Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the second of our five part Mirage special he explains the basics of this classic French fighter.
What were you first impressions of the Mirage III?
“I was a young lieutenant, 24 years old, fresh from the Spanish Air Force Fighter School, and with about 450 flight hours in my log when I first encountered a Mirage. It was an impressive and beautiful aircraft, and the 11th Wing (based in Manises Air Base, near Valencia) was an elite unit, heir to the Garcia Morato, (40 victories ace), standard and badge. I was assigned to 111th Squadron, (triple one, the best one), and so began the four best years in my life (nowadays the 11th Wing is based in Morón Air Base flying Typhoons).
The Mirage III entered Spanish Air Force inventory in 1970, surrounded by a great aura won in the brutal skies of the Six Days War. By the time I arrived, this formidable reputation was further cemented by its performance in the Yom Kippur War.
Our’s was the Mirage IIIE version with a better radar than the C one, a Doppler navigation system and a different vertical stabilizer.”
What was the cockpit like?
“It was narrow, as was usual in French aircraft of its time (the F1 cockpit was the same). I was always very surprised whenever I saw those Phantom pilots walking towards their aircraft with a big bag in their hands; there was not room enough for a sandwich bag in the Mirage III cockpit.
It’s almost as if ergonomics was invented after the Mirage III cockpit layout was designed.We had to push or pull at least two or three switches placed in different control panels to arm the weapons. Being good at twisting your torso was compulsory. I especially remember the starting button which was placed well behind the thrust lever and you had to push it by putting your left hand about 20 cm behind your back. The radar screen had insufficient brightness so they placed a plastic cowl about 30 cm long, which protruded towards your face (the display was in the centre of the frontal panel). As a result, ‘the ball’ (the attitude indicator) was displaced to the left. It was the first and only time I’ve flown an aircraft without the ball in directly front of my eyes. Added to this is the peculiarly French custom, of having the ball’s vertical reference at the bottom. Anyway, after a dozen of or so flights you were happy with the complicated dance your fingers had to perform around the cockpit. Instead of HOTAS we had ‘HATC’, (Hands Around The Cockpit)!”
What were the best things about the Mirage III?
“First it was beautiful, complying with the first Law of Aerodynamics: ‘beautiful aircraft fly well’ (the opposite is also true, ‘ugly aircraft fly badly’).The Snecma Atar 9C was a very reliable engine, very resistant to compressor stalls and almost immune to flame out in flight. It was very easy to fly if you had enough speed, and stable around its envelope. We always flew with two supersonic fuel tanks but the aircraft behaviour was very docile. It was also very strong. It had a landing gear that would have been strong enough for carrier landings and it wasn’t unusual to see 30 people over the wings and fuselage posing for a photo. We didn’t need any ground support to start the engine. Which was very good for detachments. It was very good at accelerating in a dive, no aircraft of that time could follow us. The aerodynamics were excellent but designed for high speed.
It had double speedbrakes coming up and down the wings adding stability if you had to deploy them, and of course an Stability Augmentation System for pitch and yaw (or in french ‘tangage’ and ‘lacet’.”
What were the worse things about the Mirage III?
“It was underpowered, very underpowered, so no close or turning dogfight was possible. Common word at the time said that the Snecma Atar was a development of BMW engines of Me 262, and sometimes it appeared that this was true! Power supplied was 6700 kgs with afterburner, while normal take off weight was around 11000 kgs. There were no flaps or slats which would have aided its dogfight performance. There was also nothing to compensate for the huge induced drag caused by the big delta wing, and the very long take off and landing runs. The approach speed was 185 knots (which would need to be adjusted to accommodate any extra weight). We always used the brake chute on landings. The engine was a plain turbojet and was as thirsty as hell with or without afterburner. When we pushed it into afterburner, as we would for a whole dogfight, the fuel burning rate jumped to infinity. To worsen this problem, the internal fuel tanks had a capacity of only 2980 litres which made for two dogfights near the airfield and 45 flight minutes. That’s why we always had those two external tanks 500 litres each.”
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What was the role of your squadron?
“In my time it was 80% air defence and 20% ground attack, which was changed to 60/40 a few years later.”
Was the Mirage effective at this role?
“First we have to understand that the Mirage III was designed in the late fifties — and as a fighter interceptor, which meant climbing and flying as fast as fast as possible towards the target to intercept it as far as possible from home. It was similar to the F-104: no multipurpose intentions, no manoeuvring dogfight expected..
After the late fifties designers stopped creating fighters optimised for Mach 2, as it’s not very useful.
But the Mirage III was good in a dogfight in the hands of an experienced pilot. But no mercy for rookies. By the end of its life, we were quite proud of what it achieved in dogfights against far more modern aircraft.In war, the Mirage proved to be extremely effective in air-to-air fighting, as demonstrated by the Israeli air force.
While it wasn’t supposed to be its business, the Mirage III behaved quite well in the ground attack role, but again, good training was essential.
We had no frills to aid our aiming, just a fixed pipper which had to be calibrated by the pilot according to the weapon type. We had no guided bombs, just 2.75 rockets or the two 30-mm guns. We had a firing range 20 minutes flight time from the base, which was built to train our Wing, but was also frequented by other squadrons, and we flew a lot of missions out there. The Mirage III’s horizontal stability was a boon in the ground attack role, making it quite easy putting the pipper on target and keeping it there — but you had to fly at the right speed and with the correct diving angle or your bomb could fly out of the range. It was easier with the rockets of course, but 100 feet short or beyond the target was still a normal score for unexperienced pilots.
With the guns (or cannons as we called them), coming very close to the target made it easy to hit it, and the bullets dispersion was straight enough to make really big holes, one 30-mm bullet, one foot long, was something. The problem was we only had 230 bullets, and a firing rate of 1,300 bullets per minute. The Mirage III payload was small and we always needed external tanks for ground attack, so never had more than three hard points available. In the inner wings hard points we could take two special fuel/bomb carrier tanks with four 250 kgs bombs attached and a capacity of 500 litres. It was called the RPK-10. Our Phantom colleagues made a lot of jokes about the fact they could carry more rockets than we bullets…and it was true! We answered by saying that we flew fighters, not bombers.”
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