Authors: Ken McConnell
“So two ship formations with a lead attack and a wingman on defense and always dive to engage the enemy,” Katya repeated as if it were no more complicated than it seemed.
“That’s it. You get this squadron following those simple fundamentals and I guarantee we’ll all have so many kills the rest of the Fleet will want to come here to hunt.”
Katya shook her head and looked at her fellow pilots. They all seemed reinvigorated by my talk. I only hoped that enthusiasm lasted all the way through training.
Kindergarten started with a classroom lecture for all the pilots in my squadron. I went over standard flying formations on near one gravity planets with atmospheres. Most of what I talked about was familiar to them, but towards the end, I started veering off textbook and into my extensive real world experience. I never mentioned my past in anything other than generic references, but I used my time in the Rangers and my time in the Fleet to back up what I was telling them do to.
I lost a few of them right away, then more and more as the new stuff continued to fly at them like a relentless squadron of KiVs. After I was finished I opened the floor to questions. As expected, they were unconvinced by what I was telling them. So I offered to take up the handful of naysayers and show them personally my tactics in action. They accepted.
I used Katya, Choke and Skip as my flight and four non-believers acted as the aggressors. I told them to use only known enemy maneuvers and that we’d take them all out inside ten minutes. At that point, even the non-committed among them thought I was crazy.
We started our sweep at angels 30, or about thirty thousand feet above sea level. This was considered high for in-theater engagements. The OPFOR or opposing force flight started around angels 15. It was a cloudless day and you could see forever, so we turned off scanners and relied on visual contact.
Katya flew my wing and Skip flew Choke’s wing. We stayed in our two person formation, separated by about half a kilometer. The OPFOR flight was in a single, four man formation typically used by KiV-3 pilots.
Everyone not in a fighter was back at the Ops shack, watching on a series of monitors. They could see point of view cameras from my bird and Choke’s bird and the lead OPFOR’s ship. A central monitor provided a moving map of the aerial battlefield.
My flight came across the island base with our backs to the sun while the OPFOR flight approached in the opposite direction. It was easy for us to acquire them first and I immediately attacked.
“Rocket One, Victor, Victor, guns are hot. Let’s get ‘em,” I said.
It didn’t take them long to notice our descent and they immediately broke left and right. That’s when Choke and I parted, he went right, I went left and followed our targets easily as they juked back and forth across the sky.
I checked my chronograph after I splashed both of my targets. It had taken us eight minutes, most of that time was used just to close on them before I took my shots. A minute later Choke called in his kills and we reformed with the OPFOR pilots.
“I counted eight mike to my first kill,” I said over the comm. Knowing those in the Ops shack could hear us.
“I was at ten mike,” Choke admitted.
The OPFOR lead was “Double” Decker a pretty decent pilot whom the others readily followed. “Not bad, Rocket One,” he said. “Best two out of three?”
I didn’t have anything else planned for the day so I double clicked my mic. This was a common non-verbal message of agreement.
“Home Base this is Rocket One, we’re going at it again. Reset the field.”
“Rocket One, roger. No pattern traffic, clear any approach, any angels.”
This time they knew where to look for us and Double spotted us before we noticed their contrails as they spread out and came up to greet us. Once again, she who rules the high ground wins the battle. This time it took me less than five minutes to wax Double and his wingman. It took Skip about half that because his opponents were not as skilled as Double. They all reformed on me and headed back to the base.
“One more Tiger?” I asked.
“Negative, Rocket One. You win.”
Everyone who had watched in Ops was now completely behind the new formations. We spent the rest of the afternoon going up in pairs and letting them get the feel for pressing attacks in two ship flights. By the time the relentless sun was low on the horizon everyone had been up at least once and got time as either a lead or a wingman. One thing they quickly figured out was that each of them had a better chance of bagging a KiV with smaller flights. That alone was enough to keep them behind the idea regardless of how crazy they thought it was.
For the rest of the day that’s all we practiced. Even the real world mission flew the new formation. Of course nobody made contact with the enemy, but that was to be expected. I hadn’t changed the missions yet, preferring to let them test out what they were learning without having to do it for real. If the enemy wanted to engage, they would have to come up to find us. Fortunately for my pilots, that didn’t happen until most of them were fully trained.
* * *
BFM or Basic Fighter Maneuvers. Dog fighting. Otherwise known as the art of merging with the enemy and surviving a fight. All of my pilots had a basic understanding of common Alliance maneuvers. But many of those maneuvers are only applicable in space, a few of them work in the protective envelope of a planetary atmosphere but they have to be modified. Most of my combat experience with KiVs was in space, but I was the first pilot to ever tangle with a KiV in an atmosphere. Normally I wouldn’t talk about my past but in this case I felt it was worth it to establish credibility. Back at the Ops shack for the morning briefing I disclosed who I was to my pilots.
“What I’m about to teach you this morning is going to make you question my sanity even further. But you have to trust that I know what I’m talking about. Back before this war started I was a Stellar Ranger. We flew the Vickers Scrambler, the A models. With booster tanks to get into space, and the polished metal wings, you’ve all seen footage of them before. Pretty primitive to what we have outside.
“My wingman at the time was an excellent pilot named, Hap. We were sent to intercept an unknown target moving rapidly through the Ochervan star system where we were based. This was pre-war so the model of KiV that we tangled with was the more square winged KiV-1. Our Scramblers could barely keep up with it in the black, but when I engaged the bogey in single combat I very quickly realized how insanely maneuverable it was in the air. Ocherva is just barely one g and that Green Goblin ran me ragged trying to keep up with it.”
Skip’s hand went up and I motioned for him to ask his question.
“How did you wind up getting it then?”
“I was out of fuel, out of ammo and out of ideas so I decided to ram it.”
There were raised eyebrows and looks of surprise on many faces.
“I put my beat up Scrambler into an intercept vector and ran my wing into his wing as we passed. Both of us crashed and both of us survived. Another testament to how rugged the dash one was.”
Katya spoke up, “What happened to your wingman, Hap?”
I lowered my eyes and felt my expression sour. Even after all these years I was still bitter about what happened to my best friend.
“She didn’t make it out of space. It did a 360 and blasted her before she could evade. She was on the outside and its weapons reached her first as it came about.”
Katya nodded. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“As you could imagine, I was in no mood to let that bastard get away.”
I pulled myself up to my feet and started a slow pace back and forth before the squadron.
“We fly in pairs for a reason, so that one of us can always watch the back of the pursuit pilot. Our standard flight formation is the finger-four to enhance our ability to break off into pairs. Next, I want to cover some basic maneuvers to use against these KiVs. The KiV-3 will out turn your Swift every time at a lower altitude. Don’t attempt to turn with it.”
“But Commander, how are we to engage it if we can’t turn with it,” someone asked.
“You don’t. You gain altitude and reacquire a new target. Use what the Swift has to its advantage. Nothing falls faster than a Swift, except possibly a rock.” That drew a few knowing laughs.
“Maintain your paired formation and let them turn all day into your guns. If you get him behind your three nine position, dive out or climb out. Use the hand of gravity to your favor by climbing over and getting back behind him. Also, if you’re butt is hanging out your wingman needs to be luring the enemy off. I don’t want any heroes up there going single combat with a KiV. If your wingman is out, you get yourself one or disengage. That one alone will cut our attrition rate in half. We cannot, ever engage the KiV one on one. You won’t win.”
More hands went up, I picked one from the back.
“Those of us with kills got them by being aggressive in a fight. Commander Drake was a double ace and he always engaged alone.”
I nodded and said, “And he’s dead now.”
That was a bit harsh, but I had studied his final battle and I knew what the data showed.
“He was lured into a trap and his flight was chewed up in a Votainion Weave formation with three enemy fighters. Six Swifts were taken out by two of the three enemy fighters that day. It was like shooting targets for them. No matter how skilled you are, if you fight on their terms they’ll eat you alive.”
“I didn’t just draw this assignment at random, folks, and I didn’t piss anyone off. I was sent here to fix this attrition problem. Fighter Command knows you guys are remote and it expects you to keep the enemy from establishing a foothold on this planet. You can’t do that by getting killed at a rate of three to one.”
My voice had risen as fast as my heartbeat. I took a few deep breathes and waited for the hub-bub to lower.
“We’re going up to practice these tactics now. I want you to try and forget what you’ve learned on Kew and start doing what I’m telling you to. I guarantee that if we all fly like I’m preaching, our attrition rate will go down and many of you will become aces.”
Katya stood up and started barking assignments and I watched the pilots gather their things and head out to the flight line. Most of them clearly didn’t believe me but a few were starting to believe. That was all I needed: A few good seeds to instill confidence in the others.
* * *
I went up with the first group to show them how it’s done. We pressed our attacks in my prescribed techniques and once again we were victorious against the simulated OPFOR flights. After the fourth group had completed their runs, I had to land due to engine overheating, a common problem for the Swift in humid environments. I camped out in the Ops shack and directed the rest of the day over the comms.
Slowly but surely they were starting to fly like a team again. Several pilots took to the new techniques quite well and others were slow to get behind them. By the end of the day everyone was doing it right whether they liked it or not.
The chow shack was loud that evening with pilot chatter. Hands and utensils were utilized in simulating engagements while the pilots ate. It was good to see such enthusiasm from them, and it made me feel like we had half a chance when we started our new missions. Katya came over with her dinner tray and sat opposite me.
“Congratulations, boss. You got them talking like pilots again.”
I had to smile. She noticed it too.
“You mind if I ask you a question?”
I shook my head, “Shoot.”
“You’re President Constantine’s daughter aren’t you?”
That took me by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. Once I confessed that I was the first person to tangle with a KiV it really wasn’t that hard to deduce who I was.
She looked at me differently with those dark brown eyes. I couldn’t tell if it was a new level of respect or not.
“That going to be an issue for you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Your secret’s safe with me, provided you want it that way.”
I nodded as I stuck a piece of stale bread in my mouth. She grinned like she had something on me now. I wasn't sure if that was a good move.
“I like the new tactics. The Flight Commanders and I promise to ensure they are enforced.”
“Thank you. Tomorrow I’m announcing new mission plans. There will be no more milk runs for this squadron.”
Katya nodded enthusiastically as she chewed whatever mystery meat they were serving.
“Now you’re talking my language, ma’am. I can’t wait to bag me some KiVs. The side of my Swift is too clean.”
“Can you gather the Flight Leads in my tent at twenty hundred hours? I want to go over the mission plans with them,” I asked.
Katya looked hesitant. “Ah, we were planning on having a naming ceremony for the newbies,” she said.
“Let’s wait on that for a while. Besides, they need to get a mission under their belts before you can do that anyway. At least that’s what I’ve always done.”
Katya agreed and stood up to leave.
“I’m glad you’re here, Commander,” she said, before leaving the table.
We’ll see if she still feels that way after a mission or two. It’s one thing to say you want to shoot down some enemy, it’s quite another thing to put your neck on the line and do it.
That night we went over the new mission plans. It was too damn hot and muggy in my hut so we went over to the hooch shack and I bought them a round to take the nerves off. There were only a few maintainers at the bar and nobody at the wooden tables that looked out over the beach. I used a simple holographic projector that I found in my office at the Ops shack. It displayed topographic data from Kew in simple green lines and red and blue icons for OPFOR and Friendly Forces.
I preloaded the first of five missions into the mission planner and we started from initial briefing to debriefing. It took longer than I anticipated due to questions and not a few gripes about procedures. I was forcing them to come back into regulations in more ways than they felt were necessary. Early in my leadership career I learned to ease discipline to avoid the appearance of being a bitch. But over time, my practices got harder, realizing that military bearing and discipline was expected at all times by all individuals. Being at war and in constant danger from enemy attacks, even while off duty, tended to keep people more willing to follow established rules.