UPDATED 6 February | The first Italian-made F-35A Lightning II is all set to start the type’s first ever Transatlantic flight to the US on Tuesday 2 February, sources in Italy confirm. A Boeing KC-767 tanker aircraft and a two seater Eurofighter Typhoon accompany the brand new fighter aircraft on its way, which includes a stop over at Lajes airbase in the Azores.
Update | The flight was delayed on 2 February due to weather. The F-35 left Italy on Wednesday 3 February and arrived in Lajes, Portugal, later in the day. A picture of the aircraft in Lajes is here. The F-35 and accompanying aircraft finally arrived at Patuxent River in the US on Friday 5 February.
An Italian Air Force pilot from the test squadron at Pratica di Mare will fly the F-35 on its flight over Atlantic, the very first of this kind for the new generation stealth aircraft. In the backseat of the Typhoon will be another Italian F-35 pilot. The flight to Lajes is expected to take 4.5 hours. Air-to-air refueling with the KC-767 was validated last year in the US.
Tests and training
After the stop over in Lajes, another 6.5 hour flight takes the F-35 and two accompanying aircraft to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in the US. The F-35 will then remain there for six weeks for tests, before finally moving on to Luke Air Force Base. Here, the aircraft wil be used to train Italian pilots.
The second Italian made F-35 is now performing test flights at Cameri and will be among four more Italian aircraft to follow the same route later this year. By the end of 2016, the sixth aircraft produced in Cameri will be the first to remain in Italy. Cameri will also see production of Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) jets.
Italy formally has eight F-35s on order and is still debating the final number of aircraft to be ordered. That number is expected to be 90, after dropping from 131 earlier.
Representatives from F-35 program partners such as the US, UK, Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia and Norway witnessed the delivery ceremony at Cameri. The purposely built Alenia Aermacchi factory accommodates both an F-35 production line and maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade facilities.
The Australian aircraft are at Luke as well, while the two Dutch F-35s are to be found at Edwards airbase for operational test and evalution (OT&E). The British Lightning IIs are at Edwards also for tests.
No air power without air-to-air-refueling. But also, no air-to-air refueling without certifications, clearances, bilateral agreements between countries and heaps of paperwork. The infamous European ‘tanker gap’ perhaps is not a matter of aircraft after all, but a matter of overcoming bureaucracy and inefficiency, it appears during the current European Air-to-Air Refueling Training (EART) at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands. If anything, participating tanker crews are determined to work together as closely as possible.
The platform at Eindhoven usually houses just two Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tanker aircraft, but until 24 April an Airbus A310 MRTT from Germany, an Italian Air Force KC-767 plus a French Air Force KC-135R join the two Dutch aircraft. Together with their crews, all aircraft participate in EART, an initiative started by the Eindhoven-based European Air Transport Command (EATC), which commands large parts of the military air transport and tanker fleets of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain.
This exercise specifically for tanker aircraft originated from lessons learned during Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011, says Eric van Osch, attached to EATC and a flight engineer on the KDC-10. “During those flights all nations used the same standardized procedures, but nevertheless we noticed slight variations in planning, radio communication and other operational details. Those variations made efficient use of available tankers hard at times. This exercise here at Eindhoven is held to harmonize operations, get to know each other even better and use our joint assets more efficiently.”
The current shared feeling is that European tanker capacity is sufficient in peace times, but falling behind in major operations or during large scale conflict. Optimal use or available aircraft and purchase of new tankers should close this ‘gap’.
For two weeks, the aircraft participating in EART refuel fighter aircraft that participate in Frisian Flag 2015. Today, the Dutch KDC-10 is joined in the air by four Polish F-16Cs and four Dutch F-16AMs, while the Italian KC-767 supplies fuel to other fighters. The Italians and French are able to refuel using both the boom and probe and drogue method, while the Dutch and Germans only use the boom and drogue method respectively. The US Air National Guard F-15 Eagles currently at Leeuwarden are only allowed to refuel on the French tanker. Once more, an example of clearances, certifications and other bureaucratic headaches.
The EART tankers fly twice a day, giving away precious fuel to Frisian Flag players. Air-to-air refueling allows the fighter pilots to stay close to their target area, a necessity in current operations around the globe.
Modern air power requires air-to-air refueling and tankers are said to be in short supply in Europe. Several nations have joined forces and are looking to buy at least four A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft from Airbus, with a request for proposal expected soon. These aircraft will serve as a joint pool for the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Norway. NATO will pay for the aircraft and they will operate from Eindhoven, with forward operating bases in Norway and Poland. Deliveries start in 2019 at the earliest. Dutch 334 squadron will likely be absorbed into the new European tanker unit.
“That means the end for the fantastic KDC-10 in our fleet”, says Van Osch, who has flown on KDC-10s since the aircraft was introduced into Dutch service twenty years ago, although both KDC-10s were actually built in the seventies and used by charter airline Martinair before. “It’s a great and fantastic, stable platform for air-to-air refueling. And of course, it has lots of character.”
Racetrack Dutch Viper pilots flying next to us have ear nor eye for any of that. They are looking for gas and are happily supplied with exactly that by our KDC-10, which is orbiting the ‘Shell’ racetrack over the North Sea. Another five minutes and some friendly waving later, they disappear to continue their Frisian Flag mission.
During EART, air crews fly along on board each other’s aircraft to observe variations in procedures. These variations are discussed back at Eindhoven, where academics also take place. Ground personnel is also involved, with turnaround times for aircraft during the exercise being shorter than usual. This year’s EART follows up last year’s first successful edition, which was also held at Eindhoven. Participating crews are enthusiastic about it. According to EATC there’s a lot of potential for growth, with future exercises possibly held elsewhere also.
EART allows more efficient use of European tanker aircraft, while the number of available tankers is set to grow. The European tanker gap seems to close slowly but steadily, just like another F-16 pilot who slowly but steadily approaches our KDC-10 and gets to hear the word he wants to hear at the end: contact!
Large scale military flying exercise Frisian Flag 2015 is currently in full swing at Leeuwarden airbase in the Netherlands and Airheadsfly.com went access all areas on Tuesday 14 April. Close to 60 fighter aircraft from six different nations take part in Frisian Flag, which coincides with the European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training 2015 (EART 2015) at Eindhoven airbase, also in Netherlands.
During Frisian Flag, military jets fly in complex scenarios twice a day. The aim is to broaden the experience of fighter pilots in developing, planning and executing offensive and defensive tactics. Involved in the current Frisian Flag are F-16s from the Dutch and Polish air forces, F-18 Hornets from both Finland and Spain, Eurofighter Typhoons from Germany, plus US Air National Guard F-15 Eagles. Lots more about those Eagles is here.
Robust Frisian Flag was first held following joint allied operations over the Balkan in the early nineties. “We train crews in missions against robust airborne and ground threats, including Roland and German SA-6 ground-to-air defence systems, inflatable targets and smokey SAMs, which simulate missiles being launched at aircraft. It provides the best training you can get,” says Dutch F-16 pilot Remco, a pilot of Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) 322 TACTES Squadron with 1,000 hours on the F-16 under his belt. Since 323 Squadron left for the US to learn to fly the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II late last year, 322 Squadron has taken over the responsibility for organizing Frisian Flag.
Leadership Remco was mission commander on the first missions of this year’s exercise. “Frisian Flag is all about leadership and it challenges you. You have to know the capabilities of each participating asset and deploy them as best as you can. Planning of each mission takes about six hours, and we only finish after landing during a mass debrief. Those debriefs get quite heated at times about which tactics worked and which didn’t. But the proof is always there on the screens. That’s lessons learned in the end.”
Frisian Flag has been a familiar name among European air combat exercises for years and past editions has drew countless air crews to Leeuwarden. The airbase staff puts a lot of effort in explaining the necessity of Frisian Flag to the population of Leeuwarden. The airbase is located close to the town and noise complaints are a fact of life, with roughly 40 aircraft taking off and landing twice every day for two weeks.
The real playground for Frisian Flag is however not Leeuwarden, but a 180nm by 322nm reserved airspace over the North Sea which extends towards Northern Germany in the East. Flying time to the area from Leeuwarden is just three minutes. However, the use of tanker aircraft makes for more efficient missions. Frisian Flag is therefore combined with European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training 2015 (EART 2015), run by European Air Transport Command (EATC) at Eindhoven airbase. Tanker aircraft supporting the Frisian Flag participants are a Dutch KDC-10, French KC-135 Stratotanker, German A310 MRTT and Italian KC-767 tanker aircraft. More on EART 2015 next week here at Airheadsfly.com.
Frisian Flag, along with similar exercises such as Red Flag and Maple Flag, serves as a constant platform for exchanging experience and ideas. The arrival of the F-35 at Leeuwarden in 2019 – and the new tactics involved with the new 5th generation fighter – means Frisian Flag will see changes in the future. “We are working on that,” says Remco. Current experiences over Iraq and earlier scenarios over Afghanistan and Libya are being incorporated into the exercise.
Both Frisian Flag and EART run until 24 April. The Air National Guard F-15s will stay at Leeuwarden for an extra week and will eventually head to Graf Ignatievo Airbase in Bulgaria as part of US operation Atlantic Resolve.
Forget switching off some lights, the real EART hour is approaching! For the second year in a row several European nations are scrambling their military in-flight refuelling assets to show what the real deal of modern combat is about: keeping fighter jets in the air with the flying gas stations.
“As the air operations of Unified Protector over Libya in 2011 showed, we need to train together in advance for a smooth multinational operation,” the PR staff of the European Air Transport Command (EATC) writes in a statement on why the European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training (EART) is needed. “Moreover, the United States Forces are planning to deploy major parts of their air-to-air refuelling fleet out of Europe while only a few of the European Union member states operate tanker aircraft.”
Those EU nations are France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, but not all have their aircraft assigned to the joined pool. In contrary to the US forces, the tanker assets of the EU nations are less numerous and less standardised. While the US armed forces operates a massive fleet of 414 Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker (USAF), 59 McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) KC-10 Extender (USAF) and 72 KC-130T/J Hercules aircraft (US Marines Corps), European nations working together in the EATC can assign 26 tankers max.
Some of those European tanker aircraft will see action in the skies over the Netherlands, Denmark, Northern Germany and the North Sea North Sea from 13 April to 24 April 2015 during EART 2015. The tanker ops will come quite handy to the participants of NATO and the military alliance’s Partnership for Peace Air Forces while their combat aircraft are conducting offensive and defensive missions at the same time from Leeuwarden Airbase in the Netherlands during the large scale exercise Frisian Flag 2015.
EART 2015 is being run from Eindhoven Airbase further south, home to the transport and tanker pool managed by the European Air Transport Command. The French Air Force (Armée de l’Air) will contribute one or more of its 14 Boeing C-135F/FR Stratotankers. The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) sends one or more of its four Airbus A310 MRTTs, while Italy (Aeronautica Militare) supplies one or more of its four Boeing KC-767A aircraft. The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) will have at least one of its two McDonnell Douglas KDC-10s available. The Swedish TP 84 (KC-130) Hercules and the Royal Air Force’s Voyager (Airbus A330 MRTT) fleet are not assigned to the EATC. Spain has chosen not to participate with its two Boeing 707/KC-707s.
“The general purpose of the training is to create a realistic training environment to exchange information and practice among tanker and jet crews, as well as to enable certification processes between tanker and receiver aircraft,” the EATC’s PR staff writes.