Dropping bombs, shooting the gun, dogfighting, and intercepts are some of the most rewarding and fun training opportunities available as a fighter pilot, but few people ever talk about going cross-country as anything more than a “Good Deal.”
In the military, “Good Deal” is the equivalent of the worst four letter word. If it’s a good deal, then obviously no good training can be had. A cross-country can’t be anything more than a personal program, right?
Well, I’d argue that some of the best training outside of syllabus events I ever received in fighters were on cross-country flights. And I think it’s an important part of a young fighter pilot’s development as an aviator.
So what is a cross country? They come in many flavors. Basically, it’s anytime a jet goes from Base A to Base B and spends the night away from home station. These could be in the form of ferrying aircraft (to depot for maintenance, to an exercise, or back home), Extended Training Flights (ETF – Navy), or Cross-Country (USAF). Whatever the purpose, it involves flying either with other aircraft or solo within the National Airspace System to a new destination.
The basic training justification is that it gives a guy more seat time (which, for the Navy, is a good thing since they require a minimum of 100 hours per year) and the ability to practice instrument approaches at other fields outside of normal working hours (typically weekends).
With that out of the way, what’s it like to go cross-country in a fighter?
Well it’s not quite like hopping in a Cessna and going for a $100 Hamburger. Mission planning starts with figuring out where you can and can’t go. Things like runway length, takeoff and landing data (even if the runway is long enough, do I have enough runway to safely abort if things go wrong on takeoff? Do I have nearby diverts with arresting gear?), approaches available (much bigger player in the Hornet, since it doesn’t have a civilian ILS or GPS approach capability), and airport security have to be taken into consideration.
That last one is a big showstopper in Air Force land. The security requirements for Air Force fighters are much higher than most Navy jets. So while lots of civilian airfields are valid options in the Hornet, they’re not so valid in the Air Force, and you end up limited to military airfields.
The actual flight planning portion is just like any other aircraft out there. In my squadron, we carry iPad Minis with Foreflight, so we can file and brief fairly easily. After that, it’s just a matter of typing the coordinates of every waypoint into the system so that you can couple the autopilot to the cross-country route.
Most Viper squadrons don’t have the luxury of iPads (although the Thunderbirds do), but the jet itself has a database of civilian points. So instead of typing in coordinate after coordinate, you’re just typing in the fix names. That’s considerably easier.
Taking off is also a bit different. Fighters aren’t limited to 250 knots below 10,000 ft like other aircraft. We fly at tactical airspeeds (300-350knots) due to the visibility over the nose (the slower you go, the less visibility you have due to higher angle of attack). As you can imagine, this is a little more dangerous with other aircraft traveling anywhere from 80-250 knots flying around you. So the goal is to climb quickly and get out of the heavy traffic areas (below 18,000 ft) as quickly as possible to mitigate that risk.
Once safely at cruising altitude, we really don’t fly that much faster than civilian airliners. Although we could easily blitz everywhere at 0.95 Mach, that’s really wasting gas – something you can’t get back if the runway at the arrival airport shuts down or there’s weather that causes you to divert. Max range is typically in the 0.70-0.75 Mach regime at the altitudes we fly- 27,000-28,000 or above 40,000ft. Fighters are non-Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) compliant, so in order to fly in the 30s, we have to get special permission.
Saving gas is actually how I got my job in the Navy Reserve. I was leading a fairly new wingman around on a cross-country weekend in the F-16. We were in clean (no weapons or drop tanks) F-16s, flying from Shepherd AFB in Wichita Falls to Buckley AFB near Denver.
As we switched to Denver Center, the controller immediately informed us that Buckley was closed due to an F/A-18 that had blown both tires on the runway. “Say intentions?” the controller asked.
It was a perfectly clear day. We weighed our options. We could divert to Colorado Springs but we had plenty of gas to hold and wait it out. This goes back to what I was talking about with learning on the road. I was a young flight lead making real time decisions for the flight.
We opted to hold. I set a new BINGO fuel state for the flight – a decision point for when to divert. We held for nearly twenty minutes, watching the fuel tick down to the point where we’d need to divert.
Just as my wingman called BINGO and I was about to make the call to divert, Center came back and said the airfield was open. We made it in with plenty of fuel.
As I shut down and gathered my gear, I saw the F/A-18 being towed in. It was camouflage-gray and said RIVER RATTLERS on the side. I knew a guy that had flown for them, so I sent him a picture with a text “Is this one of yours?”
A few seconds later, I heard “So what if it is?” from behind me. It was actually the guy I knew. He bought dinner that night and convinced me to transfer into the squadron since I was looking to get back to Louisiana–and they were hiring.
It’s not always so easy. One of my favorite “Getaways” in the F-16 was to fly jets to and from the depot at Hill AFB in Ogden, Utah. On my very first trip, I was picking up a jet that had undergone major repairs. After waiting for a snow storm to clear, I took off and headed east to Fort Worth for a fuel stop before continuing to Homestead.
Somewhere over Colorado, the Embedded GPS/INS – the jet’s navigation system – failed. After multiple attempts to get it back online, I realized it wasn’t coming back. I flew from Colorado to Fort Worth with nothing more than a standby attitude indicator and a whiskey compass requesting vectors.
When I arrived at Fort Worth, traffic was shut down due to thunderstorms. I had to hold no-gyro for nearly thirty minutes. When the weather cleared, I flew into NAS Fort Worth.
“Request the no-gyro PAR,” I said. It was a backup procedure in which the controller basically talked me down by telling me when to start and stop my turns and when to begin the descent on the glidepath.
The weather was just about 700’. The controller tried to make it happen, but gave up when he couldn’t get me aligned properly using the “start turn – stop turn” instructions.. After the first attempt, the controller asked if I could just fly the ILS. “Unable,” I said. Nothing was reliable at that point.
The second attempt was much better. With low ceiling and rain, I landed without a HUD. I taxied into Baseops to get fuel. An hour later, our sister squadron had swapped out the EGI and I was good to go.
Sometimes the problems are more self-induced than jet related. I remember taking a jet to depot from Homestead. I was so excited that I had managed to schedule my very own KC-135 to refuel me mid-flight so I wouldn’t have to land. It felt like a major accomplishment as a dumb lieutenant.
And it might’ve been, except for a critical piece of planning. In my excitement to coordinate the tanker and the rendezvous, I had forgotten to get a PPR – permission to land – at Hill Air Force Base.
So after successfully rejoining with the tanker somewhere over Louisiana and flying with them toward Hill, the pilots of the tanker informed me of the bad news.
“Reef 11, your Operations just called and said you need to land at Salt Lake City,” the pilots told me.
“Say again?” I asked. Had I missed something? Was the airfield closed?
“Yeah, Hill called them and said you don’t have a PPR, so you won’t be able to land there,” they replied.
There was an awkward pause as I considered my options. I felt like an idiot. The Director of Operations back home was going to kill me. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten the most important part.
“Hey don’t you guys have a phone on board?” I asked.
“We don’t, but we can call down to the command post and get patched through, why?” the tanker asked.
“Any chance you could help me out and get a PPR?” I asked.
“We’ll work on it,” they said.
Sure enough, that tanker crew hooked me up. A few minutes later, I had permission to land at Hill. They dropped me off somewhere over Nebraska and I flew the rest of the way solo. Crisis averted.
I learned a lot about the systems of the F-16 just by going cross-country. When you’re on your own, you learn a lot about the jet, both systems and mechanically. On long flights, I’d lock up crossing airliners and chair-fly intercept timelines, going through the motions in my mind of how I’d run the intercept or shoot a hostile aircraft. It gave me the ability to learn the various systems on my own pace, without the stress of flying formation or worrying about impressing an instructor in the simulator.
I did the same thing in the Hornet – whether it was messing with the air to air radar or the targeting pod. The drone time between point A and point B was good just to familiarize myself with the various systems.
The Hornet is a bit more gentlemanly than the Block 30 was though. As I mentioned before, the autothrottles and coupled autopilot really take some of the workload off. It’s nice to set up a sequence and watch the jet fly the different points.
That is until you get a complete re-route. There is nothing like the helmet-fire that ensues after Center gives you a fix that you’re not familiar with – requiring you to look up the fix (or use a high chart if you don’t have an iPad handy), find the coordinates, and type them into the system.
That also separates us from commercial traffic – we’re usually talking on UHF frequencies instead of the common VHF, so no one (except other military aircraft) can hear us ask for an initial vector or for the spelling of the fix. What’s rule one of being a fighter pilot? Look and sound cool, and if you can’t, make sure no one else hears you.
Flying into a busy terminal area brings about the same challenges as leaving. We often don’t have Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STAR) on board, so when a controller says, “Fly the Helmet-Fire 1 Arrival,” it’s typically met with an “unable” and a request for a vector.
Most controllers know that we can’t slow down, but some don’t. It’s never fun to throw out an “Unable” when an unfamiliar approach controller directs you to slow below 210 knots twenty miles from the field. Sorry!
The true good deal is arriving at the civilian field. It’s rewarding to be able to share that passion with young and old pilots alike that come up to take a look at the jet, often asking to take pictures with you and the aircraft. I think it’s good PR for the military, inspiring young student pilots to charge ahead, “Make them tell you no,” and pursue a military aviation career.
I think every young wingman should make a point to go on the road as much as possible. It’s a great way to learn the aircraft, gain airmanship, and earn valuable seat time that will pay dividends when you’re orbiting overhead one day in the sandbox trying to decide whether you can wait ten more minutes for the field to open after a mortar attack or you need to divert.
I was able to fly back home after getting my currency back in Fallon recently. Having the opportunity to get more seat time flying cross-country returned some of the comfort I had before my seven-month hiatus. It also reminded me how fortunate I am to be flying fighters in the world’s greatest military. It’s definitely something not to be taken for granted.