The lightest fighter on this list of titanic pugilists weighs in at an astonishing 31 tonnes, the heaviest at over 63 tonnes, is the same weight as 12 adult elephants.These formidable fighter aircraft were created in such generous proportions for a reason, and are generally long-ranged, very fast and extremely well armed. Almost half of them failed to reach front-line service, often crippled by the huge costs incurred by such heavy advanced fighter projects. The joker in the pack is the Boeing YB-40, a long-range escort fighter version of the B-17 bomber. Armed with up to 30 ‘fifty-cal’ guns (and sometimes a 40-mm cannon) this ferocious gunship proved too heavy and draggy to keep up with the bombers it was created to protect. After a 25 aircraft operational trial it was cancelled.
The weight given is the maximum take-off, apart from when otherwise specified.
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14. Maple Regrets: Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow
Max take-off weight: 31,120 kg (68,605 lb)
Length: 23.71 m (77 ft 9 in)
13. Military Industrial Oedipus Complex: Lockheed Martin F-35A/C Lighting II
Max take-off weight: 31,800 kg (70,000 lbs)
Length: 15.67 m (50 ft 5 in)
12. Le Strike Eagle: Dassault Mirage 4000
Max take-off weight: 32,000 kg (70,548 lb)
Length: 18.70 m (61 ft 4 in)
11. The Reluctant Gunbus: Boeing YB-40 Flying Fortress
Max take-off weight: 34,000 kg (74,000 lb)
Length: 22.6 m (74 ft 9 in)
10. Iranian Topgun: Grumman F-14 Tomcat
Weight: 33,720 kg (74,350 lb)
Length: 19.1 m (62 ft 9 in)
9. Heavyweight acrobat: Sukhoi Su-30
Weight: 34,500 kg (76,060 lb)
Length: 21.935 m (72 ft 9 in)
8. The Unborn Oligarch: Sukhoi PAK FA
Weight: 35,000 kg (77,160 lb)
Length: 19.8 m (65 ft)
7. China’s Raptor: Chengdu J-20
Weight: 35381 kg (78,000 lb) – estimated
Length: 20 m (66.8 ft)
6. Foxbatmobile: Mikoyan MiG-25
Weight: 36,720 kg (80,952 lb)- (loaded not maximum)
Length: 19.75 m (64 ft 10 in)
5. Reagan’s Lamborghini: Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor
Weight: 38,000 kg (83,500 lb)
Length: 18.92 m (62 ft 1 in)
4. McNamara’s Folly: General Dynamics–Grumman F-111B
Max take-off weight: 39,900 kg (88,000 lb)
Length: 20.98 m (68 ft 10 in)
3. Fiddler on the roof: Tupolev Tu-128
Max take-off weight: 43700 kg (96,342 lb)
Length: 30.06 m (99 ft)
2. Psycho-reheat: Mikoyan MiG-31
Max take-off weight: 46,200 kg (101,900 lb)
Length: 22.69 m (74 ft 5 in)
1. Skunky nightrider: Lockheed YF-12
Max take-off weight: 63,504 kg (140,000 lb)
Length: 30.97 m (101 ft 8 in)
Special thanks to Combat Aircraft’s Thomas Newdick and artist Ed Ward for their generous help.
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You should also enjoy our other Top Tens! There’s a whole feast of fantastic British, French, Swedish, Australian, Japanese , Belgian, German and Latin American aeroplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read as is the Top Ten cancelled fighters.
Read an interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.
Though the F-35 is yet to enter front-line service, the Pentagon has already began thinking about what should replace it. A memo by Frank Kendall III, the Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, was acquired (by the Bloomberg News group) detailing the first step in defining what the next tactical fighter should be.
The document which was reported on the 22 October 2012 shows that $20- $30 million in DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) funds have been earmarked for this concept definition stage. This means a real, albeit humble start to the next generation fighter programme. The 18 month study will invite suggestions from industry, USAF and the US Navy. This follows a 2010 request from Air Force Materiel Command to define a new tactical aircraft (Next Gen TACAIR). The 2010 request stated that the “The envisioned system may possess enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration, and weapons effects. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 timeframe.”
The US has several perceived fighter ‘gaps’ for the future. The most pressing is the Super Hornet replacement, the Next Generation Air Dominance F/A-XX, for which a formal RFI was issued by the navy in April, 2012. The next is the replacement for the F-22, which will is likely to begin to have airframe age issues from around 2025. The longest-lead item is for a F-35 replacement which may be required from the 2050s.
According to the memo: “We should have no preconceived notions about the nature of air dominance a few decades into the future.” This leaves the door wide open to the companies taking part to offer radical ideas.
His statement that “Our ability to design cutting-edge platforms of this type is already atrophying” and Kendall warns of the dangers of prevarication, fearing that the “potential for viable future competition in this area will shrink or be eliminated” . The move is certain to enjoy full industrial support. Following the evaluation, the Pentagon will assess whether any of the candidates should proceed into a prototype phase in which “multiple competing concepts may be demonstrated,”.
The most likely manufacturers to win this are: Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Northrop Grumman. The ongoing problems of the F-35 programme may count against LM, as will Boeing’s enthusiasm to stay in the fighter market. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works has ambitious ideas of the next fighter, and is considering self-healing structures, multi-spectral stealth and faster (possibly hypersonic) top speeds. Boeing has several tail-less delta concepts, which are built around a photonic, rather than electronic avionics system.
Northrop Grumman has repeatedly mentioned DEW (Direct Energy Weapons) as a feature a 6th Gen fighter should include, along with stealth and comprehensive data-linking.
The current trend for manned/unmanned or ‘optionally manned’ (OM) aircraft is likely to be considered, allowing the aircraft to employ the optimum solution for a given mission.
OM may be politically more palatable, than purely unmanned, for USAF still remains staffed at the highest levels by men and women from ‘piloted’ backgrounds, though a purely unmanned aircraft cannot be ruled out. Unmanned aircraft are also increasingly distrusted by the public and media. The crash in a Somalian refuge camp, and the near collision with an airliner (over the same country) has highlighted the alarming accident rate of the present generation of UAVs.
Fully autonomous operations currently have several technical hurdles, though none seem insurmountable. Legal, moral and cultural objections to purely autonomous military aircraft may prove harder to solve. Fully autonomous may be the way to go though, as remotely piloted aircraft become increasingly vulnerable to jamming and hacking technology. According to a BAE Systems spokesperson, the claimed ‘hack-sky-jacking’ of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel over Iran in 2011, was theoretically possible (though he did qualify that “I don’t think that happened in that case”).
Another popular idea is that the next fighter would also be a UAV-controller, having unmanned wing-men or strike assets as required. At the extreme end of the spectrum is the swarm concept, where many tiny aircraft combine forces to create the same effect as one larger aircraft. One solution is a manned aircraft with sensors monitored by ground-based observers, this is essentially a 21st Century version of the World War II gunner crew with different people guarding different hemispheres of the aircraft. The F-35 will have a modicum of this technology, though there is plenty of room for further exploitation. It would certainly be reassuring for aircrew to know that somewhere someone was constantly ‘checking their six’.
Power is likely to come from an engine based on the ADaptive Versatile ENgine Technology (or ADVENT) programme. This radical project, which began in 2007, involves high-pressure ratio compressor systems and active flow control inlets and exhausts. The design goal is to retain the engine performance found on fifth-generation fighters, but to reduce the fuel consumption by 25-30%. The current thrust class being looked at is 20,000lbs – 35,000lbs (9072 to 15876 kg). ADVENT has been followed by Adaptive Engine Technology Development (AETD), with the aim of bridging the gap between the experimental and the practical realization of the technology. At this phase Pratt & Whitney was invited back into the fold, offering an engine incorporating features of the F119 and F135. P&W’s proposed AETD program will lead to demonstration testing of a high-pressure ratio core in early 2016, to be followed by full engine testing of a three-stream adaptive fan and three-stream compatible augmentor and exhaust system.
The exhaust plume will more carefully considered than ever before, both in terms of aerodynamics (where it will be modeled as if it was ‘part’ of the aircraft), and in terms of cooling (for IR stealth) and shape (for radar stealth).
If as intended, the new generation of engines are capable of efficiency in a wide range of speed ranges, then the same might be expected of the aircraft’s aerodynamic configuration. The concept is known as ‘morphing’ and several manufacturers are looking into ways aircraft would achieve this. A ‘smart skin’ is another option, this could include several technologies including chameleon-like visual stealth or infra-red deception camouflage (a lightweight version of the Adaptiv-type currently being developed for armoured vehicles) and embedded or ‘structural’ sensors. This would come at enormous cost, and would certainly increase the maintenance burden.
A major problem, made even harder by the need to stay stealthy is identifying friends from foe, to allow long distance missile shots. In answering this question one IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) specialist said “it will be relatively simple, if you can see them- they’re hostiles.” alluding to the West’s massive advantage in low-observable technology. But this won’t always be the case, one solution (if true stealthy data-liking proves too hard) is smarter missiles that can accurately identify aircraft types and will not hit friendlies. Future missiles for the fighter are likely to be faster, with multi-band guidance.
Another key area is the using of the radar as a weapon, to both ‘fry’ enemy electronic devices and radars with electromagnetic energy, and to broadcast computer viruses.
The long timeframe makes the possibility of a graphene construction possible. Graphene is expected by many to be the next ‘wonder material’ in the aerospace industry. As Nobel-prize winner Prof Andre Geim, noted “It is the thinnest material in the universe and also the strongest ever measured”.
Whatever solution is chosen, the toughest fight this aircraft programme will have in the near-term will be for funding. The US is reluctant to give up its technological lead in fighters, but anyone requesting funding for the new F-?? (F-24 perhaps or F-36?) was previously seen as rocking the boat, and threatening F-35 funding. Things are changing however, and the 6th Gen fighter programmes are gaining momentum.
(article written in January 2013, provided as an introduction to a series of articles to appear on Hush-Kit about Gen 6)
Former USAF serviceman and diplomat, Robert F Dorr, speaks to Hush-Kit about killing the B-2, the under-appreciated C-5M and Hitler’s Time Machine.
You have been critical of certain decisions made by USAF, what would be a sensible path for it to take today?
The United States should return to using its armed forces, as the Constitution prescribes, for the defence of these United States — and not for conflicts in trouble spots around the world. For the Air Force that means being prepared for a peer war with a modern nation state such as Russia or China. In terms of procurement, that means a crash programme to acquire a long-range strategic bomber in large numbers. On the subject of retirement, the Air Force should retire its twenty B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, which are nearly useless, and retain aircraft it needs. That means retaining the A-10C Thunderbolt II and KC-10 Extender.
What is the most over-rated military aircraft?
The most over-rated aircraft is the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. The principles of stealth were well known for years while the U.S. government kept them secret in a ‘black’ programme, adding drama to a capability that is of marginal utility in a slow, vulnerable bomber. In 2013, the last year for which I have figures, it cost $169,313 (per flight hour) to fly the B-2. The B-1B Lancer has a reputation for being costly to operate but the comparable figure for the B-1B is $57,807. The B-2 is almost impossible to keep in operation at any location other than its home base. In 2013, the B-2 had a mission capable rate of 46%, the lowest in inventory, meaning that less than half of scheduled missions took place. Because it began as a black program (for no justifiable reason), a mystique has grown around the B-2.
What is the most under-rated military aircraft? (historic or modern)
The Air Force has never properly understood the value of helicopters and has not given a high enough priority to developing replacements for the HH-60G Pave Hawk, MH-60W Whisky and UH-1N Twin Huey. The C-5M Super Galaxy isn’t appreciated enough, even though it has capabilities far superior to those of the newer C-17 Globemaster III.
What is the biggest aviation myth?
‘Aviation is about pilots’. If it weren’t for combat systems officers (CSOs, formerly, navigators), other flight crew members, maintainers and many others, aircraft would not fly. The Air Force needs to work harder to treat helicopter pilots as equals to fixed-wing pilots and to treat CSOs as equals to pilots. That means opportunities for good assignments, schools and command should be extended equally to all. So far, every Air Force chief of staff has been a pilot. That needs to change.
What is your opinion of the F-35 programme?
We’d be better off to resume production of new, advanced versions of the F-16E/F Fighting Falcon and the F-15K Slam Eagle for the Air Force, and to continue production of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet for the Navy. The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is behind schedule, over cost, and doesn’t work. But what if it did work as advertised? Its stealth properties are overrated as an asset in war. It’s at best a mediocre air-to-ground attack aircraft. It’s not an effective air-to-air fighter. The emphasis on the F-35 has sucked the air out of the room when it comes to equipping our airmen with new and effective tactical warplanes.
You have to retire one USAF type tomorrow- what would it be?
As I indicated, the B-2 Spirit is my candidate. It’s effectively useless as an asset in wartime because of limitations on where it can operate. As with the F-35, its stealth properties are overrated as an asset in war.
What was your role in the Air Force, and what is your greatest memory from this time?
I was writing about the Air Force before I was in the Air Force. My first paid magazine contribution was in the November 1955 issue of Air Force magazine when I was in high school. They were building the Air Force Academy in Colorado (its first class convened in 1955; I graduated high school in 1957); I wanted to attend and become a fighter pilot. I was born with a hearing impairment which put the Academy and pilot wings out of reach.
As an enlisted airman from 1957 to 1960, I studied the Korean language at the Army Language School (today called the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, California, and served two tours in Korea monitoring the North Korean air force. I could tell you more but I’d have to kill you. I was able to do this job well and don’t remember ever being given a hearing test for it. This work was performed at a ground station and in a C-47 Skytrain reconnaissance aircraft. I completed Air Force service in August 1960, a month before my 21st birthday. The Air Force experience led to a career as a U.S. diplomat (1964-89) and to further study of the Korean and Japanese languages.
Tell us about your new book and why people should buy it?
I have six books currently in print including ‘Hell Hawks’, co-authored with Thomas D. Jones, a history of a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter group in combat.
My latest book is something new and different. ‘Hitler’s Time Machine’ is an alternate history of ]what might have been’ in World War II — a drama of the arms race between the United States and Nazi Germany to develop a time machine. The main characters include Barbara Stafford, an American physicist; Hans Kammler, a Nazi scientist (and a real person), and Die Glocke, or The Bell, a secret device with a secret purpose.
Why should you read this book? It’s an alternate history using as background very real events with very real people including Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
“Hitler’s Time Machine” is available for Kindle and in hard copy for British readers here
American readers can find “Hitler’s Time Machine” here
And, of course, readers can get copies of his books directly from him: firstname.lastname@example.org
Runways are undesirable locations for military aircraft. Being tied to miles of concrete gives jet aircraft a built-in vulnerability as well as restricting their flexibility. So it is hardly surprising that designers have taken great efforts in trying to produce vertical take-off and landing aircraft. These almost inevitably doomed projects have put some fascinating shapes into the sky, here are ten of them.
10. ‘The German Kestrel’ VFW VAK 191B As with several aircraft on this list, the £192 million VAK-191 project was built in support of NATO’s huge competition for a supersonic VTOL strike aircraft. The propulsion system, developed with the help of Rolls-Royce, used a Pegasus engine and two lift-jets. The aircraft had an internal weapons bay. When the NATO requirement was scrapped (after being technically won by the Hawker P.1154), the VAK-191 flew on in support of an ambitious US/West German fighter project. When this project was also canned it was hard to justify the project and the VAK-191 was axed by the West German government in 1972.
9. ‘The Pentagon Easychair’ Ryan X-13 Vertijet One way approach to vertical take-off and landing was the ‘tail-sitter’. The X-13 was more successful than its turboprop tail sitting brethren but was championing the wrong approach. In an attempt to promote the aircraft, the X-13 once crossed the Potomac River and landed at the Pentagon.
8. ‘Bumbly Chancer’ Lockheed XV-4 Hummingbird This is probably the worst aircraft on this list in terms of its effectiveness. Vertical lift came from the thrust being vectored downward through multiple nozzles. But the thrust generated was far less than expected, a factor which contributed to both XV-4s crashing. The intentions were to produce a target spotting aircraft for the US Army.
7. ‘The Black Sea Harrier’ Yakovlev Yak-38 The much maligned Yak-38 was only intended as an interim aircraft and shouldn’t be judged too harshly. This equivalent to the Sea Harrier served the soviet navy from 1976 and 1991, and laid the foundation for the fast, agile and considerably more impressive Yak-41.
6. ‘The Man-Eater’ Ryan XV-5A
The perky little Ryan XV-5A was built in to answer the US Army’s need for a close support aircraft. Attempts to develop it into a combat rescue capability were not encouraging; in trials a dummy was ingested one of the wings fans (out of the pot and into the frying pan). The use of a lift-fan for vertical flight is idea that is still alive today, and can be seen on the F-35B.
5. ‘Jimbo the ketamine jet’ Dornier Do 31 The superbly bonkers Do 31 transport was conceived to support the dispersal of a planned NATO supersonic fighter that never entered service (see Mirage IIIV). It was powered by eight lift jets and two Pegasus Harrier engines. The drag and weight imposed by the wingtip mounted engine pods was a big issue, and the performance was disappointing. The aircraft had a fantastic appearance however, suitable for Hitler to escape to the moon in.
5. ‘The Manga Starfighter’ EWR VJ 101 Heinkel and Messerschmitt teamed up with the rather less famous Bölkow to produce this six-engined tribute to the aesthetics of Roger Ramjet. Unlike other aircraft featuring small jets, this do not feature a larger main engine. The design, which was in many ways similar to the never completed Bell XF-109, achieved a speed of Mach 1.04. Christ knows what would have happened in the event of an engine failure.
4. ‘Saut Mirage’ Dassault Mirage IIIV Without a doubt, the best-looking and fastest jump-jet to fly was the French Mirage IIV. This prototype fighter, based on the basic layout of the Mirage III, first flew in 1965 in an attempt to win the NATO Basic Military Requirement 3 for a common supersonic VTOL fighter. The prototype aircraft achieved Mach 2.04, but could not fly supersonically after a vertical take-off it could not carry enough fuel. The aircraft was lifted by bank of eight lift jets, the weight of complexity of which would have limited the aircraft’s practicality had it entered service.
3. ‘The prolapsing firefly’ Lockheed Martin F-35B Lighting II
Though symbolic of all that is awful about the military–industrial–congressional complex, the F-35 is a very impressive piece of engineering. The F-35B should be the first supersonic jump-jet to enter service – a greatly impressive feat following more than fifty years of failed attempts by some of the world’s greatest designers. The vertical take-off of the aircraft is a fascinating event to watch, described somewhat distastefully by one observer, as looking like, “A prolapsing firefly”.
2. ‘Perestroika Carpetburn’ Yakovlev Yak-141 The abortive Yak-41 was an ambitious attempt to produce a supersonic VTOL carrier fighter for defence of the Soviet naval fleet. The project began in the mid-1970s and a prototype flew in 1987. In an unusual, and at the time secretive, move Lockheed funded the project to gain propulsion experience for the X-35 (forerunner to the F-35) they were then developing. The Yak-141 used a similar propulsion system to the F-35, with a swivelling main nozzle – but differed in having two lift engines (the F-35 opted for a lift fan powered by the main engine). This impressive, manoeuvrable aircraft achieved 12 FAI records in April 1991. It’s timing was unfortunate, arriving as the soviet union was disintegrating and it was cancelled in 1992. Vertical take-off required the use of reheat (afterburner), necessitating the use of special steel decks.
1. ‘Four poster deathtrap’ Hawker/BAe/McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Harrier No surprises for the number one spot. Key to the Harrier’s success is the simplicity of the propulsion concept: the engine’s thrust is steered through four movable nozzles. Unlike rival concepts, the wing and engine did not need to be swivelled for vertical flight, nor did it depend on extra lift engines (which were a weight burden in forward flight) or a specialised landing pad. The Harrier was a lower-risk brother to the aborted P.1154, initially funded in part by the US Army (which was keen to develop an in-house fixed-wing close support force) and part privately, as British companies were then prohibited from developing manned military aircraft (as they were deemed obsolete).The first generation Harrier entered service with the RAF on April Fool’s Day 1969 and today remains in service, in Sea Harrier guise, with the Indian Navy. The Harrier was replaced by the bigger and more sophisticated Anglo-American Harrier II from the 1980s. The Harrier, especially in its initial form, had a very high attrition rate for an aircraft of its generation (40% of all Harriers were lost in accidents) and was difficult for pilots to master. Landing was particularly difficult with the pilot having to control both the throttle and the nozzle lever with his left hand. Despite these limitations it is a charismatic and exciting aircraft, sadly missed in Britain (where it retired in 2010).