Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Watch U.S. F/A-18 Hornets Unleash Swarm of Mini-Drones in First Test

U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets released a swarm of 103 Perdix semi-autonomous drones in flight. Welcome to the future of war tech.

The U.S. Department of Defense has revealed in a press release dated Jan. 9, 2017 that three U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet two-seat variants have successfully released a “swarm” of 103 Perdix semi-autonomous drones in flight. The tests were carried out at China Lake range, on Oct. 25, 2016, and were administered by the Department of Defense, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command.

The miniature Perdex drones, different from larger, more common remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) like the well-known Reaper and Predator, operate with a high degree of collective autonomy and reduced dependency on remote flight crews to control them. The large group of more autonomous Perdex drones creates a “swarm” of miniature drones. The swarm shares information across data links during operation, and can make mission-adaptive decisions faster than RPV’s controlled in the more conventional manner.

In a statement released by the U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Capabilities Office Director William Roper said, “Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” Director Roper went on to say, “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

As said, the initial flight release tests were conducted in October 2016 at the China Lake NAVAIR Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD). Based on released footage they were likely flown by two-seat F/A-18Ds of VX-30 the Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine known as “The Bloodhounds”.

The Perdex drone swarm was released in flight from three F/A-18D’s dispensing the swarm from two underwing pylons.

The drones are named “Perdex” from Greek mythology after a human student who morphed into a small bird for survival. They are only 6.5 inches long with an 11.8 inch wingspan. Perdex is propeller driven from a small 2.6 inch propeller in a rear-mounted “pusher” configuration. The miniature robot aircraft has extremely short endurance, with only 20 minutes of flight possible in current versions.

The Perdex swarms were first released in flight by U.S. Air Force F-16 test and evaluation aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base in September 2014. Perdex swarms were widely used in U.S. Pacific Command’s Northern Edge exercise in Alaska a year later in September 2015 when 90 missions were flown deploying swarms as large as 20 Perdex drones.

During these latest Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division tests the D.o.D. released few specifics of the Perdex drone’s capability except, “This swarm demonstrated advanced behaviors like collective decision‐making, adaptive formation flying, and self‐healing.”

Here’s the footage showing the micro-drone test:

 

Photographers capture Airbus A400M at low level through the Mach Loop for First Time

An Airbus A400M tactical airlifter training low level flying is a pretty cool sight!

Aviation enthusiasts at the famous “Mach Loop” low level training area in West Central Wales on the west coast of UK got a treat early this week when an Airbus A400M Atlas made two low-level passes through the valley area.

It was the first appearance by the A400M in the area also known as the Machynlleth Loop or CAD West. These photos and video were captured at the “CAD East” viewing area across from CAD West.

Many local aviation photographers captured photos and video of the two passes. Among the best were shot by photographer Ben Collins of Llandudno, North Wales, UK.

Collins shot his photos using a Nikon D750 camera with an image-stabilized Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 DG OS HSM ‘S’ Sport zoom lens, a popular lens for aviation photographers used widely on the airshow circuit.

His original images were captured as RAW files. Collins is a regular at the famous Mach Loop, visiting the area between two and four times weekly when there is flying weather.

Aviation photographer Ben Collins shot his photos of the A400M from the popular vantage point called “Cad East”, a part of the Cad West lowing flying area loop.

Videographer Paul Williams shot a short YouTube video posted yesterday of the A400M’s transit through the area in perfect viewing conditions.

And here’s a cool video filmed by Ben Ramsey who got a great close-up footage!

The RAF A400M’s are relatively new aircraft in British service, with the first being delivered on November 14, 2014. The service will eventually employ 22 total A400M’s according to the RAF’s official website. The new Airbus A400M’s are staged replacements for the aging fleet of RAF C-130 aircraft.

The aircraft that flew through the Mach Loop today was likely aircraft number ZM411, an A400M-180 manufactured just before Aug. 26, 2016, and delivered to the Royal Air Force on Oct. 28, 2016.

There are three RAF squadrons operating A400M Atlas aircraft now, Squadron Number LXX, the first operational A400M squadron in the RAF that began operations on October 1, 2014. RAF Number XXIV Squadron flies the A400M from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, England. The Number 24 Squadron is the Fixed Wing Air Mobility Operation Conversion Unit and trains Atlas crews for the RAF. Finally the Number 206(R) Squadron fly the A400M as a test and evaluation unit.

The famous Mach Loop is a destination for aviation photographers and spotters from around the world since it provides a unique opportunity to photograph and observe many different aircraft types from several countries in an operational training setting that is very different from an airshow.

Image credit: Ben Collins

 

In a massive exercise HMLA-369 launched a unique assault formation of AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters

During Flying The Barn exercise U.S. Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 launched a unique assault formation made of AH-1Z Viper attack and UH-1Y Venom tactical transport helicopters.

On Nov. 4, 2016, U.S. Marines from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 369 took part in an exercise known as “Flying the Barn” on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.

The video below is titled “Flying the Barn” in reference to the slang used for putting every aircraft “in the barn” up in the air at once, a rare sight at any military installation.

During the Exercise, U.S. Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 launched a unique assault formation of their advanced version AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter and their UH-1Y Venom tactical transport.

The formation is interesting since the U.S. Marines are the only operators of the “Viper” and “Venom” advanced helicopter variants. These aircraft are descendents of the legacy AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey helicopters. The continued operation of these two greatly evolved platforms seems at odds with new aircraft now in use by the U.S. Marines, the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the F-35B Lightning II V/STOL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Despite the long history of their predecessors, the original Huey and Cobra, the highly evolved AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom are very advanced combat aircraft that are easily contemporaries of the newer MV-22 Osprey and even the F-35B Lightning II.

The AH-1Z Viper flies on a new carbon fiber composite four-blade rotor system with 75% fewer moving parts in the vulnerable rotor mast despite having two additional blades compared to early Cobra gunships. The “Zulu” gunships have larger winglet weapon stations that can mount AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared guided air-to-air missiles in addition to air-to-ground rockets and guided missiles. The AH-1Z also has reshaped engine cowling and exhaust to reduce infrared signature for evading heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. Viper flight crews wear an advanced flight helmet integrated into aircraft avionics and equipped with recently enhanced night vision and target queuing.

The heavily updated four-bladed UH-1Y Venom is an adaptation of the legacy Huey platform but with massive upgrades making it essentially a new helicopter.

Also updated to a large four-blade rotor as with the AH-1Z Viper, the Venom has battle-damage resistant composite rotor blades and a new, simplified mast system. The rotor upgrades provide significantly greater lift, range and speed on the Venom. Although usually operated in formation with its Marine companion, the AH-1Z Viper, the UH-1Y Venom can transport Marines and also carry its own ground attack weapons. The Venom can mount 2.75-inch rockets on each winglet including the newest “smart” Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) laser-guided rocket from BAE Systems.

U.S. Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 has an impressive legacy that includes being the first Marine Corps unit to fly the Cobra attack helicopter in a combat operation back in 1972 during the Vietnam conflict.

Both of these aircraft are common sights around the massive Camp Pendleton Marine Base in southern California. If you are driving between San Diego and Los Angeles on the Interstate 5 coastal highway it is common to see the aircraft flying, but not in the numbers seen in this video. Seeing these unique variants of both aircraft is a treat since the U.S. Marines are the only service to fly them and employ unique tactics with the aircraft making them interesting.

 

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Ultimate Aviation Gift? A Ride With The Baltic Bees Jet Team

What holiday gift do you get the aviation fan that has everything? A ride with an aerobatic jet team!

The Latvian aerobatic jet demonstration team, The Baltic Bees are an impressive private jet team, operating six L-39’s flown by pilots with combined civilian and military jet experience including two pilots with time in MiG-21’s and one pilot named “Rob” who, according to their website, lists “U.S. Air Force Academy” as his education.

The team started in 2008 and added aircraft until they reached their current six-ship formation. A review of their official videos show they maintain some impressively precise close-formation aerobatics and sensational low altitude maneuvers along with dramatic opposing passes seen by the top military jet teams.

Even the dark-blue and yellow striped livery of the aircraft is well conceived for visibility during most demonstration weather conditions and makes for good photography from the ground.

What makes the Baltic Bees particularly interesting these days is the fact that they sell a 20-minute aerobatic ride in their Aero-Vodochody L-39C Albatross single engine, subsonic light-attack/trainer jets for about €1,500.00 Euros (1,550 USD or  1,261.00 GBP.)

The package includes a 40-minute ground school, and then you’ll suit-up, strap-in and go for a ride with the jet team.

According to the team’s website, “[The] Flight starts with simple maneuvers with increasing difficulties during the flight. You will be given opportunity to fly the airplane (emphasis added) under supervision of our pilot-instructor.”

The charmingly novel description of the flight program on their little website leaves the impression that the program may be somewhat… “open-ended” and, for a few extra dollars, pounds or euros perhaps you may be able to push the envelope a little more if you have the stomach for it, safety allowing, of course.

The site goes on to say they offer a video of your flight, clearly a must-have for such an occasion, and that, “Photos by the airplane before and after are free!”

The offer is surprisingly reasonable considering getting a ride with any jet demonstration team as a media observer, VIP or even paid guest is extremely difficult. In the U.S. the civilian jet demonstration team The Patriots, also operating the Aero L-39, show no such specific offer on their website.

The Breitling Jet Team of Dijon, France, another private jet demo team sponsored by the aviation specialty watchmaker Breitling and also flying the popular Aero L-39 offers no such “pay to fly” program.

The Breitling team does provide media and celebrity rides for publicity and brand promotion.

During their recent 2016 U.S. airshow tour it was tricky for media to arrange flights in advance with the Breitling team.

Traditionally only mainstream media personalities, sports or entertainment stars and local VIP’s could score a coveted ride with large military jet teams like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and U.S. Navy Blue Angels. When you consider it costs up to $24,400 USD per hour to fly a Blue Angels F/A-18 according to IHS Jane’s Defense, albeit in a much different type of aircraft, the $1,500 USD ride with the Baltic Bees seems like an incredible bargain.

Prospective passengers with the Baltic Bees are invited to fly with them from their base at Jūrmala airport about 60 kilometers from the capital city of Riga, Latvia on the picturesque Gulf of Riga. If you’re interested you can contact the team on their website at www.balticbees.com.

And, if you book a flight, tell them The Aviationist sent you!

Image credit: Filip Modrzejewski / Foto Poork

 

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U.S. Air Force EC-130H Disrupts ISIL Communications in Iraq

In an uncharacteristic media release by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft have been reported as active in support of anti-ISIL operations in Iraq.

The EC-130H Compass Call is a modified version of the versatile C-130 platform that was conceived as a transport but has been modified for missions such as search and rescue, gunship and even bomber. The EC-130H version conducts various types of signals surveillance, interdiction and disruption along with additional undisclosed capabilities that may include surveillance and jamming of cellular and other wireless signals.

In an official release published on the U.S. Air Force official website, Lt. Col. Josh Koslov, squadron commander of the 43rd Expeditionary Electronic Attack Squadron, is quoted as saying, “When the Compass Call is up on station supporting our Iraqi allies we are denying ISIL’s ability to command and control their forces.” Koslov emphasized, “If you can’t talk, you can’t fight.”

Published specifications for the EC-130H say the aircraft employs a 13-14 person crew. In the release published by the U.S. Air Force there is mention of linguists on board to “Help us efficiently find, prioritize and target ISIL.” Sources are also quoted as saying onboard linguists “help the electronic warfare officer make jamming decisions in order to provide the effects desired by the ground force commander.”

ISIL insurgent forces rely heavily on cell phones for communication, including the command detonation of improvised explosive devices. According to an article published in January by Fightersweep.com, “The EC-130H can detect all of these, and jam them selectively. ISIL has similar preferences in communications gear and in the midst of combat they have found, like the Taliban, there is no solution to the problems created by a EC-130H overhead.”

Since the EC-130H’s role in combating Daesh through signals intelligence and interdiction is largely non-attributable and non-lethal area commanders can use it with impunity. There is no risk of collateral damage as with bombs and missiles that directly destroy targets.

In October, a top-ranking U.S. Air Force official announced that a small enemy drone controlled by ISIS had been downed by an Electronic Attack aircraft asset: although no specific type was mentioned, few USAF platforms other than the Compass Call are known to have the ability to use Electronic Warfare to disrupt the signal between the UAV and its control station.

The EC-130H’s numbers were briefly threatened prior to 2016 according to a report in the Arizona Daily Independent, a newspaper published near the EC-130H’s home base at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. The report cited “a proposal to retire seven EC-130H Compass Call electronic attack fleet airplanes stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.” According to the ADI news report, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 prevented the retirement of these aircraft citing the critical importance of their mission to “protect our air men and women from sophisticated electronic attacks in conflicts across the Middle East such as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as against potential threats in the Pacific and Europe.”

Few specifics of the EC-130H’s mission are available publicly. It is probable the EC-130H operates partially in support of classified U.S. special operations teams in the region, and that these teams accompany Iraqi forces in the anti-ISIL campaign. These teams’ additional roles likely include targeting for U.S. and coalition airstrikes.

The EC-130H is probably teaming up with the RC-135 Rivet Joint and other EA assets operating over Iraq and Syria to deny the Islamic State the ability to communicate.

The release of information about EC-130H operations by the Air Force, however vague it may be, is significant since the EC-130 overall force is so small, consisting of only 14 aircraft according to the Air Force. Additionally, because of its classified mission and capabilities, little is seen in the media about the EC-130H role, making this information release about the aircraft noteworthy.

 

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