Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Military and Contract Air Assets (Including U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper Drones) Key in Fighting Largest Ever California Wildfires.

All Available Airborne Fire Fighting Assets Pressed into Service, Fires Continue.

A massive combined military and contract air operation has been flying over the U.S. state of California this week in attempts to contain and put out wildfires raging across the entire state. Earlier in the week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s declared the California wildfires as an official Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) National Disaster.

Military and contract fixed wing aircraft and helicopters have been launching a constant stream of fire-retardant strikes since the fires began over a week ago. A massive air armada has also been conducting rescues, inserting firefighters into remote areas and conducting fire surveillance since the fires began. This is likely the greatest combined military and contract air fire suppression operation in history, and one of the first to employ military remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs).

California Governor Jerry Brown told media in a press conference earlier this week that, “We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it’s not over.”

In all, Governor Brown’s office reported that 22 major fires are still burning across the state, an increase over the 17 fires earlier this week. As of late Friday, October 19, some of the fires have finally been declared as “contained”, but not extinguished. The death toll has climbed to 42 people with many more still missing. Over 3,500 homes have been destroyed by the fires, but many more people have been displaced due to preemptive evacuations.

The State of California reports that a massive military and private air force of 73 helicopters and at least 30 fixed-wing aerial tankers are fighting the fires, conducting rescues and performing reconnaissance of the affected areas. The Governor’s office also mentioned that two MQ-9 Reaper drones are performing the reconnaissance role over fire areas.

Global SuperTanker Service President and CEO Jim Wheeler told CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann during an interview in July that, “We can drop a line of retardant about three kilometers long or, if you will, about a mile-and-a-half.”

The California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing from March Joint Air Reserve Base, that operates the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), is flying active sorties in support of the firefighting effort. The operation of the MQ-9s over this U.S. air space required special authorization from the FAA. Two MQ-9 Reapers have been rotating continuous 12-hour sorties over critical fire areas, aiding in the direction of firefighters on the ground and with aerial fire suppression strikes.

Commander of the 163rd Attack Wing, Air Force Maj. Jason Flowers, told reporters, “Firefighters want to know the perimeter of the fire so they could compare how it’s spread since the last time they checked and where it spreading.” The fire reconnaissance missions also make use of the MQ-9 Reapers’ Synthetic Aperture Radar, an aerial sensor never before used in firefighting efforts in the U.S. Major Flowers went on to suggest that fighting the fires at home with the MQ-9s will help the wing fight future wars abroad, by increasing operators’ expertise at employing these sensors effectively.


An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft assigned to the 163d Attack Wing soars over Southern California skies on a training flight to March Air Reserve Base, California, in this Sept. 15, 2016, file photo. The wing is flying MQ-9s in support of civil authorities battling deadly wildfires in Northern California. (Air National Guard Photo by Tech. Sgt. Neil Ballecer)

More than 700 members of the California National Guard have been deployed in the firefighting mission with an additional 1,800 soldiers tasked with the mission on Wednesday. These units include the state’s 49th Military Police Brigade, California’s only Army National Guard military police brigade based in Fairfield, California. Even prisoners have been pressed into firefighting service.

Staff Sgt. Richard Glover, 163d Attack Wing IT Specialist, shows burn areas to Staff Sgt. Jamel Seales (sitting) and Staff Sgt. Shawn Blue (background) on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, at the wing’s Hap Arnold Center at March Air Reserve Base, California. The center is one of several wing assets activated to support the ongoing wildland firefighting effort in Northern California. Airmen have been working at the center around the clock since Tuesday to support CAL FIRE and other agencies. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

The aerial firefighting mission is extremely dangerous due to dense smoke, powerful, rapidly shifting winds from rising heat, debris being floated into the air by the flames and the extreme low altitude that firefighting aircraft must fly over rolling terrain to accurately deliver their large payloads of fire-retardant. Additionally, the handling characteristics of the tanker aircraft change dramatically as they drop the heavy liquid fire-retardant.

Among the 30 fixed-wing aircraft fighting the fires are modified DC-10s, S-2 Trackers, P-3s and the largest-ever aerial firefighting aircraft, the Global Supertanker Services Boeing 747-446, N744ST. The enormous 747 firefighter was at McClellan AFB near Sacramento, California early in September on deployment from its home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. During the aircraft’s first operational mission in the U.S. at the beginning of September it made two massive drops of 8,500 gallons each of fire-retardant on the leading edge of wildfires.

Global Supertanker Services 747-446 registration N744ST is performing fire retardant drops over California.

As firefighting efforts continue on Thursday, October 19, the fires have been contained in several locations. Weather forecasts for Northern California are for cooler, more humid conditions and will likely assist in firefighting efforts going into the weekend as the combined air operations continue. No official announcements have been made about when they may be brought under control.

Google Earth provided maps showing location and progress of California fires. (Photo: Google)

Top oimage credit: Global Supertanker

Japanese F-4EJ Kai Phantom II Heavily Damaged in Runway Accident, Crew Escapes Fire

Hyakuri Phantom Burns on Ground, Reports Suggest Aircraft Written Off.

A McDonnell-Douglas F-4EJ “Kai” Phantom II attached to either the 301st or 302nd Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 7th Air Wing of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force has burned on the ground at Hyakuri Air Base in the Ibaraki Prefecture of Japan. Both crew members escaped from the burning aircraft by climbing out as the fire spread.

The aircraft was taxing at the time of the accident. Press reports suggest the aircraft will be written off as a total loss. The accident happened at 11:45 AM local time in Japan on Oct. 17, 2017.

According to Japanese media and official Japanese Air Self-Defense Force reports the aircraft was participating in a training exercise in the northeastern part of Kanto, on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

The aircraft has been reported as written-off. (Photo: World Military News)

Civilian flight operations at the attached Ibaraki Airport, which shares a runway with the Hyakuri Air Base where the accident occurred, were unaffected by the fire according to reports. Ibaraki and the attached Hyakuri Air Base are 53 miles north of the Japanese capital, Tokyo. The facility operates two parallel runways, both 2,700 meters in length.

The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force is one of the few remaining users of the legacy McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The aircraft, built under license and serviced by Mitsubishi in Japanese service, performs a multi-role mission that includes tactical reconnaissance in the RF-4EJ version and attack roles in the F-4EJ configuration.

Video and still photos of the accident showed the two-person aircrew escaping from the aircraft by climbing out of the cockpit close to flames and heavy smoke.

The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) once operated 138 F-4 Phantom II’s as one of the largest international users of the prolific multi-role combat aircraft. The first Japanese F-4’s joined the 301st Hikotai Squadron in August of 1972 and have been operational ever since. There are a reported 71 Mitsubishi/McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II’s of two versions remaining in JASDF service as of April, 2017 according to Flightglobal Insight.

The Japanese F-4 Phantoms are revered among aircraft spotters worldwide as being among the last of the operational F-4 Phantoms still flying and also because of their colorful paint liveries in Japanese service that include a variety of camouflage schemes as well as solid grey aircraft like aircraft 87-8408 that was destroyed in this accident.

Top Image: A crewman escapes from burning JASDF F-4EJ Phantom II yesterday at Hyakuri Air Base. (Photo: World Military News)

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The Enigmatic SR-72 And the Palmdale Sightings: What Do They Tell Us About America’s Secret Hypersonic Program?

The Media is Full of Speculation, But What Do We Know and What Can We Predict?

One of 2017’s biggest defense and aviation stories is the anonymous sighting by a “handful of witnesses” of the landing of a mysterious, unidentified new aircraft at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Flight Test Facility in Palmdale California. What was it?

Aviation Week reporter Guy Norris scooped the story but was guarded in his reporting of sources. On September 27, 2017 Norris wrote:

“According to information provided to Aviation Week, one such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California as seen from the air in an early photo. (Photo: USAF)

Nearly every article quoting Norris’ story suggests that, what the unnamed witnesses saw is related to a new global intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) gathering asset. Likely a new hypersonic remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that could be a sub-scale developmental testbed for a planned manned version. While it is a significant leap to extrapolate this sighting to a full-scale manned platform, the silence from Lockheed Martin about the incident is deafening. Had the sighting been nothing, they would have said it was nothing.

It isn’t much of a leap to suggest that any proposed, new manned aircraft, colloquially referred to in most media as the “SR-72” would have global range, fly in excess of Mach 6, be low-observable and potentially have strike capability. This is one list of requirements for an SR-71 follow-on.

The U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California with static display SR-71s and F-117s. (Photo: USAF)

When analyzing the role of a possible new strategic reconnaissance/strike asset, manned and unmanned, a few assumptions can reasonably be made. The mission of a high-speed reconnaissance (and possibly even strike) platform likely includes four unique capabilities for the strategic ISR and global strike mission:

1. It is very low observable. The relevance and quality of any intelligence collected is degraded substantially if the adversary knows it has been collected. A stealthy, ultra-high-speed intelligence gathering and strike asset could obtain signals, atmospheric and image intelligence across several spectrums potentially without detection. This improves the actionable relevance of the intelligence since the adversary does not know their operational security has been compromised.

2. It is timely. An ultra-high speed (some reports suggest Mach 6+) asset could be over the reconnaissance target area quickly and provide either real-time intelligence via secure datalink or be back on the ground quickly for retrieval and analysis of intelligence gathered over the target and stored onboard the asset.

3. It is difficult to intercept if detected. One of the primary defensive capabilities of the Mach 3+ SR-71 was its speed and altitude performance. It could outrun and out-climb most missiles and interceptor aircraft. But advances in detection, tactics, aircraft, aircraft weapons and surface to air missiles and even soon-to-be fielded focused energy beam weapons (as from the Chinese) provide a requirement for a faster, higher flying and lower observable platform.

4. It provides on-board decision-making capability in the manned configuration. While a manned asset exposes a flight crew to the risks associated with overflight it also keeps the human decision-making capability inside the mission loop. While this may not be critical in the ISR role, it may be in the strategic strike role. Once strategic strike platforms such as ICBMs and cruise missiles are committed to the attack they can be difficult to re-task or abort, especially in a dynamic tactical environment. A manned strategic strike asset with ultra-high-speed and global range retains a human in the decision loop. This is attractive both empirically and morally.

Having identified these four potential unique capabilities to a presumptive “SR-72” type asset it is appropriate to examine the possible regions and roles the asset would be employed in. Given the current and near-future strategic situation these four global missions may be part of the SR-72s tasking:

1. North Korea. The crisis has reached a near flashpoint with Pyongyang’s repeated missile and nuclear proliferation and continued adversarial rhetoric. Accurate and timely monitoring of North Korea’s actual testing activity and developmental capabilities is critical to managing the U.S. response in the crisis. This includes preventing the crisis from becoming an armed conflict. A strategic reconnaissance asset that is stealthy, fast and field-able would bolster the U.S. position in intelligence gathering, especially in this dynamic environment. A similar low observable, hypersonic strike asset would also be critical in maintaining our first strike capability should the rapidly evolving situation warrant it.

2. Iran. With potential changes in the U.S. doctrine and Iran’s nuclear policy maintaining real-time intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is critical. The political environment surrounding Iran, and its attendant diplomatic ramifications, dictate that the best intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and any weapons development be gathered covertly and updated in a timely manner. While orbital reconnaissance assets can provide excellent imaging across the entire spectrum from visible to infra-red to electronic emissions a reconnaissance satellite cannot collect atmospheric samples that are key to detecting nuclear testing. Also, re-tasking spy satellites not already in position with orbits over key targets makes a more dynamic, high-speed, low-observable atmospheric reconnaissance platform desirable.

3. Syria. The tenuous relationship with Russia in the Syrian conflict has been well-managed to date, but the potential for serious incidents still exists. Intelligence gathered covertly in real or near real-time about both Syrian and Russian activities in the region can help manage each participants’ agendas while lowering the risk of fratricide and other accidental conflict. It can also provide exclusive intelligence to the United States unavailable to other participating nations, providing a strategic intelligence advantage in the conflict.

4. The emerging global theater. The United States enjoys a geographic separation from the major Asian, African and Middle Eastern conflict areas. The geographic separation from conflict zones afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been a significant reason for the U.S. ability to maintain security and prevent a large-scale conflict on U.S. soil. But this geographical distance from conflict zones also means preemptively managing conflict globally. It requires long reach and high-speed for timely intelligence gathering. A new high-speed, low-observable ISR/strike platform is required to maintain that agenda. This is a persistent requirement within the U.S. arsenal and will remain indefinitely.

Global conflicts thousands of miles from the U.S. dictate the continued need for stealthy, long range, high speed strategic reconnaissance (Photo: Center for Preventative Action)

Any new strategic reconnaissance and strike asset in development now could still be years from operational fielding, or it may already be in service. Recall that the F-117 Nighthawk was flying in 1981 but not officially revealed until 1988, a span of seven years during which the program remained hidden. While media has changed since the 1980s and it is more difficult to keep a program secret today, the possibility still exists that the program is much farther advanced than publicly revealed.

The F-117 sub-scale prototypes, some called “Have Blue”, were secretly flown from Palmdale without detection. (Photo: USAF)

As early as 1985 a line item appeared in the U.S. defense budget for $85 million USD attributed to a project called “Aurora”. By 1987 that allocation had bloated to over $2.3 billion for the same project. Some reports suggest the U.S. Air Force was working on an SR-71 replacement as early as 1988.

Subsequent reports in credible media like Jane’s Defense and Aviation Week & Space Technology have featured accounts of hearing and seeing unidentified aircraft in the region of the Nellis test ranges.

Another famous sighting happened over the North Sea in November 1991. Scottish petroleum engineer Chris Gibson, who was also serving in the British Royal Observer Corps according to reports, was working on the offshore oil rig Galveston Key. Gibson, an experienced and trained professional aircraft spotter, saw “The shape of a pure isosceles triangle” flying behind a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft in formation with two F-111s. The aircraft were sighted in the 6A air-to-air refueling zone according to reports. Gibson’s accounting was substantiated by another witness, lasted a significant amount of time, and has been repeatedly analyzed, but never explained.

The Chris Gibson/North Sea 1991 sighting suggested an early possible sighting of an SR-71 replacement. The sighting has never been explained. (Photo: Chris Gibson)

Trying to organize the sightings and information we have of any possible new hypersonic low-observable reconnaissance/strike aircraft with the mission requirements and global strategic need for aerial intelligence still leaves massive gaps between what we know and what is possible according to accounts, but within this massive gap of the unknown exists plenty of room for a real project that, when we eventually do hear about it, will undoubtedly be one of the most sensational defense and aviation stories of this century.

Top image: Distributed briefing slide showing conceptual image of SR-72 with SR-71. (Photo: USAF)

New F-16C Aggressor Color Livery (Dubbed “BDU Splinter”) Unveiled at Eielson Air Force Base

F-16C Block 30 from 18th Aggressor Squadron Debuts in New Splinter-Euro/Southeast Asia Style Camo.

A photo shared on the Eielson Air Force Base official Facebook page early on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 showed a recently repainted F-16C Block 30 belonging to the 18th Aggressor Squadron with a new and unusual paint scheme.

The new paint scheme mimics colors seen in both the “European One” and older Southeast Asia camouflage schemes. There appear to be either four or three colors on the aircraft. Possibly either one or two shades of green, a tan shade and flat black. The aircraft is dubbed “BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) Splinter”, a type of camouflage used on combat trousers and jackets.

Colors for the new F-16 aggressor seem to be inspired by both the European One paint scheme and the older Vietnam-era Southeast Asian camouflage but with the new square-edged “splinter” pattern. (Photo: USAF/TheAviationist.com)

The pattern is interesting since it is not a rounded or feathered transition from color to color like the older Southeast Asia camouflage seen in the Vietnam era or the Cold War, but a splinter pattern seen on recent Russian aircraft. The Aggressors often mimic Russian adversaries in training with U.S. and other western aircraft.

The new paint scheme of this 18th Aggressor F-16 debuted in this group photo with the Air Force Academy ice hockey team during a visit to Alaska. (Image: USAF)

Airman Eric M. Fisher of the 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office wrote in August that, “Eielson houses more than 20 F-16s. These aircraft are used by the 18th Aggressor Squadron to provide critical combat training to pilots around the globe. Due to their goal of threat replication, the 18th AGRS aircraft are painted to match that of possible enemy fighter aircraft.”

Airman Fisher went on to say the 18th AGRS has been flying opposing forces (OPFOR) simulation for over 20 years. It is worth noting that, as with this new F-16 paint scheme, the color schemes on the Eielson aggressors have changed as actual threat color schemes have changed in the real world.

The newly painted aircraft was shown in photos with the U.S. Air Force Academy Hockey Team as they visited Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska to play the UAF Nanooks hockey team. Little was mentioned of the aircraft or its new paint scheme in the social media post.

The aircraft became famous thanks to a photo taken on Jul. 31, 2017 and showing the aircraft, serial 86-0295, assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron with a brand new overall black livery. Even though it initially seemed that the black livery might have been inspired by a Chinese aircraft (the Shenyang J-31 Falcon Eagle or “FC-31 fifth Generation Multi-Purpose Medium Fighter”, China’s second stealth fighter jet it was almost immediately explained that the F-16 was a half-finished paint scheme, rushed into service to take part in Red Flag Alaska.

The F-16C in its previous, temporary, overall black color scheme. (USAF)

Hopefully more photos of this new paint scheme surface soon and we will see aircraft profile artists like Ugo Crisponi, Mads Bangso and Ryan Dorling among others making color profile prints of this new Alaska Aggressor.

Thank you to Pierpaolo Maglio for providing additional details about the BDU Splinter.

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We Track Down the Secret MiGs and Sukhois of the Nellis Test and Training Range

America’s Pilots Fight Russian Aircraft in Training but Where Did They Come From?

It is a vast 5,000 square miles. And it is off-limits. What happens here shapes the technology and tactics that turn world history. From modern fighter tactics to cruise missiles to stealth technology. It includes the operation and evaluation of the most classified aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, the secret MiGs and Sukhois of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

On any given busy weekday, you can stand on the shoulder of Route 15, the Las Vega Freeway, a few minutes north of the Las Vegas strip at the northwest corner of Nellis AFB and get treated to one of the best airshows in the world. Along with the Mach Loop and Rainbow Canyon, this is plane spotters’ heaven. The variety of military aircraft that fly the pattern over the roadway on final approach into Nellis AFB is staggering. Aircraft from every allied nation. Fighters, bombers, attack aircraft, trainers, transports, helicopters. In the morning when they depart Nellis AFB they mostly go the same direction: northwest. That’s where the air war that never ends is constantly being fought, the Nellis Test and Training Range or “NTTR”.

Summer, 1976. Approximately 30 Miles Northwest of Nellis AFB, Nevada.

“At about eight miles I could see a single spec of black through the windscreen. I was struggling to identify the dot from its outline. It was still too small,” retired U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot and later two-star admiral Jim “Rookie” Robb told author Steve Davies in his recently updated book “Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs”.

“Rookie” Robb was beginning a classic head-on engagement with an enemy aircraft. A real enemy aircraft, over the Nevada desert in the western U.S. Before he saw the aircraft he was fighting, the entire project remained a secret from him.

Weighing only about one-fifth what “Rookie” Robb’s Tomcat weighed the MiG-17 “Fresco” quickly gained the tactical advantage when “Rookie” made the error of engaging the MiG in a horizontal, turning fight. The nimble MiG-17 turned inside him, the much greater weight and physics of the F-14 working against him to bleed energy in the turn until the MiG passed his wing line where he became defensive. In a matter of seconds one of America’s best fighter pilots learned that if you want to fight the MiGs in the real world, you can’t fight fair. The fight has to be three-dimensional.

This account is one of many from retired pilots who can now tell the story of the secret Russian aircraft that were obtained by the U.S. military and flown over the remote deserts of the American west.

There is no doubt that the use of Russian aircraft in training over the American west has paid dividends in combat. The now declassified “Constant Peg” training program that used Russian built MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft was credited with helping train the U.S. Navy F-14 pilots who shot down two Libyan Su-22s during the Gulf of Sidra crisis in 1981. And that is just one of the historical precedents of the successful program.

But there is also a history of accidents flying the Russian aircraft. Early in the program, in 1979, a MiG-17F crashed when it departed controlled flight while flying against a U.S. Navy F-5 aircraft also used as an adversary simulation aircraft. The Navy still uses the F-5 as an adversary but a recent temporary grounding took place following a crash on August 9, 2017 off Key West, Florida. These accidents emphasize the hazardous nature of not only operating opposing forces aircraft like the MiG-17F but also flying the opposing forces role in any aircraft including the U.S.-built F-5.

It is a certainty that flying Russian combat aircraft over the American western desert continues today.

As we reported earlier this year, photos as recently as Nov. 8, 2016 show a Russian-built Sukhoi Su-27 in air combat maneuvering (ACM) with a U.S. built F-16. Aviation photographer Phil Drake scored the photos from Tikaboo Peak outside Groom Lake, Nevada, between 3:00 and 3:25 PM local time that day. Short of catching photos of a classified developmental project like the old F-117 (also seen still flying in the region) or the new B-21 Raider yet to be fully disclosed, Drake’s “Red Air” photos are the greatest prize in worldwide aviation spotting. Drake’s photos created an international sensation when he released them.

Publicity about the Groom Lake Russian planes has skyrocketed since the tragic loss of Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz on September 5, 2017. Lt. Col. Schultz, an accomplished combat and test pilot with a PhD in aerospace engineering, died in an accident that likely involved an aircraft the U.S. Air Force won’t specify. Since his death, the aviation media has been filled with theories of what Lt. Col. Schultz was flying.

During the past weeks, the U.S. Air Force has not released additional information on Lt. Col. Schultz’s tragic accident. But research in published accounts of the U.S. opposing forces aircraft operations and investigation into foreign sources and at the fringes of the “dark web” reveal much more information about what is flying northwest of Nellis AFB.

We know that two Sukhoi Su-27s, NATO codename “Flanker”, were owned by a company called “Pride Aviation” prior to summer 2011. Before their ownership by Pride Aviation they were registered to “Meridican, Inc., a Wilmington, Delaware company.” One of the aircraft is listed as a “Sukhoi Su-27UB” and states it was manufactured in 1990. A U.S. air worthiness certificate was issued on December 12, 2009.

The aircraft’s registration number is, or was, N131SU. It is, for some reason, incorrectly listed as a “single engine” aircraft. The Su-27 family is, of course, twin engine. Beyond these records and others like it along with a few inquiries on aviation forums, the trail of these aircraft appears to go cold. The planes disappear.

Public records of U.S. acquired SU-27s exist on Fightaware.com. (Photo: Flightaware.com)

But a pair of 18-ton Russian built combat aircraft does not just disappear.

An August 2009 report published on the Russian media source Pravda.ru says openly, “The Pentagon purchased two Russian-made Su-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. The United States will reportedly use the Russian jets to train effective counter-operation efforts.”

The August 2009 Russian media report seems to coincide within a few months of the transfer records for the Pride Aviation/Meridican Inc. Sukhois. It is a small stretch to suggest these events may be related. And if they are related, this could be the origin of the aircraft in the now famous 2016 Phil Drake/Tikaboo Peak photos.

Official Russian news source Pravda.ru reported on the U.S. acquisition of SU-27s in 2009. (Photo: Pravda.ru)

By an interesting historical parallel, the now-retired 65th Aggressor Squadron formerly of Nellis AFB used to fly as many as 24 McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle aircraft as threat aircraft for air combat training. The twin-engine F-15 mimics the size and performance of the Sukhoi Su-27. The 65th Aggressor Squadron F-15s were painted in a variety of opposing forces color schemes, some almost identical to Russian SU-27 camouflage. But in late 2014 the aggressor squadron F-15s were deactivated. Somewhat ironically, the maintenance unit that serviced the aggressor F-15s was the 757th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and according to reports was named the “Flanker Aircraft Maintenance Unit”. “Flanker” is the NATO reporting name for the Sukhoi Su-27.

Was there a correlation between the 2014 deactivation of the Nellis AFB aggressor F-15 Eagles and the 2009 acquisition of the Russian SU-27s? Could the five years in between the two events have been used to field a secret Sukhoi SU-27 opposing force capability that may have contributed to the stand-down of the aggressor F-15s? Or, as the official reports say, were the Nellis F-15 aggressors simply stood-down due to budget concerns? While this is an interesting theory, it is no more than a theory. Although it is easy to suggest the Phil Drake/Tikaboo Peak Su-27 photos may support this theory, the reality is that only one SU-27 was photographed by Drake in 2016. It is hard to imagine a single threat aircraft or even two as cited in the early Pride Aviation/Meridican Inc. Sukhoi acquisition could perform a similar threat simulation mission as the more than twenty F-15 Eagles that were stood-down by the Nellis aggressors in 2014.

Does the stand-down of Aggressor F-15s at Nellis AFB coincide with the Flankers photographed from Tikaboo Peak in 2016? (Photo: TheAviationist.com)

While the published accounts of declassified MiG operations over the American west provide a convenient extrapolation to new theories about Russian aircraft being used in training, their trail does go dry within the last decade. The Russian reports and “dark web” accounting of Sukhois being bought by shadowy U.S. companies shed some light on any new “black” program that may exist. And finally, the famous Phil Drake/Tikaboo Peak photos effectively render any black program with Sukhois over the desert at least somewhat grey in transparency, even without official comment.

But this fact remains: we still have no official information about all of what is flying northwest of Nellis AFB or what Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz was flying on September 5, 2017 when America lost one of its finest men.

Top image credit: Phil Drake

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