Author Archives: Dario Leone

Maverick and Goose would not have had to bail out from their jet if they had flown a F110-powered F-14 Tomcat

Almost every aviation geek has seen the famous film Top Gun. But few of them know that if Maverick and Goose flew an F-14B they would not have had to eject during the flat spin they experienced in the movie.

Developed in the late 1960s as a multi-mission fighter, the F-14’s missions were to protect U.S. Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CBG – now CSG where “S” stands for Strike) from potential raids conducted by the Soviet bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles and to provide fighter cover for Navy attack aircraft.

The Tomcat was fitted with the potent AWG-9 radar which, supporting six AIM-54 missiles, gave the F-14 unprecedented and unparalleled mission capabilities.

Still, even though it was one of the most capable fighters in the aviation history, one problem that plagued the F-14A was the reliability of its TF30 engine. In fact, the fan blades of the Pratt & Whitney engine could break free, causing aircraft stalls and spins as a result of airflow induced engine stalls.

These problems were solved when the F-14B (former F-14A Plus), powered by a new engine, the General Electric F110-GE-400, began to enter in service in 1987.

As explained by Grumman’s Chief Test Pilot Kurt Schroeder to aviation artist and author Lou Drendel, in an interview released towards the end of the 1980s for his Squadron Signal Publications book Modern Military Aircraft: Tomcat:

“The TF30 engine’s highest stall margin, which means the difference between its operating line and where the engine will stall, occurs when it is stabilized at military power. If you would like to go to idle power when you are maneuvering, you stand a very good chance of stalling the engine. The F110 has tremendous stall margin everywhere and, at idle power, it’s higher than anywhere else. When you are maneuvering with the F110 engines, you can do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it.”

Moreover, with the new engine, the afterburner thrust went from 20,000 pounds per side up to 28,000 pounds per side, while dry power increased from 11,000 pounds per side to 16,000 pounds per side.

Thanks to the improved performances, Schroeder told Drendel that Maverick and Goose would not have had to bail out from their jet if they had flown a F110-powered Tomcat.

Indeed, Grumman’s Chief Test Pilot explained that the flat spin shown in the movie was “a very concern early in the F-14 program. When the aircraft is in a fully-developed flat spin, it’s going at a very high yaw rate and it is spinning down in a very small radius. In the ejection sequence, the canopy leaves first, then the back seat, then the front seat. […] The concern in a spin is that the canopy will be ejected straight up, followed shortly by the seats and the possibility exists for a collision. We have had several ejections in spins and I believe there was one case where the RIO brushed the canopy. So the scene (of the movie) was entirely possible.”

Some concern existed about the possibility of generating a stall or a spin even with the 110 engine in case its greatly increased thrust was applied asymmetrically, but Schroeder affirmed that “We deal with that easily in 110 powered aircraft. If the aircraft departs for any reason, we just pull the throttles back to idle, which just takes all the thrust effects out of the equation and you recover the aircraft. Since the 110 loves to run at idle, there is no problem. Unfortunately the TF30 does not love to run at idle and you can’t apply this solution.”

According to Schroeder the enhanced maneuverability of the 110 powered Tomcat was able to make the F-14B and F-14D superior to its adversaries in the Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) arena.

Then, as the experienced F-14 driver said to Drendel, alongside with the new engine, the digital flight control system improved the handling qualities of the aircraft making of the Tomcat airframe the perfect platform for air to ground missions:

“The F-14 was designed to carry bombs. The Navy, however, chose not to develop that capability. There is now more and more emphasis on carrier deck loading and development of multi-mission aircraft, with the F/A-18 as the primary example of that. The F-14 is very capable of performing the air-to-ground mission, mainly because of our range and the fact that we carry the weapons conformally on the fuselage between the engine nacelles, which results in much less of a drag penalty than carrying bombs on the wings. The technology to enhance the radar for this mission has already been developed in the form of the F-15E.”

The F-14 was retired on Sep. 22, 2006, but the last years spent as U.S. Navy’s premiere fighter bomber confirmed Schroeder claims and were a proof of the reliability reached by the Tomcat thanks to the improvements it had received, the most important of which was the F110 engine.

 

 

A memorable anti-terrorist operation with U.S. Navy F-14s and E-2s took place over the Mediterranean Sea in October 1985

A memorable anti-terrorist operation took place over the Mediterranean Sea in October 1985.

On Oct. 7, 1985, four PLF (Palestine Liberation Front) militants hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

With passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians jailed in Israeli prisons. After two days of negotiations (and the killing of an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish retired businessman who was in a wheelchair) the terrorists agreed to abandon the ship in exchange for safe conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egypt Air Boeing 737.

Of course something had to be done to intercept the commercial airliner which would have carried the terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro liner off Egypt.

A brilliant operation was orchestrated  by CVW 17 Commander Air Group (CAG) Robert “Bubba” Brodsky, who explained how the mission took place to Robert L. Lawson in the latter’s book “Carrier Air Group Commanders.”

On Oct. 10, after having completed a major NATO exercise in the Central Mediterranean, the USS Saratoga (CV-60), commanded by Capt. Jerry Unruh, received a phone query from Sixth Fleet headquarters in Gaeta, Italy, asking for the exact location of each ship of the battle group.

Intelligence had indicated to the National Security Council (NSC) staff that the hijackers were still in Egypt and about to be transported out on an Egypt Air Boeing 737 about to be flown to Tunisia.

According to Brodsky the idea to attempt to capture the hijackers came from a Navy captain in the NSC staff who suggested: “Why don’t we pull a Yamamoto on these guys?” referring to the Japanese admiral intercepted by American fighters over the Pacific during WWII.

Aboard the Saratoga orders were immediately received from Sixth Fleet to launch the Alert CAP (Combat Air Patrol) and despite the official “Alert 60″ posture, two VF-74 F-14A Tomcats and a VAW-125 E-2C Hawkeye were airborne in just 22 minutes.

Within minutes, confirmation of their mission came from Sixth Fleet.

Since the exact take-off time, the route and the altitude the hijackers plane would fly were unknown, other VF-103 and VF-74 Tomcats, with tracer ammunition in their 20mm cannons, were launched, while another E-2 alongside with VA-85 KA-6D tankers were alerted for a possible launch.

But, perhaps, the most difficult problem to solve was how to communicate with the airliner, once intercepted, and how to persuade the crew to divert to the NATO base at Sigonella, Sicily.

C3 (Command, Control and Communication) provided by the E-2C was essential to the success of the mission. “CDR Raplh Zia, commanding officer of the E-2 squadron, widely respected for his airborne professionalism, had been kept abreast of unfolding events almost from the beginning. As much as anyone, he had a clear picture of what we were attempting to do. When directed, CDR Zia personally manned the second E-2 and was launched to assume airborne control of the operation. There wasn’t a better man for the job. His ability to quickly assess the situation and ad lib solutions to each hiccup in the evolution was the key to success,” Brodsky explains in “Carrier Air Group Commanders.”

Since, as we explained, the takeoff time of the Egypt Air airliner was unknown, the Tomcats assigned to CAP stations south of the Greek island of Crete were vectored by the E-2 to intercept all contacts that fit the profile of an airliner following the airways between Egypt and Tunisia.

According to Brodsky, on the fourth intercept of the evening, two F-14s pulled up behind an airliner and when they radioed the markings and tail number-2843- back to Saratoga (the tail number had already been discovered by Israeli intelligence agents as reported by Michael K. Bohn in his book “The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism”), the Tomcats were ordered to remain in position, keeping their lights out so the Egyptian crew and their terrorist cargo would have no idea they were under escort.

In the meantime, the State Department in Washington asked Tunisia and other friendly littoral Mediterranean nations to deny landing rights to the terrorists.

After CDR Zia in “Tigertail 603” listened the landing clearance denials to the Egypt Air pilot, he understood that it was time for the Hawkeye crew to take charge.

“2843, this is Tigertail 603, over” CDR Zia radioed. After several more attempts at communications, the Egypt Air pilot finally acknowledged.

Zia continued: “Egypt Air 2843, you are being escorted by two F-14s. You are directed proceed to and land immediately at Sigonella, Sicily. Over.”

The Egyptian pilot was shocked. “Say again. Who is calling?” Allowing the pilot to believe he was talking with one of the F-14 pilots, Zia repeated, “This is Tigertail 603. I advise, you are directed to land immediately. Proceed immediately to Sigonella, Sicily. You are being escorted by two F-14 interceptor aircraft. Vector 280 Sigonella, Sicily. Over.”

The order was repeated once again before the F-14s turned on their external lights. The Tomcat crews watched as the excited Egyptian crew ran to both sides of the airliner to peer out the passenger windows. Zia now had the Egypt Air pilot’s attention.

Concerned by the close proximity of the Navy fighters, the nervous Egyptian pilot again came on the radio: “I’m saying you are too close. I’ m following your orders. Don’t be too close. Please.”

“Okay, we’ll move away a little bit”  Zia responded.

Since the Italian air traffic controllers vectored the 737 to land at the civilian field nearby Catania and refused the permission to land in Sigonella, the escorting F-14 commander declared a low fuel emergency and indicated the requirement for an immediate landing. But the presence of four F-14 Tomcats on his wing charged up the Egyptian pilot, who was able to land only after having going around on his first pass.

“Everyone breathed easier when he landed successfully on the second pass.” Brodsky says.

He also believed that even if the terrorists were taken into Italian custody once the mission ended, that fact did little to diminish the elation aboard the Saratoga: “The real reward, was the knowledge that they had helped bring terrorists and cold-blooded murderers of an American citizen to justice.”

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Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

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