What’s the best way to simulate Air Combat? Flight simulator? Nope. Roller Coaster? Not even close. Watch Top Gun in IMAX? Yeah…no.

Instead, try this: drive a car through a city (preferably in South Korea) while your passenger reads you math problems to answer, and at the same time listen to news radio, internalize the details, and prepare a response. Now you’re getting closer. Humans, in general, are terrible at multi-tasking. It doesn’t stop us from doing it, but the fact is that we are far more productive if we do one thing completely before doing another. Instead of trying to read another e-mail while you’re talking on the phone, just close the laptop and listen, and you’ll get more done by the end of the day.

A Block 52 F-16CJ from the 16th Weapons Squadron
A Block 42 F-16CG Fighting Falcon from the 16th Weapons Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base prepares to launch for a night sortie.

Unfortunately, fighter pilots don’t get this luxury. Air combat is multi-tasking and no operational fighter offers more ways to multi-task than the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Those of us in the fighter community lovingly refer to our jet as the Viper, and it is king of swing-role: defending against a SAM while shooting back with a HARM or JDAM, all while preparing the formation to intercept a pop-up flight of MiGs from the nearby enemy airfield.

But before we do anything in the jet, we need to know what’s happening around us.

Air combat is a listening game. Despite the vast improvements in visual data sharing (like Link-16) and onboard sensors, the devilish details still arrive via voice on a decades-old UHF radio. These calls may sound like “north arm north group faded, last known bullseye 036 for 30, track southwest,” or “Viper 2 splash DPI charlie, no spot on delta,” or even “Hoss 1 mud 6 240 defending north bullseye 280 50, reattack west.” More accurately, it may sound like all of those critical radio calls happening at just about the same time.

Captain Joe "Rocket" Schenkel demonstrates the high-speed agility of the Block 50 F-16CJ
Captain Joe “Rocket” Schenkel, pilot with the 77 FS, demonstrates the tactical capabilities of the Block 50 F-16CJ during an airpower demonstration at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.

Interpreting both the meaning and relevance of these radio calls is challenging enough, but now you have to make decisions about them. Do you send your other element to search for the faded group to the north? Or do you have them flow west and protect Hoss, who – from the sound of it – will be spending a few more minutes on their attacks in the west. And what about the miss on Target Delta? Should we turn around and strike that target again or accept the miss and prioritize locating the SA-6 that’s shooting at the Strike Eagles? When everyone is moving at 10 miles per minute, these decisions needs to happen fast.

What exactly is Close Air Support?

Read Next: What exactly is Close Air Support?

Now, while you contemplate the best use of your forces, don’t forget that you have to fly your jet, watch your radar scope for enemy fighters, your HAD for enemy SAMs, your RWR for anything else shooting at you, and your wingman to make sure he doesn’t get lost or hit you. And in your free time, keep track of the strikers’ IFF, stay in your altitude block, and don’t run out of gas (happens quick in the Viper).

ACCES in-ear monitor system
In-ear monitors, like the ACCES® system worn here by Major Michael “Double” Blauser, work like a set of headphones, delivering excellent sound quality while also acting like earplugs to keep things like engine noise at bay.

So while pulling Gs and stitching a defending fighter with the gun is glorious, some of the most challenging aspects of modern air combat involve your ears, and the processing of information—all while controlling some of the fastest and most complex machines on Earth. The best fighter pilots are near naturals at multi-tasking, but most, like me, have to work at this. By leveraging thorough preparation and detailed contracts, we ensure that the most critical information at any given time is passed, received, and acted upon.

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In part two, we’ll take a look specifically at the ACCES® system and learn more about how it vastly improves a fighter pilot’s situational awareness (SA) in the loud, violent, chaotic realm of modern air combat. Stay tuned!