Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Popular U.S. Airshow Pilot Vlado Lenoch Killed in P-51 Crash with Passenger

Lifelong Aviator’s Fatal Accident is Third P-51 Crash This Month.

Talented and widely admired airshow pilot Vlado Lenoch and airport manager Bethany Root died in the crash of a P-51D Mustang at about 10:15 a.m. Sunday Jul. 16, 2017, in Atchison County, Kansas after departing the Amelia Earhart Airport at approximately 10:00 AM.

Vlado Lenoch was 64 and his passenger Bethany Root was 34 years old.

Lenoch was an experienced demonstration, instructor and commercial pilot who began flying in 1970 when he was 17 years old. He was type-rated on many aircraft and served as an instructor pilot for Boeing on the 747. His most recent role was as a corporate pilot flying the Cessna Citation. Lenoch was married with three children.

Bethany Root was noted for her love of aviation that extended well beyond her role as an airport manager at the Amelia Earhart Airport where Sunday’s flight originated.

A lifelong aviator, Lenoch was the consummate pilot, instructor and airshow performer.
(Photo: TheAviationist.com)

This is the third accident involving a P-51 Mustang in July following two accidents at the Flying Legends Airshow in Duxford, England.

One aircraft, the P-51B named “Berlin Express” with a Malcolm Hood canopy design adopted on early version P-51’s for enhanced visibility prior to the bubble-canopy P-51D, suffered a canopy failure during a high-speed pass. The canopy disintegrated and pilot Nick Grey recovered the aircraft without further incident. The aircraft had been flown by Lee Lauderback across the Atlantic prior to the accident. This P-51 was famous for chasing a German Bf-109G around the Eiffel Tower in Paris during WWII before shooting it down.

The second P-51 accident at Duxford was a P-51D named “Miss Velma” that made an emergency belly landing in a field near the airport after witnesses reported “A loud bang” coming from the aircraft on final approach to landing. The aircraft sustained substantial damage but the pilot was uninjured. Ironically, when the aircraft was being transported away from the scene on a trailer following the crash on a flatbed trailer its right wingtip struck the post of a road sign causing further damage.

Vlado Lenoch was a Heritage Flight Certified pilot who flew in formation with active USAF aircraft like this F-35 And F-22. (Photo: TheAviationist.com)

 

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XB-70 Valkyrie Wing Section on eBay: An Aviation History Mystery Continues

Arizona eBay Seller Lists Large Wing Section of Crashed XB-70 Valkyrie for Auction.

With the exception of the occasional echoing thunder of jet noise, the desert is silent here.

Snakes and big desert jackrabbits are common. There are vultures, and the dead animals that feed them. But little else. Sunburned, gentle wind blows sand between low scrub. This vast desert test range sits empty, hot, dry and silent. If you want to walk here you need to carry plenty of water, a compass, a sun hat and a snakebite kit. It’s not a good area for hiking, and it isn’t allowed anyway as one of the nation’s largest and most secure military test ranges.

Trailing hot, black fuel-fire smoke a giant triangular platform of damaged white metal the size of a large building saucers oddly downward from the brilliant blue sky. Individual fragments with tails of smoke begin to rain into the sand, sending dust plumes skyward on impact. A shower of titanium shards, aluminum fragments and bits of torn honeycomb pepper the ground. Overhead thunder- the sound of an explosion- echoes down to the desert floor. The giant white triangle, 85 feet across, just about 20 feet short of its original width, caroms into the sand with a low, hollow “whomp” as black fuel smoke billows from underneath. Sand, dust and rock shatter outward, then bounce back into the desert trailing smoky spirals.

The desert goes silent again with the exception of small flames crackling on some of the burning fragments. About a mile away a single orange parachute pendulums back and forth as it flutters downward in the hot air. The man at the bottom holds his broken left arm. He tumbles painfully to the earth as his parachute deflates, landing in the sand.

It was 51 years ago this summer that one of the most bizarre accidents in aviation history occurred, the midair collision and crash of a prototype North American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, aircraft number 62-0207, one of only two built. The aircraft collided with a civilian registered F-104N flown by famous test pilot Joe Walker, who tragically died in the accident.

The XB-70 was flying in formation as part of a General Electric company publicity photo shoot outside the Edwards Air Force Base test range in the Mojave Desert, California. It flew with a two-seat T-38 Talon, an F-4B Phantom II, an F-104N Starfighter and a YF-5A Freedom Fighter.

As the photo shoot progressed safely for 40 minutes there were no problems, but toward the end of the shoot Joe Walker’s NASA registered F-104N Starfighter got too close to the right wing of the XB-70, collided, sheared off the twin vertical stabilizers of the big XB-70 and exploded as it cartwheeled behind the Valkyrie.

The XB-70 Valkyrie plummets to its death near Edwards AFB in .
(Photo: USAF)

Seconds after the collision the XB-70 departed controlled flight and began to break up. Large sections of it rained into the desert near Edwards.

Moments after the XB-70 crashed. (USAF)

Locating pieces of the crash has been a holy grail for many aviation enthusiasts over the last 50 years. The larger pieces of the crash have long since been removed, and likely only small fragments remain, buried by blowing sand. You need patience and a metal detector to find them.

That is why we were surprised to spot this eBay auction from a seller of Arizona City, Arizona. We’ve seen everything from ejector seats to drop tanks and even complete collections of combat aircraft for sale on eBay, but this is the first time we’ve seen what is claimed to be a large section of the crashed XB-70 aircraft #62-0207. The auction appeared authentic. The large fragment appears to be from the underside of the left wing on the XB-70 and includes part of the large “USAF” insignia. The honeycomb composite construction of the aircraft’s wing is clearly visible.

We contacted the seller on eBay with questions about the large wing fragment, where it came from and how they got it. We never received a reply to our inquiry. That same day the auction disappeared, “Ended” by the seller.

When we used the search function on eBay to find other artifacts from the XB-70 crash site we got lucky. We found a nice sized fragment claimed to be from the XB-70 by another seller. We won the auction in the final seconds of bidding for only $83.00 USD.

The fragment composite bought on eBay.

When we received the fragment just a few days later we did our best to verify its authenticity. Based on photos of the crash scene debris field, the paint used on the aircraft, the technical resources listing materials used and other sources we believe the likelihood is that this fragment is authentic. It is a part of the crashed XB-70 #62-0207, one of only two XB-70’s ever built.

We contacted the seller of the XB-70 fragment we bought and thanked him for selling it on to us. He sent us this rather heart-warming message on eBay:

“Hi, I can’t tell you very much as I bought this item from a fella who lived up in the Lancaster, Palmdale area. I have had the item for over 15 yrs. Evidently when the Air Force was through removing sensitive materials from the XB-70 it was then sold to a local salvage company. They cut up the remains with torches and trucked them to their local facility where I am told they retrieved the silver solder, copper, and metal scrap. Many years passed, the salvage company was long gone, and someone recognized some white XB-70 parts along the perimeter fence line and asked to purchase them. Some were even used for target practice. I was told that one of the workers found my part face down under several inches of dirt. Anyway, I imagine parts were sold and traded over time and eventually I purchased some of them. I have loved the XB-70 since my middle school days in the 60s. I am getting up in years and can’t take it with me. I tried several times to donate it but lots of people see it as scrap; not a pretty display. I see it as a part of aviation history. Hope this helps even though it’s not first hand information. (Name removed)”

We’re not sure where the big wing section from the auction that disappeared wound up. Hopefully it will be on public display somewhere for people to learn about the remarkable history of this aircraft. Perhaps the auction was removed because someone else bought the artifact outside of eBay. It may have been ended by the user or by someone who had a prior claim to the piece of the aircraft. We don’t know. The listing for the large fragment just ended, like the remarkable story of the superbomber that died before it ever entered service over half a century ago.

North American XB-70A Valkyrie on the taxiway with a cherry picker. Photo taken Sept. 21, 1964, the day of the first flight. Note: the left main landing gear brakes locked during the landing causing two tires to blow. (U.S. Air Force photo)

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U.S. Marine KC-130 Crashes in Leflore, Mississippi with 16 Fatalities

Aircraft May Have Been Carrying Explosives, Witnesses Reported Midair Explosion.

The U.S. Marines and news outlets have reported the crash of a U.S. Marine Corps KC-130 Hercules four-engine turboprop aerial tanker and tactical transport aircraft on Monday Jul. 10, 2017. The crash occurred in a rural area of Mississippi over farmland. Witnesses reported a “loud explosion” before the aircraft hit the ground. There are 16 fatalities according to reports.

“The debris field spanned a five-mile radius.” according to a report on The Clarion Ledger, and that, “4,000 gallons of foam were used to combat the blaze.”

A Lockheed KC-130J Hercules tactical transport and tanker aircraft. The C-130 family has a good safety record across all branches of the U.S. military.
(Official Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Tanner M. Iskra)

According to a report from local news station WNBD, a Mississippi airport official was quoted as saying, “The plane was being tracked by air traffic controllers in Memphis [Tennessee] and suffered structural failure at 20,000 feet that caused it to plunge into the field.”

Although the photos from the accident scene show the wings, fuselage and elevators of the aircraft still partially attached in the burning wreckage, eyewitness reports and accounts of local first responders suggest the aircraft “may have exploded in mid-air”. Some Investigators on the scene have described to media outlets that “debris was found on both sides of the of the highway” leading them to believe an explosion may have happened prior to the crash.

A Mississippi State Police Officer indicated the “aircraft is loaded with ammunition”. This may have prevented emergency crews from approaching the aircraft since unexploded ordnance could be detonated in a fire.

“There’s a lot of ammo in the plane. That’s why we are keeping so far back. We just don’t know what it’ll do. It burns a bit then goes out, burns a little more then dies down,” A State Police officer told local media outlet WMC Action News 5.

As with all aircraft accidents, the official cause of the accident will be determined following a formal investigation and issuance of an accident report. Until that report is published reports about the cause of the accident are speculative.

The KC-130 accident is somehow unusual since the Hercules family of multi-role aircraft has had a better than average safety record in both U.S. and international service compared to other military aircraft.

Only two fatal accidents have occurred in C-130s across all U.S. services since July 2012 when an Air Force C-130H crashed during forest fire fighting operations in South Dakota. Since then, only one other reported fatal accident has happened with the crash of a C-130J in Afghanistan in 2015 when a total of 14 people including ground personnel were killed.

The aircraft appeared largely intact in photos despite reports of a midair explosion from some witnesses.
(Photo: WLBT News.)

 

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We Ran a Simulated ICBM Attack on the United States to Find Out: Could We Stop One?

We Went Inside Northrop Grumman Demonstration of Critical Anti-Ballistic Missile Technology.

Sometime in the future, diplomacy may fail.

An overnight incident in the Pacific between a U.S. Navy vessel and an adversary nation submarine causes a collision. A U.S. Air Force surveillance plane is fired upon as it flies near an international airspace boundary. A rogue nation continues ballistic missile testing.

What happens when it becomes a real world crisis with an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile)?

A missile launch indication from U.S. Air Force Space Command surveillance satellites happens at 0234 Hrs local. It is 1734 GMT, 10:34 AM in San Francisco, California in the United States. Sunday morning.

Silent lighted icons flash red on a U.S. early warning display. Red circles appear around them. They are automatically given a series of numerical designations: speed, altitude. Sea based radars add to the intelligence picture. More data becomes available. Algorithms extrapolate trajectory, acceleration, apogee, reentry and deceleration into the atmosphere. They calculate the missile’s potential impact point.

Missile launch (credit: Northrop Grumman)

I sit in a chair watching the arc of the incoming ICBM headed to the United States’ west coast. The missile reaches its apogee, its maximum altitude in near space, and begins its terminal attack phase. It happens fast. I realize I am sweating. This feels very real. As real as today’s headlines. As the missile descends toward its target it begins to slow, but it is still moving faster than a rifle bullet.

The United States homeland is under attack by ICBMs launched from a rogue nation. It is the first time a nation state has attacked the U.S. homeland since WWII. A shooting war has started.

Intelligence analysts know the threat of real damage is moderate, but that doesn’t help. The warhead is likely small, crude by modern standards. It may not even function. The guidance system is not very precise. Chances are just as good that this warhead will land short in the Pacific or go long into the California mountains as it will detonate over the intersection of Market Street and 6th Street in the Financial District of San Francisco. It could spread radioactive material over several city blocks depending on the altitude it detonates at. It may even fail to detonate.

But that is not the point of this attack. The point is for a rogue nation to send a clear signal to the U.S. government: We can reach you. We have the will to attack. You are not safe.

Given recent headlines the ballistic missile threat to the United States is in the spotlight. What is the U.S. doing to counter the intercontinental ballistic missile threat?

Recently The Aviationist visited a secure facility at Northrop Grumman to learn more about the present and future of ballistic missile defense for the continental United States. We participated in a chilling drill to intercept an ICBM fired from somewhere on the Asian continent (Editor’s note: at the request of Northrop Grumman officials, we agreed not to name any potential adversary nation specifically).

Inside Northrop Grumman’s facility. (credit: The Aviationist.)

Northrop Grumman’s Ken Todorov, Director of Global Air and Missile Defense, told TheAviationist.com, “This literally is rocket science.”

Todorov directed us through a simulated ICBM intercept over the northern Pacific using Northrop Grumman’s technology contributions to our nation’s Ballistic Missile Defense Systems. Several new technologies are showcased within Northrop Grumman’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. These systems are not yet operational, but they are must-haves for the nation’s ICBM defense. Given the threat from rogue nations in the Pacific region, Northrop Grumman’s new technologies are not just critical, but essential to our nation’s defense in the immediate term.

Without systems like GMD our west coast is, for the first time in history, under threat of nuclear attack from an ICBM in control of a rogue nation.

A constant stream of data from a wide array of sensors tracks the incoming ICBM. We see the track on our large monitor, nearly the width of the room, and on our individual monitors. It’s eerily quiet.

View to a kill: We run a simulation of an ICBM attack on the U.S. west Coast. (credit: TheAviationist.)

“Ground Based Interceptor launch, Ft. Greely, Alaska.” The systems operator tells us. The track of an ascending missile appears on our screen. It arcs upward gaining momentum, curving to match the downward trajectory of the incoming ICBM.

“Ground Based Interceptor launch, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.” A second lighted trajectory traces across the screen, originating from the continental U.S. west coast. Two U.S. missiles are in the air, with new proposed Northrop Grumman technology melding the intercept data and targeting information to help provide mid-course intercept data.

The lines converge silently toward one another, beginning to form a brightly lighted “Y” shape on the displays. We all follow the lighted display across the screen, the ICBM arcing downward, the interceptors arcing to meet them.

“This is a bullet hitting a bullet in the exo-atmosphere” Todorov tells us, gesturing to the three missile tracks as they converge together on the big screen. The projectile we are trying to hit is moving at 10,000 MPH now, and it is about the size of a trashcan.

There are four phases of ICBM flight.

The boost phase is the most difficult to intercept the vehicle in, but is where the launch is detected. The ascent phase is vulnerable to detection by the Aegis weapons system and interception by RIM-156 and RIM-174 Standard Missiles launched from land or at sea from U.S. Navy surface ships like the Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh-Burke class destroyers. In the third phase, the “mid-course” phase, the incoming ICBM could be targeted by the exo-atmospheric THAAD missile system or additional systems still in development.

Northrop Grumman technology has the capability to make all these systems perform better together, and improve the likelihood of intercepting missiles before they reach the United States or any user nation.

The lines on the big display in front of us converge.

They complete the big “Y” shape over the eastern Pacific off the California coast. There is no sound. In an instant all three missile designators disappear. The intercept was successful.

Missile tracking system close-up during ICBM launch simulation (credit: The Aviationist)

Using several new key technologies from Northrop Grumman we killed the incoming ICBM over the pacific before it reached the United States.

Later we see video of a successful, actual test intercept of an ICBM target during a demonstration of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the ballistic missile defense system on May 30, 2017. A ground-based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The “anti-missile” missile was armed with an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle projectile. It successfully intercepted and destroyed a simulated ICBM launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific with a direct collision at re-entry speed and high altitude. The demonstration was widely regarded as impressive proof of the capabilities of the ballistic missile defense system.

Northrop Grumman’s contribution to missile defense is significant. At the beginning of 2017 Ken Todorov told media that, “Members of Congress face a myriad of difficult questions about how to best protect our homeland from a growing number of threats. In this era of declining budgets, it is critical our top national priorities provide those at the “tip of the spear” with the tools to protect our homeland from existing and emerging threats.”

The headlines confirm the ICBM threat from the Pacific region is real, making the need for missile defense perhaps the most urgent defense agenda for the United States.

Note: The Aviationist.com wishes to thank Lauren A. Green, Manager, Branding and External Communications for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and the entire team at Northrop Grumman for their kind assistance with this article.

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U.S. Army Successful Test Of Weaponized Laser on AH-64 Helo May Suggest A New Application In The Anti-Insurgency War

High Energy Weapon Shows Potential in Effectiveness and Precision In Anti-insurgent Operations But May Be Vulnerable to Countermeasures.

U.S. defense contractor Raytheon conducted a successful, highly publicized, precision firing of a weaponized laser weapon from a U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter on Jun. 26 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, western United States.

The test firing was conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This association may provide some insight into the intended operational role of High Energy Lasers in a tactical setting.

While the test itself is noteworthy since it is the first time a High Energy Weaponized laser has been fired from an attack helicopter to attack a target, the use of tactical lasers for range-finding, target designation and guidance are already commonplace in militaries around the world.

What makes Monday’s Raytheon test particularly interesting is the new ways a weaponized laser, not just a laser designator, could be used for precision attack and reduction of collateral damage.

Laser, or “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” is effectively a narrow beam of powerful radiation that burns things. Think of it as a long-range, needle-nosed flame thrower but without visible fire, only heat (or light) energy. In fact, the Raytheon test was visibly quite unremarkable. There was no giant eruption of flames, no bright “death ray” and no explosions on glowing red targets. This invisible, silent, sinister quality may be what makes the laser Raytheon laser weapon fired from the Apache all the more menacing, especially to insurgencies that do not have effective technology to counter the weapon and can’t even tell when they are being targeted until it is too late.

Picture a lone insurgent trying to emplace an Improvised Explosive Device on a roadside. Without warning, the device simply incinerates before their eyes. No explosion unless the munitions are detonated by the laser energy, no sound, no trace of where the “weapon” came from. A mile away an attack helicopter or RPV (drone) silently hovers, firing its death-ray. The IED is simply rendered inoperable. Seconds later Special Operations personnel arrive to detain the insurgent bomber. There are no casualties and no collateral damage. Nearly all intelligence materials are preserved.

This high-precision capability is attractive to anti-insurgent operations that typically involve relatively close range engagements on very small targets, often as small as a brief case or even smart phone. If the targeting optics on the delivery vehicle, in this case an AH-64 Apache helicopter, can see a target, they can direct the laser weapon onto it precisely.

But laser weapons are not entirely infallible. Recall that laser is focused light, and that can be reflected or absorbed. The Chinese military has already devoted substantial research to both laser weapons and laser weapon countermeasures.

The Chinese developed and proven the capability of their own JD-3 and ZM-87 laser weapons. These weapons feature “less than lethal” capability at long ranges, and greater lethality at close range. The Chinese ZM-87 weaponized laser can permanently blind personnel at 2 to 3 kilometers and temporarily blind them out to 10 kilometers. Laser weapons specifically intended for blinding personnel were banned in a 1995 United Nations Protocol that may or may not be observed by nation-users in an armed conflict.

The Chinese JD-3 laser weapon is specifically intended to counter laser target designation and range finding from an enemy force- it fires a laser back at an attacking guidance laser to disrupt and destroy it. Both Chinese lasers have, according to recent intelligence, been ground vehicle mounted. But China is busy developing an indigenous attack helicopter capability with their new CAIC Z-10 and Z-19E Black Whirlwind aircraft, and it is reasonable to suggest both the ZM-87 and the JD-3 could be used from one of the new Chinese attack helicopters in a way similar to this week’s test in the U.S.

China has been particularly active in laser weapon development and deployment.
(Photo: Tiexue.Net)

Most recently the Chinese unveiled a promising new laser weapon at an arms trade show in Abu Dhabi in early March of this year. This new Chinese laser weapon follows their “Low Altitude Guard II” system deployed as an anti-drone weapon and is claimed to be able to intercept and destroy incoming mortar and rocket munitions in flight. These systems have been attributed to a combined research and development project of the Chinese Academy of Physics Engineering and the Jiuyuan Hi Tech Equipment Corporation.

In any conversation about laser weapons anti-laser defenses are among the greatest concerns, although likely not with insurgent adversaries who may lack resources to develop a fieldable anti-laser capability. Mirrors do little to reflect enough laser energy quickly enough to stop the weapons’ effects. Advanced composite material, heat and light absorbent coatings may provide additional protection but are expensive and difficult to field.

Beginning in 2014 Israel showed it developed and successfully tested the “Iron Beam” anti-missile laser weapon built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The system compliments the highly successful Iron Dome anti-missile system already operational. Iron Beam has a reported range of 7 kilometers and has been successful in destroying incoming mortar rounds and artillery projectiles, particularly difficult targets because of their small size and high speed. No information has been recently published about the operational deployment, if any, of Iron Beam.

Finally, while the new Raytheon/AH-64 Apache laser weapon test is noteworthy, it is far from a first.

In 2002 a militarized Boeing 747 called the YAL-1 was equipped with a massive airborne laser weapon intended to destroy ICBMs in flight. The ambitious anti-missile laser system was first fired in 2007 but the program was ended in 2011 for a number of reasons including the unfeasibility of the large aircraft operating safely in close proximity to enemy ICBM launch facilities. The system simply made too large and vulnerable of a target since it had to be relatively close to the missile it was trying to destroy. It remains one of the most expensive defense projects in history.

On Feb. 14, 2012, this writer got to see the YAL-1 make its final flight into Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona for storage and dismantling at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), the famous “Boneyard”.

The Boeing YAL-1 airborne laser weapons system was an early attempt at high power weaponized lasers that ended its life here in the Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona as an unsuccessful operational project.
(Photo: USAF)

While laser weapons are not new this more recent test by Raytheon and the U.S. Army in cooperation with SOCOM may suggest a new niche application for laser weapons in the continuing anti-insurgency war. Depending on how quickly the capability can be fielded this may be a promising test result for the U.S. as it enters yet another chapter in the continuing Global War on Terror.

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