The Tesla-driving fighter pilot who “sledded into a missile”

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Please welcome “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. Josh is willing to tell us anything that doesn’t compromise operational security. Enjoy! —JB

I’ve sledded into missiles a surprising number of times. It feels a little cathartic, if not slightly embarrassing, to admit that. When an enemy radar locks onto your fighter jet, a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR; think radar detector) makes some noise to alert you to the fact that you’re being targeted. Much like when you’re speeding and the highway police light you up with a radar gun, it’s not a good feeling—or, um, so I’m told. In a fighter though, ignoring those warning tones means that in lieu of attempting to talk your way out of a speeding ticket, you get called dead in training (frustrating), or actually killed in real life (inconvenient). Sledding into a missile means ignoring all the indications—cockpit warning tones and lights, radio calls from airborne control and/or other fighters, the hairs on the back of your neck—and continuing on your present course. Inbound missiles love non-maneuvering targets; predictable equals easy to kill. There are occasions when this happens in ignorance (broken RWR, for instance), but sometimes it just happens.

It’s always interesting (depressing?) in the debrief to watch the cockpit video recordings and review the engagement already knowing what’s coming, all the while wondering how you missed hearing/seeing/processing/reacting to such obvious warning cues. (Much of the learning comes after a flight, wherein the aerial engagements and target attacks are analyzed in excruciating detail; it’s not uncommon for the debrief to last hours longer than the time spent airborne.) Fortunately, such lapses diminish in frequency with experience, which allows the pilot to more accurately process the information presented in the cockpit and visualize the battlespace in their brain. This visualization enables understanding the threat(s) and therefore when it’s appropriate to either press the attack or egress the fight. This accurate understanding and perception of the fight is known as Situational Awareness (SA; no relation to Maslow) and is a popular term among fighter pilots. The highest level of SA is global, rotating, prismatic SA. The lowest level? Tumbleweed. As in, you are a tumbleweed: annoying, worthless, directionless, and in the way.

Side note: If you’re talking to a fighter pilot and you learn that their callsign (nickname) is NoSA (No SA), or LoSA (Low SA), or nearly any prefix followed by “-SA”, there’s probably a good story about them cluelessly doing something dumb. A decent sounding callsign is LEMO, but looks can be deceiving. All airports have a four digit alphanumeric identifiers (look at your luggage’s bag tag, Denver airport is DEN—technically KDEN—with the K prefix denoting a U.S. airport). The “L” prefix denotes southern Europe. It is left to the reader to figure out the European city in which LEMO is located and why the name LEMO might indicate the esteem in which said pilot’s peers hold him or her.

Given all the time we fighter pilots spend working to increase our SA, it baffles me when I see my fellow pilots do something utterly clueless on the road. We train to have near-perfect understanding of the 3D space dozens of miles around our jets in order to make correct decisions decisively. And yet, on the road, we pilots sometimes sled happily and blissfully into missiles, so to speak, all the while ignoring a surfeit of cues telling us we’re being stupid. Common sense dictates our flight training would make us better drivers—but, to paraphrase Voltaire, common sense isn’t.

Earlier this week I was driving to work on a two-lane highway, speed limit of 65. The preponderance of traffic around me was also heading to base. I noticed a Tesla Model X ahead in the left lane going, perhaps, 64. The right lane had a Civic going 65 that was slowly passing the Tesla. There were four or five cars stacked up in the right lane to go around the slow-moving Tesla. Cars Zero and One subsequently moved from the right to the left lane, somewhat aggressively, making their frustrations evident to the Tesla driver, as soon as the Civic was far enough ahead of the Tesla to allow for a lane change. Sighing, I waited my turn to pass the Tesla on its right, cars backing up behind me in a somewhat impatient queue.

To be clear, my frustration was not directed at the Civic‘s driver in any way. If you’re going the speed limit in the right lane, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Maybe I’d like you to speed up for a moment to help me get around any dawdling left lane traffic, but I’m not angry with you. The lone exception to this personal rule on anger management is on I-15 between Vegas and L.A., specifically the California section, which is a mere two lanes for 150 miles and is wholly insufficient to handle the crush of traffic, and a single car going the speed limit can cause a backup 10 miles long. I’d guess there’s not a single SoCal driver who hasn’t wasted hours of their life slowly creeping from Vegas to Jean to Primm through the agricultural inspection station (that never inspects anyone) and on to Baker, Barstow, and Victorville before finally reaching the promised land of three-lane freeways. Granted, California has needed to expand said stretch for 30+ years and that’s why traffic there is so bad, but drivers that fail to go with the speed of traffic only exacerbate the issue.

I don’t generally stare people down as I pass them on the right as it isn’t worth the energy, and, to quote a freshly-battered-by-Lennox-Lewis Mike Tyson, they are generally “Bolivian” as to why a driver passing them on the right might be frustrated. On this day, knowing most people on this road were headed to base, I decided to see who it was. And maybe give them an angry look. Imagine my surprise when I saw it was a fighter pilot I know well, though we don’t regularly work together. Embarrassed by my angry look and fearing he would recognize me and see me glaring, I quickly turned my attention back to my lane, but not before I saw that he was blissfully smiling, seemingly unaware—or at least uncaring—of the slowdown he was causing by hanging out in the left lane. Cars were passing him on the right and then aggressively changing lanes in front of him, how could he not see what he was doing?

Tangent: If I’m going 10 over in the right lane, don’t tailgate me if I’m passing slow moving traffic lollygagging in the left lane. #1, I’m already going 10 over. #2, the driver towards whom your anger should be directed is the ham-fist in the other lane, not me. This happened to me last week as I was driving my wife’s Miata home from work. The car tailgating me was so close I couldn’t see its headlights, and I was in a Miata. Just back off a bit, re-center your chi, wait three more seconds, and you’ll be able to pass the car in the left lane while I stay in the right. It’s like getting gas from an airborne tanker when another formation of planes shows up, channels their inner Veruca Salt, and acts all impatient on the radio because they need gas right now and it doesn’t matter that you were already there and taking on fuel as fast as the tanker can pump it.

Some audio tones in the jet are beeps, chirps, and growls. Others are voice warnings that verbalize words or short phrases. Fighter pilots across the world have names for the (almost always female) warning voice, but in the U.S. armed forces she’s known as Betty, generally with an alliterative pejorative placed before Betty. Some aural warnings are relatively benign, such as reaching a programmed fuel state (“Bingo fuel”). Others are more serious, like a low-altitude warning (“Pull up! Pull up!”) or the “Engine. Engine.” caution I had two weeks ago (after sucking up a seat cushion, I realized the issue was just a failed fuel flow transmitter, so NBD). Noting the inversely proportional relationship between SA and the likelihood of sledding into a missile, we like to joke it would be helpful if Betty would proclaim, “Warning, SA low. Warning, SA low.”, thereby alerting the crew that their SA is dangerously lacking. Maybe such a warning will be developed before Cyberdyne takes over the flying and fighting then plugs us all into the matrix, but I’m not holding my breath.

Back to my buddy. When my children were little, I was amazed at how they would meander through pedestrian traffic at malls or on sidewalks with no regard (awareness, really, thanks to those pesky unknown unknowns) for how they were cutting people off or getting in the way. They didn’t realize that their small size made them little more than speed bumps for the full-size people through whom they were wandering. After a considerable amount of teaching they learned to take the flow of people into consideration before they veered off to smell a flower or examine a bug.

In a flight debrief, a competent instructor pilot can watch their wingman’s tapes and, with a few good questions, understand what the wingman perceived the situation to be and why they acted the way they did. The root cause of errors such as sledding into a missile is generally found in one of three things: the mission was poorly briefed (error lies with the flight lead who briefed the sortie), the wingman misperceived or misunderstood the situation (fault lies with the pilot), or lack of knowledge (pilot didn’t know or misapplied the appropriate tactic). Instruction is then given to the flight lead to correct future briefs, and/or the wingman to teach the correct cues, tactics, and decisions to take the next time. I’ve implied that wingmen are always at fault, which isn’t the case, and even the most experienced instructor pilots talk to their own errors in the debrief so that everyone can learn. A fighter pilot is never done learning and honing their craft, and much of that learning an honing comes via the debrief. There is no recurring driver’s training or debriefing after a challenging drive. Unless you actively seek out feedback or driving instruction, once you have your license you’re left to your own devices; the onus is on you to improve, or not.

My question is: If people fight the way they train, what kind of training got handed out to the people who attempt to merge onto the freeway at 35 mph, then gradually amble their way to 10 mph below the speed limit while merging into the left lane, at which point they sit there for miles? I can’t imagine any driving school teaches such things, yet I see it all the time. I think it’s just laziness. In the left lane they don’t have to worry about traffic getting on and off the freeway; there’s no need to be proactive, defensive, or aware of anything more than 50 feet down the road. Why care what’s going on in your mirrors? Everyone can just drive around you as you mindlessly sled down the road, Bolivian to the commotion you leave in your wake. SA level = tumbleweed.

Okay, now really back to my buddy. As I crested a rise a couple miles down the road, I could see his Model X still cruising in the left lane, causing a traffic jam as he blissfully sledded down the road. I’m too nice to have done it, but I’d love to tell you that I talked to him later that day, or even that week, about his poor choices that day, giving him the feedback he so clearly needs. I would have explained to him that he was like the arterial plaque that leads to atherosclerosis, artificially narrowing the road and slowing down flow. Or, to use an analogy more likely to resonate with him, he’s akin to a newly minted wingman, flying into the teeth of the threat, blithely ignoring Betty’s pleadings and his RWR, about to get a face full of missile.

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