It has been said that the last fighter pilot has been born. The next generation of fighters may have greater performance if not limited by human physiology and decision making. While time will answer that projection, this story is about the human element in dogfighting: the desire that pilots with skill and confidence have to test themselves against others with the same. This encounter, a true story regardless of how unbelievable it may seem, is not just a clash of pilots but also of technology. In this epic experience, two of the latest fighters of the day meet relics of a bygone era, and who wins in this mock aerial combat will amaze you.
Tom and I had spent the last few days in Uvalde, Texas flying a company-arranged promotion as a part of the Red Baron Squadron. Our team of seven aircraft was sponsored by a nationally known food company and we were giving press rides to company guests and the media. Most of our sorties were formation aerobatic flights, and with up to twelve flights a day we reached a very high level of proficiency. We had recently been rotated out of the larger, more well known four-ship airshow squadron for a several week stint flying this two-ship tour. We were scheduled to travel through West Texas stopping in various towns deemed too small to send the main team.
After a number of years with the team flying all over the country in highly modified 1940s 450-horse powered Boeing Stearmans (re-engined from the original 225 horsepower motor) one tends to forget of all the cities and small towns you have actually visited. And sadly, over the years, you forget many of the stories you were fortunate to have experienced. But on this day and this flight I will remember vividly for the remainder of my life. I am sure the other three pilots involved that day will as well.
It was around the second week of April, 1995, the week of my 30th birthday. What happened that day was a stroke of luck and certainly a once in a lifetime experience for two young stunt pilots. We were scheduled to fly the two-ship cross country that morning to Harlingen, Texas to perform an afternoon press day. This would include eight formation press rides with local newspapers, radio stations, and TV news affiliates.
We woke that morning to low cloud ceilings and poor visibility. Our departure was delayed as we monitored the weather across our intended route. The morning was spent calling the local FAA Flight Service Station for weather updates. This was well before cell phones, iPads and laptops. By mid-morning things were improving and we decided to head directly south across the Uvalde Military Operating Area (allowable for civilians, but at their own risk) to Laredo, Texas, to refuel. We would then continue east towards our destination.
Our corporate headquarters had scheduled me to flight lead duties for this particular tour. All Red Baron Squadron pilots were routinely assigned different flying positions throughout the year to keep us current in each position within the formation. One week each one of us could be flying the slot position, right/left wing, or leading.
As the Lead pilot you have certain responsibilities such as flight planning, checking weather, informing corporate of our position, ETA to our event, and of course navigating and leading the flight. This leg of our trip to Laredo was planned as a 1.5 hour flight, leaving us with plenty of reserve fuel at the destination. There was no convective thunderstorm activity or rain along our route. We could count on an 800 foot cloud deck and unrestricted visibility underneath. Our main threat for this flight would be communication towers that can reach well above our cruising altitude.
As Red Baron pilots we all took pride in our navigation skills to use dead reckoning and pilotage to follow our our intended route. Our open cockpit Stearman biplanes did not have Loran, GPS or any other navigational aids. We used paper sectional charts with lines hand drawn along our flight path. The charts were pre-folded to minimize any unnecessary exposure to the slip stream risking them being sucked out of our hands and out of the cockpit. I have landed a few times with my charts wrapped around my tail plane flying wires.
There were no flight plans filed for these flights. We would actually have to time how long it took to fly between section lines on the ground, if available, to determine our speed and location. It was definitely old school. Across the sparse country of West Texas at very low level it made navigating much more challenging. There were few, if any, landmarks to determine our location to any accuracy. We relied on a good, stable compass and a reliable watch.
After flying for hundreds – or in some of our cases, thousands – of hours together in formation we developed a routine that did not require a lot of talking. As Tom and I taxied out from Uvalde that morning not much was said. We performed a standard two-ship formation takeoff, climbed out, and switched to our enroute frequency.
Our only communication after leaving the traffic pattern and switching frequency was:
Me: “RB (Red Baron) check 122.75.”
Once leveled off and cruise power and mixture set to peak endurance, we went into our normal enroute cross country spread formation. The spread formation keeps all the wingmen in sight of the lead pilot. The wingmen are just far enough away to not get fatigued by holding a close formation, but close enough to return back to a wing position if required.
It was a very quiet flight, Tom was off to my right and to the rear.
Then I saw them! Two specks on the horizon at first. I thought, “Who else in the world would be out here in the middle of nowhere scud running like us?” But, they were closing on us fast… too fast. Finally I realized what they were. I keyed my mic. “Vipers, 12 o’clock closing fast.”
That’s all I had to say. Still not sure what to do myself, I saw Tom pull up to 6 feet from my right wing, engine growling, propeller at 100%. I knew what to do then! Tom wanted a fight. Brilliant. I powered up my own bird to prepare.
You have to understand that we were no strangers to dogfighting. When you put young pilots together to fly formation aerobatics, it would be very surprising if dogfighting didn’t occur, and Tom and I had tangled as much as anyone on the team. We were ready.
The Vipers (the F-16’s nickname) were in a fighting wing formation, just cruising along. I could tell they had not spotted us yet. Tom was tight on my wing, waiting. He was only concentrating on flying the best wing position he could fly, not to be out done by these Viper pilots. As any great wingman would, he knew what I was going to do before I knew. Then I saw the lead Viper’s wing jiggle just a little as he saw us. They were so close, just about to pass off my left side. It was time.
RB flight: “break left, ready, now!”
We both broke simultaneously and aggressively into them with a hard turn. I transmitted, “I have lead.”
Then I heard Tom’s cool voice say, “I’ll get two.” That’s the first time I heard Tom talk since we changed frequency an hour ago.
Viper lead executed a hard turn into me. He couldn’t go up due to the low overcast. It forced him into a flat turning fight, perfect for our aircraft’s much smaller turning radius. In about two violent turns the nose of my plane was pointing at lead’s cockpit. I could see his left hand working his throttle and his right hand on the side control stick. His head was bent back as far as it would go to keep his eyes on me. “Guns, guns, guns,” I said to myself. He would have been dead!
He knew he was beat. He went wings level, hit his afterburner and was a dart. He took his separation and made another high G turn back into me, attacking me head-on this time. After a few more jolting turns around each other again it was, “Guns, guns, guns…” I had him again.
Then he got really aggressive. He used the power and speed of his jet to take separation once again. He came at me for a third time; from above this time, just skimming the overcast. He pulled down and very hard into me. Vortices were coming off his wing tips from the compression in his turn. This guy was pissed off. Three turns and I was guns on him again.
From time to time during my three engagements I would see the other Viper go by with Tom at his six o’clock position. All four of us were going around and around in the sky. I could tell Tom was doing OK against his F-16. At one point I saw Tom’s Stearman kinda hanging inverted above me at the base of the clouds and pull down just as his Viper got into position for his attack, which happened to be right under me. It was at this time that I decided to go to the outside of the lead Viper’s turn to just see if I could still keep the advantage on him. He hit his afterburner as I passed behind him, I could smell and feel the heat from his engine. I thought the fabric on my plane would tear completely off. Very bad idea.
Suddenly Tom keyed his mic again and brought me back to reality: “Let’s break this off! These guys are getting too aggressive and it’s getting dangerous (for them). Time to knock this off.” I broke off my engagement and entered a standard rate right turn to let Tom rejoin on me. As only Tom can, he joined in the tightest formation a wingman is able to.
The Vipers knew they had been beaten. As I turned us south towards Laredo, the flight of two F-16’s made a long turning rejoin and headed at us at 90 degrees to our flight path. Now Viper lead was playing a game of chicken with me, heading directly at us at a very high rate of speed. At the last minute they ducked right under us and were gone. I held my heading, altitude and airspeed. I did not flinch…
As Tom and I jumped out of our planes in Laredo (parachutes still strapped to our backs) we both had grins ear to ear. We couldn’t stop describing our own individual fight, using our hands to help express our aircraft position relative to the others. While the combat was not real, the flying was. And on this day, under these conditions, we knew who had won the fight.
Of course, there is no doubt about who would have won in a true aerial combat. No matter how hard Stearmans might make it, they are unarmed. But this was not a fight of life and death, simply a test of airmanship. Although there may have only been two fighter aircraft in this story, there were four fighter pilots.
As Lt. Gen. Adolf Galland, head of Germany’s fighter forces for the Luftwaffe in World War Two said, “Only the spirit of attack, born in a brave heart, will bring success to any aircraft, no matter how highly developed it may be.” There were two brave hearts in those Stearmans that day, and it will be a sad day for humanity when those brave hearts no longer occupy the cockpits of fighters.