Monday, June 4, 2018

Ensuring Your Aircraft's Loadout is Accurate Should Be a Thing

The key to building the most accurate model requires that you find the best references. A lot of modelers spend a great deal of time compiling images that give them the money shots of various aircraft nether regions in order to produce the most realistic version of the subject they can. The problem is that the data mining and reference gathering usually stops at ordnance. How typical. Modelers often get picky and choosy with what accuracy issues they are willing to accept. Forums will burn to the ground over a debate about weathering but when some one glues the entire contents of the Hasegawa Aircraft Weapons: B set on a Warthog no one bats an eye.


Why?

Guys tend to rely on the kit's instructions which may contain a chart that outlines the proper placement of the munitions included in the box. It is not their fault, after all, the manufacturer has done all the research for them, right? If only it were that simple. Granted, ordnance is not that important to everyone and making an aircraft look cool may be far more important to some one than making it the most accurate. However, if you're focused on accuracy then let me give you a little tip - take the loadout portion of the instructions, crumple them up and throw them in the trash. You can do better.

One thing modelers need to understand is that there are limitations to where stores can be placed on an aircraft. Just because an aircraft can support a certain piece of ordnance or a particular configuration, it doesn't mean it did. The best that those graphs can do is tell you what station on an aircraft can support what bomb or missile. Where they fall short is knowing what station can support what bomb in combination with other bombs or other scenarios.


The instructional chart above though correctly identifying much of the A-10's stores capabilities gets a few things wrong. For instance, while completely capable of carrying a GBU-8 HOBOS bomb, the A-10 never operationally supported it. Notice also that it depicts three AGM-65 Mavericks on the LAU-88's on stations three and nine. Though there are pictures of the A-10 flying with three Mavericks on one launcher they are from test squadrons or inert TGM-65's with no rocket motors. The Warthog never employed three Mavericks on one LAU-88 as an operational configuration even though it was certainly able to do so.

An A-10 from a test squadron evaluating the GBU-8 on the left wing and GBU-10 on the right. This is the only photo I have ever seen of the A-10 with a HOBOS.
Don't be fooled by this photo. The aircraft is carrying three AGM-65s on each LAU-88 but this is the YA-10 still in testing. I have never seen nor heard of an operational A-10 carrying 3 Mavericks on one launcher.

Not even in Desert Storm where the Warthog went tank plinking to its heart's delight. Here is one with just two Mavericks on the launcher during the Gulf War.

So what gives? It is impossible to know where kit manufacturers get their information from though it would be easy to speculate that their attention to detail in the ordnance world is only as good as the typical plastic modeler. It seems to be a mixture of best guesses mixed with photographic evidence. However, as the image above is proof, sometimes that photographic evidence is misleading. This is why you shouldn't let the model kit makers dictate the accuracy of your aircraft's loadout.

An eye catching A-10 load fit only for an air show static display than a plausible combat configuration.

The determination for whether an aircraft can use a certain weapon in a specific configuration is made not simply by how much weight a station can support. Instead, it is decided after rigorous testing. The USAF certifies the safe and reliable carriage and release of stores via the Seek Eagle program. The Navy conducts similar weapons testing programs at locations like Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake. It is through the research, test and evaluation that ordnance is approved for flight individually or incorporated with other munitions. Keep in mind, a weapon cannot fly in combination with another piece of ordnance unless that specific configuration was tested and approved.

The reason for this is safety. No one knows how the weapon will react once it separates from the pylon until it has been tested as these videos prove.



So, how are modelers suppose to ensure they load their aircraft correctly?

The world of ordnance is complex as a whole and even I have questions about configurations at times. Finding answers isn't always easy either. Much of the real life restrictions to munitions loading are not available on the public domain but tucked away in "Official Use Only" manuals that the lay modeler does not have access to. For older aircraft, there are unclass resources online if you know where to look or what you're looking for.
I was able to locate loading information out of the -1 manuals for the F-4C and the F-5E after a single Google search.


 However, these sources partially share the same problem as the charts provided in kit instructions. They specify what munition can be carried on what station but they do not tell us what munitions can be carried, or more importantly, what munitions are restricted from being carried in combination with other munitions. Never the less, it is a start and can be used to validate your planned load if it is basic enough.

If you can't find exactly what you're looking for keep in mind that the modeling community is large, vocal, and generally willing to help. It is full of guys who have spent years in the military on different air frames and they are a resource at your finger tips. The other day I asked a question regarding the stores limitations for the AV-8B in hopes of receiving some anecdotal reply. Instead, I was gifted with this:


In terms of verifying load accuracy, this is the holy grail. It shows (in part, because it is only sheet 20 of 66) how Mk82s, BLU-111s and BSU-86s must be configured on ITERs depending on what other munitions are loaded. This answered my question which I will get into later on.
Of course, there are pages (like this one) and websites dedicated to load configuration accuracy. For instance, if you are building a Strike Eagle, I recommend visiting F-15E.info for all your Mudhen needs. There are others like dstorm.eu which has built an incredible record of Desert Storm loadout references. There are many others but you probably thought ordnance wasn't that important...

I try to uncover as many ordnance myths, misconceptions and errors as possible. In the past I have written about the USAF's tendency to avoid using AIM-9 Sidewinders in combination with fully loaded TERs. You may have also read the post on the F-5E's use of precision guided munitions. But as soon as I nail one down, another pops up in its place. I'll share some other common mistakes that I see frequently.

AV-8B fully loaded ITERs paired with AIM-9s


While browsing the internet for Harrier references one day I came upon a few photos of different models of AV-8Bs built with the configuration above - a fully loaded ITER next to an AIM-9 on the outboard launcher.
I am no Harrier expert, but as I was examining it, something didn't seem right. The Sidewinder appeared to be way to close to the outboard Mk82 on the ITER's shoulder station. In military aviation when it comes to weapons release, you want a good amount of clearance between stations. Just by looking at the model I questioned whether this was a legitimate load in real life.
After posing the question to the community I received the answer in the form of that stores limitations sheet from the AV-8B manual that I posted above. If you examine line number 18 and 23 from that page you will see that if any ordnance (represented by the boxed 1) is on the outboard stations, 1 or 7, then the outboard shoulder station of each ITER must be empty.

While I have yet to find a picture of a ITER in combination with a munition on either station 1 or 7, here is an example of how the ITER should be loaded if you wanted to put a Sidewinder on the outboard launcher.

The ITER is slant loaded with the outboard shoulder station left empty. This would accommodate a store on station 7 if necessary.

F-14's loaded with a pair of GBU-24's side-by-side


Another common mistake, fueled by the manufacturer's insistence, is loading two GBU-24's side-by-side under the fuselage of a Tomcat. Again the issue here is clearance. The fins of the bomb are huge and would run the risk of clipping the adjacent bomb if they were ever released in this position. So, loading two GBU-24's would only be possible if they are loaded diagonally, one on the forward pallet, the second on the aft pallet. The only caveat being that I have never seen an actual photo of this configuration other than from test flights.

Testing the release of a GBU-24 from the aft pallet on an F-14. Note the second GBU-24 up front.
The GBU-24 is not a commonly used weapon. Of all the photos that I've discovered showing them loaded on Tomcats, they have been single bombs on the front pallet.


Intruders and Scooters with fully loaded TER/MERs on inboard stations

Both the A-6 and the A-4 had some prominent main landing gear doors that, when opened, rested perilously close to the inboard hardpoints. Because of this, the red shirts were generally unable to properly load a munition on the inboard TER/MER station.

An A-6 showing the inboard MER shoulder station closest to the landing gear door empty.

Similarly, the inboard stations on this A-4's TERs are also empty to accommodate the bulge in the main gear doors.
That isn't to say things don't get a little weird. Like I said, the ordnance world is deep and complex and while the rules are usually inflexible, sometimes they are bent. In Jim Winchester's book "Douglas A-4 Skyhawk: Attack and Close-Support Fighter Bomber" he describes this scenario:

In Vietnam the Marines sometimes found a way around this by physically holding the doors closed until the MERs were loaded and then letting the door rest on the bombs. Not a 'legal' or advisable solution, but sometimes a necessary one when the situation called for maximum air support. The Navy would sometimes do a similar thing with the triple ejector rack (TER) by loading a 250lb Mk81 bomb on the inboard position with the door resting on it and 500lb Mk 82s on the other spots. At least seven A-4s were lost in Vietnam because of premature detonation of their own bombs, and another four were fatally damaged by ingesting their own rocket debris.

Here red shirts have done exactly that. Notice the Mk81 on the inboard shoulder station while two Mk82s round out the load.
 Winchester's last sentence is the driving factor for why weapons configurations must be tested and why when it comes to accuracy in modeling, ordnance is not an area that should be ignored. Just because it fits in scale doesn't mean it fits in the real world.

Debrief

The most important thing to take away is that the manufacturers instructions regarding ordnance are more like guidelines than hard rules and you're better off completely disregarding them. Use the community for further help if you're unsure.
The world of aviation ordnance is murky, hidden under rules and restrictions that are not available to most modelers. If you are looking for one hundred percent accuracy then the most obvious answer is finding a photo to authenticate your proposed configuration. Once you begin to realize that ordnance is as much an aspect of modeling that demands accuracy as the shape, scale, color, or version of the aircraft you're working on, finding interesting configurations and avoiding common mistakes becomes easier. 
 

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