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Air Combat Maneuvering, What, Why and How. Part I of III
By Bill "Tasty12" Castello

With the release of Falcon 4.0 and others sims that allow for multiple simmers on the same side, I think it’s time that someone covered ACM in a little detail. We have all heard BFM until our ears bleed. We know Aspect, HCA , WEZ and all the rest of the buzzwords until we can probably teach Lt. Col. Bonanni a little about it… <just kidding, sir>. But what happens to all this great BFM when you have your buddy on your wing at the merge? Is your buddy going to accurately predict every maneuver you’re going to make? Probably not, that’s what ACM is all about, what to do when you get to the bandits, who does what and how. In this little missive, I’m going to try to give you some ideas.


The objective of ACM is threefold:

  • Knowing how to maneuver as the supporting fighter
  • Teach specific engaged and supporting fighter roles in a visual fight
  • Develop enhanced situational awareness(SA) for the element

How many times have you gone into a fight with a wingman (human type) and found the fight got totally confused? Maybe you bugged your wingman, maybe even pasted him, and a lone enemy fighter laughed as he put you both down in flames? Knowing what you’re going to do beforehand is the KEY to not letting that happen and turn that lone enemy fighter into a smokin’ hole.

To do this, you have to understand 2 key points. The first is the concept of the engaged and the supporting fighter in a fight, that’s covered a bit later. The second point is effective communication. No matter how you and your wing communicate, you need a clear and precise way to get your point across. Whether you use a separate telephone line (Recommended, with inexpensive telephone headsets from Radio Shack) or the chat function in the sim, your comms need to be precise.


There are 2 basic types of comms you will use in a fight, directive and descriptive, each has its place in the fight.

Directive calls

Directive calls are just what they say, directive and immediate. There are times when your buddy will see a threat you don’t and vice versa. Things happen pretty quickly on a mach 1 jet with mach 3 missiles flying around. There’s no time to utter "Uh, Lead, I think you should make a quick turn to 350 to avoid that Archer that’s inbound." Rather, your call will consist of something more like this, "Lead, Break right", later on, you can add "missile inbound, your 5 o’clock". The format for a directive radio call is:

Call sign of the receiver – Order (e.g. "Cowboy 1, jink now")\

Keep a tally on the receiver to see if he’s doing as ordered, and if not, retransmit your order. Keep in mind, there is no rank or ‘pecking order’ here. If the newest non-MQ guy in the squadron sees that Archer inbound on the Squadron CC, he’s going to make the call and the boss usually won’t yell at him for saving his bacon. Conversely, if you’re the receiver, don’t think your too damn good to have a missile aimed at you, if wing says break right, DO IT.

Descriptive calls

Descriptive calls are generally used to inform the flight of what’s going on with you or the area. The format for a descriptive (Bandit call) is as follows:

  • Call sign (your own)
  • Type threat (Bandit/Bogey)
  • Left / right
  • Clock
  • Range
  • High / low / level
  • Amplifying remarks

e.g. "Tasty12, Bandit right 2, 3 miles level, closing fast"

You’ll continue to transmit this type of info until everyone tallys the threat. There are variations to the format, as you might expect. People have asked why you give left/right and clock position, the answer is simple (I think). The direction tells you where to snap your head, the clock position is ‘fine tuning’ to your scan. Merely giving a clock position isn’t enough in the heat.

Continue is sometimes added to the end of the call to tell your mate that he can continue the current maneuver he is doing since it ‘looks good to you’. So if your boss is already breaking right and that seems correct, tag on the word continue.

Many times these calls (directive and descriptive) are combined:

e.g. "Cowboy 1, break right NOW <pause to see if he does it> Bandit right 3, 1 mile high, shooting, continue"

This comms info is vital to allow the other fighter to start the right BFM to engage the tally, or start his best defensive BFM, whatever the situation calls for.

Obviously, typing this stuff in a chat window can get tiresome, so it’s best to agree on codes for the most basic information. These codes can be as simple or complex as you and your squad mates feel like. Here’s an example line from a codeset I used with some of my squadies:


1 - Agreed upon code # for each member of your flight

2r - agreed codes (1 = jink, 2 = break, 3 = jink, 4 = engaged ,5 =Cleared-in etc…) the r is for rt/lt

tr3 - t = bandit / y = bogey, r = right, / l = left , # is for clock position

1h - # is range , h = high / l = low / v = level

c – continue, if used

Now that you can talk to each other, we’ll move on to the meat of the ACM world, the ACM contract between you and your mate.

The Contract

The contract between you and your mate is signed and paid in blood before you ever step into the jet. The key here is to know exactly what your job is at any point in the fight. If lead is engaged with a bandit, that does NOT free you up to hunt for ground targets. Quite the opposite in fact… but that comes in a few paragraphs.

Formation integrity and flight discipline are the keys to surviving in the modern air fight. Formation integrity allows the flight to maneuver synergistically to defeat a bandit’s attack or prosecute the kill. The engaged fighter does his best BFM to kill the bandit while the supporting fighter maneuvers for the kill shot or supports the engaged fighter based on the criteria set forth before the flight <at the brief>.

This is why it is key to have a flight lead/wingman relationship before the flight. Lead makes the tactical decisions before the fight starts, but he knows what the contract was before he took off. That means he knows what you’re going to do. Lead may have an A/G loadout and pre-briefed that if the flight is jumped, wing automatically moves up to be the engaged fighter while he supports. Who knows what the situation may call for? It’s better to brief this stuff in a leather chair with some coffee than it is at 10k burning JP-8.

So what is all this garbage about engaged and supporting fighters??

Well, in offensive maneuvering against a bandit, there can be only ONE! <Highlander theme goes here>. I mean one engaged fighter that is maneuvering in specific relationship to the bandit at a time. On defense, the BANDIT picks who the engaged fighter is, that’s obvious. Why only one? Well, if you can keep a tally on your lead, the bandit and maintain SA all while maneuvering your jet in relation to both, let me know, ‘cause the USAF wants to clone your butt! The chances for mid-airs, blocked shots and other nasty incidents are just too high in a 2 ship BFM against a single adversary. So, what do each of you do? Glad you asked.

Click to continue. . .


Engaged Fighter Responsibilities

The engaged fighter(EF) is the guy who is currently maneuvering against the bandit. The engaged fighter:

  • Maneuvers using all the great BFM he has learned to kill the bandit (offense) or negate the bandit’s attack (defense) in minimum time. This is where you fly the BEST Off/Def BFM that you know, and we all graduated from Maj. Bonanni’s FACT, didn’t we?????? (If not go pick up a cheap copy of Falcon 3 gold, it’s worth it for the on-CD Art of the Kill video’s.)
  • Clears the supporting fighter to engage if he is in a better position to shoot
  • Clear the supporting fighter if defensive and the engaged fighter is not safely out of the supporting fighter’s weapon FOV, or if target debris would be a factor for the supporting fighter’s shot.
  • Keep the supporting fighter informed of intentions, plans, capability and future intentions

Supporting Fighter Responsibilities

The supporting fighter(SF) in a fight has a multiple role to play in the fight. You have to divide your attention between a lot of duties when your mate is engaged. The supporting fighter:

  • Maintain visual to the fight and try for a good tally
  • Inform the engaged fighter of position. (Critical in a good tight BFM fight, since a mid-air is a cheesey way to give the bandit 2 kills)
  • Sanitize the area in and around the fight using any means possible (Radar, AWACS, RWR, Check your own damn 6, don’t get channelized on the fight)
  • Maneuver to AVOID the fight (The mid-air thing again) but also maneuver so as to have an easy entry into the fight.
  • Employ ordnance if the bandit is in WEZ and it doesn’t 1) violate the lead’s game plan and 2) compromise the EF’s safety.
  • Engage other bandits (Yes, even bandits have friends….just watch Johnny Quest) that are/become a factor to the fight you’re in, AND keep the engaged fighter informed of what’s happening as you do it.
  • Maintain SA around the fight with an eye to the escape window, egress avenues and fuel states.
  • Direct the egress from the fight (the engaged fighter’s SA will be about –2 by the time 270° of turn have been reached in a turning fight. You are his only hope now).

The SF has a lot of work to do while the engaged fighter fights for his life or a kill. With the right coordination, a 2 ship can wax ANY single bandit made and survive a heck of a lot of defensive fights.

Flight Lead/Wingman Defined

In the discussion of engaged and supporting fighters, no mention was made of flight lead / wingman relationship, since it just doesn’t matter. The engaged fighter is the guy who is in the best position to get the kill when on offence. Put the ego back in the pocket and get ready to support your wingman. When you’re defensive, the bandit is picking the engaged fighter, so even if you’re flight lead, it does no good to scream that you’re lead and should be engaged.

Ok, that’s fine, but how do we know who is in better position to engage? Normally, that’s easy, the guy with the better angles. It may also be pre-briefed, such as Wingman has a total A/G loadout. In those weird cases (that happen in sims a lot more than in real life), someone has to assume the support role. It’s better to have the wrong guy press the fight than to be arguing about it all the way through 180° of turn into a bandit. At that point, you’re both losers. So, if you’re a good flight team, there will only be one call of "Cowboy 1, engaged".

Role Exchange

Ok, but what if the engaged fighter cannot convert his BFM to a kill when the fight is offensive? What do we do? Positive Exchange of Role is what you do! This calls for more comms and more flight discipline. The engaged fighter needs to call for the exchange when:

  • He feels that he can no longer achieve the kill in good time.
  • He loses the sight
  • He cannot convert his energy state to a killing shot
  • The SF tells him the he has a perfect shot

Be careful with that last item. We all saw top gun, and Maverick ALWAYS had the shot. That was ego talking. If you tell the EF that you have the great shot, you better mean it and drop the bandit in one pass.

Hopefully, EF and SF have been talking, and when the EF knows that the SF can enter the fight and it’s time to change roles. How, you may wonder? Well, if you recall, the SF was doing all kinds of things, including gaining an easy entry into the fight.

So, over comms, you’ll see something like this (assumes 1 is EF and 2 is SF):

<Authors Note: My thanks to TF for the following Comm passages that are 10 times better than mine and more descriptive>

"Chevy 1, Engaged, Bandit right 2, 2 miles, Low"

"Chevy 2, Tally, Visual, Out east." (tells 1 where he is heading in his SF role)

<our roles are now defined but the fight does not go well for 1>

"Chevy 1, Neutral" (1 is stagnated against bandit.)

"Chevy 2, Tally, Visual, 15 seconds" (2 is nearing re-entry to fight.)

"Chevy 2, In from the southeast, High, Tally, Visual" (2 has 1 and bandit in sight. Ready to enter fight.)

"Chevy 1, Blind, Continue" (1 doesn't see 2. 1 remains EF. 2 continues to maneuver for a shot but remains SF.)

"Chevy 2, Right 4, High, <A Briefed Codeword>, Come-off Left" (2 has an immediate shot and provides a deconfliction direction. 1 remains EF.)

"Chevy 1, Blind, Continue" (1 says tough luck this is my bandit. :-) )

"Chevy 2, Right 4, Level, <A Briefed Codeword>, Come-off Left" (Same as before.)

"Chevy 1, Blind, Off Left, Press" (1 clears 2 to engage.)

"Chevy 2, Engaged" (2 is EF. Note: 1 is still blind so there is some Big Sky -- Little Airplanes Theory going on at this point but 2 did provide a deconfliction direction.)

"Chevy 1, Visual, Out north" (1 finally sees 2 and maneuvers to support.)

"Chevy 2, Fox Two"

"Chevy 2, Splash"

Chevy 1: "Chevy Flight, Egress northwest" (1 retakes directive control of flight.)

"Chevy 2, Visual" (2 does a victory roll to celebrate.)

If #1 had kept the sight, he would have called…

"Chevy 2, In from the east, High, Tally, Visual"

"Chevy 1, Visual, Continue" (1 sees 2 but is waiting for 2 to get into a better position. 1 remains EF.)

"Chevy 1, Visual, Off Left, Press" (1 sees that 2 is in good position to engage and transfers roles.)

"Chevy 2, Engaged" (2 assumes EF role)

In a final note on the role exchange, extreme amounts of coordination are required to exchange roles when you are defensive, and the bandit hardly ever takes the time to learn enough english to make this happen, SO DON'T TRY IT!   <grins>  Truthfully, you can sometimes hook and lead a bandit when defensive, but it's the rare pilot that is dumb enough to give up an advantaged position to go after the SF. In the defensive fight, the SF is looking to get into the fight and clear his mate, but we'll cover that soon enough.


Summary of Part I

So far, in this article, we have learned a few things (I hope):

  • Good communication is vital, no matter how you do it
  • You have to know who is going to do what when the 'fight's on'
  • Wingman and Lead are interchangeable in the Engaged/Supporting fighter role
  • Lead is the BOSS, his plan is what the supporting fighter has to keep in mind as he maneuvers
  • PLAN before you fly, not in the middle of the fight
  • Engaged fighter BFMs, Supporting fighter tallies, sanitizes and maintains SA for the flight
  • Supporting fighter must be ready to exchange when needed
  • Check your ego at life support when you pick up your bag, you don't need it up there (Well, you do, but .... ah forget it, you know what I mean)

Go to Part II, Offensive ACM. . .


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Last Updated January 19, 1999