Near Mid-Air

The Pacific Ocean glistened under the cloudless sky like a field of diamonds as I entered the fight airspace in my F-22 Raptor. The mission was a training exercise: joint defense of a Navy Aircraft Carrier that had quietly shown up in the night.

I was to defend the north lane with three other Raptors, two four-ships of F-15C Eagles, and a yet undetermined number – if any – of F/A-18 Hornets from the carrier. We were expecting to be out numbered by the Red Air Bandits, but given the synergistic effects of Raptor-Eagle integration we were confident it wouldn’t be a problem even if the Hornets didn’t show up.

The vul (vulnerability period – the time we were fragged to be in the fight) kicked off as expected with Red Air sending everything they had. We took to the task of targeting and killing the Aggressor squadron who was simulating MiG-29s, Su-27s, and various other enemy air-to-air and air-to-ground platforms. We were supported by several ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) aircraft orbiting just aft of our lane. Behind the ISR assets were the numerous tankers stacked up and ready to fuel anyone (mainly fighters) who required fuel during the vul.

In order to leave the lane and meet the tanker we had to checkout with Dragnet (our C2 controlling the fight from the E-3 AWACS.) Dragnet would then assign us a tanker by providing its call sign, altitude and boom frequency as each tanker was using a unique frequency.

After the initial wave of enemy fighters was abated, the four-ship of Eagles waiting on the tankers came forward as those in the lane went back to top-off their fuel with one of the six KC-135s supporting the mission. I checked my gas and with the permission of my flight lead I headed to the tanker myself to make sure I wouldn’t have to leave during the next wave of the attack.

“Dragnet, Raptor 2 checking out of North Lane, request tanker track North,” was my initial call to C2.

“Raptor 2 cleared into A/R North at Flight Level 190. Exxon 42 is orbiting at Flight Level 200, change to boom frequency 342.4,” was the reply.

I switched frequencies and checked in with Exxon 42 as I dug through various air-to-air tracks on my displays to find the tanker. I noticed on my Situation Display there were two F-15Cs in trail of the tanker to which I was assigned.

“Exxon 42, Raptor 2, confirm chicks in tow?”

“Raptor 2, negative. You’re the only one assigned to us at this time.

I figured maybe the altitudes of the tracks I was seeing was inaccurate, but made a point to increase my visual lookout as I approached the tanker.

Sure enough, as I picked up visual of the tanker, there they were: two F-15Cs rejoining for gas. I cooled off my tanker intercept and let the Eagles get joined up. Once on the boom, the Eagle flight lead was notified that he was on the wrong tanker and given the boom frequency of the tanker he was currently on. Once he was up on frequency with both Exxon 42 and I, he apologized to me profusely muttering something about biting off on the first tanker he saw.

No problem, I thought. He knows I’m here so I will rejoin to observation on the right wing as the tanker had cleared me to do, and just wait for them to get their fuel.

About the same time as the Eagle flight lead’s top off was complete we heard a call on guard frequency:

“Dragnet, avalanche North Lane, avalanche North Lane!” – This meant that not only was Red Air sending everyone they had, but they were concentrating their forces in the North Lane and compounding the already unbalanced numbers of jets in the fight.

“Eagle 1 is clearing off high,” was the call from the Eagle flight lead as he dropped below my canopy rail and aft of the tanker. I expected to see him reappear on the other side of his wingman, or at least on my right side. When I didn’t see anything happening, the hair on my neck stood up and I peered over the left canopy rail.

I immediately saw the top of Eagle 1’s jet blossoming towards me – he was coming up between me and the tanker! I immediately rolled and pulled to the right to avoid him taking out my left wing. There was an awkward moment when time seemed to stand still and I found myself looking into his cockpit as he looked into mine, both of us thinking “Holy Crap!”

After missing my wingtip by mere inches, Eagle 1 was off to join the fight, once again apologizing.

As I look back on the scenario, one thing really stands out in my mind: the importance of clearing your flight path.

Yes, he should have gone to the correct tanker. Yes he should have established communication with the tanker (and me) earlier. Eagle 1 made two critical failures: the first was not clearing on the radios once he was on the correct frequency by listening to where the tanker had cleared me. His second failure was not looking where he was setting his lift vector before pulling – which failure is especially egregious when flying in close proximity of other aircraft.

So next time you’re in the traffic pattern, or anywhere really: listen up and look out. I guarantee there will be other pilots out there who don’t. You may have the final say as to whether or not you bring your aircraft – and you – back in one piece.