Mirage pilot interview, Part 2: Flying & fighting

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the second of our five part Mirage special he explains the basics of this classic French fighter. 

What were you first impressions of the Mirage III? 

“I was a young lieutenant, 24 years old, fresh from the Spanish Air Force Fighter School, and with about 450 flight hours in my log when I first encountered a Mirage. It was an impressive and beautiful aircraft, and the 11th Wing (based in Manises Air Base, near Valencia) was an elite unit, heir to the Garcia Morato, (40 victories ace), standard and badge. I was assigned to 111th Squadron, (triple one, the best one), and so began the four best years in my life (nowadays the 11th Wing is based in Morón Air Base flying Typhoons).

The Mirage III entered Spanish Air Force inventory in 1970, surrounded by a great aura won in the brutal skies of the Six Days War. By the time I arrived, this formidable reputation was further cemented by its performance in the Yom Kippur War.

Our’s was the Mirage IIIE version with a better radar than the C one, a Doppler navigation system and a different vertical stabilizer.”

What was the cockpit like? 

“It was narrow, as was usual in French aircraft of its time (the F1 cockpit was the same). I was always very surprised whenever I saw those Phantom pilots walking towards their aircraft with a big bag in their hands; there was not room enough for a sandwich bag in the Mirage III cockpit.

It’s almost as if ergonomics was invented after the Mirage III cockpit layout was designed.We had to push or pull at least two or three switches placed in different control panels to arm the weapons. Being good at twisting your torso was compulsory. I especially remember the starting button which was placed well behind the thrust lever and you had to push it by putting your left hand about 20 cm behind your back. The radar screen had insufficient brightness so they placed a plastic cowl about 30 cm long, which protruded towards your face (the display was in the centre of the frontal panel). As a result, ‘the ball’ (the attitude indicator) was displaced to the left. It was the first and only time I’ve flown an aircraft without the ball in directly front of my eyes. Added to this is the peculiarly French custom, of having the ball’s vertical reference at the bottom. Anyway, after a dozen of or so flights you were happy with the complicated dance your fingers had to perform around the cockpit. Instead of HOTAS we had ‘HATC’, (Hands Around The Cockpit)!”

What were the best things about the Mirage III?

“First it was beautiful, complying with the first Law of Aerodynamics: ‘beautiful aircraft fly well’ (the opposite is also true, ‘ugly aircraft fly badly’).The Snecma Atar 9C was a very reliable engine, very resistant to compressor stalls and almost immune to flame out in flight. It was very easy to fly if you had enough speed, and stable around its envelope. We always flew with two supersonic fuel tanks but the aircraft behaviour was very docile. It was also very strong. It had a landing gear that would have been strong enough for carrier landings and it wasn’t unusual to see 30 people over the wings and fuselage posing for a photo. We didn’t need any ground support to start the engine. Which was very good for detachments. It was very good at accelerating in a dive, no aircraft of that time could follow us. The aerodynamics were excellent but designed for high speed.

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It had double speedbrakes coming up and down the wings adding stability if you had to deploy them, and of course an Stability Augmentation System for pitch and yaw (or in french ‘tangage’ and ‘lacet’.”

What were the worse things about the Mirage III?

“It was underpowered, very underpowered, so no close or turning dogfight was possible. Common word at the time said that the Snecma Atar was a development of BMW engines of Me 262, and sometimes it appeared that this was true! Power supplied was 6700 kgs with afterburner, while normal take off weight was around 11000 kgs. There were no flaps or slats which would have aided its dogfight performance. There was also nothing to compensate for the huge induced drag caused by the big delta wing, and the very long take off and landing runs. The approach speed was 185 knots (which would need to be adjusted to accommodate any extra weight). We always used the brake chute on landings. The engine was a plain turbojet and was as thirsty as hell with or without afterburner. When we pushed it into afterburner, as we would for a whole dogfight, the fuel burning rate jumped to infinity. To worsen this problem, the internal fuel tanks had a capacity of only 2980 litres which made for two dogfights near the airfield and 45 flight minutes. That’s why we always had those two external tanks 500 litres each.”

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What was the role of your squadron? 

“In my time it was 80% air defence and 20% ground attack, which was changed to 60/40 a few years later.”

Was the Mirage effective at this role? 

“First we have to understand that the Mirage III was designed in the late fifties — and as a fighter interceptor, which meant climbing and flying as fast as fast as possible towards the target to intercept it as far as possible from home. It was similar to the F-104: no multipurpose intentions, no manoeuvring dogfight expected..

After the late fifties designers stopped creating fighters optimised for Mach 2, as it’s not very useful.

But the Mirage III was good in a dogfight in the hands of an experienced pilot. But no mercy for rookies. By the end of its life, we were quite proud of what it achieved in dogfights against far more modern aircraft.In war, the Mirage proved to be extremely effective in air-to-air fighting, as demonstrated by the Israeli air force.

While it wasn’t supposed to be its business, the Mirage III behaved quite well in the ground attack role, but again, good training was essential.

We had no frills to aid our aiming, just a fixed pipper which had to be calibrated by the pilot according to the weapon type. We had no guided bombs, just 2.75 rockets or the two 30-mm guns. We had a firing range 20 minutes flight time from the base, which was built to train our Wing, but was also frequented by other squadrons, and we flew a lot of missions out there. The Mirage III’s horizontal stability was a boon in the ground attack role, making it quite easy putting the pipper on target and keeping it there — but you had to fly at the right speed and with the correct diving angle or your bomb could fly out of the range. It was easier with the rockets of course, but 100 feet short or beyond the target was still a normal score for unexperienced pilots.

With the guns (or cannons as we called them), coming very close to the target made it easy to hit it, and the bullets dispersion was straight enough to make really big holes, one 30-mm bullet, one foot long, was something. The problem was we only had 230 bullets, and a firing rate of 1,300 bullets per minute. The Mirage III payload was small and we always needed external tanks for ground attack, so never had more than three hard points available. In the inner wings hard points we could take two special fuel/bomb carrier tanks with four 250 kgs bombs attached and a capacity of 500 litres. It was called the RPK-10. Our Phantom colleagues made a lot of jokes about the fact they could carry more rockets than we bullets…and it was true! We answered by saying that we flew fighters, not bombers.”

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Have a look at 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. 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. 

Save the Hush-Kit blog. This site is in peril, we are far behind our funding targets. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. 

M-III.29 (1)

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Mirage pilot, Part 1: Mirage versus Phantom

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the first of our five part Mirage special he recounts dogfights training against the massive F-4 Phantom II. 

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“Let’s start with the big and comfortable Phantom F-4C. I did a lot of dissimilar training with them, usually two-on-two. It had a couple of characteristics in common with the Mirage III: if you meet one with an experienced pilot driving, it was a very hard adversary- and it needed a lot of finesse with the controls at low speed. They had to turn by using their feet whenever they had their nose very high! We preferred high altitude to have room enough to manoeuvre while they always wanted to take us down below 20,000 feet.

Their main advantage lay in the systems. The Phantom had a powerful radar, four eyes looking around, long range missiles two fantastic engines, but no guns, so they always tried not to get closer than 1.5 or 2 miles from us. We denied them that possibility because is easier to close than to fly apart if you have an aircraft which accelerates like hell as soon as you put down your nose. Avoiding a Sidewinder is not so difficult if you are near the firing aircraft, and with speed to brake.

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It was very easy to spot Phantoms from  6 or 7 miles because that huge black smoke trail that their engines left behind (except in afterburner) and because it was a big bird. We always had a lot of fun in dissimilars with the Spanish Phantoms,  the post briefings were real hard battles, and everyone learned a lot about dogfighting, mutual support and extracting the best from our Mirages.

Scissoring with a Phantom was something you remember forever. Only two crosses were allowed.. but what exciting crosses! Sometimes the first engagement ended before beginning — if both pairs crossed, we pulled hard up and they dived down so both lost visual contact of each other.

It was so much fun with the USAF Phantoms. The last mission I flew before leaving 11th Wing was a week long detachment in Torrejón AB to train our American fellows in tactics against the Mirage III.

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They flew the F-4D, a bit better than C, but still no guns. To begin with, their briefings were 2 hours long! Rules of Engagement took 45 minutes.

I remember after finishing the first one, the Major leading the flight asked me, “How long you need from you arrive in the aircraft and be ready to start engines?” I said five minutes. He raised his eyebrows and said “Five minutes? We need 30 minutes at least”. My God! 

As we were there to do what they needed from us, we flew as required two manoeuvres and then knocked it off, and repeat and repeat. After two days we were able to have some fun and they got a couple of surprises, and hopefully some lessons.” 

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

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. 

Have a look at 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. 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. 

Design a fighter aircraft, win a prize

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To celebrate the launch of the Hush-Kit 2018 calendar (a visual feast starring the greatest aircraft designers and their fantastic aircraft) we are asking you to design an aircraft.  The winner will receive one of our limited edition calendars. No need to worry, you will not need to performed detailed wind tunnel calculations, we simply ask to see an annotated sketch of the basic shape.

The first type we would like to design is:

A 1960 fighter aircraft 

Specs: The aircraft must have a range of at least 400 nautical miles. It must have a maximum speed over Mach 1.6. It should have a short take-off and landing performance. It should carry at least one cannon and four air-to-air missiles. The type should have a good dogfighting performance.

Rule: The type can only use technology available in 1960

The winner will be selected on the 28th December 2017.

The limited edition Calendar features

  • 12 Spectacular hand-drawn illustrations of the world’s greatest aircraft 
  • 13 aircraft designers in swimwear and other revealing outfits 
  • 25 Significant aviation dates across the year 
  • A boost in your social status in the eyes of other sophisticated aviation enthusiasts 

(this calendar is real by the way) 

Submit your designs to Twitter: @Hush-Kit or Email: hushkiteditorial@gmail.com 

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  • £16 + P&P

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The top fighter aircraft of 2017 (WVR combat)

F-18_HUD_gun_symbology Tactics, training and luck are the determining factors in who survives within visual range aerial combat. Despite the modern emphasis on beyond-visual-range combat, the vast majority of fighter versus fighter engagements have taken place at close ranges. The following ten are the best fighters for this mission. The order is more or less arbitrary, with different aircraft having the advantage at different altitudes and air speeds. By its nature, any top ten is simplistic and should serve as the basis for discussion rather than as a conclusion. 

(This list is WVR only, for BVR the list is here)

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10. McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Eagle

Aggressor at Red Flag Alaska

Once considered top dog, the F-15 is now making room for younger aircraft. In exercises, the type still does well, but this says more about the pilot quality than any inherent advantage of this platform in the WVR arena.  Well-armed, well-equipped and powerful, it is still an aircraft to be respected. In later exercises against India, it is reported to have been able to use superior tactics to defeat Su-30s, despite the Russian aircraft enjoying greater manoeuvrability at low speeds. Powerful and reliable, and flown by some of the best fighter pilots in the world (in USAF service), it remains an adversary worthy of great respect, especially at medium altitudes.

Interview with F-15 pilot here

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, AIM-9X, Python 4/5

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Very good

High alpha performance: Poor

Sustained turn rates: Good (16 degree/sec)

Instantaneous turn rates: Good (21 deg/sec)

9. Chengdu J-10/J-10B

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Rumours from China describe the J-10 performing well in DACT exercises against the far bigger Su-27/J-11. If these rumours are to be believed then the J-10 would prove a handful for any Western or Asian fighter types that had to face it in a turning fight.
With a maximum G-rating of +9 / -3 and a maximum sustained turn load of 8.9g, the type has demonstrated impressive performance at several public airshows. It scores highly on turn radius, low visual signature, low-speed capabilities and also has excellent pilot vision. The recent addition of the PL-10 advanced short range missile dramatically improves the aircraft’s within visual range potency.
HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, PL10

Visual stealth: Excellent

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good

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The recent addition of the PL-10 advanced short range missile dramatically improves the aircraft’s within visual range potency.

8. General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16

IDF Israeli Air Force American F-16

The Viper remains potent at the mission it was designed for: the close-in dogfight. The Viper has grown fatter with age, so the early Block aircraft are the most spritely, this combined with JHMCS and modern missiles, like the AIM-9X, Python 5 and  IRIS-T keep it a foe to respect. It is small and hard for its opponents to keep visual tabs on, it has an impressive turn rate and has better retention of energy than larger-winged peers like the Mirage 2000. Below 10K feet the F-16 is similar in performance to the Typhoon. Most F-16 models have a better thrust to weight ratio than the Super Hornet (when similarly equipped). The Python 5 is regarded as one of the best air-to-air missiles, it has a very large weapon engagement zone (WEZ) and a high resistance to countermeasures. According to one defence writer close to the UK Typhoon force, RAF pilots had greater respect for the F-16s than the Gripens that they have encountered in wargames.

HMD/S: Yes, JHMCS

Advanced SRAAMs: AIM-9X, Python 4/5 and IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Excellent.

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good (26deg/sec)

(If all this is too modern for you, have a look at the Top Ten World II fighters)

Was the Spitfire overrated? Full story here. A Lightning pilot’s guide to flying and fighting here. Find out the most effective modern fighter aircraft in beyond-visual range combat. The greatest fictional aircraft here. An interview with stealth guru Bill Sweetman here. The fashion of aircraft camo here. Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here. Most importantly, a pacifist’s guide to warplanes here. F-35 expose here

 

7. RAC MiG MiG-29

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Despite its age the MiG-29 remains a fiercely capable dogfighter, sharing many of the weapon systems of the ‘Flanker’.  The Indian MiG-29K/KUB with the TopOwl helmet-mounted and R-73E is the best-equipped variant in the WVR scenario, but is normally limited to 7G, whereas land-based ’29s are 9G capable. The tough structure offers a degree of battlefield protection according to MiG who have assessed the type’s performance in actual wars. According to at least one MiG-29 pilot, the type enjoys a small, but significant advantage over the F-16 in the merge. One USAF F-16C pilot (Mike McCoy of the 510th) who flew BFM against MiG-29s noted, “In a low-speed fight, fighting the ‘Fulcrum’ is similar to fighting an F-18 Hornet…But the ‘Fulcrum’ has a thrust advantage over the Hornet. An F-18 can really crank its nose around if you get into a slow-speed fight, but it has to lose altitude to regain the energy, which allows us to get on top of them. The MiG has about the same nose authority at slow speeds, but it can regain energy much faster. Plus the MiG pilots have that forty-five-degree cone in front of them into which they can fire an Archer and eat you up.” Luftwaffe MiG-29 Oberstleutenant Johann Koeck who flew against F-15s, F/A-18s and F-16s in extensive training exercises noted,” Inside ten nautical miles I’m hard to defeat, and with the IRST, helmet sight and ‘Archer’ I can’t be beaten. Period.”

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HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMsNo, but R-73 is still highly regarded. R-74 in the pipeline.

Visual stealth: Medium (poor in early versions due to smoky engines)

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent (28deg/sec)

6. Saab Gripen

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Lose sight, lose the fight‘ is an old dogfighting adage and it is very easy to lose sight of the tiny Gripen. Though not the most powerful fighter, it is agile, well-armed and gives its pilot good situational awareness. Some Gripen operators employ an advanced helmet-mounted sight in conjunction with IRIS-T missiles, a sobering prospect for potential adversaries. The IRIS-T is a highly regarded weapon, with excellent agility and target discrimination. The helmet-sight is an adaptation of the Typhoon helmet, the most advanced helmet in operational service. The Gripen preserves energy very well, is hard to spot and has the smallest IR signature of the fighters on this list.

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(Top Ten Swedish aeroplanes here)

Helmet Mounted Display/Sight: Yes: Cobra

Advanced SRAAMs: IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Excellent

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High Alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good

5. Dassault Rafale

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The Rafale can maintain higher Alpha manoeuvres than the Typhoon.  It is very agile, with an excellent man machine interface and the most advanced aircraft cannon. Like most carrier fighters it is docile in the low speed ranges that most within-visual-range fights take place at. Whereas The Typhoon excels at high speed high-altitude maneuverability, the Rafale excels at low speed and low altitude, though its high altitude performance has also impressed French pilots. At sea level, the Rafale is reported to have a superior instantaneous turn rate to Typhoon. One pilot who has flown Rafale, and is knowledgeable of the Typhoon’s performance, claims that below 10,000 ft it would ‘eat Typhoon’. The Rafale lacks a helmet-mounted sight and its high alpha performance is inferior to that of the Hornet family. The Rafale has reportedly done well in DACT exercises against the F-22. The Rafale is an extremely tough opponent in the WVR regime. MICA has an LOAL capability allowing targets in the ‘six o’clock’ to be engaged. The addition of a helmet-mounted sight, something Indian Rafales will carry, would push the Rafale into a top three position in this list.

HMD/S: No

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, MICA

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Very good

High alpha performance: Very good

Sustained turn rates: Very good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent (especially at low level)

 

4. McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet

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The Bug family have excellent nose authority, JHMCS  and good missiles in the form of AIM-9X (or ASRAAM for RAAF legacy birds).  At low level they are the equal of any operational fighter, but at higher altitudes (and higher speeds) they are at a disadvantage against more modern aircraft like the Typhoon, Rafale and F-22. The legacy Hornet is 9G rated as opposed to the larger Super Hornet which is stressed up to 7G for normal operations (it is really the legacy F/A-18 that deserves this high ranking but the Super Hornet is also highly regarded in the ‘merge’).  It has been noted by F-16 pilots that Super Hornets lose energy quicker than Vipers at higher altitudes. In a slow fight, no Western fighters can match either the Bug or the Rhino. One pilot who has flown the Super Hornet recommended that I mention the ‘Turbo Nose down’, a manoeuvre which utilises the aircraft’s excess power to rapidly push the aircraft out of high alpha flight. Australian Hornets have demonstrated an 180° missile shot with the AIM-132, firing the missile at a target in the firing aircraft’s 6’o’ clock in the lock-on after launch mode. The so-called ‘Parthian Shot‘ is a defensive boon, but demands a wingman with nerves of steel and faith in the technology!

Read more about flying the Super Hornet here and here.

(For the sake of brevity the two F/A-18 family members share one entry.)

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: ASRAAM, AIM-9X

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

3. Eurofighter Typhoon

Eurofighter Typhoon performing during the Airpower in Zeltweg, Austria

Wild turn rates, a true 9G performance and enormous excess power make the Typhoon a hell of a dogfighter; the highly regarded G-suits worn by Typhoon pilots increase tolerance to the high forces generated by the energetic Typhoon. It also features the most advanced helmet mounted sight in service (and the newer Striker 2 is, according to one independent tester, ‘superb’), a powerful cannon and the excellent IRIS-T and ASRAAM missiles. The combination of advanced missile and helmet imbue the Typhoon with a terrifying off-boresight missile shot capability. Testing of the Aerodynamic Modification Kit, which includes modified strakes, extended flaperons and mini-leading edge root extensions may go some way to rectifying Typhoon’s main limitation – a pedestrian high alpha performance. But the Typhoon is not an ‘angles fighter’ like the F/A-18 which relies on risky (as they drain energy quickly) but startling attacks in the merge; the Typhoon is an ‘energy fighter’ using its phenomenal ability to preserve energy in a dogfight to wear its opponents out. In short, if an opponent doesn’t get a Typhoon on his first attack he is in a very dangerous position as a large amount of excess thrust makes the aircraft a very energetic adversary.

In exercises against Indian Air Force, RAF Typhoons used their superior energy and acceleration to ‘reliably’ trounce Su-30MKIs.

F-22 pilots who ‘fought’ the Typhoon in DACT were impressed by its energy levels (especially in the first turn) and several Luftwaffe aircraft proudly displayed Raptor ‘kill’ silhouettes beneath their cockpits.  Like the Raptor, the Typhoon has such a formidable reputation that any ‘victories’ against it in training exercises make excellent boasts. At medium to high altitudes, the type is generally superior to the teen fighters in the WVR regime. According to one Typhoon pilot, its dog-fighting abilities are a close match to the Raptor’s, but Typhoon benefits from being smaller and better armed.

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: ASRAAM, IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Poor

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

2. Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor

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The Raptor’s excellent power-to-weight ratio, low wing-loading and 2D thrust-vectoring make it a fierce opponent in the visual range dogfight. It is let down by its lack of helmet-mounted sight and its large size. Until 2016 it was armed with the geriatric AIM-9M, but it now carries the AIM-9X. The internal carriage of its AIM-9X limits the way they can be used, and it only carries two. According to Typhoon pilots who ‘fought’ against it, the Raptor loses energy very quickly when employing thrust vectoring. The Raptor pilot likes to keep the fight high and fast. The F-22 has never been seriously challenged in wargames or DACT exercises- though the WVR regime is not its strongest card it is still extremely hard to beat, to the point that any ‘kills’ scored by pilots against the Raptor become newsworthy. Its pilots are, outside of adversary units, probably the best in the world.

HMD/S: No

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, AIM-9X

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High Alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Excellent  (28 deg/sec at 20K ft)

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

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1. Sukhoi Su-35 

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The Sukhoi Su-27 is no slouch in the dogfight, and this advanced derivative is even more potent; the fighter, of which there are currently 58 in Russian service, benefits from an additional 7,000Ibs of thrust combined with a variety of refinements. The Su-35’s engines, at maximum reheat, generate a staggering 62,000Ibs of thrust, which when combined with the ‘Flanker’ series superb aerodynamic configuration and vectored thrust nozzles, create an aircraft unparalleled in low-speed manoeuvrability. Whereas the F-22 relies on two-dimensional thrust vectoring, the Su-35 utilises 3D nozzles and a robust flight control system that have been perfected over the last thirty years.  A Su-35 (ably demonstrated by Sergei Bogdan) held the crowds of Paris 2013 spellbound with its demonstration of dramatic post-stall manoeuvring.

According to RUSI’s Justin Bronk in his Hush-Kit article Su-35 versus Typhoon, “The Su-35 can probably out-turn an F-22 in a horizontal fight at medium and low altitudes, but the need to carry missiles and tanks externally to be effective, as well as the brute size of the Sukhoi will ensure it remains at a distinct energy disadvantage to the Raptor in terms of energy retention and acceleration at all speeds. The F-22 also will not get into an angles fight with an Sukhoi – there is simply no need for it to do so.” . 

Against Typhoon, “WVR, however, the Su-35 is extremely dangerous due to its phenomenal supermanoeuvrability due to its thrust vectoring engines and huge lifting body. Both in the horizontal and vertical planes, Typhoon would likely be outmatched by the Su-35 WVR, unless a Typhoon pilot could find space to accelerate vertically to gain an energy advantage without being shot down in the process. In reality, of course, whilst in a WVR dogfight situation the Su-35 does have a kinematic advantage, both aircraft are equipped with helmet-mounted sights to cue off-boresight missile shots and carry extremely manoeuvrable IR missiles with excellent countermeasure resistance. Neither is likely to survive a WVR ‘merge’ against the other…WVR combat, especially at lower altitudes and speeds favour the Su-35.” 

A combat deployment to Syria revealed the types lack of maturity, but also fast tracked a modification programme to rectify the aircraft’s glitches. The type has been ordered by the Chinese air force who have received their first examples.

The Su-35 unique abilities will require unique tactics – if flown by well-trained pilots, the Su-35 will prove a worthy adversary to any in-service fighter in the vicious world of the low-speed furball.

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMsR-73E/M

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

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So there we have it, or do we?

I asked a fighter pilot (with experience of flying most of the ‘4.5 generation’ fighter aircraft) his opinion on my top ten selection; he was keen to dismiss such a crude approach:

“It is complicated to discuss this issue in just a few words, but in order to produce a new look analysis on WVR, you should think about gyroscopic vs needle ‘driving styles’ (and the capabilities needed to play this or that, of course). So, you will pass through power-to-weight ratio, rudder surfaces, flying characteristics across different flight levels, etc. Until you get to the crucial area of energy management (that sifts the ace from the targets). It is all a question of control of the part of the egg you want to keep the fight, and well-trained pilots with good tactics will always try to keep the fight in a corner where they have some advantage. We’re not talking about an UFC card! It is team work.

The tactical egg is an imaginary bubble that represents all possible motions of an aircraft in a dogfight, showing the effects of gravity on the aircraft’s manoeuvring. Of course, new weapons (with the ability to lock-on after launch), helmet mounted sight, etc. are making the job much more complex.

Conclusion: This question requests hours of conversation and a dozen beers! ;)”

 

If this article infuriated you, try our top ten BVR fighters here

follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

(I won’t bore you with the standard disclaimers regarding reading too much into leaked DACT gossip).

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. This site is in peril as it is well below its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

 

Have a look at 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. 

The 10 worst Royal Navy aircraft


‘Only a twenty foot margin for error’ That sounds fun, where do I sign up?

Considering they invented the aircraft carrier, Britain’s Royal Navy has really pulled out the stops ever since to field as many aircraft as possible that were too slow, too dangerous, too late, too expensive or sometimes all four. Not content with producing their own obsolescent deathtraps, the Senior Service also took on cast-offs from the RAF and bought in the occasional American dud to swell the numbers of inadequate aircraft crowding the decks of their too-small carriers. Narrowing down this underwhelming armada to a flotilla of merely ten was a daunting and difficult task. We hope you will agree this was a valuable endeavour and time well spent.

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. This site is in peril as it is well below its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. 

10. Parnall Peto

The Peto performs its famed Polaris impression

The Peto was, in its way, an excellent little aircraft but it was the realisation of a terrible idea if not a terrible flying machine. Tragically a single airframe (of two built) directly resulted in the deaths of 60 Royal Navy personnel, possibly the worst loss versus production ratio of any military aircraft. The Peto was designed for a seemingly ridiculous purpose, to serve as a scout aircraft for a submarine, in this case the Royal Navy’s largest, the M-class. The concept was also toyed with by the French, German, US and Japanese navies but only Japan pursued it with any seriousness or success. A diminutive machine for obvious reasons, the Peto had folding wings and was housed in a watertight hangar immediately ahead of the conning tower. The crew of the M2 were zealous in their attempts to launch the aircraft in the shortest possible time after surfacing. Probably a little too zealous as it turns out, witnesses on a passing ship, unaware that anything was amiss, saw M2 briefly surface, then submerge forever. When the wreck was discovered the hangar doors were found to be open: in their haste to launch the Peto the doors has been opened too early and the hangar flooded, dragging the M2, the Peto and sixty sailors to the bottom.

Flying the Phantom, British-style here

9. Curtiss Seamew

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Most of the best aircraft operated by the Royal Navy during the second world war were of American origin and types such as the Wildcat, Corsair and Avenger dominated FAA flight decks for most of the conflict. There were, however exceptions to this rule and chief amongst them was the appalling Curtiss Seamew. 250 were allocated for British use but only 100 were delivered before the Royal Navy refused to take any more and sensibly demanded Vought Kingfishers instead. It’s not entirely surprising that the USN had tried to offload as many Seamews as possible onto their allies; the Seamew didn’t even win the competition that selected it for service. A rival design by Vought was judged superior but Vought were busy with the superlative Corsair and Curtiss had spare capacity so into production the Seamew went, and the inexplicably large total of 795 of these unpleasant aircraft were manufactured. If it had been merely slow and uninspiring (which it was) it could have been written off as a humdrum mediocrity but the Seamew was also dangerous. Its main tank could hold 300 gallons of fuel but it couldn’t take off with more than 80 gallons on board. The Ranger engine of the Seamew was prone to regular failure but even were it to run perfectly the Seamew had other nasty tendencies as, according to the ATA pilot Lettice Curtiss, ‘it was possible to take off in an attitude from which it was both impossible to recover and in which there was no aileron control’

The 10 worst British military aircraft here

8. Supermarine Seafire Mk XV

Thoroughbred or mule? The Seafire XV was both (It’s not a horse, Ed.)

The Spitfire’s experience at sea was not a wholly happy one. In the air the Sea-Spitfire retained all the qualities that had made the regular Land-Spitfire such a successful and popular fighter but revealed that the aircraft was essentially just too delicate for the rigours of operating from a carrier deck. The Merlin powered variants were bad enough but the first Griffon-engined Seafires really did not like being on carriers. They had a tendency to veer to the right on take-off, even with full opposite rudder applied, and smashing into the carrier’s island superstructure. Added to this was the unfortunate situation that the undercarriage oleo legs were still the same as the much lighter Merlin engined Spitfires, meaning that the swing was often accompanied by a series of hops as the oleo could not fully cope with the weight and torque of the aircraft. The weak undercarriage also conferred on the Seafire XV a propensity for the propeller tips to ‘peck’ the deck during an arrested landing and on some occasions led to the aircraft bouncing over the arrestor wires completely and into the crash barrier. Not ideal for a carrier aircraft and the RN offloaded the Seafire XVs onto the unsuspecting Canadians and French navies as soon as was possible. Tellingly both the Canadians and the French in turn replaced these aircraft (with the far more sensible Sea Fury and Hellcat respectively) after very brief carrier service.

7. Westland Wyvern
Wyvern
‘Note humped appearance of fuselage’ and terrified appearance of test pilot

A perplexing design described by Harald Penrose, Westland’s chief test pilot, as “very nearly a good aircraft”, the Wyvern suffered from the good old British problem of excessive development time, such that it was nudging obsolescence once committed to service. Part of the reason for this was not the fault of the design at all, the Wyvern had been designed initially to utilise the Rolls-Royce Eagle, a ludicrously complicated 46 litre H-block 24 cylinder sleeve valve piston engine (essentially a bigger Napier Sabre) that first ran in 1944 and delivered an impressive 3200 hp. Sadly for the Wyvern, the Eagle, though not without teething problems, fell victim to the wide-ranging cancellations of military projects immediately following the second world war that in one fell swoop effectively killed all non-turbine projects (even promising ones). Nonetheless the prototype Wyverns were Eagle powered and the sole surviving example is a never-flown example with the Eagle engine. Attention then swung to a promising turboprop, the Rolls-Royce Clyde rated at a lusty 4030 shaft horsepower. Fate was not to be kind to the Wyvern as Rolls-Royce themselves cancelled development of the Clyde due to the tiresome belief that pure jet engines were the way forward. This left but one suitable engine, the Armstrong-Siddeley Python and the Python was pretty woeful for carrier use. Slow spool-up time made for sluggish acceleration and a go-around or wave-off was a risky affair, the engine had a propensity to flame-out during catapult launches due to fuel starvation, and although the Python was supposed to be more powerful than the Eagle, the piston-engined prototype achieved a higher maximum speed and greater range than its Python powered production brethren a dismal seven years before the Wyvern even entered service. So saddled with a barely adequate power plant the enormous Wyvern attempted to operate from the decidedly small RN carriers of the 1950s. Weighing 650 pounds shy of a loaded Dakota the Wyvern could not be described as ‘sprightly’ and ultimately its main claim to aviation immortality derives not from any superlative quality of the aeroplane itself but from a desperate desire to escape it: Lt. B. D. Macfarlane made history on 13 October 1954 when he performed the world’s first successful ejection from under water after his aircraft had ditched on launch and been cut in two by the carrier. Of 127 built, 39 were lost to accidents and despite eight years of development flying, the career of the only turboprop fighter to see service was to last a mere four.

6. Fairey Swordfish

Even during times of war it is considered bad form to attack deck hockey matches on your own carrier

Yes, yes, I know. The Swordfish was probably the most successful aircraft the Royal Navy has ever operated. If it had achieved nothing else, the attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto would have ensured the Swordfish’s immortality yet it also crippled the Bismarck and operated throughout the war, apparently sinking a greater tonnage of Axis shipping than any other Allied aircraft (though this depends on which sources you believe as the American Curtiss Helldiver, rejected for service by the FAA due to its “appalling handling”, is also claimed to be the top Allied anti-shipping aircraft by tonnage sunk). However, this glowing service record was not achieved because of the outstanding qualities of the aircraft but rather in spite of its shortcomings. In other words, imagine how much more might have been achieved had the Royal Navy been operating a modern aircraft of decent performance with reasonable striking power rather than the outdated Swordfish with its first world war performance and modest armament. The Swordfish stands as testimony to the appalling neglect of naval aviation in Britain throughout the inter-war period.
The best aspects of the Swordfish were straightforward – it was reliable, simple and easy to fly. It made for an excellent training aircraft but then so did its cousin, the Fairey Battle which regularly features in lists of the worst aircraft of the war. Yet the Battle was better armed, longer ranged and an order of magnitude faster than the poor Swordfish. Committed to similar combat conditions, the Swordfish was even less able to survive than the oft-maligned Battle. The Swordfish was appallingly slow, not very manoeuvrable and effectively defenceless when faced with even the most underwhelming of fighter aircraft. It is telling that in all its most famous successes the Swordfish never faced an enemy aircraft of any kind: it simply couldn’t. Bismarck had no air cover and the Taranto operation was flown at night. By contrast, in February 1941 all of the Swordfish force sent to attack the German capital ships engaged in Operation Cerberus, the so-called ‘Channel Dash’, were destroyed by fighters or flak. Of the eighteen aircrew involved, only five survived. It was dangerous to operate even a powerful anti-shipping aircraft such as the Beaufighter in European waters until the very end of the war, in a Swordfish it was effectively suicidal. Ultimately the success the Swordfish experienced was due to a combination of extremely canny tactical deployment by the Navy and the exceptional heroism and skill of its aircrews, not through any outstanding combat quality of the aircraft itself.

5. de Havilland Sea Vixen

‘I’m still better than a Scimitar!

Had it entered service with the RAF in the early fifties de Havilland’s last fighter would probably be remembered as a great aircraft. But it didn’t and the Royal Navy’s Sea Vixen turned out to be a death trap. 145 Sea Vixens were built, of these 37.93% were lost over the type’s twelve-year operational life. More than half of the incidents were fatal. The Sea Vixen entered service in 1959 (despite a first flight eight years earlier), two years later than the US Navy’s Vought F-8 Crusader. The F-8 was more than twice as fast as the Sea Vixen, despite having 3,000Ibs less thrust. The development of the Sea Vixen had been glacial. The specification was issued in 1947, initially for an aircraft to serve both the FAA and the RAF. The DH.110 prototype first flew in 1951, and one crashed at the Farnborough airshow the following year. This slowed the project disastrously, the RAF ordered the rival (and inferior) Gloster Javelin whilst DH and the RN focused on the alternative DH.116 ‘Super Venom’. Once the project became prioritised again, it was substantially redesigned to fully navalise it. Then, when the Royal Navy gave a firm commitment, it requested a radar with a bigger scanner and several other time-consuming modifications. All of which meant it arrived way too late, as is compulsory for all British postwar aircraft. Meanwhile its peer, the F-8, remained in frontline service until 2000, its other contemporary, the F-4, remains in service today. The Sea Vixen retired in 1972. Fifty-one Royal Navy aircrew were killed flying the Sea Vixen.

What’s the new Hawk like? Interview with a Hawk pilot here

4. Blackburn Firebrand

Firebrand: Waste of a perfectly good Centaurus? Discuss

Despite being a decidedly purposeful looking aircraft the Firebrand was a pilot-killer. The specification for the type was issued in 1939 and it first flew in 1942 but did not enter service until after the war had ended. Despite this luxuriously long development (whilst the Navy attempted to decide whether they wanted a fighter or torpedo bomber or both and toyed with Sabre or Centaurus engines) it was an utter pig, with stability issues in all axes and a tendency to lethal stalls. There was a litany of restrictions to try and reduce the risks, including the banning of external tanks, but it still remained ineffective in its intended role and dangerous to fly. Worse still, instead of trying to properly rectify the problems, the FAA started a witch hunt of those pilots who dared to speak the truth about the abysmal Firebrand. Only two Firebrand squadrons formed, of which the flying complement was heavily, if not entirely made up of qualified flying instructors, suggesting only the most experienced pilots could be trusted with this unforgiving monster. Talking of experienced pilots, Eric Brown, arguably the most experienced naval pilot of all time had this to say on the Firebrand: “It was never a pilot’s aircraft – how could it be when he sat nearer the tail than the nose; as a deck-landing aeroplane it was a disaster and it was incapable of fulfilling competently either the role of torpedo-bomber or that of fighter, but it was built like a battleship – and there were to be those that would say that it flew like one”. Even so, somehow it managed to remain in service until 1953, double the length of time achieved by its successor, the similarly benighted Wyvern.

The world’s worst air force here

3. Blackburn Roc

Roc: the wrong concept applied to the wrong airframe at the wrong time

Described as “a constant hindrance” by the commander of 803 squadron the Roc was an unhappy outgrowth of the mediocre but adequate Skua. The Roc essentially comprised the same airframe but saddled it with a gun turret weighing about a ton and adding enough drag to lower the speed of the already pedestrian Skua by some 30 mph. A maximum speed (at sea level) of 194 mph was simply suicidal for a fighter facing the Luftwaffe’s ‘109s. Add terrible agility, no forward-firing guns and you get the idea. Wisely, the military decided the best use for it was as a static machine-gun post but not before the Roc had seen some action and scored one confirmed kill. Remarkably the Roc’s sole victim was a Junkers 88, an aircraft capable of flying over 100 mph faster than the lumbering Roc.

2. Supermarine Scimitar

A Scimitar holidaying on USS Forrestal wonders why it can’t stay on this lovely big carrier forever

The Scimitar was a case of too much too soon and its shortcomings were paid for in pilot’s lives. It suffered an appalling attrition rate of 51 per cent yet was a worse fighter than the Sea Vixen and a worse bomber than the Buccaneer. To add insult to injury it was also extremely maintenance heavy. Nonetheless the Royal Navy gamely took the Scimitar, an aircraft so dangerous that it was statistically more likely than not to crash over a twelve year period, and armed it with a nuclear bomb. Prior to this one example crashed and killed its first Commanding Officer in front of the press. The Scimitar was certainly not Joe Smith’s finest moment. It was the last FAA aircraft designed with an obsolete requirement to be able to make an unaccelerated carrier take-off, and as a result had to have a thicker and larger wing than would otherwise be required. Only once did a Scimitar ever make an unassisted take-off, with a very light fuel load and no stores, and then just to prove that it could be done.

1. HMA No.1 ‘Mayfly’

Does my back look broke in this: £28,000 of aircraft lost due to a light breeze

It’s fair to say Naval aviation started badly in the UK. In 1909, inspired by German Zeppelin developments, which despite their later fame as bombers were originally intended to operate as long ranged Naval scouts, the Royal Navy commissioned Vickers, at great expense, to build the world’s finest airship, intended to carry 20 crew in considerable comfort and capable of cruising at 40 knots (46 mph) for 24 hours. The aircraft that emerged was in many ways revolutionary, it had equipment to recover water from the engine exhaust to balance the weight of fuel as it was consumed, the structure made extensive use of the brand new alloy duralumin, the upper skin used reflective aluminium powder in its coating to minimise heat absorption, the control gondolas were watertight so that the airship could be operated off the surface of they sea and the hull applied the latest aerodynamic work and was claimed to offer 40% less resistance to the air than contemporary Zeppelins. Some time before trials were to be attempted the airship’s crew started training and it was charmingly noted ‘They lived on board the airship and suffered no discomfort at all although no provision had been made for cooking or smoking on board’. Over the course of the following year static trials were carried out and it was realised that the ship was too heavy. There followed a series of cack-handed modifications which reduced the weight of the aircraft by three tons. Gone was the water recovery system along with half the aerodynamic control surfaces and, most seriously, the external keel of the airship. This last modification was strongly objected to by a draughtsman from Vickers called Hartley Pratt who claimed it would prove disastrous but his warnings were ignored and he left the company. The airship was being removed from its floating shed in a light wind on the 24th September 1911 when cracking sounds were heard from amidships and it broke in two. The 156 meter long aircraft had never flown, which was lucky, given its dangerously weak structure. As it was no one had been even slightly hurt in what was probably the least dramatic air crash of all time.
Even without provision for cooking or smoking, His Majesty’s Airship No.1 had ultimately proved more successful as a house than as a flying machine.

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Elegant man pouring beer from bottle into glass, (B&W)

Elegant man pouring beer from bottle into glass, (B&W)

Have a look at 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. 

1968Seavixen

England & The Aeroplane: An interview with historian David Edgerton

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Image credit: www.justgiving.com

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read recently is England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines by the historian David Edgerton. I highly recommend the book which overturns several of the myths frequently perpetuated in British books about aviation. I tracked down David to find out more. 

What are the big myths in our popular ideas of British aviation or British aviation history? 

“It is hard to answer this question, since views differ, even popular views. Furthermore, stories change over time. I hope I had a good account of the dominant myths of British aviation prevalent when I was writing England and the Aeroplane in the late 1980s, but I am a bit loathe to speculate what dominant view is today. Back then, the story was one of aeronautical weakness, before 1914, in the interwar years, and indeed after the Second World War as well. The story of British aviation was basically the story of the fighter, of the moment of genius of 1940, the exception that proved the rule of decrepitude. That was the position I was arguing against then. Now, I fear that a certain kind of Brexiteer revivalist fantasising has overstressed British success in aviation.”

 Is Britain a particularly warlike nation? 

“Once upon a time the story would have been: most definitely no. Britain was seen as peculiarly peace-loving, and thus prone to underinvest in armaments, including aeroplanes. More recently, opinion has changed, perhaps not surprisingly given the policies of successive governments. Since the 1990s at least they have shown an unseemly desire to go to war, and have succeeded in doing so. The United Kingdom returned East of Suez, from where it had pulled out in the 1970s, to wage war in Iraq, in 1991, 1998, and 2003, and in Afghanistan, and then in Libya. Let it be noted that these and other places where British troops were engaged, were once under British control.    It is not historical destiny which makes the British warlike, but particular political and military programmes of the recent past.  So I would say that in the early twentieth century the United Kingdom was more warlike than myth suggested, much more so, but it is only in recent years that we have had a gleeful indulgence in military adventurism overseas. The United Kingdom did once have a major world role, now it just pretends to.  It is now really a big Canada, but political leaders want to see themselves at the head of a small United States.”

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It is commonly thought that British Governments destroyed or (at least badly damaged) the aviation industry in the ’50s and ’60s, is this true? 

“Yes, it is indeed commonly thought, in certain circles. It is a very strange view for without the support of British governments there would essentially have been no aircraft industry at all. The argument amounts to saying that if the government had given even more support that it actually did then we would have a stronger aircraft industry today. To which the response might be, more Concordes or TSR2s would have done even more damage to the industry rather than strengthened it. Indeed that argument was made – the problem was indeed too many aircraft projects, all supported by government, stretching the technical resources of the industry. Too much innovation was supported, rather than not enough. I must admit I have not heard a convincing argument that supporting the V1000 or developing the P.1154 would have materially affected aeronautical history, though there is plenty of assertion to this effect.  In short, it is a very complex issue which is discussed in simplistic ways. One common assumption was that governments were pig-headedly stupid and short-sighted. But the policies of governments were not stupid. There was a strong case for concentrating on fewer companies in the 1950s, and of pushing for European collaboration in the 1960s, and for reducing investment in a sector which for very good reasons would find it difficult to compete with the USA. Nor should be downplay success – the aero-engine industry has been successful, a very rare example of large British manufacturing firm having a serious place in world markets.  Without decades of government support there would  be no Rolls-Royce today.”

Was the mass bombing of cities a British idea? 

“Not entirely, but it was not a hideous foreign invention which the United Kingdom belatedly adopted in the throes of the Second World War. Indeed the British commitment to strategic bombing, to the notion of an independent air force, emerged early and strongly. Thus the RAF was the first independent air force, created in 1918, and was clearly committed to a policy of strategic bombing. In the Second World War, it started bombing German cities, or rather trying to, in May 1940, before the Battle of Britain, let alone the Blitz. The idea of bombing cities, industry and the working population, was an extension of the notion of naval blockade. One could win wars not by engaging and enemy army, but rather by depriving the enemy of the capacity to wage war. This was what I called liberal militarism (though it had other features too).”

There appears to be a correlation between an interest in aviation and a rightwing political bent in Britain: is this true, and if so why? 

“In England and the Aeroplane I wanted to pursue two separate arguments about the politics of aviation. The first was that liberals loved aeroplanes and saw them as means of overcoming barriers between nations and people, and indeed for waging efficient war against barbarians. This was the view of the great British liberal sage, H. G. Wells. A liberal account of the aeroplane has indeed been very influential in suggesting that aviation was fundamentally about transport, and in the end peace-creating.  But there were other kinds of politics involved. It turns out that though lots of people concerned with aviation in the 1930s claimed to have been prescient in seeing the dangers of Hitler and Mussolini, and thus argued for air rearmament, many were in fact Nazi and fascist sympathisers. A good example of many was the editor of The Aeroplane C.G. Grey. But one could add Oswald Moseley, who was ex-RFC, and Lord Londonderry; the ‘Londonderry Herr’ they called him. He was Air Minister no less. The slate was wiped clean by wartime propaganda films, like First of the Few and One of our Aircraft is Missing. In the first the pro-fascist Lady Houston is celebrated for the support she gave to aviation, with no hint of her politics. In the latter, there was no mention that the film told the story of one of the leading pro-Nazi MPs of the 1930s. The story after the Second World War was rather different, but there was an element of the Conservative party at work about the aircraft industry. It is telling that both Frank Whittle and Barnes Wallis ended up on the right wing fringe of British politics.”

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HG Wells

What led you to writing about ‘England and the aeroplane’, and what was the most negative response to it? 

“A series of accidents. I had studied policy for the aircraft industry in the 1930s and 1940s for my PhD. I was then asked to write a short book on the history of the aircraft industry.  It then turned out the same publisher had already commissioned a book on exactly the same theme! This was a blessing, as my research was taking me into rethinking the history of British strategy and the whole issue of the British decline, then a hot topic.  I was thus able to fashion these new concerns into a much broader book, one which used a new history of the aeroplane to tell a new history of England, one which was not focussed on decline, or on the history of the rise of the welfare state. Indeed my aim was, at a time when declinism held sway, to write not simply an anti-declinist book, but a non-declinist alternative history which made sense of British history in new ways.

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Curiously enough I don’t recall any negative response to it. In fact I think I was rather disappointed by  the lack of reaction to what were some rather novel arguments which if true meant that declinist and welfarist accounts of the United Kingdom were finished.   As far as the RAF and aircraft industry history I told, I  hope the reason for the lack of a negative response has been that even if at first some arguments might have seemed outrageous the evidence to back them up was there. Indeed the story I was challenging was a very weird confection removed from much contact with historical reality. Where I was disappointed with the response was that while the anti-declinist elements were widely noted, the positive part of the story tended not to be noticed. But that was then.”

Our ideas of the aeroplane seemed tied to Modernity and Imperialism; what do our ideas about drones say how about current views? 

“I don’t know. I must admit I haven’t kept up with the issue of drones. But I can’t help noting that drones are in use by the RAF in parts of the world in which the RAF attempted to keep order by bombing. Perhaps we are being forced to stay locked in a past which has led in part to the tragedies of the present.”

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The TSR2, P.1154 and V1000 are often cited as potentially great aircraft killed by a short-sighted government: what is your opinion of each of these and how successful they could have been? 

“I don’t have an opinion on these questions. One would really have to know an awful lot about these particular projects, and the competition, and the requirements. I think it is up to those who suggest they were potentially great aircraft to make the case, but this is no easy task.”

What is declinism and why is it so appealing? 

“Declinism is in my definition the idea that the relative decline of the UK was due to British national failings.  In reality most of the relative decline is the consequence of other countries doing better, and growing more in terms of population and output, than the UK. That is even if the UK had the most efficient economy in the world, it would still have been subject to much the same relative decline. Declinism has  been appealing because it produces the illusory hope that if the country was able to overcome its failings it would be restored to its previous position.”

Many nations have martyr aircraft. The British have TSR2, the Canadians the CF-105 Arrow and the Australians the CAC Boomerang – how can weapon systems arouse such an emotional response? 

“It is not because they are weapons they arouse such a response, but because they seem to represent a future that could nearly have been better. There has to be something especially futuristic about these aircraft to make them work in this respect.  We need however to distinguish between cases of countries with small aircraft industries, and those with large ones. The martyr aircraft are characteristic of the former. Indeed it is worth remembering that in the 1940s and 1950s lots and lots of countries had jet fighter programmes that went nowhere. We need to remember that the engines for these fighters tended to come from the few countries which could make them. Alas there is much less appreciation of the real significance of engines, than the supposed significance of particular airframes.”

 What should I have asked you? 

“Perhaps how did it feel to reread and republish England and the Aeroplane more than twenty years after it first appeared? My answer would be this: I couldn’t change the book because it had a form which it would not have if I were writing now. On the other hand, the book’s original intentions are more easily read from it, essentially because it does not seem so strange as it once did. It has thus had a much larger readership now that it ever did when it first appeared. I would like to claim I was prescient, but I wasn’t – for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, the story I told of a militaristic nation enamoured of machines has become easier to accept over time.”

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David new history of twentieth century United Kingdom called THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH NATION to be published by Allen Lane/Penguin Summer 2018.

Hush-Kit would like to thank Rowland White for his assistance in this article.

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

The more you give, the more we can give you 🙂

Have a look at 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. 

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The last Hawker: Interview with a Hawk pilot

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All pictures: Paul Heasman

The last British military fast jet in production is the BAE Systems Hawk. Though designed in 1969, the Hawk remains in production in 2017. Paul Heasman has flown both the legacy T1 and the new T2 Hawk, in this interview he compares the two, and shares his experiences of flying this classic jet. 

What were you first impressions of the Hawk? 

“Coming off the Tucano, I was amazed by how much more the pilot seemed to be able to see over the nose of the aircraft.  The Tucano has a flat nose from the front cockpit that houses the Turboprop engine, the Hawk T1 nose just slopes away to a point not far forward of your toes.  From a handling point of view, the lack of nosewheel steering certainly caught me out on the early sorties and, in the close formation phase, it became apparent that I’d learned some pretty bad lessons on the Tucano.  Firstly, the Tucano has an instant power response when opening the throttle whereas the Hawk needed time for the Adour engine to spool up.  Secondly, slamming the Tucano throttle to idle would flat plate the prop disk – effectively giving you a huge airbrake and instant retardation while selecting idle in the Hawk would offer little retardation as the airframe is so slippery.  These factors combined meant that I had taught myself to be quite lazy in formation in the Tucano and I quickly had to learn to anticipate a lot more in the Hawk.”

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What are the best and worst features or quirks of the Hawk? “It’s a hand-built aeroplane, read into that what you will. The legacy Hawk is literally handmade – think old school sheet metal fabrication rather than robots and lasers.”

What advice would you give those new to the aircraft?  “You’re either on RAFAT, the Ton or the Navy standards unit.  Enjoy your tour!”

How does it compare with the Alpha Jet? 

“We had French Alpha Jets visit Valley 4 or 5 times during my time flying the Hawk.  The aircraft invariably performed very well against the Hawk and would easily outrate the BAE jet despite being a similar weight and having a similar maximum thrust.  Presumably the Alpha Jet had a superior wing design, whereas the Hawk used a lot of aerodynamically intrusive wing fences to prevent span wise flow, the Alpha Jet used an elegant saw tooth notch in the leading edge to achieve the same purpose.  Additionally, the Hawk uses a ‘Toblerone’ on the inboard section of the leading edge of the wing to artificially stall that section of the wing before the wingtips.  While this is great for a training aircraft as it gives the pilot feel of the approaching stall and maintains a degree of aileron effectiveness in the fully developed stall, it’s a disappointment in air combat as it needlessly wastes lift. The Hawk is the better-looking jet by a country mile!”

What was your most notable sortie?  

“Somehow finding myself over a Squadron mate’s wedding reception at just the right time….”

If the Cold War had turned hot (forgive this old cliche) Hawk T.Mk 1As would have been flown by instructors as fighters – how would they have fared against ‘Flankers’? How did pilots feel about this role? What do you think about the concept? 

“An unworkable idea that was almost certainly more to do with PR than any tactical thinking.  The Hawks would have been eaten alive and the close control that they would have required would have chewed up a massive amount of the UK GCI resource.   The aircraft has no RWR so the pilot would never have known that the AA10A and AA10Cs were inbound!  In short, it would have been suicide.”

What is the biggest misconception about the Hawk? 

“The amount of times I’ve been supporting the Hawk T2 at various air shows and been told that the T2 is the same as the aircraft that the Red Arrows fly”

100-series Hawks 

Though outwardly similar, the new generation Hawk is largely a new aircraft. It is surprising to learn that the aircraft have only 10% commonality with the first generation aircraft. The new variants have a new wing, forward and centre fuselage, fin and tailplane.

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Some see the Hawk as deficient in performance compared to rivals such as the T-50 and M346, what do you think about this? 

“Yes, it’s true.  But, if your training aircraft can fly the same G, AoA, Mach number as the FL (frontline) types then it is ostensibly an FL aircraft, with the associated maintenance burden.  As an example, the USAF put a great deal of weight on the fact that the TX aircraft should be supersonic capable.  Anyone who has been supersonic in an aircraft manufactured after 1975 will tell you that it is really a non-event!”

 What are the Hawk’s (and Hawk training systems) training aids and how do they compare with others?

“The Hawk Training system will be very much tailored to the specific needs of the customer, but will generally include several levels of synthetic training with various levels of fidelity before the trainees even make it to an aircraft.  The trainee could then reasonably expect to return to the ground based synthetic training devices as each new element of the flying course is introduced.  In the same way that training is downloaded from the frontline to the Hawk, then it’s reasonable to expect that training could be further downloaded from the Hawk to the simulator.”

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 Would a Hawk with a HMS and modern IR missiles stand a chance against a Typhoon or F-16 in close-up combat (imagining RoE have ruled out AMRAAM from the larger fighter)? The only advantage that the Hawk pilot would have is if he saw the Hostile first and was able to weaponeer first.  The Typhoon/Viper would probably utilise the vertical as soon as its pilot was tally with the Hawk and the Hawk wouldn’t have been able to follow.

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How good are the Hawk’s avionics and what can they simulate? “The avionics are superb, a lot of effort went into ensuring that they were representative of frontline types.  The Hawk Sensor Simulation simulates a modern radar (granted a mechanically scanned one) in the air to air role.  The aircraft is equipped with an Enhanced Synthetic Weapons suite including a Medium Range Missile simulation, allowing simple AMRAAM style intercepts to be flown against real or simulated network participants.”

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What should BAE Systems do to help Hawk sales?

“The modifications to HNDA to create the Advanced Combat Hawk were a step in the right direction, but probably five years late.”

 

Hawk T1 versus Hawk T2 

 Performance 

“The T2 is a heavier jet – it feels less like a sports car and more like a real aircraft, but it is undeniably less impressive in terms of pitch and roll rate.”

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Range

“The addition of the CLT to the T2 has meant an increase in the maximum fuel load at takeoff.  Notwithstanding this, the T2 is a thirstier aircraft so the two factors just about cancel each other out.  On balance, the T2 will probably endure longer that the T1.

Cockpit

“The T1 is a classic early 70s cockpit – lots of dials and gauges.  In-cockpit, the T2 is a baby Tranche 1 Typhoon.  Yes, there is no chance that the aircraft can perform the same maneuvers, but the T2 trainees can expect to learn frontline skill sets such as radar handling and active BVR missile employment.  This downloads training from the Typhoon, improving the output to the frontline.”

Pleasure to fly

Both aircraft are a pleasure to fly. Ask a member of  Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT) and you’ll be told that the T1 is the superior aircraft due to its performance and this is true.  In the same breath though, the T2 is far more well equipped to graduate trainees to the current 4thGen and future 5th Gen frontline.”

Reliability/ maintenance requirements “Generally, when a Hawk is serviceable then it’s reliable.”

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How good is the Hawk as a training system? “It’s very good – but then I am biased.”

 What was your most scared you’ve been on a mission/flight/sortie?  Being awoken by a screaming klaxon at about 2 in the morning and 7 minutes later lining up on the main runway at RAF Marham having been cleared to get airborne, accelerate to supersonic speed and intercept an airliner.  As we powered up on the runway, we were stood down.  Taxiing back to the HAS I realised how sleep-induced, punch drunk I’d been as I ran to the jet, getting into my pre-positioned flying kit along the way and started the jet up.  Crawling back into bed, still wearing all flying kit minus the flying helmet (which was perched on the front cockpit canopy arch of jet) and my LSJ (that was at the base of the cockpit access steps) I began to work through (for the thousandth time in my short fighter pilot career) what my life would have looked like if I’d ever been asked to shoot down an airliner in a 911 inspired scenario. (on the Tornado F3)
 

 What are your views on F-35/Gripen E style cockpit displays? “Do HMDs make them irrelevant? Should all fast jets have these big single display screens? “A Hawk is actually flying with an ‘F-35 style’ Large Area Display, so presumably there is a market for it!  I’ll caveat the following with the fact that I’ve never flown an aircraft with a Large Area Display or HMS, but my understanding is that they are effectively two separate instruments.  I guess the LAD would be useful for formation or battlespace management, whereas the HMS would be a less interactive display.”

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Do you like touchscreens?
“Yes, they are easily robust enough for life in a fast jet.  A touchscreen should make for a lighter display.”

Should Typhoon pilots be using Helmet Mounted Displays in during the Hawk part of their training? Why are they not? “Simply put, cost.  My assumption that training with HMS would be expensive would be due to the modifications required to the Hawk T2.  Mission computers would need to be upgraded to support the extra processing and graphic generation load – this would require all associated software to be retested which is expensive in itself.  A new helmet would require a new AEA clearance for the aircraft and possibly associated ejection seat and egress trials.  I’m not saying that it couldn’t be done – far from it.  The point is that Hawk downloads training from the OCU and, at present Typhoon isn’t training with a helmet.  I appreciate that F35 is, but that is integrated with the LAD and unless a LAD was to be added to Hawk T2 then you are potentially teaching skills in a baseline T2 with HMS that would have to be unlearnt at the F35 OCU.  All of this is assumption!”

What is the most flattering angle to photograph a Hawk from? “Anywhere in the forward of the 3-9 line.  Aft of that, the stepped tandem cockpit makes it look like a porpoise!”

Paul Heasman amassed almost 3000 fast jet flying hours in his 16 years in the Royal Air Force and was part of the team that introduced the Hawk T2 to RAF Service.  Having recently left the RAF, Paul is busy studying for his ATPL airline exams while doing his best to indulge his hobby of air-to-air photography.

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

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

The more you give, the more we can give you 🙂

Have a look at 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. 

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F-15 versus Tomcat (and Phantom and F-16)

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F-15 pilot Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford trained against the best fighter aircraft the US had in the 1980s. Here he describes how the F-15 fared in dogfights against the F-4 Phantom II, F-14 Tomcat and F-16 ‘Viper’. 

Follow Paul’s aviation adventures on his blog here and an in-depth interview about flying and fighting in the F-15 Eagle here. 

(This blog is in peril by the way, help us carry on by donating here. I’ve had fun making this very labour intensive site, but it needs to hit its funding targets to carry on. Thank you for reading this)

F-15 versus F-14 Tomcat

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“F-14s armed with Phoenix missiles had a much longer ‘stick’ than we did, meaning they could launch missiles against us at a greater distance than we could launch our AIM-7s at them. In the 1970s and early 80s the F-14 had a track-while-scan radar that could individually target several targets at a time. The F-15 didn’t get track-while-scan until the second half of the 80s, as I recall. In other words, in a BVR fight the F-14 had the advantage. In a close-in visual fight, the larger and heavier F-14 was at a slight disadvantage: we could out-turn him while keeping our energy up; he would quickly get slow, which we could always tell by the fact that his wings began sweeping forward. In that arena, the F-15 had the advantage. “

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F-15 versus F-16

“I don’t know what F-16s are equipped with today. In my time the F-15 had the more powerful radar, allowing us to see and target them before they could see and target us. The BVR advantage was ours. In a visual fight against a clean F-16 armed with Sidewinders, we’re equals. Until the mid-1980s F-15s were limited to 7.33 Gs while F-16s could pull 9 Gs, so the turning advantage was theirs. Later, though, the F-15 was cleared up to 9 Gs and we were equal in a turning fight. Fighting F-16s was like fighting F-15s: it was hard work. At least when you were fighting F-16s you never got confused and shot at your own wingman, as we sometimes did when fighting other F-15s.”

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F-15 versus F-4 Phantom II

“In my time, the F-4 carried a shorter-range version of the AIM-7 Sparrow than we did, and its radar wasn’t as good in air-to-air mode. We had a decisive BVR advantage. Early on, when F-4 squadrons would ask to fly dissimilar air combat with F-15 squadrons, they’d ask us to not use our AIM-7s so that they could survive to the merge and engage us visually. Close in, the F-4 could lay on a hard initial turn at the merge, but would quickly begin to bleed off energy after that. I never fought F-4s armed with all-aspect AIM-9 Sidewinders like the AIM-9Ls and Ms we carried. The AIM-9s they carried in my day were older models that couldn’t be employed outside a 60-degree cone extending from their target’s tailpipes, which meant they had to manoeuvre into your six in order to get off a heater shot, while we could fire head-on to them. A well-flown F-4 was a lot of fun to tangle with, and we had a lot of respect for our Phantom brothers, but it was always at a disadvantage against the Eagle.” 

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

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

The more you give, the more we can give you 🙂

Follow Paul’s aviation adventures on his blog here

Have a look at 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. 

Cold War Eagle Driver: F-15 pilot reveals all

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Paul leads a quartet of Eagles over Alaska.

During the Cold War, the most formidable Western fighter was the F-15 Eagle. From his part in the first USAF ‘Bear-H’ intercept, to tangling with elite Aggressor pilots and the dangers of dogfighting low over the sea, Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford describes the perils and joys of flying the best fighter in the world. 

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What were you first impressions of the F-15?

The F-15 was barely three years old when I started flying it. It even smelled new. It was the state of the art in 1978, and coming from the comparatively primitive T-37, a quantum leap beyond anything I’d experienced. My overwhelming first impression was of power. Once started, with both engines at idle, it strained against the chocks. Taxiing out, you had to work the brakes constantly to keep it from rolling too fast. From my first takeoff to my last, the thrust was exhilarating. Additionally: it was tight, quiet inside, and wonderfully smooth in the air.”

What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding about the F-15? One I hear constantly is that it can accelerate in a 90-degree vertical climb. No. When you see an F-15 doing a vertical takeoff at an air show, what you’re actually seeing is a jet slowing down: the technique is to stay flat and low after liftoff until you have 400-450 knots, then pull up at 4-5 Gs into a near-vertical climb. You’re slowing down the whole way, but the folks on the ground don’t see that.”

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The time Paul was a frontcover model.

What are the best things about the F-15?

“The excellent radar, the ergonomically designed weapons controls on the stick and throttles, the weapons displays on the HUD (now projected onto the pilot’s helmet visor, but that came after I flew the jet so I can’t speak from personal experience), the high seating position and unrestricted cockpit visibility. The Eagle is a direct descendent of the F-86 Sabre, another outstanding air-to-air fighter with great cockpit visibility. Did I mention the cockpit’s also quite roomy? Having flown in Century-series fighters (and once in a T-33), I’m here to tell you that’s a big deal.”

 

…and the worst? 

“Its size. These days potential enemy fighters are as large or larger than the F-16, and perhaps size isn’t the issue it once was. In my day the primary threat we trained against was the MiG-21. He could see us at a distance of ten or more miles; we couldn’t see him until five miles or less, and that could make all the difference in who gets to the merge unobserved with a huge initial advantage.”

What was the most scared you’ve been on a mission? 

“That’s easy. It was the time I almost hit the water during my first Eagle tour with the 32nd TFS at Soesterberg AB, the Netherlands. It was 1979 and I’d been flying the Eagle for less than a year. I was still a wingman, not yet a flight lead, but they trusted me enough to send me out by myself during a NATO exercise to intercept a two-ship of RAF Leuchars F-4Ks over the North Sea. There was a solid cloud deck over the water: I was on top at 5,000 feet and the targets were below. I didn’t know how thick the cloud cover was, but assumed it went down pretty close to the surface.

With a good radar lock on the Phantoms at 30NM, I started a gradual descent into the weather, keeping one eye on the altimeter and vertical velocity indicator and one on the radar. At 10 miles and 2,000 feet I was still on instruments, holding a right bank of 30 degrees in a wide curving intercept meant to put me behind the Phantoms a mile or two back, when the radar broke lock. I took my eye off the altimeter and VVI for what I thought was just a second while I reacquired the targets on radar. Suddenly, I felt my hair standing up.

I instinctively rolled wings level and began to pull. I bottomed out of the clouds just above the water, looking up at the Phantoms at my right two o’clock, and I swear for an instant also looking up at whitecaps (ocean waves). I was back in the clouds in a second, climbing away. I knocked off the intercept and flew home to Soesterberg. My G-meter read 9 Gs, and I realised that if I’d pulled less than that I’d have been a dead man. It was a lesson I never forgot.”

What were the 10 best fighters in 1985? Answer here.

Public specifications put the F-15’s top speed at Mach 2.5- can it really get there?

“I was the squadron functional check flight pilot at two of my bases, Soesterberg and Elmendorf. FCFs are flown clean, without external stores, and part of every FCF is acceleration to max speed at high (plus or minus FL400) altitude. I once got a fairly new F-15C up to Mach 2.21 on an FCF over the North Sea. This was a completely clean jet … they’d even taken the pylons off … but 2.21 was all she wrote, and I’ve never had one faster than that. Dirty, which is to say in normal training or combat configuration, I doubt anyone has gotten an Eagle much over Mach 1.8 in level flight.”

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Paul with with his wife, daughter and F-15 in 1983.

What upgrades or extra kit did F-15 pilots want on the aircraft? 

“When I started flying the Eagle in 1978 we didn’t yet have the all-aspect AIM-9L Sidewinder IR missile, which was still in development. Our only forward-firing weapon was the AIM-7F Sparrow, which was a somewhat unreliable weapon. When we got the AIM-9L and the improved AIM-7M, the Eagle became a true all-aspect threat, and things only got better when the AMRAAM came along. The F-15C was a great improvement with its programmable radar, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the aircraft finally got a chaff and flare dispenser, something it should have had all along. In the early days Bay 5 (the large area behind the pilot’s seat) was empty; by the early 1980s it was filled with electronic countermeasures gear. Since I never flew in combat I can’t tell you how well the Eagle’s ECM suite works. Nor was I still flying the jet when data link capability was added, but from what I hear it has greatly improved pilot situational awareness, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to fly with it before I retired.”

Was the radar reliable? Was it a good radar? 

“Not at first. In 1978 F-15 avionics were still new and unperfected. We field-tested a lot of the early problems at Soesterberg, and when Reagan became president and money started flowing again, those early radar problems were fixed. By the time I left Soesterberg the radar was working as advertised. By the time I got to Kadena several years later, improvements like track-while-scan had been made and the radar was even better. A flight of four Eagles could sort and individually target four F-16s or F/A-18s flying in formation at 30+ NM. It was incredible. New digital array radars, part of the multi-stage improvement program (MSIP), came just after I left Kadena and I never had the opportunity to fly with one. Friends tell me the current radar is absolutely eye-watering.”

The F-5 was a very tough opponent. It had a decent radar. It could go fast, turn like a bat while keeping its energy up, and was hard to see in a visual fight because it was so small. If MiG-21s were half as good as F-5s, we’d have had our hands full had the Warsaw Pact ever moved on NATO.”

What was the most challenging aircraft you ever flew against in training – and what happened?

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“The F-5E Tiger once flown by USAF Aggressor squadrons. During my tour with the 32nd TFS in the Netherlands (1979 to 1982), we deployed to Decimomannu AB several times to fly dissimilar air combat missions with other USAFE and NATO units. These missions were flown on the Decimomannu Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumented (ACMI) range located just off the coast of Sardinia.

On one deployment in 1980 our opponents were pilots of the 527th Aggressor Squadron, based at RAF Alconbury in the UK, flying F-5E Tigers. I was scheduled to fly a 2 v 4 mission against the Aggressors but lead’s jet crapped out after engine start and there was no spare available. After a quick radio consultation with squadron ops, I was cleared to go out alone … to fight off four highly-skilled air-to-air pilots trained in Russian tactics, flying an aircraft chosen because its performance characteristics were close to that of the MiG-21.

The Empire’s Ironclad: Flying & Fighting in the B-52 here

I remembered the one thing my 32nd TFS flight leads had always tried to impress on me: when outnumbered, fly straight lines and hooks, and keep your energy up at all times. I was nervous as hell, a young guy who still had so much to learn about air-to-air flying, facing off against four F-5Es, so when I entered the south edge of the ACMI circle I was up at 45,000 feet and supersonic. I stayed fast for the next 20 minutes, darting into the Aggressors in a dive, escaping in an even steeper dive, only turning when I had sufficient distance to come back at them, pulling 7 to 7.5 Gs every time I did turn, and somehow I didn’t get killed, while managing to get two valid shots off against them. During debrief, I was pretty proud when the Aggressor flight lead told me I’d done well. Thankfully, he didn’t call me Grasshopper.

Since ACMI missions are instrumented and projected on big screens in real time, I knew all my bros were in the ACMI trailer watching me as I flew, and that only added to the pressure. But I did good, and straight lines and hooks was my mantra from then on, a lesson I in turn drummed into younger pilots.

The F-5 was a very tough opponent. It had a decent radar. It could go fast, turn like a bat while keeping its energy up, and was hard to see in a visual fight because it was so small. If MiG-21s were half as good as F-5s, we’d have had our hands full had the Warsaw Pact ever moved on NATO.

A thing people who haven’t done it don’t know about BFM is how physically demanding it is. It’s like doing a round with a heavyweight boxer … at 7 Gs a 200-pound pilot weighs 1,400 pounds, at 9 Gs 1,800 pounds, and you’ll do it over and over each engagement.”

What was your most memorable mission and why? 

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“In 1984, and I’m sure it’s still true today, we monitored Soviet air and sea activity with classified intelligence assets based in Alaska. I was never privy to the how and why, but we knew the Russians were starting to base Bear H aircraft in Siberia. The Bear-H, which had just begun to roll off the production line in the early 1980s, was said to be the platform for a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile.

We sat air defense alert at two remote sites in Alaska, Galena Air Station on the Yukon River, and King Salmon Airport near Bristol Bay. There were two fully loaded F-15s and two pilots on 5-minute alert at each location. I was flight lead and alert force commander at Galena, three days into a week-long alert tour, when we got a call on the hotline to suit up and be ready for a real world (i.e., not practice) scramble. This only happened when intel was monitoring activity at the Soviet air bases in the Far East Region, so we knew something was up.

Ten minutes later the horn went off and we scrambled. As soon as we were airborne we were vectored north. To my surprise, we were directed to join with a KC-135 tanker on a track up by Point Barrow, a tanker that obviously had been scrambled earlier, just for us. Also to my surprise, we weren’t under the control of ground radar units … an AWACs was in the air, again just for us. Clearly, something really big was up, and it had been underway for some time before we were scrambled.

After we refueled, AWACS vectored us north again. Well above the Arctic Circle and north of the Alaskan landmass, I picked up far-distant contrails moving east to west. At the same time our own radars began painting a target over 80 miles north of our position. We could tell from the contrails there were two aircraft, and pretty soon the radar began to break out two separate targets flying loose formation.

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I was never briefed on the details, but I think what had happened was that two Bear bombers had launched from Anadyr earlier in the day, flown north over the Pole to an area near Iceland, then turned back over the Pole toward home on what was at least an eight-hour mission. We were intercepting them on their homeward leg. They hadn’t penetrated the Alaskan ADIZ (air defense identification zone), but were paralleling it to the north. Based on our dedicated tanker and AWACS, I believe Alaskan Air Command and NORAD must have anticipated that at least one of the aircraft was a Bear H.

Sure enough, our targets gradually resolved into two large swept-wing aircraft, soon visually ID’d as Bears. When we got up alongside, one was old and grimy, probably a Bear C, but the second one looked brand new, with a pipe-like conduit running the length of the fuselage. That was what we’d been told to look for on the new Bear H.

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As lead, I instructed two to fly a mile or so behind the Bears while I went in for photos. After I used up my roll of film I took his place in trail while he closed in for more photos. After some time, AWACs told us to break off and head south. We were so far away from Galena we had to refuel once more in order to make it home. The whole time I was thinking a person wouldn’t survive more than five minutes on the pack ice below, had either one of us been forced to eject.

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The Bears were feeling frisky that day. I was flying close enough that they could see me clearly, and every time I held up the camera, the pilot of whichever Bear I was next to would roll into me, forcing me to put the camera down and fly up out of his way. I could control my jet with my knees in level flight, but needed my hand on the stick to manoeuvre out of the Bear’s way. Another thing I won’t forget: you could hear the Bear’s engines and propellers from a good distance away. It must have been incredibly loud to the Bear’s crew, and they had to endure it for hours and hours. The Bear H didn’t have a side observation port, but the Bear C did, and I could see a crew-member waving to me from it. Sadly, he wasn’t holding a copy of a Russian girlie magazine, and the only thing he saw me holding was my big camera.

Bears (as well as Bisons and Badgers) had tail guns, but the Soviets never aimed them at intercepting aircraft. In neutral position, the tail guns pointed straight back and up, and we always watched them closely. If the gunner ever moved the guns, we knew to break away fast, as that was a signal he was about to fire, but I never heard of that happening during peacetime intercepts, which were (and are) routine in NATO, the north Atlantic, and north and west of Alaska.

I was told President Reagan was shown the photos two days later. Never got a thank you call, though.”

On landing back at Galena, a C-12 aircraft and crew were waiting for us. They flew away with our unexposed film and I was told President Reagan was shown the photos two days later. Never got a “thank you” call, though.

A ‘Bear’ would be an easy kill, though, and a single Sidewinder would probably be more than enough to bring one down. When we ran intercepts, with one aircraft closing in from the side for photos and the second aircraft covering from behind, the cover aircraft always had an IR missile trained on the targets, a flip of the master arm switch away from being fired. Just in case.”

 

mix_f15_su27-1 How would an F-15 fight a Su-27, and in a notional 1v1 how confident would you be as an F-15 pilot? 

“I can’t speak to the effectiveness and reliability of Su-27 missiles or its radar, but I will assume for now those systems are the equal of the F-15’s. I would fire at optimum range (AMRAAM or AIM-7) and immediately crank away in an f-pole manoeuvre designed to give my missile the shortest and straightest flight path to the target while making his missile fly farther in order to get to me. I would try very hard to take the ‘Flanker’ out beyond visual range, and for sure before the merge by following up with high-aspect IR missile shots as soon as I was in range. Chaff, flares, and other measures to reduce my own radar and IR signature, you bet … I’d be doing them all. If I did merge with a ‘Flanker’, I’d fly good BFM (basic fighter manoeuvres). Our pilots are better trained than theirs, and that should give us the advantage in a dogfight … but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about dogfighting it’s that it’s a great equaliser, and only one of you is coming out alive. I have a lot of respect for the Su-27, from all I’ve heard about it.

What was the most exciting training exercise you went on and why? 

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“Me taxiing in at Kadena AB after returning from a deployment to RAAF Darwin, 1991”

“My favourite was a three-week deployment from Kadena to RAAF Darwin for a combined RAAF/USAF exercise called Pitch Black, mainly because Australia and the Australians are so much fun. Weapons System Evaluation Program deployments to Eglin AFB in Florida were always great, because we got to live-fire AIM-7s and AIM-9s at Firebee drones and full-scale QF-102 targets. The best and most important training, though, was always Red Flag at Nellis AFB, where, operating with allied and US forces we fought full-scale air battles against trained adversaries, life-like targets, and air defence systems designed to simulate those used by potential enemy nations. Much of Red Flag is classified, but I think I’m allowed to say I learned a lot about some of the MiGs I’d likely see in combat, and the tactics their pilots would use.”

How would you fight the modern agile fighters in within-visual range combat (without AMRAAM or Sparrows)? 

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“Tough question because today, even in the visual arena, everyone has all-aspect short range IR missiles, and as far as I know they’re all damn good. In the early days of the F-15, F-4 squadrons didn’t want to fight with us in training unless we agreed not to use our BVR AIM-7s, and not take AIM-9 shots against them unless we were behind their wing line. I think that’s the question you’re asking here: how would we dogfight with aircraft similar to the F-15 if we couldn’t take them out prior to the merge. I’ve flown BFM with F-16s and F/A-18s. In my experience, the best way to dogfight them is to merge unobserved with lots of energy. The best way to do that is to come in super high and supersonic … even if they know you’re coming in high and fast, they rarely look high enough, and if you’re supersonic they’re looking for you where you were a few seconds ago, not where you are now, so you’re split-S’ing down on them from above before they even see you.”

How would you describe the F-15 in three words?

“Powerful, solid, smooth.”

What do you think of the programmes to develop a next-generation fighter to replace the F-22?

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“I can’t speak to that other than to say I don’t see manned fighters going away, and that at some point we’ll have to field new ones. As for the F-22, on the whole I wish we’d have built more of them, but the current fleet, augmented with the 200+ F-15Cs still in service, meets current air superiority needs. I’m a proponent of replacing the F-15C with new F-15SAs when the Cs retire. The two-seat F-15SA Strike Eagle variant, purchased by Saudi Arabia, is currently in production, and Boeing is trying to gin up interest in an even more advanced variant, the Silent Eagle. Buying either of these for the USAF would be a great way to augment the F-22. But that’s just me … there are probably some on the Air Staff who think the same way, but they have to be very careful how they say it lest it be taken as a threat to the F-35 programme.”

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How well trained were your generation of F-15 pilots? 

“We trained constantly, flying three to four days a week at minimum, on some days flying two or even three missions back to back. We flew a lot of dissimilar missions against allied aircraft (RAF Jaguars, German F-4s and F-104s, occasionally Tornados), not to mention USAF, USN, and USMC units flying Phantoms, Skyhawks, Tomcats, Vipers, and Hornets. Unless the kids today are getting as much flying time as we did, I would say fighter pilots of my generation, late 1970s to the mid-1990s, were the best-trained pilots ever.”

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Was the FX concept that led to the development of the F-15 the right idea?

“I was still in undergraduate pilot training during the great debate over the F-15, which led to the lightweight fighter competition between the YF-16 and YF-17. Here’s what I remember about the debate (which was over by the time I earned my wings and started a three-year tour as a T-37 instructor pilot).

Read about the F-15 that never was: The NA-335 here.

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Opponents of the F-15 had argued it was too big, too expensive, and (curiously) too capable, and that we’d be better off spending our money on a large fleet of low-cost F-5s. The F-15 had powerful defenders. It was never not going to go into production, but thanks to the lightweight fighter competition we wound up with a smaller fighter to supplement it, the F-16, which in my opinion was needed in any case to replace the F-4 Phantom II. When all was said and done the F-16 turned out to be expensive too.

The untold story of Britain’s F-16 here.

You can tell who won the debate by the fact that the USAF, from the very beginning to the present day, has kept the F-15 in the air-to-air role it was designed for, while assigning the F-16 primarily to air-to-ground roles.

By the way, I hear echoes of this old fight in the constant criticism and fault-finding with the F-35. This project isn’t going away either, and as with early F-15 problems, money will be thrown at the F-35 and I’m confident it’s going to be a great jet.”

I’ve heard when the F-15 entered service it was inferior in some ways to the fully matured F-106, would you agree? 

“I never heard that. The F-106 carried different missiles, and I’m pretty sure they were inferior to the AIM-7s and AIM-9s we carried on the F-15. At some late point in its life the 106 finally got a gun, but it occupied the part of the weapons bay that used to house the Genie nuclear-tipped rocket, so they gave up one capability to gain another. Also, if I remember correctly, not that many ‘106s ever got the gun mod. I don’t think you’ll find any F-15 pilots who would agree that the Eagle was in any way inferior to the F-106 (and I knew a lot of former ‘106 pilots who transitioned into the F-15).

The Eagle remains the most lethal air-to-air fighter ever fielded, with a combat record of 104 kills and no losses. Some day the F-22 may be able to make a similar claim, but it’s going to have to score some combat kills first. As I said in an earlier post written for my blog, I don’t think there’s a potential enemy air force in the world that won’t have second thoughts about engaging a four-ship wall of Eagles headed its way, knowing the capabilities of our radars and missiles.”

  

Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford, Lt Col, USAF (Ret): Personal history 

  • 1974: Student, undergraduate pilot training, Vance AFB, Oklahoma
  • 1975-1978: T-37 instructor pilot, 8th FTS, Vance AFB, Oklahoma
  • 1978: F-15 RTU: 555th TFS Triple Nickel, Luke AFB, Arizona
  • 1979-1982: F-15 pilot, 32nd TFS Wolfhounds, Soesterberg AB, the Netherlands
  • 1982-1985: F-15 pilot, 43rd TFS Hornets, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska
  • 1986-1988: Staff tour, US Special Operations Command, MacDill AFB, Florida
  • 1988-1992: F-15 pilot, 44th TFS Vampires, Kadena AB, Japan
  • 1992-1995: Chief of flight safety, HQ Pacific Air Forces, Hickam AFB, Hawaii
  • 1995-1997: Staff tour, 99th Range Squadron, Nellis AFB, Nevada

 

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