Back in 2016, Fighter Sweep contributer C.W. Lemoine was asked what actually goes into a full fledged fighter mission by one of our readers. Lemoine, who aside from being an author also has plenty of seat time aboard both F-16s and F/A-18s, took the time to break down exactly what goes into each combat flight, offering some incredible insight into the lives of military aviatiors. As Lemoine points out, movies and misconceptions may lead you to believe that our pilots operate in the skies above combat zones like a motorcycle club looking for trouble — but the truth is, just about everything they do in the air is a part of a meticulously put together plan. And once you’re back on the ground, the mission still isn’t over yet.

Here’s C.W. Lemoine’s breakdown:

So you’ve made it through training and now you’re flying fighters. Congratulations! Once you’re done with training, got your Combat Mission Ready (CMR) upgrade, it’s just show up and go up, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. Even for the average fighter mission, there is a meticulously calculated and planned choreography which takes place long before, during, and after each flight.

It’s a common misconception (even among non-flyers in the same squadron) that flying a fighter mission is nothing more than a glorified flying club paid for by Uncle Sam. The idea that we just go out and burn holes in the sky like teenagers doing donuts in their dad’s car is just wrong.

Yes, flying fighters is the best job in the world. Sometimes we even go out by ourselves and fly. I’ve posted some cool videos of me going out and doing some really fun things. But, it’s always training, and the majority of our sorties (especially in the Air Force where a single-ship sortie is extremely rare) is done tactically.

Your average fighter mission takes anywhere from 6 to 10+ hours from start to finish, depending on the mission.

How long is an average fighter mission?

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Here’s how it breaks down:

Mission planning: 1-2 hours. Depending on what we’re doing, there’s planning involved.

How Long Is An Average Fighter Mission?
Lieutenant Colonel Jon “Habib” Schultz, F-16C pilot with the 187 FW, Alabama Air National Guard, briefs prior to a BFM sortie. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

Flying BFM (dogfighting)? Not much, just studying the concepts and definitions, preparing kneeboard/lineup cards, and getting boards ready (drawing arrows on a whiteboard in a briefing room).

Flying an opposed strike mission? Now you’re talking closer to that 2 hour mark as you figure out your targets, come up with a scenario, decide what weapons you’ll be using, and load the mission planning data into the data transfer cartridges that go into the jet.

Briefing: 1-1.5 hours. Again, depends on the mission and proficiency level of the people flying. If you’re on a graded event, you’ll be briefing for an hour or more. If it’s a large force exercise, you’ll have a coordination brief, mass brief, and then flight brief – that can take up to two hours.

But if it’s just you and another seasoned pilot doing Continuation Training (CT), then it could be as short as 20-30 minutes.

Step (Walk for you Navy types)/Start/Taxi/Takeoff: 45 minutes to an hour. You didn’t think we just hopped in the jet and took off, did you?

It’s a little bit different between the Air Force and Navy, but the basics are the same. After your brief, you’ll get suited up (G-suit, harness, etc) and then figure out what jet you’re flying (Air Force will do a step brief, Navy has pilots sign the jet out in Maintenance Control). Then you’ll go out to the jet, do a preflight, strap in and start.

15-20 minutes after start, the flight checks in on the radio and taxis out. The jets have to be armed, which can take 5-10 minutes depending on how many jets are flying.

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How Long Is An Average Fighter Mission?
Pilots from the 64th Aggressor Squadron receive their step briefing prior to launch for a night training mission during Red Flag. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

Actual Sortie: 1.0 – 1.8 hours. This is the fun part, but it’s still missionized. You’re not just goofing off.

We fly with specific training objectives in mind based on the mission we’re flying. For dogfighting, we’ll do specific set-ups to practice various phases (offensive, defensive, or neutral). For Close Air Support, we’ll go out and work with Joint Terminal Attack Controllers in specific scenarios.

Even in those 1 v 0 / AHC rides where we go out alone, we’re practicing specific maneuvers to get used to pulling G’s and maneuvering the jet to regain confidence before flying BFM.

When the mission is complete, we’ll either do one full stop landing (standard) or practice approaches / flameout landings (F-16) or other pattern-related training activities.

Maintenance debrief: 20-30 minutes. After landing and doing a postflight walkaround, we go back to maintenance control, let them know whether the jet is good to go or requires maintenance and log our hours appropriately.

This time can vary depending on how many write-ups the jet has or how long it takes to download the maintenance data cartridge (the Hornet has a “brick” that records maintenance information).

From there, it’s back to the Life Support / PR shop to get rid of our gear.

How Long Is An Average Fighter Mission?
“Hypr” and “Ox,” two F-16CJ pilots, walk back to briefing after returning from their training mission. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

Debrief: 1 to 4+ hours. Again, it depends on the mission.

This is the most important part of the mission. We never get better unless we analyze what happened. This usually involves reviewing our tapes, watching the playback on ACMI/TCTS, discussing execution errors, and coming up with lessons learned so that we can get better for next time.

I’ve seen hour and a half sorties take nearly 12 hours from start to finish.

And oh, by the way, you still have to get your ground job duties done before you go home. I’ll talk about that aspect of military flying (the Queep) next time.


Feature image courtesy of Raytheon