Monthly Archives: July 2017

XB-70 Valkyrie Wing Section on eBay: An Aviation History Mystery Continues

Arizona eBay Seller Lists Large Wing Section of Crashed XB-70 Valkyrie for Auction.

With the exception of the occasional echoing thunder of jet noise, the desert is silent here.

Snakes and big desert jackrabbits are common. There are vultures, and the dead animals that feed them. But little else. Sunburned, gentle wind blows sand between low scrub. This vast desert test range sits empty, hot, dry and silent. If you want to walk here you need to carry plenty of water, a compass, a sun hat and a snakebite kit. It’s not a good area for hiking, and it isn’t allowed anyway as one of the nation’s largest and most secure military test ranges.

Trailing hot, black fuel-fire smoke a giant triangular platform of damaged white metal the size of a large building saucers oddly downward from the brilliant blue sky. Individual fragments with tails of smoke begin to rain into the sand, sending dust plumes skyward on impact. A shower of titanium shards, aluminum fragments and bits of torn honeycomb pepper the ground. Overhead thunder- the sound of an explosion- echoes down to the desert floor. The giant white triangle, 85 feet across, just about 20 feet short of its original width, caroms into the sand with a low, hollow “whomp” as black fuel smoke billows from underneath. Sand, dust and rock shatter outward, then bounce back into the desert trailing smoky spirals.

The desert goes silent again with the exception of small flames crackling on some of the burning fragments. About a mile away a single orange parachute pendulums back and forth as it flutters downward in the hot air. The man at the bottom holds his broken left arm. He tumbles painfully to the earth as his parachute deflates, landing in the sand.

It was 51 years ago this summer that one of the most bizarre accidents in aviation history occurred, the midair collision and crash of a prototype North American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, aircraft number 62-0207, one of only two built. The aircraft collided with a civilian registered F-104N flown by famous test pilot Joe Walker, who tragically died in the accident.

The XB-70 was flying in formation as part of a General Electric company publicity photo shoot outside the Edwards Air Force Base test range in the Mojave Desert, California. It flew with a two-seat T-38 Talon, an F-4B Phantom II, an F-104N Starfighter and a YF-5A Freedom Fighter.

As the photo shoot progressed safely for 40 minutes there were no problems, but toward the end of the shoot Joe Walker’s NASA registered F-104N Starfighter got too close to the right wing of the XB-70, collided, sheared off the twin vertical stabilizers of the big XB-70 and exploded as it cartwheeled behind the Valkyrie.

The XB-70 Valkyrie plummets to its death near Edwards AFB in .
(Photo: USAF)

Seconds after the collision the XB-70 departed controlled flight and began to break up. Large sections of it rained into the desert near Edwards.

Moments after the XB-70 crashed. (USAF)

Locating pieces of the crash has been a holy grail for many aviation enthusiasts over the last 50 years. The larger pieces of the crash have long since been removed, and likely only small fragments remain, buried by blowing sand. You need patience and a metal detector to find them.

That is why we were surprised to spot this eBay auction from a seller of Arizona City, Arizona. We’ve seen everything from ejector seats to drop tanks and even complete collections of combat aircraft for sale on eBay, but this is the first time we’ve seen what is claimed to be a large section of the crashed XB-70 aircraft #62-0207. The auction appeared authentic. The large fragment appears to be from the underside of the left wing on the XB-70 and includes part of the large “USAF” insignia. The honeycomb composite construction of the aircraft’s wing is clearly visible.

We contacted the seller on eBay with questions about the large wing fragment, where it came from and how they got it. We never received a reply to our inquiry. That same day the auction disappeared, “Ended” by the seller.

When we used the search function on eBay to find other artifacts from the XB-70 crash site we got lucky. We found a nice sized fragment claimed to be from the XB-70 by another seller. We won the auction in the final seconds of bidding for only $83.00 USD.

The fragment composite bought on eBay.

When we received the fragment just a few days later we did our best to verify its authenticity. Based on photos of the crash scene debris field, the paint used on the aircraft, the technical resources listing materials used and other sources we believe the likelihood is that this fragment is authentic. It is a part of the crashed XB-70 #62-0207, one of only two XB-70’s ever built.

We contacted the seller of the XB-70 fragment we bought and thanked him for selling it on to us. He sent us this rather heart-warming message on eBay:

“Hi, I can’t tell you very much as I bought this item from a fella who lived up in the Lancaster, Palmdale area. I have had the item for over 15 yrs. Evidently when the Air Force was through removing sensitive materials from the XB-70 it was then sold to a local salvage company. They cut up the remains with torches and trucked them to their local facility where I am told they retrieved the silver solder, copper, and metal scrap. Many years passed, the salvage company was long gone, and someone recognized some white XB-70 parts along the perimeter fence line and asked to purchase them. Some were even used for target practice. I was told that one of the workers found my part face down under several inches of dirt. Anyway, I imagine parts were sold and traded over time and eventually I purchased some of them. I have loved the XB-70 since my middle school days in the 60s. I am getting up in years and can’t take it with me. I tried several times to donate it but lots of people see it as scrap; not a pretty display. I see it as a part of aviation history. Hope this helps even though it’s not first hand information. (Name removed)”

We’re not sure where the big wing section from the auction that disappeared wound up. Hopefully it will be on public display somewhere for people to learn about the remarkable history of this aircraft. Perhaps the auction was removed because someone else bought the artifact outside of eBay. It may have been ended by the user or by someone who had a prior claim to the piece of the aircraft. We don’t know. The listing for the large fragment just ended, like the remarkable story of the superbomber that died before it ever entered service over half a century ago.

North American XB-70A Valkyrie on the taxiway with a cherry picker. Photo taken Sept. 21, 1964, the day of the first flight. Note: the left main landing gear brakes locked during the landing causing two tires to blow. (U.S. Air Force photo)

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Marine Corps, Air Force F-35 Jets Take Part In Red Flag Exercise Together For The First Time

Red Flag 17-3 underway at Nellis Air Force Base features both U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force F-35s, for the first time together.

Red Flag is simply one of the largest and more realistic exercises in world, designed to simulate the first 10 days of a modern conflict.

Hundred of combat aircraft along with pilots, ground forces, intelligence analysts, cyber and space operators take regularly part in RF exercises at Nellis AFB, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, to validate tactics and weapon systems employment within the context of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

As already explained the RF scenario continuously changes in order to adapt to the real world threats: the old “fixed” battlefields, where the location of the enemy was known and remained pretty much unchanged until the aircraft reached the target area, have evolved in a more dynamic and unknown battlespace that requires real-time data coordinators able to disseminate information on the threats and targets gathered from a variety of assets and sensors. In such new “networked” scenarios, stealth technology (capability to survive and operate effectively where others cannot) combined with 5th Generation features (sensor fusing), are extremely important to achieve the “Information Superiority” required to geo-locate the threats and target them effectively.

That’s why the presence of 5th Gen. aircraft teaming with and “orchestrating” 4th Gen. combat planes (lacking the Low Observability feature but able to carry more ordnance) will become the leit motiv of the future Red Flags.

For instance, Red Flag 17-3, underway at Nellis from Jul. 10 to 28, sees two F-35 Lightning II squadrons (and as many JSF variants) participating in the drills together for the very first time: the Marine Corps’ F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) aircraft from VMFA-211 based at MCAS Yuma and the Air Force’s F-35A CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) from 33rd Wing from Eglin AFB, Fla. Furthermore, during RF 17-3, the two different variants of the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) operate alongside the F-22 Raptors from Tyndall AFB, also taking part in the exercise.

The cooperation of the three radar-evading aircraft, including the controversial F-35s, is going to be particularly interesting.

According to the USMC, VMFA-211 will conduct defensive counter air (DCA); offensive counter air (OCA); suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD); destruction of enemy air defense; dynamic taskings, which involve finding a time-sensitive target or series of targets and eliminating them; electronic warfare (EW); preplanned strikes; and combat search and rescue (CSAR).

Whereas U.S. Air Force F-35s (from a different unit) have already taken part in RF, the missions they flew during RF 17-1, at least based on reports and official statements, focused on OCA and air interdiction in a highly contested/denied aerial environment: Air Force F-35As penetrated denied airspace and directed standoff weapons from B-1B heavy bombers flying outside the denied airspace. During these missions, the F-35As with IOC (Initial Operational Capability – the FOC is expected next year with Block 3F) entered the denied airspace and engaged both aerial and ground targets, not only with weapons they carried but also with weapons launched from other platforms such as the B-1Bs as they loitered just outside the threat environment acting as “bomb trucks.” Moreover, during the RF 17-1 sorties, flying alongside the F-22 Raptors, the F-35s achieved the pretty famous kill ratio of “20-1.

Interestingly, even though it will probably not embed simulated shipborne or remote base operations (that are what the F-35Bs, in spite of the limited range and internal weapons capacity, was somehow designed to conduct) the Marine Corps will expand the role of the 5th Gen. aircraft in RF, covering also EW and CSAR support tasks.

“It’s … important to practice integrating assets from all across the [Armed Forces’] inventory because if we go to conflict, we don’t want that to be the first time we all integrate with each other,” said Maj. Paul Holst, VMFA-211’s executive officer, in a public release.

“This is the first time we [VMFA-211] have deployed on this scale … we brought 10 F-35s here with all of our maintenance equipment, all of our support equipment and personnel,” said Holst. “For the pilots, the opportunity to participate in these exercises prepares us for combat … and the opportunity to integrate and plan with the rest of the force is something you just don’t get anywhere else.”

“A lot of times at home station, we’re basically working just with each other or we’re doing things that are [smaller in] scale and only focusing on our specific mission sets that we do,” said Maj. Chris Brandt, a pilot and administration and logistics officer in charge with VMFA-211. “When we actually deploy, we’re most likely going to be part of a joint force so coming here you get that experience. It’s not until you come to exercises like these that you get to train across services and [train] with platforms that you typically would not work with at your home station.”

According to Holst, Red Flag allows each service and subordinate unit to understand the capabilities of other services, units and their equipment.

“For example, the E/A-18G exists in the Navy and the Air Force doesn’t really have a comparable asset to that. There may be situations where the only F-35s in theater are Marine Corps F-35s … and you have to integrate the F-35s into the entire package,” said Holst. “It’s always going to be necessary to bring everyone’s assets together and practicing that is really important.”

The F-35s of both variants should play a dual role: “combat battlefield coordinators,” collecting, managing and distributing intelligence data while also acting as “kinetic attack platforms,” able to drop their ordnance on the targets and pass targeting data to older 4th Gen. aircraft via Link-16, if needed. More or less what done by the USMC F-35B in exercises against high-end threats carried out last year with some jets configured as “bomb trucks” and others carrying only internal weapons.

As a side note it’s worth mentioning that the integration of the F-35A and B variants is something another partner nation is going to explore in the future. In fact, Italy will have both A and B variants, with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) ones serving both the Air Force (that has already taken on charge its first 7 F-35As with the eight example that has recently performed its maiden flight at Cameri FACO) and the Italian Navy, that will use them on the Cavour aircraft carrier. One day we will analyse (again) whether the F-35B was really needed by the ItAF, but this is going to be another story.

 

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U.S. Marine KC-130 Crashes in Leflore, Mississippi with 16 Fatalities

Aircraft May Have Been Carrying Explosives, Witnesses Reported Midair Explosion.

The U.S. Marines and news outlets have reported the crash of a U.S. Marine Corps KC-130 Hercules four-engine turboprop aerial tanker and tactical transport aircraft on Monday Jul. 10, 2017. The crash occurred in a rural area of Mississippi over farmland. Witnesses reported a “loud explosion” before the aircraft hit the ground. There are 16 fatalities according to reports.

“The debris field spanned a five-mile radius.” according to a report on The Clarion Ledger, and that, “4,000 gallons of foam were used to combat the blaze.”

A Lockheed KC-130J Hercules tactical transport and tanker aircraft. The C-130 family has a good safety record across all branches of the U.S. military.
(Official Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Tanner M. Iskra)

According to a report from local news station WNBD, a Mississippi airport official was quoted as saying, “The plane was being tracked by air traffic controllers in Memphis [Tennessee] and suffered structural failure at 20,000 feet that caused it to plunge into the field.”

Although the photos from the accident scene show the wings, fuselage and elevators of the aircraft still partially attached in the burning wreckage, eyewitness reports and accounts of local first responders suggest the aircraft “may have exploded in mid-air”. Some Investigators on the scene have described to media outlets that “debris was found on both sides of the of the highway” leading them to believe an explosion may have happened prior to the crash.

A Mississippi State Police Officer indicated the “aircraft is loaded with ammunition”. This may have prevented emergency crews from approaching the aircraft since unexploded ordnance could be detonated in a fire.

“There’s a lot of ammo in the plane. That’s why we are keeping so far back. We just don’t know what it’ll do. It burns a bit then goes out, burns a little more then dies down,” A State Police officer told local media outlet WMC Action News 5.

As with all aircraft accidents, the official cause of the accident will be determined following a formal investigation and issuance of an accident report. Until that report is published reports about the cause of the accident are speculative.

The KC-130 accident is somehow unusual since the Hercules family of multi-role aircraft has had a better than average safety record in both U.S. and international service compared to other military aircraft.

Only two fatal accidents have occurred in C-130s across all U.S. services since July 2012 when an Air Force C-130H crashed during forest fire fighting operations in South Dakota. Since then, only one other reported fatal accident has happened with the crash of a C-130J in Afghanistan in 2015 when a total of 14 people including ground personnel were killed.

The aircraft appeared largely intact in photos despite reports of a midair explosion from some witnesses.
(Photo: WLBT News.)

 

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The Italian Air Force Predator A+ Drones Appear With Brand New Markings At New Squadron Activation Ceremony

The Italian Air Force Predator A+ of the 32° Stormo (Wing) appear with new markings.

On Jul. 10, the Italian Air Force announced the reactivation of the 61° Gruppo (Squadron), disbanded in 1943, at Sigonella airbase, in Sicily, that will operate the MQ-1C Predator A+ UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) as a detached unit of the 32° Stormo, headquartered at Amendola, southeastern Italy.

The drones, piloted by aircrews coming from the 28° Gruppo and supported by ground crews of the 41° Stormo, based at Sigonella, will reinforce the Italian surveillance capabilities in southern Italy.

The new squadron will complement the other squadron of the 32nd Wing, the 28° Gruppo also based at Amendola, that already operates a mixed force of MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Predator A+ drones that are used to undertake a wide variety of tasks: along with the standard ISR (intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions, the Italian Predators have supported MEDEVACs (Medical Evacuations), TIC (Troops In Contact) operations, IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) monitoring, Convoy Escort in Iraq and Afghanistan; they have supported Operation Unified Protector in Libya, Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean Sea near Lampedusa (where they have monitored the migratory flows and consequent tragic ship wreckage off the island) and, from Djibouti, have monitored the seas off the coast of Somalia in anti-piracy missions. They are also currently deployed in Kuwait to support the US-led anti-ISIS operation in Syria and Iraq. Leveraging their persistence on the target area, the drones have also supported Police forces during major events.

Noteworthy, the photos of the 61° Gruppo reactivation ceremony posted by the Italian Air Force on social media exposed an interesting detail.

Indeed, for the very first time, the Predators belonging to the 32° Stormo appear to sport the standard Wing’s livery that includes the aircraft code 32-xx on the fuselage and the Wing’s emblem, the Hawk, on the the tails.

One of the Italian MQ-1C Predator A+ drones sporting the individual code 32-33.

With the addition of the new markings, the Predators of the 61° and 28 ° Gruppo will now feature the same kind of markings worn by the F-35A Lightning II aircraft of the 13° Gruppo of the 32° Stormo, Italy’s first JSF squadron that has recently celebrated its 100th anniversary (with special tail markings.)

Close up view of the Hawk applied to the tails of the Predator.

Image credit: ItAF

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Up Close And Personal With The Italian Typhoon Jets Deployed To Bulgaria Under NATO’s Enhanced Air Policing

Four Italian Typhoons have deployed to Bulgaria to bolster NATO’s Air Policing mission in the Black Sea region.

Four Italian Air Force F-2000A Typhoon jets have deployed to Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria, to undertake the NATO’s enhanced Air Policing mission from July until October 2017.

The Italian Typhoons belong to the 4° Stormo (Wing) of Grosseto, 36° Stormo from Gioia del Colle and the 37° Stormo from Trapani even though, as always happens when involved in real operations, the Italian aircrews will operate as part of a Task Force where, regardless of the unit, badges and traditions (all the squadrons involved in the deployment have recently celebrated their centenary…) all personnel, aircraft and equipment are completely integrated and interchangeable, thanks to fully standardized procedures and training.

The Italian rotation to Bulgaria will overlap until September with the RAF detachment of four Typhoons deployed to Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania as part of the same Southern Air Policing mission.

Following a familiarization phase, the Italian team will undergo certification by NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) Torrejon, Spain before providing Air Policing tasks alongside the local Bulgarian Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrum jets.

The Italian F-2000As on the ramp at Graf Ignatievo Air Base.

A Bulgarian Air Force Fulcrum taxies next to the Italian Typhoons.

Since Bulgaria “is perfectly able to conduct NATO Air Policing with its assets; this enhanced Air Policing capability offered by the Italian jets provides the CAOC with more flexibility to conduct the mission.”

This is the first time the Italian Typhoons take part in the NATO’s Enhanced Air Policing mission in the Black Sea area: so far the ItAF “Tiffies” have supported the Icelandic (in 2013 and earlier this year) and Baltic (in 2015) while supporting the Interim Air Policing task over Slovenia (task shared with the Hungarian Air Force) and over Albania (task shared with the Hellenic Air Force).

Typhoon’s rear view.

One of the ItAF Typhoons parked at Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria, after its arrival on Jul. 7.

Breaking for landing

“While Air Policing is a collective peacetime task to ensure integrity and security of NATO airspace, the enhanced Air Policing was agreed and implemented by NATO Allies at the Wales Summit in 2014 under the Assurance Measures. These measures are aimed at assuring Allies along the NATO’s eastern flank of Alliance commitment and resolve as well as deterrence and defence,” said NATO in an official release about the deployment.

The images in this post were taken by Nikolay Dimov at Graf Ignatievo as the Italians landed to support the Air Policing task in Bulgaria on Jul. 7, 2017.

Two of the four IRIS-T air-to-air missiles carried by the Italian Typhoons in Bulgaria.

Typhoon head on: take a look at the loadout.

Image credit: Nikolay Dimov

 

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