Exercise “Blue Flag”, taking place over a vast area of southern Israel from Nov. 24 to 28 and involving about 100 aircraft from the host nation, U.S., Italy and Greece, is the largest joint-military exercise in Israel’s history.
Its aim is to improve cooperation among the participating air forces and train together in a wide range of missions, including Defensive, Offensive Counter-Air and Close Air Support.
Part of the 57th Wing, U.S. Air Force’s largest composite wing (that oversees all flying ops at Nellis AFB, Nevada, including the Red Flag and Green Flag exercises), the USAF Weapons School teaches graduate-level instructor courses to officers of the combat and mobility air forces.
It is made of 17 squadrons, 10 of those based at Nellis and seven geographically separated: the ten USAFWS squadrons based at Nellis are the 8 WPS (Command and Control Operations), 16 WPS (F-16), 17 WPS (F-15E), 19 WPS (Intelligence), 26 WPS (MQ-1/MQ-9), 34 WPS (HH-60), 57 WPSS (Operational Support), 66 WPS (A-10), 328 WPS (Space/ICBM), and 433 WPS (F-15C/F-22). The remaining seven units not located at Nellis include the 14 WPS at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (AC-130/MC-130/U-28); 29 WPS at Little Rock AFB, Ark. (C-130); 57 WPS at McGuire AFB, N.J. (C-17); 77 WPS at Dyess AFB, Texas (B-1); 325 WPS at Whiteman AFB, Mo. (B-2); 340 WPS at Barksdale AFB, La. (B-52); and the 509 WPS at Fairchild AFB, Wash. (KC-135).
The School produces approximately 80 graduates every six months: expert instructors on weapons, weapons systems, and air and space integration trained through a course including an average of 400 hours of lessons and a two-week air campaign/battle staged over the Nevada Test and Training Range.
Since the Aggressors’ F-15s and F-16s are the most famous and very well known planes of the 57th Wing (see the related articles at the bottom of this post to find the previous posts dealing with the 64 AGRS and 65 AGRS), I asked Tony Lovelock, The Aviationist’s special correspondent at Red Flag 12-2 and 12-3, to take some pictures of the less known 17 WPS (Weapons Squadron) F-15E Strike Eagles at work.
Here’s a selection of the most interesting photographs he brought back from Nellis AFB.
Although the U.S. involvement in Libya was scaled down few days after NATO took control over the air campaign on Mar. 31, 2011, American tactical aircraft (“tacair”) played an important role during the opening stages of the Washington-led Operation Odyssey Dawn (for more details I suggest you reading the first debriefs of my Libya Air War series).
Even if U.S. planes also operated from other deployment base (RAF Mildenhall, Moron, Souda Bay, Istres), Aviano airbase, in northeast Italy, and Sigonella, in Sicily, were the two main hubs used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps assets. In particular, Aviano was mainly used by the tacair component, while “Saigon” was used by support planes (PSYOPS, tankers, etc.) and drones (both Reapers and Global Hawks).
Among the aircraft on temporary deployment to Aviano (that is the permanent base of the 31st FW’s F-16s) there were: VAQ-132 EA-18G Growlers, VAQ-140 and VMAQ-1 EA-6B Prowlers, 494FS F-15E, 81FS A-10s and 480FS F-16CJs. A Jordanian Air Force detachment operated from Aviano throughout the duration of Operation Unified Protector.
The following pictures, taken by Simone Gazzola, show some of the most interesting aircraft taking off or landing at Aviano.
Note also the “heart” shape on the background of some pictures. It’s a land-art project called Lumacuore (an Italian word formed by combining the words lumaca= snail and cuore = heart) and made between 2009 and 2010 on the side of Piancavallo mountain by the Italian artist Laura Trevisan with the aim of “spreading a cultural message on human rights, love and respect for nature as well as the environmentally friendly development of the territory.”
The two crew members from the 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath UK have recently told CNN’s Barbara Starr of the night they found themselves separated and on the ground behind enemy lines in Libya.
The U.S. aerial bombing campaign over Libya was just two days old last March when F-15 pilot Maj. Kenneth Harney and Capt. Tyler Stark got their mission – conduct airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces near Benghazi.
Capt Stark was on his first combat mission and said to Starr “There’s obviously a little bit of nerves in the back of the stomach – it’s kind of like you’re going out for that big football or basketball game and you’re like, wow, this is it. This is the big leagues and I’m going to be flying in combat tonight.”
Harney and Stark took off from their temporary forward operating base at Aviano (Italy) and headed south out over the Med towards Libya and into the Benghazi area, they soon found targets and after releasing their final weapon of the sortie, they turned for Italy when, suddenly, Harney lost control of the Eagle which he described “very much like if you were driving you’re car down the road and you hit a patch of ice and your car starts spinning. That’s exactly what our aircraft at that point was doing.”
Capt. Stark sat in the back described his thoughts at that point as “This is really happening?”
The aircraft falling Stark made his May Day calls and both pilots ejected which was described as s”carey but a life or death decision” once the survival instincts kick in the lever is pulled and the pilots are out of the aircraft.
The two men got separated once under the parachute and landed in different locations neither knowing if they had landed amongst Ghadaffi’s forces they had only moments ago been bombing, Harney described his feelings once on the ground “I was scared. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was terrified”.
He spent the next several hours hiding trying not to be found by hostile forces whilst trying to contact friendly forces on his radio that is part of the survival kit all pilots take into combat. Harney was lucky and made contact, an Osprey from USS Kearsarge touched down to rescue the pilot, Harney ran towards the aircraft hands raised high so that the Marines knew he posed no threat. After being bundled into the Osprey rather unceremoniously the Osprey dusted off and returned with Harney back to the carrier.
Stark however was not so lucky, he found himself in a field with two vehicles heading to wards his location, shining lights in his hiding place, with little or no chance of escape, stark heard a voice in English saying: “American come out – we are here to help.” Stark described his actions as so “I get up and put my hands up and start walking to the voice” he said. “Once I get there, my impression is, OK you have to assume that they are the bad guys.” He was driven to a near by building still not knowing if the forces were friendly or not.
Stark was taken into the building and found himself in front of a half circle of local people, he described his thoughts at that moment as “Either this is where the beatings are going to start or this is where I am going to get a lot of help. Fortunately I walked into the room and got a round of applause.”
He was safe, due to the stress and shear terror of the previous hour or so Stark couldn’t remember the number to call for help and with cell phones available the only number he could think of was that of his parents “So I called him up, spoke with my dad and said, ‘Hey, I need you to make a call for me.'” the Libyan people sheltered Stark until an Italian boat arrived to pick him up and take him back to safety.
This article raises a few questions of what could have happened to the Eagle. From photos released by media outlets soon after the jet crashed it was obvious there was little or no forward movement of the aircraft and appeared to have landed vertically. This is what made analysts think it was in a flat spin as the crew bailed out and was at some good altitude as they had time to send a may day call and spend time under the chute.
Also what becomes apparent is there is no damage to the jet nozzles at the rear therefore eliminating damage from a MANPAD missile or a heat seeking missile. A radar guided missile however wouldn’t strike the aircraft necessarily at the rear, and the photo’s from the Guardian article above reminded of the crashed hulks of the Mig 29’s shot down during the Balkan conflict during the 90’s victims of AMRAAM’s.
According to the investigation report the Eagle was lost when the pilot performed a manoeuvre outside of the aircrafts flight envelope (whilst unbalanced) which sent it into an un-recoverable spin (during a jinking manover after weapons release).
Above images: Richard Clements
The crews from Lakenheath regularly undertake intense training in very difficult terrain and certainly handle this beast of a jet with the highest degree of skill. Hence, the issue over Libya must have been catastrophic. And the tension inside the cockpit much higher than in a normal training flight, increasing the risk of pilot error.
The U.S. Air Force has recently made available two Accident Investigation Board (AIB) reports about mishaps that have become somehow famous in the last year or so.
Until the U.S. Air Force released the investigation report about the mishap involving the F-15E Strike Eagle “Bolar 34″ lost over Libya on Mar. 21, 2011, during Operation Odyssey Dawn, the widespread opinion (as well as the official version) was that the cause of the loss was an unspecified technical failure. However, the official report publicly released on Dec. 18 (and available along with many more here: http://usaf.aib.law.af.mil/index.html) found a pilot error as the root cause of the accident.
According to the report, the cause of the mishap was the Strike Eagle sudden departure from controlled flight after exceeding the critical angle of attack during a combat egress maneuver (after GBU-38 release), conducted at a previously untested altitude with unbalanced aircraft.
Although the crash cost the U.S. taxpayers about 48 milion USD, both the pilot and WSO, belonging to the 492nd FS from RAF Lakenheath (temporarily deployed to Aviano AB, Italy), ejected safely and were rescued, while the remains of the plane were bombed in order to prevent someone from inspecting the wreckage (something that the U.S. would have done on the intact RQ-170 drone captured by Iran on Dec. 4).
Pilot error was blamed for fatal loss of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor “Rocky 03″ tail number 06-4125, assigned to the 525th Fighter Squadron, that crashed on Nov. 16, 2010, approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
This along with a series of reports of disorientation and hypoxia-like syntoms complained by 14 pilots on 6 different airbases , led to a four-month stand down, lifted just to let the stealthy fighters based at Langley AFB, leave their homebase to escape Hurricane Irene in what was an early implementation of the return-to-flight plan.
At the time, carbon monoxide entering the cockpit OBOGS (onboard oxygen generating system) was considered one of the most likely causes of the hypoxia, a condition of inadequate oxygen supply that can have fatal consequences.
According to the accident report, the mishap was not caused by the OBOGS.
During the RTB (return to base) phase, when the mishap pilot attempted to rejoing with his flight lead at 1,039 knots true airspeed (KTAS) at 38,400 feet (ft), his aircraft suffered a bleed air leak malfunction. As a consequence, the OBOGS did shut down (along with the cabin pressure and other on board systems) and the pilot most probably suffered a sensation of oxygen deprivation or “severely restricted breathing”. He channellized his attention on restoring the airflow to his oxygen mask to mitigate the sense of suffocation he was experiencing and failed to recover from ununsual attitude using the appropriate corrective actions.
While trying to activate the emergency oxygen system he didn’t notice he had rolled the plane inverted and put it in a supersonic steep dive that led to a controlled flight into terrain.
Nevertheless, although the report ruled out the possibility that the accident was caused by the OBOGS, it appears somehow debateable that a mishap starting with a malfunction in the system that brings the air to various systems (including the OBOGS) has nothing to do with several previous F-22 in-flight emergencies by pilots experiencing lack of oxygen.
Image source: US Air Force
Provided that we can consider the F-22 a controlled flight into terrain only caused by a pilot error, both the Strike Eagle in Libya and the Raptor in Alaska crashed because of the so-called human factor.
Even if experience, technology, training and simulators have improved the safety standards, military aviation is still subject to pilot errors because of the type of flying. High speed planes maneuvering close one another in a hostile environment are likely more subject to risk of human error than an airline pilot.
Some believe the extensive use of drones will reduce error occurrences because, by eliminating the stress caused by flying on a conventional asset, drone’s pilot will be able to apply the right emergency procedure at the right time. However, if you look at the AIB reports page for FY11 or FY10, you’ll notice that many documents deal with drone mishaps and that the vast majority blame pilot errors as the root cause of the accidents.
“Pilot’s improper control of aircraft airspeed and AOA that caused the aircraft to enter a stall and spin” (Link 1); “pilot failed to correctly execute the procedure to turn on the aircraft’s Stability Augmentation System” (Link 2); “pilot deviating from check list procedures” (Link 3); “failure of the student pilot and instructor pilot to recognize that the aircraft’s speed was too low for the weather conditions” (Link 4); “pilot error caused primarily by mishap pilot2’s channelized attention away from flying the mishap RPA and an inattention to the high terrain in the MRPA’s immediate vicinity. Furthermore, inattention by both MP1 and MP2 resulted from a perceived absence of threat from the environment” (Link 5); “Loss of aircraft control due to mishap pilot failure to apply stall recovery procedure” (Link 6).
So, the fact that pilots of robots operate inside a ground control station without risking their own life does not reduce the risk of losing the drone because of a human error.
According to a U.S. today report about 30 percent of airmen who control attack robots have been experiencing emotional stress caused from long hours of work.
Looks like pilots and operators who manage U.S. drones working for 50 – 60 hours per week, with an amount of tasks that has quadrupled from 2007 to 2011, complain “of frequent shift changes, “mind-numbing” monotony, strains on families and ever-increasing workloads” to such an extent that there are many on the edge of mental illnesses.
Actually, as reported in the above mentioned article, Lt. Gen. Larry James, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, ruled out the possibility that any of the pilot errors identified as root cause of drone accident were tied to emotional stress.
At least, “in contrast to the job exhaustion rates, researchers found very low levels of post-traumatic stress disorder” the article explains, without forgetting the main difference between an airplane pilot and a drone one: convetional pilots risk their own life each time they make an error.