Top 12 coolest air forces


Putting aside capability and ideology, ignoring the moral or tactical dimensions and looking at air forces from a purely aesthetic point of view, which is the best? The aesthetic air force must operate rare and charismatic flying machines, embrace colourful paint schemes — and perhaps even operate a unique aeroplane. This is not a time to salute fleets of grey common-as-muck F-16s, or aircraft that favour such drearily Apollonian aspects as ‘situational awareness’ or ‘network-centricity’ over the glorious chthonic insanity of riveted aluminium, the stink of jet fuel and the unholy roar of burnished petalled nozzles disgorging afterburning flame! This is a chance to celebrate prehistoric jets in dirty weird camo, bizarre helicopters and exceptionally rare spray-painted 50s transports operating from caves. Let Dali decorate your bone-dome and Gustav Metzger kamikaze dive the rusty Buccaneer of chaos into the boneyard of infamy as we gather to celebrate THE 12 COOLEST AIR FORCES!

12. Ukrainian Air Force (Повітряні Сили України)


Having to defend yourself from Russia is no excuse for slovenliness, and has not stopped Ukraine having among the best turned-out Flankers. Though Flankers are not exactly rare, they are beautiful and rare enough to retain a certain brutal chic — and the Ukrainian scheme is one of the best.


In World War II, while Britain was at its lowest ebb many the British people fund raised to buy Spitfires. Much in the same way, Ukrainian civilians have funded drones and drone development. The War in Donbas also saw the reintroduction of the Gerry Anderson-eque Tu-141 and 143.


11. Draken International 


Going on fleet alone you’d think Draken International would do well but being a private company counts against it, serious military equipment in civil hands means either terrorist, freedom fighter or something akin to OCP, the mega corporation from Robocop. To add to this they DO NOT actually operate Drakens. Having said that, they have a MiG-21 in a wraparound two-tone RAF Hunter-style scheme missed with 80s Soviet markings which obviously brilliant, A-4s in a deep New Zealand green reminiscent of West German army helicopters and, possibly coolest of all, Mirage F-1s in Flanker three-tone splinter camo (is this real? I can’t find a picture). Putting an Albatross in a ‘street camouflage’ better suited to a member of Public Enemy is less convincing though. Also it’s run by some real-life Bruce Wayne kind of guy.


And these guys.

10. Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF  نیروی هوایی ارتش جمهوری اسلامی ایران‎) 


Any air force that has a fighter force comprising aircraft of American, European and Soviet origin is on to a winner; Iran adds Chinese and semi-indigenous aeroplanes to this international buffet resulting in a startling 1980s time capsule that shouldn’t make sense…and to be honest doesn’t. We all know the star, it’s the F-14 Tomcat. That the fighter pilots of the America-hating autocratic Islamist regime fly Maverick’s jet, star of that paean to Reaganite homo-erotica Top Gun, and feel super cool because of that Hollywood association is a wonderfully weird thing.


Had Top Gun had a greater budget to make the baddie’ ‘MiG-28s’ (actually F-5s) more Soviet in appearance they would have added twin canted vertical stabilisers. Seemingly inspired by the need to create props for the next Top Gun film, Iran created just this in the Saeqeh. Just to make it even more fun they painted some to look like Blue Angels, furthering the not completely outlandish theory that the IRIAF is the US Navy in a parallel universe where the 1980s never died. Those that say Iran is like Miami but with less cocaine and no decent bars may have a point. Oh — did I mention the 747 tankers? For eccentricity it is hard to beat the Qahar 313, which is either some kind of testbed, a fake or a demonstration of the surreal nature of Iranian humour.

9. Russian Air Force (RussianВоенно-воздушные cилы России) 



World War II called – it wants its paintjob back.

With exception of the Écureuil, Diamonds and Tu-214s it’s hard to see anything on the Russian Air Force inventory that isn’t appealing. From the epic grace of the Tu-160s designed to vaporise enemies of the proletariat by the million (oh wait, that was us) to the invincible froggy bulk of the Su-34, it’s an awesome gallery of machines. Added to that, the shabby austere look that Russian airbases go for has a certain bleak appeal.


8.  Serbian Air Force and Air Defence (Ратно ваздухопловство и противваздухопловна одбрана Војске Србије)


Anything with Soviet era-jets is going to rank highly on this list – we can all agree that anything from the East stomps all over trashy American garbage in the hotness factor. But what about rare, exotic, Communist-but-not-actually-Soviet indigenous designs?


Enter Serbia. If you like elusive, unheard of types, this is the country to hit up, with the Serbian Air Force still operating and soldiering on with no less than three native types. The two trainers, the Lasta 95 and G-4 Super Galeb (even better than the regular Galeb) are fairly bog standard, but you won’t see them anywhere else (except, weirdly, Iraq and Myanmar respectively – bizarre export destinations? Count me in) which gives them a real edge in the non-combat arena.


But the créme-de-la-créme, the real jewel in the Balkan crown, is the J-22 Orao, possibly the rarest and more obscure combat jet in the world (Taiwan’s FUCK-1 fighter losing out due to having an hilarious and memorable name). Produced only in Yugoslavia and Romania, but now only operated by Serbia, the Jaguarovic oozes second-world charisma and charm. Still cracking on in service, this is a jet that uses afterburning Rolls-Royce Vipers and minimal avionics upgrades that can operate off grass runways. I think I’m in love!


The bastard son of Grumman Jaguar and a SEPECAT Jaguar?

Serbia also flies the Gazelle, licence-built back in the day, bringing some wonderful French flair to their eastern-flavoured inventory. The whistling turkey-leg might not be the most obscure type, but it’s never been anything less than full of character. It’s a properly varied air force, and if you’re into rare type it’s the dream – and for a small nation like Serbia it’s all the more awesome to keep flying these aircraft.

7. Japan Air Self-Defense Force ((航空自衛隊 Kōkū Jieitai))


The coolest F-16 is not an F-16 at all, it’s the Mitsubishi F-2. Rare as hen’s teeth and about as pricey as a Raptor, the F-2 is just fine by us. Gone is the F-16’s dorky almost frameless bird-magnetising canopy to be replaced with the best looking transparencies of anything flying. The paint-job is exquisite, like a 19th Century silk painting of an eclipsed blood moon against an ominous stormy sky.


DIGITAL CAMO PHANTOMS? The best F-15s schemes? I would also like to throw the navy in too, but I’m not allowed. 87808_1511105289.jpg

6. Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Қазақстанның Қарулы күштеріQazaqstannyń qarýly kúshteri)


Laugh all you like Sacha Baron Cohen but the Kazakhs have a plane too fast for any nation (other than Russia) to catch: the MiG-31 which is not only faster than anything it is big. Very big. In fact a fully-loaded MiG-31 weighs around the same as six fully-loaded MiG-21s!


5. Republic of China Air Force

Taiwan has its own unique fighter, the AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo, and paints much of its fleet better than almost anyone. That the skinny F-CK-1 looks like a failed Northrop concept from the 1980s doesn’t matter, Taiwan practice take-offing from motorways. In war with China the air force would likely last as long as a mayfly, which gives the whole enterprise a tragic and absurd flavour that only heightens its poetic appeal.



4. Peruvian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea del PerúFAP)

Tactical as fuck, the Peruvians paint shark teeth on everything and appearing to be getting ready to refight the Vietnam War. Police freaking An-32s too.




Super Tucano, that’s boring, oh wait that’s actually a KAI KT-1 Woongbi



3. Indian Air Force 


The IAF is the fifth largest in the world and certainly the most bonkers of the top 10. Where else could you expect to see a MiG-21 flying alongside a Jaguar, or a MiG-27 with a Mirage 2000, a Flanker with an Apache



2. Royal Thai Air Force (กองทัพอากาศไทย) 


The head of procurement of this air force is like a drunk at a tapas restaurant. It is a truly bonkers ORBAT. Thailand has a massive and varied fleet with huge role duplication and an arcane local designation system.  To look at the duplication for a moment, I wonder what jet trainer they have? T-50s and AlphaJets and F-5s and L-39s? In case that doesn’t cover training, they also have PC-9s, and two-seat  Gripens and F-16 conversion trainers.


A Piaggio P.180 Avanti, that most beautiful and bizarre Italian, has been chosen for the reconnaissance role – surely, the classiest spy since the SR-71 . Basler BT-67, AU-23s and (until recently) OV-10 Broncos for counter-insurgency. Just for a zing of excitement, the Sukhoi Superjet provides VIPs with that traditional Russian level of safety. Or VIPs can travel by Airbus A340…or Boeing 737. Likewise the plate-cramming buffet approach is applied to IR missiles, why just have one type when you can Israeli Python 3/4 and 5s, IRIS-T and good old AIM-9s (the E, J and P variants)

  1. Bangladesh Air Force (Bengaliবাংলাদেশ বিমান বাহিনীBangladesh Biman Bahini)



Blue camouflage Chengdu F-7s. Now, while that alone should be enough to mark an air force out as the most stylish around, let me go further. Electric blue MiG-29s. Dark Green Hercules’. Jungle camo A-7s. Even the Yak-130s are in a two-tone grey. If you want a mix of awesome paintjobs and rare, exotic aircraft types coupled with some pretty cracking national markings then Bangladesh is your aviation nation.


A small country with a huge population, much like it’s enormous neighbour India, Bangladesh has looked both east, west and, I suppose, north for its aviation inventory, leading to one of the most diverse fleets around. Probably the coolest thing in their inventory is the F-7, essentially a Chinese MiG-21 with cranked wings. I dunno about you but writing that got me hot under the collar. Any Fishbed operator gets an automatic pass on the style front, but they were even, until very recently, supported by the even rarer and even more bonkers cool Nanchang A-5, probably one of the rarest ground attacks in the world after the J-22 Orao.


As is common in smaller nations, nearly everything is in camouflage. Maybe single-tone grey paint is the most expensive in the shops? Who knows. Even better is when the camo doesn’t really make sense, like the dark and electric blue Fulcrums Bangladesh flies when coupled with the big red meatball in the roundel. But who cares? They got green An-32s, one of the most ridiculous-looking and therefore awesome aircraft Antonov ever put out.

Hell even their basic trainer is awesome. Nanchangs. Proper old radial-engined Chinese goodness, cranked up to 11 in red and yellow. Sorry, but they make everything look awesome. They’ve got the coolest planes in the coolest schemes in a small country – there’s no other competition!

— Sam Wise

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MiG-29 versus Mirage 2000: personal account from Air Marshal Harish Masand



The MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 are both fast and extremely agile fighter aircraft — but which of these formidable machines would win in a dogfight —  the French beauty or the Russian beast? We spoke to a man with the answer, Air Marshal Harish Masand

“Running through my papers in an attempt to organise my retired life, which now essentially revolves around the golf course or the study room so that I could start punching the keyboard instead of the buttons in the cockpit, I came across my log books the other day. As any die-hard fighter pilot would vouch for, log books can’t just be put down without at least a bit of reminiscing on the good old times, remembering the freedom of the skies and chasing dream-clouds not just like a breath of fresh air but 100% oxygen. What caught my eye that day was the entry starting 30 Mar 1988 of Ex Lightning. Even after two decades, the memory of those two weeks, till the middle of April, when we fooled around with the Mirage 2000s with our mint-fresh MiG-29s, is still vivid in my mind and took me back nostalgically to the old days with the smell of jet fuel instead of cologne, the sweat on your overalls, even if you changed one everyday and wore a fresh one, and of course the quiet roar of the jets despite the air-conditioning and sealing of the 29 cockpit muffling the sound of the powerful R-33Ds.


The exercise was conducted to evaluate the new 29s, received in Poona in June of 1987 but formally inducted in the IAF in December, against the Mirage 2000s, the best that the IAF had till then for over four years. While most of the ’29 jockeys barely had a 100 hours on type, one could not but feel the excitement of testing the machine, the individual skills and the newly developed tactics against the veterans on the Mirages I could feel this excitement amongst even the youngest and inexperienced pilots even though they were going to face the far more experienced Mirage pilots, all of the later handpicked for the first and many subsequent lots, most of them on the fleet for over 4 years and most with 500 hours plus on the type. Of course, one had also heard of how the Mirages had conducted a similar exercise against the MiG-23 MFs earlier in Adampur soon after the induction of the Mirages, whipped the veterans on the 23s and come home with a lot of gunshots against the ill-matched swing-wings. All the same, though we were relatively inexperienced, we were looking forward to the exciting and interesting two weeks ahead of us. In addition, in a couple of weeks after that exercise, our 28 Sqn was celebrating its silver jubilee as the First Supersonics and some of our attention had to go towards organisation of the events and preparations to tap into some professional and personal memories of the old-timers who were attending the function, including the then Chief, Polly Mehra, retired Air Marshal Mally Wollen and many other ex-COs and members of the First Supersonics. As it happened, after this exercise, we had our own tales to tell too.

“I think the ’29 is one of the best fighting platforms in the world even today”

Before I describe the events, I think it would be essential to put down the background a little more in detail to set the narrative in perspective. The trials were code-named Ex Lightning and were to be conducted in a Top Secret manner under the overall control and supervision of then Group Captain Jeff D’Souza, who was the Chief Operations Officer or COO of Air Force Station, Poona at that time. Jeff was a very qualified and capable officer having been on the staff of TACDE after winning the sword of honor in the 10th FCL course. On top of his impressive professional credentials, he was soft-spoken, mature and a truly likeable gentleman without any airs due to which reasons, as I remember, he commanded tremendous respect from all of us in the base as well as within the entire Air Force. The AOC, Air Commodore IS Bindra, had left the whole exercise to Jeff totally and was hardly ever seen for the brief/debriefs for the exercise. Jeff had made it quite clear at the start itself that ego and one-upmanship were taboo for the exercise and, while each specifically designed mission would be flown realistically to the limits of the aircraft, the rules of engagement and flight safety considerations were not to be violated. Also, considering the sensitive nature of the exercise and the information gathered, single copies of the mission reports after debrief would be generated by the nominated agency from either side, to be collated and forwarded to HQ personally by him. As a result, no performance figures or reports on the tactics were retained by the squadrons, at least on the 29 side. Due to this reason, as well as the fact that the information may still be sensitive, I hope the reader will understand the lack of any data or solid figures in this article. I only want to highlight the experience, some of the good times we had and the fun side of things in these two weeks.

“I only remember that the ’29 outperformed the Mirage in every sphere from sustained rate of turn to climb and even in instantaneous rate of turn.”

I was leading the team from the 29s while Pudding Ahluwalia, then commanding 1 Sqn, The Tigers, brought and led the Mirage Team from Gwalior. The first thing that struck anyone that saw the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 parked side by side in Poona was the finish and polish, as it had struck me in October 1987 when Joe Bakshi’s Mirages and our 29s were parked together in Hindon for the Air Force Day display over Palam. More than the sheer difference in size between the two aircraft, were, the clean lines and finish of the 2000 compared to the brutish rough finish and slightly wavy surfaces of the 29. While the finish on the 29 was much better than the MiG-23 or the 21, it was still nowhere close to the aerodynamically and aesthetically soothing finish of the 2000. Right from the first day of the exercise, therefore, I had started calling this a fight between the beauty and the beast and called the Mirage 2000 and their pilots “Delicate Darlings”, or DDs for short, a name that I had coined earlier in Hindon. The size difference between Pudding and me was exactly the reverse of the aircraft and I do not think Pudding ever appreciated being called a DD, particularly by me. When I had earlier used the term on Joe in jest at Hindon, he had merely laughed at it and, being the sport he was, even stood me a beer for thinking of such a term on a relatively quiet evening.


Air HQ had also detailed three umpires from TACDE and accordingly, Vicky Chopra, Damu Damodran and Joe Bakshi from that hallowed institution were with us for the entire duration, flying with us in the rear cockpits of trainer aircraft from both sides to see there was no fudging or exceeding the limits of the aircraft as well as safety of the missions while also making for some lighter moments in the debriefs and for the entire duration of the exercise. Joe was known for his limericks and jokes, apart from his flying skills, and mid-way through the exercise, he coined a poem on the whole scene in a lighter vein and another at the end, scribbling away in the last row, as I saw him in the debriefs. I found these two poems to be quite funny and put the originals in the 28 Sqn Diary. To make for a better perspective, I have placed the transcripts of these two poems at the end of this rumination.

“He still could not accept that the Mirage did not out-perform the 29, at least in the instantaneous rate of turn. I tried to pacify him by saying things like that the Mirage was certainly a good-looking aircraft with some great qualities and systems and he should be happy that he got the beauty while I had the beast.”

The first few trips were planned as individual performance trials with one trainer from each side flying together and synchronously carrying out the briefed maneuvers starting at low-levels to check the timings and compare the performance. I had Doc Vaidya, then commanding 7 Sqn on Mirages, flying with me for the first trip in the rear seat even though he was from the rival camp since the idea was also to familiarize each side with the handling qualities of the other aircraft. Pudding had asked me earlier, right at the start if he could send a young pilot and an engineer to my squadron to study the manuals and the aircraft in greater detail, also by interacting with our people. Perhaps, his idea was to find some way of countering our tactics by understanding our systems better. Later, I was told that he was collecting performance figures for his own private report to his C-in-C or Air HQ. Whatever may have been the purpose, we did not dwell or worry about it since we were still from the same Air Force and the idea was to mutually learn and improve each other’s tactics and skills. That is also the reason why Doc Vaidya, who became a dear friend over the years, found a place in the rear-seat of my 29 on the very first trip. I do not quite recall what he felt about the experience except for the words “wonderful” and “thank you”. Perhaps, Doc would write about the experience himself someday.


I only remember that the ’29 outperformed the Mirage in every sphere from sustained rate of turn to climb and even in instantaneous rate of turn. This was as our side had expected, having earlier theoretically compared the performance figures for the two aircraft. The only doubt in our minds was about the performance of the fly-by-wire system which could reportedly produce the optimum performance on the Mirage in any given set of conditions, albeit with an over-ride for the slightly enhanced performance for a short duration while we had to get the best out of the MiG-29 manually through conventional hydraulic controls. Due to this reason, I would have been quite content to see the initial instantaneous rate of turn on the Mirage to be better, at least for the first 90 to 180 degrees of the turn, till the induced drag of the delta platform and the lower thrust to weight ratio of the Mirage took over. However, I had been working on coordinated pressures on the control surfaces to generate even rapid manoeuvres, instead of large or even noticeable movements on the controls which had their own problems, particularly at low-levels, for my displays on the 29 since Aug-Sep 1987 and, was very pleasantly surprised to see that this effort really paid off and even the instantaneous rate of turn was in our FAVOUR..

In a turn towards the Mirage, I found we were crossing even 90 degrees before the Mirage. Also, I had noticed, while practicing for the displays, that the 29 accelerated even at 9g at low-levels if the power was ahead of the onset of g and, therefore, required a coordinated turn with power management to stay at the optimum speed and at the desired g.


As a matter of fact, I used to brief and show my younger pilots that if you went up faster on the throttle than the onset of g, the aircraft would be on the higher side of the curve and would keep accelerating even at 9g. In that case, the options were only two, either reduce the power to get the speed back or pull more than 9g, the latter option being beyond the laid-down limits for the aircraft. The corollary was that, at the correct speed and with the correct technique, the 29 would keep turning at 9g at low-levels till either you conked off or till the gas ran out. I mean the gas had to run out either in you or the aircraft if you wanted to foolishly continue with such a manoeuvre for a prolonged duration. Such was the brute power of the two engines on the 29 and the thrust-weight ratio. Naturally, our rate of climb was also better. While range fuel consumptions were better for the Mirage due to the shape and the resultant profile drag apart from the weight and the single engine configuration, in combat situations, we ended up consuming almost the same fuel due to the fact that the 29 did not have to remain in the afterburner regime through out the engagement.


Pudding was naturally upset with this outcome and convinced Jeff to repeat the sortie. Jeff agreed since a couple of other parameters, particularly in initial and sustained rate of climb, had to be rechecked in any case. So next day in the green period, there we were, Pudding and I, with Vicky and Joe in the rear cockpits I think, to haul the aircraft around again and measure the figures. Quite naturally, the results were the same as before. During debrief, Pudding first started off with the proposition that we were not comparing pilots but aircraft and, therefore, instead of me, somebody else should fly the 29. While I was quite happy to let even the youngest and most inexperienced pilot fly in other tactical exercises, such 9g manoeuvring and handling the aircraft to its limits at low-levels was something that one could not leave to a lesser qualified and less experienced pilot.


I, therefore, opposed the suggestion and Jeff agreed with my view. In a lighter vein, I also made a counter-suggestion that, instead of Pudding, someone 40 Kg lighter fly the Mirage which might improve its thrust-weight ratio and thus its performance. I am sure if Pudding had been wearing slippers at that time, I would have got them immediately but since he could not easily bend down and undo his flying boots, I got away with just glares. If only looks could kill. I also remarked that the Mirage could be flown by anybody since you merely demanded the best performance from the smart fly-by-wire system. Unfortunately, with a ‘dumb’ flying control system in the 29, we needed rather smart pilots to fly it to its limits. Pudding let me off again, having known each other quite well since the early years of our flying in Hasimara/Bagdogra. Finally, it was decided by Jeff that we would do yet another trip for the instantaneous rate of turn, to be measured only through 90 degrees of turn. While we were leaving the briefing room, Joe just whispered “Dirty Harry getting dirty looks, Keep checking 6”. As may be obvious from the foregoing, we were ahead even within 90 degrees while sustaining our speeds.



Later, we got into group combat and specific missions to try out the aircraft in their designated roles, where even the most inexperienced of our lot were given the opportunity to participate, some with less than 50 hours on type. From the tales I heard in and outside the briefing room, I know they all had a lot of fun while learning DACT with a capable and experienced adversary. While I do not wish to go into individual skills and claims in this area, it may not be difficult to guess these, being typical of die-hard fighter jocks. Suffice it to say that, in these exercises, our radar, IRST, HMSD and the voice information system really proved their worth and were put to good use.

Over the two weeks, I think we all had a great time and built a good bond between the two teams and the fleets, despite all the professional rivalry. In this regard, I particularly remember ‘Fuzz’ Moulik getting quite sentimental and emotional with his course-mates and friends from the other side, particularly “Sexy” Saxena, I think, from the Mirage fleet. Those who know Fuzz will know what I am talking about. For those who do not know Fuzz well, Fuzz gets all emotional and sentimental over a couple of drinks with friends but, underlying it, one can see that he really means every word of affection and would do anything for a friend. Pudding and I remained friends, though rivals for a long time through our careers which took us on different routes. One of the young friends that I made from Mirages was Cheema, now flying for Jet Airways, and we still play golf and share a drink whenever I am in Delhi and he is not on the roster for the next day. I got to know Cheema, then a Flt Lt, in very peculiar and rather funny circumstances that I must add as the concluding episode of Ex Lightning.


The exercise got over on 14 April and the next day the Mirages were to fly back to Gwalior. Having known Pudding for so long, I invited him along with Jeff and a few others to a dinner in the best place in town those days, the Blue Diamond. The GM of Blue diamond, Rajan Kelshikar and his wife Neelu, had become real close to Malini, my wife, and me through the induction days since they were taking care of the Russian Warranty Team and catered for most big events at the base and the VIPs visiting us. With Rajan being kind enough to include me for discounts in the hotel, I could afford to invite a fairly decent number to the hotel as their farewell dinner. After a few drinks, Pudding got a little sentimental and carried away affectionately calling me by the distorted pet name he had for me from Adampur days, ‘Khappusky’, a Russian variation of the pet name I had on Hunters in Hasimara, and said that he still could not accept that the Mirage did not out-perform the 29, at least in the instantaneous rate of turn.


I tried to pacify him by saying things like that the Mirage was certainly a good-looking aircraft with some great qualities and systems and he should be happy that he got the beauty while I had the beast etc. Not being able to reconcile to going back in this manner, Pudding suggested that, before they ferried out the next morning, he and I should do a 1 Vs 1 to prove who was the better pilot and which really was the better aircraft in front of all the people on the base right overhead. For this, we should take off in a spectacular manner; he would take off on Runway 10 while, simultaneously, I should take off reciprocal on 28, each in our lane on the same runway, do a roll of the top and from there engage in a 1 Vs 1. Jeff was watching this conversation with a wisp of a smile and winked at me to give me encouragement.

I responded by asking pudding which Air Force he was in and that, in any case, while he could maintain his lane on take-off on the DD with its sophisticated inertial navigation system, I could barely keep the brute of a 29 on the entire runway with its two engines in full afterburner. In any case, they were supposed to ferry back quietly the next morning and the roar of three engines in full afterburner at one time would wake up even the dead and perhaps make the AOC, who was not particularly fond of me, wonder what on earth was going on, come out of his office and lynch me from the nearest tree. Why AOC Bindra was not fond of me and the good times we had together will make for another interesting story later perhaps. Pudding kept insisting on a fly-off before he left while I kept telling him to enjoy himself, his drinks and go home without such a shoot out. Jeff then told me to go ahead and take him on.


I, then, proposed that we take off with a break so that it sounds like two aircraft doing their own thing, perhaps an air test or something even like a take-off for ferry and time each aircraft from wheels roll. Each would then do a loop after take-off, a 360 degree turn and end with another loop, the whole sequence being timed from start to finish. The aircraft with the lesser timing would have proven its performance along with the skill of the pilots. A case of Black Label was agreed as the prize. The time would be kept by Jeff with a time-keeper from each side. Flt Lt Cheema was nominated from the Mirage fleet while, I think, Late Rathan or/and young Sandeep Singh were sent from our side to the ATC. Well, that is how I got to know Cheema well. I would not like to reveal the timings here but suffice it to say, the verdict was clearly in favor of the 29. After the event, Pudding tried to argue that timing from wheels roll was unfair since we had two engines and he took off on a single one. Guess he wanted us to be foolhardy enough to fly the routine on a single engine to be even. Even from unstick, the 29 was ahead by a vast margin for obvious reasons. AOC Bindra never found out, I guess, since he never asked me a question on this nor issued a warning. As far as I know, he did not question Jeff on this either. Pudding, before leaving, gave me the money for four bottles which we busted up in a fleet party on my birthday after a week on 23 April. The Sqn is still waiting for the remaining eight bottles. I last reminded Pudding of the remaining debt a month before he retired as the AOC-in-C WAC. In the meantime, Cheema got into the bad books of Pudding as the messenger with bad timings.


I think it must be obvious that I enjoyed the ’29 a lot, a little more than the Hunter on which also I have some very fond memories. With its superb aerodynamic qualities, ‘light-n-easy’ control forces, the reserve of power and some great and rugged systems not seen in contemporary fighters, the 29 was like a multi-million dollar sports car which I enjoyed hauling around and exploring its limits. Certainly, the beast was a beauty to handle and never let me down. Nor should it let down anyone with a good head on his shoulders. Handled and serviced correctly, I think the ’29 is one of the best fighting platforms in the world even today and should benefit by the upgrade in the IAF, if done right. I certainly wish the upgrade had come in my time but better late than never.”

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Note from Hush-Kit

I’m indebted to Air Marshal Harish Masand and Angad Singh in making this interview possible.


Flying & Fighting in the MiG-29: Interview with Indian Air Force ‘Fulcrum’ pilot Air Marshal Harish Masand


A modern MiG-29 of the Indian Air Force.

Air Marshal Harish Masand is a decorated veteran of the 1971 war, and a pioneer of the MiG29 in the Indian Air Force. He is one of, if not the, the most celebrated Fulcrum pilot of the Indian Air Force. His solo MiG29 displays remain the stuff of IAF legend. We spoke to him about flying the formidable MiG-29. 


“(The instantaneous turn rate of the MiG-29) Beats all 4th generation fighter that I have read about or flown. Goes into a turn with 9g, or over if you wish to exceed the limits, in a jiffy with very small and smooth movements of the controls as if you had just willed it to turn, almost like a sports car.”

What were your first impressions of the MiG-29?

“It’s an amazing fighter. First looks give a very rugged, tough and menacing look like a hooded Cobra ready to pounce. The first time I flew it, I felt I was in a Hunter all over again. In dry power, it had very similar performance in almost every aspect including ease of handling and light controls. With afterburner, it became a super Hunter with much better performance. Thereafter, I published an article entitled, “The MiG-29 is a Super Hunter” in VAYU magazine describing my impressions in greater detail (which will be shared on shortly)

Which three words best describe it?

“Awesome, incredible, deadly.”


All images: author if not otherwise specified.

When did India procure the MiG-29s and where were you trained?

“India signed the contract in 1986 and starting October 1986, the initial lot, including me, converted on the aircraft in the Soviet Union. We flew from a base called Lugovaya. After conversion and return to India, we trained others and ourselves on the aircraft.”

What is the best thing about it?

“Its thrust to weight ratio which was about 1.1:1 at take-off and came close to 1.3:1 at combat weight.”


And the worst thing?

“Not enough gas. The upgraded versions now have more internal fuel as well as AAR.”

Interview with Su-30 pilot here

How do you rate the MiG-29 in the following categories?

A. Instantaneous turn: “Beats all 4th generation fighter that I have read about or flown. Goes into a turn with 9g, or over if you wish to exceed the limits, in a jiffy with very small and smooth movements of the controls as if you had just willed it to turn, almost like a sports car.”

IMG_1004 (1).jpg

B. Sustained turn: “At the corner speed, you could sustain 9g forever at ISA+10 (Indian atmospheric conditions) till you run out of gas or break your own back/neck trying to hold such g. As a matter of fact, you had to smoothly manage and coordinate the power with onset of g in the initiation of the turn, everything happening pretty rapidly. If you put on full burners too fast compared to onset of g, the aircraft would accelerate and you have to either haul more than 9g or reduce burners.”


C. High alpha: “Carefree handling without worry of departures despite hydraulic controls with a stability augmentation system but no FBW. I used to demonstrate the tail slide on the aircraft regularly at shows within India those days. A mild judder told you when you were close to max alpha. A stick-pusher activated when you reached the stall but you could override it with a little effort. Post-stall, you could just sit back with stick fully back and the aircraft would behave like a falling leaf with slight rocking from side to side. Recovery was instantaneous with even slight relaxation on the control column and unloading.”

D. Acceleration: “Amazing due to the thrust to weight ratio and high SEP. In clean configuration, you can do a loop straight after take-off while accelerating for a max rate after finishing the loop. After a demo of slow speed handling at about 200 Km/h IAS, you could engage burners, put the landing gear lever in the ‘up’ position in one motion with your left hand and start the loop without having to unload to build-up speed.”

E. Climb rate: “Again amazing due to the same reasons. With full burner, if I remember correctly, it was about 330m/second soon after take-off.”

What was your most memorable mission? 


“I suppose my most memorable mission on the MiG-29 was the 5 minute flight I did against the Mirage 2000 at the end of comparative performance evaluation trials against the Mirages on April 15, 1988. The Mirage Squadron Commander was unhappy with the results and insisted on a personal shoot-out before his departure on a personal wager of a case of Black label. We agreed to a profile of loop after wheels roll, a 360 degree turn finishing with a loop to evaluate which aircraft could do this profile faster. I beat him with a significant margin and got 6 bottles, which were consumed by the entire fleet that very night. I still vividly remember this fun mission since the remaining 6 bottles are still awaited, hopefully with interest. The sort of fly-off is described in more details in an Article entitled ‘Rivals From the Same Team‘ published in VAYU magazine soon (which is shared on here)

10 incredible cancelled spyplanes here

Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?

“In the MiG-29, we were doing DACT with almost all aircraft/squadrons of the IAF in turn for honing the skills of both sides in group combat and developing the right tactical manoeuvres. Later, as base commander of Poona and induction of the Su-30Ks, I did a number of DACT missions with the Su-30s. I found those the most challenging since the performance of both aircraft was similar.

The Su-30 had more gas and could last much longer in combat with similar performance. Therefore, the challenge always was to find ways to get a couple of quick shots and disengage before you started worrying about gas.”

Interview with MiG-25 pilot here

Interview with MiG-27 pilot here

How good were the sensors?

“Excellent. The combination of the powerful Pulse-Doppler radar, IRST and helmet mounted sight with the weapons slewed to the sensors was wonderful and unique since it did not exist on any other comparable aircraft those days.

 How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?

Absolutely easy with carefree handling characteristics. Like I said earlier, I felt I was flying a Super Hunter in the very first sortie on the 29 and felt absolutely at home even though I only had under 400 hours on the Hunter, flown 15 years earlier. The hardest thing was to teach my juniors how not to exceed the g limits in their excitement of engaging in combat since the aircraft had no g limiter and had to be initially flown to its limits by feel, cross-checked with the instruments as and when one could steal a glance inside. The idea was to touch 9g and stay there without having to look inside.

How would you rate the cockpit?

“Very comfortable. Roomier than all the previous Russian aircraft I had flown. Very effective cockpit air-conditioning too, also unlike all the other Russian aircraft I had flown. While we didn’t have a glass cockpit, which has now come with the upgraded MiG-29s of the IAF after I retired, personally I was very comfortable with the dials because I kept my eyes out most of the time with only an occasional glance inside. The HUD quality could have been better. I believe we have a much better HUD now along with a helmet mounted display. The voice information system, better known as Natasha, was also very helpful.”

Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like?

“I fired all possible weapons on the Hunter, Su-7 and the MiG-21s. Firing weapons gave you confidence in the systems and you always had the adrenalin pumping in to improve your score and win side-bets. On the MiG-29, I only fired an R-73 CCM (AA-11/Archer) on a manoeuvring target, which also was a great experience.”

 How confident would a MiG-29 pilot feel going against a modern F-16? 

“In a modern MiG-29 like the upgraded one or the M version, and trained well, I feel the pilot should be supremely confident against the modern F-16.”

What is the greatest myth about the MiG-29?

“That the MiG-29 is not very reliable. With the help of technical officers, I personally carried out a reliability study on the 29s. It is a very rugged aircraft. Maintained correctly, the MTBF of systems was as good or better than most comparable systems.”


How combat effective is the MiG-29?

“For the role it’s designed, it is pretty effective. Now it has multi-role capability and more fuel so it should be even better.”

 How reliable and easy to maintain is it?

“As I said earlier, the systems are pretty reliable. Actually, the pre-flight servicing and maintenance is simple. It provides for pre-flight and operational turn-around with just replenishments with a check of the systems during start through a BITE known as EKRAN. The reliability of the systems improved if serviced in this manner. However, initially, with over-servicing and checks in the pre-flight, we burnt a lot of systems and had to cannibalise due to lack of spares, which affected the availability of the aircraft and future reliability of the systems. Periodic servicing is, perhaps, more frequent than comparable western aircraft particularly for the engines but, then, that is based on the Russian philosophy of more thrust and performance with less life. At the squadron level in the early days, without previously having ever done it, we did an engine change in just about 3 hours with another hour for a ground run check. Initially, the engines also had problems of quality control during manufacture with failure of nozzle guide vanes and internal object damage. We also had some FODs due to lack of nose wheel guards/deflectors in the initial aircraft and the position of the nose wheel relative to the main air intakes when the FOD doors were still open. We overcame the FOD problem with a change in the normal landing run technique. An example of the reliability of the engines may also interest your readers. Once, after we had landed from a mission, the technicians informed us that the right engine of my wingman’s aircraft had extensive damage. On examination, it was revealed that one of the bolts from the air intake had come loose and had been injected with all visible blades completely gnashed up. I asked my wingman if he had heard any noise during flight and whether he had noticed if he needed a few extra revs on the right engine to keep the aircraft in trim in yaw. To our surprise, my wingman said, he never heard anything and actually needed about 2% more on the undamaged left engine at cruise settings. The damaged engine had kept functioning all the way without any problems. ” 


Flying & fight in the Gnat at War here 

   Tell me something I don’t know about the Fulcrum?

“Well, in a lighter vein, I can’t do mind reading, particularly from a remote location. What is it that you don’t know but would like to know? Perhaps, you don’t know that, with the reliability and redundancy in almost all systems, the MiG-29 can be recovered with almost any in-flight failure. In all my time with the MiG-29 as a squadron commander and, later, as the base commander, we didn’t lose a single aircraft or pilot.”

 What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the MiG-29?

“The one major tip would be to learn to fly the ’29 smoothly by feel till you perfect handling the aircraft to its limits in its huge envelope. The other would be read up all the technical information on the aircraft and systems till you know it inside out to be able to handle the weapon systems efficiently and get the most out of them. Last, regularly practice gun-shots on manoeuvring targets. If you can do that, missile shots become far easier.”

How much post-stall manoeuvring can the average squadron pilot do? Is this a rare skill?

“There isn’t much any combat aircraft can do after it has stalled except to recover quickly for further manoeuvring. Therefore, in my personal opinion, post-stall manoeuvring in combat is a myth. What I would like the average squadron pilots to do is to learn to manoeuvre the aircraft at extreme alphas just short of the stall and know how to rapidly get it to the best manoeuvring alpha while still engaged with the opponent.”


What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a MiG-29?

“Perhaps, the tail slide. However, it has little combat value and may be practiced only to get complete mastery of the aircraft. Apart from that, as in all 9g aircraft, the hardest human thing is to be able to look out while in a 9g manoeuvre, particularly at low-level.”

Everything you wanted to know about Indian air power (but were afraid to ask) here

What should I have asked you?

“You could have asked me if you could arrange a trip for me in the 29? I’d love to haul it around again. You could have also asked me as to why, despite the reliability and redundancy of systems, so many MiG-29s have been lost, including in the parent Russian Air Force. I would’ve just said due to poor training and leadership/supervision.”


 How important is the helmet mounted sight?

“In the early days, the helmet mounted sight was a great advantage even though it was rather primitive with just a pointing/aiming system with no other information. However, it helped cue the sensors as well the missiles on to the target and saved precious seconds in lock, launch or taking a gun-shot on the selected target.”

Interview with a Mirage 2000 pilot here


Image credit: Angad Singh

What were the biggest challenges in integrating the MiG-29, did anything need to be changed to make the most of the aircraft?

“Personally, I had the biggest challenge in trying to change the maintenance and servicing philosophy, practice and processes to extract the best from the aircraft. In addition to that, it was also a challenge to train new pilots and select the right team, which could extract the maximum out of the aircraft without compromising safety.” 

 In air combat with a Mirage 2000, who would have the advantage and why?

“Without doubt, the MiG-29 would have the advantage due to its better overall performance including in Thrust to Weight ratio and aerodynamics. ” 

More MiG-29 exploits from Air Marshal Masad here.

10 incredible cancelled spyplanes here


Note from Hush-Kit

I’m indebted to Air Marshal Harish Masand and Angad Singh in making this interview possible.

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Turkey and the Typhoon: Could it be?

31CA5131-BB0F-47DB-8FFC-B17B246B2C06.pngRussia started the delivery of the first S-400 air defence system on July 12th. The components of the system were transported to Murted Air Force Base in Ankara by Il-76 and An-124 cargo aircraft. The delivery lasted for about two weeks.

Almost immediately after the first units of the system arrived in Ankara, the United States government announced that Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 programme was suspended. This action was followed by statements from Turkish government mentioning Turkey might look for alternatives in the event of Turkey’s total removal from the programme and withholding the delivery of the aircraft. Not surprisingly, Russian officials started talking about Russia being ready to offer Su-35 fighter to Turkey.

These statements immediately sparked discussions about which alternatives Turkey might look for. Depending on a number of factors not directly related with aerospace and defence matters, the range of these alternatives wary between wide to not-so-much. One of the is the Eurofighter Typhoon

Current State of Turkish Air Force

Turkish Air Force (TurAF) has one of the largest F-16 fleet in the world. It took delivery of a total of 270 F-16C/Ds between 1987 and 2012. Currently it has around 240 F-16s, about 30 of which are older Block 30 version whereas 180 or so are Block 40 and 50’s and 30 are of the latest Block 50+. Block 40 and 50s received an extensive avionics upgrade under Peace Onyx III project. Block 30s are to receive structural upgrades to extend their service lives by 4,000 hours. These aircraft can be expected to see the end of 2020s, where later Block’s will need to be replaced by 2030s and 40s.

TurAF is one of the last users of the legendary F-4E Phantom II with a total of 182 F-4Es and 54 RF-4Es entering service between 1974 and 1994. 54 of the F-4Es were modernized by IAI of Israel between 2000 and 2003 under a project called ‘Terminator’. These aircraft, re-designated as F-4E/2020 received ELM-2032 radars, new cockpit avionics, modern comms and navigation systems as well as capability to use ELL-8233 electronic warfare pods and Popeye 1 air launched precision strike missiles.

Today, less than 40 F-4E/2020s are in service. They still shoulder strike missions against terrorist PKK targets inside and outside the country. However, the Terminator fleet is having its last days, with gradual retirement of the last flyable examples expected to start next year.

Replacement Plans

The future plan for the TurAF combat fleet had two stages: Replace F-4E/2020s with the F-35 and F-16s with the TFX, the indigenous fighter aircraft.

The first F-35As were planned to be delivered to 171st Squadron of 7th Main Jet Base at Erhac, Malatya at the end of this year. The second squadron to be equipped with the type was 172nd of the same base. Afterwards, consecutive F-35As were to be delivered to 111 and 112nd squadrons of 1st Main Jet Base at Eskisehir.

TFX, conceptual design phase of which was started in 2011 is planned to make the first flight sometime around 2025 and reach initial operational capability (IOC) around 2027-28. However ambitious it might be, this timeframe overlaps with the retirement plans of the F-16. Risks associated with the development, testing and manufacture of the aircraft, especially the engine which is targeted to be indigenous, might push those milestones further right.

Meanwhile, other countries in the region are investing heavily to modernise their air forces: Greece is upgrading 84 of its F-16s to F-16V standard and is reported to have an interest in acquiring at least a squadron of F-35s. Israel has taken delivery of 16 F-35As and is expected to get at least 50 of the aircraft and is also discussing of getting extra F-15s. Egypt is acquiring Rafales from France and MiG-35s from Russia and is also reportedly in negotiation with the latter for Su-35s. Syria, while its once formidable air force is decimated, fields S-300 air defence system. The security situation in the Eastern Mediterranean can be compared to a ticking time bomb.

Bottom line: Turkey needs to keep its combat aircraft capabilities up to date, regardless of the outcome of the F-35 issue or the coming of TFX.

Turkey and the Typhoon: Could it be?

Many would naturally expect the S-400 to be followed by other weapon systems such as a combat aircraft. But acquiring a modern fighter aircraft from Russia would probably have much more complex military, strategic and political consequences involved, and it would turn into a side-effect of a much more intricate strategic problem. The same would also apply for China. In other words, getting fighter aircraft from either of these two countries, although not entirely impossible, seem to be very unlikely to be realized. Time and budget required to induct and absorb these aircraft, their weapon and mission systems, their supply chain, training and doctrine and required infrastructure would be huge. The same also applies for procurement of a new type of fighter from the West, albeit significantly lower cost for weapons procurement because TurAF already fields similar, interoperable weapons.

Eurofighter Typhoon is frequently discussed among aviation circles in both Turkey and elsewhere, especially because of the relatively good relations of the country with UK and Italy. It is indeed ironic that the name of this aircraft comes to agenda every once in a long while depending on the course of relations with the US and Europe.

Turkey was officially invited to the Eurofighter program in 1984, during the then Minister of National Defence Zeki Yavuzturk’s visit to UK in September that year. Back then, Turkey was having serious economic difficulties and the focus was given to the F-16 project: The selection was announced previous year and preparations were underway for establishment of assembly line for the aircraft and the engine. Alas, involvement did not happen.

Two decades later, Italy, which was responsible of marketing of the Typhoon to Turkey, came with a seemingly lucrative offer: The Eurofighter consortium offered Turkey an equal partnership. During early 2000s, Turkey’s relations with the EU were promising: The country was formally accepted as a EU-member candidate and diplomatic and economic relations rapidly flourished. Pilots from TurAF made test flights with the Typhoon in Italy. Alas, Turkey went for 30 F-16 Block 50+s.

Italy did not give up: Around 2009-10, they renewed their offer in the form of Typhoon 2020 with additional capabilities, again equal industrial partnership and transfer of technology. Press reports stated that the offer covered 40 aircraft, worth of two squadrons. Turkey rejected the offer and started the TFX program.

Today, realisation of this alternative might depend on two main factors. Economy (or budget) and the direction of US – Turkish relations.

Getting brand new Typhoon’s would be very costly. On the other hand, getting used ones would be a cheaper solution. Italy is known to have been offering some of its Typhoons’s in the second hand market for some time. These might indeed be considered as a stop gap solution. Seemingly more feasible than getting brand new aircraft in terms of delivery time and cost, again achieving IOC would take a couple of years.

And also, there is another factor: US involvement. US sourced technology and components that are subject to ITAR and other export control mechanism are found in virtually all Western combat aircraft in various percentages. Typhoon is no exception. Depending on the severity of Turkish – US ties, Washington might pursue more aggressive measures against Turkey to directly or indirectly; formally or informally block transfer of advanced technology. This scenario is unlikely, but then again, it is a risk factor that has to be taken into account.

S-400 seems to have changed many things…

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Arda Mevlutoglu is an astronautical engineer. He is currently working as the VP of an international trading and consultancy company, focusing on defense and aerospace sector. He is currently working as the Vice President of Defense Programs at an international trading and consultancy company. His research focuses on defense industry technology, policies and geopolitical assessments, with a focus to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. His works have been published in various local and international journals such as Air Forces Monthly, Air International, Combat Aircraft, EurasiaCritic, ORSAM Middle East Analysis. He has been quoted by Financial Times, Reuters, BBC, Al Monitor, CNN Turk and TRT on issues covering Turkish defence industry and military developments.


British involvement in the Saudi bombing campaign: An interview with Arron Merat

The carnage of the Royal Saudi Air Force campaign in Yemen continues. We spoke to Arron Merat, Tehran correspondent for the Economist (2011-2014) and author of a recent article on the subject, to find out more. 
What has been happening in Yemen/Saudi Arabia for the last four years?
“In March 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war in the first sustained air campaign by the Kingdom in its history.
The air war has killed 100,000 people and destroyed much of Yemen’s food and water infrastructure. Saudi Arabia has also implemented a blockade on the Red Sea ports, routing boats to Djibouti where food and medicine has been reported to perish. As Yemen is water scarce and heavily reliant on imports for its survival as the intervention has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Millions are starving and displaced. It has also created a war economy as smugglers and aid hoarders from all sides of the conflict have become more powerful, thereby exacerbating the catastrophe.
The war has failed to meet its military objectives of rolling back the Houthis, a domestic guerilla insurgency who seized the capital in 2014, following a rushed political settlement following the Arab Spring, which had in 2011 deposed Yemen’s longstanding strongman president, Saleh. Salah joined the Houthis in 2014 in their seizure of the capital, and was subsequently killed by the group. The Houthis  appear to be entrenched as the defacto leaders of north-western Yemen, the capital and most of the country’s population.
The Saudi intervention took place two months after the 30-year old Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) became Defence Secretary and is believed to be partly about bolstering his claim to the crown; in 2017 he became crown prince. In doing so, he saw off the favourite Nayef branch of succession, reportedly by securing the backing of the UAE and the Trump administration. The dynastic politics is important here as Saudi observers believe Muhammad bin Nayef, who was deeply familiar with Yemeni politics and its tribal leaders, would never have committed the kingdom to such a foolhardy air war against the Houthis, a battle-hardened insurgency. An incident in 2015 was illuminating: MBS held a meet and greet in Saudi Arabia for Yemen’s sheiks; they had to wear name tags.”
What is the general Yemeni view?
“Yemenis in the capital and parts of the south were against the occupation by the Houthis but, like the vast majority of Yemenis, are also against the Saudi bombing. My sense is that most Yemenis feel stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
..and the general Saudi view?
“The Yemen war is popular as MBS has presented the war as a nationalistic struggle against Iran, whose support of the Houthis has grown as the war has dragged on.”
And the British Government view?
“Other than some handwringing by the Tories, the government is 100% supportive of the Saudi intervention. Policy in this regard is decided at the National Security Council.”
How many people have died?
“Over 100,000 by bombing but probably considerably more indirectly.”
What would you predict will happen if it continues as it is?
“The UN has estimated a quarter of a million dead by the end of this year of the war goes on.”
What has the RSAF’s role been in the war?
They are the principle foreign belligerents of the war.
What British made/or part British made equipment/weapons does RSAF use in this campaign? 
“Paveways, Typhoons, Tornadoes.”
Is it legal for Britain to support this RSAF equipment?
“The Court of Appeal has made a procedural determination on the rationality of the government’s licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that could be used in Yemen and found it to be irrational and unlawful. This means that ministers have been illegally signing arms export licences to Saudi Arabia. But, in negotiation with the government, the court ordered only that new licence be rejected until a government review is done on existing licences. This means that arms can keep flying under existing licences until they expire. Clearly the courts don’t want to constrain the government too much. So, in my view the government will find a fudge to keep the arms shipments going, despite the fact that they are clearly illegal under UK law. It does this because of a belief in government that Saudi Arabia is an important ally. FCO lawyers now say Britain is a party to the conflict.”
How does Britain support RSAF?
“Along with the Americans, provides their air force. It provides political cover when Saudi Arabia commits war crimes in Yemen and it provides an open business environment for the House of Saud to invest its petrodollar in the uk economy and for their sons to be educated at elite private schools and military academies.”
What do you think of the German government’s response re. military equipment support to RSAF? 
“Germany is still supplying Typhoon components to BAE Systems for export to Saudi Arabia, following intense lobbying by former FCO secretary Jeremy Hunt.”
Should Britain be supporting RSAF, in not, why? 
“Britain should be engaging in the legal provision of arms to its allies. Saudi Arabia is systematically violating International humanitarian lawby targeting civilians recklessly or deliberately, which means that our arms sales are illegal. Aside from the legal point, arming Saudi Arabia with Storm Shadow cruise missiles to fight a future war with Iran is reckless in the extreme because it gives them the capacity for disproportionate military action, which they have demonstrated they could use. Contrary to what ministers say, British arms sales to Saudi Arabia creates instability, not stability, in the Middle East.”
Some would argue that Europe not supporting RSAF’s needs could lead to a closer relationship with the US or, in the long term, the creation of an advanced indigenous aerospace industry? Are these valid concerns? 
“I think this is already happening. I would be surprised if the MoI for the 48 Typhoons turns into an arms deal. At the moment the RSAF combat fleet is 50-50 US and British. But civil society in the UK and embarrassing judicial interventions is likely to push Saudi towards the US.”

Arron Merat is a journalist specialising in Gulf affairs,

What should happen now?
“Britain should suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which may be used in Yemen and pull out any special forces operating in Yemen against Houthi military sites. This will provide much needed strength to its diplomatic initiatives, which have been considerably weakened by the fact that Britain is a party to the conflict. (see my Private Eye piece).”
How easy was it researching your article and did anything surprise you? 
“Unlike their US counterparts, the MoD is extremely cagy talking about its multibillion pound contract with BAE Systems to keep Saudi planes bombing Yemen. Getting people to talk was difficult. I think most people know that the whole business stinks but military cooperation is a cornerstone of UK foreign policy. In my view this policy is largely bought by Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has traditionally financed UK and US covert ops in the middle east, which implies opportunities for diplomatic blackmail, probably tacit.”



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CANCELLED: 10 incredible spy-planes


International law and your enemies (potential or otherwise) can’t catch you if you fly fast enough! With this in mind, spy-planes which fly over (or close to) enemy territory scooping up illicit visual and electronic information, tend to be very fast. With every air defence radar, interceptor and surface-to-air missile out to get them they evolved into the fastest, highest-flying, aircraft in the world. Here are ten, truly incredible, reconnaissance aircraft that were axed before they entered service. 


10. 7RF-4X Mach 3 Hellraiser 


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


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


9. Tsybin RSR Reactivnyi Strategicheskii Razvedchik


Attacking the United States in the 1950s was daunting prospect for the Soviet Air Force. The Cold War USA, with its infinitely deep pockets, was defended by a vast integrated air defence system with a well-equipped air force. In 1954, the US deployed the world’s first operational surface-to-air missile system, the Nike Ajax. High altitude subsonic bombers had gone from the ultimate weapon to vulnerable prey.


On 4 March 1954, Pavel Tsybin (a designer working in missile development who had developed tactical assault gliders in the War) sent the Government a proposal for a manned supersonic long-range bomber capable of a speed of 3000 km/h, with 30,000 metre ceiling and a practical range of 14,000 km. Such an aircraft would be virtually invulnerable. However, it soon became apparent that the technical challenges for the ramjet-powered bomber were insurmountable. Tsybin suggested a smaller design that could also be used for reconnaissance. The solution to meeting the strategic range requirement was to air-launch the aircraft from a Tu-95 ‘Bear’ heavy bomber or from atop the abortive Bartini A-57, a vast bisonic bomber capable of sea launch (which Hush-kit will be covering in greater detail soon.)


The challenges of keeping the design small and light enough for air-launch another proved insurmountable issue. It was not possible to carry something as a heavy as a contemporary thermonuclear bomb, and so it was re-tasked to the unarmed reconnaissance role. Conventional operation from runways was the obvious solution to the illiberal weight restrictions; this ruled out ramjets propulsion, as aircraft on the ground begin their take-off run at zero airspeed (or air flow speed) and ramjets require a high air flow speed to function. The design was now to be powered by turbojets. It was intended to supercruise in excess of Mach 2 at a height of 20,000 m (65,600 ft) with a  range of 3760 km (2,340 miles). In support of this project a smaller aerodymanic testbed, the NM-1, was flown in 1958. This proved largely satisfactory (unlike Britain’s comparable Bristol 188) though it lacked the required manoeuvrability to avoid surface to-air missiles. The design was refined and became the R-020. Five airframes were completed by 1961, lacking only engines. But the aircraft was not to be. In April of the same year, Premier Khrushchev cancelled the programme. It is not known exactly why it was axed but there are likely explanations: the similarly fast MiG-25 was by now in development; satellite technology was improving; Khrushchev preferred funding missile programmes.


The NM-1 in flight.

The designer of the RSR  and NM-1, Pavel Vladimirovich Tsybin, died at work on February 4, 1992.  An outstanding contributor to the field of aeronautical and space technology, he survived the Soviet Union by only six weeks.

* A ramjet can theoretically be started at speeds as low as 100 knots but it does not start to produce any significant thrust until around mach 0.5. Regardless, the aircraft would still have required a way to reach the minimum 100 knots.

8. Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche


In the early 1980s the US Army had a good think about their helicopters, and how vulnerable they were to modern air defence systems. A vast and ambitious programme was started to address this concern, dubbed the Light Helicopter eXperimental (LHX).

The LHX was required to replace the UH-1 ‘Huey’ in the utility role as the LHX-U, and the AH-1 Cobra and UH-1M in the gunship role as the LHX-SCAT. The SCAT would also supersede the OH-6A and OH-58C for the ultra-dangerous scout/reconnaissance mission sets. In 1982, the US Army had a force of around 2,000 utility aircraft, 1,100 gunships and 1,400 scout helicopters — any replacement could expect enormous orders. Such large numbers meant a big budget for researching new technologies, big profits for the winning contractor and global dominance in the field of military helicopters. The study that led to the LHX noted that there was a lack of original thinking in US Army aircraft procurement and that bizarre, exotic and unconventional approaches to the problem should been encouraged.The use of advanced materials, avionics and new concepts – like stealth and a single-pilot crew – were also to be encouraged.

One way to reduce vulnerability was to make the LHX faster than existing helicopters, and a top speed of 345 mph was suggested. This is extremely fast for a conventional helicopter, even today the fastest helicopters rarely go beyond 200mph (for reasons explained here). All major US helicopter manufacturers leapt into the fray, fiercely fighting to win the golden ticket of LHX. The entrants were quite unlike anything else built before or since.

The utility requirement was dropped from LHX in 1988, and by 1991 the Sikorsky-Boeing collaboration had been selected as the winner. This aircraft, the Boeing–Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, first flew in 1996. The 200 mph 11,000Ib Comanche was a very sleek machine with weapons and undercarriage stowed internally to minimise drag and, more importantly, radar cross section. Three Hellfire (or six Stingers) missiles could be held in each of two weapons bay doors complemented by a trainable 20-mm GE/GIAT cannon. It was intended that the two-person helicopter could sometimes be crewed by one, but this proved dangerous in practice (the single person attack helicopter has proved unpopular-  the sole operational example being the Russian Ka-50).

It was the first known helicopter designed with a high degree of low observability and was extremely sophisticated, but despite the $7 billion spent, it was not to be. It required substantial modifications to be survivable against modern air defences, dwindling orders were pushing the unit price up and the US Army thought it wiser to invest funds into upgrading existing platforms and into developing unmanned scouts that could do the job without risking a pilot’s life. Some also wondered how useful radar stealth was for an aircraft that would often be slow and low enough to be targeted optically. After a 22 year effort, the Comanche was axed in 2004.

Life after Comanche 

Not all was lost, however. The LHTEC T800 turboshaft developed by Rolls-Royce and Honeywell for the Comanche has seen considerable use. It powers the Super Lynx 300, AW159 Wildcat, Sikorsky X2 (an experimental co-axial pusher), T129 ATAK gunship and even serves (as a boundary layer control compressor) on a vast flying boat – the ShinMaya US-2.

A stealthy reconnaissance and attack helicopter seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately it turned out to be wildly expensive and a mite too specialised. It was terminated after around $7 billion had been spent on it. Some technology developed for it was useful for the US secret stealth helicopter force. Its specially developed engines found employment with a variety of choppers including the Lynx Wildcat.



7. Avro 730 ‘The British Blackbird’


In 1954 the British Air Staff  issued a requirement for a new reconnaissance aircraft to spy on the Soviet Union. Studies concluded that survivability would necessitate a cruise speed of mach 2.5 at an altitude of 60,000 feet. The maximum speed was to be Mach 3, around two and half times the then standing air speed world record of 755mph set by a F-100 Super Sabre the preceding year. This was a huge ask for late ’50s engine and materials technology, and that’s not even taking into account the 5,000 nautical mile range that was also demanded. To meet these targets it was to have four (later eight!) turbojet engines carried in two pods on the wings.

As well as standard reconnaissance, the 730 would act as a pathfinder for Britain’s V-force bombers, scanning the ground with the Red Drover sideways looking radar (SLAR). The aircraft was to be fitted with a Red Drover sideways looking radar as its primary reconnaissance sensor. Studies revealed the radar could be smaller than anticipated, leaving the design in the unusual position of being underweight and with space to spare. As this was the 1950s, where the solution to any military equipment question was the addition of genocidal weapons of mass destruction, it was decided to arm the 730 with a stand-off missile with a 1-megaton warhead.  A high-speed bomber requirement was also being studied at the time, so it made sense to merge the projects into the new RB.156 requirement of October 1955. Avro (creators of the Lancaster and Vulcan bombers) had been entrusted with the project, known as Type 730, and the first flight was planned for 1959. Work had begun on the first fuselage when it was announced the type was cancelled, which followed Duncan Sandys’ infamous 1957 White Paper that decreed manned military aircraft to be obsolete.


6. Northrop Grumman E-10 MC2A


Most American taxpayers are blissfully unaware that they coughed up an eye-watering $1.67 billion for the E-10, before it was cancelled in 2007. It was conceptually comparable to the F-35, using high technology to be all things to all men. It was ambitiously planned as a multi-role military aircraft to replace the Boeing 707-based E-3 Sentry and E-8 Joint STARS, the Boeing 747-based E-4B, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint . This noble quest for McNamara-esque commonality has a bad history in military procurement (other ‘jacks of all trade’ included Britain’s disastrous SA80  and the US’ wrong-headed TFX programme.) The usual conclusion universal weapon projects is an expensive maintenance–heavy single-use system — with a radically different variant for another purpose — supported by superior designs optimised for single tasks.

The E-10 was based on the Boeing 767-400ER commercial airplane, a bad choice of airframe if the unfortunate Pegasus tanker project is anything to go by.  The E-10 finally disappeared at the end of FY2007 as budget pressures and competing priorities pushed it completely out of the budget. Significantly, the USAF maintained funding for the MP-RTIP radar and may eventually put the radar on the E-8, or restart a project to put it on a 767.

Boeing held on to the E-10 prototype until it was sold to Bahrain in 2009 for conversion into a VIP transport. As a facetious aside, including the figure spent on
this airframe before its new life would make it the most expensive VIP transport in history, surpassing even the
Airbus A380 ‘Flying Palace’!


The baby version of the MP-RTIP AESA intended for the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk was tested on Scaled Composites Proteus aircraft. 


5. Republic XF-12 Rainbow

Republic F-12 Rainbow.jpg

In many ways, the XF-12 Rainbow was the most advanced piston-engined aircraft ever built, and it was also one the most beautiful. Disobeying comedians’ rule of threes — the Rainbow  ‘flew on all fours’: four engines, 400 mph cruise, 4,000 mile range, at 40,000 feet. It was the only four-engined piston-engined aircraft to achieve 450mph. Intended to serve in the high altitude reconnaissance role, this superb aircraft arrived too late: fast high altitude flight was now the domain of jets.

4. Beriev S-13 ‘U2ski’ 

On 1 May 1960, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers flew a spy mission over the Soviet Union.  The intruding U-2, which had taken off from Pakistan, was shot down by a local air defence system over the Urals. The well-known aftermath played out on the international stage, and several quieter stories took place behind the scenes. One of these less publicised activities was the Soviet attempt to build their own U-2s.

U2_Powers_Senate_model.jpgPowers’ U-2 was broken apart by the missile’s impact, but the debris remained relatively intact. The retrieval of these parts inspired a frantic Soviet effort to reverse-engineer a fleet of their own U-2s. As well as allowing accurate assessment of this enemy aircraft, the homegrown ‘U-2skis’ were expected to be used for aerial reconnaissance, weather research and intercepting high altitude US spy balloons. The Beriev design bureau was given the task, and the project was designated S-13.


The U-2’s engine, the Pratt & Whitney J75-P-13, was reverse engineered as the Zubets RD-16-15.  By 1 April 1961 the first S-13 fuselage was completed. It appears the project was going well, but on 12 May 1962 it was cancelled. Analysis revealed that modern air defence systems could make mincemeat of slow high-altitude aircraft, and the aircraft would be too vulnerable. Aerial intelligence was better provided by spy satellites, complemented by high-speed reconnaissance aircraft, such as the MiG-25 then in development. Although no S-13 aircraft flew, the programme gave insights in materials and manufacturing methods that were then used new Soviet aircraft designs. The technology from fallen reconnaissance aircraft is still harvested in the modern age, notably in the case of Iran and the RQ-170.


3. Project Isinglass


Project Islinglass was a CIA study started in 1966 inspired by a proposal from McDonnell Douglas for an invulnerable spaceplane. The manned aircraft (an unmanned variant was also proposed) would be dropped from beneath the wing of a B-52 mothership, light its rocket engine and climb to near orbital speed. It would then fly over the Soviet Union at such a high speed and altitude it would be impossible to shoot-down. Indeed, detailed simulations showed the inability of the latest, and even notionally superior SAMs , to stop Isinglass. Even equipping the SAMs with nuclear warheads wouldn’t help them to kill it.


According to documents only declassified in 2004, the aim of Isinglass was:” To establish the feasibility and initiate development of a high performance rocket engine, hypersonic boost glide vehicle’ and camera system capable of providing quick reaction wide swathe high quality photography of highly defended denied areas. This system will perform at speeds in excess of Mach 20.0 and at altitudes over 200,000 feet’ and to “To flight test three aircraft and produce eight operational aircraft and camera systems for deployment in FY 1971”

There were three things counting against the invincible Isinglass; there was no official CIA or NRO requirement for such a machine; the price would have been astronomical, for only eight aircraft it was expected to be $2.6 billion USD  (inflation adjusted US$ 20.67 billion in 2019); its trajectory could well have made it looked like an intercontinental ballistic missile and triggered World War III.




2 Antonov An-71 Madcap

IMG_7636 2.jpeg

Photos: Joe Coles

Inspired by the success of the Israeli Air Force’s E-2 Hawkeye in the 1982 campaign in Lebanon, the Soviet Union went about creating its own tactical airborne early warning and control aircraft – the Antonov An-71.

An operational requirement was formulated in 1982, with the aim of creating a land-based AEW&C aircraft at least as capable as the E-2C. The aircraft was required to have an endurance of at least 4.5 hours and the ability to detect low-flying aircraft and other low-observable aerial targets – and track 120 of them at a time.


After considering the An-12 and An-32 as platforms for the new surveillance aircraft, Antonov opted for the short take-off and landing (STOL) An-72 Coaler. While the ‘saucer’ rotodome was conventional, its position on top of the tail was radical. The tail fin itself was swept forward to compensate for centre-of-gravity changes; the T-tail was replaced by a low-set horizontal tail. To ensure there was enough power despite the weight of all the internal systems, an additional small turbojet was buried in the rear fuselage. Those onboard systems were to be operated by a mission crew of three, in addition to two pilots and a flight engineer.


Briefly, consideration was given to developing a carrier-based version of the Madcap, but there was no way to successfully fold the wing for hangar stowage and the thrust-to-weight ratio was inadequate for a ‘ski jump’ take-off. Instead, the Soviet Navy opted for the more conventional Yakovlev Yak-44 project, which, in the event, never progressed beyond a mock-up.


Deck trials of the Yak-44 mock-up.

Work on the land-based An-71 continued and a first flight followed in July 1985. Another prototype was completed before the programme was axed, the victim of the demise of the Soviet Union.

IMG_7642 2.jpeg

It’s hard to say whether the An-71 could ever have been a success, but flight trials demonstrated generally good flight characteristics and avionics performance – the radar was shown capable of detecting 400 targets over land of water within a range of 230 miles and simultaneously tracking up to 120 of them. With its rough-field performance, the Madcap might have been a very useful force-multiplier for Soviet tactical aviation operating over Europe’s Central Front in a late 1980s Cold War scenario.

Thomas Newdick, Editor of Air Forces Monthly

1. Convair Kingfish


Picture: SNAFU

An air of mystery surrounds the Convair Kingfish, a proposed replacement for the U-2. The U-2 had been getting tracked by Soviet air defences as soon as it became operational in 1956, and its shelf-life was reduced from two years to six months. The CIA, its main customer, tasked Convair and Lockheed to come up with a spy plane that flew higher, faster and, crucially, with the lowest possible radar cross section (RCS).


Convair already had the putative B-58 which carried a large external pod for a nuclear weapon. In 1957, the B-58B Super Hustler was proposed, carrying an additional ‘parasite’ aircraft instead of the pod. This would be hauled to at least 35,000 ft where its three ramjet engines could be started, jettisoning its rear portion as it launched from the mother plane. Small, very fast, and high-flying, it was a logical candidate for a reconnaissance platform. For the CIA project, the concept was reduced to a single aircraft, code-named FISH or First Invisible Super Hustler (best Blaxploitation movie never made?). It could reach a speed of Mach 4 at 75,000 ft, climbing to 90,000 ft as it burned off fuel. In order to handle the heat generated, the leading edges of the nose and wings were built of a new “pyroceram” ceramic material.


This proposal was rejected, as the concept relied on unproven ramjet engines and required launching from a mother plane that did not yet exist. The Kingfish was Convair’s next attempt, keeping the stainless-steel honeycomb skin and the use of pyro-ceram material, with engine inlets made of fiberglass. It was sleek, with the classic Convair delta wing design and a pair of J58 engines mounted within the fuselage. Even the intakes and exhausts were arranged to reduce RCS.


But, in August 1959, Convair got the thumbs-down again, and Lockheed’s A-12 went into production. The Kingfish incorporated too many untried technologies, and concerns remained that Convair had sacrificed performance for RCS. Plus, Convair had a history of cost overruns, while Lockheed had shown it could be on time, under budget and, thanks to its secure Skunk Works facility, top secret. The Kingfish never saw light of day but, with a shape you can trace to the F-117 twenty years later, in many ways it was the birth of stealth.

Oliver Harris, author of A Shadow Intelligence

Special thanks to Oliver Harris & Thomas Newdick



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How to buy a business jet



So, your ship has come in and you’re basking in unheralded wealth. It’s a problem all of us have to deal with at some time (right? Hope so). You’ve bought a big crazy house and the sports car you always dreamt of, where do you go from there? – the only way is up and that means a private jet. Join the ranks of the super rich, you might want to fly your own classic airliner like John Travolta or just settle for painting your surname on it in massive golden letters like Donald Trump. However even if you’re inordinately rich it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fork out the cool $500 million that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud of Saudi Arabia paid for his own private Airbus A380. And that’s before you’ve even gone anywhere, an A380 guzzles approximately $17,500 of fuel per hour, which is enough to make even Bill Gates think about taking the bus. But then most potential biz jet owners are unlikely to be in the market for an aircraft containing five king size bedrooms to choose from, each with its own ensuite bathroom and sitting room. Prince Alwaleed’s jet also features a throne for him to sit on while he travels through the sky. It’s possible that you’ve long been in the market for an airborne throne room but alas, very few biz jets actually feature them. Though most do have very comfortable seats. If you can scale down your ambitions a little, the following tips may be of use when you enter the market place for a new or used private jet.

Let’s start with the boring stuff: cash. If you are even considering dipping your toe into biz jet world it would seem to suggest that you are fairly well off, or at least know someone who is. But you might not have enough to shell out the full amount in used notes right this minute. Luckily there are many lenders with dedicated aviation financing plans so you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. You can work this out yourself or you might consider employing a dedicated finance broker. Financing a jet is a pretty complicated business so it’s as well to have someone around who knows the pitfalls. They will also know which lender to approach to get the best funding deal for any particular aircraft.


A biz jet is going to be an expensive purchase but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to get the best deal you can. Just like a car, there are benefits to looking at the used market. You’ll typically get more aircraft for your money but you need to look more closely at your potential purchase. It’s all very well for a fighter pilot to ‘kick the tyres and light the fires’ but it’s as well to pay a bit more attention when you’re the one who has to fork out for a main spar replacement because someone overstressed the airframe. Whilst there are relatively few aviation equivalents of the ‘one careful lady owner from new’ used car (having said that, Oprah Winfrey owns a Bombardier Global Express XRS), it’s worth looking for a corporate aircraft that has been the pride and joy of its owner and kept scrupulously maintained its entire life. Brand new aircraft are obviously more expensive but they generally come with a five year warranty, although Embraer sell their Legacy 650E with an impressive ten year warranty, which might save you money in the long run. If you do go down the used route then making use of a reputable aviation broker makes sense, they generally charge between three and five percent of the overall cost of the aircraft and can help with ongoing operational issues further down the track.

Once you’ve settled on the particular type you want, it’s worth doing some serious homework on that aircraft to avoid any pitfalls. Professional help is available, and frankly, no matter how much research you’ve done you’ll need to employ the services of a professional inspector. It’s particularly important to know your chosen aircraft’s maintenance cycles. That five year old Embraer Phenom might look like a bargain for a couple of million dollars but that won’t look so rosy if you have to spend another $250,000 on scheduled maintenance. No matter what aircraft you want to buy, if it’s used, insist on a pre-purchase inspection by a certified authority. In the US this would occur at a certified 145 repair station and there are, of course, worldwide equivalents. Usefully the EU and US honour each others certification standards which simplifies things, though if you’re based in the UK what happens to aircraft certification if and when the UK leaves the EU is anyone’s guess. Expect it to be expensive.


Do you even need to buy your jet? Leasing a business aircraft is a popular and comparatively economic alternative to ownership. It’s a good way to see if biz jet ownership is the right strategy for you without the undeniably large outlay required to take the plunge and actually buy an aircraft. Leasing takes two forms known as dry-leasing and wet-leasing, if you dry-lease an aircraft, it would generally be for a long term period. You don’t get any fuel or crew and have responsibility for maintenance and insurance. Wet leasing includes all these things and is usually for short periods or one-off trips.

Ultimately, although it invokes all the glamour of the genuine jet-set, the business aircraft is like anything else, do your homework, shop around, seek professional advice and you’ll find you may be able to do something that once seemed impossible.

— Ed Ward, more info here.


Convair Kingfish: Stealthy Mach 4 at 75,000 feet

An air of mystery surrounds the Convair Kingfish, a proposed replacement for the U-2. The U-2 had been getting tracked by Soviet air defences as soon as it became operational in 1956, and its shelf-life was reduced from two years to six months. The CIA, its main customer, tasked Convair and Lockheed to come up with a spy plane that flew higher, faster and, crucially, with the lowest possible radar cross section (RCS).


Convair already had the putative B-58 which carried a large external pod for a nuclear weapon. In 1957, the B-58B Super Hustler was proposed, carrying an additional ‘parasite’ aircraft instead of the pod. This would be hauled to at least 35,000 ft where its three ramjet engines could be started, jettisoning its rear portion as it launched from the mother plane.


Small, very fast, and high-flying, it was a logical candidate for a reconnaissance platform. For the CIA project, the concept was reduced to a single aircraft, code-named FISH or First Invisible Super Hustler (best Blaxploitation movie never made?). It could reach a speed of Mach 4 at 75,000 ft, climbing to 90,000 ft as it burned off fuel. In order to handle the heat generated, the leading edges of the nose and wings were built of a new ‘pyroceram’ ceramic material.


This proposal was rejected, as the concept relied on unproven ramjet engines and required launching from a mother plane that did not yet exist. The Kingfish was Convair’s next attempt, keeping the stainless-steel honeycomb skin and the use of pyro-ceram material, with engine inlets made of fibreglass. It was sleek, with the classic Convair delta wing design and a pair of J58 engines mounted within the fuselage. Even the intakes and exhausts were arranged to reduce RCS.


But, in August 1959, Convair got the thumbs-down again, and Lockheed’s A-12 went into production. The Kingfish incorporated too many untried technologies, and concerns remained that Convair had sacrificed performance for RCS. Plus, Convair had a history of cost overruns, while Lockheed had shown it could be on time, under budget and, thanks to its secure Skunk Works facility, top secret. The Kingfish never saw light of day but, with a shape you can trace to the F-117 twenty years later, in many ways it was the birth of stealth.

— Oliver Harris, author of A Shadow Intelligence  


Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit



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Flying & fighting in the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’: A pilot interview


Photos: Gp Capt Sharma

Described as a ‘royal merciless game-changer’, the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’ is a monster: a long-ranged, well armed, unbeatably manoeuvrable fighter uniquely equipped with 3D thrust-vectoring control (TVC) enabling it to perform seemingly impossible aerobatics in the sky. We spoke to  IAF Gp Capt Anurag Sharma to learn more about flying and fighting in the Russian superfighter. 

What were your first impressions of the Su-30?
“I was awestruck at the size of this monster! I caught a glimpse of it at Bangalore Airshow in 1997 (I was part of the inaugural day fly past in a Jaguar formation). There it stood in the lineup….. majestic, mighty and muscular! Head and shoulders above the crowd! Even the Air Display by the Russian Test Pilot was a show stopper. The M2000, F-16 etc were just no match for this beauty.”

“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30…against three F-16… End score one F-16 claimed without loss.”

What’s the difference between a K and MKI and which is better?
“Su-30K was basically the Su-27 UB (trainer version) modified to be a two-seater fighter and the Su-30 MKI is a two seater upgraded version of Su-30K. While the two maybe classified into the same family and have few physical differences (canards, nosewheel, thrust vectoring and glass cockpit); the operational philosophy of the two aircraft is vastly different because of the much-upgraded operational capability of the MKI.

The Su-30 K was basically an air defence fighter of the 3.5 Gen that could drop dumb bombs (albeit in large quantities). But the MKI is a multirole fighter in the real sense of the word. The enhanced avionics package, weapons, near AESA airborne interception radar that permits simultaneous Air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting puts the MKI in a league of its own. The fly-by-wire system of the MKI allows carefree handling viz-a-viz Su-30K. The Su-30 K was handling with care especially in the low speed regime whereas the MKI is carefree handling all the way!

Personally, my heart is with the Su-30K! perhaps because I grew up on it. Attempting to master the Su-30K was a challenge in itself because you had to develop “seat of the pants feeling” in an aircraft that was not carefree handling (as you would expect a FBW aircraft to be). The avionics package, information presentation was rudimentary and presented great challenges as an operator. I think that is what made it special. The skill of the pilot counted more on that type.

But given a choice, I would pick the MKI for a combat fight. The total package of the MKI is a force multiplier in combat!!! Hands down!!

05 187 068.JPG

Which three words best describe it?
“Royal, merciless, game-changer.”

5. What is the best thing about it?
Ans. As a fighter pilot, you look to emerge victorious in every battle; the Su-30 gives you that confidence. Rest is up to you!

And the worst thing?
“Haven’t found one yet!”

How you rate the Su-30 in the following categories?

“A. Instantaneous turn– at high speeds, a shade slow, but once you get her to 650-709 Kmph- as goos as any. With thrust vectoring- unparalleled!

B. Sustained turn– depends upon the load and altitude. At medium altitudes with AA loads only very good and matches any other 4/5 gen fighter ac.

C. High alpha- Exceptional! Requires skill but once you know what to do- she’s a beauty!

D. Acceleration. The Su-30K was faster because it was lighter but the MKI is good when it comes to low speed combat against F-16/F-18/ Mirage 2000 class of aircraft. Acceleration also depends upon the load carried.”

Interview with IAF MiG-25 pilot here

Climb rate

The Su-30K had a greater reserve of power; even in the MKI, ROC is very good for its huge size. You can feel the acceleration when she climbs!

What was your most memorable mission? 

“Well there have been many over the years but a few that stand out are as follows: –

(a) DACT with F-16 Block 60*of  Republic of Singapore Air Force.

(*Ed: think these are actually Block 52)

The strongest adversary that we could possibly face in our life as a fighter pilot was the F-16 of PAF (for obvious reasons). So the excitement of facing an F-16, even in a mock combat was unbelievable. The weight of the mission was overbearing! Perhaps that’s what makes it special. As the combat commenced, we manoeuvred for our lives and in very little time the situation was in our favour! The desperate calls from the F-16, “Flare, Flare, Flare!” are very distinctly audible in my ears even today! From that day, the anxiety that prevailed over facing an F-16 in combat was gone forever…. Vanished! It was clear what the outcome would be!”


“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30 & one MiG-21 BISON against three F-16 . As luck would have it, the BISON did not get airborne and now the game was one Su-30 vs three F-16 in a BVR scenario. Again, we pushed the envelope, manoeuvred between 3000 ft to 32000 ft, pulling up to 8 g, turning, tumbling, firing and escaping missiles in a simulated engagement. The crew co-ord between us in the cockpit and the fighter controller on the ground was the best that I have ever seen! The results in a mock combat are always contentious but with ACMI, they are more reliable. End score one F-16 claimed without loss. When we got out of the cockpit we were thoroughly drenched in sweat and tired from the continuous high G manoeuvring but all smiles for the ecstasy that we had just experienced.”


Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“In the Su-30 I have flown DACT with RSAF (Royal Singapore Air Force) F-16, M-2000 H /5[ FAF], MiG -29 amongst the ASFs. I think the most challenging was the M2000 in France. The carefree manoeuvrability of the Mirage its nose profile and avionics package perhaps gave it an edge over the others. The F-16 beyond the initial turn loses steam, the MiG -29 is very powerful but conventional controls maybe …. . A good Mirage guy can manoeuvre more carefree.”

IMG_1519 (1).JPG

Typhoon pilots say they ‘trounced’ the Su-30 in DACT exercises, yet Su-30 say the reverse? What is the truth?
“Well I wasn’t part of that exercise but some close friends were. The story goes both ways especially when you are engaged in friendly exercises with fixed rules of engagements! I think it’s an even fight and the man behind the machine would make the difference! Such a contest gets any fighter jock drooling!”

How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?  
“Basic flying is not very difficult including exercises such as AA refueling. But it’s a Herculean task to reach a level where you can exploit it to its fullest especially in large Force Engagements (LFE) The capability of the aircraft outruns you by miles. In fact, at times even 7 Multi-Function Displays (MFD) and two aircrew are insufficient to achieve what she can do for you!”


Is TVC useful in air combat? If so, how should it be used?
“Most people think that it’s not! My suspicion is that’s because it requires skill to put it to good use. Once two beasts of this kind engage in combat, it goes down to the wire and in the low speed regime the TVC allows you just the edge you’ve been looking for. Just 300m is enough to get to the right angle and Boom!”

How would you rate the cockpit?
The cockpit is Russian! hey don’t build the aircraft around the pilot like the western manufacturers do! So the ergonomics leave a lot to be desired. The HOTAS could be designed much better. But ask anyone who hasn’t flown other types and he’s okay with this!
Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like? 
Yes,! AA missiles, LGB,  and Runway denial weapons. Weapon delivery is really exciting! The adrenaline rush, the cold sweat that trickles down your temples when you press the trigger are a different feeling altogether. They are really expensive and hence the opportunity comes rarely. The thing that worries you most is that you don’t want to be the dumbass when it comes to firing Smart Weapons

I think the AA missile is the best! When the weapon leaves your wing, the plume, noise and shear power of the accelerating missile is breathtaking.

How confident would a Su-30 pilot feel going against a modern USAF F-15C
“As far as the platform is concerned, he’s got a better baby in his hands. No doubt!”
What is the greatest myth about the Su-30?
“That it’s too big to manoeuvre!”

How combat effective is the Su-30?
“A game changer!”
 How reliable and easy to maintain is it?
“Reliable – yes!  Maintenance- extensive!

What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the Su-30?
“It’s like a Tapasya (Sanskrit word meaning total selfless commitment. Dedication, commitment and patient hard work will reveal the true pleasures of flying to you! Early days are tough, just hang in there, get over the hump and you will experience heavenly pleasure that only fighter pilots have been blessed with.

How much post-stall manoeuvring can the average squadron pilot do? Is this a rare skill?
“Independent manoeuvres – they do it from day one (it’s that easy!). Relative manoeuvring in relation to an adversary in the sky requires extensive training and skill development! The manoeuvres can be counter productive in not done correctly.”

What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a Su-30? 
“A downward combat manoeuvre with TVC at low levels against a manoeuvring target.”

As a personal opinion: What should the Indian Air Force procure and what should it get rid of? 

“Well, the Old Gen’ aircraft are already being phased out and The IAF is in the process of procuring the Rafale (a great choice!) The LCA development and large-scale induction into the IAF is no-brainer! It must be done but the platform should be a qualitative addition as well! Just adding numbers is not the right answer. Self-dependency is critical for India’s growth and rise as a major power on the World stage. There is a huge prospect of joint development with other major manufactures around the world such as BAE that have been traditional defence suppliers for IAF.”

Interview with an IAF MiG-27 pilot here

Tell me something I don’t know about the Su-30?

“The Su-30 MKI  has perhaps as many players as the Typhoon! The Russians provide most of the hardware; Indian , French, Israeli industries provide software, avionics and weapons! The Russians won’t give their knowhow to Israelis and the French won’t give it to Russians. So it’s is a great achievement to get these components talking to each other! The Heart of the avionics system that communicates with all these various systems is Indian.

What should I have asked you about the Su-30?

“A fighter pilot has a unique relation with his aircraft. A unique bonding; much like the Avatar with his Ikran*!  . Sharing that feeling with another occupant in the cockpit is not easy! Especially when your WSO is not fixed.

Loosing that privacy or rather intimacy is not easy! While you learnt to live with it, I personally consider a huge loss as a fighter pilot. But alas there is no way out! With such competent platforms; perhaps two crew are indispensable!”

*the dragon in the Avatar film

The R-73 is an old missile- What do you think about the idea of adding ASRAAM to the Su-30?

“The Su-30 is getting upgrades continuously and plans are in place to enhance the weapon inventory. So it’s a cat and mouse game with the adversary being payed all the time.”

How good is the helmet mounted sight – is it used much in air-to-air training?

“Very good! It allows off bore targeting and that coupled with TVC gives a good angular advantage to the Su-30 in combat!”

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

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IMG_0084 (1).JPG
_E1R5400 (1).JPGThis interview would not have been possible without the kind help of Angad Singh 

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Flying & Fighting in the JF-17 Thunder: Interview with Pakistan Air Force fighter pilot


JF-17 pic credits: author/PAF

The JF-17 Thunder is one of the rarest and least known fighter aircraft in the world. Operated solely by the Pakistan Air Force*, it is a capable fighter in the same class as the F-16. On conditions of anonymity, we spoke to one JF-17 pilot to learn more. 

The views expressed are not the official positions of the PAF.

“Best thing: Continuous upgrades of indigenous and Chinese weapons/electronic counter-measures suites, standoff capabilities of exceptional range i.e REK/IREK,CM-400,C-802AK etc.  Worst : limited BVR load-out.”

What advice would you give to new pilots on the type? “Know your books and more importantly know the adversaries books. The modern jets are complex fighting machines so you must be at ease with all the systems in order to employ your jet with confidence.

For all new pilots: you have to be a perfect blend of nerdiness and madness.. Fighter flying is nothing without study and passion.”
How would you rate the aircraft in terms of A. sustained turn rates B. instantaneous turn C. High alpha D. Acceleration ?

What has been your most memorable mission & why was that?

“One mission took place in the days following the Indian Air Force’s attempted strikes in Pakistan border region-  at five in the night I took off in rain and low cloud with TS in the vicinity. Clouds were from 4,000 till 33,000 feet. Got out of clouds and controller reported two Su-30s ‘across the fence’. I targeted them at ranges beyond 50-60 NM but didn’t get authorisation to engage from controller, continued to grind above 32,000 flowing hot and cold 20-30NM from fence targeting the Su-30s. The IAF scrambled a total of six more Su-30s and finally I had eight Su-30s in front. Would turn hot and target each one in sequence from north to south (just spike them seeing whether they get lured in or not). After hitting texaco (air refuelling) returned to based amid rain and wet runway.. the first thing ground crew did was count the missiles.. gave a disappointed look once all were intact. the same profile continued for a couple of month but that first mission was an unbelievable experience.”

How would you rate the JF-17s sensors & weapons? “KLJ-7 radar plus Indra radar warning receiver plus Self-Protection Jamming, ASEL targeting Pod equals a very potent system. We have air-ground/sea stand-off weapons with ranges of over 50NM,  well out of SAM ranges”

Which aircraft have you flown DACT against- which was the most challenging and why?

“DACT : F-16 Block-52+ , Mirage, F:7P.

Turkish F-16s. Definitely F-16+AMRAAM combo was the most challenging.”

What is the best and worst thing about the cockpit?

“Best Thing : The Fully digital cockpit with 3 MFDs … Worst thing: Mmmm… no towel racks !”

What do the ground crew think of the aircraft?

What is the greatest myth about the aircraft?
“Everything about it is a myth to the outside world because nobody operationally uses it. Only PAF flies it so envelope expansion in terms of capability continuously takes place and scant details are available to other.”
So how good is the JF-17? Here

Is it easy to land?

“The easiest aircraft to land amongst what I’ve flown till date. Much more easy than even basic trainers.”

Interview with Mirage 2000 pilot here

What’s the best way to fight a M2000?

Mirage 2000 with MICA- a threat to be respected.

How would you describe the Thunder in three words?

“Underrated, Reliable, Effective.”

“This is just a fun photo, done with a Thunder-shaped keychain while holding in the pattern”

In the valley… north of Pakistan near Kashmir

“F-16 .. for the initial 180deg turn, then Thunder all the way. JF-17 with PL-10 mod (currently in pipeline) will trump F-16 with AIM-9M any day of the week, but currently on brute performance F-16 has the edge.”

How good is the engine?

“With the current config engine produces sufficient power – but who doesn’t like a bit of extra thrust?

Which weapons are currently in frontline service on JF-17?

“Currently we have PL-5(IR missile) SD-10(BVR). C-802 anti ship standoff , REK/IREK air-surface standoff with multiple warhead/seekers/roles and then all the GP Bombs, CM-400 and host of other A/G weapons for precision strikes. All that with the integrated ASEL Pod for targeting.”

Interview with IAF MiG-25 pilot here

How would you rate the Thunder’s sensors?

“They are mission/role compatible with continuous upgrades being done on a regular basis. We’ve tested them in a high intensity stand off and everything worked liked a charm which goes to show the resilience of avionics in an intense environment.”


“This is just a fun photo, done with a Thunder-shaped keychain while holding in the pattern”


“It is one of the most digitised cockpit I’ve flown till date. Even the F-16’s cockpit fades in comparison to the Thunder’s cockpit layout.”

Interview with MiG-27 pilot here

The IAF and PAF account of the 2019 vary, what actually happened? What are popular misunderstandings of it? 

“We shot a MiG-21 on our side and a Su-30 on their side (which we didn’t claim initially because we already had the MiG-21 pilot in custody and that was enough of a message that we had the superiority). Plus we didn’t want to rub it in their face that we had shot two jets which in turn would escalate the problem. Needless to say, we have the wreckage of MiG-21 with all four missiles intact (hence no shooting of our jets took place) plus our electronic warfare (EW) platforms have all the radio transmissions of the IAF — and it’s a treat to listen to those confused and devastated calls of IAF pilots and controller which the shooting was taking place (IAF do not operate on secure radios so all their RT chatter is easily picked by EW platforms. Plus a MiG-21 in Block zero-one i.e below 20,000 with AA-12 Adder can only dream of getting a missile off rail against targets beyond 20NM (plus the Kopyo radar doesn’t support AA-12 launches beyond 20NM and that too on head-on aspects). Plus the evidence the Indians showed was a AMRAAM piece on their side claiming it was from a F-16 they shot. My simple question: if they found a piece of AMRAAM on their side but no jet attached to it then where did the wreckage go? Duhhh. And for a MiG to launch a missile against an F-16 and get it to A-pole and in the meantime get shot by another jet speaks poorly of the MiG-21’s pilot’s priorities as a fighter pilot. Nobody in their right frame of mind would enter the kill zone being spiked from all side and still continue hot without listening to any controller or formation member. In the intense comm jam environment with non secure radio the poor MiG-21 pilot didn’t receive any threat warnings given by his controller and I’m sure he didn’t have a moving map display telling him he had crossed the border and the comms were being jammed.”

Have you fired live weapons, what was it like?

“I’ve fired General Purpose bombs of various sizes and done strafing. Haven’t had the pleasure of letting go a missile yet.”

2019 analysis: How good is the Block II Pakistan JF-17 fighter aircraft today compared to its peers and potential threats? Here

Tell me something I don’t know about the JF-17..

“What the world doesn’t know about thunder? The autonomy it brings to PAF in terms of operations, numbers and capabilities is something that air forces around the world dream of the thing about thunder is that the factory that produces thunder is located in we have all the support available inland. It is a nimble aircraft with a state of the art cockpit…it has air-air / air-ground stand off /air-sea stand off capability.. and a potent EW suite. It is continuously being upgraded with longer range weapons in all roles since we do all the integration ourselves.”