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The MiG-29 is a ‘Super Hunter’: Account from a MiG-29 fighter pilot


Air Marshal Harish Masand is a decorated veteran of the 1971 war, and a pioneer of the MiG29 force of the Indian Air Force. He is one of, if not the, the most celebrated Fulcrum pilot of the Indian Air Force. His solo MiG29 displays remain the stuff of IAF legend. We spoke to him about learning to master MiG-29 and its similarities to another fighter thoroughbred, the Hawker Hunter. 

“It was the autumn of 1986 when we landed up in Lugowaya, in Kirgistan, still a part of the USSR, to convert on the newly purchased MiG-29. The Indian contingent was about 200 strong with a large number of technical airmen, smaller number of technical officers, the core team of pilots from 47 & 28 squadrons, with me as the CO designate of 28 Sqn, and two controllers, if I recall correctly after almost two decades now. The weather was getting colder day-by-day and the trees were shedding their leaves to prepare for the oncoming winter, a pretty bleak landscape, but we all were pretty excited to be the first to convert and induct the so-far blanketed RAM-M, which I had seen only on some satellite photographs off Zhukhowsky.


The living conditions in Lugowaya and our time in minus 28 C blizzards could, perhaps, better form part of another musing some day. Here, I would rather describe how I fell in love with the 29 and why I soon started calling it the Super Hunter. For the lay reader, let me just introduce the fact that I had flown the Hunter for over 4 years and fought the 1971 Indo-Pak war in it from 37 Sqn in Hasimara and had about 400 hours of experience on it.


During ground training on the aircraft, which commenced immediately in the first week of October, we were asked to fill in a lot of forms giving our life history to the Soviets, one of which was the amount of flying done in the last 2/3 years. I was a Wing Commander then with a total service flying of about 2000 hours but had been in the cooler climes of Defence Services Staff College in the Nilgiris as an Instructor since October 1984 and had only about 5 hours of refresher flying on the MiG-21 a few months before departure to Lugowaya. My conduct, not to forget the perennial pipe, made the Sqn Cdr of the MiG-29 training squadron there, Lieutenant Colonel Neadogonov, feel that all his suspicions had been confirmed and the Indians also had a political commissar in their team, in me, to keep an eye on the contingent. Therefore, while he spoke to me with a little more respect, he did ask me if I was really a pilot, going to the extent of mentioning that he would have to refer this matter higher to figure out if I could be allowed to convert to the 29 with so little flying in the last two years. I was forced to politely, but strongly, tell him that the Government of India had selected me and paid for my conversion so he had to commence my flying along with the others, and in the order of seniority, though the decision to declare me unfit for the aircraft would be his. After this exchange, not quite as cold as the outside weather or heated, and perhaps also because of the speaking that Group captain Vaps Nair, the Command Ops rep, did on my behalf, Neadogonov said okay but did caution me that completion of the entire syllabus of about 20 sorties seemed doubtful for me since I was also slated for one sortie each in the more difficult phases of weapon firing, trainer captaincy and night flying, as one of the two squadron commanders in the Indian team.


I do not have my log book with me right now but I recall we started flying around mid-December with a blanket of snow all around already. My first dual check was with my designated instructor, Alex Xohlov, pronounced Hovlov, who was barely over 5 feet tall, which was a whole head shorter than me making the two of us quite a funny pair. Alex also spoke largely in Russian. Somehow, in the pre-flight training sessions, we had got to like each other and I understood the essentials of what he said towards aircraft control or maneuvering while he understood my broken Russian, despite Devyani Kaul’s best efforts at teaching me the language before we left for the USSR. We had already been given one ground start practice where we had gone through the starting procedure and pre-flight checks so I had become quite comfortable in the cockpit, with the space and thru-cockpit visibility of the Hunter, unlike the Su-7s and MiG-21s I had flown since the early 70s for almost 15 years then. With its great over the nose visibility, I was particularly comfortable the day we taxied out for the first trip with the combination of nose steer and soft nose oleo making for a smooth but undulating ride with the nose going up and down like a lazy cobra hood. The controls were light enough and reminded me again of the Hunter. The take off was planned in dry power and the nose came up beautifully at under 200 Km/h, with a slight nose down pitching moment when the main aircraft intakes opened at 200 IAS, and we were smoothly off the ground at about 270 Km/h. We climbed to 5 km at 700 indicated with a climb angle of about 15 degrees. The controls were smooth and light, as delicate as the first power-control aircraft I had flown, the Hunter, and required only a gentle caress to make the necessary corrections in pitch or bank. The brute power available from the engines was subtly felt through the muffled rumble in the cockpit while we climbed at just below max dry power. The visibility from the cockpit all around was again absolutely superb and made you feel free. What little I couldn’t see behind me, despite cork-screwing in my seat, was visible in the three rear-view mirrors. The Hunter had a single rear-view mirror and I was quite adept at flying with the mirror, keeping an eye on my wingman or the mock adversary in the mirror, while doing battle formation flying, tail chase and even combat. I think I was allowed to practice about 3 g turns at 5 Km in the first trip as per the approved conversion syllabus. This was a cinch and I gently asked Alex in my broken Russian if I could try 4-5g turns and then some aerobatics. He obviously felt that I was handling the aircraft well enough because all he said was ‘ok” and not “nilziya”, which means not permitted, as I half expected him to say.


Soon, I was enjoying myself doing hard turns, though not hard enough even at 5 g, loops, barrels and describing figures of eight on the horizon, not just because I was flying after a break, not because of the virgin white flatlands covered with snow below me but because the aircraft was so wonderful to handle, smooth and light like a sports car. The onset of the initial burble was at around 18 degrees on the angle of attack indicator and I found that at 15-16 alpha, the aircraft did everything smoothly even if the speed on the back of the loop was low. The joy was short-lived since after about 30 minutes of this dance in the sky, it was time to go home. Coming into land at a threshold speed of about 270-280 Km/h, I found the aircraft required little stick movement to flare and fly her onto the ground and after the first touch and go, I was ready to gently fly her onto the runway at about 240-250 Km/h. The tail chute was deployed soon after touch down to stop the aircraft on the likely icy and frozen bits of the runway. With the tail chute out, hardly any brakes were required to get to taxi speed, dump the chute on the edge and taxi back to the dispersal with a little occasional braking, as the 29 tended to accelerate even at idle power of the two engines. Throughout all this, Alex hardly said anything except an occasional “kharasho”, letting me do my own thing.


Once we got out after switching off and walked back to the squadron, huddled in the cold, Alex asked me “good?”. I said “athleechna” meaning excellent, I had enjoyed myself after all. Instead of debriefing me in the designated room, he took me straight back to the squadron commander, Neadogonov. From the rapid fire Russian between the two, I could barely gather much except that they were discussing my flight. Neadogonov looked at me quizzically towards the end and said words to the effect that I was kidding with them; either I had flown more than I had shown in the form and had I come with the evaluation team and had flown the 29 before. Debriefing myself and thinking about the trip later that day, it dawned on me that the cockpit visibility and feel of the aircraft was absolutely like the Hunter. More importantly, the take-off and landing speeds along with the rate of descent on finals were all similar to the Hunter when converted from Km and meters to Knots and feet. Even the rate of turn and g in dry power at 3-4 Km, or between 10-15000 feet, was the same as I had experienced in the Hunter. Soon I was calculating the radius of the loop and what else would the 29 do, similar to my favourite Hunter.


From then on, Neadogonov and the others gave me no problems in my flying and Alex Xohlov became more of a friend than an instructor to me. By the second or third solo trip, after examining my flight data, the deputy, Major Alex Kalsov told me, half in jest, while looking serious, that while there under conversion, I had better not do any loops or other manoeuvres below 1.5 Km altitude that was permitted to the trainees adding that I was free to do these over Rajpath after return to India. Separately, slowly Neadogonov and Kalsov started letting me do a little more with the aircraft like minimum height to 1 km and pulling 7 to 8g while the max permissible in their syllabus was about 5. During the night flying phase, while seeing us off at dusk for the solo trip, Neadogonov asked me to come to his office and chatted over a cup of tea till he said “ Harish, you can wait and go when its really dark, let the others go on now with a bit of last light.” Why I say all this is only to highlight how simple the 29 was to fly leaving you free to focus on combat employment since even with a break in flying, I could pick up the nuances of the aircraft pretty fast.

Back in India, and after adding a few more acceptance sorties at Nasik, where the aircraft was being handed over to us by the Russian erection team, to keep in touch and work out the radius of the loop after take-off with max burner amongst other manoeuvres, but still with under 20 hours on the type, I was at Palam to display the aircraft for the Air Force Day parade on 08 October 1987. How I got to that stage with even the tail slide being permitted to me is another story, to be told another day. But then, I had close to 430 hours on the aircraft, counting the ones I had on the Hunter. After all, the MiG –29 was a Super Hunter. A Hunter in dry power and a Super Hunter the moment you put on the burners. You couldn’t lose control of the aircraft unless you were bent on flying with 2 cross-eyes, and a pair each of crossed hands and legs. Better than the Hunter, with its two powerful engines, the 29 would always bring you back safe even if you lost an engine for some reason. It could comfortably do an overshoot in dry power from flare out height. After all each engine was really more powerful than the single Rolls Royce one on the Hunter.


Post-script: I commanded 28 squadron, the First Supersonics, till June 1989, doing operational flying and training but also displaying the aircraft all over in between with the badge of “Fulcrums: The Balance Rests On Us”. We even did the initial training for formation aerobatics on the aircraft till three aircraft, but this was later called off by higher authorities. From June 1989 till January 1991, I was Chief Operations Officer at Adampur where I kept in touch with the 29, since the third squadron of 29s was raised there with me around to help but never did the low-level stuff. In 1997, when I took over Air Force Station, Pune, I started this again slowly after a break of over 6 years in flying due to staff postings in the intervening period. The reasons and the story are for another time. However, in 1999, after over two years of this, the Chief of the Air Staff was pleased to award me “Displeasure” for doing low-level aerobatics without proper authorization. This was at the official age of over 53 years but, like I said, that would make another story. No regrets, but I have preserved the Displeasure for my grandchildren. After all, The MiG-29 is a Super Hunter and such a pleasure to do all the displays in and I am sure they would like to hear of my days on the Hunter and the Super Hunter. Only wish I could fly it again before I take off my flying boots for good.”

Special thanks to Angad Singh. 

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MiG-29 versus Mirage 2000: personal account from Air Marshal Harish Masand



The MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 are both fast and extremely agile fighter aircraft — but which of these formidable machines would win in a dogfight —  the French beauty or the Russian beast? We spoke to a man with the answer, Air Marshal Harish Masand

“Running through my papers in an attempt to organise my retired life, which now essentially revolves around the golf course or the study room so that I could start punching the keyboard instead of the buttons in the cockpit, I came across my log books the other day. As any die-hard fighter pilot would vouch for, log books can’t just be put down without at least a bit of reminiscing on the good old times, remembering the freedom of the skies and chasing dream-clouds not just like a breath of fresh air but 100% oxygen. What caught my eye that day was the entry starting 30 Mar 1988 of Ex Lightning. Even after two decades, the memory of those two weeks, till the middle of April, when we fooled around with the Mirage 2000s with our mint-fresh MiG-29s, is still vivid in my mind and took me back nostalgically to the old days with the smell of jet fuel instead of cologne, the sweat on your overalls, even if you changed one everyday and wore a fresh one, and of course the quiet roar of the jets despite the air-conditioning and sealing of the 29 cockpit muffling the sound of the powerful R-33Ds.


The exercise was conducted to evaluate the new 29s, received in Poona in June of 1987 but formally inducted in the IAF in December, against the Mirage 2000s, the best that the IAF had till then for over four years. While most of the ’29 jockeys barely had a 100 hours on type, one could not but feel the excitement of testing the machine, the individual skills and the newly developed tactics against the veterans on the Mirages I could feel this excitement amongst even the youngest and inexperienced pilots even though they were going to face the far more experienced Mirage pilots, all of the later handpicked for the first and many subsequent lots, most of them on the fleet for over 4 years and most with 500 hours plus on the type. Of course, one had also heard of how the Mirages had conducted a similar exercise against the MiG-23 MFs earlier in Adampur soon after the induction of the Mirages, whipped the veterans on the 23s and come home with a lot of gunshots against the ill-matched swing-wings. All the same, though we were relatively inexperienced, we were looking forward to the exciting and interesting two weeks ahead of us. In addition, in a couple of weeks after that exercise, our 28 Sqn was celebrating its silver jubilee as the First Supersonics and some of our attention had to go towards organisation of the events and preparations to tap into some professional and personal memories of the old-timers who were attending the function, including the then Chief, Polly Mehra, retired Air Marshal Mally Wollen and many other ex-COs and members of the First Supersonics. As it happened, after this exercise, we had our own tales to tell too.

“I think the ’29 is one of the best fighting platforms in the world even today”

Before I describe the events, I think it would be essential to put down the background a little more in detail to set the narrative in perspective. The trials were code-named Ex Lightning and were to be conducted in a Top Secret manner under the overall control and supervision of then Group Captain Jeff D’Souza, who was the Chief Operations Officer or COO of Air Force Station, Poona at that time. Jeff was a very qualified and capable officer having been on the staff of TACDE after winning the sword of honor in the 10th FCL course. On top of his impressive professional credentials, he was soft-spoken, mature and a truly likeable gentleman without any airs due to which reasons, as I remember, he commanded tremendous respect from all of us in the base as well as within the entire Air Force. The AOC, Air Commodore IS Bindra, had left the whole exercise to Jeff totally and was hardly ever seen for the brief/debriefs for the exercise. Jeff had made it quite clear at the start itself that ego and one-upmanship were taboo for the exercise and, while each specifically designed mission would be flown realistically to the limits of the aircraft, the rules of engagement and flight safety considerations were not to be violated. Also, considering the sensitive nature of the exercise and the information gathered, single copies of the mission reports after debrief would be generated by the nominated agency from either side, to be collated and forwarded to HQ personally by him. As a result, no performance figures or reports on the tactics were retained by the squadrons, at least on the 29 side. Due to this reason, as well as the fact that the information may still be sensitive, I hope the reader will understand the lack of any data or solid figures in this article. I only want to highlight the experience, some of the good times we had and the fun side of things in these two weeks.

“I only remember that the ’29 outperformed the Mirage in every sphere from sustained rate of turn to climb and even in instantaneous rate of turn.”

I was leading the team from the 29s while Pudding Ahluwalia, then commanding 1 Sqn, The Tigers, brought and led the Mirage Team from Gwalior. The first thing that struck anyone that saw the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 parked side by side in Poona was the finish and polish, as it had struck me in October 1987 when Joe Bakshi’s Mirages and our 29s were parked together in Hindon for the Air Force Day display over Palam. More than the sheer difference in size between the two aircraft, were, the clean lines and finish of the 2000 compared to the brutish rough finish and slightly wavy surfaces of the 29. While the finish on the 29 was much better than the MiG-23 or the 21, it was still nowhere close to the aerodynamically and aesthetically soothing finish of the 2000. Right from the first day of the exercise, therefore, I had started calling this a fight between the beauty and the beast and called the Mirage 2000 and their pilots “Delicate Darlings”, or DDs for short, a name that I had coined earlier in Hindon. The size difference between Pudding and me was exactly the reverse of the aircraft and I do not think Pudding ever appreciated being called a DD, particularly by me. When I had earlier used the term on Joe in jest at Hindon, he had merely laughed at it and, being the sport he was, even stood me a beer for thinking of such a term on a relatively quiet evening.


Air HQ had also detailed three umpires from TACDE and accordingly, Vicky Chopra, Damu Damodran and Joe Bakshi from that hallowed institution were with us for the entire duration, flying with us in the rear cockpits of trainer aircraft from both sides to see there was no fudging or exceeding the limits of the aircraft as well as safety of the missions while also making for some lighter moments in the debriefs and for the entire duration of the exercise. Joe was known for his limericks and jokes, apart from his flying skills, and mid-way through the exercise, he coined a poem on the whole scene in a lighter vein and another at the end, scribbling away in the last row, as I saw him in the debriefs. I found these two poems to be quite funny and put the originals in the 28 Sqn Diary. To make for a better perspective, I have placed the transcripts of these two poems at the end of this rumination.

“He still could not accept that the Mirage did not out-perform the 29, at least in the instantaneous rate of turn. I tried to pacify him by saying things like that the Mirage was certainly a good-looking aircraft with some great qualities and systems and he should be happy that he got the beauty while I had the beast.”

The first few trips were planned as individual performance trials with one trainer from each side flying together and synchronously carrying out the briefed maneuvers starting at low-levels to check the timings and compare the performance. I had Doc Vaidya, then commanding 7 Sqn on Mirages, flying with me for the first trip in the rear seat even though he was from the rival camp since the idea was also to familiarize each side with the handling qualities of the other aircraft. Pudding had asked me earlier, right at the start if he could send a young pilot and an engineer to my squadron to study the manuals and the aircraft in greater detail, also by interacting with our people. Perhaps, his idea was to find some way of countering our tactics by understanding our systems better. Later, I was told that he was collecting performance figures for his own private report to his C-in-C or Air HQ. Whatever may have been the purpose, we did not dwell or worry about it since we were still from the same Air Force and the idea was to mutually learn and improve each other’s tactics and skills. That is also the reason why Doc Vaidya, who became a dear friend over the years, found a place in the rear-seat of my 29 on the very first trip. I do not quite recall what he felt about the experience except for the words “wonderful” and “thank you”. Perhaps, Doc would write about the experience himself someday.


I only remember that the ’29 outperformed the Mirage in every sphere from sustained rate of turn to climb and even in instantaneous rate of turn. This was as our side had expected, having earlier theoretically compared the performance figures for the two aircraft. The only doubt in our minds was about the performance of the fly-by-wire system which could reportedly produce the optimum performance on the Mirage in any given set of conditions, albeit with an over-ride for the slightly enhanced performance for a short duration while we had to get the best out of the MiG-29 manually through conventional hydraulic controls. Due to this reason, I would have been quite content to see the initial instantaneous rate of turn on the Mirage to be better, at least for the first 90 to 180 degrees of the turn, till the induced drag of the delta platform and the lower thrust to weight ratio of the Mirage took over. However, I had been working on coordinated pressures on the control surfaces to generate even rapid manoeuvres, instead of large or even noticeable movements on the controls which had their own problems, particularly at low-levels, for my displays on the 29 since Aug-Sep 1987 and, was very pleasantly surprised to see that this effort really paid off and even the instantaneous rate of turn was in our FAVOUR..

In a turn towards the Mirage, I found we were crossing even 90 degrees before the Mirage. Also, I had noticed, while practicing for the displays, that the 29 accelerated even at 9g at low-levels if the power was ahead of the onset of g and, therefore, required a coordinated turn with power management to stay at the optimum speed and at the desired g.


As a matter of fact, I used to brief and show my younger pilots that if you went up faster on the throttle than the onset of g, the aircraft would be on the higher side of the curve and would keep accelerating even at 9g. In that case, the options were only two, either reduce the power to get the speed back or pull more than 9g, the latter option being beyond the laid-down limits for the aircraft. The corollary was that, at the correct speed and with the correct technique, the 29 would keep turning at 9g at low-levels till either you conked off or till the gas ran out. I mean the gas had to run out either in you or the aircraft if you wanted to foolishly continue with such a manoeuvre for a prolonged duration. Such was the brute power of the two engines on the 29 and the thrust-weight ratio. Naturally, our rate of climb was also better. While range fuel consumptions were better for the Mirage due to the shape and the resultant profile drag apart from the weight and the single engine configuration, in combat situations, we ended up consuming almost the same fuel due to the fact that the 29 did not have to remain in the afterburner regime through out the engagement.


Pudding was naturally upset with this outcome and convinced Jeff to repeat the sortie. Jeff agreed since a couple of other parameters, particularly in initial and sustained rate of climb, had to be rechecked in any case. So next day in the green period, there we were, Pudding and I, with Vicky and Joe in the rear cockpits I think, to haul the aircraft around again and measure the figures. Quite naturally, the results were the same as before. During debrief, Pudding first started off with the proposition that we were not comparing pilots but aircraft and, therefore, instead of me, somebody else should fly the 29. While I was quite happy to let even the youngest and most inexperienced pilot fly in other tactical exercises, such 9g manoeuvring and handling the aircraft to its limits at low-levels was something that one could not leave to a lesser qualified and less experienced pilot.


I, therefore, opposed the suggestion and Jeff agreed with my view. In a lighter vein, I also made a counter-suggestion that, instead of Pudding, someone 40 Kg lighter fly the Mirage which might improve its thrust-weight ratio and thus its performance. I am sure if Pudding had been wearing slippers at that time, I would have got them immediately but since he could not easily bend down and undo his flying boots, I got away with just glares. If only looks could kill. I also remarked that the Mirage could be flown by anybody since you merely demanded the best performance from the smart fly-by-wire system. Unfortunately, with a ‘dumb’ flying control system in the 29, we needed rather smart pilots to fly it to its limits. Pudding let me off again, having known each other quite well since the early years of our flying in Hasimara/Bagdogra. Finally, it was decided by Jeff that we would do yet another trip for the instantaneous rate of turn, to be measured only through 90 degrees of turn. While we were leaving the briefing room, Joe just whispered “Dirty Harry getting dirty looks, Keep checking 6”. As may be obvious from the foregoing, we were ahead even within 90 degrees while sustaining our speeds.



Later, we got into group combat and specific missions to try out the aircraft in their designated roles, where even the most inexperienced of our lot were given the opportunity to participate, some with less than 50 hours on type. From the tales I heard in and outside the briefing room, I know they all had a lot of fun while learning DACT with a capable and experienced adversary. While I do not wish to go into individual skills and claims in this area, it may not be difficult to guess these, being typical of die-hard fighter jocks. Suffice it to say that, in these exercises, our radar, IRST, HMSD and the voice information system really proved their worth and were put to good use.

Over the two weeks, I think we all had a great time and built a good bond between the two teams and the fleets, despite all the professional rivalry. In this regard, I particularly remember ‘Fuzz’ Moulik getting quite sentimental and emotional with his course-mates and friends from the other side, particularly “Sexy” Saxena, I think, from the Mirage fleet. Those who know Fuzz will know what I am talking about. For those who do not know Fuzz well, Fuzz gets all emotional and sentimental over a couple of drinks with friends but, underlying it, one can see that he really means every word of affection and would do anything for a friend. Pudding and I remained friends, though rivals for a long time through our careers which took us on different routes. One of the young friends that I made from Mirages was Cheema, now flying for Jet Airways, and we still play golf and share a drink whenever I am in Delhi and he is not on the roster for the next day. I got to know Cheema, then a Flt Lt, in very peculiar and rather funny circumstances that I must add as the concluding episode of Ex Lightning.


The exercise got over on 14 April and the next day the Mirages were to fly back to Gwalior. Having known Pudding for so long, I invited him along with Jeff and a few others to a dinner in the best place in town those days, the Blue Diamond. The GM of Blue diamond, Rajan Kelshikar and his wife Neelu, had become real close to Malini, my wife, and me through the induction days since they were taking care of the Russian Warranty Team and catered for most big events at the base and the VIPs visiting us. With Rajan being kind enough to include me for discounts in the hotel, I could afford to invite a fairly decent number to the hotel as their farewell dinner. After a few drinks, Pudding got a little sentimental and carried away affectionately calling me by the distorted pet name he had for me from Adampur days, ‘Khappusky’, a Russian variation of the pet name I had on Hunters in Hasimara, and said that he still could not accept that the Mirage did not out-perform the 29, at least in the instantaneous rate of turn.


I tried to pacify him by saying things like that the Mirage was certainly a good-looking aircraft with some great qualities and systems and he should be happy that he got the beauty while I had the beast etc. Not being able to reconcile to going back in this manner, Pudding suggested that, before they ferried out the next morning, he and I should do a 1 Vs 1 to prove who was the better pilot and which really was the better aircraft in front of all the people on the base right overhead. For this, we should take off in a spectacular manner; he would take off on Runway 10 while, simultaneously, I should take off reciprocal on 28, each in our lane on the same runway, do a roll of the top and from there engage in a 1 Vs 1. Jeff was watching this conversation with a wisp of a smile and winked at me to give me encouragement.

I responded by asking pudding which Air Force he was in and that, in any case, while he could maintain his lane on take-off on the DD with its sophisticated inertial navigation system, I could barely keep the brute of a 29 on the entire runway with its two engines in full afterburner. In any case, they were supposed to ferry back quietly the next morning and the roar of three engines in full afterburner at one time would wake up even the dead and perhaps make the AOC, who was not particularly fond of me, wonder what on earth was going on, come out of his office and lynch me from the nearest tree. Why AOC Bindra was not fond of me and the good times we had together will make for another interesting story later perhaps. Pudding kept insisting on a fly-off before he left while I kept telling him to enjoy himself, his drinks and go home without such a shoot out. Jeff then told me to go ahead and take him on.


I, then, proposed that we take off with a break so that it sounds like two aircraft doing their own thing, perhaps an air test or something even like a take-off for ferry and time each aircraft from wheels roll. Each would then do a loop after take-off, a 360 degree turn and end with another loop, the whole sequence being timed from start to finish. The aircraft with the lesser timing would have proven its performance along with the skill of the pilots. A case of Black Label was agreed as the prize. The time would be kept by Jeff with a time-keeper from each side. Flt Lt Cheema was nominated from the Mirage fleet while, I think, Late Rathan or/and young Sandeep Singh were sent from our side to the ATC. Well, that is how I got to know Cheema well. I would not like to reveal the timings here but suffice it to say, the verdict was clearly in favor of the 29. After the event, Pudding tried to argue that timing from wheels roll was unfair since we had two engines and he took off on a single one. Guess he wanted us to be foolhardy enough to fly the routine on a single engine to be even. Even from unstick, the 29 was ahead by a vast margin for obvious reasons. AOC Bindra never found out, I guess, since he never asked me a question on this nor issued a warning. As far as I know, he did not question Jeff on this either. Pudding, before leaving, gave me the money for four bottles which we busted up in a fleet party on my birthday after a week on 23 April. The Sqn is still waiting for the remaining eight bottles. I last reminded Pudding of the remaining debt a month before he retired as the AOC-in-C WAC. In the meantime, Cheema got into the bad books of Pudding as the messenger with bad timings.


I think it must be obvious that I enjoyed the ’29 a lot, a little more than the Hunter on which also I have some very fond memories. With its superb aerodynamic qualities, ‘light-n-easy’ control forces, the reserve of power and some great and rugged systems not seen in contemporary fighters, the 29 was like a multi-million dollar sports car which I enjoyed hauling around and exploring its limits. Certainly, the beast was a beauty to handle and never let me down. Nor should it let down anyone with a good head on his shoulders. Handled and serviced correctly, I think the ’29 is one of the best fighting platforms in the world even today and should benefit by the upgrade in the IAF, if done right. I certainly wish the upgrade had come in my time but better late than never.”

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Note from Hush-Kit

I’m indebted to Air Marshal Harish Masand and Angad Singh in making this interview possible.


Flying & Fighting in the MiG-29: Interview with Indian Air Force ‘Fulcrum’ pilot Air Marshal Harish Masand


A modern MiG-29 of the Indian Air Force.

Air Marshal Harish Masand is a decorated veteran of the 1971 war, and a pioneer of the MiG29 in the Indian Air Force. He is one of, if not the, the most celebrated Fulcrum pilot of the Indian Air Force. His solo MiG29 displays remain the stuff of IAF legend. We spoke to him about flying the formidable MiG-29. 


“(The instantaneous turn rate of the MiG-29) Beats all 4th generation fighter that I have read about or flown. Goes into a turn with 9g, or over if you wish to exceed the limits, in a jiffy with very small and smooth movements of the controls as if you had just willed it to turn, almost like a sports car.”

What were your first impressions of the MiG-29?

“It’s an amazing fighter. First looks give a very rugged, tough and menacing look like a hooded Cobra ready to pounce. The first time I flew it, I felt I was in a Hunter all over again. In dry power, it had very similar performance in almost every aspect including ease of handling and light controls. With afterburner, it became a super Hunter with much better performance. Thereafter, I published an article entitled, “The MiG-29 is a Super Hunter” in VAYU magazine describing my impressions in greater detail (which will be shared on shortly)

Which three words best describe it?

“Awesome, incredible, deadly.”


All images: author if not otherwise specified.

When did India procure the MiG-29s and where were you trained?

“India signed the contract in 1986 and starting October 1986, the initial lot, including me, converted on the aircraft in the Soviet Union. We flew from a base called Lugovaya. After conversion and return to India, we trained others and ourselves on the aircraft.”

What is the best thing about it?

“Its thrust to weight ratio which was about 1.1:1 at take-off and came close to 1.3:1 at combat weight.”


And the worst thing?

“Not enough gas. The upgraded versions now have more internal fuel as well as AAR.”

Interview with Su-30 pilot here

How do you rate the MiG-29 in the following categories?

A. Instantaneous turn: “Beats all 4th generation fighter that I have read about or flown. Goes into a turn with 9g, or over if you wish to exceed the limits, in a jiffy with very small and smooth movements of the controls as if you had just willed it to turn, almost like a sports car.”

IMG_1004 (1).jpg

B. Sustained turn: “At the corner speed, you could sustain 9g forever at ISA+10 (Indian atmospheric conditions) till you run out of gas or break your own back/neck trying to hold such g. As a matter of fact, you had to smoothly manage and coordinate the power with onset of g in the initiation of the turn, everything happening pretty rapidly. If you put on full burners too fast compared to onset of g, the aircraft would accelerate and you have to either haul more than 9g or reduce burners.”


C. High alpha: “Carefree handling without worry of departures despite hydraulic controls with a stability augmentation system but no FBW. I used to demonstrate the tail slide on the aircraft regularly at shows within India those days. A mild judder told you when you were close to max alpha. A stick-pusher activated when you reached the stall but you could override it with a little effort. Post-stall, you could just sit back with stick fully back and the aircraft would behave like a falling leaf with slight rocking from side to side. Recovery was instantaneous with even slight relaxation on the control column and unloading.”

D. Acceleration: “Amazing due to the thrust to weight ratio and high SEP. In clean configuration, you can do a loop straight after take-off while accelerating for a max rate after finishing the loop. After a demo of slow speed handling at about 200 Km/h IAS, you could engage burners, put the landing gear lever in the ‘up’ position in one motion with your left hand and start the loop without having to unload to build-up speed.”

E. Climb rate: “Again amazing due to the same reasons. With full burner, if I remember correctly, it was about 330m/second soon after take-off.”

What was your most memorable mission? 


“I suppose my most memorable mission on the MiG-29 was the 5 minute flight I did against the Mirage 2000 at the end of comparative performance evaluation trials against the Mirages on April 15, 1988. The Mirage Squadron Commander was unhappy with the results and insisted on a personal shoot-out before his departure on a personal wager of a case of Black label. We agreed to a profile of loop after wheels roll, a 360 degree turn finishing with a loop to evaluate which aircraft could do this profile faster. I beat him with a significant margin and got 6 bottles, which were consumed by the entire fleet that very night. I still vividly remember this fun mission since the remaining 6 bottles are still awaited, hopefully with interest. The sort of fly-off is described in more details in an Article entitled ‘Rivals From the Same Team‘ published in VAYU magazine soon (which is shared on here)

10 incredible cancelled spyplanes here

Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?

“In the MiG-29, we were doing DACT with almost all aircraft/squadrons of the IAF in turn for honing the skills of both sides in group combat and developing the right tactical manoeuvres. Later, as base commander of Poona and induction of the Su-30Ks, I did a number of DACT missions with the Su-30s. I found those the most challenging since the performance of both aircraft was similar.

The Su-30 had more gas and could last much longer in combat with similar performance. Therefore, the challenge always was to find ways to get a couple of quick shots and disengage before you started worrying about gas.”

Interview with MiG-25 pilot here

Interview with MiG-27 pilot here

How good were the sensors?

“Excellent. The combination of the powerful Pulse-Doppler radar, IRST and helmet mounted sight with the weapons slewed to the sensors was wonderful and unique since it did not exist on any other comparable aircraft those days.

 How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?

Absolutely easy with carefree handling characteristics. Like I said earlier, I felt I was flying a Super Hunter in the very first sortie on the 29 and felt absolutely at home even though I only had under 400 hours on the Hunter, flown 15 years earlier. The hardest thing was to teach my juniors how not to exceed the g limits in their excitement of engaging in combat since the aircraft had no g limiter and had to be initially flown to its limits by feel, cross-checked with the instruments as and when one could steal a glance inside. The idea was to touch 9g and stay there without having to look inside.

How would you rate the cockpit?

“Very comfortable. Roomier than all the previous Russian aircraft I had flown. Very effective cockpit air-conditioning too, also unlike all the other Russian aircraft I had flown. While we didn’t have a glass cockpit, which has now come with the upgraded MiG-29s of the IAF after I retired, personally I was very comfortable with the dials because I kept my eyes out most of the time with only an occasional glance inside. The HUD quality could have been better. I believe we have a much better HUD now along with a helmet mounted display. The voice information system, better known as Natasha, was also very helpful.”

Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like?

“I fired all possible weapons on the Hunter, Su-7 and the MiG-21s. Firing weapons gave you confidence in the systems and you always had the adrenalin pumping in to improve your score and win side-bets. On the MiG-29, I only fired an R-73 CCM (AA-11/Archer) on a manoeuvring target, which also was a great experience.”

 How confident would a MiG-29 pilot feel going against a modern F-16? 

“In a modern MiG-29 like the upgraded one or the M version, and trained well, I feel the pilot should be supremely confident against the modern F-16.”

What is the greatest myth about the MiG-29?

“That the MiG-29 is not very reliable. With the help of technical officers, I personally carried out a reliability study on the 29s. It is a very rugged aircraft. Maintained correctly, the MTBF of systems was as good or better than most comparable systems.”


How combat effective is the MiG-29?

“For the role it’s designed, it is pretty effective. Now it has multi-role capability and more fuel so it should be even better.”

 How reliable and easy to maintain is it?

“As I said earlier, the systems are pretty reliable. Actually, the pre-flight servicing and maintenance is simple. It provides for pre-flight and operational turn-around with just replenishments with a check of the systems during start through a BITE known as EKRAN. The reliability of the systems improved if serviced in this manner. However, initially, with over-servicing and checks in the pre-flight, we burnt a lot of systems and had to cannibalise due to lack of spares, which affected the availability of the aircraft and future reliability of the systems. Periodic servicing is, perhaps, more frequent than comparable western aircraft particularly for the engines but, then, that is based on the Russian philosophy of more thrust and performance with less life. At the squadron level in the early days, without previously having ever done it, we did an engine change in just about 3 hours with another hour for a ground run check. Initially, the engines also had problems of quality control during manufacture with failure of nozzle guide vanes and internal object damage. We also had some FODs due to lack of nose wheel guards/deflectors in the initial aircraft and the position of the nose wheel relative to the main air intakes when the FOD doors were still open. We overcame the FOD problem with a change in the normal landing run technique. An example of the reliability of the engines may also interest your readers. Once, after we had landed from a mission, the technicians informed us that the right engine of my wingman’s aircraft had extensive damage. On examination, it was revealed that one of the bolts from the air intake had come loose and had been injected with all visible blades completely gnashed up. I asked my wingman if he had heard any noise during flight and whether he had noticed if he needed a few extra revs on the right engine to keep the aircraft in trim in yaw. To our surprise, my wingman said, he never heard anything and actually needed about 2% more on the undamaged left engine at cruise settings. The damaged engine had kept functioning all the way without any problems. ” 


Flying & fight in the Gnat at War here 

   Tell me something I don’t know about the Fulcrum?

“Well, in a lighter vein, I can’t do mind reading, particularly from a remote location. What is it that you don’t know but would like to know? Perhaps, you don’t know that, with the reliability and redundancy in almost all systems, the MiG-29 can be recovered with almost any in-flight failure. In all my time with the MiG-29 as a squadron commander and, later, as the base commander, we didn’t lose a single aircraft or pilot.”

 What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the MiG-29?

“The one major tip would be to learn to fly the ’29 smoothly by feel till you perfect handling the aircraft to its limits in its huge envelope. The other would be read up all the technical information on the aircraft and systems till you know it inside out to be able to handle the weapon systems efficiently and get the most out of them. Last, regularly practice gun-shots on manoeuvring targets. If you can do that, missile shots become far easier.”

How much post-stall manoeuvring can the average squadron pilot do? Is this a rare skill?

“There isn’t much any combat aircraft can do after it has stalled except to recover quickly for further manoeuvring. Therefore, in my personal opinion, post-stall manoeuvring in combat is a myth. What I would like the average squadron pilots to do is to learn to manoeuvre the aircraft at extreme alphas just short of the stall and know how to rapidly get it to the best manoeuvring alpha while still engaged with the opponent.”


What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a MiG-29?

“Perhaps, the tail slide. However, it has little combat value and may be practiced only to get complete mastery of the aircraft. Apart from that, as in all 9g aircraft, the hardest human thing is to be able to look out while in a 9g manoeuvre, particularly at low-level.”

Everything you wanted to know about Indian air power (but were afraid to ask) here

What should I have asked you?

“You could have asked me if you could arrange a trip for me in the 29? I’d love to haul it around again. You could have also asked me as to why, despite the reliability and redundancy of systems, so many MiG-29s have been lost, including in the parent Russian Air Force. I would’ve just said due to poor training and leadership/supervision.”


 How important is the helmet mounted sight?

“In the early days, the helmet mounted sight was a great advantage even though it was rather primitive with just a pointing/aiming system with no other information. However, it helped cue the sensors as well the missiles on to the target and saved precious seconds in lock, launch or taking a gun-shot on the selected target.”

Interview with a Mirage 2000 pilot here


Image credit: Angad Singh

What were the biggest challenges in integrating the MiG-29, did anything need to be changed to make the most of the aircraft?

“Personally, I had the biggest challenge in trying to change the maintenance and servicing philosophy, practice and processes to extract the best from the aircraft. In addition to that, it was also a challenge to train new pilots and select the right team, which could extract the maximum out of the aircraft without compromising safety.” 

 In air combat with a Mirage 2000, who would have the advantage and why?

“Without doubt, the MiG-29 would have the advantage due to its better overall performance including in Thrust to Weight ratio and aerodynamics. ” 

More MiG-29 exploits from Air Marshal Masad here.

10 incredible cancelled spyplanes here


Note from Hush-Kit

I’m indebted to Air Marshal Harish Masand and Angad Singh in making this interview possible.

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From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as:

“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.


        • Interviews with pilots of the F-14 Tomcat, Mirage, Typhoon, MiG-25, MiG-27, English Electric Lighting, Harrier, F-15, B-52 and many more.
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Battle Flight: Phantoms of RAF Germany

All photos copyright Ian Black

Throughout the Cold War, Britain’s Royal Air Force had military aircraft based in West Germany. For the airmen of RAF Germany the thought that the vast forces of the Warsaw Pact may one day be met in battle was an extremely sobering prospect, not least as it likely meant guaranteed death within a matter of days, if not minutes. We spoke to Ian Black about life in a RAF Germany F-4 Phantom squadron.

What was the Phantom’s role in RAF Germany?

“Well initially the Phantom FGR2 was introduced into RAF Germany as nuclear strike aircraft with 3 Squadrons based At RAF Brüggen,. There was a dedicated Squadron for reconnaissance at RAF Laarbruch who also had a secondary strike role. This lasted til 1976 when the Jaguar replaced the Phantom (rather ironic as it could carry half the weapons over a shorter range but that was the way the RAF worked). Some reorganisation on aircraft types and bases saw the Lightnings at RAF Gütersloh withdrawn and replaced by the F-4s. Moving further back was controversial but it was deemed better the Harriers left Wildenrath and were located on the border and the F-4 Phantoms took over ‘Battle Flight’ (the RAF Germany name for QRA”

“How did local civilians view us? Probably not great…one of our aircraft was shot by a local in the circuit and landed with a bullet hole in the stabilator!”

What was your biggest fear if war had broken out?

“Well… dying! But as I posted on Twitter: a blue-on-blue or being shot down by the NATO short range air defence Hawk/Rapier missile operators who were known to be trigger-happy. I mentioned that the MiG-23/27 was very hard to distinguish from our own Jaguars head-on. In the early 80s the only way we identify a hostile target was visually. To add to the complexity, 75% of the time the weather we flew around in gave us visibility of 5kms or less. You had around 5-10 seconds to get a visual acquisition and decide to squeeze the trigger.The Sparrow had a pretty small window of minimum and maximum range at low level on a head-on target.”

“Winters were pretty severe.” The little house on the tail was not actually there.

How did we compare to other Phantoms of the time? At low level we were superior in every respect.”

How long would the Phantom force have likely survived in World War 3? “Good question. Hard to say. We were in the middle of the central region but we only had 22 FGR2 phantoms – two were always on major servicing, that’s 20. I’d say 25% were unserviceable most of the time, so realistically if we had 15 fully serviceable jets on the base that was good going. I guess the UK would have sent out aircraft but to be honest they were stretched as well. So, perhaps two-three days if the Warsaw Pact kept marching forward. You can see the nuclear option might have happened very quickly just to stop the surge.”

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“We were like a pack of marauding wolves hunting our quarry without mercy.”

What was the nastiest threat aircraft you expected to face? “In the Warsaw Pact the MiG-29 which was just coming into service. The MiG-21 would have eaten an F-4 alive in a visual fight but realistically we wouldn’t be seeing a MiG-21 at 250 feet near the Dutch border as it didn’t have the range. Likewise, I don’t think the MiG-23 would have been a big threat to the FGR2.

What was your most memorable flight?

“I loosened my straps and checked our 6 ‘o’ clock . Sidewinders growling, we locked up a German F-104 and took out first shot.”

“Any flight in an FGR2 is memorable but if one sticks in my mind, it would be the ‘Battle of Pehiem Mast’. We had got airborne as a four-ship of FGR2s with the simple code of @ ATAF SOPS in the authorisation sheets. This meant 2 ATAF (2nd Tactical Air Force ) and standard operating procedures. That meant we could intercept and try to engage any aircraft at low level and be legally allowed to perform two 360 degree turns and one reversal. In reality we were cleared for full-up low-level air combat! We would get airborne from Wildenrath, hard turn south away from the Dutch border, and pitch back east and work our way north. All silently. No radio comms. Transiting at 420 knots in Card 4 (in a diamond formation of four like a 4 playing card ) we were like a pack of marauding wolves hunting our quarry without mercy. “

“We flew through LFA 2 and headed to the twin power stations that marked the start of LFA (low flying area 1). LFA was very flat with no hills or high terrain except one 730-foot radio mast in the middle of the area. No, LFA 1 was south of GAF Jever and home to the TLP courses that ran a couple of times a year often with up to 60 aircraft. On this day as we turned north my radar started to show 2 then 4 then 8 then 20 then multiple contacts! I guessed around 40 aircraft all at low level. It was like a Space Invaders game as we put the targets on the nose. My pilot could see the mast and then the mêlée that was going on. It was like some huge Cold War wagon-wheel. We joined in to this mega fight. I loosened my straps and checked our 6 ‘o’ clock . Sidewinders growling, we locked up a German F-104 and took out first shot. I saw F-104s , G91, F-16s F-15s and F-111s all just in one huge daisy chain all trying to get shots on each other. We arrived in the fight in full reheat and started picking people off whilst making some token effort to ensure we didn’t get shot. It probably lasted 10 minutes and we were out of gas – and headed for home. We take nine simulated shots.. 8 missile shots plus some gun film of a lone F-104 trying to turn with the rest. Thats a memory I won’t forget for a long time.”

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How was life in Germany different to life in a UK squadron?
“Clearly we were better as we were on the front line – it was certainly more operational but then we didn’t do live QRA intercepts on the Russians so it wasn’t all kudos. 90% of our flying was low level over land and we didn’t fly at night much . In one three letter word it was more FUN.”

How did local civilians view you?
“Probably not great as one of our aircraft was shot by a local in the circuit and landed with a bullet hole in the stabilator! I guess they tolerated us but not with welcome arms particularly. There was though some pretty passionate enthusiast who kept a good record of our movements.”

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Did war with the Soviets seem likely?
Very. We literally went shopping with our full NBC kit and gas masks in the boot of the car so yes 24/7 we were ready to go – it certainly wasn’t a game.”

Was the Phantom a good aircraft for the role – did it have all the desired equipment?
“Brilliant (though the Tornado F3 would have been as good if not better). We had the best radar in NATO – 30 mile pick-ups on low level targets 8 missiles , two crew and a pretty good RWR as well as an Inertial Navigation system which was jam-proof.”

What was your social life like?
“Tough, as we lived and breathed squadron life 24-7.”

Did any pilot consider themselves the best, if so who – and were they right? “Not at all. Some were average but no one was the best. It was actually quite strange doing a job where there was no real pecking order.”

What was 19 Sqn’s culture like – who did you consider your rivals?
“92 were our rivals in a friendly way – we didn’t mess with the West German Air Force F-4s, but worked closely with the BAF and Dutch F-16s as well as USAFE and CAF guys.”

What did you think of German and US fighter units in Germany?
“The USAFE were good as were the Belgians at the time. When I was there the F-4FGs had pulse-only radar and old missiles so they were not as capable as they ended up”

Tell me something I don’t know about RAFG Phantom life
“I spent three months of my life out of three years on 24 hour alert – and I got four live scrambles. “

How did British Phantoms compare to US and German Phantoms of the time?At low level we were superior in every respect.”

What should I have asked you?
“Why did I want to be a pilot having flown in the back for three years? Because that’s what I should have done from day one but at the time they wanted back-seaters – but I have no regrets. I loved the ‘luxury’ of being a back-seater and the relative lack of pressure. “

“The Gun was very good – but it was externally mounted so a hard landing could knock it off harmonisation.”

Is it true German pilots had cooler uniforms and clothing?
“Not at all! They wore orange flying suits and looked ridiculous 🙂 The USAF though had cool flight gear and it was always our aim to try and swap flight gear at beer calls but we were only allowed to wear non-standard stuff away from home base like Deci and Cyprus .. quite comical seeing everyone arrive then get their “ party” gear out ! We all stuck to wearing RAF helmets apart from one guy who had a modified US Navy bone-dome but it wasn’t encouraged.”

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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.”

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

The greatest aircraft of the Indian Air Force, Part 1: The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 by KS Nair

In the first of our celebrations of the most significant aircraft of the Indian Air Force we’ll look at the MiG-21. Fast, agile and extremely manoeuvrable, this Soviet ‘pocket rocket’ has served for almost 80% of India’s history as an independent nation.

“I once flew a DACT mission against two MiG-29s, I didn’t engage them in a turning fight. I kept my fight vertical and got two kills.” -–– Group Captain MJA Vinod (full interview here)

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 was first inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1963. That was fifty-seven years ago, and the induction was of six aircraft. In the nearly six decades since then, the IAF has flown something approaching nine hundred examples of the type. And three-quarters of that number were built in India. On that basis alone, it is one of the most important Indian warplanes. The acquisition was transformational for the IAF, and in some ways beyond the IAF, for India. For a sense of where the transformation began, for the first ten years after Independence, India had genuine financial incentives to source imports from the UK. Hence the acquisitions of Tempests, Vampires, Hunters and Gnats. By the late 1950s India was seeing value in diversifying its sources of weaponry. Hence that initial batch of six Soviet MiG-21s. The MiG-21 was the first major non-Western weapon system India ever acquired. It was a huge change, going far beyond the language of the manuals. The Soviets had completely different design philosophies and combat doctrines, so completely different maintenance and operational practices.

In what would have been a case study in the private sector, the IAF made a conscious decision to acquire the technology – but to not adopt the procedures and tactics. The IAF planned from the start to use MiG-21s the way Western air forces use their interceptors; in independent squadrons, mobile between bases operating other types as well. This was different from Soviet / Warsaw Pact practice, of operating in regiments, about two or three times the size of a squadron, and generally operating one regiment of a single type from a base. Simplifying somewhat, this was also substantially the way the Luftwaffe had operated in WW2 – their deployable unit was the Gruppe, not the Staffel.

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The IAF used the MiG-21, and other Soviet hardware later, in ways their designers had never intended. The Soviets, planning for massive continent-wide land battles, built and deployed the MiG-21, as they did most of their military kit, in vast numbers, intending to stockpile them at different locations throughout Central Europe. They were essentially disposable assets, to be abandoned after a short cycle of intense operations. Operating life in war would have been measured in days, or at most weeks. India needed different ancillary equipment, maintenance schedules, and much else.

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When she procured the MiG-21, initially largely as a response to Pakistan’s acquisition of F-104 Starfighters, they were considered high-value assets, to be husbanded and carefully used primarily against those Starfighters. This use imposed different maintenance needs, quite different from the Soviet. The IAF developed maintenance processes, schedules for replacing parts, spares inventory requirements, geared in ways the Soviets had never planned for. In the acid test, the MiG-21 met Indian expectations in combat. In Indian hands it outfought some Western types, including USAF F-15s during one of the first exercises with them. The unique ways the IAF operated the MiG-21 were a product of unique times and circumstances.

Many of them have now changed, and the IAF is able, and recognised for its ability, to mix and match technologies from different sources. This makes for less than optimal fleet management and inventory constraints, certainly – but it does say something about Indian ingenuity and jugaad. Some difficulties notwithstanding, particularly during the disruption of spares supplies in the 1990s, a new generation of Indian aviators still fly the MiG-21. They include some of the first few Indian women combat pilots. At a time when more modern types are in the news, we might remember that India has used MiG-21s on a scale that even their designers didn’t think of.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR K S Nair has written two books, most recently The Forgotten Few, and about 70 articles on the Indian Air Force and military issues in developing countries. His next book, to be published by HarperCollins in 2021, will cover the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, during which the MiG-21 came into its own.

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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)

It’s just a bloody plane!

Whether it’s loyalty or emotional immaturity that led me to keep my boyhood obsession with aeroplanes I can’t tell you. I loved the aeroplane books I read as a child. Now, 35 odd years later I am making my own. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. This is it.

Since I started my aviation site in 2012 I have had the chance to do so many things that would impress my seven-year-old self. I’ve spoken to fighter pilots, many fighters pilots, and asked them the questions I want answered with no fear of the questions being too childish, or cheeky or technical. Collecting these stories has been a thrill. In particular speaking to perhaps the greatest living ace, an Iranian F-14 Tomcat pilot, and sharing his extreme tales of the excitement and brutality of jet combat in the 1980s.

Creating top 10s with experts was fascinating. I already loved the top 10 format but saw how frequently they were created by poorly informed generalist ‘content creators’ on a small budget…what would happen if articles like that were done properly? Who doesn’t want to know what would win in a fight, a F-16 or a MiG-29? I asked the people who knew the real answers.

I’ve also taken great pleasure in exploring the culture around the aeroplanes. Cinema, toys, art and the weird psychology of the aviation fan. I was also interested in what happens if you write about aeroplanes in a way that does not share the political outlook or style that all other books of this nature share. Many of the articles are funny as I see no reason why non-fiction should be serious all the time, and this has led Hush-Kit in a different direction.

The site exists because of a shared madness, and I am delighted that so many talented writers have contributed to making the site the success it is today. All of which is very good, but a big beautiful coffee table book is a hell of lot more pleasing than a website. I’m amazed and delighted by how many people read the site and I hope they’re willing to give up a little shelfspace for The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes.

I promise it will deliver things that no other aviation book has done so far.

Announcement: to celebrate the first flight of the Vulcan (30/08/52) we are aiming for 100% funding for the Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes by 30 August 2020. It’s ambitious but I have faith we can get there! Support us here.  

Yours waiting to publish,


Modern jet fighters to race at 2022 Reno Air Races


What is already described as the ‘world’s fastest motorsport’ is about to get a lot faster — with today’s announcement that some of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft will be entering the fray in 2022. The aircraft, which will include the European Typhoon, French Rafale, Russian MiG-29 (from Slovakia) and the US’ F-22 Raptor will be racing at speeds more than double the fastest existing racer, the L-29 of the current ‘Jet’ category.

What became the STIHL National Championship Air Races in Nevada started over fifty years ago, when World War II vintage fighters which had customised to eek every extra knot of speed were set against each other in a breathtaking display of airmanship. Since then the annual Reno Air Races have become famous worldwide.


In 2003, Skip Holm piloted a modified P-51D Mustang, Dago Red, to make a class speed record of 507.105 mph in a six-lap race around the eight-and-a-half mile course. Jet aircraft are even faster: in 2009, Curt Brown set a record of 543.568 mphin his L-29 Viper. But this is all pretty sedentary compared to the speeds that modern fighters will reach. We spoke to Tim Folland, an RAF pilot, from the British Typhoon team sponsored by The Mendips Scone Company:

“I won’t tell you the exact speeds I’ve been getting in test runs that simulate the course…but I am very confident….it is well in excess of 750 knots. The idea came about from the realisation that the aircraft would be in Nevada at the same time for a large tactical exercise. The addition of commercial sponsorship made the whole thing viable.” 

The Typhoon will be up against some very tough competition from the French Team Rafale (sponsored by Mensonge Pastis), the US Red Raptor (Unwahrheit Tires) and the Slovakian MiG-29 ‘The Wolves’ (Hovadina Beer). 

Slovakian Air Force pilot Blázona Klamstvopica will be flying the Soviet-era MiG-29, she noted: “This will be an incredible race, and will hopefully raise a lot of awareness of the skill and dedication of our air force. I am certain that the MiG-29 will perform well, it certainly has a lot of power and can make very fast turns.”

MIG_29_Slovakia (1).jpg


Military aircraft procurement: An insider reflects on why it so often goes wrong


Despite the billions at stake, it is not unusual for air arms to develop or buy the wrong warplane. Jim Smith, who spent much of his career close to the world of military aircraft acquisition, reflects on why this happens. 

Sometimes, you have to wonder – Reflections on procurement successes and failures

“Having spent much of my career close to the UK and the Australian acquisition systems, and having been at least occasionally at the margins of the US acquisition system, sometimes, you have to wonder. Dr Ron and I wrote a recent article for Hush-Kit about some spectacular conceptual failures affecting the British Aircraft Industry, for example the decision to build four V-bombers, and to then field three of them. There was also the mistaken belief that a turret-fighter, such as the Defiant, was a good idea. Plenty of other questionable decisions are to be found in the military transport, advanced trainer, or the civilian market. Other good examples are to be found in the enduring saga of the Fleet Air Arm, where pretty much everything of British design was a disaster, with the exception of adaptations of land-based aircraft, and the excellent Buccaneer S2…

But let’s not point the finger solely at the British. The US has had some truly spectacular moments where misjudgements about technology or requirements have resulted in unfortunate outcomes, and sometimes this has been compounded by a system where lobbying in Congress can replace sensible decisions with ones that are a little less so. (Does anyone know when the KC-46 will reach full capability?).

The French have produced some fabulously successful aircraft – exemplified by the Mirage Series from the Mirage III to the Mirage 2000. But there have also been a number of misconceived aircraft, like the Mirage 4000 – absolutely successful at demonstrating what a huge fighter could do – but not actually bought by anyone.

Apart from disasters, other surprising outcomes are possible. Sometimes, serendipity comes to the rescue, and something you were not at all sure about turns out to be just the job. An example from the US is the Fairchild A-10. The A-10 ground attack aircraft was nearly the victim of a long-fought campaign to take it out of service, until it proved unexpectedly to be just what you need in the complex ground campaign in Syria.

Sometimes, the requirement is out-dated, and a leap into new technology proves transformational. The A-4 Skyhawk exemplifies this, having been designed in response to a US Navy specification which envisaged a twin-engine bomber weighing 30,000 pounds. Heinemann’s Scooter came in at 15,000 pounds, flew in 1954 and remained in production for 25 years.


So, how to go about illustrating some head-shaking decisions? Well, the plan is to provide an explanation of the sorts of issues that get considered in a generic acquisition programme, and then provide some examples where the outcome appears to be unexpected. And, perhaps most difficult of all, suggest what may have gone wrong. In doing this, I am going to try to avoid anything of which I have direct first-hand knowledge. This is a disadvantage, but I cannot put myself within the reach of the Official Secrets Act!

In the interests of brevity, I’m going to focus this first look on fighter aircraft. Partly because it’s a key area of interest for Hush-Kit, and I think there is enough material, but also because there’s always the prospect of following up with a look at naval aircraft, helicopters, or bombers if there is sufficient interest. I’m also only going to look at aircraft that actually made it into service.  As an analyst, it’s probably also fair to warn that the outcome of this is more likely to be more questions than answers. But that’s OK, as these might be the inspiration for future topics.
Acquisition – What are the issues? 
Most real-world acquisition systems are complex and full of twists and turns as approvals of various sorts are sought and achieved. In general, looking at diagrams of such systems, initial reactions are likely to be ‘No wonder it takes so long!’, or the sarcastic ‘Couldn’t they find a way to make it more complicated?’.

Let’s cut through all that to the issues. The big questions are:
‘What do you need?’ (and the all-too-often unasked question ‘Why’) and ‘How many do you need?’ – sometimes referred to in the UK as ‘Needs and Numbers’.
The need should ideally be expressed as a capability.
What do I mean by that? Well, suppose you want to prevent threat aircraft from penetrating an air defence area. That’s a capability, because it states what you want to do, without jumping straight to the solution. Even if it turns out you need 100 aircraft a radar system and a command and control system to deliver the capability, you are also going to need manpower, training, maintenance, spares, consumables like fuel and so on. But you should also be looking at other ways of providing the capability, such as ground-based missile systems, which will require different manpower and support arrangements. Or you might want to dominate and hold dominance over threat airspace. That’s a different capability, Air Superiority, rather than Air Defence, and may drive to a different solution (reference earlier article on BVR combat), while requiring a similar, but different set of support capabilities.

188 XF923 MoA air to air rear three quarter stbd & below neg 76502 small.jpg
‘When do you need the capability?’ – all too often re-interpreted as ‘When can we fit it in the budget?’. This is an important question though, as it is a key driver for technology and risk. If you need the capability right now, there is no option but to buy something already in service. A great solution for timeliness and low risk, but you will then be tied to technology that is perhaps 10 years old, and which was developed for someone else’s needs.
If the capability need can’t be met without developing new technical solutions, then you will inevitably have to grapple with the time, cost, and capability risk of developing those solutions. In either case you will need to consider how the new capability is to be integrated with your existing systems.
‘How much will it cost?’ Always an excellent question, because you will not know the answer at the outset. Even if you have the sticker price available for an off-the-shelf product, you will still need to work out how to get it into service with your trained manpower, on your bases, with the necessary operating equipment, facilities and spares, and provision for support of all sorts for the expected life of the solution. If you are having to develop a new solution, or pay someone else to do this, all of this data, and the time required, will be at best uncertain.
‘Who would you like to buy the capability from?’ This may seem a daft question, given you will not have selected a supplier until you have detailed answers to all the questions, and a Commercial offer from some entity that can deliver what you want. But your Government’s National Industrial Policy will come in to play at this point, with all sorts of complications and issues to consider.
If you are buying a ship, do you want it to be built in Spain, or Scotland? Or on the West Coast or the East? Should we sustain our own design capability and bear the additional cost and risk to do this, perhaps to avoid the constraints of US ITARs (International Traffic in Arms Regulations)? Or perhaps build someone else’s design under license, and wear the time taken to transfer the technical knowhow, build specific facilities and so on. Or is it really time we ordered a new helicopter from (insert name)? Or can we really get another European procurement through Congress?
‘What are we actually going to buy?’ This of course is the big question at the end of the process, although all-too-often the answer may appear to have been decided at the beginning. What we are going to buy will generally determine the manufacturer, unless a license or collaborative deal is to be struck.

Can you imagine the immediate post-war problem (before collaboration was thought of for the UK) – “…the next fighter, chaps, should we buy it from Armstrong-Whitworth, Avro, Boulton-Paul, de Havilland, English Electric, Fairey, Folland, Hawkers, or Vickers-Supermarine, or must we consider some ghastly foreign supplier? Or for a transport, Avro, de Havilland, Blackburn, Handley Page, Miles, Airspeed, Shorts or Vickers?”
The answer to this final question depends, of course, on the answers to all of the preceding questions, generally determined through a competitive process in which the Government declares detailed requirements, against which companies, or consortiums, make commercial offers to supply systems that meet those requirements.
Well, that’s the ideal, but in reality, anything off-the-shelf probably won’t meet all your requirements, and modifications will have to be designed and paid for; anything developmental will carry the risk that it will not meet the requirement, or will do so only after a longer period than you could conceivably have guessed; training, spares support, licensing costs, special facilities and ground equipment will all be needed, and all cost money. And, of course, Contractual terms have to be negotiated and agreed.
After all that, one almost understands why the processes are so complicated.
A word about culture: Of course, there are also other cultural factors outside the strict process to be mastered, overcome or got around. The US hates to buy anything from anywhere else. Fortunately, as the only Nation in the world still using the Imperial measurement system, everything has to be re-designed for them anyway, so a special variant can always be built in the USA, making it a domestic product really. I am told that in the Indian procurement system there are perhaps 20,000 people who can say ‘No’, and only three who can say ‘Yes’ – doubtless a dreadful slur, but perhaps with a grain of truth.
And then, there’s collaboration. Suppose you want to do a complex combat aircraft with about four partners. That means you are likely to have a National Industry from each of the partners, as well as some sort of Joint Company to deliver the product. But there will also be four sets of National Officials, seeking to meet the requirements of four National Air Forces, all coordinated by some sort of Joint Project Agency. So, a design review will need a minimum of 10 representatives?  Well no, the representatives will need to be advised by specialists, for example in ‘pilot interface’ (you can’t just say cockpit), control systems, sensors, weapons, airframe structure, aerodynamics and performance, propulsion system, logistic support and so on. If everyone turns up, your ten representatives are likely to be being advised by about 70 or 80 specialists. Collaboration is not easy.

Example 1:  UK post-war jet fighters


So how come the UK managed to have the Hunter, Swift, Meteor F8, Meteor NF 11, Javelin, Sabre and Venom all in service at the same time?

At the end of World War II. The US had world leading capabilities in aircraft production, the UK had world leading capabilities in gas turbine engines, and the Germans had the most advanced understanding of high-speed aerodynamic design. As German resistance to Allied Forces crumbled, a race began between the US, UK and Russia to gain access to German aeronautical knowledge.

One of the key transforming technologies in high-speed fighter design was the application of swept wings to allow flight at high transonic and supersonic speeds. Despite the UK maintaining a technical edge in jet propulsion, both the Americans and the Russians gained early access to swept wing technology, and the Americans, in particular, gained an early appreciation of the need for powered flight controls to produce supersonic fighters.
In the early to mid-Fifties, the UK was playing catch up, seeking to understand and apply this new knowledge to the Swift and Hunter as day fighters, and to develop night and all-weather fighter capability through the Venom and the Javelin, which would eventually supplant the Vampire and Meteor in this role.
The Swift, Hunter and Javelin all suffered protracted development as various aerodynamic and control issues were understood and ironed out, and the Canadair Sabre was used briefly as a stop-gap in advance of the Hunter becoming fully operational.
In the context of the procurement process, the management of technical risk was the main issue. Lack of detailed understanding of transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, and control system design, led to a series of issues with the Swift, Hunter and Javelin, with the latter also encountering ‘deep stall’ problems due to the interaction of its delta wing with its T-tail.
The other aircraft – the Venom and Meteor fighter and night fighter variants, were simply incremental advances of the Vampire and Meteor, and provided reliable service until supplanted by later aircraft.

Example 2: UK fighter aircraft progression


Credit: BAE Systems

In the UK, once the Hunter and the Javelin were in service, the air defence of Great Britain might have been thought reasonably secure. However, this happy situation was not to be, as in November 1955, the Soviet Union successfully tested an air-dropped H-bomb. No longer could the RAF envisage intercepting Soviet bombers over the United Kingdom. Instead, efforts would be required to develop a high-speed, rapid climbing interceptor which could be launched from land bases to intercept bombers before they could overfly the UK.

Effectively, the Air Defence of Great Britain would now have to be achieved using rapid-climbing supersonic point defence interceptors, rather than using, at-best, transonic fighters. The immediate consequence was the development of the English Electric Lightning, surely one of the most extreme and impressive fighter aircraft ever developed. The initial requirement was to protect the V-bomber bases to maintain the viability of the UK nuclear deterrent. The Lightning entered service in 1960, and remained in service until 1988.
During this period, the role of the aircraft slowly changed. Despite its rapid climb rate and high speed, Lightning capability was always limited by its short endurance and range. Progressive development increased fuel volume somewhat, and improved missiles and radar gave the aircraft more capability as a weapons system. In the meantime, however, the USSR had developed long-range stand-off missiles for nuclear weapon delivery, challenging the RAF to push interception points further offshore.
Effectively, the requirement had changed from point defence of the V-bomber bases to stand-off interception at a distance. Defence of the V-bomber bases had, of course, become redundant in 1968, with the transfer of responsibility for the Nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy. The extended interception capability required an aircraft with more endurance, better radar, and longer-range missiles so that bomber threats could be intercepted before reaching their missile launch points.


This requirement was filled by the Tornado F3, a clever design which exploited a variable-sweep wing to enable high endurance combat air patrols which could loiter on patrol, supported by tankers. With fully operational radar, and data-linked AMRAAM missiles, the F3 became a very effective Beyond Visual Range (BVR) fighter, and the introduction of ASRAAM provided a significant Within Visual Range (WVR) capability. The aircraft was retired in 2011, having been replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon. Changes in the global strategic situation had complicated Defence requirements and planning. The Tornado F3 was optimised for situations where the threat was both identifiable and somewhat predictable, but the world had changed, and was no longer so convenient. The key capabilities now needed were the ability to operate effectively when the threat direction and behaviour was unpredictable, and where the mix of aircraft in use could include similar types on both sides. The ability to deliver BVR combat was no longer assured, and WVR combat was more likely.
In these circumstances, the high wing loading and relatively low power-to-weight ratio of the F3 was a significant disadvantage, particularly in WVR combat against agile and powerful threats. Something was needed with greater air combat manoeuvre capability, and this has proved to be the Typhoon. Agile, with very high energy manoeuvrability as a fighter, and flexible multi-role capability as a strike aircraft, the Typhoon is combat proven and very effective. When armed with the Meteor missile and equipped with an active electronically scanned array radar (which may become a reality this year for the Kuwaiti air force) Typhoon should be one of the world’s most flexible and capable weapon systems.

Yet again, a nagging doubt emerges … US, and increasingly, Russian and Chinese, aircraft have low radar signatures as well as having good manoeuvrability and range. Hence the next step down the air combat path is being investigated – the Tempest project.
In the context of the procurement process, UK fighter aircraft have been requirement chasing. No sooner has each been developed to be a very effective system, then the requirements have changed. From the simple WWII-like intercept capability of the Hunter and Javelin, to the point defence interception of the Lightning; then to Combat Air Patrol and BVR combat with the Tornado F3; and on to long-range missiles for BVR, high energy manoeuvrability for WVR, and the multi-role strike capability of the Typhoon.

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Next to flexible, stealthy air combat and strike with the Tempest and its adjunct projects. Arguably, always half a step behind …
Example 3: USAF Fighters

Since 1950, the USAF has operated an incredible range of fighter aircraft. Considering only the jet aircraft, and only the genuine fighters that entered service, one can identify seventeen different types, compared to the ten types used by the RAF.
From the many aircraft one could consider, I have selected the F-104 Starfighter, one of the most iconic aircraft of all time. With its minute wings, large engine and rocket-like appearance the F-104 is a spectacular aircraft. Yet from a USAF perspective, it can only be considered to have been a failure.

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The USAF eventually accepted 296 Starfighters, of which 170 were F-104As and 77 were F-104Cs, a relatively small proportion of the 1400 eventually built. The F-104As had a troubled development history, with propulsion, structural and aerodynamic problems. No less than 52 aircraft were used in the flight test programme over a two-year period, and the general use of the aircraft was somewhat ad hoc.

The USAF made two operational deployments of the F-104A – to Germany for 1 year at the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall, and to the Southern US at the time of the Cuba Missile Crisis. The F-104Cs were also deployed as a precaution during the Cuba Missile Crisis, and were based in Taiwan, and at Da Nang, South Vietnam, for two periods between 1966 and 1967. Twenty four aircraft were used as target drones, others were transferred to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force and to Pakistan.

So, what went wrong? Well, the early F-104A and F-104C aircraft were designed as short-range day fighters, with US experience on the Korean peninsula in mind. In the US context, the aircraft was seen as a simple, low-cost day fighter. The F-104A and C can be regarded as having met these requirements, but, in practice its capabilities were not very useful to the USAF, as evidenced by its limited operational deployments in circumstances where rapid reaction was perhaps more important than flexibility of operation. In short, while the F-104 met the specification, that specification did not meet the USAF’s operational needs. Although blessed with a scorching climb rate, the short range of the aircraft was mismatched to either the home-defence role, or to deployment unless to protect high value local targets.


The interceptor concept was more of a success in Japan, where proximity to China made for short reaction times, increasing the utility of the F-104J. The F-104G, which was widely used within the NATO European environment, was extensively strengthened and redesigned to support all weather multi-role operation, but not operated by the USAF.
Other Projects, Other Questions
The few fighter-focussed examples considered have shown some of the difficulties that can arise in introducing new technologies; in keeping the capability relevant; and in getting the requirement right in the first place. There are a heap of other questions that could be looked at through the lens of the difficulty of getting the right capability at the right time.
Some of this is to do with looking ahead and trying to understand where geo-politics and technology might provide opportunities to exploit, or threats to counter. Some of it is down to the inherent difficulty of trying to out-match rivals who are themselves trying to out-match you. And some of the difficulties are down to managing processes to rapidly and accurately select the right capability, product and supplier, while spending large sums of public money in a contested environment.”




“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’

I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the book link to pre-order your copy. 


I can do it with your help.

From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as

“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.


  • Interviews with pilots of the F-14 Tomcat, Mirage, Typhoon, MiG-25, MiG-27, English Electric Lighting, Harrier, F-15, B-52 and many more.
  • Engaging Top (and bottom) 10s including: Greatest fighter aircraft of World War II, Worst British aircraft, Worst Soviet aircraft and many more insanely specific ones.
  • Expert analysis of weapons, tactics and technology.
  • A look into art and culture’s love affair with the aeroplane.
  • Bizarre moments in aviation history.
  • Fascinating insights into exceptionally obscure warplanes.

The book will be a stunning object: an essential addition to the library of anyone with even a passing interest in the high-flying world of warplanes, and featuring first-rate photography and a wealth of new world-class illustrations.

Rewards levels include these packs of specially produced trump cards.

I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the book link .  


I can do it with your help.