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ABC Radio's Tim Brunero interviews “Squadron Leader Phil" (phoning-in from his "undisclosed location" in the Middle East) on Easter Monday 2016.
Pre-Dawn. [Photos: Air Force Images]
Announcer: Now let’s speak to one of our F-18 Fighter Pilots, fighting ISIS in our name…
Squadron Leader "Phil", thanks for joining us…
Phil: Glad to be with you.
What's a “standard” mission for you?
A standard mission is anything up to 8½ hours, which involves air-to-air refuelling to get from our base to the theatre of operations. And typically we're providing several hours of support for the ground forces inside Iraq and Syria. Then we start to come home, and refuel a couple of times on the way back. So in the end we spend up to 10 hours actually seated in the aeroplane.
You get a drink of fuel from the tanker?
Yeah, it's massive support. Without the air-to-air refuelling tankers, this operation just isn't possible. So every hour or so we're taking a drink to top-up the tanks and perform our "on task" duties.
So you're “on call”, flying around, waiting to be given a target. When you're given one, what do you do?
There are two primary tasks: We're often used as a “sensor", to help develop the picture on the battlefield, providing feedback to our Coalition partners on the ground, about what's actually moving around in certain areas. And then as battles occur, or targets are developed from the ground forces, they'll pass those to us over radio, we'll put them into our system. They'll then go through quite a robust "legal" appreciation of the rules of engagement and the validity of us striking those targets. Then, if it continues to be a requirement for ground forces, we'll go and prosecute those targets.
What do you use?
We're predominantly using JDAM ("Joint Direct Attack Munitions"). They’re GPS-guided weapons; very precise in finding the actual point on the ground that we’re targeting. We can also guide some of our weapons with the laser that we have on board the aeroplane, and that's also a very precise impact point.
You're fighting ISIS there, aren't you?
Yeah. Absolutely. Our targets are anything they’re using to facilitate their capability, particularly in Iraq and/or in Syria.
So that could be vehicles? Buildings?
Yep, the target set includes Improvised Explosive Device factories; weapons storage; and a lot of ‘mobility’ targets - which includes vehicles that they've commandeered. Right up to weapons systems that they threaten the Iraqi/Coalition forces with, which we call "indirect fire". (Home-made rockets that we target to protect our own forces on the ground.)
Do they ever shoot at you?
They have the ability to. They have a small amount of "Air Defence Artillery". - Typically it's poorly-guided, so they're pretty much shooting up into the air without specifically targeting us. Fighters, because of our speed, are probably at lower-risk in that sort of environment.
Is it scary?
No, I wouldn't say "scary". INTENSE is probably the best way to think about it. The responsibility of releasing explosives from aeroplanes onto a target on the ground has its own level of pressure associated with it. I guess our training has always assisted with that. - In terms of "scary", some of the scariest moments are actually in really bad weather. Having to refuel behind an airliner-sized KC-30 tanker can be quite dicey at times, from a flying perspective.
What kind of speeds do you do?
In-theatre, for efficiency in fuel usage, we're sitting at Mach 0.8 or so, which is under the speed of sound. Still relatively fast - a thousand kilometres per hour, I guess, but we're not supersonic or anything like that.
Do you sometimes just find yourself gazing down? You've got this almost unique perspective…
It's absolutely amazing sometimes, just to look at the variation in the cultural areas. We're not seeing too much really specific, because we're operating at a medium-to-high altitude, but as far as the landscape goes - the other day I was just blown away. Flew past seven different countries and seeing all the way up to the snow-capped mountains up in Turkey, which were at pretty much the same height that I was flying at.
- Looking over the rolling green hills up towards Mosul, in the Kurd's area - to Iran out to the east and Syria out to the west. Flying past Kuwait and the other countries around… So quite an amazing perspective at times, and when it's quiet like that, you actually get to look around and appreciate the area you're operating in.
I wanted to ask about the aircraft; you share these jets don't you?
Yes our aircraft operate in a ‘pool’ and we're programmed to fly the ones that are available on the day. We've got a fantastic maintenance crew who do an outstanding job keeping the jets ready for these missions. But the jets themselves are over 30 years old. - We got them in the late '80s and they're doing a fantastic job with their serviceability.
I suppose when you're sharing something, you can get miffed at the previous user?
Yeah, on some levels. Certainly we can find a few remnants of cookies… Sometimes I've found a banana skin here and there. - Which is a bit unusual, but given the length of time that people spend in the cockpit, they are forgiven.
How much are the planes worth?
The numbers quoted for our Hornet, when we bought it, was around the $35 Million mark.
Do you get nervous flying something worth so much?
Ah… No, not actually. I can't say I've ever been concerned about the cost of the aeroplane. From the first days that I flew it, it was all about just operating the aircraft. But it certainly is amazing, in what it's provided to us in its 30-plus years of service.
So I’m quite comfortable. - And I'm proud that the taxpayers trust me.
You mentioned that you've enjoyed flying it, why is this one so special?
I've actually been flying this jet for over 20 years, so I've got a few hours on it. I'm very attached to it - it was my first true fighter aircraft. It's one of the leading planes of its generation - extremely manoeuvrable, and extremely capable even when we first got it, but the upgrades we've done throughout the life of the aeroplane have kept it at the leading edge, so it's been fantastic to fly. It's very easy; it's very forgiving. Looks after us very well in some of the tough situations that we get into, and provides us with an outstanding capability. So it's been a pleasure to fly, all my career.
Do you see other jets up there? I know we heard so much about the Russians?
There are lots and lots of aircraft throughout the area of operations. We do see lots of our Coalition friends airborne. We're regularly refuelling off Coalition tankers, so in one mission I've topped-off from refuelling aircraft from four different Coalition countries. We're all working the same areas and supporting the ground forces and we're all sharing that responsibility.
Refuelling above a population centre.
We've all seen ‘Top Gun’ and imagine you've all got nicknames like “Maverick” or “Iceman” - is that true?
Unfortunately we're a bit more boring than that, more Aussie I guess, if anything. So typically most of our call-signs are just purely nicknames that anyone would have in Australia. Abbreviations of last names: Smithy; Churchie. There’s the odd funny one - typically that's come out of a humorous event where someone may have stuffed-up and it’s stuck with them a bit. - Pretty classic “Australian” level of humour really.
We're enjoying Easter down here, but you're in harm's way in the Middle East. - Will you be doing anything special for Easter?
My wife asked me a few weeks ago, "What are you guys doing for Easter?" and none of us were really aware that Easter was coming! It's a working period - a normal week - for us, except for the additional church services that our Chaplain's putting on, working with the US Forces here as well. And yeah we've got an Easter-Egg Hunt - she's assured me that she's going to let me be first out of the gates…
What? The Chaplain's playing favourites with you?
Well I was trying to get her to play favourites... She's sitting next to me now… - So we'll see how that goes!
Chaplain on the Flight Line.
Well, at least you’re getting an Easter-Egg Hunt!
Yeah! The support services on base are amazing; from what our own team do (they are a small part of the contingent) to the support that the US Forces give to their people that are deployed. It's very impressive.
What about life on the base. What do you eat?
There's 24-hour kitchens, or "messes" as we call them, regardless of what shift you're on. There’s a lot of food available; a lot of varied types - probably a bit of a "U.S.-based" diet, compared to what we'd eat at home. Many snack foods, chocolates, chips, biscuits, muesli bars or anything you want. - Cans of Coke and an endless supply of ice cream. - Which is outstanding ice cream, let me tell you that! …I'd say the quality is probably on the "higher fat" side, compared to what most of us get used to at home. But there's always salads available, always vegetables available, so you can certainly stick to the good stuff if you want to.
What do you do for fun?
There's a really active social network here: card games; bingo games; fitness classes; there's three gymnasiums - all fantastic. Between those other activities we've got our own recreation tent where we regularly play movies; or you can go in there for quiet time. It's quite a healthy, active lifestyle actually. It's great.
Do you get a chance to get off base?
We do. - Not so much touristy things, but some of us like to get off base to go grab a coffee in a different environment from everyone wearing uniforms around us. So that's nice. We get to do the odd tour around the place and although we're pretty much working seven days a week, one of those days is a lower tempo day where people can enjoy a bit of “off-base” time.
I suppose you've seen the news of the recent ISIS attacks in Belgium. How does that make you feel?
It’s tragic. Obviously it was the focus of conversation around here. I guess it just really brings home the reality of the job that we're doing here.
You must also have some thoughts about the humanitarian crisis of all this conflict? Millions of refugees forced onto the road and entering Europe…
We're regularly briefed on not just the battlefield, but the entire Middle East. All of those parts are very important. We reflect upon it and we sincerely hope that our actions, along with those other around the entire world, will actually bring an end to that.
…Well, thanks Phil. I know you’re coming home soon… being replaced by another Squadron from Williamtown... So now we’ll play your song request - “Forever Young” - for everyone back home…
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