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Sun, Dec 31, 2006

2006 Year-In-Review: Military Aviation

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new fighter on the assembly line and ongoing sales of F-16s to NATO partners, 2006 was a milestone year for military aviation. Here's how it looked, month-to-month:

January

Nothing more than war leads to innovation. Just ask members of the 939th Air Refueling Wing. Flying KC-135 tankers, they found the venerable refueling airframe makes a good medical evacuation platform... Ongoing concerns among US military partners about the rising costs associated with the Joint Strike Fighter program led to warnings in Canberra that Australia might have to cut its order for 100 F-35s in half. This, as we received word the USAF order for JSF aircraft might be cut by as much as 20-percent.... The USS Ronald Reagan, America's newest, most advanced aircraft carrier, departed San Diego on its maiden voyage January 5th. It immediately engaged in exercises aimed at honing the skills of both the ship's crew and its complement of flyers in both conventional and anti-terror warfighting tactics... The war in Iraq continued to prove especially dangerous for flight crews on January 8th, when a US Army UH-60 Black Hawk went down near the town of Tall Afar. All four crew members and eight passengers on board were killed... After that downing and two others within a period of weeks, the Pentagon began reassessing both the use of military helicopters in that war-torn country and the possibility that insurgents had switched tactics... Three months after Hurricane Katrina battered the US Gulf Coast, Lakefront Airport near New Orleans suffered a major setback. Because of ongoing issues related to damage from the storm, the Army's First Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment pulled out, completing a move contemplated even before the storm... In the middle of the month, Embraer and Lockheed-Martin parted company on the Joint Aerial Sensor project after it became apparent the ERJ 145 wouldn't be a sufficient platform for all the heavy equipment the Army wanted to pack into the airframe... It was a sight not seen in the skies over Europe since World War II ended in 1945 -- a German-made Messershmitt ME-262. The aircraft was one of five being restored. It arrived in Manching, Germany, aboard a Cargolux Boeing 747 for restoration and flight testing... And in a move reminiscent of the Army's aviation program, the US Navy in January opened cockpits to enlisted sailors, offering flight training and billets to warrant officers.

February

Leo Mustonen spent almost 64 years on California's Mount Mender glacier. The 22-year old airman had been on a navigation training flight in 1942 when the aircraft went down on the mountain. But in October, 2005, hikers found the wreckage and Mustonen's body  frozen in the ice. His remains were returned to his family in early February... Later in February, the military's UAV program got a huge boost when the Pentagon awarded a military airworthiness certificate to the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. The RQ-4A was also awarded an FAA certificate allowing it to fly routine missions within the national airspace... Also in February, the National Guard released staggering figures indicating just how many people its aircraft and those from other services rescued in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Army National Guard, for instance, used helicopters to save a whopping 17,443 lives using just 133 helos.

March

The Navy ordered an operational stand down after nine serious incidents since October, the first such stand down in nine years... Around the middle of March, the military launched Operation Swarmer, the biggest military air operation since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The goal: clear a hotbed of insurgents northeast of Samarra, about 60-miles from Baghdad... The first of 48 Lockheed-Martin F-16s purchased by the Polish Air Force entered flight testing. The Polish aircraft are among the most advanced in the NATO air fleet... But elsewhere in NATO, controversy continued to swirl around the JSF program. Citing a lack of operational control over the aircraft it had ordered, the British Ministry of Defense threatened to go elsewhere for its next-generation fighters.

April

It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it's big news. One of the biggest transport planes in the US military's inventory, a C-5, crashed on approach to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. All 17 on board the aircraft emerged from the wreckage without life-threatening injuries, an amazing statistic attributed by at least one veteran pilot to the skill of the cockpit crew... Another accident proved quite a scare for the Marine Corps, but by April, everyone was breathing a little  easier. A hard landing at the USMC maintenance facility at New River, NC, raised questions about the often-troubled V-22 Osprey program. But In April, Navy Secretary Donald Winter expressed his strong and continued support for the tilt-rotor program, saying it's "an extremely capable platform..." It's not something you see often in the middle of a war -- much less two. But Boeing in April decided to lay off 25-percent of its Wichita workforce. The manufacturer cited cutbacks in the Navy's E4-B mobile command post program... Continuing a theme that would plague Lockheed-Martin throughout the year, the Pentagon issued a new cost estimate for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The price tag for the entire program was pegged in April at $276.5 billion, $20 billion more than estimated in 2004... Also in April, TANGO TANGO, the second restored ME262 flying, made its first flight over Germany. No problems were reported in the gear-down flight.

May

May marked the first flight of the Chinese FC-4, seen by military analysts as a competitor to the F-16 and the MiG-29. The first flight lasted about 16 minutes. No problems were reported... As the competition to build a replacement for the Boeing KC- 135 tanker heated up once again, one member of Congress had some advice for EADS, which is bidding against Boeing for the work: If you want the tanker contract, give up government subsidies on new Airbus planes... That didn't work so well. Later in the year, Airbus announced it would build the revamped A350 XWB -- with help from several European governments... Lockheed-Martin unveiled its "Super Galaxy" C-5 variant, saying the new aircraft is cheaper to operate, more capable and more dependable than older versions.

June

Remember that story about the layoffs at Boeing's Wichita facilities -- job cuts caused by military downsizing in the midst of two wars? You might not realize it, but the military itself is in the middle of a preprogrammed downsizing. But hoping to reverse a trend, the Air Force announced in June that it would give 192 lieutenants targeted for separation another chance... Military aviation struck a huge blow against al Qaeda in the war on terror. In an airstrike by USAF F-16s, Osama bin Laden's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed when the house in which he was hiding was flattened by precision weapons... Despite assertions that pilot skill and calm nerves saved all 17 people aboard that C-5 that crashed on approach to Dover AFB in Delaware, an Air Force investigation  into the mishap determined it was human error that caused the Galaxy to go down. The board, convened at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, found that the pilots and flight engineer improperly configured the aircraft for landing... Perhaps one of the biggest military aviation stories of the year began to break in June, as North Korea prepared to launch a long-range missile it claimed could carry a nuclear or bio-chemical warhead to the western US... That prompted the Pentagon to step up testing of its anti-missile systems. on June 22nd, the USS Shilo detected and destroyed a simulated ballistic missile target, then moved into position with other US forces to show the flag in the face of North Korea's planned tests... Directly underneath the missile's flight path, Japanese lawmakers began taking steps to protect their country. Among them, they decided to allow US Patriot Missile batteries on Japanese soil for the first time... The North Korean test missiles, however, remained on the launch pad for weeks before they were launched.

July

North Korea did eventually launch at least six missiles in early July. But the internationally-feared Taepadong-2 missile, thought capable of reaching the US, fizzled after just 42-seconds in flight... Still, NORAD went on high alert and governments around the world called for more sanctions against the government of Kim Jung Il... Unsuccessful though it was, the North Korean Taepadong-2 missile tests did, however, prompt European nations to consider developing their own missile shield... Stung by ongoing budget woes and controversy about the amount of control US allies would have over their F-35s, the US military named the Joint Strike Fighter the "Lightning II." The name is a tribute to original Lightning -- also a Lockheed aircraft -- the "fork-tailed devil" P-38... Many of the concerns about the Lightning II came to a head in July, during the semi-annual Farnborough Air Show in England. The Government Accountability Office issued a report slamming the fighter on several fronts. Lockheed-Martin found itself on the defensive, despite claims that the GAO report, in essence, was misinformed... Israel's invasion of Lebanon, on the hunt for soldiers taken hostage by the terror group Hezbollah, saw its share of aviation news. Two Israeli Apache helicopters collided over the Israel-Lebanon border, causing several deaths and injuries... The Israeli invasion of Lebanon was news worldwide. But no facet of that war got more attention than the air campaign. After Israeli F-16s bombed a UN facility and a refugee camp, war commanders in Jerusalem declared a moratorium on the air war. That lasted less than 48-hours.

August

Israeli air raids resumed after Hezbollah guerrillas launched missile attacks across the border... But not all the bad publicity for the Israeli Air Force was truly deserved. A Reuters photographer sent to document damage caused by Israeli air raids into Lebanon was sacked after his editors discovered his pictures had been significantly altered after the fact... Later in August, Boeing made a surprise announcement. A month ahead of schedule, the first production version of the EA-18G "Growler" Airborne Electronic Attack plane flew. It will eventually replace the EA-6B "Prowler..." A month after North Korea tested several missiles, including the long-range Taepodong-2, Iran test-fired its submarine-launched long-range missile. The Tehran government claims the weapon has radar-evading capabilities -- and that it hit its target.

September

With an eye on both North Korea and Iran, the Pentagon once again began tests aimed at improving the missile defense program. In a September 1st test from Vandenburg AFB, an interceptor tasked with merely tracking its target not only did that successfully, it brought the target down... But if that was good news for the American military, the British suffered a terrible blow with the loss of a Nimrod MR2 marine reconnaissance aircraft over Afghanistan. All 14 people on board were killed when the plane went down. The British Ministry of Defense denied Taliban claims that the aircraft had been shot down by a shoulder-launched missile... Later came word that the aircraft had suffered an in-flight fire during refueling. Witnesses reported seeing a fire in the rear of the aircraft as it careened toward the ground... Iran's military continued to capture the world's attention in September when it unveiled a homegrown fighter called the "Saegheh" ("Lightning"). Looking very much like an F-5, Iranian "experts" claimed the aircraft is much more powerful because it was "designed, optimized and improved" by Iranian engineers... How do you make a stand-off weapon even more stand-offish? You strap on a wing kit of Australian design. The kit, to be used with existing JDAM inventory, can effectively triple the range of the weapon... September also saw the end of an aviation era -- with the decommissioning of the F-14 Tomcat. About 3,000 people were on hand for the ceremony. It was only slightly marred by the fact that the original aircraft tapped to fly during the ceremony suffered mechanical problems and had to be replaced. That's why they brought two to the event.

October

It was certainly no secret that Kim Jung-Il had another shoe to drop after his missile tests of July. In September, he dropped it -- in the form of a nuclear device exploded in an underground test. The weapon was thought to be too heavy to be carried as a payload aboard the Taepadong-2. But the blast sent a renewed shiver up the spines of diplomats in Japan and South Korea -- those in range of North  Korea's more capable missiles... With a short list of both manufacturers and aircraft in hand, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne predicted in October that the military would have by summer a new tanker to replace the aging USAF fleet of KC-135s. The list of aircraft had been pared down to the Airbus A330 and Boeing 767 variants. But Boeing also added a 777 variant to the list... October marked a major milestone for the Air Force. As part of the branch's year-long 60th anniversary celebration, President Bush dedicated the Air Force Memorial. The memorial, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, was 15-years in the making.

November

November marked the revelation of a secret long-held: The US military had, for years, flown Soviet-made aircraft in combat training exercises, giving American air crews a chance to experience the most realistic air-to-air fighting situations possible short of live-fire. The program, known as "Constant PEG," was built in conjunction with Red Flag and Top Gun to improve what had been widely acknowledged as a rather tepid performance by US military pilots during the Vietnam War... With a serious need for military aircraft overall -- especially in Afghanistan -- Canada asked the US in November to be allowed "jump the line" -- to take delivery on newly ordered aircraft ahead of the US military. The move looked likely. Canadian pilots were already being sent to the US for training... In a year marked by several crashes, November saw yet another. This time, it was a Russian-made Antonov AN-74 that crashed during its take-off roll at Mehrabad Airport. At least 30 people were killed. One apparently survived after the plane lost and engine and veered into an obstacle at the edge of the runway.

December

It was a smack in the face of aviation contractors working with the military coalition in Afghanistan. In its report on the crash of a CASA 212 turboprop, the NTSB blamed lax Pentagon oversight in contractor flights for the deaths of six people in that crash... After years of anticipation and concerns among the nine partner nations about its cost, the first production Lockheed-Martin F-35 "Lightning II" made its inaugural flight. The 40-minute test flight was conducted at Lockheed's Fort Worth plant. It apparently went very well... Remember that USN program to commission warrant officers as cockpit crew members? Initiated earlier in the year, the program graduated its first non-commissioned flight officers in December. Fourteen sailors graduated from the first class.

FMI: www.aero-news.net


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