By former F-14 pilot Jon Schreiber, with former Topgun instructor and F-14 RIO Dave Baranek
The F-14 Tomcat, born of lessons learned and policy denied1, became a star of the US Navy’s combat weaponry and the silver screen butmore significantly, it was the most important warplane of the Cold War. Yes it was! Here’s why.
The F-14 embodied the broadest capabilities of any airplane ever designed for and flown in combat. It was a tactical airplane with strategic capabilities. Genius.
The F-14 had the capability of destroying ANY opposing aircraft ANY where in the world. No other Cold War aircraft had the single mission capability to send two nuggets on a “standard” mission from the CV and trap two Aces a few hours later. The AIM-54 and the AWG-9 enabled incredible combat capability. With the AWG-9 able to track two dozen separate targets and feed the data to a swarm of million-dollar missiles doing their job, two J.Os3 could find themselves at the tactical pointy end of a powerful strategic spear. This capability was on American flight decks SEVENTEEN YEARS before the AIM-120 provided multi-shot capability to other American fighters. Additionally, the F-14 was armed with weapons that can kill from inside 1000 feet (the M61 Gatling gun) to 70 nautical miles with the Phoenix air-to-air missile, and the Tomcat was designed with an incredibly versatile performance envelope that boasted high-g manoeuvring, high-speed, great endurance. The Tomcat’s godlike potency captured the aviation world’s attention when it was introduced as one of the earliest 4th generation fighters.
Leveraging the Tomcat’s versatility during FleetEx 83 (April 1983), several F-14s reportedly overflew a Soviet military base near the Kamchatka peninsula – proving the assertion of Admiral Watkins, then CNO, that the USSR was “as naked as a jay-bird” in that AOR. Following the FleetEx 83 F-14 flyover, which caused a political stir, Able Archer 83 demonstrated NATO’s first strike capability in November 1983. Coincidence? We think not. The F-14 demonstrated it was capable of first strike. But how did a tactical airplane enable such a strategy?
In 1986, the F-14 proved that its extraordinarily capable weapon system and its endurance could create a “strategic-tactic,” variously known as Chainsaw and Tanksaw, enabling a single F-14 to achieve a kill volume covering approximately 2% of the Pacific Ocean. Kills at 700NM from the carrier meant anti-ship missiles carried on aircraft like the Bear and Badger were no longer a sure threat to the U.S. Navy’s fleet, allowing carrier-based and other long range strike aircraft to be flown feet dry over the USSR. The F-14 had completely amputated the air leg of the Soviet triad.
In a scenario where a Tanksaw F-14 shoots down outbound Soviet bombers while they are still feet-dry over the USSR, the cognisant Soviet Air Force General, who was just handed his retirement by a couple of Navy flyers, will need to temper his response to losing those capital assets so early in the campaign. His problem is not the aggressive F-14; his problem is that the standard USN F-14 always travelled with a team of “goodfellas.” Goodfellas in the form of one or more Battle Groups, and during the cold war a Battle Group deployed with organic strategic capabilities. If F-14s are able to kill bombers feet dry over the Soviet Union then the organic assets of the Battle Group have the ability to strike critical C4 targets in country. By severing critical C4 links across several Soviet regional C4 facilities the U.S. will have gained a great advantage of shortening the Soviet strategic decision-cycle time from about 40 minutes to less than 10 minutes. That advantage could disable initiation of the Soviets MAD3 response thus decapitating the entire context of the Cold War conundrum. Tactical to strategic, indeed.
The versatility of the F-14 was a triumph, forged in titanium, of the West’s ability to thwart any threat, thus ending the cold war and reserving a spot for the USSR on the “ash heap of history.” 2 While many other aircraft can claim a supporting role in ending the cold war, the key aircraft that crippled the air leg and MAD response of the Soviet Stratigiya was, unquestionably, the Tomcat.
The F-14 incorporated many lessons from the ongoing air war in Vietnam, as did the F-15 Eagle. These included the importance of good maneuverability and cockpit visibility, the value of a built-in gun, and many more. As far as policy denied, this includes the failed attempt to force the Navy to accept the F-111B when it needed a versatile fighter and the missile-only armament of other recent American fighters.
In his “Westminster Speech” of 18 June 1982, US President Ronal Reagan said, “…The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history….”
Abbreviations used in the article that may not be common knowledge: J.O. = junior officer; CNO = Chief of Naval Operations; AOR = area of responsibility; MAD = Mutually Assured Destruction.
Jon “Hooter” Schreiber is pappy to three cute as the dickens girls, father of two cool sons, and husband with limited fashion sense. He is a retired US Navy fighter pilot (F-4s and F-14s) and active GA pilot. Opinions offered free of charge.
The “airmail gaze” invokes the sexual politics of the gaze and suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowers AvGeeks and objectifies aeroplanes. In the airmail gaze, the aircraft is visually positioned as an “object” of aerosexual desire. Within this outlook, aircraft types may be reduced to being ranked on desirability alone with no appreciation of their flying qualities or historical importance. To understand the airmail gaze we must first embrace it. So let’s judge aircraft manufacturers through the utterly disgraceful metric of which produced the highest percentage of beautiful aircraft types.
The SR-71 has the deserved reputation of being the most unique air-breathing aircraft ever built. No other could fly as fast, as high, or carry thousands of pounds of equipment above 80,000 feet. It was the primary strategic reconnaissance asset for the Free World during the latter 25 years of the Cold War. The SR-71 could sustain continuous Mach 3+ flight for over an hour while obtaining the highest quality reconnaissance information from multiple sensors, and with aerial refueling, the aircraft could have circumnavigated the Earth in one flight. The aircraft was one of the first to employ stealth technology, thereby ensuring that the airplane was almost invisible to radar. Its speed and altitude also cloaked its presence. During this time of sparse reconnaissance satellite coverage over potential enemy targets, the SR-71 could sneak up, gather vital information, and leave the area without warning, and often without notice.
The SR-71 was never successfully intercepted by surface-to-air missile or aircraft. It had a state-of-the-art electronic defensive system which would defeat an incoming missile’s homing and steering. Detectors on board would alert the crew of a missile launch instantly and, since the SR-71 did not normally fly at its maximum speed or altitude, the aircraft’s defense was simultaneously to jam the missile’s guidance while accelerating, climbing, and turning with 45º of bank. No surface-to-air missile could out-turn, thus hit, an SR-71, a fact demonstrated many times, especially during the Vietnam War. Attempts to shoot down an SR-71 continued until August 25, 1981, which was the last time an enemy (North Korea) fired a surface-to-air missile at an SR-71; that mission was flown by Maury Rosenberg, pilot, and Ed McKim, Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO).
We carried an array of sophisticated sensors and recorders which could glean reconnaissance data with cameras capable of high-quality photographs horizon-to-horizon. We also had radar imagery capable of one-foot resolution. This was the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS), which could deliver readable radar pictures night or day, bad weather or clear. I’m no photo interpreter, but even I could tell what was pictured. The SR-71 also carried electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems which are still classified. We advertised that the SR-71, within 24 hours notification, could be over any target on earth and be capable of surveying 100,000 square miles of terrain each hour. It was no idle boast.
The SR-71’s potential versatility is not widely known. Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson, the genius designer of all ‘Blackbirds’, was diligent in assuring that the Mach 3+ Blackbird aircraft could fulfil several roles, if needed for national contingencies. The first version was the A-12 aircraft, built for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This was a single-person airplane and carried as principal sensor, one very high-resolution optical camera.
A differently capable aircraft was the YF-12, the Mach 3+ fighter/intercepter version of the Blackbird’s basic design. It was developed as part of Kelly Johnson’s “Universal Aircraft” concept of adapting the fore-body section to accept reconnaissance equipment, air-to-air missiles, or four nuclear weapons. Thus, the Mach 3+ Blackbird type could have been straight reconnaissance, a nuclear bomber, an interceptor, or recon/strike. There is at least one video, available to the public, which shows an actual missile launch from a YF-12 at Mach 3. I’ll add parenthetically that it was also outfitted to be a Mach 3 drone-launch vehicle, but the first test deployment of the D-21 drone failed and resulted in the loss of the Blackbird M-21 launch aircraft.
So it was versatile. But did it deliver?
By the late 1950s, we knew the Soviet Union had better, more capable rocket launch systems than any North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country. This was dramatically evidenced by two sudden leaps in Soviet advanced technology: 1957, Sputnik, the first artificial satellite; 1961, first man in space to orbit the Earth. These notable achievements shocked the people of the United States and indeed, the Western World.
Knowledge of the military and industrial strength of Communist states was extremely important, and reconnaissance missions against the Soviet Union started as early as 1947. Several American aircraft conducted these flights: the RB-29, RB-47, RB-50, C-130, PB4Y-2, U-2, and the Ryan 147 remotely piloted vehicle (RPV). Reconnaissance flights penetrated Soviet airspace, overflew the land mass, and many were shot down. The Los Angeles Times, 11/12/1992, reported that 40 such reconnaissance aircraft were lost and 200 American airmen died conducting these flights. That number of lost personnel was confirmed by Paul Glenshaw in his article: “Secret Causalities of the Cold War,” Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, December 2017.
So aerial reconnaissance flights against potential enemies (the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, the Middle East) were a top priority. These flights had to be conducted routinely and had to be survivable.
The SR-71 was developed to fill that need. From 1966 to 1990, the SR-71 flew over 3,500 operational reconnaissance missions while logging 11,000 hours in a flight environment which was most hostile: aircraft skin temperature averaged 620º F, outside air pressure was 0.4 pounds-per-square-inch (psi), altitude was 15-16 miles straight up, aerodynamic damping was low, and true airspeed was typically 2,000 to 2,100 miles-per-hour, making pitch controllability critical.
For operational survivability, the SR-71 was one of the safest military aircraft, as no Air Force crew member was killed while flying one, a testament to outstanding aircraft maintenance and crew training. A remarkable record given its extreme flight envelope and potential attack risk.
I’ll summarize the importance of the SR-71 missions by quoting Paul Crickmore, noted aviation historian and Blackbird author, in a letter to me.
“In theatre, the SR-71 proved the concept of high-Mach, high-altitude flight, to obtain vital aerial reconnaissance. The SR-71 regularly conducted reconnaissance missions in the skies over North Vietnam – particularly around Hanoi in 1968-70 which at the time, was the most highly defended area on the planet.”
“The Blackbirds provided superior flexibility compared to satellites, time after time, specific examples—Yom Kippur War 1973, Yemen 1979, Cuba 1977—1990, Lebanon October 1983 (following the truck-bomb attack killing over 240 US Marines), Libya 1986, The Persian Gulf 1987, but perhaps most importantly, the on-going monitoring of Soviet nuclear submarine fleets for the US Navy—particularly the Northern Fleet with their submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), capable of hitting large areas of the United States, as well as all Allied Countries.”
“The simultaneous, synoptic coverage of information gathered by the SR-71’s sensors, provided the intelligence community and national leadership—with photographic imagery (PHOTINT), radar imagery (RADINT) and electronic intelligence (ELNT), that unquestionably helped to keep the Western World free.”
Richard H Graham, Colonel, USAF (ret) was an SR-71 Instructor Pilot, Squadron Commander, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing Commander, and assigned to the Headquarters USAF (Pentagon) to supervise Programs and Resources as a Strategic Force Programmer. His evaluation of the SR-71’s worth as a reconnaissance asset is quoted from his book: “SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of the Blackbird, The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane.”
“…the synoptic coverage (displaying conditions as they exist simultaneously over a broad area) provided by the SR-71 was far superior to satellite reconnaissance. Broad-area coverage from different approach angles, in a relatively short time span, produced considerably better intelligence than a predictable, single satellite pass, every ninety minutes. In 1990, the SR-71 was the only airborne reconnaissance platform that could penetrate hostile territory, accomplish wide-area synoptic coverage, and still survive. It could also be tasked reasonably quickly and had the element of surprise.”
Photographs of two SA-2 surface-to-air missiles which were launched against SR-71 #976, July 26, 1968 in the vicinity of Hanoi, Vietnam. Tony Bevacqua (Pilot), Jerry Crew (RSO).
DB Cooper is the nickname of a mysterious hijacker, who in 1971, hijacked a Boeing 727 before escaping by parachute with a bag of money – and has never been identified or apprehended. With the recent release of ‘D. B. Cooper, where are you?!’ on Netflix there is renewed interest in this intriguing enigma. Cooper has always interested me, even more so after I took up skydivingmyself. Over the years I racked up six hours and fourteen minutes in freefall time, at 72 seconds per jump, and was also able to join the small number of people who have actually jumped from a 727, at the World Freefall Convention in 1996. So while I’m not going to claim to be an expert in hijacking, I can argue that my viewpoint isn’t totally uninformed.
For the West Coast skydiving community DB Cooper is a semi-mythical figure with a strong Robin Hood vibe. The bedrock assumption was that he was an experienced jumper. Questioning the idea that he was competent would go about as well as mentioning the teachings of The Man In Red (an aggressively Santa-denying teacher) in the presence of small children.
With hindsight, this is really odd. While the public perceives skydivers to be a cross between The Dude from The Big Lebowski and Biggles (Ed: I don’t) the truth is that they are usually smart, calculating people who think several steps ahead and plan things in detail. While a group of skydivers might look chaotic as they leave a plane, the reality is that everything is planned down to the second and the inch. You know exactly where you put your hands and feet at different stages of the exit. People even have specific jobs – I was a rear-rear-float. What looks like random chaos to outsiders is in fact just as carefully planned as the activities of a Premier League football team. Which makes the unwillingness to question DB Cooper’s competence really odd, as any experienced jumper planning it would have not made the dreadful social and fashion choices he did.
Faux Pas #1: Never ask someone if you can borrow one of their outfits in the middle of a soirée
Experienced jumpers hate borrowing gear. Buying your own rig is the first thing you do when you finish training. It’s not that you’re afraid that borrowed gear won’t work – it’s that the handles will be in slightly different places, and life is much simpler if they are always in exactly the same place when you reach for them, not two inches to the left. There’s also the issue of being dependent on somebody else’s stuff being available, and the risk that you might damage it.
This means that if an experienced jumper decided to do what DB Cooper did, the starting point of their plan would be to use their own rig. OK, maybe not their own gear, but obtaining a second rig that can’t be traced to you is not that hard if you are in the sport and know where to look. Asking the government to provide you with a parachute doesn’t make any sense, as you’d be telegraphing your plan to the authorities.
Let’s look at that plan for a second. If you ask the Feds for a parachute the obvious concern is that they’d give you a non-functioning one. In practice, I think people overestimate the risk of this. It would be hard enough to obtain one which works at minimal notice, never mind persuade a parachute rigger to sabotage somebody else’s rig and hand it to a man who showed up out of the blue and claimed to be from the government. But Cooper asked for two sets of gear, presumably to rule this out.
Asking for one parachute makes your intentions obvious and starts a nationwide manhunt. Asking for two turns that into a North-America-wide hostage rescue situation and means that every law enforcement agency within 2000 miles will be sitting, ready for a call, to pounce on anyone who parachutes from anything, anywhere.
So, the obvious thing to do is obtain another rig before your flight and bring it aboard hidden in a carry on. You can then pretend it’s a ‘normal’ hijacking, but bail out, leaving a suitably incoherent and psychotic ‘suicide note’. They’ll know you jumped, but only after the fact. They will be looking for a body, not a fugitive. The idea that an experienced jumper planning a hijacking wouldn’t think of this strikes me as absurd.
Nobody will want to hear this, but the bottom line is that if you look at the DB Cooper story from the perspective of an experienced jumper it simply doesn’t make sense. While it’s clear he had some exposure to aviation, the truth of the matter is his plan was poorly thought through. We live in a culture where almost all entertainment portrays criminals as brilliant masterminds, invariably pursued by over-motivated detectives with out-of-control personal problems. This is not how real crime works. The Dunning Kruger effect that leaves the inept least equipped to judge their own limitations is as common in the criminal community as it is in the rest of society, and we have a tendency to mistake breathtakingly stupid, but original for audacious.
Faux Pas #2: Never wear slip-on shoes to a Jet Jump
The second terrible fashion choice was his footwear. DB Cooper was observed to be wearing slip-on shoes. In freefall, everything which isn’t extremely firmly attached will flutter rapidly and violently. I once forgot to tuck in the end of the strap which kept my helmet on, and in 72 seconds it not only hurt like bejesus but managed to draw blood. Slip-on shoes would be gone within a second. Any experienced jumper planning this would have opted for boots or shoes with really good ankle protection, especially as the chosen drop zone was rough terrain. Are we supposed to believe that he smuggled a pair of boots aboard, but didn’t think to bring his own rig?
Let’s also look at the choice of drop-zone. The region he jumped into is about 50% trees. Wooded terrain sounds wonderful at first, but have you ever tried removing a parachute from a tree, at night, with no shoes? If you can’t hide the parachute you are in deep trouble. At dawn, the helicopters that are part of the nationwide manhunt you’ve provoked will see it and will know your location to within a couple of miles. Then there’s the fact that trees are dangerous to land in. Smokejumpers, who land in trees for a living, have special clothing and bring equipment to escape from a tree when their parachute gets caught in it. Now I come to think of it slip-on shoes were the least of his sartorial problems.
Faux Pas #3: Never carry luggage that clashes with your outfit
The third faux pas was that having been given the money, he was observed to tie the bag to himself and the rig with paracord or string. This is a recipe to be beaten to death by your own stuff on the way down. There’s also no guarantee that the bag itself wouldn’t disintegrate when it hits the brutal airflow you encounter when you leave a 727. If you were planning on jumping from a 727 with a large bag of someone else’s money you’d need a custom container that integrates properly with your gear and is strong enough to withstand the forces you’ll encounter, while being capable of being carried out of a forest after landing. Once you owned such a bag you could use it as a carry-on, to bring your own parachute on board. But instead, we see a bizarre attempt to improvise. It’s the equivalent of turning up for a first date wearing a black plastic rubbish bag tied around the waist with string, but less sexy.
Just because you want to believe something, doesn’t mean it’s true
People who have never been to the West Coast of the US don’t understand how ridiculously big it is, and how easy it would be to vanish and never be found. When Steve Fossett disappeared the search found eight other aircraft that had vanished before it gave up. Once you understand this, the failure to find of DB Cooper is not mysterious.
The Cold War took a brief rest between the early 1990s and the 2010s, but serious tension between the largest former Soviet nation and the West has now returned. At the forefront of the original Cold War was air power, and this fearful age sired a multitude of incredible and often long-lived warplanes. In the second of a series of articles written by pilots and subject experts, we consider the question of which Cold War military aircraft was the most important. Let us turn start to Peter E Davies case for the F-86 Sabre.
In 1954 the massive Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, later to host Red Flag and other spectacular USAF training activities and projects, was already an exciting place for new pilots. It hosted the F-86 Sabre, the world’s premier fighter at the time and one which became a seminal influence on most subsequent fighter designs. Sabre pilots had roundly defeated communist MiG-15s over North Korea, and many of those wartime pilots (including seventeen aces) were now instructors at Nellis. For new trainees the chance to join that exclusive fraternity was compelling. The Sabre’s reputation as the West’s first true jet dogfighter was well established. Before technology took over the combat cockpit it was also the last fighter in the tradition of the Spitfire and Mustang in which the pilot had full manual control. During the Cold War the Sabre and its pilots kept alive the dogfighting tradition at a time when caution and cost-cutting in training programs actually prevented many trainee pilots from indulging in realistic air combat manoeuvres. That continuity paved the route for a later generation of versatile air-fighters including the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. Conventional late-1950s wisdom advocated aerial combat with large aircraft firing missiles from long distances.
The Sabre’s outstanding combat record was founded in its design’s many technical advances at a time when most designers were still simply adding jet engines to WW II-style airframes. In 1943 North American Aviation (NAA), decided to avoid direct competition with Lockheed’s straight-winged F-80 Shooting Star, the USAF’s first successful jet fighter. The company initiated a new German-inspired wing in 1945, swept at 35 degrees. It was a bold step as the few previous swept-wing designs had exhibited instability problems. Large, automatic wing slats and hydraulically boosted ailerons were the innovative NAA solution, giving superb transonic handling. A unique blown plastic cockpit canopy gave all-round vision unequalled in fighters until the advent of the F-15 Eagle. NAA developed manufacturing techniques for a thin wing with machined-plate, double layer skins. The F-86E version introduced the now-universal powered, ‘all-flying’ tailplane.
Sabres retained gun armament, either the standard six .50 calibre machine gun fit or (in later Sabres) 20mm cannon. Guns disappeared from many other Cold War fighters in favour of missiles, but the Vietnam war showed that to be a mistake. However, the Sabre also pioneered the use of air-to-air missiles in the radar-equipped, all weather, rocket firing F-86D version (added in 1949). It included an early afterburner and a complex Hughes E-4 fire-control system. It became the most prolific Sabre variant with over 2,500 manufactured, pioneering radar-based interception in many air forces of the Cold War era.
Early jet engines of the time were often unreliable, but NAA designers chose the best available option, the Allison J35 in the F-86 prototype which first flew on October 1, 1947 and achieved supersonic flight in a shallow dive the following year as the first service-capable fighter to achieve that speed safely. The engine was replaced by the General Electric J47, also selected for the B-47 Stratojet bomber. It became an outstanding powerplant in Korean combat and effectively proved that jet fighters could be as effective and reliable as their prop-driven predecessors – and a lot faster. Cold War fighter designers throughout the world benefited from that bonus.
When the Korean War began in June, 1950 the small Allied air forces in South Korea relied on WW II propeller-driven aircraft and early, straight-winged F-80 and F-84 jets. None matched the Soviet MiG-15, a broadly similar swept-wing jet to the Sabre. F-86As were urgently deployed to counter this unanticipated threat. Despite the MiG-15’s altitude advantage and its pilots’ proximity to their home bases the outnumbered, but better-trained Sabre pilots soon regained air superiority. It was a scenario to be repeated in many respects in Vietnam over a decade later.
The Sabre’s success and influence are demonstrated by its unusually widespread use. Overall production ran to almost 9,000 aircraft, with licence production in Canada, Japan, Italy and Australia. No fewer than 35 air forces used Sabres, making it the most numerous Western Cold War jet fighter and giving many of those users entry to the jet age. It equipped many NATO nations, including Great Britain, to face the growing Soviet threat following the Berlin crisis in 1949. Some continued in service, and occasional combat until the mid-1980s.The US Navy’s used F-86 derivatives, culminating in the very capable, long-range FJ-4B fighter-bomber. They equipped 22 USN and USMC squadrons up to 1962. In US Navy training sessions a well-flown F-86 regularly beat F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader pilots in dogfighting practices.
An F-86 pilot allegedly achieved supersonic flight shortly before Chuck Yeager’s official sound barrier-smashing flight in 1947, but it was the success rate of twelve-to-one against MiG-15s (later to be scaled down to a still creditable 4:1) that lent the Sabre an almost legendary status and reminded future fighter designers that manoeuvrability, ease of operation and gunfighting capability were still relevant in the supersonic era. While some might champion aircraft like the Hawker Hunter, F-4 Phantom or MiG-21 as the most influential Cold War fighters there is no doubt that the F-86’s wide range of ground-breaking achievements in design and worldwide service easily give it that accolade.
How many US or former Afghan armed forces aircraft have fallen into Taliban hands?
It is difficult to tell just how many they have, and what their condition is. The American contractors did an excellent job of doing what they could to disable aircraft and support systems before they left during the evacuation. Other aircraft were lost due to battle damage and accidents or were taken apart for maintenance and abandoned. The best numbers I have for the Blackhawk specifically is 2-3 that are in somewhat airworthy condition.
“I am not someone who would ever wish another person death, even in the case of a pilot who betrayed me personally, and those he vowed to fight alongside. So, I do not relish the thought of the lives lost in the crash. However, I can be glad that the Taliban now have one less asset at their disposal, and fewer people to fly for them.”
How likely is it the Taliban will develop an air power capability – what stops them?
I would put the likelihood of them developing a credibly air-power capability at low. They will likely have better success with their Russian helicopters, as those programs were further along, and the Taliban and other mujahadeen forces had mixed success flying them after the Russian retreat from Afghanistan. They also had longer to develop maintenance personnel and pilots capable of doing maintenance test flying, but even those aircraft still used foreign advisors to run the maintenance programs and logistics. Their American systems are facing a two-fold problem. The first is that it will be significantly difficult to procure spares and components. And while some spares do exist there already, that supply is finite. The second, and this one is most specific to the UH-60 and MD530s, is a lack of trained maintainers, and pilots capable of maintenance test flying. There are no UH-60 pilots left in Afghanistan who were qualified to do maintenance tests, we evacuated all of them. The maintenance test flight, or Functional Check Flight for the Navy readers, is a highly technical process of methodically testing each aircraft system after maintenance has been performed. In helicopters, this is especially critical, because it requires balancing all of the blade shaft, and other component, vibrations so the aircraft is capable of controlled flight. Without this capability, the aircraft have a very limited shelf life.
A Taliban piloted H-60 crashed – what happened?
Attempting to dissect any accident without a thorough mishap investigation by qualified personnel is little more than educated speculation, but in this particular case I have some edifying information. That air-frame had been damaged by ground fire in Shorab (see below). The ground fire had damaged one of the cables that runs from the tail rotor pedals to the tail rotor quadrant. The UH-60 was an aircraft designed out of the lessons of the Vietnam war, with as much redundancy as possible. So this particular problem, the tail rotor cable shearing has that same redundancy built in. If one of the two cables shear there is a compensation system to maintain some controllability of the tail rotor. If both shear, the tail blades move to a pre-set fixed position, making the aircraft have known flight characteristics at certain airspeeds and weight configurations. If one cable sheared, the issue may have gone unnoticed by the pilot, and a poor or slow reaction put the aircraft into an uncontrollable state. If both sheared, or the emergency was compounded by another tail rotor controllability issue, which seems somewhat likelier, the aircraft would begin to spin out of control, especially in a high power situation like the out-of-ground-effect hover they were in, and unless a well-drilled crew reacted as they were trained to do, the aircraft would quickly become un-recoverable. That is a long answer to say, it was most probably a tail rotor problem, brought on by a sheared tail rotor cable.
Are US-trained pilots still in Afghanistan?
There are. As for the UH-60, nearly every seasoned pilot was evacuated thanks to the monumental efforts of a huge number of people, many of whom I want to continue to thank publicly, especially Shawn VanDiver, the pilots of HSC-85, and one individual named Mike, to whom I owe the most. There are still some pilots, that we are working to get out, but they were not the ones who had been qualified to fly missions. The Taliban were denied that strategic resource. However, one pilot, who I will not name, is flying for the Taliban, as he was coerced by means of his family’s detainment. The second Idres Mohammed, was a turncoat, who lied about his aircraft having a maintenance problem, which he then stole, landed in his village, and covered up so it could not be sought by coalition drones. After the Americans left, he flew it to Taliban lines. I signed off on his Aircraft Commander upgrade checkride, which I regret to this day.
What should I have asked you about air assets in Afghanistan?
Less a question, and more of a sentiment. The National Resistance Front, a coalition of former Northern Alliance members, former Afghan military members, and others, who are resisting Taliban rule, under the command of Sandhurst Graduate Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, in the Panjshir valley. They have had some notable success, including the downing of a Taliban helicopter in June.
All hope is not lost, and there is credible resistance to the Taliban. I feel like this is an important point to make, because it needs to be a part of the narrative, and any ongoing conversation about the future of Afghanistan.
What are your personal feelings about seeing images of H-60s in Afghanistan today?
I am not someone who would ever wish another person death, even in the case of a pilot who betrayed me personally, and those he vowed to fight alongside. So, I do not relish the thought of the lives lost in the crash. However, I can be glad that the Taliban now have one less asset at their disposal, and fewer people to fly for them. I also hope this scares off anyone even mildly considering trying to fly a Talib aircraft. In this particular accident they were trying to train a new pilot. They are not maintained and are much more dangerous to anyone trying to pilot them, than to anyone they could be fighting against. You’d have to be stupid or suicidal to get into one. I feel loss, having had pilots I trained killed fighting against the Taliban. But also hopeful, knowing that the United States now has a group of brave, dedicated, and fine people who will make amazing American citizens. There is much work to be done on their behalf, and on so many others either under or resisting Taliban rule, but at least that work has begun.
Faster than any aircraft at extremely low altitudes, the Tornado was a Cold War strike fighter designed to take on the might of the Warsaw Pact in the grimmest of North and Central European weather, day or night. Michael Napier flew this fearsome machine for five years from RAF Bruggen, Germany, and fell in love. Here are 10 Reasons he loved flying the Tornado
10 1755 hrs
No, that’s not the time– it’s the number of hours that I flew the Tornado, starting as a bumbling novice and eventually becoming a Four-ship Leader, Aircrew Checking Officer, Air Combat leader and Air-to-Air Refuelling Instructor. Tornado was a wonderful aeroplane to fly: its complexity gave it an incredible breadth of flexibility while it was still a relatively straightforward machine to fly, enabling the crew to use their efforts to achieve the mission rather than being distracted by the poor handling characteristics or weird quirks that plagued so many other aircraft of the day. In 1755 hours I did pretty much everything that you could do in the Tornado and all in all it was incredibly satisfying to fly such a capable aeroplane and to be able to get the best out of it. I loved it!
9 Steady ride
And so back to low-level. One benefit of sweeping the wings to 45 Wing and of having a fly-by-wire control system was that the aeroplane was as solid as a rock at low-level. OK, we sacrificed some manoeuvrability for comfort, but it did make the aeroplane a pleasure to fly at high speed and low-level (down to 100ft in places) and to do it when other aircraft would have bounced around so much that it would have taken a real toll of the crew in terms of fatigue. It is a paradox that this low-level nuclear bomber should have spent most of its operational career at medium-level, but the place that it was really at home was down in the weeds – where it was designed to be!
8 Comfy Cockpit
In a strange departure from RAF tradition, in which cockpits were designed for hunchback midgets and where instruments and levers were scattered across the cockpit seemingly at random, the Tornado boasted a comfortable, well-designed and ergonomic cockpit. Pretty much everything was where you would expect it to be and was within easy reach. The ejection seat (thank you Martin Baker) was comfortable enough for a typical 1:45 low-level sortie although it was a bit bum-numbing when we moved to medium-level and spent 4 hours or more strapped to it. That’s also when they fitted the HaveQick secure radio on the right console just behind one’s right buttock – an absolute nightmare having to twist round and programme it (and it had to be done pedantically!) like a contortionist. On a 4 hour flight you also had to be a bit of a contortionist to use the pee-bag: first you had to put the safety pins into both ejection seats (command eject meant that one handle fired both seats!) then unstrap… then, having fished out the plastic bag from its place at the rear of the right-hand console (behind the HaveQuick!) and while still flying the aeroplane with one hand (or at least keeping a very careful eye on the autopilot) wriggle to the front edge of the seat – not easy when there is an ejection handle and then a control column between your legs – and your knees aren’t far from the instrument panel either. [And if you nudge the control column it will disconnect the autopilot!] Then delve into layers of g-suit, flying suit and underwear to fish out the appropriate part of the anatomy and insert into pee bag… and make sure it stays there throughout the next bit, or you end up sitting on a wet seat for the next few hours! Having completed the drill and stowed the full bag, you then reversed all the above steps until you were once again fully strapped into a live ejection seat. But despite those minor drawbacks, the Tornado cockpit was a good place to be!
7 Nav Kit
Of course, the thing that made Tornado capable of flying itself around using the TFR and of dropping those weapons so accurately was the navigation kit and in those far-off days before GPS took the fun (and uncertainty) out of everything the Tornado nav kit, based primarily on an inertial nav feeding into a computer with a Kalman filter, was THE state-of-the art. If properly aligned the kit was pretty good and it got even better when the nav looked after it and used the radar to ‘fix the kit’ with updates against various pre-surveyed fixpoints. I could say that it was impossible to get lost with the Tornado nav kit, but it is probably truer to observe that you could get lost very accurately with it!
6 Weapons Delivery
Weapon aiming was straightforward – a target bar showed where the target was (or at least where the main computer thought it was), a Bomb Fall Line (BFL) showed the track that the bombs would take when they were dropped and a Continuously Computed Impact Point (CCIP) showed exactly where those bombs would land if dropped at that instant. Fly the BFL through target bar and the computer would release the weapons as the CCIP flew through the target. Direct Hit (DH)! My favourite, though, was the loft delivery… 480kts, 150 ft fly BFL through target bars… Time To Go (TTG) circle unwinds… 3 seconds on the TTG, light the burners, feel the push in you back… at 0 TTG the symbology changes to a dot which moved quickly upwards… capture the dot within the VV symbol in the HUD and track it (a 4g pull) and the computer releases the bomb at exactly the right moment for it to sail through the air for 3 miles and score another DH. Yes, Tornado was pretty impressive at dropping weapons accurately.
How long does it take to get used to flying with a Head Up Display? About 10 seconds, actually! In the Tornado the HUD was our primary reference for instrument flying and it made it very easy to be very accurate. The HUD also gave us the weapon aiming displays, once again enabling us to deliver weapons with great accuracy from low-level. In Velocity Vector (VV) mode the HUD showed you exactly where the aircraft was going and unusually (for the RAF of the day anyway) it was a 1:1 display – in other words the 5° pitch bar sat at 5° pitch in the real world so you had great awareness of your flight path. The only problem was that it was easy to become a “Hudaholic” where you relied upon it totally for everything and didn’t bother to look at anything else. In fact, cruel (and unfair) people have said a Tornado pilot’s lookout consisted of being a nodding dog looking between the HUD and the moving back map display just beneath it. Not true – but the HUD was certainly a wonderful instrument.
4 Reverse Thrust
Most aeroplanes have a problem stopping. Below a certain speed, wings stop working, so you have to be on the runway by then and you have to slow yourself down pretty quickly before the end of the runway. In the case of most fast jet aircraft that involves slowing down 20-odd tons of metal going at 160+ kts and since aircraft brakes are notoriously poor (because they have to be small and light) in most cases back in the 70s and 80s that involved using a parachute, with all the rigmarole that entailed. But not Tornado! No, we had reverse thrust on the engines and with max reverse selected you could stop on a sixpence. So, while other less fortunate mortals had to worry about where to dump their used chute and how they were going to repack it, we just taxied off and back to the Hardened Aircraft Shelter for tea and medals…
Reheat, afterburner – whatever you want to call it – is a wonderful way to increase your engine power by pouring fuel into the back of a jet engine and setting fire to it. Your thrust increases dramatically – but then your fuel flow goes up in a similarly eye-watering fashion. In most aircraft reheat gives you something like another 30% power, but not the RB199 – that DOUBLED your power! The push in the back was amazing and so was the acceleration as the airspeed indicator span upwards. The downside was, of course, that when you cancelled the burners you lost half your power. We used the burners sparingly (except for loft deliveries – see below), but it was always a great feeling to get that kick in the back.
The Terrain Following Radar was at the heart of the Tornado GR1’s operational capabilities. While other aircraft (except of course the F-111) were unable to fly at night or when low cloud made visual flying impossible, Tornado could still fly at low-level and still hit targets with great accuracy (see later!). At first, sitting in the machine while the autopilot flew you around at 500 ft and 420 kts in cloud through the mountains was an act of faith (or maybe foolhardiness, I don’t know) but when you got used to it, it was an awesome capability. Of course I watched the TFR and autopilot systems like a hawk while TF-ing, but I had learnt to trust them and I got a real sense of satisfaction after completing a night low-level TFR formation sortie – knowing that nothing else (yes I know – except the F-111) could do the same thing.
1 Swing Wings
Variable geometry – or “swing wings” in journalese – was the solution to the problem of how to have benign handling at slow speeds (like in a straight wing aeroplane) yet also have the benefits of a swept wing at high speeds. Simples – make the wings move! All the rage in the 1970s, VG turned out to be an aeronautical dead end and was abandoned in later generations of aircraft, but in fairness it did work very well. In Tornado we took off with the wings fully forward (25° sweep) – a bit like driving a manual transmission car in 1st gear – and passing 350 kts we moved the wingsweep lever back to the detent (2nd gear or 45° sweep). 45 Wing was good for most things, but if you manoeuvred hard or slowed down – lever forward to 25 Wing (change down to 1st gear!). Conversely above about 550 kts into overdrive (67° sweep – or 63° if you were carrying the big 2250 litre underwing fuel tanks). Actually 67 Wing was referred to as “air show wing” as we had little use for it day to day except showing off, but above 550 kts it did make a difference and the Tornado flew beautifully at around 600 kts in 67 Wing! And at the end of a sortie – back to 25 Wing for circuit and landing where this beast of a strike/attack aircraft flew like a docile training aeroplane.
Warplanes of the Future was my favourite childhood book. The cover featured an exciting vision of futuristic jet fighters. The lead aircraft was a creation of the author, the inimitable Bill Gunston. We asked Jim Smith, who was involved in the assessment of real-life advanced VTOL combat aircraftif Gunston’s delta jump-jet could have worked.
Following some recent social media exchanges, Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles has asked me to write an assessment of the Stealth ASTOVL project mooted by Bill Gunston, published in a 1980s book ‘Advanced Technology Warfare’ (among others).
Illustrations of the ‘Stealth VTOL’ concept are attached, and are of considerable interest to me since the use of the term Stealth and the form of the concept presented, suggest that it lies broadly in the period in which I was assessing ‘real’, i.e. US and UK Industry-developed ASTOVL concepts as part of a Joint UK MoD and US DoD technical assessment project.
My role in the project was to assess the concepts’ aerodynamics, and in particular to advise on issues associated with ground interaction with the airflow about concepts with differing propulsion arrangements during take-off and vertical landing (VL). The criticality of this aspect is important to note. Different approaches to providing vertical thrust can have very different outcomes in terms of stability, control, and achievable landing weight.
In our programme, we did not consider VTO in detail, mainly because there is little operational benefit. At sufficiently light weights, most aircraft that can achieve a VL could achieve a VTO, but there is generally little to be gained by operating with reduced fuel and payload when you can avoid this with a Short Take-off, especially if assisted by use of a ski-jump ramp.
The key factors involved are discussed briefly in the section that follows. This can be skipped if you want to avoid some detail, but, if you stick with it you will have a better understanding of why I think the Gunston concept has some problems.
Propulsion interaction factors affecting aircraft during a Vertical Landing
There are two principal ground-caused mechanisms which can cause difficulties in performing a VL. These are:
Hot Gas Ingestion (HGI) also known by the US as Hot Gas Re-ingestion
There are also some propulsion factors that may be important:
Ground environment impacts, typically noise, erosion and temperature
Intake momentum drag, which can adversely affect stability and control
Impact of propulsion system packaging on airframe layout
Propulsion system failure cases
Hot Gas Ingestion
As an aircraft approaches to make a VL, the propulsion system is generating high thrust, generally in the form of columns of high-velocity hot exhaust gas. On striking the ground, this gas travels outwards, and then rises upwards towards the aircraft. If it is then sucked into the aircraft’s engine intakes, the lower density of the exhaust gases due to temperature, and the potentially unsteady nature of the gas flow, can cause a serious loss of thrust, or cause the engine to surge. The severity of this problem depends on the temperature of the exhaust flows, the location of the intake, and any measures to prevent re-circulation of the exhaust gases.
As the jet-borne aircraft nears the ground, the exhaust gases rush outward across the ground surface in a high-speed outward flow under the aircraft. This results in reduced pressure below the aircraft, sucking the aircraft down toward the ground. Factors increasing the severity of this effect include high jet velocities, a low wing, and a large, flat under-surface. Measures to control this effect include the use of barriers and dams to capture the upward flows occurring between pairs (or double pairs) of nozzles, the use of a high wing, and using higher mass flow, but lower velocity jets.
Ground environment impacts, typically noise, erosion and temperature
The jet thrust which supports the aircraft when it is performing a VL is a result of the exhaust flows from the lift system. The nature of these is highly dependent on the details of the propulsion system. At one extreme would be the hot, high-velocity exhaust from an afterburning turbojet engine, while at the other extreme would be the large-scale but low-velocity flow under a helicopter rotor. Lying in between are a range of possibilities, including, listed in order of decreasing flow velocity and temperature:
Unaugmented exhaust from the fan of a turbofan engine – Harrier front nozzle
Mixed Flow from a turbofan engine – McDonnel MFVT project, Boeing X-32
Ejector-Augmentor systems – jet flows that entrain large volumes of ambient air – Northrop-Grumman concept in MoD/UK programme
Cold fan flows – F-35B front fan, current eVTOL multi-ducted fan projects
Jet noise scales with exhaust velocity to between the 5th and the 8th power. Hot gas exhausts can damage aircraft structures, and high-velocity ground flows cause erosion and can damage equipment. All of these are dangerous to groundcrew, so current thinking is to reduce jet temperatures and velocity as far as possible, while still providing enough thrust for a VL.
Intake Momentum Drag
Intakes are designed to slow down the air flowing into the engine to allow the compressor to function efficiently. In wing-borne flight, we think of the air flowing past the aircraft, due to the aircraft’s motion, being slowed and having its pressure raised to allow the engine to work efficiently. From the aircraft’s perspective, the air is slowed from the free stream value, and the work done in achieving this manifests itself as intake momentum drag. If the intakes are ahead of the centre of gravity (which they will be), and if the aircraft is in a crossflow of any sort – perhaps due to transitioning laterally to land on an aircraft carrier, intake momentum drag can be quite destabilising, especially in yaw. This is certainly the case with the Harrier, and for a slow-moving aircraft nearing a VL, the effect is compounded by the relatively low control power available to the pilot.
Impact of propulsion system packaging on airframe layout
The measures required to manage suckdown and ground environment impacts tend to make low velocity jet flows desirable. However, the various means that have been used to achieve this generally suffer from significant penalties in terms of propulsion system volume. This is coupled with the constraint that in the hover and VL, the engine thrust has to be vertically downwards, and balanced around the aircraft centre of gravity. These propulsion factors can have a dominating effect on the packaging of the airframe, a problem which only becomes more pronounced if the airframe is also required to be stealthy, and to operate at supersonic speeds.
Without drawing on any protected information, one can observe a number of features that are common to aircraft intended to have low radar signature. These are:
Alignment of edges and surfaces as far as possible
Avoidance of anything resembling a corner reflector
Screening and shaping of engine intake and inlet duct so as to avoid direct visibility of the engine front face
Carriage of weapons and stores in internal bays
Avoidance of opening doors and panels as far as possible, and treatment of those that sre unavoidable
Use of conductive coatings for the canopy, and specialist coatings elsewhere
Measures will also be required to reduce Infra-red signatures. These might include, in addition to the above:
Mixing of ambient air with exhaust flows to reduce temperature
Screening of hot components, and managing cooling flows ao as to avoid hot exhaust flows and airframe hot spots.
Propulsion System Failure Cases
Failure of lift system components is likely to be a critical event for any aircraft performing a VL. However, the degree of criticality does vary. For example, engine failure for a multi-engine helicopter may be an inconvenience rather than a critical flight emergency. On the other hand, failure of one of the lift engines of a Yak-38 results in rapid loss of control, the impact was sufficiently severe that the aircraft was fitted with an auto-eject system.
The Gunston Concept
So, what does all this mean for the Gunston concept?
In the language of ASTOVL assessment, the Gunston design would have been characterised as (Advanced) Vectored Thrust. I have enclosed ‘Advanced’ in brackets here, because it is not clear whether the design is intended to be supersonic or not. If it is designed to be supersonic, then the engine would need some form of plenum chamber burning (PCB) – an afterburner for the front nozzles of a four-poster vectored thrust lift-engine. If this is not used, then the design is essentially a re-packaged Harrier.
Looking at the general issues I have identified, I’ll offer some views on each, as applied in the Gunston design.
Hot-gas Ingestion might not be too much of an issue, although a forward dam might be needed to limit flows from the front nozzles reaching the intake. The likelihood is that the front nozzles will be discharching fan air flow, which would be relatively cool, unless PCB is to be used, in which case HGI would be a significant issue due to the intake being close to the front exhaust flows and the high temperature of the exhaust.
Suckdown would be a major problem for this concept, and possibly more difficult if PCB is employed. The low wing, the short undercarriage, and the location of the rear nozzles under a large flat plate (the wing) will all increase the degree of difficulty. A box-shaped barrier ahead of the rear nozzles, with sidewalls extending forward to the HGI dam would be required to capture the fountain effect likely to be formed between the front and rear nozzles, presumably deploying when the undercarriage is lowered. The problems will be compounded if PCB is used, because of the high temperature of the front jets. One of the drawings appears to show doors in the relevant area of the fuselage, but these may be to allow engine removal for maintenance.
Ground environment impacts, noise, erosion and temperature impacts will be highly dependent on whether PCB is used. If it is not, the aircraft may be regarded as a repackaged Harrier, albeit with additional suckdown problems due to the low wing and short undercarriage, and HGI problems due to the proximity of the front nozzles to the intake. If PCB were to be used, my first concern would be that the system was never really proven to work. Setting that on one side, and assuming a working system, the augmented jetflow under the aircraft would probably present insuperable problems in all of the three elements noted.
Intake Momentum Drag is specifically mentioned as a factor to be managed using the rotating reaction control valve in the tail. Intake momentum drag was an issue to be managed carefully in the Harrier, as it significantly destabilised that aircraft in yaw, and I assume this is why it was raised for this concept. I am not convinced it would be as great a problem for the Gunston design, but the combination of the lack of a vertical fin, and the possibility of strong vortices being shed from the slender fuselage nose, do suggest that the RCV may well need to deal with both pitch and yaw control separately, rather than by simple rotation.
Impact of propulsion system packaging on airframe layout This is a particular problem for AVT designs, because the engine has to be located so that the exhaust thrust is balanced about the centre of gravity to enable a vertical landing. As a consequence, the engine ends up in the centre of the configuration, rather that, for example, towards the rear of the aircraft, which would be typical for a Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft. Knock-on consequences of this are the inevitability of a relatively short intake, and difficulty in packaging other elements of the aircraft, including weapons, fuel and other systems. These constraints also make aircraft development in service difficult – when an improved radar was fitted to produce the Sea Harrier FRS 2, the fuselage had to be lengthened so that additional avionics elements could be located to the rear of the engine installation to better balance the aircraft.
Stealth Considerations are perhaps the most challenging aspect for the Gunston concept. I am assuming that measures such as gold-flashing the cockpit, and the use of LO treatments in the intake system will prove adequate. The short intake duct, and its positioning on the upper surface, may cause engine integration issues, but let’s assume these are able to be resolved, particularly since the design is clearly intended as a strike aircraft, rather than an air superiority fighter. These are not the main problems.
There are three key issues, the first of which is that the only practical location for the weapons bay is well behind the centre of gravity of the aircraft. We know this has to be essentially midway between the vectored jet nozzles. Carrying four stores in the weapons bay will move the centre of gravity well aft, and will pose significant problems for the flight control system. Let’s assume that this can be resolved for wingborne flight through the use of a full-authority computer-managed flight control system like that used on Eurofighter. Even with this assumption, there remains the problem of landing with the centre of gravity well aft of the centre of thrust. This, of course, will be managed with the swivelling reaction control valve (RCV), I hear the reader say.
Well, maybe, but the geometry suggests the thrust required to be approximately half the weight of the weapons remaining in the weapons bay. If the weapons weigh 4000lb (1814 kg), that RCV has to deliver 2000 lbf (8.9 kN) which is a big ask, and does not seem likely to be available as a bleed flow from the engine. This is the second significant issue, because committing to release all weapons on every sortie is implausible. If a high and continuous thrust is required from the RCV simply to trim the aircraft in the hover, it is also not evident how the proposed RCV can also be actively controlled to manage the aircraft in yaw, particularly since the design may well be directionally unstable.
The third issue is that the underside of the aircraft is continuously bathed in the hot exhaust flows from the propulsion nozzles. In consequence, there can be no way to visualise this concept as having low observables in the infra-red. Were PCB to be used for the forward nozzles, of course, IR signature would be a yet greater challenge.
Propulsion System Failure Cases are likely to be no worse than for other single-engine STOL and STOVL designs. Control system failures would be more critical than aircraft like the Harrier as this aircraft appears likely to be both longitudinally and directionally unstable.
Examination of the Gunston concept is interesting, not least because it provides insights into the difficulties faced in packaging a stealthy strike aircraft around a four-poster propulsion system, like that of the Harrier. Regrettably, the problems identified in delivering a VL capability from this concept do appear insuperable.
However, the concept, if re-imagined as a CTOL aircraft, and unmanned, appears remarkably prescient and foreshadows designs such as the Boeing X-45, Northrop-Grumman X-47, BAE Systems Taranis and Dassault nEUROn unmanned aircraft.
In a CTOL configuration, with the engine moved to the rear, and stores, sensors and fuel packaged around the centre of gravity all of the issues identified with the concept as a stealthy VTOL platform would be resolved.
The Cold War took a brief rest between the early 1990s and the 2010s, but serious tension between the largest former Soviet nation and the West has now returned. At the forefront of the original Cold War was air power, and this fearful age sired a multitude of incredible and often long-lived warplanes. In the first of a series of articles written by pilots and subject experts, we consider the question of which Cold War military aircraft was the most important. Let us start with former reconnaissance pilot Robert Hopkins‘ case for the KC-135 family.
Traditional histories of the Boeing KC-135 focus on the means and methods of aerial refuelling, or upon the appearance and configuration of the dozens of unusual KC-135 variants. Similarly, existing studies of the evolution of Western defense policy since the Second World War are often restricted to the political and economic factors. To segregate the means from the motive fails to recognize their complicated interrelationships and concurrent gestation. In fact, weapons and weapon systems have frequently become determinants of strategy instead of merely implements of strategists. The KC-135 and its variants have been more than simple instruments of modern defense policy: for 60 years they have been crucial to its evolution. Their influence, direct or indirect, upon America’s strategic deterrence, conventional force projection, research and development, and intelligence-gathering policies remains unequalled. The KC-135 jet tanker is the first weapons system of the Cold War and, arguably, has proven to be the most important. KC-135s and their variants have affected the development of almost every existing notion of land-based air power today.
Without the KC-135 tanker fleet, SAC bombers could not reach their strategic targets, effectively emasculating the national policy of Deterrence. Without tankers, tactical fighters and special operations aircraft could not engage in the conventional wars that punctuated and defined open conflict during the Cold War. Without tankers, heavy transports filled with troops and supplies could not fly across vast oceans to enable the rapid build-up of defenses to protect friendly nations under threat of imminent invasion. Without tankers, even advanced ‘silver bullet’ stealth aircraft like the Lockheed F-22 could not fly from their home bases in the United States to engage enemy forces on the other side of the world.
Reconnaissance variants of the KC-135 have gathered intelligence essential to the assessment of foreign nuclear weapons programs and evolving technologies, provided tactical and operational combat intelligence in multiple wars, and verified foreign compliance (or lack thereof) with international arms limitation or reduction treaties. Most, if not all of these sorties, required air refueling from KC-135 tankers.
Throughout the Cold War, airborne command posts and those of other nuclear-weapon-wielding commanders defined US (and Western) national security policy. SAC’s EC-135s – one of which was until 1990 always airborne, further reducing US vulnerability to sneak attack – could direct nuclear-armed bombers and their supporting tankers, launch ICBMs, and direct submarines to launch their SLBMs, effectively controlling all three ‘legs’ of America’s strategic triad, dissuading potential adversaries from attempting such an attack. At first these aircraft were little more than a survivable means to launch America’s retaliatory nuclear forces (including nuclear-tipped missiles) in the event of a surprise attack. As technology improved to enable more robust communication in a trans- and post-nuclear attack environment, EC-135 airborne command posts provided a genuine second strike capability, raising the possibility among some policy makers that a global thermonuclear war could be controlled and even won.
KC-135 variants defined modern jet travel, first by providing the Boeing Company with the economic and logistical means to build its iconic 707 through coproduction, and later as test aircraft that evaluated high-altitude jet routes around the world or in evolving avionics and technology. The C-135’s shortcomings as a troop and cargo transport highlighted the crucial need for a dedicated jet transport. As the 1973 Arab-Israeli War demonstrated, even these capacious transports were effectively limited without the ability to refuel in flight.
Science and technology benefitted as well from the KC-135. From basic aerodynamic research into large, swept-wing jet aircraft to advanced research in solar physics, the Aurora Borealis, and sending man to the moon, KC-135 variants served as high-altitude, long-endurance platforms capable of carrying delicate scientific equipment and researchers anywhere in the world. These aircraft also supported military research—especially associated with nuclear weapons—that developed and defined multiple weapons, defense and satellite communications, and even stealth technology.
To be sure, other airplanes throughout the Cold War undertook each of these roles. KC-97s and KC-10s share a portion of the credit for America’s air refueling capability. The U-2 and SR-71, along with the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were part of SAC’s dedicated reconnaissance fleet. The US Navy’s EC-130Qs, E-6A/Bs, and SAC’s E-4Bs were all interconnected with EC-135 airborne command posts. C-141s, C-5s, and C-17s get the glory for moving men and materiel to hot spots and humanitarian crises around the world, but credit for pioneering international jet cargo goes to the largely forgotten C-135. A B-52 launched the X-15 and myriad research aircraft, and NASA’s C-141 offered a glimpse into the heavens. None of these aircraft, however, did it all.
– Robert Hopkins, ex RC-135 pilotand author
Third Edition due out in November. Book signing by the author at SMW in Telford, 12 November 2022.
Long derided as a scandalous pilot-killer, the true story of the Blackburn Firebrand is very different argues naval aviation historian Matthew Willis.
I am tired. Another day on Twitter, another bruising at the hands of the mob. ‘Abomination!’ they say. ‘A lemon.’ ‘A disaster’. ‘Should have been turned into catfood tins.’
OK, so those aren’t comments about me directly, although I’ve honestly had worse, and given the state of my mental health, it’s hard to conclude that they are unfair. (Not that I’d make a very good cat food tin, which is now added to the list of things to beat myself up over.)
We are still talking about the Firebrand, apparently. So why does it feel like a personal attack?
Partly this is my own messed-up brain and is nobody’s fault but my own. Sorry, therapist, nobody’s fault. Partly it is because This Is Not My First Rodeo and yet every time I get chucked off the same horse as if I didn’t have considerable experience, the crowd apparently wondering who this clueless noob is despite my having performed these antics many times already. Yes, I have spent more time than anyone should consider reasonable ‘well-actuallying’ about the Firebrand only for nobody to take the slightest bit of notice. After a while, it starts to get to you.
It’s true, I have somewhat tied myself professionally to the Blackburn Aircraft And Motor Company, not least in this parish. My first book was a monograph about the loathed Skua, a more recent one about the derided Shark, I’ve written in-depth features about the Baffin and Ripon, and other books about types that were manufactured in quantity by Blackburn, such as the Fairey Swordfish and Barracuda. My apologia for Blackburn – yes, they made more than one good aircraft, the Buccaneer really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise – can be read here somewhere. I don’t see it as my role to defend these aircraft, exactly. But I do see it as my role to research them assiduously and then tell the truth about them. And in most cases that happens to involve defending them from the vast majority of assertions in print and online, because the truth is that Blackburn aircraft were a lot better than you think. Yes, even the Skua. Yes, even the Firebrand. Yes, even the Roc. Well, OK, probably not the Roc, but there are exceptions to everything.
Once I started researching these machines – properly researching them, including sifting through archives, interviewing veterans and reading everything I could get my hands on, published and unpublished, the true picture was unquestionably different to the standard version. It is a truth universally accepted that an aircraft developed by Blackburn must be in want of a kicking online. Well, it isn’t. It’s lazy, and you should stop it. If not for my sake, then for the sake of all the people who worked at Blackburn, and the people who worked on and flew their products in service, especially during the war years, doing their bit to help achieve victory over fascism.
It’s fun to have a go at the Skua because it looks clumsy and awkward and it was laughably meant to be a fighter despite having two seats. Never mind that it sank a seven-and-a-half thousand-ton cruiser, could cross the entire North Sea to attack shore targets with pinpoint accuracy and was actually successful as a fighter. It’s easy to have a go at the Firebrand because it took ages to get into service, was less manoeuvrable than a Seafire and ‘Winkle’ Brown said mean things about it. Never mind that it fulfilled a role that it had never originally been intended for, maintaining a carrier-based torpedo bomber function for Nato against the sudden and very real threat of Soviet cruisers attacking sea lines of communication. The Nato function was so important that the Firebrand squadrons were kept in European waters during the Korean War, training ceaselessly and taking part in several major naval exercises aimed at demonstrating the alliance’s naval strength in the face of the USSR’s blue-water ambitions. It was important to let the Soviet Union know that the RN’s carriers had the means of attacking its Kirovs, Chapayevs and even the first Sverdlovs – and that means was the Firebrand, so the type was repeatedly to be seen at sea in the early 50s aboard HMS Eagle, Implacable and Indomitable reinforcing this capability.
It’s true that once the Firebrand is invoked online, rather than the devil turning up, it’s never long before a certain diminutive test pilot makes a posthumous appearance. Yes, the incomparable Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown made no bones about his poor opinion of the Firebrand, and that’s where many of those aforementioned insults come from. Winkle’s article on the Firebrand in Air International (later reworked for the book Wings of the Navy) is most people’s go-to source on the aircraft, and for many, his word is law. ‘Eric Brown’s assessment of it was scathing – that is, for me, the final word about the monstrosity,’ said one enthusiast.
I’m a huge fan of Winkle. I love everything he did, from flying a Rata for the Reds in Spain to making a Mosquito into a carrier aircraft to putting himself through the exact scenario that had just killed Geoffrey de Havilland to find out exactly what had killed Geoffrey de Havilland. But the problem with Winkle is that his achievements were so immense that people are apt to take his every word as gospel fact, when even he didn’t necessarily intend them to.
Much of what Winkle wrote in that Wings of the Navy chapter is opinion, and is far from unchallengeable. Some of it is based on entirely false premises – for example, he judges the Firebrand’s handling and manoeuvrability as if it were a fighter, a full five years after its role had changed to pure strike. The reason he gives for this is that the Air Ministry had maintained the ‘TF’ or ‘Torpedo Fighter’ prefix, but the reality is that this designation was largely meaningless by the late 1940s. Consider that another aircraft to bear the ‘TF’ stamp was the Bristol Brigand, a 25,000lb twin that nobody ever intended to go toe-to-toe with a Fw 190 in the air combat role, as Winkle seemed to suggest the Firebrand should. In some areas he was evidently unaware of all the facts – for example, one reason the aircraft took so long to bring into service was that in 1942 the entire programme was suspended for over a year, just as production was about to start, as Blackburn had to take over Barracuda production from Westland. This is rarely if ever noted in published accounts.
Moreover, while everyone always leaps to quote the same two of Captain Brown’s comments – that the Firebrand was “short of performance, sadly lacking in manoeuvrability, especially in rate of roll” and most devastatingly, “a disaster as a deck-landing aircraft” – they always ignore where Winkle is actually complimentary, or at least neutral, in his opinion. For example, that the aircraft was “Shaping up into a strike aircraft with a useful performance, and light and effective controls,” or that it “Now offered quite acceptable characteristics,” or that it was “A competent enough aeroplane,” or that it “Earned full marks in its rocket-assisted take-off trials,” or that “The arrested landing proving trials with the Firebrand Mk IV progressed well and the catapulting trials equally so, with all sorts of stores hung from the aircraft up to an all-up weight of 16,700lb.” It’s hard to square the assessment that landing trials had gone so well with the unfortunate slur that the Firebrand was “a disaster as a deck-landing aircraft,” but that comment more than any other seems to have condemned it. This is despite the two FAA squadrons, 813 and 827 operating the type successfully from carriers during numerous embarkations, and arguably having fewer problems with it as a carrier aircraft than types such as the Seafire and Corsair during their tortured developments.
I should work on taking it personally when people are scathing about the Firebrand or other Blackburn types online, although I do wish that my pretty extensive work to re-evaluate these aircraft had had more of an impact. The trouble is, it’s hard to ignore when people just lazily write off not just the aircraft but everything that was done with them. The Skua crews keeping the Luftwaffe off the backs of the Allied soldiers don’t need you to ignore their contribution just so your sharply worded quip makes sense. The Firebrand pilots training relentlessly to fling themselves against Soviet cruisers if the Cold War had suddenly turned hot were well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their aircraft, they don’t need you to erase them just because they were never called upon to prove themselves in combat – possibly even because their capabilities were a sufficient deterrent.
Blackburn needs love too. Next time you feel the need to lay into the Firebrand, ask yourself what it’s ever done to you.
Matthew Willis is a writer of naval and aviation history.