Woken up drunk in air combat with no idea who the enemy is? It’s happened to all of us, now thanks to this handy guide you will be able to tell your ‘Flankers’ from your Gripens, and avoid the embarrassment and social stigma of fratricide.
Some fighters look like a triangle with another smaller triangle in front, these are canard deltas.
A box that looks like a packet of tin-foil near the top of the tail. A big bent ‘walking stick’ near the front. And the ‘mouth’ is in two parts (on either side of the lower body) each shaped like a kidney. The front triangles (or canards) are close to the back triangles (the wings).
Relatively rare. Can be seen in France or in hot countries with poor human rights.
A big mouth like a VCR player (gen Z and Gen Alpha readers will need to Google this). Sausage-like pods on the extreme wingtips – never missiles. A lop-sided frog eye on one side near the window bit. The front triangle is a little further from the back triangle than the others.
Pretty common, can be seen in five European countries or hot countries with poor human rights.
Saab JAS-39 Gripen
Only one engine (the bum-hole at the back) and the little triangle is sharply swept. The mouths look like they could suck up a standing suitcase. It’s also smaller and more svelte than the other and has a pinched waist like it’s wearing a corset.
Relatively rare, can be seen in Central/Eastern European countries popular for stag-dos, Sweden and some other popular holiday destinations.
One bum-hole..is that the Gripen? Nope- it’s the J-10. Note the rounded wingtips and two little fins on the bottom near the back. Has a mouth like a small VCR player. Also, like the Rafale has a walking stick bit sticking out the front near the window.
Common…if you’re in mainland China, otherwise extremely unlikely to see.
Should be an easy one to spot. It’s MASSIVE. Has two vertical tails (unlike any other canard delta aircraft). Two bum-holes. Weird boat-like hull shaped body (like an F-22 or F-35). The wings are relatively small compared to the main body and the little triangles are extremely far from the big triangles. Like the J-10, it has little fins on the rear underside of the body. Looks like a cool futuristic baddy plane (bit like Firefox).
Rare unless you’re in mainland China, which as you’re reading this on the open internet, I assume you’re not.
These all have twin vertical tails (those big vertical fin things at the back on the top).
These guys have a big triangle at the front at a little triangle at the back, which looks more traditional.
Lockheed Martin F-22 Lightning II
The Raptor is big and loud and the cockpit canopy (the big glass window) reflects with a weird gold sheen (like that of the Rafale and F-35 it contains gold I think). The wings and tail are weirdly angular as if designed by a nerd with a ruler. Stealthy fighters look a bit like they haven’t been taken out of their packaging yet. The bum-holes look like zig-zaggy paddles or the vizor on a Gothic suit of armour. Zigzagged panel lines are there to help aircraft hide from radar, so are seen on stealthy designs like the F-22, F-35, J-20 and to a lesser extent, Rafale.
Rare, even in America.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
Is that an F-22? Nooooooooooo. Similar look, but whereas the Raptor looks like a perky athletic Alsatian guard dog with alert eyes and tail high, the F-35 looks like a fatter hound drooping from exhaustion. F-35 has one bum-hole and smaller less swept wings. The F-35 is also smaller. The Chinese J-31 looks like it but hasn’t entered service yet, so let’s ignore it for now.
Reasonably common in the US, and in small communities around the world in rich countries. Sound cool by calling it by its US nickname of ‘Panther’.
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McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
A proper round forward fuselage and great big ramped mouths on the sides. Note how the tails don’t cant out like those of the Raptor or Hornet. A huge round nose and a massive canopy. Looks a bit like a F-22 that’s been taken out the box, or a female version. Long stalky undercarriage (the wheels and the sticks that hold them on). Like with most US and Russian aircraft, the bum-holes are not right at the back but tucked in a bit, the horizontal tail is the furthest rear section.
Common in the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan with a sprinkling in some other countries.
Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’
Wait, is this an F-15? NO you dummy! It’s a ‘Flanker’. Looks more like a lovely bendy squashed swan than does an Eagle. Look how the mouths (the intakes for the engines) are lower, slung underneath the fuselage, and the nose curves down. The canopy is smaller and the bum-holes (the exhaust nozzles) go further back than the horizontal tail.
Here’s an Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers.
Common in Russia and with the airforces of everyone who hates (or is hated) by the US. Also found in India and Ukraine.
Mikoyan RAC MiG-29
Wait, this is just a little ‘Flanker’ right? Yes, in many ways it looks like a scaled-down Flanker. As it’s smaller, the canopy appears relatively bigger and the whole aircraft looks stubbier. Those flabby armpits (LERXes) that join the wing to the fuselage look bigger and more curved than a Flanker’s – also no bee sting.
Common in Russia and with the airforces of everyone who hates (or is hated) by the US and hasn’t got much money. Also found in India and Ukraine.
Interview with a MiG-29 pilot here.
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet & Boeing Super Hornet
The Super Hornet only got funding by pretending to be a Hornet, so despite being far bigger and containing mostly new stuff it retains a similar configuration. The main identifier is the intakes – like kidneys on the old Hornet and like slanted boxes on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Unlike a MiG-29, the intakes are mostly level with the fuselage, rather than underslung. The intakes are much further back than an F-15s and the vertical fins canted outwards. The Hornet also has a very long nose.
Mikoyan MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’
Does that F-15 look super hench? Has it Russian red stars on the wings? Do the intakes and exhausts look over-sized? That’s not an F-15, it’s a MiG-31. Unlike the F-15, the vertical fins are snipped diagonally at the top and it has ventral fins.
Commonish in Russia. Bizarrely also possible to see in Kazakhstan (my wifeeee etc.).
Grumman F-14 Tomcat
If you’re in Iran and see something that reminds you of Tom Cruise <insert joke about gay rights in Iran here>, then it’s an F-14. Unlike anything else, the wings swing and it has twin tails. Also has ventral fins.
Rare, but possible to see in Iran.
Tailess deltas have a big triangle wing and no little triangles.
Pretty. A simple shape, a big triangle wing, one bum-hole. The front (or leading-) edge of the wing is relatively straight. The intakes have spikes in them.
Pretty common in hot countries.
This a Mirage 2000? No! It’s smaller and the inboard section of the leading edge of the wing is at a shallower angle to the outboard section. It is also has a daintier rear end; it is the Kylie to the Mirage 2000’s Jennifer Lopez (or the Justin Timberlake to the Rock for non- gynephiles)
The other guys
Has a hole with a cone in it for a nose and a straight leading edge.
Has a hole with a cone in it for a nose and a straight leading edge and a kinked leading edge. Actually not all J-7s have a kinked wing, but I’ll leave you to work that out here. Little known fact, the NATO codename for F-7’s is ‘Fishcan’. It’s basically a MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ anyway.
Common in skint countries.
Lockheed F-16 & Mitsubishi F-2
A single vertical fin, a cropped delta wing and horizontal surfaces at the rear. One bumhole. A smiling mouth under the fuselage, a sleek look and on the petite side. Big bubble canopy. If it looks like an F-16 but has a different canopy and big red circles on it it’s a Mitsubishi F-2.
F-16: Common across the world.
F-2: Rare, Japan only.
CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder
Though CAC/PAC is a deeply unappealing name, the Chinese/Pakistani Thunder looks OK. Big round armpits, a single vertical fin, ventral fins and intakes with the outer lip forward. Build looks less plasticy and more old school than other fighters up close. Common in Pakistan, rare in Myanmar and likely to come to Nigeria soon.
Interview with a JF-17 pilot here.
Northrop F-5 series
Two tiny bum-holes – can I go home yet? Also, whole aircraft is tiny. Teensy little intakes. If it has twin tails than it’s the Iranian HESA Saeqeh, but that’s highly unlikely. Let’s have two pictures of the Saeqeh anyway, because it looks cool.
Dassault Mirage F1
Come on, how many more of these do I have to do? Bet some pedant notes a type I haven’t included and tweets me at 2AM to let me know in a pissy way. Alright, alright, it has ice cream cones in the intakes like the Mirage 2000 and looks pretty normal.
AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo
You will only see this is Taiwan. It looks like a mash-up of all the 4th generation fighters. You’re just not going to see this OK? Unless you’re in Taiwan and in that case look out for kidney shaped intakes, a single fin and conventional layout.
Right that’s it, I’m having a glass of wine and publishing this damn thing.
(You know what an F-4 looks like)