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Flying Fighters

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New member
Dec 2, 2001
To all the guys who have once flown, or do fly fighters, in Guard, Reserve, AD, Navy, Marines, or even international, I have a question....What is it like flying a fighter? How hard is it and how does it feel? This may be a stupid question, but is it what you expected, and is it worth it?


First, you ought to read the "Fighters or Heavies" thread in this Military section. It'll give you a great idea of what it takes to get where you want to go in the military, especially in the A.F.

As for your question, I have to say that flying fighters is the greatest experience, short of sex, that one can imagine. Fighters are amazingly easy to fly (in most cases) and frighteningly difficult to employ well.

By that I mean that most fighters are designed to fly easily. I have often said that once someone got used to the final approach speeds (around 155 kts or so), flying an Eagle would be a cinch; a grandmother could do it in a snap. The control harmonies are great, although they are computer aided, but what the heck...it still contains an awesome amount of power and maneuverablility. The first time I soloed an Eagle I darn near couldn't make my oxygen mask seal because I was grinning too much. The systems in fighters are complex, but not so much that it takes a lot of brain cells to work it inflight. Fuel management is a no-brainer---if you have fuel, it will feed the engines. Engine management is pretty simple if you don't horse around with the throttles too much at high altitude (keep in mind I flew "steam-driven" Eagles with the old P&W F-100 engine, which had an analog electronic engine control. The F-16 has a digital engine control that is much better at maintaining sanity).

In stark contrast, employing an Eagle, or any other fighter out there, is very difficult to do well. There are stacks upon stacks of energy diagrams at various configurations to study, threats and counter-tactics, weapons employment and theory, radar theory, Eagle tactics, employment standards, communications standards and nomenclature, large force employment considerations, yada yada yada. It gets complicated.

Suffice it to say that:

a. Yep, it is difficult, but not prohibitively so. Heck, how hard can it be if I did it? If you can handle a complex aircraft, you can fly a fighter. The problem is getting there (see the Fighters vs. Heavies thread for more info. Also check out the "Question for the A.F." thread by the kid who wants to be a pilot when he grows up). You have to be able to handle formation and aerobatics. The latter is pretty easy, but formation takes a little more skill and is a good indicator if you are able to handle the mental gymnastics of three dimensional maneuvering with energy manangement thrown in.

b. It is getting to the point that ol' Ronnie Reagan had it right when he said that we were growing a generation of future warriors because they spent a lot of time behind a Nintendo cotrolling mayhem with buttons. The Eagle and Viper both have a tremendous number of buttons and functions that work without putting your head inside the cockpit. Software updates to the computers change these functions routinely, so there is always a challenge to learn how to fight again. Once you do put your cranium inside the jet, information overload from onboard systems (radar, radar warning receiver, data link, etc.) and prioritization are two competing forces wrestling for domination in your overworked brain. That part is very demanding.

c. The physical challenges of a modern fighter cockpit are enormous in some cases. The F-15 and 16 have tremendous G capabilities, and pulling those Gz for long periods of time (such as during a maneuvering 1 vs. 1 fight we call Basic Fighter Maneuvers, or BFM) can be quite daunting. Although most fighters can pull 9 Gz, they can usually only do so for short periods of time. The problem is that they can pull 7 Gz for a couple of minutes at a whack during a maneuvering fight. Trying to stay awake (not passing out due to lack of blood flow to the brain) during that period is physically demanding, and I found it more difficult to do it after I turned 40. At that point, I had to rely more on guile and cunning than raw strength...(More often than not I ran out of guile before the other guy ran out of strength, unfortunately!)

Is it worth it? I cannot answer that for you. I can only say that flying fighters, serving my country and defending what I believe is right has been the best part of my life, and I would not change a thing in my career given the chance to do things over.

Best of luck with your training, and I hope this answered some of your questions.
I have to agree with Eagleflip. For me, flying fighters was daily the most fun I ever had with my pants on. That being said, it was also some of the hardest work I ever did (both physically and mentally)

I am often asked the difference between military v civilian flying. I am not going to get into that furball but it also applies here to the difference between flying fighters and heavies. For me, the difference was I was busy all the time. I mean from the time I released the brakes until I went into the break. There was almost no time to relax and smell the roses. You were always doing something, and when you did have a second to catch your breath, you were trying to get ahead for the next (engagement, target, threat ect..) You get used to it, but especially in the beginning, it is physically and mentally challenging/exhausting.

I have never felt as much pride (as well as had as much fun) as when I knew that I had mastered the mission. The airplane could be pretty easily mastered, but the mission, employing the machine as a weapon, that was the hardest and most satisfying part of flying fighters for me.
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All I wanted in UPT was wings....I didnt' eat, breathe, or sleep fighters...although I knew if I got one I wanted an F15.

Thank God I ended up in fighters. I ended up somewhere I didn't originally know I would be, but I cannot imagine NOT doing it lnow that I look back on my career. It was no-kidding YEARS of hard work to go from training, to being a wingman, to being a flight lead, mission commander, and later instructor....but..

When you watch CNN and they say "the U.S. is enforcing the no-fly zone over XXX" or "today a U.S. fighter engaged a XXX over XXX"....you realize that it is YOU in a SINGLE SEAT fighter enforcing national policy over some hostile corner of the globe. It ain't the president, the congress, the TV anchorman, the Air Force brass, or anyone else for those few hours...its YOU! I had the job of being Air to Air mission commander on quite a few missions over North and South Iraq during contingency TDYs. Never got to shoot anyone, but in my current squadron is one guy who shot at a Mig 25 (who evaded getting shot down by skin of his Iraqi teeth) and another guy who got shot at by a Mig 25 (later destroyed by his wingman). I know there are bound to be some F15E/F16 guys as well as some Navy types who have flown and dropped live on Iraqi sites during the Gulf War and since...

That "tip of the spear" feeling cannot come anywhere else. God bless every transport guy who hauled in parts, and every command and control asset who helped...but the guys who shoot airplanes, drop iron, spy (U-2), or drop folks (spooky 130s and helos) onto badguy land know that for a few brief moments THEY are the instruments of national policy. That--my friends--is what I'll remember more than any particular BFM engagement or deployment trip.

This ain't a food fight guys--none of this can happen without EVERYONE playing their roles. I couldn't CAP without the guys in the KC135 doing their thing, the AWACs support, the supplies flown in on transports, etc. All I'm saying is the most satisfying part of the job for me has not been the "yank and bank" or the fun of aerial athletics, but rather the fact that when our country said "We will do THIS..." I was there at the front edge ready to enforce whatever the policy happened to be. The satisfaction of that kind of experience goes well beyond just the thrill of flying neat equipment. That to me was a major part of the rush of flying fighters.

Navy guys do the same thing routinely--then they land on a boat when they are done. As if flying over bad guy land wasn't enough adrenalin and fear for a person.... Those guys always had my complete respect--every mission is dangeous as h*ll for them.

The other part of the fun of fighters is everything is a competition. If Eagleflip and I were in the same squadron, we might be buddies, drink beer every Friday, etc. But when the "fights on" call happens, everyone gives 100% to do their best and be better than the next guy. This wears some guys down--they hate that atmosphere. Most fighter guys thrive in that environment--the idea is that even if you best me today, you'll teach me something I can use down the road, and the same trick or plan won't beat me next time. That is one reason (as a general rule) that the ugly old LTC at the bar may just kick that young 28 year old Capt America type once they strap on the jets. You never stop competing in a fighter squadron--and you are always learning and always trying to get better. I've got almost 2000 hours in the Eagle--but I've never been bored, and there is always something to learn. There are guys I can regularly wail on, but there are also some Eagle drivers out there that have made me feel pretty silly as they kicked my butt. The coolest part of the competition is watching yourself slowly evolve into a more and more lethal pilot. Cofidence, ego....whatever you want to call it...it is not uncommon for the same confidence to spill into the other areas of your life. So--fly fighters if you dream to...but I'll warn you...its addictive, you don't want to stop, and like it or not, you'l eventually turn into one of those "*&^# fighter pilots" that some on these boards just can't stand.

Good luck,

Fighter stability?

I have a question. I thought fighters were harder to fly because they have inherent instability, which means you can't trim for hands-off and have to fly them all the time. But that inherent instability makes them so manuverable.

On the other hand, buffs and the like have great stability to provide a stable platform for dropping bombs and launching cruise missiles, etc.

Is that true, or am I still living in the Sopwith Camel days?

If I would have had the opportunity, I would have been happy hauling trash or doing anything to fly military equipment. The best I ever did in that regard was fly T-41Bs in CAP.
Albie -

That is quite possibly the best explanation of what it's like to be in a fighter squadron that I've ever read.

You and I are at completely different ends of the spectrum. I am the new wingman who is getting his teeth kicked in, sitting at the bar learning from the old craniums, trying to get better so I can go back and kick *them* in the jimmy sometime soon.
Wow thanks a whole heap guys. Lotsa interesting stuff said there, and I'd like to welcome any more from any of the other fighter guys around.

Just a nagging question about Albie's comment....is it absolutely, imminently, 100% undoubtedly, a fact that you'll turn into one of those "*&^# fighter pilots"? Perhaps Eagleflip, who has run out youthful strength, :D can explain that with age, it all disappears, and you mature into a grand, wise, yet very humble individual. Or is maturity simply out of the question for fighter pilots? hmmmm might have to work on ego-stroking skills....;)
Lost my youthful strength? HA! Anytime, anywhere, baby!

Bear in mind that, like Albie, I still maintain that "even strain" of fighter persona, and I still live by the old adage:

"I can beat any man in any land, in any game that he can name, for any amount he can count." (Thanks to Richard Bach for reminding me of my heritage)

Ok, perhaps that is a tad excessive. However, Albie's sentiments are quite true. While the typical fighter pilot is brash, outspoken, and self-congratulatory, he is also a fearsome tool of war that should not be trifled with.

That said, I submit that the fighter pilot mentality is a spirit, a manifestation of self-awareness and assurance that just about anyone can attain. I've know can-do types in all weapons systems and support functions that could be categorized as having that "fighter pilot spirit."

It is not a bad thing to have that spirit. One cannot go to war with the thought that they are not the best pilot out there. Interestingly, if you take a poll in a fighter squadron to see how the guys and gals rate themselves, everyone will, almost without fail, rate themselves "above average." Interesting--of course, everybody can't be above average! With age, however, comes a little perspective that allows me to temper my youthful exuberance with a little humility. Maturity? Yep, a little of that comes with age as well, no matter what the profession.

I know now that we are always learning, and good pilots are always studying. And there will always be a challenge to meet.

Fly safe! Play hard!

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