Category Archives: AHF↑Inside

AHF↑Inside is a series of exclusive insights in the world of aviation, given to us by the men and women who have made flying their daily life.

Germany’s top toy on Red Alert

Neuburg Airbase, situated in the Bavarian region in southern Germany, is home to the German Luftwaffe’s JG74, flying the Eurofighter EF2000 (Typhoon) in the air defense role since 2006. This November Airheadsfly.com met them when they returned home to Neuberg after a long stay elsewhere.

For a considerable time, JG74 (Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader, or Tactical Air Force Wing) had to call other airbases ‘home’ while the runway at Neuburg saw complete renewal. What was planned to be a nine month stay, turned out to be close to two years. This was caused by a few dozen World War II bombs found during the work.

Lechfeld

During Airheadsfly.com’s visit, the return to Neuburg hadn’t been fully completed, as some Eurofighters – the Typhoon name was never adopted in Germany –  were left behind for maintenance at Lechfeld, the airbase that served as the main home away from home.

QRA

JG74 is fully dedicated to air defense und Alarmrotte, which could well do with some explanation for non-native speakers. Alarmrotte (literally: red alert) is the German term for Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), which applies here because JG74 is responsible for guarding the skies over southern Germany. It’s not a recent thing by any standards. In fact, they have been doing it at Neuburg since May 1961. So next year sees the 55th anniversary of QRA duties at the Bavarian airbase.

NATO Tiger

Where now Eurofighters stand guard, F-4 Phantoms stood until not too long ago. Between 2006 and 2008 and after more than 30 years of service, JG74 replaced its Spooks for brand spankin’ new Eurofighters. Since 2013, the wing is a proud member of NATO’s Tiger Association. They took over the tradition from JBG32 (Jagdbombgeschwader, or bomber squadron), which flew the Panavia Tornado from Lechfeld until disbanded in 2012.

Check, check, check. Just a few checks to go, and this JG74 Eurofighter is about to get into the air for another sortie (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Checks, checks and more checks. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
"Hi there!", this JG74 Eurofighter pilot is definitely ready to go (Image © Dennis Spronk)
“Hi there!”, this JG74 Eurofighter pilot is definitely ready to go (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Take off into the blue (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Into the blue yonder. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Arctic Challenge

JG74 has 33 jets assigned, of which 24 are available at Neuburg. This year, the wing’s pilots and crews participated in large scale exercise Arctic Challenge in Norway, but they also did the “real thing” by supporting NATO’s  Baltic Air Policing mission from Ämari airbase in Estonia. From there, German pilots in 2014 got to meet Russian pilots up close, albeit always thousands of feet up in the air and each in the cockpit of their respective aircraft.

A nice summer day? No, it's a beautiful november day as this JG74 Eurofighter taxies to the runway of Neuburg (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A nice summer day? No, it’s a beautiful November day as this JG74 Eurofighter taxies to the runway of Neuburg (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A pair of JG74 Eurofighters taxy to the runway to get into the air for another practice sortie (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A pair of JG74 Eurofighters taxy to the runway to get into the air for another practice sortie (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Typical outlines of a Eurofighter, as it approaches at Neuburg (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Typical outlines of a Eurofighter, as it approaches at Neuburg (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Kill ratio

At Neuburg they are pretty confident with the Eurofighter, the jet that saw Germany at it’s cradle as one of the founding nations of the Eurofighter consortium. Christian Härter, taking care of the jets at Neuburg since 2013, thinks the Eurofighter is the best all round fighter at this moment. “The Eurofighter has an 8:1 kill ratio against a variety of other fighter aircraft. Even the US Air Force F-22 Raptor is having a hard time in many aspects against our aircraft.” In reality of course, the Eurofighter has yet to achieve a real kill against any type of aircraft.

Typhoons serviceability

Criticism aimed at Germany’s top toy can’t be ignored. This fall, deliveries of German aircraft were halted over a production fault found across the fleet. According to Härter however, Typhoons serviceability at Neuburg is around 70 percent, the proof perhaps being the presence of three jets inside the T-Halle, a hangar that can house up to 6 aircraft. In the eight year old T-Halle, maintenance is being performed in more favourable conditions than in the hardened aircraft shelters that litter Neuburg. The T-Halle gets a lot of natural light from outside, which makes work very comfortable.

Flight hour costs

The presence of the many data cables and computers in the T-Halle clearly shows we’re dealing with a modern aircraft. As the computer/software is getting more and more important, Härter even expects the Eurofighter could well be the last manned aircraft of the Luftwaffe. One flight hour in a Eurofighter costs around 65,000 euro, of which fuel accounts for ‘only’ 6,000 euro. Therefore it might not come as a surprise that every pilot flies 40 hours  on a Typhoon flight simulator each year. Aircraft like the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 are more and more being marketed as operational trainers, saving costly flying hours.

Christian Härter, Quality Safety Manager of JG74, in front of a Eurofighter (Image © Vincent Kok)
Christian Härter in front of a Eurofighter (Image © Vincent Kok)
3 Eurofighters inside the maintenance hangar (or T-Halle) at Neuburg (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Three Eurofighters inside the maintenance hangar (or T-Halle) at Neuburg (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Just some final checks, and this JG74 Eurofighter pilot is about to leave his aircraft, after a mission (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Work being done between missions in the aircraft shelter.  (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Roar

But on this beautiful day in November, pilots elect to fly for real. Up to seven Eurofighters roar into the skies in preparation for yet another busy year. For JG74, next year will see participation in the NATO Tiger Meet in May at Zaragoza airbase in Spain, while June will see an airshow at Neuburg because of the 55th anniversary of JG74. There might be even another tour of Baltic Air Policing, offering Russian pilots one more chance at the experience of meeting a Eurofighter up close – and be aware of a kill ratio that apparently stands at 8:1.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Dennis Spronk, video shot and edited by Orange Avenue Filmworks
Featured image (top): Pilots eager to get airborne at Neuburg Airbase. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Ready to taxy to the runway. This JG74 Eurofighter just left its hardened aircraft shelter (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Ready to taxy to the runway. This JG74 Eurofighter just left its hardened aircraft shelter (Image © Dennis Spronk)
JG74 ground crew do some final checks before giving the pilot a "go" (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Ground crew do some final checks before giving the pilot a “go” (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Touch down! Creating burning rubber, as this JG74 Eurofighter arrives back from the afternoon sortie (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Touch down! Burning rubber as this Eurofighter arrives back from the afternoon sortie (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A JG74 Eurofighter comes out to play (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Return to the shelter. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After the mission, a JG74 Eurofighter is being checked and prepared to be pushed back into its hardened aircraft shelter (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After the mission, a jet is being checked and prepared to be pushed back into its hardened aircraft shelter (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A JG74 Eurofighter is being pushed back into its hardened aircraft shelter, at the end of a beautiful day (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A Eurofighter is being pushed back into its hardened aircraft shelter, at the end of a beautiful day (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Dutch NH90: ready to run

Worldwide, the NHIndustries NH90 helicopter fleet amassed over 100,000 flight hours as of October 2015. Close to 6,000 of those were clocked up by the 18 NH90 helicopters currently flown by the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) on behalf of the Dutch Royal Navy, making the Dutch one of the most experienced users. And yes, the NH90 program has had its share of difficulties, but the helicopter now performs to the satisfaction of its crews and shows its potential as a force to be reckoned with, says 860 squadron commander Martin Mos. From walking to running with the force multiplier that is the NH90.

From his squadron office Martin Mos overlooks the flightline at De Kooy air station, located near Den Helder, the city that also houses Holland’s one and only  Koninklijke Marine (Royal Navy) base. For close to four decades, this flightline used to be filled with SH-14 Lynx helicopters. In 2010, something far more advanced arrived at De Kooy in the shape of the first Dutch NH90 helicopter, the result of a joint program by France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy to design and build a new multi role helicopter. The joint effort started in the early nineties and a first prototype flew on 18 december 1995.

It took a lot of further developing, testing and evaluation before Dutch crews finally got their hands on the helicopter. Since then, a total of 18 NH90s arrived at De Kooy, with the final two helicopters to be delivered by January 2016. It means a full house again for the De Kooy and the based 860 squadron, although maybe not quite: it will be four more years until all helicopters are updated to the Final Radar Configuration (FRC) that makes them true multi role helicopters.

Basic
“In the past five years we operated the NH90 mainly in what we call the Meaningful Operational Capability (MOC) or Full Operational Capability (FOC)”, says 860 squadron commander Martin Mos. “It meant we could fulfill basic tasks such as transporting cargo, troops and special forces, support ships in naval operations and assist in search and rescue operations. It also meant that the helicopter was simply not in its end-version yet. We did gain a lot of experience however which helped in bringing us nearer to that final FRC-version. Today, we operate several helicopters in their Final Radar Configuration already.”

NH90_interview
Martin Mos and Airheadsfly.com at work. (Image © Vincent Kok)

As those words are spoken, an NH90 starts its two 2,900 horsepower Turbomecca RTM 322-01/9 engines and minutes later leaves the flightline for practising underslung loads. On other days, helicopters fly from De Kooy to navy ships to assist in operations or to practice winch operations or ever-challenging deck landings. The NH90’s advanced fly by wire system and equally advanced autopilot and auto-hover options reduce workload. The chopper is operated by a single pilot, a tactical coordinator (tacco) and a sensor operator. If needed a diver or a sniper is brought along.

Mos describes five years of Dutch NH90 operations as ‘transitioning from crouching to walking’. Since 2012, the NH90 has been constantly deployed aboard Dutch Royal Navy ships, taking part in successful counter-piracy missions in African waters and counter-drugs operations in Carribean seas. “We are happy with the progress made over the last years. In fact, crews are generally very happy with the NH90. Yes, there were some issues as a result of constant updates and modifications, but we feel we have a platform that offers great stability and lots of potential.”

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
An NH90 takes off for local flight around De Kooy airfield. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
This NH90 is seen here in Final Radar Configuration. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Reality
The positive attitude is shared by NH90 crews in New Zealand and Belgium – as Airheadsfly.com found at last year. It contrasts however with findings in Finland and Germany, were the NH90 is under constant pressure. It also contrasts with corrosion and quality control issues found last year on Dutch NH90s already delivered, forcing a complete stop of new deliveries. “We work together very well with NHI, who had committed itself to tackle those issues”, says Mos while showing parts on the NH90’s nose that have had anti-corrosion treatments. “As for the criticism: it frustrates the crews, as they think it is unjustified. Also, advanced defense platforms such as the NH90 need time to mature. That’s the reality of today.”

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
The scene at the flightline…. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
… which is also the scene of minor maintenance being done. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

OT&E
The Dutch NH90s are currently involved in Operation & Test and Evaluation (OT&E) for added capabilities, such as sonar deployment for tracking down submarines, plus torpedo launches. The sonar capability is currently tested in operational conditions in operation Trident Juncture in Spanish waters, while torpedo launches were tested in the Dutch waters of the Waddenzee, near Den Helder. Torpedo launches will be further tested in a tactical scenario aboard a frigate in the beginning of 2016.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Study of the most advanced helo to serve with the Royal Netherlands Air Force. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
‘Advanced’ is also a term suited to the NH90’s cockpit. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Multiplier
The Final Radar Capability will fulfil the NH90s potential as a force multiplier for naval forces. “The US Coast Guard already named our helicopter as a force multiplier during anti-drug operations in the Carribean”, Mos says. “With the FRC-version, we’ll be able to trully act as a navy ship’s eyes and ears. The NH90’s radar provides a 360 degrees coverage of close to 200 miles. We can see, identify and if necessary attack any ship far away from our own vessel, and all data is transferred to our ship via datalink. Max endurance for the NH90 is about four flying hours.”

At De Kooy, the helicopter practicing lifting underslung loads didn’t take nearly that long. In the decor of a setting sun, the NH90 and its crew return to the flightline, marking the end of the day’s flying. Mos is satisfied: “Right now we are getting the best at the NH90’s current capability. We have learned to walk. In a few years, we’ll get to use the NH90 to its true potential. That’s when we are fully ready. That’s when we’ll be running at full speed.”

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest, video shot and edited by Imaging the Light – vmmd.nl
Featured image (top): No sunset yet for the NH90. The type is just getting up to running speed with the Royal Netherlands Air Force. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
The NH90 is now transporting cargo, troops and special forces, supporting ships in naval operations and assisting in search and rescue operations. Anti-submarine warfare is now being tested. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
NH90_martinMos
A platform like the NH90 needs time to mature, says Martin Mos. (Image © Vincent Kok)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
The end of the day’s flying. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)

Learning from the Master – AHF↑Inside the M-346 training base

At Lecce airbase in southern Italy, there’s a new kid in town. Or actually, there are two. One has wings while the other one has legs and arms and, in a way, wings. They are pinned to his Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) flight suit, the suit that sets him apart from other instructor pilots here in the hot Puglia region of Italy. He’s here to learn to fly the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master, the advanced trainer aircraft that in fact is the other new kid here in Lecce. It’s the newest and most sophisticated addition to the Alenia Aermacchi trainer aircraft family. Hence the Dutch interest.

As reported here on Airheadsfly.com in September, the Dutch instructor pilot started flying the M-346 in order to train RNLAF student pilots here next Spring, when they will fly the M-346 for the first time as a Lead in Fighter Trainer (LIFT). If all goes to plan, the M-346 Master will be their final step towards the F-16 and, some years from now, the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. At Lecce, they are confident the M-346 – designated T-346 in Italian service – will deliver combat ready pilots. For many decades, that’s what the airfield and the based 61st Wing have been all about.

Formation
Base commander Colonel Paolo Tarantino knows like no one else about the M-346 and what it can do for trainee-pilots. Up in the air today the M-346 on his wings is flown by anything but a student. Tarantino and fellow instructor pilots are on their way back to Lecce after visiting the big airshow in Rivolto, celebrating 55 years of the Frecce Tricolori. Tarantino once even commanded the Italy’s national aerobatic team. The formation counts two M-346s, two MB-339Cs and two older MB-339As. Upon arrival, the formation buzzes sun-drenched Lecce a few times. After landing and exiting his M-346, Tarantino’s comments are plain and simple: “Great, great aircraft.”

Later in the airbase mess he adds: “Because it is such a great aircraft I had ordered to start training student pilots on the M-346 several months earlier than originally planned. I came to the conclusion that the jet, the new syllabus and all of us here at Lecce were ready. Over the past year, instructor pilots gained a total of over 1,000 flying hours on the five M-346s available to us. That’s a lot of experience, and we are now training future Italian Air Force fast jet pilots on the M-346.”

Head on with the Italian Air Force T-346. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Head on with the Italian Air Force T-346. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
'Drive by-shooting' at this T-346. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
‘Drive by-shooting’ at this T-346. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Improvement
The new Alenia Aermacchi jet replaces the MB-339CD which was the platform for Phase 4 or Lead-in Fighter Training (LIFT) for two decades. The new M-346 offers an enormous improvement to student and instructor pilots, especially in combination with the extensive ground based training systems at Lecce, all involved say. The single full-mission simulator is as effective as it is impressive, and that’s why a second will be build. Currently, 50 percent of flight training takes place in the simulator on the ground, but this percentage could grow to as much as 80 percent in the future, not in the least thanks to the M-346’s data link capability.

The M-346 learns future combat pilots that flying an advanced aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Lockheed Martin F-35 is all about systems management and tactics. The Master is capable of mimicking those systems. It can provide its pilots with a real time radar image provided by ground based or airborne radar systems, and it can replicate and attack threats on the ground and in the air. Soon, a pilot flying a real M-346 will able to ‘see’ fellow pilots flying right next to him, although they are actually inside one of the simulators on the ground – all of this thanks to Alenia Aermacchi’s Live Virtual Constructive (LVC) training system and symbology on the Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) of the pilot actually flying.

T-346s and MB-339s buzz the airbase. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
T-346s and MB-339s buzz the airbase. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Arriving at Lecce after a successful airshow in Rivolto. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Arriving at Lecce after a successful airshow in Rivolto. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Noses belonging to MB-339s. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Noses belonging to MB-339s. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Multi-national
It’s all very Star Wars-like compared to the MB-339CD, which will remain in use for some time to come as a LIFT platform. Not only for Italian student pilots, but also for future fighter jocks from Austria, Greece, Kuwait and Singapore who all take to the skies at Lecce. However, the number of available M-346s will slowly rise from the current five to eight aircraft in 2016. More will follow the years after. While Italian and Royal Netherlands Air Force aviators already started on the M-346, Polish Air Force pilots will find their way to the aircraft at Lecce soon too. In total, sixteen Polish instructors are to be qualified on the Master, with the first starting in November. Poland is to receive its first own of eight ordered M-346s next year and along with Italy and Singapore is to be part of a newly formed M-346 user group.

At rest between two sorties. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
At rest between two sorties. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The debrief facilities at Lecce are impressive. On the left are three feeds from HUD cameras, (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The debrief facilities at Lecce are impressive. On the left are three feeds from HUD cameras, (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Aggressor
In the meantime the Italian Air Force is also looking at the M-346 as a ‘red air’ asset. Test were already done at Grosseto Airbase, flying the M-346 as an aggressor aircraft against Eurofighter Typhoons. The great flight characteristics and performance of the Master come into play here. The M-346 has excellent roll and turn rates, a climb rate of up to 22,000 feet/min and a maximum level speed of 590 knots. The aircraft is certified for +8G and -3G manoeuvres and can handle a angle of attack to 40 degrees. That’s good enough for bagging a Typhoon or two. The Master is in fact so fighter-like, that the 61st Wing at Lecce changed its emblem from a Penguin to an actual bird of prey. Alenia Aermacchi meanwhile is developing a ground attack variant of the aircraft.

Like Star Wars: the Full Mission Simulator at Lecce. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Like Star Wars: the Full Mission Simulator at Lecce. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Companion
The M-346 is mostly being explored as a ‘companion trainer’ to serve alongside cutting edge but costly 5th generation fighter aircraft. Having F-35 pilots fly operational training missions on a highly capable trainer such as the M-346 while saving F-35 flight hours for actual combat missions seems to be a cost effective solution indeed. It has certainly sparked the interest of the top Royal Netherlands Air Force commanders, as the Dutch fear the number of F-35s on order (37) won’t allow for effective operational training. The M-346 version – designated T-100 – Alenia Aermacchi is about to offer to the US Air Force as a replacement for the T-38 trainer under the T-X program, should be even more suited because of its more powerful engines and a large MFD in the cockpit, similar to the F-35. Alenia Aermacchi official statement is that it is ‘in talks’ with a US partner for the T-X program.

The Dutch interest seems solid, given the three year contract for Dutch fighter pilot training at Lecce. So the new kid in town will be followed by many more, and they will all learn from the Master.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): The M-346 at Lecce. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

An MB-339CD returns after another training sortie. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
An MB-339CD returns after another training sortie. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Head on with not one, but two Italian Air Force T-346s. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Head on with not one, but two Italian Air Force T-346s. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

AHF↑Inside: Orange Mirage Masters

It’s August in southern France. The weather has been sunny and hot for weeks, but things are changing today as dark clouds appear over Orange airbase. An omen for the Dassault Mirage 2000s of Escadron de Chasse (EC) 02.005 “Île de France”, otherwise known as the Orange Masters? This unit, which first stood up in 1941, plays an important role in the history of the Armée de l´Air (French Air Force), being the first unit to land in unoccupied France after World War II. Tragic headlines were also made last March.

After flying many different types of aircraft, many of which were developed by French airplane manufacturer Dassault, the unit has been flying the Mirage 2000 since 1989. Currently the unit has two main tasks; training of pilots for all Mirage 2000 types flying in the Armée de l’Air, and air defence for southeastern France. For this, the unit is equiped with the Mirage 2000C (single seat) and B (twin seat) models. As the Rafale takes over the roles of various Mirage types, it begs the question on how much longer they will grace Orange’s skies.
Getting ready for a ride. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Getting ready for a ride. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
 Training

In the past the unit trained many Mirage 2000 pilots, also for foreign operatos such as Brasil. Nowadays, as newer aircraft types are getting operational, the only foreigners at Orange are exchange pilots. Our guide – nickname Kanoe – is training hard to become a fully qualified Armée de l’Air Mirage 2000C pilot. He’s halfway now. He started his pilot training at Cognac airbase on the TB30 Epsilon basic trainer, then he moved to Tours and Cazaux airbase to fly the Alpha Jet, another type in the autumn of its career.

Early next year, ‘Kanoe’ hopes to become fully qualified on the C model. “I personally prefer a single seat aircraft over a two seat aircraft, as I like to be fully in control of every decision to be made.” He then proudly tells about the progression he’s making, as just this morning he got his first Mirage 2000D kill during a 2 vs 2 air to air combat mission against Mirage 2000D’s from Nancy airbase. Unfortunately, after the first D left the scene, the two C’s were killed by the remaining D. But anyway, after the debrief of the mission he also gained experience from this. An everage one hour mission costs about 15.000 euro and takes five hours in total including briefing, flight preparations and debriefing.

This Bravo gets some maintenance inside the hangar. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This Mirage 2000B gets some maintenance done inside the hangar. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Air defence

More recently, the Orange-based Mirages made international headlines on 24 March this.  That day, a single Mirage was scrambled to intercept an unresponsive Airbus A320 flying from Barcelona to Düsseldorf. That flight was of course Germanwings flight 4U 9525, which tragically crashed by the hands of its own co-pilot, only half a minute before the Mirage  was able to reach it.

The intercept was part of EC 02.005’s air defense task over southeastern France. There are two Mirage 2000C on 24/7 Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) . Pilots on duty remain on a separate part of the base, close to the special aircraft shelter, next to the main runway. In 2014 the unit also performed QRA for NATO’s Baltic Air Policing misson, operating from Malbork airbase in Poland

On to the runway for another training sortie! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
On to the runway for another training sortie! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Last checks are done before the aircraft will taxy for another mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Last checks are done before the aircraft will taxy for another mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Future
It’s planned the Mirage 2000C with its Magic-2 air-to-air missile will continue to fulfill the QRA until 2018. At that time, this mission will most probably be taken over by the Mirage 2000-5. This aircraft, which is a modified version, flies with EC 01.002 Cicognes from Luxeuil airbase. It is assumed they will have a detachment at Orange from that time.

In the meantime, it started raining cats and dogs at the airbase, as a pair of resident Mirages return from an afternoon mission. ‘Kanoe’ said he never saw a Mirages taxying through such large water pools before.  Lets hope the future has better things in store for the historical unit that is EC02.005. As the unit seems to lose its air defence role from 2018, the C model Mirage mainly will be used to keep more experienced pilots current on flying combat aircraft. Will that be enough? Time will tell.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Dennis Spronk
Featured image (top): In front of its shelter this Mirage is waitint to leave for another sortie.  (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Yes, this is also "sunny" Orange. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Yes, this is also “sunny” Orange. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Getting arty-farty with this nice angle. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Getting arty-farty with this nice angle. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
These two Mirages wait patiently for their maintenance. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
These two Mirages wait patiently for their maintenance. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Last checks are done before the aircraft will taxy for another mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Last checks are done before the aircraft will taxy for another mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Preflight checking inside the shelter. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Preflight checking inside the shelter. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
More Mirage maintenance being done. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
More Mirage maintenance being done. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

AHF↑Inside: Ridin’ the Stratotanker

“First flight Boeing KC-46 delayed until summer,” aviation news headlines read recently. Over Germany, it’s of no concern to the three crew members of a 55 year old Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, belonging to the 174th Air Refuelling Squadron of the Iowa Air National Guard. Why? Because theirs is such a nice aircraft to fly, thanks especially to the four CFM-56 turbofan engines that sort of define the ‘R’ version of the KC-135. “These engines make it climb like a rocket,” says Major Joe Bousqet. “On the other hand, it’s a stable aircraft, which is perfect for our task: refuelling other aircraft.” We’ll have to wait until Summer to know if the KC-46 is capable of doing the same.

‘Climb like a rocket.’ The words ring in our ears as we roll down runway 27 at Geilenkirchen Airbase at five in the afternoon, with 105,000 pounds of jet fuel in our tanks. And indeed as soon as the KC-135 – normally based at Colonel Bud Day Field, Sioux City – rotates, Geilenkirchen vanishes beneath us at an impressive rate. A long left turn brings us to a north easterly heading towards Northern Germany, where we will fly a race track pattern for several hours.

Airheadsfly.com's mode of transportation on 18 March 2015. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Airheadsfly.com’s mode of transportation on 18 March 2015. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The crew gets to work prior to take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The crew gets to work prior to take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Demand
It’s business as usual for Bousqet and his crew. They have been at Geilenkirchen for a week now and will remain there for another, supporting the local AWACS aircraft. They know their KC-135 is in high demand, not only here over Germany, but also in current operations anywhere. “Yeah, we get around,” says Bousqet, who in civilian life flies McDonnell Douglas MD-80 airliners in the US. But now, he’s on the lookout for our customer, an E-3 AWACS that’s supposed to fly somewhere in front of us.

Experience also our feature AHF↑Inside: NATO’s AWACS Nest

In the back, boom operator Staff Sgt. Mike Perez has taken his position at the boom operator’s station. “Most of this stuff is as old as the airplane itself, but it works,” he says while demonstrating the two joysticks that operate the boom that transfers the fuel to the customer aircraft, which, incidentally, glides into view beneath us, still 1,000 feet lower. The grey-white fuselage of the NATO AWACS is as easily recognizable as the large black radome over it. After we make radio contact, the E-3A approaches cautiously until only the cockpit and front section fills the glass screen that provides our boom operator which such a unique view of the world. It’s a great scene, especially with the setting sun later on.

Contact
With a calm voice, Perez guides the E-3’s pilot to where he should be, and finally moves the fuel nozzle at the end of the refuelling boom to where that should be: in the E-3’s fuel receptacle on top of the forward fuselage.

“Contact,” Perez tells the E-3 pilot. The fuel begins to flow and it marks the first of 17 more hook ups like this, although on most occasions there’s no fuel transferred. The E-3 pilots just practice staying in position ‘on the boom’, guided by Perez’s reassuring voice.

Upgraded
Meanwhile in the KC-135R’s cockpit, the two pilots monitor their instruments and the race track pattern on their screens. The Stratotanker’s office has been upgraded countless times, and now features partly ‘glass’ instruments. “That’s great to work with, but there’s still plenty of dials and gauges,” says co-pilot Lt. Caleb Barber, pointing to the dials in the middle of the console that show what the four CFM-56’s are up to. “Those haven’t changed much.”

Nevertheless, the KC-135 has seen many variants over the years. Boeing built no less than 732 KC-135s in Renton in Washington; the very first KC-135 first took flight on 31 August 1956. A lot of them have been retired already, but the with 414 Stratotankers still in service the most current KC-135Rs will be the mainstay of the US Air Force’s and Air National Guard’s tanker capability for years to come, until it’s successor – the KC-46A – is mission ready in numbers.

To be truthful, the KC-46 did fly late 2014, but without any air-refuelling equipment. Boeing is now installing it in the aircraft, and it won’t look and work like anything at all aboard the KC-135. “It gets a bit uncomfortable, lying here for hours at a time,” says Perez in the back of the KC-135 over Germany.

The boom operator has just chalked up the 16th hook up for that night. Evening has fallen and the E-3 is only faintly visible beneath us, just as we overfly the city of Bremershaven along the German coast. The receptacle is clearly lit however and in darkness, two more hook ups take place. In the cockpit, Bousqet and Barber prepare for the return to Geilenkirchen.

An E-3 in 'pre-contact' position. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
An E-3 in ‘pre-contact’ position. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
No setting sun yet for the KC-135. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
No setting sun yet for the KC-135. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Pegasus
Meanwhile in the States, preparations for the KC-46’s first fully equipped flight are being made, but delays in the program and all the turmoil that got the Boeing aircraft finally chosen over the Airbus KC-30 have given the KC-46 a bad start. The 2017 deadline of entry-into-service will quickly not be met. Nevertheless, the US intends to buy a total of 179 KC-46s, named Pegasus.

Back in European skies it’s dark with a bit of low cloud as our KC-135R is heading home, lined up for the Runway 27 at ILS approach to Geilenkirchen. At 400 feet, the Stratotanker breaks out of the clouds and the runway lights show themselves. As the wheels touch down there’s 32,000 pounds of fuel remaining. We burned 28,000 pounds of fuel ourselves and we gave 45,000 pounds away to a happy customer. It’s a scenario repeated countless times by the Stratotanker, who’s legendary name will keep ringing in the ears of KC-46 Pegasus crews for a long time to come.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): The KC-135R cockpit, with night falling outside. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

(Image © Dennis Spronk)
The legendary shape of the legendary Stratotanker. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Welcome aboard! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Welcome aboard! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The business end. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The business end. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After landing, the KC-135 is cared for by the ground crew. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After landing, the KC-135 is cared for by the ground crew. (Image © Dennis Spronk)