Tag Archives: U.S. Air Force

US military has launched 59 cruise missiles at airbase in Syria. Here’s what we know so far.

Two U.S. destroyers cruising in the eastern Mediterranean Sea have fired 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at an airbase in western Syria. The cruise missiles flew across the Russian S-400 MEZ unscathed.

Last night, Alreigh Burke-class destroyers USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) launched cruise missiles into Syria, in response to the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians on Apr. 4.

On President Donald Trump’s order, 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) targeted runway, hardened aircraft shelters, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, radars and fuel points at Shayrat Airbase, the airfield in western Syria from where, according to the intelligence gathered by the U.S., the aircraft that carried out the chemical attacks were launched

The track of the Syrian aircraft that carried out the CW attack on Khan Shaykhn (DoD released)

According to the first reports, all the aircraft based there have been destroyed or severely damaged, including some 30 Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter attack planes, several SyAAF MiG-23s and also some Su-24 Fencers according to sources. For sure, considered the status of Assad’s air force, the attack may have had a significant impact on the ability of the loyalist air force to conduct air strikes.

However, later reports say that most of the aircraft based there were evacuated before the strike, and initial footage from Shayrat seems to show at least some areas of the airports, including taxiways, shelters, aprons, etc. with little or no damages.

Update:

Only 23 missiles flew to the Syrian air base and just 6 MiG-23s were destroyed there along with a radar station, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, said at a briefing. Where the remaining 36 cruise missiles have landed is “unknown,” he said.

According to Pentagon, the Russians were informed ahead of strike:

Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line.  U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.

Indeed, Shayrat Airbase is a Forward Operating Base for a few Russian Air Force Mi-35 and Ka-52 helicopters. The status of the choppers, provided some of these were there at the moment of the air strike, is unknown. However, considered that these are not mentioned in the Russian Defense Ministry statement it’s safe to assume they were not damaged by the TLAM attack.

Noteworthy, the TLAMs flew across the MEZ (Missile Engagement Zone) of the S-400 missile battery the Russians deployed to Latakia to protect the Russian air contingent deployed there in 2015.

Did Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft defense system detect the missiles? For sure there are no reports of any of the BGM-109 intercepted by the S-400. 

Designated SA-21 “Growler” by NATO, the S-400 is believed to be able to engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft (someone says even VLO – Very Low Observable ones), drones and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 250 miles at an altitude of nearly 19 miles. Equipped with 3 different types of missiles and an acquisition radar capable of tracking up to 300 targets within the range of over 370 miles, the Triumph (or Triumf) is a system made of 8 launchers and a control station.

Supported by effective EW (Electronic Warfare) capabilities, the S-400 fires missiles against aerial targets flying at 17,000 km/h.

So, at least on paper, all non-stealth aircraft and missiles would hardly be able to dodge S-400 missiles. Assuming that the Russians probably detected at least some of the Tomahawks flying fast and low towards their targets at Shayrat Airbase it’s not clear why the Trimf did not attempt to intercept any of the TLAMs launched by the US destroyers, considered the reaction by Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council’s defense committee, who said the American attack was “an act of aggression against a UN member […] Cooperation between the Russian and US militaries may be shut down after the US strike.” according to state news agency RIA.

Perhaps, considered that they were informed beforehand, they simply decided to let them pass. The Russian MoD statement does not say mention any Russian air defense system intercepting any of the U.S. missiles launched towards Shayrat Airbase even though some sources have suggested only 23 missiles reached their targets because the other ones were brought down near Tartous by the local S-400 and S-300 batteries.

The S-400 MEZ (source: RT)

 

Anyway, the U.S. TLAM strike marks a shift in Washington’s posture regarding Syria and it represents the first direct action against Assad’s regime after six years of civil war.

Back in 2013, when a U.S. military operation in Syria was being rumored, we published an article that you can read here. Here are some key points of that story, that still apply four years later:

“Forget F-15E Strike Eagles and F/A-18E Super Hornets carrying PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions). Should Washington really get involved in Syria, it will probably be a limited air war, mainly made of cruise missiles, most (if not all) shot by warships or submarines and almost no involvement of “tacair” (tactical airplanes).

[…]

The attack would be conducted by the four destroyers in the Sixth fleet area of operations (USS Gravely, USS Barry, USS Mahan and USS Ramage) [in 2013 these were operating in the eastern Mediterranea], each theoretically capable to launch up to 90 Tomahawks Tactical Cruise Missiles (actually less, because these warships usually carry a mix of attack and air defense missiles).

High flying Global Hawk drones flying from Incirlik, Sigonella or Al Dhafra, will perform the post-strike BDA (Battle Damage Assessment). Some sorties will also be flown by U-2s.”

At that time a real air campaign was thought to be considered. The one carried out in the night between Apr. 6 and 7 was probably an isolated air strike in retaliation for the Syrian chemical strikes earlier this week.

 

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“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

Combined Force of 4 F-15s and 4 F-22s achieves 41-1 kill ratio against 14 “Red Air” fighters at WSEP

A mix of Raptors and Eagles can be pretty deadly, even if outnumbered by enemy fighters.

More than 250 airmen and 9 F-15 Eagle jets from the 104th Fighter Wing, Massachusetts Air National Guard, deployed to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, for the Weapons Systems Evaluation Program (WSEP).

Known also as “Combat Archer”, WSEP is an air-to-air exercise hosted by the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group  to improve air-to-air tactics and practice weapons systems employment: fighter pilots rarely get a chance to fire live missiles, WSEP exercises are almost always the first and only opportunity to use live air-to-air weapons and validate their shots.

“The WSEP does two things,” said Col. Jeffrey Rivers, Commander of the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron, Weapons Systems Evaluation Program in a U.S. Air Force release. “It feeds Combat Air Force’s (CAF) training and readiness. We get air crew experience for the first time subsequent to the events, sounds, sights, smells, and noise of a real missile coming off the jet in a realistic scenario they would find normally in training but now it is with real weapons and real targets to shoot at.”

Missiles used in Combat Archer tests usually don’t carry a warhead, replaced by telemetry packages. The AAM are shot over the Gulf of Mexico at various types of drone targets (including the MQM-107D Streaker and the unmanned aerial targets such as the QF-4 recently retired).

During WSEP, the Massachusetts ANG’s Eagle jets flew 212 sorties out of 221 sorties and successfully fired 14,661 bullets at WSEP, totaling 100 percent of the guns on the aircraft firing every time as well as 17 missiles obtaining a mission capable rate of 83%.

“Our deployment to Tyndall really had two different but complimentary themes,” said Col. William Bladen, 104th Fighter Wing, Operations Group Commander. “The WSEP portion focused on exercising and testing the kill chain from the missile build all the way through its destruction of a target. It takes several miracles for a missile to complete an intercept. […] The second piece of the deployment was large force exercises and 4-ship training which is the core fighting force in the Eagle. With several other fighter airframes on the Gulf Coast, we were able to put together daily outnumbered scenarios that we cannot produce up here at Barnes. The last day of the trip we flew 4 F-15s and 4 F-22s against 14 “red air” fighters. For our training, we allowed the red air to regenerate after being killed by a blue air fighter. The final results of that mission: Blue Air killed 41 enemy aircraft and lost just one. While pretty phenomenal, perfection is our goal so the debrief focused on how we could have had a 41-0 ratio.”

Pretty impressive, even though, as always, we don’t know anything about the ROE (Rules Of Engagement), the scenarios, the threat profile, the simulated loadout etc. In this case, we don’t even know the type of adversaries the Eagle/Raptor flight had to fight nor how America’s two premiere fighters cooperated to shoot down all the enemies in the simulated engagements.

Kill ratios attributed to both single types or combined forces always seem to suggest there were direct engagements WVR (Within Visual Range). However, BVR (Beyond Visual Range) aerial combat is probably more likely in future air wars where air dominance has not been clearly established. As proved by what we have witnessed in the Nevada desert during Red Flag 17-2

During WSEP, mixing the deadly ability of the stealthy F-22s to gather, fuse, and distribute information to provide the Counter Air forces with vital situational awareness that could be exploited to engage highly sophisticated aerial threats, with the air superiority capabilities of the un-stealthy F-15s, equipped with powerful Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars proved to be pretty effective.

As said we don’t know anything about the assets that were defeated during the mock air combat at WSEP. “On the ramp at Tyndall Air Force Base alongside 104th Fighter Wing Eagles, were Canadian CF-18s, F-35s, F-16s, and F-22s,” says the U.S. Air Force release. Some of these might were probably part of the Red Air.

Top image: file photo of a U.S. Air Force F-22 and F-15, 104th Fighter Wing, flying together during Cope Taufan 14 exercise.

 

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

U.S. and Polish Hercules trained to perform cargo drops while evading MiG-29 interception during exercise in Poland

Take a look at these interesting photographs of Polish and U.S. C-130 Hercules performing cargo-drops, landings on unprepared strips, while evading MiG-29 fighter engagements.

U.S. and Polish C-130 aircrews took part in exercise AvDet 17-2 a Hercules Training Operation that took place between Mar. 3 and 28, at Powidz airbase located in Central Poland.

AvDet 17-2 included a cargo-drop and precise-landing contest as well as tactical sorties, landings on unprepared strips, fighter engagements with the Polish MiG-29 fighter aircraft, and night operations carried out with the use of NVGs (Night Vision Goggles).

Every sortie began with a mass briefing, during which the formation leader explained and specified the assumptions and objectives of the mission, along with the details of the route and safety and communications aspects concerning the crews.

On the day when Foto Poork’s Filip Modrzejewski visited the airbase, fighter engagement sorties were planned with the involvement of the Polish Air Force MiG-29 jets hailing from the Minsk Mazowiecki airbase, located in the vicinity of Warsaw.

The goal of such sorties was to allow the Fulcrum pilots to refine their intercept skills, while allowing the Hercules crews to deal with enemy fighters by proper route planning and tactical maneuvers.

Modrzejewski was given the opportunity to fly aboard a Polish C-130 during a mission mainly flown at 14,000 feet (probably, a bit too high to avoid interception). The Hercules crews claimed that even though the MiG-29 radar is not a state of the art system, it has more than enough capability to detect and lock onto an “enemy” Hercules.

C-130s heading to the drop zone

The tactics adopted in scenarios as such include tactical maneuvers at high G rates, or complete evasion and avoidance of the areas within which the fighter aircraft remain active. Nonetheless, the airlifters were eventually intercepted by a pair of Fulcrums, and then a short formation flight with the MiGs took place, with the crews enjoying the company of the fighter aircraft. After the “show of force” came to an end, the cargo planes returned to base, with a follow-up debriefing.

A MiG-29 escorts the Polish C-130 after intercepting the Hercules flying a tactical airlift mission

Beyond the fighter engagement sorties, cargo drops were performed at night and during the day. In bad weather conditions, the drops were carried out with the use of sandbags, instead of real payload or personnel, to avoid potential losses. The operations took place in the airspace over the 33rd Airlift Base in Powidz. Even though some plans existed to perform sorties over the so-called Błędowska Desert area in Poland, the arrangement was eventually canceled due to adverse weather conditions in that region.

Polish C-130 performs tactical air drop

Airdrop in progress!

U.S. C-130H Hercules over Powdiz

When it comes to the precision cargo drop and landing contest, finalizing the exercise, the crew of the ‘1501’ Hercules aircraft, the very same airlifter that was the first one that has been delivered to Poland exactly eight years ago, won the competition held within the framework of the US AvDet 17-2 training operation.

View from the cargo door of the Hercules

A glimpse into the cockpit of the Polish Air Force C-130

The competition took place on Mar. 24. 2017 and involved four crews – two from the US and two from Poland. The American airmen, as noted within the official report issued by the Polish MoD, operated the C-130H airframes, whereas the Polish crews were flying the C-130E variant, with the crews including pilots, loadmasters, flight engineers and navigators.

The contest covered the areas of precise landings and precise cargo drops. Polish Air Force’s ‘1501’ airframes, commanded by Cpt. Szymon Gajowniczek, has left the competition far behind, winning in both categories.

The U.S. “legacy” C-130 taxiing

In case of the cargo-drop portion of the contest, the winners were able to drop the load 48 meters from the target, 3 meters closer than the American crew managed to do.

In case of the landing competition, the Polish pilots managed to land only 12 meters from the indicated point. Considering the fact that C-130E is 30 meters long, the aforesaid results are very impressive.

Landing on an unprepared strip

Image Credit: Wojciech Mazurkiewicz and Filip Modrzejewski

Salva