BAE SYSTEMS The American Connection
Andrew Bates finds a small piece of the UK in the Mojave desert
Its strange, but true; it doesnt matter where in the World you take your holidays, it seems there is always something to remind you of good old Blighty. From past experience, this has proved especially true on the North American continent; whether it was the changing of the guard outside the parliament buildings in Ottawa, the replica Mayflower anchored in Plymouth harbour (or should that be harbor), or the Queen Mary at Long Beach, everywhere there seems to be a little bit of England just around the corner.
Not surprisingly, this unwritten rule has proved as equally applicable to aviation. Previous travels have yielded some unexpected sights to behold; the RN Scimitar on the deck of the USS Intrepid in New York, a Vulcan in the museum at Castle AFB, and even a pair of privately owned ex-FRADU Canberras at Mesa Falcon Field. However, during a recent holiday in California, nothing had quite prepared me for the surprise I received upon arrival at Mojave Airport.
My visit was part of a planned three-way pilgrimage that particular day; Mojave, Edwards AFB (which yielded a further homely reminder in the shape of a preserved Meteor NF.11), and the Blackbird Airpark at Palmdale. As you can imagine, the opportunity to visit all three venues, whilst enduring the searing heat of the Mojave Desert, was greatly appreciated by the wife!
Although my enthusiasm was equally apportioned for each of the three airfields, my eager anticipation heightened considerably as we approached Mojave. As a self-confessed Phantom Phreak, this was perhaps understandable. From previous knowledge, I was aware that a company called Tracor Flight Systems not only operated a small fleet of F-4Ds from here, but also did conversion work on USAF QF-4 drones. The wife gently wiped the dribble from my shirt collar as we turned off the main highway, and drove up the long approach road towards the F-4C gate guardian. This was when the surprise set in; not only was I salivating over the thought of more Phantoms to photograph, (which is quite sad really but I dont care), but there was a large red sign on the building behind the preserved Rhino, which made me look twice. In surprise I probably read it out loud more than once: BAE SYSTEMS...BAE SYSTEMS!?
As we parked the car, I began to wonder if we had come to the right place. Then the penny dropped, as my brain finally kicked into gear. In the dark recesses of my memory, I could vaguely remember reading about Tracor being purchased by GEC-Marconi. Whilst I was aware that British Aerospace had since merged with Marconi to create BAE Systems, I had not really put two and two together, as world-wide business affairs have never been of particular interest. I couldnt help thinking that its a long way from Warton to Mojave, but in these days of increasing globalisation, this is probably of little consequence, just another merger, of many more to follow, in the world of business and commerce.
All thoughts of business mergers and take-overs were quickly dissipated as soon as I gained my first glimpse of the operational ramp. Newly completed QF-4Gs, conspicuous by their Day-Glo red tails, caught my attentions straight away. The conversion of retired USAF Phantoms to QF-4 status has been a major source of activity for the company for the last five years or so, and this is likely to continue well into the new decade. For the uninitiated, this involves fitting the airframe with the necessary systems to allow unmanned flight by radio control, although the capability for normal manned flight operations is still retained. Upon successful completion of the necessary modifications, the aircraft are then delivered to the 475th WEG (Weapons Evaluation Group) at Tyndall AFB in Florida, or their detachment at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. Once accepted for service, the rejuvenated Phantoms then provide sterling service as high-speed aerial targets, flown conventionally for simulated missile launches, but by remote control for live firings.
Up until the mid to late nineties, this tasking was undertaken by the QF-106 Delta Dart, but the ever dwindling numbers eventually necessitated a change of airframe. With copious quantities of newly retired F-4s stored within AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB, the choice seemed almost inevitable, although some consideration was also given to using surplus F-16s. After conversion, every attempt is made to fully utilise each QF-4 for as long as possible, especially if there are still a reasonable number of hours left on the airframe. Eventually however, their ultimate mission will involve a one way trip to oblivion, high up over the test range at Tyndall or White Sands. For enthusiasts like myself, its quite sad to think that these magnificent old birds will eventually be blown to smithereens, but at least they are allowing some of us a second chance to see them fly again. Apart from providing a very important means of missile evaluation, it is perhaps quite fitting that they end their career in a blaze of glory (quite literally), rather than the ignominy of meeting the scrapman in some barren corner of the Arizona desert. Of course, if I had my way, every Phabulous Phantom would be preserved for posterity, but as my family and friends will tell you, I dont live in the real world!
Providing further evidence of the companys expanding order book, there was also a long line of KC-135R tankers parked on the ramp at Mojave. These were all awaiting their turn in the PACER CRAG cockpit modernisation programme. This is a major contract, scheduled for completion in 2002, which will eventually see about 250 USAF Stratotankers fitted with a partial glass cockpit, along with the addition of some further modern avionics, which will not only ensure continued operations well into the new millennium, but will also enable the reduction of the cockpit crew from three to two, so reducing training and operating costs.
However, despite this and other ongoing contracts, Flight Systems, as was, are probably best known within the enthusiast fraternity for their fleet of civilian registered ex-military aircraft. These include F-86 Sabres, F-100 Super Sabres, and T-33s, along with the stars of the fleet (as far as I am concerned), the four F-4D Phantoms, which replaced a similar quantity of F-4Cs in the early nineties. This fleet of classic types is available for a variety of flight trials and services, including weapons deployment tests, target towing, and high-speed aerial targets. Generally, the fleet are painted in a smart overall white scheme with blue trim, although the Phantoms have retained their previous two-tone grey, which I prefer from a personal point of view, (they look more menacing).
Operations are not entirely confined to Mojave Airport. Apart from deployments around the States, those of us on this side of the Atlantic are probably familiar with the ex-RDAF TF-100F Super Sabres that are infrequently seen at the occasional airshow. Based at Wittmund in Germany, they are contracted to provide aerial target towing facilities for the Luftwaffe. Unfortunately, time is fast running out for the last four Super Sabres. As spare parts become ever more difficult to acquire, the decision has been made to withdraw them from service, which is understandable given the circumstances, but a great shame nevertheless.
However, all is not lost for fans of classic jets; the company plans to replace the TF-100Fs with a similar number of ex-Israeli TA-4H Skyhawks, so that operations can continue from Wittmund. Incredible as it seems, it would appear that examples of Ed Heinemanns classic design are almost set to become a common sight in European skies, now that Singaporean A-4SU and TA-4SU Skyhawks are also based at Cazaux in France. From a photographers point of view, it would be nice to think that the original green, brown and sand colour scheme could be retained when this small fleet of TA-4Hs enters service, although it is highly likely that the house colours of white and blue will be utilised, as per previous A-4s operated by Flight Systems.
Although I am definitely no business man, I think its fair to say that thanks to recent mergers, BAE Systems now has direct access to an extremely proficient and well respected company within North Americas prolific aviation industry. If only the American influence could extend across the pond to Lancashire. Then perhaps we could look forward to F-4s operating out of Warton on various test and chase plane duties. A nice thought, but highly unlikely. See, I told you I dont live in the real world!