Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One day, things might return the way they were. At least in part.

Navy News reports of the visit that the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope paid the US aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis, where he could fly on a two-seats F18 and meet one Fleet Air Arm aviator, Lt ‘LOThAR’ Collins (‘Loser of the American Revolution’, a callsign given him by his American comrades), who’s flying a single-seat F18 strike fighter from the Stennis’ deck with the ‘Tophatters’ (Strike Fighter Squadron 14) on missions over Afghanistan. Collins tomorrow probably will be part of the group of men that will reshape from the ashes the british carrierborne aviation.

But there's a thing that "annoys" me. The callsign. 
There's been a time in which Fleet Air Arm pilots taught the US Navy pilots the job, and forced american pilots to adopt the callsign "Brit 2". Those were the days! 

We have all seen, soon or later, the movie Top Gun. And we all known of the fighter jet pilots school of the same time, which changed the story of the air war over Vietnam by changing the kill/death ratio of american planes against vietnam planes from as low as 2:1 to as high as 13:1. 
But the little known story is the way the UK influenced, and inspired, the Top Gun school. 
The airbase of Miramar, over which the Top Gun school would born, in those days housed a F4 Phantom squadron and a squadron, VF-124, of Vought F8 Crusader, known to their pilots as "Last of the Gunfighters". The Crusader was relatively small, fast and agile, and armed with machine guns and short-range missiles, while the F4 Phantom was "the future", huge, with a crew of 2 and no guns but just a big load of missiles, since BVR was thought to be mature and be the sole future. The F4, it was thought, would take down all its enemies at range and never see them at gun range. The Phantom was not a gunfighter. The Crusader was. 

Vietnam proved that dogfights were still inevitable, that the Sparrow missile was full of limits and that big, traditional guns were still necessary. Indeed, they were hastily brought back as pods and soon the F4 was given its own gun.
But in the meanwhile, Crusader pilots at Miramar, rather ingenerously, used to remind the Phantom pilots of dogfights, ambushing them from six o' clock all the time. 

One day, though, they found someone who replied. A F4 Phantom flown by Royal Navy Air Warfare Instructor Geoff Hunt. He wasn't having any of it. He engaged full afterburner, pulled in a screaming turn, and engaged and battled the Crusader pilot until they both ran out of fuel. 

Only the best pilots went into the FAA Air Warfare Instructor's Course. Ground theory at HMS Excellence was followed by Naval Gunnery School in Portsmouth. After that, 3 months of intensive flying with 764 NAS at the base that was, back then, Royal Naval Air Service Base Lossiemouth, today's RAF Lossie. And it was intensive for real. 4, even 5 sorties a day on the Hunter jet. Pilots here learned every aspect of modern tactics and weaponry and trialed any kind of mission, including the delivery of tactical nukes. 

Coming out of such intensive training, the pilots would go back to their frontline squadrons as AWIs, and they would act as the Squadron's resident expert, sharing what they had learnt with their comrades. It started in 1959, and for years this method built up an invaluable knowledge and experience which spread top-down onto the whole frontline. 

And through the instructors on exchange at Miramar, Royal Navy AWIs influenced the Top Gun programme. 

The big name in this case is Lieutnant Dick Lord, Royal Navy, who sadly died last October, aged 75, arrived in Miramar in 1966, and chose the callsign "Brit One", because he was South African and because it would be fun to force his American wingman to take on "Brit Two" callsign! 
For the debriefing following his first sortie as instructor at Miramar, he did something that, back then, US aviators simply did not do: he asked for coloured chalk and, as he regularly did back at Lossiemouth, he started writing on the blackboard headings, speeds, who did what, when, with which errors. He re-created the whole sortie on the blackboard, and picked it apart in detail to learn from it, and to explain to his students when and how he had gained an advantage during the sortie in the air. 

In the days in which Miramar was filled with veterans of Vietnam, all with their own war experience to tell, all with their own personal message to deliver, "you do this because i did it and it saved my ass", he did something more. Something new, and more effective. His course started to get crowded soon when the voice spread, and Dan McIntyre, air-to-air leader of the VF-121 squadron of the US Navy, asked Lord to write a new Air Combat Maneuvering syllabus for the squadron, and tour the West Coast bases lecturing US Navy pilots on ACM. 

Lord accepted. In 1968, he was still working on this complex task, and he was handed a very informative Top Secret file on Energy Maneuvering. The file, originally written by USAF Major John Boyd, was a very complex mathematic study of the performance envelopes of fighter jets of the days. The file had been too complex, and had been gathering dust for a long time, but Lord recognized gold dust in it. 
Overlaying graphics made from the data in the file, it was immediately evident where the advatages of an airplane lay upon another. And it made of course evident where weaknesses would be found, too. 

Lord put this info (that he technically shouldn't even have read) in his work and lessons. In the summer of 1968, he was back in the UK as the Royal Navy 's pre-eminent weapons and tactics  instructor, the Air Warfare Instructor of 764 NAS itself. In practice, he was teacher of the teachers.

In the US, its legacy lived on, however. Two months after he left to return in the UK, his fellow Miramar instructor Lieutnant Commander Dan Pedersen USN, became the first officer in charge of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School. NFSW was brought into being as a result of the US Navy Ault Report, a severe examination into what was going so damn wrong in the skies over Vietnam.
NFSW, of course, was not sexy a name, and soon the term Top Gun appeared. 

Top Gun and 764 NAS weren't the same thing, but the similarities ended up being significant. The best pilots from the US Navy squadrons would go to Top Gun school for a month, before being sent back to their unit to share the experience gained. The concept was the same, even if the courses were different in several aspects. 
British instructors never had the opportunity to teach in the Top Gun school, but they nonetheless remained much admired, and Dan Petersen himself never made mystery that he would have welcomed Dick Lord as a comrade to fly with over Vietnam. 

Dick Lord left in Miramar a precious parting gift, a 14-pages document named "Flying and fighting the Phantom". The booklet was given to all pilots coming in to VF-121 for training, and it was sent to the Phantom manufacturers at McDonnel Douglas, which were so impressed with it to quote from it in the opening page of their own F4 manual. The quote was: 

To be successful in the fighter business the aircrew must, first and foremost, have a thorough background in fighter tactics. They must acquire an excellent knowledge of all their equipment. Then they must approach the problem with a spirit of aggression, and with utter confidence. 

Might not feel like much of a honor. But there were only two quotes on the F4 NATOPS manual. This one from Dick Lord, and one from Manfred Von Richtofen, the Red Baron. 
This puts it in another light, no? 

To conclude this fascinating summary, it is worth remembering that the RN Phantom pilots and their planes, which found a last home at RAF Leuchars airbase after the demise of HMS Ark Royal IV, the last, mighty CATOBAR carrier of the Royal Navy, passed on all the experience they could to the young boys of the Sea Harrier fleet. Nick Kerr, one of the last Phantom pilots of the Navy, had the honor and satisfaction of seeing, a few years after he retired, four of the Sea Harrier pilots he had trained account for nearly a third of the confirmed air to air kills of the Sea Harriers over the Falklands. He was on HMS Ark Royal IV during the 1972 Belize crisis, but he was not part of that epic mission, and never had the chance to fly a navy plane into the fight himself. But he prepared well those who later did.

Once more, a confirmation that Navy pilots have for many years done the right things.

And today the british pilots go to america and France, fly the F18 and the Rafale, rebuild the knowledge from scratch after it was unwisely thrown away in the years, almost totally annihilated with the Sea Harrier hurried demise and then pretty much killed last year. Much of the hard-gained knowledge of generations of AWIs is gone. And no, that knowldge was not that of working from a CATOBAR carrier. That is the smallest bit, and probably the less important.

But new pilots are growing up now. Catapults are returning, along with supersonic fighters to fly off british flagged ships.
And perhaps tomorrow the circle will close, and there will be a new Brit One followed by a US wingman with Brit Two as callsign, and the FAA pilots will once more show US pilots how the job is done. 

From the Royal Navy there are also some more news:

Iit has been confirmed that HMS Daring will deploy in the Gulf. It'll be the first operational deployment for the ship and for the whole T45 class, so it is really the start of a new Era for the Navy. Daring is to replace HMS Argyll in gulf duties. The ship will leave Portsmouth today, passing Round Tower around 12.40pm and receiving her Lynx helicopter flight from 815 NAS off Nab Tower. 

The minesweepers of the Navy are getting a major improvement in the form of an upgrade contract signed with Hydroid for the improvement of the 12 REMUS 100 scout drones used by Survey and MCM vessels. A new 3D sonar is to be installed in them, in addition to their side-scan systems already in place: the new sonar will give direct visibility even in the region directly below the AUV – an area that often has a coverage gap which requires overlapping passes in order to cover the survey region. The 3D MicroBathymetry will fill that gap and eliminate the need for any overlapping passes. The vehicles will also be fitted with modular endcaps and digital ultra-short baseline (USBL) acoustic positioning systems. Some of the fleet’s twelve REMUS 100 vehicles will be equipped with Inertial Navigation Systems as well. 

The Royal Navy also uses at least 4 larger REMUS 600 drones, for search in deep waters, with the REMUS 100 optimized for shallow and littoral waters. The upgrade makes the RN's drones the most capable mine-hunting devices in service in the world, keeping the MCM force in its world-leading position. The RN is indeed helping the US Navy's own MCM force upgrade some of its systems and adopting the SeaFox one-shot disposal system, which the RN has been using even since the 2003 Iraqi experience. The US Navy MCM force, instead, has been aging heavily, also due to the delays to the 58 million dollars MCM mission modules for the Littoral Combat Ships and, of course, the delays of the LCS itself. Unless the cuts change things, the US Navy plans for 55 LCS vessels and 64 mission modules (16 ASW for anti-submarine role, 24 MCM kits for anti-minefield work and 24 ASuW anti-surface modules). With 4 crews per every 3 LCS hulls, the US Navy plans to have 23 LCS vessels at sea at any one time, meaning that more hulls will be at sea than now with the vessels that the LCS is intended to replace, an heterogeneus force of 56 vessels consisting of: 

14 Avenger MCM ships
12 Osprey coastal MCM ships
30 Oliver Hazard Perry frigates 

Still unclear what the future holds for the decommissioned Ark Royal. Between the proposals, three are the most suggestive: 

-Turning her into an heliport in London
-sinking her and turning her into an artificial reef
- and now, a new idea is turning her into an hospital ship: businessman Malcolm McMullen.Mr McMullen has plans to transform the decommissioned ship into a humanitarian disaster response ship on behalf of billionaire American businessman Mark D Jones. If their bid is succesful, they promise to have Ark Royal refurbished and refited at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast of RMS Titanic memory. 

The first and third option are the ones that most attract me. 
On the third option, it is worth noticing that, for all the Aid budget the UK gives away, and for all talk of defence diplomacy and disaster relief policy, the RN has been unable to secure funding for an hospital ship despite trying from before 2005, despite joining the Joint Casualty Treatment Ship requirement with the Argus replacement requirement in Auxiliary Aviation Support vessel. 

RFA Argus currently covers both roles, offering Role 3 medical facilities and 100 hospital beds, which can be expanded to 200. She is, however, aging. She was a container ship picked up from trade for the Falklands war.


  1. Hi Gabriele.

    It is good news hear that we heading towards a full carrier capability.

    Any news on the F35 post Mr Hammonds meeting in the US?

    What do you think the air compliment will be on the carrier, will it include UAVs?

    HMS Daring goes to sea on operations, does it have it’s a full weapon armament?

    On another subject, is tranche 2, of the army cuts to be announced tomorrow?


  2. Hey there, Phil, was wondering what had been of you.

    As for the F35C, no, for now there are not news i'm aware of. It is confirmed that the third UK test F35 will be a C. It is necessary to keep the F35C testing under a watchful eye because of the arresting hook problem, which is a serious issue which needs a solution, or brings the system to failure, simple as that.
    As to the US cuts, numbers of F35 planned should be relatively safe, along with all 3 variants. However, 120 out of over 400 planes that the US planned to buy in the coming decade might be delayed to later years. Hopefully this won't have too bad an impact on unitary cost and other factors.

    UAVs are intended as a long-term possibility for CVF. I think it is quite safe to assume that one day there will be UCAVs on it, too. But for now there is not a precise plan.

    HMS Daring should be fully kitted. VLS full, Phalanx guns have been fitted and trialed, and on board there will be a Lynx flight and a Royal Marines boarding party. She will lack anti-ship missiles, though, other than Sea Skua for the helicopter.

    As for Tranche 2 of the cuts, last i heard was that there would be a single announcement this time, for all three services, on the same day. It was planned for 17 January 2012, so it shouldn't be tomorrow, unless it has been brought forwards without me hearing of it. Might be, but it is unlikely: the 17 January date was announced only last december, after all. Things shouldn't have changed in this little while.

  3. Thanks Gabriele,

    Yes, I did see the 17th Jan mentioned yesterday.

    Pity HMS Daring has no Harpoon, as I understand it has a mount for that system?

    Sorry, I have been reading your posts, but just haven't got round to making any comments.

    Looking forward to your 2012 news!


  4. She could get Harpoon or another surface-surface missile at any time: she is fitted for but not with, we can say. They would fit behind the missile silo, in the same fashion as on Type 23.

    And no worries, i just enjoy getting comments. I'm glad you come up here for the news.


Everybody can comment on this blog without needing a Blogger account. It is meant to keep the discussion free and open to everyone. Unfortunately, anonymous accounts keep the door open for spammers and trolls, so i'm forced to moderate comments and approve them before they appear. Apologies for the inconvenience.