The Top Ten Recce-fighters



The shoot-down of a Turkish air force RF-4E Phantom II in 2012 highlighted the inherent dangers of the fighter-recce mission. Reconnaissance-fighters have flown some of the most daring aerial missions, often flying alone deep in enemy airspace, relying on speed and guile for survival. A panel of experts was assembled to decide which aircraft would make the selection, in what become one of the most heated debates in this site’s history.

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10. Supermarine Swift

Though the Swift lived in the shadow of the more successful Hunter, it was a capable low-level recce fighter. The type lived up to its name and in 1953 earned the world air speed record (it reached 737.7 mph over Libya) , though this was stolen away by the Douglas Skyray a  mere eight days later. RAF Swifts were based in West Germany, where in the event of war it would have been expected to run the gamut of the Warsaw Pact’s defences, then the most formidable anywhere. It was one of the first service aircraft fitted with an afterburner, following the F-94 Starfire and F6U-1 Pirate. The afterburner was unreliable at high altitude, but this did affect the Swift in the low-level tactical reconnaissance role.

9. Lockheed F-4/5 Lightning

Before the Thunderbolt and the Mustang reached service, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning was by far the US Army Air Corps most exciting fighter. It set records and it looked like it had flown straight out of the future (it would inspire the looks of a whole generation of American cars but that is another story). It was also more than usually suited to adaptation to the reconnaissance role than the average fighter aircraft of 1940 being possessed of a very good range and a decidedly large aircraft and thus well able to handle carrying the bulky camera equipment of the time over a long distance. The first ‘combat-capable’ P-38 was the E model and this was the first selected to be adapted for reconnaissance. Designated the F-4, its armament was replaced with four cameras. Some were built as such at the factory, others modified in the field but around 100 were produced. Somewhat surprisingly these were the first of the Lightning family to see operational service, the first sortie being made from Australia in April 1942. In Europe, the P-38 had a decidedly mixed career, with many teething troubles that led to its never really being entirely acceptable to its crews at the time it was most sorely needed and it faded from fighter operations as the P-47 and P-51 became available in decent numbers. By contrast the reconnaissance versions proved invaluable from the start and would prove to be America’s most effective reconnaissance aircraft in every theatre in which they operated. Some 1400 were built or modified from fighter airframes, early examples being designated F-4, later aircraft derived from the P-38G onwards were known as the F-5. None was armed and most were painted in various shades of blue. Initially this consisted of a specially developed paint resulting from much research and experiment called, rather charmingly, ‘Haze’. Difficult to apply and prone to simply flaking off it was replaced by a different, bluer, paint called ‘Synthetic haze’ which did just fine until the USAAF decided that its aircraft were no longer to be painted at all. This did not go down well with the F-5 pilots who were required to fly an unarmed aircraft alone through hostile skies for many hours and might be forgiven for wishing their aircraft to blend in as much as possible with their surroundings rather than shine and shimmer in the sunlight like chromium. As a result the last F-5Es, all of which were converted from P-38Js, were painted with British PRU blue upon their arrival in England.

Despite all their success the reconnaissance Lightning will probably best be remembered as the aircraft in which the renowned French author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappeared. His F-5B was missing until 2000 when a diver discovered the wreckage spread over a large area of the Mediterranean. It will probably never be known what caused the aircraft to crash and is a most unfair association for the finest US reconnaissance aircraft of the war.

8. Hawker Hunter FR.10

The Hunter FR.10 was an extremely good fighter-reconnaissance aircraft. Its near ‘idiot-proof’ handling characteristics, low-level speed and range made it well-suited to the mission. Apart from the camera fit, the FR.10 differed from fighter Hunters in having additional armour-plating and a voice recorder.

7. Dassault Mirage IIIR

The French Mirage IIIR saw war in the air forces of Pakistan and Israel. The type saw less controversial service with Switzerland, which with 18 aircraft bought, was the largest export customer.

5. Saab AJSH 37 Viggen

The story of the Viggen’s development is similar to that of the Tornado; it started life as a bomber, and was then developed into a fighter and reconnaissance aircraft. The Viggen was extremely well equipped, For the photographic SF version, the radar in the nose was taken out to make room for one SKa 24 57 mm, three SKa 24C 120 mm and two SKa 31 600 mm photographic cameras. IVKa 702 t also carried one Infrared linescan camera. Additional sensor pods could be carried on the fuselage stations.


4. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25R ‘Foxbat-B’

One of the judging panel thought the MiG-25R should not be included as a recce-fighter, because while most of the recce-fighters on this list are modifications of fighters, in the case of the ‘Foxbat’- the recce version was planned from the outset. Strictly speaking, the armed reconnaissance versions of the MiG were recce-bombers, high-speed strike aircraft able to haul an impressive load of eight 500kg bombs — treated with special coatings to resist overheating at Mach 2.8+.

Anyway, we felt that the MiG-25 should be included, as it was also an operational fighter. And in terms of recce-fighters, it is certainly the fastest. What’s more, this Cold War classic remains in front-line service with the Russian Air Force, with the latest upgrade set to keep it at the front line for some years to come.

The USSR sent two MiG-25Rs, and two MiG-25RBs to Egypt in March 1971. They were operated by the Soviet 63rd Independent Air Detachment set up especially for this mission. Det 63 flew over Israeli-held territory in Sinai on reconnaissance missions roughly 20 times.  A MiG-25 was tracked flying over Sinai at Mach 3.2,  leading the West to believe that the ‘Foxbat’ had a true tri-sonic capability; it later transpired that this speed was only achievable at the expense of the engines. The normal limiting speed was Mach 2.8, which is still far faster than any other recce-fighter.

The Soviet Union also flew MiG-25RBs over Iran in the 1970s though this was halted when the introduction of the F-14 Tomcat into the IIAF made the mission too risky.

3. Vought RF-8 Crusader

The RF-8 almost started World War 3, or possibly helped avert it. U-2 flights over Cuba in 1962 showed possible signs that the Soviet Union was creating a nuclear missile base. However, the high altitude U-2 photos were not good enough to say this for sure, what was needed was close, low-level photography. To do this over Cuba was dangerous to say the least. The US Navy sent in RF-8 Crusaders in October 1962, flying at extremely low-level at supersonic speeds. The images they brought back proved conclusively what the US feared. No RF-8s were shot down on these daredevil missions.

3. Supermarine Spitfire (recce-fighter variants)

As well as being arguably the best fighter of the second world war, the Spitfire has a pretty decent claim to being its finest reconnaissance aircraft too: it pioneered a radical new conceptual approach to aerial photo reconnaissance, was fantastically successful and recorded the fastest speed ever attained by a piston-engined aircraft (over 600 mph in a dive). Not bad for an aircraft that only existed due to the eccentric persistence of one man, Sidney Cotton.
As well as spiriting Christian Dior’s managing director out of occupied France, taking clandestine photographs of Luftwaffe airfields from an aircraft piloted by Field Marshall Kesselring and inventing the Sidcot suit, Sidney Cotton was convinced that photo reconnaissance needs were best served not by converted bombers or army co-op aircraft as conventional wisdom stated but by suitably modified fighter aircraft. The PR (and later FR) Spitfires were the result. Luckily for the RAF, Cotton had pretty influential friends (ie Churchill) and managed to obtain two Spitfire Is during 1940 to be modified for the reconnaissance role. These were immediately successful and prompted more conversions and eventual factory-built reconnaissance Spitfires. With Cotton’s modifications speed was significantly increased over the fighter version but the range was colossal. Despite the fact that it was a modification of a Spitfire I (a fighter suffering from a chronically short endurance), the PR Type F was able to perform reconnaissance missions to Berlin during the summer of 1940 – try doing that in a Blenheim.
The PR Type G however ushered in a new era, although it could not range quite so far as Berlin it was the first or the PR Spitfires to retain the full armament of the standard fighter. It was a formidable aircraft – faster than the fighter, longer ranged and able to fight its way out of any trouble it might not be able to outrun, a formula that would later be repeated for the other truly great British reconnaissance aircraft, the Mosquito. Later Griffon-powered versions were just as effective and would serve in the RAF until 1954.
Cotton’s Spitfires were produced in ever greater numbers and pioneered some fascinating technology. New camouflage paints were developed with a super-smooth finish to aid performance but in seemingly unlikely shades not seen on any previous military aircraft such as all-over pale blue green (called camoutint) and, famously, pink. High altitude, high-speed stereoscopic photography was implemented for the first time and enabled the size of the V-1 and V-2 to be calculated. Oblique photography was also pioneered by these aircraft, and an oblique camera in a Spitfire brought back the first evidence of the Giant Wurzburg radar and inspired a Commando raid to steal one.
Ultimately the success of the reconnaissance Spitfires may be judged by the fact that from 1940 to VE day, they ranged all over Europe with relative impunity, a period during which the German’s were almost totally unable to photograph the British Isles from the air – at least until the advent of the jet…

2. McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

The fast, tough Phantom is ancient. You wouldn’t think an enormous, smoky fighter with a radar signature the size of a bus would make an ideal recce platform, and to be honest it is reaching the end of it useful life. However, it has performed admirably in this role for several decades. The Phantom is a strong aircraft, with some built-in, battle resistance. This, combined with a high top speed (Mach 2.2) and a two-man crew made the aircraft an effective reconnaissance platform.

The type flew missions in Vietnam and the Arab-Israeli War. Though there only four squadrons of RF-4Cs deployed they lost 72 aircraft in combat, demonstrating the very dangerous nature of the post-strike recce mission that RF-4s performed.

During the late 60s the top secret Project Dark Gene began. CIA and Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF), aircraft were sent to probe the Soviet Union’s air defence system and assess its capabilities. In 1973, an IIAF RF-4C manned by an Iranian pilot and US back-seater was intercepted by a Soviet MiG-21, when the Russian fighter failed to destroy its opponent with missiles and guns, it resorted to ramming it. The ramming attack destroyed both aircraft and killed the MiG-21 pilot (posthumously awarded as a Hero of the Soviet Union). The version of the Phantom used in these operations was rumoured to be a nuclear-capable RF-4C with enhanced ELINT systems.

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

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1 .McDonnell RF-101 Voodoo

From Cuba to the Taiwanese straits the RF-101 surveyed the world’s political faultlines with virtual impunity. Fast, long-ranged, but most importantly in the right place (or rather wrong place) at the right time, the Voodoo ensured its place in history.


  1. martyn oconnor

    You’ve missed probably the best recce fighter of them all the De Havilland Mosquito faster than anything else in the world at the time (until the jets came along, but even they ran out of puff chasing the mossie) it could fly higher than anything else and carry a bigger load than most aircraft the same size. It was also a masterstroke of design being mainly wooden it was cheap relatively easy to manufacture saving precious metal for the spits and lancs.

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