Douglas DC-6 – Propliner Perfection

Pinnacle of the Propliners 

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DC-6B of the Red Bull fleet at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2017.

The propliner era of aviation began in the early 1930s and ended in the 1950s with the advent of jet and turboprop powered airliners. It was an extremely important period in aviation that brought many changes to not only how people travelled, but also how many people had access to air travel.

It was during the propliner era that air travel became reachable to the masses. In the interwar period, air travel was primarily the domain of the wealthy. Post WWII developments in aircraft and engine design brought operational costs of large aircraft down and led to airlines creating multiple passenger classes, thus bringing the price of air travel within reach of many more people of other social classes.

It was also during this period that land based aircraft became capable of flying trans-oceanic distances and the era of passenger service by flying boats came to an end. Large land based propliners were faster, more efficient, less maintenance intensive and much less limited in where they could operate from; the flying boat never stood a chance against them.

In general terms, a propliner is defined as a large passenger or cargo aircraft of primarily metal construction powered by two or four piston engines. Turboprop aircraft are not typically included in the propliner category.

One of the early and major players of the propliner era was the Douglas Aircraft Company based in California, USA. The company’s DC-1 of 1933 was one of the very first propliners to fly; the company improved upon it the following year with the DC-2 and in 1935 gave the world the legendary DC-3, widely regarded as the most significant and influential airliner type ever made. 1939 saw the advent of the DC-4, a very capable and well liked transport that served well during WWII and was the most widely used aircraft type of the Berlin Airlift. The DC-6 first flew in 1946 and served well in the Korean War as well as being one of the very first land based airliners to be put on regularly scheduled trans-oceanic routes. The last of the Douglas propliners was the DC-7 of 1953, it showed the limits of what piston powered airliners could do and was not as popular as previous Douglas designs owing to its limitations and the fact that the first generations of jet airliners and turboprop airliners were starting to make their appearances in airline service.

In the overall picture of the propliner era, the DC-6 is widely considered to be the best of the propliner category. The aircraft, particularly in its B model form, was considered to have the best balance of range, speed, efficiency, reliability, handling and passenger comfort of any propliner type.

At that, let’s spend some time with the DC-6:

A Child of Experience 

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DC-6B at Pardubice in 2017

With their reputation as a capable and competent designer of airliners well established during the interwar period, Douglas most certainly were not in uncharted waters for themselves when design of what would become the DC-6 started in 1944.

While the aircraft would claim its greatest fame in airline service, it was born from a military requirement for an improved version of the C-54, the military version of the DC-4.

The improved aircraft was to be longer and more powerful than the C-54 as well as have a pressurised fuselage as a standard feature. In US Army Air Force terminology, the new aircraft was designated XC-112. The XC-112 prototype did not fly until February of 1946 and, with the war over, the military requirement was dropped.

All was not lost for the aircraft, however. Douglas had designed the aircraft to be easily adapted to airline use and several America airlines had placed orders for the new Douglas airliner before the war had ended. Douglas used the XC-112 as a prototype for the DC-6 and in a short time had developed the airliner from the transport. The new airliner first flew in in June of 1946 and deliveries began in November of that year to launch customers, American Airlines and United Airlines.

In spite of a four month grounding of the DC-6 fleet in 1947 due to a series of in-flight fires, fleets of the aircraft were serving airlines in North America, Europe and Asia on regularly scheduled intercontinental and trans-oceanic routes before the 1940s were out.

Military interest in the aircraft was rekindled with the Korean War in the early 1950s. The US Air Force and US Navy both ordered fleets of the aircraft, designated C-118 and R6D respectively, for their logistical needs.

The aircraft served well in Korea and in the wake of that conflict, the type attracted an increase of interest from several militaries worldwide to complement its already well established reputation in international airline service.

Secrets of Success 

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A legend powering a legend: The Pratt and Whitney R-2800 propelled the DC-6 throug the skies and into history.

In a production run spanning 1946 to 1958, more than 700 DC-6 aircraft were made in all variations.

The DC-6 enjoyed a longevity in practical life that none of its contemporaries nor its intended propliner replacement, the DC-7, enjoyed to any equal degree. As of 2018, a few DC-6s are still flying and serving practical purposes.

Over the years, the aircraft served numerous airlines and air transport companies in no fewer than 70 countries and served in the militaries of no fewer than 25 nations. The aircraft enjoyed as much success on second hand markets as it did with original customers and has operated from every continent including both poles.

In light of all that success, one could rightly ask what the DC-6 had to it that allowed it to become the definitive propliner.

Perhaps the best place to start looking is with the aircraft’s origin in a wartime military specification. A military in the midst of active combat will put function over form and simplicity over complexity. Priorities will be on ease of training and maintenance as well as timely production and supply of new aircraft. The design that would become the DC-6 had all of these things going in its favour.

It was not an adventurous design, rather a logical progression of the existing DC-4/C-54 design. As such, the learning curve for any air or ground crew to convert from the DC-4 to the DC-6 was not a steep one; this fact benefitted both civil and military users moving from the DC-4 to the DC-6.

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DC-6B at Pardubice in 2014.

The DC-6 was a relatively simple and strightforward design compared to its nearest contemporary, the Lockheed L-749A Constellation. Both aircraft were well designed and built, but the DC-6 proved more reliable mechanically and more flexible in the variety of roles it could perform. As a result of these qualities, the DC-6 was also more reliable as a money maker for the airlines.

The two aircraft were well liked by both crews and passengers and several airlines operated both types; typically using the Constellation and its better range for longer, intercontinental routes and the DC-6 with its better economics for regional and continental work. While the dawn of the jet age marked the end of the Constellation in widespread airline service, the DC-6 marched on strongly and held its own against jets in the fleets of smaller airlines and cargo operators. Later in life, the DC-6 was widely used in aerial firefighting.

Another aspect of the the DC-6’s success was the choice of engine, the Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp. The R-2800 family of engines started in 1937 and became legendary through WWII for their power and reliability. By the time the baseline DC-6 emerged, Pratt and Whitney had developed the R-2800 to a point where it could generate 2,400 horsepower. With the introduction of the DC-6B, Pratt and Whitney had introduced a version of the engine with a 2,500 horsepower output.

Using a quartet of these high performing R-2800 engines gave the DC-6 and impressive lifting ability that kept it in demand for years.

Additionally, compared to the Wright R-3350 engine that powered the Constellation and DC-7, the R-2800 was notably less complex to service and less temperamental and more economical in operations.

A Hauler with More 

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DC-6B at Pardubice in 2014.

Aside of its decades of service to many as a workhorse passenger and cargo aircraft, the DC-6 put some other more varied work on its resumé as well.

In Vietnam, a variant of the aircraft known as the MC-118 was used for medical evacuation purposes.

Through the 1950s, the aircraft was used by the CIA for a number of clandestine flights over China and Tibet.

During the 1960s, a pair of specially modified DC-6s were operated by Perdue University in Indiana as airborne transmitters for an educational television program called MPATI, or Midwest Program for Airborne Television Instruction. The priciple of the program was to broadcast educational television to remote regions of the central part of the continental United States. Flying a figure 8 pattern approximately 7 kilometers above Montpelier, Indiana; the aircraft could broadcast to an area of approximately 320 kilometers in radius. During the program, these aircraft broadcast signals to areas in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky.

Well into the 2000s, the DC-6 could be seen operating in the aerial firefighting role. The Conair company of Canada was a significant user of the type in this way and used the DC-6 in the role until 2012. During their years with the DC-6, Conair deployed their fleet as far afield as Australia to fight wildfires. The DC-6, with a capacity for over 11,000 litres of water or fire retardant, earned much respect in that role.

The DC-6 has also made many film and television appearances over the years.

The DC-6 Family 

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DC-6B at Zeltweg, Austria in 2013.

The DC-6 family contained three core members from which all other variations were developed.

DC-6/VC-118

The Baseline DC-6 debuted in 1946 and was a pure passenger carrier available in domestic and trans-oceanic variants. It featured a fuselage 2 metres longer than the DC-4 and more powerful engines.

The VC-118 was a single baseline DC-6 fitted as a presidential transport for the US Air Force.

DC-6A/DC-6C/C-118A/R6D

The DC-6A was the freighter specialist of the family. It featured a slight fuselage stretch over the Baseline DC-6, more powerful engines, strengthened floor, a large cargo door and an elevator capable of lifting 1,800 kg.

The DC-6C was a cargo conversion variant of the family and considered a sub-variant of the DC-6A. It was designed for quick conversion between passenger and cargo configurations.

When taken into US military service, the US Air Force and US Navy had their own individual designation systems for aircraft. To the USAF, the DC-6A was the C-118A while it was the R6D-1 to the USN.

Both the air force and navy had special VIP staff transport variants of the DC-6A, known as the VC-118A and R6D-1Z respectively.

In 1962, the US military introduced a common designation system based on the USAF model. Under the new system, the R6D-1 and R6D-1Z were redesignated C-118B and VC-118B respectively

DC-6B

The most numerous, and by many accounts the best, member of the DC-6 family was the B model. The DC-6B was a passenger variant based on the DC-6A. The A version’s cargo door was deleted and, Like the baseline DC-6, the B version was available in domestic and trans-oceanic versions.

What Remains and Learning More 

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DC-6B at Zeltweg in 2013.

Several DC-6s are known to remain intact around the world, though the bulk of them are in museums or in storage.

Through an internet search, I could find that in 2017 there were at least 20 DC-6s on civil registers worldwide. Of those, it appeared that around 11 were regular flyers.

The bulk of the flying examples belong to the fleet of Everts Air Cargo in Alaska. According to some references, Everts predicts they have enough spare parts on hand to keep their DC-6 fleet flying at least until 2020.

One of the biggest obstacles to keeping large piston engined aircraft airworthy is the availability of appropriate fuel facilities. Few modern airports keep adequate amounts of avgas readily available for aircraft the size of a DC-6 or the avgas related equipment to fill the DC-6’s large fuel tanks in an efficient manner.

As with so many vintage aircraft, it will be the financial resources and interests of those operating the DC-6 to determine how much longer we’ll be able to see one fly.

For the moment, it seems your best bet to see one fly is to travel to where they still live.

The following links will give you more information about the DC-6

This link will take you to the Delta Flight Museum’s page on the DC-6. It gives some good insights into what made the aircraft attractive to the airline business:
https://www.deltamuseum.org/exhibits/delta-history/aircraft-by-type/propeller/douglas-dc-6

This link will take you to a page with some great information and photos of DC-6 firefighting aircraft in action:
http://www.goodall.com.au/photographs/dc-6-final-visits/80slastdc-6s.html

This is the page for the DC-6 of the Red Bull fleet. The only DC-6 to ever be registered in Austria and seemingly the only actively flying one in Europe as of 2018:
http://www.flyingbulls.at/en/fleet/douglas-dc-6b/

While a bit dated in spots, this site has some very good information about the DC-6 in Africa and the disposition of many of the ones that operated there:
http://dc-6.co.za/

This link will give you more information about Perdue University’s MPATI program which made use of two DC-6s in the 1960s:
http://www.chicagotelevision.com/MPATI.htm

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Pushing it out of the Hangar for 2018!

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A Look Back and a Look Forward

After a bit of holiday time spent deleting dead links in articles and finding new links to replace the dead ones or to enhance the reference sections of existing articles, both my blogs are ready to go into 2018.

2017 is now in the past and a fresh year greets us all. The turning of a new year is always a good opportunity for a bit of reflection and a bit of goal setting.

The past year was one of extra reflection for both of my blogs as it marked the fifth anniversary for both. As I’ve seen many blogs come and go and survive a year or less as their respective writers’ priorities or interests dictated, I have to say that the five years I’ve been at my blogs is quite a good run and I’m happy to keep them going.

If I’m to be 100% honest about things, five years is a remarkably good run for a pair of blogs that were started as a sort of challenge from a friend who pestered me for the better part of a year to start a blog despite my scepticism that I had anything worth blogging about. (Thanks, James!) 🙂

I can say, in the case of both blogs, that I largely accomplished my goal of revisiting and updating existing articles while still providing new material. That’s a goal I plan to keep for both through 2018.

For Pickled Wings specifically, one of my goals in 2018 is to give much needed updates to Some of the Czech air museums I have existing entries for. The Kbely musum in Prague has seen expansion in the past couple of years and I’ve not yet been to see the new sections.

Additionally, I hope my continued attempts to visit the air museum in Koněšín will finally meet with success. I’ve not managed to get to the museum since it was forced from its previous location in Olomouc.

At that, please advance to the gate and prepare to board Pickled Wings flight number 2018!

Rudolf the Red Nosed Airplane is Back!

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This is very likely to be the last post of 2017 at Pickled Wings. In keeping with tradition, I present to you a small collection of red nosed aircraft I’ve crossed paths with over the past year.

As always, I thank all long term readers for continuing to follow and all new readers who joined up in 2017.

May the best of the season be yours and may the coming year be prosperous and bright to you and yours.

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Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet – A Tutor with Teeth

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Alpha Jet E of the French air force at Čáslav, Czech Republic in 2017.

A New Trainer for a New Generation

The early 1950s showed that dedicated jet powered trainers were required to properly and safely train pilots for jet aircraft. The performance gap between piston engine trainers and first generation jets was simply too great to prepare new pilots for the jets they’d be flying. First generation jets did not tend to have dedicated two seat variations for type specific training and so a new pilot’s first flight in a high performance jet fighter was solo in the early jet age. This resulted in many accidents and unacceptably high attrition in both aircraft and trainee pilots. Thus the idea of the dedicated jet trainer was born.

First generation jet trainers included the Fouga Magister from France, Aero L-29 Delfín from Czechoslovakia, Cessna T-37 from America, Aermacchi MB-326 from Italy, PZL TS-11 Iskra from Poland, BAC Jet Provost from Great Britain, Canadair CT-114 Tutor from Canada and Soko G-2 Galeb from Yugoslavia.

By the early/mid 1960s, the increased performance of second generation jet fighters had created the need for a second generation of jet trainers to match them. An additional demand on the second generation of jet trainers was an increased capability with regards to weapons. While a number of first generation training jets did possess some limited weapons capability and were even capable of light attack in some cases, many of the second generation trainers would be expected to have a weapons capability that would allow them to easily transition between the trainer and light attack roles.

The Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, which first flew in 1973, is an example of this second generation of jet trainers.

The Franco-German Tango 

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Another angle on the Alpha Jet E at Čáslav in 2017.

The 1950s and 1960s marked the start of cooperation between France and Germany, particularly with regards to military equipment development, that continues to the present.

In the aviation context, prior to the Alpha Jet, the relationship had borne fruit in the form of the Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft and the Transall C-160 tactical transport aircraft.

The Alpha Jet story began in 1967 when France and West Germany entered talks about creating a jointly produced aircraft to fulfil both nations’ need for a new trainer to replace their Fouga Magister and Lockheed T-33 fleets. However, from the start, there were some differences of opinion between the nations regarding exactly what the aircraft would encompass in the scope of its roles.

France wanted a simple jet trainer that was easy to maintain and attractive to the  export market while Germany wanted a light attack capability incorporated into the design as the Luftwaffe wanted to replace their fleet of Fiat G.91 aircraft as well as their Magister fleet. At the suggestion of Germany, it was ultimately agreed that the aircraft would be designed in two distinct versions to accomodate the desires of both nations.

There was  also some disagreement about the engine for the aircraft early on. While both nations specified that the aircraft would be capable of high subsonic speeds, France wished to use the domestically designed SNECMA Turbomeca Larzac turbofan while Germany leaned towards the American made General Electric J-85 turbojet. Using the American engine was not acceptable to France as it would allow America to exercise some control over the exportability of the aircraft. With France refusing to finance the purchase of American engines, Germany agreed to use the Larzac in their version of the aircraft.

The design that would eventually become the Alpha Jet, was put forth by a team made up of the Breguet, Dassault and Dornier companies. Initially known as the TA501, the design was a mixture of existing Breguet and Dornier concepts and competed for the Franco-German trainer requirement against designs from another Franco-German team, SNIAS/MBB, and a Dutch/German proposal from VFW/Fokker. All three aircraft were designed around a pair of Larzac engines.

The TA501 was announced as the winning design in July of 1970.

Through 1971 and 1972, the foundations for building the new aircraft were laid and prototypes for both the French and German variations of the aircraft were constructed.

The French and German prototypes had their maiden flights within months of each other, with the French aircraft flying first in October of 1973 and the German version in January of 1974.

It is also worthy of note that Dassault merged with Breguet in 1971 and the Alpha Jet became the first aircraft to be built under the Dassault-Breguet name.

Taking on the Field 

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Former Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A in Red Bull fleet colours. Seen at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2017.

The Alpha Jet was one of the first second generation trainers of its class to take to the air and enter production and the first of western design.

While it was beaten into the air by the Aero L-39 Albatros from Czechoslovakia; it did have a distinct though narrow head start on its primary western rival, the Hawker Siddeley (later, BAE Systems) Hawk trainer which first flew in August of 1974.

Though it flew before the Hawk, the British aircraft entered service before the Alpha Jet. This should not come as a surprise as the Alpha Jet was a multinational project while the Hawk was fully British. The logistics of Alpha Jet production were more complex as the workshare was split between Dassault-Breguet in France (front and centre fuselage), Dornier in West Germany (rear fuselage, tail and wings) and SABCA in Belgium (nose and wing flaps).

While the Alpha Jet and Hawk have been frequently compared to each other over the years, they really are very evenly matched machines. When looking at the lists of user nations for the two types, it becomes quite clear that historical diplomatic ties to the aircrafts’ respective country of origin may have had more to do with which aircraft a nation chose than aircraft performance did. The Alpha Jet did well with nations in northern Africa that were former French colonies and kept strong ties to France while many nations who chose the Hawk had stronger historic ties the Great Britain.

The Alpha Jet had certain advantages over the hawk including a better thrust to weight ratio, higher cruising speed, higher operational ceiling and a stronger airframe.

The Alpha Jet’s high set wing also allowed it to carry some larger weapons and other underwing stores that there was inadequate ground clearance for under the low set wing of the Hawk. The Alpha Jet’s ability to carry the large French made Exocet anti-ship missile is one example of this.

The Hawk does have the advantages of longevity, Alpha Jet production ceased in 1991 while Hawk production continues to the present, and higher capacity for upgrading. However, the Alpha Jet has done well for itself on second hand markets in refurbished forms. Ex-Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A variants were particularly popular with second hand users after Germany retired and sold off their fleet through the 1990s.

Additionally, former military Alpha Jets have found favour with a number of civilian operators as either aerobatic display aircraft or in the Aggressor role in training air combat tactics to military fighter pilots.

Baring the Teeth  

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Former Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A in Red Bull colours at Pardubice in 2016.

When it comes to sending the Alpha Jet into battle, Nigeria has most certainly been the aircraft’s biggest user.

Extensive use of Nigerian Alpha Jets was made during the First Liberian Civil War which lasted from 1989 to 1997.

Since 2013, Nigerian Alpha Jets have been used against insurgent actions of the Boko Haram terrorist group which is active in the northern regions of Nigeria as well as areas of neighboring countries.

During the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, Alpha Jets of the Qatari air force were used for coastal patrol to protect against potential Iraqi beach invasion.

Moroccan Alpha Jets were used in the counter insurgency role during the Western Sahara War which lasted from 1975 to 1991.

When fitted for attack roles, the Alpha Jet is able to carry a respectable range of guided or unguided weaponry under the wings as well as American made AIM-9 Sidewinder or French made R.550 Magic air-to-air missiles for self defense. It can also be fitted with 27mm Mauser or 30mm DEFA cannon pods on the fuselage centreline. A reconnaissance pod was another option for mounting on the centreline.

Some variants of the aircraft are fitted with laser targeting equipment thus allowing them to designate targets for other aircraft carrying laser guided bombs.

The Alpha Jet Family 

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Portuguese air force Alpha Jet A seen at Zeltweg, Austria in 2013.

Alpha Jet production lasted from 1973 to 1991 and a total 512 were made with more than half being exported.

Generally speaking, the aircraft family can be divided into three generations:

First Generation

The first generation consisted quite simply of the original A and E models built to German and French standards respectively.

Owing to the German desire for light attack, the Alpha Jet A was a more complex aircraft than the E model from a standpoint of avionics.

Externally, the most immediately visible difference between the two models was the nose. The A model had a smooth pointed nose while the E model had a blunt nose with strakes on either side.

The first generation also included Belgium’s Alpha Jet B model, though it was a standard E model when it entered service.

Second Generation

Three models of the aircraft represent the second generation: MS1, MS2 and Alpha Jet 2

The MS1 was the designation given to the Egyptian export version of the E model trainer. These aircraft were assembled in Egypt from kits supplied by Dassault-Breguet.

The MS2 was an attack optimised version based on the MS1. It included many improvements to avionics as well as more powerful engines.

The Alpha Jet 2 was a ground attack optimised version of the E model that incorporated aspects of the MS2.

Third Generation

This generation never really existed beyond paper concepts. It included the Alpha Jet ATS and Lancier variants.

The ATS (Advanced Trainer System) was to be a fully modernised version with full glass cockpits and other modern avionics.

Lancier was to be the attack optimised variation and was to have included all the upgrades of the ATS version plus an attack radar.

Alpha Jet B+

In 2000, Belgium initiated an upgrade program for their Alpha Jet B fleet.

This upgrade included modern flight controls and heads up display along with a modernised navigation system among other improvements.

In the late 2000s, France had a number of their E models upgraded to the B+ standard.

The Alpha Jet Today 

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Another Portuguese Alpha Jet A at Zeltweg in 2013.

The Alpha Jet has flown in the air forces of 12 countries and has found its way onto civilian registers in Austria, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the USA.

It has served as the mount for military demonstration teams from Egypt, France and Portugal.

In civilian service, it is used for aeobatics displays, but is also highly valued as a platform for research and test flights as well as an aggressor aircraft for modern military fighter pilots to fly against in air combat training.

As of late 2017, the Alpha Jet continues to serve most of the military operators who selected it. However, the type’s European military users are seriously considering replacing their Alpha Jets or retiring them without replacement.

Whether in civil or military hands, it looks like the Alpha Jet will still be taking to the air for a while yet. How many chances are left for the public to see the type perfom is another matter entirely.

Learning More

This link will take you to a brief history of the Alfa Jet on Dassault Aviation’s web site:

https://www.dassault-aviation.com/en/passion/aircraft/military-dassault-aircraft/alpha-jet/

This link will take you to the Alpha Jet page of the Red Bull fleet:

http://www.flyingbulls.at/en/fleet/alpha-jet/

This link will take you to a photo essay of Alpha Jet based demonstration teams of the Portuguese air force (Some great pictures here!):

https://maptia.com/joseantunes/stories/20-years-of-alpha-jet

This link will take you to a short article about the arrival of civil registered Alpha Jets in Australia and their intended use as aggressor aircraft there:

https://downunderaviationnews.wordpress.com/new-alpha-jets-providing-operations-support-for-royal-australian-air-force-training/

While slightly dated, this page will give you some information about Belgian Alpha Jets:

http://www.air-passion.be/fas/report/alpha%20jet/article.htm

This link is to an article about Nigerian air force Alpha Jet operations during the First Liberian Civil War:

https://beegeagle.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/ecomog-air-operations-during-the-liberian-civil-war-a-brief-overview/

 

NATO Days, 2017

September 16 and 17 saw the annual NATO Days public show at Ostrava, in the north east of the Czech Republic.

The weather was largely wet and overcast when I attended on the Saturday. As such, the flying displays were affected adversely. This included the scheduled display by the Saudi Hawks team, who ultimately cancelled their saturday performance due to poor visibility and safety concerns.

As has been the practice of NATO Days for the past few years, a special co-host nation was chosen; Slovakia was that nation this year and they brought a good selection of air and land gear with them.

At that, here’s a sampling of what was on hand at this year’s show:

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This CF-18 Hornet in the static park marked the first time Canada sent an aircraft to the NATO Days event. This Hornet came from 433 Squadron.
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The F-16 is a standard NATO Days attendee. These ones were courtesy of the Netherlands.
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Lithuania brought three aircraft for the statics, including this Eurocopter AS365.
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Among the equipment Slovakia presented at the event was their newest air asset, the Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawk.
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Parked next to the Blackhawk was the stalwart Mil Mi-17; this one in the colours of the Slovak Government Flying Service.
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Also in the Slovak section of the static park was this Fokker 100.
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This Dornier Do-228NG, equipped for aerial survey and monitoring work, came courtesy of the German navy.
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This was as close as anyone came to seeing the Saudi Hawks team on Saturday.
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An increasingly rare sight in European skies is the Yakovlev Yak-40. The Czech air force has two and they are scheduled to be replaced in the next year or two.
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A NATO Days standard, which was sadly absent at the 2016 edition, was the Slovak air force MiG-29 display. It was great to see it return this year.
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One of my very few presentable flying shots from the day was this Slovak A319 Airbus display.
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Adding a bit of vintage to the show was this restored two seat MiG-15 which flies on the Czech civil register.

Tupolev Tu-154 “Careless” – Tupolev’s Trijet

Gaps to be Filled 

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This Slovak Government Flying Service Tu-154M was seen over Kunovice, Czech Republic in June of 2017. This was one of its last flights before retirement.

The former Soviet Union had great success in the early years of jet based airliner service with their Tupolev Tu-104. The Tu-104 was the world’s second jet to enter regular airline service after Great Britain’s DeHavilland Comet. While both machines had their share of imperfections associated with being the first of a new breed of aircraft, the Tu-104 had more success than the Comet in providing sustained and dependable service during the 1950s due to the British aircraft being grounded from 1954 to 1958 after a series of accidents. For a period in the late 1950s, the Tu-104 was the only jet airliner in regular scheduled service and was a message, wherever it went, that the west was falling behind in the jetliner stakes.

With the return of the Comet to the skies in 1958 and the arrival of France’s Sud Aviation Caravelle to airline service in 1959, the jetliner race was back on.

By the early 1960s, two new Soviet airliner designs had flown for the first time. The twin jet Tupolev Tu-134 had short haul routes as its target while the four engine Ilyushin Il-62 was designed for the long range intercontinental routes. Both aircraft entered airline service in 1967 and the Tu-154 flew for the first time in 1968.

The Tu-154 was introduced to airline service in 1972, filling the medium range gap between the Tu-134 and Il-62 and becoming a workhorse for Aeroflot and many other carriers in nations which came under Soviet influence in the Cold War period and continued to serve many of them well past the fall of Socialism.

Neither a Copy nor a Competitor 

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Another angle on the Slovak Tu-154M; showing the trijet arrangement, T tail and landing gear pods on the wings that are hallmarks of the design.

As was the western habit in the prevailing “us and them” mindset of the Cold War; there was no shortage of people dismissing the Tu-154 as an “inferior copy” of western trijets such as the Boeing 727 from America and the Hawker Siddeley Trident from Great Britain. Indeed, when the Tu-154 prototype made an appearance at the 1969 Paris Air Salon, western observers were brutally critical of every aspect of it. In the NATO codenaming system for Soviet aircraft, the Tu-154 was dubbed “Careless”.

However, such comparisons were an extreme case of the west grasping at straws to discredit the east. The Tupolev trijet was really in a class by itself and was produced for much longer than either the 727 or Trident.

Beyond having a similar general design, the three aircraft had nothing in common. The American and British trijets had both been in airline service for at least half a decade before the Tu-154 first flew and had been designed specifically to compete in the burgeoning short haul feeder line market that was opening up in the early 1960s. By comparison, the Tu-154 was designed as mid range liner to most immediately satisfy projected requirements of the Soviet national airline, Aeroflot, before anything else.

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The Tu-154 had six wheel main landing gear units to better distribute the aircraft’s weight on improvised and unprepared surfaces.

The Tu-154 was designed and built to rigorous specifications that included the ability to operate from austere or improvised runways in the most remote regions of the former Soviet Union. Even before it first flew, things were being asked of it that had not been asked of jet airliners before. For a jet airliner to operate from a gravel or packed earth strip was unthinkable at the time the Tu-154 was being designed, and yet such abilities were specified for it.

Part of why the Tu-154 had such abilities in its specification was so it could replace the Antonov An-10 and Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop airliners which had been serving those remote areas.

The Tu-154 was built as a trijet for no other reason than that it didn’t need four engines to do what was wanted of it. Aeroflot’s four engine jetliner requirement was well filled by the Ilyushin Il-62.

The Tu-154 also put performance ahead of efficiency. With a top speed of 975 kmh, the Tu-154 was one of the swiftest airliners ever put into regular scheduled service. It also could operate at altitudes above most other civilian air traffic.

Further testament to the Tu-154’s flight performance was the choice to use it as a landing trainer for cosmonauts preparing to crew the failed Soviet space shuttle, the Buran. The Tu-154 was capable of the same steep angle descents that the cosmonauts would face when landing the Buran.

In short, the Tu-154 was a much more specialised aircraft than initial appearances let on and the west simply had nothing that was fully comparable.

Moving the Masses 

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Tu-154 B2 seen preserved at the Aeropark museum in Budapest, Hungary in 2015.

It did not take long for the Tu-154 to find its way into widespread service after its first Aeroflot passenger flight in 1972. The aircraft formed the backbone of not only Aeroflot, but also a number of airline fleets in the Eastern Bloc and in Soviet friendly states.

In a flying career spanning approximately three and half decades, the Tu-154 served the militaries and numerous airlines of no fewer than forty countries.

In airliner form, the Tu-154 cabin could be configured for two class, single class or high density passenger arrangements. The high denisty layout was accomplished by removing the aircraft’s galley.

A number of the aircraft were also converted for air freight duties.

In military circles, the Tu-154 found favour as a VIP transport and many Eastern Bloc leaders used the type as their personal transport.

Even after the fall of Socialism, the Tu-154 remained in regular airline service for some time. The final scheduled Tu-154 flight from Europe was conducted by Belavia in 2015, from Geneva, Switzerland to Minsk, Belarus.

The very last European based Tupolev Tu-154s belonged to the Slovak Government Flying Service and these were retired in summer of 2017.

As of 2017, the only confirmed airline to still be using the Tu-154 for passenger service is North Korea’s Air Koryo.

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The very powerful, but very inefficient, Kuznetsov NK-8 engine which powered early members of the Tu-154 family

Increased availability of more efficient airliners through the 2000s and 2010s and increasingly strict international regulations on exhaust and noise emmissions made Tu-154 operations financially unappealing in many markets and most operators divested themselves of the type in that period.

Later in its life, the aircraft came to world attention in the wake of some very high profile accidents. However, in the bigger picture, for an aircraft of which more than 1,000 were produced and served for more than 30 years, the Tu-154 has an average safety record and is not considered an unsafe aircraft. In fact, a significant number of accidents involving the aircraft were attributable to non-technical factors such as human error, poor weather or runway conditions as well as highjackings. At least five Tu-154s are known to have been shot down.

As airliners go, the Tu-154 is a very solidly built aircraft that has withstood emergency landing situations intact and with no loss of life that would have torn some other airliners apart and most certainly have resulted in fatalities.

The Tu-154 Family 

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Flight deck of the Tu-154 B2 preserved at Aeropark, Budapest.

With a production run spanning from 1968 to 2013 ans 1,026 of the type made, the Tu-154 family consists of four main branches:

Tu-154

The baseline Tu-154 debuted in 1970 and had a capacity for 164 passengers. Production totalled around 40 aircraft.

Tu-154 A

Appearing in 1974, the Tu-154 A improved on the baseline model through increased fuel carriage, more powerful engines, refined flight controls and avionics as well as more flexibility in cabin configurations.

Tu-154 B/B1/B2/S

Produced from 1975, the Tu-154 B and its subvariants featured a new wing of higher strength to replace the wings of earlier variants which were cracking from fatigue. The B series improved the Tu-154 further through an increased maximum take off weight. Several baseline and A models were converted to B standard through wing replacement.

The real drive behind creating the B series of the aircraft was to make it more economical to operate. The Kuznetsov NK-8 engines were very thirsty regardless of the variant being used and the only answer to better ecomonics was to increase passenger load.

The B1 variant was specifically for Aeroflot to increase profits on domestic routes within the Soviet Union. Beyond some minor modification to some systems, it differed little from the B model.

The B2 model was designed to have the high density cabin option via a removable galley. The B2 brought with it additional increases in maximum take off weight. A number of B models were converted to B2 standard. The B2 found favour as a VIP transport as well as an airliner.

The Tu-154 S was a cargo conversion variant based off the B model that featured a strengthened floor and large cargo door on the forward fuselage. A very small number were converted to S standard.

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Former Czech air force Tu-154 M arriving at Kunovice, Czech Republic in 2016 for restoration as a museum exhibit.

Tu-154M

A major change to the Tu-154 came in 1982 with the first flight of the M version.

With the M came new, more efficient engines in the form of the Soloviev D-30. The D-30 gave the aircraft economic performance through lower fuel consumption and increased range that the NK-8 engines had always denied it. The aircraft’s performance was further enhanced by aerodynamic refinements nose to tail. The lower operating costs of the M model gave the Tu-154 a new lease on life with many operators.

The new engines also allowed the Tu-154 to be fitted with hush kits to reduce engine noise. This was something that could not be done with the NK-8 engine and kept the Tu-154 flyable into areas that had increased restrictions on noise emissions. The M models were still allowed to operate, for a while, in places where the B models no longer were permitted.

As with the B model, the M model was liked as a VIP transport and was often referred to as Tu-154 M Lux when configured as such.

The M model formed the basis of some minor versions of the aircraft family that include an electronic intelligence gathering variant, the aforementioned cosmonaut trainer and a one-off variant for exploring alternative fuels.

What Remains and Learning More 

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Former Czech air force Tu-154 M seen partially restored at Kunovice in June of 2017.

As of 2017, less than 50 Tu-154 aircraft are known to still be active on civil or military registers and they are primarily in Russia with a handful scattered between China, Kazakhstan and North Korea. As such, your chances of seeing an active example of the type these days are quite slim and not getting better.

Preserved examples are known to exist in museums in Belarus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Unfortunately, it seems for the present that a good deal of English language information to be found online about the Tu-154 is conflicting, biased or focused on accidents that involved the type. Hopefully, that will change one day.

In the meantime, these articles will give you a couple of first hand insights into what it’s like to fly on the Tu-154 as a passenger:

http://www.airlinereporter.com/2014/05/slovak-force-one-my-first-flight-on-a-russian-tu-154/

http://www.airportspotting.com/tupolev-tu154-scheduled-flight-europe-trip-report/

This article was published in conjunction with the delivery of the very last Tu-154, in 2013, and gives a short historical overview of the aircraft:

http://www.airlinereporter.com/2013/02/last-tupolev-tu-154-delivered-today-six-years-after-production-ceases/

 

Book Review: “Without Precedent”

Without Precedent
By: Owen Zupp
There and Back Publishing (2016)

Biography is generally not a genre I read with much frequency, but I’m extremely happy that I took the chance to read “Without Precedent” during a recent holiday. Of the biographies I have read, it is by far the most compelling and engaging I’ve read in the context of military or aviation.

Phillip Zupp (1925-1991) had a decades long career in the Australian military and became a very accomplished and respected pilot in both military and civil circles. Phillip’s son, Owen, went to great lengths after his father passed away to compile a detailed biography that not only chronicles the full span of Phillip’s life but also gives the reader a rather intimate view of his personality both in military and civilian life.

Phillip experienced bullying, poverty and privation through much of his childhood and youth. As a result, he developed a very determined and thick-skinned personality and tended to be laconic, pragmatic and stoic in the main. Very few people in his life got a full picture of the man during his lifetime, not even his closest friends and family.

This book is as much a son’s journey to know his father more fully as it is his father’s biography.

Phillip grew up in a farming community and never completed his formal education. He did not have the sort of background one might expect of someone who aspired to a career in aviation, though he was fully captivated by flying from the first time he saw an aircraft and pursued the goal of becoming a pilot with a single minded determination in the face of everything that stood in his way.

He joined the Royal Australian Air Force before the Second World War and began training as a navigator. He took to the military life very well and appreciated the structure and order it gave to his otherwise unpredictable life.

Though he had trained to be a navigator, changing operational priorities during the war resulted in Phillip taking a transfer to the army and training to be a commando. He spent the war fighting the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea and served in the occupational force in Japan after the war ended. While he was not a particularly philosophical man by nature, standing at ground zero in Hiroshima and taking in the scope of the destruction certainly gave him pause for thought and reflection.

Towards the end of the 1940s, Phillip faced being discharged from the military during post war force reductions. It was in this period, however, that he was able to re-enlist in the RAAF and finally take up training to become the pilot he longed to be. Working his way through DeHavilland Tiger Moth basic trainers and advanced training in Wirraway trainers; Phillip ultimately found himself flying Gloster Meteor fighters in the Korean War.

During that conflict, he distinguished himself as an adept and capable pilot in the ranks of 77 Squadron. During actions in Korea, he was recommended to be awarded a Purple Heart medal by the American forces; it was the first time a member of the Australian military had ever been recommended for that award. However, it took several decades and much bureaucracy before Phillip even learned he had been awarded the medal and for that medal to reach the Zupp family.

After discharge from the RAAF, Phillip found work as an instructor pilot at a flying school near where he and his wife, Edith, had settled and started a family.

Phillip eventually trained on the Lockheed Constellation airliner and took work with the Australian national airline, QANTAS. However, Phillip’s preference for being alone in the cockpit and the strain of him being away for extended periods of time on his family life led him to cut his commercial flying career short.

Eventually, he would find his way into corporate flying and would finish his professional flying career in air ambulance service.

Phillip built up a remarkable pilot’s log through is life and this book gives good insights into many of the types he flew. The sections of the Wirraway trainer and the RAAF Gloster Meteor operations in Korea are particularly enlightening from an Australian aviation standpoint.

In his life, Phillip didn’t talk much about himself and didn’t start opening up to his family about his time in the military until quite late in his life.

It is noted towards the end of the book, that Owen found in his research that many of his father’s closest RAAF friends from Korea had no idea that Phillip had ever been a commando during WWII or had been part of the post war occupying force in Japan.

Following Phillip’s death, Owen Zupp was left with more questions than answers about his beloved father. This book is the result of Owen finding those answers and it’s very satisfying to read as the care Owen put into it is evident from cover to cover.

Phillip Zupp certainly could not have been the easiest man to know, but this book makes it clear that he was certainly worth getting to know if he had let you.

If you like a good biography, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

If you’re a RAAF enthusiast, your library isn’t complete without this book.

This link will take you to Owen Zupp’s own page and give you access to more reviews of this book:

http://www.owenzupp.com/without-precedent#trade