Flying at Night, Lights Off, No Radar

A-10 graphic

A-10 attack strategy.

In the lead up to the first Persian Gulf War, a.k.a. Desert Storm, we flew, for lack of a better term, a practice war. The exercise was officially called Imminent Thunder, in which we flew our A-10 attack jets at night, exterior lights off, with no radar. We called the exercise Imminent Mid-Air.

Look Out! Oh sorry, I Forgot that You Can’t

The way we were able to keep from running into each as we transited to and from our target areas was by flying through specific corridors and by using altitude separation. Once over the target area, where we had to dive towards the target along random flight paths, altitude separation and narrow flight corridors were no longer in play. When you figure there were up to eight aircraft yanking and banking over the same piece of real estate, the odds of colliding went way up. Here is how we handled the problem in my formation of two A-10s:

“Shotgun One is holding over New Mexico.”
“Copy that. Shotgun Two is rolling in from New York. . . Shotgun Two is off to South Carolina.”
“Shotgun One is in from Arizona. . . Shotgun One is off to Montana.”

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

No, we weren’t actually diving on targets in Kuwait and Iraq from over the United States. That kind of lunacy is reserved for B-52 drivers, who aren’t comfortable unless they have to fly 14 hours from their home base to their target. Here’s what was really happening, and this is based on a strategy developed by fighter pilots during the Viet Nam War.

We divided the target area into hemispheres, usually along a north-south, or east-west line running through the target. The formation’s flight leader would orbit in one hemisphere and the wingman would orbit in the other. By staying on opposite sides of the target, we eliminated the chance we would collide with each other as we orbited the target area. All well and good until it came time to dive at the target to drop our ordnance. The actual attack posed three problems.

  1. Staying separated from each other as we flew over the target and crossed the dividing line into the other pilot’s airspace.
  2. Keeping our attack patterns random so the enemy couldn’t anticipate our flight paths and zero in with radar-guided missiles or artillery.
  3. Assuming the enemy was tapping into our radio transmissions, we needed to use coded language in our radio calls so the enemy didn’t understand what we were doing.

I Can See New York from Here

We mentally placed the target on an imaginary map of the United States, with target placed in a central state, such as Kansas. When either of us rolled in for an attack, we called out on the radio the imaginary state from which we were beginning our attack run. If the flight leader said, “In from New York,” I knew he was attacking “Kansas” from a northeasterly direction because New York is northeast of Kansas. After he made his bombs or missile away call, and then called out “Off to South Carolina,” I knew he was past the target and exiting to the east-southeast.

The Point of the Story

Here’s the point. Though we could never see each other lights out, at night, with no radar, we used the radio to build a mind’s eye picture of where each aircraft was at any given moment. You can do the same thing as well. Though peacetime aviation uses concrete, standardized phraseology, building situational awareness using the radio follows the exact same principle I used during wartime.

  • Listen to what is happening on the aircraft radio.
  • Pay attention to where other aircraft are when they state their position, or when air traffic control directs them.
  • Build a mental picture of who is sharing the airspace with you.

Good situational awareness, developed in part by listening to the radio will help raise your flight’s level of safety, and it helps you plan your next move in your own airplane. In the next article, I’ll explain how simply listening to one or two radio calls may save you time, fuel, and aggravation. Stay tuned. (Oh, and remind me to tell you sometime how this great strategy broke down when a formation of eight Marine F-18s started dropping armor-piercing bomblets on top my formation of A-10s.)

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