Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Official Chase Photographer Flight!

By Dr. Lionel D. Alford, Jr.
Aerospace Engineering Consultant
Experimental Test Pilot

21 and 22 February 2012

We’ve been waiting down at Eglin for the last couple of weeks for the range time and the weather to match. The weather has been bad with rain and low ceilings. We need at least 1,500 foot ceilings for some developmental weapons shots and we’d like 3,000 feet. The plan is to get off a couple of Hellfire missiles. This is the first time a Hellfire has been shot from an AT-6, and likely the first time a Hellfire has been shot from a high performance fix-winged aircraft. Last week, we fired one of the first laser guided rockets from a fixed-wing aircraft, but I wasn’t flying–I was the SOF (Supervisor of Flying) for that mission.

On this flight I was the official chase photographer. The AT-6s were lined up at Hot Gun #1 along with a covey of A-10s, F-16s, and F-15s. The aircraft looked perfectly matched together. An AT-6 looks like one of the gang–the cleanup hitter after the big boys clear the airspace of the really bad air to air threats.

The weather was poor when we took off. We just made it for a rejoin under the clouds. I wasn’t flying–would have liked to. I’m still building hours. The rejoin was great and we headed up through the clouds and toward the range. Luckily, the clouds lifted as we flew inland. At the range we had 1,500 feet.

We made a practice pass and I took some great formation and hero shots. Part of my job was to try to get good shots of the aircraft with the Hellfire on it. A Hellfire looks perfectly matched to an AT-6; it’s the right size for the aircraft–like a mini-Maverick. The AT-6 can carry a lot of them too. Along with the EO/IR turret, the AT-6 with Hellfires or laser guided rockets is a formidable independent weapon platform.

Our first pass was aborted because of range issues, but those were quickly worked out and we started our hot pass. The missile was easily able to pick up the laser designator. I started the video camera early (there was no way I was going to miss this shot). The lead ship pilot counted down to the launch distance and fired, "Fox away."

The Hellfire hissed as it lit and let out a long flame that turned immediately into sonic force diamonds. With a whoosh, it came off the rails and headed for the target. We were able to catch the target strike with the EO/IR ball on our aircraft. When making developmental weapons shots like this, you get videos from the cockpit, from the chase aircraft, from the ground, and from the aircraft onboard cameras. The point of these types of tests is to determine safe separation of the store from the aircraft. This separation was perfect as was the performance of the missile. All in all a great test.

The next problem was getting back to load the next Hellfire. We had External Fuel Tanks (EFTs) on board for extra gas so we wouldn’t have to refuel our aircraft. Our lead ship wasn’t cleared for EFTs with Hellfire testing–part of the test limitations for the range. We made a safety check of the lead aircraft and headed back to Eglin. We accomplished an approach on the wing, and got drag separation on final under the weather. Drag separation is where the lead clears off two when clear of the weather and two takes separation for independent landings.

We landed and loaded the next missile then waited and waited and waited for fuel. The fuel truck didn’t make it in time and we lost the range and a chance to test fire a second Hellfire–oh well. Stuff like this happens all the time in aviation. The airplanes were ready, but the clearance and conditions didn’t cooperate.

The next day we RTBed. This was a two hop from Eglin (VPS) to Fort Smith (FSM) and from FSM to Beech Field (BEC). I flew the AT-6, N610AT from the front seat on both sorties. I programmed the Flight Management System (FMS) and took care of all the flying on the way back. The back seat pilot instructed me in some of the finer points of the AT-6 weapons system. It has an awesome simulation capability that allows the pilots to practice weapons procedures without any weapons on board. We could basically exercise the entire weapons system during the flight.

The weather when we arrived at VPS to takeoff was 1/4 of a mile and no ceiling. That’s too low for us by company rules, so we watched the weather as it slowly improved. When it hit 1/2 mile and 200 feet (enough for a safe takeoff and immediate ILS approach), we went out and started up. When we listen to the ATIS (radio weather information at a towered field), the weather was back to 1/4 mile and 100 feet. We had full EFTs and plenty of gas, so we waited at the end of the runway for the weather. Sure enough, when we reached the end, the weather was up above 1/2 and 200 feet, so we launched.

I took off and was immediately in the soup–until 700 feet, and then I broke out into the clear. The weather was basically clear with a few clouds all the way home. At FSM, I flew an ILS approach for practice–I’ve been practicing with the HUD. We had Barbeque at a joint called Hawg something–it was gooood. We put on just full wing fuel and headed back to BEC. I flew an RNAV GPS approach to 36 and made a touch and go. The back seat pilot took the aircraft up for a Simulated Flameout Pattern (SFO), then I made a full stop from the closed pattern. All in all this was a great flight and a great deployment. We tested rockets and missiles and made some cross country time with EFTs.