Category: Aviation

Almost the greatest fighter of World War II: The Martin-Baker MB5

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Photo copyright BAE Systems from the DH Propellers Archive

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.

Martin-Baker MB5

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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Hipsters guide to aircraft

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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

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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.

Martin-Baker MB.5

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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.

Jetliner 

Do say: Tu-134, the Russian ‘Crusty’

Don’t say: Concorde, 747

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New Year’s Eve, and vodka-sozzled Zhenya Lukashin departs Moscow in a Tupolev Tu-134. Zhenya is the central character in the 1976 soviet romantic comedy The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!). Zhenya has left the snowy concrete jungle of Moscow for the identical snowy concrete jungle of St. Petersburg. The brief external shots of the aircraft in flight, with their distinctly dodgy special effects, have a certain magic about them. Though his destination maybe have been as dire as his point of departure, and his journey a soporific flight of drunkenness, the aircraft itself is decidedly (at least the exterior) otherworldly. The Tu-134, a twin-engined airliner in the same category as the equally attractive Caravelle. Its racy appearance is largely due to dramatically raked back wings which are set at an even more extreme angle than Britain’s exceptionally fast VC10. The 35 degrees of sweep was a ‘magic angle’ recommended by the central aerohydrodynamic institute (TsAGI) that was also adopted by the Tu-95 bomber.Best of all, the Tu-134 had a drag ‘chute! This very unusual feature, shared with its Tu-144 stablemate, was replaced with thrust reversers in later models.
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Do say: Chengdu J-20, Chengdu J-10B, AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo or Mitsubishi F-2
Don’t say: Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F-15 Eagle , LM F-16 Viper, LM F-22 Raptor

 

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.

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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.

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Cold War Fighter

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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’.

Panther Burns

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 jet

Business jets are for twats. That is not a Bill Gunston quote as such, but I stand by it.

Cancelled Aircraft 

Do say: Anything other than the ones below.

Don’t say: BAC TSR.2, Avro Arrow

Helicopter

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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.

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Transport 

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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.

Modern bomber 

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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.

Firebomber 

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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. water-bomber.jpg

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The top 10 fighter aircraft of 2018 (BVR combat)

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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 

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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 

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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’

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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 K-74M, 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

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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

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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

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5.  McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3/Boeing F-15SG/F-15SE Eagle 

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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

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The F-15X is not yet real. It is could address USAF’s need for a fighter with many more missiles than carried by the F-22 and F-35.

4. Saab Gripen 

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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 

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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

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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  an 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.

Interview with a Typhoon pilot here and here

A2A armament: Up to six Meteor/AMRAAM AIM-120C5 + 2 or 4 AIM-132 ASRAAM/IRIS-T

 

1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor 

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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 2030The Ultimate World War I FightersSaab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?, Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilotProject Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Top 10 carrier fighters 2018, Ten most important fighter aircraft guns

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Combat helicopters from a future that almost happened: Comanche & its strange rivals

In the early 1980s the US Army had a good think about their helicopters, and how vulnerable they were to modern air defence systems. A vast and ambitious programme was started to address this concern, dubbed the Light Helicopter eXperimental (LHX).

The LHX was required to replace the UH-1 ‘Huey’ in the utility role as the LHX-U, and the AH-1 Cobra and UH-1M in the gunship role as the LHX-SCAT. The SCAT would also supersede the OH-6A and OH-58C for the ultra-dangerous scout/reconnaissance mission sets. In 1982, the US Army had a force of around 2,000 utility aircraft, 1,100 gunships and 1,400 scout helicopters — any replacement could expect enormous orders. Such large numbers meant a big budget for researching new technologies, big profits for the winning contractor and global dominance in the field of military helicopters. The study that led to the LHX noted that there was a lack of original thinking in US Army aircraft procurement and that bizarre, exotic and unconventional approaches to the problem should been encouraged.The use of advanced materials, avionics and new concepts – like stealth and a single-pilot crew – were also to be encouraged.

One way to reduce vulnerability was to make the LHX faster than existing helicopters, and a top speed of 345 mph was suggested. This is extremely fast for a conventional helicopter, even today the fastest helicopters rarely go beyond 200mph (for reasons explained here). All major US helicopter manufacturers leapt into the fray, fiercely fighting to win the golden ticket of LHX. The entrants were quite unlike anything else built before or since.

Bell & Sikorsky’s convertoplanes 

Convertoplanes are a category of aircraf which uses rotor power for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and convert to fixed-wing lift in normal. Their inflight fixed-wing configuration means they can fly faster than helicopters, but the technology took a tortuous path to the mainstream. Bell had been researching and building experimental convertoplanes since the 1950s and this technology had reached a new level of maturity with the Bell XV-15 of 1977. Bell could make an LHX convertoplane that would be far faster than a helicopter, an idea that Sikorsky would also explore.

Bell’s initial idea was revolutionary — a small fighter-like machine with a butterfly v-tail named the BAT (Bell Advanced Tilt Rotor). It was to weigh slightly more than 3.5 tons, with a maximum speed of 350 mph and armament options included four Stingers, four Hellfire anti-tank missiles or two 70-mm Hydra rocket launchers.

Sikorsky were more determined than anyone to win the deal. Their UH-60 Blackhawk was becoming the backbone of US Army helicopter fleet and Sikorsky had no desire to loose its position as top dog. It thus put together a dream team with Martin Marietta (for sensor and weapons control), Northrop (then secretly the world leaders in stealth technology as well as infra-red —and other — sensors and targeting systems ) and Rockwell Collins (advanced cockpit technologies and system architecture) .

Sikorsky early efforts were, like Bell’s, tilt-rotors. Their convertoplanes concepts were rather larger and heavier than Bell’s. Sikorsky soon become daunted by the technological risks involved in tilt-rotors and moved towards a more conventional solution.

A sketch of an early Sikorsky tilt rotor with a twin tailboom.

Sikorsky’s next proposal featured a coaxial scheme with an additional pushing screw in an annular fairing. Co-axials were popular with the Soviet company Kamov, who today employ the technology on the Ka-50/52 gunship. Though slower than a convertoplane it was expected to offer greater stability and manoeuvrability. Despite did not winning, the concept is still alive today and can be seen on the S-97 Raider.


One Sikorsky LHX SCAT concept with co-axial rotors and a pusher propeller again engaged in the anti-helicopter mission.  New rotorcraft concepts take a very long to perfect, and thirty five years later Sikorsky is developing the similar S-97 Raider. 

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Hughes

Hughes, then producing the world’s most advanced helicopter gunship for the US Army, the AH-64 Apache, felt they were in a strong position to win LHX. Their offer was extremely bold and quite unlike any flying machine before or since. The Hughes LHX SCAT had no tail rotor, instead using the NOTAR system allowing a shape that would have had far less drag than any other helicopter. The fuselage was an aerodynamically wasp-like pod with two sharply swept wings and a nose section closer in appearance to a supersonic fighter than an attack helicopter. Smaller than the other proposals, yet equally well armed and fast at an estimated 342mph. It is unclear what Hughes were offering the utility category for LHX.

Boeing

Boeing rejected the notion of very high speed, deciding that stealth and advanced sensors were the solution to the requirement for enhanced survivability. Their proposal was shaped for low radar observability — with weapons mounted internally. According to the writer Bill Gunston, the proposal rejected cockpit transparency (windows) in favour of sensors creating an artificial view of the world for the pilot; the reason for this is two-fold, transparencies create problems for stealthy designs and at the time there was a fear of laser dazzling weapons (also seen on the stealthy BAe P.125 concept). 

Boeing’s embrace of stealth over speed won out, and a 1984 review of the proposals agreed. An updated requirement was issued – LHX / LOA – which insisted that the new aircraft must be low-observable (to radar and infra-red sensors) . Such a brief immediately wiped out the chances of any tilt-rotor designs with their massive frontal cross-sections.


Boeing LHX SCAT.

Though knocked out of the LHX contest, American interest in high-speed battlefield tilt-rotors would soon return. Replacing the A-10 battlefield support aircraft with a vertical take-off aircraft could prove a boon for forward deployment and potentially offer far greater flexibility. In 1986, Bell and Boeing created a proposal for such a machine, dubbing it the Tactical Tiltrotor. This extremely ambitious machine promised supersonic performance, thanks to an ingenious propulsion system. On take-off, landing and speeds up to 186 mph the aircraft acted as a turboprop tilt-rotor with the engines fed from a central turbojet, above these speeds the rotors folded into the engine nacelle and the turbojet provided direct thrust. In this mode, a top speed of Mach 2 was anticipated. This already radical idea was to be combined with forward swept wings, canards and an internal weapons bay housing eight Hellfire or Stinger missiles. Work continued until 1990, when it was cancelled as the Soviet threat disappeared.


An artist’s impression of an early Bell / Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor concept. 


Various Bell / Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor layouts were studied, including versions with two turbojet engines. 


The novel internal arrangement of the Bell / Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor. 

This glamorous artist impression shows two Tactical Tiltrotors at extremely low altitude attacking with cannon and Maverick missiles. The Tactical Tiltrotor was probably an idea born too early, and included too many risky technical features.


This artist’s impression shows a glass two person cockpit and as a two-ship attack Soviet tanks on a bridge. 


In addition to the battlefield attack variant, a transonic combat utility convertoplane was considered. It appears that this design may have some external features designed to reduce radar conspicuity. 

Would the LHX Stingbat have been any good? Find out here.

Back to the LHX

The four big names in the US helicopter industry paired up into two teams: Bell and McDonnell Douglas formed the ‘Super Team’ and Boeing and Sikorsky formed the ‘First Team’.

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LHX requirement dropped the utility requirement in 1988, and by 1991 the Sikorsky-Boeing collaboration had been selected as the winner. This aircraft, the Boeing–Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, first flew in 1996. The 200 mph 11,000Ib Comanche was a very sleek machine with weapons and undercarriage stowed internally to minimise drag and, more importantly, radar cross section. Three Hellfire (or six Stingers) missiles could be held in each of two weapons bay doors complimented by a trainable 20-mm GE/GIAT cannon. It was intended that the two-person helicopter could sometimes be crewed by one, but this proved dangerous in practice (the single person attack helicopter has proved unpopular-  the sole operational example being the Russian Ka-50).

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The RAH-66 Comanche won the LH contest (the X by then dropped from the project name).

It was the first known helicopter designed with a high degree of low observability and was extremely sophisticated, but despite the $7 billion USD spent, it was not to be. It required substantial modifications to be survivable against modern air defences, dwindling orders were pushing the unit price up and the US Army thought it wiser to invest funds into upgrading existing platforms and into developing unmanned scouts that could do the job without risking a pilot’s life. Some also wondered how useful radar stealth was for an aircraft that would often be slow and low enough to be targeted optically. After a 22 year effort, the Comanche was axed in 2004.

Life after Comanche 

Not all was lost however, the LHTEC T800 turboshaft developed by Rolls-Royce and Honeywell for the Comanche has seen considerable use. It powers the Super Lynx 300, AW159 Wildcat, Sikorsky X2 (an experimental co-axial pusher), T129 ATAK gunship and even serves (as a boundary layer control compressor) on a vast flying boat – the ShinMaya US-2.

 

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The US-2 is an unlikely beneficiary of the LHX project.

The tilt rotor technology pursued for LHX (and other US programmes) eventually led to the V-22 Osprey, smaller AW609 and V280 Valor. The co-axial pusher, an idea that dates back at least as far as the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne, can be seen today expressed in the S-97 Raider now under development. It is likely that stealth technology developed for the Comanche found a home on the US Army’s secret fleet of stealth helicopters, famously (and accidentally) coming into the public eye during the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

Attempts to replace Army scout helicopters with the new, far less ambitious, Bell ARH-70 Arapaho also floundered when the project was found to be 40% over budget.

This article was inspired by this Russian language blog post, that I recommend you visit.

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Interview with USAF spy pilot here

Top Combat Aircraft of 2030The Ultimate World War I FightersSaab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?, Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilotProject Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Top 10 carrier fighters 2018, Ten most important fighter aircraft guns

 

Loneliness at Mach 3: Interview with a MiG-25 Foxbat pilot

                                                        Mig.png

High-flying, insanely fast and untouchable, the MiG-25R Foxbat served the Indian Air Force with aplomb. We spoke to Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji about flying the world’s fastest operational aircraft.

What aircraft did you fly and how many hours do you have on type ?

“I retired 7 years ago at the age of 60, with over 3,400 hrs on jets. I had the distinction of Commanding three units. First, a MiG-29 Squadron, second a MiG-25R Squadron and lastly the Tactics and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) – the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF – which had the MiG-21, MiG-23U and the MiG-27. So, as a historical landmark, I am the only pilot in the Indian Air Force (and probably the Russian Air Force ?) to have ‘Commanded’ units with the MiG-21, MiG-23U, MiG-25R, MiG-27, MiG-29.”

What were your first impressions of flying the MiG-25R ?

“A 20-ton aircraft that carries 20 tons of fuel, flies in the stratosphere, cruises at Mach 2.5 in minimum afterburner and exceeds Mach 3.0 with ease when required, what can one say ? It was an awesome aeroplane. The fact that the ventral fuel tank was one MiG-23 (equivalent in fuel) under the belly, speaks for itself.”

Which words best describe the MiG-25 ?

 “Catch me if you can” 

What is the cockpit like and how pilot-friendly is it ?

“Most Russian aircraft cockpits evoke a feeling of comfort and familiarity to a pilot who has flown Russian aircraft before. Coming from the MiG-21 to the MiG-25R was an easy transition. As one of our Air Chief’s remarked when the aircraft was demonstrated to him and he was stepping into the cockpit, “This is rather familiar. And dammit, it even smells the same!” The cockpit was a little more spacious than the MiG-21, thankfully so, because we operated wearing the pressure suit (which, incidentally, was the same as that worn by Yuri Gagarin – so much for Russian sustainability and dependability).

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The two-seater (or Trainer version) was unique. It is the only aircraft I know (other than the Tiger Moth, I guess) where the trainee sits in the rear seat. The design, to my mind, was an aeronautical engineering masterpiece. To put it rather simplistically, the camera block was removed from a single-seater and a cockpit created in that space. The canopy, although the same as the other cockpit, appeared ‘flushed’ with the nose of the fuselage, as viewed from the rear cockpit. Thus the trainee felt he was sitting in a single-seater when in the trainer. The transition to going ‘solo’ was a piece of cake. With the nose-wheel located behind the rear cockpit, a 90 deg turn onto a taxi track entailed the front cockpit extending over onto the grass beyond the taxi track (at the ‘T’) before the turn was executed. A little unnerving initially for anyone (though airline pilots may not have felt uncomfortable).”

Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-27 here.

What can you say about the performance of the MiG-25 ?

mig25

“It was a beast with immense power. It has been described by some as ‘an engine with place for a pilot and some avionics’. The Tumansky R-15B engines each provided more than 10 tons of thrust to produce the desired performance. In almost all the other aircraft I have flown, a regular climb was executed at constant TAS (True Air Speed, the speed of the aircraft relative to the airmass in which it is flying) with a progressive reduction of IAS as the altitude increased. The Foxbat climbs at constant IAS with an increasing TAS, crossing abeam the take-off dumbbell (if a reciprocal turn were to be executed after take-off), at 30,000 ft and increasing! She would be crossing 20km (65,000 ft) in 6.5 minutes from wheels-roll, at a rate of climb (ROC) of 100 m/sec (almost 20,000 ft/min) ‘like a bat out of hell’, if you did not come back from the Max afterburner regime – In comparison, the ROC of a MiG-21 was 110 m/sec at sea-level. Now, that is sheer performance. Cruising at 20+ kms with minimum afterburner (which, incidentally, provided best specific fuel consumption) she could execute a 45-50 deg bank turn with just a wee bit of additional power. There was no loss of height. Her systems and auto-pilot were coupled to provide an optimised “Little m=1” (remember the formula for maximum range ?). So, as the fuel depleted she would keep climbing (cruise climb) and a mission commenced at (say) 19.5 kms altitude would terminate around 22 kms with no change of throttle position. The climb was so gradual over the period of time and distance that it did not affect the photography.”

Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-25PU__53_blue__(38094148876)

What was the pilot workload ?

“With virtually a first generation inertial navigation system (coupled with the ground beacon RSBN), one could engage the auto-pilot at 50m (165 ft) after take-off and take your hands off the control column. The Foxbat would execute the complete mission, photography included, and return to base (or programmed airfield) descending to a height of 50m when the pilot needed to take control and flare out for a landing. All that the pilot was required to do through the entire mission was manipulate the throttle – From max afterburner at take-off, to min afterburner at about 60,000 ft, to idle throttle setting approximately 350 Kms from landing base (the MiG-25 would glide the distance), to 75% RPM on top of approach to landing. That’s it !”

Were you detectable by radar ? Were you susceptible to interception ?

Certainly we were detectable by radar, provided you were expecting us. The Foxbat operated covertly, seen just as a blip on the radar amongst other flying aircraft, but one blip would suddenly disappear. In normal ground radar settings the Foxbat generally operates at the highest fringes of the radar lobe, with the ingress and egress (through the radar lobe) often allowing one or two blips for the radar controller to perceive. Low transition times (because of the high speed) did not provide adequate reaction time to scramble fighters; and other than a pure head-on interception with look-up / shoot-up capability (from, say, 40,000 ft), the Foxbat could survive any fighter interception.”

Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-21 here

What were the limitations of the aircraft ?

“The fuel quantity, I guess. The engines were gas guzzlers and 20 tons of fuel (including the ventral tank and fuel in the vertical fins) was just adequate. In the regional perspective of India and its neighbours it would suffice but we always returned for landing with 200-400 kg of fuel remainder (200-250 kgs was the fuel required to execute one circuit and landing). We operated on the fringe. The runway had to be kept clear at landing base (no other flying permitted for fear of runway blockage) once the MiG-25 commenced his descent. We needed to give only three R/T calls – one for take-off, one for commencing descent and one for landing (in operational missions just two). There was no need to give any other R/T calls because you operated unhindered in the stratosphere.”

11C Pilot

What does operating in the stratosphere feel like?

The subtle change in the colour of the sky starts around 16 kms (50,000 ft), I guess, as the suspended particles which reflect / refract the sunlight start getting dissipated. The sky turns a distinct grey as you cross 20 Kms (65,000 ft) and continues getting darker as you transcend into those dizzying altitudes of 90,000 ft and 100,000 ft. You fly with cockpit lighting ‘ON’ (as for night flying). It is a little eerie, one must admit. Not natural. The earth is round, a fact we could confirm (!) because you can see the curvature of the earth very clearly from those altitudes. The sun, moon, stars and the illuminated ground below, are all visible at the same time. A glorious feeling.”

What special clothing did you need and how effective was it ?

“As mentioned earlier, the pilots used the same pressure suit that Yuri Gagarin wore as the first man in space. The suit was the same that was supplied to MiG-21 and MiG-23MF pilots for their high altitude interception roles. It was not the most comfortable of suits but then pressure suits had a purpose. One needed to wear silk ‘inners’ (full sleeve top and ‘long-john’ lower pants) to allow the skin-tight suit to be put on. Needless to say, it required the help of another person (trained airman) to assist the pilot. Once zipped up (suggest one uses the washroom before donning the suit), there was further tightening of the suit by means of laces (on the chest, belly, back, legs, arms) to ensure the tightest fit without causing breathing discomfort. It was difficult to tie your own shoe laces. The neck-ring (on which the helmet would be put and locked – it weighed 2.5 Kgs) had this latex bladder which came over the head and distributed around the neck, not unlike a condom. Over the pressure suit the pilot would wear a loose flight suit to obviate the snagging of the pressure suit laces with switches / levers in the cockpit.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 2.jpg

“All this was fine in winters, but in summer, with the ambient temperature close to 40 deg C (104 deg F), the cockpit conditions with the canopy closed was a killer (start up time to take off approx 20 mts). Like other MiG aircraft, the heating system was brilliant, but the cooling system was designed to cut in only at 1 Km above ground level (and cut out at the same height during the return). Four layers of clothing – underwear, silk inners, pressure suit, flight suit – in those temperatures, meant you were soaked to the skin by the time you returned to the aircrew room. It needed an extra effort by the trained assistant to peel the wet pressure suit and wet inners off your body. Guess we got our share of sauna baths!”

What were your biggest fears in flying the MiG-25 or were there none? 

“When you are flying a virtual fuel tank, the biggest fear is the illumination of the “Fire” warning lamp. This was more so at operating altitudes in the stratosphere. The ejection seat in the MiG-25 was the same as that in the later models of the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The ejection seat had two settings (3 Kms / 10,000 ft and 6 Kms / 20,000 ft), to be set depending upon the terrain one was operating over. We set ours to 6 Kms. But operating at (say) 20-22 Kms altitude, where the ambient temperatures are around minus 85 deg C, an ejection meant a free-fall of 15 Kms (50,000 ft) before the seat separated and activated the parachute. Would you hit terminal velocity ? I guess you would. It was not a happy thought.

The other fear was that, God forbid, one had to eject over enemy territory. On landing, how fast could one get out of the pressure suit (without external help) and be unbridled and unhampered to scramble for an escape ? We practiced and mastered the art in the squadron.”

MiG-25RBV Foxbat-B camera bay

What improvements would you have liked incorporated in the aircraft?

“An in-flight refuelling system (but in those days the IAF never had an AAR /FRA) to increase its potential. Digitisation of its photo and ELINT systems could have upgraded the aircraft and extended its life for another decade at least.”

Can you tell us of any specific reconnaissance mission which produced exceptional results ?

Well, the photographs of the mountains and the terrain in the Kargil sector (15-18,000 ft) during the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict of 1999 are testimony to the photographic quality obtained from the MiG-25R. Every ridge, every crevasse, every approach and defile was clearly defined, all enemy positions and bunkers in the craggy and inhospitable mountain ranges lay exposed, providing immense information to the Indian Army and the IAF to conduct successful operations.”

Flying and fighting the MiG-19 here.

Can you describe any notable mission you have flown ?

“On 24 October 1995 the world witnessed a total solar eclipse and the path of the shadow traversed through North India. The Udaipur Solar Observatory requested the IAF to photograph the eclipse from the stratosphere, an exercise (to our knowledge) never done before. The purpose was twofold – to photograph the eclipse as it progressed, with a front looking camera in the cockpit and secondly, to photograph the traverse of the shadow over the surface of the earth, with the belly cameras. The high resolution, single-shot Hasselblad camera (20-25 frames/sec) provided for the front photography was a monster. It had to be fitted on top of the instrument panel and it blocked the forward visibility of the pilot. It was decided to use the two-seater and fit the camera in the front cockpit. The fitment, as any aviator would know, was a major task. Alignment with respect to the flight axis of the aircraft (angle of attack in flight) and the position of the sun was a major exercise. Scientists of astronomy from the Solar Observatory

eclipse foxbat (1)

The ’starburst’ as captured by the MiG-25. The aircraft has been superimposed go give the effect to the article publicising the event. It was discussed by Bhatnagar, A & Livingston, William Charles, in Fundamentals of Solar Astronomy (2005). World Scientific. p. 157. ISBN 9812382445.)

 obtained charts from NASA (also) to determine the ambient conditions likely to prevail in the stratosphere at the appointed time and altitude. It was decided (scientifically) that an altitude of 24.5 Kms (80,000 ft) and a speed of 2.5M flown towards the sun (in the path of the shadow), would provide the desired results. After fitment of the camera, the aircraft had to be raised on jacks, wheels retracted to simulate flight conditions and a framework fabricated with a simulated sun erected in front at a prescribed distance to get the correct alignments. For eye protection it was necessary to fly with the seat fully lowered which posed a problem of tracking the sun accurately with respect to the camera. So we fabricated a “gun sight” for the rear cockpit. A small aluminium frame with a 2cm x 2cm window over which a graph paper was pasted constituted the gun sight. The centre of this graph paper (the point of origin) was where the sun had to be maintained. This point had to be ‘harmonised’ with the camera, a procedure familiar for fighter pilots of that generation. Special filters to protect us from the damaging rays of the sun had been obtained from Argentina and Mexico. These were pasted over the visor of the pressure helmet.

As luck would have it, the scientists discovered that about 8-10 days before D-Day, the moon was going to be in exactly the same position as the predicted sun position on the day of the total solar eclipse. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to get a practice mission, albeit at night. The time worked out by the scientists was 2335 hrs or so (if I remember right). The mission was flown and while the daylight camera could not provide the clarity, the alignments and the ‘gun sight’ were verified and fine tuned.

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 1.jpg

On the day of the eclipse, at the pre-determined time, two MiG-25s, the MiG-25UB (two-seater) and a MiG-25R (to photograph the shadow) took off with the MiG-25R trailing 2 minutes behind. Timings were critical and they were met. We fed into the predicted path of the eclipse and started our photography about two minutes before the total eclipse took place. While it was getting darker by the moment, when the total eclipse took place we were enveloped in absolute pitch black conditions and the stars had a clarity and luminosity not seen otherwise. Everything was as per plan. The “gun sight” worked ! While the total eclipse was viewed from the ground for 42 secs, flying at 2.5M towards the sun allowed us to view the total eclipse for 2 minutes  and 25 seconds. The changes in the corona surrounding the sun in this period of the total eclipse were of immense value to the scientists, because with no suspended particles the clarity of the photographs was beyond their expectations. The “Diamond Ring” (the most popular photograph during an eclipse) was indeed delightful to see, but the ‘Piece de Resistance’ followed immediately afterwards – the “Starburst”, as the sun peeped through the ridges on the surface of the moon (the photograph is attached). An unusual mission but an experience of a lifetime.

Was the MiG-25 comfortable to fly after the MiG-21 ?

“A bullock cart, we would joke. She was heavy but responsive. Because of the weight there was a lot of inertia, requiring anticipation. To the ab-initio the aircraft would wallow on approach, if pilot anticipation and control input were not timely. She was steady as a rock during the climb and its stated mission profile. The two-seater was aerobatic and we did rolls, barrel rolls and rolls-off-the-top. The loop was prohibited because there was apparently inadequate elevator available to pull her through the manoeuvre. Ground handling was outstanding.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 3.jpg

Did you ever practice combat training – Practice Interceptions, etc ?

“The IAF MiG-25R was a purely reconnaissance version. PIs were conducted on us during various exercises. There were no successful interceptions to my knowledge.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 4.jpg

How difficult were the maintenance practices on the MiG-25R ?

“It was my first experience with (virtually) a modular concept of maintenance. Coming from the MiG-21 it was a pleasure to see the ease with which those massive engines of the Foxbat could be changed. The camera block lowered with winches and pulleys easily. The ELINT system was easily accessible. Because of its size, technicians could crawl in and out from access points for ease of maintenance.

Read about flying the B-52 here. 

Sure, you can call it an ‘archaic, unsophisticated machine’. But then there was no other ‘sophisticated’ aircraft to either match its performance or shoot it down ! With a navigation accuracy of (max) 10 kms off track over 1000 kms (with a lateral photo swath of 90 kms), strategic targets were never missed. It was amazing for its role.

We had problems with the tyres and the fuel in the initial years. The Russians did not clear the Dunlop manufactured tyres nor the Indian Oil manufactured aviation fuel for quite some time. We remained dependent on the USSR for the supply of these two major items. The on-going Iran-Iraq war curtailed supply through the Suez Canal. So our fuel and tyres would come by ship, around the Cape of Good Hope. This led to restrictions in our quantum of flying. The aviation fuel, as you would expect, had to be different from the regular aviation fuel. Regular aircraft were using fuel K-50 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.77) while we required fuel K-60 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.84). The higher specific gravity was essential to raise the flashpoint of the fuel because skin temperatures on the aircraft would exceed 300 deg C (ambient temp minus 85 deg C).

Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji (1)

The high temperatures also necessitated good cooling systems for the avionics and cameras. This was achieved by alcohol (98 proof !). The MiG-25 consumes almost 200 litres of alcohol per mission. Alcohol bowsers (tankers) were provided for replenishment which had a ‘tap’ provided at the rear (Aah ! Don’t you just love the Russians ?) – for purposes best left to your imagination! (venting, perhaps!).”

Read about Flying and fighting in the English Electric Lightning here 

For an operational mission what would be the approximate timeframes from receipt of task to the completion of photo processing ?

“Well, the MiG-25R was designed to carry out strategic reconnaissance. Targets for such missions are not generally time constrained as in tactical scenarios. However, if it came to a pinch, it would take about two hours of manual panning (with necessary intelligence inputs) on maps, feeding the way-points in binary onto the plates and running it through the ground testing system to check the veracity. Pilot briefing is concurrent because there are other pilots assisting with the map planning. ELINT programming would also be concurrent. Then the plates are slotted into the aircraft and the inertial platform erected (energised). This would typically take about 30 mins in winter and 45 mins in summer. During this time the pilot would be assisted into his pressure suit and he would proceed to the aircraft. From start to take off we may consider 15 mins and a one hour mission thereafter. Once on ground, the  camera spools would be off-loaded (simple procedure) and their analog processing in the dark room commenced. The specialist photo-interpreter would view the semi-dry negatives, identify the frames with the required targets and these would go into print positives. Thus the post flight procedure would also take roughly two hours. It would be safe to assume a mission, from start to finish would take about six hours. Add two more for delivery to the user. ELINT decoding would be simultaneous and coincidental to the photo processing.”

Were any special qualifications required to become a MiG-25 pilot ?

“Not really.  However, all pilots had extensive experience on MiG-21s.”

After the MiG-25 how did it feel to fly any other fighter ?

“They were all sports models! Perhaps the greatest joy was to be able to throw the fighter around in the sky with gay abandon (which you missed when you flew the Foxbat), do aerobatics, fire weapons and the adrenalin of doing air combat. We missed the ‘G’ ! Also the sheer thrill of seeing another aircraft in the same sky!”

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Were you ever concerned about enemy defences ? What actions would be initiated if you were painted on enemy radar?

It would be naïve of any warrior not to be concerned about his enemy. As I have mentioned before, missions were covert and silent. Just two R/T calls – for take-off and landing. There were no warning systems in the aircraft. The only warning that could be given was by our own ground radar picking up a possible interception. Depending upon the threat, it would entail moving the throttle up the quadrant and initiating a gentle climb. Secrecy, speed and altitude were our only weapons.”

 

Read about flying the Mirage 2000 here

Were there any aero-medical aspects that affected pilots flying aircraft such as these ?

“We were subjected to aero-medical scrutiny for the first year of operation of the aircraft. There were two issues of concern to the doctors. Firstly, the extent of exposure to UV Rays because of the clarity of the troposphere.  We were made to carry dosimeters on our person. The results indicated there was no cause for concern. The second was the phenomena of possible ‘Disassociation’ (In psychology, ‘disassociation’ entails experiences from mild ‘detachment’ from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences – phenomena involves a detachment from reality —– Wikipedia). This came into consideration because of the rather lonely and silent missions in the troposphere, detached and distant from regular flight profiles. The issue was discounted because of the relative short duration of the missions – one hour at best.”

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Some parting words?

“The MiG-25R was a superb flying machine, eminently suited to its task. It provided a feeling of immense power, invincibility and supreme confidence to the pilot in the execution of his mission.”

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The Top 34 pilot moustaches

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Along with a sense of dash, a disrespect for authority and a dog, the male pilot should have a moustache. When we asked our readers for their suggestions for the top 10 pilot moustaches, we were stunned by the huge response.  With this in mind, we have grown the list from 10 to a great hairy 34! 

(note to US readers: we are talking about mustaches)

34. Dick Dastardly “Curses, foiled again!”

Dastardly-and-Muttley Cartoon Pictures (1)

Dastardly’s appearance is based on Sir Percival Ware-Armitage from ‘The magnificent men in their flying machines’ (played by Terry-Thomas). Dick is penalised for not being real.

33. Chesley Sullenberger ‘Hudson-ducker proxy’

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Hero and a gentleman he may be, but the ‘Angry Neighbour’ is not a stylish moustache.

32. Chief Instructor CDR Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf

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Metcalf mastered the ‘your mum’s new boyfriend‘ look but as he did not exist outside the homoerotic naval recruitment film ‘Top Gun’ he has not received a high ranking.

31. Col. Chris Hadfield ‘Cosmic busker’

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“You know science can actually be fun…kids, where are you going?”

Orbiting Canadian busker Hadfield sports the ‘Scientist Uncle’ as also sported by your scientist uncle. Though being a spaceman is very impressive, this upperlip hair is far too sensible for this contest.

30. General Guishi Nagoaka ‘Hirsutie cutie pie’

Gaishi_Nagaoka

The second largest moustache in the world at the time, but alas, cheeky Nagoaka was not a pilot — though he did pioneer some aspects of balloon warfare. According to his wife, the moustache was unbearably tickly on her thighs.

29. C.J. ‘Heater’ Heatley ‘Strawberry Top Gun’

Heater

F-14 pilot, Top Gun instructor and photographer Heatley took pictures that inspired the Top Gun film. All very well, but his thespian moustache seems too conventional to earn many points despite its excellent condition and strawberry blond hue.

28. Adolf Galland ‘Gallanded Gentry’

Oberst Galland [Postkarte mit gedruckter Unterschrift]

104 aerial victories for the Luftwaffe and a tidy moustache.

27. Wing Commander Robert Stanford Tuck ‘Tuck shop’

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A classic fighter pilot look from Tuck here. After an extremely eventful World War II he made friends with Adolf Galland in later life and had a mushroom farm.

26. Hans Von Dortenmann ‘Focke!’

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Twat

This twat shot down 38 aircraft that were fighting the Nazis. He killed a relation (Tempest pilot F/Sgt Coles of 274 Sqn ) of the author —  which is probably going to lose him some points in this moustache contest.

25. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor ‘Headmaster wants to see you’

Air_Marshal_Sir_John_Slessor

If F-35 pilot Scott Williams hadn’t suggested Slessor’s inclusion on this list, it’s doubtful he would have made it (based on the image above anyway). Looking like the man who has just interrupted you sleeping with his wife, his stubbly shadow is below par.

24. René Fonck ‘Fonck you I won’t do what you tell me’

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In World War I, two American pilots bet Fonck a bottle of champagne that one of them would shoot down an enemy plane before he did. Fonck lost the bet, but rather than pay it off, he convinced the Americans to change the terms of the bet so that whoever shot down the most Germans that day would win.  Fonck went on to shoot down six enemy aircraft before the sun set. He become the top Allied Ace, with around 100 kills despite his unassuming moustache.

23. Glenn Curtiss ‘Curtiss may field first amphibious aircraft’

Glenn H Curtiss

Peaky Blinders-style bully boy Glenn Curtiss did everything, if you don’t know him already, have a look on Wiki. Even with his busy life he kept time to maintain a really tough tash.

22. Bob Hoover ‘Not the KFC guy’

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He could pour a cup of tea while performing a 1G barrel roll, and was one of the best pilots ever. Fairplay and a good ‘tash.

21. Charlie BrownPeanuts’

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Not to be confused with Charlie Brown from the Stigler incident , this Brown is a warbird pilot and owner of a pitch perfect handlebar.

20. Paul ‘Pablo’ Mason ‘The Mighty Fins’

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Outspoken Gulf War veteran Pablo Mason was a Tornado pilot. As well as sporting a large moustache à la hongroise – a Saxon warlord kind of a thing – he was fired from being an airline pilot for being too cool*. High scorer here.

*He let a passenger on a charter flight onto the flightdeck to allay the passenger’s fear of flying, something which was banned following 9 11. He had previously stripped to his underwear in a protest at overly fussy airport security.

19. Roscoe Turner ‘Roscoe Turner Overdrive’

Colonel_Roscoe_Turner_1939

Somewhere between Dali and Vic Reeves, the surreal majesty of Turner’s Small Handlebar/Dali ‘tash look deserves celebration. Air-racing, lion-owning, DFC-winning Turner was a pretty amazing guy all round.

Colonel_Roscoe_Turner_and_Gilmore_1930

18. Howard Hughes ‘Hunky Hughes’

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As well as collecting his own pee in jars and wearing Kleenex boxes for slippers, Hughes had an excellent understated moustache. Good to think of Hughes when considering if people like Bruce Wayne really exist.

17. Mike Napier ‘Hairy Tonka’

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Mike Napier’s solid ‘Nigel Mansell’ is rocksteady at low-altitude, perfect for flying a Tornado GR.1

16. Jimmy ‘Wacko’ Edwards

Jimmy_EdwardsDakota pilot and entertainment star, Edwards’ poetic lip border is a joy.

15. Captain O P Jones ‘Jimmy Hillfiger’

OJones.jpg

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Charismatic spiritual father to all British airline pilots, Jones was feared and revered. When the HP.42 he was flying was badly hit by lightning, jamming the cockpit door shut and damaging the rear of the aircraft, he reassured passengers by sliding a note through  a crack in the door. Despite this he has brought a piratical beard to a moustache contest and cannot be scored highly.

14. Adolphe Pegoud

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Insouciant as fuck, Pegoud catches the carefree elegance of French heroes with his rakish handlebar. He was the first fighter ace in the world, the first person to parachute from an aeroplane and the second (not the first as believed at the time) pilot to perform a loop. He was shot down and killed by a former pupil in 1915 at the tender age of 26.

Adolphe_Pégoud_Looping

13. Group Captain Mandrake

Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). Credi

Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). Credit: Sony Pictures.

Failing to avert an apocalypse has never been done as stylishly as Peter Sellers’ Mandrake did it in the 1964 Dr Strangelove. I’m not sure this moustache was real, I know that Mandrake himself was not – so low points here.

(For reasons that remain unclear, ‘Mandrake’ is also the nickname of the editor of a popular aircraft magazine.)

12. Wiley Post ‘Post Modern’

Wiley_Post_1935

Pionnering the pressure suit, discovering the jet stream and decorated with a rakish little moustache, Post had it going on.

Wiley_Post

11. Muhammad Mahmood Alam

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“I may look like a supply teacher but I’m very good at what I do.”

Rumoured to have destroyed six IAF Hunters in one sortie — and with nine kills to his name, Alam was a hero to the Pakistan Air Force. The status of this F-86 pilot should not delude us into over-estimating his, at best, functional moustache.

12. Count Francesco Baracca ‘Ferrario’ 

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Do not mess with Baracca. The Red Baron was not the only aristoric ace of World War I, Count Baracca had 34 confirmed kills and a no nonsense cold-blooded moustache.  He painted his family crest on the side of his aircraft, a black prancing horse, which inspired the Ferrari’s iconic logo. He flew the Nieuport 17 and then, from March 1917, the SPAD VII.

11. Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard ‘Trenchard’s Furry Friend’

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You can almost imagine Trenchard’s 1000-yard stare looking back at you as you catch him scrumping apples from your garden. History will judge a man who was an early advocate of strategic bombing and one of the architects of the British policy on imperial policing through air control as a man with a workmanlike facial caterpillar.

10. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C T Dowding ‘Dowdy-Dudey’

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Dowdy Dowding was a spiritualist, a single parent, theosophist, anti-vivisectionist and a vegetarian — but his headmaster tash was not sexy. He was, however, very important in the Battle of Britain.

9. Gervais Raoul Lufbery — ‘Plucky Gervais’

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Another insouciant individual who looks like he could only smoked to give himself a break from kissing and reading philosophy, Lufbery was a French-born half-American who volunteered to fight before the US entered the war. Unlike many of the rather posh rich Americans who fought as early volunteers, he was from a humble background having worked in a chocolate factory before the war. I almost forgot to mention his moustache-  which is a micro-‘Lampshade’, and has a certain something.

8. Squadron Leader A H Rook 742814Leading a fighter squadron in Russia in 1941 demands a particularly brave moustache, so the RAF sent Rook. Good work.

7. Squadron Commander the Lord Flashheart

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Lothario, brawler and the mad bastard hero of the RFC, Lord Flashheart had an excellent handlebar moustache but loses points for being imaginary.

6. Wing Commander Roger Morewood

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Perfect

Morewood — one of the last of the Few (he died in 2014) and rocker of a perfect RAF handlebar. The platonic ideal of the dashing fighter pilot, Morewood is a heavy hitter in pilot moustache world as well as having a name any male porn actor would die for.

5. Air Cmde Suren Tyagi

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Come to ‘Fishbed’ eyes.

The Indian Air Force is an organisation that prioritises excellent moustaches over everything else (certainly over sensible procurement programmes). Thanks to this policy, Tyagi has created this luscious ‘Imperial’ style moustache, the perfect accoutrements for sitting in a MiG-21 or blasting a quail with a blunderbuss.

4. Flying Officer ‘Osti’ Ostaszewski-Ostoja

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In the September 1939 campaign, Osti fought in the Polish “Dęblin Group”, a desperate last-ditch defence force organised by instructors of the Fighter Pilot School in Ułęż. He later fought as a Spitfire pilot in the RAF. Excellent jawline and full moustache.

3. Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Karan Kohli ‘Dali Fulcrum’

Moustaches are an integral part of tradition and folklore in several parts of India, imbuing the grower with respect, honour and above all, a look that speaks of masculinity. Kohli can perform the famous Cobra manourvre in his MiG-29 using his moustache alone, which is pretty impressive. This is also an excellent moustache – so points all round.

2. Robin Olds ‘Olds pilot and bolds pilot’

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Tom Hardy? Nope, Robin Olds.

You don’t get more USAF than Robin Olds, having fought with aplomb in both the P-38 and P-51 in World War II — and later the F-4 in Vietnam. His extravagantly waxed non-regulation) handlebar moustache was an act of open defiance to authority and started a fashion that swept across the Air Force.  “It became the middle finger I couldn’t raise in the PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles…with higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war.”

When he was finally given a direct order to shave he did, which inadvertently inspired the Air Force tradition of “Mustache March“, in which airmen worldwide show solidarity by a symbolic hairy protest month against Air Force facial hair regulations. The moustache itself was a masterpiece of style, authority and dash.

  1. Orville Wright ‘Wright said Fred’

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The first aeroplane pilot in the world had an excellent moustache, Orville’s magnificent face candy matching his contribution to world history. Years later it would inspire bland women on Tinder to don fake moustaches to demonstrate their lack of personalities.

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The Supersonic Rotor Helicopter

Westland SSRH 02 lrg (1) (2).jpgToday, thanks to former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, Dr Ron Smith, we have gleaned further information on this intriguing, and potentially word-beating, project. 

“The Supersonic Rotor Helicopter. this was a project
completed by the long-term Future Project Office prior to my joining
Westland in October 1975. A report summarising the work was needed to
secure contract payment and I was tasked with pulling it together
(based on the work already conducted by others).

The SSRH proposition is based on the fact that if you increase the
rotor tip speed, the retreating blade stall boundary goes out to a
higher helicopter forward speed. (It’s a function of the ratio of
forward speed to tip speed, which is known as the Advance Ratio).

Suppose the tip speed is Mach 0.6 and at a particular blade loading
(think weight), the retreating blade limit is at an advance ratio of
0.3. That means that retreating blade stall will occur at Mach 0.18
(about 230 mph). In this case, the VNE might be say 210 mph (10%
margin).

S4DVqy-Q-2

If you double the tip speed to M=1.2, you can, in principle, fly at the
same advance ratio at double the speed (roughly 400 mph).

The study report (early 1976) looked at the shock wave propagation
geometries and a relatively basic performance calculation, in the
context of various designs targeted at naval roles. A range of
different tip Mach numbers were studied. WG32 was one of the sample
layouts (looking at them now, it appears that single, twin and three
engine variants were schemed). As far as I can tell, they were not
allocated separate WG numbers.

The obvious potential issues would be external noise and high power
requirements. But, in principle, it ought to work.

Although I wrote the report, I was not involved with any customer
meetings, but the feedback I was given by the Research Director was
that both he and the customer were very pleased with the report.

This was a piece of research to examine feasibility and highlight risks
and issues. I would imagine that it was felt that there was too much
risk to go down this route when conventional helicopter solutions could
probably provide adequate operational performance with lower risk in a
shorter timescale.

(Studies had already been completed on WG26 (Multi-Role Fleet
Helicopter) which went on via WG31 (Sea King Replacement) and WG34 to
become EH101 / Merlin).

I was not involved in any of these airframe studies, other than some
limited supporting work that I contributed to, in respect of the stall
flutter analysis of what became the BERP rotor blade.”PtVgAtsk.jpg

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Spitfire to Berlin?  – Making Supermarine’s Finest an Escort Fighter

Supermarine_Spitfire_Mk_XIVe_RB140_in_March_1944._This_aircraft_served_operationally_with_Nos._616_and_610_Squadrons,_but_was_destroyed_in_a_landing_accident_at_Lympne_on_30_October_1944._E(MOS)1348.jpg

Could the Spitfire have equalled the Mustang in range and capability as an escort? Paul Stoddart examines some development options and suggests what might have been achieved.

Notes:

All fuel capacities stated in this article are in Imperial gallons (equal to 1.20 US gallons).

Fuel tank capacities (and other aircraft figures) often vary somewhat from source to source. The author has used either the most common or the most authoritative figure. The actual variations are, in any case, so small as to make no difference to the essential argument and findings.

“The war is lost”, said Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering, on seeing Mustangs flying over Berlin. It was a remarkable achievement, a single-engined fighter with the range of a bomber. P-51s based in south-east England could fly the 1,100-mile round trip yet still win air superiority deep in Germany. The first such missions were flown in March 1944 and they were decisive. Merlin-powered Mustangs enabled the USAAF Eighth Air Force to prosecute its daylight campaign without the crippling losses it endured during 1943. The question remains, could Spitfires have flown that mission and flown it a year earlier? Could the Mk IX have taken on that role from the autumn of 1942? It is arguable that earlier success of the Eighth’s campaign would have hastened the end of the war in Europe. Bringing VE-Day forward even by a few months would have had significant implications and benefits; in particular, a smaller proportion of Central Europe might have fallen under Soviet control. The distinguished historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper once commented, “History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate the might-have-beens.” An escort Spitfire was a might-have-been with much potential but before assessing the possible development routes, the actual design and development of the aircraft should be considered. To put the analysis in context, the role of the escort in the Eighth’s campaign will also be described.

Spitfire: Range on Internal Fuel

A_Supermarine_Spitfire_Mk_IXE_of_No._412_Squadron_RCAF,_armed_with_a_250-lb_GP_bomb_under_each_wing,_taxies_out_for_a_sortie_at_Volkel,_Holland,_27_October_1944._CL1451.jpg

Although the Spitfire remained in the front rank of fighters throughout World War II, it never made the grade as a long-range escort. Specified as a short-range interceptor with the emphasis on rate of climb and speed, it is unsurprising that fuel load was not the Spitfire’s strongest suit. Throughout its life, the core of the Spitfire fuel system remained essentially similar although with several variations on the theme (See table 1). The Mk I carried 85 gallons of petrol internally in two tanks immediately ahead of the cockpit. The upper tank held 48 gallons and the lower 37. This arrangement was used in the majority of the Merlin fighter marks: II, V, IX and XVI. (By comparison, the Bristol Bulldog of 1928, with only 490 hp, carried 106 gallons). Later examples of the Mk IX and Mk XVI featured two tanks behind the cockpit with 75 gallons (66 gallons in the versions with the cut down rear fuselage). The principal versions of photo-reconnaissance Spitfires used the majority of the leading edge structure as an integral fuel tank holding 66 gallons per side. As this required the removal of the armament, it was not an option for the fighter variants. Capacity was increased in the Mk VIII (which followed the Mk IX into service) with the lower tank enlarged to fill its bay and holding 48 gallons. Each wing also held a 13-gallon bag tank in the inboard leading edge (between ribs 5 and 8) to give a total internal load of 122 gallons, a 44% increase on its forerunners. Eighteen gallon leading edge bag tanks were also fitted in some late Mk IXs. Fitting the Griffon in the Spitfire’s slim nose displaced the oil tank from its original ‘chin’ position to the main tank area. This reduced upper tank capacity by 12 gallons but all Griffon Spitfires, bar some Mk XIIs, featured the 48-gallon lower tank. It is worth noting that the PR Mk VI had a 20-gallon tank fitted under the pilot’s seat although no other mark of Spitfire appears to have used this option. On 85 gallons of internal fuel, the Mk IX had a range of only 434 miles; the Mk VIII, reaching 660 miles on 122 gallons, was still short on reach.

Table 1. Spitfire Internal Fuel Capacity

Spitfire Range Extension – External Fuel

The slipper tank was the standard range extender on the Spitfire and some 300,000 were built in a variety of capacities and materials. Fitted flush on the fuselage underside ahead of the cockpit, the slipper tank was essentially a trough whose depth varied in proportion to volume. The 30, 45 and 90-gallon versions were used on fighter missions with the 170-gallon tank reserved for ferry flights only. The drag penalty imposed by slipper tank carriage was relatively high compared to the later ‘torpedo’ style drop tanks that were mounted on struts clear of the fuselage (see table 2). Compared with the slippers, the torpedoes were little used. All tank types could be jettisoned although this was normally only done when operationally imperative.

In the USA, two Mk IXs were experimentally fitted with Mustang 62-gallon underwing drop tanks. These were of metal construction and of teardrop form. The Aircraft & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down tested the jettison properties of this tank from the Spitfire. At 250 mph, the tanks jettisoned cleanly but at 300 mph the tail of the tank rose sharply and struck the underside of the wing heavily enough to dent the skin. Although this failing was presumably not beyond correction, the 62-gallon tank appears not have been adopted for operational use. Nor has the author found any record of even a trial fit of the underwing 90-gallon Mustang tank on the Spitfire. These tanks were of cylindrical form and made of a plastic/pressed paper composite. Filled just before use, they had only to remain fuel tight for the first two hours or so of the sortie after which they would be jettisoned. Unlike a discarded metal tank, the plastic/paper versions were of no value to the enemy and, being ‘one-use’ only were routinely jettisoned when empty.

Slippers and torpedoes – Spitfire drop tanks

Tank capacity (gal)

Tank type

Total tank drag (lb) at 100 ft/sec at sea level

100 ft/sec = 68 mph

Tank drag (lb) at 100 ft/sec at sea level per 30 gal

Relative tank drag at 100 ft/sec at sea level per 30 gal where 45 gal torpedo is unity

30

Slipper

6.7

6.7

3.53

45

Slipper

7.0

4.7

2.47

90

Slipper

8.8

2.9

1.53

170

Slipper

35.0

6.1

3.2

45

Torpedo

2.8

1.9

1.0

170

Torpedo

8.6

1.5

0.79

Table 2. Spitfire Drop Tanks: Capacity and Drag.

The Need for Long Range Escorts

The greatest need (and opportunity) for a long-range escort Spitfire was between August 1942, when the Eighth Air Force began its daylight campaign over Europe, and early 1944 when the Merlin Mustang appeared in strength. In August 1942, the Mk IX Spitfire was Fighter Command’s leading interceptor but, as it had only been in service for a month, the less capable Mk V still made up the bulk of front line strength. The Eighth’s first target (using the B-17E Flying Fortress) was the French town of Rouen and, given its proximity to England, Spitfires provided the escort. For targets deeper in Europe, the Spitfire’s short range was a severe limitation and precluded it as an escort. P-38 Lightnings arrived in the UK during the summer of 42 but this large aircraft (its empty weight was double that of the Mustang’s) was at a disadvantage in combat against the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the nimble Focke Wulf Fw 190. The P-47 Thunderbolt began escort duties in April 1943 but even with 254 gallons of internal fuel (three times the Spitfire’s load) this thirsty beast lacked the range for deep escort. Adding a 166-gallon drop tank significantly increased the Thunderbolt’s radius of action (though not to Mustang standards) and long-range escort missions were flown from April 1943. Although a capable high level fighter, at low and medium altitudes the P-47 could not match the defending German interceptors for climb or manoeuvrability. It was the advent of the Merlin Mustang in December 1943 that firmly shifted the balance in favour of the Eighth Air Force.

During 1943, the Eighth suffered such heavy casualties as to make deep raids unacceptably costly.

The figures are sobering. In April, during a raid on Bremen, 16 bombers were lost out of 115; a loss rate of 14%; 4% is considered the maximum loss that can be sustained in the medium and long term. In June, 22 bombers were lost out of 66 (33%) and in July, 24 from 92 (26%) were downed; the targets were Kiel and Hanover respectively.

The case that fighter escort could have helped shorten the war is supported by the example of Schweinfurt. Lying to the east of Frankfurt, Schweinfurt was the centre of ball bearing production in wartime Germany. Ball bearings are essential for armaments and Allied target planners correctly identified the Schweinfurt plants as being crucial to the Nazi war effort. A raid in August 1943 cut production by 38%. According to Albert Speer, the Reich Minister of Armaments, prompt further attacks would have had a severe, even catastrophic, effect on the Nazi war machine. In the event, the heavy losses of the first raid delayed the second to October by which time production had been built up again. Despite this, the second raid reduced output by 67%. A further large-scale raid might well have been decisive but American losses were so severe that there was no follow-up. Of 291 bombers in the October raid, 60 were shot down (21%) and 138 damaged, adding up to a total casualty rate of 68%. Had an effective escort fighter been available during 1943, the frequency and effectiveness of those raids (and others) would have been much increased.

Planning For and Building Long Range Escorts

Supermarine_Spitfire_Mk_IXs_of_No._241_Squadron_RAF_return_to_their_base_at_Madna,_south-east_of_Campomarino,_Italy,_after_a_weather_reconnaissance_sortie_over_the_Anzio_beachhead,_29_January_1944._CNA2499.jpg

The vulnerability of daylight bombers to fighter defences was a lesson painfully learned by the RAF in the first two years of the War. As a result, Bomber Command re-directed its force to the night campaign that continued into 1945. The USAAF began its daylight campaign with the belief that the firepower of the B-17 would be sufficient defence. Even had that been true, an escort fighter would still have been beneficial. Obviously, the planning and build-up for the campaign began well before August 1942. At that time, the Spitfire was the leading Allied fighter and greater effort should have been applied to increasing its range so that it could operate deep in Europe as an escort. It was employed when targets in France were attacked so clearly the value of an escort was recognised. Supermarine faced the twin challenges of building sufficient Spitfires for the front line while also developing successor marks of greater performance. Concurrent development and manufacture in America would have substantially increased the resources available. There were precedents for such a policy. The American car company Packard produced over 55,000 of the 168,000 Merlin engines built; Canadian companies also supplemented production of the Hawker Hurricane and Avro Lancaster. There was no insurmountable obstacle to America-based Spitfire manufacture. Options might have included Curtis taking on Spitfire production in place of the distinctly average P-40 or the Spitfire replacing the P-39 Airacobra at Bell. American resources would have speeded the development of the Spitfire beyond the Mk V and could have aimed that development at stretching the range for the escort role.

Spitfire versus Merlin Mustang

Supermarine had some success during the War in extending the Spitfire’s range but it did not come close to matching the P-51. Put simply, the Mustang flew far further because it carried much more fuel and had less drag. This article will concentrate on fuel load but the drag difference is worth addressing briefly. At the same throttle setting, a Merlin Mustang would fly 30 mph faster than a Merlin Spitfire of equal power. The P-51 gained significant thrust from the air passing through its radiator such that its net coolant drag was only one sixth that of the Spitfire. (See Lee Atwood’s article in Aeroplane May 99). Building this system into the Spitfire would have resulted in effectively a new aircraft but increasing the fuel load was certainly feasible. Incidentally, Supermarine produced a design proposal involving moving the radiators from under the wings to the fuselage underside just aft of the cockpit; clearly the Mustang had been an object lesson. A company report in December 1942 claimed a 30 mph speed increase would accrue from that and certain other modifications but the scheme was taken no further.

The first Merlin powered Mustangs, the P-51B and C, began operations from England in late 1943. At that time, the Mk IX Spitfire led Fighter Command’s order of battle. Both aircraft had 60-series Merlins of similar power output but their performance differed markedly (see table 3).

P-51C

Spitfire IX (%age of P-51C value)

Engine / Power hp

V-1650-7    1,450 hp at take-off

War emergency 1,390 hp at 24,000 ft

Merlin 61   1,565 hp at take-off  (108%)

War emergency 1,340 hp at 23,500 ft (96%)

Empty weight lb

6,985

5,800 (83%)

Normal loaded lb

9,800

7,900 (81%)

Max loaded lb

11,800

9,500 (81%)

Internal fuel Imp gal

224

85 (38%) 

Range on internal fuel

955 miles at 397 mph at 25,000 ft

1,300 miles at 260 mph at 10,000 ft

434 miles (33%) at 220 mph at ? ft  (85%)

Air miles per gallon

4.44

6.05

5.11 (84%)

External fuel Imp gal

180 (2 x 90 under wing drop tanks)

90 (1×90 under fuselage slipper drop tank) (50%)

Total fuel Imp gal

404

175 (43%)

Range on total fuel

2,440 miles at 249 mph

980 miles (40%) at 220 mph (88%)

Air miles per gallon

6.18

5.60 (91%)

Speed mph at ht ft

426 mph at 20,000 ft

439 mph at 25,000 ft

435 mph at 30,000 ft

396 mph at 15,000 ft (93%)

408 mph at 25,000 ft (93%)

Time to 20,000 ft

6.9 min

5.7 min (83%)

Ceiling ft

41,900

43,000 (103%)

Armament

4 x 0.5” 350 rpg i/b, 280 rpg o/b

2 x 20mm 120 rpg, 4 x 0.303” 300 rpg

Consumption is quoted in air miles per gallon (ampg) figures and is the average value for a specified case of fuel load, speed and cruising altitude.

Note that both the Spitfire and Mustang were more economical when carrying drag inducing external tanks than when flying clean. This paradoxical point is explained by the fact that the longer range endowed by drop tanks resulted in the aircraft spending a greater proportion of the flight in the cruise, the most frugal phase of the sortie.

Table 3. Performance Comparison: Spitfire Mk IX versus Mustang P-51C

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Despite an empty weight half a ton greater than the Mk IX, the P-51C had a useful speed advantage. In range, there was no comparison. On internal fuel alone, the Mustang almost equalled the slipper tank fitted Spitfire’s range and did so cruising 80% faster. The Mk IX’s only win was in time to height where its lower weight was advantageous. It is worth noting that the Mk XIV Spitfire required the 2,050 hp Griffon to equal the P-51D’s speed; its range was somewhat less than the Mk IX owing to the greater thirst of its 36.7 litre powerplant.

It should be noted that range figures in many reference books are potentially misleading, as those quoted are generally the aircraft’s absolute maximum under ideal conditions. In actual operations, fuel allowances must be made for take-off, climb, head winds, combat and diversion. The effect is to reduce the realistic operational radius of action to under half the maximum range. Note that the P-51C needed drop tanks to reach Berlin with enough fuel remaining for combat and return to base whereas its absolute range figure suggests it could fly a double round trip.

In his book Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story, Supermarine chief test pilot Jeffrey Quill describes an experiment in range extension. A Mk IX Spitfire was fitted with a 75-gallon rear tank plus a 45-gallon drop tank (presumably a slipper) for 205 gallons total. Quill flew a non-stop return flight from Salisbury Plain in southern England to the Moray Firth in northern Scotland. Owing to poor weather, the journey was entirely made below 1,000 ft, which is not the most economical cruising altitude. Distance covered equalled the East Anglia to Berlin return sortie of the Mustang. The flying time was five hours, suggesting the standard cruising speed of 220 mph was used for the 1,100-mile trip. However, with its 68-gallon rear tank, the P-51’s internal capacity was around 224 gallons. For long-range escort missions, it carried two drop tanks of 62 or 90 gallons each giving a total load of at least 348 gallons, ie some 70% more fuel than Quill’s experimental Mk IX. We must conclude that on 205 gallons, the Mk IX would have had little or nothing in reserve for combat when 550 miles from home. (Note that cruising at 20,000 ft would have reduced fuel consumption by 10% or more).

Supermarine_Spitfire_MkIIa_&_North_American_P-51_Mustang_05_(5968988206).jpg

Spitfire fighters achieved similar distances to the Berlin mission during the War but only on ferry sorties. Mk Vs were flown from Gibraltar to Malta, a distance of 1,100 miles, ie equal to the England-Berlin round trip. A total of 284 gallons was carried: 85 gallons in the standard fuselage tanks, a 29-gallon rear fuselage tank plus a 170-gallon drop tank. The route was first flown in October 42 and the aircraft landed after 5¼ hours (210 mph ground speed, there was a slight tail wind) with 40 gallons remaining. The drop tank was not jettisoned and the average consumption was 4.51 ground miles per gallon, ie a maximum range of 1,278 miles in those conditions. A&AEE estimated the range of the Mk V with both the 29-gallon and ferry tank to be 1,624 miles assuming tank jettison (5.72 ampg); the range gain of 27% emphasises the drag of the big slipper tank. Achieving escort fighter range with the Spitfire was clearly possible but the bulky 170-gallon tank was not the answer.

As an aside, in their comprehensive tome Spitfire, The History, Morgan and Shacklady include a diagram of Mk V Spitfire range as an escort with the 90-gallon slipper tank. A 540 mile radius of action is claimed at a 240 mph cruise with 15 minutes allowed for take-off and climb plus 15 minutes at maximum power (ie combat). Starting from south-east England, such a radius takes in not only Berlin but also Prague and Milan. Maximum range with the 90-gallon external tank and 85 gallons of internal fuel is generally quoted as 1,135 miles with no allowance stated for combat and so forth. No Spitfire flew deep escort missions and this makes the claim for the Mk V having Berlin capability somewhat questionable.

As already stated, reducing the Spitfire’s drag to the Mustang’s level was not feasible in a realistic timescale but there was definitely potential to increase its fuel load. Here, the escort potential of the Mk IX will be assessed. The Mk IX entered service in July 1942 and was essentially a Mk V modified to take the two stage, two speed supercharged Merlin 60 series. It was rushed into production to counter the Focke Wulf Fw 190A-1 that had, since its appearance in July 1941, proved markedly superior to the Mk V Spitfire. The plan had been for the Merlin 60 to first appear in the Mk VIII, which was a more highly developed design with, inter alia, revised ailerons, a retractable tailwheel and leading edge fuel tanks. In the event, the loss of air superiority to the Fw-190 forced the stopgap Mk IX into being and, as is well known, it proved highly successful. Hence the Mk IX preceded the Mk VIII into service by 11 months.

Developing the Mk IX Escort

Beginning life with the standard 85 gallons of internal fuel, the Mk IX also used slipper drop tanks of 30, 45 or 90 gallons on combat sorties. Late production Mk IXs gained the 75 gallons of the rear fuselage tanks taking total internal fuel load to 160 gallons or 71% of the P-51’s capacity. Add the 90-gallon slipper tank and total fuel rises to 250 gallons. With 175 gallons (85 + 90), the Mk IX’s range was 980 miles at 220 mph. A total of 250 gallons is an increase of 43% but an equal increase in range should not be assumed without some thought. The added weight of the rear tanks and fuel (around 640 lb, an extra 7% in take-off weight) would slow the climb to altitude and increase the lift-induced drag. That would be balanced by the extra fuel extending the sortie time fraction spent in the cruise. A&AEE estimated the maximum range of the Mk IX with the 170-gallon ferry tank to be 1,370 miles (85 + 170 = 255 gallons, 5.37 ampg). As the 170-gallon tank was a high drag installation (some four times ‘draggier’ than the 90-gallon version, see Table 2) it is reasonable to allow our Mk IX its 43% range increase, ie 1,401 miles. This is confirmed by a Supermarine trial of the 85 + 75 + 90 gallon fuel load case that achieved ‘around 1,400 miles’. Thus the escort Mk IX would achieve 56% of the Mustang’s 2,440-mile range yet required 62% of the Mustang’s 404 gallons total load. This demonstrates the P-51’s low drag advantage, enabling it to fly 10 miles for every 9 flown by the Spitfire despite cruising almost 30 mph faster.

In addition to the above case described by Quill, the Mk IX was also the subject of a range extension experiment in America. At Wright Field, two Mk IXs were fitted with a 43-gallon tank in the rear fuselage, 16.5 gallon flexible tanks in each leading edge and a Mustang 62-gallon drop tank under each wing. Total internal capacity: 161 gallons; total fuel load: 285 gallons (oil capacity was also increased to 20 gallons). A still air range of approximately 1,600 miles was achieved. According to Quill, certain of the American structural modifications adversely affected aircraft strength so ruling out this scheme for production. What was the problem? Given that the Mk VIII and later marks had leading edge bag tanks as standard, any problem with that particular Wright Field modification could surely have been resolved. The Mk IX was cleared to carry a 250 lb bomb on the underwing station whereas a full 62-gallon tank weighed around 550 lb. Clearance of that tank should still have been possible albeit with a lower g-limit than when the bomb was carried. 

Where else could internal fuel have been installed? The rear fuselage tanks hardly filled the space available but adding additional weight there would have moved the centre of gravity unacceptably far aft. Late production Mk IXs featured an 18-gallon Mareng bag tank in each wing although it is not clear how widely these wing tanks were fitted and used. There was also provision for 14.4 gallons of oil for long-range sorties in place of the standard 7.5 gallons. With rear fuselage and wing tanks, internal fuel capacity would have been 196 gallons, giving an estimated range of 1,002 miles. Add the PR Mk VI 20-gallon under-seat tank and the figures would have been 216 gallons and 1,210 miles. The 90-gallon slipper tank would take total fuel load to 306 gallons and range to 1,714 miles (70% of the P-51).

Could any more fuel have been carried in the wing? Maximum wing fuel was achieved in the photo-reconnaissance versions where the deletion of the armament allowed unfettered use of the leading edge. The fighters used flexible bag tanks but in the PR versions, the leading edge structure between ribs 4 and 21 was converted into an integral tank carrying 66 gallons per side. Late production Mk IXs had an armament of 2 x 20 mm Hispanos and 2 x 0.5” Brownings. The latter was fitted between ribs 8 and 9 with the cannon between 9 and 10. Could the integral tank been made in two sections, joined by pipework and with the armament in between? Such a tank would have comprised 15 bays compared to the 17 of the PR case. Assuming a volume of 80% of the full span PR tank, the fighter version would have held 53 gallons per wing, taking internal fuel to 286 gallons.

Table 4 presents actual measured and estimated ranges for various fuel loads. For the measured cases, the range achieved  is divided by the fuel capacity to give the average ampg. For each estimate, an appropriate ampg figure is multiplied by the fuel load to give the range. This method is somewhat crude but offers an idea of the Mk IX’s potential.

Internal

Main + rear + wings

(total) (gal)

External

(gal)

Total

(gal)

Range

(miles)

Air miles

per gal

Comment

a

85 + 0 + 0                  (85)

0

0

434

5.11

Internal fuel, early versions

b

85 + 0 + 0                  (85)

90

175

980

5.60

As above plus 90-gal slipper tank

c

85 + 75 + 0              (160)

0

160

896

5.60

Internal fuel, later versions

d

85 + 75 + 0              (160)

90

250

1,400

5.60

As above plus 90-gal slipper tank

e

85 + 75 + 0              (160)

90 +2×62

374

2,020

5.40

As above plus 2 x 62-gal u/w tanks

f

85 + 43 + 33            (161)

2 x 62

285

1,600

5.61

Wright Field trial

g

85 + 75 + 20 + 36   (216)

0

216

1,210

5.60

Max internal capacity

h

85 + 75 + 20 + 36   (216)

90

306

1,714

5.60

As above plus 90-gal slipper tank

i

85 + 75 + 20 + 36   (216)

2 x 62

340

1,904

5.60

Internal plus 2 x 62-gal u/w

j

85 + 75 + 20 + 36   (216)

90 +2×62

430

2,322

5.40

As above plus 90-gal slipper tank

k

85 + 75 + 20 + 106 (286)

0

286

1,602

5.60

Integral tanks 53 gal per wing

l

85 + 75 + 20 + 106 (286)

90

376

2,106

5.60

As above plus 90-gal slipper tank

m

85 + 75 + 20 + 106 (286)

2 x 62

410

2,296

5.60

Internal plus 2 x 62 gal u/w

n

85 + 75 + 20 + 106 (286)

90 +2×62

500

2,700

5.40

As above plus 90-gal slipper tank

o

85 +29 + 0               (114)

170

284

1,278

4.50

Mk V in ferry fit. 170-gal slipper tank not jettisoned.

Table 4.  Spitfire Mk IX Fuel Load and Range Estimates

Note: Range and air miles per gallon (ampg) figures in normal font are from actual trials measurements.

Range and ampg figures in italics are estimates for the proposed fuel load cases.

On internal fuel alone of 216 gallons (g), the Mk IX might have reached 1,210 miles or almost three times the range on its original internal load of 85 gallons. This figure also bears comparison with the Mustang’s 1,300 miles on 224 internal gallons – albeit with the Mustang cruising at 260 mph to the Spitfire’s 220 mph (see Table 3).  Adding the three external tanks (90 + 2 x 62) (j) takes the projected Mk IX beyond 2,300 miles and into the region where an escort mission to Berlin might have been possible. On internal fuel of 286 gallons (k), the Mk IX’s range would have been in the order of 1,600 miles rising to around 2,300 with the two 62-gallon drop tanks and 2,700 miles when the 90-gallon slipper was added as well. On this basis, Berlin was certainly within its radius of action.

Before a judgement is made, we must consider whether the Spitfire could have carried such a weight of fuel. Table 5 compiles the weight of a Mk IX with 216 gallons internal plus the three external tanks holding 214 gallons. At 9,856 lb it is some 4% above the 9,500 lb maximum take-off weight. Fitting the 45-gallon slipper tank in place of the 90-gallon version would have reduced total weight to 9,502 lb, fuel load to 385 gallons and range to 2,079 miles. However, the risk of the weight exceedance might have been considered worthwhile in return for the range benefit. The Wright Field modified Mk IX weighed 10,150 lb and the undercarriage was fully compressed under this load. In the 286 internal gallons case Mk IX, no allowance has been made for the weight of the integral tanks. Even so, total weight with the three external tanks is 10,467 lb or 10% above MTOW; such a load would probably have required the strengthened structure of the Mk VIII.

Internal 85 + 75 + 20 + 36 (216)

Internal 85 + 75 + 20 + 106 (286)

Empty

5,800

Empty 1

5,850

240 rd 20mm

150

240 rd 20mm

150

1,400 rd 0.303”

93

500 rd 0.50”

150

14.4 gal oil

131

14.4 gal oil

131

Pilot & kit

200

Pilot & kit

200

75-gal rear tank (estimated)

100

75-gal rear tank (estimated)

100

Basic weight

6,474

Basic weight

6,581

Internal fuel

216 gal

1,555

Internal fuel

286 gal

2,059

90-gal slipper

120

90-gal slipper

120

2 x 62-gal

166

2 x 62-gal

166

External fuel

214 gal

1,541

External fuel

214 gal

1,541

Total fuel weight

3,096

Total fuel weight

3,600

Total weight

9,856

Total weight

10,467

Note 1. Two 0.50” Brownings increase empty by 50 lb compared to four 0.303” Brownings

 

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Table 5. Spitfire Mk IX: Estimated Weight in Escort Role Configurations

Fuel Management and Centre of Gravity

Careful fuel management would have been important. The rear fuselage fuel moved the centre of gravity sufficiently far aft to make the Spitfire longitudinally unstable. As a result, the aircraft could not be trimmed, so tended to diverge in pitch and tighten into turns. These characteristics were certainly undesirable (the latter was unacceptable in combat) but could be tolerated in the early stages of a sortie, ie climb to height and the first part of the outbound cruise leg. A&AEE tests showed that when 35 gallons of the rear fuel had been consumed, longitudinal stability was regained. Conversely, additional leading edge fuel would have caused little problem, as it was far closer to the centre of gravity so causing only small changes in trim as it was consumed. The sequence of fuel use in an escort sortie might have followed this pattern:

Start-up, taxi and take-off with rear tank selected

Climb to height and cruise commenced on remaining rear tank fuel

Outbound cruise continued on underwing tanks fuel – jettisoned when empty (or on entering combat)

Combat on slipper tank fuel

Return on internal fuel

Conclusion

There was surely no insuperable obstacle to developing a long range escort version of the Spitfire. Wing tanks and rear fuselage tanks were used successfully albeit later in the war than was ideal. The use of the leading edge as an integral tank was also successful in the PR Spitfires and a two section version was surely not impossible. All the above options could have been applied to the Mk IX’s successors, in particular the Mk VIII and the Mk XIV, the leading RAF fighters in the final year of the war. The Griffon powered Mk XIV was an outstanding fighter and would have been a formidable escort over Germany. The Mk VIII served in the Far East, a theatre of operations where long range was invaluable.

There are some other issues worth considering. Good all round vision is essential in a fighter and late examples of the Mk XVI (essentially a Mk IX with a Packard-built  Merlin) and XIV were the first Spitfires to feature cut down rear fuselages with bubble canopies. Jeffrey Quill recommended this change following operational experience in the Battle of Britain; the modification took 4 years to reach the front line. Slimming the rear fuselage naturally reduced its volume and rear tank capacity went down to 66 gallons. In this case, the small reduction in range was a small price to pay for the visibility gain in the vulnerable ‘six o’clock’. That loss of 9 gallons could have been balanced by fitting the Mk IX with the main lower tank of the Mk VIII that held 48 to the Mk IX’s 37 gallons. The greater strength of the Mk VIII should also have borne a greater fuel load. The torpedo drop tanks were of significantly lower drag than the slipper variety. For example, the 170-gallon torpedo actually had lower drag than the 90-gallon slipper and only one quarter that of its slipper equivalent (see Table 2). An underfuselage torpedo tank of 120 gallons capacity would have had less drag than the 90-gallon slipper yet offered a useful increase in range.

We must remember that there is a gulf between having a ‘bright idea’ and bringing a fully developed modification into service. Supermarine engineers achieved near miracles in both stretching the Spitfire to be a world class fighter from its 1936 prototype to the dawn of the jet age and in building sufficient numbers to help win victory. Additional design resources would have stretched the Spitfire further and added the role of long range escort to its many accomplishments. Parallel development and manufacture of the Spitfire in America would have achieved this and offered the prospect of RAF Spitfires flying escort missions over Germany in 1943 alongside Spitfires of the USAAF.

Paul Stoddart served as an engineer officer in the Royal Air Force for eight years. He now works for the Defence Evaluation & Research Agency (DERA). This article is his personal view on the subject and does not necessarily reflect RAF, Ministry of Defence or DERA policy.

Internal fuel load (Imp gal) – Spitfire Fighters

 

Mark

Forward fuselage

(ie main tanks)

Leading edges

Rear fuselage

Total internal

Comment

I, II

48 + 37

0

0

85

V

48 + 37

0

0

(29)

85

Slipper drop tanks carried on Mk V and later marks.

29-gal rear fuselage tank used only with 170-gal ferry slipper tank.

IX, XVI

48 + 37

0

0

0

2 x 18

0

42 + 33

33 + 33

42 + 33

85

160

151

196

Early examples

Late examples

Cut down rear fuselage

Some late examples

VIII

48 + 48

2 x 13

0

122

Served outside NW European theatre

Griffon Spitfires

XII

36 + 37

36 + 48

0

0

73

84

Oil tank re-positioned to upper tank bay.

XIV

36 + 48

2 x 13

0

42 + 33

110

185

Stability problems with rear tank

XVIII

36 + 48

2 x 13

33 + 33

176

Rear tank cleared post WWII

21, 22

36 + 48

2 x 17

0

118

Very limited wartime use 21 only

24

36 + 48

2 x 17

33 + 33

184

No wartime use

Top 10 carrier fighters 2018

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Today there are significantly fewer than 1000 carrier fighters in service around the world. Since our 2015 ranking of the world’s carrier fighters there have been some big changes. India’s Sea Harrier force was retired in 2016, and in the following year Brazil decommissioned its sole aircraft carrier the São Paulo, signalling the end of the carrier service of the iconic A-4 ‘Scooter’, a type that first flew in 1954! While France and the US are in the early stages of future carrier fighters, in the nearer term the US F-35C and India’s Tejas Navy should be the next carrier fighters to see full operational service. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Gripen Maritime has yet to receive an order. Here are the ten most potent (and only) carrier fighters in the world. 

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10. HAL Tejas Navy 

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It’s a bit of cheat letting the HAL Tejas Navy in as it doesn’t appear to be that close to operational deployment, but with the loss of the Brazilian Skyhawks and Indian Sea Harriers we needed it to make it up to a list of 10! This maritime variant of a largely indigenous Indian aircraft has proved controversial and overweight, and has been criticised by observers around the world for its modest performance and troubled development. It will, however, be a major step forward for India’s defence sector and will boast a comprehensive avionics and sensor suite. Carrier compatibility trials are underway and it has already proven its ability to perform arrested landings and ski-jump take-offs. Other than the yet-to-be ordered Sea Gripen, the Tejas Navy is the only lightweight carrier fighter currently in development.

9. Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II

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The slow ship in the F-35 family is the F-35C naval variant, F-35C is in service – but has yet to deployed operationally on a carrier. When it does it should prove more capable than the F-35B in several areas, enjoying a greater range (with a quoted combat radius on internal fuel of 670 nautical miles compared to the B’s 505) fuel load (8901 kg versus the B’s 6045 kg), wing area (57.6 m² versus 42.7 m²), and maximum take-off weight (31800 kg versus 27,200 kg). It will be no rocketship however, having the worst thrust-to-weight ratios of its generation: 0.75 at full fuel and 0.91 at 50% fuel (compare this with the Rafale M’s 0.988 with 100% fuel and four air-to-air missiles). As a carrier fighter, F-35s should be unsurpassed in situational awareness and stealth, though they will be dogged by the major pain of fifth-generation aircraft: extremely poor availability rates. Once fully operational the F-35C is likely to have a far higher ranking on this list.

8. Boeing AV-8B+ Harrier II/EAV-8B Matador

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Since 2015, Marine Harriers have been exceptionally busy: bombing ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, supporting Special Operations forces and attacking Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, and fighting over Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. A mature platform with AMRAAM capability and a wide range of air-to-ground stores, the modern Harrier is a well-equipped fighter-bomber that has proved itself in the Close Air Support role and the recce/attack/CAP roles. Once slated for imminent retirement, an assessment of the woeful state of the legacy Hornet fleet has given the type a reprieve, with the USMC wishing to hold on to it for as long as possible. The USMC AV-8Bs will receive revamped defensive measures, enhanced data-link capabilities and targeting sensors. It is reported that the Harrier II’s historically poor safety recorded has been dramatically improved in recent years. The Harrier II is by far the slowest aircraft on this list (it’s subsonic), has a large radar cross section and an engine that requires careful maintenance.

17.2 Flight Ops

7. Sukhoi Su-33

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The Sukhoi Su-33 was intended to serve on Soviet aircraft carriers, however by the time it entered service the nation it had been developed to protect had disappeared. Only a small number were produced and were considered rather inflexible (with limited weapons options). Now their avionics suite is obsolete and they face the indignity (at least in Sukhoi’s eyes) of being replaced with the smaller MiG-29K. The Su-33’s combat debut was 2016, in support of President’s Assad’s forces in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Russian naval Su-33s mounted attacks using dumb unguided bombs. On 5 December 2016, a Su-33 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea after failed 2nd landing attempt due to a problem with the ship’s arrestor cable. The pilot successfully ejected and was picked up by a Russian search and rescue helicopter. The Su-33 has received modest upgrades, including a new bomb aiming computer. Russia’s sole carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, is currently out of service following a crane crashing onto the deck in November 2018 causing significant damage. There are very few Su-33s, around thirty remain operational.

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6. Mikoyan MiG-29K 

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When Russia selected the Su-33 for its carriers many thought it had gone for the wrong type, as the smaller MiG-29 offered more versatility. A complicated saga ensued, and was made more complicated by the fall and then rise of the Russian economy, MiG’s precarious position and the Indian Navy’s order for the type. The MiG-29K is a world away from the original ‘Fulcrum’ in terms of range, pilot interface and sophistication, and is one of the nastiest naval fighters to tangle with in the within-visual range merge. It is no slouch in the BVR regime either, with an advanced radar and the widely feared R-77 ‘AMRAAMSKI’. The type briefly served in Syria dropping dumb bomb. Two have been lost at sea.

India received the last of its 45 MiG-29Ks in 2017. Like the Su-33, the aircraft is that miraculous and very unusual thing: a carrier aircraft developed from a land-based type. Historically, such aircraft typically proved terrible, but it was hoped that the type’s high thrust-to-weight ratio and tough airframe would allow it to buck the trend. However, the Indian Navy has recently noticed deck landings are taking their toll on the Fulcrum and are demanding it be further ‘ruggedised’. This has dropped the MiG-29K’s ranking in our list.

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5. Lockheed Martin F-35B

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Since 2015 the STOVL F-35B has become fully operational. In September 2018, a USMC F-35B executed a strike mission in Afghanistan, marking the first combat use of the F-35 in US service (following Israel’s use of F-35As in early 2018). This ‘catapults’ the F-35B from a number 10 position in 2015 to a respectable fifth in our list. Only immaturity and continued technical problems preclude its reaching a higher spot. The type is currently approaching operational service with the UK.

4. McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C/D Hornet

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It was thought that the plucky ‘Bug’ was now in the twilight of its career, but it will fight on with the Marines for some time. When it arrived on the scene in 1983 it was extremely advanced and trail-blazed many of the features that have since become de rigueur for fighters, especially in the field of cockpit design and multimode radar. It remains the fighter to beat at low altitude and is still held in awe as a dogfighter (according to pilots it has the edge on its larger brother in a ‘knife fight’). It was always short on range and struggled at the top right-hand corner of the performance envelope. Now gone from US Navy carriers it remains on the decks with the Marine Corps who intend to squeeze every last hour from their airframes, flying them until 2030. From 2020, 88 USMC Bugs will be receiving APG-79(V)4 AESA radars.

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3. Shenyang J-15

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Far more mature they were in 2015, the Chinese navy’s pirate ‘Flanker’s are now formidable machines and would pose a serious threat to any opposing carrier aircraft. Utilising the best of China’s indigenously developed (and highly respected) weapons and sensors, the J-15 is a sophisticated, agile and long range fighter. In terms of all-out performance, it enjoys a significant advantage over the Hornet family in several respects, most notably in high altitude performance.  A major drawback , however, is the relatively small size of China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier: its small deck is too short to facilitate take-off and landings of J-15s at heavy weights, and so does not allow them to be used to their full potential (the carrier uses STOBAR instead of cats and traps). The J-15D is a two-seat electronic warfare variant akin to the US EA-18G Growler.

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2. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

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The Super Hornet rectified the legacy Bug’s main shortcomings of limited range and bring-back (the weight of stores that the aircraft can bring back to the carrier after a mission). It also featured radar cross-section reduction measures that are rumoured to make it the stealthiest fighter (in terms of frontal cross section) this side of the F-35/ F-22 (though Dassault may dispute this). The Super Hornet retains the ‘Turbo Nose’ of the Hornet (the almost uncanny ability to point the aircraft quickly and accurately). Though the APG-79 AESA radar of Block II aircraft has been plagued with unreliability issues, it was one of the first to offer simultaneous air and ground modes. The Super Hornet is fitted with some great kit, and is compatible with a larger range of stores than any other fighter on this list. It falls down in its poor performance at higher altitudes and speed, where its relative lack of poke is a real issue. Despite this, the Super Hornet has repeatedly proven its ability to rise to any challenges as a robust and reliable fighter-bomber. (All US Navy fighters are supported by the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, a powerful force multiplier with a ‘stealth-busting’ UHF radar).

1. Dassault Rafale M

Regularly Scheduled six-month deployment Image Released by LT Mark C. Jones, PAO CV65

Dassault’s Rafale is a masterpiece of aeronautical engineering. Despite being burdened with the additional weight of being a carrier fighter, it can mix it with the best fighters in the world (which it has demonstrated on exercises with the F-22 and Typhoon). In performance terms, it is closely matched to the Typhoon, with the French fighter enjoying an advantage at lower altitudes. Few fighters excel at both the fighter and the bomber mission, yet the Rafale is a rare exception. According to one test pilot, the Rafale’s flight control system is unmatched in its responsiveness and precision (and markedly superior to the F-16). This is an important consideration, especially for a carrier fighter. Defended by SPECTRA, which some regard as the best defensive aids suite in the world, guided by one of the world’s most sophisticated radars, and well armed with weapons that include the most advanced aircraft cannon – the Rafale is the hottest naval fighter in the world.

 

Special thanks to George Caveney and Air Force Monthly’s Thomas Newdick 

You can find out about the worst carrier aircraft here 

“Never fly the ‘A’ model of anything” expect amends to this article over the next few weeks. 

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