Author Archives: Tom Demerly

China’s New Video of Their Naval Aviation Blows “Top Gun” Away

New Video Screams “All Your Bases Are Belong to Us” With Awesome Music, Images.

China Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Chinese micro-blogging, social media outlet Sina Weibo are rocking the web with a new motivational video of Chinese naval air and sea power that is a pure adrenaline fix. You could say it’s the Chinese “Top Gun”, but even better. The soundtrack blows Kenny Loggins away and the choreography beats the beach volleyball scene. The only thing missing is a Chinese equivalent of Kelly McGillis, but there is still plenty here to take your breath away.

The video surfaced in mid-May on Chinese social media and made its way to Facebook via mostly the Chinese pages. Now it is trending across international social media aviation pages. It is sure to go big.

Shot on board the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning (CV-16), the video is brilliantly choreographed and composed. It is set to the soundtrack song “Black Blade” from the (ironically) U.S. based soundtrack artists “Two Steps from Hell” featuring musicians and composers Thomas J. Bergersen (originally of Trondheim, Norway) and Nick Thomas of Los Angeles. The two musicians have scored over 1,000 soundtracks and film trailers. They have also produced music for video and computer games. If you’ve seen the Hollywood films, “The Dark Knight”, “Tron: Legacy” or “No Country for Old Men” then you’ve already heard their masterful soundtrack music.

The video was filmed during major naval exercises earlier this year off Hainan island in the South China Sea. The region is the scene of minor disputes between Taiwan, mainland China and even Vietnam over some small outlying islands. The recent Chinese emphasis on sea power centers on their emerging aircraft carrier program and is likely a bid to maintain and expand control in this area and project Chinese military influence around the globe.

At the same time the Chinese were shooting this killer video, spy satellites in orbit overhead were doing a little photography of their own. James Pearson and Greg Torode of Reuters news agency published satellite spy photos likely taken at the exact same time the Chinese video was being shot. Satellite imagery published by Reuters on March 27, 2018 and likely taken the day before on Monday, March 26, 2018 were obtained from Planet Labs, Inc. According to their website, Planet Labs, Inc. is a private intelligence gathering company that, “Started as a small team of physicists and engineers, and now operates the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites.”

Satellite imagery of the Chinese carrier task force appear to have been taken at the exact time the new video was being shot. (Photo: Planet Labs via Reuters).

The aircraft seen most prominently on deck of the Liaoning in this video are the Chinese J-15B “Flying Shark” multi-role fighters. The Chinese also operate a variant known as the J-11BH and J-11BSH. Based on the Sukhoi Su-27 family of tactical aircraft, the Chinese have been vigorous in testing and development of the J-15 and its minor variants since their carrier program began in earnest during 2002. While a highly capable aircraft, the J-15 Shark is currently limited in gross take-off weight from the Chinese carrier Liaoning because of their reliance on the ski-jump style Short Take-Off but Arrested Landing (STOBAR) technology. Future Chinese carriers like the recently launched Type 001A, rumored to be named Shandong, will likely be adapted to Catapult Assisted Take-Off but Arrested Landing (CATOBAR). This catapult system can launch heavier aircraft than the ski-jump system. China has even been testing electromagnetic aircraft catapults at a land-based facility for likely inclusion on future aircraft carriers.

Other aircraft showcased in the video are the Chinese H-6DU aerial tanker. The H-6DU is based on the former-Soviet Tu-16 Badger. Other versions of the H-6 carry air-launched cruise missiles for the anti-shipping role. The H-6DU, possibly from China’s 23rd Regiment, 8th Naval Aviation Division assigned to the Southern Theater Command, is refueling a pair of J-10AHs possibly of the 4th Naval Aviation Division.

Helicopters seen in the video include the Changhe Aircraft Industrial Corporation (CHAIC)
Z-8 land and ship based ASW/SAR helicopter that is based on the French SA-321Ja Super Frelon.

Despite the ongoing debate about the emerging Chinese aircraft carrier force you have to admit the production quality of this video is very good, and it suggests China is enthusiastic about the expansion of their naval air and sea power. It’s also just plain cool to watch!

U.S. Navy Pilot Killed in A-29 Super Tucano Crash at White Sands Missile Range. Twelfth U.S. military aircraft crash in 2018.

Aircraft Was Part of Air Force Light Attack Experiment Program. It’s the seventh U.S. Air Force crash this year.

A U.S. Navy pilot participating in the ongoing Light Attack Experiment died Friday, June 22, 2018 when the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano aircraft he was flying crashed inside the Red Rio Bombing Range inside the White Sands Missile Range.

The U.S. Navy has identified the pilot who died in the accident as Lt. Christopher Carey Short, from Canandaigua, New York. Another crew member on board the two-seat light turboprop attack and trainer aircraft is being reported as injured after ejecting from the aircraft.

No cause for the accident has been reported and the cause of the accident is under investigation according to Air Force Public Affairs at Holloman AFB.

The aircrew involved in Friday’s accident was participating in the ongoing U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment, an evaluation program that is performing analysis and flight tests on several small, mostly turboprop light multi-role aircraft for potential integration into U.S. and allied air combat roles.

An Embraer A-29 Super Tucano at the U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment Demo in 2017 (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

According to an official Air Force statement released early last month, the second phase of the Light Attack Experiment began at Holloman AFB in New Mexico on May 7, 2018. The statement included remarks by USAF Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, military deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

“This second phase of the experimentation is about informing the rapid procurement process as we move closer to investing in light attack. If we can get light attack aircraft operating in permissive combat environments, we can alleviate the demand on our 4th and 5th generation aircraft, so they can be training for the high-end fight they were made for.”

The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano is one of several aircraft that have participated in the Light Attack Experiment. Other aircraft involved in the evaluation experiment include the Textron Aviation Defense AT-6 Wolverine turboprop and the U.S built Textron Aviation Defense Scorpion light jet, the only jet aircraft shown so far in the experiment. The IOMAX Archangel has also participated in some of the Light Attack Experiment.

The USAF’s controlled commercially-owned A-29 was about to demonstrate its capabilities as part of the second phase of the Light Attack Experiment on Jun. 22, when it crashed.

The A-29 Super Tucano is a proven light attack and trainer aircraft with a history of successful operation with a number of international operators including Afghanistan. On March 22, 2018, pilots of the Afghan Air Force successfully employed a GBU-58 Paveway II precision guided bomb against a Taliban target for the first time. The Afghan Air Force currently employs 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft with more slated for delivery.

The Columbian Air Force has used the A-29 Super Tucano extensively in combat against the FARC rebels prior to the September 2016 ceasefire.

While the A-29 Super Tucano does have a proven performance and safety record the light attack mission can be inherently dangerous with aircraft frequently prosecuting targets at medium to very low altitude and in a crowded battlespace where communications with air assets and ground troops coordinating close air support is often complex.

The A-29 is the seventh U.S. Air Force crash (12th U.S. military aviation) since the beginning of the year. The most recent ones involved a WC-130H from the 156th Airlift Wing from Puerto Rico ANG that crashed near Chatham City, Georgia on May 2, 2018, causing 9 deaths; a T-38 that crashed 9 miles north of the city of Columbus on May 23, 2018 after the pilots managed to eject; and a USAF F-15C Eagle belonging to the 18th Wing at Kadena AB, Okinawa that crashed into the ocean off Okinawa on Japan on Jun. 11, 2018: the pilot ejected but was seriously injured in the incident.

Heroism: How a Young U.S. Air Force B-1B Bomber Crew Saved an Aircraft and Crew Lives

New Bomber Crew Stayed with Aircraft After Ejection Seat Failed.

In a stunning story of split-second decision-making under pressure, heroic, selfless action and remarkable airmanship, the drama of what really happened in a burning B-1B bomber over Texas on May 1, 2018 has finally been revealed.

Earlier this week in Washington, Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Heather Wilson finally told reporters and Air Force personnel what has been secretly talked about on back-channels since the incident occurred, Air Force Times Tara Copp reported.

A B-1B supersonic heavy bomber from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas was returning from a routine training sortie on May 1. The aircraft’s young crew of four, the senior aircraft commander- likely the instructor, the copilot, an offensive systems operator, and the defensive systems operator are on board. The names of the crew have not yet been released.

A fire warning light illuminated in the cockpit. According to credible reports, it was likely the number three engine on the aircraft’s right wing located closest to the fuselage. The number two and number three engines are the closest to the complex apparatus that moves the B-1B’s variable geometry swept wings. They are also close to the aircraft fuel tanks.

The crew initiated the emergency checklist procedures for extinguishing a fire in an engine. It was likely calm but businesslike in the cockpit.

The fire continued. The final item on the emergency checklist is: “Eject”.

The early B-1A prototypes were originally designed with a crew escape capsule that rocketed off the fuselage as one unit. The escape capsule was not engineered into production B-1B bombers when the program was renewed in 1982 by the Reagan administration. As a result, four lighter weight individual Weber Aircraft ACES II (Advanced Crew Ejection Seat II) ejection seats were installed in production B-1Bs. The ACES II is a proven and effective ejection seat with well over 600 successful crew escapes and the lowest frequency of user injuries of any ejection seat in history.

Original test B-1As were equipped with a crew escape capsule. Individual ejection seats were used on the operational B-1B. (Photos: The Ejection Site)

When the aircraft commander ordered the ejection of the crew from the burning aircraft over Texas the first crewmember to actuate their ejection seat was the right/rear seat on the aircraft, the Offensive Systems Operator.

When the crewmember pulled the ejection seat handles the hatch above the OSO’s ejection seat exploded off the aircraft. But the Offensive Systems Operator ejection seat did not fire. The Offensive Systems Operator was trapped under an open hatch on an armed ejection seat in a burning aircraft. Other than having a fire in the cockpit, this was a worse-case scenario.

Dr. Wilson told reporters that, “Within two seconds of knowing that had happened the aircraft commander says, ‘Cease ejection. We’ll try to land.”

Secretary Wilson told reporters on Monday that after the ejection sequence was initiated in the B-1B, “That did two things. First the airman who’s sitting on an ejection seat where he’s pulled the fire pins ― and sits there for the next 25 minutes. Wondering whether ― it’s like pulling out the pin on a grenade and holding it as you come in to land. And not knowing whether the next piece of turbulence is going to cause you to launch.”

Having cancelled the ejection of the crew from the burning bomber, the aircraft commander declared an emergency and diverted to Midland International Air and Space Port between Midland and Odessa, Texas, over 150 miles from their original base at Dyess AFB.

The pilot and flight crew flew the B-1B the entire way to Midland while it was on fire with a missing hatch, had no cockpit pressurization and an armed ejection seat that could fire at any moment without warning. Even the impact of a normal landing could have triggered the ejection seat to ignite its rockets and leave the aircraft.

The crew recovered the aircraft to Midland without injury or further damage to the aircraft, saving every member on board and the 400 million-dollar B-1B.

Composite image made from FB/Time Fischer/Midland Reporter photographs that show the missing hatch.

Dr. Heather Wilson concluded her recounting of the heroic B-1B crew’s actions by acknowledging, “The courage it took and the valor represented by that aircraft commander who decided, ‘We are going to try for all of us to make it, rather than sacrifice the one guy who can’t get out.’ Those are the men and women who choose to wear the uniform of the United States Air Force.”

The B-1 incident led to a temporary stand-down of the whole B-1 fleet as all ejection seats were inspected. The grounding was lifted on Jun. 19.

Top image: the B-1B from Dyess AFB after the May 1, 2018 emergency landing in Texas. Notice the missing hatch on top of the aircraft. (Photo: Time Fischer/Midland Reporter-Telegram)

 

Why the New U.S. Space Force Isn’t as Whacky as The Internet Suggests

Space May Be the “Final Frontier” Of a New Global Conflict Among Superpowers.

U.S. President Donald Trump launched a thousand memes when he announced the creation of a new military branch, a “U.S. Space Force” during a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House on Monday, June 18, 2018. The President told reporters that the new U.S. Space Force would become the sixth branch of the military to exist alongside but separately from the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.

While President Trump’s announcement was received with humor and cynicism across social media, the formation of a U.S. military space force separate from and in addition to the existing five military branches is a credible and potentially overdue evolution for the U.S. military.

Since the first satellite, Sputnik 1, was placed in orbit by the former Soviet Union on October 4, 1957 over 8,000 objects have been launched into space. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists in a 2017 report, there were 1,738 operational satellites orbiting the earth at various altitudes broken into four categories; Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit, Elliptical and Geosynchronous. Of those satellites, 159 are registered as “military” while an additional 150 are “government”. There are over 470 civilian satellites in orbit that provide everything from weather reconnaissance to communications.

Any disruption in vital space capabilities such as the six different national GPS constellations in orbit would have vast security and economic implications and present a significant vulnerability. Currently the U.S., Japan, Russia, China, the E.U. and India have GPS satellite constellations in orbit. These satellite constellations provide both vital commercial and military services ranging from civilian air transport to banking.

GPS jamming and denial is one example of potential threats in the outer space battle space. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Since the Army launched the first successful U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958 it is as if the United States has built a new colony in space with limited or no provision for security. This has created a significant and expanding vulnerability given our increasing reliance on space-based assets both commercial and military.

Since the late 1950’s the responsibility for space defense operations, including reconnaissance and signals intelligence, missile defense, treaty compliance verification and other defense oriented space operations has largely been on the U.S. Air Force. But as the Air Force confronts its own challenges with pilot shortages and fiscal concerns attendant to an increasingly complex and evolving mission, asking them to secure outer space in addition to inner space would necessitate a massive expansion in both budget and capabilities.

The current U.S. government space agency, NASA, is now operating on about the same budget as they had in 1960, with consistent declines in NASA funding since its peak in 1966 when NASA accounted for nearly 5% of the U.S. federal budget. Today NASA uses less than 1% of the federal budget as reliance on private commercial and military space operations has expanded. Despite this drastic reduction in government spending in space set against the backdrop of expanding reliance on space assets there remains no exclusive force to secure the outer space theater of operations.

Historically, the precedent for the formation of a U.S. Space Force is analogous to how the U.S. Air Force was started. Formed after WWII as a result of the 1947 National Security Act, the Air Force was previously a part of the U.S. Army. But as reliance on air power expanded, the missions became more complex and other nations developed an increasing level of commensurate air power the necessity for a separate force dedicated to air power became significant. It’s also important to acknowledge that despite the formation of a dedicated sir force separate from other branches, the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard each retained their own indigenous air component exclusive to themselves. It’s likely the evolution of the U.S. Space Force will have a similar relationship with the other forces.

In the current battlespace, countries like China have developed anti-satellite weapons that could threaten international and U.S. space assets. In January 2007, the Chinese conducted an anti-satellite weapons test that successfully destroyed one of their own target satellites in orbit. The U.S. and Russia has demonstrated a similar capability as early as the 1980’s.

Since the first flight of the secretive X-37B on April 22, 2010, there have been many theories about what the role of the spacecraft may be. The first is that the X-37B is a space-based weapons platform: the spacecraft is pre-deployed into orbit armed with some type of weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target. It may also be a weapons delivery vehicle deployed in defense of space-based commercial assets such as the GPS satellite constellation. Although this theory is debunked by most analysts since, most likely, the platform is just a test bed for deploying satellites and servicing them robotically in space or a new intelligence gathering asset, the project itself reaffirms the interest of the U.S. military for space.

While the social media space received the announcement of a new U.S. Space Force with pointed humor and cynicism the reality is that a dedicated U.S. Space Force is likely overdue. There is an expanding need for a dedicated security asset in this rapidly expanding and largely unsecured environment. Hopefully this new U.S. Space Force can address that evolving need.

Top image: composition created with Wiki/U.S. Air Force photos

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “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.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)