The pilot zoomed low between the pink, craggy peaks of the Sheep Mountains, suddenly twisting his F-16 Falcon vertically into the desert sky before diving on the target, a railroad bridge.
Capt. Kevin (Omar) Bradley plunged the plane toward the bridge and pushed his “pickle” button, simulating bombs away. Bradley, 30, pointed the Falcon’s nose up, climbed radically and turned, eliciting groans from his reporter-passenger as the “Gs” increased to seven times the force of gravity.
The lean pilot from Binghamton, N.Y., didn’t seem bothered. “We have to do a lot of things to keep in condition,” he said.
Bradley pushed the fighter past Mach 1, through the sound barrier and with a sonic boom for salute, headed back toward the Tactical Fighter Weapons Center at Nellis AFB, known in the Tactical Air Command as “The Home of the Fighter Pilot.”
Despite easing tensions between the superpowers, and high hopes for general world peace, professional warriors are still working to keep a combat edge. “Gunsmoke” a biennial competition, decides the “best of the best” in Air Force precision gunnery and bombing.
“Peace is breaking out all over, so why maintain the edge?” said Maj. Gen. Billy McCoy, a 6-foot-4 Texan who flew 223 missions in Vietnam and commands the fighter training center at Nellis.
“What we have out here is not a warmongering bunch. We have a cross-section of Americana, from the (Air Force) academy, from the farms, the colleges. It’s an impressive sight,” McCoy said.
As Bradley soared away from the target area in his high-technology fighter, a formation of A-10 Thunderbolt pilots from the Connecticut Air National Guard swept by, completing bombing and strafing runs that were part of the shooting competition that runs for two weeks.
“Every kid (competing) will tell you today that we have always dickered best from a position of strength. We ought to have a pair of Russian generals out here. I’d host ‘em for the whole two weeks,” McCoy said.
The Connecticut fliers are joined by guard units from Terre Haute, Ind., Sioux City, Iowa, and Kirtland AFB, N.M., and by reserve units from Luke AFB, Ariz., Grissom AFB, Ind., and Bergstrom AFB, Tex.
They are competing against regular Air Force units from as far away as Japan, Alaska, the Philippines and West Germany.
The fliers gathered at Nellis have already won competitions in their home units and are vying to be “Top Guns,” an Air Force-wide honor held for two years.
Maj. Patrick Hoy of Falls City, Neb., who was “Top Gun” in his A-10 Thunderbolt two years ago, said, “I don’t think any rational individual would wish to be at war, but it can be difficult being a warrior when peace is breaking out.
“The biggest problem the U.S. has to deal with when we are not in conflict is complacency . . . . If you have a garden and you leave it for a few days, the weeds begin to grow.”
During the competition, Capt. Angus Simpson, an A-10 pilot from Eielson AFB, Alaska, put 200 of 200 rounds in the white target panel sitting on the arid wasteland that is fighter pilot heaven north of Las Vegas. It was the first such perfect score, said Capt. Tom Christie, an Air Force spokesman.
For Bradley, becoming a fighter pilot was a childhood dream nurtured by an uncle who took him to air shows. He started flying single-engine propeller planes when he was 17. Now, piloting the super-sophisticated F-16 over the Sheep Mountains, he is at the top end of the Air Force dream sheet.
“For me, there is nothing else,” Bradley said. “Everything else is a zero. My family has a business. I had no aptitude whatsoever for it. The only thing for me was flying.”
The flier, nicknamed “Omar” for the famous World War II general, faces the prospect that he will never fire a shot in anger.
“The slogan for tactical aviation is, ‘Readiness is our profession,’ ” he said. “The military needs to detach itself from the emotions” about hopes for relaxed tension between the superpowers.
Without the ordeal of combat to provide the warrior’s ultimate test, the fliers use competitions such as “Gunsmoke,” the biggest of its kind, to maintain their adrenaline levels.
Said reigning “Top Gun” Hoy: “Next to my marriage and the birth of my children, it was the most exciting moment of my life to be able to sit back in a moment of quiet reflection and realize that on that day, I was the best.”