The trouble you have when describing the Harrier is that folk immediately assume that you are trying to mount a defence of an icon-based on heartfelt fondness and not hard fact. The battle lines are pretty rigid. Harrier fans and critics never seem to agree. In an attempt to bridge this divide I write today to argue a not often argued point. That the Harrier was adequate.
Let’s start with something uncomfortable but true. Not a lot of aeroplanes are good. Good is a hard milestone to achieve because it’s relative. Relative to the other aircraft available at the time and relative to the threat. To get to good you have to be broadly comparable to the best in class. For air-to-air fighters this became the F-15 Eagle in 1976 and was upgraded to the F-22 in 2005. The world makes some poor aircraft. Usually by a combination of poor performance but usually by being late to the party by a decade or two – and delivering what would have been good, but 20 years after it mattered. So good is tough, poor is not uncommon – in the middle comes ‘adequate’. Nothing fundamentally wrong with them, able to contribute, sometimes in niche roles. A lot of aircraft are adequate as all are compromises, the pluses just have to balance the minuses. For attack aircraft the water is slightly muddier than the air-to-air fight but seeing as though a Harrier will never be the fastest, carry the most, or go the furthest – adequate maybe the most you are ever really going to be able to argue. Here are my top ten reasons for thinking that the Harrier was and is adequate.
Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here and Super Hornet here.
10. Being there. It sounds daft but sometimes in warfare something really isn’t better than nothing. A good example of this would be a strike being mounted into a Missile Engagement Zone by an air force that didn’t have an ARM capability (don’t suppose you can think of any?). Something and nothing would have largely the same effect. Sometimes, however, something is very much better than nothing and, as the Harrier GR3 along with its FRS Mk1 stable mate proved in the Falklands crisis – you can be the best at what you do if you’re the only show in town. The Harrier was pretty good at being there. With an engine designed to hover and therefore gulp air down like it was going out of fashion (it won’t so please don’t panic sell air on my account) it had a blistering first 100 paces or so and could therefore use short runways to operate from. That meant that not only could it do dispersed operations, it could do austere operations and sea-based operations. Having afterburners can be pretty cool, opponents will argue. Needing them to take off or tank is totally uncool. I cannot speak for the customer but I can’t think a JTAC or a ground commander would probably be very glad indeed to have CAS at hand in some out of the way location, Belize, the Falklands, Kandahar amongst others whilst someone else worked out how to get the best in class to the fight, let alone into it. Yes, everything is a compromise (may have mentioned that!) so short strips and small regional runways do not equal large weapon loads but on the other hand – rapid turn rounds at austere locations can give you belt-fed CAS if you’re good at it. There are other considerations such as it being possible to base yourself a little too close to the enemy but, by and large, the Harrier’s ability to be there probably takes us into adequate, maybe even beyond.
9. Das Boot.
There are a lot of odd things written about sea basing. They usually take the form of left and right of arc zealotry. On the one hand it’s argued that carriers are far too vulnerable to be viable and on the other that only carriers can give you worldwide freedom of manoeuvre. Neither are true. But everything’s a compromise so the ability to base a VSTOL fighter at sea and move it around between days gives you some flexibility in where you may appear from. I believe that may be called surprise and in war it’s one of those things that is worth doing. It’s not half the battle though. Moving around could give you the ability to attack someone without having to ask a third party’s permission to over fly them on the way, or indeed base yourself there for the fight. That gets awkward for everyone. It hopefully goes without saying that sea basing isn’t a great idea if the aircraft isn’t actually designed for it or if the crews and maintainers aren’t trained. But if you do have a VSTOL aircraft, then you probably have a sea base-able one as well and you may roam the high seas looking for trouble. And if you can roam the oceans, land on the land, and patrol the skies…well that only leaves space, so I think we are on safely adequate ground.
8. So we may as well mention VSTOL. The main benefit of VSTOL is actually nothing to do with airshows or aircraft carriers. It takes a little explaining. Aircraft carry more fuel than they need. This is obviously totally inefficient and everything on an aeroplane should be absolutely vital for the types operation. If that’s not the case then you are carting stuff around you don’t need which means less space for stuff you do need and more work for engines pushing things you don’t need through time and space. Why do people of sound mind do this? Simple. It’s to do with redundancy when things go wrong or when the enemy gets a vote. So a triplex redundant hydraulic system is great if you want to cope with a failure or battle damage. So long as you’re happy to take it along with all that entails. Fuel is very similar and people carry more than they need to in case the weather is bad, the cross wind exceeds limits or someone ahead of you crashes. VSTOL removes at least two of these reasons and VSTOL aeroplanes therefore carry less contingency (wasted) fuel then their conventional counterparts. There is no crosswind in a vertical landing and if the guy ahead of you crashes, you can land on the taxiway or any other surface. I once read about a particular high-level ISR aircraft operating over Afghanistan whose crew were using a taxiway as a divert option. Whilst innovative for that type – that’s always been the Harrier fuel plan! So VSTOL, underwritten by true engineering genius really is a useful tool. I’d call that adequate. Possibly better than adequate.
7. Canopy. Have you ever looked at a hunched aircraft and wondered what they were thinking? Frogfeet are particularly bad as an exemplar.
The Harrier cockpit as modelled by the AV-8B and Harrier GR5/7/9 were and are superb. The canopy is simply excellent for Close Air Support and the much underrated skill of looking out of the window. If the transparency surrounds you then it is a natural contributor to Situational Awareness and SA is what you need to build to win battles. Yes there is a canopy rail, but apart from that no forward supports to get in the way, so maybe not up there with the ‘good’ F-16 beauty but certainly not poor either. Rearwards visibility is fine, some would say for good reason as you may spend a fair amount of time scurrying around hiding from people. That’s a separate point. The long and the short of it though is that the canopy was just the job, whilst accepting that the Viper community probably have a cooler one.
What sorts of things would one need for a CAS mission? Nice big TV screens, Sniper Pod picture direct to the pilot. Mission computer able to accept Lat/Long and grid. A decent moving map. A Digital Terrain Elevation Database and all of a sudden you have all you need. If it’s all there at your fingertips with minimal button pushes to access data and weapon modes then you have an easily adequate system. The same could be said of a strike mission with up to six Paveway 4 weapons. Need to take your own targets? Just be sure to ‘Box’ the blue plan on the stores page. Want to change and double tap your wingman’s? Easy. Unbox blue and box yellow. Want to use a spare weapon on a different target because the Tornados are a jet short (again), no dramas you can load the target direct to the weapon using the predictive text function – you just have to know what it’s called. These sorts of things are important because they free up time for other activity such as flying the jet, although to be honest that’s quite straight forward (insert VSTOL joke of your own here) so no major dramas. The jet will need a communications fit of frequency agile and secure radios, hopefully with Saturn and Havequick available. The Harrier had those. It was due, in UK service, to receive Link-16 too…but then the darkness came, leaving it with only 250 or so channels for radio frequencies – which is somewhere on the bit of the scale marked ‘easily enough’. Another system you may want to consider was the FLIR. The ability to see through dust is a useful one; as is the ability to see whilst flying at low level into the sun in winter. The ability to have a spare HUD on one of your TV screens was a good thing to have for ramp launches. The ability to project FLIR onto the HUD for night flying was exceptionally useful. The ability to carry the Digital Joint Recce Pod gave another string to the bow. Let’s call that adequate.
5. Single seat. Oh no, he went there. There are plenty of good multi-crew aircraft. B-1, B-52 are great examples as are tankers and trash-haulers. In tactical flying there are fewer great examples of world class platforms that are twin seat and a huge list of those that aren’t. Spitfire, P-51, A-10, F-15C, F-16, F-18, F-22 are a couple of single-seat examples of greatness. To be fair though one does have to think of greats such as the Mosquito, Tomcat and F-15E when making sweeping generalisations. Then again, out of the Mosquito (kind of) came the Hornet. Half the chairs, more performance. However, the crux of this is that if the platform can present the pilot with all the information they need then you’d be daft to design a twin seater if you could avoid it. Think Uber. Have you ever felt the need to order a cab and then give someone else you phone so they can tell you where it is? No. Why? Because it’s a simple and effective bit of Human-Machine Interface that works and doesn’t need complicating. This is similar to a CAS situation where a mind meld between pilot and JTAC is what is required. There are other really boring reasons why single seaters are better for air forces than multi-crew. These range from the simple maths of it being half as likely that one of your formation might be ill in the morning, to the need for the HQ to only provision for one pension instead of two…not very interesting but worth considering.
Now remember, we aren’t trying to be good. We’re aiming for adequate, for now. The Harrier could carry various 118, 218 and BOL countermeasures, had a Missile Approach Warner and could even carry a TERMA pod with another missile detection device in it. That probably takes it out of poor. With the addition of 2 x Sidewinder in the AIM-9L and AIM-9M guise one really wouldn’t want to be thinking of taking on roles such as Offensive Counter Air but you could certainly have a crack at other muds if you saw them. The jet was actually very good at certain aspects of Basic Fighter Manoeuvres, particularly the single circle and slow speed fights. No, the Harrier was not a fighter (you wouldn’t believe how many people have reminded me of that since the book came out) but for a striker it had an adequate air-to-air capability. Until someone gave it the APG-65 and the ability to carry the AIM-120. That’s right, the currency air-to-air weapon of every fighter in Christendom. Imagine the CAP briefing the day that became a thing. No longer the ability to stay high, come down the 1000ft per mile gradient with a bit of aspect and use a shoot-look-shoot Fox 3 to Fox 2 policy as you came down the hill. The game had changed and there would be slammers coming the other way. That’s completely different; adequate in anyone’s language, maybe even better. So by bringing the AV-8B II+ into the scan – we start talking about a completely different beast.
(By the way this paragraph actually brings up one of the great tragedies of our time. The FA2 prototype flew in 1988 and it entered service in 1993. In a parallel lane the RAF were procuring and upgrading GR5/7/9. However, at the same time the AV-8B 2 plus was also reaching maturity. If a radar equipped Harrier II is available but you procure a Harrier 1 with a good radar – including 18 new builds – and a radar-less Harrier 2 in dissimilar fleets instead. You may want to have a word with yourself!)
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3. Weapon loads
The Harrier could find a way of cracking most tactical nuts. Let’s get one card on the table, it didn’t in UK service have a cannon – which was odd on the grounds that the GR1, GR3, FRS1 and FA2 all did as does the AV-8B. That’s a minus. However, there were lots of pluses. Where to start. 540 and 1000 lb freefall and retarded weapons with impact or air burst fusing. (Please don’t be suckered into the ‘everything must be a PGM’ story. It really doesn’t have to be, not for accuracy and not for Law of Armed Conflict and not for Rules of Engagement. There are plenty of scenarios where an unguided munition will be just fine if you can drop, loft or scrape it onto the target accurately). CRV-7 rockets in either training pods of 6 or Op Pods of 19. Heads could be high explosive semi armour piercing or point detonating. PGMs include Paveway, Enhanced Paveway, Enhanced Paveway Plus, Paveway 3, Paveway 4. Maverick in TV and IR guises. That will probably offer a way of skinning most cats. And yes carriage of some would require the use of a balancing store or in the case of Paveway 3 a lower than ideal fuel load – but all jets have their short comings. It has to be said though that medium level strikes were boring, even with a Deck Landing to look forward to. That leaves the Harrier as a competent striker. For now let’s assume competent and adequate are about the same.
2. The big engine
There are some truisms in military aviation. It usually makes things more difficult if you try them at night; it usually helps if you add more power. That’s exactly what they did with the Harrier. The GR7 and 9 became the GR7A and 9A. There were fewer engine limits and the amount of thrust the engine could produce was now even more staggering than the staggering amount we started off with. So what? Well, the point of inflexion in all of the compromises above moved towards the correct end of the spectrum. VSTOL was easier and safer, because there was more thrust available. The aircraft’s ability to operate off short strips was improved. Bring back was improved. Survivability was improved as one could get above the threat quicker. The aircraft’s already adequate handling in air-to-air was improved. In short, a system that was hovering (pun intended) at the higher end of the adequate range was made better. Now, it would be wrong to argue that the threat hadn’t increased or that this modification took us into good. Let’s just say it nailed on adequate. Even in the heat, even when high.
1. The sum of all adequacies. If you end up with a single seat striker, that can look after itself in the air-to-air arena, that has a broad range of weaponry, that through unique characteristics is able to get to almost any fight and contribute when it gets there. You’ve got a reasonable machine. If you can carry a counter measure pod, a recce pod and a targeting pod along with your war load from a hot and high strip, you’ve got a reasonable aircraft. If your designers and engineers have created the ability to land with minimum fuel reserves and have given you a machine that can operate in dust and at night, you’ve got a reasonable machine. If you have the ability to come from a highway strip, a gap in the trees or from the vast expanses of the open ocean. You have a reasonable machine. If the cockpit gives the pilot everything he needs along with superb visibility, you have a reasonable machine. You know what? I’ve argued myself to a standstill. If you wrap up all of the above I don’t think the Harrier is/ was adequate. I think it was bloody brilliant.
Do you wake up in the middle of the night screaming? Feel lost in life? Don’t really know who you are? It sounds like you don’t know which World War II fighter you are. Thankfully, we have teamed up with Professor Wichsflugzeug from the Institute of Psychoaeronautical Historical Research to bring you a 100% accurate personality test.
Simply answer each question and record your answers to reveal which WW2 fighter you really are…
What were you doing in 1969?
A. Fighting and killing
C. Fighting, racing and being shot down
E. I was a filmstar
F. Nothing, as I was burned in a field in 1941
2. Your retirement plan is:
A. Lazy days in Honduras
B. Becoming a suicide robot – and later attacking Indochina
C. Lazy days in the Dominican Republic
D. Shooting down Spitfires while defending the Jewish state
E. Entertaining Brexiteers over fields in the home counties
F. To be burned in a field in 1941
3. How do you like to dress?
A. A dark blue tracksuit
B. Dark blue tracksuit …or a little orange number when there’s no-one around
C. Happiest naked
D. Crudely spray-painted and covered with offensive symbols
E. Camo jacket and duck egg blue leggings
F. Camo jacket and grey jeggings
4. How would you describe your physique?
A. Muscular and a bit odd
B. I’m a big butch beast
C. I’m sleek, sexy and shiny
D. Small and unremarkable
E. Slim, elegant and purposeful
5. Your name is…
A. Appropriate for a ship
B. Really cool (in a heavy metal kind of way)
C. Cool in a cheesy American way
D. More a designation than a name
E. Weird and archaic
F. So frequently mispronounced by English speakers I’ve given up and changed the spelling
6. How many pubs are named after you?
A. A fair few bars in France
B. One in New York and one in Belfast (both combined with another name)
C. A handful in eastern Europe
E. Fucking millions mate
F. Are you having a laugh? None.
7. What does God look like?
A. A fictional CIA director
B. A fictional racist police chief
C. Sherlock Holmes
D. An angry boss from a Carry On film
E. A sickly minor Royal from Downton Abbey
F. A chinless farmboy
THE ANSWERS ARE NOW BEING COMPUTED…READY?
You are a Vought F4U Corsair. Fast-talking, hard-punching and unconventional, you are a tough resultant soul who can survive anything.
You are a Grumman F6F Hellcat. No wonder people find you overwhelming, as you are a bit of a thug. You are capable of anything but need to tone down your aggression.
You are a North American P-51 Mustang. Attractive, high-achieving and spectacular you use your charisma and extraordinary skill to get what you want.
You are a Messerchmitt Bf 109. You have no moral compass and use your many strengths for evil. Despite the advantages life has given you, you are a fast-living amoral mess. You are hard to handle and difficult to be around.
You are a Supermarine Spitfire. Gorgeous, formidable yet a trifle oversensitive, you are a distinguished and much-loved character. You need to work on your thin skin and expensive habits.
You are a Rogožarski IK-3. Often overlooked by the unsophisticated, you are the quiet interesting one in the corner and worthy of more attention.
The Darkstar from Top Gun Maverick – How close could this be to reality?
Hush-Kit has asked me to have a look at the cinematic hypersonic fighter, Darkstar, shown in various teaser clips and publicity material for the Top Gun Maverick movie. The movie version gains an added cachet because Lockheed-Martin are stated to have assisted with the design concept, and with the construction of a full-sized mock-up for filming.
The movie Darkstar is not to be confused with the real Lockheed Martin Darkstar, an unsuccessful high-flying UAV reconnaissance platform of the late 1990s, but does bear a striking resemblance to renderings prepared by Lockheed-Martin of their ‘SR-72’ concept. So much so, that this article will look at the SR-72 renderings as indicative of the Darkstar movie concept, and consider how close to reality the Darkstar, and by implication, the SR-72 could be.
Clearly, any publicly available rendering of the ‘SR-72’, and the movie Darkstar, is not going to be a faithful representation of ‘the real thing’, and indeed, the programme is unlikely to be delivering ‘the real thing’ just yet. Consequently, this article is speculative. It looks at the material that is out there, on the net and open-source, and at the technologies that might be required to realise the stated objectives, noting that these may themselves be plausible rather than accurate.
So, what can we observe about the SR-72 concept? The rendering shows what we can infer to be a large twin-engine slender delta aircraft, with a single fin. The engines are mounted below the wings, on a basically flat undersurface. This surface consists of a slender triangular forebody, with highly-tapered wings, located about halfway along the fuselage. The wings have approximately 60 deg leading edge sweep, and a 20 degree forward sweep on the trailing edge.
Statements about the Darkstar refer to it as being ‘hypersonic’, and the SR-72 is also stated to be intended to achieve a maximum speed of about Mach 6 at high altitude. As might be expected for a high-speed vehicle, the propulsion system consists of two large nacelles, but, unlike the slower SR-71 Blackbird, these nacelles are rectangular in section rather than circular, and lack the inlet cones which are distinctive features of the Blackbird.
High-speed intakes are a specialist subject in themselves, but the shape of the Darkstar/SR-72 inlets suggest that the intake shock structure is managed by variable ramps in the inlet, as opposed to the translating shock cones of the Blackbird. For more on supersonic intakes see my article here.
The exhaust system extends well behind the trailing edge of the wing, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not shown in any detail in the rendering, but appears to be contained within a rectangular shroud.
Statements about the SR-72 suggest that its role is to deliver rapid, reactive strike, on a global scale, at short notice, a very different role to that of the Blackbird. A possible reason for this is the apparent preference of the USAF to consider persistent, stealthy, high-flying unmanned platforms as future ISR and communications nodes, as indicated here. That said, the renderings do not reveal and stores carriage, weapons bay or targeting sensors, and the ‘SR-72’ is clearly depicted as unmanned.
In contrast, the movie Darkstar, no doubt driven by the imperatives of the script, is a manned aircraft. The teaser clip appears to include a laser weapon, suggesting, as might be expected from the nature of the film, an air combat role.
An interesting feature of both concepts is that the slender triangular forebody is followed by an essentially parallel-sided centre and rear fuselage, this starting ahead of the wing leading edge. In planform, then, there are two discontinuities: at the rear of the slender blended forebody; and at the junction of the wing leading edge. Moreover, while the forebody appears to lie within the Mach cone which would be generated from the fuselage nose at Mach 6, the wings will extend beyond this, which has implications for aerodynamic heating and wave drag.
Other mild surprises include an abandonment of stealth as a feature of the aircraft. I make this comment because of the evident corner reflectors in the airframe between the fin, the wings and the nacelles, and because of the essentially straight engine ducts.
There are various reasons for this, but a simple explanation is that the aircraft is supposed to be invulnerable because its high speed and its operating altitude would make it extremely difficult to intercept. It will also, of course, be subject to such high surface temperatures that its infra-red signature will enable detection and tracking by infra-red sensors with some ease.
The premise of the movie is that Darkstar is a manned aircraft capable of flight at ‘hypersonic’ speeds, with an air combat capability. The supposition for the SR-72 is that this is a Mach 6-capable reconnaissance and weapons delivery platform that is unmanned but reusable. Both aircraft are to operate from, and be recovered to, conventional runways.
So why, given the strides that have been made in aircraft and space technologies, would this be difficult? The difficulties arise from the ways in which the stated aspirations create conflicting requirements. For example, if we want to be able to deliver kinetic effects anywhere on earth within a short period (say an hour or so), we can already do this using either tactical or strategic ballistic missiles. To achieve a greater degree of unpredictability, we might use a boost-glide vehicle as the delivery system, a capability I have written about here.
But neither of these established solutions are re-usable, neither operate from conventional runways, and neither are manned (or optionally manned). Why does this make a difference? After all, the Space Shuttle was manned, re-usable, and was at least landed on a conventional runway.
The critical factor is the desire to operate from a runway in the same way as an aircraft, with some additional elements to be considered for a manned platform. Why would operation from a conventional runway be desired? Principally so that the system can operate at very short notice, without using special launch facilities, so that a responsive system is available, and so that, if necessary, flights can be made without signalling this intent. A long-range manned vertical launch system would be restricted to operation from pre-prepared locations, with large rockets, fuel tanks and launch facilities, and would be incapable of delivering strategic surprise.
A second factor is that, to operate from a conventional runway, wings will be required that are large enough in area to provide acceptable take-off and landing speeds from normally available runway lengths. The wings allow sustained cruise flight in the upper atmosphere to achieve the range required, but will themselves face the challenges of prolonged exposure to kinetic heating throughout the flight.
The kinetic heating issue affects many aspects of the design of such a vehicle, particularly in the areas of structural materials, thermal protection systems, aerodynamics and propulsion. In the case of a manned aircraft, additional complexities arise because of the need to protect the pilot, and to provide external vision and, for a combat aircraft, targeting sensors. These latter aspects apply to Darkstar, but possibly not to the SR-72 concept, which is consistently portrayed as unmanned.
Possible Propulsion Systems
There are many challenges in designing a system with the capabilities that appear to be required, but propulsion is perhaps the critical one to consider. The SR-71 used variable geometry within its J58 engines, which, in concert with a complex intake system allowed the engine to operate both as an afterburning turbofan, and at high speeds essentially as a ramjet. This approach was clearly successful in enabling speeds of Mach 3.2 to be achieved; however, a different approach is required to achieve the anticipated Mach 6.0 of the SR-72.
The available material on the SR-72 suggests that the powerplant will be a turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) engine, operating as a conventional turbine engine up to Mach numbers of perhaps Mach 2.5, but changing over to a supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) at higher Mach numbers. A major issue has been that scramjets have required a speed of about Mach 4.0 to operate, and in consequence, a dual mode ramjet might be required, capable of operating from Mach 2.5, and becoming a scramjet at speeds greater than Mach 4.
All of this technology must be regarded as very flaky, but relatively recent statements from Lockheed suggest that technology breakthroughs are emerging to allow speeds of Mach 6 to be achieved. Advances in manufacturing, modelling and 3-D printing are hinted at as having enabled this breakthrough.
In considering potential propulsion solutions, I came across references from the UK, China, Japan and Lockheed, all indicating that an engine incorporating an internal airflow cooling system could be critical in enabling a hypersonic powerplant.
With this in mind, let’s have a look at the SABRE powerplant, which had been under development in the UK, with Single-Stage To Orbit (SSTO) capability as the intended application. SABRE is an acronym which stands for Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine, referring to a combined cycle rocket engine which features an air-breathing mode for use within the atmosphere. Critical to the concept is a precooler located within the intake which is capable of very rapidly cooling the intake flow, increasing the density and leading to a very high pressure-ratio within the engine when operating in its air-breathing mode. This system is used up to a Mach number of 5.4, after which the intake is closed, and SABRE run as a rocket engine, using liquid oxygen and hydrogen as fuel.
The precooler concept dates from NASA work as far back as 1955, and was picked up in the UK, initially for use in the HOTOL project, and latterly in the SABRE engine, which is stated to be capable of producing high thrust efficiently, from zero speed up to Mach 5.4. The precooler is critical in achieving this, and represents the highest technical risk aspect of the engine. Initial work by Reaction Engines at Westcott has quietly transitioned to a DARPA project based in Colorado, where demonstration activities of the precooler heat exchanger have been successful, apparently leading, in late 2019, to successful cooling of 1000 deg C intake flows to a target of -150 deg C. In achieving this, a liquid helium cooling loop is used, which avoids hydrogen embrittlement issues which had affected earlier attempts to develop a precooler, but introduces additional complexity.
The demonstrated cooler used 16,800 thin-walled tubes, and has been shown to achieve the dramatic cooling required in 0.01 seconds, which seems remarkable, to say the least. 3D-printing would seem to be an ideal technology to construct such a device, and this, coupled with the move of the facility to Colorado, and the involvement of DARPA, may indicate that this precooler represents the breakthrough suggested by Lockheed-Martin. The application would not be to achieve a SSTO capability, but to enable a propulsion system capable of sustained hypersonic flight in a vehicle such as the SR-72.
All this is speculation, but given a claimed air-breathing performance delivering high efficiency thrust from zero airspeed to Mach 5.5, it would not be surprising if Lockheed-Martin were to be highly interested in the potential of such a system. And maybe, a little development of the intake system, the nozzle, and perhaps other elements of the engine installation, might make the aspiration of Mach 6 capability achievable.
If you are interested in this technology, here’s a technical paper from China, which may add some credibility to my speculation on the relevance of precooling systems.
Other technical challenges
As indicated earlier, kinetic heating of the vehicle is likely to pose significant problems. However, at least for limited exposure times, suitable materials have been developed for many other space-based applications, particularly those featuring wing-based re-entry and landing. A combination of Carbon-Carbon composite materials, ceramic tiles, insulating and thermal protection systems have been developed for systems such as the Space Shuttle, X-37, and other hypersonic projects.
A host of additional technology issues may be anticipated, but, again, the variety of space-based activities and other high-speed projects may be maturing solutions to issues such as:
Thermal protection systems;
Crew environment management;
Sensor, targeting and communications systems;
Deployable approach path guidance.
Noting that missions may involve much greater time at elevated temperatures than a re-entry manoeuvre, any of the above issues may prove more challenging for an SR-72 than, for example, the X-37. The greater heat soak may prove to be a challenge in areas which might otherwise be regarded as mature, such as hydraulic systems, or even wheels and tyres.
Weapons, weapons bays, and carriage and release systems are specialist areas where new technologies may be required to deliver kinetic effects from a high-speed platform. Aerodynamic and heating loads look to be a significantly challenging issue, quite apart from target assurance – the need to be sure that the correct target has been identified and located.
Another issue needing consideration is whether, and what, defensive aids might be required. Such systems might be required because it seems likely that a hypersonic strike platform would be highly detectable, and would also be likely to have limited manoeuvre capability when flying at high speed and altitude. Of course, proponents will argue that such systems are essentially invulnerable because of the difficulty of a successful weapon engagement against such a fast-moving high-altitude target. Maybe so, but it is surprising what can be achieved, given sufficient incentive to find a solution.
Are these concepts feasible?
My answer is – closer than you think, if my speculation about propulsion is correct.
The big issue for the SR-72 is whether a subsonic, stealthy, high-flying unmanned system can do the ISR job at a lower cost, albeit without the rapid response capability of hypersonic speed. If that should be the case, then the SR-72 looks like a very niche, very expensive, capability as a reactive precision strike aircraft. So, the biggest threat may be cost and relevance, rather than feasibility. When has that ever stopped the US?
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The issue for Darkstar, if conceived as a hypersonic fighter, is the sheer implausibility of manoeuvring air combat in that class of platform. With the added complexities and penalties of carrying a pilot, and the difficulty of integrating information and providing sensor and weapons capabilities. In my view, this is a much more difficult ask than the SR-72, and would be likely to be an even more expensive solution. My advice – don’t go there.
Across the tortuous development of Top Gun 2 many directors offered to work on the movie. Here are our favourite Top Gun 2s that never happened.
Mike Leigh ‘Top Gun 2: Higgledy-Piggledy’
Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Alison Steadman) is a social worker in 1980s London trying to help Mike “Viper” Metcalf (Timothy Spall) to conquer his gout and start a restaurant. Maverick finds London depressing and longs for the sunshine of Nevada.
Maverick is always working on a 1/72 F-14 model kit plane that is never completed. Maverick never gets to Nevada but Metcalf’s vegetarian restaurant is a moderate success. The film ends with Maverick and Metcalf sitting peacefully in the evening sunshine in Finsbury Park.
Jane Campion – ‘Top Gun 2: Sea Mist’
Maverick (Genevieve Lemon) is an electively muteWelshswoman sold by her father into the US Navy. She expresses herself through her cello playing and through puppetry. While being helicoptered out to the aircraft carrier with her baggage, all her belongings – including her cello – are thrown into the sea. As it sinks, she deliberately tangles her foot in the rope trailing after it. She is pulled overboard but, deep underwater, changes her mind and kicks free and is pulled to safety and becomes the most kickass fighter pilot in the Navy.
Maverick is later seen picking out a coffin for her wingman Goose (Benedict Cumberbatch) while his body is prepared for burial. At the funeral, the doctor tells Maverick that Goose most likely died of anthrax. This puzzles Maverick, as Goose was always careful to avoid placing diseased cattle in the cockpit of his F-14.
John Waters Top Gun 2: Goose me!
Maverick (played by Divine) is the sluttiest pilot in the US Navy, a degenerate kleptomaniac sex addict mocked for her homemade fighter aircraft (played by Iaio Qaher) – her bitter rival Viper Metcalf (Sasha Grey) publicly humiliates Maverick by making her drink a glass of real vomit in the Navy bar as the attendant sailors sing ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’. Hellbent on revenge, the day before the final Top Gun dogfighting contest Maverick fills Viper’s cockpit with live eels. However, it is the wrong cockpit: it is the aircraft owned by stuffy authoritarian weapons instructor Commander Lizzie Gudge (Mink Stole). The mix-up causes Maverick and Viper to become friends and they leave the Navy to open an F-14-themed sex club in Baltimore called ‘The Guzzle’.
Alejandro Jodorowsky – Top Gun 2: El Gato Místico
The film starts with a naked Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (played by Tom Cruise) sitting in a tree in a mental asylum in Chile. Nurses come out to him, to try to coax him off of his perch, using a plate of raw fish to persuade him to come down. As the nurses get him to put on his flightsuit the viewer sees that he has a tattoo of an F-14 on his chest.
We flashback to Maverick’s childhood, which he spent performing as a fake monkey in an underground bar run by his father Flymo, a sword-swallower with dwarfism, and his mother Banzo, a blind unicyclist and conjoined twin.
As a teen Maverick is led through a series of transformation rituals by a half-human half-dog god (played by Juan Ferrara). His transformation to fighter pilot involves the sacrifice of an actual dog and the eating of an entire T-38 – which he accomplishes with chopsticks in the Mojave desert. Maverick leaves Chile for Berlin where he falls in love with naval aviator Klina Gadski (Teté Delgado).
In a dream, Gadski invokes the Top Gun shaman Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf. During a sexual encounter with the Goddess Molda (Meg Ryan) both Maverick and Molda are beheaded by a low-flying MiG-28. As his head regrows he becomes the greatest pilot in the US Navy before being ingested by a volcano run by dogs dressed as clowns.
The MiG-31 interceptor, fully loaded, weighs the same as four double-decker London buses, whereas the svelte KAI FA-50 Golden Eagle is four times lighterthan the MiG and far cheaper to operate.Modern light fighters, like the Gripen, boast of being credible deterrents to far heavier opponents – but are light fighters as good as their word, and are they worth the effort?Jim Smith investigates.
Throughout the development and application of aircraft to air combat, there have been proponents of both ‘Heavy’ and ‘Light’ fighters. In thinking about why this interest has been sustained, I realised that the close linkage between air combat and aerospace technologies has varied substantially over time, as new technologies have enabled new approaches to air combat, and challenged existing doctrine and policy.
So, we’ll start by considering the different ‘ages’ of air combat, and how the technologies available, and the capabilities they enable, have changed the attributes required of fighter aircraft, and how this has influenced design choices. In looking at the technology aspects, we will find that armament, propulsion, and sensors have perhaps been as significant as aerodynamics in fighter aircraft design, and, at times, more so. For each of the identified ages of air combat, I’ll identify some representative ‘Lighter’ and ‘Heavier’ fighters.
This review will bring out the differing circumstances in which ‘Light’ fighters have been favoured, and allow me to consider what aspects might favour the ‘Lighter’ fighter, and what the trade-offs might be against ‘Heavier’ fighter aircraft. Finally, we’ll speculate about the future, and consider whether ‘Light’ fighters are of continuing relevance, and if so, what their future roles might be.
This article has been prompted by a fascinating input from warspot.ru examining a series of light fighter concepts developed by US Aerospace Engineer Bud Nelson for first Boeing, and later Northrop. My intention is to use this piece to set out the landscape over the relevant period, to aid in understanding those concepts, which I look at separately here.
Before launching into this, a word to the reader. The review of air combat, and the place of the light fighter that follows is an overview. It is not a comprehensive all-encompassing study – were one to attempt that the result would be a book, not a Hush_Kit article. I have also excluded carrier-based fighters, partly because I am trying to keep this reasonably short, but also because carrier aviation tends to favour heavier aircraft, in pursuit of operational flexibility and reach. And I know there are exceptions to this (Escort-carrier-based aircraft, and the Grumman F-11F, for example).
Air Combat – Beginnings. First World War to the mid 1930s
This period began with aviation in its infancy, and ends with the last of the biplane fighters.
The challenges facing designers at the start of this period were propulsion, performance, armament and robustness, and these problems were gradually resolved through technology developments. To succeed in air combat, it was necessary to bring armament to bear on the opponent, preferably in a tactically favourable situation to achieve a rapid and successful outcome. However, it was inevitable that, at times, fighter pilots would find themselves in situations where there was no tactical advantage, in which case, manoeuvring air combat would be required, coupled with the ability to disengage by diving at high speed without hazarding the aircraft.
Key requirements were a powerful, reliable engine; high speed; a rapid climb rate; excellent turning performance; good armament; and a strong airframe. These requirements shaped the fighter aircraft of the day. Initially, the engines were largely rotary, offering light weight but relatively low power. Armament was a problem. Before the invention of interrupter gear, twin-boom pusher aircraft had a period of success, but once the problem of firing forward through the propellor had been solved, most fighters adopted a biplane configuration with a tractor propellor. Wire-braced monoplanes and triplanes were also used, the former offering higher speed for a given engine power, but perhaps with lower strength, and the latter great agility and climb performance.
As engines became more powerful and reliable, rotary engines were largely replaced with compact and powerful in-line, V-8 or radial engines, most being water-cooled. Over time, increases in power enabled increases in speed and operating altitude, as well as greater endurance. The lighter aircraft emphasised manoeuvrability, and the heavier aircraft speed, altitude performance and armament. Consequently, different tactics began to be employed, exploiting the different characteristics of the aircraft.
Heavy Fighters: RAF SE 5a, Bristol F2B, SPAD XIII, Fokker D VII
Air Combat – The Piston Engine Supreme. Mid 1930s to the end of World War 2
In this period, the introduction of stressed-skin monocoque construction transformed the shape and potential performance of fighter aircraft. Combined with dramatic advances in engine power, the speed, altitude performance, armament, range and versatility of both fighter and bomber aircraft were transformed.
The fundamental requirements remained much the same as in the First World War. To succeed in air combat, it was necessary to bring armament to bear on the opponent, preferably in a tactically favourable situation to achieve a rapid and successful outcome. One difference from WW 1 was that ground-based radar installations and control systems could provide better awareness of the location and strength of airborne attack, aiding pilots in achieving a good tactical position at the start of combat.
Given the numbers of aircraft involved, it was still inevitable that, at times, fighter pilots would find themselves in situations where they were at a disadvantage. Cooperative tactics, coupled with high speed and evasive manoeuvring were required in these circumstances. Other advances, such as improved gunsights, heavy armament, and some armour protection were useful.
Key requirements remained a powerful, reliable engine; high speed; a rapid climb rate; excellent turning performance; good armament; and a strong airframe. To these might be added high octane fuels to enhance engine performance, one of the important technologies pursued by the combatants, whose engine development strategies had a key influence on fighter development.
In the UK, it was necessary to disperse production under the threat of Luftwaffe bombing, and, as a result, a limited number of fighters were used, principally the Hurricane, Spitfire, Typhoon and Tempest. The Spitfire was developed incrementally, more than doubling in both weight and power over the duration of the conflict, and effectively being transformed from a ‘Light’ fighter to at least a significantly heavier one.
Jeffrey Quill, speaking in 1976 at the RAeS Mitchell Memorial Symposium, noted that the Spitfire Mk I had a normal operating weight of 5820 lb, a maximum power of 1050 hp and maximum level speed of 362 mph. The final operational variant, the Seafire 47 had a max. overload weight of 12,500 lb, 2350 hp powerplant, and max. level speed of 452 mph. From a weight perspective, the Seafire 47 delivered its performance at a weight equivalent to a Mk I carrying 32 passengers (with baggage).
The Typhoon was developed into the Tempest and both aircraft represented a discontinuous increase in weight, power and performance over the Hurricane. The Mosquito and Beaufighter exploited their size to be successful heavily armed multi-role aircraft. These developments were very dependent on engine technologies, notably multi-stage supercharging, and the use of advanced material solutions to allow sustained high-power operation.
German developments followed a similar initial pattern, with incremental development of the Bf 109, and a jump in capability to the Fw 190 and incremental developments of that aircraft, with the Dornier 335 Pfeil being perhaps their ultimate piston-engine fighter, albeit too late to enter service. German engine developments gained advantages through direct fuel injection and clever internal design, but were handicapped by the inability to access some materials, and limited supply of high octane fuel.
The US developed, with the British Merlin engine, the excellent Mustang as a long-range escort fighter, but, aided (or perhaps compelled) by their development of the turbo-supercharger, embraced the ‘Heavy’ fighter, with the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt being the obvious examples. The US also made extensive use of large and complex radial engines, which were a feature of their bomber aircraft, and many of their Naval aircraft.
During this period, the development of Airborne Intercept (AI) radar enabled the development of effective night fighters, leading to a new class of radar-equipped heavy fighter, generally twin-engined and with multiple crew, due to the size and weight of early AI radars.
Heavy fighters: Late Mark Spitfires; Hawker Typhoon and Tempest; Focke-Wulf FW 190D; Dornier Pfeil; P-38 Lightning; P-51 Mustang; P-47 Thunderbolt
Night Fighters: Bristol Beaufighter; De Havilland Mosquito; Junkers Ju 88; Heinkel 219 Uhu; Northrop P-61 Black Widow
Air Combat – The Early Jets – 1944 to the mid-1950s
Towards the end of World War 2, notwithstanding a deteriorating military situation, and shortages of critical materials, German aerodynamic and propulsion research developments, led to another discontinuous jump in capability, with the Me 163 and V2 exploiting rocket propulsion, and the Me 262 emerging as a capable jet fighter. Parallel jet engine research in development led, in the UK, to the Gloster Meteor twin-engine jet fighter, which saw limited service in the closing months of the war.
In an interesting parallel to the early aircraft of WW1, early jet aircraft development was critically dependent on the performance and operational life of their engines. The relatively low thrust of early jet engines resulted in the twin-engine configuration of the Messerschmitt 262, but this was perceived to be an expensive and difficult to produce aircraft.
Competition for a lighter, simpler, single-engine fighter led to the development of the Heinkel 162 Volksjäger. This aircraft was developed in just 90 days, and used wood in the construction of the wings, fins and some other components. As a result, surprisingly large numbers were built in the short time between its first flight on 6 December 1944, and the end of the war in May 1945.
Following the Second World War, aircraft manufacturers and research agencies in (primarily) the US, UK and USSR sought to exploit captured German research data and research scientists to marry advances in jet engine design to the many and varied airframe concepts that had been considered, and in some cases, built, in Germany. Principle among these technologies was the swept wing, but flying wing, delta and variable-sweep wings were also investigated.
In the period considered, air combat was still primarily conducted by day, using cannon as the primary armament. Unguided rockets were available, but their use was primarily in attacking ground targets, or conceivably against bomber formations. This was a time of rapid development on jet fighters by all the major powers. In the US, the principal early jet fighters were the F-80 Shooting Star, F-84 Thunderjet and the F-86 Sabre. The UK used the Gloster Meteor and the de Havilland Vampire, with the Hawker Hunter and Gloster Javelin in development. The USSR used British jet engine technology to develop the superb MiG-15 and -17, following on from early straight-winged designs such as the Yak 17.
At the same time, the realisation of the threat of night bombing, and of atomic weapons, led to a need for all-weather day and night fighters, using onboard radar systems to locate targets. The first jet night fighter was the Douglas F3D Skynight. Large, and relatively slow, this aircraft had the distinction of making the highest number of US aircraft kills in the Korean War.
Heavy Fighters: Messerschmitt 262; Douglas F3D Skynight;
Air Combat – Radar and Guided Missiles – Mid-1950s to the 1970s
In this period, spurred by a continuing post-WW2 contest of ideologies between US-led capitalism and Russian and Chinese Communism, giving rise to conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and, following those, a continuing Cold War, aerospace technology continued to develop rapidly. The aerodynamic, propulsion and handling problems of the early jets were largely resolved, resulting in significant numbers of capable supersonic jet fighters becoming available.
On the other side of the coin, however, the improvements in Western fighters were mirrored by their opponents, and, to further complicate the situation, nuclear weapons proliferation resulted in much greater threats, initially from manned bomber aircraft. The first move to counter this emerging threat was to move away from the use of cannon as the primary anti-air weapon to the use of air-launched guided weapons instead. Coupled with the development of compact and effective fighter radars, heat-seeking or radar-guided air-to-air missiles (AAM) could allow fighters to engage each other, and bombers, at much greater distances. This not only offered greater prospects of survivability for the fighters, but also allowed the possibility of disrupting bomber attacks before they could reach their targets.
To achieve the capability required, fighters became larger, heavier, more powerful, more complex, and more expensive. But also much more capable, with the air-to-air effectiveness very dependent on missile capabilities, but the additional size and weapons capability allowing the flexibility to use the same airframe in strike and air-to-air roles.
In this period, a good US exemplar would be the F-4 Phantom II, which became a long-serving air defence and strike aircraft for many air forces over decades of service life. Carrying shorter range infra-red (IR) guided Sidewinders, and longer range, radar guided Sparrow missiles, with two crew, radar and two powerful J79 engines, the F-4 was developed for the US Navy, but later adopted by the USAF and proved to be exceptionally versatile in service. Initially flown with no cannon armament, experience in Vietnam led to the addition of this for later aircraft.
The UK were early entries into the world of missile-armed fighters, with the Gloster Javelin and the BAC Lightning both able to carry the Firestreak IR-guided missile, and the Lightning also carrying the longer-range Red Top IR-guided missile.
The USSR essentially replaced earlier MiG fighters with the fast and small MiG 21, a type which was incrementally developed over the years leading to innumerable variants, generally featuring additional fuel and improvements in the mission system – the radar, armament and defensive aids that enable an aging design to stay relevant.
Early air to air missiles such as the Sidewinder and Firestreak featured infra-red guidance. Initially IR AAM engagements were limited to stern attacks, but gradually became more flexible in operation as missile seekers improved. IR-guided missiles had an advantage over the early radar-guided missiles, as they required continuous illumination of the target by the fighter’s radar, which limited the pilot’s scope for manoeuvre.
In this environment, despite the major powers developing a range of highly capable heavy fighters, a class of small, agile, air defence aircraft emerged. These aircraft served two main purposes: meeting the needs of smaller Nations that required air power for defensive purposes, rather than to attack their neighbours; and to equip Client States of the major powers. These Client States were those countries, generally allied to the US or the USSR, that were supplied with large numbers of reasonably capable aircraft, at least in part to provide a means of the major powers distancing themselves from combat involvement.
Export sales of these lighter fighters was important in maintaining, and in some cases growing, industrial aerospace capability, as well as providing economic benefits, and maintaining Client States’ dependency on the major powers. In this context, the Mirage III became an important aircraft for France, as it proved both capable, and popular with non-aligned countries, and was exported in large numbers.
Light Fighters: F-104 Starfighter, Northrop F-5, Mirage III, MiG 21
Heavy Fighters: F-106 Delta Dagger; BAC Lightning; F-4 Phantom; SAAB Viggen; Sukhoi Su 15
The current day: BVR combat and Stealth
Over the past few decades, there has been a dramatic shift in air combat policies away from manoeuvring visual air combat – ‘dog-fighting’ to long-range engagements enabled by advances in guided weapon propulsion and seeker technologies, aircraft radar technologies, and the use of off-board information supplied through networked communications.
As a result, the desirable form of air combat is now beyond visual range, or BVR. Ideally, the fighter aircraft possesses longer-range missiles and sensors than its opponents, and has better situational awareness, allowing it to identify and engage opponents at distance. These combats preferably take place when the opponent is at a range where he is in the ‘no escape zone’ of your missile, but while you remain outside his ability to engage your aircraft.
Key enablers for BVR combat have included the development of advanced radars, particularly those featuring Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESA). These radars can search for new targets, track previously detected targets, and provide datalink support to AAM after launch. Other advances in AAM technology have given greatly extended range capabilities to missiles like the MBDA Meteor through the use of rocket-ramjet propulsion systems. Missile seekers have also improved in range and aspect capability, enabling IR missiles to make all-aspect attacks at significant range.
One mechanism giving advantage in this sort of combat is to have very low detectability so that the opponent cannot locate and track your aircraft. Low radar signature helps to achieve this, but it must be remarked that the low signature also has to be achieved against Infra-Red sensors as well as a wide range of radar sensors which may be feeding information to opposition fighters.
Achieving a low radar signature requires the majority of weapons to be carried internally, increasing the size of the aircraft, limiting the number of weapons available, and potentially using space that might have been used for fuel, but delivering the intent of ‘first look, first shot and first kill’ capability.
Although this environment is challenging, there still remains space for the lighter fighter. As the systems and missiles have improved in capability, it has become possible to equip relatively small single-engine aircraft with capable radar, networked information systems and long-range weapons. Such aircraft are particularly useful as Air Defence rather than Air Superiority assets, largely because their small size limits the internal fuel that can be carried.
Light Fighters: Mirage 2000; SAAB Gripen; HAL Tejas
When we review the development of air combat, we can observe that despite the enormous changes in technology that have occurred in the last 110 years or so, ‘Light’ fighters continue to be developed alongside heavier alternatives.
This section identifies the main drivers for this, and shows they are not as simple as the assumption that light weight gives greater agility. It does, but there other reasons that may make the lighter alternative attractive, as well as many reasons which may favour the flexibility gained through the use of a larger and heavier aircraft.
At a couple of points in the development of air combat, technology constraints have favoured the ‘Lighter’ fighter. These two points were:
at the start of the First World War, where immature engine technology favoured the light fighter, and the greater performance and agility that came with light weight
at the beginning of the jet age, where the higher speed and altitude achievable with jet engines was a prize worth having, but the low power available favoured a small, light design.
While deeply unpopular with Industry and with requirements staffs, the truism that heavier aircraft cost more, has not been seriously countered. Every attempt to produce an aircraft that breaks this paradigm has failed. This may be considered a bold statement, but I stand by it, at least until I see evidence to the contrary.
The cost-weight relationship is a key tool used by Treasury Departments to put pressure on new aircraft development proposals. Historically, the correlation between weight and cost has been relatively robust, and has allowed early and penetrating analysis of suggested unit costs.
Industry and operators will argue that new technologies allow lighter airframes and more capable systems, delivering more capability for a given weight. Treasury sceptics will point to the cost and risk of developing new airframe materials, and the cost and complexity of validating and certifying software intensive complex systems. In the end the result is usually a draw, with pressure being placed to reduce mass as a way of reducing cost – not least because weight and cost are both much easier to measure than capability.
Low cost is desirable, as greater numbers of aircraft can be procured from a given budget, and, if care is taken at the design stage, cheaper, simpler, lighter aircraft might even prove to be cheaper to operate.
Dr Ron Smith documents, in his British Built Aircraft 5-part series, the large numbers of aircraft built during World War I. In the period of that conflict, the British produced some 55,000 airframes; the French nearly 70,000 aircraft and more than 85,000 engines; the Germans nearly 50,000 aircraft and about 40,000 engines, with significant numbers also being produced by the USA and Italy. In four years, the equipment of the RFC/RAF grew by a factor of eighty, and the production rate by a factor of fifty.
The Second World War prompted an even greater surge in both technology and production capacity. Figures available for aircraft production in the 1939 to 1940 period do vary, but British, German, Soviet and American production numbers were in the order of 130,000, 120,000, 160,000 and 325,000 respectively.
Some countries became concerned about the availability of strategic materials for aircraft production, leading, at least in WW 2, to the exploration of lighter fighter aircraft, using wood rather than metal as the principal material for their construction. Examples of this include the British Miles M20 and Mosquito; German Ta 154 and Heinkel Volksjäger; and American Bell XP-77.
Can cheaper, lighter, aircraft do the job?
Firstly, it should be said that air combat up to the time of the Korean War was conducted principally in daytime and under visual conditions. In these circumstances, lighter fighters had the potential to offer higher manoeuvrability compared to heavy fighters, but would perhaps have lower maximum speed and range, and generally have lighter armament.
These capabilities could, and did, lead to different tactics being employed, with light fighters seeking to exploit manoeuvrability, while heavy fighters used high-speed passes with minimum manoeuvring air combat.
As a comparison between a heavier, and a lighter fighter, consider the Hawker Hunter and the Folland Gnat, both designed in the UK. This example is drawn from Jet Fighter Performance, Korea to Vietnam by Mike Spick, Ian Allan, 1986.
The Hunter was a relatively heavily armed day fighter with four 30 mm Aden cannon, which entered RAF service in 1954, and was extremely successful once fully developed. Widely exported, and respected for its good handling, a few examples remain in use today. The primary intent of the design was the engagement of Russian bombers, but roles inevitably diversified over time, and the aircraft was very often used in the ground attack role. In service, it was complemented by the heavier Gloster Javelin night fighter, with missile armament, two crew and a large airborne intercept radar.
The Folland Gnat was broadly contemporary with the Hunter, its initial prototype, the Midge, making its first flight in the same year that the Hunter entered service. The Gnat was about 2/3 of the size of the Hunter, and weighed about 40% of the Hunter with a gross weight about 3 tonnes, compared to the Hunter’s 8 tonnes.
With closely comparable wing loading, slightly higher aspect ratio and 20% greater thrust to weight ratio, the Gnat had exceptional handling and higher climb rate than the Hunter, but only half the firepower, with two rather than four 30 mm cannon, partly because its role was seen as air defence against fighters, rather than bombers. In air combat with the Indian Air Force, the Gnat proved to be both agile and effective, hard to track visually, and with good climb performance.
The job to be done by the fighter aircraft changed dramatically with the introduction of capable, long-range AAM to air combat. Capability in current air combat situations has been explored in a couple of previous articles for Hush_Kit, looking at what makes a good BVR fighter, and at the future of air combat. These can be found at the following links:
This discusses what capabilities you need to provide Air Defence, and to establish and maintain Air Superiority, and discusses how these capabilities drive towards somewhat different requirements.
This covers the future of air combat, emphasising the system-of-systems approach on which the major players appear to be converging as a means of delivering air power, in the broadest sense.
Some key points arising from these articles are:
A distinction between Air Superiority, where the desire is to establish temporary or enduring air control over hostile territory, and Air Defence, where the focus is on deterring and defeating enemy air attacks and on ensuring air control over one’s own territory;
The importance of sensors and systems in enabling long-range engagements whenever possible, using long-range and highly capable missiles;
The importance of the electronic domain in ensuring and maintaining situational awareness across the battlespace, as well as providing opportunities to deceive and nullify opposition sensors and situational awareness;
The emergence of low observable operations as a pervasive feature of future air operations.
Big as the damn world: Strategic considerations
Some geo-political and geographical considerations have worked in favour of lighter fighters. For some countries, engaged perhaps in a contest of political ideologies and looking with suspicion at others, it has been useful to build alliances with smaller countries, under the guise of providing defensive aid. Yes, we are looking at the USA and the USSR in the period of the Cold War, but this is not to exclude other possibilities.
A number of benefits flow from supplying their friends and allies with large numbers of light fighters, including:
provision of a defensive umbrella so that if local disputes erupt into conflict, this can be kept remote from the homeland;
maintaining the allies and friends (Client States) in a position where they are dependent on the homeland for support, hence helping to ensure political alignment;
limiting the capability to primarily defensive, rather than offensive capabilities, aiding political stability;
and providing business to maintain homeland armaments industries.
Light Fighters – Advantages
Summarising, we can observe the following benefits of light fighters:
Simplicity, leading to
more rapid production
and availability in greater numbers
Small size and weight, leading to
potentially higher climb rate and performance
less visual signature
potential ability to use shorter airstrips and more austere bases
delivery of complementary tactical capabilities to heavier fighters
Potential to further broader strategic aims
The Client State approach
Support to Industrial capability
Trade-offs compared to heavier fighters
One of the attributes strongly linked to the weight of a fighter is size, and, via size, the surface area and volume. This might seem academic, but for the fact that it is the volume of the aircraft which is available for payload and fuel.
In the case of a fighter aircraft, the payload is not just armament, but also sensors and systems, a myriad of which are critical to modern fighter aircraft, and some of which have certainly been critical for older designs. Obvious examples include radar, communications equipment, optical sensors, defensive aids like chaff and flares, electronic combat equipment such as jammers, missile launch and approach warners.
The surface area of the aircraft is most evident in the wing area, and the relationship between this and the weight of the aircraft will play a key role, not just in determining turn performance, but also take-off and landing requirements, as well as space for the carriage of external stores and sensors.
The fuel available for the aircraft is directly linked to the internal volume available – i.e. that space not already occupied by the structure, powerplant and intake system, undercarriage, pilot and the other systems which deliver flight control, armament management, displays and so on.
To generalise, a larger, heavier, fighter will be able to carry a greater proportion of sensors and fuel than a smaller, lighter aircraft, and is also likely to be able to carry a wider range of armament. However, it is likely that the wing loading of the aircraft will be higher, implying lower agility and greater take-off and landing requirements.
Sweating the elephant: Design and policy choices
Of course, all these aspects are subject to choices by the designer. If the agility is not sufficient, larger engines will help, but will consume more fuel. Multi-axis thrust vectoring can provide great agility but will increase weight and engine and flight control system complexity. Similarly, more complex wing designs incorporating variable sweep and high lift devices can improve take-off, landing and manoeuvre performance, but will come at the expense of complexity and additional weight.
These design choices have tended to lead to heavier fighters, with more powerful engines, driven by two principal factors. Firstly, there is a desire to engage at greater range, using long-range missiles. This is enabled by the use of powerful sensors, and assisted through the integration of both onboard and off-board systems, to aid the missile attack, and to confound enemy missile attack.
Secondly, there is a desire to reduce the size and cost of armed forces, so for most air arms there is continuing pressure for each aircraft type to be more capable than the last, again tending to increase size, weight and complexity, which in turn drives up the size of powerplant required. Paradoxically, the result is not just increased capability, but increases in the unit cost of the aircraft, although fewer will be purchased, and savings in manpower may also be made.
Investing in reduced signature, or low-observable aircraft, has three effects. Success means greater capability because of the ability to engage when the opposition is unaware of your presence, or, perhaps, your location. Along with this success comes significant cost increases due to the need for advanced production and maintenance processes, and the specialist materials required. In addition, internal carriage of stores is likely to result in a competition for internal volume between fuel and weapons, which may in turn impact on external aerodynamics and performance.
Measures to combat the trend of ever increasing cost, complexity and weight include extensive use of airborne refuelling aircraft, which can enable extended patrol times without increased fighter size and weight. However, provision of extensive air-to-air refuelling introduces its own vulnerabilities and costs, particularly if offensive operations, rather than air defence, are to be conducted. A force-mix approach may also be used, with high-end air superiority roles restricted to a smaller number of high-performance strategic fighters, while lower-performance or shorter-range aircraft are used for strike operations or local air defence tasks.
Most major forces are now adopting a system of systems approach, devolving some systems to co-operating unmanned assets with roles varying from electronic combat to strike, air refuelling, communications relay and, perhaps in the future, air combat. Geography, and strategic intent also have a part to play here. Defence of a large homeland with many possible directions of attack, is likely to require high-speed, long-range interceptors, probably backed up by numerous smaller and reactive fighters providing local air defence against possible ‘leakers’ that have evaded interception.
Aspirations for global air dominance drive in the direction of air superiority systems, creating an environment for long-range strike operations, using manned or un-manned assets, and potentially, significant numbers of tactical fighter and strike assets to provide air cover and support to surface-based operations.
Will light fighters continue to be relevant?
Earlier in this article, I referenced a couple of other pieces covering BVR air combat, and future developments in air combat. In general, these articles suggest a future drive towards combat persistence and range, coupled with advanced sensors, long-range weapons and stealth to deliver Air Superiority. This would be backed up by a mix of advanced sensor and electronic combat platforms, and an extensive networked information capability. Strike missions would be delivered by a mix of manned, unmanned and autonomous systems, with target location, confirmation and dissemination a key enabler.
At first glance, these points suggest that there might be little room for ‘light’ fighters in delivering these capabilities, but that would be to ignore the opportunities which may lie in the systems-of-systems approach. For example, options may exist to use shorter-range, highly reactive and manoeuvrable light fighters to provide Air Defence capabilities, as well as protection for high value assets. These would exploit third party sensing and targeting system to ensure rapid and effective reaction to threats, or to provide reactive tactical support to ground forces.
In addition, as identified in the BVR combat article, some Nations have a need for Air Defence to deter potential aggressors but have no desire to impose their political ideologies outside their own borders. For such nations, a small, networked air defence aircraft, equipped with advanced radar, infra-red tracking capability, and long-range anti-air weapons might be sufficient, noting that any such aircraft would also have some capability as a strike aircraft if necessary.
From a capability perspective, for those Nations which do require an ability to deliver Air Superiority outside their own borders, a light fighter might provide a niche capability, focusing on responsive air defence, but also providing additional numbers to strengthen tactical support. In addition, of course, such an aircraft might also provide sufficient capability for regional Client States, as outlined earlier.
Industrial considerations are also important. Many nations enter the world of aerospace manufacturing through the production of advanced training aircraft, and over time, manufacturing capability improvements can bring the production of light fighters within reach. Given a reasonably benign operating environment, this may be sufficient to meet National needs, noting that if necessary, manufacturers of more advanced aircraft will generally be only too enthusiastic to fill any remaining capability gaps.
An emergent need for light fighters might be in the loyal wingman concept, if applied to air combat. By removing the pilot and his support systems, a new class of highly manoeuvrable unmanned weapons platforms might emerge, with higher manoeuvre capability, and, in extremis, expendable. Such systems might function as a disruptive element to force combat with enemy defensive assets, causing them to expend weapons and fuel, and diminishing their ability to respond to air superiority or strike elements.
Are Light Fighters worth the Effort?
It depends who you are. For a large nation seeking to be at the cutting edge of everything, your need might be rather niche. Advanced trainers that can be militarised and exported or used for initial air combat training – perhaps.
A nation with a large geographic area offering many possible lines of attack for an opponent – almost certainly useful as an adjunct to your reactive strategic fighter force; to cover less likely avenues of attack, and greater areas of your airspace; and as Air Defence assets for your Client States.
A nation seeking to enter the aerospace manufacturing arena – certainly.
A manufacturer – perhaps, but perhaps as a partner in a risk-shared programme, or as a means of gaining access to new markets.
As a DARPA equivalent – Highly likely, looking for novel ways to reduce the cost of low signatures; increase agility without compromising signatures; examine the human factors, technologies and robustness of unmanned air combat and loyal wingman concepts.
To be frank – if it’s good enough for Tom Cruise it’s probably good enough for me. We probably have to accept that a significant amount of allegiances to aircraft types are not rational or explicable. Most grew out of simply liking the aesthetics of a type, which is fair enough. But then again we should be able to explain why we love our aeroplanes, particularly one that I have publically stated is the best multi-role platform in the world. Wouldn’t it be nice, in a boring sort of way, if you were only allowed to like an aircraft based on how good it was compared to its peers? So I’ll have a go with the F/A-18E Super Hornet. It obviously has a slightly less cool ‘almost twin’ brother in that there is a twin-seat, or family, model knocking around. But I flew those on very few occasions. It has an even less cool but amazingly effective cousin in the EA-18G Growler and I didn’t fly them at all – but watching one have an inflight engagement with the USS George HW Bush and lose the subsequent tug of war with a Nimitz Class carrier was easily one of the top ten coolest things I ever saw. We used to call the jet the Rhino. I’m not sure of the exact reason why but was told that it was because the ‘Ball Call’ needed only two syllables. It was my great privilege to join that bunch of warriors who have uttered ‘Rhino Ball’ at one point or another. Here are the top ten reasons that I loved flying the Super Hornet.
Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here
Actually multi-role. Not just the usual definition which involves an air-to-air missile or two, some air-to-surface weaponry, and a targeting pod. Multi-role in the case of the F/A-18E actually means it; in a way that quite a few designers and operators would choose to ignore as it’s a little inconvenient when a competitor gets it right. In fact, I’m not sure it’s all the way down at 10 but I wanted you to read it first. Multi-role in the case of the F/A-18E includes the AGM-88 HARM and its stablemate the AARGM. That brings a true self-escort strike capability to the party. If you don’t have ARMs and you are not a LO platform you might want to think about staying at home. This is a non-negotiable rule of warfare that people tend to forget. You have to survive to fight. You must be lethal, but to be lethal you need to be survivable. Quite a few aircraft do this using the assumption that someone else will do it for them. Seems somewhat risky. If you have a look, you’ll also see that multi-role for F/A-18E includes the Harpoon and the Quick Strike. That’s right. Anti-shipping missiles and sea mines. Now we’re talking true multi-role, the ability to affect the naval battle as much as the air and the land equivalents. Need some gas? Well, that’s doable if you have a F/A-18E/F with a tanking store close by. Not much by way of give compared to the wide bodies, I get that, but now we’re talking multi-role in a way that no other aircraft types can manage. We’ll talk about the plethora of strike weapons available further down. I can’t give up too much subject matter as we’re only on point 10, but multi-role and multi-basing option are two complementary things. Any of you boys seen a carrier around here?
The brand new Hush-Kit aviation podcast can be found here.
9. Night trap. I’m not saying this for effect. I enjoyed the deck at night. I found the deck during the day to be a bewildering morass of procedures. The night trap was like the day trap, but without all the things that could put you off, for example, convoluted procedures, anxiety about where other jets were and visual illusions from deck heave. Plenty of people have disagreed with me on this one but for me it really did boil down to needing to see three things; meatball, line up and angle of attack. At night those were the only three you could see! Simples. At night, or in poor weather the USN uses an approach pattern called the Case 3. The RN does too. Case 1 is when you can find the boat all on your lonesome and Case 3 is an approach using the ship or onboard systems to get you down to a position where you can pick up the ship and land. Case 2 was an unholy amalgam of the two. I never used it. The Case 3 allowed you to marshal at your given range at a given height on a specific radial and then come inbound to the boat at a given time. This made everything very simple. So long as you got the timing right and sorted your fuel to be at ‘Max Trap’ as you came over the round down then it was an exercise in instrument flying and the Super Hornet could give you both altitude hold and auto-throttle to get set up. There were three separate systems to follow – a TACAN and two precision approach aids and that all led to being on the ball, in good shape with only the 18 seconds of impending disappointment and the trap itself to be worried about. Yes, it was a pulse raiser, but what do you expect when you’ve got 44,000lbs or so of jet, fuel and weapons strapped to your backside?
8. Catapult Shot. I’m putting this in even if there is a strong argument for the removal of the cat shot from the list altogether. The catapult shot is like a fairground ride. Followed by a fairground ride. I genuinely believe that there is nothing in aviation as thrilling as the yellow-coated shooter beating their hands on their chest to signify that you are now theirs. This is the very end of the ballet that is deck ops. From dropping the weight chit off, to finding the aeroplane, to getting it ready in all respects. Aircraft systems, nav systems, comms systems, weapon systems – all checked and ready to go, and then with chocks and lashings removed you follow the marshallers’ every signal to get to and over the Jet Blast Deflectors and before you know it the holdback is fitted, you’ve acknowledged the weight board, the T-bar is in the shuttle and you’re under tension. Given the wind-up signal you go to full power and check you have ‘full and free’ controls. What a rush. So what’s not to like? What happens next! The cat shot is ferocious, Ferocious enough to throw feet pedals, to throw mask across face, loft some of your saliva into an eye or two. And at the end of the cat run when Mr Bernoulli is invited to take over it’s like running into a wall. An amazing achievement for mankind, but one I can’t say I actually enjoyed. More a case of ‘proud to have done’.
7. Air-to-Surface weaponry. Air-to-Surface made easy. The weapon systems available to the Rhino could be thought of as a bewildering array of potential destruction. Only they weren’t bewildering because the aircraft integration was so good. Getting the aircraft into an air-to-mud role was a single button push and thereafter the stores selection was common for the weapons – whatever they were – which came from a ‘too long to write out’ list. However, from a PGM point of view the basic weapons were probably the JDAM from a GPS point of view and the GBU-49 from a LGB point of view. These weapons could be used in any of their 500lb, 1000lb or larger guises. However to them were added various stand-off weapons such as JSOW, Maverick and SLAM. The key to their use and the utility of the jet and the need to keep the training burden reasonable – was that as an operator there really wasn’t that much to care about because the modes all looked and smelt the same; whilst the ranges from which you could employ changed, the symbology didn’t. That meant that a pilot’s job of being in the right bit of sky on the tactical display was the same for all of them. The aircraft also had a very good dumb weapon model. Against one target dropping from medium level I witnessed a four aircraft strike generate a target coordinate at range and then flow in for an attack using unguided free-fall weapons. Result: four weapons getting a ‘metal on metal’ hit on the target which was an F-4 minding its own business and trying to enjoy its retirement in the desert. As ever, there was one last trick, the cannon. Aimed using a simple dot, it really was a case of ‘put the thing on the thing and press the thing’. I did hear once that one pilot had managed to fire all 400+ rounds in a single pass. Good effort!
6. Monster racks.
Let’s be honest, if anything on your aircraft is called ‘The Monster’ then it’s going to be worth talking about. With the monster racks came the ability to fight in a fit I’d seen at an airshow – 10 AIM-120 and 2 AIM-9X. And a gun. Yes, some of the weapons weren’t perfectly aligned with the aircraft and yes lugging metalwork through the air is tiresome from a physics point of view, but when 2 of you can take down the entire opening Red Air presentation at Red Flag that’s got to be a good thing. The real convenience of it was that in exercise it removed the necessity to count. Gone we’re the ‘Dirty Harry’ days of ‘Have I fired 4 shots or 3?’. They had been replaced with the carefree knowledge that you couldn’t possibly have fired all 10! It also allowed you to be a little more flexible with the mission plan because if anyone ever suggested adopting a ‘missile conservation mindset’ then you would look at them like they were insane. You could fire the first for a laugh and the next just to get something downrange if you really felt like it.
5. Handling and Angle of Attack. All jets have limits to the angle of attack you can use and this usually reflects itself in how hard you can pull and how slow you can fight. The Super Hornet didn’t have one. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that pilots are naturally lazy, quite the opposite. But something eventually has to give and one of them is the ability to store every limit and parameter in your head. What could therefore be better than finding out that there was no alpha limit? Technically I suppose you could forget the fact that there was nothing to remember. Yes, there were angles of attack at which it was sensible to fight, but there was no limit. There were some very clear times when you would think an alpha excursion was a good idea and the jet would simply give you what you needed. To be able to put both hands on the stick and pull it back to the stops, thereby asking the jet to give you all it had – and know that it was going to deliver was awesome. Some of the other manoeuvres were equally rewarding to fly. The Super Hornet had a means, at high angle of attack to pirouette. It took some bullying on the controls and was only to be used for defensive means really – but if the idea of having someone in your shorts was getting tiresome the ability to throw your own tail in the opposite direction was really handy. Yes, the jet was still bound by the laws of physics, but it did seem to be pretty good at negotiating some flexibility with them.
4. Radar. There are sensors and there are sensors. This is where I may start to court an element of controversy. A jet’s goodness in the modern age, dating back to about 2010 is measured in three bins. Sensor, weapon and datalink. They are all underpinned by performance but most jets are actually ‘much of a muchness’ performance-wise. The entry point for fighters for each of the bins changes with time but essentially nowadays it boils down to needing an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), a long-range weapon and a full-up Link-16 fit. If any of those are missing, go and talk to Dad and don’t come out to play until it’s sorted. Back in Sea Harrier days you might expect to have well-formed tracks on F-15 size-targets at 30 or so miles, F-16s a little less and developmental Eurofighters a whole heap more. That gave you enough time to get in order for a shot. With an AESA this could be three or four times that amount with no need at all to ‘neck down’ the search to get more ‘trons on target. The result is phenomenal. Consider a fighter with a mech scan radar to be like a single man, in a warehouse, at night, with a pencil torch, trying to work out where the bats are. The APG-79 gave the same man the ability to switch on every fluorescent strip in the house.
Night and day. It was also a nightmare to fight against. On the occasions that I used APG-73 against APG-79 it was like using your pencil torch to shine up range whilst the screen told you that someone was shining the sun back. The radar had so much time on its hands because it wasn’t wheeling a plate from left to right that it even looked in places you hadn’t asked it to – just in case you missed something. It was so quick and so powerful that there was simply no point dividing up the sky and each looking in different bits. In legacy fighters, a formation might decide between them as to who looked high, who looked low etc. With the APG-79 one could simply ask it to look at everything. This had one massive technical advantage on top of the obvious ones. Anything you threw out on link was a very tight low latency track. That made everyone’s life easier, apart from the enemy’s who would probably rather it didn’t. In fact, the APG-79 may not have been a radar. I suspect it was actually the Eye of Sauron.
3. Mirrors. Mirrors are very simple in that they show you what is going on in front of them, backwards. There are two mirrors you should think twice before using. The first is a mirror on a boat – because the chances are that your inner ear is suffering enough already and being in synch with a reflection is unlikely. The other mirrors that you may want to avoid are mirrors that show you what a simply amazing Flight Control System is doing on your behalf with the surfaces that lurk behind you. So number 3 isn’t really the ability to use a shiny surface to look behind you. It’s what you see in those shiny surfaces that tells you in no uncertain terms that the jet is fine and it’s going to deliver a response to your inputs, and you really don’t need to concern yourself with how it’s doing it. In the slow-speed fight in particular the jet was superb. The canted tail added greatly to aft end lift and the multiple surfaces moving in, and out, of synch to give you control was as heartwarming as it was startling. This jet gave you what you needed, even if how it was doing it was a bit of a mystery. Another way of demonstrating the same point was to look at another aircraft when they deployed the airbrake. Obviously termed speed brake in US parlance. The argument about whether you are braking air or speed is semantic and tedious. The interesting piece is that there was no brake to deploy whether you fancied getting rid of speed or using air. The jet simply deployed aerodynamic surfaces in whatever way it thought best to slow you down.
2. Redundancy and general hardness.
Redundancy in the aviation sense is only bad for one reason, that you have to learn about 3 systems wherein UK ground school one would do. With two engines and various backup systems the Rhino was ideally set up to allow you to keep fighting and get you home. You could even use the Auxiliary Power Unit to add another trench to the defence if you wanted to. With hyds (hydraulics) and electricals having triplex redundancy this was a very clever system of systems. The other thing about the jet was how tough it was. Upon landing, you could use the fuel and engine page to record fault codes from the jet called BLINS. I can’t remember what that stood for or what the individual codes were but there were two for the time that the aircraft sensed a heavy landing. When I watched the Growler engage in flight I was very close. I was getting fuel near the island and was arrayed across the ship, with my nose a few feet from the wing tip safety line. I heard the Landing Signals Officer scream ‘Power, Power, Power!’ and looking to my right I saw a Growler in plan form tail-walking down the deck…grabbing a wire as it did so. The jet was in full blower and settled above the flight deck pointing up at a daft angle. God was obviously watching and after enough time to take in the spectacle adjudicated in the boat’s favour and the jet came crashing down between me and the bow. A crash almost vertically onto the deck. It sat shaking like a wet labrador as the Flight Control System attempted to make sense of what its crew had just put it through. Not a single BLIN. The jet just walked it off and as the crew made their way sheepishly into the superstructure the jet sat and waited for its next ride. These things are tough.
1. The whole package. I’m sure most folk remember certain programmes being talked about in terms of sensor fusion. Mainly in the sense that it didn’t work. Sensor fusion is about the ability to be sure that the radar track is the same enemy aircraft as the link track – and therefore present the pilot with a single track with additional information rather than two contacts. It is possible on a badly fused system to think that you are up against 3 contacts when in fact you are looking at radar track and Interrogator hits from your own system, plus a track from a buddy and they are all actually the same enemy aircraft. The obvious downside is that you might get a little anxious and hoof off three shots when one would do. The Super Hornet inhabited the very end of the fusion scale. A track from the radar would be backed up by link, with the IFF latched to it. The jet was even clever enough to lock the targeting pod to the air target. Sadly I was never clever enough to check how it was getting on. I ran out of capacity and the jet never did!
Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here
So in summary. A superbly integrated jet. Harder than granite. Equipped with the all-seeing eye and a plethora of air-to-surface weapons; and one of the more absurd air-to-air fits available. Capable of taking a whole heap of pain, of looking after itself on the way to and from the target whatever the threat. It got you back to the boat with minimum of fuss, having probably never explored its extraordinary flight envelope. In fact the only bad thing about the Super Hornet wasn’t the jet, nor the boat, it was what waited for you after that. Burger and fries or beer and wine? The USN’s opinion on the matter was bitterly disappointing.
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Fast, accurate and survivable, the Convair B-58 Hustler was a sexy Cold War totem. Its glamour belied the grimness of its intended role as a strategic nuclear bomber, a task it thankfully never performed. As we find out from Colonel George Holt Jr – a Navigator/Bombardier on this Mach 2 monster – the Hustler was a brilliantly engineered and utterly potent aircraft retired in its prime. Holt was part of the B-58–equipped 305th Bomb Wing at Bunker Hill AFB (now Grissom AFB) close to Peru, Indiana from 1960 to 1969.
What was the best thing about the Hustler?
It had a very high probability for penetrating enemy defenses and accurately delivering its weapons on assigned targets.
..and the worst?
My brother, Tech Sergeant John Holt was assigned to B-58 maintenance from 1963 to 1968. He noted that the B-58 experienced excessive downtime after a mission, as discrepancies had to be cleared before the next flight. Before any maintenance could begin on the aircraft, a ground air conditioning unit had to be hooked up and cooling air had to be supplied to the aircraft before he could turn the power switch on. Unlike most bombers, the Hustler was a very tight aircraft and panels had to be removed before most maintenance could begin.
Then there were the ‘Hangar Queens’ those few aircraft that had numerous repeatable maintenance problems that no one could figure out. Quite often, those problems were associated with the Bomb/Nav system. Lt. Colonel Tom Hatch remembers one flight where the Bomb/Nav system started to overheat and the air conditioning was switched to ‘reverse flow’— a condition that forced cooling air into the electronic equipment before entering the crew station area. On one mission, the heat was so unbearable that he had to strip down to his bare chest. However, incidents like this were the exception rather than the norm and in May 1968 the entire fleet of B-58s started receiving an improved version of the AN/ASQ-42 Bomb/Nav system, along with new technical data and spare parts. In my three years of flying in the B-58, I never experienced a ‘reverse flow’ condition.
Some maintenance personnel said they “hated working on this airplane” but in almost the same breath, they would say, “they wouldn’t trade it for the world.” Like the aircrews, the B-58 maintenance folks were an elite group and proud to have worked on the Hustler. They were the best, and the best way to measure their performance is to note that B-58s, on a daily basis, were able to meet their SIOP (war plan) commitment of having 32 alert-ready aircraft, refuelled with weapons loaded and ready to go to war at a moment’s notice.
What was its Cold War tasking?
It was in the bomber component of the United States nuclear triad consisting of land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. Each B-58 alert crew stood ready to launch within minutes of a confirmed attack on the U.S. to deliver five weapons on assigned military targets in enemy territory.
What were you first impressions of the B-58?
In the Spring of 1966, my Wing Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Pease AFB, New Hampshire asked if I’d like to be reassigned to B-58s. For six years I’d flown as a navigator/bombardier in the B-47, but all B-47s were being retired so it was an honour to have been selected, because the Convair B-58 Hustler was the most sophisticated and technologically advanced aircraft of its day and back then you could not just volunteer for B-58s you had to be selected and recommended by your wing commander.
I was fortunate to be paired up with Major Al Dugard, an outstanding pilot who had been with the 509th for many years. Al successfully passed his F-102 transition training while I was at Mather AFB, CA for B-58 Nav training. Al and our Defensive Systems Operator (DSO), Major Bob McCormack then went to Bunker Hill AFB, Indiana, for flight training in the TB-58.
When I arrived at Bunker Hill (later renamed Grissom AFB) I was quite amazed at my first sight of a B-58. This baby looked fantastic. It was much bigger than I had imagined and you could tell it was built for speed with those four brute-force J-79 engines strung beneath its delta wing. With a sharply tapered needle-nose, it looked ready to break the sound barrier while still on the ground. This racehorse was itching to get out of the stable and run with the wind. I found it hard to believe that I’d be riding this beast in that second cockpit.
Al and Bob had already logged a number of hours in the plane with an instructor pilot, but my first flight meant going up with Al on his first solo ride. It would be a normal mission – high altitude navigation, inflight refuelling with a KC-135 tanker and high and low altitude nav runs with simulated bomb drops being scored by radar bomb scoring sites.
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I had some hesitation as we headed out to the aircraft. Something didn’t feel right. I had my helmet and oxygen mask and my Nav kit – but something was missing. My shoulders felt light. Then I realised I didn’t have a parachute. After ten years of flying in tactical and strategic bombers wearing a fairly heavy parachute for hours on end, I suddenly realised those days were over – no parachute required in the Hustler. The escape capsule had its own installed parachute, so this would be shirt-sleeve flying.
The B-58 was also the only bomber aircraft I know of that had a single pilot with two navigators on board – the DSO was a rated navigator. The crew sat in tandem, one behind the other in three isolated cockpits – no standing room available.
I’ll always remember the take-off and climb-out of my first mission. We were sitting on the runway with four engines in full afterburner. Then at brake release I felt pushed back in my seat as we made a rapid roll to lift off and then a climb at 425 knots until we reached altitude. Of course, after takeoff we had to throttle back out of afterburner to prevent this racehorse from running wild.
Its four J79 engines produced 62,400 pounds of thrust, so the B-58 with an empty weight of only 55,650 pounds had an outstanding thrust-to-weight ratio.
People often asked, “Did you become claustrophobic sitting in such a confined space for hours on end?” My reply was always, ”No. I was just too darned busy during the mission to have any time to think about being claustrophobic.”
Describe the B-58 in three words?
Fast, Accurate and Survivable. Let me explain:
Fast: The B-58 was fast and had a range of airspeeds. At its maximum speed of Mach 2.2 (1,452 mph) it was 2½ times faster than the muzzle velocity of a .45 caliber bullet. Although it was a strategic bomber it could outmaneuver, outturn, and out-climb most fighter aircraft of its day. But it was also fast while flying at low level. On the deck we would skirt the treetops just below the speed of sound. This amazing bomber captured numerous international speed records winning five aeronautical trophies: The Thompson, Bleriot, Mackay, Bendix and Harmon trophies. The B-58 Hustler also set 14 world speed records in international competition; and in 1962, a Hustler carried a payload of 11,000 lbs. to an altitude of 85,360 feet.
Accurate: It was unbeatable in navigational and bombing accuracy. Its Doppler, Stellar, and Inertial navigation system was quite unique for its day. Before it was fully combat-ready, a B-58 crew, competing against more experienced B-47 and B-52 crews, did the unthinkable. It took first place for bombing accuracy at the 1960, Strategic Air Command, Bombing Competition. I would often fly “radar silent” going from standby to radar-on just for the few seconds required to position my crosshairs on navigation checkpoints, however the Bomb/Nav system of the Hustler was so accurate that quite often the crosshairs would be laying directly on the checkpoint when radar was turned on.
Survivable: In the 1960s, improvements in Soviet surface to air missiles (SAMs) forced the B-58 from a high-altitude supersonic penetration of enemy airspace to a low-level penetration and a high subsonic speed run to its targets, just below Mach-1. The Hustler adapted to this new profile exceptionally well. The B-52 was also forced to go in at low-level but it had a huge radar image and its lower speed held no comparison to the B-58 whose radar image was virtually undetectable. Flying low and fast it was hard for radar sites to pick us up amongst the radar ground clutter and its ability to fly ‘silent’ with no electromagnetic emissions made it virtually undetectable in enemy territory. I can attest to how the B-58 was like a stealth bomber on low-level bomb runs. Quite often when we approached a Nike bomb scoring site, we were asked to pop up so they could obtain a radar lock-on.
What is a particularly dangerous aircraft?
I would describe a dangerous aircraft as one where you risked life or limb at a much higher probability compared to other aircraft. I flew for six years in the B-47 six-engine jet bomber and never felt comfortable on take-off and landings because I knew if I had to eject at that low altitude, in my navigator’s downward ejection seat, my chance of survival was close to zero.
Tell us about the escape pod.
It was quite a relief to find out that the Hustler, not only had upward ejection seats for all three crew members, but we would also have our own escape capsule. This capsule was amazing. The pilot’s capsule is shown in the closed position. His capsule included the flight control stick allowing him to control the aircraft while encapsulated up to the point of ejection. The B-58 was the first Air Force aircraft to have a capsule ejection system to allow safe ejection at supersonic speed. And it worked at any airspeed from 100 knots to above Mach 2 and from ground level to 70,000 feet. This capsule would get you out of the aircraft safely. It had an independent pressurisation and oxygen supply system, shock absorbers to ease the impact on touchdown, and it even floated on water.
Do you think it was more survivable than the B-52?
It was much more survivable than the B-52 for a number of reasons. If we had to go to war, it could take off much faster than the B-52. At low level, it could penetrate enemy defenses at a much higher speed and coped much better in heavy turbulence. Most of all it was much harder to detect on enemy radars.
The Studies and Analysis Directorate at the Pentagon ran computer simulations comparing the B-58 with the B-52. They concluded that the B-58’s speed advantage and its very low radar signature gave the Hustler a higher probability of evading detection by enemy radars. This held true even when the B-58 was programmed to fly at a higher altitude than the B-52 during low-level penetration to the target. In comparing radar signature differences, I remember one of the evaluators saying, “The difference between the B-58 and the B-52 was like comparing a postage stamp to a barn door.”
Here’s how my former B-58 pilot compared the two aircraft when I asked him which was more survivable. “I have over 3500 hours in the B-47, close to 1,000 hours in the B-52, with 350 in combat missions in Vietnam, including flights over Hanoi and Haiphong. As a weapons machine for use in both peacetime deterrence and war conditions, the B-58 was exceptional.”
He went on to say, “Having flown the B-52 into a highly defended enemy target complex, it is apparent to me that the B-52 was highly vulnerable to enemy defenses. Having survived the onslaught of surface to air missiles (SAMs) due only to electronic countermeasures and seeing missiles fired even before our initial turn to target, I am convinced that the B-52 for all its great capability was a large detectable target, easily identified and vulnerable to the SAM complexes. The B-52 at low-level had this same huge radar image and due to its lower speed held no comparison to the B-58 whose low-level speed was much greater and the B-58’s radar image was virtually undetectable.”
By 1967, all major improvement modifications had been completed on the B-58 and like its big brother the B-52, it could have remained in the inventory for many more years. Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even the Office of the Secretary of Defense, despite initial misgivings about the Hustler, came to realize its value as a strategic bomber and by January 1969, it had been given a new lease on life. It was certainly a weapon system feared by the Soviets. But because of an indisputable blunder by Strategic Air Command, during a time when they were under pressure to cut costs, they decided to trade off all of the B-58s in hopes of retaining some older model B-52s. They got their trade off from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Then, within months, they were also forced to phase out those older model B-52s they had hoped to keep.
What was special about the B-58?
It was an airplane you could fall in love with. It was a pleasure to fly. Among all the pilots I’ve known in my three years of flying in the B-58, none thought the B-58 was hard to fly. In fact, they thought it was the smoothest airplane they ever flew. Especially those who had flown fixed-wing B-47s and B-52s. Its delta wing gave the Hustler a smoother and more stable ride than other aircraft. Responsiveness to controls was instantaneous and you didn’t wait for a wing to respond to control movement. Formation flight i.e., Air Refueling was much easier due to the stable platform.”
Your most memorable mission?
I actually had two very memorable missions. I had mentioned earlier that the B-58 had a range of airspeeds. The following illustrates how slow and how fast the Hustler could fly.
There’s no doubt that the B-58 had an amazing high-speed capability. Now, let’s take a look at the Hustler’s slow speed ‘floating leaf’ capability.
I had my share of ‘shacks’ i.e., putting a bomb directly on target with zero error, and never had a bad bomb score in my three years of navigating and bombing in the B-58. But came close when I was running high altitude simulated bomb drops on a Nike site one evening over Chicago. We were in a racetrack pattern and getting excellent scores from the Nike radar bomb scoring unit. However, we were flying in one humongous jet stream, well over 200 mph. Our inbound run to the target was very slow and our outbound on the racetrack was like a ‘Bat out of Hell’ with that ferocious tailwind kicking us in the rear.
Nike sites scored bomb runs by acquiring the inbound aircraft on radar. The aircraft’s track was drawn in ink on a large horizontal whiteboard. The track was based on the aircraft’s ground speed and true course. Ten seconds before bomb release, I would transmit a constant tone. At simulated bomb release the tone stops and the pen on the plotting board lifts up. At that point, the Nike site operators would extend the track based on the time of fall for the bomb type and the best-known wind data. Altogether, this determined how close the bomb came to the target.
Well, on this particular evening, I was getting somewhat bored on my fourth inbound to the target. We were fighting that tremendous headwind and it seemed like it was taking forever to get to the target. So I decided to try something different. I computed an indicated airspeed (IAS) for Al Dugard, my pilot, to fly that would make our true airspeed equivalent to the speed of the jet stream. If Al could hit that speed, then our groundspeed would be zero. We had just flown a seven-hour mission and the Hustler was real light with just enough fuel, plus some reserve, to get us back to Bunker Hill, 15 minutes away. Al was not sure, he could hold such a low airspeed for too long, but he was willing to try.
He started throttling back on the engines, careful to keep the Hustler above the stall speed and I kept my eye on the groundspeed indicator. Son of a gun, we were approaching zero groundspeed.
Al said, “George, I can keep this airspeed and angle of attack, but I’m beginning to lose some altitude to maintain it.”
“OK, Al, we just hit zero groundspeed. Hold it a bit longer and then we can accelerate to keep the bomb run going.”
Then we started getting panic calls from the Nike site because the pen plotting our track, inbound to the target, had stopped its forward motion. That meant only one thing to the Nike bomb plot people on the ground—we must have either blown up in the air or crashed to the ground.
“Delta 23 this is Nike bomb plot. Do you have an emergency? Come in Delta 23.”
Al came over the interphone, “George, I’ll respond to Nike so they don’t get too panicky and declare an emergency on us.”
“Nike bomb plot. This is Delta 23. Sorry for the delay. We just stopped for a while to open and eat our flight lunches. We’re now continuing into the target.”
“Roger 23” – a long silence and then, “Your pen plot has started to move again.”
They probably could not believe what just happened and never asked for an explanation. I was just lucky they did not retaliate by giving me a bad bomb score.
Now let’s take a look at how fast this beautiful lady could fly. Here’s a mission I was on in March 1967, out of Fort Worth, Texas:
“Foxtrot one five, this is Carswell Tower, you’re cleared for takeoff. Center has cleared an unrestricted climb to 24,000 feet.”
“OK, Crew, we’re ready to roll. Advancing power to 100%, engines stabilized, kicking in AB, and releasing brakes.”
I felt the afterburners kick in and said, “Al, I’ve started my stop watch, let me know when you level off at 24,000 feet.”
“Al, my altimeter is spinning like crazy back here.”
“Mine, too. We’re approaching 15,000 feet and I can see the end of the runway below us.”
“Ft Worth Center, this is Foxtrot one five, passing through 15,000 feet.”
Center didn’t believe us. “Foxtrot 15, say again altitude?”
“Flight Level 19 Zero, and now leveling off at 24 Zero.”
“Al, you won’t believe this but my stopwatch reads 48 seconds and that was from brake release.”
“I believe it, George. It’s the lightest fuel load we’ve ever had. That climb was like sitting on the head of a rocket. I couldn’t level off quick enough and finally hit the top of the parabola at 26 thousand feet and dove back down to the assigned altitude of 24. That was a blast. What’s our heading to The General Dynamics rehab base at James Connolly?”
“Pick up a heading of one seven four degrees.”
I was the Navigator/Bombardier in that one-minute conversation with our pilot, Major Al Dugard, as we departed Carswell Air Force Base, enroute to James Connolly Air Force Base. Our Defensive Systems Operator, Major ‘Mac’ MacDonald was also on board.
Our mission was to ferry a B-58 “Hustler” to James Connolly for a modification on the wing root and other mods to extend the life of the B-58 well into the 1970s. While at James Connolly, we picked up an aircraft that had already been modified and flew it back home to Bunker Hill Air Force Base, Indiana.
Mach 2 was more than possible. The thrust of the four J79 engines could push the B-58 well beyond Mach 2. The limiting factor was aircraft skin temperature. When a B-58 crew set a transcontinental speed record in 1962 they monitored the skin temperature gauges to ensure they did not exceed 125 degrees centigrade (125°C = 257°F.)
I’ve often been asked, “What was it like when the B-58 went supersonic?” Unlike the loud boom, someone on the ground would hear, my first experience passing through the sound barrier was remarkably quiet. Unless you were looking at your instruments, you would never know you had gone supersonic. There was not even a small shudder within the aircraft—nothing, except a fluctuation on the altimeter. The reading would drop around 500 feet and then bounce back to the proper altitude. The B-58 was capable of delivering bombs at Mach 2 but it could be tricky. Travelling at 23 miles per minute. You had to acquire the target as early as possible and once your crosshairs were locked on target any further movement of the crosshairs could result in very steep bank angles as the aircraft turned to reacquire the target.
How fast and smooth was the ride at low levels?
The B-58 was very fast and very smooth and quite stable even when flying in low level turbulence. When other larger bombers on a low level route aborted their mission due to heavy turbulence, we would come in behind them and successfully complete the mission experiencing only light to moderate turbulence. That’s the advantage of a delta wing design. The B-58’s wingspan was short, solid and stable, unlike aircraft with large wingspans where turbulence can induce oscillating forces on the wings. It was much faster than the B-52 at low level.
All bombs were dropped with a drogue retarded parachute to allow safe escape from the bomb blast. The Defensive Systems Operator (DSO) controlled a powerful electronic counter-measures (ECM) system to blind enemy radars, including an active jammer and a chaff dispenser. The defensive armament of the B-58 had a six-barrel, 20-mm rotary cannon (Gatling gun) with a maximum firing rate of 4000 rounds per minute. The radar for the tail gun was located in a bullet fairing above the tail cone. The gun was aimed remotely by the fire control system in the tail, but there was a radar (automatic) fire control panel and a manual fire control panel located at the DSO’s station. The firing zone was any target within a 60-degree cone. The defensive ECM system gave early warning of enemy radar systems to deceive, confuse, or jam them. The system also had radar track-breaking equipment, that generated deceptive radar jamming signals. When radar tracking signals, locked on us, the track breaker generated and transmitted deceptive angle and range information back to the hostile radar tracking system. A chaff dispensing system was also installed in each upper main gear fairing, with chaff being ejected through mechanically actuated slots in the tops of each wing fairing.
What should I have asked you? How about: Have you published any books about the B-58?
I have published a couple of books about the B-58. My best seller is “The B-58 Blunder – How the U.S. Abandoned its Best Strategic Bomber.” It details much more of what has been presented here and is available on Amazon where it has sold over 6,000 copies and received over 260 reviews. In it I describe how the B-58 came to a premature death, largely because of infighting among military and civilian leaders, who failed to understand the value and full capabilities of this fantastic airplane. It was a technological marvel, years ahead of its time and it should never have been sent to the boneyard.
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It was my last long cross-country flight from Schleswig NAS via Lossiemouth, Scotland to Keflavik NAS in Iceland, back in July 1982. It was the year I left the Starfighter to fly Tornados.
MY LAST big cross-country with the F-104 was supposed to take place on July 9, 1982. That Friday I wanted to fly with my significantly more experienced comrade Georg (Schorse) Lange from Eggebek to Scottish Lossiemouth (EGQS), refuel and then jet on to Keflavik on the island of Iceland (BIKF). Our aircraft were fully packed for the weekend. We had a dark presentiment about the Icelandic summer weather and to be on the safe side, had warm jackets and pullovers with us.
Lossiemouth is an old Royal Air Force site, with multiple connections with the German Navy. British bombers set off from here in 1944 to sink the battleship Tirpitz; 14 years later, the new West German Navy commissioned their first Sea Hawk multipurpose squadron in the same location.
We landed our Starfighters, refuelled, submitted our flight plan to Iceland and took off. I had never been so far north and so far out over the sea in a single-engine aircraft; it wasn’t particularly reassuring to know that our radio equipment wasn’t configured for such routes. As mentioned, we only had military UHF radio communication on board, no civilian VHF or even HF. We were soon out of reach of any coastal radio station. If one of us had to bail out, he could only hope that he would be picked up by a random passing ship. We reached Iceland in the best of weather and reported in to Keflavik tower. After a glance at our fuel gages – they showed sufficient fuel in both aircraft – we decided to go sightseeing.
We disappeared in the direction of the glaciers and mountains. What beautiful scenery! Elated, we let our Starfighters dance over the uninhabited natural wonder and turned back happily to the military airport. After landing, we checked into our room in a US Navy apartment block.
It was midsummer, with an outside temperature of a summery 12 degrees centigrade; the ladies were sunbathing in their bikinis, in front of coloured geothermally heated cement houses. On the weekend there was a cheerful hustle and bustle all over Reykjavik. At night, it was still broad daylight and the discos were full; young people lay in the grass with bottles of vodka. Party in the North! During the day we had the opportunity to discover the beautiful landscape. Geysers, hot bathing lakes in dazzling colours. Dried fish on wooden hanging racks. Clear air which made everything gleam like Kodachrome photographs. I had never seen anything like it.
Any US soldier who went to Keflavik could pick an assignment of his choice afterwards; all military personnel in the large canteen at the Keflavik Air Base made an appropriately satisfied impression. When I started up the engine of my Starfighter 21+29 on Monday morning, the oil low-level warning light came on. I climbed onto the ‘roof’ and pulled the dipstick. It was as dry as a bone! All of the lubricant was certainly lost on our flight here, as there wasn’t a single drop to be seen under the aircraft. The US Air Force mechanic shrugged his shoulders helplessly; then someone came with a ladder and tools and soon the ‘culprit’ was found under the cowling of my Starfighter. The main rubber oil pipe, strengthened with metal braiding, was faulty – the pipe, looking fine from outside, had rotted inside and become porous, so the oil from the main tank simply ran out. With this shattering diagnosis, my F-104 was grounded. Nobody could know what damage had already been done to the engine; in all cases it had to be changed. We telephoned back and forth, until a Luftwaffe C-160 Transall transport with mechanics from the German Air Force base Hohn (near Rendsburg) was con-firmed for the following Thursday.
We used the compulsory break to continue our visit of Iceland with a rented VW Golf. The island was quite an experience; we could hardly believe the vastness and isolation. We met single people in the most remote areas who were fishing and camping. I had the impression that quite a few Icelanders drove an extra two hours through the wilderness just to be completely alone.
When the team of engineers arrived from Germany on Thursday, my F-104 was already standing in the large aircraft hangar. The armed US guard observed the repair of my bird with interest. In no time at all the experts unscrewed and removed the tail of the F-104. Soon the new engine was in and the men did an obligatory test run in front of the hangar. Everything okay! Then the ‘social’ bit followed. The engineers went back to the hangar and opened a large tool box. The American guard stood open-mouthed with amazement: Huge amounts of schnapps and beer were stored inside. With a hearty swig we toasted the good work. The navy technicians had earned themselves a well-deserved weekend in Iceland and didn’t have to be back in Germany until Monday.
There was something the navy mechanics hadn’t been able to repair: the arresting hook wouldn’t lock and had to be secured with an ’abdominal bandage’ around the tail. We thanked our team and climbed into the aircraft in strong winds. As I taxied to the runway next to Schorse and accelerated, the tower reported winds of over 50 knots – a record value during my entire military career. We took to the air with some distance as the swaying in formation would have been much too dangerous. Once airborne, it became immediately calm, and we flew to Lossiemouth with a comfortable distance between the jets. Upon touchdown, the ‘abdominal bandage’ got loose, and the arresting hook emitted a spray of sparks onto the runway. Scottish mechanics crafted the hook back firmly. It held until Eggebek.
Which exact variant did you fly and what systems and weapons did it use? I was on the F-104G. Here is, some data from my book:
F-104G, German Navy Range: 6.68m, with tip tanks 7.62m Length: 16.69m Height: 4.11m Wing area: 18.22m2 Engine: General-Electric J79-GE-11A (from 1970: also MTU J79-J1K) Thrust: 7150 kp (70118 N)/4450/44522 N with/ without afterburner Fuel flow: 17.500 l/hr 4700 l/hr. with/with- out afterburner Empty weight: 6695kg Take-off weight 9435 kg (F-104 G, clean) With tip tanks 10.637kg With 4 tip + pylon tanks 11.598 kg With pylon tanks + AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles 11.045 kg Take-off speed: 190 kts, with tip tanks 200 kts Cruising speed: 450 kts low level flight, Mach 0.92high level: Attack speed: 540-600 kts Maximum speed: 750 KCAS, Mach 2.0 at 36.000ft (without external loads) Service ceiling: 16.750m/55.000ft Landing speed: 175 kts with fully extended flaps/ 195 kts with “takeoff” flaps (plus additional weight) Max. load factor: +7.33 g and -3 g Climb performance: 2 minutes to 36.000ft/17.5 NM (example: take-off weight, with tip tanks) Armament: 1 x 20-mm M61A1 Vulcan gun, A1M-9B Sidewinder missiles, 2,75 in. FFAR unguided rockets, bombs, “Kormoran” Air-to-surface missiles, AS 20/30 missiles
When did you fly the F-104 and with which service? After training with the USAF at Luke AFB, AZ in 1977/1978 I was posted to 1st Sqn. Naval Air Wing 1 (1. Staffel, Marinefliegergeschwader 1) at Schleswig-Jagel Airbase, Schleswig-Holstein, North Germany in 1979. Jagel was originally a WW2 Luftwaffe airbase, built in 1936. After the war, it was a RAF station and then returned to the German Navy, they started with Sea Hawks.
I flew the F-104G at Jagel NAS from 1979 to 1982, when our wing changed to the TORNADO as the first branch of the entire German armed forces.
Jagel was one of two German Navy fighter/bomber bases, the other one, Eggebek (EDCG) being located just a few miles north.
What was the best thing about the F-104G? Well… in those days, it was considered the best-looking, best-accelerating, best-climbing, fastest fighter in the GAF/FGN inventory. In other words: a sexy aircraft for any guy in his mid-twenties.
Single-seat, single-engine, so sleek you could hardly see it approaching from the front or rear, a nightmare for other aircraft. A very stable weapons platform with excellent qualities.
..and the worst thing? From my point of view, the only drawback was its single engine. Once over the Baltic near the WP coastline, you were hoping not to have an engine failure (unlikely with the J-79) or a birdstrike (very likely).
Another well-known problem was the poor turning radius. This would have caused problems in a dogfight, e.g., with a MiG-21.
What would have been the mission of your unit had World War 3 started? We would have been tasked to protect the Baltic Sea approaches (exits and entries for Warsaw Pact naval movements) in close cooperation with our northern allies, by recce and attacks on ships and coastal targets.
How combat effective do you believe the F-104 would have been in this mission? Given the 1970/80s WP and NATO weapon inventory, pretty good. We had an arsenal of forward-firing weapons (the Vulcan Gatling gun, 2.75in rockets), AIM-9L and stand-off weapons such as the AS-20, AS-30 anti-ship missiles and the advanced Kormoran sea-skimming missile. Our close cooperation with the Danish Air Force and our own Navy (where we all came from) was certainly an advantage. We knew the Baltic and North Sea inside out. The Baltic became so familiar we called it “bathtub”.
How would you rate the cockpit in terms of comfort and ergonomics?
I was a slim guy in my 20s, so comfort wasn’t much of an issue. The pilot fit snugly into his office. Due to the Martin-Baker GQ-7A ejection seat, the seating position was a bit upright, if not forward, compared e.g., to the Tornado. The original F-104 C-2 seat, they said, had a more inclined backrest. Otherwise, the cockpit was cramped with switches and clock-type gages. I remember two distinct disadvantages: If you had an external tank transfer failure, the procedure was to pull a certain CB left and aft of the pilot. It wasn’t only difficult to reach but also located too close to some other circuit breakers – impossible to be pulled out with your fingers in fire-resistant gloves. So we were issued a small “official” custom-made “CB puller” (nail puller) we carried in our flight suit pencil pockets.
When I started flying the F-104G, we had the standard UHF radio panel on the right hand pedestal. Frequencies were dialled in either manually with rotating knobs or as preset channels. There was no indicator in the pilot’s field of view, you always had to look way down to the right to verify the correct frequency. In formation as wingman, this meant you had the choice of losing your lead, create a collision or just count the clicks when turning the frequency wheels. Fortunately, they later installed a digital repeater indicator on the glare shield.
How would you rate the aircraft in the following categories:
A. Instantaneous turn rate Good. The F-104 G’s low level cruising speed was 450kts. If engaged, the flight accelerated quickly to 500+. At this energy level, pulling to the clean G-limit of 7,33 (5 for practice, with external tanks) gave you a decent chance for a defensive break.
B. Sustained turn rate Obviously not good due to the tiny wings. Therefore sustained turning in a dogfight against an adversary wasn’t a good idea.
C. Climb rate The initial climb rate to 5000 ft at 270 kts IAS was about 48000 ft/min. It was about 35000 ft/min to FL 240 at a speed of 350 kts.
D. Range Most operational flights were done low-level with two tip tanks, giving you a flight time with reserves of about 1:30. At 450 kts groundspeed, this meant you could fly into the Baltic Sea beyond the island of Bornholm, investigate WP ships or aircraft, do some simulated attacks and fly home to Schleswig. With four external tanks, 2+ hours were possible.
High-level or high-low-hi, you could fly to South Germany, do some simulated attacks and come back. You could reach Bordeaux on a cross-country, for instance. “High level” with external tanks meant a fairly low cruising altitude of around 25,000 ft.
E. Ease of taking off and landing Takeoffs were straight-forward. Max afterburner, go! And be aware not to overspeed the landing gear and flaps. Any speed above 300 kts on departure was considered safe.
Landings: stable but fast. The basic approach speed was 175 kts IAS with full flaps plus 5 kts per 1,000 lbs of fuel remaining above 1,000 lbs.
That meant, your normal approach speed was typically 180+ kts. With takeoff flaps – due to a restriction or strong crosswinds on the ground – basic approach speed was 195 kts, with the same additionals.
So imagine yourself on a winter day, wet runway, strong crosswinds, with 200+ knots on final. You were always close to a limiting speed: 235 kts for the Goodyear tires, 205 for the brake chute…
if you blew the brake chute or had a malfunction, the only other option to slow down was the arresting hook. The F-104G was only certified for rear-end (end of runway) cable arrestment, so you came smoking down the runway with your hook extended, hoping you would catch that No. 3 or 4 wire before you left the runway at the departure end, perhaps forced to eject.
F. Sensors The F-104G had no radar warning device, but a fairly good NASARR radar with ground mapping and A/A capability. Of course the AIM-9 missiles were connected to the audio equipment so you could hear the seeker-head growl. We also had an inertial navigation system, the Litton LN-3. Very few aircraft, if any, had inertial navigation. Only one contemporary airliner, the Convair 990, had it, too.
G. Ride quality at low level The ride was great. Very stable, no heavy turbulence bumps. A true pleasure.
What was considered the greatest threat to the aircraft? (ie SAMs, MiGs etc) We were faced with the threat of SAMs and coastal/ship AA guns, both of limited range in those days. Yes, MiGs and other WP aircraft always constituted a threat. We assumed (and know today) that the Russians and other WP forces were always armed, but had a rigid command and control system – the individual aircraft or formation would probably not engage you unless their supervisor told them so. I know from friends in the former GDR air force that they were guided 100% of the time, to a target, a runway or whatever. So if you did see e.g., an East German MiG-21 formation over the Baltic, you were expecting it to fly its track and return to home base.
What is the greatest myth about the aircraft? Perhaps the tiny wings and their razor-sharp leading edges. The F-104 is the only cold-war fighter with such trapezoid, symmetrical wings. That’s why they called it the ‘Zipper’ or the ‘missile with a man in it’.
How do you feel about the ‘widowmaker’ nickname?
It was justified in the 1960s. Poor management, training and maintenance facilities, combined with technical problems (the ejection seat, the afterburner – just to name two) led to disaster. After Gen. Steinhoff grounded the fleet and corrected the above mentioned problems, the Starfighter was considered a normal jet with a good safety record. I joined the community well over ten later, for me it was a trustworthy and safe machine.
Tell me something I don’t know about the F-104. Ok… did you know about the Belgian guy who performed a touch-roll-touch manoeuvre?
Or the “slow” light that came on when you were on a Mach-2 run and had to throttle back?
Or the fact that on a certain weapon delivery (pop up maneuver) you were condemned to death if you pulled up and did not select takeoff flaps before turning the aircraft inverted and pulling back down towards the target in a steep dive? Once the aircraft had that sinkrate in clean configuration, nobody could recover from that dive.
Which weapons have you test fired and what did it feel like to do this? We regularly fired the gun against range and aerial towed targets and AS 20/30 missiles (the latter against towed sea targets).
We also dropped practise bombs on the range (DM-18 and BDU-33), high-drag and low-drag types. I did not get to fire the Kormoran.
Using our weapons, including practise bombs, is a challenging tasks. You had the “iron” gunsight and corrected for wind just by judgement. As a beginner, I forgot to arm a switch or came down the dive with excessive pitch or speed. To hit a target with an “iron” bomb, you have to be at the right place at the right time: correct altitude, pitch, speed, g-force, aimpoint and so on. Even if things looked right in the gunsight, you never scored a bomb hit if you had g’s on the aircraft or your dive angle was off. Gun firing at a ground target was fun. You felt the vibration and knew that if you did not pull up in time, you would be hit by your own rounds.
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Did you feel you would have survived a war against the USSR? In those days, perhaps. We trusted in our mighty allies, in our own system and in our personal capabilities. The good thing about German Navy flying was that we were already in the theatre, over the Baltic sea, full of WP ships, aircraft and helicopters. It was hands-on live training.
What kind of tactics did you practice?
We usually flew in box-type formations of 4 or 6 (with escorts), totally silent and spread far apart. Once an intruder was spotted, the flight accelerated to high speed and dove down on the “deck” over the sea.
We were constantly training on the firing range, at altitude (for basic fighter manoeuvres) and in large formations against a target, bounced by an attacker.
Which other aircraft types have you flown? Before the F-104G: Training aircraft. For pilot screening, the P-149D piston aircraft. In the US, the Cessna T-37 and the Northrop T-38. In the Navy, the F-104G and the Tornado. I left the Navy in 1989 to join Lufthansa. I flew the B737, 747, A320, A330, A340, A350 (the latter four as captain) and retired in 2019.
Today, I’m a type rating instructor (TRI) on the A320 and a flight instructor for PPL.
Sleek, sophisticated and supersonic, the F-106 was an interceptor tasked with defending North America. National air defence competed with SAC nuclear deterrence for budget and influence throughout the 50s (B-47 ISD 1951, B-52 ISD 1955) but the all-weather bomber interceptor kept rising to the top of the procurement chain and the frequent ‘failures’ along the line were relegated to the FB role with NATO, the Military Aid Program or politically expedient allies. So when the F-106 entered service in 1959 as a development of the F-102 there were sceptics especially as engine and avionic performance were poor in development. But Convair had done their research and with a T/W of 0.71 and a low W/L of 250Kg/m² it was quick and manoeuvrable with agility at low and medium speed coupled with light buffet warning of impending high ⍺ oscillations.The fuselage was ‘area ruled’ for aerodynamic efficiency and with a J75-P-17 in excess of Mach 2 at altitude was achieved with ‘super cruise’ (supersonic cruise without AB) a reality. Vertical manoeuvring in visual combat was very effective as was the ‘blow thorough’ weapons pass. Eventually Convair built 277 ‘A’ models. Yet again during USAF procurement the pilot got the rough end of the stick and ejector seat design was woefully inadequate, pilots were most concerned about high and fast but designers with low and slow. Two early seats by Weber Aircraft Corporation (not BBQ fame) suited neither regime and 12 lives were lost until a rocket catapult ‘zero-zero’ seat was installed.
Doctrinally lacking guns or external weapons carriage, but with an internal weapons bay for four AIM-4 A or B (GAR1 or 2) Falcons or a mix with a nuclear AIR-2A Genie unguided rocket it was well armed for the role. The Genie rocket – this was a small nuclear warhead unguided rocket that was intended to detonate in front of attacking Soviet bombers and by its resultant blast, destroy multiple numbers of aircraft. Employing the Hughes MA-1 weapons control system in conjunction with the Semi-Autonomous Ground System (SAGE) intercepts were considerably simplified. The combat philosophy became ‘get there the firstest with the mostest’. Two supersonic 360 US Gallon tanks could be carried underwing and a gun was fitted to later versions.
The aircraft acquitted itself well during Project HAVE DRILL versus MiG-17F Fresco (YF-114C) in the late 60s and during Project HAVE FERRY against a second MiG-17F (both originally made in Poland as Lim-5s and exported to Syria – procurement clue). It remained in ANG service until 1988. This may have been the ‘Last Starfighter’ that got away, it was very quick, it could turn, had interception assistance from the ground and a usable internal weapons menu.
– Intro by Peter Day
Paul Worcestor flew the F-106 as an Air National Guard member assigned solely to the 102nd Fighter Wing for 30 years. He flew the Six from September 1979 to December 1987.
What were you first impressions of the aircraft? As a young 2nd Lieutenant with barely 200 total flying hours, I was pretty overwhelmed with its complexity but loved its performance.
What was the best feature of the aircraft? Its ability to cruise at very high altitudes and very high speed. High-altitude cruise – we often would cruise around 0.92 mach or greater if fuel was less of an issue in reaching whatever was our destination. The Dart would readily cruise above 40,000 feet with ease. The older generation of Dart pilots would say they would often fly above 50,000 feet when wearing pressure suits. This 50,000 foot limitation was in-place when I started to fly her.
. ..and the worst? It had no flaps, no ABS braking, and landed at very high speeds and in conjunction with that delta wing, it could be a real handful with crosswinds when trying aero-brake to stop.
Describe the aircraft in three words? Fast, Fetching, and Fun!
What was your unit’s role and did you ever intercept Soviet aircraft? We had primary NORAD air defense responsibilities for the busy northeast corridor. Yes, I intercepted pairs of Russian Bears on three separate occasions – September 1981, and twice a week apart in April 1982.
What stands out as the aircraft’s best piece of equipment? Perhaps the AIR-2A Genie rocket – certainly as a deterrence weapon.
. ..and what was its worst? The Falcon missiles. Falcon missiles – were actually “hitttiles.” These air-to-air guided missiles had no proximity fuses and had to penetrate the adversary’s aircraft in order to set off the “crushable” fuses in the missile fins. Also, their success as an air-to-air weapon was marginal to okay depending on the jamming environment, adversary counter-measures, etc.
How good were the sensors? For its day, they were extraordinary and ahead of their time.
How effective were its weapons? There was no beating the nuclear rocket, but the missiles were its challenge
I had so many. I would have to say my first Soviet Bear intercept when I was paired with my good friend (we were both young lieutenants) and professionally escorted the pair down the east coast. I think senior leadership was a bit concerned “the kids” would screw it up! We didn’t! About three plus years later I had a mid-air collision at night with my vice wing commander. I was hit from behind and lost six feet of wing. I managed to land it at an air force base 40 miles away and my commander ejected from his. He hired me into the Air Guard so it was hard to be mad at him! Lol. We remained very close friends until his death in 2014.
What was life like in your unit, what was the recreational side like? We were a Guard unit, so most members were employed elsewhere, mainly with the commercial airlines, so our social interactions took place as planned events vs. the active duty day-to-day living together on base. However, we played hard when we did!
Tell me something I don’t know about the F-106? I’d have to kill you for this! Lol. Gee, I guess you might not know the Six had a fully integrated flight and weapons control system whereby air defense ground crews could provide targets electronically on the jet’s display maps and actually fly the jet from their location on the ground via a data link. Pretty advanced system.
How would you rate it in the following categories:
A. Sustained turn – not so good.
B. Instantaneous turn – fantastic with that big delta wing but watch out for adverse yaw! C. Crispness of controls – very responsive fighter. D. Ergonomics – like most century series fighters, it was terrible. Switch locations were challenging and pre-upgrade instrumentation was awful. E. Climb rate – while it was not an F-15, it was pretty impressive! F. Range – extraordinary especially when air traffic control approved your cruise in the 40,000 foot range .
Complete this sentence: The F-106 is/was… a NORAD game-changer!
What should I have asked you? So you flew the F-15 after years in the F-106, what one did you like better? The F-15 was far more lethal, but the F-106 was far more challenging and fun to fly. No matter where you flew the Dart, people clamoured around you to see it up close and talk with you about it!