Four military aircraft myths you shouldn’t believe

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Where do the eternal truths we believe come from? Our culture? The Platonic world of forms? Bill Gunston after a pint of bitter? Who knows. Here are four aviation myths we should not believe. I’m locking myself away for a couple of weeks to avoid the inevitable hate mail this will generate. 

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The Lockheed F-104G Starfighter was terrible 

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An avgeek parallel to the internet’s Godwin’s law, as online discussion on the topic of the German F-104 Starfighter grows longer, the probability of a mention of its allegedly dismal attrition record, or of ‘W****maker’, approaches 1. A total of 292 Lockheed F-104s were lost in German military service, one for each of the words in this article. By 21st-century standards, it’s a catastrophe. In fact, Starfighter attrition was an improvement over its predecessor in Luftwaffe service, the RF/F-84F. Proportionally, it suffered fewer losses than the RAF’s Lightning, that perennial ‘pilot’s aircraft’ (just what aircraft isn’t?). Long before the Tornado was drafted, the F-104G was blazing a trail across inclement European skies as the first true multi-role combat aircraft of the jet age. In Luftwaffe service, the Starfighter was admittedly limited in its roles of interception and reconnaissance, but as a low-level nuclear strike fighter, it provided teeth to back up NATO’s rhetoric into the early 1980s. Substitute the additional fuel pack used in the strike role for the M61 Vulcan cannon (which found its first application on the F-104), and hang as much conventional ordnance as that famous tiny wing would permit, and the Starfighter was equally useful in the conventional attack role. The German Navy might have wanted the Phantom or Buccaneer, but they showed just what ‘Kelly’ Johnson’s design could do low over the chilly Baltic, toting anti-ship missiles or running the important ‘Baltic Express’ reconnaissance mission.
The F-104G was never far from scandal in Germany and elsewhere; even the F-35 would struggle to bring down a Dutch monarch or inspire two concept albums!

The Panavia Tornado F.Mk 3 was rubbish 

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Though the Tornado bomber remains extremely potent 35 years since it entered service, the later interceptor variant is long gone. It had a very bad reputation, which in its early days was justified- it had poor agility, poor high altitude performance and the radar didn’t work. But this turd was successfully polished, by the time it was retired in 2011 it was one of the best beyond-visual range fighters in the world. According to former F3 Nav, Dave Gledhill, speaking to Hush-Kit: “The Stage 3 standard which retired from service in 2011 was light years ahead of that of the F2. At its demise, the F3 was armed with the C-5 standard AMRAAM and ASRAAM missiles, a capable Foxhunter which had automatic track-while-scan, JTIDS data link, secure radios, better identification systems and capable electronic warfare equipment including a radar homing and warning receiver, towed radar decoy, chaff and flares and a Phimat chaff pod. The situation awareness enjoyed by the crews was, arguably, better than even the latest generation American platforms. Regrettably, it still lacked the performance when carrying its role equipment particularly carrying 2250 litre tanks in the upper air but with improved situation awareness and long range weapons, the crew should not have been drawn into the visual arena…if it had been employed against an aggressive opponent, the results would undoubtedly have been surprising as it is unwise to underestimate an opponent. The standard which retired was one of the most capable fighters in the world and, with further enhancements would have been extremely effective.”

The cancellation of the BAC TSR 2 was a tragedy 

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Declinism is the belief that a nation is heading towards decline, and it is paired with a nostalgic view of the past. The usual stance of British aviation enthusiast is that the Government (typically Labour ones) killed wonderful Britain’s wonderful aviation industry (sometimes the evils of America or France are also included). The reality was far more complicated (see David Edgerton’s excellent ‘England and the aeroplane’ for more on this). The martyr for this mythology is the TSR 2. The TSR 2, like the F-35, had a high wing loading, stacks of leading edge electronics and was expected to perform a great many disparate roles. Did the world really need a British Vigilante full of wildly expensive electronics that would be obsolete as soon as the 70s technology explosion took place? Also, as would prove to be the case in the first Gulf War, low-level flying (something the TSR 2 would have excelled at) was the wrong idea*.

If it had gone into service, nobody, other than perhaps Australia and Saudi Arabia (they’ll buy anything) would have bought it. The collaborative Tornado, which led to the Typhoon, would not have happened. The most likely outcome being that Britain would have ended up licence-producing F-15s – which actually would have been very effective (and great deal cheaper) so despite what I was going to say, maybe the TSR 2 would have been a good idea after all.

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The English Electric Lightning was an excellent fighter 

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We all love the Lightning, and are often blind to its terrible limitations. An extremely high price was paid for its ultra-high performance: and that price was combat effectiveness. If you are going to have an aircraft with such a pitiful endurance, at least make sure it has sporting chance of killing the bombers it is sent to destroy. The Lightning’s piss-poor radar and two extremely limited missiles meant there was very very little margin for mistakes, or bad luck, for an actual interception. The single-engined Swedish Draken had half the amount of Avon engines as the Lightning, yet still had a mach 2 top speed, superb weapon systems and a range more than twice the Lightning’s (it was also far easier to maintain, was cheaper and better armed). Another example of a more sensible solution, was the French Mirage III.

There was a small period of time, in the early sixties when the Lightning was the best, but failure to upgrade it made it one of the worst fighters at the time of its retirement. Scandalously, the Lightning entered the 1980s with no beyond-visual range weapons (something carried by the Soviet escort fighters it was expected to face), prehistoric weapon systems, and – out of mindless penny pinching- no radar warning receiver.

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Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

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

*The Tornado, also optimised for low level flight became potent when equipped with stand-off munitions and precision bombs that could be accurately used from medium altitude. Tornado would remain penalised by its the small wings built for tree-top flight. I cannot criticise it for its low bypass ratio in this context as the TSR 2’s Olympus would have had a medium bypass ratio.

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12 comments

  1. David Williams

    “Though the Tornado bomber remains extremely potent almost 35 years since it entered service”
    “Also, as would prove to be the case in the first Gulf War, low-level flying (something the TSR 2 would have excelled at) was the wrong idea.”
    I feel it’s a little difficult to reconcile these these statements, although it is fair to say Tornado usage has moved away from its original low level role.
    Still a very interesting article.

  2. Simon Johns

    Another cracking read HK. I have grown a little obsessed with the F104 after hearing Robert Calvert’s “Captain Lockheed and The Starfighters” back in 1989. There are a fair few rested on stilts dotted around the Turkish countryside. They look like they’re moving even when they are static.

    • elleetoo

      Without the 104G, we’d not have had ‘Ejection’, ‘The Right Stuff’ and that skit which Smith and Jones clearly ripped off. So there’s that.

      Hypothesis: all military aircraft saw an amazing decline in peacetime lethality between 1948 and 1988. We need to pay lots of attention at when the bulk of that decline (and a concomitant increase in the average age of fast-jet aircrew) took place. I suspect that the 104G curve would still stand out as extra-lethal for its time, although no-one would have batted an eyelid at it in the 50s.

      • Ian

        There are more factors playing into fighter loss rates than the airframe design: or even, more holistically, at the combination of airframe design, operating method and maintenance regime.

        Two Kingston-based examples (simplified to fit the space while making the point)…
        Harrier in USMC service acquired a horrible initial mishap rate. Eventually the USMC realised that the standard fixed-wing training syllabus wasn’t enough to cover that funny little extra STOVL capability. Training changed: mishap rate improved significantly.

        Harrier I in RAF service also had an ugly mishap rate. BAe (or more likely at that point, Hawkers) went to the Service with an offer of a package of changes and upgrades focused on safety. RAF response paraphrased: “No thanks, this is an aircraft for brave, manly types. Its notoriety keeps ’em sharp.”

        Happily the improvements did get in, in due course, and Harrier II of course incorporated them. Still remained a feisty aircraft, of course.

  3. Rogue Genome

    Finally someone to challenge accepted wisdom. From memory, if the TSR2 went into production the U.K would have been able to afford… 95 airframes, during the height of the cold war there were 230 Tornados. About the Tornado F3 its worth reading:

    For me, it becomes apparent that this was an aircraft that introduced the notion of a weapons system. It was the first aircraft in RAF service that showed how the software in an aircraft coupled with communications delivers a significant increase in potency.

  4. Manfred

    Regarding TSR.2, it wasn’t intended “…expected to perform a great many disparate roles”. It was intended to be a very fast strike aircraft, mostly low level, with a secondary tactical reconnaissance role. Speculation on other roles such as interceptor, were pure wishful thinking as it would not have performed well in that role at high altitude. Yes, it had a high wing loading, but this was intentional. This made it more gust resistant, especially important at high speed/low altitude, at the expense of maneuverability, not needed for its role. it was expensive and would hae been harder to field than they thought, but isn’t everything. Remember, the plane they chose to replace it, was the F-111K, also low altitude and high wing loading. Also, it started getting so expensive, probably worse than TSR.2 that the UK canceled it before it ever flew.

    As faras vulnerability goes, TSR.2s were intended to operate singly or in pairs. What the Gulf War showed was that one or two attackers at low altitude would surprise the enemy and be gone before they could react. However, if you come in with a large number of striker, or if there is approaching another attack from high or medium altitude, the defenses would be alerted and such a volume of fire would spring up that the low altitude craft would be trapped.

    • Manfred

      If TSR.2 had entered service there would have been no Tornado, but there would have been a Typhoon, it was a completely different aircraft for a completely different purpose. The Typhoon was not deigned to replace the Tornado, but it is now taking on the role as the Tornadoes wear out.

      • Hush Kit

        I’m not sure I’d agree, the primary role of the Typhoon project was to provide follow-on work for the Tornado partner nations. Without this foundation it is extremely unlikely to have happened.

    • duker

      the Gulf war showed the RAF low level attacks were vulnerable to ground fire and missiles. Didnt help that the dispenser sub munitions they were dropping exploded quickly and gave an aiming point especially for night attacks. In practice the USAF standoff attacks on the hangars and the aircraft within gave better results than targeting the runways and taxiways

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