Fighter news round-up: Royal United Services Institute’s Justin Bronk examines the current state of fighter aircraft programmes around the world

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China’s Chengdu J-20, the aircraft most likely to be stolen by Clint Eastwood.

What year do you expect the J-20 to enter service and how will it compare to Western fighters in terms of capability and technology level? 

I expect the J-20 to start entering squadron service for IOC around 2020, with deliveries continuing at a fairly impressive rate throughout the 2020s. The J-20 will almost certainly fall short of the F-22 and F-35 in terms of all-aspect stealth and sensor fusion-enabled situational awareness, but will carry a more impressive internal payload and will have significantly greater unrefuelled range which will serve it well in the Pacific. Essentially, the J-20 will present the US and its allies in the region with a long ranged, heavily armed and difficult to track strike fighter-bomber threat. I would suggest its closest Western conceptual analogue would be a low-observable F-111.

How is the Sukhoi PAK FA programme going? What are the biggest challenges it faces? 

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Russia’s Sukhoi PAK-FA, a case of over-ambition?

Not well is the short answer. The T-50 has been downgraded for now to a laughable 12 aircraft for the VVS. This is a huge indicator that the programme is beset by deep-rooted problems in many areas. The T-50/PAK FA as a whole is a perfect example of the lesson that whilst it is comparatively easy to create flying prototypes which look like fifth generation fighters, it is extremely hard to actually make them work as the US alone has managed with the F-22 so far. The huge delays and problems which have beset the F-35 project in spite of the eye-watering quantities of money and expertise which the US has thrown into it should not purely be seen as evidence of programmatic mismanagement (although there is much which I’m sure the US would do differently if given a second chance), but also as evidence of quite how hard what they are trying to achieve is. Russia can make superb airframes but extreme quality control and CPU-crushing electronic complexity are not areas where her aerospace industry has traditionally excelled. Sadly for the VVS, those are precisely what is required to make the T-50/PAK FA into something which can genuinely compete with the F-22 or F-35. Furthermore, Russia simply does not have enough money to fund its massive military modernisation programmes and priority is being given to the Strategic (nuclear) Rocket Forces, submarine force and new tanks for the army.

Many pundits dismiss the JF-17 – what would be a fair assessment of its effectiveness? Is it comparable to the F-16, and if so – which Block would it be on a par with? 

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The Sino-Pakistani JF-17, not to be underestimated.

The JF-17 as an airframe is certainly competitive with the F-16, being slightly aerodynamically cleaner, with a lower wing loading but a less efficient engine than the F-16s latest F110-GE-129/132 engine options. In terms of pilot interface, sensor suite and weapon flexibility, the JF-17 is roughly at a par with 1990s-vintage F-16 Block 40/42 and could be close to the USAF-standard Block 50/52, although without the conformal fuel tanks, JHMCS helmet sighting system and radar upgrades which distinguish the later Block 50/52+ and AESA which equips the UAE’s Block 60/61s.

How would you rate the JF-17 in terms of within-visual range (WVR) and beyond-visual range (BVR) fighter capabilities? 

WVR, equipped with the MAA-1 Piranha missile, the small and agile JF-17 will be a dangerous but not exactly world-beating opponent for existing fourth generation fighters. It is limited to +8/-3g and the current block 1 and 2 fighters do not yet have a helmet mounted sight system as standard (this is promised for block 3). The JF-17 also doesn’t have a greater than 1:1 thrust to weight ratio so would be at a significant disadvantage in terms of energy management against opponents such as the F-15C, Typhoon or Su-35. BVR, the KLJ-7 radar is significantly out-ranged by the F-16’s AN/APG-68 and completely outclassed by the Rafale’s AESA array, Typhoon’s CAPTOR-M and the Su-35’s monstrously powerful Irbis-E. The JF-17s small wing area and lightweight also limit its missile-carrying capacity which further disadvantages it in BVR engagements. However, it is worth remembering that the JF-17 is not really intended to take on Typhoons, Rafales, F-15s or Su-35s. It is meant to be a cheap and cheerful light multirole fighter and configured accordingly.

The Super Hornet, compared to other US fighters, has been a big export flop – why do you think this is, and how effective are the latest versions? Also- which fighter will Canada end up with?160615-N-CF980-003.JPG

 

In simple terms, the F-18 series has not sold as well on the export market as other US fighters because it is a carrier-capable fighter competing for contracts with conventional fighters to countries which do not operate big-deck carriers. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is second only to the Rafale M as the most capable carrier fighter in the world, but to withstand the huge stresses and corrosive environment of carrier operations it is required to be built heavier, more over-engineered and more expensively than land-based fighters in its class. If a country does not need fighters capable of operating from carriers, it is more likely to go for something like the F-16 which offers similar and in some ways superior capabilities at a significantly lower cost than the Super Hornet. The Super Hornet is an excellent strike fighter with a fairly effective radar, huge weapon flexibility, adequate range and breath-taking high alpha nose authority in a dogfight. However, it does not have the thrust-to-weight ratio and manoeuvrability of the Typhoon or Rafale, the value for money of the F-16/Gripen or the raw power of the F-15. It also cannot offer the same future survivability as the F-35 in high threat environments. Canada will probably buy Super Hornet because they already operate the legacy Hornet (easing maintenance and pilot retraining burdens) and the Trudeau government is politically committed to getting out of purchasing F-35.

How is the F-22 ageing? Is it still extremely maintenance heavy? Is there evidence to suggest LO degrades with time? 

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Undefeated champion dependent on a lot of love.

The F-22 is ageing well, having successfully maintained its status as far and away the most formidable air-superiority fighter ever made and with no sign of having that status seriously challenged anytime soon. It is less maintenance heavy than it used to be, especially since the new-generation stealth coatings developed for the F-35 have been incorporated onto the fleet. However, it remains extremely expensive to fly and maintain – USAF figures for last year show a cost per flight hour of $68,000 which is more than even the four-engine supersonic intercontinental B-1B Lancer heavy bomber. This is not only a function of the outdated and highly niche electronics and general mechanical complexity, but also of the very small fleet size compared to what was intended which means that fixed costs for the whole fleet are spread across a comparatively small number of flying hours.

Tejas- joke or hope? 

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Tejas, national pride over practicality?

Joke. Thirty years of development to produce an aircraft with short range, poor payload, and severe quality control issues throughout the manufacturing process leading to badly fitting structural components, slow delivery rates and high costs due to remanufacturing and alterations requirements. India would have done much better to have just bought a licence to manufacture Gripen C/D.

What is the status of the F-2 fleet of the JASDF? How would you rate the F-2 in terms of effectiveness? 

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The Mitsubishi F-2: Big-winged F-16 a waste of effort?

The F-2 is, in effect, an F-16 with Japanese electronic wizardry baked into it and a slight aerodynamics upgrade. However, for that Japan has paid an extortionate cost per aircraft and one which cannot really justified by the marginal improvements over the F-16, especially given that the latest UAE-standard F-16 Block 61 Desert Falcons are cheaper and more capable in almost every way. The F-2 shares almost all the same strengths and limitations of the F-16 family so I won’t go into much more detail here. Certainly a useful aircraft for the JASDF but not worth the money and time it took to develop and procure unless the domestic industrial experience gained eventually enables a workable fighter to be developed from the X-2 Shinshin.

Is the AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo a viable defence against the Chinese navy/air force?

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F-CK you I won’t do what you tell me.

One on one, the F-CK-1 is more than a match for the J-7 and can probably hold its own against the J-11, but is outclassed by the recent Su-35s purchased from Russia and is certainly not an answer to the J-20 or Beijing’s huge ballistic and long range SAM arsenal within range of Taiwan. However, the F-CK-1 is unlikely to face Chinese fighters on anything like a one for one confrontation and would be hopelessly outnumbered in any likely invasion scenario.

Which of the new fighter projects (South Korea/Japan/Turkey/Eurofighter replacement) would you predict will come to fruition and how effective do you expect them to be?

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Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin: the next superfighter.

I think the Japanese X-2 follow on fifth/sixth generation project is the most likely of these to actually develop into a frontline type. However, this assumes the US does not build an F-22 Raptor replacement first and export it to Japan. If this does not happen, the fact that F-35 is not particularly well suited to Japan’s specific air superiority requirements suggests that they might well feel their own stealth fighter is essential. If it were developed, the aircraft would most likely be at least comparable to the F-22 to make it worth the trouble and so would be formidably capable by almost any measurement.

The most exotic fighter in development is the MiG-31 replacement – what do we know about this? 

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Pie in the sky?

Source: Bemil.chosun

Sadly, very little indeed. It is yet another potentially very expensive ambition for the VVS but given the fate of the T-50/PAK FA project, I wouldn’t hold your breath on this one until something much more concrete than a statement of requirement emerges.

Will India ever get Rafales? What are the Rafale’s export chances?

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Will Rafale become India’s main fighter?

India will most likely get its 36 off the shelf Rafales and then many more once the purchase model has finally been agreed upon. However, the terms of that deal and the timescale are anyone’s guess. Basically, the Indian Air Force is in desperate need of new fighters and the Rafale is simply too capable to stick at 36 aircraft given the poor serviceability which plagues the Su-30MKI fleet and the disappointing Tejas. Assuming they do take delivery of 36, I would bet on India ordering more and possibly a lot more.

What are Typhoon’s export chances? 

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Typhoon: too late and too much.

Whilst the Kuwaiti order has been a great morale boost for Eurofighter, it is difficult to escape concluding that Typhoon has more or less run out of significant new export opportunities for the foreseeable which means production will end by around 2020. The problem is that although the aircraft is formidably capable as a top-class multirole fighter, it is simply too expensive to compete with the F-16 and F-18 for medium-rank air forces whilst it is so late with promised capabilities such as the AESA radar that those countries that are looking for gold-plated solutions and might once have bought the jet are mostly waiting to purchase the F-35.

Any news on the status of the Meteor on Gripen? How would you rate the frontline Meteor-armed Gripens in terms of A2A capability? 

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Gripen with Meteor: the little guy with the long arms.

The Gripen with Meteor is a highly capable platform BVR but relies on permissive rules of engagement to be able to take advantage of the long range punch of the missile. It also does not have the grunt of Typhoon to get the most out of the missile with supercruise launch profiles at very high altitudes guided by CAPTOR. However, Meteor certainly makes the Gripen even more competitive on the export market as it can continue to provide (in very rough terms) 90% of the capability of a Typhoon or F-15 at a third of the price. Coupled with the Gripen NG’s impressive electronic warfare package, Meteor will give the Swedish and Brazilian air forces a very respectable fighter for the next decade with a bargain price tag

What should I have asked you? 

Probably something on FCAS but that can wait for another time!

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Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow at the Military Sciences at Royal United Services Institute. He has written articles on the Su-35,  RAF’s role in Syria, and the Rafale versus Typhoon

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Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_Br0nk

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

 Edward Ward’s world of mechanical whimsy and tomfoolery can be enjoyed here.

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

What is up with the F-35’s wingtip vortices?

sdd_f35testb_047I have next to no knowledge in the field of aerodynamics- I stumble to explain the two competing theories of how a wing works, how coupled and uncoupled canard-deltas differ – even the simple equations of Energy Management have me stumped (not even sure this last one solely exists in aerodynamics). So I’m hoping that some bright aerodynamic engineer can help me with this one – ideally using simple language. Why does the F-35 produce such distinctive vortices from the wingtip/flap edge – and are they intentional, and positive in effect? Agile fighters – with strakes or canards – display visible vortices on the inner section of the wing- presumably where it’s wanted. I thought that wingtip vortices caused induced drag and were best avoided? Yet, the F-35 seems to stream them like a ’70s airliner. Educated comments in the reply section are VERY welcome. US_Navy_110606-N-DR144-314_An_F-A-18E_Super_Hornet_assigned_to_Strike_Fighter_Squadron_(VFA)_81_maneuvers_over_the_Nimitz-class_aircraft_carrier_US.jpg

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

 Edward Ward’s world of mechanical whimsy and tomfoolery can be enjoyed here.

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

How to turn your MiG-31 into a flying bus

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I found this delightfully bonkers idea while do a patent search- this one is from 2001:

“An autonomous passenger module is releasably carried on a super-sonic aircraft, such as a military fighter jet, for carrying plural passengers on supersonic and near space flights. The passenger module is equipped with passenger service and life support systems to provide oxygen and the like, a parachute system, and a landing airbag or flotation aid system. The module remains mounted on the aircraft throughout a normal flight. In an emergency situation, the module separates from the aircraft by means of releasable connector elements and descends using parachutes. The module provides high passenger capacity at a low cost in a simple manner for commercial supersonic flights using an existing supersonic aircraft as a carrier platform.”

Hush-Kit will only continue with donations- buttons above and below. Many thanks. 

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

 

Boeing 787: Pilot’s assessment

 

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Boeing has bet the farm on the 787, but do pilots like it? Ian Black bid farewell to his beloved Airbus to train on the latest DreamLiner- so what does he make of the ‘Electric 8-ball’? 

When did you begin training on the 787?  January 2016 – my last flight was a very pleasant A330 hop to Antigua

What were your first impressions? First impression was that it is a step forward from the Airbus – even though it doesn’t have a side-stick !

Does it have any similarities to other Boeings? I’ve not flown any other Boeing but everyone says its like the triple 7.

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The conventional control yoke seems archaic to former Airbus jocks. 

What’s the biggest difference between it and an A340? Biggest difference -hard question as Boeing and Airbus are chalk and cheese – I guess going back to a yolk after a side-stick. Side-stick definitely feels more 21st Century.

 

What do you like most about it? If I was paying the bills –  the fuel burn. It literally uses half the fuel that the ‘340 needed. From a pilot view, the cockpit is very bright and spacious.

What do you like least about it? Least of all – the pilots seats are no where near as comfy as the Airbus – I think Porsche build the Airbus seats

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Uncomfortable seats are the only downside of the 787 cockpit. 

What are the crew rest quarters like? Crew rest is amazing! Said in an American voice -‘they are truly awesome‘. It’s like a proper bed and your quality of rest is much improved. Added to the low cabin Altitude and you genuinely feel better when you get off.

Did anything surprise you about it? Lots of things surprised me. The technology creep is very subtle with small changes from the 777 – and even a pilot from the older 747 and 757 can see the Boeing style. There is a real difficulty now where modern computer technology – like Apple’s iPad – advances at a faster rate than Aeronautical technology. This leads to the almost bizarre situation where we have an electronic flight book that is way behind the iPad so we end up relying on iPads for maps and charts – strange when the cost of the EFB is probably a hundred times more.

Is it easy to taxi? Its very easy to taxi and similar in feel to the A330 – perhaps a little more sensitive than an Airbus

What is the acceleration and climb like compared to a A340-600? Pretty similar – The A340-600 was almost overpowered when lightly loaded.

It is a relatively young aircraft, does is it feeling adequately mature? As alluded to in my earlier answer, modern airliners embrace a mixture of old and new to allow crews to be multi-rated on different type and simplify the conversion this is on the plus side. On the down side it means manufactures are reluctant to encompass an entirely new cockpit environment – in modern speak they are more risk aware.

boeing_787_dreamliner_virgin_atlantic_3d_model_obj_max__4396410d-8d82-4b9a-882e-345f389b9d3b.jpgWhat advice would you give to new 787 pilots? Pretty much the same as a new Airbus – take the automatics out and its the same as any aeroplane where you can manually control the thrust and pitch and roll and it behaves as any aircraft should

What do you think of the 787’s looks? Perhaps the hardest question. Personally I found the A340 one of the most graceful Airliners every built – similar to a 707, it looked right. The 777 looks right, but the new generation of airliners the A350 and B787 feature the latest in terms of wing design and fuselage construction leading to a somewhat unbalanced appearance. The undercarriage also draws the aircraft lower to the ground giving a squat look. From the front people have described it as ‘Comet-like’ which is no bad thing but I guess we will have to wait for the 787 -10 to see what the big DreamLiner looks like.

 Three words to describe it?  Futuristic, innovative and aerodynamic.

Hush-Kit will only continue with donations- buttons above and below. Many thanks. 

Check out Ian’s books at www.firestreakbooks.com

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

 

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

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The Empire’s Ironclad: Flying & Fighting in the B-52

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Since its combat debut in Vietnam, the B-52 Stratofortress has unleashed more destruction than any other aircraft. Keith Shiban flew the ’52 in the nuclear deterent role, and in combat missions over Iraq. We spoke to him about flying and fighting in this menacing enforcer of American foreign policy.

What were your first impressions of the B-52? 

I was awed by the size of it. You don’t realize just how big it is until you get up close to one. It looks powerful, even sinister with the dark camouflage and ECM blisters all over it.It’s not what I would call a ‘pretty’ airplane. It’s a purpose-built weapon of war and looks the part.

I had just come off instructing in the T-38 and it was like jumping out of a Corvette into an 18-wheeler. I didn’t find the B-52 difficult to fly, but I did find it hard to fly well. Nothing happens quickly and there is a lot of inertia to manage.
Deflect the yoke and there’s a noticeable pause before the plane starts to bank. Centre the yoke and it keeps rolling for a bit. 

After my first training sortie I can remember looking back at this huge beast sitting on the tarmac and thinking “Damn, I landed that?”
Air refueling was for me the most difficult thing to learn. As an aircraft commander, that’s where you make your money. If you can’t get the gas from the tanker you can’t do the mission. It wasn’t until my seventh or eighth training sortie that I was actually able to stay hooked up to the tanker. The short-tail B-52s (G and H models) have a bit of a dutch-roll to them. It’s not really noticeable until you get right behind the tanker.
You have to constantly work the yoke just to keep the wings level during air refuelling. Once you finally get your muscle-memory programmed it becomes second nature, but it took a while to figure it out. Even then it’s still aworkoutt. Taking on a 100,000 pounds of gas meant being on the end of that boom for 20 minutes or so. I’d feel like I’d been workout out at the gym afterwards.

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A B-52G Stratofortress aircraft takes off on its return flight to the United States after being deployed during Operation Desert Storm.

The other big adjustment was handling that large of a crew. The B-52 is very much a navigator’s airplane. I used to joke about me just being the voice-activated autopilot for the navigators.
In training, I was taught that the Aircraft Commander’s job was to “fly the plane and make decisions”. I had to constantly process inputs from the other crew positions and decide how to react. The offense team might be telling me to go one way to get to the target but the defense team might be telling me not to go that way because there’s a threat over there.
You lived or died as a crew. Even if the pilot is Chuck Yeager (and I’m not) it won’t do much if the Radar Navigator can’t hit the target or the Electronic Warfare Officer lets you get shot down on the way there. It was a team effort all the way. The aircraft commander tends to get all the credit but I was only as good as the rest of my crew. Fortunately I had a very good crew.DrStrangelove015Pyxurz-1.jpg
How do B-52 crews view Dr Strangelove- was it realistic? 

Dr. Strangelove was a staple on alert. I’ve seen it enough times to have the script memorized.

 Kubrick got an awful lot right with that movie, especially when you consider that the Air Force was very secretive about the B-52 at the time.

My main critique would be that the final bomb run seems to take up the last third of the movie, when in reality a bomb run doesn’t take nearly that long from Initial Point to release. I think they tried about eight different means of getting those bomb doors open. In reality there was a manual release cable that the navigators could pull to unlatch the doors. But hey, it’s a movie. They have to make it dramatic.
It’s still probably my favorite movie of all time.

 
What tips would you offer to new crews coming onto the ’52? 
Be proud. You’re flying a piece of history. Even to this day, when we really want some other country to know we mean business, we deploy B-52s.

 
What kit did you wish for when you were serving on the B-52? 
I would have liked more in the way of standoff weapons. In 1991 we were still mostly dropping iron bombs like in WWII. This required us to fly directly over the target. You can avoid most of the threats on the way to and from the target, but anything worth bombing is probably going to be defended. You can’t do much evasive action on the bomb run, because the whole reason you’re there is to hit the target. Even if the defenders don’t shoot you down, simply making you miss the target means you did all that work for nothing. 190201-F-ZZ999-773.JPG
 

Please talk me through your first Gulf War mission
My crew was deployed in August of 1990 to Diego Garcia to be part of the 4300 Provisional Bomb Wing. I can remember getting the phone call early on a Sunday morning: “Be here in 4 hours with your bags packed. You’re going away indefinitely.”
After seven months of living on tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean, the part of me that wasn’t scared shitless was ready to just get the whole mess over with so I could go home.
It was around 5:00 PM when we got notified. I know this because the chow hall opened at 5 and I was getting ready to go eat. Someone banged on the door to the room four of us shared and said “You’re going.”
I forget how much time we had to get ready but I know I walked over to the dining hall and tried to eat something. My stomach twisted itself into a knot so all I all managed was to eat a bit of salad and sip some ice tea.
At the appointed time we were loaded onto a bus and driven down to the airfield. The security police gave us an escort with lights and sirens going, which I thought was pretty cool.

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We had been previously briefed on what our Night One target would be. We would be hitting one of the Iraqi forward-deployment airfields. There were five of these roughly 25 miles from the border with Saudi Arabia. Three B-52s were tasked against each airfield plus we had a number of “airborne spares” in case one of the jets broke on the way there.
We were ushered into the auditorium for our pre mission briefings. Our pep talk from the commander was basically “Don’t run into the ground and do their job for them”. Good advice actually.
The mission briefings were pretty short since we already knew beforehand what the target was. We had done a few rehearsals against some islands out in the Indian Ocean so were pretty confident in our ability to do it.
I don’t recall exactly when we launched, but it was getting late in the day by the time we actually got out to the aircraft. We launched 20-some bombers and tankers completely by timing, without a single radio call being made. There was a scheduled time for engine start, taxi and takeoff for each aircraft.
A fully loaded B-52G is a sluggish beast and needs a lot of runway to get airborne. The runway at Diego was relatively short by SAC standards. Only 10,000 feet if I recall. We used up most of it by the time we lifted off.

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There was a nasty line of heavy rain showers hitting the area right around then and we flew through some of it. I can recall taking a pretty good beating going through the weather.
A short while after we got leveled off we did our first air refueling. There were normally two air refuelings scheduled on the way up to the Saudi peninsula. The G model was a bit underpowered and the extra drag of having bombs on the wing pylons made it worse. Sometimes I would have the throttles to the firewall just trying to stay on the boom.
A good tanker crew could make you look good back there. If they were jinking around a lot, trying to stay in formation, it could make your job a lot tougher. If their autopilot wasn’t working it was even tougher. Our bow wave would actually move the tanker around. If either one of us wasn’t smooth on the controls it could cause a chain reaction.
Somewhere on the way up to Saudi Arabia we took time to don our survival gear and sidearms. We had flak vests, as I recall, but I think we placed them strategically around the cockpit rather than wearing them. We figured that anything likely to hit us would come up through the floor.

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You probably want to know what I was feeling at the time. I am not a particularly brave individual. I was always pretty scared the days before a mission. Once I got in the jet I was fine. That was my comfort zone. No more worrying about if it’s going to happen, it’s happening now. Just do your job.
By this time I was very confident in our ability as a crew to do the mission. We did a lot of training in the six months prior and I knew I could fly the jet to its limits. Knowing that you’re probably going to get shot at in a few months gives you added incentive to train hard.
It was dark by the time we got up over Saudi Arabia. The sky was filled with the lights of aircraft massing for the attack. I can remember commenting on it, right before I fell asleep.
Now I’d to say that I’m such a steely-eyed warrior that I was able to sleep on way into combat but I think I was just exhausted at that point. I had been up most of the day, combined with the stress I think I just shut down.
Next thing I knew, my copilot was waking me up and telling me we needed to get ready for low level. This involved taping over all the lights in the cockpit with electrical tape and taping green chemical light-sticks under the dash to use as NVG lighting. Very high tech. Back then we had red cockpit lighting that would wash out the Night Vision Goggles. The goggles were not our primary method of flying low level but they were an addition to the terrain avoidance radar and the FLIR that were built into the aircraft. The goggles clipped to our helmet visor and had a battery pack mounted to the back of the helmet with velcro. The whole assembly was heavy and would snap your neck in an ejection – so you had remember to take it off before punching out.


Our formation at high altitude was 2 miles in trail with each aircraft stacked 500 feet above the one in front of it. As we dropped down to low altitude we went into what was called a “stream”. A bomber stream was normally spaced about a minute apart, roughly six miles at the speeds we flew low levels at.
We dropped down low well inside Saudi airspace so we wouldn’t get picked up by the Iraqi radars. Our tactics at that time were to avoid known threats. No sense tangling with a SAM site if you can just go around it. Of course it’s the one you don’t know about that worries you.
We were running between 300 and 500 on our way to the target. I remember it was pitch black that night and the NVGs weren’t really doing much for me as they need at least some ambient light to work. They were picking up all the anti-aircraft fire, however, and probably making it look closer than it actually was.
It looked to me like they were just trying to fill the air with lead and hope somebody flew through it. I can remember seeing a ZSU-23 spitting out tracers like a fire hose. Fortunately it wasn’t near us because one of those could ruin your day. I saw a lot of heavy stuff, 57mm and larger. I didn’t worry as much about those so much as they had a very low probability of actually hitting something.
I occupied myself with calling out what I was seeing to the crew and pointing out that it was either of range or not aiming at us. It’s hard to tell what you’re seeing at night. Was that light I just saw a missile or just a truck headlight?
The actual bomb run was planned as a “multiple axis of attack”. The three bombers in our cell would come at it from three different directions to confuse the defenses. Sixty seconds was normally the spacing between aircraft but in this case we were compressing it to 45 seconds. The idea was to minimize our time over the target. Most critically, we would have to make our time-over-target with zero second tolerance or our bombs might frag the next guy over the target. The plan allowed no room for error.
My aircraft was loaded with fifty one cluster bombs that were filled with mines. The other two aircraft had British runway cratering bombs that we called a “UK1000”. The bombs would crater the runways and taxiways while the mines would make life difficult for anyone trying to repair them. The bombs also had a variable time delay so some of them would dig a hole and then blow up as much as a day later.
To release the cluster bombs we would have to climb up to 1000 feet going across the target. That is not a good altitude. You either want to be really low or really high. The other two jets were able to drop from 500 feet. We got the first run over the target so that we might at least have surprise on side.
The bomb run itself was uneventful except for not being able to see anything. As soon as started releasing, things got interesting. In my NVGs I saw “Flash! Flash! Flash! Flash!” and I thought “Oh crap, they’re shooting at us and I can’t do a damn thing about it until we get the bombs away”.
As soon as the bombs were gone I went into an aggressive “gun jink” maneuver. This involved rapidly throwing the plane around in multiple directions. At the same time I pointed the nose back at the ground. We started picking up speed fast. Our limiting airspeed was 390 knots indicated and I’m sure I saw 430 on the gauge. At this point the plane was wanting to “mach tuck”. The faster we went the more the nose wanted to go down. I had to run the trim nose up quite a bit to counteract that. Meanwhile we’re jinking around low to ground at night, probably being a bigger threat to ourselves than anything the enemy might be doing.

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What I probably saw that night was the charges from our own cluster bombs opening. The interval between flashes was just about right for it to look like a 37mm anti-aircraft gun. In 20/20 hindsight we probably weren’t getting shot at but I didn’t realize it at the time.
In all the excitement we turned the wrong way coming off target and ended up doing a 270 degree turn to get back on course. Meanwhile the other two bombers did their thing, followed up by a flight of F-15Es who took out the hardened shelters.
After that I was hyped up all the way to the Saudi border. The plan was for us to land at Jeddah International Airport in Saudi. I think we had to go around at least twice because the traffic pattern was so busy. Once we finally got on the ground some guys in silver hazmat suits checked the outside of our plane for contamination (chemicals). Then the maintenance guys checked us for battle damage and didn’t find any. Finally we got to park the jet. I can remember sitting on the ramp at Jeddah for a very long time waiting for someone to come get us. We didn’t really care, we were just happy to have accomplished the mission and still be alive.

 

 
Tell me something most people get wrong about the B-52

Most people assume that something as large as a B-52 must be roomy on the inside. In reality it’s quite cramped in there. Most of the available space is taken up either by fuel tanks, bombs or electronics. The only place you can even stand up straight is the ladder between the upper and lower compartments. 

Unlike an airliner, it’s also extremely noisy. We had to wear headsets or helmets all the time to protect our hearing. Talking “cross cockpit” like we do in an airliner was impossible. Everything had to be said over the intercom.
Not a comfortable place to spend 12 to 16 hours. Even training missions would leave you completely drained physically. SAC liked to say “You’ve got to be tough to fly the heavies”.

Tell me something most people don’t know about the B-52
I don’t think our role in the Gulf War was ever well publicized. Especially the low level strikes that were carried out on the first three nights.

 
During the Cold War, did members of the  B-52 aircrew community feel confident that they would survive an attack on the USSR? 

That’s the big question, isn’t it? Fortunately we never had to find out.
Soviet air defenses were quite formidable. Our ECM package in the G-model wasn’t as good as what the H-model has. There were some newer Soviet missiles, like the SA-10 (S-300) that we simply would not have wanted to meet. We also feared running into a MiG-31 long before we even got to Soviet territory.

You have to realize though, that by the time we got there both sides would likely have been lobbing ICBMs at each other for eight hours. There may not have been much left of their air defenses to worry about.
9. You stood nuclear alert- how does one reconcile personal ethics with the knowledge one may have carry out a nuclear attack? 

We were so well trained that we’d have probably been halfway to our targets by the time we even thought about what we were doing. We used to joke about turning south and making Jamaica the next nuclear power if the balloon went up but that was just a joke. 

Most of didn’t think we’d have to do it. The whole reason SAC existed was to prevent a war with the Soviets. If things had gotten that bad, we’d have probably been dodging nuclear explosions on our way out of US airspace. The instinct would have been to hit them back with everything we had at that point.

Still, it was sobering to sign for an alert aircraft with sixteen nuclear weapons on it. Quite a lot of responsibility for a 27-year-old aircraft commander.

 
 What were your favourite and least favourite flights/missions on the B-52? 
I enjoyed doing anything tactical like low levels or playing with fighters. Touch and go landings were fun but I think SAC overdid it sometimes. We’d fly an 8 hour training mission and then have 3 hours of “transition” as it was called tacked on. We’d already be worn out from flying all night and they’d want us to practice landings from 1 AM to 4 AM. It was especially rough on the other crewmembers, who were just along for the ride at that point.

 
Why do you think the B-52 has stayed in service for so long? 

In some ways it’s such a generic aircraft that it can be adapted to different missions. It can carry a lot of ordnance a long way and it can loiter for a long time. One thing people don’t always think about is it has a tremendous amount of electrical power from its four generators. That allows them to keep stuffing new electronics into it.

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What do you think of its Russian equivalent, the Tu-95? 

When the Russians make something that works they stick with it. I’ve had the opportunity to crawl inside one. Like the B-52 it was a mix of very old and very new technology. It’s smaller than a B-52, about 2/3 the size. It’s extremely fast for a turboprop aircraft and also very efficient.

Those props produced a tremendous amount of noise and vibration. I can only imagine that it gave the crews a real beating over time.

Tactically I don’t think they were anywhere close to what we were doing in the B-52. I don’t believe they ever envisioned using the Tu-95 as a low-level penetrator.

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 Did you ever fly at low altitude in a B-52?
Low level was our bread and butter in the B-52 community at that time. We were still training to penetrate Soviet air defences in the late 1980s. 

In the daytime it was a lot of fun, at least for the pilots. I don’t know how the other crew positions managed to sit through it. Sitting in the dark while getting bounced around on a hot day was a recipe for airsickness. B-52 navigators are a very dedicated bunch. The downward firing ejection seats the navigators rode in couldn’t have inspired much confidence either. 

At night it was very challenging. Our systems were good down to 200 feet over flat terrain and I think 300 or 400 feet in mountainous terrain. Keep in mind that our wingspan was almost 200 feet. A night low level required a tremendous team effort, especially between the pilots and navs. It was all hand flown in the B-52. Unlike the B-1 and F-111, we only had “terrain avoidance” radar. It wasn’t coupled to the autopilot. So imagine you’re bopping along at 360 knots through the mountains in the middle of the night. 

The SAC tactics people interviewed a Soviet MiG-29 pilot who had defected. The asked him “Do you think you could intercept a B-52 flying 300 feet at night in terrain?” He told them “No fucking way”.

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

 

 

The 10 worst US aircraft

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Choosing a mere ten types was hard. The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin, like so many other types, narrowly missed inclusion in our list.

 

Abraham Lincoln noted that America will never be destroyed from the outside. Likewise the most serious threats to the US aircraft industry have always come from within, as demonstrated by the following inglorious parade of folly and nincompoopery. No nation has created as many aircraft types – or types that so comprehensively occupy the spectrum from superb to shit. 

(You can see the 11 worst Soviet aircraft here)
10. Fisher P-75 Eagle
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Long before the F-15 was even thought of, its illustrious namesake was the physical embodiment of audacious corporate fraud. The original Eagle was a poor aircraft built by General Motors with an ulterior motive that sucked in over $50 million in the middle of the most destructive war in history. Great things were expected of the Eagle, its designation P-75 had been specially allocated, P-73 and P-74 having been missed out, to allude to the French 75-mm gun of the Great war – regarded as a symbol of victory. The appellation “Eagle’ boasted of American greatness and nobility – and extensive media interest surrounded the programme. It was trumpeted as a ‘wonder plane’ before its first flight (less so afterwards) however the Eagle itself was a Frankenstein’s Monster of an interceptor, cobbled together out of bits of other, better, aircraft. The Eagle’s wings were taken from the P-40, its undercarriage from the F4U Corsair and the tail was appropriated from the SBD Dauntless. This approach appeared to yield distinct advantages: the aircraft could be built quickly as all these parts were already in production and (most attractively) the new fighter should be cheap as so much of it already existed. Unfortunately the design also employed the Allison (itself a division of General Motors) V-3420, a 24-cylinder engine that promised much but delivered considerably less, not least its rated horsepower and the Eagle’s performance was underwhelming. That aside, the XP-75 suffered from poor handling, dreadful spin characteristics and inadequate engine cooling. To further muddle an already problematic programme the Army decided it required not an interceptor but a long-range escort fighter. The XP-75 was redesigned, negating the advantage of using the pre-existing elements of its original design and emerged as a broadly acceptable aircraft in late 1944, by which time P-51s were proving spectacularly successful in the escort role rendering the Eagle superfluous, production terminated at the sixth airframe and that appeared to be that.

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However all was not as it seemed, General Motors, who designed and built the P-75 at its Fisher Body Division, were tied up in a great many wartime programmes and believed they were overcommitted. When the USAAF came calling to try to get them to build B-29s, GM were desperate not to join in. With the knowledge that USAAF Materiel Command had the power to compel GM to build B-29s, they (allegedly) came up with an alternative and overriding commitment: development of the war-winning P-75! The USAAF bought it (in both senses) and GM never built a Single Superfortress. Looked on in this way, the P-75 was a resounding success.

9. Bell FM-1 Airacuda ‘Francis Ford Cuppola’ 
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Bell were a new player on the scene in 1937 and its first aircraft design combined futuristic looks with unconventional features but its striking looks concealed a litany of flaws, questionable design choices and unsatisfactory performance in its designed roles. Firstly, the FM-1’s combined engine nacelle/gun positions gave the 37-mm weapons mounted therein a good field of fire for intercepting bomber formations but the pusher engines constantly overheated and the rear mounted propellors rendered death inevitable for any gunner who attempted to bail out. Actually firing the guns caused the gunner’s station to fill with choking smoke. Sensibly the aircraft was usually flown with the nacelles unoccupied. Accepting that the gunners were best left behind, their guns could be operated remotely from the cockpit but the aircraft was too draggy and slow to stand much chance of intercepting any modern bomber. Its manoeuvrability was also poor, had it ever faced contemporary fighters it would have been cut to pieces.

d06ad4460dc31a295dedc17f086743c1.jpgAs if this wasn’t enough the Airacuda was expected to be able to perform ground-attack missions as well, its bombload of a mere 600lb would have been acceptable in 1918 but on the eve of the Second World War it was pathetic. To add considerable injury to insult the electrical system of the aircraft was extensive, complicated and unreliable. The FM-1 was the only aircraft to require a full-time supercharged auxiliary engine to power its own electrics as well as the fuel pumps. In the event of this engine failing (and it frequently did) the crew lost the use of the undercarriage, flaps and most importantly, the engines. Amazingly the FM-1 did enter limited operational service, equipping one squadron from 1938 to 1940. With only one recorded fatality whilst flying the Airacuda, the US Army got off surprisingly lightly.

8. Convair NB-36

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Of all the starkly insane ideas of the 1950s, the idea of putting an operating nuclear reactor in an aircraft remains particularly chilling. Yet both the Soviet Union and the USA did exactly that. The NB-36 ‘Crusader’ was a massive, terrifying ecological disaster waiting to happen every time it took to the sky. Yet take to the sky it did on no less than 47 occasions. Intended merely to test the feasibility of operating a nuclear reactor in flight prior to the development of a true atomic-powered aircraft, the NB-36 hauled a three megawatt reactor aloft. As a result of the shielding required to keep its crew alive, it remains by far the aircraft with the greatest amount of lead in its airframe: the rubber and lead-lined cockpit area alone weighed eleven tons.

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A measure of its frightening potential can be gleaned from the fact that every time it flew it was accompanied by a team of support aircraft including a C-97 filled with a platoon of Marines who, in the event of a crash, or the reactor being jettisoned, were to parachute down, secure the site and attempt immediate clean-up, a task that would probably have cost them their lives. The NB-36 was also the only aircraft fitted with a hotline to the President’s office to be used in case of impending or actual disaster. This hotline was actually used when a smoke marker exploded in the reactor compartment (harmlessly as it turned out). Imagine taking that call.

As it turned out, the reactor was switched on for a total of 89 hours in flight and all was well, the NB-36 survived to be scrapped and the radioactive parts of the airframe were buried. However when one considers that 32 standard B-36s were written-off in accidents from 1949 to 1957 and even though this was a very good safety record for the time, it does make one wonder about the responsibility (or lack of it) of combining 1940s aeronautical technology with a potential Chernobyl.

7. Wright Flyer

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Just because an aircraft is epoch-making doesn’t make it any good. The Wright Flyer was, according to the Smithsonian Institution, “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard” and they should know as they spent a great deal of time and money trying to prove that it wasn’t. However it should be pointed out that this sustained flight lasted an absolute maximum of 59 seconds, was more or less out of control, and covered a mere 852 feet. It flew four times on December 17 1903 but never again because the Flyer was essentially uncontrollable – and it should be noted that the Wright’s had plenty of experience flying gliders of the same configuration over long distances for years before they attempted powered flight. With the elevator mounted at the wrong end of the aircraft and too close to the centre of gravity, wing-warping rather than ailerons, and a rudder that was too small, the Flyer was dangerously unstable about all three axes, particularly longitudinally – in all four flights the Flyer undulated violently. Added to this was its inability to take off under its own power (which some deluded groups believe make it ineligible as the world’s first aircraft). The one undeniably decent aspect of its design was its engine, which the brothers designed themselves and was remarkably powerful for its size – though not nearly as good as the Manly-Balzer radial fitted to Langley’s Aerodrome (of which more later). The Wrights themselves held the Flyer in no great esteem, after storing it for nine years, Wilbur was asked what they intended to do with it and replied that they ‘would most likely burn it’. It was a dreadful, dangerous, flawed aircraft but it was the first.

6. Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel

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From a purely aeronautical point of view there is nothing wrong with the VH-71 Kestrel, yet it is not in service and as an example of eye-watering cost overruns it is without parallel, and that’s including the F-35 programme. It’s not even as if it were a new aircraft but instead a version of the AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin, a successful (-ish) medium-lift helicopter first flown in 1987 and serving in the air arms of 13 nations. Unit cost for the Merlin is approximately $21 million. In 2002 Lockheed Martin and AgustaWestland agreed to jointly develop and market the helicopter in the US. In 2005 this aircraft won the competition to replace the fleet of helicopters operated by the Marines as Presidential transport. By 2009, the contract had ballooned from its original allocation of $6.1Billion to over $11.2 billion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was dragged to go to Congress for a review of the project. The price continued happily rising. Some blame the rises on a additional requested equipment that was not in the original brief, others point to improper lobbyist ties or erratic asset management. Its pretty hard to run a US military aircraft project so badly that it is killed (the A-12 being an notable exception) – the F-35 and C-5 proving the point, but this was a during a recession. Some pointed out, not entirely in jest, that this huge sum would do more to safeguard the President if it were spent on stabilising the economies of the world’s poorest countries.

President Obama doomed the Kestrel to cancellation with an injection of fiscal rationality in 2009 with the mild words “the helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me.” The nine Kestrels that had been built ended up being sold to Canada as spare parts for their AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant fleet (a somewhat more successful Merlin variant) for a mere $164 million, only $2.84 billion less than had already been inexplicably spent on their construction. Seven of these remain airworthy and there is the possibility that Canada may yet put these into service, an intriguing possibility for an aircraft that literally cost more than its weight in gold.
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5. The Langley ‘Aerodrome’

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Samuel Pierpont Langley was a brilliant inventor, astronomer and scientist who happened to be secretary of the Smithsonian institution. He had built an excellent model aircraft that flew over a mile in 1901 and decided, reasonably, to scale it up and make the world’s first manned, powered flight. The Aerodrome was beautifully made and its 52hp radial had the best power-to-weight ratio of any engine, a record it held until 1919(!) – but it couldn’t fly. Twice the Aerodrome was flung off its catapult and plunged into the Potomac River. Nine days later the Wright brothers flew their aircraft into the history books, Langley died in 1906, and that should really have been that for the Aerodrome but fate decreed its story was not yet over.

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The Wrights were as litigious as they were diligent and busily sued anyone who built a successful aircraft. In 1914 this included the talented pioneer Glenn Curtiss who came up with a brilliant scheme to flip the litigation on its head. If he could prove that the Aerodrome was capable of flight then the Wright’s patent would be invalid and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like the fact that it wasn’t stand in his way. After extensive modification including a new V-8 engine, approved by the Smithsonian who despised the Wrights for beating them into the air, Curtiss managed to coax it aloft for an awe-inspiring five seconds. Modifications removed, the Aerodrome was fraudulently placed on show as ‘the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight’. Thus began an ignoble tradition of deception, foul-play and skulduggery that has sustained the US aviation industry for well over a century.

4. Lockheed XFV-1 Salmon
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The US military was full of bizarre ideas throughout the fifties, and luckily for us they were so prudence-crushingly rich that many of them actually got built. One of the craziest was the XFV-1 and its superior competitor the Convair XFY-1 ‘Pogo’, the last two airscrew-powered aircraft designed for the fighter role. Inspired, like all the best aviation ideas of the 1950s, by the flights of fantasy of the dying Third Reich (a regime not well known for rationality and good sense) the Pogo and Salmon were loosely derived from a Focke-Wulf design study for a fighter called the Triebflugel. This was to have a mid-mounted rotor/propellor powered by ramjets and the whole point of the idea was that it could take off vertically, ideal for a point-defence interceptor. The downside for the pilot of this and the subsequent Pogo and Salmon was that they had to land vertically – backwards – the pilot inching the aircraft back down onto to its tail. Nonetheless the US Navy couldn’t ignore the utility of a fighter aircraft that could be based on any ship large enough to mount a helipad, two prototypes were ordered, and a production contract was expected for whichever proved the better design. Quite apart from the landing problem, both programmes were condemned to employ the Allison XT-40 turboprop, a desultory engine with a disarming tendency to rip itself to pieces which was to prove the kiss of death to several other more conventional aircraft. Engine failure is not to be taken lightly in any aircraft but when one is hovering, nose vertical, a hundred or so feet above the ground, the prospect of that engine ceasing to work is a sobering one. Nevertheless Convair managed a few vertical take-offs and landings with their Pogo but the poor Salmon was not so lucky, a ton heavier than the Pogo, it was decided that it lacked necessary power for its weight to attempt either.

Lockheed XFV-1.jpgSo, whilst Convair found their Pogo was possible to land – though it was regarded as almost impossible even by their exceptional test pilot ‘Skeets’ Coleman – Lockheed had to fly their Salmon with an embarrassing fixed undercarriage more appropriate for a 1920s airliner than a state-of-the-art interceptor. Both programmes were cancelled at the request of their manufacturers in 1955 (which was a shame, imagine these two dogfighting MiG-17s over Vietnam). Nevertheless, to their possible credit, they did try, Lockheed’s great designer Kelly Johnson said of the Salmon “We practised landing on clouds, and we practised looking over our shoulders. We couldn’t tell how fast we were coming down, or when we would hit. We wrote the Navy: ‘We think it is inadvisable to land the airplane.’ They came back with one paragraph that said ‘We agree.'”

(Hush-Kit only exists because of the kindness of our readers, if you’d like to donate you’ll find a PayPal button above and below- thank you)

3. Rockwell XFV-12

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Generally, by the 1970s, it was a fairly safe bet that prototype fighter aircraft emerging from the world’s biggest, richest, and most successful aviation industry would be capable of flight. Yet in 1977 the Rockwell XFV-12 ingloriously proved that such assumptions are not always as safe as one might imagine. Rockwell’s XFV-12 certainly looked exciting with its canard layout and wingtip tail surfaces cunningly obscuring the parts that had been lifted off other, existing, aircraft – the intakes were from the F-4 and the whole cockpit and landing gear had been nicked from the Skyhawk. The concept of the XFV-12 was intriguing, a system known as a ‘thrust augmentor wing’ channelled engine exhaust downwards to enable vertical flight. Unfortunately someone at Rockwell had augmented the maths: thrust ‘augmentation’ from the system was 30% less than expected and as a result the engine was capable of lifting only three-quarters of the aircraft and the aircraft never flew. Despite this, tethered trials were carried out but with the obvious inability of the aircraft to support itself in the air the whole programme was terminated in 1981. After the expenditure of an estimated billion dollars on the programme the Navy stated that it had ‘learned all it could’ from the XFV-12 i.e. nothing.

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2. De Lackner DH-4 Heli-Vector/HZ-1 Aero-cycle/YHO-2

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In the 1950s the US Army decided that only snow-eating Commies walk into battle and that having their infantrymen hover into action like elves or fairies on dangerous one-man helicopters was much more appropriate for the modern battlefield. The De Lackner DH-4 was the worst of the prospective designs to answer this idiotic request and one of the most terrifying machines ever to grace the sky. The true horror of this vehicle becomes clear when one studies a photograph of the DH-4 in flight and realises that the contra-rotating rotor blades are mounted approximately four inches under the feet of its luckless pilot, who was not provided with a seat and was compelled instead to balance on a tiny platform directly over the rotor hub. Standing above the whirling, unprotected rotors the infantryman of the future was required simply to lean in the direction he wished to go, much like a modern Segway. The difference being that a Segway is unlikely to chop one’s body into small pieces should you fall off. Eventually the realisation that the DH-4 was capable only of rendering the modern soldier a better target by raising him, terrified, a few feet above the ground, very noisily and at great expense, caused the programme’s demise. To be fair to the DH-4, it was at least relatively fast, being capable of a horrifying 75mph. This compared well to the rival Hiller Pawnee which at 16mph could be outrun by a not-particularly vigorously ridden bicycle.

1. Christmas Bullet

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Quite likely the Worst Aircraft Ever Built, and the only aircraft on this list that can be justifiably said to have been designed by a psychopath, the Christmas Bullet was a scandalous mockery of an aeroplane capable only of climbing high enough to guarantee the death of its pilot. Dr William Whitney Christmas MD was a seemingly respectable physician who had some unconventional ideas about aircraft development and coupled them with a plethora of lies both about his own achievements – he claimed for example to have invented the aileron – and his designs: he stated that he had received an offer of a million dollars to ‘take over’ Germany’s air force, and was swamped with orders for Bullets from Europe. Luckily for everyone, only one of his designs was to be built, less fortunately, and for no good reason, it was built twice. The Bullet was a stubbily purposeful looking aircraft and the US Army had gamely yet inexplicably (this was wartime and Armies seldom lend prototype military equipment to private individuals) loaned Christmas the prototype of its new Liberty L-6 engine, though they stated that they were to inspect the new aircraft before its first flight, a proviso Dr Christmas ignored.

On first inspection the Bullet appeared quite conventional until one noticed the paper-thin wing unbraced by struts or wires, that was free to flap (‘like a bird’) rather than remain rigid – this being Dr Christmas’s great idea.

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Despite the fact that even a cursory glance at the wings makes it plain that they are going to fall off, Christmas managed to persuade an out-of-work pilot named Cuthbert Mills to take the Bullet up. In a twist of fate reminiscent of the worst kind of melodrama, the doomed Mills even invited his mother along to watch him fly the new fighter. The Bullet took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. Undeterred, unrepentant and un-prosecuted Christmas built a new Bullet. It took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. At least this time his mother wasn’t present. A mere month earlier this second Bullet had been on (static) display at the New York Air Show, where it was billed as the ‘safest, easiest controlled plane in the world’. Whilst showing no remorse for losing the lives of two pilots, nor apparently any concern about destroying the Army’s precious new L-6 engine against the their specific instructions, Christmas billed the Army $100,000 for his ‘revolutionary’ wing design. His gifts of persuasion must have been better than his skill as a designer for they duly paid up.

In a final ironic twist the chief designer for the Continental Aircraft company – who had actually built the Bullet for Dr Christmas – was one Vincent Burnelli, who dedicated the remainder of his working life to designing lifting-body aircraft of immense strength and safety. One cannot help but wonder if the horror of the Christmas Bullet inspired this brilliant designer to devote his considerable talent to making aviation safer. Google_Books_Christmas_Bullet_4-210x300.jpgWilliam Christmas died in 1964 ‘with money in his pockets and blood on his hands’. As the historian Bill Yenne put it, ‘his was the kind of tale they used to write folk songs about‘.

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F-35 selection: Something rotten in the state of Denmark

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Two weeks ago the Danish government selected the F-35A Lightning II as its future fighter aircraft. The somewhat odd details of the evaluation raised many questions about its validity causing contract loser Boeing (who had offered the Super Hornet) to raise a formal complaint. We spoke to veteran military aviation expert Jon Lake to find out more. 

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So – who was in the Danish fighter evaluation – and why no Rafale or Gripen?

Lockheed Martin, offering the F-35, Eurofighter offering the Typhoon and Boeing offering the Super Hornet. In essence Dassault and Saab were not included because they did not think it worth their while to spend money going through the process – which might suggest that they thought that their aircraft would not meet the requirement, or that the result was a foregone conclusion, and that the competitive process was a sham. Saab withdrew before the Request for Binding Information, Dassault did not respond to the initial RFI.

Who won?

Lockheed, with the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

A different fleet size was assumed for each type- what was that about?

This was largely based on airframe life and perceptions about availability. An airframe with a longer airframe life and better availability could obviously provide more sorties, and thus a smaller fleet would be required.

Do you agree with the criteria and judgement?

I think that Denmark probably selected the best aircraft to meet its strategic and geopolitical needs, and possibly also the best aircraft to meet its military requirement, though there are elements within the official summary that severely dent the credibility of the entire evaluation process. Ranking the mature, proven Super Hornet as being riskier than the Typhoon, and especially as being higher risk than the immature, troubled F-35, would seem to be perverse and illogical, while rating the Typhoon below Super Hornet for mission effectiveness (and rating both types equally for survivability) also flies in the face of the facts.

We know that “the New Fighter Program has made use of various expert panels, which have ultimately evaluated and ranked the candidates.”

Denmark says that “the participating experts have represented a broad range of competencies and experience related to the specific evaluation areas,” but the evaluation results cast some doubt on such a claim, in my view.

The summary tells us that “Quality assurance has been carried out by Danish experts from Deloitte in cooperation with international experts from RAND Europe assisted by QinetiQ and Vorderman Consulting.”

I note with interest that Vorderman Consultancy seems to be Major General Peter Vorderman Royal Netherlands Air Force retd., who seems to have been a helicopter pilot. On the basis of the summary, I’d suggest that a lack of fighter experience, and a lack of understanding of the fighter/attack roles is evident. The expert panels do not seem to have had the effect that you’d expect real subject matter experts to have on this process and its bizarre conclusions.

Did F-35 have to win this? Was there really a chance someone else could win?

At one time, it seemed as though the Danes were conducting a proper evaluation – going to Germany to fly a compelx Typhoon four-ship mission in the Luftwaffe’s synthetic devices, for example.

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Source: Defencetalk/Eurofighter

Why is Typhoon always deemed expensive to maintain?

In short because people go to NAO reports and uncritically accept the numbers within those reports, failing to understand how those numbers are arrived at.

The Danish seemed worried by the Typhoon spares support – is this still an issue?

Different operators have had quite different experiences when it comes to Typhoon availability and support. If, like the RAF, you fail to order the right spares, in the right quantities, then it will bite you in the arse.

Boeing has raised a complaint about the assessment- what is this about and does it stand a chance?

Boeing is claiming that the Danes have used flawed data to determine costs. No shit, Sherlock! I would say that there is no chance whatever of a change of heart based on this objection.

Has Denmark made the right decision?

Probably, yes. It may not have selected the best aircraft to meet its military requirement, but for many small air forces, the single most important factor in selecting equipment will be to strengthen important alliances.

Also ranking higher than actual capabilities will be the need to ensure interoperability with neighbours and allies, and especially with the US. It is, after all, almost unthinkable that Denmark would ever go to war except as part of a US led coalition, and in such a coalition, Denmark’s participation (in presenting a united front and in burden-sharing) is likely to be more significant than the actual military capabilities that it can bring to the table. While the Gripen would represent a cost-effective, flexible and versatile solution to Denmark’s needs, and while Typhoon would provide unequalled air defence capability and formidable air-to-ground capabilities, neither aircraft would ‘buy’ Denmark the political advantages that F-35 will, and neither will be quite as seamlessly interoperable with USAF assets.

Moreover, though it is likely to be expensive to buy, expensive to operate, and lacking in particular capabilities, the F-35A pilot will enjoy unequalled survivability (thanks to the aircraft’s low observable characteristics) and unmatched situational awareness and net-enabled capabilities. In many circumstances, one can imagine that this will make the F-35A a better air-to-air aircraft than ‘type X’ which might have superior kinematics, a longer range AESA radar, a superior defensive aids sub systems and longer-range air-to-air missiles – all of which ought to make ‘brand x’ a superior air-defence aeroplane.

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That’s a massive question, which calls for an in-depth article to properly answer, which isn’t appropriate here. I am a big fan of both the original, ‘Heritage Hornet‘ and, to a lesser extent, of the Super Bug. Great multi-role and swing-role capabilities, a good cockpit and man-machine interface, relatively low operating costs, a decent, well-integrated AESA radar, formidable high Alpha handling and low speed agility…. what’s not to like? But at the same time you need to ask yourself some questions. What can a Super Hornet do that cheaper, single-engined fourth gen’ fighters can’t do better, or more cost-effectively? What can a Super Hornet do that a Rafale or Typhoon, or even a modernised ‘Advanced F-15’ can’t do better? What compromises have been made in order to provide the Super Hornet’s carrier capabilities? If you were a logistician would you rather operate a single-engined aircraft operated globally by the USAF and by countless allies, or a twin-engined aircraft operated by the US Navy and Australia? How many potential Super Hornet customers would actually have been allowed to buy the aircraft?

 What should I have asked you about the evaluation results?

“Why on earth did either Eurofighter or Boeing ever think that this was a genuinely open contest?”

Latest analysis of the F-35 here

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You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

The 11 worst Soviet aircraft

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The Soviet Union lasted a mere sixty-nine years (the Spitfire has been flying longer), but in that time produced some of the largest, fastest, toughest and most agile aircraft. Even now, 25 years after its collapse, almost all Russian and Ukrainian aircraft have their roots in the communist super state.  Favouring clever robust design over high technology and refinement, the Soviet approach enabled the mass production of cheap machines. Many of these were outstanding, but some – for reasons of politics, bad luck or incompetence – were diabolical. Let’s pack beer and vobla, and take a walk through the rusting graveyard of the eleven worst Soviet aircraft.

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11. Tupolev Tu-116

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With the death of Stalin, the Khrushchev Thaw left the Soviet Union in the tricky position of wanting to engage with the wider world but with no indigenous way of getting there.  Fearing that mating an airliner fuselage to the wings of a Tu-95, to make the Tu-114, would take more time than was available before a 1959 state visit to the USA, a less ambitious back up plan was made. The Tu-116 replaced the Tu-95’s bomb bays with a passenger compartment for the head of state and his entourage, in a prescient nod to post-9/11 security arrangements it was impossible to access the cockpit from the passenger compartment, messages being passed by pneumatic tube. While no one appeared to think arriving on a diplomatic mission in something that looked exactly like a strategic bomber might be a bad idea, the nail in the coffin of the Tu-116 was actually the 737 style air stair that allowed the First Secretary of the Communist Party to emerge from the bowels of the aircraft, something he deemed beneath his standing. Deprived of their raison d’être the two aircraft served out their miserable lives flying technicians to the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, presumably to ensure the Franken-liner was hidden from public view.  The Tu-116 was a poor idea and implemented badly. It was mercifully left to wallow in obscurity, somewhat like the Miss Havisham of Soviet aviation.

— Bing Chandler, former Lynx helicopter Observer (now works in flight safety)

The odd story of Denmark’s F-35- full story here

10. Tupolev Tu-22 ‘Blind John the man-eater’

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The Tu-22 medium bomber, first flown in 1962, was a dangerous hotrod with a litany of design flaws. Its VD-7M engines were unreliable and caused a spate of lethal accidents. The aircraft was also very hard to handle, according to one pilot “..two flights with no autopilot drained all strength“. Tu-22 pilots had to be physically strong and keep both hands on the control yoke at all times. The landing speed was perhaps the worst of any operational aircraft: it was forbidden for pilots to go under 180 mph. The ejection seats ejected downward, a sobering prospect for low-level escapes. Pre-flight preparations took at least 3 hours, and other common procedures required 24 hours of maintenance. The high-mounted engines were exceptionally inconvenient for maintenance crew to reach. Its abysmal visibility from the cockpit resulted in one of its nicknames – Blind John (Слепой Джон). Another less than flattering nickname was ‘the man-eater’ (Людоед).

– Vasily Kuznetsov, Aviation photographer and lawyer

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Eleven wonderfully weird cancelled aeroplanes here

9. Sukhoi Su-7

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For the first two decades after World War II the Soviet Union wasn’t great at building ground-attack aircraft. Ilyushin’s classic wartime Shturmovik soldiered on for a while, but in the era of atomic weapons, the use of aircraft for battlefield close support fell out of favour within the Red Army. If Soviet troops were to need firepower, they could call upon artillery. And nuclear-tipped battlefield missiles. And more artillery.

With the explosion of counter-insurgency and brushfire conflicts in the mid-1960s, it was time to reassess the ground-attack aircraft. One quick fix was to add bombs and rockets to MiG fighters. But the USSR’s first purpose-designed, jet-powered ground-attacker to reach service was the Sukhoi Su-7. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great. The Soviets never took it into battle. The Arabs did, and were not impressed.

In July 1967 Egyptian pilot Tahsin Zaki was in a formation of 12 Su-7s that was to attack Israeli forces opposite the Suez Canal. Loaded with four 500kg bombs each, the jets suffered so much drag that they couldn’t accelerate beyond 600km/h. They also proved very difficult to control. ‘The Su-7 was never a very stable aircraft at such slow speeds’, Zaki reflected in Arab MiGs Volume 4.

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Provided it made it over the battlefield unscathed, the Su-7 was hampered by dismal range, meaning it was unable to loiter where it was needed. The powerful Lyulka AL-7F1 turbojet took up so much space that there was little room left for fuel tanks. It was vulnerable to foreign object damage (FOD) and, without air-to-air missile capability, was unable to protect itself other than with its two NR-30 cannon. Were it unfortunate enough to get into a dogfight with an Israeli Mirage, Arab pilots found that its fuel was quickly expended.

A final word goes to Egyptian pilot Gabr Ali Gabr: ‘The Su-7 was a totally bloody useless aircraft. It had a feeble bomb load and ineffective rockets only. The only Sukhoi that really showed an improvement over the MiG-17 was the Su-20, which we received only years later.

—  Thomas Newdick, Editor at Harpia Publishing and Assistant Editor of Combat Aircraft

8. Lavochkin LaGG-3 

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A pathetic climb rate, sluggish top speed, poor build quality, the inability to pull out of a dive or even to perform a sharp turn are among the many failings of the lamentable LaGG. The designers intended the aircraft (which started development as the LaGG-1) to use the 1,350 hp inline Klimov VK-106 engine, but when this engine failed to mature, it was replaced with the Klimov M-105 – a weedy powerplant with around 300 less horsepower. The result was an exceptionally underpowered fighter hated by its crews and mauled by its enemies. Other than an exceptional ability to withstand battle damage (something it received in abundance) -the aircraft’s only saving grace was that it sired the magnificent LaGG-5.

— Joe Coles, Hush-Kit

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7. Silvanskii IS

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Silvanskii is a name synonymous with Russian fighters..oh, wait – no it’s not. And there is a very good reason that it’s not. In the midst of Stalin’s muddled and oppressive USSR, one A.V. Silvanskii secured state funding to create a new fighter in 1937. The concept seemed sound- it was a low-winged monoplane with a 1,000 horsepower radial engine, armed with two heavy machine guns. As development began it soon became apparent that Silvanskii was a reckless bodger. By 1938 the prototype aircraft was virtually complete. Initial tests of the undercarriage revealed that the wheel wells were too small- the undercarriage did not fit into the wing in the retracted position. How this elementary mistake had been made is hard to understand, but the solution was simple- the undercarriage legs were shortened. Now the undercarriage could be retracted it was realised that the wheel bays were too shallow so the undercarriage would stick out into the airstream producing drag. Deciding not to rectify this issue, the team then fitted the propeller. Though the aircraft now had a shorter undercarriage than originally designed, no-one saw fit to think through the consequences of this modification; the propeller was now too large and would smash against the ground on take-off. Ever the master of methodical engineering, Silvanskii took a saw to the offending propeller and lopped four inches off each blade. The manager of the GAZ state aircraft factory watched this slapstick affair with dismay and growing alarm. He quite sensibly refused Silvanskii permission to fly from the factory airfield. The persistent Silvanskii looked for an alternative airfield for his fighter and charmed the State Flight Research Institute (LII) in Moscow into providing a runway and a test pilot for the maiden flight. One cold morning in early 1939, the LII test pilot strapped himself into the aircraft, known simply as the IS or ‘Istrebitel’ (fighter) and prepared to fly. The machine had other ideas, but thanks to a combination of full throttle and extremely dense cold air the machine was coaxed into taking off for one hair-raising circuit flown dangerously close to the stall. On landing the pilot damned the aircraft as unflyable. The Silvanskii bureau was bankrupted and the hapless designer was banned from working in aeronautical design.

— Joe Coles, Hush-Kit

What was the ultimate piston-engined fighter? Answer here

6. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23MS 

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Arab MiG-21 pilots were excited by the prospect of a new advanced fighter, but early MiG-23s provided a huge disappointment. The Soviet Union generally offered client nations inferior versions of their fighters, but the MiG-23MS was one of the cruelest examples – and they were supplied when the air forces of Syria and Egypt were at war with a well-equipped enemy. Because of delays with the R-23 (a Sparrow equivalent), the ’23 carried only the K-13 (comparable with an early Sidewinder). The weapon system, with its very basic Sapfir-21, was completely mismatched to the aircraft’s performance – the aircraft was designed for fast long range engagements – something it couldn’t do with the K-13. The former MiG-21 pilots now had an aircraft with greatly inferior agility to the previous mounts and nastier handling characteristics. The aircraft also lacked vital equipment, including radar warning receivers. The MiG-23MS force suffered terrible losses to the Israeli Air Force, and encouraged Egypt and Libya to turn away from the use Soviet equipment, and instead favour US F-4s and French Mirages respectively. The MiG-23 was later developed into the formidable ML, but the MS was a dreadful machine hated by many of its pilots.

— Joe Coles & Thomas Newdick

Love warplanes but hate war? You may enjoy this article then. 

5. Antonov An-10 ‘Bulgakov’s magic catflap’ 

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The An-10 was terrible. It’s almost as if the Ministry of Aircraft Production gave the brief to Antonov to make flying more unpleasant and dangerous. If this was the brief then Antonov succeeded with aplomb and this aircraft shouldn’t have made this list. Initial test flights revealed stability issues, leading to the ungainly ventral fins. But even these didn’t fix the problem, and further stabilizing devices (quasi winglets) were added to the horizontal tails. Which was great, apart from making the aircraft wickedly uncomfortable – it shook like a paint mixer, perhaps even worse. Then there was the insufficient amount of windows causing nausea in those prone to air sickness. There was also a  lack of a real baggage hold (the low floor took up this space). An almost criminal deficiency for any aircraft, let alone one based in the USSR, was the faulty anti-icing system; two aircraft were lost in its first winter resulting in the deaths of 72 people.
A paltry 104 An-10’s were produced, but of these at least twelve were lost – most with fatalities. The straw that broke the camel’s back? After a mere 13 years in service, metal fatigue made the wings fall off. It wasn’t all bad- at least you could ride to your likely doom in a large comfortable seat.

– Bernie Leighton, helicopter pilot and Managing Correspondent at Airline Reporter

Secret British stealth aircraft project-full story here

4. Tupolev Tu-144

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Its chief designer, its passengers and its launch customer were all less than enamoured with Tupolev Tu-144 – the Soviet ‘Concordski’ – and for many valid reasons.

On the last day of 1968, the Tu-144 became the first supersonic airliner to fly. It was two months ahead of Concorde’s maiden flight, but in the rush to achieve this symbolic victory, Tupolev had made a dog. The first flight was misleading – the production machine was virtually a complete redesign, most notably in the critical relationship between the wing and the engine.

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Its design was aided by a huge national effort. Even its chief designer Alexei Tupolev thought it was given too great a priority. Almost all state funding for civil aviation went into the Tu-144, at the detriment of more conservative (and more useful) designs, such as the Il-86.

As well as huge centralised effort, darker methods were used to collect useful data: Sergei Pavlov, a senior Aeroflot representative in France, was banished by a personal dictate from French President de Gaulle in 1965. Pavlov had made a concerted effort to extract information from the programme, and had employed two French communists to spy at Toulouse. At the 1973 Paris Air Show, the two rival airliners were competing for foreign orders, and the second prototype was to be displayed. Its pilot, Mikhail Kozlov, had boasted that he would give a better display than Concorde: “Just wait until you see us fly. Then you’ll see something.” His words proved tragically prescient. The aircraft disintegrated in the air, killing Kozlov and his crew. Following this, the launch customer Aeroflot decided not to put the aircraft on international passenger routes. When Tu-144 entered service in December 1975, it was assigned the less-than-glamorous task of transporting cargo. In late 1977, politicians decided that the Tu-144 should begin passenger services, against the advice of Aeroflot and safety inspectors. Despite it being seven years from its first flight, the aircraft was still unreliable. It was only able to perform one of its first six scheduled passenger flights. In 180 flight hours, the first sixteen Tu-144s suffered more than 226 failures of various kinds – many of them significant. Passengers were shocked by the cabin noise, with one declassified CIA report saying “the cacophony of rushing air, engine noise and air conditioners meant conversations in the rear of the aircraft had to be shouted”. The terrible Kuznetsov NK-144 turbofans were replaced by Kolesov RD-36-51s, to produce the marginally improved Tu-144D. Whereas the cabin noise was unbearable, cabin depressurisation was potentially lethal. There was also faulty de-icing equipment for the air intakes, poor fireproof paint, substandard navigation equipment and a panoply of other failings. In 1977 Tupolev took the unprecedented step of asking the West for technical assistance – hardly a propaganda coup. The British Government declined these requests. Handing technology to the designer of your enemy’s nuclear bombers was too much to ask, even for the nation that had already given the USSR a great step up by giving them the world’s best jet engines).
It can hardly inspire confidence among passengers when no aircraft is allowed to take off without an inspection by its chief designer, yet that was the extraordinary situation for this terrible machine. In May 1978 another Tu-144 crashed. This was too much for Aeroflot, and passenger flights were cancelled. In a twist that nobody would have predicted in the 1960s, the Tu-144 ended its life as ‘supersonic flying laboratory’ for NASA.

– Joe Coles & Glen Towler

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3. Yakovlev Yak-38 20090915141759!Yak-38_on_Novorossijsk_deck.jpg

Were it not for two factors, the Yakovlev Yak-38 ‘Forger’ would probably be regarded as a success. Putting a vertical take-off and landing  fighter into operational service was no mean feat. Of the profusion of concepts and designs that plastered drawing boards (in the US, France, West Germany and in every other aircraft producing nation) in the 1960s, the vast majority never reached even prototype stage – and only two types entered service, so on that basis, the Yak-38 did well. The first of its reputation-killing problems was the lack of any more capable follow-on. The second was the existence of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier.
Expectations of the Yak-38 should have been low. It was intended more as a concept-proving vehicle than a frontline aircraft in its own right. Unfortunately, the planned replacement – the much larger, supersonic Yak-41 ‘Freestyle’ – was cancelled, leaving the Forger to fight its own corner as an operational VTOL fighter rather than an analogue to the pre-production Hawker Siddeley Kestrel (the earlier Yak-36 could be compared to the P.1127 or Short SC.1).
The problem was the Yak-38’s lack of combat capability. Yes, it could take off and land vertically, and transition between vertical to horizontal flight, a significant achievement. Unfortunately, its payload was derisory and its range pathetic, its air-to-air capability virtually non-existent. One reason was the Forger’s VTOL concept – while the Harrier had a single engine and could use all its thrust for horizontal or vertical flight, the Yak-38 had to lug two lift engines, dead weight at all other times than in vertical flight. In hot and high conditions (such as the combat evaluation it endured in Afghanistan), the Forger could carry less than 500lb of munitions. As a proof of concept vehicle, the Yak-38 only managed to ‘prove’ that VTOL combat aircraft were impractical. If only the Harrier had not disproved the point over the Falklands, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan…

– Matthew Willis is a writer and journalist specialising in naval aviation. He is the biographer of A&AEE and Fairey test pilot Duncan Menzies. His book on the Fairey Flycatcher is due out imminently

More on the Yak-38 in The ten worst carrier aircraft

2. Sukhoi Su-2 ‘A Soviet Battle’1437523175_su-2.jpgThe rather unassuming Su-2 is historically significant in being the first creation of Pavel Sukhoi. The Su-2, both by design and unfortunate circumstances, did not anticipate any of this greatness. Designed at a time when metal was a strategically limited resource, the Su-2 was one of the last frontline aircraft that are not all metal construction (prior to today’s composite age), other examples of mixed construction being the famously excellent ‘Mossie’ and the spectacularly atrocious LaGG-3 series. Armed with a meagre four fixed 7.62 light machine guns and a notoriously unwieldy turret armed with a single Shkas. The unfortunate Su-2 was thrown into the meat grinder of Operation Barbarossa where, to the surprise of no-one, it racked up tremendous losses. While faster than its much more famous replacement, the Il-2, it had much lower survivability, armament and payload (not that the marginal difference in speed would make much difference when being chased down by the far faster Bf-109F). The toughness of the Ilyushin competitor – as well as its enormous production figures – explain why the name Il-2 still resonates to this day while the Su-2 is known nowadays mostly for being one of the least useful planes in War Thunder. The first of the Sukhoi’s was a little more than a footnote in aviation history though and, much like other designs of the era, it went from design to obsolescence in the space of 3 years.

– Matthew Wilks, Witch Doctor

  1. Kalinin K-7

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This is what you get if you cross a Spitfire with Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Falling Water’ house (emphasis on the ‘falling’) then enlarge the resulting mutant to the size of Stalin’s ego. The 1930s USSR was in love with big things. Their big locomotives hauled big trains over massive distances, their enormous factories churned out terrific amounts of Fordson tractors and in the air the Kalinin K-7 was to display the triumph of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat to a disbelieving world. Their other big aeroplane, the Tupolev ANT-20, was impractically large but wasn’t a bad aircraft considering. The Kalinin K-7 on the other hand was ridiculous. Konstantin Kalinin had already produced the USSR’s most successful airliner to date and he had some interest in flying wing development. The K-7was, more or less, a seven engine flying wing with a fuselage pod and a couple of tail booms and no one seemed entirely sure whether it was an enormous bomber or a massive airliner. Nonetheless, the mighty K-7 could fly but its first brief flight revealed terrible instability and appalling vibration. Applying stereotypical Soviet engineering principles, two massive slabs of steel were welded to the tailbooms to keep them rigid. Unfortunately its structure was resonating with the engine frequency and the ‘strengthening’ had no effect: on its eighth flight the K-7 shook its right tailboom off at 350 feet, killing 14 on board and one on the ground.
-Ed Ward

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You can find out more about the Kalinin K-7 here.

 

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Latest analysis of the F-35 here

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You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the LightningThose feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US. 

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

Give me operations – Oscar Brand

Thanks to Bill Sweetman for introducing me to this remarkable song:

NO
don’t give me a P-38
the props, they counter-rotate
they’re scattered & sittin’
from Burma to Britain
don’t give me a P-38
NO

give me operations
way out on some lonely atoll
for I am too young to die
I just wanna grow old

& don’t give me a P-39
the engine is mounted behind
she’ll tumble & spin
& she’ll auger you in
don’t give me a P-39
NO

don’t give me a Peter 4-0
it’s a hell of an airplane, I know
she’s a ground looping bastard
& you’re sure to get plastered
don’t give me a Peter 4-0
NO

don’t give me an ’86-D
with rockets, radar & AB
she’s fast, I don’t care
she blows up in mid-air!
don’t give me an 86-D
NO

& don’t give me an F-84
she’s just a ground loving whore
she’ll whine & she’ll wheeze
& make straight for the trees
don’t give me an F-84
NO

(chorus)

NO

Are we there yet? Analysis of the F-35’s current effectiveness by the Royal United Services Institute’s Justin Bronk

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The F-35 is many things: a totem of all that’s wrong with the military industrial congressional complex, a technological marvel, a black hole that sucks in cash, and a weapon system that is now in service. But can it do the job? Hush-Kit spoke to the Royal United Services Institute’s Justin Bronk to find out more. 

Help Hush-Kit to remain independent by donating here. Donations enable us to carry on creating unusual and engaging articles. Thank you. 

We have all heard repeated stories about poor fleet availability rates – how reliable are the different F-35 models?

Justin Bronk:  “That very much depends which source one asks, which squadron and which software standard aircraft are operating with. In many cases, particularly with the A model at Elgin AFB, the serviceability is much better than the various dire reports in the mainstream media and POGO reports would suggest. However, the C model is still at a much less advanced stage and the B model is reportedly only attaining the required serviceability rates with the USMC via manual ALIS workarounds and by accepting many combat-suitability limitations which continue to limit Block 2B software.”

We have seen photos of the sweeping of landing sites (by many groundcrew with brooms) for the F-35B – what’s the story?

broom.JPG “Like the Harrier, the F-35B is particularly at risk during the critical hover stages of a vertical landing where there is no ‘glide approach’ possible in the event of engine failure. Therefore, every precaution is taken to keep foreign object damage (FOD) risks to an absolute minimum at landing sites. Because of the concentrated vertical jet blast which the F-35B generates during vertical landings, it tends to create worse ‘brownout’ conditions and more serious FOD danger if landing zones are not meticulously cleared than other types. The V-22 Osprey is another example of how a combination of powerful hot downward jet wash and turbine engines can create brownout and FOD issues.”

 Which of the F-35 capabilities are unusually good, and do they currently function?

“The situational awareness which the F-35 generates for pilots is second to none. Even in the limited Block 2B software version of the B model being used by the USMC, the picture generated automatically by all the aircraft’s various sensors and presented in a clear, unified picture which can be interrogated in depth without sensor management gives pilots a huge advantage over their colleagues and opponents flying any previous tactical fighters. The limitations at present are in sharing that information with other platforms and linking more than two F-35s via the stealthy MADL datalink simultaneously.

The carefree VSTOL characteristics of the F-35B make the notoriously difficult and dangerous vertical phases of flight in a Harrier simple and safe. This has huge implications for deck qualification requirements and work up schedules, as well as promising greatly reduced fleet attrition rates over the Harrier and even the F-18 series. ”

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Which of the F-35s avionics or sensors are second-rate?

“In many respects, the F-35 incorporates technologies which have been overtaken by specialised podded alternatives due to the jet’s long development cycle. However, it is worth remembering that the F-22 Raptor still flies on computer technologies from the early 1990s so even the most capable fighter in existence is dependent on technologies which could be considered second rate. The EOTS system is probably the most obvious example of where specialised technology has overtaken the F-35 programme since the latest Litening III and Sniper pods incorporate better resolution, cooling efficiency and full motion video capabilities than EOTS. However, this is offset in squadron service to a significant extent by the fact that EOTS is ‘baked in’ to every airframe so unlike targeting and reconnaissance pods which are often in short supply for operations, let alone training sorties, EOTS (along with all the other F-35 core capabilities) will be available on every jet so pilots can truly train as they will fight.”

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Do modern air arms need the F-35, and if so- why? 

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“Modern air arms need to solve two key challenges going forwards – combat mass and the proliferation of extremely capable surface to air missile system technologies globally. The F-35 will certainly be available in smaller numbers than the generation of fighters it is replacing – however, if the full potential capabilities of the aircraft can be unlocked then this may be partly offset by being able to accomplish the same tasks in high threat environments with far fewer airframes than previously possible. In terms of the threat from modern SAM systems such as the S-300V4 and S-400 the answer is simple – modern air arms with the exception of the USAF are not equipped to operate in hostile airspace guarded by these systems. Therefore, if the current fighter types are inadequate then a new approach is needed and whilst F-35 may not be the whole or even the most efficient answer to the problem; at the moment it seems to be the best available.”

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What is the best estimate for how much a customer would pay for a A/B and C?

“The billion dollar question! Essentially the most accurate answer is ‘it depends’ since production lot costs vary significantly, as do exchange rates and operating costs are determined by fleet size and flying hours as much as anything intrinsic to the aircraft.

scrooge-mcduck.jpegHowever, in very broad brush terms for an air force looking for aircraft to be delivered in the 2020-2025 timeframe then around $100M for the A, $125M for the B and $140M for the C would be my best estimate on flyaway cost including initial spares and weapons.”

How well can F-35s currently communicate with platforms like the F-16 or Typhoon? 

“That depends on what the threat environment is. If F-35 can broadcast on Link 16 without unacceptably degrading its survivability then links with F-16 or Typhoon are as good as any other fighter on the network. However, low-probability of intercept (stealthy) waveforms such as the multifunction advanced datalink (MADL) currently require a translation node such as Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN), mounted on another platform like a Global Hawk in order to pass tactical information to Link 16 assets.”

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What tactics will emerge when conventional aircraft fight alongside lower RCS (radar cross section) aircraft?

“This already occurs regularly on Red Flag exercises where Typhoons and F-15s (amongst others) are teamed up in strike packages with the F-22 Raptor. In this case the F-22s use their superior situational awareness and survivability to direct the other fighters against enemy air threats for a as long as possible to preserve their own missiles and fuel for the final stages of any encounter, or to take out any particularly high threat targets which the fourth generation aircraft are having difficulties with. The F-35 will not be able to fly as high, fast and far as the F-22 so tactics will have to change vis-à-vis integration with more traditional designs. However, the principles of using the fifth generation assets’ superior situational awareness and survivability to get the most out of the brute power of the Typhoons and ‘teen series’ fighters, whilst helping the latter to avoid or defend against the most dangerous threats as the engagement develops, will still apply.”

What problems do you predict for the F-35? 

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“Many issues remain in terms of software, flight control system parameters, buffeting and weapons integration are running behind schedule in Block 2 and 3 software – so Block 3 and 4 are increasingly taken up with fixes for problems rather than adding promised capabilities. Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) also remains a source of bugs and deployability issues and will do for some time. I therefore predict that whilst most of the aircraft’s current problems will be ironed out over time, the time required to do so will lead to a situation not unlike Typhoon where advanced weapons integration and promised software-based capability upgrades are delivered years behind schedule in the first decade or so of the F-35’s frontline career.”

What is the greatest myth about the F-35?

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“The greatest myth about the F-35 is that it is a bad aircraft because it cannot outmanoeuvre an F-16. The F-16 is a phenomenal example of single mission-set aircraft design that has proven to be flexible and cost effective in multiple conflicts. However, the F-16 is simply not going to be relevant in a high-threat environment going forwards. The F-35 should never have to out-manoeuvre an F-16 within visual range because its situational awareness and low-observability allows an F-35 pilot to know exactly where the F-16 is from a great distance whilst remaining undetected itself. He/she can, therefore, position themselves to completely control any engagement or avoid a direct confrontation as required. If in a really tight spot, the advanced helmet with 360-degree targeting capabilities and AIM-9X with its extreme off-boresight engagement parameters should ensure that a turning dogfight is an irrelevance.”

Is the F-35 cost effective?

“That remains to be seen when the type has several years of frontline operational service under its belt. It also fundamentally depends on what a nation wants its air force to do. Switzerland, for example, which only uses its air force for QRA duties against airliners during weekdays and is not planning to participate in power projection activities overseas, would be mad to purchase F-35. However, for the UK which has Typhoon as a superb (albeit expensive) QRA, air superiority and soon to be multirole asset, but lacks the capacity to operate against modern integrated air defence systems (IADS); F-35 is not only cost effective but also the only option – assuming the UK wants to be able to project power abroad in this way in future. The F-35 is fundamentally about allowing air forces to operate in areas covered by modern SAM systems and for that task it can be considered cost effective as there are precious few alternatives to compare it to apart from the B-2 Spirit which remains the most expensive airframe in history.”

  What will be different about F-35I Adirs? Will any other operators use unique kit?

“The Israelis are basically demanding the right to be able to ‘open up’ the F-35 to look under the hood and tinker with things as they have been accustomed to doing with previous foreign types such as the F-4, Mirage III and F-15. What they end up doing with it will most likely revolve around integrating unique Israeli munitions and developing their own cyber-warfare and EW capabilities using the aircraft’s impressive potential in that area.”

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Do the air arms believe the claims of its air-to-air effectiveness? If so, why is the US looking into F/A-XX?

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“Air arms believe the claims of F-35’s air to air effectiveness compared to legacy types. Air combat in the modern age is first and foremost about situational awareness – who sees who first, positions for advantage and kills with the first shot. F-35 will be extremely capable in this area and if used in close conjunction with fast, heavily armed and high-flying legacy fleets such as the F-15C and Typhoon, it will be utterly lethal. However, the fact remains that F-22 would most likely eat the F-35 for breakfast and foreign competitors such as the Chinese and Russians are developing aircraft aimed at closing the gap with the F-22. The F-22/F-35 duo should be enough to ensure US air dominance through the 2020s if used wisely, but beyond that, the game will continue to change and few believe that the F-35 can be developed on its own to maintain air dominance once the F-22 has itself been outclassed. Therefore, the F/A-XX and F-XX programmes are (quite rightly) looking into what comes next.”

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What should I have asked you about the F-35?

“Am I excited to see it come to the UK at RIAT in a few months’ time? Answer: Yes, but quite frankly I’m much more excited to see the F-22!”

Justin Bronk is Editor of RUSI Defence Systems, and Research Fellow at the Military Sciences at Royal United Services Institute. He has written articles on the RAF’s role in Syria, Rafale versus Typhoon and the Su-35.

Justin Bronk has previously worked on a Lockheed Martin sponsored research project on the F-35 – this article was not sponsored by Lockheed Martin. 

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Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here– without donations we can’t carry on.

At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_Br0nk

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

Want to see more stories like this: Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Please help us remain independent by donating here. Donations enable us to carry on. Many thanks. 

Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians.