The Shapes of Things Coming, and Going

I’ve been reading a couple of articles recently about the future of the Royal Air Force, having noted the recent appearance of the Envoy IV / Dassault Falcon 900LX in RAF service. It seems that a couple of once familiar shapes will be leaving the RAF, and perhaps earlier than I’d imagined. What their replacements will be, I consider below.

Goodbye Hercules, Hello Atlas

“22 Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft are being procured to replace the Lockheed Hercules C4/C5 (C-130J) which will be withdrawn from service by 2023”

Goodbye then. Really? C-130J Hercules ZH883 arrives at the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England. The fin marking commemorates the 50th anniversary of the RAF’s first Hercules. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

WHAT? No more Hercules in RAF service? Really? That was quite a surprise. The C-130 has been around forever (almost) and rather like the DC-3/C-47 before it, many people and several air forces thought that the only C-130 replacement was another C-130. The first example I saw was a USAF machine, gleaming in a Natural Metal Finish (or so my memory says) at RAF Mildenhall in 1967. Looking at the commemorative markings on ZH883 above, the first RAF examples must have entered service the year before. Even the replacement C-130J (or Hercules C.4/C.5) is probably best described as “venerable” since it started flying with the RAF in in 1998. Elsewhere in the world the Hercules isn’t going away. The purchase of 22 C-130J models by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has just been approved by Congress in the United States.

So, what’s going on in the United Kingdom? The 14 C-130Js service with the RAF will be made available for sale through the Defence Equipment Sales Authority (DESA) from 2023. I’m sure a few questions are being asked in various quarters, best summed up by a 2021 headline on the Eurasian Times website: “Why Is RAF Hell-Bent On Retiring Its C-130 Hercules Despite Phenomenal Afghan Ops?” A Wikipedia article on the future of the Royal Air Force implied that some top brass in the British Army were “unhappy with the retirement of the Hercules aircraft, due to uncertainty regarding the A400M’s and C-17’s effectiveness in some tactical roles.” A British tabloid said in 2015: “The SAS fight to keep their Hercules planes”. However, despite the alleged feelings of the Army, it seems that RAF high command have fallen in love with the A400M, and so 22 examples, the eight C-17s, (whose production stopped in 2014) and the fourteen Airbus A330 Voyagers (Including ZH336 “Boris Force One”) will be the RAF’s fixed wing haulers in the foreseeable future.

Hello new shape. Airbus A400M Atlas (EC-400) of Airbus Military arrives at the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo, RAF Fairford, England. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

So Long Big Dish, Hello Wedgetail

The Boeing E-3 Sentry first flew in 1977, entered RAF service in 1991, and still seems like a recent aircraft to my increasingly aged eyes. That radar dome spinning at 6 revolutions per minute looked incredibly futuristic. I have lived for years under the impression that the E-3 was a derivative of the military C-135, but I am reliably informed (now) that it’s based on the C-137, the military designation for the Boeing 707-320. Boeing turned out 68 examples between 1977 and 1992. Of these, the United States Air Force received 34 – not all of them are active, the RAF had 5, the Royal Saudi Air Force have 5, and the French Armée de l’air et de l’espace have 4. NATO has 18 in its own right based in Luxembourg. However the E-3’s days in British service are well and truly numbered.

RAF E-3D Sentry AEW.1 ZH107 departing Fairford after RIAT 2007 – Image by Rob Schleiffert from Holland, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There have been several upgrades and modifications to the E-3s in service. As the USAF was starting a new upgrade to the “Block 40/45” standard, the RAF were considering a similar upgrade program. However, the considerable cost involved caused the British government to have second thoughts. Consequently the upgrade program was defunded, and the money allocated to a new system instead. In 2019 the Ministry of Defence announced that British Sentries would be replaced by the E-7 Wedgetail by 2023. The last operational flight by an RAF Sentry was supposed to be in July 2021, but the two remaining RAF E-3s were flying patrols in Poland and central Europe in early 2022 monitoring the recent military action by Russia in Ukraine. The other three RAF E-3s were sold to Chile, the first aircraft arriving in late July 2022. One aircraft will be used as a source for spares and two will fly. The two flyers will replace Chile’s EL/M-2075 Phalcon (also known as the EB-707 Condor) which is itself a different-shaped adaptation of a Boeing 707 by Israel Aircraft Industries.

EB-707 Condor of the Chilean Air Force at Pudahuel AFB, Santiago de Chile, September 2010. Photo by Hippocamelus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what’s this Wedgetail? The E-7 Wedgetail AKA the Boeing 737 AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) is, as you may surmise, based on the Next Generation Boeing 737. It was designed for the RAAF under “Project Wedgetail” and this I assume is how the moniker stuck.

A Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail approaches an airborne (USAF) KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, to receive fuel during a mission supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, July 3, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Wedgetail deliveries began to Australia in 2009. Its first operational use was coordinating patrol aircraft in the search for the missing Malaysian Boeing 777 Flight MH370 in early 2014.

It was assumed that the British would put the matter of replacing the E-3 out to some kind of open bid, but this was not to be. In March 2019 Gavin Williamson (Secretary of State for Defence at the time) announced that the UK had signed a deal with Boeing to buy five Wedgetails. Part of the justification was that the Next Gen 737 airframe would share some compatibility with the 737-based P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. – Both types may share the same base. Cue a certain amount of grumbling from Airbus and Saab who had an alternative product they wanted to sell.

In 2022 it was announced that the British procurement program has slipped to the extent that the Wedgetail will not enter service with the RAF until 2024. Maybe the two remaining Sentries will get to fly a little more.

A Boeing 737 AEW&C of the Turkish Air Force, although note the temporary US Civil registration by the tail, indicating this may be a delivery (or pre-delivery) flight. Location unknown. Photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

There are 14 Wedgetails currently in service with the RAAF, Republic of Korea and Turkish Air Forces. The UAE, Italian Air Force, and Qatar are also lining up to be customers. In April 2022 the USAF announced that its E-3s would be replaced by the Wedgetail / E-7. The American procurement process (and perhaps the line of customers ahead of them) means that the E-7 won’t fly with the USAF until 2027. Who knows what else will be shaping up to enter service by then?

Tomorrow is Yesterday

It seems appropriate to use a title from Star Trek for my first post of the new year. Happy New Year to the readership, by the way. It’s good to have so many of you along.

It’s no secret that my experience in the class at PSU in which I sat last semester rekindled my desire to build a few models. I honestly promise I’m not going to turn this blog into Adventures in Plastic, although the last three posts have had a distinctly modelling feel.

Today I was getting my PowerPoints and other online materials ready for the new semester which starts on January 14th. It was much less painful than I was expecting (I admit I haven’t tried to merge my PowerPoints with any for the revised textbook yet) so I thought I’d do a little bit of online window shopping.

I think I said before there are a few aircraft shapes which I find entrancing, including the Spitfire, BAC (English Electric) Lightning, TSR.2, and T-38. I may have also mentioned that the F-104 does something for me too, and I haven’t had a model of a Starfighter since I was quite young. So while idly perusing the pages of the web I found it strangely pleasing to see that, a couple of years ago, some enterprising (groan!) executive had paired an F-104 with the Enterprise itself to recreate the episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday. ” If you look it up you will see it’s the nineteenth episode of the first season of Star Trek. I was pleased to see it was written by the wonderful Dorothy (D. C.) Fontana, and was first broadcast in January 1967.

I won’t go into the plot details here since you can pretty much deduce them from the kit box. I remember watching the episode several times over the years. The fact that we’re approaching the 52nd anniversary of its broadcast is something to note.

Meanwhile I’m going back to those other pages and see if there is a decent F-104 to be picked up at a reasonable price.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Amelia

Amelia Earhart and her Lockheed Electra 10E NR16020

Amelia Earhart and the Lockheed Electra 10E NR16020 in which she and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in July 1937.
(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

It started quietly,  but the mainstream media have picked it up now.  TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro thesis on the fate of Amelia Earhart received a significant boost with the publication of a 16-page paper in the March 2018 issue of the scholarly journal Forensic Anthropology (not Forensic Pathology as stated in some sites), published by the University of Florida Press. See the article itself at this link:

The author of the article is Richard L. Jantz, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, and Director Emeritus of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  According to his Wikipedia entry, Jantz’ research focuses primarily on forensic anthropology, skeletal biology, dermatoglyphics, anthropometry, anthropological genetics, and human variation, as well as the development of databases to aid anthropological research. Jantz is a prolific author,  and his research has helped lead and shape the field of physical and forensic anthropology for many years.   In the paper in question, he concludes that the bone fragments found, analyzed and subsequently lost in the 1940s are most probably those of Amelia Earhart.

The paper is a significant work, drawing on Jantz’ own expertise and a re-evaluation of the data recorded in Fiji in 1941, the last (and probably only) time that the bones were subjected to scientific analysis. Jantz says that additionally, information concerning Amelia Earhart’s body dimensions came to light in 2017 through a new study of Earhart’s clothing,  held in the George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers at Purdue University.

The article challenges two assertions. Firstly that the bones were those of a stockily built male about 5’5″ in height.  Secondly,  notwithstanding speculation at the time, the skeletal remains were not considered to be those of Amelia Earhart because she was always thought to be tall, slender, and gracile (a word I have never used or read until now). The re-evaluation of the bone data, and measurements taken from her clothing, suggest that despite being 5’7″ tall and presenting a fairly elfin figure, Earhart was apparently a little more stocky in build, and around 20 pounds heavier,  than contemporary accounts and the evolving legend (courtesy no doubt of George Palmer Putnam)  would have us believe.

Jantz states in his conclusion: “Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers”

UTK (University of Tennessee at Knoxville) wrote a news release on the article here:

It’s comforting to this part-time academic that the article itself was received by the journal in August 2017, was revised in October, and accepted for publication in November 2017, finally appearing in Vol.1, No. 2 in March 2018. The academic publishing process is as tortuous as ever.

I await with some interest the response of the supporters of the other theories.

Amelia Earhart – Quotes, Pictures, and Silence.

I must have said something about 2017 being the anniversary year of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.  I lectured a couple of times about her (the first time was in 2011) and even gave a Pecha Kucha presentation a couple of years ago to a bemused audience at the First Christian Church in Pittsburg on the topic.

What brought Amelia back to my consciousness was the fact that one of my students this semester prepared a short presentation on Earhart for an extra credit project.   She apparently visits Atchison, KS quite regularly for the Earhart celebrations.  It was nice to see that Amelia isn’t forgotten by the younger generation.

Inspired by this,  I had a riffle around the TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) website to see what has developed recently.

An entry in TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie’s blog  caught my attention. The article “Crickets and Corrections” discusses a photo which I had forgotten about, despite only being revealed five or six months ago in June / July 2017.

A Japanese ship  docking in the Marshall Islands, allegedly towing a barge upon which is the remains of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. Earhart and Fred Noonan are supposed to be shown among the people on the dockside. Earhart is said to be seated with her back to the camera,  and Noonan is the very tall man  on the left.

You may have seen this photo which is preserved in the US National Archives. A program on the History Channel supposedly blew away much of the conspiracy theory and the detailed research of TIGHAR by stating that the picture shows conclusively that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s flight actually ended in the Marshall Islands,  and that they were taken prisoner by the Japanese.   This would have been especially aggravating to TIGHAR,  who have spent many years and a a considerable amount of money trying to prove their theory that Earhart and Noonan crashed and eventually died on Gardner Island in the Phoenix Islands, now known as Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati.

Ric Gillespie says that some other information has come to light about the picture.   Another copy has emerged in a Japanese book  published in 1935, and Gillespie / TIGHAR take much trouble to examine and translate the bibliographic information showing that the photo may have been taken two years before the  famous pair disappeared.   Gillespie says the History Channel have pulled the show from its schedules, and indeed the History Channel website mentions that new information has come to light and that they’re investigating.   Gillespie’s blog post is the equivalent of a crowd of British football supporters singing “It’s All Gone Quiet Over There”  to their previously raucous opponents’ stands when their team scores.

I have no doubt we’ll hear more about this.  TIGHAR’s investigation has been going on since 1989, according to their website, and will no doubt continue as funds permit.  They have amassed an absolute wealth of circumstantial evidence. All of it is very highly plausible, (Personally I think their explanation is the best one and the most likely) but as they admit,  there is nothing which can prove the hypothesis beyond reasonable doubt.

We will keep watching and waiting.

Dragon Lady

1 May 1960 is the anniversary of Francis Gary Powers being shot down somewhere over the Soviet Union in his U-2A  by what I call a SAM-2  and everyone else calls an S-75. I assumed the event took place earlier in the year and have to thank my regular engagements with Bryan Swopes’ blog for reminding me.   Funnily enough I mentioned the U-2 incident to my American History class last week.  Every so often I get close to an anniversary like this, but mostly it’s coincidence.   In March 2014 I happened to hit the 70th Anniversary of the “Great Escape” and subjected my class to a few minutes of Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

The engine of the downed American Lockheed U-2

The engine of the downed American Lockheed U-2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers on view in Gorky Park. (RIA Novosti archive, image #35173 / Chernov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

I had a quick riffle through the pages of Wikipedia to find a Public Domain picture of an original U-2 and read briefly that another U-2 was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis.   I didn’t managed to teach that part and will have to look it up.   I will also have refresh myself on the clandestine overflights that were carried out by Canberras and RB-45s flown by RAF aircrews (and the RB-45s had RAF markings) a few years previously.

Lockheed U-2A

Lockheed U-2A at the National Museum of the US Air Force

Many years ago I saw a TR-2 (I think it was)  derivative of the U-2 climbing out of RAF Alconbury  and watched as best I could while I was driving down the M11 Motorway at the time. I believe I did see the NMUSAF example (basking in the sun in the picture above)  at Dayton some years ago.   I’m looking forward to going again sometime soon.

This Day in History – 14th February

Anthony W. "Tony" LeVier (February 14, 1913 – February 6, 1998)

Anthony W. “Tony” LeVier (February 14, 1913 – February 6, 1998)

I just wondered what might have happened on Valentine’s Day so I looked at This Day in Aviation.  I was rather happy with the results as I got another link to another article about which I’d already written.   You know how I like connections. On this day in 1913, Anthony W. “Tony” LeVier  was born.  Tony LeVier (February 14, 1913 – February 6, 1998) was an air racer and test pilot for the Lockheed Corporation from the 1940s to the 1970s, says the “W” website.

I happened to notice that LeVier flew the XP-80 (see the earlier article about XP-80A, 44-83020 Lulu-Belle elsewhere in this blog)  but it’s a little better than that. According to This Day In Aviation,  Lulu-Belle was first flown by LeVier at Muroc Army Air Field (now  Edwards AFB)  on 8 January,  1944.

As a test pilot for Lockheed, LeVier was also involved with one of my favorite aircraft of the 50s and 60s, the F-104.  I can’t describe why I like it, and certainly in the “missile with a man in it” competition, my heart also belongs to the English Electric Lightning,  (and having said that, I feel another article may be on the way) but the polished silver F-104s with bright USAF markings and heraldry appeal to some part of my aesthetic sense. I’m sorry I never managed to get a big F-104 model from my local Walmart when they were on sale.  Actually I never saw them in my local Walmart.

Here’s Tony LeVier pictured on the XF-104 53-7786

Tony LeVier with the XF-104

Tony LeVier with the XF-104 53-7786 – USAF Photograph

And (below) here is the beast in its element.  I have no idea who’s flying it in this picture but no doubt I will find out.

Lockheed XF-104

Lockheed XF-104 53-7786 – USAF

Another couple of F-104 snippets courtesy of “This Day” author Byron Swopes.  XF-104 53-7786 was destroyed on 11 July,  1957 when the vertical fin was ripped off by uncontrollable flutter. The pilot (not LeVier on this occasion) ejected safely.  Tony LeVier died at the age of 84 on February 6, 1998, having  survived eight crashes and one mid-air collision in his flying career.  Today’s post is dedicated to his memory.