Requirements officers at the Pentagon and defense companies like to tout the "beyond visual range" capabilities of modern aircraft. On paper, these days a pilot could earn ace status and never see his or her opponents.
However, air wars aren't fought on paper, and history has shown that in spite of all the sensors and early warning platforms chances are very high that a bad guy or two will make it into the visual arena. At that point it's down to a good old-fashioned dogfight, mano-a-mano.
Here are the main thoughts that go through a fighter pilot's mind in that dynamic environment:
1. "What kind of bandit am I fighting?"
This is where homework comes in. A fighter pilot needs to be able to recognize what kind of airplane he's up against at the longest possible range and any aspect, and he needs to know what the capabilities of that airplane are including aerodynamic characteristics and weapons performance. This kind of recognition determines what kind of fight a pilot should attempt.
2. "What's my weapons loadout?"
Fighter pilots have a saying: "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." So it's best to bring a gun to a knife fight . . . or at least bring a long, sharp knife to a knife fight. A pilot has to know what weapons he has on the jet at all times and be ready to select the right one and pull the trigger in an instant. Few things as wasteful as committing a missile outside of the acceptable envelope, especially in a multi-bandit environment.
3. "Where's my wingman?"
Not only does a pilot need to keep track of where the bad guys are around him, he also needs to know where his wingman is. In the chaotic world of high-G this demands a lot of physical exertion and very clear, concise comms over the radio.
4. "What's my airspeed?"
Depending on the type of fight, faster isn't always better. If a pilot wants to out-turn a bandit he needs to have the jet flying at the optimum airspeed to carve max angles, not zorching around supersonic.
5. "What's my altitude?"
Fighter pilots have another saying: "You can only tie the record for low flight." True 'dat! So it's smart for a pilot to keep the scan going to stay aware of how high above the ground he is. Plus, different jets have different performance characteristics at high and low altitudes, so a pilot might want to take the fight higher or lower depending on what kind of airplane he's up against.
6. "What's my fuel state?"
Like flying into the ground, flaming out solves a bandit's problem for him. It's easy for a fighter pilot to get tangled up in the phone booth in max burner and drive himself way below his fuel ladder. "Tanker posit!"
7. "Which way is home?"
Killing all the bandits makes this problem less stressful, but short of that, a savvy fighter pilot needs to know the correct direction to bug out when the opportunity presents itself. Otherwise he's going to have to fight his way back through the mess he just worked hard to get out of, and that's a good way to get killed.