Tag Archives: F-104

Backseat Experience: How You Should Prepare To Fly In A Combat Jet As A Passenger

I’m often asked what flying in a military jet looks like and how I do prepare for such missions. Here are some tips that might be useful to get the most out of your fast jet ride.

May 25, 2017

“Raven 08, Deci Tower, cleared for take-off, wind calm”.

I’m in the backseat of a Tornado IDS belonging to the 154° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 6° Stormo (Wing) from Ghedi, currently deployed to Decimomannu airbase, Italy, for the yearly training activity in the Sardinian firing ranges. The words of the controller, that I can hear quite clearly before the noise will spread through the cockpit making all the subsequent communications barely readable, have a double meaning to me: first, they give the “go ahead” to the most exciting part of my flight in a Tornado (the very first one on this kind of aircraft); second, they mark the end of the long and delicate stage of the jet flight preparation; a preparation that determines either the success or failure of the sortie from the journalistic point of view.

A NAV during a quick briefing in the backseat of the Tornado IDS RET8.

A flight in a jet usually lasts between 45 and 110 minutes (longer if it includes aerial refueling, but it’s not the case): in my case, fully exploiting the (short) time available to “observe” a mission from the inside and collect all the photos and video material for both aviation magazines, this blog and its connected social networks, is paramount. A flight in a combat aircraft represents an almost unique opportunity and it is important to make the most out of it. If something in the backseat goes wrong, if a camera body fails or a lens proves to be unsuitable for the photo session, there will hardly be a second chance. In about 20 years I’ve had this opportunity quite a few times, hence here are a few suggestions based on my little (if compared to others) experience in a combat aircraft. If you are going to fly in fast jet for the first time, because you were invited or simply because you’ve paid for a ride, maybe the following few tips will help you maximize your experience.

In the backseat of the Tornado IDS of the 154th Gruppo returning to Decimomannu after flying over Capo Frasca range.

Even though the thrill of flying in a jet fighter is always the same, learning from the past mistakes as well as the experience gained over the years, have been pivotal to perfecting the preparation of the mission so as to minimize the risk that something unexpected can jeopardize the reportage’s success. For example, during one of my first jet flights, to have a back-up in case of problems with the main camera, I decided to put a compact camera in one of the pockets of the flight suit, the one located more or less over the right’s lower leg. Fortunately I did not need it. In fact, I hadn’t taken into account that the anti-G suit, dressed over the normal flight suit, would have made the “emergency” camera inaccessible during the flight! Since then, I only use the pockets of the anti-G pants for all those small accessories I might need in the cockpit.

“Double selfie” with two accompanying Typhoons heading to the “merge”.

With regard to the flight gear, in addition to my mask, I always try to use my own helmet, which is also easily recognizable by the bright yellow-green checkerboard on the cover (check the top photograph). However, this is not always possible: for instance, in the case of the Eurofighter, the aircrews have to use the specific flight equipment designed for the Typhoon flight line which differs from that used on any other Italian Air Force aircraft and includes, among the other things, a Gentex ACS (Aircrew Combat System) helmet and an EFA / ACS mask. For my flight in the Tornado, I had to use to an HGU-55G helmet, with the characteristic 154th squadron’s “red devil” symbol painted on the cover, that I was lent by the unit.

Shooting some photographs of the first Italian T-346 near Lecce Galatina airbase in 2015. I was the first journalist to fly in an ItAF T-346 Master.

Back to the preparation of the mission, once the flight gear’s check and fitting have been completed, I think the most important thing is the inspection of the rear cockpit of the aircraft: it is essential to know how to “move” in the backseat, where to attach the GoPro so that it is both stable and reachable (to modify some settings or move it), evaluate the size of any storage compartment to see if it can be used to accommodate a camera body or lens. In fact, digital cameras have greatly simplified life in a jet: when I was still using color slide films I needed to change the rolls several times during the flight. This forced me to continuously estimate the number of photographs I could take so that I didn’t run out of shots during a maneuver: in order to replace the finished roll with a new one, it was necessary to remove the gloves, be more or less stable (that is, in level flight) and have the time to safely remove and store the used roll before inserting a new one; an operation that would take just a few seconds in other conditions but, performed in a very narrow space, strapped into the ejection seat, wearing the heavy helmet, the mask, the Secumar, etc., was, especially at the beginning, quite challenging. With the advent of digital photography, this problem has been solved.

The view from the backseat of a Tornado IDS during a low level transition to the range.

Returning to the preparation of the flight, once understood how to move (or not move) in the rear cockpit, it is important to discuss with the crews that will take part in the mission and determine which phases of the missions will be suitable for some aerial shots. Although I have had the opportunity to arrange “pure” air-to-air photo sessions, I usually prefer to take part in missions that bring me in the aircraft’s operational environment: I am a journalist and I find it much more interesting for my readers (and for myself) to see and recount the mission from a privileged point of view, focusing on both the tactical aspects of the flight and the technical details of the employed weapon systems. This means that the time available for photography is normally reduced to about ten minutes: during the transition to the operating zone or during the RTB (Return To Base) phase.

A scan of a slide taken in 2003, from an MB339A of a three-ship F-104S/ASA-M near Grazzanise airbase, home of the world’s last operative Starfighters.

Obviously, a sortie with well-defined operational goals leaves little room for aerobatics or formations flying in favor of light: if you are part of a 3-ship that is acting as “Red Air” in a 4 vs 3 supersonic training mission, as in my flight in the Eurofighter, the aircraft will fly towards the operational area in fighting wing, with a significant spacing from one another, and the time for close formation will be reduced to a few minutes. However, as I have already explained, I prefer a few clicks from a realistic operational situation rather than taking part in a sortie that is particularly cool from a photographic point of view, but “poor” from the operational one. Generally, “how to arrange the aircraft” and “when to take photographs” are topics discussed with the aircrews during the briefing and reviewed, if necessary, during the flight, asking the pilot in the front seat to assume a specific attitude so as to obtain a particular shot.

Pulling some 5g in a supersonic turn from FL460 during an aerial engagement experienced from the backseat of the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Dealing with the photographic equipment, in addition to the GoPro and camera, I bring with me what I need inside a large removable pocket that comes with velcro to be attached to the anti-G at the thigh: here is where I put spare batteries or extra lenses, like fisheye and zoom for the iPhone, used to take short videos or photos that complement the work of the DSLR camera. As for the camera, I strongly recommend removing any type of strap to prevent it from coming into contact with the stick, throttle or, worse, with the ejection seat handle. From 1999 to today I have carried several camera bodies with me, but the lens I prefer in the backseat is almost always the Canon 28-135 USM, an extremely reliable, versatile and lightweight lens, more than adequate for my needs. If you do not have hundreds of flights under your belt, photographing air-to-air from the cockpit of a military aircraft is not an easy task: properly framing the other jets during some maneuvers requires some physical effort (the camera is subject to the same accelerations as aircraft meaning that in a 5 g turn the camera weighs five times its weight on the ground …) and gives very nauseous feelings too. Luckily, I have never needed it, but I always bring a bag for nausea in the anti-G pocket; I also drink a lot of water and limit carbohydrates, alcohol or spicy foods ahead of flying. Anyway, pro photographers, with hundred if not thousand flight hours in fast jets, such as Katsuhiko “Katsu” Tokunaga, Jamie Hunter or Frank Crebas (to name but few) may provide much more expert advice about air-to-air photography and related tips and tricks.

Scan from a slide: taken from the backseat of a TF-104 during the low level nav segment of a Starfighter sortie on Nov. 27, 2000.

The opportunity to fly in a high-performance aircraft every now and then has given me some exciting and long-lasting memories: the formation aerobatics with the TF-104, the BBQ (Ultra-low level flying) with AMX, the LIFT (Lead In Fighter Trainer) sortie with the T-346A or the supersonic BVR (Beyond Visual Range) interception flown as Aggressor with the Eurofighter. True adventures that I have tried to describe not only with my stories published on both The Aviationist website, the world’s most important media outlets and the books I’ve written or contributed to, but also by means of the shots you can find in this article.

Flying in formation with the Italian Air Force’s last F-104 in special color scheme on Sept. 19, 2003, the day the aircraft rolled-out in the new livery.

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)

Adm. Di Paola is the first military in active service to be named Italy's Defense Minister

Former Italian Chief of the Defense Staff, Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, has been named Italy’s new Defense Minister as part of a Cabinet named on Nov. 16 and led by Mario Monti, the former European commissioner who was appointed as Prime Minister after the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi.

Di Paola is one of the nonpolitical appointees that form the Monti’s Cabinet, whose task is to implement the package of economic cuts aimed at reducing Italy’s public debt and prevent a default. He was born in Naples, commanded the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) Submari

Currently serving as the chairman of NATO’s military committee,  Di Paola is an expert in Anti-Submarine Warfare and has been the commander of the Garibaldi aicraft carrier.

He got the news that he was named Defense Minister, replacing former MoD Ignazio La Russa, while at Kabul, in Afghanistan, and he’s the first military in active service to be part of the Government since Jul. 24, 1943, when King Victor Emmanuel dismissed Benito Mussolini and appointed Gen. Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minister.

Although he is a “sailor” he has flown the Eurofighter Typhoon of the 4° Stormo as passenger on Sept. 29, 2004. Furthermore, his name will be forever linked to the history of the legendary Lockheed F-104 Starfighter: on Jul. 27, 2005, he flew with Col. Eugenio Lupinacci (on the right, in the image below), commander of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Italian Test Wing), on board the TF-104G-M MM54260/RS-08, during the Italian Air Force (and world’s) last F-104 Starfighter flight.

 

Images: 311° Gruppo Volo

 

Fighter Planes vs Racecars: same tech, same physical laws, same charm

Hands On Throttle And Stick, Variable Geometry Intakes, Movable Ailerons and Wings, Boundary Layer Control, etc. are only but few technologies common to Military Aviation and Formula One.

Aerodynamics is also the same, even if it is applied in reverse: while airfoils of cars’ surfaces are used to create a downforce needed to push the tyres onto the track, wings’ surfaces have to generate lift to sustain the aircraft’s weight. Everything is ruled by a simple physical principle: by having to travel different distances over the same time along the contours of an airfoil, air flow generates a difference in pressure: where distance is greater, speed has to be higher and pressure will be lower. As pressure tries to balance, a force in the direction of low pressure is generated. A modern F1 car is capable of developing +3.5 G lateral cornering accelaration while an aircraft can produce +9 G vertical accelerations.

However, not only technical things make the two worlds so similar:  both are based on teamwork, beyond the envelope research and endless practice and the “communion” is often sanctioned by the use of the same symbols. For instance, the famous symbol of Scuderia Ferrari, the black Prancing Horse, is the emblem that  the Italian WWI ace Francesco Baracca used on his planes and that it is currently used by many Italian Air Force units as the 4° Stormo.

Races between fighter planes and Formula One cars or Motorbikes have been organized too. One of the most famous ones took place on Dec. 11, 2003, at Grosseto airport, where the Ferrari F2003-GA piloted by six times world champion Michael Schumacher challenged the Eurofighter Typhoon flown by the astronaut (and former Italian Air Force test pilot) Maurizio Cheli.

The race between Schumacher’s Ferrari and the Eurofighter was not the first of its kind. The previous and most famous precedent dates back to 1981 when Gilles Villeneuve and other Formula 1 drivers, competed on the Istrana runways against the 51° Stormo’s F-104s. The race ended with a clear victory of the four wheels due to the fog that forced the airplanes to take off weighted down by extra tip and pylon tanks.

This event is still engraved in the memory of aviation and motoring enthusiasts and contributed to the Italian Air Force’s decision to present Ferrari with F-104G MM.6546/4-47, painted red overall with the team’s badge on the air intakes and re-coded 4-27 to represent the 4° Stormo (“4”) and the race number of the late Villeneuve’s Ferrari 126 CK Turbo (“27”). The fighter is still on display at the Fiorano course.

[Read also The Pagani Zonda Tricolore and the MV Agusta F4: the guest stars of the Rivolto airshow]

Dealing with motorbikes, in 2003, an Italian AF F-104 was painted with the red, white and black colors of the 10° Gruppo and boasted a flashy “999”  in homage to the 9° Stormo and to celebrate the twinning with the Ducati. The “999” is in fact a famous motorbike model of the Italian Racing Team which sports a similar colour scheme to the one devised for the special Starfighter. The special coloured aircraft was involved in a speed race against a Ducati 999 held in Grazzanise on Oct. 14, 2004.

[Read also the Lotus “Evora” S of the Italian Police on display at the Italian Armed Forces Day]

The following gallery cointains a small collection of images taken during races between fighter planes and racecars or during Open Days, air shows, public events and shootings during which cars or motorbikes (even in special colour schemes) were presented next to an airplane. Some are famous photographs released by companies and manufacturers during marketing campaigns while others were provided by the fighter pilots involved in the photo sessions. There are also pictures of historical automobiles owned by fighter squadrons and an image of the U-2 chase car.

Many come from the archives of the following reporters: Alessandro Palantrani, Luca La Cavera, Maurizio Moreale, Michele Carrara and Raffaele Fusilli.

Image sources: Alessandro Palantrani, Luca La Cavera, Maurizio Moreale, Michele Carrara, Raffaele Fusilli, Pagani, Alitalia, US Air Force, Italian Air Force, 4° Stormo, 6° Stormo, 23° Gruppo, Internet.

Libyan Tu-22 Blinders: are they still operative? Satellite pictures raise question

In the previous post (Why Libyan Air Force aircraft pose a risk to Italy) I explained the reasons why Libyan fighters must be closely watched by the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF). I also suggested reading another article, titled Memories of a fighter pilot, the story of the period in which the main fears of the Italian Air Defence came from the Libyan Migs and the Tupolev wearing the red star, which flew through the Otranto Channel (Southern Adriatic Sea in front of Albania) causing the frequent Alert Scrambles of F-104s in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service, specially those belonging to the 12° Gruppo of the 36° Stormo, based in Gioia del Colle. During those years, the ItAF pilots collected many photographic evidences of the “close encounters” (like those I published in the Zombie page) some of which involved interesting Libyan planes. For example, the following ones were taken by the 12° Gruppo on Sept. 20, 1983 (and later released by the 5° Reparto of the Italian Air Force Staff) and show some Tu-22B Blinders flying next to the Italian airspace off Otranto. The Libyan Blinders (whose exact number is not clear with data reporting from 7 to 18 planes) were supersonic bombers based at Okba Ben Nafi Air Base (currently Mitiga, prior to June 1970, known as Wheelus Air Base and used by the USAF) that were used in combat against Tanzania in 1979 and Chad in the ’80s, during the Chadian-Libyan conflict. Libyan Tu-22 pictures are extremely rare. One of the most famous, taken by a USN fighter over the Med shows a desert scheme, similar to that of the Iraqi Blinders, with the former Royal Libyan Air Force insigna (later replaced by the green roundel), that is sensibly different from those in this post which show another kind of camouflage.

Dealing with roundel, rebels have begun applying new insigna to their aircraft as the following screenshots from a BBC reportage show.


All Libyan AF Tu-22 should be retired from use now (mainly for lack of spare parts). There are no reports of active Blinders from many decades. However a quick look at Google Earth unveiled a certain number of Tu-22s (7) that, from satellite, seems to be parked and apparently serviceable at a large base near Hun, in Central Libya. The timestamp on the satellite image is July 20, 2010 and the airbase 7 months ago seemed to be full of aircraft presumed to be retired from some time, like Mig-25s and G.222s.  For instance, another Tu-22 can be identified by means of Google Earth at Benina, but it is clearly an almost abandoned example wrecked next to the airport’s fence. The question is: are any of those aircraft still operative or are they retired examples aimed at deceiving satellites hiding the actual status of the LAF?  Hmmm… I think the right answer is the second one…..

Below, the images of the airbase near Hun, Central Libya.

Some Mig-25s at the same airfield.

Below, a satellite view of the wrecked Tu-22 at Mitiga.