Author Archives: David Cenciotti

U.S. Air Force A-10 pilot who took part in a famous mission that knocked out 23 Iraqi tanks logs 6,000 hours in the Warthog

Whiteman Thunderbolt pilot has spent the equivalent of 250 days flying the A-10 “tankbuster” across the world (including 11 combat deployments.)

On Nov. 14, 2016, Lt. Col. John Marks, a pilot with the 303rd Fighter Squadron, logged his 6,000th hour in the A-10 Thunderbolt II at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, becoming one of the highest time fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force.

Marks has started flying the “Hawg” little less than 30 years ago. During the last three decades, he has flown the A-10 in theater during 11 combat deployments with the mission to support and protect forces on the ground.

“Six thousand hours is about 3,500 sorties with a takeoff and landing, often in lousy weather and inhospitable terrain,” said Col. Jim Macaulay, the 442d Operations Group commander in an Air Force release about the incredible milestone. “It’s solving the tactical problem on the ground hundreds of times and getting it right every time, keeping the friendlies safe. This includes being targeted and engaged hundreds of times by enemy fire.”

Lt. Col. Marks has started flying the Thunderbolt at low-altitude, in Europe, during the Cold War, when the A-10 focused on developing tactics to attack Soviet tanks in the battlefield.

During the years, the mission has evolved.

A-10s have become more sophisticated, new sensors and weapons have become available and these have made the “Warthog” even more lethal. Flying at higher altitudes above Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, the Thunderbolts remain the most efficient CAS (Close Air Support) platforms available.

“In the end, we can cover the ground forces with everything from a very low-altitude strafe pass only meters away from their position, to a long-range precision weapon delivered from outside threat ranges, and everything in between,” said Marks.

Noteworthy, Marks was part of an epic mission during the Gulf War, when two A-10s wiped out 23 Iraqi tanks (a story that we described in detail here.)

“The trio of missions I flew on February 25, 1991, with Eric Salomonson on which we destroyed or damaged 23 Iraqi tanks with oil fires raging all over Kuwait certainly stands out,” he expressed. “The sky was black from oil fires and smoke and burning targets, lending to an almost apocalyptic feel.”

Indeed, during the same mission, the A-10s landed twice at a FOL (Forward Operating Location), were refueled and re-armed to return over the battlefield and help the Marines near Kuwait City.

“Recently, a mission I flew on our most recent trip to Afghanistan, relieving a ground force pinned down by Taliban on 3 sides and in danger of being surrounded, using our own weapons while also coordinating strikes by an AC-130 gunship, 2 flights of F-16s, Apaches, and AH-6 Little Birds, stands out as a mission I’m proud of,” continued Marks about one of the most rewarding missions of his career, which earned him the President’s Award for the Air Force Reserve Command in 2015.

With such an experience, Marks serves as a mentor for younger pilots in training.

“I’ve watched him mentor young pilots in the briefing room then teach them in the air,” said Macaulay. “Every sortie, he brings it strong, which infects our young pilots that seek to emulate him.”

“I like to think we can show them a good work ethic as well,” Marks added. “You always have to be up on the newest weapons, the newest threats, the newest systems. You can never sit still.”

Marks has plans on flying the A-10 until he cans: his next goal is to reach 7,000 hours.

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Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

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The story of the KC-135 tankers that saved another KC-135 flying for 13.5 hours in support of a CAS mission over Afghanistan

After being unexpectedly requested to refuel a CAS (Close Air Support) aircraft targeting a high-level enemy leader, a KC-135 found itself “below bingo.”

Although they usually offload fuel to other aircraft, aerial refuelers may have to take gas from other tankers to extend their “on station time” or to be able to return to their destination, as happened some months ago to a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker over Afghanistan.

The U.S. tanker was in fact involved to a really long mission, so much so it had to be refueled by other KC-135s three times.

According to Lt. Steve Hartig, 350th Air Refueling Squadron pilot, the original task was to refuel two tactical jets flying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Nothing special then, besides an initial contact with another KC-135 to get some fuel and extend the mission.

“This was my first deployment as a receiver-qualified pilot,” said Capt. Kirk Evans, 384th ARS pilot in a USAF release. “Receiving fuel from a tanker [at a high altitude was pretty challenging]. The air is thinner, and I had less control authority over the aircraft because the engines are less responsive.”

After completing the operation, the Stratotanker returned to its racetrack and continue its refueling mission.

In accordance with the original task, it refueled two aircraft but before heading back to its home base, it got a radio call to relocate and potentially refuel a CAS aircraft needing assistance because an alert refueling plane would not make it in time.

The receiver requested assistance and the KC-135 rushed to help. But the AAR (Air-to-Air Refueling) operation was not previously planned and the tactical scenario as well as the type of aircraft made for an “unorthodox situation.”

The two aircraft made contact far below the surrounding peaks and in a descent, to compensate for the receiver’s slower speed (read below for more about the CAS aircraft.)

To make things more complicated, the receiving crew informed the Stratotanker that they needed 18,000 pounds of fuel whereas the KC-135 had only 7,000 pounds before going “below bingo”, that is to say, below the fuel state required to return home.

Still, the tanker offloaded the requested amount of fuel to the receiver so that it could successfully continue its mission: going after a high-level enemy leader on the ground.

Now, the KC-135 was 12,000 pounds “below bingo.”

Unable to return home the Stratotanker aircrew started contemplating other options, the first of those was diverting to a nearby airfield. There were two airbases within their reach: one was pretty unsafe, as it was getting attacked frequently, whereas the other one was under a thunderstorm.

“We were authorized to divert to a closer air base when we were notified there happened to be another tanker on their way that had a little extra gas,” said Evans.

Hence, the KC-135s headed towards each other for a second “buddy refueling” operation: the “below bingo” KC-135 received enough gas to meet the alert Stratotanker halfway, so it didn’t need to divert.

After a third “buddy refuel,” the Stratotanker was eventually able to return back to its deployment base after 13 and half hours!

The efforts of the KC-135 crew paid off, enabling two different missions, the second performed by the CAS aircraft that was able to “terminate” a high-level enemy leader.

Note: Although the U.S. Air Force did not disclose the type of receiver involved in the CAS mission, based on the “speed difference” and altitude, it is safe to assume it was an AC-130 gunship.

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Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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The F-4 Phantom II, in the QF-4 Aerial Target variant, performs final display before retiring from USAF

After more than 50 years of service, the F-4 Phantom II is about to be retired by the U.S. Air Force.

The final F-4 Phantom appearance at an airshow while in USAF service occurred during Nellis Air Force Base’s Aviation Nation air show, on Nov. 12 and 13.

QF-4E 74-1638, piloted by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King and Jim Harkins, pilots from Holloman AFB, New Mexico, flew at the show on both days, making several passes in afterburner to the delight of more than 295,000 spectators from around the world.

The photographs in this post were taken by our reader Ken Lilly at Nellis AFB during Aviation Nation 2016.

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“[The QF-4 retiring] is bittersweet,” said King, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 commander in a U.S. Air Force release. “It’s been a phenomenal workhorse for our country for years. When the military revitalized the aircraft after retiring them in 1997, it gave them a second lease on life.”

The aircraft have flown as unmanned aerial targets for several DoD and foreign military sales customers testing next generation weapons.

“Just as service members come and go in their military careers, unfortunately so do aircraft,” said Harkins. “It’s getting harder and harder to do the job that it’s supposed to do [based on new technology].

“It’s too old to go as high and as fast or as many [gravitational forces] as the customers need it to so they can proper test equipment,” he added.

Air Combat Command declared initial operational capability for its replacement, the QF-16 full-scale aerial target, that has been flying with the 82nd ATRS, based at Tyndall AFB, Florida, since September 2014,, on Sept. 23: therefore the QF-4 flown by the 82nd ATRS Det. 1 at Holloman AFB is being retired on Dec. 21.

Whilst unmanned operations ended in September, the last unmanned mission in a threat representative configuration was flown on Aug. 17, 2016, “against” an F-35 Lightning II.

During that sortie, the Vietnam-era remotely piloted aircraft was shot at by the F-35 Lightning II with two AIM-120 AMRAAMs (advanced medium range air-to-air missiles). However, the aircraft was not destroyed in the test (read more about the final sortie “against” two AIM-120Cs fired by a Joint Strike Fighter here.)

A QF-4 Aerial Target lands on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during the Aviation Nation air show on Nov. 11, 2016. The QF-4 was piloted by Lt. Col. Ron King, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron Detachment 1 commander, at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. (U.S. Air Force photo by A1C Kevin Tanenbaum/Released)

A QF-4 Aerial Target lands on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during the Aviation Nation air show on Nov. 11, 2016. The QF-4 was piloted by Lt. Col. Ron King, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron Detachment 1 commander, at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. (U.S. Air Force photo by A1C Kevin Tanenbaum/Released)

Interestingly,  Oct. 25 two USAF McDonnell Douglas QF-4E Phantom II’s made an appearance through the famous “Star Wars Canyon” (Jedi Transition) in Death Valley, CA, during in transit from NAS Point Mugu, CA to Hill AFB, UT.

The aircraft, piloted by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King and by Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins, made a couple of aggressive passes through the canyon before continuing their journey to Hill.

The F-4 is one of the most successful multi-role fighter aircraft ever produced. Over 5,000 Phantoms of various models were built and served in combat with a variety of Air Forces around the world. In the U.S., the F-4 served with the US Navy beginning in 1961, followed by the USMC and the USAF.

The aircraft remained in service with the USAF through 1996 when it was retired.

Many Phantoms were converted to service as manned and unmanned targets for weapons training with various USAF and DoD programs, including the White Sands Missile Range.

But the final chapter in a long and successful career in the U.S. Air Force is approaching. At least, other air arms around the world still operate the mighty Phantom, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, that has also used the F-4E in the Air War in Syria; the Turkish Air Force, whose F-4s have had a role in the coup attempt last July; South Korea’s ROKAF (Republic of Korea Air Force), that has also employed the Phantoms to stage Elephant Walks “against” the North; and the Hellenic Air Force.

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Image credit: Ken Lilly unless otherwise specified.

 

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Canadian CF-18 crashes near Cold Lake killing pilot. It’s the eighth Legacy Hornet lost in 6 months

Legacy Hornets are crashing at an alarming rate!

A Royal Canadian Air Force single-seat CF-188 Hornet from 4 Wing Cold Lake crashed inside the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in Saskatchewan, on Nov. 28. The pilot died in the incident.

The rate of crashes involving legacy Hornets is quite alarming. At least 8 major incidents have involved legacy Hornets (that is to say, the older variant of the F/A-18) in the last 6 months!

Two U.S. Marine Corps F-18 Hornets from MCAS Miramar collided mid-air during a training mission on Nov. 9 near San Diego. One pilot landed safely at the NAS North Island whereas the other one ejected over the sea and was rescued.

Few days earlier, on Oct. 25, an F/A-18 Hornet from Miramar crashed near Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms killing the pilot.

On Aug. 29, a Swiss Air Force F/A-18 Hornet crashed shortly after taking off from Meiringen airbase. The 27-year-old pilot was found dead two days later.

On Aug. 2, a U.S. Navy F/A-18C Hornet flown crashed near Fallon, Nevada. The pilot safely ejected.

On Jul. 27 another Marine Hornet pilot died in a crash near 29 Palms.

Same fate for a Blue Angels pilot flying a Hornet that crashed on Jun. 2, shortly after takeoff during a practice flight in Tennessee.

Capt. Stephen R. Miggins, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232 F/A-18 pilot and assistant operations officer, refuels from a KC-130J during flight training in support of Pitch Black 2012 Aug. 15.

Capt. Stephen R. Miggins, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232 F/A-18 pilot and assistant operations officer, refuels from a KC-130J during flight training in support of Pitch Black 2012 Aug. 15.

In the wake of the Hornet crashes from June through October, the U.S. Marine Corps temporarily grounded its non-deployed Hornets. Unfortunately, few days after the ban was lifted, two more F/A-18Cs were lost on Nov. 9.

Hornet crashes over the last year have depleted the number of available airplanes for training and operations. According to USNI News the service had 85 Hornets available for training, compared to a requirement for 171.

In order to face the critical shortage of operational fighters caused by both crashes and high operational tempos, the U.S: Marine Corps has launched a plan that will see Boeing upgrade 30 retired legacy Hornets (currently stored at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona) to a standard dubbed F/A-18C+.

With this upgrade, that will also embed new avionics, the service will be able to keep up with its operational tasks until the F-35 is able to take over.

Once upgraded to the C+ standard, these “gap fillers” should be more than enough to conduct combat operations in low-lethality scenarios like those that see the USMC at work these days.
Furthermore, once these “refreshed” Hornets are delivered to the squadrons, older airframes can be retired, improving flight safety.
Canada has just announced the plan to use F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multi-role fighters as “gap fillers” until Ottawa decides on a replacement for its fleet of legacy Hornet aircraft.
Top image credit: RCAF

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Watch an Etihad Airbus 380 fly in formation with the Al Fursan aerobatic display team over Abu Dhabi

The UAE Air Force aerobatic display team formed up with an Etihad Airways A380 for the 2016 Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

On Nov. 27, an Etihad Airways A380 performed the traditional pre-Grand Prix race flypast in formation with the seven Aermacchi MB-339 jets of the Al Fursan (The Knights) display team.

The following footage, filmed from both inside the UAE AF display team jets and the civilian “superjumbo” show the amazing pass conducted by the unusual formation at dusk.

The Al Fursan team was formed in 2010 and made its first appearance with a simple fly-by with 4 MB-339s at the graduation ceremony at the Khalifa Bin Zayed Air College on Jan. 20, 2010. In July the same year, eight pilots moved to Italy to start training under the supervision of the Frecce Tricolori of the Italian Air Force, world’s largest display team based at Rivolto, and flying the same kind of aircraft. The training course ended in 2011.

The team made its first public aerobatic demonstration on Nov. 13, 2011, during the opening day of the Dubai Air Show.

Nowadays the Al Fursan team is equipped with 10 aircraft, four of those come from the 61° Stormo (Wing) of the Italian Air Force, the Flight School based at Lecce Galatina.

The Emirates MB-339As are painted in black, gold, white, red and green, and are equipped with smoke generators that produce red, green white and black smoke, the same colors of the UAE National flag.

By the way, the video provides also a glimpse of the backseat where you can see a dummy mascotte strapped to the ejection seat….

 

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