The Black Eagles, the aerobatic team of the Republic of Korea Air Force, exchanged their A-37 light-attack aircraft for T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainers in 2009. The team flew its first public aerial display at the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition last October. The eight-aircraft demonstration wowed show crowds with tight formations and dynamic maneuvers.
“Our transition from the A-37 to T-50 was not a simple change of aircraft,” notes Lt. Col. Chul Hee Lee, commander of the Black Eagles. Since aircraft performance defines airshow maneuvers, the high-performance T-50 fundamentally changed the team’s repertoire.
“The T-50’s exceptional thrust and handling characteristics, which are consistent at both high speed and low speed, are strong contributors to the special maneuvers we now perform,” continues Lee. “The hands-on-throttle-and-stick design, the head-up display, and the multifunction displays also enable pilots to process more easily all information during flight.”
The team also added two aircraft to its show in the A-37 to T-50 transition. “In designing our show routine, we analyzed the maneuvers of American aerobatic teams, such as the US Air Force Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels, and of some of the European aerobatic teams that employ eight aircraft,” Lee says.
The Black Eagles team is composed of nine pilots—one who is the squadron commander and doesn’t fly in the shows. The team has thirty maintenance crew members and six assistant crew members to maintain the aircraft, provide narration, produce videos, and set up the sound equipment. None of the current pilots came to the team with T-50 hours.
The T-50 team retained three of the six pilots who flew A-37s on the previous team. These three pilots in addition to six other pilots were assigned from Wonju AB (where the Black Eagles are based) to Gwangju AB, about 160 miles south of Seoul. At Gwangju, they went through the T-50 transition course and, later, the instructor course for the T-50.
The additional six pilots were chosen in a rigorous selection process. First ROKAF leadership decided the appropriate class of Air Force Academy (or the year of commission) for the replacement assignments. The potential candidate list was refined by considering only pilots above flight lead status (that is, pilots qualified to lead a flight of four aircraft) and only those with more than 800 flight hours. They must also have graduated in the top third of their class from basic and advanced flight training. A series of interviews and discussions followed. The final decision was based on a unanimous agreement by all team members.
Support personnel were selected from the most skilled candidates supporting the T-50s at Gwangju.
The T-50s flown for the 2009 and 2010 show seasons have red-and-white schemes associated with the training units at the 1st Fighter Wing at Gwangju AB. The aircraft are on loan from the training unit at Gwangju for the 2010 season. The Black Eagles will begin taking delivery in 2010 of ten T-50s built specifically for the team. The deliveries will take place from May until December 2010, at which time the team will have a complete set of its own aircraft. In the interim, a mix of Gwangju aircraft and the new aircraft will fly together. The new aircraft will sport a jet-black color scheme that features a golden eagle design on the wings. The artwork was selected in a two-month contest that attracted more than 200 entries.
These aircraft, designated T-50Bs, carry such unique gear as two internal smoke oil tanks (a thirty- and a forty-gallon tank), internal and external cameras, and high-visibility lighting at the wingtips. The smoke system, which is installed on the engine nozzle like on the F-16s of the Thunderbirds, was developed from requirements set by the team pilots. The system can deliver smoke for more than twenty minutes. The two internal oil tanks accommodate the possible use of two colors of smoke. A smoke indication light, remaining oil indicator, and voice command for smoke spray aid in controlling the smoke display during the airshows.
The internal/external cameras are installed to allow flight analysis by the pilots and to produce promotional videos. Five cameras are installed per aircraft: four inside the cockpit and one at the bottom of the aircraft. The wingtip lights, which resemble sidewinder missiles, improve the visibility of the aircraft for other team aircraft in the air and for the audience on the ground.
The rear seats of the T-50s, which remain empty during airshows, are often used for training new team members, taking aerial photography and video, and ferrying other team members to show locations.
The team flies three aerial routines depending on weather conditions—a high show, a low show, or a flat show. The high show, the most extensive of the three, consists of a takeoff with two three-ship T-50s followed by a two-ship. The entire team then rejoins and flies a loop as an eight-ship formation. The loop is followed by a roll, diamond pass, wedge pass, eagle pass, and a bon ton roll.
The high show continues with a single T-50 performing a loop thrown in the middle of a slow pass. The aircraft reform and fly a downward bomb burst followed with a synchronized continuous roll and an eight-point roll. A single ship flies a screw roll, and the formation follows with an echelon loop. Two aircraft perform a calypso pass, and a single aircraft performs an Apache roll.
The show continues—a single T-50 performs a knife-edge pass, and the formation executes a rolling combat pitch. Two aircraft perform a synchronized line-abreast loop and split followed by a double max turn (a max-g turn in opposite directions). Four aircraft rejoin for an arrowhead loop and a rainfall, and a single ship performs a max turn and loop. The high show ends with a wedge break and a pitch up landing.
“The wedge break makes a big impression on our audiences,” Lee explains. “The maneuver involves a formation of seven aircraft approaching show center. The aircraft scatter in seven different directions with smoke trails creating a huge fan shape in the sky. The shape symbolizes Korea’s dream to move forward into the world. The fan symbol connects with Korean audiences and contributes to the overall grandeur of the show.”
The Black Eagles will perform their routine at about ten airshows in 2010. Most of the shows coincide with Korean national ceremonies or military celebrations, to include the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War.
The ROKAF established its first aerobatic team in 1953, flying four P-51 Mustangs until 1958. Four years later, the ROKAF formed the Blue Sabre aerobatic team, flying four specially painted F-86 Sabre fighters. The team traded F-86s for F-5As in 1968 and became the Black Eagles. The Black Eagles flew F-5As through the 1978 airshow season.
The Black Eagles were designated as the official aerobatic team of ROKAF in December 1994. Their first demonstration took place on 25 September 1995. While based with the 238th Squadron from 8th Squadron Wing at Wonju AB, the team flew six Cessna A-37B Dragonfly light-attack planes through the 2007 show season. The Black Eagles will return the T-50s to their original home at Wonju AB in December 2010.
Korea Aerospace Industries, or KAI, is the prime contractor for the T-50 with Lockheed Martin the principal subcontractor. KAI is under contract to deliver seventy-two T-50s to the ROKAF for training, which include fifty advanced jet trainers and twenty-two TA-50 lead-in fighter aircraft. The aircraft began flying in 2005 and has been used to train ROKAF fighter pilots at Gwangju AB since 2007.