At the beginning of the month, we ran a little April Fool's story about Canada's infamous MiG-21 Redhawk Program of the 1960s. In this story, the mythical Soviet-built fighters were flown by pilots of 441 Squadron, one of Canada's most storied and respected fighter squadrons. In no way was the story meant to mock 441 and its magnificent history, but that our readers may see the total professionalism and patriotic commitment displayed by these pilots, we offer this story of CF-18 combat training at Maple Flag, 1996.
By Dave O'Malley
For weeks on end every spring, air forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization send fighter elements to train in the unlimited, unregulated and unsullied skies of Northern Alberta as part of a multi-national fighter training exercise known as Maple Flag. Over a period of many weeks, pilots from Canada, the United States, Great Britain and others train under hyper-realistic conditions to carry out their myriad of operational tasks. Maple Flag is one of only a few large scale annual fighter exercises in the world, and to find myself strapped to a CF-18 just minutes from launching into those skies was a dream come true.
Insulated beneath my Gentex helmet, I watched the silent choreography of the 441 Squadron ramp readying for the launch of two sections of Blue Air into the low, gray Alberta sky. Captain Steve Will, author and friend, was my pilot and CHECKERS ONE, section lead. I listened, relaxing, as he talked himself through the complex litanies to ready his fighter and his head for the coming battle. The minute I was plugged in, I had switched to cold-mike and his calming stream of technobabble came flowing like a cool stream through my headset. It reminded me of the old Latin mass once conducted in Catholic churches – an unintelligible, magical litany instilling confidence in the uninitiated while elevating the speaker to high priest status.
The practice of this internalized cockpit chit-chat came from thousands of hours as an instructor on Tutors back at the Jaw. Then, it was used as a training technique to get fledglings to verbalize and visualize each step and control input required to light the stove and fly the bird. The technique gets you to recognize your actions at all times, thus building a strong foundation for situational awareness – the number one state of mind for the healthy operation of a CF-18. Talking to yourself at WalMart while pushing a cart full of value priced cup-a-soups and 64-packs of low-grade bumwad is considered subhuman. Talking to yourself while strapped to 25 tons of bitchy, flying blowtorch is considered, well… understandable.
To get the sleeping fighter up and on-line, Steve negotiated a labyrinth of inputs and settings, button-punching and knob-twisting the mighty CF-18 to life. Inside my helmet, I could hear the beast awakening – a sing-song concerto of dings and pings, punctuated by “Swill”'s Yeager-like mantra and Bitchin' Betty’s sexy and understated warnings. Finally Steve jabbed the wakening Hornet's left start button and the cranky fighter whooped in anger as the GE turbofan flashed up. During the twenty minutes that I sat out on the bleak, gray ramp, nailed bolt upright to my ejection seat, the jet had seemed lifeless but when that Four-0-Four came up, a rush came up through the seat of my pants, surged through the oxygen hose and my mask and burst deep into my lungs, and finally exploding in synaptic euphoria in my brain. Now I could feel the lifeblood of the beast surging all around me. Then came one more tortured whoop from Number Two – Hornet No 925 was fully awake… and pissed-off. The access ladders were pulled away and the ground crew backed off dragging the hawser chocks and showing respect for the fearsome power of the turbofans burning like a runaway pipeline beneath our seats. Steve called to me to clear hands from the cockpit ledge and the big canopy of the two-seat Hornet dropped softly into place. At the moment of contact with the fuselage, it seemed oddly misaligned but the next second brought two large hooks up to engage pins on the canopy pulling it down tight and forcing it back another inch to create a perfect seal. Steve snapped a look right then left, checking the aileron deflection, nodded to the crew chief and gave the throttles a sharp nudge. 925 moved out of her place on the flight line and swung left, loafing along the edge of the ramp as the others came up behind. Steve led his section down the taxiway parallel to the runway. The 441 boys were going hunting.
At the end of the runway under a smoldering gray Alberta sky, the elements of Blue Air were assembling – fueled, armed and anxious for the battle to come. Today it was the High War – a high altitude, high-risk engagement 35,000 feet above the cloud-shrouded range of CFB Cold Lake, Alberta. We were Blue Air, the good guys, and part of an eighteen plane air force sent north to the Primrose Range to defend the skies, to hunt and destroy Red Air, an attacking force of twelve Aggressor Squadron F-16s from Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, Nevada. This was to be an 18-V-12 engagement with Blue air fighting a well-trained, cohesive team of Viper drivers whose role is to provide realistic training scenarios by flying and fighting in the style of Russian-trained pilots. Flying their F-16s like Russian MiG-29s and using known ex-Soviet tactics and weapons profiles, the Aggressors carry their high-risk charade to the max, even painting their fighters with Eastern bloc camouflage schemes and bright red stars on the wings and tails. Blue Air (a mixed stew of Canadian Hornets, Charlie model F-15s and F-15E Strike Eagles from the USAF) had not met until the briefing that morning. They would, however, have the benefit of an RAF battle controller orbiting high above the fight in a Boeing E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft (AEW.1 in RAF service).
Joining Canadian CF-18 fighter elements each year at Maple Flag are combat aircraft (bombers, fighters, attack and support) from a myriad of NATO nations. F-15C Eagle fighter aircraft would be part of the High War in 1996. Here we see an American Eagle
, banking over the Primrose Range at Cold Lake, but this day's war would happen 30 thousand feet higher up. USAF photo by U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo
While the Eagles were with us in Blue Air, other USAF aircraft in the form of the 64th FS Aggressors from Nellis AFB, Nevada would test us in Red Air. U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald
Ahead, the four F-15C fighters wheeled to the left and rolled off the taxiway centre line to let us pass. The dim, scratchy light of the cloud-filtered noonday sun smoothed over their canopies like the burnished glint on the armour of knights of old. Hellish cumuli of heated air fumed from their engines and we rocked gently in their wash as Steve advanced the throttles to push on by for the set-up at the button of the active runway. As section lead, Steve took up position on the left side of the runway. Our wingman, Hauptmann Bernhard "Tarzan" Tantarn pulled his Hornet to our right and waited for the go. The two other F-18s of our section wheeled in behind us. Steve busied himself up front with a last-second cockpit scan, glancing over to Tarzan who gave us a nod, his face no longer visible beneath his mask and dark visor.
My anticipation was almost overwhelming for those last seconds before Steve lit the burners. I was now just seconds from living a life-long dream. I reached to the floor on my left and felt for the electric seat-height switch. I dropped the ejection seat to the lowest position taking the advice of my friend, 2Lt John Vincent, who said the closer I was to the centre of gravity, the less my head would be tossed around during ACM (Aerial Combat Manoeuvring). Oddly, my heart rate seemed to slow and I easily breathed the mixture of air and pure oxygen through my mask. I snugged my straps a little more and adjusted the brightness on my three CRTs though, to be honest, the straps were already tightened to the max and the brightness knobs tuned for full daylight. It just made me feel like I knew what I was doing, like I had a job back there… like I was operational, even tactical. Knob-adjuster at the pointy end of the stick, strap-snugger in the technowar.
Steve locked up the brakes, advanced the throttles and checked the power. The deafening sound of the two mighty engines in full afterburn was almost completely muffled by my snug-fitting helmet. We rocked in place and I could feel a slight genuflection in the nose as the engines fought with the brakes. A look to the right, a nod and Steve released the brakes sending us in one ultra smooth, accelerating dash down the left side of the runway with Tarzan seemingly glued to our right wing. The take-off roll was as smooth as if we were pulling onto the 401 in a Cadillac Coupe Deville. No bumps, no left or right tracking, just one huge, powerful headlong rush to get the 25 tons of metal and gas into the air. Steve was still yakking away up front, calling out airspeed, looking for that magical number that meant it was safe to rotate and begin the climb. I stared at Tarzan's aircraft as we lifted smoothly into the air. The ground released us and Tarzan at virtually the same instant and I watched our winger's gear come up into the wells a split second after I heard Steve speak the thought in my headset.
I was where I always dreamed to be. I was wired, strapped and plugged into a front-line fighter lifting off from an operational fighter base on a mission – on a goddam sortie, for Chrissake. I let out a big howl from the privacy of my cold-miked hide-away. I pounded my knees and happily mumbled the F-word over and over. I was one happy camper.
I switched to hot-mike and waited for a break to talk to Steve, who was taking his two-plane formation up through the first layer of low-lying cloud. He continued to talk to himself and chatted easily to me at the same time. The weather guys had briefed a 4,000 foot top to the cloud, but we continued to climb in the murk well past that. Since taking position beside us at the button of the runway, Tarzan had never moved more than a few feet from our right wing and as we bumped our way through the thick gray mists, it was even more important that he maintain this perfect relationship to us. If he were to momentarily lose sight of us in the cloud, we risked a mid-air.
Climbing through 8,000 feet, the gray soup brightened more and more until we found ourselves skimming waist deep in the cloud tops at 10,000. We popped out and continued our climb in the clear air, but still beneath a higher layer of solid cloud, easily another ten thousand above. Well clear of the cloud below, Steve turned briefly to our winger and tapped his helmet with a gloved hand. Tarzan took his cue for the break, pulling his nose slightly up, rolling his belly to us, showing his single centreline tank and Keith Ferris false canopy marking and peeled away in one sleek, sliding motion to take up position on the section's extreme right. Within twenty seconds he was holding station in battle formation about one klick off, while the other two-ship spread out to our left and slightly behind. We settled in the classic Finger-Four fighter formation and pushed onto the Bull.
Steve continued the climb as the upper cloud layer slipped away behind us revealing a deep blue sky with some broken layers of white stacked up along the northern horizon. The view at 25,000 feet was breath-taking, with sunlight sparkling all around us, God's duvet of white cloud below and our four fighters streaking forward at 600 knots. The cockpit was bathed in clear radiant light and my eyes took in every detail of this incredible sight – the rivets and knobs, the weathered paint on the LEX, the myriad dazzle of minute scratches on the canopy glass, the stitching on my harness, the way the light reflected from iridescent fingerprints on the CRTs.
“Sunlight sparkling all around us, God's duvet of white cloud below and our four fighters streaking forward at 600 knots. The cockpit was bathed in clear radiant light and my eyes took in every detail of this incredible sight”. Photo by Dave Robins, djrxxs at flickr.com
We now were climbing steadily on a heading that would bring us over the area south of the Bull where we would turn MiG sweeps until contact was made with elements of Red Air. Steve would use the next ten minutes to get "in the zone", to go over the parameters and possibilities of the conflict ahead, but before he settled in, he demonstrated a snap role for me. At 600 knots, the nimble fighter turns a very crisp roll let me tell you. Steve brought the nose up slightly then gave a deft right jab to the stick and we rotated through 360° in about one second. So smooth, so fast. "Do it again, Steve!" This time, I grabbed my palm-corder which I had stowed and held it out in front of me, tight to the cockpit coaming. Steve repeated the slick roll, while I "Yahoo"ed from the back seat.
“At 600 knots, the nimble fighter turns a very crisp roll let me tell you.”
Photo by Dave Robins, djrxxs at flickr.com
Enough fun. Now Steve settled down to business and called for "CoCo" (LCol Marc Ouellete, a former CF-104 driver and 441 Squadron CO who commanded the second two-plane flying on our left) to climb above us to "Check for cons". Right now, as we drilled holes in the clear air, no vapour contrails were yet streaming aft of us though, certainly, somewhere up above us was a layer of colder air – the perfect medium to draw long, white chalk lines that could lead Red Air directly to us. CoCo's job was to climb parallel to us and, while we watched, he reached that telltale layer. "Cons!" Steve radioed and the higher Hornet bunted over, descending back to the formation, leaving only a short two second blast of contrail. With the vast expanse of white cloud below us, it was advantageous to take the highest air possible so that we would not be silhouetted. But now we knew that our highest altitude was around 34,000 feet – any higher and everyone in the sector could track us visually from fifty miles.
With all four jets spread across the same altitude, Steve took us into an easy right turn and entered a right hand racetrack pattern. This was the MiG sweep, covering fifty miles of blue turf. He leveled out on the back stretch and talked easily to me, all the while staying in contact with his section and the lone AWACS controller who watched the entire battlefield from her vantage point high above and many miles off. With no bogies reported in the area, Steve held to the racetrack, turning back in the direction of the Bull. The steeply banked turns were gentle, with the white light of the sun coursing shadows across our cockpit. Steve had yet to pull any G what so ever and I anxiously awaited full deployment of my G-suit – an experience I had not yet felt. There was however, a speed jean test button down to my left and I stabbed at it. Wham! – the inflatable air bladders around my calves, thighs and waist popped, gripping my entire lower half in a very firm, reassuring squeeze – a sensation not unlike a giant blood pressure cuff. Actually, I kinda liked it, and jabbed at the test button several times, wondering how I could get one for home use – maybe connect it to my central vacuuming system or something.
“With all four jets spread across the same altitude, Steve took us into an easy right turn and entered a right hand racetrack pattern. This was the MiG sweep, covering fifty miles of blue turf”. DND Photo: Private (Pte) Laura Brophy
Though the AWACS had nothing to declare in the area, Steve continuously scanned the skies high and low and invited me to do the same, looking for any advantage over the enemy. To the north we could see several cons scooting along the tops of the high cloud in that area. "F-15s" snorted Steve in disgust, as he turned away to scan the south. I was not much help to Steve, and this was confirmed when my eyes picked out the dark, menacing shapes of two B-1Bs at our two o'clock low. "B-1s to the right!" I shouted, since Steve hadn't mentioned them. "Yeah, don't worry, they're not in this war" reassured Steve, "just returning to base". Steve had probably seen them twenty miles away on radar, spoken to the controller about it and picked them up visually long before I spotted them. Their black shapes were crisply silhouetted against the cloud below, lending credence to the theory that high was safe. They were perhaps 6000 feet below in line astern, working their way east along our beam. And they were not in a hurry either, for their variable-geometry wings were swept fully forward. The lollygagging Bones (Nickname for B-One) crept under our wing and out of the area, returning home after the morning mission. "Look Mom", I thought, "I'm MiG sweeping".
On our second sweep, tooling along the same heading as we held when we encountered the Bones, Steve stiffened. Our AWACS controller was tracking three Bad Guys forty miles off our nose and pushing through. I had turned down my radio at Steve's suggestion, to hear our intercom talk over all the radio chatter, so I never heard when the fight was on, but I felt it for sure. Steve shoved the throttles to afterburn and I could feel the rising acceleration as he rushed to join the fray. We were now pushing Mach 1, but I was unaware until Steve said "Feel that little bump?" – "Uh-huh" – "Well Buddy, you just went supersonic!" Indeed there had been a slight nudge as we pushed through the sound barrier, but I would never have noticed if Steve hadn't pointed it out. None of the buffeting and violent shaking reported by Yeager, just a slight sensation of being released. There was, however, total silence with only the sound of oxygen being pulled through my mask. We were leaving our own sound behind us but the airframe still vibrated with the synchronized high frequency buzz of the two turbofans. "Hey John McQuarrie, eat your heart out" I thought as Steve retarded the throttles out of burner and settled us down to Mach 1.2. In all the Hornet time my good friend and aviation photographer, John McQuarrie had, he had not yet gone supersonic.
The 64th Aggressor Squadron's F-16s have a unique paint scheme to match their role as simulated enemy MiG aircraft for the exercises. USDoD photo by Master Sgt. Robert W. Valenca, U.S. Air Force
I assumed that Red Air would smoke on through supersonic as well, so our closing speed would have to be in the neighbourhood of 1,500 mph – contact was only seconds away. Steve was getting pretty pugilistic up front, weaving and bobbing his head like a prizefighter, shifting his shoulders and grumbling loudly to himself. He knew there were bandits around somewhere and he wanted to eyeball them first. His head moved rapidly between his radar display and the big, menacing blue sky to our left. Radar showed elements of Red Air coming in hard from the west and probably to the south. Steve's spirit had changed dramatically over the last sixty seconds – from chatty but competent aviator to predator, a tightly wound techno-jock with an urge to kill, a Snowbird with an attitude. His breathing had accelerated and I felt his elevated excitement fill the cockpit. The battle began.
They were here. Steve knew it, but he couldn't see them. He snapped the fighter hard over 100° to port, looking straight down – my helmet banging the canopy. Before I could even take a look, Steve concluded that there was nothing there, and Wham!, hard back level, then hard over right, "What the…!" Scanning, neck muscles straining, "Whoa!", snap to level, Steve cursing now, head turning, anger boiling. "Got 'em! Tally ho!" What he saw, the position of the aircraft (wherever they were), their direction or something in the way they moved, caused an instantaneous reaction from Steve as he rolled back left 110°, slamming the throttles to full burner and reefing the brutal power of the Hornet through a blood-draining, groaning, descending turn. Steve's years of training took over and like the best athletes, he stopped deliberate thought and reacted, for if he took the time to weigh the possibilities, we were dead.
That was my first introduction to the world of high-G performance. No casual build-up here, just straight to the maximum 7.5 Gs, going supersonic. Steve held the G on for only three seconds then decided his best move lay in the opposite direction and unloaded while we were descending, whipping the Hornet to starboard through 180° and pulling hard on the pole. His head was turned so far to the right that he appeared to be looking right at me. Vapour boiled from the LEX and streamed past on both sides, the ship still seemed to make no sound, though surely we had bled off enough speed in the turns to be subsonic. There was, however, that high-frequency rushing turbine vibration that rose and fell with the ferocity of the turns – the sound of millions of dollars straining to stay together under ungodly stress.
In the world of aerial combat, Situational Awareness is a much ballyhooed concept – the ability to maintain control, to know whether you're up or down, to understand where you are in space and above all where the bad guy is. SA is the awareness of where your guys are and where you are going to be in the next five seconds, the ability to extend your beleaguered brain so far beyond the crushing weight of your own G-battered body that you can actually visualize the arc and curve of your path through the air and where it will bring you in relation to the chosen flight path of the enemy. Beyond that, a pilot with good SA can play out the entire battle, even the movements of the enemy planes not engaged, using only information from the orbiting AWACS, radio calls from his comrades and what he knows about the capabilities of the enemy. The Canadian fighter pilot trains to the highest level possible – a pinnacle of mental excellence combined with Olympic-level athleticism that enables him to scan three CRTs, operate a cursor on the radar screen from a control on the throttle and monitor a heads-up display while talking to other fighters in his section and the AWACS controller… while maintaining flying control… while monitoring fuel and weapons and above all while deliberately pushing himself into punishing turns and brain-tumbling spirals. All this plus fighting for your life too.
As far as my situational awareness was concerned, it disappeared, vanishing into a swirling, crushing tumble where my confused mind channeled its efforts to maximum sphincter control. While Steve flew and fought up front, I gripped the handles on the cockpit sides and strained to maintain consciousness. It was fabulous, it was brutal, it was where I wanted to be even though I didn't know where I was. From the next fifteen minutes, I remember only small fractured scenes with any clarity. The rest of the fight was a series of punishing high-G reverses and turns, negative-G push-overs and spine-compressing pull-ups. My vision traded sun for sky for cloud in an endless random pattern as Steve yanked and banked 925 through the sky in an effort to shake closing Vipers and position himself for a missile shot.
Though I had supposedly pulled nearly four G's in Les Shockley's jet truck and even more in Greg Williams' Mooney somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, and even though I fully understood the concepts of multiple gravities, tunnel vision and gray out, nothing could possibly prepare me for the massive, draining crush of 7.5 Gs – all that the on-board computer would dish out. Thank god for that computer too, for no matter how hard Steve rammed that stick into his stomach, the CF-18 would only give him 7.5. The F-16 has no limitation on the G-meter plus a slightly reclined seat enabling the pilots to load 10+ Gs, but this risks G-induced blackouts at critical points in the gunfight. Turn after turn, I gripped the handles on Hell's roller coaster, felt the unholy snap of my G-suit squeezing my lower half and grunted and groaned under the onslaught of stultifying loads and stomach-churning negative G bunts. Though it sounds crude, the effort to keep the blood from leaving my brain was not unlike taking a giant dump, like straining to force a massive and reluctant turd through the same orifice that you were simultaneously applying every effort to keep clamped shut. The struggle and muscle contraction squeezed blood back up and kept me conscious the whole time.
At the outset of the fight, the fighters engaged miles apart with missile shots being the deathblow of choice. Steve's initial hard turn was to avoid the greater WEZ (Weapons Effectiveness Zone) of the F-16. By notching 90° he was forcing missile shots to turn a corner, thus lengthening their track and rendering the shot less effective. During the ensuing fur ball, the fighters grappled and rassled, with both pilots loosing missile shots, swapping angles and energy until the scuffle got in real tight – the knife-fight-in-a-telephone-booth kind of tight. I heard the electronic warble tone in my headset indicating a Viper had us locked up and held on tight for the evasive maneuver to come – a hard climbing right turn with Steve pounding the big red chaff button on the left side of his cockpit. Oddly, Steve continued to talk to himself through the entire battle – an endless conversation interrupted by radio calls and killer turns. "Check low right Dave … where the hell is he for God's sake… Tone! Tone!…Grunt, Grunt… Turning, Chaff!–Chaff!–Chaff!…roll back… Turning into him… Damn!… Chaff!– Chaff!–Chaff! Is he Back there?… comin' around… Grunt, Grunt… What the…" and so on through fifteen minutes of sweat-wringing maneuvers, in and out of burner, never keeping the same attitude for more than a couple of seconds.
To me Steve was fighting an imaginary adversary for only once did I actually see an enemy aircraft and then I couldn't miss it. It was a vision I'll never forget.
Steve was clawing his way round a left turn in full burner, punching out chaff, grunting to keep his wits and straining to see behind him. My head was also locked behind, but only because that's the way I was looking, anticipating a right hand turn, when he pulled strong to the left. "Is he there? Is he there?" puffed the young Captain. "Hnnnnnnphhh, Hunnnph" groaned the old passenger, oblivious to any tiny spec that might be presently waxing our tail. Somewhere behind, a mile back and turning inside us was an F-16 locked on and ready for the shoot-down. Steve sensed his immediate demise and, unloading, rolled wings-level and yanked the stick back, simultaneously fire-walling the throttles. In two seconds we went from a hard left to full vertical, clawing for altitude on two cones of fire. Steve remained in vertical for only a few seconds, cuffing the throttles hard to idle. The ship shuddered as if an anchor was thrown out. Drifting upwards almost weightless, Steve pounded in a bootfull of inside rudder and the high-tech fighter hinged off the big right rudder input, skidding and yawing nearly 30° a second. As we floated there, our nose swung down until we were looking at the cloud below swinging into view. Steve slammed the throttles again and we dove straight down in full burn, accelerating with gravity on our side for a change. Our nose wanted to pull us well through vertical, so Steve was two-fisting the stick back and great clouds of white LEX vapour streamed past him giving me the odd sensation that I was canoeing in white water.
Puffing and grunting as we pulled to keep vertical, my vision squished under the strain of big Gs, I emitted a gasping “WOW!” as the stunning image of a Russian-camo F-16 swept across our three-six line. He was no more than three hundred meters off our nose and pulling hard to undercut Steve's surprise maneuver. The scene played out in slow motion, for as Steve hauled the nose up, he tracked the Viper as it tried in vain to not be where he knew he already was. The vision was immaculate – a Soviet-style blue-on-blue camouflaged F-16 with great wedges of angry white vapour blasting off his wing roots like steam shrieking from a locomotive. The whole scene was top lit by the sun while the blanket of gray-white cloud below accentuated every detail and colour. If I had only one thought at this moment, it was that the Gomer (bad-guy) pilot knew he was dead, knew that he had been shacked. No tones here, no lock, just a switch to guns and the Gomer's perfect plan form clawing its way into Steve's sights. No kill like a guns kill. Later in the video room, the entire scene played out in black and white, exactly as I saw it, but with white HUD data showing 6.3 Gs and flashing Canon!, Canon! Canon! as the Viper's left wing cut across the target box in the centre of the screen.
“The vision was immaculate – a Soviet-style blue-on-blue camouflaged F-16 with great wedges of angry white vapour blasting off his wing roots like steam shrieking from a locomotive.” Photo by Mike Lynaugh
The fight itself seemed divided into three parts separated by two brief periods where Steve merely flicked and jinked around itching for a fight. The guns kill on the Viper happened at the end of the second act, with about five minutes of punch-up still to go. We came out of the kill, pulling vertical once again
By now I was getting pretty green, but was feeling pretty good about containing my cornflakes. I switched to pure oxygen and immediately felt the benefit of the cooling flow. Still, as a precautionary measure, I pulled the bayonet clip off the right side of my helmet and undid my mask, holding it on with my left hand. Then, of course, Swill cut a huge 7 G turn to the right causing the mask and my arm to weigh about 80 lbs. Now the mask was ten inches from my face and I struggled in vain to bring it back against the G. My mind wondered if there was breathable air in the cockpit at 15,000. With my left arm pushing with all my strength, Steve unloaded and jammed the jet just as hard to the left causing the mask and my arm to slam into my face. First chance I got, despite the growing nausea, I did the clip up, thinking there's no stomach muscle strong enough to toss anything against the forces Steve was subjecting my stomach to anyway.
Throughout the battle I could hear Bitching Betty warning Steve repeatedly. "Altitude!, Altitude, Altitude!" she admonished as we spiraled down nearer to the cloud tops. Though we were thousands of feet from the real hard deck, she'd been pre-programmed to warn us before we entered the lower altitudes. Thus twenty thousand was ground and Betty bitched at every spiraling descent. About twelve or thirteen minutes into the scrum, Betty started bitching about the fuel state, calling Bingo! Bingo! over the intercom right in the middle of Steve's last round with an F-16. On cue, a minute later, the sky was empty as the defeated Red Air beat feet for home.
The battle had rambled up and down fifty miles of Alberta real estate from 20,000 to 35,000 feet. The sky still sparkled with tumbling clouds of metal foil chaff floating down to the range below. Thirty bingoed-out fighters, thirty-six sweaty aviators and one dizzy, puking backseater headed for home, joining up and sorting themselves out. The final tally was Blue Air –12, Red Air – 2, with Steve getting a guns kill and Tarzan two with missiles. In the final analysis, we were grappling with three F-16s at the merge and one had notched north away from the action. In the fight we had tangled with and disposed of the other two, but the little gomer who'd turned left was forgotten in all the hubub. We had only one AWACS chaperon for the whole dance and she had plenty to do, so the forgotten Viper end-ran us, cutting back behind to shack two from Blue Air.
Despite spilled gyros in my cranium, my stomach still trying to climb back down to where it once lived and a litre of sweat liberally poured down my back, I cannot restrain exhibiting the joy and thrill of the completed mission as I step down from the Hornet. Thanks to Steve Will, 441 Squadron and the Canadian Air Force that day and today. Photo: John (I have no idea what his rank is now) Vincent
After the High War exercise, the author, left and Captain Steve Will mug for the camera. Photo: John (I have no idea what his rank is now) Vincent
In Maple Flag exercises, pilots fly every profile from ground attack to combat air patrol to bomber interception. What they really
want is High War action – the kind we had experienced today. The High War was the true test of flying skills, aggressiveness and above all, the holy concept of situational awareness. As we settled down through the clouds with Tarzan snug on the wing, I had a few moments to think about it all – phenomenal skills of pilots like Steve Will and Bernhard Tantarn, the levels to which they had taken the art of flying, the risks they took every day, the degree of training necessary to mitigate those risks. Fighter pilots are a cocky bunch. Today I understood why.
That evening Steve and I ate a pizza. The next day I drove to Edmonton, stopping on the way to visit the worlds biggest perogy – considered a must-see by every fighter pilot at Cold Lake. Steve drove back to the war.
The one part about the April Fool's story that is absolutely true is that fighter pilots when driving south from Cold Lake, will take the time to visit the World's Biggest Perogy in Glendon, Alberta.
It has been 15 years since the day of this story. Captain Steve Will went on to become Major Steve Will, Commander of 431 Squadron, The Snowbirds; then a Lieutenant Colonel and Maple Flag Honcho. He has now retired to fly for Westjet Airlines. His wife Melanie is also an airline pilot. During the 2009 Centennial of Flight celebrations, Swill headed up Vintage Wings of Canada's Hawk One program and still gives us guidance and support to this day.
Some years later, LCol. Steve “Swill” Will would command the very same 441 Squadron. DND Photo
This story first appeared in AirLines, the long-defunct newsletter of the National Capital Air Show Association and was reprinted in 2004 in the official 441 Squadron history written by Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, Larry Milberry. For a complete and fascinating look at the entire 441 Squadron history, we highly recommend his acclaimed Fighter Squadron: From Hurricanes to Hornets.
Glossary of Terms
Cold-Mike: A switch position on the fighter's intercom system that enables one to listen in to what the pilot and others are saying, but will not allow your voice to be heard and thus interrupt radio communications.
Hot Mike: Another switch position that allows the back seater to hear all radio communications plus be able to talk to the front seater without having to depress any button, as the mike is "live," transmitting any sound, from breathing to grunting under G forces."
Jaw: Nickname for CFB Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
Bitchin' Betty: The female recorded voice which offers warnings to pilots about critical function situations such as proximity to the ground and low fuel. It is said that a male pilot is more likely to hear and respond to a female voice, though in my personal domestic experience, this diminishes over time.
Four-o-Four: The Hornet is powered by two GE F-404 turbofan engines
Bull: Short for Bull's Eye, the predetermined point on the range which Blue Air is protecting and which Red Air is attacking.
LEX: Leading Edge Extension - the part of the Hornet's wing closest to the root, where the leading edge extends forward over the intakes. Such extensions for aerodynamic enhancement are also generically referred to as strakes and can also be found on the fuselage of some aircraft.
HUD: Heads Up Display - various flight parameters and gunsight information projected on a glass panel in front of the pilot, allowing him to keep his head up and saving him/her from looking down to monitor instruments while flying in combat.
Bingo: A term used by military pilots meaning fuel remaining is just enough to get back to base safely. This point represents the time at which combat pilots must break off engagement with the enemy and head for home.