By Nate S. Jaros

I am often asked what it is like to be a fighter pilot. Sure, we boast about how fast we fly, how to shoot missiles, drop bombs, and generally scorch around the sky in our hot jets. But honestly, there is a lot more to it than that, including an air of professionalism and perfection that is rare in other jobs.

Let’s take a deeper look into a day in the life of a fighter pilot.

Planning – 0600 Local

Generally speaking the squadron’s scheduling shop will build and publish a schedule for the week. This schedule includes all types of training rides, upgrade sorties, and various other ground events and so forth. As a pilot, you can look at the schedule and know with reasonable certainty what you are doing for that week.

Your day begins when you arrive at the squadron. Yep, you have to plan your mission or sortie, and it’s not very glamorous unfortunately. When you find yourself scheduled to fly, you need to begin mission planning. Depending on what kind of mission you are on, and your position in the two-ship or four-ship you will get in touch with the other members of your flight (and possibly any adversaries too) and begin planning.

Old time mission planning. Courtesy USAF Reserves

Planning for the mission or sortie really hasn’t changed a whole lot since the days of the first combat pilots. The objectives for the mission are identified and that becomes the bedrock for the rest of the planning. If it is a dedicated air-to-ground practice ride the pilots will need to begin to plan for that type of mission versus a 4v4 (four versus four) air-to-air combat training sortie. Both require detailed and coordinated planning, but both are quite different.

The objectives, or goals of the flight are the key to what and how you will begin planning, and thusly what you are trying to get out of the whole event.

Mission Planning. Courtesy USAF

Mission planning takes a few hours of your day, possibly more if it is a detailed and complex mission. Today, we typically plan a lot of our missions on a computer and then load the selected airspace boundaries, flight route, and aircraft communication and weapons loadout information on to a DTC (data transfer cartridge). The DTC is a brick-like object (in the F-16) that carries the detailed mission planning data and information. It is loaded into the jet during ground ops and transfers all the information you’ve planned for into the aircraft’s computer systems.

Mission planning on the computer. Courtesy USAF

In addition to the DTC, you will also generate paper maps and lineup cards during mission planning. A lineup card is a piece of paper that contains all the critical information for the mission. Things like the flight’s call sign, takeoff and landing data calculations, mission timing, code words, a route overview, weapons configurations, and all radio frequencies that are expected for the flight are put on the lineup card.

If you have hot ranges, more aircraft or tanker aircraft in the mix, there is even more planning required to ensure all the timing is perfect, and everything is set for the mission.

Print off two or four copies of everything (and load all the DTCs) and you’re done! Hopefully, after a couple hours, your mission planning is complete and you’re ready to brief.

The Flight Briefing – 0800 Local

The flight briefing. Courtesy USAF/Luke AFB

The flight briefing is quite possibly the most important part of the mission, even more so than the in-flight execution to a degree. The flight briefing is where all members of the flight come together and lay out the exact details of what will happen, when it will happen, and how it will happen for the mission you are about to fly.

For fighter pilots, the brief is a sacred event. It is led by the flight lead, who is the pilot in the number one aircraft who is in charge of the flight. He or she starts the brief with a time hack that is set to exact global time. We do things down to the second. If you miss the brief, you don’t fly that day, so don’t be late. Briefings usually are set precisely two hours prior to takeoff time.

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The flight lead briefs the sortie and all the intricacies, and no one else speaks…period. There is limited time, so questions are held to the end. The brief lasts about an hour and consists of two segments: Administration, and the Tactical Portion. Administration is sometimes called just “admin” or more commonly called “motherhood.” The motherhood part of the combat brief is fast. Just eight to ten minutes typically. This is by design, as we like to spend a majority of our briefing time on the tactical stuff. Motherhood encompasses the basics of the ground ops, radio frequency plans, departure and recovery plans, as well as formation positions and a safety review of rules for the “fight.”

Contracts are also reviewed. Every flight member has various contracts during different phases of flight. Contracts are important items that you are responsible for, and that every other flight member is expecting you to do, without fail. An example contract is to announce when you have one missile or bomb remaining during the fight, a very important thing for the rest of the flight members to know!

The tactical portion, often called “The Meat” of the mission is where the details of the in-flight execution are discussed. Everything from how you are expected to release a weapon to a special tactic that the two or four-ship might be working on or practicing, and when to execute that tactic are covered in excruciating detail. It is very important that all members understand what will happen and what is expected as lives are at risk.

Once the brief is complete, the flight lead wraps up with a final review the flight objectives, and then any and all questions about what is about to happen are vetted.

It is now about an hour from takeoff time, and time to suit up and “step!” Gather up all the mission materials, dress in your G-suit, preflight your helmet and get ready to go out the door.

Stay tuned for Part II where we will see how the actual inflight execution of the mission develops and later, in Part III we will dive into the mission debrief in our Day in the Life of a Fighter Pilot!

Featured image of F-16 during Red Flag-Alaska by U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz, via Wikimedia Commons