We asked a private-jet interior designer to judge 8 fighter cockpits

First we asked a Topgun instructor to rate 8 cockpits, then we asked an art historian – and now we turn to a designer of private jet interiors. Alexander McDiarmid rates the interior design style of 8 fighter cockpits.

Convair F-106A Delta Dart

Information overload in a very small space. All text is small, difficult to read and so many dials and switches! You can introduce mirrors to make smaller spaces appear bigger but in this case that would only add to the problem. Is this where Bell & Ross get their watch inspiration from?

Grumman F-14A Tomcat

As above but slightly less cluttered due to one joy stick however the seat material both in colour and fabric adds a little warmth. While the dominant, black half moon window frame is a serious ‘statement piece’ (Kelly Hoppen speak) it’s no Gulfstream G550.

General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon

SONY DSC

Modernity is starting to appear along with greater user functionality and the side stick gives an impression of more central space. Thought should be given in how best to use the extra space with the integration of perhaps a foldout tray table and wireless device charging. The seat design is very Bauhaus, simple yet effective and very much form following function. The battle ship grey interior paint against the black wool (cashmere, angora?) seat is a challenging cmf (colour material finish) palette and desperately in need of some warmth perhaps inspired by a falcon’s plumage and colouring.

Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker B’

The Trabant blue colour for such a small space is commanding on the eye, one wall/surface only in blue, to set the interior design tone would be on trend. The interior does not look very solid, flimsy almost but not cluttered and overfilled unlike the others.

Why use MDF when oak is available? The layout has a simplistic yet functional Soviet era charm and design pieces from this period are very both praised and collectible. This is certainly a stand out piece of interior design.

Panavia Tornado F3

Finally, elements of symmetry in the cockpit. Period industrial design aesthetic with a less is more philosophy, the dominating angular design really dominates the space with 1980’s electronic Tomy games and Casio watches for inspiration. The heads up display makes for a great statement piece.

Somewhat of an arcade game aesthetic for a young bachelor pad perhaps or games room.

Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet

Great, modern and ordered industrial design aesthetic with glorious mood night lighting offering a calm environment and cozy feel. Definitely somewhere one might want to relax in after a long day and especially on a cold night. The heads up display makes for a great statement piece and really grounds yet balances the space much like a central, crystal chandelier. In terms of a pleasing piece of aesthetic interior design this is the best in the article.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Very modern aesthetic with the Tesla inspired screen but somewhat of a brutal and cold aesthetic. Not a very elegant interior design like the F/A-18E Super Hornet, and getting Blaupunkt in car radio vibe coming too… There is no sense of harmony or flow from the brutal interior to sublime exterior. While the two-tone exterior matte grey painting creates visual interest, it could have been used in the interior sensitively. Budget problems? Plus side is the large fan intake for cockpit air conditioning I assume. Any A/C interior grilles should be painted in the same exterior grey matte paint.

Is the RAF’s ‘Go-Go Gadget Plane’ a good idea? Analysis of the Aeralis concept

The Aeralis Modular Training Study – Platform and System Aspects

Jim Smith, who spent much of his career close to the world of military aircraft acquisition, reflects on the radical new Aeralis training system

Hush-Kit have asked me to look at the Aeralis modular training family of aircraft and systems, recently reported in the media following the award of a research contract by the Royal Air Force. The intent is to provide a family of aircraft which are enabled to address a range of requirements in the general area spanning basic trainer to light combat aircraft, through the use of an innovative modular design approach. A common forward and centre fuselage module is used, and, with the use of alternative wing, propulsion system, cockpit and empennage modules, variants can be generated to meet this broad range of requirements.


The modular configuration bears interesting comparison with the Rockwell HiMAT (Highly Manoeuvrable Aircraft Technology) remotely piloted test aircraft of the late 1970s. It was planned that it could be fitted with different wings, control surfaces and exhaust nozzles.

While, in all cases, the aircraft are subsonic, a larger and less-swept wing discriminates the elementary trainer from the advanced trainer and light combat variants. Three propulsion modules are envisaged – a lower and a higher-thrust single-engine configuration, and a twin-engine variant. Two crew and single seat versions would be available to meet the differing needs of training and air combat, but these would retain the same external lines for commonality of structure and aerodynamics, with the freed-up volume of the single-seater being available for additional fuel.


Systems aspects are enabled by exploiting the flexibility and commonality of digital systems, providing not only the capability to vary the displays as required, but also the ability to synthesise targets for training; to integrate with different external sensors and stores; and a comprehensive ability to monitor and manage airframe, engine, and system usage and maintenance requirements.


Aspects to consider

Given the attractive sounding capabilities described above, what are the issues to look out for? I’ll try and group these under Technical, Marketing, and Decision-making, and I must state from the outset that my comments are based on general analysis of the problem. My list is absolutely not intended to imply that these issues are not being addressed. Its rather to indicate to the Hush-Kit readership, those areas which are likely to be important for anyone proposing a modular aircraft solution to fit a range of roles from training to combat. And, as usual, this represents my opinion, which has no connection with, or influence on, any serious decision making about modular training platforms and systems.

Key technical issues:
• Potential weight or other penalties in achieving commonality
In order to achieve the desired modularity, production breaks have to be introduced to the airframe. These are the structural joints where, for example, the alternative outer wings are attached to the common centre fuselage. Other breaks in the structure will be required at the join between the rear fuselage and the centre fuselage, and at the junctions between the propulsion module, the centre fuselage and the rear fuselage.

Credit: Aeralis

In addition to these structural joints, some elements of the structure for the lower performance variants may have to be ‘over-engineered’, as they will have to sustain the higher loads generated by higher weight or higher performance variants. As an example, if the basic trainer were stressed to 6g, and the combat aircraft variant to either a higher weight or higher g limit, the centre fuselage wing carry through structure used by the trainer would need to be stressed to the higher loads experienced in the combat variant


Because of the desire to be able to fit alternative engines, in different configurations, alternative propulsion modules are required. As a result, and to also allow alternative outer wing planforms, it is proposed to stow the undercarriage in external pods at the trailing edge of the common fuselage/inner wing structure. While this makes a lot of sense as an enabler to the modular design approach, there will be a drag penalty, and possibly a weight penalty, compared to a fuselage mounted main undercarriage, like that used for the Alpha Jet.


Ability to integrate diverse systems for the differing variants
This is an area where a well thought through and well-executed approach is central to much of the operational flexibility being sought in this modular design approach. An advanced jet trainer should be able to replicate the look, feel and function of the operational systems to which the trainees will graduate. It will be desirable to configure the cockpit displays to represent differing graduation options – for example in the UK, future trainees might graduate to the Tempest or F-35B. But if other Nations adopt the trainer variant, their operational aircraft might be, for example, the Tejas and the TEDBF.

As well as being able to represent differing cockpits, there are significant differences in equipment that may be required by the differing variants. While all variants will require flight and engine control systems, utility systems like undercarriage, oxygen, pressurisation, electrical and communications, and health and usage monitoring systems, some will require additional capabilities. For example, an advanced trainer, or dissimilar combat aggressor would require the ability to simulate radar and IRST systems, and to have simulated targets or cooperating manned or unmanned assets injected into those systems so as to stimulate required training responses. Air combat replay and recording facilities such as ACMI or RAIDS pods would be required, and there might also be a need to at least simulate some ground targeting and practice weapon capabilities


The architecture for these system capabilities is likely to become quite complex, given the alternative requirements of differing potential customers as well as the diverse capabilities required for the various roles. Particular attention will be needed to ensure physical, electrical, network, software and hardware interfaces are well understood and specified for all the various systems.

Propulsion system matching
Three different engine configurations are proposed: a low-power and a high-power single-engine installation; and a twin-engine solution. Considering the twin-engine solution, it is evident that this will come with differing system requirements than a single-engine solution. For example, consideration will have to be given throughout to the implications of an engine failure, shutdown or fire. This sort of event will require a fuel system capable of supplying either engine separately, or both together. Similar considerations will apply to the implications of single-engine failure on the electrical, system management, hydraulics and other aircraft systems.


The high-power variant appears to have a variable nozzle, suggesting use of an afterburner – while this seems unlikely in a subsonic aircraft, additional power, coupled with a slightly more swept wing, will result in different ability to accelerate and potentially different handling qualities, particularly at high subsonic speeds. Consequently, the philosophy for control law development will require careful thought. One option would be to minimise changes so that the trainee has to accommodate to the greater system capability and performance of the advanced trainer and air combat variants. Alternatively, the control laws for each variant could be tweaked so as to minimise the change in feel and behaviour.


Certification
The discussion above shows the criticality of system integration across the variants proposed, and also provides some indication of the opportunities presented by such a software-enabled training system. A difficulty lurking in the wings behind all of these capabilities is certification. Given the options include two wing configurations, three engine options and two cockpit layouts, I think it is safe to say that the approach to certification will be a key area to be managed.
Aspects will include the certification of the necessary software, and the variations required for the differing versions, or for optimising individual variants for different customers. Additionally, the differing wing planforms will have differing aerodynamics, differing loads and may require differing control laws. The weights, and potentially centre of gravity, of the variants will differ and the impact of this on certification will be compounded should there be a desire, or a requirement, to offer differing g-capability.


In addition, the twin-engine variant will need to demonstrate how engine failure cases can be safely managed, and any variants able to carry and/or release weapons will need to show that this can be done safely. Similarly, variations in the fuel system for the twin-engine and for the single-seat variants will need to be assessed and certified.


Possible marketing issues:
Differentiation from existing highly capable and competitively priced alternatives

Qinetiq

Having once been dominated by the Hawk, the Aero 39 and its developments, and the Alpha Jet, the range of capable and effective jet trainers, light combat and strike aircraft has burgeoned in recent years. While this may seem a harsh question, I think it is fair to ask what this family of aircraft could do, that could not be done as well by the latest two-seat Hawk, working in tandem with a new generation Hawk 200 single seater. Or, indeed single and two seat variants of other recently produced designs such as the Leonardo M346 Master.

There are answers to this question available in the advanced, integrated and flexible software-driven systems capabilities proposed, which are indeed a key feature enabling this modular approach. But these systems are also a key risk. They have to be right, they have to be timely, they have to be sustainable, and they have to be certified. And, of course, the digital-capable single-seat variants to operate as partners generally do not exist


Dealing with the related question – why not a supersonic version like the Boeing/Saab T-7A Red Hawk?

There is a different niche in the market, spanning the advanced supersonic trainer, the air combat trainer and operational light combat aircraft. The Boeing/Saab T-7A sits in this general area as a T-38 replacement, but perhaps the Korean KAI T-50, TA-50 and FA-50 is a better exemplar. In essence, this aircraft shows an alternative vision, where a relatively simple trainer can bring pilots up to the capability to take on the advanced trainer T-50, and move up from there to an aircraft capable of taking on substantial air combat and strike training, and indeed limited operational capability.


Such an approach offers the prospect of downloading more training hours from the really expensive and capable operational fast jets, albeit at the expense of itself being a much more complex and expensive offering than a modular aircraft covering the flying training, advanced training and initial combat capability spectrum.


Decision-making aspects:
• Convincing decision makers that 3 variants, optimised for Basic Training, Advanced Training, and Light Combat, is a more cost-effective solution than either a single fleet, or a two-type solution
This is the nub of the issue in marketing to, for example, the UK Government. Delivery of the indicated capability through a number of modular variants based around the same common fuselage module will need very persuasive analysis. The basis of that analysis should be the demonstration that the proposed solution represents best value-for-money based on whole-of-life costs, discounted to net present value.
There are a lot of technical terms there, but really, what is being asked is how much would it cost to deliver (for example) 30 years of the capability, where the costs have to include development, manufacture, certification, introduction to service, operation, maintenance, and an upgrade cycle (probably). The costs would also cover ground equipment, simulation, training material and differences (positive or negative) in manpower costs to run the system. Net present value means ‘in today’s money’.

BAE Systems Lead-in fighter diagram


To answer my question, you would have to examine the costs, not only of the Aeralis system, but also the cost of, for example, rival systems based around my suggested Hawk plus new generation Hawk 200, and perhaps even consider the alternative of moving to a more capable Boeing/Saab T-7A or KAI T-50 approach, aimed at saving money by downloading more training from Tempest/F-35B.

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• To achieve the required flexibility, the training/weapon system of the modular solutions will need to be heavily software-dependent, and developing an approach to convince acquisition agencies that the risks in developing, integrating and certifying the necessary software are being well managed will be vital.
This reflects the integration and certification issues I pointed to as key technical issues, but seen through the risk management lens likely to be used by Government.


If you think about the development program for JSF, you can see that it’s really difficult to design a supersonic stealthy fighter, capable (in different variants) of meeting the needs of the Marines for STOVL, the Navy for Carrier operations, and the Air Force for Strike ‘On the First Day of the War’.


Well, actually, no – most of that was at least partially demonstrated in the SDD phase. What’s really difficult is getting the systems integrated, every aspect of the software, the sensors, the displays, the EW and defensive aids – the whole weapon system, qualified, accepted and certified for operational use.


The more complex, the more flexible, the more software-driven, and the more capable your system is, the more difficult it will be to certify, even if your platform has all the attractive modular capabilities proposed by Aeralis. The opportunity exists to do this, and do it right, but the emphasis on the integration of the digital system must be at least as great, if not greater than the attention paid to platform modularity.

10 Worst Helicopters

Helicopters allow you to hover hundreds of feet above the ground just by making small movements with your hands. This god-like power makes is the cause of much resentment from those lesser mortals who can only fly fixed wing aircraft. Plus the first man-made aircraft to fly on another planet (ignoring the nonsense of Soviet Venusian balloon probes) is going to be a helicopter, so suck on that plank drivers.

Bing’s views do not represent that of this site, or the Navy or the Church of the Wyvern

When NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flies on Mars it will demonstrate to any Martians that the fixed-wing aeroplane is an embarrassment to be left back on Earth. It will also prove there isn’t a quiet holiday destination left in the solar system that some twit with a drone isn’t buzzing.

As a brief primer for the lesser mortals in the audience: in a helicopter the stick between the pilot’s legs is called the cyclic. This alters the pitch of the blades as they revolve around the mast, cyclically you could say, which allows the disc to be tilted in any direction moving the thrust vector accordingly. The handbrake-like lever to the left alters the pitch of all the blades collectively, hence it’s imaginative name of the collective, this will increase or decrease the amount of thrust broadly speaking allowing the aircraft to go up or down. Note this is unlike most cheap quadcopter type drones which vary the rotor RPM to climb and descend. Finally, the yaw pedals in the footwell provide somewhere for the pilot to rest their feet and if the urge takes them rotate the helicopter around the rotor mast by varying the pitch on the tail rotor blades. Obviously that final part doesn’t apply to something like a Chinook which doesn’t have a tail rotor and it has to be assumed is manoeuvred by witchcraft. Or differential vectoring of the two rotor discs. So probably the witchcraft thing. To be clear this is a gross simplification and if you want to know more about how to fly a helicopter read ‘Chickenhawk’.

The prototype Chinook used witchcraft for directional control.

The ten aircraft below have unfortunately let the side down and generally suffer from being poorly designed, used for the wrong role, being overly ambitious or some combination of all three.

10. Percival P.74

The 50s were a time of great advances in aviation, the Percival P.74 was responsible for none of them. Looking as if the company’s designers were tasked to make a workable helicopter from a drawing by the director’s three-year-old child it featured a bulbous fuselage with tiny wheels and a comically out of proportion tail rotor. Presumably feeling there was nothing left to lose it was decided to power it by using tip-jets to drive the rotors and control their pitch with full-span trailing edge ailerons. The observant reader will notice both these features have failed to make it into widespread production. Or even into a niche.

To provide air for the tip jets two Napier Oryx gas turbines drove air compressors the combined exhausts from both turbine and compressor then being ducted to the rotor tips. As someone had decided to put the engines in the belly this involved large ducts of hot air going up either side of the cabin, splitting it in two. Probably kept it warm though. More worryingly the only access to the cockpit was through the gap between these ducts, the sole door being at the back of the aircraft.

After five years of development, and presumably the delight of the test pilots, the first flight was aborted as despite the efforts of all involved it failed to leave the ground. Despite further tinkering with the engines to produce more gas flow the P.74 never left terra firma and was eventually wheeled across the airfield and forgotten about. As if to make sure all traces would be forgotten, shortly afterwards the Percival name was replaced with that of Hunting.

9. Hughes XH-17

Proving that it wasn’t just the British that could pursue aviation’s dead ends the XH-17 also featured tip jet driven rotors. At which point any similarity with Percival’s attempt ends. Starting life as a rotor test rig under the auspices of the Kellett Aircraft Corporation the XH-17 ducted bleed air from the compressor sections of two GE J35 jet engines. After travelling 65’ to the ends of the oversized rotor blades fuel was added to the airflow and ignited giving four distinct jet plumes in the trailing edge. And a noise signature like an AC/DC concert, complaints being received from eight miles away.

In June of 1948 facing financial issues Kellett sold the XH-17 and their interest in the programme to the only company mad enough to take it on. The one run by a man who watched movies for four months, while not cutting his nails, storing his urine in bottles, and without their even being a global pandemic. Yes, the Hughes Aircraft Company. [1]

After finding a pilot willing to fly the XH-17, one Gale Moore, the first intentional flight took place on 16 Sep 1952 at which point Moore discovered the control balance was ideal for a rotor test rig. [2] Unfortunately, it was less useful for any fine control the beast bouncing up and down until Moore managed to dump it onto the ground firmly enough to stay there. After some tinkering Hughes managed to resolve the control issues and the XH-17 entered an intensive 10-hour test programme, at which point the rotors fatigue life was used up.

Although there was a proposal for a four bladed production version of the XH-17, the XH-28, the Army eventually decided not to pursue it. There presumably not being a massive requirement to move tanks across the battlefield at 70knots while being heard by everyone in the same county.

Despite this inauspicious start Hughes would go on to produce some half decent helicopters you may have heard of. Such as the Apache.

[1] The author once worked for an oil field services company that was taken over by the Hughes Tool Company. It was not as eccentric as he hoped.

[2] The first unintentional flight having occurred 2 years earlier when a control link broke and resulted in the rig part, but oddly not the rotors, having to be rebuilt.

8. De Lackner HZ-1

This is almost definitely a helicopter and was evaluated by the US Army as part of their plans to kill their own soldiers in new and imaginative ways. Eschewing such fripperies as a fuselage, seats, or actual controls the HZ-1 was steered by the ‘pilot’ leaning in the direction he wanted to go. For those wondering if they can build one in their own garage [3], the most complicated bit, the engine, was a converted Mercury outboard motor so the answer is probably yes. This drove two 15’ diameter contra-rotating rotor blades that, in two fingers to occupational health and safety, were placed below the sacrificial offering. In the pros column in trials soldiers learnt to fly it with only 20 minutes of instruction, before speeding across the landscape at up to 75 mile an hour. Although with a range of 15 miles it’s not obvious that was particularly useful.

In the cons column the HZ-1 suffered two accidents, apparently non-fatal, where the contra-rotating blades clipped each other and then stopped working. More worryingly NACA were unable to repeat the phenomena in their wind tunnel, proving that even rocket scientists don’t understand helicopters. Combined with a rare outbreak of sanity in the US Army, who realised there wasn’t actually a lot of utility to the personal helicopter idea, this led to the end of the programme.

[3] For legal reasons Hush Kit does not advise this, but if you do, please mention us in the inevitable YouTube video of your demise.

7. Agusta A106

Despite having to remove the doors to meet the range requirement when carrying a WE177C depth charge the Westland Wasp manages to avoid being on this list due to probably being the only ASW helicopter to have actually damaged a submarine. Which makes you ask what the rest of them have been doing with their time. The Agusta A-106 however does not have that advantage.

With a max take-off mass lower than the Wasp’s empty weight the A106 was truly dinky, at 1400kg fully loaded it probably weighed less than your car. This almost anorexic look was achieved by only providing seating for a pilot while two Mk44 torpedoes could be hung under the fuselage, at which point you have to ask how much of the 800kg payload remained available for fuel. The absence of any other crew would have limited the A106 to carrying its payload where it was told to and then dropping it. Hopefully someone would then be available to tell the pilot how to get back as well, photos of the cockpit showing it to be remarkably lacking in avionics. It’s at this point you start to wonder if Agusta realised they had created a manned version of the QH-50 DASH torpedo carrying drone which had already entered service two years before the 106’s first flight in 1965.

Although some sources claim it had an acoustic submarine detection system it’s not obvious where this would have gone, nor how the sole occupant would play the roles of sensor operator, tactics officer, and pilot. So, they should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, at best it may have been able to deploy sonobouys for other aircraft and ships to listen to. In the end only the two prototype A106s were built. The Italian Navy presumably deciding that if it was going to the trouble of having manned aircraft on its ships they may as well be able to do something useful when there wasn’t an ASW exercise to take part in, like collecting the mail.

6. Westland 30

Credit: Joe Coles

It’s the late ‘70s and everyone’s favourite Somerset based aircraft manufacturer is having something approaching success with its Lynx maritime attack helicopter. The next obvious move was to build on that by making a civilian version for the offshore and VIP market. Obvious if you’re not familiar with the Lynx anyway which is an ergonomic and audible nightmare, with average endurance, and a maintenance hours per flying hour problem…

The Westland 30-100 used the same rotors, engines and transmission as the Lynx but mated it with a boxier fuselage which could apparently seat 22. Which would have been a claustrophobic experience if sitting in the back of a 9-passenger configured Lynx is anything to go by. The Westland 30 was also a heavy aircraft with a max take-off weight of almost six tonnes, a figure the Lynx wouldn’t get close to until the Mk8 in the mid-90s. This didn’t do anything for the performance the early Gem engines not being up to hauling around something that heavy.  Consequently, the WG30 was poor in range, power, and operating costs. On the plus side it meant it rarely flew with more than about 10 people in the back which must have made it quite roomy.

In 1985 in an attempt to prove Westlands was a going concern and maybe worth another company, Sikorsky say, investing in the Thatcher government convinced India to purchase 21 WG30s. Using a UK funded grant of £65 million and offers of further aid. Which sounds a lot like bribery. In four years of service the aircraft posted a £5.6 million operating loss, were limited in passenger capacity to ensure safe they met the performance requirements for safe operation, and required engine servicing every 70 hours. After two fatal crashes in 1988 and ’89 the fleet was grounded. Operators in the USA meanwhile seemed no more enamoured of them with issues around the auto-stabilisation system, the levels of maintenance required, and lack lustre customer support. Issues that wouldn’t have surprised any Lynx operator.

The obvious solution to many of the WG30’s woes would be to add more power, however there’s only so much you could usefully put through the four rotor blades. By the time Westlands bit the bullet and produced the bigger better -300 series with a five bladed rotor head, CT7 engines, and modern avionics it was too little too late. [4] Even attempts to sell it to the UK military failed in favour of the Merlin HC3. Ultimately Westlands asked for the type certification to be cancelled ensuring none of the 41 Westland 30-100s that were been built can fly again.

[4] The single built example of this and the -200 are now at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare.

5.Mil Mi-10 ‘Harke’

The Mi-6 managed to combine a steam punk aesthetic with being the World’s largest production helicopter, it was a truly glorious machine and the lack of a nose mounted conservatory in its successor the Mi-26 leaves us all the poorer. The Mi-10 on the other hand was a flying crane derivative of the Hook which failed to live up to the glory of its older sister.

Removing the bottom half of the fuselage the resulting gap between the aircraft and the ground was filled with a stalky 3.75m tall 6m wide undercarriage. For reasons to do with helicopter aerodynamics the right-hand legs were 300mm shorter than the left.  Having built possibly the most ridiculous looking landing gear known to man there must have been some disappointment when it was found to shimmy while ground taxing.

It was also discovered that carrying underslung loads was difficult due to the poor view from the cockpit even when using the built in CCTV system.

Realising the requirement to carry a bus or prefab building underneath the fuselage wasn’t the killer feature the USSR needed the later Mi-10K featured a 2m shorter undercarriage and a second aft facing cockpit underneath the first. Because nothing says we got it right first time like giving the pilot somewhere else to sit. This made it much better for carrying underslung loads up to around 11 tonnes in weight. Or about what you could get inside a Mi-6. Which probably explains why only 55 or so Mi-10 were built in total, there only being so many times you need to move something you can’t get in or under a Hook.

4. Yak-24 ‘Horse

As part of a Stalin ‘inspired’ post war rush to revive helicopter development Yakovlev were ‘invited’ to design a heavy lift helicopter. The task seemed simple, make a boxy fuselage to put everything in and put a rotor at each end to lift it off the ground. As with most things helicopter related it turns out nothing is that simple.

Power was to be provided by the same Shvetsov Ash-82V engine, gearbox, and rotors as used in the Mi-4 Hare. Except two of them. Presumably due to issues of sanity one was placed just above the loading ramp and the other was tilted over and squeezed behind the cockpit. To stop the blades from clashing a synchronisation shaft connected the two gearboxes and also allowed power to be transferred front to rear, or vice versa, in the event of an engine failure. Outside of this list, this has not proved a popular configuration.

The first indication that everything may not be right with the Horse came during ground testing when the rear rotor vibrated itself and its gearbox free and committed seppuku ripping the fuselage apart. Further trials revealed that behaving like a tumble dryer with a brick in it was actually a feature of the Yak-24 and that it might be an idea to design it out. Eventually, and possibly in a fit of frustration, the problem was solved by removing half a meter from the end of each rotor. Despite these setbacks command economies wait for no man and the aircraft entered state trials in late 1953 barely a year after the programme had started. During these another prototype was lost but it was the ‘50s so no one seems to have minded although it probably didn’t help with the final development, the complexity of which delayed service entry by two and a half years to 1955.

Despite having a briefly record setting lift capability as few as 40 and at most 100 Horses were produced with vibration and accidents plaguing its career. Still at least Yakovlev could fall back on producing world-beating VSTOL fighters to make ends meet…

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes hereSave the Hush-Kit blog. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Your donations keep this going. Thank you. Our shop is here and our Twitter account here @Hush_Kit. Sign up for our newsletter here:

3. Bristol Belvedere

Form follows function and that’s as true for the Bristol Belvedere as any other helicopter. Unfortunately, the function it followed was that of an anti-submarine warfare helicopter, and despite the Admiralty deciding to go with a licence-built version of the Sikorsky S-58 Bristol didn’t see any reason to radically change their design. So, they didn’t and sold it to the RAF as a transport helicopter instead. To be fair the RAF don’t seem to have thought to ask for any changes either.

This left troops trying to board through a door four feet off the ground as the fuselage was still high enough to allow torpedoes to be loaded on the underside. Which turned out not to be a major requirement in the jungles of Borneo due to the paucity of submarines. Taking a leaf out of Yakovlev’s book Bristol put the engines at either end of the cabin. Going one further they positioned the rear one in the fuselage precluding the use of a loading ramp. Meanwhile the one at the other end blocked access to the cockpit, which was probably a smart move but was ultimately defeated by installing a bulge on the left of the fuselage. To make matters more interesting for the pilot the engines were started with AVPIN a substance which helpfully doesn’t need oxygen to burn and will happily do so if mishandled. This left them with the choice of squeezing back past the on-fire engine compartment or jumping to the ground and breaking an ankle.

Introduced into service in 1961 the Belvedere could carry 19 troops or 6,000lbs of cargo, which sounds moderately impressive. However, that year also saw the Wessex Mk1 join the Royal Navy and with only half the Gazelle engines it could carry 16 troops or 4,000lbs of cargo and was less complicated to maintain. With all its shortfalls it’s something of a surprise that Bristol’s managed to sell any Belvederes, but as a portent of the RAF’s future attitude to helicopters they actually bought 26.

2. Aérospatiale Puma HC1

Pumas are painted green to help hide their shame

The Puma HC1 entered service with the RAF in 1971 and inexplicably wasn’t upgraded for 40 years. Which is probably some sort of indication of the high regard rotary wing aviation is held in by the bits of the Air Force that control the money. During that time there were 20 crashes, none of which were attributable to enemy action, killing 31 people. [5]

This somewhat excessive accident rate was at least partly due to the engine controls not featuring anticipators. Fitted in most helicopters these increase the speed of the engine as the pilot raises the collective before the extra drag from increased pitch on the rotors slows their rotation. On its own this wouldn’t be the end of the world however the Turbomeca Turmo engines also took around five seconds to spool up from idle to a speed where they were actually turning the rotors. But why would it be at idle you may ask. Well in certain conditions it’s possible for the aerodynamic forces to drive the rotor system rather than the engines. Typically, when slowing in level flight. If the rotor speed goes above the level for normal flight the engine governor will reduce fuel flow to prevent an overspeed. As this will have no effect the governor will keep reducing fuel flow until it hits the idle stop. In these situations, as the aerodynamic forces drop off there will be nothing driving the Puma’s rotors for several seconds and inertia only gets you so far. On the plus side this gives an opportunity to check all the blades are still there while waiting for normality to resume. Assuming you haven’t hit the ground by then. To be fair to the Turmo it provided sterling service to SNCF powering their trains.

To add insult to injury the early Puma models narrow track undercarriage and high centre of gravity leave the aircraft relatively unstable on the ground.  This has resulted in Puma’s being blown over when the wind unexpectedly changed direction. Which is embarrassing if you’ve left them parked unattended. It also probably explains why the UK have never cleared theirs to operate off ships.

For those wondering Eurocopter did fix these problems fairly early in the production of the Puma with the Makila engine solving all the Turmo’s problems and being a suggested upgrade to the RAF’s for three or four decades before it actually happened in 2012. The Super Puma models having also helpfully moved the main gear further outboard to increase stability on the ground. Although the latest models have introduced a new problem of the rotor head coming off. Which is as fatal as it sounds.

[5] Tip of the hat to UK Serials which has more accessible records of UK military accidents than the UK military. Even if you’re in the UK military.

  1. Robinson R-22

The Robinson R-22 is about as light and simple as you can make a helicopter. For instance, the rotor brake appears to be connected to the operating handle by an easily broken, if shockingly expensive, sink chain and the whole aircraft is so light it can be wheeled in and out of the hangar by one person. This lightness makes it cheap to operate. Unfortunately, it also makes it extremely attractive for flying schools despite there being much better training aircraft available. [6]

There are two major issues with the R-22, and to some extent its bigger siblings the R-44 and R-66. Firstly, the lightweight main rotor has very little inertia, so if the engine stops there’s only around a second to lower the collective before the rotors are no longer spinning fast enough to sustain auto-rotation. This also makes practice auto-rotation relatively terrifying for the first few hundred goes as the lack of inertia makes the rotor speed race up and down at the slightest movement of the controls.

The second issue is known as mast bumping and is a phenomenon unique to helicopters with two bladed main rotors. As the blades rotate, they flap up and down as the amount of lift generated changes due to the altering airflow and pitch. Generally, up on the side going forward relative to the airframe and down on the retreating side. If there are only two blades as one goes up the other goes down, like a seesaw, and in extreme cases the root of the downward going blade can strike the shaft. [7] This is at least as bad as it sounds and can lead to the blade removing the tail boom, cockpit roof, and the entire rotor head departing the aircraft. This is most likely to happen in low-g situations, such as in turbulence, where the fuselage no longer hanging from the rotor disc will roll right due to the side thrust from the tail rotor. At this point any rational person would apply left cyclic to level the aircraft. Which will cause mast-bumping, rotor separation, and death. In that order.  R-22 training therefore includes a heavy emphasis on avoiding turbulence and if the aircraft rolls right unexpectedly counterintuitively pulling back on the cyclic to increase the g and load up the rotor system. The FAA require a separate logbook signature to state this training has been conducted before you’re even allowed to fly a Robinson product solo while EASA require it as part of the type rating. Despite this there have been multiple accidents which cannot be explained by turbulence or mishandling alone.

To be fair some people say that if you train on something that’s difficult to fly everything else will be easy, presumably these people were also taught calculus before basic addition and learnt to drive in a Formula 1 car. To give an illustration of why that idea is complete bobbins between 1997 and 2010 the R-22 was responsible for 28% of civilian helicopter accidents in the UK, while only making up around 8% of rotary wing aircraft on the G register. [8]

[6] Your author gained his PPL(H) and CPL(H) on an R-22, after already learning to fly helicopters on the Squirrel and 50 hours hands-on time in the Lynx. Which is about the right lead in for the R-22.

[7] This is also known as a teetering head due to the ridiculous American English use of the name teeter-totter for a seesaw.

[8] 104 R22 in the G-INFO database at the time of writing the article against 1208 UK registered civilian helicopters.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and CPL(H), who has spent the last eight years working in Air Safety. He also supplies holy vestments for the Church of the Wyvern.

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Top 10 Real Flying Saucer Aircraft

There is undoubtedly a certain fascination with UFOs of the alien variety. While my personal view is that the whole concept was a fabulous disinformation campaign, delivered through the USAF Project Blue Book, there is a community that strongly believes that Earth has been repeatedly visited by alien entities and flying saucers.

For American readers, I am aware that all of us foreigners are aliens, and creatures from other worlds are referred to as ‘space aliens’. As this usage is, like their curious reversed dates (the month preceding the day), their irrational hatred of the letter ‘U’, an inability to pronounce the name ‘Craig’ and some other aberrations, confined to the USA, I will ignore it. If you are American, for ‘alien’, read ‘space alien’

Sadly, for the UFO community, this article is not about alien-flown UFOs, but aircraft featuring (broadly) a wing with either a circular, or an annular, planform. There are a surprising number of these, and quite a few have even been flown. In coming up with a top 10 selection, I have been biased towards those that did actually become airborne, but have also been attracted to those which either feature purity of form, or alternatively are so spectacular that they cannot be ignored. Of course, in a list of ten, readers’ favourites will have been left out, or put in the ‘wrong’ place. The selection and ordering of aircraft in any Top Ten list is always going to be subjective, so I accept responsibility, but make no apology for my choices


Aerodynamics
Before launching into our list, I feel I should say a word about the aerodynamics of circular-winged aircraft. If you are in search of a quick fix you may jump straight into the top 10 below; for those wishing to know more, I’d like to explain a little about the aerodynamics of the flying saucer, mainly because having a circular wing is largely such a bad idea. The issues I will raise may not be insuperable, but their impacts do have an influence on the configuration, control and performance of circular and annular winged aircraft.

The most obvious problem is going to be the lift-dependent drag of the aircraft. Liftdependent drag is the drag caused by the generation of lift. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in aerodynamics and if you order a bigger portion you’re going to get a bigger bill (unlike in nouveau cuisine where the inverse occurs). This is proportional to lift squared, divided by aspect ratio (a measure of the slenderness of the wing as viewed from above or below). The larger the aspect ratio, the smaller the lift-dependent drag at a given lift. This is why sailplanes have long slender wings, and for low-speed aircraft, high aspect ratio is a good indicator of efficiency.

For a circular wing, the Aspect Ratio is 4/Pi, or about 1.27. An equilateral triangle has an aspect ratio of about 2.31, and a typical modern airliner will have an aspect ratio around 10.0 or more. So circular wings are inefficient.

A second impact of having a low aspect ratio is that the lift curve slope is low. This slope is the amount of lift generated per degree of angle to the airflow. As a generalisation, a circular wing will require about twice the angle to the airflow to generate the same lift as a high aspect ratio wing of the same area. So, in addition to having high lift dependent drag, we can expect our circular wings, at low speed, to have high angle of incidence, to need high power, and, perhaps to have significant forward visibility issues.

Stability and Control
What of stability and control? Well, one issue is going to be to have sufficient control power. Because of the compact nature of a circular wing, the arm available for rear-mounted control surfaces is likely to be relatively small, compared to the conventional rear-fuselage-mounted tail surfaces.


From a longitudinal stability point of view, care will be required, for a non-spinning circular configuration, to manage the longitudinal stability. If the centre of gravity is at the point of radial symmetry, the configuration will be longitudinally unstable, because the centre of lift will, at subsonic speeds, be ahead of this. For simple light aircraft applications, the centre of gravity will generally be designed to avoid this issue, for example by having a forward located engine. For radially symmetric designs, low speed stability is likely to be significant problem, unless the whole airframe is spun, like a frisbee, so that a combination of angular momentum and gyroscopic precession provides a measure of longitudinal stability.

From the lateral perspective, there is no reason to anticipate that a flying disc at low incidence would be anything but neutrally stable. However, at the relatively high incidences which might be required for take-off and landing, it is probable that vortices would be shed from the highly swept outer wing leading edge, which would be destabilising in both pitch and yaw, hence requiring some form of fin, rudder and aileron control.


Annular Wings
Annular wings, in the form of a disc with a circular hole in the centre, have also proven a popular form for innovators. From an aerodynamic perspective, these may be thought of as a pair of wings in tandem, joined at the tips. Because the rear part of the wing sits within the downwash field of the front part, it will experience a lower aerodynamic incidence, which does have the advantage that an annular winged aircraft will generally naturally pitch nose down at the stall. Otherwise, the aerodynamic qualities are likely to be similar to those of a circular wing.

This annular wing aircraft is would refer to as a ‘ring wing’. Rather than wrapped around the body, I am referring to a wing in the same plane as the fuselage, just like the Lee-Richards monoplane. I don’t think ring wings look sufficiently saucer like.


For a given diameter, an annular wing will have less area than a circular wing, and would be likely to have a more complex and heavier structure. However, other considerations, such as the view on landing, and possibly somewhat higher lift curve slope and lower lift dependent drag might prove advantageous. That said, the flows around an annular wing could well be interesting and highly dependent on yaw as well as pitch, assuming the near streamwise edges at the wing tips, and at the outer portion of the central aperture, all shed vortices at high incidence.


Spinning discs

From Atlas Obscura “An articulated view of a Discopter in flight, floating through the night sky above the San Francisco Bay. WITH PERMISSION FROM DISCOPTER.COM


What about spinning discs? Well, evidently, frisbees can glide for significant distances, and are relatively stable in flight, so why not a spinning disc? Well, maybe in an unmanned application, but a human pilot is going to need to be facing more-or less in the direction of flight, and maintaining that with a spinning wing is going to be difficult. Not impossible (see helicopters for example), but certainly complex and heavier than not spinning the wing.

An interesting aspect of spinning discs is that necessarily, the centre of gravity also will be the centre of rotation, to ensure the device is rotationally balanced. The implication of this is that spinning discs are aerodynamically unstable at subsonic speeds, when the centre of lift will be ahead of the centre of gravity. The nose-up pitching moment which results is, however, converted through gyroscopic precession into an oscillation in roll, and moreover this is itself stabilised by the rotational inertia of the spinning disc.


Control of a spinning wing will also be difficult as both gyroscopic precession, and differential lift on the advancing and retreating side of the wing is going to complicate any control system markedly – again, see helicopters.

Are there benefits?
Clearly proponents of circular-wing designs have been able to persuade investors and governments to part with significant resources to construct and fly a surprising variety of designs. Given the disadvantages, difficulties and complications I have highlighted, what might be the sales pitch? We have seen that circular wings have a low aspect ratio and a low lift curve slope. As a consequence, a circular-winged configuration will give you a lot of wing area for a given span, and, provided you can manage the forward visibility of flying an approach at fairly high incidence, slow approach and landing speeds. Further, a low wing span for a given area should result in a relatively light structural design, as wing root bending moment will be reduced. These characteristics might have some attraction for carrier-based operations, especially if the need for a folding wing can be avoided.
In principle, manoeuvre performance could be quite good, as long as one is considering roll rate and instantaneous turn rate, that is. Both of these should be good, firstly due to low roll inertia because of reduced wing span, and secondly due to large wing area and high stalling incidence. Sustained turn rate, however, is likely to be horrible due to high lift-dependent drag.


Have any supersonic disc-wings been built? Well, there are rumours that this might have occurred. I am quite sceptical about these because wave drag could be quite high unless an Aerospike or extended fuselage nose were used to keep the aircraft bow shock away from the wing leading edge.


“But what about supersonic flying saucers?”, I hear the true believers cry. Well, I am a sceptic, principally on propulsion grounds. I can see that rotation could manage some of the stability issues, in principle at least, but I can’t resolve how sufficient thrust could be delivered to propel a spinning disc at supersonic speeds, or how such a vehicle could be crewed and controlled. But then, I don’t have access to alien technologies or knowledge.
With this introduction in place, and if we’re all sitting comfortably, let’s begin?

Lee-Richards Annular Biplane and Monoplane


The Lee-Richards Annular Biplane and Monoplane appears first in this list, in recognition not only of the early date of these pioneering aircraft (1911 – 1914), but also because of the development programme which eventually led to the relatively successful Annular Monoplane.The Annular Biplane was developed from a prototype built by G J A Kitchen, who had patented the concept of an annular winged aircraft. The prototype, and the patent were both purchased by Cedric Lee, who then, with George Tilghman Richards, set about developing it for flight trials. In 1911, the completed aircraft, with a 50 hp Gnome engine, was taken to Famine Point at Heynsham for trials, which have been described as “not particularly satisfactory” [British Aircraft 1809-1914, Peter Lewis, 1962].

It remains unclear whether powered flights were successfully completed by this machine, which was destroyed when its hangar was blown down in a gale on 4th-5th November 1911. Other accounts suggest the aircraft was only flown as a glider.
Some readers may either have noted its appearance in the early part of the film ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ or have come across the non-flying replica built for that movie, which is now with the Newark Air Museum. The replica has small ailerons mounted on the interplane struts, twin rudders, and an elevator attached to the trailing edge of the upper wing.
Perhaps the real significance of the Lee-Richards Annular Biplane was the demonstration that wings of this planform could form the basis of a flying machine. Following the loss of the biplane, Lee and Richards conducted a detailed programme of experimentation and research, including experiments with model gliders, and a year later were flying a Sesquiplane glider at Kirby Lonsdale. This aircraft featured a circular lower wing and a crescent-shaped upper wing.
Additionally, in what may well have been a first in the UK, wind tunnel tests were made at East London College and in the National Physical Laboratory, which showed the wing as continuing to produce lift at incidences of up to 30 degrees, with a gentle stall.


With this encouragement, a thoroughly convincing annular-winged monoplane was designed, and built at Shoreham. This aircraft flew successfully on 23 November 1913, although handling was plainly initially somewhat difficult. Again, accounts differ somewhat, but it is clear that the aircraft crashed and was re-built at least twice, with modifications introduced to improve elevator control.

Over the three versions of the aircraft, a total of 128 hours was flown, and the developed aircraft was said to be easy to fly and control, and able to take off with full load at only 30 mph. Maximum speed was 85 mph, landing speed 45 mph, and endurance 3 ½ hours, all creditable figures for a 1914 aircraft with an 80 hp engine. Wingspan was only 22 ft for an aircraft weighing 1680 lb when fully loaded, and the aspect ratio was 1.72.

The initial aircraft was followed by orders for two more, which were, in April 1914, being built for the Gordon Bennett air race. It is likely that these aircraft would not have been completed due to the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914, but the original aircraft continued flying up to September 1914.


Strong Points: The transition from the biplane to the monoplane design seems to have been well researched, and as a result, the monoplane was substantially successful, delivering good performance for an early aircraft, along slow take-off and landing speeds.
Weak Points: It is uncertain whether the biplane ever flew. The monoplane underwent a range of modifications to reduce stability and increase controllability.


Our interview with a SR-71 pilot here

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9. Feast Circle CW


The Feast Circle appears at number 9 in this list, primarily to show that the pioneering spirit of Lee and Richards is alive and well, and living in Australia.


The Feast Circle is an aircraft very much in the spirit of the Lee-Richards monoplane. Following experiments by Ron J Feast using a series of flying models, a small annular wing single-seat aircraft of wood and fabric construction was designed and built, starting in 1997, and making its first flight in July 2001. Where the Lee-Richards aircraft used an 80 hp Gnome engine, the CW used an 80 hp Rotax. The exterior of the wing planform was circular, but the interior featured a straight line at the tip, no doubt making the wing easier to construct, but also something of a joined-wing design, with curved front and rear wings joined by the tip pieces.
As might be expected, while the aircraft proved able to fly quite successfully, it had a very slow landing speed. Elevators were fitted to the trailing edge of the rear wing, and ailerons to the trailing edge of the front wing, and lateral control at the low landing speed proved to be difficult, leading to a number of modifications.


These included a change to a tricycle undercarriage, and a fairly drastic revision of the wing planform, with the rear wing being moved forward, shorter tip pieces being fitted to accommodate the new rear wing position, and dihedral being introduced. Both the ailerons and the elevators were also substantially increased in area. Interestingly, the Lee-Richards monoplane had also been modified to reduce its excessive stability, and had larger control surfaces fitted as well.


The aircraft was successfully flown in its new configuration in 2005, but, by January 2009, had been donated to a museum. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement in the modern regulatory environment to fly such an unconventional aircraft, and have it registered by the airworthiness authorities, hence my decision to include the CW in this list.


Strong points: A recent and successful attempt to build and fly an annular winged aircraft.


Weak points: As might be expected, the usual problems of stability and control, particularly at slow speed. Performance might not have been all that sparkling either, but nevertheless able to deliver a low take-off and landing speed.

8. Nemeth Roundwing


The Nemeth Roundwing is the first circular-winged aircraft appearing in this list. The aircraft, as appears to have been the case for many of this type, was developed following initial trials with flying models built by its designer, Steven Paul Nemeth.
These trials led to a large model of the aircraft being tested in the wind tunnel at University of Michigan in 1929, with encouraging results, which in turn resulted in the development of a full-size aircraft, the Nemeth Roundwing, also known as the Umbrellaplane.
In its initial form, the aircraft was based on the lengthened fuselage of an Alliance Argo light aircraft, and was powered by a 90 hp Lambert engine. The 16 ft diameter circular wing was mounted above the fuselage in a parasol position, and the fuselage retained the empennage of the Alliance aircraft. The rear part of the wing featured a split flap, and the outer part of the wing trailing edge carried the ailerons. Construction of the aircraft was completed in 1934, and was carried out as a student project at the University of Miami. One cannot but feel some envy at this opportunity for the students.


The aircraft flew successfully, but was significantly modified over the next two years. A more powerful Warner Scarab engine of 120 hp was fitted, and the wing trailing edge was significantly refined. Photographs of the later version of the aircraft show Youngman-like flaps and ailerons have been fitted. These have a significant gap between the wing and the control surface/flap, which would greatly improve effectiveness, allowing flight at very low speeds. Maintaining the tailplane of the original aircraft would be vital to allow the aircraft to be trimmed because the flaps would produce a significant pitching moment when deployed.
Given the 125 hp engine, the high lift devices, and the aerodynamic characteristics of the circular wing, it is not surprising that extremely short take-off and landing distances of 63 ft and 25 ft have been quoted. The aircraft was said to be incapable of stalling and easy to fly, with a landing speed of 30 mph. The aircraft does have a notable high ground angle, and this is presumed to have been used to allow landings to be made at high incidence and low speed.


Strong Points: Flew successfully, and was easy to control. Looks fun, and a great student project.
Weak points: Required a fuselage and tailplane to deliver stability and control, so although disc-winged, not really a flying saucer..

7. Snyder ARUP


The Snyder ARUP was an attempt to create an easy-to-fly aircraft for the masses – a popular theme that appears to have been doomed to failure at every attempt. The attraction of using a very low aspect ratio wing for this purpose reflects what we have observed with all these light aircraft projects. With a large wing area, and the ability to fly at very low speeds, the prospect appears at hand of an aircraft which is both easy to fly and able to operate from small fields. Combined with a small span, making the aircraft easy and cheap to store when not in use, the attraction seems obvious. ARUP was selected as a name for the aircraft from a contraction of ‘Air Up’ – a reflection of an intent to produce a plane for the masses.
In the case of the ARUP, development by Snyder, assisted by Raoul Hoffmann, followed the usual pattern of balsa wood models, followed by development of a glider, and then fitting a small motor to the glider. As a powered aircraft, the initial S-1 design did fly, but was not a great success, proving to be difficult to control.

Nevertheless, the results were sufficiently encouraging to lead to the development of three further aircraft, the ARUP S-2, S-3 and S-4. The S-2 flew for the first time in 1933, and was a small single-seater with a half-moon shaped wing, with straight leading edge and rounded training edge. Control was achieved using trailing edge elevons, operated together for elevator control, and in opposition for roll control, for which they were supplemented by small ailerons at the wing tips.
The S-2 flew well and was widely demonstrated across the US, both in air-shows and to both NASA and the US Army. The S-2 could be flown at up to 35 deg incidence without stalling.


It is worth commenting that the ability, shared by all these low aspect ratio aircraft, to take-off and land very slowly becomes of less consequence once they are constrained to operate from the hard surfaces of current runways. It is very easy to land at 30 mph directly into a head wind, but a significant crosswind on a narrow fixed runway could result in drift angles approaching 45 deg, leading either to a tricky landing on the runway, or perhaps a deliberate and slow off-piste landing elsewhere on the airfield.
The S-3 variant of the aircraft made one flight only before being destroyed by a fire, thought to be the result of arson. The S-4 was very similar to the S-2 and S-3, the main differences being a cleaner cockpit enclosure and the use of larger ailerons at the trailing edge of the outer wing, and a fin-mounted tailplane and elevator. The S-4 first flew in 1935, and remained in use until the Second World War.
Strong points: A practical aircraft, successfully developed and demonstrated over a number of years
Weak Points: Control system changes over time suggest that the ability to approach and land at low speed is a positive, but also that control power at low speed was an issue.

6. David Rowe UFO


The David Rowe UFO (Useless Flying Object) earns its place on this list as a modern example of a light aircraft with a circular wing. Like the previous examples, the UFO started life in model form and was then developed through a series of prototypes, with revisions to power, centre of gravity, undercarriage and controls. The exercise appears to have been driven more by a belief that it could be done, rather than by an ambition to produce a production design.


The first ‘full-size’ aircraft was the Rowe Wild Thing, which was registered in 1995, powered by a 28 hp Cuyuna snowmobile engine. With this engine, the Wild Thing proved to be under-powered, and the next development was the Rotax-powered UFO. This proved relatively successful, although a little tail heavy, leading to further design revisions to produce the UFO-3.
The UFO-3 used a different wing section, and featured a re-positioned cockpit and engine, resulting in an improved aircraft which was flown for 13 years, commencing in 2000. By any measure, this aircraft must be considered a success, although an attempt to create a two-seat version had to be abandoned when entry to the aircraft was found to be too difficult, perhaps reminding one unfairly of the reputed Boscombe down comment on the Blackburn Botha “Entry to this aircraft is extremely difficult – it should have been made impossible”.


The latest aircraft in the series is another single-seater with a tail-wheel manually retractable undercarriage. This aircraft can be seen flying in the attached video clip


The UFO earns its place in this list because of its original design, its evident enduring success, and the sense of fun involved in creating a one-man UFO for the entertainment of both the pilot and ground observers.
Strong points: What’s not to like. The UFO manages to be cute, fun and a successful design, all at the same time
Weak Points: OK, getting into it by crawling along under the wing is perhaps a little undignified; I’m guessing, but it seems likely that a sustained steep turn might involve a bit of height loss.

5. Astro V Dynafan


And now for something completely different, the Astro V Dynafan. One of the reasons for including the Dynafan in this list is because it uses a completely different approach to the generation of lift.
The Dynafan seeks to exploit the Coanda effect. What is the Coanda effect? Well, that august body of learning, Wikipedia, provides this definition:
The Coandă effect (/ˈkwɑːndə/ or) is the tendency of a fluid jet to stay attached to a convex surface. It is named after Romanian inventor Henri Coandă, who described it as “the tendency of a jet of fluid emerging from an orifice to follow an adjacent flat or curved surface and to entrain fluid from the surroundings so that a region of lower pressure develops.”
So, if you blow a jet of high velocity air across a convex surface, not only will the jet curve to follow the surface, but air will be entrained to flow over that surface as well, causing a region of low pressure to develop. In the Astro Kinetics Corporation’s Dynafan, a Chevrolet Corvair engine was used to drive a 2-bladed propeller which pushed air through a converging duct so that it passed over the aerofoil-profiled ring below the duct.


The circular jet not only generated lift from the aerofoil, but also entrained (sucked along with itself) more air, helping to generate additional lift. The whole device was radially symmetric, and was demonstrated in tethered flight in San Antonio on December 16, 1964, making 9 successful ‘flights’ in front of an audience of 200 people.

Great things were expected of the Dynafan, claimed by its manufacturers as easy to scale up, and cheap to build – a production 2-seat version could be available for the cost of a family car, and the demonstration model was said to be designed to fly for 150 miles, and be capable of 86 mph.

However, the real target of the Dynafan was the helicopter market, where its simplicity of design and construction were claimed to lead to drastically reduced production and operating costs compared to complex rotorcraft. Skycrane-type heavy lift operations were viewed as an ideal application, and the company’s press release claimed a 100ft diameter Dynafan would be capable of lifting a 250,000 lb payload.

Control of the Dynafan appears to have been achieved by varying power to the motor, and by the use of four small flaps to vary the width of the slot, at the front and rear to control pitch, and on either side for Roll. Torque was to be balanced, and yaw controlled, through the use of four small surfaces positioned in the jet flow.
It is unclear whether un-tethered flight was attempted or achieved by the Dynafan.
Strong points: A combination of the Coanda effect and an ejector-augmentor propulsion/lift system; demonstrated to be able to perform a tethered hover; very ambitious scale-up plans
Weak Points: To contrast the aphorism about aircraft that look good being good – ‘If it looks like a lash up maybe it won’t work’. The control system looks rudimentary, and it’s likely that the small ‘rudders’ on the outside of the lower ring would have been inadequate to control torque. The control system shows no signs of considering gyroscopic effects.

4. Couzinet RC-360 Aerodyne


The Couzinet RC-360 has been chosen for this list as it is, perhaps, the purest instance of man-made ‘flying saucer’; because it raises some interesting technical questions; and because it provides an opportunity to showcase one of the 30s prettiest airliners, the Couzinet ‘Arc en Ciel’ (Rainbow).
Photo Arc en Ciel
In January 1933, this elegant aircraft crossed the South Atlantic from Senegal to Natal, Brazil in 14 ½ hours, as part of a notable flight linking Paris and Buenos Aires. This flight led to a regular postal service across the South Atlantic commencing in 1934.
In 1955, Couzinet began a project to build a vertical take-off aircraft, the Aerodyne and registers a patent for it on May 25, 1955, number 1.129.038 and titled “Aerodyne with multiple wings”, patent which will be published in 1957, after his death. A non-flying 60% scale model of the Aerodyne is built and shown to the press.
Photos of the RC-360
The concept was a small radially symmetric craft, featuring a pair of contra rotating discs surrounding a stationary cockpit, each disc carrying 96 small wings on its circumference. The winged discs were enclosed in a fairing, and were to be powered by three pairs of Lycoming engines. In addition, a small turbojet was added to provide horizontal thrust.
In the end, the full-size Aerodyne was never completed and never flew. So why is it of interest? Well, apart from its fabulous appearance, the use of contra-rotating spinning discs poses interesting questions about control.
The spinning discs are proposed for a good reason. By having a pair of discs rotating in different directions, the torque required to drive the discs can be balanced out, providing the means of stopping rotation of the aircraft. The same approach is used in the Kamov series of helicopters to dispense with the need for a tail rotor.


How would controlled flight be achieved? In yaw, this would be easy, as small differences in power to the discs can be used. But control in pitch and roll is another question, due to a physical effect called gyroscopic precession. This is a fairly familiar phenomena which has the result that a force applied to a rotating object produces a response at 90 degrees to the applied force.

Suppose you wish to pitch a helicopter. What you do is apply cyclic controls so that the lift on one side of the disc is increased, and decreased on the other. Because of gyroscopic precession, the rotor will not roll, but will respond in pitch.
Now consider a force trying to pitch the Aerodyne. For example, because the centre of gravity is behind the centre of lift, the result for a non-spinning disk would be a nose up pitching moment. For one spinning disc, the actual outcome would be a rolling moment, but for two discs spinning in opposite directions, two rolling moments in opposite directions would be generated, resulting in no disturbance in pitch or roll.
Which is fine, but does raise the question of how the Aerodyne would be controlled?
A question which fortunately never arose, because it never flew.


Strong points: The purest and most futuristic looking flying saucer, somehow with a touch of French élan
Weak Points: Never built at full-scale and never flown. Unclear how a control system could have been successfully developed.

3. Vought V 173


The Vought V 173 arose as a result of US Navy interest in the ideas of Charles H. Zimmerman, who, possibly influenced by having witnessed demonstration flights of the Snyder ARUP aircraft, became interested in possible applications for “discoidal” aircraft i.e. aircraft which, like the ARUP, featured very low aspect ratio wings.One of the characteristics of this type of aircraft is its ability to fly at slow speeds, a characteristic which might prove useful for a carrier-based aircraft. Zimmerman conducted trials at NASA Langley (then the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory) in 1935 showing that low aspect ratio discoidal wings could generate maximum lift coefficients of 1.8 at about 40 degrees incidence.
In 1937, Zimmerman left Langley, having been employed by Vought Aircraft, a move which facilitated development of his ideas following the normal path of testing flying scale models. In turn, this led to interest from the US Navy, more wind tunnel testing, and the construction of a proof-of-concept aircraft, the Vought V 173. US Navy interest had been sparked by the events at Pearl Harbour, which had confirmed the importance of aircraft carriers to the US Navy, and suggested that a very compact and STOL fighter might allow operation from merchant vessels, and would also allow aircraft to be carried in greater numbers.

The V 173 was an extraordinary-looking aircraft. Not content with merely adopting a low aspect ratio wing like that of the ARUP, the V 173 also featured large diameter propellers positioned at the extreme wing tips, bathing the entire lifting surface in propwash, helping to ensure controllability down to very low flying speeds.


As a consequence of the low lift curve slope, the aircraft would need to fly at significant incidence when approaching to land, and accordingly, the V 173 featured an extraordinarily tall undercarriage, giving a resting ground angle of 22 degrees, which also provided ground clearance for the large 16 ft 6 in diameter propellers. To provide an adequate view, the pilot was located at the extreme front of the aircraft, and the underside of the nose of the aircraft was made transparent to facilitate the view ahead when landing.


Aircraft control was facilitated by twin fins and rudders placed in line with the propellers, tailplanes with control surfaces attached to the rear of the wing, and a pair of moveable control surfaces located at the trailing edge of the wing.

Testing of the aircraft was somewhat delayed because of vibration in the propulsion system – each of the propellers was driven through a long shaft and a gearbox transferring power from the engines. Eventually, however, the aircraft flew on 23 November 1942, with no major problems encountered, apart from high control forces. The aircraft demonstrated extremely short take-off and landing characteristics, with a typical take off run of 200 ft, and a landing after its first flight of 50 ft.
The aircraft completed its flight test programme through 1942 and ’43, eventually making its last flight at the end of March 1947. By this time, it had made 190 flights totalling 131.8 hours, and had caused a bit of a sensation amongst those who assumed they were seeing a bright yellow UFO over Connecticut.


Strong points: Outstanding appearance; Numerous flights; Amazing ground angle
Weak points: Heavy controls; low power; high drag; vibration problems in drive train

2. Vought XF5U-1


The Vought XF5U-1 makes second place on this list mainly because of the audacious leap of faith by the US Navy and Vought in going for such a radical scale up from the V 173 proof of concept aircraft, particularly when the concept demonstrator had done little, other than to demonstrate the slow landing capability of the configuration, and its marginal controllability.


But, hey, the US Navy was reaching out towards an aircraft it hoped would fly at 500 mph and land in a very small space. So, the Vought XF5U-1 was developed in the form of one structural test article and one flyable prototype. The main differences from the demonstrator aircraft were the weight (about 5 times heavier), and the installed power – two 1400 hp P&W R2000 radial engines as opposed to two 80 hp Continental engines. The airframe to be propelled by this 17.5 to 1 increase in power was similar in size to the lightweight wooden demonstrator, just 2 feet longer and with 4ft greater span.


The look of the prototype, dressed up in USN Blue, with its enormous, helicopter rotor-like flapping propellers, was aggressive and startling, with its low aspect ratio wing and 18 degree ground angle. Interestingly, the published three-view drawings indicate that the aircraft could not take-off or land with the fuselage horizontal – the propeller blades would have struck the ground.
What could go wrong? Well, in the end, the rapid advance of jet aircraft technologies and the end of the Second World War probably had as much to do with the demise of this high-risk, low payoff venture as anything else. By the end of the programme, in March 1947, jet engine aircraft were coming into US Navy service, and even had the aircraft flown successfully and delivered its projected performance, it would have been uncompetitive as a fighter.


It seems unlikely that the aircraft ever flew. Even though reference is made to short hops in the very poor Wikipedia article on the aircraft, this seems unlikely to have occurred. In the ground testing that was conducted, there appears to have been significant vibration issues with the propeller drive system. The use of propellers with flapping blades, and generally complex and immature shaft drive would represent significant risk areas for the project.


But the look is fabulous, and the ambition colossal, so I make no apologies for placing this bold but unsuccessful design at number two in my list.
This link, buried deep in the otherwise useless Wikipedia article, provides what appears to be a credible, detailed and realistic version of the V 173 and XF5U-1 story, including a first-hand account of the first flight of the V-173.

Strong points: Fearsome appearance; Ambitious and aspirational.
Weak Points: Where were the Risk team on this one? The demonstrator had shown poor performance, likelihood of vibration problems and possible control issues. So we’ll add flapping propeller blades for a bit more fun.

  1. Avro VZ-9-AV Avrocar


The Avro Avrocar comes in at number 1 on my list for three reasons. Firstly, the purity of the concept in the popular image of a flying saucer is perhaps only matched by the impractical and unsuccessful Couzinet CP-360. Secondly, the grand vision for the whole concept of producing a supersonic weapon system, designed to be stable at supersonic speed, and to manage the inevitable instability at subsonic speeds. And thirdly, the magnificent disconnect between the initial intentions and what was finally achieved.
The project started out with the ambitious objective of producing a VTOL fighter aircraft which could take off vertically, transition to forward flight, accelerate to supersonic speed, and transition back to a vertical landing. The project was developed within a Special Projects Group at Avro, and funded initially by the USAF. Early objectives included an ability to reach a speed of Mach 3.5 at 100,000 ft.


The design was to be powered by a novel propulsion system, and ground testing of this proved somewhat difficult and dangerous, raising questions about the viability of the design. Out of this uncertainty emerged the Avrocar as a small proof-of-concept demonstrator that could both establish the viability of the propulsion system and demonstrate that satisfactory stability and control could be attained. At the same time, the demonstrator could serve as a prototype to meet a US Army requirement for a ‘Flying Jeep’. While the requirements for this were quite modest (25 mile range with a 1000 lb payload, for example), the projected performance was far higher, with a 130 mile range projected with the same payload, and a maximum speed of 225 kt.
The key element of the Avrocar was its Turborotor engine, located at the centre of the radially symmetric craft. Three Continental J69 engines were arranged so that their exhausts drove a 124 blade turbo rotor – a turbine attached to the outside of a fan which pulled air through a central intake, distributing it downwards to provide lift, and radially to provide a control system. The control system involved using the Coanda effect to assist in redirecting the radial jet through the use of a circular ring-like surface immersed in the jet. An interesting aspect of the design was the exploitation of the gyroscopic forces generated by the large Turborotor to assist in stabilising the craft.

Naturally, in subsonic flight, the Avrocar was aerodynamically unstable because the centre of gravity, at the centre of the circular craft, was behind the centre of lift. However, the spinning Turborotor provided a degree of gyroscopic stabilisation, rather in the manner of a frisbee. However, a combination of the aerodynamic forces and gyroscopic precession resulted in a periodic oscillation in pitch and roll called ‘hubcapping’, which proved difficult to manage, and was never entirely resolved.
Two Avrocars were built, and flight trials revealed a series of problems. Apart from ‘hubcapping’, operation of the Avrocar at relatively low speeds, close to the ground, made it vulnerable to hot gas ingestion, which reduced thrust, and the control system did not have sufficient authority to control the unstable aircraft in horizontal flight.

In the end, this remarkable design could not be described as a success. Although a horizontal speed of 100 kt was eventually demonstrated, the Avrocar proved incapable of operation out of ground effect. Paradoxically, had a rubber skirt been added at an early stage, to contain the ground cushion generated by the Turborotor, Avro would have been in a good position to have invented the hovercraft, in parallel to the Saunders-Roe SRN-1, which also ‘flew’ for the first time in 1959


Strong Points: Radially symmetric flying saucer configuration; Novel propulsion system
Weak Points: Unstable, with unresolved control problems. Unable to achieve flight out of ground effect.

Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes from ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. He was also Britain’s technical liaison to the British Embassy in Washington, covering several projects including the Advanced Tactical Fighter contest. His latest book is available here.

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Whatever happened to the Westland WS-70 Blackhawk?

A long time ago Britain was marketing its own variant of the H-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Then, the project quietly disappeared. We asked Ron Smith, former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, to solve the mystery of the the WS-70.

The Westland affair arose from cashflow problems at Westland. The Thatcher government did not regard Westland a sufficiently strategic business to warrant the investment of public money to rescue it. This obviously drove the need for external investment. Was this to come from Europe (as supported by Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence), or from Sikorsky?

The proposition that Westland should produce the Blackhawk helped to make the Sikorsky investment seem more logical – particularly if Westland could sell in a range of markets that Sikorsky could not, or would not, seek to enter, (Westland had successfully tailored the Sea King to individual customer requirements and extensively developed the aircraft over time).

At the time, Blackhawk was a candidate for an RAF medium support helicopter requirement against AST404. It seems likely that the proposed deal with Sikorsky would have protected any Westland work, should Blackhawk be selected for AST404, which was seen to be the Operator’s preferred option at that time.

There was a perception that Sikorsky would primarily want to offer standard production aircraft on an FMS basis for any overseas sales. Westland-built aircraft would struggle to compete in price with FMS aircraft straight off the US production line because there would have been significant UK non-recurring costs, including learning and process approvals, to be amortised, had the programme gone ahead at any scale.

The success of the Westland Sea King over many years had made Sikorsky very chary about offering the same development rights to Westland on Blackhawk. Any restrictions in this area would reduce Westland’s scope for world-wide export sales. The sales and development rights offered to Westland on Blackhawk are reputed to have been more limited than had been agreed in respect of the Sea King.

It was announced in July 1988 (reported in 1990 Janes All the World’s Aircraft) that Saudi Arabia had signed a provisional agreement with the UK government for the purchase (among other equipment) of 88 Blackhawk helicopters to be supplied by Westland. In the event, this part of the proposed deal failed to come to fruition. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, the changes both in the political and military situations that resulted, meant that the contract for the WS-70 was not proceeded with.

Two aircraft were flown in the UK: ZG468 / G-17-70 was assembled by Westland from a kit manufactured by Sikorsky; and G-RRTM / N3124B, which was converted to be powered by the Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines. The fitting of RTM322 engines would probably have been beneficial in a hot, or hot and high, environment, but not otherwise (due to gearbox limits). (Certification of this change would also have increased cost).

The Westland demonstrator ended up in Bahrain as RBAF961. G-RRTM returned to the United States and was subsequently converted to S70C Firehawk N70C.

As part of the fall-out from the ‘Westland Affair’, a statement was made in the House of Commons on 9 April 1987 that 25 Utility EH101 would be purchased for the RAF. This was ultimately held to be a Governmental commitment (and therefore not subject to a procurement competition). The resultant Merlin purchase consumed all the funds that might otherwise have been used to buy a modernised medium support helicopter fleet. The same statement announced the decision of the UK to withdraw from the NH90 programme (and by implication also eliminated the Blackhawk as too small to meet UK needs).

Consequently, there was no money available for AST404, or Blackhawk, or NH90. In the longer term, the RAF Merlins were transferred to the Navy to support the Commando Force. Additional funds were subsequently found (under intense political pressure) to expand the Chinook force and to modernise the Puma fleet.

The NH90 programme (now reduced to France, Germany, Italy & Netherlands) has progressed to full production and has been notably successful in attracting sales outside the partner nations. Over time, NH90 (although very slow to come to fruition) has penetrated a number of the markets which Westland might otherwise have targeted with the WS-70.

Extract from statement made in the Commons 9 April 1987 (from Hansard):

HC (09/04/1987) Volume 114, columns 471, 472

Secretary of State for Defence George Younger statement on helicopter orders

Until 1985, it was envisaged that both RAF Puma and Wessex support helicopters would be replaced one-for-one by a helicopter of similar size.

That approach, however, came increasingly into question as a result of trials conducted by 6 Airmobile Brigade that suggested a requirement for an increased number of larger helicopters. A comprehensive review of the requirement for support helicopters in all roles well into the next century was therefore set in hand.

That work showed the need for additional large helicopters in the central region, capable of lifting a platoon—that is, about 30 men and their equipment—or a substantial logistic load. Those large helicopters, together with some Lynx battlefield helicopters, would enable the Army to provide an airmobile capability and thereby enhance our defence contribution in Germany.

The choice for the large helicopter lies between additional Chinooks, which are already in service in Germany, and the introduction of a utility version of the Anglo-Italian EH101 helicopter, which is due to enter service in the naval version in the early 1990s. The Government have decided that the right choice is to introduce the utility EH101 to meet that requirement. The choice will build on the investment that we have already made in the naval version and reflects our policy on European helicopter collaboration.

We have at the same time reviewed the case for continued British participation in the NH90 collaborative helicopter project beyond the study phase that was recently completed. NH90 is a smaller helicopter than EH101 and will be available later. With the decision that we have now reached on the future composition of our support helicopter force, we no longer have an early requirement for a helicopter in the NH90 class, nor is there the money to fund both participation in the NH90 definition and development programme — which is due to begin soon — and an early purchase of other helicopters. We are therefore informing our partners that we do not intend to proceed to the next stage of the NH90 project.

In reaching a decision on the choice between alternative support helicopters, and particularly on the timing of orders, I have had much in mind the workload at Westland Helicopters, until work builds up on the naval version of the EH101. Subject to satisfactory resolution of the contractual and other issues with the companies concerned and our Italian partners, we intend to place an order for an initial batch of 25 utility EH101s for delivery in the early 1990s.

I also intend—subject to satisfactory contractual negotiations—to order a further 16 Lynx helicopters for the support of airmobile operations. The cost of the orders—which have a total value well in excess of £300 million — will be contained within the overall public expenditure planning totals. They are in addition to an order already announced for a further seven Sea King helicopters for the Royal Navy, which I hope to place soon, following the completion of contractual negotiations.

We asked a former RC-135 pilot to choose the Top 10 ‘Spy-Planes’ (though don’t call them that!)

When we asked former Blackbird, B-57 and U-2 pilot BC Thomas for his thoughts on the Top 10 spy planes he wasn’t comfortable with the term, noting “The SR-71 was a Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft, not a ‘spy plane.’  The practice of calling the SR-71 a ‘spy plane’ is so prevalent that I have stopped trying to correct the error, and it is no longer important since the SR-71 is no longer flying, although the U-2 pilots have cause to resent their being called ‘spy pilots.’  We have resented that moniker because of the formal, international consequences of being captured as a spy, as opposed to a military man flying a marked military aircraft, while wearing a military uniform with name and rank displayed, and carrying a military identification card which is also a Geneva Convention Identification card.  Our status as a military pilot on a military mission was supposed to carry with it certain prerogatives which other countries were “constrained” to recognise, but whether they did or not was another question.  Routinely, spies are summarily executed; military men captured, are supposed to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.“.

With this cautious note in mind, we hand you over to former RC-135 pilot Robert S Hopkins III:

Compiling a Top 10 list on any subject is fraught with the risk of being ostracised for omitting some obscure subject or slighting someone’s Number One. The benefits, however, outweigh the opprobrium, as these lists tend to foster (spirited) discussion. ‘Spyplanes’ are no different.

The first challenge is defining ‘spyplanes’. Thaddeus Lowe’s US Civil War balloon and observer would certainly qualify, as would a First World War biplane with a chap standing up in the back seat holding a camera. Spitfires and Mustangs equipped with cameras count for reconnaissance, but not necessarily ‘spyplanes.’ To this end, I’ve elected to use the following criteria to compile this list (in no particular order):

Manned aircraft. I’m not ready to deal with drones. Besides, there’s always the dismal MOBY DICK balloon debacle to muddy the waters. I’m also not willing to include satellites, the X-37B, or programs like Dyna Soar and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL).

Project 119L was a Cold War reconnaissance operation  in which large balloons floated cameras over the Soviet Union. Project Moby Dick used much smaller balloons launched from what was called a “Covered Wagon”.

Peacetime operations. During wartime you can make anything into a reconnaissance platform. Just too many options, especially the esoteric one-offs.

Collects intelligence related to national security. There, I said it—strategic. Putting a camera in a Viggen to take pictures of Soviet boats in the Baltic may update an Order of Battle but doesn’t necessarily influence Swedish national security decisions. (Yeah, I know, exceptions).

Motiv: Flygplan SF 37 Viggen märkt nummer 02 från F 13 Bråvalla flygflottilj i luften. Ur Flygvapenmuseums bildarkiv.

Length of service and variety of use. Ranking the very top of the list requires some kind of discriminator, and this is as good as any. No flash-in-the-pan, one-trick ponies here.

Impact. A wild card that recognizes the long-term effect a spyplane has on the intelligence community, diplomacy, national security, and even popular culture.
And now, Dear Reader, for your consideration, The List.
Caveat lector.

10. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25R Foxbat

Converted from the MiG-25 high-altitude, high-speed interceptor, the recon Foxbat carried cameras and electronic sensors in Soviet service, as well as a handful of export versions. The Foxbat earns the clean-up spot on the list because of its impact as an intelligence collector on the international stage. The March 1971 deployment of Soviet MiG-25s and pilots to Egypt and their unopposed overflights of Israel were a shock to the West. Although their contributions to Egyptian security and intel were minimal, their impact on Israeli security was profound. Even with only two Mach 2.5 overflights a month, the inability of Israeli F-4s and Mirage IIIs to intercept and destroy the Foxbats raised serious questions in Tel Aviv and in Washington about the ability of Western aircraft to engage what was considered—in this pre-Belenko time—the most dangerous Soviet aircraft yet. The MiG-25R photo intelligence (PHOTINT) overflights were significant escalations in the so-called War of Attrition, which led to the 1973 October War and the brief superpower diplomatic confrontation over possible unilateral Soviet intervention on behalf of the encircled Egyptian Third Army. For the first time thanks to the Foxbat, Western military leaders had to take Soviet aerial reconnaissance seriously.
Did I mention the MiG-25RR sample collectors that monitored Chinese nuclear tests? Now that’s cool.

Our interview with a MiG-25R pilot here

Credit: In photo

9. Biz jets

“For decades, few nations could afford the sufficiently large and equally expensive platforms needed to conduct routine communications and electronic intelligence (COMINT and ELINT) collection. That changed with the availability of smaller sensors and on-board analyzers as well as the reduced need for multiple operators, resulting in the procurement and conversion of SIGINT variants of large business jets or regional airliners such as Sweden’s Gulfstream IV and Israel’s G550 Nahshons, and Britain’s Bombardier Global Express Sentinel R1s. Even the United States, with its putatively bottomless budgets, is exploring the use of biz jets to replace its ageing fleet of RIVET JOINTs. After decades of just RC-135s, EP-3s, and C-130-IIs in American service, Nimrod R.1s in RAF colors, and the occasional French DC-8 and Soviet/Russian Coot, at last nations such as South Korea, Argentina, India*, Brazil, and Mexico can afford a ‘poor man’s Rivet Joint.’

Yes, I know India has one ‘RC-707’ (permanently) parked on the ramp, which is why they want to replace it with a biz jet. Iran has one too (anyone seen it flying recently?). And the lone Saudi RE-3. My point remains: only nations with deep pockets can afford to buy and sustain regular peacetime SIGINT operations with these dinosaurs. Biz jets change that equation entirely.”

Credit: In photo

8. Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter 

“If you believe that Boeing’s B-29 bomber converted into an airliner modified into a tanker was just another airplane dripping oil on the ramp, think again. A handful of the venerable C-97s was configured with ultra-discreet intelligence systems and operated for years in plain sight. That was precisely what the US Air Force intended.
Beginning in the early 1950s, a little-known Texas organization installed a 20 ft focal length BIG BERTHA camera in a C-97. Through the clever use of mirrors and masterful camouflage of the aircraft’s exterior, the PIE FACE C-97 was indistinguishable internally and externally from any other trash hauler. Based at Rhein-Main AB in West Germany, PIE FACE quickly began taking superior-quality images of Soviet and East German forces along the border. Although restricted to flying no higher than 10,000 ft, it routinely flew into Berlin along the three air corridors from the West, earning the squadron the nickname “Berlin for Lunch Bunch.” Despite its unassuming appearance, the Soviets were keenly aware of its clandestine role. In a chance meeting between pilots after the Cold War ended, a Soviet pilot asked a C-97 pilot, “Which were you, pictures or beeps?” The same company modified other C-97s to collect PHOTINT and ELINT from the Baltic to Africa to Southeast Asia. One variant even collected Cuban television and radio broadcasts. The Cloudmaster C-97 was envisaged with huge wings and jet engines, designed to operate at altitudes above 60,000 ft but never made it off the drawing board. The C-97’s operational life as a spyplane lasted nearly 25 years, with the final example retiring in 1975.
What about that little-known Texas organization? BIG SAFARI would become the world’s largest and most successful converter of aircraft into spyplanes, a legacy which it continues today. That alone merits the C-97’s inclusion on the list as the patriarch of the many BIG SAFARI spyplane descendants.”

Credit: Ralf Manteufel

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7. Lockheed EP-3

“The US Navy pegs its first spot with the spooky version of its antisubmarine warfare P-3. In 1963 the CIA wanted a replacement for its RB-69s (converted P2V Neptunes) used in covert reconnaissance and insertion operations in Europe and China. By 1964 three P-3s were configured for ELINT and COMINT. Two years later they were transferred to Taiwan’s secret Black Bat squadron. Reportedly equipped with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for self defense, they flew peripheral SIGINT missions off the coast of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Eventually these were returned to the US Navy and by the late 1960s became part of the small EP-3 fleet that operated in conjunction with EA-3s and EC-121s. These missions, which continue today, largely focus on maritime operations and peripheral sorties along coastal areas of interest to the US Navy. Arguably the most famous EP-3 is the one struck by a cowboy PRC Shenyang J-8 pilot while on a peripheral sortie in April 2001 and made a forced landing on Hainan Island. The aircraft and its contents were exploited by the Chinese, but the crew and airplane were all repatriated. The EP-3 has become the mainstay of US Navy long-range peacetime intelligence collection effort.”

Credit: US Navy

6. Douglas EA-3 Skywarrior

An EA-3B Skywarrior on a catapult during flight operations aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70).

“As the US Navy sought to increase its role in delivering nuclear strikes from carriers during the budget battles of the 1950s, the Douglas A3D emerged as a twin-engine “heavy” bomber. Known variously as “the Whale” and “All Three Dead” (it lacked ejection seats), this relatively capacious airplane was soon carrying out ELINT missions. This proved especially valuable as some of the most precious Soviet naval ELINT was obtainable only during short periods of intense blue-water operations that could not be covered by land-based aircraft. Launching an EA-3 (and RA-3 variants) from a nearby carrier group often bagged the latest data on new shipboard missiles and radar that had cognate systems on the ground such as the SA-N-1 Goa, the same as the land-based SA-3. Several EA-3 aircraft were also collected telemetry intelligence (TELINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) associated with Soviet ballistic missile tests. Operations included missions from Shemya AFB, AK (original home of the COBRA BALL) and British bases in the Indian Ocean. By the time VQ-2 retired its last EA-3 in 1991, it had accumulated more than three decades of maritime intelligence and peripheral ELINT collection.”

Our interview with a Skywarrior pilot here.

Credit: US Navy

5. Boeing RB-47 Stratojet 

“Along with the B-36, Boeing’s B-47 acquired a reputation for never having fired a shot or dropped a bomb in anger. While this may have been true of the B-47 bomber, it did not apply to the reconnaissance versions of the Stratojet. When the US Air Force and Strategic Air Command (SAC) realized that piston-powered RB-50s and RB-36s were vulnerable to Soviet MiG-15s, they pinned their hopes on the speedy, high-flying B-47. Its first overflight of the USSR was a B-47B PHOTINT mission above the Chukotskii Peninsula in October 1952, attracting considerable attention from MiGs. Another overflight followed with the April 1954 RB-47E PHOTINT mission over Murmansk, where it was chased by dozens of MiG-15s and MiG-17s before safely recovering in the UK. The RB-47’s most significant overflight of the USSR was the HOME RUN series in early 1956. Flown from Thule AB in Greenland, 20 PHOTINT-configured RB-47Es, SLAR-equipped RB-47Es, and ELINT-configured RB-47Hs conducted 156 deep overflights of the USSR. Amazingly, none were shot down.
Sadly, three RB-47s were lost to hostile fire. In April 1955 the Soviets shot down the ROMAN I RB-47B off Kamchatka as it flew in international airspace, killing the crew of three. On 1st July 1960, exactly two months after the Soviets used an SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) to shoot down CIA pilot Frank Powers and his U-2, a MiG-19 pilot shot down an RB-47H in international airspace near the Kola Peninsula. Four crew were lost, and the two survivors eventually repatriated. In April 1965, North Korean MiG-17s attacked an RB-47H in international airspace. The crew was able to land safely in Japan but the airplane was scrapped. Copilot Captain Hank Dubuy returned fire and shot down one of the MiGs, the first jet bomber to claim a fighter kill.
In addition to the RB-47 ELINT missions, three EB-47E(TT)s flew TELINT missions from Turkey and Alaska to collect data on the Soviet ballistic missile program, leading to the development of the RC-135S COBRA BALL. Moreover, three ERB-47Hs flew specialized ELINT missions as the precursor to the RC-135U COMBAT SENT.
Between 1956 and 1967, RB-47s flew thousands of daily, routine missions from bases in the US, England, Japan, and Turkey that established and validated the routes and procedures that SAC and its successor Air Combat Command would use to the present day. It was truly the pioneer of Cold War peacetime aerial reconnaissance.”

Our interview with a RC-135 pilot here

Credit: US Air Force

4. Canberra/B-57

The RB-57D seen here, was a twin-engined underpowered aircraft with delicate wings (one fell off while taxiing one time), and limited altitude with a light payload. However, the RB-57F was four-engined (two TF-33s and two J-60s) aircraft which could reach 70,000 feet while carrying 10,000 lbs of equipment.  NASA still flies three of them, but without the J-60 engines.

“If there is a grandfather of modern high-altitude, jet-powered reconnaissance airplanes, it would be the English Electric Canberra. When the U-2 first overflew Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1956, the Soviets misidentified it as a Canberra, attesting to its reputation as a high flyer. The PR.3 was reportedly the first purpose-built photo reconnaissance airplane for the RAF, entering service in 1952. By the following year it was flying ELINT missions from West Germany over the Baltic, as well as sorties over the Black and Caspian Seas and from Iraq. No, a Canberra did not overfly Kapustin Yar in 1953.
License-built by Martin in the United States as the RB-57A, a handful of these conducted high-altitude overflights of the USSR, PRC, and North Korea under programs like HEART THROB and SHORT CUT. Three heavily modified RB-57Ds conducted SAC’s last overflight of the USSR in December 1956. Other missions included Baltic sorties and flights from Turkey. Taiwan operated RB-57Ds on overflights of China. The loss of one of these in October 1959 is believed to be the first airplane shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a lesson not fully appreciated until six months later over the USSR. Further modified into the RB-57F, the “big wing Canberra” collected ELINT and PHOTINT as well as particle sampling to detect atmospheric nuclear tests. Sweden and Pakistan were among the countries that used the Canberra or RB-57 to conduct peacetime ELINT and PHOTINT missions. The PEE WEE RB-57Fs in Pakistan also monitored Soviet ICBM tests in evaluation sorties on behalf of the US. “

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“Although RB-36 peripheral recon sorties could operate as high as 50,000 ft, its slow speed and large size made it an appealing visual and radar target. The Canberra met the need to go faster and higher to fulfill peacetime intelligence collection by pushing the 60,000 ft mark, later eclipsed by the U-2 at 70,000 ft and finally the SR-71 at 80,000 ft. The Canberra’s spyplane legacy, however, goes beyond its airframe. Many of its pilots went on to fly the U-2, including RAF pilots seconded to the CIA.”

Credit: US Air Force

3. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

““What did the Blackbird offer that satellites could not?”  According to BC Thomas, “Our advantage, owing to stealth, speed, altitude, sensor operation, and defensive systems would let us be over any spot on earth at any given date and time without too much worry about being shot down.  And the pictures were good.  How can you get any better a reconnaissance aircraft than that?”

How could this not be the Number One Spyplane of All Time? It’s so cool! I grew up at Beale AFB, CA, where this was stationed. My family was closely connected with the Habu community: Jerry O’Malley flew B-47s with my father, Jamie Kraus was my best friend, and our house was filled with swag like pachinko machines and Honda 70 minibikes brought back from Okinawa in the supporting KC-135Qs. Did I mention it was cool?
Lockheed’s SR-71 was—and remains—the ultimate aircraft used as a spyplane. Mach 3+ at 80,000 ft, exotic fuel, Dave Clark space suits (the same as the U-2 and RB-57 drivers wore), black, enigmatic, small fleet, and sure to please crowds and aviation enthusiasts everywhere surely have to count for something.
Both the CIA’s A-12 and SAC’s SR-71 first saw operational service over North Vietnam on PHOTINT missions. Its height and speed made it the ideal replacement for the U-2 on overflights of hostile territory. By the time they entered service in the 1960s, however, peacetime US overflights of everywhere but China were prohibited.

BC Thomas disagrees with this, “The declaration that the SR-71 did not overfly any country except China is wrong on two counts.  We did not overfly China or the Soviet Union at all, but we did overfly other countries.

We routinely overflew Cuba* except for most of President Carter’s administration.  We also overflew territory claimed by North Korea, the Middle East, and Central American countries like El Salvador when Communist insurgencies were operating.  We did not overfly China or the Soviet Union, but we penetrated inside the National boundary which each claimed.  They claimed 100 nm, we flew within 12.5 nm (the international norm is 12 nm).”

*see below

The D-21 was an unmanned derivative of the A-12 and flew a few failed missions over China. After President Richard Nixon ended Taiwanese/CIA U-2 overflights of China in 1971 to improve relations, the need for peacetime overflights was at an end (Cuba was an exception until President Jimmy Carter put a moratorium on them). Consequently, other less-expensive platforms could and did undertake peripheral intelligence missions, and the SR-71 was suddenly an outstanding capability in search of a mission.


Once the war in Southeast Asia ended, the Habu found work in the timely collection of high-value intelligence, often in conjunction with other platforms. SR-71 RSO Tom Veltri joked that after a coordinated sortie with an RC-135 over the Barents Sea, he and pilot Duane Knoll were back at RAF Mildenhall, played 18 holes of golf, and were already the center of attention at The Bird in Hand pub before the RC-135 even landed. This made it ideal for missions like the 1973 butt-busters flown from the US to the Middle East (the first of these was flown by Jim Shelton, my next-door neighbor). The addition of an ELINT capability added to the Habu’s repertoire, but it was still constrained by the need to return from a sortie, download the collection, and then get it analyzed. The Habu’s flying speed no longer translated into the ability to get results faster in front of decision makers. Plans to incorporate a downlink to accelerate this process ran afoul of budgetary considerations.
By the late 1980s, SAC was caught in a monetary bind: plenty of money for new strategic programs like the B-2 but asked to cut corners to help pay for them. The US Navy loved the SR-71 for its ability to monitor the Soviet Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula, but wasn’t enthusiastic about footing the bill. With satellites increasingly able to meet US intelligence requirements, the two unique things which the Habu offered the intel community—its speed and height—were no longer worth the cost. Far more than just a budget battle, the SR-71 was a capability whose time had passed.

Our interview with a SR-71 pilot here

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Credit: Paul Crickmore

2. Boeing RC-135

“For years, a huge black-and-white picture of an RC-135U hung on my bedroom wall (no, I didn’t have THE Farah poster). Now living at Offutt AFB, NE, home base of the majority of the RC-135 fleet, I saw these jets every day while volunteering at the SAC Museum at the end of the closed runway. I had an inkling of what they did, and my early exposure to British aviation magazines led me to appreciate the mystique they possessed when visiting RAF Mildenhall in England.

‘That’ Farah poster not owned by Robert


Fast forward a dozen years, and I arrived at Eielson AFB, AK, as a copilot newly assigned to fly the RC-135S COBRA BALL. Three years later, I was back at Offutt AFB as an RC-135 aircraft commander flying the RC-135V/W RIVET JOINT and RC-135U COMBAT SENT. But it wasn’t until I wrote a book about the KC-135 and its variants that I fully understood the history and significance of the RC-135 fleet.
For 15 years SAC’s reconnaissance fleet was dedicated to PHOTINT and ELINT which had direct applicability to the success of its nuclear war plan and to the defense of the US from a Soviet nuclear attack. COMINT was not a high priority, and was undertaken on behalf of the US National Security Agency (NSA) largely by C-130s filled with linguists flying along the periphery of the Communist Bloc. The loss of one of these in 1958 emphasized the need for additional platforms, preferably a long-range, high-altitude jet capable of carrying a sizeable number of linguists and their gear. An excess of transport C-135s proved to be the ideal solution, and the RC-135 lineage was born in 1962 with the OFFICE BOY KC-135A-IIs.


Over ensuing decades, other variants rolled out of BIG SAFARI and other programs. The next version to see service that same year was the RC-135S RIVET BALL (later COBRA BALL), designed to replace the EB-47E(TT) which lacked any optical collection capability. The Manual Tracker sat with his head in a plexiglass bubble atop the fuselage and tracked incoming re-entry vehicles with the many sensors on board. By 1965, Boeing delivered 10 new RC-135Bs to replace some 35 E/RB-47Hs used to collect ELINT, but these were not delivered until 1967 as BIG TEAM RC-135Cs. Other variants were dedicated to monitoring atmospheric nuclear tests using both sensors and air filters. Indeed, a small fleet of WC-135s flew daily missions around the world collecting not only weather data while secretly acquiring air samples that revealed the presence and sophistication of foreign nuclear tests. Budget and turf battles between SAC and NSA led to the integration of the OFFICE BOY and RC-135M COMBAT APPLE COMINT missions with the BIG TEAM ELINT mission, resulting in the 1974 RIVET JOINT common platform.


Recounting the thousands of daily RC-135 missions around the globe and their significance would glaze the eyes of even the most devoted fan. Suffice to say that nearly 60 years after the first RC-135 reconnaissance sortie, the fleet is still flying while simultaneously undertaking tactical missions in support of theater combat operations begun in 1991 with Operation DESERT STORM. The RC-135 may not have the global reputation as a Cold War rock star like the SR-71, but it has quietly conducted missions essential to US national security.
And no, those “cheeks” don’t contain side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), nor do they contain (as one air show visitor told me with absolute certainty) nuclear missiles with which to start World War Three. Did I mention that the RAF decided to replace its ageing Nimrod R.1s with three ageing RC-135Ws? Go figure.”

Credit: US Air Force

  1. Lockheed U-2 ‘Dragon Lady’

“Unless you were an #AvGeek or devoted reader of Aviation Week in the 1950s, no one had heard of the U-2 until May 1960, when Frank Powers and the CIA exploded onto the front page of newspapers around the world. The U-2 Incident has spawned books, TV documentaries and a dramatic series (Call to Glory), a Tom Hanks movie, and is a central feature in Cold War history books after it scuttled the Paris Four-Power Summit in 1960 (Khrushchev had already decided to do this, but used the U-2 as justification). Since then the Dragon Lady has largely returned to the shadows while continuing its peacetime collection duties.
The U-2 earns megapoints for its longevity. The first overflight of the USSR took place on 4th July 1956 with Hervey Stockman at the controls. It remains in service today, along with an elite cohort of airplanes designed by slide rule that are still flying: Boeing’s B-52 and KC-135, Lockheed’s C-130, and Northrop’s T-38. The U-2 is more than a high-altitude flying camera. It carries a variety of sensors that can be uploaded as needed, including ELINT and COMINT. SAC first used the U-2 for both peripheral PHOTINT sorties as well as the CROW FLIGHT High Altitude Sampling Program (HASP) nuclear detection mission. Surprisingly, its OLIVE HARVEST PHOTINT collection is shared with Israel, Egypt, and Syria as part of the cease-fire agreement for the 1973 Arab-Israeli war (not sure how it works today with Syria, though). The U-2 has a distinctive panache, including a reputation as the most-difficult airplane to fly (and especially land).
Apart from its longevity, the U-2 is arguably the most significant spyplane in terms of its impact. Images from overflights of the USSR debunked the Missile Gap, and missions over the Middle East in 1956 forewarned the US of the impending Suez Crisis and reassured President Dwight Eisenhower that the Soviets were not moving troops to Syria in response to the Franco-British/Israeli invasion. A SAC U-2 took the photographs which showed President John Kennedy the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba during the 1962 Crisis, and the loss of U-2 and pilot Rudolf Anderson from a Cuban SA-2 SAM nudged global nuclear tensions closer to the breaking point. China shot down four Taiwanese U-2s in their ongoing argument over independence.
Despite this high visibility, the U-2 continues discreet peripheral peacetime intelligence missions in places like the border between North and South Korea and along the coast of civil-war-torn Syria. If there is an icon of Cold War spyplanes, Kelly Johnson’s U-2 is surely that jet.”

Credit: Bob Archer

Which ones did I miss, overlook, or ignore? 

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Blackbird pilot interview, Part 2: SR-71 could go even faster than you thought, reveals pilot

From the 1960s until the 1990s the US spied on whoever it liked with impunity from the snapping cameras and greedy sensors of the fastest aeroplane ever to take off from a runway, the spectacular SR-71 Blackbird. We spoke to pilot BC Thomas about life in the most exciting seat in the world. 

“Our maximum speed limit, directed by the Flight Manual, was Mach 3.3, but the SR-71 was not power-limited, so it could fly faster; however, doing so would exceed the compressor inlet temperature limit, as well as other limits both heat related and structural. I am certain that no pilot ever put both throttles in maximum afterburner and let the aircraft accelerate to see how fast it would go. That would be a violation of military orders, the flight manual restrictions, and common sense. I, and most probably all other pilots, never purposely violated any published limits while flying the SR-71.

The SR-71 could attain Mach 3.5, but the aircraft would be in an untested and prohibited area outside of its flight envelope, and serious damage to the aircraft might occur. The SR-71 was point-designed to cruise continuously at Mach 3.2, which is quite an achievement, but it was not intended to have a lot of margin above that speed.

I know of no time when the SR-71 was flown above Mach 3.33, and I doubt that one was flown faster, except by accidental error.”

What was best about flying it?

“The best aspect of being an SR-71 pilot was the mission, and I believe all who supported or flew the airplane operationally would agree. I was absolutely thrilled to be part of the strategic reconnaissance effort of the United States and by extension, the Free World, to survey our potential enemies and glean information that only we could provide, owing to our reconnaissance capability (sensors), and our stealth, flexibility, speed, and altitude. We advertised, that with 24-hour notification, we could be over any spot on earth, and capable to reveal what was there. That boast was successfully tested many times. And to a pilot who actively sought excitement paired with meaningful accomplishment, the notion of flying the fastest and highest-flying aircraft in the world while contributing to national security was unbeatable.”

….and the worst?

“The worst part of flying the SR-71 was the environment in which we flew. We flew fast and high, which complicated controllability and made over-controlling very dangerous because the SR-71 was delicate and not very manoeuvrable, as compared to other high-performance fighter aircraft. At Mach 3 and above, which were our usual cruising speeds, our acceleration limit was only 1.5 g, or 45 degrees of bank because of structural heating. We also operated in near- vacuum, where the air pressure was about 0.4 pounds-per-square-inch (psi), and if we were unprotected, our blood would boil and death would be instantaneous. To achieve enough dynamic air pressure to sustain lift, we had to fly fast, when air friction caused the average skin temperature of the aircraft to be 600 degrees F. The afterburner section was over 1,200 degrees F. We cruised at 15 miles above the earth so any cockpit environmental problem, such as high temperature, low pressure, or oxygen depletion, could be fatal, because slowing down and descending could not be achieved quickly.”

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We asked an art historian to review 8 fighter cockpits

Freed from function how would fighter cockpits appear to the artistic eye? We asked art historian Minerva Miller to gauge how 8 fighter cockpits fit into the history of art.

Convair F-106 Delta Dart

There is something dystopian about this cockpit. It appears to be the work of the advanced hobbyist, a Basquiat-like (see below) puzzle that screams of ability and technical nous. Dials, buttons and sticks converge in a chaotic melange that announces a lack of care in orderliness and ergonomics because this engineer, this pilot, know what everything is. But whilst this appears to be a homage to Post War ‘make do and mend’, do not be fooled. The central gauge and dial are symmetrical and focussed, towards what who knows? – but this cockpit is more Blade Runner than Mad Max.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

A monumental classicism imbues this cockpit, its Palladian portico is supported by dials in columns. It is severe with its grey imbued De Chirico (see below) palette and lack of colour. Whilst elegant its round features also hint of authoritarianism, the flash of a searchlight, it’s secretive brutal glamour smacks of the pre-war years. This is a cockpit that shows you the passage of time, that tells the pilot what he should do.

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Grumman F-14 Tomcat

This space is redolent  of Pop Art, it riffs on the imagery of the past but there is an unmistakable element of Studio 54 about it. The joystick and serried ranks of switches remind one of a Lichtenstein image (see below). The pilot here is part of the narrative, two screens reflect back at them. The optimism of the sixties has gone, this is about brittle individualist control, it could be a DJ’s lair or the pilot might be Bowie – in any case this is the cockpit as Warhol print.

Airplane, c.1959
by Andy Warhol

General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon

SONY DSC

There is something quixotic about this cockpit. At first glance it looks more organic and textural than its predecessors with its deep womblike chair cover. It has an edge of machismo; the screen nestles between the pilot’s legs and ‘pull to eject’ is the legend on the handle closest to the pilot’s groin. Yet the joystick is not large and there is almost a rococo playful element to the design of the dashboard, see for example the diagram of the aeroplane to the left.  This cockpit plays effectively with the ideas of conflicting mutable gender identity that were popular amongst the Avant-garde New York scene of the time.

Aviation paraphernalia for deep enthusiasts here

Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’

A post-modern cockpit, its colour scheme a martial blue with pops of constructivist red. But whilst the Cold War may still rage, this design is more a homage to the post-modernist irony of the architecture of Venturi and the playful colour dichotomies of Milan design. It presages the obsessions of the coming decade with its playful anthropomorphism – see the joystick  that resembles, a hand, a face.  There is an edge of robotic playfulness, like Alessi’s products which resemble people, this cockpit is awaiting it’s human to climb in and play with it.

Dassault Rafale

The soaring geometic plans of this cockpit have a cubist purity, an abstract minimalist aesthetic applied here with wide open spaces left between controls and two dark enveloping voids. This is not an inward-looking Spartacism however but owes more to elements of Béton Brut and the art of Brutalism.  Whilst there is a restful monumental  element– it is counterpointed by a quietly aggressive quality. It resembles a Samurai Warlord resting having conquered all the blue infinite sky behind him and waiting for the next battle.

Boston City Hall, an example of brutalism using béton brut, that will not give you much useful situational awareness when dogfighting a F-16.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The use of circular planes initially provides a feeling of movement which recalls the diminishing spheres and curves of Futurism and Vorticism.  This sense of elegance is fractured by the dissonance of the angled monitors which, whilst breaking up the curvature, in turn give way to ziggurat-like sweeps of controls. This coupled with the small armies of twinkling seeks to wrap the pilot up in the experience of flying within flying – a meta experience comparable to early virtual reality and digital art forms. A cockpit for the synth age.

Dazzle-Ships in Drydock at Liverpool by Edward Wadsworth, 1919, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Started in 1914 by Wyndham Lewis, Vorticism aimed to reflect the industrial age through hard-edged forms.

 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

This cockpit, like a site-specific art installation, gives less of itself to the viewer. The stability offered by the traditional props of hardware are reigned back in favour of the large screen, a changeable canvas altered by the interplay of the observer and the unavoidable influences of nature. It represents two and three dimensionally the artistic challenges of life.  Whilst offering colour and the stimulation of traditional imagery the physical interaction is limited leaving the pilot with the artistic and psychological challenges of modernity, the role of the individual, and art, within fast moving cultures and spaces, both physical and imagined.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 Cornelia Parker
Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991
Tate
© Cornelia Parker

Minerva Miller, M.A.hons (Cantab)  Msc (City)- University Librarian at the University of London

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Phantom Phantoms & 4000 other Phantoms

On this day in 1971, the 4000th F-4 Phantom was delivered. To celebrate use discount code PHANTOM4000 for a phabulous 20% discount on The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes (today only). Pre-order here.

Everyone loves the F-4 Phantom, a brutal smoking Cold War monster that polluted the sky in an apocalyptic belch of black sooty thunder. As thrilling as the actual Phantoms that entered service were, there is a tantalising family of F-4s that almost made it into the real world. Several of them were cancelled for being too good and threatening sales of newer aircraft — and one succeeded in its role as a unique test aircraft. Here are some of the Phantoms that never were. 

RF-4X Mach 3 Hellraiser 

rf-4x_3.jpg

 In the 1970s, the Israeli air force wanted a reconnaissance aircraft capable of carrying the extremely impressive HIAC-1 camera. The F-4 was considered, but the G-139 pod that contained the sensor was over 22 feet long and weighed over 4000 pounds – and the Phantom did not have the power to carry such a bulky store and remain fast and agile enough to survive in hostile airspace. One solution was to increase the power of the engines with water injection, something that had been done for various successful F-4 record attempts. This combined with new inlets, a new canopy and huge bolt-on water tanks promised a mouth-watering 150% increase in power. This would have allowed a startling top speed of mach 3.2 and a cruising speed of mach 2.7. This level of performance would have made the F-4X almost impossible to shoot-down with the technology then in service. 

rf-4x_4.jpg

 The F-4X would also have been a formidable interceptor – something that threatened the F-15 development effort, causing the State Department to revoke an export licence for the RF-4X. Even with the increase in power, the Israeli air force was still worried about the huge amount of drag, but a solution came in the form of a slimmed-down camera installation in a specially elongated nose. This meant the interceptor radar had to be removed, which assuaged the State Department’s fears and the project was allowed to continue. However worries from the F-15 project community returned (as did worries about how safe the F-4X would have been to fly) and the US pulled out. Israel tried to go it alone but didn’t have enough money, so the mach 3 Phantom never flew. 

f-4x03.jpg

F-4E(F) ‘Ein Mann’ 

RAF F-4M-GA PHANTOM FG3.02_zps0yrydewe.jpg

 The Luftwaffe are cheapskates: historical examples including their desire to procure a Eurofighter ‘Lite’ with no sunroof, stereo or defensive aids — and the fact they kept the F-4F in service until 2013! To be fair, their less than zealous desire for free-spending militarism is probably a good thing considering the 20th century. Their Deutschmark-saving instincts for poundshop versions of popular aircraft applied to the Phantom, and a simplified single-seat F-4E was considered. This intriguing option was passed up for a simplified F-4E, dubbed the F-4F (which later became formidable). I couldn’t find any illustrations of this variant so have included a mock-up of a speculative RAF single-seater.

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RF-4M ‘Big nosed Brit’ 

McDonnell Report B617 RF-4M

 When the RAF ordered Phantoms they considered a dedicated reconnaissance version. McDonnell (it being 1966 — a year before the merger with Douglas) proposed a F-4M airframe with internal reconnaissance equipment. Known as the RF-4M (model 98HT), the longer camera nose would have made the aircraft over two and-a-half feet longer longer than a F-4M. Range would have been greater than a Phantom with an external recce pod, as this left the centreline station free for a drop-tank — and the removal of the Fire Control System and AIM-7 related hardware reduced weight. After considering the cost of such an undertaking, the RAF instead opted for an external recce pod meaning that any airframe in the fleet could perform the reconnaissance mission without sacrificing a beyond-visual-range weapon. Fascinating interview with a British Phantom pilot here.

On this day in 1971, the 4000th F-4 Phantom was delivered. To celebrate use discount code PHANTOM4000 for a phabulous 20% discount on The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes (today only). Pre-order here.

What is good and bad about the F-35 cockpit: A ‘Panther’ pilot’s guide to modern cockpits

The F-35 helmet: does it show too much too small?

My background – Current F-35 pilot and Weapons School graduate. I Have flown the Harrier II and F/A-18 Hornet operationally as well as instructing Tactics and Weapons training squadrons.

I can’t speak with much first-hand credibility about the fighters of the 50s-70s, nor can I tell you much about any twin-seat fighter aircraft. Probably the oldest cockpit I have flown in as captain was the BAe Hawk T1A in the RAF. It was totally ‘steam driven’ with no digital instrumentation, but as an advanced trainer of its generation it had everything you needed. Someone once told me that the gun/bombsight was the same as used in the Hawker Hurricane – whilst that may not actually be true it was certainly of a similar vintage! By the ’90s it was definitely showing its age and the jump from Hawk T1 to any of the RAF’s frontline aircraft was (avionics wise) too much.
The T2 (Hawk Mk 128) was introduced sometime in the 00’s and was designed to mirror the Typhoon more or less exactly. It had three MFDs and a HUD and the radar simulator was pretty much an unclassified version of the Typhoon’s radar. We found that students stepping from the T2 to Typhoon were coping so much better than those who had flown just the T1.

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Harrier II (GR7/9 AV-8B)


I loved this cockpit, and to this day it remains my favourite ‘office’ of all I’ve flown. Plenty of space, a huge canopy with excellent visibility and reasonably well laid out instruments. It was a bit of a crossover between analogue and digital; it had a good HUD and two MFDs with the classic 20 pushbuttons around the outside. The Up Front Controller (UFC) was easy to use and well located, it made entering co-ordinates during CAS easy. Something that has been lost in all glass cockpits is the tactile feel of pressing buttons and knowing you got a response – I found you could enter Lat/Longs by feel whilst looking out the window. This is something you definitely can’t do ‘on the glass’ on current jets.
There was a lot of space taken up by the old analogue weapons control panel on the lower left, I’ve got to say I never used it other than to flick switches when I was bored on a long transit. The 6-pack of analogue flight instruments were purely there as a failsafe, although I have to say I loved the standby Attitude Indicator. It didn’t just tell you your attitude, but it also rotated and gave you a heading readout too – great for practice partial-panel approaches on your annual instrument rating checkride!
As for what made the jet unique, the nozzle lever. It was situated beside the throttle but was much smaller and of a different shape. We had it drilled into us during training that we had to be very sure which lever we were pulling in case we moved the wrong one. There was one crash during my time at an airshow on the South coast of England where the pilot moved the nozzles aft inadvertently when he should have moved the throttle to max. I will always remember the advice I was given by one of my instructors during the VSTOL phase of the Operational Conversion Unit – “if you move something in the cockpit and the jet does something scary – move it back!”

A Harrier GR.9 aircraft conducts a combat patrol over Afghanistan Dec. 12, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon/Released)


The HOTAS was intuitive and fairly common with most F-teen series jets. I particularly liked the Throttle Designation Controller (TDC) being on the top of the throttle and operated by your thumb – all those years of practice on the Playstation controller paid off and made slewing the Sniper pod second nature!

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/C Hornet

Being a McDonnell-Douglas design I found this cockpit easy to convert to after the Harrier. It had an almost identical UFC and the same MFDs on the left and right, but this time with an additional larger MFD in the middle. It felt more cramped than the Harrier, certainly narrower but it was still well laid out.
Of course this jet had two engines for the first time in my career but I didn’t really notice a difference after a flight or two. It only got weird when you had one throttle off or at idle when dealing with an emergency; this was exacerbated if you had the right engine off and were flying on the left throttle as the push-to-talk switch was on the right throttle. It took a bit of dexterity at times to make sure you were pressing the correct switch.
The Hornet was a jet you could fly purely by feel, and indeed sound at times. The sound of the airflow over the LEX at high alpha was known as the ‘waterfall’. When flying BFM, if you were trying to out-rate your opponent you pulled back on the stick until it felt like the jet was driving over a cobblestone road. If you wanted to tighten the radius a little you would pull a little harder until you heard what sounds like ‘standing at the top of a waterfall’ – it’s obvious when you hear it! When you needed to pull someone into your HUD for a guns kill you would bury the stick into your guts until it sounded like you were standing ‘at the bottom of a waterfall’. Talking of stick movements, I have never experienced such violent and aggressive movements of a control stick in an aircraft before, you would literally pull or push it to the stops as fast and as hard as you could. Definitely a jet built to take abuse.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Obviously I’m limited in what I’m allowed to tell you about this machine, but I’ll stick to what is available in the public domain. First up, there’s no HUD as its all integrated into the helmet. The technology of the helmet is great, but I’d take a HUD any day. It all comes down to physics – you can only shrink things so much before they start to become degraded, and HUDs have bigger optics than helmets…currently.

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The side-stick is something I thought would be difficult to convert to, but in all honesty it was a non-event. The rest of the cockpit is beautiful to look at – nothing analogue, all digital with about 10 actual switches in the cockpit. Notice I say beautiful to look at, not necessarily beautiful to interact with! In theory the all-glass display is great. It’s touchscreen, you can set it up to show pretty much anything you want in any layout you want. Take, for example, a fuel display. You can have it in a large window that shows you everything you could possibly want to know about the aircraft’s fuel system; the contents of each tank, which pumps are operating, fuel temperature, centre of gravity etc. Or you can shrink it into a smaller window that only shows more basic info. Or you don’t even display it at all because the Function Access Buttons (FAB) along the top of the display always has a small fuel section with the essential info visible at all times. That’s the beauty of the display – size and customisation. The drawback is in the complete lack of tactile response. It can be challenging to press the correct ‘button’ on the display whenever the jet is in motion as it is quite a bumpy ride at times. At present I am pressing the wrong part of the screen about 20% of the time in flight due to either mis-identification, or more commonly by my finger getting jostled around in turbulence or under G. One of the biggest drawbacks is that you can’t brace your hand against anything whilst typing – think how much easier it is to type on a smartphone with your thumbs versus trying to stab at a virtual keyboard on a large tablet with just your index finger.


Voice input is another feature of the jet, but not one I have found to be useful. It may work well on the ground in a test rig, but under G in flight it’s not something I have found to work consistently enough to rely on. I haven’t met anyone who uses it.

An F-35B Lightning II assigned to the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron taxis into position on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on 23 September, 2020. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “The Wake Island Avengers” joined the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters” onboard the 65,000-ton carrier as she sailed for exercises with NATO allies in the North Sea.


Having bashed the interface, the way this jet displays information to you is incredible. The sheer amount of situational awareness I gain from this aircraft and its displays is like nothing I’ve experienced before. The off-boresight helmet is much more accurate than legacy JHMCS systems and I find it clearer to read (although I still want a wide-angle HUD for flight and fight-critical data!). About the only thing missing from the whole cockpit is the lack of ‘feel’.

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