1951 brought the world a horrid bestiary of diabolic aeroplanes. Across the world, aeronautical engineers sought to make the new generation of aircraft more dangerous than the last. Safety culture was for cowards, everyone was drunk and fighters looked incredible. Slick your hair with Brylcream, light up a cigarette, pop a pack of diet pills and join us on a lethal saunter along the flightline of the damned…
10. de Havilland Sea Vixen ‘Booms to the tombs’
The Royal Navy’s long running fascination with sadistically punishing Navigators reached its zenith (or nadir) with the Sea Vixen. Trapped in a claustrophobic ‘coalhole’, the Navigator was mercifully blind to the fact he was flying in one of the most dangerous aircraft in the world. Around half the top speed of its American rivals, the Sea Vixen was the sickening burp that followed the fine meal that was the Mosquito.
9. Douglas F4D Skyray ‘The Flaming Ford’
The remarkable Skyray first flew in 1951 and entered service in 1956. The Skyrays had the worst accident rate of anything in the US Navy at a sobering 34.78 per 10,000 flying hours during its troublesome first operational year. This calmed down with time but is still utterly terrifying. Still, it was the most stylish aircraft ever created.
8. McDonnell F3H Demon ‘The Lead Sled’
It took a long time to tame the jet for life at sea. Added to the usual perils of carrier operations were the insufficient power, unresponsiveness and terrible reliability of early jet engines. The Demon was a carrier-based all-weather interceptor particularly cursed by the teething problems of 1950s jet engines. The Demon was plagued with engine development issues throughout its testing and short operational career. The Westinghouse J40 engine programme was a nightmare of development problems. The electronic control system didn’t work, the afterburner was dangerous. As the McDonnell F3H-1N Demon’s weight dramatically increased across its development, the original J40 couldn’t keep up with the corresponding requested thrust increases. A souped-up J40 with a 13-stage compressor and greater airflow was a flop, and Demon turned to the Allison J71. The J40 was terminated in 1955 and Westinghouse closed down in 1960.
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The F3H-1N (the initial production version powered by the 7,200 lbf thrust J40-WE-22 turbojet) was particularly diabolical, in one particular week the type was involved in 11 accidents, some resulting in the death of pilots. The F3H-1N was canned after only 58 were produced.
Due to delays in afterburner development on the J71, initial production of the hugely delayed F3H-2N featured the J40 as an interim engine. This was a disaster and both engine and aircraft were grounded after a number of a series of highly publicised accidents.
7. Yakovlev Yak-1000 ‘The slack Yak’
Mach 1.7, 1,122mph at the expected operating altitude, would have been a very impressive speed for an aircraft to reach in 1951, and that was the original design target for the Yak-1000. It would have smashed the contemporary airspeed record held by the US F-86 at 670mph. The 1000 was a technology testbed intended to reach incredible speeds by combining an advanced cropped delta wing derived from German wartime research, with the terrible AL-5 turbojet. Delays in the AL-5 meant it was fitted with a far weedier engine, a pirated adaption of the Rolls-Royce Derwent V, the Klimov RD-500. The target for the new airframe-engine combination was a far less ambitious, but still world-beating, 680mph. But even this proved unattainable, as did flight.
During pre-maiden-flight taxiing trials, the aircraft proved unable to counter strong crosswinds and was blown off the runway and damaged. Yakovlev was lukewarm about the design but this time and the project was quietly dropped.
6. Lavochkin La-190 ‘Next of Kin’
The horrible Lyulka AL-5 turbojet also scuppered the potentially fantastic Lavochkin La-190. As well as good handling qualities, it was probably the fastest aircraft in the world. But not even Stalin’s USSR was willing to support an aircraft with an engine as unreliable as the AL-5.
6. Tupolev Tu-85 ‘Barge Poleaxed’
Looking for a bomber with the range to hit mainland America the Soviet Union developed the Tu-85. It was based on the Tu-80 which in turn was based on the Tu-4, a brilliantly reverse-engineered B-29. The Tu-85 was the ultimate manifestation of the Superfortress, and was more than 50% heavier than with almost double the range and a top speed of almost 400mph. Its failing was its choice of engine, it utilised the Dobrynin VD-4K, a vast complicated six-bank 24-cylinder turbo-compound inline engine. This was understandable as neither the pure jet or turboprop were fully mature, especially in the Soviet Union, and ultra powerful piston engines were complicated. However, a year later the vastly superior turboprop Tu-95 would fly, soundly demonstrating the future of Soviet bombers did not belong to piston engines.
5. Supermarine Swift
Though the similar Type 535 had already flown, the Type 541 was the true production prototype of the lamentable Swift, and that is nothing to be proud of. Britain was determined to fail at the jet age, and despite the obstacle of producing by far the best jet engines in the world, it was doing well at this task in 1951. The Swift was dangerous, with poor medium- and high-altitude performance and haunted by a host of aerodynamic issues throughout its short career. Always up for a giggle, Britain had already played around with a fighter-interceptor with poor medium-high altitude performance with the Hawker Typhoon in the 1940s and would later return to this comic conceit with the 1980s Tornado ADV.
4. Fokker S.14 Machtrainer
Not terrible as an aircraft, just unlucky in entering an oversaturated market and not being American, the Dutch S.14 Machtrainer was also rather slow. Though a useful transition to higher-performance jet aircraft, at 450mph it was a little slower than the competition, namely the cheap and plentiful T-33 and Vampire trainers.
3. Partenavia Aeroscooter ‘Pooper-scooter’
Sorry, but this is number 3 based on looks alone.
2. Gloster Javelin ‘The Tripe Triangle’
“The worst things about the Javelin? 1950s design e.g. Sapphire engine, a quaint starting system of electrically fired cartridge initiated AVPIN, Wellington ‘bomb slips’ as undercarriage uplocks, the relative inaccessibility of most aircraft components – Gloster must have had shares in the panel-screw makers. Finally there were flight envelope peculiarities due to the ‘delta’ configuration.” Peter Day, Javelin pilot, full interview here.
The Javelin got so much right and yet was so wrong. While many of the general ideas were good: a twin engines, tailed delta, a large radome containing a large radar, a crew of two, and (in later variants) missile armament and afterburners, many of the specifics were wrong. The aircraft’s biggest failing was an overly thick wing combined with a huge t-tail, which heavily penalised the Javelin’s performance and resulted in many dangerous quirks in its flight characteristics. It was also extremely difficult to maintain. The Javelin was painfully close to being brilliant and that is why it ranks so highly in this list.
1. Mikoyan-Gurevich I-350 ‘MiG’s pig’
As likely to flame out as a Christmas day gas boiler, the Lyulka AL-5 mentioned above gets yet another mention. The list of aircraft that used the cursed engine is a veritable who’s-not-who of Soviet aircraft. Not all the blame can be put on the engine, as the I-350 had rather unpleasant and extremely heavy controls. Still, it was the first Soviet aircraft to be able to sustain supersonic flight (when the engine was working).