Author Archives: Dario Leone

How to survive in a dogfight, alone against six MiGs: the lesson learned from Richard Schaffert dogfight.

An incredible air-to-air engagement, where one U.S. pilot alone survived to six North Vietnamese MiGs.

A true milestone in the progress of naval aviation, the Vought F-8 has been one of the few carrier-based fighters that could outperform most land-based counterparts.

Being the first genuinely supersonic naval aircraft, the Crusader, was a single seat, single engine swept fighter that introduced an unusual feature, the variable incidence wing. Armed with four Colt Mk 12 cannons,  the F-8 was called “The last gunfighter”: these guns combined with its high thrust-to-weight ratio and with its good maneuverability, made of the Crusader a good dogfighter.

The Crusader showed its ability in close combat during the Vietnam war, especially on Dec. 14, 1967: in fact, as explained by Barrett Tilman and Henk van der Lugt in their book “VF-11/111 Sundowners”on that day, Lt. Cdr. Richard “Brown Bear” Schaffert (the VF-111 Sundowners operation officer during the 1967 deployment  onboard the CV-34 USS Oriskany), were involved in an aerial combat which became a classic dogfight of the jet age, even if did not result in any MiG kill.

Schaffert was escorting an A-4E Skyhawk, piloted by Lt Charles Nelson, tasked in an Iron Hand anti-SAM (Surface to Air Missile) mission in the area between Hanoi and Haiphong, when “Brown Bear” saw two MiG-17s (“Fresco” based on NATO designation).

Schaffert immediately started a descent from 18,000 ft and when he recovered at 3,000 ft, he looked for Nelson but he found two more MiGs. Having lost the sight of the A-4E, Brown Bear understood that he had to rely on his 3500 hours of flight experience to face four bandits alone. He started the dogfight with an 8 Gs break forcing the first Fresco to overshoot, but Schaffert knew very well that he had to fight working in the vertical, since the F-8 couldn’t turn as fast as a MiG-17.

As it became obvious that the four bandits had split into two sections,Schaffert started a series of yo-yo maneuvers using the afterburner, trying to reach an advantage position against the MiGs, leaving the chance to Brown Bear to conduct the dogfight as a 1 vs 2 engagement.

Schaffert got a “good tone” from one of its Sidewinders, but the second pair of MiG-17s shot at him with their cannons and he had to perform three more yo-yos before launching a Sidewinder….which didn’t explode. Now he had only two missiles left since one of the four AIM-9s carried by the F-8 had already experienced a failure before take off.

Executing reversal maneuvers and pulling high Gs to defeat the superior turning radius of the MiG-17, Schaffert shot another missile which failed to explode.

Then, two MiGs fired a couple of IR-guided K-13 missiles (AA-2 Atoll as reported by NATO designation) which failed to get on target because they were launched out of the missile operative envelope. Brown Bear found himself once again in a good firing position but this time the guidance system of the last Sidewinder failed, leaving Schaffert with only the rounds of his plane’s four Colt cannons.

After another 5 Gs turn, he had a good tracking solution on a MiG but when he pulled the trigger, all the four 20 mm cannons…choked!

The problem was caused by a common defect of Crusader cannons: the pneumatic ammunition feed system disconnected after high-Gs maneuvers.

Two MiG-21s joined the air combat firing two more Atolls missiles, which Brown Bear was able to avoid.

Facing six adversaries, Schaffert started another series of high altitude yo-yos and engaged the enemy leader in a vertical rolling scissors; once he had reached the bottom of the maneuver, he accelerated towards the coast leaving the enemy behind. He returned safely to the USS Oriskany with almost no fuel left.

Despite the fact that Brown Bear didn’t shoot down any enemy fighter, he left an important lesson to Topgun instructors: how to survive in a dogfight alone against six MiGs, a good lecture to give to the Fighter Weapons School students in the following years.

F-8C_VF-111_over_USS_Intrepid_(CVS-11)_1967

Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

Operation Allied Force: B-52 Stratofortress bombers involvement in the Air Campaign over Kosovo

The little but decisive role played by B-52s during Kosovo crisis.

The iconic U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber, symbol of the U.S. nuclear deterrence, has taken part in all the wars fought by Washington in the last 50 years (Syria, so far, is the only exception).

Among the conflict that saw the involvement of the “BUFFs” there is also Operation Allied Force, the air campaign conducted against Serbia in 1999.

As recalled by Bill Yenne in his book “B-52 Stratofortress The Complete History of the World’s Longest Serving and Best Known Bomber” the first calls for NATO to intervene with military airpower in response to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians, date back to the summer of 1998.

Then, on Oct. 10 of the same year, the US Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered the deployment of six B-52H from the 2nd Bombardment Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base to RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom.

Two more Stratofortresses arrived at the UK base on Feb. 22, 1999 as part of the military build-up in Europe in anticipation of a war in the Balkans which would involve strategic bombers as well as several tactical planes, forward deployed at several airbases located in Italy and few other European countries. By the end of the war, 25 B-52s belonging to the 2nd Bomb Wing from Barksdale Air Force Base and 5th Bomb Wing from Minot Air Force Base would take part in the air strikes.

The aircraft were annexed to the 2nd Air Expeditionary Group that included B-1B Lancers from the 28th Bomb Wing from  and KC-135s of the 22nd Air Refueling Squadron, Mountain Home Air Force Base.

Operation Allied Force was launched on the night of Mar. 24.

Among the 250 U.S. combat planes that conducted the first air strikes there were also seven B-52s carrying AGM-86C Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCMs) aimed at the Serbian IADS (Integrated Air Defense System). Between 30 and 50 air-launched cruise missiles, targeted Serbian air defense sites, during the opening stages of the air campaign.

Initially, the B-52s followed an 8-hour round trip route that brought them above Spain and central Mediterranean Sea before reaching the launch area circumnavigating Southern Italy. Then, they were reserved special corridors across Central Italy that made the missions sensibly shorter, with a good impact on the crew and airframes’ turn over.

As soon as most of Serbian air defenses were made harmless, the B-52 transitioned from stand-off weapons to general purpose bombs and cluster bomb units, dropped on Serbian army positions and staging areas.

Two more B-52Hs arrived from the 5th Bombardment Wing at Minot AFB in North Dakota, to Fairford on Apr. 29: like the Viet Cong and the Iraqi Republican Guard, Milosevic would soon discover the tremendous power of a B-52’s bomb load is a horrible thing to endure, and experiencing it firsthand is a horrible way to make that discovery.

Leaflets written in Serbian, that warned bombardments by B-52s, were also dropped over the Kosovo capital, Pristina. As reported by Yenne, the BBC translated their warning message: The Yugoslav Army forces are warned to leave Kosovo, because NATO is now using B-52 bombers to cast Mk 82 bombs, weighing 225 kilograms each… Every B-52 bomber can carry more than 50 such bombs. These aircraft will be after you until they drive you out of Kosovo… and prevent you from committing atrocities… If you want to survive and see your families again, you should abandon your units and firearms.”

B-52 sunset

As the amout of air strikes peaked between the end of May and beginning of June, some of the most persuasive missions of the war were flown by the B-52s on the first weekend of June 1999 at a place on the Kosovo – Albania border called Mount Pastrik, where the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) was fighting a sizable Serbian army force.

The results of the raids were reported by several networks around the globe such as the CNN which on Sunday, Jun. 6 stated that the NATO used B-52 bombers Saturday night into Sunday to strike areas in Kosovo, near its border with Albania. There was also military activity along the border between Albania and Kosovo.

Other B-52 strikes concentrated in an area near Gorshub, in Yugoslavia, just inside the border. The mountain plateau was also the scene of a day-long artillery and mortar battle between Yugoslav forces and KLA. Further details were added by the Reuters that on Wednesday, June 9, reported that a NATO B-52 bomber caught two Yugoslav Army battalions in the open after Serbia stalled on pulling its troops out of Kosovo . The B-52 dropped sticks of gravity bombs on the troop concentrations near the Kosovo – Albania border Monday, carpeting a hillside area where some 400 to 800 soldiers were estimated to have been in the field. Moreover the Reuters added that NATO military spokesman Gen. Walter Jerts confirmed that “heavy bombers had been diverted at short notice to attack troops in Kosovo.”

The same day Dana Priest of the Washington Post wrote that “at least a month ago, NATO commanders began using B-52s to herd troops on the ground into more open and vulnerable areas (because there are no NATO troops on the ground to do this). […] On Monday, a pair of B-52s and B-1Bs dropped 86 Mk 82s… on a concentration of several hundred Serb troops near Mt. Pastrik region.”

Few days after this air raid, on Jun. 10, NATO ratified the terms of an international peace plan and stopped the seventy-eight-day air campaign. Two days later as told once again by Dana Priest “Slobodan Milosevic unexpectedly capitulated…Milosevic signed an agreement allowing the invasion of 50,000 NATO soldiers – but as peacekeepers, not warriors.”

A great achievement, reached also thanks to the BUFF aircrews who played a small but vital part in Operation Allied Force.

Written with David Cenciotti

 Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

 

Operation Bolo: how U.S. F-4C Phantoms disguised as F-105 bombers set a trap for North Vietnam’s MiG-21s

The famous mission planned to lure North Vietnamese MiGs into air-to-air combat.

During the last months of 1966 the North Vietnamese MiG-21s from Phuc Yen airfield claimed several victories against the American F-105 fighter bombers urging the Air Force to do something to reduce Thunderchiefs losses.

The solution was found by using the then new F-4C jets and came from a living legend among the fighter pilots, the 12-victory ace from the Second World War Col. Robin Olds, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (Wolfpack) commander.

His plan was to fly the Phantoms at the same speed and altitude of the F-105s, in such a way the formation would appear on the Vietnamese radar screens as “standard” Thunderchief formations. Once the “simulated” Thud formation was spotted, Mig interceptors would be scrambled towards the intruders finding themselves to fight against the powerful Phantoms armed with air-to-air missiles instead of the bomb laden F-105s: an aerial ambush.

Olds studied a plan that saw the Phantoms simulate the routes, call signs, refueling areas, speeds and altitudes which would normally be used by the Thunderchiefs.

The F-4s from the 8th, 355th, 366th, and 388th TFWs took part to the mission, alongside with the F-105s from the 355th and 388th performing their regular Iron Hand duty. The Operation Bolo officially went off on Jan. 2, 1967 even if the meteorological conditions, especially over the target area, were bad.

Ubon RTAFB

Seven flights of four F-4Cs, using car company names as callsigns (Olds, Ford, Rambler, Vespa, Plymouth, Lincoln and Tempest), led by Olds himself (who obviously commanded “Olds” flight), were launched from Uborn airbase.

The first flight “Olds”, led by Olds himself arrived over Phuc Yen at around 15.00 local time but noticed no defensive reaction by the North Vietnamese Air Force. As Olds formation was about to leave the area of operations to leave room to the incoming Ford flight, the first MiGs (whose scramble had been delayed by 15 minutes by the GCI controllers because of the overcast conditions) emerged from the clouds below.

A 15 minutes battle against aggressive MiG-21 pilots raged in the skies within a 15 mile radius of Phuc Yen, with the Fishbeds that attacked in two pairs, one from 6 o’clock and the other from about 12 o’clock.

As told by Olds to Walter J. Boyne for his book “Phantom In Combat,” the F-4s turned against the nearest attackers.

Unfortunately, the first one to pop through came up at Olds 6 o’clock position. Olds broke left, trying to get away of the enemy line of fire, hoping that his wingman would take care of him. At the same time he saw another MiG pop out of the clouds in a wide turn about his 11 o’clock position, a mile and a half away. He went after it ignoring the one behind and fired missiles at the Mig just after this disappeared back into the clouds.

But another MiG appeared after few seconds: “I’d seen another MiG pop out in my 10 o’clock position, going from my right to left; in other words, just across the circle from me. When the first MiG I fired at disappeared, I slammed full afterburner and pulled in hard to gain position on this second MiG. I pulled the nose up high, about 45°, inside his circle. Mind you, he was turning around to the left, so I pulled the nose up high and rolled to the right. This is known as a vector roll. I got up on top of him and, half upside down, hung there and waited for him to complete more of his turn, and timed it so that as I continued to roll down behind him I’ d be about 20° angle off and 4,500 to 5,000 ft behind him. That’s exactly what happened. Frankly, I am not sure that he ever saw me. When I got down low and behind he was outlined by the sun against a brilliant blue sky. I let him have two Sidewinders, one of which hit and blew his right wing off” Olds explained in “Phantom In Combat.”

Six more MiG-21s were shot down that day, followed by other two Fishbeds on Jan. 6 scored by 555th TFS aircrews. Nine MiG-21s lost in a matter of few days caused a post defeat stand down for the NVAF, a claim confirmed by the fact that once the MiG-21s reappeared in the skies they had changed their tactics in dogfight against US F-4s.

In fact ground control would vector them to a 6 o’clock position well outside the range of Phantoms radars. The MiG-21s would then go supersonic as told by Boyne, gathering plenty of “smash” by reaching Mach 1.4 or more, and once launched heat seeking Atoll missiles they would zoom-climb away to safety.

However as reported by Boyne in his book, a working paper produced by the U.S. Seventh Air Force Tactical Air Analysis Center, the success of Operation Bolo is largely attributable to several factors like:

  1. The overall planning and development of mission strategy and tactics, which accurately anticipated and fully exploited enemy reaction, and the attention to detail in the planning phase with particular focus on total force interaction in relation to both position and timing.
  2. An intensive training program for 8 TFW combat aircrews which emphasized every facet of total mission to include missile capabilities, aircraft and missile procedures, MiG maneuverability, radar search patterns, MiG identification, flight maneuvering and flight integrity, radio procedures, fuel management, tank jettison procedures etc.
  3. High degree of discipline, both ground and air, displayed by all participants.

Nevertheless the success of Operation Bolo was also the result of both leadership and tactical skills, two properties owned by Robin Olds, who still represents the natural embodiment of the fighter pilot.

McDonnell Douglas F-4C

In the video below you can see the facts described in the article as well as hear the explanation of the Operation Bolo from Robin Olds himself.

 

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

These may be the only F-22’s Achilles’ heels in a dogfight against 4th gen fighter jets

Considered almost unbeatable in the air-to-air role, the F-22 successfully debuted in combat, taking part in air strikes against ISIS targets. But what if the F-22 found a 4th Gen. opponent?

Even though we don’t know much details about them, missions flown by the F-22 Raptor over Syria marked the combat debut of the stealth jet.

As already explained, the radar-evading planes conducted air strikes against ISIS ground targets, in what (considering the 5th Generation plane’s capabilities) were probably Swing Role missions: the stealth jets flew ahead of the rest of the strike package to cover the other attack planes, dropped their Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) on designated targets, and escorted the package during the way back.

Considered that it could not carry external fuel tanks (to keep a low radar signature), the F-22 were refueled at least two or three times to make it to North Syria and back to the UAE, flying a mission most probably exceeding the 6 – 7 hours flying time.

Raptor’s stealthiness is maintained by storing weapons in internal bays capable to accomodate 2x AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, some AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missiles (the number depending on the configuration), as well as 2x 1,000 pound GBU-32 JDAM or 8x GBU-39 small diameter bombs: in this way the Raptor can dominate the airspace above the battlefield while performing OCA (Offensive Counter Air) role attacking air and ground targets. Moreover its two powerful Pratt & Whitney F-119-PW-100 engines gave to the fifth fighter the ability to accelerate past the speed of sound without using the afterburners (the so called supercruise) and TV (Thrust Vectoring), that can be extremely useful, in certain conditions, to put the Raptor in the proper position to score a kill.

All these capabilities have made the F-22 almost invincible (at least on paper). Indeed, a single Raptor during one of its first training sorties was able to kill eight F-15s in a mock air-to-air engagement, well before they could see it.

These results were achieved also thanks to the specific training programs which put F-22 pilots against the best US fighters jocks in order to improve their abilities to use the jet’s sophisticated systems, make the most out of sensor fusion, then decide when and to execute the correct tactic.

The Raptor has a huge advantage against its adversaries as demonstrated by the F-22’s incredible kill ratio against USAF Red Air (which play as enemy air forces during exercises) and its F-16s and F-15s, during the exercises undertaken in the last decade: for instance, during exercise Noble Edge in Alaska in June 2006, few F-22s were able to down 108 adversaries with no losses, while during the 2007 edition of the same exercise, they brought their record to 144 simulated kills.

In its first Red Flag participation, in February 2007, the Raptor was able to establish air dominance rapidly and with no losses.

As reported by Dave Allport and Jon Lake in a story which appeared on Air Force Monthly magazine, during an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) in 2008, the F-22s scored 221 simulated kills without a single loss.

Still, when outnumbered and threatened by F-15s, F-16s and F-18s, in a simulated WVR (Within Visual Range) dogfight, the F-22 is not invincible.

Raptors refuel

Apparently along with the Rafale, one aircraft which proved to be a real threat for the F-22 is the Eurofighter Typhoon: during the 2012 Red Flag-Alaska, the German Eurofighters not only held their own, but reportedly achieved several kills on the Raptors.

Even though with don’t know anything about the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) set for that training sorties and, at the same time, the outcome of those mock air-to-air combat is still much debated (as there are different accounts of those simulated battles),  the “F-22 vs Typhoon at RF-A” story, raised some questions about the threat posed to the Raptor by advanced, unstealthy, 4th Gen. fighter jets.

In fact, even though these aircraft are not stealth, Typhoons are equipped with  Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) systems and IRST (the Infra-Red Search and Track), two missing features on Raptors.

The Typhoon’s HMD is called Helmet Mounted Symbology System (HMSS). Just like the American JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) which is integrated in the U.S. F-15C/D, F-16  Block 40 and 50 and F-18C/D/E/F, HMSS provides the essential flight and weapon aiming information through line of sight imagery. Information imagery (including aircraft’s airspeed, altitude, weapons status, aiming etc) are projected on the visor (the HEA – Helmet Equipment Assembly – for the Typhoon) , enabling the pilot to look out in any direction with all the required data always in his field of vision.

The F-22 Raptor is not equipped with a similar system (the project to implement it was axed following 2013 budget cuts). The main reason for not using it on the stealth jet is that it was believed neither an HMD, nor HOBS (High Off-Boresight) weapons that are fired using these helmets, were needed since no opponents would get close enough to be engaged with an AIM-9X in a cone more than 80 degrees to either side of the nose of the aircraft.

Sure, but the risk of coming to close range with an opponent is still high and at distances up to 50 km an aircraft equipped with an IRST (Infra-Red Search and Track) system, which can detect the IR signature of an enemy fighter (that’s why Aggressors at Red Flag carry IRST pods….), could even be able to find a stealthy plane “especially if it is large and hot, like the F-22″ as a Eurofighter pilot once said.

Summing up, the F-22 is and remains the most lethal air superiority fighter ever. Still, it lacks some nice features that could be useful to face hordes of enemy aircraft, especially if these include F-15s, Typhoons, Rafales or, in the future, the Chinese J-20 and Russian PAK-FA.

David Cenciotti has contributed to this post.

Top it off: Tankers refuel RED FLAG-Alaska

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

F-15 Eagle vs CF-18 Hornet vs F-16 Fighting Falcon: a pilot’s perspective

Although they are two different airframes, the F-15 and the F-18 have similar avionics, as you can read in the following interesting story released by an experienced Eagle driver.

Disclaimer: the story is based on an interview to an F-15, published on a magazine profiling the F/A-18 Hornet.

Developed as a multirole naval fighter, the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet has become the backbone of  the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps and several air arms around the world.

Among them there is also the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), formerly known as Canadian Forces Air Command, that began receiving a slightly modified version of the standard legacy Hornet, designated CF-18 (Canadian military designation is CF-188), in 1982.

Two years later, the first CF-18 fighter planes were also delivered to the Canadian units permanently based in Germany to replace their aging CF-104 Starfighter.

Some U.S. Air Force pilots stationed in Europe had a chance to learn more about the CF-18 capabilities. One of them was an F-15C pilot, Robert I “Scout” Winebrenner, who flew with Canadian Hornets while he was assigned to 32 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Soesterberg, the Netherlands.

In fact, during his tour of duty in Europe, Winebrenner became a Tactical Leadership Program (TLP) instructor and, as such, he had the opportunity to experience several observation flights aboard the two seat variants of the aircraft belonging to the units that took part to the exercise.

As Winebrenner recalls in Issue 23 “McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet” of Aviation Classics magazine, most of these flights were in the F-16s used by several European air forces, and in the Canadian CF-188B Hornets.

Dealing with the F-16, “Scout” explains that he never felt really comfortable in the Viper (as the Fighting Falcon is nicknamed by the fighter pilots community) cockpit even though the plane’s HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) feature provided the ability to perform myriad tasks without moving the hands away from the stick and throttles.

In particular, the radar scope located between the legs in the early “A” blocks felt like a “foreign object” in the first few flights on the F-16.

On the contrary his perspective from the CF-18 cockpit was completely different, as everything was where it was supposed to be.

The switches, knobs and gauges had a familiar look. Not surprising, since both the Eagle and the Hornet were McDonnel Douglas products and came from the same St. Louis plant.

Still, according to Scout, there were other reasons.

First of all, he felt extremely comfortable in the Hornet cockpit, to such an extent, after his very first flight on the plane, he said to the Canadian pilot who was flying in the front seat the following words: “You know, this could be completely over-the-top misplaced confidence on my part, but after that flight, I have the feeling that I could walk out there fire one up, and go out and fly the airplane, run the systems and even employ it tactically…just like that.”

During his several sorties on board Canadian Hornets, Winebrenner discovered that several functions of the CF-18 cockpit were even better than those owned by the Eagle one, such as the displays arrangement: whilst most Hornet fighter jocks put their radar display on the right MFD, the system was flexible and let the pilot chose the preferred arrangement.

He put his on the left (where the radar display is located in the F-15 cockpit), and “felt right at home.”

Moreover he liked the slightly larger HUD (Head Up Display), which gave to the cockpit a  more modern appearance. The 70° gimbal limit was great. The stick grip was also well designed with the extra control knob (the ‘castle’ switch), and the same stick grip was fitted in the F-15C with the Multi-Staged Improvement Programme (MSIP) modification to run the Multi-Function Colour Display (MFCD) that worked also as Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) terminal.

But Winebrenner also found few things that he didn’t like about Hornet avionics, the first of those was the radar.

“Not that the Hughes APG-65 was a bad radar – far from it. But the narrower beam width and brute force of the F-15’s APG-63 was superior for most air-to-air situations. Moreover, the APG-65 was optimized for over-water operation, and incorporated some rather severe side-lobe suppression techniques which drastically reduced detection range if the Hornet was at lower altitude over land. The Eagle’s radar did similar things, but not anywhere near to the same extent.”

Thanks to its brute force and power, the APG-63 was better at dealing with Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) than the APG-65.

Another thing that Winebrenner liked more in the F-15C than in the CF-18, was the visibility in the cockpit, especially in the rear cockpit; however, in this case, we can’t but notice that the Eagle pilot was not impressed by the large single-piece bubble canopy with no forward bow frame that makes the Lockheed Martin F-16, at least the single seat, by far the fighter jet with the best 360° visibility of any combat plane in the world.

But, as a disclaimer, we told you at the beginning of this article that the interview was published on an issue dedicated to the F/A-18 Hornet….

Image credit: RCAF