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Top 16 Aircraft of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

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When the Fleet Air Arm formed in 1924, the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-quarter of the world’s population at the time. The cornerstone of this imperial superpower was its navy, and the Royal Navy’s air force was the Fleet Air Arm. The Fleet Air Arm, which became fully independent from the RAF in 1939, has since fought across the globe. From the epic battles of World War II to 21st century pirate hunting, it has been equipped with some of the most exciting aircraft types in history. A small minority of these aircraft were superb, many (perhaps even most) were terrible  — but regardless the FAA has proven itself time and time again. The following aircraft were vital to the FAA, this list is certainly not exhaustive and is intended to provoke a discussion rather than end one. As ever, reality does not conform to a ‘top 10’ format, but we have chosen 16 types that were important in historical significance, longevity or as technological achievements.

See the 10 worst Royal Navy aircraft here and the world’s worst carrier aircraft here. 

Thanks to the Fleet Air Museum for their assistance in creating this article.

Note from Matt Willis from navalairhistory.com 

A word on the subject: ‘best’ or ‘top’ is always a difficult concept to pin down in this context. Because of the situation in which the Fleet Air Arm found itself for much of its history – at a low priority, under-resourced, under-manned and suffering from years of doctrinal misconceptions – some of the aircraft with which it made the biggest impact, could not be said to be the best of their type. Low-performance machines such as the Blackburn Skua inflicted serious damage on German forces during the 1940 Norwegian campaign, and as for the Swordfish…

Then, aircraft that had an excellent performance in the air were objectively bad as naval aircraft – the Seafire was seriously unsuited to carrier operations. Ultimately, throughout history, the Fleet Air Arm has proven itself able to extract maximum value from whatever compromised machinery it has been issued with, mainly due to the quality of its personnel.

16. Hawker Sea Hawk (1953-1960 in frontline FAA service)

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Engine starts for the Sea Hawk involved a starter cartridge to get the turbine up to speed, basically a shotgun cartridge without the pellets.

The UK aircraft industry produced a string of turbine-powered carrier fighters and attack aircraft in the early Cold War period, none of which were world-beaters.

The Sydney Camm-designed Hawker Sea Hawk, however, was an exception: combat-proven, export-winning and able to incorporate successive improvements.

Perhaps most importantly, it struck a balance between performance, capability and handling – making it an ideal mount for the Royal Navy aircraft carriers of the period. (Flattops like HMS Victorious were World War II-era designs, with limited-size air groups, and not all were converted with the angled decks required for safe jet operations).

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Flying from smaller carriers, British naval fighters needed to combine compact dimensions with docile flying qualities. The Sea Hawk was the best of the lot, a conventional design with a single Rolls-Royce Nene engine in the centre fuselage fed by wing root intakes and exhausting via a bifurcated jet pipe at the trailing edge of the wing roots. Unlike the Attacker that preceded it, the Sea Hawk utilised nosewheel undercarriage.

The Sea Hawk was progressively improved, maturing from a simple day fighter before emerging as a more versatile fighter-bomber with a range of underwing ordnance and finally introducing a more powerful engine. With a production total of 520, more Sea Hawks were built than Buccaneers, Scimitars and Sea Vixens combined.

In the ground-attack role, six squadrons of Sea Hawks saw service during the Suez fiasco and the type later went to battle in Indian hands during the Indo-Pakistani conflicts of 1965 and 1971. Dutch Sea Hawks were perhaps the best equipped, carrying a pair of infrared-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. The other export operator was West Germany, which flew the type into the mid-1960s. In Indian hands, the Sea Hawk soldiered on in service until 1983, when finally replaced by the Sea Harrier – another British naval fighter with design input from Sydney Camm.

— Thomas Newdick, Editor of Air Forces Monthly & Author

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15. Hawker Sea Fury (1945-53)

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The Sea Fury was the pinnacle of Hawker’s illustrious prop fighter line, it was also probably the best prop fighter that ever flew. The Sea Fury had everything a great fighter needs: it was tough, well-armed, fast and agile. Despite its enormous size and 2,480 horsepower grunt, it had delightful handling qualities (pilots were particularly  impressed with how spin-resistant it was). We spoke to Sea Fury pilot Dave Eagles who gave it it ‘top marks for agility’. The Sea Fury held the fort while carrier jets were still immature, and was much safer and easier to operate around the ‘deck’. It kept the FAA competitive in the interim period between the end of World War II and the jet age – and was the best piston-engined carrier fighter/fighter-bomber of the period. The Sea Fury was sent to war in Korea, where it proved it could do more than merely survive in the jet age, notably downing a MiG-15 jet fighter in 1952.

— Joe Coles, Hush-Kit

14. Blackburn Skua (1938-1941)

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Highly successful as a dive-bomber when the FAA was most limited, far more successful as a fighter in Norway and the Mediterranean than anyone had a right to expect. The Skua did far better than anyone could have predicted for such a mediocre design, simply because it had to. Skuas fought bitterly hard when Britain was closest to defeat.

Skuas were for a while credited with the first confirmed kill by British aircraft during the Second World War, as three Skuas (from 803, on Ark Royal) shot down a Dornier Do 18 over the North Sea on 26 September 1939, but it later transpired a RAF Battle had actually staked this historical claim a full six days earlier in France.

On 10 April 1940, 16 Skuas led by Lieutenant Commander William Lucy, sank the German cruiser Königsberg at Bergen harbour during the German invasion of Norway. Königsberg was the first major warship ever sunk in combat by air attack and the first to be sunk by dive-bombing.

13. de Havilland Sea Hornet (1946-56)

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For two decades the Fleet Air Arm had to rely on second-hand or inadequate designs, and then after a series of reports from RAE Farnborough, they got it right. In 1947, it all came together in the de Havilland Sea Hornet.

The Sea Hornet was available in three sub-variants – fleet day fighter; photo-reconnaissance aircraft and night fighter. All three shared the same attributes: a robust airframe married to two late-model 2000 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engines giving speed; counter-turning airscrew to prevent take-off swing; good low-speed handling; slotted flaps; the pilot at the front with all-round visibility, especially of the flight deck at every stage of the landing – but just too late to see war service.

It is possible to describe the Sea Hornet as the fighter version of the Mosquito that should have been developed three years before. It married the 1,500 miles range of two engines and big wing tanks with the ability to climb to height (20,000 ft) in just four minutes with the punch of four 20mm cannon.

The first naval air squadron to receive the Sea Hornet was 801 at RNAS Ford on 1 June 1947 and 809 took the night fighter variant to sea in HMS Vengeance later in the year. A single prototype was even modified to carry two of Barnes Wallis’ Highball bouncing bombs.

Don’t just take my word for it. Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown described it as his favourite aeroplane of all time; “sheer bliss” he told me.

Paul Beaver FRSA FRAeS VR

Authorised Biographer of Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown 

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12. Blackburn Buccaneer (1962-1978)

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A world-beating nuclear strike jet that became a world-beating conventional maritime strike and ground-attack jet. The improved S.2 was the first FAA aircraft to make a non-stop unrefuelled crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

Blackburn Aircraft Limited produced some of the worst aeroplanes ever made. From the TB of 1915 (an engine start set the float on fire), the Sidecar of 1919 (sold at Harrods, but couldn’t fly), the Roc (a fighter of 1938, that was slower than any bomber), and the pathetic Botha (underpowered, impossible to see out of in rain), through to the shameful Firebrand (late, extremely dangerous to pilots- but scandalously pushed into service with a hush-up that resulted in many deaths) – their track record was pretty appalling, so it is all the more impressive that they went on to make the wonderful ‘Bucc’, a masterpiece from 1958.

The Buccaneer was designed to counter the Soviet fleet, with particular emphasis on the  Sverdlov-class cruisers. It was prepared in great secrecy, as a fast, low-level maritime attack aircraft capable of using nuclear weapons.

The S. Mk.1 was underpowered, as test pilot Dave Eagles quipped in his Hush-Kit interview it “relied on the curvature of the earth to get airborne ”. This was solved when the S.Mk 2 was introduced in 1962, powered by the Spey. The result was a superb low-level aircraft with a long-range (longer even than the Tornado), of virtually indestructible construction with a rock-steady low-level ride. It was a world class attack aircraft with a formidable weapon-load. Later in its life its relatively austere avionics would let it down, but had it been fitted with the same systems as the US A-6 it would have undoubtedly been the best maritime attack aircraft in the world, bar none. In fact, a version superior even to this had been proposed; the Buccaneer 2 would have had systems inherited from two extremely advanced projects the P.1154 (a proposed supersonic Harrier in the F-4 weight class) and the TSR.2 super bomber (the advanced Buccaneer would have used its extremely advanced terrain-following radar).  It was not to be, however.

When the Royal Navy got rid of its carrier some ‘Bucc’s ended up with the Royal Air Force. The type proved its worth in Desert Storm, and remained to the end of its life a potent weapon.

— Joe Coles, Hush-Kit

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Interview with British Phantom pilot here.

11. Westland Wessex (1962-1982)

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In the late 1950s Westland acquired a Sikorsky S-58 for use as a pattern aircraft, after playing around with it for a bit they removed the weighty Wright Cyclone piston engine and replaced it with one of the up and coming gas turbines everyone was talking about.  A weight saving was not the only improvement, the vibration level in the aircraft also reduced to a level where you could read the instruments thanks to the much smoother running of the Napier Gazelle engine.  An order from the Royal Navy soon followed for the first of over 200 Wessex for that service alone. 

The original HAS 1 came with a dipping sonar and was soon embarked at sea hunting for the ever-increasing number of Soviet submarines.  At the same time the Commando 1 version was produced by removing the submarine hunting equipment and putting in some seats for 16 Royal Marines.  These Commando Wessex were soon hard at work in the jungles of Borneo during the confrontation with Indonesia.  Such was their success that the squadrons involved have been known as Junglies ever since, despite spending most of their time in famously jungle free Norway, or the deserts of the Middle East.

By 1962 it was realised that one engine was half as good as two.  So, Westlands crammed a pair of Rolls-Royce Gnomes into the nose of the Wessex HU5 for the Junglies.  This almost doubled the installed power and made an engine failure much less worrying for the pilot as there was a spare.

Not to be outdone the ASW Pingers gained the improved HAS 3 which featured a radar and uprated sonar.  It did not however feature an extra engine, so performance was marginal with the added weight.

The swan song for the Wessex in the Royal Navy came during the 1982 Falklands Conflict.  Fifty-Five HU5s deployed along with 2 HAS 3s.  On the night of 21st April Humphrey, the HAS 3 of HMS Antrim’s flight, guided two HU5s from RFA Tidespring to Fortuna Glacier on South Georgia as part of the operation to retake the island.  With poor weather hampering them the SBS team deployed on the glacier requested evacuation.  Unfortunately, the two HU5 crashed due to the poor weather, leaving the underpowered HAS3 to return and successfully recover the troops and the crew from both aircraft.  Not satisfied with this Humphrey subsequently spotted the ANA Santa Fe, one in a series of ex-USN ships to be attacked during the conflict, and attacked her with depth charges, possibly the only such attack to take place post WW2. After surviving gunfire from attacking fast jets Humphrey retired to the Fleet Air Arm museum shortly after the conflict ended.

The Wessex was a mainstay of the Fleet Air Arm through the cold war, operating from carriers, destroyers, and ashore, as an ASW platform, a troop carrier, and a Search and Rescue aircraft.  The type remained in service with the RAF until 2003, 42 years after it entered service, testimony to its robustness and utility.

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— Bing Chandler

10. Sea Harrier (1978-2006)

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The Royal Navy gave up its large aircraft carriers in the 1970s, but was reluctant to give up fixed-wing air power. One solution was to use Harriers, an aircraft capable of taking-off and landing like a helicopter from smaller ships. The USMC had been doing this successfully since the early ’70s with a lightly adapted version of the RAF’s GR.1, known as the AV-8A. The Royal Navy sought a more radical solution, adding a redesigned forward fuselage with a raised cockpit giving an improved view for the pilot and athe addition of basic radar (additionally some parts were changed to make the aircraft more resistant to salt water).

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Two other naval jump-jets have seen service. The Soviet Yak-38, seen here, and the US’ F-35B.

Only 111 Sea Harriers were built but the type is assured a place in Royal Navy for its performance in the Falklands War of 1982. Flying in abysmal weather, the type performed air defence and ground attack missions. In the former, the Sea Harrier shot down 20 Argentine aircraft with no air-to-air losses, although two Sea Harriers were lost to ground fire and four to accidents. One particular Sea Harrier, flown by RAF Flight Lieutenant David Morgan, shot down three A-4 Skyhawks on one mission. The Sea Harrier’s performance earned it comprehensive upgrade. FA.2 standard added the excellent Blue Vixen radar in a new bulbous nose, AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles (making it the first none US-designed aircraft to carry the then formidable weapon), a data-link, a fuselage plug for extra fuel, a semi ‘glass’ cockpit including HOTAS, improved radar warning receiver and various aerodynamic enhancements including a kinked leading-edge. The FA.2 served in both the Yugoslavian Civil War and the 1999 campaign against Yugoslavia. Over to Pete Sandeman from Save the Royal Navy:

“It is a recurring theme for the Fleet Air Arm, being equipped with what are perceived as poor aircraft but achieving great success. The Sea Harrier epitomised this, as the last all-British designed fighter aircraft it secured its place in aviation history as a war-winning weapon. 

Having evolved from the RAF ground attack variant many, many, even in the RN, initially underestimated the capabilities of the subsonic Sea Harrier and assumed it had little value beyond intercepting high flying reconnaissance aircraft. Those involved in the test and development of the aircraft knew better. The ‘SHAR’ had already outperformed the mighty F-15 and other NATO fighters while conducting Dissimilar Combat Air Training (DACT) exercises, particularly in within visual range dogfights.   

The SHAR deployed to the Falklands war, just 30 months after the first production aircraft had been delivered. The Blue Fox multimode radar and the hastily acquired AIM-9L version of the Sidewinder were critical to its success. Combined with the aggression and confidence of the RN pilots, the Harrier achieved 20 kills without a single loss in air-air combat. The outstanding performance in the Falklands cemented the ‘SHAR’s iconic status and place in the public affection.

In 1993 the original Sea Harrier FRS1 was replaced by the substantially modified Sea Harrier FA2. Most notably, an enlarged nose cone housed a new pulse doppler radar giving the ability to launch the AIM-120. This gave the SHAR arguably the best BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air-air combat capability in the world for a period.

During the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s SHARs flew from RN carriers in the Adriatic proving a rapid response for both ground support and to keep Yugosalv MiGs grounded. In 1994 a SHAR from HMS Ark Royal was shot down by a Serbian Igla-1 SAM, the pilot ejected but was quickly recovered.

The controversial and premature retirement of the Sea Harrier in 2006 saw the RN give up its organic naval fighters and control of fixed-wing combat aircraft in exchange for the Harrier GR7s and GR9s, under the unsatisfactory ‘Joint Force Harrier’ arrangement. The Indian navy was the only export customer for the SHAR which they finally retired in 2016.”

9.  Westland Lynx (1981-2017)

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Developed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the Lynx is a rare example of a multi-national programme where the French didn’t insist on design leadership, Sud Aviation only having a 30 percent share.  This probably explains why the main rotor spins in the correct direction. The AH.1 entered service with the Army Air Corps in 1979, while the Fleet Air Arm’s HAS.2 followed in 1981, on account of having radars and other technical features beyond the Army’s understanding.

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The bugs in the Lynx HAS Mk2 were still being worked out when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands and 14 were deployed on the task force’s frigates and destroyers.  On the night of third May the Lynx carried out its most notable action of the conflict.  A Sea King of 826 Naval Air Squadron had discovered the ARA Alférez Sobral, and after being shot at, identified it as hostile.  Retreating to a safe distance the Sea King then vectored the Lynx from HMS Coventry and Glasgow which conducted an attack with Sea Skua missiles, severely damaging the Argentinian vessel and taking it out of action for the duration of the war.

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Nine years later the Lynx was again in action, this time in the warmer waters of the Persian Gulf.  Aircraft from HMS Manchester, Gloucester, Southampton and London teamed up with US Navy Seahawks to neutralise the Iraqi Navy threat to the allied task force.  The Seahawks superior sensors were used to detect the numerous small patrol craft the Iraqis deployed to the cluttered waters off Kuwait.  They would then vector the Lynx who had an effective anti-ship weapon, this teaming proved highly effective sinking ten vessels and damaging a further three.

After the Gulf War the Royal Navy’s Lynx would continue to serve until 2017.  Modifications included a 360-degree radome, although without the upgrade to the radar to take advantage of it, a tail rotor that spun in the right direction to improve its effectiveness, and a central tactical system to save the Observer doing real-time scale-drawing to keep track of where everything was.  Deployed around the globe the Lynx’s tasks included anti-drug operations, disaster relief, search and rescue, and most importantly collecting the ship’s mail for almost 40 years.

Not only was the Lynx the Royal Navy’s most successful Maritime Attack Helicopter, it was also the best anti-submarine aircraft the British Army ever operated.

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— Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student. He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.  

8. Chance Vought F4U Corsair (1943-1954)

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Though famous for its role in the Pacific with US Navy, the Corsair’s first carrier combat action came in the North Sea with the British Fleet Air Arm. On 2 April 1944, Corsairs provided fighter cover for an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz. British Corsairs spent the bulk of their wartime service in the Pacific and Indian oceans. They supported strikes against Japanese targets in Burma and Sumatra, then in 1945 they fought in the  final attacks on Japan. British Corsairs intercepted Kamikaze attacks as the British Pacific Fleet attacked the Sakishima Islands, before spending the end of the war making attacking on the Tokyo. 

Interview with a British F-35B Lightning II pilot here 

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It wasn’t until the Sea Fury arrived, that an indigenous naval fighter surpassed the Corsair’s fearsome effectiveness. The Royal Navy received 2,012 Corsairs. 

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7. Grumman Avenger (1944-1955)

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When the Royal Navy took on the Grumman Avenger, the intention was that it would supplement, and if possible, replace the Swordfish in the anti-submarine role aboard escort carriers. The American aircraft was big, heavy, rather unwieldy in the air and could not carry the British aerial torpedo. This made it something of a second choice in the strike role next to the manoeuvrable Fairey Barracuda, which was designed for – and good at – dive-bombing and torpedo attack. The Avenger’s first job in the Fleet Air Arm, therefore, was in action against U-boats, a task at which it excelled, thanks to its loitering ability and vast stores carriage. It could carry a useful load of depth charges in conditions when the venerable Swordfish could not, and had the advantage that it could be launched with the catapult fitted to US-built lend-lease escort carriers. If there had been enough Avengers available, they would undoubtedly have replaced the ‘Stringbag’ in the anti-submarine rule. When the Barracuda went to the Far East, however, and experienced much hotter conditions, the shortage of power from its Rolls-Royce Merlin 32 became acute, while its endurance was even more problematic during raids in the East Indies. As a possible solution, two anti-submarine Avenger squadrons in theatre were hastily trained in strike and sent on a bombing raid in place of the Barracudas. The experiment was a success, and the Admiralty immediately began replacing Barracuda squadrons in the Far East with Avenger units. Several Avenger units, meanwhile, had distinguished themselves in anti-submarine/surface vessel operations over the English Channel during Operation ‘Overlord’, and were quickly packed off East as soon as the war in Europe began to reach its conclusion.

 

The Avenger might, therefore, have replaced the Swordfish and almost did replace the Barracuda. While the Barras in theatre in mid-1944 had been replaced by Avengers, more were on their way out East when the war ended, so it’s not quite true to say that the Avenger replaced the Barracuda. It is unquestionable, however, that the Avenger was the FAA’s main strike aircraft at the climax of the war in the Pacific, where once again its prodigious range and payload meant it acquitted itself admirably.

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Matthew Willis is a writer and journalist with a particular focus on naval aviation, which you can read more about at his website navalairhistory.com. He is the author of a feature in the May issue of Aeroplane about the FAA’s Swordfish and Avenger squadrons on D-Day.

6. Grumman Martlet/Wildcat (1941-1945)

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“I would still assess the Wildcat as the outstanding naval fighter of the early years of World War II … I can vouch as a matter of personal experience, this Grumman fighter was one of the finest shipboard aeroplanes ever created.”

— Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, British test pilot

Between them, the British authorities and the industry failed to provide the Fleet Air Arm with the fighter it really needed from 1941. Fortunately, the US Navy did not suffer from the same temporary insanity that its British equivalent fell prey to in the 1930s, in the abandonment of single-seat fighters, nor the Admiralty’s permanent pathological insistence that every aircraft be capable of doing every job going. The upshot was that the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation was able to produce the kind of fighter that a naval air arm could actually use.

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The USN’s F4F, and its G-36 export version, was moderately fast, manoeuvrable, tough, long-legged, well-armed and had excellent deck-landing characteristics. With each of the British equivalents in late 1941-early 1942, you’d be lucky to get any two of those characteristics. The worst thing about the Grumman Martlet (renamed Wildcat in 1944) for the Royal Navy was that the USN wanted it too, and had priority.

For that reason, there were never enough Martlets/Wildcats to go around, and after the first few squadrons were formed on them, it became clear that the FAA was only going to have enough aircraft to maintain these units rather than form new ones. The Martlet immediately proved itself with a convoy to Gibraltar on HMS Audacity with 802 Squadron in September, including one ‘Winkle’ Brown in its personnel, shooting down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, followed by four more on the next cruise. The FAA’s Martlets/Wildcats saw action in the Mediterranean, with the Allied landings at Madagascar and North Africa, and in Arctic convoys, where composite squadrons of fighters and anti-submarine aircraft made their presence felt against U-boats. The Martlet/Wildcat with its 0.50in machine guns was particularly useful for strafing any U-boat that decided to stay on the surface and fight it out. Moreover, the development of the type with more powerful engines and other improvements, kept it competitive until the end of the war. If the FAA had had enough of the compact Grumman fighter, it would not have been necessary to rely on hurriedly lashed-up naval single seaters like the Sea Hurricane and Seafire for so long, if at all. Sadly, the relative shortage means that while the Martlet/Wildcat was undoubtedly one of the best aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm in World War II, it could have had a much greater impact than it did.

— Matthew Willis

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5.  Fairey Fulmar (1940-1945)

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As World War II approached the Admiralty was desperate for anything that could be described as a modern fighter.  Thus specification O.8/38 was issued for a monoplane fleet fighter and observation aircraft, this was rapidly filled by a modified light dive-bomber originally intended for a cancelled RAF requirement.  The resulting Fulmar shared the Merlin engine, and eight 0.303” guns, with the Spitfire and Hurricane, there though the similarity ended.  With a maximum speed of 247mph and a service ceiling of 16,000’ it was several years behind its contemporaries in terms of performance. More worryingly it was also 30mph slower than the Heinkel He 111 it would face in the Mediterranean. Fair to say as a fighter it made an adequate cancelled dive-bomber.

Where it excelled though was in endurance, it could happily stay airborne for over four hours, and amount of ammunition (having 1000 rounds per gun compared to a Spitfire’s 250).  This allowed the Fulmar to hold a standing CAP with minimal interruption to the carrier’s progress to launch and recover aircraft.  On its own this wouldn’t have tipped the balance in the Fulmar’s favour, however action off the coast of Norway in 1940 had given the RN the beginnings of a Fighter Direction capability.  Which initially involved radar information being relayed from the carrier’s escort via semaphore to the carrier for onward transmission to the CAP.  The escort not having the necessary radios and Ark Royal not having a radar.  This crude arrangement allowed even the Skua to conduct successful intercepts before the Battle of Britain showed its potential to the world.

Consequently, when the Fulmar made its first operational deployment with HMS Illustrious it soon proved itself by downing shadowing reconnaissance aircraft and then breaking up any follow up raids.  Loitering at altitude the Fighter Directors would vector them towards the attackers and once sighted the dive bomber heritage would come into play as they dived on their prey to gain a speed advantage.  Okay speed parity.

The Fulmar was not a great fighter, and it was relegated to second line and night fighting duties by mid-1942.  However, by being at the birth of shipborne fighter control it helped shape the techniques that continue in use to this day and became the Royal Navy’s highest scoring fighter with 116 kills for only 16 losses in air-to-air combat[1].  Which is more than you can say for the Seafire.

[1] These figures vary by source! But between 112 and 122 for kills.

— Bing Chandler

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With the limitations of the Wessex helicopter becoming apparent if you wanted to hunt submarines and carry weapons at the same time the RN would need something new. The obvious solution was to follow the same route as the USN with the Sea King.  For political reasons a UK produced version was chosen, which thanks to a generous licence from Sikorsky, allowed Westlands to greatly modify the aircraft and ultimately sell more than the original manufacturer.  It must be assumed that unlike the Wessex the original name was kept because it wasn’t as daft as the Sea Bat moniker used for the H-34.

Although externally similar to the SH-3D, even the early HAS1 Sea Kings differed greatly from the original.  With a different operating philosophy the RN added a radar, on the tail to provide excellent coverage in every direction except forwards, along with a range of British avionics and an Observer in the cabin to act as the tactical co-ordinator for the aircraft and any other assets that might be needed to hunt submarines and surface vessels.

Like the Wessex the Sea King was also modified to carry troops, in the process losing the undercarriage sponsons, it being felt best not to let the Junglies have retractable gear.  This was taken even further when they were given surplus Mk6 aircraft in the 2000s and the retraction system was disabled just to be on the safe side.

The Sea King’s baptism of fire was the Falklands Conflict where 60 aircraft deployed, predominantly in the ASW role protecting the fleet from Argentine submarines, whales, and anything under water that looked a bit suspect.  Such was the RN’s concern over the under-water threat.  At the same time 846 Squadron with HC4s was deployed with aircraft operating from various platforms in support of the troops.  One even found its way to the Argentine/Chile border where, after much effort on the part of the crew, it burst into flames.

The Sea King also took over the Search and Rescue role, the grey and orange aircraft becoming the public face of the RN in their local areas.  She also gained a role that even her illustrious forebear had lacked when a Searchwater radar was strapped to the side to make the world’s first rotary wing AEW aircraft.  This role would see the Sea King remain in service until 2018 some 49 years after the first example had been delivered to the RN.

The Sea King operated around the World afloat and ashore, including service in the Falklands, Kosovo, Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan.  For a few decades RN carrier flight decks seemed to be awash with them, while some brave souls even embarked them on the later Type 22 Frigates which made for a tight landing spot.  Truly a great aircraft her replacement the Merlin has big shoes to fill.

The name coming from their original role of observing the fall of shot for the big guns.  The RAF originally had Observers as well but to speed up training in WW2 introduced the Navigator with a smaller skill set.  This was obviously the point at which the rot set in to that once great institution.

— Bing Chandler

3. Hawker Sea Hurricane

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In its role as Malta convoy protection -the Sea Hurricane prevented the entire Eastern Med from being lost.

The Hawker Sea Hurricane was not the fastest naval fighter in the Fleet Air Arm’s inventory in 1941-2, nor was it the best at deck landing. It certainly wasn’t the best armed or longest-legged. It was a pain to operate from the newer fleet carriers, and with its non-folding wings, took up a lot of space when it could be struck down into a hangar. But for a service trying to expand to an offensive footing after being led down doctrinal blind alleys, put to the back of the queue for equipment, and unable to obtain enough of the American fighters that could have solved all its problems, the Sea Hurricane was a godsend. There was probably no other fighter that could have stepped into the breach so quickly and effectively. Even before the two-seat Fairey Fulmar was in service, the Admiralty had realised that its decision to eschew single-seat, high-performance fighters was, to put it delicately, stupid. The Fulmars had their benefits and achieved a lot, but the Fleet Air Arm needed fighters with the performance to tackle fast German and Italian bombers and even fighters. Suddenly, the compromises the Admiralty had been unwilling to accept – short range, no navigator in the back, fixed wings – did not seem like deal-breakers any more. Fortunately, the Hurricane was easy to convert for carrier operation, so relatively large numbers (still small beer by RAF standards) of existing Hurricanes could be afloat relatively quickly. (Indeed, it was possible to ‘navalise’ Hurricanes in the field, so straightforward was the process – an unserviceable RAF Mk IIb was turned into a Sea Hurricane aboard HMS Indomitable during 1942 with spares held by the carrier). When the decision was taken to turn the Hurricane into a fleet fighter, the Fleet Air Arm rapidly had a vital supply of fighters with the kind of performance it needed. It was not before time. The first Sea Hurricanes afloat immediately made their mark against Luftwaffe prowlers on Arctic convoys, but it was during the vital Malta convoys in the summer of 1942 that the Sea Hurricane proved its worth. As the most numerous fighter on those operations, it saw to it that enough supplies reached the battered island that it could survive and keep threatening the Axis supply routes to North Africa. As such, the Sea Hurricane probably saved the entire Eastern Mediterranean theatre. Not bad for a hastily cobbled-together fleet fighter.

— Matt Willis

2. Fairey Barracuda (1943-55)

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The Fairey Barracuda. Unloved – derided even. Unattractive, certainly. Subject of more derogatory songs than any other aircraft. “You must remember this… A Barra’s poor as piss…” But the Barracuda doesn’t need your sympathy. It may have looked like an accident that had just happened… early on, too many accidents did happen… but the Barracuda hit the enemy like few other types. Historian Norman Polmar called the Barracuda ‘almost useless as an attack aircraft’. Yet this ‘almost useless’ aircraft sunk 40,000 tons of shipping in 10 months, crippled Germany’s most powerful battleship, and equipped 26 front-line squadrons over a 10-year career.

 

The Albacore and Swordfish were obsolete as strike aircraft by 1943, so the Barracuda became available none too soon. The Mediterranean war ended as the Barra arrived, but in Northern latitudes it was just the aircraft needed. Barracudas carried out devastating attacks on German convoys and put the Tirpitz out of the war for months by pinpoint dive bombing. In the Far East it was almost the right aircraft… asthmatic in the hot climate, it still achieved success against targets in the East Indies. It then served quietly, but well into the 1950s. The Barracuda deserves your respect.

— Matt Willis, @navalairhistory

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1.  Fairey Swordfish (1938-1945)

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The Fairey Swordfish, colloquially known as the ‘Stringbag’ could be charitably seen as the ultimate development of the carrier-borne biplane torpedo bomber — or rather less charitably as simply outdated on its introduction. To give context, its maiden flight was less than two years before that of the Spitfire. Despite this, or possibly because of it, the Stringbag went on to become one of the most beloved of Britain’s naval faring aircraft.

A distinguished wartime career certainly helped cement its place in our history. The highlights being the Taranto Raid and its part in sinking the Bismarck. The former was a daring night time operation in 1940 that took out half of Italy’s capital ships in one fell swoop, and possibly more importantly, inspired the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 that caused the USA to directly enter the conflict. The latter saw this venerable aircraft strike the telling blow that allowed Bismarck to slip into the Royal Navy’s vengeful clutches. Ironically, the aircraft’s lumbering top speed may have helped with the Bismarck as legend has it that the anti-aircraft guns were geared to traverse whilst trained on much faster aircraft and consequently didn’t have the sensitivity to deal with a maximum target speed of a mere 143mph. 

To see the Royal Navy’s example fly is a treat, seemingly hanging in the air as her Bristol Pegasus gently thrums, pulling the crew of three through the air. She was a relic that came good, beloved of her crew and held with great affection by the public. A noble old warrior that has truly earned her place in the Fleet Air Arm hall of fame.

— Pete Sandeman, Save the Royal Navy

Want to see more stories like this: Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

If you love aviation, read on: Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed yourself.  We want to give you more, so we need something from you. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going.

 

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Before F-35: My role in the Advanced Short Take-Off/Vertical Landing (ASTOVL) project

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One of the none-ASTOVL concepts was this intriguing ‘Super Harrier’. This external load-out would have negated most of the stealthy aspects of this design. Throughout this article you will see illustrations of pre-F-35B concepts, some relate to ASTOVL, some to other projects and some are more fanciful images released by manufacturers to promote the futuristic nature of their work.

Creating a supersonic stealthy vertical take-off fighter is an extremely difficult task, and years of studies —and a healthy handful of initialisms and acronyms — paved the path to today’s F-35B. Jim Smith describes his role on the ASTOVL project and the challenges it faced. 

 

 

 

What and when was ASTOVL, and what was your role on the project? 

“The Advanced Short Take-Off/Vertical Landing (ASTOVL) programme evolved over a long period, from the early 80s through to the JSF programme as we see it today. While the initial intent was to examine the issues associated with the development of supersonic combat aircraft which could take-off in a short distance, and perform a vertical landing, the objectives evolved significantly over time, culminating in a development programme to provide a 5th-Generation stealthy Strike Fighter for the USAF, USN, USMC and International partners and customers.

During the period of the ASTOVL programme my career path took me in and out of the programme, and the best way of answering these two questions appears to be to reflect my involvement against the changing programme focus and direction.

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1986-88:

“I first encountered the programme in the form of the Joint UK-US ASTOVL programme which was an effort to examine the merits of different possible propulsion systems for ASTOVL concepts. Four US and four UK concepts were examined by a team called the Joint Assessment and Ranking Team (JART) in at NASA Goddard in October 1988. My role on the small UK team was to lead on aerodynamics (including ground interaction) and configuration. Other specialists looked at the mission and flight control systems and technical aspects of the propulsion system. US participation was extensive and included USAF, Army and Navy, but with NASA providing US team leadership and specialist input. My responses below will focus on this period, partly because most readers will be less familiar with the activity, but also because these designs were a long way from the operational system of today, and are perhaps less sensitive as a result.”

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1991-1995

“Following a period in the British Embassy in Washington, I worked in Future Systems (Air) leading aircraft weights and performance analysis. The ASTOVL programme had evolved substantially, with DARPA and the US Navy both heavily involved in programmes looking at a STOVL Strike Fighter (SSF) programme, which evolved first into a Common Affordable Light Fighter (CALF), and eventually in 1993 into the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) programme. The UK was still engaged in the programme, leading to my involvement in configuration analysis of various designs, and, later weights analysis of (mainly) Lockheed concepts, in partnership with NAVAIR, leading towards the JSF EMD phase. I was a member of Integrated Product Teams in the US programme covering Aerodynamics, Performance and Integration, and Aircraft Weight.”

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“Through this period, the focus had shifted from consideration of ASTOVL technical issues to harmonising a set of designs that could plausibly meet the needs of the USN, USMC, USAF and RN. The RN interest was, of course, replacing the Sea Harrier, and at this time the aircraft was very much constrained by the need to operate off the Invincible Class carriers then operated by the RN.”

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1995-98:

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“In 1995, the UK signed up as a formal partner to the US JAST programme, which in 1996 morphed into the JSF development effort, and this coincided with my move to the Central Staffs, where I was looking to ensure Defence proposals were evidence-based, and that scientific, technical, risk and programme aspects were all well covered in the process. My direct involvement with the JSF programme diminished, but I was still involved in assessing the suitability of the concepts emerging from JSF for meeting RN needs. At this time, the focus was still only on the Navy, and only on operating from the small Invincible-class carriers.”

2002 onwards:

“In 2002 I moved to DSTO in Australia to lead the Air Operations Analysis branch. The day before I arrived, the Australian Government announced their intention to procure JSF, and that they intended using the F-35A variant to replace both the F-111 and F-18. While I maintained a strong personal interest in JSF, I had little direct involvement from that point.

The UK subsequently decided to invest in larger carriers, but have maintained their choice of the STOVL variant for both the RN and RAF.”

 Which designs did you study?

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“I must open here with an admission that all this was thirty years ago, and I don’t feel comfortable that I could describe the various contenders in detail. Instead, I will focus on the propulsion systems, which was in any case the primary topic for study by the JART team.

UK concepts were developed by the four combat aircraft design teams then in existence, from Brough, Kingston, Warton and Weybridge. The US designs were developed by Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, and I think Northrop, and Grumman.

Although there were four propulsion system designs considered, they were not quite the same. The UK concepts were:

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Tandem Fan (TF)

Ejector Augmentor (EA) and

Advanced Vectored Thrust (AVT) Kingston

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The US systems were:

RALS

EA

TF (Lockheed)

Mixed-Flow Vectored Thrust (MFVT) (McDonnell)”

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Propulsion system Issues:

“Vertical Lift aircraft experience two main phenomena which can reduce available VL weight and cause issues in control in the hover – Hot-Gas Ingestion (HGI), and Suck-down. HGI causes an increase in the temperature of the air at the engine, and a decrease in density, resulting in a loss of thrust. Suck-down is a result of the high-speed exhaust gases flowing under the aircraft fuselage and wing, and increases as the aircraft nears the ground. This is why VL aircraft generally seem to ‘drop’ the last couple of feet as they land – they are being pulled down by these local flows.

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HGI is best avoided either by using relatively cool flows, for example by mixing cool fan air with the hot exhaust gases, or by physically separating the hot flows as far as possible from the engine intakes. Suck-down may be reduced by the use of a high wing configuration, and blockers or dams under the aircraft to capture and contain the flows – both of these are readily apparent on the Harrier. Lower exhaust velocity will also help.However, note that use of relatively cool low-velocity jets will impact severely on landing weights unless the mass flow is greatly increased, for example through a supplementary lift fan, or a flow entrainment device such as an ejector-augmentor.

Propulsion systems considered by the JART:

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RALS systems essentially used thrust augmentation (afterburning) to increase jet velocity and thrust at the rear nozzles. Disadvantages included difficulty in keeping the hot exhaust gases away from the engine inlets so that hot gas ingestion (HGI) or re-ingestion as the US call it, could be avoided, and the greatly increased pressure and temperature loads on landing surfaces. Depending on configuration, the high-velocity exhaust sheets could induce significant suck-down, although a beneficial fountain effect can also occur with careful management of the exhaust flows beneath the aircraft.”

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“Ejector-Augmentor systems duct air from the mixed flow at the rear of the engine forward, and use an ejector system to entrain cool ambient air, increasing flow mass and reducing jet velocity, temperature and noise. These attractive advantages are offset by the complex systems required, by the volume of the fuselage taken up by the ejectors and exhaust ducting, and by the rather unproven nature of the system.

Tandem-fan solutions use the flow through the propulsion system to produce lift at the rear nozzles, and use a clutch and shaft system to drive a forward fan in the fuselage behind the cockpit. In the configuration considered by the JART the Lockheed TF was horizontal, and a complex system of doors were required to provide the flow path for the fan. Significant risk was seen in the clutch and shaft system.”

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“The Mixed-Flow Vectored Thrust concept took the relatively cool flow from the fan, mixed this with the jet exhaust and then split the flow between front and rear nozzles to provide balanced lift. This offered the prospect of manageable HGI and suck-down, but with the need to accommodate the necessary ducting to the front nozzles.

The Advanced Vectored Thrust design was essentially a Plenum-chamber-burning (PCB) version of the Harrier concept, offering much greater thrust in the lift and forward flight modes, but with all the challenges of the RALS concept, coupled with doubts about the viability of the PCB concept.”

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How would have the best ASTOVL concept compared with the F-35B? 

“The real challenge faced by ASTOVL design teams was the management of suck-down, hot gas ingestion, ground erosion and control in the VL phase. But an additional challenge was introduced as the US Stealth programme was revealed to public gaze in April 1990, with the unveiling of the F-117 programme. A clear driver for JSF is the requirement to ‘do all that stuff and be stealthy too’. On top of which commonality of airframe configuration was sought for land-based, carrier-based and STOVL variants.

 

Without considering stealth, the JART took the view that the RALS and AVT solutions were going to have too much difficulty in managing HGI and ground interaction, and that the bulky packaging and unproven technology of the EA solution was also too risky. The most basic consideration of signature (in hindsight) would be another reason for ruling out the AVT concept, with its short intakes and rear fuselage bathed in hot exhaust gases. Neither the AVT nor EA concepts really provided any scope for internal weapons bays, although this was again not explicitly covered by the JART analysis.”

 

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“The concepts that emerged as most promising were the Tandem Fan and Mixed Flow Vectored Thrust solutions. Compared to JSF, the TF design was longer, because of the horizontal (rather than vertical) shaft-driven fan. It had a simpler drive system, as this was aligned with the propulsion system, but more complex ducting. Also, I believe it had a rectangular nozzle rather than the JSF design, which originates with the Yak-141. The MFVT design by McDonnell Douglas was a very neat configuration, and looked much more attractive than the eventual Boeing X-32.”

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Who paid who for these studies?

The JART work was covered by a UK-US MoU. Under MoU conventions, generally each party carries their own costs, so UK studies would be covered by the UK, and US studies by the US. Later, when the UK formally joined the JAST, a financial contribution to the programme was made by the UK.

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What was good and bad about the project?

“Technically, the programme was terrific. Good people from both UK and US worked hard to understand each other’s concepts and to come up with an assessment process to which all could agree. The relationships forged in the process were of enduring benefit in my subsequent posting to the British Embassy in Washington, and my later engagement with CALF/SSF/JAST.”

Have a look at  Interview with a Viggen pilotinterview with a MiG-25 pilotinterview with a Gripen pilot, Top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes

If I have to identify a weak point, I think we could have done more in advance to formalise the assessment process. I also considered the US approach to technical risk at that time to be relatively primitive. There was an in-built assumption (particularly in Industry) that everything could be solved with time and money, and no real appreciation that system integration was also a source of risk.

With hindsight, the programme would have been better had stealth been explicitly considered, but at the time, US activities were still in the ‘Black’ world, and information would certainly not have been shared with UK Industry.”

 Is STOVL a necessary feature for a combat aircraft? Or was there a cultural bias from the USMC and the Royal Navy?  

“It depends what your requirements are. The USMC has long sought to deliver rapid reaction strike to support ‘troops on the beach’, and also operates from relatively small carriers – these factors drive it towards STOVL operations. At the time of my involvement, the RN also had small carriers, and at that point could not see a path to the sort of capability it has today.

So, I am not sure that STOVL is actually fundamental for the RN or RAF. It appeared to be so at the time, and certainly still is for the USMC. There is a penalty in range and complexity that comes with STOVL.”

What the hardest thing for the designs to achieve?

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“Vertical lift, while also being supersonic. When you add in the tri-service dimension and stealth (which were not part of the JART requirements), you can see that the JSF EMD programme, which required three variants to be demonstrated, to fly supersonically, to meet signature requirements, and to release weapons, was a good stab at reducing what were seen to be the main technology risks.

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Unfortunately, US risk processes did not really consider (in the early days at least) the enormous challenges that would be introduced in generating, clearing and integrating the vast amounts of software (and hardware) required to turn the demonstrators into weapons systems.

Which was the worst concept and why? 

It’s a tie between the RALS, EA and AVT concepts. There are real doubts that any of them could have been developed into a practical system. AVT and EA would have had additional challenges in meeting a low signature requirement.

If a new STOVL fighter was made today which propulsion concept should it use?

“I’d want to start with studies around the Tandem Fan and Mixed Flow Vectored thrust propulsion systems, and then look hard at the packaging and configuration considerations which will be driven by mission system, point and mission performance and signature requirements.

But I’d also want to see what the pros and cons were of a conventional aircraft designed to similar requirements, just to understand the cost-capability trade-off between STOVL and conventional designs.

Careful consideration of the requirements would be essential, to ensure that the scenarios chosen and the mission, performance and other aspects specified were reasonable, considering future geo-political and technology developments.”

What are the strengths and weakness of the F-35B’s propulsion/lift system?\

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“I think the F119 is a first-class engine. The STOVL system appears to be complex, but to work well, although I have not been close enough to the programme to have any real knowledge of this. The control system appears to be notably good in the hover, and to have benefitted from the substantial technical engagement between the UK and US in this area. Creeping vertical landings are clearly a good way of increasing the bring-back mass of the aircraft, just as the use of a ski-jump increases the take-off mass available.

I have not identified any weaknesses, but would observe that the support system for the aircraft looks to be a bit of a challenge, and operators will need to work out carefully how capability and readiness is to be assured at a manageable cost. In the early stages of the programme, weight was a significant challenge, particularly for the STOVL variant. As aircraft endure in service, they tend to grow in weight, and it is likely that a continuing watch will be required on weight, and on structural load and fatigue margins.”

What should I have asked you about ASTOVL? 

“I think I have given ASTOVL (as in the UK-US work of the late 80s) a fair go. There are many topics you could have asked me about on the JSF programme, but none that I am able to address.”

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Sea Fighters: 10 fighter planes that used the ocean as a runway

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Imagine the danger and excitement of landing on the surface of the sea in a high performance fighter. There were aircraft that did just this, Canadian historian and professional recycler Stephen Caulfield takes a look at ten fascinating fighter aircraft that used the sea as their runway. 

“History has sunk many of the most interesting aeroplanes, notably the water-capable fighter (at least for now, ideas seldom disappear forever in aviation).  Having a fighter where you need it in the ocean, without need for aircraft carrier or land runway, offered huge tactical and even strategic advantages. But it was hard to get right. A fighter needs to be as fast and agile as possible – characteristics at odds with carrying the extra baggage of two huge floats or whatever apparatus you decide to use to achieve this daunting enterprise. But the needs of war were often so desperate that designers tried again and again — twice they even ventured into the bizarre, and extremely appealing, realm of jet seaplanes. Via Hush Kit’s refurbished Cray III Supercomputer (a battered MacBook covered in red wine stains) we can identify no less than sixty attempts to create a water-capable fighter between 1914 and 1953.  Most were produced in tiny numbers, some only as prototypes. To wit, the UK’s Sopwith Pintail (a name likely to provoke maternal affection, rather than fear, in potential foes), of which a whopping three were built. The United States, Japan and the European powers undertook programmes in this oeuvre. Most are now so deep in obscurity they exist only in the encyclopaedic brains of Hush-Kit readers, here are 10.

10. Heinkel He 51B-2 (1933) ‘Probably not the best fighter in the world’ 

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Germany developed modern warplanes for the Luftwaffe in secret in the 1930s, dishonestly presenting them to the world as civilian and training aircraft, while building a massive air force to assist in turning the early 1940s into a global hell-scape. The He 51 had its roots in this duplicity and was an attempt to build a modern fighter comparable to the British Fury.  It wasn’t great — and the He 51 was mauled by superior Soviet-designed fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Despite upgrades it was still on the wrong side of mediocre – what do with such a turkey? To a small number they added lifting points, floats, pontoons, struts and extra stabilisers to create a fighter to help a navy that didn’t have aircraft carriers*. 

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The initial floatplane version, the He 51A-1 was the forerunner of the He 51B-2.

 

To provide a basic fighter (with a secondary reconnaissance role)  they turned to the idea of catapult launched He 51 from Kriegsmarine cruisers that could be recovered at sea. Forty six of these vulnerable (and now utterly outdated) aircraft were produced and did very little. 

 *Despite several attempts, Germany never got any operational aircraft carriers (despite  several attempts). There were several reasons for this including an early faith that they would not have to fight Great Britain, shifting priorities, technical problems and Hitler’s fury with the navy’s defeat at the Battle of the Barents Sea.

9. Loire 210 (1935) ‘Loire you joking?’ 

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Even by floatplane fighter standards, the Loire 210 was terrible. It was intended that the aircraft would be catapulted from French ships to provide a much needed defensive fighter. Despite first flying in 1935, it did not enter service until 1939 — by which time a top speed of 186 mph was a virtual death sentence against contemporary fighters. It never saw combat though, as after three months, five aircraft had been lost due to structural failure in the wings. Sensibly, the type was promptly retired.

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8. Kawanishi N1K1 (1942) ‘Kyōfūsaurus Rex’

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Intended as a potent successor to our list’s number one aircraft, this fighter would prove a frustration to the Japanese military. The design was in many ways excellent, and was powerful and well-armed, though it did have some tricky handling characteristics (thanks to the compromise of carrying a huge floating pontoon). As a seaplane it was intended to be forward-deployed to support offensive operations, the only problem being that by the time it was mature (in 1943) Japan was firmly on the defensive.  

The fundamentals here were so promising a redesign was granted from mid-wing floatplane to low-wing landplane.  This is an extremely rare reversal of the usual story of float fighters, which are almost invariably converted land-based aircraft. The ‘new’ aircraft became the extremely potent N1K2-J Shiden (‘violet lightning’).  This fighter had an excellent rate of climb and high manoeuvrability, proving a match for late-war American fighters, and able punch back at the high-flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress attacks.  

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7. Fairey Flycatcher (1922) ‘Human Fly’

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The Flycatcher, from a time when naval fighters had names better suited to ales. 

Up until the Fairey Fulmar nearly all Royal Navy aircraft were required to be structurally capable of being fitted with floats. The much loved Flycatcher was no exception to this, and when required (such when based away from aircraft carriers on smaller ships) it could bolt on a rather smart pair of floats and become an amphibian. The Flycatcher was loved by its pilots for its high levels of agility and pleasant handling. The aircraft was used against Chinese pirates in the waters around Hong Kong. It was also important in being the aircraft the Fleet Air Arm used to develop many of the tactics it would adopt in World War II. A total of 196 Flycatchers were made and the type served until 1934.


6. Grumman 
F4F-3S Wildcatfish (1943) ‘Born to be Wildcatfish’

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Inspired by the floatplane conversion of the ‘Zero’, the infamous ‘Rufe’, the US attempted a similar conversion to the impressive Wildcat. Desiring a fighter that could be forward based on Pacific islands, it seemed a sensible solution, but two factors killed it. Its major weakness was its top speed, the weight and drag of the massive floats pulled the top speed down to a pedestrian 241 mph (388 km/h); considering that the standard Wildcat was already slower than the ‘Zero’, this severely limited the combat potential of the type. Secondly, the 
United States Naval Construction Battalions (better known as the Seabees) proved adept at the rapid creation of temporary airfields, rendering the concept unnecessary. 

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5. Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 (1947) ‘The Squirt’ 

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The Japanese floatplane fighters showed that the concept could work, at least to some degree, in the calmer parts of the Pacific. British manufacturer Saunders-Roe thought they could do one better, negating the seaplane’s inherent performance disadvantage with the latest technology: the jet engine. Creating an aircraft capable of 512 mph with four 20-mm cannon would have proved an awesome, perhaps unbeatable, opponent to  Japanese seaplanes and flying boats. Timing was against the aircraft however, with the War winding down the company looked away from this military project, instead devoting their resources to the huge Princess long-range civilian flying boat. This delayed the type’s first flight until 1947. The aircraft proved impressive – it had great handling, good agility and was pleasant to fly (notably, the prototypes were fitted with the first two examples of Martin Baker production ejection seats). However, there wasn’t a great deal of need for it by this time, and two months later a carrier fighter that was faster still (the 600mph Sea Hawk) took to the air. The Royal Navy wasn’t very interested in this eccentric design, having faith in the conventional carrier concept. It was briefing brought back to life in 1950 to assess its utility for the Korean War, but things had moved on and it would have been no match for the latest fighters. The ‘Squirt’ , as it was affectionately known by its creators, was not to be. 

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4. Hansa-Brandenburg W.12

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Imperial Germany’s Hansa-Brandenburg produced perhaps the most serious floatplane fighters in the era of wood and doped fabric, an entire family of them including both biplane and monoplane models.  A Royal Navy dirigible was destroyed by a W.12 and submarine HMS C28 was strafed badly and driven back to port under tow by a flight of Hansa-Brandenburgs in the summer of 1918. 

3. Convair F2Y Sea Dart (1953) ‘The Eyeball Wobbler’ 

Saltproof and supersonic (well, at least in a dive), it would take one fast-mover of a barnacle to glue itself to this slick mid-century waste of money.  What a pointy, lovely thing was the Sea Dart. It was created to solve the problems of launching supersonic fighters, with their massive requisite runway requirements, from aircraft carriers. Convair, who were almost always insane (and quite frequently successful) in their wild ambition, really pushed the limits of contemporary technologies (and pilot discomfort) with the Sea Dart. The fact it even half worked is a remarkable achievement. It was however underpowered and sluggish, failing to reach supersonic flight in level flight, even more importantly its legged ‘hydro-ski’ take-offs almost shook the poor pilot to death. Still, an amazing machine. 

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 Supermarine Spitfire (various years) – ‘A Spit in the ocean’

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The Spitfire‘s roots lay in a racing seaplane so there was it seemed somehow right to send Britain’s best fighter to water. So much so, that the idea was revisited at least three times throughout the War, each time resulting in nothing. A Mark I and a couple of Mark Vs were floated early in the war, partly with Norway in mind. They had the indignity of being fitted with floats from the woeful Roc, and a ventral fin that looked rather nice. The rather dainty Spitfire could not cope well with the additional weight and drag, and the results were disappointing. Later, an example of one of the most common and successful variants of Spitfire, the Mark IX, was also put onto floats with the Pacific theatre in mind (yes, again the Pacific). But again, the idea didn’t take. Too bad really, that Mark IX was found to be faster than a ‘regular’ Hawker Hurricane.  It should have been useful somewhere, in theory.  Of all the fighters on this list, the elegant Spitfire is the one that best retained its good looks with the addition of ‘salty clown shoes’.

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1. Mitsubishi A6M2-N Rufe (1941) ‘The Story of Rufe’

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In 1941 and 1942 it seemed as if there was nothing a Zero couldn’t do well. Even knocking down the A6M’s top speed a bit might have seemed okay at first, considering what a hotrod the Zero was and terrible some of its early opponents were. But, reality for the Rufe got dicey right away. Like the Spitfire, every effort in the Zero’s original configuration had been to keep it light to attain ferocious performance. A huge draggy under-fuselage sausage had a hugely detrimental effect on its stellar performance, notably its top speed.  Consider that the a mediocre landplane like the Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo had a fifty miles-per-hour advantage over a Rufe.  And later Allied types? The Chance Vought Corsair, you ask? Two hundred miles-per-hour more! This put the type in . a perilous position. Despite this, over three hundred Rufes were built, making them something of a success compared to the other rare ducks on this list.  Rufes got around the Pacific, wrangling with Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses early in the war. Some saw the Indian Ocean through assignment to attacking commercial shipping  Others were detached to operations in the Aleutian Islands, facing US and Canadian Curtiss P-40s.  Rufes were aggressive against United States Navy PT-Boats, too, preferring to stalk them at night. While idling in the dark to avoid Rufes,  President-to-be John F Kennedy’s PT-Boat was chopped in half by an Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer. Guadalcanal and Truk also saw Rufes in action, if on borrowed time. 

On a couple of occasions, Rufes were destroyed from the air while when sitting out at anchor in groups.  The Rufe’s modest role in support of extended amphibious operations, in patrol and surface attack roles, never mind as a dogfighter, was rudely obliterated by the overwhelming nature of America’s industrialised approach to warfare. Stripped of a place in the front rank of Japanese expansion, surviving Rufes were redeployed to the rather safer location of a lake in home territory. The Rufe, with its distinctive oversize single float, came close to validating the concept of the water capable fighter. It was built in number (327) and participated in major operations. As Imperial Japan’s war effort collapsed, so the did the service life of the impressive Rufe.”

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Want to see more stories like this: Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Have a look at  Interview with a Viggen pilotinterview with a MiG-25 pilotinterview with a Gripen pilot, Top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Stick your hands in your flight-suit pockets! Sadly, we are still way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscriptions — and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going. 

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Thank you. 

Wreck of a MiG-25

IMG_7655.jpegAnother treat at the Ukrainian National Museum was this scrapped MiG-25. For those of us who grew up with grainy pictures (take from far away) of the world’s fastest fighter, being able to peer beneath the skin like this is extremely gratifying. Following the disintegration of the USSR, Ukraine inherited a great deal of Soviet hardware. Perhaps a British museum should recover and renovate this aircraft, it would certainly be a welcome addition to Duxford or Cosford!

You can read an interview with a MiG-25 pilot here.

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Tu-141: Return of the drone

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One of the most dramatic exhibits at the Ukrainian National Aviation Museum is a trailer-mounted Tupolev Tu-141 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. Remarkably, this type has returned to service and was used in the war in Donbass.

A single Tu-141 Strizh (Swift, Russian : Стриж ) is displayed at the Ukrainian National Aviation Museum. This is a fighter-sized unmanned aircraft capable of 683mph (1100 km/h), that was designed for reconnaissance during the Cold War. It is launched from a trailer using a rocket booster, in flight it relies on a small turbojet, landing is via a parachute in the tail. It first flew in 1974 and served with the Soviet Army and several of its allies.

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Thankfully it was unmanned, as its mission was extremely risky – it was intended to fly several hundreds of kilometres (it has a range of around 1000 kilometres) into enemy territory and collect visual intelligence. It could carry a range of sensors, including film cameras, infra-red imagers, Electro-Optic imagers, and an imaging radar. Information was harvested from the aircraft once it had returned.

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Recently, some were renovated from a longterm storage situation to serve in the War in Donbass. Unmanned reconnaissance assets are much needed by Ukrainian forces and the renovation of the Tu-141 was part of the effort. Another effort included an attempt to crowdfund the purchase of a foreign aircraft —  and the development of an indigenous aircraft able to transmit live imagery.

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The Tu-141’s return is part of a wider scale movement to activate previously derelict military aircraft held in storage since the end of the Cold War, which has already seen the addition of several tactical transport aircraft to the transport fleet.

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Ukraine in the membrane: Adventures at the Ukrainian State Aviation Museum, Kyev – Part 1

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Floggers with no filters (there was amazing light conditions).

I’m in Ukraine, partly accidentally, and so decided to visit the Ukrainian State Aviation Museum next to Kyev airport. As a Cold War military aviation enthusiast, this museum exceeded all my expectations, and cost less than £3 to enter.

The taxi picked me up from my friend’s (the surf guitarist Basil Berry Wolf) block next to the army dog training centre. Heavily hungover from a tour of underground bars, and sleepless from the constant barking of the dogs and singing of the soldier (there’s a war on). I was rather fragile as the taxi wove through the streets with a typical disregard for mortality. Around half an hour later I was at the museum gates. The museum feels remote, and outside was a rank of Yugo Zastavas with radiation signs offering Chernobyl tours. After two days of intense rain the skies opened and the day was bell-clear. Extremely excited on seeing every Soviet type I dreamed about as a child through the gates, I paid 100 Hryvinia (less than 3 pounds) and was greeted with an overwhelmingly delicious selection of aircraft.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_500.jpgWhat the hell is that? It’s an Antonov Object 181 with an experimental ‘channel wing’. I’ll come back to when I know more about the purpose of this aircraft – it was made in the 80s and research stopped with the Soviet union disintegrated. Behind it is a Anatra-Anasal reconnaissance plane from 1917.IMG_7340.jpegThen what appears to be a Yak-50 dressed as a Yak-3, with exquisite turquoise and olive scheme. I love that Soviet turquoise – and so did they, judging by its liberal use across the collection.

I’m going to jump out of sequence now to share what was my favourite aircraft.  You can only tell so much of the visual character of an aeroplane from a photograph. Often they are far bigger or smaller, or more charismatic, than you expected. The biggest revelation was the Yak-28U ‘Maestro’. IMG_7397.jpegA converted trainer version of the multi-role Yak-28, the aircraft never really caught my attention in books. In the ‘flesh’, it is bizarre and very appealing, with very attractive three-tone camo’ uppers.

IMG_7394.jpegIMG_7401.jpegThe breakers’ yard was fenced off, but peering over you can catch a MiG-25 with its guts out. A fascinating view into the construction of this remarkable aircraft. IMG_7657.jpegIMG_7662.jpegWait is that a Backfire?! Nope- it’s three. Three. Wow. Notably, the Backfires seemed to be of much sleeker and finer construction than most of the other aircraft. The ‘Bear’ was a little smaller than I imagined – and much better-looking than its US equivalent. IMG_7491 2.jpegIMG_7527.jpeg

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Interview with Soviet air force Su-15 ‘Flagon’ fighter pilot: Defending the USSR

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Soviet interceptor pilots faced the daunting task of defending the world’s largest nation against the combined forces of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. The awesome responsibility of preventing nuclear annihilation from USAF B-52 bombers, countering the impossible nuisance of snooping mach 3 SR-71s and air-to-air combat with F-4 and F-15s were formidable tasks that the skilled pilots of the Soviet Air Defence Forces (PVO) trained for in earnest. In the Cold War, the backbone of their manned air defence was 1300 Sukhoi Su-15s (NATO codename ‘Flagon’), we spoke to Su-15 pilot Valeri Shatrov to find out more. 

“If I had to choose three words or terms to describe the Su-15, I would say: reliability, good manoeuvrability, and beauty of form. High reliability was one of its best traits, I do not remember any tech failures.  Su-15 crashes were very rare and were mostly caused by the human factor.

The main purpose of the Su-15 was to intercept air targets in day or night. The radar sight ‘saw’ a little worse than the radars of our potential enemies. But the long-range and short-range air to air missiles worked well, at least from my experience from training launches.  After more  than 30 years after flying Su-15 when I was at one of the air shows in the United States I had a chance to meet and speak with a SR-71 pilot. We were joking, exchanging impressions about our winged machines. I confessed to him, that if I was in my Su-15 attacking him from the front hemisphere I probably could had taken him out… but there was no chance of intercepting such a fast aircraft in the chase!
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I met a former ‘foe’, Brian Shul, former pilot of the frustratingly fast SR-71 Blackbird spy-plane, at the Sun ‘n’ Fun Airshow 2013. A Su-15 could have attacked a SR-71 from the frontal hemisphere – a chase engagement would been impossible. (author)

I had a comfortable cockpit, everything in it was simple and easy to find. In those times there were no autopilots and navigation systems as we know them today, so we flew without any. Navigation was done with the aid of often barely legible pilot’s written notes! Very primitive by modern standards. Again, the lack of modern navigation instruments and landing systems required the pilot to maximise his skill in order to land the plane in minimum weather conditions. And it was nothing, it was ok for us. There were times you had to land below minimum weather conditions.”

Starting on the Su-15
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I got on to the Su15 immediately after graduating from the Armavir Flight School (or the Armavir Higher Military Aviation Red Banner School for Air Defence Pilots to give it its full title). At Armavir I trained on the L-29, MiG-15UTI and MiG-17. After completing a training course that included live ammo gun firing on ground targets, night flights and flights in challenging meteorological conditions we (the graduates) were awarded the qualification of ‘Military pilot of the 3rd class‘. Following graduation in 1976 I was appointed to 302nd Fighter Regiment (302 ИП in Russian) at Pereyaslavka 2. That was located in the Far East region of the country near the city of Khabarovsk (this regiment doesn’t exist anymore). My first impression of the type was the elegance of its extremely swept wing and tail. The plane was very beautiful and extremely graceful.  The Su-15 was a typical fighter of its time, we climbed into the cockpit using the ladder. The cabin was comfortable and relatively spacious. Even in winter time with fur jacket and boots (‘mukliks’) on I didn’t feel any discomfort inside the cockpit. Take-off was not difficult, but landing was. Its high approach speed required precision landing and the timely release of the braking parachute.

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Su-15 in TECH (technical and operational unit)

It was a good plane and exceptionally reliable. I always said that I loved it like a woman.
And when you turned on the afterburner on take-off, you got a hefty push in the back from the ferocious power of two engines. The relatively long fuselage and delta wings allowed you to make a large number of barrel rolls with any rotation speed. What I like most about Su15 was its ability to perform complex aerobatics at full power.
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All Sukhoi aircraft cockpits differ from each other, but share some traits. They are all quite spacious, the instrument panel is mounted a considerable distance from the pilot, which allows you to switch attention from one device to another with only a slight angular movement of the eyes. Thinking about the worst thing about the aircraft: the first serial Su15 modifications (the Su-15TM Flagon-F) were called ‘Hound dog’ (Гончая in Russian) for their extremely high landing speed and ‘Dove of Peace’ (Голубь Мира in Russian) for having only two air-to-air missiles. I was lucky – I flew and was on duty with four missiles and two cannon pods. And that version had leading edge extension on  the wing, somewhat reducing the landing speed.

A typical day on a Su-15 base. The problems and lives of Pereyaslavka 2
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Posing beside my aircraft in 1978.

Flight days started with preliminary preparation. Before lunch, the pilots were busy in the classrooms at headquarters. Theory preparations for flights, repeated special cases in flights worked out in detail and placed it schematically in a workbook. After lunch in our canteen and a short rest, we played ice hockey in winter time squadron vs squadron. As the doctor forbade playing with the puck to avoid injuries, we used a ball for bandy (but most of the hockey sticks were classic – for ice hockey). Then there was flight readiness control. The deputy or commander of the squadron himself  went through the safety checklist questions, and ‘ready for flight’ status required a signature from the wing commanders of the units. There were flights at day and at night, in simple/complex weather conditions and with minimal acceptable weather conditions.
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A painting by one of our regiment’s pilot, now a sculptor and artist, Vladimir Beketov.
It is called: ‘ARKP Su-15-98 while passing the front of the occlusions of a two-centre pressure depression in the evening at M = 1.9′ 

Su-15 allowance  was (lower cloud edge in metres / visibility in metres):
SMU (difficult weather conditions) – 600/6.
Minimum – 250/3 at day and 300/4 at night.

Was even lower low 200/3 (for commander flying).

The aircraft was equipped only with a radio compass, there were no other landing systems. The day flight shift began at dawn and lasted six hours. Night shift lasted two hours in the afternoon – at dusk, and four hours at night.

We served in air defence, so we rarely wore everyday clothes – boots and a belt (much like a ‘Sam Browne’). There was even a joke about that uniform: “When I wear a belt, I get more and more stupid.” (This is a pun that doesn’t really translate directly into English- the word ‘portupeya‘ (army belt) contains “tupeyu” which means ‘stupid’.) For service we wore flight suits, and added jackets (in Autumn and Winter).

Ready to defend
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“The regiment was constantly on combat readiness. Two aircrafts were always in a state of quick readiness alert: One for high altitude target interception (with four air-to-air missiles), and the second for the “work” purposes of the low-speed interception of reconnaissance air balloons (four air-to-air missiles, two GSh-23 cannon pods on hardpoints).

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On weekends, family pilots spent time with their children and wives, walked along the only street of the military town, swam in the river, or gathered mushrooms in the forest nearby, or in winter, skied. Single pilots spent weekends at the dances in the Officers House where girls from Khabarovsk and nearby villages came. We drank in companies (but on Sunday we’d abstain from drinking —known as ‘taking a breath’ — if there were flights on Monday, because the doctor would have strict and pre-flight control before each flight).
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Newspaper cutout. 
Upper inscription: “Pacific Star competition”, a photo competition held by the newspaper in 1978 (see the emblem on the left)
Lower inscription: Interceptors. Military communist pilots Victor Drigin, Yuri Suhonosov, Valeri Shatrov (the interviewed pilot). Photo by G. Kosenkov

Any flight was a feast for a military pilot in my time. I can’t single out one as being the most interesting mission. I remember being very fond of any training missions that included live missiles launches on target-aircraft, combat duty missions, flights in minimum weather conditions and night flights. I have strong mental images of penetrating clouds as a pair. Any flights for a military pilot are a holiday!
The aircraft was manoeuvrable, as I have already mentioned. With the engines set at maximum thrust the Su15 allowed you to perform a turn with a roll of almost 90 degrees. As for the service ceiling of the aircraft I personally gained a height of 23,000 metres (75,459 feet) , where ‘a little higher – space begins’ as we joked in those days.The instantaneous turn rate was very good, with a G-force of up to 6. The high alpha of the aircraft was limited to this maximum overload, but the thrust of the engines allowed any horizontal aerobatics figures without loss of speed. ‘Split ‘S manoeuvres were allowed from a  minimum altitude of 2.5 km up to the practical service ceiling.

There were no simulators in our time, we had our main training in the cockpit.

Yes, there were simulated interceptions according to the course of combat training requirements: air combats one-on-one, pair-vs-pair and flight-vs-flight. The ‘enemy aircraft’ for training were usually Su-15s from our regiment. There were also training flights training interceptions against bombers. Usually the target bomber was the Tu-16. For actual missions, the SR-71 was the hardest to intercept.

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In addition to training launches of air-to-air missiles, one had to shoot cannons at ground targets. We had no misses. I guess that says a lot. For its time, the aircraft was well armed and equipped with decent avionics.

Actually I had no chance meeting with the SR-71. They ‘teased’ our pilots on combat duty, especially in Primorsky Krai. Sometimes DS (Duty vehicles) had real interception flights – aircraft were frequently scrambled. The SR-71s were performing flights in neutral zone but with each launch of our interception aircraft, they turned toward their base. In my case, bases in Japan.

In wartime the Su-15 would have intercepted B-52s, which raises the question of whether the B-52s would be accompanied by a number of escort fighters, which would drawn us into a missile air battle.  While F-4s and Su-15s had the same manoeuvring characteristics and armament, the F-15 would have proved a far more challenging battle opponent. The F-15 was more manoeuvrable than our aircraft, and its electronic equipment was much more modern.

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Seeing the Su-15 sent to the dustbin of history (Khurba, 1984)

I served in a great regiment with great people. When we arrived to the regiment it was equipped with MiG-17s. Training on Su-15s took place directly in the regiment. I remember all my pilots-instructors, I still meet some of them. If I had to evaluate the training on a five-point system, I would give it ‘5’- it was excellent. We are still friends and meet once a year in Moscow – pilots and engineers alike. Our unit, the 302nd Fighter Aviation Regiment was based in Pereyaslavka-2, Khabarovsk Krai. Now there are no aircraft, and there are only two or three colleagues left. The former military town is now a civilian settlement.”

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And your humble servant.

Special thanks to Vasily Kuznetsov
Want to see more stories like this: Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Have a look at  Interview with a Viggen pilotinterview with a MiG-25 pilotinterview with a Gripen pilot, Top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Stick your hands in your flight-suit pockets! Sadly, we are still way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscriptions — and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going. 

If you can’t afford to donate, an online share— especially on a forum or Reddit – can be very helpful.

Thank you. 

su-15

An idiot’s guide to aircraft design – Part 2: How to build an aircraft with great endurance

pgL_GL-10001_002.jpg“Why bother with endurance, when air-to-air refuelling can make this effectively unlimited? Well, because it gives me an excuse to feature two of my favourite aircraft, and to discuss the difference between endurance and range as aerodynamic drivers.

Looking at the endurance equation, endurance is increased by maximising aspect ratio (a large aspect ratio means long skinny wings) , maximising fuel fraction (making sure the a high percentage of the aircraft’s loaded weight is from fuel), maximising propulsive efficiency and minimising profile drag (Ed: I’ll ask Jim to kindly explain what profile drag is in the comments section). 

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The Rutan Voyager holds the current record for unrefuelled manned flight, and has a wing aspect ratio of 33.8, and features a twin-boom + fuselage layout, which uses the distributed loading principle to enable the high aspect ratio by reducing bending loads in the wing. The fuel fraction for the aircraft (ratio of max fuel mass to max take off mass) is an extraordinary 0.79 (compare that with the 0.31 of a Eurofighter Typhoon), with the fuel carried in the twin tail-booms. Flight for endurance is undertaken at the minimum power speed*, which for the Voyager varied between 70 and 130 kt, decreasing as fuel was consumed. Profile drag is reduced to the minimum consistent with the volume necessary to contain the engines, fuel and two crew. 

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The second aircraft is the Airbus Zephyr S, current holder of the world endurance record for unmanned aircraft, at 25 days, 23 hr and 57 min. This is the latest development in the Zephyr series of solar-powered unmanned aircraft, conceived and initially developed by my late close friend, Chris Kelleher. The Zephyr again has an extreme aspect ratio, and, although looking relatively conventional in layout, again features distributed loading as the solar panels are distributed across the entire upper surface of the wing. Profile drag is minimised by the minimal fuselage, and by flying at very high altitude.

Other aircraft having military long-endurance application, the Lockheed U-2 and the Northrop-Grumman Global Hawk, are perhaps the most prominent operational systems. But I would nominate the Zephyr here, as its endurance, although nominally set at three months, is essentially indefinite.”

Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon.

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Want to see more stories like this: Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Have a look at  Interview with a Viggen pilot, interview with a MiG-25 pilot, interview with a Gripen pilot, Top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

U-2C_in__Sabre__livery_(2184203314).jpg

Sadly, we are way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going.

We have shared more content than ever this month (have a look) and want to maintain this pace.

Thank you. 

*There are two types of drag: Parasitical, which increases as you go faster (stick your hand out the car window and feel the resistance increase as the car goes faster, that is parasitical drag) and Induced. Induced Drag results from the production of lift. This drag increases as you slow down as the wings have to work harder on the air to provide the same amount of lift. There is a sweet point where these two drags will be the lowest. This is where the engine can keep the aircraft airborne with the minimum amount of power (and so the minimum fuel consumption) which is why it is called Maximum Endurance.

An idiot’s guide to aircraft design – Part 1: How to build the fastest-climbing fighter

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Seconds matter when intercepting enemy bombers or a sky-jacked airliner, so an effective interceptor should have a high climb rate. In layman’s terms a fighter optimised to achieve a high rate of climb will be skinny with a highly swept wing and a large amount of excess power. Here Jim Smith explains the reasons for this.

“Climb rate may be calculated using the equation below. The factors determining the maximum climb rate achievable can be determined from this equation:

((Thrust – Drag)/Weight) x V, where V is the aircraft speed”

If, like me, the sight of an equation has you skim reading and feeling anxious do not worry. I’ll try to explain this in terms even I could understand. Thrust (the force pushing the aircraft forward) minus drag (the force working against thrust) divided by the aircraft’s weight multiplied by the aircraft’s speed gives you the climb rate. We won’t bother learning about the units used for this for now. To relax those intimidated by equations here is a picture of a dog to calm you down.

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I’m a lovely dog and everything is OK. 

“From this equation, we can extract the factors that lead to achieving a high climb rate. The excess thrust available to climb is the difference between the maximum thrust available, and the thrust required to offset drag and maintain level flight.”

Meaning you need a certain amount of thrust to keeping go as you are, any extra thrust left over can help you climb. The more ‘grunt’, the faster you will climb. 

Wings area doesn’t matter

Wing area (how much wing you have) doesn’t matter. The thing about the equation is that it tells you at a glance that wing area does not matter, it’s all about excess power. Where the wing comes in, is in what I would call second order effects. If the wing is too thick the drag will be higher – so the excess power will be less, and the climb rate lower. If the wing is thin and highly swept, the drag rise mach number will be higher, the aircraft speed can be higher, and the climb rate will be greater. Think about rockets. It is not at all necessary to have wings to have a spectacular climb rate.

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Wings are not required for a fast climber. Here Sandra is about to destroy the phallocracy with one small hand movement. 

“The aircraft speed (V) is important, because it is the vertical component of this that is actually the climb rate. However, aircraft speed also affects drag.  As the aircraft speed increases, drag initially typically decreases because, in level flight, at higher speed, the aircraft flies at a lower incidence, and lower lift coefficient, and lift-dependent drag reduces.” For magical reasons the drag reduces as the aircraft’s speed increases. 

However, as the speed increases towards the speed of sound, drag will typically increase rapidly. As local areas of flow become supersonic, drag increases significantly, and the Mach number at which this occurs is referred to as the drag-rise Mach number. Configurations with highly swept wings such as the Lightning, or with very high fineness ratio (length to cross-section, meaning skinny) and thin wings, such as the F-104, will have higher drag-rise Mach numbers, allowing a higher climb-speed (V) and a greater rate of climb.

BAC Lightning 2

Point defence interceptors, like the English Electric Lightning, were so-called because it was envisaged they would react to a threat by climbing rapidly and racing out to intercept bomber aircraft before they could release their weapons. They were ‘point designs’ (nothing to do with ‘point defence’) in that one point – climb rate in this case- dominated the requirements, and were made obsolete once threat aircraft adopted high-speed long-range stand-off weapons.

The maximum climb rate is likely to be achieved at a subsonic speed close to, but less than, the drag-rise Mach number. Configurations with high Thrust-to-Weight ratio, low drag, and a high drag-rise Mach number will achieve the highest climb rate.

At which point, we come to the difficulty. Today’s aircraft simply don’t have the luxury of being point designs.

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Point design means an aircraft designed for one, generally extreme, performance requirement. The Rutan Vogager is an example of an aircraft driven solely by the maximum unrefuelled range.

 

To really maximise climb rate, you also want to minimise aircraft weight. Yes, it can be done – the recent Hush-Kit article on the Streak Eagle showed exactly how to do it. Take the radar out. Take the gun out. Calculate the fuel needed for your flight profile, and minimise the reserves. Strip the paint off. What you end up with is a hot rod that’s only useful for breaking records. 

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It’s not thrust-to-weight that matters – it’s the ratio between the excess thrust available and the weight. The Starfighter was a skinny, low drag aircraft with a thin wing and enjoyed a good climb rate. 

But put a little radar back in, add a couple of heat seeking missiles, and you get something of a specialist interceptor. Fabulous climb rate, miserable range – a Lightning or an F-104, where mission performance has been subjugated to a single point performance parameter – the minimum time to intercept from a standing start.

Climb at all costs 

Of course, the Messerschmitt 163 Komet was perhaps the first exemplar of an extreme point-defence interceptor. Take a tiny aircraft with a rocket motor – light the blue touch paper and watch it climb like an angel, fire off its weapons, run out of fuel and glide back to land.

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Do point-defence interceptors exist in the modern world? Well, not really. A strategic interceptor like the MiG-31 has to cover vast distances, and although having huge engines, also has a massive fuel load to carry. The MiG-31 can achieve high speed and high altitude, but in realistic missions will probably be carrying too much fuel to deliver its potential climb rate.

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For most air forces, standing combat air patrols (CAP) supported by air-to-air refuelling offers a more rapid and further reaching response than the ground-based interceptor responding to a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) call. Acceleration from (say) CAP at Mach 0.8 at 25,000 ft to Mach 1.8 at around 40,000 ft is now perhaps more of a driver than pure climb rate.

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Nominees for best historic climb rate: the Lightning and the F-104. Technically, the F-104 may have had a greater initial climb rate, but it was scarcely ever employed in the point defence interceptor role, so I prefer the Lightning. For current aircraft, there would not be much to choose between any of the current generation 4.5 fighters Typhoon, Rafale, or even a MiG-31 at light weight.” 

Fast climbers

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According to both Typhoon pilots and Eurofighter nothing can out-climb the aircraft, if this is true, likely contenders for second place include Rafale and F-22. The Typhoon is a low-drag lightweight design, with a large power-to-weight ratio. As it is not a stealth design its aerodynamics are less comprised by a desire for a low radar cross section. The ‘Flanker’ or T-10 series, MiG-29, F-16, F-15 (particularly the F-15K) should also rank highly. A production Su-57 with izdeliye 30 engines seems likely to eclipse all, but this is not yet operational. Jim notes, “I’d expect Typhoon to be very good, Rafale to be very similar. F-22 does have plenty of power, and there have been some rumours that USAF would like more combat persistence, suggesting that operational weights for air combat issues may not be too high. I am a bit sceptical about the Su-57, as its size suggests that significant range is required, and that routine operations will carry significant fuel.”

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