Tag Archives: Holloman Air Force Base

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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This is the best video of the U.S. Air Force’s last active duty F-4 Phantom II jets final flight

The U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom II took its final flight, after more than 50 years of service, at Holloman Air Force Base on Dec. 21. And here’s the best 4K video of the Phantom “Pharewell” we’ve found so far.

The following video was filmed at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, on Dec. 21, during the final flight with the U.S. Air Force of the legendary F-4 Phantom.

As explained by Skyes9, the user who posted it on Youtube, the long footage shows the start-up, taxi out, and fly by of the F-4s, followed by water cannon salute and then shut down of the USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.

Interestingly, it also shows (actually, it lets you hear) the double “sonic boom” caused by two Phantoms flying overhead.

Lt. Col. Ronald King, the only active duty U.S. Air Force F-4 pilot flew AF 349, the last QF-4 Phantom II in the USAF story.

“This has been a humbling experience,” said King, the Det. 1, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron commander in an Air Force release. “There is no way to truly understand what this aircraft has done without talking to the people who lived it.”

In 53 years of service, the Phantom set 15 world records, including aircraft speed – 1,606 miles per hour – and absolute altitude – 98,557 feet. Moreover, it has been the only aircraft to be flown by both the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.

Nicknamed Double Ugly, Old Smokey and the Rhino, the aircraft was retired from the active service in 1997. However, it continued to serve with the flying branch: re-designated the QF-4 and assigned to the 82nd ATS, 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, 53rd Wing, at Holloman, the QF-4 has flown as manned and unmanned aerial target until Dec. 21, 2016.

During its service as an aerial target, the QF-4 has helped test an array of weapons that have contributed improving 4th and 5th generation fighters and weapons systems.

It flew its last unmanned mission in August 2016 and will be replaced by the QF-16 in 2017.

Air Combat Command declared initial operational capability for its replacement, the QF-16 full-scale aerial target, that has been flying with the 82nd ATRS, based at Tyndall AFB, Florida, since September 2014, on Sept. 23: therefore the QF-4 flown by the 82nd ATRS Det. 1 at Holloman AFB were retired on Dec. 21.

Whilst unmanned operations ended in September, the last unmanned mission in a threat representative configuration was flown on Aug. 17, 2016, “against” an F-35 Lightning II.

During that sortie, the Vietnam-era remotely piloted aircraft was shot at by the F-35 Lightning II with two AIM-120 AMRAAMs (advanced medium range air-to-air missiles). However, the aircraft was not destroyed in the test (read more about the final sortie “against” two AIM-120Cs fired by a Joint Strike Fighter here.)

On  Oct. 25 two USAF QF-4Es made flew through the famous “Star Wars Canyon” (Jedi Transition) in Death Valley, CA, during a transit from NAS Point Mugu, CA to Hill AFB, UT.

The final F-4 Phantom appearance at an airshow occurred during Nellis Air Force Base’s Aviation Nation air show, on Nov. 12 and 13.

Although they don’t fly with the USAF anymore, other air arms around the world still operate the F-4 Phantom, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force,; the Turkish Air Force, whose F-4s have had a role in the coup attempt last July; South Korea’s ROKAF (Republic of Korea Air Force), that has also employed the Phantoms to stage Elephant Walks “against” the North; and the Hellenic Air Force.

 

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Last U.S. Air Force Phantoms make rare appearance flying through the Star Wars Canyon!

Awesome video and photographs of the last USAF Phantoms thundering through the famous Jedi Transition.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25 two USAF McDonnell Douglas QF-4E Phantom II’s made passes through “Star Wars Canyon” (Jedi Transition) in Death Valley, CA. The lead Phantom (gray and orange) was piloted by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King and the second jet (green camo) was piloted by Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins.

It was a very rare treat to see the QF-4s pass through the canyon. The Phantoms were in transit from NAS Point Mugu, CA to Hill AFB, UT and made the two passes at about 350 knots. Aviation enthusiasts are used to seeing modern and nimble aircraft such as F/A-18E/Fs and F-16s pass through the canyon and the QF-4Es did well, maneuvering aggressively in the canyon confines.

Actually even a C-17 made a series of cool passes lately

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Though bearing the markings of the Tyndall AFB based 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) the QF-4Es hail from Detachment 1, 82nd ATRS, based at Holloman AFB. The 82nd ATRS at Tyndall AFB has fully converted to the QF-16. The QF-4Es captured are two of seven remaining QF-4s capable of manned flight (an additional handful of remaining aircraft are capable of “unmanned” flight only).

The F-4 entered service with the US Navy in 1961, followed by the USMC and the USAF. The aircraft remained in service with the USAF through 1996 when it was retired. Subsequently many Phantoms were converted to service as manned and unmanned targets for weapons training with various USAF and DoD programs, including the White Sands Missile Range. The F-4 is one of the most successful multi-role fighter aircraft ever produced. Over 5,000 F-4s of various models were built and served in combat and keeping the peace with a variety of Air Forces around the world.

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The days of manned QF-4 flight are short and the aircraft have been making a “pharewell tour” throughout the US, appearing at several air shows and bases. The aircraft’s last manned flight is planned for December 21 at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. It is anticipated a four ship will take to the skies with roaring ‘burners, break the speed of sound, make several crowd pleasing passes – and then back to earth.

Contact the Public Affairs Officer at 49th Wing, Holloman AFB for more information on this “last phlight” media event.

Image and video credit: Johnson Yang

Johnson Yang is a photojournalist who lives and works out of S. California. Johnson previously served in the Taiwanese Airborne and is a regular contributor to Asia Pacific Defense Magazine.

USAF QF-4 Phantom is shot at by an F-35 with two AIM-120s during last unmanned mission (and survives)

During the last flight, the unmanned Phantom served as an aerial target and was shot at by an F-35 with two AIM-120s. Nevertheless, the aircraft landed safely back home.

The U.S. Air Force has just released some information about the QF-4 drone‘s last flight along with a video and some photographs. Interestingly, the aircraft that have flown as unmanned aerial targets for several DoD and foreign military sales customers testing next generation weapons, flew its last sortie supporting an F-35 mission on Aug. 17.

QF-4 returns safely 2

According to Lt. Col. Ronald King, the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, Detachment 1 commander, the aircraft was shot at by the F-35 Lightning II with two AIM-120 AMRAAMs (advanced medium range air-to-air missiles). We don’t know the exact scope of the weapon test, the RoE (Rules Of Enagement), the scenario and whether the QF-4 was expected to escape the downing. Maybe something went wrong, the missile launch failed or was cancelled, or just missed (because no missile has a probability of kill of 100 percent). However, it’s at least worth of note that the unmanned Phantom landed back at Holloman Air Force Base completely unharmed in spite of being targeted by the (controversial) 5th generation fighter and shot at with 2 radar-guided air-to-air missiles.

Update 1:

The reason for the QF-4 not being shot down is probably that the test was not a test of the AIM-120 missile’s ability to hit a target (something that has been proved in the past) but on the F-35’s ability to track the target and guide the AMRAAM until this reached the kill envelope. Once the missile starts self-guiding to the drone the test is accomplished and there is no need to waste a costy unmanned aircraft: the AIM-120 is directed to self-destruct before impact.

However some readers point out that previous tests saw some controversial “misses” (“the drone was beyond visual range and the AIM-120C was directed as planned to self-destruct before impact”) whereas other tests (for instance those with the AIM-9X) involving QF-4s or even more expensive QF-16s eventually led to knocking down the drone with direct hits (“After launch, the missile successfully acquired the target and followed an intercept flight profile before destroying the drone, achieving the first F-35 Air-to-Air kill or “Boola Boola,” which is the traditional radio call made when a pilot shoots down a drone.”)

Will keep you updated if more details emerge and the expected outcome of the mission is clarified.

Anyway, the unmanned mission on Aug. 17 served as the final unmanned flight before the QF-4 program ends in December year, and the 82nd ATRS, Det. 1 transitions to flying QF-16s. Until then, the unit will fly the Vietnam era F-4 as a manned aircraft.

Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. is the only base with a QF-4 mission. However, the 82nd ATRS, based out of Tyndall AFB, Florida, has been flying QF-16s since September 2014.

“It’s certainly bittersweet,” said King in a USAF release. “The F-4 served faithfully in Vietnam and as late as the Gulf War. So, for it to be pulled out of the boneyard to continue serving its country is a testament to this airplane — to the designers, the test pilots who first flew it, to the maintainers who’ve worked on it all these years — what a testament to what they’ve been able to do, and what a great airplane it was. Forty-five years later, we are still flying these airplanes to test the latest and greatest equipment we have.”

Image credit: U.S Air Force

 

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