Category Archives: planes

Marines declare F-35B Initial Operational Capability

Earlier today, as expected, GEN Dunford declared that VMFA-121 had achieved Initial Operational Capability, essentially the entry of the jet into real service.

In a milestone for the F-35 joint strike fighter, the US Marine Corps today declared the F-35B jump-jet model to have achieved initial operational capability (IOC).

The news means that the Marines consider the F-35B model – one of three designs of the multi-role fighter — to be an active plane that can perform in operations the same way any other active aircraft in its arsenal can.

The plane was declared operational by Gen. Joe Dunford, the outgoing Marine Corps commandant — and incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — in a July 31 announcement.

“I am pleased to announce that VMFA-121 has achieved initial operational capability in the F-35B, as defined by requirements outlined in the June 2014 Joint Report to Congressional Defense Committees,” Dunford said in a statement. “VMFA-121 has ten aircraft in the Block 2B configuration with the requisite performance envelope and weapons clearances, to include the training, sustainment capabilities, and infrastructure to deploy to an austere site or a ship. It is capable of conducting close air support, offensive and defensive counter air, air interdiction, assault support escort and armed reconnaissance as part of a Marine Air Ground Task Force, or in support of the Joint Force.”

Of course, IOC is a starting point, not an end. Every new platform has a steep learning curve associated with it. All the testing prior to this is conducted by the contractor, and the various test establishments of the services. The Fleet Replacement Squadron, commonly called the RAG, has focused on training aircrew and maintainers to operate the jet, while also beginning to serve as the tactical schoolhouse. But until the squadrons in the fleet actually get out there and start using the jet, it is difficult to really determine how best to operate and maintain it.

There will be bad news in the future, and stories of challenges and failures. Guess what? That happens with every single aircraft, vehicle, ship, radio, rifle, you name it.

We still maintain that the Marines insistence on STOVL capability has compromised the end product, and certainly driven the cost of the program much higher than it should have been.

But we also think the F-35 program as a whole will eventually field a capable attack platform with credible survivability in defended airspace.

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Storm in Benelux causes near disaster at Schiphol

A couple of days ago, there was severe weather across much of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (Benelux).  This played merry hell with the very dense air traffic in northern Europe, with many flights diverted from their destinations.  One other knock on effect is that bad weather reduces the operations capacity of an airport. An airport  can accommodate half a dozen jet landings in 10 minutes in fair weather might be reduced to only two or three in bad weather. Worse still, bad weather will force missed approaches, further reducing the capacity.

This severe weather lead to some very close calls at Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport.

Wind shear is the phenomenon where a column of air is flowing down from a storm toward the ground. When that column of air hits the ground, it flows outward.

What happens is that an aircraft on approach, flying into this outward flow essentially suddenly has a major headwind component, and its indicated airspeed makes a sudden leap, say from 140 knots to 160 knots. Pilots on approach, being very sensitive to maintaining speed for landing, almost instinctively reduce power to reduce speed.* The problem is, as the jet passes through the column, while decelerating, they then encounter a very strong downward force, and worse on the far side, they suddenly find themselves traveling in the same direction of the outflow.  That effectively removes the headwind component, and indeed, the tailwind component results in a sudden drastic drop in indicated airspeed, say from 160 knots to suddenly 120 knots. The problem is, a 737 won’t fly at 120 knots. 

Coupled with the downward vector imparted earlier, and the reduction of power, it is very easy for an airliner to be slammed into the ground well short of the runway, with disastrous consequences. 

I’ll leave it to Spill to describe the proper procedure for pilots that do find themselves in windshear.

The atrocious weather at Schiphol meant that Trasnavia wasn’t the only airliner having trouble that day.

H/T to Airplane Pictures.

*Or worse, the autothrottles most airliners fly approaches with do it for the pilot and the pilot doesn’t immediately grasp that they are flying into windshear.


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Spaceship Two pilot speaks

The rocket ship suddenly began bucking violently, Siebold told investigators, and the “G-levels went through the roof.”

The force pushed him down in his seat so hard that there was little he could do. It was hard to even breathe.

“It felt as though the vehicle pitched over on its back,” he said.

He heard that single loud crack and the cabin rapidly depressurized. The last air was sucked from his lungs.

Read the whole thing.
LA Times article link here.

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The Dunker

Pave Low John and I got to talking about underwater egress training for helicopter crews.


One of the dozens of training courses that rotary-wing aircrew have to endure during their career is underwater egress training, also known as the infamous “Dunker Training”. The initial course is usually a day of academics and pool training, with annual refresher training scheduled once a year, usually at the base swimming pool. The reason this training is so important is because a helicopter crew that crashes into the water will almost always survive the actual crash. It’s during the egress from the sinking helicopter itself that most crewmembers are killed. I used to fly with an older flight engineer named Pat Hogan who was the sole survivor of an Air Force HH-3 Jolly Green that drifted back into the ocean off Okinawa during night water operations. He doesn’t even remember how he got out, he just got lucky. So crashing in the water, especially at night, was a situation that crews needed to be trained and equipped to handle.

With regards to equipment, the Air Force provided LPUs and HEEDS bottles for any aircrew that planned to fly beyond autorotational distance from shore. If you flew from a base next to the ocean, though, you wore them on every mission. LPUs were collapsible water-wings that were inflated by CO2 cartridges when you pulled a lanyard. They were bright orange and would keep you afloat even while wearing all your flight gear. However, you had to wait until you actually egressed the helicopter before you activated your LPUs or you would most definitely go down with the sinking aircraft. The HEEDs bottle was nothing more than a miniature SCUBA bottle with a mouthpiece regulator that fit in a holster on your survival vest. If you hit the water, you placed the HEEDS bottle in your mouth and it would provide at least a minute or two of air while you got untangled and exited your newly converted submarine. With a HEEDS bottle, you stood a much better chance of getting out of the helicopter. However, all of this required that you not panic and stay calm during a very stressful situation. Hence the one-day block of hands-on training in a semi-realistic environment.

This video, titled “Seconds to Live”, was the official training video that the USAF has been using as long as I can remember for aircrew underwater egress training. I suppose the Army and Navy have their own videos, but this is the only one I saw during my twenty years as an aviator. There are plenty of other videos on Youtube that show aircrew going through the training in a controlled pool environment. The “Dunker” itself is just a giant beer-can with seats in it that is lowered into the water while it rotates upside-down (helicopter are top-heavy, due to the main gear box and the engines, and roll over as they sink). It wasn’t until I attended initial training at NAS Jacksonville that I realized that most people dreaded the “Dunker”.

Being lucky enough to grow up next to a lake in NC, I had grown up swimming, jet-skiing, water-skiing, white-water rafting, you name it. Outside of being a water-polo player, I was about as comfortable in the water as one could be. However, some of the people in my class were not very comfortable in the water (we even had a bunch of helicopter mechanics from Ft Rucker in my class that flat-out admitted they joined the Army because they didn’t like swimming. Oops). Let’s just say it is a good thing they have divers on duty in the pool to pull people out if they start panicking or they would have killed half the class. You have to do five egresses and the last two have to be with the lights off to simulate a night ditching event. I didn’t have any problems but I saw some folks absolutely freak out when they dropped the big can into the water with the lights out. They make you keep doing it until you pass, so everyone passed, in the end.

The refresher training for us was much milder, you sit in a floating cage made of PVC pipe and just unlock your simulated harness and get out of that, all in your friendly local base pool. I had heard that the Navy made their guys use the underwater egress simulator a lot more, being overwater to a greater extent than Air Force rotor-heads. The Air Force probably should have done that as well, but remember, we are talking about the Air Force here. No reason to make it too painful, right?

All in all, I kind of enjoyed “Dunker Training”, it was the kind of stuff I imagined doing when I was growing up and dreaming of being a military pilot. However, I can definitely see why people that were not strong swimmers would dread it and I commend everyone that went through the course without tapping out, even as they hated every second of it.

XBrad- It’s a very real world problem. Here’s a scenario. An H-46 conducting Vertical Replenishment from the USNS Spica loses an engine while lifting a sling load and in hover out of ground effect. It’s able to immediately ditch the sling load, and get over the water, but settles into the water. The normally amphibious Sea Knight should have been able to move forward into translational lift, but the failure of the belly hatch meant the cabin filled with water. Watch just how fast the helo sinks.

In this case, all crewmen escaped (using both their LPUs and HEED).


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Air Force Special Operations Helicopters in Vietnam

Most of us, when we think of Air Force Special Operations helicopters immediately picture the mighty MH-53J/M, the giant Pave Low III/IV used through the 80s and 90s to insert special operation forces at long range and in limited visibility into denied territory. The Pave Low is retired now, replaced in Air Force service by the CV-22B.

Here’s the thing- the Air Force didn’t get the MH-53 until well after the Desert One disaster during the Iran hostage crisis. It had operated H-53s for many years prior to that, all the way back to the Vietnam war, but used it in the Combat Search and Rescue role, picking up downed pilots in enemy territory. But the Desert One fiasco convinced both the Army and the Air Force they needed dedicated aircraft and crews to support special operations forces.

Of course, the H-53 wouldn’t be the first Air Force helicopter focused on support to special operations. During the Vietnam War, it quickly became apparent that the North Vietnamese were supplying their forces and the Vietcong in the south via what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex of roads and trails moving from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. This web of trails was dispersed so that finding individual units and convoys on it was extremely challenging. A great deal of effort went into developing technologies that could find traffic on the trail. But for most of the war, the most effective means of finding traffic was to insert small reconnaissance teams of 3-6 men in the area. These small teams, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, or LLRPs (pronounced “Lurps”) would be inserted into an operational area via helicopter, walk to an objective area, and quietly observe. Intelligence gathered would be used to generated targeting for airstrikes, as early warning for ground commanders, and generally help generate an order of battle of enemy forces. Similar patrols inside South Vietnam would detect, locate and target NVA forces operating against the US and our South Vietnamese allies.

Tasked with supporting this mission, the Air Force actually bought their own variant of the ubiquitous UH-1 Huey, the UH-1F. Given that they were primarily inserting very small teams, the Air Force chose the original short cabin configuration. And observing the trouble the Army had with gunship versions of the short cabin UH-1B due to lack of power, the Air Force Hueys were powered by the General Electric 1500hp T-58 turbine engine, unlike virtually every other Huey that used variants of the Lycoming T-53 turbine.*

The Air Force also developed a bolt on kit to convert a “slick” Huey into a gunship variant, with two 7-round 2.75” rocket launchers, and two M134 miniguns mounted in the cabin. Where the army external forward firing mounts for M60s and later M134s, the cabin mounted miniguns of the Air Force could be used either in a forward firing mode, or as flexible guns aimed by the crew chief and gunner.

On November 26, 1968, then 1st LT James P. Fleming, USAF of the 20th Special Operations Squadron was flying a UH-1F when a call for an emergency extraction of a six man MACV-SOG recon team came over the air.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Fleming (then 1st Lt.) distinguished himself as the Aircraft Commander of a UH-1F transport Helicopter. Capt. Fleming went to the aid of a 6-man special forces long range reconnaissance patrol that was in danger of being overrun by a large, heavily armed hostile force. Despite the knowledge that 1 helicopter had been downed by intense hostile fire, Capt. Fleming descended, and balanced his helicopter on a river bank with the tail boom hanging over open water. The patrol could not penetrate to the landing site and he was forced to withdraw. Dangerously low on fuel, Capt. Fleming repeated his original landing maneuver. Disregarding his own safety, he remained in this exposed position. Hostile fire crashed through his windscreen as the patrol boarded his helicopter. Capt. Fleming made a successful takeoff through a barrage of hostile fire and recovered safely at a forward base. Capt. Fleming’s profound concern for his fellowmen, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.



As the Air Force learned lessons in Vietnam about the tactics, techniques and procedures best suited for this mission, they produced a film to share with new pilots and crews to keep this institutional knowledge alive.

Also, there’s some pretty good shooty/splodey in there.


*The T-53 also was adapted to become the 1500 hp turbine that powers todays M1 tank series.

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Bring The HEAT Podcast

Join Roamy, Spill and me, your host, XBrad for a discussion of space exploration, the F-35 vs. the F-16, and Cyberwarfare.

Other than for some reason the recording dropping the last 10 minutes of Roamy’s segment, it mostly went well. No animals were harmed in the making of this podcast.

You can stream the podcast here.

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C-130J continues to show versatility- Low Cost ISR solutions!

So, I was enjoying a brief hooah video featuring the Sumos of VMGR-152, a Marine Corps squadron equipped with the KC-130J Hercules transport.

You’ll see most of the stuff you’d expect from a Hercules squadron- flying from austere strips, dropping special ops guys out the back, dropping loads by parachute, and some horseplay while on liberty. Good stuff. But right before the end of the video, there were a couple of brief shots of a Herc with pods hanging from the paratroop doors toward the rear of the aircraft. And so, I shot a message to Spill, asking if he knew what they were. Of course, he did, and it’s a pretty interesting bit.

Whatthehellis that.

Here’s the hooah vid:

A novel means of adding surveillance sensors to the C-130 quickly and with minimum modification is on display here at the Dubai Air Show. Highland Integrated Surveillance Systems (HISS) can replace the paratroop door on the Hercules with a roll-up door that includes a mount for sensors that retracts for takeoff and landing; a large bubble window and collapsible workstation for an observer/operator; and an equipment rack.

The Special AirBorne Mission Installation and Response system (SABIR) has already been fitted to some U.S. Navy C-130s when flying special operations missions, and to a U.S. Marine Corps C-130 in Japan. The system is attracting interest from the UAE and other air forces, according to HISS president and CEO Roger Smibert. The mount can take EO/IR sensor balls, small radars, SIGINT or electronic warfare equipment. When extended, it provides 360-degree coverage. An ejection tube for sonotubes or other SAR stores is also included. Two people can fit or remove the SABIR system in only one hour.

The modified door does not affect the C-130’s cargo-carrying capacity in any way. Moreover, a C-130 operator might fit SABIR doors to both sides of the fuselage to provide a multi-sensor capability. According to Smibert, the installation overcomes the weight limitation and turbulence issues of a nose-mounted sensor installation. The maximum payload is 400 pounds, and maximum sensor length is eight feet. The installation costs $1- to $1.5 million, exclusive of the payload.



One of the best attributes of the C-130, and most successful transports, is their versatility, their adaptability. We’ve mentioned before the Marines have taken to tasking certain of their fleet of KC-130J’s with a roll-on palletized gunship/precision strike capability under the program Harvest Hawk.

Now it turns out the Marines (and apparently the Navy as well) are using the SABIR pod system to provide its vanilla KC-130s with significant Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability.

SABIR, or Special AirBorne Installation Response system, is a series of pods that can be mounted on the troop doors of a KC-130J. The pods themselves can carry a variety of different sensors, such as imaging infrared, radar, day TV camera, or low light imaging.

A palletized, roll on/roll off operator station controls the pods and the display. More importantly, the an extensive drop in kit for communications allows the feed to be share in real time with other users, on board or off. For instance, VMGR-152 used another palletized kit to convert the tanker transport to a Direct Air Support Center, providing immediate on scene coordination and command and control for air support missions in support of Marines on the ground.

And of course, the utility of such a system is limited primarily by the inventiveness of the users.  Potential missions that pop into my head immediately include ISR for ground troops, IED detection, Search and Rescue, Maritime Patrol, Fisheries Protection, support to law enforcement, environmental monitoring (such as tracking an oil spill or mapping a wildfire), and Blue Force tracking for friendly ground forces.

A further example of the versatility of the mighty Herc can be seen here, where Lockheed Martin is proposing a modified variant to the United Kingdom as a Maritime Patrol plane.

RNAS YEOVILTON, U.K. — Lockheed Martin is to offer a U.K-specific variant of its SC-130J Sea Hercules to Britain, as the U.K. looks to re-generate a maritime patrol capability.

The company says it could convert the U.K. Royal Air Force’s existing fleet of C-130J airlifters into SC-130Js, reducing procurement costs and technical risks, company officials told Aviation Week on the eve of the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day.


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