Is it just me or are ‘lo-viz’ markings inexplicable?


This B-24 wears an experimental dazzle ‘mirror’ scheme in 1945, either that or you’re more tired than you think.

I planned to do my homework for this article, but I’ve decided not to. Maybe this is because a hot bath seems preferable to scouring obscure aviation books, or maybe it’s because I hope somebody will read this and give me the answer I want.

Military aircraft have long carried national markings. It’s a good idea as they can reduce the chance of ‘friendly fire’ incidents. You’re probably aware of the famous one used by both the RAF and 60s mods, the mean black and white cross of World War II German aircraft and the rather camp USAF roundel. A roundel by the way is a circular symbol, so the USAF’s is slightly impure as it has horizontal protrusions. Occasionally aircraft markings need to be changed as they look too much like those of the enemy. The large red circle in the centre of RAF roundels was too similar to the Japanese air force’s so RAF aircraft operating in Asia became two-tone blue affairs. This we all know and are comfortable with.


This 1942 Hurricane wears a ‘Special Night’ scheme that both increases and decreases the aircraft’s conspicuity. My head hurts.

There was always an odd contradiction in national markings being used in conjunction with camouflage: markings are designed to be conspicuous and camouflage to conceal or at least confuse. In the early part of World War II the RAF found the white in their roundels too conspicuous so made the white band thinner and in some cases removed it altogether. When D-Day came the danger of friendly fire was deemed greater than the threat of the enemy and subsequently highly visible ‘invasion stripes’ were added (also, the large numbers of aircraft close together rendered the early IFF transponders useless).


The UK’s F-35B resplendent in almost completely anonymous markings.

Before I get side-tracked let’s jump straight to the subject in hand. What is the point of ‘lo-viz’ markings? From the late 1970s to the 1990s all military aircraft went grey. It was found to be the best all-round camouflage and soon fighters, bombers and even transport aircraft all went grey (with very few exceptions). Modellers from around the world killed themselves due to the tedium and enamel paint producers tipped gallons of brilliant hues out into canals and tripled production of the universe’s most boring colour.

(Trainers went black, which despite the opinions of night fighter scheme designers is the most conspicuous colour in most light conditions.)

Cleared for public release by Lt.Cmdr. Terry Dudley, USS Kitty Hawk Public Affairs Officer

The commanding officer of each United States Navy Carrier Air Group gets a jazzily-painted plane.

RAF roundels became washed-out ghosts of their former selves. Red became pink, mid-blue became the pale blue of invalid cars of the 1980s. In the 2000s it became even more extreme with some roundels losing their colour altogether and becoming grey, often making national identification by symbol alone close to impossible.

So are those symbols supposed to be seen or not? The idea of low-visibilty traffic signs is preposterous, so why ‘lo-viz’ aircraft markings? Is it an attempt to pay lip-service to international conventions while optimising camouflage? If this is the case then the rules are so weak and silly then maybe they’re not worth following-  where are these rules set anyway? Who invented them?

I leave this to you wise reader to solve as my bath is almost run and I’d like another glass of wine.

A fascinating article on aircraft camouflage can be found here.


A Buffalo in a very attractive dazzle scheme.

The Rapier Missile: The early years

A Rapier missile speeds towards its target during a live firing. Scotland. 17/06/2001

The Rapier is a British surface-to-air missile that entered service in 1971. The type remains in service today with ten nations including Britain, Iran and Switzerland. The missile was developed by the Guided Weapon section of the British Aircraft Corporation from 1964. It was then known simply as project ET316, receiving the ‘Rapier’ name in 1966. The project benefited from experience gained during the development of the PT 428 project which was cancelled in 1962. The PT 428 was a rival to the US Mauler, designed to destroy fast aircraft travelling at altitudes ranging from 100 to 10,000 ft. The PT 428 was very sophisticated for its time – it could be fired ‘blind’ relaying purely on radar and was thus an all-weather system (poor weather could hamper the operations of weapons requiring ‘line-of-sight’). The British government cancelled the PT 428 in favour of the Mauler. However the Mauler project proved too ambitious and ultimately failed leaving both Britain and the US without a modern low-level defence system.


The MIM-46 Mauler prototype. The failure of the US Mauler left both the USA and Britain without a modern low-level air defence system.


A test launch of a Mauler missile.

Starting simple

By late 1962 it was becoming apparent that a new generation of low-level attack aircraft were a threat that would need to be countered; it was anticipated that the British TSR.2 and US F-111 would present insurmountable challenges to enemy air defences and would be inspire similar soviet designs. To prepare for this threat BAC’s Jack Jefferies persuaded the company to start work on a relatively simple surface-to-air missile that could be upgraded as the appropriate technologies become sufficiently mature. The intention was that a blind-fire capability would be added further down the line. BAC invested £250,000 into the idea, then known as ‘Sightfire’ and development contract followed in 1964. A team of outside companies was put together to assist in the programme including Barr and Stroud, Cossor. Coventry Climax, Decca, GEC and Standard Telephones and Cables.

Like today’s ASRAAM, the Sightfire was to be a ‘hitt-ile’: a missile that actually penetrates the target rather than using a proximity warhead. The target is destroyed by the kinetic energy of impact with the actual missile. The main benefit of a hittile is that the weapon can be smaller and lighter as it does not have to carry a large warhead. However to be able to hit targets directly it must be highly manoeuvrable and accurate.


In the early 1960s NATO forces were anticipating a future threat from fast low-level attack aircraft like the MiG-27 and Su-24.

The Sightfire was to be light and therefore mobile. For flexibility of operations it would need to moveable by helicopter or Land Rover. It was to have a crew of only five rather than the ten required for an anti-aircraft gun, it also be far lighter; a lightweight gun is around seven tons, the new weapon would be less than one ton. Testing at Woomera in Australia in 1966 revealed the weapon to be extremely effective. By 1968/9 the weapon was combat ready and it entered service with the British Army in 1971.


In 1966 work began on developing the anticipated blind-fire version that would make it an all-weather weapon that could be used at day or night. A radar, the DN.181 was developed for the new system. The first customer for the blind-fire Rapier was Iran, receiving their first example in 1973. The Rapier was accepted by the RAF Regiment in the same year.

Export orders for the Rapier began pouring in – notably from Australia, which a placed a £20 million order. Following the initial sale to Iran, the nation identified a  need for a self-contained vehicle mounted version, so a work on a system based on the ubiquitous M113 armoured personnel carrier began in 1974. This system was not completed by the time the Shah was overthrown.


Top Twelve Contra-Rotating Lunatics


By the mid-1940s the limitations of piston aero engines were becoming apparent. Every possible scheme to squeeze the last bit of power from the internal combustion engine was tried. One of the most successful innovations was the contra-rotating propeller arrangement whereby two sets of propellers driven by one engine and sharing a common axis are contra-rotated (with one set travelling clockwise and the other anticlockwise). 

This system, though insanely noisy, produced more thrust than an equivalent conventional arrangement. It also produced some of the most insane flying machines ever to have deafened their ground crew. 

12. Douglas A2D Skyshark


In 1945, barely three months after the piston-engined Skyraider had flown, Douglas were asked to produce a turboprop aircraft of much greater power. Though the contra-rotation system was originally developed for the piston-engine, it was with the new turboprop that it realised its potential (the first turboprop aircraft, the Trent Meteor flew the same year on 20th September. The Skyshark, finally took to the air on 26th May 1950, and a proved a marked improvement over the Skyraider: it had a 160 percent better climb rate, a 50 per cent higher service ceiling and a 170 mph faster top speed. Unfortunately development problems (centred around the engines) had so delayed the type, that it was now up against the XA-4D-1 Skyhawk, a type that was superior in almost every way (as we shall see this would not be the last time that one of Heinemann’s creations would defeat a contra’ design). The brutal Skyshark was cancelled after the sixth production aircraft was built.

11. Martin-Baker MB 5


First flying in 1944, the MB 5 was a superb fighter. According to master pilot Janusz Żurakowski (who demonstrated the type’s astonishing manoeuvrability at the 1946 Farnborough Airshow) it was superior in many respects to the Spitfire. The world’s most experienced test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown also commented on what a capable aircraft it was. Despite its huge potential, it didn’t enter production.

10. Convair XFY ‘Pogo’ and Lockheed XFV ‘Salmon’

XFY-1 POGO (37)

In 1950 the US Navy approached Convair and Lockheed and asked them to build tail-sitting experimental aircraft powered by the impressive (and troublesome) Allison T40. The 5,500 horsepower engines turned 16-feet co-axial propellers producing a pull that exceeded the weight of the aircraft. The aircraft demonstrated vertical take-offs (and that the US Navy were insane).


9. Fisher P-75 Eagle

Fisher P-75 Eagle

The 1943 Fisher P-75 Eagle was certainly not as impressive as its later McDonnell Douglas namesake. Testing revealed several issues with this powerful (but mediocre) fighter including: miscalculated centre of mass; dismal engine performance from the Allison V-3420 engine; high aileron forces at high speed, and poor spin characteristics. Everything the Allison V-3420 touched turned to shit as all the types fitted with it (the Douglas XB-19, Boeing XB-39 Superfortress, Lockheed XP-58 Chain Lightning) failed to enter service.

8. Westland Wyvern 


The post-war Wyvern was a single-seat carried-based fighter powered by a turboprop engine. As Ed Ward pointed out, it was, “650 pounds shy of a loaded Dakota”. Unsurprisingly, of the 127 that entered service with the Fleet Air Arm, 39 were lost despite a service life of only five years.

7. Fairey Gannet


Fairey’s seeming battle with Westland to produce the ugliest aircraft was won outright when the Gannet prototype took to the air in 1949. On 19 June 1950 it became the first turboprop aircraft to make a deck landing on an aircraft carrier.  Not put off by the type’s hideous appearance it received export orders from the German Marineflieger, the Indonesian Navy and the Australian Fleet Air Arm.

6. Tupolev Tu-95/114/116/126/142

An air-to-air left side view of a Soviet Tu-95 Bear aircraft.

In original purpose, the Tupolev Tu-95 is closely analogous to the US B-52 with the minor discrepancy in the direction the atomic attacks would culminate. Whereas the US opted for jet engines for the B-52, Tupolev decided that turboprops were the preferable solution. The 14,800 shift horsepower Kuzetsov NK12 is the most powerful turboprop that has ever entered production (the Tu-95 has around twelve times more engine power than a Lancaster bomber). The result was one, if not the, fastest propeller-powered aircraft ever to fly. This superb design remains in service a staggering sixty two years after it first flew. It spawned several other family members – the Tu-114 and Tu-116 airliners, the Tu-126 AWACS and the Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft.

5. Tupolev Tu-91


The Tu-91 was planned to service a new Soviet carrier force in a similar way to the FAA’s Wyvern. It performed well in tests, and when the carrier plan was scuppered, it was developed as a land-based aircraft. However it was cancelled in this role, the apocryphal reason being that Khrushchev found the notion of a new propeller-powered warplane untenable.

4. North American XA2J Super Savage


The Super Savage competed with the jet-powered Douglas XA3D to become the new twin-engined attack aircraft for the US Navy. Unfortunately for the North American, development of the rival XA3D was being supervised by Ed Heinemenn, an unbeatable aircraft designer. The Super Savage was greatly inferior to the XA36D and lost the contest. The winner became the superb A-3 Skywarrior.

3. Avro Shackleton


If war between the Warsaw Pact nations and NATO had broken out in the late 1980s Soviet Su-27s would have been given the rather unsporting task of shooting down an aircraft that was essentially a World War II bomber. The popular idea that the Shackleton was based on the Lincoln bomber is misleading, the fuselage was a clean sheet of paper design and the aircraft inherited some features from both the Lincoln and the Tudor airliner, but the basic configuration could be traced back as far as the Manchester. The maiden flight of the Shackleton was 9th March 1949, a mere eleven days before the first flight of the Wyvern. Originally a maritime patrol aircraft, (capable of deploying nuclear depth-charges) it continued life as an airborne early warning aircraft. In this role it served well into senility despite being equipped with a late -1940s technology radar (partly because of the failure of the Nimrod AEW.Mk 3). In the 1970s individual Shackletons were given name from popular children’s TV shows (The Magic Roundabout and The Herbs). Despite, or more probably because of its anarchistic survival into the 1980s it was loved by many (though generally not the aircrew). The type was retired in 1990.

2. Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet

Northrop XP-56

Northrop seems to have designed aircraft on the principal of providing the juiciest inspiration to the vehicle and set teams of future steampunk films. Whereas most aircraft designers of the 1940s looked to aluminium as their primary metal, something about magnesium attracted mavericks. In several cases, these non-conformists were also drawn to the ‘pusher configuration’. In 1943 US aero-giant Northrop flew the XP-56 Black Bullet, it looked like nothing else and was the probably the most bizarre American aircraft produced during World War II. The bat-winged fighter was an extremely unorthodox design and was probably the first ‘Magnesium pusher’. However, the type proved dangerous to fly and delays in its testing saw this piston-engined aircraft fall out of favour, by now it was the dawn of the jet age. Somebody at Northrop clearly thought the XP-56 was not mad enough and began work on the lunatic XP-79, schemed a rocket-propelled fighter built to destroy enemy aircraft by physically ramming them. Again, this was a largely magnesium construction.

1. Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster


The remarkable XB-42 was in many ways the most advanced piston-engined warplane ever flown. As René J. Francillon put it, “the XB-42 was as fast as the Mosquito B.XVI but carried twice the maximum bomb load…furthermore the Mixmaster had a defensive armament of four 0.50-in machine-guns in two remotely-controlled turrets whereas the Mosquito B.XVI was unarmed.” A variety of offensive gun options were considered including sixteen .50 cals or two 37-mm cannons. The XB-42A had a top speed of 488 mph and a maximum range of 4,750 miles.

You should also enjoy our other Top Tens! There’s  a whole feast of fantastic BritishFrenchSwedishAustralian,  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.

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

The 30 second plane project

How do most people draw an aeroplane? With a 30 second time limit and banned from doing any research, our artists were asked to draw a plane. Let’s have a look at the results. If you’d like to add a drawing to this project, please send it to @hush_kit on Twitter. 

1. 10614407_10203808207099061_561753218079020764_n

Joel Tom Long is a rapper and charity fundraiser based in Bristol. His drawing appears to be of of a mid-wing, high-tailed airliner. The swept wings suggest that it would be jet-propelled but no engines are apparent (maybe he ran out of time). The pitot or instrumentation probe suggests this may be a prototype or test aircraft. The undercarriage consists of a single nose wheel and no main unit. The high wing sweep makes it likely that it is an aircraft that operates at speeds above Mach 0.8. The operator is one previously unknown ‘Cunt Airways’. It is not known whether this fictional airline is based on the now-defunct Madrid-based Air Comet (who lost the author’s bags and took four days to return them). The form is an expression of speed which may have been influenced by the cancelled East German Baade 152. 

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This friendly, rather fish-like machine was drawn by the animator Ruth Lingford. Its elliptical wings are reminiscent of R.J Mitchell’s Spitfire and its general ‘doughiness’ reminds the viewer of Maurice Sendak’s dough plane from his ‘Midnight Kitchen’. This aeroplane has no visible means of propulsion or windows for its crew. The tail assembly is very small, meaning that this design could have serious controllability issues. The overall shape suggests that this would be a pre-1950 piston-engined aircraft. The organic lines call to mind the aborted Bugatti 100P Racer. 

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Krystal Turner’s aircraft is a happy living entity. It is doubly anthropomorphised–  having both a friendly mouth and being able to talk. This is yet another 30-second plane without engines but does score highly in having windows for the crew and passengers as well as a front and rear undercarriage, though it does lack a horizontal tailplane. It appears to be a jetliner but with a large bulky fuselage suggesting a strong secondary freighting role. 

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Charlotte Florence Wormley-Healing’s very stylish aircraft lacks in realism but gains points for its expressive dash. This advanced airliner has no tail assembly and large, possibly variable-geometry wings. Perhaps this is based on Barnes Wallis’ futuristic Swallow proposal from the 1950s? According to Charlotte the aircraft features ‘Jazzy wings’, reference to the exciting wiggly mural emblazoned on the upper-surfaces of the wings. An advanced fly-by-wire control system would be necessary to solve the severe centre of gravity issues caused by the unorthodox arrangement. The confident line work and baguette-like form are delightful and make you want to eat a sandwich.

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Artist and guide Edward Ward’s aircraft scores the highest in terms of both realism and inclusion of parts. To be far though Ed cheated as he is a professional illustrator and aviation expert. However he gains back points for how cute and lovely this radial-engined open-cockpit aircraft is. 

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Kane Martindale’s drawing is very exciting and suggests an aircraft with a story. It combines the happy dog-like features of some of the earlier images with the doughy-fish-like forms introduced by Ruth Lingford. Its well-depicted turbofan engines are a breath of fresh air as are its Soviet air force markings and the inclusion of the call to action slogan,’Yeah!’. Like Joel’s aircraft it includes a nose probe of some kind. The large dorsal shark fin is a suprising feature that may have been added to cure directional issues or to house an electronically scanning radar or satellite communication device. It is not known where the air intake for the rear central reheated engine (unless this is a rocket engine). The aircraft has a crew of two and room for at least twenty passengers (assuming a two abreast configuration). 

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Heathcote Ruthven has drawn his aeroplane on the side of a pear. His Primitivist depiction may be a reference to the Cargo Cult or a general reflection on how low-technology societies would view the modern aeroplane. It has many windows on the side and appears to have a sensor turret below the forward fuselage (perhaps indicative of an intelligence, surveillance or reconnaissance role). 

8. BwiPj8WIgAAawM4.jpg-large

Clemens Vasters from Viersen-Dülken, Germany has gone for an aircraft based on Concorde but with some influences from the Avro Vulcan. Clemens demonstrates a good understanding of the shape of aeroplanes combined with an unwillingness to use paper the normal way up. 



9. Michael Piper’s highly unorthodox aircraft combines features of a fighter – the bubble canopy, large radome and sharp forward fuselage features – with a capacity for passengers and forward swept wings. Forward swept wings, despite their aerodynamic advantages have rarely made it onto production aircraft, perhaps the wings on this are a reference to the Hamburger Flugzeugbau HFB-320 Hansa Jet. I’m not sure why so many 30 second aircraft look like obscure German jetliners. Attention is drawn away from the absence of horizontal tailplanes by the the operator’s logo- a large vampire baby’s head. 

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James Sanna’s moving portrayal of the last few moments of a crashing C-47 is a stark reminder of our mortality. Showing through the back of the paper are voyeuristic glimpses into Sanna’s early works which are full of an optimism absent from his submitted work. The viewer is forced into becoming a peeping tom in this dangerous and confrontational debate on life and sexuality. 

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Despite having a sophisticated grasp of perspective, Sally Megee’s piece is about innocence, just one of the many contradictions in this work. Why is the nose a motorcycle helmet? Perhaps because this is not an aeroplane at all but an adventurer on a journey into a dreamworld. Despite the quaint Saint-Exupéry-esque stars this is a dark metaphorical flight – could it be a reference to the metaphysical, while very real, ‘Flight to Arras’? And why is God striking the wing with lightning and punishing this gentle traveller? Perhaps this is a fierce critique of a 20th Century robbed of God by Nietzsche and destroyed by the wills of ambitious and cruel men.  

12. D6Sbr

A very lovely Blackburn Roc from a man by the unusual name of Mossie 633 (60yrs, male, Japan). Confident, skilled line-work and an excellent memory of what a Roc looks like combine in this very pleasing doodle. Was his choice of such a terrible aeroplane a subtle criticism of Britain and a comment on how a post-colonial power has lost its way? I guess we’ll never know (unless we ask him). 






Add your 30 sec plane to the gallery!