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Combat IFR: add a malcontent with a shoulder-fired missile onto the worst IFR hazards. Doing it every day doesn't make it easy.


When I got back from 56 days of active duty flying the venerable C-130 in Iraq and Afghanistan, a handful of pilot friends asked me what combat aviation is really like from the pilot's seat. Although the over-used "I could tell you but I'd have to kill you" line kinda applies, enough of this stuff has been on CNN to fuel a harmless recount.

I'll share this thought first: the fundamental skill that permits flying a successful combat sortie is a solid foundation in instrument piloting. So some of this applies to run-of-the-mill IFR flying half a globe away from the war zone.

Procedures and Teamwork

The squawking pager starts a well-orchestrated timeline of events leading to takeoff. Regardless of the date or time, the repetitive flow is Groundhog Day.

First is a series of briefings and stops. Intel reviews the specifics of the day's mission and, knowing that few of us have time to keep up on current events, adds a summary of world news. Our tactics shop brings the mission into better focus by detailing it from start to finish, with an exhaustive emphasis on operating procedures.

The next stop is Life Support. Here, your flight helmet, survival vest and pistol are waiting. Also, regardless of time of day, you get night vision goggles (NVGs). The crew van makes its last stop at the flightline kitchen, where we pick up a previously-ordered crew cooler. Duty days can stretch out to 18 hours, so having sufficient snacks and drinks is mandatory.

Engine start, clearance, and launch are just like back in the States, with added emphasis on being on-time. We were launching from a location outside of the combat zone, so the first flight segment of each day was ho-hum IFR. We would adjust speed to reach the combat entry point (CEP) when planned. As we got close, it was time to configure the airplane and crew: lights out, flak vest and helmet on, NVGs mounted, and a last trip to the back to pee--not necessarily in that order.

The first thing you notice at the CEP is that nothing happens. No tracers flying, no fighters swooping in and no

Tokyo Rose talking smack on Guard. I kid, but the point is that the airplane doesn't know the difference. Vne is still the same, the g-limits are still the same, and the engines will only tolerate so much throttle jockeying. Taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of this is a good start. You can be your own worst enemy if you let the situation taint your normal technique.


Another key ingredient is teamwork, or the all-encompassing term Crew Resource Management (CRM). As the aircraft commander, I "drive the bus." My focus is aircraft control, threat avoidance and/or reaction, and putting the airplane where the navigator wants it. The copilot and engineer split responsibility for safety, one primarily backing me up outside and running the radios, and the other inside to ensure we stay within performance parameters. The loadmasters scan for threats from the rear of the aircraft, and the sharp ones also listen in on the radios. More than once I've had one chime in with, "Didn't that guy just change our clearance?"

Although most airfields in the Area of Responsibility (AOR) have instrument approaches, some type of steep tactical maneuver is more appropriate when the weather allows. Without going into too much detail, fly as steep as you can, as unpredictably as possible, and still land on-speed in the touchdown zone. Doing this at night, on NVGs, with few ground lights, to dimly-lit runways, sprinkles in all the ingredients for spatial disorientation and a need for first-class instrument habits.

A Night's Work

Approaching the first stop, we attempt to pick up an ATIS or con tact an agency like AWACS for field conditions. One time the monotone voice included, "Notice to airmen: surface-to-air missile fired on the ABC 090/17-mile fix. Use caution."


That night, the navigator plotted the unfriendly spot on a terrain chart and passed it forward; the copilot put his finger on the spot so I could orient myself with the terrain and ground lights I saw outside. We decided arriving from another direction was a logical choice.


Closer in, the nav paints the field on radar and narrates the features. We have a repeater scope on the panel and follow along. Critical whenever any pilot calls a new play in the air, the nay confirms we're clear of terrain on the new course and descent profile.

Hitting the descent point, I pitch over, set power, and begin some gentle maneuvering. As each thousand feet ticks by, the copilot verbalizes our descent tab data as a sort of ongoing progress report. The nav has locked the touchdown coordinates on my FMS screen so I have a running distance to touchdown that I'm monitoring.

The landing itself will also be made on NVGs. I assume most of you have seen the green images on the TV news. The technology allows the illusion of seeing in the dark, but there is that nagging problem of depth perception. The image is essentially a 2-D TV picture. Although the NVGs do a great job of giving outside peeks, the airplane is flown on instruments. Unlike IMC, where I'm 90-percent on the gauges and 10-percent monitoring outside, NVG flight is closer to 40-60.


It's tempting to look outside more, especially in an attempt to pick up any ground fire that may come our way, but lack of depth perception and narrow field of view make the 40/60 split the best compromise. It takes practice for the brain to provide its own substitute for depth perception to avoid a "cruncher" landing.

In the last 60 seconds before intercepting final, I slow rapidly with a steep bank and positive pull. Some g-loading on the airplane bleeds speed and allows me to point the nose right where I want it. Flaps, gear, and more flaps and we're on short final. The nav has sequenced the GPS/ INS to the final approach course, and I'm sure to double-check the basics like course and heading to ensure I've lined up on the proper runway versus a taxiway or road.

We're cleared to land and the sing-song begins. The copilot and nav begin a sequence of callouts: airspeed, sink rate, radar altitude, and any suggested corrections. I'm simply driving the bus and their words verify that our flightpath matches the plan. "100, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10" is the final countdown that leads to a ker-thunk of a landing. Props to reverse, decelerate, and look for the turn-off I'd planned on the airfield diagram. Once on the ground, it's often a minimum-time, engine-running offload and launching out again ASAP.

A typical night might have four stops, so the process repeats itself over again. When we're at last at high altitude, the enticing aroma of thawing pizza wafting from the galley oven is as much a sign of reaching the combat exit point as is the GPS waypoint. My fondest memory of this was seeing the sky glow of the coming sunrise peeking from over the horizon before I powered down my goggles for the last time and found my sunglasses.

The Take Away

Saying, "combat pilot" paints visions of thousand-plane formations fending off swarms of Nazi fighters or maybe the hail of tracers we all sat and watched on CNN on that first night of Desert Storm. My recent deployment wasn't that.

Not that my own experience wasn't genuine, or at times hazardous, but my exposure was more in line with the premise of Ernest Gann's timeless "Fate is the Hunter." Rotten weather, high terrain, non-radar ops, limited ATC, crackly radios, unreliable navaids, sketchy diverts, as well as being chronically fatigued and tight on fuel, were the hazards that lurked in the shadows.

It's accepted to say a humble "Aw, shucks" after successfully competing a tight approach in a howling wind. But there's room to silently pat yourself on the back, because you know that what you accomplished was a challenge--and that is acknowledgement enough.

RELATED ARTICLE: How to keep your head spinning.

You're familiar with the stateside FARs, AIM, TFRs, and NOTAM system. Now imagine rolling into another country during an air war with over 1000 sorties per day. Add in laying the groundwork for near-normal joint civil/military ops once peace is in sight.

As one might expect, this generates an endless to-do list for the airspace team: airfields with battle damage to repair, NAVAIDs for installation or calibration, TERPS-ing of new approaches, ATC, frequency deconfliction, and the ever-changing security measures. Airways are constructed, fixes named and databases double-checked for accuracy before distributing. And that only scratches the surface.

For pilots, the resulting procedures are summed up in a pile of documents, which is on the steady diet of cram reading for the first few days in AOR. Although continuing to operate using the basic tenants of the FARs and Air Force flying regs, there are also ICAO and host-nation procedures to follow. Finally, add a healthy heap of exceedingly specific combat procedures, dictated by the SPINS (special instructions), which guide everything from when to use your exterior lights, to what altitudes to file, to AOR-specific guidance on how to deal with malfunctioning ordnance. Incidentally, the SPINS are classified so, with little exception, everything must be memorized.

Beyond the expected enemy ground threats and smattering of practice live-fire ranges, real targets may pop up without warning. There is a real-time mechanism to stand up TFR-like restrictions at a moment's notice so that weapons can be delivered on the bad guys without taking out a friendly who is just passing by. Terms like "busy" and "congested" are inadequate in describing the execution of a typical day's AOR flying schedule.

So combat flying is far from a free-for-all, go where you want, as fast as you want, at the altitude of your choice. I don't know how the traffic count over Baghdad compares with O'Hare, but the sheer volume of bombers, fighters, tankers, AWACS, unmanned aerial vehicles and low-flying helicopters makes timing, procedural SPINS adherence, and altitude deconfliction vital.--K.H.

RELATED ARTICLE: In-the-head descent planning doesn't have to be perfect.

As we've detailed in past issues of IFR, there are essentially four types of descent. There's the 500 fpm "creeper," the 3:1 (three miles per thousand feet, or roughly what you see on an average glideslope), the 2:1, and the "whatever you can get at idle." For really draggy airplanes, you could add a 1:1 profile.

The 2:1 is easy, public math in a pinch: Lose 10,000 feet in 20 miles, 5000 feet in 10 miles, and so on. Verifying this rate is also straightforward, as 2:1 requires a net pitch change of roughly five degrees, and the rate required is related to groundspeed. For instance, if groundspeed is 180 knots, that's three miles per minute. Each degree is then worth 300 feet per minute and, in this case, five times 300 is 1500 on the VSI. Keeping tabs on groundspeed is key here. Any change in TAS or winds on the way down will directly affect groundspeed, so the vertical speed can be played to prevent getting too low too quickly or vice versa.


Monitoring any of these ratios during descent will let you know if you're straying from your preplanned line.--K.H.


For more information on what IFR and combat-zone flying have in common, log onto our sister publication,, and click the PODCAST button, then the Podcast Index. This month we talk with AF Reserve Major Ken Holston to explore deeper what it means when we say, "Combat IFR."


Ken Holston is an IFR Contributing Editor. Thanks to Air Force Reserve Public Affairs for consulting on this article.
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Author:Holston, Ken
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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