By Nate S. Jaros
Continuing our three-part series on “A Day in the Life of a Fighter Pilot.” If you missed the last segment, we came in early for mission planning and attended the flight briefing. Now it’s time to fly!
Stepping to Fly – 0900 Local
After suiting up, grabbing some coffee or a quick bite to eat, it’s time to join your flight-mates at the Ops Desk for the step brief. The Ops Desk (Operations Desk) is where a senior member of the Fighter Squadron will be posted daily for the sole purpose of overseeing and sometimes smoothing the daily flying operations of the unit. For the day, that pilot is designated the Ops Sup (Operations Supervisor). Working with the maintainers to ensure the right jets with the right configurations are ready, dealing with weather changes, and schedule changes, pilot illnesses and fallout are among a few of the daily items that the Ops Sup will have to do.
It’s not very glamorous, but it’s essential for the smooth flow of daily events in a very complex fighter squadron schedule.
Pilots receive a brief from the Ops Sup before they go out to their jets. In addition to assigning a specific tail number that each pilot will fly that day, the Ops Sup briefs the pilots on any updates to weather, airspace, bird conditions, divert options and any other important airfield items.
Following the Ops Sup brief, it’s time to step!
Pilots now arrive at their jets and greet their hardworking maintainers. Of note, most of the maintenance guys and gals have been out on the flight line since 0400 or 0500 Local getting the aircraft prepped and ready for flight.
After greeting the crew chief and maintenance guys, we perform a jet “walk around.” The walk around is actually a set of checklists procedures where all sorts of items are looked at and checked before climbing in and flying. Careful checks of things like flight controls, hydraulic lines and tanks, and weapons settings are important items on the preflight walk around.
After that, it’s time to climb in, start the engine and taxi out to the end of the runway.
Getting Airborne – 1000 Local
We taxi out with our flight (usually a two or four-ship), in order and go to the appropriate runway. There, we are greeted by more maintenance guys who give the jets one final look over, as well as arming up any weapons on board. After that, with takeoff clearance received we taxi onto the runway and go…following the briefed departure procedure and formation.
Somewhere after departure, things get real busy for the fighter pilot. We typically rejoin the formation in some format and proceed to the working airspace, tanker track, or whatever the plan was. Along the way we do a “Fence Check” where the aircraft is made ready to fight. Some items in the F-16 Fence check are setting up the radar and targeting pod, testing chaff and flares, turning up the volume on the threat warning receiver, and ensuring that your oxygen and G-suit is working. We’ll also turn on the camera recording system to “film” everything and all displays for later debrief analysis.
Depending on loadout, we might also warm up missiles and bombs, and do a few checks on them to ensure that they are ready for action.
The Mission – 1015 Local
The flight enters the “fragged” airspace and it’s time to fight. For the next 45 minutes to an hour we will put our fighters through their paces. Air-to-air engagements against adversaries, nine G break turns, vertical (up and down) maneuvering, and air-to ground bomb deliveries are all some of the intense and sometimes excruciating things one might do.
Every mission is different. On some sorties you might do all of the above, but often it is more common to just focus on one segment of training. We might spend our time doing all air-to-air intercepts, or basic weapons air-to-ground deliveries. It all depends on what your flight objectives were and what was needed to accomplish for training that day.
Either way, we will perform whatever we set out to practice, and maybe do it multiple times. Often we have the gas for four or five “sets” of intercepts or air-to-air engagements, and may even do some “dry” weapons passes releasing simulated weapons in simulated attacks.
Additionally, everything is being scrutinized. If you are an instructor, you are carefully watching and listening to everything that every member does. Did the intercept/attack/engagement go as planned? Did everyone follow briefed contracts, and certainly were there any gross errors or lapses in safety? These are some important things that are noted.
As a young wingman, we are striving to do our best. Wingmen are hoping to be in the correct formation position ALWAYS, be on the correct frequency, and be ready to act and employ per your flight lead’s directions and briefed plan. A solid wingman should almost be one step ahead of the flight lead’s plan, and ready to act at all times.
The RTB – 1115 Local
Before you know it the formation is getting low on gas and “bingo” fuel is reached… it’s time to RTB (Return to Base). Bingo fuel is the planned fuel state which allows for a normal recovery back to the airfield with enough reserve fuel or “pad” for safety.
The formation joins up, fences out, and gets headed home. On the way we safe up any armed up systems and do what is called a BD (Battle Damage) check. During the BD check, each aircraft takes a minute to fly behind and under the other aircraft and look for any trouble. Shrapnel holes, stuck or hung weapons, hung chaff or flares, leaking fluids, and anything else amiss. This check seldom turns up anything of significance, however it is important and can become critical later during combat operations.
With everything looking good, we come in, land and taxi back to the eager maintenance crew chief who helps get the aircraft shutdown, and often prepares it to go back up in an hour or two.
It’s now about noon, and typically we are tired and hungry. There are just a few minutes to fill out paperwork with maintenance, get out of your flight gear, stow your helmet and grab a bite to eat as the Flight Debrief is scheduled for exactly one hour after landing.
In the next and final segment, we’ll discuss the fighter pilot debrief and look at why that is critically important to the combat aviator.
Featured image by U.S. Air Force