10 Worst Aircraft Carriers

Seaborne airbases that didn’t quite float

Wildcats on the deck of the lamentable CVA-4.

Bing Chandler has tricked us. Here is an article that is more about bloody ships than planes. If I’ve used the wrong images it’s because all ships look the same to me. Over to Bing, former Royal Navy Lynx helicopter Observer and contributor to the fabulous Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes.

Aircraft carriers, big boats full of seamen and pilots, are basically massive floating aphrodisiacs – or money-burning toys for militarism – or vital tools for global security – all depending on your point of view. Britain gets bragging rights as their creator, converting an half-built Italian liner, the Conte Rosso into HMS Argus, the first recognisable aircraft carrier with a full-length flight deck which commissioned on 16 September 1918. In an interesting move both Britain and Japan can claim to have constructed the first carrier ordered and built as such from the keel up. Britain laying down HMS Hermes on 15 January 1918 but the Japanese completing the Hōshō on 27 December 1922, 14 months before Hermes, despite starting almost three years later. This is probably the sort of thing British industry should have taken as a warning at the time.

For those not of a nautical bent, ships size is generally talked about in terms of their displacement, not length or beam. For the benefit of comparison, a Nimitz class carrier is around 100,000 tons (the weight of 880,761 bearded pigs) while an Invincible class was around 20,000 tons (194,174 bearded pigs), while a cross Channel ferry is around 40,000 tons once you’ve filled it with tourists, duty free and second-rate fry-ups.

It’s scientifically impossible to make a bad aircraft carrier, however occasionally people make the wrong design compromises. Leaving them with something that could have been Top Gun but ends up being Ships with Wings. [1]

Not a bad carrier, we just couldn’t resist including this epic photograph of a Vigilante taking off from Enterprise with a Crusader.

[1] A 1941 British war movie in part filmed on Ark Royal

10. Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) ‘Slattery will get you nowhere’

Worryingly short of ships to put aircraft on the Royal Navy fell on the idea of one Captain Slattery RN to convert a merchant ship by fitting the minimum amount of equipment necessary to operate aircraft. This was instantly rebuffed by the Ministry of Supply who weren’t keen on losing valuable cargo capacity for the time it would take to make the conversion. Consequently, it wasn’t until mid-1943 that the first ship, Empire MacAlpine entered service and an aircraft landed on a merchant ship for the first time. Conditions were basic with a simple flight deck of around 140m built over the cargo holds which themselves held grain, stand fast one that was converted into a rudimentary hangar. The usual merchantman’s superstructure and bridge were replaced with what was apparently a small shed near the bow on the starboard side (pointy end on the right for the landlubbers).  Follow on conversions would include tankers which would not feature a hangar on something approaching health and safety grounds. For those wondering why these two classes of ship were chosen, both could be unloaded without having to access the holds from above where the flight deck now was. For oil tankers the fuel was pumped out via hoses while for grain ships it was sucked out via an industrial vacuum cleaner. A process still used today, and which is in no way annoying if circumstances have led to you living in a dockyard where it’s happening. For four days.

Operating 3 or 4 Swordfish, the only aircraft that could safely operate from something with a maximum speed of 15 knots, the air groups regularly suffered at the hands of the weather and landing accidents if not the enemy. Aside from three flights parented by 860 NAS of the Dutch Navy the other 16 ships embarked flights of 836 NAS which including spare aircraft at depots on both sides of the Atlantic parented around 100 Swordfish, probably the largest squadron ever to have existed, under the overall command of a Lieutenant Commander, something that today would require at least a Captain and a staff of Commanders.

For this great, and perilous effort, the MAC Ships were responsible for exactly no U-Boats being sunk. Although their presence was often a morale booster for the captains of the ships being escorted by early 1944 some were being used to transport a backlog of aircraft across the Atlantic instead of hunting for U-Boats. With limited utility in the vastness of the Pacific the first ships began to have their flight decks removed in October of 1944 in some cases having only entered service a year before.

On the plus side no MACs were lost to enemy action, and only a handful of ships were lost in convoys escorted by them the presence of the Swordfish arguably having kept U-Boats at a safe distance. However, the main reason for this apparent success was that by the time they were entering service the Battle of the Atlantic was if not won, firmly turned in the Allies favour. Depending on your point of view the Ministry of Supply either delayed the introduction of a convoy saving weapon or had a point about the effectiveness of the idea.

2 USS Ranger ‘Ranger danger’

Admiral Ernest King, USN Chief of Operations through World War Two could, if one was being cynical, be described as a bit Anglophobic. His refusal to adopt Royal Navy anti-submarine tactics on the United States entry to the war led to a second Happy Time for U-boat crews, this time along the US Eastern Seaboard. Later in the war he would go to great, but unsuccessful, lengths to prevent the RN becoming involved in the Pacific Theatre. He did however insist that no logistics support be provided by the USN leading to a black market in assistance to the British Pacific Fleet.

Given this he was faced with something of a predicament in late 1942 after the Battle of Santa Cruz had reduced his carrier fleet in the Pacific to the USS Saratoga. He could either ask for the Royal Navy to loan him a replacement or redeploy the USS Ranger from the Atlantic. That HMS Victorious spent Mar-Aug 1943 in the Pacific operating with the USN gives some indication of the deficiencies of the Ranger.

The first US carrier to be built from the keel up as such Ranger was relatively small as the USN had used up most of the tonnage available under the Washington Naval Treaty. [2] At 17,000 tons she was around 7,000 tons bigger than Hermes or Hōshō but the USN had somehow shoehorned 70 aircraft on her, to their 20, by making a few compromises. To keep things in trim and reduce the exhaust gasses the powerplant was small producing around 55,000 horsepower, for a top speed of 30 knots. As a weight saving measure there was no provision for a torpedo squadron as commissioned in 1934, one only being gained shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbour. More worryingly the rapid advance in aircraft sophistication and weight during the 1930s meant that by WW2 her flight deck wasn’t strong enough to support the air group. Which as that’s the point of an aircraft carrier did make her somewhat redundant. Consequently, apart from a brief stint attacking North Africa during Operation Torch and Norway in Operation Leader Ranger spent most of the war ferrying aircraft across the Atlantic and after a refit in 1944 to strengthen the flight deck as a training carrier in the Pacific.

The only pre-war US carrier not to see action against the Japanese, it arguably saw less action than any pre-war carrier aside from the French Bearn and forced Admiral King to face the ultimate indignity of asking the British to lend a hand.

[2] If you ever find yourself being asked why an inter-war ship has some ‘interesting’ design features just mutter ‘Washington Naval Treaty’ and nod sagely.

Top 10 naval helicopters here.

3 HMS Furious 1917 – 1920 ‘The Spurious’

HMS Furious was being used as an aircraft carrier before the Argus entered service, but not in a way that was recognisable to any sane person. Originally designed as a battle cruiser armed with two 18” guns, one at each end, the forward one was lost to a ten aircraft hangar and flying off ramp during build. [3] The more observant will have noticed the lack of any landing on facility. Despite this Sqn Cdr Edwin Dunning became the first person to successfully land on a moving ship by slide slipping his Sopwith Pup past the superstructure on 2 August 1917. The short coming in this process became obvious during his third attempt when the engine stopped on short finals leaving no option but to crash in the sea off the starboard bow resulting in the pilot’s untimely death.

In an attempt to rectify the issue, the aft 18” gun was also removed and a landing on deck was built in its place. In a case of close but no cigar, the superstructure remained in situ with nice little paths either side to allow aircraft to taxi around it. Despite this obvious shortcoming she was used to launch a successful raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, the first attack by aircraft launched from a ship at sea. Tellingly the direction for those aircraft making it back to the ship was to ditch alongside rather than attempting to land.

After this interesting start Furious was extensively rebuilt in the inter-war period with a full flush deck and served through the Second World War as an entirely adequate aircraft carrier. Which is more than can be said for her two sisters Courageous and Glorious that both managed to get sunk within the first twelve months of the conflict.

[3] The forward gun was ultimately installed on the monitor HMS General Wolfe, a considerably smaller ship designed purely to bombard shore positions. Imagine something that looks like a barge carrying the guns to the bigger ships.

4 USS Langley ‘Kiss Kiss Lang Lang’

While most countries first aircraft carriers were conversions of existing ships, these were usually liners or battlecruisers, large fast ships. In a slightly perverse move what would become the largest proponent of naval aviation started off with a collier with a top speed of 15.5 knots. The conversion itself appears to have been done on something of a budget as the lift to the flight deck stopped some eight feet above the hangar deck. The hangar deck itself was open to the elements, being the original main deck with the flight deck mounted above it and was used for the assembly of aircraft stored in the ship’s now vacant coal holds. A time and motion study research project in itself this arrangement meant it took around a quarter of an hour to get an aircraft to or from the flight deck, never mind the time spent getting it up to the hangar deck. Initially this let the Langley operate all of 12 aircraft.

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Desperation being the mother of invention the USN reacted by inventing the deck park and developing techniques that allowed faster launch and recovery of the air group. By 1927 Langley’s air group was 36 aircraft and she was successfully carrying out mock attacks on the Panama Canal. More importantly the knowledge gained would inform the development of all subsequent US carriers.

Langley herself was converted a second time into a seaplane carrier in 1937, operating as an aircraft ferry she was sunk by the Japanese in early 1942.

5. FS Bearn ‘Feel the Bearn’

The Bearn was France’s first aircraft carrier and like most of the early attempts was tacked on to an already built hull. In this case although originally laid down in 1914 as a battleship she had spent most of the First World War being worked on very slowly between breaks for Gitanes and an absinthe. Finally in 1920 a wooden deck was built on top of the half complete hull while various trials were carried out using Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters and Hanriot HD.3s, meanwhile the Marine Nationale spent the best part of a year trying to decide whether or not to finish the top half as a battleship or an aircraft carrier. The Washington Naval Treaty finally forcing their hand in 1922 when further Battleship construction was effectively banned for a decade.

After studying the state of the art in the United Kingdom they came up with a typically French solution to the problem of the flight deck being unusable while the elevators were down. Giant clamshell doors that would serve as the flight deck while the elevator was shuttling aircraft between hangars although it’s not clear these really helped. Bearn could recover 15 aircraft in just over an hour thanks to the lack of crash barrier which meant each aircraft had to be placed in the hangar after it landed. For comparison without the benefit of fancy elevator shaft doors Glorious could manage 32 aircraft in 42 minutes despite also not having a crash barrier, while with one Saratoga could manage 40 in just under 11 and a half minutes. The French aviation industry didn’t help the situation, the Dewoitine D.376 fighter was a navalised development of the D.373 with wings that took an hour to fold.

With a top speed of only 21.5kts the Bearn was slow, which as well as making flight operations increasingly difficult as aircraft got bigger and faster, also made fleet operations challenging as she would be unable to keep pace with battleships.

The German invasion of France saw Bearn carrying reserves of gold to Canada and she was returning with a mix of Curtiss Hawk fighters, Stinson Voyagers, and surplus Curtiss Helldiver bi-planes when France fell. The highlight of her Vichy French war time carrier was discovering a propeller blade had fallen off while being serviced in Guadalupe. Switching to the Free French side with the rest of the French Antilles. Bearn spent 1944 being converted to an aircraft ferry, managing one trip in that role before the war ended.

The Bearn did manage at least one first however, when a Potez 565 landed and took off from her deck in September 1936, becoming the first twin engine aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier. Despite what’s claimed for Winkle Brown and the Sea Mosquito.

6 Avenger Class (All of them) – Avengers disassemble!

Before WW2 had even started the idea of using converted merchant ships as aircraft carriers had been advanced on both sides of the Atlantic. With the early loss of Glorious and Courageous and the impact of the Focke-Wulfe Condor on convoys the Royal Navy rapidly turned concept into practice by adapting a spare German merchantman they’d captured, it’s probably lucky that HMS Audacity was so successful during her short existence as the next batch of Escort Carriers as they came to be known may well have been more deadly to the Allies than the Axis.

Adapted from merchant hulls that were under construction at the time of Pearl Harbour Avenger, Biter, and Dasher (seemingly named after Dennis the Menace’s dogs) were small ships of 8,200 tons with an air group of up to 15 aircraft, typically Martlets or Swordfish. For the OCD inclined a fourth ship Charger was retained by the USN as a training carrier. As the ships were already half built when the decision was made to convert them into pocket carriers their basic design left a little to be desired when it came to being a warship. Although unlike Audacity they at least had a small hangar.

Top 10 carrier fighters here

After arriving in the UK Avenger acted as convoy escort to and from Russia where her Swordfish and Sea Hurricane aircraft made a valiant attempt at defence despite their various shortcomings, assisting in the sinking of U-589 and downing at least 5 aircraft. After this she took part in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, on the return from which she was hit by a torpedo from U-155. Unfortunately, this hit what was euphemistically referred to as the depth charge magazine, but which was really just an unarmoured part of the ship’s hold. The subsequent explosion destroyed the ship with the loss of 516 members of the ship’s company.

Biter fared slightly better, surviving the war, however she did manage to breakdown on her delivery trip to the UK and gain a Swordfish in the island during a landing accident the next day. To add insult to injury later in the war she was hit by a homing torpedo from one of her own Swordfish that crashed astern of her.

Dasher meanwhile also participated in Operation Torch where on D-Day she lost two thirds of her Sea Hurricanes due to geographical confusion among the aircrew. This was partly recovered after those that had landed ashore found fuel but on the second morning only 6 serviceable aircraft were available. The following year while departing for her second Arctic convoy Dasher suffered one of the engine breakdowns that cursed the class and returned to the Firth of Clyde where on the night of 27 March 1943, with no help from the enemy, she blew up. With the loss of 379 crew this was one of the largest maritime disasters in British waters. There was much finger pointing with the RN complaining of the inadequate fuel storage system on the American built CVEs which had led to a strong smell of petrol throughout Dasher. The US meanwhile blamed poor limey petrol-handling skills, although oddly they did also introduce some of the RN’s suggested fuel system modifications to all subsequent escort carrier.

4. Graf ZeppelinMax Plank

To counter the Royal Navy, second-rate painter and best-selling author Adolf Hitler proposed a decade long expansion of the German navy (the Kreigsmarine), known as Plan Z. Plan Z called for 10 battleships, 3 battlecruisers, 33 cruisers, and 4 aircraft carriers. Fortunately, as the plan was only authorised in January 1939 most of the construction didn’t happen and that which did had generally been started before the plan was even finalised. The Graf Zeppelin laid down in 1936 and would be as close to a carrier as Germany would get.

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At a projected 33,000 tons and able to carry 43 aircraft the Graf Zeppelin would have been broadly comparable to an Illustrious class carrier of the Royal Navy. For an air group the Kreigsmarine originally intended to use the Fieseler Fi 167 a purpose designed biplane torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Think the result of an illicit liaison between a Swordfish and a Storch. Due to delays with the Graf Zeppelin only a handful were completed and none of them ever went to sea. When construction of the carrier was briefly restarted in 1942 a navalised Stuka, was intended to take on the torpedo bomber role. Given the success of the Aichi D3A Val during the early years of the war in the Pacific this would almost undoubtedly have been outclassed if it had entered front line service at any point after 1943. The fighter element was to consist of a squadron of Me 109T, a number of which were built and in lieu of a ship to fly from provided point defence to Heligoland. Which was probably a good thing as it’s hard to imagine an aircraft less suited to carrier operations. Apart from the Seafire. With a similarly narrow track undercarriage and with a long DB601N V-12 in front of the pilot to obscure his view of the ship it has to be assumed the attrition rate through landing accidents would approach 100% on any reasonable length deployment. Still at least they’d have enough endurance to wait while the deck was cleared…

Top 10 US Navy aircraft of WW2 here.

The Graf Zeppelin itself was occasionally upgraded during the war with a fighter direction compartment and extra anti-aircraft weaponry installed, but never quite got to an operational state. She did however see sterling service as a timber store in the Baltic before being captured by advancing Soviet Forces in April 1945. After some desultory testing the Soviets sank the Zeppelin in 1947, which is a shame as it was probably the best aircraft carrier they ever had too.

3. Akitsu Maru

If you think the US Navy’s Army having an Air Force is odd, by the end of WW2 the Imperial Japanese Army had a Navy with an Air Arm. The Akitsu Maru was taken over by the IJA during build and completed as an amphibious warfare vessel, similar to the modern-day Wasp class. A flight deck was built over the main deck, which itself was used for storing aircraft in the absence of a hangar. Additionally, 27 landing craft were carried to allow men and light tanks to be put ashore.

Although intended to provide air support for amphibious landings the Akitsu Maru was of limited use in the role due to the lack of arrestor gear, IJA doctrine requiring a landing field ashore to be made available as soon as possible. Consequently, she spent most of her limited-service life employed as an aircraft ferry. However, the Kokusai Ki-76 spotter plane was able to take off and land on her flight deck, as was the Kayaba Ka-1 autogyro. [4] As the war progressed not necessarily to Japan’s favour these aircraft were pressed into service to search for submarines and armed with 60kg depth charges to attack them, allowing the Akitsu Maru to act as an escort carrier. As plans go this seems quite sensible and was basically what the Royal Navy were doing in the Atlantic. However, on one such mission on 15 November 1944 she was hit by torpedoes from the submarine USS Queenfish and sank in three minutes.

[4] Shockingly footage of this happening is available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EFt7cLCRSY

2. Kuznetsov ‘Smoke on the water’ or ‘The Flanker Tanker’

The Soviet Union and its successor have had something of a love hate relationship with carrier aviation. On the one hand claiming to have created a carrier killer, the ill-fated Slava class one of which is now resting on the bottom of the Black Sea due to mild weather, and on the other still seeing enough benefit in them to have one as the pride of its navy. The Kuznetsov is probably most famed for the plume of dark smoke that follows it everywhere but the engines running a bit rich is the least of her worries. [5]

Having failed to build a successful VSTOL fighter the Russian Navy decided to go with the worst of both worlds and equip their ship with a ski jump and arrestor wires and use conventional aircraft. Using a ski ramp with a conventional aircraft isn’t without its advantages versus flying off a flat deck but you still need a longer run than most carriers can provide to take-off at your maximum all up mass. [6] Which is why footage of the Kuznetsov’s flying operations don’t feature much weaponry beyond a few air-to-air missiles.

Soviet doctrine preferred equipment to be capable of multiple roles, attack helicopters that can carry troops that sort of thing. Consequently, like its predecessor the Kiev class the Kuznetsov has a range of missiles including 12 launch tubes for the 7-ton Granite missile in the forward flight deck. Which raises some interesting questions such as how long does it take to clear the FOD after a missile launch, or wouldn’t that space be better used for storing aircraft?

The main issue working against the Kuznetsov however is Soviet build quality and Russian maintenance. Since commissioning in 1991 she’s deployed 8 times, to the Atlantic or Mediterranean, which is an average of once every 4 years. During the most recent of which she lost two aircraft due to issues with the arrestor wires before giving up and sending the remainder of the air group ashore. Seemingly never a priority for funding previous refits have been drawn out and failed to meet the initially ambitious plans advertised by the Russian Ministry of Defence. To this the most recent has added an element of farce. In 2018 the floating dry dock she was in sunk while also dropping a 70-tonne crane through the flight deck. Over a year later a fire broke out causing around $8 million of damage. Finally in 2022 a special dry dock was constructed, apparently by digging a large muddy ditch to join two smaller ones together. Currently the Kuznetsov is expected to return to the Russian Navy in 2024, about 8 years after the refit started. Which is about the same length of time it took the UK to build two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers.

RAF Typhoons and the Russian carrier is smoky when moving at 20 knots.

[5] Pedants may like to point out that the Russian language refer to ships as masculine, which is correct. But this is written in English where they’re referred to as feminine.

[6] Helpfully if you can get up to the speed required it will probably break the nose gear as it hits the ramp.

1. Shinano ‘Shinano 21-speed gears of war’

Yamato and Musashi are well known as the largest and most powerful battleships ever constructed and if Space Battleship Yamato is to be believed the only to achieve faster-than-light travel. Less well known is their half-sister the Shinano, possibly because only two known photos of her exist and halfway through construction, she was converted into a 66,000-ton support carrier. To put that into context the Essex class attack carriers that formed the backbone of the US Fleet by the end of the war displaced only two-thirds as much and carried a striking force of 90 aircraft.

Laid down in May 1940 under great secrecy construction was paused in December 1941, presumably because the IJN had a lot going on that month. By June of 1942, the Battle of Midway led the IJN to be unexpectedly short of four fleet carriers and the decision was made to complete the Shinano as a carrier able to provide replacement aircraft to the rest of the fleet. In this role she was planned to carry 120 reserve aircraft while operating her own small air group of 18 Mitsubishi A7M fighters, 18 Aichi B7A torpedo bombers, and 6 Nakajima C6N reconnaissance aircraft. Or at least that was a plan.

With events increasingly turning against the Japanese Empire the construction of the Shinano was accelerated with the dockyard working with the kind of ‘hardcore’ practices favoured by Elon Musk. Finished some 7 months ahead of schedule she was launched in October 1944 with a build quality even British Leyland might consider suspect.

Shinano left the construction yard on 28th November with a cargo of Shinyo special attack boats and Ohka special attack aircraft, sailing to Kure where fitting out would be completed.’ On the 29th of November some nine hours after sailing, four torpedoes from the USS Archerfish hit her port side where thanks to bad damage control practices and the aforementioned build quality, they caused widespread flooding which took her to the bottom seven hours later. Thanks to the secrecy with which Shinano had been built the USN initially refused to believe the Archerfish’s Captain’s claim as it didn’t match with the location of any known carrier.

The biggest carrier ever built until the USS Forrestal was launched in 1954 the effort expended probably wasn’t worth it for a minor intelligence victory over the USN.


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Top 10 things fighter pilots really don’t want to hear

We wonder which 10 things fighter pilots least wanted to hear so we looked for the biggest wristwatch in the bar and found it on the wrist of Paul Tremelling. After a life spent taming Sea Harriers, Harriers and Super Hornets, Paul has had his fill of terrifying, annoying or exasperating noises, here are his top (or bottom) 10.

Another way of looking at this is the Top Ten Things Fighter Pilots Find Most Annoying or Disappointing. We won’t waste words on things we should all despise: Pomposity and dishonesty, so you won’t find lying in the top ten. That’s a given. Who wouldn’t hate the crew that invent Situational Awareness for debrief purposes when they clearly had none in the air? Who wouldn’t scorn a unit with a miraculously low incident reporting rate that thought covering up errors made them look better? Who wouldn’t think ill of a squadron that dropped a Paveway on the pan but didn’t own up to it? So here goes. Cue some fitting music, like The Only Way is Up, as we find out the Top Ten things fighter pilots really don’t want to hear!

Glossary of terms

Gash = rubbish/garbage/crap/poor quality

Charlie = Idiot

Pillock = Idiot

Fratted = Killed by your own side, from ‘fratricide’

Have Quick = System to keep radio communications safe from enemy meddling or snooping

Og-Splosh = sea (corruption of Ogin)

Tracking juice = The psychological/physiological capacity for tracking things with eyes and interpreting that into hand movements. We use it to explain the fact that you can’t keep doing high workload hand eye coordination forever. So instead of saying ‘I could no longer keep the sight on the enemy aircraft’ we might say ‘I ran out of tracking juice’.

10. Helicopter crew radio transmissions

The kind of people that talk while you’re trying to watch TV.

You can mimic a helicopter crew radio transmission by standing next to a whining mosquito-killer, tapping your larynx at six hertz and sharing your life story. All the weary fast-jet jockey wants to do, as the life blood slips away from the sortie, is to get to an aerodrome and land. The only relevant communication is to say hello, say who you are and what you want to do:

“Yeovilton, SATAN, Join”.

Done. Dusted.

Nothing to say until you announce your arrival at the initial point with the even more elegant –

“SATAN, Initials”.

Imagine then rolling to the tower frequency – as distance-to-run disappears at 5 or 6 miles per minute – to be intercepted by one of the world’s more effective comm jammers – the Sea King Mk 4. Explaining (try not to fall asleep) that they had just lifted from somewhere, were going somewhere else, were following the poor weather route, they had set their altimeter correctly and their brother had been to a wedding once and had met the bass player from Ocean Colour Scene. Just when you thought you could get a word in edgeways some Lynx looker (Lynx helicopter Observer) would announce that they were going to cross, then re-cross, the main runway before making their way to the southern exercise areas at something akin to walking pace. As an aside (dear Lynx fellows) surely if you didn’t cross the runway, re-crossing would be unnecessary? At about this point the neatly dressed off four-ship of the Fleet Air Arm’s finest would be approaching the boundary fence with masks off – swearing into the ether – waiting to quickly shout “SATAN, past initials”!


The zenith of comm jamming could probably be awarded to the monologue that followed a rotary wing practice emergency. An interminable monologue made even worse by the announcement of ‘Practice PAN’ at the start needing to be repeated 3 times. Quite why this had to be verbalised for the entire western hemisphere I have no idea. It would be followed by the usual patter of where, who, what the non-existent problem was being imagined to be…sorry, drifted off even writing that bit…it even included a ‘when’ as if ‘now’ wasn’t fairly obvious. A well-constructed call could take a rotary wing operator as long to get through as it did for you to get back to Yeovilton from Exeter (two and a half counties!) – wondering why they weren’t just asking for the outcome they were after e.g. a running landing rather than explaining months of helo groundschool in a transmission that could easily make the Guinness Book of Records. Then again. Not much else for them to do to do I suppose.

World’s more effective comm jammer

9. Guns!

Simulated gun combat can result in severe FOMO or damaged egos.

This is probably the greatest thing to say and the worst to hear. Saying it means that you’ve put simulated, in my case (real in others), bullets through someone else’s aeroplane and are claiming a kill. The height of airborne one-upmanship. What could possibly be better? Wandering in with that ‘I’m-not-swaggering-swagger’ knowing that at some point you’ll bump into whoever it was that filled the gunsight. For once looking forward to the debrief in the absolute, 100%, certainty that there was no way on God’s green earth that the weapon had been mis-cued, fired at the wrong target, not supported – or heaven forbid launched at a friendly. The issue with hearing a guns call is that you’re, obviously, not the one who is making it. That could mean that someone else on your team has had more fun than you, maybe done a better job than you, is just generally better (at least for a fleeting second) than you. Pretty annoying. The alternative is horrendous. It’s you that’s being gunned and someone else is over you like a rash, on you like a cheap suit, riding you like a…you get the idea. Of course you’re magnanimous, of course you accept the kill, of course you don’t argue in the debrief…but deep down it burns like hell. Best to delay the drive home until the amygdala have chilled their herbs a little.

Satisfyingly/annoyingly uncountermeasurable gunfire.

8. Aircraft-X gunned an Aircraft-Y

If you’re boasting, you have an emotional horse in the race
Intergenerational air combat

There are a variety of themes on this one but the classic is of a data burst aimed at someone in a flying coverall by someone not in a flying coverall (plane-splaining). It is used by people who like a particular aircraft (usually for aesthetic reasons) to justify liking it and to show some form of ascendancy of their chosen champion over someone else’s. Usually that someone else is the coverall wearer and they are stood beside Aircraft Y hoping that the nice German gentleman with the in-depth technical questions doesn’t come back. It is delivered with confidence, even if it makes no sense, is clearly a statistical outlier, is being referred to as fact whereas it’s usually secondhand anecdote at best and has yet to be subjected to the rigorous test of ‘So fucking what?’. The fact is that all aircraft are a compromise of one form or another and if you look hard enough you can find evidence of every dog having their day. I watched aghast in a de-brief once as a mate squirmed his way through a tape showing how a Jaguar had shot him. Hat’s off to the Jag mate but it really doesn’t show much more than they, armed with a Winder, somehow managed a one-off against a bloke with radar and AMRAAM that really (really) (really) should have done better. The statement also usually completely disregards aircraft role, generation and investment when used to justify a particular programme. ‘I met a bloke once in an X-Wing who claimed a kill on a Sopwith Camel’ – well so they should! What’s your point? ‘I met a bloke once who gunned a F-15 in a Typhoon’. Excellent. Any chance the reverse is also true? Do me a favour lofty. Cut along to the beer tent and come back with an IPA.

7. Gash check-ins

Shut up already

Check-ins are used to confirm that you’re all on the same frequency. They also have a secondary unstated role of letting the team know that everyone is ‘up for this one’. Teeth sharpened, warpaint on.

They should go something like





Crisp, quick, immaculate.

Gash check-ins are the exact opposite, and fill a leader with seething rage. It’s not that hard and people being late, lazy or on the wrong frequency is just unacceptable. And for some reason you’re not allowed to unstrap, jog across the pan and shoot the miscreant in the face. Maybe it’s because that would put you further behind schedule and your schedule has been finessed to +/- 3 seconds. If you ever hear the sound ‘Bit. Dit. Blip. Bid. Blah. Lip’ in very quick succession it might be because you are in the middle of a radio check and some Charlie – who the King has entrusted with a precious, multimillion pound aircraft – cannot programme their bloody Have Quick. Have Quick jumps frequency to fool the opposition and there is a generally sound rule of thumb that it is so complex to use that first tourists can’t manage it. It isn’t complex. But it still results in check ins that go something like ‘SATAN Check’ ‘Two’ ‘Three’ ‘Dit, clip. Bib…’ as the whelp in the number four position looks helplessly around hoping that divine intervention will occur at some point. Poor check ins are actually so common they occur whilst attacking evil space stations. If I had been Red Leader in a galaxy far, far away I think I’d have fratted most of my own formation and a fair bit of the Gold section losers for their incredibly poor radio discipline. How can you possibly check-in in the order 10, 7, 3, 6 for fuck’s sake? Checking-in on time, on frequency and in order isn’t hard. Making it look hard is enough for one’s blood to boil.

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6. No Fault Found

Please don’t take any of this as unwarranted criticism of the wizards that keep fast jets airborne. But to tell someone that something’s wrong and for them not to find out what – is somewhat tedious. Mainly because you don’t do this for fun. It’s about the jets being mission ready. No Fault Found actually has an attendant running argument as to what constitutes a serviceable aircraft. Aircrew will argue it’s an aircraft with everything on the GO side of the GO/ NOGO equation working. Some disagree and have occasionally been heard to use phrases such as “This one’s fine but not according to the pilots”. The real trouble with No Fault Found is that usually it means ‘Fault will invariably crop up again in the next trip and probably at a really annoying time’. There are of course outliers explained by aircrew buffoonery. My favourite is the Incident Signal contained in the 800 Naval Air Squadron line book. The aircraft had been made unserviceable by a pilot who had ‘let it all go’ a little and had claimed that the small motor that powered the ejection seat up and down was faulty. The rectification action simply read ‘Seat tested with pilot below maximum boarding weight. Seat assessed serviceable’. The French fellows managed a classic No Fault Found when I was away with them. On two trips the boys snagged the aircraft fuel system of a particular Rafale. No Fault Found on sorties une et deux . On trip trois the same thing happened but this time left dear old Omar no option but to park the pretty Dassault chariot in the og-splosh and await the rescue helo. Fret not, he was in the bar with a neck brace that evening. No Fault Found? Turns out the aircrew weren’t lying!

5. Anything

This might sound a little odd. There is a general theme perpetuated by movies such as the majestic TOPGUN Maverick that crews talk all the time. They don’t. Nothing is said in the air that is either standard procedure or has been pre-briefed. The RAF tried to change this by insisting that formation changes were called and acknowledged once. Must have been an issue in the twin-seat community because our wing people (not a phrase used at the time) were all capable of working out what formation fitted the circumstances the best and being in it. I believe we called them ‘thinking wingmen’ which seems a small expectation of someone in a fast jet (Loyal Wingmen also seems a sleight). No need for extraneous comm. You don’t need to tell people that you are on track, on time because that was briefed. You don’t need to tell people that you are off track or late, because that’s obvious. You don’t need to tell people to watch out for fighters or SAMs because that’s their job and lethal threats will not be far from the front of the grey matter. What you might need is the bloody radio to be clear for really, really important stuff. For example the twin seaters are late, therefore the ALARMs (anti radar missiles for shutting down hostile air defences) aren’t going to be launched on time, therefore the Time On Target needs to be changed. If some turkey is telling you about stuff you already know at the time – that’s an issue! Furthermore – if you want the enemy to know that you’re coming – some pillock transmitting irrelevance on UHF, whether frequency agile, encrypted or otherwise is a great way to perk them up a bit. Zip lip. It makes sense.

4. Nothing

This may sound odd, after the above. But there is a logic to it. Words, air time and bandwidth are precious in a jet. So when you actually depress the Push To Transmit button it’s because you need a very important piece of information or need to speak to someone that is broadly speaking mission critical. Simple questions might be something like “Number 3, have you checked the weather at base?” asked in a passive-aggressive (actually just aggressive) manner because the reason you are asking is that you are past the pre-briefed time when he was supposed to find out for you. In this instance silence is infuriating. The same is true of external agencies. In all my time I don’t think I heard silence in a single case working with Forward Air Controllers or Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (same difference, UK FACs started calling themselves JTACs because the Americans had and it sounded cooler). But it was a very common occurrence working with ship’s Fighter Controllers – particularly the poor buggers who got to control once in a blue moon and had multiple other duties on the ship. Silence, from the one person you had actually set up the entire mission for. Not much you can do but go back to another frequency, tell someone else and hope they can rod through whatever the problem was. The same was invariably true of Red Crown who were the people in an Anti Air Warfare destroyer tasked with ensuring that goodies left and rejoined the fleet unassailed whilst baddies got a SAM in the face for their troubles. Important? More like critical. Easy? Piece of piss; just check in and say hello. Did the side breathers ever get it right? Well, never is probably a stretch but seldom is accurate. It was very common to spend an entire exercise off Scotland dutifully checking in with Red Crown, hearing nothing, getting bored and flying the mission. This would be followed by coming home, checking in with Red Crown, hearing nothing and calling the boat for recovery. Somewhere in a Type 42 or an Arleigh Burke a headset would be resting on a desk, crackling away to itself whilst the surface fleet do whatever it is they do in an exercise – mainly sitting around in funny white hats and gloves wondering when the next mess tin of stew will arrive.

3. The clangers and attention getters

An earlier Sea Harrier demonstrating a sensible height

An incredibly loud ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ sound accompanied by dizzying red flashing lights. I initially try and work out if this is just a middle-aged hangover. No, this is Major Warning Audio Alarm (I’m guessing the name) revealing that something very important has catastrophically failed. Now, I’ve said it before, the aviation gods are capricious and cruel– and they don’t spring these things on you when you are at your sharpest. They wait until you’re doing something a little complacently, or are already working so hard that a quick blast of emergency handling is bound to tip you over the edge. A classic of the former occurred off Gibraltar. There I was minding my own business on Combat Air Patrol when I looked down and saw a periscope making its way around the Mediterranean. This obviously called for a bit of low level ‘totally pointless but very good fun’ show-boating. So down the 20,000ft or so I went as quickly as seemed sensible (not that the whole thing was sensible) and waxed over the top at the sort of extremely low height that we used to be able to do. As I passed over the submarine, the flashers and the major warning light illuminated telling me I had an engine fire. Goddam, back to Gib’ for a fixed power approach. They’d been watching, and in this case rightly so! A good example of the second case would be coming to the hover alongside the boat on a lumpy day in the North Sea. Tracking juice was running out as ship heaved and I tried not to let my hands follow it. The major warning sounded and it turned out that the jet was now in ‘Manual Fuel System’ which meant that all the clever stuff which kept the mighty Pegasus in check had failed and my left hand was now essentially an ON/OFF switch for the fuel hose. No dramas at the end of the day but at max power alongside was  not the ideal time to find out that the engine was having a fairly significant malfunction and the chances of going for a swim had just taken a step change in the wrong direction.

2. Commitment issues

We’re not going. What do you mean we’re not going? How can we not be going? There are plenty of reasons to not ‘commit aviation’. Many if not all of them are common sense. That doesn’t make actually employing these reasons any more palatable. They can range from the ship being out of limits as it bobs around, the weather in the target area being so punk that parachuting ‘in the event of’ was likely to be fatal – to the more frustrating engineering issues that could occasionally crop up. A lost spanner needed to be found lest it was nestling in a control run – or the unbelievable but 100% true case whereby a hydraulic fluid pump was found wedged onto an oil canister. Did we have oily hyds or did we have pink oil? Hard to say…best ground the fleet. In this case the Hawk T1.

Whilst it might sound sensible to scrub missions occasionally, the issue is this. Flying fast jets is about knowing when to ‘push it’ and when to ‘call it a day’. You don’t get to be a force of good standing by calling it a day.

You are on a seam that civilian risk managers wouldn’t understand but the good Lord Flashheart would in the “Well, this isn’t a good use of my time and resources but I’m still going to do it” sort of way. Your job is to find a way. To come up with Plan D when A, B and 3 have all failed. To cobble something together. To make it work. Even when you can hear the nails going into your sortie’s coffin one by one – you’re not dead yet and you won’t be until that thing is double chained, padlocked and at the bottom of the ogin. But when it happens it’s the ultimate deflation. Mainly because the trips that get canned are the ones that take every single nano percent of your ability and guile to plan in the first place. The planning, the expectation, the slight gnawing sensation in the stomach all for nothing. Doubly annoying is that the decision is most often made by someone completely removed from the sortie. The zenith for me occurred strapped into the jet at the back of the boat in the Gulf of Bothnia. We were told to get out. A Harrier formation led by me, a flight commander, had been authed (authorised) to fly by my squadron CO from a ship commanded by a RN Captain (who hasn’t done badly since!). We were ordered to get out over the phone by a Flight Lieutenant from High Wycombe. White hot rage doesn’t come close. If that fucker had been on the ship I would have quite happily put a whole magazine of 9 mil through the bridge of his nose. And breathe. Suffice to say, cancelling when you’d worked hard to make it work makes a strong play for top spot. In fact – it’s just occurred to me. If you’re one of the folk who greet ‘We’re not going’ with an urge to kick your helmet into the nearest wall – you can be on my team. If you feel relief – you may not be a fighter pilot after all.

  1. ‘They’

So here it is, Number One, and it’s an odd one: They. This is an abstract concept. They are immeasurably powerful. They are omnipresent. They tinker with your life like a master of puppets. They are oft quoted. They appear in numerous conversations. They don’t exist.

They are the purveyors of neat, weapon-grade, perceived wisdom. Let me give you an example: The real reason that the UK bought the F-35B rather than the one that goes furthest or the one that carries the most is that ‘they’ will tell you the deck cycle is more efficient. The reason that Harriers never did flypasts in London is that ‘they’ will tell you that it’s perfectly fine to do so in a single-engine red Hawk but not the shiny grey VSTOL masterpiece. The reason the carrier didn’t go to flying stations between Suez and Bab-el-Mandeb is because ‘they’ said that flying in the Red Sea was impossible. People of generally sound mind would quote the raving musings of ‘they’ in important briefs and meetings.

The real issue with ‘they’ is that the Supreme Being that is ‘they’ was actually an all smothering form of abdication where one didn’t have to stand by a stupid opinion. One (it appears) could inject any opinion into a conversation if you attributed it to ‘they’. Which is ridiculous because warfare is about cold, hard fact. To get an opinion in Combat Air you need to come armed with facts to which you have applied conscious thought. Not third hand baloney. They may well think that you should add an extra mile or two to the shot ranges. But until ‘they’ turn up in the brief and explain themselves then you can shoot when the Air Warfare Instructor goddam tells you to shoot. They may well cancel flying on the forecast – but the bloody rule says to do it when the wind actually goes over 40 knots, not when the met man says it might. They may well cancel operational sorties when one half of the Stores Management System has a wobbly; but that’s why the amazing designers gave you two halves and the other one’s just fine and dandy. They may well say that jet Z is a masterpiece but when you’re on the pan wondering how much more fallout your mission can take – they are never there. They may well think the other jet can carry more than yours but they have once again forgotten that if it pickles off more than one bomb it might well drop the bloody targeting pod. If I ever do actually find ‘they’ blood will flow; there’s going to be an almighty fight.

So there you go. Everything from weather scrub, to radios, to perceived wisdom to the jet breaking. Something for everyone. Actually I’ve thought of one more. Tea. If I was prepared to make tea, I wouldn’t have asked the crew room ‘Who wants a coffee?’ would I?

By Paul Tremelling, author of Harrier: How to be a fighter pilot here

Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here and Super Hornet here.

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10 Obscure Cancelled French Warplanes of the 1950s

Hugo Mark Michel and Joe Coles previously took you on a tour of France’s strangest aeroplanes, and now, in the happy murk of a remote bar outside Toulouse, and high on fine cheese and wine, they have hatched a fresh conspiracy. They went in search of 10 thrilling – yet somehow scorned – French warplanes from the 1950s that have too long lurked in the shadows. Non, je ne regrette rien? Maybe a few…

10. Breguet Br 960 Vultur (1951) ‘Boule de feu’

France was determined to never again suffer the catastrophe of invasion. So with a blank cheque, the nation embarked on a major post-war shopping spree to radically modernise and reequip its armed forces. One of the big-ticket items was naval aviation, France’s ragtag fleet had three aircraft carriers: a vulnerably obsolete French design, the Béarn, suitable only for transporting aircraft; a British war veteran, Dixmude (A609), also unable to launch and recover aircraft effectively; and the Arromanches which was the sole functional carrier, was built for another age, and unsuitable for modern warfare. It was thus decided to build a new fast and light aircraft carrier, the PA 28 ‘Clemenceau’. But which aircraft should equip this new carrier? The piston-engined aeroplanes available to the French Navy had appeared obsolete with the appearance of the first jet, so several new types were desperately sought. One pressing need was for a maritime attack aircraft, capable of ground attack, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare missions. This diverse mission set would require an array of armament options including torpedoes, missiles and rockets. The engineers at Bréguet considered the problem and concluded that a fast multi-role long-range carrier aircraft could not be built with a simple existing engine. A combination was required, it would need to use both a turboprop and a turbojet. The turboprop would give it a reasonable patrol speed and superb endurance, while the turbojet would provide a combat dash capability to evade enemy fighters or assist a shorter take-off. The resultant aircraft was the characterful Br.960 ‘Vultur’. This smart two-seater was powered by two British engines type: an Armstrong Siddeley Mamba turboprop to drive the propeller* and a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engine, fed by discreet air intakes in the wing roots. Other than its novel propulsion, its configuration was quite conventional, with 16° swept wings and a tricycle landing gear. The side-by-side seat arrangement was adopted, as it was in the later Soviet Tu-91 and earlier US Skyknight.

 The first prototype made its maiden flight on 4 August 1951. It demonstrated an impressive endurance of 9 hours, and when the turbojet was fired up it hit a highly respectable speed of 850km/h (528mph). For comparison, the broadly comparable British Wyvern topped out at 383 mph, the US’ Skyshark at 492 mph.

With the second prototype arriving in 1952, landing tests were conducted from February to April 1953. It proved excellent, meeting or beating the expected specifications, especially in terms of maximum speed. However, the cancellation of the PA 28 aircraft carrier project spelled the end for the Vultur, as it was not built to operate from the existing aging carriers. Two other things counted against the promising Vultur. Firstly, the French navy wanted a purely jet fleet for its non-ASW force – for submarine warfare it believed a specialised- rather tha multi-role aircraft, was a better solution. To save their project, the Breguet engineers embarked on a campaign to modify the second prototype, which morphed into the Br.965 ‘Épaulard’, a specialised submarine killer. The aircraft stripped of its pure jet engine, and further refined for the ASW role became the Breguet Br.1050 Alizé, which served from 1957-1962.

* Unlike the similar US Ryan FR Fireball which used a traditional piston-engine

9. SE-2410 ‘Grognard’ ‘A taste for French growler’

The primordial soup of the early jet age spawned some extremely ugly aeroplanes – and the SE.2410 Grognard, known derisively as the ‘Bossu’ (hunchback) was one of them. Of many unusual features, its double-decked jet engine arrangement is the most notable, and was later adopted by the English Electric Lightning (and nothing else).

In 1948, the French Air Force announced that it needed a fast new twin-engine ground attack aircraft. It was a priority, so SNCASE (or Sud-Est) quickly responded with an extremely innovative and surprising concept, the SE-2410. Its two Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engines, built under licence by Hispano Suiza, were housed one above the other towards the rear of the aircraft, and fed by a dorsal air intake located directly behind the cockpit. This clever arrangement both reduced the forward cross-section area and created room for a neat internal weapons bay. The planned armament was two 30-mm Hispano cannons, and unguided rockets installed in a small folding weapons bay, as well as bombs. The SE-2410 made its maiden flight on 30 April 1950. It was named ‘Grognard’ (literally translating as ‘growler’) the nickname of the Napoleonic soldiers of the Grande Armée. Tests were carried out, revealing that the aircraft was in many ways excellent. After these encouraging first flights, the French Air Force ordered a second prototype, this time equipped with a two-seater cockpit, simply designated SE-2415 Grognard II.

It was in February 1951 that this larger second prototype made its first flight. Unfortunately for the Bossu, it was cancelled in early 1952, in favour of the blandly conventional Southwest SO.4050 Vautour. Before retiring, the two prototypes were used for weapons testing, notably in the support of the first French-produced air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles efforts. It became historically significant as the first French aircraft to fire a French-designed air-to-air missile. After that, the two prototypes were finally abandoned for good. 

8. Fouga CM-82 Lutin ‘Rainbow Reaper’ (never flown)

Another ground attack aircraft of the early 1950s was the Fouga CM-821 ‘Lutin’ (leprechaun). This was also a twin-engine aircraft but much lighter than the Grognard. Primarily designed to deploy unguided rockets, the little Lutin had a fuselage and canopy recycled from the Fouga CM.8 R.9 ‘Cyclops’ jet glider. Power was from two Turbomeca Palas engines mounted in nacelles under the wings. The most notable features of the design were the V-tail consisting of two ruddervators with no vertical tail and an almost glider-like high-aspect wing.

A model of the Lutin was displayed at the Paris Air Show in June 1951, which was held for the last year at the Grand Palais in Paris (it was later moved to Le Bourget). This intriguingly petite attack aircraft was never to fly. The CM-82, as well as other related projects varying in ambition, were all axed. This freed enough resources for the design office to devote their energies to developing the extremely successful CM 170 ‘Magister’ jet trainer.

The world would have to wait for the Reaper drone to see what an aircraft of the Lutin’s configuration could do in the attack role.

7. MD-550 ‘Mystère Delta’ (1955) ‘Mystery Jets!’

In February 1953, the French Air Force launched a tender for a new light jet interceptor. They wanted an inexpensive, but all-weather, machine, weighing less than 4 tonnes, and capable of climbing to 18,000 metres in 6 minutes. A speed of no less than Mach 1.3 in level flight was requested, as was the carriage of a 200-­­­kg missile, and a landing speed of less than 180 km/h. 

Despite the success of their swept-wing Ouragan and Mystère, MD looked to a new, and largely unproven, technology, the delta wing for the new interceptor. The triangular wing had never been used on an operational fighter. It had only been used on experimental aircraft, such as several French Payens, the US’ XF-92, Swedish Saab 210, and Britain’s nascent FD.2

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Two prototypes were ordered, the 01 then simply called ‘Mystère-Delta’ would be equipped with two British-designed Armstrong-Siddeley Viper turbojet engines built in France under licence and the second one, the MD-560 02, with two indigenous, and far more powerful, Turbomeca Gabizo turbojet engines. The 01, a small aircraft with a massive tail fin and razor-sharp nose, was completed in 1954, and flew on 25 June 1955 with Roland Glavany at the controls. Although considered underpowered, it reached Mach 0.95 on its second flight and during its fourth flight, reached Mach 1.3 in level flight.

While the 02 was still under construction, the 01 underwent numerous improvements across 1956, including the addition of an afterburner, a SEPR-66 rocket engine and even a Martin-Baker ejection seat. The airframe was also refined with a modified vertical stabilizer, air intakes and trailing edges. A new name was also given to the aircraft, a seductively commercial one; because it was said that one could see it, but never reach it, it was given the name ‘Mirage’.

With this raft of improvements, a new test campaign began and the aircraft lived up to expectations with a new top speed of Mach 1.6.  But this tiny, not overly powerful, machine’s armament was limited to a single air-to-air missile carried under its belly. The planned Prototype 02 would have had similar limitations, so instead work began on a new, truly impressive, aircraft. This, the MD-550 03, was 30% bigger, and the prototype for what became the hugely successful Mirage III. The MD-550 01, usefully twin-engined, continued flying until 1957 in support of the Mirage IV project.

It is because this prototype flew under the name of Mirage, and that the second prototype was never completed that the designation ‘Mirage III’ was somewhat confusingly adopted for the first operational Mirage.

6. Nord 5000 ‘Harpon’ ‘La fusée sexy’ (never flown)

Responding to the same 1953 call-for-tender as the MD-550 ‘Mystère Delta’, the project proposed by SNCAN was more powerful, far larger, and much faster than its competitors. Nord Aviation ambitiously demanded a Mach 1.6 top speed for their design, rather than the Mach 1.3 specified in the requirement. This sexily futuristic project was known as the Nord 5000 ‘Harpon’. The Nord 5000 was a delta-canard interceptor long foreshadowing the configuration of today’s European fighters. Its design was rather extreme, with wings were fixed very far back in the fuselage while its canard foreplanes almost at the very tip of the nose. finally. It singular appearance was utterly exciting, screaming speed, potency and modernity. A single-engine prototype was to be built fitted with a 1500-kg thrust SEPR rocket engine. A second, far larger twin-engine version would have followed. The story of which engine was intended for this aircraft is a convoluted one. Across the study, between 1952 to 1956 engine technology was evolving so fast that proposed advanced engines rapidly became obsolete. The single-engine variant was initially envisaged with a RR Nene, then an Atar 9, while the twin-engine version was first schemed around the Gabizo then the Orpheus 12. After extensive studies and tests with four models, Nord requested funds to build the first prototype. Unfortunately, for the 5000, the all-conquering Mirage III was already proving perfectly suitable and there was no need for two high-speed interceptors. Nord was not going to give up without a fight however, and pestered the authorities for the budget for at least one prototype in order to explore its advanced design and structure – and to explore the possibility of Mach 2 supercruise. But the authorities stubbornly denied funds and the thrilling 5000 was lost forever.

5. S.N.C.A.S.E. SE-212 ‘Durandal’ (1956) ‘Durandel, Durandel’

According to legend, the sword of the Frankish hero Roland, Durandel, was capable of slicing through giant boulders of stone with a single strike, and was indestructible. It was clearly a cool name for a combat aircraft.

In response to the same 1953 call for tender as the Nord 5000 ‘Harpon’ and the Dassault MD-550, the SNCASE (or Sud Est) design office studied an aircraft similar to the Mystère delta, but far larger. This delta-winged aircraft bore the name of a legendary sword, the Sud-Est SE.212 ‘Durandal’.

Designed to carry an air-to-air missile, but also to perform close support and anti-bomber interception missions, the Durandal was a delta with a single truncated air inlet reminiscent of the North American F-100.  Another point of divergence between the MD-550 and Durandal was the choice of engine. At SNCASE, a single French ATAR engine was selected. Initially equipped with a nationally built ATAR 101F turbojet engine, it quickly proved too weedy for Durandal, so the more modern, powerful and reliable Atar 101G was chosen for second prototype. The first SE.212 flew on 20 April 1956 and proved to be a good aircraft overall, but it was the second prototype equipped with the ATAR 101F that really impressed. Capable of flying at Mach 1.57 and reaching an operational altitude of 12,300m, it was spritely but it was another casualty to the new superfighter: It was killed by the appearance of the superior Mach 2-capable Mirage III. The programme was terminated in 1958 following the first orders for the Mirage III. The two SE.212 prototypes ended their careers as flying test beds for SNECMA engines.

The name would later be recycled for an anti-runway weapon, and one of the few French air-launched weapons adopted by the US.

4. SNCASO SO-4060 ‘Super Vautour‘The Vulture that had to feast on its own corpse’

SNCASO wished to build on the success of the formidable SO.4050 Vautour attack aircraft, and, to stay ahead of the game, create a supersonic successor. From 1953 onwards, a delta wing winged variant was studied, before eventually a swept wing was selected. The new aircraft was to be a two-seater heavy fighter. It wasn’t until 1955, that the French Air Force took a serious interest in the SO.4060 project, and asked the firm to design two versions: an all-weather interceptor capable of Mach 1.3 at 15,000 m and a bomber. A year later the air force’s requirements become even more demanding; this time they asked for a top speed higher than Mach 2. SNCASO’s planned engine, the ATAR 101, was now abandoned as it was not made for flight above Mach 1.3. The new powerplant would be ATAR 9. However, the construction of a prototype had already begun, and the change of engine could not be accommodated in this first example. In 1957 the heavy fighter project was cancelled in favour of the lighter Mirage III, which was already flying and looked extremely promising; the bomber project was also aborted in favour of another Dassault offering, the Mirage IV. The prototype was never finished and the once hopeful project was consigned to the boneyard of history.

3. MD-450 ‘Barougan’Dirtbike Hurricane’

Whereas many of the aircraft of the Second World War were content with semi-prepared runways in fields or dirt, the new generation of jet aircraft was rather refined in its tastes. These new softies, with their love of long concrete runways meant a single well-placed bomb could potentially paralyze the air defences of an entire region. Thus, in the early 1950s, there was a strong interest in interceptors capable of taking off from unprepared airfields. The best-known result of this research is undoubtedly the SNCASE SE.5000 ‘Baroudeur’, which took off from a rocket cart. But it is much less well known that Dassault were also working on the same problem. Their pleasingly simple solution used the Dassault MD-450 Ouragan, which had been flying since 1949. An Ouragan was specially adapted to take off from anywhere, with a new landing gear that was extensively modified, using twin wheels with low-pressure tyres on the main gear, as well as a braking parachute. The concept was unofficially named ‘Barougan’ (a cross between the Baroudeur and Ouragon). This first version of the all-terrain aircraft took off successfully on 24 February 1954, preceding the conversion of three more Ouragans. They were first tested in France, then directly on the ground in Algeria. Unfortunately for this robust and capable aircraft concept, due to budget cuts, neither the Baroudeur nor the Barougan were to be as the requirement was quietly dropped.

2. Sud-Aviation SA-X-600 (1959) ‘Jumping Jaques Draken’

France was an extremely active competitor in the frantic race to create a vertical take-off and landing fighter aircraft. Prototypes included the bizarre ATAR Volant, the even more bizarre Snecma C-450 ‘Coléoptère’ and the ravishingly sexy Dassault ‘Balzac’.

The Sud Aviation SA-X-600, was a VTOL interceptor study began in 1959. The concept changed a great deal over time, with the only constant being a delta wing and a battery of lift jets. These were RB162 engines, the number of which varied from 4 to 6 across the project. The RB162 was a very light simple jet, specifically designed by Rolls-Royce as a lift jet. The RB162 was employed by significant other VTOL types: the Do 31, Mirage IIIV and VFW VAK-191B.

Thrust for forward flight for the SA-X-600 was provided by an RB153 or RB168. The SA-X-600 was a single-seater, with a teardrop cockpit. Like the Mirage III it had semi-circular main air intakes, with moving conical hubs known as ‘mice’. The most advanced version of the aircraft was an exciting-looking machine, with a double delta wing, like the Saab Draken. No official order came and the aircraft, as promising as it was, was never developed. This was perhaps as the manufacturer had stated a 7-year development time, then considered a very long time.

Sud Aviation was not the only company to spot the potential of a Draken-like configuration for a ‘jump-jet’. On the less chic side of the Channel, in Derby in England, Rolls-Royce’s Geoffrey Light Wilde schemed a similar idea with a design even closer in appearance to the advanced Swedish tactical fighter. Even Hawker in Kingston-on-Thames considered a double-delta VTOL fighter from 1957.

1. Bréguet Br.1120 ‘Sirocco’Sirocco Siffredi’

A Sirocco is a hot dust-laden wind, blowing from North Africa across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. It can bring the eerie phenomenon of blood rain, in which it appears to rain blood*. It was an appropriate name for a bringer of death from the sky.

In 1956, the French Navy required a new aircraft. They wanted something multirole, with a top speed of Mach 1.8 (so far so Rafale) capable of operating from the new aircraft carriers ‘Foch’ and ‘Clemenceau’.  Dassault and Bréguet each proposed a solution. Dassault offered a navalized Mirage III and Bréguet, the Br.1120 ‘Sirocco’. Essentially an entirely new aircraft, it was a radical evolution of the unfeasibly handsome Br.1001 Taon. Whereas the flea-like Br.1001 had been spritely, the far beefier 1120 was outrageously swift. Powered by an ATAR 9 turbojet it looked to smash through the demanding Mach 1.8 requirement to reach Mach 2.2, making it even faster than the majority of land-based combat fighters (even today).  

Cannonless, it was to fully embrace the missile age, armed exclusively with guided air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. A feasibility study was also underway to equip it with an atomic bomb. A full-scale model of the Sirocco was built, resembling the future Mirage F1. The design had great potential but by the early 1960s, the Navy had grown impatient. Rather than waiting for this superb design to develop, it chose a combination of the foreign, but proven, F-8 Crusaders for the fighter role, and the indigenous Étendard IV for the attack mission. The extremely Sirocco project was now surplus to requirements and cancelled. Though looking at the later F1, its influence may have lived on.

*Caused by algae spores apparently

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Well, I’ve been to Topgun so Tom Cruise thinks he’s me

My first cruise in 1993. My hand is on the AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missile. All images: the R. Erie.

Once when at a bar with the other Navy guys wearing our leather jackets, someone joked ‘so you think you’re some kind of Tom Cruise?’… I shot back with ‘Well, I’ve been to Topgun so technically Tom Cruise thinks he’s me.’”

Commander Richard “Corky” Erie flew the F-14 Tomcat with the US Navy. Here he describes the strengths and weaknesses of this massive and iconic carrier fighter aircraft.

Describe the Tomcat in three words
Big. Fast. Loud.

What was the best thing about the F-14?
The range/payload combination was truly remarkable. And the amount of fuel (20,000 lbs with tanks) sometimes seemed to last forever. Either bugging out of a fight in full afterburner, or accelerating inbound on a ground target, you could get a big bag of knots in a hurry and keep it for quite a while. The large fuel load, simply put, gave you lots of options.

And the worst?
In general, the high altitude performance was a big limitation. Much above 28K and into the low 30s, the TF30 motor was very sensitive to compressor stalls and she just didn’t perform well up there. As a RAG instructor, I finally got some F-14B time with the GE-110s and that was absolutely night and day. The GE motors gave you an entirely new operating area (30K’+) that I’d never experienced.

What is the highest and fastest you took an F-14?
Highest: 54,500 feet during a JO contest who could get the highest. The winner got to 61,300: this was a great lesson about why the service ceiling was 55K, and how you can snuff both motors up there and have almost 15 minutes to figure it out on the way downhill.
Fastest: Took an F-14B on a maintenance flight with a close buddy. We got her up to 1.7 Mach and thought we were kings for a day. Got back and the maintenance Chief said “how fast were you going?” to which we diplomatically replied “not that fast, just normal maintenance flight stuff.” He disbelieving said “uh huh” – and pointed to all the missing paint on the nose cone.

How good were the engines?
The TF30s in the F-14A were very prone to engine stall in several regimes (high alpha, high yaw rates, high altitude). Anyone that flew the straight A had to continuously factor engine limitations into your decision-making tactically and around the boat. The F-14B/GE-110 combination brought an entirely new airplane to the fight. No altitude was too high; you could finally be “up in the ionosphere” with Vipers, Eagles, and everyone else and bring the fight to them pretty well. You could dominate in a slow fight with that much power, or literally fight “uphill” because you could add energy so easily. Remarkable.

Which potential threat or scenario made you most nervous?
I generally flew F-14s in peacetime (I did get to drop a couple Mk-84s in Iraq pre-9/11), so the only thing you really worried about was a coupled departure leading to a flat spin. A squadron mate of mine got into an inverted flat spin over the Gulf and had to shell out (“get wet”) so that was kind of on your mind and you were on guard for it. Tactically, after going through Topgun in 1994-5 and seeing Vipers simulate a Flanker threat, that was a bit of an eye-opener on true CAT V threats.

Golf in Thailand 1995

How would you rate the Tomcat in the following categories:
A. Instantaneous turn – decent turn rate if you sold the farm on knots; tough to recover but if you know what to do with the initial angles you generate, it may be an advantage.
B. Sustained Turn – average sustained turn; key was knowing when to sell a few knots for angles, when to fight downhill if needed to get a few more degrees, and when transition into the vertical based on opponents knots.
C. Performance – overall performance envelope was very good and outcomes in an engagement hinged largely on “the man in the box” and his particular skill sets. Former bogey drivers could make the Tomcat dance (same as they did with the A-4.) It took a while for most to really get good at fighting the Tomcat and playing to its strengths.

D. Climb rate – in the F-14A, pretty decent until you got into the high 20s/low 30s. The F-14B was a rocket ship by comparison.
E. Agility – I wouldn’t use the word “agile”, but in the right hands and with a good use of classic stick and rudder skills you could maneuver really well in a fight.
F. Endurance – unmatched endurance; you could carry a lot of shit for really long way with 20,000 pounds of gas.
G. Sensors – the old AWG 9 on the F-14A was at times brilliant, and at others not so much. Range on that radar was unparalleled when it was working good (got contact on a B-52 on the deck at 100+ miles once) to the point that often your opponent didn’t even see you yet and you were launching simulated Phoenix.
H. Reliability – towards the end of her life, the F-14 (A/B/D) was VERY maintenance intensive, particularly on the structural side (hydraulics, etc.). F-14A avionics were always a challenge. One learned how to troubleshoot what you could and just go without some stuff sometimes. On a bad day it might take you an hour to get out of the chocks. But it was the heart and effort of the maintainers that worked so hard to get us airborne that really carried the day.
I. Man-machine interface – Designed in the 50s-60s and introduced in the ’70s, the Tomcat was built in that brute-force Grumman way. In modern fighters (F-16 and later), you “strap them on”; in the Tomcat, you definitely “strapped in”. The interface with the aircraft and weapons system worked well enough for me and the shared workload between pilot and RIO created the conditions for outstanding crew coordination. Pilot/RIO had to form a solid team and that teamwork was elemental to fighting the jet.
J. Ease of take-off and landing – takeoff and Cat Launch were fairly low stress. Landing was a different story. You had to be “involved in the process” and “all in”, unlike aided systems and magic HUDs today. I never used ACLS as it was unreliable. ILS/needles were a great aide to get you to “the start”, but from then on in it was pure stick/throttle ball flying. Lots to say about landing the Tomcat as that element made for great stories. Study in contrasts: if a Hornet had a HUD failure it was an emergency; when I landed I turned my HUD down to near invisible because I didn’t want all that clutter getting in the way of me and the ship/meatball.

This incredible book features previously an extremely exciting Tomcat pilot interview.

Officers wash a jet day

Do you get tired of mentions of the Top Gun movie? Nah, it is what it is. Personally, the movie had no influence on me. And it did put the Tomcat on the map culturally, likely contributing to its iconic status. Once when at a bar with the other Navy guys wearing our leather jackets, someone joked “so you think you’re some kind of Tom Cruise?” I shot back with “Well, I’ve been to Topgun so technically Tom Cruise thinks he’s me.” No shitter.

What are your thoughts on F-15 versus F-14 1V1? Interesting fight. We face many as Red Air at Red Flag in Nevada. There’d be 2 divisions in the mid-30s with like 8 AMRAAM apiece raining death upon us hapless bogies from long range. Fair enough. Then we’d continue to the merge, but intentionally drag them down into the thicker air (low 20s and below). They’re optimized for the high-altitude fight, our big swing wing can put the turn on pretty good in thicker air so we’d do well against them. I’ve got several Red Flag stories (one about getting into trouble for shining our radar/TCS into Area 51 and picking something up), but favorite was merging with a Eagle. With a left-to-left a couple seconds away, I threw the wing up (showed left turn, but didn’t pull) with stick and a boot full of rudder (increases the roll rate) and the second we passed 3-9 line cranked on the g’s. Pure intimidation move that made him pause for a couple potatoes while I gained an angle advantage and eventually bagged him. In the debrief he remarked “I’ve never seen a plane that big move so fast.”

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Tell me something I don’t know about the F-14 Uhhh, the iconic shape was because the engines needed to be 9 feet apart to accommodate two Phoenix missiles side by side? She was designed around the Phoenix.

What is the biggest myth about the F-14? I guess it would be the variable geometry wings; folks think a pilot would spend time controlling them. Honestly, you just left them in auto all day until it was time to land then you swept them back manually. Although on occasion you might hit the merge with the wings manually all the way back to make your opponent think you’re going 500+ knots, the switch auto after the merge and surprise them with you quick turn rate. Might buy you a couple seconds.

As a student pilot VF-124, 1992.

What should I have asked you? What are two of your favorite stories about the men that maintained the F-14? I have two.

While In VF-24, we had a Sailor named “Charlie” Brown. Really tall dude (6’5”) that had a tough time when deployed (had to duck a LOT while walking around the boat). At any rate, he was a Hydraulic Technician that was like a wizard and Yoda put together. If you had a hydraulic actuator issue on the jet (there were a lot of them), he could hook up a jenny (energizes the hydraulics without starting the jet) and nine times out of ten identify the faulty actuator BY SOUND AND FEEL. He’d walk around the jet, zero in, lay hands on the area and declare “Yup, number 4 spoiler actuator on the left wing.” Amazing. He eventually made Master Chief.

In VF-154 I was the Maintenance Officer and had the honor of working with some of the best maintainers in the Navy. On one occasion, a new Sailor was checking in at the Maintenance Desk (after traveling for about 16 hours) and overheard me talking to the Maintenance Master Chief about a specific problem with a jet that was being worked on in the hangar; the right shoulder station wouldn’t properly interface with a Phoenix when one was on the station. Our guys had been working on it for months on occasion and no one could figure it out. He walked over (in civilian clothes still) and said he’d had a similar gripe on a jet at VX-9 in Pt. Mugu and asked if he could take a look. I told him to take a couple days to rest up after travel and we can check it out then. He said “I’m fine, Sir. Had plenty of sleep on the plane. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a look.” 30 minutes later he’s on top of the jet (still in civilian clothes, mind you), literally upside down and diving into the area over the station with his legs sticking out. Turns out the same gripe involved a little-known (and impossible to see) cannon plug that had to be found “blind” (by feel). Sure enough, he fixed it. Remarkable motivation.

Renegades sunset

What was your most memorable mission?

Jiminy Christmas that’s a tough one. 2000 hours, 650 traps…lots of stories to consider, but I guess the one that comes to mind is “The Day I Almost Died.” Yeah, most guys have one or two or 3 dozen of those. Here’s my “favorite”.

I was a VF-101 RAG instructor taking a young RIO out on a Tactics flight (advanced syllabus in the RAG, ACM) that was a 1 v 2 scenario (we’re the one); training points are how to manage radar intercept versus two bogies, then how to survive a dogfight with them (both F-14 squadron mates). On the first ingress (about a 40-mile set to get the RIO some radar time), we’re approaching the 2 bogies who are in combat spread (1 mile apart, co-altitude). I explain to RIO that our goal is to NOT get bracketed (fly down the middle of their formation) because that’s the kiss of death (one goes high, one goes low, you go in the water). RIO calls contact and we put our nose on their formation (35 miles). I opt to lean right to put both bogies to the left of us. We simulate a Phoenix shot, crank right, then put our nose back on the formation (20 miles). They’re basically boresighting us (keeping nose on) to honor the scenario/training points. Take a quick Sparrow shot (standard shot timeline stuff), take nose off to the right, then put nose back on (10 miles), still planning on being outside their formation to the right at the merge. At this time, the RIO (per the standard shot timeline) locks up the right bogey. Or so I thought. The AWG 9 would sweep a pulse lock back and forth and even though you had the right bogey in the radar lock gates on the pulse scope, it might sweep past and lock the left guy. In actuality, he’d locked up the left guy. I have a diamond in my HUD left of center indicating where in the sky the bogey is and that diamond tracks slowly left, which makes sense geometrically since I think the RIGHT guy is locked (5 miles; about 30 seconds to the merge). At what I think is the proper moment geometrically, I start a left-hand turn to put my nose on what I think is the RIGHT bogey. Graphically, here’s the problem: Yes, I’m turning in front of another Tomcat, co-altitude, at 800+ knots closure. The pilot on the right sees me do this and at the last possible micro-second jerks his stick back to avoid. This is where it gets weird. I saw the flash of a shadow, and felt a thump. As I’m leveling my wings, the image I just saw is processing, like a picture loading slowly from the internet, line-by-line starting to fill the screen (my brain). It was a Tomcat. A very CLOSE Tomcat. Mentally processing the image further I realize that I can literally see the black stains around the rivets and fasteners of the panels on the belly. Rivets and fasteners. Black stains. You need to be about 30-40 feet away to really see that kind of detail. 30-40 feet. Traveling in opposite directions. With 800 knots of closure. After that rapid analysis (a couple seconds?), I called a knock it off and we headed home. Bogies rogered up on the radio “Uhhh, yeah. Concur. See you on deck.” The RIO didn’t understand why until we talked about it in the debrief (he was heads-down, naturally). I suppose the good news there is that if we’d collided, I’d never have known about it. I can still see that image.

Sunrise in the South China Sea Setting the Alert
  • Which types have you flown DACT against, which were the most challenging opponents and why? Hornets, Eagles, Vipers, a Harrier once, A-4s, the VX-9 Bunny Jet once, Qatari Alpha Jets, Mirage 2000s. The Viper is God’s Jet (if God could fly, he’d fly a Viper) and in the hands of a competent aviator is really hard to beat. In the hands of a professional bogey driver, you’re screwed. A-4 is kind of the same but if you kept your knots up you could outlast them into the vertical. First engagement with a Viper is in the RAG on your first DACT hop in late tactics. The setup is you saddle in for a gun solution on the Viper and THEN it’s “fights on”. He does a 9g bat turn, flies past your right shoulder, and saddles in to gun you in 30 seconds. “Welcome to Fighters, Kid!”
  • Today, many aircraft types in Europe, Russia and Asia have an ultra-long-range missile capability whereas when the Tomcat started it was unique in this respect. What are your thoughts on long-range a2a missiles? I think our departure from that capability was a mistake when viewed over time. Folks don’t realize that the F-14/Phoenix combination was a key in winning the Cold War. The Soviets knew that the Fleet Defender Tomcat could take down 6 of their long-range Bears/Backfires, etc. each so they had no choice but to build many more than they wanted in hopes of getting enough through to hit the Carrier Battle Group throughout the 70s and 80s. Eventually, this contributed to the Soviets basically running out of money and eventually collapsing. Similarly now, we find ourselves facing peer military forces with air-to-air missiles that don’t have an especially long range. Wouldn’t it be nice to engage a hostile bomber or fighter at 90+ miles? Sure would. Too bad we can’t.
  • Thoughts on Iran’s F-14s? Truly surprised they’re still flying! The Iranian air force can rot in hell, but sort of a “good on ‘em” for keeping them airborne. Maybe they can sell one to Elon Musk to take on the air show circuit!

Years and units served?
1983-1988: San Diego State University NROTC
1988: Pensacola (AI), VT-2 Doer Birds, Whiting Field; VT-23 Professionals, Kingsville, TX
1989: VT-22 Golden Eagles, Kingsville, TX
1990-1993: VF-124 Gunslingers RAG Student, NAS Miramar
1993-1996: VF-24 Renegades/CAG 9/Nimitz
1996-1998: VF-101 Grim Reapers RAG Instructor, NAS Oceana
1998-2000: VF-154 Black Knights/CAG 5/Kitty Hawk
2000-2004: Fighter Wing Atlantic*, NAS Oceana
2004-2008: NAS Oceana Air Operations
2008: Retired
*In January, 2000 I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and could no longer fly

Sunrise in the South China Sea, 1995.

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Macchi C.202/C.205V Italian WW2 Fighters in Combat

Despite world-class aircraft designers, Italian fighter aircraft in the early part of World War II were stymied by weedy engines and a lack of serious firepower. The introduction of German engines and cannon to these transformed these mediocrities into some of the best fighter aircraft in the world, we spoke to author Marco Mattioli to find out more.

What was the C.200 and what were its strengths and weaknesses?

The C.200 had a 840 hp Fiat A74 RC38 radial engine.

The Macchi C.200 Saetta (thunderbolt or arrow) was the best Italian fighter at the time in June 1940, the time Italy’s entered the War. Like most Italian aeroplanes, it was a delight to fly and was extremely manoeuvrable. Unfortunately, it didn’t win the favour of Italian fighter pilots. Most of the pilots were strongly conservative and used to open cockpits – and didn’t like the 200’s new-fangled enclosed cockpit with its sliding hood (they feared being trapped inside in the event of an emergency). Thus the subsequent variants of the C.200, in something of a retrograde step, were fitted with an open cockpit. The pilots still preferred to fly the more aerobatic Fiat CR.32 and CR.42 biplanes, despite them being far slower than the modern enemy monoplanes they would likely encounter in combat. The pilots were not entirely irrational in their distrust of the new machine as the Saetta had a dangerous quirk: a tendency to stall. If the aircraft stalled at high altitude and had an expert test pilot at its controls, it could recover with apparent ease. But, at low-level with a beginner at the controls, the aircraft was a deathtrap. Sadly, low-level stalls did kill several pilots. A solution was found by the chief designer of SAI Ambrosini firm, engineer Sergio Stefanutti with the assistance of test pilot Adriano Mantelli. The C.200 wing section was redesigned, replacing its former constant profile with a variable one. The wings’ sharp leading edges (in the centre) and wingtips were rounded off, gluing to them balsa wood strips, then shaped and covered with canvas.

The Saetta’s main strength was its excellent manoeuvrability. Its two main weaknesses: it was poorly armed (just two cowling-mounted 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine-guns) and underpowered. Its Fiat radial engine limited maximum speed to only 312 mph.

  • How did it fare against Allied fighters?

Until the C.200s had to face the Gloster Gladiator biplanes over Malta, they had a degree of success. The biplane Gladiators, when flown by expert pilots, could seriously challenge C.200s. On paper, the C.200s had the advantage of speed, but the Gladiators were extremely manoeuvrable opponents that were dangerous to underestimate. Over Malta, there was one inconclusive dogfight on 11 June 1940. The Saetta pilot managed to drive his Gloster opponent away from the Italian bombers and one C.200 shot down (pilot becoming a PoW) by a Gladiator flown by Flt Lt Burges on 23 June 1940 (this C.200, being faster than the biplane, had overshot it, and the British pilot could shoot it down). 

Over Greece, C.200s from 153° Gruppo met Gladiators from No 112 Sqn twice in the air: the first combat, on 22 March 1941, was inconclusive but for a No 80 Sqn Gladiator II set ablaze on the ground by the Macchis. Instead in the second action (26 March) the C.200s badly damaged one Gladiator (flown by Plt Off Neville Bowker) in the air and destroyed another from No 112 Sqn on the ground. Finally, on 14 April 1941, C.200s from 153° Gruppo clashed inconclusively with nine Greek Gladiators from the 21 Mira. To my knowledge, the Gloster Gladiators met over Malta were the first fighter opponents ever faced by the MC.200s

The going got tougher when Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived in-theatre. After that, performance parity, it was now purely the skill of the pilot that decided a dogfight’s outcome; when fighting the lethal, and far superior, Spitfire VB, the 200 pilots required extremely good luck to survive. In the fighter-bomber role, especially over North Africa and the Eastern Front, it performed well and proved to be a rugged aircraft.

  • Why was it re-engined and what other changes were made to it to create the Macchi C.202 Folgore?

The Macchi C.200 was the foundation which led to create the Macchi C.202. Thanks to the Saetta’s manoeuvrability, its fuselage was deemed by Dr Engineer Mario Castoldi as a fair airframe to house the potent German-built Daimler Benz DB 601A-1 inline engine. This power unit was built under licence in Italy as the RA.1000 RC41-I Monsone (Monsoon). Initially, the C.202 was a re-engined C.200, and was 60 mph/96 kph faster (372 mph/599 kph) than the ‘original’ Saetta, thanks to the effective combination of the DB 601 power unit coupled with the streamlined frontal profile of the new Folgore fighter.

  • What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the Macchi C.202 Folgore?

The Folgore’s main strengths were a marked increased speed, agility and rugged construction. Its weaknesses were a wingspan (34 ft 8.5 in/10.58 m) that was over two feet shorter than the one featured by the lethal Spitfire Vs and IXs. This detail affected Folgore’s performance at heights exceeding 20,000 feet (6,096 m), the routine starting altitude for much dogfighting. To make matters worse, the C.202’s radio proved to be so unreliable that the pilots decided to rely on hand gestures as a more reliable alternative. Besides, the undercarriages partially lowered due to high-g pullouts, not to mention faulty oxygen systems which plagued aircraft’s early actions. Finally, C.202’s light armament revealed itself really insufficient when facing newer RAF fighters armed with 20 mm cannon and both well-armed and armoured US heavy bombers.  

  • How did it compare to the Allied fighters it faced?

Folgores showed a marked superiority over the Tomahawks, Kittyhawks, Hurricane Is/IIs and Fairey Fulmars it faced all over North Africa and Mediterranean theatres. Anyway C.202s found their match with the Spitfire VBs/VCs, although veteran Italian pilots could hold their own when dogfighting with the RAF’s best fighter. As a matter of fact, since the autumn of 1942 Italian fighter groups were more and more confronted stiff opposition from Allied units equipped with Spitfire IXs, P-38 Lightnings and P-40 K/L Warhawks. All these fighter types not only performed equally or better than the Folgores, but were more heavily armed and overwhelming in numbers.

  • What was the Macchi C.205 Veltro?

Through 1943, US medium and heavy bombers began to appear in increasingly large formations all over the Italian skies, escorted by potent new fighters. The Macchi C.202’s armament proved to be pitifully insufficient to shoot down these well-armoured and heavily armed intruders. A new powerfully armed fighter was needed. Engineer Mario Castoldi had been working on two such designs since December 1941. One of Castoldi’s designs, the Macchi C.205N Orione (Orion), never materialised made it into operational service due to the degree of redesign it required. But the other project, which combined the outstanding German DB 1475 hp DB 605A-1 (licence-built as RA.1050 RC58 Tifone – Typhoon) inline engine with the MC.200 wing and the MC.202 fuselage, was quickly developed. It was chosen because its upcycled construction, based mainly on C.202’s airframe, allowed a rapid development and service entry. Initially, it was designated C.202bis, before receiving the far better designation of C.205V Veltro (Greyhound). The Serie I Veltros were armed with four Breda-SAFAT machine-guns (two 12.7 mm cowling-mounted with 370 rounds per weapon, and two 7.7 mm others in the wings with 500 rounds each). The Serie III C.205Vs were armed with two cowl-mounted 12.7 mm machine-guns and two German-built 20-mm MG 151 Mauser cannon in the wings (with 250 rounds per gun).

The would-be Serie II, requested from the Fiat firm, never materialised because the Turin company was busy developing the G.55 Centauro fighter.

The decision to employ the proven C.202 airframes allowed Veltros to be delivered to Regia Aeronautica units by October 1942, a mere six months after the type’s maiden flight in April 1942. Brand-new Veltros featured an aerodynamic retractable tailwheel, while C.202s modified into Veltros kept a fixed tailwheel.

What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the Macchi C.205 Veltro?

The C.205V’s strengths had a high top speed of 399 mph, a high rate of climb (it could reach 20,000 ft in 4 minutes and 52 seconds), and the potent armament: which finally enabled the Italian fighter pilots to mete out serious damage to the Allied heavy bombers and their escort fighters. Weaknesses were a slight reduction in manoeuvrability above 20,000 ft – and a paucity of aircraft. Only 177 were examples built. This last fact was due to the devastating raids flown by RAF Bomber Command bombers on industrial targets in Northern Italy from the autumn of 1942 to August 1943. This meant that Fiat firm struggled to even produce a paltry 12 engines per month at its Turin plant. 

  • How well did it perform in combat?

The Veltro’s powerful armament finally allowed the Italian fighter pilots to destroy their Allied opponents, both bombers and escort fighters. As matter of fact, due to their reduced number (just 177 were built), frontline Veltros were usually assigned only to the aces and veteran pilots.

  • What was the best Italian fighter aircraft of World War II, and why?

For the production number (nearly 1,300), agility and rugged construction the MC.202 Folgore; for its potent armament, despite their limited number, the Reggiane Re.2005 Sagittario (Archer), the MC.205V Veltro and the Fiat G.55 Centauro.

Tell us about your book

As an enthusiast of all things Italian, I am deeply fond of the Macchi C.202/205V fighters. My book examines in detail the operational careers of two of Italy’s best fighter aircraft in World War 2. The failure of engines’ pre-war designs of their own forced the Italians to ask German technology for good inline power units to be fitted on Regia Aeronautica fighters. The reliable DB 601s and DB 605s, coupled with good airframes, materialised the C.202 and the C.205V fighters. These outstanding aircraft allowed the Italian fighter pilots to be a match against the Allied fighters and bombers, prior to be overwhelmed by more potent Allied aircraft, through late 1942 to mid-1943. My text explores the war actions of the Italian Folgores and Veltros alike over several operational theatres as the Mediterranean, Malta, North Africa, the Eastern Front and Italy’s homeland skies. Not to mention C.202s and C.205Vs in foreign service with both Luftwaffe and Croat Air Force in WW2 and the Royal Egyptian Air Force in the First Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. The narrative is supported also with plenty of period photos and nice colour profiles of these aircraft types, often identifying for each aircraft the pilot who flew it.

What should have I asked you?

I think you should have asked me about the men who flew such machines as well as the episodes which saw them act as protagonists.

A person wearing a military uniform

Description automatically generated with medium confidenceFranco Bordoni Bisleri Franco Bordoni-Bisleri (10 January 1913 – 15 September 1975) was an Italian aviator and racing car driver. He is one of the top-scoring aces of the Regia Aeronautica, with 19 air victories. His nickname was “Robur” (strength) and was painted on most of his aircraft and racing cars.

One among them was high scorer 19-kill ace Tenente (Lieutenant) Franco Bordoni Bisleri of 18° Gruppo Caccia who, on 1 November 1942, was leading a four-strong MC.202 patrol over Mersa Matruh. Suddenly the Italians were jumped by a stronger formation of 12 Kittyhawks from No 250 Sqn: in an hectic and wild dogfight which lasted ten minutes, Ten Bordoni and his wingman Sottotenente Roberto Caetani fared well, shooting down two and one P-40s respectively. This outstanding feat earned Bordoni and Caetani being both decorated with the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare (Silver Medal for Military Valour, Italy’s second-ranking award for bravery). For Bordoni that Silver Medal was his third one. Besides, you have to consider that even single aircraft have their own stories, often linked with the lives of the pilots which flew them. Please let me give some instances: the Macchi C.202 coded ’90-8′ of the 90^ Squadriglia (10° Gruppo,Stormo) and serialled MM7906 had an interesting operational career: it was flown by Tenente Virgilio Vanzan to score a shared kill on 12 June 1942, shooting down a Kittyhawk I of No 260 Squadron, flown by Sgt R A Matthews, who baled out successfully. Vanzan’s Macchi was hit by South African anti-aircraft fire minutes later, but the Italian did succeed to make it back to base. On July 16th MM7906, this time piloted by Sottotenente Renato Baroni, scored a shared P-40 kill in combat against No 250 Sqn; however it was in turn stricken again during this action and forced to belly-land near El Daba. Let’s us pass to another really interesting aircraft, the one serialled MM7712 and coded ’97-2′: it was the mount at whose controls future ace Sottotenente Jacopo Frigerio of 97^ Squadriglia (9° Gruppo,Stormo) on 30 September 1941 scored the first confirmed victory for the C.202 ever. He had downed an ‘Hurri-bomber’ from No 185 Sqn piloted by Plt Off D W Lintern, following an RAF raid over the Sicilian airfield at Comiso. MM7712 was one of the first production Folgores completed by Macchi firm, and had been ferried by Sottotenente Frigerio himself from Lonate Pozzolo to Gorizia. This machine was destined to feature a really long and varied operational career. After being fitted with a camera for reconnaissance role, the aircraft was posted to 54° Stormo, where it was also flown by ten-kill ace Capitano Adriano Visconti. Then it was transferred to 377^ Squadriglia Autonoma at Palermo-Boccadifalco and, coded ‘377-1’, saw action being piloted by five-kill ace Tenente Luigi Torchio. This latter pilot used MM7712 to claim a P-38 kill on 3 February 1943 near Punta Zafferano. However ‘377-1’ was damaged in the same engagement, forcing its pilot to belly-land at Palermo. Also the C.202 coded ‘151-1’ of 20° Gruppo, 51° Stormo and serialled MM9042 it’s worth being mentioned: it was ferried from Macchi firm to Rome-Ciampino on 16 June 1942, then reaching Sicilian Gela airfield on the 24th. This aircraft was the regular mount of ace Capitano Furio Niclot Doglio, 151^ Squadriglia CO, who was credited with six individual and two shared Spitfire kills over Malta.  On 6 July 1942 Cap Doglio badly damaged the Spitfire flown by ace Sgt George ‘Buzz’ Beurling; but the Canadian pilot was to take his revenge 21 days later, when on 27 July he shot down Macchi MM9042, at whose controls Cap Doglio lost his life. For his distinguished service, the Italian ace posthumously earned the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare (Gold Medal for Military Valour – Italy’s highest award for bravery). And so on, we could continue for tens of individual stories.

What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding of Italian aircraft in World War 2?

Rather than the aircraft itself, it would be more pertinent to speak about the myths and misunderstandings regarding the Italian Air Arm as a whole. The main misunderstanding derived from the remarkable results achieved by Italy in the ’20s and ’30s with world speed and high altitude records, plus long-range individual and formation flights. These amazing performances, coupled with the wars in Libya, Ethiopia, Spain and Albania, which always saw Italy on the apparent winning side, led the world to consider the Royal Italian Air Force as an efficient, combat-proven, potent and innovative air arm. But this was only a dramatic facade, based on an overestimation. The myth would be tragically unravelled by the combat demands of World War II.

An incredible series of wrong evaluations made by Italy’s politics, industrial and military leaderships forced the Italian Armed Forces to wage a war with insufficient armaments against better-equipped adversaries, whose governments had been more far-sighted than Italy’s. And this was to be true for the Royal Italian Air Force too. The Italian pilots were skilled, but had to fight with both underarmed and underpowered machines, that were not a match for their opponents’ aeroplanes. Among the great mistakes Italy made before and after war’s own entry, was the lack of standardization of its armaments: it would have been better to concentrate the war production on few but really efficient designs, like the combat-proven Macchi C.202/205V for the fighters and the S.79, the would-be redoubtable Cant Z.1018 (this latter, due to several delays, never saw action) for the bombers.

Cant Z.1018

Instead, the Italian war industries foolishly chose to scatter their war productions pursuing an excessive number of pointless projects, which also limited the number of spare parts available for the few operationally efficient aircraft types. Unfortunately for the Italians, though they had many although they had plenty of gifted aircraft designers, they lacked real war production leaders (like Lord Beaverbrook in Great Britain), who could centralise all production destined for the war effort. All this, coupled with the fact that Italy was a country poor in raw materials (fact this that not allowed Italian industries producing military craft in quantities sufficient to match Allied war productions) at the very end would result catastrophic. Often the Italians were considered less effective in combat than the Germans, while on the other hand, some Allied pilots admitted that their Italian opponents were brave. As matter of fact, the Italian fighter pilots, as they liked the aerobatic individual duel, often stayed in combat against their Spitfire and Hurricane adversaries. On the contrary, the more pragmatic German Jagdwaffe pilots would prefer to break off and looking for a better advantageous position during the dogfight.  Paradoxically, if there is a myth, it lies on the fact that Italian aviators compensated their technical inferiority with their own boldness and courage.

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Qatari Air Force ground ‘Gay Typhoon’ fighter aircraft

The Qatar Emiri Air Force (QUEEF) has grounded their new fleet of British-supplied Eurofighter Typhoons as initial inspections have revealed some latent homosexual tendencies in the multi-role fourth generation fighter aircraft. According to sources, “Though the aircraft are not completely gay, we do detect some signs that the airframes may have wanked a friend off in college.” This is potentially damaging to fleet availability as homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, with a punishment of up to seven years in prison and a fine (the death penalty is not ruled out).

The Air Force has yet to comment on the French-supplied Rafales, which are rumoured to be onnisexual, though are believed to operate in a culture of ‘Don’t Tell, Don’t Fly’.

Many have ridiculed the grounding, noting the extreme effectiveness of the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Gay F-16 force.

Former RAF Senior Instructor reveals how the RAF training system was wrecked by privatisation (and how pennies could have saved a $100 million F-35B)

Hush-Kit met former RAF Tornado pilot and Senior Instructor, Tim Davies, to find out more about the dire situation the Royal Air Force finds itself in, and how it could be best rectified. Davies claims he risked, and lost, his previous civilian post as he had spoken out. Now he shares his views on what went so wrong with UK military training. 

What is wrong with the training system?

Tim Davies

In around 2006, the existing UK military flying training system that was run by the RAF was thought to be at risk of being unable to deliver the required quantity and quality of aircrew to meet entry requirements to the Operational Conversion Units and onto the frontline. This was due to dated aircraft and differing and multiple contractual arrangements for the provision of equipment and support. This led to the UK Treasury deciding that, to make the costs of UK military flying training more predictable, it would privatise it out and therefore be able to pay the same amount of money each year over a 25-year period. Figures changed a lot in the early days but it worked out at a total cost of about £6.25bn or £250m a year. The bid was won by Lockheed Martin and Babcock who created a company called Ascent Flight Training to run what was now called the UK Military Flying Training System or UKMFTS.

This partnership was known as a PFI (Private Finance Initiative) which was popular in the UK at the time. The RAF was known the world over for its superb and enviable flying training system and overnight, it had been privatised and was to be run by civilians.

The flying training system prior to UKMFTS wasn’t very pretty but the pilots and students made it work, it belonged to the UK military and there was an element of pride about it. I was an instructor both prior to and after the introduction of UKMFTS but I only look back at the older military-run system with any sense of pride and fond memories. UKMFTS was, to me, soulless with its new buildings and new aircraft; this should be a good thing, I know, but Squadrons before were just more authentic – hard to describe, but they had memorabilia on the walls that gave them a sense of history and past achievements and these were lost under UKMFTS.

The old flying system was also incredibly flexible as it was purely military-run – UKMFTS is lean, as you’d expect, there is no flex, few military pilots yearn to instruct in it and it has become a 9 to 5 job. Also, critically, there were initial contract issues where the provider, Ascent Flight Training expected the RAF to deliver instructors to them who were already trained to instruct but the Ministry Of Defence expected Ascent to train the instructors – this was never resolved and done on local agreements throughout the separate flight schools. This was a huge problem for me as OC Standards on the Hawk T2 at RAF Valley and I managed to shut the school down for 6 months in 2014 just so I could get my instructors trained as Ascent was prioritising student training over instructor training. This was understandable as they were financially incentivised to output students and there was no money for them to train instructors – you can see the problem here but without instructors, you don’t get students! 

The flying training system will always be in trouble as I see it, precisely because it was privatised. Instructors are all still military on jets but all the other aircraft they can be civilian, too – I don’t see this as a big issue but the system being run by an external company was always a problem. Over the years, the military personnel on the bases actually got on really well with the Ascent employees they served with – they are all good people but the problems that existed centrally and at the top with Ascent HQ and the issues with the MOD too, always would filter down and cause friction.

Also, aircraft that were bought all had issues of some sort – I was the Requirements Manager who brought them all in but they were purchased before I got there. The Airbus helicopters had issues where the rear crew loadmaster struggled to operate safely, the Texan T6 wasn’t designed to be parked on a beach at RAF Valley and wasn’t allowed to fly over water because the wrong ejection seat harness had been fitted (MOD issue not Beechcraft – a lovely company), Hawk T2 (which is the only non-UKMFTS asset and belongs to the MOD) has the same issue as the Australian Hawks had with compressor blade cracking which I expect is coming to a T-45 Goshawk near you, soon) – it also has a huge and laborious minor modification programme to get through. Grob 120TP seems to be doing OK but its simulator was actually a procedural trainer and so a lot of training that was expected to be done in it couldn’t be done. In 2018, two of the five Embraer Phenom aircraft for multi-engined training, collided during a practice flypast session for the RAF’s 100th-anniversary flypast over London – I’m not sure they got all five flying again.

Also, the frontline changes in squadron numbers meant that student input figures had to be changed and the system couldn’t cope with the required flex – that’s a lean system for you. Apart from all of that, UKMFTS is great!

Why are there so few F-35 pilots?

The aircraft were delivered ahead of trained pilots, this makes some sense although pilots were being trained stateside ahead of the arrival. Many pilots just don’t fly that much and so leave for other jobs – the admin burden for an RAF or RN pilot on F-35 is high and they have mandatory courses to do (Inappropriate Behaviour Course, DIE etc which annoys them no end) and they spend a long time away from family. Also, the jets are based at RAF Marham in Norfolk – it’s remote as are all jet bases in the RAF and RN – pilots get bored of it eventually. There is a blockage in the Fast Jet Flying Training pipeline at the moment on Hawk T2 as previously mentioned which is also really not helping.

How should it be rectified?

Personally, I don’t think it can be when you have both flying training AND frontline issues together as they both feed into each other – the training system provides new pilots to the frontline and the frontline provides instructors back into flying training. At the moment they aren’t providing anything to anyone and this is the issue.

The current time for a fast jet student to reach the frontline is 8 years – why would you ever join to do that now?

How is it fixed, listen to me and my team back in 2014, I’d say.

Did the ‘capability holiday’ after the Harrier damage the FAA’s ability to use fast jets today?

The RN pilots are great people and I trained loads of them which I enjoyed as I was originally in Royal Navy myself. The RN was sensible and, when it lost the Sea Harrier FA2, it put pilots onto the RAF’s GR7 and GR9. It also prepped for the F-35 introduction by sending pilots onto USN F/A-18s – the RN was very good at doing this so, for them, there was no capability holiday.

What are your thoughts on the F-35B engine blank crash?

We are just learning the lessons from the past again. When I taught on the Hawk T1 which was introduced in 1974, the engine blanks were tied together with a bit of old rope so you couldn’t have left one in – if one was out, the other came out with it. The F-35’s engine blanks are further down the engine and harder to see, but that’s why they needed to build in something to prevent this and a simple piece of rope costing a few pence could have saved a $100m loss. The young pilot got out at least, legend!

What should I have asked you?

What lessons can I still bring to aviation?

Thanks for asking, lol.

I run a virtual flight school based on the RAF’s flying training syllabus that I taught on for a decade and I use the game Digital Combat Sim to do this, but it is more than a flight school as my students will tell you. Intense work for a couple of hours a week, whilst I teach you complicated flight profiles, changes the way people operate and lives improve and so do relationships. I see it as therapy but in a very manageable way. I run it on a subscription model and I’ve just introduced voluntary exercise and nutrition work and advice. I have all sorts in there from airline pilots, military students, doctors, retired police officers, builders – you name it, they are there and all with an interest in aviation – I’m just making it to be the school I would have wanted to learn in.

Tim Davies

For 20 years I flew in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force on the Tornado GR4, spending the last decade as the Senior Instructor teaching Advanced Flying Training and Tactical Weapons on the Hawk T1 and T2.

My company, Fast Jet Performance is an aviation-based consulting company also specialising in risk and gamification.

I run a virtual flight school called Shadowlands Online Flying Training where I take people through 9 months of instruction using Digital Combat Sim and I run a YouTube channel and podcast also called Fast Jet Performance.

The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the site 

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“I’m OK on my own” claims RAF Tranche 1 Typhoon

The Tranche 1 Typhoon was available in several flavours, cheese & onion is pictured.

Despite being rejected (or perhaps never having been seriously courted) by a series of secondhand buyers, and in an unhappy relationship with the RAF, the sexy 28-year-old fighter aircraft is doing just fine by itself. The RAF’s Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoon is hard to upgrade – and what to do with them has long been a problem for the air force. But according to this European stunner, he’s OK by himself.

A spokesperson from the RAF noted, “When I met him, he said this and that about what he was capable of – but he just isn’t maturing enough and we’ve grown apart. At the beginning it was magical, he had so much more energy than my ex (the Tornado). But he just refused to change and grow up. I started seeing Tranche 2 Typhoons years ago and we had so much more in common. The Tranche 2s are even cool with me seeing a younger model, in the gorgeous Tranche 3. Tranche 1 is needy, high maintenance and unable to accommodate my needs for an open architecture pan-European relationship. He says we don’t need AESA, but when we see F-35Bs bowling past us and laughing, I realize something has to change.”

The Tranche 1 Typhoon had an altogether different view, “I don’t really think I am defined by my relationship status..but a lot of this is hurtful. Yes, I know the RAF and MoD have long considered leaving me. They told me we would be together until 2040, then panicked and changed that to 2025. It leaves me feeling insecure. Banishing me to the fucking Falklands was a huge insult. Ok so I can’t carry Meteor, but the RAF only has about 3 of those so why all the fuss? Oh, and I can’t carry an AESA…like the T2 and 3s are carrying one…but they’re not! Or maybe it’s an issue that I can’t be fitted with conformal tanks that don’t exist? Or that my computers are too old, when the T1s and T3s ain’t exactly the latest iPhones themselves. I’m less than middle-aged in flight hours. It’s just bullying. I’m quite capable of catching a Bear or a Flanker thanks, and I would even play second fiddle as an aggressor (as I was once promised) if I had to…I’d be a damn sight better than a flipping Hawk. It’s all fine. Good luck with maintaining fleet numbers without me I say.”

After sobbing on our shoulder, the fourth-generation fighter added “I’m fine…I’m fine OK.”

Further salt in the wound for the ill-treated hunk came with the news that Spanish Tranche 1 aircraft were receiving upgrades.

The Tranche 1 Typhoon phoned us back at 2AM shouting about the unfairness of the F-35B getting a pass on being needy before singing Ode to Joy and passing out.

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What we know about Chinese Flankers – Andreas Rupprecht

The formidable J-11D

Russia’s T-10 family, known in the west as the ‘Flanker’ series, is a heavyweight fighter aircraft range that forms the core of the Chinese air and naval air- forces. China’s Flankers (some of which may be illegal pirate copies) are so varied it’s hard to get your head around them, so we went to a leading authority on Chinese air power, Andreas Rupprecht, to find out more.

How many Chinese flanker variants are there?

Besides the Russian-imported variants (Su-27SK, Su-27UBK, Su-30MKK and Su-30MK – and Su-35), it is simplest to think of three individual branches: the fighters; the twin-seater multirole fighters; and the carrier-capable variants, let’s have a look in more depth.

  1. The fighter versions: Within the first branch these are the J-11, J-11A and J-11B as well as the twin-seaters J-11BS plus their equivalent naval (but not carrier-capable) variants, the J-11BH and J-11BSH. And finally, their updated variants J-11BG and J-11BHG. The final and probably most capable variant within this branch is the radically modernised J-11D, which did not enter service.


Russian imports

The Su-27SK is a simple fighter variant, the Su-27UBK is a simple fighter-trainer variant. The Su-35 is an advanced single-seat multirole fighter.


1A. J-11 series

J-11 = Su-27SK built under license by SAC

J-11A = slightly improved type

J-11B = indigenous fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics, weaponry, and WS-10 engines


J-11BH = land-based naval variant

J-11BS = indigenous fighter trainer comparable to J-11B

J-11BSH = land-based naval variant of J-11BS J-11BG/BHG = upgraded fighter variants after MLU new radar + AAMs)

J-11BG after MLU

J-11D = projected variant with new AESA and structural changes, not purchased

2. The twin-seater multirole fighters

The second branch consists of the J-16 and the EW-variant J-16D

A J-16D with its characteristic oversize wing pods.

Russian imports


Su-30MKK = imported from Russia, simple twin-seater multirole fighter variant

Su-30MK2 = imported from Russia, simple twin-seater naval multirole fighter variant


J-16 = indigenous twin-seater multirole fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics, weaponry, and WS-10 engines

J-16D = indigenous EW-/jammer variant

3. The carrier-capable

This is all the J-15 variants, namely the J-15,

J-15S twin-seater, the J-15D EW-jammer,

the J-15T catapult testbed and the most recent J-15B.

Once again simpler: J-15 = indigenous carrier-borne multirole fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics and weaponry

J-15S = indigenous carrier-borne twin seater

J-15D = indigenous carrier-borne twin seater for EW-/jammer role

J-15T = catapult capable demonstrator / prototype

J-15B = improved catapult capable serial variant based on the J-11D avionics

In fact this plethora of variants and subtypes was one major reason to add a recognition guide in my latest book.

What is the most advanced radar used on a Chinese Flanker and how does it compare to Russian radars?

If I knew such classified information, I would no longer work as a teacher! Depending on the role, the most capable fighter radar is the AESA type installed in the J-11D, which is now integrated into the J-15B (which is currently in production for the Type 003 aircraft carrier Fujian). For the multirole, air-to-ground and anti-shipping mission, the AESA installed in the late production J-16s, is said to be the second most capable AESA after that fitted to the J-20. However, for both no performance data is given, and not even their designation is known (but it can be assumed). But based on a very interesting interview with a former test pilot, who flew both the Su-35 and the J-16 – the latest Chinese radar is more capable than its Russian equivalent. This is mainly because the Chinese radar is an AESA type (a technology Russia has yet to field. But again, nothing is confirmed known.

What is the most capable Chinese flanker and how does it compare with the best non-Chinese Flanker?

Overall, I don’t like such questions, since we don’t know enough for a conclusive answer. However, as a fighter, I would most likely rate the J-11D project as the one with the biggest potential, as for ones in actual service these are the updated J-11BGs (which use the J-11D’s radar) and the soon-to-enter service carrier-capable J-15B, which is without any doubt the most capable carrier-borne Flanker ever. For strike and multi-role, it would be the J-16. Comparing this to Russian Flankers, I would rate the J-11BG on par with the Su-27M3, while the J-16 is more modern – based on radar, avionics, cockpit display and weaponry – than the latest Su-30SM (albeit without canards and thrust vector control engines.

The J-15B.

How many Flankers does China have?

Difficult to say, for the regular Su-27SK/UBJ and J-11/J-11A series there are about 120-130, for the improved J-11B/BH/BG series I think about 150 (I’m quite certain of this number) plus around 90-100 J-11BS twin-seater. For the J-15 series perhaps 60-65 are in service and for the J-16 there are about 250-260 available.

<this gives an upper estimate of 705 aircraft>

Does China manufacture Flankers?

Yes, all of the variants currently in production are produced in China for China only.

Can China produce all components itself?

As it seems, yes. At least it is no longer reported that Russia contributes anything.

How good are the cockpit displays?

Sorry, here I have no confirmed facts, but given that the Chinese Flankers have been using a fully digital cockpit with multi-functional displays for decades, and that the J-16 even has a cockpit with two large flatscreen panels (and we all know where most LCD-screens are built), anyone can draw their own conclusion.

What are the best operational Chinese air-to-air missiles used by Flankers?

For the long-range air-combat scenario it is surely the PL-15, an AAM comparable in configuration and size to the AIM-120C or even AIM-120D. It is said to use a dual pulse rocket motor which could extend its kinetic range up to 200km; for the export version 145km is confirmed. As a short-range IR-guided AAM it is the PL-10, a new generation missile in the same class as the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, A-Darter, AAM-5, and IRIS-T. It features TVC and enables a range of 20 km. And finally, there is the PL-17 – its designation was just confirmed two weeks ago – which is an ultra-long-range AAM for a range of more than 300km against high-value targets like EW/AEW assets and tanker.


Does Russia approve of all Chinese flanker developments?

In fact this is one of the most controversial topics and also included as a sub-chapter in my book. This is easy to answer, at first glance at least. Based on what is known about the contracts, every Chinese ‘Flanker’ from the J-11B onwards is an illegal copy or illegal further development. According to the original contracts, China had the right to build 200 J-11s under a fairly strict licence manufacturing agreement. This specified an exact copy of the Su-27SK, no more, no less. But not everything here is as black and white as some would like to portray. The original J-11 and J-11A are clearly not illegal copies. They were all built according to the contract and are as such legal. The J-11B, however, is a different story. Here, most analysts agree that the moment SAC decided to add a Chinese radar, engines and weapons the aircraft must be rated as illegal. This is even more valid for the two-seat J-11BS since the licence agreement never included the trainer version, and again for the carrier-capable J-15 and the multirole J-16. Consequently, there is nothing to debate. All these are illegal copies and develop­ments since Russia did not – at least not officially – agree to them. But at the same time, the situation is less straightforward than some would like us to think. Consequently, there have been several attempts to explain this. One theory revolves around still-unknown paragraphs in the original contract under which any further Russian debt could be compensated by additional ‘Flankers’. Other explanations suggest that Russia may have simply accepted the fact that there was nothing it could do about the situ­ation. And since Russia has recently depended more on China’s money than China does on Russia’s technical expertise, Russia simply tried to maintain a good level of relations. And finally, there may have been a secret agreement according to which Russia continued to be paid or was paid differently via parallel trade or by other offset deals.

I don’t know for sure, but if Russia really considered that the production of more ‘Flankers’ was a breach of contract and the J-11BS, J-15 and J-16 were illegal developments outside the scope of the license, why was there not more political outcry? Why have there been no sanctions? Why have there subse­quently been additional contracts for other Russian products, including engines, and finally the Su-35 deal? I’m sure this mystery will only be solved when the full contract is revealed but I don’t expect this to happen.

What are the strongest and weakest areas of Chinese avionics?

This is the most difficult question to answer. Overall, I think, the biggest strong points are that Chinese avionics are modern, fully digital and built indigenously. Since China manufactures most modern Western digital devices it, therefore, has a very clear understanding of what’s high-end – and China has the production capabilities to rapidly include more modern systems and updates in large numbers. Its weakness is at least said to be in sharing information: but how capable Chinese systems are in terms of netcentric warfare and joint operations is beyond my knowledge.

Will J-20s replace Flankers?

As it seems, no. Or at least not all units have been former Flanker operators. According to the first transitioned units, they were Flight Test & Training units replacing Su-30MKK and also the first operational unit at Wuhu, was flying Su-30MKK. Other units more recently converting were former J-10A/AS, J-10B, J-10C and J-11B/BS units.

Does China use thrust vectoring technology?

It is not yet operational on the J-20 but it seems like confirmed that the WS-15 will be a TVC-engine similar to the J-10B testbed shown on Zhuhai 2018 with the WS-10B-3 engine. Similarly, it is said that the same engine was tested on a Flanker and since June 2021, a single WS-15 engine with a TVC nozzle was fitted on a J-20 prototype testbed at CAC. The axial-symmetrical TVC nozzle appears similar to that of the WS-10B3 engine tested and these tests were continuing at the CFTE since late 2021.
In operational service, the PLAAF only uses 24 Su-35.

How good are the Chinese engines?

That’s probably the biggest question mark in an overall more than unconfirmed and often speculative topic. Yes, they had issues with the early WS-10-series of engines, but at least since 2009 no new-built Chinese Flanker – with the exception of the carrier-borne J-15s – is using Russian AL-31F engines and as such, since the crash rate is at least not an issue discussed in the public – comparable to several crashes of J-1A fighters related to failures of the AL-31FN – it seems to be stable, reliable and powerful enough. Especially since from mid-2019 on also all J-10C and J-20A are using variants of the WS-10 Taihang, it seems to be reliable enough for operational use. Any technical data and especially failure rate or lifecycle are speculative but said to be better than the Russian ones.

The mysterious J-15B.

What should I have asked you?

Why I am so obsessed with Chinese military aviation and the PLAAF? Why I share all this information more or less for free on social media and why I’m not working for an institute or agency for a much better income? 😉

What roles do Flankers perform in Chinese service?
In PLAAF and PLAN Naval Aviation service the J-11-series is surely still most of all an air-superior fighter like the F-15. As such a fighter is primarily armed with air-to-air missiles. The J-15 was always more aimed for multirole including attack and anti-shipping roles besides being a fighter and the J-16 is a true multirole fighter developed for long-range precision strike and fighter roles.

Do they have a high accident rate?

Few Chinese Flankers have been lost. Or at least few reported – and even fewer are reported with the reason for the crash made public. It is reported, that besides a handful of known crashes in operational service, one J-11BS prototype was lost. The J-15 suffered a few more accidents. This is best explained by the fact they were the most frequent and intensively flown types during their early operational career – and that PLAN Naval Aviation initially had very little experience in operating aircraft from a carrier.

For more on Chinese Flankers we recommend Andreas’ new book Red Dragon ‘Flankers

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