Top 11 Military Jump-Jets (vertical take-off aircraft)

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The Ultimate World War I Fighters

“Biplanes are soooo 1918”

A hundred years ago the armistice of November 11th 1918 ended the fighting on the Western Front and largely brought to a close four years of continuous frenetic aviation development. Had the fighting continued into 1919 these are the types that would have been in the front line; Snarks and Rumplers would have been as well known today as Camels and Fokkers. 

Mehr davon bitte! The SPAD 13 was amongst the best fighters of 1918, what would take the top spot in 1919?

This group represents the ultimate development in Great War fighter aircraft yet despite their potential, none of these aircraft saw operational service before the end of hostilities and chances are you’ve never heard of any of them (unless you’re over 100 years old and happened to be employed in the aviation sector in the early interwar period).

In 1918 aircraft designs were churned out at an astounding rate, for example the Fokker V20 of early 1918 was allegedly designed and built in six and a half days. As a result the aircraft below are limited to single seat, single engine aircraft only to limit the potential entries and help maintain the sanity of the compiler.

Honourable Mention: Orenco-Curtiss Model D

“I am quite attractive and historically significant, why did not they save me from the scrapman?”

Be an American Eagle! (fly a French plane)

Despite being the first nation to actually fly an aeroplane, US aviation lagged behind the European powers when they entered the conflict in 1917. All the combat aircraft operated by the American Expeditionary Force over the Western front were either French or British. In 1919 however the first indigenous American fighter design to enter production (though still equipped with a French engine) took to the air in the form of the Orenco Model D.

The aircraft was apparently excellent, test pilot Clarence Coombs (who gained second place in the inaugural Pulitzer Trophy the following year in the Curtiss Kitten) reporting “This aircraft performs better than the Sopwith Camel and Snipe, the Thomas-Morse, the Nieuport and Morane Parasol, the Spad and S.V.A.” which was praise indeed, and thus the Army ordered a batch of fifty production aircraft. So why is Orenco virtually unknown today? Well it turned out that the US Army had bought the rights to the design from Orenco and then offered a tender to companies to actually build the production aircraft. In a cruel twist, the winning (i.e. cheapest) bid came not from Orenco themselves but from the aviation giant Curtiss. Curtiss tinkered with the design a little and duly manufactured the fifty fighters.

Orenco meanwhile folded shortly afterwards and became largely forgotten by history. 

10. Sopwith Snark

“Do you like Lewis Carroll?” “Not really, no”

Likely possessing the coolest name ever applied to an aircraft, the Sopwith Snark was a crazy blend of the somewhat old-fashioned and incredibly futuristic. The Snark’s triplane format was generally considered passé by the end of the war but its revival by Sopwith (whose Triplane of 1916 was one of the greatest successes of the conflict) was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. One of two fighters proposed by Sopwith (the other being a run-of-the-mill biplane named the Snapper) in 1918 to replace its own Snipe, which was then entering service, the Snark was intended to operate at high altitude and the low wing loading offered by the triplane layout was seen as ideal to maintain manoeuvrability at height. It also conferred upon the Snark a prodigious weight-lifting capacity which was employed to carry the Snark’s unprecedented armament of six machine guns. This installed armament made it the most heavily armed fighter of the Great war period and would not be equalled until the prototype Gloster Gauntlet took to the skies in 1932 with the same arrangement of four wing-mounted Lewis and two fuselage Vickers gun installation. Even then the Gauntlet reverted to just the twin Vickers armament in its production guise. 

The four square patches visible on the lower wing provided access to the ammunition drums of the Lewis guns. The firepower of the Snark would not be surpassed by a British fighter until the prototype Hawker Hurricane was fitted with eight Brownings in August 1936.

 

Similarly forward-looking was its construction, the Snark featured a wooden monocoque fuselage that conferred high strength for low weight. It would be the last RAF fighter, experimental or otherwise, to fly with such a fuselage until the prototype Mosquito fighter W4052 of 1941. The Snark appeared in public on just one occasion and it was noted that it ‘chucked stunts’ and seemed ‘uncommonly fast’. Upon landing out popped test pilot Harry Hawker, who was flying without a coat, though ‘everybody else was cold enough though well wrapped up.” 

Massive cuts to the armed forces at the end of the war meant that there would be no production order for the forward-looking, stunt-chucking and demonstrably warm Snark, thus depriving aviation writers the opportunity to use the phrase ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ in articles and features for evermore. A cruel blow.

Despite a nearly-successful entry into the motorcycle manufacturing business (Under the name ABC motors), Sopwith was saddled with insurmountable tax debts from its massive wartime production and was wound up in 1920. Though Tom Sopwith, Harry Hawker and three others immediately bought the assets of Sopwith as the H.G. Hawker Engineering company which would ultimately become a giant of the British aviation industry. 

9. Zeppelin D.I

In 1918, Germany’s strict Irony laws (die Ironiegesetze) decreed that all metal aircraft had to be photographed in front of trees.

Designed by Claude Dornier, the Zeppelin D.I was one of very few truly revolutionary aircraft in aviation history. The first aircraft to be built and flown with a stressed-skin metal construction throughout, the Zeppelin was the progenitor of virtually all modern fixed wing aircraft but never entered service and today is obscure in the extreme. 

Zeppelin sold two D.Is to the US in 1921. One was evaluated by the Navy and this one by the Army Air Service. Despite being earmarked for preservation it was scrapped in 1926.

Zeppelin’s name is inextricably linked with airships but the company were (and indeed still are) specialists in more general aluminium engineering so it was hardly surprising that they would seek to apply this material to aircraft construction. In the case of the D.I, construction was of duralumin (an alloy of aluminium and copper) throughout. This alloy would later be used to build the ill-fated Hindenburg passenger airship. 

Zeppelin’s D.I was present, though not an official entry, at the second fighter competition at Adlershof but was struck by incredible ill-fortune. Despite being grounded at the factory’s behest pending fitment of the correct wing attachment, the Zeppelin was flown anyway and fatally crashed when the upper wing departed from the aircraft, killing ace Wilhelm Reinhard. Curiously The D.I had been flown minutes earlier by Herman Goering and one wonders how history would have changed had he been the victim rather than the luckless Reinhard. This accident, though seemingly the result of ill-luck rather than any flaw in the aircraft inevitably coloured opinions. Whether or not this had an effect when the Zeppelin appeared at the next fighter contest is open to question but despite its promise the metal aircraft did not put up a particularly good showing, even when fitted with Germany’s best inline engine, the 185 hp BMW. “Does not possess characteristics of a modern fighter. Ailerons too heavy.” noted  Heinrich Bongartz, commander of the Aircraft Test Centre at Aldershof in a remarkably succinct but damning report. Had fighting continued it is likely that a developed version would have addressed the shortcomings this aircraft possessed.

Too advanced for you: Dornier Do H Falke

Unlike so many other hopeful German types, work on this fighter did not cease with the treaty of Versailles so we are granted a tangible glimpse of how this machine would have evolved if the conflict had continued. Dornier developed the design into the monoplane Dornier Do H ‘Falke’ (Falcon) of 1922, five examples of which were built in Switzerland and Italy. The Falke demonstrated a terrific turn of speed but never entered production, being apparently just too ahead of its time. The US Navy for example declared it was ‘too advanced’ for their needs after evaluating the aircraft in 1923.

8. Pfalz D.XV

“Am I not a looker?”

Recipient of a major production order exactly one week before the end of hostilities, the Pfalz D.XV bid fair to reverse the prevailing attitude that Pfalz fighters were invariably inferior to their Fokker rivals. An unusual design, the fuselage of the Pfalz was placed halfway between upper and lower wing and attached to both by complex struts, resulting in a distinctly ungainly look. The D.XV was notable also for its complete absence of bracing wires as both wings were cantilever units. Despite its clumsy appearance, the new Pfalz was an impressive performer. When both were fitted with the same BMW engine, it was slightly faster than the Fokker D.VII and the new Pfalz matched its rival for rate of climb.

Entered into the third fighter trial at Adlershof, the performance of the D.XV was sufficient to warrant an order despite issues of tail-heaviness (which should have been relatively easy to cure) and being difficult to land – neither seen as particularly serious when weighed against the aircraft’s excellent performance. It was also noted that Pfalz’s production capacity was superior to Fokker and for this reason alone, the new fighter, at least as good as the D.VII but available quickly in great numbers made the Pfalz an extremely attractive machine to the Inspektion der Fliegertruppen (Idflieg).

“No, I am not”

The D.XV immediately entered production but time was not on Pfalz’s side and not a single example of the D.XV was to reach the front. It is not definitely known how many complete aircraft were built, probably no more than four, but in 1919, when Allied officials inspected Pfalz’s Speyer factory, they found 74 complete fuselages on the production line. Curiously, two D.XVs were exported to Italy for evaluation as late as 1920, presumably licence production there was being considered. The ultimate fate of both these aircraft sadly remains unknown.

Despite never again building a complete aircraft, Pfalz Flugzeugwerke still exists today, as a component subcontractor to both Airbus and Boeing amongst others.

7. Nieuport Nighthawk / Gloster Mars

“Tonight I’m going to party like I’m Negative no.1999”

Had the war continued into 1919 the British would have had a serious problem as virtually all their future aircraft types were designed around the ABC Dragonfly, a radial engine that promised much but delivered little. One such was the outstanding Nieuport Nighthawk, the design of which would set the standard for British fighters for the next twenty years. Despite its name, the Nieuport and General Company, often referred to as ‘British Nieuport’, was a completely separate entity to Nieuport in France. It had been set up to construct Nieuport aircraft under licence, hence the name, but by 1918 was building Sopwith Camels and eventually set up its own design office under Henry Folland, who had earlier designed the superlative SE5a. 

A Nighthawk demonstrating that it really can fly. This one has sensibly been re-engined with an Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar.

When the Dragonfly engine was running properly, the Nighthawk demonstrated superior characteristics to the Sopwith Snipe, and was the first of an array of radial-engined biplane fighters that formed the backbone of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s fighter force until the arrival of the Hurricane and Spitfire in the late 1930s. Despite being the ancestor of virtually all British inter-war fighters, the Nighthawk itself was plagued by the hopelessness of its engine. The Dragonfly never developed its advertised power, was prone to colossal overheating – Nighthawks under test were recorded landing with charred propellor hubs – and most seriously of all the engine had been inadvertently designed to run at its own resonance frequency, meaning that simply switching the engine on caused it to shake itself apart. 

Marketing a fighter aircraft to the public as a ‘sporting plane’ on the basis of compartments for ‘compact load’ suggests an air of desperation on the part of Nieuport and General.

The Nieuport and General Company closed down in 1920 but all was not lost for their seemingly unlucky aircraft. The Nighthawk was known to be an excellent design let down solely by its unreliable engine and production was continued by the Gloucestershire Aircraft company (later to be known as Gloster) who snapped up both development rights and designer Folland. At Gloster the Nighthawk was renamed the Mars, re-engined with a selection of motors that actually worked, and then developed into a confusing swathe of broadly similar types that served with distinction in many air arms across the globe. Examples included the Gloster Nightjar, essentially a Nighthawk with a Bentley rotary, which served operationally as a carrier fighter, and the similar Gloster Sparrowhawk, the first fighter operated by the Japanese Navy. Meanwhile on land a Nighthawk had been fitted with a Napier Lion and shorter wings, inexplicably named the Bamel, and became for a brief period the fastest aircraft in the world. Folland’s designs at Gloster progressed by a process of evolution by way of the Grebe, Gamecock and Gauntlet, to the famous Gladiator, the last fighter biplane of the RAF and a direct descendant of the Nighthawk.

6. Fokker V29

“Where the hell is my lower wing?! …Oh yeah, my mistake”

Similar but not the same: the Fokker D.X of 1921.

Fokker built the best fighting monoplane and biplane to serve the Central powers in significant numbers during the war, the V.29 prototype sought to combine the best of both worlds by marrying the fuselage of the biplane D.VII to the cantilever parasol wing of the D.VIII. This simple scheme resulted in an excellent aircraft that shared top place at the third Adlershof fighter competition in 1918 with the Rumpler D.I (of which more later). Pilots universally adjudged the V29 to have the best handling of all aircraft at the competition. If the war had continued the new fighter would have entered service as the Fokker D.IX and would likely have proved formidable. As it was, the amazing and continuing success of Fokker’s D.VII meant that there was no great rush to put the new monoplane into production and only the prototype was ever built. Some years later Fokker, by now operating once more in his native country of the Netherlands, built eleven of the D.X, a Hispano-Suiza powered development of the D.VIII which saw service in Spain and Finland and bore more than a passing resemblance to the earlier V29.

Unlike nearly every other manufacturer on this list, Fokker enjoyed great success producing both civil and military aircraft for many years until finally ceasing aircraft manufacture in 1996.

5. Rumpler D.I

Air ace Ernst Udet (left) chats with Edmund Rumpler in front of a D.I. Both survived the First World War only to die during the Second.

The height at which aircraft were compelled to operate had inexorably risen throughout the war and the tubby Rumpler D.I possessed unmatched high altitude performance. Described as ‘perhaps the best fighter Germany never had in 1918’, the D.I appeared in ever more developed form at three of the Adlershof fighter competitions and was declared joint winner of the third in concert with the lash-up Fokker V29.

Spot the difference: this earlier iteration of the D.I sports a more rounded rudder and different ailerons. Rumpler fiddled with the same basic design for over a year.

The Rumplertropfen was aerodynamic, refined and a massive flop. Several can be seen in Fritz Lang’s epic ‘Metropolis’.

Both were fitted with the exceptional BMW 185hp engine, specifically designed for high altitude performance and the results were impressive. During the competition the Rumpler was the only aircraft able to gain an altitude of 8200 metres, which was spectacular stuff indeed for 1918.

Despite immediately placing an order for 50 however, not a single machine made it to the front, though a total of 22, including prototypes, appears to have been built before fighting ceased. The cause for the delay seems to have been teething problems that Rumpler engineers could never quite overcome before the armistice; the D.I was a complicated aircraft fitted with such luxuries as cockpit heating, oxygen and radio equipment and a monocoque fuselage and as such pointed the way forward not only to future fighters of greater sophistication but also ever-greater design and development timescales. Engineers at Rumpler had been tinkering with the design of what would become the D.I since mid 1917, a stark contrast to the rapid turnaround of designs at Fokker. 

Rumpler Flugzeugwerke was liquidated in 1920, though Edmund Rumpler went on to design the remarkable Rumplertropfen car which was a technical triumph but a commercial failure. Only 100 were built of which two survive today. Rumpler himself, being Jewish, had his career ruined after the Nazis gained power and was briefly imprisoned. He died in 1940.

4. Gordou-Leseurre Type B (later GL-2)

Flash Gordou: the world’s sole surviving Gordou-Leseurre is this Finnish GL.22 at the Finnish Air Force Museum.

Probably the best aircraft designed and built by brothers-in-law, the Gordou-Leseurre Type B was just beginning deliveries when the conflict ceased. The French were less monoplane-averse than their British allies and the Type B was the best of the numerous ‘parasol’ types built by the French during the war. As you may have guessed, the Type B was preceded by the Type A which was very fast indeed (in tests it was nudging 250 km/h which made it unofficially the fastest aircraft in the world) but doubts over the structural integrity of the wing mounting led to a modest redesign with a generally lightened structure and heavily reinforced wing. This process delayed service entry of the new aircraft, now named Type B, and as a result this extremely promising high speed monoplane missed the war, a mere 20 examples being manufactured of the initial 1918 version. 

The first French ‘arresting gear’ consisted of cables weighed down with sandbags. It didn’t work very well.

This was not the end of the story as developed versions saw limited production for the Aeronavale first as a fighter and then as an advanced trainer. This latter version conducted carrier trials aboard France’s first aircraft carrier Bearn and was adapted for use as a carrier reconnaissance aircraft.

Handfuls were produced for the air arms of Yugoslavia, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Finland and ultimately around 130 aircraft were built. The final three off the production line were civilian versions constructed in the early 1930s for use in competition aerobatics.

As is invariably the case with in-laws, relations between Gordou and Leseurre became strained and after producing a few modestly successful designs the company closed down in 1934.

3. Siemens-Schuckert D.VI

The D.VI demonstrates its ability to levitate its tail using only the power of ‘the Force’.

As everyone knows, the First World War ended in 1918. Except, of course, that it didn’t. It is true that the fighting ceased (mostly) in November 1918 but that was only an armistice. The war was actually brought to a close on the 28th June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In the intervening seven months, the German military had somewhat cheekily, but undeniably prudently, maintained aviation development work and even held a competition for new fighter aircraft at Adlershof between February and March 1919. Likewise Siemens-Schuckert flew the D.VI, their final aircraft design, in 1919.

The stubby D.VI was fast and agile but no one would call it pretty. This in-flight photograph is a fake.

Essentially a monoplane version of the earlier Siemens-Schuckert D.IV, the D.VI retained the exceptional rate of climb that had madeits progenitor probably the best interceptor of the war and conferred upon it a useful increase in speed. The D.VI is also notable for being the only aircraft on this list powered by a rotary engine. Rotaries had been dominant as fighter powerplants in the mid-war period but had reached the limits of their development potential by 1919. Rotaries had been dominant as fighter powerplants in the mid-war period but had reached the limits of their development potential by 1919. The eleven cylinder Siemens-Halske Sh.III fitted to the D.VI represented the zenith of this engine type and its choice was no doubt influenced by its being built by the same parent company that made the airframe. By dint of an ingenious crank and gearing system, the torque that proved so deadly on other rotary powered aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel had been virtually eliminated and the high compression ratio meant that the Sh.III maintained an impressively high power output at altitude. As a straightforward development of a proven and formidable aircraft there is every chance the D.VI would have made for a potent fighter. As it turned out one of the prototypes was lost during testing and the other was unceremoniously burned to avoid it falling into Allied hands.

Germany had been notably more interested in the safety of their pilots than any of the other fighting powers – German fighter pilots were unique by the end of the war in that they were provided with parachutes. The D.VI continued this trend, its fuel tank was mounted externally and could be jettisoned if set on fire, giving the pilot a fighting chance to bring the aircraft safely down. Meanwhile pilots of all other nationalities could expect to burn to death in the event of their aircraft catching fire.  

2. Martinsyde F.4 Buzzard

Any British equipment associated with the First World War was contractually obliged to be photographed surrounded by mud.

The best British fighter aircraft of the war was doomed by bad timing to remain little more than a footnote in aviation history. Its success seemed assured with an order for 1450 from the RAF and several thousand more planned to be obtained or licence built by the US and France. A development of the earlier F.3, which despite excellent performance had been doomed by the non-availability of its preferred Rolls-Royce Falcon engine (which was required for the highly successful two-seat Bristol F.2b), the F.4 featured a modest redesign and mounted a more powerful Hispano-Suiza 8 delivering 300 hp. Thoroughly conventional, the Buzzard was well designed and sturdily built and its principle advantages lay in its colossal speed and exceptional rate of climb, both superior to any other British fighter.    

Spanish F.4 showing off. Airshows were more fun in 1928.

Delays in engine availability resulted in a mere 48 (or 57, depending on which source you believe) being delivered by the armistice, none of which made it to an operational squadron, though a handful were used by the Central Flying School. With the incredibly savage cutbacks to the RAF in the immediate postwar period, the Sopwith Snipe, an inferior aircraft in nearly every measurable performance parameter was selected as the RAF’s standard fighter, mainly because it was cheaper but also because it wasn’t powered by a foreign engine. Although, given the horrific debacle of the ABC Dragonfly, the fact that it was powered by a Hispano-Suiza rather than the benighted British radial would have counted massively in the Martinsyde’s favour if operational flying had continued into 1919. However all was not totally lost for Martinsyde, as the Buzzard enjoyed modest export success, ultimately flying in small numbers with the air forces of thirteen nations. Major users included Finland, Spain and the Soviet Union and eventually the creditable total of about 370 aircraft was built. 

This Buzzard is flying in the King’s Cup air race of 1922. It didn’t win.

Despite never serving its home nation operationally, it did see action with pro-treaty Free State forces during the Irish Civil war and despite being completely outdated performed limited operations during 1936 with the Republic Air force in the early stages of the Spanish Civil war. Amazingly Buzzards were used for training by Finland as late as 1940. Belgium was another potential export customer, the Belgian Air Force extensively tested an F.4 Buzzard as part of a competition to select a fighter to supplement their Fokker D.VIIs. The Buzzard lost out to the aircraft detailed below.

Like Sopwith, Martinsyde attempted to stave off postwar bankruptcy by manufacturing motorcycles. The motorcycles were excellent and quite successful but a factory fire in 1922 forced the company into liquidation. 

1. Nieuport 29 (later Nieuport-Delage Nid.29)

The best fighter in service anywhere in the world 1922.

Winner of an exhaustive competition to select a replacement for the outstanding SPAD XIII, the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 would have been built in enormous numbers had war continued. Even with the outbreak of peace over 1500 of these excellent machines were built, roughly half by Nieuport, 600 of them under licence by Nakajima in Japan with SABCA in Belgium and Macchi and Caproni in Italy building a few hundred more.

Nieuport’s chief designer Gustave Delage was the fighter king in 1916 and 17, with thousands of his diminutive sesquiplane fighters swarming through the skies. Nieuports were operated by all the Allied nations and built under licence in most of them. Captured examples even served the Central powers in significant numbers. By 1918 however SPAD had stolen the top spot; in November 1918 literally every operational single-seat fighter in the French air force was a SPAD. The competing Nieuport 28 had to suffer the ignominy of being rejected for service by its home nation and palmed off on the Americans. Delage and Nieuport had to come up with something special to regain their ascendency and the magnificent Nieuport 29, an aircraft that would prove to be the fastest and highest flying in the world, was the result. 

To emphasise its inherent Frenchness Gustave Delage made sure the new Nieuport 29 was always photographed near a major French landmark.

By the spring of 1918 Monsieur Delage had been tinkering with a succession of prototype fighters to replace the Nieuport 28 on the production line. When specifications were announced for a new fighter by the Section Technique de l’aéronautique (STAé) Delage took what the best of these prototypes and modified it further. First flown in mid-1918 (sources differ on the date) the Nieuport 29 competed with the SPAD XXI, the Martinsyde Buzzard, and the Sopwith Dolphin (in its Mk II form developed and built by SACA in France) to fulfil the new fighter requirement. All four aircraft were equipped with the same Hispano-Suiza 8fb 300 hp engine and all were impressive performers. At this stage the 29 proved the fastest of the competitors but the Buzzard demonstrated the best rate of climb. The Nieuport also failed to attain the altitude required in the original specification. Delage quickly increased the span of the new fighter and lightened the structure resulting in a significant increase in both ceiling and climb rate and in this form the Nieuport 29 was considered the best of the competing types.

Major users of the NiD.29 included France, Japan, Italy, Siam (later Thailand) and, as seen here, Belgium.

Prudently the French ordered large production of all the entries except the poorest performer, the SPAD XXI. However the continuing success of the earlier SPAD XIII in service lent no great urgency to the development of the new aircraft types. Concurrent delays in production of the all-important Hispano-Suiza 8fb engine meant that by the armistice not a single Martinsyde nor Nieuport 29s had been delivered to the Armee de l’air Français, and only 20 or so Dolphins had been completed by SACA. The coming of peace led to an immediate wind-down of French aircraft requirements, orders for the British designed Buzzard and Dolphin were cancelled and development of the new Nieuport proceeded at a more leisurely pace.

Sadi-Lecointe on his way to winning the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe for fastest moustache.

And so the best French fighter to fly during the Great war finally entered service in 1922 as the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29, the change of name being considered necessary to distinguish the French company from its British offshoot Nieuport and General. It was the fastest fighter aircraft in service anywhere in the world.

 In the intervening three years Nieuport-Delage had been far from idle, developing versions of the NiD.29 for both speed and altitude. The NiD.29V was the high-speed variant and was distinguishable from the standard NiD29 by its shortened wings. It set the first post-war official speed record with pilot  Joseph Sadi-Lecointe on February 7 1920 and later became the first aircraft to exceed 300 km/h in level flight. NiD.29Vs also won both the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe and Gordon Bennett cup air races in 1920. Meanwhile the NiD.40R, an extended span version with a Rateau turbocharger was piloted by Sadi-Lecointe to ever-greater heights culminating in a record of 11,145 m (36,565 ft) on October 30 1923. 

The high-altitude NiD.40R shows off its natty extended span wings. All aircraft are best observed whilst reclining in the long grass.

The military NiD.29s gave excellent, reliable service in France throughout the 1920s, equipping some 25 squadrons of the French air force, and three examples were used in combat during the Rif war in Morocco in 1925. The only other nation to use the NiD.29 operationally was Japan. Despite beginning withdrawal of their licence built version (the Nakajima Ko.4) in 1933, many were still in service when the Sino-Japanese conflict erupted in 1937 and saw brief service over Shanghai and Manchuria. A remarkable longevity of front-line service for a 1918 design.

Nakajima Ko.4: The Japanese were keen to make the NiD.29 look like it was from the 19th century for some reason.

Nieuport dropped the Delage name in 1932 after Gustave Delage’s retirement when it merged with the Loire aircraft company. Loire-Nieuport became a component part of the nationalised SNCAO concern in 1936.

Afterword:

If you want to see any of these aircraft in real life your best bet at present is to go to the Finnish Air Force Museum (Suomen Ilmavoimamuseo). There the sole remaining examples of the Martinsyde Buzzard and Gordou-Leseurre Type B are exhibited not just in the same location but the same room. The last surviving Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 is in the collection of the Musée de l’air in Paris but is not apparently on display at present. Sadly, not a single example of any of the other aircraft in this fascinating list has survived to the present day.

 

Saab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?

Draken_05.jpgOK, I’m asking for trouble with such a hyperbolic title, but hear me out. Yes, I know it wasn’t really a stealth fighter but I suspect its radar cross section (how large it appears to a radar) was remarkably small — and almost definitely the smallest of its generation. It was possibly even the stealthiest fighter until the F-16 come on the scene twenty years later.

Let’s start with a little bit of background detail. The Saab Draken was a Swedish fighter developed in the 1950s to counter Soviet bombers and their fighter escorts. Sweden’s neutrality meant it was better for them to develop their own military aircraft, and this they did with aplomb, creating a series of fighters specialising in low-maintenance (as there was a large conscripted force) and high deployability as in a war the air force would operate from hidden underground bases and sections of motorways acting as a guerilla force. 

The Draken was an immensely clever design, and remained in frontline service until 2005 (and in a training capacity in the US until 2009). It was powered by a licence-built Avon engine. Whereas the British Lightning had two Avons, the smaller Draken had only one, despite this, the Draken could reach Mach 2, had triple the range of the British fighter and had a similar (and later significantly better) armament (four Sidewinders versus two archaic British weapons).

Today fighters are designed to have the minimal radar cross section as stealth is a good safety measure against radar, the furthest seeing method of aircraft detection. In the 1950s speed was king, and immense compromises were made to reach high mach speeds. Some design features suitable for high speed flight are compatible with stealth, and occasionally a low radar cross section is arrived at by accident as a happy byproduct of aerodynamics and other considerations. Looking at the Draken its hard not to wonder what the radar cross section of this sleek design would have been.

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Highly swept leading edges

In some ways radar energy bounces off at a flat surface in the same way as a billiard ball would, so predicting what it will do is possible and can be tested.  Stealth aircraft hide from radar in several ways,  one being the the use of aircraft’s shape to divert returning radar ‘spikes’ away from the hostile radar. The leading edge of the Draken’s inner wing had an 80° sweep angle for high-speed performance, an extreme angle that would deflect radar energy away from the transmitting aircraft. The outer wing, swept at 60° for better performance at low speeds, was of an even greater angle than the Raptor (42 degrees) and not far off the F-117’s 67.5 degrees. The vertical tail is also highly swept, though a single straight up tail is doubly-bad offering a large signature from the side and creating the avoided at all cost 90 degree angles (with the wing) that provide a painfully loud radar return. The wings’ smoothness are not interrupted by many angle changes, ‘dog teeth’ or wingfences.


The compressor face of the engine, essentially a massive block of metal perpendicular to the flightpath (radars looking directly from the front at an aircraft will have the greatest notice of the aircraft’s arrival, hence stealth’s preoccupation with the aircraft’s frontal cross section) is a key contributor to an aircraft’s radar signature — that of the Draken is completely hidden away within the fuselage.

Materials

As far as we know the Draken did not incorporate any radar absorbent materials (RAM) or radar absorbent structures (RAS), it also of conventional materials (largely aluminium). The radar plate in the nose and the cockpit would be highly reflective, though the general canopy shape may less reflective than others of the time. 

Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. I asked his opinion on the Draken’s signature and  how it would compare with its contemporary, the F-5 and the later F-16 (an aircraft known to have a small signature).

“I’m not an expert in the radar signature world, and to those that are, a single-figure rcs is not appropriate, But I did write (ages ago) a little algorithm that I used to provide an estimate to drive an optimising program. The estimation tool was explicitly not for LO aircraft. As one of your other commentators pointed out, the type and frequency of the illuminating radar is important, as are the details of the geometry. Testing and analysis is the only way to go – but for the three aircraft you mention, Draken, F-5E and F-16, one can make the following comments:

Draken, head-on, has relatively small intakes, relatively highly swept wing, relatively tidy boundary layer diverter, somewhat blended wing and fuselage, and should have a lower rcs than most of its contemporaries. From the quartering front, the fuselage and wing are relatively blended, which would help. Directly side on, the fin is going to give you a spike, as are the external pylons. And all of the aircraft will have significantly higher returns when carrying missiles. Interestingly, later aircraft have a IRST.

F-5E is a trim little aircraft. Compared to the Draken, although it too has smallish intakes, the boundary layer diverter arrangement is notably messy. From the quartering front, one can observe the flat fuselage side making a right-angle to the plane of the wing, and the fin and tailplane, and tailplane and rear fuselage, doing the same. So from the side, not only will there be a spike from the fin, but the wing-fuselage and fin-tail-fuselage geometries form corner reflectors, increasing radar returns.

F-16 has much higher power-to-weight than F-5 or Draken, and as a result has a large intake. Head-on this is likely to increase signature, but the inlet may (will in later/US models) be treated so as to counter this. The boundary layer diverter is large, and will contribute to the rcs. From quartering front, the leading edge strake and the blending of the wing and body will help, as will the gold flashing of the canopy, which prevents radar energy from entering the cockpit and reduces returns from that area. Side-on, the large fin and the under-fuselage strakes will contribute. Of the three aircraft, only the F-16 is likely to have benefited from RCS reduction treatments, almost certainly in the intake duct, around the radar and possibly some applique coatings.”

Without knowledge of the radar in question and the materials used in the Draken it is hard to make a precise estimation but it seems likely that it was stealthier than the Lightning, F-4 and even the F-104 (suffering as it did a circular fuselage, a T-tail and tiptanks). For its generation it may have indeed had a marginal advantage in radar conspicuity.

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Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilot

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Fast, brutal and unforgiving, the MiG-27 is a formidable Soviet attack aircraft that continues to serve with the Indian Air ForceHush-Kit spoke to former MiG-27 pilot Anshuman Mainkar about flying and fighting in this ferocious machine known locally as the Bahadur.

15284030_10155526477551982_4243330456773933328_n-2.jpgWhat is the best thing about the MiG-27? She was built for low level flying. No doubt about it, she offered a silk smooth ride down low. And she was fast….I remember a live fire exercise mission flows in card with two French Mirages trailing. On being given a call to push, we engaged afterburners and pulled away from the Mirages, who couldn’t catch up with us after that.”

“She was very fast at low-levels, and her ability to hold steady was superb. With wings swept back fully and speeds exceeding 1000 km/h at low levels, the wings waggled and the noise and vibrations that set in gave an impression of a banshee just freed, screaming with abandon.”

What were you first impressions of flying the MiG-27?  

“The MiG-27 you got to fly, after doing dual conversion on the MiG-23UB trainer, which was very different from the MiG-27. Firstly, the MiG-23UB stands with its nose up, making visibility on ground difficult for a short guy like me. I had to use two cushions to prop myself up decently. But the switches and their placement in the cockpit were not very different from a MiG-21 which made things easier. True, it was a different generation, so there were other things to contend with, but similar aesthetics made adjustment easy.

It was heavier than the MiG-21. I remember using both hands to control attitude after retracting flaps on the take-off leg during the initial few sorties. Visibility was generally poor, but cockpit workload during the conversion phase did not leave much room or time to take in the scenery.

The big difference of course, was the variable sweep wings, which you had to control manually in the air. We usually flew at 45 degree sweep, extending the wings to 16 degrees for landing/take-off and to 72 for getaways. During the initial sorties, there were a couple of instances when one forgot to sweep wings. But the aircraft gave a few indications (vibrations, sluggish turning) before the trainer captain got a chance to add your name in the little black book and claim a crate of beer.

The circuit speeds were comparable to the MiG-21, and the landing speeds were a notch lesser, flaring out at approx. 310-300 kmph.

The MiG-27, in comparison was set low, had the duck nose and afforded amazing visibility (in relative terms). Handling was similar, but it was much more fun to fly, also considering the lack of patter from the rear cockpit . It handled nicely, although it was heavier than the MiG-21. She was a little stiff to manoeuvre, but once you got the hang of it, she’d follow you to high heaven. Larger than the MiG-21, she also gave you more time in the air, which was welcome, although, built for low levels, the non-existent air-conditioning below 6000 ft made a huge announcement when you landed, and got out, dripping wet from aircraft.

She was very fast at low-levels, and her ability to hold steady was superb. With wings swept back fully and speeds exceeding 1000 km/h at low levels, the wings waggled and the noise and vibrations that set in gave an impression of a banshee just freed, screaming with abandon.”

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Which three words best describe the MiG-27?  

“Fast, furious and a true Flogger.”

What is the cockpit like, and how pilot-friendly is it?

“I mention this above (for both the MiG-23UB and the MiG-27). Adding some more. The cockpit was slightly bigger than the MiG-21FL. The seat pan was also bigger, the KM-1M. The throttle and stick were sizeably bigger than the FLs. Visibility was a stark contrast between the MiG-23UB and the -27ML (as described earlier). The MiG 27 visibility was ‘great’ compared to the MiG-23, but having sat in an F-16 as well, I shouldn’t boast too much.

The instrumentation was similar, and its placement resembled that of a MiG 21 – communication, flaps and gear, engine instruments, pneumatic/hydraulic dials were the same make, and their positioning was also similar. This added to the aesthetics. In addition, in the MiG-27, the dials were a tad angled towards the pilot, reducing the parallax error, and making it easier to spot and interpret.

There were adequate warning switches and also the Natasha, (audio warning), which made life simple.”

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The aircraft had an extremely powerful gun, what was it like to fire?  “After pickling, the aircraft seemingly came to a stand-still, engrossed with its target – tracers creating an illusion of morse communication. Smoke and the smell of cordite entered the cockpit, and in a flash it was all over. 30mm at 5000 rds/min. ‘Surge’ had to be avoided. Plus…the ‘Gasha’ was a six-barrelled Gatling type gun, the airframe shuddered during the trigger pull, and surge was a possibility, hence the exit had to be smooth and deliberate. Hearing the A-10’s infamous BRRRRRT gun sound brings back memories of the MiG-27 to me.”

 

What was your most notable mission and why?  

“I’d gotten disoriented after take-off, recovering at about 500metres above ground level.

But let me talk about a mission that sums up life in a regular fighter squadron, and the small joys that make all the difference. This was a 6 -ship long-distance range strike mission as part of our annual preparedness inspection. The range was approximately 800 km away, involving a flying time of 40 min, followed by recovery at a base close to the armament range. Two squadrons were being inspected at the home base, so there were 12 ac, plus the inspection ships. Since the inspectors were to be the same for both formations, the spacing couldn’t be kept far apart, catering to the limited loiter times for the inspectors.

Take-off was uneventful. We proceeded at medium levels at tactical speeds since we were out of the ‘green period’ for the morning. Radar handovers were okay. We got bounced once, and we managed to evade the threat, having spotted it in time. Having ensured our separation from the earlier formation, we commenced descent and built up separation gradually between the members, altering position as to ensure max situational awareness (SA). I was the last. Ensuring adequate spacing, I settled down at 100m AGL, checked my switches and started accelerating towards the target on cue, trimming constantly to ensure minimum pressure on the stick. Coming off a navigation, I needed to read the ground, correlate it with my map, adjust heading, cross-check spacing with the guy in front, check engine parameters, speeds, switches, trimming the aircraft finely to ensure no inadvertent ‘g’ forces during trigger press. This process was repeated, but faster each time, as the target approached. A minute out, I started scanning for the target, trying to align myself with it, to reduce any deflection errors. 45” to go, at the right speed, switches checked, I spotted the white dot which represented the target. It appeared huge by comparison, or maybe the focus was so intense that I blacked out everything else. I gave the 30” LIVE call indicating my position and intention to fire to the Range Officer, marking the target on ground. Speed was +10, height was +10 metres…which meant a nudge-back on the throttle lever (mentally prepared to push this back up, in a couple of seconds, such was the response time of the jet) and a slight trim forward, aligned to the target, master switch on, trigger cover pulled up, trimmer locked. Now there would be no more check on speed or alignment. The entire focus was on a smooth ride-up to the base of the target, keeping the fingers around the stick as light as possible, with the right index finger ready to pickle. I can still remember the gentle coaxing to get the gunsight move up towards the target steadily. Once it got to the base of the target, a pause, just as I had imagined the scene from the workstation that morning…trigger press and a hollered ‘FAAAIIRRRE!’. I immediately selected safe switches, pulled back, throttled back to get the aircraft back to tactical speeds, checked engine parameters, heard the weapon sighted call from the Range Officer and began a scan for the member in front.

Five minutes later, with the adrenalin still flowing (a double shot actually, given the flying plus the range-work), 14 aircraft got into the landing pattern. Recovering thirsty aircraft was a delicate operation. There was just about enough fuel to reach the primary diversion, and with each minute, the point of no return was approaching fast. What you did not want to hear was a call of ‘runway blocked’! With fingers crossed in spite of the cockpit workload and the scanning for multiple aircraft in the circuit pattern, the adrenalin kept pumping till I call finals and landed, literally panting for fuel. Upon opening the canopy after switching off the jet, there were my squadron mates lined up. An exceptional score gets you that sort of adulation, especially when not many can boast of the feast. Given the seriousness of the mission, it was absolutely the best feeling in the world.”

Which new piece of equipment would you have most liked have seen integrated on the MiG-27?A few of our ML machines have got a Mid-Life Upgrade, equipping them with HUD and a navigation/avionics suite which was far better than what we map-bound warriors had to contend with. So, I think for the generation that it represented, the upgrade gave it the best possible facelift. As someone who has come out with a sore behind on multiple occasions after long duration missions, I wouldn’t insist on in-flight refuelling”

 

“In my opinion, it is the only fighter which has ‘engine explosion’ as a standard aircraft emergency.”

What are worst things about the MiG-27?

“At a time counted as one of the most powerful single-engined fighters in the world, it has a few teething issues with the power-plant, but that also had to do with age / engine rating / maintenance issues. In my opinion, it is the only fighter which has ‘engine explosion’ as a standard aircraft emergency. 

But a real issue was the air-conditioning, which only kicked in climbing past 6000’. At low-levels it’s hot / hotter / hottest temperature settings (as fondly known in the IAF) did not offer much respite.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the aircraft – Did you know it waggles along its longitudinal axis (nose to tail) at high speeds at max sweep, esp. at low levels. Resembles the rifling of a bullet.

How fast was the MiG-27? 

  1. Climbing – decent
  2. Low level max speed – I’ve crossed 1100 kmph
  3. High level max speed – supersonic at 10 km altitude (air-test profile)

 

What’s the best way to avoid or defeat an F-16? A MiG 27, being a striker, is likely to be escorted into adversary territory. However, if it had to contend with an F-16, defensive manoeuvring towards a low level quick getaway would be the ideal choice.

Which aircraft have you trained against, which was the hardest opponent and why? “A good pilot, even in a MiG 27 can make a big difference. Basically any opponent who can exploit the manoeuvre envelope the best, and make optimal use of the energy. If you can build an edge for the first 30”, you have the close combat wrapped up – either dominating or escaping. That said, I found the Su-30 daunting, versatile and dominating in almost any situation.”

What’s your favourite piece of equipment on the MiG-27 and why? “Its undercarriage. Designed like a piece of art, fits like a glove. — and sturdy to boot.”

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What advice would you have given a new pilot coming onto the MiG-27? “Respect her, listen to her, and she’ll treat you right.”

How high was the pilot workload? “Considerable, given that she was heavy to handle, low-level work required a lot of outside scan, and her age demanded a judicious amount of internal monitoring as well. And of course, no HUD and Nav goodies meant that outside cockpit workload was also considerable, making maps, plans and rehearsing profiles. But it was worth it!”

How combat effective was the MiG-27? “In today’s age, you can’t expect much out of them. But their systems were well designed and it was a strike pilot’s dream – for its day and age. It delivered the payload well!”

What is the greatest myth about the aircraft? “Low reliability. True, they required maintenance, but aside from the engine (explained above), they behaved and performed relatively well, given the analog systems and equipment on board. The Russians built good stuff!”

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Has the MiG-27 been kept in service for too long? “Yes. The IAF is probably the only AF operating these. So, as a philosophy and platform, it is obsolete. However, the upgrade version is a potent platform, and should render decent service, within its mandates scope.”

How would you rate the MiG-27 in the following: (1 to 5; 5 being a high score)

  1. Instantaneous turn rate – 2
  2. Sustained turn rate – 3
  3. Weapon accuracy – 3 (4 – upgrade)
  4. Survivability – 2 (3 – upgrade)

What was the MiG-27s role in the Kargil War and how well did it perform? “Strike. The terrain did not allow conventional weapon delivery, so limited effectiveness. However, LGB employability could be done, provided the target was painted by another platform.”

Were spare parts always available as required? Serviceability was maintained at about 60-70%, with decent flying, ensured by good planning process, and subsequently a phase-out plan ensured that even the last non-upgrade unit maintained its operational status. The MiG 27 upgrade units are still flying decently.

Which aircraft do you fly and with which unit, how many do you hours do you have on type?  

“MiG 21FL (Type 77 in India) with ‘OCU AF’ (Operational Conversion Unit) and with 8 Sqn, AF (Eighth Pursoot). These tenures were part of my MiG Operational Flying Training (MOFT) stint, which followed advanced Jet training, and preceded a posting to operational squadrons of the IAF. I flew these from Mid-2004 till Dec-2005, approx. 150hrs.

MiG 27ML with 18 Sqn AF (Flying Bullets), 222 Sqn AF (Tigersharks) and 22 Sqn AF (Swifts) as operational pilot from Jan 2006 till May 2012. However, I was off flying from mid-2011 due to a cervical spine injury. I subsequently got out of the AF in mid 2014. I flew these ac for approx. 600 hrs” 

What should I have asked you?  I think you were comprehensive. 

Photographs: photographs by Kedar Karmarkar &  Anshuman Mainkar

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You may also enjoy- My favourite SpitfireProject Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Everything you always wanted to know about Indian air power, but were afraid to ask: In conversation with Shiv Aroor

 

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Project Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project

 

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“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Project Tempest is a team of British and Italian companies looking for leadership of a new-generation ‘do everything’ stealth fighter. Ambitious and bold it may be, but is it a good idea — and will it actually happen? 

A life-size plastic model of a stealthy fighter was unveiled at the Farnborough airshow. The model and accompanying press briefing was from a team that comprised the British Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, European defence giant MBDA, Rolls-Royce, and the Italian company Leonardo. This was the public birth of Project Tempest, intended to develop new aircraft technologies and find partners for a future fighter project. The mock-up’s exact shape may be a placeholder, but having a physical manifestation at an airshow was a symbolically strong move, as was the name. Normally new fighter project names are a series of letters (FEFA, JSF, ACA, TFX etc.) and the use of an emotive word is a public relations coup. Following the use of other former wartime Hawker fighter names — Tornado and Typhoon — Tempest is a predictable choice. The name may also hint at the desire for this to grow into a wider pan-European collaboration. If the British defence sector wishes to stay in the fighter market (outside of its US and Turkish involvement) post-Brexit it will need to show willing, confidence and initiative — and Team Tempest is just such a move. It has been stated that BAE Systems wants leadership if such a new collaboration starts, but should it? Is Team Tempest a good idea, and will it work? Though Team Tempest is already international it is intended to be British-led. Arguments for a new British-led tactical fighter will revolve around five perceived needs: let’s have a quick look at them.

Operational requirements 

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In the medium term Britain’s fast jet force will consist of F-35s and Typhoons.

The make-up of Britain’s current fighter force reveals what the RAF will need in the future. Tornado is on the way out, Typhoon is the current mainstay, and a mixed Typhoon/F-35 force represents the medium term. I have avoided mentioning FCAS and the plethora (sorry Paul Beatty) of British paper studies over the last 25 years in any detail as they’re too numerous to mention. They generally centre on a mixed force of manned and unmanned stealthy aircraft. It is likely that any fast jet would be used in conjunction with a subsonic flying wing UCAV if these don’t fall out of favour before entering service outside of the US.

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The RAF’s Tornado has spent more years in combat than other type the service has operated. Next year the type is expected to be replaced by the Typhoon.

There are rumours going around that many in the RAF and MoD do not want the full 138 F-35s on order. Insiders suggest a ‘silver bullet’ force akin to USAF’s 1990s F-117 fleet is being mooted in high places. Stealth is not required for all missions, and comes at a great cost (though the F-35’s situational awareness advantage is useful for many missions). It is likely that fewer aircraft will be delivered and to protect the RAF’s independence some of these will be F-35As.

Procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way. With the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile a likely weapon for Tempest, Air Superiority, or at least a strong Swing Role capability, is likely. The RAF will need a replacement for Typhoon.

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The Tempest is named after a World War II Hawker fighter-bomber. The practice of naming new European fighters after wartime Hawker fighters started with the Tornado. The Hawker Tornado is pictured.

The British military doctrine and inventory currently has little provision for the idea of fighting a powerful well-equipped enemy without assistance from the US and /or NATO.

Analysis of the design can be found here. 

Sovereign technology 

Having a high technology base is probably good for a nation’s economy, and many are returning to the idea of nation states above internationalism. Could high technology levels be maintained without a new fighter? British-made defensive aids and sub-systems are widely respected – featuring on the F-22, F-35 and advanced F-15s among others – so even without Tempest it is likely Britain could continue to create high-end military aerospace technology.

Though a 30-year old design, the EJ200 turbofan engine that powers the Typhoon is widely respected, with many technical observers putting Britain in the number-two slot of advanced jet producers (behind the US). In Europe, only France has the ability to create fighter engines. This technology is very hard to develop if lost, or never achieved – as evident in the experiences in China and India.

British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced, “We have been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology, and this Strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way…British defence industry is a huge contributor to UK prosperity, creating thousands of jobs in a thriving advanced manufacturing sector, and generating a UK sovereign capability that is the best in the world.. Today’s news leaves industry, our military, the country and our allies in no doubt that the UK will be flying high in the combat air sector as we move into the next generation.”

Britain’s global position 

Historian David Edgerton noted in conversation with Hush-Kit, “It is not historical destiny which makes the British warlike, but particular political and military programmes of the recent past.  So I would say that in the early twentieth century the United Kingdom was more warlike than myth suggested, much more so, but it is only in recent years that we have had a gleeful indulgence in military adventurism overseas. The United Kingdom did once have a major world role, now it just pretends to. It is now really a big Canada, but political leaders want to see themselves at the head of a small United States.” This bloated self-perception sometimes leads to Britain going it alone on military procurement programmes its smallish domestic market cannot justify. This can lead to a higher unit price, which leads to a lack of export success, which in turn keeps the unit price high. With this in mind partners are needed.

Public confidence 

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Life-sized models or mock-ups of aircraft are often used to drum up support for potential aircraft. This British Aerospace / Aeritalia / MBB Agile Combat Aircraft model was displayed at the 1983 Paris Air Show in support of the nascent Typhoon.

Divided by politics, losing support from its European friends, and tied to an increasingly erratic US, Britain needs a shot in the arm. Ambitious military equipment projects are popular with large sections of the public and demonstrate confidence in the future. To others the idea will seem wasteful, irrelevant and unlikely to come to fruition. Some may point out that huge national problems, like the record homelessness epidemic, are more pressing than billion-pound plastic planes (though the £2billion figure has been earmarked for several years).

Does BAE Systems deserve the gig?

BAE Systems sells more to the US Department of Defense (DOD) than the UK MoD, and needs to keep a cordial relationship with the US. It currently has a 13-15% workshare of each F-35   Lightning made — so aggressively pursuing export sales at the expense of British or European needs is not at the top of its agenda. It also has pretty lamentable track record — other than the Hawk trainer, the last new military aircraft project it led was the disastrous Nimrod MRA.4. Before that the British Harrier GR.5 lagged behind its US brother the AV-8B; the AV-8B served with distinction in Desert Storm, whereas the British GR.5 was considered too immature to deploy. BAE Systems is good at high technology, has an exceptionally large portfolio and is world-class. That the F-22 and the highest spec F-15s carry BAE Systems tech is testament to this. In short, BAE Systems could do it, but it would probably be slow and expensive.

Analysis of the design can be found here. 

Employment

Military aircraft design and production workforces are very vulnerable. BAE has frequently cut or threatened to cut staff when aircraft do not sell well — the Typhoon being a case in point.  As an employment-creation scheme, the military aviation sector is very expensive, and demonstrably unstable.

Development

A 2035 in-service date seems unlikely, with fighters outside of China and Sweden taking about 25 years from initial ideas to frontline service. If all went well and Tempest followed this pattern, we would be looking at 2043 as the earliest in-service date.

Concept 

Technologically, the watchword is ‘Everything’! A feast of exotic technologies discussed include disruptive energy weapons, stealth, virtual cockpits,variable cycle engines, hypersonic missiles, thrust-vectoring control, massive onboard electrical power generation, sensors operating in weird bandwidths, and optionally manned. This is a vision of ambition. So far, the only air forces to have indigenous stealth fighters in service are the US and China. The ‘optionally manned’ feature of Project Tempest has raised a few eyebrows, with many experts seeing it as path to getting the worst of both worlds.

Claims that Team Tempest will use new ideas to move quickly and affordably are reminiscent of early JSF talk, when the F-35 was predicted to cost $28 million a unit thanks to an innovative contract type, and design and manufacturing techniques (in 2018 the F-35 project is now celebrating some models’ price tags going under 100 million, which even allowing for time and inflation puts it into a different category from the low-cost aircraft it was originally supposed to be).

Conclusion

Britain, the black sheep of Europe, will struggle to find a willing team with its neighbours. France, has always prioritised autonomy and design leadership, and Germany is the least militaristic of the major European players. Franco-German concepts for a Future Combat Air System for Europe (below) have been notable by their exclusion of UK involvement, something that has alarmed BAE Systems no end. When things were easier for military projects Europe (and NATO) still struggled to unite on common procurement programmes. The 1980s offered a perfect storm for the development of a new fighter: a relatively strife-free EU, a tangible advanced threat, and much larger orders (Britain originally wanted 250 Typhoons). Even in these fertile conditions, the effort that led to Typhoon was a struggle, so looking further afield for partners is likely.

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The Swedish firm Saab is the most successful manufacturer of fighter aircraft in terms of achieving – or coming closest to – predicted schedules and budgets, and its model could be one to follow. 

Typhoon and Tornado suffered from an overly democratic concept-definition process, whereby compromise was put ahead of overall effectiveness.  Attempts at fairness in design-sharing and production allocation led to some odd decisions (such as Germany leading the flight control system for Typhoon and a cumbersome and expensive production line). The arrangement of Eurofighter made upgrades slow and tortuous, and left the consortium little room for initiative. 

The bright news for a new fighter programme is the multitude of nations, including Turkey, Japan and South Korea, desiring fighters of their own and open to collaboration. A prime contributing factor in this worldwide trend for indigenous fighters is the absence of an exportable F-15 replacement. While updated F-15s, F/A-18s, Eurocanards and late F-16s are impressive, in the long term there are no high-end Air Superiority fighters available for Western friendly nations.

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With no exportable or ongoing F-15 replacement in sight, Boeing has offered a series of upgraded F-15 models, including this – the F-15X.

Is project Tempest a serious thing, or an attempt by a nation on the back foot to appear confident? Time will tell.

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Book review: The Vickers Viscount by Nick Stroud

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Air Traffic Controller, comedian and son of Viscount pilot, Dorian Crook, reviews a new book on the Vickers Viscount by Nick Stroud. 

SPOILER ALERT! Production of the Viscount finished in 1962!

Not too much of a Spoiler Alert, as it happens, because this is no geek’s telephone-directory-style production list (not that there’s anything wrong with that….).

No. Mr. Stroud’s biography of the Viscount is beautifully illustrated thoughtfully presented and, whilst it includes the usual facts and figures, is happy to stray into the social, political, and other worlds beyond rivets and registration letters. This will come as no surprise to readers of Mr.Stroud’s independent magazine The Aviation Historian; it’s where he comes into his own, and I would say we need more of this…

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Back to the basics- we have 120 pages with well-reproduced photos on each- good value at £16.99. Starting with Mr. Stroud’s personal connection, we have chapters on Genesis, Development and Production, a chapter on Military variants and interesting diversions into second-hand uses and corporate or private operators. Again, deviating from the tired listings of other publications, Mr. Stroud has not felt the need to tabulate accidents to Viscounts. Instead, he has chosen to look in detail at one accident, near Sydney, Australia, in 1961. This gives us much more feel of the operation in general, than a mass of statistics. No, it’s not the complete story of every accident, but it’s much more readable for that.

Talking of Viscount incidents, my late father, who was a Captain on the 700 series, told the tale of a colleague of his, whose passengers had a lucky escape when an inboard propellor detached and embedded itself in the toilet section of the fuselage. After the hearty meal and wine of an early-Sixties holiday charter, it seems the only reason the toilet was unoccupied was that the crew had forgotten to cancel the Seat Belts sign after a period of turbulence….

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When I read novels, I’m disappointed if I don’t find at least one word which I have to look up. I don’t normally set such high standards for aircraft production histories, but again Mr. Stroud has delivered: Legerdemain was a new one on me. This is a book you could show your non-Aviation friends- the photos are not just side-on spottershots- they contain the human element wherever possible, engineers tinkering with flaps, with comments on the weather (and surroundings). Airline brochures, luggage labels and similar all help to evoke the era of which this aircraft was a part. 

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These good intentions are well shown in the photo of an elegant Aer Lingus stewardess sashaying down the steps of an Aer Lingus V.707. It’s more reminiscent of a Vogue fashion spread than an aircraft history. As well as observing her immaculate attire, we are invited to divert our attention to the air-conditioning air scoop under the fuselage! So- no accusations of objectification of Air Stewardesses and something for all readers.

I look forward to seeing more from the Stroud writing desk, and I do hope he’s sent a copy to the ‘Viscount Bar’, a hostelry complete with a Viscount profile image, on the road to Dublin Airport.

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Test pilot John Farley: A friend remembered

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The British test pilot John Farley, famous for his work on the Harrier jump-jet, passed away in June. The artist and aeronautical engineer Stephen Mosley shares a personal recollection of an immensely skilled and principled man. 

I first met John when he gave a talk in Gosport to an air enthusiasts group, the second time when I invited him to give a talk to my local Rotary club. In each case the subject matter was the same – “How to Fly a Harrier” – but the content was totally different, with each tailored to the specific audience. This gives an insight into an aspect of John’s character that I think elevates him to a credible candidate for being the best test pilot that Britain has ever produced. The stereotypical image of the test pilot promulgated by Hollywood is that of the loner, the rebel who pushes the boundaries for the thrill of it. However what you actually need is someone who can fly reliably to set parameters, deal calmly with high pressure situations and who can impart information to others as the core of a team. John’s flying ability is something I only know of through reputation but the way he tailored his talk was, to me, indicative of the “emotional intelligence” that must have made him such a valuable part of all the projects he was involved in.

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Image source: http://thetartanterror.blogspot.com/2005/08/john-farley-obe-afc-ceng-hondtech.html

My next meeting with John was when he joined the Farnborough-Aircraft.com air taxi team as a consultant. There were about a dozen or so of us and as we were introduced each of us told him, to his slight embarrassment, when we had met him before. Invariably it had been at some talk or lecture and equally invariably it had left an impression on all of us. I always found John’s innate modesty to be a curious thing. His continual surprise that anyone should wish to spend time with him, or to call in and chat was undoubtedly genuine yet given his achievements who of us wouldn’t wish to sit and listen to him? Something I had the singular honour of doing whilst Wills and Kate were getting hitched. Our wives were both going to be watching the wedding so I popped over to John’s and we sat talking in his study for a couple of hours – or at least I prompted occasionally and just sat back.

 

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His early flying career, the Paris Air Show Tu-144 crash, accidentally testing the strength of the Vulcan undercarriage, landing the Spitfire and his views on Chuck Yeager. All were gone into along with various other aspects of his career including, of course, the Harrier. That deep rooted ability to impart information in an interesting manner, relaying the incredible and the exceptional as if it were the everyday, once more shone through. Something that undoubtedly informed the way he influenced those he worked with. More than one colleague from the Farnborough-Aircraft days has remarked how he had a way of explaining something you’d missed as if it was based in some minor oversight on your part rather than his own keen and insightful engineering ability.

John’s flying exploits are a matter of public record with the key points of his life recorded in his excellent autobiography. As regards the man behind those all I can say is that he was a genuinely nice person who coupled an exceptional ability with modesty and a highly developed intellect with a sincere consideration for those around him. I truly believe that Britain has lost one of its finest test pilots with John’s passing, certainly one who was involved in some of the most exciting developments in British aviation since the war. Those of us who were lucky to know him have also lost a very dear friend.

 

— S.Mosley