Category Archives: USAF

50 Years of F-15s

On 26 June 1972, the first of 12 pre-production demonstrator prototype YF-15A Eagles, Airframe # 10280 (later 71-0280), rolled out of the McDonnell Douglas hangar in St. Louis.

In USAF “Air Superiority Blue,” 10280 carries Sparrow AIM7 mockups and full-color markings

Just over a month later, on 27 July 27, 1972, decked out in high-viz orange test markings and under the control of McDonnell Douglas chief test pilot Irving L. Burrows, 10280 took to the California skies over Edwards AFB, the type’s first test flight.

The first pre-production prototype McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, YF-15A-1-MC 72-0280, on its first flight near Edwards Air Force Base, California. Note the with McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II chase plane. (U.S. Air Force)

Six months after that, the Air Force ordered the type into full production and the rest, as they say, is history.

For those curious, “0280” is on display today at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

50 Years Ago: Supersonic ‘Guns’ Kill

2 June 1972: USAF Major Philip W. “Hands” Handley, 32nd TFS “Wolfhounds,” grabbed the record for the highest speed air-to-air gun kill in the history of aerial combat, smoking an enemy (NVAF) MiG-19 over Hanoi using the internal 20mm Vulcan of Brenda 01 (AF 68210), his F-4E Phantom, while in the midst of a Mach 1.2 pass.

The final run, at just 500 feet off the deck over rice paddy, was also credited as the only MiG-19 shot down by air-to-air guns during the course of the Vietnam war– as well as the world’s only documented supersonic gun kill.

The following is from the Gathering of Eagles Foundation

On 2 June 1972, while leading a 4-ship of F-4Es in a combat air patrol northeast of Hanoi, his element was attacked by two MiG-19s. With his wingman critically low on fuel and unable to engage, he fought the MiGs in a dogfight ranging in altitude from 15,000 feet to 500 feet above the ground. During the engagement, he expended all four of his air-to-air missiles, however, none of them guided.

With only 20mm cannon ordnance remaining, he closed at a rate of almost four and one-half football fields per second for a high deflection shot (high angle guns snap) on the trailing MiG. Seconds later, while 500 feet above the ground, at a heading-crossing angle of 90 degrees, and a speed of 1.2 mach, he fired a 300 round burst from his M-61 Gatling gun and destroyed the MiG-19.

Ret. Col. Handley, the holder of the Silver Star and three DFCs, passed away in 2019, aged 83, and is buried in Texas, the land of his birth.

He penned an excellent work, Nickel on the Grass, reflecting on his 26-year career, almost all of it spent in the cockpit. The cover includes the MiG-19 “guns” kill. 

SOCOM Goes Rattler for PDW

The U.S. Special Operations Command signaled the end of a five-year search for a personal defense weapon platform last week, opting to run Sig Sauer’s MCX Rattler.

The Commercial PDW contract, by its nature, needed to be filled by an off-the-shelf gun that was in current production. Sig introduced the .300 BLK-chambered Rattler in 2017 “at the request of elite military units” after a Request for Information was filed by SOCOM. The company then supplied a few to the country’s elite commandos for testing in February 2018. In a notice of intent to award published on May 19, 2022, it would appear those tests went very well.

“USSOCOM HQ has been researching and reviewing different systems since 2017,” said the notice. “We have meticulously reviewed each system for technical acceptance and whether it fits the commercial definition. Except for Sig Sauer, the vendors did not meet the technical requirements and/or the weapons do not meet the commercial definition.”

The SOCOM notice this month stressed, “The PDW system will allow Operators to have maximum firepower in a concealable weapon.” (Photos: Sig Sauer)

More in my column at

Canberra Forever

In my normal travels around the Gulf Coast, I often find myself at the USAF Armament Museum outside of Eglin in NW Florida and one of the neater aircraft there, in my opinion, has always been a Martin EB-57B Canberra “Night Intruder,” SN 52-1516. 

This EB-57B S/N 52-1516 was last flown by the 158th Defense Systems Evaluation Group (158 DSEG) stationed at Burlington, Vermont, and was retired in 1980 when the 158th switched to an Air Defense, Tactical Air Command fighter role, running Phantoms.

Resplendent in its black scheme, the ECM aircraft was one of 22 converted from a standard B-57B bomber in the late 1960s after the aircraft was withdrawn from its bombing role due to block obsolescence (58 were lost by the USAF in Vietnam, half to ground fire).

Noir bomber…

The B-57 was the first aircraft of foreign design to be chosen for U.S. production since 1918 and was based wholly on the English Electric Aviation Canberra— the RAF’s first jet-powered bomber. While Martin built 403 over here, English Electric cranked out an armada of 949 in both the UK and Australia.

Low pass by RAAF 2SQN Canberra Bomber, Biak in the early 1970s

Developed immediately after WWII, Canberra was an amazing aircraft for its day. Using rotating bomb bay doors, it could carry up to 8,000 pounds of ordnance including early atomic weapons such as the British Red Beard and the Mark 7 Thor fission bomb. It had a speed of 580 mph– Mach 0.88– on its twin Rolls-Royce Avon R.A. 3 engines and an 800-mile combat radius. The type set a slew of aviation records in the early 1950s, including the first nonstop unrefuelled transatlantic crossing by a jet, and setting a 70,310 ft altitude record. It could cover the Aldergrove – Gander Atlantic crossing in just over 4 hours.

When you consider Canberra first flew in 1949– less than a half-decade after VJ-Day– this was top-notch stuff.

However, the Canberra, though used in combat as a bomber as late as 1982– more on that in a second– its second life saw it become not only a great ECM plane but also serve in weather and photo recon. In fact, the final U.S. use of the Canberra by the USAF was in such a role while the Brits flew the PR.9 variant with No. 39 (1 PRU) Squadron until July 2006 on strategic reconnaissance and photographic mapping missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a span of 57 years of operational use.

Speaking of the Brits and the Canberra, besides its U.S and Australian use, the type was exported to 13 countries including Argentina who bought 10 B.62 bombers and two T.64 trainers in the early 1970s– when they were already considered obsolete– replacing downright ancient WWII-era piston-engined Avro Lincolns in the bomber role.

Argentina B.62 Canberra # B-102

Pressed into service in the Falkland Islands in 1982– some 40 years ago this month– eight flyable Argentine Canberras of Grupo 2 de Bombardeo made 54 sorties, with most combat missions being against British ground troops at night to help mitigate their age.

Nonetheless, two of those eight were swatted out of the sky:

  • One, B-110, was splashed by a Sea Harrier on 1 May, losing both its crew.
  • The second, B-108 was shot down by a Sea Dart from the Type 42 destroyer HMS Cardiff (D08) at an altitude of 39,000 feet on the next to the last day of the war, taking its pilot with it. 

As far as I can tell, it was the last combat loss for the type. 

Ironically, the RAF used Canberras in the conflict as well.

A pair of PR.9 photo recon aircraft were dispatched to Chile, where they were to operate with RAF crews under Chilean markings.

RAF Canberra PR 9 Photo Reconnaissance variant. Note the lack of wingtip tanks as seen on the U.S. Martin-made models

Ranging from Punta Arenas, at the very southerly-most tip of mainland South America, they could just make the Falklands and back and, as they could hang out comfortably above Angels 50, were immune to anything the Argies had to knock them down. The mission was hush hush and the stuff of a Tom Clancy novel.

From The Royal Air Force Museum Midlands

The Canberras were to fly via RAF Wyton to Keflavik in Iceland), then to Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, from there to March AFB, California, Belize in Central America, and then skirting the west coast of South America down to a point 30 miles (50 km) south of the Peruvian/Chilean border to land at dawn on a deserted stretch of the Pan-American Highway, with the road marked out by ground personnel firing Very lights. There, an RAF Hercules, masquerading under Chilean Air Force markings, would have been waiting to pump fuel from its own tanks.

From there it would fly to its final destination at Punta Arenas. From there they would have flown reconnaissance missions over the Falklands.

An RAF Lockheed Hercules actually carried out a test landing on the Highway, with Chilean Air Force personnel on board to close the road. But the political risks to Chile and the UK were such that the project was abandoned when the aircraft was still in Belize.

Finally, it would be remiss to talk of Canberra and not mention the last (known) user: a trio of Martin-built WB-57Fs flown by NASAs for high-altitude scientific research (and the occasional Air Force-tasked overseas deployment).

As described by NASA Astronaut (and former Navy SEAL) Jonny Kim last month: 

Why the WB-57? Because it provides high-altitude, pressure-suited operations to NASA astronauts in the space-equivalent zone (physiologically incompatible with human life). The WB-57 is a platform that enhances our understanding of the design elements behind pressure suits and the background required to operate procedures in a vehicle while being constrained to a pressure-suited environment. It’s a unique bird with a wingspan of 122′, max altitude of 65,000′ and powered by twin engines capable of 15.5k lbs of thrust each. Fun fact, the WB-57 was modified from the B-57 which was retired from the Air Force in 1983. When it’s not training astronauts, it’s performing research missions with its various science payloads.

Happy Belated Brrrt Day

May 10, 1972: Nixon was in office, Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was on the top of the charts– which is a beautiful coincidence considering the love the public has for the A-10– and a gallon of milk cost 52 cents. 

That was the day Fairchild-Republic test pilot Howard W. “Sam” Nelson made the first flight of the YA-10 prototype Thunderbolt II, 71-1369, at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Fairchild Republic YA-10A (S/N 71-1369, the first prototype). (U.S. Air Force photo)

The rest, as they say, is 30mm history.

With that, take it away Roberta:


Army & Air Force Sniper Rifle Updates

The Army’s Picatinny Arsenal earlier this month announced it has ordered an additional 485 of the service’s newest bolt-action sniper rifles, the MK22, from Barrett Firearms in Tennessee. Also known as the Advanced Sniper Rifle and the Precision Sniper Rifle, the MK22 is based on Barrett’s Multi-role Adaptive Design, or MRAD, platform. It is part of a program to replace the service’s existing Remington-made M2010 bolt guns, as well as the M107 .50 cal.

The MK22 is a version of Barrett’s popular MRAD bolt gun, which can be swapped between three different calibers on the fly, hence the “Multi Role Adaptive Rifle” abbreviation. The MK22 is part of the Army’s Precision Sniper Rifle Program, which also includes the Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25×56 optic – complete with a flat dark earth coating and the Army’s patented Mil-Grid reticle – on a Badger Ordnance mount, along with a suppressor and a sniper accessory kit. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Meanwhile, the Air Force is almost done fielding 1,500 new M110A1 Squad Designated Marksman Rifles. The SDMR is a variant of HK’s 7.62 NATO G28/HK417 rifle that includes offset backup sights, a Geissele mount, OSS suppressor, Harris bipod, and Sig Sauer’s 1-6x24mm Tango6 optic.

A sergeant with the 44th Infantry Brigade Combat Team fires the M110A1 Squad Designated Marksman Rifle (SDMR) at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (Photo: Spc. Michael Schwenk/New Jersey National Guard)

Why does the Air Force need 1,500 SDMRs?

More in my column at

Three By Tuskegee

1LT Harry T. Stewart Jr., foreground, of Queens, New York, is pictured on April 1, 1945, when returning from an escort mission in his P-51D Mustang. Stewart is holding up three fingers to indicate that he shot down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s (an accomplishment that earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross) while escorting B-24 Liberators tasked to bomb the St. Polten marshaling yard. Pictured behind Stewart is his crew chief, Jim Shipley, of Tipton, Missouri.

Stewart’s jubilance was tempered by the reality that two of his fellow “Red Tails” pilots lost their lives during the same engagement with German fighters. The engagement, in which eight P-51s fought off a dozen Me 109s and four Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, took place near Wels, Austria just a week before the end of the war in Europe.
Born on Independence Day 1924, while still a teenager, he cycled through flight training at Tuskegee Air Field Stewart and joined the all-black 332d Fighter Group. Flying P-40s and later P-51s, he flew 43 combat missions in the ETO. He remained on active duty until 1950 and in the reserves into the 1960s, retiring as a light colonel.
An interview with Lt.Col. Stewart, below:

Daniel Still Getting Some Love from Crane

The Pentagon announced earlier this week that Georgia-based Daniel Defense has won a large contract issued through the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Crane Division.

Located in Black Creek, Daniel Defense is no stranger to supplying high-speed components to the military’s most elite units, having delivered quad rails and the Rail Interface System II, or RIS II, to the U.S. Special Operations Command for years. Likewise, the company has been a supplier of barrels and gas blocks for SOCOM’s Upper Receiver Group-Improved program.

The URG-I, coupled with a standard M4 lower, is reportedly used by units as diverse as the U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces. The latest contract for Daniel, a $9.1 million firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity award, is for 11.5-inch and 14.5-inch cold-hammer-forged barrels for URG-Is. 

As the Navy’s FY22 workbook lists the price for these receiver kits- at $780, the contract could cover upwards of 11,000 URGs, enough for most of the trigger pullers in SOCOM. 

60 Years Ago: That time a Bear Bailed out of a Bomber– at Mach 1

The Convair B-58 Hustler was one of the sexiest bombers ever constructed and I’ll fight you on that.

I mean just look at it!

Some 96 feet long from tip-to-tip, it was powered by a quartet of GE J79 engines– the same used on the twin-engine F-4 Phantom. With some 60,000 lbf of thrust with afterburners lit, the Hustler could touch Mach 2 for short periods and could carry four B43 or B61 nuclear bombs to a combat radius of 1,740nm, with a ceiling approaching 70,000 feet.

In a fix to the problem of having its crew bail out at such high speeds and altitude, the Hustler used clamshell ejection capsules, thus: 

To make sure the capsules worked, they were tested with live chimps and bears, with the latter, a 108-pound female black bear named Yogi, being shot out of a B-58 at 35,000 feet while going Mach 1.3, some 60 years ago this week.

Yogi landed eight minutes later with relatively minor injuries, i.e. a nose bleed and some bruising.

Keep in mind the only previous supersonic ejection on file at the time was that of an F-100 Super Saber pilot, test pilot George Smith, who left his aircraft in 1955 while it was going Mach 1.05 and spent the next five days in a coma.

Cold War Muscle

So I just returned from a junket in South Florida where I got to try out a neat new gun that you guys will find out more about in a couple of weeks, but while I was there I noticed a retired Florida Air Guard F-4 gate guard outside of the old Orlando airport (now the executive airport).

It reminded me of this 1980s recruiting poster.

You’ll never convince me there was an aircraft as beautiful as the F-4.

Sure, the F-14 gets lots of love from the Top Gun fans, and the F-15 is an assassin, but the big J79 Phantom was the true muscle car of the Cold War, especially in full-color livery.

U.S. Air Force F-4D Phantom II aircraft assigned to the 119th Fighter Wing “Happy Hooligans”, North Dakota Air National Guard, conduct mid-air refueling from a U.S. Air Force KC-10A Extender aircraft. (A3604) (U.S. Air Force PHOTO by Larry Harrington) (Released), 1/1/1985. 330-CFD-DF-SD-07-26034 Via NARA

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