In December, French Dassault Rafales and British Eurofighter Typhoons meet US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors during exercise Trilaterale Initiative (TEI) at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. The three fighter jet types will operate alongside eachother for the first time during this exercise, which lasts until 18 December.
The French contingent arrived at Langley this week after an Atlantic crossing that orginated at Saint Dizier airbase in France. They brought six Rafales, two CF-135 Stratotankers and 150 personnel.
US Air Force F-15 Eagles and T-38 Talons will serve as adversaries during Trilaterale Initiative, while E-3 AWACS and KC-135 tanker aircraft provide support. First orientation flights for the exercise started on Friday 4 December.
The Baltic states provided the stage again for NATO exercise BRTE on Tuesday 29 September. It’s training on the job for Hungarian Saab Gripen and German Eurofighter Typhoon crews, who are on in the Baltics foremost for Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties. Finnish F-18 Hornet and Swedish Saab Gripen pilots also played are part in BRTE.
The abbreviation stands for Baltic Region Training Events, a series of military flying exercises conducted over the Baltics and Baltic Sea. The exercise is meant to keep QRA-crews on their toes. The Hungarians protect the Baltics from intruders from Šiauliai airbase in Lithuania, while the German do so from Ämari airbase in Estonia.
Today’s exercise focussed on Siauliai, with a Lithuanian C-27J Spartan simulating a loss of communications (COMLOSS) in Estonian airspace. German Eurofighter Typhoons launched to intercept and identify the transport aircraft and then hand it over to the Hungarian Saab Gripen jets, which escorted it back to Šiauliai. Also involved were a NATO Boeing E-3 AWACS and a US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker.
The first NATO Boeing E-3 AWACS to be retired set off for its final flight on Tuesday 23 June. The aircraft took off from Geilenkirchen airbase, its home for over 30 years, and headed for Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Once there, the aircraft will be placed in storage with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, better known as AMARG.
The final flight involved a final air-to-air refuelling off the coast of the US state of New England. At AMARG, re-usable parts worth roughly 35 million EUR are removed from the aircraft. The E-3 will then remain in storage for three years, after which it is likely to be scrapped. See the final landing at Davis Monthan here.
The aircraft selected to retire (tail number LX-N90449) was scheduled for a 15 million EUR Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) inspection mid-July 2015. Instead, the decision was made to retire the AWACS.
During its operational NATO career the airframe gathered well over 22,000 flight hours, operating out of 21 different countries. It flew its very final operational mission on 13 May 2015.
The E-3 is one of the few NATO AWACS aircraft not to receive a cockpit upgrade by Boeing. The upgrade involves a part glass cockpit, but is limited to 14 aircraft. With the departure of LX-N90449, a total of 16 AWACS aircraft are left at Geilenkirchen.
NATO’s E-3A Component at Geilenkirchen airbase in Germany retired its first Boeing E-3A Sentry this week, a spokesperon confirmed on 15 May. The aircraft, registered LX-N90449, was taken on its final mission on Wednesday 13 May and welcomed with a water salute from the fire brigade as it returned to Geilenkirchen for the last time. Read here for on inside report from Geilenkirchen.
The retired aircraft served NATO for well over 30 years, being delivered in the early 80s. Over the next few weeks, sensitive and re-usable equipment is taken out, after which the aircraft will be flown to desert storage in Tucson, Arizona, on 23 June. There, the equipment that was needed for the ferry flight, is also taken out of LX-N90449. The Sentry will then rest among hundreds and hundreds of other retired military aircraft at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, better known as AMARG.
The retirement leaves 16 E-3As in operation at Geilenkirchen. Out of those, 14 are to be updated with a part-glass cockpit. The first aircraft is currently undergoing tests in the US, with the first E-3A Component pilot having flown the aircraft on 29 April. The entire modification program is set to be done in 2018.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.