Visual Lookout With Advanced Avionics

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In the air-to-air arena, with all the advances in technology that make a more lethal killing machine, the threat is still able to reach out and touch us. No, I am not speaking of the poor adversary you have locked up ready to launch your missile at. I am referring to the threat of a mid-air collision with your own flight members. Mid-air collisions are one of the top four leading causes of mishaps in today's Air Force. It's a threat that's never going away. It will always be there and we need to be aware of it. We brief and debrief countless training rules that are there to save your tail. As a professional Air Force officer, we follow these rules to the utmost. Even with the best coordination, establishing altitude blocks, geographical deconfliction, and Situational Awareness (SA)-enhancing aircraft displays, visual lookout will always be a necessary task. Not only will that help us to visually pick up the adversary trying to roll in at our six, but keeping our eyes out will keep us from swapping paint with other flight members. I was unpleasantly reminded of the importance of visually clearing your flight path ... 

So here we go with the "there I was" story that inspired me to write about this topic. It was planned to be an Air Combat Tactics (ACT) 4v4 Flight Lead upgrade ride for number-one. This was his second to last ride in the flight lead upgrade program. I was two, an experienced wingman. The instructor pilot was three and four was also an experienced wingman. The sortie was planned and briefed well and we all were ready to execute the plan. We stepped to our jets confident with our abilities to defeat any tactic the adversary could think of. The weather was beautiful as we departed, and we flew to the airspace without any issues. 

We committed out of our Combat Air Patrol (CAP) as the red air pushed from their CAP. As a flight, we targeted and sorted the leading edge. We took the available shots and, at abort range, we turned cold. 

As we begin to work cold ops, we paused to build our SA and plan to target what was left. Over the radio, ground control informed us that there were two threats 20 miles at our six, one at medium altitude and another low to the ground. As we turned to target these threats, we were unable to upgrade them. We were going to merge to visually ID them. 

As I worked my radar and targeted the threats I assessed the fight my wingman worked out who was going to engage the bandits. 

What I didn't know ... four couldn't find the mid-altitude bogey with his radar and our flight paths were merging. Both of us were fixated on finding the targets with our radars, and neglecting to look outside and see and avoid. We were both within the briefed altitude blocks; giving a false sense of security as we were trying to radar-target the bogeys. We were misprioritizing in our jets, spending a considerable amount of time "eyes down" as flight paths merged. It shocked both of us when we looked up and saw another jet cross our flight paths with minimal distance. 

As I turned to engage this jet that unsuspectingly crossed my nose, I was surprised how an adversary was able to get so close undetected. I began to realize that my SA was not what it should be. As I looked at my Horizontal Situation Display (HSD), I realized that four had just passed uncomfortably close. We both relearned a valuable lesson and kept our eyes out the remainder of the sortie. We both knew this was definitely something to talk about in the debrief. 

We were probably within 500 feet of having a mid-air collision. The HUD video showed how lucky we were that day. Four's jet filled my HUD as we passed. There were multiple lessons learned that day, but by far the most important is to keep scanning outside as we work the sensors. Too much eyes-down time could threaten your life more than the adversary. 

This is just one of the many examples that might lead to a mid-air collision. Everyday we face this threat, whether it's in the tactical portion of the flight or back in the traffic pattern. Visual lookout is an essential part of every flight. Hazards are many, and as aviators we need to remember our responsibilities to see and avoid during all phases of flight.