Photos — Maurice Haas and Felix Streuli Date — 1 April, 2010
You somehow have to maintain an overview while you’re hurtling through the sky at over 1000 kph
It is a morning straight out of a picture book in Neuburg on the River Danube in Bavaria. Above the Zell airbase, the sun starts its slow climb into a cloudless blue sky. Suddenly, the silence is shattered by the strident tones of an alarm that is enough to set your teeth on edge. The unmistakable acoustic signal sets a process in motion that has been planned down to the last detail and practised a thousand times before. A few minutes later, two Eurofighter-type planes hurtle down the runway at an interval of just a few seconds and climb up into the sky.
The two jets form the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force – as they are known in military lingo – of Fighter Squadron 74. This is the name given to a formation of two interceptor planes that are ready to go into action round the clock and be up in the air in as short a time as possible. Their duty is to safeguard the sovereignty of the nation’s airspace over its territory. If a commercial aircraft acts irregularly or no radio contact can be established with the cockpit, or if a small aircraft wanders into airspace that has been declared a no-go zone because of a state visit, one of Germany’s two QRA forces will take off with a view to clarifying the situation. The pilots establish visual contact, identify the aircraft and assess the possible problems.
In order to secure operations, about 50 people are on constant standby round the clock, 365 days a year. They include pilots, technicians, airport fire brigade services and a flight physician as well as the personnel manning control towers and radar systems. “Tango scrambles” as the German Luftwaffe calls them – alarm-status take-offs for practice purposes – are carried out up to twice daily. Thomas Koller has flown hundreds of them. As a mission staff officer, the Wing Commander is responsible for planning the training and missions of Fighter Squadron 74. He was one of the squadron’s first four pilots to be retrained for the Eurofighter. The handover of the new, state-of-the-art aircraft in 2006 marked the start of a new age in the squadron’s history. It replaced the F-4F Phantom that had been in use with the Luftwaffe since the 1970s.
On this particular morning, two tango scrambles take place within the space of a few hours. In the case of a genuine alert, this becomes an alpha scramble: about three times a month on average, an alert incident will send the adrenaline levels of the pilots and ground crew in Neuburg into the stratosphere. “Everything happens very quickly and we often don’t find out what our mission is until we’re up in the air,” says Koller. Alpha scrambles can be triggered off for many different reasons. It may be the pilot of a commercial flight failing to react to radio contact. Once, in the case of a foreign MIG 29 that was taking part in an air show, the radio gave up completely. “The QAR took off, intercepted the jet and accompanied it to Neuburg, where the pilot was able to land,” recalls Koller. But lurking at the back of the pilots’ minds is always the worst possible scenario of a commercial airliner being hijacked by terrorists.
In order to get the Eurofighters airborne in a maximum of 15 minutes, well-oiled routines involving several dozen individuals intermesh with all the precision of gears in a watch movement. Once the alarm sounds, the hangar doors open automatically. The pilots pull on their gear and then sprint to their fully-fuelled aircraft. Once in the cockpit, they establish contact with air-traffic control and start up their engines. The slats – referred to as “canards” – move to the horizontal position. The “lead” – the formation’s leader and first pilot – and his wingman, who flies to his side and slightly behind, taxi to the runway. Shortly before they get there, guards release the safety catches on the weapons. Even in peacetime, the aircraft always fly with machine guns and air-to-air missiles. The pilots receive final instructions from the tower and permission to take off. When the two Eurojet 200 engines power up to full thrust, the ground literally shakes several hundred metres away. Within the space of a few seconds, the jets reach their take-off speed of just under 300 kph, lift off and shoot up vertically, like rockets. In an emergency situation, travelling at up to twice the speed of sound, they will reach any point in German airspace in next to no time.
In some manoeuvres, Eurofighter pilots are exposed to forces of up to 9 G. This means that a man of average weight suddenly tips the scales at over 600 kilograms. For this reason, pilots train regularly in the human centrifuge at the Luftwaffe’s Aeromedical Institute in Königsbrück. For a seemingly interminable 15 seconds, the men in the cockpit are subjected to forces of 9 G. This way, it is hoped that no one will experience a G-LOC – a G-force-induced loss of consciousness. During extended periods of acceleration, blood pools in the legs, and the brain and retina no longer receive the supply they need. The first symptom is reduced vision, greyout, as it is known. The field of vision and perception of colours is significantly impaired. If the force continues, the next symptom is tunnel vision. This is followed by blindness, blackout and, finally, complete loss of consciousness. Individuals with no training often experience blackout at a force of just 4 G.
During a flight, the negative effects of G forces are also alleviated by the use of special clothing. The trousers in a G-suit inflate and exert pressure on the legs and stomach, reducing blood circulation. When ascending or going into bends at speed, the pilots make use of a special forced breathing technique. As a visible reminder of the enormous physical strains involved, pilots often have lots of small, red dots on their calves and lower arms. These are known as G-zles (as in “measles”) and are caused by the rupture of capillaries. “A curve that looks completely unspectacular on the ground may represent an enormous strain for the heart and circulation,” explains Koller. For a few seconds the heart assumes the shape of a cucumber. Outsiders can gain some idea of what happens if they take a look at the portraits of the Neuburg pilots belonging to the “9 G Club”, which decorate the walls of the recreation room. On these photographs, which were taken without helmets in the human centrifuge, the young men are virtually unrecognizable.
A jet pilot’s job is not for everyone, and the training alone separates the wheat from the chaff
However, the pilot in a Eurofighter is not only busy flying. Unlike the F-4F Phantom II, which had a two-man crew, the new jets are single-seaters, so Koller and his team are on their own. “It means the pilot is also responsible for carrying out the duties of the weapons system officer,” Koller says, and that he has something to do in every second of aerial combat. He will be checking out the avionics and at the same time devising and implementing a strategy. On a tactical mission flight, the flight leader will also be directing the other aircraft in the formation. Even on practice flights, there is little time to enjoy what is going on. Every flight is packed with training units. The pilots are constantly working to improve their flying skills. Once qualified, they regularly have to update their “currency” requirements, which enable them to carry out specific manoeuvres like night-flying or in-flight refuelling. “The challenge of flying a jet consists of assessing a tactical situation and getting an overview of the situation in the air while you’re hurtling through the sky at over 1000 kph,” is how Koller sums it up.
A jet pilot’s job is not for everyone, and the training alone separates the wheat from the chaff. From the time of the initial application to the first flight in a Eurofighter takes around four years. After being assessed for their aptitude for the job and completing officer training, applicants go through their physiological flight training in Königsbrück. High-altitude flight is simulated in a vacuum chamber and pilots familiarize themselves with high G forces in a human centrifuge. Budding jet pilots also learn how to survive in the freezing cold waters of the North Sea and undergo theoretical training units alternating with practical testing. The candidates receive their preliminary flight training in the US state of Arizona, before embarking on their full pilot’s training on possibly the toughest course of its kind in the world: the Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program. Only the very best of them will be selected to train in the Eurofighter. Anyone who fails to master one of the skills during training can forget his dream of flying for good.
“Military pilots need qualities such as a readiness to take risk, courage, physical and mental toughness, a strong sense of self-belief and the ability to work with a team,” is Koller’s analysis. They are not looking for bravado but a healthy dose of ambition. The pilots will sit in the cockpit until they are 41. About a third of them will then leave and work as pilots with commercial airlines. After completing their military careers, about the same number will start working for aircraft manufacturers. With their experience, they can help them to develop user-friendly cockpit control systems or simulators that come close to reality. In two years, Wing Commander Thomas Koller too will be putting his supersonic days behind him. So will he occasionally find himself getting into the cockpit of a Cessna? “I’d prefer to spend more time with my family,” but then adds, grinning, “Of course, a Cessna would do nothing for me. It would be a bit like Michael Schumacher at the wheel of an electric-powered car.”