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.
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 (Russian: Военно-воздушные cилы России)
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!
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.
6. Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Қазақстанның Қарулы күштері, Qazaqstannyń 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 Perú, FAP)
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.
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)
- Bangladesh Air Force (Bengali: বাংলাদেশ বিমান বাহিনী, Bangladesh 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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