He was flying with Rupert Stansell, a former F-15 squadron commander, a blooded pilot with one MiG to his credit, and one of the three men lucky enough to have escaped from Ras Assanya on the Persian Gulf after it was captured. Donaldson couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the colonel.

While Stansell debriefed Maintenance on the over-G, Donaldson headed for the personal equipment section of his squadron, the 555th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the Triple Nickel. He stripped off his G-suit before retrieving a wedding band and an Air Force Academy class ring from his locker shelf. Stansell, he thought, being an old boy from the Academy ain’t going to get you through this refresher course if you don’t have a clue. He decided it was time to talk to his squadron commander.

Donaldson stood at the open door of Lieutenant Colonel “Buzz” Ruthaford’s office, waiting for his squadron commander to motion him in. The tall and lanky black L.C. waved him into a seat the moment he saw the captain. Rutherford continued to talk on the phone pulling faces to express what he thought of the caller’s message. Finally he hung up. “Same old bull,” he said. “Public Relations has another request to interview the only black squadron commander in TAC. Interviews aren’t my job.” He fixed on Donaldson. “You look like you’ve got a problem. Stansell?”

“Yeah, he didn’t have a clue today. Little, almost no situational awareness. He was flying around out there with a great big question mark over his cockpit.”

Rutherford waited, not about to say a thing until Donaldson laid it all out for him.

“Over-G when he reversed-8.2—dumb. We had to make an early return.”

“Wasn’t today his first two-vee-two ride?” Rutherford asked. “That’s an important phase of training.”

“True. But he was doing the same thing when he was flying one-vee-one. Something’s blocking him, getting in the way. He can fly the jet as good as anyone, but when the fight starts to develop, he becomes mechanical and rigid. It’s like he’s considering each move. Nothing’s natural, nothing flows. For a moment there I thought he might hyperventilate he was breathing so hard. I get the feeling I’m in the cockpit with a second lieutenant on his first ACM ride. You wouldn’t believe he’s downed a MiG and has over a thousand hours in the bird.”

“He was my first flight commander,” Rutherford said. “He was a good stick…he was a lieutenant when he caught the tail end of Vietnam. In fact, he flew combat with the Triple Nickel out of Udorn in Thailand. Flew F-4s then. The squadron was
the
MiG killer in those days and got over forty MiGs.”

“He’s changed, sir.”

Rutherford reached into his memory, tapping his experience, education and training to figure out what ailed Stansell. His ability to solve problems was one of the things that had earned him the command of the Triple Nickel. That, plus the fact that he could fly the Eagle like a demon and the men trusted him. “Right now he’s too deliberate, cautious, but it shouldn’t be a big problem to overcome. Probably tied in to that business in the Persian Gulf when the base at Ras Assanya was overrun, his C.O. caught it and he just got out thanks to a couple of sergeants. Yeah, I think the key is in what happened to him at Ras Assanya, must’ve been pretty traumatic for him…keep working with him, schedule me in the same flight when he flies tomorrow.”

“Thanks, appreciate the help,” Donaldson said as he stood up. He knew from past experience that Rutherford would take an active role with Stansell’s training and start taking the heat if the colonel couldn’t hack the program. It was one of the things he liked about the L.C.

Rutherford tapped his desk with a pencil after the captain had left, considering what to do. The Air Force system identified men who had been through the crucible of combat and when they performed as well as Stansell had, they were given the inside track for command. But if the colonel could not put the traumatic effect of his last experience behind him and do the job demanded, he would be put out to pasture in some meaningless slot, passed over for promotion and retired at his present rank. Rutherford did not like what he had to do if Stansell couldn’t cut it.

The debrief of the flight went as Stansell expected, and Donaldson came right to the point. “Colonel, let’s talk about what went wrong now and not in front of the rest of the flight. You started the engagement with your radar at forty miles range, not eighty. Then you were going to take your final lock-on too soon, giving your opposition plenty of time to react. When I told you to break you started a Split-S toward the ground, but I didn’t think you’d continue it until your tail was pointed at the threat. You should’ve reversed back into the fight when your nose was about ninety degrees to the threat. When you did come back, you over-G’d the bird. You missed the voice warning, sir. Not good.”

The instructor pilot was using two foot sticks with F-15 models on the end to demonstrate how Stansell should have maneuvered. Then he moved to the white board on the wall of the small briefing room and used four different colors of magic markers to diagram how he would’ve engaged the two F-15s. Finally he ran the video tape that had recorded the flight through the Head Up Display.

Stansell sat quietly, making notes, accepting what the captain had to say, and only nodded his head when Donaldson had finished. Get it together, he raged at himself. What’s wrong? This course should be a piece of cake.

The other three members of the flight came into the squadron for their debrief. Snake was loudly telling anyone who would listen how he had “knocked their dicks in the dirt.” Again, the colonel sat quietly through the debrief, thinking how much Snake was like himself when he was younger.

When the debrief was over he escaped from the squadron and headed for the condominium he was renting from a friend.

BOOK: Force of Eagles
10.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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