Last week I got a call from F/A-18 Marines squadron. They said they needed a test pilot for one mission and of course I was excited from the beginning. Being Navy guy I've only flown Hornets with Navy's own squadron markings, so now was a good opportunity for me to test Marine Hornets in action. Different colors and markings has said to make the planes faster, but at the time I really didn't have any proof to know for sure.
I couldn't believe my ears when I heard the mission briefing. I was supposed to arm my Hornet with variety of weapons, which was fine, but when I heard I'm to take a pet monkey as a wingman I wasn't so sure anymore. I knew Marines do some things way differently but still, this was a new one.
Our mission targets consisted of 4 T-72B battle tanks, 10 cargo trucks, 3 BTR-80 armored personnel carriers, 4 hardened bunkers and 6 military FARP tents. Our primary targets were the bunkers and T-72 tanks, other targets were considered as secondary targets. The plan was that the trained monkey a.k.a. wingman would get rid of the T-72 tanks and if possible some softer targets too while I concentrated on bunkers and BTR-80s.
Also I wasn't sure if my wingman could tell the difference between a truck and a banana, that added an extra layer of nervousness. I needed to arm my plane so that I had something for the soft targets too.
I loaded my plane with AGM-154As, GBU-38s and Mk-83s. Those should do the trick. I also thought that my wingman (callsign 'El Retardo') should have GBU-38s too, since as far as I know, there has never been a single successful launch of a Joint Direct Attack Munitions by a trained monkey.
So because I was in charge of what weapons I want to use in any given mission scenario - as I mentioned earlier, I decided that I take AGM-154As, GBU-38s and Mk-83s with me, 4 GBUs and 2 of JSOWs and Mk-83s. GBU-38 was perfect precision bomb for those bunkers and Mk-83s with their larger area damage would help to destroy vehicles or I could attack the tanks if they weren't all destroyed by my wingman, which was very possible considering its furryness. AGM-154As could then be used for those softer target trucks if necessary.
Wingman had 4 GBU-38s (to be honest I wasn't expecting much accuracy from it, considering it probably didn't have much flight hours) and I thought it should also carry some unguided free fall bombs too, what could go wrong.
My 4 JDAMs were intended to destroy those bunkers and my wingman would use its own GBU-38s for destroying the tanks and hopefully get rid of all of them. I heard that even monkeys can hit with dumb bombs so I instructed ground crew to attach 4 Mk-83 bombs for it too.
The AN/AAQ-28 Litening pods were then equipped to planes for those GBU-38s and AGM-154s for easy targeting in TOO mode.
Since Al Dhafra, which was our takeoff field, houses many different squadrons and it is also possible to order certain planes to the field. I went online and ordered two F/A-18Cs, I decided to go with VMFA-251 Thunderbolts, mainly for the mystery about the planes speed. A plane with a thunderbolt marking surely should fly faster than any other (at the time I wasn't yet fully aware that the paint on plane doesn't actually make the plane go any faster, I see now why they didn't mention any of that in flight school).
So VMFA-251 CAG plane with nice red thunderbolt markings on tail for me and for my uncommon pet I chose regular low visual marked plane because... well because of reasons.
We got further information about our targets when our squadron commander (former F-14A Radar Intercept Officer) hopped into his new shiny Yak-52 training plane and took a photograph of our target area. Below is a picture of the area, which helped me to get a better understanding as to what we were up against. I then liberated my (not so) artistic talents and named the enemies in the picture.
Talking about F-14 RIOs, I heard that one got killed when a plane went to uncontrollable (whatever that means) flatspin due incompetent pilot who couldn't get the flatspin of the plane corrected, sad but true, I guess some missions are just too impossible - but that's a story for some other time.
Our flight briefing sheets seemed somewhat informational (however my wingman's sheet didn't make any sense to me, I was just lucky I got the easy one).
It was then time for action, we took off from Al Dhafra air force base 0810 in the morning and headed towards our mission targets. I decided that altitude of approx. 12 000 would be high enough and I could still easily drop at least 2 GBUs at one pass. I had to conserve fuel as much as possible, so I didn't want to waste any more fuel for climbing. When we got closer to target area, to my surprise El Retardo already spotted armored targets. I then instructed it to attack the targets, meanwhile I searched target bunkers with my targeting pod. I soon spotted first bunker and used area track mode to point my sensor right to the bottom of the bunker. Once in range I dropped my first bomb and then zoomed out to find another one nearby. I soon locked on to the other bunker and released second bomb. They both hit their targets.
Because there was no ground threat at this altitude we were flying, I overflew the target zone and turned for another pass. After turning I quickly located the other two bunkers, locked the target coordinates and released 2 bombs again successfully hitting the two.
When I then continued searching enemies I spotted the 4 tanks parked near the military tent. It became very clear to me that my wingman had totally ignored the tanks and was now attacking, well some targets I guess. Commanding it to destroy the tanks obviously was too much to be asked, I literally felt cold shivers when my in-build optimism started slowly fade away as I realised to what trouble I had put myself into.
So I had now wasted my JDAMs and the bunkers were destroyed, but the other primary threat, the tanks were still intact. Also I wanted to destroy those BTR-80s. I selected my Mk-83s and went to tanks, I targeted one near military tent and dropped 1 bomb right next to the tank and watched the bomb successfully destroy the tent.
I should have known better, obviously my bomb was no threat to a tank made of stalinium. I didn't even bother to waste tax-payers money more since the mission already had gone south. Wingman failed to kill it's targets, so I ordered my El Retardo to RTB and turned my plane towards Al Dhafra air base as well.
The next day I completely changed my plans and changed my loadout to 2 AGM-154Cs, and 6 Mk-82s, four of the 82s having standard laser guidance kits and the other two had GPS/INS kits. AN/AAQ-28 Litening target pod stayed at center pylon and the Vulcan cannon was again ready to rock 'n' roll. That would ensure the destruction of the bunkers and the stalinium tanks. I then ordered a change to my wingman's loadout too, despite my general concern of healthiness of local wildlife, this time he would carry 8 Mk-83s and a center fuel tank (I added some extra fuel because in our last mission it reached bingo fuel level during its attacks). Air refueling tanker was also now available and we might need to refuel our planes before heading back to Al Dhafra. Our route lenght was 200 nm + miles we traveled when attacking targets.
Now the plan was simple so that even a monkey could understand that. I would take out the tanks and the bunkers and my wingman would attack rest of targets, I could then help it with my 20mm M61A1.
So then we started the mission again and when flying towards the target area I couldn't stop thinking about the mental state of my wingman.. Fortunately those thoughts quickly went away when I started punching in laser codes for my bombs and targeting pod.
I had 2 AGM-154Cs and I thought I shoot bunkers with those. I targeted the first bunker and transferred the coordinates from target pod to AGM-154 system and dropped the bomb once I was close enough, then targeted next bunker and released another weapon. I continued towards the target area, zoomed out my targeting pod and kept my eyes on those bunkers. After some minute and a half I saw both bunkers blow up and my first JSOW also destroyed BTR-80 nearby. I then selected my JDAMs set their electric fusing to instant and waited them to align properly while I searched the other two bunkers. Once I located them, I turned towards them and soon my GBU-38s were on their way. Boom and boom, half of assigned targets down.
El Retardo also spotted armored targets during my time attacking and I ordered it to attack. It attacked tanks this time (I'm sure it was just trying to piss me off) and managed to destroy 2 of them before changing its mind and instead destroying rest of the tanks, it apparently decided that the trucks make much nicer fireworks when blown up, so it started to attack the trucks. I'm sure there is something I don't understand in monkeys' logical thinking processes.
I then searched those remaining tanks which my dear wingman had kindly left for me to kill. I Switched my laser on, located the tanks and then destroyed them with my GBU-12 laser guided bombs, that all happened while El Retardo was playing with its new toy trucks.
After doing what it does best (apparently) the monkey shouted 'bingo fuel' so I ordered it to fly to tanker and it then left the combat area and headed towards the KC-130 tanker plane. I still had two bombs left so I arranged a special delivery and those last 2 BTR-80s didn't probably know what hit them. Now we only had some military trucks left and I let my 20mm Vulcan sing and destroyed as many of them as I could before reaching bingo fuel myself. I then hit TCN button on my HSI and turned towards tanker. Once I got closer to tanker I saw my wingman already taking fuel while tanker steadily flew with a F/A-18 escort plane at its right side. I waited El Retardo to finish its drinking and ordered a drink myself. I took 2000 lbs of fuel which would be enough for return trip to base. I then changed to waypoint mode and headed towards waypoint 2 - Al Dhafra.
After landing we got to debriefing and went through the mission details and we even got rewarded, which was new to me. We got some rewards which I'm sure are highly valued in worldwide military aviation community, I have to say I was quite honored to receive those. Unfortunately I can't tell what my wingman thought about it, it was speechless and couldn't express itself (I mean literally), frankly I'm amazed how well it can communicate when sitting in a fighter plane.
I compiled and attached a picture of some preflight photographs and also a picture of medals we got.
Mission was success, but next time some marine asks me to test flight something, I say "Nope, can't do, Sir".