Tag Archives: Holloman Air Force Base

USAF Light Attack Experiment Halted Following Fatal Crash

Overall Light Attack Acquisition Project Continues Despite Accident.

Military.com’s Oriana Pawlyk reports that the innovative U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment has been halted following last week’s fatal crash of an Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft within the Red Rio Bombing Range at the White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico outside Alamogordo.

The Light Attack Experiment is intended to test both a new evaluation process for some USAF acquisition programs and simultaneously provide functional analysis of small, tactical light attack aircraft that can be operated economically and efficiently for close air support and reconnaissance in an insurgent conflict. Most of the participant aircraft are single engine turboprops. The program is said to potentially compliment and economize other Air Force programs including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by offering a less expensive, more agile program architecture that is suggested to even include innovations in how the Air Force trains new pilots.

U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Christopher Carey Short, from Canandaigua, New York died in the crash on Friday, June 22, 2018 while flying the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. Another crew member on board the two-seat light turboprop attack and trainer aircraft is being reported as injured after ejecting from the aircraft.

The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano that crashed is a successful, combat-proven light tactical trainer, strike and intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance aircraft that is being evaluated in the Air Force Light Attack Experiment.

No cause for the accident has been reported and the cause of the accident is under investigation according to Air Force Public Affairs at Holloman AFB.

According to Pawlyk’s report, U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command commanding officer General Mike Holmes told reporters that, “The OA-X tests have been suspended amid the ongoing accident investigation, and will remain on hold until officials can decide if more testing is even needed.”

Gen. Holmes comments did not clarify specifically if the program will potentially move ahead to an acquisition phase without further testing, or, if the program may be suspended following this fatal accident.

Journalist Pawlyk reported in early December 2017 in a separate article for Military.com that Members of Congress were, at the time, eager to hear the findings of the Light Attack Experiment.

“During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on acquisition reform Thursday [in 2017], senators said they are hopeful the light attack aircraft, known as OA-X, procurement strategy may improve how future weapons systems are acquired,” Pawlyk reported.
General Holmes did go on to tell reporters, “I don’t think this will have a chilling effect on future experiments. Whenever you’re trying something new there are risks.”

The Light Attack Experiment is in Phase II of now, with evaluation flights being conducted mostly from Holloman AFB, New Mexico. The program was originally intended to run through July, 2018.

During a media event in 2017, journalists and observers were invited to Holloman AFB to see aircraft being evaluated in the Light Attack Experiment and gain insights into the Air Force’s potential concepts for acquisition. At the time, program leaders including General Holmes and Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Heather Wilson, emphasized that the program was not a “fly-off” competition, but an insight into potentially new processes for evaluating some new Air Force programs.

Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, Dr. Heather Wilson (left) and USAF General James M. “Mike” Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command at the Light Attack Demo media day last year at Holloman AFB. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Reporters, including this writer, were scheduled to return to Holloman AFB in July to report on the Light Attack Experiment again as the program neared its completion.

U.S. Navy Pilot Killed in A-29 Super Tucano Crash at White Sands Missile Range. Twelfth U.S. military aircraft crash in 2018.

Aircraft Was Part of Air Force Light Attack Experiment Program. It’s the seventh U.S. Air Force crash this year.

A U.S. Navy pilot participating in the ongoing Light Attack Experiment died Friday, June 22, 2018 when the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano aircraft he was flying crashed inside the Red Rio Bombing Range inside the White Sands Missile Range.

The U.S. Navy has identified the pilot who died in the accident as Lt. Christopher Carey Short, from Canandaigua, New York. Another crew member on board the two-seat light turboprop attack and trainer aircraft is being reported as injured after ejecting from the aircraft.

No cause for the accident has been reported and the cause of the accident is under investigation according to Air Force Public Affairs at Holloman AFB.

The aircrew involved in Friday’s accident was participating in the ongoing U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment, an evaluation program that is performing analysis and flight tests on several small, mostly turboprop light multi-role aircraft for potential integration into U.S. and allied air combat roles.

An Embraer A-29 Super Tucano at the U.S. Air Force Light Attack Experiment Demo in 2017 (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

According to an official Air Force statement released early last month, the second phase of the Light Attack Experiment began at Holloman AFB in New Mexico on May 7, 2018. The statement included remarks by USAF Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, military deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

“This second phase of the experimentation is about informing the rapid procurement process as we move closer to investing in light attack. If we can get light attack aircraft operating in permissive combat environments, we can alleviate the demand on our 4th and 5th generation aircraft, so they can be training for the high-end fight they were made for.”

The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano is one of several aircraft that have participated in the Light Attack Experiment. Other aircraft involved in the evaluation experiment include the Textron Aviation Defense AT-6 Wolverine turboprop and the U.S built Textron Aviation Defense Scorpion light jet, the only jet aircraft shown so far in the experiment. The IOMAX Archangel has also participated in some of the Light Attack Experiment.

The USAF’s controlled commercially-owned A-29 was about to demonstrate its capabilities as part of the second phase of the Light Attack Experiment on Jun. 22, when it crashed.

The A-29 Super Tucano is a proven light attack and trainer aircraft with a history of successful operation with a number of international operators including Afghanistan. On March 22, 2018, pilots of the Afghan Air Force successfully employed a GBU-58 Paveway II precision guided bomb against a Taliban target for the first time. The Afghan Air Force currently employs 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft with more slated for delivery.

The Columbian Air Force has used the A-29 Super Tucano extensively in combat against the FARC rebels prior to the September 2016 ceasefire.

While the A-29 Super Tucano does have a proven performance and safety record the light attack mission can be inherently dangerous with aircraft frequently prosecuting targets at medium to very low altitude and in a crowded battlespace where communications with air assets and ground troops coordinating close air support is often complex.

The A-29 is the seventh U.S. Air Force crash (12th U.S. military aviation) since the beginning of the year. The most recent ones involved a WC-130H from the 156th Airlift Wing from Puerto Rico ANG that crashed near Chatham City, Georgia on May 2, 2018, causing 9 deaths; a T-38 that crashed 9 miles north of the city of Columbus on May 23, 2018 after the pilots managed to eject; and a USAF F-15C Eagle belonging to the 18th Wing at Kadena AB, Okinawa that crashed into the ocean off Okinawa on Japan on Jun. 11, 2018: the pilot ejected but was seriously injured in the incident.

That Time 25 F-117s Flew Over Holloman AFB In The Largest Stealth Aircraft Formation Ever

On Oct. 27, 2006 a 25-plane formation celebrated the Nighthawk’s 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying hour.

The Lockheed F-117A, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft and one of the most secret planes ever developed, only flew at night until its existence was publicly acknowledged in 1988.

59 production aircraft (one of those was lost to the Serbian Air Defense during “Operation Allied Force“ whereas another one crashed in 1997 during an airshow in Maryland) served with the U.S. Air Force until the type was officially retired in 2008.

Little less than half of them flew together over Heritage Park at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, home of the 49th Fighter Wing, during the Silver Stealth event for the F-117’s 25th anniversary on Oct. 27, 2006.

Five formations of F-117s flying over Holloman AFB on Oct. 27, 2006 (U.S. Air Force)

The images in this post were taken during the event about 11 years ago: the largest F-117 formation ever, the largest 49th Fighter Wing formation and the largest stealth jets formation ever.

As already said, the aircraft was officially retired in 2008. However, back in 2014, after a few videos and photographs of the aircraft flying few years after the official phase-out (the most recent clip that we have posted here at The Aviationist shows the aircraft flying in July 2016) had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force affirmed that the Black Jet was kept in a “Type 1000” storage at Tonopah Test Range, Nevada, meaning that the type was to be maintained until called into active service.

To do what? Hard to say.

Twenty-five F-117 Nighthawks line up waiting for takeoff from Holloman Air Force Base, NM. The planes were part of a formation celebrating Nighthawk’s 25th anniversary/250,000 flying hour here. The 25 plane were separated into 5 groups and flew over the base to end the celebration ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Designed in the 1970s, subsonic, optimized for the evasion of the C, X and Ku-bands, and completely unable to dynamically map out threat emitters in real-time as the F-22 or the F-35 can do, the F-117 is *probably* still relevant in some low or medium-lethality scenarios but unable to keep pace with most modern threats. In this post you can find the latest available video as well as a few theories ranging from tests of new radar systems which would be capable of detecting stealthy aircraft, to modified UCAV versions, through tests of new weapons, up to a brave hypothesis of getting the Nighthawks modernized and operational again.

Meanwhile, enjoy a sight never to be repeated again: the 25 stealth jets flying together in 2006.

F-117 Nighthawks fly over New Mexico as part of the 25th Anniversary celebration at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Oct. 27. The formation was part of the Nighthawk’s 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying-hour celebration. The formation consisted of 25 planes staggered into five separate groups.

25 Nighthawks fill the sky over Holloman on Oct. 27, 2006 (Image credit: Denny Lombard via Lockheed Martin).

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It’s Not a Fly-Off Competition: U.S. Air Force Tests Process and Planes at Light Attack Demo

New Process Showcased for Sourcing Includes Proposed Light Attack Aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force invited reporters to Holloman AFB in New Mexico for briefings about its new Light Attack Experiment last week. The key message from top Air Force and industry officials was not about aircraft selection, but about new evaluation methods for some proposed Air Force programs.

Adding emphasis to the significance of the program Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein were in attendance at Holloman AFB for the event.

The four aircraft included in the Light Attack Experiment are the proven Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the Textron Aviation AT-6 turboprop, Textron’s new Scorpion light twin-engine jet and the interesting crop-duster turned combat plane, the Air Tractor/L3 Platform Integration AT-802L Longsword. Examples of each of the aircraft were present at the event for journalists, industry insiders and members of participating nations’ air forces to examine.

But the emphasis on this demonstration was process, not planes.

As a possible outcome of the new evaluation and selection process acquisition programs could become more agile, adaptable and bring some future-facing needs to the battlefield faster and at lower cost. This may include a new light attack aircraft for the U.S. Air Force.

Part of the Air Force’s dual focus on process and planes is the open source acquisition methodology used during the Light Attack Experiment. The aircraft in the evaluation test case already exist, they are relatively “off the shelf”. Three of the four aircraft have already been employed in the light attack/counterinsurgency role, with only one, the Textron AirLand Scorpion, being a new developmental aircraft.

The Light Attack Experiment Demo patch.

This new acquisition process will reduce costs and accelerate suitable programs from the evaluation to operational stage more quickly. The process compliments large-scale full-development program successes like the Joint Strike Fighter program that lead to the Air Force’s new F-35A Lightning II while filling a different, complimentary need.

U.S. Air Force Commander of Air Combat Command, General James “Mike” Holmes made a case for the Light Attack concept to reporters, “So you can imagine a world where you’re able to base some of these airplanes closer to the [forward] area, they can stay on station for a pretty good time, with a turboprop engine, which gives them a lot of time to stay out there. And then ultimately, it comes down again, to that really low cost.”

The Commander of ACC went on to note additional advantages in creating new combat pilots more efficiently, “My take is part of the benefit of this airplane is I can season and produce fighter pilots fast. I can fly a lot of hours on it pretty cheaply, and so I can make an experienced fighter pilot, which is what I’m short, I can make one fast.” When commenting on any potential progression of light tactical turboprop combat pilots to the fast jet community General Holmes told us, “I’ll season them in this airplane and then I’ll bring them back and put them into a short course, into a fourth or fifth gen fighter.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson (all photos Author/The Aviationist)

Finally, in remarks to reporters, General Holmes hinted at an interesting prospect that harkens to the historical roots of Air Force Special Operations going back to the Vietnam era Air Commandos and the use of light combat aircraft in the counterinsurgency (COIN) role when he added, “There is also the possibility that AFSOC may come forward and say they want to employ the airplane.”

While General Holmes was articulate about the possible advantages of the Light Attack concept he was also measured about its potential promise, “I can use them in combat, I think, we’ll find out. When they’re in the United States I can use them to train tactical air control parties at a much lower cost per flying hour and I can use them to support my maneuver unit training with the Army, at a much lower cost per flying hour and still work through all the CAS procedures. It’s a capability, we think, we’re going to do these experiments and see, that would let us continue to do another multi-year approach to fighting violent extremist organizations at a cheaper cost in a fiscal environment where every dollar counts.”

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Golden made a fitting entrance to the light attack demo at the controls of one of the test aircraft.

Just as programs like Joint Strike Fighter and Light Attack are vastly different, it makes sense that the development, evaluation and acquisition processes are different also. And because this new pipeline to highly adaptive operational capability places a strong enterprise motive on private industry as opposed to government, it can provide greatly reduced developmental cost to taxpayers.

Light attack was a good place to start with this new, open source evaluation process. The post 9/11 battlefield has changed significantly during the Global War on Terror. It includes a wide spectrum of conflict models for air combat. These include large scale air operations against nation states with conventional air forces flying against heavily defended ground targets in a non-permissive environment, like Desert Storm. At the other end of the spectrum it includes anti-insurgent air operations in a smaller, more permissive battlespace that does not require stealth, long range aircraft or heavy weapons, like some operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghan Air Force is already employing the Embraer/Sierra Nevada Corporation A-29 Super Tucano, one of the aircraft in the Light Attack Experiment, operationally. And this multi-nation user set adds interoperability to the argument for light attack also.

One of the most interesting participants in the Light Attack Demo is the AT-802L Longsword from L3 Platform Integration and Air Tractor.

U.S. Air Force subject matter expert on light attack and counterinsurgency Col. Mike Pietrucha spoke to TheAviationist.com specifically about the Light Attack Experiment and the promise it may offer the Air Force:

“The argument is to go for a less expensive aircraft that is more optimized for the kind of warfighting we’ve been doing so that you can spread the burden out, rather than make everything a one size fits all airplane. Bottom line of that right now, is we have more missions than we have Air Force. When you look at light attack the amount of fuel it takes to keep a turboprop in the air for an hour is the amount of fuel it takes to taxi the Strike Eagle down the runway for six to nine minutes. Just the logistics start to look like an awfully attractive argument.”

The rear cockpit, systems operator station in the AT-802L Longsword features (A.) a unique alpha-control keyboard that is worn on the controller’s arm to actuate some weapons/guidance/designation and communications functions. (B.) A side stick controller moves sensors for target imaging. (C.) The rear cockpit features full flight controls. (D.) There is a large multi-function display from sensors.

If successful, acquisition processes like the one demonstrated during the Light Attack Experiment broaden the Air Force’s spectrum of ways it can acquire new equipment and adapt to a rapidly changing battlespace more quickly as the nature of conflict evolves. This process also improves economic efficiencies while addressing the current pilot shortage by providing new training opportunities. By nearly every measure, the new acquisition methodology and the Light Attack Experiment concept represent strong, adaptable synergies for modern air power in the rapidly changing battlespace.

The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-802L Longsword on display at the Light Attack Demo.

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The Last Of The Dogfighters: The Jedi Warriors of the 54th Fighter Group

Amid Pilot Shortages, F-16 Pilots Train for Real-World Combat at Holloman AFB.

It’s hot as hell out here.

Most of the other reporters have given up. They’re back in the air-conditioned squadron room. Between screaming jet noise, blaring sun, hotplate pavement and a long day that started early this morning with briefings and a catered media tour in shaded hangers it’s gotten real now. And real means hot, loud and uncomfortable.

The U.S. Air Force invited TheAviationist.com to Holloman AFB ten miles outside Alamogordo, New Mexico to showcase the Light Attack Demo and, more importantly, the new evaluation process that goes with it.

But Holloman AFB is a long way from anywhere in the middle of nowhere so our Air Force media staff crams as many story opportunities for visiting journalists into the day as possible. This is the last story of our day, F-16 operations at Holloman AFB. As it turns out, it’s the best story.

Holloman AFB is home to the 54th Fighter Group, the Jedi academy for the best F-16 combat pilots on earth. And while certain Israeli F-16 units may argue that superlative, the live-fire, gun smoke combat experience of the fighter pilots who teach here hangs over the base like the bright white dust blown in from the White Sands Missile Range just to the south. This is where the meat-eaters train for today’s air war.

From the moment you walk into the Group building things feel serious. Staff is moving from office to office quickly. There is a lot of foot traffic. Flight-suited pilots keep right in well-traveled hallways coming from de-brief or going to briefings. The floor of this building rumbles with the operational tempo. Missions are coming in, others being planned to go out.

The tearing sound of two F-16’s leaping into the air on full afterburner vibrates the doors on the building. Since Holloman is miles away from the nearest town, Alamogordo, there aren’t any worries about noise abatement here. Pilots take-off on training sorties the way they would for combat. And the desert rattles under angry jet thunder.

An F-16 pilots taxis back from a training mission outside Holloman AFB over the White Sands Missile Range. (All photos: TheAviationist.com)

It’s unlikely the people who live in Alamogordo would complain about jet noise anyway. The sleepy desert town hangs by its economic fingernails to the outskirts of the base. No base, no Alamogordo. Menus in the local breakfast dives have photos of F-22s on them, not pancakes. The main drag is a succession of fast food places, pawn shops and motels that rely on military revenue for survival. If the base can grow its cadre of enlisted personnel, instructors and student pilots, the town can grow too.

The Air Force faces a problem though, a shortage of fighter pilots and instructors. An Air Force Lt. Col. whose call sign is “Burn Clapper” has been at Holloman since November of 2014 and in command of the 54th Fighter Group since May. During our briefing he tells us, “I’m supposed to have 24 instructor pilots in my squadron, and I have 13 now.”

When I ask Burn Clapper about the reasons for the fighter pilot shortage he tells me, “A few years back, there was a time when we had as many fighter pilots as we needed. We only produced guys coming in for as many guys who were leaving – at the rate that they were leaving then. We only made fighter pilots for who was leaving then, maybe about 400 a year – that’s a guess.”

“Our pilots graduate now with a 10-year commitment. They have been back and forth to combat over the last five years. The economy is good now. Now they have options.”

But the demand for fighter pilots has increased significantly, and the Air Force is responding. Burn Clapper tells us, “The next step is to stand up the 8th fighter squadron. It may become a super squadron, with 40 jets instead of 24 jets PAA (Primary Assigned Aircraft) under one commander. The advantage of a super squadron is you can pool resources to make it easier. We can all use the same scheduler, we can use the same admin side…”

The pilots and instructors they do have here at Holloman are incredibly busy. “The day to day routine for our fighter pilots starts late Friday, Saturday and Sunday to prep for flying on Monday. They fly Monday, they debrief Monday,” Burn Clapper tells us. “They then brief or prep for [flying on] Tuesday, they never get any time off to do their office job. They are busy flying.”

USAF Brigadier General Brook J. Leonard, Commander of the 56th Fighter Wing (parent unit to the 54th Fighter Group), is sitting with me on the hot bus ride out to the even hotter flight line. If Brig. Gen. Leonard showed up to a casting call for a movie about fighter pilots they wouldn’t pick him because he looks too much like a fighter pilot. Tall as a monument, chiseled features, he doesn’t wear sunglasses in the blaring glare of the White Sands desert. You get a sense Brig. Gen. Leonard could stare down the sun. I wager the top of his crew cut was leveled using an attitude indicator from an F-16.

Our bus yields to a trio of F-16’s taxiing fast on their way back from a training sortie to their aircraft shelters. Airmen check the tires of our bus for “FOD”, debris that could come off and be sucked into a jet engine. They give us one quick look-over for security, the fourth time today we’ve been surreptitiously screened for security. This isn’t a weekend airshow. This is the real world.

“What is the orange Sidewinder on the rail of that F-16?” I ask Brig. Gen. Leonard as an F-16 taxis quickly in front of us.

“We use those for OPFOR identification – red air. It’s so they can tell the good guys from the bad in a close-in engagement.” The General tells me.

I ponder the General’s answer for a minute; F-16’s dogfighting over the desert at nearly a thousand miles per hour are fighting so close to each other they can identify friend from foe by a single red missile on a rail under one of their wings.

“Are they fighting that close together Sir?” I ask the General. He shoots me a look, “Well… yeah.”

The tempo of flight operations at Holloman AFB is relentless, with F-16 sorties going out to the ranges and returning constantly.

The pilots in the F-16 cockpits taxing back in from a training mission aren’t waving. They look haggard. Sweaty, unsmiling, oxygen mask unclipped and dangling from one side of their helmet. Their eyes are clamped down in an exhausted squint. Air combat is physically exhausting and mentally draining. The pilots are crushed under their own accumulating body weight as they cross swords at high G’s. They piss their pants in “piddle packs” and get increasingly dehydrated with little time to drink during training engagements. The paint around some of the F-16s M61A1 Vulcan 6-barreled 20mm cannon is blackened with soot from gunfighting. Mid-air collision while training is a constant threat. This is about as far from the creased uniforms and synchronized airshow dance moves of the Thunderbirds as you can get. This is rehearsal for the real world of air combat.

While the rest of the air force is still developing BVR (Beyond Visual Range) doctrine for F-35s over the test ranges north of here Brig. Gen. Leonard’s men are likely the last of the great dogfighters. They aren’t training for a Beyond Visual Range engagement, they are honing the mentally demanding and physically grueling skills needed for a knife fight in a phone booth at Mach 1.

This is the air war we have fought – and won – a couple of times with the Syrians, years ago with the Iraqis, and may fight again with the North Koreans. This is not training for some conceptual war being argued in white papers, this is readiness for air combat today. Holloman’s F-16 instructors put the razor edge on the pointy end of our air warfare spear.

Out on the flightline our media bus stops. The press liaison ushers what reporters remain into an aircraft shelter with an F-16. Brig. Gen. Leonard briefs us on the mission going on around us.

USAF Brigadier General Brook J. Leonard commands the entire 56th Fighter Wing, to which Holloman’s 54th Fighter Group is attached.

He introduces a man dressed in a crisp blacked-out flight suit wearing matte black Oakley sunglasses and a nearly as precise crew cut as the Brigadier himself.

“SSgt. Christopher Macias is a Dedicated Crew Chief for the F-16 to the 54th Fighter Group.” Brig. Gen. Leonard tells us. “He knows more about the jet than any of us.”

SSgt. Christopher Macias (left) is a dedicated F-16 crew chief in the 54th Fighter Group. He leads the team of technicians that maintain the combat aircraft here.

An enlisted man in the U.S. Air Force, SSgt. Macias is as razor-cut squared away as the Brigadier General and the other pilots we’ve met. Macias manages one of the maintenance crews who keep these well-used F-16’s flying. And while some of the aircraft appear weathered and flown hard, they are also spotlessly clean and in a high state of readiness. Huge glossy black rolling tool cases are kept shiny in the aircraft shelters on spotless floors. Tools inside are meticulously arranged. It’s clear the men like Macias who keep these aircraft flying have a deep affection and dedication to their jobs, exactly like the pilots.

I am the last reporter to board the media bus headed back to the unit office building. Our Air Force media liaison is trying to usher me back on so we can get to the briefing room and the air conditioning. Most of us have sweated through our clothing, but this is too good not to take in for just a few more seconds. More jets taxi from the end of the runway threshold. The tightly scheduled dance of deadly aerial combat training doesn’t wait for reporters. But I want to feel the concrete vibrate with the sound of operational jet noise, and feel what it’s like to walk in footsteps of one of the only real-world Jedi warriors for a just few more seconds.

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