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On The ATAC! Legacy Fighters At The Cutting Edge Of Warfare


With nearby Joint Base Langley-Eustis hosting its airshow in late April, Aviation Week took the opportunity to visit ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company) based at nearby Newport News Airport in Virginia. ATAC provides live airborne training to the US Navy, Marines, Army, controllers, ships... just about any U.S. government organization that needs to practice aerial warfare. The company started in the mid-1990s with two Saab Drakens, formerly operated by the Royal Danish Air Force.

These had been a familiar sight in European skies for several decades but had by then been withdrawn and replaced by F-16s. Today, ATAC still has one Draken, awaiting preparation as a static display at the ATAC Headquarters.

Initially the U.S. Navy had a requirement for high-performance adversary training aircraft to replace their own A-4s flying with the VC squadrons. Early on, Learjets were used (classed as Type 2), and soon after, the Drakens (Type 4) took over the contract, to fly mission simulations for the Navy, for ships to engage and identify as 'hostiles'. The Drakens were popular in this role because of their speed and dissimilar nature, which led to a Navy contract for ATAC to provide IAI Kfirs (Type 4). The Kfirs were used to support ship, and later, fighter crew training requirements.

The Kfir was a 1970s Israeli development of the French Mirage 3/5 family of fighters, with different engines, and avionics upgrades, which resulted in a rugged yet powerful fighter that served in the Israeli Defence Force for several decades.

ATAC has a fleet of 6 Kfirs which engage in air-to-air training against F-18E/F pilots for example, at a much lower cost to the Navy. They also fly against the Navy's latest jets, the F-35s - indeed ATAC is the only civilian organization to engage the USAF F-22 and the Navy's Fighter Weapons School (aka 'TOPGUN'). The supersonic Kfirs are kept very busy - at the time of the author's visit, only one was in town, being on display at the Langley Air Show. The rest of the fleet was on deployment at a Navy base elsewhere in the US, earning their keep.

According to Aviation Week's Military Aircraft Database, both the Sri Lankan and Colombian Air Forces still fly Kfirs as well, though the airworthiness of the Sri Lankan fleet in particular is debatable.

ATAC also has a fleet of four Aero Let 39s, as seen here.

These versatile fast-jet trainers are extremely popular both with military agencies and the private sector.  Czech-built, and initially designed for the Soviet-bloc countries, they have been exported around the world Aviation Week's military database shows around 500 still in service across the globe. Additionally some 200+ are registered to private and commercial operators in the U.S. alone, and they are a familiar sight at airshows nowadays. A testament to their versatility is that 45 years on, new developments (L-159s) are still being delivered.

The final type in ATAC's inventory, and the most numerous, is the Mk.58 Hawker Hunter.

This 1950s British fighter is often referred to as a classic and was exported all over the world, with almost 2,000 being produced. Aside from private collections, ATAC is the largest remaining operator, and its fleet came mostly from the Swiss Air Force. The Swiss operated them until the early 1990s. Even after all this time, they are still in demand to work with various military agencies.

ATAC bases Hunters in California, Japan and Hawaii as well as at their home base in Virginia. Depot level maintenance is carried out at Newport News, not just on the Hunters, but for all their types.

The Hunters are high-subsonic, and may be 50 years old or more, but they have reliability rare even in civil aviation. ATAC's 16 Hunters fly more hours than the supersonic Kfirs and L-39s combined, proving there is a strong demand for their services. They can carry a variety of Electronic Attack and telemetry pods, and their sleek design makes them an agile adversary. Designed by Sir Sydney Camm, also responsible for the legendary Hurricane and Harrier aircraft (which subsequently morphed into the AV-8B), the Hunter truly is one of Britain's finest military aircraft designs. Thanks to ATAC, they will be around for some time to come yet.

Our thanks go to all the people at ATAC who made our visit possible, in particular to Rob "Nuts" Destasio for hosting us and providing a wealth of information.

All photos by Nigel Howarth.


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