by Dave “Bio” Baranek
Some of you may have heard of the US Navy's FFARP - Fleet Fighter ACM Readiness Program. In the 1980s it was two weeks of great flying: intercepts to engagements, 2 or 3 events per day. Miramar squadrons flew over the ocean (W-291) and over the Yuma TACTS range (R-2301W). When I was a Lieutenant Commander (O4) in VF-2 I flew with a talented and imaginative pilot. We were fighting VF-126 F-16Ns and their special A-4 Skyhawks set up for adversary mission: stripped of equipment such as the guns, and powered by big motors. Those big engines were necessary for the relatively heavy final A-4 variants that served in Marine Corps squadrons, but they were a luxury for these stripped models! The FFARP program started with a few 1v1s then progressed through 2 v UNK to 4 v UNK. On our last flight of the 2 weeks my pilot proposed a plan that we followed.
And so on an overcast morning we were flying above the rugged desert of the Yuma TACTS range for a 4 v UNK, holding on the western side of the small but well-defined mountains that ran near the western boundary of the range. At "fight's on" the lead section (2-ship to the Air Force) did a descending 360. That was my section. But instead of a normal post-hole maneuver, we pulled the circuit breakers to disable our ACMI pods and continued through another 70-80 degrees of turn, ending up flying southeast along the western border of the range.
We had descended rapidly from the start altitude of about 23K feet down to the deck - I mean the real deck, the desert floor on the eastern side of the mountains. We were flying about 1,000' above the ground. I've flown lower, sure, but this worked for this mission. Just before we got to the border with Mexico we turned left and headed northeast toward the center of the range.
Estimating where the bad guys would be, we headed onto the range from the far southwest corner at about 1.1 IMN and 1,000' AGL - "illegal" for the briefed rules but we didn't care. I had my AWG-9 radar in pulse-doppler-search and antenna about 10º up, maybe a little more, scanning +/- 65 degrees. Since we had disabled our TACTS pods we had no intercept control, so we really didn't have a good idea of intercept geometry or bandit location. But we had watched hundreds of intercepts unfold on the range and our estimating was right - we detected the bandits near our noses at about 20 miles. Then we had to get back on the system so we punched in our circuit breakers to reactivate our pods, took radar locks, and started a climb. The ACMI system picked up our jets. We simulated Phoenix launch at about 15 miles as we approached from 45º off their noses. Our shots were kills.
The rest of that run was anti-climactic: our other section got engaged with the remaining bandits, the good guys won overall. We thought we would get hammered in the debrief but someone said, "It looks like your pods dropped track for awhile, probably due to terrain or something." And we just said, "Yeah, look at that. Well, lucky for us they came back in time for the shots."
Lucky for us....
After all of the hard work and following the rules the previous two weeks that run was fun for us. We didn't get more attention in the debrief because everyone wanted to get to the next and final run, which was a tradition where the four F-14s had armament of guns only! I still remember the merge on that one: F-16s and A-4s speckled the overcast sky like bugs on your windshield in the summer. After almost 20 years I don't remember the details, but there was a lot of turning and burning. What a great job we had....
The below photo shows one of our aircrew-painted watercolor camouflage jets flying with two VF-126 F-16Ns from the Yuma TACTS Range back to our det airfield of NAF El Centro during this detachment, June 1988.