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-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."
"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
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
Posted July 21, 2011
Posted March 24, 2009
Black Aces High by Robert Wilcox is an account of a fighter pilot squadron during the Kosovo War. The book follows a squadron called the Black Aces and the missions that they performed. It talks about first hand accounts of bombings on Serbian positions while dodging anti-aircraft fire. It retells the heroic work of the fighter pilots in saving thousands of Albanian lives from being massacred by the Siberian Army. A major message in this book is to never give up. Some of these pilots where working double and triple shifts and were still expected to fly for several more hours before getting any sleep. They were faced with many situations were the outcome wasn't in their favor, but they stayed focused and got the job done. They stuck through to the very end knowing that every minute wasted is another innocent Albanian life lost. What I like about this book is that there is a lot of action and you are kept in suspense on almost every occasion. It makes you fell as if you were actually in the cockpit getting ready to bomb a Siberian stronghold. What I didn't like about this book was that it didn't really tell you why the Aces were going to war; it just threw you right in the mix of things. There were also a lot of pilots names used and it was hard to remember who was who. A lot of aircraft terms were also used and some of them are hard to figure out. Anyone who enjoys books about action and war should read this book. It takes the reader and thrusts them into the cockpit for an unforgettable ride. I would not recommend this to someone who doesn't enjoy war books or that of aviation. Some other books written by this author that are recommended are Scream Of Eagles and Wings Of Fury. Both of these books are similar to Black Aces High except that they are accounts during different time periods and wars. I found that once I got started, it was hard to put this book down. Overall I would give this book a four out of five for its accurate retellings of the war through the eyes of the fighter pilot and its ability to always keep the reader glued to the pages.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 14, 2003
I just finished reading Black Aces High and thought it was outstanding. I read the entire book in one sitting and it was fantastic. I was an F-18 pilot on that cruise and while the book concentrated more on the Tomcat than the Hornet, it accuratly portrayed the the missions and development of some fairly advanced tactics in SCAR. The action in Kosovo was much more intese than Iraq. In addition I was pretty close to most of the guys in the book and he really captured their personalities. Sometimes the truth needs some embellishment to make an interesting story. However, this book was right on the mark, had no embellishment and was captivating. Reading about the strikes in which I participated and the antics of squadron life brought back some great memories. Every squadron had a cast of characters that are pretty funny, but the VF-41 had a lot of larger than life personalities. If you want an accurate portrayal of a squadron at war and the thoughts which pass through pilot's heads during combat, this is a great book. Sincerely, Kurt McClung LCDR USN San DiegoWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.