The U.S. Needs to Build More A-10s, Not Retire Them

RAR2009_-_Front_A-10_Warthog-e1424997120575.jpg

Death, taxes, and the A-10 getting the axe in the most recent U.S. budget proposal. You can almost set your watch by it. The United States Air Force is trying to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the Warthog, for the umpteenth year in a row. But the USAF's case to retire the A-10 is taking on water, and they've recently been shown to have "cherry-picked" data to make the A-10's performance in the Middle East look bad.

Yet, in the same breath, they sent A-10s to the Middle East to help combat ISIL in October of last year, and now they are sending a few more back to Eastern Europe in case the Russians get too frisky with Ukraine.

As this article on Foxtrot Alpha declares in no uncertain terms, the USAF's case for retiring the A-10 is:

"...total bulls**t and both the American taxpayer and those who bravely fight our wars on the ground should be furious."

Tyler Rogoway has gone so far as to declare it "sabotage." And he's right. The A-10 is, contrary to what the Air Force wants you to believe, a cheap and deadly multi-role aircraft that can do the jobs that nothing else can do.

http://youtu.be/eCnjWmtfvFo

This is par for the course for the Air Force brass, who cannot make a halfway logical procurement decision if it meant saving their own lives. Retiring the A-10, so they say, will save the USAF $4.7 billion over five years - $4.7 billion that could go to bringing the F-35 along, as though that's all it would need.

Avenger Cannon A-10

First flown in 1972, and introduced into service in 1977, the A-10 is unquestionably the greatest close support attack aircraft ever produced. So great is the A-10 at its job that, nearly 40 years after its service introduction, it still flies in front-line service, and has outlived its original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic.

That, the Air Force says, is the problem. They want to shut down the last 315 Warthogs still flying to clear room in the budget for their beloved and problematic F-35 jobs program Joint Strike Fighter.

Truth is, the USAF is right. The A-10 is approaching 40 years old. There is only so much upgrading the Air Force can do to a four-decade-old airframe before the airframe itself is simply done. It does need to be retired.

But here's the issue: What the Air Force needs to replace the A-10 is...wait for it...more A-10s.

The F-35 can't do what the A-10 does

YA-10A

Fairchild-Republic built 716 A-10s. It was the last production military aircraft built by the storied stable that also produced the P-47 Thunderbolt, F-84 Thunderjet and F-105 Thunderchief - all tough aircraft that were built to get dirty and help the grunts on the ground. The A-10 was the next logical step in that evolution, and embodied everything that Republic stood for from World War II on.

Now that we're in 2015, there have been a number of technical advancements that the A-10 has simply missed out on. What has held up over time is its legendary toughness, maneuverability, and the deadly accuracy and hitting power provided by its GAU-8 Avenger cannon.

But the aircraft the USAF wants to replace the Warthog with - the problematic F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the A-10:

  • Being a stealth aircraft, it's designed to evade radar detection. Where the A-10 flies, among the weeds and behind hills, the concept of radar evasion is irrelevant.
  • The A-10 was built around its gun and a titanium "bathtub" in which the pilot sits. The F-35 doesn't have that armor.
  • The F-35 is designed to be supersonic. The A-10 most certainly was not. In fact, its lack of speed is an asset, in that it is a stable platform to aim its weapons from.
  • The A-10 is highly maneuverable, with its long, straight wings and dual tailplane. The F-35's high wing loading reduces its maneuverability to a point that air-to-air tests are showing it's a serious problem.
  • The A-10 costs $18.8 million per copy in 2004 dollars. A single F-35A - the Air Force version - costs $114 million per copy.
  • The A-10 has 11 external hardpoints, which can carry up to a maximum of 16,000 pounds of ordnance, although usually it carries less than that. The F-35 can carry 18,000 pounds max, but on only six hardpoints, plus two internal bays, so it can carry heavier loads, but not as much stuff in one go.
  • The A-10 has two engines arranged on pylons at the rear, such that it can get home on one of them if the other gets blown up. The F-35 has one engine, so if you knock that out, you knock out the whole plane.

If the USAF decides to replace the A-10 with the F-35, it will be a multi-billion-dollar mistake. It's already shied away from it once because the F-35 couldn't "generate enough sorties" to replace the Warthog. So what the hell good is a front-line close support aircraft that can't get into the air enough when things go sideways?

Reopen the lines

The Air Force should not buy the F-35 to replace the A-10. Instead, it should re-open the production lines and buy more A-10s.

TR-1A

This is not unprecedented. The U-2 was initially produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When the USAF needed more U-2s, they asked Lockheed to re-open the lines to produce two new variants, the TR-1 (later U-2S) and U-2R. Production ended in the mid-1980s, 25 years after the first U-2s rolled off the line at the Skunk Works.

There is only one snag in doing the same with the A-10: The original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic, no longer exists. Currently, Northrop Grumman is the owner of all A-10 assets, having purchased them from the dying firm in 1987.

A new A-10 variant - let's call it a Northrop Grumman A-10D Super Warthog - as speculated in this article from War is Boring, would retain the A-10's rugged survivability and performance, while adding these new things the pilots want:

  • Upgraded engines from the old and tired TF34 turbofans. Currently, the A-10 has a hard time taking off with a full modern weapons and fuel load. A little more speed always helps too.
  • Better avionics and weapons equipment, like infrared sensors, cockpit displays, and as suggested, Northrop-Grumman's own LITENING II targeting equipment.
  • Better defensive systems, like missile warning and electronic warfare equipment.

Should a new A-10D variant come on line, it should have these and more and still remain under $20-25 million a piece. If it did, the Air Force could save the taxpayers a lot of money and re-focus the development of the F-35 to replace just the F-16 instead.

In addition, there could be some new customers.

An A-10 for the Marines

If the Marines had waved a magic wand in the early 1970s and said, "Give us an attack aircraft," they would have gotten the A-10.

They probably wouldn't have gotten the AV-8B Harrier II, which, despite its remarkable ability to take off and land without a runway, is highly vulnerable and occasionally unreliable.

But the Harrier's best advantage is that it can operate very close to the battlefield and from ships, like the Marines' Wasp-class amphibious assault carriers.

Cherry-Point-F35-F18-Harrier1

Now the Marines want their own variant of the F-35, the F-35B, complete with weight-costly and vulnerable STO/VL technology, to replace the Harrier. For a service hell-bent on reliability and toughness, the F-35B sure looks like it's full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The F-35B is also slated to replace the F/A-18 in Marine service, and perhaps it can as a lightweight multi-role fighter. But for close air support, again, what the Marines need is their own version of the A-10.

Marines F-35B

Let's say we re-opened the lines again for a Marines version of the A-10. It should be just as tough as the USAF version, but let's see if we can do something really fun: make it carrier-capable.

The message board folks have already speculated about it on occasion, but let's think about it seriously. A theoretical A-10E Sea Hog close support carrier-capable aircraft would require more than a few modifications:

  • Folding wings for storage on a carrier.
  • Heavily strengthened undercarriage to handle violent carrier landings and take-offs.
  • Arresting gear to land on the carrier.
  • It might be interesting to see if an A-10 could take off from a carrier using a ski-jump (like the British and Russians) with a full load and without a catapult. The Marines do not have ski-jumps on their carriers for the Harriers, even though the Royal Navy does.

This image is not real. But if it were, it would be very cool:

A-10 Warthog Carrier Landing

As it is, if the USAF doesn't want their remaining A-10Cs anymore, the Marines should take them off their hands. Heaven knows they'd be all too happy to do so.

Could there be room for the A-10B?

YA-10B Warthog

In 1979, The USAF converted one A-10A with a second seat, as the YA-10B. The plane was designed as a Night/All-Weather attack aircraft. Trials were successful, but Congress did not fund production of the A-10B, so the program was abandoned.

But now would be an interesting time to resurrect the A-10B concept. While night and all-weather chores can be handled by single-seaters thanks to the march of technology since 1979, a two-seat A-10 might be a useful prospect in areas like the Middle East, where forward air control and counter-insurgency aircraft would be needed. In addition, the A-10B would also be a useful tool in the Air Rescue Escort role, a-la the old 'Sandys', the A-1 Skyraiders, in Vietnam.

The A-10 now

All of this is speculation and wishful thinking. For the moment, the A-10 will remain in service until at least 2019 if retirement is to commence, but if Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona, a former A-10 driver, gets her way, the Warthog will be around until 2028.

Also coming to the aid of the Warthog are numerous veterans, who say they owe their lives to the A-10 and its pilots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rGcn2XGr48

Ultimately, the truth is that the USAF doesn't have a replacement for the A-10. The F-35 can't do it. And for that matter, the F-35 cannot do what the Marines want it to do either, at least not in comparison to existing hardware, like the Harrier or the A-10 itself.

As we said above, the only realistic replacement for the A-10 is the A-10, and it will continue to remain so until the chiefs either come up with a cheap alternative, or take the not-unprecedented step of re-opening production of the Warthog.

The USAF's Trio of Turboprop Testbeds: The YC-97J, YC-121F and YC-124B

The video above is the only video evidence I've seen of the existence of three of the United States' first turboprop aircraft. They were all testbed variants of three of the most successful piston-engined cargo aircraft of the time: The Boeing C-97 Stratofregihter, the Lockheed C-121 Constellation, and the Douglas C-124 Globemaster.

Turboprops are fairly commonplace these days, particularly in the civil market. But in the 1950s, they were a newfangled technology, and to the USAF at the time, it must have seemed like they'd never work.

The idea of a turbine-driven propeller engine was first formulated in the 1920s, almost at the same time Frank Whittle devised the turbojet. No one actually got around to building one until the 1940s, and it was not until after World War II that the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union began seriously investigating the idea.

The first American turboprop engine was the General Electric T31 of 1945, which was little more than an experimental design. This was at a time when plenty of designers still felt warm and cozy with propellers powering anything, and the lack of reliability of pure jet power provided them ample reason for feeling that way.

The Trouble with Turboprops

Initially, turboprops were considered a logical transition stage from piston engines to jets in the late 1940s. Pure turbojets were not powerful enough to reach the performance levels that designers intended, and piston engines had reached the absolute limits of their potential. The U.S. Navy in particular spent a lot of time, money and resources investigating turboprops, since they could both provide the power of a pure jet with the take-off and landing performance of tried and trusted piston engines - quite helpful in the days before steam catapults, angled decks and mirror landing sites.

So various combat aircraft proposals used turboprops, as it was theorized that they provided the best of both worlds. Among the combat aircraft that used turboprops were several notable and spectacular failures:

As jet engines improved significantly through the 1950s, the idea of using turboprops as a bridge to power fighter and bomber aircraft was abandoned. But the initial teething troubles with complex engines like Allison's cantankerous XT40 were eventually overcome with the introduction of simpler designs, like the Pratt & Whitney T34 and Allison T56.

Meanwhile, as pure jet power was pushing fighter and bomber types to the performance levels initially promised, it did not quite provide the level of efficiency needed for large transport aircraft. This provided a golden opportunity for turboprop designers.

Multi-engine aircraft also naturally have a margin of safety much greater than single or twin-engine types. An in-flight failure in one troublesome engine would not prove fatal to an aircraft with four of them. So turboprops could lift greater loads than piston engines at a time before high-efficiency turbofan engines.

The USAF's crop of piston-engined transports at the time, led by the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, were at their performance limits. The Globemaster's four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial powerplants maxed out at 3,800 horsepower each. However the T34, from the same stable, could top out at more than 5,000 horsepower (and in the case of the T34-P-9W, at a phenomenal 7,500 hp). So the technology was there to enable massive gains in payload, range, speed and altitude.

But of course, in an era before computer simulation, the only way to test these ideas was to put then engines on a plane and go fly it. So both the Air Force and the Navy put three of their most venerable piston engine-powered transports, installed T34s on them, and used them as all-turboprop testbeds in the early 1950s.

Boeing YC-97J Stratofreighter

Boeing YC-97J
Boeing YC-97J

Boeing had prodded the Air Force for some time in the early 1950s to develop a turboprop-powered variant of their successful C-97, itself a transport development of the B-29, and powered by the same Wright R-4360 radial engines as the B-50. With the advent of aerial refueling, it became clear that piston-engined tankers, like the successful KC-97, were shown to be inadequate for refueling pure jet-powered combat aircraft, being barely able to reach a maximum speed greater than the stalling speed of the jets.

In 1955, Boeing finally got the go-ahead to convert two KC-97G airframes (52-2693 and 52-2672) to YC-97J standard, powered by four Pratt & Whitney YT34 turboprops (JP Santiago notes that the Air Force considered re-designating these machines as YC-137s, but relented)

From the day of the first flight on April 19th, 1955, the performance differences were immediately obvious. The YT34s made the YC-97J 5,000 pounds lighter and much more powerful - 5,700 hp per engine, compared to the R-4360's 3,800. As a result, top speed jumped from 375 mph to 417 mph, and the time the plane took to reach 20,000 feet altitude was cut from 50 to just 14 minutes. Boeing's official proposal to the Air Force called for the C-97J to carry up to 53,600 pounds of cargo - a dramatic improvement of the standard C-97's 37,500 pounds.

YC-97J Boeing
YC-97J Boeing

While the YC-97Js showed much promise, they were already obsolete. Almost exactly one year before the first YC-97J flew, the famous 367-80, the prototype of the 707 airliner, was rolled out in Seattle, and flew for the first time on July 15 of that same year.

It is reported that, upon seeing the 'Dash-80' during its flight trials in 1954, Gen. Curtis LeMay, the head of SAC at the time, convinced the government to order its first fleet of jet tankers from Boeing, rather than wait for Lockheed to produce its as-yet unbuilt Constellation II - the winner of a government competition - as the USAF's first all-jet tanker aircraft. The KC-135 was ordered on September 1, 1954, and the Dash-80 conducted its first refueling test with a B-52 on October 5. The first KC-135As went into service in 1956.

Boeing would flirt again with turboprops with its XC-127 tanker/transport design, a further development of the YC-97J, but this was not proceeded with.

Super Guppy
Super Guppy

The immediate success of the all-jet KC-135 spelled the end for the C-97J before it started. The two examples built soldiered on as transports and occasional engine testbeds until 1964, when AeroSpacelines purchased both of them. One was converted into a Turbo Super Guppy and used to transport parts of rockets cross-country for the Saturn rocket program, and the other was cannibalized for parts to support the first airframe. The NASA Super Guppy (formerly 52-2693) rests on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

Douglas YC-124B Globemaster II

Douglas YC-124B
Douglas YC-124B

At about the same time, in 1950, the Air Force announced it would proceed with development of a turboprop-powered variant of its larges strategic transport at the time, Douglas' massive C-124 Globemaster II. The new C-124B, it was said, would have double the horsepower, giving it greater speed, range and payload. Like the YC-97J, it would also be powered by four T34 turboprops, and would be available in a tanker/transport configuration.

Both Douglas and the Air Force harbored great enthusiasm for the improved Globemaster, given how the production version, powered by four R-4360 piston engines, had proven highly effective. The prospect of 'Old Shaky' getting an upgrade must have been a welcome prospect to the troops in Korea who ferried back and forth aboard the big transports. However, more than three years would pass before the new plane actually took to the air.

The lone YC-124B produced (serial no. 51-072) made its first flight on February 2, 1954, flying from Douglas' Long Beach plant up to Edwards AFB. In addition to the new engines, the vertical stabilizer was enlarge, and the cabin was pressurized, permitting operation at higher altitudes, and thus higher efficiency from the engines. Speed also increased, from 298 mph to 375 mph, and in fact, the YC-124's cruising speed was higher than the top speed of the production version.

YC-124B Douglas
YC-124B Douglas

By the time the YC-124B flew for the first time, the C-130 Hercules was already taking shape. The Lockheed plane would fly in August, and with its STOL potential and a rear-loading ramp enabling the kinds of in-flight drop-offs that the front-loading C-124 could not, the Air Force decided to go with the new plane over an improved old one.

XC-132 Douglas
XC-132 Douglas

The YC-124B would provide much helpful data to both Douglas and the Air Force un until its retirement in October 1956. Much of that data would inform Douglas' follow-on XC-132 program, a swept-wing heavy lifter which was to be powered by four massive Pratt & Whitney T57s, a turboprop development of the successful J57 engine which was supposed to crank out an incredible 15,000 horsepower. A C-124C was tested with a prototype XT57 installed in an unusual arrangement in the aircraft's nose. It was this machine that revealed problems with the big engine, and when the T57 failed to materialize, the XC-132 (ostensibly to be nicknames Globemaster III) went with it, not getting past the mock-up stage.

C-124C XT57
C-124C XT57

Had it been built, the C-132 would have been the largest turboprop-powered aircraft of all time, being 50 feet longer than a standard C-124. However, this failure would inform Douglas' concurrent and successful C-133 Cargomaster program.

Lockheed YC-121F/R7V-2 Super Constellation

Lockheed YC-121F
Lockheed YC-121F

Of the three four-engined turboprop testbeds, of the 1950s, Lockheed's adaptation of the Constellation probably came the closest to entering production.

It was the Navy who first ordered two R7V-1 transports (Bu. Nos. 131660 and 131661) to be pulled from the assembly line and converted to R7V-2 standards in 1954, powered by four Pratt & Whitney T34 turboprops. These were given the company model number L-1249A, and the first one made its maiden flight on September 1, 1954. They were delivered to the Navy ten days later, and eventually were handed over to the Air Force.

Lockheed R7V-2
Lockheed R7V-2

At virtually the same time, the Air Force became intrigued, and ordered another pair of R7V-1s to be pulled from the line and upgraded as their own L-1249As. The first YC-121F flew on April 5, 1955, and the Air Force took delivery of the pair that July. All four machines were tested successfully, with all four spending time alongside the YC-97Js and YC-124Bs with the Service Test Squadron (Turboprop) of the 1700th Air Transport Group of the Military Air Transport Service at Kelly AFB near San Antonio, Texas.

Again, the performance upgrades were noticeable, particularly in the speed department. The YC-121F's cruising speed was 421 mph, almost double that of the production RC-121D aircraft. Top speed in testing peaked at 479 mph, making it the world's fastest transport aircraft in service at the time (The C-135 had not come on line yet).

Despite this, no YC-121Fs were ordered into production. Lockheed did propose a turboprop-powered Constellation in the USAF competition for its first AWACS aircraft, losing out to what would become the Boeing E-3 Sentry. Interestingly, the EC-121 Warning Star development of the Constellation, used in the preceding "Big Eye" early radar warning role in Vietnam, would be powered by the standard model's piston engines.

EC-121L Warning Star
EC-121L Warning Star

Lockheed also proposed a civilian version, dubbed L-1249B. It was to be powered by four  Pratt & Whitney PT-2F1 turboprops (the civilian version of the T34), and with a top speed of 415 mph, it was supposed to fly London-New York in nine hours. However, the airlines were not convinced that turboprops were reliable enough at the time, and preferred to stick with piston-engined transports until the new jets arrived.

One Turbo Connie would serve its manufacturer in testing the Allison 501 (military designation T56, also used in the C-130) engines that would eventually be used in the new Lockheed Electra airliner (as can be seen in this video). This testbed was briefly given the unofficial portmanteau 'Elation.' But in the end, all four turboprop-powered Connies would be scrapped.

While none of the above types would go into production, in no way should they be considered failures. The data that each of these aircraft provided contributed greatly to the development of the USAF's later successful turboprop transports - the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster, and the ubiquitous Lockheed C-130 Hercules. While Russia enjoyed early successes in the development of large turboprop engines, culminating in the Tupolev Tu-95 'Bear' family, American turboprops would gain a reputation for performance, low noise, and most of all, efficiency. The advent of engines like Pratt & Whitney's T34 and Allison's highly successful T56 helped ease the growing pains from those early failed attempts. Today's American turboprops owe their existence to these old, long-forgotten test machines.

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VIDEO: Watch Streak Eagle Smash Time-to-Climb Records in 1975

Check out this old USAF film (split into two parts) documenting Project Streak Eagle, when a stripped-down, souped-up F-15A Eagle smashed eight time-to-climb records in the span of two weeks - and six of them in one day - in 1975 at Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota. Thanks to YouTuber shaunhill13 for the find and the post.

F-15 Streak Eagle
F-15 Streak Eagle

In 1975, the U.S. Air Force knew their then-brand new Eagle, first flown just two and a half years earlier, was a hot ship, but wanted to win a little bit of propaganda by showing off how hot it really was. What better way to prove that than by chasing down the standing time-to-climb records owned by two airplanes: the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, which the Eagle replaced in the USAF inventory, and the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat, which the Eagle was designed to beat out in the air superiority arena. The reason the Air Force could to do this was simple. The F-15 was the first combat fighter to have a thrust-to-weight ratio of greater than 1. The F-15A's two Pratt & Whitney F100 engines combined for almost 48,000 pounds of thrust with full afterburner, while a fully loaded Eagle itself weighed around 44,500 pounds. So theoretically, the Eagle didn't need its wings to go straight up. It should be noted that time-to-climb performance is arguably the most critical performance parameter for interceptors. After all, an interceptor is only as good as its ability to to meet high-flying enemy aircraft at a point as far from base as possible, in as little time as possible. This was the F-15's primary job. A full year before the Eagle entered service, the seventeenth Eagle produced was taken straight off the McDonnell-Douglas line and sent to Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota, where cold January weather would be favorable for record-breaking. Three pilots, Maj. Roger Smith, Maj. Dave W. Peterson, and Maj. William R. "Mack" MacFarlane were sent there with it and told to go re-write the record book.

F-15 Streak Eagle Pilots
F-15 Streak Eagle Pilots

The Eagle in question, No. 72-0119, was stripped of its radar, flaps, air brake, guns and fire control system avionics, and left unpainted in order to save weight - 1800 pounds worth compared to the garden variety F-15A, according to Joe Baugher. Operation Streak Eagle commenced in January 1975.

F-15 Streak Eagle in flight
F-15 Streak Eagle in flight

To further optimize the Streak Eagle's weight for each flight, the plane was only loaded with as much fuel as it needed to make each record attempt. For takeoff, the plane was taxied to the end of the runway at Grand Forks and hooked up to a hold-back bar, as can be seen in the video. The pilot then throttled the engines to full afterburner, and at the precise moment, the bar was released, and the Streak Eagle launched. Even given the lightness of the airframe and the power of the engine, it's still remarkable to see how quickly the Eagle would lift off the runway after an incredibly short takeoff roll of about 400 feet. Between January 16 and February 1, Majors Smith, MacFarlane and Peterson would make good on their orders to re-write the time-to-climb record book eight times over. Among the highlights from the video:

  • The Streak Eagle knocked off five records in three flights in the span of six hours on the first day, January 16.
  • The second flight on that day broke three records: 6,000m, 9,000m and 12,000m.
  • The third flight reached 15,000m (just under 50,000 feet) in one minute, 17.2 seconds, which was a faster time to that height than the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo program.
  • On the final flight, to 30,000m (just over 98,000 feet) on February 1, Major Roger Smith pushed the Streak Eagle over the top at a maximum of just over 102,300 feet, in what the video calls a "nearly ballistic trajectory."

Anytime you can use the words "ballistic trajectory" when flying a fighter plane, you're doing something awesome. The film above is in two parts in the embedded playlist, and shows each of the six record attempts in real time, which is quite amazing to watch in itself. And the music is so 1970s.

Streak Eagle's records would not stand forever. Some eleven years later, the Sukhoi P-42 - a prototype of the Su-27 'Flanker' with a thrust-to-weight ratio of nearly 2:1 - would systematically erase the Streak Eagle's marks. You can see a short video of that here. The Streak Eagle, now with a fresh coat of paint to cover its previously unkempt hide, sits quietly in storage today at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. But over those two weeks in early 1975, the Streak Eagle laid claim to one of the most phenomenal record-breaking sprees for one airplane in history.

F-15 Streak Eagle USAM Museum
F-15 Streak Eagle USAM Museum

DVD Review: The West's Land-Based Fighters and Bombers

51G7uY1UwNL._SY300_.jpg

I'll start the DVD reviews with the first DVD of a series I've spent a long time chasing down. Back when I was a kid, I loved watching "Wings" on the Discovery Channel. I recorded almost every episode to VHS, and damn near wore out the tapes over the years.

It was easy to pick out the "Great Planes" series, but the more I watched, the more I saw other episodes that didn't quite fit the mold. This was the first of them.

Now, let's be up front: "The West's Land-Based Fighters and Bombers" is charmingly dry and totally only for nerds like me. It was produced in 1987, so it's also very dated by now. But it provides an excellent technical overview of the major aircraft types in use by the western powers toward the end of the Cold War.

This was the first of the "Modern Combat Aircraft" series produced by Command Vision, Ltd. in Britain, which no longer exists. But the series was picked up by ArtsMagic DVD, and re-released on DVD for the modern...er, nostalgic audience.

The best part of this DVD is that it's almost exactly one hour long. The old version of this that appeared on "Wings" had to be edited down for time to about 45 minutes. So if you remember that episode, you've got some nice bonus footage that you didn't see back in the day.

As far as the plot, it's an itemized rundown of the major U.S. and western aircraft types of the time. Chris Chant's narration is extraordinarily well-written, although it is technical and a bit dry at times. The video itself is pretty good, with plenty of action and solid research.

My favorite line, about the B-52: "The mighty beast is in the evening of its life, and it to be replaced in the penetration role by the B-1." That was in 1987.

Aircraft profiled include:

  • Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
  • General Dynamics F-111
  • Rockwell B-1B
  • Saab JAS 37 Viggen*
  • IAI Kfir*
  • Dassault-Breguet Mirage 2000
  • McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II
  • General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon (with an interesting profile of LANTIRN)
  • McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet
  • McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle
  • Panavia Tornado ADV
  • Northrop F-5E Tiger II
  • Northrop F-20 Tigershark (REALLY interesting and rare footage)
  • British Aerospace Harrier GR.3
  • British Aerospace Harrier GR.5
  • McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B Harrier II
  • SEPECAT Jaguar*
  • Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II
  • Panavia Tornado IDS

* - Edited out on "Wings"

The overall dryness drops it from being a 5/5 in my book, although if nostalgia were the sole determinant of the review, it would be there. I recommend it only for the dorkiest of us, myself included.

You can purchase "The West's Land-Based Fighters and Bombers" here:

EDITOR'S NOTE: Added credit to Chris Chant for his hard work on this series.

Tour: Edwards AFB and Air Force Flight Test Center Museum

F-100 Super Sabre at Edwards AFB
F-100 Super Sabre at Edwards AFB

This past May, my wife and I finally made the trip of a lifetime - for me, anyway. As part of our road trip vacation to California, we went on a tour of Edwards Air Force Base.

Edwards has always had a special place in my heart. As a fan of experimental aviation in the 1950s, Edwards is Mecca. Granted, it's not what it used to be in terms of how busy it is, but the history is tangible in the dry desert air to this day. It's totally worth the trip, although I hope things will improve in the future. More on that in a second.

Here's a look at what you'll do and see if you go.

Before you go

The biggest hassle (and we know why it is) is actually planning the trip. Because Edwards is a pretty sensitive national security area, they want to make triple-sure you are who you are. So have your Driver's License handy.

The tours themselves only happen two Fridays per month. There are only 30 spots for each tour, and they do fill up, so plan ahead. The base requires you sign up at least 30 days in advance. The latest schedule can be found here.

If you plan on going, first, go here, and read everything carefully. Very carefully. This is the U.S. Military we're talking about. Then, once you get together all of your information, you have to email the folks at the base itself with all of that information. You can do that here.

Once you get your approval confirmation email from the base, you're set to go. Oh, and the best part: because you are an American taxpayer, the tour is free!

How to get to town

From L.A., it's actually pretty easy. Hop on the 405, head north through the San Fernando Valley to I-5, and then take that up into the mountains. Traffic is dreadful in L.A., so be patient. You'll exit onto Highway 14 North, just before Santa Clarita, and then you have about 30 minutes of winding highway until the mountains part and the Mojave Desert spreads out before you. You'll see Palmdale and Plant 42 on your right.

Highway 14 straightens north and takes you through Palmdale and Lancaster on the way to Rosamond, which is on the way to Edwards.

Where to stay

We stayed in Lancaster at the Holiday Inn Express there. Hotels are pretty cheap, and this one wasn't bad at all. No one else was staying there, and the staff was extraordinarily nice. The only thing was it smelled of smoke in the hallways.

Plan on getting to the desert in the late afternoon or evening, and stay the night before your tour. Traffic in the L.A. area obviates the ability to get out there early in the morning in time for the tour.

By the way, when you are there, I recommend hitting Hacienda Don Cuco for some authentic Mexican food. The fajitas are excellent and the salsa is something fierce. Avoid the fish tacos though. This is the desert, after all.

This is a Google Map of where we stayed and where we went.

How to get to Edwards

Tours are scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to noon, but they do run over time on occasion, so plan to be away from your hotel until 2ish. As far as when to get there, they tell you to be there no later than 8:45 a.m., but I recommend getting up early and getting there around 8 a.m., so you have time to check out Century Circle. It's about 30 minutes from Lancaster to the West Gate.

The weather is interesting. When we got up at 6:30 a.m. the day of the tour, it was 38 degrees. In May. After we hopped in the car to head north to the base, it was in the 50s. When we got there, it was in the 60s. By the end of the tour it was a comfortably dry, but still hot, 90 degrees. Wear a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, but bring your hoodie.

Hop back on Highway 14 and head due north. Exit at Rosamond Blvd. and hang a right. This long straight road will take you through downtown Rosamond (and I use downtown loosely) and on toward the base.

As you drive due east along Rosamond Blvd., be very careful. Observe the speed limit, because like I said, this is the U.S. Military we're talking about here. You'll eventually cut across the northern end of Rosamond Dry Lake, where Jack Northrop tested his first flying wings, and also where Scott Crossfield had to land the first X-15 a little heavy.

The road will turn northeast and curve around a hill, and then you're there. You'll see the West Gate to the base, and right before it, Century Circle, which I'll talk more about in a second. Park there and watch for snakes.

What you see

First, there is the legendary Century Circle, where you will see freshly restored examples of the USAF's Century Series fighters. These machines exemplified the peak of military aviation in the 1950s. All of them flew from Edwards, and they each represent the incredible ingenuity that was experimental aviation in the 50s.

On display in the circle are a YF-100A (the second one to fly), an F-101B, a rare two-seat TF-102A, an F-104A which used to belong to NASA, an F-105D, and an F-106B, all of which are in gorgeous shape. You can walk around and take as many pictures as you can stand. Also in the middle of the circle is the old Edwards control tower. Just on the other side of Century Circle from the road is the only remaining YC-15, another monument to experimental flight test at Edwards.

Check out the slideshow below for a look at Century Circle:

Jeff_Sharon's Edwards AFB album on Photobucket

There is a building next to Century Circle where you go to check in. Make sure you hit the can before the tour here too. Here, they check your ID, give you a neat little lanyard, and put you on the bus.

Here's the one part about the tour that sucks out loud: There are no camera or phones permitted on the base premises.Period. So once you get to Century Circle, take your pictures there, because that's it. You have to leave all of that stuff in your car.

That really does stink, because the first stop on the tour was the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, which is less than a mile inside the gate. I would have given a limb to bring my camera in here, because it was awesome.

An important note on the museum:

Our tour guides told me that the museum is working on raising funds to build a brand new building right next to Century Circle, so that it's off the base grounds. This would make the AFFTC Museum a year-round attraction, and best of all, that means you can bring your cameras and phones and take all the photos and video you want.

The campaign is aiming to raise $1 million by July 2014 in order to build the basic facility. If they can get to $6 million, however, the museum would be

I personally think this is a worthy cause, and fulfilling it would vault the AFFTC Museum high up the list of must-visits for aerothusiasts like yours truly.

You can donate to the museum's Capital Campaign here.

Inside is a replica of the X-1 hanging from the ceiling, as well as one of the retired prototype YF-22s, and several other fantastic pieces of hardware. My personal highlight was the First Flights Wall, which is exactly as it sounds: a wall of the museum with an array of models, signifying which aircraft took their first flights at Edwards and when, from the CW-24 to the Space Shuttle Enterprise, and beyond. You can see more of that on the museum's website.

Because of the time crunch from the tour, we only had enough time to walk around the inside of the museum a bit, check out the lecture on the history of the base, pick up a souvenir, and then we had to go. I would have loved about another hour there. As a result, we didn't have the time to check out the outstanding collection of aircraft they had perched outside, including:

  • The only two-seat YA-10B ever built
  • An SR-71A
  • A B-52D (But not the famous Balls-8, which is on display at the North Gate to the base)
  • The prototype YF-111A

You can see the outdoor collection here via Google Maps:

View Larger Map

From there it was off to explore the base. The remainder of the tour takes you past a number of administrative buildings for the Air Force Test Center, as well as NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. On this occasion, we were fortunate enough to get onto the flightline and see the mass expanse of Muroc Dry Lake. In its own way, it is as beautiful as it is desolate.

While we were there, a couple of F-22s were out on test flights, chased by F-16s. One landed and taxied right past our bus, and the pilot gave us a friendly salute. Nice touch, and thank you, Sir.

On the north end of the flightline is a hangar where the Museum keeps a few more of its artifacts, and this was the real highlight for me. Inside this hangar, the restoration staff keep some real rare stuff, including:

  • An F-117A Nighthawk. You could walk right up to it and underneath it and everything. I couldn't help but think that, had this been 15 years before, I could have been shot on sight for being so close to one.
  • A pristine A3D Skywarrior, painted navy blue, like the Douglas prototype that flew at Edwards. How these things landed on carriers, I don't know.
  • An F-15A and F-16B testbed aircraft
  • A full-size replica of an X-15
  • One of the only two X-4s in existence

The members of the museum staff - in particular, our bus tour guide Dennis Shoffner, the Civic Outreach Director from the base's Public Affairs Office, and George Welsh, the Director and Curator of the Museum - were incredibly friendly, eminently knowledgeable, and passionate about the base and what happens there. That's easy to understand, since they were there in person for some of the most remarkable aviation events that took place at the base. I'm not sure what I'd pay to hang for a day with these two guys, but chances are, it's more than I can afford. They were fantastic.

After a spin around the base to show where the good people at the base live, eat, shop and work, we made out way back to Century Circle for the end of the tour.

Thing to bring home

Go to the shop at the museum and pick up a print copy of Mike Machat's spectacular mural, "The Golden Age of Flight Test," on one of the walls of the museum. Mine is framed in my office.