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Top ten fighters of 1969

AIRPOWER16_-_Air_to_Air_SK35C_Draken_(29366239356).jpgTwenty years prior to 1969 most air forces had been flying piston-engined fighters essentially no different from those of World War II. In the following twenty years, top speeds almost quadrupled and cannons were complemented with guided missiles capable of destroying an enemy thirty miles away. To survive the carnage of the Middle East and Vietnam air wars, aircraft became ever more potent and by 1969 had become extraordinarily sophisticated killing machines. The fighters of this time were also far more demanding and dangerous to their own pilots than today’s generation of digital fighters, and these brutish machines were unforgiving of mistakes. Here are the 10 best fighters of 1969. 

10. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 ‘The Fighting Farmer’

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Like most MiG fighters, the ’19 was a rough and ready hotrod. Agile, powerful and capable of gut-wrenching acceleration— it was also ill-equipped, unforgiving and brutal. Armed with three cannon and two K-13 missiles,  a well flown MiG-19 remained an opponent to be respected in 1969, however its lack of a modern radar and modest top speed of mach 1.22 put it at a distinct disadvantage. Pakistan Air Force MiG-19 pilot Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum told Hush-Kit, “We did not fear fighting any opposing aircraft. The Intel, at the time, was that we were most likely to face the Hunter in the war as that was the aircraft which was to cross over the border to do battlefield air-interdiction and airfield strikes. The Hunter was a manoeuvrable aircraft like the F-86, and we had gained valuable experience during DACT with our F-86s. So we pretty much knew what tactics to employ. Firstly, force the Hunter to get into a vertical plane combat where our superior thrust-to-weight ratio would give us a distinct advantage. Secondly, allow the Hunter to exit and then catch him with the MiG-19’s excellent acceleration and let the heat-seeking Sidewinder do the rest.”  The type served in several air wars including Vietnam; Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) received their first MiG-19 at the end of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1968. Relatively small numbers of MiG-19s were involved in extensive combat during Operations Linebacker and Linebacker 2. The aircraft could easily outturn the Phantom (and out accelerate it up to Mach 1.2) and VPAF MiG-19 downed seven F-4 Phantom IIs.  Among its failings were its endurance, which was exceptionally poor.

Armament: 3 x 30-mm cannon (type dependent on variant), up to four short range air-to-air missiles (K-5 or AIM-9) (note: VPAF aircraft were cannon only)

9. Folland/HAL Gnat ‘Petter’s Pocket Rocket’

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Though highly specialised as a short range dogfighter, the tiny and viciously manoeuvrable, Gnat developed a fierce reputation in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war— earning the  nickname ‘Sabre-slayer‘. The Gnat shot down seven Pakistani Canadair Sabres, though two Gnats were downed by PAF fighters. During the the Battle of Boyra, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Gnats downed two PAF Canadair Sabres in minutes and badly damaged another. Another notable dogfight over Srinagar airfield saw a lone Indian pilot hold out against six Sabres scoring hits on two of the Sabres in the process before himself being shot down. The lighter, more modern, Gnat with its higher thrust-to-weight ratio had an advantage against the Sabre in the vertical plane.

Designed by W. E. W. Petter, who also created the EE Lightning, this subsonic British pugilist punched well about its weight, but in a world of supersonic radar-equipped fighters it is questionable how effectively it would have performed against a well-equipped enemy. The Gnat was the smallest jet fighter to ever see service and may well have been the tightest turning — it also had a climb rate twice that of the Sabre.

(Note: The Gnat has knocked the F-86 out of our top ten, but the Sabre was still a respectable fighter in ’69, notably where it was armed with Sidewinders.)

Armament: 2 x 30-mm ADEN cannon

ims-scan-tele-01325174-f-1000x10008. Joint place: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17/Dassault Super Mystère/ Lockheed F-104 Starfighter ‘The Outsiders’

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These fighters each had huge advantages and disadvantages and were the hardest to place in the top 10.

Any enemy foolish or ignorant enough opponent to fight the MiG-17 in the 300-330 knot regime was likely to learn a particularly nasty one-off lesson, as many did in Vietnam. Above 450 knots however, it was a pig — and its equipment was primitive; without hydraulic assistance much of the MiG-17’s manoeuvrability depended on the physical strength of its pilot! The MiG-17 was very tough and extremely reliable, but by 1969 was verging on obsolescence.

smysterThe French Super Mystère was Europe’s first supersonic fighter, but by 1969 was also showing its age, despite its good performance in the Middle East. It was liked by Israeli pilots and fought in the 1967 Six-Day War and it was said to be a decent counter to the MiG-19. During this conflict, Super Mystères achieved a number of air victories: two IL-14, one MiG-17 and two MiG-21s.

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Many would argue the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter deserves a higher ranking, but the fact USAF did not use it as a fighter is revealing.  That most operators used the aircraft in the fighter-bomber or maritime attack role point to the type’s limitation as a pure fighter, notably its infamously poor agility. It speed was exceptional, its armament decent and it had a large cockpit with excellent visibility for the pilot. Its combat record was at best mediocre: on 6 September 1965, a Pakistani F-104 may have shot down an IAF Dassault Mystère IV and damaged another (though this claim is disputed). The PAF lost one F-104 Starfighter during the 1965 operations, and achieved two kills (however, one of the F-104 Starfighter’s victims was a portly Breguet Alize of the Indian Navy, hardly the most challenging opponent). Later, in the 1971 war, it was trounced by the MiG-21.

On 13 January 1967, four Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-104G aircraft engaged 12 MiG-19s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force over the disputed island of Kinmen. Two MiG-19s were destroyed, one of the F-104s did not return to base and its pilot was claimed as MIA.

7. Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter Schmued’s Switchblade’

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Though relegated to the fighter-bomber role in US hands, the F-5 was an extremely capable air-to-air fighter, in which role it served with several air forces in 1969 (including Taiwan).  In this role it is closely comparable, and in some ways superior, to the MiG-21. Later Soviet studies of captured F-5s  revealed the type to have superior manoeuvrability to the MiG-21, and more benign low speed and high angle of attack handling characteristics.

Armament: Two Pontiac M39A2 20-mm cannon

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6. English Electric Lightning ‘The Double Decker’

The fastest climbing and one of the most agile fighters on this list, the Lightning also boasted the best acceleration and highest service ceiling. The Lightning was a rocketship; everything was sacrificed for performance, notably endurance and the number of missiles. Though it is the received wisdom that the F2A was the best model, former Lightning pilot Ian Black noted to HushKit that this is maybe a myth, and though the F2A was the best for low level air defence over Germany, the best all-rounder was probably the F6. In an interview with Hush-Kit, pilot Ian Black noted the following aspects of life in the Lightning, “Lack of fuel was the obvious one. From a handling point of view it was gloriously over-powered, something few aircraft have. With its highly swept wing and lack of any manoeuvre /combat flaps or slats the aircraft was often flown in the ‘light- heavy buffet’ which masked any seat-of-the pants feeling of an impending stall. It actually had few of the traditional ‘vices’ but could be a handful on landing with its big fin and drag chute, which made the aircraft weathercock on a strong crosswind landing. Tyres were also by necessity very thin to fit into the wing and high pressure, so didn’t last long.”

The Lightning was superior to the F-4 in dogfight, a British Phantom pilot we spoke to opined that “You have to take advantage of the things that work for you and don’t work for him. He can out-turn you, he can out-climb you, but he ain’t going to be able to do it for very long. You can see him from a long distance, so you can get your shots off without him even seeing you. If that failed, it would be best to remain unseen. You wouldn’t voluntarily get into a turning gunfight with a Lightning, as you’re probably going to lose. Then whoever runs out of fuel first – and it’s probably him- has lost the fight. He’s got to bug out. As I said, take advantage of your own strengths and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent.”

The Lightning was never proven in combat.

Armament: Two Redtop or Firestreak missiles and/or 2/4 30-mm ADEN cannon (variant dependent)

 

5. Saab Draken J-35 Draken ‘Delta Berserker’

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Delta wings, a data-link, a Mach 2 top speed, the ability to operate from short runways and an infra-red search and track sensor are common features for 21st century fighters but the Swedish J-35F(2) was boasting these back in 1969. It was also rumoured to have the lowest radar cross section of its generation (the MiG-21 is another likely contender for this title). The Draken was a sneak preview into the future, remarkably it did all this with half the thrust of the Lightning (the Draken had one Avon, the British aircraft two). The Draken was neither combat proven nor very agile, though uncoupling the flight control could allow pilots to perform what would later be known as the ‘Cobra’, a dramatic manoeuvre in which the nose is raised momentarily beyond the vertical position, before dropping back to normal flight. Whereas the Falcon missile had a bad reputation in US service it is believed that the Swedish version, the Rb 28 with its unique seekerhead, was a superior weapon. The J-35F(2) variant was the most capable Draken in 1969.

Armament: 4 x Rb 28 Falcon or 4 x Sidewinder + 1 x 30-mm ADEN (some variants 2 x 30-mm ADEN) cannon

4. Mikoyan MiG-21 ‘Fishbed‘ – ‘Soviet switchblade’

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This particular MiG-21 shot down 14 aircraft during the Vietnam War

Fast, agile, tough and small – the MiG-21 was an excellent dogfighter and the most produced supersonic jet fighter in history, with a staggering 11,000 produced in total. The mainstay of the Warsaw Pact air forces, it served with an unparalleled 56 air arms. The lightweight Mach 2 MiG fought in Vietnam and the Middle Eastern wars. In 1969 the most capable ’21 was the SM, a comprehensively upgraded (M = Modernizirovannyy ) MiG-21S using the R13-300 engine and with a built-in GSh-23L cannon, as well as a considerably updated avionics package. The type’s greatest weaknesses were a poor endurance and lack of a medium-range weapon. When ex-MiG-21 pilot Air Marshal M Matheswaran (retd) spoke to Hush-Kit he noted the type’s fantastic acceleration, electric instantaneous turn rate and tiny radar cross section. The Soviet Union had produced a small, cheap and rugged type that could take on the best fighters of the West, a remarkable achievement.

Armament: 1 x  GSh-23L cannon, two K-3 or K-13 missiles

3. Dassault Mirage III ‘Le Triangle Fantastique’

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The Mirage III proved itself devastatingly effective in Israeli hands in the 1960s. The French fighter was a dependable jack of all trades, according to Mirage III pilot Gonzalo O’Kelly,   The Snecma Atar 9C was a very reliable engine, very resistant to compressor stalls and almost immune to flame out in flight. It was very easy to fly if you had enough speed, and stable around its envelope. We always flew with two supersonic fuel tanks but the aircraft behaviour was very docile. It was also very strong. It had a landing gear that would have been strong enough for carrier landings and it wasn’t unusual to see 30 people over the wings and fuselage posing for a photo. We didn’t need any ground support to start the engine, which was very good for detachments. It was very good at accelerating in a dive, no aircraft of that time could follow us. The aerodynamics were excellent but designed for high speed.” Counting against the Mirage were its relative lack of power, claustrophobic & cluttered cockpit and limited armament. According to Israeli sources, during the Six Day War of 1967, a mere twelve Mirage IIIs shot down 48 Arab aircraft. 

Armament: 2 x 30-mm DEFA cannon, 2 x Matra R.550 Magic AAMs plus 1× Matra R.530 AAM

2. Vought F-8 Crusader ‘The Last Gunfighter’

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Perhaps the best dogfighting variant was F-8 was the D/H, because it did not have the additional weight of the J. However, it did not have the excellent radar of the E/J, so it was more of a day/VFR fighter. The E/J was probably the best-equipped version (the L were re-worked Bs).

The US Navy adage, “When you’re out of Crusaders, you’re out of fighters” speaks volumes. The Crusader was an agile, responsive hotrod beloved by its pilots. Unencumbered by the weight that the long range fleet defence origins had imposed on its service rival the F-4, the Crusader was a superior dogfighter. Vought wrapped the smallest lightest airframe around the most powerful engine, gave the pilot excellent visibility and created a machine that was a delight to fly and devilishly hard to beat in a dogfight. The Crusader also carried internal guns throughout its career, a dangerous omission on earlier Phantoms, which earned the F-8 the nickname, ‘The Last Gunfighter’. According to its pilots it was ‘simply unbeatable’ in the merge, though the Crusader had an inferior armament and radar to the larger F-4. Aerodynamically the French F-8E(FN) was superior to other variants, with significantly increased wing lift due to greater slat and flap deflection and the addition of a boundary layer control — and enlarged stabilators.  The US F-8L was probably the best equipped variant at this time.

Armament: 4 × 20 mm (0.79 in) Colt Mk 12 cannons in lower fuselage, 125 rpg, 2 × side fuselage mounted Y-pylons for mounting AIM-9 Sidewinders

 

  1. McDonnell Douglas Phantom II ‘Big Ugly’
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No surprises for the top spot, the fabulous Phantom was a vast ugly battleship of a fighter, quite unlike anything else flying. The Phantom had twice the air–to-air weapon load of any other aircraft on this list, and as the F-4J, had a radar that was far superior to anything else. The Phantom also had an excellent range, was exceptionally tough and had the benefit of a two-man crew. It was the most powerful fighter on the list, with almost 36,000Ib of reheated thrust. Choosing the most formidable Phantom variant of the time is trickier — it’s a toss-up between the F-4J with its (at the time) unique ability to ‘look down’ and ‘shoot down’ (its new fangled pulse doppler radar denied opponents the liberty of hiding from radar by flying low) and the internal gun toting F-4E. Though the  F-4J and F-4E were technically the most formidable Phantoms of ’69, they had yet to score a kill — and both would have to wait to be blooded in air combat (the former scored its first kill in 1970, the latter in ’72).

(It should be noted that the Royal Navy’s F-4K was also well-equipped.)

Disadvantages of the Phantom included a large size and smoky engines that made the aircraft easy to acquire visually, in this interview Gonzalo O’Kelly noted, “it was very easy to spot Phantoms from 6 or 7 miles because that huge black smoke trail that their engines left behind (except in afterburner) and because it was a big bird.” Flown and fought carefully by well-trained battle-hardened crews the Phantom was devastatingly effective and was certainly the best fighter in the world in the last year of the 1960s. The Phantom was responsible for 147 aerial victories in the Vietnam War, far more than any other US type.

USAF (not including other US arms) F4 Summary for Vietnam War action
Aircraft Weapons/Tactics MiG17 MiG19 MiG21 Total
F4C AIM7 Sparrow 4 0 10 14
AIM9 Sidewinder 12 0 10 22
20 mm gun 3 0 1 4
Maneuvering tactics 2 0 0 2
F4D AIM4 Falcon 4 0 1 5
AIM7 Sparrow 4 2 20 26
AIM9 Sidewinder 0 2 3 5
20-mm gun 4.5 0 2 6.5
Manoeuvring tactics 0 0 2 2
F4E AIM7 Sparrow 0 2 8 10
AIM9 Sidewinder 0 0 4 4
AIM9+20-mm gun 0 0 1 1
20-mm gun 0 1 4 5
Manoeuvring tactics 0 1 0 1
Total 33.5 8 66 107.5

Armament: 1x 20-mm M61 rotary cannon (F-4E) + 4 AIM-9C + 4 AIM-7E2

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Thank to the following people who kindly offered advice and valuable opinions in the creation of this article: Former Lightning pilot Ian Black, Jon Lake, Dave Donald, Steve Trimble, Thomas Lovegrove, former F-15 pilot Paul Woodford and Mihir Shah. 

Top fighters of 1985 here. Top fighters of 1946 here. Top fighters of 2018 here. Top fighters of 1918 here

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(Reality does not confirm to a top ten, so while our panel has taken considerable consideration in choosing the rankings the type’s relative position are to some extent arbitrary with each excelling in certain ways and lacking in others. Dedicated interceptors, such as the F-106, Su-15 and MiG-25 were excluded from selection. The Hunter, F-100 and F-86 were very close to making this list. The A-4 was disqualified on role allocation, likewise the F-105, despite 27.5 kills)

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Mirage pilot interview, Part 6: The Immortal Mirage

Untitled-8Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the sixth and final part of our Mirage special he summarises the immortal Mirage. 

Which three words describe the Mirage? 

“Reliable, stable and difficult to master.”

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Which equipment did pilots want on added to the Mirage III? 

“Every Mirage III pilot agrees on what we needed to improve our aircraft:

  • A more powerful engine was first
  • Flaps and slats to shorten take off and landings and allowing for turning dogfighting.

– Better radar and systems.

– Reduce weight.

In summary, we wanted a Mirage 2000.”

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How well-trained and equipped was the Spanish Mirage force? 

“Very well. Between 1970 and 1975, every pilot asking to be assigned to 11th Wing needed 1,500 jet flying hours to be accepted. The experience level was high.

When they began to assign fresh lieutenants, and mine was the second group, we had to go through an Initial Training Course comprising about 100 flight hours — on each and every type of mission with special attention to air combat.

We used to log a lot of hours in those years, never less than 200 hours per year, with many months 35 hours or more. I flew two missions per day many times.

Every pilot took two weeks of simulator practices per year. We went to France in six-pilot groups and had six simulator hours each.

So the training was superb, though we could have done more training with dissimilar types and attended more exercises. The only squadron exchanges we had were with French units, flying the Mirage III or F-1, so nothing new.”

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Mirage pilot interview, Part 5: Looping in Diamond Nine

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the fifth and part of our Mirage special he talks reveals more on the Dassault ‘Magic triangle‘.

“Another sortie I love to remember was no doubt, a non-accounted world record. It was May 1980. An Armed Forces Week was to be celebrated in Valencia, ending with a big military parade with an air force flypast. The 11th Wing would be hosting, so we should display the most dramatically. A diamond nine was planned and as usual, a training flight would be flown to check ground references and have some fun.

The leader of the training flight was my Squadron Chief, Mayor Carretero, one of the greatest pilots I’ve ever met and a member of a Spanish Aerobatic Team for many years, and still flying.

I was placed in the centre of the diamond, behind the leader. We took off in threes, joined up and climbed to 20,000 feet over the sea, southeast of the Base, flying parallel to the shoreline.

Some sweet turns and manoeuvres were made to make everyone feel comfortable, and then we heard the leader on the tactical frequency, “Let’s make a loop”. At once every aircraft around me flickered up and down as if they, not their pilots of course, were suddenly nervous. Well, I must say I was quite nervous.And then, confirmation, “We’ll fly a loop, I’ll dive to get 550 kts with such power, and flying as gently as possible”.

Imagine, a diamond nine as the Red Arrows do, but with Mirages IIIs! And down we went, speed 550 kts and gently the noses go up, more and more and then we are facing down again as if it was business as usual. Mayor Carretero asked by the radio how it was received, and there was enthusiastic requests asking for more from all the pilots.

And more we did, performing a further two loops. Nobody saw us, not even one picture was taken, but still we did it. The glory of flying at its best.”

What should I have asked you? 

“I think your questionnaire is very good and covers everything about the Mirage III people would like to know. I could only add how I felt after four years flying a glamorous legend, an aircraft placed in a very short list of flying wonders every aviation fan knows. It was a real honour, the F1 was better, but the Mirage III was as historically significant as the 11th Wing itself. From Fiat CR-32s, to Messerschmitts, to Sabres on to the Mirage III, and today, Typhoons.

I was also lucky enough to be able to master such a difficult warhorse, and I’m proud of being a small part of 11th Wing long history.”

What do you think of the appearance of the Mirage III

“As I said in the beginning, it was a beautiful aircraft and highly photogenic as any other delta winged plane. It also had a nice camouflage paint scheme which I miss instead of that universal light grey every air force uses today, which is utterly dull and boring

What was the Mirage like in the following ways:

A. Instantaneous and sustained turn rates

“Well, not very good at instantaneous- but better in sustained turns as with everything else, with the nose down.”

B. Agility

“Hmmmm, next question please.”

C. Climb rate

“Good enough in those years.”

D. Landing and taking-off 

“The take-off run was quite long in clean configuration, and scary at or near maximum weight. Every Mirage III pilot remembers those 185 kts of approach speed.”

E. Reliability

“Very good. I’ve already talked about the engine. I never heard of a flame-out, only some compressor stalls and all of them were pilots error induced. We in the 11th Wing, enjoyed highly experienced mechanics and engineers, and their work was outstanding. It was very common to have 80% of the fleet operative, and it was never below 50%.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the Mirage III

“The Mirage III operations manual stated that ceiling was an astonishing 70,000 feet, but the only way of reaching that altitude was with a rocket engine installed below the engine nozzle. Of course, the pilot had to wear a pressurised flying suit to climb to an altitude where you can see practical demonstration of Copernicus’ theories: the Earth is round! This rocket was called the SEPR 84, and burnt a mixture of normal Jet A1 and nitric acid.

While the contract for buying the Mirages was negotiated, it looked like our air force was interested in adding the rockets. A special hangar was built at the base to handle the rockets and their very dangerous fuel. Pressurised flying suits were acquired together with their refrigeration cases (very similar to the ones used by astronauts). In the end they served to ‘welcome’ new lieutenants, who were ordered to try the suit (without the comfort of the refrigeration case).

In the end, and happily for the pilots, they decided not to buy them. If you’ve seen The Right Stuff, you’ll understand why by remembering the scene in which Yeager is flying an F-104 rocket assisted, and suddenly and a very high altitude, the rocket flames out.

Another feature of the Mirage III was its Mach 2 capacity, a common capability from the 1960s onwards, but absolutely useless. In the Initial Training Course they gave us one sortie dedicated to reaching Mach 2.

The procedure was to climb to the troposphere in a south east track from base, over the Mediterranean, and fly away 250 NM. Then you inverted the heading towards home, set maximum afterburner and began acceleration in level flight until you reached Mach 1.4. Then you climbed maintaining 1.4 until reaching 40.000 feet, level again to accelerate to Mach 1,8, and again maintaining this Mach climb to 50, 000 to level and accelerate to Mach 2, which didn’t always happened. After reaching Mach 2 you made a pure ballistic trajectory climbing until you had to lower the nose to maintain speed.And then, the deceleration. Afterburner OFF and descending. It was forbidden to throttle back above Mach 1,4, so speed brakes and Gs were mandatory once back in the atmosphere.

We finished about 40 or 50 miles from base and with just enough fuel for transit and landing. During the whole acceleration and even more during deceleration, controls had to be handled with extreme finesse, as the movie demonstrated.

In my Mach 2 sortie, I got it and reached 65,000 feet.”

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Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes.Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

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Mirage pilot interview, Part 4: The tricky art of intercepting B-52s

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the fourth part of our Mirage special he shares his most surprising intercept.  

Mirage III versus B-52

“In four years and more than 800 flight hours, there were a lot of notable flights, but the one coming to the mind was, perhaps, a very demanding sortie that I flew in a huge air defence exercise that included USAF. Two Mirages with my friend Lieutenant Maestre and myself, were scrambled to intercept two enemy aircrafts flying high with a northeast track, south of Madrid. Manises AB is placed east of Spain so they were flying approximately towards us.

In our first communication with our interception controller, he told us two traces were flying at 45 angels! (45,000 feet, so they were not hiding at all), and flying extremely slowly at about 200 kts IAS. 

We were surprised because we had never engaged such a conspicuous target, and never one so high and slow, but up we went, climbing in afterburner, and  reached 45 angels in about 10 minutes.

The second surprise (a nasty one) was that we had to maintain military power to stay at that altitude and speed (250 kts IAS). Flight controls and throttle had to be handled very carefully, or we could lose altitude or speed or both…and any sudden movement of throttles could lead to a compressor stall.

The third surprise was that we had radar contact with the targets when they were 25 miles away, very unusual for the old Cyrano II.

But the biggest surprise was having a tally-ho with two ponderous big B-52Es, (with radar-guided twin 20-mm cannon in the back), flying wide abreast. They were about 10 miles leaving a trail of black smoke behind them.

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We had them in our 1 o’clock, so I decided to get closer and turn right towards their 6. When I was about 1 mile, the closest B-52 made a high bank turn towards me — which I was unable to follow because of my slow speed so I had to go down and accelerate again. My wingman did the same while approaching the second B-52.

It was easy for them turn like that at such an altitude, with those tremendous wings, but not for us.

So down we went, accelerated and set afterburner to climb again. This time we approached from behind them but then our radar warning lit up showing we had been locked on by their rear cannons. So we immediately broke, and headed down again. More afterburner, another climbing and this time we closed on them from their 3 o’clock. Of course they made their defensive 60º bank turns towards us, but this time we made some nice gun camera snapshoots with the pipper right between their wings.

After flying over them, we joined in close formation with their leader and flew with them for a short while to pay them our respects (a very short time indeed because we were a bit beyond our Bingo fuel). I’ll never forget that enormous aircraft turning hard towards me, it was terrific.”

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Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes.Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Mirage pilot interview, Part 3: Stalling, Tomcats and duelling F1s

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the third of our five part Mirage special he rates the Mirage’s weapons, shares the hairy tale of stalling in a mock dogfight and describes flying against the US Navy’s 6th Fleet.

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Were the weapon systems effective? 

“Well, in those years nobody had weapon systems, maybe the Phantom was the exception. We had weapons and ways of using them. Our only ‘modern’ weapon was the radar guided missile Matra 530. We could carry just one in the aircraft belly hard point. It was big and heavy, and we didn’t like to fly with its added drag.

But the Cyrano II radar average effective range of detection was no more than 15 nautical miles, and if flying below 10,000 ft the ground clutter made it almost impossible to see any radar returns – so it was not a really effective weapon. We trusted our eyes much more than the old Cyrano II; we had two Sidewinders AIM-9B, two powerful cannon and we mastered their use.”

What was the most frightening mission you flew? 

“I had a very frightening mission — but was it my fault. The Mirage III was a noble steed, though you had to be careful when flying at the envelope limit. It was a one-on-one dogfight training flight in my Initial Training Course. I had about 25 flying hours on the type. Remember what I said before? The Mirage offered really no mercy to rookies.

I was flying on a two-seater Mirage IIID, with my instructor in the back and my sparring partner was our Squadron Chief, Lieutenant Colonel Quintana who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. I, of course, wanted show to off my flying skills, but my aircraft had other ideas.

The first engagement began with me 2,000 ft higher, and on his 5 o’clock. Both of us were at about 450 kts. I called “engaged” and he broke hard towards me. I had the advantage in speed and altitude so I let him pass left to right in front of me, and pulled up to exchange speed for altitude while turning right towards him. I still had a good position – and the advantage, so next our cross was almost equal, with both trajectories crossing with an angle of around 60 degrees. In this cross he already had his nose down.

I still was turning hard right with not too much energy but when he passed again in front of me, I decided to change my turn to the left to get behind him. It was a good manoeuvre with enough energy for softening the turn but that young lieutenant maintained the G’s. It looked like my aircraft agreed with me for a couple of seconds, and then suddenly changed its mind and gave me the most vicious self righting turn while stalling, and then going into a steep spin.

I controlled the spin while the instructor yelled at me in the interphone, and recovered after two rounds in which I lost 14,000 feet of altitude! The aircraft wanted to give me final lesson for the day, and promptly gave me a compressor stall to fight after the spin recovery. This at least, was easy: throttle back to idle and very gently, again forward. To understand how fast you could lose altitude in the Mirage III, we began at 35 angels (35,000ft), and recovered the compressor stall at 8,000 feet.

Then back to the base, to report the compressor stall to maintenance, and enjoy a particularly ‘nice’ post briefing.”

Which aircraft did you fly against in dissimilar type combat training? 

As Spain was not yet in NATO, we were limited to dissimilar with Phantoms from the 12th Wing, based in Torrejón Air Base, and Mirage F1 from the 14th Wing in Albacete Air Base. Once a year we took part in exercises with the US Navy 6th Fleet.This gave us the opportunity of having some very boring dogfights with the Tomcats.”

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Mirage versus F-14 Tomcat

“Regarding our exercises with the US Navy’s 6th Fleet, we always played the bad guys trying to attack and sink the carrier, but it was almost impossible. Think of 20 destroyers and cruisers around, all of them full of long and short range guided missiles -and leaving no hole to go through. So at the end of our attacking run, we used to meet a couple of Tomcats, but maybe they knew we had been killed three or four times before arriving there, so they didn’t seem eager for a bit of rock ’n’ roll. A couple of turns with their wings fully extended, and that’s all folks. Anyway, we were at low altitude.I don’t know why they never planned for real dissimilar dogfights with us as part of the exercises. They were not interested. Pity. You know what navies are like though…” 

Mirage III versus Mirage F1

“The Mirage F1 was a completely different thing. They had a lot of advantages over the Mirage III: Better engine, 7200 kgs against our 6700; the aircraft was a ton lighter; it had no need for external tanks so always flew in a full clean configuration; automatic slats and flaps; and better radar and a HUD. Only the weapons were equal: Sidewinders and guns. To dogfight them was real hard work for us. We had to emphasise mutual support to stop them entering firing range. If we reached an advantageous position on one of them, they only had to zoom up and comfortably wait up there for us to nose down and generate sufficient speed to follow. Our only resource was the diving acceleration, so the usual tactic was fly towards them at full throttle, kill the speed to get a position to fire the Sidewinder and escape diving like hell. I remember the F1 pilots complaining because we always tried to avoid close dogfight. Our answer always was: give us your engine and your automatic slats/flaps and we’ll stay for close dogfight.” 

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Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Mirage pilot interview, Part 2: Flying & fighting

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the second of our five part Mirage special he explains the basics of this classic French fighter. 

What were you first impressions of the Mirage III? 

“I was a young lieutenant, 24 years old, fresh from the Spanish Air Force Fighter School, and with about 450 flight hours in my log when I first encountered a Mirage. It was an impressive and beautiful aircraft, and the 11th Wing (based in Manises Air Base, near Valencia) was an elite unit, heir to the Garcia Morato, (40 victories ace), standard and badge. I was assigned to 111th Squadron, (triple one, the best one), and so began the four best years in my life (nowadays the 11th Wing is based in Morón Air Base flying Typhoons).

The Mirage III entered Spanish Air Force inventory in 1970, surrounded by a great aura won in the brutal skies of the Six Days War. By the time I arrived, this formidable reputation was further cemented by its performance in the Yom Kippur War.

Our’s was the Mirage IIIE version with a better radar than the C one, a Doppler navigation system and a different vertical stabilizer.”

What was the cockpit like? 

“It was narrow, as was usual in French aircraft of its time (the F1 cockpit was the same). I was always very surprised whenever I saw those Phantom pilots walking towards their aircraft with a big bag in their hands; there was not room enough for a sandwich bag in the Mirage III cockpit.

It’s almost as if ergonomics was invented after the Mirage III cockpit layout was designed.We had to push or pull at least two or three switches placed in different control panels to arm the weapons. Being good at twisting your torso was compulsory. I especially remember the starting button which was placed well behind the thrust lever and you had to push it by putting your left hand about 20 cm behind your back. The radar screen had insufficient brightness so they placed a plastic cowl about 30 cm long, which protruded towards your face (the display was in the centre of the frontal panel). As a result, ‘the ball’ (the attitude indicator) was displaced to the left. It was the first and only time I’ve flown an aircraft without the ball in directly front of my eyes. Added to this is the peculiarly French custom, of having the ball’s vertical reference at the bottom. Anyway, after a dozen of or so flights you were happy with the complicated dance your fingers had to perform around the cockpit. Instead of HOTAS we had ‘HATC’, (Hands Around The Cockpit)!”

What were the best things about the Mirage III?

“First it was beautiful, complying with the first Law of Aerodynamics: ‘beautiful aircraft fly well’ (the opposite is also true, ‘ugly aircraft fly badly’).The Snecma Atar 9C was a very reliable engine, very resistant to compressor stalls and almost immune to flame out in flight. It was very easy to fly if you had enough speed, and stable around its envelope. We always flew with two supersonic fuel tanks but the aircraft behaviour was very docile. It was also very strong. It had a landing gear that would have been strong enough for carrier landings and it wasn’t unusual to see 30 people over the wings and fuselage posing for a photo. We didn’t need any ground support to start the engine. Which was very good for detachments. It was very good at accelerating in a dive, no aircraft of that time could follow us. The aerodynamics were excellent but designed for high speed.

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It had double speedbrakes coming up and down the wings adding stability if you had to deploy them, and of course an Stability Augmentation System for pitch and yaw (or in french ‘tangage’ and ‘lacet’.”

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What were the worse things about the Mirage III?

“It was underpowered, very underpowered, so no close or turning dogfight was possible. Common word at the time said that the Snecma Atar was a development of BMW engines of Me 262, and sometimes it appeared that this was true! Power supplied was 6700 kgs with afterburner, while normal take off weight was around 11000 kgs. There were no flaps or slats which would have aided its dogfight performance. There was also nothing to compensate for the huge induced drag caused by the big delta wing, and the very long take off and landing runs. The approach speed was 185 knots (which would need to be adjusted to accommodate any extra weight). We always used the brake chute on landings. The engine was a plain turbojet and was as thirsty as hell with or without afterburner. When we pushed it into afterburner, as we would for a whole dogfight, the fuel burning rate jumped to infinity. To worsen this problem, the internal fuel tanks had a capacity of only 2980 litres which made for two dogfights near the airfield and 45 flight minutes. That’s why we always had those two external tanks 500 litres each.”

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What was the role of your squadron? 

“In my time it was 80% air defence and 20% ground attack, which was changed to 60/40 a few years later.”

Was the Mirage effective at this role? 

“First we have to understand that the Mirage III was designed in the late fifties — and as a fighter interceptor, which meant climbing and flying as fast as fast as possible towards the target to intercept it as far as possible from home. It was similar to the F-104: no multipurpose intentions, no manoeuvring dogfight expected..

After the late fifties designers stopped creating fighters optimised for Mach 2, as it’s not very useful.

But the Mirage III was good in a dogfight in the hands of an experienced pilot. But no mercy for rookies. By the end of its life, we were quite proud of what it achieved in dogfights against far more modern aircraft.In war, the Mirage proved to be extremely effective in air-to-air fighting, as demonstrated by the Israeli air force.

While it wasn’t supposed to be its business, the Mirage III behaved quite well in the ground attack role, but again, good training was essential.

We had no frills to aid our aiming, just a fixed pipper which had to be calibrated by the pilot according to the weapon type. We had no guided bombs, just 2.75 rockets or the two 30-mm guns. We had a firing range 20 minutes flight time from the base, which was built to train our Wing, but was also frequented by other squadrons, and we flew a lot of missions out there. The Mirage III’s horizontal stability was a boon in the ground attack role, making it quite easy putting the pipper on target and keeping it there — but you had to fly at the right speed and with the correct diving angle or your bomb could fly out of the range. It was easier with the rockets of course, but 100 feet short or beyond the target was still a normal score for unexperienced pilots.

With the guns (or cannons as we called them), coming very close to the target made it easy to hit it, and the bullets dispersion was straight enough to make really big holes, one 30-mm bullet, one foot long, was something. The problem was we only had 230 bullets, and a firing rate of 1,300 bullets per minute. The Mirage III payload was small and we always needed external tanks for ground attack, so never had more than three hard points available. In the inner wings hard points we could take two special fuel/bomb carrier tanks with four 250 kgs bombs attached and a capacity of 500 litres. It was called the RPK-10. Our Phantom colleagues made a lot of jokes about the fact they could carry more rockets than we bullets…and it was true! We answered by saying that we flew fighters, not bombers.”

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M-III.29 (1)

Mirage pilot, Part 1: Mirage versus Phantom

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Now a crack aerobatic pilot, Gonzalo O’Kelly was once one of the best fighter pilots in the Spanish air force. During his time in the Ejército del Aire he flew the Mirage III, a formidable and beautiful fighter of French origin. In the first of our five part Mirage special he recounts dogfights training against the massive F-4 Phantom II. 

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“Let’s start with the big and comfortable Phantom F-4C. I did a lot of dissimilar training with them, usually two-on-two. It had a couple of characteristics in common with the Mirage III: if you meet one with an experienced pilot driving, it was a very hard adversary- and it needed a lot of finesse with the controls at low speed. They had to turn by using their feet whenever they had their nose very high! We preferred high altitude to have room enough to manoeuvre while they always wanted to take us down below 20,000 feet.

Their main advantage lay in the systems. The Phantom had a powerful radar, four eyes looking around, long range missiles two fantastic engines, but no guns, so they always tried not to get closer than 1.5 or 2 miles from us. We denied them that possibility because is easier to close than to fly apart if you have an aircraft which accelerates like hell as soon as you put down your nose. Avoiding a Sidewinder is not so difficult if you are near the firing aircraft, and with speed to brake.

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It was very easy to spot Phantoms from  6 or 7 miles because that huge black smoke trail that their engines left behind (except in afterburner) and because it was a big bird. We always had a lot of fun in dissimilars with the Spanish Phantoms,  the post briefings were real hard battles, and everyone learned a lot about dogfighting, mutual support and extracting the best from our Mirages.

Scissoring with a Phantom was something you remember forever. Only two crosses were allowed.. but what exciting crosses! Sometimes the first engagement ended before beginning — if both pairs crossed, we pulled hard up and they dived down so both lost visual contact of each other.

It was so much fun with the USAF Phantoms. The last mission I flew before leaving 11th Wing was a week long detachment in Torrejón AB to train our American fellows in tactics against the Mirage III.

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They flew the F-4D, a bit better than C, but still no guns. To begin with, their briefings were 2 hours long! Rules of Engagement took 45 minutes.

I remember after finishing the first one, the Major leading the flight asked me, “How long you need from you arrive in the aircraft and be ready to start engines?” I said five minutes. He raised his eyebrows and said “Five minutes? We need 30 minutes at least”. My God! 

As we were there to do what they needed from us, we flew as required two manoeuvres and then knocked it off, and repeat and repeat. After two days we were able to have some fun and they got a couple of surprises, and hopefully some lessons.” 

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Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. 

Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians.