Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Questions Remain Surrounding Special Operations Blackhawk Crash in Iraq

Veteran Helicopter Pilot Killed in Crash Was in Ninth Combat Deployment.

Late Tuesday, August 21, 2018, U.S. military officials identified the Army helicopter pilot who died on Monday as a result of wounds received in a crash in Iraq on Sunday, August 19, 2018 during an undisclosed operation. Official news releases report three additional wounded U.S. personnel have been evacuated to treatment facilities.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Taylor J. Galvin, 34, from Spokane, Washington, died Aug. 20, in Baghdad as a result of injuries sustained when his helicopter crashed in Sinjar, Ninevah Province, according to a Department of Defense news release.

CW3 Galvin was assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) as an MH-60M Blackhawk helicopter pilot. He was flying in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Galvin was originally from Phoenix, Arizona. He was 34 years old. Galvin was a combat veteran special operations pilot with nine deployments including two during Iraqi Freedom, three in Operation Enduring Freedom and four more during Operation Inherent Resolve. He was the recipient of the U.S. Army Air Medal (C device) and Air Medal (30LC) for heroism or meritorious achievement while flying in addition to numerous other awards.

A file photo of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Taylor J. Galvin, 34, of Spokane, Washington. Galvin died Monday from injuries received in the crash of his MH-60K Blackhawk special operations helicopter. (Photo: US Army)

In an August 20, 2018 article on Newsweek.com about the fatal crash, journalist James LaPorta reported that, “It is unclear why the MH-60 Blackhawk went down, but U.S. military sources with knowledge of the crash said the helicopter was returning to base after conducting a partnered small-scale raid on Islamic State militants in an undisclosed region as part of ongoing counterterrorism operations.” LaPorta went on to write, “Ten U.S. military personnel were onboard the aircraft being flown by U.S. Army pilots from the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers.”

The region near Sinjar (Shingal), Iraq where the crash occurred had been active in supporting cross-border anti-ISIS operations into neighboring Syria for more than a month until U.S. troops were withdrawn from the area in the middle of July, 2018 according to a report by Wladimir van Wilgenburg published in the regional Kurdistan 24 online news source. This is also the region where Iraqi Air Force F-16s have conducted their first airstrikes against insurgents during cross-border strikes into Syria.

The crash was reported to have occurred at approximately 10:00 PM local time (2200 hrs, GMT+3). Sunset in the region on August 19, the date of the accident, occurred at 6:40 PM local time. Weather in the area was hot, 101 degrees Fahrenheit, with light winds and clear skies. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning told reporters Monday that the crash was not caused by enemy fire.

Reports about the aircraft and the personnel on board may contradict official assertions that the U.S. role in the region is predominantly in an advisory capacity. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Night Stalkers”, is a highly-specialized combat aviation unit headquartered at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky that supports elite U.S. and coalition combat units like Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare (SEALs) and other special operations units.

This latest crash brings the total of serious U.S. military aircraft accidents this year to at least 14.

The 160th SOAR, the “Night Stalkers”, are most famous for the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, Operation Neptune’s Spear, on May 1, 2011. During that raid, the unit flew a classified, low-observable variant of the Blackhawk helicopter that has since been popularly referred to in speculation as the “MH-X Stealth Black Hawk” or “Silent Hawk”. Images of part of the secret helicopter were seen around the world when one of them crashed inside Bin Laden’s compound during the raid, leaving the tail section visible. Books and media accounts suggest only two of the aircraft were ever produced.

In 2015, a MH-60M Black Hawk crashed on the deck of a U.S. Navy ship near Okinawa, Japan, injuring seven; more recently, in August 2017, a 160th SOAR’s MH-60 crashed off Yemen killing one soldier.

Top image credit: U.S. Army

T-38C Talon II Crashes at Vance AFB, in Oklahoma; Pilot Safely Ejected.

Accident is Third T-38 Crash in Ten Months for Talon II, Continues Series of U.S. Accidents.

A U.S. Air Force Northrop T-38C Talon II crashed on Friday, August 17, 2018 near Vance AFB 90 miles northwest of Oklahoma City in Enid, Oklahoma. One Instructor Pilot (the only crewmember) ejected from the aircraft and is reported in stable condition without serious injuries according to local media reports. The accident occurred at approximately 3:30 PM local time.

The aircraft belonged to either the 5th Flying Training Squadron, the “Spitten Kittens” or the 25th Flying Training Squadron, the “Shooters” of the 71st Flying Training Wing of the Air Education and Training Command.

The Northrop T-38C Talon II is a two-seat, twin engine, advanced supersonic jet trainer used for Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) for U.S. Air Force pilots making the transition to high performance tactical combat aircraft after basic pilot training.

The T-38 family of advanced trainers is the first-ever supersonic jet trainer. It first flew in April, 1959. Another, single seat version of the aircraft called the Northrop F-5 are used as lightweight, multirole combat aircraft by air forces around the world. An advanced version of the F-5 called the F-20 Tigershark was proposed but never adopted.

The T-38 Talon training jet crashed about 50 miles west of the base, according to a statement released by USAF Tech. Sgt. Erik Cardenas of the 71st Flying Training Wing. No cause for the accident has been given. As with all Air Force flying accidents the cause of the accident will be subject to an official investigation. The weather around the approximate time of the crash in the Enid, Oklahoma area is reported to have been near 80° Fahrenheit, partly cloudy with winds of 13 MPH.

Yesterday’s crash of another T-38 Talon advanced trainer brings the total of crashes in T-38s to three in less than one year. Another T-38C Talon II crashed near Columbus AFB, Mississippi approximately 9 miles north of the city of Columbus on May 23, 2018. Prior to that crash a U.S. Air Force T-38 crashed on Monday, November 20, 2017 outside Lake Amistad, Texas, killing the pilot.

The series of three T-38 accidents continues a trend of U.S. military aviation accidents. There have been eight U.S. Air Force crashes since the beginning of the year including a USAF F-15C Eagle that crashed near Japan on June 11, 2018 and the June 22, 2018 crash of an Embraer A-29 Super Tucano participating the Light Attack Experiment near Holloman AFB. This latest Air Force accident brings the total number of U.S. military aviation crashes in 2018 to 13.

Earlier this year, US Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein ordered all USAF flying and maintenance wings to carry out a one day safety stand-down for an operational review following the increase in flying accidents. While no single contributing factor for the frequency of U.S. military and USAF accidents has been cited, the trend in accidents appears to remain consistent based on Friday’s accident.

Top: A file photo of a USAF T-38 Talon similar to the aircraft that crashed at Vance AFB. (Photo: USAF)

U.S. Navy Blue Angels to Get Super Hornets By The End of 2021

New, Larger Aircraft Will Change Display Routine, Add Range for Ferry Flights.

After several seasons of speculation, official U.S. Navy documents have revealed the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Team, The Blue Angels, will receive the larger, upgraded Boeing F/A-18E single seat and F/A-18F two-seat Super Hornet to replace their aging F/A-18C/D Hornets, by the end of 2021.

The news is exciting for several reasons. By the time the first full show season in the new Super Hornets (existing ones retrofitted into a Blue Angel aerial demonstration team configuration) arrives for the Blues , the team will have been in the existing version of the Hornet for 35 years. That’s a long time for a demonstration aircraft. Most current generation Blue Angel fans have never seen the team fly any other aircraft, so the upgrade to the Super Hornet adds an element of freshness and excitement to the team’s sensational display.

The legacy F/A-18C Hornets are beginning to show their age. (All images Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com unless stated)

Prior to getting their current F/A-18 Hornets the Blue Angels flew the small, single-engine Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. While the Skyhawk had an impressive combat record with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam conflict, the aircraft was quieter, smaller and more difficult to see during demonstrations. It was, however, a good choice for the team during the energy crisis of the late 1970s since the Skyhawk used less fuel.

But the A-4 Skyhawk lacked the visual and audible impact of its predecessor, the larger, smoky, twin-engine McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II flown by the team from 1969 until 1974. For a brief period both the Blue Angels and the USAF Thunderbirds flew the F-4 Phantom II, with the Thunderbirds operating the F-4E version. The Thunderbirds transitioned from their F-4E Phantom IIs in 1974 also in response to the energy crisis when they opted for the smaller T-38 Talon trainer. Today the Thunderbirds use the F-16 Fighting Falcon single engine aircraft in two different versions.

The new F/A-18E and F Super Hornets will replace current F/A-18Cs like this one.

The upcoming change to Super Hornets means the Blue Angels remain America’s only twin-engine jet demonstration team. And, with the new, larger Super Hornets and their over 4-foot wider wingspan than the previous Hornet, the visual impact of the new demonstration routine will surely be striking.

Size comparison of current F/A-18C Hornet and larger, upcoming F/A-18E Super Hornet. (Drawing: Courtesy Aviation/StackExchange public forum)

The Blues will take delivery of the Super Hornets in late 2021 in time to work-up for the following airshow season. The aircraft to be flown by the Blue Angels will be fleet aircraft modified for airshow demonstration with biodegradable colored smoke injectors, fuel flow modifications to facilitate extended inverted flight and the addition of 7-pounds of forward hydraulic force on the control stick when maintaining level flight to improve the handling of the aircraft in turbulent, close formation flying. The aircraft are expected to maintain the current blue and yellow paint scheme that contrasts well against afternoon skies when the Blues fly most of their flight demos.

Some aviation photographers suggest the Blue Angels are easier to photograph than their USAF counterparts, the Thunderbirds, because the larger Blue Angel F/A-18s with their darker paint schemes contrast better against late afternoon airshow lighting conditions allowing modern DSLR autofocus systems to acquire the aircraft more easily in flight.

The visual contrast between the USAF Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels is striking. Notice that even in notorious flat light conditions the dark blue Blue Angels paint livery contrasts well with the sky background making observation and photography easy. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

The Blue Angels will receive nine F/A-18E single seat and two F/A-18F two-seat aircraft for the team. The Department of Defense procurement order for the total of eleven aircraft indicates a program conversion cost for the aircraft to demonstration condition of $17,002,107.00 USD. Approximately 3 million spectators see the U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform during a typical airshow season of about 70 flight demonstrations at 30-35 separate locations around the U.S. and the world. That means if the Blue Angels use the new F/A-18E and F Super Hornets for the next 30 years potentially 90,000,000 viewers, many of them repeat fans, will see the Blues perform.

Flight Demonstration teams like the Blue Angels are critical recruiting and public affairs tools for the U.S. military. Many military aviators trace at least part of their career choice to inspiration from early exposure to one of the military demo teams. With the current pilot shortage in the U.S. military the demonstration team’s mission is more important than perhaps any phase in recent history.

Top image credit: U.S. Navy

President Trump Blocks Sale of F-35s to Turkey, Deepens Rift in Turkish/U.S. Relations.

Turkey Would Have Operated Both the F-35 and the Russian Engineered S-400 Missile System.

On Monday, August 13, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the new John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Named as a tribute to Arizona Senator John McCain, who is afflicted with brain cancer, the bill includes provisions that have significant implications for one of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s largest potential program participants.

In fact, the massive $716 billion U.S. Dollar defense bill, as currently written, will prevent U.S. weapons sales to Turkey for 90 days. Within the 3-month period, the DoD will have to detail how Turkey can be phased out of the production chain of the F-35 and how much this change of plans will cost the U.S. and other countries.

Turkey had planned to purchase 100 of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II conventional takeoff and landing variants of the Joint Strike Fighter, the same version used by the U.S. Air Force. Other countries participating in the Joint Strike Fighter Program include Australia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and South Korea. Ten Turkish companies are involved in the development and/or production of the 5th generation aircraft, with a total Turkish investment of more than $1 billion.

The move comes as Turkish pilots are already training in the United States to operate the F-35A at Luke AFB near Phoenix, Arizona. The training of the Turkish F-35 personnel will continue until the DoD report requested by the NDAA has been submitted to Congress for their decision on the way forward.

There are two Turkish F-35As based at Luke for the Turkish training program along with other international F-35 operators. According to a July 2, 2018 report by Air Force Times journalist Tara Copp, the Turkish F-35As, “will remain in U.S. custody for at least the next year.”

Chased by a LM two-seat F-16 the first F-35A destined to the Turkish Air Force flies over Ft. Worth. (Photo: High Brass Photo/Clinton White)

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Army Colonel Robert Manning told reporters, “Following established agreements, the U.S. government maintains custody of the aircraft until custody is transferred to the partner.” Manning added, “The U.S. government has not made a determination on Turkey’s future participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.”

The decision to delay the F-35A deliveries adds to increasing tension between Washington and the Turkish government in Ankara. Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the region for reasons including its geographic proximity to the middle east. Turkey has also been a member of NATO since 1952. The country is home to Incirlik Air Base, a massive international installation currently home to several thousand U.S. military personnel and an important base for U.S. aircraft operating over Syria and Iraq. The U.S. also stores nuclear weapons at Incirlik as a part of its deterrent strategy in the region. The proximity of the base also provides the U.S. with quick transit to Iran in the event of a crisis. Turkey also controls the passage of naval vessels transiting to and from the Black Sea, a key strategic chokepoint.

The F-35 embargo fans the flames of Turkish discontent after Washington included the country in the recent sweeping round of international trade restrictions issued by the Trump administration.

The tough trade rhetoric from Washington creates frustration not only for Turkey, but also within the U.S. and potentially for other Joint Strike Fighter program participants. Pentagon correspondent to ForeignPolicy.com, Lara Seligman, wrote that, “Several key components of the jet are manufactured by Turkish companies, and the U.S. Defense Department estimates it will take two years to find and qualify new suppliers to replace any Turkish firms that are kicked out of the program. Meanwhile, the main European hub for the F-35’s engine repair and overhaul is in Eskisehir, in northwestern Turkey.” As a result of the engine repair hub being located in Eskisehir, Turkey, maintenance delays for other European users of the F-35 could emerge while other engine repair facility provisions are arranged.

The analysis of Seligman, Copp and others reporting on the F-35 program suggest that the delay in continuing the Turkish F-35A program may be just that, a delay, as opposed to a cancellation. Seligman wrote for ForeignPolicy.com that, “Lawmakers also want the Pentagon to assess the ramifications of Ankara’s planned purchase of the S-400 system.”

A part of the controversy over Turkey’s involvement in the Joint Strike Fighter program is their use of modern Russian designed S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. (Photo: File/NOSINT)

The relatively new Russian-built S-400 “Triumf” Surface to Air Missile (SAM) system has been characterized as an “anti-stealth” air defense system that could specifically threaten the F-35A and its user nations should technology from the aircraft trickle back to Russia as they provide support to Turkey for their S-400 program. The two weapons systems being potentially operated by the same country makes for strange bedfellows. Turkey has a reputation as being a center of international intrigue, including espionage, both in fact and fiction dating back to pre-WWII years. This history underscores concerns about sharing information that may cross borders outside Turkey.

Top image: USAF F-35A. Turkey was slated to receive 100 F-35A Lightning IIs as part of the deal that has been put on hold. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Exclusive: Check Out These Incredible Photos Taken Last Week of the Massive Stratolaunch Space Plane

Photographer Chris McGreevy Captures Gold in Photos at Mojave Air & Space Port.

Aviation spotter and photographer Christopher McGreevy has been shooting photos of unique and interesting aircraft, “Since I was a kiddo” he told TheAviationist.com last week in an exclusive interview over Facebook messenger.

But what he captured on Friday, August 10, 2018 outside the Mojave Air & Space Port is truly remarkable.

Shooting with his Canon EOS 7D Mark II and a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens from outside the fence at the Mojave Air & Space Port (also known as the Civilian Aerospace Test Center) located in Mojave, California, McGreevy shot these photos around 2:00 PM local time on Friday.

Detail of three of the six engines on Stratolaunch along with its control surfaces. (All photos: Christopher McGreevy)

McGreevy’s photos show the enormous Stratolaunch aircraft built by Stratolaunch Systems of Seattle, Washington. The Stratolaunch, when it flies some time later this year or in early 2019, will become the largest aircraft to ever fly as measured by wingspan. Its wings measure a titanic 385 feet (117 meters). The gigantic aircraft weighs a staggering 1,200,000 pounds at take-off with its payload. That is a total of 600 tons. The Stratolaunch is built to air launch spaceplanes like Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL, the Dream Chaser and Black Ice experimental spacecraft prior to their orbital flights.

These shots are incredibly unique since Chris McGreevy told TheAviationist.com that there was, “Not a soul out there.” He was the only photographer in the area when the aircraft was outside on this day. The gigantic aircraft is most frequently housed in a massive hangar at the Mojave Air & Space Port.

Stratolaunch uses a unique round entry door as shown in this photo.

McGreevy is a frequent visitor to the facility. “Mojave is usually my own little playground unless a known Spaceship 2 launch is happening. Nobody really shoots out there because it’s a pretty slow airport. I go pretty often to see the Orbital L-1011 and 747 retirement flights to the boneyard.”

“I have a few spots there that I like to shoot from,” McGreevy told TheAviationist.com in a late-night interview on Friday. “I use my 4X4 truck to drive around the filed I the dirt, [it] offers some different views of the field.”

The Stratolaunch hangar is of equally massive proportions to the aircraft itself.

The McGreevy photos from Friday offer a unique perspective on the massive size and unique design of this flying leviathan. Because they were shot from a distance but with good composition and cropping, these photos offer an accurate sense of the enormous size of the Stratolaunch aircraft. McGreevy shows fascinating details such as close-ups of the aircraft’s six engines and the round crew entry hatch. A large towing tug and maintenance scaffolding under the aircraft also lend an accurate sense of scale and size to the photos. There also seems to be some engine mount maintenance going on since one of the photos shows some aircraft surface missing from the upper portion of the engine mounts at the wing.

Photographer Christopher McGreevy shot this spectacular wide shot of the Stratolaunch giving a graphic sense of its massive size.

One particularly interesting shot from the McGreevy collection is the photo of the L-39 Albatross single engine trainer jet with civilian registration N139WS taxiing in front of the Stratolaunch. This L-39 is registered to Ozark Management Inc, of Jefferson City, Missouri, a privately held aviation firm with only about 5-6 employees according to open source information and is operated by the National Test Pilot School L-39C. It’s not clear if the aircrew of the L-39 is related to the Stratolaunch company or not. The aircraft adds a great sense of scale to the backdrop of the Stratolaunch, since the photo shows just 1/4 of the monster plane.

This Aero L-39 jet trainer in the foreground lends some sense of size and scale to the Stratolaunch.

Following the high-speed taxi tests of the Stratolaunch earlier this year in late February things have seemingly been quiet about the Stratolaunch but it is likely these sensational photos from Christopher McGreevy may reignite the excitement and conversation about this truly historic and remarkable aviation project.

Thanks for Photographer and Aviation Enthusiast Christopher McGreevy for his generous use of his excellent photos for TheAviationist.com and to the Facebook group “Palmdale AF Plant 42 (PMD) and BJ’s Corner”.

Photographer Chris McGreevy who shot the remarkable Stratolaunch photos.