#2. Dogfighting Is Mostly About Trying to Stay Conscious
U.S. Navy via Wikipedia
Today, fighters are designed to be as effective at blowing stuff up on the ground as they are in the sky (that's what the F/A-18 designation means: Fighter-Attack). On my deployments, a standard combat load had several thousand pounds of bombs, but only one short-range missile. The simple fact is that nobody gets in dogfights anymore; the U.S. has scored fewer than 20 air-to-air kills since the end of Vietnam.
Ten, if you don't count After Burner kills.
Nonetheless, you never know when another country will need to work out some excess aggression, so all pilots are still taught basic fighter maneuvers (BFM). Whereas bombing is very mechanical in nature, BFM is more of an art form, like painting, if painters frequently passed out and then died from painting too hard.
During dogfights, pilots have to watch out for G-LOC, which stands for "G-induced loss of consciousness." Whenever you make a tight turn, you subject yourself to G-force, which essentially makes you much heavier than normal. If you undergo enough Gs, your heart isn't strong enough to pump blood to your brain, and you eventually black out. An untrained person can withstand about 3.5 Gs before blacking out. During BFM, pilots have to endure 5 to 7 Gs (F-16 pilots can pull up to 9 Gs) for short periods, and 3 to 4 Gs for up to a few minutes. Since passing out is a tactical disadvantage, pilots have to learn how to combat G-LOC.
One of the ways to up your G tolerance is to wear a G-suit. A G-suit has bladders around your legs and torso and inflates to help squeeze the blood back into your head during high-G maneuvers. Pilots are also taught to clench their butt cheeks and flex their legs and abs to try and keep blood in the brain. The weird hiccuping that some of the pilots are doing in that video is how you have to breathe under high Gs; you weigh so much at that point that if you exhaled completely, your body wouldn't be strong enough to inhale again. BFM is also where short fat guys and women shine; higher blood pressure means they can take more Gs. That's right: Porkins was the deadly one.
#1. Enemy Fire Is the Least Dangerous Part of Flying
U.S.M.C. via Wikipedia
Early in flight school, I was flying a T-34 trainer with my instructor, learning how to not suck at this whole "flitting about in the air in defiance of God and nature" business. I was cruising along at 200 mph when nature decided she didn't like being defied and punched me in the face with a turkey buzzard. It crashed through the windscreen, ricocheted off my head, and left a nice exit wound through the side of the canopy. The force of the impact knocked me senseless, and the disintegrated bird entrails made the cockpit look like I'd just shot Marvin in the face.
"Did you notice a sign out in front of my hangar that says 'dead buzzard storage?!'"
Thankfully, my instructor was mostly unharmed, so he took over the controls and managed the emergency landing while I occupied myself with bleeding profusely. In the end, I walked away with a few stitches, a bunch of free beers, and my first kill.
Raise your hand if you can say you've head-butted something to death.
These are the sorts of occupational hazards every pilot has to deal with -- even the poor schmoes without missiles -- but flying jets in particular remains a risky proposition. In the absence of MiGs or the odd kamikaze raptor, what makes it so dangerous? Well, I can tell you it isn't the enemy. Terrorists can't really hurt anything in the air apart from helicopters and feelings, and most hostile Middle Eastern countries with proper militaries are using decades-old hardware and whatever training the U.S. or Russia was nice enough to give. In the entire second Iraq War, the U.S. shot down more coalition jets than the Iraqis did.
Part of the problem is that fighters are expensive and notoriously high-maintenance aircraft. The Super Hornet requires roughly six hours of maintenance for every hour it flies, and the F-22 requires up to 18 hours per flight hour. Couple the general propensity of shit to break at the worst possible time with a shortage of spare parts and budget cuts, and something is bound to go wrong. During a mission over Afghanistan, I lost an engine due to a broken fan blade, forcing me to limp to an airfield in Kandahar, where I sat for two weeks until a replacement engine could be shipped out. That's your repair time: a goddamn fortnight. Had I been flying a single-engine fighter like the F-16 or the new F-35, things could have been a lot worse.
U.S. Navy via Wikipedia
"What do you need two for? That only doubles the chance of engine failure."
You can see why flying involves a lot of trust. You're entirely reliant on many, many other people to keep you safe. You rely on your wing man not to fly into you; you rely on the ground troops to let you know what areas are safe to fly over; you rely on air traffic controllers to keep everyone properly separated. A poorly coordinated traffic pattern can wind up with you trying to land one jet on top of another. I've been lucky enough to escape my few harrowing moments mostly unscathed, but if you do this job long enough, you'll know someone who has died flying.
But in spite of the ever-present specter of death, be it from rocket-powered seats, Looney Tunes catapults, pitching decks, flying gas stations, passing out in the middle of a fight, suicidal birds, busted aircraft, or just the old proverbial "sudden stop at the end," I absolutely love this job and wouldn't trade it for anything.
Scott Gries/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
I have not lost that lovin' feelin'.
Mostly because of the shirtless volleyball.
Related Reading: Cracked's made a bit of a habit of talking to people with...unique jobs, like our friend the Dominatrix. And if you're more of a military-minded sort, why not learn the semen-encrusted realities of life inside a submarine. We've also talked to a cop and a prostitute, so take your pick of revelations.