“A flying ace or fighter ace is a military aviator credited with shooting down several enemy aircraft during aerial combat. The actual number of aerial victories required to officially qualify as an “ace” has varied, but is usually considered to be five or more. The few aces among combat aviators have historically accounted for the majority of air-to-air victories in military history.” – Source: Wikipedia
During the Vietnam war American fighter losses became so heavy that the hierarchy of the USAF realised that this was an unsustainable situation. The first step was to bring together their best fighter pilots of the time to find a way to bring the losses to an absolute minimum. The first step was to establish the USAF Fighter Weapons School. The USAF equivalent of the US Navy Top Gun School. This however, was not seen as enough to tide the losses in Vietnam and so the graduates of the Fighter Weapons School devised an air combat exercise that would be as realistic to combat conditions as possible, this exercise became known as “Cope Thunder”. The exercise’s main goal was to expose line fighter pilots to very realistic combat conditions and thereby increase the overall standard of capability of the fighter force.
The Cope Thunder exercise was held in the Philippines, at an American base called Clark Air Force Base. The advantage of holding the exercise there was a large amount of free airspace to conduct the exercise and its proximity to Vietnam, so pilots could transition to fighter units based there quickly. The effect was pretty much immediate and the exercise continued on well after the Vietnam war ended. The exercise was eventually opened up to foreign air forces to add to the realism of having different fighting aircraft in the mix. The RAAF saw this as an excellent opportunity to pit our fighter pilots against the best the western world had to offer.
In essence, the exercise comprised two sides ‘Red Air’, the attackers, and ‘Blue Air’, the defenders. The defenders’ task was to protect the bombing range near Clark AFB from the ‘Red Air’ while the ‘Red Air’s task was to defeat the defending force and penetrate into the range area and drop their bombs. Both forces had an impressive list of assets at their disposal, in the order of seventy to eighty aircraft per side, with associated support elements of air-to-air refuellers and AWACs. There was also ‘White Force’ who ran the exercise and injected various problems into the exercise to increase the degree of difficulty over the week that the exercise ran for. This included electronic warfare with jamming of radio communications and other electronic gadgetry used in the exercise. ‘White Force’ ran the briefings and debriefings and adjudicated on ‘kill’ claims by both sides. They also enforced ‘kill removal’ of pilots during the battles who had lost out on a particular localised battle or dogfight. Sometimes these battles would occur without any visual contact by either side and were determined by the timing of missile shots (all internally filmed in each aircraft and recorded on specialised instrumented facilities on the ground).
The general plan of ‘Red Air’ was to send a force of bombers or strikers towards the target and use air-to-air assets, usually a lot of F-15s to protect the strike package. The plan of the defenders, naturally enough, was to fight their way through the F-15s in order to attack the strikers and prevent the attack. The defenders usually set up a series of defensive lines of fighters ranging out to as much as 100 miles from the target. Meanwhile, the strike passage would use a plan and route that would hopefully be so cunning as to fool the defenders and allow them to get to the target unseen and untouched. Their protective fighter escort would try to drag the defenders into a fight well away from the strike package route to assist the strikers’ plan. Now add to this the fact that the ‘Red Air’ assets were all local units based at Clark and they participated in every ‘Cope Thunder’ and you can see that the defenders, from all around the world, were at a disadvantage from the start.
I was fortunate enough to participate in two ‘Cope Thunder’ exercises and the first experience was certainly an eye opener, I was much better prepared on the second occasion. On one of the exercises our CO was approached by Clark AFB air traffic control and asked if we could assist in their training of newly arrived controllers by doing some ground controlled radar approaches to the runway if there was any fuel left to do so. The CO agreed that this would be a good idea and anyone who was “kill removed” out of exercise would conduct the approaches, it became an incentive not to get “killed” during the exercise. This would come to bite me later on in the exercise.
On my day of glory, I was leading a two ship of Hornets and we were assigned to the third tier of the defensive line and flying combat air patrol or CAP which is basically a racetrack pattern of around ten miles. We were listening intently to the battle raging out in front of us trying to gain some situational awareness of what the hell was happening. Suddenly both of our radar warning receivers (RWR) lit up indicating that we were about to be shot. We conducted a tactical abort, which is basically a violent defensive manoeuvre through 180 degrees in a very steep descent. I was looking back over my shoulder looking for the threat when my RWR indicated that the threat had dissipated and so I turned my attention to recovering from the steep descent and resetting my formation to once again face up to the incoming ‘Red Air’ guys. As I looked forward there was the back end of the strike package right in front of us, comprising about thirty F-16s and four F-4 Phantoms lined up in a train of pairs. The Phantoms were at the back of the train, I shot the first of the two left-hand Phantoms and my wingman shot the right-hand guy. I flew past the first guy that I had shot very close to him to let him know that he was dead. He must have relayed our position to the rest of the train which then went into what we call a ‘confetti break’ with strikers going everywhere in defensive attempts to stop from being shot. Fortunately for me, I had already locked up the second Phantom on my side and I shot him as he attempted to break, my wingman shot the other Phantom as well. I had relayed to our team where the strike package was as well and having caused mayhem amongst them and dispatched four Phantoms we went into a dead vertical climb to get out of there. As I climbed in the vertical four F-15s from ‘Red Air’ flew right over the top of me. Presumably, these were the guys who had been hunting us earlier and they were now resetting to try to find us again. I shot all four of them as they passed over and in front of me with the remaining four missiles I had left. We started the exercise that day with a loadout of two AIM 9 Sidewinders and Four Aim 7 Sparrow missiles and although we didn’t actually shoot the missiles the rules were that you only had six shots and then you were out and had to return to base. So I claimed six kills in the debrief, the ‘White Force’ guys scrutinised my film and despite the protests from the ‘Red Air’ guys that I claimed the kills on, my shots were all declared valid. When we again looked at the kills on the tape, which has a clock in it with the exact time as part of the Head Up Display we found that from the first shot to the last one the time was 45 seconds. I had become an “Ace” in 45 seconds. My superiors thought I was brilliant and congratulated me on my success but I knew I had been plain lucky.
On the next day’s exercise, I was again leading a two ship Hornet formation and we first had to rendezvous with the air-to-air refuelling tanker to top off our tanks before proceeding to our assigned CAP position. I came off the tanker and had gone about ten miles when suddenly my RWR lit up with an imminent missile shot against me and before I could react the ‘White Force’ referee informed me that I was dead and had to ‘kill remove’ from the exercise. Remember that air traffic control training that my CO had promised for them with any ‘kill removal’ guys, yeah well I was it and I had very full fuel tanks. I continued providing training for the controllers until last light, I don’t know how many approaches I did for them. The debrief for these exercises usually takes about two hours, I was still airborne when it had finished which gives you an idea of how long I was doing the approaches. Air Traffic Control at Clark was very grateful for my service.
What are the lessons from this wonderful aviation experience? In the fighter game, ever since it started, luck plays a large part in whether you live or die. Your brilliant success might be very short lived. Had this been a real air war would I have been as successful? I was anxious about how I would perform in the exercise, how terrified would I feel in a real air battle? How would I have reacted if those missiles coming at me were real? Clearly, I have no idea but I’m not sure I would have been as brave as those fighter pilots who battled through so many of history’s air conflicts and in many cases paid with their lives, hats off to those legends. LEST WE FORGET.