Our tame fighter pilot goes bombing for FJs

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Josh Arakes

“I won seventy-five cents!”

The indifferent look my wife gave me in response to my just-arrived-home-from-work outburst indicated she didn’t understand the significance of those three hard-won quarters.

All fighter pilots train for flying events, and some of this training is more enjoyable than others. Preference varies from pilot to pilot. For some, Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM, aka dogfighting, as poorly showcased in the recent Top Gun: Maverick movie) is king. For others, it’s sweeping, and then keeping clean, the airspace of enemy fighters. For me, nothing can beat going to the range and dropping bombs.

This piece is part of a series from Josh Arakes,” a senior U.S. military fighter-jet pilot who has obtained permission to share some of his life and experiences with us here at Hagerty. If you want to hear more about the Top Gun lifestyle, both as it relates to jets and cars, please let us know in the comments or by emailing tips@hagerty.com. Josh is willing to tell us anything that doesn’t compromise operational security. Enjoy! —Ed.

Bombs can be expensive. Really expensive. In general, guidance kits are the pricy part of a bomb and the ‘splodey bits are relatively cheap. It’s true that most bombs dropped in combat are either laser- or GPS-guided, with very, very few being “dumb” bombs, or bombs that only fall ballistically once released. There are clear advantages to using guided weapons over unguided ones. For example, precision guided munitions allow a small number of aircraft to do more damage than 230 B-17 bombers accomplished on the first Schweinfurt raid in World War II. That said, practicing the art of dropping dumb bombs accurately from a dive may seem straight out of a tactics manual for a Douglas Dauntless SBD, but there’s lot of value in learning to successfully “BFM the wire” as we say, where the wire is the ideal diving trajectory.

Dauntless dropping bomb action black white
A Douglas SBD Dauntless unloads. Wiki Commons
Moody A-10 bomb
A BDU-33 training bomb. USAF

In training, as fun as it would be to drop live weapons each time we went to the range, it would be prohibitively expensive.  Typically, we drop small, inert training weapons that have the same ballistics as the bigger bombs. While I said they are inert, they do have a very small charge that allows the “ranger,” or person manning the bombing range’s control tower, to spot where each bomb hits and then radio the aircraft their score a few seconds after impact. And the score, called over the radio so all the aircraft in the formation can hear it, is no small part of why going to the range is so glorious.

Each score is given as a distance and clock position to the center of the target, as well as the formation position of the aircraft that dropped it. “17 at 4, 2.” That radio call tells the number two aircraft in the formation their bomb hit 17 feet from the target at the 4 o’clock position (we approach the target from the 6 o’clock position). In this case, the number two aircraft would acknowledge the ranger’s call with a short “2” in reply. ‘Course, if the ranger called out “Shack, 1” (indicating the lead aircraft’s bomb hit the target), said pilot could ask the ranger to “Say again”, thereby allowing the ranger to once again broadcast to all who could hear that he/she had hit the target: a not-so-subtle way of trash talking mid-flight.

Yes, learning to BFM the wire is important and allowing the ranger to do your trash talking for you is a lot of fun. But the single most important part of the whole training event comes in the debrief when the scores are put on the board and it becomes time to either pay up or collect your winnings.

You see, we don’t just bomb for training’s sake. Rather, we bomb for money. Each bomb is worth twenty-five cents, AKA bombing for quarters. Big machines and trying to put holes in property for money? Practice makes perfect!

HUD cockpit vantage
Wiki Commons

The rules are pretty simple: The best score wins (closest to the target), the first pass is worth double (to add extra pressure to get it right the first time, as in combat), shacks (direct hits) and buffoonery (failing to drop due to a switch error, for example) also count as double. There are some minor differences between flying squadrons, but the basics are nearly universally the same.

From Day 1 of pilot training until I was officially combat-qualified was around 2.5 years of solid training. Every single flight was a graded event and, as they liked to say, you were never more than three flights from failing out of the program (I had one elimination ride more than halfway through pilot training, but, thankfully, survived to fly another day). And then, one day, I was combat-qualified and scheduled for the first non-graded flight of my military career. I was stoked to see I would be flying as #4 in a 4-ship in a mission to the range to drop practice bombs.

The more experienced pilots took my lunch money, and then some. I lost $4.25 on that first non-graded sortie; buffoonery on the first pass—doubling an already doubly valued pass—really hurts! That said, I couldn’t have cared less. I was combat-qualified and had just flown a mission for which I would not receive a grade.

To be clear, the debrief wasn’t all about the exchange of money; rather, the priority is on the learning that takes place as the flight lead looks at tapes and talks about what the pilot did well and what they need to improve.

Finally the day arrived in which I went to the range and didn’t lose my shirt. In fact, I had a good enough day to win the aforementioned $0.75! Excitement at having finally taken money from my fellow pilots led to my outburst at home—though on that day I was sure it was the first of many days of winning more than enough money to pay for the fighter pilot’s lunch: Snickers and a Coke.

For all my successes at the bombing range, I’ve yet to really make any money on a car. When we traded in our 2016 Miata for a 2022 Miata a few months back we came out slightly ahead, if the sales tax savings we received by trading it in is credited towards the 2016’s sales price (I think the difference was around $40 in our favor). Which is why I was so surprised when someone offered to buy our Toyota FJ40 for $4000 this summer, more than $2500 more than what we have in it. (Including the used tires I bought to replace the square ones it originally had, we’re less than $1400 into the FJ.)

Toyota FJ parts truck front close
Josh Arakes

After purchasing the FJ40 in February of this year, part of our totally unplanned purchase of three cars in three weeks (Miata, Honda Odyssey, FJ40), we towed it to my in-law’s house and parked it out back for what we expected would be at least a couple of years (more on that at another time). Additionally, while we knew to where we’d be moving summer 2022, we didn’t know if our as-yet-to-be-found home would fit the five running cars we already owned, let alone a non-running roller in need of extensive work.

While I say it was parked out back, it’s not like it was out on the back 40 acres; indeed, while not super visible from the road, it can be spotted while driving by the house. Earlier this summer, my brother-in-law answered the door to find a fellow standing there who immediately inquired if the FJ was for sale as he was willing to pay $4000 for it. My brother-in-law replied that the FJ wasn’t his, but he was willing to pass me the fellow’s contact info so he and I could maybe work something out.

The potential buyer and I texted back and forth. Since he offered $4K, I told him my price was $5K. He countered by saying he hadn’t gotten a great look at it from the street and wanted to get a closer look before buying it. Not an unreasonable request and one I was happy to honor, though realizing he hadn’t yet seen it close up I was pretty sure he wasn’t aware of the issues with the front quarter panels (both need to be replaced). That being the case, I knew he was going to come back with a lower price … and I was right.

After coordinating with my brother-in-law and heading back over to look at it, he said it was not quite the starting point he was looking for and he was at $2K. Not being in any hurry to sell it, but still willing to do so if he came up a bit more, I countered with $3K. He said thanks but no thanks, and that was it.

Toyota FJ parts truck interior
Josh Arakes

Should I have just taken the $4K and run? To be fair, even if I had said yes right then and there, he might have backed out after seeing the truck up close. But I presumed if someone knocked on the door and offered $4K it had to be worth more than that. Maybe it would be if the quarter panels were in good shape.

That said, I am excited to work on it (again, more on this in the future) and I’m fortunate enough to not be in a position where I needed to sell it, especially if the selling price was only ~$500 more than I paid for it. I felt then, and still feel now, that its promise as a patina-covered-canvas makes holding on to it worthwhile. That’s even more the case now that I’ve managed to get a VIN and title for it (if you recall, I purchased it as a pile of parts without a VIN as the VIN had been cut out of it), so with just a little bit of elbow grease (and an engine, transmission, transfer case, fuel system, seats, radiator, wiring, functional brakes, doors, windshield, roll cage and top) she’ll be as good as new. Or at least good enough to take off-roading!

The main thing on a practice bombing run you have to watch out for is the ground. I feel like I often talk about the risk of becoming a smoking hole in the ground, but the risk is quite real. That’s absolutely true in something like dive bombing deliveries as we intentionally throw ourselves at the ground while traveling hundreds of miles an hour. To preclude pilots from using their fighter jets as earthmovers, each bombing pattern has a minimum release altitude and very carefully designed maneuvers, called safe escape maneuvers, to keep us clear of both the ground and the resulting fragmentation (that’s especially true for real bombs if not for the small practice ones). Should the pilot “pickle” (pickle = release) the bomb off below the minimum release altitude, that counts as buffoonery and costs them fifty cents in the debrief, regardless of their score.

Should I find it humorous that a measly fifty cents acts as a real deterrent against releasing below the min release altitude, perhaps even more than the real risk of hitting the ground or getting caught in the frag pattern? I’m kidding, of course. (Mostly.)

Military jet dropping bombs action
Getty Images/Stocktrek

Graduate level bombing requires a very slight unload as the symbology hits the target to freeze it there while pickling the bomb off. Short bombing summary: put the thing (symbology) on the thing (target) and pickle. Using every last possible potato (note: one potato = one second; try counting potatoes and you’ll see what I mean) occasionally means waiting ever-so-slightly too long and releasing just below the planned min release altitude; a gross buffoonery mistake that will cost you fifty cents.

Should I have sold the FJ for $4K, or even $2K? Perhaps. I’m considering that, as with training to drop bombs, sometimes the best idea when selling a car isn’t to squeeze every last dime out of the prospective buyer. If the time is right to sell and you’ve got a buyer offering you a good price, if not a great one, the right call might be to pickle slightly early. Let that thing go. After all, a call of “3 at 7, 1” from the ranger at least has the chance of earning you twenty-five cents, but the same call on a delivery released below minimum release means you’ve cost yourself some money.

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