Tag Archives: Aviation Safety

Don't do this at home: the Argentinean pilots braveness dispute

Following is the list of the most interesting consequences of my recent blog posts about the Argentine Air Force IA-63 Pampa crazy flyby and about the Argentinean A-4AR’s tank disintegration:

  1. both posts generated comments in a sort of never ending quarrel between those who believe the Argentinean pilots are brave and perform such maneuvers because they are among the best pilots in the world, and those who believe that the Pampa flyby and similar one are only clownish stunts that could be extremely dangerous.
  2. since I’m among those who consider “poor airmanship” such improvised air shows, there’s someone who believes I don’t have a high opinion of the Argentine Air Force and Argentinean pilots
  3. I’m receiving many more links to videos of similar maneuvers; most of the them about Argentinean aircraft.

Dealing with Pt. 1, I’ve already said that I don’t think the Pampa “low passage” had anything to do with braveness or skill. I don’t even think that there’s a particular need for current military crews to train flying that low. There are many videos of French Mirage F1 flying in Chad at ultra low level, but they don’t seem to fly as low as the Argentine Pampa.

Dealing with Pt.2, I simply sustain that THAT (or THOSE) pilots involved in the maneuvers can be blamed, not all the Argentine Air Force that I deeply respect and that I would like one day or another to be able to know more in-depth and to write about – if they invite me to fly with them for a special report I’ll be more than happy to accept! :-).

Dealing with the videos, I’ve been pointed to a couple that show how risky improvised air shows can be, even when they don’t imply difficult maneuvers. The problem is that in Aviation, “Improvised” things are usually “Dangerous” things….

The following video shows an accident that occurred in 2001 to a T-34 Mentor at the Escuela de Aviación Militar de la Fuerza Aérea Argentina of Cordoba. The formation leader misjudged the position of the left wingman who hit the control tower. The left wingman was watching the leader (as it always happens in formation flying…do you remember what happened to the Blue Angels?) and could not see the left wingtip hitting the tower.

Since not all the videos I receive deal with the Argentine Air Force, here’s one that has been circulating for a while showing a French Rafale almost crashing into the sea during a quite unusual air display next to a ship. I don’t know if it was a pre-planned display or not, and if the aircraft was flown by a qualified display pilot. Still, the plane went too low because of a pilot error (maybe induced by the environment).

After the Argentine Air Force IA-63 Pampa crazy flyby the Argentine AF A-4AR's fuel tank disintegrating after a high-G maneuver….

One of the recent most discussed topic on this blog was the one about the Argentine Air Force IA-63 Pampa performing a crazy low passage. If you read my post and the subsequent thread of comments, you’ll see that the video caused a debate between those (like me) who consider that flyby an example of poor airmanship and those (mainly Argentinean readers) who believe that the “low passage” showed the skill of Argentinean pilots.

In the meanwhile, a new video shows how risky this performances can be. An amateur footage posted on Liveleak shows an Argentine AF A-4AR Fightinghawk performing a high-G climb from low level whose “collateral effect” is the collapse of the right fuel tank (with debris falling on the airport). Obviously, the maneuver which caused the fuel tank “disintegration” is not as dangerous as the Pampa one, but it demonstrates that flying at low altitudes at high speed (in this case with modernized planes built in the ’70s), when not strictly required for operational purposes, can stress the airframes to such an extent they could break apart, (potentially) causing loss of control of the aircraft or simply rendering an airport unserviceable because of debris and consequent FOD (Foreign Object Damage) risk. Don’t forget that the IA-63 Pampa pilot in the above mentioned video, pulled 5.3 G (the HUD signals “Max G”) in the zooming following the flyby. What if his fuel tank collapsed creating a weight unbalance at ultra-low level?

Argentine Air Force IA-63 Pampa crazy flyby uncensored cockpit video: an example of poor airmanship

Few days ago I commented the Blue Angels’ almost crash at Lynchburg Regional Air Show, Va, when team’s leader CDR Dave Koss led the diamond formation too low at the end of the “Barrel Roll Break” maneuver. I explained that CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) is always a risk when flying formation aerobatics.

Now, two videos are going viral on the web. They show (one from the ground, another one from the cockpit) an Argentine Air Force IA-63 Pampa advanced trainer flying a crazy flyby at ultra low level (around 1 mt above the ground, in front of some guys filming the “show”) at 300 Kts, pulling 5.3 Gs (the HUD signals “Max G”) in the subsequent zooming that he ended with a sort of victory roll.

For much less, CDR Koss resigned.

Obviously, the Argentinean pilot (most probably an Instructor Pilot with many flying hours on his logbook), was skilled (and lucky) enough to perform the flyby without crashing the aircraft or hitting the trees surrounding the “display area”. However, I don’t consider him a “brave pilot” as the only thing such maneuver shows is lack of airmanship. Airmanship is founded on discipline, skill and proficiency and combines attitude, knowledge, situational awareness and decision making abilities, differentiating the superior pilot from the average one. The Pampa pilot was skilled, proficient and most probably had the required knowledge and experience to perform flybys or aerobatics but he flew at unreasonable height. Not even display teams’ solos fly so low as the risk of something going wrong is too high. At that speed and altitude, anything (windshear, turbulence, birdstrike, wake turbulence, engine FOD, temporary loss of power, control stick malfunction, etc) can have devastating effects for both the pilot and observers on the ground.

For some reason Gizmodo published a cockpit video with “some of the cockpit information has been blacked-out at their request, to avoid being identified”; however the full uncensored version of the video can be found on Youtube:

Flyby as seen from the ground:

China has already reverse-engineered the Stealth Black Hawk

Those who were worried that China could get its hands on some pieces of the ill-fated chopper that crashed in the Osama Bin Laden compound to reverse-engineer the Stealth helicopter have to accept the unpleasant reality that the Chinese have already copied it. As a matter of fact, on May 23, 2011, Dragon Models (based in Hong Kong, China) announced a new model (to be released in July): the 1/144 scale Stealth Helicopter “Operation Geronimo” (Twin Pack).

Image: Dragon Model Limited

If you look at the artwork on the box, you’ll notice that the one created so quickly by DML is quite similar to the concept I developed with Ugo Crisponi. It has the same (fictional) intakes and exhausts, and the overall shape is almost identical. To be honest it also includes some of the inaccuracies of our famous MH-60X rendering (dated May 5) that we fixed in a subsequent “release” (published on May 17) and a few more (based on the artwork, the blades seem quite unrealistic while the horizontal stabilizers are different from what the pictures suggest).

Anyway, here below you can find the May 5 sketch and if you compare it to the above image, you’ll see that, most probably, I and Ugo had the same ideas about the Stealth Black Hawk as the Dragon graphic designers. Noteworthy, the model comes with the unofficial/unconfirmed raid’s codename, since the official one is Operation Neptune’s Spear and not Operation Geronimo (“Geronimo” was the codeword for Bin Laden’s capture or death).

Above: the Stealth Black Hawk rendering I published on this site on May 5. Below the new version issued today (May 31, 2011).

Here’s an excerpt of how Dragon introduces its new model:

[…] Looking like a mixture of MH-60 Black Hawk and F-117 Stealth Fighter, this mysterious helicopter from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) has distinctive edges and angles. The fuselage, nose and tail were all modified to reduce the craft’s radar cross-section.

[…]Befitting the innovative and ultra-secretive shape of the helicopter, this model is newly tooled in every aspect. All the low-observable features such as the angled surfaces are carefully rendered. […]

To be or not to be [Stealth]: that is the question

If Drangon dared to venture into a Stealth model about which we still know very little (even if a 1/144 scale is small enough to “hide” some unknown details), Italian model manufacturer Italeri, took a different approach. Instead of producing a small kit of the Stealth Black Hawk basing on few pictures or artworks they announced a larger 1:48 UH-60/MH-60 Black Hawk “Night Raid”. The model box in this case is depicted performing a “generic” Special Forces operation inside a compound in Afghanistan (or Iraq).

Italeri told me that they have decided not to launch a product that, most likely, would have been quite different from the real Stealth Black Hawk, given the few images and known facts available to date. So they released a “normal” Black Hawk even if they are ready to work on a realistic “Silent Hawk” as soon as new details about the modified MH-60 used in the OBL raid will surface.

Whatever the choice (stealth or not stealth), such a quick reaction by both Dragon Models and Italeri shows how fast the response to a news story (and to the subsequent market demand) can be.

Dealing with the daily updates about the OBL raid and the Stealth helicopter, here’s an interesting news: on May 30 some media reported the (unconfirmed) news that two helicopters crossed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to take five Taliban members in North Waziristan, and bring them back across the border into Afghanistan. This article provides an interesting analysis of the episode. Obviously, I’m not suggesting Stealth Black Hawks were involved again; however, given that the targets were high-value ones and that this kind of mission (once again in “enemy territory”), if confirmed, would be probably carried out by Special Forces, who knows?

Introducing the Stealth Little Bird (based on a true story about the silent "black" OH-6 used during the Vietnam War)

I’ve already written a lot about the Stealth Black Hawk, whose existence is proven by pictures taken at Abbottabad the day after Osama Bin Laden raid, and about a Stealth Chinook theoretically taking part in Operation Neptune’s Spear. However I hadn’t thought about another stealth helicopter possibly flying in Pakistan during the OBL raid until I saw a video of a 160th SOAR rescue mission in Iraq that reminded me that the Night Stalkers often fly mixed formations of Black Hawks and MH-6 Little Birds, smaller choppers conducting, for example, rooftop insertions of Special Forces. The 160th SOAR is equipped with both MH-6s and AH-6s, the attack version of the Little Bird, aircraft that were used in almost all US (special) operations: from Op. Urgent Fury (1983, Grenada) to Just Cause (1989, Panama) to Gothic Serpent (1992, Somalia) to Iraqi Freedom (since 2003) the MH-6s have been a constant presence within some of the most difficult operations involving Delta Force and Navy Seals. In 2009, AH-6s took part in the helicopter assault (involving Navy Seals) to kill wanted terrorist Saleh Ali Saleh Nabha in Baraawe, Somalia, taking off from a US vessel. Having imagined the possible shape of a Stealth Black Hawk and Chinook, why not consider the possibility that even a modified, quieter, stealth MH-6X took part in the OBL raid flying with the 160th SOAR? I know that there’s almost nothing that can give some credence to this theory especially because another Stealth helicopter on the scene would make the air space over Abbottabad too crowded. However, I wanted to give it a try and hear what my readers think about a Stealth Little Bird. So, once again, I’ve asked Ugo Crisponi to help me with a rendering of a fictional “Black” MH-6 (6-bladed main rotor and 4-bladed tail rotor) that could be obtained with some modification of the original Little Bird:

I’ve just said that there is “ALMOST” nothing to give credence to the new theory of a Black fleet made by Stealth Black Hawk, Chinook and Little Bird. In fact, a highly modified “Black” Hughes 500s, was used by the CIA in 1972 from a Laos base. An extremely interesting article published in 2008 by Air & Space recalls the story of two OH-6As which were modified to fly with Air America and “to quietly drop off and pick up agents in enemy territory”. Dubbed “Quiet One”, the somehow stealth helicopters conducted their secret mission, on Dec. 5 and 6, 1972, when they carried in N. Vietnam commandos to place a wiretap and a solar-powered relay station that enabled Americans to eavesdrop communications on a telephone line used by the enemy commanders.

The article, written by James R. Chiles, provides some interesting details about the “Quiet One”:

The slapping noise that some helicopters produce, which can be heard two miles away or more, is caused by “blade vortex interaction,” in which the tip of each whirling rotor blade makes tiny tornadoes that are then struck by oncoming blades. The Quiet One’s modifications included an extra main rotor blade, changes to the tips on the main blades, and engine adjustments that allowed the pilot to slow the main rotor speed, making the blades quieter […]. The helicopter also had extra fuel tanks in the rear passenger compartment, an alcohol-water injection system to boost the Allison engine’s power output for short periods, an engine exhaust muffler, lead-vinyl pads to deaden skin noise, and even a baffle to block noise slipping out the air intake.

The extensive alterations did not blank out all noise, Taylor says. Rather, they damped the kinds of noise that people associate with a helicopter. “Noise is very subjective,” he says. “You can reduce the overall noise signature and an observer will still say, ‘I can hear it as well as before.’ It’s related to the human ability to discriminate different sounds. You don’t hear the lawnmower next door, but a model airplane is easily heard. It has a higher frequency and seems irritating.”

It also explains that some Quite One’s modifications can be found on later choppers:

“The agency got rid of it because they thought they had no more use for it,” says Glerum. At least one of the ex-Quiet Ones surfaced years later at the Army’s Night Vision & Electronic Sensors Directorate in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

But according to the participants, no more were built. It’s puzzling why the CIA did not keep a stable of Quiet Ones, at least while the technology remained under wraps. And it remained a secret for more than two decades, until Ken Conboy and James Morrison told the story in their 1995 book Shadow War.

But there were valid reasons for dropping the Quiet One from the spymasters’ catalog.

“In the long run, the 500P was not the best for setting wiretaps,” says Casterlin. “It was not good for high-altitude work.” It was a light helicopter and had to be loaded with gear that cut into its payload capability and operating altitude. The Twin Pack was much louder but also simpler to run and more powerful, so Air America used it for later wiretap missions in North Vietnam. At least one tap, placed on the night of March 12-13, 1973, was successful.

Some of the Quiet One’s innovations did show up on later helicopters, including the Hughes AH-64 Apache, which has a scissor-style tail rotor. And Hughes engineers’ interest in modifying the tips of the main rotor blades to cut the slapping noise caused by blade vortices has been taken up by other experts. Aerospace engineer Gordon Leishman and his team at the University of Maryland, for example, are developing a blade with curved tubes at the tip to divert the air, thereby countering vortex formation. But, thanks to its many unusual modifications, the 500P still holds the title that Hughes gave it in April 1971: “the world’s quietest helicopter.”