As a reservist who flew no more than 120 hours per year, .8 at a time, the F-5 was a dream. It is inexpensive to operate, therefore plentiful, and painfully simple, thus always mission ready. We flew as much as we could stand, often against each other to maintain tactical proficiency and to sharpen the dogfighting skills which we held in such high regard. One of the most dramatic differences between fleet pilots and VFC-13 pilots is the amount of time devoted to BFM, both in the air and in the briefing room. Coming from the F-14 community, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of BFM fundamentals; but, a Bandit pilot lives and breathes air combat. There are none of the distractions that a fleet pilot must deal with, like air-to-ground, CAS, LATT, SES and much more. It is pure air-to-air, with an emphasis on close-in maneuvering. New adversary pilots, many with 1,500 hours or more, are greeted with a demanding syllabus in graduate-level air combat that takes at least a year to complete, despite having fewer than 20 graded hops. The meticulousness, precision and professionalism required to represent the squadron as a fully qualified Bandit means that there will be many a re-fly. Often one particularly onerous event can be re-flown a number of times before the aspiring Bandit meets the standards required to move to the next sortie. It’s a humbling and sometimes frustrating year. But coming out the other side is a finely honed, meat-eating BFM machine–a Shaolin monk of aerial hand-to-hand combat, broken down and rebuilt without the distractions of advanced radars and electronic crutches. When you are one of the Saints, you use all of your senses to build situational awareness, you use the earth and the sun as your allies, you use the simple tools at your disposal to maximum effect. And when you have completed your task, you have sacrificed yourself for the good of your student, imparting as much of your wisdom as possible through lessons of quiet victory. When it comes to aerial presentations, the Saints give their students two basic types: long range BVR scenarios with multiple groups of bandits that challenge the Fighter’s ability to effectively target and maneuver as a team, and BFM. BFM is the fighter pilot’s staple, the skills required to maneuver against and destroy a bandit in the visual arena. It is a skill that has been kicked to the curb by aircraft designers and war planners since the conclusion of WW II, yet grudgingly refuses to die in the real world of aerial warfare.
There are a variety of reasons why a modern fighter, bristling with data links, AESA radar, active missiles and JHMCS will find itself pulling max G and dumping flares against an actual enemy fighter across the turn circle. Sophisticated jamming systems are relatively inexpensive and surprisingly capable, ROE frequently demand the Blue Fighter must put itself inside the ranges of IR missiles to confirm the identity of a bogey, and most likely, in the era of Self-Escort strikers, there is a very real chance that they will have to fight their way out of country with a limited Air-to-Air load because their hardpoints were laden with ordnance designed to move dirt and pulverize concrete. In any event, despite the belief to the contrary, it is highly likely that a Blue Fighter will find itself turning in the visual arena in any future conflict.