by Andy Bush
The chatter on the radio during refueling is pretty boring compared to the CAS scenario. For one thing, the USAF has prescribed the radio calls to be made, and the USAF has never been very imaginative! Secondly, the tanker could be a busy place with numerous flights of a/c looking for a few pounds of fuel…as such, the radio calls were kept to a minimum. As an aside, I always get a laugh at how movies and TV portray how pilots talk to each other over the radio. We may be full of B/S at the bar, but in the air we tend to be pretty quiet. There is a good reason for this. Often times, there are a number of a/c all on the same freq. No one needs a “motor-mouth” crowding out the radio. As fighter pilots, we are pretty critical of our own performance as well as others. Good radio discipline is strictly enforced.
In addition to a further look at typical radio procedures, this Wolf 20 story will include a discussion of formation flying and follow the flight through their air refueling. Having said that, let’s get back to our boys.
The climb away from the CAS target area is known as the ‘post-strike’ phase of the mission. Wolf Lead begins by kicking the flight out to route. He then calls for another fence check to ensure each flight member safes his switches. Lead is satisfied with how the CAS went. Each pilot’s aim was good and all the restrictions were complied with. Only half of his flight’s weapons were needed to destroy the target. Rather than take perfectly good bombs back to base, he decides to look for additional tasking…but first, he needs some gas. In order to coordinate an air refueling request, the Lead sends the flight back to Cricket’s frequency.
After checking in, the leader calls, “Cricket, Wolf 20 is Channel 81, 330 for 50, looking for gas.” The air refueling controller on board Cricket determines which group of tankers (KC-135s) is closest and/or available. He tells Wolf the location and call sign of the tanker cell, “Wolf, Cherry 08 is in the block 200 to 230.” This tells the F-4 leader the location (Cherry track), call sign (Cherry 08), and altitude (FL200 to FL230). The leader knows the TACAN beacon that identifies the Cherry refueling track, turns his flight to a rendezvous heading, and begins a climb to FL180. Wolf Lead computes this rendezvous heading using a technique known as ‘point to point.’ The Lead refers to his map to find the Cherry anchor location and then uses the point to point technique to compute a no-wind heading from his present position to the anchor track. Lead plans to level off at FL180…this altitude will keep him 2000 feet below the tankers for safety until he gets a visual contact on the tanker.
As Lead looks to his 12 o’clock in the direction of the Cherry track, he sees a wide band of developing thunderstorms…nothing new in the hot and moist Southeast Asian climate. He doesn’t have the gas to try and go around the storm, so he’ll have to pick his way through it using his radar, his eyes, and a whole bunch of wisdom gained through years of flying. His first order of business is to get the flight formation squared away…he rocks his wings back and forth slowly. This is the visual signal to rejoin to a closer formation known as ‘fingertip.’ In fingertip, each pilot moves in until the distance between wingtips is less than ten feet. He also makes a short radio call to alert everyone that he intends to penetrate the weather ahead…this gets the other pilots thinking hard about good formation flying and lets the other backseaters back up the Lead’s GIB with their radars.
Lead cross-checks what he sees on his radar display with what he visually sees ahead. There’s an old saying, “One peep is worth a thousand sweeps,” and this is true today. Lead sees a gap in the cloud returns on his radar…this may indicate an alley to fly between the densest parts of the storm. But looking further to the right, Lead sees the white brilliance of sunlit clouds. The radar return direction looks darker and more ominous. Lead has to make a decision…does he go strictly on the radar return…or does he trust what he sees with his eyes? It doesn’t take him long to make the decision. “We’re coming right…move it in.” Lead is alerting everyone to the upcoming storm penetration, and he wants the wingmen to close up the spacing even more.
Now comes the hard part for Lead. He must pick a heading to fly that will mean the least amount of turning possible. When the flight enters the weather, he wants to be the most stable platform he can be…he’s got three guys hanging on for dear life, and any turns that he makes while in the weather only compounds the problem that the wingmen have in staying in position. Lead cross-checks his radar one more time and then lines up the flight on a steady heading right for the center of the sunny clouds. When it comes to weather penetration, he has always believed that ‘sunny is good and dark is bad.’ The wingmen are paying close attention to what Lead is doing. Of course they are concerned for the flight’s safety…but they trust Lead’s judgment, and they are using today as a lesson for their own eventual upgrade to flight lead status.
As the clouds close in on Wolf flight, the inflight visibility lowers for the wingmen. What had been ten feet of wingtip spacing now lessens to just a few feet. Number three is a flight lead also and fully realizes that he has to be super smooth while flying off Lead’s wing…the reason is that number four is flying off his wing. Any movement that number three makes will be transmitted to his wingman and made larger in the process.
Flying close formation is a visual exercise that drains one’s energy…it requires the maximum in attention. The technique for staying in position is pretty straightforward…often times referred to as ’light on the star.’
This term refers to the technique of aligning one part of the other aircraft so that it lines up with another part. In the F-4, the pilot wants to fly staggered back slightly. If he maneuvers so that the rear navigation light on the other aircraft’s wingtip lines up with the circle and star insignia on the side of the fuselage, then he will be at the proper angle back. In good visual conditions, the wingmen use this reference to get into the approximate position and then expand their visual crosscheck to include the forward portion of the leader’s aircraft to include the cockpit. This is done so that the wingman can see any hand signals the Lead may be making.
Wolf Lead has chosen his route of flight well, and the flight proceeds through the weather without too many problems. The number two man is a new guy, and the last thing he wants to happen is to lose sight of Lead, so he packs it in tight…at times his wing is actually overlapping Lead’s. If the wingman loses sight, he will have to execute the lost wingman procedure. This will require him to turn away from the leader and descend…he doesn’t want this to occur…if it does he may never regain visual contact with Lead. And he knows Lead will not be a happy camper in the debrief. But skill and luck are with our young number two and the weather improves slowly allowing him to open the spacing up slightly and relax.
Several more minutes pass by, and then Wolf flight is once again in the clear. Lead kicks them out to route and radios a “Nice job, guys.” Lead is a stern disciplinarian and quick to nail a screw up…but he also knows the value of a pat on the back. As each wingman slides out to the more relaxed route formation, they grin a bit behind their oxygen masks…”He’s happy, I’m happy” each are saying. And they know their GIBs are going to be bragging up how well they all did at the bar later on. Something along the lines of, “You think you were packed in there tight? Shit, we were so close I could see the filaments in the nav light!!”
As everyone relaxes a little, some reach into their g-suits and get out their water bottle. The frozen water has thawed and the drink is a welcome relief from the stress of weather formation flying. Then it’s back to business as Wolf flight nears the refueling area.
As the flight approaches the Cherry anchor, the GIBs are working like crazy to get the first radar contact, in particular, the backseaters in #2 and #4. In the ever competitive fighter world, wingmen love to beat the leader to the draw!! This time, the GIB in the element Lead (#3) draws first blood! He blurts out, “Wolf 22, contact 20 right for 40.” He has said that he has a radar contact 20 degrees to the right of the flight’s course at a range of 40nm. The leader responds, “Contact.” The leader then flies the intercept.
As the flight closes on the tanker, the wingmen are now straining their eyes to get the first tally on the tanker. If the first radar contact is the ‘Golden Ring’ for the GIBs, then the first tally is the same for the front seaters. As before, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction that goes with beating the leader to the tally. A good leader knows this and usually keeps quiet about getting the first tally, remembering how much he liked being the first to see the tanker as a wingman (it’s that competition thing again!). This time, the number four man gets the first tally. But before he mashes the mike button and announces to the world that he, more so than anyone else, has the eyes of an eagle, he composes himself, clears his throat to get a manly, Charleton Heston, tone in his voice, and says, “Wolf 23, tally the tanker, left, 10:30, high, 8 miles.”
Good radio discipline mandates that tally calls include direction (left), clock code (10:30), elevation (high), and estimated range. The direction and clock code may seem repetitive, but it assures that people don’t call tally ho’s on the wrong side of the nose. The leader calls tally and then radios the tanker, “Cherry 08, Wolf 20, your five o’clock low for 8.” The tanker (usually the cockpit crew) responds, “Wolf, you’re cleared in.” At this time, the leader may now climb up into the tanker’s altitude block…until now, he remained below FL200 to ensure deconfliction with the tanker or any other fighters that may be already on the tanker. Now the tanker refueling boom operator (the “boomer“) takes over.
“Wolf 20, Cherry has a tally. Cleared pre-contact. Check nose is cold.” He has told the F-4 leader to complete the rejoin to just behind the tanker (the pre-contact position) and to make sure all armament switches are off and as well as the radar. Wolf flight responds in turn, “One’s nose is cold, Two’s nose is cold,” etc.
The leader may tell the boomer what the refueling order is. This is based on which pilot needs fuel the most…wingmen usually are the low men and will take their fuel first. “Wolf, refueling order is 2,4,3,1.” The leader then signals his #3 man to take #4 to one wing of the tanker while he goes to the other. He calls the flight ready, “Wolf flight ready.” The boomer responds, “Cleared in.” The leader signals #2 to go to the boom (boom – the refueling probe extending down from the KC-135).
The tanker has lights on the bottom of its fuselage that cue the pilot into position. The boomer may also chime in when necessary, “forward two, down three,” etc. Most people try to keep it quiet. As must be obvious, air refueling is a most demanding process. Everyone is at max attention since the slightest error can spell disaster.
The general idea is for the F-4 pilot to stabilize in a position below and slightly behind the tanker. Once stabilized in position, the boomer will fly the boom to the refueling receptacle on the back of the F-4 to the rear of the aft canopy. The boomer then plugs the boom into the F-4 and begins to pump gas.
All the F-4 pilot has to do is to hold his exact position…easier said than done. The F-4 pilot has two options for how to fly this position. He can lower his seat and look under the canopy bow to see the refueling lights on the bottom of the tanker…or he can raise the seat almost all the way up. In this up position he is going to look into his rear view mirror and look for the refueling boom. He’s looking for the area where the boom probe slides out of the boom itself. There are markings to indicate how far the probe has extended out of the boom. The pilot will use these markings to tell him his forward and back relative position…he will use his peripheral vision to hold the proper elevation position. If necessary the boomer can help with an “Up two” or “Down one” call.
The F-4 pilot trims the stick based on the technique he prefers…some pilots like to trim slightly nose down so that they are holding a slight amount of back stick to stay in position…they think this gives them a better feel for the plane. Throttle movements are tiny, and usually done by walking the throttles. This means the pilot will advance one throttle at a time by rotating his wrist slightly sideways to move a single throttle at a time. Most pilots stay off the rudder during refueling. The concentration is intense…regardless of technique, each pilot focuses on staying in position as if the world depended on it. In a sense, it does…the penalty for a mistake now is the unthinkable.
When #2 finishes, he disconnects and maneuvers back on to the leader’s wing. As #2 clears the boom, the Lead radios #4 to move into position. #4 reduces his power slightly to drop back behind #3, then he slides across to line up with the boom. The boomer clears him in. A couple of minutes later, #4 has his fuel, and he rejoins back on three’s outside wing. As #4 crosses three’s six and moves forward on his wing, he calls, “Four’s clear,” letting #3 know that he can now safely drop back to the pre-contact position. As #3 moves down to the pre-contact position, #4 takes up station on the tanker’s wingtip.
After getting his gas, #3 disconnects and slides over to his previous position. #4 is ready for this and widens his spacing to let the element Lead back in. The leader then drops down, leaving #2 on the tanker’s wing. After Lead tops off, he disconnects and slowly reduces his power to drop back behind the tanker. As he does so, the wingmen leave the tanker and rejoin on the Lead. With the flight now back in the desired formation order, the Lead descends and turns away from the tanker’s heading. The leader calls clear of the tanker, and the boomer gives the offload to the flight in pounds, “One, you took 4000, two got 5000…”,etc. (Offload – the amount of fuel transferred to each aircraft and measured in thousands of pounds).
Once clear of the tanker block, the leader sends the flight back to Cricket for more tasking info. Wolf flight has topped off their tanks, and, with remaining ordnance, is ready to rejoin the war.