Author Archives: Tom Demerly

USAF B-1B Lancer Makes Emergency Landing in Midland, Texas

Reports: No Injuries in Engine Incident That Forced Emergency Landing at Airport.

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer heavy bomber is reported to have made an emergency landing following an “engine failure” at Midland International Air and Space Port between Midland and Odessa, Texas, on May 1, 2018.

The aircraft shown on the ground in photos posted on social media is from the 7th Bomb Wing, either the 28th or 9th Bomb Squadron (most probably the first one based on the tail markings) at Dyess AFB near Abilene, Texas. Midland International Air and Space Port is approximately 150 miles from Dyess AFB where the aircraft likely originated.

No injuries were reported in the incident and all four of the crewmembers on board the B-1B Lancer were reported to have left the plane on the ground normally.

A story published on the KTXS12, local ABC affiliate website, said that officials at Dyess AFB told reporters the B-1B, “experienced an in-flight emergency”. Another local news station, KWES, quoted the airport manager as saying the aircraft experienced a “flame out”.

The B-1 on the ground at Midland International Airport. Image credit: Tim Fischer/Midland Reporter-Telegram MRT.com

Reports indicate the aircraft was not carrying any munitions at the time of the incident. The bomber will remain at the Midland airport “until it can be safely returned to Dyess,” according to a new release.

The B-1B is a supersonic, four-engine, variable-geometry swept wing heavy strategic bomber that first flew in 1974. It is in operational use with the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command and has been used extensively in the Global War on Terror. The B-1B has demonstrated an excellent safety record for a large supersonic aircraft.

Top image: file photo of a U.S. Air Force B-1B

Russia Rehearses Flyovers for Massive Moscow Victory Day Parade

First Parade Appearance for Sukhoi Su-57. Will MiG-31 Carry New Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile?

The Russian Aerospace Forces are well into rehearsals for what is arguably one of the most impressive conspicuous display of military might in the world: the annual Victory Day Parade in Red Square, Moscow to be held on Wednesday, May 9, 2018, at 1000 Hrs. local.

This year’s Victory Day parade commemorates the 73rd anniversary of the Russian victory over Germany in WWII, a war in which Russia lost an estimated 20+ million military and civilian lives, the greatest loss of life recorded by any nation in a war. Each year the parade begins with the emotional ringing of the historic clock on the Spasskaya Tower at the Kremlin in Moscow.

One of the most spectacular parts of the Victory Day Parade is the massive fly-over of Russian military aircraft. This year’s aerial parade review is scheduled to include 63 aircraft. The Russian flight demonstration teams The Russian Knights and Swifts will account for 15 of those aircraft. The Russian Knights will fly 6 new Sukhoi Su-30SM aircraft and the Swifts will pass over in their 9 Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft. The two teams generally fly a large, single formation.

A gigantic Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan long range strategic bomber will also participate in the flyover and has been seen during rehearsals in formation with 4 Tupolev Tu-22M3s. Video from a rehearsal flyover appears to show one additional Tu-160 at the back of an Ilyushin Il-78.

This year will be the first year the relatively new Sukhoi Su-57 5th generation fighter will participate in the fly-over. Two Sukhoi Su-57s in a new pixelated air-superiority camouflage scheme will take part in the flyover.

Russia will display two new small RPVs in the 2018 Victory Parade. (Photo: Ragulin Vitaly/Livejournal)

It will also be interesting to see if any of the four MiG-31s (NATO codename “Foxhound”) will be carrying the new Kh-47M2 hypersonic long range cruise missile referred to as the “Kinzhal”. Russian social media has suggested that at least one of the MiG-31s in the aerial display will carry a Kinzhal in the flyover.

Given the involvement of the Russian Aerospace Forces in the Syrian conflict and recent successes in the campaign this year’s parade is expected to bring out a large crowd.

The weather forecast for Moscow on Wednesday, May 9, is favorable according to the U.S. weather website Accuweather.com, with a high temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius) and clouds developing in the afternoon. The current forecast calls for a 21% chance of rain. Bad weather has played a role in the flyover demonstration before in the Victory Day Parade so conditions on May 9 are key to event being staged in its full version with both ground and aerial displays.

If you want to see the Victory Day Parade on Red Square you’ll need good connections. The coveted seats along Red Square are very difficult to come by. This area is generally reserved specifically for higher government employees, members of state govern ment, including President Vladimir Putin, military heroes and press.Internet resources suggest that, based on previous parade routes, one of the best places to see the ground portion of the parade (and presumably some of the flyovers too) is the Belorusskiy viaduct (Белорусский путепровод) on the Leningradskiy prospect.

An Mi-28 Havoc attack helicopter takes off for a rehearsal flyover as spectators watch. (Photo: Marina Lystseva/Livejournal)

Thank you to Mr. Vladimir Zinenko of the excellent Facebook page ВКС России for his assistance with this article.

Top image: two new Su-57s will fly over Red Square for the first time on Victory Day. (Photo: Chen Xiangyu/RussianPlanes.net)

How Social Media May Drive Our Perception of Military Aviation Safety

The Luke AFB F-16 Emergency Landing, the Tragic Thunderbird Crash, The CH-53 Accident: Why (Does It Seem Like) So Many Military Aircraft Are Crashing?

Why does it seem like so many military aircraft been crashing? It’s a relevant question given the attention to military aircraft accidents around the world this year. Is there an increase in accidents in military aviation? Or, are other factors influencing our perception of how many aircraft accidents there actually are?

Pilots and aviation safety experts will tell you there is no singular cause for all military aviation accidents. In an April 25, 2018 interview in the Washington Examiner, Capt. Sarah Burns, a Marine Corps spokeswoman at the Pentagon told reporter Jamie McIntyre, “Every mishap is unique, and we have not found a causal, statically accurate link between readiness and mishaps.”

While pilot shortages and aging aircraft dominate the conversation in the U.S., pilots often say there are as many reasons for accidents as there are accidents. If you demand a singular explanation for why aviation accidents happen it’s in this famous, often paraphrased quote attributed to Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London, from the early 1930’s:

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

Capt. Lamplugh’s prescient quote summarizes three separate contributors to aviation accidents: carelessness, often sanitized as “pilot error”; incapacity, in air traffic control, pilot training and other technical contributors; and finally neglect, as in infrastructure and maintenance.

In the rush-to-judgement popular news and social media space, pundits try to focus on a single convenient narrative to explain accidents. There is no convenient single reason for military aviation accidents.

One factor that has contributed to an increase in awareness of military aviation accidents is an evolution in media. Our perception of how many accidents there are has no doubt been influenced by a factor we can refer to as “media velocity”, the speed and volume at which information reaches us in the social media age.

Reasons for recent military crashes are conflicting as depicted in internet resources as evidence by this capture of search results on information about military aviation accidents. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

After a U.S. Air Force F-16 performed an emergency landing this week in Arizona and the pilot ejected, the full details of the incident were posted on social media, including intercepted radio transmissions of first responders, with two hours. Detailed information about the incident was available through social media and blogs hours before less detailed, official information was released. In the case of this week’s F-16 accident, the sources and information have so far proved to be accurate. That is not always the case, and the online banter about causes for aviation accidents seldom waits for the official investigation to reveal its findings.

Social media has created faster, more frequent reporting of military aviation accidents but is not always accurate. (Photo: via Facebook)

With international crashes, such as the March 6, 2018 crash of a Russian Antonov An-26 with 39 fatalities in Syria, there used to be reduced awareness of military aviation accidents prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the arrival of social media. Every country lost military aircraft, but not every country reported losses with the transparency of the United States.

When pundits point to a single factor in a perceived increase in aviation accidents in the U.S. the pilot shortage inevitably comes up. While it is a mistake to make an “A leads to B” connection between pilot shortages and aircraft accidents, there is no denying the U.S. military pilot shortage is real.
We spoke to a U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. whose call sign is “Burn Clapper” at Holloman AFB in August, 2017. He had been in command of the 54th Fighter Group since May, 2017. During a media briefing he told TheAviationist.com, “I’m supposed to have 24 instructor pilots in my squadron, and I have 13 now.”

When we asked Burn Clapper about the reasons for the fighter pilot shortage he said, “A few years back, there was a time when we had as many fighter pilots as we needed. We only produced guys coming in for as many guys who were leaving – at the rate that they were leaving then. We only made fighter pilots for who was leaving then, maybe about 400 a year – that’s a guess.”

Burn Clapper went on to explain, “Our pilots graduate now with a 10-year commitment. They have been back and forth to combat over the last five years. The economy is good now. Now they have options.”

The U.S. Air Force publishes a database of aircraft accidents. The Air Force Safety Center Aviation Statistics database (http://www.safety.af.mil) contains specific information detailing USAF accidents. As with any spreadsheet analysis, you can package the data in different ways to produce a different statistical outcome.

One interpretation of the Air Force Safety Center Aviation Statistics database is that 2015 had a higher number of reported accidents than 2016 and 2017.
Another standout metric is the number of accidents in the single engine F-16. The statistics for Current Fiscal Year-to-Date, Previous Fiscal Year-to-Date and Previous Fiscal Year show a total number of F-16 Class A accidents higher than any other aircraft type. There are several contributing factors to F-16 accidents that include the large number of the aircraft in service with the USAF (951 F-16s in USAF service across all versions according to Wikipedia), its role as a high performance tactical combat aircraft, the age of the aircraft and that the F-16 is a single engine aircraft with no engine redundancy. By contrast however, the single engine, exclusively single-seat F-35A Lighting II has not had a single accident in flight with the USAF since its initial inclusion with the Air Force on August 2, 2016. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a program has had a remarkably incident-free development, testing and operational introduction since it began, budget concerns aside, there has not been a single crash of an F-35.

A contrasting view of military aviation accident statistics was presented by the Military Times in an April 8, 2018 analysis by journalist Tara Copp.

Copp wrote that, “Through a six-month investigation, the Military Times found that accidents involving all of the military’s manned fighter, bomber, helicopter and cargo warplanes rose nearly 40 percent from fiscal years 2013 to 2017. It’s doubled for some aircraft, like the Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets. At least 133 service members were killed in those fiscal year 2013-2017 mishaps, according to data obtained by Military Times.”

Military Times journalist Tara Copp arrives at an interesting conclusion in her article when it is overlaid with the USAF Safety Center Aviation Statistics database. Copp revealed that accidents with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornets were much higher than with other aircraft in Navy and Marine service. This finding aligns with the statistical survey of USAF F-16s emerging as the highest frequency accident types. Similar factors exist with the Navy and Marine F/A-18s.

The last of the older Hornets are being phased out now in favor of the newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The aircraft is mostly a single-seat combat plane often flown at low altitude and in the high-performance regime. Unlike the Air Force’s F-16 though, the F/A-18 is a twin-engine aircraft, making engine failures a less critical incident over the entire performance envelope compared to the single-engine F-16, where any engine failure is serious.

Journalists like Tara Copp have pointed to several factors in their reported increase in military aviation accident frequency. Copp wrote that, “The rise is tied, in part, to the massive congressional budget cuts of 2013. Since then, it’s been intensified by non-stop deployments of warplanes and their crews, an exodus of maintenance personnel and deep cuts to pilots’ flight-training hours.” She went on to quote retired USAF General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle as telling her, “We are reaping the benefits — or the tragedies — that we got into back in sequestration.” Retired General Hawk was referring to the 2013 defense budget cuts resulting from the U.S. government sequester, a temporary freeze on much of U.S. government spending to avert a monetary crisis. Tara Copp went on quote Ret. Gen. Herbert Carlisle as saying “The sharp increase in mishap rates is actually a lagging indicator. By the time you’re having accidents, and the accident rates are increasing, then you’ve already gone down a path.” Then-General Carlisle led USAF Air Combat Command until 2017. The retired general told her, “If we stay on the current track … there is the potential to lose lives.”

High performance combat training in single engine jet aircraft is inherently more hazardous than flying crew-operated multi-engine aircraft in a transport and support role. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

No matter which narrative you chose to explain recent military aviation accidents one truth does prevail about flying high performance aircraft that are intended for combat; tragedies are an ominous and common companion to aerial warfare, and recent events have been a stern reminder of this truth.

Reflections on The Magic of Flight from the Best Seat in the World at 23,000ft

We Describe the Splendor of Flying a Refueling Mission Over the Eastern U.S.

I’d seen the YouTube videos, hundreds of them probably, maybe a thousand if there are that many. But this was nothing like the videos.

On a lofty sheet of silence, like a UFO, it slid in from our left, our aircraft’s right as we faced rearward in the tanker bay. Only forty feet or so from me, 350 MPH, 22,000 feet above the earth. It was huge. And perfect.

My first memory as a child was of an airshow. The Thunderbirds. F-4 Phantoms. They were big and loud and smoky. The men wore crew cuts and precise fitting flight suits. They were just like the Apollo astronauts on black and white TV that Walter Cronkite talked about. One bent down and shook my hand, “You gonna be a pilot?” That was it for me.

I try to concentrate now, but it is difficult. This is my job. Camera set up to aperture priority, image stabilizer on, autofocus set correctly, aperture priority mode. ASA set to 500, shutter jumping around 1/1000th, f 5.6 to f 8. Hold the camera steady. Remember to compose- rule of thirds- watch the tail, don’t cut the tail off and ruin the shot. You can recompose in Photoshop, go a little wider on the zoom. Hold the camera steady, steady… Click, click, click, click, click…

I had done research for this shoot. A man named Stewart Jack, whom I’ve never met in person but friended on Facebook, sent me a solid tip on which lens to use for this shoot. Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM Lens. He responded to a post I threw up on the Aviation Photographers closed group page on Facebook. I mounted the lens on my EOS 7D MkII. Stewart’s recommendation was spot on. Composing shots was easy.

My first 60 photos were bad. I had a polarizer on and the window of the tanker bay in our KC-10 somehow produced a weird rainbow coloration that ruined the shots. I admit to panicking just a bit as I spun the filter off the front of the lens praying the plane in front of me would stay right where it was.

I heard the pilot through my headset make terse reports to the boom operator. He replied, “Thirty feet. Twenty…” The boom operator tucked the refueling boom over just slightly to let the plane’s canopy slide under us. He held two joy sticks to fly the boom. I had to be careful sitting next to him, his right hand was about a foot from my left arm, and there was a $100 million jet right below us, 30-40 feet away.

I am not a pilot. I can fly a plane, learned how once. Flew a Cessna, that doesn’t make me a pilot. Not like this. Like nothing else on earth, I love this. I understand the physics, the aerodynamics, the math, but even with that left-brain understanding of what I see in front of me now, my right-brain knows that this is magic, every Star Wars movie come real, science fiction in reality. Magic.

Before we took off I met the pilots of these two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters. They looked like fine lads, clean cut, one rather quiet, the other well spoken. He had the rank. They wore patches- I collect patches- one said “466FS – SNAKES! IN THE HOUSE”. I want one of those. Their name tags had their callsigns. “Worm” and “Quatro”. They won’t tell us how they got their call signs. Afraid we’ll write about it.

They answered our questions, tough questions about what makes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter so expensive. Taxpayers want to know. Their answers are good, and in less than a week several million people have read them across several media outlets.

But that is business.

It’s true I went to school for journalism. I’ve been to war zones, shadowed a hostage rescue team on a training mission. A week ago, I was diving in a school of sharks in the Exuma Islands, but this is beyond anything and it is a little hard to stay… journalistic. It is simply too amazing.

“Eagle, inbound.”

An F-15C joins us on the tanker boom. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Another aircraft coming in. “He is out there. Was at about thirty miles. Closing now. Be here in a minute. Not sure where he is.” The boom operator tells me. An F-15C Eagle, a predecessor to the F-35A we have in front of us now, is on his way to our tanker for gas. Another incredible photo op. About 60 seconds, we think, before he arrives.

For just a moment I need to take a deep breath, set my camera in my lap. Take this all in. Tidy up my gear. I wear pants made for me by a company called RailRiders. They have special two-way pockets so a photographer can put filters in and out easily while seated. They put my picture in their catalog, and I know the founder, so I am loyal to them. And the pants are actually pretty darn good. I tuck my polarizer into the right cargo pocket through the special zipper. The left pocket holds what I need to keep dust off my lens.

In front of me the F-35A hovers at 350 MPH. The pilot looks nothing like either of the guys we met an hour ago. Head covered in checkered carbon fiber, life vest over his shoulders, seat harness. He does not wave, but I wish he would. His left hand holds the throttle, his right the control stick. Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader. The plane is rock steady plugged into the boom.

They each plug into the boom, then loiter behind us briefly for more photos.

And way too soon, it is over. I’m seated up front in the tanker now as we fly out over the Atlantic to take fuel ourselves from another tanker. But before we reach the refueling track in the air over the Atlantic I toggle through a few of my photos looking at the back of my camera. It worked. I got good shots. Thank God.

And this is one story that, no matter how many tanker flights and media flights I do, I will never forget.

F-16 Attempting Emergency Landing At Lake Havasu, Arizona, Departs Prepared Surface. Pilot Ejects.

F-16 Crash Lands Near Lake Havasu, Arizona. Pilot Safely Ejected.

An F-16C assigned to the 56th Fighter Wing diverted and attempted to land at Lake Havasu City Municipal Airport, Lake Havasu City, Ariz. at approximately 10:35 a.m. today during a routine training flight.

“During landing the aircraft departed the prepared surface and the pilot ejected from the aircraft. The pilot is in good condition and is being transported to Havasu Regional Medical Center,” according to a public release by the U.S. Air Force.

An image showing the F-16 that crash landed on Apr. 24, 2018. (Image credit: Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page)

Luke AFB is a significant U.S. Air Force installation outside Phoenix, Arizona and is used as an F-35 and F-16 school.

A separate report passed on to us by the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page said:

“Lake Havasu local here, just got sent a pic at our airport of the F-16 crash landing. Came in with engine failure, pilot ejected on landing and was walking/safe. About 50 minutes ago. Not sure at originating base, it’s a city/municipal airport we have here in between DM, Luke, and Nellis. Only other info is from somebody who was listening to the local scanner before it landed and it was two F-16’s landing one with engine failure, skidded off runway after ejection, through a fence, flameout, jet ended up inside Craggy Wash which is adjacent to our airport.”

This reported incident continues what has been a series of U.S. Air Force accidents that included the fatal crash of U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Pilot, Major Stephen Del Bagno, from Valencia, California. Major Del Bagno’s fatal accident happened on April 4, 2018.

Image credit: Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page