Flying Solo vs. Flying Alone

Rob at RF cropped

The roar of the Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan engines is all but imperceptible from the cockpit as I push the throttles forward through the detent.  By not stopping at the detent I command the engines to ignite the afterburners, providing the maximum amount of thrust these mighty engines are capable of.  After a brief spool-up, the jet rockets forward down the centerline of the runway.  Within seconds I’ve rotated and am scrambling to get the landing gear up before approaching an overspeed at 250 knots. By the end of the runway I’m accelerating through 375 knots, at which point I ease back on the side-stick, smoothly pulling the nose of my F-22 Raptor up 65 degrees.  The Vertical Velocity Indicator immediately maxes out at 9,999 fpm, but I know I’m climbing much faster than that.  Today is a great day to be in command of this sleek war machine.  I have always loved flying solo, and getting into a single seat fighter is an amazing opportunity to expand the solo flight experience.

If you’re part of the small percentage of people who have taken flight in an aircraft by yourself, you know that your first time flying solo is an experience you will never forget.  You crank up the motor and it immediately hits you, it’s up to you – and only you – to take your mighty machine skyward and bring it back down in one piece.  As you make the radio calls for taxi and takeoff, your courage mounts.  And once you rotate, you know there’s no turning back.  You must eventually put your aircraft safely on the ground.  There is something very empowering about that thought – about taking sole responsibility for your life and for the health of your aircraft.  I think it’s that feeling of empowerment that drove me to pursue a career as a single-seat pilot.

Nothing will ever replace the thrill of that first solo when I was a wide-eyed student with barely a page filled out in my logbook.  But that thrill was quite different than the one I feel today flying alone at the controls of a hi-tech fighter.  I like the analogy Andrew Hartley of made: flying solo is like a musician playing a solo on stage. Andrew points out that a solo musician is often a “piece of a much larger composition”.  The more solo experience I gain, the more I find that I, as a single-seat fighter pilot, am most definitely a part of a larger opus.

While I fly solo, I rarely fly alone. In the fighter world, we seek to maximize “mutual support”.  Mutual support is most often provided in the form of a wingman – someone who can provide an extra set of eyes and ears from a separate aircraft.  I’ve mentioned before that a good wingman can seriously increase your lethality as a tactical flight lead.  If I’m not flying in a 4-ship with three wingmen, I’m typically flying as part of a 2- or 3-ship.  The circumstances would be dire indeed if I were required to fly into combat as a single-ship.

Right now, there’s an F-117 pilot reading this and laughing. The F-117 was officially designated the “Nighthawk”, but the pilots fondly called it the Stinkbug due to its unique shape resembling a malodorous insect of the same name.  It was a single-seat, deep strike fighter and was the first stealth fighter to spring onto the “low-observable” scene.  At an 8th Fighter Squadron reunion I heard one of the retired pilots tell of how they would push deep into a MEZ (missile engagement zone) to drop bombs all by themselves…no wingmen.  They wouldn’t talk to anyone on their way in, and their ride home was equally silent.  “Alone and unafraid” is how they would describe the way they carried out their missions. (Note: The F-117 Nighthawk was decommissioned on April, 22 2008.)

Stealthy stars and stripes

If you’ve never flown in formation, I highly recommend it.  Find someone with formation experience and have him or her teach you the art.  As you start flying with someone “on the wing”, you will quickly realize how critical a wingman can be!  Have a retractable gear malfunction?  No problem, you’ve got a built-in chase ship who can quickly and accurately confirm your configuration.  Need someone to back you up in the checklist while your hands are full flying the aircraft with runaway trim?  That person is just a few feet away from you.  There most certainly are benefits to flying solo.  Having a wingman helps mitigate some of the negative aspects of flying as the singular occupant of the cockpit.

If it’s been a while since you’ve flown solo, go and do it.  Rejoice in the solitude of a cockpit filled only by you.  At times flying can be more fun when you have someone to share it with, so get into formation flying!  But be careful, if you do it often enough, you may want to make a career out of it!

This post is part of the Blogging in Formation Series


April 1:
Andrew Hartley – Smart Flight Training
Karlene Petitt – Flight to Success – Near Midair!
April 2:
Rob Burgon – Tally One
Chip Shanle – Project 7 Alpha
April 3:
Eric Auxier – Adventures of Cap’n Aux
Ron Rapp – House of Rapp
April 4:
Brent Owens – iFLYblog
Mark L Berry –