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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.