10 most important military aircraft in service today

 

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Choosing these was hard. Criteria included military, political and design significance, as well as the number in service. Several aircraft almost made the grade, including the F-15, F/A-18E/F*, King Air, and the US Doomsday plane. We were also tempted to include a jet trainer – arguably an essential type, but on reflection opted not to. The final top 10, as you will see, meaningfully deviated to include an entry which is not an aircraft and one that includes four aircraft. 

 

10. Lockheed C-130 Hercules ‘Fat Immortal Albert’

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The original C-130 was so expensive to develop that legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson predicted it would kill Lockheed.  His prophecy proved spectacularly wrong, and the type become synonymous with the tactical transport. The masterstroke of America’s new transports was the use of the turboprop, making the Hercules faster than piston-engined airlifters, and less thirsty and intolerant of bad conditions than jets. The C-130 was in production for an insanely long time: it started in the presidency of Eisenhower and ended in that of George W. Bush! No aircraft but another Hercules could replace it and in 1999 the C-130J Super Hercules entered service. The C-130J is a Hercules in appearance and general form only, as virtually every system is new. Following a rather shaky start, the C-130J is now a huge success and serves around the world with just about every air arm that isn’t on a boycott list. It has spawned maritime patrol, gunship, special forces support, tanker, weather reconnaissance and civilian variants. It has also appeared in number of films, including Jurassic Attack.

9. Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker (T-10 series and Chinese derivatives) — ‘T-10 out of 10’

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The bulk of the Chinese, Indian and Russian heavy fighter force — the Russian T-10 series is formidable family of aircraft. The type catalysed the development of, and to some extent, defined the F-22 and Typhoon. It remains the only credible non-European counter to US high end teen fighters available in large numbers, and much of its DNA has gone into Russia’s next generation fighter, the Su-57. It has been developed into a medium range bomber (the Su-34), a carrier fighter and several multirole variants. Around 6% of the fast combat jets now active are members of the T-10 family, making it the most popular non-Western aircraft.

A small secretive force of Flankers is operated by USAF for threat awareness training allegedly including a Su-30 with an adaptable cockpit that can simulate different Flanker variants.

Interview with ‘Flanker’ pilot here

8. S-400 ‘Triumph of the East’ 

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So the S-400 isn’t really an aircraft, it’s an air defence system but I want to include it to illustrate its importance. NATO planners take ‘Flanker’s and the arrival of the troubled Su-57 seriously, but what really puts the willies up the West is the S-400. So much so, that the US barred Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme and sacrificed a multi-billion dollar deal from the Turkish air force — when Turkey opted for the Russian system. The multi-layered air defence system includes the 40N6E missile, which has a Mach 14 speed and a maximum range of around 400km- the key to the type’s strategic significance.

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7. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper – ‘Jeepers creeper, where’d you get those Reapers’ 

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Building on the Predator’s legacy, the Reaper was the first practical modern unmanned combat air vehicle, and has introduced a new era in air warfare. Crews based in the continental United States are flying a wide range of combat missions around the globe, 24 hours a day. Using beyond-line-of-sight links, a smaller number of personnel deployed at forward locations manage take-off and landing operations for the combat drone, simplifying command and control functions as well as logistical supply challenges.

“Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons — it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.” according to the USAF.

Used for everything from drug interdiction in the Caribbean, conducting the US ‘ghost wars’, battling forest fires or assassination, the terrifying Reaper is a menacing presence in the skies of many regions around the world. It is a must-have item for any operator who can afford it and has sufficient security clearance.

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6. Lockheed Martin F-16 ‘The Forty-year-old teen’ 

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If it was’t so common we’d be able able to fully appreciate that the F-16 was the best designed fighter of the 20th century. Even today, 45 years after it first flew, it remains an absolutely monster in a close-in dogfight. In reality however it hasn’t done much air-to-air fighting in a  long time, partly because barely any happens and partly because operators have exploited the type’s surprising long range and used it as a bomber. Other than its insane agility and long range, early F-16s couldn’t do a great deal — but air forces around the world bought it because it was American. Initially it had a poor radar, no beyond visual-range weapons and up until the mid nineties (as Desert Storm had shown) wasn’t much cop as a bomber. Sure if used well, as the Israeli’s had, it was capable of remarkable things, but it wasn’t until the avionics and weapons matched the airframe’s superlative performance that it attained its full potential. This was a far cry from the simple red hot dogfighter the Fighter Mafia* wanted the F-16 to be. Regardless, it is today the backbone of the USAF fast air – with around 900 in service. It also serves – or has served – with over 25 nations. With approximately 2,140 planes in active service it represents around 13% of the world’s military fast jets.

Along with the F/A-18, it defined a new generation of fighter; it pioneered the relaxed static stability/fly-by-wire flight control system, a feature now de rigueur — and the side-stick controller, something found in the cockpit of the US F-22, F-35 and French Rafale. As a threat to counter, it was instrumental in the creation of MiG-29. It has fought around the world, notably in Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Afghanistan. It has performed operationally in a wide array of roles including air-to-air fighter, long range bomber, reconnoissance and close air support.

*A tiny maverick group of military planners trying to counter the US’ obsession with ever heavier, costlier aircraft dependent on untried technologies.

 

5. Nuclear capable bombers (B-52H/B-2/Tu-95/Tu-160/H-6) – ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomber’

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If global warning doesn’t kill us all then one or more of the these aircraft might. This bunch of genocidal hellhounds are long-ranged and capable of ruining everything with an indiscriminate nuclear holocaust. So yes, pretty damn significant.

The B-52 is the most important in this class – around 76 remain in service and are set to remain operational until at least 2050. As with the KC-135, Tu-95 and Hercules it is likely to spend its 100th birthday on the job.

Interview with B-52 pilot here. 

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4. Mil Mi-24 series ‘Satan’s Chariot’

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The first dedicated Soviet attack helicopter, the Mi-24 is big, well-armed and extremely fast (grabbing a slew of world speed records in the 1970s). Since its introduction in 1972 it has become the most widely used combat aircraft of all time, fighting in over 30 wars across the world with a staggering 68 operators. It is unique in being an attack helicopter with a sizeable troop compartment, suitable to accommodate up to eight passengers. As with the Su-25 — the simplicity, durability and insensitivity to rough in-the-field maintenance keeps it going when other more exquisite machines are grounded.

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Interview with Mi-24 pilot here. 

3. Mil Mi-8 series — ‘Communist time bandits’

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Over 17,000 have been made since 1966…and production continues. Compare that to the piffling 4,000 Black Hawks or paltry 697 Pumas – the only thing that comes close— the Huey — is over 1,000 airframes behind, and is no longer of global significance. An astonishing total of over 80 countries have procured, as have a litany of private contractors. It has served in more war zones than any other aircraft in history. Wherever there is pain in the world there is likely a ‘Hip’ nearby making it better or worse.

2. Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk (and whole H-60 series) – ‘Black Hawk Town’

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The US’ armed forces are the most significant in the world — starting and getting involved with more conflicts than any other — and does little that doesn’t involve the extremely tough, extremely versatile H-60 series. One observer unkindly noted that the US stopped winning wars when they started using helicopters, if true it is probably not fair to lay all blame/credit at the skids (or un-retractable undercarriages) of rotary wing aircraft.

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Today the US loses wars with the help of the tough versatile H-60 series. They serve around the world with a bewildering number of operators in  surprisingly varied roles, and have played a pivotal part in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan among other places. It also has the honour of a Chinese rip-off, the Z-20.

Interview with Blackhawk pilot here. 

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  1. Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker –  ‘The Internal Flying Gas Station’

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The arteries of the most powerful air force in history, few of the USAF operations of the last 62 years could have happened without this elegant tanker. While its glamorous fast-jet clientele garner a great deal of attention, the KC-135 seldom receives the attention it deserves. Over 400 remain in service providing the bulk of US and allied air refuelling needs. The farcical dismissal of the excellent KC-45 and the calamitous development of the KC-46 ensure it keeps busy today and is expected to survive until the 2030s, and possibly even the 2050s — not bad for an aircraft that took its first flight in 1956.

— The story of one badly behaved  KC-135 navigator here

The usual disclaimer applies: reality does not conform to the top 10 format and this more an opportunity to consider the most significant military of the present day than give a definitive answer.  Feel free to write your own candidates in the comments section below.

Special thanks to Thomas Newdick  

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*There is a strong case for the Super Hornet which not only represents 7% of the global fast jet force, but is also is the backbone of US Naval air power. We chose to rank it at 11.

Flawed Concepts: a Litany of Failed British Aircraft

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“We are all failures – at least the best of us are”.

—  J.M. Barrie   (author of Peter Pan)

The British love a failure — from the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade, hair-raising stunts of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ to the jokes of Sir Alan Sugar, failures are far more acceptable than successes. And so it is with the history of British aircraft, where some deeply flawed machines are lovingly remembered. Of course, Britain has created some excellent aeroplanes — moments where engineering genius, right-headedness and timing where all happily aligned. But let’s turn our backs on the Spitfire, Lancaster and Mosquito and other success stories, and instead turn toward some aircraft with more complicated stories. Many of the aircraft listed below were not absolute stinkers — in fact one of them was the pinnacle of technology — but they were (often brilliant) answers to the wrong questions. I turned to brothers Jim and Ron Smith , two unsung heroes involved in the development of many British aircraft, to look into these intriguing stories. 

“The history of British aviation is littered with designs that appeared to hold great promise, and on which a great deal of money, time and effort was spent, but which ultimately were failures. The reasons for failure were many and various, including the following: 

Brilliant innovative concepts let down by unexpected issues. These would include design and technology aspects, together with the late realisation that apparently ‘peripheral’ issues were critical to the success of the concept.

Ghastly blunders, often due to heading down blind alleys – typically total failure to understand the market

Wasteful duplication of effort

and Flawed requirements.

This list is predominantly made up of post-war programmes, with the exception of one glaring example of a flawed wartime requirement. It is perhaps a sad reflection on the state of the industry during this period (and the opinions and constraints imposed by the state airline, governments, civil servants and the RAF), that an initial list of possible aircraft to include ran to more than 30 different types!
10th Place: de Havilland DH106 Comet I

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Design purpose / intent
The World’s first jet airliner to enter service, intended to offer fast comfortable travel on BOAC’s routes to South Africa, Japan and Singapore.

Key features
The elegant Comet featured four Ghost engines, a pressurised cabin allowing flight above the weather, and a passenger capacity of 36 – 44 seats. It offered a cruising speed around 460 mph at 36 – 40,000ft, about 50% faster than contemporary piston airliners. London to Johannesburg (five stops) was scheduled for 21hr 20 min, with London to Tokyo (nine stops) in 46 hr. The Comet also introduced high pressure refuelling to speed turn-round times at intermediate stops.

History
First flown on 27 July 1949, and entered scheduled airline service from London to Johannesburg on 2 May 1952. A source of immense pride in Britain and, shortly after the death of King George VI, seen as heralding ‘a new Elizabethan age’. The BOAC Chairman at the time said that the Comet would “mark a new era in aviation history and will in effect halve the size of the World.” Unfortunately, early operations were marred by take-off accidents at Rome and Karachi; a break-up in mid-air near Calcutta and landing incidents at Entebbe and Dakar.

Reasons for Failure
The end came with the mid-air break-up of G-ALYP near Elba on 10 January 1954. This resulted in a suspension of Comet flights, which resumed on 23 March 1954. Just 17 days later, on 8 April 1954 G-ALYY broke-up in similar circumstances near Naples. After the recovery and reassembly of wreckage and fatigue testing in a water tank of the fuselage of G-ALYU, it was concluded that these two accidents were caused by fatigue failure of the fuselage after a much lower number of cycles than Hawk Sidd Comet 4 small a.jpghad been anticipated.

The vulnerability of the construction to pressurisation fatigue failure was unexpected and perhaps only anticipated by the writing of the engineer – author Nevil Shute Norway in his book ‘No Highway’, first published in December 1948, some seven months before the Comet’s first flight.

It was to be April 1958 before the definitive Avon-powered Comet 4 was flown, entering operational service in October 1958. The Boeing 707 eclipsed the Comet in terms of sales, but it was the Comet that had demonstrated that civil jet transport would be both popular and commercially viable.

Legacy
Changes in design assumptions and new structural test and certification procedures were introduced following the Comet accidents to create ‘fail safe’ structures and ‘safe life’ components. This approach has served the word-wide industry, and its many passengers, well ever since. The development of the ‘black box’ flight safety recorder was also prompted by the Comet accidents.
9. Fairey Rotodyne

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A very advanced concept for a VTOL transport rotorcraft that was undoubtedly ahead of its time. Streaking from city centre to city centre with a top speed twice that of helicopters of the time, the Rotodyne, could have been a major transport innovation. As the world’s first vertical take-off airliner it could have revolutionised air travel, removing the need for remote airports for everything but long haul journeys. 

The concept was extremely innovative: for takeoff and landing, the rotor was driven by tip-mounted jet engines. The air for the tip-jets wasn’t bled from the engines. The engines were connected with clutches to axial compressors in the rear of the nacelles, which had flush inlets above the wing, and the compressors fed the rotor. The turboprop-powered propellers on the wings provided thrust for horizontal flight while the rotor autorotated (‘autorotation’ is when rotors turn around while unpowered, but in flight). Thanks to its tip-mounted jets, the Rotodyne was exceptionally noisy, an undesirable trait in a city centre airliner, and was cancelled. Debate still rages about the degree to which the Rotodyne’s noise levels could have been reduced.

Design purpose / intent
Commercial city centre to city centre passenger transport (e.g. London – Paris) using advanced VTOL configuration.

Key features
The Rotodyne had an 89 ft diameter rotor driven by tip jets in hover, with pressurised air supplied from two 3,000 ehp Napier Eland NEL.3 turboprop engines. Fuel was supplied along the blades and burnt in the tip jet units (hot jet) to power to the rotor for the hover. Cruise was achieved using wing lift and propeller thrust (with the rotor autorotating, benefitting its rotor flight envelope). Prototype all up weight was 33,000 lb with capacity for 40 passengers.

History
Initial research was carried out on the small scale Gyrodyne and Jet Gyrodyne (with cold jet tip drive). A single Rotodyne XE521 was built, and flown for the first time on 6 November 1957. The first transition from hovering to forward flight was made on 10 April 1958. XE521 set a 100km closed circuit record at 190.9 mph, well above the maximum speed of contemporary helicopters. The Rotodyne could also hover with one engine shut down. By the end of its flight test programme, the Rotodyne had flown almost 1,000 people for 120 hours in 350 flights and conducted a total of 230 transitions between helicopter and autogyro flight.

Reasons for Failure
Although only required for a few minutes at take-off and landing, the external noise of the hot jet tip drive was unacceptably high. Various contemporary sources quote the noise as ‘intolerable’, ‘the chief deterrent to would-be purchasers’, and ‘from two miles away it would stop a conversation …’

The project was further hampered when, after the enforced take-over of Fairey’s helicopter activity by Westland Helicopters in 1960, it became clear that substantial further development would be required to meet BEA’s desired performance. Furthermore, this would require more powerful engines when Napier had decided not to develop the Eland further. The production machine was being proposed around two 5,250 shp RR Tyne engines, rotor diameter of 104 ft and all up weight of 53,500 lb to provide a 60 passenger capacity – a complete re-design, requiring considerable investment from both manufacturer and airline customer.

The Chairman of BEA was quoted as saying “the Corporation wants the Rotodyne … provided we can operate it. We don’t want to spend £5 million on an aircraft, if the Minister says it is too noisy and that we can’t operate it from city centres.” In the event, letters of intent from BEA and the RAF were not converted to orders and Westland ceased investment in absence of BEA order. Let down by the failure to realise that acceptable noise in the hover was a critical success factor for city centre operations.

Legacy
A really advanced compound helicopter concept. High speed rotorcraft are the focus for current US Army developments (FARA). The Eurocopter X3 and Airbus Racer adopt similar configurations to the Rotodyne, albeit without the noisy tip drive rotor.

Ahead of its time; with modern materials, engines and control technologies, the Rotodyne could have been successful – if only the noise problem could be solved.


8th Place: Short Sperrin and Supermarine Swift
Two different outcomes from parallel risk reduction development programmes.

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Design purpose / intent
Sperrin: Back-up aircraft due to perceived risk in V-Bomber programme.
Swift: Duplicated super-priority programme (with the Hunter) to produce a high-subsonic swept wing fighter

Key features
Sperrin: an enlarged four-engine Canberra. Four Avon engines.
Swift: Similar in many respects to after-burning Hunter.

History
Sperrin: Two prototypes. Second used for engine test (Gyron) and bomb development trials.
Swift: Two Type 541 prototypes and 193 production aircraft in six Marks. WK198 broke World speed record 737.7 mph September 1953 (broken 8 days later by Skyray).

Reasons for Failure
The Sperrin was a complete success. It was simple and sound, but was simply not needed, due to the success of all three V-bombers (itself representing considerable duplication of resources).
Swift: The type suffered from development issues, poor serviceability and handling deficiencies, particularly pitch-up in turns, with a high accident rate in operation despite a long list of flight restrictions. The photo-reconnaissance Swift FR.5 was used for low level operations, thereby avoiding the engine, handling and flight control issues encountered at altitude. By the time the problems of the Swift were sorted, investment in Hunter (even though it had its own problems initially) was seen to be a better bet.

Legacy
Sperrin: Contributed to engine and bomb development. Swift: Most of the issues were solved by the appearance (too late) of the Swift F7. Although still having inadequate manoeuvrability, the 12 F.7s that were built were used by No1 Guided Weapons Development Squadron at Valley for development trials of the Fairey Fireflash air-to-air missile,

Two investments in parallel programmes with different outcomes. The Sperrin was a complete success, but totally redundant in the light of the success of all three V-bombers (Valiant, Vulcan and Victor) all of which achieved full production and Squadron operational service.

 

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Copyright BAE Systems

The Swift was a failure, ordered into production as a super-priority design and proved to have handling problems, engine afterburner constraints, a very poor accident record and inadequate agility for an interceptor fighter. Thank goodness that the Hunter became a complete success, possibly due to the underlying merit of the design combined with Hawker’s ability to troubleshoot and cure deficiencies more effectively than was achieved at Supermarine at this time.

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Copyright BAE Systems

7th Place: de Havilland DH 108

A step too far on the path to a transonic fighter

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Design purpose / intent
Initially proposed as a demonstrator for the Comet airliner, when first boldly proposed as a tailless flying wing. Subsequently developed to investigate its potential as a transonic fighter configuration, and to inform the design of the DH110, which was later developed into the Sea Vixen.

Key features
The aircraft used a lengthened Vampire fuselage, with a single fin added. The wing was swept at 43 degrees for the first aircraft, and 45 degrees for the other two. Control was by rudder and elevons; powerplant was a single Goblin engine.

History
Three prototypes were built, and all were destroyed in fatal accidents. The first aircraft was to investigate low-speed flight and featured a 43 deg sweep wing with fixed outboard slats. This aircraft flew on 16 May 1946, and was limited in speed to about 200kts. It was destroyed in low-speed trials on 1 May 1950, failing to recover from an inverted spin, the pilot being killed when his parachute failed to open in time.
The second aircraft flew in June 1946, and had a 45 deg sweep wing with automatic leading edge slats. This aircraft crashed in a high-speed accident on 27 September 1946, killing the pilot, Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. The accident resulted from a massive structural failure, the cause of which seems to have been a high-speed pitch oscillation at about Mach 0.9.
The third aircraft featured a more refined fuselage and cockpit shape, a more powerful Goblin 5 engine, and, critically, power-boosted (hydraulic) elevons. This aircraft made its first flight on 24 July 1947, and on 6 Sept 1948 exceeded Mach 1 in a shallow dive, the first British-built aircraft to achieve this. The aircraft was lost in another fatal accident on 15 February 1950, again following a structural failure, possibly following pilot incapacitation due to oxygen system failure.

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Reasons for Failure
Loss of control of the second aircraft in transonic flight. The DH108 had low pitch inertia because of its tailless design. At transonic and supersonic speeds, changes in the pressure distribution over the aircraft result in the centre of lift moving aft, requiring nose up control input to trim the aircraft. Given the short distance between the DH108 elevons and its centre of gravity, control loads are likely to have been high, and with low inertia in pitch, pitch oscillations are likely, and appear to have resulted in structural failure and the loss of the aircraft.
As a result of the loss of the second aircraft, the third DH 108 was built with hydraulically-assisted pitch controls, a key step in the development of supersonic aircraft. Powered controls enable the trim change associated with high-speed flight to be negotiated safely.

Legacy
Improved control systems allowing transonic and supersonic flight to be achieved safely. The next aircraft to use this configuration after the DH108 was the Northrop X-4. This also had manual controls, and suffered from significant transonic pitch oscillations. The X-4 was never flown at supersonic speeds. However, the Vought F7U Cutlass used a similar configuration, but with powered controls. The F7U was a particularly unsuccessful aircraft, suffering a 25% accident rate in service, although this was probably due to the combination of an under-developed engine rather than control problems.
6th Place: Armstrong-Whitworth AW 52

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Visionary concept for the aerodynamicist’s ultimate airliner, paradoxically defeated by a previously unknown aerodynamic problem.

 

Design purpose / intent
Half-scale prototype for a proposed six-jet flying-wing airliner, intended to have low drag due to extensive laminar flow over the wing (see below for explanation).

 

Key features
Twin-engine aircraft with an unswept centre-section and outboard wings with 35 degree sweep. Control by elevons, wing-tip-mounted fins and rudders, and spoilers. It was built to the highest possible standards with the intention of maintaining laminar flow over the wing. The desired wing profile was maintained to within 2/1000th of an inch (.05 mm).

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History
The proposal for the intended turbo-jet flying wing airliner dates back as far as 1943. The first step was the construction and test of a sub-scale glider, the AW52G, half the size of the 90 ft wing-span AW52, which made its first flight on 2 March 1945.
Following a successful test program of the AW52G, the first AW52, itself half the size of the proposed airliner, flew on 13 November 1947, followed by the second on 1 September 1948.
The second aircraft suffered an accident on 30 May 1949, due to a pitch oscillation, thought to have been caused by elevon flutter. In ejecting from the aircraft, the pilot became the first to be saved by a Martin-Baker ejection seat. Following this, the first aircraft was passed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) for aerodynamic research.

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Reasons for Failure
It proved to be impossible to maintain laminar flow on the outer wings of the aircraft. Laminar flow is achieved if the air next to the wing surface (in the boundary layer) can be maintained in steady and smooth flow. This is desirable, as it results in less drag than the alternative turbulent flow, where the flow in the boundary layer is unsteady. Maintaining laminar flow requires a smooth surface, and careful attention to the shape of that surface to delay the transition to turbulent flow in the boundary layer as long as possible. Laminar flow aerofoils were researched extensively by NACA, and appeared in operational use on the P-51 Mustang, and the P-38 Lightning.
The AW52 was unable to deliver the expected laminar flow on the outer wing because of a previously unrecognised phenomena called attachment line transition (ALT). The attachment line is the location along the leading edge of a wing, dividing the flow which passes above the wing from that which passes below. On a swept leading edge, a flow develops along the leading edge from root towards the wing tip, and at some point along the span, this flow will itself naturally transition and become turbulent. Once the attachment line has become turbulent, laminar flow can no longer be sustained over the wing.
Research at RAE showed not only that ALT was occurring on the AW52 and limiting its performance, but that it also occurred on all contemporary swept-wing aircraft, including, for example, the Sabre. Consequently, the performance achieved by the AW52 was disappointing and there was no civil or military customer interest to fund further development.

Legacy
Improved understanding of swept-wing aerodynamics. Development of devices to prevent the fuselage boundary layer from being entrained into the wing attachment line, delaying ALT as far as possible.

5th Place: Saunders-Roe SR53

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Outpaced by changes in the threat, and in government policy.
Design purpose / intent
The Saunders Roe SR53 was proposed to meet a requirement for a point-defence interceptor capable of climbing to 60,000 ft in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The driver for the requirement was concern about the threat posed by Soviet bombers armed with nuclear weapons.

Key features
Compact, delta-winged mixed power aircraft with 1,640 lbst Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine and 8,000 lbst de Havilland Spectre rocket. The armament was intended to be the Blue Jay infra-red air-to-air missile. The operational concept was to climb to altitude using the rocket motor, accelerate up to a maximum speed of Mach 2.2, complete a ground-guided interception, and then return to base using the jet engine.

History
The contract to develop the aircraft was signed on 8 May 1953. Although Saunders-Roe’s initial schedule called for a first flight in July 1954, development of the aircraft and its rocket motor took longer than expected, and first flight did not occur until 16 May 1957, with the second prototype following in December of the same year. The aircraft was reported as pleasant and easy to fly. The second aircraft was lost in a fatal aborted-take-off accident in June 1958, and the program was eventually cancelled in July 1960, after 56 test flights. The highest speed reached in the flight test program was Mach 1.33.

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Reasons for Failure
During the 7-year development and flight programme, a great deal of change had occurred in aerospace capabilities. Jet engine development had produced high power, reliable engines; radar had improved its ability to detect targets at long range; the Soviets had moved towards the development of stand-off weapons; and surface-based guided missiles had improved in capability.
These technical advances had the effect of invalidating the operational concept for the aircraft. In future, it would be possible, and necessary, to defeat threats at a greater distance, before the release of nuclear stand-off weapons, and there was no way a short-range point-defence interceptor such as the SR53 could achieve this.
Furthermore, the first flight of the aircraft occurred just two months after the Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper, which suggested new manned aircraft were no longer required for air defence, and that surface-based air-to-air missiles would in future fill this role. The first flight of the SR 53, just after this policy announcement, could not have been more badly timed, but the operational concept had already been superseded.

Legacy
The programme left no direct legacy. Air defence has evolved through point defence interception, to barrier combat air patrols, and to beyond visual range engagements using air-to-air missiles, supported by distributed and networked sensors. Low signature capabilities and geo-political instabilities are pushing air defence in the direction of cooperating manned and unmanned aircraft, armed with long-range weapons, and supported by distributed and networked sensors.

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4th Place: Boulton Paul Defiant / Blackburn Roc turreted fighters

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A flawed concept that could never have competed with higher speed, more manoeuvrable fighters with forward-firing cannon armament.

Design purpose / intent
Turreted interceptor fighters (Defiant for RAF, Roc – carrier based for fleet defence). Intended to achieve kills by surprise and defend easily against tail attack.

Key features
Two crew and four-gun turret. Defiant powered by 1,030hp Merlin III; Roc by 890hp Perseus XII engine.

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History
Defiant: First flown in August 1937 and entered service in December 1939 with 264 Sqn. Achieved some initial success over Dunkirk – mainly because it was misidentified by the Germans as a Hurricane. Thereafter suffered crippling losses and was withdrawn from daylight operations after August 1940. Later used with some effect as a night fighter and subsequently as a target tug. 1,060 Defiant aircraft were built.

Blackburn Roc followed the same concept with the additional penalties associated with carrier operation. First flown in December 1938 and having a gross weight of 7,950 lb (compared with a Hurricane at 6,447lb) and 890hp (rather than 1,030hp) its performance was entirely inadequate for the role.

Reasons for Failure
Lack of fixed forward firing armament, weight and manoeuvrability penalties. Low overall firepower. The performance penalty of carrying the turret armament can be gauged by the fact that the empty weight of the Defiant was within 200lb of the gross weight of the similarly powered Hurricane. The Blackburn Roc never went to sea and some aircraft ended up as airfield defence posts.

The Defiant has been described (by FK Mason) as “hopelessly inept … quite useless in combat … lamentably possessing no fixed forward firing guns”. These statements apply equally to the Blackburn Roc, although perhaps ‘woeful performance’ could be added in that case, with a maximum speed of barely 220 mph.

Legacy
There is little more to say about these two-seat turreted fighters, other than that they proved to be a fundamentally flawed concept, particularly given the lack of any fixed forward-firing armament.
Subsequent experience has shown that a two-seat fighter with higher firepower (20-40mm cannon and, later, missiles and target acquisition sensors) allows greater stand-off ranges and higher lethality, while sharing the crew workload.
3rd Place: Saunders-Roe Princess and SR.A/1

 

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The victims of ill-judged requirements, which failed to account for legacy infrastructure from WW II

Design purpose / intent
Princess: Spacious, indeed luxurious, transport from London to New York, and on broader routes around the Empire to destinations that did not have large airports.
SR.A/1: Pacific War concept to provide air superiority over archipelagos without needing to build runways.

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Key features
Princess: The largest all-metal flying boat ever to have been constructed. Powered by no less than 10 Proteus turboprops, it was capable of carrying 105 passengers, at the modest cruise speed of 360 mph.
SR.A/1: Flying-boat fighter, powered by 2 Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl turbo-jets. A small, single-seat, airframe armed with 4 20mm cannon.

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History
Princess: Developed in response to a 1946 Contract from the UK Ministry of Supply for a long-range civil flying boat, 3 aircraft were built, but only one was flown. This made a total of 46 flights between 22 August 1952 and 27 May 1954, totalling 100 flight hours. The prototype and two other essentially complete airframes were stored for an extended period before being scrapped in 1967.
SR.A/1: The aircraft was first proposed in mid-1943, the combination of jet engine speed and the flexible basing options of a flying-boat being regarded as advantageous in the Pacific theatre. Development lagged, and the aircraft did not fly until 16 July 1947. Three aircraft were built, two of which crashed. The simultaneous development of the Princess contributed to the slow development of the SR.A/1, and this was compounded by the decision of Metropolitan-Vickers to cease turbojet engine production.

Reasons for Failure

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Princess: The initial interest in the aircraft had come from BOAC, whose predecessors had operated large flying boats across the British Empire between the wars. However, as a consequence of World War II, runways of suitable size for commercial aircraft had been built world-wide, removing a key rationale for a flying boat airliner. A further key issue was the decision by BOAC to operate the de Havilland Comet. The huge leap in speed and comfort offered by this aircraft only under-scored the significant performance and operating cost penalties of the large flying boat, with its 10 turbo-prop engines and cruise speed at least 100 mph less than even the early Comet.
SR.A/1: Although exhibiting quite sprightly performance, by the time it had flown, the Pacific war was over, and no requirement for the aircraft existed. In addition, the Fleet Air Arm was operating numerous aircraft carriers, and the development of capable jet-powered carrier-based aircraft allowed power projection without the need for airfield construction. Additionally, of course, the large number of airfields constructed during the war also provided many basing opportunities for conventional land-based aircraft.

Legacy
Japan and Russia continue to operate capable military flying boats and amphibians. No large flying boat airliners or fighters are in operation.

2nd Place: Bristol Brabazon
A ‘Jumbo’ airliner for the privileged few.

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Credit: BAE Systems

Design purpose / intent
Trans-Atlantic passenger operations. Type 1 from the Brabazon Committee’s range of projects intended to revitalise the British commercial aircraft industry.

Key features
Luxury travel, eight 2,360hp Centaurus XX piston engines, 230 ft wing span, 20 ft diameter fuselage with accommodation for 96 day passengers or 52 in sleeping compartments. Target performance was 5,000 miles range cruising at 20,000 ft and 250 mph, with a maximum speed 300 mph at 25,000ft. All up weight 290,000lb.

History
Two prototypes, of which only one, registered G-AGPW, was flown, taking to the air for the first time on 4 September 1949. Its construction led to the building of a large three bay, eight-acre, assembly hall and lengthened runway at Filton. A crew (flight crew and cabin staff) of fourteen was envisaged, serving 94 passengers.
By 1952, it was clear that there was no customer interest in the type and Bristol were, by that time, heavily engaged in the design of the Bristol Britannia. The project was quietly abandoned, the prototype being scrapped in October 1953 after only 400 hr flying. The second prototype G-AIML was substantially complete but was never assembled.

Reasons for Failure
The fundamental failure was that the Brabazon Committee failed to recognise that the future of flying would be to offer affordable travel for the masses, not the privileged few (who had formed much of the pre-war airline customer base).
Linked to this was a failure to appreciate that the key parameter for profitable airline economics were load factor (percentage of seats occupied by paying passengers) and aircraft operating cost per passenger seat mile.
In this context, it is worth noting that the Brabazon wing span and area were similar to those of the Boeing 747-400, for a payload of, at best, 96 passengers.

Legacy
Years ahead of its time, as shown by the success of the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. The project provided Bristol Aircraft with the experience to produce the Britannia, which proved to be a successful design once its development problems were solved.

1st Place: BAC / Aerospatiale Concorde

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Credit: Ron Smith

Pinnacle of aerospace technology and an iconic symbol of supersonic passenger travel.

(Editor note: We know it’s half-French, but thought it gallant to take it as British in this context.)

Design purpose / intent
Supersonic passenger transport worldwide.

Key features
Advanced ogival wing planform, four Olympus 593 engines 38,050 lbst with afterburning, intake management, M=2 supercruise, carbon fibre brakes, drooping nose, fuel management to control centre of gravity, electrical flight and engine controls. Carried 100 passengers on trans-Atlantic routes, typically cruising at M=2.02 and 58,000ft.

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History
Anglo-French collaborative programme. Manufacture comprised two prototypes; two pre-production; two production prototypes, and 14 production aircraft. The Governments wrote off the development costs (£1.3 billion) and seven production aircraft were used by each of the national flag carriers (British Airways and Air France).
First flight of first prototype F-WTSS 2 March 1969; entry into passenger service 21 January 1976; withdrawal from service 23 October 2003. Fatal accident to F-BTSC on 25 July 2000 after hitting debris on the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Reasons for Failure
Despite its technical brilliance and unmatched capability, Concorde was ultimately commercially unsuccessful. A major constraint was that the aircraft was not allowed to fly supersonically over land due to concerns over its sonic boom. Airport noise was also a concern, considerably delaying approval to fly into the New York’s John F Kennedy Airport.
The aircraft’s economics were impacted by the OPEC-inspired oil price rises of 1973. In today’s world, it is possible that the decision to write off the substantial development costs would be seen as an inappropriate government subsidy under World Trade Organisation rules.

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Other considerations included the inability to develop the aircraft further; a finite spares pool; and the cost of certification of any new modifications required.
The price of speed was high and, ultimately Concorde travel became the province of the select (and wealthy) few – the very market originally envisaged for the Bristol Brabazon.

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Legacy
Many aspects of the technology remain in use across the spectrum of civil and military aerospace. The programme established certification approaches for aircraft with novel technologies and operational envelopes. There remains on-going interest in supersonic flight with reduced sonic boom energy, and in supersonic business jets.

This article is restricted to a top ten. This has been achieved by focusing on aircraft that actually flew and for which there was a genuine expectation of production and sales. This has meant excluding many well-known concepts (for example Vickers 1000, Hawker P.1154, HS681 V/STOL transport) that never reached flight status. Also excluded are research aircraft such as the Handley Page HP115, Hunting 126, Boulton Paul P.111, designed to examine specific configurations and/or technologies.

Even with these restrictions, there are plenty of other types that could have been included. This list does not include, for example, the Westland Wyvern, Armstrong Whitworth Apollo, Short Belfast, Nimrod AEW, Nimrod RMPA or the TSR.2.

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How the Apache became the world’s most deadly close air support aircraft

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The AH-64 was not supposed to be a close air support platform. Designed to employ its three weapon systems against enemy tanks from a hover and then move from battle position to battle position flying at treetop height, the Apache was a tank killer from its inception. Two major events in 1972 directly influenced the mission set for the concept that would evolve into the Apache. The April 1972 Battle of An Loc saw High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rocket-armed AH-1G Cobras and TOW missile-armed NUH-
1Bs destroy numerous tanks, blunting the North Vietnamese invasion. While the majority of the actions fought during An Loc were classic Close Air Support missions over friendly troops in contact, the Army focused on the attack helicopter’s successes killing tanks, and the rest as they say, is history. The cancellation of the AH-56 Cheyenne programme in August 1972 was the other. The Cheyenne was designed as a CAS platform from the beginning to support troops on the ground. Able to carry eight 19-
shot rocket pods or a mix of rockets and TOW missiles; and mounting two turreted weapons, a single Cheyenne carried more than twice the combat load of the AH-1G. But the Cheyenne’s technology was not yet mature, and after several years of delays and reduced interest by the Army, the program was cancelled with only ten aircraft built.
The day after Cheyenne’s cancellation, the Army initiated the Advanced Attack Helicopter programme, which would yield the AH-64 just a few years later. Gone was the primary requirement for supporting troops on the ground, and instead, the helicopter was built around the new anti-tank missile; the AGM- 114 Hellfire and designed as a tank killer. The Apache was to be the great equaliser, protecting the Fulda Gap from the Soviet armoured hordes invading Western Europe in a future World War III. It was to
sit at a hover, moving from battle position to battle position, unleashing Hellfires at maximum range and reducing Soviet tank numbers before they got within range of friendly armour. Surprisingly, the Apache’s 1989 combat debut in Panama was as a fire support platform, where its Night Vision System was a key asset in targeting Panamanian resistance and directing troops on the ground.

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Lieutenant General Carl Steiner, Commander of XVIII Airborne Corps during Just Cause praised the AH- 64s capabilities by saying it could “Fire a hellfire missile through a window at five miles away, at night”. The ability to precisely engage such a small target from miles away was designed to be effective against tanks, but served the AH-64A well in Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 when AH-64As of 1-101st Aviation Regiment, destroyed several key antiaircraft radar stations along the Iraq-Kuwait border,
knocking out a 20-mile wide portion of the Iraqi early warning Air Defense network and opening the door for coalition air assets to begin striking targets inside Iraq. Apache battalions acquitted themselves well during the short conflict, performing battlefield interdiction missions well forward of the rapidly shrinking front lines, destroying over 500 tanks and hundreds of other vehicles before the cessation of hostilities.

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However, as with most combat aircraft, the Apache’s three decades in service have seen its role evolve with the conflicts in which it has participated and its mission capabilities mature. In the aftermath of 9/11, Apaches deployed to Afghanistan to combat Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, where the armour threat was minimal. It was there that the AH-64 returned to the attack helicopter’s roots as a Close Air Support platform.

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The operational environment in Afghanistan is harsh. Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are not the pilots’ only concerns, as high altitude and high temperature can have more of an adverse effect on helicopter performance than enemy fire. The hover fire tactics that Apache pilots had trained on since the type went operational in 1984 were not possible in hot/high conditions and pilots were forced to resort to the running/diving fire techniques perfected by their Cobra pilot brethren a generation earlier.

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These fast moving techniques allowed better freedom of movement and coordination with troops on the ground, and became the standard for Apache operations in Afghanistan. The following year saw the invasion of Iraq and the combat debut of the AH-64D, which brought the Apache into the digital age and increased its ability to conduct the CAS mission even further.

 

 

ah-64-apache-apach-udarnyy.jpgThe Longbow Apache’s digital cockpit greatly enhanced situational awareness for both crewmembers, and the introduction of the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire allowed crews to attack targets that were blocked by smoke or other obscurant that the helicopter’s laser designator could not penetrate. Now troops on the ground only needed to pass along a GPS grid coordinate to the Apache crew, and the Longbow Hellfire could be fired right at those coordinates. The first Longbow Hellfire used in combat was fired against an Iraqi T-72, but many more would be fired at a multitude of targets in the first weeks of the invasion of Iraq.

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The operational environments in Afghanistan and Iraq forced a return to providing close support (now called Close Combat Attack by the Army) to troops on the ground. They became so effective that enemy combatants often refused to engage US forces if Apaches were in the area. New versions of the Hellfire like the AGM-114N thermobaric Hellfire were ideal for taking out caves or buildings with minimal collateral damage. The night vision system was updated in 2008 with the addition of the Modernized Target Acquisition/Designation Sight and Arrowhead Pilot’s Night Vision System, allowing unprecedented image clarity from miles away in complete darkness. In 2010, the capability to receive UAV video feed was incorporated into the Apache’s repertoire, even further increasing the coordination between the helicopter and the troops it supports. Lastly, in 2012 the adoption of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System turned the standard Hydra 70 rocket family into precision guided munitions and boosting the Apache’s lethality against precision targets. The ideal melding of evolving sensors, weapons and techniques have evolved the Apache into not only the world’s premiere attack helicopter, but the premiere Close Combat Attack platform in the world. Operational necessity brought the AH-64 back to the role it was destined to fill, even though shortsightedness initially overlooked that role.

  • Jonathan Bernstein is the Supervisory Museum Curator, US Army Air Defense Artillery Museum at US Army

He has written these books on the Apache, P-47 and AH-1.

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We reveal leaked plot of Top Gun 2: SPOILER ALERT

 

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After a 34-year wait the sequel of the much loved Top Gun will appear at movie theatres in 2020. Yesterday an unnamed worker on the film broke NDAs to reveal the plot, here we share the story.

WARNING: this contains serious SPOILERS. 

The plot for Top Gun 2 is as follows:

United States Naval Aviator Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell has been assigned to a training course for the remote piloting of MQ-4C Triton. At a bar the day before the training starts, Maverick, assisted by Goose, unsuccessfully approaches a man. Maverick learns the next day that he is Charlie “Charlie” Blackwood, a civilian drone instructor. Charlie later becomes interested in Maverick upon learning of his inverted manoeuvre — leaning backwards over his office chair to reach his coffee while piloting a Reaper — which disproves US intelligence on the chair’s lumber support performance.

During an interception of two hostile cigarette smuggling boats, Maverick gets radar lock on one, while the other hostile boats own radars locks onto Maverick’s wingman, Cougar. While Maverick drives off the remaining ships with wing waggling, Cougar is too shaken to land, and Maverick, defying orders, shepherds him back to the carrier. Cougar gives up his wings, citing an airline career as a better career option. Despite his dislike for Maverick’s recklessness, CAG ‘Stinger’ sends him to attend TopFish the Naval mission control and operator course.

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During Maverick’s first training sortie makes  instructor LCDR Rick ‘Jester’ Heatherly a great coffee but through reckless kitchen managament breaks two cups and is reprimanded by chief instructor CDR Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf. Maverick also becomes a rival to top student LT Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky, who considers Maverick’s attitude to coffee and general snack-making ‘dangerous’—as Maverick’s tendency to leave the cafetiere unwashed and pursue reckless objectives makes him “unsafe” to share a kitchen with. In class, Charlie also objects to Maverick’s passive aggressive interpersonal behaviour but privately admits to him that he admires his flying and omitted it from his reports to hide his feelings for him, and the two begin a romantic relationship.

During a training sortie, Maverick abandons a plate of donuts to chase Viper, who is impressed with his flying abilities, but is defeated when Viper manoeuvres Maverick into a position from which his wingman Jester can steal Maverick’s donuts from behind, demonstrating the value of teamwork over individual prowess.

Maverick and Iceman, now direct competitors for the TopFish Trophy, chase a pigeon from the parking lot by their porta-cabin in a later training engagement.

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Maverick pressures Iceman to break off his engagement so he can shoot it with his air gun, but runs through the car wash  and suffers a complete collapse of his hairstyle, going into an unrecoverable ‘pudding basin’. Maverick and Goose leap over a wall, but Goose hits the Croc which has flown of his own foot and is killed.

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Although the board of inquiry clears Maverick of responsibility for Goose’s death, he is overcome by guilt and his coffee-making diminishes. Charlie and others attempt to console him, but Maverick considers retiring. He seeks advice from Viper, who reveals that he served with Maverick’s father Duke Mitchell at a Star Bucks in Detroit and was in the ‘Great Cappuccino Rush of ’72’ in which Mitchell was killed. Contrary to official reports which faulted Mitchell, Viper reveals classified information that proves Mitchell died heroically, serving biscotti, and informs Maverick that he can succeed if he can regain his self-confidence. Maverick chooses to graduate, though Iceman wins the TopFish Trophy.

During the graduation party, Viper calls in the newly graduated aviators with the orders to deploy. Iceman, Hollywood, and Maverick are ordered to immediately return to their portacabin to deal with a “crisis situation”, providing catering for a party of a stricken colleague that has drifted into a midlife crisis.

Maverick and Merlin (Cougar’s former badminton coach) are assigned as back-up for Tritons flown by Iceman and Hollywood, despite Iceman’s reservations over Maverick’s state of mind. The subsequent hostile engagement with six boats exceeding fishing quotas sees Hollywood shot down by a harpoon gun; Maverick is scrambled alone due to him being CCed into the wrong email and but nearly retreats after encountering circumstances similar to those that caused Goose’s death. Upon finally rejoining Iceman, Maverick contacts the two of the boat and asks their crew to apologise, forcing the others to flee. Upon their triumphant return to the local Hooters, Iceman and Maverick express newfound respect for each other and start a new WhatsApp group.

Offered any assignment he chooses, Maverick decides to return to TopFish to do IT support. At an ‘Introduction to improv’ class in Miramar, Maverick and Charlie reunite.

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Will we continue in December?

 

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As you may know, if we don’t hit our funding targets we will have to pause operations tomorrow. We’d like to say an enormous thank you to those who have helped us over the years, and to those who came forward recently to assist us. So what’s the news? Well, we’re close to reaching our target…but not quite there. Fingers crossed we will get enough monthly donators today before midnight. If we do succeed in this I will reward you, dear reader, with a mass of new material of the next few weeks. As I say, this is dependent on getting a few more donations today before midnight UK time.

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Credit: BAE Systems

The Top Fighter aircraft of 2019 (within visual range combat)

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Many fighter pilots and tacticians will say that if you’ve got into within-visual range air combat then something has gone very wrong. Why not zap the enemy at very long range and run away rather than risk the dogfight with its strong probability of mutual suicide? Unfortunately in the real world, things do not always go wrong: one example being the surprisingly challenging interception of a Syrian Su-22 by a US Navy Super Hornet in 2017.

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Almost, but no cigar.

While this specific example does not demonstrate the importance of ‘turn and burn’ performance it does show that reality doesn’t always allow combat aircraft to fight how they’d like to. Despite the importance of the beyond-visual range, it is telling that the next generation of air combat aircraft being designed will still be capable visual range combat performers. In updating this list I consulted with several people, one of whom was Air Marshal Harish Masand, a decorated veteran of the 1971 war, and a pioneer of the MiG-29’s integration into the Indian air force. He is one of the most celebrated Fulcrum pilots of the IAF and his solo MiG-29 displays remain the stuff of IAF legend. He commented: “It seems like a pretty good comparison. My only major observation, perhaps, would be on the excessive emphasis that you seem to place on the thrust vector control (TVC). Most would agree that the TVC is used only at low speeds and high alpha bleeding off energy pretty fast and should truly be used as a last resort against a single opponent to get a quick shot in a stalemate or prolonged sort of situation. That puts the weight penalty of the TVC system in question for most of the likely engagements. Also, WVR combat is unlikely to be a one-on-one situation and to lose your energy in a larger group could be fatal, perhaps not against the opponent immediately engaged with you but certainly against another freewheeling high energy opponent in the same piece of the sky. Looked at in this perspective, the MiG-29, with its ability to hold 9G forever and flown by a group of cool heads, would be stupid to get into a low speed, high alpha fight with any of the other nine aircraft listed in the field. Finally, within most of these aircraft, the outcome in WVR engagements would depend on comparative skills.” He also noted that the upgraded IAF MiG-29s have a great helmet mounted sighting system. On this subject, though it is believed that the Rafale, in Qatari service, is finally operational with a helmet mounted display/sight – they are not yet fully operational. Rafale has superb performance, particularly at lower altitudes, but is let down by a lack of a helmet cueing system — a must have item. Regarding his comments on the hypothetical nature of one-on -one comparisons (something echoed by the Rafale pilot we spoke to) — it remains the a way to compare platforms in isolation, and something that we hope is both informative and entertaining in a ‘top trump’ way. From an enthusiast point of view, the dogfight is rare enough to be freed from some of the troubling associations of the air-to-ground mission, which is only too real. 

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The Mitsubishi F-2 is a fearsome dogfighter – with a larger wing than the F-16 — but to avoid duplication is included within the F-16’s ranking.

 I also spoke to Jim Smith who opined, “I think WVR can begin when you are able to identify the threat as Hostile, and able to do something about it. So ASRAAM (one of the fastest and longest ranged infra-red missiles) is a big enabler as you should be able to get the first missile away. Tejas is interesting, as an aircraft in development, with missile capability, radar and EW and other capabilities coming along all the time. I find the whole WVR/dogfight thing difficult. As noted above, kill the opposition in the approach to the merge (if you haven’t already done the preferable thing of shooting him down BVR). If both pilots and aircraft survive the merge, then high off-boresight engagement capability, good turning performance, good energy manoeuvre capability are all going to help. Can’t remember where F-35 is on your list, but with a small number of weapons, and (relative to the best) ordinary agility are not going to help. One problem for most aircraft in WVR these days is going to be the ability to disengage without being shot down. Most studies I have seen suggest WVR is most likely to lead to a mutual kill.”

The final word: Reality does not conform to the top 10 format! Each of these aircraft has advantages and disadvantages, and their exact placing should not be taken as gospel. Pilot skill, tactics and luck remain the deciding factors in the dogfight. 120627-F-QP712-0376.jpg

Honourable mentions:  JF-17, Tejas, Mirage 2000, F-35, J-20. 

Su-57 is in OpEval and not fully operational. 

10.  McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Eagle

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

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Interview with F-15 pilot here

HMD/S: Yes

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

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Very good

High alpha performance: Poor

Sustained turn rates: Good (16 degree/sec)

Instantaneous turn rates: Good (21 deg/sec)

9.  Chengdu J-10

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Rumours from China describe the J-10 performing well in DACT exercises against the far bigger Su-27/J-11. If these rumours are to be believed then the J-10 would prove a handful for any Western or Asian fighter types that had to face it in a turning fight. With a maximum G-rating of +9 / -3 and a maximum sustained turn load of 8.9g, the type has demonstrated impressive performance at several public airshows. It scores highly on turn radius, low visual signature, low-speed capabilities and also has excellent pilot vision. The recent addition of the PL-10 advanced short range missile dramatically improves the aircraft’s within visual range potency. The aircraft is powered by a single Saturn AL-31 (as used on the ‘Flanker’ series’), a trusted engine that is extremely resultant to extreme manoeuvring. It is perhaps caution, due to a paucity of information, that places this aircraft so low in the list. The new J-10C variant may benefit, even in the WVR regime, from its new AESA radar and refined avionics.

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes:PL10

Visual stealth: Excellent

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good

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8. Saab JAS-39 Gripen 
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Lose sight, lose the fight‘ is an old dogfighting adage and it is very easy to lose sight of the tiny Gripen. Though not the most powerful fighter, it is agile, well-armed and gives its pilot good situational awareness. Some Gripen operators employ an advanced helmet-mounted sight in conjunction with IRIS-T missiles, a sobering prospect for potential adversaries. The IRIS-T is a highly regarded weapon, with excellent agility and target discrimination. The helmet-sight is an adaptation of the Typhoon helmet, the second most advanced helmet in operational service. The Gripen preserves energy very well, is hard to spot and has the smallest IR signature of the fighters on this list. The A-Darter short-range missile is soon to be carried by South African Gripens, and is said to be superior to even the IRIS-T in some respects.

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(Top Ten Swedish aeroplanes here)

Helmet Mounted Display/Sight: Yes: Cobra

Advanced SRAAMsIRIS-T and A-DARTER

Visual stealth: Excellent

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High Alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good

 

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

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

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Read more about flying the Super Hornet here and here.

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

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMsASRAAM, AIM-9X, IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

6. General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon ‘Viper’

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

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A tiny energetic fighter with a trusted helmet cueing system, excellent human machine interface and modern missiles, the F-16 remains a nightmare opponent in WVR combat.

HMD/S: Yes, JHMCS

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

Visual stealth: Excellent.Thrust-to-weight ratio: GoodH

High alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good (26deg/sec

 

5. Dassault Rafale 

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Comparing the French Rafale with the pan-European Typhoon is unavoidable. The Rafale can maintain higher Alpha manoeuvres than the Typhoon.  It is very agile, with an excellent man machine interface and the most advanced aircraft cannon. Like most carrier fighters (a design consideration which affects the land-based variant) it is docile in the low speed ranges that most within-visual-range fights take place at. Whereas The Typhoon excels at high speed high-altitude manoeuvrability, the Rafale excels at low speed and low altitude, though its high altitude performance has also impressed French pilots. At sea level, the Rafale is reported to have a superior instantaneous turn rate to Typhoon. According to one Rafale pilot we spoke to “So I have absolutely no fear of the Typhoons. Both the tactics used by the Typhoons, the agility and the cockpit of the aircraft make it easier for us to take the advantage — basically we have better fusion of the sensors — so we can be way more aggressive in terms of tactics. It’s a great aircraft at high level, but we’re not dumb enough to try to fight Typhoons at 50,000 feet or 45,000 feet.” Peter Collins who flew Rafale, and is knowledgeable of the Typhoon’s performance, claims that below 10,000 ft it would ‘eat Typhoon’. The Rafale lacks a helmet-mounted sight and its high alpha performance is inferior to that of the Hornet family. The Rafale has reportedly done well in DACT exercises against the F-22. The Rafale is an extremely tough opponent in the WVR regime. MICA has an LOAL capability allowing targets in the ‘six o’clock’ to be engaged. The addition of a helmet-mounted sight, already worn by Qatari pilots as they work the Rafale up to full operational status, (and something Indian Rafales will carry) will push the aircraft a top three position in this list. In a guns-only fight at low or medium altitude, the Rafale could be expected to hold its own against any other aircraft.

HMD/S: No

Advanced SRAAMsYes, MICA

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Very good

High alpha performance: Very good

Sustained turn rates: Very good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent (especially at low level)

4. Eurofighter Typhoon

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Wild turn rates, a true 9G performance and enormous excess power make the Typhoon a hell of a dogfighter; the highly regarded G-suits worn by Typhoon pilots increase tolerance to the high forces generated by the energetic Typhoon. It also features the most advanced helmet mounted sight in service (and the newer Striker 2 is, according to one independent tester, ‘superb’), a powerful cannon and the excellent IRIS-T and ASRAAM missiles. The combination of advanced missile and helmet imbue the Typhoon with a terrifying off-boresight missile shot capability. Testing of the Aerodynamic Modification Kit, which includes modified strakes, extended flaperons and mini-leading edge root extensions may go some way to rectifying Typhoon’s main limitation – a pedestrian high alpha performance. But the Typhoon is not an ‘angles fighter’ like the F/A-18 which relies on risky (as they drain energy quickly) but startling attacks in the merge; the Typhoon is an ‘energy fighter’ using its phenomenal ability to preserve energy in a dogfight to wear its opponents out. In short, if an opponent doesn’t get a Typhoon on his first attack he is in a very dangerous position as a large amount of excess thrust makes the aircraft a very energetic adversary. In exercises against Indian Air Force, RAF Typhoons used their superior energy and acceleration to ‘reliably’ trounce Su-30MKIs according to one Eurofighter source we spoke to. One thing the Typhoon must keep an eye on is the type’s thirsty fuel consumption, according to a Rafale pilot,“You’re burning less fuel in afterburner <in a Rafale> at high altitudes than Typhoon does without the afterburner.”

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

Interview with a Typhoon pilot here. 

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With the lowest wing loading and one of the highest thrust-to-weight ratios on this list, the Typhoon is a nasty opponent in within visual range combat. Its large wing leaves it a little sluggish at lower altitudes but supremely spritely higher up.

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMsASRAAM, IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Poor

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

The Top 10 BVR fighters for 2019 can be seen here

3. RAC Mikoyan MiG-35 ‘Fulcrum’

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The MiG-35 after a ludicrously protracted development is finally in service with the Russian Air Force. The same empty weight as MiG-29 but with 1320Ibs of extra thrust, should give the ‘Super Fulcrum’ an edge; though this advantage would generally be mitigated by higher operating weights, in a lower weight configuration the MiG-35 should proof an absolute beast. Additional edges come from new electro infra-red/ optical sensors, and a lower pilot workload (which includes less pilot muscle being required to affect the same manoeuvres).  If an enemy employs radar-guided missiles in the WVR regime (AMRAAMs have historically been used in this way) then the MSP-418KE Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) technology jammer pod may prove an excellent counter. The MiG-35 will also enjoy far greater situational awareness than older Fulcrums. In late 2019, Russia revealed a new generation short-range missile designed to counter the Western AIM-9X and IRIS-T — considering Russia’s excellence in the rocket propulsion field this will likely be no slouch. If you consider the limited utility of thrust vectoring (the advantage offered by the Su-35) and the smaller size of the MiG-35 it could be credibly argued that the MiG-35 is actually a strong contender for the no.1 slot. We’ll cautiously hold off on such a judgement until more information comes to light, but as the MiG company continues to fight for its life its likely that the knowledge it has accrued in its long history of producing supreme dogfighters has not been lost in it latest — and quite possibly last —  fighter.

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

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HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

2. Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor

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The Raptor’s excellent power-to-weight ratio, low wing-loading and 2D thrust-vectoring make it a fierce opponent in the visual range dogfight. The F-22 was the first fighter to be designed from the start to use vectored thrust for control. The rather poetic sounding  ‘Carefree abandon‘ is built into the flight control system, allowing the pilot an awe-inspiring Alpha envelope without fear of departing controlled flight (it is also immune to deep stalls). The F-22 was designed to match or exceed fourth generation fighters, like the F-15 and F-16, in basic manoeuvring “..for instance from a high-g turn to straight-line acceleration..*”; it also had to move more swiftly between different manoeuvre states. The thrust vectoring is vital for this but comes at a cost. According to Typhoon pilots who ‘fought’ against it, the Raptor loses energy very quickly when employing thrust vectoring. It is also let down by its lack of helmet-mounted sight and its large size. The F-22 also lacks an infra-red search and track sensor. Until 2016 it was armed with the geriatric AIM-9M, but it now carries the AIM-9X. The internal carriage of its AIM-9X limits the way they can be used, and it only carries two. The F-22 has never been seriously challenged in wargames or DACT exercises, and though the WVR regime is not its strongest card (BVR combat is) it is still extremely hard to beat, to the point that any ‘kills’ scored by pilots against the Raptor become newsworthy. Its pilots are, outside of adversary units, probably the best in the world.

HMD/S: No

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, AIM-9X

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High Alpha performance: Excellent

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

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

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1. Sukhoi Su-35 ‘Flanker’

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The Sukhoi Su-27 is no slouch in the dogfight, and this advanced derivative is even more potent; the fighter, of which there are currently 88 in Russian service, benefits from an additional 7,000Ibs of thrust combined with a variety of refinements to an already superb machine. The Su-35’s engines, at maximum reheat, generate a staggering 62,000Ibs of thrust, which when combined with the ‘Flanker’ series superb aerodynamic configuration and vectored thrust nozzles, create an aircraft unparalleled in low-speed manoeuvrability. Whereas the F-22 relies on two-dimensional thrust vectoring, the Su-35 utilises 3D nozzles and a robust flight control system that have been perfected over the last thirty years.  A Su-35 (ably demonstrated by Sergei Bogdan) held the crowds of Paris 2013 spellbound with its demonstration of dramatic post-stall manoeuvring.

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

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

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

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

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMsR-73E/M

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

Only two days to go….Sadly, this site will pause operations in December if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

 

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Notes:

One test pilot we spoke to, Harsh Vardhan Thakur,  who has flown several of these types – ranked them accordingly for WVR:

  1. Typhoon 2. Rafale 3. F-22 3. Su-57 (not fully operational) 4. MiG-35 5. Su-35 6. F-15 7. MiG-29 8. Su-30 9. F-16 10. Gripen-E 11. Mirage 2000 12. F-35 13. Su-27 14. J-10 15. JF-17 16. LCA

He noted that “The Typhoon is very light and agile” and acknowledged the long distance between the canard and main wing were a huge advantage as it gives it a longer ‘moment arm’.

On the Super Hornet he noted  “Super Hornet can’t keep pace. It’s less manoeuvrable. The F-15 is much better.” He spoke in depth to the pilot (Late Air Cmde Sanjai Chauhan. RIP) who evaluated the candidates for MMRCA who said that the F-16 Block 70 had the best human-machine-interface. “The MiG-35 was patchy and the Super Hornet was draggy (“Super Hornet carries almost two tons of extra weight, because it’s a naval aircraft. It can’t match air force variants)  – and the rest were great.” The evaluation pilot also thought the Rafale was the best all-rounder.

Thakur noted that the offered F-21 is remarkable and is a ‘have it all’.

The J-20 likely deserves a place in this list but at the present time there is insufficient information to make an assessment.

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Hush-Kit fundraising update

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Hush-Kit fundraising update: We are in with a chance of meeting our target to ensure service keeps going through December (big thanks) but we’re not there yet…and there’s only 3 days! 

Sadly, this site will pause operations in December if it does not hit its funding targets. There is now less than a week. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

We have big plans for 2020 but in order to do them we need funding now. We intend to continue with the site but offer even more regular articles (2019 was our busiest year so fat), increase the output of our YouTube video (which requires a lot of time per video) and launch a podcast (hopefully with an appropriate sponsor). To make this possible we need to carry on through December.

A huge thank you to those who donate to our site already.

Top 10 Close Air Support aircraft

 

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Born in the desperate last days of World War I, close air support is now over a hundred years old. From the trench-strafing carnage of the 1910s, via the murderous Spanish Civil War, close air support came of age in the Second World War. Throughout its history it has been repeatedly forgotten by air forces across the world, before being hurriedly relearnt, often too late. The US Department of Defense defines CAS as air action by fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” Across the last bloody 100 years, certain aircraft types have excelled in the role. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but all the types mentioned deserve their inclusion. 

10. Hawker Typhoon: Eisenhower’s saviour

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If not exactly a failure, it was fair to say that in early 1943 the Hawker Typhoon was regarded as, at best, a qualified success in its primary role as an air-superiority asset. Its subsequent life as a fighter bomber would soon change that. Conceived by Hawker as a Hurricane replacement the Typhoon ran into terrible trouble with its exotic engine and previously unknown aerodynamic effects caused by its great speed. Plus the tail kept falling off. A tortuous development and early service life eventually eradicated most of the bugs and the Typhoon enjoyed a brief moment of fame as the only aircraft with the speed necessary to intercept the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The improved Spitfire Mk IX soon closed that particular niche as it was a generally superior fighter but by then the Typhoon had found its true forte, attacking not other aircraft but ground targets.

This spectacularly successful change of role was largely the result of one man, Roland Beamont. Commander of one of the first Typhoon units, 609 squadron, Beamont realised that the Typhoon’s strength, heavy armament and low altitude speed made it an ideal ground attacker and in late 1942 he obtained permission for 609 sqn to fly on wide ranging attacks over occupied France by day and night. The results, even though these missions were flown singly or in pairs, were dramatic, 609 sqn alone destroying over 100 locomotives in the following six months whilst shooting down 14 Fw 190s in the same period. Cancellation of the Typhoon programme, which had been a serious consideration at the time, was never considered again and the aircraft went from strength to strength in its new role. Bomb racks were added, as a result the Typhoon could carry a 1000 pound bomb under each wing, this representing a bombload greater than the Bristol Blenheim (still in service with the RAF in 1942 as a light bomber) but in stark contrast the Typhoon was over 100 mph faster and a highly capable fighter, unlike the Blenheim which was effectively defenceless if intercepted. More impressive still was the armament of eight 60 lb rockets that the Typhoon began utilising in 1943. It was famously said that a salvo of all eight rockets represented a destructive force equivalent to a broadside from a destroyer. Whether or not this was actually true, the psychological effect of the rocket armament was impressive, which was useful as the rockets, whilst extremely powerful, were notoriously difficult to aim. Analysis of battlefields showed that many vehicles had been abandoned by crews after suffering only superficial damage from rocket-firing Typhoons. Rockets and bombs could be used interchangeably on the same aircraft but in practice, squadrons tended to specialise in one weapon or the other.

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Following D-day, as the Allies advanced into Europe the Typhoons operated a system known as the ‘Cab Rank’. Developed by the RAF in the Western Desert and refined during the campaign in Italy, standing Typhoon patrols could be called in by RAF personnel assigned to Army units and known as Forward Air Controllers to attack targets at extremely short notice. This was the first application of genuinely close air support on a large scale in which specific targets could be identified to pilots by troops on the ground and it proved decisive. So successful was the system that some 23 Typhoon squadrons served with the 2nd Tactical Air Force between 1944 and 45 as it advanced across Europe into Germany.

To give but one example of the effectiveness of the Typhoon, on the 10th of July, at Mortain, flying in support of the US 30th Infantry Division, Typhoons flew 294 sorties, firing 2,088 rockets and dropping 73 tons of bombs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, said of the Typhoons; “The chief credit in smashing the enemy’s spearhead, however, must go to the rocket-firing Typhoon aircraft of the Second Tactical Air Force… The result of the strafing was that the enemy attack was effectively brought to a halt, and a threat was turned into a great victory.” The German Army’s Chief of Staff stated that the attack had been brought to a standstill by 13:00 ‘…due to the employment of fighter-bombers by the enemy, and the absence of our own air-support.’

The Typhoon was developed into the similar but superior Tempest which took over the ground attack role, and all had left RAF service before the end of 1945. Today, of 3317 built, only a single complete example survives.

 

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To support the Typhoon to the skies project have a look at their website here, or on Facebook and Twitter: @project_typhoon

9. Sukhoi Su-25 

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Created to support Soviet ground forces, the Su-25 went to war the same year it entered service, 1981. The aircraft’s baptism of fire was in Afghanistan, where it demonstrated the ability to generate higher sortie rates than any other type, even in the most austere conditions. It was a hard war for the Su-25: 22 aircraft were lost in combat operations, and seven destroyed on the ground. But these hard lessons were learned and led to modifications which enhanced the aircraft’s survivability.

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Since than it has fought in over 15 wars, sometimes — as in the Russo-Ukrainian War and the Georgian War (the region, and later nation, that produced the majority of Su-25s) —  on both sides. The Su-25 is the epitome of the Soviet engineering principle of toughness, simplicity and the spurning of unnecessary high technology.

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Photo Credit : Vadim Savitskiï

The aeroplane has a conventional layout, with considerable amounts of titanium armour and an internal Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-2 (ГШ-30-2) 30-mm dual-barrel autocannon which uses the Gast principle to generate high rates of fire (1000-3000rpm). The wings each have five hard-points making the ‘Frogfoot’ a versatile weapons platform and easy to fit with varied bulky weapons and stores. The Su-25 is the most widely exported CAS fixed-wing aircraft of all time having served with over 30 nations.

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8. Mil Mi-24 ‘The Flying Tank’

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The Mi-24 was conceived from the outset as a flying infantry fighting vehicle. It is can survive multiple hits by rifle and 12.7-mm rounds.

The first dedicated Soviet attack helicopter, the Mi-24 is big, well-armed and extremely fast (grabbing a slew of world speed records in the 1970s). Since its introduction in 1972 it has become the most widely used combat aircraft of all time, fighting in over 30 wars across the world with a staggering 68 operators. It is unique in being an attack helicopter with a sizeable troop compartment, able to accommodate up to eight passengers. As with the Su-25 — the simplicity, durability and insensitivity to rough in-the-field maintenance keeps it going when other more exquisite machines are grounded.

 

7. Bell H-1 series (UH-1E/AH-1) ‘The Fanged Huey’ AH-1Z.jpg

When the Marine Corps employed the UH-lE ‘Huey’ in the CAS role in the Vietnam War it was extremely controversial. Armed helicopters had been around since the 1950s, but the Huey was aggressively muscling into a role, dedicated CAS, considered inappropriate for vulnerable helicopters. A year of service revealed the type’s devastating effectiveness. The UH-lE was initially outfitted with two 2.75-inch rocket pods or two .50 calibre gun pods, then a chin turret containing two M60 machine-guns.

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The UH-1E had become an absolute necessity for close-in support of vertical assault operations. There was room for improvement — in 1969 the Marine Corps received its first dedicated attack helicopter – the exceptionally mean Cobra. With its narrow fuselage, tandem-place cockpit and nose-mounted gun, the Cobra was the first real helicopter gunship. In the Vietnam War it demonstrated how effectively helicopters could be used in the fire support role. Despite its success it suffered a high attrition rate: well over a quarter of the Cobras deployed to Vietnam were destroyed by enemy fire or lost in accidents. It established the template for attack helicopters, and it influenced the Mi-24, AH-64, Tiger, Mangusta and every other gunship helicopter that followed. Despite its first flight being almost fifty years ago, the Cobra remains in production today. The latest family member, the AH-1Z, is one of the best in its class.

6. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt ‘Patton’s Jugs’

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“Just east of Le Mans was one of the best examples of armor and air cooperation I have ever seen. For about two miles, the road was full of enemy transport and armor, many of which bore the unmistakable calling card of the P-47 fighterbomber – namely, a group of fifty-caliber holes in the concrete. Whenever armor and air can work together in this way, the results are sure to be excellent. . . . To accomplish this happy teamwork two things are necessary: first, intimate confidence and friendship between air and ground; second, incessant and apparently ruthless driving on the part of the ground commander. A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood. ” — General George S. Patton Jr. USA

The Thunderbolt was huge, weighing the same as two Spitfires*. It was long-ranged, well-armed with eight .50 cals, rockets and bombs — and extremely manoeuvrable for its size. Importantly, it was also exceptionally tough — Jugs riddled with bullet holes and missing huge sections often recovered in a manner that verged on the miraculous. P-47s even returned to base with entire cylinder heads shot off. For example ace Robert Johnson recalled “I had 21 20mm cannon shells in that airplane, and more than 200 7.92mm machine gun bullets. One nicked my nose and another entered my right leg… I had been hurt worse playing football”. Compare this to the P-51 Mustang – a single rifle calibre bullet in the radiator will bring the aircraft down. The radiator incidentally, being located on the belly of the aircraft in the most vulnerable spot when facing fire from the ground. It is easy therefore to see why the Thunderbolt was the preferred fighter for ground attack missions. Unlike the Typhoon however, the P-47 was also highly successful in air combat, its gradual sidelining in the escort mission by the P-51 Mustang reflecting no huge criticism of the aircraft regarding fighting ability, though even the most ardent Thunderbolt enthusiast would have to admit that the P-51 was both faster and had the edge in manoeuvrability. The major decider was range, the P-47 was massive and heavy and as a result consumed some 100 gallons of fuel an hour in the cruise and over 300 at full power which could not equal the P-51’s meagre thirst for a mere 64 and 120 gallons respectively. The bottom line was that the Mustang could escort a bomber to Berlin and back and the Thunderbolt could not. Meanwhile the P-47’s insane ability to absorb punishment saw its importance to an army now engaged on the ground in Europe skyrocket.

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Before the invasion of Europe began, the IX Tactical Air Command — a force dedicated to CAS — consisted of 1,600 P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightings and 35,000 airmen. The P-47s flew exceptionally dangerous missions, lost many men and aircraft, yet proved a fearsome weapon. By the end of the Second World War, ground fire posed a much greater threat to Allied aircraft than enemy fighters and German flak guns were powerful, accurate and numerous. Over the course of operations after D-day, the Thunderbolt proved to be the premier American CAS asset. As well as being more resistant to battle damage than the Mustang the P-47 also possessed a greater installed firepower. By the end of the war the Thunderbolt would be able to carry external stores of bombs, rockets, or fuel up to a maximum of 2500 lbs (a typical load might include three 500lb bombs and 10 3-inch rockets) but the sheer bulk of the aircraft meant that it was always demanding on field length.

In the Korean War, the USAF used the woefully inappropriate F-80 jet aircraft and they bemoaned the lack of Thunderbolts (now re-designated F-47s). Flown on a round trip from Japan, the F-80s often had ten minutes or less on where they were desperately needed. “The commander of Fifth Air Force (later commander of FEAF, the Far East Air Force) Maj. Gen. Earle Partridge, would have preferred F-47s, a “far better strafing and dive bomber airplane” but none of those were available.” In the absence of Thunderbolts and desperately requiring a better solution than the Japan-based F-80, the less-than-ideal Mustang was drafted in. In April 1951 alone the USAF lost 25 Mustangs to ground fire. The potential superiority of the Thunderbolt was acknowledged by all, to the extent that General Stratemeyer, commander of the FEAF, formally requested any Thunderbolts that were available, even just the 25 examples then serving with the Hawaii Air National Guard. He noted that there had been a major increase in Communist anti-aircraft firepower but stated that “All here know the F-47 can take it”. Alas, noting lack of spare parts and the logistical issues of introducing another aircraft to the conflict General Hoyt Vandenburg coldly responded “we fail to see any appreciable results to be gained by the substitution”, thus spelling a death sentence for many Mustang pilots who might otherwise have survived.

It is however a telling demonstration of just how good the mighty P-47 was that in 1951, some six years after it last saw action, it was so desperately needed for frontline service that four-star generals were begging for mere handfuls of what was now quite an elderly aircraft. In the words of historian W A Jacobs: “If the P-47’s designers had set out to build a high-performance aircraft for close air support, they could hardly have done better within the existing technology”.

*P-47D/Spitfire IX

 

5. Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ ‘The Screaming Stuka’

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“Stukas! . . . Squadron upon squadron rise to a great height, break into line ahead (Reihenformation) and there, there the first machines hurtle perpendicularly down, followed by the second, third – ten, twelve aeroplanes are there. Simultaneously like some bird of prey, they fall upon their victim and then release their loads of bombs on the target. We can see the bombs very clearly. It becomes a regular rain of bombs, that whistle down on . . . the bunker positions. Each time the explosion is overwhelming, the noise deafening. Everything becomes blended together; along with the howling sirens of the Stukas in their dives, the bombs whistle and crack and burst. . . We stand and watch what is happening as if hypnotized; down below all hell is let loose! At the same time we are full of confidence . . . and suddenly we notice that the enemy artillery no longer shoots . . . “

–Sergeant Prumers, 1st Panzer Division, 1940

Though long held as the pioneers of modern close air support, today many would argue that the early Second World War saw the Ju 87 force acting less an integrated close air support role, and more in a role that sat somewhere between traditional bomber, precision attack aircraft and ad hoc battlefield support. Quite how much the Luftwaffe’s application of tactical air power conforms to the modern concept of CAS continues to be the subject of lively debate. What is not in doubt is that in the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka the Germans possessed an exceptional CAS platform. Often derided today due to its poor showing in the Battle of Britain (the result of using the world’s supreme tactical aircraft for a strategic role it was neither designed nor intended for) the Ju 87 operated at staggeringly close quarters to the armed forces it was supporting and could strike with an accuracy that would not be reattained until the advent of guided munitions at the end of the 20th century. Despite being considered obsolete by the Luftwaffe even before the war, Ju 87s launched the German air offensive on the 1st of September 1939 (one Stuka incidentally scoring the first air to air kill of the Second World War in the process), attacking their targets 11 minutes before the official declaration of hostilities. Even more remarkably, the same ‘obsolete’ aircraft flew the last Luftwaffe ground attack mission on the 4th of May 1945, four days after Hitler had shot himself.

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One of comparatively few aircraft to be known by the same nickname to both friend and foe: Stuka being a shortening of the generic term Sturzkampfflugzeug (literally ‘Diving war aeroplane’), the Junkers Ju 87 first flew in 1935. Like the prototypes of several new Nazi aircraft, the Ju 87 was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine. Even more surprisingly the new aircraft was built in Sweden. In a rather cruel irony the Junkers Ju 87 remains probably the most famous aircraft to bear the Junkers name, yet Hugo Junkers was a pacifist and a socialist who died under house arrest, whilst the Nazis busily stole his assets, in the same year the Stuka first flew.

Initially the Ju 87 received a lukewarm reception from the Luftwaffe, being considered too slow and with insufficient climb rate but the installation of a more powerful Jumo 210 D engine improved the situation somewhat and the new aircraft was tested secretly but successfully in Spain. The era of its truly spectacular success began in 1939 and continued unabated for the first year or so of the war. So symbolic of the Nazi war machine has the Stuka become that it is quite difficult to view it dispassionately, as one historian put it “More crap has been written about the Stuka than about any other aeroplane in history.”  Hardly surprising when it combines a design as angularly sinister as the Nazi swastika with the horrific psychological component of a deafening siren intended purely to terrify those on the receiving end of its vertical attacks. The Stuka has become a virtual flying shorthand for the Blitzkrieg and unprovoked and pitiless Nazi belligerence and terror.
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Yet the Ju 87 was a profoundly practical aircraft for its role, it was rugged, reliable, easy to fly and maintain, but perhaps most important of all it was clinically accurate. In 1943 it was discovered that only 16% of US bombers using the much-vaunted Norden bombsight were getting their bombs within 1000 feet of the aiming point, by contrast if 100% of a Stuka squadron’s bombs were delivered within a 10 metre (33 feet) circle, accuracy was considered ‘satisfactory’. A hit 100 feet away was considered a bad miss; for a contemporary conventional bomber that would represent the pinnacle of accuracy. The Stuka was not, of course, the only dive bomber of the war but it was one of very few able to perform a genuine 90 degree dive and was probably the most accurate of the conflict. As a result, its tactical use as, essentially, long-range artillery was relentless. Ground units could, and did, rely on the Junkers dive bombers to clear strongpoints and disperse concentrations of vehicles.
The extent to which the army relied on the Stuka can be gauged by this 1941 order issued by Luftflotte 4 as it advanced into the Soviet Union:  “Troops must not count on the same type of support that they have grown accustomed to in previous campaigns. Officers and men must be aware that the Luftwaffe may support the operations of Army Group South only in the immediate centre of the attack. The tendency to call in a Stuka attack at the first sign of enemy resistance must from now on be resisted at all costs”. This is hardly surprising as despite its amazing usefulness and ubiquity there were never more than 400 Ju 87s on front line strength at any given time. As a result, on the Eastern Front, Stukas were required to fly up to five missions per day. The pinnacle of the Junkers Ju 87’s career was over Stalingrad, by now a well-honed weapon with massively experienced crews, the Ju 87 force operated an average of 500 sorties per day but with a loss rate of just 0.2%.
From 1943 however the tide turned, the Ju 87 was vulnerable to fighters and as the Luftwaffe slowly gave up air superiority, dive bomber losses mounted. Even then the Ju 87 had one last ace to play in the CAS role. Armed with two 3.7cm cannon derived from a First World War flak gun (and brilliantly nicknamed the panzerknacker) and boasting Il-2 Sturmovik inspired armour the Ju 87 supplanted and ultimately replaced the Henschel Hs 129 in the anti-tank role and in the right hands could deliver spectacular results. Between them the top 58 Stuka pilots destroyed over 3700 tanks, 519 by Hans-Ulrich Rudel alone. Rudel, the most successful Stuka pilot and unrepentant Nazi, ultimately served as a consultant on the A-10 program, another slow, accurate, and terrifying CAS aircraft, which despite its official name of Thunderbolt II is, more accurately, the modern Stuka.

 

4.Douglas AD (A-1) Skyraider ‘Able Dog the Destroyer’ 

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The Douglas AD (later A-1) Skyraider was the best close air support aircraft of its generation and was valued for its capabilities even after it was superseded by more modern aircraft.  It was originally designed as an anti-ship aircraft to replace the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bomber and the Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger torpedo bomber in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Too late to see action during World War II, it replaced the SB2C and TBM in carrier-based attack squadrons beginning in 1947 and completely by the start of the Korean War in 1950.

A low-wing, single-engine monoplane, the AD was fitted with the Wright 3350 radial engine, which gave it more lifting power than any previous carrier aircraft, rivalled only by the short-lived Martin AM Mauler. The low wing enabled it to feature fifteen bomb racks and carry a wide variety of ordnance and external fuel tanks. The AD had a longer range than the Navy’s early jets and a far superior load carrying capability. It would typically carry an 8,000-pound bomb load on missions over Korea. Land-based Marine Corps squadrons in Korea typically carried a 10,000-pound load.

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Along with the more numerous Vought F4U Corsair, the Skyraider proved to be a grimly effective close air support aircraft, making multiple passes using bombs, rockets cannon fire, and napalm canisters to savage the Communist Chinese and North Korean forces. For example, during the first six months of the war, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft — mostly meaning Skyraiders and Corsairs—were credited with the demise of 20,000 of the 40,000 Communist soldiers killed to date. Skyraiders armed with 2,000-pound bombs also proved effective in bunker-busting of enemy lines in the hills and mountains along the front. The ADs were equally effective as a strike aircraft, interdicting trains and truck convoys and destroying dams and bridges, and doing interdiction at night with night-attack versions. During one raid, ADs used aerial torpedoes to strike a dam and damage its gates. The Skyraider is considered the most important naval aircraft of the Korean War.

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Jets began to replace the Skyraiders in Marine Corps in the late 1950s but soldiered on in the Navy as attack aircraft. AD-4/4N/4NA (A-1D) Skyraiders were exported to the French Air Force and used extensively for close air support during the Algerian Civil War and the Chadian Civil War. As the French retired the Skyraider, some Skyraiders were transferred to former colonies, seeing combat in Chad and Cambodia. (The last Skyraiders to see service were ex-French A-1Ds assigned to the Gabon Presidential Guard, finally retired in 1982.)

The Skyraider’s payload and long loiter time made it an attractive choice to replace the F8F Bearcat and T-28 in the Air Force of South Vietnam (VNAF) and in the U.S Air Force (USAF) Air Commando squadrons (later Special Operations squadrons) in South Vietnam. U.S. Navy A-1 Skyraiders were transferred to both services which effectively employed the aircraft in South Vietnam in close air support. The USAF also used its Skyraiders support special operations forces in Laos and to escort rescue helicopters deep inside Laos and North Vietnam. The aforementioned payload and loiter capabilities, as well as its relatively slow speed, made them ideal for suppressing enemy forces trying to capture downed airmen before they could be rescued. USAF A-1s carried a wide variety of ordnance, including a Minigun to provide suppressive fire. 

U.S. Navy A-1 Skyraiders equipped several air wings during the first four years of the Vietnam War. They flew strike missions in Southeast Asia, provided naval gunfire spotting, and flew close air support missions in South Vietnam and Laos. Like the USAF A-1s, Navy A-1s were used extensively as escorts for search and rescue missions. Navy A-1s also achieved two confirmed aerial kills of North Vietnamese MiG-17 jet fighters. The growing effectiveness of North Vietnamese air defences, especially SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, made the Skyraider an easier target over North Vietnam, where the Skyraider’s flights were increasingly limited to search-and-rescue missions. In South Vietnam, the introduction in 1972 of the SA-7 shoulder-launched surface-to-air to North Vietnamese infantry forces limited the survivability of the Skyraider in the close air support role.

The USAF transferred its last A-1s to the VNAF in November 1972, replaced in the SAR support role by the Vought A-7D Corsair II. The VNAF continued to use the A-1 until the nation’s demise in April 1975. Warfare technology eventually surpassed the Skyraider, but in its prime—and for years beyond—it proved itself as a premier close air support aircraft. 

— Richard R. Burgess, author of these books on the Skyraider

Senior Editor, Seapower Magazine

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3. Boeing AH-64 Apache 

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Though the 1948 Key West Agreement forbade the Army from owning fixed-wing combat aircraft, the US Army never became comfortable with the idea that they must depend on the Air Force for aerial support battlefield support (especially as USAF often fails to prioritise the mission when choosing new aircraft). Denied an inhouse fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, US Army attack helicopters grew faster, more sophisticated and considerably more expensive. After several ambitious attempts in the 60s and 70s to replace the AH-1 failed, the Apache entered service in 1984. The Apache offered unprecedented situational awareness for an attack helicopter, an advantage that was fortified by the addition of a radar on the D model. It was also armed to the teeth, with a trainable 30-mm chain gun, unguided (and later guided) rockets and guided missiles.

In war, such as in Afghanistan, an Apache’s crew of two are busy, perhaps busier than the crew of any aircraft. Comprehending the mass of information from the aircraft’s sensors, off-board information and their own eyes in fast-changing unconventional warfare is an extremely difficult task, but once mastered makes the Apache —as one pilot we interviewed grimly noted: “The ultimate killing machine.”

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The AH-64 was not supposed to be a close air support platform. Designed to employ its three weapon systems against enemy tanks from a hover and then move from battle position to battle position flying at treetop height, the Apache was a tank killer from its inception. Two major events in 1972 directly influenced the mission set for the concept that would evolve into the Apache. The April 1972 Battle of An Loc saw High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rocket-armed AH-1G Cobras and TOW missile-armed NUH-
1Bs destroy numerous tanks, blunting the North Vietnamese invasion. While the majority of the actions fought during An Loc were classic Close Air Support missions over friendly troops in contact, the Army focused on the attack helicopter’s successes killing tanks, and the rest as they say, is history. The cancellation of the AH-56 Cheyenne programme in August 1972 was the other. The Cheyenne was designed as a CAS platform from the beginning to support troops on the ground. Able to carry eight 19-
shot rocket pods or a mix of rockets and TOW missiles; and mounting two turreted weapons, a single Cheyenne carried more than twice the combat load of the AH-1G. But the Cheyenne’s technology was not yet mature, and after several years of delays and reduced interest by the Army, the program was cancelled with only ten aircraft built.
The day after Cheyenne’s cancellation, the Army initiated the Advanced Attack Helicopter programme, which would yield the AH-64 just a few years later. Gone was the primary requirement for supporting troops on the ground, and instead, the helicopter was built around the new anti-tank missile; the AGM- 114 Hellfire and designed as a tank killer. The Apache was to be the great equaliser, protecting the Fulda Gap from the Soviet armoured hordes invading Western Europe in a future World War III. It was to
sit at a hover, moving from battle position to battle position, unleashing Hellfires at maximum range and reducing Soviet tank numbers before they got within range of friendly armour. Surprisingly, the Apache’s 1989 combat debut in Panama was as a fire support platform, where its Night Vision System was a key asset in targeting Panamanian resistance and directing troops on the ground.

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Lieutenant General Carl Steiner, Commander of XVIII Airborne Corps during Just Cause praised the AH- 64s capabilities by saying it could “Fire a hellfire missile through a window at five miles away, at night”. The ability to precisely engage such a small target from miles away was designed to be effective against tanks, but served the AH-64A well in Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 when AH-64As of 1-101st Aviation Regiment, destroyed several key antiaircraft radar stations along the Iraq-Kuwait border,
knocking out a 20-mile wide portion of the Iraqi early warning Air Defense network and opening the door for coalition air assets to begin striking targets inside Iraq. Apache battalions acquitted themselves well during the short conflict, performing battlefield interdiction missions well forward of the rapidly shrinking front lines, destroying over 500 tanks and hundreds of other vehicles before the cessation of hostilities.

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However, as with most combat aircraft, the Apache’s three decades in service have seen its role evolve with the conflicts in which it has participated and its mission capabilities mature. In the aftermath of 9/11, Apaches deployed to Afghanistan to combat Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, where the armour threat was minimal. It was there that the AH-64 returned to the attack helicopter’s roots as a Close Air Support platform.

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The operational environment in Afghanistan is harsh. Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are not the pilots’ only concerns, as high altitude and high temperature can have more of an adverse effect on helicopter performance than enemy fire. The hover fire tactics that Apache pilots had trained on since the type went operational in 1984 were not possible in hot/high conditions and pilots were forced to resort to the running/diving fire techniques perfected by their Cobra pilot brethren a generation earlier.

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These fast moving techniques allowed better freedom of movement and coordination with troops on the ground, and became the standard for Apache operations in Afghanistan. The following year saw the invasion of Iraq and the combat debut of the AH-64D, which brought the Apache into the digital age and increased its ability to conduct the CAS mission even further.

 

 

ah-64-apache-apach-udarnyy.jpgThe Longbow Apache’s digital cockpit greatly enhanced situational awareness for both crewmembers, and the introduction of the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire allowed crews to attack targets that were blocked by smoke or other obscurant that the helicopter’s laser designator could not penetrate. Now troops on the ground only needed to pass along a GPS grid coordinate to the Apache crew, and the Longbow Hellfire could be fired right at those coordinates. The first Longbow Hellfire used in combat was fired against an Iraqi T-72, but many more would be fired at a multitude of targets in the first weeks of the invasion of Iraq.

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The operational environments in Afghanistan and Iraq forced a return to providing close support (now called Close Combat Attack by the Army) to troops on the ground. They became so effective that enemy combatants often refused to engage US forces if Apaches were in the area. New versions of the Hellfire like the AGM-114N thermobaric Hellfire were ideal for taking out caves or buildings with minimal collateral damage. The night vision system was updated in 2008 with the addition of the Modernized Target Acquisition/Designation Sight and Arrowhead Pilot’s Night Vision System, allowing unprecedented image clarity from miles away in complete darkness. In 2010, the capability to receive UAV video feed was incorporated into the Apache’s repertoire, even further increasing the coordination between the helicopter and the troops it supports. Lastly, in 2012 the adoption of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System turned the standard Hydra 70 rocket family into precision guided munitions and boosting the Apache’s lethality against precision targets. The ideal melding of evolving sensors, weapons and techniques have evolved the Apache into not only the world’s premiere attack helicopter, but the premiere Close Combat Attack platform in the world. Operational necessity brought the AH-64 back to the role it was destined to fill, even though shortsightedness initially overlooked that role.

  • Jonathan Bernstein is the Supervisory Museum Curator, US Army Air Defense Artillery Museum at US Army

He has written these books on the Apache, P-47 and AH-1.

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2. Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II

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During its development what became the A-10 endured the toughest testing of any US military aircraft before or since. Parts were exposed to large volumes of actual gunfire, in rigorous evaluations that created the most survivable of modern aircraft. The A-10 was built around a massive gun, a 30-mm rotary gun longer than a VW Beetle, capable of spewing out 4000 milk-bottle sized rounds a minute. Designed to support soldiers in the battlefield and kill tanks, this slow low-cost aircraft was not wanted by many in USAF. The air force did not want a subordinate position to the army and loved fast high technology aircraft, and so loathed this project.

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It was largely thanks to the ‘Fighter Mafia’, a rebellious group of reformers that the programme survived. One member, Pierre Sprey, had interviewed Skyraider pilots who had fought in Vietnam. Analysis of these interviews showed what was needed was a “long loiter time, low-speed manoeuvrability, massive cannon firepower, and extreme survivability” – so in many ways the success of the Skyraider informed the design of the A-10. Before it fought, many doubted such a slow aircraft could survive in combat,  but the A-10 proved ferociously effective in Desert Storm, and fought with distinction in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Its planned replacement by the F-35 is controversial and shows a return to faith in expensive high technology. Repeatedly threatened with retirement, the A-10 has enjoyed repeated reprieves and is proving typically hard to kill.

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  1. Il-2 Shturmovik: Stalin’s Hammer, Novikov’s Sickle

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In the Great Patriotic War, ground attack aircraft were the main offensive element of the Red Army Air Force. The importance of such aircraft kept grew steadily over the course of the war. Before the war less than 0.2 percent of the total number of frontline combat aircraft was Il-2s; by autumn 1942, this had become 31 percent, before levelling off at whopping 29-32 percent for the rest of the fighting (by comparison, the share of daytime bombers never exceeded 15 percent). The importance of close air support, which was possible only from low heights (600m to 800m) where the targets were clearly visible — was proved without a shadow of a doubt.

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A destroyed tank column in Belorussia, 1944. Black & white images: Oleg Rastrenin

With strikes delivered from different altitudes in groups of six-nine Il-2s at distances over 1,000 to 1,200 meters from the forward formations of advancing troops, two to four kilometres of enemy held territory was taken per day – not more. But the in case of concentrated and massive air strikes combined with multi-layered actions by regimental and divisional groups at a distance of approximately 200 -300 meres from friendly troops, the breakthrough pace grew dramatically to 10-15 kilometres per day. Such a pace prevented the German command from having sufficient time ‘closing’ the gaps in their defences and creating adequate concentrating combat groups in order to make flanking counter-attacks. There simply was not enough time.

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A German tank column wrecked by Il-2s.

Under such combat conditions, the Il-2s were subjected to extremely heavy fire from enemy ground- and air forces. According to the Red Army Air Force Air Gunnery Service Administration, it was not unusual for 8,000 to 9,000 large-calibre (13-mm) bullets and 200 to 300 small-calibre (20-mm to 37-mm) rounds to be fired at an attacking Il-2. Given that the ground attack aircraft remained above the battlefield for, on average, 10-20 minutes at a height of 200 to 1,000 metres, the crew faced a seemingly untraversable ‘sea of fire’. What saved them was the combat survivability features implemented on the Il-2; these included the armoured hull, self-sealing fuel tanks, the filling of fuel tanks with inert gas and the duplicated elevator controls. The armour reliably protected the pilot and the vital elements of the aeroplane from rifle calibre weapons and offered partial protection from larger artillery. Furthermore, the immense strength that the Il-2’s airframe had always had contributed to the enhanced combat survivability of the aircraft.

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Il-2s over Berlin. The Il-2’s wing featuring the Clark-YH airfoil did not lose its lifting efficiency even in conditions of a severe skin failure. This enabled the pilots to make it to friendly territory or airfield and to land with a damaged wing.

The armament of the Il-2 —two 23-mm VYa cannons, unguided rockets, and 400-600kg of bombs — were the right weapons for close combat air support. The variety of weaponry took into account the typical targets over the battlefield (artillery, mortars, motor vehicles, firing points, and infantry), against which ground attack aircraft had to act during the war. Armed with dispensers carry small anti-armour bomblets (312 bombs carried onboard) and 132mm armour-piercing and high-explosive rockets enabled the Il-2s to fight medium and heavy Wehrmacht tanks with confidence.

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German aircraft destroyed at Khersones in 1944.

In terms of reliability and maintainability, the aircraft quite conformed to the level that the Soviet aviation industry was able to provide at that time. Against the background of other Soviet-made combat aircraft, the build quality of the Il-2 looked more than decent.

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A German column devastated by IL-2s.

Vitally, the construction of the Il-2 met the requirements of large-scale manufacture, the rough conditions of operation, and of rapid repair in a wartime environment. The aircraft was easy to manufacture and undemanding to repair; it utilised low-quality materials and could be assembled by semi-skilled labour. Production could be geared up quickly, saturating frontline units with the much-needed aircraft within miraculously short times.

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Il-2s about to take-off.

The mass use of the Il-2 on the frontline was devastating. Well-developed tactics in concert with ground troops and covering fighters finally resulted in staggering successes. The phenomenon of the Il-2, one of the best attack aircraft of the Second World War, was born.

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Let us assume, as comparison criterion, the probability of success in providing air support for advancing troops. This involves the suppression of a battalion area which comprises: an anti-tank defensive post and three company defence areas with reinforcements, we will find that the Il-2 armed with VYa cannons was 2.3 times as good as the Junkers Ju 87D-5, 5.3 times as good as the Henschel Hs129B-2/R3, and twice as good as the Focke-Wulf Fw 190F-8.

 

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A later series Il-2.

In terms of combatting lightly armoured vehicles and medium tanks in the course of repelling the enemy’s counter strikes, the Il-2 was 2.7 times better than the Ju 87D-5, 2.8 times as good as the Hs 129B-2/R3, and 1.8 times better than the Fw 190F. Accordingly, to achieve an equal result, a lower amount of Il-2s was required in comparison with German aircraft.

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In total throughout the war, the Red Army Air Force received 31,949 Il-2s of all versions (1,258 in 1941; 7,105 in 1942; 10,599 in 1943; 9,988 in 1944; 2,999 as of 01 June 1945) including 8,067 single-seat Il-2s and 23,882 two-seat Il-2s.

Combat losses of the Il-2s totalled 11,448 aircraft (503 in 1941; 1,676 in 1942; 3,649 in 1943; 3,727 in 1944; 1,893 as of 1 June 1945).

In conclusion, the following is the opinion expressed in respect of the Il-2 by strike pilot, twice Hero of the Soviet Union, Marshal of Aviation A.N. Efimov (288 combat sorties): “The Il-2 ground attack aircraft is not simply another step in the development of the engineering thought: it is an entire era in the history of Soviet military aviation.”

— Oleg Rastrenin

Oleg Rastrenin graduated from the Moscow Applied Physics Institute in 1986 and commenced military service. He subsequently graduated from the Zhukovskiy Air Force Academy. He holds the rank of major and the title of doctor of science. Rastrenin has been working on the history of Soviet aviation since 1992, with his major research projects focusing on air tactics and the combat employment of aircraft. He has published more than 20 articles on the history of attack aircraft in Russian and foreign magazines, and is also the author of the books Red Army Attack Aircraft (1941-1945), Red Army Attack Aviation – Tough Experience and The Il-10.

He is the author of this book on the Il-2

———————

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“Our Red Army now needs Il-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats.” These were the words Stalin used to express his dissatisfaction with an aircraft factory behind on production rates. This might just tell you something about how important the Shturmovik (“ground attack” in Russian) was on the Eastern Front. Forget your A-10s, forget your Harriers, when an aircraft is so good at its role that it defines the nature of an air theatre, you know it’s formidable.

This was the original tank-killer. The aircraft that devastated German mechanised columns, that frustrated Luftwaffe aces, that scared Wehrmacht troops so much they dubbed it “The Flying Tank.” German pilots would report emptying their entire ammunition loads into Il-2s, only to watch them carry on flying. AA crews could get direct hits and the Shturmovik would shrug it off like a babushka when she’s told her farm’s been collectivised. While Soviet reports of combat destruction were, without a doubt, exaggerated, the impact that the Il-2 had on harrying and disrupting the German war machine was vital to the Red Army’s success and progress on the front.

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In typical, glorious Soviet style, Il-2 pilots were ordered to never return with unspent ammunition – fine for the guy in front, sitting in his armoured bathtub, less so for the rear-gunner who had very little protection at all. Soviet troops on the ground would even request passes from the CAS aircraft even after they had expended all their ammunition simply because of the effect it had on German soldiers. But life was cheap in the USSR, and there was never a shortage of crews for the Ilyusha.

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Nor was there ever a shortage of aircraft. Much like the famous T-34 tank, Soviet factories produced absurd numbers of Il-2s. The true sign of how significant the Shturmovik is as a CAS aircraft, the role it played in the battlefield and how much it changed the course of the war comes in this fact: the Il-2 Shturmovik is the most produced military aircraft in history . Enough said.

 

— Sam Wise

 

Sam Wise spends far too much time thinking about aeroplanes, and occasionally tweets about them and anything else

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You may also enjoy Ten incredible cancelled Soviet fighter aircraftTen worst Soviet aircraftTen incredible cancelled military aircraftFighter aircraft news round-up,  11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versusTyphoon10 Best fighters of World War II Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to WarplanesFlying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

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Eurocanards compared

The following table shows what is in operational service as of late 2019 based on best available open source material.

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Notes: Gripen has completed integration work with a cruise missile but this has not been seen on frontline aircraft. HMS/D may be at early stage of use with Qatari Rafale but no photos have emerged to support this. EW DRFM status is a guess based on available open source information but is most questionable. Rafale can access IR imagery from Mica IR missiles, dual waveband DDM-NG (missile warning system) and IR channel of Talios pod (Nav FLIR/IRST) and close to IR bandwidths from optical system. Much test and integration work has been done on Typhoon AESA.

 

 

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