Low Fly-by Over Rush Hour Traffic

An unusual and memorable ending to a Topgun flight. NAS Miramar, 1986...

“Tower, Topgun 50, Atlas for the break.” I made the standard radio call to tell Miramar Tower we were at the initial.

“Topgun 50, Miramar Tower. (Pause.) Can you help us with an unusual situation?”

Behind my visor I raised my eyebrows. It was a reflex: non-standard comms on Tower frequency were rare, and that was a non-standard request.

A few minutes ago my pilot and I had been fighting F/A-18s in a 2vUNK over the Pacific. When we checked our fuel early in the third engagement we were at the pre-planned Bingo fuel. It had been a good hop for us; we used our gas early, trained a few class fighters hard, and decided to beat the crowd back to the field. We would land with prescribed minimum fuel.

But now, this. “Tower, Topgun 50, how can we help you?” We were flying more than 300 knots or one mile every ten seconds. Our altitude was 1,700’ MSL, and since the terrain around Miramar was about 500’ above sea level we were 1,200’ above the sandy hills covered with scrub, the large undeveloped area east of Miramar.

“Topgun 50, we received a report of a light aircraft down along Highway 15 near Poway. Can you fly up the highway and see if you see anything? We need you to stay below 1,200 MSL.”

I couldn’t believe it. They were asking us to fly along the highway and descend! Something else about a plane crash...not much we could do about that. 1,200 MSL meant 700’ above the ground here; of course I had flown lower, but this altitude would afford us a nice view of things below. My pilot came up over the ICS and confirmed what I was thinking: “Uhh...yeah! Let's help 'em out.” We were getting low on fuel but this was too good to pass up.

“Tower, Topgun 50, WILCO. (Will comply.) Understand we are to remain below 1,200 MSL.” Based on an incident earlier in my career, I knew all communications with the Tower were recorded. It’s not worth going into the incident, but let's just say I wanted to get this on tape.

“That’s affirm.”

By now we were just short of Highway 15, the twelve-lane concrete ribbon along the eastern edge of NAS Miramar. The pilot snap-rolled the F-5F and carved a tight right turn in the afternoon sky. He would surprise any commuters who were paying attention: jets always flew straight when crossing the highway. We rolled out over the 15 and descended to comply with Tower’s request. This would keep us clear of altitudes specified for other aircraft.

We cruised north along Highway 15, which was full of drivers heading home. We wondered exactly what we were supposed to do on this mission; we just thought it was cool that Miramar Tower actually asked us to fly low along the highway at rush hour. We looked to the left and right as hard as we could. The terrain along the highway rose into hills of 800’ and 1,300’, so we had a mild sense of flying through terrain. It was nothing like the low-level flights my pilot and I had performed over dramatic and remote desert training routes, but it was a nice way to finish an ACM go, and cruising over all of those cars just made it more enjoyable. We keep our speed at a relatively sedate 250 knots to comply with the airspeed limit below 10,000’.

About two minutes after we started our diversion Tower said, “Topgun 50, disregard. It was a false report based on a sighting of a model aircraft.” If we had been in a comic strip, question marks would have appeared above our cockpit, but we were philosophical: it was fun while it lasted.
"Roger, Tower. Topgun 50 making a 180, requesting VFR entry to the break.” My pilot veered to the east of the highway and then rolled into a tight left turn, using the F-5’s maneuvering flaps to reduce our turn radius. Since we were making a non-standard entry into the pattern, I appreciated the blank check the Tower gave us on their next transmission.

“Topgun 50, when comfortable proceed to Atlas. You are cleared for right hand entry at the initial. Climb to pattern altitude of 1,700.”

Ahh, the altitude. We had to climb back up, they didn't want us having too much fun.

Hey, we didn't get to buzz the tower, but it was a nice change of pace.