Spirit Mission

On Sunday September 8th 2013, an E-6B, registration 164387, arrived at Stuttgart Airport in Germany, as usual being caught on the airports webcam as it arrived. Usually when an E6 arrives at Stuttgart they are parked over the far side of the airport and are normally visible on webcam 1. This time however it was parked out of sight of all the airport webcams


164387 at Stuttgart on September 9th. Photo taken by Lutz Herzog

It was soon noticed by a fellow radio monitor that there was a NOTAM published for the following week for an airspace reservation which tied in with an E6’s operating profile. In fact, almost the same area had been used before by an E6B involved in other high profile missions by the US Military.

The NOTAM was readily available on National Aviation websites providing warnings to pilots

AREA:4830N01400W – 46N014W – 46N010W – 4830N01000W – 4830N01400W
MNPS 30NM, NON-MNPS 60NM. 1000FT AMSL – FL250, 10 SEP 10:00 2013 UNTIL 10 SEP 18:00 2013. CREATED: 04 SEP 12:35 2013

AREA: 4830N01400W – 46N014W – 46N010W – 4830N01000W – 4830N01400W
MNPS 30NM, NON-MNPS 60NM. 1000FT AMSL – FL250, 09 SEP 10:00 2013 UNTIL 09 SEP 18:00 2013. CREATED: 04 SEP 12:27 2013

AREA: 4830N01400W – 46N014W – 46N010W – 4830N01000W – 4830N01400W
MNPS 30NM, NON-MNPS 60NM. 1000FT AMSL – FL250, 13 SEP 09:00 2013 UNTIL 13 SEP 20:00 2013. CREATED: 04 SEP 12:23 2013

There was one anomaly to this NOTAM which initially made me think it wasn’t anything to do with E6 operations and that was the height limits, which were slightly different to normal. These would normally be from the surface to FL260 (SFC – FL260). I’ll explain a little about E6’s to show why

E-6B Mercury – TACAMO
Operated by the US Navy, the E-6 carries out the TACAMO role for the US Military, the airframe is based on the Boeing B707, with a modern day glass cockpit, Avionics and Turbofan engines. The aircraft has systems and an airframe which have been hardened to EMP from Nuclear weapons. The endurance is substantial, with an unrefuelled duration of 10hrs 30mins, all the way up to 72 hours with multiple Air to Air refuels; only being penalised by the engines requiring oil after this time. There are 16 aircraft in the fleet.

TACAMO stands for “Take Charge and Move out”, and was originally a mission that uses VLF to transmit messages to the US Ballistic Missile fleet of Submarines (SSBN) from the National Command Authority. As well as this mission, with the upgrade from the E-6A to E-6B, the fleet took over the roll of AirBorne National Command Post (ABNCP) or “Looking Glass” from EC-135 aircraft in 1998. This gave the aircraft the ability to Command and Control land-based missiles and nuclear-armed bombers, as well as the Submarine fleet. Now the primary mission is to receive, verify and retransmit Emergency Action Messages (EAMs) to US strategic forces by communicating on nearly every radio frequency band. The aircraft can “talk” to every element involved with a potential Nuclear war, from ground forces all the way up to E-4B AABNCP and Presidential VC-25 (Air Force 1) aircraft.

To communicate with the SSBN fleet the aircraft use VLF (Very Low Frequency) using a Long Trailing Wire Antenna which is reeled from the centre fuselage through an opening in the cabin floor. The length of this wire is 26,000ft and is weighed down at the end.

And this is where the height in the NOTAM comes into play. To achieve the communication with the Submarines the aircraft flies in a very tight orbit at 26,000ft, which stalls the wire making it fall almost vertical. A 70% vertical fall is required to effectively communicate with a submerged SSBN

With the NOTAM quoting 1000ft AMSL to FL250 this showed that the area wasn’t to be used for communicating with any SSBNs that may be in the area. The dates were also strange, with the area not being active on the 11th and 12th, but back on the 13th. So what else could it have been for?


Lets rewind a bit. On the 21st August the Syrian Regime used Sarin gas against its own population during the on going civil war there. This effectively meant they had crossed the “red line” Barack Obama has set in place that would mean repercussions from the US. This immediately started a build up of US forces in the area, with a large fleet of ships arriving in the Mediterranean very quickly after, giving an estimated 250 Cruise Missiles available to strike Syria. Aircraft movements through Europe increased also, including the E-6B.

As I said earlier, the E-6B had possibly been used in previous military actions including the mission against Osama Bin Laden. In this case it was used as a forward communication platform or as it’s officially known AirBorne National Command Post (ABNCP). The day after it had arrived in Stuttgart, the E-6B got airborne using the ATC callsign “RAZZ02” and headed NW towards the UK where it did a large orbit of the country before returning to Stuttgart. On HF it was using the callsign TIME OUT, and I picked it up early on at home on USB 8992kHz at 0747z. The HF side of things is carried out by the Command staff at the “backend” of the aircraft, whilst the ATC part is done by the cockpit flight crew

E-6B transiting home on the 15th September

E-6B transiting home on the 15th September

The flight lasted most of the morning and involved various calls to Mainsail (the US HF-GCS network , operated from Andrews Air Force base using remotely controlled sites around the world) and Sigonella Naval Air Station (also part of the HF-GCS network). This was almost the same profile as used before

Amazingly, the E-6Bs can be tracked using online aircraft tracking programs like Planefinder. I don’t think this is a mistake as the whole fleet use Mode-S IFF transponders. I believe they purposefully send out this information so that the “World” can see they are out there and are available 24hrs a day, 365 days a year

It was during this flight I suddenly realised why the 11th and 12th had no airspace reservation. It would be the anniversary of 9/11 and possibly not the best day for US forces to make a strike against Syria – it would only give Syria propaganda that the attacks on them were in revenge for 9/11. With the time differences, the 12th GMT would still be the 11th is the USA (well for part of it) so this gave a potential strike day of the 13th.

On the 10th the E-6B didn’t fly. And negotiations had started between the USA and Syria, with Russia as an intermediate who had advised Assad to give up all his chemical weapons to avoid the strikes

60-0337 | Boeing KC-135T Stratotanker | USAF - United States Air Force

60-0337 arrives at Mildenhall. Photo by Chris Globe

The E-6B was up again on the 11th doing the same profile whilst 2 KC-135Rs arrived at Mildenhall using callsigns SPUR57 and SPUR58. These were aircraft 58-0069 and 60-0337. The SPUR callsign is quite often used for special flight refuels which made it look like it was going to be an airborne mission of some sort on the 13th. It was looking like it was going to be a B-2A day and I was on a day off

Getting into the Spirit of things

At 0806z it was reported by another radio monitor that 2 B-2As had just refuelled in the USA. The callsigns of the B-2s were HAMAL11 and HAMAL12. They were on their way. But was it to be a wasted journey?

B-2A taking off at Nellis AFB during a Red Flag exercise in March 2012. Copyright Tony Roper

It looked like it was going to be, as the USA had agreed to the terms suggested by Russia that Syria hand over all their chemical weapons to stop an attack on their military.

It wasn’t long before further confirmation came through that the flight would not be a strike on Syria, but just a “round robin” flight back to the USA. The route would take them east to a waypoint called KOPAS, off the NW coast of Portugal by about 210 miles, to then track south to 36N13W and then back west.

Route of HAMAL flight

Route of HAMAL flight

The full routing was caught by another radio monitor and then plotted by our “Global Strike” expert, Rich

The E-6B was airborne from Stuttgart just before 0900z and was trackable using Planefinder as usual. It was again using RAZZ02 as the ATC callsign, with the backend using AUDIO KIT. At 0906z the KC-135R refuellers for the B-2s got airborne, using callsigns SPUR57 and SPUR58

I was yet to hear anything from any of the aircraft involved. The HF-GCS network frequencies were very quiet. The usual primaries 8992kHz and 11175kHz were dead. And there was nothing on 6761kHz, the frequency used by tankers to call the receiving aircraft long distance

The E-6B and KC-135Rs routed via VLN and LND before heading down to their relevant points for the mission. Others were starting to get faint transmissions on 11175kHz from AUDIO KIT whilst I was still getting nothing. I was starting to think I was going to have to do some DIY instead

At 1043z, one of the monitors picked up HAMAL flight talking to Santa Maria Oceanic control, whilst another caught SPUR flight in contact with Shanwick on 6622. Half an hour later, after hearing nothing from anything I decided to give up and do the DIY I’d been putting off all morning.

With the constant messaging coming through on the forum about the flights and what was being picked up I decided to stick with it, and finally at 1330z I picked up AUDIO KIT on 11175kHz. What follows is my complete log from then:

Audio Kit = E6B
HAMAL11/12 = B2A

1330z Audio Kit standing by for traffic

1333z Mainsail – SkyKing JE3 T33 Auth NV

1335z HAMAL11 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, CF9Q

1342z Audio Kit with EAM – FVFWJL

1404z Audio Kit Standing-by for traffic (repeats)

1405z HAMAL12 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, ERTC

1430z Audio Kit with EAM – FVFWJL

1449z HAMAL12 calls Lajes Control, who replies simulated destroyed

1459z HAMAL11 flight, this is Audio Kit. Stand-by for high precedence traffic

1500z Audio Kit with EAM – FVFWJL

1513z Skymaster this is HAMAL12 with message, 7RRP
HAMAL12 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, 7RRP

1520z HAMAL12 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, QDLC
HAMAL12, Audio Kit, we did not receive message AZZ4

1521z HAMAL12, Audio KIt. Message AZZ4, has this been transmitted already?

1530z Audio Kit with EAM – FVFWJL

1534z HAMAL12 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, 65I9

1550z HAMAL11 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, KBKL

1600z Audio Kit with EAM – FVFWJL

1605z Skymaster this is HAMAL12 with message, 1 gp, 44LF
HAMAL12 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, 44LF

1620z HAMAL11 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, HMOL

1629z SkyKing UTL T28 Auth WU

1635z Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, KQ5T. Confirm callsign? (stepped on….)
Mainsail – SkyKing QBR T35 BC

1637z HAMAL11 this is Audio Kit, copy all

1657z HAMAL11 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, IL4M

1659z HAMAL11 this is Audio Kit. Have you weak and broken. Were you asking for the message sent at 1530z?

1700z HAMAL11, message was FVFWJL and no longer in queue

1705z HAMAL12 this is Audio Kit in receipt message, 1 gp, 3IMV

You may notice that the group messages from the B-2As were occurring every 15 minutes or so. Rich said that these were probably position reports as they coincided with the normal cruising speed of a B-2A travelling 3 degrees Longitude. I agreed with him as there was one call that had been missed out that AUDIO KIT was expecting

An hour or so later and things had died down to the occasional call from AUDIO KIT. And it was time to give up for the day

It had been a very interesting few days with the 13th being the most interesting. The whole thing has reawakened my interest in the USAF HF-GCS network as it has, in my eyes, got fairly boring, with just EAM messages. If it was a bit more like this I’d definitely be there more often

And it was a lot more fun than DIY

All information, callsigns and data has no connection to my employers and is obtained from my own radio logs, personal knowledge and public information

Further references:
E-6B Mercury overview
E-6B short video
TACAMO on Wikipedia
EAM on Wikipedia
E-6B on Wikipedia
Jane’s All the Worlds Aircraft
Jane’s Aircraft Upgrades