If you were in a dogfight, would you rather have a 25-ton Tupolev Tu-128 interceptor or a four-ton Northrop F-5 fighter? The first is the length of a bus, and not just any bus, but the world’s longest bus – the gargantuan Volvo Gran Artic 300 (capable of carrying 300 passengers); the second has a wingspan far smaller than even the diminutive Spitfire. Historically, fighters were supposed to be small, fast, and nimble. Things have changed somewhat in modern times—a Sukhoi Su-30, for instance, is less than one metre shorter than a B-17—but the existence of the likes of the Gripen and Tejas means that the lightweight fighter isn’t going away anytime soon. With this in mind, we’ve set out to find the smallest of the small in jet fighters. To qualify, an aircraft must (a) be a fighter, as in, designed or adapted to do battle with other aircraft in the air; (b) have pure jet propulsion (rocket fighters, mixed propulsion, etc. doesn’t count); (c) be flown by a human pilot in the cockpit; and (d) have been built and flown, at least in prototype form.
Here are eleven jet fighters that may have been delivered in a low-quality chocolate egg.
11. HAL Tejas ‘Pocket fire’
L: 13.2m, W: 8.2m
A full ostrich shorter than an F-16, India’s light combat aircraft is the smallest fighter currently in service, and India’s first indigenous supersonic aircraft. (The HAL Marut of 1961 was supposed to be supersonic, but couldn’t quite get there.) The development of the Tejas was as glacial as can be expected of a modern warplane, with the first examples inducted into service almost a decade and a half after its first flight and initial operational clearance achieved as recently as 2019.
Interview with a Tejas pilot here.
Roughly the length of a semi-trailer.
10. de Havilland Vampire ‘Spidercrab from Mars’
L: 9.37m, W: 12m
Advances in radar, avionics, powerplant, and weapons technology mean that modern fighters can be as hulking as they need to be, but in the early days of jet propulsion, thrust was in short supply, so the aircraft were naturally small. Such was the case of the Allies’ first mass-produced single-engine jet fighter, a deceptively cute little jet that the average person could look down upon while it’s parked and count every rivet without having to strain. Standing less than nine feet tall, the Vampire is so diminutive that Shaquille O’Neal could probably rest his hand on one of its vertical stabilizers without having to extend his arm all the way.
The Venom fighter-bomber, derived from the Vampire, is approximately two avocado fruits longer. (The Mexican Air Force nicknamed the Vampire ‘Aguacate’, meaning ‘avocado’)
About as long as two Volkswagen Beetles parked astride an avocado.
9. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 ‘Fargo’
L: 9.75m, W: 10m
Ignoring the fact that it looks like some sort of parasitic fish with abnormally large pectoral fins, the MiG-9 started a trend of Soviet jets being somewhat smaller than their Western equivalents—a rare moment of Stalin not trying to prove that his accessories were bigger than everyone else’s. A modestly successful aircraft that was reportedly very easy to fly, the ‘Fargo’s engines had a pesky tendency to flame out every time it fired its guns (a recurring problem on early Soviet jets) due to combustion gases getting caught in the airflow.
Wingspan equal to the length of a late-Cretaceous period megaraptor.
8. Bréguet 1001 Taon
L: 11.68m, W: 6.8m
The sleek Taon (‘Horsefly’) was designed in response to a 1953 NATO requirement for a lightweight strike fighter, or LWSF—not to be confused with NSFW, though ogling at pictures of Taons is arguably very much inappropriate for the workplace. The concept of a common strike fighter was abandoned, with several countries developing their own—Italy’s Fiat G91 being an example—and the French preferring the much larger Dassault Étendard VI.
About the length of the Cavalier 39 sailing yacht that you can’t afford
7. Lavochkin La-15
L: 9.56m, W: 8.83m
The idea of a jet fighter with a shoulder-mounted swept wing and high tailplane was not uncommon in the late 1940s. Kurt Tank got the ball rolling with his proposed Focke-Wulf Ta 183, later bringing the concept to fruition in Argentina with the IAe 33 Pulqui II. The Soviets came to the same conclusion with the Lavochkin La-168, a derivative of the first Soviet fighter with swept wings. The slightly smaller production variant, the La-15, had the misfortune of going up against the MiG-15, which, though less manoeuvrable than the Lavochkin product, had a better rate of climb and was less complex and less expensive to produce.
Slightly longer than an adult male basking shark (but shorter than a female).
6. Helwan HA-300 ‘Helwan is other people’
L: 12.4m, W: 5.84m
This sleek fighter may have been the last aircraft to be designed by Willy Messerschmitt, but it’s not German. What originally was supposed to be a Spanish aircraft that was cancelled for budgetary reasons was acquired by Egypt, and the aforementioned design’s HA-300 designator was simply adapted from ‘Hispano Aircraft’ to mean ‘Helwan Aircraft’ for the Egyptian city in which it was built.
In addition to the aircraft, Egypt embarked on the development of an indigenous engine, the Brandner E-300, to replace the Bristol Siddeley Orpheus used in the first two prototypes, citing national security concerns particularly in the wake of the Suez crisis. India helped to finance the engine, as they wanted to use it in their HF-24 Marut strike fighter.
Alas, a confluence of factors, including Mossad threats against the German and Austrian engineers in addition to the usual financial difficulties, meant that only seven were produced, and the Egyptians ended up settling for Soviet warplanes.
Wingspan roughly equal to the length of a Panzer VI.
5. Early Yakovlev jets (Yak-15, Yak-17, Yak-23)
L: 8.7m, W: 9.2m (Yak-15)
First flown less than a year after VE Day, the Yak-15 came into being by shoving a reverse-engineered Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet into the front end of a Yak-3 piston fighter. This aircraft, which along with the MiG-9 was one of the Soviet Union’s first jet fighters, would become the father of a line of diminutive fighters that look like hairdryers with wings. The related Yak-17, first flown in 1947, replaced the taildragger landing gear kept from the WWII fighter with a more appropriate tricycle undercarriage, while the improved Yak-23, also first flown in 1947, replaced the reverse-engineered German engine with a reverse-engineered British one.
About the length of Cousin Eddie’s RV in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
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4. Aerfer Ariete
L: 9.6m, W: 7.5m
The Ariete (‘Ram’) was evaluated for the same ultimately abandoned programme as the Taon. A refinement of the Sagittario 2 light fighter prototype, the Ariete was unique in that its Rolls-Royce Derwent engine was augmented by an auxiliary turbojet for high-performance flight, featuring a retractable air intake on the rear fuselage and exhaust in the tail (the one for the main engine is under the midpoint of the fuselage, similar to the aforementioned Yakovlevs). Like its French competitor, the aircraft was cancelled after two prototypes, and a proposed rocket-augmented version, the Leone, was never built.
Slightly longer than the animatronic crocodile puppet used in the movie Lake Placid.
Heinkel He 162
L: 9.05m, W: 7.02m
A desperation move if ever there was one, the Volksjäger was produced in kits using substandard materials and slave labour, quickly thrown together, and pawned off onto pilots fresh out of glider school to be flown in defence of the scant, putrefying remains of the Third Reich. Though the design itself was sound, earning praise from no less than Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown for its balanced controls, the rushed and shoddy construction combined with its pilots’ inexperience meant that the results were morbidly predictable.
Also, what MENSA candidate thought it’d be a good idea to stick a jet engine intake six inches behind the pilot’s head, canopy or no?
Wingspan roughly equivalent to the length of a 40-cubic-yard roll-off dumpster (a skip), which is probably where they got most of the parts to build the He 162.
2. Folland Gnat/HAL Ajeet
L: 9.04, W: 6.73
While never used as a fighter by its country of origin, the Gnat most certainly was by other nations, India in particular, where it quickly gained a reputation for turning Pakistani F-86 Sabres into scrap metal, and thus proving every bit as annoying to its enemies as its namesake insect.
Interview with Gnat combat pilot here
The Indians liked it so much, in fact, that they adapted it as the Ajeet. Finland and Yugoslavia also used the Gnat, as did the RAF Red Arrows, and it masqueraded as the Oscar EW-5894 Phallus Tactical Fighter Bomber in the 1991 Top Gun parody Hot Shots!
Slightly longer than the height of the statue of Bahubali at Trimurti temple.
1. McDonnell XF-85 Goblin
L: 4.52m, W: 6.53m
Surprise, surprise, the smallest fighter ever built is the one designed to be carried inside a B-36 bomber to act as a personal bodyguard for its mother ship. The ghoulishly ugly Goblin featured folding wings and no undercarriage, opting instead for a trapeze mechanism that looks like it was conjured up by Wile E. Coyote fitted inside the bomb bay of a Convair B-36.
Between the aircraft’s lackluster performance, the amount of space it took up in the bomber that could’ve otherwise been used for stores, a docking mechanism that was an accident waiting to happen and no alternative for the hapless fighter pilot but to attempt a belly landing (which was the result of five of the Goblin’s seven test flights), and improved air-to-air refueling capabilities for land-based fighters, the parasite fighter never got past the experimental phase.
Top 10 parasite fighters here.
As long as an Audi A4, or two average-size artificial Christmas trees.
– SEAN KELLY
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