The difference between flying combat missions and training sorties is a lot more subtle than the obvious fact that you can really get shot at in combat. No matter how much you want to train the way you fight there are peacetime training constraints you just can’t get around and you unconsciously carry those conditions with you unless you really work to recognize them. One goal of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots’ Association (River Rats) is to mentor new aircrew members and help them understand the differences between the training environment and flying real combat sorties.
I did my F-4 transition training at what was George Air Force Base near Victorville, California. We did not have a supersonic training area and anytime someone went supersonic and created a sonic boom the base got irate phone calls that reverberated down to the squadron and the pilot was in trouble. Also, at that time, Air Force air-to-air tactical doctrine was something called fighting wing which originated in World War II and carried through the Korean War. Basically, in fighting wing the leader was offensive and the wingman’s job was to be defensive and protect his leader by staying close to his leader to protect him. The Navy at that time was teaching a tactic called Loose Deuce where the wingman was expected to maneuver in concert with the leader to gain a position of advantage and bring weapons to bear as quickly as possible and he would be cleared to shoot to end the engagement. When I got to my operational unit I encountered a squadron with enlightened leadership. My flight commander took me into the weapons and tactics office, reached into the back of the classified safe and pulled out a navy operations manual (NATOPS) on Loose Deuce and said when you can fly Loose Deuce we will put you on air-to-air escort missions in North Vietnam. Until then you will fly interdiction and close air support in South Vietnam.
My flight commander took every opportunity to get extra gas from the air-to-air refueling tankers when we came back from a mission in South Vietnam so I could practice Loose Deuce tactics. Actually, my first five missions were interdiction with a fast FAC (forward air controller) in the southern panhandle of North Vietnam. After awhile my flight commander said I was ready to fly escort for the bomber F-4s striking targets in North Vietnam. When you flew escort you wanted to maintain a high energy state to be able to aggressively engage any MiG that tried to attack the bomber aircraft you were escorting. That speed put us right up against the Mach at the altitudes we were flying. On my first mission to North Vietnam I was number four in a four-ship escorting a flight of F-4 bombers. Needless to say I got out of position and fell behind the proper position. My back seater told me to get forward where I should be and my conditioning from training made me say, “if I go any faster we’ll be supersonic”. In one of the calmest voices I’ve ever heard my back seater said, “Rich, they’re already mad at us.” That was my “aha” moment, this was a whole different environment and the rules were different.
A pilot I worked for several years later had a more significant “aha” moment in North Vietnam. He was flying an F-105 on a bombing mission in North Vietnam and was egressing the target at a high rate of speed after delivering his bombs and he got an indication in the cockpit that a gear door was open. Nine times out of ten it was just a matter of a an indicator switch not being properly adjusted and the door being only a fraction of an inch open but the proper procedure was to slow below gear lowering speed to prevent any damage to the gear door. My friend instinctively followed the checklist procedure and slowed down which allowed the anti-aircraft artillery gunners to accurately track and hit his aircraft forcing him to eject in North Vietnam. He had time on the ground waiting for the rescue helicopter to come and get him to contemplate that it would have been better to bring the jet home without a gear door than to not bring the jet home at all and have the opportunity to practice his escape and evasion skills for real.
The positive G limit for the F-4 was 9 Gs. One day my hootch mate put 12Gs on his airplane doing a defensive break against a missile he thought was tracking him. The over G broke the motor mounts on both engines and dictated maintenance perform a major over G inspection of the entire airplane. The operations commander for the wing felt compelled to admonish my hootch mate about the over G and ordered my hootch mate to report to him to discuss the matter. The operations officer asked my hootch mate why he put 12 Gs on the airplane. The captain looked at the colonel and said, “because that’s all I could get.” The interview was over.
In combat you need to be prepared for things to not go as planned and be flexible to adapt to new circumstances. In short, when things change, change the plan. I was tasked to lead a two-ship to escort B-52s and protect them from MiGs while attacking targets in southern North Vietnam near one if their airfields at Vinh. We were to protect two flights of B-52s with target times of 1 and 2 o’clock in the morning. The plan was to take off from Korat in central Thailand, go to a tanker in Laos, meet the first flight in the Gulf of Tonkin, escort them into and out of North Vietnam, go back to the tanker for more fuel and repeat the process for the second flight. After that we would go back to the tanker to get enough fuel to go back to Korat. Everything went as planned until we were on the tanker after escorting the second flight of B-52s. The tanker crew told us the airborne command post needed to talk to us. I got up on the tanker’s wing and changed frequencies to the command post where I learned that the flight that was scheduled to escort the next two B-52 flights at 3 and 4 o’clock had maintenance problems and couldn’t make it and we needed to cover the 3 and 4 o’clock target times. So we repeated the process of escorting each B-52 flight and refueling in between. After escorting the 4 o’clock flight we were back on the tanker and once again we were told to contact the command post. The escort flight for the pre-strike photo reconnaissance mission also had maintenance problems and we were now assigned to escort the Recce aircraft. The RF-4 joined us on the tanker and gave us his route over several targets in central North Vietnam. The pre-strike Recce mission was called the run for the roses as it flew over the targets for the main stike of the day against targets in the North Vietnamese heartland. Thanks to Petula Clark strikes against targets around Hanoi and Haiphong were called going “Down Town”. Off we went to fly west to east across North Vietnam from Hanoi to Haiphong and protect the RF-4 from MiGs. After that we went back to another tanker and then home to Korat. A planned 4 hour mission with one type of escort turned into an 8 hour mission with two types of escort in two completely different environments.
You also take things you learned in combat back to the peacetime environment that need to be exorcised from your flying. Flying out of our base in Thailand we routinely flew into bases in South Vietnam where small arms fire in the traffic pattern was likely and shoulder fired heat seeking missiles were possible. Because of this we would fly very tight overhead tactical patterns to minimize our exposure at slow speeds and low altitude with an on speed base to final turn rolling out over the overrun and touching down in the first 500 feet of the runway. My assignment after Southeast Asia was to Germany and while it is an operational command with war time tasking it is a peace time command for training. Everybody’s first flight in Europe has to be with an instructor pilot so my new flight commander who was also a squadron instructor pilot got in my backseat for my first F-4 flight in Europe. We went out single-ship to do some basic aircraft handling maneuvers and then came back to the base for an instrument approach. After that we went out to see the VFR entry pattern and do an overhead pattern to a full stop landing. I did the pattern like I had been doing them in Vietnam, very tight and very aggressive. In the debrief after the flight my flight commander said that my VFR overhead pattern was the best that he had ever seen but I should never do it like that again. In Europe the rule was wings level at 300 feet AGL and a mile on final.
The rules can change depending on the environment in which you are operating. The challenge for a pilot is to recognize the changes and adapt to them.