It’s that time of year again. The time when we all dress in masks and think about death! Oh wait, that sounds like all of 2020. To hell with reality… here are ten (plus) aircraft named after monsters, ghouls, dark forces, supernatural beings, and other Halloween things that go ‘bump’ or roar in the night. Arghhhhhhhhhh!
10. Lockheed AC-130 Spectre/Spooky/Ghostrider
What better aircraft to personify the spooky season than one that not only wields monstrous firepower but literally has “Spooky” in its name? (The now-retired AC-130U variant, anyway, named in homage to the gunship Herc’s predecessor, the venerable AC-47.)
9. Grumman Goblin
There must be an unwritten rule stipulating a porky aesthetic for any aircraft named ‘Goblin.’ The Grumman Goblin—Canada’s name for the FF-1 (its nickname of ‘Fifi’ was the opposite of scary) biplane fighter, built under license by Canadian Car & Foundry—is svelte and elegant compared to the other Goblin, the McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter from around two decades later, but could still benefit from a few treadmill sessions.
RCAF Goblins were used early in World War II on the home front, even though Ottawa viewed them (correctly) as horrendously obsolete. A handful of Canadian-built Goblins were used by the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, one even shooting down a Heinkel biplane. But these were renamed ‘Delfin’ (Dolphin), so they forfeit their Halloween cred.
8. McDonnell F2H Banshee
In Irish folklore, the bean sí is a female spirit whose wailing heralds death. A number of them keening together means the death of a king or priest. Doesn’t get much more haunting than that!
While folklorists have sometimes erroneously described the song of a banshee as mellifluous and alluring, we now know that they sound like a pair of Westinghouse J34 turbojets. After all, the F2H was said to “scream like a banshee,” hence its official name. And these are people with an intimate knowledge of the metaphysical.
While the Banshee performed well, with excellent agility and high-altitude performance that made it the ideal escort for USAF bombers early in the Korean War, the boost in Halloween-ness that comes from being named for a Celtic myth is somewhat offset by the fact that it saw virtually no combat, being quickly outclassed by swept-wing types and doing its best work as a reconnaissance aircraft.
7. Yakovlev Yak-25RV ‘Mandrake’
While on the subject of beings with harrowing voices, how about an aircraft named for a plant used in witchcraft, whose root screams when it’s dug up and kills all who hear it?
This rather haphazard attempt at an answer to the U-2 spy plane is a bit more innocuous than its NATO reporting name suggests…except maybe to its pilots. Produced by taking a Yak-25 interceptor—known by the decidedly less Halloweeny code name of ‘Flashlight’—and replacing its swept wings with straight wings more than twice the span of the fighter, then offloading the cannons in favour of cameras, the end result was something that probably should’ve gotten an entirely new manufacturer’s designation, as the tail assembly was all the Mandrake had in common with its armed progenitor.
The aircraft proved challenging to fly at stratospheric altitudes—the margin between its maximum safe operating speed and stalling speed was only six miles per hour—which, combined with primitive systems, poor engine performance, and a reputation for excessive vibration made it a very taxing aircraft for its crew. A planned high-altitude interceptor variant was never built.
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6. Nakajima Ki-49 Donryu ‘Storm Dragon’
There is perhaps no beast as terrifying as a dragon. Seriously, have you not seen Game of Thrones? Didn’t you read The Hobbit? (You would be forgiven for not seeing the films, or forgetting that you had.) These are extremely accurate retellings of verifiable historical events!
These beasts have lent their names to a plethora of aircraft, from the excellent (Saab J35 Draken) to the useless (Douglas B-23 Dragon). But to see dragonized aircraft reach their most alluring, we’ve got to travel East.
Now, it’s prudent to remember that Eastern mythology regards dragons quite differently than that of the West. They’re less Drogon than they are demigods. The Chengdu J-10’s nickname of ‘Vigorous Dragon’ is probably the coolest ever bestowed upon an aircraft, but in China, dragons are often benevolent beings. In Japan, on the other hand, they’re usually not so friendly, and ‘Storm Dragon’ sounds pretty badass, too.
The Ki-49, officially the Army Type 100 Heavy Bomber (a misnomer if there ever was one, as its maximum bomb load was less than half that of a Vickers Wellington), was intended as a bomber that wouldn’t need a fighter escort. Contrary to the common narrative about Japanese aircraft, it was heavily armed and armoured, and later versions had self-sealing fuel tanks, and therefore, should’ve ranked high on the scary scale. However, the type proved underpowered and ultimately vulnerable, and was eventually relegated to less draconian tasks like transport and maritime patrol.
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5. Westland Wyvern
It’s interesting how many Asian aircraft are named after dragons, as dragons are usually sea creatures in their myths and don’t have wings. Wyverns, on the other hand, do have wings. In fact, it’s been noted that many of the ‘dragons’ found in our contemporary stories are, in fact, wyverns.
Alas, the aircraft that bears their name was infernal in all the wrong ways. Though it did see some combat in the Suez Canal crisis, the Westland Wyvern was plagued by a litany of mechanical and performance issues; most notably, early carrier trials revealed a tendency for the turboprop engine to flame out under the high g-forces of a catapult launch. This particular problem would eventually be rectified, but more than thirty percent of the production run was written off, and the type served only five years.
4. McDonnell F3H Demon
When you name your aircraft the Demon, it’s either got to be either menacing or murderous. Alas, the F3H was very much the latter, seemingly in competition with the Vought F7U Cutlass to create the most dangerous (for its pilots) naval aircraft in history.
Awkwardly proportioned and ungainly in appearance when viewed from the side, the Demon nonetheless looks like it should be a very fast aircraft. But as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Despite its sleek shape, sharply swept wings, and afterburning turbojet engine, it was resolutely subsonic. Most of the type’s demons—pun somewhat intended—arose from poor powerplant choices. The F3H-1 featured the diabolical Westinghouse J40, which delivered only half the thrust it was supposed to and suffered from pitiful reliability. Eleven Demons were lost in accidents in just over three years, resulting in the deaths of four pilots, the entire fleet being grounded, a damning exposé in Time magazine, and a Congressional inquiry into the Navy’s aircraft acquisition process. The F3H-2M variant, upgraded to carry the then-new AIM-7 Sparrow missile, was fitted with the Allison J71, since unlike the far superior Pratt & Whitney J57, that engine could be inserted into the airframe without significant modification. With barely enough range to fly out of sight of the carrier, the new Demon was just as cursed.
But not all about the F3H was as devilish as things might seem. The type’s cockpit did possess excellent visibility—great for seeing the water rushing up to meet the doomed pilot as his mount plummeted off the catapult, its engine struggling to produce enough thrust to move a child’s wagon, if it hadn’t flamed out already—and it would go on to sire the #2 finalist on this list, which fared just a wee bit better.
3. PZL M-15 Belphegor
If naming an aircraft the Demon isn’t hellish enough, then how about one named specifically after one of the seven princes of Hell? Belphegor is an entity often associated with the sin of Sloth, appropriate for the slowest jet aircraft ever built, with a top speed of just 120 mph—significantly slower than that of the Antonov An-2 it was supposed to replace in the agricultural sphere. Being slower than an An-2 is blasphemy against the laws of physics, but the Poles somehow managed it (though the Belphegor’s stalling speed of 67 mph was a good bit higher than the Annushka’s). The prevailing wisdom is that the aircraft’s name was inspired by the fact that it’s so noisy; its Ivchenko AI-25 turbofan infamously sounds like an overpowered leaf blower. It’s also fitting that Belphegor the demon is said to seduce the unwary into thinking they’ve invented something that will make them rich. If that’s what the Soviets (at whose behest the Belphegor was conjured) thought they had with this thing, then the demon had surely deceived them, as it proved far too expensive to produce and operate on a large scale, difficult to handle compared to the famously docile An-2, and while effective enough at dusting crops, not so good as to justify the cost of replacing the trusty old Antonov.
The world’s only jet biplane gains significant Halloween cred because it shares its name with a death metal band. And because it’s ugly as sin. One can only imagine its creators extolling its ability to defend a field without spraying an ounce of chemical—one look at this ghastly thing coming, and every insect in Eastern Europe will instantly flee for its life.
To further highlight the demonic aircraft naming tendencies of a largely and adamantly Catholic (even in Communist times) country, we shan’t forget the seemingly innocuous and rather attractive TS-8 trainer, named the Bies—a folk name for Satan himself. I’m not sure what it says about a country’s aviation industry or its flight training curriculum when one of its instructional airframes is named after the personification of eternal suffering, but then, I’m not Polish.
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2. McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
You might’ve heard of this aircraft. One was used to fly an organ transplant from North Dakota to San Francisco back in the Eighties. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!
(Get it? You didn’t see it, because it’s a phantom? Ha ha, I’m so clever.)
Note from Editor: that joke is unacceptably poor. Carry on.
The F-4 is the second USN jet fighter to be called the Phantom, hence ‘Phantom II,’ but despite (officially) being the first American jet to make a carrier landing, the FH-1 Phantom had few accomplishments beyond being the mount of an unofficial Marine Corps display team, cleverly called the Marine Phantoms, and only sixty production aircraft were built. The Phantom II exceeded that run by the small margin of over five thousand. That’s a spooky amount of warplanes! But, while it’s undeniably a legend, and a good-looking one at that—who are these so-called ‘enthusiasts’ who keep calling the F-4 ugly, and what’s wrong with their eyes?—should it really have been called the Phantom? With a radar cross section somewhere between six and ten square meters, it stands out on a scope like a nudist in a nunnery, and most versions’ J79 turbojets belch out black smoke as if to mark their ethereal territory with it. And, if happen not to see it, you’ll definitely hear it.
Whatever your position, let’s all agree: Phantoms Phorever.
1. de Havilland Vampire
Were you expecting any other winner than Dracula’s favorite aircraft?
I must say, it’s not a good look the British, and not the land whose gushing veins nurtured Vlad Dracul, produced this entry. Bloody hell, Romania, step up your game!