Category Archives: Military Aviation

The Belgian Air Force Has Released Footage Of The Russian Tu-160 Blackjack Intercepted Over The North Sea

Here’s one of the two Tu-160s as seen through the pilot’s JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System).

On Jan. 15, two Belgian Air Force F-16s intercepted two Russian Air Force Tu-160 bombers over the North Sea.

At around 11.51 LT, the two Belgian F-16s in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) reached the two Blackjack bombers off the Netherlands, in international airspace, carried out a VID (visual identification) and shadowed the Russian aircraft until these were handed over to the British Eurofighter Typhoons.

Here’s the route followed by the two Russian bombers:

On Jan. 17, the Belgian MoD released an interesting footage filmed through the pilots JHMCS that projects flight parameters (heading, speed, altitude, etc) and aiming data onto the helmet visor (in other words, in air-to-air role, pilots can cue onboard weapons against enemy aircraft merely by pointing their heads at the targets). For this reason, the short clip below provides some details about the altitude FL270 (27,000 feet) and speed (317 knots) of the Tu-160 during the intercept.


Polish Air Force’s 100th Anniversary – Part 1: The Checkerboard

In 2018 the Polish Air Force is to celebrate its 100th Anniversary. Let’s celebrate the Service’s flamboyant and rich history through a series of articles.

It seems appropriate to start a series of articles covering the 100th Anniversary of the Polish Air Force with getting our readers acquainted with the circumstances related to the birth of the Polish Air Force’s equivalent of a “roundel”, that has been accompanying the Polish aviators throughout the last 100 years. Here we are referring to the white-red checkerboard which, as you probably know, is not round, contrary to the insignia worn by the aircraft of most air forces.

The story of applying national markings on aircraft dates back to WWI. The dynamic development of aviation per se, and of military aviation in particular, was the main factor that made it indispensable to introduce signs that would allow for quick and unambiguous aircraft recognition. The French were the first to introduce a roundel, back in 1913.

The history of Polish aviation actually began back in 1910, when the first aircraft was built on the territory that once belonged to Poland, which, for 120 years, belonged to the occupants: Germans, Russians and Austrians. The said aircraft was reportedly built in Cracow.

During WWI the storm of battles was going through the Central European land and it did not leave it unscathed. The Poles were often forced to join the armies of the invaders and occupants, which led to a situation in which in fact they were fighting for all of the parties to the conflict.  Also in a role of the troops working within a newly established service – the Air Force.

The events during which Poland regained its independence are closely tied to the ending of WWI, on Nov. 11, 1918.

According to the bible of historians who are passionate about the Polish Air Force, “Polski Samolot i Barwa” [“Polish Aircraft and Color”], authored by Tadeusz Królikiewicz, the story of the checkerboard dates back to November 1918. This was also related to the process through which the Polish military was taking over the equipment and airfields left behind by the invaders. Frequently the Polish pilots were defecting (from Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Armies to join the newly born Polish military), taking their aircraft with them. These airframes were later to become the cornerstone for the Polish military aviation. This also created a new problem: the use of aircraft markings which would designate their affiliation with the newly born state. The aircraft were sporting roundels of the former enemies, the camouflage schemes differed, the planes also featured personal badges of the pilots flying them.

Before the Polish checkerboard was ultimately selected as the designation of choice, the aircraft often featured spontaneously painted white-red graphic elements, following the national color scheme. Nonetheless the form of the symbols ranged from heraldic badges divided across (Warsaw squadrons), through white-red stripes (Lvov squadrons) with red Z letter placed in a white square to finish with (Cracow squadrons).

Warsaw, Lvov and Cracow squadrons roundels.

However, the white-red checkerboard was to ultimately become the sign of choice for the Polish aviation. It is usually claimed that the history of the symbol began with Lt. Stefan Stec – a Polish pilot flying for the Austro-Hungarian Army. On Nov. 15. 1918, Lt. Pilot Stefan Stec flew to Warsaw in his Fokker EV (D VIII), delivering a report from Lvov that was under siege at the time. His aircraft wore the personal badge of the pilot – a square divided into four symmetrical fields in contrasting national colors – white and red.

Stefan Stec was quite an experienced aviator who, when the war for the Polish independence began, had already scored a couple of aerial victories flying for the Austro-Hungarians during WWI. At the end of WWI, on Nov. 15. 1918, he went to Lvov.  Operating from there under the Polish command, he conducted combat sorties delivering reports to the staff officers during the fights against the Ukrainians. On Apr. 29, 1919 ,Stec won the first air combat engagement in the independent Poland, downing an enemy plane.

In 1919, Stec was transferred to the Paris Ecole Superiore d’Aeronautique where he obtained an engineering degree. Following that Stec became one of the persons who drove the development of the Polish aviation industry. Stec died in an aircraft crash, on May 11, 1921.

Stec’s aircraft – Fokker EV (D VIII) – arguably the first ever airframe to wear the checkerboard. Again, you can note the lack of layout’s consistency. Image Source: Tomasz Kopański’s book. “7 Eskadra Myśliwska im. T. Kościuszki” [T. Kościuszko 7th Fighter Squadron]

Coming back to his appearance in Warsaw – after Stec arrived, Lt. Col. Hipolit Łossowski, the commanding officer of the Polish Air Force at the time, came to a conclusion that the checkerboard conformed with all of the criteria ascribable to a roundel equivalent that could be utilized in case of the Polish aircraft.

Order issued on Dec. 1. 1918, designating the checkerboard to become the official symbol for the Polish military aviation.

On Dec. 1, 1918, the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish military, Div. General Stanisław Szeptycki, issued the order no. 38 also published as a Regulation on Dec. 7. 1918, within the Journal of Regulations of the Ministry of Military Affairs. The order read as follows:

“Polish military aircraft shall be, in the future, featuring, within the areas that were valid for this purpose so far, a square sign with width of 60 cm, divided into four equal fields. Upper left and lower right fields shall be of crimson color, lower left and upper right fields shall be white.”

Scanned Journal – the document which ultimately defined the Checkerboard to be the Polish Air Force insignia.

One may also wonder about the shape of the roundels used by most of the countries which, as the name suggests, were usually round, while the checkerboard took on a square form. Within his work, Królikiewicz suggests that this had reasons which were pragmatic for the most part. The new symbol could be easily painted on the wings and fuselages of the aircraft. The square shape was better suited to be placed over a myriad of markings on German, French, British or even Italian aircraft that became a part of the Polish Air Force.

Initially, the roundel was painted in a way that it covered the whole width of fuselages, wings and vertical stabilizers. The checkerboard layout’s interpretation also varied. Even though the aforesaid regulation was quite unambiguous defining the matter. Back in 1921, Manual No. 15 of the Air Force (General Technical Conditions for the Aircraft) introduced changes to the “checkerboard’s” layout, as reverse-color frame had been added to the primary colors of the symbol.

Further changes were introduced by the President of the Republic of Poland on Mar. 13, 1930, formally approving the checkerboard as a means for recognition of the Polish military aircraft, on the basis of a decree “Regarding the issue of flag and aviation markings”. The very same decree also regulated the “frame” of the checkerboard, as it was to have a width following ratio of 1:5 in comparison with the length of the square sides. In essence, the sign in this form remained in existence for another 70 years, until 1993.

PZL P11C – Polish indigeneous fighter design of the 1930s, wearing the checkerboards. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Two things are worth of noting. In the 1930s the lower portion of the wings of the aircraft featured checkerboards painted solely with the use of red color. The white color was replaced by the color of the airframe: this was the beginning of what can be compared to today’s low-vis aircraft markings. Another rule which was also quite significant was that small checkerboards were painted on top of the wings, in order to deform and camouflage the aircraft shape.

During WWII, the checkerboard also remained present on every frontline around the world at war, maintaining the reputation of the Polish aviators flying in the foreign air forces. Both in the East and West fronts, the aircraft used by the Poles were marked with the allied markings, supposedly for safety reasons. However, during the French campaign of 1940 the aircraft were wearing checkerboards or fusion of the checkerboard and the French marking. Then, extra “checkerboard” was painted on the aircraft, usually in the nose area – in cases of the Eastern and Western fronts, as well as in case of the Battle of Britain – the best known episode of the Polish WWII aviation.

Spitfire wearing a checkerboard marking, clearly visible in the front portion of the fuselage. Image Credit: Marcin Parzyński

In the postwar period the communist authorities were not bold enough to replace the checkerboard with a red star – as happened in Romania, Bulgaria or Hungary. The checkerboard was painted on the vertical stabilizers, fuselage, and on the bottom part of the wings. The form of the marking remained unchanged until 1993, when the order of the fields was switched. The argument here was to recover the heraldic correctness of the checkerboard. Obviously, some exceptions did happen, throughout the several years of the symbol’s existence. There are some photographs depicting aircraft wearing the checkerboards without the white fields, or with the colors switched. This may be explained as an effect of errors emerging after overhauls were carried out abroad or simply as a ramification of human error.

Even though the regulations were in place, the checkerboard issue was still confusing – as we can see on this shot of a Su-22M4 Fitter, sporting the symbols in two layouts. Image Credit: Andrzej Rogucki

Here we can see a pack of jets hailing from the “Pyrlandia Air Force” [name of the fictious country involved in the Orli Szpon ‘97 exercise] during their ferry flight to attend the VIP Day held at the Powidz Air Base following the training conducted (note the white stripes that allow for force identification). This photo was taken on Sep. 18. 1997. Again, it is clearly visible that the checkerboards do not match. Image Credit: Andrzej Rogucki

Currently, the shape, color and way the checkerboard is placed on the airframes is defined by the provisions of Chapter 5, Article 22 section 1 of the Act of Feb. 19, 1993, on the Marks of the Armed Forced of the Republic of Poland, the “mark of the military aircraft is a white-red aviation checkerboard […] divided into four equal fields […].”

A Checkerboard layout on the helicopters is also different, when it comes to its positioning – it is usually placed in the rear part of the fuselage. The pic presents the Polish Mi-17 and Kaman SH-2G helicopters during the Kapar exercise – Image Credit: sierż. Patryk Cieliński | Combat Camera DO RSZ

Furthermore, the Act assumes that the checkerboard shall be placed on both sides of the vertical stabilizers (or on the external side, if the aircraft uses two surfaces as such) and on the bottom part of the wings. Back in 2012, extra regulations were introduced. According to the new legal framework, the symbol was also to be painted on the top of the wings. In case of the helicopters the checkerboard is usually placed in the back section and on the bottom of the fuselage. The edges need to be parallel to the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. It is permissible to place the checkerboards on moving surfaces too, this possibility was used in case of the Polish Fitter. In this case, there is one more condition – the checkerboard must be placed, in its entirety, on the moving surface. When the checkerboard is placed on white or gray surface, the symbol needs to be distinguished from the background by a gray surface, the width of which is defined as 1/6th of the dimension of the frame stripes of the checkerboard.

Team Iskry – Polish Air Force Aerobatic Team with their checkerboards on. Image Credit: sierż. Patryk Cieliński | Combat Camera DO RSZ

Noteworthy, the Polish law does not envisage any option of using low-vis markings on the Polish military aircraft. However, back in the past markings as such were used in case of the W-3 helicopter that was operated by the Polish GROM special forces unit.

A symbol which is similar, but not identical to the original checkerboard, is also used by the Border Guard aviation. It is a roundel, divided into four fields, identical to the ones in case of the military checkerboard. The whole round symbol is placed on green, square background. The Border Guard is a civil service, and thus it cannot utilize military markings. Back in the past similar symbols were proposed to be used in case of aircraft used by other uniformed services, with the background color being the differentiating feature. Police was to use blue, and fire service was to use red background. However, besides the border guard, the symbols in question were never used. Paradoxically, the Border Guard checkerboard features the historically original color layout.

Polish Border Guard’s Stemme motor-glider, wearing its own, checkerboard-based symbol – Image Credit: Marcin Parzyński

And finally, another interesting fact worth of mentioning is that during the Sochi Winter Olympics, Kamil Stoch, a Polish ski jumper, with an authorization issued by Czesław Mroczek, the Deputy Minister of Defense, used the checkerboard on his helmet, also winning the Olympic ski jumping competitions on Feb 9. and 15.

We hope that this article brought you closer to knowing the history of the Polish Air Force. Expect the next episode in February.

Written with Michał Wajnchold.

Top Image Credit: Michał Wajnchold

Polish F-16 Jets during the 10th Anniversary photo sortie back in 2016 – Image Credit: sierż. Patryk Cieliński | Combat Camera DO RSZ

The Sum of All Fears: Why the Hawaii False Alarm Reminds Us of The Risks Of Accidental Engagement

As North Korean Tensions Moderate Ahead of Olympics, A New Threat Emerges: Accidental Engagement.

“I started running for shelter” one man told U.S. network CNN about his response to the false nuclear threat warning text sent to Hawaii residents on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The automated alert system was accidentally actuated by a routine drill at shift change that went wrong. During the alert, that included the message “This is not a drill”, hotel guests were evacuated into basement shelters, some people abandoned vehicles on the road and videos were posted of a man trying to open a manhole cover to seek shelter. According to a report in, U.S. Homeland Security Chief Kirstjen Nielsen made a statement the next day that it was “unfortunate” there was a false emergency alarm about an incoming missile in Hawaii, but said authorities are “all working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

It took 38 minutes for Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency to issue a statement saying the alert was an error. But even when the alert error message was delivered, tensions remained high on the island state. The Hawaiian island of Oahu was the scene of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the beginning of U.S. involvement in WWII on Dec. 7, 1941, and while few current residents of the island who survived that attack 77 years ago are still alive, the legacy of the Pearl Harbor attack permanently looms in the background of escalating tensions in the Pacific region with North Korea today.

The incident comes as relations between the South Korea and North Korea show possible signs of moderation ahead of the winter Olympics that begin on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang County, South Korea. North Korean and U.S. tensions remain high, but have not worsened in recent weeks. Some observers maintain that any evolution other than a worsening of relations between the U.S. and North Korea suggests improvement as Washington and Pyongyang continue their sabre rattling war of words.

But the risk of accidental engagement between the U.S and North Korea remains high, and these risks are titanic.

While the incident in Hawaii was a local level erroneous alert only, it typifies exposure to accidents that are inherent in any system where human involvement could introduce error. In the current political and strategic environment, the risk of accidental engagement represents the most tangible threat to any possible peace process in the region. Japan, North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea remain on a tenuous brink in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. This stand-off could easily escalate to a significant armed exchange entirely by error.

As with many strategic and defense realities, the late fiction author Tom Clancy was prescient of this risk. Clancy wrote this passage about a heated meeting between fictional characters, National Security Advisor Dr. Jeffrey Pelt and Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Andrei Lysenko, in “The Hunt for Red October”:

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity… Is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”

The risk of accidental near-nuclear attack has been consistent in fiction, but rare in reality. But it has happened.

On Sept. 26, 1983, an accidental alert in the Soviet Union indicated that the U.S. had launched a missile at the USSR. Then it got worse. The system reported a follow-on salvo of five U.S. ICBMs inbound toward the Soviet Union. To Soviet crews manning the early warning systems in the Oko satellite based Nuclear Attack Warning Center it seemed like a text-book U.S. first strike. U.S. rhetoric at the time spoke of “maintaining our first strike capability”, making the warning all the more urgent. The incident came only three weeks after the Soviets accidentally shot down a civilian Boeing 747 airliner, Korean Airlines flight 007, killing everyone on board. The aircraft had strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace and was mistaken for a U.S. spy plane. Real-life Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was on duty at the time, monitoring the incoming intelligence. Based on his analysis of the data Lt. Col. Petrov judged the alarms to be an error. He later said they did not exactly match the U.S. nuclear attack doctrine, so he did not elevate the alert. Lt. Col. Petrov’s human intervention was the first circuit breaker between accident and global calamity. He received neither reprimand nor award. Petrov died anonymously in May, 2017.

As with both real and fictional accidental engagements or near-engagements the common circumstances are large numbers of military assets from adversary nations in close proximity to one another combined with a protracted phase of elevated alert status. The stress of long periods at high alert levels combined with complex procedures for differentiating friend or foe are often set against a backdrop of dynamic rules of engagement. Accidents happen.

In November 2017, the U.S. Navy released reports on two serious accidents where Navy ships collided with other vessels in close proximity. On June 17, 2017 the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) was struck by the commercial container ship ACX Crystal in the narrow commercial shipping approach to Tokyo Bay. Seven members of the Fitzgerald’s crew died in the accident and her commanding officer was injured. In another incident only two months later the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, the USS John McCain (DDG-56), was hit by the Liberian flag vessel Alnic MC in the crowded shipping approaches to the Singapore Strait. Ten crewmembers of the USS John McCain died in the accident.

Collisions with U.S. Navy vessels at sea could spark an accidental engagement. (Photo: US Navy)

Even more foreboding is the July 3, 1988 incident in the Persian Gulf when the U.S. Navy Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49) accidentally shot down civilian passenger flight Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300-B2 airliner. All passengers and crew on board were killed. The crew of the USS Vincennes had incorrectly determined that the civilian airliner was an Iranian F-14 Tomcat that was attacking them. An investigation revealed the crew of the USS Vincennes attempted to contact Iran Air Flight 655 ten times before engaging it with two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, one of which hit the airliner and destroyed it. Some reports suggested the incident stemmed from psychological pressure the crew was under as a result of high alert status caused by other incidents in the region (one year before this incident, in May 1987, the guided missile frigate USS Stark had been attacked by an Iraqi Mirage F-1 jet and 37 American sailors had perished during the clash).

It is a short leap to imagine an incident that would be much more serious than this last year’s accidental collisions with merchant vessels or the recent erroneous warning messages being sent. There are currently three U.S. Navy carrier battle groups in the region. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) are all operational in the area around North Korea. Each vessel also has a significant support armada. Japanese and South Korean military vessels are also active in the region making for a very crowded patrol space.

The key to avoiding accidental engagements on each side will be adherence to rules of engagement and constant vigilance with navigation and communication. These are all standard protocols for all parties involved but fatigue and fear can degrade procedure in the real world. But perhaps the last circuit breaker between a tense stand-off and a rapidly escalating armed exchange are the responsible individuals with cool heads and an understanding of the true terror of war, accidental or not. We rely on them to maintain this tenuous peace.

The U.S. Air Force Has Deployed One Of Its EC-130H Compass Call Electronic Warfare Aircraft To South Korea

One of the few EC-130H Compass Call aircraft, capable to find and hit the enemy forces with denial of service (and possibly cyber) attacks on their communication networks, has been deployed to Osan Air Base, South Korea.

The EC-130H Compass Call is a modified Hercules tasked with various types of signals surveillance, interdiction and disruption. According to the U.S. Air Force official fact sheets: “The Compass Call system employs offensive counter-information and electronic attack (or EA) capabilities in support of U.S. and Coalition tactical air, surface, and special operations forces.”

The USAF EC-130H overall force is quite small, consisting of only 14 aircraft, based at Davis-Monthan AFB (DMAFB), in Tucson, Arizona and belonging to the 55th Electronic Combat Group (ECG) and its two squadrons: the 41st and 43rd Electronic Combat Squadrons (ECS). Also based at DMAFB and serving as the type training unit is the 42nd ECS that operates a lone TC-130H trainer along with some available EC-130Hs made available by the other front-line squadrons.

An EC-130H Compass Call travels along the taxiway at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, June 27, 2017. Compass Call is an airborne tactical weapon system that uses noise jamming to disrupt enemy command and control communications and deny time-critical adversary coordination essential for enemy force management. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Hehnly)

The role of the Compass Call is to disrupt the enemy’s ability to command and control their forces by finding, prioritizing and targeting the enemy communications. This means that the aircraft is able to detect the signals emitted by the enemy’s communication and control gear and jam them so that the communication is denied. The original mission of the EC-130H was SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses): the Compass Call were to jam the enemy’s IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) and to prevent interceptors from talking with the radar controllers on the ground (or aboard an Airborne Early Warning aircraft). Throughout the years, the role has evolved, making the aircraft a platform capable of targeting also the signals between UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and their control stations.

According to the official data:

The EC-130H fleet is composed of a mix of Baseline 1 and 2 aircraft. The 55th ECG recently eclipsed 10,900 combat sorties and 66,500 flight hours as they provided U.S. and Coalition forces and Joint Commanders a flexible advantage across the spectrum of conflict. COMPASS CALL’s adaptability is directly attributed to its spiral upgrade acquisition strategy guided by the Big Safari Program office and Air Force Material Command’s 661st Aeronautical Systems Squadron based in Waco, Texas. Combined efforts between these agencies ensure the EC-130H can counter new, emergent communication technology.

The Block 35 Baseline 1 EC-130H provides the Air Force with additional capabilities to jam communication, Early Warning/Acquisition radar and navigation systems through higher effective radiated power, extended frequency range and insertion of digital signal processing versus earlier EC-130Hs. Baseline 1 aircraft have the flexibility to keep pace with adversary use of emerging technology. It is highly reconfigurable and permits incorporation of clip-ins with less crew impact. It promotes enhanced crew proficiency, maintenance and sustainment with a common fleet configuration, new operator interface, increased reliability and better fault detection.

Baseline 2 has a number of upgrades to ease operator workload and improve effectiveness. Clip-in capabilities are now integrated into the operating system and, utilizing automated resource management, are able to be employed seamlessly with legacy capabilities. Improved external communications allow Compass Call crews to maintain situational awareness and connectivity in dynamic operational and tactical environments.
Delivery of Baseline-2 provides the DoD with the equivalent of a “fifth generation electronic attack capability.” A majority of the improvements found in the EC-130H Compass Call Baseline-2 are classified modifications to the mission system that enhance precision and increase attack capacity. Additionally, the system was re-designed to expand the “plug-and-play” quick reaction capability aspect, which has historically allowed the program to counter unique “one-off” high profile threats. Aircraft communication capabilities are improved with expansion of satellite communications connectivity compatible with emerging DoD architectures, increased multi-asset coordination nets and upgraded data-link terminals. Furthermore, modifications to the airframe in Baseline-2 provide improved aircraft performance and survivability.

Although it’s not clear whether this ability has already been translated into an operational capability, in 2015, a USAF EC-130H Compass Call aircraft has also been involved in demos where it attacked networks from the air: a kind of in-flight hacking capability that could be particularly useful to conduct cyberwarfare missions where the Electronic Attack aircraft injects malware by air-gapping closed networks.

With about one-third of the fleet operating in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (indeed, four EC-130Hs, teaming up with the RC-135 Rivet Joint and other EA assets, are operating over Iraq and Syria to deny the Islamic State the ability to communicate), the fact that a single EC-130H (73-1590 “Axis 43”) was recently deployed from Davis Monthan AFB to Osan Air Base, South Korea, where it arrived via Yokota, on Jan. 4, 2018, it’s pretty intriguing.

Obviously, we can’t speculate about the reason behind the deployment of the Electronic Warfare with alleged Cyber-Attack capabilities (that could be particularly useful against certain threats these days….) aircraft south of the DMZ: however, the presence of such a specialized and somehow rare aircraft in the Korean peninsula, that joins several other intelligence gathering aircraft operating over South Korea amid raising tensions for quite some time, is at least worth of note.

Update: some of our sources have suggested that the aircraft was deployed to perform anti-IED (Improvised Electronic Device) tasks during the Winter Olympics, kicking off on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang County, South Korea.

That Time the Luftwaffe Experimented with a Rocket-Launched F-104G Starfighter

“Zero Length Launch” Was Tested in Germany on an F-104G. Here’s the Video.

Almost every aviation enthusiast has probably seen the famous June 1957 test videos of a North American F-100 Super Saber being launched from a portable trailer using a large rocket booster.

The origin of “Zero Length Launch”, often called “ZeLL”, was the perceived necessity that aircraft would need to be boosted into flight after available airfields and runways in Europe were destroyed in a nuclear attack. Using motor vehicle highways as improvised runways, often practiced by NATO and former Warsaw Pact air forces, may not have worked as well since the aircraft would be more vulnerable to air attack. With the Zero Length Launch concept, aircraft could actually be boosted into flight using a disposable rocket booster from inside a hardened aircraft shelter, presuming no one else like hapless ground crew were inside the shelter at the time of launch.

“ZeLL” was an interesting, if ultimately impractical, concept. It could be argued that the “ZeLL” concept somehow validated the need for V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) aircraft such as the Harrier and, decades later, even the F-35B Lightning II.

What many aviation history buffs don’t know is that the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, experimented with a Zero Launch System on their F-104 Starfighters. The concept made more sense with the F-104 Starfighter, an aircraft conceived almost purely as an interceptor.

Rocketing the F-104 into flight as a sort of “manned missile”, the interceptor would rapidly climb to altitude and engage an approaching bomber formation. The Starfighter was a suitable candidate for ZeLL launch operations since it began setting altitude records as early as May, 1958, when USAF test pilot Major Howard C. “Scrappy” Johnson zoom-climbed to an astonishing altitude Record of 27,811m (91,243 feet, or 17.2 miles high) from a conventional take-off.

Interestingly, Germany had tested a rocket-powered, vertical launch interceptor during WWII called the “Bachem Ba-349 Natter”. The aircraft would be fired from a launch tower, fly to the allied bomber formations using rocket boosters and engage them with unguided high velocity aircraft rockets (HVARs) mounted in the nose. If all went according to design, the aircraft and pilot would then recover to earth using separate parachutes. The concept did not do well for the Germans in WWII, with the only manned test flight ending in disaster and the death of Luftwaffe test pilot Lothar Sieber.

Apparently undaunted by their WWII experiences with the Ba-349, the modern Luftwaffe working in collaboration with the U.S. Air Force, used a single F-104G Starfighter to test the ZeLL concept in 1963. Oddly enough, the German F-104G version of the Starfighter was a multi-role aircraft evolved from the original pure interceptor design mandate of the F-104.

Unlike its early, distant predecessor the Ba-349, the Luftwaffe F-104G Starfighter ZeLL launch tests went well. Lockheed company test pilot Eldon “Ed” W. Brown Jr. remarked after the first of eight ZeLL take-offs at Edwards AFB in California during 1963 that, “All I did was push the rocket booster button and sit back. The plane was on its own for the first few seconds and then I took over. I was surprised at the smoothness, even smoother than a steam catapult launch from an aircraft carrier.”

Lockheed company test pilot Eldon “Ed” W. Brown Jr. flew the initial Luftwaffe F-104G ZeLL tests at Edwards AFB. (Photo: Lockheed)

The first Luftwaffe F-104G used in the ZeLL test program wore a distinctive and sensational looking test paint scheme, one of many beautiful and unusual liveries the F-104 Starfighter wore in its career. The first launch aircraft was coded “DA-102” and was natural aluminum metal on the bottom of the aircraft with a brilliant high visibility orange horizontal and vertical stripe and a bright white upper surface except for the nose, which had a flat-black anti-glare panel. It also wore the modern Luftwaffe insignia crosses, making it appear all the more remarkable.

The ZeLL F-104G was moved to Germany for a total of seven ZeLL test launches at Lechfeld AB between May 4, until Jul. 12, 1966, when the program was abandoned. The German ZeLL flights were flown after the test aircraft was repainted in a more operational German camouflage scheme. The aircraft would end its career as a static display.

The Soviets tinkered with their own version of ZeLL on a MiG-19 beginning as early as 1955, but the idea died in the test phase for most of the same reasons the NATO interest in ZeLL waned.

If nothing else, ZeLL was a sensational and adventurous idea. The results were remarkable to see, confirmed by the tens of thousands of video views of the ZeLL tests using the U.S. F-100 Super Sabre today on YouTube. But the German F-104G ZeLL tests have, somewhat oddly, received far less attention. Until today.

The Luftwaffe F-104G ZeLL test aircraft was eventually turned into a static display with its unique German camouflage livery. (Photo: German Air Force)