Author Archives: Dario Leone

A quick look at why the F-16N was the best plane to simulate soviet “bandits” in adversary missions.

The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon is the western world’s most prolific fighter of the last 40 years.

Even if medium and long-range air-to-air missiles, such as the AIM-7 Sparrow and the AIM-120 AMRAAM,  have been integrated in the F-16 since 1986 for BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements, the Viper (the universal F-16’s nickname) was born in response to LWF (Light Weight Fighter) program, for a small and agile fighter: the U.S. Air Force needed a small, cheap, maneuverable airplane to flank the F-15 Eagle, its air superiority fighter, and face the small Soviet fighters, such as the MiG-21 in close combat.

Indeed the Viper can maneuver against any opponent, proving to be the ideal adversary (or “aggressor” in the Air Force jargon) aircraft for both U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy training programs. Arguably the best version of the Fighting Falcon having played the bandit role has been the F-16N.

Born in response to the need of the Navy to replace its aging fleets of A-4 Skyhawks and F-5 Tigers adversary fighters, the F-16N was a basic F-16C Block 30 with the General Electric F110-GE-100 engine.

The F-16N was typically equipped with the Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) pod on the starboard wingtip and to completely simulate adversaries, the ALR-69 Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and the ALE-40 chaff/flare were also incorporated.

To save weight the internal cannon was removed and the aircraft could not carry air-to-air missiles, even though it retained the APG-66 radar from the F-16A/B models.

Twenty two single seat F-16Ns along with four two seat TF-16Ns were delivered in the late 1980s to the Navy and four units flew the jet: the VF-126 Bandits and the Fighter Weapons School both based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, the VF-45 Blackbirds based at NAS Key West and the VF-43 Challengers based at NAS Oceana.

According to Rick Llinares & Chuck Lloyd book Adversary America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons, since the U.S. Navy didn’t own any Fulcrum or Flanker, the F-16N was the best fighter to replicate the then new fourth generation Russian fighters and finally F-14 and F/A-18 crews could fight against a real different aircraft. In particular, against the Tomcat, the nimble F-16N was a very challenging adversary, as by the video below.

Unfortunately the F-16N began to experience the wear and tear due to the excessive g’s sustained during many aerial engagements and in 1994 the Navy decided to retire the type since the costly repair to keep the Viper flying can’t be afforded. But even if as bandit the F-16N was replaced by the F-5 which was the fighter the Viper intended to replace, the F-16N still remains the best adversary fighter ever flown by the U.S. Navy.

The U.S. Navy Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, at NAS Fallon, Nevada, currently operates some F-16A in the aggressor role, like the one in the image below.

F-16N Giovanni Colla

Image credit: Giovanni Colla. Top Image: National Naval Aviation Museum FB page.

 

The amazing story of Bill Weaver: the Blackbird pilot who survived his SR-71 disintegration

The incredible story of a lucky SR-71 pilot who survived to a Blackbird disintegration at Mach 3+

Built as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft able to fly at 88,000 feet and Mach 3, the iconic Lockheed SR-71 required aircrews to wear a special silver pressure suit to ensure their safety. This proved to be much useful during the time, as the aircraft experienced several accidents at very high speeds and altitudes during its test flights.

The protection provided by these suits was put to test on Jan. 25, 1966 when Blackbird tail number 952 disintegrated mid-air during a systems evaluation flight. The mission was intended to investigate procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high Mach cruise performance while the center of gravity (CG) was located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

The SR-71 was driven by Bill Weaver with a Lockheed flight test specialist, Jim Zwayer in the back seat and it took off from Edwards AFB at 11:20 am . They refueled from a KC-135, accelerated to Mach 3.2 and climbed to 78,000 feet, which was their initial cruise altitude.

During a programmed thirty-five-degree bank right turn they experienced an “inlet unstart” that caused the immediate unstart on the right J-58 engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. An inlet unstart happened when a shock wave was rapidly ejected back outside the inlet. When an inlet unstart occurred a device called the cross-tie system was enabled to minimize the extreme rolling and yaw of the aircraft and to prevent the good inlet from unstarting. At the same time the cross-tie system also restarted the good engine. As Weaver himself told to former Blackbird pilot Col. Richard H. Graham in his book, “SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane”: “I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go. No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride.”

Since the chances to survive an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,000 feet weren’t very good, Weaver and Zwayer decided to stay with the aircraft to restore control until they reached a lower speed and altitude, but the cumulative effects of system malfunctions exceeded flight control authority. Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion, even if the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only two to three seconds.

Weaver recalls that he was “still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces. Then the SR-71 literally disintegrated around us.”

Weaver struggled to realize what was really happening. “I could not have survived what had just happened. I must be dead. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead. But somehow I had separated from the airplane. I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s face plate had frozen over and I was staring at a layer of ice.”

It was at that point that the pressure suit proved to be very effective protection for Weaver. In fact, once it was inflated, an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to the parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen, but also pressurized the suit, preventing Weaver’s blood from boiling at the extremely high altitude. In this way the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become like a tiny escape capsule.

Another system conceived to safeguard the Blackbird aircrew during the bailout procedure was the SR-71’s parachute system. To prevent body tumbling motions and physical injury due to the centrifugal forces it was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing parachute shortly after ejection and seat separation.

Since Weaver had not intentionally activated the ejection sequence, he thought that stabilizing chute might not have deployed. But he quickly determined he was falling vertically and not tumbling, meaning that the little parachute had deployed and was doing its job. The next concern was for the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at 15,000 feet, but again he had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work. So Weaver decided to open the faceplate, to estimate his height above the ground but as he reached for the faceplate, he felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main parachute deployment.

After landing, Weaver was rescued by Albert Mitchell Sr., owner of a ranch in northeastern New Mexico, who helped him with the chute, then reached Zwayer who had landed not far away, with his own Hughes helicopter. Mitchell returned few minutes later reporting that Zwayer was dead: in fact he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed almost instantly. Moreover Mitchell said that his ranch foreman would watch over Zwayer’s body until the arrival of the authorities and he flew Weaver to the Tucumcari hospital.

Investigation of the incident determined that the nose section of the Blackbird had broken off aft of the rear cockpit and crashed ten miles from the main wreckage. The resultant very high g-forces had literally ripped Weaver and Zwayer from the airplane. After this crash, testing with the CG aft of normal limits was discontinued, and trim-drag issues were resolved via aerodynamic means. Moreover the inlet control system was improved and the inlet unstarts almost stopped with the development of the Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System.

Two weeks after the accident Weaver was back in a Blackbird. As he recalls: “It was my first flight since the accident, so a flight test engineer in the back seat was probably a little apprehensive about my state of mind and confidence. As we roared down the runway and lifted off, I heard an anxious voice over the intercom. “Bill! Bill! Are you there?” “Yeah George. What’s the matter?” “Thank God! I thought you might have left.” The rear cockpit of the SR-71 has no forward visibility – only a small window on each side – and George couldn’t see me. A big red light on the master-warning panel in the rear seat had illuminated just as we rotated, stating: “Pilot Ejected”. Fortunately, the cause was a misadjusted micro switch, not my departure.”

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Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

The F-14 Tomcats that never were vs F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: who would have won?

Several years since it was eventually retired from the U.S. Navy, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat remains one of the most loved planes by aviation enthusiasts.

Any article about this iconic fighter plane, still operating with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, its story, capabilities, records and surrounding anecdotes, always become a much debated and commented post on The Aviationist. For this reason, we will continue writing about this legendary plane and its replacement: the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

After the Tomcat retirement, the Rhino (as the F/A-18E/F is nicknamed by its aircrews) has not only quickly become the backbone of every Carrier Air Wing (CVW), but it has also replaced some of the oldest Legacy Hornets on the American flattops. Having fulfilled such a difficult task, the Super Hornet has demonstrated to be one of the best multirole jets available today. But could an advanced version of the F-14 have been even better?

LCDR Joe “Smokin” Ruzicka, who was the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) who flew the last F-14 Demonstration before the Tomcat’s retirement in 2006, last year released an interesting interview to Foxtrot Alpha’s Tyler Rogoway. Among all the other things, Ruzicka explained that, while the Super Hornet is a great plane, it seems like its strength mainly comes from technology. “In the Tomcat, I think you had to be a better aviator because the technology just wasn’t there. It was up to the aircrew to maximize its performance (or minimize it if you sucked).”

That said, one might wonder whether integrating the same technology in the F-14 would have been possible.

By 1987, Grumman realized that the potential for growth had not yet been reached by the F-14 airframe, and they proposed to the U.S. Navy four advanced versions of the F-14, as told by Tim Callaway in Issue 13 “Grumman F-14 Tomcat” of Aviation Classics magazine.

The F-14D Quickstrike was the first proposal: featuring an enhanced version of the APG-71 radar, this advanced Tomcat version would have carried stand off weapons such as the Harpoon, HARM and SLAM (Standoff Land Attack Missile) missiles.

Requiring only new software and minor modifications to existing F-14Ds, the Quickstrike would have been a cost-effective attack platform but it didn’t meet the Advanced Tactical Fighter specification and the U.S. Navy chose the shorter ranged F/A-18E/F.

The second proposal was the ST21, the Super Tomcat for the 21st Century. The latter would have been a structural upgrade to the existing F-14Ds, that would have introduced a new wing glove design and single piece windscreen, while sensors positioned in front of the under fuselage weapons rails would have supplemented the chin pods. Moreover the ST21 would have also received a new engine the F110-GE-129 of 13,154kg of thrust, which would have provided a supercruise speed of Mach 1.3 featuring also thrust vectoring nozzles for greater maneuverability. These new engines would have supplied to the ST21 a tremendous acceleration alongside with a greatly increased range of the aircraft.

Another modification to the standard F-14D would have been the AST21, the Attack Super Tomcat for the 21st Century.

This advanced Tomcat would have been fitted with additional extra bomb pylons under the engine nacelles, a nuclear weapons capability, a modified radar with a Forward Air Controller (FAC) mode and an Integrated Defensive Avionics Package (IDAP) to improve survivability in the air to ground environment. The last proposal, as Callaway explains, was the ASF-14 Advanced Strike Fighter.

The ASF-14 would have been a totally new aircraft with the F-14 shape and it would have taken advantages of the new materials and new technologies developed for the Advanced Tactical Fighter and Advanced Tactical Attack Aircraft programs.

None of these proposals has been built and we’ll never know if an advanced Tomcat would have been better than the actual Super Hornet, but for sure these two fighters are two different aircraft as explained by Ruzicka, who told to Rogoway that the better way to understand the differences between the F-14 and the F/A-18E/F is using the analogy of a muscle car to a mini-van, “with the Tomcat being the former and the Super Hornet being the latter. The muscle car doesn’t have much to it in the way of fancy technology, just some raw speed and the coolness of a Steve McQueen movie, but it gets the job done. The mini-van on the other hand is a very nice car, complete with DVR’s for the kids, Air Conditioning, power windows, and lots of places to put your sippy cup. It’s a great car—-but it’s still a mini-van.”

Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

The story of one of the largest air strikes conducted by U.S and British jets in Iraq during OSW

The attack that took place against Iraq on Feb. 16, 2001 was one of the largest strike missions conducted by U.S and British aircraft during Operation Southern Watch.

Following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, to enforce the no fly zone (NFZ) that was set to narrow Iraqi airspace, two different operations were conducted: the Northern Watch, which started in 1997 succeeding to Operation Provide Comfort, to monitor the airspace above the 36th parallel, and the Southern Watch, that began in 1992, to control the airspace south of the 32nd parallel, extended to the 33rd parallel in 1996.

Iraq soon decided not to respect the no fly zone, and Iraqi air defense systems began to attack both Northern and Southern Watch aircraft, even though the SAM (Surface to Air Missile) sites were more active against Southern forces: many no fly zone violations occurred since 1992, with Iraqi fighters that crossed the no fly zone several times. Nevertheless the main threat to the allied aircraft was posed by the Iraqi SAM and anti-aircraft artillery batteries that soon became the target of several air strikes. As the ones conducted during Operation Desert Fox in 1998 and the powerful raid conducted by Joint Task Forces Southwest Asia, on Feb. 16, 2001.

As explained by the U.S. Marine Corps historian Fred Allison to Giampaolo Agostinelli for his book “Where Sea Meets The Sky,” about 70 aircraft were involved in this air strike, a quarter of those released weapons. Among the strike aircraft which took part in the mission there were eight U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles and an element of Royal Air Force Tornado GR1s from bases in Kuwait, with fourteen F/A-18s belonging to Marine Strike Fighter Squadron 312 (VMFA-312) Checkerboards and to Strike Fighter Squadron 105 (VFA-105) Gunslingers launched from the aircraft carrier USS Truman (CVN-75).

The strike was supported by E-2Cs in the AWACS role, S-3Bs and KC-10s for air-to-air refueling and EA-6Bs for electronic warfare. The escort for the strike force was provided by VF-32 Swordsmen F-14B Tomcats and by USAF F-15C Eagles.

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Some of the targets (that consisted in radars, communications centers and command centers) were placed north of Baghdad and to hit them the Hornets were loaded with external tanks, 200 rounds of 20 mm ammunition combined with AIM-120 and AIM-9 air-to-air missiles  for self-defense and two types of standoff weapons: three AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapons (JSOWs) for each VMFA-312’s jet and Standoff Land-Attack Missile – Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missiles for VFA-105’s F/A-18s.

The mission was launched after sunset and the Hornets refueled from an Air Force KC-10 tanker over Kuwait. The F/A-18s were the last aircraft to reach their targets over Baghdad, with the Iraqi gunners already alerted from the previous strikes: their first Gunslingers jets launched their SLAM-ERs which hit their targets with great accuracy as demonstrated by the TV data sent back by one that hit Al-Taji air base that, when slowed down, showed a man outside the building smoking a cigarette.

Then, Checkerboards Hornets delivered their JSOWs from 36,000 feet while the sky was erupting “into a blaze of AAA and SAMs.” But in the rarefied air at FL360, the F/A-18s were too slow to maneuver away from the SAMs, so they lit the burners for a steep dive descending into the thicker air where the pilots could maneuver more effectively against the surface to air missiles.

Moreover in addition to the SAMs launches, the Hornets drivers were notified that also a MiG-23 Flogger had taken off from Al-Taqaddum airfield below them. Luckily for them (and with great Tomcat crews disappointment) the MiG escaped immediately towards north.

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Then with the afterburners still ignited, the Hornets avoided the last Iraqi SAMs and reached the tanker on a racetrack on the border of Kuwait. Suddenly  a British voice came over to the radio: a Tornado was being targeted by a SA-6 which was receiving good tracking information from its radar.

Three seconds later another voice radioed: “Magnum!”: a VAQ-130 (Electronic Attack Squadron 130) Zappers EA-6B pilot had just launched an AGM-88 HARM missile which destroyed the Iraqi SAM site.

The mission ended after the safe recovery of the aircraft onboard the Truman’s deck. As Allison recalls: “The mission had lasted slightly more than four hours and had accomplished its purpose. The Iraqis shut down their radars and there were less attacks on coalition aircraft over the NFZ, at least for a time…”

Image credit: U.S. Navy

The most unusual MiG killer: the Skyraider air-to-air victories on North Vietnamese MiG-17s

The Douglas Skyraider has been the last piston engine propelled aircraft to shoot down a jet fighter.

The last propeller U.S. Navy attack aircraft to disappear from the decks of the flattops was the Douglas AD Skyraider.

This airplane had a unique capability: even when it carried its full internal fuel of 2,280 pounds, a 2,200-lb torpedo, two 2,000-lb bombs, 12,5 inch rockets, two 20 mm guns and 240 pounds of ammunition, the Skyraider was still under its maximum gross weight of 25,000 pounds.

Entered in service just in time to take part in the Korean War, the Skyraiders in the improved A-1H version were quite slow; nevertheless in spite of performance not even comparable to those of the other assets in the air wing’s strike group, the propeller-driven attack aircraft managed to shoot down two MiG-17s during the early part of the Vietnam War.

In fact, some of the most unusual kills of the conflict did not come from the F-4s, F-105s, or F-8s, but from the Korean War-era piston-engine Skyraiders, thanks to the four M3 20 mm fixed forward-firing cannons capable of firing 800 rounds per minute, that fitted the A-1Hs.

The first of these victorious engagements took place on Jun. 20, 1965, when a flight of Skyraiders from the Strike Squadron 25 (VA-25) Fist of the Fleet, took off from the USS Midway (CVA-41) supporting the rescue of a downed USAF pilot in the northwest corner of North Vietnam were attacked by a flight of MiG-17s.

The two enemy jets launched missiles and fired with their cannons against the two A-1Hs, but both Skyraiders’ pilots, Lt. Charles W. Hartman III, flying A-1H BuNo 137523, radio callsign “Canasta 573,” and Lt. Clinton B. Johnson, flying A-1H BuNo 139768, callsign “Canasta 577,” evaded them before and maneuvered to shoot down one of the MiGs with their 20 mm cannons.

Lt. Johnson described this engagement in Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. book “MiG Killers A Chronology of U.S. Air Victories in Vietnam 1965-1973” as follows: “I fired a short burst at the MiG and missed, but got the MiG pilot’s attention. He turned into us, making a head-on pass. Charlie and I fired simultaneously as he passed so close that Charlie thought I had hit his vertical stabilizer with the tip of my tail hook. Both of us fired all four guns. Charlie’s rounds appeared to go down the intake and into the wing root, and mine along the top of the fuselage and through the canopy. He never returned our fire, rolled, inverted, and hit a small hill, exploding and burning in a farm field.”

The subsequent MiG kill of this engagement was shared by both Hartmann III and Johnson.

The second victory of the propeller-driven Skyraider against a  North Vietnamese MiG-17 jet fighter, took place on Oct. 9, 1966 and involved four A-1Hs launched  from the deck of the USS Intrepid (CV-11) in the Gulf of Tonkin flying as “Papoose flight.”

The flight was from the Strike Squadron 176 (VA-176) Thunderbolts and it was led by Lt. Cdr. Leo Cook, with Lt. Wiley as wingman, while the second section was led by Lt. Peter Russell with Lt. William T. Patton as wingman.

It was during the RESCAP (the REScue Combat Air Patrol, a mission flown to protect the downed pilots from ground threats) flight, that the “Spads” (as the Skyraiders were dubbed by their pilots) were attacked by four MiG-17s. This engagement ended with one Fresco confirmed as being shot down, a second as probably shot down and a third heavily damaged.

According to McCarthy, the MiG-17 kill was awarded to “Papoose 409,” the A-1H BuNo 137543, flown by Lt. Patton who, after having gained a position of advantage on one of the MiGs, opened fire with his four guns, hitting the tail section of the enemy jet. Patton followed the MiG which descended through the cloud deck and when Papoose 409 emerged from the clouds he spotted the enemy pilot’s parachute.

The U.S. Navy Skyraiders last combat tour took place from July 1967 to 1968 onboard USS Coral Sea (CV-43), but this versatile propeller aircraft continued to fly with the U.S. Air Force and with the Vietnamese Air Force until the end of the conflict thanks to its unparalleled capabilities in close air support.

Skyraider

Image credit: U.S. Navy