Tag Archives: U.S. Air Force

What’s this mysterious aircraft spotted at Edwards AFB? The secretive B-21 Raider, the RQ-180 drone or “just” a B-2?

The U.S. Air Force says it’s a “standard” B-2, but a pretty detailed analysis and some subtle details seem to suggest it might be something else.

The photographs you can find in this post were taken by three of our readers (Sammamishman, Zaphod58 and Fred) who have recently returned from a trip to monitor activities at Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base, California.

These guys are not the average avgeeks. All the three either worked or are currently working around aircraft (one has worked on an Air Force Base ramp for many years and is well-respected as an aircraft guru, another works as an air medic and one is in the aerospace industry involved in advanced space and defense-related components) and they are extremely familiar with aircraft they observe and photograph with some high-end equipment. Sammamishman is the reader who sent us the video and photographs of the F-117s flying over Tonopah Test Range in 2016.

Among the things the trio photographed, there is also an unknown large flying wing type aircraft, hooked to a ground power unit, sitting on an apron located at Edwards South base between the hours of 10PM and 1AM on July 24-25, 2018.

The three spotters sent the images to the Air Force to determine if it is a classified article and subject to DoD censorship. After reviewing the images for a few days, the Air Force responded it was a B-2 Spirit.

“I however disagree with this story for several reasons that I will go into,” says “Sammamisham” in an email.

“Upon initial examination of the photos that night when we took them, it looked like a B-2 but under closer examination the proportions and fuselage configuration didn’t look right for a Spirit”.

The group has indeed produced an analytical analysis done on the shots that, provided it is correct, seems to indicate that the aircraft they observed that night at Edwards is not a B-2 Spirit.

The analysis is based on a stack of 40 separate images, assembled to reduce glare, taken from a distance of over 10 miles.

Here are the reasons why they believe it’s not a B-2.

– The spacing and size of what is assumed could be engine nacelles on either side of the center fuselage.
– Other bumps on the fuselage back that are odd or don’t seem to match the B-2.
– The larger pair of bay doors visible. The B-2 has multiple smaller bay doors for the bomb bay and engine access.
– The seemingly odd landing gear configuration.
– The slender wing section that curves oddly. The B-2’s wing should appear relatively thinker and straight at that view angle.

“Using the ground power unit, sitting next to it, as a measuring metric, (the AF uses Essex B809B-1 units with a 103″ length), we are able to estimate the height of the aircraft at 12.4′ and a wing span of around 130ish’. The B-2 is 17′ and 172′ respectively,” Sammamisham explains. “I also did a view angle comparison to the B-2 which also showed a difference in the wing tip flaps between this aircraft and the B-2. This aircraft was only out during the night hours. We returned the next morning to verify it was or wasn’t a B-2. The aircraft was no longer there (I have pics taken showing it gone). This, in my opinion, also lends credence to it not being a B-2 since it would be odd to pull a B-2 out to do ground tests during the night and early morning hours only.”

Using an Essex BD series power unit as a measuring tool it is possible to roughly determine the dimensions of the aircraft.

Let’s speculate. In fact, what at first glance seems to be a B-2 might really be something else considered we are basing our analysis on a cropped, blurry image taken at night from extreme distance (10 miles). Dimensions aside, there are some details that appear to be quite different from a standard Spirit stealth bomber: obviously we can’t rule out it’s a matter of perspective, objects in the line-of-sight, etc., but the differences in the spacing and dimensions of the engine nacelles (provided they are nacelles) are somehow evident.

The mysterious aicraft appears to be similar to a B-2. But our readers highlighted several alleged differences.

So, assuming the wing span is really 130ish and the aircraft is NOT a B-2 (as mentioned we are just speculating here), what is it?

We have a couple of options here but the one that seems more reasonable given its estimated dimensions, location and operating hours, is that the one depicted in the grainy shots is a secretive B-21 Raider bomber. The next generation long-range stealth bomber is known to be heading to Edwards AFB (so much so a B-21 Combined Test Force patch was already available on eBay months ago) for testing and the concept model of the B-21, has a lot of things in common with the B-2, including the position of the engine nacelles. Based on the B-21 Raider artwork released so far, the aircraft should be much similar to the B-2: the main difference is the “W” shaped trailing edge of the Raider that is an evolution from the Spirit’s sawtooth trailing edge.

Artist rendering of the B-21 Raider. (Wiki/NG)

The B-2’s wingspan is 172 feet, the B-21 has a payload requirement said to be between two thirds and half that of the B-2. That’s why the Raider will probably be lighter featuring a wing span smaller than that of the Spirit.

If you combine all these things and assume the measurements are correct we might be looking at an early Northrop Grumman B-21 article.

The location of the aircraft was: 34.903609, -117.873366
Our reader’s view spot was here: 34.761176, -117.800955

Less likely, it may also be a Northrop Grumman RQ-180.

In the Dec. 9, 2013 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Pentagon Editor Amy Butler and Senior International Defense Editor Bill Sweetman revealed the existence of the RQ-180, a secret unmanned aerial system (UAS), designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and scheduled to be operational with the U.S. Air Force by 2015.

Developed by Northrop Grumman since 2008-2009, the stealthy RQ-180 is designed to operate in “contested” or “denied” airspace, as opposed to the non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk that are intended for “permissive” scenarios.

In their analysis back then, Sweetman and Butler said: “It is similar in size and endurance to the Global Hawk, which weighs 32,250 lb. and can stay on station for 24 hr. 1,200 nm from its base. The much smaller RQ-170 is limited to 5-6 hr. of operation. […] The aircraft uses a version of Northrop’s stealthy “cranked-kite” design, as does the X-47B, with a highly swept centerbody and long, slender outer wings. Northrop Grumman engineers publicly claimed (before the launch of the classified program) that the cranked-kite is scalable and adaptable, in contrast to the B-2’s shape, which has an unbroken leading edge. The RQ-180’s centerbody length and volume can be greater relative to the vehicle’s size.”

Aviation Week worked with artist Ronnie Olsthoorn to construct concept images of the RQ-180 based on its attributes, including its “cranked kite” design, but these artworks seem to have little in common with what our readers spotted at Edwards.

Nevertheless, considered the quality of the photographs we can’t completely rule out the aircraft is the new stealthy drone that was given a couple of fuselage humps/nacelles similar to the B-2’s.

A pretty famous Northrop Grumman artwork shows an airframe adaptable for bomber and transport roles that was patented in 2012: it bears resemblance to both the B-2 and the X-47B’s shape. If that is the real shape of the RQ-180, then the one at Edwards may well be the new stealthy drone, 4 or 5 of those are believed to be operational somewhere in the U.S.

Northrop Grumman was awarded a patent in 2012 for an airframe adaptable for bomber and transport roles. (Credit: U.S. Patent Office via AW&ST)

That said, let me say that the first time I saw the images I thought it was “just” a B-2 but further observations and Sammamisham’s account have made me a bit dubious. What do you think? It’s a B-2 or something else? Let us know using the comments section below or our Twitter, Instagram or Facebook pages.

Update Aug. 24, 15.30 GMT

Thanks to a Twitter follower (@Kiendl28) we have got a satellite image showing the aircraft on the apron at 18:05Z on Jul. 25. The resolution does not allow a clear identification but the fact the aircraft is parked in daylight seems to suggest there is nothing to hide and points towards the “standard” B-2.

The aircraft on the apron at Edwards at 18.04GMT on Jul. 25. The aircraft can be seen in the same position also on Aug. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. (Image credit: PlanetScope).

Image credit: Sammamishman, Zaphod58 and Fred for The Aviationist

Images Emerge Of U.S. KC-135 Conducting First Aerial Refueling Of Iraqi Air Force F-16IQ Block 52 Jets Over Iraq

The Iraqi F-16IQ Block 52 aircraft were refueled from a Stratotanker over Iraq for the first time.

On Aug. 15, 2018, Iraqi Air Force F-16C and D, were refueled mid-air by a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 28th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron over Iraq: according to the U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs, this was the first aerial refuel training involving Iraqi F-16s and U.S. aerial refueling aircraft conducted over Iraqi airspace.

The images released by CENTCOM show the two aircraft during the AAR (Air-to-Air Refueling) operations. Interestingly, whilst the F-16D appears to be unarmed, the F-16IQ Block 52 appears to carry the standard loadout for the anti-Daesh air strikes shown by the aircraft taking off for their mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve from their homebase at Balad Air Base: four 500-lb GBU-12 LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) and four AIM-9L/M Sidewinder IR-guided AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles), along with a Sniper ATP (Advanced Targeting Pod).

The fact that the weapons sport yellow stripes means the bombs and missiles carried by the single seaters are not inert but “live” suggesting it was involved in a combat mission rather than a training one.

Anyway, the first aerial refueling from a KC-135 over Iraq marks IAF’s growing capabilities with the new aircraft.

An Iraqi Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon performs an aerial maneuver after receiving in-flight fuel training from a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 28th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron over Iraq, Aug. 15, 2018. This was the first aerial refuel training involving Iraqi F-16s and U.S. aerial refueling aircraft conducted over Iraqi airspace. The Iraqi Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the Iraqi Armed Forces, responsible for policing international borders and conducting surveillance of its national assets.(U.S. Air Force video still image by Staff Sgt. Rion Ehrman)

The first of 36 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 52 jets destined to the Iraqi Air Force, a two-seater D model serial number 1601, made its first flight from Fort Worth, Texas, on May 2, 2014. The aircraft, officially delivered to the IAF on Jun. 5, 2014, sported the brand new, exotic two-tone grey camo that has become standard on the Iraqi Vipers while being much different from the desert color scheme used by the Iraqi planes prior to the 2003 invasion which destroyed what remained of the Al Quwwa al Jawwiya al Iraqiya, and the light grey paint that was used on the Hellfire-equipped Cessna 208Bs or the Mil Mi-25 gunships.

The first four F-16IQ Block 52 jets were delivered to Tucson, Arizona:  the initial plan was to fly the aircraft to Iraq but the F-16IQ jets remained in the U.S. until air bases were readied for the new planes and, above all, secured by the Islamic State’s invasion. The first aircraft (two C and two D jets) landed at Balad air base in Iraq on July 13, 2015, where they joined the new 9th Fighter Squadron.

The subsequent deliveries grew the fleet until the IAF could count on 18-20 aircraft to be used in the air war on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The baptmism of fire occurred on Sept. 6, 2015.

Two Iraqi F-16s were lost since the first delivery: the first one was on Jun. 24, 2015, the second one on Sept. 5, 2017. In both cases, the pilots died in the accident.

A Iraqi Air Force F-16D Fighting Falcon approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 28th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron (EARS) for in-flight refuel training over Iraq on Aug. 15, 2018. This was the first aerial refuel training involving Iraqi F-16s and U.S. aerial refueling aircraft conducted over Iraqi airspace. The Coalition Aviation Advisory and Training Team in partnership with the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, provides training, advising and assistance in addition to building partner capacity for Iraqi Army Aviation Command, Iraqi Air Defense Command and the Iraqi Air Force. (U.S. Air Force video still image by Staff Sgt. Rion Ehrman)

Top: U.S. Air Force video still image by Staff Sgt. Rion Ehrman

U.S. F-22 Raptors Forward Deploy To Albacete Air Base For The Very First Time To Train With The Spanish Typhoons and Hornets

Here are some interesting details about the Advanced Aerial Training exercise that took place at Albacete Air Base, Spain, last week.

On Aug. 16, 2018, two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors from the 95th Fighter Squadron, 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, conducted the Raptor’s first forward deployment to Albacete, Spain.

The 5th generation aircraft, launched from  Spangdahlem, Germany, where they are currently deployed as part of a contingent of 12 F-22s, were refuelled in front of the Spanish Mediterranean Coast (Area D21) by a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135, radio callsign QID 424, out of RAF Mildenhall and then headed towards Area D98 for the dogfight with the Spanish Eurofighters and F-18 Hornets.

Accompanied by a Typhoon, the F-22 approaches the break overhead Albacete (All photos: Jorge Portales).

According to the Spanish Aviation Journalist and Photographer Jorge Portalés Alberola there were 2 different WVR (Within Visual Range) dogfights: the first one was a 1 vs 2 between an F-22 and 2x Eurofighters from Ala 14 based at Albacete; the second one involved the other Raptor and one F-18 Hornet from Ala 12 (122 Squadron) – actually this second aerial engagement was slated to be a 1 vs 2 scenario but one of the Hornets aborted.

F-22 touches down at Albacete.

For the Spanish Air Force, this exercise represented an excellent opportunity for instruction and training that allows a joint assessment of the capabilities of the three aircraft in a demanding tactical environment. It also improves the integration and interoperability of 5th generation aircraft such as the American F22 with rest of allied fighters. And, in some way, it prepares Albacete, home of the Tactical Leadership Program, to the first attendance by a 5th Generation aircraft: the F-35A. Indeed, the Lightning II is a 5th generation fighter plane that will enter service has already entered the active service (or will, in the next years) with several European air forces: Italy, UK, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands (and Turkey?) so it is logical that it participates in the TLP training missions.

F-22 on the ramp at Los Llanos airport in Albacete.

This year, the F-35 will take part in the TLP for the first time as the course moves for an iteration to Amendola, Italy, home of the Italian Lightnings. Beginning from the end of 2019, it is already planned for the 5th generation aircraft to take part in “standard” TLP courses held at Albacete.

H/T to Jorge Portalés Alberola for providing many details and all the photographs used for this story!

T-38C Talon II Crashes at Vance AFB, in Oklahoma; Pilot Safely Ejected.

Accident is Third T-38 Crash in Ten Months for Talon II, Continues Series of U.S. Accidents.

A U.S. Air Force Northrop T-38C Talon II crashed on Friday, August 17, 2018 near Vance AFB 90 miles northwest of Oklahoma City in Enid, Oklahoma. One Instructor Pilot (the only crewmember) ejected from the aircraft and is reported in stable condition without serious injuries according to local media reports. The accident occurred at approximately 3:30 PM local time.

The aircraft belonged to either the 5th Flying Training Squadron, the “Spitten Kittens” or the 25th Flying Training Squadron, the “Shooters” of the 71st Flying Training Wing of the Air Education and Training Command.

The Northrop T-38C Talon II is a two-seat, twin engine, advanced supersonic jet trainer used for Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) for U.S. Air Force pilots making the transition to high performance tactical combat aircraft after basic pilot training.

The T-38 family of advanced trainers is the first-ever supersonic jet trainer. It first flew in April, 1959. Another, single seat version of the aircraft called the Northrop F-5 are used as lightweight, multirole combat aircraft by air forces around the world. An advanced version of the F-5 called the F-20 Tigershark was proposed but never adopted.

The T-38 Talon training jet crashed about 50 miles west of the base, according to a statement released by USAF Tech. Sgt. Erik Cardenas of the 71st Flying Training Wing. No cause for the accident has been given. As with all Air Force flying accidents the cause of the accident will be subject to an official investigation. The weather around the approximate time of the crash in the Enid, Oklahoma area is reported to have been near 80° Fahrenheit, partly cloudy with winds of 13 MPH.

Yesterday’s crash of another T-38 Talon advanced trainer brings the total of crashes in T-38s to three in less than one year. Another T-38C Talon II crashed near Columbus AFB, Mississippi approximately 9 miles north of the city of Columbus on May 23, 2018. Prior to that crash a U.S. Air Force T-38 crashed on Monday, November 20, 2017 outside Lake Amistad, Texas, killing the pilot.

The series of three T-38 accidents continues a trend of U.S. military aviation accidents. There have been eight U.S. Air Force crashes since the beginning of the year including a USAF F-15C Eagle that crashed near Japan on June 11, 2018 and the June 22, 2018 crash of an Embraer A-29 Super Tucano participating the Light Attack Experiment near Holloman AFB. This latest Air Force accident brings the total number of U.S. military aviation crashes in 2018 to 13.

Earlier this year, US Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein ordered all USAF flying and maintenance wings to carry out a one day safety stand-down for an operational review following the increase in flying accidents. While no single contributing factor for the frequency of U.S. military and USAF accidents has been cited, the trend in accidents appears to remain consistent based on Friday’s accident.

Top: A file photo of a USAF T-38 Talon similar to the aircraft that crashed at Vance AFB. (Photo: USAF)

These Shots Show 388th FW’s F-35A Using the Internal Cannon For The First Time In Operational Training

The internal 25mm cannon fires up to 50 rounds per second.

On Aug. 13, pilots from the 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th Fighter Squadron fired the F-35A’s 25 mm internal cannon in a strafing run on two sets of ground targets on the Utah Test and Training range. It was the first use of the F-35A’s GAU-22/A in operational training.

The shots that the U.S. Air Force has released after the training event are particularly interesting, as they show the internal gun at work:  the GAU-22 gun is hidden behind closed doors to reduce the plane’s RCS (radar cross section) and keep it stealth, until the trigger is engaged.

The F-35’s GAU-22/A is based on the proven GAU-12/A 25mm cannon, used by the AV-8B Harrier, the LAV-AD amphibious vehicle and AC-130U Gunship, but has one less barrel than its predecessor. This means it’s lighter and can fit into the F-35A’s left shoulder above the air intake. The gun can fire at about 3,300 rounds per minute: considered the A model can hold 181 rounds only, this equals to a continuous 4 seconds burst or, more realistic, multiple short ones.

One of the two 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th Fighter Squadron F-35s involved in the strafing runs with the GAU-22.

The F-35 GAU-22/A gun has been among the most controversial topics in the past years:  not only did some criticise the fact that the Joint Strike Fighter’s gun can only hold 181 25mm rounds, fewer than the A-10 Thunderbolt’s GAU-8/A Avenger, that can hold some 1,174 30mm rounds, but also the accuracy has been disputed because of “a long and to-the-right aiming bias” reported in fiscal year 2017 report by the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). It’s not clear whether the accuracy issues have been completely fixed or not.

Noteworthy, the training sortie was flown with the aircraft carrying two external pylons (with a single inert AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile).

While the F-35A will be equipped with an embedded GAU-22/A gun, the B (STOVL – Short Take Off Vertical Landing) and C (CV – Carrier Variant) variants carry it inside an external pod capable to hold 220 rounds.

“Out!”

According to the 388th FW’s website “Loading and firing the cannon was one of the few capabilities Airmen in the 388th and 419th FWs had yet to demonstrate. The F-35A’s internal cannon allows the aircraft to maintain stealth against air adversaries as well as fire more accurately on ground targets, giving pilots more tactical flexibility.”

Image credit: Air Force photo by Todd Cromar