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The Sukhoi Su-34 does not have an exact Western equivalent. With a strategic un-refuelled range and agility that could challenge an F-16 it is a formidable and unusual warplane. Nicknamed the ‘Duck’ (or ‘Ootka’ in Russian) for its flattened nose the Su-34 boasts a mini-kitchen, sleeping space for the crew and a toilet (well at least in the language of a cynical estate agent it does!). It can carry 12 and half tons of weapons and 130 of the type fly with the Russian Air Force. It’s an extremely handsome machine and one that you deserve to look at while you sip your morning coffee.

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In May 1941 into the Aircraft Warning Service, the civilian arm of the Army’s Ground Observer Corps was formed. Highly trained in aircraft recognition their vital skill quickly spilled into a hobby that spread across America. We celebrate the birth of the American aviation spotting obsession with this authentic reproduction of the badge worn with pride by this learnt to recognise every warplane in a glance. This is the badge of the insider, and one that marks the true military aviation enthusiast.

Dedicated to those Americans who looked skyward in defence of their nation.

A high quality tea towel decorated with the original ‘blood chit’ design handed to British aircrews flying missions over Soviet controlled regions in World War II.

Disclaimer: We cannot guarantee the safety of aircrew who use these if downed over modern Russia.

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Eurofighter Typhoon versus Dassault Rafale: A 2020 comparison

In 2015, Research Fellow at the RUSI Think-tank Justin Bronk, compared Europe’s two middle-weight fighter aircraft, the Typhoon and Rafale,  The relatively subtle differences between these two superbly capable aircraft have inspired a great deal of heated debate, often poisoned by pride and nationalism. His article provoked a great huge response from readers around the world. We went back to Justin Bronk and asked him to revisit this analysis to include half a decade’s worth of development and weapons integration which has now placed these two aircraft at the top of their game.

 Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute and Editor of RUSI Defence Systems.

What is the biggest difference in the philosophy of the designs?

“With common DNA in terms of initial development and requirements setting work before France spilt away from what became the Eurofighter consortium to develop the Rafale, it is unsurprising that both aircraft have relatively similar design philosophies compared to their competitors globally. The biggest source of differences comes from the French requirement that the basic airframe design be suitable for CATOBAR carrier operations, which carries particular requirements in terms of relatively high-alpha, low speed handling especially with external stores still attached. The Rafale was also designed from the outset as a nuclear delivery system, which was not a major consideration for the Eurofighter nations.

In terms of the design philosophy effects on the final aircraft, the Rafale has a greater emphasis on load carrying and exceptional handling even at very low speeds whilst the Typhoon as a design is more focused on maximum performance at altitude, and agility at transonic and supersonic speeds. This is all relative, however, as both aircraft perform very similarly in most scenarios compared to other types.

Radar

Dassault


At time of writing the following comparisons would be for the latest F3R Standard Rafale with the RBE2 AESA radar vs a Typhoon FGR.4 in UK service with the CAPTOR-M. I will add an estimate in brackets for the Kuwaiti/Qatari standard Typhoon with the ‘Radar 0’ version of the CAPTOR-E AESA which is flying and enters service this year in Kuwait. For reference the German/Spanish ‘Radar 1’ standard will add further capabilities and the UK’s ECRS2 version will be a different beast entirely with advanced ground mapping, GMTI and EW capabilities in addition to traditional AESA functions. However, those will not be in service for several years so are not included here.

Copyright: UK MOD Crown copyright 2019/Eurofighter

Alenia Aermacchi

Air-to-air engagements at long ranges
The RBE2 (has the advantage) against targets with a low radar cross section due to the greater performance of AESA types against these threats. CAPTOR-M (has the advantage) against larger targets such as bombers or MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’s due to a much larger aperture and generally higher altitude perch during air-to-air engagements. (Radar 0 will out-range both against airborne targets)

Air-to-air engagements at short ranges and why?
RBE2 due to much faster AESA scan, acquisition and classification of target capabilities, greater resistance to dropping contacts during manoeuvres, as well as excellent information display for pilots in F3R cockpit. (RBE2 likely to still beat Radar 0 upon IOC due to more mature system and HMI).

Air-to-ground
RBE2 as a multifunction AESA radar gives far more air-to-ground functionality than CAPTOR-M. (Radar 0 is optimised for air-to-air and is unlikely to challenge RBE2 in this arena).

Maritime attack
RBE2 again due to advantages of AESA array plus a more mature maritime attack mode with Exocet integrated. Typhoon has anti-ship munition options but no current operators use them.

Which aircraft has a superior infra-red search and track system and why? Typhoon with the PIRATE system is significantly ahead of the legacy Rafale IRST. The latter was deleted from the latest F3R standard aircraft pending an updated capability in the F4 standard jets, leaving a laser rangefinder/EO ball only. PIRATE is a genuinely exceptional IRST, although for years shortages of spare parts limited its use by various frontline squadrons.

Cockpit layout/man-machine interface
Both aircraft have similar cockpit layouts in most respects, with three large main multifunction colour displays capable of significant customisation to suit individual pilot preferences in the latest versions. Both are significantly cleaner in terms of switches and clutter than previous generations of aircraft and slightly cleaner than current generation F-15s and F-16s in USAF service. A pilot from either of those two fighters would find little out of place or unfamiliar in terms of cockpit layout, although the internal menus and system logic may be different from what they are used to. By dint of being complex multi role single seat (in most cases) fighters, the HOTAS controls are fairly intimidating to someone used to a US teen series (or my DCS A-10C/F-16 HOTAS), but once mastered are extremely comprehensive. Having ‘flown’ full fidelity Typhoon simulators in Italy and the UK, including the latest Project Centurion multi-role standard now used by the RAF, I was impressed by the intuitive ‘feel’ of the human-machine interface (HMI) across various multi role tasks. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to do the same with the French Air Force (hint hint mes amis!). According to all the Rafale pilots I have spoken to, the Rafale’s F3R standard HMI is superb from an operator’s point of view in multirole scenarios, especially in terms of displaying threat information.

The central display protruding out towards the pilot in the Rafale would be a matter of personal taste over the more traditional Typhoon display layout, with an easier view of the main radar/situational awareness display coming at the cost of slightly reduced cockpit working area in a cockpit already slightly more snug than Typhoon’s. The Typhoon has an advantage in terms of a mature helmet mounted display (HMD) system in the form of the Striker helmet, and an extremely advanced follow on (the Striker II) is well into testing with integral night vision, multi role visual/voice target designation capabilities and other advancements. Meanwhile the new Qatari standard Rafales are being delivered with the type’s first HMD, but the French Air Force still lacks this capability, and the system is still to be matured.

Top 10 multi-role fighters 2020 here

Maintenance/sortie rates/operating costs/cost

Both fighters are fairly expensive to operate compared to solutions such as Gripen or F-16 on a one-for-one basis, being large, complex, twin engined beasts. The exact cost per flight hour (a hugely contentious topic anyway) will depend greatly on which operator and which version you are looking at. For example, Spanish Typhoons cost a great deal more to fly than British ones since the RAF flies its fleet a lot more and has more streamlined maintenance support arrangements. However, even within the RAF, the older Tranche 1s are much more costly to fly and difficult to maintain than the new Tranche 3s. Rafale operating costs and availability likewise varies across standards and operators. In extremely broad brush terms, French Rafales sit somewhere in the middle in terms of operating costs compared to Typhoon, being slightly more expensive than the UK’s Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoons under the TyTan support arrangements but cheaper than Spain or Germany’s Typhoons. For export operators, things are much more dependent on fleet size and support contract structures than the differences between each aircraft type.

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Both types are highly tolerant of bad weather conditions although Rafale-M has an edge in terms of landing conditions tolerances due to the carrier-suitability adaptions.

In terms of unit cost, Rafale is marketed as cheaper than the latest standards of Typhoon, although the Indian experience would suggest that in practice export customer requirements on industrial offsets and liability can dramatically alter costs compared to the up-front offer, so I’d be wary of comparing public cost claims from either manufacturer. The actual cost will depend on the govt-govt relationship and how many of the bells and whistles each customer wants to pay for. However, as a rule Rafale is probably slightly cheaper in real terms to acquire than Typhoon.

Our interviews with Typhoon pilot here , here and here.

Low-observability

Both Rafale and Typhoon have low observable features but quite frankly neither is a low observable type. Completely slicked off with no external stores or targeting pods, a Rafale would likely have a lower frontal RCS compared to a Typhoon, but in practice neither would be combat effective in this configuration. With external pylons, tanks, weapons and pods, both have a sufficient RCS to be detected at long ranges by modern sensors such as the Irbis-E on the Su-35 and Chinese AESAs on J-10C, J-16 or J-20, as well as ground based air defence radars.

Aerodynamics and performance

It is said that the Rafale would have an advantage in a dogfight below 10K feet and a Typhoon above, would you agree with this?
In within-visual range combat, both Typhoon and Rafale would likely destroy each other in the merge in a 1v1 or 2v2. However, if talking about a ‘guns’ fight, then Rafale has better agility, instantaneous turn and sustained turn capabilities below around 15,000ft. Between 15,000 and around 30,000ft the relative merits will depend on speed range, as if the Typhoon might start with an advantage in a supersonic merge but Rafale would improve relatively as speeds drop during a long engagement. In practice it would depend on pilot experience and skill to fly their aircraft at best corner speed and manage their energy and position to best effect. At higher altitudes, Typhoon’s greater specific excess power and decoupled canards give it a slight advantage, which increases as altitude increases above 45,000ft.

What is Typhoon’s configuration designed to excel at, and the same for Rafale? Typhoon is designed to excel in acceleration, climb rate and supersonic performance and agility at high altitudes for maximum beyond visual range capability. Rafale is designed to excel at subsonic speeds and at lower altitudes. It is still a brutal performer compared to most other fighters, but cannot match Typhoon’s climb rate and brute thrust especially at higher altitudes. With heavy loads, however, Rafale performs significantly better than Typhoon across the almost the entire performance envelope, having been designed from the outset to incorporate heavy multirole loads. Typhoon’s flight control software starts to progressively restrict the jet with heavier (or particularly asymmetric) loads. The Aerodynamic Modification Kit (AMK) developed by Eurofighter would address these limitations and greatly improve the instantaneous turn rate and agility at all speeds with heavy loads, but so far no operator has bought it – suggesting they are broadly satisfied with the aircraft as is.

High alpha performance


Neither aircraft sparkles in the high-alpha regime compared to the Hornet family or anything with thrust vectoring, but the Rafale’s aerodynamically coupled canards give it slightly better high-alpha authority at slow speeds than Typhoon.

Abilities at different altitudes


The lower the altitude, the greater Rafale’s margin of advantage; the higher one goes, the better Typhoon performs relatively. Typhoon is happiest at 50,000ft and above.

Sustained/Instantaneous turn rates


Depends on altitude and speed. As above, the higher the speed and altitude of an engagement, the better Typhoon performs relative to Rafale and vice versa. In terms of instantaneous turn rate, Rafale has a slight advantage in air combat configuration and that increases with heavier multirole or strike loads.

Energy management/ ability to regenerate energy


Both fighters will pull 9G all day long in air combat configuration at most altitudes. At low altitudes Rafale’s energy retention is slightly better at best corner speed, whilst at higher altitudes Typhoon has better energy retention. In terms of energy regeneration, Typhoon has the edge by dint of a higher specific excess power.

Range and endurance


Both types have a similar ferry range with a ‘heavy’ three tank fit. However, Typhoon also uses a lot more fuel in afterburner so for mission profiles that involve a lot of AB use, Rafale will likely have the edge. In practice, both types depend to a large degree on tanker support for most operational missions.

Weapons

AMRAAM versus MICA


The AIM-120C7 and AIM-120D variants of AMRAAM used by RAF Typhoons significantly outrange MICA, although they do no boast an IR variant for passive BVR engagement capabilities. The flip side is that both AMRAAM variants have advanced off-board guidance capabilities to allow passive engagements in cooperation with another aircraft in active mode. US development efforts have emphasised these cooperative engagement capabilities (CEC) far more than French ones over the past two decades, and Typhoon benefits from that weapon heritage.

Dr Stefan Petersen, Luftwaffe/Eurofighter

ASRAAM/IRIS-T versus MICA


MICA has slightly superior range to ASRAAM and significantly superior range to IRIS-T. All are highly agile and lethal missiles in a WVR engagement, with IRIS-T boasting the greatest knife fight agility, ASRAAM the best performance off the rail, and MICA the best reach. The lack of a helmet mounted sight for Rafale until the Qatari standard has meant that in practice Typhoon users may be able to get more out of IRIS-T or ASRAAM in a dynamic WVR engagement.

BK27 versus GIAT cannon


Both are devastating revolver cannons with selectable rates of fire. The GIAT has the advantage in maximum possible firing rate (of 2500rpm vs 1700rpm) although in practice both would likely fire at comparable rates for both air-to-air or air-to-ground use to make best use of very limited ammunition (125 rounds for Rafale, 150 for Typhoon). As revolver cannons, both reach their maximum fire rate almost immediately. The BK27 has slightly better muzzle velocity and ballistic properties whilst the GIAT has slightly better destructive effect due to its larger shell. In practice, there is little to choose between them, I pity the enemy shot at by either.

Air-to-ground munitions

Copyright: Giovanni Colla

Typhoon (Tranche 2 and 3)’s main strike armament of Paveway IV, Brimstone and Storm Shadow give it world-leading high-precision, low-collateral damage tools for most ground targets. It can also carry other munitions including the US Paveway II and III series of laser-guided bombs, and has been cleared for the AGM-88 HARM and British ALARM anti-radiation missiles although these are not in operational service. The ongoing flight trials of the SPEAR 3 multirole light standoff munition (which includes an EW variant for stand-in jamming) on UK Typhoons give the type access to another highly potent option, although at present the UK is only paying to actually use SPEAR 3 on F-35B. France’s AASM ‘Hammer’ series of glide and boosted bomb guidance kits gives Rafale a comparable capability to Paveway IV with a greater amount of warhead and range flexibility. The drawback is extremely high munitions cost. At the lower end, the Rafale can also carry and deliver the US made Paveway II and III series and like Typhoon is cleared to carry but does not currently use a range of other US munitions.

Recce equipment


Typhoon has to make do with a less than fully optimised TAC-R pod as the RAPTOR pod fitted to Tornado GR.4 was not integrated when the latter was retired – in part because of centreline store size limitations on Typhoon due to the front landing gear leg placement. Rafale uses the Damocles targeting pod for light recce duties whilst RAF Typhoons use the Lightning III which also has limited FOV recon capabilities. However, Rafale can also use the RECO-NG wide area/standoff TAC-R pod to provide a modern, fully digital equivalent to RAPTOR. This is a significant advantage over Typhoon in the TAC-R role. Typhoon export users employ the Damocles pod (Saudi Arabia) and the Sniper pod (Kuwait). The Damocles pod has an advantage over Sniper and Lightning III in that it features an integral datalink capability to transfer reconnaissance and target data directly to other stations such as those found on French Air Force tankers. In practice, however, Typhoon users with Sniper or Lightning III can off-board data using the jet’s own datalinks.

(Also Damocles is replaced by TALIOS as part of F3R.)

Brimstone versus Hammer

Brimstone is more accurate with a much smaller ultra-low collateral warhead. AASM is dependent on either IR or laser-guidance to hit moving targets, rendering it more sensitive to adverse conditions than Brimstone’s millimetric wave radar seeker/laser dual mode guidance option. Brimstone’s smaller size also allows more weapons to be carried per aircraft, with three per hardpoint on adaptors. However, Brimstone is not designed to produce area effects or destroy structures, so for such targets the AASM family provides far more capability, especially with the larger ‘bomb’ body variants. For such targets, Typhoon users would employ Paveway II/III/IV series weapons.

Top WVR fighter aircraft 2019 here

Cruise missile capability


Rafale’s SCALP and Typhoon’s Storm Shadow are essentially the same (extremely capable but very expensive) missile from MBDA. Germany has cleared its Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile but since German politicians do not believe that Air Forces should be used to kill people, its capabilities remain untested in combat. The French Rafales can also carry the ASMP-A nuclear standoff missile which is a unique capability.

Defence suppression/anti shipping


Both Typhoon and Rafale lack a commonly carried anti-radiation missile, although modern AAM such as AMRAAM and Meteor can be assumed to have a certain degree of ARM capability in extremis. Rafale has a superior ECM (electronic attack) capability in the shape of the SPECTRA suite allowing it more options to degrade the performance of hostile SAM radars if it needs to penetrate defended airspace. Typhoon users will have to wait for the UK-developed ECRS2 radar and DAS upgrade for a competitive or even (potentially) superior option. Both Typhoon and Rafale can launch capable standoff cruise missiles in the shape of the Storm Shadow/SCALP and Taurus KEPD 350. However, to have a decent probability of kill against modern long range air defence radars, these missiles require accurate real time target location data. This is because modern SAM systems such as the S-400 and HQ-9 are highly mobile and have such long range that a subsonic cruise missile launched from a safe distance would take tens of minutes to arrive. As such, both Typhoon and Rafale could make a very valuable contribution to a SEAD/DEAD operation in support of more stealthy penetrating ISTAR/strike assets such as F-35 or advanced UAVs, but if hypothetically forced to fight alone neither is particularly well suited at present – Rafale having a slight edge due to the SPECTRA suite.

Meteor

I’m not 100% sure if Rafale can now use the full two-way datalink functionality on Meteor. I think that is now enabled. Typhoon’s habit of fighting at very high speeds and altitude for BVR engagements will result in a longer effective range on Meteor shots, but in practice there are almost no scenarios short of a full scale war with Russia where the rules of engagement would allow shots at such a range where that difference would tell. Both can use third party target data to launch Meteor without active radar scanning by the launch aircraft, and both can hand off guidance in flight to other friendly assets. The UK’s Typhoons in particular are more closely integrated with the USAF air dominance community than (any) other fighter arm so have more practice in getting the most out of cooperative engagements with F-22s in realistic training scenarios.

How frequently is Meteor actually carried in 2020?
Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoons regularly carry Meteor on live operational sorties with European users, although the Tranche 1s do not use the missile which is why the RAF purchased the latest AIM-120D for its remaining Tranche 1s. For Rafale, Meteor is regularly carried by the F3R standard aircraft on live operational sorties by both the Armee de l’Air and Aeronavale.

How many Meteors are carried on a single-aircraft in everyday service?
RAF Typhoons and French Air Force Rafales typically carry two Meteors when flying with the missile.

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How many Meteor could be carried in a wartime emergency?


The wartime load-out for Typhoon would by four Meteor in semi-recessed fuselage mounts plus four ASRAAM/IRIS-T although in practice a mix of Meteor and AMRAAM might be chosen for additional tactical flexibility and stockpile management. As far as I’m aware the Rafale has so far only been cleared for Meteor carriage on the two side-fuselage hardpoints although I could be wrong on that. If it was a priority to up the Meteor carriage on Rafale to four, I expect that could be done at the cost of MICA numbers on the centre underwing station.

Sensor fusion


Both Rafale F3R and P3E standard (Centurion upgraded) Typhoons present pilots with an intuitive combined situational awareness display which integrates data from multiple sensors. In that sense, both feature sensor fusion and represent a significant upgrade compared to legacy aircraft and previous Rafale and Typhoon standards. However, neither truly does the F-35’s signature trick of feeding the raw sensor inputs into a complex analytical process which cross references data from and cross cues not only each sensor on the jet but also those across a formation of F-35s, before presenting a processed single SA picture to the pilot. There’s a reason (beyond the undoubted inefficiencies and concurrency) why the US have had to put nearly half a trillion dollars into the F-35 programme to date, mostly aimed at getting the nightmarishly ambitious and complex software architecture to work. They’re trying to do something much more ambitious; although in many scenarios the output is functionally similar.

Defensive aids
SPECTRA has a better reputation primarily because of Libya in 2011 (a result of French political ambition and risk tolerance, alongside technical capability). However, it is a highly capable defensive aids suite, with greater strength on the ECM area of the ESM/ECM/ECCM EW triad compared to Typhoon’s DAS which is notable in the quality of its ESM (passive detection, ID and tracking of threats). The Indian standard Rafales come with a Towed Radar Decoy (TRD) but the French aircraft currently lack this feature. Typhoon comes with one or two TRDs mounted in a wingtip pod as standard, with specific version dependent on operator choices. The UK’s new Britecloud active radar ‘chaff’ countermeasures are another area where Typhoon is potentially somewhat in the lead on DAS features.

The leaked Swiss evaluation rated Rafale superior in almost every category- would this still be the case?
The Swiss competition was horrendously mismanaged by the Eurofighter consortium with a buggy Tranche 1 jet sent to compete with the best that Saab and Dassault could bring to the table. However, in terms of radar, the Rafale would still come out ahead due to its mature RBE2. In terms of load carrying capacity, ECM, subsonic agility, low and medium altitude WVR performance and cost Rafale F3R would also likely still come out ahead of a Tranche 2 or 3 P3E standard Typhoon. However, an RAF standard Tranche 3 Typhoon would likely come out ahead on BVR performance, interceptor missions (due to extreme rate of climb and performance), ESM, terminal countermeasures and low-collateral strike capabilities. Frankly, Switzerland should be flying Gripen C/D or possibly E/F given their national budget, neutrality and mission requirements and I’d wager anyone who looks at it from an operational requirements point of view would come to a similar conclusion. Shame about the whole referendum thing for the Swiss Air Force.

How has Typhoon improved since your 2015 assessment?
The multirole capabilities of the jet have matured drastically since 2015, especially as a result of the RAF’s Project Centurion programme which integrated Brimstone, full Paveway IV functionality and Storm Shadow, in addition to full Striker HMD exploitation and a number of other multirole enabling capabilities. The integration of full Meteor capability and upgrades to the UK’s ESM capabilities within the DAS are also a big boost. The fact that Kuwaiti Typhoons are already flying with the export AESA is a welcome but long overdue improvement but Typhoon really continues to lag in terms of exploitation of its huge potential (given the massive nose aperture and power available) in the AESA department.

Top 10 BVR fighters of 2019

The German/Spanish Radar 1 order will, however, mean that there are a large number of AESA equipped Typhoons in service by the mid-2020s with all the Quadriga and Tornado replacement Typhoons to feature the capability. The UK’s much more ambitious (and now funded) ECRS2 promises a massive leap in AESA capability with areas of advantage even over the latest US AESAs, but is so far only likely to be integrated onto the 40 Tranche 3s, with the fate of the 67 Tranche 2s less certain in that regard.

Rafale improved since your 2015 assessment?


The integration of the Meteor missile for the F3R standard Rafales has plugged a major weakness of the type in my 2015 assessments – the lack of a serious BVR stick. The RBE2 radar has continued to mature and is now a standout feature of the jet, whilst the French government has committed to a major upgrade of the jet’s internal systems and sensors in the upcoming F4 standard programme. This means that the Rafale will continue to improve, especially in the EW and sensor fusion department throughout the 2020s.

Interview with a Rafale pilot here

What is the best Typhoon variant today and why?


The RAF’s Tranche 3 jets. With the Centurion upgrades, Meteor integration and an extremely experienced user community both in terms of strike/multirole missions and air superiority, the RAF’s Tranche 3 Typhoons would edge out the Kuwaiti and Qatari aircraft in terms of operational capability, even though the latter feature the export version of the CAPTOR-E radar series.

What is the best Rafale variant today and why?
That’s tricky to say. The Indian standard does feature some impressive additions including additional podded electronic warfare capabilities and TRD, whilst the Qatari standard features the new HMD. Both include the RBE2 although it is likely to be an export standard that is slightly de-tuned compared to French aircraft. The French Air Force’s latest F3R aircraft with the RBE2 and Meteor are, on balance, likely to be the most capable Rafales around for much the same reasons as the RAF’s Tranche 3 Typhoons are. Highly experienced crews, full DAS and radar capabilities without export restrictions (and a nuclear missile capability).

Which is doing better on the export market and why?

Rafale has had some impressive success on the export market since 2015, with the combination of RBE2 radar, combat record in Libya and aggressive French state support for marketing efforts contributing to success in Egypt, Qatar and Greece (as well as India). Typhoon has had successes in Qatar and Kuwait, and a signature of intent from Saudi Arabia for another 48 aircraft soon. However, the biggest win in recent years is for Typhoon from Germany for both the Quadriga-standard replacement order for the Tranche 1s and also 90 aircraft to replace Germany’s Tornado fleet in the conventional strike role. This doesn’t really count as an export success though. Finland will be an interesting result to watch, but I’m not sure either aircraft could be considered a favourite.

TOPGUN instructor (and former F-14/F/A-18 crew) assesses Tomcat versus Meteor-armed Typhoon fight & list top 5 BVR fighters 2020 here

What should I have asked you?


Which aircraft would fare better against the Flanker family and other aircraft likely to be flown by near-peer competitors such as the Chinese J-10 family? After all, Typhoon and Rafale were not built to fight each other, and will not do so. Their job is to deter and if necessary provide overmatch against the latest hostile fighter types. In this role, the Typhoon is probably the standout with its superior BVR capabilities in a large scale, open ROE engagement, but up close in a flashpoint around a QRA interception Rafale might have the edge. In a complex battlespace with dense ground based as well as aerial threats, both Typhoon and Rafale are formidable assets but would rely on support from dedicated penetrating and stand-off assets to minimise risk and truly perform at their best.

Typhoon versus Su-35 here.

Growing up on an air base planted the seeds of curiosity about aviation and aircraft in him. He is a qualified private pilot currently splitting his time between Canada and the United States. As a military history enthusiast he was compelled to bring several fascinating combat memoirs of the Iranian Air Force pilots to a wider audience in the English speaking world for the first time.

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The US Air Force Secretly Designed and Flew a New Fighter Jet Testbed and I just Feel Depressed

When I heard a new sixth generation fighter technology demonstrator flew I didn’t feel excitement. A broken, and possibly dying, empire invests in another half century or more of warfare. Whoopee! Let’s crack open the champagne and drink to an eternal 20th century!

War and high technology for the sake of it should not belong to the future, the world has more serious matters to attend to. The United States Air Force is amazing as air forces go. If they twiddled their fingers and kept the existing hardware for another twenty years they’d still have the numbers and quality to do almost anything. The Russian Su-57 is a hopeless prestige exercise, the J-20 irrelevant – and anyway the US hasn’t faced a serious peer air force since the Luftwaffe almost 80 years ago (and no: Korea, Vietnam and Iraq do not count). Could ignoring the arms technology race leave America vulnerable to another ‘Pearl Harbor’? Possibly, but probably not. There are more likely dangers and there are even (almost) inevitable ones.

In fact the US military is so brilliant that a pressing concern for more pessimistic planners in the rest of the world might be exactly how the US could be stopped in the event of a calamity. They may wonder how such a potentially hazardous overmatch was allowed to happen. How we’ve got to a situation where the US is the only nation that has truly modern attack aircraft in mass production. How the US has a defence budget 14 times higher than India despite having a population only a third the size. If the sole point of the USAF was to defend US lives in the modern world, it clearly hasn’t been money well spent; the mourned dead were not put in their graves by ‘Blackjacks’ and ‘Backfires’. But defending US civilians isn’t the sole role of USAF. Many key objectives are rather more bizarre. Core missions for the service include ‘Global Strike … Any target, any time’ and ‘the Freedom to Attack’. When considering whether that is a desirable idea, the philosopher Immanuel Kant may have asked: ‘Would that be a good thing for every nation to have?’ , before dodging punches from B-1B pilots who don’t wish to fly Dreamliners.

The US of the future will be optionally manned.

The future is always unpredictable but it’s hard not to think that aerial firefighting aircraft will be the most valuable kind of fighter aircraft in 2040. It is an extreme optimist who prepares for a high-tech war in 2100.

Flying & fighting the F-4 Phantom II in the Iran-Iraq War: Interview with Iranian Air Force Brig. General (Rtd) Alireza Namaki

The volume and brutality of the Iran-Iraqi air war of the 1980s was astonishing. On the 40th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War, we spoke to retired Brig. General Alireza Namaki who commanded an F-4 Fighter Wing, and survived numerous combat missions against Iraqi targets. Here he shares his insights on the the potency of the Phantom, the raw drama of ground attack sorties, frustration with bad leadership and the appalling horror of a one-man mission of revenge that will forever haunt him.

What were your first impressions of the Phantom II ? “Amazement. It was some time in 1968 when I flew for the first time in the backseat of a brand new F-4D. My flight instructor was Col. Bahram Hoshyar, who later became an influential air war planner in the early 1980s. He taught me a great deal about flying and fighting in the F-4.
As a new second lieutenant fresh from the Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), I was given many opportunities to go through ‘cockpit checks’ to become familiar with F-4’s switchology, and had spent many hours in the simulator to prepare for the actual flight. My fast jet flying experience up to that point had primarily been on T-33 Shooting Star. And the transition from T-33 to F-4 was like going from night to day. The Lockheed T-33 had steam gauges, and it was just clunky, small and underpowered. On the other hand, the F-4 Phantom had radar and ECM displays; its gauges were more advanced. Up to that point, I had never seen an aeroplane with radar. And F-4 had both the air-to-ground and air-to-air radar function displays. The Imperial Iranian Air Force in late 1960s possessed roughly 16 brand new F-4D jets, and besides the United Kingdom and the United States, no other country owned any F-4s. Anyways, it was a grand aircraft, and I have never seen a better, sexier fighter jet since then. The F-4 will always be my first love. On first sighting, I was filled with both joy and apprehension. I was also hoping to get a slot to fly the Phantom from the front seat. The training syllabus was exciting especially when we got to employ air-to-ground weapons.”

Three words to describe the F-4 Phantom?
“Allow me to say four words. On top of being the farthest, highest and fastest fighter plane of its time, it was also a reliably ‘pinpoint’ striker.It could carry more than 10,000 lb of ordnance. It could be armed with radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles. Its later version the E model was also armed with an internal gun. It could fly up to 50,000 feet at sustained speeds unrivalled by its contemporaries. It could strike any target anywhere.”

Its best traits?
“In its own time, it was the best. Its bombing computer, armaments, fuel capacity and its capability to be air-refuelled were unique for its time. It was technologically ahead of its rivals like the MiG-21 and MiG-23. And among its western colleagues, it was top notch, certainly better than the A-4 Skyhawk, or early versions of the Panavia Tornado. But since you asked, its biggest and most useful trait was the aircraft’s forgiveness. By that I mean the aircraft could tolerate pilot’s mishandling and mistreatment of the airframe better than most jets. It was sturdy and could take a beating. Many pilots survived their ejection, bad landings and combat solely due to the F-4 being a superb machine. It is now clear that the F-4 was the ultimate 1970s multi-role war machine. And it could also be employed in strategic role for smaller nations like Iran. Case in point is the Iranian air force’s strategic attack on Osirak’s reactor in late September 1980 (on the 7th day of the war a two-ship strike mission led by Major H. Ghahestani), which forced French engineers and support personnel to leave Iraq the following day. I am prepared to argue that Israel’s attack on Osirak later on was more symbolic since we had inflicted damage to the facilities. Or another strategic strike was that of our several missions against ‘Salman-Pak’ nuclear research facilities south of Baghdad through out the first year of the war.”


Its worst traits?
“To speak of Phantom’s worst traits, its weight (empty) comes to mind. I am assuming that the designers had to have to grapple with this from the get -go. And we’ve got to be fair, the Phantom has to be compared with its contemporaries in appraising its worst or best traits. For its time, it was nearly flawless and was built to bridge a technological and tactical gap.”

What are your thoughts on sensors and avionics?

“Again, this must be viewed in the context of time. At the time of delivery to our air force, the F-4D/E was quite advanced. They had been equipped with radar altimeter, a gunsight, radios, INS (inertial navigation system), a complex weapon release computer system (WRCS), RWR sensors and ECM capabilities. And I must say, Iran’s RF-4E recce jets at the time of their delivery in mid 1970s were the most advanced reconnaissance fighter aircraft in the market.”

Cockpit switchology?
“From the typical human-machine interface, it was brilliant. I did not have to take my eyes off the flight path to look for switches. Although this ability was built after many hours of practicing and flying the aircraft. I have around 4000 hours on the F4D/E variants and never did I encounter any problems with the placement of switches or systems.”

Tell us something that our readers may not know about Iran’s F-4 Phantoms

“The Phantom is now an ageing airframe, and it is nearing its retirement everywhere. The late Shah’s air force acquired F-4D/E in large numbers to satisfy a strategic need at the time. Our neighbour to the north, the Soviet Union, was a menace. Our neighbour to the west, Iraq, was a threat. The Phantom was purchased to deal with the threats of its time. No presidential palace, no oil facility, no air base was safe from our reach. It could fulfil a strategic role for our air force as well as a tactical role.

One interesting fact to your reader could be the late Shah’s desire to buy General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark instead of the F-4D/E. It is why I use the word strategic for the role F-4 was to play for us.”


How satisfied were you with F-4’s weapons and performance?
You are asking me how satisfied I was? I am an F-4 pilot. I was and am delighted by F-4’s performance including its armaments. In 1980s, a few F-4E Phantom fighters each armed with half a dozen AGM-65 Maverick missiles could destroy any ship at will. This was proven in late November 1980 during ‘Operation Morvarid’ in which we essentially removed Iraq’s naval capacity from being an effective factor in waging war in northern Persian Gulf.”

Did you ever encounter an enemy aircraft in combat?
“Not close and personal in combat. Although I fired a radar guided AIM-7E Sparrow missile at an intruder in a BVR (Beyond the Visual Range) situation, but I am not certain what came of it.”

What do you think was the toughest opponent for an F-4?
“Best to direct this question to Iranian F-14 pilots, as their primary task was to tackle the Iraqi aircraft in dogfight. Iran’s fleet of F-4s was primarily tasked with tactical and strategic bombing missions albeit in few instances, Iranian air force Phantoms performed air-to-air missions with varying degree of success. My personal opinion is that the Iraqi Mirage F1 in lower speeds could outperform, and out-turn the F-4 and overcome it. But in higher speeds and during ‘snapshot attacks’ F-4 was acceptably better.”

How was life during the war in and out of squadrons? What lows and highs did you personally experience?
“The answer to this question can be as long and extensive as the eight years of the war itself. On the first day of the war, I had to kiss my family and children goodbye. As we lived in a war zone at Bushehr air base, they had to be evacuated to a safer city beyond the reach of Iraqi fighter-bombers. I managed to go home once after thirty straight days. The house was extensively damaged, and its windows were completely shattered due to Iraqi bombs going off nearby. I felt I was taking revenge for my own destroyed house as I led a four-ship formation to bomb Az-Zubayr oil field west of Basrah.

As a warfighter, I was truly hurt whenever the Iraqis would attack our population centres and we were absolutely forbidden by our own government to retaliate in kind.


In one such attack, an Iraqi jet struck a girl’s middle school near the city of Abadan resulting in the death of more than 23 students and a young teacher. This event caused me a lot of emotional pain. I think I had found my own reason/excuse for a personal vendetta. This terrible incident was seared in my mind until the day I was tasked to lead a 3-ship sortie call sign ‘Houman’ to attack the town of Khor al-Zubair’s steel and iron plant 40 km south of Basrah. Each aircraft was armed with six BL-755 bombs.
These are cluster bombs designed to destroy tanks and armoured troop carriers. That day I got to take my revenge and wage my own personal war. I had decided to save one of these bombs to drop on Basrah on our way back to Bushehr air base. My reasoning was to give the Iraqis a taste of their own medicine. Choosing a north to south heading, I released the remaining bomb on what appeared to be an empty street, dove to 20 feet in afterburner while dodging a hail of AAA arcing over my canopy. That very night, Radio Baghdad reported that upwards of 40 Iraqi citizens have been killed and wounded in a bombing raid. Our wing commander summoned me and questioned me. The air force headquarters was desperate to find the perpetrator. But I denied it and they eventually let go of it. I am now a retired warrior and I absolutely regret this incident. It is apparent that what I had done was, and is, against the accepted norms of humanity and was against the international law. Mankind created war, just as it invented lying and dishonesty. And I abhor what I did. I am not proud of it.

Such harrowing combat tales are aplenty. The regular Iranian armed forces did not target Iraqi civilians. It is important to add that in the later stages of the war in what came to be known as ‘war of the cities’ missile attacks against Baghdad our regular forces did not conduct such attacks.”


“Honestly, my flying career is now defined by the gruelling years of the war. One event stands out. By 1987, I was a fighter Wing Commander at Bushehr air base (In Iranian AF, a wing commander is also the base commander) in the latter stages of the war. Our wing was instructed to strike three oil tankers carrying Iraqi oil or heading to Iraqi oil terminals per week by our higher headquarters. This is during the early stages of the infamous Tanker War. It was the weekend. Our quota of three had not been achieved. We had managed to hit two ships that week. Our F-4 jets had found a third vessel to attack, however Saudi Arabian F-15 fighters had arrived and prevented our side from performing a successful strike. This third vessel’s captain had now decided to deviate and head for Saudi’s Ras Tanura port. Hitting a vessel in a neutral country’s waters was akin to declaring war on that neutral state, and as such it was not advised. Time was running out, and this vessel had to be hit before it took refuge in Saudi Arabian territorial waters. I decided to fly this special mission myself, as I did not want to endanger the lives of my younger pilots. Flying as low as I could to close the distance, I popped up around 8 miles out and fired two AGM-65 Maverick missiles at it, dove back down and flew straight to Bushehr AB as low as it was feasible. This definitely put an end to the non-stop messages my office was receiving from Tehran on the need to strike three ships a week.”

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How valuable was the Phantom for Iran both in terms of how it was perceived and its combat capability?
“In early to mid 1970s, Iraq’s leadership grew increasingly hostile towards Iran. Therefore our war planners in the air force began concentrating on countering this probable threat. So plans were made to attack all Iraqi airfields on the first day of hostilities to deny Iraqi AF a chance to use them for further aggression. Our pre-1979 contingency plans had us bomb each Iraqi airfield with roughly 50 aircraft. This required more or less 300 strike aircraft to fly in a single day to secure air supremacy for the ground forces to advance inside Iraqi territory.

It is widely accepted that our air force performed a deterrent role before its personnel were decimated by the Islamic revolution and the ensuing purges. Psychologically speaking, Iran’s neighbours were informed of our capabilities and were aware that any air or land strike against Iran had to be foolish since it would be responded to with overwhelming force. Combat-wise, this aircraft was unique in what it brought to the table. As I said earlier, this aircraft flew the furthest and highest among its contemporaries. I remember vividly that back in 1969 during a bilateral training exercise with the Pakistani air force (I had just finished my initial F-4 combat training) we intercepted a Pakistani Canberra bomber flying at 45,000 feet. Up to that point we had no fighter aircraft that could do these types of missions. The aircraft made an invaluable combat contribution as a whole.”

Anything you’d like to add?
“All that must be said about the Phantom has been said and spoken of as it has been around for generations. Iran possessed roughly 230 F-4 Phantoms in D, E and RF variants. A handful of Cs model of its reconnaissance version were loaned to Iran by the Americans in early 1970s for recce flights of the Soviet Union. And many replacements were sent to Iran before 1979 for the airframes we had lost due to mishaps. No new F-4s joined our fleet after the revolution due to US embargoes, and the plans to purchase F-4G Wild Weasels were shelved.


Iranian AF lost nearly 50 percent of its F-4 Phantom II aircraft during the war and this is most hurtful to me. Some of these losses were unnecessary and could have been avoided had our side employed people with a degree of professional knowledge instead of employing religious zealots who had weaselled their way to the top who did not know anything tactics or war fighting.”

What is your most memorable flight?
“One stands out in my mind as a proud moment of my younger days. It took place several years before the Islamic revolution of 1979 during training exercises participated by the United States, Pakistan and Iran. Our task was to fly an armed reconnaissance mission from Bushehr in north of Persian Gulf all the way to somewhere in the Indian Ocean to track an unknown vessel. This flight lasted about more than a dozen hours with multiple mid-air refuelling with the US and Iranian tankers. My front-seat pilot was the then Maj. Ravadgar who later became a prisoner of war. My point is that this sole mission proved the value of F-4 to me as a young pilot, it was and still is the longest I’d ever strapped to an ejection seat while flying.


Thoughts on replacement for Iranian F-4s? What’d you buy if you were in charge?
“Each aircraft brings its own unique set of capabilities. And it really depends on what directs our future procurement. Is it a strategic buy, or a tactical one? What role are we fulfilling? The US-built F-35A Lightning II, or the Russian built Su-34 are among the best choices to replace the ageing F-4, and the F-15E is certainly a useful asset in terms of its capabilities.”

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Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
“Maybe one last thing. In a Max Range, Max Performance strike mission we flew a handful of F-4s early in the war to attack a commercial transit point also known as Ar’ar border crossing on the Iraqi-Saudi border. We knew this border crossing to be the place from which Iraq was importing aviation fuel, lubricants and diesel. The other port of entry ‘Safwan’ (at Iraq-Kuwait border) was closed as a result of weeks of air bombardment. This was the maximum range of our aircraft and we could not air-refuel as this was deep inside Iraqi territory. Our calculations were by the book and we found out we would have less than 2500 lbs of fuel (bingo fuel) prior to
touchdown at Bushehr. We managed to bomb the trucks and vehicles creating massive fireballs all around. However I decided to turn around and fire my plane’s nose-mounted gun at other intact vehicles. But this cost me valuable amount of gas, which caused me a double engine flameout as soon as I touched down on runway. Had this happened moments earlier, I may have had to eject over the water. This is an unforgettable mission for me.”

Brig. General (rtd) Alireza Namaki is a former squadron, and wing commander at Bushehr TFB . He is an independent historian/author with several published books in the Persian language on the subject of the Iran-Iraq war in the air in his name.

Interview by Kash Ryan

Kash Ryan a native of Iran, hails from a military family. Both his father and grandfather were professional service members. His father served in the Iranian Air Force retiring as a Lt colonel. Kash served mandatory service in the Iranian Air Force in the late 1990s.


Growing up on an air base planted the seeds of curiosity about aviation and aircraft in him. He is a qualified private pilot currently splitting his time between Canada and the United States. As a military history enthusiast he was compelled to bring several fascinating combat memoirs of the Iranian Air Force pilots to a wider audience in the English speaking world for the first time.

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“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’

I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Pre-order your copy now right here  

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From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as:

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The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.

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The weirdest aeroplane you’ve never heard of, the utterly batshit Plymouth A-A-2004

 

The Plymouth A-A-2004 spins bravely into the future. Tellingly in the form of a drawing.
The Plymouth A-A-2004: an aircraft built without wings to test a pointless form of flight.

Have you heard of the Magnus effect? Of course you have. Anyway, just in case you’ve forgotten, the Magnus effect is a phenomenon that affects spinning circular or spherical objects in motion. The spin causes the object to behave in a way that it would not if spin were not present, the most commonplace examples of this effect occur in sport, a spinning football arcs or swerves through the air due to the Magnus effect. Vertically mounted spinning cylinders have been used to power ships (they are known as Flettner rotors). Turn the cylinder 90 degrees and the same effect means that top spin causes a downward arc but back spin effectively generates lift.

In 1910 Butler Ames, a serving member of the US Congress, built a machine he called the Aerocycle that featured two rotating drums powered by a V-8 engine. This was sufficiently promising to have been mounted on to a platform on the USS Bagley but it is unclear if it worked in any meaningful fashion.

The Aerocycle on its platform atop torpedo boat USS Bagley in 1910.

Back in 1910 aviation was still very new and Ames could always use the valid excuse that no one knew what an aeroplane was supposed to look like back then.

However by 1930 literally thousands of aircraft were flying about supported by conventional wings which, you would think, might make the development of a weird new aircraft supported by spinning cylinders seem potentially redundant. Nonetheless three inventors, their identities sadly lost to posterity, decided that that was exactly what the aviation world needed and built the Plymouth A-A-2004. It is alleged to have made more than one successful flight but evidence is scanty though there is no particular reason to discard the claim out of hand. Nonetheless the Plymouth A-A-2004 was a dead end. The obvious and compelling reason why the world is yet to fully embrace the Magnus effect aircraft is that in the event those cylinders stop spinning due to engine failure (a relatively common occurrence in 1930), they stop producing any Magnus effect lift at all and the aircraft would simply plummet to the ground due to the Gravity effect.

Fancy a longer read on interesting moments in aeronautical design? Try this

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10 cancelled US fighter aircraft

Rusting away in the desert of history, here are ten charismatic American fighter aircraft that failed to make the grade.

10. Grumman (G-34) XF5F-1 Skyrocket (1940) ‘The Un-reluctant Rocket’

Thirty years before the F-14 Tomcat, Grumman built another extremely advanced twin-engine carrier fighter, the superb G-34. Twin-engined carrier fighters were not a thing in 1940, but despite this the first example of this breed proved a winner. Trials in 1941 pitted the type against all the most advanced Allied fighters, including the XF4U Corsair, according to the man in charge of the test, “.. I remember testing the XF5F against the XF4U on climb to the 10,000 foot level. I pulled away from the Corsair so fast I thought he was having engine trouble. The F5F was a carrier pilot’s dream, as opposite rotating propellers eliminated all torque and you had no large engine up front to look around to see the LSO (landing signal officer) … The analysis of all the data definitely favored the F5F, and the Spitfire came in a distant second. … ADM Towers told me that securing spare parts … and other particulars which compounded the difficulty of building the twin-engine fighter, had ruled out the Skyrocket and that the Bureau had settled on the Wildcat for mass production.” The effort was not a waste of time however, as the design evolved into the Tigercat, one of the finest piston-engined fighters ever flown.

9. McDonnell XP-67 ‘Moonbat‘ (1944)

The radical aerodynamics of the Moonbat gave this US fighter prototype the look of flying stingray. The design emphasised low drag and the harvesting of a high amount of fuselage lift through a blended wing/body design. The fuselage, like the wing, had an aerofoil cross-section. This idea had been seen earlier on the Westland Dreadnought based on the blended fuselage-wing ideas of Russian inventor N. Woyevodsky, a Russian emigre scientist who lived in England.

The first two manifestations of this design failed to arouse the USAAF, but promises of a 472mph top speed tantalised the authorities and funding was granted. McDonnell considered serious armament options including a 75-mm gun.

The resultant aircraft flew in 1944 and proved the unknown adage ‘if it looks like a stingray it will fly like one’. It was underpowered, with poor handling, a long take-off run, terrible fuel consumption and stall characteristics even a 1940s test pilot didn’t have the bottle to explore. A prototype crashed and the project was deemed too dangerous to continue.

The blended wing body concept however has not died. It was later used with great success, among other, the SR-71 Blackbird. It is also, in its purest form, being studied for a number of future airliners concepts.

8. Northrop F-18L ‘Scornet’

The F/A-18 Hornet is no slouch in a dogfight, and the land-based F-18L was even better. Freed from the extra weight of carrier compatibility it was almost 30% lighter than the F/A-18A. This gave it is a superior range, manoeuvrability and enhanced almost other aspects of its already sparkling performance. It also boasted a Sparrow missile capability, something the F-16s of the time lacked. In fact, medium range weapons were not really carried by any other lightweight fighters in the 1970s.

The F-18L was offered to Canada for the New Fighter Aircraft Project of the late 1970s. It was a better aircraft for the role than the F/A-18A but the naval version had the backing of the extremely aggressive and effective McDonnell Douglas sales department and the benefit of being an ‘off-the-shelf’ product.

As an aside, the Canadian Hornet deal was almost dropped in favour of eighty secondhand Iranian F-14s Tomcats!

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7. Curtiss-Wright XF-87 Blackhawk (1948) ‘Wrong said Fred’

At the end of World War II Curtiss-Wright was the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world. Three years later it was gone. The nail in the coffin was the Blackhawk. The name followed a company naming tradition begun in the early 1930s for including ‘hawk’; their most successful fighters were the Tomahawk, Kittyhawk and Warhawk. There was nothing particularly terrible about the XF-87, although four engines is unusual in a fighter*. The USAF ordered the fighter (modified from an attack optimised design) before succumbing to the charms of the F-89 Scorpion and opting out.

It is often said that the company had been so busy in the mass production and incremental improvement of wartime aircraft types that they had not been able to respond to the jet revolution as well as their more forward-looking rivals. This is not entirely fair as they were working on some exceptionally fair as they worked on some exceptionally radical concepts, especially the XP-55 Ascender.

Other aircraft have used the name ‘Blackhawk’: there is the Carr Special racing aircraft of the 1930s, the S-67 attack helicopter and today’s famous S-70 series. I think there is another interwar type.. which I’ve forgotten.

*The Swiss EFW N-20 Aiguillon had four engines, and also failed to enter production

6. Curtiss-Wright XP-55 Ascender (1943) ‘The Cursed Starship’

In late 1939 the US had a pretty mediocre air force generally equipped with obsolete or mediocre aircraft. With international war erupting around the world it seemed a wise idea to rectify this situation, so the United States Army Air Corps issued R-40C, a requirement for radical new fighter concepts.

The emphasis on the aircraft as a high-speed gun platform with good visibility and acknowledgement that unconventional thinking was to be encouraged led to many of the 50 entrants who replied to the requirement adopting the pusher lay-out. The XP-55 was one of three designs given the thumbs-up to be produced in prototype form for evaluation.

Despite an utterly exotic appearance — canard fore-planes, a tricycle landing gear, a swept wing (for balance not to counter transonic drag) and a pusher engine, its performance was less-than-stellar. Far lower risk contemporary designs offered superior performance. But a speculative improved laminar flow wing version seemed promising so the programme carried on.

But the Ascender vicious stall characteristics could not be tamed and the programme ended after the third prototype crashed at Wright Field during an air show. This was the second crash of only three aircraft built. The risks were too high and the type offered nothing that couldn’t be done better by conventional fighters.

5. North American YF-93 ‘The Leggy Sabre’

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The superb F-86 Sabre design formed the basis of several aircraft, and the YF-93 was one of them. The rather handsome North American YF-93 was intended as a penetration fighter able to fly into the Soviet Union and destroy interceptors in their own airspace, and as a secondary task escort USAF bombers. It started as modified F-86 but soon grew different enough to merit its own designation. Compared to the Sabre it had far more fuel, twice the range and was far bigger. With the SCR-720 search radar and six 20 mm (.79 in) cannon occupying the nose, the nose intake of the F-86 was replaced with flush-mounted NACA-designed side intakes. Though very elegant in appearance, they were ineffective and replaced with a more conventional intake.

  The arrival of a bomber, the B-47, with a similar top speed revealed the XF-93 to be too pedestrian in performance and the order for 118 aircraft was cancelled. It should be noted that the RAF accepted the Hawker Hunter into service in 1954, an aircraft of very similar top speed but with an inferior range.

4. Heinrich Pursuit ‘The Pursuit of hate’ (1917)

In 2020, nineteen months is insufficient time to develop and integrate a major software update on a warplane, but in 1917 it was a long time in a military aviation. The USA was only fighting in World War for nineteen months but in that time several attempts were to develop a high performance indigenous fighter from scratch. The Pursuit was powered by the 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape 9 Type B-2 nine-cylinder rotary engine and was of unequal-span biplane configuration.

Albert S. Heinrich in an earlier monoplane. Before turning his hand to aircraft, the designer built speed boats.

Whereas the British Bristol F2.B of 1916 was named ‘Fighter’, a word which describes the mission to this day, Heinrich chose ‘Pursuit’ (the term ‘pursuit fighter’ in official terminology until the XP-92 of 1948).

Quite unlike the modern world in which the US will do almost anything to avoid buying foreign aircraft (see the tanker fiasco for example) the opposite was true in 1917. As with most many fledgling warplane producing nations, there was an initial preference for proven foreign designs. This is rather a shame as the Pursuit was a decent enough aeroplane of very clean aerodynamic form. Though not procured as a fighter it was seen to have potential as a fighter trainer. Two Mk II aircraft were ordered and these were particularly fine, with a cleaned up design offering a 77 kg weight reduction and inclusion of the more reliable Le Rhone 80 hp rotary engine.

3. Grumman XF10F Jaguar ‘The oldest swinger in town’ (1952)

As with most excellent carrier aircraft (certainly the Phantom II and Buccaneer among them) the road to the F-14 Tomcat was paved with the smoking carcasses of abysmal earlier efforts. If the F-14 were to write its own autobiography it would speak of the Grumman XF10F Jaguar as its drunken dysfunctional father, but a father nevertheless. Rambling mixed metaphors aside, the Jaguar was Grumman’s first attempt at a variable geometry warplane, and the first in the world to fly.

‘Swing-wings’ were very appealing to the US Navy, as they promised the docile take-off and landing characteristics of a straight-wing with the higher wing sweep required for trans- and super-sonic flight. Such promise could not be ignored and the Navy ordered 112 Jaguars

Vickers Wild Goose on launch platform

It followed on from progress made by, among others, the Westland-Hill Pterodactyl IV of 1931, the British Vickers Wild Goose (1950) but more directly by the Messerschmitt P.1101 concept (unflown) and the experimental Bell X-5.

The unflown Me-P1101 prototype with members of the United Service Organizations.

Test pilot Corwin ‘Corky’ Meyer, the only pilot to fly the Jaguar, found it as entertaining to fly “because there was so much wrong with it.” Among its issues: a dangerously unreliable XJ-40 experimental engine; poor stability; a cockpit canopy that opened in flight of its own accord and could not be shut and left the pilot unable to eject; shoddy manufacturing that – in one case a 5-inch screw was used where .4 should have been, mangling the delicate electronic circuitry within; jamming of the wing mechanism as poorly maintained hydraulic fluid turned to jelly.So much attention had been paid to getting the wing sweep mechanism right, that other aspects had been neglected. The wing sweep mechanism was pretty much the only part of the Jaguar that did work flawlessly. Even by 1950s naval (and experimental) standards this was clearly a terrible aeroplane, and after 32 test flights the project was mercifully halted and the order cancelled.

2. Lockheed XF-90 ‘Screamin’ Jet Hawkins’

A competitor to the YF-93 above, the futuristic XF-90 was designed at the Skunk Works by Willis Moore Hawkins under the supervision of the US master of aircraft design and amateur arm wrestler, Kelly Johnson. Though lacking the fame of Johnson, Hawkins was a very important figure. He worked on many projects including the Constellation and F-104, and was instrumental in the creation of both the C-130 and Abrams main battle tank. The XF-90 was not his finest moment and its relatively lacklustre performance found it losing out to the XF-88. Still, an extremely good looking machine.

  1. Vultee P-66 Vanguard ‘Brute 66’

If you described a modern fighter as ‘cancelled’ despite 146 being produced you’d be labelled a wack-job and carted off to an anti-mask Flat Earther Trump rally to hang out with new friends. But this was in a time when fighter aircraft were produced in their thousands. Even the less than A-list Bell P-39 Airacobra production total was pushing 10,000 (so I think it is fair to include the Vanguard. I also want to include it as it seldom gets a mention in aviation history books.

So sleek was the cowling on early examples you be forgiven for mistaking the Vanguard for having an inline engine but it was actually a radial, a 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-33 Twin Wasp. But this figure-hugging cowling caused the engine to overheat and was replaced with one of more conventional appearance.

The P-66 had generally excellent handling and a decent performance. In 1940 the Swedish government ordered 144 as the V-48C. The V-48C had a heavier armament (two fifty cals and four rifle-calibre machine-guns) and improved high altitude performance. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the US decided there was better things to do with fighters than export them to a neutral country and an embargo was placed on aircraft for Sweden. Fifty were taken into the USAAF for both pursuit and pursuit training roles. Much of this order then given to the Royal Air Force of Britain who hated the type and decided to give them to China. The British planned to use them as a trainer force based in Canada but their tendency to ground-loop, their fragility and the political goodwill of gifting them to China all contributed to the RAF letting them go. These airframes went on a epic adventure travelling to India in USAAF colours where both testing and the perilous transit to China destroyed many of the aircraft.

Two Chinese squadrons took the P-66 into combat from 1943 but they took a mauling. When not being destroyed by friendly anti-aircraft forces unfamiliar with this rare shape they were shot down by faster and more agile Japanese types using superior tactics. In 1943 they were replaced by P-40s. A small number of surviving P-66s were hidden in caves in Chungking for use in the civil war against Mao’s communist, but as late as 1947 they were generally still in their crates.

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Plane Queer: how flight attendants became sexy & the truth behind the male ‘trolley dolly’

Where does the stereotype of the gay air steward come from? Is it true? Why do we sexualise air stewards? I spoke to the brilliant Phil Tiemeyer, author of ‘Plane Queer’ to find out more.

The stereotype of a male flight attendant is gay, how old is this stereotype and is it rooted in truth?

“The stereotype goes back to the first full decade of commercial air service and the dawn of the flight attendant career in aviation. We don’t know if any of the first stewards—who actually predated the first stewardesses in the US by a few years—were actually gay. But we do know from accounts in the airlines’ publications in the 1930s, including magazines produced for customers to peruse while in flight, that these men were perceived as less masculine than the pilots, mechanics, and managers who worked for the airlines (at least according to the relatively rigid standards of masculinity at the time). This perceived effeminacy led these men to be criticized or teased in various stories carried in publications like Pan American Airways’ Clipper magazine, which even made a comic strip about a steward named “Barney Bullarney” who gets made fun of and even physically abused by his coworkers. So, at the very least, we can say that homophobia in the industry dates back to the 1930s, even if we’re not sure whether homosexuality does.

Why does the job attract a large amount of gay men?

“The most clear answer to this question is that in-flight careers have never been family-friendly. It’s really hard for a pilot or flight attendant to be available for spouses and children when working. This was especially true in the so-called golden age of flying, from the 1950s through the 1970s, when airlines like Pan Am often required their crews to serve on weeks-long routes and also encouraged them at times to relocate to bases overseas. Single women could adapt to these demanding work norms better than others, as could gay men—especially back in the day when society discouraged gay men from having spousal commitments and families of their own.

The other crucial element, though, is that men serving in this job had to be relatively comfortable putting up with the homophobic attitudes of certain co-workers and customers. Several of my interviewees who worked from the 1950s through the 1970s asserted that certain pilots could be particularly demeaning to male flight attendants, ordering them to make coffee for them in break rooms the way a stewardess would or denying them access to the cockpit to deliver meals. Gay men were simply more used to, and thereby were a bit more tolerant than most straight men, of being targeted in such aggressive and emasculating ways.”

Why do we sexualise flight attendants?

“I think we sexualize flight attendants because we sexualize flying. Plenty of Freudian psychologists have for decades explained that most aviation fanatics are attracted to the adrenaline rush of high-speed travel and the penetration or conquering of the sky. These sorts of sensations aren’t too far off from how sexual pleasure is experienced by some here on the ground. Already in the 1930s Hollywood was turning this erotic attraction to flight in the direction of stewardesses, with the first movies in which a stewardess served as the romantic lead coming out in that decade. And once the US’s censorship of pornography was liberalized by the late 1960s, the first X-rated stewardess movie was made.

It’s therefore not surprising that when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that all US airlines had to hire men on an equal basis as women for the flight attendant job, this created a new sub-type of gay male heartthrob: the steward. What was then the only national gay magazine, the Advocate, celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision by expressing gratitude that gay men would now have their own sex objects in the sky to ogle at while flying…not a very enlightened response to an important case for workplace equality!”

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There is an idea that flight attendants are promiscuous, is this rooted in truth?

“The promiscuity that has been associated with both male and female flight attendants is rooted in the fact that the vast majority of workers in this field during aviation’s golden years were hired when they were young and had no families. This demographic, sexologists will point out, are typically going to have the most sex in a society. Plus, when you’re able to host sex partners in your own hotel room and have scheduled layovers in the world’s most cosmopolitan party cities, you have even more sexual opportunity than your peers. Of course, though, the choices about the frequency of one’s sexual activity depended on the individual, and my interviewees reported a wide spectrum of choices about how often they had sex. Sex was, almost always, one’s personal choice.

That said, especially female flight attendants were sometimes pressured into sex they didn’t want to have: from customers somewhat rarely, but from pilots and airline managers more frequently. Such incidents of sexual harassment or rape most commonly went unreported, since the airlines did not foster a culture of sexual responsibility among their employers nor did they institute protections for workers to come forward and report misconduct by more powerful co-workers.”

Did male flight attendants face any discrimination or peculiar difficulties?

“They absolutely did. Men were nearly completely excluded from this job by the mid-1950s. That’s when two main US airlines which traditionally hired men, Pan Am and Eastern Airlines, stopped hiring them. Thereafter, a couple of airlines like TWA or Northwest Airlines hired men as pursers (flight attendant positions with more demanding administrative responsibilities) for their international routes, but the percentage of flight attendants who were men shrank to just 3-5% by the late 1960s. The reason Eastern and Pan Am stopped hiring men is due to homophobia in the 1950s: increasing fears on the part of the airline that customers would find these men undesirable. Delta Airlines even confessed in court documents that their short-lived attempts to hire men around that time ended out of fear that customers would perceive their male flight attendants as gay and feel threatened by them.”

United Airlines flight attendants of the 1980s

How were male flight attendants involved in the civil rights movement?

“The biggest direct impact of male flight attendants (or at least aspiring male flight attendants) on civil rights was the Supreme Court case I noted above from the very early 1970s. The case name was Celio Diaz, Jr. v. Pan American Airways. Diaz was a Miami resident who really wanted to work as a flight attendant. But a Pan Am employee in the hiring office refused to let him apply, claiming the position was for women only. This, however, was 1967, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act was now in effect—the one pressed on Washington politicians by the African American civil rights movement in order to end segregation and workplace discrimination based on race. The workplace protections in the Civil Rights Act also prevented sex-based discrimination, so Diaz was able to claim that the airline’s refusal to consider his application was illegal. It took about four years for the case to be decided, but when Diaz finally won, it meant that all airlines in the US would be forced to hire men on an equal basis with women.

I think of Diaz v. Pan Am as a sort of stealth victory for gender-queer people in America: it meant that men who aspired to jobs that were notionally ‘women’s work‘ would be protected, and so would the far more numerous women desiring to do ‘men’s work.’ Of course, though, you didn’t have to be too queer—and certainly not gay, just as Diaz himself was not—to want to do such work. It was really America’s overly rigid sex norms that needed correcting, and Diaz was the right kind of plaintiff to start to make this happen.”

In the 1960s were male and female flight attendants paid the same?

“This is a complicated question. First, remember that there were only a few men working in the 1960s, due to the homophobia of the 1950s. Those who did work in the industry were covered by the same work contracts as women, the ones negotiated by their labor unions. Thus, on paper, men and women were paid the same. That said, men had two distinct pay advantages. First, at airlines like TWA and Northwest that hired men only for purser positions, these jobs paid more, consistent with their increased administrative responsibilities. Second, men in the 1960s were free to keep their jobs as long as they wanted to work, at least up to or beyond age 60, which meant they were accruing decent amounts of seniority and therefore getting better pay and benefits than newcomers to the field. Women, however, were actively forced out of these jobs at a very early moment in their careers. Most of them left within 18 months, since almost all US airlines forbid them from continuing to work when they married (these women were very eligible marriage material, after all). For the women who tried to make a career of it, most US airlines also imposed additional policies which fired them when they reached age 32 or 35. It was these overt forms of discrimination against women that kept them underpaid compared to their male colleagues.”

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In what ways has the flight attendant community helped gay rights?

“In the late 1940s and early 1950s, gay men were finding out by word of mouth that steward positions were open and somewhat welcoming to gay men. Thus, at a time when US society was actively trying to keep gays out of work (all government, military, and defense industry jobs were declared off-limits), there was this one place where men could still find work and see the world—at least until Pan Am and Eastern closed the doors to these jobs. But when Celio Diaz re-opened this profession to men, it very quickly went back to being a place where gay men could still find jobs, earn a steady income, and partake in ample travel opportunities.”

What is the biggest myth about male flight attendants?

“The grandest of all flight attendant myths is that a gay flight attendant, Air Canada’s Gaetan Dugas, was the ‘Patient Zero’ of the AIDS crisis and actually (allegedly) was the first person to bring HIV/AIDS to the United States. My book and other impressive work by Canadian historian Richard McKay shows definitively that Dugas was nothing more than a salacious scapegoat for a panicked America. The salacious stories of his prolific sex life, coupled with his early diagnosis with AIDS and his persistence in having sex after the diagnosis, made him exactly the sort of villain that Americans wanted to blame for this ‘gay cancer’ (which was the original name for the disease). The reality, as we’re again seeing during the COVID pandemic, is that pandemics run their course with unrelenting ferocity. It doesn’t come down to a few ‘super-spreaders’ as to whether the disease will spread far and wide. They certainly don’t help things, but they don’t cause the pandemic.”

What should I have asked you?

“Which airline had the best flight attendant uniforms. While there were other uniforms in the US that were far more eccentric, I’m partial to the women’s outfits designed by the famed Florentine designer Emilio Pucci in 1965 for Braniff Airways.

Pucci at the time was designing brilliantly colored casual-yet-formal dresses for the likes of Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, so it was quite the thing for this relatively small Texas-based airline and its mostly-Texan flight attendant corps to wear these colorful designer outfits.

Pucci brought sophistication to an upstart, provincial carrier, though I’m not thrilled that the airline’s marketing team refused to keep things classy: they turned these practical and stylish outfits into a striptease show—the airline released commercials called ‘The Air Strip’ promising that a stewardess would discard an additional item of Pucci’s multi-layered outfits every time she walked down the aisle.

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It truly seems that female flight attendants circa 1965 endured what seemed on the exterior to be the best of times for the profession, while they simultaneously were the worst of times.

The men I interviewed each had their own favorite uniforms, and thankfully, their return to the profession by the early 1970s forced airlines to tone down the overt eroticization of their stewardesses through their uniforms.

In the early 1970s, Pan Am had hired high-end designers of their own to create a new male flight attendant outfit that complemented the women’s uniforms. They were elegant, crisp, modern suits inspired by Carnaby Street fashions and even had matching umbrellas. One Pan Am steward confessed that he loved walking through airport terminals wearing the suit, because he knew every gay man watching him would be both turned on and envious when they saw him.

Phil Tiemeyer is the author of Plane Queer: the history of men working as flight attendants. Beginning with the founding of the profession in the late 1920s and continuing into the post-September 11 era, Plane Queer examines the history of men who joined workplaces customarily identified as female-oriented. It examines the various hardships these men faced at work, paying particular attention to the conflation of gender-based, sexuality-based, and AIDS-based discrimination. Order a copy here.

The ‘Last Gunfighter’: Analysis of F-8 Crusader success over North Vietnam

By Louis S. Gundlach, Senior Air Warfare Analyst, Retired Marine Corps Fighter Pilot and Denver Bronco fan.

Prior to the Vietnam War, leadership in the US Air Force and US Navy felt that superior technology, in aircraft and weapons, would lead to air supremacy over any enemy.  Fighter aircraft like the F-4, with powerful radars and beyond visual range missiles would sweep the sky of enemy fighters. Older fighters, it was thought, would not fair as well as the F-4. The air-war over North Vietnam, especially the fight against the North Vietnamese MiG aircraft, drew much media and military leadership attention because it would put this theory to the test, albeit against a drastically inferior foe. From 1965 to 1968 and then again in 1972 United States aircraft flew into an almost daily battle over North Vietnam against a much smaller and vastly technologically inferior foe.  The United States air forces found that its reliance on technology was not up to the task of providing air superiority over North Vietnam and the U.S. air forces tallied a disappointing 2 kills for every U.S. aircraft shot down by Vietnamese fighters.  This was much lower than the 14 to 1 kill ratio claimed in the Korean War.  (Historians have recently disputed this claim and some of estimated the kill ratio in Korea to be closer to 8 to 1).  This poor kill ratio greatly distressed the leadership of the U.S. Military. The Vietnamese Air Force, purportedly poorly trained and equipped with mostly antiquated fighters, was proving itself capable of defending itself against the a vastly more well-equipped foe. The U.S. fighters and pilots, equipped with advanced technology and weapons, found that their training, tactics, and aircraft were not up to the task in Vietnam, save one aircraft.  The Navy’s F-8 Crusader, made by Vought, racked up a much more respectable 6 to 1 kill ratio and with probable claims added into the equation a 7 to 1 kill ratio was achieved in the first three years of the Vietnam War.1  How did the Crusader pilots achieve such a drastic difference in success when compared to newer and more advanced American fighters?  A comparison between the F-8 and its two adversaries of the Vietnam War, the MiG-17 and MiG-21 shows that the F-8 was fairly evenly matched against the two MiGs.  The F-8 was a proven aircraft by 1965 with fair maneuverability along with a respectable weapons suite and mature training program.  The F-8’s tactics and training were based on its lack of a beyond visual range weapons and it reliance on rear quarter IR missiles and four 20-mm cannon. The nature of the air war over Vietnam handcuffed the American forces with many disadvantages.  Stringent rules of engagement, weather, and long flight distances were some of the disadvantages that enabled the North Vietnamese MiG pilots to pick the opportune time to attack.  This led to the air battles becoming a visual maneuvering affair, an affair that the F-8 pilots were knowledgeable with.  The proper experience, one that could translate easily into a wartime situation, was instrumental in the success of the F-8 over North Vietnam.

Chance-Vought F-8 Crusader

The Vought F-8 Crusader entered service in the United States Navy in 1957.2  It was a single seat and single engine air superiority fighter.  Capable of speeds approaching Mach-2,3 the F-8 was built with one goal in mind: find enemy aircraft and shoot them down.  The Crusader was armed with four Colt Mark-12 twenty-millimetre cannon and could also carry four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.  The Mark-12 cannon were capable of firing 660 rounds per minute but were prone to jamming.4  F-8 squadrons found that consistent use and maintenance of the Mark-12 would reduce jamming incidents in training. Unfortunately, the training environment, whether shooting at a target on the ground or shooting a target banner at 30,000 feet, did not simulate the rigours of a dogfight over North Vietnam. F-8 pilots often practiced air-to-air gunnery by shooting a cloth banner, impregnated with some radar receptive material, which was towed by another fighter. The pattern was usually flown at 20,000 feet and the supersonic pattern was flown at 30,000 feet.5  To score hits on the banner a pilot needs to fly a smooth and precise pattern through the air.  While G-forces during the firing run can approach 6G, the G-force is usually applied with a smooth, consistent pull.  Contrast this with a dogfight in which a fighter is trying get into a firing situation on another aircraft that is manoeuvring in three dimensions. The fight is characterised by rapid onset of G-forces followed by rapid un-loads or negative G-forces. This difference between shooting situations in training and combat caused the cannon-jamming problem to return during missions over North Vietnam.  

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The AIM-9 sidewinder used by the F-8, was a short-range infra-red homing missile.  The F-8s used two different variants of the AIM-9 during the first part of the Vietnam War, the AIM-9B and the AIM-9D.  The AIM-9B/D during the Vietnam War was limited in the fact that they had poor IR sensitivity, which led to susceptibility to track a heat source on the ground vice the target aircraft.  The AIM-9s during this period had to be fired at the rear quarter of an enemy aircraft and it also was severely limited in its ability to track and hit a maneuvering target. The AIM-9B could only be effective at less than 20 degrees angle of the tail (AOT) of the enemy aircraft.  The AIM-9B also could only be launched effectively with less than 2 Gs on the launching aircraft.  The AIM-9D had a cooled seeker head that gave it better heat discrimination and a better motor for better performance.6  The AIM-9D could be effective out to 40 degrees AOT, but the F-8 Tactical Manual (TACMAN) stated it could be effective out to 90 degrees AOT.7  The AIM-9D could also be fired with more Gs applied to the launching aircraft and had better effectiveness against a maneuvering target.  Effective range for a missile is altitude dependant but below 10,000 feet, where almost all of the air-to-air engagements over North Vietnam took place, the AIM-9 had an effective range envelope from a quarter of a mile out to just over 2 miles at 10,000 feet. 

 F-8 pilots practiced during the 1960’s with captive carry AIM-9s, which gave all the indications of a valid track, but the missile did not have a motor or warhead.  This gave the pilots the knowledge of the missiles envelope and enabled the F-8 pilots in combat to have a better success rate than their US counterparts.  The F-8 did have the ability to carry the AIM-9C, a short-range, semi-active radar homing missile, which had the ability to shoot down enemy aircraft head on out to 6 miles at 10,000 feet.  A semi-active missile would guide on a radar return.  For the AIM-9C to guide, the F-8s radar had to be fully operational and locked on a target. The AIM-9C did have some success in training exercises and was carried occasionally in combat over Vietnam, but the opportunity to be used never arose.8  

            The F-8 carried Air-Intercept (AI) pulse radars, the APQ-84 and the APQ-134.9 The APQ radars provided rough range, altitude, and bearing out to about 20 miles with the APQ-134 against a fighter sized target.10  The pulse radar did not have a look-down capability so the F-8s radar could not see a target much below its own altitude.  F-8s pilot practiced acquiring aircraft with its radar and using the information to enter the visual arena in an advantageous position.  The transition to the visual maneuvering arena was always part of the F-8 pilots training package and this separated it from the training that the F-4 aircrews received.  Due to the limited capability, range, and reliability of the F-8s radar the Crusader was dependant on good GCI or AIC (Ground Controlled Intercept or Airborne Intercept Control, controllers on the ground or airborne, who monitored powerful radars and directed the fighters) and a good visual lookout doctrine.

F-8, MiG-17, MiG-21 comparison

            During the air war over North Vietnam, air-to-air engagements, especially those that took place in the visual arena, depended on three dominant characteristics to be successful.  The ability to pick up another aircraft visually usually was the first precursor to a successful attack.  Visual pick -ups could be dependant on the visual acuity of the individual pilot, but cockpit visibility played an important role.  Also, the ability to see an attack could enable a pilot to survive to fight another day.  Visibility had an added importance to a pilot’s situational awareness due to unreliable ground control radars and unreliable or non-existent (for the MiG-17) fighter radars.  Aircraft maneuverability is an important performance factor in a visual dogfight when both adversaries see each other and are manoeuvring.  Altitude and airspeed play a role in this factor, one aircraft might be superior at low altitude and sub-sonic speeds while another might be superior at high altitude and super-sonic speeds.  For combat over Vietnam, the comparison is made where the combat mostly took place, below 10,000 feet and subsonic airspeeds.  The last factor to compare for successful air combat in the visual arena is weapons and the systems that control those weapons.  If a fighter can sight another aircraft, manoeuvre into a position to shoot down that aircraft, but the weapons and associated systems are incapable of finishing the job, the fighter is impotent. A comparison of the F-8 to the two North Vietnamese fighters it faced will show that each aircraft had weaknesses that were exploitable by the other aircraft. 

Visibility for the pilot in the F-8 was poor by modern standards, with a large blind spot behind the pilot and multiple canopy bows to the front.  It did offer better visibility than most fighters of the time, with good visibility up, to the sides, and down.11  The MiG-17 had very poor visibility to the front of the fighter due to canopy bows and thick bulletproof glass.  The MiG-17 pilot also sat very low in the cockpit, which hindered his downward and rear views.  The MiG-17 pilot did have a good view up and to the sides.12  The MiG-21 had the worst visibility of the three fighters.  The front glass also had very thick bulletproof glass with large canopy bows.  The MiG-21’s rearward visibility was non-existent with a blind cone that extended 40 degrees from either side of the tail.  Some MiG-21s had a rear looking periscope, but this was fairly ineffective in a combat situation.  The MiG-21’s rearward visibility was so poor that US visual game plans developed in the late 1960’s through secret exploitation programs relied heavily on exploiting this weakness.13

The ability to manoeuvre a fighter plane into a position to shoot down another aircraft has been a hallmark of fighter design since the First World War. Fighter maneuverability is a wide-ranging concept that has to take into account different airspeeds, altitudes, and configurations.  Since the combat over Vietnam took place at a relatively consistent altitude and airspeed, below 10,000 feet and subsonic airspeeds, a comparison can be made between the three fighters. Configurations in the fighter roles also remained fairly constant throughout the war for the three fighters. For an initial comparison of maneuverability, a fighter’s wing loading can be contrasted.  Wing loading is the fighters weight divided by wing area.14  A low wing loading aircraft usually has a better turn performance than an aircraft with a high wing loading, especially at subsonic airspeeds.  Instantaneous turn rate and radius at differing altitudes can offer a look at a first turn capability of a fighter aircraft, while sustained turn rate and radius focus on the fighters turn performance over time.  Unfortunately, the F-8s turn rate and radius numbers remain classified at this time.15

The F-8 Crusader was built as a pure air superiority fighter with the Mark-12 20-mm cannon as the primary weapon.  The ability to manoeuvre to achieve a weapons solution was an important consideration in the design.  Although supersonic speed and high-altitude performance were also features that influenced the aircrafts design. Compared to other US fighters of the time, the F-8 had decent maneuverability with wing loading of 69 lbs per square foot.  The F-8 would stall below 220 kts in a turn and could have some difficult departure characteristics.16  At supersonic, high subsonic airspeeds, and high altitude the F-8 had good turn performance.  At low altitude, lower wing loaded aircraft had a definite turn advantage over the Crusader. 

The MiG-17 was a very maneuverable aircraft.  With a lightweight and a low stall speed, this swept wing aircraft had very impressive instantaneous turn and sustained turn rate and radius.  The MiG-17 had a wing loading of 44 pounds be square foot.17  It had an instantaneous turn rate of 21 degrees per second and a sustained turn rate of 13 degrees per second.18  The MiG-17 also had a sustained turn radius of about 1800 feet at low altitude and a best turn speed of just over 300 knots.  At slow airspeeds the MiG-17 could continue an impressive turn all the way down to a speed of 120 knots.  At high airspeeds the MiG-17 turn rate and radius became less impressive.  Above 450 knots the MiG-17s controls began to stiffen and the aircraft would begin to ‘arc’. ‘Arcing’ is a term used by fighter pilots to describe a turn that is characterized by a large turn radius and a low rate of turn.  At slower airspeeds the MiG-17 could outturn any of the US fighter aircraft.   

Interview with a Crusader pilot here.

The MiG-21C was designed for high altitude interception.  It was capable of Mach 2 and had a delta wing design and a wing loading of 58 pounds per square foot.  At high altitude the MiG-21C had good turn performance but as the altitude decreased its performance also decreased.  At 5000 feet the MiG-21 C has an instantaneous turn rate of around 15 degrees per second and a sustained turn rate of 9 degrees per second.  Its instantaneous radius was less than 2000 feet and its best airspeed was above 350 knots.19  

            Weapons and weapons control suite control a fighter’s ability to down another aircraft.  Once that aircraft had been sighted and through maneuvering or surprise the aircraft brings its weapons to bear, the accuracy and reliability of the weapons become the last part of a visual arena kill in air to air combat. The weapons and weapon control systems were fairly similar and were consistent with the fighter technology developed in the 1950’s.  The F-8’s weapons suite consisted of a pulse radar, two or four AIM-9 missiles, and four 20-mm cannon.  The F-8s radar and weapons computer provided range and a computed gun solution for the gun sight.   Unfortunately, the radar and computer had a 3 second settling time before it provided accurate information.  What this meant was that an enemy aircraft had to fly the same course and airspeed for at least 3 seconds for the F-8 pilot to get accurate information for a radar guided gunshot.  A non-maneuvering or steady state fighter in a visual engagement was a highly unlikely.  The F-8s Mark-12 20-mm guns, as stated previously, were highly susceptible to jamming in a high G environment.  The Mark-12s also were inaccurate with a 12-mil dispersion.20  This meant that bullets would land in a 12-foot wide circle when fired at 1000 feet. The 12-mil dispersion is fairly large when compared to the 3-mil dispersion of previous fighters.  The AIM-9B and D were fairly reliable against non-maneuvering aircraft, but both had varying degrees of difficulty with maneuvering targets. The F-8’s radar was also temperamental and was frequently inoperative. The F-8 could operate and often did effectively without its radar operating.  Due to unreliability of its guns and limitations of the AIM-9B/D, the F-8 could and did find itself in a position to shoot down an enemy fighter but unable to finish the job. 

The MiG-17 was a follow on to the MiG-15.  It was to be operated from unimproved fields and carried rudimentary armament. The North Vietnamese operated two main variants of the MiG-17, the MiG-17F and the MiG-17PF.  The MiG-17F was armed with two 23-mm cannon and one 37-mm cannon.  The MiG-17PF had the same armament but also had a range only gun radar.  Both MiGs had a slow rate of fire, carried very few rounds, and their cannon and gun sight were notoriously inaccurate.  The cannon had tremendous killing power and one hit could bring down a US fighter.  The MiG-17PF’s radar was hard to maintain and often was inoperable. The MiG-17 could carry two AA-2 Atoll missiles, copies of the AIM-9B, but most often this configuration was not seen.21  

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The MiG-21C was a vastly more modern fighter than the MiG-17 and on paper it appeared to be much more of a threat than the MiG-17.  The MiG-21C carried a range only ‘Sky Fix’ radar that had a lock-on range out to four miles.  It provided the pilot with a missile and gun in-range cueing.  The MiG-21C’s main armament was the AA-2B and it could carry 2 of the missiles.  The AA-2B had an un-cooled seeker head and a range out to 1.5 miles at low altitude.  The AA-2B was a rear quarter, 20 degrees AOT or less with limited manoeuvrability or ability to discern a target from ground heat.22  The MiG-21C also had a single Gsh-30 30-mm cannon.  The radar and range computer were somewhat inaccurate, and a phenomenon known as ‘gun sight jitter’, where the gun sight pipper jumps about the gun sight when the gun is fired, was prevalent in the MiG-21C.  Like the MiG-17, the MiG-21 C’s cannon did have a tremendous punch and could bring down a US fighter with a single hit.23

A comparison of the three fighters shows that each had its own advantages and disadvantages.   The F-8 had better visibility from the cockpit than the two MiGs. This visibility would provide the F-8 pilots with an offensive entry or could provide them with a chance to see an attacker before it was too late.  The F-8 and the MiG-21 were evenly matched at low altitude in terms of manoeuvrability.  The MiG-21C’s delta wing limited some of its low altitude manoeuvrability, so the wing loading comparison is a little deceiving.  The MiG-17 could out turn the F-8 by a wide margin at low altitude and slower than 450 knots, but the Crusaders much higher speed and acceleration meant a savvy pilot could stay out of range of the MiG-17’s powerful guns.  A slow speed dogfight at low altitude against a MiG-17 could prove fatal to any US fighter. The three-fighter aircraft carried comparable weapons. All three had inaccurate cannon but the MiG’s killing power was superior. The F-8 had a distinct advantage starting in 1967 when the AIM-9D was introduced to the Navy fleet squadrons.  The AIM-9D was superior in range and seeker head capability to the AA-2B and the AIM-9B.24  The F-8s radar was also superior to the MiG’s radar systems and its capability to detect and lock enemy aircraft could aid a pilot greatly in visual acquisition.  

F-8 Pilot Training

The first F-8 models were pure air superiority fighters.  Until the F-8E was introduced in the early 1960’s, the F-8 did not have a bomb carrying capability.  The F-8 was also designed with the four Colt Mark-12 20-mm cannon as the primary weapon.  F-8 pilots all report that the aircraft was fun to fly and was an honest aircraft.  It would let you know when it was going to depart, but it could have some nasty post stall gyrations and departure characteristics.  US Navy and Marine Corps F-8 training in the late 1950s and early 1960s revolved around the air superiority mission.  F-8 pilots racked up large amounts of flight hours and experience.  Rules during this time were not very stringent and F-8 pilots would practice their trade on any aircraft they could find.  Un-briefed dogfights were the norm and in the absence of different aircraft, the F-8s would fight against each other.  Even with the introduction of the F-8E and the air-to-ground mission, the F-8 pilots reported that they would continue to fight against each other at the end of each mission. A large number of pilots had vast experience in dogfighting and knew the capabilities and limitations of the F-8.25

            F-8 pilot’s experiences with air-to-air gunnery differed although all did have some experience with shooting at the banner.  Like much of Navy and Marine Corps training at the time, individual F-8 squadrons drove the training syllabus and events.  One squadron might conduct air-to-air gunnery shoots on a regular basis while other might do it during an operational inspection.  The air-to-air gunnery pattern had three positive effects on F-8 capabilities.  By exercising the guns in an environment that they may be shot in combat, maintenance and reliability would improve.  Pilots would gain valuable experience on how the jet reacted to the 20-mm guns being fired.  The last thing a pilot would want is to be startled by his own guns in a combat situation.  Lastly, the pilots would learn how to score hits and overcome the limitations of the gun and gun sight system.  Reliance on the gun system would drive tactics that would force the F-8 into close visual maneuvering situations, much like the situations they would find over North Vietnam.26

            The F-8 community in the 1960s added an important facet to its training, the captive carry AIM-9 missiles.  These missiles had the seeker head of a regular AIM-9 but without the warhead or motor.  The captive carry missiles could lock other aircraft and give the pilot all of the indications he would see in combat.  Since combat simulators for aircraft were non-existent at this time, the ability to train with the differing tones and indications of an air-to-air missile was invaluable.  The F-8 pilots could point to this use of the captive carry missile as another part of their success in Vietnam.  Although the overall success of the AIM-9s fired by F-8s in combat was not drastically different than that of other fighters, the AIM-9 was the dominant weapon used by F-8s in combat over Vietnam.

            By its nature, dogfights, especially ones involving many aircraft, are complex three-dimensional affairs that require experience for a pilot to become effective at surviving and killing enemy aircraft.  A pilot needs to be able to recognize what the enemy aircraft is doing, its energy state and position as well as his own aircrafts position in a fight.  In a multi-plane engagement, a pilot will learn to know where to find aircraft after taking his eyes off of one to evaluate or attack another.  Though people like to romanticize that some pilots are naturally born fighter pilots, the truth is that only through experience and training is an effective fighter pilot developed.  While some pilots are better than their peers at maneuvering their aircraft and some can quickly learn to beat more experienced pilots in one on one combat.  Only experience in engaging differing aircraft in different numbers can a pilot become effective in the multi-fighter engagement.  By becoming a master of one’s own aircraft and participating in hundreds or thousands of aerial engagements, a pilot can become the master of his domain.  F-8 pilots, by the nature of their mission and training focus, unknowingly prepared for the engagements over Vietnam by fighting day after day.  While other US aircraft worked on techniques for nuclear bomb delivery or all-weather radar attack procedures, F-8 pilots practiced the mission that their aircraft was developed for. This experience would pay dividends over North Vietnam.  

Environment over North Vietnam

The North Vietnamese Air Force, on paper, did not match up well against the air forces of the United States.  They did not have the numbers of aircraft and many were technologically inferior.  Most of their pilots had very limited experience and they did not have the training opportunities that the US pilots had.  The North Vietnamese Air Force did have many advantages though.  They were defending their home country and their fighters did not have to fly far to engage the US fighters.  The North Vietnamese Ground Control and Early Warning Radars could see the US aircraft forming up and gave their fighters plenty of time to launch and prepare to attach.  The North Vietnamese fighters were only a part of the air defense system with the US aircraft having to concern themselves with Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and Anti-Aircraft-Artillery (AAA), along with the MiGs.  The United States engaged in a limited bombing campaign where the North Vietnamese MiG bases were off limits most of the time.  This enabled the MiGs to have a safe haven and the ability to choose the time and place of their attacks.  If the MiGs did not have a positive tactical situation they could leave and fight another day because their aircraft were mostly immune to attack while on the ground.26

            The US fighters and bombers faced a daunting task over North Vietnam.  Attack timing, routes, and targets were often picked in Washington D.C. by non-aviators, not for attack results or sound tactics, but for avoidance of collateral damage.  Often unsound tactics were ordered by planners, which often put US pilots in extreme danger, for targets that often did not have significant value.  North Vietnamese defenses were often left alone to threaten US aircraft day in and day out.    Weather often played a role over North Vietnam.  Poor weather would limit the ability of the pilots to see their targets or any threats until it was too late.  Vietnam was characterized by a long monsoon season and heavy thunderstorms at other times.  This weather also put US aircraft in danger.  The fact that US pilots of all services continued to fly over North Vietnam when they could quit at any time speaks volumes for the courage and dedication to duty.

Engagements

The US Navy lost three F-8 Crusaders in aerial combat over North Vietnam.  All three loses had many of the same characteristics.  When the F-8s were attacked the MiGs had a significant tactical advantage.  Some or all of the MiGs had an altitude advantage and gained an unobserved entry into the dogfight.  All three of the engagements were multi-plane engagements with multiple MiGs in the area.  The weather for all three had cloud cover that could hide enemy airplanes and make ‘Tallies’ (visual acquisition of enemy aircraft) difficult.  The nature of a multi-aircraft visual turning engagement makes it difficult for a pilot to keep track of all of the turning opponents.  This is where the experience mentioned in the previous paragraph on training becomes so important.  Poor weather will limit the ability of a pilot to maintain tally of all of the enemy aircraft and some will invariably become lost in the mix.  This was the case on all three of the F-8 shoot downs.  One F-8 pilot claimed that AAA damaged his aircraft and the MiGs finished him off.27  His aircraft did not have the ability to defend himself.  Another F-8 was shot down without every seeing his attacker who dropped out of the clouds right behind the Navy pilot was prosecuting an attack against anther MiG.28  The last F-8 shot down was jumped by a flight of four MiG-17s and the pilot’s defensive reaction was too little, too late.29  The F-8s tactics and training drove it into to close proximity of enemy fighters and invariably the enemy fighters could find itself with a weapons employment opportunity on the American fighters.  Because the tactical situation over North Vietnam was so disadvantaged for the US aircraft, it speaks highly of the F-8 pilots experience and ability that more F-8s were not lost to MiGs over North Vietnam. 

            The F-8s achieved 18 or 19 kills, depending on which resource you check, over North Vietnam during the first three years of the war.  Much of the combat was multi-aircraft visual dogfights, often with the F-8s fighting an in-close dogfight with MiG-17s, a situation that should have greatly favored the MiG-17s.  The first MiG kill of the war was by a very experienced Navy Commander with 1,400 hours in the F-8 and over 5,000 hours in fighters.  The dogfight was a four versus four visual turning engagement down at 2,000 to 3,000 feet.  The F-8s outmaneuvered the MiGs with the Commander achieving a kill with an AIM-9B.  More kills would probably have been achieved by the F-8s, but weapon failures were rampant in the flight.  Three F-8s had gun failures when the American fighters were in firing solutions on MiGs.  Eight AIM-9s failed to hit targets when launched with the failures either being missile failures or pilot error.30

Interview with a Crusader pilot here.

            The next MiG kills were achieved by two second cruise Lieutenants with about 1,000 hours each in F-8s.  Their flight lead was shot down at the beginning of the engagement by either AAA and/or MiGs.  The F-8s out maneuvered the MiG-17s; one was shot down by an AIM-9B and the other by the F-8s 20MM cannon.  Of note, this kill was the only gun exclusive kill credited to the F-8 during the Vietnam War.31

            A Commander with 15 years of fighter experience and over 1,000 hours in the F-8 scored the first MiG-21 kill by a Navy aircraft.  The flight of F-8s had good radar vectors and an early tally on the flight of four MiG-21s.  The Commander maneuvered to an offensive position and dropped the MiG-21 with an AIM-9B and an AIM-9D.  The combat took place below 4,000 feet.  This Commander had been shot down by MiG-17s four months earlier.32

            In spring 1967, F-8s were involved in multiple engagements with North Vietnamese MiGs.  A Lieutenant Commander with 10 years of experience and over 3,000 hours in the F-8 damaged a MiG with 20 MM hits and a Zuni rocket hit. (The Zuni was an unguided air to ground rocket with a warhead and an AIM-9 motor)  The Lieutenant Commanders guns jammed while he was in a gun solution at 3,000 feet.  Later another experienced Lieutenant Commander would gain a tally on a low flying MiG-17 and maneuver to kill it with an AIM-9D.  The F-8 then outmaneuvered another MiG-17 and damaged it with his 20 MM cannon.33  

            A large dogfight ensued in May 1967 with three MiG-17s being shot down and another being a probable kill by F-8 pilots.  A Commander maneuvered behind a MiG-17 and dropped it with two AIM-9D missiles.  Two experienced Lieutenants outmaneuvered two different MiG-17s and hit them with AIM-9Ds.  One of the Lieutenants found his MiG behind him and was hit by the MiGs cannon but managed to outmaneuver the North Vietnamese pilot and shoot him down.  Lastly a Lieutenant Junior Grade downed the final MiG with an AIM-9D.  All of the combat took place below 5,000 feet.34

            In July of 1967 another large dogfight ensued with the F-8s once again getting the better of the North Vietnamese fighters.  A Commander downed one MiG-17 and damaged a second with AIM-9Ds.  (In some records the Commander is giving credit for the second MiG)  A Lieutenant Commander damaged a MiG-17 with an AIM-9D and finished the MIG with the 20MM cannon.  Anther Lieutenant Commander damaged a MiG-17 with the 20MM cannon and finished the job with a pair of Zuni rockets.  A Lieutenant damaged a MiG-17 with an AIM-9D and was given a probable kill.   The combat was once again at low altitude.  The flight of F-8s had seven AIM-9 misses or failures during the fighting.35  

            A second cruise Lieutenant achieved a MiG-17 kill in December of 1967 when he outmaneuvered the MiG and downed it with an AIM-9D.  A Lieutenant Commander also out flew a MiG in this flight but had two AIM-9 misses and a gun jam which denied him of his chance to down a MiG.  This pilot out flew 4 MiG-17s at medium altitude for almost fifteen minutes.  His actions kept the fighters off of an A-4 Skyhawk that was involved in the fight.  This combat was unique since it took place at 10,000 to 20,000 feet.  Another Lieutenant in the flight missed with an AIM-9D.36  

            Throughout the summer on 1968 the F-8 pilots continued to engage and kill MiGs without loss.  A Commander with 2,500 hours in the F-8 out maneuvered a MiG-21 and downed it with an AIM-9D and his 20MM cannon.  A Lieutenant Commander with 2,400 hours in the F-8 out fought a MIG-17 and downed the aircraft with the 20MM cannon and an AIM-9D. Another Commander was involved in a large dogfight at low altitude and downed a MiG-17 with an AIM-9D.  His flight ran into weapons failures that inhibited more MiG kills.  Four AIM-9 misses, and a jammed gun foiled the attacks of the rest of the F-8 pilots.  Other flights also ran into armament problems.  11 AIM-9 misses and 2 gun jams in three engagements let some MiGs survive.  The last three kills by F-8 pilots were against MiG-21s.  Experienced pilots, below 10,000 feet, achieved these kills and the fights were characterised by the F-8s outmanoeuvring the MiGs.  The MiG-21s were all downed by AIM-9Ds.37

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            The F-8’s over North Vietnam started the war by losing 3 fighters and shooting down 3 MiGs.  After that the Crusader pilots went on a 15 (or 16 depending on the source) to nothing tear.  Most of the combat involved maneuvering multi-plane engagements at low altitude.  The low altitude regime should have favored the MiG-17s.  AIM-9s were involved in all but two of the kills.  11 of the MiG killers were either Commanders or Lieutenant Commanders.  6 Lieutenants and one Lieutenant Junior Grade rounded out the kill column for the F-8.  Most of the Lieutenants were at least on their second cruise and had over a thousand hours in the F-8.  The unreliability of the F-8s weapons was a cause of multiple missed kill opportunities.  While it is doubtful that all or even a majority of these opportunities would have resulted in more MiG kills, at least a few would probably have resulted in a downed MiG.

Interview with a Crusader pilot here.

Conclusion

The air war over Vietnam was mismanaged by the United States at the highest levels.  The deck was stacked against the US air forces.  The F-8 Crusader was a mature aircraft at the time of the war with some very experienced pilots.   The F-8 had visual weapons only had to rely on manoeuvrability and pilot skill to achieve a weapons solution.  The nature of the combat that occurred over Vietnam, mostly visual turning engagements, was similar to the training that the F-8 community had practiced for the previous 10 years.   The in close dogfight over hostile territory against aircraft that were more manoeuvrable should not have been to the F-8s advantage.  The North Vietnamese MiGs had good radar coverage and control and could pick its engagements.  When the MiGs did engage, it was often with an advantage, against aircraft that it could out turn.  The F-8 pilots training over the previous ten years had more than evened the tables in the skies over North Vietnam.  The countless dogfights, the dedication to aerial gunnery, and the experience that came with both were the deciding factor in the success of the F-8.  Only 18 F-8 pilots were able to down MiGs over North Vietnam.  Other pilots had the opportunity, but weapons failures or other unforeseen circumstances foiled their attempts.  The vast majority of F-8 pilots never had the chance to see and engage the MiGs over North Vietnam.  Many other F-8 pilots had the knowledge and experience to achieve MiG kills but were never in the right place at the right time.  The F-8 was a good aircraft with some strong attributes and some faults, but it was the pilots training and experience level that led to air-to-air success over North Vietnam.

WORKS CITED

1.  Barrett Tillman, MiG Master, The Story of the F-8 Crusader (United States: Nautical Aviation Publishing Company of America 1980) page 130

2. Tillman,  page 24

3. Michael O’Conner, MiG Killers of Yankee Station (Wisconsin, New Past Press, INC 2003) page 17

4. Tillman, page 68

5. Paul T. Gillcrist, Rear Admiral (USN ret) Crusader! Last of the Gunfighters (Pennsylvania, Schiffer Publishing LTD, 1995) page 74

6. Marshall Michel III, Clashes, Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972 (Annapolis, Maryland, Naval Institute Press 1997) page 54

7. Vought F-8 E/H/J Tactical Manual (Naval Publishing 1967) page 44

8. Tillman, page 75

9. F-8 E/H/K Tactical Manual, page 51

10. F-8 E/H/K Tactical Manual, page 55

11. Gillcrist, page 235

12. Gillcrist, page 237

13. Michel III, page 82

14. Website, Basic Aerodynamics. available [online]: http://142.26.194.131/aerodynamics1/Basics/wing_loading.html

15. Correspondence, Major Matt Taylor, Test Pilot VX-23, NAX Pax River, MD

16. Tillman, page 28

17. Michel III, page 82

18. Website, MiG-17, Home of a True Fighter. Available [online] http://www.mig17.com/specifications.html

19. Michel III, page 82

20. Tillman, page 66

21. Michel III, page 234

22. Michel III, page 78

23. Gillcrist, page 237

24. Michel III, page 54

25. Harold L. Marr, Commander USN, “We Will Get MiGs” Grumman Horizons, vol. 8 no1. pp. 4-11

26. Billy Phillips, Captain USN, “It Takes a Special Kind of Man” Grumman Horizons, vol 8 no 3. pp 3-12

27. O’Conner, page 39

28. O’Conner, page 42

29. O’Conner, page 49

30. O’Conner, page 38

31. O’Conner, page 42

32. O’Conner, page 52

33. O’Conner, page 68

34. O’Conner, page 70

35. O’Conner, page 81

36. O’Conner, page 101

37. O’Conner, page 133

Other Works Cited

Peter Mersky, F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War, (Osprey Publishing LTD, London, England 1997)

Robert K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, (Pocket Books, New York, NY 1990)

Ivan Rendall, Rolling Thunder, Jet Combat from World War II to the Gulf War, (The Free Press, New York, NY 1997)

Peter B. Mersky & Norman Polmar, The Naval Air War in Vietnam, (Kensington Publishing Co. New York, NY 1981)

Zalin Grant, Over the Beach, The Air War in Vietnam, (W.W. Norton and Company INC, New York, NY 1987)

John Darrell Sherwood, Fast Movers, Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience, ( The Free Press, New York, NY 1999)

Frank Harvey, Air War-Vietnam, (Bantam Books, New York, NY 1967)

Robert L. Shaw, Fighter Combat, Tactics and Maneuvering, (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD 1985)

VC-2 FLEET COMPOSITE SQUADRON TWO website, F-8 Crusader specifications, available online [http://home.earthlink.net/~dlee0005/F-8%20Crusader.htm]

Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Tom Corboy, April 11, 2005

Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Art Krause, April 3, 2005

Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Lou Pritchet, March 29, 2005

Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, Orson Swindle, March 21, 2005

Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, James Hagen, March 21, 2005

Email Interview, re: F-8 questionnaire, LtCol Stoney Mayock USMC (ret), March 19, 2005

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“Land rules don’t apply and the little nuts just don’t soak up all that booze”: A history of aviation by someone who knows nothing and hasn’t even googled it

I was curious to know what a normal (non aeroplane obsessed) person knows about aviation, so I asked the artist and actor Penny Klein. This is directly from her memory with no research, fact-checking or googling.


“I don’t know much about aviation, but I know the word aviation is to do with aeroplanes. I imagine the root of the word is ‘aviate’ or ‘av’, and is something to do with being in the air. I would hazard a guess that to ‘aviate’ is to ‘go in the air’. Planes are best known, of course, for doing exactly that. It can’t be that long since aviation has been going, as a topic, as planes are not that old.

“Land rules don’t apply and the little nuts just don’t soak up all that booze.”

I reckon they were invented as some kind of weapon, and leisurely flying came a lot later. I think it must have taken quite a long time for people to work out how far planes can go up in the air, so they don’t collide with the edge of the o-zone layer. I can’t say with certainty that the discovery of the o-zone layer came before the invention of planes, but I think it probably did. There is bound to have been a plane that went too high. There is also probably a long and documented history of planes that went too low. The thing is, it depends on how many people are on the plane. Small light aircraft can do all sorts of tricks in the sky that you would never see larger planes do. I don’t think anyone would even try, because the size and scale is just all wrong. I get a funny feeling just thinking about it.

Aviation as an industry has probably done a lot over the years to help regulate against anyone taking dangerous risks with aeroplane flying. And of course it is hard to hide aeroplane experiments, because they take place in the sky which is practically impossible to hide from people. I don’t really want to go into it, but aviation research probably has a lot to say about plane crashes. It probably talks about it in quite an unemotional way, because aviation is more of a science. So it would be looking at the scientific and engineering factors involved, things like balance and velocity. I know that planes have wheels on them for when they are on land, and I imagine aviation theory has a lot to say about this. I wonder if the wheels on aeroplanes used to be a lot bigger in the past. Aviation history would be a good place to turn for this kind of information. It would also be a good place to turn if you wanted a comprehensive history of international flight patterns. For instance where were the first flights to and from? Why? Aviation historians must get asked this kind of thing a lot, and I’m sure they are happy to divulge.

The aviation industry has probably been unwittingly involved in its fair share of scandals and court cases, as aeroplane flights are often mixed up in nefarious tabloid worthy affairs. Blowjobs in the toilets, Xanax and champagne, smuggling, bigotry, that kind of thing. It is hard to tell whether a lot of this is just salacious gossip or whether there is something more orchestrated going on. Land rules don’t apply and the little nuts just don’t soak up all that booze, if you know what I mean. For that reason, in the eye of the public, the aviation industry tends to have a bit of a shady side. Perhaps this is reinforced by the idea of aviator sunglasses, which seem to denote something a bit depraved. Certain pop culture references do a lot to back this image up, which makes me wonder if there is some kind of agenda. Whatever is going on, you don’t work in the aviation industry and stay innocent.

That said, I think it is a serious business and shouldn’t be taken lightly. We’re talking huge machines here, that carry a lot of people and also ‘cargo’. Cargo is the stuff that people put in the aeroplanes, down in the bottom bit, and contains all kinds of things. It is down here where you can have aerosols and sharp objects. I would imagine the aviation department of any major airline has some stories to tell about cargo.


Aviation as a subject has probably expanded over the last couple of decades as planes have become more sophisticated, and more people can fly, and as there has been more research into automated flying. I know that planes still have pilots, but for how long? There are probably aviation specialists who are more interested in helicopters, I can’t even imagine what they get up to.

There will undoubtedly be those who are stuck in the past, and only like lecturing about wooden planes, before they had ovens and fridges on them. There are undoubtedly disagreements about fuel type and tail shapes, and let us not forget design. Airline graphics are a big business, and I don’t think for a second that aviationists are on the fence about that Ryan Air logo!
All in all I have a lot of respect for anyone involved in the field, and I’d be interested to learn more about how it works and what it really means to say as a young child to your career advisor: “I’ll do aviation, please.’