24 Canadian fighter jets participated in exercise Tipic Sauvage and Haboob Havoc, at Nellis AFB and MCAS Miramar.

Top Gun? Well, not quite.

I noticed an uptick in Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) traffic over the American Southwest in early 2020, and I wasn’t sure what exercise they were participating in. I read that Red Flag 20–1 (2020’s 1st Red Flag exercise) was held from January 27 — February 14 at Nellis Air Force Base; but by tracking the RCAF tankers that would accompany any participating CF-188 fighters, I couldn’t tell if they were moving any fighters, or not. Still thinking about Red Flag, my search terms looked exclusively on any mention of the RCAF at Red Flag. I was disapointed to find no mention of any exercises in any news released by the RCAF, and only pictures of other countries’ planes at Red Flag 20–1. Prodded on Twitter, the official RCAF account responded and corrected me, much to my surprise — awesome, thanks!

I guess my research blinders were on, because once I had the push in the right direction, I was able to find many “breadcrumbs” about the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises of 2020; there are still some loose ends, but we should be able to use flight tracking data to know when refuelling planes have gone and come back, and when the CC-177 Globemasters have gone down there are back too. These supporting flights should suggest when the Canadian team arrived; and when they left too.

Credit to @phantomaviation for the pictures taken of the Royal Canadian Air Force arriving at Nellis AFB(?) and Luke AFB, which give me positive visual identification of the CC-177 and CC-150 to match the transponder data.

CH-146 Griffon 146448
CF-188A Hornet 188782
CC-150 MRTT 150005
CC-177 Globemaster 170104

Flying back to Bagotville Quebec, the 433rd / 425th TCS stopped in London Ontario where local plane spotter @ernestgutschik caught them and posted his pictures to Twitter.

CF-188B Hornet 188933
CF-188A Hornet 188739
CF-188A Hornet 188762
CF-188A Hornet 188782

@ErnestGutschik out-did himself by catching video of the CF-188s returning to base, on their stop-over at London International Airport, and caught their spectacular night take-off.

Let’s look at the flight data from the CC-177s first, since they’re the biggest.

Flight data suggests from January 6 to January 26th 177704 may have been participating in the draw down of the RCAF deployment to Constanta, Romania, but it departed CFB Trenton on January 28, and flew to Nellis AFB first, then Honolulu HI, and RAAF Base Richmond, landing on February 1st using callsign CFC3607. On February 2nd they flew to RNZAF Base Ohakea still using CFC3607, and on February 3rd back to RAAF Base Richmond. They did this back and forth another few times with successive callsigns CFC3608 and CFC3609, after which on February 9 they changed back to CFC3607 and flew all the way back to Montreal via Honolulu again, landing at Mirabel (YMX/CYMX) February 12.

Montreal? Lies! Montreal doesn’t have an airbase you cocky Canadian!

Yes, I’m pretty certain the old Mirabel airport north of Montreal (a lovely airport, and a shame it’s an airport-to-nowhere) performs maintenance on CF-188s, and remember, the RCAF bought a bunch of Australia’s used air fleet. Didn’t I see a picture of a CF-188 from Australia with its wings off lately? Let’s consult Combat Camera’s Flickr Photostream; it couldn’t be better.

We have fire retardant for Australian wildfires being loaded at Nellis AFB in Nevada January 28…

We now know why they were doing a back-and-forth to New Zealand…

…and confirmation of the transport of the F/A-18 from Australia, to Mirabel. *fist pump*

What about the air-to-air refueller?
Canada has two CC-150 MRTTs, 15004 and 15005, and both have been down South recently.

15005

Let’s start with the one we know was pictured there. January 26th 15005 flew to Phoenix AZ, and conducted replenishment missions over the United States for the twenty-four CF-188s which were performing exercises earlier this year, and flew back to Trenton on February 8th. No rest for the wicked; they returned to Phoenix AZ on February 9th via Montana, presumably to provide fuel to something en route (Cold Lake CF-188s on their way South?). 15005 departed Phoenix and returned to Trenton on February 20.

On March 8 15005 flew back to the United States, again did racetracks over Montana a bit, and then returned to Offutt AFB. If 15005 was helping ferry CF-188s back to Cold Lake, this makes sense. Same thing on March 9th, but this time probably for Bagotville fighters, twice, all the while using callsign CFC3172.

On March 10th, 15005 flew to San Diego, callsign HUSKY15, and seemed to be supporting more CF-188 air-to-air combat training.

15004

The other identical plane is 15004; twins that support Canadian Forces operations world-wide.

On January 22 CFC3122 flew from Trenton to Offutt AFB, with some tracks suggesting they were ferrying CF-188s from Cold Lake and Bagotville to somewhere in the United States, repeating similar patterns ~daily until January 26 when they seem to have finished off the ferrying mission, with 15004 in Arizona — with 15005.

Pictures

Below are the official USAF pictures taken by their photographers; you didn’t hear a single thing about these Canadian training operations. Considering I didn’t really know we could muster 24 CF-188s at once, I think it would have been worth the RCAF’s time, despite being busy, to tell the Canadian public that we’re still taking part in real-world, world-class training, with the Americans. Our CF-188s are still ready for anything that comes their way.

Methodology

I’m publishing this as a how-to of sorts, to try and get you to look at the world differently. If you’re interested, know that the flight data exists; you just need to find it. Don’t expect a press release; consult other OSINT sources — like Combat Camera — to figure out what’s going on in the world without an official sources telling you explicitly what’s going on. Fighter jets are frequently absent from the “radar” screen of plane trackers, but the air to air refuellers and cargo planes are usually visible. You may not see the fighter jets, but you’ll see their flying gas station, passenger planes ferrying their ground crew to the exercise, and cargo planes flying in spare parts and tools.

Crib Sheet

Here’s your Royal Canadian Air Force cheat-sheet to impress you friends, wife, boss, cat, dog — whatever you’re into.

  • Canadian Forces flights, via RadarBox24
    (Yes I do pay for access; please support OSINT tools you use!)
  • What about the USAF? Everyone knows Americans love their oil, and they always have a tanker ready to refuel any NORAD mission that the Canadians might be part of, as well as their own. You can easily find them by looking by plane type, rather than callsign, registration number, or ICAO hex number. Unfortunately, the KC-10 uses the same plane type as a DC-10, so you get false positives.

I hope this has given you some ideas and next time you see something fly overhead, look up what it was — you never know, it might be a part of history you’ll see later on the evening news.

Royal Canadian Air Force pilots and maintainers, assigned to the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron CFB Bagotville pictured at Luke AFB in Nevada to compete in the Tipic Sauvage and Haboob Havoc exercises.

Steffan Watkins is a open source research consultant interested in the Open Skies Treaty and its implementation, among other things. #OpenSkiesTreaty

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