The only true British military transport aircraft type in Royal Air Force service has turned 35 years old. On 3 September 1981 the BAe 146 took first to the skies, as a regional airliner, at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Many years later the four RAF machines are part of the surviving active fleet of 220 BAe 146s worldwide.
Serving with No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron at RAF Nordholt two BAe 146 CCMk2s are there to transport members of the Royal Family and other senior government or military hotshots. A pair of grey painted BAe 146 CMk3s – based on the civilian QC variant – provide tactical air transport in both the passenger and palletised freight role.
RAF’s quartet are part of a successful British regional jetliner production when looking at the numbers. A total of 394 BAe 146s – and its successor the Avro RJ – were built until production ceased after 22 years of operations in November 2003 in Woodford, Ceshire. Together the type has made more than 12 million hours of flight.
In a civilian role the BAe 146s often provide freight services, for example with Virgin Australia. In parts of Europe the type is commonly deployed as city hopper, for example between Stockholm-Bromma and Brussels IAP.
In the aerial firefighting role three operators in North America will use the machine as a 3000 gallon fire extinguisher and are replacing older piston and turboprop aircraft.
With many of the aircraft having made 20,000 to 35,000 take-offs and landings, most of the BAe 146s are still very much able to double or almost triple that number the coming decades.
A new flock of F-35 Lightning IIs reached Europe on Wednesday 29 June. A Royal Air Force F-35B touched down at a rainy Fairford airbase on its first ever visit to the UK, accompanied by two United States Marine Corps (USMC) F-35Bs. The three jets arrived after a transatlantic flight from the US and will take part in airshows at Fairford and Farnborough over the next few weeks.
The aircraft’s arrival marks the second time in just over a month that Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation fighter jet flies to Europe. Last month, two Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35As arrived in the Netherlands for a three-week stay, also appearing at the type’s very first airshow outside the US.
The three jets were supposed to arrive on Monday already, but an issue with one of two supporting US Air Force tankers caused a 48-hour delay.
For Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s presence in Fairford and Farnborough is a major PR-moment, especially after the failed attempt to get the new jet to the UK in 2014. Joining the three F-35Bs should be two US Air Force F-35As from Luke Air Force Base. These are scheduled to arrive in the UK on Thursday.
The British F-35B should give a full role demo display, while the USMC jets will fly in formation with a KC-130 tanker during the airshow. The US Air Force F-35A is supposed to take part in a heritage flight. The airshow at Fairford also marks the first time the F-35 and its bigger stablemate, the F-22 Raptor, jointly take part in an airshow in European skies.
A knowing smile. During multinational military exercise Frisian Flag at Leeuwarden airbase, that’s all US Air National Guard general Eric Vollmecke has to offer about this week’s surprise deployment of US F-22 Raptors to the UK. This year’s edition of Frisian Flag will have to make do with the Raptor’s predecessor, the F-15C Eagle.
Last year’s participation left US Eagle drivers wanting more. No surprise for the exercise that has earned it’s credits in the world of military air combat. It’s something to be proud of, says airbase commander Denny Traas. And yes, he doesn’t mind playing host to some Raptors at some time in the future.
Whereas terms like coalition, leadership and multinational cooperation are usually the talk of the town during Frisian Flag, this Tuesday it’s Raptors what it’s all about. Sure, Leeuwarden is filled to the brim with advanced warplanes, but none quite so advanced as the F-22s currently in the UK, merely 30 minutes flying time away. Traas: “We are always looking for new aircraft types to bring to Frisian Flag, each with its own capabilities and its own limitations.”
The goal of Frisian Flag is to make participating air crews aware of each aircraft type’s characteristics. That knowledge enables pilots to put together large and mixed formations of military aircraft in an effective way. It turns pilots into leaders and single nations into a partner in today’s multinational military coalitions.
At Leeuwarden, that coalition consists of the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, the US, the UK, Finland and Poland, each sending warplanes to Leeuwarden. Their jet noise shakes the airbase twice each day for two weeks. It’s when the aircraft take off and head to the training areas over the North Sea. The impressive stream of fighter aircraft easily attracts hundreds of aviation enthusiasts – plus as many noise complaints from the neighbouring town.
Once in the training areas, the participants engage threats in the air and on the ground. It offers a welcome change to refresh skills that perhaps are dormant in current live operations over Syria and Iraq, where air-to-air combat is non-exsistent. Base commander Traas: “Frisian Flag fills that gap and results in pilots that are ready for any scenario at any time, with no lead times needed. We train any scenario here at Leeuwarden, not just those modeled after current campaigns.” Given recent events, has a scenario featuring a large scale conflict involving Russia maybe been taking out of the drawer after resting there for two decades? Another knowing but silent smile, from Traas this time.
Both Finland and Poland would benefit from such a scenario. At the same time, neither country has taken part in recent ops over the Middle East, although Poland ponders to do so. “This is one of the most imporant exercises for us each year, along with the Tiger Meet”, says a Polish Air Force F-16 pilot. Despite not having actual combat experience, the Polish Air Force – celebrating ten years of F-16 operations later this year – bring something valuable to Leeuwarden. Traas: “They are the only ones bringing advanced F-16Cs, just like the Finnish are the only ones bringing F-18 Hornets. Again, the more aircraft types, the better.”
As far as US Air National Guard pilot David ‘Moon’ Halasi-Kun is concerned, there’s still not much better than the F-15C Eagle behind him. “It is still the most highly capable and proven air superiority fighter in existence. The F-15 with its active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar brings very unique capabilities, just as the F-22 with its stealthiness brings unique capabilities.” Combined, the two deliver air dominance, says ‘Moon’.
Together with 40 or so other Eagle pilots from the Massachusetts and California Air National Guards, ‘Moon’ for the next six months augments US firepower over Europe. Frisian Flag marks the start of the deployment, which should see the aircraft and crew head further into Europe.
According to Leeuwarden base commander Denny Traas, there is a ‘fair chance’ that Frisian Flag will hosts another non-European air force in the future. Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) observers are closely watching the current exercise. Raptors or Australian F-18 Super Hornets in the future? Well, why not have both? Because yes, the more, the better in the air combat household name that now is Frisian Flag.
In social circles, I find that my profession is an unusual one about which I get asked some pretty standard questions: “how fast have you been? How high have you been? Do you ever get scared?” Luckily, pilots love to talk about themselves and flying in general. The chats I like are those which ask questions I haven’t even thought about. Some of these were “what’s the coolest thing you’ve seen?” and “what are your most memorable flights?”
So, the coolest thing I’ve seen? I can’t choose one thing, but I can probably make a shortlist.
1. Watching the Northern Lights on NVGs while I was flying from Scotland.
2. Watching my wingman trail a shockwave behind him with the sun setting behind him at low level over the North Sea
3. Watching mount Etna erupt with massive thunderstorms all around me while I flew on NVGs on my way to Libya
4. Landing on a compacted snow runway at Bodo in Norway
5. Looking in my mirrors as I left contrails behind me flying a barrel roll at 38,000’ in a Typhoon for the first time
6. Looking at the curvature of the earth from 50,000 over the Falkland Islands flying at Mach 2
7. The view on top of the clouds on a rainy day
My most memorable flights?
1. First solo in every aeroplane I’ve flown
2. First flight in every aeroplane I’ve flown
3. My “wings trip” when I passed my advanced flight course on the hawk
4. Passenger flights when I took ground crew flying as passengers
5. The first time I went air to air refuelling
6. My first war time flight
7. The first time I dropped a bomb in anger
8. My third trip on the Typhoon OCU where students are introduced the high performance capability of the jet
As for the standard questions?
Twice the speed of sound, 55,000’ and yes. We can chat in more detail about some of these flights another time, unless you can think of a different question you would ask?
The Royal Air Force’s fleet of modernized Puma helicopters reached the 10,000 flight hour mark recently. Under the direction of the Puma Life Extension Programme, a landmark in fleet renewal programs, the helicopters were upgraded to new-generation standards and are now operating in the UK and on overseas deployments.
In 2008, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) was faced with a perfect storm: a financial crisis rocked the world just when budget constraints and the high operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan were placing a heavy toll on the U.K.’s military rotary wing fleet. At the same time, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) aging AS330 Puma helicopters were set to go out of service. With few alternatives to replace them, retiring the Puma fleet put the nation’s rotary wing capability into a vulnerable position.
Airbus Helicopters approached the British with a proposal for a Puma upgrade that would cost significantly less than investing in a new fleet and which could be delivered in less time: the Puma Life Extension Programme (LEP). This proposal involved carrying out a major retrofit of the RAF’s Puma AS330 BA helicopters that would equip the aircraft with modern 21st Century capabilities. “The British MoD was one of the first defence organisations to consider the significant upgrade of older aircraft rather than buying new,” says Ian Morris, Head of Defence for Airbus Helicopters U.K. “In terms of providing a cost effective solution, their decision, which had many detractors, could be described as visionary.”
Airbus Helicopters Romania
Out of a total of 24 helicopters, an initial four were sent to Airbus Helicopters’ headquarters in Marignane, France to aid in the design, early upgrade and flight-testing of a prototype. The remaining 20 Pumas were sent to Airbus Helicopters Romania and upgraded according to the French design specifications. “A crucial aspect of this program was that Romania had both built and maintained more AS330s than anyone else in the world,” says Simon Heath, program manager for the Puma LEP. “
The helicopters then returned to Airbus Helicopters U.K. for final completion and installation of U.K. specific avionics. The first deliveries were made to the RAF in 2012; all 24 are now in the Air Force’s hands.
Fight the aircraft
The advantages over the older model are myriad. “When we stripped all the wiring out and put in modern avionics, we saved about 250 kilograms. We replaced that with additional fuel carrying capacity,” says Heath. A fifth fuel tank was coupled with a 25 percent reduction in fuel consumption, thanks to two new Makila 1A1 engines, leading to a considerably increased operating range and nearly double the payload. The more powerful engines mean the Puma has an increased maximum all-up mass, offering more disposable mass, which can be delivered in the most demanding of environmental conditions for use in either fuel or troops. Safety is also significantly enhanced with advanced avionics, and the latest 4 axis digital autopilot, which allows for ‘carefree handling’ to free up the pilot’s capacity to ‘fight the aircraft’ more effectively. The on-board systems are effective in allowing operations to continue safely in limited visibility conditions such as ‘brown outs’ during desert landings.
In a relatively short time frame, the Puma 2s began operations, thanks in large part to the partnership between the MoD, the RAF and Airbus Helicopters. Working in close cooperation to cover all operational requirements, the manufacturer was instrumental in helping the Ministry achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for the Puma 2 fleet in February 2015. Together with Airbus Helicopters Romania and Vector Aerospace, a team working at RAF Benson completed modifications and maintenance. Three weeks later, ahead of schedule and to cost, the Puma 2s were deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Toral, NATO’s training and support mission.
It quickly became the backbone of the UK’s Afghan operations; to date, shortly after achieving Full Operating Capability in January 2016, the RAF now has flown over 10,000 flight hours in the upgraded Pumas. “The abiding comment you get about the Puma 2 from the crews is that it’s ‘awesome’,” says Heath.