Low-level flying is an unforgiving business and it doesn't take much to get it wrong. This is why we have currencies, proficiencies and rules, to make sure that we are safe to operate when close to the ground.
You see, humans are exceptionally poor at multi-tasking and pilots are no different. Everybody thinks that pilots must be good at it but nothing could be further from the truth. Pilots don't multi-task - they just prioritise a task list exceptionally quickly. When a pilot is flying they try to have as clear a mind as possible, I liken it to a blank piece of paper or a whiteboard on an office wall. When a task comes in, such as a radio call, radar contact or something that requires an unplanned action from the pilot, it needs to be dealt with as efficiently as possible. It's like the task is automatically written onto the whiteboard but only one task can fit at any one time; the pilot must deal with it as fast as they can so that they can clear the whiteboard for the next task. Sometimes this might mean that the task gets half done or postponed as the next task that has come in is deemed more important; this is called prioritisation. If one task is ongoing when another task comes in then the pilot will attempt to compartmentalise the tasks, putting them both onto the whiteboard - in this case both tasks are now being done poorly. If another task comes in and the pilot cannot clear the whiteboard quickly enough then task-saturation can occur.
It is at this point that most of my friends have been killed.
The experienced pilot recognises task saturation approaching and applies the mantra 'Aviate, Navigate, Communicate'. For most pilots hearing is the first sense we lose when we become overloaded, you miss a radio call. Personally, when I stop being able to effectively communicate with my formation or with air traffic, I recognise this as my first indication that all is becoming too much. At this point, especially if I am at low-level, I prioritise the flying of the aircraft and step my height up a little.
I prioritise the flying.
'You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.'
So, task saturation is a killer especially when close to the ground, so to practise for it we gradually load up our students in a controlled environment on instructional and monitored sorties. It is important for us to get them to recognise the onset of overload so that they can do something about it.
Recent media coverage, of fast-jet kinetic operations against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, shows that the majority of the employment of weapons from airborne assets is done from the medium level environment. One can be forgiven for thinking that the practise of low-level flying has little relevance in modern operational theatres.
It is true that it is easier for remotely employed sensor operators of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and fast jet aircrew to discriminate targets from height. It is also true that operating in the medium level airspace gives the battlefield commander real-time ‘eyes on’ and, in the world of command accountability and moral responsibility, this can be very necessary.
In the first Gulf War of 1991 the RAF were convinced that the main threat to their bomber force was from the medium level strategic Surface to Air Missile systems (SAMs) employed liberally throughout Iraq. With this knowledge they decided to employ their GR1/4 force in the low-level Airborne Interdiction (AI) role against runways and military targets using the JP233 and 1000 lb bombs. Within seven days they had lost 5 of their Tornados from a force of 45, all to anti-aircraft fire from in the vicinity of their targets (although 2 of these have never been confirmed). It was soon realised that a permissive upper air environment, through the targeting of any Integrated Air Defence system (IADs), would need to be established in order to enjoy uninterrupted targeting capacity in the medium level airspace and to keep aircraft clear of the lower altitude Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) and small-arms threat in any future theatre.
So why, when the rest of the world has seemingly moved onto medium-level ops do we, as an air force, still teach low-level flying as an essential skill?
Low-level flying is one of the most demanding skills that any pilot can learn and on any platform including multi-engined or rotary. From 2003 to 2007 I was a 4-ship lead, Night Vision Googles (NVG) and Operational Low Flying (OLF) qualified, combat ready pilot employed on a northern Tornado GR4 squadron. I was also an Electronic Warfare Instructor responsible for educating my squadron about SAMs and IADs so that we could best employ tactics against any threat they posed. I would also work with the Qualified Weapons Instructors (QWIs) in order to find ways that we could prosecute our missions without being targeted by these systems. Traditionally, back in the mid-2000s, most of our planning assumptions would be based on single-digit SAMs and we would routinely fight against SA-2, 3, 6, 8 and even SA-11. The later S-300 and S-400 (SA-10, SA-20) would not be something that we’d train for and we wouldn't really concentrate on them until we conducted training in medium-level airspace.
Predominantly during this period, our training was all low-level based and, not surprisingly, we were very good at it. We would fly as singletons and pairs or a 2 or a 4-ship vs a hostile threat. Low-level evasion is a complicated skill and the workload for all involved is high. To improve our crews we would routinely send them on exercises overseas such as the Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP) in Belgium (now in Spain), Malaysia and North America. On these exercises most of the blue force presentations would consist of stacking the holding area with the bombers from all nations and this was called the ‘Strike’ package. The Offensive Counter Air (OCA), consisting of the fighter aircraft, would push some time ahead of the strikers in an attempt to target enemy air threats; the strikers would flow behind them also in the medium level airspace which was classed as airspace in the 10s, 20s or 30,000 ft height ranges.
On all of the exercises I participated in there was only one that ever saw me staying in the medium level block that I was assigned for the mission - normally, it went something like this.
As a formation we’d all briefed a range from the hostile threats that we’d either need to abort at or detonate to low-level. As the red air closed in on us it quickly became apparent that a decision was going to have to be made.
Along with the indications of hostile aircraft closing on my formation, my Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) started receiving emissions from a Straight Flush radar associated with an SA-6, a particularly aggressive missile system when targeting a fully laden GR4. It was obvious to all in our formation that the most comfortable place to be this evening was at 100 ft over the Nevada desert - up here I am their target but down there, they are mine.
The AWACs call came, hostiles were inside our detonate range - the call was made. All 8 GR4s slowly rolled inverted and pulled as hard as they could towards the desert floor below. Chaff filled the sky behind us – we were on an express elevator going down and the floor I had selected was labelled 'TO HELL AND FAST!'
The GR4 is a work horse and, much like the furry, long-nosed gallopy-type, it needs to be pushed to really perform. When it is loaded up with stores it is not a fan of the upper air but, with the right crew and at low-level, it can truly excel.
'All GR4 crews feel secure in the ‘weedisphere’, after all, it’s what we spent most of our time training for.'
AWACS confirmed that one of the hostile F-18s had become very attracted to my Tornado and that I was definitely his new favourite toy – time for me to leave. I called to the rest of the formation that I was targeted and started to beam south to reduce the rate at which our range to the hostile was decreasing. This might help drag him off the rest of the package and allow our OCA time to start targeting into the red air. My WSO was starting to do some very public maths calculating the possibility of us reaching the target within our prescribed time window – the further south we evaded the less likely we could deliver our weapon to the target on time. We had some ‘ghost’ slots that, as a squadron, we had already planned for – these would allow an aircraft that had got airborne late to still prosecute its target but only after the main package had gone through the target area – we could take one of those slots if we couldn't make our original time.
Furious maths, 'watch the hills', more furious maths.
Then we heard that the F-18 that had been targeting us had been ‘killed out’ by OCA – our plan had worked, I swung back west inbound the target area. It was going to be close but if we pushed our speed up to just over 500 kts we could hit the back end of our original Time On Target (TOT) bracket and, calculating our bomb's time of flight, make certain that its impact was inside our slot time.
It was possible as long as we weren't targeted again. Some more very public maths revealed that with our current fuel state we would have to have a straight run in and out – any evasion and we wouldn't make it back to the egress area and that would mean a mission abort.
As we approached the target area it was obvious that the ALARMs hadn’t been deployed as expected. The target was most likely going to be still protected by the SA-6 and a roving SA-8 that had just called active by AWACS . The WSO prepared the defensive aids that we could use against the systems but the RWR was still strangely silent.
As an EWI I knew what was coming and it wasn't going to be pretty.
We rolled in and commenced our target run and, at the required range, I cleared the airspace above and started my pull to 20 degrees nose up where I committed the 4 laser guided bombs to the battlefield; the Weapons Release Button would signal each bomb to release from the aircraft with a corresponding thump.
And then Mr. Badness arrived and he'd brought all of his friends along for good measure.
'Magic, Wolf 2 defends MUD 6, Bullseye 280, 46 miles - egressing north!'
The AWACs strike frequency was alive with flight leaders all reporting the new SAM launches. One of our ALARM carrying Tornados had managed to target into a system but we were too occupied to work out which one. We finally made the high ground and hid low in the desert floor. For a few miles the mountain range routed parallel to our egress track and one by one the SAMs dropped from the RWR. I brought the throttles back to conserve fuel and as I rolled out on east a lone F-15C closed into 2 miles battle; we ended up going home together providing each other with mutual support.
As we reached the egress point we slowly climbed and my new playmate slipped back into a trail position for the recovery back to Nellis – our fuel situation prompting for an expeditious approach.
It was a furiously busy sortie for all players and rightly so on one of the last days of the exercise. We’d lost one Tornado, from an SA-11 that he’d stumbled upon, but none from red air. My WSO and I came back alive but it was a close run thing and a film of our engagement was played in the debrief from a camera mounted to an SA-8 emulator. It showed a Tornado aggressively manoeuvring, with reheat selected and its wings fully aft; it eventually disappeared behind some small hills. The SAM operators all agreed that the Tornado would have escaped the missile. By using terrain to mask us against the SAMs we had survived the engagement and made it home.
I could tell another story of a German Tornado escaping both SAMs and air threats on an exercise in Alaska by running away through the mountains at low-level - against the exercise rules! Or another story of how a colleague escaped a particularly persistent Turkish F-16 over Germany whilst on TLP, again, by using the low-level environment. I have a friend who was a Naval Harrier pilot and, using the low-level environment, was the last person to drop a 1000 lb bomb from a low-level attack profile whilst serving in Afghanistan.
The low-level environment can challenge even the best of pilots so its utility as a learning instrument is compelling. If pilots are unable to use it to practise task prioritisation when in a benign environment then they will struggle with it when it is called for in anger. This is why we continue to train our pilots in the practise of low flying as we recognise its continued necessity for when things go wrong.
Look at it as a way of helping to fill the experience bag before the one containing 'luck' becomes empty and remember...
...low-level is your friend.
Official Red Flag Video here (bit corporate, though)..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVrQboP-FoQ