Author Archives: Dario Leone

The F-16 and the Forward Air Controller (Airborne) mission

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

Born in response to LWF (Light Weight Fighter) requirement for a small and agile fighter, the Viper has become U.S. Air Force’s standard multirole jet.

Among the many tasks that the F-16 can perform, there is also the Forward Air Controller (Airborne) or FAC (A) mission.

In the cool video below you can see the strafing run of eight F-16CJs belonging to 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons from Spangdahlem AB, during a NATO FACs exercise held at Nordhorn Range in Germany on Aug. 20, 2009.

But which are the skills requested to perform a FAC(A) mission?

In this kind of mission, the airborne platform has also the task to allocate fighters to targets designated by the ground troops.

Even if the FAC(A) concept dates back to WWII and, later, Korea Air War, nowadays the job generally requires a single seat plane, with a quite busy pilot who runs the radios, coordinates the attack runs with the ground troops, writes down some specific data information and flies the aircraft.

Aircraft flying FAC(A) missions usually carry a wide variety of ordnance such as dumb bombs, white phosphorus rockets (used to mark targets for inbound attackers) and also 20 mm rounds which flank the latest precision guided munitions that the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) and Sniper targeting pod (along with Link 16 and other on board tech) make more efficient.

The FAC(A) manages the Close Air Support stack, that is the vertical pier of airplanes that respond to the FAC(A)’s call for support.

While flying his own airplane and avoiding enemy Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA), the FAC(A) must keep track simultaneously the CAS stack which is made up of different types of aircraft, with many different types of air-to-ground munitions most of the times, and furthermore they have different loiter times, airspeeds and ability to hit targets on the ground.

Moreover the FAC(A) also coordinates army artillery fires. Therefore, it’s a quite busy mission!

The F-16, a fast jet that offers its pilot an impressive visibility, can carry plenty of ordnance, is maneuverable even at low-speed and high AOA (Angle of Attack) and can effectively cooperate with different types of aircraft, is the perfect asset to perform FAC(A) missions.

Another aircraft quite good in the same role is the OA-10 Warthog.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force


The story of a legendary F-14 pilot and the gun kill on an F-15 that could sell Tomcats to Japan

Known and unknown stories of a legendary F-8 Crusader and F-14 Tomcat pilot

If you Google “F-14 gun kill” or “F-14 Hoser”, you can find a 8” x 10” frame of a 16 mm gun film shot which shows an  F-15 Eagle locked through an  F-14 Tomcat Head Up Display, at 250 feet, with piper on the Eagle’s pilot, gun selected, master arm on.

Even if the photo itself is already very interesting, the story behind it, is by far more fascinating. In fact, the naval aviator at the controls of the Tomcat can be considered a sort-of legend.

As explained by Alvin Townley in his book Fly Navy, most probably other pilots have scored more kills, held higher ranks or more prestigious commands, but few living aviators embody the untamed nature of aviation like the one-of-a-kind legend known to decades of F-8 Crusader and F-14 Tomcat pilots: Joe “Hoser” Satrapa.

A skilled rifleman, Joe joined the Navy with the aim to fly a jet fighter.  His passion for guns guided him after the flight school graduation, in 1966, when he was called to opt for the F-4 Phantom or the F-8 Crusader. The Phantom had no guns and Satrapa thought: “No guns? What kind of aircraft is this with no guns?” and he immediately chose the “Last Of The Gunfighters” as the Crusader was dubbed by aircrews.

But the “Satrapa legend” began the day he was given the callsign “Hoser” (even if he is also known as “Da-Hose” or “D-hose”), during a mission at the gunnery range in which he was flying the tail position in a flight of four Crusaders. He cut off the preceding aircraft as they approached the target and started shooting from two thousand feet up, one and a half miles out, hosing off all his bullets in one pass.

His flight leader J.P. O’ Neill told him to return to the airfield at El Centro and the same night O’ Neill had the final say on the incident when he nailed Satrapa: “Lieutenant junior grade Satrapa, for hosing off all his bullets in one pass, will hence forth be known as Hoser. That’ ll be five bucks.”

Hoser was also widely known during the Vietnam War as a fearless F-8 pilot who regularly carried a good forty pounds of lethal ordnance, in case he was suddenly forced to eject from his aircraft and face an entire platoon of North Vietnamese Army regulars.

As explained by George Hall in his book Top Gun – The Navy’ s Fighter Weapons School, Hoser’s interest for guns continued when he transitioned to the F-14 Tomcat.

During the AIMVAL/ACEVAL (the Air Combat Evaluation/Air Intercept Missile Evaluation) fighter trials that put the F-14s and the F-15s against the F-5Es to test new weapons and tactics which took place from 1974 to 1978 at Nellis Air Force Base, Hoser (assigned to the VX-4 evaluators) was put in a 1 vs 1 against an F-5.

As the two combatants sat side-by-side on the Nellis runway, awaiting tower clearance for takeoff, Hoser looked over at his opponent, reached his hand up over the control panel, and mimicked the cocking of machine guns in a World War I Spad. A thumbs up came from the other cockpit, meaning that guns it would be, the proverbial knife fight in a phone booth, forget the missiles.

Both jets took off.

As soon as they reached the assigned area, the fighters set up twenty miles apart for a head-on intercept under ground control. Seven miles from the merge, with closure well over 1,000 knots, Hoser called “Fox One”, a Sparrow missile away, scoring a direct hit.

As they flashed past each other, the furious F-5 driver radioed, “What the hell was that all about?” “Sorry.” said Hoser, “lost my head. Let’s set up again. Guns only, I promise.”

Again the two fighters streaked towards the pass, again at seven miles Hoser called “Fox One.” The F-5 driver was apoplectic.

Hoser was first back to the club bar, nursing an end of the day cold one as the flushed Aggressor stomped in. “Hoser, what the hell happened to credibility?” the F-5 pilot asked. Hoser replied “Credibility is DOWN, kill ratio is UP!”

This story became very popular around Topgun, alongside the lesson learned: from 1 vs 1 to forty-plane furball, expect anything. But never expect your enemy to be a sweet guy.

Still, Hoser’s best experience during the AIMVAL/ACEVAL most probably came after the end of the trials. Even if Tomcat and Eagle drivers could not engage each other, Hoser and his RIO Bill “Hill Billy” Hill with  Dan “Turk” Pentecost and Frank “Fearless” Schumacher onboard the second F-14, went 2 vs 2 against a couple of F-15 instructors from 415th Training Squadron (415th Flight Test Flight).

Both Eagles were gunned down and a gun camera film which showed the F-15 locked in the F-14 HUD almost caused Japan to revert its decision to buy the Eagle.

F-14 VX4

Image credit: U.S. Navy

Pilots explain how the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger intercepted Soviet bombers in the 1950s

The Convair F-102 was a delta-winged interceptor, that became the standard Air Defense Command (ADC) fighter starting in mid 1956.

Nicknamed Delta Dagger, the Convair F-102, which was referred to as “The Deuce” by its aircrew, entered service in 1954.

The F-102A spent most of its career operating out of Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and in other NATO and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) countries to defend their airspace from possible raids conducted by the heavily armed Tu-16 Badger, Tu-95 Bear or Myasishchev M-4 Bison aircraft, three types of Soviet bombers introduced between 1954 and 1956 .

Several accounts of the pilots involved in this kind of QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service, are reported in Ted Spitzmiller’s book Century Series The USAF Quest for air supremacy 1950-1960. As the one in which George Andre, a former F-102 pilot, explains a typical alert base:

“Most featured an alert hangar at the end of the longest runway with high-speed taxiways leading on to the runway for immediate scramble. […] Generally a pilot stood alert for 8, 12 or sometimes 24 hour period. We slept with our boots on, and always could make a less than 5 minute airborne time from the sound of the scramble horn.”

Even if the interceptors were guided to the target by SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, the system that coordinated the NORAD response to a Soviet air attack by providing command guidance for ground controlled interception by air defense aircraft) or by GCI (Ground Control Intercept) Radars, obviously the pilots remained responsible for flying the aircraft and for the weapon launch, as said by Roger Pile, another former Deuce driver:

“On-board radar searched for the target, but it was up to the pilot to locate it, select the appropriate armament, lock on to it and fly the plane to the release point […] The pilot was also responsible to retain the attack in spite of radar jamming, dispensing chaff and to switch to alternative modes should it be necessary.”

One of these “alternatives modes” was the installation on The Deuce of a passive infrared search and track (IRST) equipment, that could be selected by the pilot to avoid the enemy bombers counter-measures. Moreover the IRST could also be used to fire the Falcon missiles against the target as explained again by Pile:

“It was a softball sized sensor-head located immediately in front of the center of the windshield. […] The pilot could select IR dominant with the radar in standby, search or slaved to the IR tracker after lock-on to the target. If the radar was in standby, the target might never know you were locked on to him as the IRST was a passive receptor only and did not emit any signals. If in “search mode”, he might think you were still searching for him. If the radar was slaved to the IR head, you might get “burn-through” (pick him up on the radar) to give you an accurate distance from him and lock on to him with the radar. This would also allow the radar-guided (AIM-4A) missiles to also lock on to him and be guided to the target as well as the heat seekers (AIM-4Ds).”

But even if the Delta Dagger was basically a bomber interceptor, pilots discovered that, thanks to F-102’s lower wing loading, The Deuce had an advantage (in certain parts of its flight envelope) in dogfight against its opponents.

“I flew the F-102 transitioning into the F-106. I was very impressed with its turning ability. Many pilots claim their aircraft turns better than other. Of course, aerial combat will prove this, but short of that, I found another way to measure the turning capability of different aircraft and used that for comparison. That is to take the aircraft to 10,000’ at initial approach airspeed and perform a split-S as tight as possible. The F-102 would do it under 2,500’. The T-33 about 3,300’. The F-106 at 3,100’ and the F-4 at about 7,000’. I repeat the F-4 at 7,000,”  pilot Bill Jowett recalled.

Convair F-102A

Image credit: U.S. Air Force



Pilots explain how Navy’s F-4 Phantoms intercepted Soviet Bombers near U.S. aircraft carriers

Developed as interceptor to protect U.S. Navy’s Carrier Battle Groups (CVBG), the F-4 had frequent close encounters with Soviet Tu-95 and Tu-16 bombers near aircraft carriers around the world

U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom jets were frequently launched by American flattops to intercept and shadow USSR strategic bombers that skirted aircraft carriers at low level to probe their reaction times.

The F-4s involved in these kind of interceptions, had the main task to ensure that all airborne intruders were met within the Carrier Group’s outer air defense perimeter.

LCDR Fred Staudenmayer, who was the first RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) to command an East Coast F-4J operational USN squadron (the VF-33 Tarsiers from Jun. 21, 1973 to Jan. 19, 1974, had several chances to intercept Tu-95s and Tu-16s during his deployment in the Mediterranean sea.

Staudenmayer explained one of these close encounters with Soviet bombers in Peter E. Davies book F-4 Phantoms U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Gray Ghosts:

“I once launched against a Soviet Tu-95 Bear that was almost upon the carrier when initially detected by our pathetic ship’s radar. […] I had the radar operating and detected a huge radar blip at about twelve miles, followed right away by a visual, and we were able to join up on his wing before he passed over the carrier at about 500 ft. This was always the goal and the politically correct thing: be on Bear or Badger’s wing, showing the world that you were escorting these uninvited visitors. […] During a cruise in the Bay of Biscay in USS Independence we had a large number of Soviet over-flights, thirty or forty as I recall, and we intercepted all of them (with assistance from sensors external to the Fleet!).”

Dealing with the attack profile followed by the F-4s during the interception: ”As a general rule, our attack profile started from a low or mid CAP (Combat Air Patrol) station (5,000 or 15,000 ft), and depending on ranges, etc. we would be in climbing attack, usually trying to attack from below. Not too much thought was given to vertical separation, sun position, hiding in the clouds, etc. These were all-weather attack profiles,” Staudenmayer recalled.

The main Bear and Badger weapons were their long range air-to-surface missiles, which caused several concerns to the Phantoms crews according to Staudenmayer:

“As the Soviet air-to-surface missiles got faster and more formidable capable our CAP stations got pushed further and further out. The goal was to be in a position to destroy the targeting or launch aircraft prior to missile release. Nevertheless, we usually trained against descending supersonic missile simulation […] We always thought we had a pretty good capability against such missiles, and an outstanding capability against Bears and Badgers.”

The F-4s belonging to the VF-11 Red Rippers were also involved in many Tu-16 interceptions, and William Greer told to Davies how several of them took place at night:

“Many intercepts were run at night, and the Badger would frequently shine a rather bright and distracting light at the escorting Phantom pilot. VF-11 rigged up a very strong spotlight, powered from the Phantom’s electrical system, and the first time we hit the Badger with that their performance became somewhat more restrained. I once intercepted a Bear while returning from my cruise in USS Enterprise, and with the aid of my two years of Russian at the Naval Academy, some white cards and a grease pencil, exchanged brief notes with the crewman occupying the rear gun sighting position.”

Another U.S. Navy Spook (as the legendary Phantom was dubbed by its personnel) pilot, Steve Rudloff, who experienced several Bear encounters, revealed that despite the tense moments, funny  events took place during these interceptions, as happened when one Tu-95 rear gunner offered a bottle of vodka to him: “ On Alert 5 (the high alert condition for crew members on the deck) aircraft for a brief time the back seat was equipped with a copy of Playboy magazine. I took off and intercepted a Bear, and in retaliation for the vodka I flashed the magazine centerfold, getting a hearty smile and a thumbs-up in response. We were always taking pictures of them, and vice versa. We were more than willing to take our oxygen masks off and let them get pictures.”

Moreover as explained by Rudloff, Phantom pilots experienced also chatty times with Soviet aircrews: “There was a point on one of my cruises where we actually spoke to some of Bears crew members. We indicated which frequency we were on and talked to a crew member who spoke English. He told us he lived in Moscow. Suddenly there was some talk in the background in Russian, and the conversation ceased, even though we tried to raise him again.”

F-4 Phantom II intercept

Image credit: U.S. Navy via F-4 Phantom II FB page


The story of the pilot who flew the North American X-15 experimental rocket aircraft at the edge of outer space

Designed to study the problems of hypersonic flight, the North American X-15, carrying only 90 seconds worth of fuel could reach Mach 5+ and altitudes between 100K and 300K feet.

The North American X-15 was a rocket-powered, missile-shaped manned aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force and NASA as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft.

Brought to the launch altitude of 45,000 feet under the wing of a B-52 bomber and dropped at a speed of Mach 0.8, the X-15 was capable to reach the edge of space at an altitude between 100,000 and 300,000 feet at speed exceeding 4,500 MPH (+7,270 km/h) .

The U.S. Air Force pilots who flew the X-15 to altitudes above 50 miles all received Astronaut Wings, but  NASA decided not to give the same award to the civilian pilots who made the same achievement, a decision that caused controversy within the aerospace community as explained by John Anderson and Richard Passman in their book X-15 The World’s Fastest Rocket Plane and the Pilots who Ushered in the Space Age.

Among those pilots there was Joe Walker, who flew the maximum altitude flight in the X-15 on Aug. 22, 1963.

The flight path of that mission was carefully planned with climb angles and fuel cut off calculated to reach the goal. In fact as told by Anderson and Passman, the engine thrust could vary from 57,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds, and a difference of 1,500 pounds would result in a 7,500 feet altitude change. One second in fuel cut off time would result in a 4,000 feet altitude change, while if the climb angle was off by one degree, a 7,500 feet change in altitude would occur.

Moreover NASA planned maximum altitude for X-15 flights was at 360,000 feet safety reasons: even if the aircraft could go well above 400,000 feet there was concern about the reentry from that altitude.

Since aircraft experienced APU problems the flight was delayed for two weeks, but on Aug. 22 the launch went well and Walker could closely follow the flight plan. The propellants were depleted at 176,000 feet at a speed of 5,600 feet per second, but two minutes after the burnout the X-15 was still soaring upward on a ballistic trajectory to 354,200 feet, 67 miles high.

Then, after reaching the peak altitude, Walker began descending and headed to Edwards Air Force Base, where he landed after a flight of 11 minutes and 8 seconds.

Even if Walker flew higher than the 50 miles required by the Astronaut Wings at that time, he didn’t receive the award.

In the 1960s the U.S. Air Force set a limit of space at 50 miles (80 km) but according to FAI (the World Air Sports Federation, the world governing body for air sports, aeronautics and astronautics world records) the limit of the outer space is at 100 kilometers (62.1 mi). Nevertheless, Walker exceeded both limits and, even though he didn’t receive the Astronaut Badge,  he was the first American civilian to make any spaceflightand the second civilian overall, and the first human to make multiple spaceflights (the one on Aug. 22 and the preceding one, on Jul. 19, when he reached the altitude of 65.8 miles (105.9 km).

NB-52A & X-15

After his involvement on the X-15 program, Walker continued its flying activity as an experimental pilot. On Jun. 8, 1966, he was at the controls of an F-104 flying in formation with another North American product, the XB-70, for a General Electric photo shoot of a family of airplanes powered by GE engines. Flying too close to the XB-70, Walker’s F-104 was caught in the trailing vortex of the large airplane and flipped onto the top of the bomber.

Walker perished in the subsequent fireball depicted by some famous pictures.

As recalled by Anderson and Passman, on Aug. 23 2005, NASA reversed his policy and awarded with Astronaut Wings the three civilian pilots who flew the X-15 above 50 miles: William Dana (the only one still alive at the time of the ceremony), Jeff McKay and Joe Walker.

Finally Walker achieved official astronaut rating, 42 years after his record and 39 years after he died.

Image credit: NASA and U.S. Air Force