General Details Typical Combat Pilot's Day
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 4, 1999 Flying combat in Operation Allied Force is tough, dangerous business, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, vice director for strategic plans and policy with the Joint Staff.
The pilot's lot isn't as simple as hopping into an aircraft and taking off. Every mission means spending hours before and after on maintenance, intelligence and operations briefings and checks.
Wald recently described a typical F-16 pilot's day for Pentagon reporters using Aviano Air Base, Italy, as his starting point. He said because there is little base housing, the F-16 pilot probably gets out of the rack at 3 a.m. to get to the base. "He'll get to work at about 0400 and plan the mission for about two hours," he said. "Then [squadron or wing mission planners] will brief the mission."
The briefing includes telling pilots what codes are in place, who will be flying around them, what type of support they will receive, where they will tank-up, and search and rescue procedures. They'll be told about surface-to-air missile threats and anti-aircraft artillery threats. This is in addition to defining the target and the suggested approach to use.
Then the pilot has to don flight gear. "That's not a small thing, because they have to wear a lot of survival gear and some other things," Wald said. The pilot goes to the aircraft and runs a pre-flight check that takes about 20 minutes. Then the pilot gets into the aircraft and fires up all the systems. "This is about 50 minutes prior to take- off," he said.
It takes about an hour to fly to the combat zone, but the pilot refuels before entering the area, adding another 30 or so minutes prior to entering the area of operations. Pilots flying specific strike missions may be over hostile territory for 30 to 90 minutes, said Pentagon officials. Pilots flying combat air patrols and protective cover for the strike fighters, however, are in harm's way for six hours or more.
From the moment of take-off, the pilot has to be alert. Flying a high-performance aircraft is dangerous. Refueling an F-16 from a KC-135 is tricky and dangerous, too. Then the pilot faces air threats over Yugoslavia. Yugoslav army crews are firing a large number of surface-to-air missiles at NATO pilots and there is lots of anti-aircraft artillery, Wald said.
He said U.S. casualties haven't been higher for a number of reasons. "We have superbly trained, highly professional people. We've developed tactics against [Yugoslav equipment]," he said. "We also have a lot of support aircraft that make sure the mission goes as it should. [The support aircraft] are not out there just witnessing this, they're contributing in a large way."
It's another hour returning to Aviano and landing. But the pilot's day is still not over. It takes another 45 minutes to de-arm systems and shut down.
"Then you go in and debrief maintenance, because the aircraft are very complex and you want to make sure everything is working," Wald said. "Then you have to go back to your squadron and debrief for about an hour to make sure your mission was right.
"Then, if you're lucky, you get to go home and go to bed."