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Flying & fighting in the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’: A pilot interview

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Photos: Gp Capt Sharma

Described as a ‘royal merciless game-changer’, the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’ is a monster: a long-ranged, well armed, unbeatably manoeuvrable fighter uniquely equipped with 3D thrust-vectoring control (TVC) enabling it to perform seemingly impossible aerobatics in the sky. We spoke to  IAF Gp Capt Anurag Sharma to learn more about flying and fighting in the Russian superfighter. 

What were your first impressions of the Su-30?
“I was awestruck at the size of this monster! I caught a glimpse of it at Bangalore Airshow in 1997 (I was part of the inaugural day fly past in a Jaguar formation). There it stood in the lineup….. majestic, mighty and muscular! Head and shoulders above the crowd! Even the Air Display by the Russian Test Pilot was a show stopper. The M2000, F-16 etc were just no match for this beauty.”

“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30…against three F-16… End score one F-16 claimed without loss.”

What’s the difference between a K and MKI and which is better?
“Su-30K was basically the Su-27 UB (trainer version) modified to be a two-seater fighter and the Su-30 MKI is a two seater upgraded version of Su-30K. While the two maybe classified into the same family and have few physical differences (canards, nosewheel, thrust vectoring and glass cockpit); the operational philosophy of the two aircraft is vastly different because of the much-upgraded operational capability of the MKI.

The Su-30 K was basically an air defence fighter of the 3.5 Gen that could drop dumb bombs (albeit in large quantities). But the MKI is a multirole fighter in the real sense of the word. The enhanced avionics package, weapons, near AESA airborne interception radar that permits simultaneous Air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting puts the MKI in a league of its own. The fly-by-wire system of the MKI allows carefree handling viz-a-viz Su-30K. The Su-30 K was handling with care especially in the low speed regime whereas the MKI is carefree handling all the way!

Personally, my heart is with the Su-30K! perhaps because I grew up on it. Attempting to master the Su-30K was a challenge in itself because you had to develop “seat of the pants feeling” in an aircraft that was not carefree handling (as you would expect a FBW aircraft to be). The avionics package, information presentation was rudimentary and presented great challenges as an operator. I think that is what made it special. The skill of the pilot counted more on that type.

But given a choice, I would pick the MKI for a combat fight. The total package of the MKI is a force multiplier in combat!!! Hands down!!

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Which three words best describe it?
“Royal, merciless, game-changer.”

5. What is the best thing about it?
Ans. As a fighter pilot, you look to emerge victorious in every battle; the Su-30 gives you that confidence. Rest is up to you!

And the worst thing?
“Haven’t found one yet!”

How you rate the Su-30 in the following categories?

“A. Instantaneous turn– at high speeds, a shade slow, but once you get her to 650-709 Kmph- as goos as any. With thrust vectoring- unparalleled!

B. Sustained turn– depends upon the load and altitude. At medium altitudes with AA loads only very good and matches any other 4/5 gen fighter ac.

C. High alpha- Exceptional! Requires skill but once you know what to do- she’s a beauty!

D. Acceleration. The Su-30K was faster because it was lighter but the MKI is good when it comes to low speed combat against F-16/F-18/ Mirage 2000 class of aircraft. Acceleration also depends upon the load carried.”

Interview with IAF MiG-25 pilot here

Climb rate

The Su-30K had a greater reserve of power; even in the MKI, ROC is very good for its huge size. You can feel the acceleration when she climbs!

What was your most memorable mission? 

“Well there have been many over the years but a few that stand out are as follows: –

(a) DACT with F-16 Block 60*of  Republic of Singapore Air Force.

(*Ed: think these are actually Block 52)

The strongest adversary that we could possibly face in our life as a fighter pilot was the F-16 of PAF (for obvious reasons). So the excitement of facing an F-16, even in a mock combat was unbelievable. The weight of the mission was overbearing! Perhaps that’s what makes it special. As the combat commenced, we manoeuvred for our lives and in very little time the situation was in our favour! The desperate calls from the F-16, “Flare, Flare, Flare!” are very distinctly audible in my ears even today! From that day, the anxiety that prevailed over facing an F-16 in combat was gone forever…. Vanished! It was clear what the outcome would be!”

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“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30 & one MiG-21 BISON against three F-16 . As luck would have it, the BISON did not get airborne and now the game was one Su-30 vs three F-16 in a BVR scenario. Again, we pushed the envelope, manoeuvred between 3000 ft to 32000 ft, pulling up to 8 g, turning, tumbling, firing and escaping missiles in a simulated engagement. The crew co-ord between us in the cockpit and the fighter controller on the ground was the best that I have ever seen! The results in a mock combat are always contentious but with ACMI, they are more reliable. End score one F-16 claimed without loss. When we got out of the cockpit we were thoroughly drenched in sweat and tired from the continuous high G manoeuvring but all smiles for the ecstasy that we had just experienced.”

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Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“In the Su-30 I have flown DACT with RSAF (Royal Singapore Air Force) F-16, M-2000 H /5[ FAF], MiG -29 amongst the ASFs. I think the most challenging was the M2000 in France. The carefree manoeuvrability of the Mirage its nose profile and avionics package perhaps gave it an edge over the others. The F-16 beyond the initial turn loses steam, the MiG -29 is very powerful but conventional controls maybe …. . A good Mirage guy can manoeuvre more carefree.”

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Typhoon pilots say they ‘trounced’ the Su-30 in DACT exercises, yet Su-30 say the reverse? What is the truth?
“Well I wasn’t part of that exercise but some close friends were. The story goes both ways especially when you are engaged in friendly exercises with fixed rules of engagements! I think it’s an even fight and the man behind the machine would make the difference! Such a contest gets any fighter jock drooling!”

How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?  
“Basic flying is not very difficult including exercises such as AA refueling. But it’s a Herculean task to reach a level where you can exploit it to its fullest especially in large Force Engagements (LFE) The capability of the aircraft outruns you by miles. In fact, at times even 7 Multi-Function Displays (MFD) and two aircrew are insufficient to achieve what she can do for you!”

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Is TVC useful in air combat? If so, how should it be used?
“Most people think that it’s not! My suspicion is that’s because it requires skill to put it to good use. Once two beasts of this kind engage in combat, it goes down to the wire and in the low speed regime the TVC allows you just the edge you’ve been looking for. Just 300m is enough to get to the right angle and Boom!”

How would you rate the cockpit?
The cockpit is Russian! hey don’t build the aircraft around the pilot like the western manufacturers do! So the ergonomics leave a lot to be desired. The HOTAS could be designed much better. But ask anyone who hasn’t flown other types and he’s okay with this!
Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like? 
Yes,! AA missiles, LGB,  and Runway denial weapons. Weapon delivery is really exciting! The adrenaline rush, the cold sweat that trickles down your temples when you press the trigger are a different feeling altogether. They are really expensive and hence the opportunity comes rarely. The thing that worries you most is that you don’t want to be the dumbass when it comes to firing Smart Weapons

I think the AA missile is the best! When the weapon leaves your wing, the plume, noise and shear power of the accelerating missile is breathtaking.

How confident would a Su-30 pilot feel going against a modern USAF F-15C
“As far as the platform is concerned, he’s got a better baby in his hands. No doubt!”
What is the greatest myth about the Su-30?
“That it’s too big to manoeuvre!”

How combat effective is the Su-30?
“A game changer!”
 How reliable and easy to maintain is it?
“Reliable – yes!  Maintenance- extensive!

What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the Su-30?
“It’s like a Tapasya (Sanskrit word meaning total selfless commitment. Dedication, commitment and patient hard work will reveal the true pleasures of flying to you! Early days are tough, just hang in there, get over the hump and you will experience heavenly pleasure that only fighter pilots have been blessed with.

How much post-stall manoeuvring can the average squadron pilot do? Is this a rare skill?
“Independent manoeuvres – they do it from day one (it’s that easy!). Relative manoeuvring in relation to an adversary in the sky requires extensive training and skill development! The manoeuvres can be counter productive in not done correctly.”

What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a Su-30? 
“A downward combat manoeuvre with TVC at low levels against a manoeuvring target.”

As a personal opinion: What should the Indian Air Force procure and what should it get rid of? 

“Well, the Old Gen’ aircraft are already being phased out and The IAF is in the process of procuring the Rafale (a great choice!) The LCA development and large-scale induction into the IAF is no-brainer! It must be done but the platform should be a qualitative addition as well! Just adding numbers is not the right answer. Self-dependency is critical for India’s growth and rise as a major power on the World stage. There is a huge prospect of joint development with other major manufactures around the world such as BAE that have been traditional defence suppliers for IAF.”

Interview with an IAF MiG-27 pilot here

Tell me something I don’t know about the Su-30?

“The Su-30 MKI  has perhaps as many players as the Typhoon! The Russians provide most of the hardware; Indian , French, Israeli industries provide software, avionics and weapons! The Russians won’t give their knowhow to Israelis and the French won’t give it to Russians. So it’s is a great achievement to get these components talking to each other! The Heart of the avionics system that communicates with all these various systems is Indian.

What should I have asked you about the Su-30?

“A fighter pilot has a unique relation with his aircraft. A unique bonding; much like the Avatar with his Ikran*!  . Sharing that feeling with another occupant in the cockpit is not easy! Especially when your WSO is not fixed.

Loosing that privacy or rather intimacy is not easy! While you learnt to live with it, I personally consider a huge loss as a fighter pilot. But alas there is no way out! With such competent platforms; perhaps two crew are indispensable!”

*the dragon in the Avatar film

The R-73 is an old missile- What do you think about the idea of adding ASRAAM to the Su-30?

“The Su-30 is getting upgrades continuously and plans are in place to enhance the weapon inventory. So it’s a cat and mouse game with the adversary being payed all the time.”

How good is the helmet mounted sight – is it used much in air-to-air training?

“Very good! It allows off bore targeting and that coupled with TVC gives a good angular advantage to the Su-30 in combat!”

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_E1R5400 (1).JPGThis interview would not have been possible without the kind help of Angad Singh 

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F-15 versus Flanker: An Eagle pilot’s view

Su27.png Undoubtedly the two most formidable fighter aircraft of the Cold War were the US’ F-15C Eagle and the Soviet Su-27, code-named ‘Flanker’. Which would have had the upper hand in air combat? We ask former USAF F-15 pilot Paul Woodford “The Su-27 Flanker, as a threat the USAF F-15 community needed to take seriously, emerged in the late 1980s as significant numbers of the aircraft began to be fielded. During my first two F-15 tours (Soesterberg AB NL from 1978-1982, Elmendorf AFB AK from 1982-1985), the air-to-air threats we trained against were the MiG-21 and -23. By the time I finished a joint staff tour and returned to flying Eagles in 1989, MiG-29s and Su-27s were the primary threats, and we trained seriously against them. DHJT61JUAAAtbzE.jpg If you look at publicly released figures on the F-15, the Su-27, and their weapons, you see right away the Flanker and the Eagle were evenly matched in terms of aircraft performance and weapons capability. Nevertheless, we—Eagle drivers—felt confident we would prevail in combat. This was based on our knowledge of the training hours Flanker pilots got in comparison with ours. When I started flying F-15s again, at Kadena AB on Okinawa, Japan, we trained almost exclusively against forward-firing beyond visual range threats; i.e., Su-27 Flankers and MiG-29 Fulcrums, even though their numbers, at least in our area of operations, were small. If we could defeat aircraft similar in capability to our own, we figured, we could beat anybody. We didn’t know how good the Su-27’s radar was. Ours was damn good, and we had to assume theirs was too. Our air-to-air weapons, the AIM-7M Sparrow and AIM-9M Sidewinder, were on paper evenly matched against the Su-27’s AA-10 Alamo and AA-11 Archer. An advantage the Su-27 had over us was its long-range infrared search and track (IRST) system.
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Russian_SU-27_Flanker_MOD_45157731.jpg Now no one would have bet the bank on any of what I’m about to share with you. We had to assume the aircraft and its missiles were at least as good as ours, and that’s how we trained. But there were a few things most of us felt, though we rarely shared those thoughts. Russian_Federation_Air_Force_Su-27_aircraft_intercept_a_simulated_hijacked_aircraft_entering_Russian_airspace_Aug._27_2013_during_Exercise_Vigilant_Eagle_13_130827-F-XT249-354.jpg Published performance specs and numbers are always best-case, radar target acquisition and missile engagement ranges in particular. The probability of kill for our Sparrows was somewhere around 50%. Pk for the Alamo was probably similar. Short-range heat-seekers were different: the AIM-9M’s Pk was nearly 100%, and we had no reason to think the Archer was any worse. We knew the actual performance capabilities of our own aircraft and missiles were somewhat less than advertised and so, likely, were theirs. But whatever the numbers, we were probably still evenly matched. The big difference was training. We flew, on average, three times a week, training hard against a threat as good as we were. At the time, based on intel, we knew Russian pilots were flying and training far less. Tacticians at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB in Nevada were working hard on how to beat BVR threats as capable as our own, specifically ways the F-15 and its missiles could defeat the Su-27 and its missiles. They developed what at the time was a classified technique called the f-pole manoeuvre. Basically, we’d enter the fight high, fast, and as head-on to the threat as possible (giving our AIM-7s the longest possible ranges), launch at max optimum range, and immediately crank into hard turns away, right to radar gimbal limits. Our Sparrows were in the air, flying straight at their targets along the shortest possible distance. Their missiles, had they launched at the same range, had to fly farther to get to us. The f-pole manoeuvre, properly executed, might even give their IRST systems a harder problem finding and tracking us, but I can’t attest to that. We had a lot of confidence in this technique and practiced it religiously, and believed it would make the crucial difference in combat. sukhoisu30mkiindianairf.jpg In other words, we thought we were ready for them. We were better trained. We were just starting to field the AIM-120 AMRAAM when I left Kadena for another staff job, and I never flew with it. I’m guessing it gave us a tremendous advantage for a year or so, until the bad guys caught up. Ditto the AIM-9X and today’s enemy equivalent. And of course today everyone knows about the f-pole manoeuvre and we can assume foreign air forces train their fighter pilots in the technique. I don’t get to talk to current USAF fighter pilots much these days, but I bet their level of confidence in being able to defeat enemy threats is no different than ours was.” — Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford Read – Cold War Eagle Driver: F-15 pilot reveals all here Follow Paul’s aviation adventures on his blog here jajdja1911.jpg

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An Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers

 

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Dear Hush-Kit, 

I am generally a happy man, but there is one thing in life that leaves me confused and angry: I can’t get my head around all the different Chinese Flankers (I refuse to put that word in inverted commas). Please please could you explain the differences, without drowning me in details? 

Yours hopefully, 

Jeffrey Bainbridge, Luton 

OK Jeffrey, no problem. I will do my best. Where I fail, better informed readers will gently correct me in the comments section.

So, first of all we have the Shenyang J-11.

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The J-11 was just a Russian Su-27SK provided as a kit and assembled in China (China also got a batch of Russian-built Su-27SKs). The J-11B is a Chinese-made version with indigenous engines, avionics and a lighter composite airframe. Importantly, the J-11B can deliver smart bombs.

So pretty good then? 

Yes, probably is. It also added a glass cockpit. It has some good weapons too, the PL-12 is analogous to the AMRAAM- and the US Navy, for one, is terrified of it. The Chinese WS-10 engines were initially shit though- and the aircraft had to be refitted with Russian AL-31Fs, but they’ve since sorted the ’10 and they’ve gone back to it.

Think crap Su-35.

Wait, so early Flankers didn’t have glass cockpits?

I know, pretty lame right? The Russians lagged behind the West with glass cockpits. The original Su-27 cockpit was jokes.

Is the J-11 a ‘pirate’ copy?

It’s complicated. The Russian did give them a licence to build some on the condition that they had Russian-built engines and avionics, but the J-11B broke that agreement and is a pirate (it’s 90% Chinese so doesn’t benefit Russia much). Initially Russian aircraft manufacturers were vocally pissed off, but now (realising they can’t do anything about it) they say it’s all fine, though they do have a vested interest in selling them more stuff. Intellectual property rights have only been around in China since 1979, and the attitude of both Communism and China to the protection of ideas/things is a different one to the West (to be fair Russia is also pretty laissez-faire on this matter). The Chinese aren’t allowed to export J-11s, an agreement they have honoured.

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Good radar? 

The Chinese thought the early Su-27SK and J-11 radar (the N001) was pretty rubbish. There was a big argument about upgrading (the Russians dragged there heels) and eventually it was upgraded to N001VE (for the J-11A) standard (kinda like an early F-15 radar). The J-11B got the Chinese Type 1474 set which is far better, and is now being tested with an AESA.

J-11B prototype 524 - 06 Chinese J-11B Flanker Fighter Jet Spotted With Grey Radome modifed radardome active radar scanned, AESA In Play (5)

My head is starting to hurt. What else is in the J-11B family? 

Before we get to that you must know that they also bought a combat capable two-seater called the Su-27UBK.

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Two-seats and square-tipped fins identify this as a Su-30MK. Inserted in the wrong part of this article to confuse you.

OK, that I can deal with. So now can we go back to the other J-11 variants?

No, because we need to know about the Russian-built, Russian-equipped Su-35.

So what’s that? 

A Russian-made top of the range ‘Super Flanker’. Chinese has bought 24, probably just so they can filch the technology.

Super eh? So that’s the best Flanker of all?

In some ways. But it has a PESA radar. AESA is what everyone wants, and the Chinese already have it on their J-11Ds (more on this later). So in terms of radar technology it’s not the best. In most other respects – notably its fly-by-wire system, integrated avionics and use of composite materials- it probably is.

Can you stop teasing me about the J-11 family now? 

OK. We have:

  • J-11BS – A twin-seat version of the J-11B.
  • J-11BH – Naval (but not carrier compatible) version of the J-11B.
  • J-11BSH – Naval version of the J-11BS.

Hey, are you just stealing this bit from Wikipedia? 

I’ve got a friend coming ’round soon and I’m getting bored of your questions.

Alright, tell me quickly what the other ones are…

J-15

China’s first carrier-borne J15 fighter jets were displayed for public to see Wednesday in Xi’an of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province (2).jpg

The J-15 has canard foreplanes and naval markings.

Carrier-based version based on the J-11B, that also has some bits nicked from the Su-33 design. Mercifully easy to identify as it has canard foreplanes and lives on carriers. 

Wait, why haven’t you mentioned the Su-30s yet? 

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The most formidable fighter-bombers in PLA service are the Su-30MKKs.

Jeez, be patient, I was going to explain. The Su-30 is a two-seat fighter-bomber. It’s heavier than an old Flanker and more versatile. It can carry a whole bunch of horribly effective air-to-ground weapons. China has the Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2. They have the longest range radar of any Chinese Flankers- the Zhuk-MS. As you can expect the Chinese ripped off this design to produce a variant they called the J-16 (though some claim it is based on the J-11BS)

Did you mention a J-11D? Yes I did. This is the probably the most badass of all. It has AESA, reduced conspicuity to radar, and new electronic warfare systems, but it isn’t yet in frontline service.

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The J-11D has a funny looking nose.

You failed, my head still hurts. 

OK, try this:

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A handy chart, though it does lack the Su-35K and J-15D.

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Was the Spitfire overrated? 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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We asked a private-jet interior designer to judge 8 fighter cockpits

First we asked a Topgun instructor to rate 8 cockpits, then we asked an art historian – and now we turn to a designer of private jet interiors. Alexander McDiarmid rates the interior design style of 8 fighter cockpits.

Convair F-106A Delta Dart

Information overload in a very small space. All text is small, difficult to read and so many dials and switches! You can introduce mirrors to make smaller spaces appear bigger but in this case that would only add to the problem. Is this where Bell & Ross get their watch inspiration from?

Grumman F-14A Tomcat

As above but slightly less cluttered due to one joy stick however the seat material both in colour and fabric adds a little warmth. While the dominant, black half moon window frame is a serious ‘statement piece’ (Kelly Hoppen speak) it’s no Gulfstream G550.

General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon

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Modernity is starting to appear along with greater user functionality and the side stick gives an impression of more central space. Thought should be given in how best to use the extra space with the integration of perhaps a foldout tray table and wireless device charging. The seat design is very Bauhaus, simple yet effective and very much form following function. The battle ship grey interior paint against the black wool (cashmere, angora?) seat is a challenging cmf (colour material finish) palette and desperately in need of some warmth perhaps inspired by a falcon’s plumage and colouring.

Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker B’

The Trabant blue colour for such a small space is commanding on the eye, one wall/surface only in blue, to set the interior design tone would be on trend. The interior does not look very solid, flimsy almost but not cluttered and overfilled unlike the others.

Why use MDF when oak is available? The layout has a simplistic yet functional Soviet era charm and design pieces from this period are very both praised and collectible. This is certainly a stand out piece of interior design.

Panavia Tornado F3

Finally, elements of symmetry in the cockpit. Period industrial design aesthetic with a less is more philosophy, the dominating angular design really dominates the space with 1980’s electronic Tomy games and Casio watches for inspiration. The heads up display makes for a great statement piece.

Somewhat of an arcade game aesthetic for a young bachelor pad perhaps or games room.

Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet

Great, modern and ordered industrial design aesthetic with glorious mood night lighting offering a calm environment and cozy feel. Definitely somewhere one might want to relax in after a long day and especially on a cold night. The heads up display makes for a great statement piece and really grounds yet balances the space much like a central, crystal chandelier. In terms of a pleasing piece of aesthetic interior design this is the best in the article.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Very modern aesthetic with the Tesla inspired screen but somewhat of a brutal and cold aesthetic. Not a very elegant interior design like the F/A-18E Super Hornet, and getting Blaupunkt in car radio vibe coming too… There is no sense of harmony or flow from the brutal interior to sublime exterior. While the two-tone exterior matte grey painting creates visual interest, it could have been used in the interior sensitively. Budget problems? Plus side is the large fan intake for cockpit air conditioning I assume. Any A/C interior grilles should be painted in the same exterior grey matte paint.

We asked an art historian to review 8 fighter cockpits

Freed from function how would fighter cockpits appear to the artistic eye? We asked art historian Minerva Miller to gauge how 8 fighter cockpits fit into the history of art.

Convair F-106 Delta Dart

There is something dystopian about this cockpit. It appears to be the work of the advanced hobbyist, a Basquiat-like (see below) puzzle that screams of ability and technical nous. Dials, buttons and sticks converge in a chaotic melange that announces a lack of care in orderliness and ergonomics because this engineer, this pilot, know what everything is. But whilst this appears to be a homage to Post War ‘make do and mend’, do not be fooled. The central gauge and dial are symmetrical and focussed, towards what who knows? – but this cockpit is more Blade Runner than Mad Max.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

A monumental classicism imbues this cockpit, its Palladian portico is supported by dials in columns. It is severe with its grey imbued De Chirico (see below) palette and lack of colour. Whilst elegant its round features also hint of authoritarianism, the flash of a searchlight, it’s secretive brutal glamour smacks of the pre-war years. This is a cockpit that shows you the passage of time, that tells the pilot what he should do.

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Grumman F-14 Tomcat

This space is redolent  of Pop Art, it riffs on the imagery of the past but there is an unmistakable element of Studio 54 about it. The joystick and serried ranks of switches remind one of a Lichtenstein image (see below). The pilot here is part of the narrative, two screens reflect back at them. The optimism of the sixties has gone, this is about brittle individualist control, it could be a DJ’s lair or the pilot might be Bowie – in any case this is the cockpit as Warhol print.

Airplane, c.1959
by Andy Warhol

General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon

SONY DSC

There is something quixotic about this cockpit. At first glance it looks more organic and textural than its predecessors with its deep womblike chair cover. It has an edge of machismo; the screen nestles between the pilot’s legs and ‘pull to eject’ is the legend on the handle closest to the pilot’s groin. Yet the joystick is not large and there is almost a rococo playful element to the design of the dashboard, see for example the diagram of the aeroplane to the left.  This cockpit plays effectively with the ideas of conflicting mutable gender identity that were popular amongst the Avant-garde New York scene of the time.

Aviation paraphernalia for deep enthusiasts here

Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’

A post-modern cockpit, its colour scheme a martial blue with pops of constructivist red. But whilst the Cold War may still rage, this design is more a homage to the post-modernist irony of the architecture of Venturi and the playful colour dichotomies of Milan design. It presages the obsessions of the coming decade with its playful anthropomorphism – see the joystick  that resembles, a hand, a face.  There is an edge of robotic playfulness, like Alessi’s products which resemble people, this cockpit is awaiting it’s human to climb in and play with it.

Dassault Rafale

The soaring geometic plans of this cockpit have a cubist purity, an abstract minimalist aesthetic applied here with wide open spaces left between controls and two dark enveloping voids. This is not an inward-looking Spartacism however but owes more to elements of Béton Brut and the art of Brutalism.  Whilst there is a restful monumental  element– it is counterpointed by a quietly aggressive quality. It resembles a Samurai Warlord resting having conquered all the blue infinite sky behind him and waiting for the next battle.

Boston City Hall, an example of brutalism using béton brut, that will not give you much useful situational awareness when dogfighting a F-16.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The use of circular planes initially provides a feeling of movement which recalls the diminishing spheres and curves of Futurism and Vorticism.  This sense of elegance is fractured by the dissonance of the angled monitors which, whilst breaking up the curvature, in turn give way to ziggurat-like sweeps of controls. This coupled with the small armies of twinkling seeks to wrap the pilot up in the experience of flying within flying – a meta experience comparable to early virtual reality and digital art forms. A cockpit for the synth age.

Dazzle-Ships in Drydock at Liverpool by Edward Wadsworth, 1919, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Started in 1914 by Wyndham Lewis, Vorticism aimed to reflect the industrial age through hard-edged forms.

 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

This cockpit, like a site-specific art installation, gives less of itself to the viewer. The stability offered by the traditional props of hardware are reigned back in favour of the large screen, a changeable canvas altered by the interplay of the observer and the unavoidable influences of nature. It represents two and three dimensionally the artistic challenges of life.  Whilst offering colour and the stimulation of traditional imagery the physical interaction is limited leaving the pilot with the artistic and psychological challenges of modernity, the role of the individual, and art, within fast moving cultures and spaces, both physical and imagined.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 Cornelia Parker
Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991
Tate
© Cornelia Parker

Minerva Miller, M.A.hons (Cantab)  Msc (City)- University Librarian at the University of London

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Rhino charge! Flying & Fighting in the Super Hornet

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Eleanor D. Vara/Released)

‘Cruisebox*’ took the Super Hornet, workhorse of the US Navy, to war. We spoke to him to find out more about life with the ‘Rhino’.

(*name withheld on request)

Which types did you fly before the Super Hornet?

“The summer after I graduated high school I got my private licence flying Cessna 152s. After joining the Navy, because of my eyesight, I became a Naval Flight Officer or NFO, which is the back- or right-seater in most types. Flight school was T-34C, T-39G/N, and then I finished training in the TA-4J. After that, my first fleet squadron flew the Lockheed S-3B Viking and I flew mostly in the front right seat, with about a third of the time in the back right seat. After my first (and only) tour in S-3s, I transitioned to the Super Hornet – universally called the Rhino.”

“For a while, our squadron had a jet with no tanks on it that we were using for airshow practice. We’d take that thing out and BFM in it when we weren’t practicing. That thing would eat even the F-15s and F-16s for lunch.”

How did it differ from the type you were flying before?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“The difference between an analog submarine hunting aircraft and a digital strike fighter is the same as that between a 1976 Cutlass Supreme and a 2002 BMW. The only thing they had in common was that they both had a tailhook that made a nice solid thunk when you dropped them.”

“Another difference between the S-3 and F-18 was that in the S-3, I had a set of flight controls in the front right seat and would occasionally fly when the pilot was tired or bored. A question I’ve often been asked is, can you fly the Rhino from the backseat. The answer is usually no. A quick tour of my back seat office. Just like the front seat, I have the three video displays surrounded by buttons. Instead of a stick and throttles, I’ve got a set of hand controllers, one on each side of the cockpit. Each controller is shaped like a large joystick, and like the pilot’s stick and throttles, they are covered in knobs and switches that allow me to perform different functions with the jet or the sensors. You cannot, however, fly the aircraft with these controllers. Below and in front of my ejection seat on the floorboard is a small cutout with a nub that looks like a short piece of pipe sticking up. The Rhino is designed so that the back seat controllers can be removed and a stick and throttle installed to turn the jet into a conversion trainer for new pilots, giving both the student in the front seat and the instructor in the back seat a set of flight controls. I recall someone saying the conversion process takes about 8 hours, but I’m sure some Chief out there will call nonsense and let me know his or her crew out there did it in less time. At the F-18 schoolhouse in Lemoore, California numerous Rhinos are configured with stick and throttles in the back for initial training. Having flown the F-18 from the backseat as an instructor in this configuration, I can confirm that all that dazzling digital flight control technology in many ways makes the Rhino easier to fly than your doctor’s Beech Bonanza. In regular deploying fleet squadrons, we never put a stick and throttle in the backseat as both crewmembers are so busy doing their own job that we never fancied taking time to do the other person’s job.

First impressions?

“It no kidding smelt like a new car. The first Rhino I ever flew in had 25 hours on it. That included the flight from the factory.”

How would you rate the cockpit for the following:

Ergonomics

“Excellent. All the switches were within easy comfortable reach. Neat detail: There were like four different switches to put out expendables (chaff/flares) in the backseat. That way even if you were using a grab handle to twist yourself around to look behind you, an expendable switch was no more than a thumb movement away.”

Pilot’s view

“The pilot’s view was exceptional. Of course, my view straight ahead was blocked by the pilot’s headrest. My view to the sides and behind was excellent.”

Comfort

“For an ejection seat, the seat was comfortable, and the cockpit noise was easily shut out with just a normal helmet.”

Instrumentation

“When plopping down into the cockpit of a Lot 25 Rhino, the first thing one notices are the three video screens arranged left to right, with the middle screen being slightly bigger. These video screens are the same regardless of if you are sitting in the front or back cockpit. Around each screen are twenty buttons, five on each side. The label describing what each button does is displayed adjacent to it in a three or four letter shorthand on the video screen. Pressing any of these buttons will cause the screen to change and bring up another twenty functions for the edge buttons. Well, it doesn’t take too much multiplication to figure out that the Rhino has hundreds of buttons hidden in its sub-menus. New aircrew spend much of their initial training building the muscle memory of learning where and under which menu each button hides. Later models of the Rhino have an even bigger middle screen in the back, with even more buttons around the side.

One thing I liked was that all the systems talked to each other, including the ATFLIR. If I designated something on my radar, I would see that track in a top down god’s eye view on the SA or Situational Awareness page. AND, if I pulled up my FLIR, it would be looking at that radar contact allowing me to identify him before coming into eyeball range. Same thing if I designated an air-to-ground target, all the sensors would look there, you didn’t have to cue each one individually.”

Against F-16s

In WVR: Which aircraft would have the advantage and why?

“A fight I had in 2009 is a good example of WVR against an F-16. We were on detachment to Key West (The Real Fighter Pilot Heaven). We were fighting against Air Guard pilots in their F-16Cs. I was a senior WSO paired with a new pilot who had been with the squadron less than a year, but who had flown combat with us in Afghanistan, all air-to-ground. The F-16 we were fighting was flown by an Air Guard Lt Col and armed with AIM-9M. He was experienced, but we had the JHMCS helmet and AIM-9X. I briefed up New Guy on a simple game plan that I thought would be easy for him to execute and was predicated on some assumptions I made about Air Force tactics. Often our Navy tactics were based on observing what the bandit does and then executing a game plan based on that. But because he was a new pilot, I instead scripted our first two moves so that new guy would have a very clear mental picture of what to do and be able to execute.

Our game plan was at the first head-to-head pass we would immediately go down in a split-S, regardless of what the F-16 did. Air Force doctrine is to not highlight yourself against a cold blue sky against a guy with an advanced heat seeker. So I assumed that he would come down with us. Then when we met him again, we would go down again, regardless. We would essentially be in a one circle fight going downhill with gravity helping us stay fast. The idea was that we would meet at the hard deck on the third pass and both aircraft would have a ton of speed, and then we’d pull the surprise. If my assumptions were wrong, it could get ugly fast.

We met out over the water in the mid-20s and the fight’s on was at wingline passages in a head-to-head left-to-left pass. New Guy immediately went down, and sure enough, the F-16 came down with us. The one circle geometry kept us inside his 9M forward quarter min range. A second head-to-head pass and we immediately went down again. The F-16 came down again. We now have a third merge just above the hard deck and both of us have a ton of energy. Now here comes the surprise … nothing slows down like a Rhino with those big goofy crooked pylons on the wings. AND, no airplane without vectored thrust can point its nose around at slow airspeed like a Rhino (or Hornet for that matter).

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At the merge, the F-16 started a high G turn, but with all the speed he had, he was cutting a pretty wide circle above the hard deck. When he looked over his left shoulder, he saw our jet pointing at him seeming to almost hang in the air. New guy had the F-16 in the HUD with a screaming AIM-9X tone.

You see, circa 2009, nothing in the regular inventory could slow down and point it’s nose like a Rhino (except maybe a helicopter). Now, we couldn’t come across the circle and chase the F-16 down. We were at very low airspeed and not really going anywhere at this point. But due to the phenomenal fight control computers banging around all 24 flight control surfaces multiple times per second, we’re able to keep flying and pointing our nose at him. The Colonel knocked it off and new guy had a sweet HUD tape of him nose on to an F-16 in plan view. Of course, if there had been more than one F-16, floundering around at low airspeed would have made us a tasty target for his wingman. But on this day, no wingman, no problem. The moral of the story is be careful getting into visual range with a Rhino … he can’t run away and will stay and fight because he has to.”

And in a long range BVR set-up

“Since we’d both be armed with AMRAAM, the advantage would lay with outside factors like quality of AIC control, environmentals, quality of wingman, etc. There are so many flavors of F-16 out there that it would also depend on what sort of radar was hanging on his nose.”

Which set-ups and altitudes would the F/A-18F favour?

“I’d like to be lower in the 20s or teens looking up at the F-16. The Rhino doesn’t do great up high (unless it’s clean, with no pylons) and of course, looking up at him makes things the easiest for my sensors (including eyeballs) and hardest for his.”

How would the SH pilot fight?

“At range, shoot and let the AMRAAM do its thing. If bandits were blowing up and their formations falling apart, go to the merge and press our advantage. If that wasn’t the case, we could fall back, re-group, and try again. Once you got to BFM, the Rhino will take most adversaries 1 circle.”

Who would you put your money on?

“A huge variety of factors would go into answering that question on any given day. Including lots of things that people don’t generally think about including, quality of maintenance, are all his systems working, are we in a sweep or defending a point, what other assets are supporting us, how often have the pilots flown in the last 30 days, etc., etc. That said, most days I was pretty happy to be sitting in a Rhino.”

How does the F-18F compare with the ‘Flanker’?

“I really wish I knew. In training our adversaries could simulated the expected shot ranges of the different flavors of Alamo missiles carried by the Flanker, but once you got to the merge, it’s still an F-16 or an F-5 or whatever.

That said, in most previous jets you had data link capability, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it wouldn’t, and sometimes you couldn’t see what everyone else saw, etc., etc. In the Rhino, the datalink not only always worked, it worked well with not only other aircraft but also with ships in the fleet. So my surmise is that I would have better big picture situational awareness than the typical ‘Flanker’ operator and be able to exploit that, but that’s just a surmise on my part.”

What was your most challenging opponent in BFM/DACT and why?

“We fought against F-22s once. The Raptor guys said they liked fighting against us because the fight would go almost 30* whole seconds before they had us, and that was much longer than against other types they fought. So they thought it was better training for them. Gee. Great.

We didn’t call the shots, because we wanted to mix it up with them, but at the time we had JHMCS and AIM-9X while they had neither. We could have just called “Fox 2” at the fights on, but there’s not really much training value in that for either side.”

What is the best thing about the F/A-18F?

“The fact that all the systems work well together and that it is a very reliable aircraft maintenance wise.”

*Postscript: “Now that I think about it, it was probably closer to 15 seconds before the F-22 had us. And by then had us saddled in our six o’clock. I really feel guilty because I’m sure there’s some F-22 guy out there who thinks, “30 seconds. Pffft, it doesn’t take that long.”

….and the worst?

“The drag from those dumb, goofy crooked pylons.”

Rate the F-18F in the following areas:

Instantaneous turn rates

“Outstanding. Better than anybody else out there we fought save the F-22.”

Sustained turn rates

“Good, but the Air Force jobs like the F-15 and F-16 were better unless we were completely slick (no tanks or pylons). For a while, our squadron had a jet with no tanks on it that we were using for airshow practice. We’d take that thing out and BFM in it when we weren’t practicing. That thing would eat even the F-15s and F-16s for lunch. We actually did the thing in the new Top Gun trailer where we came in at low altitude and then went straight up in between a flight of two jets (they and we weren’t as close to each other as in the trailer, but it did surprise the heck out of them to put it mildly). The only problem is that without extra tanks of gas, you couldn’t take it to war unless you were using it as a point defense fighter.

Weapons platform

“Excellent. I haven’t talked about it much yet, but the jet was great for air-to-ground. Even dropping dumb bombs it was very accurate.”

Acceleration

“Middle of the road for tactical jets.”

Top speed

“Who knows? It could go supersonic – sure. But once you did, the fuel quantity would count down faster than the airspeed would count up, so I don’t know that we ever got it to its maximum theoretical or placarded airspeed. You usually needed to turn or do something else before you did.”

Take-off characteristics

“Fine.”

Landing characteristics

“It flew well around the boat. The approach speed was pretty low for a fighter jet. The Rhino’s approach speed is similar to that of an airliner which makes it a bit slower than Air Force jets.”

Climb rate

“Depended on loadout, but typical to above average for that generation of jet.”

Range

“It could always be better, but we usually had enough to get where we wanted to go. However, unlike an F-16 or F-15 outfit, if we needed more gas we could just configure one of our own jets as a tanker instead of begging another unit for a KC-135 and hoping it showed up.”

Sensors

“Excellent. And now the Rhino is even better with the AESA radar which basically sees everything in front of the jet, all the time, instantaneously.”

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What’s the biggest myth about the F-18F?

“We would always like more gas, but sometimes people talk about it like it could barely make it to the beach from the carrier. I can remember several missions where we ran land based types out of gas.

What should I have asked you?

Why does the Navy have some single seat and some two seat Rhino squadrons? The official, and largely true, reason is that the Forward Air Controller (Airborne), or FAC(A), mission is so complicated and dynamic that it really does take a crew of two to do it well. During this mission the pilot will typically be talking to soldiers on the ground while the WSO is talking to other aircraft and positioning them to come in for Close Air Support runs. They will then briefly talk to each other to coordinate and then go back to talking to different people on different radios. Meanwhile, their wingman will fly in a high cover position to keep a big picture view of threats beyond the immediate area. I do think this particular mission goes better with a two seat crew. In a Navy carrier air wing, only the F-18F squadron has qualified FAC(A) crews. The single seat squadrons don’t. At least, that was the way it was circa 2008.

The un-official, and largely true, reason is that just like Intruder and Tomcat squadrons of the 70s and 80s, half of the Navy fliers in the Pentagon during the development of the Rhino were NFOs, and they weren’t going to sign off on a program that removed NFOs from all Navy fighter and attack jets.

One neat trick a two seater can do that the single seater can’t is VID at long range with the ATFLIR. At maximum zoom in air-to-air mode, the image of a jet on the ATFLIR bounces around all over the screen as the system tries to stay pointed at a radar contact. If I take over manually and switch to EO (TV) mode, I can smooth the slewing with the thumb controller and identify the bogey as an F-5 or whatever well beyond visual range. Several times in training, I had a single seat Hornet or Rhino pilot ask to see my tapes because they didn’t believe I could visually ID a jet at that range.

  1. Describe your most memorable flight or mission in an F-18F? (long answer please)

It’s tough to pick out the “most memorable” mission. I guess I could tell you about the first time I dropped a bomb from a Rhino. We were flying over Iraq and it went something like this…

Okay, now I’m concerned. I should be scared, but I’m wrapped in a warm cloak of denial that anything really bad could happen to me. However, I am experienced enough to have known a few folks over the years who were convinced that nothing bad could happen to them either. This knowledge, combined with the brown-gray thunderstorm I’m now flying around in, is enough to at least upgrade me to concerned. We’re in the middle of a desert war, and there’s frost forming on the noses of my bombs and missiles. That can’t be good. At least the weather is so bad that nobody on the ground can shoot at us.

My pilot is working overtime in the front seat to stay in formation with the lead jet. We’re hanging out east of Baghdad at 12,000 feet in a small bowl of clear air, surrounded on all sides by dark thunderstorms. It’s the kind of dark overcast that makes you feel like you’re indoors, even in the middle of the afternoon. The clear area we’ve found is so small that we have to keep up a pretty good angle of bank just to stay in it. And we’d better stay in this clear area, since we can see visible lightning just to the north, leaping in and out of the clouds. Oh, by the way, this my pilot’s first combat mission.

As we come through the western part of the circle, the clear canopy above me is briefly pelted by pebble sized hail. Getting hit by hail in your car at 60 miles per hour can be an attention getter. At 290 miles per hour, it can be down right unnerving. Fortunately, we quickly pass out of it with no apparent damage, but the circle we’re scribing through the sky is small enough that I know it will be back in the hail in a few minutes.

Even though I’m in the second plane, I’m the senior member of the flight. That means I’m supposed to be conveying the wisdom and guidance of my years to the other members of the flight to prevent us from getting into situations that might just be a little over our heads. With lightning to the north, hail to the west, and Iran to the east, this might just be one of those situations. I’m torn between wanting to stay and complete the mission, and the fear of having to explain how I got my wingman struck by lightning because I didn’t know when to call uncle. Of course, it would be my wingman since, as covered previously, it couldn’t possibly be me.

Additionally, we’re not going to do anything out here today. The weather is miserable, and I haven’t seen the ground in a while. Even the insurgents must be at home sipping tea taking today off from the war. So if we’re not going to do anything, maybe we should call and ask to do nothing somewhere else.

I’m saved from having to make a decision when our controller tells us to proceed to a rendezvous with a tanker. The good news is we’ll have more gas, which in a jet means you’ll have more options. The bad news is we’ve got to go back through the thunderstorms to get there.

Our two jets huddle up close to one another so we don’t lose sight as we pass through the clouds. The medium grey jets can disappear from view easily when flying through clouds. Even though we are only a few feet apart, the other jet flashes in and out of existence as we hit the densest part of the clouds. There’s not much I can do in the backseat except sit there and hold on to the hand controllers on either side of the cockpit.

Just about the time I’m going to squeeze the black paint off the handgrips, we pop out. Hey, that’s much better. I glance at the radar on my right and start looking for a small green rectangle that might signify the presence of our tanker. Soon enough a promising contact appears on the scope right in the piece of airspace where it’s supposed to be.

As we first catch sight of the tanker, it’s nothing more than a small dark speck on the canopy. The speck starts to grow into an unfamiliar shape. It’s not a US Air Force tanker. Instead, our benefactor is a Royal Air Force L-1011. Well God Save the Queen! At the last tanker, my pilot had to take about three stabs at the basket before he got in. The RAF basket on this tanker is very much like the one on our tanker configured Rhinos, so we have a much easier time getting plugged in. Once we start taking gas I begin to relax, and even have time to notice the Rolls Royce engines on the British tanker – nice touch. With the weather as bad as it is, we’re definitely not going to do anything. In fact, they’re probably going to send us home early.

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Just about the time I’ve come to this conclusion, the WSO in the lead jet lets us know we’ve gotten immediate tasking to go bomb something for somebody named Gandhi 15. We’re passed a latitude and longitude of the target by Warhawk, the controlling agency. I enter the coordinates via touch keypad into the pre-planned JDAM checklist which is currently on my left hand display. Even as I’m putting the data in, I figure that the other jet will be dropping as lead, and as wingman and I will just get to watch on the FLIR.

The sun has set and it’s getting pretty dark by the time we switch from Warhawk to Gandhi 15. With a low key check in along the lines of, “Hey, how you guys doing,” Gandhi 15 is clearly a special forces guy. He wants us to bomb a weapons cache and is going to mark the target so that we’ll be able to see it on the FLIR. If he’s giving us the latitude and longitude, why does he need to mark the target? Whatever. I go through the JDAM pre-planned checklist two more times.

Lead asks, “Understand one JDAM”.

“Negative. We’d like two.”

“Okay, I’ll have my wingman come in thirty seconds in trail.”

Holy Cow we’re going to drop a bomb.

I now quadruple check the JDAM set up. Again, even though one of our Lieutenants is leading, I’m the most senior ranking person in the formation, so if anything goes wrong, it’s on me. Because of this, I now start to overthink things. I query lead about the distance of the friendlies because I mix up the meters and feet on the Collateral Damage Estimate page. I get tersely corrected, and he’s right.

I pull up the FLIR, and see the “target,” which looks like any other part of the bank of an aqueduct. In fact, it looks just like one of the countless aqueducts around our home base of Lemoore. I certainly don’t see any bunker type structure, but I do see the burning white glow of Gandhi’s mark. I try to slew the FLIR to look around the target, but it won’t move. There’s no north cue and no latitude and longitude information on the display. I could restart the FLIR to clear out this error, but it will take four minutes and that will be too long. It’s looking at the target – good enough.

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We see our lead’s jet in the data link on the center display. His is displayed as a green circle with a small stick coming out of it showing his direction of travel. This makes it much easier for us to get the correct thirty second spacing.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian Morales/Released)

Lead announces their drop with the standard “Thunder” call. Thunder is the term for a JDAM drop.

We’re getting closer. Normally we drop JDAMs from much higher and the little box on the SA page that we have to fly our jet into is much bigger. Down here at twelve thousand feet, the little window we have to fly into is positively minuscule. For a second I can’t even see it and have to zoom in closer. There it is. THUNK. The jet rolls slightly as the bomb falls away and I state “1 away” in the cockpit to let my pilot know that the weapons page has shown the correct symbology of a bomb leaving the aircraft.

Suddenly there is a large white bloom in the middle of the FLIR display. Lead’ bomb has hit the target in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, I’m staring into the FLIR. Waiting … and waiting … and waiting … geez, did it go into a frickin – BOOM! Right on target. An even bigger flash in the middle of the screen. Hey what do you know, those JDAMs work.

At this point, the pilot and I are way cooler than we have any right to be on the tape. In a low monotone I state, ‘Good impact,’ and he follows up with a simple, ‘Rog.’ We’re dropping bombs, which on the overall scale of life is pretty exciting, but we’re also Navy guys, so we’re supposed to act like we do this every day.

Gandhi is pleased with the effects, gives us an ‘atta boy,’ and sends us on our way without any amplifying information. Now we’re off to another tanker. This one is an Air Force KC-135 and thus has the metal basket that is difficult to get into. Based on the first 135 we hit today, I’m worried that my pilot isn’t going to be able to get in, and were going to have to divert to Al Asad. After two stabs at it though, he gets in. However, as the jet fills up with fuel and gets heavier, he falls out of the basket when the tanker goes into a turn. He quickly recovers and is able to get back in the basket and finish up.

We are topped off with gas, but running low on time. Our appointed time to return to the ship is coming up, and we’re still in southern Iraq. The other WSO and I quickly confer over the radio and I give the okay to go at military power all the way back to the ship. Military power is full throttle without being in afterburner. When we check in, we’re given direct vectors to the ship – no need to head to the Marshal stack. On the approach, my pilot gets low and catches a 1 wire. This will get him a poor landing grade from the LSOs and he’s audibly pissed up in the front seat as we taxi out of the landing area. I just laugh and tell him not to worry about it.

As we taxi up to our parking spot on the flight deck, several of our sailors point to the empty weapon station on our wing where the JDAM had been. I’ll find out later that one of our chiefs will plug into the turning tanker to tell the crew, ‘Hey 110 doesn’t have a bomb!’ We shut down and raise the canopy. As I climb out of my seat and move towards the boarding ladder, I make it a point to shake my pilot’s hand and give him a ‘good job,’ before he can even get out. Once I hit the flight deck I’m surrounded by a pretty sizeable gathering of smiling sailors full of questions. I think I wind up shaking the hand of half the sailors on the flightdeck. One yells in my ear, ‘the Skipper will be pissed,’ meaning that he didn’t get to be the first in the squadron to drop a bomb from a Super Hornet in combat. We didn’t win the war or even do anything particularly heroic, but you can’t tell from these excited 18-year-olds who just helped send out a bomb in anger for the first time in their Navy careers. A similar scene is played out over by lead’s jet.”

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Describe a typical mission in Afghanistan

“See above. Just like Iraq, it’s mostly brown and far from the ocean which a chance of occasional scattered JDAM.”

What was emotionally hardest about Afghanistan?

“It wasn’t the flying or combat. It was after you land, all the regular office work type reports and meetings that it takes to run a squadron that they don’t show in the movies get to be kind of a drag. Also being away from your family. After eight months you’re ready to go home.”

..and physically?

“Your butt, especially if you have a skinny, bony one like mine, would get pretty sore after eight hours.”

What was life like between missions?

“Well there’s the regular office work of running a squadron as described above. To the Navy, flying is your collateral warfighting specialty. Your primary job is taking care of sailors and ensuring that the squadron is meeting all of its requirements, some of which involve warfighting and some of it doesn’t.

Beyond that, there were movies in the ready room and an occasional port call. And if you hear any rumors that there was an aircrew-only casino with a craps table set up in one of the staterooms, then I can categorically state that you have heard that rumor and I have no amplifying information at this time.”

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Tell me something I don’t know about the F-18F…

“Later models of the F have a much larger screen in the middle of the backseat. This allows the WSO to see contacts via data link at much farther ranges, while still being at the same scale. This may not seem like much, but when you zoom out, all the little contacts just become a blob of symbology. Instead of zooming out, the larger screen allows the contacts to be displayed such that you can tell it’s a flight of two or whatever, while still being able to see very far downrange. It’s just another one of those things that gives an F-18F crew greater situational awareness over his opposition in say a ‘Flanker’.”

Describe the F-18F in three words “Reliable. Nimble. Fun.”

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Everything you always wanted to know about Chinese air power (but were afraid to ask) – Interview with Andreas Rupprecht

Few have written more on the subject of Chinese air power than Andreas Rupprecht. We grilled him on the hottest topics in that most dynamic of subjects, Chinese warplanes.

China appears to be producing new designs at a greater pace than other nations, is that true, and if so, why?

If they indeed are “producing new designs at a greater pace than other nations” (which I’m not sure is true) it it is because they have both the political will, the military ambition, and the money to make it happen. Also, for several years there are no longer only state-owned design and manufacturing companies, but universities and private enterprises. You only have to take a look at the UAV scene, and how many companies are currently developing in that area. They are willing to invest their own money – besides the official contracts – with the aim of earning money with it at some point. Additionally, in contrast to the West, the desire to serve national ambitions is much deeper embedded in China (at least to my perception). The aim is clear: China wants to be the dominant power in the Far East, inviolable from others and the goal is to be on a par with the USA.

What is the biggest strength of Chinese military aerospace technology?

In my opinion to put together the best available – or accessible technologies – from both East and West. To analyse competing products and to find – based on their own technical abilities – an indigenous solution. This is often made without much public announcement (in contrary to Russia and India where much is loudly promised and barely anything materialises). This is done with a huge budget behind it, and most importantly of all, the highest political and military support. The resultant aircraft types are most often put into service in an interim version that then receives continuous updates, modifications and new systems at a much higher pace one than one likes to accept or expects in the West.

What is the role of the J-20?

A good question and in fact one of the most controversial ones in social media groups. Quite interesting, the commonly often heard claim “it cannot be a fighter since it is so huge!” is based on very early and incorrect calculations of the J-20’s dimensions. It was first estimated to be a very long (23m+) and flat fighter and consequently several concluded as a fighter of that size with underpowered engines it might at best possess high speed and a long operational range but cannot be manoeuvrable like a true fighter. This became a constant theme in nearly all discussions and was surely assisted by a relatively modest aerobatic display in the Zhuhai 2016 and 2018 airshows. In essence the J-20 became a large lame duck that could only be a long-range supersonic striker like a modern F-111 or at best serve as an interceptor used to engage strategic assets like tanker and AEW types from far away.

However, all these conclusions ignore the surrounding evidence: first the J-20’s true dimensions, which is in fact shorter than the Russian ‘Flanker’ series, which is without doubt rated as one of the most manoeuvrable fighters. Second, there is a well-known study made by Song Wecong, the chief designer of the J-10 and mentor of the J-20 designer Yang Wei, that was posted in 2001 and clearly demanded that stealth aircraft “must have the capability to supercruise and perform unconventional manoeuvres such as post-stall manoeuvres.” Thirdly, the PLAAF itself praised repeatedly this type’s performance and expressed its satisfaction even with the interim engines. This surely can be rated as propaganda, like the official brochure, which explicitly stated the J-20 being capable of “seizing & maintain air superiority, medium & long range interception, escort and deep strike.” In summary, the J-20 is rated by the PLAAF a true multi-role fighter and I see nothing that contradicts this. How comparable the J-20 is to the F-22 and F-35 is another question, but this statement also applies to all other PLAAF operated types.

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I’m still going to ask you…how does the J-20 compare to the F-22?

Only the PLAAF and CAC know this for sure as such, I have to admit I don’t like questions like that. On the one hand because it is not my area of expertise and on the other hand because there is hardly any information available that enables an assessment. I also dare to doubt whether I could do this at all. For me, the question is more how the J-20 compares to its predecessor in PLAAF service and even more so, how the J-20 evolved. With this in mind, I am convinced that the F-22 was actually the benchmark for CAC but I am also convinced that it was clear to CAC that developing a twin-engine heavy fighter and a stealth aircraft for the first time after the J-10 would be a huge challenge. All of this coupled with the knowledge that one has hardly any experience in this area and, above all, that the engines will still only be temporary solutions. On the other hand, it has been around 15 years since the development of the F-22 and a lot has happened in China in the area of electronics, sensors and materials since then. But, it’s important to note that the predecessor of the J-20 in PLAAF service is the ‘Flanker’ and this came from a completely different period, was for a completely different requirement and was designed by a company with vastly more experience. So in conclusion, I am sure the J-20 is no worse than a J-11B in all areas of performance, but certainly – especially with the current interim engines – it does not come close to a F-22. I do not presume to make any further judgment.

How good is Chinese radar technology?

Similar to the previous question, I think I’m not able to answer this: Again barely any reliable information is available, most is based on hearsay. From what appears the most reasonable information, it seems as if China committed to AESA technology quite early on, and was able to equip most of its current generation types – the J-10C, J-16 and J-20 – with AESA radars. And even if I don’t know any specifications I’m sure the PLAAF wouldn’t use AESA radars them if they weren’t as powerful as conventional systems.

How good is Chinese aeroengine technology?

We surely know that China has some serious issues with previous generations of aeroengines, including the current ‘best’ Chinese engine, the WS-10, which had a very long and protracted development. As such this is surely the field of expertise in which China is still the most behind. How far, I don’t know.

But anyway, it seems as if they finally have a sufficiently powerful and reliable engine to power all its latest fighters. How reliable these engines are is (quite understandably) not known and I’m sure we won’t get any info on this any time soon.

What does China see as the priority threat to counter and does this manifest in their base locations and aircraft choices?

By my understanding, China has three priorities. To safeguard the own country from any internal threats, external threats and to protect its sphere of interest against any external interference. The first part includes operations other than true wars, like controlling unrest in certain areas especially Tibet and Xinjiang, but also to provide disaster relief and evacuating nationals abroad in emergencies. Here especially bases in Tibet and Xinjiang play an important role, but those are not necessarily PLAAF bases.

As for external threats, these generally fall into three areas: the priority is the Eastern Theatre Command standing against Taiwan, which includes the defence or at least deterrence of US forces that might intervene on Taipei’s side. Secondly, the Southern Theatre Command deals with the disputed South China Sea and the countless islands in and around the nine-dashed line (a demarcation line used by the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China for their claims of the major part of the South China Sea). And surely too, but to a lesser extent than India rates this hotspot, the Western Theatre Command with India (which also encompasses Tibet). And a similar important sector is the Northern Theatre Command against Japan, which again potentially faces US forces in that area and potential instability in North Korea.

In principle – at least today – the PLA’s traditional doctrine has focused on fighting regional conflicts and not global ones. However, in recent years this has changed dramatically, and can be seen not only by the introduction of more modern equipment, but also in the command structure (as well as the locations of their bases). During the early 2000s, a new doctrine was issued, that shifted the focus for the first time from pure defence to some sort of ‘proactively defeating enemies beyond China’s borders, including through preemptive strike if necessary’. In line with this, a limited capability for global expeditionary operations and governance missions (both to safeguard its rising political and economic interests and also to demonstrate its superpower status) were directly endorsed for the first time; the naval base in Djibouti and at Pakistan’s Gwadar port is a clear testimony to this shift.

Other than saying this, I won’t go any deeper into strategic matters. But this fundamental restructuring of the PLA has created a much faster-responding, more flexible and more lethal force, than the PLA has ever been. In achieving this there has been a move away from the traditionally all-dominant ground forces to an increased importance on the PLAAF, navy and rocket force. Additionally, there is the newly formed Strategic Support Force. How much this modern PLA already is able to fight joint operations is still not clear, but again, the PLA’s strategic objectives have dramatically expanded from pure territorial defence to regional dominance over East Asia and the western half of the Pacific. This will further expand into the Indian Ocean soon.

This is certainly manifested in their base locations and aircraft choices: The latter – new aircraft choices – is the part, which is commonly best known due to the rising interest in Chinese matters. As such nearly all enthusiasts of modern military aircraft know the Chinese latest fighters like the J-10C, J-16 and especially the J-20. But it’s not only the enigmatic fighters that are important. Of equal or perhaps greater significance –– are the modern training assets like the JL-10 and new transport aircraft like the Y-20. Never before in China’s history have so many modern types been introduced into the armed forces as within the last decade. To the final part of your question, as to where China sees the priority threat to counter and how this is manifested in basing locations: This is most of all the Eastern Theatre Command, which is most often the one which receives the most modern types and is surely the most capable regional force. Second to this comes the Southern Theatre Command, which is similarly equipped to the ETC and only then – even if India rates this quite differently – comes the Western Theatre Command facing India. The main reason for this is that China has other priorities – and the fact that against India is the well-secured border of the Himalayas. So this a well secured border for its core interests, not needing the fielding of many units.

What happened to the J-31?

To nit-pick … nothing. Since there is no ‘J-31’. The type often claimed to be a J-31 is in fact the SAC FC-31 and from all we know, the second flying demonstrator no. 31003 must have been transferred to the CFTE in Xi’an-Yanliang earlier last year. At least this was a clear hint that something changed and eventually its status from “manufacturer owned demonstrator for an export type” changed to something more PLA related. I try to be cautious as possible, since nothing is yet confirmed, but all hints towards the idea that this type has been selected by the PLAN as the J-15’s successor and future carrier-borne fighter. Allegedly named ‘J-35’, a first prototype is said be ready and we expect its unveiling if not even its maiden flight early this year.

How capable is the J-10C compared to Western types?

Once again a comparative question! Oh well, well I must give a brief answer given the paucity of reliable (or even official) information and even more since I hate such ‘4th Generation’ or even 4+ or 4++ generation discussions, these are just for fan-boys and the more or less uninformed public but in real life other factors are more important than an additional +. Therefore I refuse to give a clear statement like “it is better than the F-16” or “it is on a par with the Eurofighter or Rafale”. But I think from what is known, given the weapons we have seen, the systems, like its IRST and the AESA-radar, it is comparable to the latest Western generation. Surely its powerplant is (or at was for a long time) its Achilles heel. It seems to have, in comparison with the Rafale and Typhoon, a smaller weapons load, especially in terms of the number of weapons stations and overall load carrying capability. How effective its netcentric capabilities are is simply not known.

What is the biggest myth about Chinese warplanes?

That they are all unlicensed copies and clones, that they are worthless trash. This claim in fact drives me crazy since it is simply stupid. Many who always post this in social media or forums either have no clue, have not bothered to check the facts or their accusation is often politically motivated, and most often none of them are interested in facts anyway.

Therefore, first of all, before I go into more details why in my opinion this generalised claim is stupid, a short preliminary admission:
Yes, China has developed little or nothing on its own for decades.
Yes, China has built a lot under license for years; in fact, because there were licenses to do so.
Yes, China has further developed these types and has not always recognised the intellectual properties of other nations.
Yes, China does espionage on a large scale – as do other great nations too; Saab can tell you a thing or two about it

But, especially in the last decades there have been many projects that were also developed in cooperation with foreign (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) companies or for which they were contracted and paid: The Y-9 and Y-20 (with Antonov), CJ -7 and JL-10 (with Yakovlev) and Z-10 (to Kamov). So these are not copies or even stolen drafts.


And even if there are ‘similarities’ to other types, isn’t this the case with other types too? The South Korean KFX, the Turkish TFX and the Indian AMCA are all heralded in the media as indigenous concepts, great achievements of developing aerospace industries in order to develop fifth generation fighters, but only China is accused of having copied the F-35 as it is with the FC-31, but oh .. they added a second engine. But these are details one can easily ignore.

As such, none of that makes China’s aircraft clones and copies straight away. The main problem – and actually an interesting one because these accusations often contradict one another – is that it is (at least in my understanding) technically hardly likely and even less possible to copy something so easily without direct access to the original.

In addition, these ‘copies’ are equipped with different systems, powered by vastly different powerplants, have very different dimensions, they are built from different materials and therefore they have to be structurally different, ergo, they cannot be a copy or a clone, at least not under what I understand as a copy or clone. Despite this, this remains a constant meme in the Western media.

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Or perhaps China the only country able to copy someone else’s product simply by looking at a photo? This however would raise another question: If it is so easy to copy, why don’t other countries do it too? Surely it’s not just that other nations obey intellectual property laws? If China is indeed capable of such miraculous tasks, then it is extremely alarming. This however contradicts the second often claim: all of China’s copies are junk and worthless and they fall apart immediately.

So at least in my understanding, there is a contradiction here: On the one hand, portraying China as stupid and its products as worthless, while at the same time stirring up the great fear of China’s great ‘clone army’!
As I said, I don’t want to give China a blanket excuse, and no one denies that China did not always develop its ideas alone, but these allegations are often created from ignorance of the facts, and they are testimony to one’s own political convictions and bias, or simply stupidity and ignorance.

How does the Chinese air force compare with that of Russia?

Oh well, another difficult question to answer even more since I am not a specialist on Russian types nor the Russian Air Force, you probably should ask Piotr Butowski. I will try my best to answer. In my opinion – as in so many fields – China listened to others, adopted, copied, tried and tested, found its own solution to their own needs and most of all put a lot of money – surely much more than Russia – into its military in all important areas. So that today I would rate the Chinese air force better equipped, with more modern types in larger numbers, better connected and prepared for joint operations. The PLAAF operates more UAVs. They have more (both in number and sophistication) EW and AEW assets. Their fighter and strikers more frequently use precision munitions guided by targeting devices. The PLAAF operates several more UAVs and UCAVs, and they even more ahead in having a modern training system. The PLAAF has more and more modern trainers, the training syllabus, in my opinion, is closely related to the US training syllabus and the pilots train more, fly often and are most likely better paid. And finally, this all it embedded into a general command adapted to modern aerial warfare.

(Photo/huanqiu.com)

If this results in a more capable force, I don’t know for sure, since the PLAAF not only lacks a sufficient number of tankers and true strategic bombers – both which will be available in a few years – but most significantly lacks true combat experience. I must admit, however, that I don’t want to find out what the PLAAF can do in real combat.

How good is Chinese stealth technology?

Actually, I think besides the PLAAF and the individual design teams at CAC, SAC and XAC no one can say this for sure. Surely there is a lot of discussion going on in social media groups and by analysts as well, but at least for the social media sector most of these discussions are pure armchair-analyst’s conclusions based on eyeballing and I don’t want to participate on such discussion since in the end it most likely results in wrong conclusions. Most often such discussions are led by certain fan-boys and so consequently the outcome of any such discussion is most often already predetermined by a fixed opinion like “canards are not stealthy” or “the Russian Su-57 cannot be a stealth fighter” based on a layman’s opinion, bias and prejudice. Anyway, I would at least agree that the discussion of certain details like planform alignment, the treatment of seals and panels, the engines and so on is possible and as such it might be questionable if the J-20 and FC-31 are as stealthy as the F-22 or F-35, but to what degree, no one can tell for sure.

https://hushkit.net/2018/09/12/our-latest-film-analysis-of-the-j-20/

What is happening in the realm of hypersonics?

To admit, this is again not my field of expertise, but from what I see it seems as if the Chinese are highly active in this field since years, they seem to be quite successful, but to what extent the mentioned systems like the DF-17, the just recently spotted air launched ballistic anti-ship missile launched by the H-6N or the CJ-100 cruise missile I don’t want to assess.

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Do they have any operational stealthy UCAVS or UAVS?

This is again one of the biggest mysteries right now. ‘Yes’ if you rate the WZ-7 ‘Soaring Eagle II’ strategic reconnaissance UAV as a stealthy UAV and ‘uncertain’ for a true stealthy UCAV. We know for sure that in late 2013 the ‘Sharp Sword’ (Lijian) UCAV demonstrator flew for the first time. It seems as if a second revised prototype flew in 2016 and then it reappeared as the GJ-11 during the national day parade on 1 October 2019, indicating it might be in PLAAF service. However, the GJ-11 on display was clearly a mock-up only and even if we have seen several other UAVs – including the Soaring Eagle II – both at their factory, at various test units and frontline bases, this is not the case for the GJ-11; at least not to the public. Again, this does not exclude the type already being in service. AVIC claimed in late 2017 that after years of testing it was finally ready for production at Hongdu/GAIC and that this type is ready to enter PLAAF service “soon”, and that quite realistic scale models are available, again suggesting it to be ready since AVIC usually only does this after a type entered service, but we still lack any evidence like an image.

What is the most capable Chinese Flanker variant and how does it differ from Russian technology?

On paper this was in my opinion the J-11D fighter variant, a still mysterious and secret variant. Once planned as a further improved variant of the J-11B featuring a new AESA radar in a reshaped nose cone and an improved digital fly-by-wire system it was to be powered by uprated WS-10 engines with up to 14 tons of thrust two additional hard-points added for the latest generation of AAMs including the PL-10, PL-15 and ultra long-range PL-21. Radar Absorbent Material coating to reduce the Radar Cross Section, a refuelling probe, a new IRST/LR and other improved systems would have made a formidable Flanker. Maybe – if rumours are correct, a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) -equipped variant, on par with the Russian Su-35, was to be fitted with a more modern AESA radar and more modern AAMs. Why this variant was cancelled is still a mystery, maybe due to cost? The most capable Chinese ‘Flanker’ today is the J-16 striker, an indigenous development broadly comparable to the latest Russian Su-30SM albeit without canards and TVC. As such the J-16 has less of a focus on manoeuvrability and more on its avionics and the weapons it can use.

Do you believe the JF-17, J-10 and J-20 were based on Soviet/Russian designs?

The cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter

No, a clear NO. The J-10 is undeniable based on CAC’s own experiences with the J-9 project, that went through so many iterations during its long and protracted development and surely the influence of the Israeli Lavi. But from my understanding the Israeli contribution was more related to FCS-development and integration, avionics, and overall programme management than the design of the fighter itself.

Artist’s impression of the J-9 from Militarywatchmagazine.com

The J-20 – even if surely claimed in certain social media – is surely NOT a Mikoyan MFI Mark 2 even if again certain design elements might be ‘inspired’ by it, but based on official reports, the requirements which led to the J-20 were much closer to the specifications of the F-22.

Concerning the JF-17 I’m still not that sure, especially in regard to the often mentioned Mikoyan Izdeliye 33 (or Project 33), which was of conventional layout single engined MiG-29-look alike under development during the 1980s. But there are wind-tunnel models of the JF-17, which are of earlier origin and that are already closer to the final design. As such there was surely some Russian input – most of all due to the RD-93 – but I don’t think it is based on that failed MiG-33.

Mikoyan 1.44 MFI

What can we expect to see in Chinese military aviation over the next 20 years? “Should I take a look at my the crystal ball, I would say that we surely will get some more surprises. That will start this year with the new J-35 naval fighter, I wouldn’t be surprised if we actually see a J-20 two-seater soon and certainly more UAVs / UCAVs. Also I expect the KJ-600 carrier-borne AEW and other EW types, but I’m not expecting to see the H-20 stealth bomber yet this year. To look any further into the future is difficult, especially because that depends on the political and economic situation not only in China but acrossthe world.

China will certainly continue to move forward (esp. concerning sensors, avionics, engines), it will develop more indigenous systems, will rely more on autonomy and networking … and I fear if China remains politically and economically stable, some day we might be accused of copying Chinese designs and concepts. (just a joke!)

How does the Chinese approach to military aviation differ to the US approach?

Another difficult to answer question. In my opinion, China and its military are aligned with the United States in almost everything. At first this may be seen as a simple copying, but one could also say: China has great ambitions and the US systems and the structure of their armed forces have proven themselves in many ways. So why reinvent the wheel? (one of the most important differences to India, by the way). On the other hand, other factors play a role and these are responsible for the differences: first of all, the Chinese do not have exactly the same ambitions – for example to be a global policeman – or to carry out worldwide missions overseas (at least not yet). China is aware of its limitations, so cannot simply import all US military concepts. It also has its own social and historical factors that also play a major role. Finally, the technological gap with the USA is closing, which forces China to develop more and more its own solutions.

https://hushkit.net/2018/09/12/our-latest-film-analysis-of-the-j-20/

What should I have asked you?

Ha ha … a good question. Probably how do I still manage to follow the PLA so much besides all my private life and job? And I must admit … I don’t know.

How did you become interested in Chinese military aviation?

Oh well, that is a difficult question. At first when I was young and still building plastic model kits, I was interested in everything … fighters, bombers, and most of all US and Russian (then still Soviet) stuff. But later everything secret became more and more interesting. Everything around that buzzword ‘Stealth’ and what turned out to be the F-117, but also the latest Russian types, namely the Su-27 and MiG-29. After the Russians opened at least part of their archives and so much became public, the only two true nations that retained that exciting mystique of secrecy were Israel and China. This curiosity was spurred even more after the Lavi project was cancelled and rumours popped up that it would reappear in China. It did indeed, but not as expected – and still some claim – as a true copy but a very different albeit surely ‘inspired’ type. Regardless of what some claim, the J-10 is NOT a copy nor a clone; its larger size alone and the use of a Russian AL-31 exclude this option, but there were undeniable similarities and so I started to dig even deeper into this matter. And what I learned surprised me even more: There were indeed secret contacts, cooperation between the US and China – even so deep some in the USA today surely would like to ignore, contacts with Europe, Israel and Russia. And the deeper you dig, the more you find: old secret and long failed projects like the J-9 and J-13, the everlasting connection between politics and military desires. It was also fascinating to look at how this was affected by China’s technical and industrial shortcomings. And after years of watching China, its industries, and projects it became more and more apparent, that there is not only a great will to close this gap and to overcome these shortcomings, but also the political will to invest huge sums to solve it. And who knows China knows that everything is planned well in advance, with a lot of patience and perseverance. Most of all, however, I was fascinated by how China managed to move from merely copying and license producing aircraft to modifying and improving by integrating parts from different worlds – the East and West – to real indigenous developments. And yes, even if the J-10 looks like a Lavi on steroids and the J-20 features design elements from the F-22 and F-35, they are certainly not copies. This accusation is too simple, as if designing an aircraft by simply taking part A from here and part B from there and mating them together would work as if it is that simple. Frankly, don’t all other modern types look similar in some way too?

Check out Andreas’ excellent books on Chinese air power here.

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I was the first foreign pilot to fly the Mach 2.8 MiG-31 interceptor, here’s my story: By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)

Weighing the same as a M60 main battle tank and capable of flying 600mph faster than an F-16, the Russian MiG-31 is an absolute beast of an interceptor. Cloaked in secrecy, few outsiders have flown in the cockpit of this monstrous defender. Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM AVSM VM VSM (Retd) was given privileged access to the world’s fastest armed aircraft, here he describes this incredible experience to Hush-Kit.

“I felt I was sitting atop a missile-head in a high-speed interception.”

“The date was 28 May. Average daytime temperatures in May in Nizhnie Novgorad are around 22℃. Airfield elevation was 256 ft. The take-off and landing were done by the front pilot. The rear cockpit is used mostly as Weapon System Officer (WSO) station, though it has a control column to fly in case of an emergency requirement. There was nothing peculiar about the take-off. The frontal view through the periscope was good. I had used the periscope earlier on MiG-21UB (trainer) and on the MiG-23UB. So, I was quite comfortable. However the side view was minimal as the large front canopy left little place for Perspex for the second cockpit. I tried to visualise if the second pilot could easily land from the rear seat. Compared to a Su-30MKI it is surely more uncomfortable.”

Why did you try the MiG-31?

“I was the team leader of the Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21 Upgrade ‘Bison’ project in Russia from mid-1996 to the end of 2000. The design and development work was carried out at the Mikoyan Design Bureau in Moscow’s (OKB-155, Experimental Design Bureau 155). Our location was at RAC ‘MiG’, 6, Leningradskoye Shosse, Moscow. In 1995, Mikoyan OKB had merged with two production facilities to form the Moscow Aviation Production Association MiG (MAPO-MiG). Rostislav A. Belyakov, was still the father figure. I had an opportunity to meet him.”

“Two MiG-21Bis Aircraft had been sent from India for the design and development project. These aircraft were in positioned at the Sokol plant in Nizhnie Novgorod, where they were to be stripped and rebuilt after receiving the final design drawings from the Moscow Design Bureau. Sokol was also where the MiG-31 was being built. Our team used to visit the Sokol plant regularly from 1997, nearly once a month, for progressing the work on our two aircraft. Two of our officers were later permanently at Sokol for the flight testing of the Bison. The Director General of the plant, V Pankov mentioned to me about the MiG-31 and said that the Russians had been proposing the MiG 31 for sale to India. He said that they had given details to both the Government of India and to the Indian Air Force, but had not received any response or interest. I asked them to show us the aircraft, and if they had no problem, then I could get a chance to fly it. In Russian armament industry the general dynamics were still of the Soviet era. It took him some time to get approvals for me to fly in the rear seat of the MiG-31. They also told me that I was to be the first pilot from a foreign country to fly a MiG-31. They gave me a certificate to that effect, which is currently lying misplaced somewhere in my boxes. It was a demonstration flight and not a test flight. The basic aim was to show case the long range radar and to demonstrate high speed and acceleration. The date fixed was 28th May 1999. That was also the day the deputy head of India’s Mission in Moscow was on her first official visit to the Sokol plant. Ms Nirupama Rao was later India’s foreign secretary and India’s Ambassador to USA.”

Where did you fly it?


“The flight was made in the Sokol Aircraft Plant in Nizhniy Novgorod, which was formerly called Gorky. The plant was a manufacturer of MiG fighters. It was reportedly founded in 1932 and was once known as ‘Aviation Plant 21’, named after Sergo Ordzhonikidze. During 45 years of serial production the plant had manufactured about 13,500 combat aircraft. We were told that at its peak, they use to make close to 200 MiG-21s a year. But after the collapse of Soviet Union, and in the absence of significant orders from the Russian Air Force Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS), the production had gone down. The Indian MiG-21 upgrade was a significant order. Also, the plant used to make around 10-12 MiG 29 two-seaters in a year. There were nearly 15,000 employees. Their salaries were very low in the mid 1990s. Most of the sales and money earned from armaments was controlled directly from Moscow. All foreign contracts were through Rosvooruzhenie (later Rosoboronexport), the sole state intermediary agency for Russia’s exports/imports of defence-related and dual use products, technologies and services. We were told that the entire plant, including salaries could be run through the sale of just two MiG-29s. It was clear that the aircraft sale price was very high and basic production costs and salaries were very low. The high mark-ups of defence equipment prices are true in all countries. For some exported components, the price mark-up could be a 100 times. Many smaller plants that were the real original equipment manufacturers (OEM) of the components or sub-systems, wanted to sell spares directly to India, but the Russian government control was never released and with the result that the bulk of the profits went to Moscow.”

Interview with Indian Air Force MiG-29 pilot here

Russian people take a little time to make friends, but once they become one, they are great friends. There were many very senior technicians in the plant who had been to India in 1960s to help set up the MiG plant at Nasik. They had fond memories and spoke about the great time they had in India, and how they loved Indians. They also remembered the great Indian Old Monk Rum. We arranged to get some from India for them.

The production facility was next to the airfield (also known as Sormovo airfield), which was also the civil airport. For a long time, the plant was considered the most important industrial enterprise and main employer of the region. In those hard days, the plant was making many aluminium and other alloy based products, like river boats, frames for doors and windows, and even metro coach shells. We have heard that in later years they even encouraged flight tourism for MiG-29 to generate additional income.”

General Capability Briefing by the Russian Designers

“The MiG-31BM that I was to fly was reportedly a multirole version with partially upgraded avionics, new multimode radar, HOTAS controls, LCD colour multi-function displays (MFDs) in front cockpit, and ability to carry the R-77 missile and other Russian air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) such as the Kh-31 anti-radiation missile (ARM). It also reportedly had a new and more powerful computer, and digital data links. The aircraft was called Prospective Air Complex for Long-Range Interception. The Zaslon phased-array PESA radar would allow firing long-range air-to-air missiles. Its maximum range against fighter-sized targets was claimed as 200 km. The radar could track up to 10 targets and simultaneously attack four of them with its Vympel R-33 missiles, they said. But eventually the radar would track 24 airborne targets at one time, and attack six simultaneously, they said. Actual development status of radar at that time was not known to us. An upgraded, larger Zaslon-M radar, would later have detection range of around 400 kilometres for AWACS class targets.
There was an infrared search and track (IRST) system in a retractable under nose fairing. Its tracking range was 56 kilometres. The eventual variants were to have various air-to-ground missiles integrated, that included six anti-radiation missiles, or anti-shipping missiles or six precision TV/Laser bombs like KAB-1500. Maximum external load mass was 9,000 kilograms. The MiG-31’s main armament was four R-33 air-to-air missiles. Fuselage could reportedly carry four R-33 or six R-37 missiles. Four underwing pylons could carry combinations of drop tanks and weapons. MiG-31BM could also carry the Kh-47M2 nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile with a claimed range of more than 2,000 km, and a Mach 10 speed.


The MiG-31 was equipped with digital secure data-links. Details were not told, but they mentioned that the aircraft radar picture could be transferred to Indian Su-30s and MiG-29s. Also the ground radar picture could be received by the MiG-31 and transferred electronically to other aircraft. Thus allowing radar-silent attacks. There was a choice to slew missiles and fire based on inputs from other aircraft through the data-link. The MiG-31 had radar ECMs. Details were not discussed. The onboard navigation and attack system had two inertial systems supported by digital computer.

A detailed briefing on the aircraft was carried out first by Russian designers, and then was the pre-flight briefing by the pilot. Designers told us that though evolved from the MiG-25, there were significant changes. The aircraft fuselage was longer to accommodate the radar operator’s cockpit and there were some other new design features. The wings and airframe of the MiG-31 were stronger than those of the MiG-25. The advanced radar, with look-up and look-down/shoot-down capability and multi target tracking and engagement was a significant improvement. The aircraft had advanced sensors and weapons. Radar they said was much better and worked well even during active radar jamming. They highlighted cooperative work, between a formation of four MiG-31 interceptors, using data-links, which could dominate a large front and airspace across a total length of up to 900 kilometres. The radar had maximum detection range of 200 kilometres. They claimed that the aircraft radar and weapons combination could intercept cruise missiles flying at low altitude, and also the launch aircraft. Similarly it could take on UAVs and helicopters. The automatic tracking range of the radar was 120 kilometres. The aircraft could act as air defence escorts to a long range strategic bombers. The MiG-31 was not designed for close combat or high-g turning.


They also mentioned that the Russian Air Force was already flying the MiG-31, and a few hundreds had been produced by the Sokol plant. The Kazakhstan Air Force had also retained some numbers after Soviet dissolution. They took pride in mentioning that the MiG-31 was among the fastest combat jets in the world. The aircraft had years of service ahead. Cash-strapped Russia was very keen for the IAF to buy the MiG 31.

What were your first impressions?

The blue and white painted huge aircraft with tail number 903 looked most impressive and overbearing as one walked towards it. To start with, the MiG-31 is big. You might say huge. This was the then under development MiG-31BM (air defence) variant. I had read up about the MiG-31. I had earlier seen the MiG-25 in India, though I had not flown it. This one was freshly painted aircraft and much better looking. This was the aircraft which was to be used for display during air shows. As one walks around the aircraft for external checks, one gets to see the huge nose cone that housed the RP-31 N007 ‘backstop’ (Russian: Zaslon) radar. Air intakes were side-mounted ramps. Looking into the huge intake was like looking into a tunnel, and one could see the first stage of the huge engine. With a high shoulder-mounted wing, one could comfortably walk under the aircraft. The undercarriage was peculiar. There were two main wheels in each side and these were in Tandem but not aligned with each other. We were told that the undercarriage had been strengthened to take greater weight, also the fuselage was clearly longer. One recalled that the MiG-25 had only one main wheel each side. Russians also demonstrated the peculiar way the wheels retracted into the fuselage. The wheel trolley did a full forward rotation before entering the wheel bay. The tail side was somewhat similar to MiG-25, though longer a little but difficult to make out.


On entering the cockpit, I was briefed by the pilot, Alexander Georgiyevich Konovalov. We were not allowed photography in the cockpit. The front cockpit was still like the other Russian cockpits with green colour and standard old instrumentation. There were two MFDs which had been introduced in the front cockpit. It looked like a cut and fit task as is the case in developmental aircraft cockpits. The rear cockpit had the old round CRT radar scope. The front cockpit had a standard Russian control column with autopilot and weapon controls. The rear seat had a control stick with no control buttons on the stick-head. This rear-stick could also be removed and stowed away for better radar work. Once the canopy was closed the outside view reduced considerable in the rear cockpit. One got a feeling as if one was seated in a submarine. There was a big periscope to see outside. The cockpit seemed more optimised for WSO role and less for flying.”

How does it compare with the MiG-25?

Both the MiG-25 and MiG-31 were designed as interceptors. The MiG-31 was greatly upgraded to house an advanced radar, digital data links and the more powerful engines. The aircraft had to be made longer. The gross weight of MiG-31 had gone up to 41,000 kg (90,390 lb) vis-à-vis the 36,720 kg (80,954 lb) of the MiG-25. The MiG-31 had two Soloviev D-30F6 engines with 93 kN (21,000 lbf) dry thrust each dry, and 152 kN (34,000 lbf) with afterburner, compared to two Tumansky R-15B-300 engines, with 73.5 kN (16,500 lbf) dry thrust, and 100.1 kN (22,500 lbf) with afterburner for MiG-25.


The MiG-31 was clearly an upgraded design, though it would be wrong to call it a totally new design. Strengthened wings allowed a small increase in max G from 4.5 to 5G, and better acceleration and low-level flight. The MiG-25 radar, was primarily optimised for high-flying targets, but the Zaslon radar of the MiG-31 could detect and track low flying aircraft (look-down/shoot-down capability). The same was demonstrated in flight by locking on to a low-flying MiG-21 that had taken off from same airbase. The rear cockpit in the MiG 31 has been optimised for the Weapon System Operator. The WSO was entirely dedicated to radar operations and weapons deployment. The MiG-31 radar was passive electronic scanned array (PESA) whereas the MiG-25 had older variants of vacuum tube or semiconductor radars. While the MiG-25 (generally) carried only air-to-air missiles, the MiG-31 also carried air-to-surface missiles that included up to four Kh-58UShKE anti-radiation missiles or one Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile.

Interview with Indian Air Force Su-30 pilot here

How well did it accelerate?

“The aircraft accelerated quickly, as if someone was pushing from behind with enormous brute force. Having flown the MiG-23MF whose Tumansky R-29 (R-29A) engine (123 kN (27,600 lbf) thrust) give it excellent acceleration, the MiG-31 was similar. During our sortie we climbed up to 15 kilometres, and accelerated to max M 2.7. The transition to supersonic and subsequent cruise was very smooth. We also flew at low-level to see the acceleration, but did not hit max speed or go supersonic, though the aircraft had the ability. The aircraft pushes ahead like a rocket.”


What was take-off and landing like?

 

Describe your flight

“The sortie was designed to demonstrate the radar interception performance, aircraft acceleration and general handling. The rear cockpit has only two small vision ports on the sides of the canopy. Fighter pilots are more used to having a great external view. I felt a little claustrophobic. But reconciled to it. There were side screens to make the cockpit darker for better viewing of the radar scope. After take-off the pilot kept the afterburner on for a little while to demonstrate a high rate of climb. We climbed initially to 6 km. Konovalov spoke decent English. He allowed me to handle the controls. The aircraft handling was somewhat sluggish, more like a bomber than a fighter. The rear control stick felt more like holding a rod rather than a control column.

Here we did some radar work. He kept instructing me on how to put on the radar and allow it to warm up and settle down. He also told me how to change range scale. The picture was more like the old time CRT displays of the raw blip type. He showed me an airliner at around 185 km. Since the airliner was not under our ATC control, we did further radar work with a MiG-21 that had taken off from the home base. We locked on to the MiG-21 around 85 km. Later the MiG-21 was asked to descend to a lower height of about 1 km. Then we saw the look-down mode. I do not recall at what range we locked on. I think it was certainly around 40 km. We then climbed to 15 km, where he accelerated the aircraft to M2.7. Acceleration was smooth and fairly quick. He allowed me to be on the controls during acceleration. There was no buffet on the aircraft or on control column. Subsequent deceleration was also fast. For quicker deceleration we initiated a turn (3G).
Once subsonic, I carried out a few turns pulling around 4G. Turns appeared sluggish. In any case the aircraft was cleared only for max 5G. Yes the aircraft was easy to handle, but appeared more like a weapon launch platform up in the sky than a fighter. We then descended to low-level. The MiG-25 was known to be difficult to fly at low-levels. The Russians had made some aerodynamic airframe modifications on the MiG-31 for better low altitude handling. We did an acceleration to around 1100 km/h. The acceleration was smooth. I did not notice any buffet or other aerodynamic effects.”

What was best about it?

“The best part of the aircraft were the acceleration and the long-range radar. I had been told that aircraft has some very long-range missiles. Also the aircraft had been used to launch satellites. The aircraft had significant weapon carrying capability. However, many modern smaller fighters can carry similar tonnage.”

What was worst about it?

“I think it is not appropriate to call anything ‘worst’. I would hardly call it a fighter aircraft. It was basically a weapons platform in the air. More like an atmospheric satellite, or an airborne cruise ship. I also thought that the aircraft still required more refinements in its avionics, displays and cockpit instrumentation. The WSO station in an Su-30 MKI or Phantom F-4 had an excellent external view, this did not. Essentially designed as an interceptor, one could not call it a fighter in conventional sense. I understand that subsequently, the rear cockpit also got an MFD, otherwise working on the old CRT type round scope was not good for situational awareness and information display. For a Mirage 2000 pilot like me, it was a little confusing initially.”

“Comparing the MiG-31 with Rafale is like comparing Bruce Lee with a Para Special Forces Commando.”


How comfortable is the cockpit?

“I sat in the front cockpit for a few minutes. It was like any Russian cockpit with its green panels and black instrument dials. Having flown the MiG-21, MiG-23BN and MF, and few sorties on the MiG-29 earlier, the cockpit looked very familiar. Some of the instruments were same, others had to change to cover a different range of flight parameters. Two MFDs had been brought in. One could see the cut and paste done to the old cockpit to introduce them. One could make out that more changes were still in the offing. The cockpit was spacious like all Russian aircraft, catering for the well-built and well-clad Ruskies. The ejection seat and strapping was also familiar. One thing I always liked about the Russian cockpits was that there was no need for pilot to wear leg restraining straps, as they were part of the cockpit and seat arrangement. The layout of the throttle, stick and positioning of switches appeared good as per flight usage requirements. This had obviously evolved over the years in all counties. Having interacted very closely with Russian designers, especially the cockpit specialists, in our upgrade project, one knew that they were very knowledgeable and real masters at their job. The rear cockpit was somewhat suffocating and tight. Holding the control column was like holding a round-headed walking stick. The stick could be removed from the base and stowed away. Instrumentation in the rear was awaiting an upgrade. Later pictures of the rear cockpit (on the internet) indicate that the MFDs had been introduced.”

 

How loud is it for the crew?

“The cockpit was well sealed. After all, the aircraft was meant to fly at very high altitude and at very high speeds. I flew with the normal Russian inner and outer helmet. Same as used on MiG-21. The noise level was reasonably low. Even at high supersonic speed it was quite comfortable and one could converse with other pilot comfortably.”


Why the IAF did not buy the MiG 31?

“Russians had made many attempts to try convince the Indian Government and IAF to go for this “multirole aircraft”. Their main USP was long-range missiles (carrier killer and anti-satellite) and a multi-role platform. India had good experience of the MiG-25, albeit mostly in the reconnaissance role. The IAF well understood the complexities of maintaining an aircraft of this type. The MiG-25 had been bought for high altitude reconnaissance. By now, India had its own satellite based reconnaissance capability. Also more and more UAVs were being used for ISR work. Notwithstanding the upgrade, the MiG-31 remained an old platform inherently designed for high-altitude, high-speed interception. It could not be compared to a modern multi-role aircraft. The IAF had already made up its mind with the Su-30MKI for which the contract was actually signed while we were in Russia. We were also interacting closely with the Indian Su-30MKI upgrade team in Moscow. India was also not keen to put the IAF more into the Russian basket. India had had a great experience with Mirage 2000, and was also looking at adding more upgraded variants of the Mirage 2000. Also India had done its threat perception study. It had seen how its own neighbourhood was evolving. India had no such threat from Pakistan. Yes, India needed long-range missile and interceptors for China. But the same could be achieved by putting a long-range missile on any other aircraft. Having a large radar with long-range was the main advantage with MiG-31 which was not possible on smaller aircraft. But technologies were evolving and later better radar performance was possible from smaller radars. In any case the Su-30MKI had a large area of real-estate in its nose. Interestingly the MiG-31A has been used to launch commercial satellites and MiG-31S have been used to train astronauts, to conduct research in the upper atmosphere and for space tourism by launching the aerospace rally system rocket-powered suborbital glider.

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“Not many countries had shown interest in the MiG-31. India also not very sure about the MiG-31’s projected radar capability. Even the Chinese had chosen many Su-30 variants instead of the MiG-31 despite greater potential potency. Unlike the MiG-31, the Su-30 variants manoeuvre very well. The Sukhoi design bureau was also much more aggressive in its marketing. Even a MiG-35 from the Mikoyan stable was considered a better bet, but then India already had plans to upgrade the MiG-29. There was no need immediately for IAF at that time to have an AWACS killer missile. The MiG-31’s capability to launch anti-satellite (ASAT) was not of immediate interest to India. India was already building its own surface based ASAT capability. The IAF’s finite budget allocations could not afford too many platforms. Also buying just 10-12 MiG-31s would have added more logistics complexities to the IAF which already had a plethora of types. As per my knowledge, IAF never did a formal evaluation of the aircraft. The MiG-35 which Russians claim can shoot down almost all kind of reconnaissance drones and other platforms like AEW&Cs and the U-2 spyplane, is one of the contenders of the 114 new fighters India is going to evaluate in the near future.”


What are your feelings on Western versus Russian aircraft – do you have a personal preference and if so, why?


“I have flown a fair number of both Western and Russian aircraft. I have nearly 1,000 hours on MiG-21 variants (MiG-21FL, MiG-21M and MF and MiG-2Bis). I was an instructor on the MiG-21. The MiG was my initial year’s aircraft. I was a pioneer of the Mirage 2000 fleet and commanded a Mirage 2000 squadron, and have around 1200 hours on type. I also happened to have ejected from a Mirage 2000 at the ripe age of 59 years – and two months into the rank of Air Marshal, a sort of record of its own kind. I have also flown the MiG-29, Su-30 MKI, Jaguar and the Hunter, among others.”

I had earlier done a flight on the Su-27 on 6 December 1991 (my birthday) in Delhi with the famous Russian pilot Viktor Pugachev (of the Cobra manoeuvre fame). I had also flown the Su-30K at Zhukovsky flight test airfield in Moscow with Test Pilot Slava on 13 May 1997. Also flown the under development MiG AT at the same airbase, and the Yak-131D at Sokol. So I have no specific loyalties and can make an independent comment. I had had an occasion to be present at Zhukovsky airfield when the Mikoyan Project 1.44/1.42 aircraft (NATO name: Flatpack) technology demonstrator developed by the Mikoyan design bureau was revealed to the world. Later it had done its maiden flight in February 2000.

Both, the Russian and Western aircraft had their own strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Russian aircraft were simpler in design, the cockpits were big, more mechanical than complex electronics, and had high standardisation and commonalty. Switching from one Russian aircraft to other was so much easier. I like the levelling mode of Russian autopilot that brought you to level flight by pressing this button on the control column. This was handy if one got disoriented. I know of someone owes his life to this device. I also liked the simplicity of Russian ejection seats. And they were as foolproof as any Western ones. Russian aircraft mostly had brute power, they were fuel-guzzlers, and some had high specific fuel consumption (SFC), and many passed out smoke through their exhaust. Russian aircraft were cheaper in their base price, but in the long run, their life cycle costs were higher. For example a MiG-29 would overtake a Mirage 2000 in around five years in life cycle costs.

The Western avionics, including electronic warfare systems were more sophisticated. Russians used brute power there too. Russian aircraft required greater stick displacement for any aircraft response, it was much lesser in Western aircraft. This was as per their concept. This had its own dynamics when one changed fleet from Russian to Western aircraft or vice-versa. Pilots had to be cautioned for this. Russian cockpit switches were much larger and easy to operate in the cockpit, the Western were smaller and one had to get used to them while operating with gloves on. The Russian and Western artificial horizon instrument display was quite different. In Russian aircraft the artificial horizon bar turned with the aircraft, thus remained parallel to the aircraft and not to the actual horizon. The aircraft symbol/bar moved twice the degrees to indicate the bank. This worked well when one was head-down. Most pilots really liked this instrument (AGD). In the Head Up Displays of initial Russian aircraft they replicated the same display. This was most confusing because the displayed horizon was different than the real one. We discussed this with the Russian test pilots who had flown some Western aircraft. They also tended to agree with us on this. It took us a great effort and pressure to convince the Russian designers to redo the software to make the MiG-21Bison HUD similar to the Western symbols and logic. Russian designers were not very happy about this. Russian inner helmets were standardised between pilots, tank crew, and even ship or submarine crew. Russian radio navigation system (RSBN) was quite different to the Western TACAN. I found the Russian system very complex and many ways less accurate. The fighter aircraft Air Speed Indicator (ASI) started from 200 km/h, unlike the Western aircraft.


Soviets/Russians remained more than a match for the Western world. They often achieved results with simpler and cheaper means. After all, they were the first to put a man in space and even today are moving ahead with hypersonic weapons. They are being accused by Americans of a cyber-war, so they are still generally demonstrating asymmetrical innovation. There were many more peculiarities of aircraft of both philosophies. Since I have been out of fighter cockpits for some years, I may not remember everything off the top of my head.”

How effective an interceptor do you think it is? How good are the sensors and weapon systems?

“For a successful interceptor, the key attributes are a good radar with long-range detection and tracking, good situational awareness with wider coverage, ability to handle multiple targets, and ECCM features. The MiG-31 radar was indeed powerful and had a good range. I was demonstrated a target at around 185 km range. Also I did see the look-down capability. Beyond that it was difficult for me to comment. In any case the radar and displays would have improved in manifold ways since then. Russian radar and missile combinations have generally done well in some wars including Vietnam and in the Iraq/Iran wars. Though there were other factors for success. Yes, the Americans were able to deceive or jam them with powerful electronic platforms, when they were introduced. Russians believed in brute power in the radar output. Undoubtedly Western avionics are generally better than the Russian ones. Russian missiles are indeed world-class.”

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Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-31


“Well, Hush-Kit is an alternative aviation magazine of international repute. There is little that you all do not know and I would know. I am a “ageing foggy aviator”. If I was to summarise my flight, I felt I was sitting atop a missile-head in a high-speed interception. The aircraft looked good and was made of razor sharp nickel steel and other metal edges. I liked the white and blue colour scheme. As someone once wrote, I don’t recall who, that comparing the MiG-31 with Rafale is like comparing Bruce Lee with a Para Special Forces commando. Sure Bruce Lee was much faster with his arms & legs but he couldn’t operate 14 different kinds of guns, run 40 km with a 25 kg backpack, navigate through jungles, perform special recon behind enemy lines, kill anyone just with a kitchen knife & rescue hostages. The MiG-31’s cardinal flaw was lack of versatility, and it is too big and clumsy for use in dogfights. That is how the Sukhoi family of Su-27 variants over took from the Mikoyan designs. The MiG-31 is a formidable machine which had its time.”


Interview with Indian Air Force MiG-25 pilot here.

Describe the aircraft in three words

“High speed brute.”


How many other Indians have flown the aircraft?

“I am not sure if anyone else has ever flown it. I was told that I was the first foreign pilot. As far as I know, no formal flight evaluation was ever done by IAF. Maybe some team went to have a look at the aircraft and had some formal discussions. But I may be wrong on this score. But India was never interested.”

Africa’s top fighter aircraft

The technology and status of African air forces is underreported in Western media, so in an effort to redress this we will look at the continent’s most deadly combat aircraft. The cliche of African air arms being universally equipped with antiquated, badly maintained fighters is now a myth. 

 African air power is a subject full of surprises and contradictions. In a dramatic reversal of the world of the past, today many of the continent’s air forces are equipped with some of the most potent machines in the world, including the extraordinary Dassault Rafale and updated variants of the Russian heavyweight ‘Flanker’. Though as elsewhere, the air-to-air mission has become rarer, it remains a more pressing consideration than it is for Europe and the US.

What is the best fighter aircraft in Africa?

There are several candidates for this title. In judging this, it is important to look at pilot quality, training and the aircraft’s weapon systems. In determining which warplanes are the most effective in the air-to-air mission we must (for the sake of brevity) put several significant factors aside, but be aware of them. Fighter aircraft operate as part of a system, and require a network of surveillance, C3I and infrastructure. For example the Sudanese MiG-29SEh is a well armed, well-equipped fighter, but Sudan has next to no radar surveillance. A fighter in the defensive role, without the benefits of decent ground radar or AWACS, is severely limited in its effectiveness.

Fighters are complicated machines that require exhaustive overhauls, something very few African nations can do without foreign support (we shall see that there is one very significant example of independent ‘deep overhauls’). This means, that most countries must maintain a good relationship with the nation/s providing spares and technical support, this is something that can be very restrictive, considering the high incidence of wars and sanctions in the region.

One important element in a fighter’s effectiveness is the quality of its electronic warfare (EW) suite. Though most details of this aspect are kept secret, some information is in the public domain. The Swiss air force’s 2008 evaluation report of the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon was leaked, revealing that the Saab aircraft has ‘strong’ electronic warfare capabilities.


The Block 52 F-16s of the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF) and Egyptian Air Force (EAF) contain very modern equipment, though they are not the highest specification F-16s. Whereas the most advanced F-16s, the Block 60s of the UAE, are fitted with an AESA (the AN/APG-80) radar, RMAF and EAF make do with the capable, but inferior, mechanically scanning APG-68v9. But this will change with the likely advent of the F-16V. Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars are now an entry level technology for a modern air force. Egypt was the first African nation to get membership to the AESA club  with the arrival of its French Rafale fighter-bombers. 

One of the biggest game-changers in African air power has been the appearance of the ‘Flanker’ heavy fighter series on the export market. This has been followed by the appearance of sophisticated Western aircraft. Let’s take a look at the most formidable fighter aircraft in Africa.

 Egyptian Air Force: Lockheed Martin Block 52 F-16/Early F-16/ Dassault Mirage 2000/Dassault Rafale/Sukhoi Su-35/RAC MiG-29M/M2

That the decision to supply Morsi’s new Egypt with advanced F-16s has been the subject of such fierce debate, gives an idea of the capabilities late Block ‘Vipers’ have.

The bulk of Egypt’s fast-jet force is made up of around 200 early F-16s. These aircraft, from Blocks 15/32/40, are excellent dogfighters (and have been subject to upgrades) but are limited in the BVR arena by both weapons and radar types. They are usually employed in the air-to-ground role. Egypt is a very experienced operator of the F-16, having received its first aircraft in the 1980s.

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The F-16s are not armed with AIM-120 AMRAAM (nor will even the Block 52s) but AIM-7P Sparrows (assuming they have not exceeded their shelf lives). This is due to Israeli insistence that Egypt should receive the weapon. Sparrow is a virtually obsolete weapon and puts the aircraft at a large disadvantage against potential threat aircraft like Israel’s AMRAAM armed F-15s and F-16s (RAF Tornado F.Mk 3s, armed with semi-active Skyflash missiles learnt this harsh lesson in exercises against AMRAAM-equipped F-4Fs of the Luftwaffe in the early 1990s, although the RAF did devise some good ’anti-AMRAAM’ tactics) . Another disadvantage is the EAF’s F-16s Within-Visual-Range weapon, the AIM-9M-2, inferior in many respects to both the R-73 and AIM-9X. Egypt’s pilots are highly rated but political upheaval and the shifting new regimes complicated relationship with the US may affect this.

Egypt’s has around twenty active Mirage 2000s (sixteen 2000EMs and four 2000BM two-seat trainers) which have received some upgrades, notably to their ECM suite. They are capable fighters, superior to the F-16s in agility at higher altitudes, and are armed with the modern MICA medium-range missile. 

The EAF has 46 MiG-29M/M2s which are close in standard to the RuAF MiG-35s. It is likely that the US refusal to sell Egypt AMRAAMs may have aided this programme as the MiG-29 is armed with a modern active BVR weapon in the form of the R-77. 

In a move which infuriated the US, Egypt has ordered around 24 Su-35s, the first of which arrived in July or August 2020. This is the most potent heavy fighter ‘Flanker’ in Africa. Egypt’s Su-35s will be a force to be reckoned with. 

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Block 52 Equipment
The EAF’s Block 52s have a decent radar, in the form of the Northrop Grumman APG-68v9, a very capable mechanically-steered radar. Unlike the F-16s of Turkey, Pakistan and Oman which are fitted with the ITT AN/ALQ-211 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Systems (AIDEWS), EAF F-16s carry Raytheon’s Advanced Countermeasures Electronic Systems.

Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 52
Radar: APG-68v9 (mechanically scanned)
Armament 20-mm M61 rotary cannon, AIM-9M Sidewinder (WVR), AIM-7P Sparrow (BVR- status unknown)

Mikoyan MiG-29M/M2

Radar: Zhuk-ME

Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73/R-74 WVR missiles. R-27 and R-77 BVR missiles

Sukhoi Su-35

Radar: IRBIS-E

Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73/R-74 WVR missiles. R-27 and R-77 BVR missiles


Mirage 2000EM

Radar: RDM+ (mechanically scanned)
Armament: DEFA 554 30-mm cannon, Magic 550 (WVR), Super 530 (BVR). MICA (BVR)

Egyptian air force: Dassault Rafale 

Two Egyptian Rafales flying over the Pyramids_LR.jpg

The first Egyptian Rafale squadron (34 ‘Wild Wolves’) has been fully operational since October 2018. Rafale offers the most potent fighter on the continent in overall capabilities. When Egypt’s Rafales receive their Meteor missiles in the future, they will be able to utterly dominate the African skies (though in the Middle East may not enjoy the same advantages over Israeli F-35s).

Radar: RBE 2 AESA
Air-to-air weapons: 30-mm GIAT cannon. WVR/BVR AAM weapon: MICA (Meteor in future)

Ethiopian air force Sukhoi Su-27

In the war with Eritrea, Ethiopian Flankers shot down four MiG-29s establishing the ‘Flanker’s fearsome reputation. The most potent asset in the Ethiopian air force is its Sukhoi ‘Flanker’ force. This consists of twelve single-seat Su-27s, and a pair of Su-27UBs.


In a very significant move, Ethiopia developed the first local in-depth overhauls for the Su-27. Only Russia/Ukraine and China previously had such a capability. It means the ETAF is now self sufficient (provided they have enough spares) in terms of its fighter fleet, something few African countries can say. After overhaul, the aircraft are now getting a new splinter camouflage scheme.

Morale in the Ethiopian pilots is a big issue. Training in Belarus and Israel gave access to excellent training, but also gave Ethiopian crews unhappy with the regime, a chance to escape (eight pilots allegedly defected in Belarus). For the lucky ones this meant refuge to Europe, but at least four pilots were less fortunate and were sentenced to death. It is uncertain whether these sentences were carried out. Some of these defections were of the most experienced ‘Flanker’ pilots, including the veteran Captain Teshome Tenkolu. If experienced crews had been kept, Ethiopia would have one of the most seasoned ‘Flanker’ pilot cadres.
The shootdown in 1999 of an Eritrean MiG-29 by an EAF Su-27 was notable as the first kill by the Su-27 and the first jet-versus-jet by a female pilot (named in some reports as Capt. Aster Tolossa), though some dispute the veracity of this claim. According to several accounts, R-27s had a far lower Probability of Kill rate than R-73s during the fighting.

Nigerian Air Force CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder Block II 

Since 1971, China and Nigerian have enjoyed a cordial relationship, and though it has been a little rocky as of late, the nations still have very strong ties. So it is unsurprising that the Nigerian Air Force opted for the largely Chinese partly-Pakistani JF-17 as its primary fighter-bomber. Not least because it has a long history with Chinese aircraft in the form of the F-7. The JF-17 is not in full service yet as only three have been ordered, and were first publicly seen in Nigerian colours in Pakistan in November 2020.

They will be similar in standard to those for Myanmar, standard JF-17 Block II but with certain systems – like the EJ-seat – replaced with foreign systems.

The JF-17 may lack the raw airframe performance of other modern fighters but boasts an excellent digitalised cockpit, reliability and potent BVR missiles. If JF-17s are ordered in greater numbers they will significantly improve Nigeria’s fighter force from its current small and obsolete force of eight J-7s.

CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder Block II 
Radar: Chinese KLJ-7V2 X-band multi-functional PD radar
Air-to-air weapons: 1 × 23 mm GSh-23-2 twin-barrel cannon, PL-12/SD-10,  PL-5E and PL-9C

Royal Moroccan Air Force: Lockheed Martin Block 52 F-16

Morocco enjoys a good relationship with the United States granting it access to advanced military equipment. In August 2011, the MAF received the last of 24 Block 52+ F-16s. Morocco’s F-16s are probably the best armed fighters in Africa, equipped with both the AIM-9X and AIM-120 (though most publicly released photos show the aircraft without any weapons). The F-16s are intended to counter Algeria’s force of 28 Su-30MKAs. In 2019 it approval was given for Morocco to receive 25 F-16C/D Block 72s and upgrades of its existing 23 F‑16s to the F‑16V block 52+ standard.

The Royal Moroccan Air Force also operates 12 F-5A/Bs upgraded with Tiger II avionics and 24 upgraded F-5 Tiger III. Another asset that should not be overlooked is the RMAF’s Mirage F1s. The Association Sagem Thales pour la Rénovation d’Avions de Combat (ASTRAC) consortium has performed a radical upgrade of these aircraft, fitting a new multi-mode radar, cockpit displays and importantly the addition of MICA missiles to its arsenal. The RMAF has is reported to have ordered both MICA variants: IR and EM (an active radar-guided variant) form. This potent weapon is a modern fire-and-forget system that few air forces know much about countering. Despite this upgrade, the F1 is not in the same class as the F-16 as an air-to-air fighter, lacking the agility (and several other benefits) of the US type. Still, it boasts the impressive systems of the 2000-5 in the trustworthy airframe of the F1.

Lockheed Martin Block 52+ F-16
Radar: AN/APG-68(V)9
Air-to-air weapons: 20-mm M61 rotary cannon, AIM-9X Sidewinder, AIM-

Algerian Air Force (QJJ): Sukhoi Su-30MKAs (similar to MKM spec)

Algeria has been investing heavily in its air force and is becoming one of the continents most formidable air arms. Algeria ordered twenty eight Su-30MKAs in May 2006, which have now all been delivered. These were then joined by sixteen additional aircraft of the same type, which replaced an order for MiG-29s which were returned due to being sub-standard quality.


The Su-30MKA is a very potent aircraft. The Algerian Su-30s are well-armed, with both R-73 (Within-Visual-Range Infra Red guided missiles) and fire-and-forget R-77 (Beyond-Visual-Range radar-guided missiles). This gave Algeria the first fire-and-forget air-to-air missile in the region (the first in all of Africa were Sudan’s MiG-29SEhs), an edge it maintained until the Royal Moroccan Air Force fielded its operational AMRAAM capability. Not only is the Algerian fighter force well equipped, it is manned by well-trained crews, many with combat experience. The aircraft are fitted with Thrust Vectoring Control (TVC), which when carefully used against inexperienced crews can greatly increase combat effectiveness in the merge. There was some controversy in Algeria, when it was revealed, despite earlier reports to the contrary; that the Su-30MKAs are alleged to contain some Israeli equipment (it is unlikely that is the jamming systems used on Indian air force Su-30MKIs).
Algeria’s Su-30s are long-ranged and available in sufficient numbers for a decent state of readiness, and the crews of good quality. It is fair to say, that they are in many ways, they are among the most potent fighters in Africa, being surpassed only by Egypt’s Su-30s and Rafale.

Algeria ordered a force 14 MiG-29Ms of the same standard as those of Egypt. There are indications that some aircraft have already arrived despite the recency of the order.

Sukhoi Su-30MKA
Radar: NIIP N011M BARS Passive Electronically Scanning Array
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 missiles, R-77 missiles

Uganda People’s Defence Force: Sukhoi Su-30MK2

The elite fighter force of Uganda is 6-8 Sukhoi Su-30MK2s. The aircraft were delivered in 2011. Morale was reported as low, with pilots leaving the air force due to the very low rate of pay. These aircraft are not fitted with Thrust Vector Control.

Sukhoi Su-30MK2
Radar: NIIP N011M BARS Passive Electronically Scanning Array
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 missiles, R-27 Missiles, R-77 (probably) missiles

Angolan air force FAPA: Sukhoi Su-27
Another ‘Flanker’ operator is Angola. Scant information is available about Angola’s Su-27, which were purchased second-hand from the Belarus. Angola previously had had only two Su-27S and one Su-27UB. An additional Angolan Su-27 crashed in 2000, falsely reported lost to a UNITA SAM. The aircraft may have been piloted by Ukrainian mercenary pilot Igor Valenchenko.
Angolan ‘Flanker’s have at times been based at Catumbela airport, Lubango. Achieving a constant state of readiness with such a small fleet size proved impossible and so more Flankers were ordered. Angola’s 12 Su-30s started life with the Indian Air Force as Su-30Ks (an interim variant without thrust vector control, something these particular aircraft still lack). Following a period of storage and an upgrade in Belarus they were sent to Angola, the last arriving in 2019. With new jamming equipment, R-77 compatibility and the potential to use anti-shipping missiles they are said to be of Su-30SM standard.

Sukhoi Su-27
Radar: Phazotron N001 Zhuk mechanically scanned radar
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 and R-27 missiles (status unknown)

Sudanese air force: MiG-29SEh

South African Air Force: Saab Gripen C/D

The Gripen is probably the world’s best light fighter. South African Gripens are well equipped, notably featuring the Cobra Helmet Mounted Display/ Cueing system. This, combined with IRIS-T missiles (again a world-class system), and the Gripen’s small size and agility, make the type the finest fighter in the merge in Africa. The lack of a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapon would make SAAF Gripens vulnerable to any fighter so equipped. This may not be cause for concern, as few air forces in Africa have fighters with a high-level BVR capability, and certainly no countries bordering South African do.

When Saab conceptualised the Gripen in the late 1970s it is unlikely that they considered the type’s performance in the role of policing rhinoceros poaching, but the little Swedish fighter has been doing just that. Gripens are patrolling the area near Zimbabwe border using their Rafael Litening III targeting pods to scan the area at night and direct rangers to any poachers’ camps.

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Noteworthy at least 12 of the aircraft were put into long-term storage in 2013 because of severe budget cuts. but since then it is believed that all SAAF Gripens are flying.

The SAAF has excellent training equipment, notably the upgraded Pilatus PC-7 Mk II and the superb BAE Systems Hawk Mk 120. However, budgetary constraints have limited pilot flying time, though the SAAF hope to increase this to 180 hours a year (this compares with 240 hours for RAF fast jet pilots). In a first, SAAF Gripens took part in an international training exercise in 2012. Exercise Lion Effort, which was held at the F17 Blekinge Wing in Ronneby, Sweden, gave the chance the SAAF the chance to learn and share operating techniques with the Gripen community. The SAAF currently has 26 Gripen C/Ds.

Saab JAS 39C/D Gripen
Radar: PS-05/A mechanically scanned radar
Air-to-air weapons: BK 27-mm Mauser cannon. IRIS- T (normally two), A-Darter. No BVR weapon.

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Sudanese MiG-29

The Sudanese air force (SAF) has the Russian-made MiG-29SEh. The twelve aircraft, ten single-seaters and two MiG-29UB twin-seaters (some sources suggest as many as 24) were ordered from the Russian Federation in 2002 and were delivered in 2003-2004. The aircraft are well armed with R-73 and R-77 missiles, but operate in a nation lacking wide-scale radar coverage. The aircraft cannot provide comprehensive air cover of Sudan, considering the country’s large size and are instead reserved for the defence of Khartoum.

The delivery of the fighters to Sudan was greeted with alarm by the US, who condemned the sale. Sudanese MiG-29SEh are well armed and fitted with a mediocre radar. It is alleged that Sudan has used mercenary pilots, possibly of Russian origin to fly its MiG-29s. South Sudan claimed they downed one during the 2012 border war, during which Sudanese MiG-29s performed bombing missions. The South Sudanese air force offers no real opposition for the SAF, as one source based in the region said to AFM:
“..they had nine Mi-17 helicopters, all of which are unarmed
transports, although one was badly damaged by enemy action in Likuangole and is still there and another in a storm when they forgot to tie down the rotors. Other than that they use private planes for transport. Rumours abound that they were looking to purchase fighter jets, however with the state of the economy this is unlikely to be in the near future.”

MiG-29SEh
Radar: Phazotron N019ME
Weapons: Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 and R-27 and R-77 missiles.

Eritrean Air Force: Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flankers’


In order to counter Ethiopia’s ‘Flanker’s during the 1998-2000 war, Eritrea ordered some of their own, though they did not get a chance to use them before the war ended in 2000. It is believed that Eritrean MiG-29s (some of which were reportedly flown by Ukrainian pilot instructors) were totally outclassed by Ethiopia’s Su-27s (some reportedly flown by Russian pilots), which by some accounts performed very well (some reports claim ‘Flanker’s downed four ‘Fulcrums’. Eritrea has two single-seat and a pair of two-seat ‘Flankers’.

Sukhoi Su-27
Radar: Phazotron N001 Zhuk mechanically scanned radar
Air-to-air weapons: Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30-mm cannon, R-73 short-range IR missiles and R-27 BVR semi-active radar-guided missiles

In the cockpit with real Topgun instructor: Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek takes us for a brief history of fighter cockpits, F-106 to F-35

Super Hornet cockpit

Flying twice as fast as an AR15 round and capable of pulling G forces that leave pilots with the same painful lack of mobility as if they weighed an actual ton, a fighter aircraft asks a lot of its pilot.

Fighting and surviving in such a hostile environment requires lightning-fast assimilation and response to a mass of information. Not only this, but today most fighters are multi-role and are tasked with destroying both air and surface targets. This is possible thanks to the wonder of the modern cockpit. We asked former Topgun instructor and F-14 Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek to give us the lowdown. Let’s slam the canopy shut and take a flight through 65 years of cockpit design.

“Sixty-five years seems like a long time, but the F-106 Delta Dart with which I start could be a threat today if still operational. And its near-contemporary, the F-4 Phantom, is still in service with five countries.

I was a Topgun instructor and an F-14 RIO, but for this article I’ll move into the front seat and look at instrumentation and controls. This is not an exhaustive survey, but a look at representative types that I selected. I’ll address the earliest version of each type because later developments had more to do with technical advancements than the state of aircraft design. Imagine a Spitfire Mk 24 with a podded radar, helmet mounted cueing system, and ASRAAM – with the controls and displays to support it all – and you get the idea.

“ICS check.” “Loud and clear.” “Okay, let’s get going.”

F-106A Delta Dart (first flight: 1956). I chose the F-106 to start because it is a memorable aircraft design of the 1950s. As a latter century series aircraft, I will argue it was part of the beginning of modern fighters. The Delta Dart was called a development of the F-102, but is significantly improved. In fact, the F-102 cockpit looks like something out of a hobbyist’s basement, while the -106 looks like a fairly modern fighter/interceptor, at least before the dawn of glass cockpits. The tape instruments add a modern touch, and the fact that it’s single-engine allows the panel to be less cluttered than dual engine types. I’ve read that the procedure to select weapons was “cumbersome” and would be difficult to accomplish under combat conditions. Such realisations were sweeping the aviation industry and led to modern HOTAS cockpits.

As a teenager I met a pilot who flew F-106s in the Florida Air National Guard, based in my hometown, and he arranged for me to fly their simulator during one of my visits to watch them fly. I was pretty excited, and to my surprise discovered that I was able to avoid crashing – with a lot of coaching from the simulator control console. The moving map display in front of the control stick was cool, it seemed futuristic in the 1970s. 

F-4B front cockpit

F-4B and F-4C Phantom II (first flights: 1961, 1963, respectively). I selected early Phantoms to help form a baseline, and the pilot instrument panel is similar to the F-106 in level of complexity. With a back-seater to handle the radar, the F-4 didn’t need a two-headed stick like the F-106. One element that doesn’t show up in the cockpit photos is the relatively poor outside visibility of both of these early aircraft; it just wasn’t a priority. But at least the F-4 pilot had a head up display (HUD), while the F-106 pilot had a large radar scope in front of his face. The Phantom HUD was likely deemed essential to its strike-fighter role.

F-14A Tomcat (first flight: 1970)

As a former Tomcat RIO I did not spend much time in the front seat, only a few sessions in simulators, and to keep the playing field level I am basing these comments on cockpit photos. I like the arrangement of critical flight instruments in an upper tier, with engine instruments and a situation display below them. The stick and throttle have numerous switches and buttons supporting HOTAS. The forward control panel looks relatively simple compared to the contemporary F-15A (which I am not evaluating), which can be at least partly attributed to the Tomcat having a rear cockpit for armament control switches and other controls. (F-15A first flight: 1972) The F-14A pilot’s primary tactical display was a repeat of the RIO’s TID, so crew coordination was important.  The F-14A HUD was helpful in some situations but most pilots decided it wasn’t that good: when it displayed all info it was cluttered and not what a pilot really wanted, and in the declutter mode it didn’t display very much. This was finally fixed in the F-14D, which got an improved HUD. The large canopy provided excellent visibility, which was one of many lessons from Vietnam air combat incorporated into the F-14.

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F-16A Fighting Falcon (1974)

A relatively uncluttered cockpit for a multi-role fighter, can be attributed to factors such as single-engine, limited air-to-air radar in the A-model, and emphasis on the HUD, as well as good design, of course. The monochrome tactical display is low and centred, with primary flight instruments immediately above. Cockpit visibility was outstanding due to the lack of a canopy windscreen bow and high-mounted seat. The side-mounted control stick pioneered in the F-16 has become familiar on other modern fighters and some commercial aircraft.

Su-27 ‘Flanker B’ (1977)

Approximately similar to the F-14 and Tornado in terms of visual complexity, with a major difference: no video screen in the centre. Some images show a video screen to the right side of the control panel. Lack of a tactical overview display seems to me a reduction in situational awareness, even if the pilot is using a helmet-mounted display (the early Flanker pilot had a rudimentary helmet cueing system rather than a display). Equipped with the now-standard HUD and HOTAS. The high seating position and bubble canopy provide excellent visibility. The cockpit looks less cluttered than the MiG-29, which also had first flight in 1977, probably because the bigger size provides more real estate for displays and controls.

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Tornado F3 (ADV; first flight: 1979). This is another pilot cockpit that benefits from being able to shift some controls and switches to the back seat. The F3 instrument panel is uncluttered, and features two medium-size video screens (I’ve seen smaller), one directly in front of the pilot. HOTAS – check … HUD – check, with extra points for wide angle … and of course there’s the wingsweep controller. The more I look at it, the more I like the neat and well-organised layout. One reason is the gauges are one of three sizes; in many American fighter cockpits each instrument seems to have a unique size. Tornado is probably one of the best cockpits before “glass” took over and gave us MFDs. Tornado also has a generous canopy, although it doesn’t have the 360-degree view of other fighters.

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Reader, from this point forward, please assume a HUD and HOTAS. They are now as standard as the wheel-shaped landing gear handle on the left side, as common as black and yellow stripes in a fighter cockpit. In addition, the remaining aircraft have multi-function displays instead of analogue instruments.

Rafale (first flight of Rafale C: 1991). Hard to believe it has been around 30 years since its first flight! The cockpit still looks modern and uncluttered. This is possibly due to the control stick being on the right side instead of central. The throttle has display image controls, ensuring a strong finish in the battle for who has the most HOTAS buttons. The wide-angle HUD, bigger than on previous aircraft, has to be a welcome development for almost any mission. The central screen is a ‘Head Level Display’ in Dassault terminology: larger than the side screens, which improves the pilot’s view of the image from a targeting pod. A large display was something F-14 RIOs enjoyed when viewing LANTIRN on our Tactical Information Display (TID or Programmable TID) compared to other fighter displays of the mid-1990s. The Rafale’s HLD is also focused at a greater distance than the screen’s actual distance from the pilot, which allows the pilot’s eye to remain focused at near infinity whether looking through the HUD or at the HLD, instead of changing focus between infinity and 1 metre. This may not sound significant, but it’s something I learned when I studied HUDs as a college student; a fine point that is very important.

Typhoon (first flight: 1994). To my eye, the Typhoon cockpit doesn’t look as sleek as the Rafale’s, because Typhoon has more controls and the MFDs look more familiar. Typhoon is more spacious, although I must admit Rafale appears adequate. Like the Rafale, the Typhoon also has a wide-angle HUD. These two aircraft are frequently compared, with this Hush-Kit article an excellent example but they have different purposes and strengths. The Typhoon’s multiple MFDs and pilot-tailorable displays look like a great way to display huge volumes of information very effectively. Like Rafale, Typhoon has a voice input system. I know these things are tested extensively before being fielded, so I’ll hope it works well, but based on current voice controls I am suspicious. Typhoon also has the benefit of a mature helmet display/cueing system, something only just entering the Rafale community (for at least one export customer).

An F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot assigned to the “Rampagers” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 83 waves from the cockpit at Naval Air Station Oceana after a regularly scheduled deployment in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operations. c. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark Thomas Mahmod)

F/A-18E Super Hornet (first flight: 1995). For the purposes of this overview, the Super Hornet cockpit appears similar to the Typhoon – modern and well-organized – with some notable exceptions. First, the Super Hornet doesn’t have a wide-angle HUD. I like the glare shields protruding from the top of the SH panel.

BF-02; Flight 126; LtCol Frederick Schenk; LtCol Scheck performing a STO and VL from the USS Wasp.

F-35 Lightning II (first flight: 2006). The biggest attention-grabber in this cockpit is the single large screen, with touch controls so extensive we see relatively few switches and controls elsewhere in the cockpit. The originator of the big screen was Gene Adam and he was at Macs in St Louis. He was predicting big picture flat screens in aircraft way back when a TV was the size of a camping rucksack.

The biggest attention-grabber is the side-stick location – yet another is the lack of a HUD – replaced by the pilot’s helmet-mounted display (HMD). The F-35 is establishing a new standard for fighter cockpits, with a similar large single display planned for the Gripen NG and Super Hornet Block III upgrade. The designed integration of the large display and the HMD will give F-35 pilots a very high level of situational awareness on any mission. I will complete this review by relating a candid discussion I had with unnamed F-35 pilots, who knew my service background. I felt they would have unloaded if they had any complaints. Instead, they smiled and said the new jet was – “Incredible,” with a big smile. Or maybe it was, “Awesome.”

Before leaving, let me offer a thought, something any aviator can tell you. If you look at these images and think the cockpits look complex, it’s because you don’t have experience in that type. The first time I saw the rear cockpit of an F-14, with dozens of panels and controls, I was stunned. But after completing my training and then flying more frequently (I averaged 39 hours a month my first few months in a fleet squadron in 1981), I realised I was reaching for switches and adjusting controls almost subconsciously. Training will be the key for pilots to employ these cockpits, no matter the design features or flaws.”

Former Topgun instructor and F-14 Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek has a new book out: ‘Tomcat RIO’. It tells the story of his return to the F-14 community after his tour as a Topgun instructor, as well as his eventual command of an F-14 squadron. It includes some of his best stories and unexpected challenges. It is available now in hardcover and e-book versions, and includes more than 50 of his amazing photographs. Here is his website.

Article idea suggested by book pledge supporter Greg Cruz. The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.

170829-N-NQ487-234 ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 29, 2017) Lt. Neil Armstrong waits in the cockpit of an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the “Knighthawks” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VAW) 211 during flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). Harry S. Truman has successfully completed flight deck certifications and is underway preparing for a tailored ship’s training availability and final evaluation problem. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaysee Lohmann/Released)