Tactics: How Even Average Pilots in Old Fighters Can Beat Jocks in Modern Fighters

F-14 Tomcat. Photo: US Navy.

The legendary aircraft designer Pierre Sprey was not a fan of the ugly F-4 Phantom, but it was greatly loved by an RAF pilot named Tug Wilson, despite being outdated compared to the USAF F-15s and USN F-14s he tangled with during his career. His 2021 book Confessions of a Phantom Pilot: Memories of Flying the Phantom FGR 2demonstrates time and again that even an average pilot with creativity and quick thinking can often get the better of pilots flying aircraft that are newer and technically more capable. When Wilson flew the Phantom, it was 35 years old, and yet he was able to give US pilots in newer jets a run for their money.

For example, during simulated combat with USAF F-15s over Europe, he reported: “…we were taking on the US Air Force’s finest—the F15 Eagles. USAF F15 guys were an acquired taste. They were all shaped like upside-down triangles with slim waists, muscly chests, wraparound shades, and wraparound teeth—pleasant enough to your face when briefing, but you got the impression they thought of themselves as higher beings that were gracing us with their presence. They were flying the undoubted ‘King of the Hill’ and all of their top students through training were posted to the F15. They were extremely disciplined and anal in their approach. Put all of that together and you could see why we just wanted to kick their asses. The F15 itself is enormous for a single-seat fighter—think of a tennis court and fill it full of metal, and that is an F15—massive engines and highly manoeuvrable with belt-fed missiles. We stood no chance against them, or so you would think.” (Emphasis added, p. 219)

But by using guile and deceit, Wilson and his squadron mate won the all-important first engagement between two old RAF Phantoms v. two stylish and modern USAF F-15s.: “Once the fight was on, the radar warning receiver (RWR) lit up like a Christmas tree, so we knew the F15s had us. I turned back through 180 degrees directly towards our Number 2, and as he passed us, I rolled onto our back and went vertically downwards for about 15,000 feet before pulling out and facing up to the F15s. We were now doing about 1.3 Mach and were out of the F15’s radar scan. Number 2 turned tail sharpish and ran away bravely at 1.4, and we pitched up into the Eagles where I shot one with a Sidewinder. ‘Tug. Fox 2. Tug,’ I said calmly and then eased in behind the second one and gunned him. We knocked the fight off and set up for one more. I have no idea what happened on the second fight because I was too busy roaring and swearing about the first. Anyway, it is only the first fight that counts.” (p. 220) He concluded: “I was unbearable in the Pig and Tape [a bar] that night, I can tell you, as was everyone else on 92 [Squadron, RAF] as we had royally dicked the F15 squadron all round.” (pp. 220-221).

It was much the same when Wilson encountered USN F-14 Tomcats for the first mock engagement in the buildup to the first Gulf War. Wilson and a second Phantom faced four Tomcats, and were obviously outnumbered and outgunned. The F-14s were not allowed to use their Phoenix missiles, but then as Colonel Everest Riccioni, the father of the F-16, once told me, they were just another example of a poor quality but very expensive US weapon anyway. Again better RAF tactics won the first round: “The Tomcat I was on was popping flares like they were going out of fashion, so I just pressed in and selected the gun. I was amazed how big the F14 looked in the gunsight and was so enthralled by it that I had no idea what the hell else was going on in the fight.” (p. 261) When the fight was over, the score was RAF 3, USN 1.

Fortunately, both the USAF F-15 and USN F-14 pilots learned to adapt to the RAF tactics and got even during subsequent mock engagements, but in combat, when it is life or death, winning the first engagement is reallyimportant. It’s also notable that Tug considered himself just an average fighter pilot in the RAF, but obviously one who could think on his feet, so to speak. The lessons here are clear as a bell: even outdated aircraft can be deadly if flown by the right pilot, like Tug Wilson. Also, expensive technology will only take you so far and fans of the F-35 should not forget this.


Tug Wilson. Confessions of a Phantom Pilot. Fonthill Media. Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, and a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.