The Element of Surprise

The easiest enemy to kill is one that never sees you coming. Military philosophers like Sun Tzu and, much more recently, B.H. Liddell Hart have preached this doctrine incessantly to anyone willing to listen. And plenty of WWII pilots did listen, particularly the best of them, many of whom claimed at least three-quarters of their victims never saw them coming. But what about those pilots, the victims of the element of surprise? Surely most were not unaware of its importance, yet they still ended up on the receiving end of things. In this section, we will teach you some of the tricks of the trade to gain surprise and in doing so, hopefully better prepare you not to have them inflicted upon you.

"The first rule of all air combat is to see the opponent first. Like the hunter who stalks his prey and maneuvers himself unnoticed into the most favorable position for the kill, the fighter in the opening of a dogfight must detect the opponent as early as possible in order to attain a superior position for the attack."
Lt. General Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe

Even the newest pilots have certainly heard of the benefits of attacking out of the sun, such that enemies scanning for your approach are blinded and unable to pick you out of its glare. Setting up such an attack is difficult, however, without some prior knowledge of the intended movement of the enemy and sufficient time to loiter in the area at altitude prior to his arrival. In other words, don't get caught up in the romantic notion of fighters diving out of the sun because it just doesn't happen as a matter of course unless the conditions for it are perfect. What you should take away from the example, however, is that anything you can do to lower your chances of being spotted before the attack commences increases your chance of success.

Fortunately, there are a few other circumstances which naturally restrict visibility when present, like cloud cover and inclement weather patterns, and far more that you can create regardless of the ambient conditions. Let's consider viewing angles for a moment. In the discussion about situational awareness (SA), you were instructed to become a religious practitioner of cycling through your target views every 15-20 seconds. Doing this is critical if you want to avoid being surprised, as is jinking periodically to glance into the natural blind spot that fighters have below and behind the aircraft (the 6 O'clock low position).

You can increase your chances of surprise even more if you can dip below your opponent's sight line and get into the blind spot behind him. To do this, you must ensure you have sufficient closure to still get into range for the shot. The last thing you want to do is to try to crawl up behind a guy at a very slow closure rate. The longer it takes you to get off the shot, the greater the chance that you are going to get spotted before you are in position.

To minimize the time it takes to complete the engagement, strive to set up a lead pursuit curve on the aircraft you are targeting. A lead pursuit is akin to an intercept course (see the Glossary in this section for a complete definition). Basically, if you are starting your approach from 3 to 5 o'clock high, or 7 to 9 o'clock high, you dive down to convert your extra potential energy into kinetic energy and increase your closure rate to the target. Point the nose of your aircraft ahead of the target along his course to "cut the corner." When you are just outside gun range at a good closure rate, pull back on the stick to bring your nose up toward the underbelly of his fuselage. Very slight roll corrections with the stick can make any final aim adjustment you need prior to squeezing off the burst. Also, it is always better to attack from slightly to either side (pilots call this in the "saddle") rather than directly on the enemy six because it provides a larger target profile and impact zone for your rounds. Luftwaffe Ace Adolf Galland used this technique, which he called the "up and under", to score many of his 104 air victories.

Finally, there are several other instances where pilots have traditionally shown low situational awareness. Pilots who are engaging another aircraft or who are already being engaged by another of your squadron mates have very low SA for other contacts. Pilots who have just completed a kill are very vulnerable to surprise as well. And almost every pilot in a furball is suffering from some degree of situational overload simply trying to stay alive. As such, if you are outside the fracas and unengaged, you stand a very good chance of taking advantage of the situation with very little risk to yourself.

Master these elements of surprise and you will find your combat effectiveness increasing steadily!