Category Archives: Military Aviation

Check Out This Cool Video Of Three B-2 Stealth Bombers Contrailing Over Kansas

The stunning sight of a B-2 Stealth Bomber 3-ship formation.

Filmed on Apr. 4, the video below shows three B-2s over Pittsburg, Kansas. The stealth bombers headed southwest then made a wide left turn and headed back northeast presumably back to Whiteman AFB, Missouri.

Although the Spirit bombers fly over Kansas quite often (3 to 5 times per month, according to our readers who live there), the formation with backlit contrails isn’t very common.

The result is quite stunning.

The B-2s are among the assets that might be involved after the very early stages of an attack on Syria, as happened in Libya or during Operation Allied Force in 1999, when the stealth bombers operated directly from Whiteman AFB, Missouri.

Interestingly, there’s been much speculations about what could be done to to spot an impending B-2 strike mission, for instance by watching tanker movements over the Atlantic. As I’ve already commented on Twitter, it’s really difficult, as the past operations taught: for instance, during the Libya Air War, the B-2 used a REACH callsign, usually allocated to tanker, transport and support aircraft, to remain invisible even to HF, VHF and UHF listeners who were able to listen to radio communications in the clear. This is I wrote back in 2011:

“This gives an idea of how the OPSEC problem was faced by the USAF: keeping in mind that aircraft spotters around the world, virtually interconnected by means of forums, websites, messageboards, Twitter, Facebook and any other social networking tool, are today capable of tracking aircraft movements even before aircraft depart their homebases with the various LiveATC.net, Flightradar24.com, ADS-B, etc., they decided to deceive them not using difficult and “suspect” zip-lip ops (no-radio) but masking aircraft callsigns.

The result was satisfactory as the strikes of the B-2s as well as the TLAM attack were almost unexpected in spite of the technology in the hands of the aircraft enthusiasts meaning that there are still ways to achieve strategical surprise, if needed…..”

Anyway, this video shows B-2’s continuous training over CONUS, operational activity aimed to prepare U.S. Air Force stealth bombers aircrews to strike targets all around the world.

The Historic Thanh Hóa Bridge Raid: A Historic Lesson in Adaptive Air Combat and The Cost of Getting It Wrong.

4 April, 1965. Above Thanh Hóa, (then) North Vietnam.

It was like trying to hit a needle in a haystack, kill a fly with a sledgehammer, or whatever analogy you prefer for using brute force to apply surgical precision in the middle of a swirling ambush.

By analogy and history, the attack on Dragon’s Jaw is a bizarre mismatch of weapons to mission. It is another hard lesson for U.S. air power in the ‘60’s. Several decades of evolving doctrine and aircraft development have led the U.S. Air Force in a different direction from how air wars will actually be fought in the future. Instead of long range strategic nuclear attack, tactical precision anti-insurgent strike is the emerging mission. The U.S. will continue to learn that hard lesson on this day.

By any measure this is an impressive air armada: Sixty-six advanced supersonic fighters and strike aircraft from America’s “Century Series”. The main strike package is 46 Republic F-105 Thunderchiefs with massive bomb loads. The defensive escort is 21 North American F-100 Super Sabres holstering a covey of air-to-air missiles. The strike and escort fighters are supported by an enormous number of tanker, surveillance, rescue and reconnaissance planes. They all have one objective: to kill “The Dragon”.

The Dragon is the Thanh Hóa Bridge, near the geographic center of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese nicknamed the bridge “Hàm Rồng” or “Dragon’s Jaw” since its massive steel and concrete construction seem like a row of sturdy teeth set in the mouth of a deadly dragon. The Dragon itself is made up of one of the most sophisticated integrated air defense networks on earth modeled closely after the most sophisticated, the Soviet Union’s.

Ironically, if this same task force had been attacking the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons their results would have almost certainly been better. That is the mission these aircraft were actually designed for. But the Dragon is a small, critical target, and an elusive one. Even though it’s not an all-out nuclear war with the Red Menace, the Dragon must be slayed in the ongoing proxy war that is Vietnam.

The Thanh Hóa Bridge would be a tough target to hit even without an advanced, integrated network of radar guided anti-aircraft guns, SAMs and MiGs surrounding it. The bridge has only a single one-meter wide railroad track on its deck. It is 540 feet long and 54 feet wide at its widest point. From the attack altitude of about 10,000 feet it is difficult to see well at high-speed.

The flight of F-105 Thunderchiefs break into sections of four aircraft each. Today they are armed with 750 pound “dumb” bombs. The day before a nearly identical strike also failed to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw when the Thunderchiefs attacked with crude AGM-12 Bullpup guided missiles and 750 pound dumb bombs. The AGM-12 missiles, an early attempt at “smart” weapons, failed significantly. Remarkably, even though some of the 750 pounders did hit the bridge, they had little effect. The first attempt at breaking the Dragon’s Jaw on April 3rd failed spectacularly. The bridge proved sturdier than expected, the weapons less precise than hoped.

Having abandoned the AGM-12 Bullpup missiles from the day before the F-105 Thunderchiefs would strike with only dumb bombs today.

The F-105 was originally designed to carry a nuclear weapon enclosed within its streamlined fuselage using an internal bomb bay. It was supposed to attack a target from low altitude at Mach 2, “toss” the nuclear weapon at the target in a pop-up attack, and escape at twice the speed of sound.

Today the big F-105 “Thuds” lug a junkyard of dumb bombs under their sleek swept wings and below their sinewy Coke-bottle curved fuselage. The yardsale of external bombs and bomb racks creates enormous drag on the needle-nosed “Thud”, slowing it to below supersonic speed and making it vulnerable.

As predictably as a firing line of advancing redcoat soldiers facing off against Native American insurgents in the Revolutionary War, the Thunderchiefs returned the very next day, marching across the aerial battlefield in broad daylight. The North Vietnamese had been ready the day before. Today they were angry, battle hardened and ready.

According to historical accounts ranging from Air Force Magazine to Wikipedia, four of eight lightweight, nimble, subsonic MiG-17s (NATO codename “Fresco”) of the North Vietnamese 921st “Sao Do” (Red Star) Fighter Regiment led by North Vietnamese flight leader Trần Hanh visually acquired an attack formation of four F-105Ds at 10:30 AM.

The Thunderchiefs were just starting to drop their bombs and already committed to their attack run. Flight leader Trần Hanh ordered his wingman, Pham Giay, to cover his attack on the F-105s. Hanh dove in through light cloud cover, achieving complete surprise. He opened fire on the F-105 with his heavy 37mm cannon at extremely close range, only 400 meters. Having attacked from above and behind in a classic ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) scenario, Hanh preserved energy and positioning. The hapless F-105, piloted by USAF Major Frank E. Bennett of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, was pummeled by the MiG’s cannon shells. It erupted in a comet of plunging fire and hurtled downward toward the Gulf of Tonkin. Major Bennett did not survive.

9North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot Tran Hanh shown after the war. (Photo: Via Wikipedia)

A small, nimble, lightweight fighter had just gotten the better of a large, heavily loaded fighter-bomber despite having a substantial escort from F-100 Super Sabres. The Super Sabre fighter escort was out of position to respond to the MiG-17 ambush. A brutally hard lesson in the future of air combat was in session.

The melee continued when another North Vietnamese MiG-17 pilot reportedly named “Le Minh Huan” downed a second F-105D, this one piloted by USAF Capt. J. A. Magnusson. Capt. Magnusson reportedly radioed that he was heading for the Gulf of Tonkin after being hit. He struggled to maintain control of his heavily damaged Thunderchief as he tried to escape North Vietnam. Capt. Magnusson was forced to eject twenty miles from the island of Hon Me, and was eventually listed as missing in action, then killed in action after a 48-hour search turned up nothing.

Painfully, the U.S. Air Force confirmed they had lost two F-105s and pilots in the second attack on the Dragon’s Jaw. Even worse, the bridge remained intact, a straight, iron grin at the futile attack of the Americans.

After the failed F-105 strikes and aircraft losses the Americans were desperate to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw bridge. Author Walter J Boyne wrote in Air Force Magazine that the U.S. developed a bizarre, massive pancake-shaped bomb weighing two and a half tons and measuring eight feet in diameter but only thirty inches thick. The gigantic, explosive Frisbee was dropped from the back of a lumbering C-130 Hercules transport and was intended to float down river toward the bridge where it would be detonated by a magnetic fuse. Several of the weapons were actually dropped, one C-130 was lost.

The bridge remained intact.

Early laser guided bombs were also employed against the Dragon’s Jaw with modest success. An attack on May 13, 1972 by a flight of 14 F-4 Phantoms used early “smart” bombs and actually knocked the bridge surface off its pilings, briefly rendering it inoperable and forcing repairs.

But the bridge still stood.

Attacks on the Dragon’s Jaw continued until October 6, 1972. A flight of four Vought A-7 Corsair attack aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) was finally successful in breaking the bridge in half. They used the AGM-62 Walleye guided bomb and 500-pound Mk.84 general purpose “dumb” bombs. The bridge was finally severed at its center piling.
Author Walter Boyne wrote about the final strike, “At long last, after seven years, 871 sorties, tremendous expenditure in lives, 11 lost aircraft, and a bewildering array of expended munitions, the Dragon’s Jaw was finally broken.”
The key lesson from the brutal campaign to destroy the Dragon’s Jaw was that tactics and equipment need to be adaptable and precise in the modern battlespace.

USAF reconnaissance photo of the Thanh Hóa Bridge in North Vietnam. (Photo: USAF)

The F-105 Thunderchief was an impressive aircraft, but was forced into a brutal baptism of fire over Vietnam during an era when air combat was in transition. As a result, the F-105 suffered heavy losses. The history of the aircraft went on the include an unusual accident with the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds. On May 9, 1964 Thunderbird Two, an F-105B piloted by USAF Captain Eugene J. Devlin, snapped in half during the pitch-up for landing at the old Hamilton Air Base in California. The Thunderchief only flew in six official flight demonstrations with the Thunderbirds.
Interestingly, and perhaps ominously, the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II shares a remarkable number of similarities with the Republic F-105 Thunderchief used in the raid on the Dragon’s Jaw in 1965.

According to author Dr. Carlo Kopp, the F-35A dimensions are oddly similar to the F-105. But among several critical differences is the wing surface area, with the F-35A having larger wing surface area and the resultant lower wing loading than the F-105. Other major differences are the F-35A’s low observable technology and greatly advanced avionics, data collecting, processing and sharing capability. Finally, the F-35A is purpose-built for a wide range of mission sets, whereas the F-105 was predominantly a high-speed, low-level nuclear strike aircraft poorly suited for conventional strike.

Lessons learned from the F-105 strike on the Dragon’s Jaw, the success of the nimble, lightweight North Vietnamese MiG-17s and the need for better precision strike capability are now deeply ingrained in U.S. Air Force doctrine. But revisiting this story is a vital part of understanding the evolving mission of the air combat warfighter and the high cost of failing to adapt in the constantly evolving aerial battlespace.

Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II Aircraft Have Completed Their First Deployment To “Deci”

Four ItAF stealth jets have completed their first training campaign in Sardinia.

Last month, four F-35A aircraft with the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola, in southeastern Italy, have deployed to Decimomannu airbase, in Sardinia, to undertake training activities that have lasted about two weeks.

According to what local photographers and spotters observed, the aircraft arrived on Mar. 7 and departed to return to Amendola between Mar. 22 and 23. During the same period, the local-based RSSTA (Reparto Sperimentale e di Standardizzazione Tiro Aereo – the Air Gunnery Standardization and Experimentation Unit) hosted also T-339 (MB.339), T-346 (M-346) and A-11 (AMX) jets belonging to the ItAF units involved in the periodical firing activities in the Sardinian range.

As usual when it deals with the Italy’s Joint Strike Fighter, little is known about the deployment except that the aircraft, invisible to radars but not to the eyes of locals, were there in those days. As a consequence, the type of activity conducted by the F-35s is unknown; however, since the Italian Air Force F-35 CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) stealth jets have already been declared operational in the air-to-air role lately, it’s quite likely that the JSF mainly focused in activities required to achieve the IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in the air-to-ground role. “The weapon system is operating in accordance with the schedule and within the envisaged scenarios” an official source said.

One of the F-35s deployed to Deci in March 2018 about to land after a mission.

Noteworthy, whilst it was the first full-fledged F-35 deployment to “Deci”, the deployment did not mark the first landing in Deci: on Oct. 26, 2017, two F-35A Lightning II of the 13° Gruppo supported Capo Teulada’s amphibious landing (as proved by one of the videos published by the Italian MoD on the website dedicated to the JS17 exercise), before landing, for the very first time, at Decimomannu airbase.

A flight of two JSFs at the break for landing.

The photos you can find in this post were taken during the deployment by aviation photographer Alessandro Caglieri.

They might be invisible to radars, but not the eyes and lens of local aviation enthusiasts and photographers.

Image credit: Alessandro Caglieri

 

 

Eyes On Crimea: U.S. Intelligence Gathering Aircraft Increasingly Flying Over the Black Sea

Online flight tracking suggests increase in missions flown by U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft near Crimea.

It’s no secret that U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella from Beale Air Force Base, California, frequently operate over the Black Sea.

The first reports of the American gigantic drone’s activities near Crimea and Ukraine date back to April 2015, when Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, Chief of the Main Department for Operations at the Russian General Staff, said that American high-altitude long-range drones were regularly spotted over the Black Sea. Still, it wasn’t until Oct. 15 that one RQ-4 popped up on flight tracking websites, as it performed its 17-hour mission over Bulgaria to the Black Sea, close to Crimea, off Sochi, over Ukraine and then back to Sigonella. It was the first “public” appearance of the Global Hawk in that area and a confirmation of a renewed (or at least “open”) interest in the Russian activities in the Crimean area.

What in the beginning seemed to be sporadic visits, have gradually become regular missions, so much so, it’s no surprise hearing of a Global Hawk quietly tracking off Sevastopol or east of Odessa as it performs an ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) mission quietly flying at 53K feet or above, in international airspace. Indeed, as often reported here at The Aviationist, RQ-4 drones can be regularly tracked online or using commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding the famous Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADSB Exchange websites, as well as closed websites like 360radar, PlanePlotter, Adsbhub.org etc, as they (most probably) point imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors at the Russian bases in Crimea.

Noteworthy, such activities (both in the Black Sea and the Baltic region) have significantly increased lately, showing another interesting trend: they seem to involve more assets at the same time. Even though it’s not clear whether the ISR platforms fly cooperatively (although it seems quite reasonable considered how spyplanes operate in other theaters), U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon and EP-3E aircraft can often be “spotted” while they operate close to Crimea during the same time slots. For instance, based on logs collected by our friend and famous ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast @CivMilAir, this has happened on Jan. 9, Jan. 25 and more, recently, on Apr. 3, whereas on Feb. 5, Feb. 16 and Mar. 11 the Global Hawk has operated alone. By comparison, during the same period in 2017 (first quarter, from January to March) no Global Hawk mission was tracked or reported. Needless to say, these “statistics” are purely based on MLAT (Multi Lateration) logs: there might have been traffic neither “advertising” their position via ADS-B nor triangulated by ground stations exploiting the Mode-S transponder signals, operating in “due regard” (with transponder switched off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid”). However, analysis of Global Hawk and other ISR aircraft activity using Open Source data seems to suggests a clear increase in “Crimean missions”.

Here are some examples (but if you spend some time on @CivMilAir’s timeline on Twitter you’ll find more occurrences on the above mentioned dates). A few days ago, Apr. 3, 2018:

Jan. 9, 2018:

Dealing with the reason why these aircraft can be tracked online, we have discussed this a lot of times.

As reported several times here, it’s difficult to say whether the drone can be tracked online by accident or not. But considered that the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders is very well-known, it seems quite reasonable to believe that the unmanned aircraft purposely broadcasts its position for everyone to see, to let everyone know it is over there. Since “standard” air defense radars would be able to see them regardless to whether they have the transponder on or off, increasingly, RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them.

Russian spyplanes can be regularly tracked as well: the Tu-214R, Russia’s most advanced intelligence gathering aircraft deployed to Syria and flew along the border with Ukraine with its transponder turned on.

Interestingly, according to NATO sources who wish to remain anonymous, Global Hawk missions around Crimea regularly cause the Russian Air Force to scramble Su-30 (previously Su-27SM) Flankers from Krimsk or Belbek that always attempt to get somehow close to, but well below, the high-flying drones.

A Flanker gets close to an EP-3E ARIES II flying off Crimea on Jan. 29, 2018.

H/T @CivMilAir for researching the topic and providing the logs.

Thunderbird Pilot Killed in Crash at Nevada Test and Training Range

It’s the third crash in less than two years for the demo team.

The U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, The Thunderbirds, confirmed in a Tweet just before midnight last night, April 4, that one of their pilots died in the crash of an F-16 over the Nevada Test and Training Range near Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada.

The fatal crash happened during a scheduled training flight on Wednesday at approximately 10:30 AM according to news reports. Identity of the pilot killed in the accident has not been released by the Air Force. A crash investigation is also underway.

This accident from a U.S. military aircraft follows two crashes by U.S. Marine aircraft in the U.S. and in Africa over the last two days that resulted in four fatalities. A U.S. Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed in the U.S. earlier this week and a U.S. Marine AV-8B Harrier VSTOL attack aircraft crashed in Djibouti, Africa that same day. Four fatalities were reported in the CH-53E crash in the U.S. while the pilot of the AV-8B that crashed in Djibouti ejected from his aircraft and was reported to have walked to an ambulance following the accident.

Although it could be completely unrelated, the fatal Thunderbird accident from yesterday follows the late 2017 replacement of the Thunderbirds then-commanding officer. Former Thunderbird commanding officer Lt. Col. Jason Heard was relieved of command of the Air Force Flight Demonstration Team in late November of last year. The official reason cited for his removal from the position was a “loss of confidence’. Following his removal from command of the Thunderbirds Lt. Col. Heard was replaced by Thunderbirds’ operations officer, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, according to Air Combat Command at the time. Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh has remained the Commander/Flight Lead of the Thunderbirds.

The latest deadly crash comes less than one year after an incident involving a U.S. Air Force F-16D Fighting Falcon that flipped over after landing at Dayton International Airport in Ohio during a single-ship familiarization flight on Friday June 23, 2017. The pilot sustained injuries and the crewmember was uninjured.

According to the accident investigation report, “Excess airspeed and insufficient stopping distance on a wet runway” caused the aircraft to depart the runway and overturn in the grass.

Previously, on Jun. 2, 2016 a Thunderbirds F-16 crashed shortly after the demo team had performed a flyover at the annual Air Force graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs. The pilot managed to eject before the aircraft crash landed in a field not far from Peterson AFB, Colorado. The cause of the F-16CM #6 crash was found in “a throttle trigger malfunction and inadvertent throttle rotation.”

The Thunderbirds have cancelled their appearance this weekend at the March Field Air and Space Expo in Riverside County, California. No official announcement about the remainder of the team’s 2018 show schedule has been made.