Over the last 13 years ATAC has performed a wide range of flight training operations for the US Navy, US Air Force and Air National Guard, including participation in US Navy fleet training, acting as adversary fighters for the “TOPGUN” program, Red Flag exercises and F-22 Raptor training; participating in JTAC/ FAC-A/ CAS ground controller training; and even serving American research & development programs like the Ship Self Defense System and ALE-50 towed decoy. Under their agreement with US Navy, their services have also been used to train militaries in the UK, Canada, Japan, the Philippines, et. al., and the company is placing a renewed focus on exports.
Unlike many other contractors, who operate Learjets and similar business aircraft, ATAC operates fighters and attack jets…
Fleet and Stores
ATAC’s local offices and hangar facilities stand in the shadow of the Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport. The firm no longer operates Saab’s visionary J-35 Draken, or the A-4 Skyhawks that starred in “Top Gun”; even so, staged buys and/or leases have let them accumulate a very versatile fleet of supersonic Israeli Kfir C2s, along with sub-sonic Hawker Hunter 80s and Aero Vodochody L-39s.
ATAC’s jets are certified to carry a wide range of stores. TACTS/ACMI (P4/5) pods or LATR GPS tracking pods, provide air combat tracking. For electronic warfare training, AST-6 and AST-9 threat simulators can be combined with multiple AN/ALQ-167 and/or AN/ALQ-188 Jamming pods, and IAI Elta’s EL-L 8212/8222 Self-Protection Jammer pods. Kfir C2s have added CATM-9M Sidewinder missiles, whose seekers give them confirmable weapon locks that can include head-on shots appropriate to modern aircraft.
ATAC’s fleet includes:
Kfir C2. Israel Aircraft Industry’s Kfir fighters were originally developed by adding GE J79 turbojets from the F-4 Phantom to modified Mirage V airframes, whose blueprints Israel stole after the French refused to deliver Israel’s order. The Kfirs were introduced at a time when F-16s and F-15s had begun to dominate IAF’s air superiority missions, and only recorded 1 kill during a long service career, which saw them used extensively in ground attack roles. The Kfir remains a fast and nimble aircraft, however, and early-model Kfir C1s once served as “aggressor” aircraft for the US Navy under the designation “F-21”.
ATAC’s Kfir C2s are distinguishable from the F-21s by their dogtoothed outer wing panels, small undernose strakes, and larger canard foreplanes. These improve the aircraft’s maneuverability, and shortens required takeoff distances. Kfirs still serve as front-line fighters in Colombia, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka.
An ATAC Kfir crash in March 2012 killed Capt. Caroll LeFon, whose “Neptunus Lex” blog was so well-known in defense circles that the Pentagon issued public personal condolences.
Hawker Hunter. It wasn’t the most famous aircraft of its era. Its contemporaries the F-86 Sabre and MiG-15/17 hold those titles. Nor was it the most produced, despite a production run of about 2,000 planes. A strong case could be made, however, that the sub-sonic Hunter is the best aircraft of that era. Hunters are rugged and maneuverable, with excellent handling at all flight speeds and surprising effectiveness in the ground attack role. Designed in the late 1940s, these aircraft remained in front-line service into the 1990s.
ATAC Hunters experienced fatal crashes in May 2012 and November 2014.
L-39 Albatros. ATAC’s 3rd aircraft type is an East Bloc stalwart from the Czech Republic: Aero Vodochody sub-sonic L-39. The L-29 and L-39 were the world’s most widely sold trainers during the Cold War. Production has stopped, but Aero remains a going concern, and continues to support the global fleet. In 2014, they even developed a modernization package.
The L-39 replaced ATAC’s A-4N Skyhawks. The A-4s had a long career as a carrier-based “Scooter” attack aircraft with the US Navy, and Sen. John McCain was flying one when he was shot down over North Vietnam. The Skyhawk also has a storied land-based career with the Israeli Air Force, who used this simple, pilot-friendly, compact little aircraft from late 1967 onward as a versatile attack jet with surprising air-to-air teeth. Some of those planes still serve in Israel as trainers, and other A-4s continue in front-line roles around the world, most notably as carrier aircraft on Brazil’s NAe Sao Paolo. Skyhawks are also familiar to movie-goers, who saw A-4s as one of the real-life training and “aggressor” aircraft in the famous film “Top Gun.” ATAC’s humpbacked A-4Ns were ex-Israeli aircraft, who continued to play this familiar role for the US Navy.
Key competitors include Top Aces (A-4N, Alpha Jet, IAI Westwind 1124 business jets), Draken International (MiG-21bis/UM, L-159E, L-39, A-4K, MB-339CB), L-3 Flight International (Learjets with ECM), Phoenix Air (Learjets with ECM), and Tactical Air Support, Inc. (CF-5B/D, EMB 314, SF-260TP; Su-27 certified).
Contracts and Key Events
Unless the entry says otherwise, contracts are managed by the USA’s Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD, and issued to small business qualifier Airborne Tactical Advantage Co. LLC (ATAC) in Newport News, VA.
Note that Pentagon’s public reporting minimum is $5 million; contracted support for smaller scale tasks, like a particular exercise, is likely to fall below that minimum.
FY 2014 – 2018
Contracts; Export push; Korea deployment; FAA maintenance recognition; Another fatal Hunter crash.
May 14/18: ATAC again The Naval Air Warfare Center is awarding a contract to Airborne Tactical Advantage Co. (ATAC). The modification is valued at $54,5 million and provides for support activities to the Navy’s Contracted Air Services (CAS) program. The CAS Program provides contractor owned and operated Type III high subsonic and Type IV supersonic aircraft to Navy Fleet customers for a wide variety of airborne threat simulation capabilities. The Type III high subsonic and Type IV supersonic aircraft are designed to simulate incoming threats for testing and training defensive capabilities. ATAC jets are certified to carry a wide range of stores. TACTS/ACMI (P4/5) pods or LATR GPS tracking pods, provide air combat tracking. For electronic warfare training, AST-6 and AST-9 threat simulators can be combined with multiple AN/ALQ-167 and AN/ALG-188 pods. Key competitors include Top Aces, Draken International, L-3 Flight International Phoenix Air and Tactical Air Support, Inc. Work will be performed in various locations inside and outside the continental US, including Newport News, Virginia and Point Mugu, California. It is expected to be completed on May 2019.
Oct 29/14: Crash. An ATAC Hunter crashes on approach to Point Mugu, CA after an offshore exercise, leaving a debris trail in a field just off Highway 1 and Hueneme Road. Sadly, that trail includes the deceased pilot Charles Rogers, still strapped in his seat:
“They saw a parachute in the debris field. It is unknown whether he tried to eject or whether that was just part of the field,” Ventura Co. Fire Capt. Mike Lindberry said.”
Investigations are underway, and there’s no public information regarding the potential cause. ATAC’s last Hunter crash took place on May 18/12, killing Capt. Thomas “TC” Bennett at the same location and under the same circumstances. That’s 3 fatal crashes for ATAC since February 2012: 2 Hunters, and 1 Kfir C2. Their pilots are all extremely experienced, FAA awards (q.v. March 14/14) suggest solid safety training, crashes are financially painful, and chance can travel in packs… but that is a high number. Sources: NBC4 LA, “Pilot Killed in Military Plane Crash in Point Mugu Area” | LA Now, “Pilot dead after fighter plane crashes near Port Hueneme in Ventura County” | AP, “U.S. Jet on Navy Training Mission Crashes, Kills Pilot” | Utah Standard-Examiner, “Pilot killed in Calif. jet crash was Utah resident”.
Fatal crash: Hunter
Oct 4/14: Exports. ATAC is working with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s (VEDP) Going Global Defense Initiative, in an attempt to secure foreign clients. VEDP was created by the Virginia legislature in 1995, with offices in several foreign countries.
Their help has involved steering ATAC law firms that specialize in American export control laws, and unspecified “advice and support on international trips.” As budgets shrink everywhere, the need to conserve fleet flight-hours does make outsourcing some adversary training to a firm like ATAC, Draken (MiG-21bis/UM, L-159E, L-39, A-4K, MB-339CB), or TacAir (CF-5B, EMB 314, SF-260TP) more appealing. Sources: Virginia Daily-Press, “Locally, defense firms are thinking global”.
Aug 1/14: FY 2014. A $12.8 million firm-fixed-price, cost reimbursement, indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for contractor owned and operated type III high subsonic and Type IV supersonic jets in support of the Navy’s Commercial Air Services (CAS) program. $7.9 million in US Navy FY 2014 O&M budgets is committed immediately.
Work will be performed in Newport News, VA (45%); Point Mugu, CA (35%); and various locations outside the continental United States (20%), and is expected to be complete in November 2014. This contract was not competitively procured pursuant to FAR 6.302-1 (N00019-14-D-0010).
March 14/14: FAA recognition. ATAC receives the US Federal Aviation Administration’s William Bill O’Brian Diamond Award for maintenance excellence.
“Mr. Duane Hunter the Manager of the Richmond Virginia Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) along with Mr. Michael McAllister presented the prestigious award to ATAC’s Director of Maintenance, Mr. Rich Musselman and his team of maintenance professionals. The FAA Safety Award is given to organizations and their Airframe and Power Plant (A&P) mechanics who achieve individual Bronze or Silver Awards in Core Course Safety programs administered by the FAA.”
Sources: ATAC, “ATAC Receives William Bill O’Brian Award”.
Dec 11/13: Korea. ATAC announces their first-ever 2-week detachment to Kunsan AB, Republic of Korea, as part of the Joint ROKAF/7AF Exercise MAX THUNDER 13-2. They worked with the USAF’s 8th Fighter Wing, deploying 2 two Hawker Mk-58 Hunters from ATAC’s facilities at NAS Atsugi, Japan. The Hunters flew missions from Defensive Counter Air (DCA) to low-level strike, “and everything in between,” freeing up 43 sorties and roughly 70 flight hours for the 8FW, 51FW, and MAG-12 to use for other training requirements. As US PACAF put it:
“The ATAC Hawker Hunters were pitted against the combined force that employed 8th Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcons, 51st Fighter Wing A-10 Thunderbolts II and F-16s, Marine Air Group 12 F-18 Hornets, AV-8B Harriers II, 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, 18th Wing E-3B Sentries, numerous ROKAF aircraft and accompanying support personnel during the two-week exercise.”
The firm’s announcement page indicates steady work through 2013 at various exercises, but this one stood out in particular. Sources: US PACAF, “Hawker Hunters ‘ATAC’ Airmen” | ATAC, “ATAC Fighter Training With ROKAF/7AF In “Max Thunder 13-2”.
FY 2012 – 2013
Contracts; 2 fatal Kfir crashes; CATM-9M certification; $500 million saved?
May 13/13: Equipment. ATAC announces that they have completed the final US DoD certification, which allows them to use CATM-9M Sidewinder missiles. ATAC says this is a first for the outsourced training industry, and show a picture of a Kfir C2 with the CATM mounted. What changes? A more realistic IR threat simulation, with much better validation that tells them if their American military opponent has successfully defeated infrared missile lock. AviationIntel explains in more depth:
“In the past, ATAC pilots would only be able to attempt a 180 [degree] turn after the merge when training against fleet aircraft. Only if they found themselves in the very heart of an infra-red missile shot envelope could they “call” a shot/kill. Such limitations, along with the fact that they are flying aircraft designed in the 1950s, left the already highly disadvantaged Kfir pilot in a fairly futile battle, especially against aircraft sporting fly by wire controls, high thrust to weight ratios, and even worse, helmet mounted cueing systems and high-off bore-sight capable AIM-9Xs. Basically, ATAC Kfirs, although packing a lot of electronic warfare capability around at very high speed, was relegated to mimicking a 1960’s level of within visual range air to air engagement technology. Now that they are cleared to carry a captive training AIM-9M they can represent a much more prevalent and capable threat, one that is capable of all aspect IR missile engagements, including “face shots,” which occur before or at the merge.”
That turned out to be a nasty surprise when the Indian Air Force used MiG-21s and AA-11 training missiles to do the same thing at COPE India 2004 & 2005. The Kfir is a good surrogate for that kind of low cross-section enemy fighter, and now it has the capabilities to execute that role more fully. Note that the AIM-9M is still a bit short of the wide seeker cones and datalinked maneuverability in most modern 5th generation SRAAMs like the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, IRIS-T, and R73/ AA-11. Sources: ATAC, “ATAC Begins Flying With AIM-9 Captive Air Training Missile (CATM) In Support Of Topgun Training” | AviationIntel.com via ATAC, “ATAC Brings The Heat: Premier Private Aggressors Now Flying With The AIM-9 Sidewinder”.
May 13/13: Milestones. ATAC announces that their fleet has surpassed 30,000 flight hours supporting tactical training of USAF, Marine Corps, and Navy pilots and shipborne personnel. The milestone flight was accomplished by Mr. Matthew “Yort” Pearse in ATAC’s Mk-58 Hawker Hunter, as part of a two hour long, two-ship mission supporting a SFWSP (Strike Fighter Weapons School, Pacific) tactics event against 2 Navy F/A-18Es.
ATAC estimates that using contracted planes like the Hunter instead of its own F/A-18s saves the US Navy over FY12$ 16,000 per flight hour. Almost 19,000 sorties over the course of nearly 2 decades work out to around $500 million and over 130 “Hornet Years” of airframe aging, presuming that an F-18 would fly its designated 230 hours/ year in USN fleet service. Sources: ATAC, “ATAC Saves The USN Its 500-Millionth Dollar and “ATAC Reaches 30,000 Flight Hours of DoD Support”.
Flight & Cost milestones
Oct 22/12: FY 2013. A $49.9 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract modification, exercising an option for contractor owned and operated type III high subsonic and Type IV supersonic jets in support of the Navy’s Commercial Air Services (CAS) program.
Funds will be obligated on individual delivery orders as they are issued. Work will be performed in Newport News, VA and Jacksonville, FL (45%); Pt. Mugu, CA (35%); and outside the United States (20%), and will run until October 2013 (N00019-09-D-0021).
May 18/12: Capt. Thomas “TC” Bennett (Ret.) dies as his Hawker Hunter crashes near Naval Base Ventura County, CA, while attempting to land after a fighter training mission. In the US Navy, Bennett had over 1,350 successful carrier landings, and a wide array of medals.
CEO Jeff Parker describes ATAC as being in “utter and complete shock” at the crashes, and pledges an investigation. The firm’s jets had just finished flying over 200 hours in support of the Eisenhower Aircraft Carrier Battlegroup, over 150 hours in support of two major exercises in Guam and the PI, and was conducting training for the USMC at Yuma, AZ and Navy fighter squadrons off the coast of CA. ATAC.
Fatal crash: Hunter
Feb 12/12: Crash. Bill Sweetman has some sad news:
“Capt Caroll “Lex” LeFon — known as Neptunus Lex to the military blogging community — died in a crash at Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada, on Tuesday. Retired from the Navy after a career in fighters, including a stint as a Top Gun instructor, he was flying an IAI Kfir for ATAC…”
The cause of the crash is under investigation. In Lex’s own recent words:
“It’s funny how quickly you can go from “comfort zone” to “wrestling snakes” in this business. But even snake wrestling beats life in the cube, for me at least. In measured doses.”
He lived doing what he loved, and he would have loved the comments in response to US SecNav Mabus’ tribute just as much. Lord, guard and guide the men who fly… Neptunus Lex Blog | AP | Australian Aviation | Gannett’s Navy Times.
Fatal crash: Kfir
Oct 11/11: FY 2012. A $47.1 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract, exercising an option for contractor owned and operated type III high subsonic and Type IV supersonic jets in support of the Navy’s Commercial Air Services (CAS) program.
Work will be performed in Newport News, VA (45%), Pt. Mugu, CA (35%), and various locations outside the continental United States (20%). Work is expected to be complete in October 2011 (N00019-09-D-0021).
FY 2010 – 2011
Sept 29/11: ATAC announces that United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) has selected ATAC for the heavily competed Joint Terminal Attack Controller contract in Germany. JTACs travel with the infantry to guide close-support strikes from jets and artillery. The flying contract is in support of USAFE’s Warrior Preparation Center (WPC), and Air Ground Operations School (AGOS), and most flying over the course of the 4-year contract will be conducted in Germany.
ATAC currently trains JTACs for the USAF in Hawaii, Joint Special Operations Units at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, for the USMC at multiple locations within the United States, and for the USN at Naval Air Station Fallon, NV. ATAC says it “anticipates offering Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR) in the future to complement training.”
Oct 29/10: FY 2011. A $45.2 million contract modification to a previously awarded indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract (N00019-09-D-0021), exercising an option for contractor owned and operated type III high subsonic and Type IV supersonic jets in support of the Navy’s Commercial Air Services (CAS) program.
Work will be performed in Newport News, VA (45%), Pt. Mugu, CA (35%), and various locations outside the continental United States (20%). Work is expected to be complete in October 2011.
Oct 30/09: FY 2010. A $43.5 million contract modification under an indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract (N00019-09-D-0021), exercising an option for contractor owned and operated type III high subsonic (about 2,800 flight hours) and Type IV supersonic aircraft (about 1,000 flight hours) jets in support of the US Navy’s Commercial Air Services (CAS) program. Same objective as other contracts here.
Work will be performed in Newport News, VA (45%); Point Mugu, CA (35%); and various locations outside the Continental United States (20%), and is expected to be complete in October 2010.
May 4/09: A $14.5 million modification to a previously awarded indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract (N00019-02-D-3158), exercises an option for airborne threat simulation capabilities to train shipboard and aircraft squadron weapon systems operators and aircrew how to counter potential enemy electronic warfare and electronic attack operations.
Work will be performed in Point Mugu, CA (44%); Newport News, VA (42%); Honolulu, HI (9%); and throughout various other countries (5%), and is expected to be complete in June 2009.
March 19/09: A $27.9 million# indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for contractor owned and operated type III High Subsonic (Hawker Hunter and A-4 Skyhawk, approx. 1,099 flight hours) and Type IV Supersonic aircraft (IAI Kfir, approx. 359 flight hours) in support of the Commercial Air Services (CAS) program for the U.S. Navy. CAS also employs services like Omega’s aerial refueling tankers.
This contract is focused on “a wide variety of airborne threat simulation capabilities to train shipboard and aircraft squadron weapon systems operators and aircrew how to counter potential enemy electronic warfare and electronic attack operations…” Work will be performed in Newport News, VA (45%); Point Mugu, CA (35%); and various locations outside the Continental United States (20%), and is expected to be complete in October 2009. Contract funds in the amount of $11.8 million will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was competitively procured via an electronic request for proposals, and 4 offers were received. (N00019-09-D-0021).
# = Amount subsequently corrected by the Pentagon, from the originally-stated $35.2 million.
FY 1996 – 2008
2008: A-4 arrival. Ex-Israeli A-4N Skyhawks added to the ATAC fleet. Note the extended tailpipes, originally fitted to divert strikes from small shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles away from the airframe and engine.
April 28/06: A $10.6 million modification to a previously awarded indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract (N00019-02-D-3158) exercises an option for “airborne threat simulation capabilities to train shipboard and aircraft squadron weapon systems operators and aircrew how to counter potential enemy electronic warfare and electronic attack operations”.
Work will be performed in San Diego, CA (45%); Norfolk, VA (45%); and at various locations across the United States (10%); and is expected to be complete in April 2007.
April 28/05: A $9.7 million ceiling-priced modification to a previously awarded contract (N00019-02-D-3158) exercises an option for airborne threat simulation and electronic warfare capabilities to train shipboard and aircraft squadron weapon systems operators, using supersonic and subsonic aircraft.
Work will be performed in San Diego, CA (45%); Norfolk, VA (45%), and at various locations across the United States (10%); and is expected to be complete in April 2006.
2004: Hunter 80 arrival. Ex-Swiss F.58 Hawker Hunters with their “Hunter 80” upgrades are added to the ATAC fleet.
April 26/02: ATAC receives a $9.3 million firm-fixed-price, indefinite-quantity/ indefinite-delivery contract for “airborne threat simulation capabilities to train shipboard and aircraft squadron weapon systems operators and aircrew how to counter potential enemy electronic warfare (EW) and electronic attack (EA) operations in today’s electronic Combat (EC) environment by utilizing super and subsonic aircraft.”
Work will be performed in San Diego, (75%) and Norfolk, VA (25%), and is to be complete by April 2003. This contract was competitively procured by electronic request for proposals, with one offer received (N00019-02-D-3158).
2002: Kfir C2 arrival. Ex-Israeli Kfir C2s added to ATAC’s fleet.
1997: Draken arrival. ATAC begins flying 2 ex-Danish J-35 Drakens as supersonic targets for Navy exercises. Those aircraft are no longer serve with ATAC.
1996: ATAC begins operations.
* ATAC – Aircraft. Note that they refer to “F-21 Kfir.” The F-21s were actually Kfir C1s, leased by the US Navy for aggressor training. ATAC operates the more advanced Kfir C2s.
* Wikipedia – IAI Kfir.
* Air Force World – Israel: Kfir fighter.
* History Channel, “Dogfights” – The “Desert Aces” video (Full Episodes/ Desert Aces) offers in-depth dissection of a fight where Israeli Mirage IIIs faced off against Jordanian Hawker Hunters. It also covers the Kfir’s most storied pilot: Israeli Col. Giora Epstein (ret.), the world’s highest-scoring jet ace with 17 kills. His most famous fight, covered in this episode, involved a lone battle in his Nesher (modified Mirage V, Kfir predecessor) against 11 Egyptian MiG-21s during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Epstein scored 4 kills while driving off the MiGs, and says that he preferred the Neshers and Kfirs to his final mount, the F-16: “Me, myself, as a pilot, I need the feelings [of the plane]… and in F-16, you miss it… F-16, you can have unbelievable achievements. But the feeling is not the same.”
* Wikipedia – A-4 Skyhawk.
* Global Security – A4D (A-4) Skyhawk.
* Air Vectors – The Hawker Hunter.
* Air Vectors – The SAAB 35 Draken. Like the Avro Arrow, it was far ahead of its time. Unlike the Arrow, its government stuck with it and the plane became a long-serving success. Austria’s Drakens were the last planes in front line service; they retired in 2005.
* Tactical Air Support, Inc. – Official site (under construction). A firm in Reno, NV that offers similar services, and recently acquired a pair of ex-Ukrainian SU-27s. An Aviation Week report says that the rest of the fleet consists of MiG-17s and Czech L-29/L-39 Albatros trainer and light attack jets.