Black Aces High: The Story of a Modern Fighter Squadron at War

Black Aces High: The Story of a Modern Fighter Squadron at War

by Robert K. Wilcox
     
 

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A riveting account of a modern fighter squadron at war and the exploits, triumphs, and traumas of its pilots.

The Black Aces. Their courage, ferocity, and instincts made them legendary in military aviation. Flying F-14 Tomcats, they played as much a part in recent US operations in Kosovo as did any air squadron in the theater, air force or navy, and probably

Overview

A riveting account of a modern fighter squadron at war and the exploits, triumphs, and traumas of its pilots.

The Black Aces. Their courage, ferocity, and instincts made them legendary in military aviation. Flying F-14 Tomcats, they played as much a part in recent US operations in Kosovo as did any air squadron in the theater, air force or navy, and probably more. Because of its superior performance, sophisticated equipment and the two-man crews who took it upon themselves to do something extra, the Tomcat and its aviators distinguished themselves over and over.

Forced to locate Serb fighters operating covertly in a mountainous land much like Afghanistan, with almost no help from ground spotters, VF-41 pilots and backseaters spearheaded new methods for the navy to pinpoint, identify, and destroy enemy troops and weapons. These were tasks that fighter crews had seldom had to do before. The Aces had to break rules and frequently go in harms way in order to be successful. And they performed so well that for the first time in aviation history, a fighter squadron - theirs - was awarded The Wade McClusky Trophy, the navy's premier bombing honor. The award, named for a World War II dive bomber pilot and post-WorldWar II admiral, had been won previously only by bombing squadrons.

Robert Wilcox spent two weeks with The Black Aces aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Roosevelt and here provides a long-awaited, never-before-seen glimpse into the world of a modern navy fighter squadron. Wilcox takes readers into the cockpits as the pilots go out and attack targets while avoiding anti-aircraft weaponry. He takes us into the war room as they plan their strikes and into their cabins as they contemplate the danger they are facing. And the reader can't help but worry for these men as they head off into battle, can't help sitting on the edge of the seat as they try to land at night, in a rainstorm, with waves crashing against the ship, and can't help ducking with them as they dodge missile attacks. And in the end, it is impossible not to feel for these aviators as they question their own courage, or to cheer for them when they finally return safely.

i3797Black Aces High is a story of fear and courage, mishap and success, fighting spirit and military innovation. It's a human story that goes behind the smiling, sunglass-wearing facade of aviators flashing a "V", the sterile, slow motion target video that has become a staple of Pentagon briefings, and the rock 'n' roll cowboy image of fighter crews seen in the
movies. Instead, it is a story that shows who these aviators really are and what they do beyond what we know, a story which probably will be repeated again and again as our carriers continue to be deployed in the new, 21 century war our nation is fighting.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A former U.S. Air Force information officer with several books to his credit, Wilcox here tells the story of VF-41, a navy fighter squadron that flew aging F-14 Tomcats in the air war over Kosovo during the U.N. operations against Serbia in 1999. Wilcox, who spent two weeks aboard the USS Roosevelt, where the unit is based, brings the reader into the cockpits during runs and target searches. Split-second decisions are the order of the day, as hidden SAM missile batteries and lurking MiG fighters bar the path. Wilcox shows how Cmdr. Joseph P. Aucoin transformed "Black Aces" into a crack outfit that devised new methods of pinpointing and destroying enemy ground forces. The squadron flew numerous missions over Serbia before receiving a well-earned rest in Turkey. The Black Aces then spearheaded the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan last year. A fast-moving look behind the scenes, this acronym-laden work shows top pilots functioning with their multimillion-dollar aircraft. Photos not seen by PW. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Former U.S. Air Force information officer and author Wilcox (Wings of Fury) describes the actions of the Black Aces Squadron in September 1999 in the skies over Kosovo. Assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt, the Black Aces squadron (VF-41) flew aging Tomcat fighter jets. Through a series of interviews conducted during two weeks aboard the Roosevelt, Wilcox discovered that, despite their enthusiasm, these young pilots lacked the combat experience and knowledge of the enemy they were facing. In addition, they frequently used their sophisticated weapons systems ineffectively. Nevertheless, as vividly described by Wilcox, these pilots made fast-paced, daring missions over Kosovo, often flying dangerous low-level missions to gather timely intelligence reports just before actual air strikes. The pilots' individual stories-of their missions, training, and the close-knit world of naval pilots-make for intriguing reading and give the reader a better understanding of recent events. The glossary explains many military terms, and a complete roster of the pilots and others associated with the squadron is also provided. Tailored to the lay reader as well as the military buff, this book is recommended for senior high school and public library collections as a concise, readable analysis of a contemporary military conflict and the people who carry out the missions.-David M. Alperstein, Queens Borough P.L., Jamaica, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Former Air Force officer Wilcox (Wings of Fury, 1997, etc.) depicts the aerial teamwork and harrowing exploits of the Navy’s Black Aces squadron during the 1999 air war over Kosovo. Fighter pilots in modern warfare need tactical savvy as well as bravery, the author reminds us in this insider’s account. Interviewing pilots aboard the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt as the Kosovo conflict was winding down, he learned that many of the Navy’s young pilots began their tour without the type of combat experience necessary to face the sophisticated armaments of an ex-Soviet bloc country. According to Wilcox, this lack of experience confronted the Black Aces with two initial problems: young pilots failed to use their equipment properly in the heat of battle, and naval planners had no effective plan for engaging Serbian ground combat forces. His interviews clearly chronicle how the pilots quickly developed techniques for dodging surface-to-air missiles while simultaneously raining smart bombs upon strategic Serbian command posts. The narrative also captures the naval officers’ innovative solution for acquiring timely intelligence about well-camouflaged and highly mobile ground forces: right before an air strike, they sent out dangerous low-altitude missions with state-of-the-art imaging systems. As interesting as the author makes the Kosovo air campaign’s history sound, he grips the reader most with his portrayal of the close-knit community of fighter pilots. By the time Wilcox describes the Black Aces’ successful decimation of enemy armored columns at the campaign’s end, he has transformed the aviators from Top Gun clones into brave individuals overcoming tremendous challenges. Action-packeddescriptions of modern air combat combined with detailed tactical analysis: an intriguing account for general readers as well as valuable for military specialists.
From the Publisher
"Black Aces High should be required reading for every American in the Age of Terror."

-Stephen Coonts, author of America

"Action-packed descriptions of modern air combat combined with detailed tactical analysis: an intriguing account for general readers as well as valuable for military specialists."

-Kirkus Reviews

"A unique look at the inner workings of naval aviation through the prism of an F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron. Although it is an exciting book, this is not a techno-thriller. This is a book about the reality of war and the reality of the men and women who engage in warfare in the air."-Proceedings

"A fast-moving look behind the scenes."-Publishers Weekly

"Tailored to the lay reader as well as the military buff, this book is...a concise, readable analysis of a contemporary military conflict and the people who carry out the missions."-Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429982344
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
04/01/2007
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
492,307
File size:
501 KB

Read an Excerpt

BLACK ACES HIGH (One: Skies Above Decimomannu, Sardinia, Late Summer 1999, After the Kosovo War)

Lt. Marcus "Lupe" Lopez wrenched his Tomcat hard and low into the path of the MiG-29 as it roared past their merge. The fight was on. He shot a look back to see the point-nosed Fulcrum's afterburners blowing fire in the start of a high climbing turn—a first move in gaining an advantage. The 29, its retreating silhouette gleaming lethally in the Mediterranean sun, could actually increase its speed going up—a phenomenal feat normally reserved only for rockets.

Scarily, the guy driving the Fulcrum was one of the best MiG-29 pilots in the world—a burly senior German officer call-signed "Hooter," who had missing teeth and a beard, and liked to wear an eye patch and pirate bandanna when off duty drinking or riding his motorcycle. Besides being a biker, he was a professional dogfighter who spent nearly all his considerable airborne hours practicing air-combat maneuvering, or "ACM" in the jargon, in perhaps the best dogfighting jet in the world.

In contrast, Lupe—a slight, clean-cut, youthful twenty-seven, with dark-haired good looks and a genial personality, had only been in the VF-41 Black Aces squadron for a little over five months and hadn't been in a turning fight since he'd left the F-14 training squadron the previous spring. Lupe was a rookie, or "nugget," as they call a new pilot in the navy, shiny barred and untested, with at most a half-dozen one-versus-one (1v1) dogfights on his résumé.

He was also in one of the navy's oldest jets, the F-14A, which had made its debut back in 1972, nearly three decades before. While it was fitted with new avionics and other upgrades that made it, among other things, a better turner than many newer Tomcat models, it was still an aging fighter that, on paper, did not match up well in a turning fight against the newer Fulcrum.

The MiG even had a Star Wars-type missile-firing system that allowed its pilot to launch merely by pointing his helmet at the intended target. If Hooter could get the Tomcat in a position only forty-five degrees off his MiG's nose—which was a heck of a lot easier to establish than the Tomcat's narrower, ten-to-twenty-degree nose-on requirements—and at the proper distance, Lupe was dead meat.

No question the young lieutenant had his hands full this August day in the beautiful sun-splashed fight skies off Italy. And he knew it.

But he had a plan.

He and his backseater, Lt. Comdr. Louis "Loose" Cannon, a quiet, thoughtful Desert Storm veteran flying RIO, or radar intercept officer, with Lupe specifically because of his experience, had decided they would, at first, just try to keep the fight even, doing their best to stay out of the maneuverable, smaller MiG's kill envelopes while threatening it enough to keep it at bay. The tactic would buy them time, and if Hooter made a mistake, they'd pounce.

Maximum performance was the key. As long as they could continue turning well enough to keep their nose threatening the 29, Hooter would have to respect them. He wouldn't go for the kill until he thought they were in trouble. Since they didn't have the MiG's power, they'd use gravity to help them turn. Turning bled speed, or "energy," as it was also called in the dogfighting world. Without speed, any fighter is vulnerable. Maneuvering becomes harder. But roaring down, with gravity aiding them, they'd be regaining energy lost in the hard turning.

It was a chess game, the cobra and the mongoose. If Lupe and Loose kept sight of the MiG so that they knew where it was and therefore what to anticipate, and kept elusive so that the MiG had harder shooting angles, and if Lupe flew the jet at its optimum turning speed—around 310-to-320 knots—where it would curl fastest and in the shortest radius, they would have a chance.

It only took one mistake to give them an opening.

The Tomcat was now seconds into its descending turn. Lupe was tugging the stick as hard as he could, his feet coordinating the rudders, keeping the jet steady at the six and one half Gs at which it curved the best.

A "G" stands for a unit of force roughly equivalent to a man's weight. One G can feel like 180 pounds on the body; six Gs, like a crushing half ton. Gs on an airplane are exerted by gravity. They are similar to, but much greater than, the centrifugal force experienced in a car careening around a corner. Too many Gs and blood drains from the brain. Unconsciousness, or blackout, ensues. Aviators wear inflating G-suits, or "speed jeans," to keep blood from draining. But the more Gs they experience, the harder that task becomes—as their grunting and groaning often indicate.

First color fades. Then vision tunnels. Unconsciousness comes next. And it isn't a sweet drift into sleep. It's a sometimes-nauseous, painful, scary feeling that no pilot or RIO wants or likes.

But at this point unconsciousness wasn't a factor. Perhaps there was only a little graying at the edges. Both Lupe and Loose were locked on the MiG, their perceptions supercharged as they roared to optimum knot speed.

In a second or two, Loose would start snatching glimpses at instruments in the cockpit in order to keep Lupe advised of airspeed, Gs, and other data he needed in order to fly without having to take his eyes off the Fulcrum. Years prior, when backseaters were first introduced to modern navy jet fighters, the RIO was resented by pilots who didn't feel they needed somebody else's help.

But Vietnam changed that. Backseaters more than proved their worth as a second pair of eyes for finding MiGs that looked like gnats in the huge sky, and for reducing the complicated workload, including running the radar and locating bombing targets. Such tasks were increasingly demanded in the cockpits of the sophisticated new jets. By the time the Tomcat became the main carrier fighter, RIOs, because of their worth, expertise, and proven leadership, were increasingly being given command of fighter squadrons, even though they rode in the backseat without a stick.

In fact, at this very moment, the Black Aces were commanded by a RIO, Comdr. Joseph "Joey" Aucoin, a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, which was better known as "Top Gun." Joey, like Loose, was a Desert Storm combat veteran with thousands of hours in the backseat.

But none of this was on their minds right now—if it ever was. Lupe and Loose were only thinking of the fight.

Suddenly, Hooter did the unexpected—well, not totally unexpected, because Lupe and Loose knew the Fulcrum tactics and had discussed just such a move. But the fight had begun as they wanted, and, in the heat of battle, they had hoped it would continue that way.

Both jets at this instant were at the beginnings of what is called a "two-circle" fight. At the merge, they had turned into each other, the MiG going high, the Tomcat low. In order to bring their noses around to threaten each other, each fighter would have to travel a full circle, or 360 degrees; hence the two circles. Two-circle was what Lupe and Loose wanted because if they could hold the optimum six-and-a-half-G turn as they were, they felt they could traverse the circle about as fast as the Fulcrum.

They'd remain even.

But now they saw Hooter do a sudden reversal, a quick change of direction from the circle he was previously flying to the beginnings of one in the opposite direction. He'd suddenly gone counterclockwise, which would change the fight into what is called a "one circle." While a two-circle could be envisioned as a figure eight in the sky, with both jets roaring clockwise on the opposite spheres of the eight—eventually, after 360 degrees of turn, to meet in the middle—a one-circle fight flipped one jet out in the opposite direction so that it only needed to turn 180 degrees to meet the other.

One-circle meant that in an instant Hooter had cut in half the curling distance he had to travel.

Hooter probably figured that Lupe, being as green as he was, wouldn't know what was happening and would continue along his 360-degree trek. With Lupe and Loose rounding the bottom of the eight, the 29 would quickly be aiming at the Tomcat like a submarine fixed on an unsuspecting freighter.

But Lupe and Loose had kept sight of Hooter and seen his maneuver. Lupe instantly knew he had to counter. In a millisecond, he also reversed, in effect forcing the fight back to a two-circle. It was a violent reversal, smashing both men against the cockpit as Lupe rammed the stick forward to "unload," or "divest Gs," so he could reverse more quickly, and then snapped it back sharply in the other direction while simultaneously pumping the rudders. Lupe's reaction not only nullified Hooter's reversal, but because of a design flaw in the Fulcrum, gave him a chance to pounce.

The MiG had a blind spot behind its cockpit. Unlike the Tomcat crew, which sat fairly elevated in a cockpit that gave them clear 360-degree vision, Hooter sat low, a large seat back obstructing his view. When he made his reversal, it flipped the rear of the Fulcrum at the F-14, causing him to momentarily lose sight. In that millisecond, Lupe made his reversal. When Hooter came out of the maneuver, he was expecting to see the Tomcat in a chunk of sky near where he'd left it.

But it wasn't there!

In addition, because he was going up, the reversal cost Hooter airspeed. "He pulled for everything he was worth," recalls Lupe. "He doesn't care about energy.... He just wants to bring his nose around faster. That's what the MiG-29 does best. Maneuverability. But as soon as he does, he's bleeding airspeed. He's trading energy for nose position. He'll do that to get the one-circle because with the one-circle he can get the quick kill."

But because of the blind spot, he didn't see the Tomcat reverse. He burst from his reversal, fangs out. But instead of finding the Tomcat a mile below, bottoming around a two-circle turn, he saw nothing but an empty piece of sky.

"Lose sight, lose fight," is the dictum.

Now Hooter had to be scared.

And with good reason. Since the Tomcat was headed down when it reversed, it had hardly lost any speed. Lupe and Loose, their jet primed, were quick-turning up on the other side of the MiG, barely three thousand feet away, and preparing to shoot. The MiG teetered helplessly, nose up, trying to regain some maneuvering speed, its pilot desperately trying to find his target.

But it was too late.

As the Tomcat closed the gap and Lupe called "Fox One," meaning a radar missile had been locked and was on its way, Hooter finally located them. It's not clear whether he heard the Fox One call, got warning indications of the radar lock on his cockpit alert gear, or simply spotted them against the azure Mediterranean sky. But he realized instantly that he was in trouble. Hooter did the only thing he could do. In an effort to bring his nose back around and at least try to threaten the Tomcat, he again pulled hard with everything he had and overstressed the Fulcrum.

"His nose is still stuck up high, and I'm down low," recalled Lupe. "So he's trying to bring his nose down there as fast as he can, and he probably pulls the stick in his lap."

The MiG-29 is a nine-G jet, meaning that's the limit the manufacturer says the pilot can put on it. Anything more is dangerous and can break the plane. "I'm sure he pulled so hard he hurt himself," said Lupe. "You can feel it. It's a seat-of-the-pants thing...very painful...He knew he'd overstressed the jet."

This was a training fight and had to be called off. The jet might have been damaged in the overstress, rendering it unsafe to fly hard any longer. Lupe and Loose had already won anyway because the Fox One they had called was a kill shot, verified by their onboard equipment. Had they been in a real dogfight, Hooter, not the rookie, would have bought the farm.

"That was nice," said Lupe. "We had to fly back slow and easy, check his jet, and make sure nothing was broken. We were happy as can be and ready for the German O club."

And it had all happened in less than a minute.

Make no mistake—had he not damaged his jet, Hooter most likely would have returned and in the next fight waxed the rookie. Experience counts. It counts the most. But for this day, Lupe was the victor, and Loose was probably less impressed because he'd seen it so much more.

But for a fighter pilot, ACM was traditionally what distinguished the good from the not so good. Things had changed in the nineties. Bombing, which most fighter pilots regarded as grunt work, was definitely making a comeback. But ACM was still how a fighter pilot made his reputation and secured his place in the pecking order, his right to stand at the bar with his mate, hands flying, telling great stories.

So Lupe was feeling his oats. But he was no fool. He knew the fight could just as easily have gone the other way.

What he was really happy about was that he had upheld his squadron's honor. By a chance draw, he had been matched against the MiG squadron's best—and on the very first day of the squadron's one-versus-one fights. The squadron was like a family, a fraternity. It was an elite brotherhood of men he liked and respected. Some he might have even idolized. The demands of the squadron meant that a pilot or RIO spent more time with its members than with his wife or girlfriend. It was an intimate, revealing camaraderie. You can't fake who you are at six hundred knots, with your life liable to be snuffed out in a millisecond. Pilots and RIOs flew and sometimes tragically died together. They trusted each other, depended on each other. They were handpicked, recruited like professional athletes or elite social-club pledges. A squadron wanted the best, demanded the best.

Because of all this, Lupe was proud that he'd held his own. He'd just been through a war with the Black Aces and contributed more than he had expected, and this was further proof that he was fitting in.

But he hadn't always felt this way. Five months earlier, in April 1999, he'd been as apprehensive as any nugget pilot. Not just because he was joining his first squadron and going on his first cruise. But because the Black Aces, one of two F-14 squadrons on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, were going to war.

BLACK ACES HIGH Copyright © 2002 by Robert K. Wilcox

Meet the Author

Robert Wilcox is a former air force information officer and the author of
Wings of Fury, Scream of Eagles, and other books. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife where he also writes television and movie scripts.


Robert K. Wilcox is an award-winning journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. He is the author of nonfiction books including Scream of Eagles, Wings of Fury, and Black Aces High.

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