Monthly Archives: September 2017

The U.S. Air Force Turns 70 Years Old Today: A Look Back, A Look Ahead.

USAF Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary With Reverence for History and Hunger for Innovation.

The United States Air Force turns 70 years old today. The newest branch of the U.S. military was born with the passing of the National Security Act in 1947, a restructuring of U.S. military assets in the wake of WWII. During the Second World War air combat operations were conducted by the Marines, Navy and the Army Air Corps.

The U.S. Air Force is arguably the strongest air force in the world, fielding over 5,500 aircraft across different roles. By comparison, intelligence sources cite the Russian Air Force as fielding approximately 3,794 aircraft, the Chinese Air Force claims to operate approximately 3,000 aircraft. All other countries lag significantly behind in numbers and in technology. The USAF is also the only air force in the world to have operational experience with a fifth-generation combat aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The F-22 began flying combat missions in Syria in 2014 and has performed the precision strike, air superiority and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roles operationally.

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors are providing “kinetic situational awareness” over Syria: the F-22 pilot leverage advanced onboard sensors, as the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, to collect valuable details about the enemy Order of Battle, then they share the “picture” with attack planes, command and control assets, as well as Airborne Early Warning aircraft, while escorting other manned or unmanned aircraft towards the targets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller)

In recent years, the Air Force has received criticism from the general public over pilot shortages and costly acquisition programs like the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, the Air Force variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. It has also rushed to field an effective ballistic missile defense system for the United States mainland, an effort made more important by concerns over recent advances in North Korean missile capabilities.

The realities of the U.S. Air Force suggest that it is efficient in fielding new programs and cost-effective with assessing developmental programs while simultaneously conducting combat and support operations in several locations around the world. One recent example of the Air Force’s highly adaptive evaluation doctrine is the Light Attack Experiment, a program to evaluate the use of low-cost, already available tactical attack aircraft.

Perhaps one of the most significant advancements has been the establishment of the 24th Air Force as “AFCYBER” or the Air Forces Cyber unit. This operational unit fielded in 2010 provides security, surveillance and combat capability on the rapidly evolving cyber battlefield. The unit is fully operational and regularly performs real-world cyber combat operations in defense of the United States and its allies.

Immediately following the formation of the U.S. Air Force 70 years ago today in 1947 the force began a period of remarkable development programs. The Cold War, a conflict that lasted from 1947 until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, was the primary motive for much of the development. This period of remarkable development included advancements like breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 and later achieving the fastest powered atmospheric flight in the X-15.

The Douglas X-3 Stiletto typified the rapid development of experimental aircraft of the USAF in the 1950s. (Photo: USAF)

Later the U.S. Air Force fielded the first operational low-observable or “stealth” combat aircraft with the Lockheed F-117 Night Hawk. The advanced program, that remained classified for years, was also one of the fastest and most cost-effective major acquisition programs in U.S. military history. In fact, there are so many noteworthy Air Force development programs that have set records or created new aviation capabilities they are too numerous to list in a single article.

Even as some superpowers continue to try to achieve technical parity with the U.S. Air Force the USAF continues to innovate with planning for the replacement of the F-22 Raptor, the Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter or “NGAD” and many other new systems.

This is Northrop Grumman‘s concept of the sixth-generation aircraft, known as Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter or “NGAD” fighter jet. (Northrop Grumman)

Considering the U.S. Air Force is the youngest of the armed forces in the United States it is easy to suggest they are the most innovative and have experienced the most change in the last 70 years. Looking ahead to the next century of the U.S. Air Force it’s difficult to envision what it will look like and what its capabilities may be.

New Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works Video Teases The Shape Of The Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Fighter

A new video provides a glimpse of the 6th Gen. fighter concept that could replace the F-22. But it’s probably not the real one…

A short clip just released by the Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works (H/T to Flightglobal’s Editor Stephen Trimble for the heads-up) teases the shape of the concept-fighter it is developing to compete for the U.S. Air Force Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), the program will ultimately lead to an air superiority 6th Gen. jet that could replace the F-22 Raptor.

The Next Generation Air Dominance concept points towards a small and much agile manned plane, rumored to be supersonic, long-range, cyber-resilient against threats of the future interconnected world, with morphing metals, self-healing capabilities and ability to carry laser-weapons.

The shape seems to be the very same that Lockheed Martin published in a 2012 calendar distributed to journalists: with an F-22-like nose, flat canted tails and contoured wing, the aircraft strongly reminds the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23, a single-seat, twin-engine stealth fighter aircraft technology demonstrator designed for the United States Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition.

Two YF-23 prototypes were built with the nicknames “Black Widow II” and “Gray Ghost” between 19 but the contract was eventually won by Lockheed with the YF-22 Lightning and the YF-23 program was canceled.

Interestingly, the conceptual sixth-generation fighter being developed by Northrop Grumman today does not seem to be inspired to the YF-23 at all: based on some renderings exposed so far, the aerospace giant is working on a new tailless concept that features the “cranked kite” design that’s in vogue with Northrop Grumman (that built the U.S. Air Force iconic B-2 stealth bombers the X-47B naval killer-drone demonstrator and the still much secret RQ-180 unmanned aerial vehicle surveillance aircraft.)

Northrop Grumman 6th Gen. fighter as shown in a commercial released last year.

The proposed timetables see a sixth-generation fighter being completed some time in the 2030s.

Actually, as reported by Aviation Week’s Guy Norris earlier this summer, Lockheed Martin has recently revealed a radically revised version of the concept so the one included in the above Skunk Works 75th anniversary video is probably only the original concept.

Updated Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter concept released in 2017. (Lockheed Martin).

Russia is also working on 6th gen. aircraft.

Sukhoi design bureau prepared the first blueprints for Russia’s sixth-generation fighter jets TASS news agency reported last year.

“I’m referring also to new design concepts briefly presented by the Sukhoi design bureau and by the general designer appointed for all aircraft systems and armaments [..] They have really come up with the designs for the creation of the sixth-generation fighter” Moscow’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in a meeting with the journalists.

So, although the T-50 PAK-FA, its first 5th Gen. stealth fighter, is still being developed, Moscow has started working on its replacements, even though no further detail about the technologies that the new aircraft types will embed has been unveiled.

There are reasons to believe the Russian sixth-generation concept is going to be somehow different from the U.S. Air Force’s F-X Next Generation Air Dominance: Sukhoi might base its 6th Gen. on the PAK-FA and upgrade the design throughout the years similarly to what they have done with the Su-27 and subsequent Flanker variants up to the Su-35S.

This means that the PAK-FA will probably become a 5++ Gen. thanks to the planned upgrades and be the base for Russia’s 6th Gen. fighter.

Among the most interesting upgrades in the PAK-FA (now Su-57) roadmap there’s a future radar based on photonics that was announced by the Russian state-owned Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET) in December 2015 and a full-scale working model is expected by the end of 2018.

The ultra-wideband active radio-optical phased array technology (known by its Russian acronym ROFAR) radar will be half the weight of a current conventional radar and allow to virtually get a “3D TV picture on a range up to 400 km.”

Considered the operational range of the radar, the ROFAR will be virtually impossible to jam, at least on paper.

However, such optimistic claims will have to be backed by facts: unlike the U.S., that have been operating 5th Gen. aircraft (the F-22 and, more or less, the F-35) and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for years, so far, Russia has not been able to operate a next generation stealth aircraft nor AESA radar system (both ones are still at the testing stage).

We Fly In The Douglas C-47 Skytrain and Learn Why The Dakota Remains Eternal

Airlifter, Gunship, Spy Plane, VIP Transport and More: It’s Important to Understand the C-47.

It is a bit bumpy despite calm weather. She skids back and forth on her tail in light crosswinds and level flight. The crew in front of me is waltzing the big rudder pedals in the rising morning warmth. But when they heel over the big, round control yoke she listens with attentiveness. She likes the gathering G’s of increasing bank angle. The flight smoothes out as she enters the turn.

I am over half century old, and this airplane is a quarter century older than me, but there is safe comfort in flying on her. Propellers, airfoils, rivets and aluminum. It’s basic, dependable stuff. I understand her cockpit, her controls, her instruments. I could fly her, no problem. She is an obedient beast of burden with elegant swept wings and tame characteristics contrasting a strong back for carrying heavy loads. She is like a beet farmer’s golden-haired daughter dressed in silver coveralls.

We fly a C-47 of the Yankee Air Museum over southeastern Michigan.

Our white and silver C-47 Dakota chortles through the sky with a deep, throaty hum accompanied by a chorus of little vibrations quietly rattling through her three-quarter century old airframe. But she is safe, sturdy and strong. Her eagerness to drift through the sky belies her age. Her thick airfoils love the wind and grip the sky like reigns.

WWII Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Most vital to our success in Africa and Europe has been the jeep, the 2½-ton truck and the C-47 Dakota.”

The Douglas C-47 Dakota is perhaps the most mundane, least exciting but quietly elegant and ruggedly stalwart aircraft of the last century. Simple and utilitarian, the aircraft was quickly designed in 1935, even more quickly manufactured in numbers exceeding 10,000 planes across a staggering 72 different versions. She flew roles as varied as attack aircraft, electronic warfare, intelligence gathering, transport, VIP flight and nearly every other mission an airplane can perform short of breaking the sound barrier.

We’re in a Douglas C-47 Dakota built in 1945, owned first by the U.S. Army, and later by the University of Michigan. Today she flies from Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti as a living artifact of the Yankee Air Museum.

Most of the C-47’s that flew in WWII wore a flat olive drab cloak of paint hastily applied at an assembly plant that churned out Dakotas as quickly as they could. They were airborne pick-up trucks. In late May and early June of 1944 almost all of them in Europe sprouted wide, garish black and white stripes on their wings and fuselage; invasion stripes in anticipation of D-Day. But today our ride gleams, resplendent in white paint applied over natural aluminum rubbed to a high polish by the reverent men who love, maintain and fly her.

Capt. Dave Saunders is our flight engineer for this flight in the C-47 Dakota. He owns a staggering 25,000 hours of flying time. That is nearly three years of continuous time in a cockpit. Capt. Saunders has flown the Boeing 727, 737, 757, 767 and, for the last decade, the giant Boeing 777.

“We purchased her in 1982. Eighteen months to two years to recondition her to the condition she is in today.”

Capt. Dave Saunders owns a staggering 25,000 flight hours in many aircraft but loves the C-47.

Capt. Saunders started flying when he was only 10 years old. His dad flew back and forth to work. He was hooked. Today Saunders is as much of a classic in the sky as the C-47 we’re riding in, so the two are a perfect match. As we hum along over the University of Michigan stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan the other reporters on their aircraft type on their smartphones. Capt. Dave Saunders looks straight ahead, simply contemplating the way true flying was meant to be.

Our media flight takes us in a wide arc to the north and west of Willow Run Airport. Climbing out we look back toward the runway and see the Blue Angels lined up on the tarmac below. A giant Airbus Defense A400M Atlas, the most recent heir to the throne of the C-47 as the consummate transport, sits on static display.

The new Airbus A400M Atlas and the C-47 Dakota probably have more in common than they do apart. Both are considered medium to heavy airlifters. Both use propellers, there was no choice when the C-47 was designed, the A400M could have been a jet, but advantages of modern turboprops including fuel economy and simplicity nodded back toward the propulsion family of the C-47 on the new Atlas. Finally, both aircraft are incredibly significant to the militaries that operate them. In an irony of history, the C-47 played a massive role in the post WWII Berlin Air Lift along with the newer C-54. The largest operator of the new Airbus Defense A400M is Germany.

When I try to make an analogy between the C-47 Dakota we are flying in and an aircraft of today, the Boeing 737, Capt. Dave Saunders corrects me.

“The C-47 is more like the Boeing 727 of today.” Saunders shows his age and obvious reverence for the prolific three-engine airliner that was last flown in U.S. passenger service in early 2002 by American Airlines. But the Boeing 727 was never used in the regular military transport role. The venerable Boeing 737 airframe is a twin-engine aircraft that is used by several militaries, including by Australia in the surveillance, anti-submarine and mid-air refueling role and by the U.S. Navy in the same capacities.

I’m in the cockpit now. Capt. Tony Budacavolli and First Officer on this flight Vaughn Bateman are flying. There are only round instruments here. No retrofitting to touch screens, no side sticks, no flight computers except Capt. Budacavolli’s iPhone, an app-driven flight instrument he shares with many Russian pilots.

“It’s a blessing and a wonderful thing.” Capt. Buttacavolli tells us. Buttacavolli started flying DC-3’s as a commercial pilot, unusual for a modern pilot but testament to the staying power of the venerable Douglas airframe across all its versions civilian and military. “I started flying these for cargo back in the late 1980’s. I caught the last wave of them.”

Capt. Tony Budacavolli began flying DC-3s in the 1980s

Capt. Vaughn Bateman flew Boeing 747’s before retiring from the airlines and the Navy where he flew the P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft. Bateman sits right seat in our C-47 today. The cockpit is his home and after flying “nearly everything” he seems to take a comfortable solice among the simple, basic flight controls of the C-47.

Our wide arc through the southeastern Michigan sky brings us back toward Willow Run airport and runway 23-Lima, “23L” or two-three left. It’s a bit bumpy on approach through rising air. Thunderstorms are in the forecast for latter.

I expect the landing may be a bit bouncy on two wheels before the tailwheel sets down on the runway, but I underestimate the design of the C-47’s elegant wings and the skill of thousands of hours in our cockpit. Our two main wheels touch the runway with barely a nudge and we hardly sense the tailwheel settling. I somehow thought, because this is an old airplane, it would be somehow rougher. I’ve flown in a lot of older prop planes from B-17s to C-7s and C-130s. None of them were as smooth and elegant as this C-47.

Back on the ground a group of men just barely older than our aircraft stroll out of the Yankee Air Museum’s hanger to wipe the C-47’s landing gear struts down after her landing. She is massaged like an aging boxer who just sat on a stool in the corner of the ring, yearning to get back up for one more round.

The jump at Thunder Over Michigan Airshow was billed as one of the largest reenactments of a WWII airborne operation anywhere. C-47’s from around the world took part. (All images: Author /


Russian Air Force Tu-22M Backfire Damaged In Runway Overrun Accident During Zapad 2017 Exercise In Western Russia

A Russian Air Force bomber skidded off the runway in western Russia.

On Sept. 14, 2017, a Russian Air Force Tu-22М3 RF-94233 / 20 “RED” suffered an incident when it overran the runway at Shaykovka airfield, in western Russia. On the very same date a flight of six Backfire bombers flew a mission over the Baltic Sea that, according to our sources, was probably aimed at simulating a naval attack on the Baltic Fleet.

The ADEX (Air Defense Exercise) was part of the larger “Zapad 2017,” the anti-terror military drills (with purely defensive aims according to the Russian MoD) taking place in Belarus and three regions in the western part of Russia from Sept. 14-20 and involving about 12.7K troops (including 7.2K of Belarusian troops, about 5.5K Russian troops and 3K of them – on the territory of Belarus), about 70 aircraft and helicopters, up to 680 pieces of military hardware including about 250 tanks, up to 200 guns, MLRSs and mortars as well as 10 warships.

The Tu-22 is a Soviet-era supersonic, swing-wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber. It was developed during the Cold War and, with a range of about 6,800 kilometers and a payload of 24,000 kg, it is still considered a significant threat to many latest generations weapon systems: a fast platform to launch cruise missiles, conventional or nuclear weapons in various regional war scenarios.

Especially when it carries the Raduga Kh-22 (AS-4 ‘Kitchen’) long-range anti-ship missile, a 13,000-lbs a missile with a range of 320 nautical miles, the Tu-22 can be “useful” to aim at aircraft carriers and to pursue an anti-access/area denial strategy.

Along with launching air strikes on ISIS in Syria from mainland Russia (and Iran, in 2016), Tu-22s are particularly frequent visitors over the Baltic Sea where they often perform routine training flights, some times escorted by Su-27 Flanker aircraft,  flying in international airspace without transponder, without establishing radio contact with any ATC agency: their presence there is taken pretty seriously as they carry out their mock attacks at day or night, flying at very high (or even supersonic) speed, making lives difficult for the NATO interceptors supporting the Baltic Air Policing (BAP) from the airbases in Lithuania and Estonia, that are scrambled to ID and shadow them.

Back to the runway overrun incident, the four crew members escaped the aircraft safely, as the reports and photos seem to confirm.

Tu-22M3 RF-94233 in the grass after running off the runway at an airbase in western Russia.

And it looks it wasn’t the first time it happened to a Tu-22 Backfire:

Image credit: via @Missilito and @galandecZP

Saudi Eurofighter Typhoon Crashes During Combat Mission In Yemen, Killing The Pilot

A Royal Saudi Air Force Typhoon has crashed in Yemen’s southern province of Abyan, Yemen, killing the pilot.

A RSAF Typhoon combat aircraft involved in a mission against Houthi fighters over Yemen crashed into a mountain in Al Wade’a district on Sept. 13, 2017.

The pilot, identified as Mahna al-Biz, died in the incident that follows the one of a UAE pilot, who was also reportedly killed in another crash in Yemen last week, said Yemen’s Saba news agency.

According to the first (unconfirmed) reports on social networks, the aircraft suffered a technical failure during a CAS (Close Air Support) mission.

Codenamed Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi air war on Yemen started in 2015 with the goal to counter the Houthi offensive on Aden, the provisional capital town of the internationally recognized (yet domestically contested) Yemeni government.

Warplanes from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain are taking part in the operation.

The RSAF operates a fleet of 72 Typhoons (including the one that crashed yesterday), based at King Fahad Air Base, Taif.

The incident on Sept. 13, is the third deadly incident of the Euro-canard aircraft after the ones that involved two Spanish Typhoons (on Aug. 24, 2010, and Jun. 9, 2014) and the second to kill a Saudi pilot: the 2010 incident saw a Spanish twin-seat Typhoon crash at Spain’s Morón Air Base short after take-off for a training flight. It was being piloted by a Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force, who was killed, and a Spanish Air Force Major, who ejected safely. All the six Eurofighter users grounded or restricted operations with their aircraft as a result of the Spanish accident, because of concerns surrounding the Mk16A ejection seat’s harness. “Under certain conditions, the quick release fitting could be unlocked using the palm of the hands, rather than the thumb and fingers and that this posed a risk of inadvertent release,” Martin-Baker said after the incident that led to a modification to the Typhoon seats that was developed to eliminate the risk.

Image credit: Fahd Rihan