Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Let’s Recap Everything We Know About The Russian Il-20M Shot Down By A Syrian S-200 Missile System Yesterday

The Il-20M was shot down off Syria shortly after an Israeli air strike had hit targets in the Latakia Province.

Written with The Aviationist’s editor David Cenciotti

In the hours following the downing of a Russian military Il-20M “Coot-A” surveillance and control aircraft off the Syrian coast with 15 personnel on board, the leaders of Israel and Russia have expressed regret over the incident.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to express regret for the incident and emphasized that Syria was to blame for the loss of the aircraft and crew.

Russian President Putin was reported as saying the incident was, “A chain of tragic accidental circumstances” in quotes published by the BBC World News and other news outlets.

As the circumstances become clearer about how the large, four-engine turboprop Russian Il-20M “Coot-A” surveillance aircraft was lost previous theories have been debunked. It now appears certain the incident was a result of Syrian anti-aircraft batteries attempting to engage four Israeli F-16s that were striking targets in the region at the time. The Syrian S-200 surface to air missiles accidentally hit the larger, slower Russian Il-20M surveillance plane instead of any of the attacking Israeli F-16s (and possible escorting aircraft).

Early theories about who may be responsible for the destruction of the Russian aircraft included anti-aircraft missiles from the French missile frigate Auvergne off the Syrian coast and even the possible involvement of Israeli F-35I Adir aircraft or the four Israeli F-16s directly involved in the strike over Syria at the time the Russian Il-20M was lost. All of these theories have been dismissed as false.

But even with official acknowledgement of the circumstances leading up to the incident, which appears to be “fratricide” or a tragic “friendly fire” incident between allies, questions still remain. Columnist Joe Trevithick of “The War Zone” wrote after the incident, “Israel has used a deconfliction hotline in the past to alert Russia of impending strikes in Syria. The Israeli Air Force says it did give the Kremlin advance notice in this case, as well, but did not say how much time elapsed between that notification and the first missiles hitting various targets in Latakia.”

Trevithick’s observation has merit. Suggestions that the four attacking Israeli F-16s were using the large, slow Il-20 as a “shield” during the attack as suggested by the Russian MoD also seems tactically implausible to some, although deconfliction over a crowded target area is a problem in aerial combat that dates back to WWI, as is the corresponding threat of fratricide from anti-aircraft fire.

Suggestions have surfaced on social media, including Facebook pages originating in Russia, that the Russian Il-20M “Coot-A” was, “Landing in the Syria defense zone, all of the radar systems were turned off. Israeli planes took advantage of this situation and under cover [of the Russian Il-20M] struck positions of the Syrians. The S-200 air defenses of the Syria struck our plane by mistake.” Others have pointed out that the IFF used by the Russian aircraft should have prevented the “blue on blue” accident.

However, there have been previous episodes of friendly fire, including a famous accident that saw a RAF Tornado shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile in Iraq on Mar 22, 2003. Back then the UK MoD pointed to a “system error” as the cause, linked to failure of the aircraft’s “identification friend or foe” (IFF) system against a backdrop of of “inexperienced US troops, heavily reliant on technology to make decisions”.

Indeed, the IFF is not always reliable and the safety of friendly aircraft is also ensured by coordination, use of “Transit Corridors”, etc.

And EW (Electronic Warfare) support, decoys etc. that have proved to be extremely effective in the past, can have played a role:

Indeed, on Sept. 6, 2007, ten F-15I and F-16 jets attacked a nuclear facility being built in Syria. The success of that mission, dubbed “Silent Tone” (previously unofficially named “Operation Orchard” by international media), was largely attributed to effectiveness of the Israeli Electronic Warfare platforms that supported the air strike and made the Syrian radars blind: some sources believe that Operation Orchard saw the baptism of fire of the Suter airborne network system against Syrian radar systems from some ELINT aircraft.

Anyway, other contributing factors to the “friendly fire” that brought down the Il-20M may have been defective equipment as well as lack of training/expertise, even though we must also remember that, in June 2012, a Syrian anti-aircraft artillery battery was able to down a Turkish Air Force RF-4E Phantom that had violated the Syrian airspace at low altitude over the Mediterranean Sea, thus proving that Damascus’s air defense were (at that time) somehow dreadful for enemy fighter jets.

Photos appeared on Twitter today showing the alleged target of the Israeli F-16 strikes. Originally appearing from the Twitter user @aldin_ww and then shared on the unofficial Russian Aerospace Facebook fan page ВКС РОССИИ, the photo from before the strike showed a large, apparently single story building that appeared to be a warehouse. The photo posted that was claimed to be after the strike showed a similar building destroyed. No claim of the authenticity of the photos has been made by Israeli sources.

Official Israeli sources on Twitter released a series of tweets explaining their version of events surrounding the incident. Included in the Twitter statements from @IDFSpokesperson was the tweet that, “Israel will share all the relevant information with the Russian government to review the incident and confirm the facts in this inquiry.” Further posts on social media claimed that Israel had offered to send the “commander of the Israeli Air Force” to Russia to provide information about the Israeli actions surrounding the incident.

From the tactical point of view, the most interesting IDF statement claimed that the F-16s were already in Israeli airspace when the Il-20 was engaged by the Syrian S-200: a version that contradicts the official Russian MoD stance that the Israeli aircraft used the spyplane as a cover.

So, what has really happened on Sept. 18?

Based on the details available to date, it quite likely that the Syrian S-200 battery, facing multiple target, some real ones and other fake ones possibly generated by decoys and EW activity shot at anything within range. Panic and stress on the Syrian side may have contributed.

As Popular Mechanics remembers, misidentification by air defenses operated by Russian-backed forces led to the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight about 50NM to the northwest of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine on Jul. 17, 2014. On Jul. 3, 1988, an Airbus A-300 (registration EP-IBU) operating as Iran Air Flight 655 from Tehran Bandar Abbas to Dubai was shot down by two ground-to-air missiles fired by the USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga-class warship that was cruising in the Persian Gulf waters that misidentified the airliner as an Iranian F-14.

As the news cycle and social media conversation surrounding the incident continue it would appear that there will be no military response from Russia toward any nation. Russian social media has begun to show posts expressing remorse for the loss of the 15-member crew on board the Ilyushin Il-20M Coot. Names of the crew have not yet been seen on social media.

Top image credit: Dmitry Terekhov/Wiki

Russia Reports Il-20M “Coot-A” Electronic Intelligence Aircraft Lost in Syria During Israeli Air Strike Near Latakia

Confusion surrounds the causes of the loss. U.S. military says they believe the aircraft was shot down by Syrian Air Defense. Russians mention the proximity of Israeli F-16 Jets and French frigate in the area at the time of the incident.

A Russian military Ilyushin Il-20M Coot-A spyplane has been reported as “down” at approximately 2300 local time (2000 GMT) on Monday Sept. 17, in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian coast. There were 14 crewmembers on board the aircraft according to multiple reports.

Russian government media outlet TASS posted that, “On September 17, at about 11:00 Moscow time, the connection with the crew of the Russian Il-20 aircraft was lost over the Mediterranean Sea when the plane was returning to the airbase of Khmeimim, 35 kilometers from the coast of Syria.”

The report in Russian media released early September 18 in U.S. time zones, went on to say, “The ministry specified that the mark of Il-20 went off the radars disappeared during the attack of four Israeli F-16 aircraft on Syrian targets in the province of Latakia.”

In the United States, media outlet CNN immediately attributed the loss of the Russian surveillance and control aircraft to the Syrians, reporting that, “A Russian maritime patrol aircraft with multiple personnel on board was inadvertently shot down by Syrian regime anti-aircraft artillery on Monday after the Syrians came under attack by Israeli missiles, according to a US official with knowledge of the incident.”

The incident happened during an Israeli air strike in Syria being conducted by four F-16s according to CNN and other media outlets. The alleged Israeli strikes were reported to have hit multiple targets in the Syrian province of Latakia.

Photos that appear to show anti-aircraft missiles being launched appeared on Twitter and in Arab media. (Photo: Via Twitter)

The Russians media outlets mentioned the proximity of four Israeli F-16s involved in an air strike on Syrian targets in the province of Latakia, western Syria, when the Il-20 disappeared. No other reports have attributed the loss of the Russian Il-20 to the Israeli Air Force or the four Israeli F-16s reported to be operating in the area at the time. A report in Israeli media outlet Haaretz said only, “Unusual strikes attributed to Israel by Arab media: Missiles hit area near Russian military base injuring 10; Syrian military source says some [missiles] were intercepted.” The Israeli media went on to report that, “The attack near Latakia is especially unusual because the port city is located near a Russian military base, the Khmeimim Air Force base. The base is home to Russian jet planes and an S-400 aerial defense system. According to Arab media reports, Israel has rarely struck that area since the Russians arrived there.”

A conflicting war of words has emerged on Twitter about the incident. (Photo: Via Twitter)

Israeli media has said the missing Russian aircraft was “35 kilometers (20 miles) from the Syrian coastline” but attributed their report back to Russian sources. One Israeli press report also mentioned the proximity of the French missile frigate Auvergne to the area.

The Russian Defense Ministry was also quoted as releasing that, “At the same time, the Russian radars fixed missile launches from the French frigate Auvergne, which was in that area”

This is the fifth Russian aircraft reported lost in operations near Syria in 2018. A total of 58 personnel have been lost in Russian aircraft over Syria so far this year.

Dealing with the aircraft, this is how The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti described the Il-20 when it first appeared in the Syrian theater of operations in 2015:

The Il-20 is an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) platform: it is equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR (Infrared) and Optical sensors, a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing, the aircraft is Russian Air Force’s premiere spyplane.

Russian Il-20s regularly perform long-range reconnaissance missions in the Baltic region, flying in international airspace with its transponder turned off; a standard practice for almost all ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft. However, at least twice in the last couple of years Russian Coot spyplanes flying close to civilian airports or congested airways were involved in “air proximity” incidents: in March 2014, a SAS Boeing 737 with 132 people almost collided with an Il-20 Coot, about 50 miles to the southwest of Malmö, Sweden; in December 2014, a Canadair CRJ-200 from Cimber Airlines was involved in a near collision with an Il-20 halfway between Ystad, Sweden and Sassnitz, Germany.

In Syria, the aircraft will probably perform intelligence gathering missions, eavesdropping into IS militants communications, detecting their systems’ emissions to build an Electronic Order of Battle of ISIS in the region,  and pinpointing their positions. And, as happened in northern Europe, unless their missions are coordinated, there is the risk of a close encounter with a US-led coalition aircraft involved in Operation Inherent Resolve.

Update Sept. 18, 09.00 GMT

According to the Russian MoD the Il-20M was shot down by Syrian S-200 battery after the Israeli Air Force F-16s used the spyplane as cover. It claims IAF jets dropped GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs) to attack their targets. The wreckage of the downed aircraft was reportedly located about 30 km west of Banias, Syria.

Picture of airspace over the eastern Med Sea and Syria in the night of Sept. 17, released by the Russian MoD after the downing of the Il-20M.

Update Sept. 18, 12.00 GMT

Here’s the official Israeli stance on the entire episode. According to the IDF spokesperson, the F-16s were already in Israeli airspace when the Il-20 was shot down, anyway, “Israel will share all the relevant information with the Russian Government to review the incident and to confirm the facts in this inquiry.”

Top image: FAF via Wiki

Is This “Maverick’s” New F/A-18F Super Hornet for Filming “Top Gun” Sequel?

Hollywood Gossip Site Leaks Photo of F/A-18F With Special Markings.

Even though all of us feel the need for speed to get the new Top Gun sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick” released it sounds like Paramount Pictures has requested another flyby even as photos of a newly painted U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet that may be linked to the film’s production have been leaked.

While Top Gun fans can’t bring back that lovin’ feelin’ fast enough for their taste, Paramount Pictures announced in late August that the release of the upcoming “Top Gun: Maverick” will be delayed until (gasp…) June 26, 2020.

Even though this news is worse than having a MiG-28 stuck on your six it may also suggest that the Navy is working on something truly special in cooperation with Paramount Pictures for the new film. Video has surfaced on social media of U.S. Navy F-35s practicing “buzzing the tower” off U.S. aircraft carriers with references to the Top Gun script in the posts.

The U.S. Navy’s official VFA-125, the “Rough Raiders” Facebook page, “Home of the F-35”, posted video clips two weeks ago showing aircraft forming vapor cones and performing almost exactly the same low altitude, high speed pass made famous in the F-14 Tomcat in the first Top Gun film. The video may (and also may not) hint that the F-35s appearance in the film could be significant. There was no confirmation if coffee was spilled during any of the fly-bys, but plenty of flight deck crew were out taking video with smartphones.

In a USA Today story written by Bryan Alexander published on August 29, 2018, Alexander reported that, “The studio dropped the bomb [heh…] Wednesday that the release date for Tom Cruise’s anticipated sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” would be delayed one year to June 26, 2020.”

While the announcement of the delay is disappointing, Alexander did go on to provide a tantalizing teaser for readers who know naval aviation, “The extra time will give filmmakers the opportunity to work out the logistics of presenting flight sequences with new technology and planes, according to a Paramount statement.”

Translated into fan speak, that may very well mean we’re getting the Navy’s big, wide-winged F-35C in more than a cameo appearance in “Top Gun: Maverick”.

Meanwhile, Hollywood reporter Michael Briers over at the fan site “WeGotThisCovered.com” leaked photos of what may be Tom Cruise’s new ride as “Maverick” in the Top Gun sequel. Based on the watermark, the photos appear to come from an article on website “RevengeOfTheFans.com”. We got the permission from Mario-Francisco Robles at “Revenge Of The Fans” to publish the photo here at The Aviationist.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet was photographed with special markings including Capt. Pete Mitchell “Maverick” stenciled on the right cockpit rails. The aircraft may have been at Naval Air Station Fallon, as suggested by aviation and defense journalist Tyler Rogoway of “The War Zone” this morning when he posted that, “The jet has Topgun’s iconic seal on its tail, which means it would belong Naval Air Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) at NAS Fallon. So it looks like Maverick is an instructor at the school, which is not surprising.”

Capt. Pete Mitchell “Maverick” stenciled on the special colored Super Hornet. Credit: Revengeofthefans.com

While speculation about the specifics of the film and its plot continue and news of the delay is disappointing, the promise of getting a look at some of the Navy’s newest aircraft along with a special livery F/A-18F Super Hornet is very exciting. Now all we need to do is get the Navy to fly Maverick’s new Super Hornet through Star Wars Canyon for a photo-op, preferably, while inverted.

Top image: Several websites leaked photos of a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet with special markings that could be for Tom Cruise’s character “Maverick” in the upcoming Top Gun sequel (Photo: Via RevengeOfTheFans.com)

“Don’t Touch!”: Spectators Gently “Pet” Italian F-35A Lightning II at Belgian Air Show

Spectators Are Not Allowed to Touch F-35 Jets, But Some in Belgium Got a Lucky Chance.

If you are among the millions of people to see a Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter at an airshow since its first public appearance at Joint Base Andrews in the U.S. in 2011, you know there is always tight security surrounding the airplane. A rope cordon is normally patrolled by armed security guards to keep people at a distance from the exotic fifth-generation fighter.

But spectators at the 2018 Belgian Air Force Days airshow at Kleine-Brogel Air Base in northeastern Belgium got a treat when a new Italian F-35A belonging to the 13th Gruppo (Squadron) of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), MM7359/32-09, was being towed so close to the crowd line that the right wing actually protruded over the orange spectator fencing. This gave some quick-thinking spectators the opportunity to briefly and gently touch the aircraft to see what it felt like and be able to say they were among the first civilians at an airshow to touch the mysterious, stealthy plane.

Aviation photographer Stewart Jack was in the right place at the right time and caught a quick video of spectators reaching up and gently touching the plane. From the behavior of the people seen in Stewart’s video, it seems like they have an understanding of how special the moment was.

“The aircraft was being towed in to the static display for the Airshow on Saturday morning. We were all queuing up to gain access to the Friends of the Air Force section when it got just a bit too close for everyone waiting. The child on his dad’s shoulders was over the moon that he managed to get a glimpse of it so close up, let along touch it,” Stewart Jack told the Aviationist.com in an interview on Facebook about his video.

The Italian F-35 arriving at Kleine Brogel on Sept. 7. It was the first time the Lightning II aircraft visited Belgium. Image credit: Alessandro Fucito.

Each person along the taxiway touches the F-35A gently and only for a moment, as if to just be able to say they did, or feel some connection with the sensational aircraft. For aircraft enthusiasts and plane spotters around the world it is the equivalent of shaking hands with your favorite pop music or movie star along the runway at a big event.

Normal security for the F-35 has included fencing and guards along with covered intakes to prevent photos directly into the intakes. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.)

We’ve asked several military security personnel and public affairs representatives at airshows why security around the F-35 is so tight.

“As part of its new technology the plane has sensors and equipment on the outside that shouldn’t be handled unless you are trained [how to do it] and have a reason,” One F-35A maintenance airman told us at Nellis AFB last year when asked why there is such tight security around the plane.

Moreover, the LO (Low Observability) coating is one of the aircraft’s most delicate components and for this reason any “contact” with the haze paint of the stealth aircraft by unauthorized people should be avoided, in order to prevent scratches and damages.

The Italian Air Force F-35A in static display at Belgian Air Force Days. (Image credit: Alessandro Fucito).

“Please do not shoot photos directly into the intake or under the aircraft,” one armed Air Force Security Policeman told us recently at an F-35A static display at Selfridge ANGB in Michigan.

“We just don’t need people close to the airplane. It’s a security risk and people get better pictures outside the rope anyway,” a media representative for the U.S. Air Force told us recently at the Thunder Over Michigan airshow where two USAF F-35A Lightning IIs were on static display. Even when media is allowed inside the rope cordon for an interview they are briefed to not approach too close to the plane or attempt to touch it as we learned while taping an F-35A pilot interview two weeks ago in Michigan.

Normally the F-35 is moved well away from crowds, especially when taxiing as with this aircraft last year at Nellis AFB. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.)

Security for the newest and most advanced combat aircraft in the world is clearly the primary reason why spectators are not allowed to touch and walk very close to F-35s at airshows. And like anything that is forbidden or somehow rare and exotic, this has only made people more interested in getting close to the jet. But in reality, the barriers around the aircraft and the prohibition on touching it are as much about common sense with an advanced and expensive piece of equipment as it is about security. But for the people Stewart Jack managed to catch on video touching the beautiful aircraft with a sense of awe, it was certainly a unique moment.

Spectators at Kleine-Brogel Air Base get a rare and not entirely authorized chance to see what an F-35A actually feels like. (Photo: Stewart Jack)

USAF T-38C Talon Crew Eject in Texas After Their Jet Departs The Runway. Both Pilots Safe.

Fourth T-38 Trainer Accident in Eleven Months for USAF Talon Crews.

A U.S. Air Force T-38C Talon two-seat, twin engine advanced jet trainer from the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas departed the runway prior to takeoff this morning at approximately 10:13 a.m.

Both crew members ejected from the aircraft after the runway overrun. One crew member, Major Christian Hartmann of the German Air Force, was treated for minor injuries according to the Sheppard Air Force Base Facebook page. Luftwaffe (German Air Force) Maj. Hartmann is part of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program at Sheppard AFB. The exchange training program instructs combat pilots for 14 partner nations including Germany, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The second crewmember, U.S. Air Force pilot 1st Lt. Charles Walet, was also transported to United Regional Medical for medical evaluation following the accident. Lt. Walet was reported to be in stable condition. The statement released on the official Sheppard Air Force Base Facebook page went on to say that Lt. Walet is assigned to Vance AFB in Oklahoma and was on temporary duty at Sheppard AFB.

In a statement released soon after the accident USAF Colonel Lendy Renegar, Vice Commander of the 80th Flying Training Wing, said on Facebook that, “We are grateful both aircrew members are safe, and for the outstanding response from our fire, security and medical personnel. We also greatly appreciate the any expressions of support from leaders and members in our local community.”
Issuing a similar statement from Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, USAF Colonel Corey Simmons said on Facebook, “We’re relieved both pilots successfully ejected from the aircraft and stand ready to assist Sheppard in any way we can.” Col. Simmons is commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance AFB.

The two T-38 crewmembers escaped in ejection seats that were recently upgraded as part of a $185 million improvement program. The new MK US16T ejection seats were installed in the T-38 in 2013. The “zero/zero” ejection seats manufactured by Martin Baker are also used in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the T-6A Texan II trainer.

The statement posted on the Sheppard AFB Facebook page went on to say, “Emergency crews responded to the scene immediately to provide medical support to the aircrew and also extinguished a small fire in and around the aircraft. An explosive ordnance disposal team from Fort Sill also responded as a precaution, to ensure all the explosive material associated with the ejection seats was safely expended. The scene was declared safe for recovery operations at about 12:45 p.m.”

There has been no speculation or statements about the cause of the accident by the U.S. Air Force. As with all Air Force aviation accidents, the official cause will be determined by an investigation.

It is noteworthy that this is the fourth accident involving T-38 trainers in 11 months for the U.S. Air Force. There have now been nine U.S. Air Force crashes in the continuing tally of accidents since the beginning of 2018. These include the loss of an F-15C Eagle that crashed near Japan on June 11, 2018 and the fatal June 22, 2018 crash of an Embraer A-29 Super Tucano participating the Light Attack Experiment near Holloman AFB. This latest Air Force accident increases the total number of U.S. military aviation accidents in 2018 to at least 14.

The frequency of aviation accidents in the U.S. Air Force prompted U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein, to direct a one-day safety stand-down for an operational review earlier this year. Following the review, no single reason has been officially cited by the U.S. Air Force as a contributing factor to the number of accidents that have occurred in recent years and especially during 2017 and 2018.

Top image: stock photo of a T-38 Talon trainer like the one involved in today’s accident at Sheppard AFB. (Photo: USAF Official/Danny Webb)