U.S. Navy Blue Angels Train for Upcoming 2017 Show Season: Integrate New Members
One of the world’s oldest and most famous flight demonstration teams, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, are preparing for a busy airshow flight demonstration season in 2017 at their winter practice airfield at Naval Air Station El Centro, California.
The Blue Angels were formed in 1946 following WWII as a public relations and recruiting tool to inspire airshow crowds to pursue excellence in all of their endeavors and as a recruiting asset to attract potential candidates to join the U.S. Navy. They are the second oldest flight demonstration team in the world behind the French team Patrouille de France that began flying demonstrations in 1931.
The Blue Angels are largely responsible for the format of the modern airshow with a large demonstration team headlining a supporting cast of aerial demonstrations and on-the-ground static displays of aircraft. Their shows have helped create a culture of airshow fans, aviation enthusiasts and aircraft spotters as well as being a recruiting asset.
For the upcoming 2017 flight demonstration season the Blue Angels will perform at an impressive 35 airshows including one flyover for the U.S. Naval Academy graduation at Annapolis, Maryland and one show weekend still to be determined. Their schedule includes approximately 64 total flight demonstrations, usually at least two per weekend in addition to practices and public appearances.
Blue Angels taxiing in front of photographers (image credit: Author).
The Blue Angels fly an older version of the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. They are scheduled to move to the newer Super Hornet in 2018. Their current F/A-18’s are legacy aircraft, among the oldest flying. They are modified for airshow performances with a second jet fuel pump mounted upside down in the aircraft for extended flying inverted in formation and during solo maneuvers. A normally equipped FA-18 Hornet could not maintain inverted flight as long as the modified Blue Angels’ aircraft.
The team’s trademark high-gloss dark blue and gold paint reduces aerodynamic drag since it has lower friction than the matt low-visibility paint schemes used in combat aircraft. This gloss paint produces better performance, especially at low altitude. The high contrast graphics on the aircraft are arranged to improve visibility in all-weather conditions for spectators and photographers and to enable people to tell the bottom of the aircraft from the top easily during rolling maneuvers.
The demonstration aircraft carry no armament. Their cannons have been removed and replaced with a reservoir containing bio-degradable paraffin fluid that is released into the aircraft’s exhaust plume to produce the smoke trail you see behind the aircraft. The smoke is not only important to enable spectators to follow the aircraft during an airshow, it also allows the pilots to see each other during re-joining maneuvers when the two solo aircraft rejoin the four aircraft diamond formation toward the end of their flight demonstration routine.
Flight controls on the Blue Angels’ F/A-18’s have been modified to make formation and inverted flight easier. The flight control stick between the pilots’ legs uses a spring to exert 40-pounds of forward bias force meaning the pilot constantly exerts slight rearward pressure compared to a normal Hornet to maintain level flight. While this unusual modification makes the aircraft physically more work to keep in a level flight attitude it makes the flight controls feel more “positive” throughout the control envelope.
Finally, unlike the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the Blue Angels do not wear G-suits in their cockpits. The pilots are conditioned to perform the “AGSM” or anti-G straining maneuver to resist g-forces during high performance maneuvers such as the maximum performance turn performed at low altitude.
Video and photos of the Blue Angels latest practice sessions at NAS El Centro provide a fascinating insight into the team’s preparation for the 2017 show season.
The early season practices are sometimes being flown with a unique configuration of Blue Angels’ aircraft, different from the show formation. This video shows two of the two-seat F/A-18D aircraft both carrying the #7 Opposing Solo aircraft markings.
During an operational show the #7 Opposing Solo markings are worn by a single- seat F/A-18C. The appearance of two #7’s during rehearsal may be due to maintenance availability of the aircraft or for training reasons.
t is unusual to see two #7 aircraft flying formation with the Blue Angels. This configuration is likely for crew orientation and practice (screenshot from spencerhughes2255’s YT video)
Another interesting insight with the practice sessions is the somewhat greater interval between aircraft flying formation during the pre-season. The incredibly close overlapping diamond formation is a spectacular trademark of the Blue Angels. Presumably demonstration pilots begin show practice at slightly wider flying intervals to familiarize themselves with the visual cues needed to maintain close demonstration formation flying.
In mid-July 2016 The Blue Angels announced the addition of several new members to the team. Three of the new team members are demonstration pilots. The new Blue Angel demo pilots are:
Navy Lt. Brandon Hempler, 32, of Wamego, Kansas.
Lt. Hempler is an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot formerly assigned to Training Squadron (VT) 22, the “Golden Eagles,” at NAS Kingsville, Texas. He is a 2007 graduate of Kansas State University, Salina, Kansas.
Navy Lt. Damon Kroes, 34, of Fremont, California.
Lt. Kroes is an F/A-18 Hornet instructor pilot formerly assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101, the “Sharpshooters,” at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. He is a 2006 graduate of San Diego State University, San Diego.
Navy Lt. Nate Scott, 31, of Danville, California.
Lt. Scott is an F/A-18 Hornet instructor pilot currently assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, the “Gladiators,” at NAS Oceana, Virginia. He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
The integration of these new members into the team continues into the 2017 season. Navy Lt. Lance Benson, 33, of McPherson, Kansas; Navy Lt. Tyler Davies, 34, of Kennesaw, Georgia and Navy Cmdr. Frank Weisser, 38, of Atlanta, Georgia continue as Blue Angel demonstration pilots for 2017 from the 2016 season.
Large Number of Air Force F-35As to Red Flag 17-1, Navy Works Through F-35C Launch Problem, Marines Continue to Lead in F-35B Integration.
January of 2017 has been a busy month for the ongoing integration of new Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters into U.S. operational deployment with the U.S. Air Force and testing with the U.S. Navy.
Most recently the U.S. Air Force has deployed flight and maintenance crews of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings from Hill AFB to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on January 20, 2017 for Red Flag 17-1. The units are reportedly contributing an unprecedented total of thirteen F-35As to the exercise according to spotters on the ground outside Nellis.
The F-35As join twelve U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors from the 149th Fighter Squadron of the Virginia Air National Guard 192nd Fighter Wing flying to Nevada from Joint Base Langley–Eustis, Virginia. This marks a significant exercise to utilize the interoperability of the F-35A with the F-22 as a unified force.
P-51, F-35 and F-22 Heritage Flight
Col. David Lyons, 388th FW commander told official Air Force media, “Our Airmen are excited to bring the F-35 to a full-spectrum combat exercise. The Red Flag battle space is going to be a great place to leverage our stealth and interoperability. It’s a lethal platform and I’m confident we will prove to be an invaluable asset to the commander.”
The Red Flag deployment for Air Force F-35As is significant since it marks a major milestone in one of the aircraft’s primary roles, flying as an interoperable sensor and intelligence gathering platform in combination with other tactical aircraft. Maj. Jeffrey Falanga, director of operations for the 414th Combat Training Squadron that hosts Red Flag told media, “Red Flag is important because of what it provides,” Major Falanga went on to say, “(Red Flag) provides our training audience with a realistic environment enabling them to practice in all domains–air, ground, space, and cyber–and also to be able to practice interoperability with not only U.S., but joint and coalition forces. Which is important since we’ll operate with these forces in our next engagement.”
Last year the U.S. Marines deployed six F-35B Lightning II’s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 to Red Flag 16-3 in July-August 2016. The Marine F-35Bs have since been deployed to the western Pacific. This suggests the Marines have had the highest degree of success in integrating F-35s into an operational setting even though they fly the most complex version of the F-35, the “B” version with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) capability designed to operate from small assault carrier ships.
The year had a bumpy start, literally, for U.S. Navy F-35C tests and evaluation. In a Jan. 11, 2017 news story the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) for the U.S. Navy’s F-35C program was quoted as reporting that, “Excessive vertical oscillations during catapult launches make the F-35C operationally unsuitable for carrier operations, according to fleet pilots.”
The problem that prompted the report is predominantly the result of the nose landing gear suspension settings and/or design according to AviationWeek.com. The nose landing gear is not adequately damping the strong vertical movement that results when the nose gear is released from the catapult launch apparatus at the end of the flight deck. The vertical oscillations were severe enough that pilots could not read flight-critical data on their instrument displays according the report. The oscillations caused most pilots to lock their seat harness during launch, which made emergency controls difficult for some pilots to reach. The test pilots deemed this situation “unacceptable and unsafe,” according the report portions published by AviationWeek.com.
During carrier launches the nosewheel suspension is compressed both by the tension of the catapult towbar and to a smaller degree by thrust applied when the pilot advances the throttle to take-off power settings. The front of the aircraft “squats” or assumes a slightly nose-downward angle of attack compared to when it is not attached to the catapult towbar for launch.
Once the catapult is fired and the hold-back behind the nose landing gear is released the aircraft begins its trip down the flight deck propelled by jet thrust from the engines and either by hydraulic, or on newer aircraft carriers, electromagnetic force through the catapult. At the end of the flight deck on the bow of the ship where the flight deck ends the towbar releases the nose landing gear and the nose of the aircraft rapidly rises, increasing angle of attack to facilitate optimal lift at the speed the aircraft is traveling when it reaches the edge of the deck. The amount of launch force used by the catapult is different for each launch depending on the gross take-off weight of the aircraft being launched. It varies with type, fuel load and payload.
The problems were reported during the latest round of sea trials on board the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). These latest reports conflict with earlier reports from sea trials onboard USS George Washington in August of 2015 when Cmdr. Ted “Dutch” Dyckman, a pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the “Grim Reapers”, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, “It’s just easy, It’s really easy to fly.”
The Navy’s Patuxent River-based Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 is the unit that reported the take-off anomalies. Flight operations for the later phase of tests by Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23), included taking off and landing with externally mounted simulated weapons and asymmetrical loading. These additional loads may be a factor in the outcome of the testing and the subsequent report.
While this is a negative report about U.S. Navy F-35C operations, the final version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to enter U.S. service (The U.S. Marine F-35B and Air Force F-35A are already operational), it is a relatively minor potential defect in the program that will likely be corrected as a result of this finding.
Finally, in F-35 airshow news we learned in a phone conversation with Mark Thibeault, civilian contractor speaking about the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight Team, that the team’s schedule will include “fourteen dates” in 2017. The final scheduling for the F-35 Heritage Flight Team will be completed within 2-3 weeks according the Thibeault.
Author with Major Will Andreotta
Major Will Andreotta returns as the F-35A Heritage Flight pilot for 2017.
VFA-131 Operation Inherent Resolve Cruise Video includes rare footage of Russian Flanker (and Iranian F-4 Phantom) encountered by the U.S. Navy Hornets.
The footage below is not the usual USN Squadron cruise video.
Indeed, along with the standard carrier launch, recovery, air-to-air refueling, high-g maneuvering stuff that you can find in all these videos, this one from VFA-131 also contains some pretty rare footage filmed during the cruise aboard USS Eisenhower in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, in Syria and Iraq.
In particular, a close encounter with a RuAF Flanker, most probably a Su-35S Flanker-E from Hymeim airbase near Latakia. Filmed by the Hornet’s AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod, a multi-sensor, electro-optical targeting pod, incorporating thermographic camera, low-light television camera, target laser rangefinder/laser designator, the IR footage shows the Russian aircraft carrying only one R-77 RVV-SD (on the starboard wing’s inner pylon) and two R-27 air-to-air missiles.
Noteworthy, talking to the WSJ, a U.S. Air Force official has recently claimed that Russian planes regularly fly too close to U.S. fighter jets, risking collision in the crowded skies above Syria. According to Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran, commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, Russian pilots fail to emit identifying signals on the agreed hotline during flights, adding to confusion in the air, an allegation that is refuted by the Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Moreover, there’s some interesting dogfight with a French Rafale (at 09:38 and 11:57) and (at 09:01) another close encounter, with an F-4 Phantom, most probably an Iranian one met over the Gulf.
Here below you can find a screenshot showing the Phantom.
U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets released a swarm of 103 Perdix semi-autonomous drones in flight. Welcome to the future of war tech.
The U.S. Department of Defense has revealed in a press release dated Jan. 9, 2017 that three U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet two-seat variants have successfully released a “swarm” of 103 Perdix semi-autonomous drones in flight. The tests were carried out at China Lake range, on Oct. 25, 2016, and were administered by the Department of Defense, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command.
The miniature Perdex drones, different from larger, more common remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) like the well-known Reaper and Predator, operate with a high degree of collective autonomy and reduced dependency on remote flight crews to control them. The large group of more autonomous Perdex drones creates a “swarm” of miniature drones. The swarm shares information across data links during operation, and can make mission-adaptive decisions faster than RPV’s controlled in the more conventional manner.
In a statement released by the U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Capabilities Office Director William Roper said, “Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” Director Roper went on to say, “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”
As said, the initial flight release tests were conducted in October 2016 at the China Lake NAVAIR Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD). Based on released footage they were likely flown by two-seat F/A-18Ds of VX-30 the Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine known as “The Bloodhounds”.
The Perdex drone swarm was released in flight from three F/A-18D’s dispensing the swarm from two underwing pylons.
The drones are named “Perdex” from Greek mythology after a human student who morphed into a small bird for survival. They are only 6.5 inches long with an 11.8 inch wingspan. Perdex is propeller driven from a small 2.6 inch propeller in a rear-mounted “pusher” configuration. The miniature robot aircraft has extremely short endurance, with only 20 minutes of flight possible in current versions.
The Perdex swarms were first released in flight by U.S. Air Force F-16 test and evaluation aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base in September 2014. Perdex swarms were widely used in U.S. Pacific Command’s Northern Edge exercise in Alaska a year later in September 2015 when 90 missions were flown deploying swarms as large as 20 Perdex drones.
During these latest Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division tests the D.o.D. released few specifics of the Perdex drone’s capability except, “This swarm demonstrated advanced behaviors like collective decision‐making, adaptive formation flying, and self‐healing.”
Flightradar24 lets you track ATAC’s fleet of private contractor aggressors that fly out of NAS Point Mugu and NAS Fallon.
Whilst most of the interesting aircraft (namely fighters and attack planes as Special Ops platforms are still there) are hidden on Flightradar24.com, the popular online tracking system still provides the opportunity to follow ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company) aggressors flying tactical flight training missions for U.S. Navy, Air Force and Air National Guard assets.
Indeed, as pointed out by Bob Cheatham, one of our avid followers from California, most of ATAC’s jets can be tracked as they practice dogfights almost daily off San Diego, inside the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division-managed Point Mugu Sea Range that features 36,000 square miles of controlled sea and airspace, and allows for testing in a real-world environment.
ATAC’s Hawker Hunter flying a mission off San Diego. (FR24 screenshot courtesy of Bob Cheatham)
“Growing up in the 70s & 80s, I was a huge fan of Pt. Mugu’s VX-4 Evaluators (F-4 & F-14s), so now I find it interesting to see most of these maneuvers passed on to a civilian contractor that actually shows up in the clear on ADS-B!” Cheatham explained in an email to The Aviationist.
N328AX is an ATAC’s Hawker Hunter F.58 formerly belonging to the Swiss Air Force (FR24 screenshot courtesy of Bob Cheatham).
“Using the N-registration alerts on FR24, I track practice dogfights almost daily off San Diego between ATAC‘s Hunters & Kfirs (and who knows who else that isn’t on ADS-B?!) Now that I’ve programmed alerts tracking most of their fleet, I’m also seeing missions in the Atlantic off South Carolina & Florida too.”
IAI Kfir mission (FR24 screenshot courtesy of Bob Cheatham)
ATAC, acquired in July 2016 by Textron Inc.’s new Textron Airborne Solutions company, has been performing air-to-ship, air-to-air and research & development missions in support of DoD for the last 20 years using a fleet of fast jets that includes 6x IAI Kfir C2, 2x L-39ZA Albatros and several Hawker Hunters.
The company provides advanced Adversary support at all levels of the US Navy’s air-to-air training programs, from Fleet Replacement Squadrons to the Navy’s graduate level “TOPGUN” program.
Indeed, the ATAC’s Kfir can be often spotted at NAS Fallon (where the top shot was taken by aviation photographer Kedar Karmarkar): if you look for one of the Israeli jet’s serial numbers (for instance, N402AX) in FR24’s database, you’ll find several flights of the supersonic fighter at the Naval Fighter Weapons School in Nevada.
A Kfir from NAS Fallon. Note that part of the track is outside of FR24 coverage.
But adversary training at Point Mugu and the Top Gun school at NAS Fallon are not the only activities ATAC jets carry out.
According to the company’s website “ATAC also trains the U.S. Air Force, specifically in the European theater supporting the United States Air Forces, Europe (USAFE) with JTAC Training, as well as CONUS F-15 Operational Readiness Evaluations, “Red Flag/Northern Edge” exercises, and has been entrusted to provide support for Air Force F-22 Raptor crews.”
ATAC is not the only company to provide live Red Air aggressor training services for the U.S Air Force and U.S. Navy: Draken International; and Discovery Air Defence Services, a subsidiary of Discovery Air, are also regularly awarded contracts to perform such services.