“So you guys just go up, chase each other around, and pretend to shoot each other, right? It must be fun having a job that doesn’t require any real work.”
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that question I could retire tomorrow. When you sit down and watch the cinematic dogfight sequences in movies like Top Gun, it appears that a dogfight consists of a couple of barrel rolls, a loop, and hitting the speed brakes (“…he’ll fly right by!”). Nothing could be further from the truth!
When a pilot meets an enemy in real-life aerial combat, the outcome is deadly – human life is likely to be ended and an aircraft destroyed. I think it appropriate to keep this serious tone in the background of our conversation as it certainly exists in somewhere in every fighter pilot’s mind when he or she engages in air-to-air combat.
Fighter pilots commonly refer to dogfighting as “BFM” (Basic Fighter Maneuvers). During a BFM engagement pilots are pushing the limits of their airframes, their bodies, and their minds. To put it simply, it’s like trying to work complicated geometry problems while deadlifting heavy weights. The objective of BFM is to neutralize your enemy (i.e. survive), transition to an offensive position, and kill the enemy through proper weapon employment.
The dogfight starts well before the visual engagement. In most cases, you – the pilot – have already run your ID matrix and determined the opposing aircraft to be a “bandit”, or enemy. You have also applied the Rules of Engagement and have deemed the bandit “hostile”, which in most cases means you can legally fire upon him. Chances are, you have already taken a beyond visual range (BVR) missile shot. My point is, this guy probably hasn’t just appeared out of nowhere and you have been able to prepare for your merge.
Prior to the merge you have selected the ideal altitude offset and corresponding airspeed – both important factors which will play into the no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out fight about to take place. With closure rates in excess of 1,000 mph you quickly find yourself at the merge, entangled in a fight to the death. You don’t want to go into this type of fight for the first time on a combat mission – that is why you will practice over, and over, and over before going to battle. BFM is about maneuvering your aircraft in relation to the adversary in such a way as to efficiently use your energy, achieve an angular advantage, and arrive in a weapon engagement zone (aka “WEZ”) and killing the enemy. Experience and proficiency are absolutely necessary to survive in a BFM engagement against today’s hi-tech threats.
Somehow, “Maverick” on Top Gun managed to maneuver to an offensive position by performing a small air show for the bandit (thus confusing him – and every real fighter pilot). In a real BFM engagement, you will maneuver in relation to the bandit, not perform for him. This means you are constantly watching the enemy aircraft and determining his energy state and plane of motion (where he is flying). Every decision you make is based on the bandit. That doesn’t mean you aren’t being extremely proactive. You pick a game plan based on the turn direction of the bandit at the merge (you will turn in the direction of turning room regardless…if the bandit turns away and gives you that turning room, well, sucks to be him!)
The bulk of the engagement is spent driving to the bandit’s “control zone” – an offensive position that allows you the ability to offensively react to the bandit’s maneuvers while keep the pressure on him so he is forced to maneuver defensively. Once established in the control, you must select the appropriate weapon (medium range missile, short range missile, gun) and strive to achieve the parameters to employ that weapon. You will have spent hour after hour reviewing each of your weapon employment parameters and will have committed them to memory.
Oh, and I did I mention you are doing all of this in less than two minutes while pulling 9Gs? In the average fighter without external fuel tanks you will likely be able to get five or six engagements in before you’re out of gas and it’s time to refuel or land. You will feel like you just had a great workout in the gym when you safe your Master Arm switch and come home.
This little one-page article certainly doesn’t do justice to the complexities and challenges of dogfighting. I’ll post more info from time to time based on your questions/comments. Until then, I hope you enjoyed reading about BFM: “The Sport of Kings!”
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