Author Archives: Dario Leone

The story of the SEAD Black Buck missions flown by Royal Air Force Vulcan bombers during the Falklands War

SEAD missions, Vulcan style.

The RAF Avro Vulcan was initially planned to be retired in early 1982 but the outbreak of the Falklands War, in April that year, postponed the withdrawal of the most distinctive among the bombers that (along with Vickers Valiant and Handley Page Victor) formed the Britain’s nuclear deterrent V-force.

Most important, the Falklands conflict has been the only time the Vulcan was used in anger: in fact, seven very long-range “Black Buck” missions were performed against Port Stanley, with three of these sorties flown by the bombers in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, using AGM-45 Shrike missiles mounted on makeshift underwing pylons.

Two surveillance radars threatened British air operations against the Islands: an Argentine Air Force Westinghouse AN/TPS-43F placed near Stanley Airport on Apr. 6 (later moved into the town itself for protection), and an Argentine Army Cardion TPS-44 positioned close to Stanley on the Airport road.

To destroy the Argentine radars the RAF considered to use the Martel missile, but since the U.S. Air Force provided the AGM-45 it was decided to arm the Vulcans with the Shrike.

As explained by R. Burden, M Draper, D. Rough, C. Smith, D. Wilton in their book Falklands The Air War, the first anti-radar Vulcan mission (“Black Buck 4”) was launched from RAF Wideawake Airfield at Acension Island on May 28, using the Vulcan XM597 crewed by Sqdn. Ldr. C.N. McDougall (Pilot), Fg. Off. C. Lackman (Co-pilot) plus Flt. Lts. D. Castle (Nav-Radar), B. Smith (Nav-Plotter), R. Trevaskus (Air Engineering Officer) and B. Gardner (another Vulcan Pilot).

Unfortunately the aircraft was forced to abandon the mission after the Victor tanker aircraft supporting it experienced the failure of the hose drum unit (HDU). “Black Buck 5” was launched on May 30 shortly after midnight, using the same aircraft and crew and this time both the Shrikes carried by the bomber were launched, but they only slightly damaged the AN/TPS-43F that returned operational again 24 hours after the attack.

Avro Vulcan

The same aircraft and crew took off again from Wideawake for “Black Buck 6” on Jun. 2, this time armed with four Shrikes instead of two, for another raid against the same radar.

The AN/ATPS-43F radar was switched off as the Vulcan approached the target during the early hours on Jun. 3.

After the aircraft spent 40 minutes overhead waiting for this or any other radar to be switched on, its radar warning receiver (RWR) picked up an Argentine Army Skyguard radar which was acting as a fire control unit for one of the 601st Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group (GADA 601) anti-aircraft batteries close to Port Stanley.

Immediately the Vulcan launched two Shrikes that destroyed it.

After having loitered on station for few more minutes hoping that the AN/TPS-43F radar might be switched on again, the bomber reached its Victor tanker for an air-to-air refuelling (AAR) half way back to Wideawake.

Noteworthy the Vulcan was forced to interrupt the AAR, given the break of the tip of its refuelling probe and the crew had to divert to Rio de Janeiro airport in Brazil.

Due to its very low fuel state, the bomber climbed to 40,000ft, where it burned less fuel and where its aircrew tried to release the two unfired Shrikes. Eventually one of them failed to fire and remained attached to the pylon because there was no other system for releasing it.

The aircrew collected all the classified documents together, placed them inside a hold-all and jettisoned them through the crew entry door after the cockpit had been de-pressurised and the crew had put on oxygen masks. Then, after diplomatic channels contacted Embassy staff at Rio de Janeiro, arrangements were made with Brazilian ATC and the Vulcan performed an emergency landing at Rio’s Galeao Airport.

After the aircraft engines were shut down 2,000 lbs of fuel remained, less than what would have been required for an overshoot and one circuit.

The Brazilian authorities impounded the aircraft and the unfired missile and the Vulcan aircrew was very well treated during their stay at Rio’s Galeao Airport. The chance to return home was soon offered to them but they decided to remain with their bomber until it was released on Jun. 10, when the aircraft returned to Ascension Island.

Wild Weasel Vulcan

Image credit: Crown Copyright

Before Topgun Days: a book reveals how F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officers were trained

Behind the scenes of the making of an F-14 Tomcat RIO.

Although the Grumman F-14 Tomcat had evolved into a multi-mission strike fighter when it was eventually retired from U.S. Navy service in 2006, the last of the “Grumman Cats” was originally conceived to be one of the best air-to-air fighters ever built, a goal reached thanks to its speed, its high maneuverability and its sophisticated weapon system.

The lessons learned during the Vietnam War showed that the fighter that the F-4 Phantom replacement had to excel in WVR (within visual range) engagements and feature those BVR (beyond visual range) capabilities essential for a premiere Navy fighter. Thus Tomcat crews were trained to conduct intercepts almost from the start of training in Pensacola and continuing with their assignment to the RAG (replacement air group, a squadron dedicated to training aviators for a specific type of aircraft).

As explained by the twenty-year experienced Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave “Bio” Baranek in his new book Before Topgun Days: The Making of a Jet Fighter Instructor, depending on the learning objectives, the intercept would either end when “we got close to the target, or would include engaged maneuvering after the merge.”

According to “Bio” one of these sorties, flown with LT Jim McArthur (who would later become an admiral) as his instructor pilot, and their wingman in the second F-14 was Sandy Winnefeld (a student RAG pilot, Baranek’s college friend, and a future admiral himself) and his instructor RIO Willy Driscoll, the Vietnam MiG ace, was particularly memorable.

This hop was a “2 vs 2 intercept to engagement” with a TA-4 Skyhawk and an F-15 Eagle as opponents.

As Baranek recalls: “As with the Tomcat, the designers of the Eagle applied the hard lessons from aerial combat in Vietnam and took advantage of further advances in engines and aerodynamics. The Air Force jet was lighter, unencumbered by the heavy structure that the Tomcat needed for repeated carrier landings, nor by the Tomcat’s heavy radar and other systems that came with the Phoenix missile. With its incredible maneuverability, the Eagle was a challenge for the Tomcat.”

Noteworthy, given that the engagement took place in the skies over the range near Yuma, the rough terrain of the area challenged the AWG-9 in automatic modes and the Tomcat RIOs in manual modes. Flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and at 350 knots, both groups – the F-14s and their adversaries – were closing at a speed of 700 knots. As Bio says “It was cool to have a college friend and a flying legend on my wing.”

TA-4

The intercept began and Bio started to direct the F-14s’ attack, when Driscoll came up on the radio and said: “My radar is acting up, Dave, you’re going to have to run this one.” His radar problems left their section without Driscoll’s experience during the engagement, but also reminded the aircrews that in the real world radar sometimes fails.

So, with encouragement and a little coaching from his pilot, Bio directed the two F-14s through the intercept, calling an AIM-7 Sparrow missile shot and describing the radar picture for the wingman.

“We got a tally-ho on both adversaries, streaked past them at the merge…and the fight was on! Though it was more maneuverable than the TA-4, the F-15 was also larger and easier to keep track of. Even so, duking it out with a nimble little guy and his big brother was challenging as our two F-14s maneuvered aggressively in a vigorous dogfight. I have to admit that the details are a blur: I don’t remember who took shots, who won or lost. After about two minutes the fight ended with “Knock it off” on the radio. […] One thing I do remember: Driscoll’s radar was fully functional on the second and third engagements of the flight. Did I get “sandbagged,” an old trick of instructors to see how I would handle it? Or did he just have a knack for fixing an AWG-9 during a dogfight? I’ll never know, but I do know I was in awe of his radar and communication skills. He (Driscoll) definitely lived up to his reputation.”

But for U.S. Navy aircrews being fully capable to man their aircraft during real combat operations is not enough: indeed, before being assigned to an active duty squadron they must be qualified to operate from an aircraft carrier and the biggest challenge they have to overcome during CQs (carrier qualifications) is called “night carrier qualification.”

Night CQ

In “Before Topgun Days” not only does the author bring the reader onboard a Tomcat during carrier night flight operations but also provides a unique description of these tense moments: “Surreal is not a strong enough word to describe the experience of calmly flying around a pitch-black sky for an hour, steadily monitoring red-lit instruments, breathing oxygen through a mask, talking on the radio and occasionally trading small talk or mission-related comments with your pilot. We really could have been sitting in a black room. Until the final two minutes of greatly increased activity and stress, followed by the physically jarring arrested landing that suddenly placed us on a small world dimly lit by orange lights. In this place we talked to each other and interacted with people outside for a frenzied few moments until we were again brain-scrambled by a cat shot into the serenity of darkness. This time it was only a few minutes of serenity before we again started the relentless rush of a night carrier approach.

No, surreal is not a strong enough word.”

“Before Topgun Days” tells how student RIOs were brought to this level of skill through a structured training approach that begins in Pensacola. Baranek gives detailed descriptions of his early training, which was exciting and challenging, and tells about the times he thought he might not complete the program. But he did. Several vignettes from Bio early days in a fleet F-14 squadron that show how well the training prepared him for the real world finish the book.

Baranek

Image credit: Dave “Bio” Baranek

The story of the first unofficial MiG Kill achieved by an American fighter in the skies over Vietnam

The F-100 Super Sabre flew more individual sorties in Vietnam than any other fighter, but it was never credited with an air-to-air victory.

The first officially listed American aerial victory during the Vietnam War was achieved by a U.S. Navy F-4B Phantom that destroyed a Chinese MiG-17 on Apr. 9, 1965. However, compelling evidence clearly suggests that another MiG-17, this time a North Vietnamese one, was shot down by a USAF F-100D, flown by Capt. Donald Kilgus on Apr. 4, achieving the only Super Sabre air-to-air victory and predating the first US Navy MiG Kill by five days.

Nevertheless according to Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. book, “MiG Killers A Chronology of U.S. Air Victories in Vietnam 1965-1973,” the outcome of the air battle during which Kilgus destroyed the MiG-17 has long been the subject of much debate by historians over years.

This aerial engagement took place during the second strike on the Dragon’s Jaw bridge, 70 miles from Hanoi: the bridge was attacked by several F-105s while a total of 16 F-100Ds from the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) fulfilled both Rescue Combat Air Patrol (RESCAP) and MiG Combat Air Patrol (MiGCAP) missions.

As explained by Peter Davies and David Menard in their book “F-100 Super Sabre Units of the Vietnam War,” the RESCAP F-100D flight (using “Green” as callsign), carrying 2.75-in rocket pods, set up an offshore orbit, ready to move in and cover for SAR forces if required. As the strike package approached its target, the North Vietnamese controllers vectored two MiG-17s behind Green flight from a head-on approach.

The 416th TFS F-100s turned to meet them and Capt. Kilgus (flying the F-100D tail number 55-2894, callsign “Green 2”) pursued one of the MiGs in a steep dive from 20,000ft down to 7,000ft, firing several bursts with his 20mm cannons and observing hits on the fighter’s right stabilizer.

He and other flight members saw pieces flying off the MiG, but at the last moment Kilgus had to pull out of his dive, whereupon he lost sight of the target in the hazy conditions above the Gulf of Tonkin.

Super Sabre

Other three MiGs were able to attack the F-105s and two North Vietnamese pilots, Capt. Tran Hanh and Le Minh Huan, downed two of them, while the MiGCAP F-100Ds tried unsuccessfully to defend the Thuds, firing two Sidewinders and several bullets from their 20mm cannons that missed the MiG-17s.

Even though Kilgus believed that his MiG could not have survived, he was credited with only a probable victory by the U.S. Air Force because nobody had seen a pilot eject nor an aircraft crash. Moreover, the request to reconsider his claim was refused by the Air Force, given that President Lyndon Johnson had said that he did not want any MiGs to be shot down because he feared that aerial engagements of this kind provoked Russia and China, North Vietnam’s main allies during the war.

However, the Vietnamese have later admitted the loss of not one, but as many as three MiG-17s during the air battles on Apr. 4, 1965. They also identified the pilots by name and unit: Pham Giay, Le Minh Huan, and Tran Nguyen Nam, all of the 921st Fighter Regiment. According to Istvan Toperczer’s book “MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War,” the only Vietnamese pilot to survive to this air battle was Capt. Tran Hanh who said that the three MiGs lost that day were lost to American fighters.

Noteworthy, in the mind of Capt. Kilgus there has never been any doubt about the outcome of this air battle: in fact he painted a MiG kill marking beneath the windscreen of the F-100D tail number 55-2894 and another on the F-105G Wild Weasel that he flew later in the war.

MiG-17

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

Here’s why the U.S. should restart the F-22 Raptor production line instead of developing a sixth generation fighter

With some tweaks the F-22 Raptor can maintain the edge over the future fighters the U.S. adversaries are developing.

The development of a sixth generation fighter should not be a top priority for the U.S Air Force given that, according to Rob Weiss, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works division, regular updates to the F-22 and F-35 would keep the edge of the current U.S. stealth fighters over China’s and Russia’s future fifth generation warplanes.

Weiss recently told to DefenseOne.com, that these aircraft already enable the U.S. to have a distinct advantage over the capabilities its adversaries are developing and that a replacement for today’s F-22 and F-35 fighter jets isn’t needed anytime soon: “We’ve done this analysis for more than a decade now and it’s clear that the fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s are very capable versus a threat and substantially more capable than any fourth-generation airplane. There’s, in our view, little point in developing a new airplane that doesn’t do anything more than what you can do as you modernize F-22s and F-35s.”

Instead the Pentagon should invest in developing “truly game-changing technologies and capabilities” that will be part of the future sixth-generation fighter whose development, added Weiss, should start in a decade or more from now.

On the contrary, the U.S. Air Force is already procuring the ultimate future fighter that will eventually replace the Raptor under the so-called Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

But, assuming that a new fighter would require no less than twenty years to be developed, restarting the F-22 production line would be for sure a more cost-effective move for the service.

The procurement of additional Raptors would also make the JSF more capable, given that as we have already explained, the Air Force said that without the support of a dedicated air superiority fighter such as the F-22, the F-35 would be irrelevant.

Furthermore reopening the Raptor production would give the chance to fix the few shortcomings the aircraft has.

For instance, thrust vectoring (TV) wasn’t a strictly needed feature since it could bring some stealthy trade-offs to the airframe of an aircraft built to achieve most of his kills silently. Moreover, although during within visual range (WVR) engagements TV can be very useful to put the F-22 in the proper position to score a kill, it requires an appropriate use to prevent the Raptor from losing energy and becoming very vulnerable.

Eventually a helmet-mounted display (HMD), which the aircraft still lacks, coupled with the recently integrated AIM-9X missile, could equally turn the F-22 into a lethal dogfighter, given that the HMD would enable the pilot to exploit the full High Off-Boresight (HOBS) capabilities of the weapon.

Fixing the F-22 shortcomings and then restarting its production line would be the best solution for the U.S. Air Force also according to Jamie Hunter, editor of Combat Aircraft Monthly, who wrote on the December 2015 issue of the magazine: “How about a risk-reduced approach for NGAD? Take the almost perfect Raptor and put it back into production, albeit this time with the tweaks that make it truly the best fighter ever can be. That approach may just help mitigate against the early cost over – runs and delays – and provide capability faster and when it’s needed.”

F-22 Vs Sixth Generation fighter

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard / U.S. Air Force

“Even though we will lose CAS capacity, we are retiring the A-10 anyway” U.S. Air Force says

The U.S. Air Force has revealed that the A-10 retirement will begin in fiscal year 2018.

Taken on Feb. 26, the picture in this post shows an A-10 Warthog in action during a joint air attack team exercise at Yakima Training Center, Washington, where the “Hogs” trained alongside the AH-64 Apache helicopters deployed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., providing Close Air Support (CAS) to Soldiers with 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Still, this kind of training will come to an end in the near future. In fact, in spite of its unmatched capabilities in the CAS role, the U.S. Air Force will soon retire its A-10 fleet.

As reported by DefenseNews.com, the service has recently revealed the number of A-10s that will be retired each year before the type is completely withdrawn from service in 2022.

The plan call for the retirement of 49 planes or 2 squadrons in fiscal year (FY) 2018. This will be followed by 49 aircraft in FY2019, 64 in FY2020, and 96 in FY2021.

During a hearing held at the House Armed Services Committee on Mar. 16 Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said that accelerating the retirement of the A-10 will help to better support the stand up of F-35 squadrons. “If we keep the A-10, by FY21 — the scheduled FOC (Final Operational Capability) date for the F-35 — we will be about 50 percent short of the maintenance manpower we need to field the F-35. So it’s a manpower problem.”

However, even though the F-35 can perform the CAS mission, it would be too expensive using the Lightning II in the A-10 role, thus leaving the problem of the Hog replacement unsolved. As explained by Welsh himself: “The F-35 is intended to the high-threat CAS platform, (with the retirement of the A-10) we are losing CAS capacity.”

Image credit: Sgt. Cody Quinn/28th Public Affairs Detachment / U.S. Army