Interview: Dogfighting with Learjets

Not too long ago, I posted an article on Draken International, a firm based out of Florida that is home to the largest private air force in the world (meaning that its aircraft are fully combat capable). Draken is one of a number of companies which provide commercial air support to the US Department of Defense, offering threat simulations, forward air controller training, etc. to members of the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. They do so with their fleet of MiG-21s, A-4 Skyhawks, L-39 Albatrosses, L-159E ALCAs and more. And to be fair, you’d normally expect live training simulations to be carried out with such aircraft; i.e. tactical jets. However, you’d be surprised to hear that the DoD didn’t just contract out firms with retired fighter fleets for red vs blue air training.

On one of the social media shares of the Draken Intl. article, I noticed a comment from sharply-attired fella named Mike C. about how he used to fly with an organization called Flight International which provided similar commercial air services to the DoD, though much before companies like Draken showed up. Intrigued and armed with a name, I looked up FI and what I read was just plain AWESOME. Flight International fields some amazing pilots with extremely well-developed abilities, but on top of that, what got me really jumping around was the fact that they fly their training hops with… wait for it… refitted private jets. That’s right. Learjets versus modern frontline fighters like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-15 Eagle. Not only would FI’s pilots give the fighter jocks they faced a run for their money, they would do so in aircraft that were generally designed to ferry around VIPs with deep pockets. I immediately asked Mike if I could shoot a few questions in his direction on behalf of the Tactical Air Network on his time with FI, and Mike agreed!

So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Mike!

Ian D’Costa for The Tactical Air Network (TACAIRNET)

Before we begin, I’d like to extend my most sincere thanks to Mike for taking the time out of his schedule to discuss his experiences with us! Opportunities like these are very rare, and we really do appreciate every single one we get to take advantage of, as do our fans who read our content! Mike, you’re an ace!

TACAIRNET: First off, could you give us a background on your flight career?

Mike: I took my first flight at the age of 4, sitting on my Dad’s lap in my Uncle’s airplane. I still remember it.

I began flight lessons at age 15 in 1962 but it would take me 10 years to get my Private license. Money, time and family kept me from completing my training for a long time. I was an Air Force enlisted man, radar operator and Intercept Control Technician, with a wife and two kids, when I earned my Private Pilot license in 1972.

I graduated college and was commissioned a Naval Officer in 1976. I was assistant Comm officer on USS America (CV-66) when we entered dry dock for a year in 1979. During this time I trained for my Commercial licenses. By July of 1980 I had completed Commercial ASMELI, CFI-AI and CGI-Basic and AI. In October of 1980 I transferred my commission to the USAF and after training as an Intercept Director was assigned to Hancock Field in Syracuse NY, where I worked in the SAGE system. It was there that I met the man who would be my Air Force boss and later hire me as an FO for Flight International. My final Air Force assignment was to Rockville Air Force Radar Station near Keflavik Iceland as an Intercept director. While there I instructed in the Navy Flying Club aircraft. I retired from the USAF on May 1, 1986 and moved back to Syracuse. I went to work as a CFI at various FBOs in the area and occasionally flew charters in Beech 18, Piper Navajos and a Cessna 310. While working for an FBO at Oswego County airport, Fulton, NY in 1988 I earned my ATP single engine in a Cessna 172. I added the multi engine ATP in 1989 in an Aztec.

I flew for Flight International from 1988 to 1991 gaining experience in the Lear 24, 25, 35 and 36. I was hired as a Learjet Instructor Pilot for SimuFlite Training International at DFW in 1997. I was a ground school and simulator instructor in all models of the Learjet. I earned a type rating in the Challenger 601 in 2000 and was a ground and sim instructor in that as well.. I was also aTCE (Training Center Examiner) for the Learjets and the CL-601. I had ATP and Type authority in all the Learjets and the Challenger. I then went to work for Bombardier Aerospace at DFW in 2007 and was typed in Lear-60 and Challenger 604 and 605 (Same type). I was a ground school and simulator instructor in the Lear-31A, the 60 and the 604/5. I was also a TCE, with ATP and Type authority in those airplanes. I retired from active flying on May 18, 2012.

TACAIRNET: What it was that brought you to flying Learjets?

Mike: In Dec 1987 I was at the Officer’s Club at Griffiss AFB where I encountered my old USAF boss. He was also retired and was the site manager for the Flight International location at the air base managing 3 Learjets, a 35A and 2 model 24s, one of which was the very first 24 ever built. Flight International had a contract with the USAF to provide target aircraft for training their fighter pilots.

We had lunch together and out of the clear blue he asked me if I wanted a job flying Learjets. I said yes! I began FO training at Patrick Henry Field Newport News, VA on September 5, 1988. It was an incredible honor for me to be selected, especially since I had only about 1250 hours total when I got hired. I went from the right seat of a Cessna 172 to the right seat of a Learjet. The learning curve, as they say, was vertical. I must have done well though because after 18 months on the job I was promoted to Captain and earned an LR-Jet type rating. After I graduated I left KPHF for Griffiss and the guys I would spend the next three years flying with.

The former Griffiss AFB (circa 1997) in central New York state. Griffiss hosted Flight International's Learjets for some time; they are now primarily based out of Newport News, VA. (Photograph: USGS)
The former Griffiss AFB (circa 1997) in central New York state. Griffiss hosted Flight International’s Learjets for some time; they are now primarily based out of Newport News, VA. (Photograph: USGS)

TACAIRNET: Typically, how would a session of air combat maneuvering between USAF/USN fighters and FI’s Lears go? 

Mike: The Navy contract was target towing only. It was towards the last day or so of my training that I was assigned to a flight to tow a target dart for naval gunnery practice. The jet was a Lear 36 equipped with a wing mounted dart on a cable reel. The dart, when deployed, would be several thousand feet behind the jet.

We took off and flew out to the gunnery range off the VA coast. My job was to spot the ship, talk to it on our military radio and coordinate the firing exercise. That meant that as we passed over the centerline of the ship I was to key the microphone and say, “Mark on top.” The ship was required to have the gun barrels trained fore and aft until we passed the ship. They would then turn the guns towards the dart, get a firing solution and shoot.

I was blessed with outstanding long distance vision and as we flew out to the area I could see the Frigate we were flying for on the horizon. As we got closer I could see that the guns were pointed at us. I said to my pilot, “Don, those guns are pointed at us.” He said, “They can’t be!” I said, “Don, those damned guns are pointed at us.” As we closed the ship he could finally see it and exclaimed, “God damn those guns are pointed at us!” I said, “Yeah”. As we were about to pass overhead the ship I keyed the microphone to speak and the guns went off. They had obviously been carrying a tracking solution on us the whole way in. The dart operator in the back then shouted “Aw Shit! They shot the dart off.” After we landed they pulled the cable out of the housing and found that the round had severed the cable about 1000 feet behind the jet.

At the debrief I reported to the Chief Pilot what had happened and told him that I just really didn’t want to be shot at for real in a Learjet. He kind of grinned and said he agreed.

For the Air Force, a typical mission began when a squadron would call Flight International and request support for one or more of their fighters. The squadron would specify the type of training that was to be performed and the number of Lears they wanted. The company would then task our location with the mission. These were scheduled a week or so in advance so the site manager could assign aircraft and pilots. The Griffiss location served the fighter squadrons at Selfridge, MI, Niagara Falls, NY, and Burlington VT. We also would serve the Duluth, MN squadron from time to time.

Once tasked, the pilot would then call the squadron and speak to the flight lead or the ops officer to get the details of the mission. We would then fly out to the designated airspace and provide the needed service. For example, sometimes we would simply fly straight and level back and forth between two Nav points as they practiced maneuvering in front of or behind us. Other times we were allowed to do evasive maneuvers up to what was called level 3 which meant we would do everything we possibly could to avoid being “shot down”. I loved that part.

We could also provide jamming services, bomber with fighter escort or just fighter or bomber. The 35 would act as the bomber/jammer and the 24 would be the fighter. After the mission was completed we frequently landed at the squadron’s airbase for a face to face debrief. This would be a critique on both sides, scoring the effectiveness of the jamming, for example. We would then, usually, brief an afternoon mission with them. Or simply fly back home. If the mission was a single one for the day, we would usually fly back home and do a telephone debrief with the pilots.

TACAIRNET: Did FI pilots require any special training on the Learjet to take it to the envelope required by the USAF and USN aircrew you faced in mock combat?

Mike: Yes, and no. We were limited to a max AOB of 60 degrees and 2Gs in the maneuvering. As a civilian pilot I depended on the ex-USAF fighter pilots and one Naval Aviator that I flew with, to train me, after FO school, for the missions. I truly learned from them how it was done.

TACAIRNET: Were the Lears themselves modified in any way to help enhance the simulation?

Mike: The Lear 35 was equipped with jamming equipment and I can’t talk about that except to say that I had to have a Secret clearance just to open the door. The 20 series were all stock Learjets. We rarely carried passengers due to the maneuvering that we did. The company evaluators would ride with us from time to time.

(Copyright: L-3 Flight International)
(Copyright: L-3 Flight International)

TACAIRNET: What were some of the more interesting aircraft FI flew up against?

Mike: We flew with and against A-10, F-4, F-15, F-16, British Harriers, German Tornados, Canberra and Shackleton. We used to go to Keflavik, Iceland to support the F-4 squadron, later F-15s, there, in their evaluation exercises and sometimes NATO aircraft would participate. The 35 would simulate an attacking bomber and we were escorted by fighters who would defend us against the blue forces.

TACAIRNET: I think I already know the answer to this, but were FI Lears ever able to “kill” or at least escape the blue air component you faced?

Mike: As a matter of fact, yes. As I said before I loved level 3 evasion. I’m not saying that I ever exceeded our flight envelope limits but I was able to “escape” a number of times.

As for “killing” the blue forces, I had 5  “kills” to my credit. I was a real sneaky “guy”.

For example once on a mission over Lake Ontario I was flying a 24 as fighter escort for the 35 Bomber. My training as a radar operator and intercept director gave me a complete understanding of ground based radars. I tucked in under his tail so that our radar returns merged.  As we proceeded down track I carefully descended staying right underneath him since I knew that we would continue to appear as one return. I leveled at 500 feet or so over the water knowing that my jet would likely be lost in the ground clutter.

Our USAF controller called out the incoming fighters and my copilot and I kept a sharp lookout. When we spotted them maneuvering to come in behind the 35 Bomber, I climbed up until I was on the tail of the fighters.  I then called a “gun kill”. My purpose in this was to remind the fighters not to fixate on the jammer. It did get their attention to suddenly hear “Guns, guns guns on the F4 behind the jammer” on their frequency. This was usually followed by a hard break left or right as they started looking for me. I got most of them like that or with similar tactics. It was the most fun that I have ever had in an airplane.

I am very proud of the service that I, and my fellow pilots, provided to the fighter squadrons. We worked hard to see that they got the best training that we knew how to give.

TACAIRNET: Once again, Mike, my most sincere thanks for your time, and your service!

For privacy reasons, Mike C.’s full name will be withheld from the article and all social media posts on the subject by the Tactical Air Network.

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