The following article titled “Speed and Angels” Flying the F-5 Tiger II in the role it was born to and written by Francesco “Paco” Chierici CDR USNR(Ret.) appeared in issue 19 – Northrop F-5 of Aviation Classic.
Jorge Canyon, The Centroid, The Six-Pack, Sperm Lake, Circle Squares, The Dong. These are the inside names of some of the secret hiding spots in the greatest aerial playground in the United States. For 10 years I was fortunate enough to be a member of a squadron flying the F-5 Tiger II as an adversary pilot, or Bandit, with VFC-13 in Fallon, Nev. For a pilot who loves flying (And there’s a shameful number who don’t), the convergence of the last real ‘stick-and-rudder’ fighter in the U.S. inventory; a vast swath of airspace to patrol (surface to stratosphere), and a squadron of like minded ACM junkies; this is the place bad boys pray to end up when they go to heaven.
I was a reservist in this squadron and thus had the benefit of perspective, having already given up flying a magnificent flying machine, the F-14 Tomcat. I knew that every flight was a gift, every dogfight a treasure, every merge one step closer to the day when Peter Pan would have to leave and grow up. With just a few years remaining for me to fly the F-5, I realized that I wanted to preserve the moment for as long as possible. To distill it as I was experiencing it so that I could dip into it in the years of ordinary life and take a sip. I decided that I wanted tell the story of this world in a visual way. I enlisted a spectacular director, wrangled some cash from enterprising investors and the result three years later was an award-winning documentary about the spirit and adventure of Naval Aviation, Speed and Angels. It is an unvarnished, full throttle, pulse pounding peek into the heart of flying fighters for the U.S. Navy told through the eyes of two young aviators. But the genesis of the film had always been the concentrated passion for air combat that we enjoyed flying F-5s in Fallon.
The F-5E was a peculiar bird (VFC-13 currently flies F-5Ns, most of which were procured after 2006 from Switzerland). It was tiny for a fighter, especially one with two engines. It had no modern systems, unless you consider hydraulics to be modern. No Anti-Skid. No INS nor GPS. No HUD. Just a simple old-fashioned pulse radar and a basic gunsight. It had no defensive systems, no RWR nor expendable countermeasures, other than the fact that when pointed nose-on to an adversary it completely disappeared, like a cloaking device being activated. There was no sophisticated technology required to enable the disappearing act, just the fact that the pilot sat in a cramped little cockpit on the head of a needle with tiny, razor thin wings behind him. And when that needle was nose on to a Tomcat or Hornet pilot who had lost radar lock or situational awareness, his skin would crawl and the hairs on the back of his neck would bristle. Because he knew that the very next time he was sure of where the bandit was, was likely to be when he heard the dreaded, “Trigger down, tracking, tracking…” It was a plane perfectly suited to the role of adversary; fast, simple, nimble, eminently beatable by a competently flown front-line fighter; but capable of pouncing on an error and creating a learning point in the form of a simulated kill. If you lost to the F-5, you had something to learn, and that’s the way it should be.
It’s often mentioned that the F-5 is used as an adversary because it is a perfect simulator for the MiG-21, and it’s true, the V-n diagrams superimposed show almost identical maneuvering performance characteristics. That is a great serendipity but in truth it would have been a perfect adversary platform regardless. VFC-13 models its presentations to what is known as the ‘percentage threat’, the most likely global scenario for our fighters to face in combat. Think North Korea. Lots and lots of small, fast, simple enemy fighters swarming the technologically superior but numerically challenged Navy forces. Topgun, which is across the street on NAS Fallon at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, specializes in teaching the skills needed to defeat the more modern threat aircraft. To this end, Topgun flies the F-16 and F/A-18. Fantastic, superior platforms that can superbly simulate MiG-29s and Su-27s. Instead VFC-13, call sign The Saints, specializes in the Stalinist principle of ‘Quantity has a Quality all its Own’. North Korea operates over 400 Third Generation fighters and only 35 Mig-29s. Before any U.S. Navy pilots would get to test themselves against those Fulcrums, they would have to cut a swath through a cloud of MiG-21 and 23s.
As a reservist who flew no more than 120 hrs per year, .8 at a time, the F-5 was a dream. It was inexpensive to operate, therefore plentiful; and painfully simple, thus always mission ready. We flew as much as we could stand, often against each other to maintain tactical proficiency and to sharpen the dogfighting skills which we held in such high regard. One of the most dramatic differences between fleet pilots and VFC-13 pilots is the amount of time devoted to BFM, both in the air and in the briefing room. Coming from the F-14 community I felt I had a pretty good grasp of BFM fundamentals. But a Bandit pilot lives and breathes air combat. There are none of the distractions that a Fleet pilot must deal with like Air-to-Ground, CAS, LATT, SES and much more. It is pure Air-to-Air, with an emphasis on close-in maneuvering. New adversary pilots, many with 1,500 hrs or more, are greeted with a demanding syllabus in graduate level air combat that takes at least a year to complete, despite having fewer than 20 graded hops. The meticulousness, precision and professionalism required to represent the squadron as a fully qualified Bandit means that there will be many a re-fly. Often one particularly onerous event can be re-flown a number of times before the aspiring Bandit meets the standards required to move to the next sortie. It’s a humbling and sometimes frustrating year. But coming out the other side is a finely honed, meat-eating BFM machine. A Shaolin monk of aerial hand-to-hand combat, broken down and rebuilt without the distractions of advanced radars and electronic crutches. When you are one of the Saints, you use all of your senses to build situational awareness, you use the earth and the sun as your allies, you use the simple tools at your disposal to maximum effect. And when you have completed your task, you have sacrificed yourself for the good of your student imparting as much of your wisdom as possible through lessons of quiet victory.
When It comes to aerial presentations, the Saints give their students two basic types; long range BVR scenarios with multiple groups of bandits which challenge the Fighter’s ability to effectively target and maneuver as a team; and BFM. BFM is the skill required to maneuver against and destroy a bandit in the visual arena. It is a skill that has been kicked to the curb by aircraft designers and war planners since the conclusion of WW II yet grudgingly refuses to die in the real world of aerial warfare. There are a variety of reasons why a modern fighter, bristling with data links, AESA radar, active missiles and HMCSs will find itself pulling max G and dumping flares against an actual enemy fighter across the turn circle. Sophisticated jamming systems are relatively inexpensive and surprisingly capable, ROE frequently demand the Blue Fighter must put itself inside the ranges of IR missiles to confirm the identity of a bogey, and most likely, in the era of Self-Escort strikers, there is a very real chance that they will have to fight their way out of country with a limited Air-to-Air load because their hardpoints were laden with ordnance designed to move dirt and pulverize cement. In any event, despite the belief to the contrary, it is highly likely that a Blue Fighter will find itself turning in the visual arena in any future conflict.
An F-5 against an F/A-18 is not a fair fight. The Hornet has a spectacular radar with extremely capable ACM modes. At “Fight’s On” a pilot has just to flick on his VACQ, select AMRAAM, put lift-vector on and pull until he gets a SHOOT cue. “Kill…Knock it off.” The Super Hornet has an even more capable ACM suite when the HMCS is paired with the amazing AIM-9X. The ability to slew the AIM-9s seeker head to the pilot’s line of sight at ridiculous off-boresight angles is an inescapably lethal combination. By comparison the F-5 has no radar missile. The Saints use only an IR seeker head and a restrictive envelope from the 1970s limited to a few degrees off boresight. And the dreaded guns. There is no known countermeasure that can distract 30mm rounds. To build a fighter plane without a gun is as foolhardy as sending an infantry soldier into battle without a knife. The only time he will miss it is when he desperately needs it. The Navy version of the Vietnam-era F-4 didn’t have a gun, and it was sorely lacking. Ignoring the wisdom that past is prologue, the Navy variant of the F-35 again will not have an internal gun.
In any event, because of this advantage in armament and capability, the majority of engagements end quickly with a decisive victory for the Hornet. Especially after the first or second engagement, once the rust and jitters have been shaken off. But with a few real-world limitations put on a Hornet to limit his first-shot kill ability, the fight becomes far more balanced. Scenarios in which the fighter is placed in a defensive perch or is limited to an off-target weapons load force the Hornet pilot to consider follow-on engaged maneuvering. The longer an F/A-18 is tied up in a dogfight with an F-5, the higher the chances that he will lose sight or commit a BFM error, and when either of those occur, the advantage tilts rapidly in favor of the Bandit. The real-world corollary is the off target strike-fighter, momentarily blind to the Air-to-Air picture after the drop, caught unawares by a MiG-21. Suddenly defensive, turning for his life and scrambling to take advantage of his superior platform. With every second he delays in splashing the MiG, or bugging out, his risks increase exponentially.
There was a huge amount of satisfaction derived from providing the students with valuable, challenging, realistic training. But as fun as the engagements themselves were, they were always tainted. Either the Blue fighter was sufficiently skilled that the engagements were clinical and perfunctory, or the students made enough errors to lose, and that wasn’t the goal. The supreme pleasure was in fighting in-house. The 1v1 and 2v1 engagements that we flew against each other. An in-house BFM sortie between two seasoned pilots would consist of a short brief, a quick candy bar and a walk from the Ready Room 20 to 30 minutes before takeoff. Once airborne off of Runway 31 it was a quick right 90 degree turn, a push into combat spread and a climb. Two or three minutes later, after crossing over high terrain into Dixie Valley, there would be a G-warm, “Vipers ninety left…resume…Viper One FENCEd.” A quick TAC left and a short climb up to 16K’ and it was time for Fight’s On. With two skilled pilots the engagements would last two, three, sometimes four minutes if taken all the way to a kill, an eternity for a dogfight in the jet age. But the dance is nuanced at this level, even more so with the limitations of the basic weapons systems. In fact during the in-house events, most of the best pilots would limit themselves to what we referred to as a knife fight, guns kills only. There is no arguing the victor when one plane is saddled behind the other with his pipper on the cockpit. I flew hundreds, if not thousands of these engagements in the years I spent in Fallon, and I remember them all fondly. Even the ones where I was stuck looking over my shoulder like a PEZ dispenser, which happened more often than I would have liked. Most in-house hops consisted of three, or rarely four, intense high-aspect abeam or butterfly starts. Once BINGO was reached and the bandits FENCEd out, it was a quick RTB for the 600 knot carrier break. The most intense, action-packed .7 you could ever put into your log book.
I was fortunate enough to fly with some truly amazing aviators. And now, long after the fact, I still have detailed memories of some of the fights as if they happened just hours ago. I can still see Bat Masterson’s jet gaining 10 to 15 degrees on me with each merge and feel the wonder and frustration of flying the machine as best I could, yet realizing that in a matter of two or three more merges I was going to be practicing my Last Ditch Guns-D. Bat, a small man with a large mustache, taught me one of my most enduring BFM lessons. In the debrief I petitioned his expertise, “How the hell did you do that every engagement? I was fighting as hard as I could?” A man of few words, he answered simply, “When you’re fast, be fast. When you’re slow, be slow.” Believe it or not, that bit of wisdom taught me more about fighting the F-5 than the countless losses I had suffered through previously.
I can close my eyes and picture chasing Kemo Percival through a very offensive Rolling Scissors only to have him execute the most perfect Pirouette and pass me 180 out, neutralized, with my jaw hanging open. If this had happened just once, I would have chalked it up to an accident of aerodynamics. But time and again I watched as a rare offensive position was eliminated by this impossible escape. When flying by myself, I would practice over and over; 45-60 degrees nose high, 220-180 knots, full aileron deflection, full opposite rudder, stick first full aft then quickly to full forward. When Kemo did it, his plane rotated horizontally, swapping ends in a blink while still maintaining enough energy to continue flying and fighting. When I tried it, following his recipe to the letter, I ended up either mushing through a reversal of direction but completely without airspeed, or rolling sideways and pulling through a slow speed wingover. No help at all.
And finally, I’ll never forget a late afternoon fight against Monty Montgomery in planes that were laden with external tanks. The positive was that we had 1,000 pounds of extra gas, which doubled our number of engagements. The negative was that the F-5 handled like a pig at high Alpha burdened by the effect of the 150 gallon tank. We fought six times with the blood red Sierra Mountains as a backdrop, each a decisive victory, three of which were Monty’s. They were, each and every one of them, amazing duels. Filled with feigns and deception, flying at the very edge of the envelope, cautious and cunning. But neither pilot was to be satisfied with a neutral Lufbery on the deck. Chances were taken, and BFM errors made, and each time an opening was given, the opponent was able to capitalize. This was one of the most pure and well flown hops I ever experienced. Two fairly matched pilots in like aircraft using every bit of experience and trickery at their disposal. The knowledge that it would take only one error to seal one’s fate, added to the challenge of flying at the maximum limits of performance with the additional load of an external tank, and the race to complete before sunset added to the intensity.
The F-5 was the enabler of this amazing flying club. It was a link between the pure era of fighting machines to the modern age of digital combat. The plane was essentially a jet powered P-51 Mustang. And those days you flew it well, you were really flying well. Cables linked the stick to the ailerons and elevator. Dancing on the pedals directly affected the movement of the rudders. When you flew it well you felt the plane speak to you through the whisper of the wind over the canopy and the Bernoullis nibbling at the wing. It was a plane with a reputation for biting the unwary, often with disastrous consequences. But if you respected it, and knew it well, and listened when it spoke, it was a plane that would reward the pilot by exceeding its expectations. I once matched an F-14D through a double-Immelman, though at the top I was desperately stirring the pot clawing for purchase. But the Tomcat driver was so unnerved that he was off his game for the rest of the fight. It was in this way that the F-5 actualized its mission. It was a pilot’s machine that rewarded its devotees and it was a perfect foil for testing the overconfidence of Blue pilots in their advanced platforms.
The F-5N carries forward that tradition today and for the foreseeable future with some significant enhancements. It sports RWR and chaff dispensers and it has the capability to carry a jamming pod. But the newer lot Rhino is no Classic Hornet or Tomcat. The ability of the F-5 to continue to provide a credible opposition in the face of AESA and AIM-9X is diminishing. The challenge in the future for VFC-13 will be to match the evolving ‘Percentage Threat’ in the world. Over 11,000 MiG-21s alone have been produced. There are three companies which specialize in upgrading the airframe to modern capabilities. A radar, HUD, data link, active-missiles, high off-boresight IR missiles and effective RWR can all be strapped into a Fishbed for a fraction of the cost of a new fighter and provide almost all of the capabilities. If the Saints hope to continue flying the F-5 and providing realistic training, efforts in this direction will have to be made.
As for me, I will always be grateful for my years as a member of the Bandits. They were (and are) a bad ass bunch of dogfighting ninjas. It was an honor to walk with them and learn from them. And share a drink and a laugh. Likewise, the F-5 will forever be under my skin, an integral part of the story of that time. It infected my dreams and dominated my imagination. I obsessed over perfecting it. Of absorbing from my peers how to cajole every last knot and degree-per-second. I will miss flying it, with them, every day for as long as I live.
Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joseph R. Vincent / U.S. Navy
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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