Tag Archives: air combat maneuvering

Red Flag’s air combat maneuvering as seen from the Nevada Desert

Climb with us to the top of Coyote Summit to see some real Red Flag 17-2 action!

Red Flag is a major event in the military aviation community, known by both pilots, spotters and other fans. In a nutshell, it is the most important exercise in the world, both in terms of realistic training and participating units, and it’s held 4 times a year. It is staged from one of the world’s biggest and most famous airbases: Nellis Air Force Base, north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Much has already been written about Red Flag so I won’t come back to the origins, dating back to the Vietnam War; nor will I describe the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR), where the wargame takes place, nor the 64th Aggressor Squadron whose involvement as a realistic opposition makes Red Flag what it is.

Aircraft parked on the apron at Nellis AFB during RF 17-2

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Nevada, during Red Flag 17-2, and watch these machines around the base. The unit panel consisted mainly of F-16C squadrons :

  • the 55th FS from Shaw AFB with few jets from 77th and 79th FS;
  • the Alabama ANG 100th FS with two jets decorated with beautiful red Tuskegee tails;
  • the Colorado ANG 120th FS;
  • RNLAF 322nd sqn F-16s based in Leeuwarden, with some jets from Tucson (with mixed Arizona ANG and dutch markings).

The only other jet players were Spanish Ala 111 with their Eurofighters, supported by KC-130H from Ala 312, and 493rd FS Eagles from Lakenheath.

An Aggressor F-16 about to start “flexing” after take off

After two days of shooting tons of pictures (you can have a glimpse here), and wanting more than take-offs and landings at the base, I was looking for some more action. My plan was to go and see and hear the aerial war in the high desert of Nevada, the natural habitat of these metal birds.

The place is known as Coyote Summit and is a two hours drive from Sin City, heading north. Passing Hancok Summit on the E.T. Highway (also known as US 375), one can see the vastness of the USAF playground. On the left, there’s a trail leading to Area 51, invisible behind a small ridge. Thirty miles ahead is Rachel, and my plan is to stop at a small gap, up the road where most of the Blue players (Blue air are the participant units of Red Flag, while Red air with their Aggressor F-16s simulate the enemy) should fly by, low or high.

Around Coyote Summit

So here I am, on this clear Nevada weather morning, sitting on top of Coyote Summit, a 200 ft hill at the “gate” of the Range (aka the NTTR), and waiting.

This particular place is very well-known among spotters and by noon, we’re 5 people there, chatting about aviation, and catching in a hurry our cameras at every engine sound we hear above the wind.

At around 1PM, things start moving with 2 white pickups driving fast accross the desert south of our vantage point. They’re not going to set up a simulated Roland SAM as we initially believe. They just drop a guy alone in the bushes and carry on their drive and stay in a deep creek 2 miles away. Radio chatter begins, after a long silent morning, between the pickups and some range controller. We understand that they should have gone to “Red gate”, instead of “Blue gate”, but it seems to be a bit late to fix so the guy on the ground will stay there.

At 2:20PM, we hear some tactical comms on the radio: U.S. F-15Cs and Spanish Typhoons are setting up their Combat Air Patrol (CAP), well east of our position. Cylon flight will take New York CAP (should be above Hiko as we see the contrails) and Pulsar flight will go to Alaska CAP, above Worthington Peak.

F-15s contrailing above Coyote Summit

“Vul time” has been delayed because some players are still on the tarmac at Nellis, and now, according to “Words Bravo,” this Vul time is 2245Z (or 2:45PM). And that’s precisely then that we see “the Wall”, formed by 4 F-15Cs and their contrails, pushing west towards the Red players. The opposition is now just a pair of F-16Cs Aggressors. But soon, as the fight develops, more aircrafts from both sides will converge above Rachel and fight at high altitude.

To the merge!

An F-15 during the engagement

Shots are called on the radio, e.g. “Pulsar 1, Fox 3, bullseye 080 10 23 thousand!”
“Copy shot” says a controller, and a few seconds later some voice confirms the shots as kills (“Mig 3 dead”), or misses (“Pulsar 1, shot trashed).

A Spanish Typhoon contrailing at high altitude

The action never stops, some Aggressors come back (“Cylon 3, pop-up single, BRA 250, 15 miles, 26 thousand, regen”), some Blue players get shot, but mostly Red Air gets hurt and regens regularly. Spanish Typhoons and Dutch Vipers drop flares every now and then, calling out “Spike” or “SAM” based on what their RWR gear tells them.

Spanish Typhoons flaring

Plenty of flares were used during the mock air combat training we observed from Coyote Summit.

While these jets fight overhead, sometimes with an impressive double sonic boom, we can hear some choppers approaching low from the southeast.

MH-60 approaching

Two Navy MH-60S from HSC-21 turn for a few minutes before converging toward our lonely guy, not far from us.

I’m as close to the action as I’ll ever be and soon, we hear jets coming for help as the Sandy fighters used to fly in Vietnam. These are 2 F-16Cs from the 120th FS, with their Colorado ANG tails, circling about 1,000 feet above us and protecting what is now clearly a “downed pilot extraction.”

One of the choppers involved in the CSAR mission

Two F-16s circling above provided cover to the downed personnel extraction operation.

F-16 “Sandy”

This lasts for 10 minutes and the Vipers even simulate an attack on the hidden white pickups. The choppers take off with their precious cargo in and head to the southeast.

MH-60s egressing

The fighter jets activity now seems to subside a bit.

Some are already calling “RTB” (meaning Return to Base) and some sanitize the area while the strikers egress. I haven’t seen any striker as they must have flown through a route north of Rachel. It is also interesting to add that all the air combat seen today, at least the kills, were BVR (Beyond Visual Range) or nearly – no WVR (Within Visual Range) dogfights were spotted.

At about 4:15, two hours after the first thunderous noises, we hear on the frequency “All players, all players, knock it off, knock it off”: this is the end sign and everybody now RTB.

This was a long day and pretty intense afternoon which I’ll never forget. Hundreds of photos were taken. But what’s most important when coming here, is the possibility to listen to the air-to-air communications with a UHF scanner: the best way to be immersed into the action.

Thanks to Aviationist Todd Miller for all the precious info about aviation photography and Coyote Summit area.

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F-35 pilot explains how he dominated dogfights against multiple A-4 aggressors. Every time.

Air Combat in the F-35, a new chapter in the saga.

In March 2016, we published an article written by Major Morten “Dolby” Hanche, a Royal Norwegian Air Force experienced pilot with more than 2,200 hours in the F-16, a U.S. Navy Test Pilot School graduate and the first to fly the F-35.

In that post “Dolby” provided a first-hand account of what dogfighting in the controversial F-35 looked like to a pilot who had a significant experience with the F-16.

Here below, reposted under permission, you can read the latest story “Dolby” has written for Kampflybloggen (The Combat Aircraft Blog), the official blog of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office within the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.

Although it’s written by someone with a bias for the plane (he flies the F-35 as the Assistant Weapons Officer with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona), once again it’s worth a read as it provides some interesting details about the way the Lightning II performs during mock air combat against several adversaries.

Someone may argue the A-4 Skyhawks are quite obsolete aircraft and not even comparable with modern 4th generation enemies. True, but these are the same aggressors that train many modern combat planes (don’t forget the F-22s practice their air-to-air skills against the T-38s) and take part in Red Flag exercises.

To summarize what has been written about the F-35 dogfighting capabilities in the past:

  • we debunked some theories about the alleged capabilities of all the F-35 variants to match or considerably exceed the maneuvering performance of some of the most famous fourth-generation fighter, and explained that there is probably no way a JSF will ever match a Eurofighter Typhoon in aerial combat
  • at the same time we also highlighted that the simulated dogfight mentioned in the unclassified report obtained by War Is Boring according to which the JSF was outclassed by a two-seat F-16D Block 40 (one of the aircraft the U.S. Air Force intends to replace with the Lightning II) in mock aerial combat involved one of the very first test aircraft that lacked some cool and useful features.
  • more recently, we reported that the F-35 were not shot down by the F-15E aggressors in 8 engagements during recent joint drills, and that it was not the first time the F-35 proved itself able to fly unscathed through a fighter-defended area because not a single Lightning II was shot down during Green Flag 15-08, the first major exercise during which the F-35 flew as main CAS (Close Air Support) provider in 2015.

Needless to say, each of the above news stories caused much debate, with many analysts suggesting the exercises where the F-35 performed fairly well were just PR stunts arranged in such a way the JSF could not be downed, and others claiming more or less the opposite.

Whatever you think, here’s the new story by “Dolby.”

Air Combat in the F-35 – an update

In this post I’m giving a brief overview of my impressions after having flown several sorties over the past few weeks against A-4 Skyhawks. This post is intended as a supplement to my previous posts on modern air combat and stealth.

First thing first – is it relevant to train air combat against an old A-4? Can we draw any relevant lessons from this at all? After all, this is an aircraft that served during the Vietnam war!

I believe this kind of training is relevant for several reasons:

  • The F-35’s sensors and “fusion” provides me as a pilot with good situational awareness. For an F-35 to simulate an opponent against another F-35, it has to restrict the effects of fusion and the various sensors. Even then it is difficult to “dumb down” the aircraft enough. It requires discipline to not be tempted to using information that an opponent in reality would not have access to.
  • The A-4s we faced in these exercises had sensor performance along the lines of our own upgraded F-16s. They also carried jammers intended to disturb our radar.
  • The pilots we faced were very experienced. We are talking 2000 hours plus in aircraft like the F-16, F-15E, F-15C and the F-22, with detailed knowledge of “fifth generation” tactics and weapons. When also cooperating closely with intercept controllers on the ground (GCI) they could adapt the training and offer us a reactive and challenging opponent. Note the word “reactive.”
  • The A-4 is a small aircraft with a corresponding signature. Many potential opponents in the air are bigger and easier to find than the tiny A-4.

So what did I experience in my encounters with the A-4? I got to try out several different sets. (Everything from one-on-one “Basic Fighter Maneuvers” to one F-35 against two A-4s, two F-35s against two A-4s, two F-35s against four A-4s and three F-35s against four A-4s). I am left with some main impressions.

  • The individual sensors of the F-35, one for one, are good. I flew one sortie alone against two A-4s, and limited myself to using only the radar during these sets (no support from ground controllers, no Link-16, no data sharing from other formation members, no support from passive radar warning systems or IFF – Identification Friend or Foe). Nonetheless my radar detected the targets in time for me to optimize my intercept, deliver weapons at range, and if necessary, arrive undetected to the visual arena.
  • “Fusion” means both automatic control of the various sensors, and the combination of all different sensor data into one unified tactical picture. I believe “fusion” to be one of the most important aspects of the F-35. “Fusion” allows me to focus on the tactics, rather than detailed management of my sensors. In my encounters with the A-4s, “fusion” worked better than I have seen it before. It was reassuring to see how well it worked. The good «situational picture» that I saw provides us with several advantages; we can make smarter tactical decisions, and it takes less time before we can gain full “tactical value” from fresh pilots. (I had to smile a little when two of us in the F-35s effortlessly kept tabs on four opponents. That is no trivial thing in the F-16.)
  • The most important lesson for me personally was to see just how hard it was for the A-4s to find us, even with GCI support. We deliberately made high-risk tactical decisions to see just how far we could stretch our luck, and still remain undetected. At least for my part, this reinforced my confidence in the effectiveness of our tactics. I hope all my colleagues in the F-35 get to have the same experience as I have.

(BFM – F-35 against A-4, might not be fair. Still, the A-4 started as the offensive part every time. At the end of each set, I was pointing at the A-4. Every time.)

Image credit: RoNAF via Lockheed Martin

 

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How two F/A-18s brought their pilots home after colliding mid-air during air combat training

The risky business of being an adversary pilot.

Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) is one of the most important parts in the training of modern fighter pilots. At the same time, an air combat maneuvering (ACM) session, where friendly and (simulated) enemy fighters fly against each other, can be one of the most dangerous training environment.

Although quite rarely, mid-air collisions do occur, sometimes with fatal results.

The evidence DACT can be quite dangerous is in the following photos, taken after a mid air occurred on Apr. 22, 1996 between two F/A-18As (BuNo. 162454 and BuNo. 162475) from VFC-12 Fighting Omars.

The two Hornets, along with another F/A-18, were playing the MiG-29 role during a Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program (SFARP) sortie. Flown by the Flight Lead LCDR Greg “Stubby” Stubbs and his two wingmen, LCDR Greg “G.I” Anderson and LCDR Cal Worthington, the three F/A-18s engaged two VF-41 F-14s that were escorting an EA-6B Prowler.

Almost immediately the two Tomcats scored two kills with simulated missile shots at eight miles out against LCDR Stubbs and against LCDR Anderson.

The three Hornets remained in formation together until the merge point (where friendly fighters meet enemy fighters) and following the rules of engagement the two “MiGs” killed by simulated shots, executed aileron rolls to give the students a visual indication of which Bandits were killed and which one they should attack.

It was in the middle of the second aileron roll that Stubbs and Anderson collided, as explained by LCDR Stubbs himself to Rick Llinares and Chuck Lloyd for their book Adversary: America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons.

The nose of the Hornet flown by Anderson ripped through Stubbs F/A-18’s left wing and clipped off half of the vertical tail, while Anderson Hornet’s nose cone along with his canopy and his drop tank were lost. One of his engines was damaged as well.

The “Knock it off” (the signal given by the pilots to stop a training air engagement) of the furball was called and someone said on the radio that a mid-air had occurred. LCDR Worthington called Stubbs asking him if he could control his F/A-18. Stubbs applied right stick, right rudder and started pulling the power back a little bit and the nose came up. He answered to Worthington “yeah, I have it.” In the meantime also Anderson called to say he was fine, even if the sound of the wind filled his radio communications.

F/A-18A 1

Both the damaged Hornets headed towards the coastline, with Stubbs assisted by Worthington, while the F-14s were trying to communicate with Anderson. Since the Tomcats weren’t able to contact LCDR Anderson because of a radio problem, Stubbs said to Worthington that he had to join up with Anderson since he was facing more serious problems: in fact Anderson had lost his probes during the collision and his airspeed and altitude indicators didn’t work.

Even though the Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City was the nearest airfield, it lacked an arresting cable system and so Stubbs and Anderson decided to go to Oceana. Not only did the aircraft configuration make a standard approach almost impossible, but Stubbs also discovered that his Hornet entered in dangerous left rolls if the speed descended below 200 knots. So the long runway and the arresting cable system available at NAS Oceana were the best option for them.

Hornet

After consulting with a McDonnel Douglas representative Stubbs decided to land without lowering his remaining flap. Two more Hornets, flown by LCDR Bertran and Bowman, joined up with him while he was preparing to lower his landing gear.

The damaged Hornet touched the runway at 200 knots, a speed that exceeded both the arresting gear engagement speed limit (175 knots) and the speed limit beyond which the hook might be ripped off (182 knots).

Few moments later also Anderson came to landing: his F/A-18 had lost the whole canopy aft of the windscreen (hence the sound of the wind that filled his radio communications) and wires were flapping out of the nose, beating against the side of the jet, but he was able to safely land.

midair 2

After two months, both pilots returned to flight status. Among the lessons learned in the mishap there was the need to put more emphasis on how pilots have to come out from the merge during the pre-flight briefing.

Conversely this accident was a significant testament to the sturdiness of the F/A-18: in fact although both the fighters were written off, the two Hornets were able to bring back home their pilots safely even after sustaining huge damages shown in the photos above.

Image credit: U.S. Navy via aircraftresourcecenter.com

Photo: Eurofighter Typhoon’s kill markings. F-16, F-18 and Mirage 2000 among the shot down fighters

As already explained several times, kills scored during simulated dissimilar air combat training are not particularly interesting (other than for marketing purposes) unless the actual Rules Of Engagement (ROE) and the training scenario are known.

However, there is a lot of people who consider kill markings and HUD captures extremely seriously.

Therefore, here’s an interesting picture, showing some kill markings on an Italian Eurofighter Typhoon.

Taken at Grosseto airbase in 2010 by Dario Leone, a reader of this blog, the photograph clearly shows the aircraft downed by the F-2000s of the 4° Stormo during DACT: F-18, F-16, Mirage 2000, Tornado and AMX (with the “Tonka” and the AMX not being particularly significant because they are fighter bombers that don’t excel in the air-to-air scenario).

In 2009, an F-22 kill marking on a EA-18G Growler made the news.

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Exclusive: F-16 gets killed by Typhoon during air combat training in first Eurofighter HUD capture ever.

The following screenshot comes from a video recorded by the HUD (Head Up Display) of a Eurofighter Typhoon and it is the first (and only) Typhoon HUD capture ever made public.

It shows an F-16 in the wrong place at the wrong time: in front of a high maneuvering plane capable to point its nose when it wants to.

During a dissimilar air combat training (DACT), the “Viper”, in clean configuration and maneuvering under high G-forces, is killed by a Typhoon with a gun shot scored while flying at 8,200 feet, less than 5 degrees AOA (Angle of Attack), Mach 0.46, pulling 1.8G.

According to the source who sent it to me, the rest of the video shows that the Typhoon, after downing the F-16, continues maneuvering vertically, accelerating a bit to climb and descend again for a second shot on the same target.

The video answers some articles published in 2011 about claims that Pakistan Air Force’s pilots scored Typhoon kills during DACT taking place in Turkey, during Ex.  Anatolian Eagle. According to such reports, Pakistani pilots on exchange with the Turkish Air Force, and flying TuAF F-16s, scored kills against RAF Typhoons in WVR (Within Visual Range) gun contests (even if no evidence was provided to support claims fueling the theory that the  of fighter pilot tall story).

Since I don’t think I need to explain once again why DACT WVR is important and why any simulated kill should be taken with grain of salt, let me just add (paraphrasing someone else’s words):

“The European Typhoon kicks butts!”