Five years later, little has changed and transponders remain turned on during real operations making the aircraft clearly visible to anyone with a browser and an Internet connection, thus breaking OPSEC and exposing aerial refueling tracks or clandestine operations, like those being flown on a daily basis in North Africa, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
For instance, last night as many as three Beech 300 Super King Air aircraft could be tracked while they circled over Mosul while hunting for Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions.
These days, along with the tankers, several quasi-civilian U.S. Army-operated aircraft, including the Pilatus PC-12/45 N56EZ, the Super King Air 300 N80BZ and N166BA and several MC-12W Liberty (the military variant of the B350 King Air).
Like the one, registered N6351V that crash landed near Erbil, Iraq on Mar. 5. In that case, the mishap exposed the fact that the Liberty (just like many other special mission aircraft operating in the same area) sported a non-standard white color scheme to disguise itself as a light transport plane.
But in spite of its general aviation appearance the aircraft was actually an MC-12W EMARSS (Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System) variant used to perform ELINT (Electronic Intelligence), COMINT (Communication Intelligence), direction finding as well as Full Motion Video broadcasting to the tactical commanders on the ground, for day and night target detection, location, classification and tracking, as well as counter-IED operations.
All these modified aircraft are equipped with EO/IR (electro-optic/infra-red) sensors, aerial precision geolocation system, line-of-sight tactical and beyond line-of-sight communications suites, Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) workstations, and a self-protection suite: much more than a normal general aviation plane….
Another frequent visitors of the skies over Iraq is also a Bombardier Global 6000. According to some ADS-B experts it may be a RAF Sentinel R1, a quite advanced ISR platform that has been extensively used in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, or an E-11A, an advanced ultra long-range business jet that has been modified by the U.S. Air Force to accommodate Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload.
Whatever it is, needless to say, it can be tracked online on Flightradar24.com.
H/T to @CivilMilAir, Guglielmo Guglielmi, Guido Olimpio, Avi Scharf and Greg Anderson for contributing to this post. Top image credit: FR24.com via Greg Anderson. Image credit: Rudaw.
In this animation we can see the C-47 Dakota flight [ZA947] and Lancaster flight [PA474] join up then fly down the Mall before breaking off to the north.
Other aircraft can be clearly seen in the animation: [CWL68] were the B200s with serial ZK453 and ZK454 (with SCE84 being probably a spare Beech); [P7350] was the Spitfire; [NOH23] was a chopper out of RAF Northolt, possibly on security duty.
Noteworthy, a Spitfire and a Hurricane pop up in the early frames but once joined up, only the lead aircraft in each section continued with Mode S.
Image courtesy John Locker
PlanePlotter (PP) is a software that receives and decodes live digital position reports from aircraft and plots them on a chart.
Using PlanePlotter, you can see a radar-like display of all those aircraft around you that are transmitting the appropriate digital messages including ACARS, ADS-B and HFDL. Needless to say, you need the appropriate hardware (receiver, antenna, etc.) to get the digital signals.
Unlike other very well known Internet services, as Flightradar24.com or Planefinder.net, PP has some more features, including
Multilateration to locate and track those aircraft which do not send position reports
Beamfinder, Beamfinder Plus and Beamfinder Plus S: PlanePlotter can use the pings from known radar stations to calibrate the rotating beam and to use that information to locate aircraft not transmitting position
Airbus Military has been very busy recently adding another two combat types able to be refueled from its A330 MRTT tanker aircraft, which has been ordered in three examples by the UAE Air Force.
The company, which is part of the EADS conglomerate, has performed several test flights out of Al Dhafra airbase near Abu Dhabi with the UAE AF F-16 Block 60 and the Mirage 2000 fighters. The tests, which included aerial refueling during climbs, descents, turns as well as straight and level flight were performed at a range of altitudes and speeds.
Even if the F-16 has already been qualified to be refueled from the A330 tanker this was the first time a Block 60 with the large conformal fuel tanks and a slightly different wake footprint than the older version of the F-16, has taken on fuel. Tests have involved aircraft in various loadouts.
The same tests were also performed on the Mirage 2000, including the two seat version with different loadouts as well as different fuel loads.
For those interested in tracking some air-to-air refueling flights, please consider that they often appear on both Planefinder and Flightradar24 since the A330 MRTT broadcasts full ADS-B data from its Mode-S transponder.
For instance, using the radio callsign “CASA 013” the A330 EC-339 could tracked on Mar. 20, 2012 performing a refueling mission between FL240 and FL280. Click here to see the route followed by the MRTT during that sortie.
The track flown on Mar. 19, 21, 22 and 25 can be found as well using the playback feature of FR24.com.
Antonio Caramazana, Vice President Programme Director Airbus Military Derivatives, said: “It is very satisfying to qualify another two aircraft type as receivers for the A330 MRTT and we look forward to entry into service with the UAE Air Force later this year.”
The air crew training for the A330 with UAE pilots is currently taking place in Spain with the first two MRTT’s due to be delivered before the end of the year. The training of the aircrew takes place at Airbus’ training facility near Madrid and included not just the pilots but the refuelling operators too all using state of the art simulators.
Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti
According to an esteem by Flightradar24.com, around 60% of the civil airliners and only a small amount of business jets and military aircraft have an ADS-B transponder. This means that, although you will never spot a Stealth Helicopter nor Air Force One broadcasting its position, speed, altitude and route on the Web, you can still catch some extremely interesting planes. As the evasive US Air Force C-32Bs (a military version of the Boeing 757), operated by the Department of Homeland Security and US Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), used to deploy US teams and special forces in response to terrorist attacks.
I was wrong.
Although even the Flightradar24 FAQs confirmed that the Air Force One, the world’s most famous and important aircraft, should NOT be visible on their website, for a few seconds around 19.40UTC, the U.S. Air Force’s VC-25 (mil version of the B747), with registration 82-8000, transponder code 3614, advertised its position in the public domain while over Baltimore, descending through FL120 at 310 kts, heading towards Washington D.C. (for landing at Andrews AFB).
I don’t really know the reason for this quick appearance of the AF1 on FR24. A human error? A quick test? Hard to say. I’d expect the IFF Mode 5 with encrypted Mode-S and ADS-B to be paramount on the aircraft carrying the POTUS.
The first thing I did when Lee Armstrong told me to give a try to Planefinder‘s new search feature was to look for some E-6Bs, which are among the most interesting military planes to advertise their position on the Web using full ADS-B. They can be seen flying around the main operating base of Tinker AFB, or near the two alert bases on the West and East coasts (respectively, Travis AFB, California, and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland) under the bogus callsign “GOTO FMS”.
Since I found four of them overflying the U.S. I ironically tweeted:
There are at least four E-6B doomsday planes over the US now. One of them on an intriguing route across Nevada (Tonopah range -> Las Vegas)
Many of my followers reacted to my tweet with questions and retweets. I explained them that the E-6B TACAMO (“TAke Charge And Move Out”) is not only used transmit instructions to the fleet ballistic missile submarines in case of nuclear war but that they are also used as back up of the four E-4Bs NAOC (National Alternate Operations Center), operating as ABNCP (Airborne Command Post) platforms.
Everybody know E-4Bs are extremely important. In the event of a war, a terrorist attack, an alien invasion and so on (hence the “doomsday plane” nickname), these aircraft are destined to keep the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other “decision makers” alive to direct nuclear (and conventional) forces, by receiving, verifying and relaying EAM (Emergency Action Messages).
One aircraft is usually airborne every 12 hours, with another one ready for departure with a 5-minute notice. If national command centers on the ground are attacked or unavailable, an E-4B is immediately scrambled: that’s why a “doomsday plane” was seen orbiting above Washington DC minutes after a hijacked plane had crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.
The E-6B Mercury can do the same job. Built on the Boeing 707 airframe and using a B737 cockpit, this aircraft has a range of 5,500 miles, and accommodates 23 crew members. The U.S. Navy has a total fleet of sixteen E-6Bs. It can perform the so-called Looking Glass mission (mirroring the ground-based C3 center at Offutt AFB and relaying orders), it can talk to submarines trailing a 26,000 ft wire antenna, it can launch commands to ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles) via Airborne Launch Control System, and can perform C3 (Command Control Communication) operations to forces operating in theatre. For this reason they are often deployed abroad: they were monitored in Iraq and have been deployed to the UK in the past.
An E-6Bs flying over the UK when Osama Bin Laden was killed
Even if I was sure that an E-6 had taken part to the raid at Abbottabad as an ABNCP platform (to such an extent that I had put one these planes in the “crime scene” of my Operation Neptune’s Spear explained article) I had never realized that the one over UK could be linked to the Osama Bin Laden raid. Actually, I wasn’t even sure that the plane deployed to RAF Mildenhall since Apr. 28 was flying when the raid took place.
However, once again I thought that Planefinder could be of some help. Its new playback feature gives you the opportunity to monitor the traffic from Apr. 1, 2011 onwards. I gave it a try and found that “Iron 18” (registration 164409 – “GOTO FMS” on the Mode-S transponder – a VQ-3 “Ironman” airframe based on its callsign), was flying at 310 Kts, FL260 one of its 8-hour round robin missions (made of some counter-clockwise laps) over the UK around 19.0o UTC on May 1, 2011, at the same time when the Stealth Black Hawk had landed at the Bin Laden’s compound.
Two screenshots showing Iron 18 orbiting over the UK on May 1, 2011 (the previous days’ tracks are not purged by Planefinder’s playback feature so also the inbound track from the US is still visible)
Interestingly, the same aircraft had flown the same mission profile on the previous days, landing more or less at the same time it did on May 1 (at 20.26 UTC), as if it had performed a couple of work up sorties at the same altitutes, speeds and times.
Actually, these kind of orbits over the UK have been flown from some years and communication relay missions take place nearer to the area of operations. However, the mysterious E-6B presence in the British skies while the most important US military operation of the recent time took place can not be a coincidence. The Mercury is capable to communicate on virtually every radio frequency band, on commercial satellites and on the Internet, using also a secure VOIP system.
What if it was orbiting over the UK to exploit a particular geostationary satellite or to act as a back up ABNCP another E-6B flying in the vicinity of Abbottabad?
There’s also another intriguing hypothesis: “Iron 18” was performing command and control relay to two stealth B-2s that were flying somewhere in the vicinity of the Pakistani airspace, ready to bomb the compound in Abbottabad if the Navy Seals raid on board the Stealth Black Hawk failed to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden. In fact, we know for sure that, in March 2011, Obama authorized the U.S. to bomb Osama bin Laden’s compound using two B-2 bombers but changed his mind when he learned the compound would be wiped out and there would be no DNA proof of his death. But we can’t rule out the possibility that an air strike with 2,000 lbs GBU-31 GPS-guided bombs would be the “Plan B” if the Navy Seals raid failed.