Category Archives: Military Aviation

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.

U.S. Marines Suffer Losses Over Last Two Days in Super Stallion and Harrier Crashes

CH-53E Super Stallion Crashes in California: Four Casualties Reported. Harrier Lost in Africa, Pilot Ejected.

The U.S. Marine 3rd Aircraft Wing has reported that a CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopter has crashed at approximately 1435 Hrs. local north of the Mexico/California border on Apr. 3, 2018. Four fatalities are being reported. The aircraft was on a training mission near the city of El Centro, California when it went down.

No cause for the crash has been reported. A crash investigation is reported to be underway. Identities of the four crash victims have not yet been released pending official notification of families.

The Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion is the largest heavy lift helicopter in the U.S. arsenal. It is a three-engine aircraft with a lift capacity in excess of fifteen tons and uses a large, seven-blade main rotor. Developed from the U.S. Navy’s CH-53 Sea Stallion that first flew in 1966, the U.S. Marine CH-53E Super Stallion was introduced in 1981 as the CH-53 Sea Stallion.

Other notable losses in the history of the CH-53 heavy lift helicopter family include a total of four CH-53s lost during the May 1975 Mayaguez Incident. Three of the helicopters were shot down by Khmer Rouge guerillas resulting in the deaths of 10 Marines, 2 Navy Corpsmen and 2 Air Force crewmen. A fourth CH-53 from the 21st Special Operations Squadron, aircraft #68-10933, using the callsign “Knife 13” went down in an accident while transiting to U Tapao Airbase in Thailand in support of the operation, killing all 23 onboard. Another early version of the aircraft, the U.S. Navy RH-53D, became infamous during the failed Iran hostage rescue mission in 1980 when it collided with another aircraft in a sandstorm, killing 8 U.S. servicemen.

Early incidents with heavy lift helicopters including the CH-53 family underscored the need for the development of advanced tilt-rotor aircraft like the current MV-22 Osprey.

Tuesday’s fatal helicopter crash in California came just before a USMC AV-8B Harrier aircraft crashed that same day in Africa. The pilot of a USMC Harrier ejected from his aircraft and was reported to have walked to an ambulance for medical care according to a report on USNI News by Sam LaGrone and Megan Eckstein.

An official statement about the accident indicated, “Doctors said the pilot was in stable condition and being evaluated at Camp Lemonnier’s expeditionary medical facility.” Camp Lemonnier is a U.S. expeditionary base located in Djibouti, Africa.

The Harrier aircraft that went down was attached to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The accident occurred during takeoff from Djibouti Ambouli International Airport just after 4 p.m. local time, according to a statement from the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

According to fleet spokesman U.S. Navy Commander Bill Urban, the AV-8B Harrier that crashed was assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162 of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The aircraft flew from the assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) and was participating in the “Alligator Daggar” tactical exercise that began this week in the region.

The McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B Harrier is an advanced, U.S. version of the original British V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) Harrier “jump jet” dating back to 1967. The aircraft is currently being replaced in U.S. Marine and other services by the F-35B STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Did You Know That Thunderbird 9 Uses Mirror To Mark Show Center For Thunderbird 1 During Airshows?

The U.S. Air Force demo team rely on a signal mirror that provides a fixed reference point to the formation during the display.

The video below is particularly interesting. It was filmed in 2016 and shows the then current and future USAF Thunderbird 9 pilots using their signal mirrors to signal Thunderbird 1 and mark the show center to the team.

The footage was filmed at Huntington Beach, CA, on Oct. 20, 2016, during the practice session for the weekend airshow.

Thunderbird 9 is the flight surgeon for the USAF Thunderbird air demonstration team. On the right hand side is Maj. (Dr.) Christopher Scheibler, Thunderbird 9 for 2015-2016; on the left is Capt. (Dr.) William Goncharow, who would be Thunderbird 9 for 2017-2018.

Obviously, TB1 can’t see the very small mirror itself, whose size is that of a business card. What TB1 sees is the concentrated ray of sunlight reflected by the mirror – 4,000,000+ candlepower of it – more than 20 times brighter than an air traffic control signal light gun.

This signal mirror is a USAF issue 2″x3″ glass MIL-M-18371E Mark 3 Type 1 emergency signaling mirror with a retroreflective mesh aimer. The MIL-M-18371E is standard USAF pilot survival gear, also used for ground-to-air communication. On a clear day, with the sun overhead, this mirror can reflect a beam that is naked-eye visible at 20+ miles – see the video here.

Maj. (Dr.) Chris Scheibler, Thunderbird 9, holds the signal mirror he used to mark show center for Thunderbird 1 during the USAF Thunderbirds’ aerial performance at the “Thunder over the Empire” airshow at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, CA on April 17, 2016. (Image credit: Signal Mirror)

Even though to the eyes of a spectator a demo team’s display overhead an airport does not change much from the one which takes place over another airfield or the coastline of a beach resort or a lake, the way the team flies may differ significantly depending on the “environment” in which the aerobatic display is executed. The different topographic features of the place where the air show takes place, and the surrounding landscape may, in fact, require the adoption of specific solutions in order to maintain standard distances and for the correct evaluation of terrain separation under peculiar light conditions.

Familiarisation with the landscape and evaluating the display arena are the purposes of the preparation flight which precedes every airshow display. In the case of displays flown over land, the terrain usually offers a multitude of fixed references which assist in the perception of speed, travelled airspace and altitude, such as crop lines, fields, roads, railways, and water courses. Over the water, however, it is necessary to utilise buoys or small boats which, besides delineating the display area in respect to a crowd line which is frequently extremely extended, allows the accurate determination of the display line. This line constitutes the reference for the pilots for the safe execution of all the manoeuvres. Whereever the display takes place, the show center is one of the most important reference points for the team.

By the way, the Blue Angels demo team use the same mirror.

Top image: right screenshot from rafowell video