Runways are undesirable locations for military aircraft. Being tied to miles of concrete gives jet aircraft a built-in vulnerability as well as restricting their flexibility. So it is hardly surprising that designers have taken great efforts in trying to produce vertical take-off and landing aircraft. These almost inevitably doomed projects have put some fascinating shapes into the sky, here are ten of them.
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10. ‘The German Kestrel’ VFW VAK 191B As with several aircraft on this list, the £192 million VAK-191 project was built in support of NATO’s huge competition for a supersonic VTOL strike aircraft. The propulsion system, developed with the help of Rolls-Royce, used a Rolls-Royce/MAN Turbo RB193 (similar to the Pegasus engine in concept) and two lift-jets. The aircraft had an internal weapons bay. When the NATO requirement was scrapped (after being technically won by the Hawker P.1154), the VAK-191 flew on in support of an ambitious US/West German fighter project. When this project was also canned it was hard to justify the project and the VAK-191 was axed by the West German government in 1972.
9. ‘The Pentagon Easychair’ Ryan X-13 Vertijet One way approach to vertical take-off and landing was the ‘tail-sitter’. The X-13 was more successful than its turboprop tail sitting brethren but was championing the wrong approach. In an attempt to promote the aircraft, the X-13 once crossed the Potomac River and landed at the Pentagon.
8. ‘Bumbly Chancer’ Lockheed XV-4 Hummingbird This is probably the worst aircraft on this list in terms of its effectiveness. Vertical lift came from the thrust being vectored downward through multiple nozzles. But the thrust generated was far less than expected, a factor which contributed to both XV-4s crashing. The intentions were to produce a target spotting aircraft for the US Army.
7. ‘The Black Sea Harrier’ Yakovlev Yak-38 The much maligned Yak-38 was only intended as an interim aircraft and shouldn’t be judged too harshly. This equivalent to the Sea Harrier served the soviet navy from 1976 and 1991, and laid the foundation for the fast, agile and considerably more impressive Yak-41.
6. ‘The Man-Eater’ Ryan XV-5A
The perky little Ryan XV-5A was built in to answer the US Army’s need for a close support aircraft. Attempts to develop it into a combat rescue capability were not encouraging; in trials a dummy was ingested one of the wings fans (out of the pot and into the frying pan). The use of a lift-fan for vertical flight is idea that is still alive today, and can be seen on the F-35B.
5. ‘Jimbo the ketamine jet’ Dornier Do 31 The superbly bonkers Do 31 transport was conceived to support the dispersal of a planned NATO supersonic fighter that never entered service (see Mirage IIIV). It was powered by eight lift jets and two Pegasus Harrier engines. The drag and weight imposed by the wingtip mounted engine pods was a big issue, and the performance was disappointing. The aircraft had a fantastic appearance however, suitable for Hitler to escape to the moon in.
5. ‘The Manga Starfighter’ EWR VJ 101 Heinkel and Messerschmitt teamed up with the rather less famous Bölkow to produce this six-engined tribute to the aesthetics of Roger Ramjet. Unlike other aircraft featuring small jets, this do not feature a larger main engine. The design, which was in many ways similar to the never completed Bell XF-109, achieved a speed of Mach 1.04. Christ knows what would have happened in the event of an engine failure.
4. ‘Saut Mirage’ Dassault Mirage IIIV Without a doubt, the best-looking and fastest jump-jet to fly was the French Mirage IIV. This prototype fighter, based on the basic layout of the Mirage III, first flew in 1965 in an attempt to win the NATO Basic Military Requirement 3 for a common supersonic VTOL fighter. The prototype aircraft achieved Mach 2.04, but could not fly supersonically after a vertical take-off it could not carry enough fuel. The aircraft was lifted by bank of eight lift jets, the weight of complexity of which would have limited the aircraft’s practicality had it entered service.
3. ‘The prolapsing firefly’ Lockheed Martin F-35B Lighting II
Though symbolic of all that is awful about the military–industrial–congressional complex, the F-35 is a very impressive piece of engineering. The F-35B should be the first supersonic jump-jet to enter service – a greatly impressive feat following more than fifty years of failed attempts by some of the world’s greatest designers. The vertical take-off of the aircraft is a fascinating event to watch, described somewhat distastefully by one observer, as looking like, “A prolapsing firefly”.
2. ‘Perestroika Carpetburn’ Yakovlev Yak-41 The abortive Yak-41 (the prototype was the Yak-141) was an ambitious attempt to produce a supersonic VTOL carrier fighter for defence of the Soviet naval fleet. The project began in the mid-1970s and a prototype flew in 1987. In an unusual, and at the time secretive, move Lockheed funded the project to gain propulsion experience for the X-35 (forerunner to the F-35) they were then developing. The Yak-141 used a similar propulsion system to the F-35, with a swivelling main nozzle – but differed in having two lift engines (the F-35 opted for a lift fan powered by the main engine). This impressive, manoeuvrable aircraft achieved 12 FAI records in April 1991. It’s timing was unfortunate, arriving as the Soviet Union was disintegrating and it was cancelled in 1992. Vertical take-off required the use of reheat (afterburner), necessitating the use of special steel decks.
1. ‘Four poster deathtrap’ Hawker/BAe/McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Harrier No surprises for the number one spot. Key to the Harrier’s success is the simplicity of the propulsion concept: the engine’s thrust is steered through four movable nozzles. Unlike rival concepts, the wing and engine did not need to be swivelled for vertical flight, nor did it depend on extra lift engines (which were a weight burden in forward flight) or a specialised landing pad. The Harrier was a lower-risk brother to the aborted P.1154, initially funded in part by the US Army (which was keen to develop an in-house fixed-wing close support force) and part privately, as British companies were then prohibited from developing manned military aircraft (as they were deemed obsolete).The first generation Harrier entered service with the RAF on April Fool’s Day 1969 and remained in service until early 2016, in Sea Harrier guise, with the Indian Navy. The Harrier was replaced by the bigger and more sophisticated Anglo-American Harrier II from the 1980s. The Harrier, especially in its initial form, had a very high attrition rate for an aircraft of its generation (40% of all Harriers were lost in accidents) and was difficult for pilots to master. Landing was particularly difficult with the pilot having to control both the throttle and the nozzle lever with his left hand. Despite these limitations it is a charismatic and exciting aircraft, sadly missed in Britain (where it retired in 2010).
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