An in-house BFM sortie between two seasoned pilots would consist of a short brief, a quick candy bar and a walk from the Ready Room 20 to 30 minutes before takeoff. Once airborne off of Runway 31, it was a quick right 90 degree turn, a push into combat spread and a climb. Two or three minutes later, after crossing over high terrain into Dixie Valley, there would be a G-warm, “Vipers ninety left…resume…Viper One FENCEd.” A quick TAC left and a short climb up to 16K’ and it was time for Fight’s On.
With two skilled pilots the engagements would last two, three, sometimes four minutes if taken all the way to a kill, an eternity for a dogfight in the jet age. But the dance is nuanced at this level, even more so with the limitations of the basic weapons systems. In fact, during the in-house events, most of the best pilots would limit themselves to what we referred to as a knife fight, guns kills only. There is no arguing the victor when one plane is saddled behind the other with his pipper on the cockpit.
I flew hundreds, if not thousands of these engagements in the years I spent in Fallon, and I remember them all fondly. Even the ones where I was stuck looking over my shoulder like a PEZ dispenser, which happened more often than I would have liked. Most in-house hops consisted of three, or rarely four, intense high-aspect abeam or butterfly starts. Once BINGO was reached and the bandits FENCEd out, it was a quick RTB for the 600 knot carrier break, the most intense, action-packed .7 you could ever put into your log book.
I was fortunate enough to fly with some truly amazing aviators. And now, long after the fact, I still have detailed memories of some of the fights as if they happened just hours ago. I can still see Bat Masterson’s jet gaining 10 to 15 degrees on me with each merge, and feel the wonder and frustration of flying the machine as best I could, yet realizing that in a matter of two or three more merges I was going to be practicing my Last Ditch Guns-D.
Bat, a small man with a large mustache, taught me one of my most enduring BFM lessons. In the debrief, I petitioned his expertise. “How the hell did you do that every engagement? I was fighting as hard as I could!” A man of few words, he answered simply, “When you’re fast, be fast. When you’re slow, be slow.” Believe it or not, that bit of wisdom taught me more about fighting the F-5 than the countless losses I had suffered through previously.
I can close my eyes and picture chasing Kemo Percival through a very offensive Rolling Scissors, only to have him execute the most perfect Pirouette and pass me 180 out, neutralized, with my jaw hanging open. If this had happened just once, I would have chalked it up to an accident of aerodynamics. But time and again I watched as a rare offensive position was eliminated by this impossible escape. When flying by myself, I would practice over and over: 45-60 degrees nose high, 220-180 knots, full aileron deflection, full opposite rudder, stick first full aft then quickly to full forward.
When Kemo did it, his plane rotated horizontally, swapping ends in a blink while still maintaining enough energy to continue flying and fighting. When I tried it, following his recipe to the letter, I ended up either mushing through a reversal of direction but completely without airspeed, or rolling sideways and pulling through a slow speed wingover. No help at all. And finally, I’ll never forget a late afternoon fight against Monty Montgomery in planes that were laden with external tanks. The positive was that we had 1,000 pounds of extra gas, which doubled our number of engagements. The negative was that the F-5 handled like a pig at high Alpha burdened by the effect of the 150 gallon tank.
We fought six times with the blood red Sierra Mountains as a backdrop, each a decisive victory, three of which were Monty’s. They were, each and every one of them, amazing duels filled with feigns and deception, flying at the very edge of the envelope, cautious and cunning. But neither pilot was to be satisfied with a neutral Lufbery on the deck. Chances were taken and BFM errors made, and each time an opening was given the opponent was able to capitalize.
This was one of the most pure and well flown hops I ever experienced. Two fairly matched pilots in like aircraft using every bit of experience and trickery at their disposal. The knowledge that it would take only one error to seal one’s fate, added to the challenge of flying at the maximum limits of performance with the additional load of an external tank, and the race to complete before sunset, added to the intensity.