Military Aviation

Vulcan Navigator Radar recalls when due to hydrazine vapors caused by the crash of an F-16 all the crews taking part in a Red Flag sortie had to stay closed inside their aircraft and could not take off

Exercise Red Flag

By the mid-1970s and in the aftermath of experience in Korea and Vietnam, the US Air Force was planning to provide realistic operational training, within Tactical Air Command (TAC), to reduce the vulnerability and high loss rate of pilots in their first five combat missions.

The concept was to establish a training complex of air defence fighters radars, electronic countermeasures, guns and missiles which simulated Soviet air defences and used their operating procedures. The concept became known as Exercise Red Flag and was based at Nellis AFB Nevada, with operations in the desert training ranges to the north of the base.

Vulcan bombers invited to participate in Red Flag

Initial experience with the exercise led to its rapid expansion and, by 1977, invitations to participate went to other US Air Commands, the US Navy and the Marine Corps. At an early stage the RAF was invited to participate with both tactical aircraft and the Avro Vulcan bomber.

Anthony Wright, Vulcan Navigator Radar, who in 1982 took part in Red Flag 82-2 (the last Red Flag exercise with Vulcans just as the V Force was winding down as a deterrent and just before the Falklands campaign, Operation Corporate) tells an interesting story in the book Vulcan Boys True Tales of the Iconic Delta V Bomber by Tony Blackman;

‘Because we were operating at low level, at night, flying across miles of uninhabited desert, apart from take-off and landing at Nellis, our pilots were flying practically blind in the darkness and had to trust the navigation teams. It was only on returning from the desert range and climbing to height that sometime later a huge bright area suddenly appeared and attracted the pilots’ attention. It was the lights of Las Vegas.

‘Each night on landing there followed the same pattern. First there was debriefing followed by a swift exit to the Nellis officers’ club for a wind down, chatting to other American participating crews, including our ‘F-16 enemies’ [the red forces on the exercise flew the F-15 and the F-16], and then back to our Casino.’

F-16 crash

Wright continues;

‘There is one story concerning the F-16 that springs to mind and proves the Red Flag statistics were correct. One evening just as we were about to enter base operations, I heard a shout and turned round to see an F-16 on fire, smoke billowing out behind it, flying, or not as the case might be, low across the airfield parallel to the runway and with a bang the pilot ejected.’

‘I had my camera on my shoulder and was just able to take a photograph of the aircraft on fire as it hit the ground. It was that quick.

F-16 uses hydrazine to fuel its emergency power unit

‘We carried on to plan, briefed and eventually walked out to the aircraft on the huge apron with smoke still coming from the F-16. When we got into the aircraft and onto intercom we were told by air traffic control that all aircraft crews were to close any hatches, windows and doors and not to venture outside as it was hazardous.

‘We complied and were then told the reason. Unknown to us the F-16 used hydrazine, which is highly toxic and highly inflammable to fuel the aircraft’s emergency power unit (EPU). If the F-16’s engine failed then there was no power to restart the engine or operate the flying controls.

F-16 Hydrazine vapors under control

‘The EPU was there to try a restart. Failure of the EPU to generate power means that the pilot has no option but to eject. This one did. Once the fire teams and others in breathing apparatus and contamination suits got the situation under control we were cleared for take-off.’

Wright concludes;

‘Looking back, the flying on Red Flag was very testing, with much adrenalin used by all concerned. Despite that we learnt a good deal and were extremely satisfied to have completed it. Definitely an exercise not to be missed.’

Vulcan Boys True Tales of the Iconic Delta V Bomber is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.

Vulcan Mk 2 at Nellis AFB with F-16 taxiing out (Bill Perrins)

Photo credit: Bill Perrins via Mortons Books

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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