Tag: Aviation

Those Sharp Looking Red-tailed P-3C Orions You See Flying Around the Florida Skies

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/ESG Aerosystems Inc. P-3C walk-around at Keystone Heights Airport. (All images: Author, unless otherwise stated)

We visit and ESG Aerosystems Inc. Training Platforms.

I’ve lived in Florida for over twenty years. I’ve been from corner to corner, edge-to-edge. I once counted 168 alligators along the side of the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades – mere feet from passing traffic. I’ve come to know to stay away from I-4 if it winds anywhere near Orlando or Tampa. In total juxtaposition to the rapidly expanding urban sprawl is one of the coolest parts of this massive state: its interior. Drive ten miles east of Tampa and you will find yourself in a different world, literally. Air plants hanging within five feet from the top of your car on some of the most rural beautiful roads the United States has to offer. Trees intertwined by enormous orb webs “manned” by harmless, and docile, banana spiders (Trichonephila clavipes) bigger than your hand. Farms that have been there for hundreds of years, some inhabited, many not. Driving through the interior of the state of Florida gives one the impression they have transitioned into the deep south and all that has to offer.

Drive 41 miles southwest of Jacksonville, Florida and you will find yourself deep in the aforementioned wilderness with little to see except southern-style wilderness. You might get lucky enough to stumble upon a beautiful, quaint little town called Keystone Heights (naming this town Mayberry would have been fitting). During your drive in that direction, if you are the kind of person who notices airplanes in the sky, you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of an unexpected, very large, and sleek, white airplane (with a red tail) flying in the distance. And, if you’re like me, your hands might involuntarily manipulate your steering wheel to direct your trusty steed in the direction where you think those airplanes (by now you’ve probably identified them as P-3 Orions) might be landing.

Sometimes when we travel even a modest distance into uncharted (to you) territory you might see things that don’t necessarily make sense. In the deeper edges of the Florida interior, basically in the middle of nowhere pretty far from any real industrialization, you’re likely to check yourself if you see beautiful P-3 Orions with red tails just randomly flying around at a fairly low level. I’ll tell you right now, from personal experience, any red-blooded pilot worth his or her weight in salt is going to drive diligently, almost possessed, and get to the bottom of random P-3s flying patterns in the middle of nowhere – even down the dirtiest of dirt roads!

- Those Sharp Looking Red-tailed P-3C Orions You See Flying Around the Florida SkiesOne of the MHD Rockland’s P-3C Orions.

If your internal guidance system is treating you well that day, and the Gods have spared your mission from being impeded by the very likely lightning-happy pop-up thunderstorm, you might just stumble on the Keystone Heights Airport (42J), home to MHD Rockland’s P-3C Orions. Keystone Heights Airport sits approximately 41 miles southwest of Jacksonville, 48 miles west of St. Augustine (IMHO, best beach in Florida), and 22 miles northeast of Gainesville, give or take.

- Those Sharp Looking Red-tailed P-3C Orions You See Flying Around the Florida SkiesThe “business end” of MHD Rockland’s P-3C Orion N665BD. The distinctive tail at the rear of the aircraft is the Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) antenna. A magnetic anomaly detector is used to detect very small variations in the Earth’s magnetic field. The term refers to magnetometers used to detect submarines (a mass of ferromagnetic material creates a detectable disturbance in the magnetic field)

The Keystone Heights Airport was constructed in 1942 by the United States Army Air Forces (the U.S. Air Force did not yet exist), on the Southwest perimeter of Camp Blanding. It was originally named Crystal Lake Army Airfield, due to its proximity to Crystal Lake, but when commissioned in December of that same year it became known as the Keystone Army Airfield. During World War II, the field was the home of the AAFSAT Strategic Reconnaissance School. The F3 Havoc, P39D (variant) Air Cobra, and L-2 and L-3 Grasshopper Light Observation Aircraft (similar to a Piper Cub) were some of the Aircraft utilized for training. In November of 1943, the 313th Fighter Squadron moved from Alachua and employed P40 Warhawks for training. Later, the P40s were replaced with P47 Thunderbolts. In January 1945, the AAFSAT sent down orders for closure, and on February 1, 1945, the field was placed on inactive status. The city of Keystone Heights acquired the Airport from the Federal Government in 1947.

- Those Sharp Looking Red-tailed P-3C Orions You See Flying Around the Florida SkiesHistoric images provided by MHD Rockland, historic data provided by the Keystone Heights Airport

Back to the red-tailed P-3s that are based at the Keystone Heights Airport and their parent companies MHD Rockland and ESG Aerosystems Inc.

MHD Rockland was formed in 1981 as a company that provided spare parts and services for fixed-wing aircraft. It is a company that has evolved into a leading supplier of parts and services, services that include aviation flight training. MHD Rockland services a multitude of aircraft including the C-130. P-3, F-16, and C-27.

- Those Sharp Looking Red-tailed P-3C Orions You See Flying Around the Florida SkiesMHD Rockland acquired five Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3Cs to supply its current fleet of five training Orions. (Image credit: RAAF)

ESG Aerosystems inc. was awarded a U.S Navy Contract valued at $64.5 million and MHD Rockland is the sole-source aircraft subcontractor. As per the scope of their contract, ESG Aerosystems inc. is mandated to develop a curriculum and facilitate training for P-3 aircrew positions including co-pilots, patrol plane commanders, instructor pilots, flight engineers, instructor flight engineers, and flight currency training. This is to support the Naval Education and Training Security Assistance Field Activity’s (NETSAFA) applicable field units and other program offices and stakeholders. The achievement is 100% funded by the Federal Republic of Germany funds under the Foreign Military Sales Program to secure the operational readiness of the German Navy P-3C Aircrew.

- Those Sharp Looking Red-tailed P-3C Orions You See Flying Around the Florida SkiesCrews from MHD Rockland work with trainees on one of the MHD Rockland P-3C Orions in both night and day environments. Images: MHD Rockland/ESG Aerosystems Inc.

MHD Rockland, who employs more than 100 people worldwide, has the world’s largest privately held C-130 and P-3 inventories (350,000+ line items total inventory) and operates in six locations around the globe including Brisbane, Australia; Aukland, New Zealand; Keystone Heights, Florida; Crofton, Maryland; Montreal, Québec (HQ), and Burlington, Ontario.

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The author would like to thank the folks at MHD Rockland/ESG Aero Systems for their gracious hospitality and help in putting this article together, including (but not limited to): Billy Bushman – CTO/Chief Evaluator/Instructor Pilot; Frank Schleehuber – Political Affairs Officer; Todd Falconer – VP of Flight Ops; Josh Miller – President MHD Rockland; Ben Garcia – Avionics Team Lead; and Bryan Dollimore – Owner, MHD Rockland

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Al has been a licensed pilot for more than 38 years, enjoying both aircraft and airport ownership. He has been a published digital artist, photographer, and writer for almost 40 years. Al is currently an internationally published military aviation illustrator, writer, and photographer. He is also a web developer and currently maintain 72 websites, including his own hosting company, Blue Lion Solutions LLC. His artwork is available here: www.customaviationart.pixels.com

Enjoy This Walkaround Of The TF-104G-M “Black Beauty” at Kennedy Space Center

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Piercarlo Ciacchi, Starfighters’ Director of Flight Operations, explains some of the details of the TF-104’s ejection seat. The NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building can be seen in the background. (Screenshot from the YouTube video below)

Piercarlo Ciacchi, Starfighters’ Director of Flight Operations and former Italian Air Force F-104 pilot, introduces us to the two-seater TF-104 (with many interesting, little-known details).

Back in January, we reported about the stunning black paintjob of one of the TF-104 (actually, a TF-104G-M) aircraft of Starfighters Aerospace. The jet, dubbed “Black Beauty”, is one of the seven F-104s owned by the company, of which four are currently airworthy, and based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to be used for research and development flights.

“Black Beauty”, which now sports the civilian registration N991SF, is one of the five former Italian Air Force F-104s that were purchased after the service retired the type from operational service in 2004. Before being retired, this two-seater TF-104 operated for more than 30 years as MM54258 with the 20° Gruppo (Squadron), the Italian F-104 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) based at Grosseto.

Actually, the original “Black Beauty” was another F-104 based at Grosseto, the F-104S ASA-M (Aggiornamento Sistemi d’Arma – Modificato / Weapon System Upgrade – Modified) MM6873/4-9 of the 9th Gruppo Caccia (Fighter Squadron). The latter, which is now a gate guardian, was of the latest and most upgraded Starfighters operated by an Air Force and received a black paintjob to celebrate 40 years of service of the F-104 with the 9° Gruppo.

Anyway, back to today’s “Black Beauty”, Starfighters’ Director of Flight Operations and former Italian Air Force F-104 and Frecce Tricolori pilot, Piercarlo Ciacchi, provided a detailed walkaround of the TF-104G-M. Ciacchi was one of the last pilots to fly the F-104 before it was retired from service and even broke the F-104’s unrefueled flight duration record during its final flight before moving to the F-16ADF, landing after two hours and 50 minutes of flight in the special-colored F-104S ASA-M MM6930/9-99.

Ciacchi provided many interesting and little-known details worth a note during his walkaround, beginning from the 3:00 mark, where he showed two hatches on the bottom of the fuselage of the Starfighters TF-104. These hatches were inherited from the first F-104s which had downward ejection seats, as technology at the time did not allow to have ejection seats efficient enough to clear the Starfighter’s T-tail during an ejection. An even more curious fact is that the flight manual mentioned that, in the event of a low altitude ejection, the pilot had to roll the aircraft upside down before pulling the seat’s handles, so he would be ejected away from the ground.

Another interesting detail is the air intake of the TF-104G-M at the 9:40 mark. At the beginning of the F-104 program, the intake was considered a secret and kept under covers when on the ground. This split, three-dimensional air intake uses a design similar to the one of the SR-71’s air intakes. The cone in front of the air intake is fixed, instead of the moving one used by the Blackbird, in a position that is optimized for a certain range of speeds. The cone generates two shockwaves that help to slow down the supersonic airflow to subsonic speed inside the air intake. In addition to that, a slot behind the cone bleeds the boundary layer to obtain a more efficient airflow for the engine.

Another function of this air intake design is to act as a pre-heater and pre-compressor before the airflow reaches the engine. When we consider the fluid dynamics involved in a variable cross-section duct like an air intake, the variation of air pressure, air speed and cross-section are linked together thanks to the Mach number. This way, the air intake duct can increase the air pressure at the expense of the kinetic energy of the ingested airflow (and vice versa) just by varying the cross-section, without the need of mechanical work.

Also, since the air temperature and density are subject to variations concordant with the variations of the pressure, at the end of the air intake duct the airflow will have also an increased temperature. A practical example mentioned by Ciacchi is an F-104 flying at Mach 2 at 50,000 ft (with some modifications, the Starfighter could even reach 100,000 ft) , where the air intake is able to generate an increase of the temperature of about 200° C before the airflow reaches the first stage of the engine’s compressor.

Moving on, at the 20:30 mark, Ciacchi explained the origin of the unique design of the Starfighter. The design came from the famous Skunk Works, with Clarence “Kelly” Johnson mentioned saying “I want the most powerful and biggest engine available and I want to wrap around it the minimum quantity of airplane”. This left very little room to house systems and accessories needed by the aircraft, requiring a swiveling design for the landing gear to retract inside the fuselage. With this special design, the landing gear fits so tight inside the fuselage that a later modification, which increased the safety by using a little wider tire, required a new landing gear door with a “bubble” that allowed to obtain the minimum required space for the new tire.

Finally, at the 47:00 mark, the tour continues inside the cockpit, which has been heavily upgraded.

While much of the original side consoles and some of the instruments have been kept, many have been replaced by more modern commercial avionics, like the two Garmin G5 Electronic Flight Instruments and the GTN 650 Touchscreen Flight Navigator, new UHF and VHF radios and an iPad connected to the GTN 650’s GPS (Global Positioning System) and WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System). An interesting note is that the radar is still installed on the aircraft, but its controls have been removed.

In the video, Ciacchi mentioned that a new walkaround is in the works and it will feature one of the Starfighters Aerospace’s single-seater F-104s. There are some differences in the two airframes that were already introduced in this video, but we will patiently wait for the new detailed video that will explain all the extra features of the single-seater F-104, together with new in-flight videos of this legendary aircraft.

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Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season

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NOAA43 approaches NOAA’s Air Operations Center (AOC) after a hurricane hunting training sortie. (All images: Author)

We visited NOAA Air Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida to discuss the impending Atlantic Hurricane season.

On May 1, 2017, the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) moved its Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) to a brand new 156,043 square foot facility at the Lakeland Linder International Airport (LAL) in Lakeland, Florida. They moved from their 99,000 square foot facility at MacDill AFB (MCF) in Tampa, Florida. The move to their new home provided NOAA with mission specific facilities and a 37% increase in useable operations area.

The NOAA AOC move was necessary because MacDill AFB, primarily a KC-135R tanker base, needed additional room for an incoming KC-135R squadron, the 50th Air Refueling Squadron (the Big 5-0 as MacDill’s Deputy Chief Pub Affairs Terry Montrose told me they were referred to), a squadron with roots dating back to WW II. The Big 5-0 took possession of NOAA’s former space on October 2, 2017, and added 250+ personnel to the roster at MacDill AFB.

In review, NOAA’s move from MacDill AFB to the Lakeland Linder International airport turned out to be a huge win-win for both NOAA and MacDill AFB.

IMG 1045 NOAA front - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
The main entrance to NOAA’s AOC facility in Lakeland, Florida

Fast-forward to May, 2021, about a month before the official start of the 2021 hurricane season.

That’s a fast-forward that jumped a significant global event: COVID-19. In speaking with some of the team members at NOAA during my visit there, I was privileged to be the recipient of much information, and many resources for this article. To cover the effects of COVID-19 on NOAA’s AOC mission would be a massive article unto itself. What they did convey to me without hesitation, and with zero uncertainty, was that NOAA and its super dedicated and ultra-capable people remained steadfast to their multiple missions globally, hurricane research (hunting).

IMG 1050 NOAA lobby - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
The main lobby at NOAA’s AOC facility in Lakeland, Florida, which leads to their offices, work shops, and hangars.

During the 2020 season, NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center supported this important data collection with 31 flights and 219.2 flight hours on the NOAA Gulfstream IV-SP and 55 flights and 459 flight hours on NOAA’s two WP-3D Orion Hurricane Hunters. Aircrews on the NOAA Hurricane Hunters released 1,772 dropsondes and 28 airborne expendable bathythermographs (AXBTs) feeding vital data on atmospheric and oceanic conditions to forecast models during these flights. NOAA Corps pilots and navigators, as well as NOAA engineers, technicians, and meteorologists crossed through the eye of a hurricane over 102 times aboard a WP-3D Orion, during flights through Hurricanes Hanna, Isaias, Laura, Paulette, Sally, Teddy, Delta, Zeta, and Eta.

IMG 1053 under construction - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
2016 image of NOAA’s brand-new, purpose built, 156,043 square foot AOC facility under construction.

NOAA currently operates four distinct airframes (excluding unmanned): two Beechcraft King Air 350CERs (registration N67RF and N68RF; callsigns NOAA67 & NOAA68, respectively). NOAA’s two King Airs are versatile, twin-engine, extended-range turboprop aircraft. They primarily support coastal mapping, snow and soil moisture surveys, and emergency response missions.

IMG 1166 king air - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
NOAA’s Beechcraft King Air 350CER. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful King Air! The King Airs primarily support coastal mapping, snow and soil moisture surveys, and emergency response missions.

Four De Havilland DHC-6-300 Twin Otters (N46RF, N48RF, N56RF & N57RF, with callsigns NOAA46, NOAA48, NOAA56 and NOAA57, respectively): the Twin Otters are among NOAA’s most versatile aircraft. Known for their reliability, short takeoff and landing capabilities, payload capacity and excellent external visibility, they are a perfect asset to support NOAA science in even the harshest environments. According to NOAA’s Public Affairs Specialist Jonathan Shannon, the Twin Otters engage in extensive snow measurement research in the northern latitudes. Both the Twin Otter and King Airs fly Snow Survey and Soil Moisture research programs (very interesting breakdown by NOAA here) They also engage in vital conservation efforts aimed at monitoring and protecting the very endangered North Atlantic right whale.

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This photo well illustrates the effort put into maintaining NOAA’s facility and aircraft. This was NOT a staged photo. We just walked up on these happy guys working their tails-off making Twin Otter NOAA57 ready for her upcoming trip to Alaska for snow research. She was scheduled to leave at midnight.

One Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV) “Gonzo” (registration N49RF/NOAA49): NOAA’s Gulfstream is a high-tech, high-flying, and high-speed platform used for hurricane forecasting and research. The G-IV flies around and over developing tropical cyclones to create a detailed picture of the surrounding upper atmosphere. NOAA is planning on upgrading to the Gulfstream G550 in 2023.

Two Lockheed WP-3D Orions “Kermit” & “Miss Piggy” (N42RF and N43RF, radio callsigns NOAA42 and NOAA43, respectively): according to NOAA, their two Lockheed WP-3D Orion “Hurricane Hunters” play a key role in collecting data vital to tropical cyclone research and forecasting.

IMG 1091 WP 3C 1024 2 - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
NOAA43 approaches NOAA’s Air Operations Center (AOC) after a hurricane hunting training sortie.
IMG 1085 P 3 and tower - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
NOAA43 is seen taxiing with Lakeland’s new tower in the background. Look closely and you can see that these images were taken on one of central Florida’s 90°+ days.
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Direct head-on view of NOAA42 illustrating the massive propellors of Lockheed’s WP-3D Orion. Lockheed originally came up with this design hoping the giant props would generate extra lift, which they do.

These highly-capable four-engine turboprops also support a wide variety of atmospheric and air chemistry missions. The two NOAA WP-3Ds were specifically made, brand- new, by Lockheed for NOAA and first flew in 1975. The aircraft were introduced into service in 1976.

IMG 1083 P 3 pair - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
This is an interesting photograph because it encompasses a lot of the Lakeland Linder International Airport: We see NOAA’s two WP-3Ds (Kermit in the foreground and Miss Piggy taxiing), we see a general aviation Cessna departing runway 27 to the west, and to the very left of the photo you can see the beginning of the Amazon Prime airport facility. Amazon Prime’s presence is BIG at LAL, and it will be the feature of an upcoming article.

These aircraft are not re-missioned ex-military aircraft. The scientists aboard the NOAA WP-3D Hurricane Hunters utilize a combination of weather radar, spectrographic lasers, disposable Dropsondes, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to measure and track their targeted storms.

IMG 1123 dropsonde holes - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
A dropsonde is an expendable weather reconnaissance device created by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). These are the ports through which NOAA’s dropsondes fall.
IMG 1136 P 3 cockpit - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
The cockpit of WP-3D “Kermit”. We can tell this because of the small Kermit doll hanging over the instrument panel. Miss Piggy has one, of her, hanging there too. I’ve been told by the pilots that they can tell how strong a storm is by how much the dolls bounce. Technology.
IMG 1145 hurricanes - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
After every storm intercept, NOAA’s aircraft are adorned with a “victory mark” with the name of the storm in it. Also, the markings plainly illustrate that NOAA’s scope is global.

Jonathan Shannon gave us a personal tour of NOAA’s AOC facility in Lakeland, FL.

If I were going to use one word to describe the facility, it would be “immaculate”. The entire base, from the offices, to the aircraft hangars, to the machine shops look like they were maintained to a standard that I’ve not witnessed before. This same level of attention to organization and, literally, spotlessness was obviously transposed to NOAA’s fleet of aircraft. Knowing that an organization with such a critical mission is maintained in such a state of positive readiness is very reassuring to somebody like myself who lives right on Florida’s coast and is often in, or very near, the bullseye of a named Atlantic storm.

IMG 1061 confrence room - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
NOAA AOC’s on facility, state-of-the-art conference and presentation room.

Our visit to NOAA’s AOC facility culminated with a one-on-one meeting with base commander, Cmdr. Christian Sloan. Cmdr. Sloan assumed command of NOAA’s AOC on Dec. 2, 2019. For a guy with such a big job, Cmdr. Sloan came across as very approachable, very informed, and overall a really nice guy. Not to sound overly colloquial, but considering this tightly-run NOAA AOC ship, a ship run by Cmdr. Sloan, I think I was expecting somebody a little meaner. In fact, everybody we encountered at the facility came across as truly exceptional, friendly, and just happy to be there. It reminded me a little of the time I spent working with the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team The Blue Angels. Everybody was sharp, they did their job very well, and they were all, genuinely, happy to be there. When you have a team like that, and a team like that at NOAA’s AOC facility, that kind of success starts at the top. Like them, we were happy to be there and honored that the people at NOAA took their valuable time to spend time talking to us – and, just a reminder, the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is just days away.

IMG 1110 Kermit head on - NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Ready to Face the 2021 Hurricane Season
Quartering view of NOAA42, “Kermit the Frog”. Kermit currently differs from Miss Piggy in that it has a weather probe protruding from it nose radome AND port wing. Miss Piggy only has the probe on her port wing.

NOAA does have “home grown” programs where new pilots interested in becoming part of this exemplary service can start from the ground up. For those interested, you can visit the NOAA CORP webpage here.

This is the first of a series of NOAA related articles. We gathered extensive information that needs to be shared, including a story about the time a WP-3D lost an engine in the middle of a Category- 5 hurricane and went as low as 100’ ASL, a story conveyed to us by Paul T. Flaherty, Chief of the Science Branch at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center and Jack Parrish, NOAA Flight Meteorologist, Project Manager (40+ years experience).

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Miss Piggy artwork.

The Gigantic Stratolaunch Aircraft Just Flew For The Second Time

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Stratolaunch carrier aircraft takes off for its second test flight. (Image credit: Stratolaunch)

The Stratolaunch aircraft took off from Mojave Air and Space Port two years after its maiden flight.

The Stratolaunch six-engine jet, the aircraft with the world’s largest wingspan, has just launched from Mojave Air and Space Port for its second flight.

“We are airborne”, Stratolaunch’s official account tweeted at 14.32 GMT on Apr. 29, 2021, posting a video of the aircraft, nicknamed “Roc”, as it rolled on the runway and took to the air.

The second flight of the world’s largest aircraft lasted about 3 hours and 15 minutes and came little more than 2 years after the Stratolaunch Launch Systems Stratolaunch Aircraft Carrier, flew for the first time on April 13, 2019. That time, the aircraft conducted an initial test flight that lasted 2.5 hours achieving a maximum altitude of 17,000 feet and a top speed of 189 MPH before landing.

Stratolaunch company was founded by Paul G. Allen, Bill Gates’ former partner at Microsoft, who passed away some months before the aircraft’s first flight, in October 2018.

The Stratolaunch aircraft was intended to carry spacecraft to altitude where they would be dropped and then fly into orbit under their own power. The Stratolaunch can carry a payload of up to 500,000 pounds or 250 tons according to Stratolaunch Launch Systems. The gigantic Stratolaunch has the largest wingspan in the world at 117.3 meters (384.8 feet), significantly larger than the previous record holder, the Antonov An-225 “Mriya” heavy lift cargo aircraft. The Stratolaunch is powered by six enormous Pratt & Whitney PW4000 jet engines formerly used on the Boeing 747 that only used four engines.

However, shortly after the first flight, reports that Stratolaunch was closing started surfacing online. The company, facing serious financial problems, was sold and the gigantic aircraft seemed to be destined to same fate as the failed Hughes H-4 Hercules, or “Spruce Goose” who made a single flight in 1947. However, under the new owners, who have now plans to use the gigantic aircraft as a launch platform for reusable hypersonic flight research vehicles, the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft has successfully completed a second test flight, and more will probably follow in the next months, paving the way to the use of the aircraft as a launch platform for fully operational hypersonic vehicles.

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David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Terrifying Video Filmed Aboard Atlas Air B767 During Emergency Following Engine Failure After Take Off From Honolulu

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Terrifying Video Filmed Aboard Atlas Air B767 During Emergency Following Engine Failure After Take Off From Honolulu
A screenshot from the video posted online by a passenger of the Atlas Air B767. (via ABC7 News)

On Sept. 5, 2020, an Atlas Air Boeing 767-300, N649GT, flying as GTI8585 from Honolulu to Guam suffered a right hand engine failure during the initial climb out of Honolulu International’s runway 08R. As a consequence of repeated compressor stalls/surges, the engine emitted bangs and streaks of flames, forcing the crew to declere an emergency.

The aircraft stopped its climb at 2,000 feet while flying a long downwing leg for 08R. Then it climbed to 3,000 feet and got vectors for an ILS approach to runway 08R at Honolulu, where the aircraft safely landed about 30 minutes after take off.

At the following link you get the audio of the radio comms between the Atlas Air 767 and Honolulu Tower:

A passenger aboard the aircraft filmed a pretty impressive video that flames flashing from outside the window during the emergency. You can also hear some loud bangs coming (most probably the sound of multiple compressor surges/stalls):

No injuries were reported on board the B767 that, as mentioned, was flying as a military charter to Guam. Atlas Air is the largest provider of commercial airlift in the wide-body cargo segment in the United States Air Mobility. The company’s B747s, 777s, 767s, and 737s can often be spotted at military airports all around the world as they provide essential airlift support to the U.S. military. Interestingly, “We’re also extremely proud of the fact that we train some of the Air Force’s most elite aircrews, including the pilots and flight engineers of the U.S. President’s Air Force One and the flight crew members assigned to the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center,” says Atlas Air’s official website.

Will A Future Air Force One Be Hypersonic? New Contract Explores Feasibility.

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Exosonic and the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center released images showing a conceptual low-boom SST configured as a VIP transport. (Photo: Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate via Facebook)

Will future diplomats and U.S. Presidents jet around the world at supersonic speeds to conduct a new version of ultra-fast “shuttle diplomacy”? If a new contract awarded to “low-boom” technology innovators Exosonic is any indication, the answer could be “yes”.

Press releases indicate movement on key contracts related to new “low-boom” supersonic transports for the United States. The contracts, announced by the Exosonic company, are with the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.

Exosonic is spearheading feasibility studies and design of new “low-boom” supersonic transport technology that could revive interest in faster, Mach 1+ air travel.

Supersonic air travel disappeared with the end of the former-Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic transport and the famous joint French and English Concorde SST built by Aérospatiale/BAC. The Soviets had little success with their SST program, which predated the first Concorde flight by three months but only remained operational from 1975 until 1978. The Anglo-French Concorde was significantly more successful, flying commercially from 1976 until 2003 when it was retired after a tragic crash on July 25, 2000 at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. At the time, neither program achieved a high degree of economic efficiency and both suffered from the constraints of traditional supersonic flight.

Other companies exploring the feasibility of next-generation SSTs, such as Aerion, Boom, Boeing and Airbus, began their next-gen SST development programs prior to the innovation of new low-boom technology, making them subject to conventional supersonic flight limitations including the generation of undesirable and potentially damaging sonic booms, especially during overland flight. Exosonic’s origin is with low-boom supersonic aircraft configuration. It is all the company has ever done, and low-boom supersonic flight is the foundational technology to their company, providing a significant competitive edge to traditional supersonic flight technologies. This origin in low-boom supersonic design gives Exosonic a significant advantage over conventional, old-generation supersonic aircraft design.

Virgin Galactic has recently unveiled a new Mach 3 civilian aircraft concept too.

Exosonic’s current low-boom SST concept proposes capabilities that include Mach 1.8 cruise speeds, capacity of 45-60 passengers in a commercial configuration and range of 4500 miles. Low-boom SST configurations for military and government VIP applications could have, at least, different load configurations and potentially somewhat different performance characteristics.

Low-boom technology works by using an elongated fuselage that mutes the sonic boom allowing overland flight under most current commercial restrictions.

But Exosonic does have a technology peer in low-boom development who already does have a head start, and they are familiar and formidable aerospace brand: Lockheed’s Skunk Works.

NASA has already experimented with a low-boom supersonic aircraft called the X-59 QueSST being built now by Lockheed. According to NASA, “NASA’s first purpose-built, supersonic X-plane in decades will soon take to the skies. Final design, construction and assembly of the vehicle is targeted to be complete by 2021. A single pilot is to fly the 96.8-foot-long, 29.5-foot-wide aircraft powered by a single jet engine. Its design research speed will be Mach 1.42, or 940 mph, flying at 55,000 feet.”

LowBoom 30 - Will A Future Air Force One Be Hypersonic? New Contract Explores Feasibility.
Lockheed is in the late stage of developing a low-boom SST test bed aircraft scheduled to fly as early as 2021. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

The NASA X-59 has already been featured in time-lapse videos showing its assembly released by Lockheed. This single-seat concept and technology testbed could give Lockheed a practical head start in the development of a low-boom transport, although Lockheed has not pursued significant commercial airline ambitions since its marginally successful L1011 TriStar wide-body airliner, that was produced from 1968 until 1984 and has since faded into obscurity.
The new question for Exosonic may not be how fast and how quiet their conceptual low-boom SST will be, but how they can outperform an established aerospace giant like Lockheed in the even more important race to fly the first low-boom aircraft, and then leverage that technology into a full-scale VIP and transport aircraft.

H/T Isaac ✈ Alexander for the heads-up!

Take A Look At These Stunning Aerial Shots Of The Monstrous Scaled Composites Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Take A Look At These Stunning Aerial Shots Of The Monstrous Scaled Composites Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft
An amazing aerial view of the Stratolaunch Carrier. (All images: Dylan Phelps/Boneyard Safari).

The world’s largest aircraft, the Stratolaunch Launch Systems Stratolaunch Aircraft Carrier, flew for the first time on April 13, 2019. Flown by Scaled Composites experimental test pilot Evan Thomas, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, F-16 pilot and former Vice Wing Commander of the 46th Test Wing, the gigantic aircraft took off from the Mojave Air & Space Port in California at 06:58 Pacific Daylight Time and conducted an initial test flight that lasted 2.5 hours achieving a maximum altitude of 17,000 feet and a top speed of 189 MPH before landing.

Although the first flight went well, that was the only time the aircraft took to the air.

Reports that Stratolaunch was closing started surfacing online on Friday, May, 31, 2019, few weeks after the historic first flight.

The Stratolaunch aircraft was intended to carry spacecraft to altitude where they would be dropped and then fly into orbit under their own power. The Stratolaunch can carry a payload of up to 500,000 pounds or 250 tons according to Stratolaunch Launch Systems. The gigantic Stratolaunch has the largest wingspan in the world at 117.3 meters (384.8 feet), significantly larger than the previous record holder, the Antonov An-225 “Mriya” heavy lift cargo aircraft. The Stratolaunch is powered by six enormous Pratt & Whitney PW4000 jet engines formerly used on the Boeing 747 that only used four engines.

Stratolaunch from above top - Take A Look At These Stunning Aerial Shots Of The Monstrous Scaled Composites Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft
The Stratolaunch Carrier at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California (All images: Dylan Phelps/Boneyard Safari).

While the approach to commercial space flight was novel, competition by other commercial, reusable spacecraft launch operations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX offered more conventional and likely more practical solutions to boost payloads into orbit.

Stratolaunch was founded in 2011 under parent corporation Vulcan, Inc. Both Paul Allen and CEO Jean Floyd ran the company until Allen’s death in October, 2018. The company ceased operations in May 2019 and placed all company assets, including the Stratolaunch Carrier aircraft, for sale for US$400 million by June 2019. Cerberus Capital Management acquired Stratolaunch Systems including the aircraft in October 2019 and, in December the same year, Stratolaunch announced that it would focus on offering high-speed flight test services.

In 2020, the company under new management unveiled the Talon-A (a rebranded version of the previous hypersonic vehicle dubbed Hyper-A). According to Stratolaunch, Talon-A is a fully reusable, autonomous, liquid rocket-powered Mach 6-class hypersonic vehicle with a length of 28 feet (8.5 m), wingspan of 11.3 feet (3.4 m), and a launch weight of approximately 6,000 pounds (2,722 Kg). The Talon-A will conduct over 1-minute of hypersonic flight testing, and glide back for an autonomous, horizontal landing on a conventional runway. The vehicle will also be capable of autonomous take-off, under its own power, via a conventional runway. The company also said it would develop a larger hypersonic vehicle once known as Hyper-Z, and now called Talon-Z, plus a space plane nicknamed Black Ice, “a fully reusable space plane that enables advanced on-orbit capabilities and cargo return. Initial designs optimized for cargo launch, with a follow-on variant capable of transporting crew.” Both vehicles will be air-launched by the Stratolaunch Carrier that, according to the datasheet, should be able to support operational aicraft services by 2022.

While it waits to resume flight testing, the massive aircraft was photographed from the air at its base in Mojave. On Jul. 24, 2020, Boneyard Safari‘s Dylan Phelps was out for a photoshoot of the final landing of a Qantas 747 being retired, when he spotted that the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft had been rolled out into the California.

Stratolaunch from above 2 - Take A Look At These Stunning Aerial Shots Of The Monstrous Scaled Composites Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft
Another shot of the world’s largest aircraft that made its first and only flight on Apr. 13, 2019.

The photographs Dylan has sent us show the current status of the aircraft. It looks like some work is required to make the big bird airworthy again: for instance, based on the photos, the whole leading edge slat along with the nose cones and the outer ailerons have been removed, probably as part of the long-term storage procedures.

Stratolaunch from above 3 - Take A Look At These Stunning Aerial Shots Of The Monstrous Scaled Composites Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft
The Stratolaunch Carrier sits in front of its hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.

Breathtaking Video of Croatian Canadair CL-415 Diving at Treetop Level Downhill During Aerial Firefighting Mission

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Breathtaking Video of Croatian Canadair CL-415 Diving at Treetop Level Downhill During Aerial Firefighting Mission
The Canadair CL-415 as it dives downhill to deliver its 6000 liters of water over the fire. (Photo: screenshot from YouTube video)

Last year, a fire broke out in the open near a railway in Draga (Rijeka), Croatia, and the wind spread it on steep rocky terrain nearby, blocking the access for firefighters on the ground. A Canadair CL-415 “Water Bomber” was quickly dispatched to the scene to help extinguishing of the fire.

The pilots displayed some impressive maneuvering, flying almost at treetop level to drop accurately the Canadair’s 6000 liters of water for maximum effect. Their skills are even more remarkable if we look at how they had to deliver water downhill, arriving from behind the hill and then abruptly diving as they passed over the ridge. You can get an idea of how low they had to fly just by looking at their shadow on the ground.

As our Editor David Cenciotti wrote in a previous article,

The firefighting mission is undoubtedly one of the most hazardous for pilots. The very low altitude, the smoke that reduces visibility, winds causing turbulence, the large concentration of aircraft in the same area, the generally abrupt topography and the need of perform several fill-drop cycles in a short time make the water bomber role particularly risky.

The “Supescoopers”, as the CL-415 are also called, have been supporting firefighting operations across the world for decades and are largely appreciated for their capability of quickly delivering great quantities of water or fire retardant in response to fires. Since the aircraft is amphibian, it can refill its tanks from a nearby water source (lake or sea) in just 12 seconds while running on the water. An improved variant called CL-515 is currently being developed, featuring also an increased capacity up to 7000 liters.

Virgin Galactic Unveils New Mach 3 Civilian Aircraft Concept

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Virgin Galactic Unveils New Mach 3 Civilian Aircraft Concept
A rendering of the commercial supersonic aircraft being developed by Virgin Galactic. (Image: Virgin Galactic)

On August 3, 2020, Virgin Galactic unveiled a concept for a new civilian high-speed aircraft, following the completion of a Mission Concept Review (MCR) and authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation.

The aircraft, which doesn’t have an official name yet, is said to be capable of continuous Mach 3 flight at an altitude above 60,000 feet. The delta wing aircraft is reminiscent of the British-French Concorde, with a streamlined profile and underwing engine nacelles, but probably smaller as the company stated that it will have a capacity for nine to 19 people (depending on the cabin configuration), while the Concorde had seating configurations for 92 to 128 passengers.

According to Virgin Galactic, with the MCR the team behind the project confirmed, after extensive research and analysis work, that the concept can meet the design goals and proceed to define the aircraft’s systems and materials, while addressing thermal management, maintenance, noise, emissions and economic fleet sustainment.

The MCR also included NASA representatives, after the company signed back in May 2020 a Space Act Agreement with the agency to collaborate “in order to advance the United States’ efforts to produce technically feasible, high Mach vehicles for potential civil applications”.

NASA have years of experience with supersonic aircraft technology and is currently working in partnership with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division to develop the X-59 QueSST (Quiet Supersonic Technology), an aircraft designed to generate a quieter sonic boom which should be within acceptable noise levels to help the FAA to lift the ban on commercial supersonic travel over land imposed in 1973. Data gathered from this program could probably find its way into the design of Virgin’s aircraft.

Virgin Galactic Mach3 1 - Virgin Galactic Unveils New Mach 3 Civilian Aircraft Concept
Another rendering of the commercial supersonic aircraft being developed by Virgin Galactic. (Image: Virgin Galactic)

Last year the agency proposed new rules for supersonic aircraft and also indicated it could revisit the ban if technological changes mitigating the noise impact of supersonic flight should arise. The X-59, which should fly for the first time next year, is being designed to cruise at 55,000ft and Mach 1.4 according to NASA, with a sonic boom of less than 75 perceived dB on the ground, about a third less than the Concorde, which was reported around 100-110 dB.

Additionally, Virgin Galactic signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Rolls-Royce to collaborate in designing and developing the engine that will be used for this project. The cooperation with Rolls-Royce, the same manufacturer of the Concorde’s Olympus engines, is also focused to include in the engine’s design the use of state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel.

The Concorde, together with the Soviet Tu-144, was a technological wonder for the era. Even if it was designed in the 1960s, the Concorde already featured carbon-fiber brakes and fly-by-wire controls. The aircraft, however, suffered from some drawbacks like the high fuel consumption of approximately 6,700 gallons per hour, limited range that was just enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and the noise generated by the sonic boom, which restricted the aircraft to fly supersonically only over the water. The 2000 crash in Paris may have definitively marked the time to move away from supersonic airliners, which led to the Concorde being retired in 2003.

Virgin said that their design philosophy is focused to make high speed travel practical, sustainable, safe, and reliable, with the new aircraft being able to operate like a standard airliner from existing airports without the need for special infrastructure. The Mach 3 aircraft is just one of the projects of Virgin Galactic, as the company is also working on starting commercial sub-orbital flights from Spaceport America (New Mexico) with their reusable SpaceShipTwo spaceflight system.

While Virgin works on a new supersonic civilian aircraft, on the military side it’s not a secret that Lockheed is working on new unmanned aircraft concept, an SR-71 follow-on, colloquially referred to in most media as the “SR-72” that should have global range, be able to fly in excess of Mach 6, be low-observable and potentially have strike capability. The new hypersonic UAV concept mainly intended for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions was announced in 2013. In November 2018, Lockheed Martin stated that a prototype of the SR-72 was scheduled to fly by 2025.

air france concorde - Virgin Galactic Unveils New Mach 3 Civilian Aircraft Concept
This Concorde model is available from AirModels. Click here to buy yours.

Check Out This Crazy Cool Video of the 10 Tanker DC-10 Firefighter Doing a Drop.

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Check Out This Crazy Cool Video of the 10 Tanker DC-10 Firefighter Doing a Drop.
A screen grab from the excellent video shot by Wayne Ragan on July 14 as shared by RampCheckGlobal.com. (Image credit: Wayne Ragan via RampCheckGlobal.com on YouTube.com)

There are plenty of remarkable videos of the air crews from 10 Tanker using their unique, converted DC-10 aerial firefighters to battle wildfires, but this one is maybe a little more remarkable than most.

Our good friends over at RampCheckGlobal on Instagram (give them a follow!) posted this video that was shot on July 14, 2020 by Mr. Wayne Ragan of Washington, Utah. The 10 Tanker DC-10 is seen making a drop behind its lead-in aircraft through thick, black smoke at the edge of a group of buildings, presumably to prevent the fires from spreading onto the roofs of the buildings and causing structure fires. As dark smoke billows up from the brush fire, the 10 Tanker DC-10 flies through the conflagration to make its drop accurately. As amazing as this video is, it must have looked even more amazing from inside the cockpit of the 10 Tanker DC-10.

The fire the 10 Tanker crew is fighting in the new video is one of several fires burning in the region. One of these fires has been named the “Moon Fire”. According to a local report from journalist Ryne Williams of St. George News, “The fire was first reported at approximately 1 p.m. about 1 mile south of the Hurricane Cliffs area. By 6 p.m., the fire was approximately 162 acres in size, according to Bureau of Land Management Utah Color Country District spokesperson Christian Venhuizen”.

Other fires in the region of the Nevada-Utah border include the Big Summit fire that is 17 miles northeast of Panaca, Nevada. Another fire in the area, the Turkey Farm Road fire, was started by illegal fireworks used in dry conditions on July 13, 2020. Both fires continue to burn according to satellite photos published by NASA on July 15, 2020.

The 10 Tanker aircraft, a series of converted McDonnell-Douglas DC-10s, flew their very first firefighting mission fourteen years ago on July 16, 2006. The aircraft are fitted with a large, under-fuselage empennage that houses three separate tanks for liquid fire-retardant. The fore and aft tanks each hold 2,700 gallons while the central tank holds 4,000 gallons for a total of 9,400 gallons of fire retardant.

10 Tanker Facts - Check Out This Crazy Cool Video of the 10 Tanker DC-10 Firefighter Doing a Drop.
10 Tanker Fact sheet (Image credit: 10 Tanker Air Carrier).

The colored liquid fire retardant itself, called Phos-Chek, is a mixture of detergent chemicals made from wetting agents and foaming chemicals, fertilizers (ammonium and diammonium sulfate and ammonium phosphate) mixed with thickeners like guar gum and corrosion inhibitors to prevent damage to the tanker aircraft. They are mixed with water and coloring to form the red, foamy liquid you see falling from the tanker. Because of the chemicals in the Phos-Chek fire retardant, it’s never a good idea to be directly under a VLAT (Very Large Air Tanker) when it makes its low drop, not to mention that the force of the impact from the liquid can actually crush a vehicle in some cases.

Thanks to the crew from 10 Tanker and their specially modified DC-10 firefighters, it looks like the Utah fires may be held under control before doing significant property damage.

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