Author Archives: Tom Demerly

“Because I Was… Inverted!” Everything You Need To Know About The Photo Of An F-35C Firing An AIM-9X During Inverted Flight

Check Out These Cool Photos of the F-35C That Would Make Maverick and Goose and Jealous.

How many chances will the U.S. Navy’s F-35C have to launch a close-range, advanced air-to-air dogfighting missile like Raytheon’s AIM-9X in combat while flying upside down? The answer is *probably* none.

But in the unlikely event a U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II does go into a dogfighting “furball” and it turns into a real-world remake of “Top Gun” without Tom Cruise, Lockheed Martin needed to be sure the F-35C could perform.

This missile launch test at the Patuxent River Naval Base in Maryland on the east coast of the U.S. demonstrated this rather unlikely capability was possible.

Flight test aircraft CF-2 performed the capability demonstration on June 8, 2017 and was photographed by Lockheed Martin photographer Dane Wiedmann using a Nikon D4 camera with a 24-70mm zoom lens while flying high right (or is it left when inverted?) formation in a chase aircraft.

Wiedmann shot the impressive photos at 1/1600 shutter speed to freeze the fast accelerating missile leaving the rails and f-stop 5.0 using ISO 400 setting. Wiedmann took the images early in the day, before 9:00 AM local time, accounting for the nice lighting.

Major Eric Northam of USMC flight test and evaluation unit VX-23 Launches an AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile while flying inverted. (Photo: Dane Widdeman for Lockheed Martin)

The missile launch demonstration was flown by U.S. Marine Corps test pilot Major Eric Northam of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Three, VX-23, based at Patuxent. Major Northam is a highly experienced tactical aircraft test pilot with extensive experience in the F/A-18 Hornet in addition to the F-35C.

It is noteworthy that the flight test was flown by Major Northam, a USMC test pilot, on an F-35C, the U.S. Navy variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. The U.S. Marines fly the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B.

USMC Test Pilot Major Eric Northam of USMC flight test and evaluation unit VX-23 (Photo: Eric Northam via Facebook)

As a side note, an AIM-9X, the world’s most advanced infraredtracking, shortrange air-to-air and surface-to-air missile, fired by a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet at a Syrian Sukhoi Su-22 that had dropped munitions near U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, surprisingly missed its target. According to CNN, the VFA-87’s Super Hornet locked onto the Su-22 Fitter at a range of 1.5 miles and fired an AIM-9X: the Syrian pilot released flares to successfully lure the infrared guided missile away from his tail. The Syrian jet was eventually downed by the same Super Hornet with an AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air To Air Missile).

With the frequent popular media criticism of the F-35 program and a lingering narrative of program limitations that, according to some analysts really don’t exist, these tests for flight and weapons performance at the outer edges of the mission envelope seem to send a promising signal that the F-35 is capable across its entire mission requirement set, including unusual outlying mission requirements like inverted missile launches.

The capabilities of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program continue to be demonstrated across all types and services. Between Aug. 4 and Aug. 11, 2017, the U.S. Air Force conducted the first ever delivery of GBU-31 2,000-pound precision guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or “JDAM’s” at the Utah Test and Training Range near Hill AFB.

Pilots and Airmen of the 419th and 388th Fighter Wings operated the USAF’s F-35A Lightning II during the evaluations, named “Combat Hammer”. This was the first Air Force conducted operational evaluation of air-to-ground munitions for the F-35A following Lockheed Martin verification of capability tests. Official U.S. Air Force media sources quoted the performance of the tests to have, “above average mission and sortie rates”.

USAF Colonel Tim Smith, Commander of the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron detachment located at Hill AFB told media, “Overall, everything went as planned and all participating units performed very well, including the 34th Fighter Squadron F-35As.”

A USAF F-35A drops a GBU-31 2,000-pound JDAM over the Utah Test and Training Range on August 10, 2017. (Photo: Scott Wolff via USAF)

 

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Don’t Fear the Reaper: A Rare Look inside Remotely Piloted Aircraft Operations at Holloman Air Force Base

We Went Inside USAF MQ-9 Reaper Training and Operations at Holloman AFB.

We never heard it. Out of the corner of my eye in a cloudless, bright blue New Mexico desert sky I saw the glint of a reflection over our bus. I glanced outside again. Nothing. No sound. Nothing in the sky. Then the glint flashed again, and this time I spotted it. But it was too late. The Reaper was already upon us.

This was the first time I had seen a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper combat aircraft in flight. The experience stands in stark contrast to the thunder of fast jets or the whine of turboprops. In fact, the quiet whirring of the little 900 horsepower Honeywell turboprop seemed oddly toy-like. It seemed that way, if it wasn’t powering one of the most effective combat aircraft in the U.S. arsenal.

Holloman AFB in New Mexico is home to the U.S. Air Force 49th Wing Remotely Piloted Aircraft squadrons. The units include the 6th, 9th and unique 29th Attack Squadrons of the 49th Wing. This is the primary school for teaching new pilots to fly the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft. The school provides initial qualification training for the two person aircrews that fly the Reaper. In fact the 49th Wing’s 29th Attack Squadron (ATKS) is reported to be the only complete training unit for MQ-9 Reaper aircrews in the U.S. Air Force. This distinction puts their capabilities in high demand.

Out of the clear, blue New Mexico sky an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies over us at Holloman AFB.

Remotely piloted aircraft have been the subject of misconceptions that are largely the result of fiction about “drones” or equipment that somehow spins out of human control. It is almost no more possible with a remotely piloted aircraft like the Reaper than it is with an onboard manned aircraft using a modern fly-by-wire flight control system.

There have been rare instances of adversaries jamming or supposedly taking control of remotely piloted aircraft, as with a December 2011 incident when the Iranian military managed to capture a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel remotely piloted aircraft. But this incident is more of an anomaly than the risk of hijacks using a manned aircraft, as with the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.

In fact, because security for the signal transmission that links the remotely piloted aircraft directly to its flight crew is codified and constantly improving, it is more likely that a onboard-manned aircraft can be hijacked than a remotely piloted aircraft. Remotely piloted aircraft can also be destroyed without risking the loss of flight crew, as was the case with an incident in September of 2009 in Afghanistan when U.S. combat aircraft destroyed a remotely piloted aircraft that suffered a rare control malfunction.

Last week TheAviationist.com gladly accepted a rare media invitation to see the RPA training operations at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. The school operates several versions of the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator aircraft primarily for training new Predator aircrews.

A distant shot of Reapers at Holloman AFB being used in training missions over New Mexico.

During our tour of the facility, aircrews wore opaque adhesive tape over their name badges for operational security. The missions these aircrews are training for are real world. One instructor related a mission when a new Predator pilot, after extensive training, was tasked with employing live weapons against actual operational targets in a conflict zone only 37 minutes after receiving their full qualification. That level of operational readiness is unprecedented in nearly all current tactical aviation.

His name obscured by tape for operational security, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper pilot describes the video feed from live missions being flown over Holloman AFB.

Predator operators and aircraft live behind additional layers of security within security in the remote New Mexico desert at Holloman. Because the nature of remotely operated combat aircraft reduces deployment time to near zero being in one of the control vans at Holloman was tantamount to standing on an operational forward airstrip in a conflict zone.

A sensor ball mounted under the nose of an MQ-9. This contains various spectrum sensors and cameras and provides the flight crew with their view of the flight operations.

As we received our briefings the cockpit feed from optical sensors and flight control instruments on live aircraft in flight appeared on monitors. It looked like flying any light aircraft, whether it is a Cessna general aviation aircraft or a small, stealthy combat aircraft like the MQ-9 Predator. As we watched an MQ-9 practice landing approaches we could see the response to the pilot’s flight control inputs. These really are just another form of highly capable light combat aircraft.

A rare look into the “cockpit” of the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted combat aircraft.

In March of 2017 the website Military.com reported that USAF Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson told a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida that, “The U.S. Air Force now has more jobs for MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers than any other type of pilot position.”

With the expansion of remotely piloted aircraft operations and the demand for aircrews to fly them it is reasonable to expect that the 49th Wing at Holloman will continue to be a very busy place.

Operational security around reaper control vans is elevated since the training and missions are a critical asset.

 

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It’s Not a Fly-Off Competition: U.S. Air Force Tests Process and Planes at Light Attack Demo

New Process Showcased for Sourcing Includes Proposed Light Attack Aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force invited reporters to Holloman AFB in New Mexico for briefings about its new Light Attack Experiment last week. The key message from top Air Force and industry officials was not about aircraft selection, but about new evaluation methods for some proposed Air Force programs.

Adding emphasis to the significance of the program Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein were in attendance at Holloman AFB for the event.

The four aircraft included in the Light Attack Experiment are the proven Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the Textron Aviation AT-6 turboprop, Textron’s new Scorpion light twin-engine jet and the interesting crop-duster turned combat plane, the Air Tractor/L3 Platform Integration AT-802L Longsword. Examples of each of the aircraft were present at the event for journalists, industry insiders and members of participating nations’ air forces to examine.

But the emphasis on this demonstration was process, not planes.

As a possible outcome of the new evaluation and selection process acquisition programs could become more agile, adaptable and bring some future-facing needs to the battlefield faster and at lower cost. This may include a new light attack aircraft for the U.S. Air Force.

Part of the Air Force’s dual focus on process and planes is the open source acquisition methodology used during the Light Attack Experiment. The aircraft in the evaluation test case already exist, they are relatively “off the shelf”. Three of the four aircraft have already been employed in the light attack/counterinsurgency role, with only one, the Textron AirLand Scorpion, being a new developmental aircraft.

The Light Attack Experiment Demo patch.

This new acquisition process will reduce costs and accelerate suitable programs from the evaluation to operational stage more quickly. The process compliments large-scale full-development program successes like the Joint Strike Fighter program that lead to the Air Force’s new F-35A Lightning II while filling a different, complimentary need.

U.S. Air Force Commander of Air Combat Command, General James “Mike” Holmes made a case for the Light Attack concept to reporters, “So you can imagine a world where you’re able to base some of these airplanes closer to the [forward] area, they can stay on station for a pretty good time, with a turboprop engine, which gives them a lot of time to stay out there. And then ultimately, it comes down again, to that really low cost.”

The Commander of ACC went on to note additional advantages in creating new combat pilots more efficiently, “My take is part of the benefit of this airplane is I can season and produce fighter pilots fast. I can fly a lot of hours on it pretty cheaply, and so I can make an experienced fighter pilot, which is what I’m short, I can make one fast.” When commenting on any potential progression of light tactical turboprop combat pilots to the fast jet community General Holmes told us, “I’ll season them in this airplane and then I’ll bring them back and put them into a short course, into a fourth or fifth gen fighter.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson (all photos Author/The Aviationist)

Finally, in remarks to reporters, General Holmes hinted at an interesting prospect that harkens to the historical roots of Air Force Special Operations going back to the Vietnam era Air Commandos and the use of light combat aircraft in the counterinsurgency (COIN) role when he added, “There is also the possibility that AFSOC may come forward and say they want to employ the airplane.”

While General Holmes was articulate about the possible advantages of the Light Attack concept he was also measured about its potential promise, “I can use them in combat, I think, we’ll find out. When they’re in the United States I can use them to train tactical air control parties at a much lower cost per flying hour and I can use them to support my maneuver unit training with the Army, at a much lower cost per flying hour and still work through all the CAS procedures. It’s a capability, we think, we’re going to do these experiments and see, that would let us continue to do another multi-year approach to fighting violent extremist organizations at a cheaper cost in a fiscal environment where every dollar counts.”

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Golden made a fitting entrance to the light attack demo at the controls of one of the test aircraft.

Just as programs like Joint Strike Fighter and Light Attack are vastly different, it makes sense that the development, evaluation and acquisition processes are different also. And because this new pipeline to highly adaptive operational capability places a strong enterprise motive on private industry as opposed to government, it can provide greatly reduced developmental cost to taxpayers.

Light attack was a good place to start with this new, open source evaluation process. The post 9/11 battlefield has changed significantly during the Global War on Terror. It includes a wide spectrum of conflict models for air combat. These include large scale air operations against nation states with conventional air forces flying against heavily defended ground targets in a non-permissive environment, like Desert Storm. At the other end of the spectrum it includes anti-insurgent air operations in a smaller, more permissive battlespace that does not require stealth, long range aircraft or heavy weapons, like some operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghan Air Force is already employing the Embraer/Sierra Nevada Corporation A-29 Super Tucano, one of the aircraft in the Light Attack Experiment, operationally. And this multi-nation user set adds interoperability to the argument for light attack also.

One of the most interesting participants in the Light Attack Demo is the AT-802L Longsword from L3 Platform Integration and Air Tractor.

U.S. Air Force subject matter expert on light attack and counterinsurgency Col. Mike Pietrucha spoke to TheAviationist.com specifically about the Light Attack Experiment and the promise it may offer the Air Force:

“The argument is to go for a less expensive aircraft that is more optimized for the kind of warfighting we’ve been doing so that you can spread the burden out, rather than make everything a one size fits all airplane. Bottom line of that right now, is we have more missions than we have Air Force. When you look at light attack the amount of fuel it takes to keep a turboprop in the air for an hour is the amount of fuel it takes to taxi the Strike Eagle down the runway for six to nine minutes. Just the logistics start to look like an awfully attractive argument.”

The rear cockpit, systems operator station in the AT-802L Longsword features (A.) a unique alpha-control keyboard that is worn on the controller’s arm to actuate some weapons/guidance/designation and communications functions. (B.) A side stick controller moves sensors for target imaging. (C.) The rear cockpit features full flight controls. (D.) There is a large multi-function display from sensors.

If successful, acquisition processes like the one demonstrated during the Light Attack Experiment broaden the Air Force’s spectrum of ways it can acquire new equipment and adapt to a rapidly changing battlespace more quickly as the nature of conflict evolves. This process also improves economic efficiencies while addressing the current pilot shortage by providing new training opportunities. By nearly every measure, the new acquisition methodology and the Light Attack Experiment concept represent strong, adaptable synergies for modern air power in the rapidly changing battlespace.

The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-802L Longsword on display at the Light Attack Demo.

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The Last Of The Dogfighters: The Jedi Warriors of the 54th Fighter Group

Amid Pilot Shortages, F-16 Pilots Train for Real-World Combat at Holloman AFB.

It’s hot as hell out here.

Most of the other reporters have given up. They’re back in the air-conditioned squadron room. Between screaming jet noise, blaring sun, hotplate pavement and a long day that started early this morning with briefings and a catered media tour in shaded hangers it’s gotten real now. And real means hot, loud and uncomfortable.

The U.S. Air Force invited TheAviationist.com to Holloman AFB ten miles outside Alamogordo, New Mexico to showcase the Light Attack Demo and, more importantly, the new evaluation process that goes with it.

But Holloman AFB is a long way from anywhere in the middle of nowhere so our Air Force media staff crams as many story opportunities for visiting journalists into the day as possible. This is the last story of our day, F-16 operations at Holloman AFB. As it turns out, it’s the best story.

Holloman AFB is home to the 54th Fighter Group, the Jedi academy for the best F-16 combat pilots on earth. And while certain Israeli F-16 units may argue that superlative, the live-fire, gun smoke combat experience of the fighter pilots who teach here hangs over the base like the bright white dust blown in from the White Sands Missile Range just to the south. This is where the meat-eaters train for today’s air war.

From the moment you walk into the Group building things feel serious. Staff is moving from office to office quickly. There is a lot of foot traffic. Flight-suited pilots keep right in well-traveled hallways coming from de-brief or going to briefings. The floor of this building rumbles with the operational tempo. Missions are coming in, others being planned to go out.

The tearing sound of two F-16’s leaping into the air on full afterburner vibrates the doors on the building. Since Holloman is miles away from the nearest town, Alamogordo, there aren’t any worries about noise abatement here. Pilots take-off on training sorties the way they would for combat. And the desert rattles under angry jet thunder.

An F-16 pilots taxis back from a training mission outside Holloman AFB over the White Sands Missile Range. (All photos: TheAviationist.com)

It’s unlikely the people who live in Alamogordo would complain about jet noise anyway. The sleepy desert town hangs by its economic fingernails to the outskirts of the base. No base, no Alamogordo. Menus in the local breakfast dives have photos of F-22s on them, not pancakes. The main drag is a succession of fast food places, pawn shops and motels that rely on military revenue for survival. If the base can grow its cadre of enlisted personnel, instructors and student pilots, the town can grow too.

The Air Force faces a problem though, a shortage of fighter pilots and instructors. An Air Force Lt. Col. whose call sign is “Burn Clapper” has been at Holloman since November of 2014 and in command of the 54th Fighter Group since May. During our briefing he tells us, “I’m supposed to have 24 instructor pilots in my squadron, and I have 13 now.”

When I ask Burn Clapper about the reasons for the fighter pilot shortage he tells me, “A few years back, there was a time when we had as many fighter pilots as we needed. We only produced guys coming in for as many guys who were leaving – at the rate that they were leaving then. We only made fighter pilots for who was leaving then, maybe about 400 a year – that’s a guess.”

“Our pilots graduate now with a 10-year commitment. They have been back and forth to combat over the last five years. The economy is good now. Now they have options.”

But the demand for fighter pilots has increased significantly, and the Air Force is responding. Burn Clapper tells us, “The next step is to stand up the 8th fighter squadron. It may become a super squadron, with 40 jets instead of 24 jets PAA (Primary Assigned Aircraft) under one commander. The advantage of a super squadron is you can pool resources to make it easier. We can all use the same scheduler, we can use the same admin side…”

The pilots and instructors they do have here at Holloman are incredibly busy. “The day to day routine for our fighter pilots starts late Friday, Saturday and Sunday to prep for flying on Monday. They fly Monday, they debrief Monday,” Burn Clapper tells us. “They then brief or prep for [flying on] Tuesday, they never get any time off to do their office job. They are busy flying.”

USAF Brigadier General Brook J. Leonard, Commander of the 56th Fighter Wing (parent unit to the 54th Fighter Group), is sitting with me on the hot bus ride out to the even hotter flight line. If Brig. Gen. Leonard showed up to a casting call for a movie about fighter pilots they wouldn’t pick him because he looks too much like a fighter pilot. Tall as a monument, chiseled features, he doesn’t wear sunglasses in the blaring glare of the White Sands desert. You get a sense Brig. Gen. Leonard could stare down the sun. I wager the top of his crew cut was leveled using an attitude indicator from an F-16.

Our bus yields to a trio of F-16’s taxiing fast on their way back from a training sortie to their aircraft shelters. Airmen check the tires of our bus for “FOD”, debris that could come off and be sucked into a jet engine. They give us one quick look-over for security, the fourth time today we’ve been surreptitiously screened for security. This isn’t a weekend airshow. This is the real world.

“What is the orange Sidewinder on the rail of that F-16?” I ask Brig. Gen. Leonard as an F-16 taxis quickly in front of us.

“We use those for OPFOR identification – red air. It’s so they can tell the good guys from the bad in a close-in engagement.” The General tells me.

I ponder the General’s answer for a minute; F-16’s dogfighting over the desert at nearly a thousand miles per hour are fighting so close to each other they can identify friend from foe by a single red missile on a rail under one of their wings.

“Are they fighting that close together Sir?” I ask the General. He shoots me a look, “Well… yeah.”

The tempo of flight operations at Holloman AFB is relentless, with F-16 sorties going out to the ranges and returning constantly.

The pilots in the F-16 cockpits taxing back in from a training mission aren’t waving. They look haggard. Sweaty, unsmiling, oxygen mask unclipped and dangling from one side of their helmet. Their eyes are clamped down in an exhausted squint. Air combat is physically exhausting and mentally draining. The pilots are crushed under their own accumulating body weight as they cross swords at high G’s. They piss their pants in “piddle packs” and get increasingly dehydrated with little time to drink during training engagements. The paint around some of the F-16s M61A1 Vulcan 6-barreled 20mm cannon is blackened with soot from gunfighting. Mid-air collision while training is a constant threat. This is about as far from the creased uniforms and synchronized airshow dance moves of the Thunderbirds as you can get. This is rehearsal for the real world of air combat.

While the rest of the air force is still developing BVR (Beyond Visual Range) doctrine for F-35s over the test ranges north of here Brig. Gen. Leonard’s men are likely the last of the great dogfighters. They aren’t training for a Beyond Visual Range engagement, they are honing the mentally demanding and physically grueling skills needed for a knife fight in a phone booth at Mach 1.

This is the air war we have fought – and won – a couple of times with the Syrians, years ago with the Iraqis, and may fight again with the North Koreans. This is not training for some conceptual war being argued in white papers, this is readiness for air combat today. Holloman’s F-16 instructors put the razor edge on the pointy end of our air warfare spear.

Out on the flightline our media bus stops. The press liaison ushers what reporters remain into an aircraft shelter with an F-16. Brig. Gen. Leonard briefs us on the mission going on around us.

USAF Brigadier General Brook J. Leonard commands the entire 56th Fighter Wing, to which Holloman’s 54th Fighter Group is attached.

He introduces a man dressed in a crisp blacked-out flight suit wearing matte black Oakley sunglasses and a nearly as precise crew cut as the Brigadier himself.

“SSgt. Christopher Macias is a Dedicated Crew Chief for the F-16 to the 54th Fighter Group.” Brig. Gen. Leonard tells us. “He knows more about the jet than any of us.”

SSgt. Christopher Macias (left) is a dedicated F-16 crew chief in the 54th Fighter Group. He leads the team of technicians that maintain the combat aircraft here.

An enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force, SSgt. Macias is as razor-cut squared away as the Brigadier General and the other pilots we’ve met. Macias manages one of the maintenance crews who keep these well-used F-16’s flying. And while some of the aircraft appear weathered and flown hard, they are also spotlessly clean and in a high state of readiness. Huge glossy black rolling tool cases are kept shiny in the aircraft shelters on spotless floors. Tools inside are meticulously arranged. It’s clear the men like Macias who keep these aircraft flying have a deep affection and dedication to their jobs, exactly like the pilots.

I am the last reporter to board the media bus headed back to the unit office building. Our Air Force media liaison is trying to usher me back on so we can get to the briefing room and the air conditioning. Most of us have sweated through our clothing, but this is too good not to take in for just a few more seconds. More jets taxi from the end of the runway threshold. The tightly scheduled dance of deadly aerial combat training doesn’t wait for reporters. But I want to feel the concrete vibrate with the sound of operational jet noise, and feel what it’s like to walk in footsteps of one of the only real-world Jedi warriors for a just few more seconds.

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Fiction Story: A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber Is Downed During An Air Strike On A North Korean Nuclear Site

A “what if” story.

Disclaimer: this story contains some “poetic licenses” to make the fictional scenario more interesting.

03:19 Hr.s Local. 35,000 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 15 miles west of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is nearly invisible to radar. But not bullets.

Pulling off target after a massive precision strike on the North Korean nuclear weapons development facility at Yongbyon, North Korea, B-2 Spirit number 82-1067, the “Spirit of Arizona” was leaving the target area at medium altitude and high-speed. The aircraft was configured for minimum radar and signals observability with all lights retracted and emissions restricted. Spirit of Arizona was one of three B-2’s that leveled the nuclear research facility in a massive conventional bombing raid, the largest of the New Korean War so far. While it would take a few hours to collect bomb damage assessment data the satellite images would show the raid was a complete success, with the entire research facility, storage areas and the reactors themselves being completely devastated in a hail of precision-guided 2,000 lb bombs.

Now all the crew of Spirit of Arizona had to do was get themselves and their nearly invisible, completely defenseless, two billion dollar aircraft out of the most heavily defended airspace in the world and back to Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, in CONUS (Continental US).

03:22 Hr.s Local. 37,800 feet, North Korean MiG-29 Fulcrum, 28 miles southwest of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Sojwa (Major) Kim Si Gwok had more hours in MiG-29 Fulcrums than every other North Korean fighter pilot except for two. He did have the most time flying the Fulcrum using night vision goggles, a particular distinction considering the North Korean Air Force did not have enough night vision goggles compatible with the MiG-29 for all the aircraft they owned. That distinction put Maj. Gwok on CAP (Combat Air Patrol) in his MiG-29 tonight over the critically strategic target of Yongbyon as part of the air defense for the facility. That the American stealth bombers had already gotten through to hit the nuclear facility was a major failure for the North Koreans.

Maj. Gwok knew Yongbyon had been hit within the last few minutes, likely by cruise missiles or American stealth bombers. Gwok couldn’t do much about the cruise missiles. He read about British Spitfire pilots in WWII who had defeated the first cruise missile, the German V-1, by flying next to them and flipping them over with their wingtip. That would be impossible with the low altitude American Tomahawks. But, if there were stealth bombers in the area that he may be able to shoot down, he was going to try to find them. As a lifelong combat pilot he felt he had a sense of what the enemy’s egress route from the target might be, the shortest distance to the coast.  So that was where he went looking for the “invisible” American stealth bombers.

In March 1999 the Yugoslavians used a combination of ground based observers and expert search radar operators to shoot down an F-117 stealth fighter. It was a lucky shot, a golden BB, and it proved stealth wasn’t invulnerable. Major Gwok knew this. He knew that, other than stealth, the American batwing bombers were defenseless. If he could see one, he could shoot it down.

03:28 Hr.s Local. 35,000 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 41 miles west of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Mission Commander, Capt. Bill Myers of Pensacola, Florida and Aircraft Commander, Maj. Dave Evans of Boulder, Colorado were getting constant secure updates on the air defense environment through their secure datalinks onboard Spirit of Arizona as she ran toward the coast after hitting Yongbyon. The three strike aircraft followed different egress routes in the very unlikely event an enemy aircraft or air defense crew could somehow visually acquire one of the B-2’s at night. Since the B-2 was a fast, subsonic aircraft, was relatively quiet, painted black to blend with the night sky and operated at altitudes to avoid contrails the chances of an enemy fighter pilot visually acquiring them was almost zero. But not absolute zero. Myers and Evans knew the entire North Korean air defense network would be up looking for them with everything they had. Even with the most sophisticated combat aircraft in history they still had to get out of North Korean airspace without being seen.

A KC-135 Strantotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing refuels a B-2 Spirit from the 509th Bomb Wing in the late hours of Jan. 18, 2017, during a mission that targeted Islamic State training camps in Libya. The B-2’s low-observability provides it greater freedom of action at high altitudes, thus increasing its range and a better field of view for the aircraft’s sensors. Its unrefueled range is approximately 6,000 nautical miles (9,600 kilometers). (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kate Thornton)

03:29 Hr.s Local. 37,700 feet, North Korean MiG-29 Fulcrum, 47 miles southeast of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Gwok didn’t really see the American stealth bomber as much as he saw what appeared to be a slit in the night sky. Reflected light from humid air at lower altitudes cast a low, soft glow upward from the ground below. The sky had a gently silver tinge to its black emptiness except for a small sliver of dead black below and to the left of Gwok’s MiG. Not knowing the sensor capabilities of the American stealth bomber, if that is what he saw, Gwok turned gradually to align himself with what he thought was his potential target’s heading. He gently moved the stick forward and, as his MiG closed the distance to the sliver of black the descent also added airspeed. His approach was perfect, high and behind. If he was right, this looked too easy.

03:29 Hr.s Local. 34,000 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 51 miles west of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Myers and Evans knew they were in deep trouble. AWACs told them over secure, stealthy datalink  communications that there was an enemy aircraft high and behind them. There was a remote chance it could visually acquire them. There was nothing they could do except recheck the low observable settings and the make sure the throttles were firewalled so they could get out of North Korean airspace as quickly and invisibly as possible. If it wasn’t already too late.

03:30 Hr.s Local. 37,700 feet, North Korean MiG-29 Fulcrum, 49 miles southeast of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Gwok wasn’t quite sure it was an American stealth bomber at first. Through his visor, the night vision goggles and his canopy the image was ghosted and dark. A black slit in the otherwise pixellated sky. Then two bright rectangles of green bloomed in front of him; the exhaust heat from the B-2’s four engines. Even though they are channeled and louvered to prevent a large infra-red signature from below they still pump out a lot of heat as seen from above. That heat lit up Major Gwok’s night vision goggles. His fingers flew over his console to unsafe his GSh-30-1 cannon. The instant the safety selector was slewed to “FIRE” his gloved finger clamped down on the trigger at the front of his stick. The 30 millimeter cannon tore off a succession of white-hot shells in a bright line of arcing white dots perforating the night sky. They expanded out in a wide curve and faded. Gwok jinked hard right, largely from instinct but also to avoid overrunning his target or even colliding with it. He didn’t know if he scored a hit. He pulled hard back and right on his stick, describing a tight circle to come around and see if he could spot the black stealth bomber.

As Gwok finished his tight 360-degree turn and rolled wings level he saw something trailing flame through the night sky, cartwheeling straight down toward the earth like a black, burning boomerang.

03:30 Hr.s Local. 34,400 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 55 miles southeast of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Alarms lit off inside the cockpit. The nose went down and Evans tried to add power and gently pull back but there was no perceivable control response. The aircraft began to shudder, then pivot oddly beneath them. It was falling apart. The G-load increased and the aircraft entered a spin like a boomerang. Evans got one hand between his legs and into the ejection handle as he said, out loud into his mask, “EJECT, EJECT, EJECT!”. Myers never heard him. He may have been fighting the losing battle to save the aircraft, he may have been wounded, he may have been dead. He never made it to the ejector seat handles.

The B-2 spun nearly 180 degrees in the air, nosed down and began to topple like a kite freed of its broken string. The top of the flying wing’s fuselage exploded in a spit of flame as Maj. Dave Evans’ ACES II ejection seat rocketed free. It flipped end over end at first, falling through 15,000 feet until it stabilized somewhat. At 10,000 feet the barometric altimeter automatically released Evans from the seat and his parachute began to deploy. The ejection, like all escapes from a crashing airplane, was violent. The severe vertigo was made worse by the darkness. Evans lost consciousness from the centrifugal force of the seat spinning after his egress from the crashing airplane but came back into a hazy state of alertness once his parachute canopy opened and he was scooting along under it at a steady speed with the prevailing winds. He didn’t know it, but the winds were carrying him toward the west coast of North Korea.

A disadvantage to being a stealthy aircraft is that, when the aircraft goes down, it is very difficult for rescuers to know where to look for the surviving crew, if there are any. Major Dave Evan’s ejector seat was equipped with a ProFIND SLB-2000-100 locator beacon. The beacon is a part of the pilot’s survival kit packed into the seat pan of the ACES II ejector seat. It actuates automatically when the pilot separates and dangles below him as a part of the survival kit package. At 9,500 feet above the ground Evan’s locator beacon began to transmit.

03:40 Hr.s Local. 45,000 feet AGL, U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry AWACS Aircraft, 21 miles west of North Korean coast.

Airman 1st Class Stephanie “Stuffy Stef” Monroe, an airborne sensor operator oddly prone to allergies on board an E-3 Sentry off the coast of North Korea, saw something on her monitor she had only seen in training. The flashing icon indicated an incoming emergency locator beacon from a pilot’s survival kit. She keyed her microphone to the on-board mission commander. In less than one minute half of the crew of the E-3 were shifting their workloads to a new priority; rescue one of the most sensitive assets in the U.S. military- a stealth bomber pilot.

(TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, OKLA) Airmen from the 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron monitor the skies during the E-3 Sentry 30th anniversary flight Mar. 23. The E-3 first arrived at Tinker on Mar. 23, 1977, and Airmen have been conducting the same aerial surviellance mission for the past 30 years. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stacy Fowler)

This story was originally posted at Tomdemerly.com.

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