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December 13, 2004

That Muffled "Bang" You Heard...

...was probably the intercepted pilot's a*shole slamming shut when he saw a 68,000-pound, 64-foot-long, 43-foot-wide, 19-foot-high blue-grey jet go zipping by, straight up at minimum legal spacing (a definition subject to interpretation).

After about 5 seconds of looking at this picture, I sort of wondered how it was taken at all. This was obviously a's staged. The shot is too perfect. The shutter speed, film, lighting, focus, etc., etc., is Brian Shul quality.

Now, I'm sure that maneuver looked really cool (and God knows it's fun to take advantage, on occasion, of the Eagle's greater-than-one-to-one thrust ratio), but I'm sort of wondering what purpose such a tactic serves. To be honest, I doubt if they use it very much. Strikes me as a truly last-resort move (duh). If it it had in fact come to that, rest assured my general aviator friends, it would have been after trying to signal an intercept and land-on-my-wing visual command and after numerous calls on VHF Guard from Center and the interceptors. So, I'm sure it's in their bag of tricks (sometimes that's what it takes) but rarely employed.

Having been on the range, dropping bombs and shooting the cannon when a Cessna 172 decided to wander through our airspace, I can appreciate the urgency of getting the guy's attention. And sometimes that's harder than you might think. In that case, after numerous calls on Guard, one guy in the flight tried to get close to shoo him off visually, flying close enough and slow enough for the interloper to see him and realize something was amiss. The response was not what we expected or wanted...we scared him so bad he damn-near split-s'd into the ground. (Note: Scroll to the bottom if you want to watch what that looks like from the cockpit and show-center. Hint: not pleasant.)

So, shining one's arse to get a general aviation pilot's attention might feel good and look impressive, but I wonder if that's standard procedure. Probably not. Flares? Flares are a great idea of you have a little spacing on the guy, but blowing by at 500 feet going straight up probably makes 'em a little redundant. Usually, there's a safety "knock-it-off...knock-it-off...knock-it-off" call in the flight (assuming the restricted area is a military training area--the usual case) followed by coordination with Center to unscramble the situation and get the tresspasser to clear the area. I can think of about ten places in the entire country (scroll about three-quarters of the way down the page) this would probably be most dangerous for the innocent/clueless aviator:

As for the wall-to-wall AIM-7s on the belly of the jet, yeah, he's loaded for bear. AMRAAMs (commonly referred to by many as "I-wish-you-were-dead missiles.") would be nice, but for something as strafe-rag-like as a commercial airliner or light GA airplane, they would be severe overkill.

Now...all that said, the intercept mission today has, obviously, been made much more relevant than it was up to 9/11 but the challenge isn't interception. Instead, it's the need for adequate warning to actually make it to the merge before the potential attacker/suicidal maniac can do anything with his airplane, and the decision-making process associated with actually pulling the trigger in deadly earnest.

The former is hard enough. The latter is, methinks, even harder. "Splash the Airbus" is not what anyone wants to hear. Frankly, I think we have decision makers willing to say it, but I wonder how many times they practice the end-game scenario. I find it a near-stumper. Before you decide to smoke 100+ (200? 300?) people, you have to make damn sure the airplane is obviously a threat--it's actions must be clear. THEN you ask for instructions--and expect the VERY long pause as the wheels turn in someone's head and the decision is made. THEN the target's engaged. Where is it by that time? By definition, near a lucrative target. Knowing al Qaeda, that's in a populated area...which means the disabled airplane/wreckage is going to impact there. I guess that's why the 1AF/CC and the SecDef get paid the big bucks to be ready for that kind of thing.