By lex, on July 26th, 2006
There are few words so immediately blood-chilling in their effect upon tactical aviators as these: “mid-air.” It is an abbreviation for “mid-air collision,” and conjures up images of once sleek, purposeful and lethal high performance aircraft reduced in a moment to odd pieces of flaming trash, fluttering to earth – instant chaos from order.
Mention news of a mid-air and prepare yourself for the customary, almost involuntary response: “Did anyone get out?”
There are many ways to die in fighters. The most common is controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT. It’s a long term that essentially boils down to “dummy flew too low.” While we can and do mourn people who die this way, we also have a tendency to shrug a bit, mentally. After all, you can only tie the low altitude record, you can’t beat it. Should have known better.
Mid-airs can occur between flight members, as someone’s attention drifts or gets over-channelized; the wingman has primary collision avoidance responsibility, but a poor flight lead can certainly contribute by behaving unpredictably in a moment when a flight is task-saturated.
They can occur in a slow-speed fight, when the aircraft are performing at their aerodynamic limits and nothing is left to draw upon when one or both combatants miscalculate the vector – these can have a slow motion, nightmarish character of inescapable and imminent doom that hasn’t quite happened yet. One pilot may survive such a collision, much more rarely both will. The aircraft themselves, of course, are almost always destroyed.
But the third and most lethal form of mid-air collision is the head-on. No one ever survives a head-on collision. Closure rates are so very high that the moment is over before conscious thought can form, and the forces are catastrophic. And I think that’s what so frightening about the head-on mid-air: pilots are essentially control freaks, accustomed to being in charge of their destinies. But in the moment you realize that you are approaching a head-on collision, a moment that transitions seamlessly between “in control, looking good” to a red wave of panic, there is often only one chance to escape, one last-ditch move and whether or not you live through the next instant will depend entirely upon what the other guy does: If his reaction mirrors yours, it will mean instant, unknowing death.
Now, this is no ****! Towards the end of the AIM/ACE — EVAL, things had heated up between the Eagle and Turkey pilots. At the Nellis O’club many innuendoes and challenges had been thrown out as a result of the high profile dog fights between the Tomcat/Eagle Blue Force and the F-5Es. The Blue Force F-15 drivers were threatened with a court martial, flying rubber dog **** outta Hong Kong and having their birthday taken away if they even thought about locking horns with ACEVAL Tomcats. When the test sorties were finally over, a couple of F-15 instructors in the 415th training squadron took the bait. “Turk” Pentecost and I were a section. Turk was not nearly as cocky, arrogant and boisterous as D-Hose, but just as aggressive, smart, devious and just as good a stick. We briefed a very wide hook, an altitude split of 10k ft. and a radar sort @ 25nm by Bill “Hill Billy” Hill and “Fearless” Frank Schumacher. All pre-merge heat and radar missiles didn’t count. It was GUNS only at the merge. The wide hook enabled Turk and D-Hose to split the fight into (2)1v1’s, with one Turkey high, one low and lots of lateral separation. As Hill Billy and D-hose closed for a 250ft, guns kill on their Eagle, the comm went like this: D-hose: “Where are you Turk?” Fearless: “Right above you Hoser” D-hose: “We got two cons! Who’s out front?” Turk (mildly offended): “Who do ya think?” Both Eagles were gunned, “knock it off” was called, and the Tomcats RTB’d with a 500 knot, 6.5g, half second break at Nellis…cuz that was our salute and tribute to our fine VX-4 maintenance personnel.