Military Aviation

USMC AV-8B Harrier II pilot explains how fighter pilots can talk to an enemy aircraft in an air engagement

Fighter pilots do not chat with each other in the way you see in Top Gun

Radio signals can be detected. That alerts an adversary to your general location, at least. Banal chatter, on encrypted networks or open channels, is strongly discouraged, despite what you see in movies. Depending on the radiating power of the transmitter, encryption and encoding methods, altitude of both the receiver and transmitter, and weather conditions, signals can be detected up to hundreds of miles away.

Fighter pilots absolutely do not chat with each other in the way you see in the Top Gun movies: they know that anyone on the assigned frequency can hear what you say, unless you use encryption or other methods to conceal your communication.

Can fighter pilots talk to an enemy aircraft in an air engagement?

But can fighter jet pilots in air-to-air combat talk to the enemy?

Pete Bowen, Former US Marine Corps (USMC) AV-8B Harrier II pilot/instructor pilot, explains on Quora;

‘When flying tactically, you typically have two radios going…

‘In the AV-8B Harrier, there is a three position rocker switch on the inside of the throttle. You use your left thumb to press the top of the switch for radio 1, the bottom of the switch for radio 2 and—if you were in one of the rare 2-seat TAV-8B Harrier training jets—press a button in the middle of the switch for ICS (intercom) to talk to the other seat.

‘You changed frequencies by typing in the new frequency on the numeric panel below the HUD and punching it into radio 1 or 2. It could get really tricky if you were flying tight formation on your wingman in bad weather and ATC gave you a frequency change.

‘We actually had a student pilot who got a new callsign because he sweated so much in the airplane in the summer that he would occasionally get shocked pressing the radio rocker switch.’

He continues;

‘One [radio] is set to a frequency that would include the AWACS or ground control—something general that gives your flight the big picture.

‘The second radio is set with a frequency that the aircraft in your flight are using.

How to talk to an enemy aircraft in an air engagement

‘For example, on a large strike of 100 aircraft with an AWACS and tankers and AF and Navy and Marine aircraft, one of your radios is going to be listening to the AWACS or the strike common frequency.

‘If you are part of a section of 2 aircraft or a division of 4 aircraft, your second radio is going to be set to talk to your wingman or the other 3 planes in your division.

‘You could theoretically talk to an enemy aircraft by switching to Guard frequency, which all aircraft are supposed to be monitoring, and try to call them up.

‘You might do that on an intercept of an enemy aircraft. Since everyone is supposed to monitor that frequency and your broadcast will be heard over a thousand square miles, you have to be very specific.

‘You might say something like “Nightmare 21 on guard hailing Su-25 aircraft 10 miles east of (some known location) at 25,000 feet.” You might follow that by telling him that he’s entering restricted airspace and turn around—or whatever you need to tell him.’

Bowen concludes;

‘If you’re already in a fight, however, you’re not going to try to call the enemy on the radio for a discussion. You’re too busy on the radio with your wingman trying to shoot the bandit down while avoiding his wingmen.’

USAF F-16 fighter pilot

Photo credit: Growling Sidewinder YouTube channel, Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki / US Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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