In researching the shoulder-launched missile threat, the phrase “high-key approach” kept coming up. Since the maneuver has military origins, we asked BCA contributor Ross Detwiler, a former U.S. Air Force fighter and transport pilot, as well as a current Falcon 7X captain, to provide some background and detail. Here's Professor Detwiler's report:
The term “high key” came from the early “Century Series” fighters. These airplanes had only a single engine, and in those days of “wooden ships and iron men,” if the engine quit, you didn't leave an otherwise good airplane - you “manned up” and flew the now-quiet hulk back toward an aerodrome and set up a flameout pattern. The flameout pattern had an over-the-numbers “high key” of 9,000-12,000 ft., as I recall. After one turn, the airplane would be at “low key” of about 6,000 ft., then it would shoot for a “base key” of 1,500-3,000 ft. The turn was then adjusted to roll one on. The practice for this maneuver was called a simulated flameout () pattern.
The whole thing was dropped in the mid-1960s, although Air Defense Command continued high-keys in the delta-winged F102s and 106s for some time after that. Eventually, they were discontinued, probably because more crashes happened in practice than flameouts in real life. That's where the term “high key” comes from, and yes, the practice was reinitiated with the current wars but for a different reason. On landing, the air plane comes in “over the numbers” very high - that is, high key - and the crew pulls the power back, executing a sort of flameout pattern.
After a pilot became familiar with the numbers for his airplane, he could adjust his pattern to the situation; that is, if he arrived over the numbers - heading upwind, obviously - at 3,000 ft., he knew he only had one 360-deg. turn to iron it out. If he got to the pattern area at 1,500 ft., he had to enter on a base leg and make it happen.
With the power back, there is a reduced heat signature from the engines, making it harder for the shoulder launchers to track and assures there's a good chance that the guy firing the missile will be tapped by the base security. They do the same type of maneuver backward when they depart a field: high power but over the field for the reasons of killing the little buggers that I previously mentioned.
A friend of mine, who was the adjutant general for the New York Air Guard, did several approaches like this in awhile visiting the guard troops in Iraq. He said it's pretty exciting in the back with no windows! The pilots love doing it but probably don't like the missile risk involved.
I can't see doing this in a business jet because we have a much better defensive trick up our sleeves: If it's that dangerous, just don't go!