The quiet, soothing glow of the cockpit displays seems to be directly opposed to the relative chaos breaking out on the radios. I peer down under my NVGs for a brief respite from the harsh green and black world of the Night Vision Goggles. I am now within targeting range of my adversaries and I set to the task of adding them to my shoot list in anticipation of sending a host of AMRAAMs their way. Based on the tactic I have chosen tonight, I will not see my missiles – my mini wingmen – achieve their target.
Just a few more miles of closure and the missiles are unleashed.
“Raptor 1, Fox 3, three-ship, west lead group, out left,” I say on the radio as I clear my shoot list and start the 180 degree hard turn putting my missiles and the threatening fighters several miles to my six o’clock.
During the 6g turn my NVGs sag under their weight, which has now increased from two pounds to 12 from the turn. I’m careful not to move my neck too much during the turn as many of my fighter pilot brothers and sisters have injured themselves that way.
Established on a “cold” heading, I confirm the position of each of my flight mates to ensure we don’t cross flight paths as their attention needs to be focused on the mess of adversaries behind me, and not on avoiding a mid-air collision. Once I know where everyone is, I check the status of my missiles. They should be impacting their targets about now.
“Raptor 1, timeout three-ship bullseye 3-4-0, sixty, fifteen thousand,” I transmit on the common fight frequency.
The hot element will be watching their displays and peering through the soda-straw field of view of their NVGs to see if the bandits have elected to kill-remove, simulating they have blown up.
Fighter pilots begin night training in UPT with a handful of night flights focusing on single-ship navigation. The next night training a fighter pilot receives doesn’t occur until the latter part of initial fighter qualification (called the “b-course”), where flying with NVGs is introduced and upgrading pilots go to the tanker for their first time at night.
Night tanking can be painful at times. The rejoin on the tanker is complicated by the fact that you are looking through the proverbial soda straw NVGs to visually acquire the airborne gas station – as you get closer to the tanker, you will remove the NVGs. Once rejoined and in the pre-contact position (just a few feet aft and low of the refueling boom – for those of us who don’t use drogues to refuel), it can be a little tricky to ensure you have the proper closure rate and spacing. The problem is compounded when there is no moon or you’re in the weather, as you don’t have the same depth perception or peripheral cues to help you as you do in the day.
Once you’re done getting your gas, you must then fly in the observation position while your wingmen go across the boom. Observation is a close formation position on the tanker, just a few feet from its wingtip. The problem with observation is that if you’re flying with a KC-135 there are lights pointed directly at their engine nacelles, which means they are pointed directly at your eyeballs if you fly in the correct observation position. Most pilots will either ask the tanker to turn these lights off (sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t) or fly ever so slightly out of position so as not to get blinded.
I’ve always enjoyed night flying. Every so often there will be a lull in the action when you look up at the clear night sky, don your NVGs, and see myriad shooting stars, galaxies, and nebulas unseen by the naked eye. The earth takes on a reassuring radiance never to be experienced by those relegated to the ground. For just a moment I’m not thinking about managing my flight’s fuel and weapon state, I’m not thinking about making the push time, or even the noise complaints that will certainly be called in tonight.
In those few lucid moments I am filled with gratitude to a Higher Power for making all of this possible, and for granting me an hour and a half to be king of it all.