A C-17 Globemaster III during a training mission
Decoy flares are infrared countermeasures used to protect aircraft from being detected by infrared homing missiles, that is those that detect heat sources like a jet engine. Like a plane’s guardian angels, the flares create false heat targets that confuse the guidance system of an enemy aircraft’s infrared missiles.
An AC-130H during multi-gunship formation egress training
Apart from being a simple and effective defense mechanism, decoy flares are also surprisingly beautiful. No wonder they have been nicknamed angel wings.
Always a bit different: An AC-130U Spooky gunship during a test mission
Flares, like fireworks, are pyrotechnic compositions based on magnesium and other hot-burning metal. The aim is to have burning temperatures equal to or hotter than engine exhaust so that infrared-guided missiles seek out the heat signature from the flare rather than the jet engine.
A CH-46E deploying flares above an amphibious assault ship
The C-17 Globemaster III in the first slide caused the “smoke angel” through vortices at its wingtips.
Leaving its wings behind: Another C-17 Globemaster III
A disadvantage is that standard infrared countermeasure systems broadcast a bright source of infrared; therefore they can even enhance an enemy missile’s ability to track the aircraft if they are not effective against a particular seeker system.
A British C-130J Hercules, causing fireworks before landing at Baghdad’s newly reopened military runway in 2003
In a standard defense operation, once the presence of a “live” infrared missile is detected, the aircraft would release the flares to decoy the missile and get it to stick with the flares’ heat source after diving away sharply.
Like a web of lights: Flares from two CH-46Es
The aircraft would then reduce engine power to cool the thermal signature and confuse the missile’s seeker head by this change in temperature and new signature(s).
A C-130 Hercules, all flared up
Infrared countermeasures were first deployed during the Vietnam War and apart from becoming lighter, more portable and more reliable, the concept hasn’t changed much. Flares can counter surface-to-air missiles and air-to-air missiles.
The flare and chaff dispensers, located on each side of the C-130 Hercules
Chaff is a radar countermeasure based on a similar technique, namely distraction. During a chaff measure, an aircraft spreads a cloud of small, thin pieces of aluminum and metallised glass fibre or plastic. The aim is to either swamp enemy aircraft radar screens or to have the chaff cloud appear as a cluster of secondary targets. Chaff was first developed independently by the UK and Germany during World War II.
So that’s why they’re called angel wings: They’re made up of feathers
Pictured above is a US Air Force AC-130 Gunship aircraft executing an evasive maneuver, dropping chaff and flares during a firepower demonstration.
Another feather in the HH60-H Seahawk helicopter‘s cap
A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter testing MJU-32/B round flares
The CH-46 Sea Knight from a different angle, flying over Iraq
Angel of war – an MC-130