Naval Stories: “High Flight” – A-7 Corsairs vs F-106 Delta Darts

by Keith Kaniut

The first part of the title “2 V 2” is shorthand for an air-to-air engagement (air combat maneuvering) involving two aircraft against two other (presumably enemy) aircraft.  But a pilot or aviation enthusiast familiar with the iconic F-106 Delta Dart might be puzzled by the rest of the title.  The Corsair II is a capable but unspectacular plow horse in comparison to the Delta Dart, one of the fastest fighter-interceptors ever built! Who in their right mind would conduct air-to-air training involving such grossly mismatched aircraft?  

Fun facts: The supersonic F-106 was introduced in 1956 to foil Soviet Strategic Bomber attacks. It could fly 1,500 mph. (Mach 2.3) and cruise supersonically for 500 miles! By the late 80s they were mostly flown by Air National Guard squadrons. They had air-to-air radar and missiles designed to knock down an inbound Soviet Bear bomber outside of visual range. Their main vulnerability was poor rearward visibility for the pilot, and a slower roll at low speed than the Corsair. 

The A-7E Corsair II was introduced in 1967. It was a subsonic light bomber with better technology than its contemporaries including an inertial navigation system and weapons control computer plus a HUD (heads-up-display). In the right hands it was effective at urban removal and breaking things. The under-powered Corsair usually carried one Sidewinder missile for self-defense. Air-to-air “dogfighting” was its weakest capability. Even its M61 Vulcan 6-barrel Gatling gun was optimized for air-to-ground strafing rather than against aircraft. It did have slightly better rearward visibility than the F-106 due to the shape of the canopy. (This would become important later in the day…) So it was an exciting surprise when our squadron Operations officer found an Air National Guard (ANG) unit willing to train with us.

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That morning we were scheduled for an hour of Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) training (“dogfighting”) against two separate 2-plane sections of ANG F-106’s. I had a six-month carrier deployment under my belt and was flying wingman with my boss, the Admin department head, call sign “Turkey”. My radio call sign was “Turkey 2”. 

We flew from our home base at Cecil Field Naval Air Station in Jacksonville Florida over to one of the Tyndall AF Base MOAs (Military Operating Area) located south of Panama City over the Gulf of Mexico. These ranges were great for training because they were radar monitored and air-to-air engagements could be watched live on TV screens on the ground and recorded for later review. 

We entered the MOA at 20,000-feet altitude and checked in with the Air Force controllers. They gave us a vector towards the first section of F-106s, our “adversaries” for the training. We bumped our airspeed up to 350 knots and started looking. (The A-7 doesn’t have air-to-air radar. It’s strictly “pilots’ eyeballs” for enemy aircraft detection.) 

I banked sharply away from Lead and spread out into combat formation, flying about a mile abeam to 1) make it harder for the bogies to see both of us, and 2) so we could protect each other’s “6 o’clock”.

I saw them first. “Turkey, two bogies at 2 o’clock high; coming fast!”

“Roger 2. Got ‘em. Fight’s on!” 

We both hit full throttle and accelerated downhill into maximum “g” turns (~6 g’s) towards the two incoming aircraft. Our only defense was to try and meet them nose-to-nose and then out-turn them after the pass to try and get to their 6 o’clock for the simulated shot. It was a lot harder than it sounds… (For a more thorough explanation see this Wiki article on Air Combat Maneuvering.)

To maintain our best airspeed in the “6-g” turn (420 knots indicated) we had to sacrifice altitude by going downhill.  (The A-7’s engine wasn’t strong enough to overcome the extra drag produced by the wing in a “high-g” turn. If you didn’t descend, you slowed down – dramatically.) That meant that after we turned to meet the attacking F-106s we were below them and pitching back up into them when they streaked by. If they had accelerated away from us using afterburners, all we could have done is turn to face them again and try not to lose sight during the turns. If you lost sight, you were usually “dead” because the “bogie” could get behind you. 

Instead, they tried to out-turn us; to reverse their course with tighter and faster turns than ours. In the process, all four aircraft ended up pitching up into a sort of slow flight ballet just above stall speed in which the aircraft that is able to fly the slowest ends up behind the faster aircraft and then “shoots” it down. The A-7’s only advantage was that at these airspeeds, it could roll faster and change its direction more quickly. If the F-106 got behind one of us and tried to match our speed, we could quickly roll one way and then the other, ruining his firing solution until we could get behind him. We held off the first two F-106s and actually got a simulated shot on one using this technique. Then they called “Bingo” signaling that they’d used up all their extra fuel and needed to return to base. It had taken only 30 minutes.

As they headed back to Tyndall, the second section jumped us and we duplicated the events of the previous exchange. When they went slow, we flew slower and were able to survive. At the end of the hour, all four of us headed back to Tyndall to refuel and debrief. 

While the aircraft were refueling we went to the ACM training center and reviewed the morning’s events, watching the video replay of both sets of engagements. We’d fought relatively inexperienced pilots that morning but in the afternoon session we were scheduled to fly against the squadron CO and his wingman and one of their other senior pilots and his wingman. They had watched the morning’s events and saw what had and had not worked. The afternoon session was payback time!

That afternoon their Skipper demonstrated how to use the F-106’s superior speed to completely change the game. The engagements started the same with us turning towards the attacking jets but at the pass, instead of turning, they blew through and accelerated out and up and then began to loop back into the fight in slashing high speed attacks that prevented us from getting our weapons into position while allowing them to pick us off at a distance. There was nothing we could do if they used this tactic except go lower and lower until we ran out of altitude. And that’s a lousy position to be in. 

Both of the two sections we fought that afternoon used this technique and we had no effective defense. It was educational. When we returned to home plate that afternoon and debriefed, we looked for some sliver of consolation. The only thing was the knowledge that the A-7 could fly predictably at low airspeeds and if you knew that the enemy aircraft you were fighting had a slower roll rate, you had a small chance of survival. Thus the lesson learned was to never go toe-to-toe with a fighter aircraft at altitude. Better to get down to tree-top level where an A-7 pilot is relatively comfortable maneuvering at high speed and “g”, and try to run the other aircraft out of fuel. (Because fighters with afterburners use way more fuel! For example, during both sessions the A-7 had been able to fight at full power for an entire hour while the F-106s had expended all their fuel in just 30 minutes. 

I admit that this was not much of a plan. In the late 80s there were still some older Soviet fighters that might have been vulnerable to this tactic, but not many. This was one of several reasons that A-7 Corsair pilots so welcomed the arrival of the F/A-18 Hornet. Finally we had an aircraft whose performance was limited by what the pilot could endure rather than by its own airframe or engine limitations!

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