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Fighter Sorties Anything but 'Safe'

February 11, 2003|Robert K. Wilcox | Robert K. Wilcox, a former Air Force information officer, is author of "Black Aces High: The Story of a Modern Fighter Squadron at War" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press, 2002).

Recently on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show," I heard still another actor-activist spouting off on a subject about which he knew practically nothing. Fighter pilots would soon be bombing from "30,000 feet" and hitting civilians "indiscriminately," the guest charged. The implication was that our aviators stayed safe while murdering innocents.

Such crews are never safe, and they don't bomb indiscriminately. And those are just two of the misconceptions about them.

I spent time on an aircraft carrier to write about fighter pilots. I can attest that few are warmongers. Most are married with children, tearful when they return to their families, prefer a BMW to a motorcycle and even play the stock market on the carrier's computers. What sets them apart are the danger, fear and thrills they live with daily.

They are very smart and, obviously, competitive. To fly fighters, as opposed to tankers or transports, they have survived a ladder of competitive cuts, putting them at the highest tier.

But not all are "Top Guns," as the media so often label them. "Top Gun," in the military, is the term for service weapons schools offering elite graduate courses for select crew members. With few exceptions, only the best fighter pilots and flight officers go to Top Gun.

To say fighter pilots bomb from safe altitudes is to show an ignorance of combat. Few, if any, war plans unfold as they are initially perceived. In Kosovo, the VF-41 Black Aces, a storied Navy fighter squadron, had to disregard altitude floors originally set for their protection and take their Tomcats dangerously low, sometimes to 5,000 feet, to find and destroy Serbian tanks, guns and fighters.

The change put them in the lethal envelopes of enemy defenses. There were some unbelievably scary moments for them in dueling with 2,000-mph surface-to-air missiles and radar-controlled antiaircraft guns. Their task was anything but safe.

They also willingly risked their lives to save civilians: Their carrier got intelligence that a village was about to be annihilated by a Serbian force moving through a mountain tunnel. Time was critical. A Black Aces crew took to the air in their Tomcat, but when they got to the tunnel they found its mouth -- their target -- in a ravine between steep mountains. The only way they could use their laser guidance system without obstruction was to fly slowly into the valley while they directed the bomb. In effect, they were a sitting duck for any enemy fire. They didn't hesitate. They got the tunnel and saved the village.

That story illustrates some of the little-known problems with "smart" bombing, which has become such a video staple of Pentagon briefings that most people think it's simply a matter of pushing a few buttons and, voila, the target disintegrates. In fact, putting a smart bomb on a target takes intelligence, skill, talent and determination. A tremendous amount of math and technical know-how is needed to set up the shot. Then there is a fleeting window -- usually about a minute -- in which a number of switches have to be flipped and computer inputs made if the bomb is to hit its target.

The fliers call some of what they do in that time frame "playing the piccolo" because so many finger movements and split-second decisions have to be made so quickly. All the while the enemy is trying to kill them.

Highly touted drones will never replace fighter pilots. Without spotters, even some Black Aces thought it would be impossible to accomplish their mission in Kosovo. The elusive Serbian army was hidden in bad weather and mountainous terrain. How could the aviators see a tank from 20,000 feet, let alone a hiding enemy soldier? They innovated, started going lower and acting on telltale clues -- all without becoming easy targets themselves. By the end of the war, they were feared hunters. And they were flying airplanes almost 30 years old.

Drones just couldn't have done that. Only good fighter pilots could.

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