Author Archives: Dario Leone

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.

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Image credit: U.S. Navy

 

Join a B-52 on a Linebacker II mission with this story about the Christmas bombing campaign over Hanoi

The first of the many bombing sorties flew by the BUFFs during “The December Raids” conducted against North Vietnam Targets.

Even if the Boeing B-52 was born to be the mainstay of the U.S. Air Force nuclear deterrent, the Stratofortress saw an extensive use as conventional bomber during the Vietnam war. The full potential of the B-52 was applied during the massive Operation Linebacker II, the 1972 Christmas air offensive which represented the biggest bombing campaign conducted by the U.S. over North Vietnam.

Robert P. Jacober, an experienced B-52 pilots who logged 64 combat sorties flying the BUFF, deployed in Southeast Asia just in time to take part as a BUFF copilot to Linebacker II. As he explained to Walter J. Boyne for his book “Boeing B-52 A Documentary History,” every month there was the “15th of the month rumour” that B-52Gs were going back to the U.S. in 1972.

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Then, one day in December, when all of the BUFF crews on Guam were assembled in the “D Complex”, the briefing room already used for Operation Arc Light missions, the briefing officer projected on the screen an image of a small portion of a map. As Jacober explained, a huge surprise appeared in front of the Stratofortress aircrews: “The map scale was such that ‘HA’ was on one side of a city and ‘NOI’ was on the other. The mind did not fuse the words until the briefing officer said ‘Hanoi’. Dead silence was followed by everyone talking at once. Dramatic and impressive, yes. Scared, yes. Eager, yes.”

More .38 ammo were delivered to every crew member and, as already happened during the World War II, everyone watched the bombers take off.

The trip towards North Vietnam airspace was boring, but as the bombers neared Hanoi everyone began to feel the real sense of combat. According to Jacober, the most impressive thing was the sound of the multiple emergency locator radio beacons, activated by a parachute opening  after an ejection. So many ‘beepers’ going off could only means that a BUFF had been shot down by a SAM: according to Jacober, the only way to avoid to be hit by a surface to air missile was keeping it moving across the B-52 windscreen.

During the bomb run, Jacober became very busy: in fact, being the copilot of the leading aircraft of the cell (the typical three ship formation used during air raids over North Vietnam to maximize ECM protection) he had to cover all radio communications between his BUFF and the other two aircraft, keep the heading marker updated to the bomb run heading during the evasive maneuvers  to give the pilot a reference mark to roll out on, and observe outside the cockpit to watch for any enemy aircraft, since they had been informed that MiGs were scrambled to intercept them.

The Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) warned that SAM radars were following them and almost immediately the first SAM left its launcher and quickly lit up the foggy sky like a candle thrown against Jacober B-52.

Seven SAMs were launched against them, four on their inbound run and three over Hanoi, but only one of them was guided. The EWO said “Uplink” (meaning that the command uplink embedded in SA-2’s SNR-75 engagement radar had acquired its target) and the SAM came up through the clouds, passing off of their nose and exploding several feet above them: if they had had their B-52’s altitude right, they would probably have been hit.

The bomb run went smooth, but their post target turn bring them again towards the four SAM sites downtown Hanoi. Three surface to air missiles were launched against them and the pilot rolled into a 70 degrees bank, loosing several thousand feet of altitude. Luckily, none came close to them and the return flight to Guam as told by Jacober was a quiet, subdued, introspective trip and the same people who watched the B-52 taking off, “counted them as they landed wondering where the missing were.”

In the video below you can listen to the tape of a typical Linebacker II mission: the professionalism you can hear in the aircrews’ voices while they fly through countless SAMs launches is still very impressive.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

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.