Top Ten Criminally Overlooked Aircraft at the RAF Museum Midlands (formerly RAF Museum Cosford)

The RAF Museum Midlands (formerly RAF Museum Cosford) in the United Kingdom has one of the greatest collections of military aircraft in the world. We asked Tom Hopkins, Curator of Aircraft and Exhibits, at the museum to choose 10 aircraft often criminally overlooked by visitors.

(Hush-Kit would like to thank Ajay Srivastava for his help)

10. Bristol M.1C

Asked to think about aviation in the First World War, and most people would probably visualise bi- or even triplanes battling in the skies over France. If we think of monoplanes at all, then the German Eindecker series probably comes to mind – the villains of the ‘Fokker Scourge’ between July 1915 and early 1916.

However, the British also operated a small number of a single monoplane type during the War. Owing to an institutional distrust of monoplanes, only 125 Bristol M.1C airframes would be ordered. The M.1C’s streamlined design, and the lower drag experienced by the absence of a second pair of wings, resulted in an impressive performance, with a top speed approaching 130 mph/ 210 km/h. A small number were deployed to Palestine, where they were reasonably effective at deterring Turkish reconnaissance flights over allied positions. The M.1C proved even more successful on the Macedonian front, where the flying ace Captain Frederick Dudley Travers scored five of his nine kills.

Despite these successes, the M.1C was never deployed operationally to France and the type was quickly withdrawn from service at the close of the War in 1918. The RAF would not see another monoplane fighter until the introduction of the Hawker Hurricane in late 1937.

As well as an impressive top speed, the M.1C also had a respectable service ceiling. A Chilean example, piloted by Dagoberto Godoy, was the first aircraft to fly over the Andes.

9. Gloster Gladiator

From an early monoplane, we turn to a late biplane. In fact, the Gloster Gladiator was the last biplane fighter to enter service with the RAF, which it did in early 1937. This was around the same time that the Germans were introducing the Messerschmitt Bf 109, two years after the Soviets introduced the Polikarpov I-16, and five years after the Americans introduced the Boeing P-26 ‘Peashooter’ monoplanes. This goes to show just how committed the Air Ministry were to biplane designs, even as they became increasingly obsolete. That said, the Gladiator did have some modern features. It was the first RAF fighter aircraft to have an enclosed cockpit, and its armament of four .303 machine guns was double that of its predecessors.

Nonetheless, by the outbreak of the Second World War, the Gladiator was very much outclassed by newer designs. Relegated to secondary theatres, it performed better against less formidable opposition. In Malta, Gladiators flown by Fleet Air Arm and RAF pilots held their own against the Italian Air Force. For a time the Gladiator was the only aircraft type defending the islands, before they could be reinforced by Hurricanes. Gladiators also served with the British in Norway, North and East Africa, Greece, Iraq, and Syria.

The last known Gladiator victory of the War went not to the British but to the Finns, when in February 1943 a Soviet Polikarpov R-5 was shot down during the Continuation War.

State -of-the-art it was not, but the Gladiator deserves recognition for being the last and most advanced biplane fighter to serve with the RAF.

8. Boulton Paul Defiant

British aerial defence planning in the 1930s was dominated by anxiety about invincible enemy bomber streams bringing the fight right up to the towns and cities of the UK. In many respects this anxiety was not unfounded. Slow, hulking Zeppelins had brought terror in the First World War – but now bombs were carried by fast and sleek aircraft. Creative solutions had to be sought to address this menace, and one of the more radical ones was the concept of a turret fighter.

Early experiments had seen the Hawker Demon fitted with a hydraulically powered turret, but it was clear that something faster than this biplane was needed. So was born the Defiant. Able to push 300mph, its four-gun turret was able to operate across a very broad field of fire. This would allow a Defiant to catch up with and get itself into the best position possible to engage enemy bombers. The concept was promising, and the Navy even ordered their own turret fighter – the Blackburn Roc.

With the outbreak of War, the Defiant did score some successes but proved to be far too vulnerable to enemy fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109. It was quickly withdrawn to nightfighting duties, and in turn was replaced in this role from 1943 onwards.

As an aircraft type, the Defiant may have been underwhelming. But we are lucky to have an ex-307 squadron example at the RAF Museum Midlands. Not only is it the only Defiant to survive today, it was also built only a few miles from the Museum in nearby Wolverhampton.

7. Gloster Javelin

Anxiety about enemy bombers did not entirely go away with the end of the Second World War. The dawning of the nuclear age occurred with increasingly capable strategic bombers. By 1949, the Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear device and had successfully introduced the Tu-4, an unlicenced and reverse-engineered version of the B-29 Superfortress. By the early 1950s, the first Soviet jet bombers were entering service.

The British needed an aircraft that could fly fast and high enough to counter these new threats, around the clock and in all weathers. The Javelin’s huge and distinctive delta wing accommodated fuel, four ADEN canon and up to four Firestreak missiles. An extra crewmember sat behind the pilot to operate the navigation and radar equipment. Although untested in combat, the Javelin would have been more than capable of outpacing the first generations of Soviet Bombers when it entered service in 1956.  

Despite its striking appearance and adequate capabilities, the Javelin had a relatively short service life. By 1968 the last examples were replaced in the interceptor role by the poster-boy of Cold War RAF interceptors – the English Electric Lightning. The Javelin may have been less popular with air show crowds than its supersonic successor, but it nevertheless formed an important part of the UK’s air defences for over a decade.

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6. Canadair Sabre

One fighter of the 1950s had an even shorter service life with the RAF than the Javelin. The Canadair Sabre was a Canadian-built version of the American F-86 Sabre, provided to the British with American funding from late 1952. The context to this procurement was the appearance of the MiG-15 in the Korean War (1950-53), which had given the West a bit of a shock. The MiGs certainly outperformed the Meteors operated by the Royal Australian Air Force in Korea, and earlier American jets like the F-80 Shooting Star. The USAF rushed their F-86s Sabres into the War, where they proved a more formidable opponent to the Soviet jet.

Back in the UK, the RAF’s fighter strength was formed mostly of Meteors and Vampires. Newer types, such as the Hunter and the (ultimately far less successful) Swift would not start to be introduced until 1954. In part, the Sabre was procured as a stop-gap measure to ensure that the RAF had a fighter able to tackle an increasingly sophisticated Soviet Air Force in Europe. As soon as the more modern British-designed fighters came online, the Sabres were returned to US ownership. They were then gifted by the Americans to the Italians and (in the wake of the Tito-Stalin split) to Yugoslavia. This process was completed by 1958.

That short service life is probably one of the reasons why we think of Sabres with the silver finish of the USAF rather than the green and grey of the RAF.

5. Avro Lincoln

Ask someone to think about British bombers, and it is likely they will come up with two key groups – the three four-engined ‘heavies’ of the Second World War (Stirling/ Halifax/ Lancaster), or the three V-bombers of the Cold War (Valiant/ Victor / Vulcan). What is less obvious in the public consciousness is what came in between these two groups.

The Avro Lincoln was a development of the Lancaster. It was longer, had a wider wingspan, a higher top speed, a higher service ceiling, and a longer range. It was an all-round improvement on the Lancaster, but its introduction into service right at the very close of the Second World War meant that it played no combat role in that conflict. Perhaps that is why the Lincoln is largely forgotten amongst its immediate predecessors, but as a type they nonetheless played an important role in the RAF.

The Lincoln saw service during the Mau Mau rebellion (1952–1960) and the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960). It was also exported to Argentina, and produced in Australia for the RAAF. In total, over 600 airframes were built – not an inconsiderable number for a large aircraft that came online during a period of acute defence cuts. Replaced by the Canberra and the V-Bombers, the Lincoln nonetheless remained in service with the RAF until 1963, being last used in the signals development role.

4. Avro York

Just as the Lincoln was derived from the Lancaster, so was the Avro York. As a specialised transport aircraft, the York had a very similar tail (with just one extra fin) and wings to the Lancaster. It had the same configuration of four Rolls Royce Merlin engines mounted in nacelles under forward of the wings’ leading edges. Many of the components found in the York were identical to those found in the Lancaster. The real difference between the two was to be found in the York’s square-sectioned fuselage. This may have made for a boxy and ungainly appearance, but it gave the York around double the internal capacity of the Lancaster – an important consideration when it comes to humping freight and people over long distances!

Unlike the Lincoln, the York was introduced to service before the end of the War. However, with priority given to building bombers, production of the York proceeded at a slow pace, before accelerating in the post-war climate.

With the RAF, the York is most famous for its role in transporting Winston Churchill (amongst other VIPs) all over the World, as well as flying as a blockade runner during the Berlin Air Lift. While an important aircraft to the RAF in terms of logistics, the York will probably never win any prizes for beauty.

3. Short Belfast

Any discussion of transport aircraft in RAF service cannot leave out the mighty Short Belfast. With a wingspan approaching 160ft, and an empty weight of nearly 60 tonnes, the Belfast is by some definitions the largest airframe in the RAF Museum’s collection. At its very best performance, it could fly over 350mph and had a ferry range of over 6000 miles. It was capable of carrying cargo including a single tank, or up to four Westland Whirlwind helicopters, or up to 150 fully-equipped troops. When it was introduced in 1966, it was the largest aircraft to be operated by the RAF had yet operated.

For such impressive statistics, its perhaps surprising to hear that only ten Belfasts were ever completed. Shorts had proposed a number of derivatives for the civilian market, but no orders were forthcoming. The RAF retired the Belfast in 1976 after just ten years’ service, before selling of their second-hand airframes to various civil operators. One was flying in Australia as recently as 2004. One suspects the success of Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules came at the expense of the Belfast. Ironically, the RAF would later charter the services of these civilian Belfasts for jobs which were just too big for the Hercules to manage.

2. Douglas Thor

Now this is strictly a missile and not an aircraft, but it is a pretty big one. Standing at 65ft (19.82m), the Douglas Thor makes for an impressive sight in the Museum’s National Cold War Exhibition. As an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) with a range of 1500 miles, the Thor formed part of the UK’s nuclear arsenal between 1959 and 1963. 60 missiles were operational, spread across 20 bases in Eastern England.

It is safe to say that the Thor has been relatively forgotten in the face of the V-Bombers, and later submarine-based Polaris and Trident ballistic missile systems. This is partly due to their relatively short service life of just four years, straddling some of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. And maybe it is partly because the Thor just was not very good.

Unlike many American ballistic missile systems, the Thors were not kept underground in protected silos, but entirely above ground. Before being launched, they would need to be raised into position and fueled – a process that took around 15 minutes. If they were fuelled and not launched, the liquid oxygen present in the propellent would freeze certain components, and it would be some hours before the missile could be used again. In the face of an incoming ‘four-minute warning’ of impending nuclear attack, one wonders how much use the Thor would have been.

1. Fairchild Argus

The unimposing Fairchild Argus is the smallest aircraft on our list. It might appear to be just a civilian sporting aircraft in camouflage colours, and to an extent that is exactly what it is. The Argus was a commercially successful light aircraft that was produced from 1932. The USAAF showed an interest in acquiring the type for communications and light transport work and placed a contract, but under the Lend-Lease Act, these were transferred to the UK.

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As well as being operated by the RAF, the Argus served with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ATA was a civilian organisation, tasked with ferrying new aircraft from factories to airfields, and damaged aircraft from airfields to maintenance units. While an ATA pilot could expect to fly all sorts of aircraft types in use with the RAF, the service also needed a fleet of dedicated taxi aircraft to move crews in between jobs – and the Argus was just the right fit.

The history of the Second World War is about production and logistics just as much as it is about incredible machines and individual acts of bravery. Without the ATA and its Argus fleet, the RAF simply could not have operated on the scale that it did. The Argus might not have the glamour of the  Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito or Lancaster, but in its own way it made a massive impact on the British war effort.

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