Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How Low Should You Go?

Speed never looks so spectacular as when you’re close to the ground

In Africa, no one pays much attention to low-altitude limits. The terrain is diverse and dotted with an incredible variety of wildlife, and that used to lure some of us to drift along at tree-top height. A fellow ferry pilot was delivering a new Piper Arrow to South Africa via the East African route, and decided he'd drop down and enjoy the animals. He was buzzing along at 135 knots when suddenly, he hit something and the airplane crashed onto the flat plain of Tsavo National Park.

The pilot wasn't hurt, and the airplane's radio was still operable, so he put out a Mayday. Several hours later, a rescue helicopter arrived. The circumstances were obvious. The front of the Arrow was covered with blood, and the airplane came to rest about 200 yards beyond a decapitated giraffe. The pilot was charged with hunting in a national park and put in jail.

In the heavily populated areas of Europe, there's simply no place for fighter pilots to train for low-level flying. For that reason, many European countries used to send their air force pilots to Goose Bay RCAF station in Labrador, Canada. Goose Bay is far up in Northeast Canada, beyond all roads and on the edge of beautiful but relatively uninhabited forests.

Back in the '80s and early '90s on ferry flights across the Atlantic, we used to encounter German, Dutch, British and Italian fighters running along 200 feet above the Labrador tundra at 400-500 knots. Everyone seemed to think that was a good place to practice since there was no one to bother so far north. Well, it turned out some people WERE bothered. After a few years, the natives began complaining that sonic booms and jet noise was causing the caribou to miscarry far more frequently. As a result, Canada eventually cancelled all their training contracts with foreign air forces.

I enjoyed perhaps the ultimate military low-flying experience many years ago with the USAF out of Nellis AFB in Nevada. By a combination of persistence and sheer luck of the draw, I was the first non-military, non-government, non-McDonnell Douglas pilot to be allowed the privilege of flying the F-15 Eagle.

I spent 1+30 in the big fighter and explored much of its envelope with the help of Lt. Col. Tim O'Keefe, then commander of Nellis' 833rd Fighter Weapons Squadron. O'Keefe's instructors taught what they referred to as "doctorate-level" fighter-pilot training, taking line F-15 and F-16 pilots, and teaching them to fly their airplanes right to the limit. That's a story all by itself, but the low-flying experience was extreme, to say the least.

During the brief before our hop, O'Keefe explained that height in modern fighter warfare was no longer the advantage it once was. Most air-to-air missiles are heat-seekers that look for the hottest heat signature they can find. The worst thing you can do against an enemy with heat-seeking missiles is to present him with a hot airplane against a cold sky. For that reason, it can sometimes be an advantage to fly low rather than high. The Earth is inherently hot from a missile's point of view, and flying close to the ground can confuse a missile's sensors and make it more difficult to lock on to an aircraft.

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