Category Archives: planes

X-47B Autonomous Aerial Refueling

Just the other day Salty Dog 502, one of two X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrators actually performed in flight refueling autonomously by plugging into and taking on fuel from an Omega Aerial Refueling Services KC-707 tanker.

The X-47B is strictly a demonstrator program, designed to show that autonomous vehicles could be launched from a carrier, land aboard a carrier, operate on the flight deck, and be refueled in flight. Those were some pretty lofty goals, and we admit that we were surprised at just how successful the program was, with little or no drama involved in the various phases of the program.

It is a long, long stretch from a demonstrator type program to fielding an actual combat capable autonomous platform, and indeed there’s strong debate over just what roles any future unmanned combat aircraft should perform. Some argue that a lower risk approach of an ISR focused platform would reach the fleet sooner, at lower cost, and develop the tribal knowledge to form a firm foundation for future development, all while fulfilling an important mission not currently met by the carrier air wing. Others, such as Senator McCain insist that the expense of developing an unmanned combat air vehicle demand that it be an actual strike platform, especially in light of the challenges anti-access weapon systems such as the S-300 pose to the current airwing.

The objectives of the X-47B program have been met, and both Salty Dog 501 and 502 will shortly be retired, and almost certainly be turned into museum pieces.


Filed under navy, planes

The Last of the Gunfighters was a pretty decent bomber.

The Vought F-8 Crusader is famous as the last US Navy fighter designed with guns as its primary armament. It was also famous for eschewing the prevailing notion of the day that future air combat would be missile oriented, and dogfighting would be a thing of the past.* 

The earlier models of the F-8 carried the guns and the Sidewinder. But starting with the F-8E, two wing pylons were added, each with the capability of carrying either a 2000lb Mk84 bomb, or a Multiple Ejector Rack with a variety of ordnance.

It’s easy to see how the adaptability of the F-8 convinced Vought they could design and build an attack plane derived from the F-8 as a replacement for the A-4 Skyhawk, what eventually became the A-7 Corsair II.


*The truth is, it’s a little more nuanced than that. ‘sader drivers spent their fair share of time practicing radar intercepts just like their Phantom cousins, and even had their own radar guided missile, the AIM-9C Sidewinder, which was less successful than even the Phantom’s AIM-7D.


Filed under navy, planes

Jet Bombers Go To Sea

One of the Lexicans tipped me to this, from the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Douglas’ A3D (later A-3) Skywarrior was the largest plane ever operationally deployed aboard carriers. Earlier attempts by the Navy to field a nuclear capable bomber at sea were… marginal at best. Some P2V (later P-2) Neptunes were intended to be launched as nuclear bombers, but no attempt was made at providing a capability of recovering them aboard. The later North American AJ (later A-2) Savage was a hybrid propulsion bomber, with twin reciprocating engines, and a small jet engine embedded in the tail. It was not a terribly successful aircraft.

About the time the A3D started entering into squadron service in significant numbers, advances in nuclear weapons reduced their size to the p0int where smaller tactical aircraft, such as the AD (later A-1) Skyraider and the A4D (later A-4)* could carry nuclear weapons. The widespread adoption of in flight refueling also meant smaller strike aircraft could reach well into the heart of the Soviet Union after launching from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The A3D, with its great size and payload capacity soon found itself adapted to roles beyond the nuclear strike mission. Variants would serve as tankers, electronic warfare platforms, reconnaissance jets and even as transport. A-3s did fly a handful of conventional strike missions during the Vietnam war, but rarely ventured into the contested skies above North Vietnam.


The last Navy A-3s finally retired in the early 1990s.


Filed under Cold War, navy, nuclear weapons, planes

A Quick History of US Navy Flight Deck Tractors

Aircraft carriers have limited deck space in which to position and move aircraft on the flight deck. This is where a rather unsung workhorse of US Naval Aviation come into its own. To move these aircraft around, the Navy uses flight deck tractors.

Flight deck tractors first started to make an appearance on flight decks during the intense Pacific campaigns of World War 2. It was discovered that man-handling aircraft to position them for flight operations took too much time. The first integration of the flight deck tractor was actually just a plain old US Army Willy Jeep:

Here's a Willy's Jeep towing a Grumman Avenger during World War 2.

Here’s a Willy’s Jeep towing a Grumman Avenger during World War 2.

The tow tractors also became necessary because of the increased weight of aircraft like the SBDs, Grumman Avenger and Hellcat. Willy’s Jeeps served as aircraft tractors on fleet carriers (Yorktown and Essex classes) as well as on smaller ships (Independence, Bogue, Sangamon, Casablanca classes) till the end of the war.

At the same time the US Navy adopted the Clarktor 6 Tractor which was already in use with the USAAF. The Clarktor 6 was based on a pre-war commercial tractor design. These tractors were in use on Lexington, Essex and Midway class carriers till the mid-1950s:

Here's a Clarktor 6 towing a newly built F2H-1 Banshee at the McDonnell factory in St. Louis, MO.

Here’s a Clarktor 6 towing a newly built F2H-1 Banshee at the McDonnell factory in St. Louis, MO.

The BNO-40 flight deck tractor was also based on a pre-war commercial design that entered US Navy service in 1943. These tractors served on most USN carriers, including veterans like USS Enterprise (CV-6), Essex and Midway class attack carriers, Independence class light carriers and even the smaller Bogue, Sangamon, Casablanca and Commencement Bay class escort ships. By the mid-1950S these tractors also service with the French Navy aboard the R96 La Fayette (ex USS Langley) and R97 Bois Belleau (ex USS Belleau Wood):

BNO-40 flight deck tractors aboard the USS Ticonderoga CV-14 during Okinawa operations.

BNO-40 flight deck tractors aboard the USS Ticonderoga CV-14 during Okinawa operations.

The introduction of jet aircraft to US Navy flight decks in the 1950s posed a whole new set of problems with flight deck tractors. The US Navy introduced the MD-1 flight deck tractor which was the first equipped with a gas turbine unit to assist in starting the modern jet powered aircraft. For this reason they become known by the name “huffer.” Huffers served on the served on Essex / Oriskany, Midway and Forrestal / Kitty Hawk class carriers of the U.S. Navy until mid 1960s. They were also used by the Royal Canadian Navy aboard the HMCS Bonaventure:

Here's an MD-1 with an A-4 Skyhawk.

Here’s an MD-1 with an A-4 Skyhawk.

Introduced in the early 1960s, the MD-3 tow tractor was the first purpose-built flight deck tractor. Introduced in the 1960’s the MD-3 featured a low profile to fit under the nose of modern naval aircraft. To cope with the larger size of aircraft at the time, the MD-3 was also larger and heavier than its predecessors. The MD-3 also featured a gas-turbine starter but also space of a fire extinguisher. The MD-3 served on all US Navy carriers (all classes included the CVN-68 class) and amphibious assault ships of the era:

Here an MD-3A tows an S-3A Viking from VS-28 aboard the USS Forrestal (CV-59).

Here an MD-3A tows an S-3A Viking from VS-28 aboard the USS Forrestal (CV-59).

The current flight deck tractor found on all aircraft carriers and amphibs is the A/S-32A-31A. Introduced in the 1990’s, the -31a looks like the MD-3 but is longer as it has a new starter unit and contains a place to stow equipment. The -31A is powered by a 3 stroke diesel engine, an automatic transmission. Although rear wheel driven the -31A has power assisted steering up front:

Here's an A/S32A-31A tow tracor on the aircraft carrier flight deck.

Here’s an A/S32A-31A tow tracor on the aircraft carrier flight deck.

The newer SD-2 is a version of the A/S32A-32A designed specifically for use in the aircraft hangar deck. Due to the even more restricted space below the SD-2 has a castoring wheel that enables to fit aircraft into the tighter spaces found on the hangar deck. The SD-2 also does not need to tow bar as the aircraft are handled by an attached brace on the tractor that fits into the nosegear:

SD-2 tow tracor on the flight deck.

SD-2 tow tracor on the flight deck.

Tow tractors enable carriers and other aircraft operating ships to rapidly reposition aircraft to facilitate a rapid tempo of flight operations. Keeping in mind, IYAOYAS, tow tractors and their aviation bosun mates enable that ordinance to be on target in a timely manner. As with other member of the Naval Aviation team,  They give creditibilty to US Naval power.


Filed under Defense, navy, planes, ships

F4D-1 Skyray Operating Procedures

There’ll be an open book NATOPS quiz, and a closed book EP quiz at the next AOM.


Filed under planes

Tulsa Air and Space Museum

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum was a nice find.  A retired American Airlines MD-80 is parked outside, and an F-14 Tomcat is among the aircraft inside.


The museum pays homage to Oklahoma aviators and astronauts, including a large display about Wiley Post, Will Rogers, and their ill-fated flight in Alaska.  Another display described the last B-24 built at the Douglas plant in Tulsa, the “Tulsamerican”, which later went down in the Adriatic. Art deco pieces of the old airport building are preserved, as well as a couple of old Spartan airplanes. Oklahoma astronauts include Apollo 10 and Apollo-Soyuz commander Thomas Stafford, Skylab astronauts Owen Garriott and William Pogue, and Shuttle astronauts Shannon Lucid and John Herrington.

Mr. RFH liked this, the Jumo 004 turbojet engine for the Me-262.

The kids liked the interactive displays and the knowledgeable docent.
mini me

Last but not least was the planetarium, which had a number of shows. I liked this display, an Eagle project made of a couple of thousand Rubik’s Cubes.
2000 rubiks

They also had up-to-date stargazer news, including the rendezvous with the Dawn mission to Ceres, the solar eclipse earlier in March, and updates on the James Webb Space Telescope.

On the same road, not far from the museum is Evelyn’s Soul Food Restaurant. This was a nice place to have lunch then return to the museum.


Filed under history, Personal, planes, space, World War II

Almost there… Doc rolls out.

You know FiFi, the only flightworthy B-29 Superfortress in the world. Well, with a little bit of luck, Doc will be airborne this year. And today was Doc’s rollout after a stunning 300,000 man-hours of restorations. Doc still has a ways to go before she’s flightworthy, but the progress has been terrific.


Filed under planes