Air Combat Maneuvering or dogfighting, is the art of gaining a positional edge over the enemy and getting him in the range of a missile lock or machine gun fire. Air-to-Air Combat was first seen in World War I, at the starting of which pilots of either sides used to fire at each other using a handheld carbine. However, as aircrafts evolved and became technologically much more advanced and sophisticated with the advent of machine guns and air-to-air missiles, the simple idea of shooting each other mid-air turned into a complex art that required constant creativity and practice.
What are the factors influencing the dogfighting capabilities of an aircraft?
- Airframe of the aircraft – Aircrafts with the presence of additional lift generating arrangements like Canards are relatively much more maneuverable than aircrafts without them. And the better the maneuverability of an aircraft, better will it be in dogfighting. Ex- Su30mki is more maneuverable than the Su27 due to the presence of canards.
- Size of the aircraft – Smaller aircrafts (smaller wingspan, length, height etc.) are much more agile and manuverable as compared to their bigger brothers. Eg.- Mig 21 is more agile than a Su27.
- Weight – The more the weight of an aircraft, lesser lift will be left to produce extra maneuverability. Fext=Flift – Weight = 0.5 DV2SCL-mg, Newton’s second law. Thus, heavier the aircraft, lesser the maneuverability.
- Engine Capabilities – The more thrust an aircraft engines produced, better will be its lift generating capacity, and better will be its maneuverability. Moreover, engines nowadays incorporate thrust vectoring capabilities, which basically means vectoring the direction of the exhausts in a specific direction. It gives the aircraft an extra “Push” for maneuverability.
Thus, we have learnt so far, that the maneuverability is a subset of an aircraft’s entire profile. However, at the end of the day, it depends upon the skills of a pilot to exploit the aircraft to its fullest. There are excellent pilots all over the world who have achieved feats which were thought to be impossible. You might remember a tough guy who shot down a highly sophisticated F16 from his Mig21. At the end of the day, it all depends upon the skills of the pilot.
“The most common rule of dogfighting is never let your enemy reach your six. It is the surest way of getting wiped off the radar screens- completely.”
Experienced fighter pilots have a wide range of tactics to become the hunter rather than being the prey. Let us talk about a few of them here:
- Combat Spread – The package splits. A single aircraft (D) comes under the scanner of the opponent (O) and lures him in a dogfight. Meanwhile, the wingmen of D rejoin the fight in a complete surprise to O, and take him down. This is the most basic maneuver in air to air combats, and is mostly obsolete now due to the presence of sophisticated radars onboard.
- The Break Dance – An aircraft (D) is flying in an airspace. The opponent (O) gets on his six. D immediately breaks from his flight path, takes sharper turns, slows down his speed, decreasing his turn radius and therefore putting him in a clear sight of O (cross sectional view). This gives D only a few seconds of window to fire on O. Machine gun shots are generally used to cause damage to the opponent here.
- Barrel Roll – It is a type of counter to the break dance maneuver. If D is engaged by O via a Breakdance maneuver, D would immediately move into a Barrel Roll to become the hunter again. Lets say, O has a good cross sectional view of D. D will immediately conduct a steep climb, roll and get inverted at an altitude relatively higher than that of the enemy. Then by using a combination of pitch and roll, D aligns with O and gets a shot.
- Low Yo Yo – Lets say O is at the six of D. Immediately D makes a sharp roll towards right/left, drops his nose in a dive while continuing to roll, climbs back up (which reduces the airspeed and facilitates a faster turn) and turns towards O and takes a shot.
- Scissors – It involves the aircraft being chased taking abrupt alternate left-right turns slowly decreasing his own airspeed. As a result of the continuous decrease in airspeed of the defender, the chaser overshoots and compromises his six.
- Pugachev Cobra – This is by far one of my most favourite maneuvers. You all must have seen Top Gun. Maverick when being chased at a very close range, pulls back his stick (initiates an abrupt climb) which reduces his airspeed and gets him close to a stall, and then immediately pushes the throttle forward to compensate for the loss of lift caused by the abrupt increase in Angle of Attack. This makes the attacker overshoot him, and he gets on his six. Although this maneuver will probably never be used in combat now, since no self respecting attacker with CCMs will let an enemy last long in a close range combat, but still, it looks cool.
There are many such maneuvers available with pilots, but they overshoot the limits of my knowledge. Experienced aviators are however known to do things “their own way” or things that are completely out of the books. They have the skills to create their own maneuvers mid-air by their situational awareness, spatial awareness and aicraft’s capabilities. So, there can possibly be thousands of combinations of different maneuvers in a combat situation.
Although we now live in the era of Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missiles (BVRAAMs- missiles that are capable of annihilating a target at a long distance, outside the Visual Range of the pilot), it seems that there is little or no room for Close Range Air Combat Maneuvering. However, the retaliation of the PAF after the 2019 Balakot air strike has proved that dogfighting and WVR combat is still relevant, even if BVR combat is now a reality.
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