Joe Wilding was the co-founder of Boom Supersonic, an independent company attempting to build a supersonic transport aircraft. They have already unveiled a small scale demonstrator, the XB-1 ‘Baby Boom’ (left). I met Joe in a field full of tanks in the middle of the English countryside, within minutes we were talking about supersonic inlet designs, here was a man I wanted to hear more from. I asked Joe to take us for a fast flight through 10 supersonic transport aircraft projects.
Here they are, in rough chronological order with a recurring crazy idea at the end.
We will start this list with the first and only successful supersonic transport in history. Concorde really was revolutionary, it was years ahead of its time. Its uniqueness begins with its origins. Being a joint venture between Britain and France, it was their flagship project during the (aero)space race of the 1960s. It’s remarkable the project went anywhere given that most previous Anglo-French joint ventures had been wars.
Many new technologies were developed and certified on Concorde. The engines were afterburning turbojets with the reliability and longevity to be usable in airline service. To this day the Olympus 593 is the largest aerospace jet engine core ever built. The engines were fed by two-dimensional, variable geometry inlets. These inlets slowed the incoming air to subsonic speeds with incredible efficiency. They also were stable under all conditions through a combination of an active and passive control system, which prevented potentially deadly engine “unstarts”. Concorde could supercruise without afterburners. This is a feat modern fighters can just barely pull off, and even that is for a brief duration.
The aircraft was the first to certify a full authority fly-by-wire flight control system. It also had a complete manual backup in case the new-technology system should fail. Although the aircraft had stability augmentation to ease pilot workload, it was statically stable and could be hand flown with the augmentation system disabled.
Concorde used fuel transfer to shift the aircraft center of gravity at supersonic speeds, thus reducing trim drag to near-zero.
Concorde was certified to fly up to 60,000 feet, where a rapid decompression would instantly kill all on board. To prevent this the aircraft contained very small passenger windows, which provided a survivable cabin environment with the complete failure of up to two of the cabin windows.
Heat dissipation is a big problem for supersonic aircraft. At Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), the aircraft heat soaks around 100°C. This temperature rise is due to the compression of the air at high speed and exponentially increases at higher Mach number. At Mach 3the temperature increases to 275°C. Concorde mitigated this thermal load with a complex environmental control system that transferred excess heat to the jet fuel before it was burned in the engines. Even with this system, cabin windows were hot to the touch in flight.
It is most remarkable that all of this was accomplished before the age of digital computers. Concorde was completely designed using slide rules, drafting tables, and physical testing. Yet Concorde was certified and flew successfully for 27 years. Ticket prices were high, partially due to its fuel economy, but also due to maintenance costs and a limited fleet size. Despite this, Concorde was profitable on certain routes including New York to London.
2. Tupolev Tu-144 ‘Concordski‘
You can’t talk about Concorde without referencing the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144, which was given the belittling nickname ‘Concordski’. Many believe this aircraft was a reverse-engineered Concorde, copied from data obtained through industrial espionage. Though rather larger than Concorde, the general performance and configuration would seem to support this assumption. However, a lot of differences exist between the two aircraft, pointing to it being far from a carbon copy. The Tu-144 had a different wing planform and airfoils. It used a retractable canard for low speed control. The landing gear arrangement is significantly different, being housed within the engine nacelles. The cooling system, inlets, and engines also diverge from the Concorde design. The Tu-144 required afterburners for long range cruise, where Concorde used them only for takeoff and transonic acceleration. The final piece of data is that the original Tu-144 actually flew before Concorde did. Granted, it flew only a few months before, and much data still could have been obtained and used.
Ultimately the Tu-144 was not a successful aircraft in service. Its mission performance limited its range to under 2,500 nautical miles. This is sufficient for travel across the wide expanses of Russia, but insufficient for most trans-oceanic flights. Additionally the aircraft suffered from reliability issues and was used only briefly for passenger flights.
3. Early American Concepts
Seeing what Europe and the Soviets accomplished with supersonic transports, what was the American aerospace up to during this time? The answer is a lot. Sort of. An immense amount of funded research and proposed programs were launched in the US in the 1960s. Unfortunately, none of them ever turned into a flying prototype. American aerospace was anxious to develop a supersonic transport during this time, not wanting to be left behind in the modern airliner race. Unfortunately for these programmes, the US had another little project underway that severely limited the funds and talent that could be applied to supersonic aircraft design: the Apollo program and sending humans to the moon. That said, the US government did significantly fund a series of programmes through the 60s, 70s, and 80s in support of an American Supersonic Transport. Programmes such as Supersonic Commercial Aircraft Technology (SCAT), Supersonic Commercial Aircraft Research (SCAR), and High-Speed Civil Transport (HSCT), despite their questionable acronyms, did produce a lot of valuable research, wind tunnel testing, design tools, and even a prototype engine in the GE-4. A plethora of designs and configurations evolved during this period including swept wings, delta wings, swing wings, canards, tailless, and three-surface aircraft. Much of the research and evolution paralleled developments in the military supersonic realm with new findings being shared in both directions..
The most likely reason a flying prototype evaded these teams can be traced to over-ambition. Boeing, Lockheed, and North American were all working on credible designs that could have potentially been developed into a commercial product. However, most of these were designed for Mach 3, trans-Pacific range, and 300+ seats. Concorde was being developed in parallel, and its design goals were much more practical (Mach 2 and 100 seats). As the Concorde programme began to look more real, the American teams decided they needed to differentiate their potential products and thus completely eclipse Concorde upon entry into service. Unfortunately it ended up being an aircraft too extreme. Between the technical challenges of Mach 3, and the scale and cost of an aircraft with a weight approaching 1,000,000 pounds, there just wasn’t enough funding for a project of this scale. NASA (and some of the aerospace companies) still have teams with direct lineage to these decades-old programs working on the possibilities of a large future commercial supersonic transport. Only time will tell if there will ever be an appetite for one of these mammoth cruisers.
It should be noted that the Soviet Union also had larger conceptual programs in work during this same time. Most notable is the Tupolev Tu-244, a much larger and faster sibling of the Tu-144.
4. Supersonic Business Jets of the 1990s
The decade of the 1990’s brought a surge of companies working on supersonic business jets. The project scale and budgets of the previous decades influenced this new trend. Many started to look at an incremental approach to supersonic transport development as a viable path. While similar in mission, a business jet can be much smaller than a commercial supersonic transport. Five to ten seats is sufficient, and the small size of the passenger cabin is very attractive for an aircraft configuration layout that provides adequate space for other systems and minimizes drag through optimized shaping. The target market for a supersonic business jet is the ultra-wealthy, a customer that is not typically sensitive to aircraft purchase price and/or operating cost. Leading the charge in this category was Gulfstream. Their existing (and current) products are as close as you can currently come to an ultra-luxury, long-range, high-speed aircraft (which also comes with a very large price tag). Most of their development ideas and efforts have never been made public. But a glimpse of their concept can be seen in the proposed X-54 research aircraft. This aircraft never flew, but much effort went into its design, with a few details being published over the years. The aircraft was intended to be a “quiet boom” aircraft, with technology to attenuate the objectionable sonic boom that is produced when an aircraft flies overhead at supersonic speed. This boom follows the aircraft along its continuous flight path, and unfortunately high altitude does little to minimize its impact on the ground. Gulstream workedwith NASA to produce two technology demonstrations in support of the X-54 aircraft. These experiments (Quiet Spike and the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration) used fighter aircraft with altered external shapes to test boom mitigation ideas and get full-scale flight test data. Progress on the X-54 in recent years has faded with no further updates being issued by Gulfstream.
Another project started in the late 1990’s is the Supersonic Aerospace International (SAI) QSST. This company was started by the son of the Gulfstream founder, Allen Paulson . Any direct ties to Gulfstream were unclear. The QSST was also a business jet targeting the quiet boom market. Despite credible preliminary design effort and collaboration with the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, a prototype never emerged.
A final 1990’s development project was the Sukhoi S-21 business jet. This project was originally a joint venture between Sukhoi and Gulfstream with the latter parting ways after funding proved to be elusive. Sukhoi continued the effort on their own. Few details have been published on this aircraft beyond the rough specification and a few models and renderings. The aircraft predated the quiet boom era and was intended for over-ocean supersonic travel.
A few other organizations also worked on supersonic business jet projects in this era including Tupolev, Dassault, and JAXA (the Japanese aerospace research agency). Designs are plentiful, prototypes are rare.
Aerion was formed in the early 2000’s as the next credible company in the supersonic business jet space. Aerion had a potentially winning formula of a marketable design specification, an impressive team of aerospace engineers/designers, and a wealthy founder willing to fully invest in the program.
The original wing design proposed by Aerion was quite unique and strived for low drag in several different ways. In a break from high-speed aircraft tradition, the wing had virtually no sweep. Most transonic and supersonic aircraft have considerable wing sweep, which accomplishes two things. First, the angle of the wing leading edge to the oncoming airflow reduces the strength of the shockwave created by the wing, and thus reduces drag from this source. Secondly, a swept wing has lower effective thickness relative to the airflow, which also reduces shockwave drag. Another advantage of a non-swept supersonic wing is a relatively short wing chord which minimizes skin friction drag. An unswept supersonic wing can work great, as long as the leading edge is relatively sharp, which prevents the formation of a large drag-inducing bow shockwave on the front of the wing. This type of wing was used with great success on the Lockheed F-104. That aircraft was a contemporary of the F-100 and F-102A. All three aircraft used a similar engine, yet the F-104 was roughly 50% faster at Mach 2.0. (To be fair, it was also smaller and lighter.)
A second wing innovation on the original Aerion was a laminar flow wing design. Laminar flow, contrasted to turbulent flow, is an elusive condition that is possible with the right wing shaping and attention to detail. All wings have a small amount of laminar flow at their leading edges. A laminar flow design extends this region to a majority of the wing surface and can reduce the drag produced by an incredible 25%-50%. Aerion did extensive research and wind tunnel testing of this idea in the early days. Unfortunately, very few aircraft have shown reliable capture of this effect in long-term service, mostly due to wing contamination and other real-world constraints.
The Aerion design went through several iterations over a time span of almost two decades. The final design showed a much more conventional swept wing planform, and references to laminar flow were dropped. Other changes included the number of engines, cruise Mach number, and sonic boom strength. In recent years, the company was advancing rapidly, including separate partnerships with Airbus, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, and an engine deal announced with General Electric. Their executive leadership was also fortified with heavy hitters from the commercial aircraft world. Unfortunately the company shut down earlier in 2021 after failing to close a critical round of funding. It appeared they were on the cusp of building a production prototype, so this company closure was both a surprise and a blow to many in the world of supersonic development.
6. Boom Supersonic
Boom Supersonic launched their proposed product, Overture, in 2015. Overture is a unique development as it was the first project in several decades to solely target the commercial airliner market. Overture is a tri-jet design with a similar approach and configuration as Concorde. The company has gained a lot of traction since launch including raising several rounds of funding, signing an development agreement with Rolls-Royce engines and signing aircraft deals with several international airlines including Virgin Group, Japan Airlines and United Airlines.
The company has stated the desire to bring back the capabilities of Concorde, but with updated materials, engines, and aerodynamics. The goal is an aircraft that meets current takeoff noise standards and has operating economics comparable to business-class travel on existing subsonic airliners. Boom has decided to not pursue quiet boom technologies on their first product, and the company name is a (slightly provocative) nod to that decision. The aircraft is a little smaller and slower than Concorde, cruising at Mach 1.7 with a seating capacity of up to 88 seats.
Boom’s first prototype is a 1⁄3-scale technology demonstrator called XB-1. Although the project does not exactly represent the full-scale shaping of Overture, the project will demonstrate the aircraft efficiency and engine installations in a piloted, large-scale flying prototype. The company plans to use the aircraft as a testbed to further evaluate design ideas for systems and aerodynamic features and gather flight test data in real-world conditions. The demonstrator was unveiled last fall and first flight is slated for later this year.
7. Late 2010’s Supersonic Explosion
In addition to Aerion and Boom, the late 2010’s saw an increase of other emergent supersonic companies similar to the 1990’s. These companies are focusing on a mix of the business jet and commercial airliner markets. Spike Aerospace launched the S-512 project soon after Boom emerged. The aircraft will have a quiet boom and moderate cabin size. The project started as a business jet, but Spike has promoted a small airliner version in recent years as that market has started to gain momentum. Like many early-stage supersonic projects, Spike is trying to fund the project and cross the transition from early conceptual studies to preliminary development and prototyping. Spike released a press release in 2018 claiming to have flown a remotely-piloted subsonic demonstrator, but further details or photos were not released. An interesting design detail on the S-512 is the lack of passenger windows. Spike plans to install large-area digital displays on the cabin walls and ceiling to give the illusion of looking outside the aircraft. If accepted by passengers, this could significantly reduce the weight and cost of the fuselage, while increasing the high-altitude reliability. The passenger reception to this idea is still to be determined. Another recent entrant is Exosonic. Their aircraft specification is similar to Boom in size and speed. Very few other details have been released. They are advertising sustainability and quiet boom.
A final recent project is the Virgin supersonic project. The idea of billionaire Richard Branson, the aircraft is being developed at his Virgin Galactic company, which is also developing a suborbital spaceplane for space tourism. Richard took a flight on this space vehicle a few months ago and the company plans high-frequency tourist flights in the near future. Virgin’s combined experience of designing and building high-Mach spaceships and operating subsonic airlines gives them a lot of advantage in this field of commercial supersonic development. Their conceptual design is slated to fly at Mach 3, and they have signed a development agreement with Rolls-Royce for engines.
Hermeus Aerospace is a recent supersonic company with a rather impressive design concept. With a top speed in excess of Mach 5, the aircraft is technically “hypersonic” rather than supersonic. Very few aircraft have been designed to fly this fast. The primary challenges above and beyond supersonic are the extreme airframe heating experienced at hypersonic speeds (>1000°C) and the complexity of the propulsion system. The Hermeus conceptual design looks more like a space plane than a traditional supersonic transport, and it should! The aircraft will likely have no windows (they would melt) and the plane will fly at altitudes approaching 100,000 feet, which is two and a half times higher than a subsonic airliner. The aircraft will be painted black, similar to the famous SR-71 spy plane. At hypersonic speeds and temperatures, the plane can effectively dissipate heat through blackbody radiation.
Hermes is currently focussing on their biggest developmental challenge: the propulsion system. They also recently were awarded a research contract from the US Air Force to develop an autonomous or remotely piloted subscale hypersonic demonstrator nicknamed the “Quarterhorse”. The development goals of this demonstrator will equally benefit both the commercial and military interest in this realm of flight. If successful, the Hermeus aircraft would provide trans-Pacific flights in as little as a few hours, compared to twelve hours or more today.
A second demonstrator (in addition to the Boom XB-1) currently in the fabrication stage is the NASA X-59 QueSST aircraft. This is not meant to be a commercial product, but is a technology demonstrator and research aircraft intending to move forward the state of the art in this category of aircraft. The demonstrator is primarily focused on quiet boom technologies and will serve as a testbed to produce sonic booms of variable strength. This can be used to perform community flyover studies and gather more data on the acceptable sound pressure levels for establishment of a sonic boom standard.
The aircraft is being designed and built by Lockheed Martin and will be operated by NASA. The aircraft is mostly built and first flight is planned for 2022
10. You can just convert a bomber to carry passengers. Right?
The final entrant in this top-ten list of commercial supersonic aircraft projects has to be the crazy idea to convert supersonic bombers to carry passengers. There were a multitude of bombers for which this was proposed, using both American and Soviet bombers. None of these ever went beyond the conceptual stage. Generally these were proposed for military transport purposes, but occasionally there were thoughts given to possible commercial viabilty. Generally a military bomber would not make a good supersonic transport for reasons including cost efficiency, takeoff noise, and certification standards, to name a few. The various bombers would not carry a high number of people without major modification. Bombs tend to be more dense than human cargo, and thus bomb bays are not conducive to a satisfactory passenger experience. So the craziness of this idea is grounded in a lack of practicality. It is fun to sketch though!
And don’t think this is just a crazy idea from the 1960s. Russia was proposing to convert old Tu-160s for passenger service as recently as 2020.
Joe Wilding has 25 years of aircraft development experience including business jets, military transports, small and large UAVs, light sport aircraft and sailplanes. Joe has BS and MS degrees in Aerospace Engineering from Wichita State University. He has worked on several programs from initial concept through regulatory certification. His responsibilities have included composites structural development, aircraft loads, flutter analysis, conceptual aircraft design, flight test engineering, and programme management. Joe has been a co-founder in four startup companies and he is currently splitting his time between engineering consulting, technical mentoring, and communications coaching for engineers.
How would you describe the A-10 in three words? How about one word? Badass! What is the best and worst thing about the A-10? The best thing about flying the A-10 is absolutely the 30-mm Gatling gun. The gun is incredibly precise, which is the reason it also happens to be our go-to weapon of choice in a troops-in-contact situation where precision is required to ensure the safety of our ground troops. When you pull the trigger, you can feel the jet rumble. You can smell and see the gun gas come over the canopy. Then most impressively, you can see sparkles as the bullets impact the target. For my final flight in the A-10, we went out to the Barry M. Goldwater ranges at 100 feet and raged around the Arizona desert, only climbing to pop up over the terrain and shoot the gun at targets on the range. It was awesome.
Worst: The A-10 lacks thrust, especially when flying at higher altitudes and when carrying a significant weapons loadout. In the summertime, we would occasionally need to download gas to ensure we could takeoff once we had weapons loaded. Rumbling down the runway in Afghanistan during the summer months with hot temperatures and at high elevations was always the worst, quietly hoping you would have enough thrust to get off the ground and clear the nearby terrain.
Tell me something I don’t know about the A-10… I get asked a lot of questions about flying the A-10 in manual reversion mode. Manual reversion is an emergency system that allows the aircraft to be flown without hydraulics. When we transition to manual reversion mode, the aircraft switches from flying with hydraulics to essentially flying on cranks and cables, allowing the pilot to fly the aircraft under mechanical control. Cables and pulleys run from the control stick all the way out to the control surfaces on the wings and tail of the aircraft. When hydraulics are removed from the aircraft (or in my case, dumped out of the aircraft in the explosion), the pilot is able to use cables and pulleys to fly the aircraft by moving small tabs on the control surfaces. Aileron tabs are mounted on the inboard trailing edge of each aileron. From the A-10 flight manual: During normal flight, aileron tabs are geared to reduce the aerodynamic loads on the ailerons, and are not directly controlled by lateral stick inputs. In manual reversion, lateral stick inputs are transmitted directly to the tabs, which in turn fly the ailerons. When MAN REVERSION is selected, stick commands are disconnected from the aileron actuators and connected to the aileron tabs. In this tab drive mode, the aileron tabs fly the aileron surface to the position commanded by the stick. Feel at the stick is proportional to air loads on the tabs. According to the Air Force Human Resources Lab, the inclusion of the manual reversion flight control system gives the A-10 an added margin for survival, but aircraft control in the manual flight mode is exceptionally demanding of piloting skills. As early as 1973, it was reported that there existed an “unacceptable pilot workload for the landing task in the manual reversion mode.” As flight testing of the A-10 continued, it was found that “the most significant deficiencies noted were unacceptable load factor/pitch attitude excursions encountered during transition from the normal flight control systems to the manual system at high speed.” The report also stated that “pilot-initiated transition to manual flight control mode and subsequent flight and landings could be accomplished, but not without an excessive pilot workload.” (https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a113463.pdf) Here’s what the A-10 checklist says about manual reversion landings: “MRFCS (manual reversion flight control system) landings should be attempted only under ideal conditions. Any degradation of flight controls beyond manual reversion may make landing impossible. Ejection is recommended. Do not use pitch trim for flaring the aircraft due to possibility of overcontrolling pitch attitude. Maximum crosswind limit – 20 knots (winds when I landed were just about down the runway).Weather conditions of less than day VMC may task beyond a pilot’s capabilities. MRFCS landing with an ECM pod on station 1 or 11, or any equivalent asymmetric load, is not recommended in gusty wind conditions due to marginal roll authority/capability (I landed with an ECM pod on station 1, all other ordnance was emergency jettisoned.
The ECM pod caused the aircraft to roll left throughout the flight back to base and even more so once in ground effect close to the runway). Flight tests have shown that manual reversion landings are characterized by heavy control forces, which, when combined with controllability problems, high final approach speed, lack of brakes, anti-skid, nosewheel steering, and limited brake application (only five brake applications available with our emergency braking system), may result in rollout exceeding 5,000 feet with limited directional control once on the runway. Fly shallow approach (1 ½ to 2 degrees) and fly aircraft onto runway, observing sink rate limitations. Pitch response becomes extremely degraded in ground effect below 50 feet AGL. Aircraft will touch down firmly and nose gear will drop rapidly to runway.” One of the things that makes landing in manual reversion difficult is the pitch relationship with the throttle. Power effects are very noticeable in manual reversion — slow, smooth power adjustments are recommended. When you push the throttle forward in manual reversion, the nose of the aircraft will pitch up. When you pull the throttle back in manual reversion, the nose of the aircraft will pitch down. Normally, when we land, we will pull the power back on short final to slow the aircraft. If you do that in manual reversion, then the consequences could be catastrophic with the nose of the aircraft striking the runway first (one A-10 pilot was killed attempting to land in manual reversion during Desert Storm because of this scenario). As a result of knowing about the experiences from pilots who came before me, I conducted a power-on landing so as not to pull the power back on short final. In a manual reversion landing, you essentially have to do the opposite of what you do on every other normal landing.
What is the greatest myth about the A-10? The A-10 slows down when you shoot the gun – there is absolutely no noticeable change in the cockpit (in terms of speed) when you shoot the gun. And it’s definitely not noticeable when you’re at 300 knots hurtling towards the ground working to get your aimpoint exactly precise. There’s some complicated math out there on the internet, but from the cockpit, there’s no noticeable difference. We’re not pulling the trigger for extended lengths of time (only 2-3 seconds in combat), so we see no difference, we feel no difference, and in the end, it doesn’t matter to us as pilots at all.
April 7, 2003: what happened? Our mission on April 7th, 2003, was to takeoff from Kuwait, fly up to Baghdad, air refuel, and then wait in the stack to hold. The firefight on the ground was so intense and the situation was only getting worse so there were aircraft stacked up all over Baghdad waiting to provide support. We didn’t have to wait long. We got a frantic call from a controller on the ground for close air support, they we’re taking fire and needed immediate assistance. We listened carefully as the ground controller provided a description of the situation on the ground. Our troops were on the west side of the Tigris River awaiting resupply and small units of Iraqi Republican Guard were on the East side of the Tigris River firing rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) into our forces. Our target was to strike the enemy hiding underneath a prominent bridge in northern Baghdad. At that point, we couldn’t see the ground below because clouds were covering Baghdad for as far as we could see. Heading to the target, we stayed above the weather until the very last second, hoping to surprise the enemy. My flight lead went first, disappearing through the clouds to get below the weather. Then I found a hole in the clouds and dove down through. The bridge was easy to find, and I could see a firefight happening across the river. We were so low I could see enemy troops firing rocket propelled grenades into our forces. Bright flashes were going back and forth across the river. At about the same time, I started to see bright flashes and smoke around me. Puffs of grey and white smoke were in the air right next to my cockpit. We used gun and high-explosive rockets on the enemy location. Due to the high threat situation, we decided we would do two passes each and then climb up to reassess the situation. After my last rocket pass, I pulled off target to regain my altitude, get away from the threat, and get my energy back when I saw a bright red-orange flash as an explosion rocked my airplane. The jet rolled left and pointed directly down at Baghdad below. It was not responding to any of my control inputs. I quickly tried to analyze the situation and recognized both of the hydraulic gauges were at zero. My only option at this point, other than pulling the ejection handles, was to put the jet into manual reversion mode. It turns out, a missile had hit the back of my airplane and metal from the explosion pierced the fuselage, creating hundreds of holes and damaging my flight control systems. The A-10 was designed to take hits. It was built so that if you lose one hydraulic system, then the other will take over, and if you lose both systems then you have a backup system called manual reversion. Manual reversion is simply a system of cranks and cables that allows the pilot to fly the aircraft under mechanical control. Based on the damage, I knew I had a decision to make, stay with the jet and try to land it or get to friendly territory and eject. We don’t train very often in manual reversion. In fact, we only do it once during our initial training so we know how the jet will respond. And the checklist for manual reversion landing is something we didn’t practice at all . . . in the checklist it said to attempt a manual reversion landing under ideal conditions only. I know trying to land is a risk, but I also have a lot of factors going my way. The jet is flying well, I have an hour to fly it, the winds are down the runway, and I have a very experienced flight lead with me providing me mutual support. Flying back to base is both mentally and physically exhausting. I’ve heard pilots compare flying in manual reversion to driving a dump truck or semi-truck without power steering. Now that’s not something I’ve done, so I don’t know if it’s true, but I can tell you that it was a struggle to fly the airplane the 300 miles back to base. We finally crossed into friendly territory and descended through the clouds to start the controllability check. I needed to find out if I could even configure the airplane and make it all the way down to landing. We also needed to make sure I could get the gear down with the emergency gear extension procedure. Everything worked as advertised. I elected to continue with the landing. As I crossed the landing threshold, the aircraft started a quick roll to the left, but I was able to yank the stick back to the right and level out the aircraft. I conducted a power-on landing since pulling the power back in manual reversion causes the nose to dump, not something I wanted to happen on short final. To this day, I’m convinced it was one of the best landings I have ever done!
Me checking out the damage after landing.
The A-10’s planned retirement is an issue that encourages strong feelings- what are your thoughts on this and why it does evoke such strong feelings? There is no better weapon system for doing Close Air Support than the A-10. I understand the need to focus on the future fight, but we also can’t lose sight of the current fight. People are passionate about the airplane because it saves lives. Air Force pilots have a close bond with the troops on the ground, we understand their mission, we understand their scheme of maneuver, and protecting our troops on the ground is our primary mission. It’s our core mission, it’s what we do, and no platform does it better.
Can a F-35 perform all aspects of CAS as well as the A-10, which aircraft would you choose to fly into battle today? I haven’t flown the F-35, but no. It depends. What is the threat? What is the mission? The F-35 has significant capability to fly in an advanced threat environment. The A-10 doesn’t require a permissive environment, but we are more susceptible to certain threats based on the altitudes where we fly. If the mission is CAS, then the A-10 is the better airplane for many reasons. We have a bigger gun and more rounds which matters in CAS where precision is critical. Since the A-10 has been upgraded to the A-10C, we also have the ability to fly into low to medium threat environments and we train for it. In the A-10C, we now have an integrated countermeasure system (CMS), we have a situational awareness data link (SADL), radar warning receiver (RWR), and an electronic countermeasure (ECM) pod to help us evade and respond to threats. You likely won’t find A-10s flying into night one of battle with a peer competitor, but we can still perform CAS in a non-permissive environment if required as demonstrated in Operations Desert Storm, Allied Force, and the initial phase of Iraqi Freedom.
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Was Close Air Support the only sole mission you performed in the A-10? No, CAS was our primary mission, but I also flew CSAR missions. CSAR or combat search and rescue was our primary mission during Operation Southern Watch, and we also sat CSAR alert regularly during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I actually launched on a CSAR mission on April 8th, 2003. On April 8th, the day after my mission over Baghdad, my flight lead and I were sitting CSAR alert in our alert shack next to the runway. Since we had already flown several close air support missions, it was now our turn to sit CSAR alert. Our job in the CSAR mission as Sandy pilots is to assist and coordinate the rescue of a downed pilot by finding their location and then escorting the helicopters to come in and pick the pilot up. Most of the time when we sit alert, we sleep, we watch TV, and we get some much-needed rest. Not on April 8th. The alarm sounded and we got basic information that an A-10 pilot had been shot down near Baghdad. We ran out to our jets as quickly as possible and made an immediate takeoff. We started gathering information about the pilot’s location and began orchestrating the plan for his rescue. After about 30 minutes of flight time, we received a call that we could return to base. It turns out that friendly ground forces had picked up the pilot after watching him eject from the aircraft. He was incredibly lucky. We also fly FAC (Forward Air Control) missions, but I have not personally flown those missions in combat. My husband, also an A-10 pilot, flew FAC missions during Operation Anaconda to help coordinate the battlespace in Afghanistan. He received three distinguished flying crosses in four days for the work he did to deconflict aircraft and strikes in order to save lives and prevent fratricide. So, it’s an important mission and one we train for in addition to CAS and CSAR.
What equipment would you like to have seen added to the A-10 while you were flying it? New engines. The A-10 needs more thrust to operate in high temperatures and high elevations. What are the hardest things about flying combat missions? The A-10 is actually a fairly easy aircraft to fly. It’s forgiving. But flying the airplane and executing the tactics is what makes an A-10 pilot. When you have to make split second life and death decisions about how to employ weapons close to friendly forces, that’s the hard part. You have to be able to think quickly, perform under stress, and maintain your composure for your wingman and for the troops on the ground. Based on the nature of our mission, we don’t always have the luxury of preparing specifically for each mission. Our missions are emerging and therefore we have to figure it all out when we show up on station. We show up and have to figure it out real-time while overhead the battlefield. What do you not want to be asked about the A-10? What’s it like to be a female fighter pilot? I’m just a fighter pilot, no adjective required.
Would you recommend flying the A-10 in manual mode as an experience? Every A-10 pilot flies the A-10 in manual reversion mode once during their initial training. That mission is necessary to understand how the airplane will fly in manual reversion. Other than that (in 2003) there was no other manual reversion training. After my mission in Iraq, I recommended that all pilots fly more manual reversion training in our simulators, including landing in manual reversion. Landing in manual reversion is still not recommended, but practicing in the simulator in different conditions at least lets pilots experience how difficult it can be.
Do you miss the A-10? Hell yes. I miss flying the airplane, but more than that, I miss the mission. There is no greater mission than supporting our troops on the ground and helping them get home safely to their families.
In assembling this list of the best twin-engine fighters of the Second World War, I have found myself asking the question – why would anyone opt for a twin-engine solution to the fighter requirement, when, in general, the preferred solution would appear to be the minimum sized airframe, wrapped around the most powerful available engine?
In the answer to this question lies the key to understanding the merits of twin-engine fighters. The ‘ideal’ solution mooted above really only applies to the home defence, or fleet defence interceptor, where range can effectively be sacrificed in the interest of delivering high-speed and high climb rate, while, with good airframe design, achieving the required manoeuvre performance and armament for air combat.
There are, however, alternative fighter roles, for which the compact single-engine solution may prove limiting. One of these is the long-range fighter escort, intended to accompany bomber forces and protect them against enemy fighters. This mission requires extended endurance and range, which will drive up airframe size and weight, and may well require external drop tanks to enhance range.
Another requirement which may drive up airframe size is the need to provide airborne air defence at night. Firstly, even with ground control radar guidance, night-fighters, to be effective, had to be airborne, and generally at an appropriate interception altitude to successfully engage their targets, requiring good endurance. Secondly, Second World War radar sets were generally bulky, and required a specialist operator, and this, combined with the loiter requirement, meant that a larger, twin-engine solution was likely to be more effective.
A third role was the multi-purpose fighter-bomber, which, depending on range, could be a large single-engine aircraft like the Typhoon, or a longer-range twin-engine aircraft able to perform both strike and air combat. This concept led several air arms to investigate dual-role fighter-bombers, the more successful of which went on to long and varied operational careers as multi-role aircraft. France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Japan and the Netherlands all investigated such solutions in the period leading up to World War 2, although the UK, the Soviet Union, and the USA appeared to prefer more specialized options in that period.
So, in assembling this list, we have to consider the merits of aircraft designed for three principal sets of requirements: long-range escort fighters; specialised night-fighters; and long-range fighter-bombers. The boundaries will be blurred because the night-fighters may be adapted from fighters, bombers or fighter-bombers, or purpose-designed, and once one has a long-range, manoeuvrable, well-armed and reasonable performance aircraft, it may end up being used for many roles other than as an escort fighter.
To some extent, examination of twin-engine fighters is an excellent opportunity to see design trade-offs in action. The main design drivers for the aircraft we are examining are payload-range, in addition to the essential fighter attributes of high speed and good manoeuvre capability, preferably extending to high altitudes. The aircraft are seeking to achieve long-range, or long-endurance, or to be able to carry bombs, while also having good firepower, and this inevitably requires a large aircraft. In many cases, two or more crew will be required, and eventually the power required will reach the point where two engines become necessary.
However, to accommodate mission equipment, fuel, armament, stores, radar and perhaps multiple crew, and to have two engines, results in greater weight, and greater inertia, so achieving manoeuvrability to match the best single-engine fighters will be a challenge. In some cases, speed and altitude performance can help restore the balance, and the ability to carry a heavy cannon armament will always be useful. Night-fighters may be absolved from the requirement for especially high performance and manoeuvrability, and the design space for these may well be significantly easier, although the mission system required would have been at the edge of the available technologies at the time.
The list is restricted to piston-engine aircraft because of the relatively small impact of the Me 262 and Meteor, which appeared at the end of the war in Europe. For similar reasons, some other technically brilliant twin-piston-engine aircraft are excluded, examples being the Dornier 335 and the Grumman Tigercat. These last two, in particular, probably came closest to matching the performance of the best of the single-engine fighters, but had no significant combat impact.
In assembling my list, I considered the twin-engine fighter, night-fighter, and fighter-bomber aircraft developed by the major participants in the Second World War. The number of highly effective aircraft that I identified, that were deployed in sufficient numbers, and that were available in time to make a significant operational contribution, was not large, particularly with the exclusion of the latecomers noted above, but I am sure there were enough that did not make the top ten to provide opportunities for critical comment. The list is largely ordered based on the operational significance of the aircraft, rather than their technical attributes.
10. Westland Whirlwind ‘The West Country Hill Shaver’
The Whirlwind was a heavily-armed, single-seat, twin-engine fighter designed for high performance, with great attention paid to aerodynamic cleanness. The aircraft was powered by two Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines, mounted in closely faired nacelles, and cooled by a radiator system mounted within the inboard wing structure. The fuselage was very slender, and carried the pilot’s cockpit, the heavy armament of four 20-mm Hispano cannon, and the cruciform tail unit, while having a cross-section less than that of each engine nacelle.
The design of the Westland Whirlwind was started in 1936 to the requirements of specification F.37/35, and the first prototype flew in October 1938, with a production order following in January 1939. It was expected to be available for service by September 1939, but in the event, development of the engine had proved problematic, and engines for the production aircraft were not received until January 1940, and the aircraft did not enter service until July 1940, becoming operational in December.
Notwithstanding teething troubles with the engines, the Whirlwind was popular with its crews for its ‘delightful handling’, its heavy armament and the good view from its bubble canopy. The performance of the aircraft was particularly good at low altitude, being described as ‘superior to any contemporary single-engine fighter’. However, performance fell off at higher altitudes, largely because the Whirlwind was the only operational aircraft using the Peregrine engine, and Rolls-Royce development effort was understandably concentrated on the much more widely used Merlin engine.
Because engine deliveries had delayed the Whirlwind’s operational service until after the Battle of Britain, and because air combat tactics were focusing on higher altitude engagements, only two Squadrons used the aircraft, 263 initially, being joined by 137 in November 1941. The aircraft were used as escorts for light bomber raids, and also for strikes against airfields on the Cherbourg peninsula, and by 1942, were being used as fighter-bombers, in low-level missions striking locomotives, bridges and other infrastructure until being replaced by Typhoons in 1943. A total of 114 Whirlwinds were built.
In one engagement in August 1941, four Whirlwinds were engaged by 20 Me 109s while conducting an airfield strike mission. Although outnumbered five to one, the result was something of a draw, with two Me 109s destroyed and three of the four Whirlwinds damaged. In the circumstances, a pretty creditable result, that indicates the quality of the aircraft, at least at low level. At 15,000 ft the maximum speed of the Whirlwind is reported to have been 360 mph, compared with the 348 mph of the contemporary Me 109E. Maximum range of the Whirlwind is reported as 800 miles, and at least one operational escort mission was carried out from Southern England to Cologne. The maximum range reported for the Bf 109 E was 410 miles.
Sadly, delays to the Whirlwind meant that it missed its opportunity to make a significant operational contribution, although the basic soundness of the design may be inferred from it being operational for three years without modification.
[Bibliography: Westland 50, JWR Taylor & MF Allward, 1965; Warplanes of the Second World War, William Green, 1961; The Complete book of Fighters, William Green and Gordon Swanborough, 1994; Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, 1970]
9. Nakajima J1N1-S Gekko‘Japanese Psycho‘
The Nakajima J1N Gekko had its origins in 1938, when it became evident that Chinese air bases were beyond the reach of the Navy type 96 carrier fighters (Mitsubishi A5M4) then in service with the Japanese Navy, and that losses were being sustained in the unescorted bombing raids that resulted. In consequence, a long-range fighter was needed, resulting in a 1938 requirement for a 3-seat, twin-engine long-range fighter.
The specification sought good combat manoeuvrability, combined with long range (1300 nautical miles), heavy armament (20-mm cannon plus machine guns), and a maximum speed of 322 mph. Initial trials of the J1N1 were discouraging, the aircraft being considered overweight, and with inadequate manoeuvrability, although with good range and speed.
The aircraft was re-designed as a long-range, land-based reconnaissance aircraft, with the armament removed to save weight, and this aircraft was put into service as the J1N1-C reconnaissance aircraft, 54 being delivered to the Navy by March 1943.
In 1943, a trial field modification to a J1N1-C was made, fitting two 20-mm cannon firing obliquely upward, and two firing obliquely downward as the J1N1-C Kai, intended for use as a night-fighter. The success of this trial aircraft in shooting down 2 B-24 Liberators led to the Navy initiating the development of a purpose-built J1N1 night-fighter, the J1N1-S Gekko (Moonlight).
The aircraft became the most important Japanese Navy night-fighter, and between March 1943 and December 1944, a total of 423 J1N1 were built, principally J1N1-S and J1N1-Sa night-fighters, which differed in the armament and equipment fitted. Operational experience showed that the downward firing guns were not as effective, so these were removed, and an additional upward-firing cannon was fitted. Most J1N1-S and -Sa aircraft were fitted with air intercept radar, although in some cases this was replaced by a forward-firing 20-mm cannon in the Sa variant.
The aircraft proved very effective against the B-24, but less so against the faster B-29 aircraft. The performance of the aircraft was quite creditable, with a maximum speed of 315 mph at 19,000 ft, and normal range of 1580 miles. A total of 479 J1N1 of all variants were built, at least two thirds of these being J1n1-S or -Sa night-fighters.
Designed as a long-range escort fighter, then transformed into a long-range reconnaissance aircraft, the J1N1 finally achieved success as the Japanese Navy’s principal night-fighter.
[Bibliography: Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, RJ Francillon, 1970; Warplanes of the Second World War, William Green, 1961; The Complete book of Fighters, William Green and Gordon Swanborough, 1994]
8. Northrop P-61 Black Widow ‘Hottish Widows’
The P-61 Black Widow was the first major project of Northrop Aircraft Inc., and was also the first purpose-designed night-fighter. Designed in response to an October 1940 USAAC specification, the P-61 was a behemoth of a machine. It was a large twin-engine, twin boom aircraft, heavily armed with four 20-mm cannon and four 0.5-in machine guns, and weighed in, in the major production version, the P-61B, at 22,000-lb empty, with a maximum take-off weight of 32,400-lb. To put these figures in context, these weights are of the order of 10,000-lb greater than a Beaufighter.
The Black Widow was built on a truly American scale, was the heaviest aircraft to be given a P- (Pursuit) designation, was heavily armed, and was equipped with a Western Electric SCR-720 Air Intercept radar. It is also reported to have been surprisingly manoeuvrable, and was described as a ‘pilot’s aeroplane’.
So, what is this remarkable aircraft doing, languishing in 8th place on my top ten of twin-engine fighters? Well, like the Westland Whirlwind, the problem was timing. Although specified in October 1940, delivery of production P-61As did not start until October 1943, with the P-61B following from July 1944. Operational deployments did not start until early 1944, when the 422nd Night-fighter Squadron arrived in the UK, followed by the 425th NF Squadron in July 1944.
While these P-61s performed useful roles, initially in night-time counter-V1 patrols, and subsequently in night intruder operations in Europe, this was a time when large-scale German night bomber raids had essentially ceased. The P-61s were essentially deployed in tactical roles in Europe.
Ten squadrons were deployed to the Far East to support the war effort against Japan, being based in the Philippines, on Iwo Jima and in New Guinea, but these Squadrons faced a similar situation to those in Europe, as Japanese night raids on US bases in the area had essentially ceased. The first victory in the Far East came over Saipan on June 21, 1944, followed by a second on July 7th.
Consequently, despite its fearsome appearance, and its effectiveness in the night-fighter role, the threat the Black Widow was designed to counter had largely evaporated by the time the aircraft were deployed to their theatres of operation. The aircraft was undoubtedly effective, both in air-to-air combat, and as a tactical strike platform, but its opportunity to make a significant operational impact had passed.
[Bibliography: The American Fighter, E Angelucci and P Bowers, 1985; US Army Air Force Fighters Part 2 William Green and Gordon Swanborough, 1978; American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner, 1982, Northrop P-61 Black Widow, Warren Thompson, Wings of Fame, Vol. 15, 1999]
7. Heinkel He 219 ‘Uhu‘ ‘Drive-by Hooting’
There seems to be broad agreement among the various sources examining German aircraft of the Second World War that the Heinkel He 219 was the most effective night-fighter of that conflict. However, the He 219 was built in relatively small numbers and never really achieved the operational impact it could have had, had it entered service earlier than June 1943.
The origins of the aircraft lay in an earlier Heinkel private venture proposal from the summer of 1940 for a multi-role heavy fighter, with additional possible roles as a reconnaissance aircraft and torpedo bomber. This proposal drew upon several state-of-the-art technologies, including a pressurized crew compartment, tricycle undercarriage, remotely controlled defensive gun barbettes, and the provision of ejector seats.
At the time, there was little interest in this advanced design, and several reasons for this have been suggested, including its complexity and risk, and perhaps a view that the Me 110 and Ju 88 had sufficient capability to perform these roles.
However, by 1942, the RAF night bombing campaign had reached a point where Josef Kammhuber, in command of Germany’s night air defences, began to press for better equipment. As part of the response to these concerns, Heinkel was asked to revise its project, and come up with a modified design that would be suitable as a night-fighter. Detailed design of the He 219 started in January 1942, but was delayed by two RAF attacks on Marienehe, and the resultant removal of the design activity to Vienna.
As development proceeded, General Kammhuber continued to press Heinkel for speedy delivery of production aircraft, but at the same time, Erhard Milch, who was in charge of aircraft production was resolutely opposed to development of the Uhu, believing its role could be undertaken by existing types. In addition, engine development of the intended powerplant, the Daimler-Benz DB603G, had run into difficulties, resulting in initial aircraft being fitted with the DB603A engine instead.
On June 11, 1943, a pre-production He 219A-0 was operationally tested for the first time, destroying five bombers in the course of a single sortie, although failure of the aircraft’s flaps resulted in the loss of the He 219 on landing.
The production He 219A was a heavily armed, advanced twin engine fighter, drawing on the technologies of Heinkel’s 1940 private venture proposal and powered by the DB 603A engine. The aircraft was heavily armed, generally with two 30-mm cannon in a Schräge-Musik installation firing obliquely upwards from the rear fuselage; two 20-mm cannon, one in each wing root; and two 20- or 30-mm cannon in an under-fuselage tray. The aircraft were fitted with Liechenstein SN-2 radar equipment, operated by a rearward-facing crewman, seated immediately behind the pilot.
Operationally, the He 219A was very successful, with a significant success rate against RAF night bombers, and several pilots achieving impressive numbers of combat victories, including multiple successes in a single sortie. Well-armed, well-equipped, and relatively easy to maintain, the aircraft was popular with its crews.
In response to the successes being achieved by the German night-fighter force, the RAF began adding Mosquito night-fighters to the attacking bomber streams, resulting in an increase in operational losses in late 1944, with increasing fighter-bomber attacks also reducing operational strength.
A total of 294 He 219 aircraft of all variants were built. In-service, the aircraft proved to be outstanding, but its usage was significantly disrupted through delays to production, internal disagreements on production priorities, and a worsening military situation.
[Bibliography: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, 1970; War Planes of the Second World War, William Green, 1960; German Aircraft of the Second World War JR Smith and Anthony Kay, 1972]
6. Kawasaki Ki 45 Toryu ‘Nick the stripper’
Japan had observed the interest shown in Europe in the concept of a ‘strategic fighter’ combining long range, high performance and heavy armament, giving the prospect of delivering either bomber escort missions or long endurance air patrols, as well as a variety of other possible tasks. This resulted in 1936 in an outline requirement for such an aircraft being generated. However, not long into the preliminary studies of the requirement by Nakajima, Kawasaki and Mitshubishi, it became apparent that the compromises inevitable in such a requirement would need to be clarified, and preferably resolved, before a solution could be found.
As noted earlier, meeting demanding armament and endurance (payload-range) requirements drives aircraft size and weight up, increasing the power required, and also making it more difficult to achieve fighter-like speed and manoeuvrability. Clarity on the balance required between the various roles was reached with the issue of revised requirements in December 1937, allowing work to recommence on what was now the Ki 45 project.
The primary role was intended to be long-range bomber escort, and three prototypes were built. These proved to be unsatisfactory, largely due to problems with both the engines and their installation. Performance was disappointing, and air combat trials showed that the aircraft was incapable of defeating either the Kawasaki Ki 10 biplane, or the Nakajima Ki 27 monoplane fighter.
The whole project was reviewed, with its future in the balance, but the decision was taken to proceed with a developed version, Kawasaki K1 45-Kai, flight testing of which commenced in July 1940. The Ki 45-Kai featured more powerful 14-cylinder 1050 hp Nakajima Ha-25 engines in place of the 9-cylinder, 820 hp Nakajima Ha-20 Otsu of the initial aircraft.
Flight test results justified the decision to continue, with prototype trials demonstrating a maximum speed of 323 mph. In preparing for production of the aircraft, the design team reviewed and revised the structural design and aerodynamic details of the aircraft to further improve performance, and the production Ki 45-Kai was effectively a new design rather than a modified Ki 45. Changes included a slimmer fuselage, different wing planform and slimmer engine nacelles. The engines were changed again, to the Mitsubishi Ha-102, which had similar power, but greater reliability.
The production Toryu was wholly satisfactory, with surprising manoeuvrability, and good performance, and was armed with a 20-mm cannon and two-12.7 mm machine guns firing forward, and a 7.92-mm aft-firing defensive machine gun. Maximum speed was 335 mph at 20,000 ft, and the maximum range on internal fuel was 1404 miles, both creditable figures.
Initial combat experience for the Toryu was in China during November 1942, and the aircraft is described as the most manoeuvrable twin engined aircraft fielded by any of the WW II combatants, able to out manoeuvre the P-38 Lightning ‘with ease’, and performing half rolls, chandelles and Immelman turns ‘with élan’.
A ground-attack variant, the Ki 45-Kai-Otsu, was followed by a night-fighter variant, the Ki 45-Kai-Ko, with two upward-firing 20-mm cannon located behind the cockpit, and a dual-role day-night-fighter, the Ki 45-Kai-Hei with changes to the forward firing armament, including the use of a 37-mm Ho 203 cannon. The Toryu was extensively used in efforts to defend the Japanese home islands against B-29 Superfortress bombing raids, with its 37-mm cannon proving highly effective.
A further variant, the Ki 45-Kai-Tei added two forward firing 20-mm cannon to supplement the 37-mm cannon, and was intended to be used in the anti-shipping role, but was largely diverted to night-fighter units. Total production of all variants of the Toryu was 1691, and the aircraft must be regarded as highly effective in all its roles, but particularly as an escort-fighter and night-fighter.
[Bibliography: Japanese Army Fighters, William Green and Gordon Swanborough, 1976; Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, RJ Francillon, 1970]
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5. Messerschmitt Bf 110‘Vot’s zer störey morning glory?’
In the 1930s, there was a revival of interest in the ‘strategic fighter’ concept in several European nations. While this concept had also been an aspiration in World War 1, the interest in the thirties may have been enhanced by economic considerations, as such an aircraft might fill several roles, reducing development costs and simplifying industrial production.
In 1934, near simultaneous projects emerged in France, with the Potez 63; in Poland, with the PZL 38 Wilk; and in Germany with the Messerschmitt Bf 110. All three of these aircraft were twin-engined and featured relatively slender fuselages and twin fins.
In developing these aircraft, the design teams faced some difficulty because the required range and armament essentially mandated a twin-engine solution, but this would inevitably have higher weight and inertia than the single-seat fighters that would oppose it, and might be expected to have inferior manoeuvrability. That said, there remained a view that, with heavy cannon armament, and a good turn of speed, tactics might be developed to overcome any disadvantage in manoeuvre.
The first prototype Bf 110 made its first flight on May 12, 1936, but continuing difficulties in engine development and delivery resulted in the initial Bf 110B-1 model flying with the Junkers Jumo 210Ga engine, and being used for tactics development and training, as it was not suitable for combat operations. The refined Bf 110C began to be delivered to the Luftwaffe in January 1939, and, by August 31, 1939, 159 aircraft had been accepted, and full production was in progress.
The Bf 110C offered a maximum speed of 336 mph at 19,700 ft, and a maximum range on internal fuel of 876 miles. Coupled with armament of two 20-mm cannon, 4 forward-firing and one defensive rearward-firing machine gun, the prospects for the Bf 110C to be an effective heavy fighter appeared bright.
Early operations against the Polish Air Force appeared promising, with relatively low losses. The armament had proved to be effective, but was difficult to bring to bear against agile targets. The aircraft proved capable as a bomber interceptor, shooting down 9 of the 12 Wellingtons lost in a daylight raid on the Wilhelmshaven in December 1939, and was also effective in the campaign against Norway.
So, at the commencement of the Battle of Britain, in September 1940, there was high confidence in the effectiveness of the Bf 110. This was, however, soon to be dispelled once air combat engagements occurred with the fast and agile Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF. While the Bf 110 had proven effective in circumstances where the Luftwaffe had air superiority, this was not the case over Britain, and significant losses were sustained, with 120 Bf 110 being lost in August 1940 alone.
As the Battle of Britain wound down, the Bf 110 began to find its feet in a new role as a night-fighter, while continuing to be used as a fighter-bomber. Initially, unmodified Bf 110C were used, but gradually improvements were introduced, including co-operation with ground-based searchlights, radar direction using Würzburg radars, and an infra-red sensor, Spanner-Anlage.
Numerous variants of the Bf 110 were produced, as efforts were made to improve performance in the face of continuing weight growth in service, as more powerful engines became available, and as better mission equipment and armament became available. Originally intended to be phased out with the introduction of the Messerschmitt 210, production of the improved Bf 110G was recommenced, of which the principal night-fighter version was the Bf 110G-4, available in a bewildering range of variants, but, critically, intended from the outset to use airborne intercept radar.
Armament generally comprised 2 forward-firing 20-mm cannon, and four nose-mounted machine guns, and either two defensive machine guns in the rear cockpit, or a Schräge-Musik installation of two upward firing 30-mm cannon. Radar equipment comprised the Liechenstein C-1, or later Liechenstein SN-2, supplemented by Rosendaal-Halbe equipment, which homed in on the signals of RAF Monica tail-warning radars. While not, perhaps, an ideal night-fighter, the Bf 110 formed the backbone of the Luftwaffe night fighting capability, aided by the Himmelbett integrated air defence system, at least until mid-1943, when the introduction by the RAF of the Window counter-measure greatly disrupted the effectiveness of the Himmelbett system.
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Deprived of this control and cueing system, the German night-fighter force was forced to adopt Wilde-Sau (wild boar) tactics, relying on aircraft-based target detection, at which point, the Bf 110 was handicapped by its relatively poor performance and endurance. Improvements were made to the radars fitted to the aircraft, and additional fuel helped counter some of these difficulties, and by 1944, the Bf 110 made up almost three-quarters of the German night-fighter force.
Production of the aircraft continued until March 1945, with a total of more than 6000 aircraft of all variants having been built. Despite its lack of success in the Battle of Britain, the Bf 110 made a major contribution to Luftwaffe capability, particularly as a night-fighter, but also as a fighter-bomber, in close air support and reconnaissance roles.
[Bibliography: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, 1970; War Planes of the Second World War, William Green, 1960]
4. Bristol Beaufighter‘Beau Fireselector’
Development of the Bristol Beaufighter started in November 1938, aimed at meeting a requirement for a cannon-armed long-range escort and night-fighter. The Beaufighter was essentially a fighter derivative of the Beaufort, which was already in production, and using the wings and tail of that aircraft speeded development, enabling the first flight of the prototype to occur on July 17, 1939.
The Beaufighter was very heavily armed, with four 20-mm cannon carried in the lower fuselage and six 0.303-in machine guns in the wings. Fighter Command aircraft were equipped from the start with the AI Mark IV air interception radar, and on 26 July 1940, the Beaufighter I entered RAF squadron service, with the first night-fighter success being on 19 November 1940.
The Beaufighter was initially powered by the 1400 hp Bristol Hercules III, while awaiting availability of the 1600 hp Hercules VI, with the 1250 hp Merlin XX also being used in the Beaufighter II. The Hercules VI or XVI powered the Beaufighter VIF and VIC, with the suffix F indicating a Fighter Command aircraft, and C indicating Coastal Command aircraft. Later aircraft, the Beaufighter X, XIC and Australian-built 21, used the 1735 hp Hercules XVII.
The Beaufighter operated in two main roles – with Fighter Command as a night or day-fighter, and with Coastal Command as a highly effective anti-shipping aircraft. Coastal command also used the Beaufighter as an anti-submarine aircraft, generally escorting shipping to deter attacks from surfaced U-boats. Night-fighter aircraft were used in the defence of Great Britain, and as night-intruders over occupied Europe. As a day-fighter, the main theatres of operation were North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Far East.
From 1941, the Beaufighter VI supplanted the Beaufighter I and II in production as Hercules VI engines became available. Coastal Command aircraft were modified to be able to carry air-dropped torpedoes, and, from 1943, eight rocket projectiles, four under each wing. The Fighter Command VIF aircraft had been fitted with the AI Mark VIII centimetric radar and this was also adopted in the Coastal Command Beaufighter Mk X to assist in both anti-submarine and anti-shipping operations.
As night-fighter Mosquitos came into service, Beaufighter night-fighter operations gradually reduced, but the aircraft continued to give good service as a heavily armed long-range strike fighter on all fronts, including in the Pacific Theatre, with RAAF Beaufighter 21s serving as long-range bomber escorts, and in strike and anti-shipping operations. Coastal Command Beaufighter X aircraft conducted anti-shipping operations against convoys off Europe in the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
When production ended 5,562 Beaufighters had been built in Britain, with a further 364 Beaufighter 21 having been built in Australia. The aircraft served with great effect from July 1940, and the last RAF Beaufighter flight was made in 1960. Tough, heavily-armed, and effective, the Beaufighter was widely used, and was effective as a night-fighter, anti-shipping, strike aircraft and escort fighter across the European, North African and Pacific Theatres.
[Bibliography: Bristol Aircraft since 1920, CH Barnes, 19644; War Planes of the Second World War, William Green, 1961; Wikipedia – Bristol Beaufighter]
3. Junkers Ju 88 ‘Schnelly der Elefant’
As an aircraft designed to meet a Schnellbomber – high-speed bomber – requirement, the inclusion of the Ju 88 at this point may seem a strange decision. However, the specification, which called for an aircraft capable of carrying a normal bombload of 1100-lb at a maximum speed of 310 mph for 30 minutes, or at a cruising speed of 280 mph, and climbing to 7000m (22965 ft) in 25 minutes, resulted in an extraordinarily effective and flexible aircraft. Although designed as a fast medium bomber, the Junkers Ju 88 was developed in many variants, able to fulfil not only its primary mission, but also many other roles, including long-range day-fighter, fighter-bomber, night-fighter and reconnaissance aircraft.
The first prototype made its first flight on December 21, 1936, and a total of 10 test aircraft had flown before the first Ju 88A production aircraft entered operational test and training units.
The first operational sortie was flown on September 26, 1939, this being an attack by four aircraft on a Royal Naval force including the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the Battleship Hood. Ju-88A series aircraft conducted missions against the Royal Navy during the Norwegian campaign, and were used to attack radar installations, ports and airfields during the Battle of Britain. From 1942, Ju 88A aircraft were very active in the Mediterranean, attacking Malta, naval forces, convoys and land targets in North Africa and Greece. The aircraft were also used in the campaign on the Eastern Front, with attacks on Moscow, but, more famously, against convoys supplying Russia, notably PQ 16 and PQ 17.
No less than 18 different variants of the Ju-88A were produced, the first major change being with the Ju88A-4, which introduced the more powerful Jumo 211J in place of the initial Jumo 211B, and a new wing of greater span and area. Variants were introduced to counter balloon barrages, for advanced training, for use in tropical environments, for use as low-level fighter-bombers, and for anti-shipping operations.
The Ju 88B was an updated version with a revised forward fuselage and BMW 801 engines. Most of these aircraft were used for long-range reconnaissance, with additional fuel tanks fitted in the fore and aft bomb bays.
The next major variant of the aircraft was the Ju 88C fighter, development of which had been a low priority, until RAF night raids on the Ruhr commencing in May 1940, forced the need to create a night-fighter capability. The Ju 88C-2 formed a component of this, being armed with two 20-mm cannon and two 7.9-mm machine guns. Initial operations were night intruder sorties over RAF Bomber Command bases, generally flown from Holland. These missions were ceased in October 1941, and Ju 88C-2 units were re-deployed to the Mediterranean theatre.
Like the Ju 88A, variants proliferated. The C-4 used the Ju 88A-4 airframe, and had armament increased to four 20-mm cannon in the nose, three rearward firing defensive machine guns, and the ability to carry up to a further six forward firing machine guns for ground strafing. The C-6 was similar to the C-4, but intended for use as a day fighter-bomber – its major theatre of operations was to be in the Mediterranean, escorting convoys supplying North Africa, carrying out intruder operations over Malta, harassing shipping and, in the Western Approaches, attempting to disrupt RAF Coastal Command operations against U-boats returning to their base at Lorient.
Elsewhere, by 1943, Ju 88C-6 aircraft were carrying out train-busting attacks on the Eastern Front, and were beginning to be used as night-fighters, supplementing the BF 110s being used in this role. The introduction of the Window countermeasure had seriously handicapped the Bf 110, due to its performance and endurance being insufficient to effectively carry out independent Wilde Sau hunter-killer night-fighter operations.
Two radar-carrying variants, the Ju 88C-6c and Ju 88 R-1, which differed in having Jumo 211 and BMW 801 engines, respectively, were used for night fighting in considerable numbers and with considerable success, aided by continuous improvements in AI radar and radar detection equipment, enabling detection of RAF Monica and H2S equipment carried by RAF bombers. Armament was also increased, incorporating two 20-mm cannon in a Schräge-Musik oblique installation behind the cockpit, coupled with three forward-firing 20-mm cannon and three machine guns, as well as a rearward-firing defensive machine gun. By 1944, German night-fighter tactics were inflicting significant losses on RAF Bomber Command, almost entirely through the use of the Ju88C-6.
Development of the Ju 88 continued, with the Ju 88D being a specialized long-range reconnaissance version with additional fuel and with camera equipment. The Ju 88D was built in surprising numbers, some 1500 aircraft serving across all theatres.
Significant handling difficulties had been experienced with the later Ju 88C night-fighters, largely due to the ever-increasing weight of equipment and armament being carried. The Ju 88G series sought to rectify these difficulties, with the introduction of a larger and more angular tail unit to improve stability and control. The armament was also revised, with four 20-mm cannon being carried in an under-fuselage tray. Later Ju 88G models also carried a pair of 20-mm cannon in a Schräge-Musik installation. 7-800 Ju 88G were built, compared to 3,200 Ju 88C, and sources differ as to which was the more important contributor to German night air defence.
Other Ju 88 models included the Ju 88H series of ultra-long-range reconnaissance aircraft, with a lengthened fuselage carrying additional fuel. The Ju 88P series was a specialist anti-tank aircraft using a 75-mm cannon, or two 37-mm cannon, but its performance was compromised by the weight and drag of the cannon, and only relatively small numbers were built. The Ju 88S was an attempt to reduce the drag and increase the speed of the Ju 88A medium bomber. Modifications included the use of nitrous oxide (GM1) boost for the BMW 801G-2 engines, which raised maximum power to 1730 hp at 5,000 ft, and weight and drag reduction measures, leading to a maximum speed of 379 mph with GM1 boost.
Perhaps as many as 250 Ju 88 of various models were also used as the lower part of the composite Mistel system, where the Ju-88 was essentially used as a guided bomb, released by a Messerschmitt 109 or Focke Wulf 190, which formed the upper part of the composite aircraft. These unusual composites saw operational service, principally being used to attack bridges over the Neisse and Rhine rivers.
The Ju 88 was a highly significant aircraft for the Luftwaffe, its initial high-speed medium bomber role being expanded to include such diverse missions as day-fighter, night-fighter, anti-shipping strike, strategic reconnaissance and air-launched guided weapon. A total of about 15,000 aircraft were built, in many different variants, seeing service in all theatres throughout Luftwaffe involvement in WW2.
[Bibliography: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, 1970; War Planes of the Second World War, William Green, 1960; German Aircraft of the Second World War JR Smith and Anthony Kay, 1972]
The P-38 Lightning had its origins in a 1936 USAAF proposal for an ‘interceptor’ rather than a ‘pursuit’ aircraft, in an attempt to seek a longer-range, more heavily armed fighter than the short-range, single-engine, relatively lightly armed designs that typified US fighters up to that time. This thinking may well have been partly influenced by the work in progress in Europe, where a number of heavily armed twin-engine designs had appeared, broadly following the pattern of the Potez 630 and Messerschmitt 110. In parallel, European designers were also working on heavily armed single-seaters like the cannon-armed Messerschmitt 109 and the ‘8-gun’ fighters of the RAF, the Spitfire and Hurricane.
Building on the initial proposal, a more complete Specification for a twin-engine interceptor was issued in February 1937, and Lockheed Aircraft Corporation responded to this responded to this with its twin-boom Model 22 design in April 1937, in competition with other proposals from Bell, Curtiss, Douglas and Vultee. Lockheed was successful and received a contract for a single XP-38 prototype.
The design was innovative and interesting, making use of Allison V1710 engines, fitted with extremely bulky turbo-superchargers to enhance altitude performance. The twin-boom Lockheed design use the tail booms to mount the engines, carry the main gear and turbo-supercharger for each engine, while also carrying the tail fins and the tailplane and elevator which linked the twin tail booms. The fuselage was a vestigial pod which carried the armament, the nose wheel, and the pilot. The whole arrangement was a model of aerodynamic and structural efficiency, and was expected to deliver very high performance.
Initial development flying revealed several problems, and development was slowed by the loss of the prototype in a landing accident. 13 YP-38s were ordered, but the first of these did not fly until 17 September 1940, although the USAAF had already placed contracts for 66 P-38 aircraft in July of that year. Flight testing was slowed by problems in high-speed handling caused by compressibility effects and unsatisfactory airflow around the wing-fuselage intersection.
These difficulties were compounded by delays in the production of turbo-supercharges for the aircraft, and it was not until the Autumn of 1941, shortly before US entry into WW 2, that the first combat-capable P-38E versions of the aircraft began to be available. The development time up to this point had taken 4 ½ years – nearly a year longer than America would be at war.
The production P-38E did offer quite impressive performance, with a maximum speed of 395 mph at 25,000 ft, normal range of 500 miles, maximum range of 975 miles, and armament of one 20-mm cannon and four 0.50-in machine guns. Uprated engines were fitted to the P-38F, and successive changes in engine model from the V-1710-49/53 to the V1710-51/55, and V1710-89/91 accounted for changes in designation from P-38F to P-38H. Although there were differences in rating between these engines, the war emergency rating remained the same, limited by engine cooling.
Alongside the engine changes, drop tanks for the aircraft were developed in successively larger sizes, which enabled a demonstration flight with 900 US Gal fuel, covering a range of 2907 miles in a flight lasting over 13 hours. The range of the P-38 when carrying external tanks would later become a key asset in the war in the Pacific.
The P-38J introduced a significant improvement in engine cooling, allowing greater power to be used, and significantly increasing combat performance at altitude. Earlier P-38s had been unable to fully exploit the maximum power from their engines due to inadequate cooling of the pressurised intake charge received from their turbo-supercharges. This charge was cooled by intercoolers in the wing leading edge, which had become inadequate as engine ratings were increased. The P-38J re-positioned the intercoolers in larger chin intakes, and improved the radiators located on the tail booms. As a result, the cruise power of engine was raised to 1100hp at 32,500 ft, and a war emergency rating of 1600 hp was available at 26,500 ft. The maximum speed of a clean P-38J was raised to 413 mph at 30,000 ft, and, when fitted with 300 US gal drop tanks its range was more than 2000 miles.
Operationally, P-38s were first deployed to the European theatre in July 1942, delivered by ‘Operation Bolero’, ferrying the aircraft by air across the North Atlantic. The early P-38s were then transferred to the Mediterranean theatre in support of the North Africa campaign, and the invasion of Italy. Fighting was intense, and, despite giving as good as they got in combat, substantial losses were sustained.
P-38 operations in the Pacific Theatre began in August 1942, with the aircraft initially based at Port Moresby, New Guinea. The ability of the aircraft to fly long ranges, aided by drop-tanks, was particularly useful, and the Lightning was used extensively for bomber escort, and combat air patrols over Allied territory and in support of ground and naval forces.
The arrival of the P-38J transformed the utility of the aircraft in the European Theatre, due to the much-enhanced performance available at altitude. From early 1944, these aircraft were first used in the long-range bomber escort role, where their range was of great value. As the war progressed, and with the invasion of France, the P-38s joined other Allied fighters in low-altitude fighter sweeps, targeting airfields and targets of opportunity across occupied France and Germany. Use was also made of a few P-38Js modified to have a bomb aimers station in place of the nose armament – these served as Pathfinders on strike missions. The aircraft was also used extensively for photo-reconnaissance, in which form it was designated F-4A or F-4B if derived from the P-38E or F, and F-5A or F-5B if based on the P-38G or J.
In air combat, the Lightning could be out-manoeuvred by Luftwaffe single-engine fighters, but its speed, performance at altitude, and heavy armament enabled the aircraft to achieve considerable success, generally by diving on its opponents and avoiding being drawn into turning air combat. These tactics were particularly successful in the Pacific Theatre, where Japanese fighters were generally very manoeuvrable, but relatively vulnerable. The most successful US fighter pilot of World War Two, Major Richard I. Bong, achieved his 40 victories in a P-38, and this was also the mount of the 2nd and 3rd most successful USAAF pilots, Major Thomas McGuire, and Colonel H. MacDonald.
10,035 Lightnings of all variants had been completed by the end of World War 2. The P-38 saw service throughout American involvement in the Second World War, and proved its effectiveness as a bomber escort, air defender, interdictor, strike and reconnaissance aircraft. Used in all Theatres, its greatest contribution was in the Pacific, but it also made significant contributions in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Southern and Eastern European operations, as well as both escort and strike operations in Western Europe.
[Bibliography: The American Fighter, E Angelucci and P Bowers, 1985; US Army Air Force Fighters Part 2 William Green and Gordon Swanborough, 1978; American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner, 1982]
de Havilland DH 98 Mosquito ‘Wood
The de Havilland Mosquito perhaps epitomises the outcome that mid-Thirties aircraft designers were reaching for in scheming out their ‘strategic fighter’ designs in France, Germany, Japan, Poland, the Netherlands, and doubtless elsewhere. The golden objective was to come up with a fast, heavily armed twin-engine aircraft that had the range to act as a bomber escort, and the speed, manoeuvrability and armament to act as a fighter. With these basic attributes in place, there would be opportunities to develop additional roles.
That the Mosquito was able to deliver outstanding capability against these objectives was primarily down to the decision to dispense with defensive armament. This meant not only that the crew could be reduced to two, but also dispensed with the weight, volume and drag associated with defensive armament and accommodation for a third crewmember. This bold, and at the time, controversial decision, was then combined with the availability of excellent Merlin engines, progressively developed during the service life of the aircraft, and the use of wooden construction – novel in a combat aircraft, but familiar to de Havilland – to deliver the remarkable success of the aircraft.
At the outset, four roles were foreseen for the aircraft: Bomber; Reconnaissance and Day or Night-fighter. To these roles were eventually added Fighter-Bomber; Night Intruder; Pathfinder; Maritime strike; Trainer and finally, Target Tug.
The design originated from specification P13/36, calling for a twin-engine medium bomber with the highest possible cruising speed, suitable for other duties including reconnaissance. The bomb load required was 4000-lb, and a range of 3,000 miles was required. De Havilland’s proposal against this requirement lost out to the Avro Manchester, but the seeds had been sown for the design of a high-speed, twin-engine bomber, constructed of wood, and dispensing with defensive armament.
Not carrying any form of defensive armament was a radical step, and appeared unacceptable to the Air Ministry, but de Havilland considered that it would save a sixth of the aircraft weight, simplify the design, reduce drag and ease production. On 29 December 1939, agreement was given for the construction of a prototype aircraft, and this was followed by an initial contract for 50 bomber aircraft, later revised to call for 30 bombers and 20 fighter variants.
The bomber prototype made its first flight on 25 November 1940, followed by the prototype for the fighter on May 15, 1941, and the reconnaissance prototype on 10 June, 1941.
Bomber variants of the Mosquito were the B Mk IV, B Mk VII, B Mk IX, B Mk XVI, B Mk XX, B Mk 25 and B Mk 35. Of these, the principal variants were the B Mk IV, of which 238 were built and the B Mk XVI with Merlin 72/3 or 76/7 engines, and pressurized cockpit, of which 833 were built. The B VII, XX and 25 were Canadian-built aircraft using Packard-built Merlin engines, and a total of 670 of these variants were built.
Bomber Mosquitos were extensively used in the Pathfinder Force, some aircraft completing many missions – the record being 213 operational sorties. Some of these aircraft were equipped with Oboe precision navigation equipment and some with H2S, Gee or Loran systems, and were used as target markers, helping to improve the accuracy of Bomber Command night bombing raids.
Initial Mk 1V aircraft carried four 500-lb bombs, but later aircraft were able to carry a 4000-lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, in a modified bomb bay. B XVI Mosquitos, with two-stage Merlin supercharging and pressurized cockpits, were more easily able to carry the 4000-lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, and were also capable of reaching 419 mph at 28,500 ft. The bomber Mosquito’s speed, payload and range were such that raids on Berlin became a matter of routine.
Fighter-bomber variants of the Mosquito were armed with four 20-mm cannon, and four 0.303-in machine guns, and could carry a variety of other loads, typically comprising two 250-lb bombs internally, and an external load of two 500-lb bombs, or two external fuel tanks or 8 rocket projectiles. Fighter-bomber variants were the FB VI, FB XVIII, 21, 24, 26, 40 and 42. The most important of these was the FB VI, of which 2305 were built, the most of any Mosquito variant. The other major variants were the Canadian-built FB 21, with Packard Merlin 225 engines, and the Australian-built Mk 40, of which 212 were manufactured. The 27 Mk XVIII aircraft deserve a mention – these were FB VI aircraft, converted to carry a 57-mm cannon for anti-shipping missions.
Fighter-bomber Mosquitos were capable, flexible and high-performance aircraft and were widely used, operating with distinction in missions as varied as low-level precision bombing, night intruder and interdiction, and anti-shipping. The aircraft were used in all Theatres, extensively in Western Europe, but also in North Africa and the Far East.
Night-fighter roles were envisaged for the Mosquito from the start, and the second prototype to fly was a Mosquito NF II, equipped with AI Mk IV radar. As with other Mosquito variants, the principal differences between the night-fighter variants lies with the powerplant, and an additional factor being the radar equipment fitted.
Warning: lots of Roman numbers in next section
Mosquito night-fighter variants were the – take a breath before you read this – Mk II; NF XII, NF XIII, NF XV, NF XVII, NF XIX, NF 30, NF 36 and NF 38. Of these, the most significant were the NF XII and XVII, which were conversions of the Mk II to use the AI Mk VIII and US AI Mk 10 centimetric radars, respectively; the Mk XIII which was similar to the Mk XII, but based on the FB VI airframe; the NF XIX, which was essentially a Mk XIII, but used a ‘universal’ radome, able to take either US or UK AI radars. The NF 30, 36 and 36 were high altitude night-fighters with two-stage supercharged Merlin engines. A total of 794 of these three variants were constructed, but of these, the 101 NF 38 aircraft were not delivered until after the end of hostilities.
In addition to these combat variants of the Mosquito, eight Photo-reconnaissance variants were produced, of which the PR XVI was produced in the greatest numbers, 433 serving as a highly valued high-altitude reconnaissance platform, used by the US 8th AF as well as the RAF. The PR 34 very long-range reconnaissance aircraft was also built in significant numbers; fitted with additional internal fuel tanks and larger external tanks, these aircraft had a maximum range of more than 3500 miles, and 231 were built.
In addition to the PR variants, 5 Marks of trainer were produced, the greatest number being the 364 T III. Target-tug conversions were also made, and, after the war had finished Torpedo-capable Sea Mosquito TR 33 aircraft served with the Fleet Air Arm.
The Mosquito delivered everything that was expected of it, and more. Its performance as a bomber, a strike aircraft, as a night-fighter, and as a reconnaissance aircraft, was enabled by a combination of the initial bold decision to dispense with defensive armament, and enhanced through the progressive development of its Merlin engines, and of the radar and navigational systems of the night-fighter and bomber variants.
7,871 Mosquitos were built, serving in five major roles from its first operational mission, in September 1941, through to the end of the Second World War and, indeed, into the early ‘60s.
At the start of the Cold War, in 1947, the British Empire was disintegrating and much of its cities were in ruins. On January 8, the High Explosive Research project was approved, to develop an atomic bomb. Though battered and exhausted from World War II, the nation still had a huge extremely powerful military. The Royal Air Force was a vast armadaequipped with the most advanced combat aircraft in the world.Throughout the Cold War, in the period 1947-1991, the RAF would operate some of the most awe-inspiring military aircraft ever built.
Assembling a Top 10 of Britain’s remarkable Cold War aircraft seemed like an easy task, celebrating some well-known, beloved and extremely exciting aeroplanes. But as we dug deeper into the subject, a surprising, and often extremely dark, story emerged.
Across the two decades from 1947, British subject nations sought and fought for independence. Though nominally a posture against Soviet expansion, almost all of the actual wars of this time had a colonial dimension. Often brutal and ineffective, the aerial warfare responses to these insurgent wars, were often far removed from the large-scale conventional warfare that made up the bulk of the RAF’s World War II experience.
We have the choice of defining Cold War operations in one of three ways: those that relate directly to Soviet deterrence; those that centre on opposition to Communist expansion; or all military actions within the years 1947-1991. In reality, the events are far too complex too separate – with even the situation in Northern Ireland having occasional Soviet involvement. With this in mind, we have opted to consider all RAF actions across the Cold War. Whether deterrence worked or not is impossible to definitively prove either way.Another point for contemplation, considering the vast undeniable might of the US military, and the NATO nations’ tight bonds, is whether the UK’s Cold War forces add anything to the overall deterrence effect?
10. Supermarine Spitfire ‘Last RAF fighter to kill’
Spitfires didn’t evaporate at the end of World War II. At the dawn of the Cold War, Royal Air Force Spitfires were everywhere. Though pushed from the sharpest edge of domestic defence by Meteors and Vampires, they served in vast numbers in auxiliary units and remained the most numerous aircraft of the RAF. Across the British Empire and territories, the Spitfire was still king. As peoples around the world fought for independence from Britain, they would learn that a dying empire could still administer pain – often their first experience of imperial airpower was in the form of a strafing Spitfire. Before we discuss this, certain events that took place in 1948, perfectly illustrate how important the Spitfire was in the early Cold War Years. During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, five Egyptian Spitfire LF 9s mistakenly attacked the RAF base at Ramat David, Palestine, home to aircraft of 32 and 208 Squadrons believing it to be an Israeli base. The British units had been covering the withdrawal of British forces from the port of Haifa. The raid caught the pilots hungover from a Dining-In Night (culminating in the drunken destruction of the Officers Mess to prevent it falling into the hands of the Israelis). The Egyptian raiders destroyed two RAF Spitfire Mk XVIIIs on the ground. The surviving Spitfires took off for a combat air patrol and shot down four Egyptian aircraft. A later attack by five Egyptian Spitfires resulted in all five being destroyed, three by ground fire, two by British Spitfires (the last of which remains the most recent victory in air combat by an RAF pilot in an RAF aircraft). One of the pilots involved in the first incident was Geoff Cooper (from 208 Sqn) who later that year was shot down by the American pilot Chalmers Goodlin, flying an Israeli Spitfire Mk IX. Cooper was found by Bedouin tribesmen and returned to his base. Like the Spitfire, he would later fight in Malaya.
The Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) was a communist guerrilla army trying to achieve Malayan independence. It was resisted by British and commonwealth forces in a conflict with all too many parallels with the Vietnam War. The MRLA had its origins in the wartime Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army and drew the majority of its support from landless Chinese ‘squatters’ living in the outskirts of the jungle. The British campaign was shameful and involved over 400,000 ethnic Chinese civilians (and some aboriginal people) forcefully moved into brutal internment camps (known as ‘New Villages’, torture, and the odd minor genocide.
When the Malayan insurrection began the RAF’s main local strike element were the Spitfire FR.XVIIIs of 28 and 60 Squadrons, based at Kuala Lumpur. Photo-reconnaissance Spitfire PR.XIXs of 81 Squadron were based at Seletar, Singapore. The conflict was known as the “Anti-British National Liberation War” by the Communist MNLA, but by the rather less grand term “Emergency” by the British (the reason for the odd title being London-based insurers would not have paid out to the rubber planters in instances of civil wars). The Spitfire was heavily involved in the counter-insurgency war.
Armed with guns and the notoriously inaccurate 60-Ib unguided rocket, the Spitfire proved effective. Sixteen Spitfires from the two squadrons based in Singapore flew some 1,800 missions against Communist positions. The last offensive sortie made by RAF Spitfires were flown by four 60 Squadron Mk XVIIIs over Malaya on 1 January 1951; the last operational sortie was flown by Sqn Ldr W.P. Swaby on 1 April 1954.
9. Hawker Hunter
Much like Keanu Reeves, the Hawker Hunter’s ravishing good looks and impeccable manners have effectively masked a lack of certain essential talents. For example, when the Hunter F.Mk 1 fired its guns at high altitude its engines tended to surge (clearly a big issue but not big enough to stop Hawker making 139 of them). It was also late, short-ranged and rather slow. It entered service in 1954 with a top speed of around Mach .93, a few months later the US F-100 made this look absurdly slow when it rocked into town with a top speed of Mach 1.4. More importantly the Soviet Tu-16 bomber entered service in the same year, and it was only marginally slower than the Hunter. The MiG-19 fighter would make things even more uncomfortable when it began operations with the Soviet air force the next year, as it was almost as fast as the F-100. The MiG-19 was the stuff of nightmares for RAF Hunter pilots.
But in defence of the Hunter, it was a ‘near idiot-proof’ aeroplane, an extremely important quality in an age when peacetime traing was far more dangerous than wartime operations are today. It also didn’t have to dogfight Soviet fighters in RAF service it was set to work attacking insurgents and the odd napalm attack on leaking oil tankers off the coast of Cornwall.
The Hunter went to war in the Suez Crisis of 1956 (also known as the Tripartite Aggression), when Anglo-French-Israeli forces tried to thwart Egyptian attempts to decide the use of Egyptian waterways. Hunter F.5s of No. 1 and No. 34 Squadrons based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus flew escort missions in support of Canberra bombers attacking Egypt. The Hunters lack of range made them ill-suited for the mission and they were accordingly reassigned to local air defence.
The resistence to Borneo’s inclusion in a new Federation of Malaysia led to the Borneo Confrontation. It was an archetypal Cold War sitution, with Malaysia having military support from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand whereas Indonesia had indirect support from the USSR and China. The Hunter was again involved, being deployed in Borneo and Malaya.
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Here’s a conversation I had today with a friend:
“The thing about nuclear deterrence is you don’t know if it works, I could say my cowboy hat deters dragon attacks. And yes, since I’ve had my cowboy hat I have not once been attacked by dragons.”
“Yes, but if you have tens of thousands of people over forty years involved in manufacturing cowboy hats, wearing cowboy and training to deter dragons with cowboy hats then whether they work becomes irrelevant, they have become important due to the effort involved.” With this in mind, we should mention the RAF’s V-bombers, the unambitious Valiant, the rather weird Vulcan and the extremely potent Victor.
The good looks of the Vulcan distract attention away from the weirdness of a subsonic delta design. This was a hangover from the early 1950s, and meant the Vulcan had to carry a lot of wing with it, its wing area of 330.2 m2 was not far off the 370 m2 of the larger B-52, an aircraft with far superior payload/range performance (twice as good in some parameters).
However, the benefits of the Vulcan’s large wing included remarkable agility at very high altitude. The wing was also needed to enable the Vulcan to cruise marginally faster than conventional swept-wing types. The Vulcan did a lot in the deterrent category mentioned above which may or may not have been meaningful depending on your point of view. The Vulcan carried Britain’s air launched nuclear missile, which was the lamentable (or if you’re part of CND, perhaps wonderful) Blue Steel which had not the range (150 miles) to keep the launch aircraft safe from Soviet SAMs, the reliability (it was estimated that half wouldn’t launch and would have to be dropped in freefall mode) or the quickness of operation (taking 7 hours to prepare for use) to be an effective deterrent. Hope of replacement with a superior US missile was thwarted by the cancellation of the AGM-48 Skybolt (a weapon of ten times the range of Blue Steel) in 1962. After only seven years Blue Steel was retired. The term ‘Blue Steel’ would later be repurposed as a modelling pose in the 2001 film Zoolander.
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I asked the aircraft designer Stephen McParlin his thoughts, “Skybolt was intended to be carried by V-bombers as a follow-on to Blue Steel, with the launch aircraft having no need to penetrate Soviet airspace… and the U.K. might not have developed an SSBN fleet instead. Polaris was offered to the U.K. as an ad-hoc face-saving measure by JFK… among the consequences being France demanding the same, and on being refused, leaving NATO’s military structures, to develop their own equivalent to Polaris. So the V-bomber fleet gets a longer life as a nuclear deterrent force… The Royal Navy probably gets to keep large deck carriers… CVA-01 gets built… and there are a whole load of hard policy decisions that have different results… Skybolt had been central to U.K. defence thinking, and it’s cancellation by the US, with zero consultation or prior warning, was a huge embarrassment to the government of the day, leaving Harold McMillan very exposed indeed, a mere five years after Suez. Imagine if the US had cancelled the F-35B without telling the U.K. in advance, just as the carriers were fitting out…”
Though extremely ingenious, the Vulcan’s only actual combat missions, in the 1982 Falklands War, relied on labyrinthine, resource-heavy tanker support that if anything, demonstrated that the UK would have been better served by an aircraft more akin to the B-52. Despite this is would be perverse to not include the charismatic 130+ Vulcans that served for three quarters of the Cold War in this list.
Vickers Valiant (service entry 1951)
Often written off as the least advanced of the v-bombers was arguably the most significant. On 11 October 1956, a Valiant B.1 (WZ366) of No 49 Squadron test dropped an atomic bomb on Maralinga, South Australia, this was the first time the British had air-dropped an atomic device (it followed ground detonation tests). In the same month the Valiant was the first of the V-bombers to see combat, during the Suez campaign. During Operation Musketeer, Valiants operating from Malta bombed military airfields, and communication and transport hubs in Egypt. On the first night, six Valiants were sent to attack Cairo West Air Base, which was the home of Egyptian Air Force Ilyushin Il-28 ‘Beagles’ which had been bombing targets in Israel. But the Valiant mission was aborted in flight due to the potential risk to local US personnel. Six Valiants did attack Almaza Air Base, and another five bombed Kibrit Air Base and the Huckstep Barracks. US and Soviet condemnation of the agression led to a swift end to the campaign, and is widely seen as symbolic of the end of Britain’s place as major world power. The campaign damaged British relationships with the US and drove Egypt and several Middle Eastern nations to closer relationships with the Soviet Union.
When Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down in 1960, it was clear that flying high offered Britain’s V-bombers no protection. Instead, the RAF began training to go in under the radar. The strain of flying in thick low-level air soon caused fatigue cracks that saw the immediate retirement of the RAF’s Vickers Valiant B1.
‘And paint the fucker black …’
The irony is that Vickers had actually built an aircraft that was perfectly suited to the new tactics. Alongside the standard Valiant, a one-off variation on a theme had been ordered. Based on experience from WWII, the Air Staff wanted a machine that could fly ahead of the main bomber force to accurately mark targets. The result was the Valiant B.2. Beefed up to fly fast and low, the ‘Pathfinder’ was tested at speeds of up to 640mph. That’s comparable to the low-level performance of the USAF’s swing wing B-1B Lancer, a machine that first flew nearly thirty years later and remains in service today.
Lowdown at 600mph, condensation wrapped the bomber in its own flaring cloud. It only added menace to an imposing presence that test pilot Brian Trubshaw had been instrumental in creating. When he saw the bomber’s muscular shape in the Vickers design office, he signalled his approval, then added ‘And paint the fucker black …
If the V-bombers were Destiny’s Child, then the Victor would be Beyoncé…actually on refection, that might be the Vulcan. Regardless, the Victor was the best bomber and technologically the most advanced.
I return you to my conversation with Stephen McParlin, “At the time of their conceptual design, both Vulcan and Victor were pursuing altitude and Mach targets in excess of any subsequent subsonic aircraft, civil or military. While the Vulcan needed a little additional design effort to make the altitude performance, both achieved their targets on the back of relatively early turbojet designs, and the Mk 2 Victor might well have been the first turbofan-powered military aircraft. In 1963, both were capable of penetrating hostile airspace at speeds and altitudes that were challenging to the best available manned supersonic interceptors, while having the EW capability to tackle the early high-altitude SAMs being deployed by both the US and USSR.“
Rather notably, for a man who contributed so much to British bomber development, the aeronautical engineer Gustav Lachmann was born in Dresden, Germany. As well as co-inventing the slotted flap with Handley Page, he designed the Hampden bomber and proposed the crescent wing configuration for what became the Victor. The crescent wing planform was invented by the German aerodynamicists Rüdiger Kosin and Walther Lehmann, while working for Arado during the Second World War. A wing was constructed in 1945, with the intention of fitting it to the Arado Ar 234 V16. However, the British Army overran the site and the wing was destroyed. Design staff from Handley Page – including Lachmann – were sent to Germany to harvest Arado’s know-how. They incorporated Arado’s crescent wing concept into the nascent Victor.
“Low altitude operations killed the Victor as a useful bomber. It didn’t have the structural strength to operate below Soviet surveillance radars. The Vulcan soldiered on, with the improvements in Soviet defences making them progressively less survivable with time. The technological legacy of Victor was probably greater, as the wing design philosophy for high subsonic Mach wings, and the design methods, developed by Kuechemann and Weber at RAE were subsequently matured right through until the early 1970s. Airbus wing design essentially inherited the knowledge base, and took it further into nonlinear analysis and design techniques, as these emerged from RAE in the 1970s.“
The Victor was never used in anger, its real-world use was limited to air refuelling and reconnaissance. It was good at as a tanker (making the rather bonkers Vulcan Black Buck raid possible among other achievements) and absolutely superb as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft. Though the Victor SR2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft did not serve for long, it is worthy of mention for its spectacular effectiveness. For altitude, speed and sensor variety it was unmatched. It was faster, higher and longer ranged than any other RAF asset, and had the ability to do maritime radar mapping and photorecconnaisance at the same time, essentially a Canberra PR9 and Vulcan MR2 rolled into one. Mapping every vessel in the entire Mediterranean ocean in one morning was possible.
“Structural complexity is part of it. Having two cranks meant local stress concentrations, and Victor also had a honeycomb skin, much more radical than anything in civil aviation… so the Victor wing always had cost of ownership issues. Monitoring the structural life of the wing was an ongoing issue. There was also the required performance. No airliner has ever been required to cruise anywhere near as fast and high without going supersonic. Even the most advanced subsonic business jets of recent years aren’t going there quite yet, and I’d regard doing a wing for a comparable cruise speed as a serious challenge.”
The Victor far outlived the other V-bombers, and even outlived the Cold War. It was retired in 1993. Of 86 built, 12 were lost in accidents. “When considered against the longevity of the B-52, it’s worth considering that the latter made a successful transition to low altitude operations, despite the structure being originally intended for operations at ~40k ft (note that the Mk 2 Vulcan was aiming for 60k+ ft, and the Mk 2 Victor, even higher)… Vulcan never had the range of either at altitude. Would a Mk 2 Victor have made a good cruise missile carrier, like the B-52H? Absolutely… but there was never going to be that kind of investment… and the airframes survived for decades as tankers, serving in hot wars right through to Operation Granby.“
7. De Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk
For all-out chutzpah and cost effectiveness, the daring Chipmunk missions over Berlin deserves a place in our list. This humble piston-engined exploited legal loopholes to reconnoitre the Soviet zone. Under the cover story of providing continuation training for aircrew stationed in the British Zone, two de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk T.10s, joined the Top Secret Operation Schooner (later renamed Op Nylon) to gather intelligence. Three times a week the Cabinet Office in London authorised a covert flight to snoop on Soviet military installations within the Berlin Control Zone using only a hand-held camera, with two lenses (55mm for panoramic views and a 500mm lens for detailed work). Though unrestricted access and Diplomatic Immunity was technically afforded the aircraft by the Potsdam agreement, the soviets were at times aware of the game, and hostile fighters sometimes buzzed the Chipmunks which were also shot by groundfire at least once.
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6. Gloster Meteor
Much like Britain’s railway system, the Meteor suffered from being the first: the first and only allied jet to see combat in World War II, and the first RAF jet fighter, it came so early that wasn’t able to harvest the wealth of aerodynamical research seized from the defeated Germans, notably the benefit of the swept wing. In 1947, the F-86 arrived on the scene, and the Meteor was utterly outclassed. Illustrating just how quickly the rate of aircraft development was in this time, it should be noted that in both the preceding the Meteor had absolute world speed records. Though I say the Meteor was outclassed, in a 1951 trial at “climbing, turning and zooming below 25,000ft” the Gloster Meteor F8 was found to be superior to the F-86 Sabre (and it was estimated, the MiG-15). The F8 was far more potent than earlier Meteors, a powerful and refined machine with two uprated Derwent 8s, with 3,600 lbf (16 kN) of thrust apiece, structural strengthening, more fuel, better visibility for the pilot and a Martin Baker ejection seat. Between 1950 and 1955, at some of the most dangerous times of the Cold War, the Meteor F8 provided the backbone of Britain’s air defence capability. RAF Meteors served in every war that Britain took part in during its service (apart from Korea) and saw a great deal of action in the 1950s.
Two RAF squadrons used the Meteor in support of the Tripartite Aggression of ’56 but neither of them operated their aircraft directly over Egypt. No.39 Squadron, based on Cyprus, flew NF Mk.13s for night patrols over Cyprus to prevent any Egyptian raids, while Malta-based No.208 Squadron, used its FR Mk.9s to fly armed reconnaissance patrols over the sea towards Egypt looking for Egyptian shipping or aircraft.
In 1955-1958 (some sources say 1960), No.81 Squadron flew reconnaissance missions with their Meteor PR Mk 10s, in support of British operations in Malaya. The war also saw the only time RAF F.Mk 8s went to war, when two aircraft were sent as a detachment in 1955.
Two Meteor PR Mk.10s were used during the Mau Mau Uprising to provide photographic reconnaissance of areas about to be raided by the army. The aircraft were deploying to Kenya in 1954, and remained there until late 1955. They were also deployed to Cyprus and Aden.
The aircraft, of which 3,947 were built, served in huge numbers. It was also a most important aircraft testbed, researching everything from prone pilots to ejection seats, vectored thrust and new engines.
With the Korea War there was a surge in British air power, with the demand for trained military pilots leaping from 300 to 3000 per annum, this was an unrealistic effort that led to the deaths of many inexperienced aircrew. There were other reasons for the high loss rate, despite jet performance the Meteor had instruments and navigational aids more appropriate for the 1930s, and its widely spaced engines caused alarmingly asymmetric power issues if one engine shut down in flight and it also suffered from heavy controls.
The Meteor was a low-risk airframe with a high-risk new concept in propulsion, and it took the Royal Air Force into the jet age.
Weirdly many parts of the Meteor ended up as prop parts in the Star Wars films.
5. North American/Canadair F-86 Sabre
The most successful fighter type flown by RAF pilots in the Cold War was not a Royal Air Force type. Judged on air-to-air kills, it was theF-86 Sabres of USAF. Seventeen RAF pilots completed exchange tours with USAF F-86 units during the Korean War (1950-1953). Five of these accounted for six MiGs, two of them by one pilot, Squadron Leader Graham Hulse, who was (along with one other RAF pilot) was killed in action.
Facing delays with both the Hunter and the Swift, and impressed by its performance in Korea, the RAF wanted F-86s of its own. The RAF desperately needed an aircraft that wouldn’t be eaten alive by the MiG-15, the simplest solution was to procure Canadian-built F-86s from America to act as a stop-gap. The F-86s arrived unpainted in the UK, and were quickly painted in wraparound camouflage and dispatched to West Germany. Most were based in Germany as part of the 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force and proved extremely popular with pilots (most saw their replacement by Swifts and Hunters as a retrograde step). They were the first swept-wing aircraft of the RAF and were far superior in performance to the Vampires they replaced. The huge force of 430 RAF Sabres were extremely capable and served from 1953 until 1956, a critical period in the Cold War.
4. Avro Lincoln/Shackleton ‘Imperial Death Star’
A lot can be learnt about the story of British air power from the story of the Shackleton, a saga that begins in the type’s 1930s pre-history and spans the entire Cold War. It starts with a 1936 bomber requirement that led to the Avro Manchester, a lack-lustre aircraft perfected as the superb Lancaster, this lily was gilded as the Lincoln and finally sent to fight submarines as the Shackleton. It was then, rather absurdly, jerry-rigged as an airborne early warning aircraft in the 1970s.
The Lancaster IV was a powerful beefed-up Lancaster, that emerged so different from the baseline Lanc it merited a new name. It first flew in 1944 and entered service in 1945, missing the Second World War. Nearly 600 Lincolns were built to equip a total of 29 RAF squadrons, most of which were based in the UK. During the 1950s, RAF Lincolns participated in active combat missions in Kenya against Mau-Mau insurgents, where the British met demands for greater freedom with crushing violence, including torture and mass executions.
However, they were not always safe in reality. On 12 March 1953, an RAF Lincoln was shot down 20 miles (32 km) North East of Lüneburg, Germany by several SovietMiG-15s. The Lincoln was flying to Berlin on a radar reconnaissance flight. All seven crew members were killed.
If the British actions in Malaya can be seen as akin to US actions in Vietnam on a smaller scale then the Lincoln was very much the ‘B-52’ of Malaya. ‘Operation Firedog’ began in July 1948 with the formation of an RAF Task Force at Kuala Lumpur. Muscle came in the form of Lincolns, initially from 57 Squadron. On 15 March 1950, at a time when the British position was looking perilous, eight Lincolns arrived at Tengah.Communist forces in the jungle were small and mobile, and the RAF responded with the brute force of area bombing often in support of special forces. Lincolns were responsible for the bulk of RAF offensive operations in Malaya.
During the Mau Mau Uprising, the Avro Lincoln bomber was used to savagely brutal effect as part of Operation Mushroom dropping nearly 6 million bombs (part of a total of 50,000 tons of British bombs dropped) from 18 November 1953 to 28 July 1955.
In November 1955, four Lincolns sent to the Middle East. In Bahrain, they carried out border patrols of the the Trucial States. It was later sent to Aden.
A long loiter time, bags of internal room and a very strong structure made the Lincoln an ideal choice for the anti-submarine warfare role, in yet another case of a variant earning a new name, the anti-submarine Lincoln ASR.3 became the ‘Shackleton’. On 30 March 1951, the first Shackleton was delivered to No. 120 Squadron RAF, by December 1952 seven squadrons were operating the type.The first operational deployment was in 1955 as a British Army troop transport to Cyprus;. Soon after, the type’s first combat deployment took place as part of the Operation Musketeer.
In 1957, British RAF Shackletons participated heavily during the Jebel Akhdar War in Oman. Again, we see a British military action that is hard to view in a positive light, it was essentially a grubby little oil war. Britain had long cultivated an unelected Sultanate in the region amicable to the British Empire. In 1932, Said Bin Taimur became Sultan, his wish to unify Oman was driven by British interests in the oil rich interior region not under his control. Petroleum Concessions Ltd, the Sultan and British-backed expeditionary conspired to push into the oil rich interior run by the Imam Muhammad al-Khalili. When he died in 1954, his successor, Ghalib al-Hinai, began asserting the imamate’s sovereignty. He issued passports to the region’s citizens and applied for membership to the Arab League. This lead to a rebellion against the sultan by those who supported the elected head of the Imamate of Oman. The British responded with force. ‘The Green Mountain War’ took place in a ‘hot and high’ area inaccessible to helicopters and with forces too scattered for the effective use of air power.
With the arrival of the Nimrod in 1969, it was intended to begin the retirement of the Shackleton fleet. However, when the Royal Navy’s large aircraft carriers and their Gannet aircraft the UK had no airborne early warning radar coverage. As an interim measure, pending the hoped arrival of an advanced Nimrod or Andover based system, 12 Shackletons were fitted with the archaic AN/APS-20 radar sets. Salvaged from the Gannets, this was essentially a 1945 vintage radar designed for use with the Avenger. The resultant machine, the Shackleton AEW was absurdly outdated, vulnerable and vulnerable, but did keep the ‘Shack’ alive until 1991 meaning the Lincoln series spanned the entire Cold War.
3. De Havilland Venom ‘The Colonial Enforcer’
The de Havilland Vampire was an excellent first generation jet fighter, with sparkling agility, heavy firepower and astonishing high altitude performance. But its potential was held back by a thick wing that limited its speed to mach .78. The Rolls-Royce Nene which offered 5,000Ib of thrust, almost twice the thrust of Vampire available to a F.Mk 1, was fitted to Australian FB Mk 30s but despite far more power the increase in speed was incremental. The FB Mk 30s reached 570mph, only 22mph than the far weedier Ghost 3 FB Mk 9s of the RAF. If the greater power availble could be unleashed, the Vampire’s fangs could be further sharpened. What the Vampire needed was a new thin wing. The new aircraft, allocated the designation ‘FB Mk 8’, was to have the 4,850Ib Ghost 103, which though not quite as powerful as the Nene, benefited from being an in-house design better suited to the Vampire and did not require the complicated auxillary intakes of the Nene Vampires (as well the RAAF, the French adopted the Nene Vampire as the ‘Mistral’).
A new thinner wing was made, the new engine installed, and a swept leading edge added (and the forward swept trailing edge of the Vampire) along with other minor refinements. The swept leading edge was necessary to compensate for the heavier engine moving the centre of gravity rearwards. Attractive long-range fuel tanks were added to the wingtips; The new ‘tip-tanks’ added extra endurance at the cost of little drag as well as freeing up underwing space for additional weapons or fuel tanks. It also became 50% heavier. The new machine was now so radically different a new name was in order, the Vampire FB Mk 8 became the Venom. The Venom first flew on 2 September 1949 from Hatfield (close to London) and quickly proved itself a worthy successor to the Vampire. The top speed was a world-class 640mph, the climb rate was more than double that of the Vampire F Mk 1 at a brisk 9,000 feet a minute. It entered service in 1951 by 1955 it was the mainstay of the RAF’s Ground Attack force. Whereas the Vampire was somewhat cute and baby-like appearance, the new Venom had a sleek sinister appearance. This proved appropriate as the new ground attack aircraft soon become a post-colonial thug, employed with great effectiveness in a series of deeply questionable military actions. It took part in the Malayan Emergency from the mid 1950s, where it conducted more than 300 strikes.
It also bombed Egypt as part of Operation Muskeeter during the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which one Venom was lost to groundfire. Again in 1956, RAF Venoms were deployed during the Aden Emergency, where they were used in support of counterinsurgency operations. In Oman, the first offensive action came with unguided rocket attacks by RAF Venoms. In 1957, British RAF Venoms participated heavily in the Jebel Akhdar War supporting British aims to gain access to oil wells in the interior parts of Oman, attacking mountain top villages, water channels and crops among other targets. Following the advancement of ground forces the RAF flew eight sorties, inflicting many casualties in Firq. The decisive factor was an attack by British Special Air Service (SAS), 1st Battalion of the Cameronians, a troop of the 15/19 Hussars, and a squadron of Ferret armoured cars, supported by RAF Venoms.
2. English Electric Canberra ‘Petter’s Go-getter’
Despite world-leading Brilliance in jet engines, Britain’s early jets were not all they might be. As mentioned, the Meteor didn’t have the swept-back wings fighters needed*, the Attacker was a flop, the Hunter was too late and the Swift was an utter basketcase. But there was an exception, and it came from an unlikely manufacturer. English Electric, a company that had not produced its own aircraft designs since its quant flying boats of 1920s, suddenly came from nowhere to create the best bomber in the world, the remarkable Canberra.
Designer ‘Teddy’ Petter had proposed a fast jet-powered fighter bomber to Westland in 1944, but in a move comparable to refusing to sign The Beatles, they rejected the idea – preferring to devote their efforts to the lamentable Wyvern. Petter found a more welcome reception at English Electric, who after a war of creating other companies’ aircraft realised that smaller post-war production levels would require an in-house design. The English Electric Canberra first flew in 1949 and one can only imagine the Board of Westland’s feelings as they watched as the new aeroplane’s incredible talents became apparent. In 1951 it became the first jet aircraft to make a non-stop Atlantic flight, then for most of the fifties was the highest-flying aeroplane in the world rendering it invulnerable to interception. It snatched 24 point-to-point world records (including New York to London in 6 Hours 17 Mins) and three altitude records including, with a little help from a rocket motor, a climb to 70,310 ft! Everyone was impressed. Even the Americans used them, NASA still does today, which is not bad for an aircraft that had its origins in a replacement for the wartime de Havilland Mosquito!
The RAF loved them and bought a huge amount (782) and it equipped over 55 British squadrons and was in service for 55 years! Fighter-like performance (it was orginally intended as a fighter-bomber), long-range and versatility were the hallmarks of the Canberra. It had a simple strong design, its low-wing loading (around 48 lb/sq ft far lower than the B-47) and surfeit of power allowing it to operate higher than almost any other type.
In the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960), Communist pro-independence fighters faced the armed forces of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Under Operation Firedog the Canberra went to war in Malaya, where its impressive bombload, often six 1,000 Ib bombs, proved devastating (despite British military actions, Malaya achieved independence on 31 August 1957). This was followed shortly afterwards by the shameful British involvement in Suez as part of Operation Musketeer. Never partisan, in several wars, the Canberra fought on both sides, notably the 1982 Falklands War where it was deployed by both the UK and Argentina.
On 4 October 1950, the RAF’s leading recce expert practitioners gathered at RAF Benson for a Strategic Photographic Reconnaissance Conference. The Soviet Union, the greatest military threat to Britain, was developing surface-to-air missiles that could shoot down aircraft at up to 46,000 feet and the formidable MiG-15 was entering service in great numbers. The RAF’s reconnaissance fleet of Second World War Spitfire Mk 19s and Mosquito Mks 34/35 (and the few Meteor PR10s entering service) were utterly inadequate. Likewise, the US believed that none of the USAF’s converted bombers – RB-45s, and RB-47s could fly high enough and that the RB-36, as well as not having a sufficient ceiling, was also all too conspicuous to hostile radars. The new Canberra on the other hand, with a few refinements (increased wing area, power and recce equipment) was seen as a plausible solution. The resultant series of Canberra reconnaissance aircraft remained utterly brilliant until their retirement in 2006.
*RAAF Meteor pilots in Korea who had to face the potent swept-wing MiG-15 sung a song with the opening line ‘All I want for Christmas is my wings swept back’
Neither with the Royal Air Force type nor even a military type, as Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s transport to the United States, G-APDI, was nevertheless symbolic of Britain’s greatest victory of the Cold War, avoiding involvement in the Vietnam War. We could have picked one of several types Wilson used for his trips to America but the Comet 4 was the first and the most beautiful. It seemed natural that Britain, as the US’ greatest ally, would send troops in support of the American-led war in Vietnam. As well as taking part in the Korean War, Britain had also been actively involved in several post-colonial conflicts. But Wilson refused, citing Britain’s commitment to the fighting in Borneo as one reason. He also explained that as Britain had been chairs in the Geneva conference of 1954 that had legally divided Vietnam, British involvement would be illegal. Johnson was unimpressed with these reasons and bitterly disappointed by a British leader he considered ‘tricky’ and by a Britain, he believed took more than it gave from ‘the Special Relationship’. Wilson could not support the war. His party was weak and divided, and much of the British public was fiercely against the war, and particularly opposed to the aerial bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder. Wilson headed to Washinton. The subject of British involvement had been discussed for a long time, notably in the 1964 trip, but in ’65 he made it clear he withheld support. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, Britain would not be taking part. Despite this, Secretary of State for Defence Dennis Healey and his close friend US United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara remained on good terms.
Britain was spared the prolonged human pain and enormous finacial cost that involvenment in Vietnam would have inevitably involved. Despite many bemoaning Wilson’s Government’s cancellation of the TSR.2 bomber and P.1154 fighter, it is worth considering how many aircraft – and more importantly, men – would have been lost had Britain been mired in the bloody jungle hell of Vietnam.
The transport aircraft that took Healey and Wilson to the United States saved likely more British lives than any other aircraft type on this list. Though symbolic, this is why the Comet 4 must count as our top British Cold War aircraft. It is also here as it formed the basis of the magnificent Nimrod.
“Whilst the boys in Germany were doing their things on dispersed airfields and roads the Nimrod was flying real sorties against real targets day-in day-out. It was one of the only platforms that could do multiple defence tasks at the same time. Defence of the deterrent, maritime rescue, overland recce to name but a few.” – Dave Cawthorn, Nimrod Fleet Planning Manager
“It was the best Maritime Patrol Aircraft around. We were on operations almost constantly around the world for the whole of its time in service, tracking our adversaries above and below the surface. We performed long range ASW/ASuW sorties (including the use of AAR from Op CORPORATE): we could go anywhere in the world from the Artic to the Antarctic. On exercises we routinely excelled in competition with our allies. We saved countless lives provide SAR cover to both civilian and military pers – from our position of Standby in the UK – to support to long range fast jet ex deployments.” – Stuart Roxburgh, former RAF Nimrod pilot
Ireland is the only nation with which the United Kingdom shares a land border, other than that it is surrounded by water; To the south by the English Channel, to the east by the North Sea, to the west by the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. With tasks including the defence of Royal Navy submarines, saving drowning sailors, recconnaissance, tracking and deterring potentially hostile submarines and surface vessels, and protecting gas and fish resources, there is a lot of work for a British maritime patrol aircraft.
On 2 February 1965, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced the selection of Hawker Siddeley’s maritime patrol version of the Comet, the HS.801 as a replacement for the Shackleton Mk 2. The Nimrod entered served in 1969 as the interim MR.1 equipped with much the same archaic equipment as the Shackleton. During the Icelandic Cod Wars of 1972-1976, the Nimrod fleet worked with the Royal Navy to protect British fishing ships. It also saved countless lives in the search and rescue mission, and proved an uncannily excellent hunter of even the smallest capsized vessels. The Nimrods enforced Operation Tapestry, protecting fishing rights and monitoring oil and gas extraction. Following the establishment of a 200 nautical miles (370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 1977 the Nimrod fleet was given the daunting task of patrolling the vast 270,000 square miles (700,000 km2) area. Nimrods escorted the British Task Force as it sailed towards the Falklands, provided search and rescue as well as acting as communications relay in support of the Operation Black Buck Vulcan raids. Nimrod MR2s stood guard against attacks from Argentinian subs. Equipped with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles they also become perhaps the largest heaviest ‘fighter’ ever built, the weapons intended not primarily for defence, but for attacking Argentinian recce aircraft. Nimrods carried out extremely long reconnaissance missions, including a mammoth 19-hour patrol which passed within 60 miles (97 km) of the Argentine coast to check that Argentine ships were not at sea. On the night of 20/21 May, one mission took a Nimrod 8,453 miles (13,609 km), the longest distance flight carried out during the Falklands War. In all, Nimrods flew 111 missions from Ascension in support of British operations during the Falklands War.
The Comet was also vitally important for its shadowy work for No 51 Squadron (as both the Comet and the Nimrod). According to one source we spoke to “I’d consider the Comet and Nimrod aircraft of 51 Sqn to be the most important RAF Cold War reconnaissance asset, and I’m not at liberty to discuss why.”
The Wessex, Sycamore, Chinook and Whirlwind were also considered.
The Hercules was too. The Gnat for its PR work as part of the Red Arrows.
The most surprising omission is that British poster-boy for the Cold War, the extremely high performance English Electric Lightning interceptor. If this list was informed only by frequency of appearance in RAF promotional material of the time then the much Lightning would be easily have a place in the top 3. But on closer inspection it was hard to justify its inclusion. It was never used in combat, was ineffective for most of its career and was only used by the RAF in small numbers. The total produced was only 337, and that’s including the aircraft exported to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. To put that figure into perspective, almost twice as many of the rather more obscure Saab Draken were made. Its final production is utterly dwarfed when compared to other peers, the Mirage III, Su-15, Phantom, F-104 and MiG-21. It entered service in 1960. It was soon apparent that its pitiful endurance and small weapon-load made it unsuitable for its intended role of countering Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. With the arrival of RAF F-4 Phantom, which had had four times as many missiles, three times the endurance and twice the radar range it was utterly outclassed. According former to RAF Lightning pilot Ian Black, it was unnecessary beyond 1974 and was probably only kept on to maintain the numbers. With all these damning points, sadly we cannot accept the thunderous Lightning in our top 10. Similarly, the Harrier, which much loved did little in reality in the Cold War, other than killing many of the most skilled pilots in the RAF. It should be added that the GR.3 did serve in the Falklands War, though was overshadowed in significance by the Sea Harrier. The F-4 Phantom II was an extremely effective interceptor from 1969 until the end of the Cold War, though did not see actual combat, though scored the RAF’s last ‘kill’, when one accidentally shot down an RAF Jaguar. The introduction of the jet came before the Cold War, meaning the greatest technological leap forward came with the arrival of the Tornado, according to McParlin, “Probably the biggest technological step forward was Tornado… it was the biggest jump from previous aircraft types in terms of the range of new technologies employed. It was immensely more sophisticated than anything that the RAF had operated previously… and more affordably and achievably than TSR2 could have done with valve-based avionics. Lots of earlier projects contributed to what Tornado became, not least AFVG, but Tornado became a real aircraft after a decade of chopping and changing due to politics… and it’s worth considering an alternative universe in which Skybolt was *not* arbitrarily cancelled, and following through the logic of that.”
Woof! Who doesn’t love a good dog? Folks in aviation certainly do, for man’s best friend has inspired the moniker of many a flying machine over the nearly twelve decades of powered flight. We’re going to look at a few of them today. We’ll stick to aircraft named for domestic doggies, those inspired by wild canids would need a whole ‘nother piece to do them justice. Like Fido, these aircraft are (mostly) dependable and great to have around. Although you probably wouldn’t want to keep them as house pets, as they might leak oil on your new carpet…
Honorable Mention: Douglas AD Skyraider – the ‘Able Dog‘
Yes, this one’s a bit of a cheat, since the aircraft itself wasn’t actually named after a dog. But, due to its trustworthiness, ruggedness, and tendency to leave oil stains on its pilot’s leg, US Naval aviators decided that its pre-1962 AD designator stood for ‘Able Dog’ (It really stood for “Attack aircraft built by Douglas,” but that just doesn’t have the same bark to it.)
The Skyraider was a beast of an aircraft, with a bombload exceeding that of a B-17 and performance that would’ve made any competitor drool with envy. It’s not the prettiest warplane, though it’s far from ugly, and oozes charisma and blue-collar grit. It’s the epitome of a roughneck workhorse. Or perhaps I should say a working dog.
10. Beagle Aircraft, Ltd.
We’ll start off the actual list not with a specific aircraft named after a dog but an entire manufacturer. The existence British Executive & General Aviation Limited—or, as it came to be known, Beagle Aircraft—was ephemeral, lasting only nine years, but it was nothing to stick your snout up at. The firm was formed through the merger of UK light aviation legends Auster and Miles. And, because just giving your company a canine name just isn’t good enough, their aircraft were all given names fit for the family puppy, too.
You could choose a single-engine, high-wing design like the Husky, Terrier, and Airedale—all adaptations of existing Auster designs—or opt for the sporty yet awkwardly proportioned twin-engine B.206, known as the Basset in RAF service. And, if you didn’t want something boring and everyday like a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee, you could get yourself a nice B.121 Pup. The latter would be modified for military usage as the Bulldog, but that one has enough tricks to earn itself a mention of its own further up the list.
9. Foxcon Terrier 200
Like its furry namesake, you can take this light sport aircraft from Australia just about anywhere. It comes either on wheels or floats and, according to the manufacturer’s straight-out-of-1998 website, even comes in a dedicated camper version for those weekend trips deep into the Outback. Powered by a 100hp Subaru or Rotax engine, it’s got room for two—a pilot and his pooch, ideally—but a four-seat Terrier 400 appears to be in development.
8. Bristol Bulldog
This pugnacious fighter of the interwar years gets its name honestly, both for its brawling nature and its rugged good looks. It may be best known as the aircraft in which RAF legend Sir Douglas Bader lost his legs while performing aerobatics, but its eight-year service life saw considerable accomplishments. It never saw combat in British hands, though it did soldier on as a trainer well after being replaced in frontline service. It did, however, see action with the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War. With a two-to-one kill ratio, it didn’t quite reach the same level as the Fiat G.50 or Brewster Buffalo, but, considering those two victories were over a Tupolev SB and a Polikarpov I-16, both vastly more modern and (ostensibly) superior types? This little puppy packed one mean bite!
7. Sopwith ‘Pup‘
Let me start this one with the disclaimer that I have no evidence that this aircraft was actually named after a young dog. In fact, it was officially the Sopwith Scout; ‘Pup’ was a nickname that happened to catch on because it was the smallest of the Sopwith litter. This name could’ve been inspired by a canine pup, yes. But there’s also the distinct possibility that it was inspired by an otter pup. Or a seal pup. Or a shark pup. Or a ring-tailed lemur pup. But, let’s be honest. What’s the first pup that comes to mind? Yeah, that’s right. A cute little baby dog.
This particular Pup was certainly a pilot’s best friend. Extremely docile and highly maneuverable, it racked up quite the litany of accomplishments over its brief career. In 1917, a Pup became the first aircraft to land on a moving ship, and the type was used extensively used in shipborne operations thereafter. It was used to shoot down Zeppelins and Gotha bombers, and even after it was found to be outclassed by newer German fighters, it served well as an advanced trainer. That deserves a treat, methinks.
6. Mil Mi-4 ‘Hound‘
The Soviets mustn’t like dogs very much, because it fell to NATO to bestow upon this workhorse its canine code name. The Soviet S-55/Whirlwind (which is actually considerably larger than either the Sikorsky product or the Westland version, but don’t tell any jingoistic Americans/Brits that lest they get a bad case of rotor envy) proved itself worthy of its reporting name, particularly in Indian Air Force service.
Over 4,000 Mi-4s and Chinese license-built Z-5s were produced; Albania is thought to have been the last operator, operating ‘Hound’s as recently as 2005, but North Korea may or may not still have a few panting around somewhere.
5. Scottish Aviation Bulldog
The last product of Beagle Aircraft Limited that we met earlier, the Bulldog didn’t begin production until that company had ceased operations. It would’ve been the most successful of the Beagles, with over three hundred produced, serving as the standard basic trainer for the RAF and Royal Navy for over twenty-five years as well as equipping the air arms of ten other nations, including the Swedish Air Force, the type’s launch customer, and the Lebanese Air Force, who still have a few hanging around with their Air Force School.
But, while the Grob Tutor has replaced the Bulldog in British military service, it remains quite popular on the secondhand market. (They even turn up at air shows in the States every so often.) That means that, for the right price, you can go fetch one for yourself!
4. Kaman HH-43 Huskie
Certainly an oddity with its synchronized intermeshing rotors (a wartime German invention that came to the United States under the now-infamous Operation Paperclip), the Huskie wasn’t nearly as rancid as its unfortunate nickname—the Flying Shithouse—would have you believe.
Like the noble sled dog that runs at the back of the pack and is the last one to get a treat, but never complains and works just as hard as the others, the Huskie was an unsung hero, being used primarily as a firefighting and station search and rescue platform before becoming the primary short-range rescue helicopter in the Vietnam War.
Just a shame that it was designed by a former pal of Heinrich Himmler…
3. Aviat A-1 Husky
Sticking with the theme of huskies, but spelled a little differently this time, this taildragger is the epitome of a blue-collar workhorse. It might look like a Super Cub, but it’s an animal all its own. Its 180hp (200hp in the A-1C-200 variant) Lycoming engine gives it an excellent power-to-weight ratio for its size, it’s got excellent short-field performance, and it’s built like a tank. And it comes from Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park. If you’re going to have an aircraft manufacturer headquartered in Wyoming, then its aircraft had darned well be rugged as junkyard dogs.
This one certainly is. It’s used for everything from glider towing to fishery patrol to anti-poaching in Kenya. It takes to water like a golden retriever jumping into a lake to chase down a tennis ball and embraces the snow with the same tongue-out vigor as its namesake.
2. Grumman C-2 Greyhound
The aircraft named for the fastest animal on this list might not look particularly fast—and, in comparison to the next entry, it’s practically flying backwards—but, with a top speed of just under 400 mph at altitude, it’s no slouch, either. The US Navy’s COD—that’s carrier onboard delivery, not to be confused with the fish—can carry twenty-six passengers in utilitarian comfort (but still probably better than Spirit/Allegiant/Ryanair/insert your least favorite budget airline) or 10,000lb of cargo from ship to shore or vice versa.
Alas, it won’t be racing around much longer, as the USN has elected to replace it with the CMV-22B Osprey by 2024.
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31 ‘Foxhound‘
This behemoth of a long-range interceptor was an easy choice for the top dog, not only because it’s a monumentally impressive piece of machinery, but its NATO reporting name contains not one but two canine elements!
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Topping out at Mach 2.83, you won’t find many/any aircraft that can outrun the MiG-31. And it’s got as much bite as it has bark, with a PESA radar and the ability to carry air-to-air, anti-radiation, air-launched ballistic, and anti-satellite missiles in addition to its 23-mm rotary cannon. It prefers to hunt from bases in Russia and Kazakhstan.
Among the most dangerous flying roles in US 21st Century combat operations was piloting the OH-58D Kiowa armed reconnaissance helicopter. We spoke to former US Army OH-58D pilot Dan Berriochoa to find out more.
When I first joined the Army back in 2000, the OH-58D had two different roles. The first was that of armed reconnaissance, the traditional cavalry role. The second role was light attack. I was never in a light attack unit, although we did practice certain attack tactics with hellfire missiles.
The cavalry mission was by far my favorite, and it consisted of the usual reconnaissance and security tasks. My first unit was a division cavalry unit, 1-10 Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division. We had three troops of M-1 Abrams and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two troops of the OH-58D, totaling 16 aircraft. There were also a few support troops in there as well. We would work a lot with the ground side, operating over the shoulder for the tanks and Bradleys. Typically we would scout out routes, look for river fording sites, recon bridges, landing zones/pick up zones for air assaults and conduct the doctrinal screen, guard, and cover missions (although a Cavalry squadron didn’t have the capability to conduct the doctrinal cover mission).
Now I would say this all changed post-invasion of Iraq. As the battlefield transitioned from linear to asymmetric doctrinal roles for the OH-58D changed. We transitioned to more of a security role, providing convoy security and on-call fire support for the troops on the ground. We still did our reconnaissance, but it was no longer focused on probing enemy front lines.
Afghanistan was primarily security-focused. We flew in support of the ground force commander and operated over the top of the infantry or whoever was on the ground. It was still doctrinal in the sense that we were there to provide reaction time and maneuver space to the ground forces and allow them the freedom to maneuver, but it was no longer at the brigade or division level, it was at the platoon/company level. We were there for on-call close combat attacks. It became a knife fight.
The 58D had agility and maneuverability. If you thought it, the aircraft was doing it. It was also relatively simple when compared to the other aircraft in the Army inventory. In an emergency, a crew could have the aircraft off the ground in under five minutes. During my first tour in Iraq in 2003, we often scrambled the aircraft out of Baqubah during mortar attacks (ask Waitman about these!). The other thing about the 58D, and I alluded to it in question one, is that you’re in the knife fight. You’re low, sometimes between the infantry and the enemy, to identify where the gunfire is coming from or to draw the fire so the infantry can move. The 58D could get in low and in tight places to put fire on enemy positions.
The worst thing about the 58D? There were a few. The first was the lack of funding from the Army. They pumped millions in the Apache program for upgraded software, new equipment while the 58D languished. It also was not a forgiving aircraft. You flew it constantly on the edge of the power margins, often over max gross weight. In combat, the usable payload of the aircraft forced crews to trade-off ammunition for fuel and vice versa. It was a constant struggle, and every takeoff full of fuel and ammunition was an event, just hoping the aircraft would clear the berm or concertina wire at the edge of the forward arming and refueling point (FARP). The aircraft was running old 1980s computers in the back; it could have all been updated and compressed into one or two lighter-weight boxes. But then, the Army would have just added more crap in the back to weigh us down again, which they often would when they lightened the aircraft.
There are so many memorable flights. Some are from back home, flying cross-country to training events. Those flights always generated some epic stories. I remember one flight in Afghanistan, we were in the Pech River Valley escorting a ground convoy carrying the Konar Province governor. We were told to expect an ambush from the Taliban, but if we had a nickel for every time we heard that, I could have retired years ago. I was flying right seat trail when the hillside out my door started to sparkle and I remember seeing puffs of dirt kicking up from RPGs being fired at the convoy. It was directly 90 degrees to me, and too close to kick it right and start a gun run, so we had to circle around to make our run. There was probably a dozen or so areas to shoot on the hillside, so lead made their run, and we made ours behind them. There was a road that zig-zagged down part of the hillside, where the road made its switchback, there were 3-5 Taliban, I could tell from the muzzle flashes. I fired off a flechette into the area, I remember it seemed as if the ground jumped with all the nails hitting. I think it was on the next pass the weapons fire switch (the trigger) stuck in the full down position. I couldn’t get the switch to come back up. The co-pilot, seeing what was happening, put our Armament Control Panel (ACP) to standby, basically safing the weapon systems. By this time lead was going back in on another run while I was trying to explain that I wasn’t able to cover their run. So we acted as if we were going to do another rocket pass, hoping to keep their heads down. I remember thinking to myself during all of this, get a Leatherman/Gerber out and pull the damn switch back up. I also remember thinking why couldn’t my co-pilot see this thought bubble I was having amidst the 90 other things going on around us. He had his hands full as the AMC for the flight while I’m fighting with this piece of plastic. I was finally able to convey my thoughts, and acting quickly he pulled out his Gerber and was able to pull the switch out despite my maneuvering to stay on lead’s tail. The switch worked fine for the rest of the flight after that, but it was not fun being in the fishbowl of gunfire, not being able to shoot back or cover the lead bird. That co-pilot and I still talk about that mission and laugh about it. We were able to get the convoy out of the ambush, the Konar governor made it back home that night. Apparently it was a bigger deal than we knew, we ended up getting Air Medals for it. That was just the start of a rash of those malfunctions, we had a bad lot of switches that would either stick in the full down, or shoot two rockets, once when you pushed it down, and then again when the button popped back up. That’ll get your attention when you’re not expecting it. Plus, it wasted rockets which at times were in short supply.
The OH-58D in three words? Low and lethal.
The doctrinal cavalry mission is dangerous. It throws a smaller, faster unit against the larger, main body of the enemy. I would recommend watching the movie Gettysburg, specifically the scene with Sam Elliot, who plays General John Buford. That is the best depiction of what the Cavalry does. He put the US Cavalry in a position to block the entire Confederate Army to allow the 1st Corps and General Reynolds time to get into position. That whole reaction time and maneuver space, and early and accurate warning. Hallmarks of the Cavalry.
The ’58D and the Apache shouldered their own dangers during the invasion of Iraq. We both flew low and had to contend with shoulder-fired missiles and small arms fire. The Apache has better armor for the crew. I described the 58D as a Coke can with plexiglass. We did have some armor plating, but not anything truly effective for gunfire coming from the front like the Apache did. Later in the Afghanistan war, we got armored floor plating which further compressed your body in an already small cockpit. And it reduced our usable payload.
So long answer short, you’re down low in a power-limited aircraft in the mountains of Afghanistan getting shot at, it’s dangerous. The Apache was in a similar, albeit not as power-limited situation. It was dangerous for everyone.
Iraq was a completely different beast. I was a 20-year-old Chief Warrant Officer 2 co-pilot in the left seat during the invasion of Iraq. We lived out of the aircraft for a few months, slept in the dirt or the aircraft. Around the summer of 2003, we saw the start of the insurgency. We got mortared A LOT. We flew route reconnaissance missions and found a lot of IEDs. They weren’t as well hidden back then. We all had a few engagements, it started to get a bit more sporty as we got ready to leave in March of 2004. I didn’t return until the summer of 2008.
That was right after the surge, which had a devastating effect on the insurgency. The unit we replaced had been there 15 months. So it was a relatively quiet year for us. When there was trouble, it was usually in Mosul (We were up north between Tal Afar and Mosul). The issue with Mosul was it was so tightly packed gunfire could come from anywhere, and we couldn’t do anything about it. There were too many antennas and wires to allow us to get really low. Even if we could, we weren’t allowed to shoot, the collateral damage would have been too high. It was frustrating. Then compound that with bad leadership, it made for a long year.
8. Afghanistan was a fight, plain and simple. The Taliban stood their ground and fought. They definitely had their say in what we did. The first day we assumed the mission from 3-7 Cavalry, our area of the FOB Fenty in Jalalabad was attacked. I don’t mean three guys, it was a full-on attack. Some of our best maintainers were wounded and had to be sent home. I don’t remember how many Taliban were involved, but they had machine guns, small arms, and rocket-propelled grenades. They made it to the wall of the FOB and began lobbing hand grenades over. Apaches were conducting strafing runs (even though 58Ds were already in the air long before them and told not to engage for some reason). The Taliban attacked our FARP up in Mehtar Lam and destroyed our refuel/rearm capabilities at FOB Wright in Asadabad. We ended up having to set up a new FARP at another FOB nearby while we repaired the one at Wright. Mehtar Lam wasn’t out of the fight for long, but enough to put us on notice.
The other thing about Afghanistan was the mountains. For the first time, you were now getting shot at from above. As you descended into the engagement area, you had to contend with gunfire from the ground below, the hillsides you’re level with, and from up above. Unlike my time in Iraq where the fighters we did encounter fired their weapons and fled, the Taliban stood their ground and went toe to toe with you.
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The myths and misunderstandings of the 58D were at the Army level. Senior leaders didn’t fully understand the impact the 58D had on the ground and with the ground forces and against the enemy. The ground troops loved us because we fought at their level. The Taliban knew that when we showed up, they couldn’t hide. Sure we had our limitations, but that goes back to lack of funding from higher up. We routinely flew at high altitudes and engaged targets and high elevations. We would operate up to 14,000 feet engaging targets on ridge tops at 12,000 feet. We weren’t the aircraft to set conditions on an LZ, but we were the aircraft to carry the fight. So I guess misconceptions were that we couldn’t operate effectively at the higher elevations in Afghanistan, and that just wasn’t true. We did it every day.
My advice to any young pilot in this profession is study, study, study. Learn your craft, learn your aircraft, learn your tactics. Combat is not the place to realize you’re lacking and wish you had studied harder or known something more about your aircraft. It will keep you and the people on the ground alive. This brings me to my second point, you operate for one reason only, to support the ground force commander and keep the ground force alive.
Every unit was different. Depending on who was in charge, the culture changed. It definitely changed from the first half of my career to the second half. Partying was not tolerated as much. Sexual harassment was paid lip service the first half of my career, and it definitely got teeth and became a serious, hot button issue that was dealt with very severely in some cases, right or wrong. Culture also changed with who was the president. Promotion rates fluctuated depending on the year. As Iraq began to wind down before the rise of ISIS the Army was downsizing, and the Army purged a lot of personnel either by passing over good officers for promotion or barring enlisted from promotion for a failed physical fitness test as a way to thin the ranks (no pun intended).
I will say, though, that my time in 6-6 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division was by far the best assignment that I had. The unit had been together, some through two combat tours, the majority had been home for a year and were going back out the door to Afghanistan. The unit was tight-knit, and for the most part, had a highly proficient, good group of pilots. I was the interloper even though I was coming off an Iraq tour myself. Our two units weren’t far from each other in Northern Iraq. My squadron, 6-17 Cav was in Tikrit, Mosul, Tal Afar. 6-6 Cav was in Tikrit and Kirkuk. When I look back at my four tours, the 2010-2011 tour with 6-6 Cav was by far the best.
By the time we deployed in 2010 to Afghanistan, we had the new M3P .50cal machine-gun. It was a marked improvement over the M-296. The 296 was your standard M2 machine-gun tilted a bit, put in this god-awful cage, and belt-fed from the right instead of the left. It had a slower rate of fire, and was highly prone to jamming. The M3P was a godsend. It had a higher rate of fire and was reliable. The other great feature it had was it was plug and play. The old 296 was attached as a single unit to the Universal Weapons Pylon (UWP). So if the gun broke hard, the whole unit had to be removed, a new one installed, and a boresight conducted. This could not be done on the fly. So often times you had to fly around and finish your mission with a broken gun. Why not get a new aircraft you ask? Well the birds are scheduled out, so there might not be a spare. That’s another can of worms. Anyways, the M3P basically slid into a mount and used a big pin to secure it to the mount. So if the gun broke, the guys at the FARP could simply pull the pin, slide the gun out, and put a new one in. No need to boresight because it was the mount that was bore-sighted, not the gun, so when you put the gun in the mount, it was combat-ready in less than five minutes. So on a day when you’re firing 2,000 or more rounds a day (which is a lot considering the ammo can only carried 500 rounds), it was a great advantage to be able to swap out a gun for a new one and head back out.
As far as what would have been nice on the bird? A better sensor that could look down. Our Mast Mounted Sight (MMS) was designed for the Cold War and hiding behind hedgerows and trees. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it would have been nice to have a nose-mounted sight that was upgraded and useful. I think the better question is what equipment would you NOT like on the aircraft. I think the MMS would have been nice to dump because, for the most part, it was dead weight. The sensors were garbage, and we rarely used the Hellfire missile in Afghanistan. But removing the MMS would incur a lot more maintenance, and it would have shortened the lifespan of some key components.
The aircraft had a weight problem, it carried around an antiquated wiring harness that needed to be overhauled. As equipment was added and taken away over the years, the wires were left in the aircraft. The wires were also old. I think I talked about it above, but just an upgrade of the avionics would have been nice, it would have freed up some weight.
The ability to carry more .50cal rounds would have been nice, or the three-barrel GAU-19 would have been phenomenal. I know they were testing it before the 58D was retired, it would have been amazing in Afghanistan with some Armor Piercing Incendiary rounds. Those rounds were always in short supply.
The weapons carried on the OH-58D when I first started flying it were the 2.75in, 7 shot rocket pod, the .50cal machine gun, the AGM-114 Hellfire missile system, and the Air-to-Air Stinger (ATAS). After 2004 they scrapped the ATAS as a viable weapon system for the aircraft, but man that was a fun missile to shoot. I only got to shoot one of them, it was rare to actually get one.
Because of the limitations of our MMS and the fact they hadn’t bothered to upgrade our sensors since the early 90s, I did not like flying with a Hellfire. I viewed it as carrying around an extra 100 pounds I didn’t need to. I preferred to go out with the lead bird configured 50/rocket and the trail bird rocket/rocket. Depending on the variety of rockets carried, you could pack a punch. The mission would dictate the rocket loadout. I liked carrying a combination of HE rockets, red-phosphorous, and flechettes if I was in the rocket/rocket bird. Now, if we were in a real knife fight and had to get back out, just throw in all HE and lets go. They were faster to load and worked well.
I think now would be a good discussion on lead and trail. The lead bird is the primary scout, talks to the lowest ground force, meaning the actual guys on the ground. Trail monitors that same frequency and talks to the next higher, either company or battalion. Trail’s main job is to provide covering/suppressing fire if lead should stir up a hornet’s nest. Typically the Air Mission Commander (AMC), the person in charge of the mission, sits left seat trail free to work the radios and coordinate the team.
Anyways, back to the question. The sensors were carried in the MMS, we had a Thermal Imaging Sensor (TIS) and the day TV. Also housed in the MMS was the Laser Range Finder/Designator (LRF/D). It was in serious need of upgrading.
The OH-58D flew more hours in combat and had a higher operational readiness rate of any aircraft in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
There will never be a replacement for human eyes on the battlefield. The 58D could react in real-time in a highly fluid environment and immediately engage targets. If you’re on the ground, do you want a robot or a manned helicopter overhead? We had skin in the game, and we hung it out to keep the guys/gals on the ground safe. The other issue that UAS has is that they lose situational awareness. Life gets different thousands of feet in the air. Your view is through a soda straw. The UAV/UAS operators get sucked into that straw, and it’s difficult to get out of it. Apache pilots get into trouble with this as well, they get sucked into their sensor and lose situational awareness. Also, UAV/UAS systems fly higher, a lot higher. If there is cloud cover over the reconnaissance objective, then you’re out of luck. Manned assets can flex with those limitations. UAV/UAS have their place and, depending on the system, are highly capable and can bring a level of lethality to the enemy while providing safety to the crews that can’t be matched. Unmanned has a purpose and place, but you can’t replicate actual eyes on the battlefield. The Army is still seeking to fill the void left by the 58D. The issue is the Army did a good job of purging all the institutional knowledge and cavalry culture out of the Army. So when they do get another scout/recon aircraft, they’ll have to start from scratch. Most likely using attack pilots who don’t understand the true nature of reconnaissance.
To be honest, I haven’t kept my finger on the pulse of Army acquisitions.
You didn’t ask what made it possible for the OH-58D to conduct combat operations day in, day out for years. We had an amazing group of dedicated individuals who maintained our fleet. They worked long, hard hours to turn birds around for the next day or the next mission set. When we would land and tell the crew chiefs about the battle raging up the valley and what their birds did, they were proud. I used to love coming into the FARP during a big battle, and the armament dawgs would already be kneeling on the edge of the pad, rockets laying across their thighs, ready to start loading. They knew what was happening and were proud to be a part of it. They moved like an Indy 500 pit crew getting us loaded and refueled to go back out. We had the glamorous job of flying the birds, but they all made it possible.
Special thanks to Waitman
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Faster, better-armed and longer-ranged than the contemporary Spitfire, the Gloster F9/37 was a superb machine that failed to enter production. We take a look at this seldom-discussed heavy fighter aircraft.
The Hawker Demon biplane fighter first flew in 1933. The same year the British Air Ministry released a requirement (F.5/33) for its replacement. They wanted a two-seat monoplane fighter equipped with a gun turret, the thinking being that aiming a turret is easier than aiming the whole aeroplane and allows a far greater field of fire. The Gloster Aircraft Company, masters of the biplane, responded with a twin-engined monoplane design powered by the Bristol Aquila radial engine (an abortive project but one which would lead to the Hercules, Taurus, and Centaurus). The Air Staff, rightly, were suspecting that the concept of F.5/33 was flawed, and so issued F.34/35 demanding an additional fixed forward-firing armament. Gloster adjusted their design accordingly, adding fixed guns, but Boulton Paul’s turret-equipped Defiant won an order, leaving the Gloster F.34/35 entrant out in the cold.
A year later, a new requirement was issued, F.9/37. This called for a single-seat, twin-engine, long-ranged fighter with fixed guns. At last, it seemed that Gloster’s luck was changing. The work they had done for F.34/35 put them in an excellent position, and the deletion of the heavy draggy turret created a fighter design potentially capable of spectacular performance. Gloster identified two possible engines, the water-cooled inline Rolls-Royce Peregrine and the extremely light powerful radial Bristol Taurus. Prototypes powered by each were to be built and tested.
When the first prototype (L7999), equipped with Taurus engines, flew in 3 April 1939 it was the fastest British fighter ever flown*, reaching an impressive 360 mph at 15,000 feet. Each of the Taurus T-S(a) engines generated an impressive 1,050 horsepower. The F9/37 (also known as the Gloster G.39) immediately earned the confidence of its pilot. It was blessed with fine handling, light controls and a dazzling performance.
It was extremely manoeuvrable, a delight to take-off and land, and virtually vice-free. Its pilot enjoyed an excellent field of view and the aircraft was planned to pack a heavy punch in the form of two cannon and four machine-guns.
It was also far faster than contemporary heavy fighters then in operational service such as the Potez 630 (264mph) – and marginally swifter than the Bf 110 (336 mph) which had an identical amount of installed power (the British aircraft was around 2500Ibs lighter at maximum weight).
*it is believed that the Whirlwind was yet to achieve this figure, though later would.
The prototype crashed through no fault of the design and as it was repaired work on the Peregrine-engined variant was progressing. When the Peregrine prototype flew it proved mediocre, the top speed dropping to a still respectable but not earth-shattering 330mph. The repaired and re-engined first prototype flew again in 1940 with the lower-powered 900 hp Taurus T-S(a)-Ills also proved disappointing.
A development of the F.9/37 as a night fighter, for a new Air Ministry Specifications F.29/40 – known unofficially as the Gloster ‘Reaper’ – was dropped despite being superior to the Beaufighter and (even the Mosquito in some respects).
W.G. Carter’s proposed a single-seat heavy fighter based on the design but with Merlin engines for spec F18/40. Whereas the radar-equipped version was to be armed with four 20-mm cannon, the day version would also have an additional eight light machine-guns in place of the radar. This would not have been available until 1942.
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The Reaper was lower powered than either the Mosquito or Bf 110 of the time, with either the Taurus or the Peregrine (which would soon be unavailable anyway). A Merlin-engined version would have worked but at this time everyone wanted Merlins. Ultimately why bother with a lumbering great heavy fighter when you’ve got the Mosquito busy being shit-hot at everything and the fastest production aircraft in the world? Or if you want something slower how about the Beaufighter? Gloster had their hands full building Hurricanes, and then Typhoons, as well as working on the development on Britain’s first jet aircraft. Arsing around with a complicated and expensive twin to no great purpose probably didn’t look like a great idea when you had two perfectly good heavy fighter designs and single engine types were proving perfectly fine at being cannon armed. As with the Whirlwind, when the question was asked, ‘what is more useful one heavy fighter or two Spitfires?’ the answer usually favoured the latter, unless the aircraft in question was the superlative (and already active) Mosquito.
Not every fighter flown in World War II looked like a Spitfire*. Some radical new shapes were tried, but reinventing the fighting aeroplane while your nation was fighting in the most destructive war in history was a risky expensive move, but one with potentialy huge rewards. More than sixty years before the Typhoon, Rafale and Gripen made the tail-first ‘canard’ warplane commonplace, two enemy nations looked to master this unordodox configuration. Jim Smith asks why and finds out which was the better machine.
(*or a Spitfire that had swallowed a barrel in the case of the radial-engined aircraft)
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender and Kyushu J7W Shinden
Two fighter designs, the Ascender from the USA, and the Shinden from Japan, featuring swept wings, a canard foreplane and a pusher engine installation. Before looking at the aircraft more closely, it is worth discussing why this layout might have appeared attractive.
Pusher-Canard Design Objectives
There are several possible advantages of using a canard foreplane and a pusher engine installation. A conventional design with a rear-mounted tailplane is normally trimmed and stabilised with a download on the tailplane, which reduces overall lift. A stable canard will have lift on both the canard and the wing, and the pitching moment to rotate for take-off will also be generated by increasing the lift on the foreplane.
If the aircraft is designed with a swept wing, as is both the Ascender and the Shinden, fuselage size, drag and weight can be reduced compared to a conventional design. The swept wing will allow fins and rudders to be positioned aft of the centre of gravity with sufficient moment arm for them to be effective, with the foreplane being used either as an elevator (Ascender), or to carry elevators (Shinden). Reducing the fuselage size will reduce wetted area and drag, and reduce pitch inertia, potentially increasing responsiveness to the controls.
In general, canard designs have benign stalling characteristics, since the foreplane will normally be designed to stall at a lower incidence than the wing, resulting in a pitch down at the stall. At high lift, downwash from the foreplane will reduce the incidence on the inboard wing, helping to ensure this desirable behaviour.
Selection of a pusher engine installation makes sense for a canard and swept wing configuration because the engine can be used to balance out the weight of the pilot and the armament, which can conveniently be located in the nose of the aircraft. Reduction in drag may also be claimed as the fuselage and wings will be free from propeller wash, offering the prospect of cleaner flow over the wings and fuselage. However, a rear-mounted engine may be more difficult to cool, and the efficiency of the propeller may be reduced as it will be operating in the wake of the aircraft. Rudder authority will also be reduced in the absence of the slipstream from the propeller, so directional stability and control may be an issue for some aircraft.
An outstanding example of a relatively current design with this configuration is the Rutan Vari-Eze, which can achieve a max cruising speed of 170kt on only 100hp.
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender
Designed to meet a 1939 specification for a well-armed high-performance fighter, the XP-55 Ascender was one of three unorthodox designs selected for development. The other two were the Vultee XP-54 Swoose Goose, and the Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet. All three aircraft were of pusher configuration; the Ascender having swept wings and a canard; the Swoose Goose having a straight wing and twin tail booms; and the Black Bullet being a tail-less flying wing.
All three aircraft were originally intended to be powered by the 2200 hp Pratt & Whitney X-1800 engine, which was cancelled, leaving an alternative engine to be selected. Curtiss fitted a 1275 hp Allison V1710-95 engine as a substitute in the Ascender, which would have ensured that the aircraft could in no way match the originally estimated maximum speed of 507 mph. Incidentally, the Northrop design had severe stability problems, and was eventually assessed as not airworthy, while the Vultee design substituted the X-1800 engine first with the Lycoming XH-2470 engine, and then proposed to use the Wright R-2160 Tornado, but both of these alternative powerplants were also cancelled.
The Ascender configuration design had been supported by the use of a full-scale, but light weight, demonstrator powered by a 275 hp Menasco engine, the CW-24B, which made no less than 169 test flights, and this helped to overcome initial AF doubts about the configuration. The XP-55 made its first flight on July 19, 1943, but was lost in an accident in November 1943. The aircraft became inverted following a stall, and could not be recovered by the pilot, who bailed out successfully.
The second and third prototypes continued the flight test program, flying in January and April 1944 with a range of modifications to improve directional stability and the effectiveness of the elevators. The third aircraft also featured additional wing and control modifications in response to the accident to the first aircraft. Even with these modifications, handling was poor at low speeds, the engine tended to over-heat, and the maximum speed of 390 mph was well below expectations.
By this time, it was apparent that the performance of in-service aircraft like the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang far exceeded anything that could be credibly expected from the Ascender. It was also clear to the Air Force that the future lay with jet propulsion, and the XP-55 Ascender joined the XP-54 Swoose Goose and XP-56 Black Bullet in being cancelled.
Kyushu J7W Shinden
The Kyushu J7W Shinden was a small and very neatly-packaged canard fighter concept that was originated by Captain Masaoki Tsurono of the Technical Staff of the Japanese Navy. Although the aircraft was fitted with a 2130 hp Mitsubishi MK9D radial engine, Captain Tsurono had always envisaged that this would be replaceable in the future by a jet engine.
The basic configuration was validated using an unpowered demonstrator, the Yokosuka MXY6, supplemented by some additional flights with a low powered 22 hp engine. With the assurance that the configuration was practical, the Navy instructed Kyushu to proceed with the design and construction of the J7W Shinden, with some technical assistance being provided by a Navy team led by Captain Tsurono.
The design which emerged was centred on a small, moderately swept wing of 36 ft span, carrying the engine on the wing centre section, with a shaft driven 6-blade propeller at the rear of the fuselage. Cooling intakes were fitted to the fuselage ahead of the wing, with the cockpit, armament and forward canard making up the forward fuselage. With its compact packaging, powerful engine, and relatively high power-to-weight ratio, the Shinden might have been expected to offer high speed and good manoeuvrability.
However, timing was against the Shinden. Despite being ordered into production even before its first flight, only two aircraft could be built before the end of WW II, and only 3 flights of the prototype aircraft were made.
What can we learn from those flights? The reported information was that they revealed a strong swing to starboard during take-off, and significant vibration in the propeller and its drive shaft.
The first of these would have been due to the torque of the powerful engine, but would also have been exacerbated by the short moment arm between the wing-mounted fins and the aircraft centre of gravity. A production aircraft might have required a central fin to supplement those on the wings, and perhaps also larger rudder controls.
The vibration in the propeller and its drive shaft has been stated to be due to propeller flutter, and a redesign of the propeller to increase its stiffness would perhaps have resolved this problem. Unexplored issues which would need to be examined in flight test would include handling at low speeds and at the stall, engine cooling, and detailed evaluation of aircraft performance and armament effectiveness.
Despite these concerns, which might well have been resolved in flight and operational testing, the Shinden was a well-executed, forward-looking design, particularly as consideration had been given to a future jet-powered variant, the J7W2.
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender and Kyushu J7W Shinden – Air Combat Comparison
Although design of the XP-55 started from a 1939 requirement, the aircraft did not fly until 1943, with the third and final aircraft not flying until April 1944. The J7W Shinden made its first flight in August 1945. The Shinden only made 3 flights; two of the three XP-55 aircraft were lost in accidents which reflected poorly on the controllability of the aircraft.
Unsurprisingly, there is limited information on which to judge their air combat performance, other than basic dimensional, power and weight data. What information there is suggests that the Shinden would have had substantial advantages over the XP-55 Ascender.
The Shinden had more power, and a greater power to weight ratio, and had a slightly lower wing loading than the Ascender. While the Ascender had a slightly higher aspect ratio, the advantage due to this in sustained turn rate could well have been negated by the higher power to weight ratio of the Shinden. The reported maximum speed data suggests a 70 mph speed advantage for the Shinden, but I would treat this estimate with some caution, as so little flight test of that aircraft was possible.
On sortie rate, there is little to go on. The air-cooled radial engine of the Shinden might have required less maintenance than the liquid-cooled engine of the Ascender, and there is some indication that there were cooling issues for that aircraft. Directional control and propeller flutter issues remained to be resolved for the Shinden.
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender and Kyushu J7W Shinden Assessment
The Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, like the XP-54 and XP-56 with which it competed, turned out to be disappointing, largely because the engine for which it had been designed turned out not to be available. But it also had difficult handling qualities, especially at low speed. Possibly not as dangerous as the XP-56, and perhaps with greater, if still inadequate, performance potential than the XP-54, the XP-55 Ascender could not be considered a success.
The J7W Shinden seems to be a particularly well executed pusher-canard fighter, but with a total of 45 minutes flying, cannot be said to be a proven entity. The limited test flying revealed two early issues, yaw control on take-off and vibration of the propeller and prop-shaft. It is likely that the Shinden could have been developed into a successful fighter, particularly if the planned jet engine installation had gone ahead. But this will never be known with certainty, because the War in the Pacific ended before any meaningful testing or production had been undertaken.
Which aircraft was better? The choice could be as simple as observing that the Curtiss design was a dud, whereas the Kyushu Shinden had not been tested sufficiently to establish whether or not it was also a dud. This approach would, I think, be a cop out, so I am prepared to rate the Kyushu Shinden as the ‘better loser’ on two grounds – its development potential as a jet-powered aircraft, and its aesthetic appearance.