Warplanes: August 25, 2004


"If you screw up, you'll be doing duty in Alaska" goes the old U.S. military clich. It's cold, the seasons are really strange, and there aren't that many places to play golf. However, F-15C pilots based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska have had reasons to be happy over the years. 

For many years, the Soviet Union and its Russian successor, flew TU-95 "Bear" bombers towards the United States to test air defenses, with anywhere between 1 to 29 intercepts per year between 1961 and 1994. The last time Bears were seen near Alaskan air space was a one-time event in 1999, where two of the bombers were turned back in mid-September. During the Cold War, fighter pilots could be assured of plenty of practice in air-to-air intercepts and an occasional shot at the real thing, with a lucky pilot getting close enough to take pictures of the four engine bomber. Myths abound about visual exchanges that took place between Soviet/Russian and American crews, typically with hand signals and sometimes involving Playboy magazines and bottles of vodka. 

Elmendorf's position on the "front lines" during the Cold War and beyond has assured that the current F-15C air-to-air squadron based there receives the latest avionics enhancements for their planes. The 12th squadron was the first to receive the APG-63(V)2 active electronic scanned array (AESA) radar in a secret program. With better range and resolution, the AESA uses a fixed plate of radar elements with radar beams directed electronically across the sky, rather than a constantly moving radar dish with lots of mechanical (i.e. prone to break down) parts. It's the first generation of AESA radars with newer and more powerful versions appearing in the F/A-22 and JSF fighters. 

Other (known) items Alaska fighter pilots have gotten first crack at include operating with night vision goggles on a regular basis, Link-16 fighter data link and most recently the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System and the latest version of the air-to-air Sidewinder missile, the AIM-9X. The Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System projects an information display directly on the pilot's visor and sensors and weapons can be aimed simply by the pilot "looking" at targets; the IR-guided AIM-9X is improved to be agile enough to be able to hit anything that a pilot can look at using the helmet sight. While either system is impressive enough, the two systems together provide a deadly combination for visual-range air-to-air combat that few other countries can match Doug Mohney




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