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A former Topgun instructor describes a typical combat training mission during his time at the Navy Fighter Weapons School.

In September 1982 I was one of eight students being briefed in a classroom at the Navy Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar for a series of flights over southern Arizona, part of the five-week Topgun class. We were four pilots and four radar intercept officers (the RIOs included me) from four different squadrons. When the instructor was done, we headed back to our hangars and manned-up our F-14A Tomcats.

We took off in pairs, for the day’s scenario was two fighters versus an unknown number of adversaries, which showed up on the flight schedule as 2vUNK. The first number always referred to the fighters (good guys), while the second referred to the bandits (bad guys). Each run would begin with about 30 miles of separation between the opposing parties. The fighters would run a radar intercept against the bandits and launch simulated missiles along the way if shot criteria were met. When we intercepted the bandits, we would engage any that remained in a swirling dogfight. As F-14 pilots and RIOs we were confident in our abilities and looked forward to the day’s challenges, even though our opponents were highly skilled, wily Topgun instructors.

Grumman F-14s had been part of Topgun since they joined operational Navy squadrons in 1974. Over the next few years they displaced the legendary McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II as the Navy’s frontline fighter, but F-4s hadn’t completely disappeared. In addition to the four Navy Tomcats in my Topgun class, four Marine Corps Phantoms filled the remaining openings in the then-standard eight-plane class. But we mostly operated with our own species, mixing aircraft types on a few flights as the syllabus progressed from 1v1 to 8vUNK in 28 flights over the five weeks.

While the F-4 had earned an impressive reputation in combat, partly as a result of training conducted by Topgun and similar programs during the Vietnam War, the F-14 brought many useful improvements to the tactical air combat arena. In terms of aerodynamics, the F-14’s swing wings maintained the optimum angle as the Mach number changed, while the “tunnel” area between the engines provided substantial lift, both of which increased the Tomcat’s turning ability compared to its predecessor’s. Cockpit switchology was more logical than in previous fighters, and the large canopy provided the crew with excellent visibility all around. The Hughes AWG-9 radar and weapons control system enabled F-14s to detect and track targets at long range, track multiple targets and launch radar-guided missiles at targets below our altitude, known as “look-down, shoot-down.” Though common today, these were important improvements when the F-14 was introduced.

I didn’t think about these innovations that morning as I orbited 15 miles east of the Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma, Ariz. I was flying with Lieutenant Sandy Winnefeld, call sign “Jaws,” a talented pilot and squadron mate in Fighter Squadron 24 (VF-24). We hadn’t flown together much, but a few warmup hops and some frank discussions with Topgun veterans in the squadron helped us to be ready when the course started.

“Boomer” and “Jake,” Lieutenants John Stufflebeem and Steve Jacobsmeyer, were our wingmen. They were the pilot and RIO, respectively, of an F-14 from sister squadron VF-211. Our squadrons were assigned to the same carrier, and in standard Topgun fashion we were wingmen throughout the class. In the “2v…” phase, we flew with Boomer and Jake on every flight, taking turns as flight lead while the other plane was the wingman. Once an intercept developed, we could switch tactical lead and wingman roles if necessary. We briefed the ground rules for these switches, and used radio calls to accomplish them. After a few flights we operated well as a team.

Crusing above the Pacific, “Bio” Baranek enjoys the 360-degree view afforded by the Grumman F-14s cockpit. The Tomcat was the first U.S. fighter in decades to offer such all-around visibility. (Dave Baranek)

We had completed F-14 training within months of each other, and had roughly 1½ years in our fleet squadrons at this point. All of us had flown multi-aircraft missions, but few of those had the intensity we experienced in Topgun, which was really a “graduate course” in fighter employment. As the scenarios evolved, I expanded my sphere of tactical concern outward from my own cockpit to encompass multiple aircraft and consider how my fight affected our assigned mission. Thanks to Topgun’s intense debriefs and a no-holds-barred attitude shared by Jaws, Boomer and Jake, my skill as an RIO increased rapidly from the first day.

My own call sign was “Bio,” though for a week or so it was “Bionic,” since that rhymes with my last name. One of my F-14 instructors, Lieutenant Steve “Superman” Jones, encouraged me to go with that call sign when I was an ensign, but it didn’t sound good on the radio, and I wasn’t very “bionic” anyway. So my first pilot in VF-24 shortened it to Bio, which stuck.

Our 2vUNK scenario was one of the most realistic, because the basic unit for combat employment of Navy fighters is a section (two fighters) composed of lead and wingman. The value of a second fighter was borne out repeatedly, and the Navy almost never assigned a single fighter to a combat mission. If we started out as a division of four fighters, we could easily split into two sections.

On the bandit side, in the real world you rarely knew for sure how many you were actually facing, so it was always good to think there were an “unknown” number of bandits. Despite the quality of E-2 Hawkeye, E-3 Sentry AWACS or shipboard radar control, despite the fighters’ ability to sanitize airspace and kill enemy aircraft before the merge, additional enemy fighters could show up over hostile territory at almost any time. Focusing on killing those you see is a good way to be killed by those you don’t. One of the worst times an unknown could show up would be while the fighters were running an intercept—with RIOs looking at their radars, pilots setting up a tactical formation, everyone checking switches in their cockpits, communicating with the radar controller and thinking 15 to 30 miles ahead. Topgun wanted to give us the most challenging training possible, so it had the option to use a“Wild Card,” a single bandit that could jump the fighters any time after the fight’s-on call.

Crews were always briefed when we were susceptible to being jumped by a Wild Card, because otherwise the appearance of an unexpected aircraft would be cause to terminate the run. And even when we weren’t actually jumped, just checking for the Wild Card added to our workload.

Our Topgun opponents were flying Northrop F-5E and F-5F Tiger IIs and McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawks. On paper the F-14 bested both aircraft in most measures of performance, even though it was much larger than either of them. But their small size and agility helped both types challenge the Navy’s frontline fighters. Moreover, the experience of their Topgun pilots was a huge factor and one of the school’s major teaching points: Aircrew training and performance are frequently the deciding factor in aerial combat.

Led by a two-seat Northrop F-5F, three single seat F-5E Tiger IIs head out for an early morning mission—to give Topgun students a run for their money over Southern California. (Dave Baranek)

For this Wednesday morning run—halfway through the five-week program—all Topgun aircraft were simulating MiG-21s with simple heat-seeking missiles that had to be fired from the rear quarter so they could track our exhaust heat. That gave the F-14s a decided advantage during the intercept, but would still be a challenge once we engaged the bandits.

Flying in loose formation at 22,000 feet and about 220 knots indicated airspeed, we waited for the first two F-14s to finish so we could take our turn on the range. Rather than just kill time waiting, we switched the front-seat radios in both jets to listen to the other section. We heard the fighters ahead of us run intercepts, call missile shots and engage at the merge. It did not go well. Since it played out just moments before we were to enter the same arena, however, this helped us prepare mentally and gave us fresh incentive to remain calm and professional.

The other section knocked off their last fight and headed for Yuma to refuel and debrief. We reset our front-seat radios to our assigned frequency, and on the back-seat radio I called, “Topgun 3 and 4 ready for weapons checks.” We coordinated with our controller to verify that our TACTS pods were working. Each aircraft carried a small pod that linked us to the Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System, transmitting our position, speed, Gload and other information to ground stations where it was viewed in real time and recorded, making it a priceless aid for both real-time control and detailed debriefs. I thought TACTS was a cool gadget when I was first exposed to it, and the more I used it, the more I appreciated its value.

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