It is 1984 when I was flying an F-4G “Wild Weasel” as the flight lead of a two-ship formation during a RED FLAG exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. Red Flag is a large Air Force exercise which was designed to give pilots their first 10 combat missions in a highly realistic manner, but of course, under peace time conditions. If you died here, you could learn from your experience and be better prepared if you were flying in a real combat sortie. The Air Force had found that if you survived your first 10 combat missions, the chance you would survive the rest of your combat tour improved dramatically. Having flown combat missions in the 1991 Gulf War, I never saw anything that I hadn’t practiced lots of times during Red Flag missions. In this exercise, there were going to be REAL enemy aircraft such as the MIG-21 acting as the “bad guys” or enemy air.
As Wild Weasels, it was common for us to fly ahead of the rest of the aircraft which made up the strike package. Our job was suppress or kill the enemy ground radar systems and the Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites which could attack the aircraft in our package. My Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) had located a SAM site and I maneuvered my aircraft so that I was in a position to launch a simulated AGM-45, Shrike missile. To avoid the SAM, I was at 100 feet AGL and a speed of 500 knots and was keeping a ridgeline between me and the radar so they didn’t have a chance to shoot a missile at me. At the proper distance, I pulled the airplane into a 45-degree climb which would allow the Shrike missile to have the range to engage the SAM site about 15 miles away. (The SAM had a range of about 20 miles and without the loft, the Shrike’s range was about half of that.) It was hard to see behind the F-4G so as I started the climb, it was my habit to look back along my route of flight to check for enemy aircraft. To my surprise, about four miles behind me, there was a MIG-21 getting ready to attempt to shoot us down.
First, it was a thrill to see a real MIG at my 6 o’clock position, but then my fangs came out and I decided that today was not my day to be shot down. I was going to turn my airplane in such a manner that the MIG would have no chance to launch a missile at me or be in a position to use his cannons. I took the stick and rapidly pulled it back for all its worth. And it worked, but with one small problem.
One moment I was climbing at a 45-degree angle, and the second moment, I was pointed straight down (very close to 90 degrees) with a fully stalled aircraft. As I looked out the front window, I had no idea if I had enough altitude to pull out of the dive or survive ejecting from the aircraft. I made an “O Sh_t” comment and the EWO asked what was up. I responded that I would tell him in a minute as I thought he didn’t need to know that we might die (the back seat of the F-4G had NO vision out the front of the aircraft).
The most difficult aspect of the recovery was that I wanted to keep pulling on the stick, but I had to push the stick slightly forward to break the stall before increasing back stick pressure to recover from the dive. Thankfully, we recovered with only about 100 feet to spare. On the way back to base, I told the EWO what happened. We flew together for another couple of years so I guess he still felt he could trust my flying.
At the end of each mission, there was a mass debrief. All pilots were required to attend and major players would talk about what went well as well as what was wrong. We flew with pods on the airplanes which sent data about your flight conditions and any weapons you fired to a computer. The computer would determine if your missiles worked and who shot who. During the debrief of the mission, the MIG-21 pilot talked about his attack on a lone F-4G.
The MIG pilot was being vectored to my 6 o’clock and was slowly decreasing the range so he could shoot a simulated heat seeking missile at my aircraft. He said the F-4 pilot clearly wanted to live. He claimed that he never saw an airplane turn that quickly and then dive behind a small hill so he never got a clear shot. He never learned that I was fighting for my life and not really dogfighting against him and his airplane. With the poor rearward vision of the F-4, we flew in pairs. The other airplane was the one who checked your 6 o’clock and you checked his. I missed my wingman call that a MIG was attacking me. The MIG pilot never saw my wingman who was shown by the computer to shoot him down.
On another mission, I was looking out the right side of my airplane as we were flying toward the target area. Again, I was at 100 feet AGL and flying at 480 knots. Why 480? Turns out that 480 knots equates to eight miles per minute and allows pilots to do quick math computations in their heads. For example, the navigation computer indicates you are 16 miles from the target. One quick look at the clock and you can determine if you are on time. If you see that you are more than two minutes away, you can increase your speed. Conversely, if you are less than two minutes, you can slow down. We could fly several hundred miles and arrive within 10 to 15 seconds on target.
I was checking the outside of the formation when my EWO started using all the four letter words he knew. At the same time, I thought I saw a small bird go down my left engine’s intake. Turns out, the small bird was an aircraft. It was a Navy trainer which was small so it looked like a MIG-21 and was acting as enemy air. All I saw was the motion, but of course, my EWO saw that the airplane passed about 25 feet from our wingtip. At the combined closing speed of over 900 knots, we were closing at over 1,500 feet per second and NEVER SAW EACH OTHER. The big sky stragegy worked again in that was room for lots of aircraft.
- Close calls in training prepared me for Gulf War combat - August 23, 2023