Based at Aviano airbase, in northeast Italy, the 31st Fighter Wing mobilized its squadrons deploying their F-16s to Poland in response to Ukrainian Crisis.
“The noise you hear is the sound of freedom”.
This catchphrase was coined at Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station and can be read at several airbases around the world, however, this is the first thing that comes to mind by looking at the U.S. F-16s at Aviano, that we had the opportunity to visit lately.
With its forty Block 40 F-16CMs/DMs (formerly CGs/DGs), the 31st Fighter Wing is part of the United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE).
As explained to The Aviationist by U.S. personnel, the Vipers belonging to to both squadrons are capable of flying both offensive and defensive air combat missions, performing mainly air superiority, attack and CAS (Close Air Support) missions; no SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, since this specific task is assigned to the 52nd Fighter Wing Vipers, based at Spangdalhem, in Germany.
Quite impressive is also the wide array of weapons used to carry out their missions.
Air-to-air weaponry includes AIM-120B/C AMRAAM and the AIM-9L/M/X, with the latter model of the Sidewinder even more lethal because combined with the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System. For the air to ground role every kind of free fall bombs is available: from the various general purpose bombs belonging to the US Mark 80 series, to the modern smart bombs such as the GBU-10/24/31 and JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) models.
The visit was also the opportunity to talk with some experienced crew of the 31st FW about the way the F-16 compares with other USAF hardware: the F-15E Strike Eagle, more powerful and more easy to maintain than the Fighting Falcon, but less maneuverable and with a higher radar-cross section; the F-22 Raptor, an impressive fighter that still requires time to achieve its full potential; and the F-35 Lightning II, an interesting, very expensive weapons system with many unresolved problems and an uncertain future.
Still, 31st FW pilots are more than happy with their old F-16s: “The Common Configuration Implementaion Program (CCIP), brought essential avionics upgrades to our F-16s keeping them to a state of the art standard” they said “and with our Vipers we are ready to deploy anywhere our presence is requested to protect US and NATO interests.”
Developed as an advanced version of the F-5 fighter, the Northrop F-5E was selected to be the International Fighter Aircraft to follow the F-5A, and over 950 Tiger II were delivered to a wide variety of countries around the world. Moreover the F-5E demonstrated to be the perfect fighter to provide Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT), that’s why U.S. Navy and Marines still use it as adversary in mock air-to-air engagements.
As pointed out by Chad Mingo, a pilot from Fighter Composite Squadron 13 (VFC-13) Saints (that with the VFC-111 Sundowners and with the VMFT-401, is one of the last three U.S. units to fly the F-5), in Rick Llinares book “Strike Beyond Top Gun”, the key advantage of the F-5 is to be relatively inexpensive to fly.
Nevertheless according to Mingo there are several differences between the E and N models: “The N model is a little heavier than the E and has several improvements, including RWR gear (radar warning receiver) and enhanced radars, as well as antiskid systems, which provide enhanced handling on wet runways.
The F-5N is distinguishable with its squashed, platypus nose and extended leading-edge extensions, which provide enhanced maneuverability.
The F-5 is a solid simulator of third-generation threats and has good speed, although it takes a while to get up to it. The IHQ (improved handling quality) upgrade has enhanced the jet’s ability.”
Michael “Physco” Picciano, another US Navy F-5 driver and a former F-14 pilot, explains to Llinares the main role and which are the main advantages of the Tiger in DACT engagements: “We represent third-generation aircraft of the former Soviet Union. One of the best things about the F-5 is that it is very hard to see. This one of the biggest learning objectives for the missions we fly – to show just how easily we can obtain unobserved entry onto the fighters. It is interesting for the FRS (Fleet Replacement Squadron), as well as the fleet pilots, because they often spend their time fighting against similar aircraft, and their eyes almost get trained to look for the same color and size aircraft. When you throw an F-5 into the mix, it makes it more difficult for them. We are so much smaller than what they are used to; we look different, and our paint schemes blend in, especially against the desert or against the overcast.”
As adversary aircraft the F-5 is becoming old, but in the right hands it can still be a serious threat for more modern fighters, as told by Physco: “Another interesting thing with the F-5 is that we are a simple, less advanced aircraft, and when you kill a fighter like an F/A-18 it definitely gets their attention. Losing against the F-16 (also used by the US Navy as adversary aircraft) seems less personal, as though they lost against a superb aircraft, whereas against the F-5, it’s against an older, less capable fighter.”
As explained in the first part of this post, the F-5 has been (and still is) in service with many air forces worldwide (including the U.S. Air Force, that employed them as Agressors) and maybe the Soviet Air Force has been the most “exotic” one.
In fact, in the video below, you can see a F-5E (alongside with an A-37 Dragonfly) wearing the Soviet colors, and this time is not an aggressor/adversary paint scheme. When North Vietnamese captured Bien Hoa Air Base, they also caught several US aircraft and provided several Warsaw Pact countries with U.S. airplanes for evaluations.
According to the description on Liveleak.com, the F-5 depicted in the video and two others were tested at Chkalov State Flight Tests Centre, which is similar to the US Air Force Test Centre at Edwards Air Force Base.
This F-5 was flown by several Soviet test pilots, such as Vladimir Kandaurov, Alexander Bezhevets and Nikolay Stogov, who conducted several engagements as bandit against the MiG-21 Fishbed, the aircraft which the Tiger II personified in the US exercises: according to Soviet pilots, the F-5 demonstrated to be able to outmaneuver the Fishbed most of the times, and the results of these test brought to the MiG-23 Flogger development.
On Mar. 14, 2014, Luke Air Force Base hosted a ceremony for the arrival of the first F-35 (Tail Number LF 5030), the 5th generation stealth fighter that will equip the 56th Fighter Wing.
“The F-35 Lightning II represents the future of tactical aviation for the United States and our allies.” With these words, U.S. Air Force Gen. Robin Rand, Commander, Air Education and Training Command, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas accepted the first of 144 F-35As to be delivered to the 56th FW.
Rand remarked that the arrival of the first Luke’s F-35 is a milestone for the Joint Strike Fighter Program and for the base itself because “this program is built on a foundation of unprecedented international partnership that is embodied at the integrated training center at Luke AFB. Together, we will train the next generation of pilots who will protect freedom at home and abroad.”
Built and developed to replace a wide variety of aircraft such as the A-10 and F-16 for the U.S. Air Force, the F/A-18 for the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps plus other several types of fourth generation aircraft in numerous air forces worldwide, “the F-35 Lightning II will provide the USAF and international partners a decisive edge over its adversaries” said Lockheed Martin F-35 program general manager Lorraine Martin.
To celebrate this achievement, following the F-35 delivery ceremony, an example of World War II P-38 Lightning fighter took the skies over Luke Air Force base alongside with an F-35 Lightning II performing a typical heritage flyby to celebrate Lockheed legacy between these namesake machines.
Name aside, considering that the Lightning II is still affected by several problems, the question is: will the F-35 able to replicate the success of its predecessor?
In addiction to be the first of the so called “Century Series” fighters and the first U.S. Air Force plane able to reach supersonic speed in level flight, the North American F-100 Super Sabre was also the first of the Wild Weasel aircraft.
The first idea relied on the traditional methods of photo and electronic reconnaissance (after the SAM site was located, aircraft on alert would be launched to destroy it). But such an approach was neither timely nor effective since many sites were mobile.
Therefore, a small number of aircraft were equipped with electronic devices to locate and mark the SAM sites in real-time for strike aircraft. This method required those aircraft to be fitted with a Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) device allowing them to know when they were being targeted. The second step was to load these aircraft with missiles, like the AGM-45 Shrike, that could be fired at the radar. The last step was providing more effective jamming to protect themselves.
Due to its availability and performance, the two seat version of the Super Sabre, the F-100F, was chosen as the pathfinder aircraft: these aircraft had the task to locate and mark the SAM sites. Their RHAW was fitted with the IR-133 Panoramic Scan Receiver made by Applied Technologies Inc. (the so called ATI equipment), which provided a 360 degree scan on a 3-inch Cathode Ray Tube cockpit display to provide bearing to the signal: moreover it differentiated the various frequency bands and pulse rates to identify the several types of radar signals received, such as surveillance, missile tracking and Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) radar.
The aim of these kind of missions were explained to the aircrews during several briefings and it was in one of these meetings that an F-100F Electronics Warfare Officer (EWO), the F-100’s back seater, said: “You want me to ride in the back of a two seat fighter with a teenage killer in the front seat? You Gotta Be Shitting Me!” and from that briefing is believed to come the original Wild Weasel slogan “YGBSM” as explained in Ted Spitzmiller’s book Century Series The USAF Quest for air supremacy 1950-1960 .
After the visual identification of the target, the Pathfinder had to mark it, by means of 2.75 inch air to ground rockets fired from LAU-3 launchers, for the F-105 Thundechiefs that followed the F-100 with the task to destroy the SAM site.
Often, the SA-2 was launched against the F-100F: to avoid the missile, the Super Sabre aircrew relied on the Launch Warning Receiver (LWR-300) which, with a yellow light in the cockpit, alerted the crew of the imminent launch and with a red light signaled that the missile launch had occurred. A former pathfinder pilot, Colonel Edward Rock in the book First In, Last Out explained that he never noticed the color of the light: “If a SAM was launched, then the azimuth strobe associated with the threat was supposed to blink at 3 cycles per second. I can say that I probably had more than 100 missiles launched at my aircraft and never, not even once, saw the strobe blinking. Probably busy with more important things like saving my life.”
The first Wild Weasel F-100Fs arrived at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in November 1965. They conducted their first successful mission on Dec. 22 1965, as recalled by another Super Sabre pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Lamb who gave his account to Ted Spitzmiller: “We didn’t just mark the target…we went in first with rockets and came back around with cannons even before some of the Thuds (as it was called the F-105 Thunderchief) had started on a first run. The F-100F was an excellent hunter-killer in that it was very agile. I was very fond of it, and of my ability to fly it.”
The F-100F flew these missions until its replacement with the F-105F, which took place in July 1966. However the “Hun” (as the Super Sabre was dubbed by its aircrews) was the first Wild Weasel aircraft and the first fighter to fly in the risky environment of the anti SAM missions, as remembered by Rock: “Due to the limited number of Wild Weasel aircraft we were considered a high value limited asset…we normally flew only the most dangerous missions and in an area where the threat was the very highest.”
During the 1970s, Germany understood that future fighters would need to achieve high agility as well as the ability to fly at high angles of attack. These capabilities required an unstable aircraft configuration.
In 1974, in order to address the need to test how a highly unstable supersonic jet fighter equipped with a proper redundant flight control system would fly, the German Ministry of Defense authorized MBB to proceed with the so-called Control Configured Vehicle (CCV) program.
The outcome of the CCV would be a fly-by-wire testbed: the aircraft selected for testing campaign was the F-104G, which, as Zeitler discovered, was preferred over the F-4F since the Phantom was too big and too heavy, even if its size would have offered more space for test equipment than the Starfighter.
The first phase of the trials was aimed at defining the parameters for the control algorithms of the CCV and its sensors: it lasted from Sept. 27 to Nov. 4, 1976 andwas accomplished with thirteen flights.
The second phase saw the aircraft flying in two different versions, the B (for Basic) and E (with E for Ente which means “duck”, because of the canard configuration).
Flight after flight, from a stable aircraft the F-104 became an unstable platform, a goal reached shifting the neutral point and centre of gravity of the Starfighter.
The first complete mission in CCV mode was flown on Oct. 2, 1979 by the B1 model fitted with the Control Configured Vehicle software. Another variant followed the B1: the B2 with 600 kg aft and 130 kg forward ballasts.
But the first real unstable flight took place on Nov. 20, 1980 when, along with a 240 kg nose ballast, an additional F-104 elevator was mounted behind the cockpit; a version known as E1. With this variant, the neutral point was moved forward, while the E2 configuration, adding 400 kg aft ballast, shifted back the centre of gravity.
At that point the F-104 was really unstable and 26 sorties were conducted between July and September 1981. All the flights were safely conducted and the nose trim weight was replaced with another 200 kg ballast, realizing the E3 configuration.
With this additional ballast the Starfighter could perform flights at 20 percent negative longitudinal stability.
The testing phase lasted about four years during those the F-104 CCV demonstrator was pivotal to the design and development of a delta-canard control system later adopted by the Eurofighter Typhoon.