Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) is the art of maneuvering a combat aircraft in order to attain a position from which an attack can be made on another aircraft. It relies on offensive and defensive Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) in order to gain an advantage over an aerial opponent.
Military aviation appeared in World War One with aircraft being used to spot enemy movement. Soon the need to stop enemy aircraft from completing their mission became a necessity, and this rapidly led to the creation of a class of aircraft designed specifically to destroy enemy aircraft: fighter aircraft. It was soon noticed that the best armament for such an aircraft was fixed, forward-firing guns. With such armament, the pilot just had to point his aircraft at the enemy and open fire. In order to achieve firing position while not being threatened by the enemy's guns, the best technique was to get behind the enemy aircraft. This is known as getting on an aircraft's six o'clock, or on his tail, plus a wide variety of other terms... During World War One, Oswald Boelcke, a German fighter ace, was the first to write down basic rules for aerial combat maneuvering. He advised pilots to attack from the direction of the sun (towards which the defending pilot could not see), or to fly at a higher altitude than the opponent. Most of these rules, know as the Boelke dicta, are still as valuable nowadays as they were a century ago.
Today's air combat uses not only guns but also long-range guided missiles, which require their own set of rules, but close-range combat, also known as dog fighting, still obeys to the same general rules. The master rule is still the same: do not let your opponent get on your six o'clock, and ... get on his.
Close-range combat tactics vary considerably according to the type of aircraft being used and the number of aircraft involved.
Some Basic Combat Maneuvers
The Immelmann turn (also spelled as Immelmann turn; also known as a roll-off-the-top, or simply an Immelmann) is an aerial maneuver, named after WWI German flying ace Max Immelmann who was the first pilot to successfully complete this maneuver. It is more of an aerobatic maneuver, rather than aerial combat maneuver.
To successfully execute the Immelmann turn, while flying, the pilot pulls the aircraft into a vertical climb, and eventually completes half a loop in the aircraft from this climb, inverting the aircraft. The pilot then executes a half-roll to regain normal orientation. As a result, the aircraft is now at a higher altitude and has changed course 180 degrees.
It has become one of the most popular aerial maneuvers in the world, being commonly used in air shows all across the globe. However, it is rarely used in actual dog fighting, due to the fact that performing this feat results in a loss of speed, and that when used in combat, it is used as a tactic to disengage and withdraw from battle, and speed is a necessity for retreating from an enemy.
However, if a pilot does execute this maneuver in combat, he slightly drops his nose down, descending in altitude slightly in an attempt to regain lost speed more quickly.
Singer and songwriter Al Stewart wrote a song, entitled The Immelman Turn, which appears on his 2005 album "A Beach Full of Shells".
Claus Valca of the anime Last Exile gets nicknamed "Immelmann" by Dio Eraclea for his successful execution of an Immelmann turn. In the climax of the 1983 movie Blue Thunder, main character Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) uses an Immelmann turn with his helicopter to defeat his arch enemy Col. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell).
The Split S (also called a reversed Immelmann turn or spelled with a hyphen as "Split-S") is one of the oldest air combat maneuvers, but is still considered useful, mostly to disengage from combat. To execute a Split S, the pilot rolls his aircraft inverted and then executes a half-loop, thus ending flying level in the opposite direction.
It is typically used in dog fighting, when the pilot has the opportunity to withdraw from battle. Contrary to popular belief, this maneuver is almost never used to evade target locked air-to-air missiles. However, it can be an effective tactic to not allow an enemy from a range of one's eight o'clock to five o'clock to gain a missile lock while disengaging from a fight, where if there were no enemies, the pilot would simply withdraw by turning 180 degrees.
The Thach Weave was an aerial combat tactic developed by naval aviator John S. Thach of the United States Navy early during World War II. Thach had heard from a report published in the 22 September 1941 Fleet Air Tactical Unit Intelligence Bulletin of the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero's extraordinary maneuverability and climb rate before he ever experienced it and devised a tactic meant to give the slower-turning American F4F fighters a chance in combat. Every evening while he was based in San Diego, he would think of different tactics that could overcome the Zero''s maneuverability, and tested them in flight the following day.
Working at night with matchsticks on the table, he eventually came up with what he called "Beam Defense Position", but what soon became known as the "Thach Weave". It was executed either by two fighter aircraft in formation side by side or (as illustrated) by two pairs of fighter flying together. When an enemy aircraft chose one of the two fighters as his target (the "bait" fighter) the two wingmen turned in towards each other and crossed each other's path. After the fighters had separated in opposite directions in this manner, they would then commence a turn back towards each other, thus bringing the enemy fighter into the gun sights of the other fighter -the "hook" fighter. If the maneuver was executed correctly, the enemy fighter has little chance of escape if he had followed the "bait" fighter through its turn.
Thach called on Ensign Edward Butch O'Hare, who led the second section in Thach's division, to test the idea. Thach took off with three other F4F Wildcats in the role of defenders, Butch O'Hare meanwhile led four F4Fs in the role of attackers. Trying a series of simulated attacks, Butch found that in every instance Thach's fighters had either ruined his attack or actually maneuvered into position to shoot back. After landing, Butch excitedly congratulated Thach:
"Skipper, it really worked. I couldn't make any attack without seeing the nose of one of your airplanes pointed at me."
The tactic was first tested in combat by Thach during the Battle of Midway, when his flight of four F4F Wildcats was attacked by a gaggle of Zeroes. Thach's wingman, Ensign R. A. M. Dibb, was attacked by a Japanese pilot and turned towards Thach, who dove under his wingman and fired at the incoming enemy aircraft's belly until its engine ignited.
Soon enough, the maneuver had become standard among US Navy pilots, and the Army Air Force pilots also adopted it.
Marines flying Wildcats from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal also adopted the Thach Weave. The Japanese Zero pilots flying out of Rabaul were initially confounded by the tactic.
Saburo Sakai, the famous Japanese Ace relates their reaction to the Thach Weave when they encountered Guadalcanal Wildcats using it:
"For the first time Lt. Commander Tadashi Nakajima encountered what was to become a famous double-team maneuver on the part of the enemy. Two Wildcats jumped on the commander's plane. He had no trouble in getting on the tail of an enemy fighter, but never had a chance to fire before the Grumman's team- mate roared at him from the side. Nakajima was raging when he got back to Rabaul; he had been forced to dive and run for safety."
So effective was the maneuver that it was used by American pilots during the Vietnam war, and is still a valid tactic today.
The Scissors is an aerial dog fighting maneuver, commonly applied by military fighter pilots.
It is primarily used to get a defending plane behind an attacking plane on the rear in a dogfight. The defending plane simply flies in a vertical zigzagging flight path. The pilot pitches the nose up and down during flight to accomplish this.
This decreases the plane's forward speed during the climb by trading kinetic energy (speed) for gravitational potential energy (height). The average forward speed also decreases due to the aeroplane flying a much longer distance during the maneuver. The aggressor, however, may also attempt this maneuver to remain offensive by staying behind the defending plane. The pilot that best executes this maneuver will end up in the better offensive position by being above and behind the other plane.
The negative effects of this maneuver are the increased risk of unnatural air flow during its application (which can lead to a stall or a "spin"), a greater consumption of fuel, and increased stress on the airframe due to G-loading.