Fighter pilot skills every aviator needs to fly safe

Fighter pilots are some of the most skilled aviators in the world. But just because you’re not a fighter pilot doesn’t mean you can’t borrow from their tool set. Whether you’re a 100-hour general aviation private pilot or a 10,000-hour commercial pilot, it behooves you to think and perform like a fighter pilot in some key areas.

The following three stories from fighter pilots of past eras provide lessons and skills every aviator needs to have to fly safe.

Trust your instruments

Vertigo is a state of confusion that can be experienced by non-instrument-rated pilots when flying in clouds, poor weather or at night. Put simply, to the pilot it means “which way is up?”

P-51 Mustang
The P-51 was a great fighter, but instrument flying was usually done in formation.

During World War II, the P-51 Mustang was developed as a long-range fighter escort for Allied bombing missions over Europe. The Mustang helped turn the tide in the air war against Germany.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 21-year-old Roland Wright joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. Wright’s desire was to fly the P-51 Mustang. When he received his wings and his venerable P-51, he named his aircraft the Mormon Mustang.

Wright was assigned to his first combat unit in the European Theatre of Operations, where he experienced his first flight with his new flight leader.

As Wright tells the story, “I remember the first day I went out to fly I asked the flight leader if we were going to fly in the clouds. He looked at me and he said, ‘Well you can fly formation can’t you?’ I said ‘Yes, I can fly formation.'”

The flight leader instructed Wright to get on his wing, so they could climb up through the clouds together to reach the top where the sun was shining.

On this particular day, the clouds were about 18,000 feet thick. Such thick clouds meant these two pilots could be flying for up to 20 minutes while climbing through the clouds with no visual cues as to which direction was up or down. As Wright continued, he explained the lesson he learned that day:

“I got on his wing and I got vertigo so bad climbing up through those clouds. I thought he was climbing. I thought he was diving. And I’m trying to hang on to that wing. And when we finally break out on top, of course everything’s fine. But it was one of the best experiences I ever had because it taught me what vertigo was, and it motivated me to learn to fly in the clouds and rely on the flight instruments.”

Know your aircraft performance

Later in the war, on July 26, 1944, twelve P-51 Mustangs were flying a long-range escort mission for Allied bombers over Austria. Shortly into the mission, a formation of 64 Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters attacked the Allied bombers, as profiled in a documentary episode of The History Channel’s Dogfights series.

Responding quickly, 1st Lt. Art Fiedler engaged the formation’s lead FW-190’s to dissuade them from shooting at the bombers. As soon as Fielder managed to break up the enemy formation, an all-out furball ensued, with Mustangs and Focke-Wulfs engaging each other.

As Fielder engaged one FW-190, their diving, twisting and turning drew the fight closer and closer to the ground, descending from 24,000 feet to barely 500 feet above the ground.

Art Fiedler
Knowing your airplane’s performance is essential for survival in a dogfight, as Art Fiedler knew.

In low-level dogfighting, the fighter pilot’s attention is divided between the enemy fighter plane and the ground, where the slightest mistake can be fatal.

Pilots who know how best to utilize their aircraft’s performance down low will likely win the battle.

Just as Fielder had the Focke-Wulf lined up and ready to shoot, he remembered advice he received from a World War I fighter pilot: every time you’re getting ready to shoot at an enemy airplane, be sure you check your tail.

Fielder looked over his shoulder, and sure enough a second FW-190 was diving after him.

Realizing he had an enemy fighter on his own tail, at just 400 feet above the ground speeding through the Austrian Alps, Fielder knew he couldn’t climb, dive, or bank to evade his enemy.

But knowing how his P-51 Mustang performed in different flight maneuvers and altitudes, he had a trick up his sleeve.

Fielder barrel rolled, letting his P-51 slow slightly. As he completed the barrel roll, his Mustang dropped into the six o’clock of the FW-190 that was behind him only a moment ago. Fielder sprayed the Focke-Wulf with his Mustang’s 50-caliber machine guns, shooting down the FW-190.

Situational awareness

Another fighter pilot story in that same History Channel episode tells of a dogfight 23 years later, during the Vietnam War.

Eight American F-4 Phantoms were flying escort for F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers in the skies of North Vietnam on May 20, 1967. Before reaching their target, 16 North Vietnamese MiG-17s tried to bracket in and attack the fighter-bombers.

Wing Commander Col. Robin Olds and his seven other Phantom drivers attacked the MiGs. Just minutes into the dogfight, Olds acquired two MiGs on his tail.

Unable to keep pace with the more powerful Phantom, the two MiG-17s bugged out and tried to lure the Americans into a turning fight down on the deck, where the MiG-17 excelled.

F-4 Phantom
Flying the F-4, like any airplane, requires situational awareness.

Olds knew his aircraft’s weapon and performance limits at low-level. The Phantom’s missiles had difficulty getting a lock on air-to-air targets, as terrain features often interfered with the radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles.

Olds also knew the MiG-17 could turn tighter than the Phantom, especially down low near the ground.

Aware of these shortcomings, the F-4 pilots made slashing attacks into the circling MiGs to avoid the turning fight. But as fuel capacities got low, the group of F-4s had to withdraw and head for a tanker to refuel.

As the flight of F-4s departed, Olds saw a third MiG flying figure eights, who was likely directing traffic for the other two MiGs.

Olds made some quick calculations to determine what it would take to go after the MiG leader and still get back to the air tanker.

Olds then broke formation and dove for the deck, determined to take out the MiG directing traffic.

Because Olds did not have a wingman on this run and was low over the hills giving chase to the MiG leader, Olds’s back-seater, Weapon Systems Officer Lt. Stephen Croker, kept his head on a swivel to check all around for enemy aircraft.

As the chase approached a ridge, the MiG pulled up to clear it, which gave Olds the blue sky he needed to get a missile lock. Olds fired and shot down the MiG leader.

Fighter pilot skills for general aviation pilots

These dogfighting stories from World War II and Vietnam are excellent reminders of key skills every pilot needs to fly safe.

1) Trust your instruments: There are a number of NTSB accidents where pilots didn’t trust their instruments when flying in instrument meteorological conditions or marginal VFR weather. The John F. Kennedy, Jr. plane crash on July 16, 1999, is one of the most remembered accidents that likely involved spatial disorientation.

The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of the JFK, Jr. plane crash included:

“The pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation. Factors in the accident were haze, and the dark night.”

2) Know your aircraft performance: Know your aircraft’s limits as defined in its pilot operating handbook, or POH. It’s also a good strategy to calculate in an additional safety margin when applying those POH performance numbers.

According to StudentPilotNews.com, “POH performance numbers were developed with a brand new airplane being flown by a test pilot. Do you want to bet your life on a calculation with no error margin in your 5- (or 25-) year old airplane being flown by a newly minted Private pilot? The truth is, you need a safety factor.”

3) Situational awareness: Create a mental picture of traffic near your airspace, as you’re approaching the airport, and while you’re in the traffic pattern.

According to AOPA.org, “Most midair collisions occur in day visual meteorological conditions—the times of best visibility—within five miles of an airport… most occur between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends during the warmer months, essentially when the most traffic is in the air.”

4) Bonus—keep your head on a swivel: Just as Croker kept his head on a swivel watching for enemy aircraft in the back seat of his F-4 Phantom, pilots today regardless of experience level should be vigilant in keeping heads up and eyes out the window watching for other traffic to avoid a midair collision.

Remember the most fundamental rule of aviation: keep your eyes peeled to see and avoid other aircraft.

31 Comments

  • Realize just a brief mention in the post…but the most critical lesson of the JFK Jr mishap is more than “dark night spatial disorientation”…it is the importance of aviation decision making. Unlike wartime aviation, there is no GA mission more important than safety, even more so when flying trusting pax. Have alternate plans ready (cnx trip/go by car/airline/leave day(s) before or after) or don’t offer to fly. Don’t go over your head…unfamiliar airplane, low time, dark cockpit/night, haze, overwater…all risks that were (or should have been) known/anticipated prior to flight. Respect your physical limits…in this case end of day fatigue, foot in a cast. Don’t overlook available help…ask for CFI/IFR buddy ride along. When you look at everything lining up against a flight, take the hint and think about how your NTSB accident report would read.

    There are enough risks in aviation without putting yourself in a corner of your own construction. Good decisions preclude the need to exercise your superior skills.

  • Human beings arm and hand don’t naturally move in straight parallel lines. When JFK Jr began the descent he disconnect the AP and pushed forward. That also started a left roll. When the turn was recognized JFK Jr over controled and the result was loss of control.
    FLIGHT SAFETY didn’t teach when and how to use the AP (my opinion) He wasn’t taught to delay descent and spiral down over the airport (black hole approach)(again my opinion)

  • Great article Dan! We were in ROTC together, and EDW after USAFTPS! Steve Croker, who you mentioned, was my first operational squadron commander in FB-111A’s in Jan ‘78! It’s a small world!

    • Thanks for mentioning that Don! A small world indeed. Glad I could bring back some memories for you (hopefully they were all good 🙂 ).

  • Very good article indeed but unfortunately biased. Yes fighter pilots do have some skills that commercial and general aviation pilots do not have. Fighter pilots do not much flying hours, but what hours they have is mostly on training. Commercial and general aviation pilots have qualities that fighter pilots do not have. Here I am mentioning pilots who have from flying fighters directly to right seat of a large transport category aircraft.
    I have trained and flew with many pilots that had fighter background. It was a big problem for them to come out of their fighter mode cocoon. They mostly always talked of their airforce days when asked with a question. CRM was a problem and remained to be a problem. IFR skill was non existent and when they took over as PIC, that particular attitude of hierarchy became dominant. Many first officers did not quite like the idea of flying with them. “Flaps up..Gears up.. shut up” was the unwritten law. There are many points I could mention here but the bottom line is, fighter pilots are good but they do not come in twenty four carat gold.

    • One of the worst trainers I have ever seen. I have flown over 40 types of aircraft and I have been a Captain on ATR , 737 and A 320. I have the misfortune of doing one annual recurrent training session on ATR with you. I will just say that I realised that you suffered from an immense inferiority complex. Please do not try and discuss fighter pilots here. You are just an average airline captain wi6h a closed mind.

      • Mr Suresh Kumar Bista, whoever he is, evidently suffers from a deep rooted complex and a sense of insecurity. My guess is that he was ticked off for his attitude and performance some time in his career. And no prizes for guessing, by an ex fighter pilot! He represents the scores of pilots who’ve gotten through various checks either by the skin on his teeth or by unfair means. Never would I board a flight on which he’s part of the crew!

    • 1. Airline flying hours are no measure of expertise. Just a number in your log book. Whereas Fighter flying in an operational environment every second is an experience.
      2. Good articles are not biased. Try and hear what Dan is trying to say instead of blowing your own trumpet and typecasting fighter pilots.
      3. Is it not true that your trainer status was removed because of poor judgement and errors committed in Jet Airways?
      4. Being popular with First Officers is not the prime task in CRM. Teamwork is a part of every fighter pilots training. Something you will never be able to comprehend.

    • Nepal has no fighter pilots. I am not sure of what flying background you have. I do not know where all you have operated. Jet Airways did hire expats out of necessity. India has a very large Air Force with very large variety of aircraft. The IAF fighter pilots are selected from the best and very well trained. They are at par with the best in the world. They have a very sound and professional approach and airlines in India prefer to hire them because of their vast experience. Which fighter pilots were you bashing in your reply. Not Indian I hope.

  • Thanks Dan! Great points to learn here for all pilots. As an aircraft accident investigator at the Naval Safety Center and later at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing, I have seen these errors over and over. Thank you for your service as well. USN A-6 Intruders (ret.)

    • Thanks Jeff for your comment about your experience and how these tips can potentially tie into aviation accidents if not adhered to. Thanks for your USN service!

  • Long ago I was a CFI with 1000 hours and found myself driving a Phantom in Thailand (right after the war).

    Ever since that year, I teach energy awareness, in every aircraft. Even in, say, a Skylane, there is a vast difference in energy state between being 5 mph slow and steep, or 10 mph fast and coming in shallow.

    • Great point Jim on energy awareness, for any kind of aircraft. The Phantom has always been one of our favorite aircraft ever designed and flown. It just looks so cool (we don’t agree with its “Double Ugly” nickname 🙂 ).

  • Art Fiedler coordinated the WWII vets’ tent at the annual Camarillo (CMA) Air Show. He was in the legendary 325th FG of the 15th AF and told some great stories. Flying at its best while under the worst conditions.

  • I liked the F-4E story …flew them up North in 1972 .
    Every first flight with a new student – I cover all the flight instruments for the first takeoff and landing. Why? I tell my students that the Wright Flyer did not have instruments and the instrument readings will not kill you … it is what you do not see….that is what will kill you….
    Another takeaway … forget what the instruments say…if the takeoff roll does not look right, sound right, feel right…

  • How does the below relate to “know your aircraft performance”? An Fw-190 could do the exactly the same thing so it’s not exactly an aircraft performance issue?

    “But knowing how his P-51 Mustang performed in different flight maneuvers and altitudes, he had a trick up his sleeve. Fielder barrel rolled, letting his P-51 slow slightly. As he completed the barrel roll, his Mustang dropped into the six o’clock of the FW-190 that was behind him only a moment ago. Fielder sprayed the Focke-Wulf with his Mustang’s 50-caliber machine guns, shooting down the FW-190”

    • Hello Rich… thanks for your comment. The article isn’t trying to say that the FW-190 could not do the same maneuver as Fielder’s P-51. Rather, the lesson that I think we learn from this particular dogfight is that 1st Lt. Art Fiedler knew how his Mustang would perform by doing the maneuver he did, and because he had experience and training in how his machine flew, he knew he would be able to out-maneuver or surprise the FW-190 pilot, without putting himself in a compromising or unsafe situation that would get him shot down.

  • I have suffered from “vertigo” as you call it, but it falls into the general area of spatial disorientation (SD) a permanent problem for pilots and their crews.

    I’m not really sure that this article has helped at all with pilots and the likelihood of suffering SD. Nor does it explain how pilots might suffer from SD and why they might not follow their instruments. Finally, dogfighting in VMC has little to with following your instruments (except to check your energy levels) and all to do with visual orientation with reference to the ground and to the adversary.

    I have flown fast jets for many years, instructed on Tornado, F16 and Tutor (little bug smasher) and latterly I have been a Human Factors instructor of aircrew. I’ll offer an article on SD for this website.

    • Hi Chris, thanks for your comments. You are correct on each of the points you mentioned. There are many aspects of flying skill relative to spatial disorientation and trusting one’s instruments that this article does not intend to cover. Rather, the lessons I highlight are meant to be broad reminders about skills we all strive to improve on as pilots. With your experience in human factors instruction for aircrews, I’ll look forward to reading your article and insights on these topics.

  • Hi Dan, I ave been interested in Aviation from the time I was 9 years old, graduated from RPI as an Aeronautical Engineer… the US Air Force trained me to become a pilot, flying Piper Cub, T-28, and T-33 aircraft. I flew B-47 aircraft in SAC during my 3-year commitment 1955-58. Then flew T-33 , F-84, and F86h aircraft in the Mass. ANG for ~5 years. Finally, I owned and flew a Cessna 182 for 10+ years. I no longer fly; but I had 50+ years of wonderful, fun, and sometimes VERY challenging flying experiences. Your article is quite good; and provides sooo many LESSONS and SKILLs tha Every Aviator Needs to FLY SAVE! Thank you, THANK YOU! PLEASE do keep it up! YOU are VERY good, professional, caring, and RIGHT ON!

    • Thanks so much, Joel, for your kind comments! You have some great aviation experience in your 50+ years, and I bet you have some great stories to tell.

  • The best lesson I ever got was from a RCAF pilot . If there is something in your field of view that is NOT moving, it is on a collision course with you.

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