Thundering complaints from the angry man of the sky
We wonder which 10 things fighter pilots least wanted to hear so we looked for the biggest wristwatch in the bar and found it on the wrist of Paul Tremelling. After a life spent taming Sea Harriers, Harriers and Super Hornets, Paul has had his fill of terrifying, annoying or exasperating noises, here are his top (or bottom) 10.
“Another way of looking at this is the Top Ten Things Fighter Pilots Find Most Annoying or Disappointing. We won’t waste words on things we should all despise: Pomposity and dishonesty, so you won’t find lying in the top ten. That’s a given. Who wouldn’t hate the crew that invent Situational Awareness for debrief purposes when they clearly had none in the air? Who wouldn’t scorn a unit with a miraculously low incident reporting rate that thought covering up errors made them look better? Who wouldn’t think ill of a squadron that dropped a Paveway on the pan but didn’t own up to it? So here goes. Cue some fitting music, like The Only Way is Up, as we find out the Top Ten things fighter pilots really don’t want to hear!
Glossary of terms
Gash = rubbish/garbage/crap/poor quality
Charlie = Idiot
Pillock = Idiot
Fratted = Killed by your own side, from ‘fratricide’
Have Quick = System to keep radio communications safe from enemy meddling or snooping
Og-Splosh = sea (corruption of Ogin)
Tracking juice = The psychological/physiological capacity for tracking things with eyes and interpreting that into hand movements. We use it to explain the fact that you can’t keep doing high workload hand eye coordination forever. So instead of saying ‘I could no longer keep the sight on the enemy aircraft’ we might say ‘I ran out of tracking juice’.
10. Helicopter crew radio transmissions
You can mimic a helicopter crew radio transmission by standing next to a whining mosquito-killer, tapping your larynx at six hertz and sharing your life story. All the weary fast-jet jockey wants to do, as the life blood slips away from the sortie, is to get to an aerodrome and land. The only relevant communication is to say hello, say who you are and what you want to do:
“Yeovilton, SATAN, Join”.
Nothing to say until you announce your arrival at the initial point with the even more elegant –
Imagine then rolling to the tower frequency – as distance-to-run disappears at 5 or 6 miles per minute – to be intercepted by one of the world’s more effective comm jammers – the Sea King Mk 4. Explaining (try not to fall asleep) that they had just lifted from somewhere, were going somewhere else, were following the poor weather route, they had set their altimeter correctly and their brother had been to a wedding once and had met the bass player from Ocean Colour Scene. Just when you thought you could get a word in edgeways some Lynx looker (Lynx helicopter Observer) would announce that they were going to cross, then re-cross, the main runway before making their way to the southern exercise areas at something akin to walking pace. As an aside (dear Lynx fellows) surely if you didn’t cross the runway, re-crossing would be unnecessary? At about this point the neatly dressed off four-ship of the Fleet Air Arm’s finest would be approaching the boundary fence with masks off – swearing into the ether – waiting to quickly shout “SATAN, past initials”!
The zenith of comm jamming could probably be awarded to the monologue that followed a rotary wing practice emergency. An interminable monologue made even worse by the announcement of ‘Practice PAN’ at the start needing to be repeated 3 times. Quite why this had to be verbalised for the entire western hemisphere I have no idea. It would be followed by the usual patter of where, who, what the non-existent problem was being imagined to be…sorry, drifted off even writing that bit…it even included a ‘when’ as if ‘now’ wasn’t fairly obvious. A well-constructed call could take a rotary wing operator as long to get through as it did for you to get back to Yeovilton from Exeter (two and a half counties!) – wondering why they weren’t just asking for the outcome they were after e.g. a running landing rather than explaining months of helo groundschool in a transmission that could easily make the Guinness Book of Records. Then again. Not much else for them to do to do I suppose.
This is probably the greatest thing to say and the worst to hear. Saying it means that you’ve put simulated, in my case (real in others), bullets through someone else’s aeroplane and are claiming a kill. The height of airborne one-upmanship. What could possibly be better? Wandering in with that ‘I’m-not-swaggering-swagger’ knowing that at some point you’ll bump into whoever it was that filled the gunsight. For once looking forward to the debrief in the absolute, 100%, certainty that there was no way on God’s green earth that the weapon had been mis-cued, fired at the wrong target, not supported – or heaven forbid launched at a friendly. The issue with hearing a guns call is that you’re, obviously, not the one who is making it. That could mean that someone else on your team has had more fun than you, maybe done a better job than you, is just generally better (at least for a fleeting second) than you. Pretty annoying. The alternative is horrendous. It’s you that’s being gunned and someone else is over you like a rash, on you like a cheap suit, riding you like a…you get the idea. Of course you’re magnanimous, of course you accept the kill, of course you don’t argue in the debrief…but deep down it burns like hell. Best to delay the drive home until the amygdala have chilled their herbs a little.
8. Aircraft-X gunned an Aircraft-Y
There are a variety of themes on this one but the classic is of a data burst aimed at someone in a flying coverall by someone not in a flying coverall (plane-splaining). It is used by people who like a particular aircraft (usually for aesthetic reasons) to justify liking it and to show some form of ascendancy of their chosen champion over someone else’s. Usually that someone else is the coverall wearer and they are stood beside Aircraft Y hoping that the nice German gentleman with the in-depth technical questions doesn’t come back. It is delivered with confidence, even if it makes no sense, is clearly a statistical outlier, is being referred to as fact whereas it’s usually secondhand anecdote at best and has yet to be subjected to the rigorous test of ‘So fucking what?’. The fact is that all aircraft are a compromise of one form or another and if you look hard enough you can find evidence of every dog having their day. I watched aghast in a de-brief once as a mate squirmed his way through a tape showing how a Jaguar had shot him. Hat’s off to the Jag mate but it really doesn’t show much more than they, armed with a Winder, somehow managed a one-off against a bloke with radar and AMRAAM that really (really) (really) should have done better. The statement also usually completely disregards aircraft role, generation and investment when used to justify a particular programme. ‘I met a bloke once in an X-Wing who claimed a kill on a Sopwith Camel’ – well so they should! What’s your point? ‘I met a bloke once who gunned a F-15 in a Typhoon’. Excellent. Any chance the reverse is also true? Do me a favour lofty. Cut along to the beer tent and come back with an IPA.
7. Gash check-ins
Check-ins are used to confirm that you’re all on the same frequency. They also have a secondary unstated role of letting the team know that everyone is ‘up for this one’. Teeth sharpened, warpaint on.
They should go something like
Crisp, quick, immaculate.
Gash check-ins are the exact opposite, and fill a leader with seething rage. It’s not that hard and people being late, lazy or on the wrong frequency is just unacceptable. And for some reason you’re not allowed to unstrap, jog across the pan and shoot the miscreant in the face. Maybe it’s because that would put you further behind schedule and your schedule has been finessed to +/- 3 seconds. If you ever hear the sound ‘Bit. Dit. Blip. Bid. Blah. Lip’ in very quick succession it might be because you are in the middle of a radio check and some Charlie – who the King has entrusted with a precious, multimillion pound aircraft – cannot programme their bloody Have Quick. Have Quick jumps frequency to fool the opposition and there is a generally sound rule of thumb that it is so complex to use that first tourists can’t manage it. It isn’t complex. But it still results in check ins that go something like ‘SATAN Check’ ‘Two’ ‘Three’ ‘Dit, clip. Bib…’ as the whelp in the number four position looks helplessly around hoping that divine intervention will occur at some point. Poor check ins are actually so common they occur whilst attacking evil space stations. If I had been Red Leader in a galaxy far, far away I think I’d have fratted most of my own formation and a fair bit of the Gold section losers for their incredibly poor radio discipline. How can you possibly check-in in the order 10, 7, 3, 6 for fuck’s sake? Checking-in on time, on frequency and in order isn’t hard. Making it look hard is enough for one’s blood to boil.
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6. No Fault Found
Please don’t take any of this as unwarranted criticism of the wizards that keep fast jets airborne. But to tell someone that something’s wrong and for them not to find out what – is somewhat tedious. Mainly because you don’t do this for fun. It’s about the jets being mission ready. No Fault Found actually has an attendant running argument as to what constitutes a serviceable aircraft. Aircrew will argue it’s an aircraft with everything on the GO side of the GO/ NOGO equation working. Some disagree and have occasionally been heard to use phrases such as “This one’s fine but not according to the pilots”. The real trouble with No Fault Found is that usually it means ‘Fault will invariably crop up again in the next trip and probably at a really annoying time’. There are of course outliers explained by aircrew buffoonery. My favourite is the Incident Signal contained in the 800 Naval Air Squadron line book. The aircraft had been made unserviceable by a pilot who had ‘let it all go’ a little and had claimed that the small motor that powered the ejection seat up and down was faulty. The rectification action simply read ‘Seat tested with pilot below maximum boarding weight. Seat assessed serviceable’. The French fellows managed a classic No Fault Found when I was away with them. On two trips the boys snagged the aircraft fuel system of a particular Rafale. No Fault Found on sorties une et deux . On trip trois the same thing happened but this time left dear old Omar no option but to park the pretty Dassault chariot in the og-splosh and await the rescue helo. Fret not, he was in the bar with a neck brace that evening. No Fault Found? Turns out the aircrew weren’t lying!
This might sound a little odd. There is a general theme perpetuated by movies such as the majestic TOPGUN Maverick that crews talk all the time. They don’t. Nothing is said in the air that is either standard procedure or has been pre-briefed. The RAF tried to change this by insisting that formation changes were called and acknowledged once. Must have been an issue in the twin-seat community because our wing people (not a phrase used at the time) were all capable of working out what formation fitted the circumstances the best and being in it. I believe we called them ‘thinking wingmen’ which seems a small expectation of someone in a fast jet (Loyal Wingmen also seems a sleight). No need for extraneous comm. You don’t need to tell people that you are on track, on time because that was briefed. You don’t need to tell people that you are off track or late, because that’s obvious. You don’t need to tell people to watch out for fighters or SAMs because that’s their job and lethal threats will not be far from the front of the grey matter. What you might need is the bloody radio to be clear for really, really important stuff. For example the twin seaters are late, therefore the ALARMs (anti radar missiles for shutting down hostile air defences) aren’t going to be launched on time, therefore the Time On Target needs to be changed. If some turkey is telling you about stuff you already know at the time – that’s an issue! Furthermore – if you want the enemy to know that you’re coming – some pillock transmitting irrelevance on UHF, whether frequency agile, encrypted or otherwise is a great way to perk them up a bit. Zip lip. It makes sense.
This may sound odd, after the above. But there is a logic to it. Words, air time and bandwidth are precious in a jet. So when you actually depress the Push To Transmit button it’s because you need a very important piece of information or need to speak to someone that is broadly speaking mission critical. Simple questions might be something like “Number 3, have you checked the weather at base?” asked in a passive-aggressive (actually just aggressive) manner because the reason you are asking is that you are past the pre-briefed time when he was supposed to find out for you. In this instance silence is infuriating. The same is true of external agencies. In all my time I don’t think I heard silence in a single case working with Forward Air Controllers or Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (same difference, UK FACs started calling themselves JTACs because the Americans had and it sounded cooler). But it was a very common occurrence working with ship’s Fighter Controllers – particularly the poor buggers who got to control once in a blue moon and had multiple other duties on the ship. Silence, from the one person you had actually set up the entire mission for. Not much you can do but go back to another frequency, tell someone else and hope they can rod through whatever the problem was. The same was invariably true of Red Crown who were the people in an Anti Air Warfare destroyer tasked with ensuring that goodies left and rejoined the fleet unassailed whilst baddies got a SAM in the face for their troubles. Important? More like critical. Easy? Piece of piss; just check in and say hello. Did the side breathers ever get it right? Well, never is probably a stretch but seldom is accurate. It was very common to spend an entire exercise off Scotland dutifully checking in with Red Crown, hearing nothing, getting bored and flying the mission. This would be followed by coming home, checking in with Red Crown, hearing nothing and calling the boat for recovery. Somewhere in a Type 42 or an Arleigh Burke a headset would be resting on a desk, crackling away to itself whilst the surface fleet do whatever it is they do in an exercise – mainly sitting around in funny white hats and gloves wondering when the next mess tin of stew will arrive.
3. The clangers and attention getters
An incredibly loud ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ sound accompanied by dizzying red flashing lights. I initially try and work out if this is just a middle-aged hangover. No, this is Major Warning Audio Alarm (I’m guessing the name) revealing that something very important has catastrophically failed. Now, I’ve said it before, the aviation gods are capricious and cruel– and they don’t spring these things on you when you are at your sharpest. They wait until you’re doing something a little complacently, or are already working so hard that a quick blast of emergency handling is bound to tip you over the edge. A classic of the former occurred off Gibraltar. There I was minding my own business on Combat Air Patrol when I looked down and saw a periscope making its way around the Mediterranean. This obviously called for a bit of low level ‘totally pointless but very good fun’ show-boating. So down the 20,000ft or so I went as quickly as seemed sensible (not that the whole thing was sensible) and waxed over the top at the sort of extremely low height that we used to be able to do. As I passed over the submarine, the flashers and the major warning light illuminated telling me I had an engine fire. Goddam, back to Gib’ for a fixed power approach. They’d been watching, and in this case rightly so! A good example of the second case would be coming to the hover alongside the boat on a lumpy day in the North Sea. Tracking juice was running out as ship heaved and I tried not to let my hands follow it. The major warning sounded and it turned out that the jet was now in ‘Manual Fuel System’ which meant that all the clever stuff which kept the mighty Pegasus in check had failed and my left hand was now essentially an ON/OFF switch for the fuel hose. No dramas at the end of the day but at max power alongside was not the ideal time to find out that the engine was having a fairly significant malfunction and the chances of going for a swim had just taken a step change in the wrong direction.
2. Commitment issues
We’re not going. What do you mean we’re not going? How can we not be going? There are plenty of reasons to not ‘commit aviation’. Many if not all of them are common sense. That doesn’t make actually employing these reasons any more palatable. They can range from the ship being out of limits as it bobs around, the weather in the target area being so punk that parachuting ‘in the event of’ was likely to be fatal – to the more frustrating engineering issues that could occasionally crop up. A lost spanner needed to be found lest it was nestling in a control run – or the unbelievable but 100% true case whereby a hydraulic fluid pump was found wedged onto an oil canister. Did we have oily hyds or did we have pink oil? Hard to say…best ground the fleet. In this case the Hawk T1.
Whilst it might sound sensible to scrub missions occasionally, the issue is this. Flying fast jets is about knowing when to ‘push it’ and when to ‘call it a day’. You don’t get to be a force of good standing by calling it a day.
You are on a seam that civilian risk managers wouldn’t understand but the good Lord Flashheart would in the “Well, this isn’t a good use of my time and resources but I’m still going to do it” sort of way. Your job is to find a way. To come up with Plan D when A, B and 3 have all failed. To cobble something together. To make it work. Even when you can hear the nails going into your sortie’s coffin one by one – you’re not dead yet and you won’t be until that thing is double chained, padlocked and at the bottom of the ogin. But when it happens it’s the ultimate deflation. Mainly because the trips that get canned are the ones that take every single nano percent of your ability and guile to plan in the first place. The planning, the expectation, the slight gnawing sensation in the stomach all for nothing. Doubly annoying is that the decision is most often made by someone completely removed from the sortie. The zenith for me occurred strapped into the jet at the back of the boat in the Gulf of Bothnia. We were told to get out. A Harrier formation led by me, a flight commander, had been authed (authorised) to fly by my squadron CO from a ship commanded by a RN Captain (who hasn’t done badly since!). We were ordered to get out over the phone by a Flight Lieutenant from High Wycombe. White hot rage doesn’t come close. If that fucker had been on the ship I would have quite happily put a whole magazine of 9 mil through the bridge of his nose. And breathe. Suffice to say, cancelling when you’d worked hard to make it work makes a strong play for top spot. In fact – it’s just occurred to me. If you’re one of the folk who greet ‘We’re not going’ with an urge to kick your helmet into the nearest wall – you can be on my team. If you feel relief – you may not be a fighter pilot after all.
“The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is authoritative and irreverent – a very tasty combination! It covers the complete spectrum of aviation (except helicopters) and includes excellent photos and artwork.” – Former TOPGUN Instructor, Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek
So here it is, Number One, and it’s an odd one: They. This is an abstract concept. They are immeasurably powerful. They are omnipresent. They tinker with your life like a master of puppets. They are oft quoted. They appear in numerous conversations. They don’t exist.
They are the purveyors of neat, weapon-grade, perceived wisdom. Let me give you an example: The real reason that the UK bought the F-35B rather than the one that goes furthest or the one that carries the most is that ‘they’ will tell you the deck cycle is more efficient. The reason that Harriers never did flypasts in London is that ‘they’ will tell you that it’s perfectly fine to do so in a single-engine red Hawk but not the shiny grey VSTOL masterpiece. The reason the carrier didn’t go to flying stations between Suez and Bab-el-Mandeb is because ‘they’ said that flying in the Red Sea was impossible. People of generally sound mind would quote the raving musings of ‘they’ in important briefs and meetings.
The real issue with ‘they’ is that the Supreme Being that is ‘they’ was actually an all smothering form of abdication where one didn’t have to stand by a stupid opinion. One (it appears) could inject any opinion into a conversation if you attributed it to ‘they’. Which is ridiculous because warfare is about cold, hard fact. To get an opinion in Combat Air you need to come armed with facts to which you have applied conscious thought. Not third hand baloney. They may well think that you should add an extra mile or two to the shot ranges. But until ‘they’ turn up in the brief and explain themselves then you can shoot when the Air Warfare Instructor goddam tells you to shoot. They may well cancel flying on the forecast – but the bloody rule says to do it when the wind actually goes over 40 knots, not when the met man says it might. They may well cancel operational sorties when one half of the Stores Management System has a wobbly; but that’s why the amazing designers gave you two halves and the other one’s just fine and dandy. They may well say that jet Z is a masterpiece but when you’re on the pan wondering how much more fallout your mission can take – they are never there. They may well think the other jet can carry more than yours but they have once again forgotten that if it pickles off more than one bomb it might well drop the bloody targeting pod. If I ever do actually find ‘they’ blood will flow; there’s going to be an almighty fight.
So there you go. Everything from weather scrub, to radios, to perceived wisdom to the jet breaking. Something for everyone. Actually I’ve thought of one more. Tea. If I was prepared to make tea, I wouldn’t have asked the crew room ‘Who wants a coffee?’ would I?“