In all the dogfights of World War I, one pilot earned the respect and fear of his adversaries: Manfred von Richthofen. The Red Baron.
A war hero in Germany, Richthofen eventually claimed upwards of 80 confirmed victories, making him the war’s deadliest pilot. But it was his personal mantra that long survived after his death in action in 1918. It’s a simple dictum that helped guide fighter pilot training for decades beyond: “The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.”
Richthofen’s wisdom echoed through the ages, and on one particular day in the mid-1990s, it entered the mind of retired U.S. Navy captain Jim “Guido” DiMatteo. An aggressor pilot and instructor at the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, popularly known as Topgun, DiMatteo was in a morning briefing with a pair of Topgun students who were about to fly their F-14 against DiMatteo. The cocky Tomcat pilot asked him which airplane he’d be flying. When he replied he’d be in an A-4 Skyhawk, the student cheekily said he’d “shut down one of his engines to make it a fair fight.”
“I took that as extra motivation,” DiMatteo says.
The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was a diminutive, subsonic single-engine attack plane designed in the 1950s, but DiMatteo knew what it could do. He planned to sucker the overconfident Tomcat pilot into trying to turn his 22-ton F-14 with the nimble five-ton Skyhawk.
“Given the Tomcat pilot’s comments, I chose to demonstrate [Richthofen’s] concept to him,” DiMatteo says. “I baited him into a close one-circle fight, which was to my advantage… He fell for it and I gunned him quickly and mercilessly… which is the most embarrassing way to lose a fight for any fighter pilot. Let’s just say the lesson was learned.”
Modern day adversary or “aggressor” pilots simulate the capabilities and behavior of potential enemies, from the aircraft they fly to the weapons systems and tactics they employ. Whether active military pilots or private contractors, the simulation they provide fuses people, hardware, and software to teach U.S. pilots how to defeat all possible threats that an enemy will likely throw at them.
Inside the Enemy Cockpit
The real Topgun was formed during the Vietnam War out of concern about the relative lack of success that U.S. pilots had against North Vietnamese MiGs. The core of what would become Topgun was a group of eight pilots and radar intercept officers led by young Lt. Cmdr. Dan Pedersen.
In 1968, the Pentagon gave Pedersen the formidable task of forming a kind of graduate school for fighter pilots. The plan was to teach them not only how to get the best out of their jets but also how to demonstrate advanced dogfight tactics to their own squadrons.
Pedersen needed to create a course and begin a class at Naval Air Station Miramar (now a Marine Corps facility), north of San Diego, California, in 60 days. But he had no resources—no money, classroom, no mechanics, and no airplanes.
“It was very much a pickup game at first,” retired Navy captain RC “Dawg” Thompson told Popular Mechanics. Thompson went through Topgun as a student in the late 1980s, returned as an instructor in the early 1990s, and served as commanding officer at the school in 1996 and 1997. “They had to scratch and claw to put everything together.”
Pedersen begged and borrowed A-4 and TA-4 Skyhawks from a neighboring Miramar squadron. Brad Elward, the author of a forthcoming book on Topgun’s history, says the Skyhawk was a great trainer aircraft because it required little maintenance and was relatively cheap to operate. As the first classes got underway, the instructors used F-4s to teach students how to push the Phantoms beyond their limits.
They invited other fleet pilots in F-8 Crusaders, A-7 Corsairs, and A-6 Intruders to fly against their classes. Occasionally they invited Air Force pilots from nearby units flying F-106 Delta Darts and F-86 Sabres to tangle with their students.
But in Vietnam, American pilots faced the MiG-17 and MiG-21. Pedersen and his new Topgun instructors were eager to gain any insights or experience with these planes so they could teach fleet pilots how to defeat them.
Soon, Pedersen got his wish. Around the same time Topgun was established as the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, the U.S. had secretly been flying a MiG-17 and a MiG-21 obtained from Syrian and Iraqi pilots who’d defected years earlier. The Defense Intelligence Agency kept them at the Air Force’s top-secret air base at Groom Lake, Nevada, known as Area 51. Pedersen recalls flying the fearsome Russian fighter:
“When I first saw the 17 up close, my instant feeling was trepidation… Sitting on its stubby nose and leaning over the windscreen to look into the cockpit, I was impressed for better and worse. It was old, rough, simple, heavy, and beautiful in its way… I got six or seven flights in the adversary plane. It was agile to be sure, but I still felt like I was flying a very fast anvil… The plane was so quick to run out of gas, even without using its afterburner, that you had to make your moves and score your points fast. You had to learn the rhythm of how to fight it. If you did, you could be dangerous.”
But with only a few MiGs in U.S. hands, Topgun aviators knew they needed convincing stand-ins for the Soviet fighters. The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and its TA-4 trainer sibling, with their small size and impressive agility, could pass for the MiG-17. The similarly-sized Northrop F-5 Tiger II, with its supersonic performance, made a fairly good replacement for the MiG-21.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, an expanding number of Navy and Air Force adversary squadrons proved that such light, inexpensive airplanes, handled by talented aggressor pilots, were excellent teaching tools. It was “the man in the box” who really mattered, and faithful enemy simulation was the only way to improve that valuable asset.
As military aggressor squadrons became more established, the desire for more realistic threat aircraft led to a secret project known as Constant Peg, and the establishment of the USAF 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron in 1977. The new aggressor unit, dubbed Red Eagles, would fly a squadron of MiGs.
With MiG-17s, 19s, 21s, and MiG-23s obtained through various clandestine means throughout the world, the Red Eagles became the most realistic contemporary aggressor force in the world. In the 1980s, they would add MiG-27s, 29s, and Chinese Shenyang F-7Bs to the lineup.
Thousands of Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps pilots were exposed to these Soviet-designed planes in classified exercises over the restricted areas of the USAF’s Nevada test ranges. Navy and Marine Corps squadrons also operated an exotic Israeli aircraft, the IAI Kfir C.1. Designated F-21A when flown by United States pilots, it was fast and made a good MiG-23 surrogate.
In the summer of 1976, approximately 30 miles northwest of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, now-retired U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot and later two-star admiral Jim “Rookie” Robb and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) were aloft in their Tomcat straining to see an adversary fighter.
“At about eight miles, I could see a single speck of black through the windscreen,” Robb told author Steve Davies in his book Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs. “I was struggling to identify the dot from its outline. It was still too small.”
Rookie Robb and his backseater had no idea that Constant Peg and the USAF’s 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron was being formed, and that they were about to engage a Red Eagles MiG-17 over the Nevada desert. As the U.S. Air Force Museum’s history of the Red Eagles confirms, “the true nature of this specialized training was often kept from prospective students until the last minute.”
After shrugging off his incredulity, Robb made the mistake of getting into a horizontal turning fight with the MiG. In short order, the small Russian fighter (piloted by an American) turned inside him and virtually “gunned” the big Tomcat. Like many before him, Robb learned that successfully killing MiGs in the real world meant taking the fight three-dimensional.
By late 1987, Topgun began receiving F-16 Fighting Falcons, specifically the F-16N, an adversary version of the USAF F-16C. The Air Force itself began bringing F-16As and later Cs into its aggressor squadrons in 1988. The Navy also introduced limited numbers of F-14s to its adversary squadrons as well as F/A-18 Hornets.
But with the Cold War quickly fading in the late 1980s, and defense drawdowns in the 1990s, many aggressor squadrons wouldn’t survive. Training pilots for combat with a well-equipped adversary was no longer a high priority. Topgun and the Air Force’s 57th Wing remained, but aggressor squadrons and aircraft severely diminished in number.
While the military’s resources for adversary training had been cut, that didn’t mean the need had vanished. Entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the gap.
In 1994, former USAF F-16 pilot Jeff “JD” Parker formed a company called Vortex to provide specialized air services to the military. He bought a pair of ex-Royal Danish Air Force Saab 35 Draken fighters with which Vortex supported Navy research and development projects.
By 1997, the Navy was using Vortex’s Drakens to fly simulated cruise missile profiles to test its ships’ air defenses. Later, as Vortex acquired Israeli Kfirs, electronic warfare simulation and limited Red Air operations followed. As the company expanded, it was renamed Airborne Tactical Advantage (ATAC) and headquartered in Newport News, Virginia.
As ATAC began taking on a variety of Red Air missions, it obtained ex-Swiss Air Force Hawker Hunters, ex-Israeli A-4N Skyhawks, Aero Vodochody L-39ZA Albatros trainers, and more recently, ex-French Air Force Dassault Mirage F1s.
Today, ATAC and companies like Draken International, Top Aces, Air USA, and Tactical Air Support, Inc (TacAir) operate adversary training and simulation aircraft. Their fleets include Mirage F1s, Atlas Cheetahs, General Dynamics F-16s, Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, MiG-21s, MiG-29s, Dornier Alpha jets, Aero Vodochody L-159s, BAE Hawks, and Northrop F-5ATs, to name a few.
Building on his experience at Topgun, RC Thompson launched TacAir in 2005, becoming its CEO and later adding Jim DiMatteo as Director of Communications.
TacAir currently has a $106 million contract to provide airborne threat simulation for the Navy. When he started the company, Thompson bought MiG-17s and equipped them with sophisticated electronic jammers. Soon, TacAir upped its game with the purchase of 25 ex-Jordanian F-5s in 2013.
Fitted with TacAir-developed radar, open-architecture software, a fiber optic backbone, and Garmin digital cockpits, the company’s F-5AT jets look old-school. But their future sensor fusion capability will give them F-35-like qualities.
“We’re flying around with an old third-generation platform with fourth-generation-plus effects… it will soon have fifth-generation capability,” says Thompson. “Today’s adversary aircraft are not necessarily required to be fighters. You need a safe, efficient platform to push sophisticated sensors through the air.”
As piloted fighter aircraft continue to advance, adversary pilots continue to teach Richthofen’s lesson. Whether flying and fighting in an F-22 Raptor flush with thrust vectoring and the latest electronic capability, or sitting in the cockpit of a rudimentary Fokker triplane, it’s the pilot who matters.