A Hawk rushes over a snowy country side. (Image via Nick Graham)

Low level: looking out for red air

To be able to drop a laser guided bomb from 20,000 feet you must be reasonably certain that the enemy can not kill you before you drop your bombs. If you do not have control of the air, you are left with cold war tactics of flying in low and fast to take control of the air. These missions are difficult and dangerous and it is the focus for junior pilots as they are trained to become fighters. It involves looking out for turning points, red air and….. the colour of a cottage door.

My final low level flight on the Hawk course before the new T2 brought glass cockpits and advanced avionics, was such as flight and it the most difficult flight I had to pass in my RAF career. The day started as usual with a weather-brief before my instructor gave me a 1:25,000 map and on it was an old mill in a Welsh valley. He also gave me a set of black and white photographs and a description of the building complex stating how the target was built and how it worked. It was simulating a power station and my task was to stop it working for at least 24hrs.

The aircraft flown in this article: the BAE Systems Hawk. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The aircraft flown in this article: the BAE Systems Hawk. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

It was decided to attack the generator hall simulating the use of 500lb bombs. I set to work on the target attack, figuring out how we would find the target and what direction we would need to drop the bombs from to make sure we achieved the task.

Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his second blog on Airheadsfly.com. Interested in reading Nick's first? <a href="http://airheadsfly.com/2015/09/12/on-qra-thats-not-right/">Find it here</a>.
Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his second blog on Airheadsfly.com. Interested in reading Nick’s first? Find it here.

I found the another maps from the surrounding area and lay them out on the table to see if there was a really big feature within about 2 minutes’ flying time the I could use as an Initial Point or “IP”. Once I found this big feature, I worked out how long it would take us to fly the attack, the worked out what time I needed to get to the IP at. All that planning gave me a planned take off time, a time to walk to the jets and a time to brief. Which was about 5 minutes ago!

Navigation is taught using detailed planning techniques. Map reading at 120kts is a different skill from that used when hillwalking. The start of a route is planned to begin at a big feature on the ground which is easy to find, such as a lighthouse on a coast. Turn points are chosen for their ease of identification whilst flying towards them. A forest might stand out easily on a map, but from low level, a mast (sometimes overlooked on a map) is by far the better turn point if it is big enough and unique. Features need to be BIG, like a mountain or lake.

As I taxied out, I watched a another Hawk take off. It was red air, an instructor launching to be the air threat for our mission! We lined up on the runway as a pair, I gave the “wind it up” hand signal and we set full power against the brakes. We each checked our engines were operating normally then set a slightly reduced power. This reduced power would give my wingman the ability to use more power if he needed it to stay in position during the formation take off. I looked at the wingman, he was giving me a thumbs up, so I tapped my helmet three times and with a nod of the head, we both released our brakes.

As we began rolling down the runway I looked at my watch, we were late. With the landing gear up I pushed the flat of my hand against the canopy, signalling my wingman to deploy into a tactical formation. I directed the formation towards the start of the low level route only about 30nm away in north Wales. I was already looking at my map working out where I would cut short the route to make up the 3minutes and 23 seconds we were late.

I had a plan, and away we went, dropping into the countryside down to 250’ at 420kts. Where we could we used the natural roads (valleys) to get between turn points. This helps stay out of sight of eyes and radars, stays below the weather and helps with navigation.

A Hawk rushes over a snowy country side. (Image via Nick Graham)
A Hawk rushes over a snowy country side. (Image via Nick Graham)

By the third turnpoint we were on time, we had extra fuel and the weather had improved. The clouds were breaking up nicely and great big holes of blue could be seen in the white cloud sheet. I looked across at my wingman to check his formation and saw a very brief glint of something against the cloud. Red air! I commanded the formation to break towards the hostile fighter and directed my wingman’s eyes onto the threat until he told me he could see it too. We fought a brief turning fight at low level before the hostile hawk ran off. He had done his job and ruined my timing! And where was I? You can’t stop, so a rough direction towards the target area was a sensible move until I found a big enough feature to work out where I was.

Now I had to work out our timing again, decide if I could turn short anywhere, or if I had to speed up. I was lucky and the route was still long enough to have places left that I could cut short. The attack went as planned. As we got back together as a formation, my instructor pretended to be AWACS and told me to look in my map holder in the cockpit. He had drawn a second target map up and asked if we could attack it. I had to find out where it was, decide how to get there and back and brief the wingman.

The encounter with the other Hawk had used up most of our combat gas though and I didn’t think we had enough fuel to make it so I refused the mission and we flew home as planned via a second pre-planned target which was a recce task of finding out the colour of the front door on a remote welsh cottage.

After the mission I had to debrief the sortie and state what went well and what could have been done better. It turns out we could have just about made the late notice target but only just with no extra combat gas, so my decision was deemed acceptable.

What did I learn from that? I’d rather be red air! And of course: low level tactic continues to be important.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham