Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Spanish Eurofighter Typhoon Accidentally Fires Live Air-to-Air Missile Over Estonia, 25 miles west of the Russian border.

Live AIM-120 AMRAAM Missile Still Missing with Search Underway.

A Spanish Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft accidently fired an AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) while flying near Otepää in Estonia, less than 50 km west of the Russian border. The missile has not been recovered. The last assumed location of the missile is roughly 40 km to the north of the city of Tartu, and its direction was northbound.  The incident took place on Tuesday, August 7, 2018 sometime around 3:45 PM local.

A search is currently underway for the wreckage of the missile. According to a statement by Estonian Defense Forces, the AIM-120 AMRAAM was equipped with an automatic destruct mechanism intended to destroy the missile if it were accidentally discharged, but officials could not confirm if the missile had been destroyed. They have issued an official hotline phone number in Estonia to call immediately if parts of the missile are found, and the public is cautioned not to touch or approach suspected missile debris. The phone number to report suspected missile fragments in Estonia is: +372 717 1900.

AIM-120 AMRAAM on an Italian F-16 back in 2007. (Image credit: SCDBob via Wiki)

The Eurofighter Typhoon that accidentally fired the missile was based at Šiauliai, Lithuania, where it returned following the incident. Conflicting reports say the aircraft had either been participating in a training exercise or a QRA (quick reaction alert) drill: considered that alert aircraft carry live missiles, the latter seems more likely, even though aerial exercises in the context of enhanced air policing operations may involve armed aircraft.

The aircraft that accidentally discharged the missile was accompanied by another Spanish Typhoon and two French Mirage 2000 according to Estonia’s Ministry of Defense. This means the Eurofighter Typhoon C.16 was one of the six aircraft contingent from the Spanish military that assists with the NATO enhanced air policing mission in the region along with other aircraft. The air policing mission has received significant notoriety over the last years because of increased Russian air activity in the region, with the NATO air policing patrols frequently tasked with interception and escort of Russian aircraft.

Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas posted on Facebook that there were “No human casualties,” and characterized the incident as “extremely regrettable.”

He went on to say, “I am sure that the Estonian defense forces will, in cooperation with our allies, identify all the circumstances of the case and make every effort to make sure that nothing like this happens again.”

The incident calls into question the protocols associated with using live weapons in close proximity to civilian areas, and also raises concerns about the safety of the NATO air policing mission. What are the procedures for firing a live missile? How can a missile be fired by “accident”? Isn’t there a sort of Master Armament Switch that prevents arming the missiles?

This incident does appear to be unique however, with other accidental discharges of air-to-air missiles, especially in areas proximate to NATO patrol areas, being non-existent. In general, these patrol flights have historically exhibited a good safety record, free from accidental weapons releases.

H/T @juanmab for the heads-up!

Check Out This Amazing Photo of America’s Air Force Fighter Arsenal Flying Formation!

Incredible Group of Aircraft from the U.S. Air Force’s Elite Nellis AFB Test and Evaluation Squadron.

There are good aviation photos, great aviation photos and exceptional aviation photos we may never see again. This photo from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada is definitely in the last category.

The photo, shared on the official Nellis AFB Facebook page and credited to the USAF, shows a unique formation of today’s most advanced tactical combat aircraft in a rare formation flight. A formation like this has not even been seen during the last two Nellis AFB Aviation Nation Air and Space Expos in 2016 and 2017.

The formation includes, as you can see, an F-16C Fighting Falcon, an F-22 Raptor, an F-35A Lighting II, an F-15C Eagle and a two-seat F-15E Strike Eagle, an A-10 Thunderbolt II. Each of the aircraft (not all fighters but mostly multi-role warplanes) wears the distinctive “OT” tail code for the “Operational Test” squadron that is part of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group.

The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, or “TES”, operates this cross-section of Air Force combat aircraft not only for testing and evaluation of existing and developmental hardware on the aircraft such as new weapons, avionics, software and communications systems but perhaps more interestingly, new tactics for the aircraft to be used singly and in conjunction with each other and the rest of the Air Force.

One fascinating recent observation that may be (and may not be) related to 422nd TES expansion of combat tactics was the appearance of F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters flying low level, terrain masking flights through the nearby Rainbow Canyon low flying area in Death Valley, California. The F-22 was originally intended as an air superiority fighter and would, as such, have little need to fly low-level terrain masking infiltration flights. But as F-22s have been used in the strike role in Syria already, perhaps the appearance of the “OT” tail code Raptors in the Canyon suggests an expansion in the F-22’s role in the future.

This Dafydd RJ Phillips photo shows a 422nd TES F-22 Raptor in Star Wars Canyon earlier this year. (Photo: Dafydd RJ Phillips)

The incredible photo was shot by Jake Melampy who manages Reid Air Publications in Trenton, Ohio, a publisher of an impressive assortment of aircraft reference books detailing markings and technical information for everyone from intelligence analysts to plastic scale modelers. Jake is a highly accomplished photographer with significant experience in air-to-air photoshoots which are deceivingly difficult to do well.

Top image: unique formation including each of the aircraft currently flown by the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB. (Photo: USAF by Jake Melampy)

 

Viral Fog Landing Video Likely Shows UK’s Special “Blue Thunder” Dauphin Helicopter At Work

Video of Heli Landing in Dense Fog Likely Shows Elite Joint 658 Squadron Helicopter Unit.

A video of a helicopter flying incredibly low over a fog shrouded road that was shot two days ago in Kirkstone Pass in the English Lake District of County Cumbria has been featured in nearly every European news media. It will likely make the rounds in the U.S. also as the time zone catches up. But most media sharing the viral video have likely identified the aircraft and its operators incorrectly.

Most news media who have shared the video have said the blue helicopter may be a British “SAS” or Special Air Service helicopter. And while there may be some degree of accuracy to the assumption that the SAS is involved in the flight, it is more likely the helicopter flying in unbelievably bad weather through the mountains belongs to someone else entirely.

The video appears to have been shot from a family car dash cam since the camera is static and very close to the vehicle windshield. It may also have been a smartphone video since, remember U.S. readers, in UK the passenger sits on the left side of the vehicle and the driver on the right.

Whichever way the video was shot, the videographer, identified in the BBC North West use of the video as “Brian Weatherall”, sees the aircraft emerge out of the fog on his left near a stone wall and appear to begin to flare for a landing next to the road. It’s pretty dramatic, and one can only imagine it is even more dramatic from the helicopter pilot’s perspective.

It’s likely the helicopter in the video is a Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin II, nicknamed “Blue Thunder” by the British tabloids, that belongs to the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW). Specifically, the unit flying the aircraft is probably the 658 Squadron based at SAS HQ at Credenhill, near Hereford. The elite aviation unit was previously known as 8 Flight AAC until September 2013. This unit supports the British 22nd Special Air Service (22 SAS).

The helicopter in the viral fog video is likely a special operations AS365N3 Dauphin II like this one. (Photo: Mark Harkin/Wiki)

The 658 Squadron is roughly comparable in mission to the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR). The 160th SOAR support U.S. special operations for the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Army Special Forces. They are commonly assumed to have flown the still secret “stealth hawk” helicopter used in Operation Neptune Spear, the 2011 raid to capture Osama Bin Laden.

If the helicopter is an AS365N3 from 658 Squadron, the more interesting question is, what was it doing flying so low so close to a public road? In general, special operations helicopters maintain a low profile and avoid exercises where they may wind up in a viral social media video. Some factors that may cause one to operate close to civilian roads may include things like a rescue flight for personnel injured during training or participation in a civilian emergency mission. It’s also possible the aircraft is conducting an insertion or extraction of forces on a training exercise in the area, possibly even on the road as we’ve seen with videos of special forces helicopters stopping vehicles on roads in the Middle East.

Whatever the case may be with the aircraft in the video, the color livery of the helicopter, the fact that it is flying in very difficult conditions and the proximity to special forces training areas all support the argument that it is a 658 Squadron aircraft. That makes this video very special, and a truly marvelous catch for Mr. Brian Weatherall.

Top image: screenshot from Brian Weatherall video via BBC

Report: Meteor Made 2.1 Kiloton Explosion Over Air Force Space Command Base Thule, Greenland.

Where is Space Force When You Need Them? Scientists Tweet Incident; Air Force is Quiet.

A curious and credible Tweet from the Director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, Hans Kristensen, on August 1, 2018 at 5:14 PM Washington D.C. time claimed that a, “Meteor explodes with 2.1 kilotons force 43 km above missile early warning radar at Thule Air Base.”

The Tweet apparently originated from Twitter user “Rocket Ron”, a “Space Explorer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory”. The original Tweet read, “A fireball was detected over Greenland on July 25, 2018 by US Government sensors at an altitude of 43.3 km. The energy from the explosion is estimated to be 2.1 kilotons.” Rocket Ron’s Tweet hit in the afternoon on Jul. 31.

The incident is fascinating for a long list of reasons, not the least of which is how the Air Force integrates the use of social media reporting (and non-reporting) into their official flow of information. As of this writing, no reporting about any such event appears on the public news website of the 12th Space Warning Squadron based at Thule, the 21st Space Wing, or the Wing’s 821st Air Base Group that operates and maintains Thule Air Base in support of missile warning, space surveillance and satellite command and control operations missions.

An early warning radar installation in Thule, Greenland. (Photo: USAF)

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory did provide a Tweet with a screenshot of data showing record of an object of unspecified size traveling at (!) 24.4 Kilometers per second (about 54,000 MPH or Mach 74) at 76.9 degrees’ north latitude, 69.0 degrees’ west longitude on July 25, 2018 at 11:55 PM. That latitude and longitude does check out as almost directly over Thule, Greenland.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory showed the object’s reentry on their database. (Photo: JPL via Twitter)

When you look at NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Program database for objects entering the atmosphere you see that, “The data indicate that small asteroids struck Earth’s atmosphere – resulting in what astronomers call a bolide (a fireball, or bright meteor) – on 556 separate occasions in a 20-year period. Almost all asteroids of this size disintegrate in the atmosphere and are usually harmless.” That is a rate of one asteroid, or “bolide”, every 13 days over the 20-year study according to a 2014 article by Deborah Byrd for Science Wire as published on EarthSky.org.

But there are exceptions.

You may recall the sensational YouTube and social media videos of the very large Chelyabinsk meteor that struck the earth on Feb. 15, 2013. Luckily it entered the earth’s atmosphere at a shallow trajectory and largely disintegrated. Had it entered at a more perpendicular angle, it would have struck the earth with significantly greater force. Scientists report that Chelyabinsk was the largest meteor to hit the earth in the modern recording period, over 60-feet (20 meters) in diameter. Over 7,000 buildings were damaged and 1,500 people injured from the incident.

What is perhaps most haunting about the Chelyabinsk Meteor and, perhaps we may learn, this most recent Thule, Greenland incident, is that there was no warning (at least, not publicly). No satellites in orbit detected the Chelyabinsk Meteor, no early warning system knew it was coming according to scientists. Because the radiant or origin of the Chelyabinsk Meteor was out of the sun, it was difficult to detect in advance. It arrived with total surprise.

Northern Russia seems to be a magnet for titanic meteor strikes. The fabled Tunguska Event of 1908 was a meteor that struck in the Kraznoyarsk Krai region of Siberia. It flattened over 770 square miles of Siberian taiga forest but, curiously, seems to have left no crater, suggesting it likely disintegrated entirely about 6 miles above the earth. The massive damage done to the taiga forest was from the shockwave of the object entering the atmosphere prior to disintegration. While this recent Thule, Greenland event is very large at 2.1 kilotons (2,100 tons of TNT) of force for the explosion, the Tunguska Event is estimated to have been as large as 15 megatons (15 million tons of TNT).

It will be interesting to see how (and if) popular news media and the official defense news outlets process this recent Thule, Greenland incident. But while we wait to see how the media responds as the Twitter dust settles from the incident, it’s worth at least a minor exhale knowing this is another big object that missed hitting the earth in a different location at a different angle and potentially with a different outcome.

Top image:  Meteor Shower (credit: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock)

 

RAF Scampton, Home of The Dambusters and the Red Arrows, To Be Closed and Sold.

Famous RAF Base Has Illustrious History Dating Back to WWI as One of Oldest Air Bases.

The British Ministry of Defense (MoD) has announced the upcoming closure of the famous RAF Scampton air base outside the village of Scampton, Lincolnshire, UK. The base is among the oldest military air facilities in the world, having commenced operations in 1916 as Home Defense Flight Station Brattleby, or Brattleby Cliff to some. Reports in the local Lincolnite news outlet say the base will close by 2022.

RAF Scampton is currently home the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the famous Red Arrows. The world-renowned flight demonstration was first based at RAF Scampton in 1983, but was relocated to other airfields until they returned to Scampton in late 2000 where they reside today.

The closure of RAF Scampton joins the additional closure of RAF Linton-on-Ouse as a cost cutting measure estimated to save the British MoD as much as £3bn (nearly $4 billion U.S. dollars) by 2040 according to a report in the BBC World News. The report went on to say the two bases currently employ a combined total of approximately 900 people. There was no information on how those jobs may be affected by the two base closures.

The pastoral setting of RAF Scampton conjures iconic images of the RAF’s illustrious history. This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Royal Air Force as one of the world’s oldest independent military air force. Celebrations and events commemorating the RAF’s history have been taking place all summer in the U.K. and will continue throughout the year.

RAF Scampton was home to the famous 617 Squadron in 1943. Known most famously as “The Dambusters” for their unique and daring raid, “Operation Chastise” on the large industrial dams of Ruhr Valley using early, rudimentary precision bombs designed by Barnes Wallis. The operation to strike the dams has been celebrated in books and film and even commemorated by flyovers of Lancaster bombers today.

The famous “Dambusters” raid by 617 Squadron originated from RAF Scampton in 1943. (Photo: Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund/MoD)

In 1956, RAF Scampton underwent major renovation as the Cold War reached its most threatening era. A runway was lengthened to 10,000 feet to accommodate the majestic Avro Vulcan delta-wing heavy bomber made famous during the “Black Buck” air raids on the Falkland Islands from Ascension Island in the Atlantic.

The iconic Avro Vulcan bomber was based at RAF Scampton during the Cold War. (Photo: MoD, Crown Copyright)

BBC Defense correspondent Jonathan Beale wrote that, “This will not be a popular decision, but defense sources say the base is looking tired and in need of investment. The RAF has assessed money would be better placed on improving its existing core sites.”

While fans of the RAF and British military history will lament the base closure, they also have plenty to celebrate as the country welcomes the arrival of its new F-35B Lightning (in British service, the F-35 is known as the “Lightning”, not the “Lightning II” according the MoD website). Also worthy of celebration is the ongoing testing of the new HMS Queen Elizabeth toward the goal of full F-35 strike capability by the F-35 from the ship in 2020.

Top image: RAF Scampton has most recently been known as the home the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team. (Photo: UK MoD, Crown Copyright)