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Sat Apr 12, 2014, 05:27 PM

Questions regarding military aircraft/aircraft manuevers

I live quite near Joint Base Lewis McChord and I am somewhat familiar with what they have flying around us typically. A couple of nights ago I watched something not so typical for over an hour that I am curious about. I looked a bit online and came up with no answers so maybe one of you may know what was going on.

I live in a very rural part of Pierce county Washington, mostly cattle pastures, forests and swamps. April 10th around 10pm I was on the back deck when I noticed four bright red flashing lights very low on my horizon moving from south to north. These red lights were most likely attached to 2 military aircraft. I am used to seeing military aircraft doing their thing all around my home at any given time but this was different.

The first big difference being that instead of the normal night time running lights I always see on all aircraft, (military and civilian) each of these aircraft had only the 2 and they were flashing bright red-no other color, just red. My guess is that the lights were arranged on the lower nose and upper tail areas of each aircraft, not on the wings which seemed pretty odd too.

The second difference was that these two aircraft remained extremely low. If I were to guess, these guys stayed well under 500 feet and more likely only a 100 foot in altitude throughout their maneuver which from my point of view looked to be barely above our treetops. They stayed that low throughout the hour or so that I observed them. I did break out the binoculars to see if I could tell what they were but I saw nothing to add to what I could see with just my eyes. The actual body or silhouette of these aircraft was indiscernible to me because it was a dark night with only the two flashing red 'running lights' being all that I could see.

They flew a somewhat oval course which I estimate to be 10-15 miles in length and 3-4 miles wide repeating that route about every 10 minutes. (No I could not see the entire course because of how low they were but I could see enough to get that estimate). Only when they were close, likely less than a half mile, could I hear them. They sounded sorta like our large cargo/transport jets that are based here but I should have been able to hear them approaching long before I did. I watched them do this for about an hour before going back inside to bed.

Today at a local restaurant I overheard and joined into a conversation with a couple who had also witnessed this. They claimed that the aircraft repeatedly flew low directly over their home. When we compared what we saw they pretty much agreed with everything I reported here but added that the aircraft was silent except when it was overhead, then they could hear and actually feel it rumble by. They are husband and wife, he said that the noise was unusual enough for him to get out of bed to go have a look, she said the rumble was louder than her TV. He claimed they looked like our Stealth Bombers, definitely a flying wing shape, and they flew far lower than anything normally flying over his home.

The Stealth Bomber does not have a rear stabilizer nor a tail section yet the rear red light I saw on both aircraft had to have been mounted atop something about that high. You can visualize the red lights placed about under the nose and atop the rear stabilizer of a C-17 Globemaster, (which ARE based here), to get an idea of how these lights were spaced. Furthermore the Stealth Bomber is not based here so we rarely see them at all.

If I had to hazard a guess I would discount what I heard at the restaurant and say that these were 2 C-17s doing some sort of maneuvers in my area. I can also rationalize that my eyes deceived me somewhat in that they must have been further away than what I estimated. This would explain why they appeared low and why I could not hear them until they drew closer and they DID sound like C-17s at a distance. (Truly my eyes tell me these 2 guys repeatedly came far closer than what my hazarded guess here is).

Soooo... why the 2 red lights per aircraft and why didn't they have any other lights turned on? Was this some kind of new military aircraft or were these two just the aircraft that are normally flying around here but doing some kind of maneuver that we don't regularly see. I guess my real question is: What was THAT all about?




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Reply Questions regarding military aircraft/aircraft manuevers (Original post)
chknltl Apr 2014 OP
Electric Monk Apr 2014 #1
chknltl Apr 2014 #2
pa28 Apr 2014 #3
Brother Buzz Apr 2014 #5
chknltl Apr 2014 #6
bluedigger Apr 2014 #4
chknltl Apr 2014 #7
Major Nikon Apr 2014 #8
chknltl Apr 2014 #10
Major Nikon Apr 2014 #12
jberryhill Apr 2014 #9
chknltl Apr 2014 #11

Response to chknltl (Original post)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 05:36 PM

1. everybody panic. Thank you so much chknltl. yup.

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Response to Electric Monk (Reply #1)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 05:45 PM

2. I knew that name would get me in trouble someday.

Actually I am hoping one of our DUers might know what our military was up to that night and/or why they were running just red flashing lights.

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Response to chknltl (Original post)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 06:36 PM

3. Maybe they were operating the mystery aircraft seen over Texas recently.

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Response to pa28 (Reply #3)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 07:08 PM

5. I didn't know they were mystery planes

I just assumed they were B-2 bombers, but a pair that looked a LOT like that photo (no stepped angular tails), flew in formation over the Sacramento Valley just a month ago. I only noticed them because of their contrail. I also observed they were flying kinda slow but it's hard to judge not knowing their actual altitude and size.

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Response to pa28 (Reply #3)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 07:09 PM

6. Hmm perhaps but...

That could be consistent with what the couple from the restaurant reported but I am inclined to think otherwise. If that one over Texas has a vertical tail stabilizer where the red blinking light is/can be mounted then that could also match up with what I saw but the military was NOT being very discrete if that is what they were flying that night. I suspect hundreds if not thousands of folks saw what I saw during the hour I was watching those two aircraft. Outside of the fact that it was dark out, I don't think they were trying to hide anything.

No, I am more inclined to think that this was some sort of military practice maneuver going on, maybe a practice Search and Rescue Op which MIGHT explain the red only flashing lights. I have noticed that helicopters arriving at hospitals often have a red flashing light too. My guess is that signifies that they are transporting someone needy of an ER room. That said, I have yet to see the military do something like this, (flashing red light-x2 in this case) while circling an area at low altitude. Another possibility is that they were looking for someone/something on the ground in that area which begs the question: Why only 2 aircraft?

My goal with my post is having a fellow DUer with military flying experience clear things up for me. I am surprised that one has not chimed in yet.

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Response to chknltl (Original post)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 06:51 PM

4. Training exercise of some sort, probably.

I spent a lot of time circling around to simulate going somewhere in the Army. Airtime is airtime for the pilots, whether they go from A to B, or A to A; and sometimes you need to let time lapse in order to allow ground elements time to perform their training.

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Response to bluedigger (Reply #4)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 07:19 PM

7. AHA, you may be the best one to help out here.

I was hoping for someone with military aircraft experience to chime in. I absolutely suspect you are right about this being some sort of training exercise. My further inquiry is two-fold. Why were they flying so low? (Assuming that my eyes were not deceiving me, those two were extremely low, easily below 500ft AND the couple I spoke with at the restaurant made strong note of that). Secondly why were they running only 2 (red) lights instead of their normal running lights.

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Response to chknltl (Original post)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 07:49 PM

8. Sounds like you have a couple of different questions

The first is in reference to aircraft lighting. The FAA requires only one functional anti-collision light to be operational at all times in flight. This generally takes the form of a flashing red light and can be located on various locations on the aircraft. Some (like mine) have theirs on the top of the vertical stabilizer, but some have this light placed on the top or bottom of the aircraft. For operation at night, you must also operate required navigation lights which generally consist of a red and green light on the wingtips (similar to boats) and a steady white light in the rear. The military may have their own requirements or exclusions from the FAA requirements, but generally they follow the same rules unless there's a good reason to do otherwise.

As far as what the aircraft were doing, from your description it sounds like they were flying a military training route which are predefined (and periodically surveyed for obstacles). You can actually find out what these routes are by looking at the aeronautical charts. Go to the following web site and plug in the 3 letter identifier of your closest airport on the top left of the screen. Military training routes are designated by a black line with either a "VR" or "IR" prefix and a 3 or 4 digit number. Those with 3 digits are flown at higher altitudes. Those with 4 digits are flown at low altitudes (generally only a few hundred feet above the ground). The military typically flies the low altitude routes on autopilot with the assistance of terrain following radar.

http://skyvector.com/

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Response to Major Nikon (Reply #8)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 09:29 PM

10. This is exactly what I was looking for, thank you

Regarding the night time running lights, what you describe as being FAA required is what I believe I always see on all aircraft around here. To me what I saw was strange in that I could not see any lights other than the two very bright flashing red ones. It is possible that the two aircraft were too far away from me for me to see any other lights, I accept that I am no trained observer here but it truly seemed to me that they were within a half mile at their closest point and at that range I should have seen the rest of their running lights. I was wondering why the military would have a reason to only run two bright red blinkers when this is not how I have ever seen them around here at night.

Regarding air routes that are seeable from my home: Had these two aircraft been on any of the three I see aircraft generally flying on around here I would likely not have noticed them at all. It sounds reasonable to me that their route was something special and as you put it predefined by the military. Truth be told it would not surprise me to learn that they were doing touch and goes at McCord, I was loosing sight of them heading that way after passing my home.

That said, I suspect had you been with me that night on my back deck when those four red lights popped into view you might have found them dang peculiar too. There is no denying that they were military, what I found strange was how low they flew and how they were lit. I thought it odd and so did the couple I overheard talking about it at the restaurant this morning.

I checked out the maplink you provided. Very cool! I've seen nothing like it before, (not a pilot, nor are any of my friends). Two questions regarding it: What would be that three digit code for JBLM, (or is that it?) and secondly I noticed the warnings both around the Mariners game and a much larger one up north which lasts for 9 days. What would that northern one be for?

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Response to chknltl (Reply #10)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 11:08 PM

12. TCM is the identifier for McChord

AKA KTCM which is the international identifier (airports in the US are prefaced by a K).

When an aircraft is configured for landing, it will normally have the landing lights on, especially at night. That's why my guess is they were flying a low level training route.

The red shaded circles are Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) which means aircraft are restricted from flying in those areas except under the conditions specified by the restriction. The one you described sounds like it's related to a mudslide:

http://tfr.faa.gov/save_pages/detail_4_4936.html

The FAA issues these restrictions quite often for various things. Usually it's to keep the sightseers at a safe distance so relief aircraft can operate safely.

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Response to chknltl (Original post)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 08:03 PM

9. On the sound

While you may normally hear c-17s far away at normal altitude, whether and when you hear them at low altitude is strongly influenced by the terrain and foliage.

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Response to jberryhill (Reply #9)

Sat Apr 12, 2014, 09:43 PM

11. This fits too, thanks

Because they were so low I could first see them perhaps a mile off through the trees nearby and as they came clear of the trees is when I could hear them. C17s flying around here are generally much higher and it is true that one can hear them at that altitude quite a ways off. They DID indeed sound like C-17s too btw and even though I could not see anything other than the two red blinking lights those lights were positioned consistent with the front undercarriage and the top of the rear stabilizer of a C17 so that is the likely suspect aircraft I saw.

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