Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

Meet the AH-64D Longboat

No, that wasn’t a typo. A Greek crew took their attack helicopter surfing. (NSFW warning: an obscenity, if you happen to know modern Greek).

The pilots both survived, although their military careers might not. (Russia Today says that the Greek military claimed the aircraft had engine failure. We note that the Apache is a twin-engine helicopter, and even on a hot day has no trouble flying on one engine at sea level.

Below sea level? That’s a problem.

Remember, pilots: you can never beat the World Low Flying Record. You can only tie.

We’d Have Called it the Drone Dropper… or Drone-B-Gon

This anti-drone device is going viral. They’ve clickbaited it well by calling it the Skynet anti-drone rifle, and it can directionally jam the GPS signals a drone needs to navigate, and the wireless video downlink.

skynet-anti-drone-rifle-3The two white and black “barrels” are directional antennae in two separate GHz ranges. The backpack is the necessary power source. Anyone who’s got Electronic Warfare experience will tell you jamming is a power-intensive activity.

skynet-anti-drone-rifle-1If you look at all the pictures available on the company’s website, and watch the video (below), the whole thing appears to be built on a (partial? modified?) AR-15 receiver, with a standard M4 receiver extension and stock. A bit overkill for just something to hang an arduino, a transmitter, and some highly directional (< 10º) antennae on, but it kind of makes sense to give people a familiar interface, and the AR-15 is the point and click interface for the 21st Century.

Along with this video, there’s a new one showing a live test. They claim a “suppression ratio” (difference between the range from the Skynet operator to the drone and the drone controller to the drone) of 8:1, which means (thinking of power squares here) that this jammer has vastly more power than the controller.

The two signal rangess it can jam are 1.450 GHz – 1.650 GHz and 2.380 GHz – 2.483 GHz, but it can only jam one at a time. Available hacks for, for example, the DJI Phantom drone (the one in the video) can take the drone control out of the target range, and could practically be developed for the video range.

There are a few other problems with it, to wit:

  1. As a jammer, it is almost certainly illegal to use in the USA. The Federal Communications Commission takes a dim view of jamming, and has considerable technical and legal resources it deploys to punish violators.
  2. It’s only effective against some common commercial drones and is unlikely to have any impact on a more sophisticated government or military system, which is likely to use robust, high-availability communications, and have backup onboard navigation (usually inertial) that’s immune to jamming or meaconing.
  3. It requires clear line-of-sight to the drone, ergo, it’s only useful as a point-defense weapon.
  4. It requires a human operator and visibility of the target. (How would it work in the dark, against a drone deploying LLLTV? We suppose there’s a Picatinny rail upon which you can mount an image intensifier or thermal sight).
  5. It has the scent of early prototype all over it, and is a long way from a commercial product or (alternatively) a flexible R&D platform. But even experimenting with this thing brings you back around into the sights of the FCC.

Finally, this is, we think, the firm’s first video, from May.

All in all, it smells to us like a gimmick. And within the range of this thing, there are other ways to take out a drone (one lady pestered by paparazzi drones seeking spy shots of a celebrity neighbor demonstrated her wingshooting skills and blew the drone to Kingdom Come. The paparazzi boarded their Range Rover — apparently invading privacy pays well — and were last seen heading back for Gawker HQ or whatever glutinous sump whence they emerged).

This is not the only anti-drone product out there. As well as other jammers, there are counter-drone drones that ram them or drop nets or cables onto their rotors. All of them are similarly immature at present, and no one knows if they represent a real market segment or just hobbyists tinkering.

French Ops against ISIL

FR Operation Chammal graphicOur often-forgotten (but appreciated here) allies, France, have been flying alongside American and Allied airmen in several international air operations, including Baltic Air Policing securing the threatened Baltic States of NATO, against Islamic terrorists in the central African band from Mauritania through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad (the French commitment of air, ground and special-ops forces is called Opération Barkhane), and against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, yclept en français Opération Chammal.

The French joint General Staff has been tweeting out some facts about Chammal this week. And on September 1, they posted an update on all pending operations on Facebook. Naturally, they write in their own language, we’ll restate their social media points in English pour votre convenience. 

Chammal Statistics:

  • Operation Start: 19 Sep 2014.
  • Flights in Iraq & Syria: 4,540
  • Strikes on Da’esh (ISIS/ISIL): 829
  • Targets destroyed: 1,415

Mirage 2000 Participation in Chammal

  • Deployment Start: 12 Dec 14
  • Deployment Conclusion: 28 Aug 16
  • Sorties: 2,349
  • Flight hours: 10,810

FR Operation Chammal Rotation

Previously operating with a mixed Mirage 2k/Rafale combat equipment set, Chammal continues with 12 Rafales (like this one) on the scene:

FR Operation Chammal Rafale

The “all Rafale” force will be fully operational on 10 September.

Aside: thanks to Avions Marcel Dassault, France seems to have had the most consistently beautiful jets of any nation, although the beauty of the Rafale’s compound curves is somewhat hidden in the above all-business image.

We’ll pull a few lines from the French operational briefing. If there’s enough demand we’ll anglicize the whole thing later:

In the Levant, the security situation remains delicate. The crisis is evolving in a complex operational environment, but the advances of coalition forces on the ground are real. The objective of the coalition is to neutralize the military capacities of Daesh, and to frame the minimal conditions for security.

No doubt, that’s the coalition’s real security objective, and that mealy-mouthed mission, as converted to actual tasking, is the root of the coalition’s failure.

On the ground: In Iraq, Iraqi security forces have continued their reconquest operations launched in the spring, and have recaptured certain villages.

French forces assisted in the region of the al-Walid frontier post in the Anbar Valley, and in operations aimed ultimately at retaking the lost city of Mosul. Iraqi security forces with such Coalition assistance broke through north of Baiji on 15 July and retook the town of Qayyara. They’re now trying to completely secure the town and clear it of mines and IEDs left behind by ISIL. In Syria, Coalition (and French) forces contributed to the retaking of Manbij.

All this noted, French General de Villiers noted at a recent panel on the prospect of raising French defense spending to 2% of GDP (the on-paper NATO standard nobody meets):

There can’t be a gap between the goals, the threats, the missions and the means.

A fine sentiment, but he doesn’t appropriate the money; he has to do what he can with what the civilian government gives him. The French forces at home and overseas are small and stretched thin. But they’re not shrinking from the fight.

It was a Perfect Day in Hawaii’s Eternal Summer

Mishap from the air. We believe that the mishap aircraft is down, and the aircraft visible is waving off.

Mishap from the air. We believe that the mishap aircraft is down, and the aircraft visible is waving off.

A perfect day, until the crash. Aviation Week has an evocative article about the crash of a Marine MV-22 Osprey in Hawaii on 17 May 2015. (A registration may be required, but no pay).

Despite the destruction of the airframe, only two of the Marine passengers on this combat-training mission, and none of the crew, were lost. But AW got hold of either a released Article 15-6 investigation report, or one hell of a leak from the actual accident board report (which is a closely held document, not releasable to the public).

It took about an hour for the Osprey to reach the Oahu coast from the Essex, arriving at about 11:30 a.m. Hawaii time. Outside, an 11-kt. wind topped off a 75F morning under slightly overcast skies as the pilots dealt with a slight glare. From the cockpit all was clear within 20 mi. of the beach. The pilots started their descent to 6,500 ft. and then to 1,500 ft. About three miles out, the pilots reduced power. The Osprey then began the riskiest stage of its flight—conversion to helicopter mode and preparation for landing, raising the nacelles and lowering the landing gear when it reached about 110 kt. a half mile before the beachline.

The Osprey crossed the beach at 80 kt. about 620 ft. above the sand, part of a formation of five MV-22s taking part in the exercise. In the cabin, some Marines would note the change in view from the vast blue Pacific to green fields and fences—a lot of fences. This would be a tight landing area.

The MV-22 began a right turn toward LZ Gull. That’s when the confusion started—the tiltrotor was following a flight path about 50 yards southeast of the intended landing point. One of the other formation Ospreys, Mayhem 12, radioed a warning: Mayhem 11 was in the wrong zone, it was too far to the right and off the range complex.

Fifty yards made all the difference, as did the failure to recon the DZ properly, and these errors would be compounded momentarily.

Inside the cabin, as they heard the change in the engine pitch announcing the switch from flight to imminent landing, the Marines strapped on their gear and unstrapped themselves from their safety harnesses. This had become common practice to allow them to exit the aircraft as quickly as possible. It was also a flagrant safety violation. They smacked themselves and each other on their plated chests. Officers held up two fingers—two minutes to landing and assault. Some again checked their magazines.

Using the nearby fence line as a reference point, the pilots started to creep their Osprey toward the LZ, with the large tree to their left. It did not look good, and they radioed the rest of the crews: “We’re going to wave this off …” The noise abatement area to the north severely constricted their ability to maneuver.

But a ragged flight formation was the least of their problems. As the aircraft descended to 25 ft., Mayhem 11 encountered brownout conditions that engulfed the Osprey—rotor downwash was kicking up a thick fog of sand and dust, obliterating points of visual reference.

“‘Brown out’ landings are one of the most difficult operations a helicopter or tiltrotor aircraft can conduct and require detailed planning for success,” investigators would later note. Those aboard Mayhem 11 were ill-prepared to perform one.

They waved off the first landing attempt, then came right back to the same place to try again.

Their next approach profile was exactly the same, producing another severe brownout. The aircraft became engulfed in dust about 25 ft. off the ground as the pilots struggled to get their bearings. It proved impossible to maintain a stable hover due to the unavailability of a clear, unobstructed view of the landing zone. The aircraft moved vertically and laterally off its mark, and the pilots realized they were climbing without meaning to. To reset and attempt another landing, the Osprey climbed to about 110 ft. to get out of the dust cloud as the pilots shifted controls, cued up a new hover page and hit the trim release button, so the aircraft wouldn’t drift from its spot in the sky.

Typical V22 dust devil on arid LZ. (Not a photo from this mishap).

Typical V22 dust devil on arid LZ. (Not a photo from this mishap).

The downwash of a V-22 has to be experienced to be believed. It is much stronger than the downwash of any other hovering rotorcraft — worse than the H-47, the H-53, the long-retired CH-54, and even the mighty Russian Mi-26. It’s very unpleasant to be under, and frightening to fast-rope from.

In addition, brownout not only ruins pilot (and crew chief) visibility, it also sluices a dry river of particulates into the engine intakes. The USMC and other Osprey operators were about to learn an expensive lesson about the plane’s ability to filter these particles.

Mayhem 11 had surpassed its limits for brownout exposure. Neither landing pass by itself had exceeded the 60-sec. brownout limit, and procedures said nothing about a combined limit within any certain period of time. The pilots were operating within accepted procedures. After this day, though, those procedures would be changed.

In the traditional story of Faust, the Devil requires the knowledge-seeking doctor to sign in blood. Flight manuals and operating limitations, also, are sometimes written in blood.

As the pilots tried to set the aircraft down for a third time, those watching the attempt from a nearby hill lost sight of the Osprey in the dust, but they heard a loud pop and saw three red flashes from the bottom exhaust of the port side engine nacelle, followed by black smoke. The pop also was heard within the V-22 itself, penetrating the hearing protection worn by the Marines. The left-hand engine had begun to clog with sand and dirt filled with reactive minerals—calcium, magnesium, aluminum and silicon—that had melted in the combustor and resolidified on the fixed first-state turbine vane. The engine surged, dipping the Osprey immediately left and rolling some of the passengers inside.

Mishap aircraft burns out. The Marines pulled all out, survivors and dead alike, and none were claimed by the fire. But it was close.

Mishap aircraft burns out. The Marines pulled all out, survivors and dead alike, and none were claimed by the fire. But it was close.

The aircraft was, perhaps, at 10 or 15 feet above the fence when the engine began to fail and the crew tried to power their way out of the imminent crash.

Inside the cockpit, time seemed to slow as the adrenaline flowed. The pilots felt the aircraft settling in its own downwash and they knew something was wrong. The Osprey started to fall. The crew chief yelled, “Power!” And then it seemed like the entire aircrew was yelling at once in unison: “Power! Power! Power!”

Both pilots slammed full forward the thrust control lever, which moves fore and aft like an airplane throttle, in an attempt to gain power and altitude. But there was nothing stopping the Osprey now—it plunged to the ground at a speed of about 36 ft. per second.

For comparison’s sake, the old MC1-1B/C parachute descended at about 18-22 feet per second with a normal load (150-300 lb.).

The crash destroyed the aircraft, killed two Marines, and injured 18 more. The casualty list would have been much worse if the Marines hadn’t self- and buddy-rescued before the noxious fumes from burning Osprey pieces could finish them.

Osprey mishaps get a lot of ink, but the aircraft is surprisingly safe, and surprisingly robust. The ship’s accident and fatal-accident rate is lower than some other combat types. One very expensive accident resulted when an Osprey tumbled off a flight deck and hit the water, getting partly submerged. The pilots never stopped fighting and they saved the aircraft, although one crewman bailed out after impact — and was not recovered by USS Boat. (Salt water corrosion meant that this would have been a Class A mishap even without the fatality, but that Osprey was repaired and flies on). The Marines are operating a couple hundred of the unique birds.

A similar “hard landing” in a Chinook or 53 would likely have caused more serious injuries and more fatalities. Unlike those aircraft, the airframe does burn (and release toxic fumes as it goes) which puts a premium on self-help after the parts are done bouncing.

Do Read The Whole Thing™. The comment section is a mixed bag of informed and uninformed personnel, if you read the comments it should be clear who is who.

New Video of the Sunken USS Independence

This video, from Wired, is pretty good because it shows a 40mm dual-mount AA…

USS-Independence-8-1024x576

…and one of the F6F Hellcats on the hangar deck.

USS-Independence-12-1024x576

On to the film:

The ship earned a lot of battle stars — and then got nuked. Twice. And still took some sinking. Now it rests on the seabed off San Francisco, for all time. It has become a curiosity for scientists studying, among other things, the long-term effects of a short, sharp dose of ionizing radiation.

Chinese J-15 Fighter

The Shenyang J-15 “Flying Shark,” a Chinese domestic version of the Sukhoi Su-33 jet, is China’s shipboard fighter. This extremely professional video from 2014 shows some J-15 ops from shore and from the carrier Liaoning. The airplane is generally in the F-15 or F-18 class.

The jet is back in the news lately; it’s had a gestation as long and complex as an American bird, and a prototype crashed in April, which was only announced recently.

The test pilot, Zhang Chao, did not survive. The South China Morning Post reported:

China National Radio reported yesterday that a top-class PLA J-15 pilot died after he lost control of his plane during a simulated deck landing exercise at a unspecified inland base.

“When Zhang Chao was flying a carrier-based jet fighter in a mock landing on an aircraft carrier on April 27, he encountered a breakdown with the fly-by-wire flight control system,” the report said.

“At the critical moment, Zhang tried his best to save the aircraft. When the pushrods failed, he ejected and died as a result of an injury on landing.”

Experts seem split on whether this will further delay the Chinese fighter program, but the fact is, unless and until the cause of the mishap is fully understood, the effect on the program can only be guessed at. It could be an error by the pilot, a software glitch, a matter of botched switchology, or a system failure — and if a system failure, it might have doomed Zhang, or his test-pilot inclination to troubleshoot the plane all the way to impact might have done so.

We just don’t know. It’s just a reminder that flying high-performance aircraft is a risky business, and it doesn’t matter what nation’s marking is emblazoned on the tail. Zhang has joined the global company of test pilots who have died in pursuit of the edges of an ever-larger performance envelope.

There are many things to be studied in the video. The rhythms of shipboard operation will look familiar to anyone who’s seen them on another nation’s carriers, from the FOD walkdown to the use of angle-deck touch-n-goes in working up and qualifying a new plane. It does seem like the Chinese have studied the USN in depth; there are things they do their own way, but a lot of what goes on looks just like the way the US Navy does things.

But you don’t have to study the video. You can just enjoy it.

Air War in the East, 1941-45

Here is a remarkably clear and objective Russian overview of the air war from the German surprise attack, which all but annihilated the Red air forces, destroying nearly 90% of combat aircraft in the first thirty days, through the bleak days when an Il-2 Sturmovik pilot might go into combat with zero Il-2 hours, and only 15-20 hours overall,  to the days before the fall of Berlin, when the shoe was on the other foot. At that time, many of the smooth German aces of 1941 were dead or disabled, and it was Hitlerjugend boys who were stuffed into Focke-Wulf 190 fighter-bombers with almost no training, and sent forth to meet hardened and ruthless Soviet aces.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXZoCkN7Sr0

The video is from a Russian series on the history of what Russians will always call the Great Patriotic War. It uses limited historical footage plus reenactments and digital simulations to teach the historical and tactical lessons of the war.

Unlike Soviet-era Russian history, the heroes here are the combat airmen, not Stalin and his ministers; and Soviet screwups as well as superiorities are noted.

Lesson? Don’t be like the Nazis and assume technical and tactical superiority is a static situation. Your enemy is an intelligent human being, and he will adapt as needed; the time may come where he hands you your head, or parks a number of Guards Tank Armies on your territory.

To avoid that outcome, or the equally bad outcome of a long stalemate, you must either knock him out with an initial death-blow (and that was the first objective of the Nazis, at which they failed), or be prepared to keep improvising and adapting yourself in a war that becomes a long slog. The Germans did not do that, and they suffered a crushing defeat, loss of territories that were ancestral German homelands, enormous loss of life, and decades of a crushing occupation and quisling government for a large portion of their population and territory.

As the Russians would quickly point out if we did not: the Germans asked for it when they invaded their then-ally in 1941. Or as they say in the South: don’t start none, won’t be none.

What’s Up? Doc!

OK, we already showed you Doc’s first flight, cut short by an indicator light (better safe than sorry in a 70-year-old, fiendishly complex airplane). But this video by professional videographer Scott Slocum was shot from a chase plane (an RV-8? Not sure), and it is, in places, breathtaking.

You can click on the “vimeo” link in the lower right to go to the Aero Media Group’s website and see some more of Scott’s fine work. Along with some cool sailing stuff, there’s P-40 and B-17 video also.

But here’s one more B-29 video: Doc’s sister ship FIFI, the Commemorative Air Force’s bird, shot this year also, in amazing crepuscular light.

If we had a B-29, we’d want Scott and his camera in the chase plane. Wouldn’t you?

“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!