Military aviation needs its airspace

Civil and military aviation better don’t mix. Why? Let me take you to RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, 3 Fighter Squadron. The squadron has increased its level of training to better prepare its junior pilots before they embark on the year-long Qualified Weapons Instructors’ Course (QWIC) We take turns at being the bad guys during training sorties in the training areas over the North Sea.

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.
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.

Today is our turn to be blue air so we invite our sister squadron’s pilots as red air. I’m responsible for the training and will be flying as the number 2. I’ve come up with a scenario that I want red air to use. I have told their flight leader that I want them to simulate the Su-27 Flanker and that they should simulate having airfields to the north of the airspace. Our “target” is an oil rig in the sea near the red airfields.

Almost three hours of planning, briefing and starting aeroplanes later, the blue air flight leader has led us to the tanker flying just north of the airways from Germany. Our radars automatically pick up the airline traffic to the south of us as we approach the tanker. Tanking is a tricky business, but we train as often as we can to make sure we can plug in even at night in cloud. We need protected airspace to allow us to practise this without worrying about other air traffic. The tanker captain is the formation leader and he is doing what he can to stay in smooth air and out of clouds.

Air-to-air refueling requires coordination and space.
Air-to-air refueling requires coordination and space.

Guardians

After the tanking is done, we talk to GCI who are the guardians of the airspace we use. They monitor the safety of the aircraft using the area and provide a verbal “picture” of where the bad guys are to help us point our radars at them for higher fidelity information which we can use to shoot missiles. The faster and higher a fighter is before firing his missile, the further the missile will go.

Range

Sometimes it isn’t just about maximum range: it is also about energy. If I shoot a missile at closer than maximum range, it has more energy when it finds the target. The missile can use that energy to “fly” after the target. So I can take a very long range shot which the enemy can defeat with a small manoeuvre, or I can take a very short range shot which the enemy can not escape from. Often we take a mixture of both types of shot depending on our best guess of what we think the enemy are going to do. The ranges of these shots are obviously one of the most highly classified parts of a fighter pilot’s job.

With Eurofighter Typhoon, the incredible speed and altitude performance of the jet means that it can shoot missiles at much greater ranges than we have been used to. That means we need to have the airspace distance to take those long shots and altitude to get to the parameters to take the shots.

Nick Graham at work in Typhoon's cockpit.
Nick Graham at work in Typhoon’s cockpit.

Turnin’ and burnin’

We need the areas to be over the sea because most of the fight will be flown at supersonic speeds, often pointing straight down at the ground and in full reheat. The turnin’ and burnin’ and the associated changes in direction and altitude are so fast that ground stations can not keep up with it. We also use chaff to defeat opposition locks and radio jamming to make it trickier to “kill” targets. Finally we need to be able to fly over simulated ground targets and run through the process of finding a target and dropping a bomb on it. This sometimes means flying around a target in circles.

Flying in circles is not for airliners. They prefer straight lines. However , airliners flying in a straight line tends to only happen over the vast expanses of ocean around the World. Not so over the North Sea and over lots more areas everywhere. Why? For all of the above reasons. We better don’t mix.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham