Fighter planes looping, diving and rolling across the sky were familiar scenes during World War II and even the Vietnam War as enemy pilots tried to outfox each other at close range in deadly dogfights. But air-to-air combat may never be the same.
Modern fighter pilots who engaged in a competition at this Florida Panhandle base over the past two weeks, previewed the future of aerial combat. In mock battles, they used advanced technology, instead, to shoot down enemy planes from many miles away without ever seeing their adversaries.
Long-range missiles and radar, helmet-mounted sights and data links that offer pilots a detailed overview of the battle scenario are some of the key components in the transition from dogfighting to what is known as beyond visual range (BVR) combat.
"Our game plan is to stiff-arm them and stay as far away as possible," said Tech. Sgt. Eric Hamilton, an air weapons controller from El Paso, Texas, who uses ground radar to help guide pilots to their targets.
Hamilton, stationed at Kefalvik, Iceland, is part of a team that represented the United States Air Forces in Europe during William Tell 2004, a two-week, air-to-air fighter competition named for the legendary Swiss archer. It ended Friday.
His was one of five teams, each representing a major command, that participated in the 50th anniversary of William Tell.
The meet, however, had not been held for the past eight years due to real-world commitments overseas and homeland defense requirements after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The emphasis on downing enemy aircraft beyond visual range does not mean old-style dogfighting has been ignored, said Lt. Col. Ed Nagler, chief of safety for the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at this Florida Panhandle base and William Tell's director.
American pilots still are trained in low-tech visual combat, said Nagler of Pompton Lake, N.J. But such fights are considered a last resort because they only even the odds for enemy pilots flying less capable aircraft.
"Their forte is the close-in arena," said Lt. Col. Paul Huffman of Allentown, Pa., commander of the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
Huffman and his fellow aggressors, flying F-16 Fighting Falcons, simulated an enemy, or "Red," force against each of the five "Blue" teams. The Red pilots tried various tactics to avoid the Blues' long-range missiles and used numerical superiority _ at least twice as many planes _ as they attempted to draw within sight of the two- and four-jet Blue teams.
"If they don't put the right number of missiles into the right number of targets out there, and one guy gets through he can wreak some pretty good havoc," Huffman said. It didn't happen often. "I've gotten killed every day," Huffman said.
Although some of the Air Force's first F/A-22 Raptors, its newest and most advanced fighter, sat on Tyndall's tarmac, they did not compete because they are committed to pilot training and none has yet joined a combat unit. That may come when the next competition is held in three years, Nagler said.
All five teams this year flew the F-15 Eagle, a jet that entered the inventory three decades ago but still considered among the world's best.
Older U.S. fighters have maintained advantages over potential adversaries because of new missiles and upgrades to their radar and other electronic systems, but the gap in technology and tactics may be closing.
That became evident in February when F-15 pilots from the 19th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, lost several mock air battles to Indian Air Force pilots flying Russian and French jets during the "Cope India" exercise in central India.
The Americans admittedly had several handicaps, such as being outnumbered three-to-one and barred from simulating their longest range missile, but they still were surprised by the skill and tactics of Indian pilots and the capabilities of their aircraft.
"We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we thought we were," Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, chief of the Air Combat Command, said in June.
William Tell was revived and revised this year to help Air Force leaders more realistically evaluate fighter tactics and procedures.
Pilots still fired live missiles at target drones as they had done in the past, but this year marked the first time the aggressors were on hand to test them against an enemy that fought back in realistic combat scenarios.
An event also was added to simulate homeland defense missions. It was a night scramble in which teams had to find and identify _ with night vision goggles _ a suspicious aircraft flying without lights.
The 19th Fighter Squadron, representing the Pacific Air Forces, had the most advanced equipment including a high-tech radar system it was unable to use in India.
One of the 19th's pilots, Capt. Pete Fesler of Spokane, Wash., said his five-pilot team noticeably and quickly improved through classroom, simulator and flight training while preparing for the meet. He said he hoped that kind of focused training could be used to upgrade an entire squadron.
In the end, William Tell validated the Air Force's training and tactics, said Maj. Mike Winkler of Portsmouth, N.H., who helped judge the competition.
"The biggest lesson that I've seen is that we still have a hugely competent force," said Winkler, F-15 weapons and tactics program manager for the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va. "We have not seen hardly any Blue Air guys die."