Supersonic Air Combat Manoeuvres, by Stephen Murray

In the mid-seventies, it was decided on 2 Squadron SAAF that the Mirages should have the ability to go supersonic while doing air combat manoeuvres. As most of our fights were about 15,000ft (10,000ft above ground) around Witbank, in our flying area, it would be unacceptable to go supersonic at that level as our minimum height for that was 30,000ft, to avoid causing damage or annoyance from supersonic booms. Therefore, we would do a camp in Durban, and base at Louis Botha Airport. In my three years on 2 Squadron we went there three times for this and other exercises.

Getting there one of those times was daunting for me, because in their wisdom the boss decided I should lead a ten ship Mirage formation to Durban. Bearing in mind there would have been the Commandant, three majors, four Captains, two Lieutenants and me, the only second lieutenant on the Squadron. Why pick on me? Thank goodness it was an English month, because as a Rhodesian on secondment, although my Afrikaans had improved a lot for ATC communications, it was going to be a challenge with so many aircraft to control.

I do not remember much about the briefing, start up, taxi and take off, so that must have been okay, though probably not as slick as I would like it to have been because I would certainly have been on the nervous side. We settled into two five ship battle formations for the navigation over the Eastern Transvaal. In the Mirage IIICZ my total navigation aids were my mark 1 eyeball and a map. The aircraft was designed as an interceptor by the French to do a rocket assisted take off, be radar vectored onto a nuclear bomb carrying Russian Bear bomber, at very high altitude, shoot it down and be radar vectored back for a precision radar Ground Controlled Approach and landing if required. No need for any navigational aids! The Israelis spoilt all that and shot down a bunch of MiGs in 1967 with Mirage IIICZs. It became a dogfighter, and everybody wanted one. In the right hands it was a great dogfighter because it could ‘stop on a dime’ as the Americans say.

 

That was due to the high induced drag from the delta wing in a tight turn (break). With the total experience I had when I went to Mirages (just over 600 hours) it took a while for me to shoot anyone down, and I was very used to looking behind me and hearing ‘you’re dead!’ So, when I had my first fight against the new Mirage F1CZ, I thought I was going down. That was also because the F1 could stall at down to 125 kts and we were not allowed below 180 kts in a fight (the delta doesn’t recover well from a stall and even less so from a spin) so technically they should have been able to get behind us without any problem. It was a 2 versus 1 with the F1, the bounce (attacking) and the two of us in the Mirage IIICZs defending. We were in patrol battle formation (side by side 3 kms apart) clearing each other tails when the F1 bounced me. My leader, who was on my left called me into a ‘break right’. I rolled right, pulled hard and almost immediately he called, “Reverse he is in your 10 o’clock”. I unloaded, rolled left, pulled and there he was, everything hanging out, but he could not slow down. I got the sight on him. My Mirage had just stopped, and his conventional configuration F1 could not match the delta and slid through. To give him his due the F1 was brand new on No 3 Squadron at that time and one of this guy’s first fights. 

I digress. Back to my navigation. Somewhere over the flat plain of the eastern Transvaal, (Mpumalanga) I had a turning point coming up and was ‘not sure of my position,’ when I heard a very short transmission from a Major’s voice I recognized, “2 o’clock 10 miles”, and there it was. The major was lucky because he was flying a Mirage IIIEZ, which was the later model and had TACAN which told him exactly where he was. I was still battling with maps. But in a fight, I would not have exchanged with him. The EZ had an extra fuel tank and they had lengthened it so that, as normally happens when they upgrade the original fighter, it never seems to perform as well as the original. Still, that little call saved my bacon and after that all went well. We broke into two formations of echelon five for a break and landing at Louis Botha. I was very relieved it had worked and have a photo of me standing on the wing with a big smile on my face.

Another flight to Durban was also memorable. The Commandant led a four ship of which I was one, and in the climb, I could hear the Callsign Concorde 002 (I am not positive it was that one). Everyone knew that the Concorde was being tested for high altitude performance at Jan Smuts airport, so it was not unusual. But on our descent into Durban, the Concorde came on the air. He was arriving over Louis Botha at about the same time as us. Our quick-thinking Boss asked Brian Trubshaw, the BAC chief test pilot, who was flying Concorde, if we could come and have a look. Trubshaw, I believe, being an ex-RAF man, readily agreed. The Boss split us into two pairs, and we flew on either side of Concorde, at a fair distance. It was not for long as our thirsty Mirages were running down to circuit minimum fuel. We did our break and landing, and as we were about to shut down the tower suddenly almost shouted, over the air, “Concord is coming to give you a beat up!” I quickly shut down, unstrapped and as I lifted the canopy, I looked right and all I could see at that moment was black smoke. He had poured on the coals and was low. He came over us with an earth-shattering roar and pulled, almost straight up. I could see the afterburners and black smoke from his engines. He kept on going. But what a great experience. I saw Concorde again in several places around the world and got into the cockpit in Sydney once: how disappointing. I do not know why, but I think I was expecting something high tech. It actually reminded me of instrumentation in the Viscount cockpit I had flown in Air Zimbabwe, and of course the Concorde was not too much later than the Viscount in the design stage, I guess.

The supersonic ACM produced a couple of interesting episodes for me. On the first one I was the bounce in a 2 vs 1. The two guys I was attacking were very experienced. We took off in formation and headed out to sea, climbing to 15,000ft. At that stage I broke away and climbed further and distanced myself from them, and they split into patrol combat formation abeam one another. Once out of their sight and way above them, having used afterburner, I heard them begin their “tail clear” calls. The object was to go supersonic, so I rolled over and dived onto the right hand Mirage who happened to be the more junior guy. In full afterburner I was very soon supersonic and screaming down on my chosen victim. The lead picked me up very early and called, “Bogey in your 6 o’clock, standby to break right”. I was hurtling towards No. 2 when the lead called, “Continue Track 12 (straight ahead), he is no threat!”. I realized he was right I could not even raise the nose (negative delta Mach, which I will not even attempt to go into, and embarrass myself) and certainly could not attempt tracking the No 2. I just zoomed down between the formation and gradually pulled out. The only good thing was that they could not track me either. I was able to keep visual once I was on top of them again and continued with a subsonic attack and fight, and then we had to go home as I had burnt so much fuel, with time spent in afterburner.

My next supersonic dogfight was a 1 on 1 versus my co-student from Rhodesia, Mike Geraty (my leader in the Waterkloof Air Show in 1975). Once we reached 15,000 out to sea, we accelerated side by side until we were almost supersonic, then split at 45 degrees (the standard initiation of a 1v1) and only timed for about 15 seconds, shorter than normal so we could keep each other visual on the turn in. I went into afterburner and saw him immediately, went supersonic, and then we went screaming towards each other. We crossed in a blur cockpit to cockpit, but quite a distance apart and began a climbing turn towards each other, to begin the fight. But that was the last we saw of each other. We had each been over doing 1200 km/hr (combined speed of over Mach 2).  Thankfully, it had been decided to bring a mobile radar unit to Durban and they were able to vector us together. But the fun was not over. Mike said we should carry out a normal 1v1 fight, which always goes to the vertical to get the best turning radius at the top. He just said that on the descent we could go supersonic, if need be. He also chose a cargo ship steaming towards Durban as a place to join up if we lost each other again. The previous radar vectoring had taken so long. The ‘hard deck’ was the standard lowest altitude we could fight. One gets so involved in the fight that it is vital to have a false ground limit.

So, the fight began and as expected we went into vertical in a ‘circle of joy’ going up and down opposite each other. With similar aircraft the fight should be a stalemate and finish when the first guy reaches the hard deck and calls ‘rabbit’: the fight over. We had a good fight and almost every time we went supersonic on the descent over our positioning ship. When the first one reached bingo fuel we returned to Louis Botha.

Our concentration must have been so much on the job that we only realized after we had landed that we had both been going supersonic on our roller coaster, right over the ship between 5-10,000ft. Goodness knows what it would have been like on the deck of that ship. I can only think they descended into the bowels of the ship, or stood on the deck enjoying the spectacle, but with very sore ears! We half expected a complaint, but none came – perhaps they did enjoy the show?

The first photo I took is of the Mirages I led to Durban and the pilots getting ready to disembark. The second was the one with the big smile on my mug, having got them there without losing anyone. That brown bag was all we could carry our luggage in. The 12 tons of Mirage was a radar in the pointy end, a pilot, radios just behind the pilot and room for that brown oblong bag, fuel wherever they could find space in the fuselage and wings, delta wings and the engine (mostly engine and jet pipe) – wonderful; just strap it on and go flying. We did a four-ship formation practice over the beautiful, green forest covered hills west of Durban. The Buccaneers were there as well, and I took my friend Ernie Harvey (third picture) in the back seat of my old friend Mirage 3BZ 816, in which I had broken the sound barrier over Johannesburg. Ernie took this photo of the other aircraft while we were in formation.

Friends of the SAAF Museum (FSAAFM)(October)(2020)