Nearly three miles above the turquoise waters of the South China Sea last July, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Dan Shipley eyed the dim outline of a fast-approaching Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum. Flying with the Royal Malaysian Air Force on a training mission, Shipley had been tracking the MiG by radar from the cockpit of his Boeing F/A-18D Hornet.
While Shipley and Captain Justin Archibald, the Hor-netís weapons and sensors officer, could have tried to simulate firing an air-to-air missile at the MiG from a distance, the war game required that the two confirm with their eyes that the MiG really was a MiG, and not a friendly military aircraft or an unarmed civilian airplane.
The Hornet and MiG rocketed past each other at a combined velocity of nearly 1,000 mph, granting each side a clear, albeit fleeting, view of the opposing jet. Both fighter pilots banked hard, each trying to maneuver into position first and stay there long enough to make the other one fall victim to an air-to-air missile or a volley of cannon rounds.
The MiG went nose-high, its pilot relying on the Fulcrumís superior thrust-to-weight ratio to vertically outrun the Hornet. Anticipating this, Shipley had pulled the Hornetís nose up and torqued the jet inside the trajectory of the MiG, a maneuver generating 6.8 Gs.
Fifteen seconds and two high-G turns later, with the tail of the MiG directly ahead and the distinctive squeal in his headset telling him the infrared seeker in one of the Hornetís missiles had a lock, Shipley squeezed a red trigger on his control stick, sending a signal to fire. Forty-five seconds into the engagement, the Hornetís mission computer confirmed a simulated kill.