The Making of an Ace

There are certain universal qualities shared by the best fighter pilots in history, regardless of the era in which they flew. Your first step to becoming an Ace in the air force of your choosing, or in all of them if you wish, is to understand what these qualities are and begin to emulate them in everything you do. First, and above all else, you must be aggressive.

Luftwaffe Ace Werner Molders noted that "the most important thing for a fighter pilot is to get his first victory without too much trauma." Pilots cannot be aggressive if they lack confidence in their abilities because they haven't been proven. And Molders' emphasis on accomplishing this with as little trauma as possible reflects the fact that, to be effective, new pilots must overcome their fear of the enemy. You should never lose respect for the enemy, or underestimate his capabilities, but if you cannot overcome your fear, you cannot learn to be aggressive and fight offensively. As such, you are taking up space in a perfectly good aircraft that some other pilot could use more effectively.

In the absence of the other characteristics of a top-notch fighter pilot, however, naked aggression virtually ensures a short career that ends violently. The primary counterbalance to aggression is situational awareness. Situational awareness is far more than just being alert and aware of the enemy's presence. It can also be thought of as keeping the "big picture" of the engagement in your head in three dimensions. If you can't do this, you won't be able to make the best tactical choices in each situation.

Most of the that comprise good situational awareness can be taught. In fact, the biggest challange you face is to simply become habitual in their use. Take observational discipline for instance. Good pilots keep their heads moving at all times, scanning the skies for the presence of the enemy. Whether you are using the keyboard controlled static views or the virtual cockpit view via your joystick, you must develop a similar discipline. Pan through all your views at least once every 15-20 seconds and practice doing it until the keystrokes or other commands become instinctual and ingrained. Learning to detect the enemy as early in the engagement as possible is only the first step though; next you must learn how to evaluate your observations.

Is the enemy you've just sighted above or below you? How many of them are there? Are they headed toward you, away from you, or toward some other friendly aircraft? The answers to all of these questions are summed up as enemy composition (2, 4, 6 fighters), position (6, 8, 12 o'clock, high low etc.), course based on the attitude of the aircraft in relation to your own (which need not be exact, a relative idea of where they are headed is usually sufficient), and speed. Judging the latter comes with experience but it is always difficult at extreme visual ranges. The best gauge you have is to estimate their speed based on their relative motion to your aircraft, but don't forget to figure target aspect into that mental equation. An aircraft that is on a collision/intercept course with you will have no relative motion whatsoever; he will just loom larger as he approaches.

In addition to observing enemy aircraft directly, you can also receive sighting reports from other pilots in your squadron over the radio. These reports provide the information you need to incorporate the sighting into your tactical "big picture".

The reason you need to place all of this information in context and keep a 3-D picture of how all of the various formations are positioned in relation to one another is so that you can properly prioritize the threats. Each enemy contact you hold must be evaluated as a threat based on two criteria: Potency and Immediacy.

Potent threats are those enemy units that have the capability to prevent the accomplishment of your mission. There are degrees within this grouping and you, as the Commander, must prioritize according to these degrees. The first degree has to do with the capabilities of the enemy platforms that are present. For example, if you are on an intercept mission against a group of Ju-88's escorted by two FW-190's and two Bf-109's, the Ju-88's are your mission objective of course; but the enemy fighters have a higher threat priority. And of the two escort groups, the pair of FW-190's have a higher threat priority than the Bf-109's because they are more capable aircraft. At this level, that seems simple enough; but you have only completed an initial threat analysis based on potency. To complete the task, you must also evaluate the position of these contacts, which gives you an indication of the immediacy of the threat they pose. Contacts with a high energy state, either potential energy associated with altitude or kinetic energy associated with speed, pose a greater threat than contacts with a low energy state. For a greater understanding of energy states, see Energy Management elsewhere in this section.

Immediate threats may or may not be potent enough to prevent mission accomplishment, but they are in position to pose a clear and immediate danger to friendly forces. And again, there are degrees within this classification grouping as well. Let's continue with the aforementioned example and throw in some positional information as well so you can grasp how this concept intermingles with that of potency.

Let's assume that the Ju-88's are in a V formation at 10,000 feet, 2 o'clock low as you are at 12,000 feet, at a range of two miles. The Bf-109's are at 10 o'clock high at 14,000 feet. The FW-190's are out of position at 12 o'clock low, about 6,000 feet in altitude, due to having just dealt with another interceptor group. We've already determined that the FW-190's are the more potent threat based on platform capabilities alone, but in this example the Bf-109's are both more potent, because of their position relative to friendly forces, and more immediate. They have a higher energy state than your aircraft (potency) and can engage you much faster than their counterparts in the FW-190's (immediacy). As such, the proper threat priority at this point in the engagement would be Bf-109's, FW-190's then Ju-88's.

After the Bf-109's have been engaged, even if they aren't destroyed yet, the FW-190's go back up in priority because they are unmolested as of yet. And if they have regained altitude during the interim, that priority is higher still. Meanwhile, let's throw one more twist into the mix. Let's assume that by this point in the engagement, the bombers are nearing their targets. If they release their bombs, the mission is a failure regardless of the other outcomes. As such, the Ju-88's take top priority on the basis of immediacy, even if they do not pose a major threat to friendly forces in the air.

Here is another example that puts all the pieces together: you find yourself and your wingman 4000 feet above a large group of fighters mixing it up (such an engagement is referred to as a "furball"). You have positional advantage and a higher energy state, plus everyone who is in the fight already is fairly occupied and probably won't notice your approach. In most cases, this would be an ideal time to dive past that mix, hopefully scoring some hits as you go, then use the extra speed you have in the dive to zoom climb up the other side and set up for another pass. But, how does the situation change if another pair of currently unengaged enemy fighters is approaching from the side, 2000 feet above the furball but still below you? They are a much higher threat to you than anyone in the furball should you attempt the attack just described. And if you weren't aware of their approach, this could prove a deadly combination of circumstances. In this instance, the better choice would be to engage the unengaged fighters. Even though your positional and energy advantages are smaller, and the odds are not as much in your favor as they would be surprising pilots that are already otherwise engaged, you also are not leaving yourself vulnerable to attack from the enemy pair that poses the highest threat to you. They are the most potent and immediate threats, so deal with them first.

As you can see, determining the proper threat priority naturally determines the most appropriate order of engagement, which is the core of your battle plan. Use the following criteria to prioritize threats:

Class A Threat: Both potent and immediate.
Class B Threat: Immediate only.
Class C Threat: Potent only.
Class D Threat: Neither potent nor immediate.