The Javelin, the Kingfish & what’s wrong with the Typhoon: warplane thoughts

What was the father of the modern fighter? You could present a reasonable case for the Gloster Javelin, with its large radar, four-missile armament and delta wing. In fact we happen to be sharing an interview with a Javelin pilot this week on Hush-Kit, in which we learnt that the ‘Tripe Triangle’ probably wasn’t as bad as we always thought it to be. Then again, you could argue a case for the F-4 being the father of the modern fighter, but that would be too obvious. And anyway, outside of the Jaguar and Mitsubishi F-1’s rear fuselage shape its general configuration was a design cul-de-sac.

How about the Skyknight? Well, it was a pioneering ‘missileer’ (more so than the actual F6D ) but aerodynamically it was old hat before its first flight. My money is on something that did not fly and wasn’t even intended to be a fighter: Convair’s spectacular Kingfish. A boat-like fuselage, ‘pork chop’ intakes à la F-22, supercruise and accusations that sacrificed too much performance for stealth… now that sounds like a modern fighter. Not bad for 1959. It’s not too sad it lost the competition to replace the U-2 (now is it the band or the aeroplane that lacks the hyphen?) as the winner became the SR-71 Blackbird, which along with the bicycle, Concorde and Supernoodles is the zenith of human achievement.

Spain to buy more Typhoons?

Well I’m happy about that. Europe’s faith in the Typhoon is probably good news in the long term but I can’t help thinking they need to add something to Typhoon to visually differentiate newer models – what do they have now? Fuselage lugs for speculative conformal fuel tanks on newer models. Terrible. Now I like that the Heinz ketchup bottle (the glass one) remains unchanged and I like that Lyle’s syrup is still decorated with a decomposing lion-full of bees, but the Typhoon was never quite a design classic in the same way so change would be welcome.

Don’t get me wrong, from certain angles (especially from above and to the front) it can look very fast and, dare I say it, even noble. But it is no Rafale in aesthetics. I mean the Rafale is so fit that it even looks good with that refuelling probe, which resembles a broken section of kit sprue or the sting of a rather weedy robot scorpion, and it still looks handsome with two horrible bloated frankfurter tanks under the wings which on anything else would look like clown shoes. But Typhoon looks too plasticky and also looks a bit like a Mirage 2000 that’s been pimped up by a 19-year-old boy in the suburbs (or maybe in Theydon Bois). Actually, no. That would look amazing. It is more like a Mirage 2000 that has been too cautiously bastardised for a 90s anime (though admittedly it’s not bright red and piloted by a schoolgirl). The answer? Well if Eurofighter GmbH is listening I would propose the following: twin tails, a new intake, 25% more power and the mandatory adoption of either Swedish splinter or RAF Vulcan snow camouflage. Oh, and me and the boy in Theydon Bois (pronounced thae-don bwa or theydon boyz as you wish) both think it should have a metallic paint job.

New European trainer

Airbus is considering a new training jet (or rather a system including an aeroplane) for Spain with eyes on the rest of Europe. The AFJT, which pronounced in Spanish is quite like aHAVVVVVVEFYATTTT (the middle of the word being a very bronchial affair). Clearly Airbus putting a J in the middle of an aircraft name for Spain is an act of war. If it happens, the aircraft will be an agile little machine with secondary aggressor, light fighter or attack capabilities. Speculative jet trainers have a very high rate of cancellation (second only to COIN aircraft as a type) and the timing is awful, but the civil side of Airbus is doing well at the moment and this confidence is spilling into the more troubled military side, so it could happen. It would face stiff competition from Leonardo’s M346 and the US-Swedish T-7 though.

I keep thinking I should do a top 10 cancelled jet trainers, then I remember how much work it would involve and how no one would read it. Would you? If you have a favourite cancelled jet trainer please do mention it in the comments section below. One of my favourites was the EADS Mako, what do we bet the new aircraft will carry some of this project’s DNA?

The Australian CA-31, at the bottom of this page, was also wonderful.

Bed calls. Sending my love to the aeroplane fans wherever you may be. Fly safe.

—Hush-Kit

My fight with secret MiGs: An F-15 Eagle pilot writes

Credit: USAF

The USAF operated a secret force of purloined Soviet fighters to expose USAF fighter pilots to the strengths and weaknesses of the aircraft they were likely to meet in war. Here former F-15 Eagle pilot Paul Woodford reveals his own personal encounters ‘fighting’ the air force’s strangest unit.

An aviation photographer and writer I follow on Twitter posted this the other day:

I couldn’t resist commenting:

My response triggered questions, mostly from people wanting to know when, where, and how it happened. Not that many years ago I could have gotten in serious trouble for even confessing to flying against a MiG, never mind sharing the details.

One of the aviation writers who participated in the discussion prompted me to tell the story on my blog. I’m flattered to learn a working aviation writer and journalist — someone who actually gets paid to do it — knows about my blog, but in fact I have told part of the story here. This is from a post I wrote in 2018:

In my day the USAF ran a super-secret program (finally declassified in 2006, which is why I can write about it now) called Constant Peg from an airstrip near Tonopah, Nevada, where it had a small squadron of MiG-21 Fishbeds and MiG-23 Floggers. Aircrews at Nellis AFB’s Fighter Weapons School, along with visiting aircrews taking part in Red Flag air war exercises, were able to go out in ones and twos to engage with the MiGs over Tonopah. It wasn’t adversary training, not really … it was a familiarization program, as in “here’s what a MiG looks like in the air, here’s how it flies and fights, here are its strengths and weaknesses” … the idea being to get the buck fever out of your system before you saw the real thing in combat. Great training, but strictly limited (as in you only got to do it once), rigidly scripted, nothing like actual air combat.

Here’s the rest of the story, as I remember it.

During my first two F-15 assignments, from 1978 to 1985, I frequently trained with and flew against USAF aggressor pilots trained in Soviet tactics and equipped with F-5E Tigers, roughly equivalent in size and performance to the MiG-21 Fishbed, which at the time was still one of the other side’s front-line combat aircraft. I’d heard whispers about a program where USAF fighter pilots got to fly against actual MiGs, but that was the extent of it — bar talk and rumor.

In 1984, I deployed from Alaska to Nevada for a Red Flag exercise. It was there I was read in to the Constant Peg program and realized I was going to get to see the MiG-21 and MiG-23 in action. The program was highly classified, not so much due to the fact we had MiGs, but to conceal how we obtained them. We had to be formally read in before participating; afterward we were read out and warned never to talk about it, even with F-15 squadron mates.

The MiG pilots were assigned to a unit called the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, the “Red Eagles.” They were experienced Air Force and Navy fighter pilots, a lot of them veterans of the F-5 Aggressor program, and many were “target arms” — Fighter Weapons School graduates. My Constant Peg flight consisted of me, a wingman, and two Red Eagle pilots — one flew the MiG-21, the other the MiG-23. We briefed at Nellis, three to four hours before our scheduled takeoff time. That allowed time for the MiG pilots to hop on their transport aircraft, a Mitsubishi MU-2, and fly uprange to the Tonopah Test Range airfield where the MiGs were based.

Tonopah_Test_Range_Airport_-_1990
Tonopah Test Range Airport (USAF photo)

My wingman and I took off in our F-15s at the scheduled time, met a tanker over Caliente and topped off, and headed northwest to Tonopah. The MiG pilots monitored our progress on the radio, calibrating their takeoffs to give us maximum time with each. Which translated into the MiG-21 taking off just before we entered the working area over Tonopah and jumping us the second we did.

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Eagle versus the Russian Flanker here

We took turns dogfighting the Fishbed, which was (to me, anyway) surprisingly nimble and tight turning, hard to see due to its small size, and hard to get a guns tracking shot on. The Fishbed, if it uses afterburner (as ours did the entire time we fought with it) has enough gas to fly for about 20 minutes. It was a busy 20 minutes for both of us.

4477th_Test_and_Evaluation_Squadron_MiG_21_Landing
Red Eagle MiG-21 Fishbed (USAF photo)

As the Fishbed turned back toward Tonopah, almost directly below us, the Flogger joined our our wing. We didn’t do as much turning and burning as we had with the Fishbed. The Flogger, as we’d been briefed, doesn’t turn for crap, and bleeds off energy quickly. Instead, our MiG-23 pilot showed us how it flies, which is as poorly as it fights: difficult to control and unstable, especially with the wings swept aft. What it could do well, as its pilot showed us, was make a high speed, high-angle attack and then run. It accelerated away from us like nothing I’ve seen before or since, driving home the point that if you have a missile shot at a no-shit fast mover you’d better take it right now, because in a second it’ll accelerate right out of the firing envelope, and I guess that was the object of the lesson. The F-15 has the top speed advantage, but there isn’t enough fuel in the world to catch up with a Flogger determined to get out of Dod

MiG-23 Flogger (photo credit: unknown)



We did not land at Tonopah to debrief. The airfield was also home to the Black Jet, the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber, and everything there was classified to hell and gone, just like the airfield in nearby Area 51. Instead, we flew back to Nellis, followed a while later by our Red Eagle adversaries in their cushy little Mits.

One odd detail sticks in my memory. During the briefing and debriefing, I was distracted by the grotesquely long and curled pinky nail of our MiG-21 driver, apparently a fetish of his. In my Air Force, anything like that would have been a Be-No; apparently the Red Eagles had more freedom to indulge in personal eccentricities. Not sure why I’m sharing this memory, other than that it still gives me shivers.

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I believe Red Eagle pilots were dual-qualified, meaning that they flew and maintained proficiency in two aircraft simultaneously. Holding dual qualifications was common in the USAF of the 1950s and 60s but was rare in my day. I can’t recall if their other aircraft was the F-5 Tiger or A-7 Corsair II (probably the latter, since it was the aircraft their Tonopah colleagues, the F-117 pilots, were dual-qualified in). Perhaps someone who knows can enlighten us in a comment. Of course a few of the Red Eagles were also current in the Mits, the MU-2 twin turboprop they flew back and forth between Nellis and Tonopah.

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Well, those were the Reagan years, when budgets were fat and the military services could (and did) ask for the moon. The USAF had Constant Peg and three full-up F-5 Aggressor squadrons, one each in Europe, the Pacific, and CONUS. Imaging having all that, then asking Uncle Sam for a spiffy little business turboprop to get back and forth in — and getting it!

These programs ended, or were sharply curtailed, with the end of the Cold War. Constant Peg went away. The Aggressor squadrons were deactivated, eventually coming back in the form of what are today two small F-16 adversary training units, one at Nellis and one in Alaska, plus small contracts with civilian aggressors operating older foreign-built fighters (Hawker Hunters, Kfirs, and Mirages). With the post-Cold War integration of former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO, USAF pilots assigned to Europe have had limited opportunities to fly with, and train against, more modern Russian-built equipment. National air forces operating Russian aircraft now participate in Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB. Training opportunities are there, but they are a far cry from what we had in the early 1980s.

I have to say, I think I got to fly the F-15 Eagle at precisely the right point in history, and will be forever grateful for the experience.

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Credit: USAF

The most under-rated Soviet combat aircraft?


Speaking to a former Soviet air force pilot convinced me the Su-15 was far better, and certainly more significant, than is commonly thought. The Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 was one of the best interceptors of the 1960s and ’70s. It had better acceleration and initial climb rate than the US F-106; compared to the British Lightning it had double the weapon-load and double the endurance. Vitally, this supersonic warplane was available in far larger numbers than either its British or American counterparts.

Before interviewing former ‘Flagon’ pilot Valeri Shatrov I had a vague idea of the Su-15 as a primitive interceptor with obsolete systems that lacked agility. I found his opinions and recollections absolutely fascinating, and in some case revelatory.

I should also note that I do not take any pilot’s opinions as entirely objective as most pilots have a bias towards their machine, but Shatrov’s answers were candid – and at times critical enough to be credible.

The Soviet approach

The West’s opinions of Soviet warplanes have often been wrong. Some overestimated, some are underestimated – and some misunderstood. Analysts often saw Soviet aircraft as inferior facsimiles of Western types, or else wildly inflated their true capabilities. To be fair, the facsimile claims have a meaningful historical origin. The Tupolev Tu-4 was a reverse-engineered B-29 Superfortress. The Tu-4 was an epic project. It was no easy thing to copy the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. It took the expertise of over 850 factories and institutes, and involved the creation of over 105,000 drawings. However, with the brutal determination of Stalin driving its completion, quick work was made of it. The design was completed in less than a year and it entered service in 1947. The Tu-4’s (and so B-29’s) design informed the Tu-95 that remains in service today. 70 odd years later, the Russian Air Force’s ‘Bear’s carries Superfortress ‘DNA’ in its fuselage dimensions, circular cross-section, the pressurised shell fore of the wings and its thick wing roots.

This idea of Russia or the USSR lagging behind or aping the NATO nations’ weapons technology is misleading and far from a universal truth. Operational helmet-cued thrust vectoring weapons, true 2D IRST sensors, electronically scanning fighter radars and post-stall manoeuvrability were all Soviet innovations. But Russia has long had a bit of a chip on its shoulder about its technological sophistication compared to Western Europe, or rather lack of it. The Steel Flea by the Russian author Nikolay Leskov is a comical short story from 1881. In it Leskov makes light of a Russian inferiority complex and an envious competition with advanced British technologies. Of course there is also a great deal of pride in Russian and Soviet innovations, but the most cursory glance at YouTube comments beneath a film about a Russian military hardware subject will reveal an aggressively defensive position from Russophiles and Russians – revealing a deep insecurity. The opposite is true of America, with a historical tendency to overestimate their strengths (a sweeping generalisation but one with some truth, see the underestimation of Japanese aircraft and pilots in World War II as an example).

Then there is the Russian philosophy of robust reliability over exquisite technology, something inherited from the Soviet era. This is sometimes viewed as a result of technological inferiority rather than a considered approach. A Western-centric view of the Su-57 may see it as bad F-22, but that is a conceptual misunderstanding: it is a different kind of machine intended to fight in a different kind of way. High stealth is at odds with the Russian philosophy acceptance of the dirtiness of real wartime operations. The Su-57 is however an ‘anti-stealth’ fighter and its revolutionary low band width radar antennae may be useful in detecting F-35s and F-22s at longer ranges than X-band radars. If, and this is a big if, Russia gets the Su-57 right it will offer an adequate counter to the F-22 and F-35 without the pitiful availability rates of the US aircraft. Indians withdrawal from the project is not necessarily a sign that it is a bad programme, it may also be partly due to unfair Indian expectations of a radar cross section akin to a US fifth generation type.

To go back to the 20th century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted ‘The Russian Government has a different conception of the ends of life. The individual is thought of no importance; he is expendable. What is important is the state, which is regarded as something almost divine and having a welfare of its own not consisting in the welfare of citizens. This view, which Marx took from Hegel, is fundamentally opposed to the Christian ethic, which in the West is accepted by free thinkers as much as by Christians. In the Soviet world human dignity counts for nothing.” It could be argued that this outlook is reflected in the doctrine of massed inexpensive warplanes and the acceptance of high fatalities in military operations. Compare this to the culture of USAF between Korea and Vietnam. According to Frederick Corbin ‘Boots’ Blesse, a United States Air Force major general and flying ace, “Safety became more important the tactics, more important than gunnery, more important anything. Safety was king. Safety took over*.”

*Tiger Check, Automating the USAF pilot in air-to-air combat, 1950-1980

In the United States (in the air force at least) the pilot was precious and the increasingly expensive aeroplane was also precious. The same can be not said of the USSR at this time. The pilot was not precious and the aircraft itself was more disposable with an airframe, and especially engine, built for a shorter life. The new Russia’s first fighter, the Sukhoi Su-30, was an awkward half-way house between Soviet simplicity and Western complexity and proved (and still proves) labour intensive to maintain and operate (its small arm contemporary, the AN-94 assault rifle shared the new Russia’s brief flirtation with complexity).

Red defenders

Before the Su-57 and before the Su-27 ‘Flanker’, there was the Sukhoi Su-15, Su-11 and Su-9. These were similar in configuration to the MiG-21, tailed deltas with a nose intake. Nose intakes were becoming unfashionable as they limited both the radar size and internal fuselage volume compared to a cheek or shoulder-mounted intake. Entering service in 1965, the time had the unenviable task of defending the largest nation on earth against NATO, arguably the most powerful combined force in history. It was supported by the obsolete Yak-28, the extremely long ranged Tu-28 and later the extremely fast MiG-25.

The Su-15 would operate as an area defence interceptor, in an environment where any unknown aircraft crossing the air defence boundary could be treated as hostile. The intention was for the Su-15 to be guided to the interception point by a ground controller, using its relatively high-powered radar at the point of engagement to defeat any electronic jamming and to allow its radar guided missile to lock on to the target.
Key attributes for the interceptor role are rapid climb and acceleration, a good long-range radar, coupled with good air-to-air missiles, preferably of the fire and forget variety. The targets of greatest importance for the Su-15 would probably be the US B-52 Stratofortress, given its role in delivering the US nuclear deterrent. Aircraft manoeuvre performance in these circumstances is perhaps less important, unless your missile requires continuous radar illumination, when good turning performance is required once the missile goes active.

The Su-15 is best known today for its infamous accidental shoot-down of Korean Air Lines KAL007 in 1983 (another sad note: a recklessly flown Su-15 may have been responsible for the tragic loss of Yuri Gagarin’s MiG-15). It performed poorly against Turkish incursions, but this speaks more of the failure of integrated air defences of the time than the aircraft itself. Indeed a look at the long list of Cold War aerial defections shows that air defence networks in a peacetime posture were generally pretty hopeless.

Soviet interceptors were not widely exported, being too specialised and their capabilities too strategically sensitive. So the Su-15 has not the fame of the extremely popular MiG-21, nor the eye-popping performance that made the MiG-25 a flying myth. But is was a vitally important aircraft. The Soviet Union had a huge number of these interceptors — over 1290 were produced, which is a lot more than its closest US analogue, the F-106, of which there was only 340. According to Shatrov, the type was extremely reliable which would further enhance the available ‘air mass’.

Comparison with Western interceptors

“It was a good plane and exceptionally reliable. I always said that I loved it like a woman. And when you turned on the afterburner on take-off, you got a hefty push in the back from the ferocious power of two engines. The relatively long fuselage and delta wings allowed you to make a large number of barrel rolls from any rotation speed. What I like most about Su–15 was its ability to perform complex aerobatics at full power.”

The excellent handling off the later T-10 (‘Flanker’) series did not come from nowhere.

“The aircraft was manoeuvrable, as I have already mentioned. With the engines set at maximum thrust the Su–15 allowed you to perform a turn with a roll of almost 90 degrees. As for the service ceiling of the aircraft I personally gained a height of 23,000 metres (75,459 feet) where ‘a little higher – space begins’ as we joked in those days.The instantaneous turn rate was very good, with a G-force of up to 6. The high alpha of the aircraft was limited to this maximum overload, but the thrust of the engines allowed any horizontal aerobatics figures without loss of speed. ‘Split ‘S manoeuvres were allowed from a minimum altitude of 2.5 km up to the practical service ceiling.”

When one compares the Su-15 with the Lightning, Phantom and Delta Dart, there are some significant differences and some similarities. The largest numerical difference is in wing loading, where the large wing and relatively light weight of the F-106 suggests that this aircraft would have good instantaneous turn-rate compared to the others, although, with the lowest aspect ratio, and lower thrust to weight ratio, it is likely the F-106 sustained turn rate would be less impressive. The Phantom also has a large wing area compared to both the Su-15 and the Lightning, perhaps because its origins as a naval multi-role aircraft included a requirement to carry larger external loads than the other aircraft.

As might be expected, the Lightning emerges with the lowest endurance of the four aircraft. While stressing that this is a comparative rather than an absolute assessment, my estimates suggest quite comparable endurance for the other three aircraft, but that the Lightning, even in the F6 variant, offers the shorter endurance for which it was renowned.

In terms of claimed maximum speed, in the face of considerable discrepancies in the data, I can only suggest that the F-106 was likely to be slightly faster than the other aircraft, but overall, the differences in maximum Mach number appear relatively small. In practice, the speeds available would be highly dependent on the weapons loaded, and on any other applicable limitations, for example depending on whether drop tanks were retained or not.

Let us start with the wing. The closest Western analogue to the Su-15 was the US F-106. Whereas the F-106 had a large pure delta, from 1969 Flagons had a small compound tailed delta with the angle of sweep shallower on the outer wing (it started life as tailed pure delta). The wing planform is largely a measure to get some more lift out of the wing to reduce the landing speed, and possibly improve handling in manoeuvring flight. I asked Jim Smith his opinion, he noted: “It was introduced from the 11th aircraft, so the need was probably pretty compelling. The F-106 wing, in comparison, is huge. The F-106 weighs a bit less, but has nearly double the wing area. So I’d expect better instantaneous turn rate, and better performance at altitude from the 106, and better acceleration and initial climb rate from the Su-15, which has 24% higher thrust-weight ratio.” He also opined that “Compared to F-4, I’d expect better acceleration and climb rate due to slightly higher T/W. I’d also expect inferior manoeuvre performance due to higher wing loading, and I’d also expect to be somewhat out-gunned, with up to 4 Sparrow + 4 Sidewinder. But the Su-15 is primarily an anti-bomber aircraft, and would not be expecting B-52s to be escorted over Russia (bit of a one-way mission, that). “

The type had an impressive thrust-to-weight ratio for its generation. In combat configuration it was around 0.84. This compares well with the F-4 (0.77) and is far superior to the F-106 (0.68). Sukhoi’s taste for high thrust-to-weight ratios is also seen in the later ‘Flanker’ series.

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It is likely that expect more than double the endurance. Early Su-15s had a similar weapons fit, with one IR and one radar guided. According to Shartrov, “the first serial Su–15 modifications (the Su-15TM Flagon-F) were called ‘Hound dog’ (Гончая in Russian) for their extremely high landing speed and ‘Dove of Peace’ (Голубь Мира in Russian) for having only two air-to-air missiles. I was lucky – I flew and was on duty with four missiles and two cannon pods. And that version had leading edge extension on the wing, somewhat reducing the landing speed.”

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Later aircraft had four MRAAM or two MRAAM + two SRAAM plus a gun pod. So probably one kill per engagement for early aircraft, two per engagement for later aircraft. These were big missiles and probably had a big warhead. The Lightning carried two large infra-red missiles of two differing types, Firestreak and Red Top. Of the two, Red Top was the more effective, but could only be carried by ‘big fin’ Mk 3 and Mk 6 Lightnings, resulting in Firestreak remaining in service to arm the ‘small fin’ earlier aircraft. Late Mark Lightnings could also carry a gun pack, at the expense of trading away some of its limited internal fuel.

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The Delta Dart carried four Falcon missiles, but these seem to have not had a very good reputation. The F-4 carried four Sparrow MRAAM, and could also carry Sidewinder IR SRAAM. Experience in Vietnam showed that a gun was also required, and this was introduced in the F-4E model. From an armament perspective, it’s probably fair to say that all four aircraft did the best they could with the somewhat limited capability available at the time. It is an interesting detail that all were fitted with additional gun armament, having at one time or another had none.

The Sukhoi Su-15 is an impressive aircraft, whose role was essentially area air defence for the Soviet Union. Given this role, it might be expected to be a large, supersonic aircraft with a large radar and air-to-air missiles, and this is very much what we find. The aircraft (strictly weapon system) is very much optimised for high-speed interception, with small wings and relatively high wing-loading.


Contemporary aircraft might be the BAC Lightning, although this is very much a point-defence interceptor; the F-4 Phantom II, originally designed as a multi-role fighter-bomber for the US Navy; and the Convair F-106 Delta Dart.


Comparing these aircraft, in the absence of authoritative data, turns out to be somewhat difficult. In a former role, with access to aerodynamic modelling and weight estimation tools, this would be a breeze, but without these, and relying on somewhat doubtful estimates, I’ll simply make some observations, with which readers will doubtless disagree.


To illustrate the data problem, if you look at the Wikipedia entry for the F-4, you will find a quoted gross weight of 18824 kg, and an empty weight of 13757 kg. The difference between these is 5067kg, which is insufficient to account for the quoted internal fuel of 7550 litres (approx. 6040 kg), let alone 4 Sparrow missiles (~800kg), pilot and equipment, and gun ammunition. Even if the ‘empty’ weight is an empty equipped weight, there is still not enough margin to account for full internal fuel plus the pilot and his kit.

As indicated in the interview with the Su-15 pilot, the high wing loading of the aircraft will result in high take-off, approach and landing speeds. In this respect, the data suggests that the Lightning would need equal care, while the large wing area of the F-106, and the naval design heritage of the F-4, are likely to mean these two would be a little easier to land.

The wings of all four aircraft underwent modification in service, with conical camber being introduced to the Delta Dart; a conically-cambered leading-edge extension being fitted to the Lightning; introduction of manoeuvre slats on the F-4E; and introduction of a reduced sweep outer panel on the Su-15, at the position of the air-to-air missile pylon. For the Su-15, this discontinuity would introduce a highly-swept vortex, with similar beneficial effects to those seen on aircraft with leading edge root extensions like the F-16. The primary effect would be to maintain lift to a higher angle of incidence, with a secondary effect of improving the flow over the outer wing at high incidence.

The modifications to the Delta Dart and the Lightning were principally to reduce supersonic drag due to lift, and, in the case of the Lightning, to add a little more fuel, whereas for the F-4 and the Su-15, increases in lift and manoeuvrability appear to have been the main objective.
“Armament varies widely across the four aircraft. With four Sparrows plus sidewinders and a gun, the F-4E appears best equipped, although early Sparrows definitely had their limitations. The Su-15 could be flown with a mix of radar and Infra-red (IR) MRAAM, and later models could carry IR SRAAM or gun pods if required.” Were Soviet missiles more reliable? This is hard to ascertain but they could barely be worse than British and US missiles of the time for probability of kill. It should be noted that at this time Soviet rocket propulsion technology was probably superior.

Conclusion
Overall, the Su-15 seems to have been well suited to its task as an air defence interceptor. Fast, with good climb performance and acceleration, a big radar and a mixed IR and radar missile capability, it was well equipped to deter and defeat airborne attack on the homeland, focussing on the US and NATO bomber threat.

It was not designed as an air superiority aircraft capable of gaining control over contested airspace against Western fighter aircraft, and might well have found the manoeuvrable and heavily-armed Phantom a bit of a handful. In a defensive situation, the F-4 would be met by a massed armada of more agile MiG-21s and this in a forest of surface-to-air missiles and anti-air artillery, leaving the Su-15s to perform their intended role of destroying bombers.

I imagine a properly trained pilot would have found it an exciting aircraft to fly, and, with its size, high power, and relatively small wing span, must have made a good display aircraft – big, noisy, with high rate of roll, good acceleration and an impressively purposeful appearance.

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Book review: Harrier 809 by Rowland White

Rowland White had a smash hit a few years ago with Vulcan 607, the story how a farcically ill-equipped RAF managed to drop a bomb on a runway. The target was an occupied airport in the Falklands. The mission involved flying 6,600 nautical miles (12,200 km) and 16 hours for the return journey in terrible weather and facing enemy anti-aircraft defences. Organising the air-to-air refuelling effort for the mission was madly complicated; imagine the riddle of the chicken getting to the island cubed and you get the gist (or you might get a stock cube now I come to think of it). Rowland specialises in meticulous research and excellent story-telling, something he combines with an old-fashioned celebratory tone.

In this book he returns to the Falklands for the story of Harrier 809. Like Vulcan 607, the title includes a classic British aircraft name plus a number. The number refers to 809 Naval Air Squadron, a Fleet Arm Arm unit that was reformed in 1982 to take Sea Harriers to war.

The book features tropes long popular in military mythology – that of British forces being outnumbered and having to improvise to compensate for second-rate or incomplete equipment, unforeseen situations and leadership shortcomings. And of course, the perennial idiocy from Whitehall. Some very interesting historical examples of this rushed wartime improvisation are cited, such as the Royal Navy addressing the chronic shortage of fighter cover for merchant ships in World War Two with “A plan to fire knackered, battle-scared battle-scarred Hawker Hurricanes and Fairey Fulmars from merchant ships using catapults or batteries of 3-inch rockets was approved.”

What was the Sea Harrier?

According to a Sea Harrier pilot interviewed by this site it was an adaptation of land-based aircraft capable of a taking off and landing like a helicopter: “The modification from the already well-proven ground attack Harrier was a design masterpiece. It included a raised cockpit, a superb albeit physically tiny mono-pulse radar, the Blue Fox, a very reliable inertial standard navigation system (NAVHARS) and a very user-friendly Head-Up Display weapons aiming system including a hotline gunsight.”

But it was very slow for a fighter, and had short range and could only carry two guns and two missiles (large fighters of the time carried eight). It was not known how well it would perform against the Mirage, a type which had proven deadly in Israeli hands in the 1960s and 70s. Britain had had the wisdom to stay out of the Vietnam War, which meant it had little in the way (or likely no) combat seasoned pilots by 1982. The uncertainty of how well Sea Harriers would do in the war provides much of the tension in the earlier part of the book.

When we chatted earlier this year, I asked Rowland what he believed is the biggest myth about British Harrier operations in the Falklands War. He replied. “That twelve Phantoms aboard the old HMS Ark Royal would necessarily have done a better job than twenty Sea Harriers. In the end it was, as it so often is, more a numbers game than anything. The F-4 was undoubtedly a more capable naval interceptor than the Sea Harrier. Heavily-armed, long-legged and equipped with a powerful pulse-doppler radar, Phantom on CAP ‘up-threat’ of the islands would have wreaked havoc against incoming Argentine raids – including the Exocet carrying Super Etendards. But six weeks is a very long time to keep just twelve Phantoms and their crews flying without any possibility of reinforcement or replacement. The F-4 was maintenance heavy and temperamental in comparison to the SHAR which chalked up astonishingly high mission availability rates during the war. Then there was the weather. Given the conditions in which some of the Sea Harriers were able to get back on deck it’s hard not to imagine that some of the F-4s might, at the very least, have suffered damage in landing incidents. Once your force of twelve F-4s is reduced to ten, or eight, or six serviceable airframes it all starts to look a little more tenuous. The SHARs, on the other hand, could be reinforced almost as required by RAF GR3s. In what was a largely visual fight against enemy aircraft that had little or no radar capability of their own, Sidewinder-armed GR3s were a viable alternative.”

The research is again first-rate and offers many treats and insights for dedicated aviation enthusiasts. There is certainly enough technical information to satisfy any gear-heads, and much of it is refreshingly drawn from first-hand sources rather than the usual Gunstonesque canon.

The story itself is exciting. It is a little jingoistic however, which may put some readers off, but is likely to delight the core readership. To be fair it seems an old-fashioned world view, though it is created with an old-fashioned diligence. Rowland White is a superb communicator, taking herculean research efforts and transmuting them into an easy to understand story. In reviewing this I took a second look at his other books, in his Big Book of Flight I was again impressed with the clarity and confidence of his style.

Next in his series is Dambuster 617 which keep his title convention and is no doubt to be followed by Lightning 111 or Spitfire 29.

You may order his book here, you may order the similarly essential Hush-Kit Book Warplanes here.

66 years ago today a pilot ejected from an aeroplane trapped underwater!


The Westland Wyvern was a beast of an aircraft, dwarfing its companions on the decks of the Royal Navy’s carriers in the mid-50s. It is rightly world famous as the first turbo-prop strike fighter and the last fixed wing product from Westlands before they turned to the dark side of aviation. Less well known is another of its claims to fame as the platform for the first underwater ejection.


Wednesday 13 October 1954 was a relatively normal day onboard HMS Albion in the Mediterranean. 813 Naval Air Squadron had recently embarked for the Wyvern’s debut appearance at sea and Lt B D Macfarlane RN lined up his aircraft for take-off. Moments after the flight deck officer gave the signal for launch steam filled the catapult piston and accelerated the aircraft to 70 knots in the space of around hundred and fifty feet. At this point a design flaw that had somehow escaped discovery during the Wyvern’s eight years of development revealed itself.
A pump located on the centreline drew fuel from both wing tanks and then drove it forwards six feet to the 3,500hp Armstrong Siddeley Python turboprop. Unfortunately, the acceleration from the catapult caused the fuel in the supply pipe to move backwards starving the engine at which point it flamed out. Lt Macfarlane disconcertingly found himself just above stalling speed in an aircraft whose engine was running down and with 24,000 tonnes of carrier just over his shoulder. Shockingly the Wyvern made a poor glider, it did however make a passable impression of a brick and started to sink rapidly after it entered the water.

Image credit: https://royal-naval-association-wrexham-branch.org.uk/aircraft-of-the-royal-navy/


Trapped inside and without an air supply Lt Macfarlane fell back on his training, despite it not specifically covering ‘being in an underwater death trap’. First, he jettisoned the canopy and then as the hull of the carrier thundered overhead pulled the ejector seat handle. At which point nothing happened. Remembering a similar situation occurring on the ground training rig he desperately made a second stronger pull on the handle. This triggered the first explosive charge, the expanding gases starting the seat’s movement before a second stronger charge propelled it and its occupant clear of the aircraft. [1]

Westland Wyvern S4, VZ789, on a carrier deck with wings folded. Date:


Half drowned Macfarlane now found himself tumbling in the maelstrom of water under the Albion’s hull. As if that wasn’t enough, he soon realised he was being dragged deeper under the water. Somehow, able to free himself from the tangle of webbing that was his parachute he then discarded his dinghy pack and began to rise agonisingly slowly towards the surface. Staring death in the face for what must have been at least the fifth time that day Macfarlane desperately pulled the toggle that inflated his lifejacket. Moments later he burst out of the water less than two minutes after the Wyvern had staggered off the carrier’s deck.


Macfarlane was only the 53rd member of the Martin-Baker Club [2] and the first to use one of their seats underwater, a situation that at that time hadn’t been considered by the company in the design. With the confirmation that ejector seats could work submerged the Admiralty began a programme of research to inform future designs. The Wyvern can then add a major contribution to air safety to its list of accomplishments. [3]

[1] The sequential explosions being developed by Martin-Baker to reduce the peak g pilots would experience on the basic early seats.
[2] Consisting of people whose life has been saved by one of the company’s seats. You get a tie.
[3] Since Macfarlane’s escapade there have been at least two other underwater ejections, one USN and one IN.

Sadly, we are again way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going. You can really help. 

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.

Thank you.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes. Preorder your copy today here. 

10 Fighter Aircraft Named After Fish

<David Attenborough voice>Ah, fish! Among these denizens of the deep are some of nature’s most sublime creations, evolutionary masterpieces that fill our oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and desktop bowls with vibrant colours and provide some of the most incredible spectacles seen anywhere in the natural world.


Alas, few creations in the realm of aviation seem to take inspiration from these magnificent creatures. There are exceptions, of course, and, were this a list of bombers named after fish, it’d have been much easier to compile, with legendary entries like the Fairey Swordfish, Martin Marlin, Blackburn Shark, Short Sturgeon, and the like.

The Bell XFM-1-BE Airacuda of 1937. The name is almost, but not quite, fishy enough.

But you know what they say about doing things the easy way. Today, we’re looking specifically at fighter aircraft. The namesakes of the world’s fighters are varied, encompassing big cats, forces of nature, and mythological figures. But often, fighters are named after birds, because birds…well, they fly. (Yes, there is such a thing as a flying fish, which Mother Nature clearly fashioned after the Fairey Barracuda, but it doesn’t actually fly but jump really far.)

Here are ten fighters whose namers dared to imagine a reality in which sky and sea were one…with decidedly mixed results.

10. Ryan XF2R Dark Shark

There is, perhaps, no creature of the sea so fearsome as the shark. These apex predators are fast, powerful, and terrifyingly beautiful, and so it’s no wonder that they’ve starred in some of Hollywood’s most iconic cinematic gems, such as Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and the Sharknado franchise. It should also come as no surprise that they’ve lent their names to a number of aircraft. The Dark Shark might be the most impressive of the bunch, or at least the most ambitious. The type was a product of a time when jet engines were seen as a promising new technology, but were often unreliable, insufficiently powerful, and very slow to spool up, to say nothing of their fondness for guzzling kerosene as if it were Guinness.

This mixed reputation led many to believe that a jet engine’s best use was to augment the power of a propeller-driven aircraft, and thus was born the mixed-propulsion fighter, most notably realised in the Ryan FR Fireball, which may or may not have made the world’s first jet-powered carrier landing (by accident), depending on who you ask. Though the Fireball was well-liked by its pilots for its exceptional manoeuvrability and cockpit visibility, the type’s name proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it was prone to landing gear collapses and structural failures. Perhaps not wanting to repeat that mistake, the folks at Ryan Aeronautical turned to the order Selachimorpha to christen their new fighter—which was little more than a Fireball with its Wright R-1820-72W Cyclone replaced by a General Electric T31 turboprop. Not only was the latter lighter and easier to maintain than its piston predecessor, but the aircraft no longer had to carry separate types of fuel!

By this time, however, the Navy’s interest in the mixed-propulsion concept had waned. The USAF showed some interest, though they insisted that the J31 turbojet inherited from the Fireball be replaced by a Westinghouse J34. While the Dark Shark was a significant upgrade over the Fireball in performance, problems with the turboprop and the rapid evolution of pure jets conspired to kill it in the womb*, and only a single prototype was built. ( *Maybe not whale sharks. Or basking sharks. Or frilled sharks, or…you get the idea.)

9. Sopwith Dolphin

Credit: https://warbirdtails.net/

“Fool!” I hear you say. “A dolphin is not a fish but a mammal!”
You are, of course, correct. However, one good look at the Dolphin’s round face would suggest that the aircraft is not named after Flipper at all, but rather for Coryphaena hippurus, also known as mahi-mahi, also known as the dolphinfish or, more colloquially, the dolphin.

This is probably not true, but it’s my story and I’m sticking with it. #AlternativeFact

Credit: https://warbirdtails.net/


Introduced in the last year of World War I, the Dolphin was a highly manoeuvrable fighter with excellent visibility. It was not without its demons, however, as its Hispano-Suiza 8B engine suffered from gearing and lubrication problems, and the swivel-mounted Lewis light guns that fired over the propeller arc had a terrible tendency to swing around in the pilot’s face. Many pilots simply removed the offending guns, which were only really useful for attacking targets such as reconnaissance aircraft from below (a task for which the Dolphin’s excellent high-altitude performance made it ideal), relying on the more conventional synchronised Vickers machine guns. The type was retired soon after the war.

Credit: https://warbirdtails.net/


As for the dolphinfish, after which the Dolphin is undoubtedly named? If you’re ever in Hawaii, you must try it. Your tastebuds will praise you as if you were the god of hedonism, Dionysus himself.

8: Grumman Tarpon

The Tarpon—the Fleet Air Arm’s original name for the TBF Avenger, which was soon discarded, presumably to avoid confusion and/or linguistic association with a feminine hygiene product, and replaced by the one the Americans gave it—is very much not a fighter, though it did play the part of one on occasion, hence its inclusion here.
Most notably, just three days after D-Day in Normandy, the dorsal gunner in an Avenger a Tarpon shot down a V-1 flying bomb that was overtaking it. Then, on 29 January 1945, an Avenger participating in Operation Meridian II over Sumatra was jumped by a pair of Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki fighters. Badly damaged, with its observer gravely injured, the British aircraft seemed dead to rights. But, in a feat that would’ve made Swede Vejtasa proud, a second Avenger swooped in, shooting down one of the fighters and driving off the other.


Such instances were, of course, the exception rather than the rule. But, for those ephemeral moments, the tubby Tarpon was able to stand tall on its lanky landing gear, puff out its torpedo-laden chest, and proudly declare in its Wright Twin Cyclone’s growling voice, “I was a fighter!

7. Short Gurnard

Why a fighter would be named after a bug-eyed bottom-dweller is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because of the latter’s wing-like pectoral fins?
The Gurnard was designed in response to a specification for a shipborne fighter that could double as a fleet spotting and reconnaissance platform to replace the Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Flycatcher. Two versions were built, both with 525hp engines: the Gurnard I landplane with a Bristol Jupiter X radial, and the float-equipped Gurnard II, later converted into a makeshift amphibian, fitted with a Rolls-Royce Kestrel.

Though a perfectly good aircraft, the Gurnard was bested by the Hawker Osprey in both performance and appearance—though, in fairness, few aircraft in history could compete with the Hawker biplanes of the late-1920s in the good looks department—and only the two were produced. I suppose one could argue that, like its namesake, it was stuck at the bottom.

6. EADS Mako

In a hierarchy of high-octane predators, the mako’s name commands particular fear and respect, what with its keen intelligence and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. It was only a matter of time before it became the namesake of…a homebuilt?!

Before the Lancair Mako hit the consumer market, there was the Mako high-energy advanced trainer (HEAT). While, as its project acronym suggests, the type was intended as a fighter trainer. This pan-European aircraft would’ve had an air-to-air capability, similar to the F-5 Freedom Fighters it was intended to replace (and the current Korean Aerospace T-50 Golden Eagle with which it shares a similar configuration). This could have made it an attractive primary fighter option for nations with smaller military budgets.

The Mako turned out to be an aircraft no one wanted, and though a few mockups were trucked to various air shows throughout Europe, a prototype was never built, and the project faded into obscurity without much fanfare. We’re zero-for-two on the shark-inspired fighters so far.

5. Lockheed XFV-1 Salmon

From nuclear-powered strategic bombers to hoverbikes for soldiers to the Piasecki PA-97 that simply must be seen to be believed, the United States has never shied away from spectacularly bonkers aeronautical exploits. The tailsitter fighter ranks right up there at the top of the list.
The concept of building a VTOL fighter that could hypothetically be based on any ship large enough to accommodate a helipad produced two designs, the Lockheed XFV and Convair XFY Pogo. This was a patently terrible idea, as the aircraft had to be landed backwards, with the pilot looking over his shoulder while carefully massaging the throttle. This was difficult enough in controlled conditions; imagine trying to finagle these contraptions onto a small, pitching deck in severe weather conditions!


It didn’t help that the Allison XT40 turboprops fitted to both prototypes were insufficiently powerful and not particularly reliable.
Unlike the Salmon (an unofficial moniker that may have been derived from Lockheed’s chief test pilot’s surname rather than the fish), the Convair product was successful—in that it actually did what it was supposed to and took off and landed vertically. The XFV never accomplished this feat, resulting in that gangly undercarriage that looks like it was lifted from a warehouse ladder. It did make a few transitions to the hover in flight, but within a year, the Navy Department came to the conclusion that every sane human had before either competitor had left the drawing board: this was never going to work.
Fortunately for fish-lovers, the salmon takes flight still, in the decidedly more benign form of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737…or should that be, Salmon-Thirty-Salmon?

4: Douglas F4D Skyray

There is perhaps no creature to grace our seas so elegant as the manta ray. Graceful yet powerful, these beings seem almost otherworldly. They are, however, fish. Specifically, cartilaginous fish, quite like sharks. Not aesthetically like sharks of course, but anatomically similar.

The Douglas F4D, or ‘Ford’ as it was inevitably nicknamed, gets its official name from its wing, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the manta’s massive pectoral fins. The type was a product of a time when the U.S. Navy was deeply in the market for radical aircraft designs, resulting in the likes of the spaceship-like Vought Cutlass and the sleek yet woefully underpowered F3H Demon.


Compared to many of its contemporaries, the Skyray had very few vices. Early flight tests revealed a tendency to pitch up, and it was slightly tail-heavy. This inherent instability is a common feature on modern warplanes, but in the 1950s, without the aid of fly-by-wire technology to keep it in check, it should’ve been a fatal flaw in the Skyray. Instead, pilots learned to leverage it, turning a weakness into a strength, and as a result, the Skyray was exceptionally agile for its time. This, coupled with its stellar climb rate and excellent performance from its Pratt & Whitney J57 afterburning turbojet, made it very popular with pilots. The only Navy squadron assigned to NORAD, VFAW-3 “Blue Nemesis,” had Skyrays as their mounts.
The type nonetheless enjoyed a brief career, being retired only eight years after entering service, largely due to it being a dedicated interceptor when the Navy and Marine Corps increasingly favored multirole aircraft. Douglas built an improved version, the F5D Skylancer, but this was shelved in favor of the Vought F-8 Crusader; some allege that this was a political decision due to Douglas having too much market share of military aircraft production. Imagine a politician today having the stones to say that to Lockheed Martin…

3. Xi’an JH-7 ‘Flounder’

A kind of TSR.2 coupe

Looking like a Jaguar on steroids, a Mirage F1 whose tail never stopped growing, or a Soko Orao that hadn’t yet been hit with an ugly stick, this menacing strike fighter is known in its FBC-1 export form as the ‘Flying Leopard’—a fitting enough name (though, let’s be honest, no one anywhere is ever topping ‘Vigorous Dragon’), but, for our intents and purposes, irrelevant. Fortunately for us, the fine folks at NATO stepped in to give it a more ichthyological moniker.

Of course, in typical NATO fashion, they just had to be pricks about the whole matter and name it after an ugly specimen, the one that spends its life lying on its side, so much that it’s evolved to have its eyes growing out the side of its head.


The JH-7, on the other hand, is quite an attractive beast, not unlike its equivalents in size and role, the Sukhoi Su-24 and F-111 Aardvark (though its weapons load is significantly smaller than either of those aircraft). The type does have some flounder-like qualities, however, as its final form was the one requested by the PLANAF (the PLAAF wanted theirs to have side-by-side seating, but it was deemed impractical to rework the design to accommodate their request, so they took the Navy’s version), and flounders hunt by ambushing their prey, similar to the air force version which uses terrain-following radar for low-level strikes.

2. Grumman XF4F-3S ‘Wildcatfish’

Somewhere along the evolutionary timeline, the forces of nature conspired to create the ultimate aquatic being by crossing a fish with that most illustrious of land animals: the cat. Alas, fearing that a hybrid of two of the finest lifeforms on Earth would just be too awesome, the powers-that-be in the universe punished Silurus glanis and all its myriad relatives by relegating them to the murky depths to feed on all sorts of nasty, slimy things.


But fret not, for the barbel-faced bottom-feeders found appreciation in the aviation sector. Early in the Pacific War, there was a fear within the U.S. Navy that the engineering units assigned to clear out jungle and build standing airfields on newly-conquered islands would be unable to keep up with the island-hopping campaign, leaving those territories vulnerable to counterattack as the fleet moved on ahead. Japan had conjured up something like a solution to this problem with the Nakajima A6M2-N, an offshoot of the wildly successful Mitsubishi Zero with a large pontoon under the fuselage and a set of fixed wing-mounted floats for stability.
Noting the modest success the Rufe had, the US Navy decided to give the concept a try. They started with an F4F-3 Wildcat, then contracted the EDO Aircraft Corporation, who specialised in floatplane conversions, to affix a pair of pontoons under the wings. Thus was born the Wild Catfish.
(Or is it Wildcat-fish? The proper division of the name would make for an intriguing expository debate in a Dan Brown novel.)

The aircraft proved to be a dud. Whereas the type’s enemy inspiration did perform as well as could be expected, particularly in the Aleutians campaign where it held its own early on, even racking up some victories on American P-38 Lightnings despite having its performance severely hampered by the dreadnought’s worth of parasitic drag hanging underneath, the concept’s flaws were apparent. Besides the decline in performance, floatplane fighters were highly vulnerable to rough seas, and many Rufes were destroyed on the water by storms. The Wildcat was already inferior to the Zero in nearly every performance metric; the modifications only served to slow it down and degrade its handling, and all sorts of bits and bobs had to be added for stability before it reached its ultimate layout. It didn’t help that the twin-pontoon arrangement was that much bulkier than the one fitted to the Japanese aircraft.

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The Wildcatfish first flew on 28 February 1943, and one hundred sets of floats were ordered for future conversions. The type quickly proved unnecessary, however, as the Seabees were clearing trees and building airfields in record time. The prototype ended up being the only one built.
Fortunately for all of us, the name would live on—the Catfish part, anyway—in a highly modified Boeing 757 used as a radar and avionics testbed for the F-22 Raptor.

1. Northrop F-20 Tigershark

Spectators gather around a Northrop F-20 Tigershark aircraft on display during a Department of Defense open house air show.

If you thought crossing cats with fish was a stoke of brilliance, then what would you call crossing that mightiest of felines, the tiger, with the shark, the king of the fishes?
Well…you’d call it a tiger shark, of course.
To impress just how terrifying these fish are, they’re part of a family commonly known as requiem sharks. A requiem, of course, is a service for the dead—because that’s exactly what you’ll be if you tangle with a tiger shark.


(Actually, it’ll probably just spit you out, as sharks find humans rather tasteless. Who said fish couldn’t possess the gift of wisdom?)
That brings us to the aircraft that bears its fearsome name: the F-20, the ultimate what-if of fighter aviation. Taking an already successful design in the F-5, giving it almost twice the thrust and a significantly better weapons system, and marketing it to those nations to whom the Carter Administration refused to sell the F-16. But not even an alleged bribery attempt in South Korea could save it from relaxed export rules under and US governmental favouritism toward the F-16. Two of the three prototypes were lost in crashes, and, to the chagrin of aviation experts and enthusiasts alike, the project was cancelled in 1986.


The only what-if when dealing with the shark, on the other hand, is which appendages will be ripped from your body if you happen to swim past it.
That puts us at zero-for-three on the sharks. Add in the Douglas A2D Skyshark attack aircraft, and we drop to 0-4.

Clearly, the moral of the story here is: never name your fighter plane after a shark. Tempting though it may be, fate does not like the shark-plane.

-Sean Kelly

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Qatari Air Force to have all aircraft types by 2023

Qatar surprised many observers by ordering not just one fighter-bomber aircraft type, but three: the French Rafale, US F-15QA and the European Typhoon. This has been followed in recent weeks with a serious interest in the F-35. In a surprise move by Major General Salem bin Hamad al Nabet today he announced the Qatar Emiri Air Force plans to have every aircraft type ever made in service by 2026. 

In press conference held at a branch of Nando’s in Doha, the Major General announced the radical plan. Holding aloft a copy of The Observer’s Book Aircraft with one and bottle of Peri-Peri sauce in the other he announced he wanted “everything“.

“It would be so cool to have Spitfires, and like Concordes and those swing-wing ones! I like fast planes.” Critics of the regime have plan have noted the major general’s attic full of unmade Airfix models he got three birthdays ago. According to Tozz Feek from the Kol Khara news network, “He has a massive Hurricane model, it’s like 1/24 scale…he started it like two years ago and hasn’t even put the wings on yet”

Despite this, he unveiled the air force’s long term acquisition plan, which begin with the opening of the first Avro Qatar factory which is slated to begin production of 125 Vulcan bombers in 2024. Other large bombers to be built in-country will include the Avro Lincoln and Convair B-36 Peacemaker.

Qatar will start with the letter A, procuring aircraft designed by Aachen Flugzeugbau working through to types from Azalea Aviation. According to Tammy Hopscotch from the aviation magazine Aerosemary’s Baby, “There are many rumours that Qatar is building a kind of ‘Noah’s ark’ of aeroplanes which once complete with every type will be launched into space.”

Representatives from Swedish fighter manufacturer Saab say they are playing it cool and though they admit going for an intimate dinner with the Head of acquisition, they will wait for him to call, “as they like him, but don’t want to look too easy.”

Night fighter! US Hornet pilot rates the combat effectiveness of the Grumman F7F-3N / 4N Tigercat

Former US Marine Corps Hornet pilot Louis Gundlach takes an in-depth look at the ultimate US twin-engine propeller night fighter, the formidable Grumman F7F-3N / 4N Tigercat.

            The Grumman F7F Tigercat, like the F4U Corsair before it, was an excellent fighter- bomber that found its way into Marine Corps squadrons due to a lack of carrier suitability.  The first Marine Corps Tigercats were introduced at the end of World War II and were single-seat day and night fighters, but the aircraft did not see action during the conflict.[1]During the five year period between World War II and the Korean War, the F7F series continued to develop with day fighters remaining single-seat and night fighter versions adding an aft position for the Radar Operator (RO).[2]  When the Korean War began the F7F-3N and F7F-4N were the night fighter versions of the Tigercat in use.  The standard F7F-3 day fighter was equipped with a single seat for the pilot and four .50 calibre machine-guns in the nose, along with four 20-mm cannon in the wing root.  The F7F-3N added an additional seat for the RO and removed the .50 calibre machine-guns to make room for the SCR-720 radar.  The main difference between the F7F-3N and the F7F-4N was the SCR-720 radar and controls were replaced by the APS-19 radar system. The F7F-4N also had strengthened wings and landing gear for improved carrier use.  The F7F-3N and 4N were eventually used by a limited number of U.S. Navy squadrons onboard Midway class carriers.[3]  The Marine Corps did not deploy their Tigercats to Navy carriers operationally.  Along with the F4U-5N, the F7F-3N and F7F-4N were the primary night fighters utilized by the VMF(N) squadrons in the early part of the Korean War.  (VMF(N) stands for V-Fixed Wing, M-Marine, F-Fighter, (N)-Night).[4]

F7F-3N in 1946

            The F7F-3N and 4N were large aircraft for the time, weighing over 21,000 pounds gross weight without ordnance.  Their max take-off weight was over 25000 pounds.  The aircraft was equipped with a pair of Pratt and Whitney R2800-34W engines that each produced 2100 horsepower .[5]  The 3N and 4N were slower than their day fighter counterparts due to the extra weight of the radar equipment and extra crewman.  The 4N’s max airspeed in level flight at sea level was 313 knots and it had a ceiling of 37,600 feet.  Compared to the performance figures of the F7F-2N, the reduction is easily noted.  The F7F-2N had a max speed of 402 knots at sea level and a ceiling of 42,000 feet.[6]  The F7F series had lift limit of 6 positive Gs and 2.5 negative Gs.  The F7F aircraft had a wingspan of 57’6” and was almost 45 feet long.  The 3N and 4N models were over 15 feet tall at the tail.  The 3N and 4N also had a range exceeding 1000 miles.[7]  F7F-3s, equipped with drop tanks flew non-stop from Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point in North Carolina to MCAS Miramar in San Diego California on several occasions.  The 3Ns and 4Ns carried 80 pounds less fuel and weighed more than the day fighter version, but the advertised range of 1780 miles on internal fuel was still impressive on the night fighter versions.[8]

(Appendix 4 – Pictures of F7F-3N, RO station, Pilot Instrument panel, and RO radar panel.)

Ordnance

The F7F-3N and 4N carried the same ordnance as the F4U-5N.  It was equipped with four 20mm cannon and could also carry eight ATARS or HVAR rockets.  The Tigercat could carry 4,000 pounds of bombs with a 2000 pound bomb hung on the centreline and 1000 pound bombs or smaller being hung on the inboard wing bomb racks.[9]  The centreline station and the wing stations could also carry the 11.75 inch “Tiny Tim” rocket, but this large rocket was not used operationally by the Marine Corps.[10]  The normal combat load for the night-fighter Tigercat in Korea was a single external fuel tank hung on the centreline station, two 1000 pound general purpose bombs or two napalm bombs hung on inboard wing stations, and eight 5 inch HVAR rockets mounted on the outboard rocket stations.  This gave the Tigercat the best combination of performance, ordnance, and loiter time in order to perform the night fighter mission.[11]

            Unlike the F4U-5N, the F7F-3N and 4N did not have a dedicated night gunsight.  The Tigercat carried the Mk-8 gunsight which was the standard for day fighters of the time.  It had gyro-scopic range controls which enabled the pilot to fire accurately at airborne targets, but it did not have any adjustable functionality for air to ground bombing.[12]  Unlike the Mk-20, it did have a setting for rocket and gun air to ground attacks.  By setting the sight to “fixed”, selecting either gun or HVAR, and the dive angle switch to above 35 degree or below 35 degree, the pilot would get rudimentary symbology to aim the guns or rockets.[13]  The Mk-8 was adjustable for night use, but it was not built for that purpose.  In order to use the sight at night the pilots would turn down the Mk-8 to a barely visible setting that would enable them to see airborne and ground targets through the gunsight.  If the setting was set too bright, the pilot would lose the target once it was brought into the gun-sight range rings.  For bombing attacks, the pilot had to rely on instinct, experience, and an interpretation of where the target was in relation to dive angle, airspeed, altitude, and ordnance selected on the gunsight.[14]  

SCR-720 characteristics and operation

The SCR-720 was the most widely used airborne Intercept radar of World War II.  It outfitted the P-61 Black Widow, the British Beaufighter, and the Mosquito to name a few aircraft.  The SCR-720 was a pulse radar with parabolic dish that rotated 360 degrees around its vertical axis.  The aft 210 degrees was blanked off due to the radar scanning into the aircraft body.  The radar dish would also rotate slightly in the horizontal axis to provide altitude coverage.  The dish rotated at 360 revolutions per minute and the radar weighed 412 pounds.  The SCR-720’s azimuth accuracy was plus or minus 3 degrees and the elevation accuracy was plus or minus 2 degrees.  Its elevation limits were -10 degrees to + 65 degrees off the aircrafts attitude.[15]

The RO was provided with two rectangle shaped scopes with the SCR-720.  A “B” scope which provided azimuth and range and a “C” scope which provided elevation and azimuth.[16]  The “B” scope was selectable to 120nm for beacon and ground mapping operations, and 20 nm, 10 nm, and 5 nm ranges for airborne intercepts.  A “C” scope gave elevation difference compared to the attitude of the night fighter.  Unlike the APS-19, the RO had to adjust gain and radar tune functions which helped break out the radar contact and radar signals when compared to other radar returns.  The RO also controlled the tilt of the radar with SCR-720 which enabled it to search for and track targets above the aircraft.  The “B” and “C” scope setup was more intuitive that APS-19’s “H” scope setup, but the SCR-720 was much more user intensive and could not have been used without a dedicated RO.[17]  

            The SCR-720 did provide rudimentary ground mapping but the small rectangle “B” scope would warp the picture.  F7F-3N RO’s claim the radar was only good for mapping significant terrain features, like a shoreline.[18]  The beacon function worked similar to the APS-19 with beacon radar return being received out to the “B” scope limits of 120nm.  The RO would also have to interpret changes in azimuth and range in order to estimate the targets heading and velocity.  The SCR-720 had a maximum detection range of 18 miles on a large airborne target though 5 to 7 miles was the norm for a metal skinned fighter sized target. Though the SCR-720 was significantly older than the APS-19 when the Korean War started, many RO’s regarded the SCR-720 as the better radar.  This could be in no small part to the fact that the RO’s trained on the 720 after World War II and it did not have the automatic features of the APS-19.  Additionally, RO’s felt some professional job satisfaction at being able to operate the SCR-720 well and direct the pilot to a successful night intercept.[19]

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(Appendix 5 – SCR-720 airborne Intercept interpretation.)

F4U-5N and F7F-3N/4N tactics

The F4U-5N and the F7F-3N and 4N served in Korea during the same time period.  VMF(N)-513 flew F4U-5Ns and F7F-3Ns out of Japan during the early days of the conflict. While VMF(N)-542 brought F7F-3Ns from the United States a few months later.  Eventually VMF(N)-513 would relieve VMF(N)-542 on the Korean Peninsula operating out of Pusan East (K-9 airfield).  VMF(N)-513 became a large squadron operating F4U-5Ns, F4U-5NLs, F4U-5s, and F7F-3Ns.[20]  The Marine Pilots were interchangeable, flying day and night Corsair and Tigercat missions.  Since the same pilots flew the Tigercat and the Corsair, and the aircraft’s weapons, capabilities, and radar performance were similar, the tactics, both air to air and air to ground were, for all intents and purposes, the same.

Airborne Intercept

The Corsair and Tigercat night fighters were heavily dependant on Ground Control Intercept (GCI) controllers located with the Tactical Air Direction Center (TADC).  The Night fighters would operate as single aircraft over a pre-determined combat air patrol (CAP) locations.[21]  The pilots and the RO’s would brief with intelligence and operations before the flight.  They would receive mission information including flight and GCI callsigns, takeoff time, on-station time, CAP location, expected threats, and GCI radio frequencies.  The aircraft would takeoff at their appointed times and fly to their designated CAP positions.  The radars at the TADC would pick up airborne targets at ranges over 100nm depending on altitude of the target.  Using the identification features of their ground-based radar, GCI could determine if the contact was emitting friendly transponder codes.  If the radar site was able to track the contact from enemy territory and it did not have a friendly transponder code, the senior officers at the TADC could declare the contract as a “bandit”, which was a code word for a know enemy aircraft.  If a radar contact was not a known enemy or friendly aircraft, it would be declared a “bogey”.  (Bandit and Bogey are still used today.)[22]   After the radar contact was declared “bogey”, or a “bandit”, the TADC would then determine the friendly CAP aircraft that was in the best position to intercept the contact.  The aircraft would be directed to contact a specific GCI controller on a specific frequency.  The GCI controller and the crew of the aircraft would then work as a team to make the intercept.  Since the SCR-720 and the APS-19 had short ranges and did not display heading accurately, the GCI controller would vector the fighter around in order for the fighter to intercept the radar contact from the rear hemisphere.  If the fighter came at the radar contact from the forward hemisphere, the short acquisition range of the night fighter radars would make a successful intercept by the fighter very difficult.  

(A fighter flying at 200 kts, outfitted with an SCR-720 or an APS-19 radar could theoretically offset 70 degrees at 5nm, maintain radar contact, and execute a stern conversion on a radar contact that was also flying at 200 kts.  This would take an exceptional radar operator and pilot.)[23]   

 The GCI controller would vector the aircraft by giving it headings to turn to.  It would also give the fighter the position of the radar contact in relation to the fighter’s nose in order for the fighter’s radar to pick up the contact.  Once the fighter’s airborne radar picked up the radar contact, control would shift to the fighter aircrew to consummate the intercept.  The GCI controller would continue to monitor the intercept in case the fighter lost radar contact.[24]

            The pilot of the F4U-5N or the RO of the Tigercat would gain a radar contact.  By monitoring the radar, the fighter would fly into a position in order to make a visual identification of a “bogey” contact or to shoot down a “bandit” contact.[25]  The pilot or the RO would monitor closure and changes in azimuth in order to close on the target in a controlled fashion.  If the intercept was flown recklessly, the fighter could be flown outside of radar parameters or worse, the fighter could fly out in front of the enemy aircraft.  Intercepts could take several minutes from first radar contact to close to a visual identification.  Patience was important for the Korean Night fighter aircrew.  

            The RO of the Tigercat would direct the pilot by giving him a heading and altitude to fly to.  “Turn right to 320 and climb to angels 21” would be a call the RO would make and it would direct the pilot to turn to a heading of 320 degrees and climb to 21000 feet.[26] The pilot of the Tigercat only had a small repeater of the “B” scope in the front cockpit and this did not offer enough information for the pilot to make an intercept.[27]  It was a team effort in the Tigercat for an intercept to occur.  The RO would also call out azimuth and distance to the target in order for the pilot to make visual contact.  “1 o’clock at 4000 feet”.  Once the pilot visually acquired the target he would call “tally” over the intercom and he would finish the intercept visually.  

Once the pilot visually acquired a “bogey” target, the pilot would close slowly on the target aircraft in order to visually identify it.  On dark nights the fighter might need to close to within a few feet of the aircraft to identify it.  Once the identification was made, he would relay the information back to GCI and that target would now be identified as an enemy (“bandit”).[28]  The fighter would separate from the enemy aircraft by slowing or by using turns away to provide separation from the target.  The fighter would then try to gain a couple hundred yards of separation and then place the enemy aircraft in its gun sight.  The fighter could then open up on the aircraft.  


            If the radar contact was declared a “bandit” at the beginning of the intercept, the fighter could forego the hazardous identification portion of the intercept and close to 20 mm cannon parameters, 500 to 1,500 feet, and open fire. 

While it was possible for the F7F-3N and the F4U-5N to shoot down enemy contacts without visually acquiring them by using the gun aim function of the radar, they did not use this function during the Korean War.[29]  The Marine Corps night fighters would have to wait for a more advanced radar fighter to be introduced to get a non-visual kill.  During the Korean War, Marine Corps F4U-5Ns and F7F-3Ns achieved two night air to air confirmed kills each. The first by an F7F occurred in June of 1951.

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Late on the night of 30 June 1951, Capt. E.B. Long and Warrant Officer R.B. Buckingham lifted their F7F-3N Tigercat off for a night combat air patrol (NCAP). Throughout the month other VMF(N)-513 aircraft had registered fleeting radar contact with slow, low-flying aircraft, but these contacts had quickly faded. By 2240, the F7F-3N was on station and waiting word from the TADC (tactical air direction center) “DENTIST”. This was a ground radar installation located in southwestern Korea that searched the night sky for enemy aircraft. At 0100 “DENTIST” contacted Long and Buckingham with intercept vectors for an unidentified contact flying north of UN airfield K-14. Buckingham, in the backseat of the F7F-3N, established contact with the target at a range of 5,000 feet on the plane’s SCR-720 radar and directed Long toward the unknown plane. Long then recognized the aircraft as a PO-2 (NATO Code named “Mule”). The PO-2 was apparently on a night heckler mission and flying at an altitude of 3,500 feet at a airspeed of only 80 knots. Long positioned his aircraft behind the PO-2, but since the F7F-3N was flying at nearly 200 knots, Long quickly overtook the slower airplane. Maintaining visual contact with the PO-2, Long brought the Tigercat around for another pass and did everything he could to slow the big plane down. He dropped full flaps, the landing gear, and started steep “S” turns to bring his airspeed down to 95 knots, just over the F7F-3Ns stall speed.  At this slow speed, Long made three firing passes at the PO-2, one from directly behind the plane and two from the right. On each pass, Long fired roughly 50 rounds of 20mm ammunition at the ghostly biplane. The observer in the backseat fired his hand-held light machine gun in defense of his tiny aircraft. After the third pass, Long and Buckingham watched the PO-2 crash into the banks of the Han River near Seoul. “DENTIST” had reported that the bogie had disappeared from his scopes. Long reported an explosion and fire where the plane had hit the ground. The VMF(N)-513 had its first confirmed night kill.[30]

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APPENDIX 4

F7F-3N Tigercat                                            kalaniosullivan.com

F7F-3N Radar Operator station.                                        http://www.chinalakealumni.org

F7F-3N Pilot Instrument Panel.                              uscockpits.com

F7F-3N Radar Operator Panel.

APPENDIX 5


[1] Miska, Kurt, Air Combat Special, “Tigercat”(Rockaway, N.J.: Eagle Aviation Enterprises, 1971) 6.

[2] Doll, Thomas E., Night Wings, USMC Night Fighters, 1942-1953 (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, INC. 2000) 49.

[3] Bureau of Aeronautics, Pilot’s Handbook for Navy Model F7F-1N, F7F-2N, F7F-3, F7F-3N, F7F-4N Airplanes (Washington D.C. 1947) 1.

[4] Condon, Corsairs to Panthers, 3.

[5] Bureau of Aeronautics, Pilot’s Handbook for Navy Model F7F-3N, 1.

[6] Scarborough, W.E., F7F Tigercat in Action (Carrollton, TX, Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc. 1986) 44.

[7] Bureau of Aeronautics, Pilot’s Handbook for Navy Model F7F-3N, 1.

[8] Scarborough, 19.

[9] Bureau of Aeronautics, Pilot’s Handbook for Navy Model F7F-3N, 1.

[10] Miska, 27.

[11] Various Email interviews with former F7F-3N / 4N aircrew.

[12] Email interview with Bob Dahlberg, Col, USMC (ret).  F4U-5N/F7F-3N pilot, VMF(N)-513, 29 May, 2008.

[13] Bureau of Aeronautics, Pilot’s Handbook for Navy Model F7F-3N, 49.

[14] Email Interview with Lynn Williams, Major USMC (ret) VMF(N)-513,1951, August 14, 2008.

[15] AI MK-10 Aircraft Intercept Radar; available online: http://website.lineone.net/~norman.groom/AI_MKX.htm, accessed 16 May, 2008.

[16] Stimson, George W., Introduction to Airborne Radar, 2nd Ed. (Medlam, NJ: SciTech Publishing, Inc. 1998) 21.

[17] Bureau of Aeronautics, Pilot’s Handbook for Navy Model F7F-3N, 49.

[18] Interview with Eugene Holmberg, VMF(N)-513 RO 1951-1953, conducted 12 May,2008.

[19] Various email interviews with F7F-3N aircrew.

[20] Doll, 56.

[21] “Night Hecklers over Korea” declassified Naval Aviation News article from August 1952.

[22] Kunsan Airbase, VMF(N)-513 “Flying Nightmares” (1951-1954) , 19 June 2001, available from http://kalaniosullivan.com/KunsanAB/VMF513/Howitwasa1ac.html#Corsair; internet; accessed 22 August, 2008.

[23] Intercepts performed via simulator by author with target airspeed ranging from 90 miles per hour to 220 miles per hour and fighter airspeeds ranging from 150 miles per hour to 250 miles per hour. Executed 70 degree offset at 5 nm and maintained offset until stern conversion completed. 

[24] Kunsan Airbase, VMF(N)-513 “Flying Nightmares” (1951-1954) , 19 June 2001, available from http://kalaniosullivan.com/KunsanAB/VMF513/Howitwasa1ac.html#Corsair; internet; accessed 22 August, 2008.

[25] Doll, 67.

[26] White, J.G., “Cherry Point Corps’ AIO Training Center”, Cherry Point Windsock, July, 3, 1953, 5.

[27] Miska, 14.

[28] Email interview with Bob Dahlberg, Col, USMC (ret).  F4U-5N/F7F-3N pilot, VMF(N)-513, 29 May, 2008.

[29] Bureau of Aeronautics, Operation Instructions Radar Set AN/APS-19B, 19.

[30] Kunsan Airbase, VMF(N)-513 “Flying Nightmares” (1951-1954) , 19 June 2001, available from http://kalaniosullivan.com/KunsanAB/VMF513/Howitwasa1ac.html#Corsair; internet; accessed 22 August, 2008.

Top 10 Defector’s Aircraft

Throughout the Cold War there were people deciding they’d had enough of their side of the Iron Curtain and trying to go and look at the other side. Inevitably on occasion this saw aircraft being borrowed to make the trip. Sometimes this was actively encouraged: for instance when the USA offered financial incentives to anyone who’d bring them a MiG-15, going as far as leaflet dropping to advertise the deal. Or indeed any flight between China and Taiwan where both sides were handing over gold in exchange for aircraft, like a We Buy Any Car set-up but for warplanes.


This list was compiled based on a variety of factors, including number of times a type was used for a defection, practicality, style, chutzpah, and if the author burst out laughing when reading about it. Before the Tomcat fans complain about this article it only gets a runners up spot because the F-14 which was used to defect from Iran to Iraq got shot down, as the pilot went a day earlier than planned.

Bing Chandler & Hush-Kit’s book ‘Flying Traitors: A History of Aerial Defection’ will be published in 2022

10. Ilyushin Il-28

First flying in 1949 the Il-28 Beagle was a twin-engined bomber, powered by the ubiquitous Klimov VK-1 an unlicensed Rolls-Royce Nene knock off. With a crew of three the Beagle had the advantage for the would-be defector that each member sat in their own pressurised compartment, making the cooperation of the bombardier and rear gunner a nice to have rather than a pre-requisite. Sucks if you’re not the pilot though.


On the 11th of November 1965 Lee Xianban took advantage of this design feature during a routine sortie from Hangzhou on the coast of the East China Sea. Turning south towards Taiwan his navigator Li Caiwang and gunner Lian Baosheng tried to stop him, presumably with harsh language, but to no avail. [1] Flying at low level over the sea the aircraft avoided radar detection and made its landfall on the north of the island near the ROCAF base at Taoyuan. At this point Lee’s luck ran out and due to the weather and a lack of familiarity with the area the nose gear collapsed during the landing.


At this point accounts differ as to what actually happened. The official report claims Lian died in the crash and along with the other crew members was declared an Anti-Communist Martyr by the KMT government of Taiwan. Meanwhile Li decided to join Lee in defecting, and both were given substantial cash rewards and served in the ROCAF for many years. In non-flying roles, because there was a lot of paranoia going around and the KMT weren’t totally convinced the people they’d given ~$4 million to weren’t about to take a load of secrets back across the straits to China.
The award of Anti-Communist Martyr status was enough for the PRC authorities to persecute Lian’s family and send them to labour camps, because nothing says benign dictatorship like punishing people for crimes they weren’t involved with. However, both Lee and Li subsequently claimed Lian had committed suicide rather than defect to Taiwan, the PRC only becoming aware of this when Li emigrated to the USA in the late ‘70s and gave a press conference.

To add to the confusion, Li claimed he had also been forced to defect by Lee which led to the PRC revoking his treason charge and the Taiwanese deciding he was maybe less of a martyr than they’d thought. In 1983 Li finally returned to China re-declaring his loyalty to the CCP, although apparently keeping the money.
Lee meanwhile emigrated to Canada in 1990 and in December of the following year he and his wife visited his sick mother in China. Having been assured there was a 20-year statute of limitations for his crime by the Chinese embassy it must have been something of a disappointment when he was arrested on his way to the airport for his return flight. The embassy apparently having ‘forgotten’ about the clause allowing any crime punishable by death or life imprisonment to be prosecuted beyond the statute of limitations with the permission of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. Lee was released on parole in 2002 due to poor health and tragically died of stomach cancer six months later in Shanghai.


A second Il-28 defected in August 1985 flown by Xiao Tianrun. In this case the navigator was killed in the emergency landing in South Korea, as well as a civilian on the ground. Xiao himself is reported as having suffered spinal injuries during the crash while the gunner refused to defect and was returned to China.


As an aircraft to defect in the Il-28 has the advantage you don’t need the whole crew to be in on the plot with you. On the downside it seems to have created a lot of collateral damage.


[1] Some sources translate the pilot’s name as Li Xianban, to avoid confusing him with the navigator Li Caiwang the alternative spelling of Lee has been used. Given the size of China’s population that’s probably only a few million people insulted…

9. An Air Force

At the time 1991 seemed like a hectic year: the Soviet Union was dissolved, Freddie Mercury died, and Operation Desert Storm liberated Kuwait. Obviously looking back from 2020 that looks like a quiet weekend’s news cycle but it’s important to remember people back then didn’t know any better. Famously despite warning the liberating armies to prepare for the Mother of all Battles Saddam Hussein’s forces provided relatively little opposition, indeed it’s likely more US personnel became pregnant than were killed during the operation.


It didn’t help Saddam that after only a week of being bombed a large part of the Iraqi Air Force decided it would be better to be somewhere else. Much to everyone’s surprise the somewhere else wasn’t Jordan, a country with generally cordial relations with Iraq, but Iran, the country Iraq had been at war with for most of the ‘80s. Consequently, when the first aircraft started fleeing there on the 25th of January coalition fighters were patrolling in the wrong place.


Presumably wanting to avoid any problems Iran immediately declared its neutrality which regrettably required it to impound the aircraft and their pilots. Think ‘Battle of the River Plate’ but with fewer ships. Over the following few weeks this led to them collecting a veritable smorgasbord of Cold War classics including Su-20, 22s, and 24s, MiG-23s, 25s, and 29s, Mirage F.1s, along with some Il-76 transports, airliners, and a couple of Adnan 1 AEW aircraft. In all some 115 aircraft are believed to have escaped to Iran, approximately the same as the number of serviceable aircraft left in the country after the hostilities were over.


Shockingly, when conflict had ceased Iran decided it would be keeping the aircraft until it had received reparations for damages suffered during the 8 years of the Iran-Iraq War, a Dr Evil-esque $1 trillion. [2] Presumably cash strapped after not winning its second war in under a decade Iraq refused to pay up. Rather than letting the aircraft rot the Iranians made use of them forming new squadrons and, to rub salt into the wound, using them to bomb Iraq. In fact, it was only in 2014 during the fight against ISIS that they started to return some of the aircraft to their original owner, probably with a note apologising for the dents and saying how they really must get together sometime soon.


This wasn’t the only time a large chunk of an air force has defected either, in fact it wasn’t even the only time it happened in 1991. In May of that year seven Hips, six Hinds, three Floggers, two Cubs, and an L-39 of the Ethiopian Air Force fled to Dijibouti after the fall of the short-lived communist government.


If you’re going to defect, strength in numbers is an obvious bonus, they can’t shoot all of you down, and they’ll probably be too confused figuring out who’s on which side to do anything before it’s too late.
[2] ~$2 trillion in 2020 dollars, or 2 copies of The Hush Kit Book of Warplanes in the post-COVID barter economy.

8 . Antonov An-2

Planning on defecting? You’re probably thinking of taking the fastest aircraft you can get your hands on to minimise the chance of being intercepted before stepping onto foreign soil. Shunning anything so obvious PLAAF pilots Shao Hsi-yen and Kao Yu-tsung instead opted for an An-2 biplane for their September 1961 escape from the People’s Republic of China.
First flying in 1947 the An-2 was designed as a utility and agricultural aircraft and conducts revenue earning flights to this day. Even in 1961 though its performance was sedate rather than sparkling. With a top speed of 139 knots its more usual cruise speed is only 100 while the rate of climb is around 700’/minute taking half an hour to get to its service ceiling of 14,000’. On the plus side the take-off run can be as short as 560’ thanks to a stall speed of only 35 knots with a similarly short landing distance. Something that’s likely to come in handy if you’re not totally sure where you’re going to land.


Launching from what is now part of Jiaozhou City in Shandong Province, on the west coast of the Yellow Sea, the Colt faced a 360 nautical mile journey to the island of Jeju off the southern tip of South Korea. Succeeding in this Shao and Kao were in Taipei by early October where they were rewarded with 25kg of gold each, both Chinas rewarding defectors from the other with generous payments until the 80s. The 25kg was worth around $30,000 in 1961, equivalent to a quarter of a million in 2020 dollars. More than enough to buy several An-2s. As with most defectors from the PLAAF they then served with the Republic of China Air Force for several years.
An An-2 was also used in a 1985 defection when a Nicaraguan Army pilot sought asylum in Honduras after completing a mission to deliver supplies to Sandinista troops fighting US backed Contra rebels. Because the Cold War was more complicated in Central America. Meanwhile Cubans taking advantage of the spacious cabin have made numerous defections to the USA, packing 13 passengers into the Antonov that lumbered into Homestead Airport on 15 August 1968 having managed to completely evade any radar surveillance.

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It may not be the most glamorous aircraft to defect in but the An-2 has the twin advantages of flying slow enough it’s hard to get lost and being able to land on a football pitch. To be honest it’s surprising there aren’t more accounts of them being used.

7. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, 17, 19/J-5, J-6
Due to the general flow of defection traffic being from Communist countries to literally anywhere else, MiGs and their derivatives feature highly. The MiG-15 and its developments the MiG-17 and twin engined MiG-19 were responsible for a lot of this traffic.


One of the first defections of the Cold War took place in March of 1953 when Franciszek Jarecki a pilot in the Polish Air Force took off from Słupsk on the Baltic coast in a MiG-15 and flew the 80 or so miles to the Danish island of Bornholm. The aircraft was inspected by specialists from the USA and Jarecki would later be awarded $50,000 as a prize for being the first person to present a MiG-15 to the Americans although the aircraft itself was returned to the Polish authorities.


Only a few months later Lt Zdzisław Jaźwiński repeated the feat with an aircraft from the same regiment, this time making his landing in a field on Bornholm island breaking the MiG but leaving him free. Jaźwiński had been in Warsaw during the uprising when the Soviet army stayed behind the Vistula allowing the Germans to crush the Polish resistance, making it easier for them to subsequently install their own puppet regime.

This had instilled in him a deep dislike and mistrust of the Russians. What would happen next could only have confirmed these feelings. The regiment effectively ceased to exist, the other pilots were arrested and put on trial for betraying the homeland two being sentenced to 12 years in prison, while many of those who weren’t tried never flew again. Jaźwiński’s parents meanwhile were sentenced to two years in a labour camp. Ultimately, he would never see them again, not re-visiting Poland until 1997.


It doesn’t say a lot for the Communist authorities measures that in September of 1956 a Lim-2 (Polish built MiG-15) defected to the West from Poland, via Bornholm island. In this case Lieutenant Zygmunt Gościniak after years of planning took advantage of an air combat training sortie in northern Poland against his Russian commander. Rather than making the expected attacking run he dropped to low level and fled north over the Baltic. Arriving at Bornholm he was about to land when he discovered the runway was undergoing maintenance and instead made a wheels up landing in a nearby field. The aircraft remaining remarkably intact. Gościniak ultimately settled in England and is believed to have married in 1957.
Although Bornholm saw no further MiG-15s a further Polish example made it to Sweden, having missed the island, meanwhile in the Far East they were used to defect from North Korea to the South and from China across the straits to Taiwan.


The MiG-17 was an aerodynamic improvement on the MiG-15 and featured in defections from the USSR (while the pilot was stationed in East Germany), Mozambique, Somalia, and Cuba. In the latter case in 1969 pilot Lt Eduardo Jimenez managed to enter US air space undetected and land at Homestead Air Force Base. Which must have come as a bit of surprise to President Nixon whose Air Force One was waiting there to take him back to Washington. As is traditional with Communist regimes a purge was made of the Cuban Air Force leadership and those considered to be Jimenez’s friends. Who were presumably delighted when he decided to defect back to Cuba by hijacking Delta flight 1061 in June 1979. He inexplicably remains on the CIA’s most wanted list.

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While the twin engined MiG-19 has been used in less defection attempts than its single engined predecessors, the J-6 Chinese copy has been used on numerous occasions. Twice direct to Taiwan, two times via South Korea, once unfortunately crashing in Vietnam, and once unusually to the USSR in 1990, the pilot being returned to the Chinese authorities who started beating him almost as soon as he was in their hands. The situation got so bad that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force started putting anti-defection systems in their J-6s from late 1987. If the aircraft strayed from its permitted routes a cockpit warning would go off followed by the fuel supply being cut if no attempt was made at returning. [3] This may explain the defection attempt to Russia as the airfield chosen could have been close enough to China that the system wasn’t triggered. This was the case in the 1989 defection to Taiwan that landed on Kinmen island less than ten miles off the coast of the mainland.
The early MiGs have provided a relatively reliable method of defecting for several decades, simple to operate and robust enough to land pretty much anywhere their only downsides are short-range and the vengeful fanaticism of the regime you have to borrow it from.
[3] https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Jiang_Wenhao

6. Northrop F-5
People have occasionally decided to defect to a communist dictatorship, rather than away from one. Presumably due to its export success as a low-cost fighter for US allies the Northrop F-5 has featured a lot in these rare events.

At least two Taiwanese pilots have defected to mainland China using Tiger IIs, in one case after letting a student leave the aircraft mid-flight, and in the other after the pilot did. So, room for improvement. On 8th August 1981 Maj Huang Zhicheng was scheduled to conduct an instrument flying check on Lt Hsu Chiu-Ling. Once the student had put his cockpit blinds up, used to prevent them cheating by looking at the outside world, Zhicheng dropped to 400’ and crossed the straits to the People’s Republic. In an unexpected display of competence Chiu-Ling noted from his instruments that they were in fact over the mainland and protested to his instructor that he didn’t want to land in China. Apparently, a Daily Mail reader Maj Huang complained to reporters that ‘People now all talk about human rights’ and that he’d had to fly back to Taiwan, despite being short of fuel. Lt Hsu parachuted down near the coast, presumably after ejecting although reports are unclear. Zhicheng then flew back to the mainland landing at Fuzhou. Chinese authorities showered the defector with praise, $360,000 and a position as deputy commandant of China’s Aviation Academy. Which is a consideration if you’ve been passed over for promotion.


By the end of the decade Lt Col Lin Xianshun decided to follow Maj Huang’s example and used his F-5E to defect to the mainland apparently after studying its history and geography and ‘developing a longing’ for it. Consequently, on 11 Feb 1989 Xianshun landed near Fengshun in Guangdong Province. His aircraft landing nearby after it had run short of fuel and he’d decided it was better to step out rather than attempting a forced landing. Considering Fengshun is less than 220 nautical miles from Taiwan’s West Coast this does raise questions about the good Lt Col’s flight planning skills. For those wondering if the Taiwanese government hold grudges, they said he’d receive the death penalty if he ever showed his face there again. Which is a bit East Enders.
Still if you think that’s holding a grudge Nguyen Thanh Trung of the South Vietnamese Air Force shows them up as amateurs. On 5th April 1975 Trung defected in his F-5E after executing a plan to avenge his father’s execution that was twelve years in the making. Nguyen senior had been shot for being a Viet Cong guerrilla by South Vietnamese forces, rather than extract immediate revenge the Viet Cong leadership encouraged him to join the Air Force and by 1969 he was in Texas for advanced flying training. Returning to Vietnam Trung would spend a further three years flying combat missions and working on his plan. On the fateful day he feigned electrical difficulties delaying his take-off long enough that the rest of his formation assumed he’d aborted. Instead he flew over Saigon and made two bombing runs on the Presidential Palace setting it on fire before making his way to a small strip in the North. Trung and his F-5 would see further action on behalf of the NVA, leading a flight of five aircraft that bombed Saigon airport during the American evacuation three weeks later that presaged the end of the war on April 30th.


Small and relatively simple to operate the F-5 is the ideal aircraft if you feel like moving to the kind of authoritarian regime that has an aesthetic featuring lots of red stars. Or leaving Iran which they’ve been used for on at least two occasions.

5. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23


Like mini-skirts, swing-wing designs were briefly popular in the Sixties before everyone moved on to fly-by-wire and stone-washed denim. Despite, or maybe because of, the added weight of hinges and hydraulics it’s hard to find a variable geometry aircraft that you wouldn’t want to be seen in. Which you can’t say about miniskirts.


In March of 1991 Major Orestes Lorenzo was so taken by the ‘Flogger’ that on his first flight in one he defected from Cuba to the USA. An experienced MiG-21 pilot who had fought in Angola, Orestes dropped to low level and crossed the Straits of Florida at high speed before arriving over Boca Chica Key. Here he slowed the aircraft, dropping the gear and flaps, and then unable to communicate with the tower at NAS Key West made three passes down the runway waggling the wings. At this point the most powerful military in the world did what exactly you’d expect if an unexpected aircraft from a hostile nation arrived over one of its bases. Absolutely nothing. Taking this as a good sign Orestes landed and then taxied clear of the runway where he waited. And waited. Just as he was starting to wonder if he was in the right place a ‘follow me’ van belatedly arrived to escort him to dispersal. Here he was finally able to communicate his desire to defect to a senior officer, via a translator.


So far so standard defection with Orestes moving to Virginia and enjoying life free from the shackles of communism while the head of the Cuban intelligence services went to Florida to get their aircraft back. His wife and children however were still in Cuba, unlike in some communist regimes though they were offered a house, car, and telephone, all considered luxuries in the glorious people’s republic. The only drawback being they’d have to denounce Orestes as a traitor, something his wife refused to do. This was clearly an untenable long-term solution. Taking matters into his own hands once more Major Lorenzo gained his PPL, acquired a Cessna 310 through a supporter and on the afternoon of 19 Dec 1992 flew back to Cuba at low level, landed on a road near El Mamey beach, collected his family and returned to the USA. Which really makes you question if either side were actually keeping a look out for airborne intruders.


Aside from Orestes the MiG-23 has also been used in defections around the Middle East including one successful attempt from Syria to Israel, which had at least managed to track the aircraft on radar. Supersonic at sea level with decent range, and apparently invisible to the United States air defences, the Flogger is ideal for anyone planning on making a covert getaway.

4. Mil Mi-24


Proportionately there haven’t been that many defections using helicopters. But if you’re going to use one it should probably be the meanest, fastest one you can get your hands on. In mid-80s Afghanistan that meant the Mi-24 Hind. To be honest that probably still holds now.

In June of 1985 two Hinds defected from Afghanistan to Pakistan landing at Miran Shah on the border. The aircraft had flown low over the mountains to avoid being detected by radar, which to be fair to the pro-Soviet forces in Kabul is harder than tracking aircraft over the sea. Looking at you Florida. The defection had been organised by the Yunus Khalis guerrilla group, led by Mohammad Yunus Khalis and part of the wider Mujahideen.

The helicopters’ seven crew and passengers were granted asylum before joining the fight against the Soviets. Part of a spate of wider defections that had already led the Soviet and Afghan authorities to limit the amount of fuel that aircraft could take on missions it led to helicopter deliveries being suspended for two years by the Russians. Honestly, it’s a mystery how they failed to win a war against an insurgent force with those tactics.


Central America also saw a ‘Hind’ used in a defection attempt, this time from Nicaragua to Honduras. In something of a rarity, the Honduran Air Force detected the intruding aircraft and F-5s escorted it to Toncontin airport. Take that pretty much every other air force in this list.


Fast, for a helicopter, well-armed, and able to host eight in the spacious airy cabin the Mi-24 family are the ideal answer for anyone looking to skip the country with friends.

3. Douglas DC-3


Tales abound of pilots who having escaped their country mere steps ahead of the invading German Army made a perilous trek across Europe to join the remaining redoubt of resistance and fight in the RAF. It was presumably a bit disappointing five years later to return to your homeland and find anyone who’d had any exposure to the West was viewed with suspicion by the totally legitimate government that was in no way a puppet of the increasingly paranoid Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia this came to a head in February 1948 when the Communist party realising it was never likely to command an absolute majority in free and fair elections staged a coup to seize power. Almost immediately defection attempts started with at least 11 taking place by air in 1948 alone, on occasion by the simple expedient of refusing to fly the return leg of an international flight. [4]


To avoid having aircraft abandoned across Europe with no one to operate the return leg, Československé Státní Aerolinie (Czechoslovak State Airlines (ČSA)), subsequently restricted former RAF pilots to operating within the Communist Bloc and removed their passports. Because obviously defecting without the correct documentation would be unthinkable. At the same time their family members were barred from travelling on the flights they crewed, on the rash assumption these weren’t the people they were trying to get away from in the first place. In what would prove to be a counter-productive move ČSA were also training up new politically trustworthy crews to replace the old guard, at which point they could be cast aside and interrogated by the state intelligence services.


These pressures drove a rather novel solution that would be familiar to anyone watching Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train when it was released the following year. With enough aircrew to hijack three aircraft, and the help of a friendly booking clerk, our protagonists booked their families onto the aircraft operated by the other crews. The flights would leave from Brno at 0635, Ostrava at 0630, and at 0700 from Bratislava, all scheduled to arrive at Prague but secretly aiming for Erding in the American Sector of West Germany. The destination being chosen as one of the pilots, Oldřich Doležal, had previously visited when his Aero C-103 had been hijacked in 1948 by another group of ex-RAF defectors.


The first aircraft departed Brno with four of the six crew in on the plan, the Captain and Flight Engineer not being involved. Once established in the cruise the Air Hostess entered the cockpit and distracted the Captain while her fellow conspirators dealt with the Flight Engineer. The Co-Pilot then informed the Captain of their intention to fly to the West, much to his consternation as he was himself planning a defection with his family, which would be jeopardised if the authorities believed he was in any way involved with this attempt. In case stealing an aircraft full of passengers wasn’t exciting enough an extra frisson was added by the presence of one Leopold Thurner ČSA’s president who was known to routinely carry a gun. As you do. As an airline president Leopold does not appear to have been much of a navigator, failing to notice that his flight was taking much longer than it was supposed to and wasn’t really heading in the right direction. In the cockpit, where there was slightly more awareness of where they actually were, tension was high as the aircraft made its way over the Russian Zone of Germany. Once clear of danger and over the American Zone the Co-Pilot, Vit Angetter, contacted Erding air base requesting asylum. Landing at 0818 Angetter informed them that a further two aircraft were on their way, meanwhile Thurner suddenly aware that one of his aircraft had failed to arrive at its destination on time drew his gun and tried to break in to the now locked cockpit. Which is a more hands on approach to customer service than you get with Ryanair. Fortunately, at the same time a number of American MPs were boarding the rear of the DC-3 and disarmed him before anyone did anything they’d regret.


The second aircraft, departing from Ostrava only five minutes late, had a similarly mixed crew. This time it was the Co-Pilot who asked for it to be made clear he wasn’t in on the attempt due to his family, suggesting someone hit him on the head to make it more convincing. Rather than a gun crazed airline president this DC-3 was carrying a delegation of Communist Party officials, who also appear to have possessed no concept of the passage of time. Flying at around 10,000’ just above the clouds the airliner crossed the Russian Zone, like its predecessor maintaining radio silence, before descending into the American Zone and contacting Erding with the password ‘Way to Freedom’ that had been passed to the US Forces by the first aircraft. This time there was no armed assault on the cockpit, and everyone disembarked peacefully.


The final aircraft had possibly the most eventful journey with problems emerging before the attempt even started. Aware that they were leaving their homeland, potentially for ever, the defecting passengers ignored the instructions to bring minimal luggage. Consequently, the Pilot, Doležal, had to offload as much fuel as possible without drawing the authority’s attention. Even so the DC-3 would be around 300kg overweight on take-off.

Further complications arose when security noticed one of the defectors had the same last name as the figure skating champion Alena Vrzáňová who had fled to the West in 1950. Although to be fair that was because it was her mother and she hadn’t thought to use an alias.

Half an hour late the aircraft managed to commence its taxi to the runway, only to be called back to the terminal by air traffic control. Using a method popular in B movies the radio operator claimed there was interference on the radio and then turned it off. Doležal immediately opened the throttles to take-off and avoid any further attempts at preventing their departure. Wisely, they failed to make a scheduled stop at Brno, radioing to say they had undercarriage problems before proceeding to make the now traditional radio silent flight over the Russian Zone. Despite plenty of cause for suspicion on the part of the Communist and Soviet authorities no attempt seems to have been made to stop the final DC-3 and it landed at Erding at 0930. There was only the final hurdle of waiting for the American MPs to detain the armed member of the Secret Police who tried to storm the cockpit after the penny finally dropped as to why his flight to Prague had taken quite so long.


In all 27 of the 85 passengers and crew defected to the west, one additional defector taking advantage of his unplanned diversion along with the 26 who’d been involved from the start. Of those who returned to the Eastern Bloc at least two subsequently attempted to defect with one, the Pilot of the first aircraft, being successful in April 1951, while the other was unfortunately caught and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. Learning from their mistakes the Secret Police would in future place agents in the cockpit, while the remaining ex-RAF pilots were soon removed from active duty.


Although possibly the most complex, and impressive, defection attempt using the DC-3 the Czechoslovak three-way, unsurprisingly, wasn’t the only time they were used to escape an unfriendly regime. Other attempts include a 1950 flight from Prague that ended in Neubieberg near Munich rather than Bratislava with 20 of the 26 onboard deciding not to make the return journey, 6 making the decision after arriving in the West. The military C-47 variant has also been used, in one case making the unusual move of defecting to the Soviet Union in 1970 when the pilot wanted to escape the right-wing military junta then running Greece.


A rugged design classic the DC-3 is the aircraft to defect in if you’re thinking of taking your, or someone else’s family. Just make sure they don’t exceed their baggage allowance.
[4] https://fcafa.com/2011/02/13/they-flew-to-freedom-1948/

2. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25

The MiG-25 was designed as a response to the increasingly rapid strategic bombers being developed by the USAF. The Mach 2 capable B-58 Hustler was due to be followed into service by the B-70 Valkyrie, which could basically carry the same as a B-52 as far, but at three times the speed of sound and with two less engines. Intercepting such aircraft was going to require something special as, as evidenced by the SR-71, Surface to Air Missiles were unlikely to cut it. The MiG-25 was it, and for longer than they would have liked its capabilities were a worrying mystery to the West. Or really anyone who wasn’t the Soviet Union. The best guesses of Western intelligence were that the huge engines and wing area gave it both speed and agility, driving the requirements of what would become the F-15. But without getting their hands on one there was no real way of knowing quite how much of a threat the Foxbat was. Until 6 September 1976 that is.


This was the day Viktor Belenko took off from Chuguyevka Air Base on a training mission and landed in Japan. Which probably got him marked down in the debrief. Increasingly disillusioned with conditions in the military and soon to be divorced from his wife defection had been some time in the planning. Launching unarmed but with copies of the technical manuals and full fuel tanks Belenko briefly took part in the planned mission before breaking formation and heading east. Flying the second fastest aircraft in the world he naturally egressed Soviet airspace sub-sonically at low level. Once close to Japan he climbed to high level hoping to be detected by radar and intercepted by JASDF Phantoms who could guide him to Chitose Air Base. Predictably despite being designed specifically to counter this sort of threat the JASDF didn’t intercept the Foxbat which left Belenko in a bit of a sticky situation as his 20-tonne fighter was running low on fuel. He was also navigating from memory, borrowing a map of Japan being the kind of red flag the squadron’s Political Officer probably would have picked up on.

Luckily, he found Hakodate airport, unfortunately its runway was only a mile long, which is marginal for a MiG-25. More so if you narrowly avoid a 727 on finals. His arrival in the free world was therefore marred by running off the runway and ending up parked amidst the ILS antenna. To regain points for style Belenko fired shots into the air to dissuade curious Japanese taking photos from a nearby road. Which is a more proactive approach to spotters than you get at Heathrow.


As recounted in a previous episode of Hush Kit the MiG-25 was thoroughly inspected by American technicians before being returned to the Soviet Union in boxes. Who then refused to pay the return postage as it definitely wasn’t in that condition when they’d dispatched it. The damage had anyway been done, the Foxbat’s secrets were laid clear, the huge wing was needed to get the mass of the mostly stainless-steel aircraft off the ground, turning being something of a secondary consideration. Belenko meanwhile moved to the USA, his citizenship being personally approved by President Carter. There he became a consultant to the USAF, and the aerospace industry, and went fishing with Chuck Yeager.

Fast and mysterious the Foxbat is the aircraft for the defector hoping to make an impression.


1. Boeing 747

As seen, most defections involve small and/or fast aircraft able to blunder past air defences (remarkably effectively considering how much the world’s militaries spend on radars and jet interceptors). Wang Xijue however is a man whose vision is to be admired, eschewing the road more travelled he claims the record for largest aircraft used in a defection by borrowing a Boeing 747-200F. A record that’s unlikely to be beaten unless a Korean Air pilot decides to move north with an A380.

On 3 May 1986 while returning to Taiwan from Bangkok via a stopover in Hong Kong, Wang took advantage of a trip to the toilet by the Flight Engineer to handcuff the Co-Pilot Tung Kung-shin after a short struggle. This involved a chain and an axe so was probably more one-sided than it sounds. On his return the engineer Chiu Ming-chih had little choice but to also comply with Wang. The Pilot then diverted the aircraft to Guangzhou, North West of Hong Kong, much to the consternation of Kai Tak ATC. A few days later Wang flew the 747 to Beijing, there apparently not being an easier way to get to the capital.

So far so broadly normal for a defection. The next few weeks would be slightly different, however. In 1986 the two Chinas had had no formal contact in the 37 years since the end of the civil war. But a 747 is a bit larger than your average defector’s aircraft and China Air Lines (CAL) were reticent to lose it. This led to negotiations between CAL and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) both effectively parts of their respective country’s governments. Meeting in Hong Kong between 17th and 20th May, the two sides agreed release of the aircraft and the two non-defecting crew. On the 22nd the aircraft, flown by a five-man crew from the CAAC, arrived in Hong Kong, having collected the two CAL crew from Guangzhou en-route. Reportedly the original cargo was also onboard although as it consisted of fruit and tyres it’s questionable how well at least half of it had kept for three weeks in the sub-tropics.


As the first contact between officials of the two Chinas the aftermath of Wang Xijue’s defection has been marked as the point when relations between the two states started to if not normalise at least be more pragmatic. The following year Taiwanese families could cross the straits to visit relatives on the mainland and the Republic officially ended martial law. The following year postal exchange via Hong Kong was formalised. Wang then has a legitimate claim to altering international relations with his defection.


But what of Wang himself? Well it’s possible this wasn’t his first trip into mainland China’s airspace there being some evidence he’d flown U-2s as part of the ROCAF’s Black Cat squadron which conducted surveillance missions between 1961 and 1974. [5] It was probably the first time he’d landed though. His exact motives for defecting remain a little unclear however, during press conferences at the time he complained of the rampant corruption and traffic jams in Taiwan. Which suggests a misunderstanding of the levels of corruption in Communist single-party states, and why mid-80s China didn’t have any traffic to jam. Nor did he receive any money, which is a shame as a it would be nice to know the comparative value of a 747 vs an Il-28.

His employer meanwhile simultaneously claimed that he had a happy home life with no financial worries and that he was constantly arguing with his “nagging” wife about money. [6] Which doesn’t say a lot for CAL’s Human Resources department. The answer may lie in the somewhat extravagant use of a Jumbo Jet to go to Beijing where Wang’s father lived and who he’d not seen since the end of the civil war in 1949. Which puts not seeing your old man for six months because of lock-down into perspective.


[5] https://lujuba.cc/en/435604.html
[6] https://www.csmonitor.com/1986/0506/owang.html and https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1986/05/24/crewmen-say-defector-seized-747/e8cff3db-1f4c-4618-8895-22a1730cfc20/

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.

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