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U.S. Air Force and Navy Perform Joint Exercise over the Black Sea (With Live Weapons)

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - U.S. Air Force and Navy Perform Joint Exercise over the Black Sea (With Live Weapons)
An F-16 Fighting Falcon, assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing, peels away from a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, after receiving fuel near the Black Sea, Aug. 2, 2020. The Stratotanker provided aerial refueling support to F-16s enabling them to integrate into training missions alongside the USS Porter in the Black Sea. These missions were designed to train U.S. forces to operate together while executing multi-domain operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper) Author’s note: the yellow and brown bands identifying the live missile are visible.

The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy performed a joint exercise in the Black Sea on Aug. 2, 2020 focusing on realistic integration, operation and communication between surface and air assets to protect the maritime domain. The drill was not announced in advance, causing some curiosity among online flight trackers who started observing multiple military aircraft (somehow unusually flying a training sortie on a Sunday morning in Europe) on their way to the Black Sea.

The exercise, later confirmed by the U.S. Sixth Fleet, was centered around USS Porter DDG-78, an Aegis BMD-equipped (Ballistic Missile Defense) guided-missile destroyer of the Arleigh Burke class, permanently based at Naval Air Station Rota (Spain) together with other three destroyers as part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. The ship, which also replaced its Phalanx Close-In Weapon System’s (CIWS) 20mm M61 gun with a SeaRAM (Rolling Airframe Missile) Anti-Ship Missile Defense System in response to the Russian naval threat, was one of the two destroyers that back in 2017 launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against Shayrat Airbase in Syria.

A number of aircraft were involved in the drill, almost all visible on flight tracking websites through ADS-B and MLAT:

Not many details were given about the exercise, except for the fact that it occurred in international waters and airspace and involved tactical maneuvering and communications, differently from the recent Exercise Sea Breeze 2020 where Aviano’s F-16 trained Joint Air-to-Surface Missile (JASSM) cruise missile tactics or the B-1B bombers that trained on Long Range Anti-Ship Missile capability in June.

Vipers joint ex live 2 - U.S. Air Force and Navy Perform Joint Exercise over the Black Sea (With Live Weapons)
Four F-16 Fighting Falcons, assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing, fly in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, near the Black Sea Aug. 2, 2020. The Stratotanker provided aerial refueling support to F-16s enabling them to integrate into training missions alongside the USS Porter in the Black Sea. These missions were designed to train U.S. forces to operate together while executing multi-domain operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper)

What was really interesting is the fact that the F-16s were flying with live air-to-air ordnance, which is not usual during training. The live missiles could be identified in the photos by the yellow and brown bands, for the live warhead and the live rocket motor, respectively. More specifically, all four jets were each armed with two AIM-120C/D AMRAAMs, one AIM-9X Sidewinder, two 370-gallon external fuel tanks and the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP).

Cmdr. Craig Trent, Commanding Officer of USS Porter, said in the official press release: “The purpose of this training event was to exercise command and control in a joint training environment with our U.S. Air Force brothers and sisters to increase our tactical proficiency, and Porter’s crew did just that. This training enabled us to continue to build on our combined capability to quickly and effectively respond to any threats in the complex maritime environment.”

From what we could gather through online flight tracking, two tankers, QID943 and QID944 departed from Morón Air Base in Spain (where they returned at the end of the drill), executed a Rendez-Vous with the F-16s, departed their homebase at Aviano AB, in the Speedy Area over the Adriatic Sea, then flew over Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The third tanker, QID945, departed from RAF Mildenhall and executed an RV with the other aircraft over the Black Sea.

The drill possibly took place in front of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s coasts, where the aircraft were tracked circling, possibly performing Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR). The Poseidon was flying its usual ISR patrol (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) west of the Crimean Peninsula, while the Reaper was not publicly visible.

As a side note, since we mentioned the Speedy Area, on July 22, 2020 a KC-46A Pegasus from McConnell AFB (which was deployed for a few days in Europe visiting Ramstein AB and RAF Mildenhall) conducted in that area the first AAR mission in support of the USAFE (U.S. Air Force in Europe) command with Aviano’s F-16s. Another similar mission followed a day later.

Recovery from spirals with the LVL button

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In a flight in a Cirrus SR22, it was mentioned in passing that the LVL function on the Garmin autopilot is not taught for unusual attitude recovery. A flight in the RV-9A, equipped with a Garmin G3X Touch system, was then made to evaluate the LVL function for spiral recovery. After data from the first flight was analyzed, it was determined to be safe to fly more aggressive spirals on the second flight.

Two key observations were made from the RV-9A flights:

  1. The LVL function applies roll and pitch inputs simultaneously. The FAA book technique (next section) is to level the wings first and to then recover in pitch;
  2. The Garmin LVL function apparently has two modes, one more aggressive than the other. The key parameter is time to wings level.

Additional test points were flown by another pilot in a Vashon Ranger LSA with Dynon avionics. The Dynon recoveries also seemed to apply pitch and roll corrections simultaneously. Recoveries on average took twice as long, and there were two recoveries with oscillatory components. Those are discussed below.

An additional flight was made to compare book recovery technique from spiral (roll level, then pitch up) with the simultaneous pitch/roll used by the autopilots. Significant differences were observed in altitude loss and speed gain. No roll tightening was observed with the simultaneous pitch/roll technique.

While these flight tests do not indicate that the FAA-recommended spiral recovery is flat out wrong, these flight tests clearly indicate that the FAA technique is not always required for all airplanes. These flight tests also suggest that the FAA technique be re-examined for a large number of airplanes and that airplane-specific characteristics be noted, just as wing drop in stall recovery techniques vary from airplane to airplane. (A few planes will spin with aileron input in the stall, some aerobatic planes will do a nice snap roll with rudder input in a stall, many modern airplanes have good aileron authority in a stall with little danger of spin.)

Background: Quotes From FAA Publications

(c) Graveyard spiral. An observed loss of altitude during a coordinated constant-rate turn that has ceased stimulating the motion sensing system can create the illusion of being in a descent with the wings level. The disoriented pilot will pull back on the controls, tightening the spiral and increasing the loss of altitude.

It is important to note that some training airplanes will not enter into the developed phase [of a spin] but could transition unexpectedly from the incipient phase into a spiral dive. In a spiral dive the airplane will not be in equilibrium but instead will be accelerating and G load can rapidly increase as a result. 

Spiral Dive

A spiral dive, a nose low upset, is a descending turn during which airspeed and G-load can increase rapidly and often results from a botched turn. In a spiral dive, the airplane is flying very tight circles, in a nearly vertical attitude and will be accelerating because it is no longer stalled.

  1. Reduce Power (Throttle) to Idle
  2. Apply Some Forward Elevator
  3. Roll Wings Level. Roll to wings level using coordinated aileron and rudder inputs. Even though the airplane is in a nose-low attitude, continue the roll until the wings are completely level again before performing step four.
  4. Gently Raise the Nose to Level Flight
  5. Increase Power to Climb Power

RV-9A Flight Test Data with Spiral Recovery Using the G3X Touch LVL Function

A video of the first flight tests is available here. Autopilot engagement is indicated by “LVL LVL” appearing above the roll pointer near the top of the display.

First flight, with spirals in alternating directions:

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 3.40.54 PM - Recovery from spirals with the LVL button

Second flight, all spirals to the left:

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 3.40.54 PM 1 - Recovery from spirals with the LVL button

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 3.42.56 PM - Recovery from spirals with the LVL button

Analysis of the Garmin G3X Touch LVL Function in RV-9A Flight Tests

  1. These tests indicate satisfactory use of the G3X Touch LVL function for the points tested;
  2. None of these tests used max available programmed roll torque (40%) or pitch torque (80%);
  3. The Max G numbers are not necessarily precise because of sensor noise. However, the data suggest that the LVL function is limited to 1.8 Gs. The cockpit G meter, more heavily damped, never exceeded 1.8 Gs;
  4. AOA was never a factor. Highest AOA seen on the recorded data was 0.3, and stall is 1.0.
  5. The pitch and roll servo torques peaked at about the same time;
  6. As discussed above and as seen in the video, the LVL function apparently has two modes, a lazy mode for minor upsets and a friskier mode for larger upsets. Time to level flight is in the tabular data in the last column;
  7. Data sampling was only available at 1 Hz, and this may be responsible for data artifacts.

Vashon Ranger Autopilot Recovery Flight Test Analysis

A similar series of flights were conducted in a Vashon Ranger LSA equipped with Dynon avionics and autopilot. Spiral recoveries were flown from 30-degree, 45-degree and 60-degree banks, both level and nominally 10-degrees nose down, at 60 KIAS and 90 KIAS. Each entry was flown in both left and right spirals.

The recorded data did not include autopilot engagement, and roll and pitch force data were so quantized as to convey little information. The aircraft roll and pitch attitude information was recorded at 4 Hz. However, roll and pitch data, combined with the experience of the Garmin flight data, allowed reasonable conclusions to be drawn.

  1. The Dynon spiral recovery applied roll and pitch inputs simultaneously, like the Garmin;
  2. The Dynon recoveries took about 10 seconds, about twice as long as most Garmin recoveries;
  3. The Dynon autopilot, as installed in and configured for this particular airplane, did not always perform optimally. Most recoveries were nominal, but at two data points, pitch and roll had damped oscillatory components.

RV-9A autopilot settings as flown:

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 3.45.33 PM - Recovery from spirals with the LVL button

Spiral Dynamics and Manual Recoveries

On a previous flight, it was determined that in a stick free spiral, the nose would come back up to the horizon, presumably due to speed stability. That spiral was terminated when the nose came back up for cautionary reasons. A flight was made to explore this further with a manually flown spiral, starting at 60 degrees of bank and 10 degrees nose down. That must be re-flown, and flights with more nose down may also be flown.

Two steep spirals were flown to compare book recovery technique (roll, then pitch) with the simultaneous roll and pitch recovery technique. The tests started at 71 KIAS or so in level flight. Nominal spiral entry points were 60 degrees of bank and 30 degrees nose down. On the book recovery test, the pitch bobbled slightly lower as roll was entered, probably due to pilot error. Statistics for the two spirals are:

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 3.46.29 PM - Recovery from spirals with the LVL button

The book recovery technique kept the nose down longer, resulting in a significantly greater airspeed during the recovery and a spectacularly greater altitude loss. Note the g achieved during recovery, more than was anticipated.

The significant parameters of these two tests more clearly show the differences in pitch during the recovery, leading to the above-mentioned airspeed and altitude differences.

Screen Shot 2020 07 29 at 3.48.23 PM - Recovery from spirals with the LVL button

Because of the 2.3 and 2.45 g pulled in these recoveries, and because previous flight tests suggest that the G3X Touch autopilot may have a 1.8 g limit, there are currently no plans to explore the LVL function in any spirals steeper than those already flown. Also, it is not clear what benefit would be provided by fully documenting the performance of this one system in this one airplane with this one configuration of torque and gain settings.

SpaceX Dragon Endeavour Splashes Down Off Florida Coast in Successful Mission Recovery.

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - SpaceX Dragon Endeavour Splashes Down Off Florida Coast in Successful Mission Recovery.
The SpaceX crew splashes down on Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico following a successful 64 day mission to the International Space Station. It was the first water recovery of a manned spacecraft in 45 years. (Photo: via YouTube/NASA)

The SpaceX spacecraft Dragon Endeavour with astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley made a successful reentry to earth’s atmosphere and ocean recovery off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida on Sunday Aug. 2, 2020. The spacecraft splashed down on schedule at 14:48 local time, 11:48 Hrs. Pacific Time and 18:48 UTC. Conditions for the splashdown were excellent despite the threat of Tropical Storm Isaias at the opposite side of the Florida peninsula along the Atlantic coast. The spacecraft was returning from the International Space Station after a 64-day test mission.

“We had perfectly clear skies, we were able to see the parachutes far away and follow them to splashdown” said LaunchAmerica reporters on the scene during the live telecast of the reentry and recovery on YouTube.

It was the first parachute splashdown of a spacecraft in 45 years when a joint Apollo-Soyuz test returned to earth in an ocean splashdown recovery. This was also the first time that a space capsule was recovered onboard a ship with the astronauts still onboard. In previous splashdown recoveries, as with the Apollo program, astronauts left the space capsule before the capsule was lifted back on shipboard.

Spalshdown 20 - SpaceX Dragon Endeavour Splashes Down Off Florida Coast in Successful Mission Recovery.
Commentators during the live coverage of the SpaceX splashdown and recovery mentioned a number of unauthorized, civilian boats, as seen in this screen capture, approaching the capsule before it was recovered. “Maybe next time we shouldn’t announce our landing zone” one of the NASA commentators was heard to say during the broadcast. (Image credit: via YouTube/NASA)

Once the space capsule, charred and blackened from the heat of reentry into earth’s atmosphere, was hoisted onto the special support bracket onboard the recovery ship GO Navigator there was a brief delay as traces of Nitrogen Tetra Oxide gas, or “NTO”, were detected around the crew egress hatch. During the inspection of the space capsule for traces of the toxic gas from the spacecraft’s reentry thrusters, technicians in protective gear could be seen taking environmental readings from around the hatch as the recovery ship slowed visibly in the water to facilitate the careful inspection. One of the astronauts inside the capsule told mission controllers by radio, “Take your time. We’re in no hurry” as the crews worked to conduct environmental safety precautions prior to crew egress.

Spalshdown 30 - SpaceX Dragon Endeavour Splashes Down Off Florida Coast in Successful Mission Recovery.
Astronaut Bob Behnken seen leaving the SpaceX capsule onboard the GO Navigator recovery ship during the live broadcast (Photo: via YouTube/NASA)

During the capsule recovery operation, a group of civilian spectators in boats gathered very near the space capsule in the water before it was secured and brought aboard ship. One commentator during the live broadcast was heard to say, “Maybe next time we shouldn’t announce our landing zone”. Members of the official recovery team asked the civilian boats to move away, where they were then seen to form a perimeter of spectator vessels at a safer distance from the space capsule before it was lifted onboard the recovery ship.

Aerial photos of the splash down were taken by a NASA WB-57, built in 1972.

This latest space mission started on May 30th, 2020 and ended today in the 19-hour combined spaceflight, reentry and recovery in the Gulf of Mexico for Behnken and Hurley. The two astronauts were flown by helicopter from the recovery vessel and then by aircraft back to Houston, Texas. The test mission precedes a planned four-person operational space mission planned for September, 2020.

Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
The Shahed 181 and Shahed 191 UAVs (in the box and in the main image respectively) in flight during the exercise. (Image credit: screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

Earlier this week, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) kicked off its annual exercise in the Strait of Hormuz. This year’s edition, called “Great Prophet 14”, included – again – an attack on a fake U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier on July 28, 2020. The fake ship was seen for the first time in 2014, when it was built as a movie prop, then blown up during Great Prophet 9 exercise in 2015 and repaired to be used again this year near the port city of Bandar Abbas. Another target seen in the videos of the exercise is a replica of the AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar, the eyes of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD).

During the exercise, the IRGC used different weapons and platforms, including multiple types of short-range ballistic missiles, Nasr-1 anti-ship missile (copy of the Chinese C-704) with a 22 km range launched from an Agusta-Bell AB-206 (or the Iranian copy Shahed-278), ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, commandos both rappelling from an Mi-17 and parachuting on the fake carrier’s deck, combat divers and swarming fast boats, Su-22M4 with glide bombs, drones and even a surveillance satellite, although there is no concrete evidence to support this latter claim.

Reportedly, three missiles splashed down in the waters near Al Dhafra Air Base (UAE) and Al Udeid Air Base (Qatar), prompting them to switch to a high alert posture.

Iranian drones 2 - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
Composite image of the fake carrier as seen from a drone after being hit (left) and the AN/TPY-2 radar replica about to be hit by a missile (right). (Photo: screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

The most interesting aspects about the latest iteration of the drills, are the drones that took part in it.

Apart from the already known Shahed-129, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV that appears to be a hybrid of the Israeli Hermes 450 and the US MQ-1/9 Predator, what really stood out are the Shahed 181 and Shahed 191, developed from the RQ-170 captured by Iran in 2011. The American stealthy UAV, dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar” when it was first spotted in Afghanistan in 2007, was either hijacked via GPS spoofing, as claimed by Iran, or, most likely, crash landed because of an unknown failure and later found by the IRGC.

Before we continue, it is important to note that the videos of the drones during this week’s exercise are mixed with videos from another exercise carried out last year in the same area, so it may be difficult to confirm which images were actually recorded during “Great Prophet 14”.

Once they got their hands on the RQ-170, the Iranians immediately started to reverse-engineer the aircraft, creating a full-scale exact copy that they called Shahed 171 Simorgh (Phoenix), unveiled in 2014. Another copy of the RQ-170 is the scaled down, about 60% of the original size, Shahed 161, called also Saegheh (Thunderbolt) and unveiled in 2016. This drone presents some differences, mainly the absence of the two fairings on the sides of the air intake and landing gear, and can be armed with four Sadid-1 TV-guided anti-tank missiles mounted semi-recessed under the fuselage.

After that, the next to be developed were the two drones seen during this week’s exercise, the Shahed 181 and Shahed 191, both called also Saegheh-2, which are essentially the same aircraft except for the engine and weapons’ placement.

Like the S-161, both UAVs are smaller than the original RQ-170 copy. Some analysts suggest that the drones may be made of fiberglass.

Iranian drones 3 - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
Composite image of the Shahed 191 showing, from the upper left, the drone with EO/IR turret, weapon bays open and its engine, Sadid-342 guided glide bombs being loaded (note the rather simple engine exhaust), the drone in flight and a bomb being released. (Photo: Iran media/screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

The S-191 is powered by a micro turbojet engine which Iranian media claim is capable of pushing the UAV up to 300 km/h at 25000 ft, with an endurance of 4.5 hours and a combat radius of 450 km. The UAV can mount an EO/IR (Electro-Optical/InfraRed) turret under the nose that however seemed to miss in the photos from the exercise (but a closer look still shows a panel for mounting the turret). According to the Iranian media, the drone can also carry a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) turret instead of the EO/IR turret. It is interesting to note that both turrets have a heat sink that protrudes from the upper part of the fuselage, just in front of the engine’s air intake.

Instead of using a normal landing gear, the S-191 uses two retractable skids, but it also has a parachute to be used when a runway is not available. The takeoff is performed by using a rail installed in the back of a pickup truck, which then speed up on a runway until the UAV lifts off. Some earlier versions of the S-191 missed the two elevated fairings on the sides of the air intake.

The weapons are installed in two internal bays (which sometimes lack their doors, remaining open for the entire flight and thus nullifying the drone’s claimed “stealthiness”), each capable of holding a Sadid-342 guided glide bomb with fragmentation warhead, which is also extremely similar to the Sadid-1 anti-tank missile, so much so that often is difficult to discern one from the other in the photos (the same difficulties are also valid when identifying the S-171 and S-191 UAVs, with the only external differences being the size and the different landing gear). According to some analysts, the weapon could use “man in the loop” guidance.

Iranian drones 4 - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
Composite image showing the Shahed 181 from below and above. Note the pusher prop and the bombs between the landing skids from below and the missing elevated fairings and different air intakes for the piston engine from above. (Photo: IribNews/screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

The Shahed 181 is a variant of the S-191 propelled by a piston engine and with a different air intake design than the S-191 and missing fairings on the sides of the air intake. The retractable skids are replaced by four fixed skids, along with the weapon bays replaced by semi-recessed attaching points between the skids. Apart from these differences, the two airframes are identical.

Iran claims to have used the jet powered S-191 operationally to attack unspecified terrorist targets in eastern Syria in October 2018, with a video of the drone flying over an unspecified city at night and showing a weapon drop and the bay’s doors closing before landing on its skids on a runway. The prop-powered S-181 was instead used in February 2018 to infiltrate Israel from Syria and was subsequently shot down by an IAF Apache helicopter, prompting retaliatory strikes that resulted also in the loss of an F-16I Sufa.

Other than the drones, a new weapon seen for the first time in operation is the Yasin GPS/Glonass/INS guided glide bomb with a 300 kg warhead and range claimed to be between 50 and 100 km. The Su-22M4 was seen carrying a single bomb under the inner left pylon, with what could possibly be a datalink pod under the inner right pylon. Interestingly, the Su-22’s cockpit was upgraded with the addition of Garmin Aera and 430 GPS systems and another unknown radio system.

The last claim made by the IRGC during “Great Prophet 14” is the usage of a Nour satellite to monitor the exercise. Video distributed by Iranian media show the satellite’s orbit, designated “IRAN_SAT” in the graphics, showing a conic shape that could be a representation of the satellite’s field of view. The same video shows what is claimed to be satellite recon imagery of Al-Udeid Airbase in both the visible and thermal spectrum, but it is difficult to prove their authenticity.

Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise
The Italian Air Force F-35B performs a short take off during the Expeditionary Proof of Concept. (All images: Giovanni Colla).

On Jul. 30, 2020, the Italian Air Force presented its capability to use short runways and project power on very short notice from forward operating locations as part of an “Expeditionary” PoC (Proof of Concept) held at Pantelleria, the tiny island located in the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, some 100 km (62 mi) southwest of Sicily and 60 km (37 mi) east of the Tunisian coast.

The exercise saw the participation of the first F-35B STOVL aircraft of the Italian Air Force, the airframe serialled MM7453/32-14: the goal of the PoC was to deploy an F-35B aircraft to the Pantelleria airport with accompanying operational/technical-logistical support, in order to demonstrate the ability of the air force to project and use the 5th generation aircraft far from home, in a semi-permissive environment, on an austere/bare runway normally not usable by other conventional aircraft and with limited Force Protection provided by the host nation.

PANTELLERIA GIOVANNI COLLA 01 - Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise
The first Italian Air Force F-35B during the PoC at Pantelleria on Jul. 30, 2020. (All images by Giovanni Colla).

For this reason, the drills involved several units of the Italian Air Force: the F-35B of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola Air Base was supported on its way to Pantelleria by a KC-130J tanker. The landing area was surveilled by an MQ-9A Predator B (also from the 32° Stormo) that streamed live imagery to the “Combat Controllers” (Italian Air Force Raiders of the 17° Stormo) whose role was to take over the control of the airfield and provide coordination and control of the flying activity. The Air Riflemen of the 16° Stormo, provided the Force Protection of the deployed personnel and assets.

PANTELLERIA GIOVANNI COLLA 08 - Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise
The ItAF F-35B was refueled by the KC-130J both in the air and on the ground.

As part of the PoC, after performing a short landing, the F-35B was refueled on the ground directly from the KC-130J tanker aircraft using the Air Landed Aircraft Refuelling Point (a special system providing simultaneous refueling on of up to 4 aircraft by pumping fuel from the KC-130’s tanks) and was armed in a very short time before taking off again; an activity that saw the involvement of the RSV (Reparto Sperimentale Volo – Italian Air Force Test Wing), because it had never been carried out operationally before.

PANTELLERIA GIOVANNI COLLA 04 - Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise
The F-35B is refueled using the Air Landed Aircraft Refuelling Point.

“The F-35B is probably the most eye-catching, considered that it is the first time you see it, but it represents just one of the elements of a larger expeditionary system that makes the Air Force capable to project power; a capability that not only is important for the Air Force, but for the whole nation” said Lt. Gen. Rosso, Italian Air Force Chief of Staff during the media briefing of the exercise. “This kind of exercise has a technical relevance, as it allows us to train and prepare all the components that are needed to conduct expeditionary operations: we can fix minor issues that a new capability brings and find the right integration between all the players. Moreover, from a strategic point of view, we can demonstrate that the Italian Air Force is among the few air arms in the world to be able to express an aerospace power projection capability: we are not only able to operate from home, from our usual airbases; we are able to operate from other airbases that already make the logistics and support available; and we are able to project, when and if needed, our capabilities, in an autonomous way. It’s an important capability that we are really proud of.”

PANTELLERIA GIOVANNI COLLA 05 - Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise
The F-35B on the ground at Pantelleria during the Expeditionary POC.

“This capability is extremely important to face new scenarios or situations like the one we had during the Gulf War”, added Rosso. “Our Tornado jets were deployed to an airbase [Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE] that was far away from the area of operations: this implied that our aircraft had to fly several hours and carry out several aerial refuelings before reaching their targets. The ability to operate from shorter runways can allow the selection of a closer airbase and solve the problem. In terms of flexibility, just think that in Africa there are about 100 runways that have a length between 2,800 and 3,000 meters but there are 20 times as many runways between 1,000 and 1,500 meters in length. Being able to use short runways allows you to multiply your ability to deploy where needed, in a more convenient and faster way, especially closer to the area of operation. Having an aircraft that is capable of taking off from shorter runways allows incredible flexibility even in those scenarios that are currently only barely conceivable. In case of conflict, aircraft that are able to operate from shorter runways can also be dispersed to increase their survivability. This flexibility to operate from bare/austere runways or even highways makes the air power more unpredictable and represents a fundamental capability in any scenario. For this reason, after carefully studying all the scenarios and costs, the Italian Air Force has identified, as done by other air arms, a mixed fleet of F-35A and B aircraft, as the most economically convenient and effective configuration.”

PANTELLERIA GIOVANNI COLLA 09 - Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise
The F-35B is armed with an AIM-120 AMRAAM in the internal weapons bay.

When asked about the possible creation of a joint management of the F-35B fleet between the Italian Air Force and Navy, Rosso said: “This is one of the things we are discussing. I believe that a joint capability is important regardless of the machine and the systems you use. I think nobody can afford to work alone, but we have to do teamwork, because we are a single defense tool at the service of the country. Beyond what may be some controversies, as reported in the newspapers, I think there is the awareness and desire to make each one’s own competence and skills available to the country in a synergistic way. It is clear that the F-35B is an aircraft that has great flexibility and is capable of solving a series of problems or addressing a series of needs of both the Navy and, in my opinion even more, the Air Force. Being able to put together the skills and experiences that the individual Armed Forces are able to make available, respecting the tasks of each, I think is something the whole country will benefit of. I trust that this will be the direction in which we will move, without any service wanting to override the other, respecting the prerogatives of each armed force. I think working together for a single goal as a single Armed Force is a duty towards the taxpayer.”

PANTELLERIA GIOVANNI COLLA 11 - Italian Air Force F-35B Makes Official Debut During Expeditionary Proof of Concept Exercise
The F-35B taxies at Pantelleria airport.

In order to understand what’s the status of the F-35B program and the controversies Rosso referred to, I suggest you reading the article this Author wrote in February 2020 (here’s a short exerpt):

The Italian Government is currently procuring 90 F-35s, 60 of those are F-35As and the remaining 30 ones are F-35Bs. Out of those 30 F-35Bs, 15 will go to the Navy and 15 to the Air Force. The Lightning II will replace the Navy’s ageing AV-8B+ Harrier II and will be embarked on the Cavour aircraft carrier and the new LHD Trieste. It is not completely clear, however, where the F-35s will be land-based.

The Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati “Wolves”, which will operate the F-35B within the Navy, is currently based in Grottaglie, close to the naval port of Taranto, home to the Cavour aircraft carrier [and to the Trieste landing helicopter dock (LHD), in the future]. However, according to some reports, the Italian Defense Chief of Staff has already identified Amendola Air Base, the MOB (Main Operating Base) of the F-35A within the ItAF (about 100NM northwest of Grottaglie), as the national MOB for both the CTOL (Convetional Take Off and Landing) and STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) versions of the Lightning II. This should prompt the relocation of the “Wolves” to Amendola, creating a joint Air Force/Navy flight line with common logistics and training, even though it would practically mean that the entire force would mostly be under Air Force control.

With both Italian Air Force’s and Navy’s F-35Bs based at Amendola AB, the Italians would replicate the British model that sees RAF Marham as MOB for a jointly manned “Lightning Force” made of Air Force (with the 207 and 617 squadrons) and Navy (with the 809 Naval Air Squadron that will be re-established in 2023) personnel, sharing aircraft, equipment and support infrastructures. The creation of an Italian Joint Lightning Force makes much sense: aircrew training, maintenance and at least part of the logistics could be concentrated in one place, with some significant savings. And if the selected base is Amendola, the Italian Joint Force could leverage at least some of the infrastructures built there to accommodate the Lightning. Indeed, preparation to host the F-35 in Amendola started in 2012 and today the “F-35 citadel” is literally a “base inside the base” with modern shelters and buildings located inside an access-controlled restricted zone created to isolate the 13° Gruppo’s area from the rest of the base. It must not be forgotten tha the advent of the F-35 has induced the Italian MoD to adopt tighter security measures than those in place before the arrival of a 5th generation technology and this becomes pretty evident if you think that all the photographs taken inside Amendola, must be reviewed one by one by security personnel so that no sensitive detail would be leaked. For sure, making Grottaglie ready for the F-35B would cost a lot of money and time, considered that the works to prepare the base for the Joint Strike Fighter were halted a couple of years ago.

As a side note, while it explores the capabilities of the new F-35B with the support of the RSV, the 32° Stormo continues to grow its experience with the F-35A it first received in 2016: the Wing’s child unit, the 13° Gruppo (Squadron), that achieved the IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in Nov. 2018, has just successfully completed their second tour of duty in support of NATO’s Icelandic Air Policing mission, dubbed Operation Northern Lighting II.

A special H/T goes to our friend and contributor Giovanni Colla, who shot all the photographs you can find in the article and for providing additional details about the PoC. Many thanks to the Italian Air Force for inviting us to this interesting event.

Friday Photo: Father’s Day Flying Fun Times Two

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Barron both 1 - Friday Photo: Father’s Day Flying Fun Times Two

Click on image for full size.

The view: Father’s Day 2020 with my son AND my dad over Lake Anna in Bumpass, Virginia.

The pilot: Mark Barron with son Blake Barron and father Bob Barron

The airplane: Powered Paraglider (PPG) – Fly Products – Flash Cruiser tandem trike with Simonini 202 motor; wing is MacPara Pasha 5 – 42meter

The mission: When I flew with my son in a Waco biplane at the Flying Circus in Bealton, Virginia, in 2019 he couldn’t stop talking about the flight. Not because of the plane so much but because I was pointing out all the fields, lakes, and corn mazes I see when I fly over the same area in my Powered Paraglider. I had been flying PPG for about 3 years but couldn’t take anyone up with me without additional training for the Ultralight FAR Part 103 Tandem Exemption. I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Florida to get my exemption and bought a trike in February. After getting about 30-40 flights in the new trike I finally took my son and my dad up on Father’s Day while vacationing at Lake Anna. It was a fantastic day.

The memory: This Father’s Day will be hard to top. Two years ago I surprised my Dad and landed in his back yard on Father’s Day morning for coffee. Here’s a YouTube video. During coffee I asked him if he would ever fly with me. He said “No freaking way!” But I guess he had a change of heart… here’s proof that he flew with me two years later to the day. Blake has been wanting to learn to fly PPG since I started. My wife and I want him to be a bit older before trying it so this was the next best thing. Besides, I can teach him how to fly a lot easier in the tandem trike.

Want to share your “Friday Photo?” Send your photo and description (using the format above) to: editor@airfactsjournal.com

75 Years Ago Today: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and its Horrific Aftermath.

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - 75 Years Ago Today: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and its Horrific Aftermath.
A U.S. Navy file photo of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis (CA-35) seen ten days before she was sunk 75 years ago today. (Image credit: U.S. Navy)

It has become one of the most memorable monologues in cinema history: the fictional character “Quint” recounting his survival ordeal in the real WWII sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the “shark-infested” waters of the Philippine Sea. But the real story of how most of the crew of the USS Indianapolis died tragically is very different from Quint’s haunting oration.

“Jaws” author Peter Benchley and film director Steven Spielberg created what is one of the most perfect movie blockbusters in film history with “Jaws”. To this day, “Jaws” is studied in graduate-level filmmaking classes for many of its dramatic and technical elements, from editing to script to camera movement. But the film is fiction spun from fact in all respects, from its inaccurate depictions of shark behavior to its alteration of the actual events in the USS Indianapolis sinking. Perhaps the mastery of “Jaws” is that, it preys on our latent, primordial fears. Like our own imaginations when floating on the surface of a dark ocean, the story takes historical and shark fact and runs wild with it into an exaggerated and dramatized set of terrifying fears manifested on screen. The series of shark attacks from “Jaws” are even based on an actual set of attacks between Atlantic City and New York City along the Jersey Shore in the U.S. in 1916 that claimed four lives and injured one person.

In a haunting story, reminiscent of the 1916 attacks and Benchley’s “Jaws”, the BBC World News and other media outlets reported yesterday that Julie Holowach, 63, a recently retired fashion executive from New York, was killed by a great white shark off the coast of Maine on Monday, July 27, 2020. The story came as “Sharks have been sighted in various places off the north-east US coast in recent weeks, particularly around Long Island in New York, the AFP news agency reports.” Other reports indicated that great white sharks have been tracked in the area in recent days, compelling some localities to post warnings or restrict swimmers from some beaches.

But current and lingering shark hysteria aside, the facts of the USS Indianapolis sinking 75 years ago today are more compelling than any fictional account.

The USS Indianapolis was not actually delivering “the Hiroshima bomb” when it was sunk by the Japanese B3 type submarine I-58 just after midnight on July 30, 1945, between Guam and Leyte in the Philippines. It was transporting the highly-enriched uranium-235 for use in the nuclear weapon. The bomb itself was flown to the island of Tinian in a B-29. But without the USS Indianapolis’ deadly radioactive cargo, the bomb was useless. The ship also did send a distress signal, but, depending on the historical account you read, the signal may have been received by a “drunken radioman” and never taken seriously. Whatever the case with the ill-fated distress signal, the Indianapolis did sink beneath the surface in only 12 minutes, giving the crew barely enough time to get overboard in life jackets.

Indianapolis 30 - 75 Years Ago Today: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and its Horrific Aftermath.
The Japanese type B3 submarine I-58 that sunk the USS Indianapolis 75 years ago today. (Photo: via Yokosuka Naval Arsenal)

According to journalist Rupert Millar in a 2017 article about the sinking of the Indianapolis, “Of the 1,196-man crew, 880 escaped the sinking ship into the water and then endured four hellish days and nights of dehydration, hypothermia, hypernatremia (salt poisoning) and desquamation (skin loss). Men died of exhaustion, committed suicide and even killed each other as they suffered from delirium and hallucinations and of course, there were the sharks that feasted on the living and the dead.”

But there were numerous acts of humanity and heroism among the desperate survivors floating for days in the Pacific.

Authors Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic have written what is most likely the definitive account of the USS Indianapolis sinking in “Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man” (Simon & Schuster, 2018). In their excellent book, Vincent and Vladic chronicle a 50-year battle for the truth in the court martial of Indianapolis Captain Charles McVay III. Even the Japanese Captain of the submarine who sunk the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto, joins the legal fight to clear Capt. McVay III’s name.

Authors Vincent and Vladic recount numerous factual stories of the Indianapolis survivors joining together in prayer for hours as they bobbed on the surface of the Pacific and drifted for miles from where the ship sank. They tell the stories of men trying desperately to save wounded shipmates, only to comfort them as they die from wounds sustained in the sinking and from exposure in the harsh open-ocean environment.

Before the movie “Jaws” and well before Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic’s journalistic accounting of the sinking, and the aftermath, the story of the Indianapolis remained largely in obscurity. Curator of 40’s, 50’s and 1960’s pulp men’s adventure magazines and author Bob Deis (“Like” his page, “Men’s Adventure Magazines & Books” on Facebook) has done an excellent job of featuring some of the artwork used on the cover of the sensational men’s magazines that ran dramatic and embellished stories about the Indianapolis sinking.

Indianapolis 40 - 75 Years Ago Today: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and its Horrific Aftermath.
Bob Deis of Men’s Adventure Magazines and Books on Facebook shared these men’s sweet magazine covers of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis from the pre-Peter Benchley, Jaws era before the story was not widely known. (Photo: via Bob Deis/Men’s Adventure Magazines and Books Facebook group)

But despite the excellent journalistic accounting of Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic in their book, the numerous articles that have been written about the USS Indianapolis and even the recent discovery of her wreck by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen during an expedition by his research vessel, R/V Petrel on August 19, 2017, the most well-known and sensational account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis remains, to this day, Quint’s fictional monologue in the movie “Jaws”. In the case of this remarkable story, it pays to dig a little deeper beyond the sensationalized and fictional accounting spun from fact into “Jaws” fiction to understand the true valor and courage of the crew of the USS Indianapolis.

Smoke in the cockpit—and stuck in the clouds

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“Fire, Captain!” the co-pilot yelled. He turned around to look at the smoke billowing out from the rear of the airplane into the cabin. The passengers were screaming and trying to cover their noses from the acrid smell permeating throughout the cabin. He turned to me with fear in his eyes and repeated, “Cap, we’re on fire!”

As I turned to look back into the cabin, Alan, my co-pilot, turned back around and feverishly started opening his window. I immediately shouted at him to stop. Unfortunately, it was too late. He had managed to lower his window a few inches, and he instantly was engulfed by smoke seeking the only opening, and he blacked out in seconds from the dense smoke flowing past his face.

From the smell of the smoke that swirled past us, I was able to identify it as an electrical fire and immediately hit the master switch on the overhead panel and prayed that it would help reduce the threat that would engulf the passengers, crew, and the entire aircraft. I also turned off all the radios on the instrument panel and had a moment’s confusion about my next action.

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A Twin Otter with 14 passengers is a lot to handle with no electrical system.

We were flying in a Twin Otter, DHC-6-100, and only 8 minutes into our flight to Bartica, a small village South West of Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana, South America. To make matters worse, we were in a total whiteout: rain and light turbulence. We had 14 passengers, two crew, and cargo on board. Bartica, our destination, was only a 15-minute flight from our departure, Timehri International Airport, under normal conditions.

It was a runway that had to be operated under visual flight rules (VFR) as Bartica was not an airport approved for instrument approach operations. I was confronted with the problem of having no way to continue to our destination due to the fire, the deteriorating weather conditions, and no communications.

As I was deliberating possible actions, I risked a quick glance toward the cargo compartment and noticed a lessening of the smoke coming into the cabin.

I was trying to deal with many factors simultaneously while maintaining level flight around 2,000 feet. Fortunately, there were no obstacles in the area or high ground, so that was not an added concern.

Still maintaining course for Bartica, I noticed that Alan was slowly regaining his senses as the smoke lessened. I reached over and grabbed his shoulder. “Alan, close your window,” I said.

He opened his eyes and looked at me. “What Cap,” he asked groggily.

“Close your window,” I repeated.

He managed to shut the window and asked if we were still on fire? I told him that it looked as if the fire was confined to the electrical bay near the baggage compartment.

His eyes were all reddened from the smoke and teary-eyed as well. He looked back into the cabin and saw that the smoke had almost totally dissipated, and the passengers were somewhat calmer. He asked, “what do we do now?”

I said to him, “Our options are pretty limited. We are in instrument flight conditions, with no visibility, rain, and light turbulence. We have no alternative but to turn back to Timehri.”

Now, however, I was faced with new challenges. How to communicate my problem and how to let the tower know my intentions. My prior knowledge of aircraft equipment came into play. Before I became a pilot, I was an aircraft mechanic for many years and pretty knowledgeable about any aircraft I flew. I felt the smoke came from an electrical fire in the rear of the airplane where all the radio equipment was installed.

I decided to take a cautious gamble. I turned on the master switch and one of the VHF radios used to communicate with the tower. I asked Alan to keep looking at the rear of the cabin and let me know if more smoke was starting to come into the cabin. He said he did not notice an increase, and the smoke was dying down.

I quickly called the tower at Timehri on VHF #1 and declared an emergency. The tower operator said, “Please confirm you are declaring an emergency?”

“Affirmative,” I said. “Possible fire in the rear of the aircraft and returning to the airport.”

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Cleared for the approach back to base, but how do you get there when you’re IMC?

The tower operator responded, “Golf Charlie Papa (GCP)— cleared for an instrument approach to Timehri, runway 06. Be aware, low cloud cover, approximately 500-foot ceiling, and rain at Timehri at this time, visibility is less than 1 mile.”

I replied, “Negative on the instrument approach Timehri, and we only have the one VHF operating and no other navigation aids available due to the fire.”

There was a pause on the radio. Then the tower operator said, “Understand GCP, no navigation aids for an instrument approach to Timehri? Please state your intentions at this time.”

I pondered this for a few seconds. Having flown out of Timehri for years as a bush pilot and with the national airline, I had intimate knowledge of the airport and the surrounding area. Timehri airport was situated just inside a curve of the Demerara River and 95 feet above sea level.

I had made hundreds of visual approaches to Timehri, and I felt I had sufficient knowledge to try and make an approach to the runway without navigation aids (no ADF or VOR) in poor weather conditions. And I hoped that I would be making the right decision to pull off a safe landing.

I called the tower operator and advised him of my decision to make an unusual approach to the runway with no visual or instrument assistance. There was another pause and then the tower operator said, “Understood Golf Charlie Papa, cleared to land, runway 06, the wind is calm, runway surface is wet. Good luck, Captain.”

I decided to call the airline operations dispatch on HF radio and advise them of the emergency. I told Alan to look back into the cabin and check for more smoke as I turned on the HF radio. He immediately called out, “Smoke Cap, more smoke!” I quickly turned off the HF radio and realized that this was the problem with the electrical fire and smoke.

I then turned my attention to the approach to the runway at Timehri. I had made a quick notation of the time of the fire and calculated the estimated flight time back to the airport.

I tasked the co-pilot with the approach and pre-landing checklist and asked him to make sure the passengers were properly briefed for a possible emergency landing. Then I concentrated on making my initial approach based solely on time and an estimation of our approximate position to the airport.

We were still at 2,000 feet and after Alan completed the pre-landing checklist, I started to slow the Twin Otter and deployed 15 degrees of flaps. We were entirely in instrument conditions and with no forward visibility whatsoever. Looking at the elapsed time on the clock, I estimated we were nearly at the airport.

When I felt we were directly over the airport, I proceeded to make a quasi-instrument approach and a procedure turn to runway 06, trying to imitate an ADF approach to the airport. In the middle of the procedure turn, I started to lose altitude slowly and pulled back on the throttle levers to slow the aircraft, while trying to visualize the layout and our position relative to the airport. Deploying another flap setting to 20 degrees, I was now trying to line up on what I was hoping was the centerline of the runway.

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Looking for something underneath the clouds.

We were now descending through 800 feet and still had no forward visibility in the rain. I told Alan to keep his eyes on the flight and engine instruments to ensure we were maintaining a steady flight path and approach speed. All the while, I was desperately trying to spot any breaks in the cloud cover.

The Twin Otter is possibly the best aircraft for this type of unusual flight maneuver due to its short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities. Just as we descended below 500 feet, I saw lightening of the cloud and a hint of green, which would be the heavily forested area surrounding the Timehri airport.

We finally broke out of the cloud base at around 430 feet and noticed that we were just crossing the bend in the river, which was an indication that my procedure turn was almost spot-on, and we were not far off the runway centerline. The windshield wipers were trying valiantly to wipe away the rain, and I saw that we were only a few degrees off of runway 06.

I felt I had been holding my breath for what seemed like a long time, and I finally allowed myself to breathe again! The tower operator broke in with, “GCP, I have you in sight and clear to land runway 06.” I noticed then the fire trucks and rescue equipment, with flashing lights, parked along the side of the runway.

I turned slightly to line up on runway 06, pulled back on the throttle levers, and managed a passable landing onto the concrete surface. I cracked the throttle levers into beta range, but would not need reverse thrust due to the length of the runway. I slowly applied the brakes and as we rolled past the fire trucks, I heard clapping and shouting from the passengers who were happy that we landed safely.

When we arrived at the terminal, every one of the passengers wanted to shake my hand and thank me for getting them back on the ground alive. What a great feeling of relief for me, and each of them.

The U.S. Air Force will relocate the 480th Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base to Aviano Air Base

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The U.S. Air Force will relocate the 480th Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base to Aviano Air Base
A 480th FS F-16 during exercise Iniochos 2019 in Greece (Image credit: David Cenciotti).

As you may already know, the United States are planning to drastically reduce military personnel currently stationed in Germany. Among the units affected by the reductions we can find the 480th Fighter Squadron “Warhawks” of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base. The unit will in fact move its 28 F-16CM-50s to Aviano Air Base in Italy, where they will join the 510th FS “Buzzards” and 555th “Triple Nickel” of the 31st FW, flying the F-16CM-40.

The move was announced by Defense Secretary Mark Esper on July 29, 2020 during a joint briefing with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten, and Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). According to Esper about 12000 troops will move out of Germany starting from the next weeks, with 6400 of those returning to the US, leaving only 24000 troops in the country.

The 100th Air Refueling Wing and 352nd Special Operations Wing were scheduled to relocate to Ramstein and Spangdahlem respectively in the near future, prompting the closure of their current homebase RAF Mildenhall, but now this relocation has been canceled and both units will remain in the UK. Ramstein Air Base will not undergo any additional changes. Initially the 480th FS was rumored to be relocating to Poland, but this was never confirmed.

Warhawks move to Aviano 2 - The U.S. Air Force will relocate the 480th Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base to Aviano Air Base
A 480th Fighter Squadron F-16 Fighting Falcon taxis on the flightline at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 28, 2020. The aircraft flew in from Spangdahlem Air Base to participate in Agile Combat Employment exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alison Stewart)

Esper was quoted saying during the briefing “It is important to note that in NATO’s 71-year history, the size, composition and disposition of U.S. forces in Europe has changed many times. As we’ve entered a new era of great-power competition we are now at another inflection point in NATO’s history. I am confident the alliance will be all the better and stronger for it.”

According to the Department of Defense, the relocation of the troops is also a further implementation of the dynamic force employment that would see units abandoning permanent bases, vulnerable to attacks, and be ready to quickly deploy where needed. Periodically, unit based both in Germany and in the US will continue to deploy to different locations in Europe, a move also dictated by the National Defense Strategy to counter Russia (as in this case) and China.

Along with the Warhawks, ground units and command centers are being moved as well: among those we can find the 2nd Cavalry Regiment (a brigade-sized Stryker infantry and cavalry unit), US European Command (EUCOM), US Africa Command (AFRICOM), Special Operations Command-Europe and Special Operations Command-Africa.

Ditching a Cherokee off Hawaii

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During my first winter in Hawaii, soon after I arrived in what was to become my permanent residence, I was flying a rented aircraft between the islands on my job as director for University of Hawaii Peace Corps training, when my USAF flight training surely saved my life.

It was 7 am Sunday morning, December 15, 1968, in Honolulu. I was at Island Flight Service on the east ramp of Honolulu International Airport, and the twin-engine Piper Comanche I had arranged to rent failed to show up. The Comanche owner had called the Island Flight Service dispatcher earlier Sunday morning from Kauai to announce he would not return to Honolulu until sometime after noon, delaying my planned takeoff.

I needed to reach Hilo to meet, brief, and accompany an evaluation team from Washington, DC. I planned to meet the evaluators in Hilo, where they expected me to arrive at or before 9 am. I planned to fly the team to Upolu Point and Kona airfields, near two ongoing training programs.

Due to the delay, I seriously considered booking Aloha or Hawaiian airlines to Hilo but doing so would have left me without an aircraft to carry our visitors to two distant Big Island training sites.

The only aircraft available that morning was a single-engine, four-seat PA-28 Piper Cherokee, which I failed to fully and properly preflight. I departed Honolulu for Hilo shortly after 9 am.

My delayed takeoff caused me to neglect performing a number of pre-flight duties I normally and faithfully accomplished, including checking the aircraft logbooks which were kept in the Island Flight dispatch office.

As I climbed across Sand Island after my tardy lift off, I reached under the aircraft seat for a life-preserver, and found there was none. I loosened my seatbelt to look in the back seat and baggage compartment but I found no life preservers or survival gear.

I did not even consider continuing the flight without survival equipment, and called Honolulu Departure Control to ask for permission to return to land. The controller said, “Roger that. Is there a problem?”

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The Cherokee is (usually) the perfect airplane for hopping between islands in Hawaii.

I replied, “No mechanical problem. I forgot my over-water survival equipment and want to return to Island Flight operations to get them.”

With my return to HNL approved, I landed and requested the Island Flight dispatcher to bring me four life preservers. I checked each for fresh CO2 cartridges, donned one life preserver, and relaunched from Honolulu International to resume my solo flight to Hilo.

Fifteen minutes after my second departure, I noted a drop in the Piper’s oil pressure. I advised Honolulu Control I wished to land at Lanai Airport for a precautionary check of my oil quantity, as the Island Flight dispatcher had given me two quarts of oil, “just in case you need it.” I landed at Lanai and taxied to the airport ramp, shut down, got out, opened the left engine cowling, and checked the oil quantity, which was low. I added a quart, and took off a third time for Hilo.

Forty minutes later, flying southward down the Hamakua coast toward Hilo, and abeam Pepeekeo, I noticed a slow, uncommanded drop in the Piper’s engine RPM. Switching fuel tanks, I applied carburetor heat but failed to correct the gradual loss of power. Then, suddenly the engine stopped, ten miles short of my destination and nearly two miles offshore.

I immediately turned right, toward the Hamakua coast and a distant crop duster airfield in a sugar cane field I knew near Pepeekeo, and again attempted an engine restart.

It quickly became obvious the engine would not restart. It also became obvious that if I tried to stretch my glide I would not reach the crop duster landing strip. I was forced to elect to ditch in the sea, upwind, short of shore, and into large waves.

Realizing I faced ditching in an unfriendly rough sea, I broadcast “Mayday,” alerting Hilo approach control that I was about to ditch along the Hamakua shore, approximately one mile offshore from Pepeekeo Plantation, into waves which appeared to be several feet high.

I asked Hilo for an estimate of the winds. Hilo Approach said winds were estimated at 30 knots from the north-northeast. I turned into the wind, opened the Piper’s single door on the starboard side, blocking it open with my leather-bound Jeppesen chart book. I aimed to touch down along the approaching crest of an incoming wave, upon which I intended to dead stick the Piper. I tried again to restart the engine, without success.

Applying full flaps, I tightened my seat belt and prepared to ditch. I would enter the sea at 55 knots indicated airspeed but actually at only 25 knots if Hilo’s estimate of prevailing winds was correct.

At the last moment a gust of wind carried me into a less desirable approach, above a trough between two large waves, with crests both right and left, several feet above my cockpit.

The Piper PA-28 aircraft with fixed tricycle gear was not my choice of preferred aircraft design for ditching but nose gear-first it would be. I was aware that when the nose gear struck a wave, I would be pitched nose-down and underwater. I recalled US Air Force water survival training in Germany and at Long Beach, practicing ditching procedures.

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When the engine quits within sight of the destination airport, it’s hard to resist the temptation to stretch a glide.

The anticipated high impact worried me because the aircraft had only a single seat belt and no shoulder harness. I was holding the microphone in my left hand to give a final Mayday call and flying the aircraft with my right hand, while working the rudder pedals to guide the Piper down the center of the trough between the waves. My right wingtip caught the oncoming wave, cartwheeling me to the right, and in an instant I was under water.

Holding my breath, it was suddenly quiet as the Cherokee sank deeper into the darkening sea. My ears told me I was 8-to-12 feet below the surface and going deeper.

Instantly, I was looking down on myself in the cockpit, with my seatbelt still fastened. I thought in a flash I would go to the bottom if I failed to release my seatbelt. I heard me chide myself for just sitting there: “Open your seatbelt, dummy!” I opened my seatbelt and instantly I popped upward into a pocket of air in the rear baggage area of the Piper. I took in a big lungful.

My feet, luckily, were placed against the right rear window of the aircraft, just above the waterline in a pocket of rapidly escaping air. I broke the window with a mighty shove, cutting my ankles on the sharp plexiglass. I was dismayed to see a blurry red miasma of my blood as sea water rushed into the tail cone of the Piper.

Holding a mighty lungful of air from the darkened cargo compartment behind the Piper’s back seats, I pulled myself around and started headfirst through the window, only to discover that I was hung up. My life-preserver had caught on the edge of plexiglass. Avoiding a puncture of my life-preserver on the sharp plexiglas, I pulled myself back into the cabin. Still holding my breath, I felt the Cherokee’s right exit door, held open by my leather-covered instrument manual, where I had propped it when the engine quit. I pushed the door wide and pulled myself through the open door, free of the sinking aircraft, and swam for the surface. I saw my Jepp chart manual sinking clear toward the sea bottom.

I remember swimming over the right wing, noting a dented leading edge wingtip as I swam upwards, nearly out of the longest breath of my life.

I had managed to leave the aircraft via the only door. I was fully conscious the whole time. I recall being concerned about the dented wing but realized that it didn’t matter. The Cherokee was headed to the bottom. Nevertheless, I regretted damaging the aircraft.

Things slowed down. Now, I was free of a sinking aircraft at the surface filled with blowing foam by strong winds.

As I inflated one bladder of my double bladder life vest, I surveyed a half-mile swim in turbulent seas to reach dry land.

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Just because you survived a ditching doesn’t mean the danger is over.

I was aware of the imminent danger of sharks because I had been strongly admonished by one of our Hawaiian training staff members, who said in no uncertain terms that we must keep trainees and staff out of swimming and diving along the Hamakua Coast. He warned me about recent sightings of sharks, including great whites in local waters. He said, “You haole guy one little appetizer for a great white.”

Accordingly, I had circulated a written warning to the Peace Corps training classes and staff about these hazards, and so I issued a “no swimming” edict on the whole Hamakua coast.

Now, here I was, somewhere offshore the Pepeekeo Sugar Mill, swimming with bleeding ankles and wrists, after instructing everyone else to stay out of Hamakua waters. I think I chuckled at the irony.

As the airplane was sinking and I watched the empennage slowly go under water, hissing as the air that had enabled me to live came rushing out of the fuselage, it occurred to me that my briefcase was still in the aircraft, heading for the bottom of the sea, 6,000 feet below.

Clear of my dying airplane, and at the stormy surface, many thoughts raced through my mind. I briefly considered and rejected retrieving my briefcase, a relic of previous Peace Corps travel in the Philippines, which contained important university documents. Removing my life preserver to dive back into a sinking aircraft, however, was a foolhardy notion, which I rejected.

About half an hour later, and still a hundred yards short of land, I noticed a Coast Guard search and rescue Lockheed C-130 from Barbers Point circling about 3,000 feet above me. I learned later they had received word that I survived the ditching and was observed on the surface, swimming toward the shore. The USCG search and rescue center in Honolulu was contacted by a fisherman who had witnessed my ditching. However, the pilot of the C-130, whom I visited at his Barbers Point headquarters several days later, said none of the SAR crew had seen me, due to the turbulent seas.

Luckily, I never saw a great white nor any other sharks.

I swam hard for shore, determined to leave the water as quickly as possible. I watched the huge waves run up a 50-foot, rough, lava ‘A‘ā pali, frothing almost to the peak, then receding, in a rush of white water. My desperate plan was to ride a comber up the pali and grasp whatever I was able to grab as the wave receded, likely leaving me on the sharp ‘A‘ā lava, injured, but hopefully, saved from the cruel sea.

As I contemplated what I knew was my desperate plan, I spied a fisherman with a fishing pole on the Pepeekeo shore. He wore a yellow slicker. I waved to him and, to my great relief, he waved back, warning me with hand signals away from the treacherous pali toward which I was swimming. The man saw I was headed for the pali and vigorously waved me off.

That fisherman saved my life by indicating where I should not go, beckoning me to swim back out to sea, southward toward Onomea Bay. I really didn’t want to stay in the ocean as a possible snack for a great white shark but this man’s signals saved my life.

Waves off Hawaii 300x225 - Ditching a Cherokee off Hawaii
The beach is beautiful, but many parts are quite dangerous for a swimmer.

I had kept my flying boots on to risk the pali ‘A‘ā but abandoning that high-risk plan, I kicked off my flying boots, which I still regret losing.

I was in fine shape but was swallowing a large quantity of seawater in the foam, and realized that I was still bleeding. I had probably ripped open some veins in my wrist and didn’t know what I had done to my ankles.

I was swimming in high, wind-driven waves as I assessed my condition. I had partially inflated my life vest, using only one of the two CO-2 bottles, the same bottles I luckily had checked before my second takeoff from Honolulu.

As the Coast Guard Search and Rescue (SAR) C-130 circled overhead, I waved, hoping they would see me. They continued to circle and I knew they would drop a life raft if they saw me, but no life raft appeared.

I urgently wished to get out of the water before a big fish found me.

Later, I talked with the commander of the Coast Guard SAR C-130 which circled me, and he said they never saw me. The ocean surface was a sea of foam. Nonetheless, I knew that help was on the way. It was just a matter of time; if the big fishes didn’t turn me into a protein snack first, I was certain that I would be saved.

I was hyperventilating, swimming hard to leave a shorebreak that seemed to carry me closer to the ragged ‘A‘ā lava. I turned over on my back and back-paddled. I still wore my USAF flight jacket, which made swimming difficult, and slowed me down. So, I slipped out of my flight jacket without removing my Mae West, which was a complicated maneuver. It grieved me to lose that USAF flight jacket with my 452nd Troop Carrier Wing ID tag, but I had no choice.

I was still in the water, worried about a great white shark which had been reported nearby, when I saw what I hoped was the mast of a ship. Watching intently, I saw that it was indeed a mast, and it was moving northward, disappearing and reappearing, going southward, back and forth, two or more miles offshore but slowly coming closer. It appeared to be doing a creeping search right off shore where I was last seen and I said to myself, “Ahah, this ship is going to find me.” I had no signal device and no way of contacting the Coast Guard cutter but if he continued a creeping search course along the coast, he was likely to spot me.

Eventually, the Coast Guard cutter’s crew saw me wave and came alongside, throwing a friendly net over the rail. The man who pulled me in was the commanding officer of the 95-footer, a young Coast Guard officer named Lieutenant John Milbrand. The cutter was based in Hilo. Due to the urgency of my distress call on a Sunday morning, the ship was manned by only three out of a normal crew of ten. Lt. Milbrand’s wife Tina, I learned many years later, was a dear friend of my deceased wife, Gail Moffat Hudson.

Lt. Milbrand pulled me aboard, and said he was glad to find me. I assured him I felt the same, and vomited what felt like a gallon of seawater over the side of the rescue vessel. Then I had a cup of strong Coast Guard coffee and felt safe from the Great Whites, at last. I was in the water for about two hours.

The Honolulu Advertiser December 16 1968 Pg A 1 Flier Saved in Big Isle Ditching Phillip Olsen 300x232 - Ditching a Cherokee off Hawaii
If you’re going to make the news for a plane crash, better to be alive to read it.

I was taken ashore at Hilo Bay and met by Walt Southward, Honolulu Advertiser Big Island bureau, whom I knew. Walt interviewed me briefly. His report became a six-column headline and photo of “Dripping Olsen” on Monday’s Honolulu Advertiser, with my rescue details.

Taken by an emergency vehicle to the Hilo Hospital, I was examined by our Peace Corps Training Center physician and friend, whose name I cannot recall, found nothing but a few cuts that had stopped bleeding, and a large bump on my left forehead where I hit a crossbar in the cockpit when I cartwheeled into the sea.

I was an overnight guest of Alan and Patricia White, Hilo residents. Alan was director of the Peace Corps Training Center in Hilo.

I deeply regretted losing the Piper, the only aircraft I lost in nearly 12,000 hours of flying.

Later, I investigated the logbooks of Piper Cherokee 140 N4698R at Air Service Corp. and discovered that the aircraft had been involved in a training incident with a student pilot a week or ten days earlier. The student made a poorly controlled landing, collapsing the nose gear, which caused the engine to experience a sudden stoppage when the propeller struck the ground.

I learned from the aircraft owner’s insurance company that their investigation found that the airplane had been restricted to flying locally and should never have been released to fly off Oahu Island.

I didn’t wish to act upon my losses but I obtained a letter from the aircraft owner, Mr. Vetousek, in which he admitted the aircraft I ditched enroute to Hilo was restricted to local flying on Oahu, and should not have been dispatched for inter-island flight by Island Air Corporation.

I learned that the fisherman who waved me off the pali was Matsuichi Heya. I drove to his house near Pepeekeo Mill the next day. Mr. Heya explained that the reason he waved me off from trying to ride a wave up the pali was because, in 1944, he saw a U.S. Navy pilot ditch in almost the same area I ditched. Like me, the pilot survived his ditching, and swam to where I had headed. Sadly, he died on the rocks. Mr. Heya said he didn’t want me to do the same.

I thanked him for saving my life, shook his hand and hugged him, a gesture which at first was alien to Mr. Heya but which he returned with a hug to me.

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