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Friday, June 30, 2023

Farewell to the Armadillo Express


Its attractive design unmistakable, aircraft 84-0188 is prepared by McGuire team members for the refueling jet’s flight into retirement at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona – the last of the New Jersey base’s fleet of McDonnell-Douglas KC-10 Extender refueling planes.


Anybody you talk to about the KC-10 – pilot, flight engineer, boom operator, maintainer – there’s definitely a pride about this airplane, that it was very special. Most of us feel that the KC-10 has several more years, even decades, left in her. That she’s being retired before her time is what I think hurts most in the crew force…”

Lt. Col. Adam Waite was speaking about the imminent retirement of the unique three-engine McDonnell-Douglas KC-10 Extender refueling/cargo aircraft, a plane with a curvaceous profile that generated the humorous descriptor “Big Sexy.”

Waite’s words came with a definite hint of sadness. It was June 21, 2023, and the very next day the last KC-10 assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey would take to the skies a final time, bound for what will essentially be interment at the “Boneyard” – Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

In a final moment of public glory, the KC-10 nicknamed “Armadillo Express” roars over tens of thousands of people gathered for 2023’s “Power in the Pines” airshow at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.


Waite – on the verge of retiring as a military pilot - knew well of what he spoke, for he himself had recently flown the next-to-the-last of McGuire’s KC-10s (an aircraft nicknamed “The Gambler”) to its final resting place, a last journey for the pilot after 15 years at the controls of KC-10s.

“I flew 79-1711 to the Boneyard at the end of May, and that was significant for me because it was my final flight,” Waite explained. “It was bittersweet, because for me, on one side it was a great flight, with beautiful weather. I could not have asked for a better final flight, or a fini-flight as we call them in the Air Force. But at the same time, it was sad to know that it was the last flight for that aircraft, and it was just going to be parked with the other KC-10s you could see sitting in the AZ desert.

“15 years in my career…” He paused thoughtfully. “I consider it, out of all the planes I flew, my favorite aircraft of everything.”


“Big Sexy” languidly sails through ethereal late afternoon skies in October 2022.


Waite spoke of the experience in a conference room at McGuire as hundreds of people – many of whom had flown in KC-10s or supported their missions from this USAF base – gathered in a hanger nearby for what was billed as the “KC-10 Farewell & Final Salute.”

The crowds gather to applaud the guest of honor at the “KC-10 Farewell & Final Salute.”

While Lt. Col. Waite knows the KC-10 about as well as you can know an aircraft, TSgt. Tiffany Irby also knows the KC-10 extremely well. But her experience came from the other end of the aircraft, logging years as a boom operator.

“This is where a big part of my career is,” Irby said of the KC-10. “There is a lot of sadness. Seeing something that I’ve spent close to a decade on, and then closing that chapter. And I know people who’ve spent their entire career on it, and are definitely sad to see it go.”


McGuire’s KC-10 0433 retired from active service on March 26, 2022 and was incorporated into the USAF Air Mobility Command Museum at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base.


The increasing USAF dependence on the newer KC-46 Pegasus generates a big change in refueling parameters for boom operators. The control stations for the KC-46 operators are located directly behind the aircraft flight deck, refueling accomplished via monitors and data input. Gone are the boom controls at the rear of the aircraft found in the KC-135s and KC-10s, where the operators had windows providing a direct view of the plane being fueled in a tanker’s wake.

“Of course, having a window is always going to be the perfect thing,” Irby believes. “I had the opportunity to fly on the 46, and its system is not where it needs to be just yet. But the next system that will be coming online is definitely going to be a good one. The program managers said it was close to having your eyes looking out that window and when I got to test it out, it was actually pretty nice.”

Beyond refueling, Irby brought up a significant aspect of the KC10s’ contributions to military operations: its range and cargo capabilities.

“We were a little more restricted dimensionally than the C-17 or C-5,” she admitted, “but on joint efforts with the Marines or Army we can take their guys and their crews and their cargo. For example, if they have an exercise in Utah, we can take everything they need out there. A lot of the time we were working with all of the active-duty Guards across the Northeast, but we could go anywhere we needed to, with a 4400 mile radius.”

“We could carry up to 170,000 pounds in a purely cargo configuration, which is almost on par with the C-17, in a weight-for-weight comparison,” noted Lt. Col. Waite of the KC-10’s capabilities. “The limitations would just be for volume or dimensions. Pound for pound, though, we were right up there with the C-17.

“If we were doing a fighter drag, then we can do 2000 to 2500 miles to take a group of, say, four fighters across the ocean,” he continued. “We could go from the East Coast over to Europe, or the West Coast over the Pacific to Hawaii. That would be a typical range for us. A lot of operations over water. The KC-10s bread and butter was the over-water fighter drags where we have the significant amount of fuel so we can do that with just a single airplane. Our fuel capacity was almost double that of the KC-135, and roughly 50% more than the 46.”


26,000 feet over Aerospace Perceptions headquarters in New Castle DE, a KC-10 from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst drags an F-15 fighter during refueling operations in August 2022.


Though Waite had flown his final KC-10 flight, TSgt. Irby had one mission remaining: to accompany KC-10 84-0188 – a plane nicknamed “Armadillo Express” – as the last Extender flight out of McGuire, the day after the farewell ceremony. Among a select group of passengers would be Lt Gen James Jacobson, Deputy Commander, Pacific Air Forces – a man with over 4000 flying hours, including time spent at the controls of the KC-10.

But for the final flight, Armadillo Express would be piloted by Maj. Joshua Gorring – a pilot relatively new to flying the KC-10.


Maj. Joshua Gorring stands with the Armadillo Express on the day before the KC-10s final flight, one to be piloted by Gorring.


“I haven’t been a pilot on the KC-10 for very long,” Gorring reveals. “I came here in August 2021, and I immediately went off to training. So really, I’ve been qualified for about a year and a half as a pilot on the KC-10.”

In the grand scheme of things, Gorring flying KC-10s at McGuire was remarkably appropriate.

“I started my career as a KC-10 boom operator back in 2005 – same squadron, same base. So, it’s really a full circle for me,” he smiled.

Assigned to the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron - one of the oldest in the United States Air Force, with origins dating 1917 – Gorring had extensive flight duty between his KC-10 bookends. After transitioning from the boom operator duties into flight training, he piloted C-17 Globemasters for several years. Eventually, he took on advanced training responsibilities of new tanker and airlift pilots as a flight instructor piloting the T-1A Jayhawk for three years at Vance AFB, Oklahoma, before his return to the realm of the KC-10.

Gorring spoke of the need to be ready for anything while providing critical refueling capabilities in the KC-10.

“It comes down to looking at that other aircraft coming into refuel,” he explains. “Are they bouncing around? Are we bouncing around? What does it look like? I’ve been in situations where we’re in bad weather, but it’s as smooth as can be and you make contact. Yet it can be a clear day, and the plane is bouncing around all over the place. Or maybe someone’s having a bad day, or maybe they’re new and it’s their first time behind a KC-10. Scenarios, or even malfunctions - when you’re behind another aircraft, there are so many things that can happen.”

Gorring notes that the KC-10 played well with some, presented challenges to others.

“Like you’d expect from a heavy aircraft, the wake comes down and away from the aircraft,” he said of the big plane in flight. “But what’s nice for the receivers, as they’re coming up from behind us, with our two engines on the side it almost acts like a barrier, to keep them in between and let them almost bounce off the exhaust. It helps keep them in place. Where there’s a struggle typically is with the number two engine (mounted above the fuselage), where the exhaust is vectored basically right toward their aircraft. C-17s, for example, will have difficulty with that exhaust and it forces them into different positions. As you would expect, two aircraft that close together disrupt a lot of air.”

KC-10 0188 on the McGuire runway in the distance between two F-16s of the USAF Viper Demo Team.


Though he had moved to the flight deck of the KC-10 as a pilot, Gorring’s time as a boom operator has flavored his thoughts about the rapidly changing parameters of aerial refueling, from the KC-46’s boom operator being fully dependent on technology to the idea of autonomous refueling, a topic covered in a recent Aerospace Perceptions article.

“As a boom operator previously in my career, I’m the person who’s sitting back there watching and physically controlling things. Then to go to computer screens and to then potentially go completely autonomous – it’s interesting,” he admits. “But personally, I preferred sitting in the back looking out my window, because I could see the planes and everything that was happening in real time, live, right in front of me. But we’ve made so many different advancements in our technology that it almost seems autonomy is an inevitable course of advancement. But I don’t know if you can take the person out of the aircraft and get the results you’re looking for.

“I really think there has to be someone actually there monitoring the systems, and someone who can intervene in real time if something goes wrong,” he cautions. “Who would initiate breakaways, if we have to separate the two aircraft quickly? Is it a system decision, or is someone monitoring operations and they make the determination there’s an unsafe situation? How is that called, how is it initiated?”


A last salute from personnel at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst sends the final KC-10 to its concluding takeoff. (Photo by Senior Airman Sergio Avalos, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs)


By the time those questions for the future are answered, the KC-10 Extender will have long been retired. And, after flying Armadillo Express to its final landing in Arizona, Gorring himself plans to leave the world of refueling and return to training future aviators.

“I started my Air Force career right here in this location and in the same squadron, and now I’m part of the crew flying that aircraft away,” Gorring says quietly. “Maybe being part of that experience will bring about a little closure for me, but it’s a bittersweet moment. This plane has been with us for so long. It’s been a workhorse. It’s done so many things, so many missions and operations… To see it go? Yes, it’s bittersweet.”

Rising into the skies over New Jersey with all three engines roaring, the Armadillo Express makes one final glorious ascension. (Photo by Senior Airman Sergio Avalos, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs)

Ironically, just five days after the last KC-10 departed Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the USAF celebrated 100 years of aerial refueling with Operation Centennial Contact. The skies of America were filled with dozens upon dozens of refueling tankers and the aircraft that benefit from their services. Of course, McGuire contributed an impressive array of KC-46, C-17, and KC-135 aircraft to the celebration. But the reliable and capable KC-10 Extender? Sadly, it was well on its way to becoming just a memory.



 In the top two of these three images from Operation Centennial Contact, the two-engine KC-46 Pegasus – the refueling aircraft that is essentially replacing the KC-10 - leads the workhorse C-17 Globemaster in a simulated refueling formation. In the third image, a KC-135 Stratotanker heads south over Aerospace Perceptions headquarters in New Castle, Delaware. The KC-135 first flew in 1956 – a full 25 years before the now-retiring KC-10 Extender entered into service.

All photos except where otherwise credited: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Click on photos to see larger images.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Flying Hammer

Fans of the USAF Thunderbirds can always visit the team’s official website to find the names and read about the careers of the incredibly talented aviators who take to the skies in the famous red, white, and blue F-16 C and D aircraft. But on June 9, 2023, there was a new name added to the roster: Jenifer Rayne, aka “Hammer.”

One of the many public outreaches the Thunderbirds accomplish each year is their Hometown Hero program, one that honors people who have made contributions to better their local community. At each of the team’s airshow stops, the Hometown Hero selected for recognition experiences the unforgettable thrill of flying with one of the Thunderbirds aviators in an F-16D two-seater fighter aircraft.

For Maryland’s Ocean City Air Show of June 10 and 11, 2023, Jenifer Rayne, principal of Pocomoke High School in southern coastal Maryland, was selected for this honor. Aside from the responsibilities expected of a principal, Rayne thoughtfully looked for ways to make the school experience and lives of her students more rewarding. That led to the creation of a student club called Speak Up, a group that not only provides students with a creative appreciation for the culture of marginalized populations, but also gives students a collective voice that is heard for the betterment of everyone at the school. Rayne’s efforts were recognized by the Maryland State Education Association, which recently presented her with the MSEA Human and Civil Rights Award – an award for which she was nominated by her own students.

As fulfilling as the award presentation in Baltimore may have been, there was an emphasis on excitement when Rayne and a small group of friends and supporters arrived early the morning of June 9 at the main gate of NASA Wallops Flight Facility. This NASA installation acted as home base for the Thunderbirds in the days leading up to and during the Ocean City Air Show. Entering D-1 Hanger, Rayne met with medical staff and team members who outfitted her with a flight suit. Then, it was on to the critical flight briefing, conducted by the pilot who would convey Jenifer on the fastest ride of her life.

Lt. Col. Ryan Yingling is Thunderbird #7. Since being selected for pilot training at Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training after earning his navigator rating in 2008, Yingling has amassed over 3500 flight hours, including time spent piloting A-10C aircraft in operational assignments over the Republic of Korea.

Like all Thunderbirds team members, Yingling is calm and professional, intensely focused. Seated at a desk and armed with a laptop computer and a scale model of an F-16, the pilot conveyed to Rayne what she would see, hear, and feel during the flight.

“So, what are we going to do today?” Yingling asked rhetorically. “Fly an airplane. Fly a very fast airplane. And do things in an airplane that you’ll never do in an airplane again.”

Yingling began a detailed description of the cockpit environment. Despite the fast flow of the information, Rayne appeared nearly serene, taking it all in as topics were ticked off ranging from restraint systems to cockpit ventilation.

The inertial reel of the cockpit harness can be locked into place or, with the control in the aft position, it’s released and allows freedom of movement.

“We’re going to keep it in the aft position all day today,” Yingling explained. “It’s not going to help us with aerobatics, or going upside down, or anything like that – unless we have an issue with stopping distance. If we feel like we’re concerned about the stopping distance of the aircraft, then we have a hook on the back of the aircraft that can grab a cable. If we have to take the cable, which is here at Wallops, then we will lock our harnesses. That way, when it slows us down real quick like we’re landing on an aircraft carrier, our face doesn’t go into the console. We don’t want to damage the pretty helmets,” he concluded with a smile.

Rayne would be able to adjust a cooling airflow bezel during the flight – but that action comes with a slight caution.

“When you reach down to move that,” Yingling said, “just be cognizant that the ejection handle is right there in front of it. Any time you are moving about in the cockpit, we want to move very deliberately. We don’t want to catch anything on our flight suit cuffs, or any other equipment that might break. Same thing around the ejection handle – we don’t want to accidentally grab onto it.”

Adding some reassuring news, Yingling noted that the ejection handle has to be armed, and then requires 40-50 pounds of upward pressure to actually initiate ejection.

“So, if you bump it, don’t worry about it.”

Of course, a central component of the briefing was to prepare “Hammer” for the g-forces she would soon encounter. Yingling elaborated on a simple mantra: squeeze, breath, here come the g’s…He stressed the proper way to brace the lower body, encased in g-suit protection, and the importance of a metronome-like approach to breathing. The target is roughly 70-80% lung capacity, to avoid blacking out.

“The reason we don’t want to take a real deep breath? When the g’s push on our chest…” Yingling forcefully exhales. “All out – and now, nap time. And we don’t want to do that.”

After a final review of the maneuvers planned, the long walk from the hanger facility to the flightline began. All eight of the Thunderbirds aircraft were precisely aligned on the tarmac, but as Rayne and Yingling neared #7, Thunderbirds 1 through 4 pulled away to noisily initiate an airshow familiarization flight.

Minutes later Rayne joined them in the skies, Yingling initiating a steep, powerful climb in the F-16 just seconds off the runway. What followed were all of the acrobatics and resulting sensations that Rayne had been prepared for that morning – but actually experiencing them was likely something else entirely.

Surely a highlights of the flight came when Yingling guided Thunderbird #7 over Pocomoke High School, where Rayne’s students were gathered to cheer her on as she flashed by, the F-16 banking with a trail of smoke in its wake.

In less than an hour it was over, “Hammer” standing next to the F-16 with an elated look on her face. Yingling proudly noted that she had experienced 9.3 g’s at one point in the flight – an imposing force.

I was awake the whole time - they gave me the breathing techniques and the crew prepared me for everything we were doing today,” Rayne enthused to a local WMDT-ABC reporter covering her flight. “The turns, the rolls, and going upside down… It was really one of the best days of my entire life.”

The Hometown Hero was now off-duty. But Lt. Col. Yingling had myriad other tasks to oversee.

When he’s not at the controls of Thunderbird #7, Lt. Col. Yingling has a tremendous responsibility as the leader of the team Operations Section. Under his domain are team communications, computer systems analysts, training, standardization and evaluation, aircrew flight equipment, and airlift support.

“It’s a 370 day a year operation, 25 hours a day, eight days a week,” Yingling emphasized. “I have people that work multiple jobs just to make this happen. We take 70 people on every trip that we do, and we can only fit nine in our own jets. So, we have to reply on Air Force airlift. We take about 40 to 50,000 pounds of equipment to every show. And then we rely on the airshow team, the show hosts, the directors to secure a lot of our ground equipment. But each and every day we are demonstrating the Air Force’s combat capabilities.”

Over the weekend the USAF Thunderbirds went on to fly out of their temporary base at NASA Wallops Flight Facility while headlining two days at the Ocean City Air Show, an event that played out in near perfect weather. The tens of thousands of spectators crowding the beach and boardwalk were thrilled by the show – but understandably, no one was more thrilled during this particular visit by the Thunderbirds than Jenifer Rayne.


Click on photos for larger images. All photos: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions 

Using an F-16 scale model, Lt. Col. Yingling provides Jenifer Rayne with a preview of the flight to come – including this upside down maneuver.

Lt. Col. Yingling and Jenifer “Hammer” Rayne cross the tarmac as Thunderbird #1 leads 2, 3, and 4 into takeoff position.

Fully encased in flightware and g-suit, Rayne ascends toward her seat in the rear cockpit.

Strapped in and ready to go, Rayne strikes a classic confident aviator pose.

Lt. Col. Yingling runs through his final pre-flight checks as Rayne prepares to go airborne, her name added just below Thunderbird #7’s canopy.

Flights checks complete, Lt. Col. Yingling sets Thunderbird #7 into motion, Jenifer Rayne watching with excitement from the rear seat.

Thunderbird #7 leaps toward the skies over the runway at NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

Rayne feels her first g forces as Yingling applies the power to initiate a steep ascent.

Mission accomplished: Thunderbird #7 returns to the flightline after following a path that included a high-speed pass over Pocomoke High School.

The Thunderbirds team presents Jenifer Rayne with exclusive artwork commemorating her aerial adventure.

Jenifer Rayne speaks with WMDT-ABC about the day’s events. “We’re a very small community, we’re about 75% poverty,” she noted. “I’m always trying to look for ways to get some attention and exposure, because I think our students are the very best students that there are, with the very best staff. So I’m honored to represent them.”

Monday, June 5, 2023

Look to the Past

Granted, Aerospace Perceptions has been a little short on the “space” aspect of late. But with the East Coast yielding a punishing schedule of airshows in striking distance from AP headquarters, it’s a case of enjoying the feast before the annual famine sets in after the summer.

Sometimes, though, heading to what seems like it might be nothing more than a specialized airshow turns out to be a lot more – something much bigger than a simple rendezvous of aircraft. That was the case with the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum's World War II Weekend, held the last several days at Reading Pennsylvania’s regional airport, also frequently referred to as General Carl A. Spaatz Field.

This year is the 32nd such event, and it is far from just an airshow.

The facility hosted dozens upon dozens of rare or unusual 1940s military vehicles representing all combatants of “The Great War.” They traveled through and around sprawling installations and encampments which supported combat reenactments, with hundreds of people in the garb and uniforms of eight decades ago. It was all here. And attendance in the neighborhood of 100,000 people reflects the excitement of crowds anxious to actually see elements history instead of just reading about them or viewing depictions in films and video.

This overwhelming event’s official title may put an emphasis on aviation but, in reality, about the only things that were missing were battleships and submarines. For anyone with an appreciation of this hugely important era of history, the annual World War II Weekend is a “must see.” 

Click on photos for larger images. All photos: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Rising above the Reading runway, the B-29 christened FIFI claws her way into the skies.

The C-47 Skytrain was an essential aerial workhorse in World War II and for dozens of years beyond.

More than eight decades after its introduction, the legendary North American Aviation P-51 Mustang fighter is always one of the most popular planes at any airshow.

A majestic pass by the B-29 Superfortress high over the General Carl A. Spaatz Field.

The Douglas SBD Dauntless was primarily used as a naval dive bomber – at trajectory angles of as much as 80 degrees.

The B-25 entered service in 1941, a crucial medium bomber that served in every theater of World War II.

A major current project of the event host Mid-Atlantic Air Museum is the restoration of this extremely rare Black Widow, the first American fighter designed specifically for night operations.

This Navy SBD (nickname: Slow, But Deadly) and the B-25 bomber Panchito await takeoff clearance as the B-29 FIFI comes in for its landing. FIFI is one of only two massive B-29s still flying.

Beyond the historic aircraft on hand in Reading, this is just one tiny glimpse of the total immersion in the 1940s global conflict so accurately reflected at the World War II Weekend. From Jeeps to combat vehicles to military construction equipment – it’s all here, and much, much more.

Friday, June 2, 2023

A Great Idea

Somebody had a great idea.

Pocono Raceway – home to legendary motorsports events for more than five decades – boasts an immaculate grandstand and support facilities that run the length of the track’s 3740-foot front straightaway. The triangular speedway has no grandstand structures in the first and third turns – so a visionary realized that the front straightaway essentially mimics a flightline. And wouldn’t this be a fantastic venue for an airshow?

It is.

First held in 2019, The Great Pocono Raceway Airshow drew tens of thousands of people to the track this Memorial Day weekend. They were greeted by near-perfect weather and an array of aviators headlined by the USAF F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.

The packed schedule also included one of the most fascinating aircraft flying, a de Havilland Vampire flown by Jerry Conley. With development test flights taking place 80 years ago - in 1943 – the Vampire became the first Royal Air Force plane powered by a single jet engine.

Talented aerial acrobats were on hand as well. The skills and airplanes of Rick Volker and Rob Holland resulted in dizzying displays boasting seemingly impossible performances.

And the U.S. Coast Guard ably demonstrated the rescue capabilities of its agile Eurocopter MH-65 Dolphin.

The show proceeded as planned almost like clockwork, a characteristic common to airshows produced by David Schultz Airshows. The organization is on the verge of celebrating three decades in this unique business and their efforts make events like The Great Pocono Raceway Airshow a success for performers and attendees alike.


Click on photos for larger images. All photos: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Pocono’s show kicked off with a heritage flight pairing a historic P-51 Mustang flown by Jim Beasley Jr. with the fully modern F-22 Raptor flown by Captain Samuel Larson.

The F-22 Raptor Demo Team presents stunning examples of this aircraft’s capabilities. The dual Pratt & Whitney jet engines are capable of making immense power, and the incredibly nimble flight control surfaces allow this jet to maneuver through the skies in ways that seem impossible.  


Rick Volker’s Sukhoi SU-26M is a remarkable plane that has a titanium and composite airframe that can withstand the forces of the pilot’s exciting show programs.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Eurocopter MH-65 Dolphin is a helicopter that first went into service in 1985, now providing critical search and rescue capabilities.


Jerry Conley’s Vampire show makes it clear that even though this de Havilland has been in existence for eight decades, its speed is nearly shocking – especially during tree-top level (and below!) show passes.

Rob Holland began flying as a teenager, soon moving into the realm of aerobatics. His shows at the controls of his carbon-fiber MXS-RH are innovative and designed to, as Holland has said, “push the limits of what can be done.”

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels have become legendary. The team now flies Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, providing the pilots with the precision needed to amaze audiences with their intricate, fast-paced shows.