February’s Blackjacks

After a couple of days of teasing us with the standard “W” markers in CW, on the 17th February the Russian Air Force (Военно-воздушные cилы России [BBC России]) carried out a Long Range Aviation mission using two Tu-160 Blackjacks.

I was able to monitor nearly the whole mission on HF (both in CW and Voice USB), with a small amount on UHF (though no Russian Air to Air voice comms were received on VHF/UHF) and following some investigation into my data along with other logs and reports from the internet and friends, I can now compile a rough idea of the routing they took on their journey to the English Channel and back again.

The first reception I had that showed a mission was taking place was at around 0830z when a standard 3 figure group message was sent by IWV4 but unfortunately I was just setting up my gear and so missed it to write down. Further “W” markers took place at the usual every 20 minute schedule of 0840z and 0900z, with IWV4 sending another message at 0903z to the aircraft. This call gave us the CW callsign for the aircraft, probably the IL-78 Midas4YMA

Russian Air Force TU-160 Blackjack RF-94104 “Alexander Golovanov” © Crown copyright 2016

As is standard, the early part of the mission was relatively quiet on CW with markers only, though there was one unusual thing that took place around 0920z. Firstly there was no 0920z “W” (this only happened one other time for the whole day at 1600z – the 20 mins schedule was kept going solidly otherwise) and secondly, at 0922z, there was a sending of data on the frequency. The first eight minutes was a carrier tone centred exactly on 8112; with the full data commencing at 0930z continuing until 0943z. Unfortunately, the CW recording I had for the day got corrupted so I wasn’t able to analyse the signal to at least try and determine what type it may have been. Of course, it could have been coincidence as we all know that many of the frequencies used by the Russians are shared, but this does seem almost too good a coincidence. One thing is noteworthy in recent missions, and that is the big reduction in CW messages over the large increase of voice messages – are the Russians trying out a new data messaging system for their Long Range Aviation fleet?

8112 continued in the usual manner for most of the morning, with the occasional message or “radio check” [QSA] but there wasn’t much else. The Winter CW frequency for the aircraft side of the “Bear Net” had always alluded us and was in fact the only missing frequency we had for the whole net, so it was just the ground side of the duplex network that I was receiving. I had 8990 down as a back-up frequency for their voice comms and I was monitoring this frequency on my Icom IC-R8500 in USB mode, with all the remaining Winter frequencies on the Titan SDR Pro. I was also using the Titan to monitor most of the Oceanic frequencies in case they were coming this way, something useful to do as this can sometimes give away the rough position of the Russians. Because of this set-up I had the SDR monitoring the Oceanic frequencies in the 8MHz range. The bandwidth I’d allocated also incorporated 8990 and it was during a QSA check at 1205z from IWV4 on 8112 that I noticed a faint trace of CW on the frequency! I quickly changed the mode on the Icom to CW and caught the end – “QSA3” – nothing else followed, but it looked like I had found the Winter CW airborne frequency for the “Bear Net”. But, I had to be sure.

Russian Air Force TU-160 Blackjack RF-94101 “Paval Taran” © Crown copyright 2016

Up until now there had been zero voice comms on 8131, the primary Winter voice frequency, but not too long after the 1205z QSA check on CW the first call came with 44732 calling KATOLIK followed by a call to BALANS after not much luck with KATOLIK. There was one more call after this on 8112 before this frequency went to markers only, but there was a reply on 8990 confirming that this was the Winter CW frequency for the aircraft. The complete 8112/8990 transcript can be found in PDF format in my full CW log

Going from various reports, the Northern QRA had not launched so this led me to believe that the Russian aircraft were not coming in the direction of the UK, but when I noticed on my SBS that the Tanker was travelling north from Brize Norton, then I wondered if they were. The only comms I had was from the Tanker with Swanwick Mil so I presume (and with no logs showing anything from Lossiemouth) that a long range track of the Blackjacks was taking place.

Certainly, on Oceanic warnings were being passed about the “unknown” traffic heading south and it’s from this information that I’ve been able to roughly guess their initial routing, down through the Shetland Island and Faeroe Island gap to near ERAKA, before tracking south along the 10W line – like I say, a rough guess, but going on previous routes this won’t be far out. They probably got to around the NIBOG area before tracking SW to go around Ireland, before heading in again towards Lands End and the English Channel.

Voice comms on HF with BALANS was pretty continuous by this stage, with three potential callsigns heard. Two would have been the Blackjacks, 44731 and 44732, with a third more than likely the support IL-78 Midas tanker that remained clear up to the north and so was much weaker with me – I think it was 60991 but was too weak to tell, with only the readback from BALANS copied.

At about 1505z it was reported that two Typhoons from Coningsby that had launched about an hour before, and had been holding in ARA10W, had joined up with the “unknowns” and these were identified as Tu-160 Blackjacks. The comms were again picked up by Kyle, and the Typhoons gave full details including the tailcodes, with the lead aircraft being RF-94101, the second RF-94104. The Russians name their Tu-160’s and these are given “Paval Taran” and “Alexander Golovanov” respectively.

By coincidence, at 1510z, 44732 calls BALANS with a message starting 502. I always suspect that they send messages out when they’re intercepted and I expect this was one of those messages. It could well have been that they were entering the Channel though, it’s hard to tell, but certainly for the whole time they were in that area, the messages sent began with 502. Around 1600z the French QRA also joined up and from images produced by the MOD, these were shown to be a single Rafale and a single Mirage 2000C – callsigns noted on Fighter Control as MASTIFF01 and MARAUD03.

Russian Air Force TU-160 Blackjack RF-94104 with a French Air Force Rafale and Mirage 2000C © Crown copyright 2016

From there the Blackjacks turned around and I expect pretty much followed the same route back. I could certainly tell that they were near to me later on, they were ridiculously loud on HF.

Below then is a copy of my voice logs, along with the recordings I made. A good test of my recently installed Wellbrook Loop that I’d finally been able to put up on the mast just the week before, after having it for nearly three months! Scottish weather!!

NOTE – These recordings are copyrighted to me. It has been noted that other recordings have ended up on YouTube, uploaded by a third party. Should this happen with my recordings, further action will be taken


1216z 44732 calls KATOLIK

1217z 44732 calls KATOLIK [KATOLIK very faint]

1218z 44732 calls KATOLIK, BALANS replies

1220z BALANS passes message 130 525

1222z BALANS calls 44731 numerous times
– Note, contains all of the above

1226z 44732 answers, BALANS passes message 130 525

1232z 44732 calls BALANS with message [too faint to copy]

[messages continue until 1245z, all too faint, multiple callsigns]

1302z 44732 calls BALANS with message 157 133 796 290 525 853

1306z BALANS and 60991[?] 532 598 757 706 057 162 363 395

1318z BALANS passes message 727 to 44732

1356z 44732 calls BALANS with message 197 077 950 525 305

1510z 44732 calls BALANS with message 502 549 447 360 981 848 842 366 215 492 481

1551z 44732 calls BALANS with message 502 956 447 339 822 532 842 942 563 592 339

1612z 44732 calls BALANS with message 502 411 447 132 196 010 565 564 978

1641z 44732 calls BALANS with message 926 429 564 695 525 447

1745z 44731 called by BALANS

1750z BALANS calls 44731 with message 861 408 850

1826z 44732 calls BALANS with message 976 170 408 953 525 055


Approximate routing of the Tu-160 Blackjacks

One final thing to note – on exactly the same day in 2015 (day of the year, not actual date, so the third Wednesday in February) the Russians carried out almost the same flight, going down the West coast of Ireland. Further information on that mission, including HF recordings, can be found in Bear Hunting – part two

Bet you a few quid they’ll be back same day next year 😉

Propliner is back

Around 11 months ago I reported the sad end of Propliner magazine in my article “End of an era”.

I’m very pleased to say that due to requests to the editor that Propliner be kept in some form or other, he has decided to try out whether it could succeed in an annual format.

In his words “Within days of announcing my decision to suspend publication of Propliner as a quarterly journal, I became aware of the enormous sentiment surrounding the magazine, and that there were a large number of disappointed readers.”

He continues ” Having remained in touch with many of the regular contributors and having canvassed their opinions, I have decided to go ahead and publish a Propliner Annual in April 2016″.ProplinerAd

A brief outline of what is intended in the first (and hopefully not last annual) was also given – 96 pages full of features and photographs, as well as news on the past years events. Further information is on the advert to the right.

Amazingly, the annual is still going to be priced very reasonably indeed. For those in the UK, it is to be priced at £11 including delivery, with Europe at £13. The rest of the World is still only £15 for air mail delivery.

The target publication date is April 17th and orders can be placed at the Propliner website

PlaneBaseNG Update

Another bit of aviation news is a new update to the PlaneBaseNG database software. I ran a review of the database just over a year ago if you’d like to look back at what I wrote. Otherwise, head over to the website for more information, screenshots etc. PBlogo

If you’re looking for an aviation database then this is definitely the one to have.

Fred T. Jane

Today, the 8th March 2016, marks the centenary of the death of Fred T. Jane, the founder of Jane’s Fighting Ships and all the off-shoots of products that now exist under his name. He was 50 years old.

Fred was discovered on the morning of the 8th March 1916 “dead in bed at his residence in Clarence Parade [Portsmouth]” and “had been attended during the past week or so by Dr Cole-Baker on account of an attack of influenza, and had also complained of heart trouble, but his sudden death came as a great shock”.

FTJ_002He lived quite an amazing life during those 50 years, too much for me to cover here, but luckily a book was written about him by Richard Brooks, published in 1997. The book is still available today, easily found on Amazon for instance, and is titled Fred T. Jane – An eccentric Visionary (From Ironclad Ships To 21st Century Information Solutions) – and it is a great read.

Not only did Fred invent Fighting Ships and All the Worlds Aircraft, he was one of the first people to have a motor car in the UK (including racing them), he was one of the first private pilots (though not very good going by all the crashes he had), he was a member of Parliament, he was a writer of Science Fiction (at the same time as H.G. Wells was writing on the very same subjects) and a very successful artist. It was the artistry and writing that got him into creating Fighting Ships, even though there were other successful books in existence at that time covering the same subject matter. It was his line drawings and silhouettes that made Fighting Ships stand out from the rest, and it is why the books are still in existence to this day whilst the others have dwindled into the past.

As well as writing and illustrating his own Science Fiction, he created artwork for other writers, including this for the book "Olga Romanoff" by George Griffith in 1893.

As well as writing and illustrating his own Science Fiction, he created artwork for other writers, including this for the book Olga Romanoff by George Griffith in 1893.

Taken from the 1932 edition of "Fighting Ships", the earliest in my collection.

Taken from the 1932 edition of Fighting Ships, the earliest in my collection.

The early Fighting Ships books, the first of which was printed in 1898, went into extraordinary detail. These included the same details as is found in todays editions – weapons, crew numbers, engine types, speed etc., but also down to such details of the thickness of hulls in the various areas of each ship. The details on guns and armoured hulls were given comparative identifiers to show that a certain type of gun was capable of piercing a certain type of armoured hull. It was from this that the use of the books became manuals in “WarGames”.

Four metres of "Fighting Ships". Nearly every edition from 1946 to 1995, plus the earliest I have from 1932

Four metres of Fighting Ships. Nearly every edition from 1946 to 1995, plus the earliest I have from 1932

Now, these WarGamers weren’t just “nerds” sitting around at home, these were Naval Officers who used the information for training and strategy building, although the game was available to the public too. Prices at the time ranged from 4 guineas to £40 (around £4,400 in todays money), though the top end product “contained practically all the warships in the world” and was used primarily by various navies, including the Japanese Navy. The “games” came with model ships as part of the boxed set.

The early editions were in Landscape format, with different "standards" available - the "top end" versions were leather bound.

The early editions were in Landscape format, with different “standards” available – the “top end” versions were leather bound.

Though the Royal Navy was very slow in taking up the game, the Russian Navy were extremely interested in it and invited Fred to St. Petersburg in 1899 where he met Tsar Nicholas II. Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich even wrote the preface to the 1899 edition of Fighting Ships, the Duke being the Tsars brother-in-law. Fighting Ships isn’t even officially sold to anyone in Russia anymore.

"The British Battle Fleet" first edition from 1912

The British Battle Fleet first edition from 1912

Thanks to this trip, Fred was able to publish an off-shoot book titled The Imperial Russian Navy which led further to The British Battle Fleet – a book I have in my possession in its first edition format. It is thought that to this day, no one else outside of Russia has had such access to their fleets. Fred became good friends with members of both the Russian and Japanese Navies, something that caused him grief later on during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 where he lost friends on both sides.

Fred died on his own, though he had an estranged wife and a daughter, but his legacy still lives on today. Ironically, the house he died in was bombed by the Germans in the Second World War, but flats that were built there in its place has a plaque commemorating his name. FS15-16

I’m very proud to have had my photographs printed in recent editions of Fighting Ships and I enjoy very much the research I do on the Russian Navy that I then forward on to the yearbooks current editor, Commodore Stephen Saunders RN. He is just the eighth editor in the 118 years of publication.

For more information on Fred T. Jane, please look up the previously mentioned book by Richard Brooks – you won’t be disappointed.

TitanSDR Pro demonstration

After receiving quite a few requests on information about the Enablia TitanSDR and it’s capabilities, I decided it would be good a good idea to create a demonstration video that would hopefully show just how good an SDR it is. The video is at the end of this blog.

I think that a lot of people can’t understand just why the two versions are the price they are, especially when it seems that a new dongle SDR is being evolved every day at a ridiculously cheap price. Yes, they are expensive but when you compare the price of these SDR’s to a top end desktop receiver, such as the Icom IC-R8500 for example, then it is fairly comparable.

But you must consider the fact that the Titan is really more than one receiver. The Pro version is 40 receivers, the standard is eight. You can’t record independently using the Icom, you need some additional software or a digital voice recorder plugged in to the receiver; and even then you can only record the one frequency – the Pro can record 40 frequencies, the standard can record eight.

The TitanSDR Pro can monitor up to 40 frequencies at the same time. Here, 10 frequencies are being monitored, mainly Oceanic ones.

The TitanSDR Pro can monitor up to 40 frequencies at the same time. Here, 10 frequencies are being monitored, mainly Oceanic ones.

Then, you can’t really record any bandwidth to play back using the Icom, but both versions of the Titan can record up to three separate bandwidths. These can then be played back, either through the SDR itself, or on another PC using the supplied USB dongle that carries a second version of the software – and if you did this you could be listening to, or recording, further frequencies or bandwidths. And all these separate bandwidth recordings can, of course, be played back multiple times, with multiple recordings being made within them; or data can be decoded; or signals analysed – what ever you require from an SDR.

This image shows the Titan monitoring 12 frequencies, 6 of which are decoding ALE using PC-ALE. This can take place in the background, while listening to the other frequencies on the SDR.

This image shows the Titan monitoring 12 frequencies, 6 of which are decoding ALE using PC-ALE. This can take place in the background, while listening to the other frequencies on the SDR.

But, of course, this is just standard for any SDR isn’t it?? But is it?? Can you think of another SDR that has the capability to monitor/record 40 frequencies at once? I can’t.

The nearest SDR I found to the Titan in quality of not only recording capabilities but in quality of filters etc. meant that I would need to buy around 13 SDR’s of this model and spend over €30,000. Yet, just one of this model costs pretty much the same price as the Titan. Now, with that knowledge, the price of the TitanSDR’s really doesn’t seem that bad after all.

Don’t forget, the TitanSDR is a Military spec. SDR, designed originally for agencies to monitor multiple frequencies for analysis and data collecting. It already has top specifications but Enablia are still willing to listen to the users and add requested features if they can. They have already done this with quite a few ideas that myself and other users have suggested.

You'd think that the Titan would be a CPU guzzler wouldn't you? Well it isn't. Here the SDR is running 31 frequencies, multiple decodings using MultiPSK, and PC-ALE. The CPU is running at only 27%, and that was it's max reading.

You’d think that the Titan would be a CPU guzzler wouldn’t you? Well it isn’t. Here the SDR is running 31 frequencies, whilst making multiple decodings using MultiPSK and PC-ALE. The CPU is running at only 27%, and that was it’s max reading.