Deployed Fighter Pilot Diaries
This article is intended as a follow-up to my previous discussion of deployments for Guard/Reserve pilots. While not every pilot has the same experience deployed, my intent is to paint a picture of deployed fighter pilot life. For those who wish to pursue fighter aviation, I hope to offer a glimpse into what you may experience should you deploy with several snapshots of different times in a deployment. For some context, I have been deployed to Southwest Asia three times for a combined 20 months of my life. I’ve flown out of four different locations and been to many more. Hopefully, I can capture some of those experiences for you, the reader.
Table of Contents
My eyes snap open at the feeling of the massive C-17 cargo plane touching down on the runway. Looking around, I see large cargo pallets and equipment straining against their various straps and chains as the jet slows to a taxi speed. The other passengers are slowly waking up, mostly our squadron’s maintainers mixed with a few other support personnel. A couple of other pilots and I round out the group, sent in advance of the main body of our squadron and its F-16s to this remote, desolate corner of the Earth.
We have been traveling for several days, all the way from Japan to the Middle East. The trip wasn’t exactly first-class travel, but it was one of the most interesting journeys I’ve made, from midnight Pad Thai on the tarmac next to the C-17 in Thailand to landing at Diego Garcia and spending a few hours fishing for tuna while our pilots rested for the next leg.
Now, though, we were finally here. The big jet halted, and after a few minutes the rear cargo door slowly opened. The desert has its own beauty, and my first glimpse of Southwest Asia’s rugged, empty spaces is seared into my memory. We had flown through the night, and it seemed that the cargo door’s opening mirrored the sun’s movement as it rose above the horizon and lit up the endless desert in front of us. Purples and pinks filled the sky as the ground passed through various hues of browns and tans. And it was cold! Even in early April the desert nights and mornings require jackets and gloves. Past the end of the airfield fence, there was absolutely nothing as far as I could see. Empty desert stretched to the horizon.
Work began instantly unloading our cargo pallets and setting up ourselves to receive the squadron’s jets in a few days’ time. The squadron we were replacing helped get us settled in our Containerized Housing Units, or CHUs, find food at the dining facility (DFAC), and start setting up our mission planning equipment. They looked like they couldn’t wait to leave and were overjoyed to see us show up.
Several arduous, busy days followed. We set up mobile mission planning facilities, organized housing assignments, coordinated in-briefs for the arriving maintainers, setup computer accounts, and made welcome packets for the rest of the squadron. When our F-16s arrived, we met them out on the ramp along with the maintainers and helped collect pilot baggage. The guys flying in looked beat–they had flown for over 10 hours without stopping in our tiny little cockpit capsules to get the jets into theater.
From that first glimpse of desert, life had completely changed. There were no weekends. There was no relaxing or recreation save the daily trip to the gym. Everyone shifted up a gear to get the squadron into combat. And it didn’t slow down after that, either.
Talk with any fighter pilot who’s had the privilege of deploying, and every one of them remembers their first combat flight in detail. It’s game time. Our equivalent of playing in the playoffs. For me, the adrenaline and rush of combat was like nothing I’d ever experienced before in training, to include the most stressful days at Red Flag. People dying for real massively alters the entire experience. Colors are brighter, sounds are sharper, and minutes seem to last for hours.
The first flight in theater is termed a Local Area Orientation flight, or LAO. Typically you’ll be paired with a pilot from the squadron you are replacing who knows the ropes, and you’ll fly with him or her in a two-ship as the wingman. They’ll show you local procedures for departing the airfield, navigating the airspace structure, and coordinate with the theater command and control entities. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to employ weapons on this first flight.
On my third deployment, I hit the jackpot on my LAO. Flying in Afghanistan, I was paired with an old friend of mine from the squadron we were replacing. As we approached our assigned sector, our soldiers on the ground encountered some heavy enemy resistance as they moved through a valley. I hadn’t been airborne 15 minutes in-country when we received our nine-line (a brief from the joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC, on the ground to the support aircraft coordinating the airstrike and ensuring friendly force protection). Over the radio I could hear automatic weapons fire, explosions, and yelling on the ground–hearing your brothers down there in danger gets your attention in a hurry. Within a few more minutes we had both employed precision guided munitions on enemy firing positions in conjunction with suppressive gunfire from an AC-130 Spectre gunship. The combined firepower was a thing of beauty. And I barely even knew which way was back to base!
Despite this being my third trip, I still barely clambered out of the jet after landing. I was exhausted and inundated with adrenaline. Soon, though, your body and mind shift to accommodate the new inputs and sensations, and you get into the deployment groove.
A Day In The Life
All I can hear is my phone’s alarm going off. I open my eyes but it’s still completely dark in my room despite it being the middle of the afternoon–some duct tape and cardboard in the window ensure that I can sleep regardless of the blinding desert sun. Once awake, I get my flight suit on, grab my 9mm and its harness, and head to the DFAC for breakfast (which is actually lunch for the rest of the world). I meet up with several other pilots from the squadron there, including my wingman for the day’s flight. We listen to the pilots who just landed talk about their morning’s flight. Based on how busy they were, we anticipate another full evening working with our ground forces to target the enemy.
After several cups of coffee and classic “made-to-order” omelet, we head back over to the squadron operations building (“ops”) to get ready for our day’s flight. Prior to the brief, I like to check my flight gear and load up my bag with extra snacks, water, and “piddle packs,” officially called “pilot relief bags.” The last thing you want is having to go to the bathroom a couple of hours into your six-hour flight and having nowhere to go–there’s no bathroom in an F-16. I make sure my lucky folded American flag is still in the pocket of my g-suit, test my helmet’s comm cables and oxygen mask, and then grab one more cup of coffee for the brief.
Our intelligence officer begins the brief with a roll-up of the day’s action so far. We learn that previous flights from our squadron have dropped several weapons in support of an on-going ground operation that we are assigned to support that same evening. He also briefs us on observed enemy activity in the area. Next, our Army ground liaison officer (GLO), briefs us on the ground mission to which we’re assigned. He goes over the friendly disposition in detail and offers several potential options for where and when our ground elements will move over the latter part of the day. After the GLO finishes, we sequester ourselves into the briefing room and re-read the mission products. Then I brief the day’s mission. After a few months, everyone knows what to expect. But we brief in detail nonetheless as it offers a chance to rehearse what’s about to happen in our minds and get ourselves in the right paradigm to fly a combat mission.
After the brief we gear up and meet at the ops desk. We get a weather update, airfield status, and last minute additions from intel and the GLO. As we walk out the door, the pilot working the ops desk sounds an air raid siren–a little tradition to let everyone in the building know that two of its own were going out to drop powerful weapons for our country. Our jets aren’t parked very far away, so we just walk. Some places I’ve been require a short drive. Upon arriving we do our normal walk-arounds, but pay particular attention to the weapons the jets are carrying to ensure they are configured correctly. We start up, go through all of our ground checks, and then taxi out to arm up the airplanes. While waiting to arm, I do some last minute radio checks to get updates of assigned area of operations for the evening (or an “AO”).
Finally, time to take off. We accelerate rapidly, keeping the jets low over the runway. Once we reach the perimeter of the airfield, we pull up hard in a steep climb to rapidly out-distance the range of ground weapons. Then we contact command and control (C2) to coordinate our passage through the airspace to our AO for the evening. On the way we conduct targeting pod checks, tuning and focusing the infrared picture to optimize our “eyes” and then double-check all of our weapons. Many times I’ve arrived to swap out with another flight and been called on to drop weapons almost as soon as I’ve checked in, so we want to be ready. As we get closer, I use one of my radios to call ahead to the flight we’re replacing to start the battle handover (BHO). All quiet–not much going on. They dropped a couple of bombs earlier on in the afternoon, but since then everyone seems to be sitting tight.
I complete my check-in with the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), who is embedded with the friendly ground forces and will direct any airstrikes to support the ground force commander. Sometimes the JTACs are located on the ground in the AO below us. Other times they are controlling from a different location in an operations center utilizing video feeds from Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or other surveillance aircraft. Since nothing is going on, he assigns us to scan known areas of enemy activity with our targeting pods. We set up our orbits and start looking. While boring, it can be quite helpful to have a couple of sets of eyes looking at the battlefield from up high. Plus the noise we make is a constant reminder to both friendlies and enemies that we are there and ready. I check my fuel and query my wingman–almost time to send one of us to the KC-135 tanker to top-off gas. I send my wingman to the tanker first. Once he returns I peel off and speed over to the air refueling track to fill up. The weather is good and the rejoin is easy. My wingman keeps me updated on the AO through one of our radios while I talk with the tanker and C2 on the other. By this point the sun is setting. It’s a beautiful sight up there with the big tanker, watching the sky change color and darkness settle over the desolate landscape below. I can almost forget there’s a war on down there.
The enemy watches the sun go down as well, and uses twilight to launch an attack. As I’m leaving the tanker track, my wingman relays that our friendly ground forces have reported they are “troops in contact” (TIC) and receiving heavy enemy fire. The JTAC passes my wingman a nine-line brief to drop weapons and drive off the enemy. I race back to the AO as my wingman relays the attack instructions. As we briefed earlier in the day, he will be the one to drop as I’m still not back from the tanker track. I listen in on the radio and back my wingman up. He stays calm and delivers a great bomb on his own (despite being a young wingman who was in the B-Course a few months prior to the deployment). His accurate delivery destroys an enemy firing position and halts the fire on our soldiers. I get back just in time to see it explode, and in the half-light it illuminates the area with a bright flash. And then, just as quickly, all is silent.
The rest of the flight is relatively uneventful. We’ve driven off the enemy for the time being and soon put on our night vision goggles (NVGs) to see better. After the heightened adrenaline of the TIC, the rest of the flight seems to drag by slowly. We take turns going to the tanker and continue to cover our ground forces until the next formation of F-16s shows up to replace us. We speed back to base in the darkness and land with no lights, making it difficult for anyone on the ground to see our approach. It seems most desert landings are crosswind landings, and I have to remind myself to pay extra attention to putting the jet on the ground as I’m tired after being in the jet for five hours. We land safely, taxi back, de-arm the airplanes, and shut down some six or seven hours after we first walked out to the ramp.
Back in the squadron, we quickly load up our video recordings of the mission and explain in detail what we accomplished to intel and the GLO. We make video cuts of my wingman’s bomb drop for intel to process. Once we’ve debriefed the sortie’s events, we finally get to go over to the DFAC for dinner–in this case it’s the “midnight meal” which usually consists of breakfast food. For the second time today, I eat an egg omelette. Six months of egg omelettes is probably why I don’t really eat eggs anymore now. My wingman treats himself to ice cream because of his well-executed bomb drop.
Although drained from the long day, I put on my PT uniform for a quick run and stopover at the gym. Then, eyes barely open, I call home from my room for a quick check on my family, and then pass out into a deep sleep. Next thing I know, there’s that alarm going off. And it’s still dark in my room, despite being the middle of the day…
I hear my name called across the crowded DFAC. Turning, I see a bunch of our special operations soldiers with whom I’ve worked several times on this particular deployment. I barely recognize them with their beards shaved. They walk over and give me crushing hugs (I’m not a big guy, especially compared to these monsters). The team leader mentions they are rotating back home. After some more small talk, he looks at me and says “I’m glad we found you…I just want to thank you and your squadron for what you’ve done for us. Without you, we probably wouldn’t be standing here today. Don’t forget about us, because we won’t forget about you!” I’m gobsmacked. Lump in my throat, all I can do is just nod, shake his hand again, and bid him safe travels.
Just when the whole deployment starts to become groundhog day and fades into the mundane, something like this happens. It reminds me how important our presence is for our countrymen and how important our preparations are for these trips. And how much of an impact we can have. Hearing one of our soldiers say something like that makes it all worthwhile.
Soon after, we prepare to rotate home ourselves. There’s nothing like seeing a new fighter squadron’s patches walking around the ops building, because it means soon you’ll be flying out. We teach them local area academics, show them the ropes, and fly their LAO sorties, the same as the previous squadron did for us. These last days seem to stretch on and on. After months of waiting, why can’t we just go already!?
I get to fly one of the jets back home for this particular deployment. Flying a jet home is an honor and a big deal. Finally, the day arrives and we take off. Surrounded by food, maps, and gear, we settle in for the long haul back home. On previous trips, we’ve had stopovers in other locations prior to getting home. While these prolong the trip, they’re necessary to get out of the jet and have a couple nights sleep in between 10 hour flights. This time, we are going directly home to our home base in Europe. After 8 or 9 hours flying, we finally see home. One of my strange traditions is to keep my deployment mustache until I can see home, then I shave it in the airplane so my wife doesn’t have to deal with it when I get out.
After flying up initial, my six-ship of F-16s pitches out and lands. Taxiing back, we all wait until everyone is complete with post-flight checks before shutting down at the same time so families don’t have to contend with jet noise. There are people everywhere with signs and flags. I spot my wife and two year old daughter–I haven’t seen her in seven months and she just looks curiously at the jets running. Finally, we power off. Canopy up and down the ladder I go. It’s the best hug and kiss of my life. My daughter just looks at me–who is this gross, sweaty guy in a weird costume? We’ll have to get used to each other again after all this time apart. The squadron celebrates together for a few minutes, and then we all head off with our families. I’m finally home.