Author Archives: Dario Leone

Project Whale Tale: the story of how the U-2 became an embarked reconnaissance aircraft.

Designated as a utility type to disguise its primary mission, the Lockheed U-2 was born as high altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

Flying for about 8 hours, at 500 mph, at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet, U-2 spyplanes launched from airbases in Turkey and Pakistan in the mid to late 1950s and early 1960s landed on the other side of the Soviet Union, at Bodo airfield in Norway, at the end of their reconnaissance missions, with fuel tanks virtually empty.

To extend the range of the aircraft and reach more remote targets, the CIA approached the Navy proposing to develop the ability to launch and land U-2s from carriers.

Project Whale Tale began on an August morning in 1963, when test pilot Bob Schumacher took off with his U-2 from the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier that sailed out of San Diego Harbor. After his successful launch, Schumacher performed several landing approaches, proving that the U-2’s performance made arrested landing and wave off (if needed) possible.

But while he was attempting his first landing, one wingtip struck the deck. Schumacher barely managed to take to the air again preventing the plane from crashing overboard.

In spite of the close call, the program continued and three U-2As were modified and got a stronger landing gear, an arresting hook, and wing spoilers that decreased lift during landing. While these modifications were taking place, Schumacher and several CIA pilots developed their carrier landing skills flying T-2 Buckeye trainers from USS Lexington aircraft carrier.

Schumacher landed the first U-2G (as the modified U-2 was designated) on the USS Ranger on Mar. 2, 1964, off the California coast, experiencing only one small problem when the engaged arrestor hook, forced the plane’s nose toward the deck and broke off the pitot tube. After quick repairs, he successfully took off again and in the following days, Schumacher and the CIA pilots received carrier qualifications from the Navy.

Even if the operational ability to take off from and land on a carrier was used only once, in May 1964, when a U-2G operating off the USS Ranger was used to monitor the French nuclear test range, at Mururoa Atoll, in the South Pacific Ocean, well out of range of any land-based U-2 aircraft, the program continued to advance in the following years.

In 1967 Lockheed introduced a new variant, designated U-2R, that was larger (by about 40 percent) and featured about twice the range and four times the payload of a standard U-2G. This plane was equipped with an integral arrestor hook, and with wings folding mechanism that reduced the aircraft’s footprint and made carrier operations easier.

Lockheed test pilot Bill Park and four CIA pilots conducted tests with the new type of U-2 in November 1969 , from the deck of USS America sailing off the Virginia coast: as part of the tests, a U-2R was successfully moved using one of the America’s elevators.

Still, none of these carrier-capable spyplane ever entered active service, being replaced by cheaper spy satellites.

In the impressive footage below you can see several U-2s perform carrier take offs, touch and gos and landings and even if today carrier-based U-2s are only a footnote to Cold War history, the last variant of this legendary aircraft,  designated U-2S, is still in service and it remains one of the best intelligence platform among those operated by the U.S. Air Force.

The story of an F-14 Tomcat RIO who became prisoner of war during the First Gulf War

The dramatic story of a US Navy Tomcat RIO, POW during Operation Desert Storm.

As we have recently explained, in the early morning of Jan. 21, 1991, the F-14B (BuNo 161430, at the time designated F-14A Plus) from the VF-103 “Sluggers,” callsign “Slate 46”,  flown by Lt. Devon Jones and RIO Lt. Lawrence Slade, was hit by an Iraqi SA-2 Surface to Air Missile.

The crew was forced to eject due to the violent flat spin which followed the SAM explosion.

During the descent, the two men saw each other for the last time before entering the clouds and once they put their boots on the ground their fate was quite different.

In fact, while Lt. Jones was saved with a spectacular Combat SAR mission, Lt. Slade tried to go as far as he could from the Tomcat crash site, walking for about 2 ½ hours in the desert using his radio every hour without receiving any reply.

Then, while Slade tried to hide himself near a little knoll, the Iraqis found him.

“At about 1030, a white Datsun pickup truck came around the knoll,” Slade says in the book Gulf Air War Debrief.

“It was probably bad luck because I don’t think they were looking for me; they were just driving by. Two men stopped and got out. One had a 12-gauge shot gun, the other, an AK-47. […] They approached me, but it never crossed my mind to pull out my pistol. I was obviously had. They made me strip off all my gear.”

The two men were very polite and after they put Slade between them in the pickup, took him in their tent where they fed him.

Then, after the lunch, they put him again in the pickup and they asked him if he wanted to go to either Saudi Arabia or Baghdad. Of course, he told them Saudi Arabia, choosing the most northern town he could recall. Slade knew that if the trip took three hours, it would have been Baghdad; eight, Saudi Arabia. Sure enough, 3 ½ hours later they pulled into an army camp, and he knew it wasn’t Saudi Arabia. For the rest of the day Slade was shuttled to six different camps, blindfolded and handcuffed. Nevertheless he was for sure a subject of interest, since people came out to see him, take pictures of him and poke at his gear. They’d pick on him, kick him, and if they spoke English they’d say things like “You kill our children.”

Slade spent the following three days in Baghdad where he experienced very harsh interrogations, then he was transferred in the first of several prisons where he spent his POW (Prisoner Of War) experience.

As he recalls: “In retrospect, I was shot down on the fourth day of the war and they had already had a few prisoners: a couple of Tornado crews, an A-6 crew and a Marine OV-10 crew. ”

Lieutenant Slade and his fellow POWs changed different prisons in Baghdad where they also experienced several allied bombs raids, the most intense of which was the one that took place on Feb. 23, when 2,000-lb bombs almost completely destroyed their jail.

But for sure the most impressive experience faced by Slade were the interrogations by Iraqi jailers. He had a total of six interrogations, some of what they called soft-sell, where they just asked him questions. Then there were the hard-sells, where they pounded on him. For the most part, they didn’t use any classic torture methods. They just beat him up, tied his hands behind his back and double-blindfolded him to the point where he couldn’t even blink.

They beat allied prisoners even when they answered their questions. Slade, as well as the other POWs answered to the questions just to make beatings stop “even though the answers were complete garbage. Some I didn’t know the answer to, and I’d tell them, then I’d make up something. I could hear them writing it down. I thought, ‘You idiots!’ […] Some time toward the end of February, they banged me up against the wall and broke my seventh vertebra.”

During these interrogations Slade was blindfolded and never saw his interrogators, probably so that he could not identify them later, or perhaps because the Iraqis understood how terrifying it is to be blind in the hands of  a torturer.

Lt. Slade endured interrogation, torture and starvation in the Iraqi hands for 43 days: even if his six weeks as a POW were not anywhere as long as six years in North Vietnamese prisons, to Lawrence Slade every week must have seemed like a year.

F-14B Slade 2

Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

Let’s celebrate Top Gun Day with this cool video: F-14 versus Everything

May 13th is Top Gun Day.

This video proves that the F-14 Tomcat was much more than a  capable fleet defender.

Clips taken from the Tomcat HUD and TCS, show that the F-14 could win against some of the best and most agile fighters ever built, such as the F-16, the MiG-21, the MiG-29, the F/A-18, the Mirage 2000, the F-15 and the MiG-23 during DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) and/or real dogfight sessions.

Although we don’t know the Rules of Engagement (ROE) of the mock aerial combat in the footage, this video shows that, despite its size, the Tomcat was an amazingly agile and nasty dogfighter.

 

The story of the mission to rescue an F-14 Tomcat pilot behind the enemy lines in Iraq

The story of the first Combat SAR (Search And Rescue) mission behind enemy lines since Vietnam.

One of the most famous missions flew during the Operation Desert Storm was the Combat SAR sortie performed by A-10s Sandys and by MH-53Js from the 20th Special Operations Squadron on Jan. 21, 1991 to recover Lt. Devon Jones, an F-14B (AA 212, BuNo 161430, at the time designated F-14A Plus) pilot from the VF-103 Sluggers, callsign “Slate 46”, downed in Iraq with its RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Lawrence Slade.

Jones and Slade  were shot down by an Iraqi SAM (Surface to Air Missile) in the first hours of the morning of the fourth day of war, while they were returning to the USS Saratoga (CV-60), after a successful EA-6B escort mission. On their way back to the aircraft carrier, Jones and Slade spotted a SAM coming through the clouds: even if Jones added power and started an evasive action, the missile exploded near the Tomcat’s tail. The aircraft entered into an unstoppable spin which forced the aircrew to eject. During the descent the two men saw each other for the last time before entering the clouds.

As he descended towards the ground, Jones tried to pull out his PRC-90 radio, but due to the fact that he flew without gloves, his hands were cold and he became afraid that he would drop his radio so he pushed it back into the vest pocket. Once landed, he started to walk towards what he thought to be west, trying to reach the Saudi border, but when he saw the sun rising, he realized his mistake. Nevertheless, at that point Jones thought it was good he was quite far from the crash site. He reached a little vegetation and thanks to his survival knife scooped out a foxhole in a small mound large enough to hide.

After he had been down for about six hours,  at 12:05 local time, he tried his radio again. And someone responded to his call.

As Jones recalls in David Donald and Stan Morse book Gulf Air War Debrief: “ ‘Slate 46, how do you read?’ That was the first time that I knew that there had been an ongoing SAR effort. […] ‘Let me come a little closer so I can talk to you’ he said.”

Still, Jones didn’t know who was the guy that responded to his call when he came to the radio telling to Jones that he would release a flare.

Since he was thinking to talk with a helicopter, Jones was surprised when the pilot revealed him that he was flying an aircraft “ ‘Ok, now, I’ll come down to where you can see me,’ he said. Lo and behold, he was an A-10! He was Sandy 57, like those guys in Vietnam, trained in combat SAR. I brought him with standard aviator talk. He didn’t see me, but he flew right over me at 50-100 feet and dropped a way point in his INS (Inertial Navigation System). ‘I’ve got to get some gas,’ he called. ‘Minimize your transmissions and come back up in 30 minutes.’

The Sandy pilot directed the helicopters toward Lt. Jones. As the SAR force headed for the downed Naval Aviator, they heard MiGs being vectored toward them. An F-15 RESCAP (REScue Combat Air Patrol) chased the threat away. After they got their gas, the A-10s returned, caught up with the helicopters and brought them in. After that a farmer truck passed nearby Jones, finally the F-14 pilot heard the A-10s telling to the helicopters they were 30 miles from his position. They asked him to shine his signal mirror south and after Jones did it, one of the A-10s told him to look for a helicopter 15 miles out, but he saw only the A-10s flying in a circle and Jones gave them instructions to his position.

But since the Iraqis were listening to their communications, while the planes came in, half a mile down the south road, Jones saw an army truck. After a moment of panic he remembered that the A-10s as well as the helicopters were heavy armed and, in fact, within 3-4 seconds, the Sandys opened fire with their 30 mm cannons, destroying the enemy truck.  Then for the first time he saw a helicopter “I had never seen such a beautiful sight as that big, brown American H-53. […] I grabbed my kneeboard cards and gear as he landed about 20 yards away. One of the special forces guys jumped out and waved me on. I jumped in and off we went, 140 miles to go at 140 knots, at 20 feet! Pretty impressive machine. Just what you’d expect from these special forces people with lots of guns hanging off them.”

Lt. Jones was brought to a forward base in Saudi Arabia, where he was hospitalized for a brief medical exam, then the next day an S-3 from his carrier flew him back to his squadron. Following a three-day rest, he returned to the cockpit.

On the contrary, Lt. Slade, Slate 46 RIO, was less lucky: he endured interrogation, torture and starvation in the Iraqi hands for 43 days.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

How the legendary Starfighter was used to train astronauts: the story of the NF-104

The story of how the Starfighter was used to train future astronauts.

Being the first operational aircraft able to reach and maintain a speed of more than Mach 2.0, the Lockheed F-104 was a huge leap forward when strictly compared to the contemporary subsonic jets.

Thanks to its performance, the Starfighter was chosen to train test pilots destined to fly the X-15, a winged spacecraft that was air-launched by a B-52 Stratofortress, flew into space and then landed conventionally.

The idea to modify several F-104As to serve as “manned spacecraft transition trainers” is credited to astronaut Frank Borman who was both student and instructor at Edwards Air Force Base, California, home of the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School, later renamed U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.

The major modifications to the Starfighters consisted in the addition of a 6,000 pound thrust rocket engine at the base of the vertical tail, reaction control thrusters in the nose and in each wing tip, a larger vertical tail, increased wing span, tanks to store the rocket propellants, provision for a full pressure suit, a cockpit hand controller to operate the reaction control thrusters, and modified cockpit instrumentation.

Moreover, the unnecessary equipment, like the gun, fire control system, tactical electronics, and auxiliary fuel tanks, was removed.

The Starfighters with these modifications were renamed NF-104s. They entered in service in 1963 and their pilots could zoom to more than 100,000 feet in a full pressure suit, experience zero “g”, and use reaction control to handle the aircraft.

Only about 35 students had the privilege to fly the NF-104 and each pilot had to be prepared for these “space flights” by using standard Starfighters. The first mission was a pressure suit familiarization flight, with the F-104 flown to high altitude with the cockpit depressurized allowing the student to experience a flight in a fully pressurized suit. To practice the zoom profile, the second flight was conducted in a two-seat F-104, with the instructor that showed to the student how reaching an altitude of 70-80,000 feet performing a 30 degree climb, while the last three missions were made in a single seat Starfighter increasing the climb angle to 45 degrees and reaching an altitude of 90,000 feet.

After these five preparation flights, the student finally performed the two programmed NF-104 missions.

As described by Steve Markman and Bill Holder in their book One Of A Kind Research Aircraft A History Of In Flight Simulators, Testbeds & Prototypes, the typical flight syllabus started with taking off on jet power, climb to 30-40,000 feet, and accelerate to Mach 1.7-1.9. Then the pilot ignited the rocket engine and pitched the nose up to start the steep climb.

After two minutes the Starfighter passed through 80,000 feet, the jet engine flamed out, the rocket engine ran out of fuel and the pilot began a parabolic arc to the peak altitude.

It was during the parabolic arc that the pilot experienced “weightlessness” for about one minute and used the side stick to fire the reaction control rockets to control the aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw motions.

Once at a lower altitude, the pilot restarted the jet engine and made a conventional landing: the whole mission lasted about 35 minutes from taxi to landing and was performed in a full pressure suit.

One NF-104 was destroyed on Dec. 10 1963. The plane was piloted by legendary Col. Chuck Yeager at that time the Aerospace Research Pilot School Commander. Yeager was attempting to reach an altitude record and after a 60 degree climb, while he was at 101,595 feet, the Starfighter experienced an uncontrollable yawing and rolling motion.

Yeager wasn’t able to recover the plane and was forced to eject at 8,500 feet.

During the separation from the ejection seat the rocket nozzle hit his face shield breaking it, while the combination of the red hot nozzle and oxygen in his helmet produced a flame that burned his face and set several parachute cords on fire.

Yeager was able to extinguish the flames with his glove hands and after the accident was hospitalized for two weeks.

The accident was depicted in the book (and film of the same name) “The Right Stuff”.

Col. Charles E. Yeager

Another NF-104 flight almost ended in disaster on June 15, 1971, when Capt. Howard Thompson experienced a rocket engine explosion while trying to lit it at 35,000 feet and Mach 1,15: luckily Thompson made a safe lading to Edwards AFB using the normal jet engine.

The program was terminated when it was decided that the aerospace training mission would be performed by NASA and the last NF-104 flight was performed in December 1971.

During its service with the U.S. Air Force the highest altitude reached by an NF-104 was 121,800 feet, achieved by Maj. Robert Smith during acceptance testing.

Today the last of the NF-104s is on static display in front of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force