Having accrued more than 4,000 flight hours in nearly every block of the F-16 over a 30-year military career, I am often asked a variety of questions, like “how does it feel to pull 9 Gravitational Force. The pull of earth’s gravity that people and objects experience as “one G” in an unaccelerated state or “zero G” when falling.?” or “have you ever had to eject?” That sort of thing. But once in a while I am asked more strategic questions, like how we get fighter jets overseas. Some questions are straightforward, but not this one.
To be sure, deploying a military aviation unit is no small undertaking. Aircraft carrier-based U.S. Navy and Marine Corps squadrons have it relatively easy—the ship takes them wherever they need to go. But land-based Marines and Air Force squadrons, on the other hand, have to fly themselves there. With our military forces continually engaged globally, this often requires multiple big wing tankers to ‘drag’ fighters on transoceanic crossings to and from assigned areas.
I tallied 15 such ocean crossings during my career—deploying from the States to Southwest and Southeast Asia, and back. Presumably, most readers have experienced such crossings in a commercial airliner, but flying in a cramped fighter cockpit like the F-16 for 7-12 hours in formation flight—with a tanker and up to six wingmen, while accomplishing 7-10 air refuelings, in and out of weather, day and night—is quite another thing. And if that wasn’t enough, all previously mentioned challenges are performed while crossing multiple time zones, and often the International Date Line, while maintaining constant vigilance without a single nap.
As in any difficult endeavor, there is a ‘method to the madness’ which is usually divided in phases, namely Planning, Pre-Flight, Execution, and Post-Flight. Let’s explore each in detail.
The movement of all fighter deployments—whether training or combat—is planned by an ‘Air Operations An aviation organization composed of aircrew, support personnel, aircraft, and equipment..’ The AOS is responsible for planning the following:
- Route to be flown
- Number and types of tanker
- The altitude Reservation (ALTRAV)
- Scheduling for refueling tracks and number of refuelings
- Notices to Airmen (Notices to Airmen. A written notification issued to aircrew before flight, advising of circumstances relating to the state of flying.)
- Weather at takeoff, along route, and at destination and divert fields
- Emergency airfields
- Ocean surface temperatures under the route
- Diplomatic clearances through foreign airspace
- Fuel Computations and Offloads
- Performance Calculations
- Crew Accommodations at stop overs
“But, T-DAY,” I can just hear, “don’t pilots normally perform these tasks?” Sure, pilots would perform these tasks for domestic deployments or when accomplishing a cross-country flight from point A to point B with simple air refueling at a designated track; however, when flying from one continent to another and crossing multiple foreign countries’ airspace requiring diplomatic clearances, it’s best to leave it to professionals who deal with these specifics daily.
“So T-DAY, what do pilots actually do to plan for these transoceanic ‘drags’ if the AOS completes all previously mentioned?” Plenty. For starters, they concentrate on coordinating with the ‘Aircraft Maintenance Unit’ to ensure the jets are in the proscribed configuration with the correct number of external fuel tanks, one or two travel pods for pilots’ gear, personal effects, aircraft records/forms and spare parts, if required. Additionally, over-water survival gear (horse collars and anti-exposure suits) is checked with the life support aka Two-ship. A coordinated flight of two aircraft operating in close proximity to one another..
Furthermore, pilots were encouraged to adjust their diets to high protein / low residue to reduce the likelihood of a physiological incident en route.
Finally, pilots would try to adjust their sleeping schedules to accommodate the schedule of the launch and flight. Since this can prove difficult, often times flight surgeons issued “No-Go” (sleeping aid) pills in order to shift their circadian rhythms commensurate with the mission specifics and local time at stop-over locations. For extreme duration flights, they would receive “Go” (stimulant) pills to ensure they were alert for the critical phases of flight like landing, which generally is restricted to daylight hours. Normally this restriction drove takeoffs from CONUS to take place at midnight to early morning, better known as “O-Dark Thirty”, increasing circadian rhythm challenges.
Due to single-seat duty limitations (normally 12 hours w/ waivers of up to 14), pilots would routinely show up with minimum time before takeoff, depending on the length of the leg. This created the necessity, before going into crew rest the day prior, for pilots to pack their travel pods, leave some gear at the aircraft, and receive the overall mission brief by the AOS in order to minimize the preparations the morning of the launch. On launch morning, they received updates to weather, NOTAMS, tanker status, and divert / emergency airfields. The mission commander / fighter cell flight lead briefed the tanker rejoin / formation plan, air refueling priorities, and higher headquarter communications through the tanker to maintain updated information concerning changing weather, NOTAMs, diplomatic clearances, and downed aircraft or missed air refueling contingencies.
Once the brief was updated, the pilots made one last, very important pit-stop, fitted their survival and flight gear, ensured their food (high protein / low residue) and water was packed, and picked up plenty of “piddle-packs” (specifically designed flexible plastic receptacles with absorbent material/sponges for pilots to urinate in while in flight). How many piddle packs pilots took depended entirely on the size of their bladder. I know some pilots who didn’t use a single piddle pack and others would fill 8-10 of them. Personally, I was somewhere in between those two extremes and would rather drink less, fill less and minimize exposure to the ‘Jaws of Death,’ explained later. Finally, the pilots and all their gear were transported to the jets.
After engine start and normal ground checks, to include air-refueling system operation, the aircraft would receive one last careful overall inspection by arming crews at the end of the runway before takeoff. Cockpit organization was always critical in the confined space as to not interfere with flight operations. With confirmation the refueling aircraft was airborne or in a go-status, the fighters would take the runway and takeoff into the dark colloquially known as The Dark Hole.
As the fighters departed in full after-burner spaced by 20 seconds, the flight lead contacted departure control and coordinated for the rejoin of the fighter flight followed by the rejoin with the orbiting tanker down track. Flying at night, and especially rejoining aircraft into standard formation (within 100 feet in altitude and 1 mile lateral separation) requires an extremely high level of situational awareness and methodical, slow controlled rates of closure to avoid overshoots and erratic maneuvers. Much the same can be said for the fighter rejoin with the refueling aircraft.
I always said, “Slower is Faster at Night.”
By that, I mean that since there are reduced visual cues during night operations—night vision goggles (NVGs) lack depth perception—it is more advantageous to slowly accomplish maneuvers that otherwise can be accomplished expeditiously in daylight. Fighter pilots use a combination of NVGs, radar, and line-of-sight cues to aid in rejoins / formation responsibilities.
Once rejoined with the tanker, an immediate check of the air refueling system was accomplished to ensure all fighters were able to receive fuel for the upcoming leg and the tanker off-load system was operating correctly. Normally the gaggle is cleared below flight level 290 (29,000 feet) since most commercial airline flights fly on fixed routes or at higher altitudes. As previously mentioned, there could be numerous refuelings, 7-10 is not unusual, for each leg. The number is driven by the range to divert airfields, which over the Atlantic, and especially the Pacific Ocean, can be rather limited. At any time, the fighter aircraft had to have enough fuel on board to reach at least one of those divert / emergency fields with the required landing weather. This is the controlling factor that determines the number of refuelings, not the range of the fighter.
“So T-DAY, do you put your jet in autopilot for those long flights?” Although the F-16 does have an altitude/heading select/auto steer-point autopilot, it’s not practical to use when flying in close formation, such as in reduced visual conditions or while air refueling. Hence, hand flying is required. It is normal to hand fly on the wing of the tanker, at night, in the weather, for several hours. When conditions permitted, a widely used technique, while in favorable visual conditions and wider formations, was to engage altitude hold on the autopilot, reducing the control inputs to just keep heading within the formation and the required lateral separation between cell members.
“Do all pilots take stimulants on those long flights?” Actually, very few pilots took stimulants for a couple of reasons: First, they are a controlled substance and were only issued for extremely long flights reaching the duty day restrictions and combat situations. Second, most pilots did not want to be on a drug while operating the aircraft due to side effects and mood changes. Me, I used chocolate-covered espresso beans. I would use them when feeling sleepy and they kept me alert without any side effects as they are a natural stimulant much like coffee. They are also convenient and less messy in a cramped cockpit.
“What other techniques do pilots employ to stay awake and alert between refuelings?” Most pilots would chat on the auxiliary fighter flight radio frequency telling jokes, stories, banter, etc. Others, I’m told, would insert earbuds and listen to music during non-critical phases of flight, as in between refuelings where there were no frequency changes. Other pilots brought Sudoku puzzles or audio books. I avoided bringing additional devices and just used the auxiliary radio to talk back and forth or snacked. Additionally, the fighters were in Engagement of enemy forces. with the tanker and received regular updates on the status of their destination and alternates.
Another favorite activity was eating since it is difficult to sleep while chewing on a tasty morsel. Pilots could choose for the U.S. Air Force in-flight kitchen to deliver box-lunches, better known as “Box-Nasties”, consisting of a couple of sandwiches on white bread, chips, fruit, candy bar and a soft drink or simply buy their favorite snacks/food for the trip. Personally, I always chose the latter option and tried to keep the mess to a minimum. My favorite items were deli sandwiches, spicy beef jerky, olives—the exception: apples, bananas, licorice—and the all-important Espresso Beans. Bottom line, pilots would break the monotony in a myriad of ways in order to keep each other awake and alert.
“OK, I have to ask: how do you guys relieve yourselves on those long flights?” I already mentioned piddle packs which are, suffice to say, normally filled during low-workload segments in loose formation. The challenge increased exponentially when wearing an anti-exposure suit (required any time the ocean water temperature is below 65 degrees Fahrenheit) since there was a lateral oriented, industrial-grade zipper in the crotch area, better known as the Jaws of Death that pilots need to negotiate without causing reproductive repercussions. I always wondered what type of masochist designed this feature. The anti-exposure suit is intended to give a pilot parachuting into the ocean the ability to get into the survival raft, stored in the ejection seat-kit and deployed upon ejection, before losing feeling in the extremities.
This anti-exposure suit was universally known as the Poopy Suit since it was nearly impossible to remove in the event nature calls on another line. I hear it’s been done successfully once, if an individual had an inopportune vowel movement. As you can imagine, their Call Sign would be the likes of “Skid”, “Brown”, “Deuce”, etc. There are other options to the piddle pack but they don’t get any better. One was using a catheter, which pilots equated to “pissing through a straw”, and the other was wearing a diaper. I’ve never seen a male fighter pilot use a diaper, probably because that would be reason for a “A Bandit for which engagement is authorized. Renaming”, Harrumph!
“T-DAY, what is the longest transoceanic flight you ever took part in?“ It was during my second assignment in the F-16 as a 300-hour wingman. My squadron was tasked to deploy to Dhahran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for Operation DENY FLIGHT from just north of Salt Lake City, UT with a first leg stop-over in Spangdahlem Air Base just outside of Trier, Germany. Takeoff was just after midnight and the duration was 11.7 hours with nine refuelings from multiple tankers. The first time is always the hardest as you really don’t know what to expect. My squadron commander called it a “Baptism by Fire” which I confirmed it shortly thereafter.
The initial rejoins and refuelings were at night, in the weather, and with lightning discharging all around.
I was fighting spatial disorientation and felt like I was flying upside down on the tanker’s wing at times. We had to hand fly for the initial four hours and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see the sunrise as we continued east over the Atlantic Ocean. Another challenge was avoiding parts of your body from going numb or falling asleep. I performed isometrics, pushing / pulling on the canopy grips, colloquially known as ‘towel racks’, or rudders to keep blood flowing into my extremities.
One example was I lifted my rear off the seat pan by pushing my lower back into the back of the seat while simultaneously pushing, symmetrically on the rudder pedals. This stretch / push exercise was aided by the fact that the Viper seat is reclined 30 degrees. Nevertheless, as mentioned, the extensive preparation, planning, training and controlled execution ensured our safe landing after that long flight at our stop-over destination. We had earned our 48-hour R & R hiatus and that German Premium Pilsner we were handed by our advance team. After recharging our batteries, we repeated the process and completed our last, seven hour leg into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where we immediately executed combat missions.
“Are fighters armed with live ordnance when performing transoceanic flights?” Normally, fighter aircraft will not be armed with live ordnance for a myriad of reasons unless deploying into a hostile zone where combat operations are taking place and self-protection will be required. This is to avoid complications with diplomatic clearances, excessive drag on performance and range and to avoid dangerous situations if there is a need to jettison ordnance in case of emergencies. Most sovereign countries will not allow foreign military aircraft to fly over their airspace with live weapons. During Operation DESERT SHIELD to the run-up of DESERT STORM, F-15C Eagles did fly into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with live missiles, I understand, as they were expected to provide active air defense upon arrival.
“How do the fighters separate from the tanker to land?” Normally, once the flight is within range of the destination and have two way communication with air traffic control, while maintaining fuel and divert reserves, they will speed up and land before the tanker. This procedure is critical should a fighter be unable to land as it preserves the ability to rejoin with the tanker to refuel and either attempt to land again or divert to another airfield. Once all the fighters are safely on the ground, they normally contact the tanker on the auxiliary radio and the tanker lands last, completing the mission or first leg of a multi-leg deployment.
After landing on a multi-leg deployment, an AOS representative meets the arriving pilots and gives a deployment briefing for the next leg of the journey much like in the initial leg. It is also tradition to hand the pilots an adult beverage to celebrate ‘cheating death one more time’. The next day, the crews will have at least a whole down day to recuperate. They will normally depart the second day, unless the first leg was extremely long, after arrival, repeating the previous phases of the first leg until they reach their final destination. It is not uncommon to have 2-3 leg missions when crossing thousands of miles across the globe.
On leg stop-overs, getting sleep can be a challenge as the pilots’ circadian rhythms are not adjusted to local time. This is where most pilots used “No-Go” pills in order to get some sleep before their next “O-Dark Thirty” launch. Needless to say, accomplishing a 2-3 leg deployment wipes you out with a bad case of “Jet-Lag” for a few days after you reach your final destination. In my experience, the worst “Jet-Lag” occurs when arriving in the Pacific region of Southeast Asia from CONUS as the 14-16-hour time change is brutal and can take up to three weeks for individuals to acclimatize their circadian rhythms to local time.
“What’s it like to fly over the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, T-DAY?” Hopefully, now you know! The insights and anecdotes above describe what it takes to Cross the Pond in the Viper and deploy half-way around the world to support our nation’s interests.