Tag Archives: Red Flag

Red Flag Memories: Combat Pilot Explains How RF Has Evolved And Why The F-35 Is A Real Game Changer In Future Wars

Red Flag is not a “joke” as some critics have said. It’s an exercise that continues to evolve to replicate the most modern scenarios, where 5th Gen. aircraft are pivotal to the final success.

Red Flag is one of the biggest high-intensity exercises in world. It is designed to simulate the first 10 days of a conflict with hundreds of assets involved. A friendly force (Blue Air) against an enemy force (Red Air) in a scenario designed to provide pilots with real combat experiences so that they can improve their skill set before heading into actual combat. Something evident in the Red Flag motto as well: “Train as you fight, fight as you train”.

I took part in RF twice during my career: in 2002, I was at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for a “standard” RF, whereas in 2010 I deployed to Alaska for the so-called Red Flag-Alaska (read here about the epic transatlantic flight we undertook to take six Tornado bombers back to Italy after RF-A..).

RF has the ability to bring the pilot into a unique realistic scenario, and is also a place where new tactics are born, developed or put to test.

I remember more than 70 aircraft scheduled to depart from Nellis AFB one morning; one big COMAO per day with a scenario featuring different type of threats (Surface-to-Air and Air-to-Air), targets and ROE (Rules of engagement).

Believe me, RF is much more than a normal large-scale exercise!

Ever-changing scenarios

After attending two RFs I can assert I’ve seen scenarios changing a lot throughout the time.

In 2002 we had a well-defined set up, we knew where the enemy was, how it would react to our presence, where the threats were located etc.; in 2010, we faced a “border line” scenario with enemy elements embedded in friendly forces or civilian population, where CDE (Collateral Damage Estimation) was extremely important, where target VID (Visual IDentification) or  EOID (Electro Optical IDentification) were the main success factors in the simulated air campaign. In other words, 8 years apart, the RF scenario had evolved to adapt to the ever-changing “combat environment.”

The most recent RFs prove that the exercise continues to change.

For instance, while maintaining the standard coalitions scheme (Blue and Red forces), RF 17-1 had the two teams involved in a “crisis” instead of a war situation. On top of that, not only does the scenario has introduced the latest and most sophisticated and capable threats that require a change in tactics, but it has also moved on a higher level, focusing on the importance of  “battlefield information management,” a kind of task the much debated F-35 is going to master.

Today, taking part in a RF means joining pilots, ground forces, intelligence analysts, cyber and space operators, for testing and training operations at Nellis as well as the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas.

All the participants have only one goal in mind: working together to FITS “Find, Identify, Track and Strike” the adversary, to attack forces in a multi-domain battlefield which is based on what we have encountered so far in theater and what we may expect to find in the future wars. This is the real core business and the big change of the most recent RFs.

A RF mission is usually made of 20-25 adversaries: not only aircraft, but also ground-to-air threats, moving and unknown threats etc. In other words, the old fixed scenario has become much more “dynamic” requiring a real-time “combat battlefield” coordinator.

Therefore, the most recent RF scenarios aim to develop the ability to fuse all the combat capabilities. In this context, the F-35 brings to the package the ability to penetrate deep into the most complex and “unknown” environments providing the “overall control” of the battlefield. The F-35, as well as any other modern aircraft with similar sensor fusing ability, can also work in a complementary fashion with the 4th generation fighters, sharing the information with all the other “players” while providing its own amount of fire power to the team.

Stealth technology (capability to survive and operate effectively where others cannot) combined with 5th generation features (i.e. superior information management), were pivotal to achieve the overall RF’s mini-campaign results.

Maintainers from the 419th and 388th Fighter Wings conduct conducts preflight checks on an F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, during Red Flag 17-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 24, 2017. Airmen from the active duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW fly and maintain the Lightning II in a total force partnership, capitalizing on the strength of both components. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

Although the reliance on a single capability or asset will not be enough to succeed in the future scenarios, the F-35, as a “combat battlefield” coordinator, is a “game changer”: it brings new flexibility, new capabilities and, above all, helps enhancing the “survivability” of the coalition packages.

In a “crisis” situation, the coalition needs to timely react to a fast evolving scenario. With the ability to collect, manage and distribute intelligence data, during RF 17-1 the F-35s were able to geo-locate the threats and target them with the required (simulated) weaponry. Even when the F-35s had expended all their ordnance they were requested to stay in the fight and assist the rest of the package by collecting live battlefield data and passing it to older 4th generation fighters via Link-16.

This is the value-add of 5th generation fighters: their ability to suppress enemy targets while contributing to dominate the air and battlespace supporting “legacy” aircraft.

Believe me, it’s not easy to be fighter, striker and tactical battlefield coordinator at same time! So whatever the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) or the role of the F-22 that teamed with the F-35 were, the 20:1 kill ratio against the aggressors is a pretty impressive achievement.

Analysing the RF 17-1, it is quite impressive (at least from an old-school fighter pilot’s standpoint) to hear that the F-35 flew right on top of the threat, did its job performing successful strikes and providing command and control tasks to other COMAO assets, before returning home unscathed.

The Red Flags I attended in the past did only feature “conventional” fight with no 5th generation asset involved. My job as wingman was to keep visual contact with my leader, follow him while he managed the air-to-air picture and, if everything went well, reach the TGT (target) area, using terrain masking, without being targeted by the red air or ground-to-air systems . Less than a decade ago, the friendly forces did not have the capability to target advanced surface-to-air missile threats with an aircraft like the F-35A and exercise planners were obliged to simulate the engagement of the most heavily defended targets with long-range “standoff” weapons – like Tomahawk cruise missiles – a kind of air strike that would require an outstanding intelligence coordination and would not fit too well in case of moving targets.

An Italian Air Force Tornado takes off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska on June 18, 2010 in support of training exercise Red Flag – Alaska. More than 1,300 personnel including members of the Italian Air Force and the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force have deployed to Alaska to participate in RED FLAG-Alaska 10-3. U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.

That changed significantly with the advent of new generation aircraft. The wingmen flying 5th gen. aircraft today, act as air battle managers who are able to “see” the battlefield in a way an F-15 or an F-16 pilot will never see, whereas their leaders can drop PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) on ground targets or engage enemy fighters.

In 2002, everybody came in into fight, moving from BVR (Beyond Visual Range) and eventually to WVR (Within Visual Range) for a big merge; today, the adversaries roughly know where the stealth fighter *could* be, but they don’t know exactly where they are, how they will approach the target or maneuver to engage the enemy.

Summing up, the real added value of 5th Gen. aircraft (both during RFs and in case of real wars) is their ability to perform information distribution, real-time battlefield management, and dynamic FITS (Find, Identified, Track and Strike) reducing the risk of attrition or collateral damage.

 

We Have Rented A Cessna 172 And Skirted Area 51 and Nevada Test and Training Range. Here Is How It Went.

We undertook a very unusual trip over Nevada desert.

Area 51, a myth in the underworld of conspiracy theories, especially for those who believe in alien spacecrafts, flying saucers, UFOs etc, is a highly classified installation in the Nevada desert.

Since the 1950s, the remote site, located south of the dry Groom Lake, has been used to support the development and testing of several aircraft and weapons systems including the famous U-2 Dragon Lady, the Mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird, or the later F-117 stealth fighter (more precisely its Have Blue prototype).

Its involvement in Black Projects and the secrecy surrounding the operations conducted over there has made Area 51 the most interesting secret airbase in the world for aviation enthusiasts.

Groom Lake airbase is located inside the Nellis Test and Training Range, 200 miles north of Las Vegas, under a dedicated and forbidden airspace identified as R4808N in the aeronautical charts. This place is well protected from prying eyes as the ground perimeter extend to 10 miles from the runways, and a small ridge inside the Area prevent anyone on the Tikaboo valley to see anything.

Most enthusiasts and photographers climb Tikaboo peak. This vantage point is difficult to access, is almost 8,000 feet high which puts it 3,000 feet over the airbase but 26 miles away. You need a powerful telelens to see anything from there.

Being a very long time military aviation fan, both interested in the secret life of Groom Lake and in the larger Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR) where every Red Flag exercise happen since the 70s, I wanted to see it in real. What made it possible is that I’m a private pilot, and the airspace east of R4808N is “just” classified as a Military Operating Area (MOA). It’s a danger area when it’s active or “hot” (meaning some military activity is scheduled or in progress), but still accessible for anyone at their own risk.

While on vacation in the area, I decided to attempt a flight there, during the weekend to lessen any risk, particularly with the Air Traffic Control (ATC) in the area. I booked a rental Cessna 172 Skyhawk at West Air Aviation in North Las Vegas airport (KVGT) and had an appointment with an instructor for a check ride.

KVGT from above.

On a Friday late afternoon, after having spent the day around Nellis AFB, taking pictures of military jets of all sorts involved in their last day of Red Flag simulated war, I met Jacob for my “flight review”. After one hour of questions/answers about air traffic rules in the US and flight safety, I climbed in the small Cessna 172 cockpit for a short flight.

The sun was really low and it was time for me to prove Jacob that I knew how to handle this wingy thing. Fortunately, I use to fly a Skyhawk at home so I behaved myself at the controls. Slow flight, steep turns and simulated loss of engine: I went through all before heading back to the airfield for pattern work.

After a couple of touch and goes, and the radio work with the tower, Jacob asked me to perform a full stop landing on runway 30L. Back to earth, I was now ready to take to the sky as Pilot in Command. The only unknown thing was how would I handle the Bravo airspace controllers of Las Vegas, as KVGT lays in an easier Delta airspace.

Next morning, I was on the tarmac for the walkaround of N9572H, my 42 years old Skyhawk for the day. No glass cockpit here, just the typical six-pack instruments with a trusty Garmin GNS430 GPS. I also had my iPad with a GPS antenna and a good nav app with all the latest charts in it.

At the commands of N9572H, waiting for departure

After a thorough preflight, I started up, listened to the ATIS and talked to Ground with a request to taxi for a VFR flight to Rachel and Lincoln airfield (1L1), with Mike information. No more info given to the controller about my intended and legal visit close to Area 51. Both 30L and 30R runways were in use and I soon taxied to the runup area. Radio was clear and I was now confident that I could handle the communications with McCarran or Nellis AFB controllers. After my routine tests, dutifully performed in accordance with the checklist, I switched to the Tower and requested take-off. Then again, directions were very concise but clear, and my radio ability reinforced my confidence.

Moments later, I’m lining up for a “rolling take-off” on 30L runway, an expedited departure. Full power, no flaps, 55 knots indicated, no alarm, 2300+ rpm checked, I’m rotating and the wheels leave the ground. I’m very concentrated as I inform the tower that I prefer a 350 heading rather than the proposed 280 heading (where do they want to send me ?). My right turn is approved and I’m soon handed over to Nellis Approach. I’m still below their airspace but I need to request a clearance before entering Bravo airspace. I quickly request it and I hear a fast “72H is cleared thru Bravo airspace” ; this is my passport for a further climb north of Las Vegas.

With the hot weather, the climb is slow and I’m passing Gass peak. Again, as I climb to 8,500 feet, I have no problem understanding the instructions from Nellis and I can copy the traffic information when they tell me that I’ll be overtaken by four F/A-18 Navy jets, 2,000 feet above. I will never see them, even with my cranium turning everywhere inside the Cessna cockpit. Shortly after that, I hear a “resume own navigation” and I settled onto a 8,500 feet cruise, still heading to 350, the direction of my first waypoint, Alamo.

After 10 minutes, Nellis Approach wants me to leave their frequency as I’m reaching the virtual fence of their airspace and I’m left with Los Angeles Center on 134.65. This will be a frequency on which no communication will ever be made with my small Cessna, as it’s overloaded with static. I hear some voices, request “flight following” 5 times and I’ll never get a clear reply.

After a while, I decide to climb a thousand feet more. This may improve radio reception and also give me a better view of the area beyond the long north-south Sheep Range to my left. 5 minutes later, I’m stable at 9,500 feet with, still, no radio contact with LA Center, but with a good view. I know that Blackjack control is the ATC facility managing the whole NTTR

As I’m overhead the Pahranagat lakes, I can see a big dry lake on my right, “Texas Lake” (Delamar), sometimes used as a staging area for aircraft forward operations from unprepared runways.

Texas Lake, named as such due to its shape.

A few minutes later, approaching Alamo I get my first good glimpse at Groom Lake and its buildings. With the naked eye, it’s impossible to distinguish anything other than these big hangars, small metallic dots reflecting the sun. I’ve got my camera on the passenger seat and I take some pictures with my 55mm, an easy lens for photographing while handling the yoke, but not big enough for the distance.

Groom Lake from Tikaboo Peak

I decide to turn left as soon as possible to get closer, while staying well out of the restricted area. I take a 270 heading, not directly towards the airbase as I don’t want to alarm the Blackjack air traffic controllers.

The flight track beside the restricted areas (blue track)

As I enter Tikaboo valley, with the straight ET highway (US 375) going north-west to Rachel and the Black Mailbox trail leading to the Area 51, I get a clearer view of the dry lake, the long runway and the various buildings.

Area 51, aka Groom Lake, as seen from over Tikaboo valley, 9500 feet AMSL

I’m elated as this is something I wanted to see by myself, somewhere I wanted to come to for the last 15 years. And being there in this little Cessna, flying alone and wherever I may think of, it’s a dream come true.

Same view as the previous one, cropped and postprocessed.

It’s now time to turn a bit right to skirt the north-east corner of R4808. Bald mountain to my left hides the dry lakebed, then the main airbase. These are the last seconds for me to have a look at this most secret airbase. I don’t circle in the area because I don’t want to draw more attention. Having an F-16 escorting me away may be great for pictures, but this could be a sign that the sheriff is waiting for me on the ground, so that’s the last thing I want for now.

Approaching Rachel, I recognize Coyote Summit where I spent two long days this same week. And I’m now eager to discover from the air all the geographical report points the military pilots use during their Red Flag sorties. Over Rachel, I’ve got now a good view of No Name mountain, west of Bald Mountain. This lone butte is a good mark showing the northern frontier of Area 51, or the Container as the military pilots call it. They also have no right to penetrate that area and if they do, they’re sent back to their home airbase the next day with a bad grade for their career.

North Groom range with Rachel and No name.

Farther west from No Name is Belted Peak, from where all the air-to-ground activity starts at Red Flag, and beyond it I can distinguish Quartzite Mountain, between the 74 ranges and the 75 ranges. I spent a lot of time studying the NTTR chart and reading about it ; that helps me identifying all these now.

Belted peak with Quartzite mountain behind it.

I now turn east to my destination for the morning, Lincoln Co airport (Panaca town). This brings me just south of that long north-south Worthington range.

Worthington mountains.

After a few minutes and an overhead of the Timpahute range mines, I overfly Irish mountain. This peak is used also by Blue Force pilots during Red Flag to report and prepare their collective and structures ingress towards the FEBA (or Forward Edge of the Battle Area).

Heading east, Approaching Irish peak, with its snowy summit.

I fly east over Hiko, hoping for a good tailwind on the return trip to Las Vegas. I’ve been having a headwind for the main 1.5 hours and the gas supply on the few Nevada airfields is scarce (Alamo and Lincoln has none for example). I now can see without any mistake a large gap in between two ridges : Pahroc Summit Pass, also  known as Student Gap among Red Flag pilots. This is the main passage point for Blue Force pilots when it’s “push time”. It’s a lot better to be here in my Cessna during the weekend than during a Red Flag weekday.

Heading east in view of Student Gap with US93 crossing it. Red Flag pilots usually fly it in the opposite direction, towards the main ranges.

After ten minutes, I see the small Lincoln Co airfield where I’ll have my lunch break, under the wing and in a 10 kts wind. The landing is uneventful and I find myself really alone on that parking. I’m amazed that nobody other than me, seems to enjoy the Nevada desert by plane, specially when you can be so close to where the most secret planes get tested.

The return trip is straight as gas is a bit of a concern for me, having already burnt 1.7 hours, with a total endurance of 4 hrs. 80 miles out of Las Vegas, I get my clearance for the Bravo airspace and after passing the mines and plants of Apex, north of Sin City, I request to overfly Nellis AFB. Nellis Approach grants it and I can approach the base at 6,500 feet. After some pictures, I’m asked to take a westerly heading to North Las Vegas and I comply.

These few seconds allowed me to get a good souvenir of the big military airbase: the cherry on the cake.

Still dozens of airplanes on the tarmac of Nellis, while Red Flag 17-2 is now just over.

Las Vegas as seen from the downwind leg of runway 30L at KVGT.

Salva

Salva

Salva

Salva

“That time we lost one KC-135 tanker over the Atlantic while returning from Red Flag Alaska”

Last week, while unpacking some boxes I’ve stumbled in my Red Flag Alaska (RF-A) papers. Suddenly, an endless flashback brought me back to that exercise and to an epic transatlantic flight with 6 receivers and just one tanker…

That RF-A took place in the Summer of 2010. All the Italian Air Force Tornado community took part in the exercise: the 6° Stormo (Wing) from Ghedi airbase, equipped with Tornado IDS attack aircraft, deployed to Alaska elements from both the 102° Gruppo (Squadron), the 154° Gruppo and the 156° Gruppo (my squadron) whereas the 50° Stormo, from Piacenza airbase, deployed its 155° Gruppo, equipped with the Tornado ECR, the electronic combat reconnaissance variant of the “Tonka”.

Red Flag Alaska is a really intensive air combat training exercise held at Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles (42 km) southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Participants are organized into “Red” forces (defensive forces), “Blue” forces (offensive forces) and “White” forces representing the neutral forces (typically, the drills control agencies).

In 2010 edition, up to 50 combat aircraft of all types were deployed to Eielson AFB and about 40 (mainly Red Air assets) operated from Elmendorf AFB, Anchorage.

RF-A is a very exciting exercise because it offers a huge high/low altitude Military Operation Area (MOA) and provides a realistoc operational combat scenario that includes several different threats.

A that time, along with being a Tornado pilot, I was also assigned to the Italian Air Force HQ for a so-called “staff tour” during which I worked in the development of the T-346A (M-346 Master aircraft in the ItAF designation), the aircraft I eventually flew years later once I became an IP (Instructor Pilot).

Our plan was to arrive in Alaska a week before RF-A kicked off in order to complete all the in-processing briefings, assume a correct mental preparation and have the possibility to fly at least one LAO (Local Area Orientation) sortie inside the ranges to get familiar with the procedures, alternates and recovery points around Eielson.

Retro flight’s line up card.

Flying a formation of fighter bombers across the Pond is quite complex: it requires a lot of effort by a whole team whose task is to deal with planning the ferry flight, stopovers, refueling points, diplomatic clearances as well as several other logistic details.

Dealing with the assets, three U.S. tankers (2 KC-10s and 1 KC-135s), one ItAF C-130 for search and rescue, and one ItAF Boeing 767 for logistic support were needed.

In terms of plan, a long and complex flight between Italy and Alaska has a main basic requirement: all the aircraft must be filled with the amount of fuel required to either reach the next refueling point or to divert to the nearest alternate airfield, at all the stages of the trip.

As you may imagine, this is not an easy task: not only do the known variables influence the planning but also many unpredictable events (weather conditions, ATC clearances, tanker or receiver issues, etc.) must be taken into proper consideration and, in some way, anticipated.

The type of formation required to undertake the long ferry flight usually includes one tanker (with two hoses/baskets) and 6 Tornados: the dual hose configuration is needed to shorten the AAR (Air-Air Refueling) operations and have a backup option in case one of the baskets becomes unavailable. Dealing with the flight time, the entire trip is split into several legs each consisting of about 5hrs of flight time and 5 air-to-air refueling points (even though this may change because of the winds).

In 2010, the ItAF deployed to Alaska 12 Tornado between ECR version (Electronic Combat Reconnaissance) and IDS version (Interdiction and Strike) in two “waves” of 6 aircraft each.

I was selected to bring one of  the jets back at the end of exercise and fly the oceanic track: in other words I had to pilot the Tornado from Bangor to Italy via Lajes, the Azores. Considered that the tankers did not have the dual hose/basket configuration, the plan was to split the formation in two flights of 3 Tornados, each supported by one tanker, perform five refueling operations in about 5 hrs of flight, land in Lajes, spend there 36 hrs there and then continue to our final destination, Ghedi, with another 5-hr leg through the Strait of Gibraltar and 4 additional AARs.

Pretty much this was what we briefed with the tankers the day before the mission. The “only” problem was the weather on the departure day. The wx forecast highlighted two possible issues.

The first one was a very low ceiling not allowing the “compound departure.” The compound departure is a sort of racetrack departure procedure where tanker and fighters rejoin shortly after takeoff over the airfield and then proceed together along the route: in this way the time to rejoin with the tanker minimized; the tanker is responsible for navigation, airspace coordination, correct AAR sequence, time and fuel off load.

The second issue was that solid clouds were reported up to FL250 (which is above the best AAR altitude for Tornado) and well beyond the first refueling point (C2, according to the map).

In other words, with that kind of weather we would be forced to take off, look for the tanker during the climb to the cruise level with the risk of not being able to get in visual contact with the refueler by the missing refueling point (MRP) due to the poor visibility and cloud coverage, and be eventually forced to divert to the alternate because the fuel would not be enough to return to Bangor.

So the question was: “continue with this plan or postpone the mission until weather improves?” Re-planning isn’t easy when a lot of people, different commands and supporting assets are involved. Delaying the mission would also have a logistic impact as lodging would have to be arranged for many military at different airbases. Last but not least, a delay of one day in Bangor would have led to a delay of three days in the overall trip since the original take off from Lajes was scheduled on Friday morning and Saturday and Sunday are no-fly days there, meaning that we would have to wait until Monday to depart from the Azores.

We eventually decided to wait until the departure day and check the actual weather before opting for a delay.

On early morning Jul. 13 we met in the briefing room: the weather was exactly as forecasted, but the good news was that the forecast for the next two hours reported the clouds moving westward. This gave us good chances of reaching VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) before the missing refueling point (MRP), about 50nm before C4.

Therefore, the revised plan was to launch the tankers 5 minutes ahead of the Tornados so that the refuelers could set the holding at least 20 nm before the first MRP. In case of bad weather, the tankers could extend eastwards, moving the holding pattern until good weather was found or fuel to divert to divert to the alternate airfield was reached (whichever came first). In order to have the option to fly eastwards as much as possible, we decided to use St. Johns as alternate airfield.

This plan implied minimum spacing and a first, quick plug to get the gas required to increase the endurance as needed to start a new refueling sequence. In such conditions the crews need to be very precise and disciplined: each aircraft is allowed to take just the minimum fuel needed to continue the flight and then make room to the other jets. The wait-refuel-wait sequence is extremely important as each member of the formation has always to have enough fuel to divert and reach the alternate, should the need arise. Moreover, the farther you meet the tanker and start the sequence, the more fuel you’ll need. But more fuel translate in a longer sequence, hence more gas is burnt by the aircraft waiting for their turn to refuel… In other words, it’s a matter of continuous calculations.

Mid track chart

The day of the flight

It’s 07:00L on Jul. 13, 2010. I’m the leader of 3-ship formation, radio callsign “Retro 11” and my tanker is a KC-10 single hose. We are finishing the briefing with the Extender aircrew and in 10 minutes we will be walking towards the assigned aircraft.

The Squadron Commander, callsign “Mig” is the leader of the other 3-ship formation “Retro 14” whose tanker is a KC-135 single hose with Boom to Drogue Adapter (BDA). The BDA is a very stable system, easier to plug, but more difficult to maintain while refueling since it needs a particular “S” shape to open the refuel valves like you see in the picture below.

A Tornado refuels from a KC-135 equipped with the BDA (Credit: USAF)

After 20 minutes, we are at the holding point ready for takeoff. The KC-135 gets airborne as scheduled; “Retro 14” follows 5 minutes later. Then it’s the turn of my tanker (KC-10) that gets airborne two minutes after the first flight of “Tonkas” and now it’s my turn aboard “Retro 11”.

I perform the visual signals, release the brakes and depart.

Just 30 seconds after take-off my number three calls “Airborne! Visual two” meaning that they have departed and have visual contact with the preceding Tornado. I slow down to 280 KTS, remaining below the clouds, to expedite the rejoin of my wingmen.

With my wingmen in close formation I start a climb while turning inbound the planned track. At 1,500 ft I’m in the clouds: my two wingmen, “Cloude” on the left wing and “Blondie” on the right wing, are absolutely awesome as they keep a perfect close formation.

We are approaching FL150 and my navigator “Giaspa” is doing an outstanding  job with the radar. Although we are inside solid clouds since our first turn, he has a positive radar contact with the tanker 15NM in front of us. Having the tanker in our radar scope keeps us quite calm: we can focus on rejoining with the tanker preventing any delays

At FL 170 I accelerate a little bit to get closer to the tanker and minimize the rejoin time. “Giaspa” continues to give me updates about the tanker he keeps tracking on the radar and now we are extremely happy with a pretty solid SA (Situational Awareness). “Let’s hope the weather moves in accordance with the forecast and clears our refueling point,” I say to “Giaspa” over the intercom.

In the mean time I contact “Mig” to have some more information from them, flying about 5- 6 minutes ahead of us. “Gonzo we are flying in the clouds at FL190,” he responds.

We are currently over C2 (the waypoint where AAR should have started) and we are in the clouds. We need to calculate how long we can fly before reaching the point to divert and, at the same time, we cover all the “what if” options trying to update a kind of dynamic plan. Waypoint C3 is approaching.

In my mind the option to divert starts to become more and more realistic: we are flying over waypoint C3 and we are still inside the clouds.

This first segment of our long trip  seems to be endless and we steer inbound C4, our “go/no-go point.”

The first leg from Bangor

About five minutes later “Mig” calls me on the radio: “Gonzo we are VMC at FL190 at 25 NM from the MRP and we are in sight with the tanker.”

I smile under the oxygen mask, acknowledge the call on the radio and ask my tanker to climb to FL190: in less than a minute we are above the clouds, in clear skies with our tanker in sight in front of us. I immediately re-check the fuel and call for correct refuel sequence: I’ll be the number one, then will be the turn of “Claude” followed by “Blondie.”

The tanker crew feels our pressure and acts accordingly: the refuelers is extremely cooperative and facilitates the rejoin procedure clearing me directly to the pre-contact position.

I start to refuel. After a few minutes I move to the “observation position” allowing my wingman to plug into the tanker’s hose.

Everything is going very smoothly. We can also take more fuel than initially planned: we have taken 800 Kg each instead of 600 Kg; the plan is to take 2,000 kg each in the next sequence and then fill the tanks again to regain the original AAR schedule.

Meanwhile, Retro 14 formation is on my right, about 3 NM in line abreast 1,000 ft above. They are about to refuel in sequence from the KC-135 in accordance with their fuel state: “Lillo” (#2) then “Mig” (#1) and last will be “Mastro” (#3).

“Lillo” approaches the hose and in a second plugs the probe into the basket. When everything seems to be ok, something happens. About a minute after the successful “contact” he starts a small PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation) that in a few seconds becomes bigger and bigger until it breaks the only basket available on the KC-135! The basket disconnects from the hose misses “Lillo”’s air intake by few meters and falls down into the Ocean.

“Ohhh noooo!!”

The “broken” tanker heads to St. Johns whilst “Mig” and the rest of his formation, join us behind the only remaining tanker able to offload some gas: our KC-10.

In a moment, the situation has dramatically changed. We were three ships with one tanker and now we are six ships and a single refueler: this means less fuel to take, less time to refuel, more plugs and a very long sequence.

“Mig” takes the lead and defines the new refueling sequence in accordance with the formation’s fuel state. “Lillo” has taken 300 kg before breaking the basket while “Mig” and “Mastro” have not had a chance to take gas: they need to refuel asap and then give way to “Lillo” who needs a refill.

In a matter of a few minutes the three Tornados complete the refueling and, a bit more relaxed, we decide to continue the transatlantic crossing with a new sequence involving six ships: I’m the first and “Lillo” will be the last. But considered the queue behind the hose, we will not take 2,000 kg each as planned, but only 500 kg.

The new unplanned sequence seems to be working well until, after the fourth rotation, the tanker radios: “Retro 14 I have gas for six jets only for the next refuel point.”

This isn’t a good news because we are half way from destination and we need at least two more AARs to reach Lajes.

According to the plan, a third tanker should be coming our way from Moron, Spain. Let’s check where it is now.

Our tanker says the new Extender, callsign “Blue 61”, has departed ahead of the scheduled time and is currently already heading westbound over the Atlantic. “Mig” asks our KC-10 to coordinate an expedited rendezvous with the new refueler that would allow us an additional plug.

We meet “Blue 61″ after completing our last refueling with the first KC-10 tanker. The new Extender brings us to Lajes with two additional AARs.

We eventually land there on Jul. 14, after 7 hours of flight time and 7 aerial refuelings!

Once on the ground we meet the rest of the aircrews in the pilot lounge and start relaxing. “If we are here is because of you and also because of the skill and cold blood of all pilots and navigators,” I say to “Mig” and “Gigi”.

A couple of hours after landing, 6 F-16Bs of the PAF (Pakistan Air force), on their way to Nellis Air Force Base, where they would take part in a Red Flag for the first time, perform a stopover in Lajes. We are not alone in the Azores.

Last leg

It’s Jul. 16, I’m back in the cockpit leading the same formation of ItAF Tornados to Italy. Once again “Mig” is the leader of the other section. This time the weather is good.

The last leg was uneventful: everything went well and we arrived in Italy as planned.

What I remember of this second flight is the moment when I was approaching the Strait of Gibraltar: the scenery suddenly changed due to the influence of Sahara desert. Colors changed. From a deep blue start the sky turned into yellow then orange and then into light red just over the Strait. These colors, the Strait, were a unique sight and my feeling was like I was passing through a gate in a game when you change level: it was an indescribable experience.

In the end the entire transfer was a unique, challenging experience. Thousands of words are still not enough to describe our emotions, moods, concerns and adrenalin. You really had to be inside the cockpit to fully understand what we lived up there. Still I would do it again tomorrow.

In my opinion, this mission is the perfect example how discipline, professionalism, team work and training may be the keys to success.

Top image: file photo of an Italian Tornado IDS refueling from a KC-10 over Afghanistan

Red Flag’s air combat maneuvering as seen from the Nevada Desert

Climb with us to the top of Coyote Summit to see some real Red Flag 17-2 action!

Red Flag is a major event in the military aviation community, known by both pilots, spotters and other fans. In a nutshell, it is the most important exercise in the world, both in terms of realistic training and participating units, and it’s held 4 times a year. It is staged from one of the world’s biggest and most famous airbases: Nellis Air Force Base, north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Much has already been written about Red Flag so I won’t come back to the origins, dating back to the Vietnam War; nor will I describe the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR), where the wargame takes place, nor the 64th Aggressor Squadron whose involvement as a realistic opposition makes Red Flag what it is.

Aircraft parked on the apron at Nellis AFB during RF 17-2

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Nevada, during Red Flag 17-2, and watch these machines around the base. The unit panel consisted mainly of F-16C squadrons :

  • the 55th FS from Shaw AFB with few jets from 77th and 79th FS;
  • the Alabama ANG 100th FS with two jets decorated with beautiful red Tuskegee tails;
  • the Colorado ANG 120th FS;
  • RNLAF 322nd sqn F-16s based in Leeuwarden, with some jets from Tucson (with mixed Arizona ANG and dutch markings).

The only other jet players were Spanish Ala 111 with their Eurofighters, supported by KC-130H from Ala 312, and 493rd FS Eagles from Lakenheath.

An Aggressor F-16 about to start “flexing” after take off

After two days of shooting tons of pictures (you can have a glimpse here), and wanting more than take-offs and landings at the base, I was looking for some more action. My plan was to go and see and hear the aerial war in the high desert of Nevada, the natural habitat of these metal birds.

The place is known as Coyote Summit and is a two hours drive from Sin City, heading north. Passing Hancok Summit on the E.T. Highway (also known as US 375), one can see the vastness of the USAF playground. On the left, there’s a trail leading to Area 51, invisible behind a small ridge. Thirty miles ahead is Rachel, and my plan is to stop at a small gap, up the road where most of the Blue players (Blue air are the participant units of Red Flag, while Red air with their Aggressor F-16s simulate the enemy) should fly by, low or high.

Around Coyote Summit

So here I am, on this clear Nevada weather morning, sitting on top of Coyote Summit, a 200 ft hill at the “gate” of the Range (aka the NTTR), and waiting.

This particular place is very well-known among spotters and by noon, we’re 5 people there, chatting about aviation, and catching in a hurry our cameras at every engine sound we hear above the wind.

At around 1PM, things start moving with 2 white pickups driving fast accross the desert south of our vantage point. They’re not going to set up a simulated Roland SAM as we initially believe. They just drop a guy alone in the bushes and carry on their drive and stay in a deep creek 2 miles away. Radio chatter begins, after a long silent morning, between the pickups and some range controller. We understand that they should have gone to “Red gate”, instead of “Blue gate”, but it seems to be a bit late to fix so the guy on the ground will stay there.

At 2:20PM, we hear some tactical comms on the radio: U.S. F-15Cs and Spanish Typhoons are setting up their Combat Air Patrol (CAP), well east of our position. Cylon flight will take New York CAP (should be above Hiko as we see the contrails) and Pulsar flight will go to Alaska CAP, above Worthington Peak.

F-15s contrailing above Coyote Summit

“Vul time” has been delayed because some players are still on the tarmac at Nellis, and now, according to “Words Bravo,” this Vul time is 2245Z (or 2:45PM). And that’s precisely then that we see “the Wall”, formed by 4 F-15Cs and their contrails, pushing west towards the Red players. The opposition is now just a pair of F-16Cs Aggressors. But soon, as the fight develops, more aircrafts from both sides will converge above Rachel and fight at high altitude.

To the merge!

An F-15 during the engagement

Shots are called on the radio, e.g. “Pulsar 1, Fox 3, bullseye 080 10 23 thousand!”
“Copy shot” says a controller, and a few seconds later some voice confirms the shots as kills (“Mig 3 dead”), or misses (“Pulsar 1, shot trashed).

A Spanish Typhoon contrailing at high altitude

The action never stops, some Aggressors come back (“Cylon 3, pop-up single, BRA 250, 15 miles, 26 thousand, regen”), some Blue players get shot, but mostly Red Air gets hurt and regens regularly. Spanish Typhoons and Dutch Vipers drop flares every now and then, calling out “Spike” or “SAM” based on what their RWR gear tells them.

Spanish Typhoons flaring

Plenty of flares were used during the mock air combat training we observed from Coyote Summit.

While these jets fight overhead, sometimes with an impressive double sonic boom, we can hear some choppers approaching low from the southeast.

MH-60 approaching

Two Navy MH-60S from HSC-21 turn for a few minutes before converging toward our lonely guy, not far from us.

I’m as close to the action as I’ll ever be and soon, we hear jets coming for help as the Sandy fighters used to fly in Vietnam. These are 2 F-16Cs from the 120th FS, with their Colorado ANG tails, circling about 1,000 feet above us and protecting what is now clearly a “downed pilot extraction.”

One of the choppers involved in the CSAR mission

Two F-16s circling above provided cover to the downed personnel extraction operation.

F-16 “Sandy”

This lasts for 10 minutes and the Vipers even simulate an attack on the hidden white pickups. The choppers take off with their precious cargo in and head to the southeast.

MH-60s egressing

The fighter jets activity now seems to subside a bit.

Some are already calling “RTB” (meaning Return to Base) and some sanitize the area while the strikers egress. I haven’t seen any striker as they must have flown through a route north of Rachel. It is also interesting to add that all the air combat seen today, at least the kills, were BVR (Beyond Visual Range) or nearly – no WVR (Within Visual Range) dogfights were spotted.

At about 4:15, two hours after the first thunderous noises, we hear on the frequency “All players, all players, knock it off, knock it off”: this is the end sign and everybody now RTB.

This was a long day and pretty intense afternoon which I’ll never forget. Hundreds of photos were taken. But what’s most important when coming here, is the possibility to listen to the air-to-air communications with a UHF scanner: the best way to be immersed into the action.

Thanks to Aviationist Todd Miller for all the precious info about aviation photography and Coyote Summit area.

Salva

“Red Flag confirmed F-35 dominance with a 20:1 kill ratio” U.S. Air Force says

Looks like the F-35 achieved an impressive 20:1 kill ratio at Nellis Air Force Base’s Red Flag 17-1

Every aviation enthusiast knows about Red Flag, the large-scale aerial combat training exercises held four times per year at Nevada’s Nellis AFB just north of Las Vegas.

The historical highlight of the recent Red Flag 17-1 was the very first inclusion of the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II in the exercise. F-35As of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, Utah, launched large multi-aircraft sorties during Red Flag 17-1.

Three words summarize the role of the F-35A during this Red Flag exercise; stealth, integration and flexibility. To a greater degree than any previous aircraft in U.S. Air Force history the F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill AFB acted as sensors, guidance platforms and strike assets almost simultaneously, and they did so in a threat environment that would have been previously impenetrable without significantly greater loses. They also performed in an air-to-air role: although we don’t know the ROE (Rules of Engagement) in place for the drills nor the exact role played by the F-22 Raptors that teamed up with the Lightning II throughout the exercise, the results achieved by the F-35, appear to be impressive, especially considering the 5th Gen. aircraft’s additional tasking during RF.

Indeed, while early reports suggested a 15-1 kill ratio recent Air Force testimony by Lt. Gen. Jerry D. Harris, Vice Commander of Air Combat Command characterized the kill ratio as “20-1” meaning that, for one F-35A “lost” in simulated combat in a high threat environment that the aircraft destroyed 20 simulated enemy aircraft.

During the same testimony, U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, related a 24-0 kill ratio for U.S. Marine F-35B aircraft during a different exercise.

Whereas the air superiority scenario has not been disclosed (therefore, the above mentioned kill ratio should be taken with a grain of salt, as always when it deals with mock air-to-air engagements…), other details of the F-35As specific missions during the exercise are beginning to emerge from Red Flag 17-1.

The recently revealed reports suggest that large-scale F-35A strikes were conducted in a highly contested/denied aerial environment. Air Force F-35As penetrated denied airspace and directed standoff weapons from B-1B heavy bombers flying outside the denied airspace. Those strikes destroyed simulated surface to air weapons systems. This suggests some of the exercises were an example of a “first day of war” scenario where Air Force F-35As spearheaded an attack on a heavily defended target set both in the air and on the ground. The F-35As entered the denied airspace and engaged both aerial and ground targets, not only with weapons they carried but also with weapons launched from other platforms such as the B-1Bs as they loitered just outside the threat environment acting as “bomb trucks.”

USAF Capt. Tim Six, and F-35A pilots of the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB, alluded to the “Sensor fusion both on-board, and off-board the aircraft” when he discussed the F-35A’s expanding envelope of strike and inter-operable capabilities.

This demonstration of F-35A capabilities counters an ongoing trend in the development of air defense networks for potential western adversaries. To a much greater degree than the F-117A Nighthawk defined the opening hours of the first Gulf War by penetrating Iraqi Air defenses and striking strategic targets with precision and stealth the F-35A expanded on that strike capability during this Red Flag according to the flying branch’s post-exercise statements.

At Red Flag 17-1 the F-35A also included additional roles previously reserved for air superiority aircraft like the F-15C Eagle and heavy strike capability from large bombers while even performing “light AWACS” duties.

“I flew a mission where our four-ship formation of F-35A’s destroyed five surface-to-air threats in a 15-minute period without being targeted once,” Major James Schmidt, an F-35A pilot for the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB told the Air Force Times.

“After almost every mission, we shake our heads and smile, saying ‘We can’t believe we just did that’ Schmidt told reporters.

Major Schmidt went on to highlight the multirole capability of the F-35A in a non-permissive environment when he recalled, “After taking out the ground threats the multirole F-35A is able to pitch back into the fight with air-to-air missiles, taking out aircraft that don’t even know we’re there.”

Another addition to media coming from Red Flag 17-1 is this beautifully done extended video from our friends at Airshow Stuff shows a remarkable array of combat aircraft arriving and departing for air combat exercises. There are B-1B Lancers, F-22 Raptors, EA-18G Growlers, F-16 Aggressors based at Nellis, RAF Typhoons, Australian E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, an Aussie C-130J Hercules transport.

At the 18:51 point in the video we get a ride in a KC-135 tanker for an approach straight into Nellis and a look at what flying into the busy base is like.

Another interesting political implication of Red Flag 17-1 is the inclusion of the Royal Australian Air Force. Although RAAF takes part to RF exercises every now and then, this may suggest an increased tempo of integrating new U.S. assets with other air forces in the Pacific region, possibly as a pro-active response to increased North Korean threats in that region.

Salva