Everyone loves the F-4 Phantom, a brutal smoking Cold War monster that polluted the sky in an apocalyptic belch of black sooty thunder. As thrilling as the actual Phantoms that entered service were, there is a tantalising family of F-4s that almost made it into the real world. Several of them were cancelled for being too good and threatening sales of newer aircraft — and one succeeded in its role as a unique test aircraft. Here are some of the Phantoms that never were.
RF-4X Mach 3 Hellraiser
In the 1970s, the Israeli air force wanted a reconnaissance aircraft capable of carrying the extremely impressive HIAC-1 camera. The F-4 was considered, but the G-139 pod that contained the sensor was over 22 feet long and weighed over 4000 pounds – and the Phantom did not have the power to carry such a bulky store and remain fast and agile enough to survive in hostile airspace. One solution was to increase the power of the engines with water injection, something that had been done for various successful F-4 record attempts. This combined with new inlets, a new canopy and huge bolt-on water tanks promised a mouth-watering 150% increase in power. This would have allowed a startling top speed of mach 3.2 and a cruising speed of mach 2.7. This level of performance would have made the F-4X almost impossible to shoot-down with the technology then in service.
The F-4X would also have been a formidable interceptor – something that threatened the F-15 development effort, causing the State Department to revoke an export licence for the RF-4X. Even with the increase in power, the Israeli air force was still worried about the huge amount of drag, but a solution came in the form of a slimmed-down camera installation in a specially elongated nose. This meant the interceptor radar had to be removed, which assuaged the State Department’s fears and the project was allowed to continue. However worries from the F-15 project community returned (as did worries about how safe the F-4X would have been to fly) and the US pulled out. Israel tried to go it alone but didn’t have enough money, so the mach 3 Phantom never flew.
F-4E(F) ‘Ein Mann’
The Luftwaffe are cheapskates: historical examples including their desire to procure a Eurofighter ‘Lite’ with no sunroof, stereo or defensive aids — and the fact they kept the F-4F in service until 2013! To be fair, their less than zealous desire for free-spending militarism is probably a good thing considering the 20th century. Their Deutschmark-saving instincts for poundshop versions of popular aircraft applied to the Phantom, and a simplified single-seat F-4E was considered. This intriguing option was passed up for a simplified F-4E, dubbed the F-4F (which later became formidable). I couldn’t find any illustrations of this variant so have included a mock-up of a speculative RAF single-seater.
RF-4M ‘Big nosed Brit’
When the RAF ordered Phantoms they considered a dedicated reconnaissance version. McDonnell (it being 1966 — a year before the merger with Douglas) proposed a F-4M airframe with internal reconnaissance equipment. Known as the RF-4M (model 98HT), the longer camera nose would have made the aircraft over two and-a-half feet longer longer than a F-4M. Range would have been greater than a Phantom with an external recce pod, as this left the centreline station free for a drop-tank — and the removal of the Fire Control System and AIM-7 related hardware reduced weight. After considering the cost of such an undertaking, the RAF instead opted for an external recce pod meaning that any airframe in the fleet could perform the reconnaissance mission without sacrificing a beyond-visual-range weapon. Fascinating interview with a British Phantom pilot here.
F-4T Phantom ‘Not a pound (or Deutsche Mark) for air-to-ground’
In the late 1970s McDonnell Douglas proposed a dedicated Air Superiority variant of the F-4E, the F-4T. More spritely performance was expected as all systems associated with the air-to-ground role were to be removed, making a significant weight saving. It was to be armed with M61A1 cannon, four AIM-7 Sparrows and four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, or an alternative war-load of six AIM-7 (as seen in this computer generated image). Additionally, a new digital computer would have been at the heart of its weapon system. It is unclear who the intended launch customer for this variant was — Iran, Britain, Israel, Japan or West Germany may all have found the type useful. No customer went for the T as either a new-build or an upgrade — as those air arms requiring a high level of Air Superiority could turn to the F-15 Eagle which was already in production (and was significantly more capable the proposed F-4T even its it early iterations).
Read why the F-4 was the world’s best fighter in 1969 here.
F-4 (FVS) The Phlogger and the Phitter
The US Navy’s F-111B project was looking distinctly shaky in the mid-1960s. It was too heavy and too sluggish, so the Navy looked around for alternatives, a search which would eventually led to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The McDonnell company offered an unsolicited solution, a variable geometry wing variant of the hugely successful F-4 Phantom II. An assessment of this proposal, given the provisional designation F-4 (FV)S, revealed that this it was lacking in several key areas, notably combat effectiveness: the AN / AWG-10 radar and AIM-7F missiles would be a significant downgrade from the desired AN /AWG-9/AIM-54 combination. Scorned by the Navy, McDonnell offered the aircraft to Britain as a cheaper alternative to the Anglo-French AFVG then under consideration. This aircraft would have been powered by the British Rolls-Royce RB-168-27R and given the designation F-4M (FVS). This promising project never left the drawing board.
Boeing PW1120 Phantom/IAI Super Phantom
By the 1980s, the Phantom’s geriatric J79 powerplant was a liability — its poor thrust-to-weight ratio, mass of smoke and Oliver Reed-esque thirst did not belong in an age of efficient powerful turbofans. Replacing the J79 with the Pratt & Whitney PW1120 (a derivative of the F-15’s F100 for the abortive Israeli Lavi) was an obvious solution – offering a massive 25% increase in dry thrust and a whole 30% greater thrust in reheat. The new Phantom would have been a hotrod: capable of Mach 1+ speeds in dry thrust alone. The aircraft would also have an 1,100 US gal (4230 litre) conformal fuel tank under the fuselage, offering an increase in range. The proposal was cancelled early on as some thought it was a threat to F/A-18 and F-15 sales. Despite this, Israel Aircraft Industries liked the idea of PW1120s in Phantoms, partly as this promised parts commonality with the Lavi and partly because Israel had a big Phantom force. IAI’s F-4 Super Phantom or F-4-2000 was displayed at the 1987 Paris Air Show, but, like the earlier US concept, was also quashed.
YRF-4C PACT demonstrator CCV ‘You canard handle the truth!’
Aircraft 62-12200 was a very important airframe, after life as the RF-4C prototype it did the same for the cannon-armed F-4E project. Its testing life was still not over — in 1972 it became part of a fly-by-wire (FBW) research effort. A FBW system was fitted to what was now known as the Precision Aircraft Control Technology (PACT) demonstrator. Following the successful completion of the FBW tests, it was fitted with a set of canard foreplanes mounted on the upper air intakes. In order to shift the centre of gravity to the rear and to destabilise the aircraft in pitch, lead ballast was added to the rear fuselage. It is not known if this aircraft was the source of the continued American distaste for canards!
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Prior to flying the F-35B Lightning II, RAF Wing Commander James Schofield flew and fought in RAF Harriers. We interviewed him to find out more about mastering the immortal jump-jet.
What were your first impressions of the Harrier?
“Coming from the Hawk T.1 with its analogue dials and navigating by map and stopwatch, its one type of takeoff and three types of landing (normal, flapless and glide), on arriving at the Operational Conversion Unit in 2000 reading the Harrier GR.7 groundschool notes gave a good impression of the step increase in capability ahead! The systems included a GPS/INS, frequency-agile radios, colour moving map, Zeus electronic warfare (EW) system and infra-red camera both integrated into the head-up display, angle-rate bombing system with a TV/laser tracker… Then there were rockets, freefall bombs, retarded bombs, cluster bombs, practice bombs, laser guided bombs, infra-red guided Maverick missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles… The laser could come from your aircraft (via the TIALD targeting pod), a wingman or a chap on the ground. There were manual releases, computed impact point releases, automatic releases, toss/loft releases. There was visual targeting, GPS/INS targeting, TV targeting, laser targeting. Also chaff, flares, night vision goggles. A lot to read up on!
But before you got to play with much of that you had to learn how to take off (conventional, short, strip, creeping vertical or vertical) and land (conventional, fixed-throttle variable-nozzle, slow, rolling vertical, creeping vertical, vertical). Additional variables were the use of auto flap or STOL flap, and the use of water injection to augment the thrust. You could land on normal runways, roads, grass, on perforated steel planking runways and aircraft carriers. Each of those combinations had a prescribed technique, often complicated and challenging, that you strayed from at your peril. Before every flight you put the aircraft tail number, temperature, pressure and stores configuration into a computer and it told you what nozzle angle to use for whichever flavour of takeoff you were going to attempt, and how much fuel/water you could hover or try a rolling vertical landing with.
Key indicators to watch like a hawk in order to make it to the bar that evening without an ejection and a trip to hospital were: the velocity vector in the HUD which became an inertial vertical speed indicator in the hover (watch out for any unwanted descent!), the “Billy Whizz” hexagon diagram in the HUD telling you how close you were to the most limiting engine parameter (be it RPM, jet pipe temperature or the non-dimensional fan speed), and the unique wind vane in front of the cockpit that enabled you to minimise potentially fatal crosswinds. Oh, and a vibrating rudder pedal that you had to stamp on at your soonest convenience if you ignored the vane.
Every aircraft has its challenges/foibles but I remember getting the books out and thinking “bugger me, there’s a lot here”! Looking back on it now, there was an awful lot to not get wrong but at the time we flew daily which made a big difference. I remember feeling rusty on a Monday morning having had a weekend off!
There were also a fearsome array of limitations to remember, both engine and airframe, which varied depending on aircraft build standard, load-out and speed.
Memories of flying the beast will always stay with me. A fantastic view from that big bubble canopy, a neat and well-laid out cockpit, on the ground the impingement of the jet efflux on the tailplane making it tremble like an attack dog straining to be released, massive air intakes right next to you with a loud whine at full power, brutal acceleration during takeoff, a very responsive aircraft to fly, a strange rumble at idle power as air spilled from those intakes, the laws of physics overpowering common sense as you decelerated towards the hover between swaying trees over some nondescript field in Rutland, cows looking on curiously, your throttle hand advancing all the time as wing lift receded, in your multi-million pound jet fighter. Halcyon days.
I don’t think I was alone, however, in spending most of each flight worrying about the landing – something the Harrier and the Pitts Special sports biplane have in common!”
What is the hardest thing about flying the Harrier?
“Not screwing up in the VSTOL regime.”
What was your most memorable Harrier mission or flight?
“There were hundreds of memorable moments, but I’ll pick my first takeoff from an aircraft carrier. You read the notes, you’re talked through the procedures by an instructor, then you walk out to the aircraft, fire her up and line up on the deck. Although the ski jump is only at an angle of 12 degrees, it looks like a vertical wall in front of you! Up to full power, release the brakes only when the tyres start to skid and you’re off. Screaming down the deck towards the ramp wondering idly if this is actually going to work or whether it’s all an incredibly elaborate wind-up! Up the ramp, lower the nozzles at the top, and you’re airborne. Ease the nozzles aft. Huh, it worked. Time to start worrying about the landing a mere hour away…
Rate the Harrier in the following:
A. Instantaneous turn rate.
“Good, particularly with Vectoring In Forward Flight (VIFF).”
B. Sustained turn rate.
“OK at low level, not much good at medium level.”
C. Climb rate.
“With a thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1:1 it went up very nicely!”
D. High AoA performance.
“Although there were no AoA limits in the earlier aircraft with small LERX (leading edge root extensions) – just handling limits, it wasn’t built for large angles. The larger LERX came with a 24 AoA limit so couldn’t quite match a Hornet (60 AoA) in a nose-pointing contest!”
“Eye-watering going down the runway, disappointing at high speed (all that drag…).”
Did you fly the Harrier in combat? How combat effective was the type?
“Yes, over Iraq in 2003. It was very effective; flexible basing options, lots of hardpoints, a good all-rounder. Obviously combat missions come in a range of exciting flavours. In 2003 over Iraq ours involved both close air support (CAS) and strike missions.
The background to all of this starts back in the UK where we had the luxury of an extensive pre-deployment training period. This was interspersed with intelligence briefs so you’d know what the enemy order of battle was, location of units and so on. We were also very focused on understanding how all of the extra gear worked in the various pockets our jackets were festooned with – mostly survival gear – and what the plans were for egressing on foot if we had to.
In theatre, you’d have regular intelligence briefs to keep abreast of what was always a fluid situation on the ground. On the day, you’d have a weather brief and would then be allocated a piece of sky to hold in and wait for tasking (for CAS) or you’d be given target details (for strike). Significant planning was required to understand what was expected of us, particularly critical given that there would be myriad other air and ground assets in the area, all with their own missions. It was always obvious that we were just one part of a much larger war effort.
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The missions themselves were fairly tense at the start of hostilities as each side assessed what was being brought to bear against them. As things progressed it was easier to get into a rhythm, whilst always trying to guard against complacency. There’s nothing like getting shot at over barren, hostile territory to focus the mind back on the task at hand! It’s difficult to convey how stressful releasing live ordnance over a battlefield is, particularly with CAS where friendlies are often perilously close. One incorrectly typed digit, or the slightest ambiguity on the radio leading to misidentification of the target area, could lead to disaster. Clearly, there were well-honed procedures to mitigate against these risks but when the chap on the ground is shouting at you to get the bomb off because he’s under attack – you need to be disciplined under pressure.
There’s always a sense of relief after a mission, but it may not be long until you’re off again…”
Are there any things a Harrier can do that a F-35B can’t?
“Not many – bow in the hover; operate from a grass runway; punish the pilot for careless handling. That’s your lot!”
Was the Harrier the most demanding aircraft you have flown?
“It’s certainly in the top three; take the rolling vertical landing (RVL) for instance. You’re on final approach to a 1000 foot long strip at night in rain: fore and aft on the stick initially controls flightpath as you’d expect. You then move the nozzle lever to the hover stop to decelerate at which point you use the stick to control pitch attitude. At 50 knots groundspeed you select a lesser nozzle angle to stop decelerating and the stick then controls groundspeed. Just prior to touchdown it reverts to pitch attitude. So four control strategies with just one of the three hand controllers (stick, throttle, nozzle lever) in under 30 seconds while trying to execute a precise landing with little margin for error – lots of armchair flying required for that one!
The up-and-away handling was occasionally a little tricky too. During an air-to-air refuelling test flight in a very aft CG configuration I was working so hard just to put the probe in the basket I lost the power of speech! Requiring full back stick around finals was common in the two-seater; if the nose carried on dropping the only way out was to add power, which was somewhat counter-intuitive.
It would potentially depart from controlled flight due to intake momentum drag if you let sideslip build up during the transition to or from the hover, with fatal consequences – hence the wind vane in front of the cockpit, and rudder pedal shakers if you didn’t notice the vane!
High speed departures were also not unheard of and could be violent, particularly if you exceeded the lateral stick limits and/or reversed the roll rate rapidly.
Flying at low level at night also had its moments, and no one enjoyed landing on the carrier at night!”
What were the best and worst things about the Harrier?
“The best things were its V/STOL capabilities and its ability to reliably project air power for a reasonable cost; it was ultimately a relatively simple aircraft which kept costs down and reliability up.
The worst things were the unforgiving handling (however, the satisfaction of successfully operating a challenging aircraft was half the appeal) and the V/STOL design compromises meaning we always got whooped during air combat training by F-15s / F-16s / F/A-18s.”
What equipment/weapons or sensors would have you liked to have seen added to the Harrier?
Easy – radar and AMRAAM. Having some Harrier II+ configured aircraft would have been fantastic.
What is the biggest myth about the aircraft?
“That the whining doesn’t stop when you turn off the engine! (The joke being that Harrier pilots whinge incessantly. I mean, have you ever met an F.3 pilot??)”
Is STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) a good idea?
“If you’re confident that any conventional runways you may operate from – either at home or at a forward operating base – are invulnerable then you don’t need it. I would opine that such a stance would be foolhardy. Also, stopping then landing on a carrier will always be easier and cheaper than landing then stopping (acknowledging that this leads to design compromises, e.g. a single engine, large intakes or a lift fan).”
Was the absence of cannon and radar problematic?
“The lack of radar did get you looking out of the window a lot, and building a mental picture of the tactical situation from radio transmissions was a cherished skill. At times you did feel like you were stumbling around in the dark – the absolute opposite of the level of situational awareness that today’s F-35 brings. At least we had a very good EW system, the display for which was in the HUD, to let you know who was looking at you and from what angle.
As for the gun, it’s always nice to have a cheap forward-firing weapon but the attempts to fit a 25mm derivative of the Aden cannon failed and, anecdotally, at that point there was no money to buy the GAU-12 5-barrel cannon (drool).”
What advice would you give to Harrier pilots?
“To any US Marine Corps, Italian Navy or Spanish Navy Harrier pilots; I envy you – enjoy it while it lasts!
Which three words would you use to describe the Harrier?
“Best. Of. British. (Harrier GR.3 / FA.2)
Revolutionary, legendary, challenging!”
Do you think the British got rid of their fleet too early? And what do you think about what happened to the air frames?
“Absolutely, but as I understand it the MoD had to save a load of money and they couldn’t bin the Tornado GR.4 due to its unique (at the time) ability to carry Storm Shadow. We’d have much rather seen the airframes continue to fly than mothballed and used for spares, but the GR.9 was so different from the USMC’s aircraft that they would effectively have had two fleets, which wouldn’t have been a practical proposition.”
What should I have asked you?
“F-35 or Harrier? F-35 for everything bar the satisfaction of mastering the handling challenge of the Harrier.”
Would Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFFing) have been useful in a dogfight?
“Using a smidge of nozzle at higher speeds was a valid proposition to gain a little more turn performance. Using a lot of nozzle at lower speeds gave a marked increase in turn rate, but physics being what it is the side-effect was a large reduction in energy which left you a sitting duck if your attempt to snap the nose around for a missile shot failed. I usually found that VIFFing worked quite well when pulling down from the vertical – people weren’t expecting a Hornet-like ability to nose-point – but if I was fighting in the horizontal the nozzle lever often led to disappointment! Putting the nozzles all the way forward in a “Braking Stop Spiral” manoeuvre meant you could descend vertically at a ridiculously low speed and often opponents couldn’t stay behind you. But you had to leave plenty of height to recover…”
How good was the GR9 at the time of its retirement?
“As with most aircraft when they’re retired, it had never been better and had an amazing future ahead of it! I started flying the GR.7 in 2000 and the GR.9/9A was retired in early 2011; by then it had been fitted with a larger engine (GR.9A) and some truly cutting-edge avionics, sensors and weapons: the excellent Sniper targeting pod, the TIEC datalink which went some way to offsetting the lack of radar, the Paveway 4 GPS/laser bomb with which we could simultaneously release six bombs against six different targets through cloud, the Brimstone anti-armour weapon, the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, encrypted radios…such a shame it went before its time.”
With which units did you fly the Harrier and what was your rank?
“I served on No 3 (Fighter) Squadron (2000-2003) at RAF Cottesmore, and the Fast Jet Test Squadron (2005-2006) at MoD Boscombe Down, both as a Flight Lieutenant.
(I joined the RAF in 1996 as a Pilot Officer and left as a Wing Commander in 2016.)”
Tell me something I don’t know about the Harrier
“Flying through hail would smash the EW “tusk” fairings under the nose. Ask me how I know…”
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Ever since the Lilienthal brothers bird-like gliders of the 19th Century, Germany has been batshit crazy about flying machines. Rocket fighters, suicide pulse-jets and airships over three times longer than a 747; seemingly nothing was too crazy for the Germany aviation industry to try in the 20th century. Here is a kladderadatsch of unheimlich German aircraft that will make you spit out your Spätzle with profound fremdschämen.
10. Messerschmitt Me 210 ‘Hochgeschwindigkeits-Rufmörder’
If ever you wish to challenge the famed German stereotype of meticulous efficiency, then you need look no further than the Messerschmitt Me 210, an aircraft that looked great on paper but didn’t look so great anywhere else – in the sky for example.
It all started off well enough: As well as possessing aviation’s most emphatic forehead, Willy Messerschmitt had delivered the Bf 109, which by the outbreak of war was arguably the best single-seat fighter in the world. He had followed that up with the Bf 110 which was arguably the best twin-engine fighter in the world. Messerschmitt tried for many years to design a replacement for the 109 but any new aircraft he came up with was either inferior to its great rival the Focke Wulf Fw 190 or could offer nothing more than an updated model of 109 and as a result no new design proceeded past the prototype stage. By contrast there was no obvious rival in production to the 110 and a replacement would surely be needed (an opinion strengthened by the apparently poor showing of the 110 during the Battle of Britain – though this was arguably down to inadequate understanding of the tactical limitations of this class of aircraft rather than any particular intrinsic fault of the 110 itself. Thus the requirement for the 210 was born. Unfortunately for customer and designer, Messerschmitt’s reputation was riding high on the incredible and ongoing success of the 109 and 110 and apparently he could do no wrong. An order for 1000 of the new twin-engine fighter-bomber was placed, off the drawing board, before the new aircraft had even flown.
But fly it did and then the terrible mistake became apparent. The Me 210 was a purposefully good looking aircraft but that was about it. The new aircraft was underpowered and its handling was so bad that it was dangerous to fly, being prone to enter a sudden and vicious stall under the least provocation. The chief test pilot commented that the Me 210 had “all the least desirable attributes an aeroplane could possess.” It took the ridiculous total of 16 prototypes and 94 pre-production models to iron out the worst of the problems that bedevilled the 210. To put this in context the Fw 190, a contemporary (but very successful) aircraft which also took considerable development to get ‘right’ went through five prototypes and 28 pre-production examples. And then, even after all this time and effort was expended the 210 was not an acceptable machine. Compared to the 110 it was replacing the 210 was slower and shorter-ranged as well as possessing appalling handling qualities. Even the undercarriage was lousy and kept failing on the 210. The 210s that had managed to make it into service, nearly three years after the first flight, were withdrawn after a month and superseded by the very aircraft they were supposed to replace. The production line was shut down and the Bf 110 was put back into production fitted with the 210’s better streamlined engine nacelles. Willy Messerschmitt’s reputation was in tatters and his resignation was officially demanded from the company that bore his name.
Worse was to come. Back when it still looked like the 210 might mature into a decent fighter, permission had been granted to Dunai Repülőgépgyár Rt. (Danubian Aircraft Plant) to build the 210 under licence and Hungarian authorities decided to continue development even after production in Germany was halted. The Hungarian aircraft utilised the more powerful DB 605 engine and a lengthened fuselage which transformed the aircraft into something generally acceptable. The colossal irony is that a lengthened fuselage was demanded by the test pilot on the Me 210’s first flight back in September 1939. Willy Messerschmitt had refused, pointing out that to alter the fuselage would require scrapping millions of Reichsmarks’ worth of production jigs. The Hungarian aircraft Me 210Ca was generally popular in service and proved that a lengthened fuselage would have solved literally years of painful development. And of course, that it took the Hungarians to solve the problems that the supposed finest designers of Germany apparently could not overcome was unbearable to the hyper-nationalistic Third Reich. Eventually a German redesign of the 210 with yet more powerful DB 603 engines was accepted into service but re-designated the Me 410 Hornisse to make it seem like it was a completely new design (it wasn’t). The Me 410 was a decent enough aircraft but was at least two years too late – had it been available when it should have, back in 1941, it would have been sensational.
9. Messerschmitt Me 321/Me 323 Gigant
The success of the Bf 109 should not obscure the story of the most calamitous aircraft to emerge from the Messerschmitt aircraft company, the ‘321/323. To invade England, the fast movement of tanks and artillery was essential. In the absence of a route by land, air transport was the obvious solution. Messerschmitt initially proposed towing winged battle tanks, a daft concept that proved bizarrely ubiquitous to World War II technical advisors. A less mad idea was the creation of large unpowered gliders, and by large I mean large: we are talking a wingspan of 55 metres… almost that of a Boeing 747! Junkers initially won the German Air Ministry contest with the Ju 322, but even a wartime assessment team couldn’t turn a blind eye to the fact a tank fell through the weak wooden floor of the ‘322. They went back to Messerschmitt, who created an aircraft too large to be launched. Even with 3280 horsepower, the Ju 90 airliner struggled to tow this behemoth sky-bound. So they tried tying it to three (yes three!) Bf 110 fighters to drag it into the sky (in a triangular ‘troika schlepp’ formation) which, of course, proved problematic. The next attempt to create an adequately powerful tow aircraft involved bolting two bombers together resulting in the conjoined He-111Z Zwilling — which was also far from ideal. Even strapping rockets to the machine wasn’t getting the desired results. While these slapstick endeavours had been taking place, Messerschmitt had been simultaneously working on a powered version – the Me 323. This worked, but was so slow and cumbersome that in contested airspace proved abysmally vulnerable. In 1943, in desperate need of resupply, General Rommel’s Afrika Korps was sent 300 tons of equipment in 16 Me 323s. Only two reached their destination, 14 had been shot down.
8. Dornier Do 31E
As with the Royal Air Force, in the early 1960s, the Luftwaffe became concerned about the vulnerability of aircraft operating from large air bases. The British developed and eventually deployed the Harrier; the Germans, in a frenzy of innovation, developed and flew, but did not put into service, two potentially supersonic VTOL fast-jets, and a VTOL transport, the Do 31E. They also experimented with a zero-length launch system for the Starfighter, the ZELL (based on ideas from the rocket genius and occultist sex magician Jack Parsons). The Do 31, as a production aircraft, was envisaged as supplying tactical logistic support to the fast jets, itself using as forward operating bases the airstrips on which the ZELL Starfighters were expected to land using arrester gear.
The tactical and logistic support of forward air operations, it turns out, can be well supported by another aircraft which was in development at the time – the Fiat G222. This has now been developed into today’s C-27 Spartan, which offers similar payload-range performance to the Dornier 31E, albeit with STOL rather than VTOL capability, at a fraction of the cost, risk and complexity of a production Do 31.
The Do 31 was an impressive answer to a question that shouldn’t have been asked. Technical progress and ambition had run ahead of operational analysis, resulting in flawed requirements.
More on the Do 31 here
7. Baade 152 Baade to the Bone
That the wretched Baade ever got built says much for the charm of its designer Brunolf Baade. From 1936 he worked for Junkers and was involved in the design of the Ju 88, Ju 188, Ju 388 and Ju 287. Following defeat and partitioning, the Soviet Union took many German aerospace experts — including Baade— to aid in the development of new military projects. The Soviets had a pressing need for a fast twin-engine jet bomber, and the German boffins set about designing one. The resultant EF 150 was conceived by Baade, Hans Wocke and other former Junkers staff. Hugely delayed by engine problems, the aircraft ended up having to compete and lose out to a greatly superior aircraft from a newer generation, the Tu-88 (which became the Tu-16 ‘Badger’).
Despite this, Baade may not have been having such a bad time. It is rumoured that Baade’s winning personality made him a favourite with his Russian masters, and that while his colleagues were enduring the biting 1947 Moscow winter he was enjoying a holiday in Crimea. In 1953 the Germans were sent back to East Germany, where some attempted to start an aviation industry for the new nation.
A new jetliner was desired, and Baade initiated a project — dubbed the Type 152 — based on the EF 150. This was a terrible basic design for a jetliner. For a start, it had a bicycle undercarriage — meaning the aircraft could not rotate promptly on take-off and it required great precision to land precisely (something they attempted to rectify with a later, somewhat bizarre, configuration). It also had terrible engines, Pirna 014s based on wartime technology, which offered a miserly 3:1 thrust-to-weight ratio (compare this to the 4.5: 1 of the Pratt & Whitney JT3D which first ran a year earlier than the Pirna) and a lousy specific fuel consumption. The wings were the wrong shape and in the wrong place: a low aspect ratio broad chord slab that was far from ideal for cruising efficiency. The high placing of the wings obstructed the cabin, while the space under the floor was occupied by the undercarriage.
The maiden flight of this aircraft took place on 4 December 1958. Four months later the aircraft took its second flight and crashed killing all on board. In mid-1961 the East German government stopped all aeronautical industry activities, as the Soviet Union did not want to buy any of these aircraft or support a potential rival to their own Tu-124. This mercifully put an end to what would have certainly been a horrible airliner.
6. Heinkel He 177
The eternally repeated adage, ‘if it looks right, it will fly right’ is proved by the giant Heinkel He 177, four-engined bomber; even before entering service it attracted the epitaphs of ‘widow maker’ and ‘flying coffin’. Göring called it a ‘misbegotten monster’.
Conceived as a long-range bomber to attack targets beyond the Soviet Urals or operate against convoys in the North Atlantic, it was too late to make a difference. It is the only example of a German design, equivalent of the American YB-17 design and the British plans, including R J Mitchell’s B16/36, for long-range strategic warfare. The Heinkel design was immediately beset by compromises, engine issues and top-level mind-changing.
Even in its development, Oberst Ernst Udet caused a fundamental re-design by requiring a dive-bombing capability. The engineers were in despair, the dive-bombing profile would require fuselage and wing strengthening, increasing the empty weight significantly. Then, in September 1942, after the work had been done, Göring rescinded the requirement.
So, it had a flawed operational requirement; an inadequate power plant with four engines, driving two huge propellers and surface evaporative cooling in place of conventional radiators. Engine fires were frequent during trials and by the time it came into service, the there was no fuel. Even so there was a plan to convert it into a rocket-carrying fighter! Final words to Winkle Brown: “it was one of the very few German aircraft I did not enjoy flying.”
Paul Beaver is the biographer of Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown
5. Siemens-Schuckert Forssman Großernutzloser Ladenhüter
Virtually all First World War aircraft were, by modern standards, hopeless and awful. However Siemens-Schuckert’s first foray into the world of large bomber aircraft was a stand-out example of dreadful uselessness, an aircraft so woeful that it eventually collapsed in an act of overdue self-destructive embarrassment. The Forssman’s problems began before even the first wood was cut, canvas sewn or the workers got out of bed in the eponymous form of Villehad Forssman, the luckless aircraft’s Swedish designer. German aviation benefited immensely from at least one aircraft designer from a neutral nation in the form of Dutchman Antony Fokker, a notorious self-publicist but undeniably an engineer of talent. Sadly Forssman was no Fokker, and his engineering abilities would not prove equal to his Jules Verne-eque dreams of giant aircraft.
It would appear that the Forssman aircraft was ‘inspired’ (less sympathetic voices might say ‘a copy’) of Igor Sikorsky’s impressive Ilya Muromets, the world’s first four engine aircraft. A famous photograph depicts one of these aircraft in flight and the first thing one notices is the two stalwart Russian cavalry officers promenading on the roof of the aircraft as if taking a stroll on an aircraft during flight were the most normal thing in the world. One of the other things one may notice is that the pilot is shoving in downward elevator as though his life depended on it, as indeed it might. In other words it appears to be tail heavy. When Forssman designed his own aircraft for German cavalry officers to stroll on the roof of, he apparently decided being insanely tail heavy was also definitely the way to go, a situation that would prove almost fatal to the test pilot once the aircraft actually managed to fly. However, any proper idea of flight was a long way off yet as during taxi trials and minimal hops, many of the faults of Forssman’s creation became apparent. The structure was deemed to be too weak and was beefed up, not least by adding more wing struts, the first of an unprecedented five major, and ultimately futile, rebuilds and redesigns. There was insufficient tail area, so a second rudder was added and the wings were rigged with slight dihedral. At the same time an attempt to balance the tail-heaviness issue was made by crudely adding a tub-like gunner’s position on the nose.
Further short hops revealed that the modifications had not made the aircraft anywhere near acceptable. Any reasonable manufacturer would have cut their losses, dumped this hopeless aircraft and moved on but Siemens-Schuckert were determined that they should get some kind of return for their investment and besides, Vilehad Forssman had by now severed connections with the company so, they reasoned, a different (better) engineer should be able to rework the aircraft into something acceptable. Harald Wolff, who would later design Siemens-Schuckert’s excellent fighter aircraft, was the man chosen for this unenviable task. Wolff Added more powerful Mercedes engines in the inboard positons, leaving the outer engines as they were. All the engines received streamlined and strengthened mountings and the whole nose of the aircraft was reworked into a pointed shape with massive round windows. The pilot now sat in comfort under a fully enclosed cockpit, an incongrously advanced feature. Unfortunately the designated test pilot, after some ground runs and despite his comfortable enclosed cockpit, refused (wisely) to fly the aircraft. Siemens-Schuckert managed to persuade air-ace and pre-war test pilot Walter Hohndorf to perform the first flight but in September 1915, whilst completing another test hop, something went awry, the aircraft turned onto its back and was partially wrecked.
Siemens-Schuckert, who were nothing if not persistent, mended the wings of the aircraft and fitted another new nose. Now desperate to get something – anything – for their hopeless machine, Dr Reichel the technical director of Siemens-Schuckert persuaded the Army to lower the specification the aircraft was required to achieve before they would buy it in return for a reduction in the purchase price. The new specification required the aircraft to reach 2000 meters in 30 minutes carrying a useful load of 1000 kg and enough fuel for 4 hours. Meanwhile he offered Bruno Steffen, himself a successful aircraft designer, 10% of the sale price if he could make the acceptance flight which was scheduled for October. Despite warnings from friends regarding the structural safety of the aircraft, Bruno decided after inspecting factory drawings and the aircraft itself that it was strong enough. However he was concerned that he would lack the strength necessary to operate the massive tail surfaces. On the day of the flight Steffen invited five passengers to accompany him, including members of the Army acceptance commission but all politely declined.
On take off Steffen found that the Forssman’s tail-heaviness meant that he had to push the control column fully forward to maintain level flight. To make turns he had to pull it back to the neutral position, turn the wheel as quickly as he could, and immediately return it to the fully-forward position to avoid a stall. The aircraft was virtually uncontrollable. Nonetheless it achieved the required 2000 metres in 30 minutes and the Army agreed in April 1916 to buy it as a trainer, despite its total unsuitability for that or any other task. Luckily for everyone however the rear fuselage collapsed when the engines were run up on the ground and no one else had to risk life and limb in Forssman’s pathetic aircraft.
And that would have been that except for one strange coda – in 1918 a truly gigantic ten-engine triplane named ‘Poll’ after the town of its construction was designed. It was structurally weak, of unprecedented size and ludicrously tail-heavy, which sounds oddly familiar. It was intended to bomb New York but construction was halted due to the armistice. Its designer was Villehad Forssman and one wonders how he managed to persuade anyone to build this new ridiculous aircraft. A single giant wheel from the Poll survives to this day in the collection of the Imperial War Museum to remind the world of Forssman’s folly.
4. Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet ‘Wie Ein Floh, Aber Oho!’
Although it was a horrific death trap with a litany of flaws, no one could deny the Komet was amazingly impressive. The fastest aircraft of the second world war, Messerschmitt’s rocket plane also possessed the best climb rate of any aircraft in the world until the supersonic (and strictly research) Bell X-1. Its vertical performance could not be bettered by any combat aircraft until the mid-1950s. In every other respect of course the Komet was totally appalling:
The first problem, and worst when looked at from a tactical point of view was its endurance. The Walter HWK 509 rocket motor that imparted the Komet with its blistering performance was colossally thirsty and only eight minutes of fuel could be carried. The engine was either on or off, there was no ability to cruise or throttle back which led inexorably to its second major flaw – the closing speed between it and its target was so great that it was extremely difficult to aim and fire with any hope of success. This problem was compounded by the powerful MK 108 cannon. The low muzzle velocity of this weapon meant it was only effective at close range and this was difficult to achieve as the Me 163 flashed past its intended target. Thirdly, once the rocket fuel was expended the aircraft had to glide home. Totally immune from fighter attack while under power, the Komet was vulnerable as a glider. True, it was fast and handled nicely but eventually it would have to land, and, unable to move, could be destroyed at will by any pursuing aircraft.
Its woeful endurance led to the Komet employing the weight-saving feature of jettisoning undercarriage. The wheels were attached to a dolly that was dropped as the aircraft climbed away from the airfield. If dropped too high, they would be destroyed. However if dropped too low there was a danger that they would bounce off the ground and into the aircraft with disastrous results. On occasion the wheels got stuck: test pilot Hanna Reitsch was nearly killed attempting to land a Komet with its wheels still attached. Even if the take-off was successful, landing the Komet was fraught with danger. Landings were unpowered so there was no option to go around if something went wrong and the aircraft landed on a retractable sprung skid which had to be lowered to provide shock absorbing, if it stuck up or the pilot forgot to lower it the result was often a fractured spine.
But absolutely the worst aspect for the pilot was the fuel. The Komet was propelled by two toxic liquids called C-stoff and T-stoff that explode when brought into contact. Indeed, T-stoff would cause virtually any organic material such as leather or cloth to spontaneously combust, furthermore it would dissolve human flesh. When the luckless Joschi Pöhs crashed an early Komet on landing in 1943 he was covered in T-stoff and, despite wearing a protective suit, “his entire right arm had been dissolved by T-stoff. It simply wasn’t there. The other arm, as well as the head, was nothing more than a mass of soft jelly.” Regular aviation fuel is dangerous enough but this was nightmarish. Even if the landing were successful, the shock of landing could rupture a fuel line or slosh any residual propellants into contact with each other and a catastrophic explosion would be the near inevitable result. So volatile were the fuels that there are accounts of Komets spontaneously exploding for no apparent reason whilst simply sitting on the ground.
But if the pilot survived the take-off, the landing, the fuels, and prowling enemy fighters the Komet had one final trick up its sleeve. Despite having generally exemplary handling characteristics the Me 163 entered an unrecoverable condition known as the ‘graveyard dive’ if its speed exceeded Mach 0.84, which was not difficult in a Komet, and the results were invariably fatal.
Despite all these horrific issues combat operations were maintained from May 1944 to spring 1945. During this time, there were nine confirmed kills, with 14 Me 163s lost. Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert was the most successful pilot, with three bombers to his credit but he was killed when his Komet exploded on take off. Despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious catastrophic flaws, the Komet remains one of the most charismatic aircraft in history.
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3. DFW T.28 Floh Lustiger kleiner knuddliger Kerl
Back in 1915 people still didn’t know what aeroplanes were supposed to look like. At least that’s the only explanation I can think of to explain the delightfully chunky appearance of DFW’s T.28, cheerily named Floh (flea), the cuddliest combat aircraft ever built. There seems to no other reason for building this tiny yet simultaneously weirdly massive machine. Despite being reputedly very fast, because of its daft shape the Floh was never a serious contender for fighter operations. The main problem was visibility, which was excellent so long as you only wanted to look upwards. The pilot’s view forwards for take off and landing was non-existent and the massive triangular tail surfaces conspired with the biplane wings to obscure the view of more or less anything below the aircraft. With all that fuselage side area and only a relatively modest rudder, one can only assume that directional control was not the aircraft’s strong suit. Add to that a perversely narrow undercarriage and it should come us no surprise that the Floh crashed on landing after its first test flight. On the upside the arrangement of intakes on the aircraft’s nose gives it the appearance of a jolly smiling face – always a major boon for an aircraft intended for the deadly skies over the Western front. Just to prove that he wasn’t insane or obsessed with giving aircraft a Rubens-esque profile, Herman Dorner, who designed the Floh, went on to produce the outstanding Hannover CL series of two-seat fighters which were boringly slender by comparison, did not feature a jolly smiling face, and proved highly successful.
2. Zeppelin L 2 Wasserstoffbrennstoff Feueranzünder
Zeppelins are preposterous. That such a ludicrous vehicle could inspire such panic from people on the ground (which it did) seems, with the benefit of hindsight, insane. Of course no one had experienced a sustained strategic bombing campaign back then and facing such attacks for the first time was and is a scary prospect, The sheer inexorable massiveness of the rigid airship is also certainly compelling. Back in the first couple of years of the First World War they were the only aerial vehicle with a useful disposable loaded the range necessary to mount meaningful bombing attacks deep behind enemy lines. But the fact is that the Zeppelins of World War One consisted of a fabric bag filled with between about one and two million cubic feet of hydrogen, the most flammable element in the universe. Zeppelins are huge and inflammable, present an unmissably massive target, are slow and susceptible to bad weather. Bizarrely, despite having more than enough carrying capacity to reasonably carry them, German airship crews chose not to bother taking parachutes on missions. Presumably being able to escape having to choose between plummeting to one’s death or being incinerated in a hydrogen-fuelled inferno was just too namby-pamby for the stalwart Zeppelin men of the Imperial German Navy. And that was a choice that became increasingly commonplace after the first Zeppelin was shot down over Belgium in June 1915.
That the Navy persisted in using these giant airships for bombing raids was largely down to the insistence of one dangerously psychopathic zealot, Kapitän zur See Peter Strasser. Despite ever-increasing evidence of the ever-decreasing effectiveness of the Zeppelin as a bombing aircraft, Strasser continued to demand his crews fly strategic raids over London with ever greater losses. “We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as ‘baby killers’ … Nowadays, there is no such animal as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.” he said in answer to criticism of the morality of strategic bombing. This may have been true but does not exactly paint a glowing picture of Strasser’s character. It feels like a there was a certain poetic justice at work when, after this particular baby-killer had chosen to ride along with Zeppelin L 70 on what would be the last airship bombing raid attempted against Britain, Strasser’s Zeppelin was intercepted by a DH-4 piloted by Egbert Cadbury (of the noted chocolate making family) and shot down in an example of the afore-mentioned hydrogen-fuelled inferno. The crew did not have parachutes.
But all this was in the future in 1913 when Navy Zeppelin L 2 chugged its way over Berlin and into the somewhat obscure history books. That the Zeppelin was a bizarrely horrific weapon of war for all concerned is not in doubt but the L 2 was probably the most hopeless of them all. Not content with being an impractical and dangerous vehicle when under attack by a determined enemy, L 2 showed the world that Zeppelins were dangerous and impractical when there were literally no threats present at all, unless you consider a warm day or the aircraft itself a ‘threat’. First off the engines wouldn’t start, which caused a delay in take off which allowed the hydrogen to expand in the gas bags due to the warm sun. Once the engines were persuaded into life the Zeppelin shot into the sky due to the hydrogen expansion. The normal cure for this is to release some of the gas and stop the aircraft rising. Unfortunately the hydrogen vented from L 2’s gasbags was sucked into the forward engine and exploded, which caused a fire and further explosions resulting in the destruction of L 2 along with the death of all 28 people on board (in a hydrogen-fuelled inferno). That this occurred only six weeks after the navy’s other Zeppelin, L 1, had been caused to crash (with 14 fatalities) by cold rain causing the gas to contract makes one wonder why the German Navy persisted in the development of large airships at all. Zeppelin eventually delivered over 100 large rigid airships during the First World War, with Schütte-Lanz delivering about 20 more.
Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg
Imagine yourself as a plucky young Luftwaffe pilot in 1944. You have a talent for flying, and the Nazi propaganda machine has filled you with a mad zeal to fight. You leap at the chance to fly an experimental aircraft—a futuristic aeroplane that could turn the tide and save your nation. You are shown a sleek, sexy, jet-propelled Wunderwaffe that makes the latest Fw 190 look positively ancient. Or perhaps you’re a bewildered child pushed into a moribund hell that was not of your making. Either way you’re absolutely fucked, because your new steed is essentially a V-1 flying bomb with a human guidance mechanism. Say ‘guten morgen’ to the Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg.
The Reichenberg had a quick development period, probably too quick. The German Research Institute for Sailplane Flight started development in mid-1944, and had a prototype ready for testing within days. A cramped cockpit with a jettisonable canopy was placed just under the pulse-jets air intake, and flight controls were rudimentary, although straightforward. After release from a carrier aircraft, the Reichenberg was meant to be piloted towards a target and put into a dive, following which the pilot baled out. Pilot survival was optimistically rated as being “most unlikely” (it was estimated at a terrifying 1% due to the proximity of the pulsejet’s intake to the cockpit).
Tricky landing controls ensured that two test articles crashed during developmental trials, and although the designers claimed a distinction between their Selbstopfermänner and the Japanese Kamikaze, to the pilot there was little difference. Thankfully for the young men expected to fly this screaming tomb, it was quickly abandoned after Albert Speer and Werner Baumbach pleaded with Hitler that suicide was not in the German warrior tradition.
Don’t skim read this last bit:
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Twenty years prior to 1969 most air forces had been flying piston-engined fighters essentially no different from those of World War II. In the following twenty years, top speeds almost quadrupled and cannons were complemented with guided missiles capable of destroying an enemy thirty miles away. To survive the carnage of the Middle East and Vietnam air wars, aircraft became ever more potent and by 1969 had become extraordinarily sophisticated killing machines. The fighters of this time were also far more demanding and dangerous to their own pilots than today’s generation of digital fighters, and these brutish machines were unforgiving of mistakes. Here are the 10 best fighters of 1969.
10. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 ‘The Fighting Farmer’
Like most MiG fighters, the ’19 was a rough and ready hotrod. Agile, powerful and capable of gut-wrenching acceleration— it was also ill-equipped, unforgiving and brutal. Armed with three cannon and two K-13 missiles, a well flown MiG-19 remained an opponent to be respected in 1969, however its lack of a modern radar and modest top speed of mach 1.22 put it at a distinct disadvantage. Pakistan Air Force MiG-19 pilot Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum told Hush-Kit, “We did not fear fighting any opposing aircraft. The Intel, at the time, was that we were most likely to face the Hunter in the war as that was the aircraft which was to cross over the border to do battlefield air-interdiction and airfield strikes. The Hunter was a manoeuvrable aircraft like the F-86, and we had gained valuable experience during DACT with our F-86s. So we pretty much knew what tactics to employ. Firstly, force the Hunter to get into a vertical plane combat where our superior thrust-to-weight ratio would give us a distinct advantage. Secondly, allow the Hunter to exit and then catch him with the MiG-19’s excellent acceleration and let the heat-seeking Sidewinder do the rest.” The type served in several air wars including Vietnam; Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) received their first MiG-19 at the end of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1968. Relatively small numbers of MiG-19s were involved in extensive combat during Operations Linebacker and Linebacker 2. The aircraft could easily outturn the Phantom (and out accelerate it up to Mach 1.2) and VPAF MiG-19 downed seven F-4 Phantom IIs. Among its failings were its endurance, which was exceptionally poor.
Armament: 3 x 30-mm cannon (type dependent on variant), up to four short range air-to-air missiles (K-5 or AIM-9) (note: VPAF aircraft were cannon only)
9. Folland/HAL Gnat ‘Petter’s Pocket Rocket’
Though highly specialised as a short range dogfighter, the tiny and viciously manoeuvrable, Gnat developed a fierce reputation in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war— earning the nickname ‘Sabre-slayer‘. The Gnat shot down seven Pakistani Canadair Sabres, though two Gnats were downed by PAF fighters. During the the Battle of Boyra, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Gnats downed two PAF Canadair Sabres in minutes and badly damaged another. Another notable dogfight over Srinagar airfield saw a lone Indian pilot hold out against six Sabres scoring hits on two of the Sabres in the process before himself being shot down. The lighter, more modern, Gnat with its higher thrust-to-weight ratio had an advantage against the Sabre in the vertical plane.
Designed by W. E. W. Petter, who also created the EE Lightning, this subsonic British pugilist punched well about its weight, but in a world of supersonic radar-equipped fighters it is questionable how effectively it would have performed against a well-equipped enemy. The Gnat was the smallest jet fighter to ever see service and may well have been the tightest turning — it also had a climb rate twice that of the Sabre.
(Note: The Gnat has knocked the F-86 out of our top ten, but the Sabre was still a respectable fighter in ’69, notably where it was armed with Sidewinders.)
Armament: 2 x 30-mm ADEN cannon
8. Joint place: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17/Dassault Super Mystère/ Lockheed F-104 Starfighter ‘The Outsiders’
These fighters each had huge advantages and disadvantages and were the hardest to place in the top 10.
Any enemy foolish or ignorant enough opponent to fight the MiG-17 in the 300-330 knot regime was likely to learn a particularly nasty one-off lesson, as many did in Vietnam. Above 450 knots however, it was a pig — and its equipment was primitive; without hydraulic assistance much of the MiG-17’s manoeuvrability depended on the physical strength of its pilot! The MiG-17 was very tough and extremely reliable, but by 1969 was verging on obsolescence.
The French Super Mystère was Europe’s first supersonic fighter, but by 1969 was also showing its age, despite its good performance in the Middle East. It was liked by Israeli pilots and fought in the 1967 Six-Day War and it was said to be a decent counter to the MiG-19. During this conflict, Super Mystères achieved a number of air victories: two IL-14, one MiG-17 and two MiG-21s.
Many would argue the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter deserves a higher ranking, but the fact USAF did not use it as a fighter is revealing. That most operators used the aircraft in the fighter-bomber or maritime attack role point to the type’s limitation as a pure fighter, notably its infamously poor agility. It speed was exceptional, its armament decent and it had a large cockpit with excellent visibility for the pilot. Its combat record was at best mediocre: on 6 September 1965, a Pakistani F-104 may have shot down an IAF Dassault Mystère IV and damaged another (though this claim is disputed). The PAF lost one F-104 Starfighter during the 1965 operations, and achieved two kills (however, one of the F-104 Starfighter’s victims was a portly Breguet Alize of the Indian Navy, hardly the most challenging opponent). Later, in the 1971 war, it was trounced by the MiG-21.
On 13 January 1967, four Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-104G aircraft engaged 12 MiG-19s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force over the disputed island of Kinmen. Two MiG-19s were destroyed, one of the F-104s did not return to base and its pilot was claimed as MIA.
7. Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter ‘Schmued’s Switchblade’
Though relegated to the fighter-bomber role in US hands, the F-5 was an extremely capable air-to-air fighter, in which role it served with several air forces in 1969 (including Taiwan). In this role it is closely comparable, and in some ways superior, to the MiG-21. Later Soviet studies of captured F-5s revealed the type to have superior manoeuvrability to the MiG-21, and more benign low speed and high angle of attack handling characteristics.
Armament: Two Pontiac M39A2 20-mm cannon
6. English Electric Lightning ‘The Double Decker’
The fastest climbing and one of the most agile fighters on this list, the Lightning also boasted the best acceleration and highest service ceiling. The Lightning was a rocketship; everything was sacrificed for performance, notably endurance and the number of missiles. Though it is the received wisdom that the F2A was the best model, former Lightning pilot Ian Black noted to HushKit that this is maybe a myth, and though the F2A was the best for low level air defence over Germany, the best all-rounder was probably the F6. In an interview with Hush-Kit, pilot Ian Black noted the following aspects of life in the Lightning, “Lack of fuel was the obvious one. From a handling point of view it was gloriously over-powered, something few aircraft have. With its highly swept wing and lack of any manoeuvre /combat flaps or slats the aircraft was often flown in the ‘light- heavy buffet’ which masked any seat-of-the pants feeling of an impending stall. It actually had few of the traditional ‘vices’ but could be a handful on landing with its big fin and drag chute, which made the aircraft weathercock on a strong crosswind landing. Tyres were also by necessity very thin to fit into the wing and high pressure, so didn’t last long.”
The Lightning was superior to the F-4 in dogfight, a British Phantom pilot we spoke to opined that “You have to take advantage of the things that work for you and don’t work for him. He can out-turn you, he can out-climb you, but he ain’t going to be able to do it for very long. You can see him from a long distance, so you can get your shots off without him even seeing you. If that failed, it would be best to remain unseen. You wouldn’t voluntarily get into a turning gunfight with a Lightning, as you’re probably going to lose. Then whoever runs out of fuel first – and it’s probably him- has lost the fight. He’s got to bug out. As I said, take advantage of your own strengths and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent.”
The Lightning was never proven in combat.
Armament: Two Redtop or Firestreak missiles and/or 2/4 30-mm ADEN cannon (variant dependent)
5. Saab Draken J-35 Draken ‘Delta Berserker’
Delta wings, a data-link, a Mach 2 top speed, the ability to operate from short runways and an infra-red search and track sensor are common features for 21st century fighters but the Swedish J-35F(2) was boasting these back in 1969. It was also rumoured to have the lowest radar cross section of its generation (the MiG-21 is another likely contender for this title). The Draken was a sneak preview into the future, remarkably it did all this with half the thrust of the Lightning (the Draken had one Avon, the British aircraft two). The Draken was neither combat proven nor very agile, though uncoupling the flight control could allow pilots to perform what would later be known as the ‘Cobra’, a dramatic manoeuvre in which the nose is raised momentarily beyond the vertical position, before dropping back to normal flight. Whereas the Falcon missile had a bad reputation in US service it is believed that the Swedish version, the Rb 28 with its unique seekerhead, was a superior weapon. The J-35F(2) variant was the most capable Draken in 1969.
Armament: 4 x Rb 28 Falcon or 4 x Sidewinder + 1 x 30-mm ADEN (some variants 2 x 30-mm ADEN) cannon
4. Mikoyan MiG-21 ‘Fishbed‘ – ‘Soviet switchblade’
Fast, agile, tough and small – the MiG-21 was an excellent dogfighter and the most produced supersonic jet fighter in history, with a staggering 11,000 produced in total. The mainstay of the Warsaw Pact air forces, it served with an unparalleled 56 air arms. The lightweight Mach 2 MiG fought in Vietnam and the Middle Eastern wars. In 1969 the most capable ’21 was the SM, a comprehensively upgraded (M = Modernizirovannyy ) MiG-21S using the R13-300 engine and with a built-in GSh-23L cannon, as well as a considerably updated avionics package. The type’s greatest weaknesses were a poor endurance and lack of a medium-range weapon. When ex-MiG-21 pilot Air Marshal M Matheswaran (retd) spoke to Hush-Kit he noted the type’s fantastic acceleration, electric instantaneous turn rate and tiny radar cross section. The Soviet Union had produced a small, cheap and rugged type that could take on the best fighters of the West, a remarkable achievement.
Armament: 1 x GSh-23L cannon, two K-3 or K-13 missiles
3. Dassault Mirage III ‘Le Triangle Fantastique’
The Mirage III proved itself devastatingly effective in Israeli hands in the 1960s. The French fighter was a dependable jack of all trades, according to Mirage III pilot Gonzalo O’Kelly, “The Snecma Atar 9C was a very reliable engine, very resistant to compressor stalls and almost immune to flame out in flight. It was very easy to fly if you had enough speed, and stable around its envelope. We always flew with two supersonic fuel tanks but the aircraft behaviour was very docile. It was also very strong. It had a landing gear that would have been strong enough for carrier landings and it wasn’t unusual to see 30 people over the wings and fuselage posing for a photo. We didn’t need any ground support to start the engine, which was very good for detachments. It was very good at accelerating in a dive, no aircraft of that time could follow us. The aerodynamics were excellent but designed for high speed.” Counting against the Mirage were its relative lack of power, claustrophobic & cluttered cockpit and limited armament. According to Israeli sources, during the Six Day War of 1967, a mere twelve Mirage IIIs shot down 48 Arab aircraft.
2. Vought F-8 Crusader ‘The Last Gunfighter’
The US Navy adage, “When you’re out of Crusaders, you’re out of fighters” speaks volumes. The Crusader was an agile, responsive hotrod beloved by its pilots. Unencumbered by the weight that the long range fleet defence origins had imposed on its service rival the F-4, the Crusader was a superior dogfighter. Vought wrapped the smallest lightest airframe around the most powerful engine, gave the pilot excellent visibility and created a machine that was a delight to fly and devilishly hard to beat in a dogfight. The Crusader also carried internal guns throughout its career, a dangerous omission on earlier Phantoms, which earned the F-8 the nickname, ‘The Last Gunfighter’. According to its pilots it was ‘simply unbeatable’ in the merge, though the Crusader had an inferior armament and radar to the larger F-4. Aerodynamically the French F-8E(FN) was superior to other variants, with significantly increased wing lift due to greater slat and flap deflection and the addition of a boundary layer control — and enlarged stabilators. The US F-8L was probably the best equipped variant at this time.
- McDonnell Douglas Phantom II ‘Big Ugly’
No surprises for the top spot, the fabulous Phantom was a vast ugly battleship of a fighter, quite unlike anything else flying. The Phantom had twice the air–to-air weapon load of any other aircraft on this list, and as the F-4J, had a radar that was far superior to anything else. The Phantom also had an excellent range, was exceptionally tough and had the benefit of a two-man crew. It was the most powerful fighter on the list, with almost 36,000Ib of reheated thrust. Choosing the most formidable Phantom variant of the time is trickier — it’s a toss-up between the F-4J with its (at the time) unique ability to ‘look down’ and ‘shoot down’ (its new fangled pulse doppler radar denied opponents the liberty of hiding from radar by flying low) and the internal gun toting F-4E. Though the F-4J and F-4E were technically the most formidable Phantoms of ’69, they had yet to score a kill — and both would have to wait to be blooded in air combat (the former scored its first kill in 1970, the latter in ’72).
(It should be noted that the Royal Navy’s F-4K was also well-equipped.)
Disadvantages of the Phantom included a large size and smoky engines that made the aircraft easy to acquire visually, in this interview Gonzalo O’Kelly noted, “it was very easy to spot Phantoms from 6 or 7 miles because that huge black smoke trail that their engines left behind (except in afterburner) and because it was a big bird.” Flown and fought carefully by well-trained battle-hardened crews the Phantom was devastatingly effective and was certainly the best fighter in the world in the last year of the 1960s. The Phantom was responsible for 147 aerial victories in the Vietnam War, far more than any other US type.
|20 mm gun||3||0||1||4|
Armament: 1x 20-mm M61 rotary cannon (F-4E) + 4 AIM-9C + 4 AIM-7E2
Thank to the following people who kindly offered advice and valuable opinions in the creation of this article: Former Lightning pilot Ian Black, Jon Lake, Dave Donald, Steve Trimble, Thomas Lovegrove, former F-15 pilot Paul Woodford and Mihir Shah.
Top fighters of 1985 here. Top fighters of 1946 here. Top fighters of 2018 here. Top fighters of 1918 here.
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(Reality does not confirm to a top ten, so while our panel has taken considerable consideration in choosing the rankings the type’s relative position are to some extent arbitrary with each excelling in certain ways and lacking in others. Dedicated interceptors, such as the F-106, Su-15 and MiG-25 were excluded from selection. The Hunter, F-100 and F-86 were very close to making this list. The A-4 was disqualified on role allocation, likewise the F-105, despite 27.5 kills)
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RAF Wing Commander Scott Williams is currently flying the F-35B Lightning II, the world’s most advanced fighter, with the US Marine Corps. We interviewed him to find out more about what is also the world’s most controversial aircraft.
What were your first impressions of the F-35B? Technologically mind-blowing and a true engineering marvel. As a pilot it flies extremely smoothly and the handling is exceptional, especially when converting flight regimes to slow speed or jet-borne modes; that transition is almost imperceptibly smooth with no adverse characteristics. High angle-of-attack manoeuvring is very easy and forgiving, with excellent nose and flight control ‘authority’ throughout. Power is very apparent with impressive acceleration in dry power on take-off.
Which three words would you use to describe the F-35B? Lethal; Game-changing (I consider that one word!); Growth.
“‘…fighting the F-35 is like going into a boxing match and your opponent doesn’t even know you’re in the ring yet!’”
What are the greatest myths about the F-35B? That it isn’t operational; that stealth doesn’t ‘work’; that external stores on F-35 defeats the point of its design.
What are the best and worst things about the aircraft? The best thing is how quickly and effectively the F-35 allows the pilot to make decisions – fusing sensor and other data from onboard and off-board sources to display what’s out there and what’s going on. Worst thing? I’d like a bit more fuel but what pilot doesn’t?!
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Have you flown basic fighter manoeuvres against Typhoons (or any other types) if so, how did the aircraft do? I haven’t flown BFM in the F-35B against Typhoon or other types (yet!) but I’m sure I will soon.
Though the aircraft is not designed primarily as a WVR ‘dogfighting’ platform -and this may not be a desirable way to fight- how would it do in this respect? Pretty darn well, but there are so many factors that determine the outcome of a WVR fight; pilot proficiency, situational awareness, missile capabilities, countermeasures…every one of these things make a difference but if one were to postulate that in 1000 BVR engagements only a few would likely end up in a WVR fight, you need to ask yourself where you should invest the money, proportionally. Designing a lightweight dogfighter was arguably relevant in the 1970s as fly-by-wire tech gave birth to increasing (super)manoeuvrability; today it isn’t anywhere near as important but still cool for air shows.
Can the aircraft currently work communicate well with Typhoons, what are the considerations in working together? I won’t talk about what we do with Typhoon but the communications have been tested on trials and they work. I’d say a generic consideration for working latest generation fighters with legacy platforms is ensuring you understand their capabilities and limitations.
What is your most memorable mission in the F-35B? There are a few, but the one that stands out for me has to be my first STOVL flight. Comparing the aircraft to the Harrier first-hand was a unique privilege and genuinely brought a smile to my face. I think the UK and US teams who developed the STOVL Control Laws (CLAW), and the pioneering research from the VAAC Harrier and test pilots, were responsible for a huge triumph. Boscombe Down, take a bow!
What’s the best thing about the sensors? How they interact and complement each other with sensor fusion. For 15 years I’ve flown aircraft that need a targeting pod strapped on – these things were normally only bought in limited numbers so you’d get to use them on specific events. Having a targeting pod on every single F35 (the EOTS – Electro-Optical Targeting System) is hugely beneficial for training in all missions.
How good is the situational awareness compared to other aircraft you have flown and how does that change things? Nothing compares to it. Nothing. And information changes everything. When you look at Boyd’s well-known OODA loop, traditionally the hardest things are to answer ‘what’s out there’, ‘what’s it doing’, ‘what do I need to do’. That decision loop can cause paralysis which can lead to a quick demise in a combat fight. F-35 helps enormously in this regard and allows the pilot to act rather than react – reacting is what we’ll make the enemy do. Constantly.
When will the British have a combat capable F-35 force? The UK has a combat capable F-35 force today and declared Initial Operating Capability very recently, so are able to deploy on combat operations at any point from herein. The Block 3F capability is highly combat capable, despite what you may wish to believe or what is written by a number of prominent bloggers.
What would you change about the F-35B? Across all three variants the B does has the least fuel, but I believe it makes up for that with the ability to operate from the QE Carriers, bases with much shorter runways (~3000ft, predominantly for a re-supply tactical AT platform), or even other nations’ carriers when required.
How does its reliability and ease of maintenance compare with other aircraft you’ve flown? Most of the previously reported reliability issues have been software-related in my experience. Maintenance is logical and designed to be as straightforward as possible but the still maturing F-35 global sustainment enterprise results in delays in supplying spares to a high number of demanding customers and countries. With 8.6+ million lines of software code, this aircraft is many times more complex in how it operates compared to a Typhoon (or even an F-22 Raptor) but the latest software and hardware combinations in Block 3F have resulted in improved reliability for sure!
Will a F-35B fly the close support mission in a different way to a GR4 or Typhoon? F-35 will be able to fly the mission in a much more hostile and contested airspace than a GR4 and Typhoon by virtue of its low observable capabilities. However, the rudiments of how a pilot conducts CAS do not necessarily change that much but differences in platform sensor capabilities are an example. It’s well documented that F-35 does not currently have a CCD capability in the EOTS so we’re restricted to infra-red only. That’s something I’d like to see improved soon in impending upgrades and it’s ‘in the plan’ so to speak. Expanded weapons integration in future will also open the variety of effects that we can give the ground commander too.
Do you like the helmet system? The HMD is a truly incredible piece of kit because it really does bring a further dimension to the situational awareness for the pilot. If you then consider the built-in Night Vision Camera and ability to project full-coverage IR imagery of the outside world no matter where you point your head, the ability to point or cue a weapon quickly by day or by night is a great capability.
What should I have asked you? What’s it like working closely with the US Marines! It’s awesome – those guys and girls work like Trojans to achieve the mission and we have a close relationship building for cooperation in future.
Interview with an RAF Typhoon pilot here
How would you rate its BVR capabilities? Second to none really. First to see is first to shoot, is first to kill. I recently heard a comment from someone that ‘…fighting the F-35 is like going into a boxing match and your opponent doesn’t even know you’re in the ring yet!’ I like that comment because our lethality is enhanced by being able to deliver the killer or knock-out blow to our opponents before they get enough awareness on what’s going on to prepare or do something about it.
How would you rate its ground attack and recce abilities compared to the GR4 or Typhoon? We only have Paveway IV currently, however this will expand with SPEAR 3 and other weapons in future but the single weapon option is a bit of a limitation of sorts right now, even though PWIV is an excellent weapon that’s proven itself against our enemies time and again. There is also potential for UK to procure the GAU-22/A Gun Pod if needs be and the USMC have already employed it. The variety of recce options on F-35 are good – from EOTS (IR) to DAS, to Radar Mapping, we have a true all-weather and, in many cases, multi-spectral recce capability. However, F-35 isn’t a dedicated “recce” platform so you can perhaps understand why there’s no pod like the RAPTor on Tornado as an example.
Interview with a MiG-25 pilot here
Tell me something I don’t know about the F-35B. “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you”…
What is your rank and with which air arm do you serve? Wing Commander, Royal Air Force
What is your unit? Currently VMFAT-501 (USMC F-35B Fleet Replacement Squadron or FRS). However, this year all of my Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Instructor Pilots (IPs), Engineers and Mission Support staff will form the nucleus of 207 Squadron at RAF Marham on 1 July 2019, and we will also fly our aircraft back to the UK later that month.
Which types have you flown? Harrier GR7/GR9; Tornado GR4 (post-SDSR10, after Harrier was retired early) and I now fly the F-35B Lightning and instruct both US Marine and UK students on VMFAT-501.
Interview with a B-52 pilot here
Why was 207 Sqn chosen for the F-35B? Will the RAF and RN share F-35s? The choice was intentional — and was made due to the fact that 207 originated as 7 (Naval) Squadron, RNAS, in 1916. When the independent RAF was born on 1 April 1918 and subsumed RNAS and RFC squadrons, 7(N) re-badged to become 207 Sqn. So the number plate was purposefully chosen to have both Naval and Air Force lineage. We don’t ‘share’ the F-35B Lightning like one might share a car with a friend or partner. Instead the Lightning Force – and by that I specifically mean the aircraft, its personnel, equipment and support infrastructure – is all jointly-manned by serving Royal Navy and RAF personnel, including our vital civilian and reservist staff who make up what we call the ‘Whole Force’.
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Imagine a world without Danny DeVito, Roger Daltrey and George Lucas. There’s a parallel universe where Rick Moranis played Schwarzenegger’s brother in Twins, where The Who never happened and where Star Wars was a military project to make Reagan hard and the Soviet Union broke. This speculative universe is one in which famous figures born in 1944 never happened. One star from 1944 that never happened in this universe was the Martin-Baker MB.5. This remarkable fighter flew as a prototype and demonstrated capabilities that left every other aircraft in the shade. This superb aircraft had everything going for it, apart from timing. We asked Dr RV Smith to tell its story.
The Martin-Baker MB1 G-ADCS was a clean two seat low wing monoplane, which was built at Denham and first flown from nearby Northolt during March 1935. The company then turned its talents to the design of a series of high-performance fighter aircraft that set new standards for ease of maintenance and servicing.
The MB2 (M-B-1/G-AEZD/P9594) first flew at Harwell on 3 August 1938; the MB3 R2492 first flew at Wing on 31 August 1942. Sadly, the MB3 crashed following engine failure on 12 September 1942 fatally injuring Capt. Baker.
The design of the MB3 was evolved into the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered Martin-Baker MB5 R2496. This imposing aircraft featured a large contra-rotating propeller, wide undercarriage track, straight-tapered wing of 35ft span mounting four 20-mm Hispano cannon, and an under-fuselage radiator unit, similar to that of the Mustang.
The cockpit was set well-forward under a blown canopy, providing excellent all-round vision and forward view over the slim downward-sloping nose.
The MB5 was flown for the first time at Harwell on 23rd May 1944.
The MB5 R2496 was displayed publicly at Farnborough in October 1945 and in June 1946. The latter display, flown by Jan Zurakowski, was described as ‘presenting one of the most brilliant flying demonstrations of the day and was outstanding for its speed, range and manoeuvrability’. Zurakowski later said it was ‘the best airplane I have ever flown’.
The comments below have been summarised from a number of articles, several of which draw upon a 1946 report “A&AEE Report 838 Pt 1 MB5 Engineering & Maintenance appraisal”, which is held in the National Archives.
Philip Jarrett comments in an article for Rolls-Royce Magazine that ‘the A&AEE report praised the MB5 in unusually glowing terms, using a generous number of superlatives’.
Perhaps the most striking comments, which are quoted in the Flight Magazine flight test article published on 18th December 1947 and written by Wing Commander MA Smith, DFC state:
“… this aircraft is excellent and is greatly superior, from the engineering and maintenance aspect, than any similar type. The layout of the cockpit might very well be made standard for normal piston-engined fighters, and the engine installation might, with great advantage, be applied to other aircraft.”
Other articles also quote the statement that “The time necessary for a quick turn-around… would appear to be very low when compared with existing types of aircraft.”
Jarrett expands on this with the following description: “The 2,340hp Rolls-Royce Griffon 83 engine with its de Havilland contra-rotating propeller was carried on a special mounting that made its removal simple, and all of the cowling panels were also quickly removable, laying the engine completely bare ‘within a few minutes’.
Access to the carburettor main auxiliary gearbox, ignition system and Coffman cartridge starter was easy. All of the coolant radiators were enclosed within the rear fuselage, using a common intake and a controllable efflux.
Likewise, the fuselage panels were quickly detachable, allowing immediate access to all parts of the aircraft’s structure and the accessories and equipment. Every strut or member of the tubular fuselage frame was easily accessible and simple to replace in the event of damage.
The cockpit layout was described as ‘excellent.’ Martin-Baker’s patented control assembly could be removed en bloc by withdrawing a few bolts, without affecting the control settings. All three instrument panels, one in the centre and two at the sides, hinged fully forward when two quick-release handles were undone, permitting instruments to be changed with the minimum of effort.
Quickly opened bays in the upper surfaces gave access to the two 20mm Hispano cannon in each wing, with 200 rounds per gun fed by a Martin-Baker flat-feed mechanism. A servicing platform could be attached to ease the armourer’s task.”
The Martin-Baker MB5 had a 35 ft wingspan and was 37 ft 9 in long. The undercarriage track was 15ft 2in. The MB5 had a maximum speed of 395 mph at sea level, 425 mph at 6,000 ft and 460 mph at 20,000 ft. The aircraft stalled at 95 mph in the landing configuration.
The MB5 had a quoted initial rate of climb of 3,800 fpm and could reach 20,000 ft in 6.5 minutes and 34,000 ft in 15 minutes. The aircraft had an empty weight of 9,233lb, a normal weight of 11,500lb, and a maximum weight of 12,090 lb.
Some points made in the most interesting flight test report published in Flight International in December 1947 are summarised below:
“I was impressed by the size and somewhat brutal appearance of the power section and, in fact, of the whole aircraft.” The “clean-cut business-like appearance” of the aircraft “and its ‘office’ were confidence-producing”.
The “wide undercarriage gives a stable feel on the ground”. The stroboscopic effect of the contraprops when taxying toward the sun was most distracting.
There was a tremendous response to throttle and the aircraft was delightful on take-off. The throttle was smooth and responsive, but the propeller pitch lever was rather sensitive with large response to small movement. The engine was virtually vibration-free and the noise level in the cockpit was low. The pilot cruised the MB5 at 315 mph at 8,000ft using 4lb boost and 2,250 rpm, these settings being being somewhat lower than those recommended.
The spring tab controls were said to give an air of laziness in response, their balance was commendable, but with a feeling of slight sponginess being commented on. Elevators and ailerons were “light, without being over-light, although the stick pressure required for a slow roll at about 315 mph was rather more than I had expected”.
Approaching the stall with flaps down at 3,000ft, the controls became sloppy around 110 mph, the aircraft rolling away to the left at just over 100 mph.
Approaching the airfield in a fast descent to about 1,200ft, the ASI showed about 465mph “the aircraft felt as smooth and solid as one could wish”. Putting the airscrew into fine pitch preparatory to landing “was like putting on a hand brake”.
The landing sequence was described as follows: Flaps down at 160 mph, power to adjust rate of descent. At around 130mph, the aircraft was trying to adopt the landing attitude, but still with a good forward view. Cross the hedge at around 115mph, throttle right back and flare, small attitude adjustment and the aircraft “sat down and stayed down on three points in a satisfactory manner”.
“I decided that the handling of the M-B 5 was pleasing in every way and that another hour or two on it would be a very enjoyable experience”.
The only cockpit criticisms were that “the ignition switches under the left elbow did not seem well positioned”, and that “the trim indicators were small and not too easy to read near the left hip.”
“However, in all important aspects of equipment and control, the M-B 5 definitely sets a very high standard.”
Could the Martin-Baker MB5 have been improved upon?
It seems clear that the aircraft was superlative in terms of maintenance accessibility and possessed an excellent cockpit layout, subject to the minor points noted by W/Cdr Smith in his test report for Flight International. General handling and control harmonisation was clearly very good, although both W/Cdr Smith and, apparently Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, had some reservations about the crispness of the roll control.
Two aspects occur to me, The wing loading (wing area 262 Sq ft) was rather high at 46.1 lb/sq ft at 12,090 lb maximum weight, resulting in a stall speed close to 100 mph and possibly limiting sustained turning performance.
Comparable figures for other well-known aircraft are as follows: Tempest V at 11.500 lb 38 lb/sq ft; Spitfire FRXIVE at 8,475 lb 34.8 lb/sq ft; P-51D at 10,100 lb 43.3 lb/sq ft.
Given the high speeds attained, there might also be scope for the use of an improved aerofoil. The MB5 used the RAF34 wing section, which dated back to 1927, albeit with the excellent pedigree of being used on the DH88 Comet and the DH98 Mosquito.
It is interesting to speculate that one of the Hawker aerofoils used on the Tempest and Sea Fury, might have reduced the type’s drag at high speed and/or increased its critical Mach number.
So, my imagination drifts in the direction of an MB5 fuselage, powerplant and cooling system married to a Hawker Tempest V (302 sq ft) wing, or, probably better, a Fury (280 sq ft) wing (less the port wing root oil cooler).
— Dr RV Smith, CEng, FRAeS
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OK, I know the word ‘hipster’ is terrible and used by your Tory uncle to describe anyone under 50, but bear with me. What I really mean is ‘snob’, for I am referring to the kind of aviation aficionado who will snort derisively at anyone who dares to say that their favourite aeroplane is the Spitfire or Concorde. For these snooty individuals you might as well have said your favourite album is the Greatest Hits of the Beatles. And yes, they judge you! Now I have planted the seed of insecurity, I will tell you the right thing to say to bluff your way into being accepted by this elitist group of fuck-nuts. Never again will you say anything as obvious or gauche as admitting love for the Vulcan or F-15 Eagle.
World War II fighter
Do say: Westland Whirlwind, Martin-Baker MB 5
Don’t say: North American P-51 Mustang, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109
A mere 116 Whirlwinds were built, which makes even the Raptor appear common. To steal a P. J. R. Moyes quote from Wikipedia, “The basic feature of the Whirlwind was its concentration of firepower: its four closely-grouped heavy cannon in the nose had a rate of fire of 600 lb./minute – which, until the introduction of the Beaufighter, placed it ahead of any fighter in the world. Hand in hand with this dense firepower went a first-rate speed and climb performance, excellent manoeuvrability, and a fighting view hitherto unsurpassed. The Whirlwind was, in its day, faster than the Spitfire down low and, with lighter lateral control, was considered to be one of the nicest “twins” ever built… From the flying viewpoint, the Whirlwind was considered magnificent.”
It also looked fantastic. OK, so it had a high landing speed and test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown thought that it was underpowered and disappointing, but down and dirty at low level it was formidable.
The best British piston-engined fighter ever flown. Well armed, very fast and easy to maintain. Flight trials proved it be truly exceptional, with a top speed of 460mph, brisk acceleration and docile handling. Its cockpit layout set a gold standard that Boscombe Down recommended should be followed by all piston-engined fighters. A multitude of access panels made it far easier to maintain than its contemporaries, and its tough structure (a more advanced version of the load-bearing tubular box type favoured by Hawker) would have given it greater survivability. The only thing the MB5 lacked was good timing, it first flew two weeks before the Allied Invasion of Normandy. Born at the birth of the jet age, with readily available Spitfires and Tempests this masterpiece of British engineering didn’t stand a chance. The fact it never entered service makes it even cooler.
Do say: Tu-134, the Russian ‘Crusty’
Don’t say: Concorde, 747
Asia is very much the vogue continent for modern fighters. Europe’s Typhoon is too plasticy, the US’ F-35 is too F-35 and Sweden’s Gripen too sensible. France’s Rafale is too beautiful and Russia’s Su-57 a cool aircraft in the making. This is why Asian fighters are undeniably on trend. Let’s start with China’s J-20, which despite being named after an over-priced fruit drink, is excellent. Think stealth Viggen or Firefox reboot (talking Eastwood films not browsers) and you almost have it. It’s big, mean and defiantly evil. The J-10B is nicely weird, like a Lavi that’s midway through digesting an X-32 — and so has to make the list.
The exquisitely rare and expensive Mitsubishi F-2 is the best looking member of the F-16 family (bar the abortive XL) with a more elegant canopy, cooler tail and a camo scheme to die for (or not to die for as modern Japan is pretty cool at not starting wars). The AIDC F-CK-1 is dorky in that it’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s mashup of US fighters but it is rare (131 aircraft in total), Taiwanese (bonus points) and is basically called the ‘Fuck’ (big bonus points). Nice pair of intakes too.
Cold War Fighter
Do say: Grumman Panther, Saab Viggen
Don’t say: F-4 Phantom II, Dassault Mirage III, English Electric Lightning
The F-4 Phantom was (and is) weird, ugly and charismatic – but familiarity breeds contempt and thus is not a hipster choice. Similarly, having a guy called Mike prattle on about the Lightning in your local pub has robbed the ‘Frightening’ of a position it deserves. The Mirage is too much a part of French national identity and therefore too ‘establishment’.
As ‘George the soundman’ pointed out in his guide to US aircraft , “It’s got a bum like a dolphin, nature’s smartest and most fuckable mammal. The colour scheme is like a shiny pair of Nikes and the livery is tastefully understated. It also looks surprisingly good sitting on the tarmac which usually knocks a good few points off a plane’s attractiveness. This is the warplane to pick up a date in.”
The Saab Viggen lived in a cave like Batman, had a camouflage scheme better than the jacket of any rapper and was Swedish so must make the list.
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Business jets are for twats. That is not a Bill Gunston quote as such, but I stand by it.
Do say: Anything other than the ones below.
Don’t say: BAC TSR.2, Avro Arrow
Do say: Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne
Don’t say: Boeing AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Blackhawk, Bell 206
Wondering how you can get a guilt-free pass to appreciate a gunship helicopter? Just choose one that never got built, like the supremely bananas Cheyenne. Oh, and the original Blackhawk, the tragic S-67.
Do say: Antonov An-22, Antonov An-225 and C-160 Transall
Don’t Say: Lockheed C-130 Hercules
The A400M Atlas is problematic – as a massive good-looking turboprop-powered transport it should score as a hit but it’s pan-European (with all the bland connotations of production sharing meetings in Toulouse), too new and too expensive. The An-22 is massive and crazy, the An-225 even more massive and can carry a space shuttle and the C-160 has the quaint left-field appeal of an old Renault 12.
Do say: none
While our cognitive dissonance can stretch as far as enjoying modern fighters, modern bombers are just too depressing. Even the Russian bombers lost their cool when they began being used in combat. This leaves only the Chinese Xian H-6 , which is a little too sensible-looking.
Do say: Any
They pick up water from lakes, fly through actual fire and save lives. They’re all brilliant. Even the BAe 146, the Coldplay of feedliners, is cool as a firebomber.
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This year’s list is out very late, due to a radically changed scene — and some new sources of revealing information. This ranking may be the most controversial but I hope we make our reasoning clear — of course any top ten is not to be taken literally (reality does not confirm to the top 10 format) and each aircraft has a specialism of which it is king. The process we used is discussed here.
To excel in Beyond Visual Range air combat a fighter must be well-armed and equipped with capable avionics. It must be able to fly high and fast to impart the maximum range to its missiles, allowing them to hit the enemy before he is even aware of their presence. The aircraft must give its crews sufficient situational awareness not to shoot their friends down, and be easy to operate so it can deploy its weapons quickly and accurately. The black magic of the aircraft’s electronic warfare suite can also come into its own, reducing the opponent’s situational awareness. Situational awareness, weapons capability and combat persistence are probably more important than manoeuvre capability (g), although transonic and supersonic acceleration is helpful in creating opportunities to survive & win multiple engagements.
Hardware is generally less important than training and tactics — removing these human factors from the mix allows us to judge the most deadly long-range fighting machines currently in service. The exact ordering of this list is open to question, but all the types mentioned are extraordinarily potent killers. This list only includes currently active fighters (so no Su-57s etc) and only includes weapons and sensors that are actually in service today.
(Contenders for the number 12 slot included the J-31B, FC-1,Iranian F-14 and Mirage 2000)
11. Lockheed Martin F-16E
OK, so we said ‘top 10’, but the F-16 deserves a mention. A great sensor suite, including a modern AESA (the APG-80) and comprehensive defensive aids systems is combined with advanced weapons and a proven platform; a small radar cross section also helps. However, the type is let down by mediocre ‘high and fast’ performance, and fewer missiles and a smaller detection range than some of its larger rivals. Older F-16s, including some USAF examples are being upgraded with the APG-83 AESA radar. Israeli F-16s also deserve an honourable mention for their advanced jamming and avionics systems, but are largely tasked with ground attack. The next advanced variant of the Viper, the F-16V/Block 70, has been ordered by Slovakia and Bahrain.
Armament for A2A mission: 4 x AIM-120C-7 (Ds in some cases), 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon).
10. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The Super Hornet is akin to a luxury sports car without a big enough engine: it has all the ‘bells and whistles’ (a very powerful advanced radar, reduced radar cross section, an excellent cockpit, data-linking capability and good weapons) but lacks the grunt to make the most of its superb systems at higher speed and altitudes. The weapons carriage is also among the draggiest configuration.
Though in an actual BVR engagement pilot training levels and the aircraft’s place in a larger system are decisive, we are looking at the aircraft as a weapon system in a like-for-like way — so many of the US Navy’s Super Hornet’s advantages are removed. A planned Block III upgrade will see the addition of conformal fuel tanks to increase reach, further reduced radar conspicuity and the addition of a modern wide display cockpit.
Read an exclusive interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.
This list, which for the sake of brevity (largely) treats aircraft as isolated weapon systems, does not favour the Super Hornet: in reality, with support from E-2Ds and advanced other assets, US Navy Super Hornets would be extremely capable in the BVR arena against most adversaries.
Armament for A2A mission: Super Hornet (high drag ‘Christmas tree’) 12 x AIM-120, realistic = 6 x AIM-120C-7/D + 2/4 AIM-9X ) (1 x 20-mm cannon)
9. Sukhoi Su-35
The Su-35 is considerably more capable than earlier ‘Flanker’s and would pose a significant challenge to any ‘eurocanard’. Su-35S were deployed in Syria in 2016 to provide air cover for Russian forces engaged in anti-rebel/ISIL attacks. The Su-35 is even more powerful than the Su-30M series and boasts improved avionics and man-machine interface. More on the Su-35 can be found here. Many of the teething problems encountered in Syria have now rectified. One ace the Su-35 has in its sleeve is the inclusion of the R-27T medium range infra-red guided missile (seen on aircraft deployed to Syria) – which is potentially effective against low radar cross section aircraft and has no American equivalent. One Russian analyst we spoke to questioned the effectiveness of the R-77 noting Russia’s lack of investment in modernising the weapon and the glacial pace of development of ultra-long range weapons for the Su-35.
The Su-35 represents the Flanker series for this list but high-end T-10 series aircraft include the Su-30, J-11B and J-16. (See Idiot’s guide to Flankers here.)
A2A armament: 6 x R-77 or R-27T, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)
Location of target
In terms of radars, the Su-35S’s Irbis-E PESA radar provides extremely high power levels allowing target detection beyond 300km (although without weapons which can engage at this range), as well as claimed advances in detecting low-observable threats such as stealth fighters at significantly beyond visual range. However, the downside to this is that the Irbis-E has to operate at extremely high power levels to achieve this performance and so is easily detectable and track-able at ranges beyond those at which it can track. All radars except AESAs with very low probabilities of intercept such as the F-22’s APG-77 suffer from this paradox but it is worse for the Su-35 because of the latter’s very large RCS and IR signature which means it must rely on out-ranging its opponents at BVR rather than trying to sneak up on them whilst relying on passive tracking.
Engage and defeat the target
Su-35 benefits from superb Russian missile design expertise. The multiple seeker-head mix which Russian fighters would fire in missile salvos in combat makes defending against them a very complicated task. At long range, the Su-35 can fire a mix of semi-active radar homing, anti-radiation (home on jam) and IR homing missiles, whilst at short range the ‘Archer’ series remains as deadly as ever. Typhoon has the excellent ASRAAM and IRIS-T short range IR missiles which can equal or surpass their Russian counterparts, but at long range the AMRAAM is showing its age and against Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jamming technology which the Su-35S employs, its Pk drops significantly to the point that multiple missiles would likely be required to kill each target.
BVR engagements are all about situational awareness, positioning/energy advantage, and persistence in terms of fuel and missiles. In all but the latter category the Su-35 is hopelessly outclassed by the F-22 (as are all other operational fighter aircraft). Even in terms of missiles, the Su-35 can carry up to twelve to the F-22’s eight but combat practice, especially against stealthy targets, involves firing salvos of six missiles with mixed seekers so the Su-35 only really has two credible shots
Disengage at will
Repeat as necessary
Abundant fuel reserves and a large weapon load.
8. Mikoyan MiG-31BSM ‘Foxhound’
As a defender against bombers the MiG-31 may well be the most potent interceptor in the world. In our article that explained the judging criteria for this top 10, analyst Jim Smith noted ” (The) Air Defence of Russia drives you towards the MiG-31. You have to have a big, fast, aircraft because you can’t avoid the possibility of having to cover a fair distance at high speed to meet the threat. Being big means a big sensor and long-range weapons are available, and both are likely to be needed. You may be less concerned about signature and platform manoeuvrability because your ideal approach will be to stand back and hit bombers rather than engage fighters.”
Interview with a MiG-25 pilot here.
The MiG-31 is designed for maximum BVR performance. Against bombers and cruise missiles it is superbly capable (and would be ranked higher on this list), however as a defensive interceptor it is vulnerable to more agile and stealthier fighter opponents. The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83+, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. Until the advent of Meteor-armed Gripens and Typhoons, no operational aircraft had a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33, which can engage targets well over 100 miles away (it may well out-range the AIM-120D). The recent R-37M, which is believed to be in limited operational service (though there is no open source material to support this claim) is even more potent and may even have some advantages over Meteor.
Designed to hunt in packs of four or more aircraft the type can sweep vast swathes of airspace, sharing vital targeting information by data-link with other aircraft. The enormous PESA radar was the first ever fitted to a fighter. The type is marred by a mountainous radar cross section and abysmal agility at lower speeds. More on the MiG-31 here and here.
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7. Dassault Rafale C
The Rafale F3R upgrade standard — introducing Meteor capability— was qualified in late 2018 , but is not due to become operational until early 2019. F3R involves major software upgrades, and the full integration of Thales TALIOS long-range airborne targeting pod. Though primarily an air-to-ground sensor the pod will improve target detection and identification.
Against the Meteor-armed Gripen and Typhoon, the French is aircraft is at a (probably brief) disadvantage. This is a reversal of the traditional position where Rafale has leapt ahead of Typhoon in weapon and systems integration (with some exceptions, like a helmet cueing system). Other than real stealth, this is in the only real disadvantage suffered by the type, which has a good performance, an excellent defensive aids suite and a high level of sensor fusion. Rafale has a more advanced radar than the other European and Russian fighters and a weapon (the MICA) that the Russians and Chinese do not known as well as the elderly and universal AMRAAM, and thus may be less able to counter. When Rafale receives Meteor it is likely to leap up to a top three position.
6. Chengdu J-20
2018 marks the J-20’s debut in this list. It also makes China the second nation in the world to put an indigenous stealth fighter into operational service.
With a hypothetical really long-range anti-air weapon, this relatively stealthy platform could force essential support assets such as tankers and AEW platforms to stand back, reducing situational awareness and combat persistence for opposition aircraft. Perhaps the J-20 should be thought of as a stealthy MiG-31, aimed at large area airspace denial rather than a air superiority fighter per se, though the J-20 is generally described as an F-22 Raptor-class aircraft. In many ways this is true, but the J-20 is particularly interesting because of its rather different configuration. The J-20 has a canard-delta rather than the (essentially) tailed-delta of both the Raptor and the Su-57 (which has yet to enter service). Additionally, unlike Typhoon, the canard is not closely coupled to the wing. The main benefit to be gained from this arrangement is the carriage of significantly more fuel, coupled with the scope for use of a longer weapons bay. The additional fuel could confer either additional range, or long combat persistence, and this suggests that, if armed with a long-range AAM a role as an anti-AWACS or anti-tanker system. The large weapons bay might also provide sufficient volume for a wide range of weapons. What of the compromises? I would suggest less energy manoeuvrability, as the configuration is likely to have somewhat higher transonic drag. In addition, signature (other than head-on) looks likely to be a bit greater. Head on signature could be comparable to competing systems if appropriate engine installation and airframe treatments are used. The canard, is likely, to be at low deflection for supersonic flight, especially if Su-35-like thrust vectoring is available to trim the aircraft. It is not clear from open source literature if this is the case, but it is likely the PLA are looking into it. It is only the type’s immaturity that keeps it from a higher placing, and it is likely to move up this list next year.
Stealth, supercruise and the modern weapons mean the J-20 is likely to mature into an extremely capable, and unique, aircraft. Achieving this depends on the degree to which China can overcome its historical problems with engine developments.
Location of target
The J-20 carries a modern AESA in a nose large enough to accommodate a set of 2000-2200 transmit/receive modules. Detection abilities are likely to be excellent.
Engage and defeat the target
Assessing the J-20s capability in this sense is hard. Giving the J-20 a very long range weapon would be a logical step and it is believed that this weapon is currently in testing. In 2016 China downed a target drone with a massive air-to-air missile. This could be a very long range air to air missile (VLRAAM) with ranges exceeding 300 km. Far greater than any Western weapon. The PL-15 which is said to be operational is a Meteor equivalent, but the analyst we spoke to was sceptical about its current status.
Disengage at will
Supercruise and a degree of stealth (though probably less than the F-22 from most aspects) will give the J-20 options, though it is likely to lack the energy manoeuvrability of the F-22.
Repeat as necessary
Massive fuel reserves (if combined with an efficient engine) and a large weapons bay are likely to make the J-20 one of the best aircraft in this regard.
Armament: 6-8 x new generation PL-12C/PL-15s or new generation BVR missile + 2 x PL-10
5. McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3/Boeing F-15SG/F-15SE Eagle
US F-15Cs were among the first fighters in the world to receive the AIM-120D AMRAAM, the best Western air-to-air missile after the Meteor. With an estimated 100 mile range, new hardware and software systems for improved navigation, an improved HOBS (High-Angle Off-Boresight) capability, the D model offers a significant advantage. Though far from fleet wide, USAF has a number of F-15Cs fitted with both the APG-63(V)3 radar and the AIM-120D, these Golden Eagles boast a superior radar to any non-US types. With a massive effective radar, good range, combat persistence and a high level of maturity, the Eagle remains extremely potent.
Though the famously one-sided score sheet of the F-15 should be taken with a pinch of salt (Israeli air-to-air claims are often questionable to say the least), the F-15 has proved itself a tough, kickass fighter that can be depended on. It lacks the agility (certainly at lower speeds) of its Russian counterparts, but in its most advanced variants has an enormously capable radar in the APG-63(V)3. The F-15 remains the fastest Western fighter to have ever entered service, and is currently the fastest non-Russian frontline aircraft of any kind in the world (though an F-15 pilot we spoke to here said he’d never got a clean eagle over Mach 2.3). The type is cursed by a giant radar cross section, a massive infra-red signature and an inferior high altitude performance to a newer generation of fighters.
Though Saudi F-15SAs are extremely advanced they are not considered mature and rumours hint at problems with the aircraft. The latest F-15s will benefit from the greatest amount of computing power of any aircraft. The F-15X is a suggested variant with the latest technology and ‘missile truck’ mass AMRAAM load-outs.
A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7 or AIM-120D 2 x AIM-9X
4. Saab Gripen
Some caution could be expressed about the Meteor, as it is far from being a combat proven weapon. But the signs are encouraging, with the order-book stacking up and a large amount of time, money and effort put into the weapon’s development. In our original list from five years ago, the Gripen did not even make the top ten. Its dramatic jump to the number two position in 2016’s list here was due to one reason: the entry into operational service of the MBDA Meteor missile. The Gripen was the first fighter in the world to carry the long-delayed Meteor. The Meteor probably outranges every Western weapon, and thanks to its ramjet propulsion (an innovation for air-to-air missiles) it has a great deal of energy, even at the outer extremes of its flight profile, allowing it to chase manoeuvring targets at extreme ranges. Many air forces have trained for years in tactics to counter AMRAAM, but few know much about how to respond to the vast No Escape Zone of Meteor. This combined with a two-way datalink (allowing assets other than the firer to communicate with the missile), the aircraft’s low radar signature, and the Gripen’s pilot’s superb situational awareness makes the small Swedish fighter a particularly nasty threat to potential enemies. The Gripen is not the fastest nor longest-legged fighter, nor is its radar particularly powerful. It would have to be used carefully, taking advantage of its advanced connectivity and superior Electronic Warfare systems to make the most of its formidable armament.
Let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.
4 x MBDA Meteor + 2 x IRIS-T (1 x 27-mm cannon)
3. Lockheed Martin F-35A/B Lightning II
The F-35 is perhaps the hardest aircraft to place on this list as its stealth and situational awareness should give it a very high ranking (it made position two last year) but reports continue to circulate regarding problems with the aircraft’s AMRAAM integration. It is (largely) this lack of a mature AMRAAM capability that stop it taking the number two slot that one might expect given of such an sophisticated system. Its appalling reliability and extremely high-maintenance demands (many shared with the F-22) also count against it. In 2017 the F-35 had a mission capable rate of 54.67%, which is terrible. To put this into perspective the B-1B which is very big, very complicated, old, has swing wings and four engines is only 2 or 3% worse! It appears that with a ‘fifth generation’ aircraft you get a mission capable rate of around 50% compared to 70% for a thirty year-old fourth generation aircraft (it is likely that the Eurocanards offer even better rates if assessed in the same way). How ever good a fighter is in theory, it has to be ready to fight to be able to fight.
In Location of target the F-35 scores very highly, being arguably the best fighter in terms of sensors and data connectivity. Stealth and unparalleled situational awareness make a potent beyond visual fighter of the F-35A, despite its pedestrian kinematic performance. The F-35A has gained a formidable reputation in large-scale war-games; against conventional opponents the F-35 raking up a reported 17-1 simulated aerial victories. The F-35, if it is to stay in a stealthy configuration, has fewer missiles than its rivals. It also lacks the agility and high altitude performance of the F-22, Rafale or Typhoon. A word of caution about the high ranking we have given the F-35: procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way.
4 x AIM-120C-5 + 2 AIM-9X (1 x 25-mm cannon)
2. Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4
In December 2018, the RAF launched Meteor-armed Typhoons on a Quick Reaction Alert mission — signalling it’s probable entry into service, and catapulting it to the number two position. Typhoon is now the best armed fighter in the world for beyond visual range combat, bar none. The Typhoon is very fast, high flying and energetic, imbuing its AMRAAMs and Meteor with a longer reach than those launched by lower performance aircraft. RAF Tranche 1 Typhoons are not Meteor compatible but will instead be fitted with AIM-120D in a deal that was signed in July 2018.
Its greatest weakness remains its lack of an AESA radar and its non-stealthiness. Against a stealthy opponent, for example the J-20 (when fully mature), the Typhoon will be at a large disadvantage and without the support of off-board sensors (from friendly F-35s for example) will struggle to get first-look and first-kill. The Typhoon is one only two aircraft on this list (the other is Gripen) with a mechanically scanned radar, a 20th century technology which leaves the sensor “… on the verge of complete obsolescence, with an inherently greater vulnerability to jamming and an inability to fully exploit the performance and capabilities of new weapons” according to some in the RAF Typhoon community. However, the radar is a decent size, with good detection range and is fully mature. Future Typhoons will carry the Captor E ‘Radar Plus One’, a new pivoted wide-view AESA, with the chance of an all new Radar Plus Two further in the future.
A2A armament: Up to six Meteor/AMRAAM AIM-120C5 + 2 or 4 AIM-132 ASRAAM/IRIS-T
1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor
Undisputed king of beyond-visual range air combat remains the F-22 Raptor. Its superbly stealthy design means it is likely to remain undetected to enemy fighters, calmly despatching its hapless opponents. The only potential rivals, the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20, remain immature.
The type’s excellent, but ageing, AESA radar is world class, and its ‘low-probability of interception’ operation enables to see without being seen. When high-altitude limitations are not in place (due to safety concerns) the type fights from a higher perch than F-15s and F-16s, and is more frequently supersonic. High and fast missile shots impart the AMRAAMs with greater energy, and so range, and allow the F-22 to stay out of harm’s way. The recent addition of the AIM-120D to the Raptor’s arsenal give it a weapon of improved range and sophistication. Since 2017, the F-22 has carried the AIM-9X , which has a marginal BVR performance useful against stealthy opponents.
The F-22 is now proven in combat; though it has not taken part in air-to-air combat, it has performed in the CAS, ISR and Combat Air Patrol missions over Syria, and more recently in Afghanistan.
The F-22 is expensive to operate and maintain, suffers from a poor radius of action for its size and has suffered a high attrition rate for a modern fighter. Issues with parts and software obsolescence have also dogged the aircraft, with recent efforts being made to provide more easily upgradable computer systems. The F-22’s ‘mission capable‘ rate is poor and getting worse, it plunged from a FY2014 high of 72.7% to an alarming 60% in 2016 to a lamentable 49.01% in 2017! This compares unfavourably with the 71.24% for the geriatric F-15C fleet in FY2017 (a figure that has stayed largely unchanging for five years). Its ability to share information with other aircraft is not first class: the F-22 does not have the ability to transmit on the standard Link-16 network—though it can receive data. The Talon HATE (it is unknown what the acronym stands for, assuming it is one) pod now being tested will allow the F-15 to connect with the Raptor’s Intra-Flight Data Link (previously a Raptor-to-Raptor only system). The IFDL has a low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection capability that offers a high resistance to jamming and eavesdropping.
Location of target
The F-22 is likely to detect anything now flying before it detects the F-22, with the possible exception of the F-35.
Engage and defeat the target
High energy, excellent situational awareness and the best US-made made air-to-air missile give the F-22 a high probability of winning a BVR engagement against anything else.
Disengage at will
This is to allow you to either re-position for another engagement, or to withdraw. In this category the Raptor scores highly. Its combination of high energy manoeuvrability, all aspect stealth, AESA radar and its ability to receive information from other aircraft allow it massive liberty in its options.
Repeat as necessary
This requires the ability to carry enough weapons have good combat persistence and, often ignored, have sufficient availability and numbers to deliver a campaign rather than just an engagement. In this category the F-22 has failings, which include a low combat readiness and a small fleet. Six AIM-120s limits the extent to which the F-22 can exploit its relative invisibility, and compromises from its stealthy design mean it does not have the range one would expect of such a large modern platform.
Armament: 6 x AIM-120C-5 or AIM-120D + 2 x AIM-9X or AIM-9M
Interview with USAF spy pilot here
Top Combat Aircraft of 2030, The Ultimate World War I Fighters, Saab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?, Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilot, Project Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Top 10 carrier fighters 2018, Ten most important fighter aircraft guns
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