Monthly Archives: December 2017

Watch An F-22 Spot And Engage An A-4 Skyhawk In A Low Dogfight In A Valley

Top Gun Reloaded featuring F-22 Raptor and A-4 Skyhawk.

I’m pretty sure most of you remember the Top Gun movie scenes with the F-14 Tomcats dogfighting with A-4 Skyhawks around mountains. Those scenes were shot around NAS Fallon, Nevada, not too far from where the footage below has been filmed some 30 years later.

The footage shows a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor engaging with an A-4K Skyhawk in the Nellis Test and Training Range. The Skyhawk is one of the jets belonging to Draken International, a  company that supports military training around the globe with a fleet of 80 tactical fighter aircraft. The extensively upgraded in the early 1990s to a standard similar to the F-16 Mid-Life-Update with a 1553 digital bus, APG-66v7 radar, RWR (Radar Warning Receiver), HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) controls, HUD (Head Up Display) and MFDs (Multi-Function Displays). In other words, although not the most advanced Aggressors around, at least what’s needed to perform the adversary role against 4th and 5th generation combat planes.

As explained by an F-35 pilot last year, dogfighting against the A-4 is still relevant today for several reasons:

  • The F-35’s sensors and “fusion” provides me as a pilot with good situational awareness. For an F-35 to simulate an opponent against another F-35, it has to restrict the effects of fusion and the various sensors. Even then it is difficult to “dumb down” the aircraft enough. It requires discipline to not be tempted to using information that an opponent in reality would not have access to.
  • The A-4s we faced in these exercises had sensor performance along the lines of our own upgraded F-16s. They also carried jammers intended to disturb our radar.
  • The pilots we faced were very experienced. We are talking 2000 hours plus in aircraft like the F-16, F-15E, F-15C and the F-22, with detailed knowledge of “fifth generation” tactics and weapons. When also cooperating closely with intercept controllers on the ground (GCI) they could adapt the training and offer us a reactive and challenging opponent. Note the word “reactive.”
  • The A-4 is a small aircraft with a corresponding signature. Many potential opponents in the air are bigger and easier to find than the tiny A-4.

Anyway, dealing with the video, as our friend Tyler Rogoway suggested when commenting the very same video in his article at The War Zone: “It’s not entirely clear if one Raptor was orbiting waiting as another F-22 drove the fleeing A-4 towards his wingman—a classic predatory trap—or just one F-22 was present and it waited for the Skyhawk to come into range before dropping behind him and killing him.”

Update: we have collected more details about the sortie. First of all, it was a WSI (Weapons School Integration) mission. The F-22 was part of a package made by 4x F-22s and 4x F-15s doing CAP (Combat Air Patrol) and clearing the airspace for the strikers to enter. There were 2x A-4s (one not in the frame)  and the F-22 descended all the way from 40,000 feet to engage the 2 low A-4s!

If you look closely at around 00:27 seconds, you can see the F-22 side weapons bay briefly opening and closing: the Raptor’s side bay door houses the canted trapeze that the F-22 Raptors use to eject the missile into the airstream. Not sure the reason why they were opened during this engagement.

The Raptor’s side weapons bay is used to carry the AIM-9X, the Sidewinder variant integrated on Mar. 1, 2016, when the 90th Fighter Squadron (FS) belonging to the 3rd Wing stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska officially became the first combat-operational Raptor unit to equip an F-22 with the latest variant of the IR-guided missile.

As explained several times here, most of the modern US combat planes use the AIM-9X along with a Helmet Mounted Display since 2003: with a HMD (like the American Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System – JHMCS), information imagery (including aircraft’s airspeed, altitude, weapons status, aiming etc) are projected on the visor enabling the pilot to look out in any direction with all the required data always in his field of vision. The HMD enables the pilot to exploit the full HOBS (High Off-Boresight) capabilities of the AIM-9X and engage a target by simply looking at it.

However the AIM-9X will not be coupled to a HMD as the Raptor is not equipped with such kind of helmet that provides the essential flight and weapon aiming information through line of sight imagery. In 2019, the Air Force plans to equip the F-22 with the AIM-9X Block II, the F-22 will probably fill the gap as the most advanced variant of the Sidewinder is expected to feature a Lock-on After Launch capability with a datalink, for Helmetless High Off-Boresight (HHOBS) at intermediate range: the air-to-air missile will be launched first and then directed to its target afterwards even though it is behind the launching aircraft.

Top image: screenshot from the video by 8081rt

Two Edwards-based F-16s Spotted In Star Wars Canyon With Mysterious New Pod

Are you able to ID the pod carried by these two “Vipers” flying at low altitude through the Jedi Transition recently?

Few days ago we have published the photographs of an Area 51-based F-16D (86-0052) flying through the famous Star Wars canyon on Nov. 14 carrying a Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAS-42, an IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) pod carried by various aircraft (including the Aggressors’ Vipers out of Nellis Air Force Base). Two things made the sighting particularly interesting: first of all, the two-seater “Viper” (as the F-16 is dubbed in the fighter pilots community) flew in the Jedi Transition hours after another F-16D (or possibly the very same one) had chased an F-117 near Rachel, Nevada. Second, the photographs of the F-16D 86-0052 clearly proved that both pilots of the aircraft wore a Red Hats patch (for more details I suggest you reading our story here).

However, some other interesting aircraft had flown over the Death Valley few days earlier.

The images in this post were taken by photographer Neil Dunridge taken on Nov. 8. They show two Edwards Air Force Base F-16 jets belonging to the 412th Test Wing, with a pretty interesting loadout: both aircraft carried one blue AN/ALQ-167, a very well-known electronic countermeasures threat simulation pod used by several aircraft (including aggressors) for training purposes, along with an unidentified grey with a black nose pod.

AF85-1560/ED with the AN/ALQ-167 pod under the left wing and the “mysterious” pod under the right one (All images credit: Neil Dunridge)

Noteworthy, as the photographs by Dunridge show, the configuration of the two aircraft is different: one (AF85-1560/ED) carried the AN/ALQ-167 pod under the left wing and the “mysterious” pod under the right one; the other one had the unidentified pod on the left and the AN/ALQ-167 on the right.

Two aircraft flew through the Jedi Transition on Nov. 8. This one had the unidentified pod under the left wing.

We haven’t been able to ID the new pod so far so, at least to us, it remains mysterious. It features a small air intake and a black dielectric blister fairing (that must be there to cover an antenna) reminds some data links pod (such as the AN/ASW-55 associated with the AGM-142 Popeye long-range missile).

Actually, the F-16 is already integrated with Lockheed Martin Legion Pod, that includes an IRST21 sensor as well as datalink to build up a “networked” battlespace where the aircraft can share a common “picture” without even turning the radar on (thus remaining “silent” from an electromagnetical point of view).

The pod shown in the photos from Neil Dunridge is quite different from the LM Legion Pod that includes IRST and data-link capabilities. (Image: Lockheed Martin).

The Legion Pod flew with the F-16 in Fort Worth, Texas, in June 2015. The aircraft carries the pod on the right hand side of the air intake (Photo by Randy Crites/LM)

Is Edwards testing some new DLP? Maybe. Or the pod can be something completely different (such a test bed for laser weapons, EW pod, etc.). If you can identify the pod, let us know. Meanwhile we can’t but notice how the Star Wars canyon continues to provide some great opportunities to see and shoot rarely seen aircraft with rarely seen payloads!

Update: it looks like the same pod, carried by an Edwards F-16, was spotted before Nov. 8. Here you can find a photo of the pod under the left wing on Oct. 29, 2017: https://www.flickr.com/photos/habujet/37946803206/in/photostream/

Update II: Our friend Tyler Rogoway from The War Zone has found what indeed seems to be the very same pod carried by a VAQ-34 EA-7L in a photo dating back to 1987!!

Here it is:

A view of two Vought EA-7L Corsair II aircraft of electronic warfare squadron VAQ-34 on the ramp during the U.S. 3rd Fleet North Pacific Exercise (NORPACEX) at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska (USA) on 8 Nov 1987. VAQ-34 operated as a adversary squadron, hence the Soviet star and the red numbers on the planes. (Camera Operator: Sgt. W. Thornton via Wiki)

Indeed, in the early 1980s, eight U.S. Navy TA-7C two-seater Corsair jets were turned into electronic aggressor aircraft, under the designation EA-7L. These “electronic Corsairs”, operated by VAQ-34 out of NAS (Naval Air Station) Point Mugu, California, could carry electronic jamming pods on their underwing pylons to simulate Soviet weapons and tactics. Now, it looks like some of the pods used 30 years ago are being used again to test some new (EW/threat emitter) sensor using an existing form factor.

A big thank you to Neil Dunridge for allowing us to use his photographs. Make sure to follow him on Twitter here: @Chiv63

Rare Photo Shows F-4 Phantom Flying Inverted While Intercepting A Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber

“Because I was….inverted!”: Top Gun stunt performed near a Russian strategic bomber.

In the last few years, we have often reported about “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts conducted across the world by Russian (and Chinese) fighter jets scrambled to identify and escort U.S. spyplanes flying in international airspace.

Barrel rolls, aggressive turns that disturbed the controllability of the “zombie” (intercepted aircraft in fighter pilot’s jargon), inverted flight: if you use the search function on this site you can read of several such incidents that made the news on media all around the world.

The last episode involved a Russian Su-30 that crossed within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon’s path over the Black Sea during an intercept mission, causing the American maritime patrol aircraft to endure violent turbulence, on Nov. 25, 2017.

However, as a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models, told us a couple of years ago:

“Prior to the end of the Cold War interceptors from a variety of nations managed to get into tight formation with RC-135s and EP-3s. Smaller airplanes like MiG-21s made it easy. The challenge with the larger airplanes like the Su-27 and MiG-31 is the sheer size of the interceptor as it moves in front of any portion of the intercepted plane.

At least the Su-27 pilot has excellent all-around visibility to see where the back-end of his own airplane is as he maneuvers adjacent to the RC-135.

The U-Boat crew took video of the intercept, which has not been released but shows the precise extent of how close the FLANKER really was. Recent movies taken by a PRC aircraft that was intercepted by a JASDF F-15CJ suggests that the Eagle was very close—until the camera zooms out and shows the Eagle was 70-100 feet away from the wingtip….

Finally, although the number of Russian reactions to Western recon flights has been increasing recently, for 15-20 years (certainly from 1992 through 2010) there were almost no reactions on a regular basis. As such, what passes for dangerous and provocative today was ho-hum to recon crews of my generation (although we weren’t shot at like the early fliers from 1950-1960).”

Therefore, these close encounters were a sort of routine in the skies all around the world during the Cold War. And “reckless” behaviour did not only involve Russian pilots, as the top image seems to prove.

The blurry photograph (courtesy of our friends at the Global Military Strategy & Statistics FB page) shows an F-4 Phantom (probably from the U.S. Air Force, even though the quality of the shot does not help identifying the nationality), flying inverted during an intercept/escort mission on a Russian Tu-95 Bear: a stunt that may remind one of the most famous scenes in Top Gun movie.

We don’t know when nor where this photograph was taken (if you have some details or hints, please let us know), still a proof that some (dangerous) maneuvers have been part of such close encounters for decades and have seldom made the news. At least, until a few years ago…

H/T Global Military Strategy & Statistics for the interesting photograph.

The Greatest Aviator the West Has Never Heard Of, Marina Lavrentievna Popovich, Has Died.

Popovich, 86 Years Old, Held Over 100 Aviation Records in 40 Different Aircraft.

Russian aviator, record holder, engineer and author Marina Lavrentievna Popovich has died in Russia on Nov. 30, 2017. She was 86 years old.

Popovich was an icon of Russian aviation history and one of many female pilots revered in the former Soviet Union and now Russia. According to tributes to her career in Russian media, former Colonel Popovich set over 100 total aviation world records, including a remarkable 10 world aviation records in the Russian Antonov AN-22 (NATO reporting name “Cock”) alone. The An-22 is the world’s largest turboprop aircraft.

Popovich was also a noted author in Russia and wrote nine books and two film scripts. She was a prominent member of Russia’s Writer’s Union.

An interesting footnote to Popovich’s career was significant involvement in UFO research. During her career, Popovich cited the existence of a “Russian Area 51” where the former KGB and former Soviet Air Force had kept fragments of crashed UFOs. In an expose’ similar to the U.S. “Project Blue Book”, Popovich claimed the Soviet Union had records of “over 3000” military and civilian UFO sightings.

Named Marina Vasilieva by marriage, she became a Soviet Air Force pilot and graduated from military test pilot school in 1964. She was awarded the coveted “Hero of Socialist Labor” during the Soviet era and the “Order of Courage” in 2007, an award presented to her by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The former Soviet Union was the first country to allow female pilots to fly in combat. Russia has a rich history of outstanding female aviators, many of whom are combat veterans from The Great Patriotic War, WWII. There were three all-female combat flying units during WWII alone, including one known as the “Night Witches” who effectively employed antiquated aircraft against the German invasion of Russia. Russian female pilots are said to have flown over 30,000 combat missions in The Great Patriotic War.

Top image credit: http://poradumo.pp.ua/

The Story Of The MiG-31 “Firefox”: All You Need To Know About The Most Awesome (Fictional) Advanced High-Speed Interceptor Ever

If you thought you knew everything about the MiG-31, you were wrong!

Based upon a 1977 novel of the same name by Craig Thomas, “Firefox” is a techno-thriller action film produced, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, released in 1982.

Most (if not all) the aviation geeks have probably seen the movie at least once.

The movie focuses on a plot to steal a Soviet MiG-31 (МиГ-31 in Cyrillic script), NATO reporting name “Firefox”, a stealth interceptor aircraft, capable of Mach 6 and bring it back to a friendly base where it can be analysed.

The shape of the Firefox differs a lot between the first novel and film. The version in the novel resembles a MiG-25 “Foxbat”, much like the real Mikoyan MiG-31 “Foxhound”. The movie version is a more futuristic design, unlike any other planes of the 1970s or 1980s. Indeed, the aircraft seems to have been influenced by the speculation about what the soon-to-be-revealed “stealth fighter” might have looked like.

Although the whole story is hardly plausible, what’s really interesting about the movie is the MiG-31 and some of its capabilities (some of those were not available at the time the novel was written or the movie released, but became available in the following decades): along with its ability to evade enemy radars and fly at hypersonic speeds, the Firefox featured a Thought-Controlled Weapons System, uses signals from the pilot’s brain to target enemies and fire weapons; however, it only responds to commands thought in Russian. The aircraft was fitted with a camera system that allowed the pilot to see images from his “6 o’clock”.

Two prototypes of the MiG-31 were built (according to the fictional story). The first prototype was stolen by Major Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood) who evades the Soviets’ attempts to stop him, reaches the Arctic ice pack where it lands to be refueled and rearmed by the crew of a submarine. The second prototype is launched to intercept the stolen Firefox. The subsequent, long dogfight is (needless to say) won by Gant.

A second novel was written by Craig Thomas in 1983. “Firefox Down” did not become a feature film even though the cover of book depicts the MiG-31 as it was in the movie.

The MiG-31s involved in the dogfight. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Graphic designer Kurt Beswick (who has also illustrated the Northrop Low Altitude Penetrator concept for our site) has been researching and studying the aircraft featured in the 1982. He has also launched a website that acts as an online resource of information about the Firefox and its special effects.

Kurt has also produced a technical “whitepaper” to accompany the illustration that you can find at the top of this article. “Note that it’s all pulled from the movie and/or made-up by me and not meant to be taken seriously, it’s just for fun. Obviously a plane of this design and configuration wouldn’t be hypersonic, but for the sake of the film (and book) I keep it accurate to the details,” he wrote in an email.

Here below you can find some of the most interesting parts of the whitepaper.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The fundamental purpose behind the MiG-31 Firefox program was to develop an aircraft capable of intercepting anything the West currently had, which at that time were Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird, U-2B, TR-1, and the D-21 drone.  The cold war was still at its peak and the need to “keep the other guy honest” led the United States to begin overflights of Russia with spyplanes.  Thus, the Mach 3.5 Lockheed D-21 drone that launched from a “mothership” SR-71 was the only real concern Russia had in 1982.  The Americans already had several successful launches and recoveries of the unmanned aircraft above 100,000 feet, Mikoyan-Gurevich needed to make this their primary target.  Much of what they had learned from the MiG-25 Foxbat programme was applied to create one of the most advanced aircraft to ever take to the skies.  The Firefox was at the forefront of aviation technology and the United States recognized this.

The MiG-31 budget kept getting larger and the hopes of building more than two prototypes quickly began to diminish.  The titanium manufacturing process alone was already far beyond the initial budget for the program, but officials pushed forward regardless. They were not to be outdone by anyone, and they most certainly would not allow the American’s to overfly their aispace unchallenged any longer. Firefox was designed to be the ultimate high-speed, high-altitude interceptor.

POWERPLANT

The Firefox used a pair of Tumansky RJ-15BD-600 high-bypass afterburning turbojets capable of producing 50,000 lbs. thrust each.  These were heavily modified, uprated turbojets based upon the engines from the MiG-25 Foxbat programme.  Russian engineers took what they learned from high-mach turbojet engine technology and applied acquired US engine manufacturing technology to the Tumansky 600 series engines, built within the same footprint of the current R-15BD-300 design.  The introduction of high-bypass air intake systems helped produce the most powerful conventional turbojet engine of its day, surpassing even the US built 32,000lb P&W J58, used in the much revered SR-71 Blackbird.

In addition to these massive engines, the Firefox had six Soyuz/Komarov solid rocket boosters, using a solid-propellant with a proprietary ignition/shutoff system.  These rockets could be used to augment the main engines, providing an additional 15,900 pounds of thrust.  These were normally used during take-off under full load or high-speed dash acceleration. In some rare cases, test pilots were known to engage these rockets at extreme altitudes where thin air produced flame-outs on the main engines.  The first flying prototype was taken to 131,079 feet setting a new world record, breaking the previous record of 123,492 ft. held by a Ye-266M.

The compressor blade components were manufactured of pure titanium, a first for Russian aircraft manufacturing.  Fuel was cooled via the centerline ventral air intake and then pumped through a complex series of conduits around the giant Tumansky engines to keep them cool, as well as throughout much of the airframe.  Much of this technology and ideology was gleaned from information obtained by Russian agents on the production of the SR-71 Blackbird, which used similar cooling principles.

By alternating wastegate control between the dorsal and ventral air intakes using ramps, thereby more accurately controlling the engine-breathing, the RJ-15BD-600 could achieve incredible thrust to weight ratio and excellent high-altitude air-breathing qualities. Achieving Mach 6 was possible, although this was considered ‘maximum’ speed which was ineffecient to maintain for any period of time due to the MiG’s massive fuel consumption.  Cruise speeds were more in the range of Mach 3.8 to 4.8, and operational altitudes under normal conditions were considered to be in the range of 95,000 to 105,000 feet.

The Firefox at the rendezvous with a submarine in the arctic (Warner Bros).

AIRFRAME

The airframe was composed mostly of titanium and SS-118, a stainless steel/nickel alloy that was used extensively in the later model Foxbats.  The MiG-31 was the first Soviet aircraft to extensively use titanium in the structure, it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that Russian manufacturing technology reached a point where working extensively with titanium was actually realistic.  However, with the addition of a radar absorbent material coating the aircraft, surface heating became a major problem.

To partially combat this issue the plane was designed with a very thin aspect-ratio to the leading/trailing edges of the wings, much like the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.  The nose and engine nacelles were designed based upon seamless flat-angles to minimize air friction and reduce overall drag.  All rivets were countersunk, unlike most Russian aircraft preceding it, and there were virtually no exposed protuberances, sensors or seams anywhere on the craft.  Expansion joints were built into the wings of the aircraft to allow for expansion/contraction of the skin due to this surface heating.  The weapons bays were internal and missiles were carried on retractable launching racks behind flush-mounted doors on the port and starboard sides of the plane.  Many different methods of heat-reduction were tested, but in the end the airframe was still a giant heatsink, not unlike its MiG-25 forefather.

The airframe had “stealth” characteristics, however there was much debate over the need for this considering the speed and altitude capabilities of the aircraft.  It used a three-fold combination of countermeasures to make itself virtually undetectable to enemy radar systems.  The design of the aircraft was angular enough to deflect much of the incoming radar away from its point of origin, the most basic form of “stealth” technology.  In addition to this, the skin of the craft was coated with a radar absorbent material (RAM) very similar to American Stealth technology at the time.  Finally, the MiG had electronic countermeasures (ECM) that could jam enemy early-warning systems.  However, there was no way to effectively cool the exhaust of the giant Tumansky engines which gave the MiG-31 a massive heat signature for heatseeking missiles, which was considered one of the aircraft’s only major weaknesses.

AVIONICS SYSTEMS

The Firefox was the first aircraft to effectively use an operational thought-controlled weapons management system.  Not only was it a fully operational and working system, it was also rather simple and unobtrusive from a mechanical standpoint.  The receptors were mounted inside the specially designed helmet and linked to the aircraft’s central computer system via a fiber datalink.  The pilot simply had to think (in Russian) about what weapon he wanted selected and could execute the command to launch the missile mentally.  This is what is known as an EEG Feedback system.  The pilot did not fly the aircraft via thought, he only controlled the weapons systems by thought.  Most of the fly-by-wire systems in the aircraft were considered new technology at the time, but the Thought Controlled Weapons Management System was truly revolutionary.  Mikoyan-Gurevich also managed to develop a synthetic aperture radar system for the plane which gave it even more mission flexibility, including being well suited for recon missions.

The MiG-31 Firefox had a range of 3,000 miles. (Warner Bros).

FATE OF THE FOX

I didn’t really follow the timeline of the Firefox novel according to Craig Thomas, because quite frankly I thought it was ridiculous to go through all of that effort to steal the plane only to crash it into the ground (as in “Firefox Down”). I instead took a few liberties with it, but still kept in line with the known facts.  IE: The full-scale mockup of the Firefox really was filmed in and around a hangar at Edwards Air Force Base.  So what I did was create a bit of a “history” for the aircraft.  I thought to myself; ‘If this were an actual stolen Soviet fighter, where would the US military brass go with it?’  The first logical choice, since the plane was headed toward Alaska at the end of the movie, would be a secure facility in Northern California, probably Beale AFB since it has vast support capabilities and it’s fairly remote (they operated SR-71 and TR-1 spyplanes out of the base for years).  Here, the majority of the initial inspection and study of the aircraft would be done.  From there they would probably take it to Groom Lake to join the “Red Hat” squadron that consists of other acquired Russian military hardware.

Once the majority of the plane had been disassembled and reverse engineered over a period of several years, it would eventually find its way to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB in southern California. There, it would spend the rest of its life undergoing high-speed flight testing and metallurgy research in conjunction with their already-existing SR-71 testbed programme, not to mention study of the thought controlled weapons system. The possibilities are endless from there, perhaps the F-22 Raptor program would have had quite a different outcome had any of this actually been real.

CONCLUSION

The Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau succeeded in creating an aircraft with capabilities far beyond anything the west currently had by using the proven “brute force” design tactic so typical of Russian military aircraft.  The creative minds at the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau learned as much about what was being done at the time as they could, then improved upon the concepts in many ways.  The west recognized this as an opportunity to even the table and consequently made the radical decision to steal the aircraft from Russia. They succeeded in doing so, succeeding also in destroying the only other prototype example of the MiG-31.

With both aircraft gone, all of the program funding used to build the first two prototypes gone, and several of their lead engineers killed in the process, Mikoyan-Gurevich decided not to reinstate the Firefox program.  This effectively ended the legacy of one of the greatest, most powerful and technologically advanced aircraft of our time.  There have been many stories about how the Firefox was never spoken of again within the corridors at Mikoyan-Gurevich.  All records of it, along with the tooling, were destroyed shortly after it was stolen and there exists no mention of the programme in any Russian aviation literature.  It was viewed by many top Russian officials as an embarrassing end to such an incredible machine.

Illustration by Kurt Beswick. Be sure to visit his website for tons of details about the MiG-31