A Day In The Life Of A Fighter Pilot

When my alarm clock rang at 4AM I wanted to smash it.  It would have been so easy to just roll over and fall back asleep, but I couldn’t – I had to be present at the 5AM mass coordination brief for a Defensive Counter Air (DCA) mission.  I dragged myself out of bed and got ready to drive to the squadron building where I would meet the other pilots who were to fly in my four-ship of F-22s.

I had spent several hours the previous day mission planning, coordinating with our AWACS controllers, and preparing the room in which I would be briefing.  In order for a mission to go off without a hitch, several details need to be communicated between the Blue Air (good guys) flight lead, the Red Air (bad guys) flight lead, and the airborne controllers.  We determine a timeframe over which we will fight known as the vulnerability period, or “vul”.  We set a communication plan and allocate frequencies amongst the various players and determine an altitude deconfliction game plan to keep the various aircraft safe.  There are a lot of details that each player needs to fully comprehend, so I prepare an 8½ x 11 card with much of the information I will be briefing as a point of reference.

But that was yesterday.  Today is execution time.  Walking into the squadron I feel the same rush I felt walking onto the field of a high school varsity football game.  My mind races to recall all the key information that was gleaned throughout the mission planning as I go back into the vault.  The “vault” is a section of the squadron kept under tight lock and key; it’s an area where access is restricted to people with a current security clearance.  Each flight is briefed and debriefed in the vault.

Five minutes prior to the mass coordination brief everyone is in their seat.  The Red Air flight lead, also known as “Red 1,” is present with his entourage of aggressors.  They will be present only for the coordination brief to ensure everyone is aware of the special instructions (SPINS) and safety rules governing the fight.  Once the mass coordination is complete, I clear Red Air off and focus my brief on four-ship.  We receive a quick intelligence brief, then I move through “admin” quickly: ground ops, takeoff, departure, airspace checks, and post-fight flow.  By this time I have about 30 minutes to cover tactics before step time – the time we all meet to step out to the jets.

At step time we are dressed in flight gear standing before the squadron ops supervisor known as the “Top 3”.  The Top 3 gives us a final brief on the weather and airfield status, and tells us which jet we are each assigned to.  The jet lineup is determined by maintenance and is based upon individual aircraft airworthiness.  After the Top 3’s brief we all climb into the step van.  There is a buzz of excitement as we joke about the previous days’ sorties and tell each other how we envision this mission going.

Once at my jet, the crew chief salutes smartly and takes my helmet bag and publications kit containing maps, approach plates, etc.  The crew chief follows me through my pre-flight inspection and aircraft forms review.  I make it a point to tell him about the mission I will be flying and all of the killing his jet will be doing.  I can tell he is excited to know that the hours of hard work he has put into getting this jet ready will pay off.

At start time, I crank the motors.  No matter how many hours I have in the jet, I always experience a moment of lucidity as the canopy lowers separating me from the outside world – a single piece of plexiglass that will protect me from a slipstream passing over the jet at over 1,000 mph.  We each taxi out from our individual hangars and meet up in arming.  Ground personnel give our jets a final inspection, then it’s off to the races.

Our takeoff time is planned and adhered to religiously.  We can’t afford to be late or we may have to delay (aka “rolex”) the vul and possibly lose the airspace.  Today we are airborne on the second.  We get through our fence/trigger check, knock out a G-awareness exercise and establish the pre-briefed formation just prior to vul start.  The calm before the storm comes to an abrupt end as the GPS clock on my Raptor rolls over indicating the start of vul.

“Raptor flight, vul time, vul time!” I call out on our blue fight frequency as we push forward to establish our defensive CAPs (Combat Air Patrol).

An F-22 Refuels from a KC-10

F-22 on the boom of a KC-10

“Darkstar, Raptor 1, picture,” I call on the blue freq.  Darkstar is the callsign of our AWACS and the picture call is a request for them to confirm the air picture they are seeing on their scopes.  We commit out of the CAP and begin running our intercepts.  The Red Air bandits do their best to provide a challenging presentation.  Their job is to give me, as the flight lead, intercept problems and weapons allocation problems to solve.  I take my time to assess the air picture, determine a tactic, communicate that tactic to my flightmates, and monitor their execution while trying to ensure my own execution is perfect.

Over the course of the 30-minute vul we will use every tool available to us on the weapon system to find, identify, target, and destroy factor threats.  It’s only 30 minutes, but it challenges my airmanship and flight leadership to the core.  Almost as quickly as it started, we end the vul by calling “knock it off.”  Blue and Red Air separate from the fight, safe up the jets, and begin the return to base (RTB).

Back on the ground I rush through maintenance debrief, drop my gear off at the Aircrew Flight Equipment room, grab my food out of the fridge and head back to the vault to review my tapes.  Every mission is recorded and I am able to look at each of my displays and listen to the radio calls.  I will assess each simulated missile shot I took to ensure it is valid and shot against a target that has been correctly identified as “hostile”.  Invalid shots taken airborne and called as a “kill” require the offending pilot to pay $5 to the weapons shop as a penalty for their misdeed.

With all the information from the mission fresh on my mind, I start the air-to-air shot evaluation.  Red Air enters the debrief room and we play the mission back on a big screen, stopping to assess each missile shot taken during the vul.  Once all shots have been evaluated and $5 infractions paid, I thank Red 1 for the good work and clear the aggressors off.

I will spend the next several hours with my four-ship reviewing each flight member’s tapes, identifying breakdowns in tactic selection and intercept execution all as they relate to the overall objectives of the mission.  Today’s objective was to defend a target band from strike aircraft – mission success!  Although we accomplished our objective, we still spend time seeking out “lessons learned” and discussing certain aspects of our tactics and execution.

It has now been 12 hours since I began the mass coordination brief this morning.  I am physically and mentally spent.  I finish the brief and clear everyone off.  It is then over to a computer to check email from my ground job.  Several small fires broke out during the day while I was flying, but my sharp staff have already handled the issues keeping me out of hot water for another day.  It’s time to roll out and go home to see the family.  I know I will need to get a good night’s sleep, because I will be doing it all over again tomorrow.