Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

“Black Spot” and Night Battlefield Dominance

NC-123k period 2In 1967, the Air Commandos began to develop a night special operations gunship capability called Project Black Spot. They leveraged the capabilities of primitive imagery intensifiers to create an aircraft that could defeat the darkness and interdict enemy movement in areas where the threat situation was too “hot” for a low-and-slow-flying fixed-wing gunship. While a couple of these areas were obviously the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia, the ship was also used to hunt clandesting agent-landing boats off the coasts of South Korea.

nc123k

The airframe selected was the Fairchild C-123K Provider, which after modification was called the NC-123 (formal name) or AC-123 (as used by crews). Instead of side-firing guns, the Black Spot birds had cluster bomb unit (CBU) dispensers and carried a war load of over 6,000 1-lb dual-purpose CBUs, of which 24 could be delivered (2 x 12-unit racks) in a single pass. The CBU racks could then be in-flight reloaded by the crew.

Some sources say three airframes were modified, but only two show up in most references: 54-691 and 54-698.

NC-123k period photo

The key to the system was the sensors: X-Band Radar, Doppler terrain-following radar, night-vision Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR), night-vision Low Light Level TV (LLLTV), a Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) countermeasures device, and a laser range-finder/illuminator.  Some of these systems were new, and some had been developed for strategic bombers, but taken together they greatly improved the situational awareness of the crew.

In a harbinger of what was to come, the the TFR, FLIR and LLLTC were housed in a gimbaling “ball” in the nose.

c-123k pod

The outcome of the Korean tests is unknown. The Vietnam theater tests were successful, despite the aircraft having gross weight and density altitude limitations. In addition, a limitation of the cluster bomb dispenser required the pilots to fly the plane at 4,800 feet — no more, no less.

At the end of the test, the NC-123s were converted back to ordinary C-123K trash haulers. All of the sensors proven on the NC-123 were used in subsequent gunships.

Not all experimental sensors from this period went forward. Black Crow, for example, was a truck-ignition detector that zeroed in on the ignition “noise” produced by unshielded wires in the typical Otto-cycle gasoline engine’s spark-ignition system. It was deadly effective on the trucks of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but wouldn’t work on newer trucks. Black Crow was only installed on -698, but did become standard on the AC-130s for a time.

Proving this technology on large airplanes like transports and bombers was necessary and laid fundamental groundwork for US dominance in low-light sensing systems in present years. It is a matter of some concern that, while we continue to exploit, miniaturize and field these 1960s technologies, the rate of development has slowed, and we’re resting on our, sometimes 1960s-vintage, laurels.

Sources

Chinnery, Philip D. Air Commando: Inside The Air Force Special Operations Command. London: Airlife Press, 2008. pp. 210-218. 

Johnson, E.R. American Attack Aircraft Since 1926. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008. pp. 210-211.

Images found here and there on the internet.

Doc Takes Wing!

Yesterday morning, the number of flying B-29s in the world doubled when “Doc” lifted off from McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas. It was the culmination of a project that lasted 16 years in Wichita alone, led by former Spirit Aerosystems (the former Boeing Wichita plant, where 1,644 B-29s were built) and 13 years before that, led by former B-29 flight engineer Tony Mazzolini, who found the B-29 as an abandoned target on a bombing range at China Lake in the Mojave Desert. Over three hundred fifty thousand hours of volunteer labor rebuilt the historic bomber from the ground up.

Pilot Charlie Tilghman, CP David Oliver, a flight engineer (we think it was  TJ Norman) and two scanners  (whose mission is to watch the famously incendiary engines, which are hard for the pilots to keep an eye on from their position well ahead), and a small army of ground crew, started the big plane, overcame an unlatched bomb bay door that they had to shut the bird down to correct, and finally took it into the sky for a brief, seven-minute run around the pattern, in front of a throng of invited well-wishers and aviation buffs.

The planned flight was cut short by a powerplant warning light; the crew returned to the runway out of an abundance of caution. Initial information seems to be that it was not a serious problem but a sensor failure.

In an excellent report, the Wichita Eagle quoted Tilghman, the pilot:

It flew like a good B-29.

The airplane is going to be great. The engines are strong and smooth. Just the darn warning light.

He would know, as he’s the Designated Examiner who checks airmen out in Fifi.

The Eagle also quoted volunteer Connie Palacioz, who worked on the plane twice: as an 18-year-old riveter in 1943, and as a volunteer when the plane returned to Wichita as a pile of weatherbeaten parts in 2000.

They told me it would be seven years (to restore Doc), but it was 16 years. When it came from the desert it looked terrible. I never thought I could see it like this, you know. It was just pieces, but lucky that we could do it. We did it.

The Eagle report is really good; do Read The Whole Thing™.

And if that video’s not enough for you, check out the webcast still avilable (although obviously not live any more) at the B-29doc.com website:

First Flight – Live Webcast

You can use the timeline to skip around, because that’s the whole morning on there — engine start, taxi out, taxi back, bomb bay door check, engine start again, taxi out, flight, and all the way back around to the speeches at the end.

Now we’re all set if we ever need to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki again!

Unique Attempt to recover WWII Airman from Crash Site

From the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) came to us the story of fallen P-47 pilot Loren Hintz (pronounced like “hints”), and the search for his crash site and remains — a search not conducted by a government bureaucracy, but by a grandson who never knew his grandfather, a team of Italian wreck hunters, and a whole bunch of people who just thought it was a good idea.

Volunteers worlds away, chance circumstances, and years of research have lead Hans Wronka, the grandson of WWII pilot 1st Lt. Loren Hintz, and his family to locate the site, remains, and aircraft where his grandfather was killed in action.

AirCorps Aviation of Bemidji, Minnesota, has announced that they are honored to help relay the poignant life story and service of Loren who was killed in action flying a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter over Italy on April 21, 1945.

Loren Hintz (from the Wronka family).

Loren Hintz (from the Wronka family).

He wasn’t a fighter ace — by 1945 there weren’t many enemy planes to hunt, and instead his was the duel with antiaircraft guns.

Finding Loren is the story of a common man, compelled to serve his country, who gave the ultimate sacrifice just days from the victory in Europe celebrations (V-E Day). Loren wasn’t a fighter ace, but his life and devotion to his country deserve the same recognition; AirCorps Aviation will honor him by preserving his legacy.

The team will also bring to light the experiences of Loren’s wife, Gert, who was raising a young daughter (while pregnant with the couple’s second child) upon learning of Loren’s death. Gert never remarried, but spent her life building a strong family, working hard in service to her community, and honoring Loren’s legacy. Finding Loren will also extend beyond Loren’s journal and writings to delve into the firsthand testimony and accounts of extended family, friends, and fellow service members whom Loren touched throughout his life.

Hans, Loren’s grandson and a resident of Duluth, Minnesota, has embarked on an epic 12-year journey with his family, as well as a team of Italian WWII aviation enthusiasts and archeologists, to decipher military records, maps, and statements, in relation to the current landscape, to confidently identify Loren’s crash site. Community members and landowners are prepared for the excavation planned for late July 2016. To evaluate the site and confirm the location, geophysics has been employed and has positively identified the presence of a large metallic object several meters below the surface.

via Finding Loren | EAA.

There’s a website at findingloren.com and one at Air Corps Aviation, a well-known and well-regarded restorer of World War II vintage aircraft. One of Air Corps’ current restorations is a war-veteran P-47D, albeit one that served in the Pacific Theater. (Another is a trainer confirmed as having been flown by then-Naval Air Cadet George H.W. Bush during his pilot training). It would be kind of neat if some part of Loren’s wrecked P-47 could be restored to fly again as a memory to the many fallen who were not famous, but who fell in service to their various nations.

The excavation of Loren’s crash site will take place on 23 July 16. Who knows what they will find?

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Shipwreckology

shipwreckologyAnd now for something completely different!

Who doesn’t love a shipwreck? The ships, the crews, the wars and the weather — every wreck has a story to tell, and at Shipwreckology they make an effort to tell that story. It’s seldom updated these days (a book review posted last week was the first sign of life since February) but there’s a mountain of old posts to explore.

One post we’d recommend as a fair sample is 2014’s Cleopatra’s Needle. Saw this artifact in London, but it would have meant something had we known this story at the time.

Enjoy!

Will SEALs Do Anything for Publicity?

To wit, these SEALs.

There’s an old joke that goes, “Why does an SF A-Team have 12 men, and a SEAL Platoon 14?”

“Cameraman and producer.” Ba-dump-bump. Thank you, you’re a wonderful crowd, we’ll be in the blog all day… but seriously, if our frogman brethren are trying to stay out of the limelight these days, then at least one frog is doin’ it all wrong.

Shaun Day, 29, was on a two-week leave when cops harpooned him for running a red light at 12:30 a.m. at Second Avenue and East 26th Street.

When cops searched his pickup truck, they discovered a 9mm semiautomatic and three ammunition clips.

During the arrest, Day was rambling incoherently and harped that he was a SEAL — but had no proof for cops.

He claimed he was an elite commando with “top-secret clearance,” cops said.

Eh. When arrested by the locals, the right thing to do is to clam up, not tell them you’re John Rambo. “I can drive a tank… I can fly a helicopter…” don’t waste your breath. They don’t give a rip, and you’re going downtown, and it’s in your best interests to go quietly.

Sources told The Post the Navy sent staffers to talk to Day in Bellevue Hospital, where he was undergoing a psychiatric evaluation.

“He was released [Friday] in their care, and they were going to treat him for post-traumatic stress,” a source said.

Note how the Navy has backed their guy up. Army wouldn’t do that, at least, not SF; they’d let the guy twist in the wind. Some specific commanders (you know who you are) would laugh at him.

Note the incredible flexibility of the PTSD diagnosis. Is there anything it can’t do? For it does seem like our young sailor was more likely to be suffering the effects of ingesting a bad ice cube in one of the fifteen or so mixed drinks he’d chugged, than struggling with combat trauma.

The charges against Day of weapons possession and a traffic violation have been deferred.

via Arrested guy’s the real SEAL | New York Post.

If the SEAL commanders do what the better SF ones do, he has (or can be made to appear to have had) a commander’s letter authorizing him to carry, which gets him out of NY jail.

 Update

For some reason, the NY Post is throwing this story up as a new one to readers (which is how someone sent it to us), but it’s four years old. No doubt Day (whether he’s still in the frogs or not) can laugh about the whole thing now, as it stayed out of the press after that. .

LCS Taken in a New Direction

Viking DragonshipSpeed was of the essence. To that end the LCS designs — both of them — sacrificed everything, especial combat firepower and survivability.

The ships, already far more expensive with vastly less combat power than the frigates they replaced, are going to trade away their one advantage — high speed in moderate seas — for some firepower.

BATH, Maine –  The Navy spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to fulfill its need for speed with a new class of fast and agile warships capable of zipping along at highway speeds.

It turns out speed is overrated.

The Navy has learned lessons from the light-and-speedy littoral combat ships: Upcoming ships will trade some speed in favor of more weapons and heavier armor.

Well, having more weapons than existing LCS ships isn’t hard, really.

Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, director of surface warfare, said the goal is to increase the offensive punch of all warships from the biggest to the smallest. For the littoral combat ship, that’ll begin with the installation of over-the-horizon missiles this summer.

“Each ship that I now have — I have to make more lethal because I cannot build ships fast enough, or enough of them,” Fanta told The Associated Press.

Two versions of the warships were sped into production to meet the Navy’s goal of an affordable, fast ship to operate in shallow coastal — or littoral — waters.

Affordable! They’re a half a billion a pop. And the latest round of the USN’s incessant tinkering might nearly double the price.

The ships, which are capable of topping 50 mph, utilize steerable waterjets instead of propellers and rudders to operate in shallow water.

They also are built to be equipped with swappable mission modules for surface warfare, anti-submarine duty or mine removal. That’s in contrast to larger, multi-mission ships like the 610-foot Michael Monsoor, a Zumwalt-class destroyer christened Saturday at Bath Iron Works.

But the gee-whiz factor was overshadowed by concerns over growing costs — the latest versions cost $482 million to $563 million apiece — along with criticism by the General Accounting Office that the warships were too lightly armed and too lightly armored.

via Navy warship to trade some speed for firepower, armor | Fox News.

Yep, we’re committed to a forty-something unit class of ships that can’t fight, but can run away, as long as the enemy doesn’t have guns, missiles or aircraft. So the Navy, no more willing to leave a bad design than a good one alone, is going to incur a bunch more expense grafting minimal armor and a missile system onto the currently unarmed ships.

You’ll probably want to read Commander Salamander’s grim, resigned take on this. There’s a lot of material in his post, including the shocking revelation that the new revisions to the Little Crappy Ship will push individual unit costs close to a billion dollars — and we’ll still be stuck with combat-worthless Little Crappy Ships.

In a possibly related update, he notes that the Republicans of the House have voted to continue to support Ray Mabus’s policy of naming ships after undistinguished, insignificant politicians. Maybe the LCSes should all be named after Ray, with Roman numerals; although many of his predecessors and many flag officers deserve to hang from the yardarms (if an LCS had yardarms) alongside him.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Nuclear Archives

FOOM!

FOOM!

It’s obsolete, it’s defunct, and it hasn’t been touched in nine years. But it’s still worth looking at. It’s the Nuclear Weapons Archive, last updated in 2007 after a rocky ride around various sponsoring non-profits and hosting sites, and it’s full of interesting nuclear documents, like this short British run-down on what it will take to make His Majesty’s first nuke, as of 1947. (The link is to a .pdf).

Another, similarly defunct site that was a parallel and cooperative site with the Nuclear Weapons Archive was the Trinity Atomic Web Site, which appears to have assumed ambient temperature in 2005, but exists in a sort of undead (and un-updated) state.

But if you really want to understand the technical factors involved in the production of the first A-Bombs, factors that are often glossed over by highly verbal but innumerate and scientifically weak writers, you need to buy one book: Atom Bombs by John Coster-Mullen.

Coster-Mullen is not a professional historian or archivist, but you would never know that from his book. (He is actually — we are not making this up! — a truck driver). Through sheer determination and hard work, he mastered the subject and wrote the definitive work on it (with equally definitive documentation and illustrations). If you go to the Amazon link, and select all buying options, the seller coster60 is the author himself.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Navy History & Heritage

naval_history___heritageIf you’re here, you probably like to read. You probably like history. You’re probably going to like this site: The Naval History and Heritage Command.

Lately, the Command has followed the rest of the Navy down the Diversity is Our Vibrancy!® rathole, but when you’ve skipped past all that drivel on the front page, you get to the Research page, shown here on the right. The page offers a Navy timeline which can be handy to confirm just where a particular ship, battle, officer or weapon came into play.  It also offers the following subdivisions:

  1. Archives – Primary documents up the wazoo, including operation reports and deck logs, plus a killer trove of digitized documents. Try the list of documents keyed ordnance, or this dictionary of bronze-cannon-era ordnance terms for a taste of what’s there.
  2. Histories — official histories and biographies.
  3. Library — literally too many things to describe here, lots of ’em good. Sadly (and this is true for all of this site, generally) the documents are generally not downloadable as .pdfs or ebooks, but are only presented as 1990s-style HTML pages.
  4. Publications —  a wide range, again, of rather haphazardly organized material.
  5. Underwater Archaeology — what’s been found under the sea, ship and aircraft wrecks.

The basic problem of the site is its haphazard organization or lack of the same, which limits the prospect of finding anything in particular; but it can be well worthwhile to simply follow the breezes of Serendip through the site.

 

100 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Jutland

Going into World War II, there were two major surface ship actions of the Dreadnought era that everybody knew: Tsushima Strait, the battle that woke the world up to the Empire of Japan as a nascent power in 1905, and the battle of Jutland, the one great battleship fight of the First World War. It was a tough, inconclusive battle fought in uncooperative weather between two mighty fleets and their screening forces, which in 1916 (especially in foul weather) meant destroyers and other small surface reconnaissance vessels.

The battle, named for the Danish peninsula off which it reached its climax, was inconclusive; both sides lost ships and thousands of men, but it can be called a British strategic victory, as the Kaiser’s fleet never sortied in such strength ever again.

Jutland has been beautifully reconstructed as an informative animation, produced, directed and narrated by Nick Jellicoe, grandson of the British admiral, Lord Jellicoe.

This is one that is worth watching in full screen. Also, if you go to the Vimeo website, Nick has been engaging people in the comments there. No doubt he will be running flat out right now, as this is the actual anniversary and he’s a big wheel in the Centenary; but his devotion to telling  the story of his grandfather, and his officers and men, as well as their German opponents, is appreciated by all of us.

Things that we found most fascinating include the consequences of imperfect information and restricted information flow; the technical aspects of 1916 naval gunnery, including the German night-fighting technology (the main battle was fought by daylight, in the afternoon, but the night tech is interesting); and Nick’s well-developed argument that being thwarted here led to the German decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, a decision that would ultimately sink the German Empire by drawing the US out of its cherished neutrality. (While President Wilson was strong for joining Britain and France, it wasn’t a popular position until after the Lusitania sinking).

Hat tip, the Old Salt Blog, which also has a report by Rick Spilman on the restoration of the only ship from Jutland which still survives, the cruiser HMS Caroline.

Helicopter SOF Insertion/Extraction Among our Allies

The indispensable Thomas Wiegold’s Augen Geradeaus blog entertained and informed Tom’s readers in April with these two videos of helicopter operations. He promises more on rotary wing operations soon, but these two videos on a single theme deserve to be shared and discussed. We’ll go a little deeper than Wiegold does by comparing what we see in the videos to what we can say, publicly, about American practices.

First: Exercise Summer Shield in Latvia, featuring Canadians and others (including Yanks) fast-roping and extracting with a Latvian Mi-8 helicopter.

The Mi-8 is one of the best helicopters in the world, and far more capable than its US counterparts, the H-46, H-1 or H-60. Its rotor system is highly developed on the solid basis of Mikail Mil’s early copy of Igor Sikorsky’s fully-articulated rotor (which was, as demonstrated by a famous patent-law case, a copy of Pitcairn’s autogyro rotor-head), so it’s about as dependable as a helicopter gets. The engines will run on just about any grade of fuel you can get to burn, including home heating oil. Maintenance is simple (for a helicopter) and requires few bespoke tools. All in all, a great machine. (Even US SOF uses a few of them now and again).

The system they’re using appears identical to the American Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System. Developed by the USMC as a safer and higher-throughput system than the previous rappelling/STABO system used in Vietnam by SF and other long range patrol elements, it’s been begging to be unified with something like Rhodesian Fire Force / stop group tactics in counterinsurgency, but instead is used mostly in the context of reconnaissance and small combat or direct-action patrols.

For Latvia, employing the proven, on-hand Mil for special operations is a no-brainer.

Germany has taken a different approach, as this article, the title of which translates as “Tailor-made for a Moment of Surprise,” discusses at the official site luftwaffe.de. The German SOF rotary-wing unit, Helicopter Wing 64 in Laupheim, operates two types: the new Airbus (formerly Eurocopter) H145M LUH SOF, suitable for most all-weather insertion and extraction missions, and the Sikorsky H-53 for missions that have a greater requirement in terms of range or lift. We couldn’t get that to embed here, so you’ve got to go there.

 

The H145M is particularly suited for urban operations and other uses where landing zones are restricted and is extremely maneuverable, thanks to its rigid rotor system (which Eurocopter inherited from the former Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blöhm designs). The rotor system also makes it immune to mast bumping, a bane of the teetering-rotor design that made some maneuvers in the Huey too dangerous to attempt.

The 64th Helo Wing flies for the two Bundeswehr SOF elements, the Kommando Spezialkräfte KSK and the naval version, KSM. “The Special Operations Forces are our customers, and we enable them to take the key terrain that they need,” one of the H145M pilots explains.

The Bundeswehr’s helicopters can handle a wide range of insertion and extraction methods, includin FRIES, rappelling, and parachute delivery. And so far, the KSK troops seem to like the new helicopters. They like the fact it doesn’t have a big transmission tower in the middle of the cabin, unlike the now-retired UH-1 aircraft; one KSK jumper was quoted as saying, “Naturally, it makes no difference to us which machine we jump out of, but one has to say that this one here is damned quiet and offers a lot of room.”

Mit dem Hubschrauber: Kanadische ‚Tactical Air Insertion‘, deutscher Spezialkräfte-Heli : Augen geradeaus.

History records that SOF units that have dedicated special operations helicopter support, that train and rehearse together, tend to outperform ad hoc lash-ups of shooters and flyers. It was the failure of such a task-organized chimera in 1980 that led to the foundation of the United States’ dedicated SOF helicopter capability. (The lesson of dedicated SOF helicopters had been learned in Vietnam, and lost afterward; one of the most effective SOF helicopter units of the Vietnam War was the RVNAF 219th Squadron, generally known by its call sign, the Kingbees.

Finally, the military helicopter Puma and Super Puma that came from French designs through the international Eurocopter, then as Airbus helicopters, are widely used in Europe’s North Sea oil fields as offshore transports. After an accident with a Eurocopter 225LP on 29 April, Norway and Britain have forbidden offshore operators from using the machines, although they can still use them for search and rescue. The Norwegian civil aviation authority’s statement is here; a Guardian story suggests that the rotor blades departed the aircraft in flight, causing an uncontrolled descent to the sea and killing the 13 souls on board. Airplanes, generally, are eager to fly, which is why heavy winds wreak havoc on parked ones. Helicopters? They’re eager to do that to you.