Tag Archives: F-15

At the Tip of the Spear: Midair Refueling F-35As and F-15Cs With the USAF 514th Air Mobility Wing.

We Flew a Refueling Mission with the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and F-15C Eagle.

Four miles above the open Atlantic I’m sitting in the cockpit of a KC-10 tanker with a hundred tons of explosive jet fuel under me. We’re flying at about 400 MPH. We gingerly inch upward toward another 181-foot long tanker aircraft. That enormous aircraft is only 30-feet away now.

And the air is getting rough.

Lt. Col. Brian Huster of the 78th Air Refueling Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, sitting left seat, pilot in command, works the plane’s control yoke like an arm wrestler in a cowboy bar. It swings forward and back, left and right through alarmingly large arcs. Despite, or rather because of, his rather physical control inputs our giant tanker remains rock steady. He somehow anticipates every buffet from the turbulent air coming off the vortex of the plane in front of us, anticipating control inputs to keep our KC-10 motionless under the big tanker only feet above our heads in the 400 MPH slipstream four miles above the freezing ocean.

We inch closer to the other aircraft, it’s massive hulk filling our windscreen above our heads. The refueling boom passes several feet over us, just feet from our windscreen. There is a low “clunk” above my right ear. We make contact with the tanker above us and the ride becomes decidedly smoother. Lt. Col. Huster’s job becomes a good bit easier now.
I’ve just joined the small fraternity of people who have refueled in a jet aircraft in midair.

As our KC-10 buffets in turbulence beneath another tanker, USAF Lt. Col. Brian Huster flies our aircraft onto the refueling boom. (All photos: Tom
Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

I’m flying with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve, out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst on America’s east coast. The 514th AMW is one of two units in the U.S. Air Force flying the KC-10 Extender. In addition to performing the air refueling mission the versatile KC-10 can also carry substantial cargo payloads over 4,000 miles making this aircraft an important strategic asset. Not only can the KC-10 support tactical aircraft in the midair refueling role, it can also deploy with their support crews and mission critical gear around the world, providing a unique combined tanker and cargo capability for rapid response around the globe.

Only two USAF units operate the KC-10 Extender.

We’re back over the U.S. mainland now. I’ve moved from the cockpit of our giant KC-10 tanker all the way back to the refueling bay in the rear of the aircraft. By comparison to other aerial tankers the KC-10’s refueling bay is spacious and comfortable. Strapped into my own seat just right of the boom operator I have a panoramic view of the earth 22,000 feet below. Broken cumulus at 10,000 feet over the snow-patched green east coast farms of New Jersey slowly cascade beneath us.

In utter silence a ghostly grey F-35A Lightning II slips under us from the right side of the aircraft. It’s eerie how quiet it is. Like a real-world Darth Vader its pilot sits under a tinted canopy wearing his custom carbon fiber helmet that interacts with the F-35A’s many sensors and systems. And exactly like a character from Star Wars his helmet helps the F-35A pilot see and hear everything around him throughout angles and at distances that would be impossible for normal human senses. My first impression looking down on the joint strike fighter pilot 30-feet from us is that he is a real-world cyborg, a living part of an advanced next generation machine that shares information with other aircraft and weapons systems, monitors the entire battlespace with clairvoyant reach and awareness and reacts almost automatically. The pilot under that custom carbon fiber helmet is the brains of it all.

An F-35A Lightning II forms up off our right wing before taking on fuel.

I had read the stories about midair refueling. The drama of the 6,800-mile-long Black Buck mission by the RAF to attack the Falkland Islands after the Argentinean invasion in 1982. The desperate tanker missions over North Vietnam in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to save pilots from ejecting and being imprisoned in the Hỏa Lò POW camp, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. In 2016 CNN’s Zack Cohen reported on a story that apparently still remains partially classified. An F-16 from an unspecified country could not access his onboard fuel during a 2015 combat mission over ISIS held territory. As was the tragic case of both a Jordanian and Russian combat pilot, going down over ISIS held territory is a death sentence for a combat pilot even if he does survive the ejection. The tanker crew flew with the malfunctioning F-16, refueling the aircraft every 15 minutes to keep it in the air until it reached safety. I also read USAF Lt. Col. Mark Hasara’s excellent book, “Tanker Pilot, Lessons from The Cockpit”. In the literature of aviation history, there are too many stories of heroism and daring by tanker crews to recount.

None of the books or history lessons or classes in the military prepared me for the real-life science fiction of what is unfolding in front of me now.

Two F-35A Lightning IIs rendezvous with our aircraft to take on fuel.

With unusual grace and almost slow-motion gentleness the F-35A tucks under us and smoothly levitates upward toward our refueling boom. As a practical courtesy, our boom operator sitting to my left scoots the refueling boom over the right side of our aircraft, away from the dark-tinted canopy of the F-35A as it inches forward. Two small doors cantilever open on the F-35A’s back. The refueling receptacle on the F-35A is behind the cockpit where the pilot has to observe it with some kind of a sensor, maybe in his helmet, maybe from training, maybe both- it likely remains part of the vast amount of classified information about the F-35A.

Our refueling boom connects with the F-35A in one smooth attempt. A whirring noise over my head tells me fuel is flowing from our tanks into the F-35A now. The pilot below us glances up at us through his canopy, and I get goosebumps. This is the manifestation of the most modern warfighting capability on earth. The combination of the F-35A and the KC-10 grant the U.S. Air Force the ability to strike anytime, in any conditions, with impunity and without detection.

An F-35A Lightning IIs approaches the refueling boom.

Just a few feet below us the F-35A Lightning II remains rock-steady on the tanker boom. High overcast gives way to broken cloud and a spectacular backdrop of the Atlantic opens up beneath us. The lighting changes for the better, and I am hammering away at the shutter release on my camera.

In the history and literature of midair refueling there are countless stories of how difficult and dangerous it can be, but this crew makes the task look quiet, relaxed and effortless. Of course, this is daytime and the weather is fine. At night, in a thunderstorm, over enemy territory while low on fuel and with battle damage, it is an entirely different affair.

Aerial refueling started on a regular basis after WWII using techniques developed largely by the RAF and later improved upon by the USAF. In 1949, a USAF B-50 Superfortress, an up-engined version of the B-29, completed a non-stop circumnavigation of the earth using aerial refueling. According to historical references, nearly every mission flown during the Gulf wars and the Global War on Terror included aerial refueling.

In January 2017, B-2 Spirit long-range bombers used a total of 15 aerial tankers, both KC-10s and KC-135s, to fly a non-stop 30-hour strike mission against ISIS targets in Libya. The strategic implications of aerial refueling have completely changed the reach of U.S. airpower, effectively putting every place on the globe within range of a relief mission, security flight or strike mission from a U.S. base somewhere in the world. It has also subverted diplomatic constraints on U.S. air operations, granting virtual impunity to the air assets of our nation in the global theater. When France, Spain and Italy prohibited overflight of U.S. F-111 strike aircraft during the 1986 Operation El Dorado Canyon, the U.S. air strike on Libya in retaliation for a terrorist bombing in West Berlin where U.S. servicemen died, the aircraft had to fly an additional 1,300 miles. They simply used aerial refueling to fly around those countries.

The fly-by-wire refueling boom on the KC-10 Extender.

Especially in recent conflicts where air power is critical, the message is clear: Aerial refueling is a powerful strategic and tactical force multiplier.

The two F-35As refuel quickly and smoothly, on and off our boom in eerie near-silence. They scoot to our right wing as a beautiful two-tone F-15C Eagle slides into place below our tanker. The contrast between the fifth-generation F-35A and the F-15C is immediately apparent. The F-15C Eagle is from the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. The Eagle joins us from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Massachusetts. She takes fuel through her left forward wing root. Sliding into place on the tanker boom is a different procedure than the F-35A. Our Eagle driver plugs into the tanker boom on the first attempt. Fuel begins to whir into his gas tanks from the refueling boom over our heads.

Our tanker spends almost three hours “tanking” F-35s and an F-15C as it enters a wide oval racetrack pattern over the eastern U.S. I can’t help but wonder what this looks like from the ground, or if anyone down there even notices the aerial ballet unfolding four miles above them.

An F-15C takes on fuel.

This is the jubilance of flight, the wide-open view of the refueling window, the close company of the exotic fighters. Nothing in aviation matches this experience. One of our boom operators, TSgt. Rob White, a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, and “more” he doesn’t want printed, has 2000 hours in the boom seat of a tanker, 500 of them in combat. He has been tanking planes for over 7 years and has put gas on board every aircraft in the U.S. arsenal with aerial refueling capability and many allied aircraft as well. He tells me the most interesting aircraft he refueled was an Australian P-3 Orion maritime patrol plane.

Jan Mack of TheAviationist.com tapes an aircraft taking on fuel as our boom operator flies the refueling boom.

Well before I’d like to we’ve left the tanker track and are descending back toward Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to land. We talk about the future of KC-10 Extender, destined for eventual replacement by the new, modernized Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker. But a report by Samantha Masunaga for the Los Angeles Times published on April 11, 2018 says the new KC-46 may not be ready for the Air Force as soon as originally expected.

Masunaga reports, “Delivery of the first KC-46 aircraft — last planned for August 2017 — is now expected to be more than a year late, and technical issues have cropped up during development and testing.”

The new KC-46 will use several advanced systems that include a boom operators’ station served by a video feed from the rear of the aircraft instead of the wide window only feet from the aircraft taking on fuel in the KC-10. There are advantages to the new system, and the KC-46 represents a leap forward for the USAF tanker fleet, especially over the aging KC-135 tankers that are even older than the KC-10. But I will miss the view out of the back of the KC-10. If you love aircraft and our Air Force as much as I do, that seat at the back of a KC-10 is the best view in the world.

The Aviationist wishes to thank the 514th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs Office and Lt. Col. Kimberly Lalley for their generous assistance in the preparation of this report.

The U.S. Air Force Releases New Video Showing F-15 Deployed To Lithuania Intercepting Russian Navy Su-30 Flankers Over The Baltics

The 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron deployed from RAF Lakenheath have had some close encounters with the Russian fighters near the Baltics.

The U.S. Air Force will complete its fifth rotation as the lead nation for the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission on Jan. 8, 2018. On Jan. 5, videos documenting their efforts during their four-month deployment were publicly released.

In particular, the videos capture previously unreleased footage of RAF Lakenheath F-15s conducting “safe and standard intercepts of Russian Federation aircraft as part of the NATO peacetime air policing mission.”

Along with footage showing the U.S. Air Force F-15 pilots scramble during an exercise during the Baltic Regional Training Event at Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania, back in April 2014, the video compilation shows two encounters with the Russian Navy Su-30 Flankers.

The first one occurred on Nov. 23, and was initiated because the Russian aircraft did not broadcast the appropriate codes required by air traffic control and had no flight plan on file. The second one shows two Russian Navy Su-30s intercepted on Dec. 13, 2017. The second intercept was initiated for the same reasons: the Russian aircraft did not broadcast the appropriate codes required by air traffic control and had no flight plan on file.

The video compilation shows tw encounter on November 23 and another on December 13. According to descriptions posted by the military, both incidents involved two Russian fighters in international airspace near the Baltics. In both encounters, the F-15s were scrambled because the Russians did not broadcast the codes required by air traffic control and did not file a flight plan, the Air Force said.

“Intercepts are a regular occurrence, and U.S. Air Force pilots routinely conduct them in a safe and professional manner,” Lt. Col. Cody Blake, commander of the 493rd says in an interview included in the compilation. “Pilots from the 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron executed the intercept professionally and operated in international airspace in accordance with all relevant international flight regulations and safety standards.”

The Russian reaction to the video came on Saturday. According to the state-run RT media outlet, the Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledged that NATO F-15 jets had “approached” Su-30 fighter jets in two separate incidents – on November 23 and December 13 – near the Baltics, but said “the route of Russian fighter jets was agreed with the air logistics control units and was carried out in strict compliance with the international rules.” In both instances, F-15 fighters “approached at a safe distance, after which they changed course and flew away,” the statement added.

H/T Lasse Holmstrom for the heads-up

 

California ANG’s 144th FW Launched 16 F-15 Eagle Jets In The Wing’s First Ever Large-Scale Aircraft Generation Exercise

California Air National Guard’s “Quick Draw” exercise put the 144th Fighter Wing’s readiness to test.

On Dec. 21, the 144th Fighter Wing, based at California Air National Guard Base Fresno, California, took part in Operation Quick Draw, the wing’s first ever large-scale aircraft generation exercise. During the uncommon drills, the unit, whose mission is to provide Air Superiority in support of worldwide joint operations as well as Air Defense of the West Coast of the United States, was called to prepare as many F-15 Eagles for combat as possible with only a 24-hour notice.

In the end the unit was able to generate and launch 16 out of 16 F-15 Eagle fighter jets, a 100% success rate according to Col. Reed Drake, Commander of the 144th FW.

A 144th FW pilot prepares to launch during Operation Quick Draw.

Although pretty uncommon in the past, these short-notice combat readiness drills are becoming part of the periodic ANG units tactical evaluations: on Nov. 22, more or less one month before the 144th FW executed the Quick Draw, the 142nd Fighter Wing/123rd Fighter Squadron “Redhawks”, based at Portland International Airport, took part in a similar exercise launching 13 F-15s within 24 hours. With ANG units supporting the various iterations of a Theater Security Package (TSP), a temporary deployment from CONUS (Continental US) of a force whose aim is to augment the Air Force presence in a specific region for deterrence purposes, assessing the Fighter Wing’s ability to deploy anywhere in the world with a short notice has become extremely important. And the 144th FW is among the units that have already deployed abroad in support of a TSP as part of an EFS (Experiditionary Fighter Squadron): in April 2016, along with the 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, the 144th Fighter Wing, deployed to Europe with a dozen F-15s (four were deployed to Iceland to provide air policing duties) for a 6-month TSP in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, with the goal to “[…] demonstrate the U.S. commitment to a Europe that is whole, free, at peace, secure, and prosperous and to deter further Russian aggression.”

The F-15Cs of the 144th FW prepare to launch from Fresno ANGB on Dec. 21, 2017.

Image credit: Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Chris Drudge

More than 60 combat aircraft from eight NATO nations take part in Exercise Frisian Flag in the Netherlands

Frisian Flag 2017 was a large scale exercise organised by the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

From Mar. 27 to Apr. 7, Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands hosted the tactical aircraft taking part in Ex. Frisian Flag 2017.

The purpose of the drills was preparing the participating units for a modern conflict or crisis support operation by strengthening cooperation between air arms of multiple NATO countries called to undertake joint training missions twice a day.

Whilst Leeuwarden in the north of the Netherlands, hosted the “tacair”, the supporting tankers (French Air Force C-135FR, Italian Air Force KC-767A, German Air Force A-310MRTT and RNlAF KDC-10) were based at Eindhoven airport in the south, with a NATO E-3 AWACS flying from Geilenkirchen, Germany, and a French AF E-3D from Avord, France.

Special Viper BAF

Portuguese F-16 about to land

The two-week long drills saw the assets split into two teams: the “Red Force”, that included the RAF Tornado GR4s and the French Mirage 2000s, and the “Blue Force” made of the Florida ANG F-15s, the Eurofighter Typhoons, as well as F-16s from Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands.

RNlAF F-16 on final

A 31 Sqn Tornado GR4

FAF Mirage 2000

According to the RAF 31 Sqn that posted a short debrief after returning from the drills, missions flown during Frisian Flag included air defense, protection of other aircraft and attacking of ground targets on land and sea in a high threat environment, which included opposing fighter aircraft and ground based Patriot and SA-6 missile batteries.

Four ship about to break for the downwind leg

GAF Typhoon special tail

Photographers at work at Leeuwarden

All the images in this post were taken at Leeuwarden airbase by photographer Estelle Calleja.

A Dutch Viper in final

RNlAF F-16 during the base turn

Image credit: Estelle Calleja

U.S. Air National Guard F-15s deploying to Iceland and the Netherlands “to deter further Russian aggression”

Time for another deployment to Europe.

Beginning tomorrow, 12 F-15C Eagles and approximately 350 Airmen and support equipment belonging to the 131st Fighter Squadron, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, and the 194th Fighter Squadron, Fresno Air National Guard Base, California, will deploy to the European theater for a 6-month tour in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

The arrival of these F-15s marks the latest iteration of a Theater Security Package (TSP), a temporary deployment from CONUS (Continental US) of a force whose aim is to augment the Air Force presence in a specific region, for deterrence purposes.

The TSP “will conduct training alongside NATO allies and partners as part of OAR to strengthen interoperability, demonstrate the U.S. commitment to a Europe that is whole, free, at peace, secure, and prosperous and to deter further Russian aggression,” according to a USAF release.

The wording with the reference to the Russian aggression is noteworthy.

Interestingly, the F-15s will head to two separate locations to simultaneously: Keflavik, in Iceland, to undertake air policing duties in support of NATO, and Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands.

While at Leeuwarden, the F-15s will also take part in Exercise Frisian Flag.

As done by the TSPs last year, during their six months in theater, the F-15s will also forward deploy to other NATO and partner nations to include Bulgaria, Estonia and Romania.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force