So you want to Buy an F-104 Starfighter?

Want to buy an F-104 Starfighter? They come up for sale every so often and for surprisingly reasonable prices. You can read the history of the F-104 here, but the BLUF is that the F-104 Starfighter was once the pre-eminent air superiority fighter of the Western world. Affectionately called the “missile with a man in it,” the F-104 set numerous altitude and speed records upon its arrival and held the unofficial altitude record of 120,800 feet until bested by a highly modified Mig-25. The F-104 Starfighter had perhaps its most prominent moment in the movie, “The Right Stuff” as actor Sam Shepard, portraying pilot Chuck Yeager, uses a Starfighter to climb almost to the edge of space in an attempt to set a new altitude record. While flying around in a retired F-104 Starfighter would be awesome, there are some things you should know if you see one for sale.

An early U.S. Air Force F-104A Starfighter as it would have been delivered from the factory. These early Starfighters crushed almost every standing speed and altitude record then in existence and played an important part in advancing U.S. fighter design. Although quickly passed out of service by the U.S. Air Force, the Starfighter served with other countries into the 21st century and was an important test platform for NASA for decades. NASA Photo.

A quick look on Controller.com shows a former Jordanian Air Force F-104 Starfighter for sale as a fixer upper at $85,900.00. The three important aspects of this particular aircraft are that it is mostly intact, has already been imported into the United States and has been registered with the FAA. That would take care of most of the grunt work for a buyer as getting a retired warbird into the country can be a difficult undertaking. The fact that it has its original engine and wing tanks make it a particularly good candidate for restoration to flying status. It’s not listed whether this particular aircraft was sent or not, but a number of Jordanian F-104’s flew combat missions in support of Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War.

The advantage of restoring an F-104 Starfighter is the availability of parts. The F-104 remained a front line fighter with the Italian Air Force until 2004, with the Turkish Air Force until the late 90’s and satellite imagery as of 2017 shows the Greek Air Force still has almost all of it’s F-104’s that were photographed in 2011 still held in ready reserve. Some of the Italian F-104’s have been sold to private vendors who are selling the aircraft whole or for parts for other aircraft. That said, the sources for parts are limited and it is a sellers’ market. Restoring an F-104 Starfighter to flying status would be prohibitively expensive for most middle-class Americans as even a good air frame could run upwards of $500,000 to update. If you had the money and the interest though, there are numerous companies that could restore your project F-104 back to flying status. Given the plentiful supply of working age F-104 technicians and mechanics all over the world, it might also be possible find private individuals willing to work for you and reduce your costs.

An Italian F-104S Starfighter and a Turkish TF-104G Starfighter two seat aircraft make up the left and right edges of this diamond formation respectively with an Italian Tornado leading and an A-7 Corsair trailing. This image highlights size difference between the “G” model and single seat models. National Archives Photo 6462829 

The real problem with having an F-104 is going to be fuel and maintenance. In 1960’s dollars, the F-104 had an average flying cost per an hour of $695.00 for fuel and a maintenance cost per an hour of $395.00. Fast forward to the modern times and those numbers significantly increase. Internal fuel and wingtip tanks carry roughly 8,000 pounds of JP-4 fuel. At a weight of 6.84 pounds per a gallon that roughly equals 1170 gallons of JP-4 fuel at a 2017 cost of $3.99 per a gallon at Washington Dulles International Airport. That means you’d be paying $4,668.30 per a flight just for fuel. Dependent upon how hot you’re flying the plane, you could potentially burn through that fuel in less than 30 minutes. If you had an upgraded F-104, like the Italian S model, then your F-104 would require military grade JP-8 fuel. Jet A1, the civilian equivalent of JP-8 military fuel was quoted at $8.43 a gallon at the time of this article.

This could be you behind the stick of your very own F-104 Starfighter. As the Starfighter was purchased outright by most of the countries that operated it, most of the air frames are free of any Department of Defense encumbrances. National Archives Photo 6366735

In military service, the F-104 required 40 hours of maintenance per a flight hour. That should still be a reasonable expectation of how much maintenance a restored F-104 Starfighter will require. While mechanics and technicians are plentiful, they still command premium pay and $100.00 an hour for an experienced mechanic at a reputable maintenance shop is not unreasonable. With parts and the above fuel costs, you could easily expect it to cost north of $10,000.00 a flight hour to hotrod around in your F-104 Starfighter. This is still a bargain though, the A-10 Thunderbird II (Warthog) is the U.S. Air Force’s least expensive current fighter to fly at roughly $11,500.00 a flight hour. If you have the money to seriously consider this though, the above numbers shouldn’t be reason for pause. Besides, your neighbor might have a 1959 Corvette in their garage, but they probably don’t have a combat veteran 1959 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter sitting in their hangar. For the rest of us though, the Powerball is drawn every Wednesday and Saturday night. Tickets can be purchased at your local lottery retailer.

Salvaging a Crashed F-14 Tomcat

An F-14D Tomcat from the USS John C. Stennis was salvaged on May 7-8, 2004 after crashing off the coast of Point Loma, California. You can read the details of the crash here, but the BLUF is that the aircraft suffered a mechanical malfunction and attempted to divert to Naval Station North Island but failed to make land. The crew successfully bailed out and was treated at a local hospital before being released back to their unit. The U.S. Navy’s deep submergence unit was tasked with recovering the crashed F-14D Tomcat.

On May 8, 2004, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit salvaged the fuselage section of a crashed F-14D Tomcat from the Pacific Ocean off California. The air frame came up in several pieces but the bulk of the aircraft was recovered. U.S. Navy Photo

When a military aircraft crashes, it will be recovered if it can be recovered. Land based crashes are more common and easier to recover as personnel can walk the scene and sweep the area for parts. This was exemplified in 2007 when a U.S. Navy Blue Angles’ pilot lost orientation and was killed during an air show at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. The Department of Defense was tasked with recovering what remained of the F-18 Hornet which broke up over a residential neighborhood and destroyed several homes. Over a period of several weeks, the bulk of the air frame was recovered and removed.

Most water crashes occur with U.S. Navy aircraft and usually one of three options are exercised when an aircraft is lost at sea. Option one is to salvage the aircraft, two is to destroy the aircraft, or if both those fail, three is to abandon the aircraft in place. Abandoning an aircraft is a measure of last resort and usually only reserved for when the aircraft is lost in extremely deep water. If the aircraft is carrying classified or sensitive equipment or information, the Navy will attempt to destroy an aircraft in situ to prevent any release of that information. There is precedent of the Navy going to great lengths to destroy lost aircraft all the way back to the 1950’s when explosives were used to demolish a lost B-36 Peacemaker bomber off the coast of California. The Department of Defense is always fearful of a foreign entity gaining access to a lost aircraft though and will salvage the aircraft if it can.

The U.S. Navy’s Super Scorpio remote operated vehicle. U.S. Navy photo

A deep sea recovery is difficult and expensive, but the U.S. Navy can operate at extreme depths with the Deep Submergence Unit. The Deep Submergence Unit’s primary mission is submarine rescue operations but with a lack of lost submarines, the Deep Submergence Unit maintains its proficiency by carrying out deep water operations such as salvaging lost naval aircraft. By May 2008, the Deep Submergence Unit was off the coast of California and deployed their Super Scorpio remote operable vehicle (ROV) on the F-14d tomcat wreck site. The ROV was used to attach recovery cables to the largest portions of the F-14 and it was pulled up in multiple pieces. While the F-14 Tomcat could not be restored to flying status, the salvage removed the possibility that elements of the air frame could be evaluated or recovered by a foreign entity.

The recovered tail section of the lost F-14D Tomcat sitting on the deck of the salvage ship. U.S. Navy Photo

So You Want to Buy a Fighter Jet

Though most of us will never have the financial means of doing so, there is a fair amount of interest from the public in owning a fighter jet. I found this out after writing a blog post on the current use of the F-4 Phantom. The software on this site lets me see what search words lead a reader to my article and most keywords involved, “buying an F-4 Phantom” and “F-4 Phantom for sale.” Though it’s not necessarily an easy process, if you had the money, you could purchase almost any currently used or vintage fighter jet in existence, minus the 5th generation fighters such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor. All it takes is persistence and a lot of money to clear the way.

The MIG-21, code named “Fishbed” by NATO, presents one of the most economical fighter jets available to the public today. The MIG-21 is coveted for it’s ease to fly and maintain. It’s main problem for private owners is fuel consumption per a flight. A large number of MIG-21’s are already available for purchase in the United States and additional models are easily imported at reasonable costs. U.S. Air Force Photo

The easiest way to buy a fighter jet is to get one from one of the former Soviet Bloc countries. There are already a lot in the United States that are as easy to buy as a car. At the time of this article, a MIG-21 in flying condition could be had for as little as $69,500 and a MIG-29 in flying condition went for just shy of $5 million with various models falling everywhere in between. If the jet you’re looking for isn’t currently available, there are companies that specialize in exporting whatever you’re looking for to the United States and take care of all the licensing requirements. The main requirement for importing a Russian made fighter is that the aircraft’s radar and weapon systems are removed before the jet enters the country. Once demilitarized, the fighter jet is essentially just an aircraft that can do some pretty awesome acrobatics.

Below is a video of one of a pair of Ukrainian SU-27 Flanker aircraft that were imported into the United States.

The hard way of buying a fighter jet is if you are looking for something American made, like an F-16 Falcon or an F-4 Phantom. It used to be that the U.S. Air Force would sell aircraft directly to the public once they weren’t needed any more. But in our current world of terrorism and arms embargoes, that door has been closed and will probably never be opened again. Now if you want an American made aircraft, the only way to get one is to buy one from a country that operated American made aircraft and then to import it back into the country in compliance with the Arms Export Control Act…  This requires a fair amount of licensing through the Department of Homeland Security and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, but if you have the money to buy one of these planes, then you should have the money to hire a team of lawyers to handle the licensing.

A number of F-4 Phantoms are in private ownership. More of these aircraft will become available for purchase as smaller air forces retire the F-4 Phantom and try to recoup some of their value. U.S. Air Force Photo

The only hiccup is that dependent upon how the fighter jet was provided to the country you’re buying it from could determine whether you can bring it back into the United States. If say, the F-16 Falcon, was purchased out right, then you should be able to import it. But if the Fighter jet was provided under military assistance from the United States (which is the bulk of U.S. made hardware out there), then it may require an act of congress to allow the fighter jet back into the country as the U.S. Air Force retains legal ownership of those planes even when the benefiting nation retires and disposes of them. If you bought a fighter jet provided under military assistance, then you would likely see your aircraft seized as soon as it arrived in the United States.

So yes, if you hit the lotto, then you could buy your own fighter jet. But just know that the upfront cost is just where it begins. A vintage MIG-21 can be had for $70,000 which most middle-class Americans could buy. But you’d be flying an aircraft that could burn through $5,000 worth of fuel in one flight. And while the MIG-21 maybe supersonic, you’d be limited to flying your fighter jet at those speeds over international waters or risk the wrath of the FAA and the seizure of your fighter jet. The main thing is that you follow all the licensing requirements and hire someone who knows the process. I leave you with a link to an article written about a guy who did everything wrong and had his A-4 Skyraider seized upon arrival in the United States.

Ship Mounted Lasers, The Way of the Future

The U.S. Navy is making a big step into the future with ship mounted laser systems. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that the U.S. Navy has successfully mounted a powerful chemical laser aboard the USS Ponce. This system is called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS for short) has the ability to function as an air defense system, a point blank missile defense, and target small water craft. The actual weapon is a 30 kilowatt laser that uses heat to incapacitate or destroy targets. Despite being a relatively new weapon, the U.S. Navy’s LaWS system has exceeded expectations in trials and has successfully shot down drones and simulated missiles, all at the coast of .59c a shot.

The U.S. Navy Laser Weapon System or LaWS mounted aboard the USS Ponce (LPD-15) during exercises in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. military has been trying to make lasers practical for decades due to the lower cost of operating them. In the early 1980’s, the U.S. Navy set the gold standard for air defense by pairing the AEGIS air defense system with the RIM-67 Standard SM-2 missile which had an average cost of $409,000 per a missile when produced in 1981. Thousands of SM-2’s were built to equip the cruisers and destroyers that utilized AEGIS  but over the past few decades combat aircraft and anti-shipping missiles have improved in capability. The U.S. Navy now fields more sophisticated and more expensive missiles like the new RIM-161 Standard SM-3 Missile and RIM-174 Extended Range Missile but these munitions come at a massive cost. Its still unsure how much these programs will cost but the Department of Defense has already given a preview of what the financial impact may be when it recently acquired PAC-3 Patriot Missiles at the cost of $2-3 million per a missile. Those procurement figures don’t include life-cycle costs such as upgrading missiles when new technology becomes available and replacing propellant when it reaches its shelf life. The U.S. Navy updated and upgraded the RIM-67 SM-2 missile 6 times over the course of it’s 25 year service life.

The destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) fires a Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) during a missile firing exercise. U.S. Navy Photo

While lasers are massively less expensive to operate, they had serious obstacles to overcome before they were practical. The first major obstacle was miniaturizing the technology to the point it was mobile. In the early 2000’s, Boeing developed the YAL-1 which was an airborne anti-missile system that utilized a chemical laser to destroy ballistic missiles while they were in flight or still sitting on the launch pad. It was the first practical application of a mobile air defense laser but the laser occupied the entire body of a Boeing 747 which is almost as big as the ships the U.S. Navy uses for air defense. The other problem was damage done by lasers tend to punch holes in targets rather than destroy them. The only way a laser causes an explosion is if the beam makes contact with something flammable like a fuel tank or a munition.

Fast forward a decade and some practical mobile laser weapon systems are already being used on the battlefield. Israel has been a leading advocate of laser development and uses the Tactical High Energy Laser as a part of its Iron Dome Missile Defense shield which can down missiles and mortar shells at $3000 a shot. The system has given decent performance but in an effort to develop an even better system, Israel is now working with Rafael Advanced Defense to develop Iron Beam, a complete replacement for the Iron Dome system that will exclusively use lasers to down entire swarms of missiles and drones. The U.S. government is footing a large part of the bill as a successful defense shield for Israel could mean a useful anti-ballistic missile system for the United States.

For now though, the U.S. Navy’s LaWS system is a gigantic step into the future and is a major advancement toward the fielding of the Littoral Combat Ship, which despite its small size, would be capable of fielding the LaWS system. One of the chief complaints about the Littoral Combat Ship is that it lacks air defense capability and would be almost defenseless near an enemy shore where anti-ship missiles are plentiful and cheap.  The Littoral Combat Ship lacks the space for a large magazine of anti-aircraft missiles but could mount a LaWS system that stored its chemical fuel in underwater blister tanks added to give the vessels greater stability in rough seas, a solution for another complaint against the Littoral Combat Ship. The current 30 kilowatt laser wouldn’t be of much use except for anti-missile defense but the projected future 150 kilowatt LaWS system could vaporize most of an aircraft with one shot.

Littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) underway in the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Navy Photo

While the LaWS system has potential and lasers will undoubtedly revolutionize warfare, we are still several decades from lasers becoming the dominate weapon of warfare. Still though, the years ahead of us look to be an exciting time of changes. To quote Shakespeare, it’s a brave new world.

Pearl Harbor Survivor, the Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 Flying Boat

It’s been 73 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, but at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center, a Pearl Harbor survivor Sikorsky JRS-1 Flying Boat is undergoing restoration. You can read the back story here, but the BLUF is that a squadron of Sikorsky JRS-1’s was present at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack, and the survivors were some of the first aircraft to fly combat air patrol in search of the Japanese fleet. The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat was the 13th JRS-1 built for the U.S. Navy and today is the only aircraft in the Smithsonian’s collection that was present during the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. It is now undergoing restoration at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar located at the Dulles Airport. There is an observation deck inside the Udvar-Hazy Center that allows visitors to look down at the Sikorsky JRS-1 as work is being done.

The Smithsonian's Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat has been undergoing restoration for more than a year.

The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat has been undergoing restoration for more than a year.

The Sikorsky JRS-1 was a militarized version of Sikorsky’s successful S-43 flying boat that was built for commercial airline service. The S-43 amphibian was so popular that none other than Howard Hughes purchased one. The JRS-1 gave good service in the early years of World War II flying antisubmarine missions. The JRS-1 was not outfitted to carry munitions but with minor alterations, the flying boat was able to carry depth charges. The life of the JRS-1 was short though and by 1944, most were passed out of service in favor of the similar looking but much more capable PBY Catalina flying boat.

The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 undergoing restoration. Smithsonian Photo.

The Skiorsky JRS-1 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was out of service by 1944 and saw a brief second life as a test aircraft for NASA. In this role, the JRS-1 was outfitted with an array of instruments and antenna for monitoring NASA experiments. The aircraft was retired from government service and sold to a commercial carrier before passing through a number of owners before coming into the possession of the Smithsonian in 1960. Instead of being restored and put on display, the Sikorsky JRS-1 was put into storage, where it remained for the next five decades. The Smithsonian has the only JRS-1 known to have been at Pearl Harbor. It’s not the only surviving model though, Fantasy of Flight in Florida has obtained Howard Hughes’ S-43 and is restoring the aircraft to flying condition.

This aircraft is possibly the Smithsonian’s JRS-1 in NASA service. NASA Photo

The restoration of the Smithsonian’s Pearl Harbor Sikorsky JRS-1 is ongoing and will take many more man hours to complete. The JRS-1 should be ready for display by Pearl Harbors 75th anniversary which will be a big event at the Udvar-Hazy Center. If you happen to be in the Washington D.C. area, this would defiantly be worth a trip as the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center is hands down the best of all the Smithsonian museums, and now, you can see a true Pearl Harbor survivor on display.

A Very Busy Aircraft, The F-4 Phantom in the 21st Century

The F-4 Phantom has been a very busy aircraft in recent months. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that Iranian F-4 Phantoms bombed ISIS targets in Iraq on December 3, 2014. In typical Iranian fashion, Iran has both confirmed and denied that they did the bombing, but there is blurry video of some F-4 Phantoms carrying out air strikes in Iraq. Only three countries in that area still operate the F-4 phantom, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.  The bombing took place on Iraq’s eastern border with Iran, which would be quite a haul for Turkey and the entire Middle East would be screaming if Israel carried out the attack, which leaves Iran by default as the likely country of origin. While the F-4 phantom has now been in service for more than 55 years and retired by most air forces, it has been a particularly busy aircraft since ISIS came to power.

An Iranian F-4 Phantom takes off. Despite arms embargoes and Iran’s Phantoms being almost 40-years old, the Phantom remains Iran’s best fighter bomber. Photo via Wikipedia.

The F-4 Phantom saw extensive service with the United States Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps in every conflict from Vietnam to the Gulf War. The United States has retired the aircraft but still converts some into aerial drones for realistic combat training. While the United States has been busy shooting down its old F-4 Phantoms, many other countries have been upgrading the F-4 into an aircraft that can confront and beat most 4th generation fighter aircraft. Notably, Israel still operates three squadrons of F-4 Phantoms that have been heavily upgraded with new avionics and engines. The success of the Israeli upgrade program has turned Israel into a leading provider of upgrade services to other nations F-4 Phantoms.

A U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom drops dumb bombs as part of a training exercise. The U.S. Department of Defense has made extensive use of the F-4 Phantom as an aerial target for realistic training of U.S. Fighter pilots. In 2013, the last U.S. F-4 Phantom was returned to service and converted to a drone. The remainder of the fleet will be used for spare parts for other nations F-4’s and the aerial target role will be filled with early model F-16 Fighting Falcons. U.S. Air Force Photo

Iran claims to have upgraded its F-4’s with indigenous engines and avionics but a close look at their aircraft shows them to look exactly how they did when delivered by the United States to the Shah of Iran in the 1970’s. The F-4 Phantom and the F-14 Tomcat remain Iran’s premier air defense fighters despite their age but arms embargoes have limited Iran’s ability to upgrade those platforms. Iran has kept it’s F-4 Phantoms flying through a program of smuggling parts, reverse engineering, and a lot of bubblegumming. This has kept Iranian F-4 Phantoms active in harassing U.S. aircraft over international waters and patrolling Iran’s borders. Just last year, an Iranian F-4 attempted to intercept a U.S. reconnaissance drone but was chased off by U.S. fighters before it could get into a firing position. With no foreseeable end to the restrictions on Iran by the international community, the F-4 could remain Iran’s main fighter and strike aircraft for decades to come.

Turkey is one of the largest F-4 Phantom operators in the world and has used its aircraft in bombing raids against Kurdish forces along the Iraqi border. All of turkey’s aircraft were heavily upgraded by Israel which has greatly enhanced the aircraft’s capabilities.  Turkey continues to use the RF-4 as its main reconnaissance aircraft and it was in this role that one of its planes was shot down by Syria in June 2012, almost bringing the two countries into conflict. As recent as April 2014, a Turkish RF-4 Phantom was involved in an altercation with Greek fighter aircraft when it was conducting operations over the Aegean Sea. Turkey continues to purchase newer and more modern fighter designs but the F-4 phantom will continue to be an important part of its air force for at least the next decade.

A Turkish F-4 Phantom making final approach to land. Turkey had all of it’s F-4 and RF-4 Phantoms modernized by IAI which has given Turkish F-4 Phantoms the ability to drop precision munitions like modern 4th generation aircraft. Turkey has limited aerial refueling capabilities and relies instead on using external fuel tanks for carrying out long range missions. U.S. Air Force Photo

Greece maintains the F-4 Phantom as a fighter bomber and the F-4 composes a large portion of its strike wings even as Greece purchases more modern aircraft models. In October 2014, Greek F-4 Phantoms participated in PARMENION 2014, an annual national defense exercise in Greece that had Greek F-4 Phantoms carrying out live bombing drills. The exercise is aimed at Turkey to show that the Greek air force stands ready to counter any aggression from their traditional geo-political rival. Greece had their F-4 Phantoms upgraded to the Luftwaffe ICE and American Wild Weasel standards by Daimler Chrysler Aerospace as IAI of Israel was already upgrading Turkey’s F-4 Phantoms. Greece has no plans to retire the F-4 Phantom in the next decade and Greece has traditionally kept small numbers of older fighter models in service for training and aggressor roles for 25-30 years after they are retired. This means that Greek F-4 Phantoms could still be flying by 2050, almost a century after the first F-4 Phantom entered service.

A squadron of U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantoms take part in a heritage flight in 2005. A number of F-4 Phantoms are now privately owned and operated in the United States. If you have a few million dollars sitting around, you to could own an F-4 Phantom. U.S. Air Force Photo

Several nations maintain large stockpiles of F-4 Phantoms. Germany retired the last of its F-4 Phantoms in 2013 but continues to operate some in the aggressor role for training and for experiments. Given the expansion of the Russian military and the outbreak of hostilities in the Ukraine, Germany will likely maintain all of its F-4 phantoms in storage for the foreseeable future. South Korea also has a large stockpile of F-4’s and continues to maintain some in active service with the rest in ready reserve in case of a war with North Korea. Japan has traded its RF-4 Phantoms for a new build reconnaissance version of the F-15 Eagle but like Germany and south Korea, maintains its F-4 Fleet in ready reserve in case of a regional conflict with China.

Japanese F-4 Phantoms take off together. Japan is in the process of transitioning away from the F-4 Phantom but will keep a large stockpile of the aircraft in ready reserve for years to come. U.S. Navy Photo

Despite its growing age, the F-4 Phantom remains an important air-superiority and ground attack fighter in the world and will likely remain so well into the 21st century. The cost of buying newer, 5th generation fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, now estimated to cost $116 million per an aircraft, will likely force smaller air forces, like Greece and Turkey, to keep the F-4 in service longer than expected while they slowly procure enough of the F-35’s to secure their national security. Regardless, the F-4 is now an aircraft that can deliver precision munitions and utilizes the latest technology to maintain superiority over almost all Russian and Chinese built fighter-platforms. All of this means that the F-4 Phantom will remain a very busy aircraft for the forseeable future.

An Evolutionary Dead End, Flying Aircraft Carriers

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has requested proposals for the creation of an airborne delivery platform for launching and recovering drones. You can read the details here, but the BLUF of the article is that the Pentagon is looking for ways to convert platforms such as the B-52 Stratofortress, B-1b Lancer or cargo aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster to carry drones into a combat zone, deploy them, and then recover the drones in air before returning to an out of theater airfield for maintenance. It’s a valiant concept as reducing the drones travel time would increase loiter time and ability to search for targets. As history shows though, this will be the third time the pentagon has looked into creating a “flying aircraft carrier.”

A Boeing X-47 stealth drone passing CVN-77 USS George H.W. Bush during flight tests. DARPA is looking into ways of launching and recovering drones using airborne platforms. The media has quickly pegged this as the military looking to create a “Flying Aircraft Carrier.” U.S. Navy Photo

Before you start thinking about something from the Avengers movie, the first attempt by the United States to develop a flying aircraft carrier was the airships USS Akron and USS Macon. Back in the 1930s, these two dirigibles were the largest in existence and built by Goodyear with the help of German engineers from the Zeppelin Corporation. Both the USS Akron and the USS Macon were built with a hanger for holding Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighters and an intricate trapeze system for launching and recovering the fighters. The idea was for the Sparrowhawk fighters to protect the airships as they conducted bombing raids deep into enemy territory. The idea was never put to the test though as both the USS Akron and Macon were destroyed in accidents by 1935.

The USS Macon conducting air operations. The small Sparrowhawk fighters underneath the airship provides a scale for just how large the USS Macon and USS Akron were. The small scaffolding under the USS Macon is the trapeze system that was used for capturing the fighter and then raising it into the airships hanger. The process would be reversed for launching aircraft. U.S. Navy Photo

The next attempt to create a flying aircraft carrier was in the early days of the Cold War. The primary U.S. bomber aircraft at the time was the B-36 Peacemaker, which had the ability to fly around the world but almost no capability for defending itself if confronted by fighters. This resulted in a variety of “parasite” fighters being developed. These small jet fighters would be stored in the bomber’s bomb bay and then deployed and recovered via a trapeze system similar to that used on the airships USS Akron and Macon. The program showed promise but the rapid development of more capable bombers and more efficient electronic countermeasures made the program unnecessary. Once Intercontinental ballistic missiles became the mainstay of the U.S. nuclear force, any need for a flying aircraft carrier vanished.

An XF-85 Goblin Parasite fighter attached to the trapeze system that would launch and recover the aircraft from the bomb bay of a B-36 Peacemaker bomber. By the time the system became practical the B-36 Peacemaker was obsolete and fighter aircraft became supersonic wonders that outclassed the smaller parasites in every way. U.S. Air Force Photo via National Museum of the Air Force

Of the three potential platforms for a modern drone carrier, the B-52 is the most likely candidate as it is currently being used to launch the experimental X-43 scramjet and has numerous hardpoints for carrying and launching cruise missiles. In theory, each of these hardpoints could become a launching and recovery point for a drone. The B-52 also has the necessary loiter time to remain on station while the drones carry out their mission. The B-1b bomber might do the job just as well but there are a limited number of B-1b’s available and to remove even one from regular service would reduce the Air Force’s strategic nuclear deterrence force. A cargo plane is also unlikely given the current demand on the strategic lift assets of the United States to supply the continuing operations in Iraq and the Middle East.

The possibility of an actual platform being developed though is limited given the current atmosphere of sequestration. If history is any example of how this scenario will play out, drone technology will continue to develop and by the time a flying aircraft carrier is practical, drones will be advanced enough that they will not need a mother ship to support them. Still, the idea is fun to think about and makes for a great backdrop on superhero movies.

Why Iraq Buried It’s Air Force

In 2003, The U.S. Military discovered a number of Mig-25 Foxbat fighters and SU-25 Frog Foot fighter-bombers buried in the desert next to the to the Al-Taqqadum airfield near Baghdad, Iraq. The aircraft had been stripped of their wings and completely covered with sand. Despite their time under the desert, the aircraft were in decent shape and could have been returned to service with minimal maintenance. Instead, the aircraft were found by coalition forces and two Mig-25s were placed in the belly of a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane and returned to the United States for examination.

A Russian built Mig-25 fighter of the Iraqi air force is uncovered in the desert. U.S. Air Force Photo

The obvious question surrounding this discovery is why would the Iraqi Air Force bury their planes rather than fight? The answer takes a little bit of history to explain. Back during the first Gulf War, the Iraqi Air Force flew the bulk of their air force to Iran before hostilities began. This caught America by surprise as Iran was Iraq’s traditional geo-political enemy. Iraq knew that its air force, made up of predominately older Soviet-designed aircraft, wouldn’t stand a chance against the combined might of America and its allies who had superior planes and pilots. The plan worked great except for the fact that Iran didn’t give Iraq back all of its aircraft after the war.

U.S. forces prepare to pull a Russian built Mig-25 fighter from the sand outside of Baghdad, Iraq.

This left Iraq with a dilemma of what to do with its aircraft when it was again faced with invasion a decade later. All Iraq could expect of its air force in a fight with the United States was for its pilots to die with valor, but the aircraft still had value in a potential conflict with one of its neighbors. The Mig-25 might be old but it could still best most of the third generation fighters that equipped many of the air forces of the Middle East. The SU-25 might not be able to bomb approaching U.S. forces but it could definitely be used against Kurdish forces in the North of Iraq in its ongoing civil war. While Russian built aircraft were inexpensive compared to western aircraft, they still cost millions of dollars to procure and that was an expense that Iraq couldn’t bear when it was strapped with economic sanctions by the international community.

A Russian built Mig-25 fighter of the Iraqi Air Force is pulled from the desert sand. Two of these aircraft were returned to the United States for evaluation. U.S. Air Force Photo

So Iraq did the only thing it could do. It hid its aircraft in the hopes that it could recover the Mig’s and Sukhoi’s later and rebuild its air force once coalition forces left. Only this time was different. Coalition forces toppled the Iraqi government and when the Iraqi air force was reconstituted, it was equipped with surplus American aircraft and the older Russian designs were no longer needed. The Mig-25’s and SU-25’s that were pulled from the desert are an interesting footnote to Iraq’s history and reminiscent of a time when Iraq was a Middle Eastern power to be reckoned with, not a country overtaken with civil war. As only a dozen aircraft were pulled from the desert, it can be expected there are more buried and yet to be found. They will make an interesting find for an archaeologist one day.

Resurrected, the Return of Naval Air Station Alameda

The defunct Naval Air Station Alameda located on San Francisco Bay is being returned to active duty in a way. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that the Navy has transferred over 624 acres of the base to the Department of Veterans affairs to build a new state of the art Veterans Hospital and create the nation’s newest national cemetery. NAS Alameda has been sitting virtually abandoned since it was closed as part of the Base Realignment and Closure program in 1997. It had been uncertain what would be done with the land, but various parties jockeyed to be in position to develop the base in what could have been one of the largest real estate deals in California history.

Three super carriers including the USS Enterprise (far left identified by the big “E” on the conning tower), the USS Carl Vinson, and an unidentified Nimitz class carrier sit docked at Naval Air Station Alameda in 1990. National Archives Photo

Alameda Point as the land is known was originally developed as the home base for the China Clipper flying boat back in the 1930’s. Soon after, the land was gifted by the city of Alameda to the U.S. Navy for the development of a Naval Air Station. During World War II, a massive building program brought multiple runways to the base and extensive port facilities. NAS Alameda became an important base on the West coast as it could play host to multiple carrier battle groups at once. But as the base grew, so did the surrounding community and the base was locked in by development. It didn’t matter which way the Navy pilots took off or came into land, they had to fly over large areas of urban development to get to the base.

An aerial photo showing how much the surrounding communities have built-up around Naval Air Station Alameda. Across the bay is the city of San Francisco and behind it lies the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo via wikipedia.

NAS Alameda was a sitting duck for BRAC as the development around the base limited its military function and there was no room for growth. Despite opposition from the local community, which depended on the base as part of its economy, NAS Alameda was shut down in 1997 and has remained vacant since. The City of Alameda has floated various plans to redevelop the land but redevelopment was halted by the need to decontaminate the site after decades of military use. The bulk of the land is now considered ready for redevelopment or for restoration to wetlands but competing interests in what should be done has prevented anything from happening. What is known for sure is that Alameda Point represents several thousand waterfront acres in one of the most expensive real estate markets in America.

An excavator cutting through a runway on NAS Alameda and removing contaminated soil beneath it. On any military installation, you can expect for there to be large concentrations of fuel, trichlorethylene, and lead that will need to be cleaned up before the land is suitable for redevelopment. BRAC Photo

Despite being closed, NAS Alameda has been busy in movies and television. If you have ever watched the television show Mythbusters, the abandoned airfield where they wreck cars is NAS Alameda. In the movie, The Matrix Reloaded, Morphius can be seen fighting atop a speeding semi-truck as it races around NAS Alameda’s runways which were disguised as highways. It seems that these film companies will have to find a new location to shoot though as groundbreaking on the $210 million dollar Hospital project is sure to limit their activities. For thousands of service members that called Naval Air Station Alameda home over the years, they can now be assured that at least a part of the base will return to military duty.

U.S. Air Force Asks Congress to Retire the A-10 Warthog… Again

The U.S. Air Force is trying to retire the A-10 Warthog again. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that the Air Force wants to retire the entire A-10 Warthog fleet so that it can take the experienced maintenance crews from those aircraft and convert them into maintenance crews for the F-35 Lightning II. This is the second time in the past year that the Air Force has tried to retire the A-10 (the first attempt was on budgetary grounds), but they keep getting blocked by congress. If you’re unaware of the history of the A-10 Warthog, it might be the most useful and economical aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory right now and it has borne the brunt of the combat missions in the War on Terror. Despite this, the U.S. Air Force has been trying to retire the Warthog almost since it was built.

The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known by its given nickname, “Warthog,” has been America’s premier ground-attack aircraft for the better part of three decades. U.S. Air Force Photo

The A-10 Warthog is ugly. There is no way around this fact. It’s a slow sub-sonic ground attack aircraft that was designed around a massive 30mm Gatling gun that fires uranium depleted slugs. It can carry more ordnance than a World War II era B-17 heavy bomber and can loiter over a target for up to eight hours (with drop tanks). While a single bullet can bring down most modern aircraft, the A-10 is armored and can take crippling punishment and keep flying as it still uses a cable and hydraulic system to move its flight surfaces. It’s the ultimate ground support aircraft for the grunt fighting on the ground and its unmistakable shape has led to it being called the “flying crucifix” by America’s enemies.

The A-10 was born in the 1970’s out of a requirement for an anti-tank aircraft in the event of a war with the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, thousands of its tanks were culled and the need for the A-10 was seen as removed. The entire fleet of A-10 Warthogs was slated to be scrapped in favor of sexier high tech aircraft when the 1991 Gulf War broke out. The Iraqi army had vast stockpiles of armored vehicles and the A-10 fleet was rushed to Saudi Arabia to counter the threat. In its combat debut, the A-10 Warthog slaughtered Iraq’s armored forces as they retreated across the open desert. The carnage was immense and the A-10 Warthog became globally renowned for its ground support abilities. This and its subsequent performance in Bosnia bought the A-10 Warthog a reprieve and congress kept the aircraft in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory despite its requests to retire the A-10 as an obsolete aircraft.

The large wing surface of the A-10 Warthog gives the aircraft amazing maneuverability and lift while providing plenty of acreage for hardpoints to mount munitions. U.S. Air Force Photo

After September 11, 2001, the A-10 Warthog was rushed to Afghanistan and back to Iraq where it again provided exemplary service. As both conflicts degenerated into asymmetrical warfare, the A-10’s loiter time became invaluable as it could remain on call over a combat zone while other aircraft had to return to base for refueling or rearming. The A-10 Warthog gained enough respect with America’s ground forces that the slogan “Go Ugly Early” was coined for when calling for air support, basically meaning to call for the A-10 Warthog first as it could get the job done. Now as America draws down from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the debate has returned on what to do with the aging A-10 Warthog.

The U.S. Air Force wants to replace the A-10 Warthog with the F-35 Lightning II. The F-35 is a great fighter aircraft, but it isn’t a ground support aircraft. The A-10 Warthog can carry over 20,000 pounds of ordnance on a single mission, the F-35 can only carry 2,000. This means you would have to send 10 F-35 Lightning II’s to deliver the same ordnance as one A-10 Warthog. The U.S. Air Force claims this is offset by the F-35’s ability to deliver precision munitions but neglects to mention that modernizations to the A-10 Warthog allow it to deliver the same precision munitions. Given that the F-35 Lightning II was designed to be a stealth high altitude aircraft, it would likely have limited battlefield survivability if hit by ground fire where the A-10 was purpose built to absorb ground fire. Ground attack aircraft typically suffer high rates of attrition which made the A-10 Warthog ideal as it cost $11 million dollars. The F-35 Lightning II is expected to cost $120 million dollars and will have higher maintenance costs as many of The A-10’s parts are commercially available.

The A-10 Warthog was designed to use as many commercially available parts as possible to limit the strain on the military supply system in the event of a war. The A-10 Warthogs engines are military version of the General Electric CF34 turbofan, one of the most common civilian aircraft engines in use today. This also increases the pool of experienced maintenance workers who could be called upon to service the aircraft. U.S. Air Force Photo

So this leads to a fascinating discussion of why the Air Force wants to get rid of what may be its most useful aircraft? The simple answer is that the A-10 Warthog is a low tech aircraft flying around in a world of stealth super jets. The A-10 is also a single purpose aircraft and that makes its utility low during times of peace. The current trend in military aircraft has been toward multi-role platforms that give you more bang for your buck. Successful examples of this are the F-15(E) Strike Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The danger of multi-rolling though is that by trying to make the aircraft do too many things, you limit its ability to focus on a single mission. Probably the greatest complaint against the forthcoming F-35 Lightning II is that it is capable of everything but good at nothing. But in a world of sequestration and limited dollars, the U.S. Air Force wants to dedicate its dollars to the highest tech and most capable aircraft that it can get for all challenges it will face in the coming 50 years. Unfortunately, that aircraft is not the A-10 Warthog.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A sits next to it’s entire munition load for a ground support mission. A new small munition system is being developed for the F-35 in an attempt to increase its viability as a ground support aircraft.

The A-10 Warthog continues to fly and its current airframe life without any updates or extension is 2028. With new wings, that service life could be extended to 2040. If the U.S. Air Force gets its way, the A-10 will be retired before the end of 2015.

Update November 14, 2014: You can read the details here, but the U.S. Air Force tried for the fourth time in recent months to retire the A-10 Warthog. This offer was to only partially retire the A-10 fleet in an effort to appease congress. The new plan would keep 70 A-10’s operational for ground support in Iraq and Afghanistan and send the rest of the fleet to the boneyard. Congress rejected the proposal but the Air Force is saying this is already a done deal as there are no provisions in the upcoming defense bill for funding to maintain the A-10 fleet. Time will tell.