Author Archives: Alessandro "Gonzo" Olivares

Red Flag Memories: Combat Pilot Explains How RF Has Evolved And Why The F-35 Is A Real Game Changer In Future Wars

Red Flag is not a “joke” as some critics have said. It’s an exercise that continues to evolve to replicate the most modern scenarios, where 5th Gen. aircraft are pivotal to the final success.

Red Flag is one of the biggest high-intensity exercises in world. It is designed to simulate the first 10 days of a conflict with hundreds of assets involved. A friendly force (Blue Air) against an enemy force (Red Air) in a scenario designed to provide pilots with real combat experiences so that they can improve their skill set before heading into actual combat. Something evident in the Red Flag motto as well: “Train as you fight, fight as you train”.

I took part in RF twice during my career: in 2002, I was at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for a “standard” RF, whereas in 2010 I deployed to Alaska for the so-called Red Flag-Alaska (read here about the epic transatlantic flight we undertook to take six Tornado bombers back to Italy after RF-A..).

RF has the ability to bring the pilot into a unique realistic scenario, and is also a place where new tactics are born, developed or put to test.

I remember more than 70 aircraft scheduled to depart from Nellis AFB one morning; one big COMAO per day with a scenario featuring different type of threats (Surface-to-Air and Air-to-Air), targets and ROE (Rules of engagement).

Believe me, RF is much more than a normal large-scale exercise!

Ever-changing scenarios

After attending two RFs I can assert I’ve seen scenarios changing a lot throughout the time.

In 2002 we had a well-defined set up, we knew where the enemy was, how it would react to our presence, where the threats were located etc.; in 2010, we faced a “border line” scenario with enemy elements embedded in friendly forces or civilian population, where CDE (Collateral Damage Estimation) was extremely important, where target VID (Visual IDentification) or  EOID (Electro Optical IDentification) were the main success factors in the simulated air campaign. In other words, 8 years apart, the RF scenario had evolved to adapt to the ever-changing “combat environment.”

The most recent RFs prove that the exercise continues to change.

For instance, while maintaining the standard coalitions scheme (Blue and Red forces), RF 17-1 had the two teams involved in a “crisis” instead of a war situation. On top of that, not only does the scenario has introduced the latest and most sophisticated and capable threats that require a change in tactics, but it has also moved on a higher level, focusing on the importance of  “battlefield information management,” a kind of task the much debated F-35 is going to master.

Today, taking part in a RF means joining pilots, ground forces, intelligence analysts, cyber and space operators, for testing and training operations at Nellis as well as the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas.

All the participants have only one goal in mind: working together to FITS “Find, Identify, Track and Strike” the adversary, to attack forces in a multi-domain battlefield which is based on what we have encountered so far in theater and what we may expect to find in the future wars. This is the real core business and the big change of the most recent RFs.

A RF mission is usually made of 20-25 adversaries: not only aircraft, but also ground-to-air threats, moving and unknown threats etc. In other words, the old fixed scenario has become much more “dynamic” requiring a real-time “combat battlefield” coordinator.

Therefore, the most recent RF scenarios aim to develop the ability to fuse all the combat capabilities. In this context, the F-35 brings to the package the ability to penetrate deep into the most complex and “unknown” environments providing the “overall control” of the battlefield. The F-35, as well as any other modern aircraft with similar sensor fusing ability, can also work in a complementary fashion with the 4th generation fighters, sharing the information with all the other “players” while providing its own amount of fire power to the team.

Stealth technology (capability to survive and operate effectively where others cannot) combined with 5th generation features (i.e. superior information management), were pivotal to achieve the overall RF’s mini-campaign results.

Maintainers from the 419th and 388th Fighter Wings conduct conducts preflight checks on an F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, during Red Flag 17-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 24, 2017. Airmen from the active duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW fly and maintain the Lightning II in a total force partnership, capitalizing on the strength of both components. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

Although the reliance on a single capability or asset will not be enough to succeed in the future scenarios, the F-35, as a “combat battlefield” coordinator, is a “game changer”: it brings new flexibility, new capabilities and, above all, helps enhancing the “survivability” of the coalition packages.

In a “crisis” situation, the coalition needs to timely react to a fast evolving scenario. With the ability to collect, manage and distribute intelligence data, during RF 17-1 the F-35s were able to geo-locate the threats and target them with the required (simulated) weaponry. Even when the F-35s had expended all their ordnance they were requested to stay in the fight and assist the rest of the package by collecting live battlefield data and passing it to older 4th generation fighters via Link-16.

This is the value-add of 5th generation fighters: their ability to suppress enemy targets while contributing to dominate the air and battlespace supporting “legacy” aircraft.

Believe me, it’s not easy to be fighter, striker and tactical battlefield coordinator at same time! So whatever the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) or the role of the F-22 that teamed with the F-35 were, the 20:1 kill ratio against the aggressors is a pretty impressive achievement.

Analysing the RF 17-1, it is quite impressive (at least from an old-school fighter pilot’s standpoint) to hear that the F-35 flew right on top of the threat, did its job performing successful strikes and providing command and control tasks to other COMAO assets, before returning home unscathed.

The Red Flags I attended in the past did only feature “conventional” fight with no 5th generation asset involved. My job as wingman was to keep visual contact with my leader, follow him while he managed the air-to-air picture and, if everything went well, reach the TGT (target) area, using terrain masking, without being targeted by the red air or ground-to-air systems . Less than a decade ago, the friendly forces did not have the capability to target advanced surface-to-air missile threats with an aircraft like the F-35A and exercise planners were obliged to simulate the engagement of the most heavily defended targets with long-range “standoff” weapons – like Tomahawk cruise missiles – a kind of air strike that would require an outstanding intelligence coordination and would not fit too well in case of moving targets.

An Italian Air Force Tornado takes off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska on June 18, 2010 in support of training exercise Red Flag – Alaska. More than 1,300 personnel including members of the Italian Air Force and the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force have deployed to Alaska to participate in RED FLAG-Alaska 10-3. U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.

That changed significantly with the advent of new generation aircraft. The wingmen flying 5th gen. aircraft today, act as air battle managers who are able to “see” the battlefield in a way an F-15 or an F-16 pilot will never see, whereas their leaders can drop PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) on ground targets or engage enemy fighters.

In 2002, everybody came in into fight, moving from BVR (Beyond Visual Range) and eventually to WVR (Within Visual Range) for a big merge; today, the adversaries roughly know where the stealth fighter *could* be, but they don’t know exactly where they are, how they will approach the target or maneuver to engage the enemy.

Summing up, the real added value of 5th Gen. aircraft (both during RFs and in case of real wars) is their ability to perform information distribution, real-time battlefield management, and dynamic FITS (Find, Identified, Track and Strike) reducing the risk of attrition or collateral damage.

 

Dissecting The Latest Close Encounter Between U.S. F-22 Raptors And Russian Su-35S Flankers Off Alaska

Let’s have a look at what happened in the airspace off Alaska a couple of weeks ago.

On the night of May 3, 2017, two Russian nuclear-capable Tu-95MS Bear bombers, this time escorted by two Su-35S Flanker-E jets, flew again inside the Alaskan ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone).

The “mini” package was intercepted by two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors some 50 NM to the south of Chariot, Alaska.

The Su-35 is a 4++ generation aircraft characterized by supermaneuverability. Although it’s not stealth, it is equipped with a Irbis-E PESA (Passive Electronically-Scanned Array) and a long-range IRST – Infrared Search and Tracking – system capable, (according to Russian sources…) to detect stealth planes like the F-35 at a distance of over 90 kilometers.

The Su-35S was deployed at Hmeymim airbase, near Latakia in Syria at the beginning of 2016, to provide cover to the Russian warplanes conducting raids in Syria in the aftermath of the downing of a Su-24 Fencer by a Turkish Air Force F-16. During the Syrian air war the aircraft carried Vympel R-77 medium range, active radar homing air-to-air missile system (a weapon that can be considered the Russian counterpart of the American AIM-120 AMRAAM) along with R-27T (AA-10 Alamo-B), IR-guided air-to-air missiles (however, the Flanker E jets escorting the Tu-95s off Alaska, did not carry any weapon.)

Shortly after being deployed to Syria the Su-35S started shadowing US-led coalition aircraft: a German Air Force spokesperson explained that the Russian Flankers were among the aircraft used by the Russian Air Force to shadow the GAF Tornado jets carrying out reconnaissance missions against ISIS; a VFA-131 video that included footage from the cruise aboard USS Eisenhower in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, in Syria and Iraq showed a close encounter with what looked like a Su-35S Flanker-E filmed by the Hornet’s AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod.

Although we have no confirmed reports of “close encounters” between the F-22 and the Flanker in the skies over Syria, what makes May 3 episode particularly interesting is the fact that this was the first time the U.S. Air force Raptors saw the Su-35S near the U.S. coasts.

Moreover, it’s worth noticing the “readiness in flight” posture of the stealth fighters.

Indeed, according to USAF, the Raptors were “committed” by North American Aerospace Defense Command to intercept the Russian aircraft while already in air patrol not too far away. It’s not clear whether the F-22s were already flying because involved in “Northern Edge”, Alaska’s largest and premier joint training exercise with MOB (Main Operating Base) at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or the CAP (Combat Air Patrol) was one of the measures introduced to enhance the readiness of the U.S. Air Force Air Defense assets as a consequence of the “unprecedented level activity of Russian bombers” recorded in the last months.

Anyway, the American premiere stealth fighters were already flying and thus could be quickly diverted by NORAD to “greet” the Russian package, this time supported by an A-50 Mainstay surveillance plane from distance.

The presence of Mainstay and Flanker confirms what this Author has already explained in the previous report about the key factors to take in consideration when planning a long-range strike sortie.

In my opinion the “mini package” was launched as a consequence of the increased flight activity in Alaska related to the Northern Edge exercise, confirming that the Russians closely observe what happens in the Alaskan area.

This time, they wanted to showcase their ability to plan a complex long-range sortie as well as the Flanker’s readiness to escort its own HVA (high value asset), the Bear, during operations at strategic distance.

The composition of this package is also worth a comment.

The presence of the Mainstay should not be underestimated. It was flying well behind the Flanker and Bear aircraft with a specific purpose. As an AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platform the A-50 is believed to embed some ESM (Electronic Support Measures): in other words, it is able to detect far away targets as well as able to sniff radar, radio and data link emissions. Furthermore, Raptors in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) *usually* fly with external fuel tanks and Lunenburg lenses: this means that they are (consciously) visible to radars. In such conditions, although it can’t “characterize” the clean F-22’s signature, the Mainstay can at least gather some data about the interceptors’ radar emissions (if any) and observe and study their tactics.

Therefore, as frequently happens on both sides since the Cold War, on May 3, the Russians most probably carried out another simulated long-range strike mission but with a precise ELINT (ELectronics INTelligence) objective: the Flankers and Bears were acting as a “decoy” package to test the American scramble tactics and reaction times, whereas the Mainstay, in a back position, tried to collect as much signals and data as possible about the US fighters launched to intercept them.

 

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Here’s Why The U.S. Air Force Scrambled An E-3 Sentry Alongside Two F-22s To Intercept The Russian Bombers Off Alaska

For two days in a row, Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bombers flew near Alaska’s airspace.

On Apr. 17 the U.S. Air Force scrambled two F-22 Raptor stealth jets, one E-3 Sentry AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft and a KC-135 tanker (according to some reports, others don’t mention the Stratotanker’s presence) to intercept two nuclear-capable Bears flying roughly 100 nm southwest of Kodiak.

The stealth jets took off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and intercepted the Russian aircraft inside the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), “the airspace over land or water in which the identification, location and control of civilian aircraft is performed in the interest of national security.”

ADIZs may extend beyond a country’s territory to give the country more time to respond to possible hostile aircraft: in fact any aircraft flying inside these zones without authorization may be identified as a threat and treated as an enemy aircraft, leading to an interception and VID (Visual Identification) by fighter aircraft.

North America ADIZs

The F-22 escorted the Tu-95s for 12 minutes (27 for some sources) before the Russian bombers headed back.

On the following night, that is to say few hours after the first “visit”, the Bear flew again inside the ADIZ but this time, the US Air Force opted to not scramble fighter jets but only the E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System). It’s not the first time the Russian Bears fly in the ADIZ, not even the first time that no fighter jet is scrambled to meet them.

Alaska ADIZ detail

“Combined scramble”

Let’s have a look at the first episode. It’s worth of note that along with the 5th generation interceptors, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) called for an alert take off by an E-3 Sentry. Most of times, QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) take offs by armed interceptors are supported by tanker aircraft, not by AEW assets: the fighters are guided to the unknown aircraft by ground air defense radars. That’s why I want to draw your attention on this “combined scramble.”

Launching the AEW along with the fighters is a “tactics” that allows the Air Defense to extend the radar coverage and to better investigate the eventual presence of additional bombers or escorting fighters flying “embedded” with the “zombies” (as the unknown aircraft are usually dubbed in the QRA jargon). At the same time, the presence of an E-3 allows the Raptors to improve their situational awareness while reducing the radar usage and maximizing as much as possible their stealth capability (even though it must be remembered that F-22s in QRA usually carry fuel tanks that make them less “invisible” to radars).

A combined AEW/F-22 scramble provides a more effective way to counter a possible “strike package”.

A long range sortie is not easy to plan. Even more so a strike sortie: the bomber are not only required to fly inbound the target (TGT) and reach a convient position to simulate the attack and weapons delivery, they also need to take in consideration many other factors. First of all “what is your goal?” Do you want to train for a realistic strike? Or do you want to “spy” or show your presence or posture?

Other factors are distance from own country, opponent’s defense capability, minimum risk routing according to the threats, presence of DCA (Defensive Counter Air), supporting assets, etc.

Usually, during a strike sortie, bombers are considered the HVA (High Value Asset), the one that must be protected. For this reason during the planning phase they are always escorted by fighter and protected by the Ground to Air threats by means of SEAD/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses), EW (Electronic Warfare) and everything is needed to let them able to hit their targeted.

However, escorting a strategic bomber is not always possible (nor convenient): considered their limited range, the presence of the fighters would heavily affect the long range planning, requiring support from multiple tankers along the route.

For this reason, although the Russians visit the West Coast quite often, they usually are not escorted by any fighter jet (as happens, for instance, in the Baltic region, where Tu-22s are often accompanied by Su-27 Flankers).

However, it’s better to be prepared and trained for the worst case scenario and this is probably the reason why NORAD included an E-3 AEW in the QRA team: to have a look at the Tu-95s and make sure there was no “sweep” fighters or subsequent “package”.

Based on my experience, the ones of last week were just simulated strike sorties with the only aim to test the U.S. tactics and reaction times. Something that happens quite frequently. There is also the chance the Bears were sent there while another Russian spyplane was in the vicinity to “sniff” the Raptors electromagnetic emissions. However, there are no reports of Il-20 ELINT aircraft in the area.

A U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) lands at U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay. AWACS provides all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications needed by commanders of U.S. and NATO air defense forces and is considered to be the premier air battle command and control aircraft in the world today. U.S. Navy photo by Paul Farley. (RELEASED)

Top image: file photo of a Raptor taking off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

 

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Italian Air Force T-346A and RAF Hawk T2 jet trainers conduct joint training at Decimomannu airbase

The Italian and British most advanced jets conducted some Air-to-Air sortie in 1vs1 and 2vs1 scenarios combined with rear seat exchange for a cross training and experience sharing during their firing campaigns in Italy.

On Mar. 31, the 212° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 61° Stormo (Wing) from Lecce Galatina airbase, has completed the first Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground training campaign of the year at Decimomannu airbase in Sardinia.

The deployment lasted two weeks and involved six examples of the most advanced jet trainer in the world, the T-346A (as the M-346 is designated in Italy) “Master” operated by the ItAF as well as the Israeli, Polish and Republic of Singapore Air Force.

The pictures in this post, taken by Gian Luca Onnis (one of the most active aviation photographers in Sardinia), show the T-346As carrying two BRD 4-250 (Bomb and Rockets Training Dispenser) loaded with four Low-drag BDU-33D/B bombs for use in the ranges.

3-ship formation departs the range

The image at the top of the article shows the Master at the Apex of a PUP attack (is the top point of the Pull Up Attack).

The 212° Gruppo is responsible for Phase IV pilot jet training and this deployment represents the last part of the LIFT (Lead In Fighter Training) track, the most advanced and challenging segment of the fighter jock training during which trainees are called to perform air-to-air as well as air-to-ground sorties with multiple threats and complex set ups, to deliver state-of-the-art multirole training.

Every scenario can be used thanks to the advanced ETTS (Embedded Tactical Training Simulation) which simulates air-to-air and ground-to-air threats and moving targets, and it is also capable to generate synthetic targets overlapped with real features on the ground allowing a realist Targeting Pod usage.

Drop of a practice bomb

The 212° Gruppo is also involved in the Aggressor role, taking part in the TLP (Tactical Leadership Programme) at Albacete, Spain, with a state-of-the-art trainer and its accompanying simulation system to deliver the perfect “Bandit”: fast, maneuverable and very well equipped.

The Aggressor also dubbed “Red Baron” is part of the TLP’s “Game plan” and together with the Red Forces is also one of the most important “training tool” in the exercise.

In my experience as Instructor Pilot of 212° Gruppo in charge of advanced tactics and combat of the LIFT course, I have taken part in TLP exercise as part of Red Forces. The Aggressor role isn’t easy: pilots need to use all their experience to adhere as much as possible to the requested threat profile in order to make the scenario as realistic as possible and be useful to the Blue Forces training. Many time people think to the Aggressor as a fighter pilot tasked to engage all aircraft and shot them down; in reality, with new scenarios, sometimes border line and not well-defined, the Aggressor’s task is to “incite or harass” the Blue Forces in the right place, in the right moment, with the correct “numbers” (speed, Aspect Angle – AA – etc). In order to do that, the Aggressor is requested to know in-depth the Blue plan, how and where the “package” is flying second by second.

Among all the missions that I’ve flown I’ve had the possibility to face several different scenarios: for instance, one of my task has been to “POP UP”, undetected, just before the attack to disrupt the strike package’s plans and force the attackers to look after me.

Hawk formation take-off

Decimomannu AWTI (Air Weapons Training Installation) provides a full integrated training installation with air-to-air and air-to-ground as well as an EW (Electronic Warfare) range. For this reason, is one of the best places for trainees who need to gain experience at planning and executing missions tactically.

As the Italians carried out their missions with the T-346s, the Royal Air Force’s No. 4 (Reserve) Sqn from RAF Valley was also deployed to Decimomannu for the first time.

Part of the 4 Flying Training School (4 FTS) also known as the fast-jet ATTU (Advanced Training and Tactics Unit), No. 4 (R) Sqn is responsible for tactical weapons training, a role carried out with the Hawk T2.

Whilst advanced flying training is assigned to the 208 (Reserve) Sqn, flying the Hawk T1, RAF students assigned to the 4(R) Sqn will learn how to use the Hawk as a weapons platform, flying in tactical formations at low level to attack targets. Students will basically learn how to drop bombs, strafe targets and the basics of air-to-air combat. Indeed, the Sardinian deployment was part of the A/A training.

The 4(R) Squadron chose Decimomannu for the deployment mainly for the presence of the ACMI (Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation) range availability and the permissive weather conditions allowing simulation of “full war” scenarios.

The ItAF and RAF training squadrons also conducted some joint training sessions: air-to-air sorties in 1vs1 and 2vs1 scenarios combined with rear seat exchange for a cross training and experience sharing. The cross-training was absolutely exciting and an important opportunity to share different aircraft performance. According to the Italian pilots, their British colleagues were extremely impressed by the T-346A’s superior thrust and agility during the fight.

RAF Hawk T2 on the ground at “Deci”

All images: Gian Luca Onnis

“That time we lost one KC-135 tanker over the Atlantic while returning from Red Flag Alaska”

Last week, while unpacking some boxes I’ve stumbled in my Red Flag Alaska (RF-A) papers. Suddenly, an endless flashback brought me back to that exercise and to an epic transatlantic flight with 6 receivers and just one tanker…

That RF-A took place in the Summer of 2010. All the Italian Air Force Tornado community took part in the exercise: the 6° Stormo (Wing) from Ghedi airbase, equipped with Tornado IDS attack aircraft, deployed to Alaska elements from both the 102° Gruppo (Squadron), the 154° Gruppo and the 156° Gruppo (my squadron) whereas the 50° Stormo, from Piacenza airbase, deployed its 155° Gruppo, equipped with the Tornado ECR, the electronic combat reconnaissance variant of the “Tonka”.

Red Flag Alaska is a really intensive air combat training exercise held at Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles (42 km) southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Participants are organized into “Red” forces (defensive forces), “Blue” forces (offensive forces) and “White” forces representing the neutral forces (typically, the drills control agencies).

In 2010 edition, up to 50 combat aircraft of all types were deployed to Eielson AFB and about 40 (mainly Red Air assets) operated from Elmendorf AFB, Anchorage.

RF-A is a very exciting exercise because it offers a huge high/low altitude Military Operation Area (MOA) and provides a realistoc operational combat scenario that includes several different threats.

A that time, along with being a Tornado pilot, I was also assigned to the Italian Air Force HQ for a so-called “staff tour” during which I worked in the development of the T-346A (M-346 Master aircraft in the ItAF designation), the aircraft I eventually flew years later once I became an IP (Instructor Pilot).

Our plan was to arrive in Alaska a week before RF-A kicked off in order to complete all the in-processing briefings, assume a correct mental preparation and have the possibility to fly at least one LAO (Local Area Orientation) sortie inside the ranges to get familiar with the procedures, alternates and recovery points around Eielson.

Retro flight’s line up card.

Flying a formation of fighter bombers across the Pond is quite complex: it requires a lot of effort by a whole team whose task is to deal with planning the ferry flight, stopovers, refueling points, diplomatic clearances as well as several other logistic details.

Dealing with the assets, three U.S. tankers (2 KC-10s and 1 KC-135s), one ItAF C-130 for search and rescue, and one ItAF Boeing 767 for logistic support were needed.

In terms of plan, a long and complex flight between Italy and Alaska has a main basic requirement: all the aircraft must be filled with the amount of fuel required to either reach the next refueling point or to divert to the nearest alternate airfield, at all the stages of the trip.

As you may imagine, this is not an easy task: not only do the known variables influence the planning but also many unpredictable events (weather conditions, ATC clearances, tanker or receiver issues, etc.) must be taken into proper consideration and, in some way, anticipated.

The type of formation required to undertake the long ferry flight usually includes one tanker (with two hoses/baskets) and 6 Tornados: the dual hose configuration is needed to shorten the AAR (Air-Air Refueling) operations and have a backup option in case one of the baskets becomes unavailable. Dealing with the flight time, the entire trip is split into several legs each consisting of about 5hrs of flight time and 5 air-to-air refueling points (even though this may change because of the winds).

In 2010, the ItAF deployed to Alaska 12 Tornado between ECR version (Electronic Combat Reconnaissance) and IDS version (Interdiction and Strike) in two “waves” of 6 aircraft each.

I was selected to bring one of  the jets back at the end of exercise and fly the oceanic track: in other words I had to pilot the Tornado from Bangor to Italy via Lajes, the Azores. Considered that the tankers did not have the dual hose/basket configuration, the plan was to split the formation in two flights of 3 Tornados, each supported by one tanker, perform five refueling operations in about 5 hrs of flight, land in Lajes, spend there 36 hrs there and then continue to our final destination, Ghedi, with another 5-hr leg through the Strait of Gibraltar and 4 additional AARs.

Pretty much this was what we briefed with the tankers the day before the mission. The “only” problem was the weather on the departure day. The wx forecast highlighted two possible issues.

The first one was a very low ceiling not allowing the “compound departure.” The compound departure is a sort of racetrack departure procedure where tanker and fighters rejoin shortly after takeoff over the airfield and then proceed together along the route: in this way the time to rejoin with the tanker minimized; the tanker is responsible for navigation, airspace coordination, correct AAR sequence, time and fuel off load.

The second issue was that solid clouds were reported up to FL250 (which is above the best AAR altitude for Tornado) and well beyond the first refueling point (C2, according to the map).

In other words, with that kind of weather we would be forced to take off, look for the tanker during the climb to the cruise level with the risk of not being able to get in visual contact with the refueler by the missing refueling point (MRP) due to the poor visibility and cloud coverage, and be eventually forced to divert to the alternate because the fuel would not be enough to return to Bangor.

So the question was: “continue with this plan or postpone the mission until weather improves?” Re-planning isn’t easy when a lot of people, different commands and supporting assets are involved. Delaying the mission would also have a logistic impact as lodging would have to be arranged for many military at different airbases. Last but not least, a delay of one day in Bangor would have led to a delay of three days in the overall trip since the original take off from Lajes was scheduled on Friday morning and Saturday and Sunday are no-fly days there, meaning that we would have to wait until Monday to depart from the Azores.

We eventually decided to wait until the departure day and check the actual weather before opting for a delay.

On early morning Jul. 13 we met in the briefing room: the weather was exactly as forecasted, but the good news was that the forecast for the next two hours reported the clouds moving westward. This gave us good chances of reaching VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) before the missing refueling point (MRP), about 50nm before C4.

Therefore, the revised plan was to launch the tankers 5 minutes ahead of the Tornados so that the refuelers could set the holding at least 20 nm before the first MRP. In case of bad weather, the tankers could extend eastwards, moving the holding pattern until good weather was found or fuel to divert to divert to the alternate airfield was reached (whichever came first). In order to have the option to fly eastwards as much as possible, we decided to use St. Johns as alternate airfield.

This plan implied minimum spacing and a first, quick plug to get the gas required to increase the endurance as needed to start a new refueling sequence. In such conditions the crews need to be very precise and disciplined: each aircraft is allowed to take just the minimum fuel needed to continue the flight and then make room to the other jets. The wait-refuel-wait sequence is extremely important as each member of the formation has always to have enough fuel to divert and reach the alternate, should the need arise. Moreover, the farther you meet the tanker and start the sequence, the more fuel you’ll need. But more fuel translate in a longer sequence, hence more gas is burnt by the aircraft waiting for their turn to refuel… In other words, it’s a matter of continuous calculations.

Mid track chart

The day of the flight

It’s 07:00L on Jul. 13, 2010. I’m the leader of 3-ship formation, radio callsign “Retro 11” and my tanker is a KC-10 single hose. We are finishing the briefing with the Extender aircrew and in 10 minutes we will be walking towards the assigned aircraft.

The Squadron Commander, callsign “Mig” is the leader of the other 3-ship formation “Retro 14” whose tanker is a KC-135 single hose with Boom to Drogue Adapter (BDA). The BDA is a very stable system, easier to plug, but more difficult to maintain while refueling since it needs a particular “S” shape to open the refuel valves like you see in the picture below.

A Tornado refuels from a KC-135 equipped with the BDA (Credit: USAF)

After 20 minutes, we are at the holding point ready for takeoff. The KC-135 gets airborne as scheduled; “Retro 14” follows 5 minutes later. Then it’s the turn of my tanker (KC-10) that gets airborne two minutes after the first flight of “Tonkas” and now it’s my turn aboard “Retro 11”.

I perform the visual signals, release the brakes and depart.

Just 30 seconds after take-off my number three calls “Airborne! Visual two” meaning that they have departed and have visual contact with the preceding Tornado. I slow down to 280 KTS, remaining below the clouds, to expedite the rejoin of my wingmen.

With my wingmen in close formation I start a climb while turning inbound the planned track. At 1,500 ft I’m in the clouds: my two wingmen, “Cloude” on the left wing and “Blondie” on the right wing, are absolutely awesome as they keep a perfect close formation.

We are approaching FL150 and my navigator “Giaspa” is doing an outstanding  job with the radar. Although we are inside solid clouds since our first turn, he has a positive radar contact with the tanker 15NM in front of us. Having the tanker in our radar scope keeps us quite calm: we can focus on rejoining with the tanker preventing any delays

At FL 170 I accelerate a little bit to get closer to the tanker and minimize the rejoin time. “Giaspa” continues to give me updates about the tanker he keeps tracking on the radar and now we are extremely happy with a pretty solid SA (Situational Awareness). “Let’s hope the weather moves in accordance with the forecast and clears our refueling point,” I say to “Giaspa” over the intercom.

In the mean time I contact “Mig” to have some more information from them, flying about 5- 6 minutes ahead of us. “Gonzo we are flying in the clouds at FL190,” he responds.

We are currently over C2 (the waypoint where AAR should have started) and we are in the clouds. We need to calculate how long we can fly before reaching the point to divert and, at the same time, we cover all the “what if” options trying to update a kind of dynamic plan. Waypoint C3 is approaching.

In my mind the option to divert starts to become more and more realistic: we are flying over waypoint C3 and we are still inside the clouds.

This first segment of our long trip  seems to be endless and we steer inbound C4, our “go/no-go point.”

The first leg from Bangor

About five minutes later “Mig” calls me on the radio: “Gonzo we are VMC at FL190 at 25 NM from the MRP and we are in sight with the tanker.”

I smile under the oxygen mask, acknowledge the call on the radio and ask my tanker to climb to FL190: in less than a minute we are above the clouds, in clear skies with our tanker in sight in front of us. I immediately re-check the fuel and call for correct refuel sequence: I’ll be the number one, then will be the turn of “Claude” followed by “Blondie.”

The tanker crew feels our pressure and acts accordingly: the refuelers is extremely cooperative and facilitates the rejoin procedure clearing me directly to the pre-contact position.

I start to refuel. After a few minutes I move to the “observation position” allowing my wingman to plug into the tanker’s hose.

Everything is going very smoothly. We can also take more fuel than initially planned: we have taken 800 Kg each instead of 600 Kg; the plan is to take 2,000 kg each in the next sequence and then fill the tanks again to regain the original AAR schedule.

Meanwhile, Retro 14 formation is on my right, about 3 NM in line abreast 1,000 ft above. They are about to refuel in sequence from the KC-135 in accordance with their fuel state: “Lillo” (#2) then “Mig” (#1) and last will be “Mastro” (#3).

“Lillo” approaches the hose and in a second plugs the probe into the basket. When everything seems to be ok, something happens. About a minute after the successful “contact” he starts a small PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation) that in a few seconds becomes bigger and bigger until it breaks the only basket available on the KC-135! The basket disconnects from the hose misses “Lillo”’s air intake by few meters and falls down into the Ocean.

“Ohhh noooo!!”

The “broken” tanker heads to St. Johns whilst “Mig” and the rest of his formation, join us behind the only remaining tanker able to offload some gas: our KC-10.

In a moment, the situation has dramatically changed. We were three ships with one tanker and now we are six ships and a single refueler: this means less fuel to take, less time to refuel, more plugs and a very long sequence.

“Mig” takes the lead and defines the new refueling sequence in accordance with the formation’s fuel state. “Lillo” has taken 300 kg before breaking the basket while “Mig” and “Mastro” have not had a chance to take gas: they need to refuel asap and then give way to “Lillo” who needs a refill.

In a matter of a few minutes the three Tornados complete the refueling and, a bit more relaxed, we decide to continue the transatlantic crossing with a new sequence involving six ships: I’m the first and “Lillo” will be the last. But considered the queue behind the hose, we will not take 2,000 kg each as planned, but only 500 kg.

The new unplanned sequence seems to be working well until, after the fourth rotation, the tanker radios: “Retro 14 I have gas for six jets only for the next refuel point.”

This isn’t a good news because we are half way from destination and we need at least two more AARs to reach Lajes.

According to the plan, a third tanker should be coming our way from Moron, Spain. Let’s check where it is now.

Our tanker says the new Extender, callsign “Blue 61”, has departed ahead of the scheduled time and is currently already heading westbound over the Atlantic. “Mig” asks our KC-10 to coordinate an expedited rendezvous with the new refueler that would allow us an additional plug.

We meet “Blue 61″ after completing our last refueling with the first KC-10 tanker. The new Extender brings us to Lajes with two additional AARs.

We eventually land there on Jul. 14, after 7 hours of flight time and 7 aerial refuelings!

Once on the ground we meet the rest of the aircrews in the pilot lounge and start relaxing. “If we are here is because of you and also because of the skill and cold blood of all pilots and navigators,” I say to “Mig” and “Gigi”.

A couple of hours after landing, 6 F-16Bs of the PAF (Pakistan Air force), on their way to Nellis Air Force Base, where they would take part in a Red Flag for the first time, perform a stopover in Lajes. We are not alone in the Azores.

Last leg

It’s Jul. 16, I’m back in the cockpit leading the same formation of ItAF Tornados to Italy. Once again “Mig” is the leader of the other section. This time the weather is good.

The last leg was uneventful: everything went well and we arrived in Italy as planned.

What I remember of this second flight is the moment when I was approaching the Strait of Gibraltar: the scenery suddenly changed due to the influence of Sahara desert. Colors changed. From a deep blue start the sky turned into yellow then orange and then into light red just over the Strait. These colors, the Strait, were a unique sight and my feeling was like I was passing through a gate in a game when you change level: it was an indescribable experience.

In the end the entire transfer was a unique, challenging experience. Thousands of words are still not enough to describe our emotions, moods, concerns and adrenalin. You really had to be inside the cockpit to fully understand what we lived up there. Still I would do it again tomorrow.

In my opinion, this mission is the perfect example how discipline, professionalism, team work and training may be the keys to success.

Top image: file photo of an Italian Tornado IDS refueling from a KC-10 over Afghanistan