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We went aboard USS America during USMC F-35B Proof Of Concept Sea Trials

We Visited the USS America with 12 F-35Bs on Board!

The rumble of the MV-22B reverberated off the flight deck of the USS America (LHA-6).

The 12 F-35Bs onboard represented more F-35s than had ever gathered at sea. The F-35B moving steadily towards deployment represents an unprecedented leap in capability, the future of formidable maritime power.

The USS America (LHA-6) cruises off the coast of S. Cal with 10 USMC F-35Bs topside (2 more below) from VMFA-211 & VMX-1, as well as a UH-1Y, AH-1Z, & SH-60. Taken during the "Proof of Concept" demonstration Nov. 19, 2016.

The USS America (LHA-6) cruises off the coast of S. Cal with 10 USMC F-35Bs topside (2 more below) from VMFA-211 & VMX-1, as well as a UH-1Y, AH-1Z, & SH-60. Taken during the “Proof of Concept” demonstration Nov. 19, 2016.

The gathering of assets was part of a joint US Navy (USN)/ US Marine Corps (USMC) “Proof of Concept” demonstration held off the coast of Southern California Nov. 18-20.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

PAO Capt. Sarah Burns indicated that the demonstration would explore the best way to integrate a large package of F-35Bs into the current USN/USMC structure to bring the most effective power projection from the sea.

Lt. General Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation shared a core value of the Marine Corps demonstrated onboard, “No Marine Corps platform fights alone.” The F-35B, MV-22B, AH-1Z and UH-1Y combined and integrated with the US Navy’s latest amphibious assault ship (USS America) complete a package that provides the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) with a broad spectrum of response options, and the most advanced mobile warfighting capability.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35Bs from USMC VMFA-211 & VMX-1 on the deck of the USS America (LHA-6) during Carrier capability proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

The MV-22B Ospreys speed and range have been a game changer for the USMC MAGTF, and now with the F-35B on hand the operational possibilities take yet another quantum leap. The sea based capability provides global mobility unrestrained by availability of land bases. This integrated USN/USMC capability is ideal for the fight against terrorism, and/or the insertion of Marine infantryman or special forces deep in hostile territory.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 (squadron jet) in transport on the USS America (LHA-6) during the integrated USN & USMC 'proof of concept" demonstration November 19, 2016.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 (squadron jet) in transport on the USS America (LHA-6) during the integrated USN & USMC ‘proof of concept” demonstration November 19, 2016.

The access is increased even more given the platforms ability to quickly relocate to austere forward operating bases. Given the F-35Bs stealth, advanced sensors, situational awareness and weapons, it also provides the capability to operate in proximity of areas hosting Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) or Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) environments.

F-35B from VMFA-211 taxis to take off postion on the deck of the USS America (LHA-16 during proof of concept demonstration November19. The American Flag graphic on the America's "Conning Tower" is reflected in the F-35Bs canopy.

F-35B from VMFA-211 taxis to take off position on the deck of the USS America (LHA-16 during proof of concept demonstration November19. The American Flag graphic on the America’s “Conning Tower” is reflected in the F-35Bs canopy.

The demonstrated integration of the F-35 and the US Navy’s AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense System adds tremendous potency to an already capable system. The F-35 can provide over the horizon targeting data to a readily available USN AEGIS platform that can quickly intercept ballistic missile, drone, or hostile aircraft with its SM-6 missile (widely believed to have a range beyond 200 mile). This allows stealth detection of targets by the F-35, and a virtually unlimited (boatload) of missiles to utilize.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 hovers aside the USS America as it prepares for a vertical landing on deck during the integrated USN/USMC proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 hovers aside the USS America as it prepares for a vertical landing on deck during the integrated USN/USMC proof of concept demonstration November 19, 2016.

The F-35B replaces three Marine Corps aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet, the EA-6B Prowler, and the AV-8B Harrier II. Not only does it do the job of each aircraft better, it adds Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and Command & Control (C2) capability. The F-35B fulfills the USMC vision of “every Marine Corps aircraft a sensor, a shooter and a sharer.”

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 launches off the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration November 19, 2016.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 launches off the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration November 19, 2016.

Once onboard the USS America the rumbling of the Osprey was quickly replaced by the near continuous roar of F-35Bs launching and landing. The tempo of operations demonstrated the F-35Bs readiness for deployment and combat activity. That should come as no surprise given the “B” has over 22,000 combined flight hours.

The F-35B advanced flight systems reduce pilot workload and increase safety in all aspects of flight. USMC pilot Lt. Col. Rich “VC” Rusnok an experienced AV-8B Harrier II pilot and slated to become the Commanding Officer (CO) of VFMA-121 in 2017 noted that, “hovering in the Harrier was like sitting on a one-legged bar stool.” His comment was complemented by USMC pilot Lt. Col. John “Guts” Price (slated to become the CO of VFMA-122 in 2018). Price noted that his first hover in a F-35B found him realize his learned instincts in the Harrier to provide inputs created problems in the hover, and it was better to ease off the controls and let the F-35B do as it wanted! Perhaps nowhere is this ease of flying more evident than in the speed of pilots Carrier Qualifications (CQs); in the previous 4 years only 8 USMC F-35B pilots had CQ’d, in the past 3 weeks 19 pilots CQ’d!

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 perfroms vertical landing on the USS America (LHA-6) during integrated USN/USMC "proof of concept" exercise November 19, 2016.

F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 perfroms vertical landing on the USS America (LHA-6) during integrated USN/USMC “proof of concept” exercise November 19, 2016.

The Marine Corps lead the way with the F-35 program. The deployment of VMFA-121 the “Green Knights” to Japan is motion to take place in January 2017, with further deployments slated for 2018. It all speaks to the ongoing progress and maturity of the F-35 program. This “aerial amphibious assault force” represents a new era of flexibility and capability for the MAGTF, and I anticipate we’ll regularly see the USS America serving the nations interests in strategic locations around the globe.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 starts its take off run on the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration.

USMC F-35B of VMFA-211 starts its take off run on the USS America (LHA-6) during USMC proof of concept capabiliity demonstration.

The Aviationist thanks Sylvia Pierson, and Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA; Capt. Sarah Burns & 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs; Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew; Lt. General Jon M. Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation; Supporting F-35B pilots of VMFA-211 & the F-35B and MV-22B pilots and personnel of VMX-1.

 

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China’s new J-20 “Mighty Dragon” stealth fighter officially unveiled and ready to enter active service

The PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) has eventually unveiled its long-awaited J-20 stealth fighter to the public during the Zhuhai Air Show’s opening ceremony. Is it possible to compare it with the F-22?

Two LRIP (Low-rate Initial Production) J-20A stealth jets did a brief 60-second fly-past at the Zhuhai Air Show 2016 in Guangdong province on the Show’s first day on Nov. 1, 2016, marking the first public appearance of the “Mighty Dragon” fighter that performed its maiden flight back in 2011.

Even though the J-20s did not fly a dramatic flight demo, the two fighters thundered above hundreds of spectators as well as political and industrial dignitaries and executives, made a few climbs, turns and formation fly-bys and then disappeared again.

The public appearance was far from being unannounced, due to the preparation at CAC earlier this month.

Four days ago even the PLAAF itself announced in an official statement, that it would demonstrate its latest J-20 stealth fighter jet at the Zhuai Air Show: Senior Colonel Shen Jinke, PLAAF- spokesman noted, that “the J-20 was designed by our aircraft researchers for future aerial combat. Test pilots from the Air Force will use it to perform at the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition.”

The Chinese Chengdu J-20 is a fifth generation stealth aircraft developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

We still know little of about this aircraft even though it bears a loose resemblance to at least three (if not more) other types of aircraft: the F-22 Raptor; the Mig 1.42 prototype; and the the Mig-31 “Firefox”, a fictional aircraft appearing in “Firefox”, a 1982 action film produced and directed by, and starring, Clint Eastwood based on a 1977 novel written by Craig Thomas.

j-20a-lrip-yellow-30-9-16-12

The aircraft is believed to be equipped with IRST (Infra-Red Search and Tracking), AESA radar and several other interesting stuff, but its ability to match the most advanced western “hardware” is still much debated.

What follows is an analysis of the latest J-20’s achievements.

2016 milestones

With the arrival of the first LRIP aircraft in December 2015 and further new aircraft since then, all “older” prototypes (2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) were transferred in the meantime to the CFTE at Xi’an-Yanliang for further ongoing tests with regular detachments for alleged weapons testing at the PLAAF’S Flight Test and Training Base (FTTC) at Dingxin. These tests so far included captive tests with four large drop-tanks and reportedly included firings of both the new PL-15 long-range AAM as well as the new PL-10 short-range AAM. Besides that, it was reported that the WS-15 has just finished ground testing (with a thrust of about 160kN reached), and it is ready to begin the test on an IL-76LL platform.

In retrospect the year 2016 so far was an extremely successful year for CAC: reports assume that at least seven LRIP J-20As were flown; and most interesting, not only in yellow primer or standard PLAAF-grey with toned-down national markings, but apparently at least one spotting an all-new splinter scheme [similar to that used by West’s Aggressors]. Other reports assume that a few J-20A have already left Chengdu to a first OPEVAL unit, which is most likely established at the flight test center (FTTC) at Dingxin air base, where 12 new hangars were erected since 2015.

Otherwise most spectators, enthusiast and analysts still have to be patient and it is surely too early to judge to what extent the J-20 can match the stealth properties of the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II or how far its avionics are comparable. So far not even its external dimensions, specifications on its KLJ-5 AESA-radar –that is also under test on a special Tu-204C testbed – nor its type of engine were officially revealed, however following the latest reports it is not unlikely a special custom-tailored version based on the Salut AL-31FM2.

j-20a-lrip-grey-splinter-camo-17-10-16-2-xl

Conclusion

Since its maiden flight in January 2011 ten prototypes were manufactured (Note: the two demonstrators 2001, 2002 = now 2004, + the prototypes 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and two static test specimen) and that this type is to be the third stealth fighter jet to enter operational service following the United States’ F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. In retrospect the J-20A has indeed reached the LRIP-phase with the J-20’s design being frozen. If the PLAAF follows now the usual procedures, a first unit equipped with these LRIP J-20As of the current interim standard will enter service within the PLAAF at around the year’s end or early 2017; much earlier than expected. As such it seems to be confirmed that even if limited in its capabilities due to the missing WS-15, the PLAAF will bring that type to service as soon as possible to exploit and explore operational tactics and procedures for this new fighter.

Concluding, the J-20 is a giant leap for the PLAAF both capability-wise and technology-wise alike. Did anyone of us expect a Chinese stealth fighter to be operational before 2020 when asked in, let’s say, 2010?

As such even if probably no match in terms of stealth to the latest F-fighters (due to no stealthy-nozzle, open chaff-and-flare boxes and other details…) it is surely much more stealthy than any other type operational in that area. Even if its engines are not the top ones desired – aka the future WS-15 – they are surely comparable (if my theory is correct and I’m quite confident!) – they give that type already a performance surely not worse than the latest J-11B … as such it is a huge step even if it might be well below the F-22’s capabilities.

Andreas Rupprecht is an aviation journalist. He has written several books on China’s military aviation, including “Flashpoint China” and “Modern Chinese Warplanes”.

Image credit: Weibo/Chinese Internet via Rupprecht

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15 F-35As (13 USAF and 2 RNoAF) Grounded By “Several faulty cooling lines discovered in their wings”

15 F-35A have been grounded at Luke Air Force Base after faulty cooling lines were discovered.

Several faulty cooling lines have been identified in the wings of some F-35A aircraft at Luke Air Force Base, leading to the decision to temporarily suspend flight operations.

Noteworthy, the issue does not involve all the CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) examples but 13 U.S. Air Force and 2 Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35As. Interestingly, among the 4 aircraft already delivered to the Norwegians, only the third and fourth F-35 received at the Partner Training Center at Luke Air Force Base are affected by faulty components.

Some details about the grounding were just released by RNoAF.

The F-35, just like several other aircraft, uses its fuel tanks as part of its on-board cooling system: this imply that several cooling lines have been installed inside the tanks to allow cooling liquid for the aircraft’s avionics and other systems to pass through.

During a routine depot maintenance of one of the American planes it was discovered that the insulating materials covering the cooling lines have decomposed, leaving residue in the fuel.

The subsequent inspections have confirmed the same kind of issue with other aircraft fitted with cooling lines from the same provider.

According to the Norwegian MoD the issue has been traced back to cooling lines manufactured by one particular provider that have only been installed in the wing fuel tanks of 15 aircraft – 13 US and 2 Norwegian. However, an additional 42 aircraft currently on the production line have received parts from the same provider (including the three Norwegian aircraft scheduled for delivery early next year).

“We have been very pleased with our aircraft so far, both in terms of performance and technical capabilities” says the release that goes ahead with more information about the problem: “This is not a design flaw, but is instead caused by a supplier using improper materials and improper sealing techniques for these specific parts.”

Major General Morten Klever, the director of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office says he expect Lockheed Martin to identify the appropriate measures to correct this issue, and implement these as quickly as possible.

“This appears to have been an isolated incident. We expect this to be resolved by the time we receive the next aircraft currently in production. The F-35 will be key to our ability to defend Norway over the coming decades, and consequently we have imposed very strict requirements on the aircraft,” says Major General Klever in the official Norwegian statement on the grounding.

Since not all the aircraft are affected by the issue, pilots at Luke Air Force Base will be able to continue their training using other aircraft at the base, including the other two Norwegian jets as well as the Italian and Australian examples.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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Watch an F-16’s Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System save an unconscious pilot from certain death

The Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS) recognized the F-16’s dangerous attitude and automatically performed the recovery that saved the life of an unconscious student pilot.

Obtained by Aviation Week, the declassified footage below shows the importance of Ground Collision Avoidance Technology (GCAT).

It was filmed from the HUD (Head-Up Display) of a U.S. Air Force Arizona ANG F-16 whose student pilot was rendered unconscious by high-G BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuver) up to 8.4g during a training flight.

With the pilot suffering G-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) the aircraft started an uncontrolled steep descent from 17,000 feet in full afterburner.

You can clearly hear the worried IP (Instructor Pilot) radio “Two, recover!”, three times as the aircraft, 55-degree nose down, thundered towards the ground at more than 600 knots.

When the aircraft seems to be destined to hit the ground, the Auto-GCAS detects the unusual attitude and executes a recovery maneuver at around 8,700 ft. and 650 kt, saving “Sully 2” from CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain).

We have analysed GCAT in depth with an article by USAF Flight Surgeon, Capt Rocky ‘Apollo’ Jedick, last year.

As explained in that story, two of the most common human factors conditions that lead to death or loss of aircraft in combat aviation are spatial disorientation and G-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC).

Spatial Disorientation is the inability to determine one’s position, location, and motion relative to their environment. The Pilot-Activated Recovery System (PARS) will save pilots suffering from recognized Spatial-D as long as the pilot remains able to activate the technology. If a pilot is spatially disoriented but remains unable to initiate PARS, Auto-GCAS should theoretically still save him/her from CFIT.

Auto-GCAS provokes inputs to the flight controls automatically without pilot initiation. The technology relies on sophisticated computer software, terrain maps, GPS and predictive algorithms that will ‘take the jet’ from the pilot when CFIT is predicted to be imminent.

Although Ground Collision Avoidance Technology has proved to save several lives (this is the fourth confirmed “save” by the Auto-GCAS system since the system was introduced in 2014 according to AW’s Guy Norris) it has some significant software and hardware limitations.

For example, as we highlighted last year, the system is not able to make inputs on the throttle. If the power reduction is required for the optimal recovery GCAT systems (as Auto-GCAS and PARS) might be  unable to initiate recovery overriding the current throttle setting.

 

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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