Tag: Boeing

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The MQ-25 Performs The First Aerial Refueling Between An Unmanned Tanker And Manned Receiver Aircraft

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MQ-25 refueling
The MQ-25 T1 test asset refuels a Navy F/A-18 during a flight June 4 at MidAmerica Airport in Illinois. This flight demonstrated that the MQ-25 Stingray can fulfill its tanker mission using the Navy’s standard probe-and-drogue aerial refueling method. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

The new MQ-25 unmanned tanker achieved the important milestone by refueling a U.S. Navy F/A-18F over Illinois.

The MQ-25 Stingray performed the first ever air-to-air refueling operation between an unmanned tanker and a manned receiver aircraft, in this case a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet. The successful test happened on June 4, 2021, with the Boeing-owned MQ-25 T1 test asset flying from MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah (Illinois) and employing the Cobham Aerial Refueling Store (ARS), the same used by F/A-18s, to perform the refueling operation.

“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” said Rear Adm. Brian Corey who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing – equipping our aircraft carriers with additional assets well into the future.”

During the flight, as disclosed by NAVAIR, the Super Hornet approached the MQ-25 while conducting a preliminary formation evaluation, wake survey and drogue tracking, before receiving the green light to go ahead and plug its probe in the ARS’s drogue deployed by the unmanned aircraft. According to the press release, the MQ-25 performed a “wet refueling”, effectively transferring fuel to the F/A-18 (as opposed to a “dry refueling” where there isn’t fuel transfer after contact, often used during test and training flights).

Some more details were provided by Boeing, specifying that the F/A-18 flew in close formation behind MQ-25 to ensure performance and stability prior to refueling, with as little as 20 feet of separation between the two aircraft, while flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes. After the safety evaluation, the MQ-25 drogue was extended and the F/A-18 pilot was cleared for the refuel. The MQ-25 T1 performed so far 25 flights, which were integrated by extensive digital simulations of aerial refueling.

“This is our mission, an unmanned aircraft that frees our strike fighters from the tanker role, and provides the Carrier Air Wing with greater range, flexibility and capability,” said Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office (PMA-268). “Seeing the MQ-25 fulfilling its primary tasking today, fueling an F/A-18, is a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet.”

MQ-25 first refueling
The MQ-25 T1 test asset refuels the Navy F/A-18 during a flight June 4 at MidAmerica Airport in Illinois. This test marked the first ever aerial refueling operation between a manned aircraft and unmanned tanker. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

This test flight provided important data on airwake interactions, as well as guidance and control, that will be analyzed to determine if any further adjustments are needed to improve the Stingray’s software before moving on with the program’s test schedule. The testing with the MQ-25 T1 will continue over the next several months to include flight envelope expansion, engine testing, and deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier later this year. For the latter, the MQ-25 will be moved to Norfolk (Virginia).

The MQ-25 T1 flew for the first time with the Cobham ARS under its left wing in December 2020, about one year after the drone’s own first flight, testing how the aircraft’s aerodynamics changed with the addition of the ARS. The following flights contributed to test the aerodynamics of the aircraft and the ARS at various points of the flight envelope, before progressing to the extension and retraction of the hose and drogue used for refueling that paved the way for the first air-to-air refueling.

As we already reported, the MQ-25 T1 is the predecessor to the four engineering development model (EDM) MQ-25 aircraft being produced, the first of which is expected to be delivered later this year. The U.S. Navy is planning to procure more than 70 aircraft, which will replace the F/A-18E Super Hornets in the aerial refueling role they currently have as part of the Carrier Air Wing, becoming also the first operational carrier-based UAV. This way, the Carrier Air Wing will have more Super Hornets available for operational mission, without the need to reserve some of them for the air-to-air refueling mission.

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.

Pilots Eject From F-15QA At MidAmerica St. Louis Airport

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F-15QA ground ejection
The F-15QA involved in the ground incident (KMOV.com). In the boxes, two images of the F-15QA (at Lambert Field).

Images show a Boeing F-15QA on the ground after the crew members ejected.

A Boeing F-15 was involved in a ground ejection incident at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport around 07.30AM LT on May 18, 2021. According to the reports, both pilots successfully ejected: one of them refused treatment and the other was taken to the hospital with minor injuries, KMOV reported.

Footage broadcast by local news channel shows what looks like a pretty intact airframe (without the canopy, jettisoned for the ejection) on the grass next to the tarmac.

Although it has not been officially confirmed yet, the F-15 involved in the ground ejection incident is clearly an F-15QA, one of the most advanced Eagle variants, developed for Qatar: it sports the same camouflage we talked about last year, that is clearly inspired by the one applied to the Qatar Emiri Air Force’s Rafales that were first delivered  in 2019.

F-15QA ground ejection
An F-15QA taxiing at St. Louis Lambert Field.

Here are some details about the F-15QA from the article we published last year:

As we previously wrote, Boeing was awarded a contract to manufacture 36 F-15QA fighter jets for the Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF), the first of which will be delivered next year.

The F-15QA (Qatar Advanced), which has been defined the most advanced version of the Eagle, features some of the improvement that we will surely see also on the F-15X Advanced Eagle that is been acquired by the U.S. Air Force. Among those are new outer wing hardpoints for increased payload, AN/APG-82(V)1 Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems (JHMCS) for both the pilot and the Weapon Systems Officer (WSO), 10×19-in Large Area Displays (LADs) and low-profile Head-Up Display (HUD) in both cockpits, digital fly-by-wire and General Electric F110-GE-129 engines.

A new feature that went almost unnoticed after the first flight is the presence of Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) sensors at the end of the tail booms and below the cockpit. Officially it’s not known which MAWS system and self-defense suite has been installed in the aircraft, however we can see from the photos that the sensor is very similar to the AN/AAR-57A(V) Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) produced by BAE Systems that could be most probably coupled with the AN/ALQ-239 Digital Electronics Warfare Systems (DEWS), also produced by the same company.

While they normally operate from the company’s plant at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Boeing has also facilities at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, to the southeast of St. Louis, where today’s F-15QA’s ground ejection occurred. It’s not clear whether the aircraft experienced the emergency during take off or after landing there. Anyway, we will update the story as new details become available.

F-15QA ground ejection
An F-15QA after landing at St. Louis Lambert Field.

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.

The New F-15EX Has Been Officially Named “Eagle II”

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F-15EX "Eagle II"
Lt. Col. Richard Turner, 40th Flight Test Squadron commander, and Lt. Col. Jacob Lindaman, 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron commander, deliver the first F-15EX to its new home, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, 11 March, 2021. The 40th FLTS took possession of EX1 and the 85th TES will own EX2 upon its arrival. Squadron aircrews and testers will work together to complete the combined developmental and operational testing simultaneously. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John McRell)

The name for the newest aircraft of the U.S. Air Force has been announced today during the official rollout ceremony: F-15EX “Eagle II”.

Today the U.S. Air Force held an official rollout ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base (Florida) for its newest fighter aircraft delivered last month. At the end of the ceremony, which was livestreamed on Eglin AFB’s Facebook page, Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, Military Deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, announced the name that was chosen for the F-15EX: “Eagle II”.

Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, the Commander of the 96th Test Wing, introduced the ceremony describing the feats of the Eagle over its long service life: ”The F-15, with each of its models, has been a venerable workhorse for the United States Air Force and its allies for decades. It’s proven itself time and time again with its unmatched versatility and lethality in combat and its deterrent capability in peacetime. So it stands to reason then that the EX will build upon that legacy”.

Lt. Gen. Richardson was then called up to talk about the new fighter aircraft in its initial speech, reminding the Eagle, even with its legendary reputation thanks to its numerous achievements, is not immortal: “Undefeated in aerial combat, the F-15 Eagle epitomized the air superiority in the minds of our adversaries, our allies and the American people for over 45 years, but it was not meant to fly forever”.

He then proceeded to describe the actual precarious situation of the F-15C/D fleet: “The F-15C and D fleets in the current state place us at great risk, with 75% of the fleet is flying beyond its certified service life and 10% grounded due to structural integrity issues. Projected modernization and service life extension of the F-15C and D fleets is cost-prohibitive for a platform with an average age of over 37 years, diminishing combat capability over that time”.

The first F-15EX Eagle II, painted in the classic F-15C/D Eagle camouflage, arrived at Eglin AFB on March 11, 2021, a day after it was officially accepted at Boeing’s St. Louis facility, becoming the first Eagle to be delivered to the Air Force in 17 years. The aircraft is assigned to the 40th Flight Test Squadron for the developmental testing (DT) and will be joined soon by the second F-15EX that will be assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron for the operational testing (OT). The two units will work together to complete the combined developmental and operational testing simultaneously.

The aim of integrated testing is to ensure the EX is delivered to the warfighter as soon as possible, while ensuring the aircraft meets test objectives. This combination of Eglin’s testers allows the teams to identify any system issues early on, so they can be addressed before the F-15EX’s increased production and delivery to the squadrons.

Initial testing will focus on ensuring the software and avionics systems integrate well with the aircraft’s features like the advanced cockpit and controls, as mentioned by the Air Force last year. To expedite the testing needed to declare the F-15EX ready for operations, the team at Eglin will use previous testing data from F-15 foreign military sales variants (like the F-15SA and F-15QA) and U.S.-only subsystems and Operational Flight Program software.

As already reported here at The Aviationist, the new Eagle II, developed from the F-15QA that was until now the most advanced Eagle variant, comes from a series of needs mainly emerged after the National Defense Strategy directed the U.S. armed services to adapt to the new threats from China and Russia. The aircraft, while extremely similar to the QA variant, features some US-only capabilities like the new AN/ALQ-250 Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) electronic warfare and electronic surveillance system and Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture.

The aircraft presents many differences compared to the F-15C that it will replace. For an instance, the F-15EX is a two seats aircraft, which will have the option to fly with a single pilot or with both pilot and Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), while the -C model is mainly single seat and has a dedicated two seats -D variant for training. Originally both a single and two seat variants were proposed, called F-15CX and F-15EX respectively.

Another difference is that the F-15EX has a full glass cockpit equipped with a 10×19-inch touch-screen multifunction color display and JHMCS II both in the front and rear cockpit, Low Profile HUD in the front, stand-by display and dedicated engine, fuel and hydraulics display, in addition to the standard caution/warning lights, switches and Hands On Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) controls, as opposed to the F-15C that it is going to replace, which has a mainly analogic cockpit with some new displays added in the recent years.

The systems are powered by the Advanced Display Core Processor II, reportedly the fastest mission computer ever installed on a fighter jet, and the Operational Flight Program Suite 9.1X, a customized variant of the Suite 9 used on the F-15C and F-15E, designed to ensure full interoperability of the new Eagle II with the “legacy Eagles”.

F-15EX "Eagle II"
The F-15EX, the Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft, arrives to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida March 11. The aircraft will be the first Air Force aircraft to be tested and fielded from beginning to end through combined developmental and operational tests. The 40th Flight Test Squadron and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron personnel are responsible for testing the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ilka Cole)

The F-15EX has been equipped with the AN/APG-82(V)1 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, the same chosen for the F-15E Radar Modernization Program and developed from the APG-63(V)3 AESA radar of the F-15C and the APG-79 AESA radar of the F/A-18E/F. Two other sensors are planned to be integrated on the F-15EX, the Legion Pod InfraRed Search and Track system (IRST) and the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. Both systems are already integrated on the F-15C and will be transferred to the new aircraft, without the need to acquire new ones.

The EPAWSS, which will be retrofitted also to the F-15E, is fully integrated with radar warning, geo-location and increased chaff and flare capability to detect and defeat surface and airborne threats in signal-dense and highly contested environments, defending against RF and IR threat systems by detecting them or acquiring accurate targeting information for a subsequent threat engagement.

You can find all the other details in this previous article posted here at The Aviationist.

At an average age of over 37 years, the F-15C/D fleet is fast approaching the end of its useful life and operating on the margins of structural integrity. Initially the F-15C/D fleet was to be entirely replaced by the F-22A Raptor, the first 5th gen. fighter aircraft of the U.S. Air Force. The service planned to buy 750 Raptors but that number was cut to 187 production aircraft. Because of this, the operational life of the Eagle had to be extended as it was initially scheduled to be retired in 2019.

In 2019, the decision was made to allocate the funding for the first eight of at least 144 F-15EXs, as this would be a more practical solution than waiting for enough F-35s to be available to replace also the F-15C. The Air Force confirmed in fact that the F-35 will replace some of the F-15C squadrons, while the other ones will be replaced by the F-15EX.

The 173rd Fighter Wing of the Oregon ANG, stationed at Kingsley Field, will become the first F-15EX Eagle II Formal Training Unit (FTU) in 2022, and the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon ANG, stationed in Portland, will become the first F-15EX operational unit in 2023.

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.

Everything You Need To Know About The Delivery Of The First F-15EX To The U.S. Air Force Last Week

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The F-15EX, the Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft, arrives to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida March 11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

About a month after its first flight, the F-15EX arrived at Eglin Air Force Base escorted by its older siblings F-15C and F-15E.

The first F-15EX arrived at Eglin Air Force Base (Florida), escorted by its two older siblings, the F-15C Eagle and the F-15E Strike Eagle, on March 11, 2021, a day after the U.S. Air Force officially accepted the aircraft at Boeing’s St. Louis facility. The F-15EX is the first Eagle to be delivered to the Air Force in 17 years after being assessed as a cost-effective and expedient solution to refresh the F‑15C/D fleet and to augment the F-15E fleet.

As we already reported, the aircraft will be assigned to the 40th Flight Test Squadron, whose commander, Lt. Col. Richard Turner, personally delivered the new aircraft accompanied in the backseat by the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron’s commander, Lt. Col. Jacob Lindaman.  “Choosing to have the two commanders ferry the jet down was a concerted effort to reinforce the cooperation between DT and OT organizations and integration efforts,” said Lt. Col. Lindaman.

“This is a big moment for the Air Force,” said Col. Sean Dorey, F-15EX Program Manager with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate, responsible for the acquisition, modernization, and sustainment of the aircraft. “With its large weapons capacity, digital backbone, and open architecture, the F-15EX will be a key element of our tactical fighter fleet and complement 5th-generation assets. In addition, it’s capable of carrying hypersonic weapons, giving it a niche role in future near-peer conflicts.”

While the 40th Flight Test Squadron took possession of EX1 for the developmental testing (DT), EX2 will be assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, which will be in charge of the operational testing (OT). EX2 is expected to be delivered to Eglin by the end of April 2021. The two units will work together to complete the combined developmental and operational testing simultaneously.

Lt. Col. Richard “Tac” Turner, Commander, 40th Flight Test Squadron, and Lt. Col. Jacob “Duke” Lindaman, Commander, 85th Test & Evaluation Squadron, deliver the first F-15EX to its new home station, Eglin AFB, Florida, 11 March, 2021. The 40th FLTS will take possetion of EX1 and the 85th TES will own EX2 upon its arrival, coming soon. Squadron aircrews and testers will work together to complete the combined developmental and operational testing simultaneously. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John Raven)

The aim of integrated testing is to ensure the EX is delivered to the warfighter as soon as possible, while ensuring the aircraft meets test objectives. This combination of Eglin’s testers allows the teams to identify any system issues early on, so they can be addressed before the F-15EX’s increased production and delivery to the squadrons.

“Combining these test capabilities on day one of flight test helps ensure F-15EX is ready to execute on air tasking order day one. We’re confident that along with our OFP CTF partners running test management, we will provide that capability faster to the warfighter than ever before,” said Lt. Col. Turner.

Upon delivery, the F-15EX’s initial missions will be aircrew familiarization and local airspace flights.  Only after that, aircrews begin test and evaluation of the aircraft’s Air Force-specific hardware, software and weapons. Initial testing will focus on ensuring the software and avionics systems integrate well with the aircraft’s features like the advanced cockpit and controls, as mentioned by the Air Force last year. To expedite the testing needed to declare the F-15EX ready for operations, the team at Eglin will use previous testing data from F-15 foreign military sales variants (like the F-15SA and F-15QA) and U.S.-only subsystems and Operational Flight Program software.

As already reported here at The Aviationist, the new F-15EX, developed from the F-15QA that was until now the most advanced Eagle variant, comes from a series of needs mainly emerged after the National Defense Strategy directed the U.S. armed services to adapt to the new threats from China and Russia. The aircraft, while extremely similar to the QA variant, features some US-only capabilities like the new AN/ALQ-250 Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) electronic warfare and electronic surveillance system and Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture.

Lt. Col. Richard Turner, Commander, 40th Flight Test Squadron, and Lt. Col. Jacob Lindaman, Commander, 85th Test & Evaluation Squadron, deliver the first F-15EX to its new home station, Eglin AFB, Florida, 11 March, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John McRell)

At an average age of over 37 years, the F-15C/D fleet is fast approaching the end of its useful life and operating on the margins of structural integrity. Initially the F-15C/D fleet was to be entirely replaced by the F-22A Raptor, the first 5th gen. fighter aircraft of the U.S. Air Force. The service planned to buy 750 Raptors to replace both the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, but that number was cut to 187 production aircraft, which is also less than the about 230 F-15C/D still in service. Because of this, the operational life of the Eagle had to be extended as it was initially scheduled to be retired in 2019.

In 2019, the decision was made to allocate the funding for the first eight of at least 144 F-15EXs, as this would be a more practical solution than waiting for enough F-35s to be available to replace also the F-15C. The Air Force confirmed in fact this summer that the F-35 will replace some of the F-15C squadrons, while the other ones will be replaced by the F-15EX.

After the delivery of EX2 during the next month, the other six Lot 1 aircraft will be delivered to Eglin in 2023 for additional operational testing, while aircraft in Lots 2 and 3 are scheduled to be delivered in 2024 the 173rd Fighter Wing of the Oregon ANG, stationed at Kingsley Field, which will become the first F-15EX Formal Training Unit, and in 2025 to the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon ANG, stationed in Portland, which will become the first F-15EX operational unit.

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.

The First F-15EX Received U.S. Air Force Camouflage And Markings

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The first F-15EX landing at the end of its first flight after being painted with the USAF camouflage. If you look closely, you can see that the pilot is flying with a folded US flag in the cockpit. (Photo: Alex Farwell/vikingaeroimages)

The F-15EX was photographed during its first flight after receiving the classic F-15C/D camouflage and the 40th Flight Test Squadron insignias.

Few weeks after its maiden flight, the first F-15EX received its U.S. Air Force camouflage and the insignias of Eglin Air Force Base’s 40th Flight Test Squadron, which will be in charge of the jet’s developmental testing (DT). The aircraft received the classic F-15C/D Eagle camouflage, which by the way was applied also on the F-15SA (externally similar to the EX variant). The photos of the aircraft were kindly shared with us by aviation photographer Alex Farwell, known also by its Instagram handle vikingaeroimages,.

The first two F-15EXs are expected to be delivered to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, by the end of the first quarter of 2021. While the 40th Flight Test Squadron will take possession of EX1, EX2 will be assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, which will be in charge of the operational testing (OT). The two units will work together to complete the combined developmental and operational testing simultaneously.

Upon delivery, the F-15EX’s initial missions will be aircrew familiarization and local airspace flights.  Only after that, aircrews begin test and evaluation of the aircraft’s Air Force-specific hardware, software and weapons. Initial testing will focus on ensuring the software and avionics systems integrate well with the aircraft’s features like the advanced cockpit and controls, as mentioned by the Air Force last year.

The goal of the integrated DT and OT is to ensure the F-15EX meets the needs of the warfighter in its intended operational environment, said the press release, highlighting any possible system issues early and fixing them before the beginning of the aircraft’s increased production and delivery to the operational squadrons. This initial phase of tests will take approximately a year and a half.

A great shot of the F-15EX taken during the “Viking departure” from St. Louis airport. (Photo: Alex Farwell/vikingaeroimages)

Prior to the new advanced Eagle first flight, last summer, Boeing published the photos of the first two new aircraft being built, following a USD 1.2 billion deal for the first lot of eight F-15EX jets that will be delivered to Eglin Air Force Base to be thoroughly tested before starting to replace the oldest F-15Cs and F-15Ds in the U.S. Air Force fleet. The Air Force is planning to buy 76 F-15EX aircraft over the five-year Future Years Defense Program, a number that could eventually increase up to 144 aircraft.

The new F-15EX, developed from the F-15QA that was until now the most advanced Eagle variant, comes from a series of needs mainly emerged after the National Defense Strategy directed the U.S. armed services to adapt to the new threats from China and Russia. The aircraft, while extremely similar to the QA variant, features some US-only capabilities like the new AN/ALQ-250 Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) electronic warfare and electronic surveillance system and Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture.

Initially the F-15C/D fleet was to be entirely replaced by the F-22A Raptor, the first 5th gen fighter aircraft of the U.S. Air Force. The service planned to buy 750 Raptors to replace both the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, but that number was cut to 187 production aircraft, which is also less than the about 230 F-15C/D still in service. Because of this, the operational life of the Eagle had to be extended as it was initially scheduled to be retired in 2019.

To give you a better idea, consider that the youngest F-15C has been in service for 35 years already. In 2019, the decision was made to allocate the funding for the first eight of at least 144 F-15EXs, as this would be a more practical solution than waiting for enough F-35s to be available to replace also the F-15C. The Air Force confirmed in fact this summer that the F-35 will replace some of the F-15C squadrons, while the other ones will be replaced by the F-15EX.

Another shot of the F-15EX during the recent test flight with the new camouflage at St. Louis airport. (Photo: Alex Farwell/vikingaeroimages)

A detail that many of our readers noticed in the comments after the first flight is that the F-15EX is a two seats aircraft and it will replace the F-15C which is a single seat aircraft, with only the D model being in a two seats configuration as it is used for training with an instructor in the back seat. When the F-15X program, also known as Advanced F-15, was first launched, both a single and two seat variants were proposed, called F-15CX and F-15EX respectively, and both with the same exact capabilities.

The Air Force ultimately decided to go only with the two seats variant, which will reportedly have the option to fly with a single pilot or both pilot and Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), with the latter being an important addition in complex missions which could also feature the command and control of “Loyal Wingman” drones in the future. One of the reasons for this decision could be also due to the fact that only the two seats variant of the F-15 is still in production, and the F-15EX program is all about the most affordable and immediate solution that can be fielded to refresh the Eagle fleet.

You can find more details about what we know about the F-15EX in this previous article where we analyzed the photos from the maiden flight and the available info from public sources.

Thanks again to Alex Farwell for the photos he sent us and make sure to follow him on Instagram for more!

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.

Here Are All The Details We Noticed In The Photos Of The New F-15EX During Its First Flight

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The F-15EX during landing. From this angle we can get a good look at the engine’s nozzles, the EPAWSS fairings, the new symmetrical fairings on top of the vertical tail fins and the possible telemetry antennas red marked in red. (Photo: Alex Farwell/vikingaeroimages)

Some interesting details can be found in the first photos of the F-15EX, which are useful also for a comparison with the F-15C that will be replaced by the new fighter.

The first F-15EX built for the U.S. Air Force took to the skies for its maiden flight on Feb. 2, 2021. The aircraft flew only with its primer paint and a small serial number (20-0001) on its twin tails, a common practice for the first flight of any newly built aircraft that leaves the production line. It will receive its final colors and insignias at a later stage, after completing functional checks and certifying the airworthiness.

The F-15EX-1 taking off for its first flight. (Photo: Jerry McGrath/Cryonic_Photography)

Today we will give a closer look to some of the details of the new aircraft, thanks to the photos kindly sent to us by Jerry McGrath of Cryonic_Photography and one that we didn’t publish last time, sent to us by Alex Farwell of vikingaeroimages.

During the first flight, test pilots Matt Giese and Mike Quintini took the F-15EX up to 40,000ft and Mach 2, as reported by aviation photographer and journalist Jamie Hunter. In an interview to The Warzone, Giese said that the flight profile closely mirrored the standard Boeing Acceptance Test Procedure (ATP) with few differences for the specific configuration, with engine checks at various altitudes, engine shutdowns and air restarts, in addition to the checks of the various systems aboard the jet.

A detail that many of our readers noticed in the comments is that the F-15EX is a two seats aircraft and it will replace the F-15C which is a single seat aircraft, with only the D model being in a two seats configuration as it is used for training with an instructor in the back seat. When the F-15X program, also known as Advanced F-15, was first launched, both a single and two seat variants were proposed, called F-15CX and F-15EX respectively, and both with the same exact capabilities.

The Air Force ultimately decided to go only with the two seats variant, which will reportedly have the option to fly with a single pilot or with both pilot and Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), with the latter being an important addition in complex missions which could also feature the command and control of “Loyal Wingman” drones in the future. One of the reasons for this decision is also the fact that only the two seats variant of the F-15 is still in production, and the F-15EX program is all about the most affordable and immediate solution that can be fielded to refresh the Eagle fleet.

Initially the F-15C/D was to be entirely replaced by the F-22A Raptor, the first 5th gen. fighter aircraft of the U.S. Air Force. The service planned to buy 750 Raptors to replace both the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, but that number was cut to 187 production aircraft, which is also less than the about 230 F-15C/D still in service. Because of this, the operational life of the Eagle had to be extended as it was initially scheduled to be retired in 2019.

A close-up of the forward fuselage and cockpit. You can notice the details we mentioned about the cockpit, antennas and the mounting points for MAWS. (Photo: Jerry McGrath/Cryonic_Photography)

While a first Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) required only a replacement of the longerons to maintain structural integrity, the Eagles now need new wings, as they have long surpassed their expected service-life estimates. To give you a better idea, consider that the youngest F-15C has been in service for 35 years already. In 2019, the decision was made to allocate the funding for the first eight of at least 144 F-15EXs, as this would be a more practical solution than waiting for enough F-35s to be available to replace also the F-15C. The contract was then signed during the last summer.

As for the F-35 replacing some of the F-15C squadrons, this intention has been confirmed again this summer by the Air Force, when it was announced that the 125th Fighter Wing of the Florida ANG, stationed in Jacksonville, will trade its F-15s for new F-35s in 2024; the 173rd Fighter Wing of the Oregon ANG, stationed at Kingsley Field, will become the first F-15EX Formal Training Unit (FTU) in 2022, and the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon ANG, stationed in Portland, will become the first F-15EX operational unit in 2023. The press release then added that the remaining ANG F-15C units in Massachusetts, California and Louisiana will be replaced by either F-35As or F-15EXs.

Now, back to the photos and the other details.

If we look at the cockpit, we can notice that both the pilot and the WSO are wearing the new Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System II (JHMCS II), similarly to the F/A-18F where both the crew members are equipped with the JHMCS and differently from the F-15E where the WSO wears only the standard HGU-55/P helmet. The new helmet features some improvements over the current JHMCS, with one of the most noticeable being the color symbology replacing the single-color symbology. The color symbology is currently an exclusive of ANG pilots flying with the Scorpion helmet on the F-16C Block 30 and A-10C.

Even if the test pilots flew with the new helmet, there are no official info about USAF intentions to acquire the new helmet. However, last summer the Air Force published a Request For Information (RFI) for a new Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) to equip the F-15EX. The notice mentions that the new helmet should provide the same or better capability than the current JHMCS while significantly reducing the head, neck, and spine burden placed on aircrews.

Giving a closer look at the cockpit, we can spot another detail which is the presence of the Low Profile Head-up Display (HUD) of Elbit Systems of America, the same company that also produces the JHMCS II. The digital HUD, more compact and lighter than traditional systems, has been installed also on the Gripen E/F and the F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet. As a matter of fact, Elbit provides advanced cockpit systems like the HUD and the Large Area Displays for all the three fighters.

The F-15EX, to be more specific, has a full glass cockpit equipped with a 10×19-inch touch-screen multifunction color display and JHMCS II both in the front and rear cockpit, Low Profile HUD in the front, stand-by display and dedicated engine, fuel and hydraulics display, in addition to the standard caution/warning lights, switches and Hands On Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) controls, as opposed to the F-15C that it is going to replace, which has a mainly analogic cockpit with some new displays added in the recent years.

The systems are powered by the Advanced Display Core Processor II, reportedly the fastest mission computer ever installed on a fighter jet, and the Operational Flight Program Suite 9.1X, a customized variant of the Suite 9 used on the F-15C and F-15E, designed to ensure full interoperability of the new aircraft with the “legacy Eagles”.

The whole development of the F-15EX’s avionics is based on DevSecOps and Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture. DevSecOps is an open-source approach implemented by the Department of Defense to unify software development (Dev) with “baked-in” cybersecurity (Sec) and software operation (Ops), allowing shorter development cycles and more frequent delivery of upgrades to the operational squadrons. The OMS architecture will allow to add new or improved capabilities on operational aircraft very quickly and at a reduced cost, thanks to the common interfaces and data formats that are shared by all systems and producers.

The first F-15EX was not carrying any sensors, other than the AN/APG-82(V)1 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, the same chosen for the F-15E Radar Modernization Program. The radar, which has been developed from the APG-63(V)3 AESA radar of the F-15C and the APG-79 AESA radar of the F/A-18E/F, allows to simultaneously detect, identify and track multiple air and surface targets at longer ranges compared to mechanical radars, facilitating persistent target observation and information sharing for a better decision-making process.

Two other sensors are planned to be integrated on the F-15EX, the Legion Pod InfraRed Search and Track system (IRST) and the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod. Both systems are already integrated on the F-15C and will be transferred to the new aircraft, without the need to acquire new ones.

The F-15EX maneuvering over St. Louis airport during the first flight. (Photo: Jerry McGrath/Cryonic_Photography)

Looking around the cockpit, we can notice a few antennas, which seem to be less than the ones on the F-15C and F-15E. The most noticeable are the three blade radio antennas, one behind the cockpit and the other two below the front fuselage. These antennas seem to be of the same type that was installed on the “legacy Eagles” in the 2000s together with new UHF/VHF radios. Another smaller antenna can be seen below the fuselage, just behind the two radio antennas, similar to the one that was used for the AN/ALR-56C Radar Warning Receiver on the previous versions of the Eagle.

Four white round antennas can be seen on the wingtips and on the vertical tail fins, similar to the ones found on the F-15C and F-15E for the RWR. The F-15EX, however, does not use the ALR-56C RWR. These five antennas may be part of the new AN/ALQ-250 Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) electronic warfare and electronic surveillance system, which is fully integrated with radar warning, geo-location and increased chaff and flare capability to detects and defeat surface and airborne threats in signal-dense and highly contested environments, according to BAE Systems.

Chaff and flares capacity has been increased by 50%, with four more dispensers added in the EPAWSS fairings behind the tail fins (two for each fairing), for a total of 12 dispenser housing 360 cartridges. This improvement is important as in modern scenarios chaff and flares are often released preemptively to counter MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System), meaning that now the Eagle will have more countermeasures available for a better protection.

The number of countermeasures could be increased even more if the USAF decides to transfer to the F-15EX also the ALE-58 Back-of-Launcher (BOL) countermeasure dispensers that are currently available for the F-15C and can be attached to the rear of the LAU-128 missile rails. It is not known if the F-15EX will receive also towed decoys among its countermeasures.

EPAWSS, an US-only system that will be retrofitted also to the F-15E, was recently tested during the Large Force Test Event 20.03 at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada) in November 2020. This type of events has now been redesigned Black Flag and, differently from the more famous Red Flag, is solely focused on test and tactics development in a realistic, massed force, fully integrated, high threat density environment.

Here is a brief description of EPAWSS provided by the USAF:

The EPAWSS is designed to provide indication, type and position of ground-based RF threats as well as bearing of airborne threats with the situational awareness needed to avoid, engage or negate the threat. The EPAWSS defends against RF and IR threat systems detecting or acquiring accurate targeting information prior to threat engagement thus complicating and/or negating an enemy threat targeting solution. The system counters threats through its suite of components with electro optical and RF techniques.

When we wrote about EPAWSS in some previous articles here at The Aviationist, we mentioned that it complements the AN/AAR-57A(V) Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) designed to detect infrared threats. However, that proved to be inaccurate, as BAE Systems’ officials confirmed to us that EPAWSS is not integrated with CMWS. Upon further review of the available info, it seems that the F-15EX may not receive ultraviolet-based Missile Approach Warning Sensors (MAWS) to detect InfraRed-guided missiles, even if the aircraft features the same mounting points used for these sensors on the F-15QA and F-15SA.

BAE officials also released the following statement to us: “EPAWSS can integrate with multiple sensor sources to provide warfighters with enhanced survivability via a fully integrated countermeasure response. EPAWSS was designed with the future battlespace in mind, with an architecture and interfaces that can take advantage of emerging new sensing sources.” Having considered this, we may hypothesize that the mounting points for the MAWS sensors have been installed to allow a future integration of other sensors in the EPAWSS suite.

A good look at the underside of the F-15EX as seen during landing, with the FAST packs, the covered countermeasures dispensers and the attachment points for the new outer pylons (the two yellow circles under the wing). (Photo: Jerry McGrath/Cryonic_Photography)

These sensors, that have never been installed on the F-15C and F-15E, were installed for the first time on the F-15QA and F-15SA that are equipped with both the AN/ALQ-239 Digital Electronics Warfare Systems (DEWS) and CMWS. On these fighters we can find five sensors: two just below the canopy rails on each side, one behind the speed brake and the last two on the two fairings for the EW systems on the tail.

Looking above the fuselage, and precisely over the engine air intakes, we can notice that the bleed air louvres behind the bypass air spill doors have been replaced by four rectangular vents. This redesign seems to be an exclusive of the F-15EX, as the SA and QA variants are still using the old louvres. The exhaust for the air conditioning system behind the cockpit has not been modified.

Moving back towards the tail, two small antennas can be seen marked by red paint. While their exact purpose is unknown, they might be used for telemetry, as they were spotted only on the first F-15SA and the first F-15QA.

On previous variants of the F-15, the tails fins sported two different versions of the small fairings that housed RWR and ECM equipment. Actually, this equipment was housed in the bigger fairing on top of the left fin, while on the right the smaller one was just used to match the weight of the other fin. On the SA, QA and EX variants, the RWR and ECM equipment has been relocated and the two fairings on top of the tail fins are now symmetrical.

Looking at the underside of the F-15EX, we can get a better look at the Conformal Fuel Tanks or FAST packs (Fuel And Sensor Tactical). These 750 gallons (2,839.1 l) tanks, which are rarely seen on the F-15C and always used on the F-15E Strike Eagle, remained unchanged, with their six mounting points for weapons and the to for the sensors like the Sniper ATP. Unlike standard external fuel tanks, the FAST packs can’t be jettisoned inflight, however they do not affect excessively the performance of the F-15, as they allow the same maneuverability without g-load limitations, but only a structural restriction to not exceed Mach 2 (the reported max speed of the F-15 is Mach 2.5).

Continuing to look at the underside, we can notice under the wings the attachment points for the weapon pylons. As you may know already, the new F-15EX will be able to use four underwing pylons instead of the two that we usually see on the F-15C and F-15E. Actually, the two outer pylons are not really new, as the F-15E (and possibly the C too) already had provisions for them, however they were never used for unspecified reasons.

The F-15EX during landing. From this angle we can get a good look at the engine’s nozzles, the EPAWSS fairings, the new symmetrical fairings on top of the vertical tail fins and the possible telemetry antennas red marked in red. (Photo: Alex Farwell/vikingaeroimages)

With the integration of fly-by-wire on the F-15SA, QA and EX, Boeing said it was now possible to integrate the additional pylons without problems. By using these outer wing hardpoints and possibly new weapon racks, the F-15EX will be able to carry a way higher payload than its predecessor, with up to 22 air-to-air missiles in air-to-air configuration.

Last detail, but not least, the famous “turkey feathers”. The Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220 and -229 engines used by the Eagle and the Strike Eagle in the USAF are known for having their nozzles exposed and lacking the so-called “turkey feathers” cover plates. These covers were removed in the 1970s to make maintenance easier, reportedly after some were lost in flight due to fatigue or over-stressing and other damaged by the heat. The covers are still used on the older Israeli F-15I and South Korean F-15K and the newer F-15SA, QA and EX.

The F-15EX however will not use the P&W engines, at least for now. The Air Force awarded General Electric a contract for a first lot of engines that includes 19 F110-GE-129A 29400-pound thrust engines, of which 16 will be installed on the aircraft and three will be spares. According to the Air Force Materiel Command, the engine directorate “used a 20 percent factor for spare engines.” Initially the Air Force planned to award sole-source contracts to General Electric for 461 engines that would power the 144 F-15EXs, in an effort to speed up the program.

However, Pratt & Whitney protested and the Air Force responded that will hold an open competition if the company certifies the F100 engine, most probably in the F100-PW-229 29160-pound thrust variant used on late model F-16s and F-15Es, at its own expense on the F-15EX. A new contract solicitation is expected soon, with a pre-solicitation already published for 461 engines to be delivered beginning June 2023. The document mentions that all the design, development, modification, documentation, testing, and airworthiness certification needed to incorporate the engine in the F-15EX must be completed before the beginning of the deliveries.

The first two aircraft, F-15EX-1 and F-15EX-2, are expected to be delivered to Eglin Air Force Base during the second quarter of this year, just in time for the 49th anniversary of the first flight of the first F-15A on July 27, 1972. The new aircraft may look like an Eagle externally, but inside it will a completely different aircraft, compared to its predecessor. At Eglin, the 40th Flight Test Squadron will take possession of EX1 and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron will own EX2, with the goal of completing the combined developmental and operational testing simultaneously and as soon as possible.

Thanks again to Jerry McGrath and Alex Farwell for the photos they sent us and make sure to follow them on Instagram for more!

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.

That Time A B-52H Stratofortress Bomber Lost Its Tail Over New Mexico But Managed To Land 6 Hours Later.

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B-52 61-0023 on Jan. 10, 1964. (USAF)

The story of the first and only B-52H Stratofortress’s tailless landing!

On Jan. 10, 1964, Boeing civilian test pilot Chuck Fisher and his three man crew launched from Wichita, Kansas, for a mission aboard B-52H serial number 61-0023. The aircraft was involved in a test mission whose purpose was to examine the effects of turbulence at varying altitudes and airspeeds. In other words the aircrew would shake, rattle and roll the Stratofortress bomber at high speed and low altitude to record sensor data on how such conditions could affect the plane’s airframe.

This kind of testing was done because new tactics required the B-52 to fly a different flight profile than the one it was originally designed for. In fact, the Stratofortress bomber was designed to fly at high altitude and hi speed (near supersonic). However, as the Russian air defenses advanced in their ability to hit high flying targets, so the best method to defeat the emerging Soviet threat was considered to be a high-speed low level penetration, whose stress on the airframe required additional testing.

For the test, the Air Force loaned 61-0023 to Boeing that installed 20 accelerometers and 200 sensors to record the stresses on the airframe. The first part of the test went as expected: the crew flew some of the test patterns to measure the effects of turbulence on the jet, then aborted one portion of the flight due to turbulence becoming too strong for what was needed for the tests.

At that point the crew took a short lunch break, heading to smoother air.

As the B-52 was climbing to 14,300 feet it hit CAT (clear-air turbulence) over northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Christo Mountains.

The crew would later describe it as a giant force that picked up the plane and hit it.

“When this event occurred it was so violent that I was literally picked up and thrown against the left side of the airplane and over the nav table” said James Pittman, navigator. I had the rudder to the firewall, the control column in my  lap, and full wheel input and I wasn’t having any luck righting the airplane,” said Charles Fisher, instructor pilot. “In the short period after the turbulence I gave the order to prepare to abandon the airplane because I didn’t think we were going to keep it together.”

Immediately after the severe turbulence, the jet rolled hard right and almost went out of control and it required about 80 percent left wheel throw to control the aircraft by the time things had settled down.

Although the vertical fin and the rudder had been sheared off by a gust of turbulence, the aircrew didn’t know the full extent of the damage until later.

Based on the sensor readings, the gust hit the B-52 at 81 mph (130 kmh)! This left the plane with only a small stub of metal protruding from the fuselage to serve as the vertical tail. The first assessment was carried out by the aircrew of another B-52 that was vectored to intercept 61-0023.

Later an F-100 would scramble to chase the injured B-52 to Blytheville Air Force Base, Arkansas, an airfield chosen because it was in a less densely populated area and located so that the aircraft would not need to cross the Rocky Mountains which would have subjected the BUFF to additional turbulent conditions.

For the next six hours Boeing Engineers and Air Force pilots on the radio would work together to find out the possible ways for safe landing the aircraft.

According to the U.S. Air Force records, “the crew along with Boeing engineers decided that a combination of altering the center gravity by moving fuel on board, changing the engine settings, and small amounts of airbrakes could give the crew the fighting chance it needed. The plan worked, and gave the pilot a small additional measure of control as the jet crept along at a little more than 200 knots.”

The crew was instructed to land at Blytheville AFB. The pilot would fly a final “flaps-up” landing.

“Arriving at Blytheville we lowered the rest of the gear,” said Fisher. “The front main gear made flying kind of tricky when it came down it made the airplane yaw but once it finally was down we were in good shape.”

The worn-out crew landed the jet safely. Saving the plane also saved the data recorded on it with information the that would help engineers understand why the tail failed and also teach future crews about the limits of the B-52.

Still, three days later, another B-52, a D model, tail number 55-0060, flying as “BUZZ 14” was lost after the vertical stabilizer broke off in winter storm turbulence. The incident, also known as the Savage Mountain B-52 crash, is particularly famous because the aircraft was carrying two live, 9 mega-ton B53 thermonuclear bombs.

An artist rendition showing Buzz 14 the night it crashed (via tacairnet.com)

The pilot, Maj. Tom McCormick, co-pilot, Capt. Parker Peedin, navigator, Major Robert Lee Payne and tail gunner Tech Sgt. Melvin E. Wooten all managed to actuate their ejection seats and egress the aircraft into the black, freezing sky. Major Robert Townley may have been pinned inside the B-52 by G-forces as the crash accelerated out of control and he struggled with his parachute harness, his ejection seat may have malfunctioned or he may have been knocked unconscious in the bone-breaking turbulence. He never got out. His body was discovered more than 24 hours later. The two bombs were found “relatively intact in the middle of the wreckage” and removed two days later.

Back to 61-0023 and its tailless landing, despite the damage, the aircraft returned to active service and flew with the U.S. Air Force until 2008, when it was retired at the 309th AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, where it can be found on the so-called Celebrity Row, stored with the PCN/Inventory No. AABC0481. The airframe 61-0023 was the first B-52 to be retired at the “Boneyard” (a place, from where, Stratofortress can also be resurrected, as demonstrated by “Ghost Rider” and “Wise Guy“!).

Boeing’s Loyal Wingman In New High-Visibility Paint Job Completes First High-Speed Taxi Test

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The Boeing Airpower Teaming System unmanned aircraft taxing to the runway for the first high-speed taxi test. (Photo: Boeing Australia)

The Boeing’s Loyal Wingman completed high-speed taxi test at RAAF Woomera Airfield.

Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) have completed the first high-speed taxi test of the Airpower Teaming System (ATS) unmanned aircraft, also known as Loyal Wingman. The unmanned aircraft is undergoing low-, medium-, and high-speed taxi testing at a remote test location in Australia, with Boeing’s technicians closely monitoring the aircraft’s performance and instrumentation from a ground control station.

“Our test program is progressing well, and we are happy with the ground test data we have collected to date,” said Paul Ryder, Boeing Flight Test manager. “We are working with the Air Warfare Centre to complete final test verifications to prepare for flight testing in the new year.” According to the press release, the joint Boeing/RAAF team will resume final taxi tests and preparations for flight in early 2021 when an unspecified range reopens.

Back in August we reported about some spotters who sighted the ATS being towed in an airport in Queensland, which was assessed to be RAAF Base Amberley, home of Boeing Australia. It appears that the aircraft has now been moved to a new remote location, as mentioned by Boeing, after the completion of the low-speed taxi trials. From the video posted by the company, we were able to geolocate the new test location by using publicly available satellite imagery.

The airport showed in the video is, in fact, RAAF Woomera Airfield, part of the RAAF Woomera Test Range Complex (the unspecified range mentioned in the press release) used by the Air Warfare Centre. The range is located in South Australia, approximately 450 km (280 mi) north-west of Adelaide and about 1080 km (670 mi) south-west of RAAF Amberley, where the Loyal Wingman was first spotted. The range is a major military and civil aerospace facility, which has also been recently used as a landing site for the sample-return capsule from the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 after visiting asteroid 162173 Ryugu. The same location was also used in 2013 for the first flight of the BAE Systems Taranis, a British stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) technology demonstrator program.

RAAF Head of Air Force Capability Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts visited the airfield to attend the test. “Seeing the Loyal Wingman during the trials has been extraordinary. There is something very special about testing an aircraft that takes technology to the next level. It is iconic in its own way,” she said. “Experiencing the enthusiasm of the Boeing and Air Force team reminded me of my early career testing aircraft. This is what innovation is all about – working together to achieve many firsts”.

A screenshot from Boeing’s video showing the Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft before the beginning of the test.

After the roll-out ceremony in May 2020, the test and evaluation program of the Boeing ATS moved quickly, completing the first engine run in September and the first low-speed taxi in October. By the way, the engine used by the ATS has not been revealed yet, with only available info describing it as a fuel-efficient business jet turbofan derivative providing about 8,000 lbs of thrust. Now that the aircraft is getting closer to its first flight, it has also received a new high-visibility paintjob, with the tips and leading edges of wings and stabilizers, the outline of the air intake and a large portion of the nose cone painted with a bright orange.

As we wrote in occasion of the roll-out, this drone is the first clean-sheet design created by Boeing outside the United States and also the first RAAF’s clean-sheet design in more than 50 years. The project, which involved several Australian companies, used new development techniques, like the “digital twin” concept, and new automated production systems.

One of the key features of the ATS is an 8.5 ft (2.6 m) long modular nose cone with 9000 cubic inches internal volume to house different payloads, which can be entirely swapped quickly according to the mission’s needs.

Air Marshal Hupfeld, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, noted that the RAAF is working on the policies to understand the discipline that an airman should apply to a system like the Loyal Wingman, highlighting that this is one of the key points of the program: ”The heart of it is about the systems that are inside that platform. The artificial intelligence that we will start to put into there, the opportunity to program algorithms that allow it to do what we call manned and unmanned teaming”.

An interesting fact that was shared by Boeing after the first low-speed taxi test is that the Airpower Teaming System will be independent from runways and it will be able to self-deploy and land almost everywhere, as showed in that occasion in a tweet with a quick video of the aircraft preparing to land on an improvised runway. “Runway independence ensures the aircraft will be a highly flexible and adaptable system for our global customers,” said Dr. Shane Arnott, program director, Boeing Airpower Teaming System. “This latest test marks the first full unmanned movement of the Loyal Wingman with our Australian partners and takes us a step closer to first flight.”

Earlier this month, Boeing announced the completion of a series of flight tests with five high-performance surrogate jets operating autonomously in a team, testing the company’s advanced autonomy technology, including on-board command and control and data sharing capabilities. Testing lasted 10 days, with aircraft incrementally added until the five operated together. According to Boeing, the activity was the final milestone of the Advanced Queensland Autonomous Systems Platform Technology Project, one of the programs that are supporting the development of the Airpower Teaming System.

“The tests demonstrated our success in applying artificial intelligence algorithms to ‘teach’ the aircraft’s brain to understand what is required of it,” said Emily Hughes, director of Phantom Works International. “The data link capabilities enabled the aircraft to communicate with the other platforms so that they could collaborate to achieve a mission.”

Let’s Talk About The Recent Roll Out Of The first Loyal Wingman Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for Australia

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The first Airpower Teaming System aircraft prototype. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing rolled out its first Airpower Teaming System (ATS) unmanned aircraft developed for the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during a ceremony on May 5, 2020. This drone is the first clean-sheet design created by Boeing outside the United States and also the first RAAF’s clean-sheet design in more than 50 years. The development work is reportedly undergoing in Brisbane, where Boeing Australia is based.

The program moved pretty quickly since the ATS was first unveiled during the Avalon Airshow in February 2019, with the first fuselage completed in February 2020 and the first power on, with the aircraft on its wheels, in April. The Australian government contributed with an investment of 40 million AUD (USD 25.7 million), while Boeing’s financial involvement in not specified.

“This project is an excellent example of innovation through collaboration and what can be achieved working together with defence industry. This demonstrates the importance of the relationship Air Force has with Boeing Australia and defence industry more broadly. I look forward to exploring the capabilities this aircraft may bring to our existing fleet in the future”, said Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force.

The first Airpower Teaming System aircraft prototype. (Photo: Boeing)

The aircraft is 38 ft long (11.7 m) with a twin tail configuration and wings reminiscent of the jet-powered Predator C, although with a much shorter wingspan. Not much is known about the powerplant, except for the drone being powered by a business jet-class engine.

According to the company, the ATS will perform/support Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), tactical early warning and other unspecified missions, teaming up with the E-7 Wedgetail, P-8 Poseidon, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and F-35A Lightning II in service with the RAAF. Actually, the Super Hornets depicted with the ATS in the media kit are Block III, the first of which (even if without some of the upgrades) has been recently delivered to the U.S. Navy, but it’s not yet confirmed if the RAAF will perform the upgrade or will keep the jets in the Block II configuration.

The media kit shows the ATS flying also with advanced versions of the F-15 Eagle and with the F-22 Raptor, suggesting a broader integration with other non-Australian aircraft. The only details provided about the flight characteristics are a 2000 nm (3700 km) range and fighter-like performance.

A formation of four loyal wingmen supporting an E-7 Wedgetail. (Image: Boeing)

The ATS will be flown by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and controlled from the back seat of a Super Hornet or a Growler for smaller formations, or from a control station aboard a Wedgetail or a Poseidon. Boeing didn’t provide details on how the AI specifically works, but explained that the controller will simply signal the mission intent to the Loyal Wingman and the AI will figure out by itself mission specifics and navigation, while keeping a safe separation from other manned and unmanned aircraft. According to the company, the manned-unmanned teaming system retrofit for the controlling aircraft is low cost and does not require significant modifications.

Part of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) teaming development for the ATS was also achieved high-performance scale radio-controlled jets that were able to fly up to 300 km/h while safely communicating and coordinating with each other, starting with simple task with just two aircraft and then moving to more complex tasks and more aircraft involved.

Boeing is building a total of three ATS prototypes for Australia using automated production systems to also validate the concept for the full-rate production line. The aircraft itself is more than just a prototype, as it will include also all the required systems to demonstrate its capabilities and develop Loyal Wingman procedures and tactics. The company used a “digital twin” of the ATS to develop structure, systems and life-cycle requirements before physically building the prototype by employing resin-infusion techniques that were developed for the Boeing 787. By using these techniques, Boeing created its largest-ever resin infused single-piece composite structure, which is one of the two halves that form the drone’s wing. If you want to know more about what can be accomplished by using a “digital twin”, you can read how the U.S. Air Force applied the concept to the B-1 bomber.

Australian industries are working with Boeing on the ATS program and helped the rapid development, including BAE Systems Australia, RUAG Australia, Ferra Engineering and AME Systems. BAE Systems, which worked with Boeing for more than 30 years, provided flight control computers, navigation equipment and UAV management and simulation systems. RUAG supplied the drone’s landing gear, as the company is since 2001 the landing gear supplier for Super Hornet, Wedgetail, Chinook and other Boeing aircraft. Ferra Engineering and AME Systems provided precision machine components and wiring looms, respectively.

A screenshot from the roll out video showing the swappable nose. (Original video: Boeing)

While the Loyal Wingman is designed primarily for the RAAF, the final version of the ATS will be destined to the global defense market and custom tailored to the client’s own defense and industrial objectives. “We are proud to take this significant step forward with the Royal Australian Air Force and show the potential for smart unmanned teaming to serve as a force multiplier. We look forward to getting the aircraft into flight testing and proving out the unmanned teaming concept. We see global allies with those same mission needs, which is why this program is so important to advancing the development of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System”, said Kristin Robertson, Vice President and General Manager of Autonomous Systems for Boeing.

One of the key features of the ATS is an 8.5 ft (2.6 m) long modular nose cone with 9000 cubic inches internal volume to house different payloads. The entire nose can by swapped quickly according to the mission’s needs and also to the customer’s needs.

Our friends at The War Zone were among the journalist that were able to talk with the masterminds behind the project, Jerad Hayes, Senior Director of Autonomous Aviation and Technology, and Dr. Shane Arnott, Program Director of Airpower Teaming System. The team explained that the ATS has been designed with low-observable features that are balanced with performance and affordability. They also noted that they decided not to use a flying wing because this more complex solution would be more expensive and unforgiving to fly, while the chosen design is relatively simple and has some maneuverability tricks that will make it satisfy a wide range of operational requirements.

The ATS will undergo ground and taxi testing before the first flight by the end of the year in Australia, as confirmed by Dr. Arnott: “Following factory acceptance of the aircraft, it will go into taxi testing in advance of first flight, which will take place in 2020 in Australia – beyond that, we’re not offering specific dates or the locations of the flight”. The following tests will be used by Boeing and the RAAF to determine the best way to integrate the manned-unmanned teaming in new tactics that will reduce risks for the pilots during combat.

Boeing didn’t provide a price tag for the ATS, but specified that they designed the system as a cheap, flexible and attritable aircraft, supposedly keeping it competitive with the XQ-58 Valkyrie produced by Kratos Defense and Security, which has a 2-3 million USD price tag.

The U.S. Air Force is currently evaluating the XQ-58 Valkyrie for a possible loyal wingman role and as communication relay platform for the F-22 and F-35. Boeing is involved in talks with the U.S. Department of Defense to understand the specific mission needs and requirements for a potential ATS offer.

Back in February, Boeing and the U.S. Navy tested the manned-unmanned teaming also by flying two “unmanned” EA-18Gs Growlers from the backseat of a third one. The aircraft performed 21 different missions during four flights. While not officially stated, the results of the test may have applied to the ATS and its manned-unmanned teaming system interface and, maybe, to determine how much the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense may be interested in the loyal wingman proposed by Boeing.


797. The Plane That Never Was.

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April 2, 2020

ANOTHER casualty of coronavirus, almost surely, will be the Boeing 797.

The 797, also known as the “new midsize aircraft” (NMA), is an idea Boeing has been kicking around for twenty years. In terms of size, range and capacity, it would fit between the 737 and the 787. A replacement, in other words, for the venerable and incredibly versatile 757. If you know airplanes, imagine a smaller 787, or a modernized 767-200 or Airbus A310. A quasi-widebody that can generate profits long-range or short, domestic or between continents.

Boeing should have signed off on the project a long time ago. Instead, they kept force-feeding us monsterized 737s. Then came the 737 MAX fiasco. Right on its heels is COVID-19, which has thrown the global aviation industry to onto the ledge of catastrophe. Regardless of when this is over, a new, clean-sheet airframe is about the last thing Boeing or its customers will have the time or resources to deal with.

Which is too bad, because all along there has been a glaring need for a medium-sized, 200-ish seater with the 757’s legs and payload — a reality that Boeing has foolishly denied from the start. And in a post-coronavirus airline industry, any long-term capacity reductions could intensify that need.

Proposed 797 configuration with 226 seats.

Airbus has stepped in with the A321-XLR, a stretched, longer-range, souped-up version of the baseline A320. A 757 knockoff, it kind of, almost, sort-of-but-not-really does the job. A downer, I know, but that’s as close as we’re going to get.

Airbus will sell a thousand XLRs, mark my words. For carriers it’s the only option. And Boeing will be left looking dumber than it does already.

Indeed, we might not see an all-new design from Boeing or Airbus for the next 30 years. one factor is the incredible amount of time it takes nowadays for a plane to move from the planning stages to commercial service. How things have changed. Fifty years ago, the 747 went from an idea on the back of a napkin to an actual, flying aircraft, in two years. Today, just building a derivative from an existing model can take twice that long. And that’s what we’ll continue seeing: more derivatives. Boeing has been milking the 737 since 1965. The A320 debuted in 1988. One can easily see the 777, 787, A330 and A350 tracking similar evolutions. We won’t have a new model because they take too long and they’re too damn expensive, and also because there won’t be a need for one: derivatives will have all the possible ranges and seating combinations covered for the foreseeable future. The 797 was the one remaining niche crying out for a new plane. Boeing chose to ignore it; Airbus threw a patch on it. And off we go.

Related Stories:

BOEING BET THE FUTURE ON A 50 YEAR-OLD DESIGN. DID IT LOSE?
ODE TO THE 767.

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