Author Archives: Dario Leone

Let’s celebrate Top Gun Day with this cool video: F-14 versus Everything

May 13th is Top Gun Day.

This video proves that the F-14 Tomcat was much more than a  capable fleet defender.

Clips taken from the Tomcat HUD and TCS, show that the F-14 could win against some of the best and most agile fighters ever built, such as the F-16, the MiG-21, the MiG-29, the F/A-18, the Mirage 2000, the F-15 and the MiG-23 during DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) and/or real dogfight sessions.

Although we don’t know the Rules of Engagement (ROE) of the mock aerial combat in the footage, this video shows that, despite its size, the Tomcat was an amazingly agile and nasty dogfighter.

 

The story of the mission to rescue an F-14 Tomcat pilot behind the enemy lines in Iraq

The story of the first Combat SAR (Search And Rescue) mission behind enemy lines since Vietnam.

One of the most famous missions flew during the Operation Desert Storm was the Combat SAR sortie performed by A-10s Sandys and by MH-53Js from the 20th Special Operations Squadron on Jan. 21, 1991 to recover Lt. Devon Jones, an F-14B (AA 212, BuNo 161430, at the time designated F-14A Plus) pilot from the VF-103 Sluggers, callsign “Slate 46″, downed in Iraq with its RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Lawrence Slade.

Jones and Slade  were shot down by an Iraqi SAM (Surface to Air Missile) in the first hours of the morning of the fourth day of war, while they were returning to the USS Saratoga (CV-60), after a successful EA-6B escort mission. On their way back to the aircraft carrier, Jones and Slade spotted a SAM coming through the clouds: even if Jones added power and started an evasive action, the missile exploded near the Tomcat’s tail. The aircraft entered into an unstoppable spin which forced the aircrew to eject. During the descent the two men saw each other for the last time before entering the clouds.

As he descended towards the ground, Jones tried to pull out his PRC-90 radio, but due to the fact that he flew without gloves, his hands were cold and he became afraid that he would drop his radio so he pushed it back into the vest pocket. Once landed, he started to walk towards what he thought to be west, trying to reach the Saudi border, but when he saw the sun rising, he realized his mistake. Nevertheless, at that point Jones thought it was good he was quite far from the crash site. He reached a little vegetation and thanks to his survival knife scooped out a foxhole in a small mound large enough to hide.

After he had been down for about six hours,  at 12:05 local time, he tried his radio again. And someone responded to his call.

As Jones recalls in David Donald and Stan Morse book Gulf Air War Debrief: “ ‘Slate 46, how do you read?’ That was the first time that I knew that there had been an ongoing SAR effort. […] ‘Let me come a little closer so I can talk to you’ he said.”

Still, Jones didn’t know who was the guy that responded to his call when he came to the radio telling to Jones that he would release a flare.

Since he was thinking to talk with a helicopter, Jones was surprised when the pilot revealed him that he was flying an aircraft “ ‘Ok, now, I’ll come down to where you can see me,’ he said. Lo and behold, he was an A-10! He was Sandy 57, like those guys in Vietnam, trained in combat SAR. I brought him with standard aviator talk. He didn’t see me, but he flew right over me at 50-100 feet and dropped a way point in his INS (Inertial Navigation System). ‘I’ve got to get some gas,’ he called. ‘Minimize your transmissions and come back up in 30 minutes.’

The Sandy pilot directed the helicopters toward Lt. Jones. As the SAR force headed for the downed Naval Aviator, they heard MiGs being vectored toward them. An F-15 RESCAP (REScue Combat Air Patrol) chased the threat away. After they got their gas, the A-10s returned, caught up with the helicopters and brought them in. After that a farmer truck passed nearby Jones, finally the F-14 pilot heard the A-10s telling to the helicopters they were 30 miles from his position. They asked him to shine his signal mirror south and after Jones did it, one of the A-10s told him to look for a helicopter 15 miles out, but he saw only the A-10s flying in a circle and Jones gave them instructions to his position.

But since the Iraqis were listening to their communications, while the planes came in, half a mile down the south road, Jones saw an army truck. After a moment of panic he remembered that the A-10s as well as the helicopters were heavy armed and, in fact, within 3-4 seconds, the Sandys opened fire with their 30 mm cannons, destroying the enemy truck.  Then for the first time he saw a helicopter “I had never seen such a beautiful sight as that big, brown American H-53. […] I grabbed my kneeboard cards and gear as he landed about 20 yards away. One of the special forces guys jumped out and waved me on. I jumped in and off we went, 140 miles to go at 140 knots, at 20 feet! Pretty impressive machine. Just what you’d expect from these special forces people with lots of guns hanging off them.”

Lt. Jones was brought to a forward base in Saudi Arabia, where he was hospitalized for a brief medical exam, then the next day an S-3 from his carrier flew him back to his squadron. Following a three-day rest, he returned to the cockpit.

On the contrary, Lt. Slade, Slate 46 RIO, was less lucky: he endured interrogation, torture and starvation in the Iraqi hands for 43 days.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

How the legendary Starfighter was used to train astronauts: the story of the NF-104

The story of how the Starfighter was used to train future astronauts.

Being the first operational aircraft able to reach and maintain a speed of more than Mach 2.0, the Lockheed F-104 was a huge leap forward when strictly compared to the contemporary subsonic jets.

Thanks to its performance, the Starfighter was chosen to train test pilots destined to fly the X-15, a winged spacecraft that was air-launched by a B-52 Stratofortress, flew into space and then landed conventionally.

The idea to modify several F-104As to serve as “manned spacecraft transition trainers” is credited to astronaut Frank Borman who was both student and instructor at Edwards Air Force Base, California, home of the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School, later renamed U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.

The major modifications to the Starfighters consisted in the addition of a 6,000 pound thrust rocket engine at the base of the vertical tail, reaction control thrusters in the nose and in each wing tip, a larger vertical tail, increased wing span, tanks to store the rocket propellants, provision for a full pressure suit, a cockpit hand controller to operate the reaction control thrusters, and modified cockpit instrumentation.

Moreover, the unnecessary equipment, like the gun, fire control system, tactical electronics, and auxiliary fuel tanks, was removed.

The Starfighters with these modifications were renamed NF-104s. They entered in service in 1963 and their pilots could zoom to more than 100,000 feet in a full pressure suit, experience zero “g”, and use reaction control to handle the aircraft.

Only about 35 students had the privilege to fly the NF-104 and each pilot had to be prepared for these “space flights” by using standard Starfighters. The first mission was a pressure suit familiarization flight, with the F-104 flown to high altitude with the cockpit depressurized allowing the student to experience a flight in a fully pressurized suit. To practice the zoom profile, the second flight was conducted in a two-seat F-104, with the instructor that showed to the student how reaching an altitude of 70-80,000 feet performing a 30 degree climb, while the last three missions were made in a single seat Starfighter increasing the climb angle to 45 degrees and reaching an altitude of 90,000 feet.

After these five preparation flights, the student finally performed the two programmed NF-104 missions.

As described by Steve Markman and Bill Holder in their book One Of A Kind Research Aircraft A History Of In Flight Simulators, Testbeds & Prototypes, the typical flight syllabus started with taking off on jet power, climb to 30-40,000 feet, and accelerate to Mach 1.7-1.9. Then the pilot ignited the rocket engine and pitched the nose up to start the steep climb.

After two minutes the Starfighter passed through 80,000 feet, the jet engine flamed out, the rocket engine ran out of fuel and the pilot began a parabolic arc to the peak altitude.

It was during the parabolic arc that the pilot experienced “weightlessness” for about one minute and used the side stick to fire the reaction control rockets to control the aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw motions.

Once at a lower altitude, the pilot restarted the jet engine and made a conventional landing: the whole mission lasted about 35 minutes from taxi to landing and was performed in a full pressure suit.

One NF-104 was destroyed on Dec. 10 1963. The plane was piloted by legendary Col. Chuck Yeager at that time the Aerospace Research Pilot School Commander. Yeager was attempting to reach an altitude record and after a 60 degree climb, while he was at 101,595 feet, the Starfighter experienced an uncontrollable yawing and rolling motion.

Yeager wasn’t able to recover the plane and was forced to eject at 8,500 feet.

During the separation from the ejection seat the rocket nozzle hit his face shield breaking it, while the combination of the red hot nozzle and oxygen in his helmet produced a flame that burned his face and set several parachute cords on fire.

Yeager was able to extinguish the flames with his glove hands and after the accident was hospitalized for two weeks.

The accident was depicted in the book (and film of the same name) “The Right Stuff”.

Col. Charles E. Yeager

Another NF-104 flight almost ended in disaster on June 15, 1971, when Capt. Howard Thompson experienced a rocket engine explosion while trying to lit it at 35,000 feet and Mach 1,15: luckily Thompson made a safe lading to Edwards AFB using the normal jet engine.

The program was terminated when it was decided that the aerospace training mission would be performed by NASA and the last NF-104 flight was performed in December 1971.

During its service with the U.S. Air Force the highest altitude reached by an NF-104 was 121,800 feet, achieved by Maj. Robert Smith during acceptance testing.

Today the last of the NF-104s is on static display in front of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

Here’s why the MiG-29 could defeat the best western fighters in close air combat, despite its limitations

Conceived to fill the technological gap between Russian and U.S. fighters, the MiG-29 has been one of the last cutting edge fighters produced by the then Soviet Union.

The Fulcrum was sold in large numbers to former Warsaw Pact air forces to replace their ageing MiG-23 Floggers and twenty four of them were also delivered to East Germany. The East German Jagdgeschwader (JG) 3 took delivery of its first MiG-29 in 1988, and on Oct. 4, 1990, the Wing operated 24 Fulcrums, equipping two squadrons.

A follow-on batch was on order, but the aircraft were never delivered.  After the end of the Cold War and following the re-unification of Germany, the Luftwaffe inherited some of these fighters making them as much “NATO-compatible” as possible.

Among the pilots that amassed experience at the controls of the Luftwaffe Fulcrums, there was the Oberstleutenant (the Luftwaffe rank equal to Lieutenant Colonel) Johann Koeck who, after flying the F-4 Phantom, became commander of the only Luftwaffe MiG-29 squadron.

Here is what Koeck recalls in Jon Lake’s book “How to fly and fight in the MiG-29 (Jane’s At the Controls)”:

“With the re-unification JG 3 became Evaluation Wing 29 on 1 April 1991. On 25 July 1991 the decision was taken to keep the aircraft and integrate them into the NATO air defense structure. JG73 was activated in June 1993, and the MiG-29s assumed a National (Day Only) QRA(l) commitment over the former East Germany. The MiG-29s moved to Laage in December 1993 and on 1 February 1994 the unit gained a NATO QRA(l) commitment.”

Being an experienced Fulcrum driver, Koeck can tell which were the weak and the strength points of the MiG-29.

The most obvious limitation of the MiG-29 was the aircraft’s limited internal fuel capacity of 3,500 kg (4,400 kg with a centerline tank). The MiG-29  had no air-to-air refueling capability, and its external tank was both speed and maneuver limited.

If a mission started with 4400 kg of fuel, start-up, taxy and take off took 400 kg, 1,000 kg were required for diversion to an alternate airfield 50 nm away, and 500 kg for the engagement, including one minute in afterburner, leaving only 2,500 kg of fuel.

Koeck explains that “If we need 15 minutes on station at 420 kts that requires another 1000 kg, leaving 1500 kg for transit. At FL 200 (20,000 ft) that gives us a radius of 150 nm, and at FL 100 (10,000 ft) we have a radius of only 100 nm.”

The Fulcrum’s limited range conditioned also how the aircraft could perform a specific mission: in fact the MiG-29s didn’t possess the range to conduct HVAA (High Value Airborne Asset) attack missions, and they were effectively limited from crossing the FLOT (Front Line of Own Troops).

This limited station time and lack of air-to-air refueling capability ruled the MiG-29s out of meaningful air defense missions.

Another limitation of the aircraft was its radar that, as Koeck explained, was at least a generation behind the AN/APG-65, and was not line-repairable: if a MiG-29 experienced a radar problem, the aircraft went back into the hangar.

The radar had a poor display, giving poor situational awareness, and this was compounded by the cockpit ergonomics. The radar had reliability and lookdown/shootdown problems, hence  its poor discrimination between targets flying in formation, and moreover it couldn’t lock onto the target in trail, only onto the lead.  

Mig-29 GAF air-to-air

Due to these limitations the integration in the NATO environments of the Luftwaffe MiG-29s was really hard and restricted to only few roles: as adversary threat aircraft for air combat training, for point defense, and as wing (but not lead) in Mixed Fighter Force Operations.

Nevertheless the onboard systems were still too limited, especially the radar, the radar warning receiver, and the navigation system. These restrictions brought to several problems that the Fulcrum pilots faced in tactical scenarios, such as a  poor presentation of the radar information (which led to poor situational awareness and identification problems), a short BVR weapons range and a bad navigation system.

But despite all these limitations, once the furball started, the Fulcrum was the perfect fighter to fly. In fact thanks to its superb aerodynamics and helmet mounted sight, the MiG-29 was an exceptional fighter for close-in combat, even compared to aircraft like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18.

As Koeck recalls “Inside ten nautical miles I’m hard to defeat, and with the IRST, helmet sight and ‘Archer’ (which is the NATO designation for the R-73 missile) I can’t be beaten. Even against the latest Block 50 F-16s the MiG-29 is virtually invulnerable in the close-in scenario. On one occasion I remember the F-16s did score some kills eventually, but only after taking 18 ‘Archers’ (Just as we might seldom have got close-in if they used their AMRAAMs BVR!) They couldn’t believe it at the debrief, they got up and left the room!”

Moreover with a 28 deg/sec instantaneous turn rate (compared to the Block 50 F-16’s 26 deg) the MiG-29 could out-turn them: in fact the Fulcrum retained an edge over its adversaries thanks to its unmatched agility which was reached combining an advanced aerodynamics with an old-fashioned mechanical control system.

After one of the German Fulcrums was sold for evaluations to the U.S. in 1991, the remaining 22 MiG-29s served until 2003, when they were sold to Polish Air Force for the symbolic sum of 1 Euro each.

Those Mig-29s were then upgraded and they currently provide Baltic Air Policing duties against the Russian threat in northern Europe.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

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.