In air-to-air combat, getting a missile off the rail is infinitely more complex than starting your car. The weapon needs to actually come off of the pylon, the rocket motor needs to ignite, and then it needs to successfully guide to the target. Ever had your car not start? Remember how frustrating that is? Needless to say, missiles don’t always work. Fighter pilots need to be ready to follow up with the gun.
Gunfighting in the air brings about a different set of challenges; it’s more complex than simply a race to fire the first missile. Previously, we talked about how F-16 pilots hold a relatively high speed in order to maximize turn rate and point first. In a gunfight, however, excess speed can be a bad thing—think “hit the brakes and he’ll fly by”…sort of. The defender will intentionally bleed airspeed in an attempt to force an overshoot. And the shooter, instead of zipping around the corner at 400 knots, needs to match the defender and slow down—often below 200 knots, which is very, very slow in a fighter.
When you’re dogfighting in an F-16, a major reason it’s so critical to slow down during a gunshot is that all gunshots are taken in lead. This means that the shooter is pointing in front of the defender, essentially on a collision course, and therefore the range between the fighters has a tendency to collapse very quickly. The shooter must point in lead because the bullets take a few seconds to reach the enemy, and therefore the shooter must point (aim) where the MiG will be in 2-3 seconds. If the shooter has excess airspeed and is in this lead pursuit, now he’s in danger of losing the offensive altogether and flying in front of the enemy—that is, unless his bullets hit home.
This transition from high to low speed is very often a one-way door. It’s easy to bleed energy off, but difficult to regain for a variety of reasons. Because of this, pilots must be very judicious about maintaining their energy, cashing in airspeed only when necessary to survive or when preparing to kill. Some call this trade-off ‘fighter pilot economics’, and it is a fundamental concept in short-range air combat.
John Boyd recognized the critical nature of energy management in air combat, and built an entire science around it. His energy-maneuverability theory explains turn performance and energy bleed at any given airspeed and G-loading, and his charts are still used to identify strengths and weaknesses of various aircraft and to create gameplans to win dogfights.
Next week we’ll discuss another genius Boyd invention, the OODA loop.
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