Author Archives: Todd Miller

Textron Scorpion Collaborates with U.S. AFRL on AgilePod Program

In an encounter that could be described, “AgilePod meets AgilePlatform” the USAF AgilePod was recently fitted to a Textron Aviation Defense LLC Scorpion jet.

The test fitment took place December 21, 2017 at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Wright-Patterson AFB. The event showcased both the versatility of the AgilePod and the Scorpion. According to a USAF news release, Andrew Soine, an electronic systems engineer at AFRL commented, “We met with the Textron Aviation Defense Scorpion team and discussed the possibility of doing a fit check with their Scorpion platform and the AgilePod. A few days later they called and said they could get the plane to Wright-Patterson within the week. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to show the AgilePod’s capabilities on a new class of aircraft.”

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The Air Force Research Laboratory’s AgilePod is shown mounted on the wing of the Textron Aviation Defense’s Scorpion Light Attack/ISR jet. The AgilePod is an Air Force-trademarked, multi-intelligence reconfigurable pod that enables flight-line operators to customize sensor packages based on specific mission needs. A fit check held late December, 2017, provided an opportunity to demonstrate the ability of the pod to rapidly integrate onto a new platform with short notice, highlighting the benefits of Sensor Open Systems Architecture. (Air Force photo by David Dixon/released)

The Air Force AgilePod program, ran by the AFRL Sensors Directorate Blue Guardian team completed inflight testing on a DC-3 this past summer and is pending test flights on an MQ-9 Reaper. The AgilePod prototype utilizes an Open Missions System (OMS) modular software architecture and a modular physical configuration of 28 – 60 inches in length that can house a variety of ISR sensor payloads. It may be conceivable that configurations include communication nodes to enable 4th Gen to 5th Gen data sharing for using data as a weapon in the “combat cloud”.

The AgilePod is designed to be flightline configurable while deployed at forward locations to enable maximum support of the warfighter. It is a description that sounds remarkably like the Scorpion, itself utilizing a modular open system architecture (MOSA) and featuring exceptional physical modularity in its payload bay for ISR/Communication payloads.

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The Air Force Research Laboratory’s AgilePod is shown mounted on the wing of the Textron Aviation Defense’s Scorpion Light Attack/ISR jet. The AgilePod is an Air Force-trademarked, multi-intelligence reconfigurable pod that enables flight-line operators to customize sensor packages based on specific mission needs. A fit check in late December 2017 provided an opportunity to demonstrate the ability of the pod to rapidly integrate onto a new platform with short notice, highlighting the benefits of Sensor Open Systems Architecture. (Air Force photo by David Dixon/released)

The AgilePod initiative is a good example of an ongoing program that fits within the messaging from the leadership of the Air Force — Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, and the entire command structure. Such direction was captured by Wilson at the OA-X demonstration this past summer at Holloman AFB, “Our adversaries are modernizing faster than we are and it is up to the USAF to drive innovation so that our adversaries are surprised by just how powerful we are and how ready we are for any fight, anytime, anywhere. That means we have to think about things in new ways and identify new capabilities faster than we have done in the past.” The Air Force will utilize OMS and rapid, cost-effective innovation to drive superior capability in the face of global challenges.

Utilizing the Scorpion for AgilePod integration may seem like an odd fit – given the Scorpion’s capability to internally carry what would amount to similar sensors and communication payloads. However, the collaboration between AFRL and Textron Aviation Defense is not intended to validate the Scorpion with the AgilePod, but rather to validate the fitment of the AgilePod on a light jet in a rapid, and cost-effective manner.

Given this first step, the USAF and AFRL may consider flight testing and ultimately demonstrating the integration of the AgilePod “streaming data” into the Scorpion’s own open mission system to designate targets for engagement with precision weapons from the host platform. Streaming ISR data to a ground station has appeal, as does streaming to additional airborne platforms and manned, tactically relevant assets in the combat cloud.
The Scorpion’s low operating cost, OMS, ease of support and flight operations would appear to be a sound fit for further validation of the AgilePod. The Scorpion demonstrates this capability on a consistent basis, such as the recent transit made overseas to the Dubai Air Show. During transit the Scorpion visited nine countries in six days with 100% readiness. During demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) pilots and weapons system officers designated targets by laser and dropped inert GBU-12s on target after only 2 hours of ground instruction and 15 minutes of flight!

The Mini-AgilePod, conceptualized here, will be designed with an open floor plan and reconfigurable middle sections in various sizes that can be changed depending on specific sensor technologies and missions. The resulting family of AgilePod platforms will be able to host optimized sensors and fit an increased number of aircraft. (U.S. Air Force graphic/David Dixon)

According to Steve Burke, Textron Aviation Defense Senior Advisor, the opportunity to collaborate with the AFRL on this initiative demonstrates Scorpion’s additional capabilities, “not only does the Scorpion have great capability within itself to integrate ISR/Communication payloads, but this fit check demonstrated how quickly the aircraft can integrate a defined Air Force ISR payload with little-to-no change in its existing OMS software.” Further collaboration could demonstrate the Scorpion’s capability to fly with and tactically integrate the AgilePod to demonstrate getting to the “future faster”, a priority for General Mike Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command.

Like any development program, questions remain. What platforms will ultimately utilize the externally mounted AgilePod? Will Textron’s “AgilePlatform” be a fit for the U.S. or other Air Force as a dedicated ISR/Light Attack platform that drives tremendous operational savings?

Given the clear direction to “network enabled information dominance” both approaches appear promising. Innovations in technology have many systems obsolete by the time they are fielded. Approaches that provide the desired capability while demonstrating modularity and scalability have great appeal – to deploy near term, and remain relevant in the future at a manageable cost.

Photos and Graphic, USAF David Dixon/released.

We Have Flown in Textron’s Scorpion Jet. Here’s What We Have Learned.

The Scorpion is the iPhone X of Military Aviation.

To many, the Textron Aviation Defense LLC Scorpion is an enigma.

Though it has capability overlap, the Scorpion is not a traditional Fighter, Attack, Reconnaissance, Observation, or Trainer, nor is it designed to replace any existing platform. To understand it, one must look to the Scorpion as a ISR/Strike platform developed in the context of the smartphone business model.

The hardware platform – the Scorpion, could be likened to the 256 GB iPhone X (or equivalent Pixel 2/Samsung Note 8 if you prefer). The aircraft features a truly open mission architecture, with extraordinary internal/external payload capability. An Interface Control Document [ICD] is made available to payload suppliers who program their payloads to interface with the Scorpion mission system. The result is a very efficient hardware platform with a “sky’s the limit” applications/payloads store!

Textron focuses on providing the very low operating cost, flexible, and modular “flying platform” to readily host today and tomorrow’s most capable payloads. The approach is a complete break from the proprietary systems utilized by the prime contractors of current high-end fighters; controlled, slowed and priced by the prime.

Textron Scorpion with HMP-400 gun pods overflies NAS Patuxent River during recent weapons trials. The TEXTRON team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-400 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early. (Photo: Erik Hildebrandt)

I recently flew in one of the three production Scorpions, “P2” fresh off the USAF OA-X Experiment.

Textron Aviation Defense Flight Test and Demonstration Pilot Matt “Tajma” Hall (current Air National Guard C-130 Aircraft Commander; experienced pilot in the F-15E and T-6) provided flight briefing, and Chief Test Pilot Dan “Shaka” Hinson (Ret. USN F/A-18 Pilot, former Commanding Officer of the U.S. Naval Strike Fighter Weapons School, and Graduate of U.S. Naval Test Pilot School) piloted the aircraft. One cannot help but note the tremendous quality and experience in the team that Textron has assembled to not only fly and prove the aircraft, but to provide the intellectual capital behind design and capability.

Testron Scorpion “P2” just off the USAF OA-X Experiment readies for flight from Manassas, VA. (All photos: Author unless otherwise stated).

Departing on an IFR flight plan in low overcast from the Manassas Regional Airport, Virginia, we quickly climbed to 5,000 ft and headed southwest where the skies were clearing. The rapid departure and climb made it clear we were under jet power. Within minutes we were in suitable VFR conditions over Charlottesville, Virginia and ATC provided a block of airspace for maneuvering. Over the next 60 minutes, Hinson demonstrated the flight characteristics, sensors and weapons systems.

Under his watchful eye, Hinson had me take control of the aircraft executing turns, pulling Gs, evaluating high speed handling, speed brake deployment, an aileron roll, multiple stalls and stall recoveries. The Scorpion is an incredibly stable and “pilot friendly” aircraft. Engines at idle, flaps up, stick back, and nose high – and the aircraft would not stall. When parameters were established to create a stall, recovery was straightforward. The aircraft is slippery and a slight drop in the nose leads to a “with this kind of nose attitude the aircraft really accelerates a lot…” from Hinson. The man is a real professional, a gentleman’s way of saying, “pull the nose up.” I did.

The author, Todd Miller taking a selfie in the Textron Aviation Defense Scorpion Jet over Virgina, USA. Capable, scalable ISR/Light Attack for the uncontested space.

The wing provides a tremendous glide ratio, ideal for the aircraft’s purpose – ISR in a permissive environment. On station at about 12,000 ft the total fuel burn was only 500 – 600 lbs per engine, per hour. This enables tremendous time on station with a variety of weapons at the ready to neutralize a target of opportunity. For comparison sake, the fuel burn per hour on station is about 10 – 12% of the F-15E Strike Eagle and less than 20% of an F-16 in the same role. While no replacement for these fighter aircraft, this mission utilization is precisely how scores of hours have been accumulated by the F-15E, F-16, A-10, and F/A-18s over the past 30 years. The Scorpion delivers exceptional economy while enabling operations from austere environments with significantly more capable ISR payloads.

A veritable set of airborne eyes and ears, the Scorpion supports payloads that facilitate both kinetic and non-kinetic effects across all operational domains. With tremendous internal space for payloads, the Scorpion offers an excess of electrical power to support anticipated and unforeseen demands. A nose bay is available for configuration with electro-optical/infrared (EO-IR) sensors such as the L3 Wescam MX series, or an active electronically scanned array radar (AESA). Three large internal payload bays can be configured for use with sensors/payloads to support Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Hyperspectral Analysis, Electronic Warfare or other. Additional payloads such as a 4G LTE Hotspot could be very helpful in a humanitarian crisis. Like a smartphone, the Scorpion’s capabilities are limited only by the ingenuity of providers to fill the space and power available.

The Textron Scorpion demonstrates the ability to carry the L-3 Wescam MX-15 (nose bay) or the powerful MX-25 (payload bay 3). In both instances the EO IR sensor is fully retractable, and is stowed for flight operations until on station.

Permissive environments that utilize significant ISR assets such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint [SIGINT], E-8 JSTARS [Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and others may find more than adequate capability in a rightly configured Scorpion. Such downsizing of ISR packages would increase savings exponentially and free the most capable USAF assets for demanding mission sets.

Orbiting on station I found operating the sensor package while flying the aircraft via the Hands-on Throttle and Stick [HOTAS] intuitive and straightforward. Up front, Hinson utilized the Helmet Mounted Cueing System (HMCS) to demonstrate operational capabilities. Specific sensor packages overlay data from multiple payloads and create a single situational picture captured by time and geolocation. The data could be processed by a powerful computer package onboard, or streamed by secure network to other assets in space, the air or ground. As Textron Aviation Defense Senior Advisor Stephen Burke indicated, “We can pull out of the noise a target that is very difficult to see. A low contrast, short dwell target in a chaotic urban environment.” The kind of environment that the USAF has been operating in for years – with no end in sight.

View from the rear office of the Textron Scorpion while flying over Virginia, USA. The photo is distorted (canopy etc) due to the panorama function of the camera. The dots visible on canopy provide “calibration” for the Helmet Mounted Cueing System.

The massive increase in data generated by ISR platforms has created very real manpower challenges for Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED). An onboard, algorithm-driven computer system would provide a tremendous leap in PED capability. That kind of computer driven analysis of data is a capability USAF thought leaders have indicated is imperative.

The open architecture the Scorpion features for payloads is entirely separated from the aircrafts flight controls. Each system/sensor simply runs as a unique application within the main mission systems computer. This “non-proprietary” approach opens scores of possibilities for the user and their related contract negotiations. While speaking at the OA-X experiment at Holloman AFB, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson specified this approach (open architecture/non-proprietary) as a requirement to do business with the USAF moving forward. When Scorpion payload providers update their sensors with additional capabilities scores of hours of regression testing can be avoided – reference the ICD, plug, play and deploy. Rather than take years to upgrade sensors, it can be achieved in weeks.

The excellent flight characteristics I experienced are complemented by tremendous reliability and ease of operations. Whether in weapons testing, flight testing or international travel – the Scorpion has demonstrated exceptional readiness rates. Most recently flying from Wichita, Kansas to the Dubai Air Show, “P2” visited nine countries in six days with 100 percent mission readiness. 100 percent readiness sounds fictitious. However, it is not all that surprising given the aircraft utilizes proven and widely deployed commercial systems.

While visiting Saudi Arabia, Royal Saudi Air Force pilots quickly qualified in the Scorpion and scored multiple direct hits with inert GBU-12s. At the Dubai Air Show the Textron team continued flight operations with multiple demonstrations showcasing Scorpion’s capabilities to an array of international prospective customers.

Unlike the USAF during the O-AX experiment, or the Saudi Arabian Air Force pilots, my flight demonstration carried no ordnance. However, a target below was designated and Hinson demonstrated an attack profile with a precision guided munition. The Scorpion features a proven Stores Management System [SMS] that will continue to grow as more ordnance is qualified for the aircraft.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rocket during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days (Photo: Erik Hildebrandt)

Returning to the airfield, I had the time to appreciate the exceptional view, and the potential value the aircraft could bring to the growing USAF pilot shortage. During the OA-X experiment, it was noted by USAF leadership that procurement of additional low-cost airframes would be required to surge pilot training/skills development to address the pilot shortage.

Textron strongly believes Scorpion is a compelling fit for USAF pilots — and for USN pilots who graduate out of flight school. Their first assignment in a Scorpion would expose them to a low-cost but very capable platform that brings forward the future of the DoD operations. Scorpion pilots will be immersed in the combat cloud, secure communications, fusion warfare, sensor operation and management. I can think of no better platform for pilots to learn relevant systems and build hours while preparing for the power of the DoD’s upgraded Gen 4 and Gen 5 aircraft and the high intensity fight.

Regardless the virtues of the platform, Textron’s approach to build an aircraft tailored to military operations where no stated requirement exists is rare and risky. However, it is not risk taken in a vacuum, but rather a bold example of entrepreneurship that was inspired by the thought leadership of the USAF and military aviators. Aside the absence of an official requirement, reviews of articles penned and speeches made by the thought leaders of the USAF reveal the basis for design of the Scorpion and the Textron model.

USAF thought leadership defines an Air Force that utilizes Fusion Warfare; the Combat Cloud; Open Architecture; Non-proprietary system contracts; the Information Battlespace; addresses the pilot shortage; operates much more cost effectively with a high/low platform mix that generates airframe and fuel savings (see Logistical Fratricide); and empowers Decision Superiority. Well, it looks like the Scorpion addresses each of these operational concepts/issues and brings additional capabilities to the deploying Air Force (the USAF or any number of its allies). As such, the platform may not only serve an immediate need, it can also define a model approach for future weapons systems development.

Air Force thought leaders have been speaking. It appears Textron was listening closely and, as a result, the Scorpion presents a compelling opportunity. The airframe and flying qualities speak for themselves. Simplicity with riveting capability. The design philosophy of modularity and open architecture find me reflecting on my first encounter with something called an iPhone. At the time, I was using another device for phone and email communications and some of my colleagues bucked our corporate IT department, so they could utilize an iPhone.

At first, I didn’t get it. Today, the device I was using is all but forgotten and the smartphone and application stores rule. Perhaps the Scorpion and the model it presents will find similar success in changing the way forward for military airpower.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to the team at Textron Aviation Defense, specifically to the patient and gracious Chief Test Pilot Dan “Shaka” Hinson and Pilot Matt “Tajma” Hall. An exceptional team of professionals across the board.

The 305th Air Mobility Wing: USAF Enabler of Global Reach

We have taken part in an aerial refueling mission aboard a KC-10 Extender with the 305th AMW. Here is how it went.

It’s early and the darkness feels more like night than day. Flight crew gathers at the 305th Air Mobility Wings (AMW) base operations, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JBMDL), NJ. Paperwork in order and mission plan briefed, we leave base ops for the aircraft. The sun cracks the horizon as we arrive at the KC-10 Extender for pre-flight. The aircraft crew chief and maintenance team are well into preparing the mission aircraft. It is clear they were at work long before our arrival. Despite the hour, the ramp is alive and aircraft are already in the circuit. JBMDL never really sleeps. Time passes quickly, and with pre-flight complete the two KC-10s on this mission taxi together to launch.

With multiple missions in store the early morning will stretch into afternoon, afternoon into night and come full circle to dawn. The interior of the 305th AMW KC-10 becomes my world. Cockpit, seating area, cargo hold and refueling station. “Can Do” is more than a motto for the 305th AMW.

Two days and three missions later “Can Do” becomes “Job Done.” Flights of 6 to near 10 hours will cover distant States, Florida, Louisiana and Missouri. The Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) missions will support a diversity of platforms; fighters, attack, transports, bombers and include both U.S. Air Force (USAF) and U.S. Navy (USN) assets.

The 305th AMW deploys airlift and refueling capability from America’s Eastern gateway in support of USAF and Department of Defense global objectives. Utilizing the KC-10 Extender they are the enabler of the Global Reach of the USAF.

The KC-10 Extender offers long range, boom, hose/drogue capability and extensive fuel capacity (356,000 lbs – almost twice that of the KC-135 Stratotanker). Given these capabilities, the KC-10 is typically utilized when moving aviation assets across continent or from one continent to the other. In many cases, the KC-10 “tows” a group of aircraft while packing the required flight personnel and ground equipment across the ocean/continent on deployments.

Tankers don’t have the sizzle of fighters or bombers. They are one of the more mundane aircraft types in the inventory. However, when it comes to global reach or deploying an effective Strike or Offensive Counter Air/Defensive Counter Air (OCA/DCA) force – tankers are critical. Indispensable.

Carefully planned and choreographed missions require frequent AAR as part of the routine. Yet there are those situations where Close Air Support (CAS) or OCA/DCA missions conspire to create “danger low fuel conditions.” In moments like those there is no sweeter sight to a pilot than pulling up under the tanker and looking through the viewing window into the face of the air refueler. No words can describe that feeling – on either side of the boom.

The entire AAR paradigm is an interesting one. Mobile fuel, deployed on location to best facilitate the mission of the receiver. This makes the Tanker community the ultimate service organization. Bottom line – Tankers will go to any end to ensure their “customer” can complete their mission. Counterpart to the 305th AMW where 32 of 59 USAF KC-10s are based, is the 60th AMW of Travis AFB on the West Coast. No less vital in their role are the near 400 KC-135s in the USAF inventory.

Life aboard and around a KC-10 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ.

Beyond AAR, the 305th’s mission includes delivery of cargo and personnel to combatant commanders abroad, VIP transport, cargo transport, dignified transfer. However, make no mistake – AAR is the primary role and the 305th AMW strives for excellence in enabling the rapid, global mobility of the USAF.

Excellence is people driven, and starts with teamwork. Flight crews typically gather for briefing 90 minutes prior to the flight, and move quickly to the KC-10 Extender for pre-flight. The aircraft Crew Chief and maintenance team is already on site ensuring all systems are go – and stay that way until the door is closed and the stairs are pulled. They are the last to leave the aircraft before launch and the first to greet the aircraft on arrival. The 305th Maintenance Group works 24/7 to ensure aircraft are mission ready.

While unique to me, the “mission saturation” I experience is the norm for the 305th AMW and reveals their pulse. The missions include crew from a variety of units including the 2nd Aerial Refueling Squadron (ARS), 32nd ARS and 305 Operations Support Squadron (OSS).

After take-off we unite with the lead KC-10 and fly in a loose trailing formation. Flying in any kind of formation adds complexity and interest. First stop, on location off the coast of Virginia to refuel F-22 Raptors from the 1st FW (Joint-Base Langley-Eustis) and F/A-18 Super Hornets (NAS Oceana). The aircraft have been mixing it up in a Red Air/Blue Air exercise. With fuel delivered we head south within reach of Miami.

F-22 from the 1 FW JBLE sliding up for fuel from a 305th AMW KC-10 (JBMDL) during a Red Air / Blue Air exercise off the coast of VA.

F-22 from the 1 FW / 27th FS JBLE sliding up for fuel from a 305th AMW KC-10 (JBMDL) during a Red Air / Blue Air exercise off the coast of VA.

C-17 Globemaster IIIs from the 437th AW of Charleston, SC join up for some boom time.

C-17 from the 437th AW Joint Base Charleston drops away from 305th AMW (JBMDL) KC-10 Extender.

On the return north the two KC-10s work “Extender to Extender” skills. The constant skills training and requirements ensure crews remain proficient in all aspects of their role.

Clean and graceful in the skies, KC-10 Extender from the 305th AMW drops away after taking fuel from another Extender. The 305th AMW of JBMDL regularly trains on both sides of the boom.

Pulling up to the pump… From one KC-10 Extender to another, the 305th AMW of JBMDL regularly training on both sides of the boom.

Day two we depart JBMDL in another KC-10 two ship. One KC-10 meets with A-10 Thunderbolt IIs of the 122nd FW “Blacksnakes” of the Indiana ANG. Our aircraft goes south to meet with a “BUFF” or more formally, B-52H Stratofortress from the 96th BS out of Barksdale AFB.

B-52H “Old Soldier II” of the 96th BS (2nd BW Barksdale AFB) during refueling operation from 305th AMW KC-10 Extender – JBMDL.

Then we are back to JBMDL for a brief break on the ground, and into another KC-10 for a night mission refueling 3 B-2 Spirits somewhere over Missouri. Two of the three bombers in the USAF Global Strike Command in one day. Two of the three frontline stealth aircraft in the USAF inventory in two days. This is life in the 305th.

A-10Cs “Blacksnakes” the 122 FW, Indiana Air National Guard taking fuel from a 305th AMW KC-10 Extender over the midwest.

In the now familiar confines of the KC-10 it starts to sink in. The 305th AMW, the USAF is TEAM. Roles may be “flashy” – or not. Doesn’t matter. Everybody has a purpose and contributes to achieve the greater mission. It may be training, it could be combat. Doesn’t matter, it is all very real. People and Mission.

Units like the 305th AMW go about this day in and day out. It never stops. Whether fueling aircraft or delivering cargo the satisfaction comes from enabling the mission. Missions span the sphere of humanitarian, training, combat operations, operational support, VIP transit and beyond.
The boom operators like SMSGT C. Wise, MSgt J. Stockwell, or TSgt A. Sochia reveal the impact on their lives. Mesmerizing AAR operations, day or night, watching fighters or aircraft as surreal as B-2s slide up for fuel – that’s not it. One of the operators recalls an AAR mission over the Middle East. They remained on station to fuel an aircraft that was involved in CAS, supporting troops involved in a firefight. Sometime later the boom operator learned that a neighbor from their hometown had been on the ground in that firefight. That’s it. Teamwork that transcends the service branch. Making a tangible impact when the chips are down. Another operator reflected on the times their KC-10 was utilized for a dignified transfer – bringing fallen service members home. No words can describe the impact, or meaningfulness of such missions.

Yes, the platforms, the experiences, the sights are incredible. However, clichés aside, it IS about the people. Enabling, respecting, serving. This is the heart of the Air Force, Air Mobility Command, and the 305th AMW. Their pulse is strong.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to the 305th AMW, the 2nd ARS, 32nd ARS, 305th OSS, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs Team Shaun Eagan, SrA Lauren Russell, A1C Zachary Martyn, the exceptional team of in-flight refuelers and flight crews. All professionals through and through in the finest sense.

Salva

We Encountered The B-2 Stealth Bomber At Night in Stormy Skies To Get These Crazy Cool Photos. Here’s How It Went.

Close Encounter With Two Ghostly B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers At Night.

“It’s go time!” The crew announcement snaps me from my sleep. It’s near zero hundred and we fly in dark skies over western Missouri. The anticipation amps up on FORCE 26, a 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) KC-10 from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ (JBMDL). I hurriedly gather my camera equipment and follow the crew to the refueling station.

FORCE 26 skims the top of a storm front, slipping in and out of clouds. The KC-10 rattles, thumps and bounces in the bone jarring turbulence. I struggle to get seated and configure my camera for a hopeful, if not mercilessly difficult shot. I can see nothing but heavy grey clouds below and deep black skies behind. Unseen, three thirsty Spirits are surely closing quickly.

To my right the boom operator, Senior Master Sergeant Carl Wise buckles in. Wise has 10 years on the boom but an eighteen-month hiatus requires his requalification. Tonight, is his check ride. To his right sits active instructor and assessor, Tech Sergeant Adam Sochia. Sochia watches closely as Wise moves through system checks. An audible alarm sounds and warning light flashes. Oh no, not possibly now… No additional drama required, but tonight we have it in spades.

Outwardly Wise and Sochia appear calm, proficient and thorough, but the tension in their voices is palpable. Radios crackle between Wise and the flight crew in the KC-10 cockpit. They too have noted the alarm, and together discuss appropriate action. Despite years of experience Wise is now tested by the system and the conditions. His decision making and skills evaluated during in-flight refueling with the USAF’s most prized asset – in turbulent air at visibility limits. Wise extends the boom and verifies complete movement and control. Check. Proceed.

Eyes outward, I am only peripherally aware of their challenges. I have my own. I frantically move through camera settings – looking for something, anything that will work in darkness beyond what I had imagined. Autofocus is out of the question, ISO settings through the roof, lens wide open, shutter speeds impossibly low…. I am out of time. BAT 71 draws near at constant speed, her strobes flashing and command module glowing. Is she beast, or some machine from the future? Whatever the case, these are her skies and she rises through the fog like a wraith to take …. our fuel.
Before she can connect we slip into the clouds. I discern her outline a mere 100 ft off the boom, some 150 ft away. Enshrouded in cloud she stops and holds position, as if to study her prey before moving in. We cut in and out of cloud catching glimpses of her dark and mysterious form. Wisps of cloud flash eerily over her wings like flowing grey hair. City lights reappear as the jagged robe of her trailing edge passes by. We bounce and rattle through the skies, while BAT 71 glides smoothly behind. This unearthly Spirit is at home in the dark and turbulent skies.

The Spirit comes… BAT 71 B-2 from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) incoming on FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

Sights like this may be common for boom operators, but leave a word defying imprint on me. Surreal, Supernatural, Magic – no word, no description is adequate. Yet make no mistake, in another place and at another time encountering three wraiths can only mean one thing – the impending doom of someone or something. The B-2 Spirit is both the ultimate global deterrent and Grim Reaper.

Bouncing through the clouds and turbulence just after midnight and BAT 71 a 509th BW B-2 Spirit (Whiteman AFB) holds just off the boom of FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst).

Radios crackle, “Kansas City Center, FORCE 26, request climb to clear weather.” “FORCE 26, Kansas City Center cleared to climb and work airspace block 23 – to 28,000 ft.” “Climbing to work airspace block 23 – 28,000 ft. FORCE 26”

The KC-10 starts upward and BAT 71 follows as if suspended just off boom. Breaking free from the clouds we find smooth, clear air. Wise, now in control of the refueling operation clears BAT 71 to connect. The Spirit slides forward. Though close to her home at Whiteman AFB, MO the B-2 Spirit has been aloft for near four hours and requests thousands of pounds of fuel.

Small talk non-existent, gas and go with a B-2 is often done with no words exchanged. In the best conditions an air to air connect is no simple task. It is a choreography of dance between aircraft of all types and sizes – the two platforms briefly becoming one. The team on both sides of this boom are seasoned professionals and make this connect look as easy as walking up and shaking hands. BAT 71 is on the boom and I ponder her mystery.

Operated by the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB the B-2 is the premier platform of the United States Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). Invisible by night, the stealthy B-2 bomber can penetrate heavily defended airspace and deliver a punishing knock-out blow. Traveling around the globe from Whiteman AFB, the Spirit is well-known to fly missions of over 24 hours. Earlier this year the B-2 recorded a mission of over 30 hours requiring 15 aerial refuelings!

The 305th AMW and their force of KC-10 tankers at JBMDL enable the Global Reach of the USAF. On this mission we fly with crew from the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) with the clear and accurate motto “Linking the Continents.” It is a simple fact, without units like the 305th AMW the Global Reach of the USAF would be severely diminished.

The importance and value of the mission is not lost on boom operators like Wise, who comments “a boom operators job offers instant satisfaction. Every time we refuel an aircraft we enable it to complete its mission, whether in training, combat, or humanitarian relief.” This job satisfaction explains why I find myself with 3 very experienced boom operators. All three are Instructors, including Master Sergeant Jessica Stockwell with 11 years’ experience. The three are passionate and have found tremendous rewards in service. Stockwell notes that it is an incredible team effort from the maintenance group to the entire crew on the aircraft. As it relates specifically to her role as in-flight refueler she says, “during preparation and flight the 2 pilots and flight engineer are responsible for everything that happens in the cockpit, the in-flight refueler is responsible for everything that happens outside the cockpit, air to air refueling, cargo, people and more. It is very rewarding to have that mission responsibility.”

BAT 71 B-2 Spirit from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) takes fuel from FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

Buffeted by turbulence BAT 71 drops briefly off the boom. As the turbulence subsides she slides back making another connect look effortless. This Spirit is not leaving without getting all her intended fuel. The entire encounter speaks of planning, precision and the utmost professionalism. Dropping off the boom a final time, BAT 71 disappears into the night. Under duress, SMSgt Wise passes his review and moves forward toward instructor requalification.

BAT 71 – 509th BW B-2 Spirit head on as seen from FORCE 26 – 305th AMW KC-10 just after midnight in the skies over southwest Missouri.

Sochia and Stockwell fuel BAT 72 & BAT 73. Time passes too quickly. Their thirst satisfied the bombers disappear into the dark skies to destination(s) unknown. This was a training mission. In the same fashion, the Spirits loaded with deadly ordnance could be destined to strike a target on the other side of the globe. As happens, cable news quick to broadcast pictures of the impact of their undetected visit.

B-2 Spirits are each identified with a unique U.S. State, such as “The Spirit of Missouri.” I always considered the name “Spirit” in such context. Zero Hundred, October 3 has forever changed my perspective. “Spirit” as perhaps was always intended, is; “one emerging from the clouds, lights glowing, hair flowing, mysterious, ghostly – and most certainly, deadly.”

BAT 72 B-2 Spirit from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) takes fuel from FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to the 305th AMW, the 32nd ARS, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs Team Shaun Eagan, SrA Lauren Russell, A1C Zachary Martyn, the exceptional team of in-flight refuelers and entire flight crew of FORCE 26! All professionals through and through in the finest sense.

Salva

Salva

Up Close And Personal With Textron’s Scorpion Light Attack Jet During Weapons Separation Testing

Textron’s Scorpion Aces Weapons Separation Testing.

Going five for five in the complex, methodical and engineering-driven military aircraft test regimes is rare. Weather, range logistics, recording equipment, aircraft readiness or one of any other number of details typically conspire to scrub a test flight.

This past July the Textron Aviation Defense Team of two Scorpion jets (production airframes P2 and P3), three Test Pilots, two Flight Test Engineers and 12 support staff (ground, weapons, maintenance, program) descended on NAS Patuxent River, Maryland for weapons separation testing. Five scheduled flight tests in five different configurations over five flight days with 100% completion on time and target enabled the team to achieve “Ace” status, of sorts.

The test plan was aggressive and put the credibility of the three Textron test pilots at risk – all graduates of the US Navy Test Pilot School at Pax River.

Textron Aviation’s Scorpion Jets form up in the skies over Wichita, Kansas. The four Scorpions (developmental aircraft in the foreground with production aircraft 1-3 ) are maintaining heavy utilization rates expanding the flight envelope, performing weapons testing, making demonstration flights to a variety of interested customers and participating in the USAF light attack experiment.

Textron Chief Test Pilot Dan Hinson (23 years in the F/A-18) was humbled to be back among the professionals where he had served and honed his skills. Hinson noted the tremendous respect for both NAVAIR and the Navy’s VX-23 developmental flight test organization, the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron affectionately known as the “Salty Dogs.” The entire test regime was carefully coordinated with NAVAIR, the Naval Test Wing Atlantic (NTWL) and VX-23 with protocols followed in the same fashion as is done for military aircraft tests.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rockets during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

Weapons separation may appear simple; however, it is complex testing that is rigorously documented. One Scorpion functioned as “chase“ aircraft while the “tester” was outfitted with high speed cameras on the nose, wing and tail. Every aspect of the release was closely monitored with scores of data points captured.
This was the first time the Scorpion had achieved rack separation. Weapons such as the HMP-400 .50 Cal guns and LAU-131A/A rocket launcher were monitored for hot gas ingestion into the intakes. Operational modes were tested and wiring configurations were evaluated.
Weapons tested included:

  • LAU-131A/A 2.75” unguided/guided rocket launcher
  • HMP-400 .50 Cal machine gun pods, (two flights with single and simultaneous firing)
  • GBU-12 Paveway II 500 lb. bombs
  • BDU-50 (500 lb. practice bomb)

As aggressive as the schedule for the weapons testing was, it was completed four days early. Hinson and team relished the tremendous professional support of NAVAIR, NTWL and VX-23 and departed with the Navy’s great respect for their test efficiency and rigor, fortified. The completed tests took place just in time to open the weapons delivery envelope in support of the USAF OA-X Light Attack Experiment taking place at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.

Textron Scorpion drops a 500 lb GBU-12 Paveway II during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-400 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

The aircraft utilized for testing were of the production standard (P1-P3) differing from the original developmental aircraft (D1) in the following ways;

  • P1-P3 all feature an all trimmable tail – enabling improved flight performance.
  • The large internal payload bay has been reconfigured to house deeper payloads.
  • The landing gear has been updated to a trailing link gear configuration with larger brakes.
  • P1-P3 utilize a full Garmin G3000 Avionics suite.

Given all the attention the attack component of the Scorpion has received in the press, it is often overlooked that the aircraft is built around a payload bay. The modular payload bay is impressive with great volume, electrical and cooling capacity for a wide variety of payloads/sensors. One example is the L-3 Wescam MX-25 – now capable of full retraction into the payload bay. The MX-25 is L-3 Wescam’s largest electro-optical/infrared camera. For comparison purposes, the US Navy P-8 Poseidon utilizes the slightly smaller L-3 Wescam MX-20.

Textron Scorpion with HMP-400 gun pods overflies NAS Patuxent River during recent weapons trials. The TEXTRON team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-400 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

Aside from great payload flexibility, the Scorpion is night vision capable and both the front and rear cockpits are prepared for use with the Thales Visionix Scorpion Helmet Mounted Cueing System.

Textron’s Scorpion summer of 2017 has been a resounding success. The 4 aircraft (D1, P1, P2, P3) were simultaneously tasked at multiple locations (Paris International Airshow, Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT – RAF Fairford), Pax River, MD [weapons testing] and the ongoing USAF OA-X Light attack experiment. All while a production airframe (at times two) continued with envelope expansion testing at Textron’s base in Wichita, Kansas.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rocket during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

In a class by itself, the Scorpion offers unique capability to carry the latest ISR sensors, loiter for extended periods of time and prosecute targets at will. Given the aircraft’s sound performance to date, the Scorpion appears well on the way to becoming the solution of choice for economical, intelligent and lethal airpower in the permissive environment or as a component of a large force projection.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rocket during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests

The Author expresses special thanks to Dan Hinson – Textron Aviation Defense Chief Test Pilot and former NAVAIR PMA-265 F/A-18 & EA-18G Integrated Product Team Lead, Commanding Officer of the U.S. Naval Strike Fighter Weapons School, and graduate of U.S. Naval Test Pilot School Class 103.

Photo Credits, as indicated US Navy by Erik Hildebrandt / Released and Jim Haseltine / Released