Hush-Kit and Rowland ‘Vulcan 607’ White interview each other
Rowland White and Hush-Kit each have new books. Rowland’s is about the exciting story of 809 Naval Air Squadron, while Hush-Kit has a lavish coffee- table book on warplanes, quite unlike any other. Both are available for pre-order today (the Hush-Kit book is entirely crowdfunded so do get involved).
Fuelled by Malbec and cabin fever, and using the excuse of joint promotion to talk about aeroplanes — the two gave each other 10 questions.
Hush-Kit interview Rowland White
What’s so interesting about 809 Squadron?
“Through chance and circumstance they sort of came from behind to emerge as the Fleet Air Arm’s leading fixed wing squadron. For nearly ten years they flew from Ark Royal as the FAA’s sole Buccaneer squadron, then returned in 1982, pulled together like the Dirty Dozen for one last mission (which, of course, is inherently cool …) then, off the back of all that, displaced more obvious choices like 800, 801 and 899 to be chosen as the Navy’s first F-35B Lightning squadron.”
In your book, you share the fact that BAe tried to sell the (Sea) Harrier to some pretty unlikely customers – who were they?
“Apart from those that did buy first generation jump jets – the US, India, Spain, Thailand – there were also concerted efforts to sell them to Australia, Iran, China, Chile, Brazil and even France! But of most interest in the context of the Falklands War, was the strong pitch to the Argentine Navy in the late seventies, supported by the Foreign Office on the basis that, designed for air defence, the Sea Harrier would pose little threat to the Falkland Islands.”
What is the biggest myth about British Harrier operations in the Falklands War?
“That twelve Phantoms aboard the old HMS Ark Royal would necessarily have done a better job than twenty Sea Harriers. In the end it was, as it so often is, more a numbers game than anything. The F-4 was undoubtedly a more capable naval interceptor than the Sea Harrier. Heavily-armed, long-legged and equipped with a powerful pulse-doppler radar, Phantom on CAP ‘up-threat’ of the islands would have wreaked havoc against incoming Argentine raids – including the Exocet carrying Super Etendards. But six weeks is a very long time to keep just twelve Phantoms and their crews flying without any possibility of reinforcement or replacement. The F-4 was maintenance heavy and temperamental in comparison to the SHAR which chalked up astonishingly high mission availability rates during the war. Then there was the weather. Given the conditions in which some of the Sea Harriers were able to get back on deck it’s hard not to imagine that some of the F-4s might, at the very least, have suffered damage in landing incidents. Once your force of twelve F-4s is reduced to ten, or eight, or six serviceable airframes it all starts to look a little more tenuous. The SHARs, on the other hand, could be reinforced almost as required by RAF GR3s. In what was a largely visual fight against enemy aircraft that had little or no radar capability of their own, Sidewinder-armed GR3s were a viable alternative.”
Your books are brilliantly researched – are you particularly dogged, what motivates you?
The Argentinians claim to have hit a British carrier, something the British deny…what is your opinion on this? “See homeopathy, flat-earthers, anti-vaccers, the link between 5G and COVID-19, and fake moon landings …”
What was the biggest lesson of your first book?
“To choose a subject you really, really like. If your motivation is anything other than a genuine and unquenchable interest in telling the story, it’s going to be a misery. It’s just too much work to do it for anything but the love of it. I need to almost have a compulsion to write a story. Before I arrived at Vulcan 607, the first subject I started scratching around was the Schneider Trophy Races. I even interviewed a former engineer who’d worked in the Supermarine factory in the thirties, but my heart was never really in it.”
How important were the USMC in the development of the Harrier’s air combat potential; what was VIFFING – and what are its benefits?
VIFF – Vectoring in Forward Flight – was the unique ability of the Harrier to change the direction of its jet thrust by rotating the four exhaust of its jet engine. The US Marine Corps were the driving force behind the technique from the outset. Two USMC test pilots evaluated the Harrier in 1968. When they asked about the envelope for putting the nozzles down in forward flight they got the impression it was the first time anyone had asked. But after some hasty calculations came back from Hawker, they took the jet to 25,000 feet and 300kts and gave it a go. They would go on to develop it into something of an art. Trials first took place using a Kestrel that belonging to NASA, but accelerated once frontline Marine Corps squadrons got their hands on real Harriers and, employing VIFF against A-4s, F-4 and T-38s, beat them all. Such was the potential that, in 1972, a joint UK/US test programme, run by the USMC, NASA and the Royal Aircraft Establishment was instigated that proved beyond doubt that, using VIFFing, the Harrier was capable of manoeuvres that no other warplane could match. As one veteran USMC Harrier pilot put it: ‘When we started, the F-4 Phantom was the Marines’ premier fighter. And when we engaged them in dogfights, they were literally murdered.’ Because of its ability to VIFF, no opponent could stay in a Harrier’s six o’ clock if the jump jet’s pilot didn’t want it to. Ironically then, and despite much being written about VIFFing in British newspapers as the Task Force sailed south, the technique was never used to either shoot down or escape the enemy during the Falklands War.”
How well did the Harriers do in the Falklands and why were they so important?
“The Sea Harriers destroyed twenty-three enemy aircraft – fixed and rotary wing – without suffering a single combat loss in return. Those numbers speak for themselves. With respect to the Sea Harrier’s importance to the operation to recapture the Falklands, it was black and white. As Admiral Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord at the tome of the Falklands War, put it: ‘Without the Sea Harrier there could have been no Task Force’.”
How important was the AIM-9L and what was its advantage?
“In the end, it turned out to be largely psychological. The latest version of the Sidewinder, rushed into service with the Sea Harrier before the fighting, was described as a ‘death ray’ by one of the engineers who developed it. From the moment when a SHAR armed with the Nine Lima first intercepted a 707 shadowing the Task Force on 21 April, the Argentine Air Force knew they were up against a missile that, unlike their own, could be fired from any angle – even head-on. It was a factor in their reluctance to engage the Sea Harriers and, where possible, avoid them altogether. In the event, post-war analysis showed that every single Sidewinder kill should have been within the capability of the earlier AIM-9G version.”
Pre-order order your copy of Harrier 809 here.
How do you decide on the subject for a book and determine the ‘story’?
“Each book has been something of a reaction to the content of the previous one, a change in direction. From RAF to the Fleet Air Arm; from big machines at sea to a rough and ready ground war in the Middle East; from boots on the ground to orbital mechanics; and from the US back to a very British story – and one that, more than any other book I’ve written, is about air-to-air combat. There have also been particular, and sometimes quite unlikely sounding touchstones for the books. With Vulcan 607 I wanted to write something that felt something like a British, non-fiction, Flight of the Old Dog. I wanted Phoenix Squadron to feel like the miniseries that launched the Battlestar Galactica reboot. The trigger for Storm Front was watching a special forces assault in an episode of 24. For Into the Black it was reading Andrew Smith’s brilliant Moondust. I genuinely hadn’t been much interested in space until I read his account of his effort to meet the surviving moonwalkers, but as soon as I did I knew I had to write about the Shuttle – a spaceship with wings.
Then identifying the shape and focus of the narrative is absolutely key. Obviously I’m working with the facts as I’ve discovered them but I’m always thinking about the story I’m telling and trying to deploy the material in the service of that. I’m fascinated by the subject of ‘story’ and what’s required to capture and hold a readers’ (or moviegoers’) attention. So I’m an avid reader of the likes of Robert McKee, William Goldman, John Yorke and was even lucky enough to attend one of McKee’s mesmerising three-day seminars on story. Wanting to know how I want make readers feel – over the course of a whole book, but also scene by scene – is almost a starting point. Once I’ve figured that out then the research that follows sort of arranges itself organically in my as I get deeper into it.”
Most of your books are about British aviation subjects, why is this and how important is the warplane to British mythology and self-identity?
“I can’t speak French and I have only limited American. And old warplanes do seem to be strangely important to the way this country sees itself, don’t they?”
Which aircraft is most like you and why?
“Victor K2. Like me, it could have arrived straight out of Flash Gordon – and it possesses a massive hose.”
Rowland White interviews Hush-Kit
Why did you start Hush-kit and what did you want to that wasn’t already being done?
“I had been made redundant and needed something to do to stop me going mad. My friend Eva suggested I start a blog, I think she wanted me to work more on my humorous writing — and was disappointed to find out I’d dedicated it to aircraft! I guess I was interested in breaking the unwritten rules of how aircraft are discussed, but equally inspired by what I loved in the aircraft books of the 1980s. I was frustrated that a subject as exciting as aviation was generally written about in a very boring way. And I was very uncomfortable with how the subject is often hijacked for nationalistic or militaristic purposes. Also, was there a reason humour was outlawed from aerospace writing?
Listicles are often frowned upon, but I think they’re brilliantly accessible… so what happens if you get insiders to help you with them? Behind many of the top 10s are anonymous contributions from some pretty interesting people. Initially I struggled to get interviews with the people I wanted but over time it got easier. The chance to interview soviet interceptor pilots and Iranian Tomcat aces (for example) was a thrill! There’s still a a load of pilots I’m desperate to talk to.”
What magical combination of different elements makes up the perfect Hush-kit article? “There’s a few different style of Hush-Kit article, some quite serious and some quite silly. One thing I’m interested in is giving sensible answers to childish questions that I wondered as an 8-year-old, an example being the chance to ask a Spitfire/Typhoon pilot which of his aircraft would win in a dogfight. The articles I like best communicate a real story in an entertaining way. There are many pitfalls, and if you are not careful it’s easy to unquestioningly share manufacturers’ PR spin, nationalist jingoism or use too much jargon (all things I’ve been guilty of at times). Well informed stuff with a sprinkle of humour makes me happy! I think writers sometimes worry that silliness will undermine the serious stuff, but trusting the intelligence of your readers gives you greater liberty.”
Which aircraft has been the most unlikely success story and why? “The F-4 Phantom II. The success of the Phantom is a lesson in the importance of persistence. It started life as a ‘Super Demon’ (McDonnell’s taste for supernatural names was wonderful) – a reboot of a less than stellar design… and went on to conquer the world. It was an interesting design in many ways, arguably putting power and avionics/weapon systems above aerodynamics. Makes you wonder if a British Super Javelin could have became an equally successfully polished turd.”
Tell me which aeroplane best represents each of the ten deadly sins
“Great question, I’ve just listened to the brilliant Stephen Fry podcast on the 7 deadly sins so sin is very much on my mind:
I will not risk saying Tejas..how about the new British Tempest project?
Panamarenko’s ‘The Aeromodeller’ of 1971. A 28-metre-long airship made of glued strips of PVC film with an underslung cabin of rattan palm sprayed in silver. He planned to live there permanently in the air, with Brigitte Bardot. In 1971 Panamarenko tried to test fly the airship to Arnhem, and may have had plans to pick up Bridgette Bardot (who I am pretty sure was completely unaware of the plan). The Dutch aviation police didn’t approve of this dangerous enterprise — in an untested, possibly unflyable machine — and informed Panamarenko of this by telegram. Panamarenko didn’t give a shit for the Dutch aviation police and attempted to take-off. But was thwarted by a storm.
“Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s A380. I think Idi Amin sent a 727 to the UK to pick up his weekly Fortnum & Mason’s hamper –– and whisky. There is also many stories of military aircraft flying unnecessary ‘shop runs’. I have it from a reliable source that a Marienflieger Tornado flew a mission to Norway in the 1980s to pick up some smoked salmon.”
“Project Pluto. A nuclear-powered nuclear weapon delivery vehicle. To quote wikipedia “It was proposed that after delivering all its warheads, the missile could then spend weeks flying over populated areas at low altitudes, causing secondary damage from radiation.” that’s after it has already delivered nuclear bombs. It then crashes, to further curse the ground with even more radiation. I mean that’s particularly spiteful even for a nuclear weapon. Not sure I agree with Yuval Noah Harari that having instant genocide ‘in a jar’ is a good idea.”
“The Bristol 188. Designed to explore flights at sustained bi-sonic plus speed, it couldn’t go past mach 1.88. To put this in perspective, it was a high-speed research aircraft that first flew three years after a faster aircraft (the EE Lightning) had entered actual frontline service. Still, it looked magnificent with is beautiful stainless steel construction and huge engine pods. At the same the Americans were flying around at over Mach 3 with a titanium aircraft.”
Which career of an aircraft design that never entered service do you spend most time thinking about. How did it pan out? “There’s a few here. I’d like to know more about the Nimrod MRA.4. A few billion (perhaps four) spent and nothing much to show for it apart from a ‘capability holiday’ (no fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft for a nation surrounded by sea) and a later multi-billion order for a US aircraft. Then there’s all these (potentially) brilliant cancelled British fighters”
Who – living or dead – would you most like to write a piece for Hush-kit and why? “There’s a question! Brian O’Nolan on the F-35? P.G. Wodehouse spending an afternoon drinking with R.J. Mitchell? Hunter S. Thompson on krokodil reporting from Zhukovsky? Leonora Carrington flies with Iranian Tomcats? Elsa Hildegard Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven on biz-jet reviews?”
Which aviation conundrum keeps you up at night and why? Is it possible to love to love killing machines without losing part of your soul? And, does USAF need to be so incredibly huge? What’s the logic behind a low-visibility roundel?
If Hush-kit were a helicopter what would it be and why? There’s a gulf between what it would like to be and what it is! It would perhaps like to be a Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne of a parallel universe where the thing worked well and entered service. Though actually I think we would be the Romanian IAR 317 (what happens when a shopping trolley falls in love with an Alouette). Just remembered I’m supposed to be plugging our new coffee table book which is crowd-funded and is going to be magnificent, you can order it here.
Round the world in a Graf Zeppelin or an Empire Class Flying Boat? “Zeppelin! I don’t smoke anymore, but if I did, the Hindenburg’s smoking room looked amazing. Unsurpassed luxury and elegance!”
What should I write next? Persuade me.
“The story of babies conceived by factory workers in partly-made Lancaster bombers? There’s something very uplifting about that I think.”
“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’
I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Pre-order your copy now right here
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From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.
The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as:
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The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.
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