Cold War Fighter Pilot selects Top 10 Fighter Aircraft of 1960

The Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow first flew in 1958, and was a high performance interceptor with great potential. It does not make this list as it was cancelled in February 1959.

The ‘Top 10 fighters of 1960’ will be a controversial selection, however impartial and numbers based the process someone will be offended and re-arrange the order or promote their favourite chariot despite it being pug-ugly and with the performance of a foil-wrapped brick.

This is my version with supporting narrative, experience flying some of them, advice from some sage contemporaries and I believe the basis for reasonable discussion. 

1960 was a watershed year in the leap from first generation jets – guns and ‘mind of their own’ missiles if any – to supersonic turning fighters with beyond visual range (BVR) missile capability. The Korean War was in the rear view mirror, Vietnam was on the near horizon and no longer just a French colonial issue as the USA was supporting the regime in the south but not yet with ‘fast air’ in theatre; meanwhile NATO was generally concerned with shooting down the Warsaw Pact (WP) nuclear bomber whilst deploying fighter bombers (FB) to stop a potential mechanised army attack into Europe from the east. 

The missiles (BVR) versus guns argument was intensifying, leading to some strange anomalies; sacrificing manoeuvre/agility for weapons payload, the 1957 Defence White paper eviscerating the UK aircraft industry, slaughtering many sacred cows and forcing industry amalgamations. Surface-to-air missiles were the new ‘must have’ and the English Electric Lightning only survived because it was so far along the development trail that cancellation was too much bother. 

The Soviet Union had learned lessons from Korea despite participation being vehemently denied and the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) design bureau capitalised. Because of the vast area to protect Soviet air-defence philosophy leaned towards point defence of critical assets rather than area denial for interceptors. China commenced negotiations to licence build Soviet fighter aircraft.

The USA was awash with design teams and manufacturers generating research vehicles and prototypes aiming to fulfil the slightly confusing Department of Defence proposals or profit seeking with unsolicited proposals. In the late-50s period 8 manufacturers produced 14 fighter types, but nuclear bombers were the priority and air defence picked up the scraps. Many pure interceptors failed the test and became fighter-bombers.

Industrial homework in Europe produced some innovative and effective designs for national procurement until $$$ overtook NATO air planning/procurement and some offers became too good to refuse. Unfortunately one strong contender was born just too late for selection: Dassault Mirage IIIC ‘the one that got away’ initially delivered to FAF in July 1961.

Europe feared a cold war incursion and North America both the nuclear bomber threat and an asian hot war. Different imperatives: point defence interceptor, area defender against the nuclear bomber, limited war fighter bomber with offensive capability, or an amalgam of them all which of course produced some ‘bastards’ a few ‘Jacks of all trades’ and the odd classic.

Aerodynamic breakthroughs, material breakthroughs, radar and weapons development – radar BVR missiles, early Infra Red (IR) seekers, beam riders and Semi Active Radar Homing (SARH) terminal guidance all played their part.

The late 50s/early 60s was a period of major next generation fighter development from the ‘first’ or early jet iterations to a researched product driven by perceived threats and actual combat experience. Aerodynamics, propulsion, sensors, weapons all improved in leaps and bounds but were not necessarily integrated or even compatible, certainly many systems didn’t talk to each other well, if at all, and weapons employment was quite ‘hit or miss’.

Missiles were generally ‘hitiles’ with small warheads and initially primitive impact fuzing then proximity, but all very similar in concept.

There are over 30 fighters to choose from but other than personal opinion and preference what criteria have been used? Design freaks, errors, prototypes, wishful production and obvious stupidity have been discarded and the aircraft must have actually entered service. Utility, peer comparison in the role, capabilities – numerical and performance – and any actual 1v1 results have been extensively reviewed. Some aircraft are at the end of their service life others are brand new and there are a couple of ‘near misses’. Rated on my objective values of: performance, sensors, armament and the eye test, does it look ok and would I step into it? Luckily I have in 3 cases. 

10. Hawker Hunter F6

Arguably the prettiest but probably the least powerful of the selection, but if it looks right it probably flies right.  With a low Thrust/Weight (T/W) 0.56 and light Wing Loading (W/L) 252Kg/m² it was certainly one of the easiest to fly and fight in what was its original role of day-fighter interceptor relying on clear airmass or Ground Controlled Interception (GCI). The F6 was the sports car model delivered in October 1956 unencumbered by the 4 tanks and pylons or rocket rails of later models but with the characteristic ‘dogtooth’ leading edge step to cure high Mach No. ’pitch-up’ and the uprated Avon 203 engine. Fitted with a quick-turnaround replaceable four 30-mm Aden cannon pack and 150 High Explosive rounds per gun it had a big punch which you could smell in the cockpit ‘I love the smell of cordite in the morning’ but they did act as a retro device when fired, equivalent to opening the spade airbrake, and quite a few knots were lost. 

Energy retention was good in manoeuvre at high indicated airspeed to more that 7g with a ‘combat flap’ setting (one notch = 15º or 2 = 23º) available up to 350kts but subject to aerodynamically ‘blowing in’ if over-stressed; lack of tailplane pitch authority above Mach 0.9 with flap down reminded you to bring them in. Instantaneous maximum turn would generate an energy loss although flap would improve the turn rate at low speed which was otherwise poor, but again at an energy cost. A medium speed turning fight was the much preferred option if surprise could be achieved. Good engine acceleration allowed separation from an engagement with supersonic just achievable in a dive from medium level but outrunning an opponent, especially missile armed, was not really an option. It retired from day fighter operations in 1963, replaced by the English Electric Lightning with many converted to the close support role as Hunter FGA9s.

It had also excelled as an RAF Black Arrows formation aerobatic team aircraft completing the 22 aircraft loop at Farnborough in 1958 followed by a 16 aircraft roll. Major Bill Beardsley USAF exchange to the RAF in1959 described it as a cross between an F-86F and an F-100.

Great fun dog-fighter, short range weapons, clear airmass, subsonic but beautiful to see and fly.

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9. North American F-100A/C/D Super Sabre (‘Hun’)

Conceived as ‘son of’ the legendary F-86 Sabre, the F-100A series introduced to the USAF from 1954 was conceptually smart with advanced aerodynamics, a high speed point interceptor which could fight its way out of trouble, but it was very unforgiving and had to be ‘flown’ constantly in manoeuvre. It had a low T/W 0.55 and medium W/L 352Kg/m² but a high angle of attack (AoA-⍺) ‘pitch up’ followed by random roll one way or the other into aerodynamic departure. The engine generated gyroscopic effects during acceleration and suffered compressor stalls; adverse yaw from the ailerons at low speed and high ⍺ caused opposite roll departure (the ailerons produced more drag than lift). The handling answer was rudder authority and less aileron at high ⍺. “Only way to control the ’Hun’ at high ⍺ is rudder” commented John Boyd of Nellis Fighter Weapons School” but noted, it could fly “Severely supersonic” and was capable of intercepting the B-47 state of the art strategic bomber at altitude – much to SAC’s displeasure. Despite its exciting performance and four 20-mm cannon with 200 rounds per gun, it was obviously a handful for the average squadron pilot as many accidents proved, so in 1958 the USAF commenced phasing it out having already requested an FB version which appeared in 1956. A yaw damper, pitch damper and up rated J57 engine partially resolving the compressor stall produced a more benign and eventually AIM-9 equipped ’C’ model which performed in the FB and secondary fighter role in Vietnam from 1961 supplemented by the ‘D’ model, which had itself suffered development issues with the constant speed drive, electrical generation, undercarriage and brake parachute. A few ‘kills’ versus MiG-17s were recorded early on but FB operations became the norm and MiG-21s were to be avoided at all costs. The ‘A’ model re-appeared in USAF cameos for another few years as International tensions rose and fell while the ‘C’ and ‘D’ models became successful NATO partner exports. Both the USAF Thunderbirds in 1956 (F-100C/D), and USAFE Skyblazers in 1956 (F-100C) found it quite compatible with close formations display flying. 

Overall a considerable if challenging step up in the USAF fighter inventory. ‘Severely Supersonic’ but with short range weapons initially and very esoteric handling qualities.

8. Republic F-105B/D Thunderchief (‘Thud’)

Developed as a follow on to the F-100 series the Mach 2 nuclear capable fighter bomber was introduced into service in 1958 equipped with a 20mm M61 Vulcan rotary cannon and AIM-9 missiles carrying a nuclear weapon internally for high-speed low-altitude visual penetration. A respectable T/W of 0.74 gave great energy advantages when clean and with a reasonably high W/L of 450Kg/m² it had good stability at low level and as a weapons platform but not sparkling agility.

Conventional FB interdiction operations were an option from the outset carrying several tonnes of ordnance externally on up to 4 underwing pylons and multi-carriers plus a centreline tank. The swept wing and powerful J75 engine concept was complemented by an area rule fuselage and forward swept variable-geometry intakes minimising transonic drag. All weather operations were enabled by the inclusion of NAASAR R-14A search and ranging monopulse radar and ASG-19 Thunderstick fire control system (FCS) in the ‘D’ model introduced in late 1960 although the mission was gradually changed from nuclear to conventional in Europe. Serviceability issues dogged both the ‘B’ and ‘D’ models initially and early offensive capabilities were described as ‘triple threat’ – it could bomb you, strafe you or fall on you. Despite this pessimism, straight line speed, a big gun and AIM-9s later produced many kills against MiG-17s in Vietnam justifying the design although ‘turning and burning’ with MiGs was not a recommended tactic despite the +8.67 g limits, especially if loaded out with bombs, so disengaging cleaning off and re-entering the fight at speed was popular.

Republic F-105B-6-RE (S/N 54-0111) take off. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Front view of Republic F-105B with avionics layout. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Loss of control due to a spin from the complications of swept wing adverse yaw in manoeuvre required deliberate pilot recovery input but recovery would be immediate, assuming you had sufficient altitude which was generally not available in the European theatre but became the norm during medium level operations in Vietnam! Spin recovery was seen as the procedure to provide a “stable platform from which to eject”

Perhaps it’s best not to investigate the F-105 flypast during a Vietnam dedication ceremony at the USAF Academy which cost a fortune in broken windows. The Thunderchief also flew six displays with the USAF Thunderbirds in 1964 but an over-stress accident forced a change back to F-100. Undoubtably an FB workhorse which pilots remember fondly, it put up quite a good performance against the MiG-21 during HAVE DOUGHNUT reinforcing mutual support and the saying ‘speed is life’ but not one to take into a turning fight.

7. Lockheed F-104A Starfighter

Formation of two Lockheed F-104A-15-LO (S/N 56-0769 and 56-0781). (U.S. Air Force photo)

Designed by Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson at Lockheed, Burbank, California the F-104 was planned to out-fly the MiG-15 and was marketed as ‘the missile with a man in it’. It was to be simple and lightweight with maximum climb and speed performance, in fairness it could achieve Mach 2.0 with a T/W of 0.76 loaded and a high W/L of 510Kg/M².          

It entered service in 1958 equipped with a 20-mm M61 Vulcan cannon wingtip AIM-9B and was in action that year in the Second Taiwan Crisis. An earlier exchange that year between Taiwanese F-86s and Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) MiGs had lead to the loss of an AIM-9 which did not fuze but lodged in the fuselage of a MiG-17 allowing it to be recovered and reverse-engineered into a Soviet K-13 (Atoll). The USAF 83rd FIS was detached to support the Nationalist Chinese against the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Quemoy and Matsu islands. Very visible ‘flag waving or sabre rattling’ patrols were flown along the Taiwan Straits and also directly towards the Chinese mainland and by October a ceasefire had been signed and the F-104’s were withdrawn.

The aircraft was optimised for performance above Mach 1.2 at altitude and if used for surprise ‘hit and run’ attacks it could be a formidable opponent but dragged into a turning fight it was vulnerable. At low level and high indicated airspeed (600kts<) it was a very stable platform and as such a useful nuclear delivery vehicle. A large turn radius at low level despite 7g available, generated a humorous colloquialism from Edwards AFB Test Centre pilots ‘banking with intent to turn’. High ⍺ stalling and pitch-up behaviour from 15°⍺, which required constant attention if large excursions and rapid roll/yaw coupling was to be avoided, lead to the installation of a ‘stick shaker’ and a ‘stick pusher’. 

Despite its startling interceptor performance and an AN/ASG-14T1 radar with 20 mile ranging and 10 mile tracking, it suffered from short range, obsolete avionics and an occasionally unreliable early J79-GE-3B afterburner. Even worse the early versions had the Stanley C-1 downward firing ejector seat and after several lives were lost the C-2 upward firing version was fitted.

Take-off speeds were high and close to nose wheel retraction limits, as were landing speeds with added increments for fuel, crosswind, stores and gusts. The boundary layer control system required a minimum power setting above 82% and therefore a shallow approach. Throttling back on the approach caused instant loss of lift, many undershoots and ejections. Powerful brakes and a drag chute reduced the landing roll-out but not by much hence the ‘standard’ NATO 3km runway in Europe.

But there was a ready NATO overseas market for an interceptor/nuclear fighter bomber under the Military Aid Program and Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada and Italy joined a consortium for licensed production (amid some unusual financing arrangements as it was later discovered) and the type flourished.

The USAF handed their ‘A’ models off to the Air National Guard (ANG) after less than a year in service opting for longer range fighters with heavier weapons payloads. Blinding speed, low conspicuity and missiles, things were looking up. It had been fun while it lasted and continued to be for various allies.

6. McDonnell F-101A/B Voodoo

McDonnell F-101A (S/N 53-2425) from Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Originally designed to fulfil the bomber escort role for SAC, which was cancelled as the Korean war ended and the jet powered B-52 emerged, the elegant looking single seat ‘A’ model was rapidly re-invented as a long range nuclear capable fighter bomber for TAC and introduced to service in 1957 with two J57-P-13  engines. A T/W of 0.74 and a W/L of 610Kg/m² made it stable, reasonably manoeuvrable at 6.33g and quick at altitude with Mach 1.52 speed. A large internal fuel capacity allowed for 4 hours plus flight and it was fitted with the Low Altitude Bombing System for nuclear delivery, an FCS and four 20-mm M39 revolver type cannon. Offensive weapons included the Mk 28 nuclear bomb and other variants.

Like most swept wing fighters of its time it suffered from ‘pitch up’ at high ⍺ which was never successfully eradicated and was described as a ‘monumental challenge’ to its pilot. Conversely it was also described as a ‘superlative’ aircraft by its pilots who called it the ‘One-Oh-Wonder’. General Robin Olds even created an F-101C display team of 5 aircraft at RAF Bentwaters in 1964 although it gained him a grounding for ‘not going through channels’.  ‘A’ production was limited to 77 with a further 35 built as the sensibly two-seat RF-101A reconnaissance version.

Robin Olds with his F-101.

Meanwhile the USAF search continued for an interceptor with range, speed and payload so the reworked ‘B’ model entered service with USAF Air Defence Command (ADC) in 1959 powered by the uprated and more reliable J57-P-55 as a response to the F-100’s operating difficulties in the day interceptor role, the F-102’s poor performance in the all weather role and the F-104’s short endurance and lack of weapons payload. A second seat and a Hughes MG-13 FCS previously employed in the F-102 were installed, the cannon were removed and a rotating belly door fitted with 4 x GAR-1 or 2 (AIM-4A or B) Falcons in optional SARH or IR modes, with the operational tactic of firing an IR first followed by an SARH missile. From 1961 some ‘B’ models could carry the AIR-2 Genie nuclear missile. A total of 479 ‘B’ were built including the Canadian version.

Success is relative but the F-101 continued in USAF air defence service for another 12 years followed by another 10 with the ANG. Continuous in-service modifications and weapons updates maintained the F-101 as the backbone of all weather supersonic defence, complimenting the F-106 in Air Defence Command. It was quick, all weather and heavily armed a quantum leap in fighter capability. 

5. Convair F-106A Delta Dart

National air defence competed with SAC nuclear deterrence for budget and influence throughout the 50s (B-47 ISD 1951, B-52 ISD 1955) but the all-weather bomber interceptor kept rising to the top of the procurement chain and the frequent ‘failures’ along the line were relegated to the FB role with NATO, the Military Aid Program or politically expedient allies. So when the F-106 entered service in 1959 as a development of the F-102 there were sceptics especially as engine and avionic performance were poor in development. But Convair had done their research and with a T/W of 0.71 and a low W/L of 250Kg/m² it was quick and manoeuvrable with agility at low and medium speed coupled with light buffet warning of impending high ⍺ oscillations.The fuselage was ‘area ruled’ for aerodynamic efficiency and with a J75-P-17 in excess of Mach 2 at altitude was achieved with ‘super cruise’ (supersonic cruise without AB) a reality. Vertical manoeuvring in visual combat was very effective as was the ‘blow thorough’ weapons pass. Eventually Convair built 277 ‘A’ models. Yet again during USAF procurement the pilot got the rough end of the stick and ejector seat design was woefully inadequate, pilots were most concerned about high and fast but designers with low and slow. Two early seats by Weber Aircraft Corporation (not BBQ fame) suited neither regime and 12 lives were lost until a rocket catapult ‘zero-zero’ seat was installed.

Doctrinally lacking guns or external weapons carriage, but with an internal weapons bay for four AIM-4 A or B (GAR1 or 2) Falcons or a mix with a nuclear AIR-2A Genie unguided rocket it was well armed for the role. Employing the Hughes MA-1 weapons control system in conjunction with the Semi-Autonomous Ground System (SAGE) intercepts were considerably simplified. The combat philosophy became ‘get there the firstest with the mostest’. Two supersonic 360 USGallon tanks could be carried underwing and a gun was fitted to later versions. 

The aircraft acquitted itself well during Project HAVE DRILL versus MiG-17F Fresco (YF-114C) in the late 60s and during Project HAVE FERRY against a second MiG-17F (both originally made in Poland as Lim-5s and exported to Syria – procurement clue). It remained in ANG service until 1988. This may have been the ‘Last Starfighter’ that got away, it was very quick, it could turn, had interception assistance from the ground and a usable internal weapons menu.

4. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19P/PM (NATO ‘Farmer’ B/E)

“The engines were powerful enough to get you out of a bad situation and the acceleration they provided was excellent, especially with afterburners. “There were quite a few bad qualities but the worst, in my opinion, was the thick wing which made transonic speeds (just short of Mach 1) very rough to ride through and almost uncontrollable, although it employed ‘short arm’ and ‘long arm’ technology to cater for it. In three words:  “Challenging – Powerful – Fun” – Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum (Rtd), MiG-19 pilot (full interview here)

Introduced to a group of somewhat shocked NATO military attachés on 3 July 1955 during a Soviet Air Forces (VVS) 48 MiG-19  flypast at the Tushino Airshow, Moscow the Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB-155 (experimental design bureau 155) MiG-19 was intended to have a greater range than the MiG-15 or 17, supersonic speed in level flight and an all-weather radar interception capability.  A T/W of 0.85 and W/L of 300Kg/M² promised speed and manoeuvrability but as usual with Soviet designs there were some caveats. Development had been very variable with engine afterburner improvements needed to achieve supersonic flight, if the rear fuselage did not catch fire first or the fuel tanks explode. The bane of swept wing fighter design, high ⍺ departure into a spin through adverse yaw, was prevalent resulting in ludicrously large wing fences and a lower all moving ‘slab’ tailplane for supersonic control. Mach 1.35 was achieved with a ceiling above 55,000ft which was quite respectable especially as it had a 6g good instantaneous turn wing and was quite agile at medium and low altitude even if not great in a sustained turn. This was to be demonstrated in Vietnam where the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-6s (three cannon MiG-19S type day fighters) achieved six guns ‘kills’ versus US aircraft. With considerable power available, fighting ‘in the vertical’ was the early MiG-19s forté but the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) later found the Mirage IIIEP (the one that got away) had more success in the turn avoiding its speed and missile threat as it re-entered the merge.

In the ‘P’ model the RP-1 Izumrud (NATO ScanFix) radar was fitted with a scan range of 7 km and no lock.  RP-5 Izumrud was installed later increasing range to 12km with auto lock out to 4km using probably the first Track-While-Scan (TWS) mode hence NATO ScanOdd.  Two wing root NR-23-mm 75 rounds per round cannon were installed initially then upgraded to NR-30mm 75 rounds per round with pylons for an unguided rocket pack and a ‘5g’ fuel tank under each wing, jettison-able for combat. This fit was hastily (for the Soviets) adjusted for the carriage of 2 Vympel NPO K-13 (AA-2 Atoll) missiles once the reverse engineering had been completed from the ‘Taiwan incident’ acquisition (see above). 

Natural development into the MiG-19PM (NATO Farmer-E) occurred as the cannon were removed (mirroring a USAF trend or possibly because the SRD-3 Grad gun sight was so poor) and up to 4 Kaliningrad K-5M (NATO AA-1 Alkali) missiles fitted. Two underwing fuel tanks could replace missile on ‘wet’ pylons.

Multiple interceptions of NATO reconnaissance aircraft by PVO Strany (Anti-Air Defence of the Nation) occurred in the late 50s. The first U-2 sighting seems to have been in 1957 and at least one MiG-19 was involved, and possibly shot down inadvertently, during the ‘Gary Powers’ U-2 incident on 1 May 1960. The MiG-19 was gaining a bit of a ‘cavalier’ reputation, the pilots anyway, shooting down an RB-47H in International airspace over the Arctic in July the same year.

As an all-weather interceptor which could fight for its life with one eye on the fuel gauges, the MiG-19 was undoubtably a success with the combat experience and export orders to prove it. Never a flying member of the Tonopah Red Eagles, in 1970 a J-6  exploitation was carried out under Project ‘HAVE BOAT’ in Taiwan. Contemporary knowledge has it that against Western type opposition in Asia it was better than an F-100 with missiles, powerful and with a punch.

3. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21F-13 (NATO Fishbed C)

“The MiG-21 was the result of continuous Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB-155 development and research looking for a combination clear airmass point interceptor/air superiority fighter design in one airframe to compliment the MiG-19 series all-weather interceptor. The first generation MiG-21F (‘Forsirovannyy’ – uprated) was introduced to PVO Strany in 1959, and the F-13 model, signifying Vympel K-13 (NATO AA-2 ‘Atoll’) missile carriage, entered service a year later. This was an unusually fast Soviet air-to-air weapons philosophy change, airframe integration and missile manufacture, undoubtably driven by the ‘Taiwan incident’ (see above – there’s a lot for the USA to answer for in that fuzing failure).

The aircraft had mid-mounted delta wings with small square tips which was excellent for climb but an energy absorber in prolonged hard turns up to 7g (6g with C/L tank) causing speed ‘bleed off’ but reducing the turn radius. Small training edge high lift devices ( 3 position flaps – up, take-off, land) caused high landing and T/O speeds. A relatively low power Tumansky R11F (R-25)—300 turbojet with AB in the slim body, which had been a serious design consideration, was regulated for supersonic flight by an automatic 3 position inlet cone with manual back-up. It had a slow ‘spool up’ from low power (14 secs idle to full mil) and the AB only lit once 100% RPM was achieved. The fuselage has a small belly fin under the rear section to assist yaw stability and a large dorsal spine flush with the bubble canopy reducing rearward vision and limited vision over the relatively long nose. The tail fin sweeps back and is tapered with a square tip. This produced a T/W of 0.76 and W/L of 425Kg/m², a mid range combination similar to the F-101 or F-104 but of course T/W improved rapidly as fuel was used. Mach 2.05 was achieved up to 58,000ft but it was only supersonic above 15,000ft due transonic drag in thick air. Reports of the precise fuel capacity vary but the answer is ‘not much’, approx 2000kg (2500L) internal fuel in poorly placed tanks ahead of the CG caused handling problem and reduced airborne time to 45minutes. A C/L 400L or 490L tank was added to assist CG control and add endurance, attempting to resolve an inherent full flow issue exacerbated by manoeuvre and variable engine compressor tank pressurising air. 

An SRD-5ND Kvant ranging radar was fitted, the ubiquitous Sirena-2 radar warning receiver (RWR) a Gorizont GCI link and an ASP-5ND optical ‘iron’ gunsight. Originally fitted with 1 x NR-30 and 2 x NR23 cannons with only 60rpg, the ‘F’ version dispensed with the 2 x NR 23s and gained 1 x K13 ‘Atoll’ on each inboard pylon. Hit and run or ‘blow through’ tactics soon became the norm but required GCI, clear airmass or ‘smokey’ target engines ( F-4 ).

An interesting and amusing ejection system was installed initially where the forward hinging canopy acted as a blast deflector for the final portion of the pilot’s departure up the seat rails, disengaging from the seat before parachute opening.

This early MiG-21 ‘does what is says on the tin’ was nimble, tight-turning, with a twenty minutes endurance with burner, small and very difficult to see or acquire on air-to-air radar. It had limited speed below 15,000ft and excellent operational capability above. Adequate ‘buffet warning’ was available at high ⍺ and the best manoeuvre speed was 460-540kt. Described as ‘light, agile, beautiful to handle even at low speed’ it is the most built supersonic jet fighter ever – 11,496 a complete era in itself – the veritable Kalashnikov of fighters.

On 16 Aug 66 an Iraqi defector presented an aircraft to Israel and the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Foreign Technology Division, TAC Project ‘HAVE DOUGHNUT’ produced a Comparisons Report (unclass) covertly designating it the YF-110. Despite their confusion over whether they had assessed a 1962 MiG-21F-13 (Fishbed C – likely) or a MiG21-PF/PFS 

(Fishbed E – unlikely), it concluded that the aircraft “has an excellent operational capability in all flight regimes” with minor caveats. It is undoubtably well worth a place on the podium.

“It’s completely a manual aeroplane, with very simple systems. If one masters it, this aircraft can manoeuvre better than most modern aircraft, provided it is flown by someone who has mastered the aircraft. Being a manual aircraft, safety needs to be observed as it is not ensured by inherent safety features and design features of a modern aircraft. In a MiG-21, being an older generation aircraft, sometimes this thin line has been transgressed by a few good men inadvertently and I lost some of my friends.” – Group Captain MJA Vinod, full interview here.

2. English Electric Lightning F1

Developed from a 1947 British Industry private initiative Mach 1.5 fighter design by ‘Teddy’ Petter (Canberra, Folland Gnat) then ’Freddie’ Page (TSR2) and Ray Creasey, it was first flown on 4 August 1954 by ‘Rolly’ Beaumont as the English Electric P1. The P.1 had a ‘stacked’ engine configuration producing twin-engined thrust for the drag equivalent of 1.5 engines. Named ‘Lightning’ in 1956 it was tasked with defending ‘V’ bomber bases against Soviet nuclear armed bombers. Performance emphasis was on rate-of-climb and speed rather than range in anticipation of very short radar detection to interception times. A range of 150nm from the airfields was specified and of course they were to be based towards the East coast of the UK. It survived the Duncan Sandys’ policy of an all missile defence of the UK in the Defence White Paper of 1957, perhaps because it was a fully integrated weapons delivery platform or it was just too much bother to cancel. 

The ’small fin’ F1 had a T/W 0.78 < 1.1 at low fuel and W/L 350Kg/m² achieving 650kts<Mach 1.7 up to 60,000+ft with 2 x Avon-200R series engines with AB. 2500kg internal fuel (including the flaps) and 5.0g limit > 3.0g above Mach 1.6. A good combination of power and agility.

It was armed with two 30-mm Aden revolver cannon with 120 rounds per gun ahead of the cockpit, an optional interchangeable belly pack of 48 x 51mm (2 inch) unguided air-to-air rockets or an additional two Aden cannon, plus two Firestreak passive IR missiles on fuselage stub pylons. The radar was the Ferranti AI-23 ‘AIRPASS’ monopulse set with automatic tracking and ranging for all weapons and it had a gyro gunsight . The Firestreak was almost double the size of the AIM-9 Sidewinder/K-13 Atoll or AIM-4 Falcon as a result of a much larger warhead (22.7kg annular blast fragmentation) but with similar range and speed. All missile aerodynamics and engines were developing along very similar lines at this stage, although the Firestreak was a fairly  maintenance unfriendly weapon with a toxic motor propellant and ammonia seeker head cooling bottles in the launch shoe. Acquisition and launch were constrained by many natural phenomena, cloud, sun, sea, OAT therefore target radar lock was no guarantee of missile success.

Formal entry into RAF service was May 1960 and No. 74 Sqn ‘The Tigers’ formed at RAF Coltishall in July. Further F1s with improved avionics, radar and in-flight refuelling provision were delivered to an additional 2 Squadrons later in the year as the F1A. Unfortunately ‘over and under’ engines were a recipe for leaks of all sorts onto the lower engine in a packed fuselage and many aircraft were lost to fires. It had short range but startling performance and was well armed for 1960, featuring a ridiculous rate of roll approaching that of the Folland Gnat (420°/sec), a great turning radius and acceleration, however, it was a fuel emergency from take-off!

Such was the success of the introduction, after some early engineering familiarisation issues, that in 1961 No. 74 Squadron was designated the Fighter Command aerobatic team with 9 aircraft performing displays around the UK including the SBAC Show at Farnborough that year.

Deke Slayton (USAF Test Pilot and Mercury Astronaut) flew it in 1958 and said “The P.1 was a terrific plane, with the easy handling of the F-86 and the performance of an F-104. Its only drawback was that it had no range at all. . . Looking back, however, I’d have to say that the P.1 was my favourite all-time plane.

Reliably described as flying like a Hunter with enormous power, although at 5g in manoeuvre it feels like constant pre-stall buffet. A contemporary manned rocket with weapons, well worthy of second place.

1. Saab J35A Draken

Avoiding a solely NATO versus Warsaw Pact competition, the No. 1 choice fighter is from a ‘neutral’ country and was created as a purely national self defence initiative. Designed in response to a Swedish Air Force 1949 requirement for an all-weather fighter to intercept the high altitude transonic nuclear-armed bomber and also engage fighters, Erik Bratt at SAAB led the team which proposed a single-pilot, single-engine delta wing aircraft with supersonic performance, capable of austere runway operations and servicing by conscripts (under the BASE90 dispersed airfield scheme). A top speed of Mach 1.7 was planned and a radical ‘double delta’ planform envisaged to provide the most effective solution to very high speed, required fuel and weapon load and short runway performance. The J35 (‘Jaktflygplan’ – pursuit aircraft) ‘Draken’ (Dragon or Kite – your choice) had a T/W of 0.7 and W/L of 230Kg/m² quite powerful, quite light (12T) and quite agile. Powered by one RB6B (a license built RR Avon 200 series) with an indigenous Ebk65 AB and 1,800 kg fuel carried internally. Later ‘Adam’ models were equipped with a more powerful and longer AB requiring ‘dolly wheels’ under the tail (differentiated as the Adam ‘kort’ short or ‘lång’ long). No conventional tailplane was fitted and elevons were installed inboard, manoeuvre was limited to 7.0g. and it entered service in March 1960 with Fighter Wing 13 at Norrköping. Export orders followed amongst the Scandahoovians and eventually second-hand to Austria.

The initial radar installation was an analogue PS-02 (Thomson-CSF Cyrano I) single pulse radar capable of target detection, tracking, weapons solution calculation including gun sight solutions with ground mapping by Ericsson. No auto ‘Stril 60’ GCI control link was fitted at this stage. 2 x 30mm Aden 90rpg in the wing roots, 2 x Rb 24 (licensed built AIM-9B) under each wing and a wet C/L pylon with 420kg tank was the standard fit.

High ⍺ manoeuvring produced a form of ‘pitch-up’ or ‘super stall’ which was recognised as controllable and lead to a form of ‘Cobra’ manoeuvre (‘kort parad’- short parade but ‘short show’ is more descriptive) and is possibly the origin of the Top Gun airbrake/pitch up and opponent fly through manoeuvre. The airframe is always ⍺ limited (15 ok, 22 critical) in manoeuvre rather than ‘g’ – structural limit +12g.

Despite the primary interceptor design it was more than adequate as a dogfighter and has been described as a tougher Mirage III with better radar and runway performance.

With overall excellent performance it is very stable and easy to fly, has a very good roll rate and good instantaneous turn, but like all swept wing aircraft speed bleeds off in continuous min radius turns. Mach 1.8 up to max 66,000ft has been demonstrated and ≍720kt at low level.

It is more capable, faster, has better avionics, gunsight and lookout, more armament and better endurance for its size than any contemporary airframe. In comparison the MiG-21F-13 was faster and possibly more agile at high altitude but had poor avionics and weapons and limited visibility.

As a tribute to its unusually benign but aggressive performance envelope the US National Test Pilot School (civilian) purchased six course curriculum aircraft (see picture below). It was described by an RAF pilot on an exchange tour with the RDAF as a ‘supersonic hunter with benefits’ and incidentally had a perfect combat record – as a neutral – therefore a very worthy winner in my view.

This selection has run the gamut from the gun-armed subsonic clear airmass day fighter Hunter through the ever evolving ‘Century Series’, the MiG Design Bureau’s top selling economy models and English Electric’s ‘Gentleman’s Fighter’ to the heavily armed supersonic all-weather dogfighting ‘Scandi’ Draken. A series of completely different designs and configurations all aiming to produce better combat performance in very varying geographical circumstances. The major constraints were invariably technology – aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics and missiles – very occasionally finance, politics or pilot interface, despite which all of these aircraft saw more than 20 years of service as the original or later marks and some are still being operated. Improvement is obvious through the list and although arguably not one of the greatest periods of fighter design the foundations were being laid for startling generational development. As capabilities increased or improved industrial espionage, reverse engineering, inspired development or pure experimentation drove manufacturers to build the next MiG and Tupolev killer or Peoples Air Defence Forces Defender of the Nation. These 10 set the standards for the next iteration of complete air defenders or specialist fighter bombers.

Suffix – Near Misses

There were a few fighters that came very close to selection which deserve exclusion explanations, so in alphabetical order:

Dassault Mirage IIIC

Mirage IIIC – the one that got away? 

Designed as a radar equipped single seat interceptor with two guns, two missiles and pylons for air-to-ground weapons it entered service with the French Air Force in July 1961, remaining in service for 27 years and being very successfully exported. It was supersonic it could turn despite the ‘delta’ configuration and was all-weather with the Cyrano radar. 

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McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

Pre-order volume 2 here

Originally designed for the USN all-weather carrier interceptor role it was issued to the USAF under a Defence Secretary unified fighter procurement decision with added FB capability. A re-working of the F-3H Demon design for more range, better performance and weapons carriage it reached the USN Fleet Replacement Air Group on 30 December 1960 – probably a paper transfer –  and was on a deployable squadron by July 1961. A consummate performer it would go on to populate most ‘best of’ lists for years to come but not yet.

Interview with F-4 Phantom II pilot here.

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Vought F-8A Crusader

A carrier based air superiority fighter replacing the F-7U Cutlass in December 1956 through the ‘step improvement’ procurement method of the time. Single engine, revolutionary ‘variable-incidence’ wing to aid carrier landing, four unreliable guns and a belly tray of unguided rockets, soon to be deleted, it was hardly a success on arrival. Day clear airmass operations only with a considerable mishap record it needed continuous development with added fire control radar and missiles on stub pylons to make it a reasonable ‘bomb truck’ by the mid-60. Interview with Crusader pilot here.


  1. Duker

    Another plane that didnt make the cut – and was on its way out by 1960- was the Grumman F11F Tiger , a US Navy plane and competitor to the F104 which won the competition for Nato and Japan even though the F11F in its J79 GE engined M2.0 version was the initial choice of the air forces, but Lockheed had its ‘enhanced marketing’ to triumph in the end. Grumman seemed to have independently derived the area rule principle before from Whitcomb ( Dec 1951 drawings show a pinched in centre fuselage) , thus allowing even the intial version with J65 ( Wright licensed Armstrong Siddely Saphhire ) engine to exceed its transonic expectations. The benign flying characteristics meant the 200 or so built spent most of their lives as US Navy lead- in supersonic trainers ( The USN even to this day doesnt have a trainer with AB) and would have made a significant improvement over the bad safety record of the F104 in the non US air arms. All in all, the extra fuel to meet carrier cycle times meant it had better range as well. The USN chose the F-8 detailed in the story which was a reasonable choice but for the US Navy which was still running some older Essex class as anti submarine carriers, the F11F was a better choice than the A4 Skyhawk that was used for CAP. Other western countries with small carriers like Australia, Canada and maybe even Britain it would also been a good choice as a ‘light’ fighter’ ( MTOW 24,600lb or 10.5 tonnes) The Super Tiger was 26,000lb

  2. Pingback: Saturday NatSec Roundup - Lawyers, Guns & Money

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