The target was 20 miles off my nose heading right for my formation. To the right, my wingman was about 2 miles line abreast and had about a 2,000 foot altitude stack. I keyed the mic and said, "Bracket." He adjusted his flight path to ensure the target would have to pass between us. 15 miles to the target and I strained to gain a visual. I armed my switches and transitioned from heat seeking missiles to the gun. The scream of the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile quieted and the M61A1 20mm gun reticle appeared on my head’s up display. I pulled my nose on to the target designator box and picked up a "tally" at 12 miles. I pulled aggressively to the left to reform the bracket, checked my wingman’s position one more time and ran my intercept to arrive about a mile behind the target with a bit of offset. As the target jet approached with more than 1000 miles per hour of closure, my heart pounded with excitement. My hand shaking with anticipation, I was ready to squeeze off my first round of 20mm lead from the F-15 Eagle’s Gatling Gun. Even though this was a training mission over the deep blue Gulf of Mexico, it had all the feel of the real thing. At least once a year, pilots are given the chance to execute a tactical intercept to employ the F-15 gun as a part of their regular training. The target is a ten foot long banner towed behind another F-15 which acoustically scored hits and misses as the impact…or not!
The F-15 has an mind-blowing array of radar missiles and heat seeking missiles aboard to meet any modern threat, but to the pilot, there is no more challenging system to employ effectively than the 20mm gun. Meant for close in, high "G" maneuvering, the Eagle’s gun taxes a fighter pilot’s ability physically and mentally to be a lethal part element of the jet’s repertoire. Located at the right wing root of the leading edge of the jet, the gun is loaded with 940 bullets which last a paltry 9 seconds. Pilots are taught to fire in 1-2 second bursts not only to maintain a cache for follow on shots, but also to prevent the gun from overheating and the barrels melting.
Having completed the intercept, it was time to hammer down on the trigger under my right index finger and let the bullets fly! With the banner target under the aiming reticle and the tow jet safely offset and a mile ahead, I pulled the trigger. Startled by the force and noise of the gun, the jet yawed to the right and the reticle drifted off the target. Even with all of the 1970’s era technology of the central computer in the F-15 to guide my shot, I missed. Deconflicting with my wingman, I pulled off high and right as he called on the radio, "two is in," and he maneuvered into position. Puffs of grey smoke erupted as he shot. "Two, take 5 hits," the pilot of the tow jet said. I would be buying the beer tonight! He maneuvered off high right and I rolled in a bit more humbly this time. The force of gravity pushed me down firmly into my seat and the beads of sweat scurried down my face pushed by this invisible force. I lined up the shot and pulled the trigger. Armed with a inconsequential 2 seconds of experience, I vowed not to make the same mistake twice. With a loud "brrrrrrrrrrrrrrp," the bullets zipped towards their target and impacted the seemingly miniscule banner. "One, take 20 hits." I pulled off and my wingman pulled in. We completed this dynamic, rolling carousel maneuver for the next 10 minutes as we took turns at the banner until we were both empty of bullets. Just as quickly as the intercept happened, the mission was complete. It was time to return to base, watch our tapes and then embellish the story of steely-eyed marksmanship at the Officer’s Club!
I had been fortunate to shoot several modern weapons in my career, but mashing down the trigger on the 20 "mike mike" gun was by far the biggest rush I’d ever had!
Editor’s note – Martin is the author of the book "Scrambled". He was activated on 9-11 when he was a fighter pilot and I would appreciate it if you visited his site. http://www.scrambledthebook.com/