Top Knife – Fighter Pilot Tactics for Flight Docs
This article discusses an awesome opportunity specifically designed for USAF flight surgeons to gain a firmer understanding on fighter and combat aircraft operations. This course is a good use of time for any military flight surgeon, but is an absolute necessity for any flight doc assigned to a fighter squadron, especially single seater airframes like the the A-10, F-22, and F-35. Adapted from the original article published in the Society of USAF Flight Surgeons (SoUSAFFS) Fall 2014 Flightlines newsletter with permission from the author, Lt Col Eric “De-Mo” Chumbley.
A LITTLE HISTORY OF TOP KNIFE
I graduated from Top Knife II at Luke AFB back in October 2001 and enjoyed every moment of it. I have a bit of gouge from some recent participants and believe it’s still an outstanding course, so no disrespect intended. However, they didn’t create the program. It started in Southern Oregon in 1990, but was suspended in 2006.
Let’s step to the Way Back Machine for an abbreviated look: In 1989, then-Major Randal Falk and Col James Whinney were assigned to Guard Bureau. They were instrumental, along with Major William Fridinger of the Oregon Air National Guard (OR ANG), in developing the Air National Guard’s Fighter Surgeon’s School at Kingsley Field. It was created with three purposes:
- Support the full time flying mission with a flight doc present on the base almost all of the time at a very low cost (remember that full time flight docs don’t usually exist on a Guard base)
- Provide the flight medicine community a venue for an advanced course and experience
- A retention tool to keep flight surgeons interested in the specialty and reluctant to leave
We were teaching in Vipers back then (the course now uses F-15 Eagles). Falk and Whinney were the first two students to complete the program in January 1990. In March 1990, Lt Col Allen Parmet became the first active duty student. It was a hit from the start, with literally hundreds of flight docs flowing through, including a few future flag officers. It was also an international event. We had German, Australian, and Canadian flight docs in the course. When the 114th Fighter Squadron (part of the 173 Fighter Wing) at Kingsley converted to the Eagle in 1998, Top Knife for the Viper was handed off to Luke and renamed “Top Knife II” (in case you ever wondered why it’s called “Top Knife II”), while we converted our curriculum to reflect our new airframe and kept the designation of “Top Knife.” Unfortunately, without a full-time flight surgeon presence at Kingsley it was tough to maintain the curriculum. So after 16 years, Top Knife was shelved in 2006 until some unwitting full-time individual could be coerced into standing it back up.
Here is a glimpse of Top Knife at Kingsley Field in 2014: First, we appeal to ANG flight docs who have to take vacation to come here and no longer have a lot of opportunities to maintain their readiness currencies (Readiness Skills Verifications or RSV’s). Being a traditional Drill Status Guardsman (only 2 drill days every month) can make it pretty arduous to keep up on those. Therefore, we created a curriculum that addresses not only fighter operations/traditional aeromedical issues but also nearly all of the items on the 48X3 (flight surgeon) RSV checklist. To respect the traditional ANG member’s time and his or her unit’s finances, we send the CME disk by mail for completion prior to arrival at Kingsley. That allows us to shorten the TDY to 1 week and to make that week completely dedicated to hands-on fighter operations. That being said, we welcome Reserve and Regular active duty AF docs as well! In fact, we have begun hosting active duty RAMs (flight surgeons completing the residency in Aerospace Medicine) from their Schoolhouse (located at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine at WPAFB in Dayton, OH). Additionally, if you just want the disk for some CME and RSV credit but don’t have the time, funding, or desire to come out and fly, we’ll send it to you. Just call the clinic at (541) 885-6312 and ask.
Second, we try to immerse you in fighter ops while here. Whenever possible, we put you in the simulator so that you can learn about the piano-dodgeball link in the F-15 (my attempt to explain learning hands-on-throttle-and-stick, or HOTAS, while dogfighting) as well as have some fun with retired Eagle Driver “Vein” McLain, who has been indispensable in utilizing the flight simulator. Graduates have confirmed that the experience is an eye opener. We have heard more than once that prior to their sim session, they just did not understand how high the workload was in the front seat. Operating the avionics and weapons systems through HOTAS, which the student observes in the simulator, while maneuvering the jet for the kill and performing a good AGSM, which the student experiences in the air, makes the piano-dodgeball metaphor come alive.
Speaking of AGSM, we will put you in the Eagle as much as possible, depending on the operational tempo that week. You are guaranteed at least one flight. For students who come fully spun-up, the actual experience has been much better. Most fly two to three sorties, and even then it is often limited by fatigue, which is to say the student was wiped out from the morning sortie and declined to “turn two” that day. If you aren’t used to fighters, you will get tired, but anticipate hearing me encourage you to press. The record in the modern era is eight sorties in 5 days, which is very unlikely to be matched. “Varsity” Vinson is an experienced Eagle Doc with the 142 MDG, OR ANG at Portland, and a man on fire. [Note from the GFM editor: hmmm, crew rest anyone?]
Of course, before you fly you will be fitted for helmet and g-suit if you do not bring your own and undergo local area survival training, hanging harness training, and F-15 egress (emergency exit) training. If you come with equipment, that piece will be much shorter. If you are current in all of your training in fighter aircraft, you will likely only have to accomplish local area survival training.
Third, you will see computer-based briefings on the F-15 and fighter ops, take a final exam on these areas, and earn your Top Knife Graduate patch, which typically makes WIC (Weapon’s Instructor Course – the USAF equivalent of the Navy’s Top Gun school) graduates jealous. Or angry. It’s hard for me to tell. Depending on the level of discussion, you are encouraged to attend all briefings and debriefings. If you sit in on briefings, you get both a deeper understanding of the mission and increased rapport with pilots.
Fourth, before you depart Kingsley, our public affairs (PA) office will go to the jet with you for glamour shots. There is just no excuse for coming all the way out to Oregon and not getting your picture in front of the world’s most successful air superiority fighter, and if I may say so, our PA office has to be about the best in the Air Force. They have been huge supporters from day one.
Finally, you can expect some time debriefing with the course director. I think that this course constantly improves because of your input. We might make corrections or additions to the CME content or alter the schedule while you are on base. For instance, we have pushed harder for the simulator sessions because of student feedback, and our wing leadership has responded positively. Top Knife is considered one of our core missions, and the culture of Kingsley is very much focused on finding a way to make things work. So if your sim session is on an ANG “down day” or at 1600, it’s because the wing recognizes how important your ideas are and is accommodating to make sure you get your time.
That flexibility sets us apart in another way. We do our best to schedule your time at Kingsley when it works best for you, and we are not limited to Monday-Friday. If you want to stay longer than 1 week to get more opportunities to fly, that’s fine with us. If you need to come Tuesday-Monday instead of Monday-Friday because of scheduling conflicts, we can accommodate. If you want to try to stay here and fly over one of our drill weekends, just tell us. If you want fries with that…I digress.
WHY TOP KNIFE?
Why go to all this trouble? The original goals of Top Knife to provide an advanced course and fighter experience remain valid, and we know that many units have a lot of difficulty finding time and/or seats for flight docs. Many flight surgeons will never be assigned to a fighter unit. We must also remember that in 1942, General “Hap” Arnold mandated that every flight surgeon fly. This was in combat over Europe. He wanted his flight docs to walk the walk and have a genuine bond with aircrew. It worked. Aircrew morale improved, and aeromedical issues with night vision and oxygen equipment were addressed by flight surgeons who had been there. Colonel Malcolm C. Grow, Eighth Air Force Surgeon, oversaw development of the flak suits eventually worn by bomber aircrew that were credited with preventing over 2500 aircrew injuries and fatalities by the end of the war. [Featured Page on ‘The History of Flight Medicine’]. During this century, USAF pilot-physician Lt Col Jay “Bones” Flottmann helped solve the F-22 mystery that had plagued our fifth generation fleet. Over 70 years ago, the line and the medical corps recognized the value of putting flight docs with fliers at their place of business, and that need endures. As long as the Air Force has aircrew and flies, flight surgeons will be called upon to help solve problems that we have yet to even anticipate. As a military flight surgeon, you need to fly. This is your heritage.
When the program was reactivated in 2013, the fiscal environment of the Air Force would not allow us to make it a formal course, since that would be duplicating the existing course at Luke. Bottom line here is that the program is unit-funded. That’s the down side. However, we are able to issue CME credit, rehack most of your RSVs, put you in the Eagle, and let you tell us when you want to attend since we run this program throughout the year, which is a pretty formidable up side.
And one last thing: when you come, remember that you make the course better. Every participant’s background and response become a part of the Top Knife legacy. Yes, it’s fun to come to Oregon and fly in the F-15D Eagle. OK, it’s CRAZY FUN to come to Oregon, hang with the 114th Fighter Squadron, and fly in the Eagle. But come with the attitude that you are going to contribute.
You’re a flight surgeon. It’s what you do.
I wish to extend sincere thanks to OR ANG State Air Surgeon and former 173 MDG/CC Colonel Bob Gentry for his contributions to this article, to the Top Knife program at Kingsley Field ANGB, and for mentoring the medical officers of the OR ANG. The list of people who have made possible the return of Top Knife to Kingsley is simply too long to recount, but I owe a tremendous debt to the 173 FW for making this happen.
- Jones DR, Marsh RW. Flight surgeon support to United States Air Force fliers in combat. Brooks City-Base TX; U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine; 2003 May. Technical Report No. SAM-FE-BR-TR-2003-0001.
- Miller DL. Masters of the air: America’s bomber boys who fought the air war against Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2007.