Tag Archives: surveillance

The End is Nigh for the Sentinels

On two previous occasions, the RAF’s Sentinel fleet has made an appearance on this blog.  The most recent was for a damp example at RIAT that was in this post.  The Sentinel fleet has spent a number of years under threat of retirement.  It is a small fleet and it is custom made so it will have very high sustainment costs.  Also, it provides a role principally in support of the Army so I imagine it isn’t the highest priority for some of the RAF upper echelons.

Previous reports of its retirement have been followed up with a reprieve.  However, the MOD in the UK has just issued a request for proposals (RFP) for companies to come and dismantle the aircraft (along with a pair of E-3D Sentrys).  This looks like it is really going to happen.  The RFP states that the aircraft are not for reuse and that the selected contractor will disassemble them on site at RAF Waddington.  Not only is the RAF not going to use them but they are making sure no one else does.

Various bits of information have flowed around about them.  There is a suggestion that obsolescence issues mean a lot of equipment needs to be replaced.  Since that will be a custom process, it will be an expensive thing to do and, with the axe having been hanging over them for a number of years, spending a lot of money on them if they might not be around for much longer just doesn’t seem likely.  Maybe there are other issues too.

I’ve had a soft spot for V Sqn from the Lightning and Tornado F3 days.  Seeing it move from a fast jet to a bizjet derivative was a bit odd but at least it survived while so many other squadrons disappeared.  I wonder whether it will surface again.  Maybe an F-35B unit at some point?  We shall see.  My best interaction with the Sentinels was on a Red Flag when I got to shoot them in some great light.  Farewell you oddball.

A Sentinel Looks Glossy When it is Hammering Down

Based on a Global Express business jet, the RAF’s Sentinel battlefield surveillance jet has plenty of lumps and bumps to distinguish it but the paint scheme is a different story.  It is painted plain gray and, aside from one example I saw at Red Flag, it doesn’t have any interesting squadron markings.  The Friday of RIAT was a very wet a dreary day but this had the effect of making the Sentinel look rather glossy.  I have never seen them look too interesting before (aside from Red Flag) but this looked okay.  I did shoot it departing too on an overcast day and it didn’t look too bad then so maybe this one was fresh out of the paint shop?

EP-3 Aries

P-3 hunting was part of the plan when Paul and I headed to NAS Whidbey Island.  We had some success.  There was a nice bit of icing on the cake for us.  An EP-3E showed up too.  The EP-3 has a nice selection of large radomes added to the airframe to cover the wide variety of sensors that this type has to fulfill its role of listening to transmissions around the world.  I don’t know how long the EP-3 has once the P-3s are gone from fleet service so getting one was a definite plus.

The Spooks Are in Town

The subject of this post ended up getting some coverage but, when I saw it, I didn’t know about the interest surrounding it.  I was at BFI awaiting the departure of another aircraft when a turboprop took off over me.  I had the camera to hand so grabbed some shots of what I realized was an Airbus CN235.  Painted in a dark gray scheme, it looked a little odd.  A closer look at the shots showed it had a few lumps and bumps suggestive of an array of antennae.  I figured it was just passing through en route to somewhere more interesting.

However, that wasn’t the case.  It had been spotted flying some patterns over the city.  I had seen some odd flight paths on Flightaware being flown by a plane called Spud21.  I loved the name!  it was flying orbits over the city but I couldn’t see anything else about it.  However, when I saw the plane crop up in the media, the article identified that it was the owner of the Spud21 callsign.

I don’t know what the purpose of the flights was.  It is suggested that the aircraft is owned by the US military but whether it is for their use or is in support of an overseas operator, whether these flights were for testing purposes or were checking out the residents I don’t know.  I do know that it was something a little out of the ordinary though.

Smokey the E-8

A jet I don’t often get to see in action is the E-8 JSTARS.  There aren’t a huge number of them and they often fly at times that don’t suit photography so I have not previously got a lot of shots of them and certainly not too many in flight.  Based on the 707-300 airframe, they were pretty old when they were selected for conversion to the JSTARs mission.  They are definitely showing their age and the USAF is in the process of competing for a replacement program.  There are a few years left for the E-8 but they won’t be around for too much longer.

One feature of their age is the engines that they have.  The jets are fitted with old JT3D engines.  A program had been put in place to re-engine them with JT8Ds and a modified jet did fly.  However, the program was put on hold due to the potential for a replacement aircraft making the payback period unviable.  As a result, we got the old smoky jets.  It isn’t as bad as the old pure jet days of the KC-135s and B-52s but it still is easy to track the jet as it climbs out courtesy of the black trail it leaves behind.

The Lonely Life of the AWACS

B11I5825.jpgThe beginning and end of an exercise has a common theme.  Long before the fighter start launching, an E-3 AWACS will lumber off the runway and head out towards the exercise area.  It gets on station and sets up to direct the fight as the fast movers enter the range.  It will support the whole mission and will guide the small guys back home at the conclusion of their missions.  It will deal with any of the jets that have to change plans or abort.  With everyone else back on the ground, the AWACS can finally come home.  They are often the last jet back on the ground.  Hopefully everyone outside will stay around for their recovery.  You wouldn’t want them to feel neglected!

B11I2618.jpg

Spooky Metroliner(ish)

AE7I4791.jpgIf I hadn’t been with Joe who is a bit more familiar with the regular movements at Tucson International, I would not have been too interested in this aircraft.  It looked like a pretty standard C-26 to me.  However, Joe was quick to see it and told me it is one that he had not seen move (I can’t recall whether this was ever or just for a long time).  Apparently, the turret under the fuselage is for surveillance activities of a spooky nature.  Why it was moving on this day (was it watching me?) I have no idea.  I was just glad that, rather than dismissing it as I might have done, I found out it was a little different.

RAF Sentinel

AU0E4737.jpgI really do appreciate an aircraft that looks elegant. One such type is the Bombardier Global Express. Built to take on the Gulfstream family, it is a great looking plane with a graceful front fuselage, cracking looking wing and even the empennage is stylishly done. Therefore, you might be forgiven for thinking that I was not impressed when Raytheon took a great looking plane and grafted on some enormous lumps and bumps to create the Sentinel.

Built for Britain’s Royal Air Force, the Sentinel is a battlefield surveillance aircraft in the mold of the USAF JSTARS program but a generation on a bit more compact. It also makes use of a more modern airframe as its starting point. While the changes have not done anything to make the plane look pretty, I do have a soft spot for unusual aircraft configurations and large radomes and sitcom covers fit with this idea. Consequently, I rather like the Sentinel. Seeing them in action at Red Flag was a nice opportunity.

AU0E3119.jpgHaving spent a lot of money on the Sentinel, the UK government announced that, with the reduction in involvement in Afghanistan, the Sentinels would be retired. Retirement sounds inappropriate for something so new but that was the story. Fortunately, it appears that the plan has been adjusted and they have been reprieved for now. We shall see how that develops.

The aircraft are operated by 5 (AC) Squadron of the RAF. 5 Sqn was one of the early Tornado ADV squadrons when it converted to Lightnings. I liked their colors with the maple leaf on a red background. When I worked at Warton, one side project I got involved with was the repainting of a restored Lightning in 5 Sqn colors before it was put on display. Having the Sentinels showing up from 5 Sqn was nice, not least because one of the two jets had the squadron colors displayed over the usual dull grey finish. Both aircraft flew while I was there both day and night. They are an unusual sight to see so it was good to catch them at work.