It’s a clear January night in 2015 and I am walking out to my F-16 with the Las Vegas strip providing a jarring contrast to the F-15s, F-15Es, F-22s and Eurofighters I am about to fight with and against. There is a loud high-pitched whistle from adjacent idling jets as I inspect the missiles and six live 500 lb bombs I will be dropping tonight. This mission is a part of Red Flag, the world’s largest advanced aerial combat exercise. Tonight there will be over one hundred and forty jets fighting in one airspace and the job of my four ship (formation of four F-16s) is to put bombs on a surface-to-air missile site.
After deeming the jet airworthy and starting the engine, I go through a variety of checks to make sure all of the sensors, cameras, flight controls and weapons are ready for the mission. I organize my target photos and stow my NVGs (night vision goggles) to the side, waiting for my flight lead to taxi our four ship out to the runway.
Over the radio I hear the other pilots say, “Lobo check,” “2,” “3,” and I respond with “4.”
“Nellis ground, Lobo 1, taxi four Vipers from the Red Flag ramp, information Juliet.” With that, our mission begins. We have a precise takeoff time as we only have a five-minute window to drop our bombs, about forty-five minutes from now. We have been preparing this mission to get those bombs on target within that window of time for twenty-four hours. After being cleared for takeoff, I watch three 30’ flames roar down the runway in twenty second intervals, before I follow in my F-16. I push the power up, checking the engine gauges before throwing the throttle full forward into max afterburner. A second or two later, I feel a kick and the rapid acceleration begins. The big flame has lit and 29,000 lbs of thrust is hurtling me down the runway. At 155 knots I pull back on the stick and the rumble of the imperfect runway gives way to the perfect calm air of the night sky. After raising the gear, I am accelerating through 350 knots and locking #3 up with my radar to follow them to the fight airspace.
There is complete darkness over the uninhabited desert so I throw on my night vision goggles. I now see the world, the mountains and desert landscape, through a fuzzy green filter. I am setting up the infrared camera, ensuring the bombs are ready, flying in the proper formation and listening to updates of the war over the radio and via text messages sent to the jet.
Tonight our four ship is staying low, hugging mountains to hide from SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) and keeping out of the chaotic air-to-air war that will undoubtedly unfold above. Other jets should be providing an escort cover so we can focus on our bombing but we have heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles to attack enemy aircraft as well.
As we change to the fight radio frequency, the war is well underway. There isn’t a second of quiet time as guys are shooting and getting shot, and the air battle manager is trying to help everyone understand what’s going on. Through my NVGs, I see hundreds of lights flashing and airplanes expending fireballs, called flares, all across the sky. It is chaos. About that time my flight lead signals us all to drop it down to the floor and push west toward the enemy targets. It now feels like a surreal dream as I am screaming through mountains at 600 mph while keeping track of three other jets in my formation, at times upside down to stay as close to the mountain peaks as we legally can through these NVGs. Without them on, I can’t see anything.
As we cross into enemy territory, I get a terrible beeping in my headset and despite my best efforts to go unnoticed by enemy SAMs, they are tracking me. I push the throttle forward to light the afterburner and begin a maneuver I hope will defeat the radar tracking me and if he shoots, defeat the missile as well. I let the entire war know of my situation, “Lobo 4, Mud 2 bearing 260, Bullseye 080 for 60!” Hopefully someone will kill it before it kills me. This is a high G-force maneuver with a lot of turning and I need to make sure I don’t smack into the side of a mountain. Instead I use the mountain to hide from where I think the SAM is and the warning goes away. I am safe, for now.
We continue to press west with everyone in my flight getting tracked by different SAMs but no aircraft have targeted us. The F-15s and F-22s above have been doing a great job shooting down the enemy airplanes before they threaten us but they are running out of missiles. We have been aggressively flying low for almost fifteen minutes and are just 15 miles from the target when we hear two enemy aircraft are headed our way. We pop up to gain a few thousand feet to put our cameras on the target. I am supposed to put all six of my bombs on one missile-launching site and I am frantically searching in the 4x4-inch camera screen to find it in this complex of structures. If I can’t, we will have to start circling the target area to find it, making ourselves an easy target for the enemy and tonight, that almost certainly means death. I am now four miles from dropping, making sure I don’t run into my wingman, when I get another warning of a SAM tracking me. I don’t care. I need to find this damn target and I am struggling. The entire success of the mission rests on finding this tiny missile silo and because we are low, it is hard to see with other structures blocking the view. With fifteen seconds to release, the sweat pouring down my face, I am blinded and my NVGs go white temporarily before quickly recovering. I look to the right and see four mushroom clouds of explosions from the flight of four F-15Es next to us, lighting up the entire sky. Holy shit, that was awesome, but I have no time to enjoy the view.
At ten seconds to release, I think I see the target. Unfortunately, “I think” is not good enough. I am about to consent to 3,000 lbs of explosives coming off my jet. I am about to choose who lives or dies with the red button under my right thumb and I have to be 100% confident before I hit it. Based on the target picture on my lap, the concrete slab under the launcher looks like a T but I can’t see it yet. I start lining my jet up with that object, hoping I will see this confirming feature at the last second as mission success rests on it. At three seconds to release, the concrete T in the camera pod emerges and I hear Lobo 1 and 2 release their weapons. I let out a sigh of relief, continue to refine the steering to the target and hit the red button. I feel the six bombs ripple off my wings and then aggressively maneuver back east. I briefly lift the NVGs and roll up to 90 degrees of bank so I can watch the six, near instantaneous explosions create a fireball where the target once was right below my jet. The adrenaline is pumping now. The mission is a success and I can’t help but smile. This is awesome.