All posts by Nick Graham

Military aviation needs its airspace

Civil and military aviation better don’t mix. Why? Let me take you to RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, 3 Fighter Squadron. The squadron has increased its level of training to better prepare its junior pilots before they embark on the year-long Qualified Weapons Instructors’ Course (QWIC) We take turns at being the bad guys during training sorties in the training areas over the North Sea.

Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his second blog on Airheadsfly.com. Interested in reading Nick's first? Find it here.
Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates.

Today is our turn to be blue air so we invite our sister squadron’s pilots as red air. I’m responsible for the training and will be flying as the number 2. I’ve come up with a scenario that I want red air to use. I have told their flight leader that I want them to simulate the Su-27 Flanker and that they should simulate having airfields to the north of the airspace. Our “target” is an oil rig in the sea near the red airfields.

Almost three hours of planning, briefing and starting aeroplanes later, the blue air flight leader has led us to the tanker flying just north of the airways from Germany. Our radars automatically pick up the airline traffic to the south of us as we approach the tanker. Tanking is a tricky business, but we train as often as we can to make sure we can plug in even at night in cloud. We need protected airspace to allow us to practise this without worrying about other air traffic. The tanker captain is the formation leader and he is doing what he can to stay in smooth air and out of clouds.

Air-to-air refueling requires coordination and space.
Air-to-air refueling requires coordination and space.

Guardians

After the tanking is done, we talk to GCI who are the guardians of the airspace we use. They monitor the safety of the aircraft using the area and provide a verbal “picture” of where the bad guys are to help us point our radars at them for higher fidelity information which we can use to shoot missiles. The faster and higher a fighter is before firing his missile, the further the missile will go.

Range

Sometimes it isn’t just about maximum range: it is also about energy. If I shoot a missile at closer than maximum range, it has more energy when it finds the target. The missile can use that energy to “fly” after the target. So I can take a very long range shot which the enemy can defeat with a small manoeuvre, or I can take a very short range shot which the enemy can not escape from. Often we take a mixture of both types of shot depending on our best guess of what we think the enemy are going to do. The ranges of these shots are obviously one of the most highly classified parts of a fighter pilot’s job.

With Eurofighter Typhoon, the incredible speed and altitude performance of the jet means that it can shoot missiles at much greater ranges than we have been used to. That means we need to have the airspace distance to take those long shots and altitude to get to the parameters to take the shots.

Nick Graham at work in Typhoon's cockpit.
Nick Graham at work in Typhoon’s cockpit.

Turnin’ and burnin’

We need the areas to be over the sea because most of the fight will be flown at supersonic speeds, often pointing straight down at the ground and in full reheat. The turnin’ and burnin’ and the associated changes in direction and altitude are so fast that ground stations can not keep up with it. We also use chaff to defeat opposition locks and radio jamming to make it trickier to “kill” targets. Finally we need to be able to fly over simulated ground targets and run through the process of finding a target and dropping a bomb on it. This sometimes means flying around a target in circles.

Flying in circles is not for airliners. They prefer straight lines. However , airliners flying in a straight line tends to only happen over the vast expanses of ocean around the World. Not so over the North Sea and over lots more areas everywhere. Why? For all of the above reasons. We better don’t mix.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham

Safe, saver, simulation

A 4th generation fighter jet can cost 50,000 euro to fly per hour. That’s a lot of cash. More advanced missions are flown by four-ships. That’s 200k per flying hour. Then they need someone to fight.  That means a second 4-ship: 400k.

Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his second blog on Airheadsfly.com. Interested in reading Nick's first? Find it here.
Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. Find Nick’s earlier blogs at Airheadsfly.com here.
Add air-to-air refuelling, a ground based target to drop a weapon on, chaff, flares plus some more fancy stuff and the bill is easily at 500k per hour. Some high end missions cost 1 million euro. It’s easy to see how suddenly the cost becomes quite crippling. If that training can be flown in a simulator for “mere” thousands, it is easy to understand the huge advances the synthetic world offers. So how real can it get? Simulators have limits. G-force, how a radar will actually react to jamming or chaff, difficulty in finding a target coming at you from the sun, the reality that you can die if you mess up, the big entrance door at the back of the simulator dome which means you’ll never see the hostile in your deep 6, the play of light and shadow and how it helps or hinders you in making an ID of a ground target. The list is long, so other than saving money, what can the simulator do for us?

Practice Red Flag

Well, first of all, simulators can be linked up just like any on-line game. You can fly as a linked 4-ship and your friends will be seen from your sim dome (although there are no pilots to show hand-signals etc). You can fly in close formation, refuel off a tanker (nowhere near as tricky as the real thing), and fly anywhere in the world. We used to practice Red Flag missions before going to Nevada for real just to get used to the departure and recovery procedures. You can do the same for any war zone you can imagine.

Fight against a Flanker

The biggest positive for the simulated world though is the ease of manipulation. To get a real Su-27 to fight against is tricky. To get to fight against a Flanker with no restrictions, unless in real conflict, is never going to happen. In the simulated world, a click of the mouse can plonk 4 of them (or more) wherever you want. You can give them a skill capability and let them test your tactics on their own, or you can have a second operator control them to test a specific skill if you wish.

Night flying

Night flying is probably the way we would fight at the start of a war. If your squadron is training during daylight at the time (eg they are practicing dogfighting), you can keep current in certain night procedures using the sim without having to keep you engineering team in work for 20 hours. The UK has poor weather at times of the year. The simulator is used to renew instrument ratings with the examiner able to change the weather to force the pilot under test to fly the approach he wants to see. The examiner can make the weather below limits to see what actions the pilot will take when he can’t see the runway.

A very convincing digital flying world is created, with possible scenarios taking place anywhere. (Image © TSC)
A very convincing digital flying world can be created, with possible scenarios taking place anywhere. (Image © TSC)

Tactics

And now onto tactics. Simulators can be loaded with flight models of actual missiles and radar software. Tactics can be flown against smart hostiles who shoot back. Pulling the trigger and seeing a missile fly off the wing is excellent training, not least when you watch your wingman shoot. You know he has fired rather than relying on his radio calls. You can see hostile missiles flying towards you from a variety of threat systems and practise how to defeat them. Once all this flying is done, the simulator can play back what happened. A full mission can be watched on large cinema screens. Flight leads will check to make sure that what was there was actually found by his team’s radars and targeted properly. As an instructor, you can fly and then save a manoeuvre and then sit your student in the cockpit and they can watch what you did over and over again and then copy it. The demo is the same for every student.

Like Star Wars: a Full Mission Simulator. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Like Star Wars: a Full Mission Simulator. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Emergency

And then the final use, the one pilots don’t like the sim for: emergency handling. As a fighter pilot, you are drilled in emergency actions for every month of your flying career. Immediate actions must be known or else you lose your privilege to fly. Fighters are the formula one of flying machines. They are at the limit of engineering. They break. We are tested hard for an hour every month with head scratching puzzles. If you don’t work out the problem fast enough, you lose the jet. It’s excellent training and certainly saved my skin on a mission over Libya when my jet had a system failure. But that’s another story.

Air Force core capabilities

There is a second element to be considered. It is easy to find out what a country has equipped its air force with. Airshows have become huge trade events with big deals announced to the media to reassure stockholders that their chosen aerospace company is doing great business. Not just airframes, but avionics and weapons. These core capabilities drive how an air force can fight. They help us build and develop tactics. We practice those tactics in vast training areas. We sometimes use encrypted radios to talk to our radar controllers and formation members, but often our communications are “in the clear”.

The F-35 comes as one-seater only, making the need for simulators even bigger (Image © US Air Force)
The F-35 comes as one-seater only, making the need for simulators even bigger (Image © US Air Force)

Real-time radar

It is easy for the average member of the public to watch near real-time radar feeds of our fights and listen to our radio work on their computers. It takes very little to work out some of our tactics. We must be careful to keep our tactics secret. A simulator allows us to fight as we would for real, in secret. With new stealthy jets like the F-35 coming into service and the need to protect their tactical secrets, the age of the simulator is well upon us.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham
Featured image (top): Take flight while staying on the ground; an simulator can get as real as it gets. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Full Mission Simulators provide an almost 360 degrees field of view. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Full Mission Simulators provide an almost 360 degrees field of view. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Low level: looking out for red air

To be able to drop a laser guided bomb from 20,000 feet you must be reasonably certain that the enemy can not kill you before you drop your bombs. If you do not have control of the air, you are left with cold war tactics of flying in low and fast to take control of the air. These missions are difficult and dangerous and it is the focus for junior pilots as they are trained to become fighters. It involves looking out for turning points, red air and….. the colour of a cottage door.

My final low level flight on the Hawk course before the new T2 brought glass cockpits and advanced avionics, was such as flight and it the most difficult flight I had to pass in my RAF career. The day started as usual with a weather-brief before my instructor gave me a 1:25,000 map and on it was an old mill in a Welsh valley. He also gave me a set of black and white photographs and a description of the building complex stating how the target was built and how it worked. It was simulating a power station and my task was to stop it working for at least 24hrs.

The aircraft flown in this article: the BAE Systems Hawk. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The aircraft flown in this article: the BAE Systems Hawk. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

It was decided to attack the generator hall simulating the use of 500lb bombs. I set to work on the target attack, figuring out how we would find the target and what direction we would need to drop the bombs from to make sure we achieved the task.

Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his second blog on Airheadsfly.com. Interested in reading Nick's first? <a href="http://airheadsfly.com/2015/09/12/on-qra-thats-not-right/">Find it here</a>.
Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his second blog on Airheadsfly.com. Interested in reading Nick’s first? Find it here.

I found the another maps from the surrounding area and lay them out on the table to see if there was a really big feature within about 2 minutes’ flying time the I could use as an Initial Point or “IP”. Once I found this big feature, I worked out how long it would take us to fly the attack, the worked out what time I needed to get to the IP at. All that planning gave me a planned take off time, a time to walk to the jets and a time to brief. Which was about 5 minutes ago!

Navigation is taught using detailed planning techniques. Map reading at 120kts is a different skill from that used when hillwalking. The start of a route is planned to begin at a big feature on the ground which is easy to find, such as a lighthouse on a coast. Turn points are chosen for their ease of identification whilst flying towards them. A forest might stand out easily on a map, but from low level, a mast (sometimes overlooked on a map) is by far the better turn point if it is big enough and unique. Features need to be BIG, like a mountain or lake.

As I taxied out, I watched a another Hawk take off. It was red air, an instructor launching to be the air threat for our mission! We lined up on the runway as a pair, I gave the “wind it up” hand signal and we set full power against the brakes. We each checked our engines were operating normally then set a slightly reduced power. This reduced power would give my wingman the ability to use more power if he needed it to stay in position during the formation take off. I looked at the wingman, he was giving me a thumbs up, so I tapped my helmet three times and with a nod of the head, we both released our brakes.

As we began rolling down the runway I looked at my watch, we were late. With the landing gear up I pushed the flat of my hand against the canopy, signalling my wingman to deploy into a tactical formation. I directed the formation towards the start of the low level route only about 30nm away in north Wales. I was already looking at my map working out where I would cut short the route to make up the 3minutes and 23 seconds we were late.

I had a plan, and away we went, dropping into the countryside down to 250’ at 420kts. Where we could we used the natural roads (valleys) to get between turn points. This helps stay out of sight of eyes and radars, stays below the weather and helps with navigation.

A Hawk rushes over a snowy country side. (Image via Nick Graham)
A Hawk rushes over a snowy country side. (Image via Nick Graham)

By the third turnpoint we were on time, we had extra fuel and the weather had improved. The clouds were breaking up nicely and great big holes of blue could be seen in the white cloud sheet. I looked across at my wingman to check his formation and saw a very brief glint of something against the cloud. Red air! I commanded the formation to break towards the hostile fighter and directed my wingman’s eyes onto the threat until he told me he could see it too. We fought a brief turning fight at low level before the hostile hawk ran off. He had done his job and ruined my timing! And where was I? You can’t stop, so a rough direction towards the target area was a sensible move until I found a big enough feature to work out where I was.

Now I had to work out our timing again, decide if I could turn short anywhere, or if I had to speed up. I was lucky and the route was still long enough to have places left that I could cut short. The attack went as planned. As we got back together as a formation, my instructor pretended to be AWACS and told me to look in my map holder in the cockpit. He had drawn a second target map up and asked if we could attack it. I had to find out where it was, decide how to get there and back and brief the wingman.

The encounter with the other Hawk had used up most of our combat gas though and I didn’t think we had enough fuel to make it so I refused the mission and we flew home as planned via a second pre-planned target which was a recce task of finding out the colour of the front door on a remote welsh cottage.

After the mission I had to debrief the sortie and state what went well and what could have been done better. It turns out we could have just about made the late notice target but only just with no extra combat gas, so my decision was deemed acceptable.

What did I learn from that? I’d rather be red air! And of course: low level tactic continues to be important.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham

On QRA: ‘That’s not right’

It’s the end to a warm day with the sun setting. We’ve spent the day sitting in full flying kit stretched out watching terrible day time TV. We are on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). Our Typhoon jets are in their hangars, loaded with weaponry and fuel. We spend 24 hours in the building, living, eating and sleeping next to our jets. And then the speaker, usually silent crackled with static, suddenly screams ‘scramble, scramble, scramble!’

Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his first blog on Airheadsfly.com.NickGraham

The alarm goes off. Lights flash. The doors to the hangars open. We sprint for the exits, zipping up our rubber immersion suit as we go. I grab my helmet and life jacket from the top of the steps. I lean in and start the APU as I finish getting dressed. When that’s done, I jump in the cockpit as the ladders get removed. Start the engines. Close the canopy. Check in that we are started. On the other side of the airfield, ATC is doing similar actions. The tower is turned on; radio calls are made. You have no idea why the trigger has been pulled, but at £30,000 per flying hour per jet it isn’t done for no reason.

I am the wingman for the mission, and as the leader starts his take off roll, I finish my checks and line up on the runway just as the sun drops below the horizon. A fist full of throttles slams forwards into full reheat. I am pressed firmly back into my seat, speed racing past an eye watering 100 kts in seconds. 130 kts, pull back on the stick to set the take off attitude, the jet automatically trimming itself. Gear lever up as soon as the jet bounds into the air to stop over speeding the gear (230kts limit). The gear tucks away; the flaps are automatically controlled by the jet. The HUD switches automatically from landing mode to navigation mode and I snap the radar lock onto the leader.

RAF Eurofighter Typhoons had their hands full with QRA duties this week. Two Russian Tu-160 Blackjacks were intercepted in international airspace. (Image © UK Ministry of Defence)
RAF Eurofighter Typhoons had their hands full with QRA duties this week. Two Russian Tu-160 Blackjacks were intercepted in international airspace. (Image © UK Ministry of Defence)

As we climb past 2000’ with NVGs on, I notice my eye is actually watering. Shit. When I ran out of the door, I’d run through a cloud of black flies and one of them has got stuck in my eye and is still there. Nevertheless we check in with our fighter controller to get information on the situation: an airliner needed help but they have solved the problem and are already landing. We are to stand down. As there must always be a jet ready to intercept the threats to UK airspace, the plan is to get the leader on the ground while I stay in the air ready to intercept anything that moves while the leader’s jet is being prepared for flight again. A tanker aircraft has launched the moment we were scrambled, too. I find him with my radar and join up on him.

All this time, the fly is still stuck in my eye. My eye is watering a lot to flush the bug out. I am wearing a heavy helmet with NVGs bolted to it and the extra weight of the goggles means that the helmet slides down over my eyes and the oxygen mask pushes down on  my nose. As I sit next to the tanker in the dark, my eye begins to swell and my face swells up too. So here I was….

I take a full tank of fuel and then sit 1000’ below the tanker so I can use the autopilot to steer around the sky without fear of hitting the tanker. As my face swells against the tightened mask, a nerve in my face becomes trapped and I start to lose control of my right eye. The right side of my face starts to get numb. I look at my cabin altitude and it tells me that the pressure in the cockpit is the same as being at 9000’. I decide to take my mask off to relieve the swelling of my face and hopefully get my right eye back. This works a bit and I take my NVGs off too to take the pressure off my face. My eye is pouring with fluid by now.

RAF Voyager aircraft support Quick Reaction Alert duties 24/7. (Image © AirTanker)
RAF Voyager aircraft support Quick Reaction Alert duties 24/7. (Image © AirTanker)

The RAF and many other air forces invest heavily in medical education for aircrews. All pilots are trained to withstand G-forces and recognise their personal symptoms of hypoxia. However, that doesn’t help me now… or does it? As I float around below the tanker I notice that the red navigation light on the wing actually looks grey. That’s… not right. It takes me a second or two to recognise it as one of my personal hypoxia symptoms. I put my mask back on and feel the familiar rush of blood and heat to my face. My body begins craving oxygen and I begin hyperventilating. I turned the volume up on my intercom and focused hard on the sound of my breathing.

I declare an emergency and ask the controller to get a medical team ready for me when I land and to urge our engineering team to get the leader’s jet ready as soon as possible. Meanwhile, a replacement jet and pilot was already in work. When you remember that this was now just gone past midnight on a Friday, it highlights the massive support team that pilots work with to make sure the jets can achieve the task.

After I land without further problems, I hand over the rest of my 24hr duty to a relief pilot and end up in hospital. I am grounded for a week while my scratched eyeball recovers. I realize that if it hadn’t been for the medical teams educating me and other aircrew, I could very well have ended in much worse problems that night than a fly in my eye.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham
Featured image (top): A Typhoon escorts a Russian Tu-95 Bear during a Quick Reaction Alert mission. (Image © UK Ministry of Defence)