Five Fun Vaguely Flight-Related Facts about Ascension Island with author Oliver Harris

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Having spent the last couple of years writing a spy thriller set on Ascension Island I was interested to see this mysterious bit of British volcano surfacing in the news recently, once as a place the Home Secretary thought might be good to send asylum seekers, once turning up on the UK’s Green List of holiday destinations that required no quarantine.

Those who explored it as an option for a getaway might have been disappointed. An eight square mile lump of rock in the South Atlantic, halfway between Brazil and Angola, Ascension is one of the most remote islands in the world. Anyone researching their trip to its beaches would have seen that it contains a lot of satellite dishes, a golf course made of ash, two military bases (US and UK) and a village with a school and convenience store. But they’d also learn that potholes on the runway have meant that all MOD flights from Brize Norton (previously the only straightforward way to reach the place) have been suspended for the past four years, and you now need to get three flights in each direction (available once a month), or buy yourself a yacht. You also need permission from the island’s Administrator to stay there. And the only hotel has recently closed down. All of which provokes the question: what’s there? And why?

It was this enigmatic oddness that me think it would be a great setting for a novel (Ascension, pub. this month by Little, Brown). In the name of plugging it to the esteemed readers of Hush Kit, I present five vaguely flight-related nuggets about the island.

1. The name refers to the flight of Christ

Jesus Gif GIF - Jesus Gif Flying - Discover & Share GIFs

Although the island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1501, it was so unappealingly barren that no one bothered to pass on the news, which meant it had be re-discovered two years later by the naval officer Afonso de Albuquerque who spied it on Ascension Day, the church feast day that celebrates Jesus flying up into Heaven after his resurrection.

It was still too unappealing to claim, though. No one wanted it until 1815, when the British came along, having incarcerated Napoleon on St Helena a few hundred miles away. A small British naval garrison was stationed on Ascension to deny it to the French. For administrative reasons, the island was classified as a stone ship – ‘HMS Ascension’ – to be operated at the discretion of the Admiralty. This made the commandant of the island technically a ship’s captain, with all the legal powers that the role implies. Every child born on Ascension from 1815 to 1922 was officially recognized as having been born at sea.

2. The US built the runway incredibly fast

During the Second World War, it was decided that an airfield on Ascension would be a good idea. The US and UK settled on a location in the south-west of the island named Wideawake Field after the numerous sooty terns (also known as wideawake birds) that inhabited the area.

Wideawake Airfield runway construction

The U.S. Army’s 38th Engineer Combat Regiment arrived in March 1942 and spent the first 27 days unloading 8000 tons of equipment they had brought with them. A lack of sand and stone to make cement meant they had to use volcanic ash mixed with sea water and bird droppings. The operation proceeded 24/7, with soldiers working under camouflaged lighting systems at night so as to shield their activity from enemy ships.

The runway – 6,000 feet long and 150 feet wide – was completed in just 91 days. Its first visitor was an American Consolidated B-24 Liberator by the name of Our Kissin’ Cousin en route to Natal (in South Africa) from Accra in Ghana. As a refuelling station, Wideawake Airfield facilitated indispensable aviation support for British troops in North Africa when Rommel was launching his offensive on Cairo. It also provided a base for anti-submarine raids, sinking numerous German U-boats and dampening Axis naval pursuits in the South Atlantic. One of the biggest dangers, however, involved the wideawakes themselves. Pilots had to take caution when landing and taking off, as birds could get caught in aircraft engines or break a window. During the height of their breeding season, the airfield had to shut down.

Wideawake Airfield (2)

3. Birds on Ascension

The island provides one of the most important homes in the South Atlantic for several species, including the sooty tern, the red-footed booby and the Ascension Island frigatebird, but things haven’t always been easy for its feathered population. In 1815, the British introduced cats to sort out a rodent crisis arising from rats that had got aboard from ships in the early days. But the cats were far more tempted by the seabirds, and soon the bird population had been decimated, with survivors only hanging on in cat-inaccessible locations. In 2000, a project to eradicate feral cats from the island was begun (using traps and cages) and within two years they’d been largely destroyed. So had 38% of the domestic cat population, causing some public consternation. But all in all it was a happy ending, and five seabird species have now recolonized the mainland. The wellbeing of the rats remains unknown.

4. Falklands usage

Victor at Ascension 1982 1

On 5 April 1982, Nimrods were deployed to Wideawake airfield to support the war against the Argentinians, first being used to fly local patrols against potential Argentine attacks, and to escort the British Task Force as it sailed south towards the Falklands, then as communications relay support for the Operation Black Buck bombing raids.

Operations Black Buck 1 to 7 involved extremely long-range ground attack missions by RAF Vulcan bombers against Port Stanley Airport in the Falkland Islands, then occupied by the Argentinians. The raids, at almost 6,600 nautical miles (12,200 km) and 16 hours for the return journey, were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history at that time.

Because the Vulcan was designed for medium-range missions in Europe it lacked the range to fly to the Falklands without refuelling several times. The RAF’s tanker planes were mostly converted Handley Page Victor bombers with similar range, more often seen refuelling fighters scrambled in response to incursions into British airspace by bombers from the Soviet Union, so they too had to be refuelled in the air, involving relays of aircraft. A total of eleven tankers were required for two Vulcans (one primary and one reserve), which would have been an impressive logistical effort even if they hadn’t all been sharing the same runway.

aar vulcan-victor

In the end, the raids had minimal impact on Port Stanley airport, and the damage to Argentine radars was quickly repaired. It has been suggested that the RAF wanted to be involved in the conflict as a guard against further budget cuts.

5. Spaceflight

Although the US initially abandoned the airfield at the end of the Second World War, they returned in 1956. The runway was lengthened and widened to allow for larger aircraft, and later to provide emergency landing for the Space Shuttle. At the time, it was the world’s longest airport runway.

This was just the start of Ascension’s role in the space program, though. In 1967, NASA established a tracking station for Apollo and other spaceflights in a remote area of the island known as Devil’s Ashpit. There are rumours suggesting that the island was used for training the astronauts as well – getting them used to isolation – and even that its surreal rockscape served as the backdrop for a faked moon landing. While these remain unconfirmed, it’s a matter of record that the Devil’s Ashpit station was the first on earth to receive the words: ‘The Eagle has landed.’

NASA staff kept a pet donkey named J.J. outside the operations building, a descendant of donkeys left on the island by Portuguese sailors two centuries earlier. ‘She was there at the tracking station to greet us every morning,’ Harry Turner, a data and antenna programmer wrote in 2003. “We were in the middle of the Apollo 11 mission and we lost all hydraulics to our antenna, meaning that within a short time we would lose the signal from the spacecraft. We ran out to the antenna and found that J.J. had backed her butt into the emergency stop switch.’

Ascension’s remote location continues to make it a good place to keep an eye on things up above us. The new US Space Force has a unit on the island, operating a Meter-Class Autonomous Telescope as part of a space surveillance system for tracking orbital debris (amongst other things?). They also use the Global Positioning System monitoring site at Ascension, which involves one of the four dedicated ground antennas that GPS relies on (the others are on Diego Garcia, Kwajalein (Marshall Islands), and at Cape Canaveral). Meanwhile, post-Brexit, the two European Space Agency Galileo Sensor Stations located on the Falklands and Ascension Island are being removed. The stations host cryptographic material which, in accordance with the EU security rules, can’t be located in non-EU territory.

All of which makes for an odd moment in the history of this British lump of lava. Will it end up in US hands entirely? Is it already? Is the long-overdue repair to the runway connected to plans for a new spaceplane? Or a desire to keep the island inaccessible? Any attempts to put the island’s business on a more democratic footing – for example, by granting citizenship to some of its more longstanding residents – have been quashed. Half a millennia after its discovery, Ascension remains as mysterious as ever, just a lot more busy.

Ascension by Oliver Harris is published by Little, Brown on July 15 (and by HMH Books in the US on the same date).

Ascension by Oliver Harris | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk)

Ascension | HMH Books

Ascension Island and Britain's presence in the South Atlantic

Clash of the cancelled Round 2: North American YF-107A versus Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III

North American's F-107 Was the "Ultra Sabre" and Perhaps the "Ultra  Might-Have-Been" | Defense Media Network

History chewed out and spat out some incredible aeroplanes. We drag these rotting morsels out of the compost mulch of history and drag them to our laboratory/fight-club for autopsy. To assist us in our morbid analysis is Hush-Kit’s tamed scientist and engineer Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith (a key figure in the Typhoon and UK JSF programmes among others). To further our thrills we shall pit these dead aeroplanes against each other!


What a fabulous pair of aircraft these are. The souped-up F-100 development chasing a requirement eventually won by the F-105 Thunderchief, and the Crusader on steroids that eventually lost out to the F-4 Phantom II. The thing that grabs you about both aircraft is simply the look. The YF-107A with its ‘over the top’ variable ramp supersonic intake and recessed, nuclear-capable, weapons bay, and the Crusader 3 with its shark-mouth intake and large twin dorsal fins, which had to be folded up to the horizontal for a successful landing. Just Wow!

F8U-3 Crusader Was 'Really Hot' Might Have Been | Defense Media Network


North American YF-107A


The YF-107A was a development of North American’s successful F-100 Super Sabre, intended to be a versatile fighter bomber aircraft, capable of missions ranging from air defence to nuclear strike. Initial development centred on a design with a chin intake, like that of the F-8 Crusader, to accommodate a nose mounted radar. This was later changed to the signature dorsal intake design when the Air Force indicated a desire that the aircraft be capable of delivering a tactical nuclear weapon.
Other innovative features of the design included an all-moving fin for yaw control, as used later, on the A-5 Vigilante, and a supersonic variable area inlet duct, later used on the XB-70. Although the wing planform was essentially the same as the F-100, roll control dispensed with ailerons, and used spoilers instead. The 16, 950 lb thrust J-57 engine of the Super Sabre, was replaced by a more powerful 24,500 lb thrust J-75 engine, and the YF-107A was able to demonstrate a maximum speed of Mach 2.0.
The aircraft was armed with 4 20mm cannon, and could also carry up to 10,000 lb of external stores. Following completion of its flight test program, the Air Force conducted a fly-off between the YF-107A and the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, which was narrowly won by the latter. The F-105 was a bigger, heavier aircraft, almost equally dramatic in appearance, which after a difficult development period went on to a long and distinguished career with the USAF. Its particular forte, towards the end of its USAF career, was serving in a SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) role as a ‘Wild Weasel’ in the Vietnam war.


Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III

Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III single-engine supersonic fighter aircraft, a  competitor for the US Navy's 1955 Match +2 fleet defense interceptor  program, but eventually cancelled after the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II  was


In the mid-1950s, the F8U Crusader had been successful in a US Navy competition for a supersonic shipboard fighter. McDonnell’s proposal in that competition did not make the short list for selection. Displeased by this, McDonnell proposed to the Navy a highly capable twin-engine attack aircraft, the AH-1. In parallel, Vought proposed to the Navy a follow-on development of the F8U, designed around a single J-75 engine, the XF8U-3 Crusader 3.


The Crusader 3 was projected to deliver Mach 2.3+ capability, and would be armed with 4 x 20 mm cannon and 3 air-to-air missiles. The US Navy looked favourably on this proposal, and ordered five prototypes, the first of which flew on June 2, 1958.

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Meanwhile, the US Navy had indicated to McDonnell-Douglas that they were no longer interested in the AH-1, but (influenced by the XF8U-3 proposal) were now looking for 2-seat long-range all-weather interceptor to be armed only with air-to-air missiles, targeted using the aircraft’s radar system. This aircraft was to be designated the F4H-1, and made its first flight on May 24, 1958.
The US Navy was now in a position to choose between the fast, manoeuvrable, F8U-3 single-seat, single-engine interceptor, and the larger and heavier McDonnell F4H, with two engines, two crew, all-weather radar, and missile armament.
By the end of 1958, the Navy had selected the McDonnell F4H Phantom II, and over years of development and service with many air arms, this proved to be one of the greatest Naval aircraft of all time. The relatively large, low aspect ratio wing of the Phantom, coupled with its twin J79 engines, provided a capable and versatile platform, and the aircraft is still in service today in small numbers.
What of the Super Crusader? Well, the performance of the aircraft as a Naval interceptor was probably unmatched in terms of speed and handling qualities, but compared to the Phantom, it was disadvantaged by having a less capable weapons system, and by being a single-seat, single-engine configuration. The maximum speeds claimed for the XF8U-3 vary, but the aircraft was capable of at least Mach 2.3, and had outstanding manoeuvrability. One of the most distinctive features of the Crusader 3 was the large twin ventral fins carried under the rear fuselage. These were linked to the undercarriage, so that they were deployed downward when the undercarriage was up, and retracted to a horizontal position when the undercarriage was lowered for landing.
The 5 aircraft built were transferred to NASA, and operated from Patuxent River, where they were said to have routinely defeated USN Phantoms in mock dogfights, to the annoyance of the USN.


YF-107A and XF8U-3
Two sensational-looking aircraft, which eventually lost out to two outstanding and versatile competitors, the F-105 Thunderchief and the F4H Phantom II.
The YF-107A and the XF8U-3 were both more manoeuvrable than the aircraft which were favoured with production orders, but the latter proved to be versatile, capable, and impressive performers with long service lives. Both the F-105 and the Phantom II were eventually used in roles which had not been envisaged in their design, and the Phantom, in particular, made a rare, and successful transition for a Naval aircraft, to serve not only with the USAF, but many other land-based air arms.
Both the YF-107A, with its dorsal intake, and the XF8U-3 with its shark-mouth intake and retractable ventral fins, appeared futuristic. Both succeeded in meeting their design objectives and were flown successfully, and both missed out in the procurement game to worthy competitors.
It is really difficult to pick between these two spectacular and relatively successful designs, neither of which ever made it into service. The YF-107A might well have been a better fighter than the F-105, but the F-105 later excelled as a heavy strike aircraft and made the SEAD role a speciality. Similarly, the XF8U-3 was a better within-visual-range fighter than the A4H, but lacked the all-weather capability and versatility of the latter. My choice goes to the XF8U-3 Crusader 3 as the better loser, but this is a judgement based on aesthetics rather than analysis.

North American YF-107A and Vought XF8U-3 – Air Combat Comparison

These aircraft were designed to quite different requirements. The XF8U-3, although only really a day fighter, was heavily armed, with 4 20 mm cannon and 3 air-to-air missiles. It was also very fast, at Mach 2.3+, had a lower wing loading than the YF-107A, and a greater thrust to weight ratio.

The YF-107A was intended to have greater flexibility, and, indeed, to have a tactical nuclear strike capability. It lacked the missile armament of the XF8U-3, but had the same cannon armament, and would also have been a fast and manoeuvrable aircraft, although not to the same degree as the XF8U-3.

In air-to-air combat, the XF8U-3 would be expected to have the edge in sustained and instantaneous turn rate, and in energy manoeuvrability. It would also, in principle, have been able to engage at greater range using its air-to-air missiles.

On sortie generation, there seems little to choose between the aircraft, which both used variants of the same engine. The folding ventral fins of the XF8U-3 are an additional element, but this might be offset by the slightly more difficult to access engine of the F-107.

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F-107 Ultra Sabre, what would have been the F-100 Super Sabre's successor:  Warthunder

What we know about Russia’s new ‘Fleabag’ stealth fighter: Sukhoi Checkmate Q&A with RUSI Thinktank’s Justin Bronk & update from Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith

Checkmate, new Sukhoi fifth-generation stealth fighter jet is seen during an opening ceremony of the MAKS-2021 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, July 20, 2021.  Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS

Russia reveals what is described as a prototype of a new fighter aircraft at the MAKS 21 airshow. We caught up with Justin Bronk (Research Fellow at the RUSI  think-tank and Editor of RUSI Defence Systems) to find out more 


Is the Checkmate at MAKS a mock-up or aircraft?
Without higher resolution images it is difficult to be certain. However, the lack of wiring and hydraulic lines within the visible parts of the main landing gear well, as well as the rather oversimplified external textures seen in the leaked footage pre-official the unveiling appear to suggest a mock up rather than a functioning aircraft.


What does the configuration reveal about the aircraft’s role and capabilities?
The Light Tactical Aircraft (LTA) designation and the configuration show that this is clearly a concept aimed at producing a relatively cheap and cheerful, somewhat low observable light fighter, primarily for the export market.
The relatively compact size and engine/intake placement will limit the space available for internal weapon bays. I would guess two IR dogfight missiles in the small side-mounted bays ahead of the main landing gear, and space for 2-4 R-77 class BVR missiles in a ventral bay. However, larger air-to-air and air-to-ground ordinance would likely have to be carried externally. It is also likely to have a modest range with internal fuel due to the competing demands for landing gear housing, weapons bays and avionics within a compact airframe.
As with the Su-57, the LTA features an Infra-Red Scan and Track (IRST) sensor embedded at the junction between the forward canopy and the nose, and will likely feature an active electronically scanned array (AESA) type radar in the nose. The latter, however, will be limited in size due to the narrow and aggressively tapered nose profile.  
One particularly notable feature is the lack of conventional elevators. Instead, the LTA has canted stabilisers which are more vertical than I would have expected if a ruddervator (or V-Tail) configuration was intended to provide primary pitch authority. Instead, it would appear that pitch authority will be provided by a combination of tailless delta style elevon control and at least 2D thrust-vectoring. This suggests to me that the LTA has a lessened design emphasis on supermanoeuvrability than previous Russian fighter designs.

No photo description available.
Image: Vasily Kuznetsov: https://flickr.com/photos/27984580@N05…


How far is Russia from an operational Checkmate?
I would suggest that this is a long way from an operational aircraft. The slick PR campaign and dramatic reveal at MAKS is obviously an attempt to convince some of the nations mentioned in the Rostek commercial to buy into a nascent development programme. The slow development pace and limited procurement scale of the Su-57 Felon (which is far more important to Russia’s own defence needs) shows the limits of UAC’s ability to develop the LTA to an operational aircraft without significant external funding. 


Will it be used domestically? How will it aid the Su-57 force and what would it replace?
The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) tend to purchase a range of different combat aircraft at a small scale to keep the various formerly Sukhoi and Mikoyan design bureaus and production lines viable. Therefore, if the LTA is developed successfully into an operational aircraft, then I’m sure that the VKS will purchase it on a limited scale. However, I suspect that they would prefer to increase the quantities and maturity of the Su-57 over committing to the LTA on a large scale.


What would be the hardest technology for the Russia’s to master if the aircraft is seen as a counter/alternative to F-35?
There are three key technologies which Russia will need to master before the LTA could be seen as a competitive stealth fighter in a practical combat environment:
Firstly, they would need to master compact AESA radars for use on fighter aircraft – something which is being worked on with the Su-57 but is still causing headaches. The key issue is that to be a viable stealth fighter, an aircraft must not only be difficult to detect on radar, but must also be able to detect and engage enemy aircraft without revealing itself through the energy emitted by its radar. This capability is referred to as low-probability of intercept/low-probability of detection (LPI/LPD), and it is a vital factor in the survivability and lethality of the F-22 and F-35 which is often missed by non-specialist commentators.
In very broad-brush terms, LPI/LPD radars work by exploiting the fact that AESA radars employ hundreds of individual beams rather than one or several large and more powerful ones in a mechanically scanned or PESA type radar. Use of specific frequency, wavelength and pulse repetition techniques for these many individual beams can enable AESA radars to avoid producing an easily identifiable signature within the electronic ‘noise’ of the modern air environment. However, the programming, threat EW intelligence granularity and signal processing capabilities required are highly complex and difficult to master. Furthermore, the goalposts are constantly moving as passive electronic warfare (think detection, classification and tracking of hostile signals) capabilities improve with technology. In other words, what was LPI/LPD against Russian or Chinese systems in the 2000s is almost certainly not LPI/LPD against (say) a USAF F-35A in 2025. Without a genuinely LPI/LPD AESA radar, an operational LTA would expose its position against modern opponents every time it used its primary sensor – rendering its low-observable shaping features far less useful.
The second key technology is achieving the necessary level of industrial quality control to produce viable low-observable aircraft in quantity. While bespoke hand finishing can potentially produce relatively low-observable results for prototypes, traditionally Russian fighter manufacturing has not been conducted to the extremely fine tolerances and quality control levels required to mass produce stealth fighters. This also carries over to the maintenance side of things – can the VKS (or potential export customers for that matter) afford to change their maintenance and operating procedures to a sufficient degree to maintain stealth properties in service for any length of time? For air forces used to operating previous generations of Mikoyan or Sukhoi products (with their famously high tolerance for rough conditions), it would be a culture and budgetary shock to say the least.
The third key technology set is in the field of advanced materials science and thermal management. One of the biggest challenges in moving from a prototype that looks a bit like a 5th generation aircraft to a genuine operational capability is incorporating all the myriad sensors, avionics, life support and fuel/engine systems. All of these components, especially the sensors and fuel/engine systems generate a great deal of heat when in use. This must be managed without adding the usual ducts, ram air intakes etc which would destroy the stealth properties of the airframe. They must also all compete with fuel and weapons for very limited space within an outer mould line which is fixed for RCS control reasons. Sensors must also be covered with fairings or airframe skin which allows their own emissions to pass unimpeded, but interacts with hostile radar in such a way as to not compromise the RCS.


How will it likely differ in concept to the F-35?
The LTA is clearly aiming for a significantly lower degree of stealth at a much lower price point compared to the F-35. It can be thought of perhaps as a somewhat low-observable spiritual successor to the MiG-21, where the F-35 is intended to be a very-low observable spiritual successor to the F-16, EA-18G and F-15E.


Does a STOVL or carrier variant seem likely?
STOVL doesn’t look compatible with the airframe, as it requires such specific design features to achieve – not least positioning the centre of vertical thrust roughly on the overall centre of gravity. I also doubt that it has the required high-alpha flight characteristics and pitch authority for CATOBAR carrier operations given the intake design and previously mentioned reliance on elevons/thrust vectoring.

Do you like how it looks?
It’s certainly refreshing! A different take to add to the increasing number of mini-F-22 or F-35 clone mock ups popping up around the world. A qualified ‘yes’ on the looks front.


How much experience does Russia have in stealth and how much does it embrace the concept?
Russia lacks any experience with true VLO stealth. However, it has made significant progress with LO airframe design features in the Su-57, and it certainly has the potential to manufacture a new generation of combat aircraft (with the Felon as the centrepiece) that get past the traditional massive signature weakness of the Flanker and Fulcrum series.
I think Russia has its own take on stealth as a concept, with a firmly realistic internal appraisal of its own industrial and financial limitations, as well as the constantly improving nature of NATO sensors which make true VLO performance in a major war ever harder as a goal for future systems. For them, I think RCS reduction features are seen as key to maintaining current levels of competitiveness in the air – whilst ever improving long range SAM systems and ground based radars form the first line of defence (or offense) against NATO airpower. For me, Russian boasts about F-22 or F-35 levels of stealth in novel air systems are simply propaganda aimed at the Russian domestic audience and prospective export customers.


What should I have asked you?
How much of the technology developed at such expense and effort for the Su-57 can be leveraged for the LTA/Checkmate?


Likely export customers or partners?
The three most obvious potential candidates would be India, the UAE and Turkey. However, India is likely to be very wary after its experiences with the PAK FA/FGFA programme and poor support for the Su-30MKI fleet post acquisition. The UAE appears to be (bafflingly from my perspective) being allowed to purchase the F-35, so is unlikely to be interested in the LTA. Turkey has its own TF-X ambitions for domestic LO fighter development and has also seen ‘behind the curtain’ on F-35 before being ejected from the programme so will have very high operational expectations for any future ‘stealth’ fighter acquisition which the LTA is unlikely to be able to meet.
Otherwise, Vietnam, Argentina and Algeria are all potential candidates, but the likely competition is from more mature and lower risk offerings from China.

Where does this leave rival fighter design bureau MiG?

MiGs models of a new design has not received as much attention as the Checkmate. MiG’s new light combat aircraft proposal

The MiG-35 is already a damp squib, very much in the shadow of the Sukhoi product line in Russian service and on the export market. After MiG’s recent absorption within UAC I think the composite firm will focus on its more successful Sukhoi products rather than new MiG-derived concepts. The MiG-35 It isn’t much cheaper than a Su-35S, does everything worse, no large orders, AESA radar wasn’t delivered as promised…

Image
MiG’s proposed new carrier fighter
Image
MiG’s new light combat aircraft proposal


Will it happen?
If I had to bet? No.

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Checkmate, new Sukhoi fifth-generation stealth fighter jet is seen during an opening ceremony of the MAKS-2021 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, July 20, 2021.  Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
(Hush-Kit spoke to someone who has seen it up close who commented: “It’s real, but lacks some systems for sure”)

Jim Smith update

An image of the Checkmate aircraft (or possibly mock-up) has now appeared, and the analysis below has been updated to reflect this.

The aircraft has been reported to be Russia’s first single-engine supersonic low observable tactical fighter, and has been developed by Sukhoi, and is being presented at the MAKS show by Rostec. The stated intent is to ‘rival the US fifth-generation F-35 aircraft’. The aircraft is also described as a domestic light fighter, which will compete with the F-35 in export markets. This latter comment is backed up by a video on the Rostec website which identifies a number of countries by name including India, Argentina, and Vietnam, as well as some elements suggestive of Middle Eastern states.

The new photographs show an aircraft that loosely resemble the earlier ‘teaser’ imagery, but with significant differences in the intakes, fuselage and wing planform.

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The ‘Checkmate’ aircraft (Hush Kit reporting name ‘Fleabag’) has a novel diverterless intake under the nose, with a unique V-shaped appearance following the shape of the underside of the forward fuselage. The position of the intake is not dissimilar to the teaser image, but the aperture has a higher aspect ratio V-shaped slot appearance. It’s appearance is definitely a ‘smiley’ intake, and I feel sure this echoes Rostec’s feelings about their very successful publicity campaign leading up to the Checkmate launch.

Looking at the intake, one wonders whether a vari-cowl will be fitted, similar to that on the Su-57 and Eurofighter Typhoon, to allow greater mass flow through the engine in high thrust and low airspeed conditions.

The YF-23's Air Inlet Design Was Its Most Exotic Feature You Never Heard Of
Was the 'stealth feature' of the Su-57 just a ruse? - Quora

 The wing appears to differ from the teaser image. While retaining a highly-tapered, thin, low-aspect-ratio planform, the trailing edge has relatively little forward sweep, resulting in a relatively conventional cropped-delta planform, rather than a near-diamond planform. The planform is similar to the Tejas, the Mirage 2000 and Eurofighter Typhoon, to cite three examples from different sources.

The forward fuselage of the Checkmate aircraft features a strong chine in the plane of the wing, which grows into a highly-swept leading edge root extension, or strake. The intake is located at the start of this strake, and a large door is located in the underside of the strake. While this might be a forward weapons bay, it could also provide access to aircraft systems and equipment.

The main undercarriage legs are widely spaced, and retract forward. As a result, there is significant space under the centre fuselage, which could provide significant volume for a weapons bay, at a location which would be closer to the aircraft centre of gravity.

The rear view of the Checkmate/Fleabag aircraft appears to show a single afterburning nozzle, located between twin butterfly tails. Given Sukhoi experience in the application of thrust vectoring to its heavy fighter designs, it would be surprising if this were not also fitted to the new aircraft.

The teaser image features an Infra-red Seeker Tracker, located ahead of the cockpit, and a radar in the aircraft nose. This is a typical arrangement for a Russian fighter, and is replicated on Checkmate, although separate Rostec imagery has suggested the use of a multi-purpose targeting sensor, like the EOTS system fitted to the F-35. This system is not visible in the new image of Checkmate, but could simply be out if sight on the port side of the aircraft.

Combat Systems Fusion Engine for the F-35

The fuselage and tail design of Checkmate are somewhat reminiscent of the McDonnell MFVT (Mixed Flow Vectored Thrust) ASTOVL concept, and although that single-engine aircraft featured twin side-intakes, there is still a resemblance between it and Checkmate/Fleabag. The image shows a model held by the Newark Air Museum, who kindly provided this picture.

The MFVT design was one of the propulsion alternatives examined in early UK-US joint technology studies looking at possible ASTOVL concepts in advance of the JSF program. I am not suggesting that Fleabag is a STOVL aircraft, but rather noting that the fuselage volume taken up in the MFVT for its STOVL system results in a fuselage shape compatible with the internal weapons bays which are a feature of Checkmate/Fleabag.

McDD/Northrop/BAe ASTOVL/MRF/JAST/JSF studies | Page 2 | Secret Projects  Forum
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What can we infer about the aircraft? To me, the highly-tapered, low aspect ratio wing suggests that the design is intended to be used for BVR combat. The wing area and aspect ratio suggest that supersonic acceleration, and, with high thrust-to-weight ratio, a vectoring nozzle, and a strake ahead of the wing, instantaneous turn rate, will be strong features of the aircraft. On the other hand, sustained turn rate, required for WVR engagements, will be weaker. The configuration should result in the instantaneous turn rate being structurally, rather than aerodynamically, limited for substantial parts of the manoeuvring air combat envelope.

Whether a low signature is achieved by Checkmate will depend on a number of aspects – not just the shape, but also the materials, the manufacturing standards, and the electromagnetic properties of the surfaces and structure. The novel intake uses shaping of the lower fuselage to provide a diverterless intake, and the relatively high position of the engine will allow a sinuous intake duct to screen the front face of the engine.

There has been much uninformed commentary, suggesting that Checkmate is a copy of the American X-32 or F-35. In my view, there are sufficient original features in the design of the intake, the fuselage, the cockpit, the wing and the empennage, to indicate that is not the case. The similarities are really limited to being a design solution to what may have been similar objectives to those of the JSF program, but without the requirements for STOVL or deck landing.

What, then, is the intended objective, or role, of Checkmate? Limited, and possibly unreliable hints about its performance suggest a maximum speed in the region of Mach 2.0, and a maximum take-off weight of 18 tonnes. This suggests an aircraft in the general class of a MiG 29 replacement. However, the space available for internal stores, and the attention paid to reducing signatures, indicates that tactical strike is also an important role, suggesting that Checkmate may indeed be a Russian Strike Fighter.

From the wording used in the press release – descriptors like ‘domestic light fighter’ and ‘tactical fighter’, and the reference to exporting the aircraft, it could be that the new Sukhoi is intended to be a cheap alternative to the F-35, indicating, perhaps, that some compromises in the signature area might have been made in the interests of containing acquisition, operating and maintenance costs.

 With the marketing emphasis on the export market, perhaps the main objective is to provide an exportable multi-role combat aircraft, while retaining the option of a non-exportable version for local air defence and tactical strike. Such an aircraft would complement the Su 57, delivering air superiority, and a future MiG-31-replacement, which would provide strategic air defence.

F-36 Kingsnake: Air Force's Next Fighter Jet? | F-16 Replacement

Could the aircraft be a Russian equivalent to the @Hush_Kit F-36 Kingsnake concept, aiming to regain the position once achieved with the widespread use of the MiG-21, by undercutting the cost of the F-35?

I flew the Cold War Jaguar fighter-bomber

The only things that got in the way of a RAF Jaguar pilot’s survival in a potential war was a huge armada of Warsaw Pact fighters, a vast force of Warsaw Pact anti-aircraft systems, the ground… and the gung-ho friendly air defenders! We spoke to Peter Day to find out what life was like as a Cold War Jaguar pilot.

Describe the Jaguar in three words

“Comfortable, ergonomic, underpowered. 

OR:

      Contrived, compromised, capable.”

“Hawk missile batteries who alleged that they would have two similar piles of wreckage after hostilities, theirs and ours, so not much aircraft recognition, identification friend or foe or safety lane in use!”

Complete this sentence: The Jaguar needed…

     “More development in all areas.”

What was the best thing about the Jaguar?

     “Relative ease of day visual single seat operation at low level (LL).”      

..and the worst?

     “Lack of thrust.”

What would have been your wartime mission and how confident would you have been to survive it?

“Dual roled for Strike and Attack. Nuclear delivery and conventional ground attack from a fixed base or flank war deployments as an ‘expeditionary’ unit. The expectation was that there would be a period of Attack operations either Close Air Support (CAS), Interdiction (INT) or Offensive Counter Air (OCA) on NATO flanks or across the Inner German Border (IGB), before Selective or General Nuclear Release.

NATO flank attack operations in Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (AMF) were generally ‘on demand’ tasking against border violations, light naval forces or amphibious expeditions. Overland the Jaguar expected a high mission success to loss ratio in CAS and INT under exercise or research conditions using Operational Low Flying (OLF) and ‘lay-down’ weapons 1000lb retard or BL755 cluster weapon, shallow dive gunnery was really not sensible, see below! The combination of the Navigation and Weapon Aiming Sub-System (NAVWASS) and tactical flying could place you at an optimum weapons release point with good accuracy and minimum unmask time, although some of NATO’s flanks are pretty flat challenging exposure to defences.

Prototype Jaguar XW563 dropping a 1000lbs bomb, circa 1974 (C0019)

    The Continuously Computed Impact Point (CCIP) displayed on the bomb fall line (air-to-ground ‘live line’) in the Head Up Display (HUD) required a very short period of stable flight for accurate results. Pre-planned target positions or Target of Opportunity (TOO) designation using either ground laser marking or the onboard Laser Ranger and Marked Target Seeker (LRMTS) in the chisel nose for range calculations which greatly improved accuracy by avoiding an incorrect ‘flat earth’ trajectory calculation which caused errors.

File:RAF Jaguar Tactical Meet.JPEG

    Attacks against light naval forces were always going to be high risk despite some fiendish tactics developed in conjunction with the German Navy F-104 units who would be tasked over the southern Baltic Sea, Kattegat and the ‘Belts’ various between the Danish islands, the Sound separating them from Sweden, the German mainland and Bornholm island. This was an exciting and varied ‘playground’ but very, very flat i.e. no orographic screening! 

    The F-104 had a good anti-ship radar but a Litton ‘tramlines only’ inertial navigation system. The Jaguar had no radar but a very good NAVWASS even allowing for some strange over-sea doppler effects from the Radar Altimeter, so the Jaguars kept the formation away from known defences and the F-104s found the target. 

  Perhaps the most effective tactic was the four aircraft  F-104 ‘wagon-wheel’ circling out of effective ZSU-23 range above 10,000ft and using high angle dive attacks either simultaneously (exciting) from the sun quadrant in turn or 180º opposed (equally exciting). The Jaguars usually waited for a weakened landing ship target to lay-down BL755 on. Occasional high angle gunnery was considered but as all these tactics required a high cloud base other options were developed. Low-level mixed pairs of F-104/Jaguar could hide behind islands out of ship radar contact using NAVWASS and appear using F-104 radar to lay-down attack blind if necessary in sea fog or low cloud. Loosely timed co-ordinated pairs avoiding fragmentation issues did cause havoc in NATO shipping ranks during exercises. 

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 IGB violation was the Central Front threat and the opposing unit was the 3rd Shock Army. There is an apocryphal statement that the only thing stopping 3rd Shock reaching RAF Bruggen was the Niederkrüchten traffic lights which were always red when you arrived. The immediate task would have been CAS but as dual-role Jaguar, other than recce (alone, unarmed and unafraid), would probably not have been committed unless a guaranteed stop was likely. Jaguar survivability over the Forward Edge of Battle Area (FEBA) was marginal at best with all the lead in the air, not to mention the forward based MIM-23 Hawk missile batteries who alleged that they would have two similar piles of wreckage after hostilities, theirs and ours, so not much aircraft recognition, identification friend or foe or safety lane in use!

Jaguar T.2

    INT would be an attempt to slow the advance by interdicting supply chains, resources or river crossings all of which would be defended and reached by crossing the FEBA. Pre-planned attacks were available but at high risk due to the proximity of the FEBA. On call INT was likely if a stop was possible or the first line of defence was being overwhelmed, both possible scenarios.

    OCA was also pre-planned and because of the distance behind the FEBA circuitous routing, safe lane or medium level returns could be planned. Ad hoc enemy air defence en route was ‘luck of the draw’ but airfield/missile site close defences were fairly predictable and could be minimised by approach route, attack geometry and weapons selected. Long toss ballistic delivery was also an option to avoid target overflight or exposure to close-in weapons systems.

VINTAGE FOOTAGE SHOWS JAGUAR ATTACK AIRCRAFT UNDERTAKING MOTORWAY TRIALS -  The Aviation Geek Club

    More time had to be spent ‘red side’ and the Jaguar had quite good ‘legs’ at low level so a target 150nm+ beyond the IGB was quite feasible retaining the underwing tanks, bearing in mind RAF Bruggen was some 150nm from the likely FEBA. Simulation and Red Flag data indicated that with good pre-planning, current enemy intelligence and support missions less than 10% attrition was likely.

    Strike operations involving selectable yield lay-down or loft deliveries of WE.177A were a UK contribution to the US Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) in force at the time administered locally by SACEUR, either as a Selective Release (Selrel) – tailored counterforce – mission or during General Release. As a single seat day/night/all-weather (yes, as declared!) visual operator this would have been a really big ask and mission ending Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) would have been as likely as enemy air defence attrition or weapon side-effects. Flying on a forecast QNH altimeter setting, at an altitudes minus all the safety margins/percentages, IMC, relying on the NAVWASS with occasional glimpses of the ground would have been a ‘go to the end of the printed line in your route book and deliver the weapon’ scenario, if you got that far. Day VMC was doable, night or IMC would have been very high attrition.”

What were you first impressions? How did it compare with other aircraft you’d flown?

“Luckily I was awarded a Hunter course at RAF Chivenor before joining the Jaguar Conversion Unit, soon to be 226 OCU, at RAF Lossiemouth. So with minimal ground attack experience all the shiny levers were very exciting and the fleet had almost zero miles on the clock. Comparing it initially to the Hunter the speed performance was similar but manoeuvre was ‘⍺’ governed and the obvious difference in wing area told the story with reduced performance.

During manoeuvre the wings deflected up but the fuselage bent down at nose and tail causing the spine to lengthen. The control system rods which passed along the spine did not, so an input of both rudder and tailplane occurred above 4g which was undesirable! A ‘spine bending compensator’ was incorporated into the aircraft’s yaw and pitch auto stab systems to overcome this effect at high ‘g’.

    Exaggerated nose-up attitudes for take-off and landing took getting used to but the handling and stability in its planned low level regime was excellent. Attack system handling could be as easy or difficult as you wanted to make it with many modes available, but the Projected Map Display (PMD) magnet and NAVWASS housekeeping caused many ‘head-in’ inattention scares and some losses. The Head Up Display (HUD) was new to the RAF and not 1:1 scaled for display size reasons amongst others, so good though it was it took a little interpreting and critical manoeuvring was better accomplished on the classic head down attitude indicator (AI) horizon e.g. loft/toss weapons delivery recovery in cloud to avoid ‘laddering’ in the HUD i.e. the rungs – attitude bars – rushing past like a waterfall and causing disorientation.”

How good were the navigational systems? 

   “The NAVWASS as designed was excellent give or take a couple of minor ergonomic/switch issues. Unfortunately the hardware and software were running to keep up with the plan. So much so in certain cases that when I collected a Jaguar GR1 from BAe Warton the central PMD was not fitted and I delivered it, safely, to RAF Lossiemouth staring at my feet every time I looked into the cockpit. Most of the ‘black boxes’ – primarily the Inertial Platform (IP), Platform Electronics Unit (PEU), Computer, Air Data Compute (ADC) – were quite ‘cutting edge’ technology and as it transpired liked to be ‘matched’ with each other, certainly the IP and PEU. The HUD waveform generator and projecting low light TV didn’t like firm landings, neither did the IP which often commented with a large X on the ‘frozen’ HUD. Excellent work by the avionics engineers, manufacturers and BAe gradually resolved all the issues and the ‘matching’ of LRUs had a significant effect at unit level. When the system was ok it was outstanding for its flexibility and accuracy leading to the ‘bomb in a bucket’ quote by OC 226OCU.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the Jaguar 

     “Two blue land-away baggage cases were supplied by BAe with each new aircraft fitting perfectly into the gun ammunition boxes.”

File:RAF Jaguar Tactical Meet.JPEG

Did it have enough power?

    “There was never enough power and the Adour, an Anglo/French cooperation, was optimised for high take-off thrust in reheat, good specific fuel consumption, providing a high speed dash capability and was to be changeable in 30 minutes! Good job there were two. Engine improvement were forthcoming including ‘part throttle reheat’ (PTR) to improve single engine handling, arguably also survivability, allowing reheat at less than maximum engine N1 rpm. Eventual Adour marks improved all engine performance aspects but there was rarely spare power, depending on the configuration.”

How do you rate it in the following categories

Instantaneous turn rates 

      “Always ⍺ (12, 14, 17 depending on config) and power limited but with 450kts a 6g+ 180º break was possible with a 150kt loss. Wing area was 75% of a Hawker Hunter and it showed.”

Sustained turn

     “Entirely power and configuration dependent, not good in a low level turning fight with stores loaded. Clearing the wing turns it into a supersonic trainer and it is very capable but the mission is lost. W/L of 650kg/m² was nearly triple the Hawker Hunter figure.”

Sepecat Jaguar GR.1 (XZ365 J) of 41 Squadron on deployment to Norway (P015220)
Image: RAF Cosford

Take-off/landing performance

     “Landing first, easy, precise (⍺), brake parachute equipped with big brakes – excellent! Take-off has been variously described as due to the curvature of the earth and was certainly an Operations Manual reference event depending on entropy, configuration and airfield. Reliance on ‘clear wing’ after engine failure would be operationally standard. Full reheat was standard and operational formation take-offs would be a race to the first waypoint.”

High AoA performance 

     “Interesting, in that it had a very ‘hard’ flight envelope boundary. It flew very well up to the ⍺ limits for various configurations but beyond them, certainly dynamically, wing rock then instability in yaw and pitch led to a departure which was un-recoverable at low level, barely so at medium level with a ‘centralise’ controls recovery.”

Climb rate 

     “Totally weight and configuration dependent but the clean aircraft at 10 tonnes had a T/W of 0.5 similar to a Hawker Hunter, and climbed to 30,000ft in just over 1 minute. Fully war configured time to height was fairly pitiful and very fuel consuming.”

RAFG Jaguars

Range

   “Jaguar was designed to have a good specific fuel consumption in dry power cruise and aerodynamically efficient tanks and weapons didn’t affect that too adversely at low level. Accelerating to penetration or attack speed was a reheat event, PTR helping to sustain on reaching. 300nm plus lo-lo radius of action with four weapons was quite feasible Ferry at altitude was comfortable with two and a half hours un-refuelled on external tanks; clean ferry was nearly two hours cruise climbing and exploiting the transonic aerodynamics.”

Weapons platform 

    “Very stable level, shallow and high angle dive and in long toss/loft although the ballistics for real weapons over long distances were a little suspect. Relatively high-wing loading assisted by good auto-stab/damping systems smoothed tracking.”

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Combat effectiveness

    “Apart from the inaccurate loft/toss (nuclear weapon kill probability resolved that) all other weapons deliveries had to overfly the target so surprise, OLF and attack geometry were critical. If the lay-down/shallow dive weapons were delivered they would hit. However, ingress/egress versus CAP fighters, area/land forces air defence and SHORAD meant that cunning planning was crucial and range consuming. Lo-lo or lo-lo-hi were the only options for survival and then the Hawks or even the ‘home plate’ CAP might get you

    (F-4 Phantom 1, Jaguar 0 – 25 May 1982).

    Basically a digital Hunter so it did ok and got better with age.”

Cockpit 

“Roomy, good visibility, quite ergonomic with an unfriendly computer interface, the hand control was a good idea but felt very analogue. Don’t mention ‘slugging’!”

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How affectionate did you feel towards the aircraft? 

 “Very as it was joy to fly, more robust than you would think and would deliver weapons with a new order of accuracy. What equipment should have been added to the aircraft? Better RWR and defensive aids. Radar of course but no hope. Lots of ‘goodies’ did arrive with the GR1A, better NAVWASS, chaff/flare, ECM and Sidewinder. TIALD laser designator pod capability, bigger, engines and aiming improvements all installed in the GR3A.”

Having flown both, who would likely win in a guns-only fight between a Javelin and a Jaguar? 

    “Jaguar without doubt mostly due to its hit and run capability. Javelin lacked dynamic manoeuvring although the ‘shotgun’ spread of four Adens would cause havoc if they hit you.”

What should I have asked you? 

       “Air-to-air refuelling ✔️ Probe installation with good geometry, easy to fly but spoke the basket and the debris goes down the starboard engine, total embarrassment! A ‘one shot’ hook was fitted, good for RTOs and hydraulic failure landings. Further taxying, if possible, was accomplished with a roller skate under the ‘shoe’ or a suitable length of rope attached to the safety pin and holding the hook off the ground. Re-setting the hook was like pulling a giant longbow.

       The T2 had worse high ⍺ characteristics than the GR1, mainly due to B/A ratio factors, but the FAF seemed to have a very ‘carefree’ handling regime with it, perhaps they knew something? It was not nuclear wired so was a bit of an orphan late on in war exercises. The fuel system was automatic with a French ‘fairy lights’ display for when it malfunctioned, a frequent early problem, you then had to interpret and select an appropriate switch to avoid flaming out. The excellent brake parachute in its tin container had a habit of falling out at random if poorly fitted and subject to high ‘g’ or OLF in turbulence. There are containers in the Scottish Highlands today.

  Could the Jaguar have operated from an unprepared or graded airstrip? Yes – everyone had great confidence in the French designed ‘train d’atterrissage’ or ‘train’ and it could absorb all sorts of arrivals.”

       What about recce? “Good question, the centreline recce pod as fitted was excellent and when it was digitally updated developed a mind of its own to produce good content despite the pilot!”

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Jaguar Conversion Unit (226 OCU) Jun – Sep 1974

No 6 Sqn RAF Coltishall Oct 1974 – Apr 1977 ‘Flying Can-openers’

No 14 Sqn RAF Bruggen May 1977 – Aug 1980 ‘Crusaders’

HQ RAFG Jaguar Staff Officer Sep 1980 – Feb 1983

1500+ flight hours Jaguar

Latest thoughts on new Russian mystery fighter aircraft: ‘Fleabag’ achieves checkmate

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Though earlier artists impressions show an undernose intake the aircraft or mock-up appears to have should mounted intakes somewhat reminiscent of those of the F-22 and to a lesser extent, the Berkut. I do wonder what their intake shape is… and there are rhomboid options that would make M~2.0 feasible. I think this aircraft is a candidate for MiG-29 replacement, but with emphasis shifted away from WVR combat.

TASS has announced that Russia’s latest fighter aircraft will be unveiled, and, indeed, demonstrated, at the MAKS-2021 show on July 20.

Photographs of the shrouded aircraft (or possibly mock-up) have now appeared, and the analysis below has been updated to reflect these images.

The aircraft is reported to be Russia’s first single-engine supersonic low observable tactical fighter, and has been developed by Sukhoi, and is being presented at the MAKS show by Rostec. The stated intent is to ‘rival the US fifth-generation F-35 aircraft’. The aircraft is also described as a domestic light fighter, which will compete with the F-35 in export markets. This latter comment is backed up by a video on the Rostec website which identifies a number of countries by name including India, Argentina, and Vietnam, and some imagery suggestive of Middle Eastern states.

The new photographs show an aircraft that loosely resemble the earlier ‘teaser’ imagery, but with significant differences in the intakes and fuselage.

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Compared to the ‘teaser’ imagery, the ‘Checkmate’ aircraft (Hush Kit reporting name ‘Fleabag’) has twin intakes located on the sides of a rhomboidal cross-section fuselage, resembling the intake installation on the F-22, rather than a large diverterless intake under the nose. The wing appears to be similar to the teaser image, being highly-tapered, thin, and with a low-aspect-ratio, near-diamond planform.

The forward fuselage of the teaser image had a small forward canard, which appears to be absent on the shrouded ‘Fleabag’ aircraft. The shrouding of the aircraft is very effective in confusing the aircraft profile, and it is not impossible that a strake is present, in the same plane as the wing, and that the intakes are below this strake, rather like the F-18 installation. All of this must remain speculative until clearer images are available. 

The rear view of the Fleabag appears to show a single afterburning nozzle, located between twin butterfly tails. Given Sukhoi experience in the application of thrust vectoring to its heavy fighter designs, it would be surprising if this were not also fitted to the new aircraft. The teaser image features an Infra-red Seeker Tracker, located ahead of the cockpit, and a radar in the aircraft nose. This would be a typical arrangement for a Russian fighter.

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A once classified British study from 1993 shows a similar design solution in wing planform and tail configuration.

The wing planform and tail design are somewhat reminiscent of the McDonnell MFVT (Mixed Flow Vectored Thrust) ASTOVL concept, and as this single-engine aircraft featured twin side-intakes, there is quite a strong resemblance between it and what we can see of ‘Fleabag’. The Newark Air Museum in the UK have a model of that concept, shown below. The MFVT design was one of the propulsion alternatives examined in early UK-US joint technology studies looking at possible ASTOVL concepts in advance of the JSF program. I am not suggesting that Fleabag is a STOVL aircraft, however – the fuselage volume taken up in the MFVT for its STOVL system simply results in a fuselage shape compatible with the internal weapons bays which must surely be a feature of Fleabag.

What can we infer about the aircraft? To me, the highly-tapered, low aspect ratio wing suggests that the design is intended to be used for BVR combat, as the wing area and aspect ratio suggest sustained turn performance might not be a strong point. Checkmate is likely to have a high thrust-to-weight ratio, a vectoring nozzle and a strake ahead of the wing. This should result in the instantaneous turn rate being structurally, rather than aerodynamically, limited for substantial parts of the manoeuvring air combat envelope. The fuselage below the wing line is rhomboidal, the flat sides and fuselage width suggesting reasonable size internal weapons bays, which are necessary if the aircraft is to have a low signature.

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Whether a low signature is achieved will depend on a number of aspects – not just the shape, but the materials, the manufacturing standards, and the electromagnetic properties of the surfaces and structure. Certainly, some are firmly of the view that the canard foreplane, and the large under-fuselage intake, are incompatible with a low signature aircraft. It is interesting that these features do not appear to be present in the shrouded Checkmate/Fleabag aircraft.

From the wording used in the press release – descriptors like ‘domestic light fighter’ and ‘tactical fighter’, and the reference to exporting the aircraft, it could be that the new Sukhoi is intended to be a cheap alternative to the F-35, indicating, perhaps, that some compromises in the signature area might have been made in the interests of containing acquisition, operating and maintenance costs.

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Could the aircraft be a Russian equivalent to the Hush-Kit F-36 Kingsnake concept, aiming to regain the position once achieved with the widespread use of the MiG-21, by undercutting the cost of the F-35? The primary intent might be to develop a widely exportable aircraft, with, perhaps, Russian usage being limited to a ‘non-exportable’ variant used for local air defence and tactical strike. This might supplement a force mix including manned and unmanned systems, and drawing on the capabilities of future systems like the Su-57 for air superiority, and a future MiG-31 replacement. for strategic air defence.

 Could the aircraft indeed be a Russian equivalent to the @Hush_Kit F-36 Kingsnake concept, aiming to regain the position once achieved with the widespread use of the MiG-21 by undercutting the cost of the F-35?

– Jim Smith

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First comments on new single-engine Russian fighter: Checkmate?

Teaser images may describe configuration of new light/medium-weight Sukhoi fighter

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TASS has announced that Russia’s latest fighter aircraft will be unveiled, and, indeed, demonstrated, at the MAKS-2021 show on July 20. We consider what this might mean and what the configuration of the circulating images reveals.

The aircraft is reported to be Russia’s first single-engine low signature supersonic tactical fighter, and has been developed by Sukhoi. The stated intent is to ‘rival the US fifth-generation F-35 aircraft’. The aircraft is also described as a domestic light fighter which will compete with the F-35 in export markets.

The below image above is a ‘teaser’ for the aircraft and must be viewed with some caution until the actual hardware is revealed. The basic configuration shown in the illustration above has a near-diamond wing planform, with thin highly-tapered low-aspect-ratio wings, a forward canard, and twin butterfly tails. The aircraft has a single engine, with a large diverterless intake (UPDATE: the aircraft or mock-up photographed beneath a tarpaulin has shoulder mounted intakes similar to that of the F-22 and appears not to have a canard) under the forward fuselage. An Infra-red Seeker Tracker is located ahead of the cockpit, and a radar is mounted in the aircraft nose.

This 2017 3D model is unconnected to the model on Borisov’s desk but is interesting to compare.

This model was seen on a Sukhoi executive’s desk, deliberate teaser or disinformation?

Given Sukhoi experience in the application of thrust vectoring to its heavy fighter designs, it would be surprising if this were not also fitted to the new aircraft.

The wing planform and tail design are somewhat reminiscent of the McDonnell MFVT (Mixed Flow Vectored Thrust) ASTOVL concept but the aircraft features a chin intake rather than side intakes. The Newark Air Museum in the UK have a model of that concept, shown below. The MFVT design was one of the propulsion alternatives examined in early UK-US joint technology studies looking at possible ASTOVL concepts in advance of the JSF programme.

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What can we infer about the aircraft? To me, the highly-tapered, low aspect ratio wing suggests that the design is intended to be used for BVR combat, as the wing area and aspect ratio suggest sustained turn performance might not be a strong point. The fuselage below the wing line is rhomboidal, the flat sides and fuselage width suggesting reasonable size internal weapons bays, which are necessary if the aircraft is to have a low signature.

Whether a low signature is achieved will depend on a number of aspects – not just the shape, but the materials, the manufacturing standards, and the electromagnetic properties of the surfaces and structure. Certainly, some will question whether the canard foreplane and the large under-fuselage intake are compatible with this intent.

From the wording used in the press release – descriptors like ‘domestic light fighter’ and ‘tactical fighter’, and the reference to exporting the aircraft, it could be that the new Sukhoi is intended to be a cheap alternative to the F-35, suggesting, perhaps, that some compromises in the signature area might have been made in the interests of containing acquisition, operating and maintenance costs.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from this site along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes hereThank you. Our controversial merchandise shop is here and our Twitter account here @Hush_Kit. Sign up for our newsletter here. The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from this site along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.

 Could the aircraft indeed be a Russian equivalent to the @Hush_Kit F-36 Kingsnake concept, aiming to regain the position once achieved with the widespread use of the MiG-21 by undercutting the cost of the F-35?

– Jim Smith

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Hush-Kit thoughts

It is hard to know what to make of Russian rumours or even official statements regarding military hardware, and this is a prime example. There are more unknowns than facts around this fighter. Is it single-engined? Is it primarily for export? Could there be a STOVL variant? Manned, unmanned* or (more absurdly) optionally manned? If built, would it be built by Sukhoi or MiG (some recent releases mention Sukhoi but many older ones mention MiG)? If it is for export, and a cheap stealthish fighter could be just the ticket, then a launch or partner nation will be sought. India is said to like their Russian-sourced MiG-29UPGs very much but was far from happy with its treatment in the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project. Whether they would want another partnership after the mess of FGFA is open to question, though a later off-the-shelf purchase would seem a viable idea. So who could afford to invest in such a fighter? Even domestic orders are far from assured these days with the MiG-35 floundering in obscurity, the Su-57 flailing around in single digits while even the dominating ‘Flanker’ series is not being ordered in enormous numbers. Outsiders who would love a long range stealthy fighter-bomber include Iran and Argentina but both seem highly unlikely to get involved. China has its own Shenyang FC-31 kicking around (somewhere) which appears to be in the same category so Sino-Russian collaboration seems an unlikely bet. Though it has long enjoyed a partnership with Russia, China is now far richer and ahead technologically in almost every aspect of military aerospace so what it would gain from cooperation with an increasingly unpopular Russia is hard to see.

Another issue is that no-one (at least publicly) really knows what the next generation of fighters will look like – or even if their should be one. Following or countering the American lead, as has been historically the case, is harder now as there is uncertainty on which technological direction the US will go in. The UK, with a similar defence budget to Russia is also thinking big with its Tempest research project, but this appears to have the same vagueness of direction, with placeholder shapes and every conceivable tech being mentioned without a clear idea of what is needed or why.

Despite a defence budget less than a tenth that of the US, Russia still thinks big, but with a global GDP percentage that has shrunk by almost 1% since a high of 4% in 2007/8 it is often biting off more than it can chew. As with the US experience, so-called ‘5th Generation’ heavy fighters have proved budget vampires, with many seeing an obsession with brand new airframes as an archaic idea. Mentioned as a “new light plane designed to cope with tactical assignments” in the TASS press release it is seen as ‘Lo’ to the Su-57’s ‘Hi’. This is what the US F-35 was originally intended to be (to the F-22’s ‘Hi’) but spirally demands and costs left USAF with the F-16 fulfilling this as its planned replacement grew too aristocratic for everyday tasks.

Perhaps as a provocative statement against the F-35 the teaser video features British RAF 617 Squadron badges.

Though Russia is believed to have world-class electronic warfare technology, it lags in both the sensor arena (failing to have a truly operational AESA radar 20 years after US adoption) and likely in the field of data fusion. This aircraft (if it happens) is likely to be a simpler machine than the F-35, which may not be a bad thing.

The Su-35 and F-15EX show the sense of filling an old design with new goodies, while many new ideas, such as ‘loyal wingmen’ (the implied sleight of ‘loyal’ being a required descriptor for a wingman has not gone unnoticed in the pilot community) remain unproved. In summary – the future is vague and the Russian state’s appetite for new military projects is bigger than its belly.

Image
Photos of the forward fuselage reveal what appear to be should mounted intakes somewhat like those of the S-37 Berkut and somewhat like those of the F-22.

Most importantly, we suggest ‘Fleabag’ as the NATO reporting name.

* An unmanned variant of the KB SAT SR-10 with the superb name of ‘AR-10 Argument’ has been proposed.

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TASS PRESS RELEASE

MOSCOW, July 13. /TASS/. The latest combat plane that Russia will unveil on the first day of the MAKS-2021 aerospace show will rival the US fifth-generation F-35 aircraft, Executive Director of Aviaport Aviation News Agency Oleg Panteleyev said on Tuesday.

“The teasers in English and the regions that the pilots presented in a video released by Rostec [state tech corporation] suggest that the domestic light fighter will be in competition with the US F-35 aircraft on foreign markets. I am certain that the fighter’s demonstration at the MAKS-2021 will create a wow effect. It is not accidental that [Russia’s state arms exporter] Rosoboronexport has invited over 120 delegations from 65 countries of the world to the aerospace show,” he said.

Little is known about the plane’s performance characteristics so far, the expert pointed out. According to the data available, the latest fighter features low radar signatures in various bands, a high thrust to weight ratio, a large weapon payload and advanced air-launched armaments, the expert pointed out.

“There is no doubt that in this decade Russia will be able to restore the tandem of breakthrough aircraft platforms: the heavy Su-57 [fifth-generation fighter] and a new light plane designed to cope with tactical assignments,” the expert said.

The Rostec press office announced earlier on Tuesday that Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC, part of Rostec) would feature a fundamentally new military plane on the first day of the MAKS-2021 international aerospace show in the town of Zhukovsky near Moscow. The project’s official website was also unveiled, with a midnight countdown to the plane’s July 20 premiere.

As a source in the domestic aircraft-building industry told TASS in the spring of this year, the Sukhoi Aircraft Company (part of the United Aircraft Corporation) is developing the first Russian single-engine light tactical fighter with supersonic speed capability and low radar signature.

An Utterly Depressing A-Z of Aircraft

Avro Arrow fans

Video: Avro Arrow model found in Lake Ontario | WOSU Radio

A thousand years ago a hugely expensive Canadian aeroplane was cancelled. Today its memory is kept alive in a million Canadian moans.

Bombs

Deconstruction workers. Human unbeingers.

Crashes

When the sky rejects, the ground welcomes too quickly.

Dresden

RAF Bomber Command was overly eager to inspire Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut in February 1972

Environmental damage

Maybe not as bad as cars, but still.

F-35 online articles

If every online article on the F-35 was laid end-to-end and made of gold they would cost the same as the F-35 programme, or they would if its actual price was known.

Flying Cars

Flying car - Wikipedia

Are they a shit car or a shit plane? Or both?

German World War II aircraft enthusiasts

How common is Nazi fancy dress? - BBC News

Not all, but some of these guys are a little too enthusiastic. Worth checking the name of their alsatian before meeting them one-on-one.

Grey planes

The most successful fighter pilot in history flew a bright red plane, air forces responded by painting all fighters grey. Grey is the English word for ‘gray’.

Heinkel He 177 Greif 

Auto-Destructive Art (ADA) is a form of art coined by Gustav Metzger, a German artist. Taking place after World War II, Metzger wanted to showcase the destruction created from the war through his self-destructing artwork. The He 177 predated Metzger’s work.

Ilyushin Il-2 penal units

It is alleged that there were penal units in the Great Patriotic War, in which prisoners were forced to fly exceptionally dangerous combat missions.

Jokes

Jokes about airline food.

Kits

Airfix Model Kit (1980s): 1 listing

It’s often assumed people who like aeroplanes like making model kits. Extremely fiddly, fragile and frustrating and in no way sympathetic to the sausage-fingered community these little nightmares mostly remain uncompleted. Pocket money is not enough to buy them leaving many in a long suspended state of unsatisfied childhood greed for kits that may last them a lifetime.

Lisbon Portela Airport, Portugal

A site specific art installation exploring the end of hope.

Militarism

The belief that a country should maintain a military capability it can’t afford and be prepared to use it aggressively to aid US foreign policy or promote extremely vague ‘national interests’. The latter is a fine idea as long as no-one else thinks of it and ethics aren’t a thing.

Nationalism & napalm

Flag-wanking and people-melting consistently generate poor reviews on Yelp. Both have both been hung on the wings of innocent aeroplanes whose only wish is to fly.

Obsession

The reason your home isn’t nice is because you have spunked £56,000 on books on aeroplanes. Are you really actually ever going to read that book on the History of Airbus A300 Longerons?

Project Pluto

Stick a nuclear ramjet in a cruise missile. The idea was simple: With an endurance measured in weeks (or even months) this Cold War weapon could distribute nuclear warheads before leisurely cruising around pissing deadly radiation over huge areas of cursed land before crashing to earth to heap misery upon the already widespread misery as its own onboard nuclear reactor disintegrates. This was clearly the worst idea ever (only to be surpassed when Apple stopped including USB or headphone ports on their devices).

Pedantancy & pollution & patriotism

Point-scoring pedants permeate plane places, planes pollute particularly pertinent places with pesky particulates, patriots partial pestering perturbs people.

Quasi-experts arguing on Twitter

Stop arguing and feed the cat. Life is good. Take a breath.

Ryanair

Many airlines have proved it is possible to run successful budget airlines without treating passengers badly. Some have other ideas.

Soviet airliners

What was good about them was that you put your bag directly into an onboard luggage level rather than mess around waiting for carousels. But that’s all. At smaller regional airports it wasn’t unusual for passengers to physically help move aircraft stuck in snow or mud.

TSR-2 fans

A pint of bitter and a pint of bitterness. It was a nuclear bomber for godsake, not a murdered ballerina.

Underwater Aircraft Carriers

There is a reason whales don’t give birth to eaglets.

Submarine + aircraft carrier - Wicked!

Volksjäger (He 162 Salamander)

Heinkel, He 162, Spatz Volksjager (7585406720).jpg

Made by slaves to be flown by children to defend a fascist power, the He 162 was an awful thing. It escaped prosecution however by fleeing to America before having radical plastic surgery to emerge years later as the A-10.

Waiting times (airports)

Being encouraged to arrive unnecessarily early to be force-marched through a perfume shop is not cool guys.

X planes without pilots

If there’s not a little man or woman jn the front I’m not interested.

You

See also ‘me’

Zeppelin Raids & Zoom lenses

‘Strategic bombing’ (mass murder performed at over 80mph) started in World War One against Belgium. These raids paved the way for the horrors of aerial bombing in World War II. It also paved the way for the success of the lamentable cockney song ‘Roll out the barrel’ (years later, the lyrics were changed to ‘roll out the barrel bomb’ by crews of Antonovs in protracted proxy wars).

Airshows are breeding grounds for cargo shorts and zoom lenses as long as a Volvo estates, it’s a little known fact that airshow aircraft only perform dramatically fast take-offs to escape these aesthetic blunders.

Clash of the cancelled Round 1: Supersonic ‘jump-jets’, Yak-141 versus Boeing X-32B

History chewed out and spat out some incredible aeroplanes. We drag these rotting morsels out of the compost mulch of history and drag them to our laboratory/fight-club for autopsy. To assist us in our morbid analysis is Hush-Kit’s tamed scientist and engineer Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith (a key figure in the Typhoon and UK JSF programmes among others). To further our thrills we shall pit these dead aeroplanes against each other! Round 1 is supersonic vertical and landing aircraft: the US’ ‘Big Mouth’ Boeing X-32 (that lost out to the X-35) takes on the ‘Last Red’, the Soviet Yakovlev Yak-141. FIGHT!

“Aerospace is one of the fields where technology and innovation, particularly in times of conflict, have resulted in radical advances in development, as well as the pursuit of some spectacular evolutionary blind alleys. Hush-Kit have asked me to consider some of the aircraft that fell by the wayside in the development of warplanes from the Wright Military Flyer of 1909 to today’s emerging 6th generation fighters.

This developmental saga is often told through the path of spectacular successes, generally perceived through quite narrow National perspectives. There are also, it is true, whole books about ‘Awful Aircraft’ documenting well known failures. But there are many interesting possibilities to explore in the world of the not quite successful. The aircraft that lost out in competitive evaluation, or seemed like a good idea at the time, but never got into service.

The possibilities seem endless, and, to limit the size of this article, we are going to look at five pairs of aircraft that are broadly contemporary, that flew successfully, but that never quite made it into operational service. The plan is to look at these aircraft in pairs, explore why they were designed, how they compare, and why they missed out. All the aircraft were seriously intended to be operationally capable, and hence research aircraft are excluded. The periods chosen are broadly the 90s (one pair), the Cold War (two pairs), and the Second World War (two pairs). If these prove interesting, I am fairly confident that other pairs could be constructed, with the early years, the First World War, and an almost limitless array of VSTOL aircraft as possible examples.

Yakovlev Yak-141 at 1992 Farnborough Airshow (2).jpg

In making my selection, I have decided, for artistic reasons as much as anything else, that the pairs should consist of aircraft which share the appeal of the mythical designs of Gerry Anderson, whose creations include the Angel Interceptor, which I analysed recently for Hush-Kit. Anderson’s designs manage to be both plausible and yet somehow unlikely. For real analogues, which might have been potential examples for this article, but did not quite fit the brief, consider a couple of British efforts, the Saunders-Roe SR 53, and the Armstrong-Whitworth AW 52. Both aircraft flew successfully, both were at the edge of the then-achievable technology, both had that futuristic look, and neither went on to become operational.

Hush-Kit have asked me to consider possible outcomes had the selected pairs met in air combat. This is not an easy or straightforward process, and rests to an undesirable degree on personal judgement, since adequate information is not available on most of the aircraft concerned. Hush-Kit’s specific interests for Round 1 are WVR (within Visual Range) and BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air combat, Stealth (for the X-32B and Yak-141 – it is not relevant for the other aircraft), and sortie rate.

Of course, both BVR and WVR combat outcomes are very dependent on total system capabilities – not just platform capabilities. The outcome of a BVR combat will very much depend on what off-board systems are providing situational awareness; whether or not 3rd-party targeting is available; and the size of the ‘No Escape Zone’ of the weapons carried. Additionally, it is worth noting that the result of a WVR combat with anything resembling modern weapons is likely to be a mutual kill.

Taking all this on board, I am going to loosely interpret WVR combat as manoeuvring air combat where the objective is achieving a guns kill. Any other outcome becomes too dependent on such features as whether or not helmet cueing of the missile is available; missile seeker detection and guidance range; missile fly-out range and so on. I’ve taken this approach so that the discussion can focus on platform performance and manoeuvrability, rather than system issues.

Similarly, I am going to consider BVR combat as a contest between platform sensors, and aircraft signature where appropriate. I will assume missiles to have broadly similar capability, as are available countermeasures and protection systems. The issue becomes one of numbers of missiles carried, capability of on-board sensors, and signature.” Before we compare the air combat capabilities of these two aircraft types let’s take a deep dive into their histories and designs.


Yakovlev 141 and Boeing X-32B

“Both of these aircraft were designed to have ASTOVL capabilities. ASTOVL stands for Advanced Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing, and the word Advanced is code for being supersonic. It is worth noting also that the STOVL part of the acronym reflects operational experience with aircraft like the Harrier. An aircraft which can transition from wing-borne flight to hover and land vertically, using its engine to provide lift, would, in general, be also able to take-off vertically, just as the Harrier can. However, to do so would unnecessarily reduce the available payload and range, and it is much more effective to perform a rolling take-off, especially if a ski-jump is available, as this enables operation at much higher weights than can be achieved with a vertical take-off.

Video gives an overview of the Yak-141, Russian's first supersonic V/STOL  combat aircraft that never was - The Aviation Geek Club

ASTOVL design considerations

When considering alternative configurations for ASTOVL capability, the arrangement of the propulsion system in the vertical landing part of the flight is often the key. This is because the vertical lift available in this phase will determine the maximum landing weight, and because the engine exhaust management is likely to be critical in determining the vertical lift available.

Three aspects are critical – hot gas ingestion (re-ingestion if you are an American reader); Aerodynamic suck-down; and ground erosion. In addition, aircraft controllability, thermal heating effects, and acoustic aspects may also be important. We will have a look at what these are, and then consider how well the X-32B and Yak 141 deal with the problems that arise.

Lockheed ASTOVL, JAST, JSF projects | Secret Projects Forum

Hot-gas ingestion means the air flowing into the engine intake contains hot gases which have passed through the engine and have then been sucked into the intake. This is undesirable because the hotter air has lower density, reducing the thrust of the engine. But also, the exhaust gases will be only partially mixed with cooler, ambient temperature, air entering the intake, resulting in an unsteady and distorted intake flow, which can cause major problems with engine operation and stability. Avoiding this problem generally means keeping hot gases as far away as possible, containing forward flowing exhaust gases with under-fuselage dams or fences, or reducing exhaust gas temperature.

Aerodynamic suck-down results as the vertical jets from the propulsion system reach the ground and spread outwards at high speed under the aircraft. This high-speed outflow results in reduced pressure under the aircraft wings and fuselage, pulling the aircraft towards the ground. Measures to reduce this include reducing the exhaust jet velocity, using a high-positioned wing, and manipulating the supporting jects to produce an upward-pointing ‘fountain effect’.

Yak-141 Returns; Vertical Takeoff Aircraft Coming Soon to the Russian Navy?

Ground erosion, acoustic and temperature effects all increase dramatically with increased jet velocity and operating temperature. ‘Acoustic effects’ refers not only to the potentially damaging environment for ground crew, but also to fatigue damage caused by the very high noise levels resulting from high-speed jets in close proximity to the ground.

Unfortunately, the obvious ways to reduce these impacts – lower exhaust jet velocity, and reduced jet temperature, also reduce the thrust available, which impacts directly on the maximum achievable landing weight.

Yak-141

The Yak-141 looks every inch a supersonic fighter, with a variable-ramp intake system, small, thin, swept wings, large engine, and twin tail fins. At first glance, a single engine F-15 with half the wing area. In the vertical lift mode, the Yak 141 uses two 9,300 lb thrust turbojet lift-engines, located behind the cockpit, to balance the thrust of the Soyuz R-79 turbofan main engine, rated at 19,840 lb dry thrust or 34,170 lb in afterburning. For vertical lift, the engine exhaust is vectored via a circular nozzle, which uses rotating segments to achieve a vectored angle of up to 95 degrees, to balance the lift engines.  The afterburner can be used with the engine vectored up to the full 95 deg.

f 35 stovl fighter

Hot gas ingestion is partly managed by the separation of the lift engines from the rear nozzle, and partly by the convergence of the forward and rear jets which helps to prevent hot exhaust from the main engine migrating forward to the engine intakes. The lift engine thrust is directed 5 degrees aft of the vertical, and the main nozzle 5 deg forward, and this will result in convergence of the jets to form a fountain effect, reducing suck-down, along with the use of a high wing location.

However, little attention appears to have been paid to ground erosion and acoustic effects. The main engine uses afterburning in the vertical lift, and the lift engines are straight turbojets with a turbine entry temperature of 1480 deg C. As a result, the exhaust gases are hot and high-speed. The aircraft’s 1991 flying at Paris was curtailed due to damage caused by the aircraft exhaust to the runway, and at Farnborough in 1992, hovering flight was demonstrated, but at 500 feet rather than by a vertical landing.

Boeing X-32B

The Boeing X-32 competed with the Lockheed-Martin X-35 in the Joint-Strike Fighter Concept Demonstration Phase, losing out to that aircraft, which went on to become the F-35 Lightning II. The JSF programme was extremely challenging, calling on manufacturers to provide configurations from the same basic concept suitable for ASTOVL, conventional carrier operations, or use as a land-based fighter and strike aircraft. In addition, the aircraft was required to be stealthy, supersonic and have manoeuvrability similar to an F-16. The X-32B and X-35B were, respectively, the Boeing and Lockheed-Martin ASTOVL concept demonstrators.

The Boeing response was a remarkably chubby aircraft with a small delta wing and a chin intake. The propulsion system took air from the exhaust system of its F-119 turbofan engine, and ducted this forward to a pair of vectoring nozzles located near the centre of gravity. No afterburning or other thrust augmentation system was used to increase thrust, and the vertical lift available would thus have been limited to perhaps 28,000 lbs. In comparison, the Lockheed-Martin F-35B STOVL variant of the JSF has a maximum vertical lift of 39,700 lb.

This Is What A Boeing F-32 Would've Looked Like If Lockheed Lost The JSF  Competition

The Boeing X-32B design was focused on simplicity and low risk, using a mixed-flow vectored thrust arrangement which relied only on changing the exhaust path from the rear nozzles to the lift nozzles for VL operation. The Lockheed-Martin X-35B design relies on the clutch-driven lift fan to greatly increase the mass flow through the propulsion system, as well as a three-bearing vectoring rear nozzle like that first flown on the Yak-141, but derived from earlier Pratt & Whitney and Convair design work.

This Is What A Boeing F-32 Would've Looked Like If Lockheed Lost The JSF  Competition

The use of mixed fan and core air at the lift nozzles reduces the temperature of the exhaust, but the location of the vertical lift nozzles at the centre of gravity, combined with the chin intake system, increases the probability of hot gas ingestion. However, a portion of the fan air is brought forward ahead of the main lift nozzles to act as a cold-air dam, helping to prevent hot gas ingestion. The high wing, cold-air dam and convergence of the lift jets were all intended to reduce aerodynamic suck-down, and the mixed-flow exhaust system was also intended to reduce ground erosion and airframe heating issues.

Notwithstanding the risk, weight, and simplicity benefits of the propulsion concept, it required positioning the engine vertical landing nozzles at the centre of gravity, with an extended jet pipe leading to the rear propulsion nozzle. Overall size constraints and weight and balance requirements lead to the relatively short forward fuselage, and the chubby appearance noted earlier. Moreover, changes in the manoeuvre requirements for the aircraft meant that a larger wing and a tailplane would be required for the production design, which could not be demonstrated by the X-32B.

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Killing the Yak and the end of Bigmouth

The Yak-141 seems to have been able to deliver the performance required for an ASTOVL fleet defence fighter. It was supersonic and could carry sufficient fuel and weapons to fulfil that role. A fully mission-capable aircraft, had however, not been demonstrated at the time of its cancellation. However, it was a single-role aircraft, and would only be suitable if more capable aircraft were not available, or if the Russian Navy were only to operate small aircraft carriers. The development of maritime variants of the MiG-29 and the Su-27, coupled with the continued use of large aircraft carriers, has meant that more capable and flexible aircraft were readily available to Russian maritime forces, and hence the requirement for the Yak-141 evaporated.

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The X-32 lost out to the X-35, which has gone on to be developed into the F-35 Lightning II. The X-35 was able to demonstrate suitability for the USAF land-based strike fighter requirement, US Marines ASTOVL Strike capability, and USN carrier-based strike fighter capability more convincingly, and with greater flexibility, aided by its use of a lift fan to increase VL landing weight, and hence operational flexibility.

Both aircraft feature improbably small wings and large engines, and clearly satisfy the ‘plausible but improbable’ ethos of Gerry Anderson designs. Of the two, my choice of the better loser goes to the Yak-141, which succeeded in meeting its design aims, and, indeed, has the distinction of being the first aircraft to fly with a rotating wedge vectoring rear nozzle, similar to that used by the F-35 Lightning II.

Lockheed ASTOVL, JAST, JSF projects | Secret Projects Forum

From a configuration standpoint, the layout is quite similar to the Lockheed-Martin tandem-fan design considered in the 1988 UK-NASA JART (Joint Assessment and Ranking Team) assessment, although that aircraft had a rectangular vectoring nozzle and used a clutch-driven forward fan rather than separate lift engines.

Convair/General Dynamics Model 200 | Catalog #: 10_0008366 T… | Flickr

The Yak-141’s rotating wedge vectoring rear nozzle is similar to that used by the F-35 Lightning. The three-bearing swivel duct nozzle, as it is known in the US, was first built and tested back in the mid-sixties by Pratt & Whitney, and proposed for application to the Convair Model 200 Sea Control fighter design for the USN.

Convair Model 200/201, a proposed supersonic VTOL fighter from 1973 that  could also be built in a CTOL configuration: WeirdWings

Sortie generation

On sortie generation, on the one hand we have the Yak-141, with a main engine and two lift engines to look after. On the other, noting the experiences in developing the F-35,  avionics reliability, software and hardware integration, and looking after low signature materials in a maritime environment are all potential problem areas for a developed F-32. While at first glance, you might think the X-32B would be simpler and quicker to turn around than the Yak 141, I don’t think there would actually be much in it.

Yak 141 and Boeing X-32B – Air Combat Comparison

Analysis here is handicapped because neither aircraft flew with an integrated weapons system, and because there were clear difficulties for Boeing in fielding an aircraft able to meet the requirement to demonstrate that one configuration could satisfy the needs of the USAF, US Navy and US Marines.

Beyond-Visual-Range Combat and the merge

For BVR combat, low signature is an important enabler, as it offers the possibility of achieving a missile launch against opposition aircraft before they are aware of your presence. In a fully swept-up system, where stealthy fighters are supported by AEW&C and co-operative electronic warfare and targeting systems, this ability may be quite dominant.

Boeing X-32 JSF ZAP16.COM Air Show photography, Civilian and Military  aircraft fact sheets

However, we are looking primarily at inherent platform capability, rather than the full future air dominance system-of-systems approach. There is little doubt here that the X-32B would have a significant first shot advantage over the Yak 141, which would have pre-dated an operational F-32 by at least 10 years, and perhaps 15.

It is prudent to expect that once the first missiles have been fired, opposition launch detection systems, and the increase in signature associated with launching the weapon from an internal bay, would allow localisation by the Yak-141. If, after the initial missile firings, aircraft on both sides survive, they are likely to be manoeuvring hard to defeat opposition missiles, and to position for a follow up, or a counter, missile firing.

(not 22-mm really)

At this point, numbers of missiles available also matter. The X-32B claimed to be able to carry six  AMRAAM; the Yak-141 could carry four missiles on external pylons. With the fragile weight margin evident for the X-32B, and the need to develop the aircraft as a weapons system, as well as to meet full USN and Marines requirements, I am doubtful that an operational aircraft would carry this loadout. However, there is no real doubt that the X-32B would have had a major advantage over the Yak-141 in BVR combat. Well, perhaps a small tinge of doubt, depending on the effectiveness of whatever magic is used to conceal the engine from generating a high radar signature, behind such a short intake duct.

In WVR combat, the Yak-141 has an advantage in maximum speed, and, because of its higher aspect ratio, may well have an advantage in a sustained turning engagement. The X-32B has a big wing, and a big engine, and would be likely to have an advantage in instantaneous turn rate. However, this would come at the cost of significant loss in energy. The X-32B would be advised to be cautious about committing to a WVR engagement of any prolonged duration because hard manoeuvring would be likely to leave it at a disadvantage, and possibly unable to break off combat easily.

It is worth pointing out, however, that to get to a turning WVR combat, the Yak-141 would first have to survive a BVR engagement, and then avoid a likely mutual kill in the merge.”

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The Westland Whirlwind Fighter by Al ‘Pub Landlord’ Murray

Dreams of what could have been

“Aviation, the twentieth century miracle, the giddiest of all of mankind’s gifts to itself, fixing the imagination to the possibility of the seemingly impossible, is something – unbelievably – we have come to take for granted.  That the Wright Brothers (or whichever putative French rivals or steam-driven British claimants) slipped earth’s surly bonds within a mere six decades of man landing on the moon – less than an expected lifetime – should become routine business, as vast Airbuses slide through west London skies past my office window, remains objectively bonkers. But flight became commonplace in my imagination long ago, long before easyJet and Flybe offered the miracle on the cheap, back in the 1970s, the Golden Age of Airfix.  Let’s be honest, if it weren’t for Airfix would we even be having this cosy chat?

For I am a child of the Airfix era – to the point where Airfix was the word for model making. And while my recently revived interest in model making has centred around the armoured fighting vehicles of the Second World War (not WW2, it isn’t a sequel) it was Airfix that started me off and that made me so darned familiar with the notion of flight that by the time I was ten I possessed opinions. Even though Airfix’s first kit was a tractor, the company’s name made it pretty clear where the action was: planes.  War planes. Second World War planes: who else offered a 1:24 scale Spitfire? But the jewel in this model builder’s collection (though I have to stress pocket money restraints meant squadrons were impossible and even finger-fours of anything a stretch) was the Westland Whirlwind. Why?

Well, like the bacon double cheese-burger, the Whirlwind had two of everything yet somehow remained digestible. Compared to other twin-engine types? Well, the Me 110 by comparison looked like a stinker and the crew had to share the double helpings of engine power, and Airfix’s kit notes with the Zerstorer let you know it was a dog, at least when faced by The Few. If memory serves the box artwork for the dogfight doubles kits featured a 110 on its way down, an engine on fire, and that underlined the point you were building a doomed plane for an outclassed opponent. (This is not to say that the B-17 artwork, one of its engines burning ominously, ever put me off – the bristling armament of the Fortress seemed to promise its survival somehow).  And – heresy though this may sound to some – the Whirlwind looked more nimble and high concept kit-car than the Mosquito; the Mosquito swanning into town saying I’m the Wooden Wonder don’t you know I can do anything with the joy-crushing swagger of the truly gifted all-rounder. 

May be an image of airplane and text that says 'Westland Whirlwind: The West Country Killer VOHE 69 lease Hush-Kit The alternative aviation magazine'

Furthermore, the Whirlwind seemed to offer things previous fighters couldn’t. Any Airfix fan who’d built a couple or more Spitfire Vb’s – with the Donald Duck 303 Sqn artwork – was familiar with how tricky it was to see over the nose of the plane on take off and how visibility, until the arrival of later drop canopy types, was pretty limited. And it only had a pair of cannon, too.  The Whirlwind, oh my, it had four – if anything could, erm, spit fire round here it was the Whirlwind. The pilot’s view seemed far superior, the canopy afforded the pilot far more all round vision than any of the competition, and did I mention the firepower? Well, as a good friend of mine is wont to say: what’s not to like?

 Al Murray takes on the Taskmaster as the hit series returns

A fantasy hot rod fighter: the 1/72 kit would somehow seem smaller, skinnier than one might expect and the aircraft more ungainly than the artwork perhaps suggested, but the Whirlwind’s rangy lines felt right. It looked hungry, punchy.  Most importantly it looked a lot like a fighter plane that a ten year old with strong opinions and a set of felt tips might design.  In flight its slightly weird lines work well together, the oversize tail somehow adding to its urgent looks.

And then you’d read the notes that came with the kit. Bugger. Unreliable. Engine problems. Underpowered. Dangerous. Discontinued. To quote Anakin Skywalker: “Noooooooo!”

The Whirlwind fits into the category of dumped types from the period of the war when there was time neither to get things wrong nor for them to eventually go right. Like the secret of so many things, it was all about timing.  The Spitfire’s torturous development from conception to mass production (it’s figuring out how you churn the bloody things out and how long you can do it for that matters when you’re going to toe-to-toe in an industrial war, and the Spitfire had a two year head start on the Whirlwind). Its origins, the Air Ministry Specification F5/34, lay in the realisation that maybe equipping interceptors with .303 rifle ammunition, no matter how many converging guns you crammed into the wings of your fighter planes, might not be as optimally lethal as required; certainly this came grimly true when the Battle of Britain began – RAF fighters couldn’t as inflict a killer blow as easily as their cannon equipped adversaries.  Explosive shells were far more effective, especially as aircraft had become increasingly complex.  The thinking was a twin engine plane would be needed as a gun platform for the harder hitting cannon.” – AL MURRAY

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All the leading manufacturers pitched in – with Hawker and Supermarine offering up-gunned adaptations of their already successful types the Hurricane and Spitfire, which were knocked back for fear of interrupting production of the existing machine gun armed types.  Westland got the Whirlwind airborne in late 1938.  And then it stalled. Not literally. Trials showed it offered great promise: it was quicker than the competition. However, problems there simply wasn’t time for lurked.  

The thing about Hush Kit of course is that is the celebration of flight, planes, their lines, quirks, foibles. And that’s why we love it. We wouldn’t love it anything like as much if it was just about the engines, because all too often it IS just about the engines, but the Whirlwind is a case in point.  The Rolls Royce Peregrine was a dud.  How could this be? Rolls Royce were the engine makers supreme! The mighty moan of the Merlin! The sound of freedom!  Of course, the ten year old me would say well surely you stick a pair of Merlins on it then? Aside from whether that was even possible, whether they’d have been suitable, that pair of Merlins was probably about to be stuck on the AVRO Manchester.  Rolls Royce had tried to drop the Peregrine and other types to concentrate on the Merlin and Griffon but the Air Ministry demurred – after all the Whirlwind needed the engines.  The Peregrines arrived with Westland late, teething problems and prioritising delaying them.

But time really had run out – time that had been kind to other types.  By the time Westland was able to get the Whirlwind into production, the Spitfire had been adapted to carry cannon – those blisters on the wings of that Donald Duck Vb. And for twin engine heavy punch the Bristol Beaufighter was ready, tried and tested, and had more range than the Westland plane.  The Whirlwind was set to fail and fall between the cracks. Only 141 were built – with circular logic Rolls Royce dropped the Peregrine as soon as the Whirlwind was cancelled, and focused on Merlins and Griffons.

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While Eric Winkle Brown didn’t rate the Whirlwind, the men that flew it on sorties did – the three squadrons that operated it did so with mixed results – doing well in the ground attack role that suited the Peregrine’s idiosyncrasies, but not so well in the Channel Dash tangling with 109s.  The Peregrines didn’t do well at altitude and were pretty thirsty: so brassing up airfields in France, during the RAF’s ‘Rhubarb’ phase of operations – if rhubarbs weren’t named after theatrical background hubbub they so plainly resemble, the appearance of action but nothing actually happening, then what were they named after? – with Spitfires overhead as escort, became one of the Whirlwind’s default roles. And what kind of heavy hitting hotrod needs an escort?  Unfortunately, for a plane now settled on a low-level role the cockpit would get too hot… precisely the kind of problems that a little more time finding solutions might have mitigated.  Waiting eagerly in the wings was the Typhoon; Hawker had the kind of clout needed to develop a new type come-what-may that maybe Westland didn’t.  As well as a properly invested aero engine manufacturer.

There’s Pathe news footage called Whirlwind Fighter Squadron, from 1943, the year the Whirlwind was shut down. As the camera pans down a long line of Whirlwinds, the crews grinning at the camera the planes look simply shit hot, their gnarly four cannon noses look completely up for it.  It’s very much a film of its type, bombs chalked with cheery messages, you know the sort of thing. But the footage of the Whirlwinds tooling around the airfield at low level, and then dropping bombs in formation.  At the end of the film they roar over in ‘finger four’, and they look exactly like what a ten-year-old with felt tips would have drawn to take the war to Jerry. Achtung, Whirlwind! We shall never see your like again.  Apart from the helicopter that pinched your name.

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Short-Lived & Largely Forgotten Westland Whirlwind

The Cricklewood Crippler, Part 2: The Unsung Halifax Heavy Bomber in 12 questions with Jane Gulliford Lowes

Images: 10 Sqn Association via Jane Gulliford Lowes 

Serial killer Dennis Nilsen wasn’t the only killer from Cricklewood, there was also the Handley Page Halifax. This heavy bomber is always overshadowed by the Lancaster but matured into an excellent aircraft depsite an undeservedly poor reputation. We spoke to author Jane Gulliford Lowes to find out more.

“The early marks were all supplied with two homing pigeons who travelled on board and were kept in a basket behind the flight engineer and the wireless operator’s positions. If the aircraft was forced to ditch in the sea, the wireless operator would write out the coordinates of the aircraft’s position put the message into the little canister on the pigeon’s leg and send them on their way. There are recorded instances of crews being rescued by this very low-tech method!”

The Halifax was…

“… the unsung hero of Bomber Command. The Halifax did so much of the graft and got none of the glory… I describe it as the workhorse of the strategic bombing campaign.

There  were 6, 178  Halifaxes built, and they flew 75, 532 sorties, from late 1940 right up until the end of the war. As well as taking part in strategic bombing, they were used extensively to lay sea mines, and were also utilised by Coastal Command. The Halifax was used to drop SOE agents into occupied Europe – some were even adapted with a special hatch and chute for this purpose; it flew operations to drop supplies to the Polish Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. At every point, in just about every air battle, from the early raids on the Tirpitz through the Battle of the Ruhr, the Battle of Berlin, and the Normandy campaign, to towing gliders for Operation Market Garden, the Halifax was in the thick of it. It even took part in the Berlin airlift.

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I am on a one-woman mission to rehabilitate the Halifax here in Britain  – I want to educate people on the historical importance and massive contribution that the Halifax made to the war effort.

As well as being a workhorse,  the later marks of the Halifax are  BLOODY GORGEOUS  to look at. That Perspex noses! It is exquisite! The Lancaster has looks like a bulldog chewing a wasp, whereas the Halifax looks like a Saluki that has just been to the grooming parlour….sleek, sexy, and magnificent.

However, there is no denying that the Halifax had a very chequered past ; quite frankly the earlier Marks were lethal for the crews and the aircraft only came into its own with the roll out of the Mark III in early 44. The Halifax’s subsequent record has been overshadowed by those earlier failures and high loss rates.”

How did the Halifax evolve?

The development of the Halifax really originates from 1936 and  the reorganisation of RAF into 3 commands – Fighter, Coastal and Bomber. The Air Ministry wanted two new heavy bombers; it was anticipated that whoever had the better strategic or long-range bomber would win any coming war. Various plans submitted but the two designs which were accepted were what would eventually become the Short Stirling, and the Handley Page Halifax. Orders went in January 1938, and the first prototype had its maiden test flight on 25 October 1939. The second, and the first to be fully armed, flew for the first time on 17th August 1940.

35 Sqn was specially reformed to introduce the new bomber in November 1940, followed by 76 Sqn in Spring 1941. Mass production techniques were introduced and gradually both Sqns were supplied with the brand-new Halifax B Mk I Series I.

The original Mk Is had a ceiling of 18,000 ft,  a range of about 1700 miles and a crew of 6     ( there was no upper gun turret). It was armed with two machine guns in the front turret, and four  in the rear.

The Mk I had that ‘double fronted ’ look,  rather  like a Lancaster. The Series 2 had gun positions either side of the fuselage, but only 25 of those were ever built. The Series 3 had the new more powerful Merlin XX engines and an increased fuel capacity, and this eventually evolved into the B Mk II series, which became the “standard” operational Halifax.

The Mk II had four Brownings in the tail, 4four in the upper gun turret and a single gun in the nose. I have a great affection for the Mk II, as it was flown by the crew featured in Above Us the Stars for the entire duration of their operational tour.

So … it was all looking good for Bomber Command. It had its brand new four- engined heavy bomber, which was much better than anything the Germans had… except for one thing.

It was a death trap.”

Why did the earlier Halifaxes have such a bad reputation? Was this justified?

“The design was constantly being tinkered with, and as a result the aircraft got heavier and heavier as more equipment was added on. Naturally, the aircraft became increasingly difficult to fly. The newly fitted upper gun turrets caused a lot of drag, as did the flame damping exhaust system, which was also visible to enemy night-fighters. The engines just weren’t powerful enough for what it what the aircraft was expected to do.  There were also problems with the tail design , which meant that the aircraft was likely to stall when trying to take evasive action (for example if the pilot had to throw the aircraft into a corkscrew manoeuvre to evade searchlights or enemy fighters).

The Halifax soon began to develop a reputation for being a dangerous aircraft to fly in, shoddily built and technically unreliable, and there were heavy losses not just in combat but also due to accidents in training.   

Working closely with the Air Ministry, the aircraft was put through a  stringent programme of adjustment and testing by the Handley Page team, resulting in the Halifax B Mk II Series 1. The front turret disappeared altogether and was  replaced with a streamlined nose fairing. Some of the bulky mid upper gun turrets were removed, and many other adjustments made the Halifax lighter and more streamlined.

As a result of this re-design, it was half a ton lighter than its predecessors. The Halifax B MkII Series 1 was first flown on 15th August 1942 and rolled out to Squadrons in 4 Group Bomber Command that Autumn.

However, despite the considerable effort and significant expense,  it was still a pile of junk and heavy losses continued.

Back to the drawing board…

The Air Ministry decide to carry out tests on aircraft that had been flying operationally to try to establish where the problems lay. Their investigations revealed a panoply of problems, including:

  • Poor construction  in the factories, compounded by poor maintenance on Squadron.
  • Poor take off performance – the slightest mistake by the pilot could be fatal.
  • The aircraft rarely reached its ‘operational ceiling’ –  it didn’t get much beyond 15,000 ft, and only 13,000 ft in hot weather. This made it a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe and German anti-aircraft defences.
  • Pilots couldn’t take sudden evasive action otherwise they would just lose control; this was not ideal by any stretch of the imagination.

Test flights were arranged to investigate the problems, but the test crew were all killed on their first flight. That could have marked the end of the Handley Page Halifax, but when the wreckage was examined, it was quickly established that part of the rudder had been torn off, which meant the aircraft was uncontrollable.

The designers and test engineers eventually worked out the problem was with the shape of the tail fins; the triangular shaped originals were redesigned into a square D shape, which  solved the stalling problem immediately.

Now we have the B Mk II Series 1A which started to be dished out to Squadrons in June 1943. The 1As also had some other notable differences to their predecessors, not least the new sexy Perspex nose cone, and a low profile more aerodynamic upper gun turret. It’s basically a completely different aircraft.

What was it like on board for the crews?

“One of the two remaining Halifaxes on British soil, Friday 13th, lovingly restored and cared for, can be found at the Yorkshire Air Museum. One cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer size of the beast. It is enormous. The wingspan is vast, the four Bristol Hercules engines huge; thoughts automatically turn to the crews of these aircraft, many of them just boys. The inside of the aircraft seems so much smaller than one would expect, a sort of Tardis in reverse. Access is by means of a ladder and small door behind the port wing.

Behind the pilot, facing in the opposite direction, is the flight engineer, with his panels of controls, dials and fuel gauges. A drop-down seat is located on the wall of the fuselage just opposite, though in reality a flight engineer was usually kept so busy that he barely had time to sit down once the aircraft had taken off.

A drop-down seat was also available for a passenger (usually a trainee pilot learning the ropes, or a Special Operations Executive agent who was to be dropped by parachute behind enemy lines).

On the other side of the wireless operator’s position, and further towards the front of the aircraft, is the navigator’s table, his maps and charts and calculations spread out before him, his compasses and navigation equipment mounted onto panels at eye level. A double drop-down seat accommodated both the navigator and the bomb aimer, until it was time for the latter to take his position in the nose.

The bomb aimer would normally aid the navigator, as he had little to do until the aircraft began to approach its target. There is so little room that the navigator sat almost “knee to knee” with the wireless operator.

Further back, on the “backbone” of the aircraft, is the mid upper gunner’s position; he would have to lift an access hatch which doubled as his seat once he was in position, climb up into a harness and sit in his perspex bubble, ready to swivel round his four Browning machine guns in case of attack by Luftwaffe fighters. Constantly on the lookout for enemy aircraft, and with a 360-degree view, he couldn’t allow his concentration to lapse for a single moment.

It would be wrong to place more importance on any particular crew role, or indeed to downplay any other. Each crew member was essential to the functioning of the aircraft, the successful execution of its mission and the survival of his comrades.

Why is it less famous than the Lancaster and is this fair?

“We as a nation have a love affair with the Spitfire and the Lancaster. You would think they were the only two aircraft the British flew in the Second World War. I think that’s partly to do with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight  – those are the aircraft with which many people are most familiar, and which are rightly loved and venerated.

The Avro Lancaster gets all the attention, perhaps because of its almost mythological status in connection with Operation Chastise, and because it’s still flying, but also because there were more Lancasters built.  The Lancaster was by far the better aircraft when compared to the Halifax Mk 1 and Mk 2, and it could take a bigger bombload; however, there was very little difference between a Halifax Mk III (and subsequent marks) and the Lancaster, in terms of performance and capability. But watch any war film about the bombing campaign and it’s very unlikely that you’ll see a Halifax – it’s just not really a part of our national consciousness or the current ‘collective memory’  of strategic bombing by the RAF.

The somewhat cramped interior is anything but luxurious – bare metal mainly, painted pale green, across which run miles of cables, pipes and wires. A single rudimentary Elsan toilet (basically a bucket with a lid) constitutes the bathroom facilities. At the nose of the aircraft, almost on the underbelly, is a large perspex bubble, where the bomb aimer would lie on his stomach, trying to visually identify the target, before pressing the button which released the payload. The pilot sits high up on the left, with the radio operator’s position tucked into a cubbyhole beneath him.

There’s just enough space for one man at a time to walk to the rear. There are several steps to negotiate, and the atmosphere on board is incredibly claustrophobic.

Then, right at the far back of the aircraft, far away from the rest of the crew, with whom he could only communicate by intercom, was the “tail-end Charlie” or rear gunner, in the most isolated, vulnerable and awkward spot from which to escape in the entire aircraft. At his disposal were four Browning machine guns, each supplied with 2500 rounds of ammunition ( that sounds a lot but in reality, it’s only around two and half minutes’ worth). The rear gunner’s position is incredibly cramped, and its occupant would sit there for hours at a time, his knees tucked up towards his chest, unable to stretch out or move around. The turret is too small to store belts of ammunition; instead, the bullets were fed into the turret along a hydraulic track positioned in the main body of the aircraft. Many gunners never fired a single bullet in anger; there was no point wasting valuable ammunition unless an enemy aircraft was spotted approaching and was within range.

As most bombers would be targeted by enemy fighters approaching from the rear, the rear gunner was incredibly vulnerable. He was also at risk from bombs falling from higher aircraft. Several aircraft arrived back at their bases with their rear turret (and their rear gunner) missing, sheared off by a falling bomb. At the height of the Bomber Command campaign ( mid 43 to mid 44), a rear gunner would be lucky to survive five missions.

I’ve interviewed veterans who flew both – several said they actually preferred the Halifax.

The Halifax did have a couple of advantages over the Lancaster; its sectional construction meant that it was likely to break into sections during a crash landing, which increased the survivability for the crews; statistically it was slightly easier to bale out of Halifax than a Lancaster. The Lancaster’s central spar made escape very difficult, and the escape hatches were smaller.

The Halifax is massively popular in Canada, because so many Canadian crews flew it, both in 6 Group Bomber Command,  and in other groups. Something like 70% of all the Canadians who flew with Bomber Command flew Halifaxes, and the aircraft is still held in great affection there. There is a beautifully restored Halifax at the RCAF Museum in Trenton which was fished out of fjord in Norway; the same team, led by Karl Kjarsgaard, are currently involved in raising another.

I think the fact that the Halifax is largely ignored here is partly because Sir Arthur Harris loathed it…”

Why? What did Bomber Harris think about the Halifax?

“The Lancaster was his darling. He famously did not get on with Sir Frederick Handley Page and he called the Halifax a ‘perpetual embarrassment’. Harris blamed it for the large proportion of Bomber Command losses, even though the figures didn’t entirely stack up.

Harris hated the Halifax so much he even lobbied to get production scrapped entirely; he was only ever interested in the Lancaster. However, much to his disgust, production continued right throughout the war. The Air Ministry told him in no uncertain terms to get on with it and make use of whatever resources he had. Huge amounts of money, time, natural resources and lives had been put into the development and production of this aircraft.

However, Harris’ views certainly made Handley Page pull their socks up, and the later Marks of Halifax had a hugely improved performance.

There is absolutely no doubt though that in early 1944, the situation was dire indeed. Losses in later 1943/early 1944 ( particularly during the Battle of Berlin) were so high that Harris ordered the complete withdrawal of Halifaxes from bombing operations over Germany, unless there was a “maximum effort” raid, when it was a case of all hands (and aircraft) to the pump. In the meantime the Halifax Squadrons were focused on mine laying operations in preparation for the forthcoming invasion, or attacks on transportation targets on France. This was an incredibly valuable contribution to the war effort and one which is so often overlooked in the historiography of the strategic bombing campaign.

Losses of Halifaxes continued to mount. I’ve researched the experiences of  10 Squadron over this period . 10 Squadron was a typical Halifax bomber Squadron, and by this stage of the war was based at RAF Melbourne in Yorkshire, which was part of 4 Group Bomber Command.  

10 Squadron lost 4 Halifaxes in one night in Jan 1944 (bear in mind a squadron would usually have 20-22 operational aircraft, some of which were probably in maintenance, so to lose maybe 20% of your operational force in one night is devastating). By 20th February 1944,  the Squadron had lost 10 aircraft and 70 men in the space of a month, which was typical of other Squadrons  in the group at that time.

After a disastrous  raid on Leipzig on 19th February,  in which Bomber Command lost 78 aircraft,  the Halifax Mk IIs were withdrawn completely from operations over Germany. 34 of the 255 Halifaxes sent out that night were lost, an attrition rate of over 13%.  

However – all was not lost for the Handley Page Halifax. By this time,  the Mk III was already being introduced and delivered to Squadrons. 10 Squadron took delivery of their first Mk III on 7th March 1944.”

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So what was different about the Halifax Mk III?

“The Mk III was an absolute game changer.

As early as late 1942, the plans for the Mk III were already well underway – a prototype flew in October 1942, and the first Mk III rolled off the production line on 29th August 1943. Throughout the War,  we see this constant process of evolution and refinement as both production techniques and the onboard technology evolve.

Everybody raves about the famous Merlin engines, which powered so many other aircraft of the period, but the Halifax and the Merlin were not a match made in heaven.

For the Mk III Halifax, the Merlin inline engines were replaced by Bristol Hercules radial engines. They were also fitted slightly lower on the wing ; along with other refinements, the result is a massively improved performance.

  • Up weight of 65,000 lb
  • Bombload of 13, 000 lb
  • Top speed 282 mph
  • Ceiling of 24,000 feet
  • Maximum range 2350 miles.
  • Initial wing span same as earlier marks 98 ft 8 inches, later increased to 102ft 4 inches.
  • More Mk IIIs produced than any other Mk, and it was eventually used by 41 different Sqns, the majority in 4 group ( the group to which 10 Sqn belonged) and the RCAF Sqns  of Group 6. In fact Group 6 were the first to take delivery of the Halifaxes in November 1943, before they were eventually rolled out across Bomber Command. This marked the beginning of a long love affair between Canada and the Halifax, which continues today, as previously mentioned.

By early 45, we’re onto the Mk VI, which was even better still than the Mk III, and which outperformed the Lancaster. It had a higher up weight, faster rate of climb,  and was slightly faster. It had a new more efficient fuel system, but the Mk VI was only really rolled out to Squadrons in February/March 1945, so it’s difficult to assess its impact. However, by the end of the war the Halifax was already being phased out in favour of the Lancaster. 6 Group’s Halifaxes were being replaced with Lancasters. The vast majority were scrapped after the war, although a few did take part in the Berlin airlift, or were used as cargo/transport aircraft; some were bought by the Egyptian and Pakistan Air forces. And then the Halifax pretty much disappeared.

What should I have asked?

“About the pigeons! Yes, that’s right – pigeons. The early marks were all supplied with two homing pigeons who travelled on board and were kept in a basket behind the flight engineer and the wireless operator’s positions. If the aircraft was forced to ditch in the sea, the wireless operator would write out the coordinates of the aircraft’s position put the message into the little canister on the pigeon’s leg and send them on their way. There are recorded instances of crews being rescued by this very low-tech method!”

Prog band Big Big Train have a song called Winkie specifically about these pigeons. From the album Folklore.

Jane Gulliford Lowes is an author and historian from County Durham. Her second book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story was published in 2020 and tells the true story of 20-year-old Jack Clyde and his Halifax bomber crew at the height of the strategic bombing campaign.  

“If one was looking for an account of how it was for RAF Bomber Crews, this is as good as it gets…a wonderful and beautifully written publication, probably the most engaging account of an ‘ordinary’ bomber crew member and his comrades that this reviewer has ever had the privilege of reading”Andy Saunders, for History of War Magazine.

You can read more of Jane’s work at www.justcuriousjane.com.

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