Just how stressful is it to fly a fighter jet? Hear it from the pilots themselves.
The 455th Air Expeditionary Wing interviewed F-16 pilots deployed to Afghanistan about some of their hairiest experiences in the cockpit while protecting troops on the ground.
“We were out doing just some base defense-type stuff, kinda low key, when we got the call that there were troops in contact,” said Lt. Col. Mike “Homie” McGinn, describing one mission where ground units were begging for air support.
McGinn said as soon as he keyed in the frequency to reach the ground controller, he could hear screaming shots being fired in the background.
“Be advised, we just had a medivac — multiple Americans wounded,” an unidentified ground controller says in the video released last week. “Our guys are getting shot up, we need those buildings dropped now.”
But it isn’t as simple as just hitting the “pickle button.”
“We heard the dreaded words ‘danger close’ which means, in essence, we’d be employing right in the middle of their fight,” Major Ray “Hollywood” Fowler said. The pilots had to get more information from the units on the ground to ensure they wouldn’t put the ordnance in the wrong spot.
“The comms were terrible,” McGinn said. The terrain in Afghanistan, especially the mountains, often creates static or complete blackouts in communication between ground units and the jets overhead. So the pilots waited for further confirmation of the best coordinates.
“The worst thing for any fighter pilot, or anyone in this type of scenario, would be to drop into — or hurt or kill — friendly people on the ground,” Fowler said.
The ground units responded with even more urgency: “Americans will die if you don’t f***ing drop the bomb,” they said in the video.
Moments later, the pilots engaged the enemy.
“We finally got it all together and were able to put down a bomb, and you could just hear the calm in his voice,” McGinn said.
The roughly 15-minute video was put together by the Air Force Central Command Combat Camera unit and primarily highlights pilots and maintainers from the 100th Fighter Squadron, who carry on the legacy of the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the 187th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. The Red Tails, as the squadron is commonly called, were deployed to Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom from mid-April until early November.
Having the opportunity to actually work with guys on the ground, to make a difference in people’s lives, to drop ordnance, and to make strafing runs that are going to ensure people go home to their families is a pretty awesome experience,” said 1st Lt. Bart “Lefty” Smith, F-16 pilot and wingman.
The entire video is worth a watch, but be sure to catch minutes 2:00-5:00 and the in-cockpit view while the gatling gun is fired on a strafing run at 7:48.
The risks on the ground are intense, but flying the F-16s in a deployed environment brings its own set of dangers. The Air Force on Monday announced the loss of an aviator tasked to the 455th AEW. According to Stars and Stripes, the jet was on mission to drop ordnance on Islamic State targets. The loss constitutes the third U.S. military fatality during Operation Inherent Resolve.
U.S. Central Command said the accident happened as the jet was returning to the air base after taking off, and the pilot has not been named. The U.S. and coalition forces continue to wipe out Islamic State targets; the Defense Department announced 15 airstrikes that took place between Nov. 26 and Nov. 28. Coalition forces eliminated Islamic State bunkers, a tactical unit, armored vehicles and other heavy weapons.