Initial news reports of the downing of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea strongly suggested a Russian fighter pilot had intentionally rammed it. That caught my attention, because isn’t ramming the last-ditch tactic of all last-ditch tactics? Why would a pilot attempt such a thing?
Not that fighter pilots have never considered resorting to ramming. Not that long ago, two U.S. fighter pilots thought they’d have to ram an airliner to bring it down.
In the confusion of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the U.S. Air Force scrambled two Air National Guard F-16s against the one highjacked airliner still airborne, United Flight 93, which was headed for Washington D.C. In the haste to get something, anything, into the air to counter the threat, the F-16s were launched without weapons, and the pilots thought they might have to ram their target. Before the F-16s could get there, passengers stormed the cockpit and the hijackers flew the airliner into the ground outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Now that more is known about what happened over the Black Sea yesterday, it appears one of two Russian Su-27s collided with the MQ-9 Reaper, coming a little too close during the last of several close passes. Perhaps the pilots thought they could “tip” the drone by flying their wingtips under the drone’s wingtips, causing it to roll and become uncontrollable, the way some British Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots once upset Nazi V-1 buzzbombs headed for London. Maybe. We do know the Russian pilots dumped fuel as they flew by and in front of the drone, perhaps hoping to coat the drone’s cameras and sensors with fuel and disable them somehow. As it turned out, one of the Russian pilots misjudged his distance and clipped the drone, sending it out of control and probably damaging his own aircraft as well. Not an intentional ramming, but a fuckup … as any fighter pilot hearing the first versions of the story must have thought.
It wasn’t but two weeks ago I tried to correct someone guilty of being Wrong on the Internet, and on the very subject of aerial ramming. The owner of PlaneHistoria.com, which presents itself as a factual source of aviation history and information, posted this on Facebook:
Well that’s just wrong. The story about the XP-79 being designed to ram enemy aircraft is a myth, one that has festered and grown over the years. The XP-79 was to have been a jet- and rocket-powered interceptor used to bring down enemy bombers with conventional weapons, which at the time (the mid-1940s) was cannon fire. At no point in WWII (or at any other time) did the U.S. military ever consider aerial ramming as a tactic. We were never that desperate.
At different times during WWII, pilots of both Axis and Allied nations did ram enemy aircraft, but only as a suicidal last-ditch measure after guns jammed or ran dry. The only nation to formally adopt anything like ramming was Japan, and the mission of the Kamikaze pilots and aircraft was to attack American and Allied shipping, not aircraft.
The Japanese didn’t begin to attack enemy shipping with manned aircraft converted to flying bombs until very late in the war, when they were desperate. Germany considered ramming Allied bombers with rocket-powered interceptors; again, though, this was only during its death throes, with American and Soviet troops closing in on Berlin from the west and east.
Had the XP-79 gone into production, it would not have had an ejection seat. Instead, the pilot would lay prone on his stomach in a sort of hammock, controlling the aircraft with a tiller. Any notion of ramming an enemy aircraft, whether as a primary or secondary method of attack, would be understood by one and all as a death sentence.
We. Don’t. Do. That.
Apart from the one exception I mentioned, the attempt to bring down United Flight 93 with unarmed F-16s, we have never been that desperate.
I flew air-to-air jet fighters for 20 years. I know the tactics, I know the weapons. I’ve used them all. Ramming isn’t in our bag of tricks, and never has been.
PlaneHistoria, you fraud, you don’t know shit.