What’s a Mock Dogfight?

Real fighter jets, fake fighting.

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A Greek F-16 fighter jet collided with a Turkish F-16 over the Aegean Sea on Tuesday during a “mock dogfight.” Greek and Turkish pilots face off in these aerial conflicts all the time, without firing a single shot. What is a mock dogfight?

A midair showdown in which each pilot tries to maneuver his plane behind his opponent’s. A mock dogfight typically begins after fighters from one side move to intercept fighters from the other. In this scenario, the intercepting planes approach the perceived intruders and attempt to drive them off-course or harass them until they leave the area.

If the intruders don’t break off, the planes begin to circle each other with a series of high-speed turns and rolls. (Some mock dogfights between the Greeks and the Turks have involved more than two dozen fighters.) The idea is to get your opponent in front of you for a “clean shot”—or for what would be a clean shot if you were engaged in real combat. This isn’t as simple as it sounds: Fighter pilots use group tactics and maneuvers with fancy names to secure the controlling position in a dogfight. In World War II, for example, an American pilot named John Thach invented the “Thach Weave,” in which two planes under attack would crisscross paths to get the advantage. Russian pilots used the “Cobra” to rise above and slide behind a pursuing plane.

American military pilots participate in mock dogfights as part of their regular training and even compete against one another in team events. Civilians can sign up for recreational mock dogfights against their friends, with the two sides shouting “rat-a-tat-tat!” over cockpit radios.

“Real-life” mock dogfights between the Greeks and Turks allow each side to assert its claim to the contested airspace. (Greece claims the air up to 10 miles off its Aegean coast, while Turkey claims the Greeks should have only 6 miles.) They also provide combat training for the pilots. American pilots don’t often engage in close-range maneuvers, even during times of war. Their commanders prefer BVR intercepts—that’s “beyond visual range”—and more remote missile attacks.

Americans have been involved in several midair tangles. A few years ago, fighter pilots were buzzing American spy planes off the coast of China. Defense department officials claimed that the Chinese jets were coming within a few feet of a collision on each pass. The two governments clashed over the issue in April 2001, after a fighter jet crashed into the nose of the American spy plane it was shadowing.

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