Latest Flight: AT-6 Weapon Mission in Formation

23 and 24 January 2012
By Dr. Lionel D. Alford, Jr.

What is better than flying? Flying on a flight test weapon mission in formation. Back in the AT-6, this time on a flight to Smokey Hill range (near Salina (SLN), Kansas) with the other AT-6 to practice weapons testing.

The AT-6 comes with an Electro Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) sensor turret. It’s installed between the wings on the belly. It incorporates a targeting and an illumination laser. The EO/IR ball is used to find and illuminate targets for laser guided weapons. These flights we were flying to test the EO/IR ball and develop flight test profiles to test laser guided weapons on the AT-6.

I flew four missions. Three of the flights, I was in the backseat–I’m still building time before I can be qualified as a Pilot in Command for the company. But I did get to fly more than half of the flight time, and I had an almost entire flight to learn the aircraft mission systems. The mission systems are easy for anyone who has had some experience in fighter weapons operations, but like any system, they require practice and training. It isn’t enough to read the book.

On each of the missions, we accomplished a formation delayed takeoff to a pattern rejoin. On a delayed takeoff, you wait 10 seconds before starting your own takeoff. Right after takeoff, you rejoin with the lead aircraft. A rejoin means you intercept the aircraft and move to a position about 5 to 10 feet away in fingertip. You maintain this position until the leader puts you in a route position. I’m working with exNavy pilots so I have to figure out their service formation techniques too. They have a different name for route. The AT-6 like the T-6 is a great challenge to fly in formation. It is a fantastic formation trainer.

The reason you fly a military aircraft in formation is for mutual protection and support, but in our case, we were practicing photo chase for weapons work and buddy lasing to help with the laser guided weapons. Buddy lasing is where you use one aircraft to lase the target for the other.

Two AT-6 aircraft together in flight is about the most beautiful scene you can imagine–especially with something loaded on it. We were flying with external fuel tanks. The aircraft can carry up to four external fuel tanks. We had two and easily four hours plus of gas. The plane flies well with external fuel tanks. You can spend a lot of time upside down just with range work and you hardly notice the tanks at all.

There is al lot more I could relate about flying to the range and the AT-6 in formation. I’ll save it until another flight.