<David Attenborough voice>Ah, fish! Among these denizens of the deep are some of nature’s most sublime creations, evolutionary masterpieces that fill our oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and desktop bowls with vibrant colours and provide some of the most incredible spectacles seen anywhere in the natural world.
Alas, few creations in the realm of aviation seem to take inspiration from these magnificent creatures. There are exceptions, of course, and, were this a list of bombers named after fish, it’d have been much easier to compile, with legendary entries like the Fairey Swordfish, Martin Marlin, Blackburn Shark, Short Sturgeon, and the like.
But you know what they say about doing things the easy way. Today, we’re looking specifically at fighter aircraft. The namesakes of the world’s fighters are varied, encompassing big cats, forces of nature, and mythological figures. But often, fighters are named after birds, because birds…well, they fly. (Yes, there is such a thing as a flying fish, which Mother Nature clearly fashioned after the Fairey Barracuda, but it doesn’t actually fly but jump really far.)
Here are ten fighters whose namers dared to imagine a reality in which sky and sea were one…with decidedly mixed results.
10. Ryan XF2R Dark Shark
There is, perhaps, no creature of the sea so fearsome as the shark. These apex predators are fast, powerful, and terrifyingly beautiful, and so it’s no wonder that they’ve starred in some of Hollywood’s most iconic cinematic gems, such as Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and the Sharknado franchise. It should also come as no surprise that they’ve lent their names to a number of aircraft. The Dark Shark might be the most impressive of the bunch, or at least the most ambitious. The type was a product of a time when jet engines were seen as a promising new technology, but were often unreliable, insufficiently powerful, and very slow to spool up, to say nothing of their fondness for guzzling kerosene as if it were Guinness.
This mixed reputation led many to believe that a jet engine’s best use was to augment the power of a propeller-driven aircraft, and thus was born the mixed-propulsion fighter, most notably realised in the Ryan FR Fireball, which may or may not have made the world’s first jet-powered carrier landing (by accident), depending on who you ask. Though the Fireball was well-liked by its pilots for its exceptional manoeuvrability and cockpit visibility, the type’s name proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it was prone to landing gear collapses and structural failures. Perhaps not wanting to repeat that mistake, the folks at Ryan Aeronautical turned to the order Selachimorpha to christen their new fighter—which was little more than a Fireball with its Wright R-1820-72W Cyclone replaced by a General Electric T31 turboprop. Not only was the latter lighter and easier to maintain than its piston predecessor, but the aircraft no longer had to carry separate types of fuel!
By this time, however, the Navy’s interest in the mixed-propulsion concept had waned. The USAF showed some interest, though they insisted that the J31 turbojet inherited from the Fireball be replaced by a Westinghouse J34. While the Dark Shark was a significant upgrade over the Fireball in performance, problems with the turboprop and the rapid evolution of pure jets conspired to kill it in the womb*, and only a single prototype was built. ( *Maybe not whale sharks. Or basking sharks. Or frilled sharks, or…you get the idea.)
9. Sopwith Dolphin
“Fool!” I hear you say. “A dolphin is not a fish but a mammal!”
You are, of course, correct. However, one good look at the Dolphin’s round face would suggest that the aircraft is not named after Flipper at all, but rather for Coryphaena hippurus, also known as mahi-mahi, also known as the dolphinfish or, more colloquially, the dolphin.
This is probably not true, but it’s my story and I’m sticking with it. #AlternativeFact
Introduced in the last year of World War I, the Dolphin was a highly manoeuvrable fighter with excellent visibility. It was not without its demons, however, as its Hispano-Suiza 8B engine suffered from gearing and lubrication problems, and the swivel-mounted Lewis light guns that fired over the propeller arc had a terrible tendency to swing around in the pilot’s face. Many pilots simply removed the offending guns, which were only really useful for attacking targets such as reconnaissance aircraft from below (a task for which the Dolphin’s excellent high-altitude performance made it ideal), relying on the more conventional synchronised Vickers machine guns. The type was retired soon after the war.
As for the dolphinfish, after which the Dolphin is undoubtedly named? If you’re ever in Hawaii, you must try it. Your tastebuds will praise you as if you were the god of hedonism, Dionysus himself.
8: Grumman Tarpon
The Tarpon—the Fleet Air Arm’s original name for the TBF Avenger, which was soon discarded, presumably to avoid confusion and/or linguistic association with a feminine hygiene product, and replaced by the one the Americans gave it—is very much not a fighter, though it did play the part of one on occasion, hence its inclusion here.
Most notably, just three days after D-Day in Normandy, the dorsal gunner in an Avenger a Tarpon shot down a V-1 flying bomb that was overtaking it. Then, on 29 January 1945, an Avenger participating in Operation Meridian II over Sumatra was jumped by a pair of Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki fighters. Badly damaged, with its observer gravely injured, the British aircraft seemed dead to rights. But, in a feat that would’ve made Swede Vejtasa proud, a second Avenger swooped in, shooting down one of the fighters and driving off the other.
Such instances were, of course, the exception rather than the rule. But, for those ephemeral moments, the tubby Tarpon was able to stand tall on its lanky landing gear, puff out its torpedo-laden chest, and proudly declare in its Wright Twin Cyclone’s growling voice, “I was a fighter!
7. Short Gurnard
Why a fighter would be named after a bug-eyed bottom-dweller is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because of the latter’s wing-like pectoral fins?
The Gurnard was designed in response to a specification for a shipborne fighter that could double as a fleet spotting and reconnaissance platform to replace the Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Flycatcher. Two versions were built, both with 525hp engines: the Gurnard I landplane with a Bristol Jupiter X radial, and the float-equipped Gurnard II, later converted into a makeshift amphibian, fitted with a Rolls-Royce Kestrel.
Though a perfectly good aircraft, the Gurnard was bested by the Hawker Osprey in both performance and appearance—though, in fairness, few aircraft in history could compete with the Hawker biplanes of the late-1920s in the good looks department—and only the two were produced. I suppose one could argue that, like its namesake, it was stuck at the bottom.
6. EADS Mako
In a hierarchy of high-octane predators, the mako’s name commands particular fear and respect, what with its keen intelligence and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. It was only a matter of time before it became the namesake of…a homebuilt?!
Before the Lancair Mako hit the consumer market, there was the Mako high-energy advanced trainer (HEAT). While, as its project acronym suggests, the type was intended as a fighter trainer. This pan-European aircraft would’ve had an air-to-air capability, similar to the F-5 Freedom Fighters it was intended to replace (and the current Korean Aerospace T-50 Golden Eagle with which it shares a similar configuration). This could have made it an attractive primary fighter option for nations with smaller military budgets.
The Mako turned out to be an aircraft no one wanted, and though a few mockups were trucked to various air shows throughout Europe, a prototype was never built, and the project faded into obscurity without much fanfare. We’re zero-for-two on the shark-inspired fighters so far.
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5. Lockheed XFV-1 Salmon
From nuclear-powered strategic bombers to hoverbikes for soldiers to the Piasecki PA-97 that simply must be seen to be believed, the United States has never shied away from spectacularly bonkers aeronautical exploits. The tailsitter fighter ranks right up there at the top of the list.
The concept of building a VTOL fighter that could hypothetically be based on any ship large enough to accommodate a helipad produced two designs, the Lockheed XFV and Convair XFY Pogo. This was a patently terrible idea, as the aircraft had to be landed backwards, with the pilot looking over his shoulder while carefully massaging the throttle. This was difficult enough in controlled conditions; imagine trying to finagle these contraptions onto a small, pitching deck in severe weather conditions!
It didn’t help that the Allison XT40 turboprops fitted to both prototypes were insufficiently powerful and not particularly reliable.
Unlike the Salmon (an unofficial moniker that may have been derived from Lockheed’s chief test pilot’s surname rather than the fish), the Convair product was successful—in that it actually did what it was supposed to and took off and landed vertically. The XFV never accomplished this feat, resulting in that gangly undercarriage that looks like it was lifted from a warehouse ladder. It did make a few transitions to the hover in flight, but within a year, the Navy Department came to the conclusion that every sane human had before either competitor had left the drawing board: this was never going to work.
Fortunately for fish-lovers, the salmon takes flight still, in the decidedly more benign form of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737…or should that be, Salmon-Thirty-Salmon?
4: Douglas F4D Skyray
There is perhaps no creature to grace our seas so elegant as the manta ray. Graceful yet powerful, these beings seem almost otherworldly. They are, however, fish. Specifically, cartilaginous fish, quite like sharks. Not aesthetically like sharks of course, but anatomically similar.
The Douglas F4D, or ‘Ford’ as it was inevitably nicknamed, gets its official name from its wing, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the manta’s massive pectoral fins. The type was a product of a time when the U.S. Navy was deeply in the market for radical aircraft designs, resulting in the likes of the spaceship-like Vought Cutlass and the sleek yet woefully underpowered F3H Demon.
Compared to many of its contemporaries, the Skyray had very few vices. Early flight tests revealed a tendency to pitch up, and it was slightly tail-heavy. This inherent instability is a common feature on modern warplanes, but in the 1950s, without the aid of fly-by-wire technology to keep it in check, it should’ve been a fatal flaw in the Skyray. Instead, pilots learned to leverage it, turning a weakness into a strength, and as a result, the Skyray was exceptionally agile for its time. This, coupled with its stellar climb rate and excellent performance from its Pratt & Whitney J57 afterburning turbojet, made it very popular with pilots. The only Navy squadron assigned to NORAD, VFAW-3 “Blue Nemesis,” had Skyrays as their mounts.
The type nonetheless enjoyed a brief career, being retired only eight years after entering service, largely due to it being a dedicated interceptor when the Navy and Marine Corps increasingly favored multirole aircraft. Douglas built an improved version, the F5D Skylancer, but this was shelved in favor of the Vought F-8 Crusader; some allege that this was a political decision due to Douglas having too much market share of military aircraft production. Imagine a politician today having the stones to say that to Lockheed Martin…
3. Xi’an JH-7 ‘Flounder’
Looking like a Jaguar on steroids, a Mirage F1 whose tail never stopped growing, or a Soko Orao that hadn’t yet been hit with an ugly stick, this menacing strike fighter is known in its FBC-1 export form as the ‘Flying Leopard’—a fitting enough name (though, let’s be honest, no one anywhere is ever topping ‘Vigorous Dragon’), but, for our intents and purposes, irrelevant. Fortunately for us, the fine folks at NATO stepped in to give it a more ichthyological moniker.
Of course, in typical NATO fashion, they just had to be pricks about the whole matter and name it after an ugly specimen, the one that spends its life lying on its side, so much that it’s evolved to have its eyes growing out the side of its head.
The JH-7, on the other hand, is quite an attractive beast, not unlike its equivalents in size and role, the Sukhoi Su-24 and F-111 Aardvark (though its weapons load is significantly smaller than either of those aircraft). The type does have some flounder-like qualities, however, as its final form was the one requested by the PLANAF (the PLAAF wanted theirs to have side-by-side seating, but it was deemed impractical to rework the design to accommodate their request, so they took the Navy’s version), and flounders hunt by ambushing their prey, similar to the air force version which uses terrain-following radar for low-level strikes.
2. Grumman XF4F-3S ‘Wildcatfish’
Somewhere along the evolutionary timeline, the forces of nature conspired to create the ultimate aquatic being by crossing a fish with that most illustrious of land animals: the cat. Alas, fearing that a hybrid of two of the finest lifeforms on Earth would just be too awesome, the powers-that-be in the universe punished Silurus glanis and all its myriad relatives by relegating them to the murky depths to feed on all sorts of nasty, slimy things.
But fret not, for the barbel-faced bottom-feeders found appreciation in the aviation sector. Early in the Pacific War, there was a fear within the U.S. Navy that the engineering units assigned to clear out jungle and build standing airfields on newly-conquered islands would be unable to keep up with the island-hopping campaign, leaving those territories vulnerable to counterattack as the fleet moved on ahead. Japan had conjured up something like a solution to this problem with the Nakajima A6M2-N, an offshoot of the wildly successful Mitsubishi Zero with a large pontoon under the fuselage and a set of fixed wing-mounted floats for stability.
Noting the modest success the Rufe had, the US Navy decided to give the concept a try. They started with an F4F-3 Wildcat, then contracted the EDO Aircraft Corporation, who specialised in floatplane conversions, to affix a pair of pontoons under the wings. Thus was born the Wild Catfish.
(Or is it Wildcat-fish? The proper division of the name would make for an intriguing expository debate in a Dan Brown novel.)
The aircraft proved to be a dud. Whereas the type’s enemy inspiration did perform as well as could be expected, particularly in the Aleutians campaign where it held its own early on, even racking up some victories on American P-38 Lightnings despite having its performance severely hampered by the dreadnought’s worth of parasitic drag hanging underneath, the concept’s flaws were apparent. Besides the decline in performance, floatplane fighters were highly vulnerable to rough seas, and many Rufes were destroyed on the water by storms. The Wildcat was already inferior to the Zero in nearly every performance metric; the modifications only served to slow it down and degrade its handling, and all sorts of bits and bobs had to be added for stability before it reached its ultimate layout. It didn’t help that the twin-pontoon arrangement was that much bulkier than the one fitted to the Japanese aircraft.
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The Wildcatfish first flew on 28 February 1943, and one hundred sets of floats were ordered for future conversions. The type quickly proved unnecessary, however, as the Seabees were clearing trees and building airfields in record time. The prototype ended up being the only one built.
Fortunately for all of us, the name would live on—the Catfish part, anyway—in a highly modified Boeing 757 used as a radar and avionics testbed for the F-22 Raptor.
1. Northrop F-20 Tigershark
If you thought crossing cats with fish was a stoke of brilliance, then what would you call crossing that mightiest of felines, the tiger, with the shark, the king of the fishes?
Well…you’d call it a tiger shark, of course.
To impress just how terrifying these fish are, they’re part of a family commonly known as requiem sharks. A requiem, of course, is a service for the dead—because that’s exactly what you’ll be if you tangle with a tiger shark.
(Actually, it’ll probably just spit you out, as sharks find humans rather tasteless. Who said fish couldn’t possess the gift of wisdom?)
That brings us to the aircraft that bears its fearsome name: the F-20, the ultimate what-if of fighter aviation. Taking an already successful design in the F-5, giving it almost twice the thrust and a significantly better weapons system, and marketing it to those nations to whom the Carter Administration refused to sell the F-16. But not even an alleged bribery attempt in South Korea could save it from relaxed export rules under and US governmental favouritism toward the F-16. Two of the three prototypes were lost in crashes, and, to the chagrin of aviation experts and enthusiasts alike, the project was cancelled in 1986.
The only what-if when dealing with the shark, on the other hand, is which appendages will be ripped from your body if you happen to swim past it.
That puts us at zero-for-three on the sharks. Add in the Douglas A2D Skyshark attack aircraft, and we drop to 0-4.
Clearly, the moral of the story here is: never name your fighter plane after a shark. Tempting though it may be, fate does not like the shark-plane.