With a very few exceptions combat simulators do not tend to include (or allow) player controlled bombers. Probably due to the perceived lack of excitement in bomber operations, sims tend to focus on fighters or ground attack that gets up close and personal. The job of a military combat pilot has been described in a number of ways. Sims use “hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror.” They seem designed to get you to those seconds as quickly as possible and drag them out for as long as you have quarters.

Bomber missions tend to be “fly to point X and release weapon Y.” When performed properly they are not tests of bravery and skill so much as tests of patience and endurance. This might be why most sims relegate pure bombers to NPC status (non-player character). You might see a few in a mission briefing accompanied by the words “escort” or “perform fighter sweep in advance of.” (Or “made an unscheduled landing” in the case of my CSAR mission.)

The F-117 “Nighthawk” is often called a “stealth fighter.” This might be what got it included in the list of flyable aircraft in Jane’s ATF. It is actually a single-seat tactical bomber, with the radar cross section of a fat seagull and the top speed of a leaner seagull taped to a pair of IR-baffled turbofans.

Along with a wingman, Valor, we are tasked with dropping two tons (each) of high explosive on a militarized mime-school and rubber-dog-shit factory. We’ve made a few strikes in the area, so we know there are squadrons of enemy fighters that are just jawing to kill an F-117.

Our stealth capabilities are incomparable, so we’ve nothing to worry about on ingress. It’s when we open the bomb-bay doors that we’re going to get jumped. We’ll probably manage to hit the poo factory, but little stealth coated airplane parts are going to shower the mime-school if we don’t have a plan to deal with the fighters.

Another member of our sim-squadron, Hammer, launches in an F-22 Raptor (though at the time it was called “Lightning II”) to provide Combat Air Patrol / fighter cover to our bombing run. It’s going to be a full-on coordinated strike.

At least, that was the plan.

Valor and we are making our way down a river valley, doing 400 knots at a little under 200 AGL. Tall hills on either side of us block any hope the bad guys have of picking us up with anything not down in the water with us. Even a low-frequency radar installation on the hilltop thinks we’re ground clutter – or fast-moving muskrats.

Our targets are in an urban area just north of the outlet of the valley. We exit our “trench run” and start to climb. Dropping 2,000lb bombs at under a thousand feet is suicide. The Air Force term for warheads killing other warheads is “fratricide.” A weapon killing the platform that launched it would be “patricide” – so if Valor’s bombs kill us it should count as “avunculicide.” As with so many potential flying problems, altitude solves it.

We power up sensors and prepare drop solutions for the bombs. The Situational Awareness Display shows several aircraft in flight, but none of them act like they see us. Confident that Hammer is ready to drop on anyone who turns inbound, Valor calls “lined up, opening doors.”

“Roger, break and attack. Heading to secondary.” We split off from our wingman and fly to the deeper target. I turn on the laser, paint our target, and open the weapon bay.

Immediately, enemy planes realize that rodents don’t fly at four hundred knots, and it’s cats that shoot lasers from their eyes. A pair of MiG 29’s turn inbound. Trying to go stealth and evade before dropping bombs is just going to delay and worsen the situation. The MiGs might lose us for the moment, but they’ll be a lot closer when we open doors to try again. There is nothing for us to do except fly to point X and release weapon Y – then get the hell outta Dodge.

Besides, we have an F-22.

“I see two, each, MiG 29s inbound from south west toward primary target zone.”

“I don’t see them,” is not the response we wanted to hear. A scan of our tactical situation display shows only one other friendly aircraft in range – Valor. Our fighter cover is not even in our area of concern.

Valor comes to the same conclusion. “Hammer? Where are you?”

I zoom way out. Hammer is 120 miles away to the north and east. “I’m chasing the guy targeting you.”

“What guy?” The MiG-29s are 20 miles out and closing. They’re probably not going to be able to missile lock on the F-117, but if they get within visual range, it’ll be over in one pass.

We get to our release point and let go of one of our 2,000lb laser-guided bombs. I feel an increasingly urgent need to close the bomb-bay doors. I count to five and drop the other LGB. I was saving it incase we needed to aid Valor with his target, but there’s a MiG-29 whose position suggests we won’t get that opportunity.

The mime-school students get to experience an actual invisible wall in the form of the GBU-10 shockwave, and anyone left standing gets to walk against the wind of the second one. I close-up the bomb-bay doors, dive for the deck, and turn southwest.

It seems counter-intuitive, but the sharp angles of the F-117 make it most invisible when looking at it nose-on. By driving straight at the MiG-29s, we vanish from whatever radar guidance they’re using. If we’re lucky, we’ll slip past them without being detected and be able to egress.

I’m not that lucky.

The MiGs blow past us at 1,300 knots closing speed, but one peels off and starts turning to chase. The lead MiG is hell bent for Valor. It’s against doctrine to split like that, but our single seat stealth bomber offers exactly zero risk to an airborne aircraft – that’s not completely true, he could slam into us in the dark. Ingesting shattered parts of our airframe would probably knock out the MiG’s engines, but it wouldn’t do me much good, either.

The only defensive system we have is stealth. Our only offensive system is Hammer, a hundred miles away. At that distance against an enemy who has merged, the F-22 might as well be a tack hammer.

I’m pruning pine trees with our wingtips trying to get back into the mountains to lose the MiG amongst the rocks. I’ve tuned out the chatter between Valor and Hammer, but a word catches my ear.

“Observation plane.”

“What?” I ask.

“Right after you took off, he turned inbound,” Hammer explains. “I figured he detected you.”

“You’re a hundred and twenty miles away chasing a recon plane?”

“No, I killed him, but they launched a bunch of MiG-21’s up here.” The MiG-21 “Fishbed” is a (then) forty-year-old second generation jet fighter. A squadron of them is a bigger hazard to the F-22’s navigation than its combat prowess. “Don’t worry, I’m on my way.”

20mm rounds scrape the stealth coating off our plane. Whether accurate or not, once the F-117 takes damage, the sim treats it as a conventional aircraft. If I do manage to open the distance between us and the MiG-29, he will now be able to get a missile lock on us.

The F-117 disintegrates around me. Apparently, the MiG-29’s AA-2 “Atoll” heat seeking missile didn’t need that much distance. I pull the ejection handle – hit the [ctrl]+[e] key sequence three times – and spend all of 30 seconds in a parachute before splashing down in the river.

Rather than quit the mission, I hang out, looking at the rendered scenery. About two minutes later, an F-117-shaped ball of fire slams into the ground about 500 meters upstream. Valor’s parachute settles down on the bank of the river next to me.

In the second world war, escort fighters were often drawn away from bombers by feints. German fighters would approach and offer the Allied fighters a chance to score a kill by turning tail to the formation. Tantalized by the glory and prestige of getting a kill, the fighters would often pursue and fly miles away from their protective posts. Once the escort fighters were too low or too far away to help the bombers, the real interceptors would attack the undefended bombers.

The problem with detailed fully updated tactical displays is in the interpretation. Hammer saw a plane turn and fly toward us – the bombers. He reacted. He shot it down and found himself in a furball which rolled further and further away.

With respect to his dogfight, I am reminded of a quote from an article written by a member of congress evaluating the Soviet MiG-25 after one defected to Japan and was thoroughly examined. Modified for this specific tale, he wrote, “…our … newer Air Force fighters can outclimb, out-accelerate, out-turn, out-see, out-hide and out-shoot the [Fishbed] by margins so wide that our expected kill-ratio advantage is almost incalculable. No [F-22] pilot need fear the [Fishbed] unless he is asleep, [hopelessly] out-numbered, or an utter boob.”

The F-117, on the other hand, needs to be afraid of its own shadow if it gets detected – the plane or the shadow.

Sim: Jane’s ATF (Advanced Tactical Fighter)
Region: Latvia
Aircraft: F-117A
Base: Daugavpils (but I don’t recall the airports being well modeled)