Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

July-August 2006

Illustration by Ted Wilbur


Hitting Hornets

Two F/A-18s along with another Hornet were going against a section of F-14 Tomcats on an air combat training hop. The lead Hornet, Dash-1, was positioned on the left side and the second, Dash-2, was in the middle, leaving Dash-3 on the right. Inside 10 miles of the merge (where friendly fighters meet enemy fighters) the range training officer informed both outside aircraft, Dash-1 and Dash-3, that they were simulated kills.

In accordance with Topgun adversary training rules at 5 miles from the merge, Dash-1 and Dash-3 did aileron rolls, acknowledging to all they were kills.

Dash-2 saw Dash-1 complete the rolls and shifted his lookout forward in an attempt to find the F-14s. Dash-2 started a left turn to put the opposing fighters within his missile’s field of view, assuming that because Dash-1 had acknowledged the kill he would not maneuver approaching the merge. Dash-2 did not maintain a visual on Dash-1 and figured he would pass well below Dash-1.

Meanwhile, Dash-1 got a tally on the two Tomcats and continued straight ahead, ensuring a left-to-left pass with his opponents. At just under 3 miles from the merge, Dash-1 started more aileron rolls to ensure the F-14s knew he was out of the fight, a maneuver that caused the lead Hornet to lose 1,300 feet of altitude. Unaware that Dash-1 was descending toward him, Dash- 2 continued his turn for a weapon solution.

Just short of the merge, Dash-2 noticed Dash-1 was closing on him. He tried to avoid the collision but the two Hornets hit. (Dash-1 never saw Dash-2 before impact.) Miraculously, despite extensive damage to both aircraft, both pilots managed to coax their jets back to home base for emergency landings.

grampa_pettibone_says_leftFighter guys have an old saying: “Lost sight, lost fight.” That was true in the biggest way here. Once he was called dead, Dash-1 had an obligation to remain predictable (and not descend 1,300 feet). Meanwhile, Dash-2—like everyone else in the event—had an obligation to be aware of where everyone was before maneuvering.

Once again the “big sky, little airplane” theory fails. Fortunately, they made it back, which is as much a testimony to how much plastic jets can bend as it is to the skill of these two pilots.