Why Do Fighter Jets Drop Flares? (6 Flare-Dropping Facts)

Flares from a C-17 at Dover AFB
A Dover C-17A Globemaster III expends countermeasure flares to counter surface-to-air missile,  (Airman William Johnson) See related article here,

A question on many of our minds is, “Why Do Fighter Jets Drop Flares?”

I’m sure if you’ve ever attended an airshow you’ve probably seen a display of flares and aerobatics.

And this is certainly one of the reasons I allude to below.

However, there are many other circumstances when a fighter jet has to make use of flares.

Allow me to explain these in more detail now.

Why Do Fighter Jets Drop Flares?

There are many reasons that fighter jets drop flares. A flare can be used as a decoy to attract heat-seeking missiles, or even as a distress signal for a pilot in trouble. Flares are often used as illumination, especially when being dropped by a pilot who has had to abort his jet and is parachuting to the ground. Many pilots will also use flares to signal wayward aircraft that may have flown into a temporary flight restriction zone. Finally, there’s the fun side of flares, perhaps as a thank you after refueling, or simply to light up the skies during an airshow for the public.

1. Flares Can Act as a Decoy

The heat-seeking missile is designed to be attracted to the heat of an aircraft engine.

These nasty little devils can be launched in numerous ways even from a shoulder-mounted launcher like a bazooka that really doesn’t need to be any more than pointed in the right direction and fired.

If one of these missiles is fired and goes undetected by the aircraft under fire it could cause the destruction of the aircraft.

Thankfully the military does have equipment that will detect an anti-aircraft device and can deploy flares made of magnesium which burns 1000 times hotter than the exhaust from the engines of the aircraft, which confuses the projectile aimed at the airplane and hopefully averts a collision.

It is very likely that when an aircraft releases flares or “chaff” that the missile will be deterred avoiding a mishap.

If you wish to know more about the systems used by the military for airborne detection that isn’t necessary for this article you can read further here.

Are Missiles a Threat to Civilian Aircraft?

Missile attacks are an extreme rarity in our commercial airline industry. However, just like anything else, there is always a possibility.

As far back as 1962, we had a possible missile impact on a commercial airliner. This was Aeroflot 902 en route to Moscow. When the wreckage was found it was discovered that there was a hole in the cabin side of the fuselage consistent with the size of a missile. An unofficial report stated that a missile had gone missing during a military exercise near the area of the wreckage.

Most of us remember TWA flight 800 that exploded just after leaving New York and various witnesses claim to have seen something streaking towards the aircraft. It was ascertained by the FAA that a fuel tank had exploded.

In spite of these incidents air transportation in the world is by far the safest way to travel and I believe it will remain so.

I think my odds are greater to win the Powerball lottery which is like one in 186 million than to be shot down by an anti-aircraft missile.

2. Flares Are Used as a Distress Signal

it is very probable that an aircraft in distress may use a flare to pinpoint its exact position to aid in its distress. Flares could be also used after the aircraft has made ground contact as well.

Flares are also used to pinpoint exact locations on the ground for troops or other types of incidents in which some type of rescue mission is necessary.

3. Flares Are Used For Ground Illumination

Flares can be dropped via parachute to help illuminate larger areas of ground, being dropped by a parachute that suspends the flare to light a large area for a maximum amount of illumination for a longer period of time.

Flares could also be used as the demarcation of a landing strip in the event of a power failure or other situation to help guide an airplane to a safe landing.

4. Ever Heard of a Thank You Flare?

During refueling operations of aircraft in the air, it is not uncommon for the fighter jet to fire a flare as a thank you to the crew of the refueling airplane.

5. Flares Are Used to Signal “Wayward Aircraft”

At any given time in the United States airspace, there are temporary flight restrictions or a TFR which is an integral part of preflight planning and these areas are designated by notices to airmen (NOTAM) which should be checked before flying and should be avoided.

If an aircraft happens to fly into one of these areas a military jet may intercept them and fire a flare to get the attention of the pilot of the wayward aircraft.

This occurred not long ago when an aircraft flew into a flight-restricted area during a Trump rally. You can read about that more here.

These types of air restrictions are put in place anytime a sitting president is in the area so it is a good practice when flying to be very aware of any type of flight restricted area especially Presidents. If you aren’t paying attention you could very likely get shot down.

Other flight-restricted areas may not warrant a fighter jet escort but they might contain some serious reprimands and stiff penalties.

6. Who Doesn’t Love an Aircraft Display?

I love air shows.

If you have never attended an air show I highly recommend that you do as there are multitudes of things to do.

You will see pilots doing aerobatic routines that defy your imagination as well as flyovers by former World War Two aircraft as well as some of the newer aircraft produced today

The static displays ( aircraft on the ground for inspection) can be a ton of fun for the aviation enthusiast. I have been able to climb aboard the gigantic C5A that the Air Force occasionally brings to a show and also get up close and personal with business jets, experimental airplanes, and many other items that I guarantee will keep your attention.

The US Air Force C5 Galaxy
USAF C-5 Galaxy

Military displays at public air shows can be absolutely stunning. Flyovers with smoke and flares can heighten the experience dramatically.

Final Thoughts

So, as you can see there’s far more than mere entertainment value when it comes to a fighter jet dropping flares.

In fact, this is most commonly practiced to either act as a decoy or a signal for distress.

Pilots who are patrolling temporary no-fly areas may use flares to signal wayward warcraft.

Plus, it’s not unheard of to illuminate the ground for someone floating downwards in a parachute.

And of course, what a wonderful way to say thank you to the tanker that has just refueled you.

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