What is the forum & why did you set it up?
“Secret Projects Forum is both a discussion forum and a database. It’s a place to discover and share interesting nuggets of aviation history, with a particular emphasis on prototypes, cancelled and unbuilt projects, with like-minded people from around the world. It’s been running since December 2005 and hasn’t run out of steam yet, though Facebook groups like ‘The Greatest Planes That Never Were‘ are mounting a challenge.
I was always an aviation nerd and an avid reader; Airfix kits of WW2 aircraft on the ceiling, aircraft books on the shelves. When I got to secondary school I found a copy of Derek Wood’s book ‘Project Cancelled’, which blew my mind with its array of fantastic-looking British designs which were never built, or were cancelled. For someone who felt pretty knowledgeable about aircraft it was like a whole new horizon opening of things to know about. That was the start of something. ‘Warplanes of the Future’ by Bill Gunston showed me a bright future of non-yet-built aircraft.”
‘Stealth Warplanes’ by Bill Sweetman blew the lid on the fascinating world of Stealth. These would be my version of the holy Trinity. Sweetman’s now a member of the forum, by the way.
I failed to make it though an aero engineering degree, the first time I’d failed at anything academically — and in a fit of pique I threw away most of my aircraft book and magazine collection and decided to pursue an English degree instead. I did well enough at that to get funded for a scholarship for a masters, but doing that masters course (medieval English) cured me of ever wanting a career in academia. I ended up with a career in IT (systems sngineer) mostly by accident.
The internet revived my interest in aviation. A largely solitary interest from my childhood was now something you could share with people all around the world. The chances of finding people interested in such a niche subject in your immediate peer group is tiny, but multiplied across the billions of people in the world, you can form sizeable communities. I lurked on a number of existing aviation forums, posting things I found interesting, but none were quite aligned with my interests, though the www.whatifmodelers.com forum was closest. I met fellow travellers interested in the same things I was, so I decided to start my own forum. It was pretty easy, people joined up in decent numbers, and once there was some content for Google to index, more like-minded people searching for this stuff inevitably found their way to the forum.”
Why do you think there is such an interest in secret & cancelled aircraft?
“Partly I think because there are relatively few new (manned at least) aircraft in development. Mining the rich vein of aviation’s past is one way to keep discovering interesting ‘new’ designs when nobody is building them. Also, it’s interesting to see the what-ifs, the designs that could have been built instead of the planes we know. Having done some archival research, it’s clear that the process of choosing a winning design is often only loosely aligned with what is technically the best proposal. Of course, unlike real aircraft, designs that weren’t built never suffer the indignity of failing to achieve their promised performance, so you need to guard against believing everything in the brochure. ‘It would have been great’ ignores the giant chasm separating a brochure from an actual finished aircraft.”
Personally, I am very interested in the whole design and engineering process — from first sketch to final hardware for iconic planes such as the F-16, far more than I am interested in their subsequent operational history. There’s a great design progression linking the F-111 to the F-16, unlikely as it seems, and the process of refining the design, the alternate approaches considered, the rival designs proposed by other manufacturers. There’s an interesting book in that, I think. I may have to write it one day.
What is your favourite aircraft and why?
“Probably the MiG-29 and Su-27. I grew up buying the Observers Book of Aircraft, and recall buying a volume where suddenly these cool new planes were included (in artist’s impressions).
They looked very un-Soviet, but they were still largely unknown, mysterious and alluring. I remember my copy of Air International dropping through the mailbox in 1986 with photos of the MiG-29 visit to Finland – I did a lot of drawings inspired by it that week. I went to the Farnborough Airshow in 1988 with my dad, and wasted two rolls of film taking terrible photos of the MiG-29 there. I saw the grainy Su-27 photo in Flight International in late 1987, then a few years later I was watching it do the ‘Cobra’ at an airshow. I have an amazing book on the Su-27 (Su-27 Fighter: Beginning of Story by Ildar Bedretdinov et al) but sadly part two is only released in Russian, so I can only look at the pics. Part 1 is the kind of detailed engineering history I love: 360 pages just covering Su-27 development up to the T-10 prototype.
What is your favourite cancelled British fighter and why?
“Probably the Hawker P.1216 V/STOL fighter from the early 1980s, which was passed over in favour of the Eurofighter. The Typhoon is a bit of a ‘meh’ design, workmanlike but nothing very interesting or innovative. P.1216 would have been a much more interesting aircraft, and Ralph Hooper felt it was achievable whereas the P.1154 was a step too far in the early 1960s. If co-developed with McDonnell-Douglas for the Marines, it might have altered the direction of the later F-35 programme.”
Aurora – fact or fiction?
“Fiction. The ‘Aurora’ name comes from a B-2 related funding line item. Researcher Dan Zinngrabe did think that something classified and fast was flown at least in a prototype form in that timeframe, so I wouldn’t rule out something experimental and fast existing. There’s no infrastructure or funding to support an operational fleet of cryogenically-fuelled aero-spaceplane reconnaissance aircraft. There’s no Mach 6 SR-71 replacement in service, or Lockheed Martin wouldn’t be promoting their SR-75.”
Biggest aircraft myth?
“MiG-25 as a “big bad” prior to Belenko’s defection. Sober intelligence agency analysts correctly saw it from 1967 as an interceptor with limited manoeuvring capability, but a politically useful consensus emerged from the Air Force’s own pet intelligence analysts that it was some kind of Mach 3 super-fighter built from titanium that made the F-4 obsolete, and that helped sell Congress on the F-15. Same people who insisted on a “bomber gap” that never existed but helped fund a pile of B-52s.”
Favourite secret or cancelled US type and why?
YF-23. If there’s ever been a fighter which looked like the future, its the YF-23. The F-22 resembles a warmed over F-15 in comparison. Would it have made a better choice for the US Air Force? No idea. It would have looked awesomely cool though.
How many Black projects do you believe are flying now and what are they likely to be?
I’m sure there are demonstrators which have not yet been revealed, most likely in the unmanned space. Northrop Grumman seemed to have something more than the B-2 on their stealth CV to get the B-21 program. I’m on the the fence about the Northrop Grumman RQ-180, it makes sense, but I’ve not seen the evidence.”
What is your favourite cancelled Soviet type?
Sukhoi T-4MS. A variable geometry blended-body intercontinental bomber design that lost to Tupolev’s rather pedestrian design that evolved into the Tu-160. It had a very high lift/drag ratio, but would have been a challenging design to build, and Sukhoi really had enough on their plate with the Su-27 and other projects.
What should I have asked you & why?
What’s been the best thing to come out of running the forum?
“I got to meet Tony Buttler and Chris Gibson virtually, and then in person, and that led directly to me writing a book on the Hawker P.1121. I got to fly to England, visit Scale Modelworld in Telford and do a book signing. That was awesome.”
Tell me about an aircraft type I don’t know about
“I don’t know what aircraft you don’t know 🙂
An oddball one-off aircraft was the Acme Sierra / Sierra Sue, a Y-tail, pusher prop light aircraft built by Northrop engineers Walt Fellers and Ron Beattie in their spare time from 1948 and which first flew in 1953. Walt Fellers revisited this Y tail layout in 1968 for the N-308, a Y-tail pusher turboprop that was for a time the preferred configuration of Northrop’s A-X (A-10 Warthog rival), and Sierra Sue flew some test flights in connection to the Northrop A-X program.
Sadly requirement changes forced Northrop to drop the turboprop design and move to jets. Aesthetically, it was a much more interesting design than the built YA-9, which is rather dull.”