Category: Aviation

Top 12 fighter aircraft of 1949

If you were unlucky enough to still be flying a piston-engined fighter in 1949 you’d better hope your enemy didn’t have jets. The piston age was over. Though the ultimate piston-engined fighters were still serving they were now well out of their depth. The jet generation was just too fast to catch… but they were also very thirsty, short-ranged and extremely dangerous to fly.

1949 is an intriguing transitory period, many of the fighters you may have expected to be included hadn’t actually entered service yet, so no Tunnan, no F-94, no Venom, no Meteor F8, no CF-100, no Sea Hawk, no Saab 21R and, notably, nothing French. While the Arab–Israeli War (1948–1949) was little different to World War II in terms of the fighters types, with Spitfires and Bf 109 derivatives, a new age of aerial warfare was about to explode. The best of 1949 would not have to wait long for a baptism of fire in the unforgiving skies of Korea.

12. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 ‘Unwell Fargo

Mig-9 LEM - LSM Work In Progress - Large Scale Modeller
The horrible and extremely ugly MiG-9.

The I-300 had been the first Soviet pure jet to fly, a winning coin toss deciding its place in history in favour of the Yak-15 (which flew later on that same day in 1945). It was a horrible beast to fly, during a flight in 1946 it uncontrollably pitched down, crashed into the ground and killed its test pilot, A.N. Grinchik. He was replaced by the master test pilot Mark Gallai (a kind of Soviet Winkle Brown), who encountered the same pitch-down issue, which snapped one of the tailplanes off and ruptured the main fuel tank. Instead of bailing out, he made a remarkable, and successful, deadstick unpowered landing. Despite its many flaws, the I-300 was commissioned as a fighter, and assigned the designation MiG-9. The MiG-9 was predictably awful. One of its major issues was the engine flame-outs that occurred when the guns were fired at high altitudes. This was a major problem for a fighter. Its top speed of 537mph (slower than the I-300) was not great for a jet fighter, inferior to even the Me 262 clone Avia S-92. Still, it would have been fast enough able to run away from a Sea Fury. Its armament consisted of the hugely destructive Nudelman N-37 37-mm cannon and two Nudelman-Suranov NS-23 23-mm cannon. Though several advanced versions were tested, including one fitted with an afterburner capable of 600mph, they were not pursued. As soon as the superior MiG-15 was on the scene, it soaked up almost all resources available to develop fighter aircraft, starving lesser aircraft like the MiG-9.

11. Avia S-92 TurbínaCzech your privilege’

Avia S.92 (Me-262 Czechoslovakia) - Other Nations - War Thunder - Official  Forum

On liberation, Soviet forces seized all the German tools, jigs and components for Me 262 production they found in Czechoslovakia. These extremely useful scavenged parts were gifted to the new Czechoslovakian government. Avia had enough parts to build 19 aircraft. There is some debate as to whether this small force was active in 1949 (some sources say 1950). But it is interesting to note that four years after the War, what was essentially a Me 262A was still an effective fighter. With a top speed of 560mph it could decide when to fight, even against the most potent piston-engined fighters in service such as the Sea Fury, Twin Mustang, Bearcat and Sea Hornet. The inclusion of the S-92 above the finest piston-engined is debatable, it could be said to depend on whether you want greater speed performance with shitty BMW 003s which nobody would trust to keep running for very long or better range and utterly reliable engines. In general, it is probably fair to say a pilot would have been safer in peacetime in the final piston aircraft, and safer in a dogfight in one of the early jets, with his superior speed enabling him to dictate whether to engage. It is on these grounds that the questionable S-92 and lamentable MiG-9 are chosen over the wonderful final aircraft of a dying generation.

The S-92 had the advantage of a swept wing, still a relatively novel feature for fighter aircraft of 1949. Yugoslavia expressed an interest, but with the arrival on the scene of new Soviet designs, this did not happen.

10. Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star ‘Dove from above’

Lockheed F-80C of the USAF Acrojets aerobatic display team

While the Bell P-59 was technically the US Army Air Force’s first jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was the first to enter series production and see operational service.  The prototype XP-80 first flew on 8 January 1944 and within eighteen months, the type was series production.  The P-80A reached Squadron service by the end of 1945 and continued to fly alongside the newer P-80B for the next few years.  The P-80As and Bs were both developed during wartime and funded through wartime contracts, but the next evolution, the P-80C (soon to be F-80C after June 1948) was the first Air Force type to reach production that was funded postwar. 

Top fighters of 1945 here

By 1949, the F-80 had racked up an impressive history.  With the blockade of Berlin in 1948, the 61st Fighter Squadron’s F-80Bs under 56th Fighter Group commander Col. Dave Schilling departed Selfridge Air Force Base on 12 July 1948 and headed across the Atlantic in order to protect the Allied aircraft of the Berlin Airlift.  The mobilization, known as Fox Able One proved a fighter squadron could self-deploy overseas on short notice.  When the squadron’s deployment ended in early summer 1949, Schilling led Fox Able Two, taking another squadron from the 56th across the Atlantic to replace them. 

The 36th Fighter Group followed the 61st FS to Europe by 13 August 1948 and by the 20th were established at Furstenfeldbruck, Germany.  The 36th spent the next eight months protecting Berlin Airlift aircraft from potential air threats from aggressive Russian pilots.   But that was not the 36th’s only mission while at Furstenfeldbruck.  During a training flight returning from Malta in 1949, members of the Group’s 22nd Fighter Squadron began practicing precision formation flying.  Upon returning to Germany, those 22nd FS pilots began practicing standard formation aerobatics in the F-80B and the Skyblazers were born.  The Skyblazers were actually the second USAF demonstration team, preceded by the stateside Acrojets a year prior.  The Acrojets began flying F-80As but transitioned to the F-80C in 1949. 

Top fighters of 1939 here

On the other side of the globe, Japan had become the Asian bulwark against Communist aggression, just as Germany had in Europe.  The 8th, 49th and 51st Fighter Groups were all flying F-80B and C models from bases on Okinawa and the Japanese home islands.  During the relatively calm days of 1949, the majority of Japan-based F-80s were arrayed against threats from newly Communist China, flying from Naha (51st) on Okinawa and Itazuke (8th) on the Japanese home islands.  On the northern end of Honshu, the 49th flying from Misawa AB focused its attention northward, as the closest fighter unit to the Soviet Pacific Fleet homeport of Vladivostok.   

The F-80 lineage diverged in 1949 with the first flight of the YF-94 Starfire on 16 April.  The new all-weather interceptor was the first Air Force type fitted with an afterburner, giving the aircraft up to 6000lbs thrust.  It also included a sophisticated fire control suite linked to a new air intercept radar controlled by the backseater.  The weapons officer in the back seat would run the radar and direct the pilot to his target at night or in bad weather.   

The F-80 of 1949 served in another distinct role as well.  Fitted with a pair of K24 cameras in place of the machine gun armament, the FP-80 and after June 1948, the RF-80, provided critical tactical reconnaissance duties with the 363rd stateside and Japan with the 8th Reconnaissance Squadron.   But due to peacetime budget constraints, the Air Force determined that reconnaissance squadrons were not critical infrastructure, and the 363rd Recon Group was deactivated in August 1949 after only two years of operation.  One of the 363rd’s squadrons, the 161st was reassigned to the 20th Fighter Group at Shaw AFB, where it continued on as one of the only two reconnaissance squadrons in the air force. 

In  1949, the Shooting Star still had somewhat of a technological edge, although that was rapidly fading as the F-84 and F-86 entered service.  Improvements in the engine, weapons, and avionics allowed it to stay competitive as an air superiority fighter, despite the relative maturity of the design.  The F-80 was not the fastest, nor the highest climbing, but it was good at what it did, both as an early interceptor and later as a fighter bomber.  Later designs like the F-84 and F-86 built on the lessons learned by the F-80 programme even as they fought alongside the Shooting Star just a year later. 

– Jonathan Bernstein

A 1948 fly-off assessment against the supposedly superior F-84C revealed that the older P-80 was more manoeuvrable, had a better low altitude climb rate and a shorter take-off run. It also was tough enough for rough field operation. The C model had greater firepower and more thrust than the B. With a top speed of 594mph, six fifty cal machine-guns and up to sixteen 127-mm unguided rockets it was not a fighter to be trifled with. But technology was moving so fast it would soon be easy meat for the MiG-15. Around half of the F-80C’s built would be lost to operational causes, 133 of the 277 lost would be destroyed by groundfire.

USAF Lt. Walter Rew waves to the crowd after winning the Allison air-race trophy 1949
USAF Lt. Walter Rew waves to the crowd after winning the Allison air-race trophy 1949.

9. Yakovlev Yak-23 ‘Flora’

Highly manoeuvrable, with brisk acceleration and a good climb rate, the Yak-23 was a decent design doomed to obscurity by the appearance of far superior designs. It enjoyed a good thrust-to-weight ratio at normal operating weights of 0.46, superior even to that of the F-86 (0.42) thanks to its Soviet-built Rolls-Royce Derwent V engine. Its small size and great manoeuvrability were hallmarks of designer Alexander Sergeyevich Yakovlev. He had pushed for a lightweight and small design against official recommendations (the Yakovlev bureau’s larger Yak-25 fighter had been cancelled, proving markedly inferior to the rival La-15 and MiG-15, and dangerously prone to buffeting). The Yak-23 was fast, a top speed of 575mph at sea level was good for 1949, and the ‘Flora’ – with its twin 23-mm cannon – would have proved a handful for almost any opponent.

It would later snatch a world climb record.

Yakovlev Yak-23 – AviationMuseum

8. Republic F-84D Thunderjet ‘Thunderjets are gauche’

By 1949, it was clear that Republic’s F-84 Thunderjet had failed to meet initial expectations. There had been hopes that the new Thunderjet would be a worthy successor to the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt – such that a contract for 25 YP-84As for evaluation and a further 75 production P-84Bs was placed even before the first prototype made its maiden flight on February 28th, 1946. But the type’s rehabilitation as a tough, fast fighter-bomber, combat proven in Korea, lay some way in the future, and in 1949 the Thunderjet was still in the process of working through a succession of teething troubles! The F-84B became operational with 14th Fighter Group at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine in December 1947, but within weeks was subject to a range of restrictions and limitations due to control reversal, and wrinkling of the fuselage skin. The F-84B was grounded on May 24th, 1948 after further serious structural problems were uncovered. The F-84C was powered by the much improved J35-A-13 engine, and featured fuel, electrical and hydraulic systems refinements, but both of these early models were judged unsuitable for their assigned role – neither being considered operational nor capable of executing any aspect of their intended mission. The J35 engines of the F-84B and F-84C had a 40 hour time between overhauls, preventing their use in Korea. The Thunderjet’s reputation was saved from ignominy by the service entry of the structurally improved F-84D in 1949. The F-84D’s wings had thicker aluminium skin, and the wingtip fuel tanks gained small triangular fins to relieve their tendency to cause excessive wing twisting (leading to structural failure) during high g manoeuvres. The further improved F-84E also entered service in 1949, with further reinforcement of the wings, a 12 in extension to the fuselage in front of the wings and a 3 in plug aft of the wings. The new variant had a roomier cockpit and enlarged avionics bay, and could carry an additional pair of 230 gallon fuel tanks underwing, extending the combat radius from 850 to 1,000 miles. Serviceability remained obstinately poor, however, and it would be another two years before the definitive plank-winged ’84, the F-84G, entered service. The Thunderjet did form the basis of the much better swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak and RF-84F Thunderflash, but that is another story altogether

– Jon Lake, author of dozens of books about military aircraft

Top fighters of 1946 here

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The F-84B and Cs had been a huge disappointment and it was only the promised improvements of the D variant that saved the type from the axe. The D entered service in 1949 with the improved J35-A-13 engine, and with a wealth of enhancements including greatly improved fuel, hydraulic and electrical systems. The Thunderjet was now pretty hot stuff. It could carry a greater bombload than the P-80, and was faster, with better high altitude performance and a greater range. With a top speed of 587 mph at 4,000 ft it was no slouch.

7. Gloster Meteor F. Mk 4 ‘Mr Mature’

With the definitive F.Mk 8 yet to enter service, the F.Mk 4 was the hottest Meteor in 1949. It was massively more powerful thanks to its two Nene V engines each pumping out an additional 50% greater thrust than the earlier Derwent IV engines of the later F.Mk 3s. In fact, it was so powerful it needed its wings strengthened to keep up with the extra speed. A new stronger clipped wing was introduced, which increased possible roll rates by 80 degrees a second and made the carriage of 2,000Ib of munitions on the wings possible. The F.Mk 4 was a full 80mph faster than the 3. A slightly modified* version of the F.Mk IV** snatched the world speed record in 1945 at over 606mph, a huge jump from the previous official record of 1939 469mph figure by the Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 (though several aircraft had gone faster since notably the Me 163 and 262, none had been officially recorded). With a top speed of 590mph, four 20-mm cannon in the nose and a ceiling of over 44,000 feet the Meteor F.Mk 4 was a machine to be respected, only let down by a thick unswept wing that limited its top speed. Despite first flying in 1945, the F.Mk 4 was not rushed into service. Britain had lost her lead.

*VHF mast and armament removed, high-speed finish applied to both aircraft. Painted yellow for the benefit of speed cameras **the RAF abandoned its rather pretentious and inconvenient use of Roman numbers for aircraft marks in June 1948)

6. McDonnell F2H Banshee ‘The Screaming Reborn Phantom’

During its first test flight, the nascent Banshee famously demonstrated a climb rate twice that of the F8F Bearcat, then the US Navy’s hottest interceptor. In August 1949 it set a US Navy jet fighter altitude record of 52,000 ft (16,000 m). Carrier jets were in their infancy; the first US example FH-1 Phantom had only made its first carrier landing three years earlier. The Banshee was a vastly improved and far larger fighter based on the Phantom. The Phantom had been the first jet aircraft concieved from the outset for shipboard operation, and was a case of an over zealous embrace of an immature technology – or to be kinder, a vital stepping stone. For a minute advantage in top speed over the best piston-engined rivals (it was a piffling 4mp faster than the British Hornet) it offered far greater peril and worse handling. Though it would mature into capable machine, in 1949 the Banshee was still suffering teething problems. In Wings of the Navy, the greatest British test pilot Eric Brown rated the Banshee F2H-2 as inferior to the Meteor IV. The large Banshee rectified most of the Phantom’s shortcomings and at 580mph had decent top speed, but in 1949 it was not the capable machine it would later become.

5. de Havilland Vampire FB.5 ‘Bantamweight bloodsucker’

Image: BAE Systems.  DH100 Vampire FB.5 (VV217) air-to-air on 8th March 1949

Shortly after World War 2, the RAF decided to embrace the Meteor as its standard day fighter. This left de Havilland at something of a loose end until they decided to promote the Vampire’s potential as a ground attack aircraft. Having convinced the authorities this would be a good idea a few changes had to be made to accommodate the change in operating altitude. The wings were strengthened with extra stringers and thicker skins. They also had wiring for rocket rails and bomb racks fitted to augment the four 20-mm cannon. Perhaps more drastically a foot was cut from each tip which improved low-altitude manoeuvrability and made the ride smoother. This arguably also made probably the world’s cutest jet fighter even cuter. As a nod to the ground attack role some armour was added around the engine, which was hopefully some comfort to the pilots given it was found to be impossible to fit an ejector seat in the snug cockpit. At least not if he wanted to keep his arms. In 1947 the new model was designated the Vampire FB5, which gives an average of a Mark every 9 months since the Vampire’s first flight. Which is less time than it can take to get a warning label moved these days. By December of the following year No. 16 Squadron started to receive aircraft to become the first operational squadron. The FB5 of 1949 was a punchy ground attack aircraft that was still able to take on enemy fighters after delivering its payload. That could be up to two 500lb or 1000lb bombs and eight rockets, which compares well with what the Harrier was delivering during the Falklands Conflict. Although in the latter case the rockets were probably more accurate than the WW2 era 60lb models the Vampire used which, if the pilot was lucky, went in the general direction they were pointed without damaging the aircraft. With an endurance of around two hours or 1,000 nautical miles it didn’t suffer the small bladder issue of other early jets even if the pilots might. Its relative simplicity and ruggedness also made it capable of rapidly redeploying to a new base if required. Indeed, by late ’49 No. 6 Squadron were based at Deversoir in the Canal Zone while deploying to remote airfields around the Middle East. Although not quite as fast or exciting as some of the jets in service in 1949, and still featuring a wooden fuselage, the Vampire benefited from several years of development making it a more complete aircraft than any of its competitors.

Plus, did I mention how cute they were? Though tasked as fighter-bomber, the Vampire could eat the Meteor in a dogfight. Vampire pilots enjoyed excellent visibility out from the bubble canopy (except in rain), and were enamoured of the tiny fighter’s benign handling characteristics. With lighter ailerons than the Vampire F.3, the FB.5 had a sparkling roll rate at higher altitudes, probably better than any other aircraft on this list. Its rate of turn was also superb, as was its turn radius: the FB5 could turn in three-eighths of a mile (the Meteor needed a whole mile) at 5,000 feet altitude, which increased to one mile at 35,000 feet (again smashing the Meteor, which required 1.7 miles). In 1948 a Vampire reached the astonishing altitude of 59,430 ft, setting a world record. Not bad for a fighter type first flown in 1943. The FB.5 Vampire had a top speed of 548mph, outrageous agility and powerful armament in the form of four 20-mm short barrel Hispano cannon.

– Bing Chandler/Joe Coles 

4. Grumman F9F-2 Panther ‘Panther Burns’


F9F Panther in flight

Like the Army Air Force, the Navy’s experience with jet aircraft started during World War II.  Due to Naval Aviation’s unique requirements, the Navy experimented with a few different types including composite airplanes like the Ryan FR-1 Fireball, which used both jet and piston engines.  The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom became the Navy’s first pure jet powered airplane, first taking to the air in June 1945.  But just two years later, it was deemed obsolete and relegated to a training role. That same year, the Grumman XF9F-1 took to the air for the first time.  Grumman had provided the bulk of the Navy’s fighters during World War II and was eager to continue the tradition. 

The new XF9F Panther had some initial teething problems but entered series production as the F9F-2 in 1948, with the first production models reaching the fleet in the Spring of 1949.  VF-51 stood up in May and by summer the squadron was headed to the USS Boxer (CV-21) for carrier qualification.  The squadron completed carrier quals by September and was declared operational. 


The Panther was powered by a Pratt & Whitney J42 (manufacturer designation JT-6B), a license-built version of the British Rolls Royce Nene, that produced 5000lbs of non-afterburning thrust.  The J42 gave the straight-wing Panther a top speed of 575mph, which was significantly slower than the Russian MiG-15 which was powered by roughly the same engine; a reverse engineered Nene designated the VK-1. 

Unlike the Air Force’s F-80, which was originally designed as an interceptor and then evolved into an interceptor, the Panther had been built as a fighter bomber.  It was armed with four AN/M3 20mm cannon with 190 rounds per gun and was capable of carrying 3,000lbs of bombs and rockets for close support and interdiction work.  This capability was critical for the next squadron qualified in the type; the Marines’ VMF-115, who along with VMF-311 would take the type into combat alongside Navy squadrons the following year.  F9F-2B BuNo 123526, on exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps would lead the first Marine Corps jet combat mission in Korea on 10 December 1950. 

While 1949 was a significant year for the Panther’s introduction to squadron service and the first mass production of a Navy jet fighter, another significant development that would improve the design also occurred that year.  The F9F-5 first took to the air in December 1949 and offered significantly better low-speed handling characteristics, which greatly improved landing approaches.  The newer model was lengthened by sixteen inches and housed the more powerful J48 engine, producing nearly 2000lbs more thrust than the J42.  The F9F-5 would be the ultimate version of the straight-wing Panther, reaching squadron service by the end of 1950 and entering combat just over a year later. The Panther would go on to score the first jet-versus-jet kill.

Jonathan Bernstein is an aviation author, historian, former attack helicopter pilot and Arms & Armor Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. You can buy his book on P-47s here


The Panther was developed following the entirely unsatifactory study of a four-engined Grumman two-seat night fighter. The new design was small, tough and agile. Like the MiG-15 and some Vampire variants, the Panther was powered the British-designed Nene turbojet, licence produced in the US as the Pratt & Whitney J42. The F9F-4 model was delivered from late 1949 but did not enter operational service that year, it included the fuselage extension of the -5 without the powerplant upgrade. The -5 also made its first  flight in ’49 but was in not service. It featured an Allison powerplant, the J33-A-16, which featured water injection to boost take-off thrust. In this time the Panther was more mature than the Banshee, and offered very similar capabilities (including the same armament) in a smaller airframe. Armed with four-cannon and ‘built like a Grumman’, it was tough sound design featuring the on-trend tip mounted fuel tanks (‘tiptanks’). 

3. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15

MIG-15 | – military experts. unites the best!

In 1949 every preening fighter pilot* in the Soviet Union wanted to fly the MiG-15. A wonder in polished aluminium with a bright red star on the tail it could achieve the almost unbelievable speed of 669 mph at Sea Level thanks to secret German research from the mid-40s that led to it having a wing swept to 35 degrees. Compared to the straight-winged MiG-9 or the piston-powered Yak-9 this was clearly the future. While the West were still getting to grips with putting the Nene engine into the comparatively conservative Sea Hawk and the positively pedestrian Attacker the Soviet Union was forging ahead by putting their ‘equivalent’ RD-45 into the MiG. It’s almost as if letting Rolls-Royce sell the Soviet Union 25 Nene for ‘civil use only’ was a mistake. In fact, the Sea Hawk was still four years from entering service while the Soviet honchos were enjoying the benefits of ejection seats, the decadence of air conditioning, and a maximum speed of Mach 0.92 to the Sea Hawk’s 0.84.

All was not totally rosy in the final year of the ‘40s however. At this stage in its career the MiG was only to be flown on fine days, while aerobatics or combat manoeuvring were out of the question. There were also a few teething problems, for instance, if you went too fast the lack of quality control on the production line would lead to uncontrollable rolling which initially had to be fixed with manual trim tabs added to the ailerons. This probably wasn’t helped by the lack of hydraulic assistance on the early MiG-15’s flying controls. Still at least the air brakes were hydraulic. Even if they caused the aircraft to pitch up when they were deployed and didn’t really slow the aircraft down enough.

Assuming the pilot managed to overcome these issues with a combination of luck and skill there were also slight issues with the armament. Although the choice of two 23-mm and one 37mm-cannon provided plenty of punch, the differing ballistics of the two rounds could make aiming tricky with one set of rounds going above the target and the other below.

The good comrades at MiG were aware of these shortcomings and even as the first aircraft were being delivered to the VVS they were preparing to produce the MiG-15bis which would feature stiffer wings, servos for the controls and effective airbrakes along with a host of other minor modifications. This however wouldn’t enter service until 1950. In 1949 the MiG-15 looked like the future while being a terrifying thrill ride that could appear barely under the pilot’s control.

The MiG-15 could out-turn, out-accelerate and out-climb the early Sabre. It was an utterly formidable machine. Early variants of the F-86 could not outturn, but they could outdive the MiG-15. The early MiG-15 was superior to the early F-86 models in ceiling, acceleration, rate of climb, and zoom. It had better high-altitude performance than the Panther or the P-80, and was faster by a hundred miles per hour.

* Is there any other sort?

Bing Chandler

2. Lavochkin La-15 ‘The unlucky Fantail’


The Lavochkin La-15 had superior manoeuvrability to the MiG-15, and with a top speed of 626 mph (some sources say 638 mph) was almost as fast. It had excellent handling chracteristics and was superbly reliable. It entered service in the VVS Autumn of 1949. It was smaller and lighter than the MiG-15 and did enjoy the stellar climb rate, though still climbed very well for the time. 

Lavochkin La-15 - Wikipedia

It was powered by the RD-500, essentially a Soviet-built British Derwent, and armed with two 23-mm NS-23 cannon. It was rather harder to produce than the MiG-15, relying on many milled parts, and this was a major factor in the Lavochkin’s relative lack of success – only 235 aircraft were produced. It remained in service until 1954. It was the beginning of the end for the Lavochkin design bureau fighter line that had been so vital to the Soviet Union’s war effort. Lavochkin La-200 flew in 1949 but failed to secure orders, as did the later La-250. Lavochkin was reborn as a creator of surface-to-air-missiles and spacecraft. Today, the company is working on the appallingly named Mars-Grunt space robot.

  1. North American F-86A Sabre ‘Jet spitfire’

An astonishing top speed of 679 mph at Sea Level and excellence in every category a fighter needs, North American Aviation did the almost impossible and built an aircraft even more outstanding for its generation than its P-51 Mustang, which first flew a mere seven years before the F-86.

The Sabre started life as a straight wing jet based on the even more staid FJ-1 Fury of the US Navy. By making it lighter North American Aviation managed to, just about, match the performance of the other aircraft submitted to the USAAF (which would become the USAF three weeks before the sound barrier was broken in 1947). Realising radical steps needed to be taken to come up with a winning design, they took the only logical step and like the Soviets used secret German research from the mid-40s. This led to the incorporation of a thinner wing swept to 35 degrees giving the resultant design the ability to go supersonic in a dive. So successful were these changes that if you’re the kind of person who likes winding people up and invoking the wraith of the Yeager crowd up you can argue the XP-86A and George Welch were first to break the sound barrier.

Interview with Sabre pilot here

The F-86A entered frontline service in February of 1949 with the 94th Fighter Squadron who also seem to have been instrumental in giving it the name ‘Sabre’. Despite barely being out of trials the Sabre was already a delight to fly. Unlike the MiG-15 it had hydraulic boost for the flying controls, was well enough put together to remain controllable as it approached and passed the sound barrier, and air brakes that were effective. Leading-edge slats also made it much safer to fly at low speeds. Together with the all-round visibility provided by the Sabre’s bubble canopy these factors would give it the edge against the MiG in combat even allowing for the latter’s better thrust-to-weight ratio.

The F-86A wasn’t quite perfect, unlike the E model introduced in 1951 it lacked a ‘flying tail’ arrangement where the entire tail surface acts as the elevator. Instead, it had conventional elevators while the tailplane’s incidence could be adjusted via the trim system. As aircraft approach the speed of sound air over the wing surfaces accelerates to above Mach one, this causes shock waves to form at the hinge lines of control surfaces. These shock waves blank the control causing it to be less effective. In the A model Sabre above Mach 0.97 this meant pitch control was almost entirely reliant on the trim. Indeed, if the elevator alone was used to pull out of a supersonic dive there were generally less rivets in it on landing. Still, this was a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent aircraft.

If the MiG-15 was a diamond in the rough in 1949, the Sabre was the finished product noted test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown even going as far as praising the ground handling and nose wheel steering system. – Bing Chandler

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I took the Typhoon to war: Interview with RAF Wing Commander Mike Sutton

Fourship ingress to attack an IED factory

The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 is the workhorse of the Royal Air Force’s air combat fleet, excelling in both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Starting life in 2003 as a dedicated interceptor, the fighter has matured into a well-equipped multi-role combat aircraft. We spoke to Wing Commander Mike Sutton about the Typhoon and his experiences of taking the aircraft to war.

What is the best and the worst thing about the Typhoon? 

The Typhoon has very few vices. I was a tactics instructor on the Jaguar previously, and even though everyone loved flying it, if you weren’t careful it had a very nasty bite. Of the two hundred Jags the RAF procured, sixty-nine were lost in accidents. The Typhoon is a generational leap. The thrust alone is insane. At 500 knots at low level it will accelerate while sustaining 9g. It’s a genuine multi-role platform. I’ve done the most challenging air-to-air sorties during RED FLAG, operational close air support, live quick reaction alert scrambles and air combat against modern fighters. It excels across the board. The four-nation programme is a blessing and a curse. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the jet is the time it takes to get agreement from all the nations for development. But when everyone is on the same page, the combined expertise, industrial resource and multi-nation investment make it a powerful combination.

What was your role in developing new tactics and operating procedures for multi-role aircraft? What have you learnt about this? 

I was lucky enough to be a weapons instructor on the first multi-role Typhoon Squadron as it formed. It was a hugely exciting time. There were experienced pilots from the Tornado F3, GR4, Harrier, Jags, Mirage 2000, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 on the brand-new Force who all had extensive tactical experience. I needed an open mind as much as diplomacy and a thick skin, as a small team of us took the best ideas from everyone around and tried to forge a new way of operating. Out with the old and in with the new. Starting afresh also enabled us to throw away outdated ways of working and attitudes that had become entrenched over the years. We looked at it holistically – from how to brief and debrief, use of the simulators, best ways to teach and record tactical lessons, as well as how to fight the aircraft. It was an evolving process and as the months and years progressed we refined the tactics. New pilots had fresh ideas. You never stand still on a fighter squadron. As soon as you stop progressing, and you get complacent, you are in for a shock.

Royal Air Force Typhoon

Is Typhoon’s mechanically scanning radar an issue when compared with more modern radars? 

The CAPTOR has done a decent job, but the new AESA <due in service in the mid-20s> will be far better. Taking Beyond Visual Range missile shots is about far more than being able to see targets at long range on the radar. It’s about combat identification using all of the aircraft sensors – and fusing that data – as well as electronic warfare, datalinks, integration with other fighters, jamming, secure radios and missile performance. So it’s a system where all the components need to be operating seamlessly. The AESA will also bring enhanced capabilities with electronic attack and SAR, coordinate generation and surface target combat ID.

Is the voice control still used – and if so – is it useful? 

I didn’t use the pilot voice control that much. I can generally only do one thing at a time and found it easier to just use the HOTAS. But other pilots used it quite a lot for controlling the radar modes, and like everything on the Typhoon the integration improves with software upgrades. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was used extensively in the years ahead.

Is a non-stealthy aircraft still survivable in your opinion?

A country can’t just build a modern fighter and then relax for thirty years under the umbrella of its protection. It’s a constant process of threat evolution, countermeasure development, and counter-counter measure. The very idea of stealth itself is probably a misnomer too. Low observable jets are undoubtedly harder to target, but still vulnerable to passive detection, low-band radars and heat-seeking sensors. They are also much more costly to build and maintain, and often may make design compromises as they are honed for a particular role, and are limited to internal stores when exploiting their stealth. To use a car analogy, low observable is a little like a Formula One car. Very fast around a racetrack, but a rally car is better off-road. 

If you look at the USAF, USN carriers, Israeli and Australian Air Forces and the RAF, they all have a blend of low-observable and conventional platforms. The USAF is about to procure the F15EX. With a mix of conventional and low-observable you can generate mass and saturation, to enhance the low-observable platforms ability to get through to their targets. 

How does the Typhoon perform in BFM/DACT exercises against the F-22? Is one superior in WVR combat in your opinion – and why?

The F-22 is the best air dominance fighter in the world (but it doesn’t have much of a strike capability). At slow speed in a turning fight, its thrust vectoring provides exceptional manoeuvrability, which means it can outperform any other fighter on the planet, including the Typhoon. During the initial merge, if both aircraft were fast, then they would turn fairly equally. If the fight was fleeting, the Typhoon would benefit from the Helmet Mounted Sight, which surprisingly the F-22 does not have in its inventory. But perhaps the key point here is that the RAF will never have to fight in anger against a USAF F-22. Their time together is much better spent integrating and developing joint tactics where you learn to exploit the combined firepower of both platforms to lethal effect. We practised this routinely during exercises. 

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Combat pilots are far more interested in the capabilities of potential adversaries, so the real question is how does Typhoon perform against modern fighter threats? It is too early to make a judgement about the Su-57 as it is barely out of development. Regarding Flanker, that is precisely what the new AESA, the existing Defensive Aids System and PIRATE IR sensor are for. International training exercises against Indian or Malaysian Flankers were extremely useful, and fully tested the skills of the pilots using the helmet-mounted sight and ASRAAM heat-seeking missile.

Flanker versus Typhoon?

(MoD crown image)

The jets are both very capable. I would say that, flown well, the Typhoon has an edge, but when you have two fighters that are similar in capability the outcome of air combat is more nuanced. 

In reality, a simple top-trumps answer doesn’t cut it. It depends on so many different factors, such as radar tenacity, performance of the jet at different speeds (E-M diagrams), sensor integration with the helmet, the sensitivity of the missile seekers, the IR background, pilot training and currency, aircraft fit, environmentals, merge altitude, radar clutter, aircraft jammers, IR countermeasures, disposition pre-merge. There are probably more! That’s why the role of the Qualified Weapons Instructors is so crucial in shaping the tactical advice to their Squadrons, and it’s so important that pilots get to practise their core skills with live flying. 

A Rafale pilot I interviewed said ‘Typhoon was a joke’ – what is your response to his view? 

Typhoon versus Rafale: The final word | Hush-Kit

There’s nothing like the confidence of a French fighter pilot! The Rafale and Typhoon are from a similar era, but backed by four nations and with five export customers the Typhoon has better growth potential. As the Boss of 1 Squadron we always had a French Rafale pilot on exchange, so I had a real insight into both platforms. For the air-to-air missions, an AESA equipped Typhoon with METEOR, AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM packs a powerful punch with the Helmet Mounted Sight and IRST (called PIRATE).

The Typhoon Force has also received upgraded Paveway 4 (penetrating warhead and moving target capability), which is a great weapon for Close Air Support in combination with Brimstone, which can also be used against fast inshore attack craft. For longer-range strikes, Storm Shadow and SPEAR 3 (the small, long-range, cruise missile) offer significant stand-off, precision, low collateral damage and electronic warfare capabilities. The Litening 5 targeting pods will offer high-definition imagery and a reconnaissance capability. And of course, there is the 27-mm cannon that I have fired in anger. With that weapon load-out you can take on any mission set. So my response to the French pilot, is that given the choice I would take the Typhoon every time.

SPEAR 3 is due to become operational in 2025.

Would you rather have ASRAAM, IRIS-T or AIM-9X under your wing – and why? 

The ASRAAM heatseeking missile. IMAGE: MBDA

The ASRAAM is a far more capable missile. It is extremely fast off the rail and has a much longer range. It also has a huge off-boresight capability and can lock-on after launch, as well as having advanced counter-counter measures. When paired with the helmet mounted sight in a close fight it is very effective, and at longer range it offers a great crossover with AMRAAM. You can get an ASRAAM to its target before the other aircraft can even launch their IR missile back at you.

An RAF Typhoon recently had its first a2a ‘kill’ – what are your thoughts on this?  (I understand RSAF Typhoons have been doing this for a while)

Finding a small drone in a fighter and shooting it down using a heat-seeking missile is pretty impressive. It shows how the jet can roll quickly from supporting the troops one minute to engaging a tricky air-to-air target moments later. More broadly, the use of explosive drones is becoming more prevalent so from a control of the air point of view,  I think more thought needs to go into countering these en-masse from western air forces.

How good is Meteor, and why? 

I’ve personally never flown with Meteor, but talking to colleagues on the frontline they are very impressed. The layered capability with AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM offer lots of very robust all-weather targeting options and it is a great mixed load to carry. 

Tell me something I don’t know about Typhoon

When you are landing the aircraft without engineering support there are often no staging or steps available to climb out of the cockpit. There is a puny little ladder that you can deploy which pops out from under the cockpit. So you can climb down. But there is no retract function, which is a pain in the ass when you want to get back in and take off again.


What was the hardest aspect psychologically? 

Keeping a clear head when dealing with constant, changing pressures. In the book I’ve placed the reader in the cockpit so they are immersed in the action and experience the adrenalin. At one point was I was locked-up by a Russian SAM. A couple of weeks later in the dead of night, I almost had a mid-air collision over a city held by enemy troops. There was also the constant threat of hand-held surface to air missiles. I felt the most pressure when friendly troops called in urgent support from fast jets because their lives were in danger. We needed to act swiftly and accurately, and avoid any risk to civilians. Sometimes we would roll from one task to the next, heading to the air-to-air refuelling tanker, and striking targets until we had dropped all eight weapons. On one occasion during a particularly vicious firefight I had to conduct a strafe attack too.

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How well suited is Typhoon to taskings in the Middle East? What improvements would you like to see? 

Within forty-eight hours of leaving our base in the UK we were conducting around-the-clock close air support missions. The jets held up superbly, and over the five months we conducted well over three hundred strikes. All were direct hits and there were no civilian casualties. I was immensely proud of the team performance. We focus a lot on the aircraft, but it is the people on the Squadron that make it happen. Everyone has a key role to play. Often the most junior, newest members of the squadron have the best ideas. Creating an environment where the engineers, pilots, intelligence, operations and support staff could all communicate effectively and work in harmony was extremely important. At the time we had the Litening 3 targeting pod, which was good, but there were other systems available that could provide clearer imagery. The Force is about to get the Litening 5 pod, which will be a fantastic upgrade and provide much better optics.

Typhoon and Litening, very very frightening.

What advice would you give to pilots coming to the Close Air Support mission? 

One of the most challenging aspects was not knowing what the mission would involve until you were immersed in it. Often I would sit at the end of the runway on a moonless night, with the jet being rocked from side to side by the gusty wind from nearby thunderstorms and the red strobe light flashing against the glistening runway, pondering what the night ahead had in store. Reconnaissance in Syria? Rushing to a troops-in-contact near Mosul? Looking for snipers in Ramadi? Could I remember the Escape & Evasion plan? Would the tanker be in the right place? What if I was low on fuel and the refuelling probe failed? For all fast jet operations, much like sport, the foundations for success lay in the preparations. Striving for tactical excellence and holding yourselves to account during training. Communicating as a team and encouraging a culture of ruthless self-awareness. Always looking for the marginal gains. And creating a bond and strength as a unit so you can carry yourselves through the tough situations.

How do you feel about the current state of the nations you have been to war in? 

Afghanistan is a very difficult situation, and my thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones or seen family members suffer life-changing physical or psychological injuries. In Iraq, my thoughts are a little more positive. Towards the end of the operation, after months of fighting, I saw families return to their homes. Houses that had been abandoned breathed a new life, and this was incredibly heart-warming. It’s important to remember that we live in a liberal democracy, and it’s the politicians, not the pilots, that make the decisions about when to deploy and withdraw from conflicts. In the book I’ve explained what it is like to enact those decisions. To prepare to a level of high readiness, and then to receive the call to respond during a global crisis. 

Human aspect 

Something I found very interesting in your book was the reference to pilots liking certainty: care to expand on that? 

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Unpredictability as a pilot is not a great characteristic. A bold, flamboyant approach to flying is not encouraged as it is such a demanding and dangerous occupation. Much like brain surgery I suppose, you need dedication and discipline to learn the procedures. There is room for innovation and novelty – in fact it is essential to developing tactics – but in a controlled way. Finding the balance between the two mindsets isn’t always easy. Defining the best qualities for a fighter pilot is tricky. You need an almost obsessive drive and determination in the first place, the ability to learn fast, have good situational awareness, and to remain calm in the most dynamic situations where your life could be literally on the line. But there is an almost indefinable quality in the best pilots too. A quiet confidence, that learns from criticism and doesn’t take things personally, but strives to be the best; for yourself and your fellow pilots.

How well-supported are RAF veterans dealing with mental health issues in your opinion? 

This is a question for Defence, not just the RAF. Things have improved since Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, where the support was initially woeful. Charities like Help for Heroes and Combat Stress filled a void. Prince Harry once said leaving the military is like being on a bus with all of your mates, which pulls up at a deserted stop. You step off, the doors close and it drives away. You’re on your own. It’s a neat analogy. When you leave the military, you are thrown into the NHS system with support from your GP, who may know very little about operational stress. Particularly for veterans with limited social support and structures, I think significantly more could be done to support those suffering mental health challenges.

You had some very interesting points on the emotional impact of warfare on remote operators of unmanned aircraft, care to share your thoughts on this with our readers? 

UAV pilots don’t live in conflict zones and the acute pressures of their work can therefore be overlooked. They could be conducting strikes for months or years on end, with the effect of their actions being played out on high-definition screens right before their eyes. The physical risk is much diminished, but perhaps less so the psychological impact. As the nature and methods of conducting warfare continue to evolve, we need fresh approaches to understanding where the mental pressure points may emerge.

What personality types struggle the most in war in your opinion? 

I’m not a psychologist so will probably answer this imperfectly! I found that the trivia of military life was most irritating when it clashed with the pressures of high tempo operations. After landing from an eight-hour flight I often had to face what I considered to be fairly unimportant paperwork, such as overly complicated documents for squadron hire cars, or an overflowing inbox full of banal tasks that were fairly inconsequential yet demanded immediate attention. If the RAF could better prioritise the important from the irrelevant during operations that would be very welcome.

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What should I have asked you – and what do you get asked the most? 

When you come back from an operation people often ask ‘what was it like?’ My book is an insight into that hidden world. Not just what happened, but what goes through your mind before a strike and just after. A pilot’s concerns, fears and priorities. The conversations that happened on the ground as we were preparing to walk to an aircraft. The complexity of developing tactics and briefing hugely demanding sorties. The struggles to relate easily to domestic life at home with families and friends. And hopefully some analysis along the way!

– Mike Sutton is the author of Typhoon

Top 12 Swedish aircraft

Pergelator: Three Swedish Jets

Swedish aircraft are a breath of fresh air. Idiosyncratic, clever and unorthodox, they have often been the result of a different way of thinking and peculiarly Swedish needs. That such a small nation makes its own combat aircraft is a quirk of history. Sweden’s non-aligned neutrality policy, which lasted until 2009, had its roots in the calamities suffered during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. The disastrous results included a loss of over a third of Sweden’s territory, most notably Finland, were not soon to be forgotten. A policy of avoiding military intervention and international allegiances wherever possible began in the early 19th century. In the 1930s, fearing a second world war, Sweden massively increased its defence spending. The War showed that neutrality was not always easy or carried out to the letter. In World War II, Sweden made itself very unpopular with the allies by supplying large amounts of vital iron ore to Nazi Germany, though Sweden was also exporting significant quantities of ball bearings to the Allies. There were trade agreements between Sweden and the Allies for these purposes, and during the latter parts of the War this included limiting Swedish exports to Germany (once Germany was too weak to pose a significant threat to Sweden anymore). Such is the delicate complicated position of non-alignment. This policy of ‘armed neutrality’ required indigenous armaments to avoid dependence or allegiance to a foreign power. From the mid-1940s Sweden’s Försvarets forskningsanstalt (FOA) intended to develop it own nuclear deterrent, an ambition it chose to give up when it joined the non-proliferation treaty in 1968.

Saab 1300-71D Vindtunnelmodell.jpg
Sweden’s nuclear deterrent would have been carried by the Saab A 36, a medium-range tactical bomber comparable with the US B-58 Hustler. Powered by two Olympus engines, this potentially extremely expensive project was cancelled in 1957.

It was the smallest nation, in terms of both population and economy, to design and build its own advanced military aircraft. But there are shades of ‘indigenous’ as no country other than the US and Russia (and lately China) has access to the full spectrum of technologies required to make a modern fighter. The Gripen, for example, uses a British ejection seat, an (essentially) American engine, pan-European air-to-air missiles and a German gun. The reliance on US tech has enabled the US to block export licences in order to scupper several potential Saab exports that threatened US sales, most notably Indian interest in the Viggen in the 1980s.
Thulin FA

Let’s head North to the icy beauty of Sweden to choose twelve incredible Swedish aeroplanes.
The master engineer Erik Brattled oversaw the creation of the Draken and Viggen and did much to define Sweden’s Cold War airpower.

12. Saab 21 (1943)

There are reasons that propellers are at the front, and most of them relate to that being the way engines are designed to turn them. The perils of the pusher are such that the US Army banned pusher designs in 1914. Shame though, as a pusher means you can have your guns very easily placed on the centreline, a shorter fuselage and a greatly improved view for the pilot.

The Saab 21 did not have a spectacular performance; 400 mph may have been insanely fast in 1940, but by 1945 when the J 21 entered service it was decidedly mediocre. To avoid a diced pilot, an ejection seat was required, the J 21 being the first non-German aircraft to carry an ejection seat as standard. The aircraft was well-armed, with one 20-mm cannon and two 13.2mm heavy machine guns in the nose and two more heavy machine-guns in the wings.

Powered by the Daimler-Benz DB 605 that had powered the cream of axis inline fighters, the J 21 was hampered by the war ending and the 605 line ending. Intriguingly, there were plans for a more advanced version with a Rolls-Royce Griffon and a Mustang-style bubble canopy, these never happened as the jet age had arrived. The J 21 become part of one of the very rarest aircraft breeds, those that went from piston to jet propulsion as the J 21R.

11. Saab B 17

No, not that one. The B 17 was Saab’s first aircraft and Sweden’s first indigenous ‘modern’ stressed-skin monoplane. Unusually conventional by Saab standards, the aircraft had already been designed by ASJA, the catchily named AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstädernas Aeroplanavdelning (Swedish Railway Workshops’ Aeroplane Department) thus joining the likes of the Henschel 129 and the English Electric Lightning in the surprisingly crowded pantheon of aircraft built by railway locomotive manufacturers. The B 17 was a workmanlike design that compared well with contemporary single-engine light bombing aircraft. And if you think it looks particularly similar to US designs of the era, the fact that between 40 and 50 American engineers were employed by ASJA on its development might not come as a total surprise. Intended for the dive-bombing role, the B 17’s wing wasn’t up to the strain of this form of attack and required strengthening. Although subsequently cleared for diving attacks, the B 17 was limited to a shallow angle of dive for the rest of its career. Speed in the dive was limited by the large undercarriage doors which functioned as dive brakes when the B 17 made its attack and on the subject of undercarriage, the wheels of the undercarriage could be switched for retractable skis for winter operation. To add even more variety 38 examples of a reconnaissance floatplane version was also built.

Entering service in 1942 over 300 were built, most of the B 17 bomber version, with just over 20 of the S 17 reconnaissance aircraft also constructed. The Saabs remained in frontline service until 1950 though continued in second line roles for a further time, latterly as a target tug into the early 1960s. A potentially exciting aside occurred during the war when 15 B 17s were loaned to exiled Danish forces in Sweden to support a Danish invasion intended to liberate that nation from German occupation, known as Danforce. Thankfully the war ended before Danforce were committed to retaking Denmark, the Danish markings on the Saabs were painted out and the aircraft returned to Swedish control. Around the time that the aircraft was being withdrawn from Swedish service, 47 were bought for use by the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. Ethiopian Saab 17s would be the only examples to fire their guns in anger, at least once, when several were used to attack a group of Somali criminals who had derailed and robbed a train. The Saab 17 was operated by Ethiopia until 1968 and thus the last frontline examples of this Scandinavian aircraft saw out their careers under the African sky. Of five survivors, one example remains airworthy at the Swedish Air Force Museum at Linköping.

10. Saab JAS 39 Gripen (1988)

On 29 March 2011, the Swedish Air Force sent combat aircraft to war for the first time since 1963. Eight Saab Gripens supported by a Saab 340 AEW&C and a C-130 Hercules tanker were deployed in support of the No-Fly Zone over Libya. The small fighter-bomber performed well. Initially, it was tasked purely with counter-air, but NATO planners noticed the Gripen had a very capable reconnaissance pod (the SPK 39) and its responsibilities were accordingly widened.

A rather boutique operation, the Saab Gripen has seen a small factory create around 280 aircraft since the type first flew in 1988. It has served in unobtrusive numbers around the world for sensible air forces on a budget. It is considered by many to have the lowest cost per flight hour for a modern fighter, and is relatively easy to maintain. I spoke to a Gripen maintainer a few years ago and he complained of not having enough to do, he had come from a MiG background. It is comparable with a top of the range small car, coming with a wealth of high-end accessories which include one of the world’s best helmet display and cueing systems, the formidable IRIS-T infra-red missile and the well trusted ‘404 engine. Perhaps the most impressive ‘accessory’ is the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile, giving a bantamweight the reach of the heaviest heavyweight. Much of the Gripen’s magic comes from a wealth of invisible capabilities: its electronic warfare suite is extremely well-respected by pilots who have ‘fought’ against the Gripen in international exercises. The basic philosophy of the Gripen was to create the smallest possible aircraft that wouldn’t be laughed out of a war with the Soviet Union. According to Tony Inesson, “Swedish defense planning also more or less assumed a NATO intervention. The Soviets never really considered Sweden a truly neutral power, but rather as being aligned with the West.” Building an air force that could take the USSR on its own terms was impossible, but one that could slow an invasion down until NATO leapt into the fray was possible. In the 1970s when what became the Gripen was first being considered Sweden’s defence planners had a big think. The cost of new, ever more complex, combat aircraft was generally spiralling out of control, one exception to this was the US F-16 which was smaller and lighter than the aircraft it replaced. Saab studied the F-16 with interest and wondered whether something even smaller might be able to replace its Viggens. Advances in materials and electronics, as well as engine technology, aerodynamics and flight control systems, enabled the Gripen to emerge as a bantamweight fighter with a hell of a punch. The new fighter, which first flew in 1988, was 6,000-Ib lighter than the Viggen and in aerodynamic form showed the future path of European combat aircraft. It was the first of a new class of canard-deltas, and has since been joined by the European Rafale and Typhoon, and the Chinese J-10 and J-20.

The next-generation Gripen will be the E (and two-seat F.) These are larger heavier aircraft powered by the F414, they are set to enter service soon.

(Some have argued that the Gripen’s use in Libya was largely a PR exercise to promote the Gripen for export, but Fredrik Doeser has argued that this view does not hold water as it could have been deployed to Afghanistan and the aircraft was already favourably viewed, something that could have been changed by any teething issues in its first combat deployment)

9. Saab 340

Had the Habsburgs stuck around long enough to get into the aircraft-making business, their offering would’ve been something like the Saab 340. It’s reliable and innovative, sturdy, loved for its handling and cost-effectiveness, loathed for its noisiness and its less-than-luxurious accommodations, lacking space for all its baggage (in the overhead bins, anyway), pretty to look at until you start adding military bits and bobs to it, and managing to stick around long after conventional wisdom deems it out of fashion. Sometimes it hears its name mentioned in a not-so-friendly way (though not due to any fault of the aircraft itself), but, at the end of the day, as regional airliners go, you could do a hell of a lot worse. After all, you don’t enjoy a nigh four-decade lifespan, hear your number called for hauling passengers and freight on three-hour hops to remote Alaskan airstrips, and get adapted for the maritime surveillance role (Japan Coast Guard) and airborne command and control (Swedish and Royal Thai Air Forces) if you’re not doing something right. The Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control System fitted to the 340 AEW (among other airframes) has an AESA radar as its primary sensor and is widely considered world-class.


The 340 has gotten a lot of undue flak on the Internet, mostly from travel bloggers who seem to have severe allergic reactions to anything vaguely resembling a propeller, which is unfortunate, as it’s proven to be an excellent aircraft throughout its career, replete with forward-thinking technology like diffusion welding instead of rivets and, with the Saab 340B Plus variant, a noise and vibration reduction system (which, alas, came too late to help the poor 340’s reputation for being loud). It’s carried presidents and popes, and plenty of happy passengers.

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Saab receives order for maintenance of airborne radar system Erieye for  Sweden - Saab

The extended version, the fifty-seat Saab 2000, had the misfortune of coming on scene just as airlines were transitioning over to regional jets, and only sixty-three were built. As for the 340, production capped at 459 airframes, and, while there’s a trend among the major air carriers moving away from aircraft in the 340’s capacity category (generally 34 to 37 seats), and the 340 is getting up there in years, the type can still be found with about forty airlines and air arms. Regional turboprops might lack the sex appeal of fast jets like Drakens or Viggens or Gripens—though I should reiterate that, military variants notwithstanding, the 340 is quite a cute little fellow—but the 340 has certainly done more than enough to earn a place on any list of Sweden’s finest flying machines.

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8. Saab 37 Viggen


It is said that Sweden could either afford the Viggen or the bomb, but not both. Sweden chose the Viggen and gave up its nuclear ambitions.  Clint Eastwood asked for the Viggen to star alongside himself in his wild 1982 Cold War espionage thriller Firefox. The aircraft would have played the futuristic MiG-31 ‘Firefox’. On looks alone, can you blame Eastwood? The Viggen looked like the future, and in many ways it was.

The first thing you notice is the configuration. Aside the kidney-shaped air intakes, ahead of the main wings are a small set of ‘wings’ known as canards. Canards had been fitted on the American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, the Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-8 and a few other experimental types, but the Viggen was the first modern canard-equipped aircraft to enter service. Unlike later canard-deltas, these were not all-moving, but they were fixed with a moving trailing edge flap. Not only do they render the Viggen, arguably, a Mach 2-capable biplane but they do other, more tangible, things. The Viggen also has an unusual wing shape. Having two angles of leading-edge sweep-back (the ‘kink’ or ‘dog leg’) allows for greater amounts of more stable lift from a wing of less relative area.  This happens because the change in leading-edge angle keeps lift-generating air vortices from originating at the wing root. The earlier Draken and (later mark) Vulcan also featured rather different kinky deltas.  India’s Tejas fighter has opted for a similar wing design solution to the Viggen.

Short-take off and landing was a key requirement for the type. To stop the aircraft without the fuss and hazards of a brake chute, an impressive thrust reverser mechanism – unique on a combat aircraft at the time, was added. Consisting of three triangular steel plates, it was closed up to redirect engine thrust forward through the side slit below the tail.  The pilot could actually reverse his machine on the ground without the aid of a ground vehicle.  Most famously, and a Swedish air show perennial, the Viggen could do a fast touch-and-go manoeuvre in which it would come in hot, arrest itself on landing with reverse thrust and then via a so-called Y-turn change the direction it was facing and rip right back into the sky on afterburner.  All in a few seconds! Try that in a General Dynamics F-111. The Viggen was expected to operate from 500 to 800 metre lengths of motorway or damaged bases and be readily looked after by reservists and conscript groundcrew.  It had fairly tall tandem main landing gear with anti-lock brakes.  The Viggen almost seemed to handle like a sports car on the ground.    

That was far from the only innovation in the Viggen: at the heart of the Viggen’s system was the CK 37 central computer (Central Kalkylator 37), the world’s first airborne computer to use integrated circuits. Many nearly boutique-level design touches were incorporated all across this aircraft’s systems. The earlier Saab 35 Draken was intended for the same ground-controlled, high altitude missile interceptions of the Convair F-102/106 or the Sukhoi Su-15; the JA 37 fighter variant of the Viggen embodied a dark recognition that future armed conflict might be a little more dirty and tactical – and require greater intelligence. 

The Viggen came in five flavours: the AJ37 attack version, SK37 two-seat trainer, SH- and SF37 reconnaissance variants and the final version, the JA37 fighter-interceptor.

The Viggen had an impressive early example of a centralized computer to support the pilot by integrating and partly automating tasks such as navigation and fire control. The Central Kalkylator 37 was connected to a head-up-display and an X-band radar set. This gear meant the Viggen could meet a requirement for single-pilot operation. Performance metrics would also have been impaired thanks to the weight and space requirements of accommodating a second crew member so the dependence on technology was vital.  The Viggen is most often celebrated for its out-of-the-box structural engineering but its avionics package ultimately is what made it the right investment for the Flygvapnet into the 2000s.

The Viggen was so clever in so many ways. 

Its vertical fin could be folded down with dispersal to hardened bunkers or caves in mind? The outdoorsy Swedish jet made some of its Soviet and Western contemporaries look like precious hangar queens dependent on massive budgets and large, vulnerable air bases. In the Viggen, Sweden was able to extend the achievements of the Draken program and impress the world.   A high-intensity R&D programme – fully funded and supported by the Swedish government – and a national flair for industrial design, combined with the employment of U.S.-licensed engine brought forth a winner.

Stephen Caulfield

7. Saab B 18

Saab 18 | Plane-Encyclopedia

With its funky pusher propeller fighters, crazy double deltas and early adoption of the canard for jet fighters, it is difficult to accuse Saab of being a slave to convention. Thus at first glance, their only twin piston-engine bomber, the B 18, looks disappointingly ordinary, sort of halfway between a Ju 88 and a Hampden. But this elegant twin rewards a closer look as its arguably humdrum appearance was somewhat deceptive. First off, the cockpit is offset to the left, and as anyone who has ever glanced at a Sea Vixen or a Canberra PR.9 knows, offset cockpits are cool. Secondly, despite looking rather outdated considering it entered service in 1944, its performance was distinctly impressive with a top speed only 20 km/h slower than the vaunted de Havilland Mosquito FB.VI despite carrying three Swedes rather than the mere two of the Mosquito, one of whom got to wield a defensive machine gun. The Mosquito similarities didn’t end there: limited numbers of both (18 Mosquitoes and 52 Saabs) were equipped with a large calibre gun for the anti-shipping role. Weirdly both aircraft went for a 57-mm weapon.

And both aircraft were effective multi-role platforms before multi-role was really a ‘thing’ and could carry a vast array of different weaponry. The Saab however was never developed into a night fighter, for that role the Swedish used the J 30: which was their designation for the Mosquito! Most surprising of all perhaps is the fact that this fairly normal-looking WWII medium bomber was fitted with ejection seats. Sadly this was due to the Saab 18 garnering something of a reputation for crashing by the late 1940s. Ah well, the dangerous planes are always the most exciting right? For a Swedish aircraft the Saab 18 also pushed the envelope when it came to Sweden’s famed neutrality. In the reconnaissance role, B 18s were utilised during 1945 and 46 to overfly Baltic ports and photograph all Soviet shipping they found. In the course of these missions the Saabs were routinely subject to interception attempts by Soviet fighters but their speed rendered them essentially invulnerable, notably unlike other aircraft operating as spyplanes – Sweden lost an ELINT C-47 to Soviet fighters in 1952, then the search and rescue Catalina they sent out to try and find the missing aircraft was shot down too three days later sparking a major diplomatic incident. The B 18 remained in service until the late ‘fifties with the reconnaissance variants the last to be retired in 1959, replaced by another cool-looking Saab product (of course), the Lansen. 

Saab 18 - Wikipedia

6. Saab 29 Tunnan (1948)

SAAB 29 TUNNAN - Flight Manuals

Aren’t Tunnans Brilliant. It’s 1948 and Europe’s aircraft manufacturers are busily reading captured German documents to learn about swept wings. But while Hawker and Supermarine are messing around with attaching them to a couple of spare airframes for research purposes, SAAB are test flying Europe’s first non-fascist swept wing production fighter. By 1951 the J29 Tunnan is in squadron service while the RAF are enduring the more pedestrian looking de Havilland Venom. To add insult to injury the shiny Swede used the same Ghost engine as the Venom to go faster, claiming two FAI speed records for the 500km and 1000km closed circuits. It could also carry 700kg more, which makes you wonder what de Havilland were doing. By 1954 the J29 had even gained an afterburner, one of the first aircraft to do so. But beating the low hanging fruit of de Havilland’s difficult second jet fighter isn’t all the Tunnan has going for it. SAAB’s most produced aircraft with 662 built, it served until 1967 as a front-line fighter and was still in use as a target tug until 1976. It was also the only SAAB to date to see combat helping with peacekeeping efforts in the Congo under the control of the United Nations. This saw 9 J29Bs and two S29C photoreconnaissance aircraft adorned with UN markings, literally just a big U and N painted on the fuselage, and operated by F22 Wing of the Swedish Air Force. Despite taking ground fire on numerous occasions while carrying out strikes on secessionists and mercenaries no Tunnans were lost in combat. Ironically after surviving the civil war all but four were then destroyed at their base in 1963 as it wasn’t considered cost-effective taking them back to Sweden. Objectively good looking and a technological trail blazer*the Tunnan is a brilliantly packaged little fighter, just look at how the landing lights drop down from the nose and the main gear tucks into the fuselage. The J29 also fitted an ejector seat before they became de rigeur.

5. FFVS J 22 (1942)

FFVS J 22A at an airshow circa 1990

By 1940, the fighter component of the Flygvapnet consisted mostly of the Gloster Gladiator (designated J 8 in Swedish service) which were looking increasingly old hat when compared to the latest monoplane fighters busily shooting each other down all over Europe. In an attempt to maintain a credible defensive force Sweden ordered large numbers of the Seversky P-35 and Vultee P-66 Vanguard from the US only for the Americans to slap an embargo on the export of all arms to any country except the UK after only 60 P-35s had been delivered. To be fair this may have been a blessing in disguise as the P-35 (J 9 in Sweden) was a pretty woeful fighter. Sweden looked around for a replacement and intriguingly considered the Mitsubishi A6M Zero amongst others (concern about the practicality of delivery put paid to that idea). Orders were ultimately placed for the outdated Fiat CR.42 (J 11) and Reggiane Re.2000 (J 20) but neither was considered entirely satisfactory and the decision was taken to manufacture a fighter domestically instead. Sweden’s only major aircraft company, Saab, had their hands full manufacturing the B 17 (not that one) and B 18 so, impressively the Swedish government created a firm and factory from scratch specifically to design and build a new fighter: the Kungliga Flygförvaltningens Flygverkstad i Stockholm (“Royal Air Administration Aircraft Factory in Stockholm”) shortened to FFVS. From the start the aircraft was intended to be relatively light and simple and to utilise the reliable Pratt and Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp which was also the engine of the Seversky P-35/J 9. Unfortunately Sweden had no means to procure any more R-1830 engines from the US due to the embargo and no spare engines had been delivered with the batch of Seversky fighters that had been delivered. Therefore the Swedes elected to copy the engine and start production domestically, no small undertaking in the absence of any plans or drawings. The unlicensed Twin Wasp copy, designated the STWC-3, eventually powered most of the J 22s but the engine programme ran slightly behind schedule and to make up the numbers 100 R-1830s managed to be procured from the Vichy french regime. The purposeful looking FFVS J 22 was conventional in layout, apart from the undercarriage which was unusually narrow for its height and retracted into the fuselage in a unique arrangement. The construction method used was novel with plywood sheets cladding a steel-tube frame, the plywood skin being partially load bearing.  The J 22 flew for the first time in September 1942 and considering this was the first fighter aircraft designed in Sweden since the Svenska Aero Jaktfalkenof 1929 and that the engine was of significantly lower power than was considered necessary for a fighter by other nations in 1942, it turned out to be a remarkably good aircraft. Intended to roughly match the performance of contemporary Spitfire and Bf 109 models when the design was finalised, designer Bo Lundberg had admirably stretched what was possible with the limited power of the R-1830 to achieve just that. With barely more than 1000 hp available from the STWC-3, the J 22 possessed decent performance and its handling was highly praised by pilots.

Data Sheet] FFVS J-22 - Fighters - War Thunder - Official Forum

Looking somewhat like an unholy union between an Fw 190 and an F8F Bearcat, the J 22 was touted as being the fastest aircraft in the world ‘relative to engine power’. Though this was not true (the Mark I Spitfire was faster still with an engine of roughly the same rated power output), the J 22 was no slouch, though it must be admitted that by the time the first of the 198 production J 22s entered service in October 1943 its performance was not quite level with the world’s best. Nonetheless, when tested in mock combat against the P-51D Mustang (J 26) after the war the J 22 could reportedly hold its own at low and medium altitude. The power of the Twin Wasp copy fell off abruptly over 15,000 feet and this was probably the type’s most serious flaw. Its armament was also underwhelming, initially two 13.2mm (0.52in) Akan M/39A and two 8mm machine guns, later aircraft had four 13.2mm guns which was better (but still somewhat lacking).

Military Aircraft #78: FFVS J-22. Svenska Flygvapnet. - 9GAG

The J 22 makes for an intriguing comparison with two other aircraft produced by nations with limited fighter experience, Australia’s Commonwealth Boomerang and Finland’s VL Myrsky. All three were designed and built to make up for an uncertain supply of foreign designs, were intended to be simple to build and maintain, all used the R-1830 Twin Wasp and all three were surprisingly effective. The J 22 was the fastest of the lot and proved popular and reliable, had it been produced in a different time by a nation not categorically wedded to the idea of neutrality, it may well have proved a successful export, being quite fast, simple, and reliable. As it was the J 22s served Sweden until 1952 and arguably more importantly gave the Swedish Aircraft Industry invaluable experience that it would put to good use in the years to come. Three are known to survive, one in taxiable condition, and another is being restored to fly. 

4. Saab 32 Lansen (1951)

Hermann Behrbohm was a German mathematician who had worked for the Messerschmitt aircraft company from 1937. He contributed to high-speed trials of the Bf 109 fighter, and the development of the Me 163 and Me 262. His colleagues included the great Alexander Lippisch, father of the modern delta wing. Behrbohm’s most influential work was on the P.1101 fighter series, conceived as part of the Jägernotprogramm emergency fighter programme of 1944. This unflown remarkable jet fighter design, with its nose-mounted air intake and swept wings would inform the post-war F-86, MiG-15 and the Swedish Lansen. Following the war, Behrbohm was much sought after by nations wishing to harvest his remarkable know-how. He chose to move and work in Sweden. His influence on the Saab 32 Lansen, an attack aircraft built to replace the B 18, saw the aircraft adopt an exceptionally clean aerodynamic form. It is said to be the first aircraft created with a fully detailed mathematical model of its outer-mold line. The aircraft was capable of supersonic flight in a shallow dive. Behrbohm would also work on the Draken and Viggen, notably on the latter’s canard-delta form.

3. Svenska Aero Jaktfalken (1929)

After landing the Jaktfalken, Swedish Air Force test pilot Nils Söderberg declared“this is the best aircraft that I have flown so far”. The influence of Germans in Swedish aircraft is a recurrent theme, the Jaktfalken is no exception, as it was designed by the German Carl Clemens Bücker (famous for his Jungmann and Jungmeister). It was a world-class fighter but was never ordered in numbers, it won a single export order from Norway, and by single we mean one aeroplane.

2. SAAB 90 Scandia (1946)

No photo description available.
The Latin name for the southern part of Sweden is Scandia, from which the name ‘Scandinavia’ is derived.

Many nations’ aircraft industries grew fat and strong from the glut of wartime orders, and aeroplane production reached an all-time high. Sweden was no exception. In fact, being neutral and mostly spared from heavy strategic bombing (apart from that one time the Soviets had a go at Stockholm) its industry needn’t worry about such trifling matters as production lines being reduced to dust and cinder. When the war ended, SAAB’s future became uncertain. What would they do without the threat of an imminent invasion motivating combat aircraft production on a massive scale? What would they do with all their employees in the factories and design rooms? The good folks at SAAB, decided the only sensible thing to do was to branch out into the civilian sector and create the other SAAB (Svenska Automobil Aktiebolaget) as well as putting the original SAAB (Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget) to work building the most modern, comfortable airliner in the world: the SAAB 90 Scandia.

SAAB 90 Scandia interior | Scandia, Saab, Photo sharing

Carrying thirty passengers up to 650 miles at a 211 mph cruise speed and up to 279mph in a hurry, the Scandia featured novelties such as a tricycle landing gear, and an airfoil designed using NACA profiles. Its two 1820hp Pratt & Whitney R-2180-E twin wasp radial engines provided ample power, allowing a loaded Scania to take off on just one engine. This of course drastically improved safety, especially in the take-off and landing phases, safety was further enhanced by the superior pilot view provided by the tricycle gear. The Scandia improved upon all the best qualities of the 1930s era DC-3 which was the airliner at the time. Entering production in 1946, SAAB had a real winner on its hands.

SAAB 90 SCANDIA - Flight Manuals

Except there was one little thing the execs at SAAB had overlooked. Or rather, there were 10,781 things that they had overlooked. That’s how many DC-3s and C-47s were built in total and now that the war was over, they were being sold for practically nothing. There was simply no way for SAAB to compete with those kinds of numbers and it looked like the future was again dark for the Swedish aeroplane manufacturer. Luckily for them, the start of the cold war meant SAAB soon received an order for 661 J-29 fighter jets. The Scandia was put aside after a meagre 18 were built and fell into obscurity.

SWEDEN - CIRCA 1984: Stamp Printed By Sweden, Shows Airplane SAAB-90 Scandia,  Circa 1984 Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 25694182.

The SAAB 90 did fly for Aktiebolaget Aerotransport (ABA) from Sweden, but spent most of its career in the warmer climate of the jungles of Brazil, in the service Viação Aérea São Paulo S/A (São Paulo Airways) until 1969.

–– Sebastian Craenen

1. Saab 35 Draken (1955)

Dragon Knights! – Aces Flying High

That the Draken was a decent candidate for the best fighter in operational service in 1960 is a huge accolade for Sweden, and the result of the nation’s extremely smart defence policy of the 1950s. The Royal Swedish Air Force realised that any chance of survival against a Soviet invasion depended on departing air fields at the first whiff of war and hiding in the sticks. It was apparent that large fixed airbases were easy to locate and attack, so the Swedish Air Force went ‘off-base’. The Draken was intended to employ an indigenous jet engine design, the STAL Dovern, which was tested on a Lancaster. But the British Rolls-Royce Avon, which would also power the Lightning, was deemed a superior choice.

The policy of domestic aircraft creation has always been extremely costly and vulnerable to cancellation by politicians seeking to save money. Whereas the US could afford cost overruns, Swedish aircraft projects were under a lot more scrutiny (this continues to the present day).

Though initially excellent, the J 29s introduced in 1951 would struggle to effectively counter the fast Soviet Tu-16 bombers coming into service in 1954. With excellent foresight, work on a faster replacement for the J 29 had begun before the Tunnen had even entered service. The next fighter was to feature a radical new wing design, a world-leading datalink and would be easy to maintain and operate from reinforced sections of motorway. It would also be extremely swift, at mach 2, around twice as fast as the J 29. This remarkable project seemed to be going extremely well –– and then along came Wennerström.

During the 1950s, Swedish air force Colonel Stig Erik ‘The Eagle’ Constans Wennerström leaked Swedish air defence plans, including a wealth of information about Saab Draken fighter jet project, to the Soviet Union. Security forces suspected him and employed his maid as an agent who discovered rolls of films hidden in his house. Despite Wennerström’s treachery the Draken emerged as a remarkably effective machine. The wing was an absolute masterpiece of aerodynamics, an avant-courier of the LERX of the later F-16, MiG-29 and Hornet which gave the aircraft performance far exceeding the expectations of international observers. On half the installed the thrust of a Lightning, the Draken offered similar performance, three times the air-to-air missile weapon load and a far longer range. Not only that, it managed to achieve this remarkable performance with fixed air intakes, a fact that is often overlooked.

Then there’s the ability to ‘cobra’ by turning off the flight control limiters, known to the Swedish pilots who discovered this as “kort parad”, or “short parry“. And there’s the infra-red sensor – and the datalink. All of which added up to a remarkable whole. The Draken was a masterpiece of strategic thinking, aeronautical design and engineering.

Pin on aviones

(Special thanks to Tony Ingesson)

Pentagon requests new advanced fighter aircraft for Russia

Image: BAE Systems

THE PENTAGON — The Pentagon released a report today requesting Congressional authorization for the allocation of funds to develop a new air superiority fighter for the Russian Federation. Parlor Banjo reports.

The aircraft project known as Military Air Counterable Grade Unassailable Foreign Fighter Increasement Node (MACGUFFIN) would see an initial $102 billion spent on developing a mass-produced fighter aircraft with greater capability than the ‘Flanker’, ‘Felon’ and nascent ‘Fleabag’ combat aircraft. According to USAF Colonel Tilch Willdergande, “We would like fighter aircraft and funding for future fighter projects, but this will require a credible air-to-air threat. China is at least twenty years behind us and Russia is broke. In the face of such a paucity of threatening air-to-air platforms we propose that we develop a new Russian fighter aircraft with US levels of stealth and situational awareness. In the absence of this project we would be forced to export F-35s to Russia, and possibly China, which would be a huge breach of export protocol and would threaten our global security. For this reason alone, MACGUFFIN is vital for regional dominance.

The Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Figniya released a counter statement on Wednesday, “We are offering to build a new fighter aircraft for the United States in order to leverage funding for a larger Su-57 and Su-75 force. The current mess of prehistoric F-15 and F-16s is a greater throwback to the 70s than Russian Gay rights. The F-22 and F-35 were designed to give IT guys maintenance work uninterrupted by flying hours. We’ve spent lots on really good surface-to-air missiles and the Government won’t give us Rubles for planes, which is annoying as planes are cooler.”

Death Star |

The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China representative Gǔn Dàn has also recently spoken on the subject, “I forgot to write down which combat aircraft we’re working on so I have no idea on our current air power ranking. Every Monday they email me to tell me we’re building something new. Do the US still build aeroplanes or is that just a Chinese thing now? I think we might have a stealth bomber, or a new naval stealth fighter – is the Death Star ours?”

Meanwhile, European defence planners are planning to have a plan in place by 2045. The United Kingdom, who are currently in their own continent, are actively seeking a ‘sexual unicorn’ for their dysfunctional marriage but thinks their wife is not 100% behind the idea, but maybe Sweden.

Swedish defence company Saab AB is currently collaborating with every future combat aircraft project everywhere. A spokesperson for Saab, Nils Wallerius, described the company’s current dilemma, “As the last company allegedly able to run a fighter project with some degree of fiscal responsibility, we are currently involved in 456 international combat aircraft projects, but this is one higher than the Swedish population of 455 people. My sister has had to give up her Monday badminton club to run a Brazilian UCAV program.”

Image: BAE Systems

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

Super Hornet cockpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F-4B front cockpit

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

F-14A Tomcat (first flight: 1970)

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

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F-16A Fighting Falcon (1974)

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

Su-27 ‘Flanker B’ (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 12 Dictator’s Aircraft

Though rumours persist of a VVIP Petlyakov Pe-8, Stalin never used a Pe-8. The Soviet leader was terrified of flying and flew only twice – to Tehran and back. Both journeys were in a nicely fitted out Douglas C-47: not a Li-2 even but a proper US built Skytrain. The Pe-8 was the only Soviet heavy bomber of the war, and bombed Berlin.

You cannot be a world-class psychopathic narcissist unless you have your own aircraft. Now, while one man’s ‘strong leader’ is another’s dictator we can be certain that all the human entrants in this list are or were prize bell-ends. Stephen Caulfield chooses 12 infamous aeroplanes that have perfected despot delivery.

When the Italian government had Mussolini arrested in 1943, the Germans mounted a daring raid to rescue him. He was successfully extracted by Fieseler Fi 156 Storch, but this was not his aircraft of choice.

12. Fokker F28 Fellowship Kalayaan (Republic of the Philippines)

Autocrat or not, the leader of an archipelago nation has good reason to fly.  Hence, the Philippine people find themselves supporting the 250th Presidential Airlift Wing.  That unit operated a Fokker F28-3000 Fellowship for state executive purposes starting in the stupidly decadent days of the Marcos family.  The Fellowship was replaced only last year with a brand-new Gulfstream G280.  This new aircraft lends a much slicker, up-to-the-minute corporate look to the law-and-order strongman presiding over a nation where vast economic inequalities are entrenched in daily life.

Non-political technical point: F28s feature a split tail cone air brake like that on a Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft.

11. Hawker-Siddeley HS-121 Trident
People’s Republic of China

Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou-en-lai shared a British-built Trident airliner.  The Trident supplemented, and then replaced, an Ilyushin Il-18 Coot.  Zhou-en-lai was the first Premier of China and served as Mao Zedong’s right hand.  They were among the post-war world’s longest serving leaders, lasting from 1949 until the days of the Sex Pistols.  Considering the poverty and turmoil of China in these years the idea of leaders looking down at the put-upon masses from a private jet strikes one now as something Communism would have eradicated.  Or at least limited to really, really special occasions.  Oh well, plus ca change.  Though to be fair, the Trident was used as a domestic aircraft by the state owned airline CAAC who had a fleet of about 35. Having a British-made VVIP plane wasn’t entirely about looking down on the masses as China is a big country and the leadership needed to get around, but the optics were still far from perfect.

Once a common sight flying between the UK and western and southern Europe none remain in service anywhere.  China’s VIP transport example bounced around for a time after retiring.  Last word, the tired Trident was being dragged off from the shopping mall where it had been on display.  It was increasingly found to just be in the way of people parking their BMWs.  China’s all-business political elites now have access to Boeing 747s.

Non-political technical point: the Trident began life as a de Havilland design referred to as the DH.121 

10. Airbus A319 (Bolivarian State of Venezuela)

Does oil and gas wealth ever bring a country happiness? Ignoring the Black Swan of Norway, consider Venezuela.  In 2002 twelve protesters are gunned down by security forces loyal to President Hugo Chavez.  Days later, he takes delivery of an Airbus.  Apparently he’d seen one owned by an Emirati Sheik at some international conference.  One phone call and US$65 million later he has a replacement for the ageing Boeing 737 he’d been putting up with.  This and the massacre of his own citizens became twinned unforgivable moments for the majority of Venezuelans.  Many of whom live in utter poverty despite the country’s huge fossil fuel reserves.  The military then remove Senor Chavez from power.  Two days later he’s back in office.  He keeps the Airbus and some other privileges until his death from cancer in 2013.  George Orwell weeps.  So do a few others.

Non-political technical point: the A319/A320 program was a pioneer of commercial fly-by-wire and side stick control systems.

9. Airbus A340 (State of Libya)

Moammar Gadaffi typifies the classical career path of dozens of post-1945 liberationist revolutionaries who morphed into police-state despots.  While seemingly an eccentric individual he ruled the masses with the an unimaginative mix of bribery and deep brutality.  He relied on a privileged clique of family and close confidants to maintain power for forty-one years.  None of this nonsense ever ends well.  To wit, his last official plane has been rotting at an airport in southern France for years now.  Another thriftless monument to dictatorship in a world littered with them.  His choice of such a full on machine capable of transoceanic journeys seems a little off, too.  This guy was welcome in fewer and fewer places worth visiting until his death at the hands of angry rivals in 2011.  Grey leather sofas, a luxury suite with shower and a flat-screen TV should have made this jetliner a quick sell but post-coup legalities have complicated its disposal.

Non-political technical point: the A340 was the world’s longest airliner until the Boeing 747-8 appeared.     

8. Ilyushin Il-62 Classic Chammae-1
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

It’s unclear what level of interior customization Chairman Kim Jong-Un’s official aircraft has been given.  A safe bet is something superior to what you experienced on your last flight.  Kim Jong-Un’s father used this handsome plane, one of only three designs ever configured with four engines mounted in twin nacelles under a T-tail.  It seems everything in North Korea is subsumed into a military- and prison-industrial complex of the harshest kind.  So, planning for a new airplane for the dictator of North Korea is probably the least excessive thing on the go there at the moment.  North Korea is a hefty importer of cognac, luxury cars and pianos.  This suggests an epic hypocrisy by the elites behind an old school Stalinist facade.  Until a Prague Spring arrives in Pyongyang we won’t know the truth around this aircraft, it’s VIP passengers or the country employing it.  What an unfortunate use for a wonderful plane.  Bigger and faster than a Vickers VC-10 the Il-62 continues to impress. 

Non-political technical point: the Il-62’s first Aeroflot passenger run was in 1967 with a non-stop trip from Moscow to Montreal.

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7. Boeing 707
Socialist Republic of Romania

A dictator’s aircraft you could actually go online and buy this year!  You’d have had to outbid a private aerial refuelling contractor to get it.  In storage for years, this 707 was bought by Omega Air and converted to approximate a Boeing KC-135 aerial refuelling tanker.  The opportunity for this was, ahem, dictated by the underperformance of USAF programmes intended to replace their fast-ageing KC-135s.  Where to start with the ironies?  A long-time Marxist leader travelling about in a symbol of western privilege and consumerism from the heyday of mid-century air travel?  Now it’s a privately-owned gas truck for the Pentagon in its so-called ‘Forever Wars’.  As Ceausescu’s nepotistic regime became unpopular he imposed a ferocious austerity with a cruel rationing of daily essentials for the masses.  His cult of personality falters and collapses.  His own country is left an economic cripple and international pariah.  Even Moscow starts to find Ceausescu repellent and before long a coup sweeps him from power and into the next world with a bullet.  Unlike the Shah of Iran, Ceausescu, and his equally detested wife, were not able to flee in their luxury, long range airliner with a custom interior said to be equal to America’s Air Force One.   

Non-political technical point: the tube protruding forward from the top of the 707’s vertical tail is an HF radio antenna.      

6. Boeing 747
Imperial State of Iran

From 1953 until 1978 Iran was perhaps America’s single most important client state.  Washington took its management of the oil-rich, strategically-placed nation with extreme seriousness.  Braced by US patronage and unchecked police brutality, Shah Reza Pahlavi ruled Iran for a quarter century. 

Oil and gas export revenue let Iran spend lavishly on infrastructure and imported food and weapons from the west.  In such a reality a wide-bodied, twin-aisle, two-deck passenger jet would have seemed like a natural platform for conversion into a super-luxury air yacht for the Shah.

By 1978, he had done so much harm he managed to trigger an unstoppable Muslim fundamentalist counter attack.  The collapse of US-Iranian relations sent shock waves through the Middle East.  Indeed the world felt them and continues to watch the Persian Gulf with a weary geopolitical eye.  How bad had it all gone by 1978?  Well, the man who modelled his governance on the great Persian emperors had to flee for his life in that personal Jumbo Jet.  The one with gold toilet fittings.    

Non-political technical point:  maximum takeoff weight for -200 and -300 series 747s is equal to about 378 Jaguar E-type FHC sports cars.     

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5. Ilyushin Il-96-300PU
Russian Federation
Oil and gas revenue mixing with nationalist oligarchy results in some interesting privileges for the ones in charge.  Post-Communist Russia is no exception.  Rappers, Saudi Princes, upper echelon athletes, tech billionaires, hedge fund managers and even Donald Trump may have something to envy in Vladimir Putin’s executive airplane.  With its sheer size, long range and very shiny interiors this aircraft embodies concentrated political and economic power in the age of a fractious global economy gone hog wild.  Where a western lottery winner or mid-level celebrity gets an Embraer EMB-500 Phenom Vlad gets a flying five-star-plus hotel and command post.  Naturally enough, the top dog in a nuclear-armed country physically larger than all others should have a hot, thoroughly modern aircraft at his disposal.  This is absolutely what that looks like.  Mr. Putin was elected, yes, but Russia’s recent backsliding on democracy and the fact he embodies the deeply historical Russian preference for ultra-strong leaders earns this ex-KGB officer and his ride a place on our list. 

Non-political technical point: the long dorsal fairing on the 300PU model is not found on the commercial versions of the Il-96 and suggests an allocation of communications and protective electronic warfare systems deemed appropriate to Mr. Putin.

4. Mil Mi-8 Hip EW-001DA
Republic of Belarus


And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!  So goes the nursery rhyme in 1984, George Orwell’s chilling novel of totalitarian life.  Official news clips from Belarus this summer show us that novel will probably never be irrelevant.  In them, we see President Victor Lukashenko flying back to Minsk in a Mil Mi-8, AKS-74U at his knee.  Clad in a tactical vest we see the unsmiling leader of a nation in turmoil barking orders into a phone.  He surveys a highway jammed with protestors he has earlier that day referred to as vermin.  On the ground to oversee forceful countermeasures to a sustained democracy movement, Lukashenko stops to hail a squad of black-clad riot police.  Having rigged his country’s last election to appear to have given him an 80% majority the autocratic and corrupt Lukashenko must now cope with a massive populist backlash.  Delivering Eastern Europe’s equivalent of Tony Montana that day in August was an absolute classic of Soviet era helicopter development, a Mil Mi-8.  The one-time workhorse of the Warsaw Pact is a wonderful platform and in the case of Belarus case probably highly effective in all the wrong jobs.

Non-political technical point: the ‘Hip’ series made its first flight in 1961 and is still in production making it the most-produced helicopter in history.

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3. Dassault Aviation Falcon 900
Syrian Arab Republic

The brutal news from Syria’s civil war, amplified at every turn by foreign intervention, makes the presence of any luxury jet a bit of a mind-bender.  And what a toy for the man residing over such a heartbreaking mess, Bashar al-Assad.  At the factory gate in France a Falcon 900 is worth over US$40 million.  Adding a luxury master suite with full bathroom and then communications and security gear for someone with a serious penchant for control and this aircraft comes to symbolise high privilege wrapped in a cloak of evil.  Fast moving and capable of unrefuelled trips of many thousands of kilometres the Falcon is perfect for the diplomatic pouch and other high-level errands. Fleeing from disaster should also be easy in a Falcon.  As long as you had a place to go and could trust the crew and your security detail, that is.  Soon enough, neither may be a reasonable expectation for Mr. Assad.

Non-political technical point: the 900 series Falcons feed air to the centre engine via an S-duct like the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar did.   

2. Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor Immelman I
Third Reich

Hitler didn’t like flying.  As an aspiring European land emperor he would have been fine with luxurious working trips on a well-protected private train.  Before his ascension to power, Hitler overcame his fear to tap the time-saving economics of flying to rallies and appointments.  Nazi propaganda made strong use of imagery of Hitler rushing about the country in planes or coming down from the clouds to Nuremberg.  His rich sponsors supported his air travel at first.  Then official aircraft were available after 1933.  The Junkers Ju-52/3m, sensible and rugged with its corrugated metal skin and three engines, was just right for the hectic early days.  Later, the speed and altitude performance of a four-engined aircraft was recommended by his personal pilot, an SS officer named Hans Bauer.  Remembered for an early period of success in the Battle of the Atlantic, the elegant Condor was a natural choice of transport for Hitler.  Bauer was an important part of a retinue that catered to the führer. He carried the registration numbers two-six-zero-zero over to the Condor in deference to Hitler’s superstitiousness, for example.  He also saw to the aircraft’s meticulous inspections including Hitler’s comfy chair which had an armoured back plate half an inch thick.  Extreme secrecy and a flight of single-engine fighters usually saw to the Condor’s protection.

Non-political technical point: in 1938 a Condor prototype was the first aeroplane to fly from Berlin to New York City non-stop and did so fitted with two-bladed propellers. It was fitted with a fuselage full of temporary fuel tanks so wasn’t a standard flight. With passengers and baggage a more normal range would be Berlin to Athens, which was still quite good for the era.

1. Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 81 Pipistrello Tataruga
Fascist Italy

Of all the murderous idiots upending the world in the last century Mussolini is perhaps the one who most embodies the inextricable relationship between Fascism and aviation.  As a young journalist he was thrilled by the speed and dynamism of this new, new thing.  The conquest of the air meant a radical new world.  In power after 1922 Mussolini invested heavily in Italy’s civil and military aviation. 

Il Duce, thanks to Allied wartime propaganda, is remembered as a nasty clown with a case of Hitler envy.  He was a qualified pilot in his younger days, however.  Later, Mussolini’s personal enthusiasm for aviation informed his choice of executive aircraft.  For flights from Rome to Italy’s regions or countries neighbouring his own the Pipistrello was perfect.  A militarised version of an airliner of moderate performance it was given a special white paint job, too.  Mussolini’s Pipistrello was camouflage painted as the war ground on and notably it managed to survive Italy’s defeat.  

In service until the 1950s, the Pipistrello had an easier fate than its most privileged passenger.  When he was deposed and waiting for his execution by Communist partisans Mussolini must have looked back on his Pipistrello and so many life moments in the air with  fondness, even gratitude.  The hour he spent at the controls of Hitler’s Kondor perhaps cheered Il Duce a little before he was shot then hung up and mutilated in public.  Hitler had invited his ally to tour their diabolical handiwork in Russia and Ukraine.  On the way back, Mussolini asked to fly the big Condor.  Intra-dictator etiquette being what it was nobody could refuse.  Accounts of the flight record an increase in cabin tension as Mussolini  adjusted his seat straps and took the controls.  Hans Bauer remained in the cockpit as co-pilot.  Mussolini flew steadily westward asking Bauer to work the throttles as the Itailan dictator gently completed a half dozen wide banking turns because he could.  How many perished in the greatest war in human history during that single hour of airborne indulgence?              

Non-political technical point: the Pipistrello entered service before the S.M. 79 Sparviero the much more powerful bomber/torpedo bomber it closely resembles.

(Dishonourable mention: Erich Honecker’s An-26)

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5 aeroplanes you haven’t heard of

Here are some brilliant machines we’ve been thinking about for a while and not known what to do with.

XC-120 Packplane

The Fairchild XC-120 Packplane was an experimental transport aircraft developed from the company’s C-119 Flying Boxcar. It was unique (for a fixed wing design) in the unconventional use of removable cargo pods that were attached below the fuselage, in place of a fixed internal cargo compartment.

Its greatest cultural legacy was as the inspiration for Thunderbird 2, a fictional aeroplane from a British children’s TV show.

Budd RB Conestoga

The Conestoga was the tragic answer to the eternal-man-in-the-bar question “Why don’t they build planes from the stuff they built black boxes from?” Well they did. Worried about a limited supply of aluminium, bus manufacturer Budd came forward with a wealth of largely irrelevant experience. The Conestoga was a tough as hell wartime transport built largely from steel. Its strength proved an asset, as the type was very prone to crashing. It was said that you wait half an hour for one Conestoga crash and then three crash at once.

Cunliffe-Owen Concordia

Built at Southampton Airport, where our regular contributor (and Maule pilot) Dorian Crook learned to fly, the Concordia was a feederliner designed by the brother of Paddy Garrow-Fisher (holder of the London-Calcutta car speed record). The Cunliffe-Owen factory later went on to be the home of the Ford Transit. It’s rumoured that a dusty prototype Concordia was scrawled with the legend “I wish my wife was as dirty as this unlucky feederliner”.

Helio Courier -Super STOL utility machine, psy-ops propaganda-monger and Air America workhorse. A cloak & dagger-man’s Beaver, if you will. The Courier did a bunch of deeply spooky stuff during the misery-fest of America’s South East asian wars. See its more COIN sibling here.

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Jurca MJ54 Silas

What could be more lovely than touring remote regions in a small car-carrying aeroplane? Once at your destination you may drive around and explore surrounding area before sleeping in the cosy fuselage of your aeroplane. The type could have been adapted as an air ambulance, parachutist carrier or transport for a physically disabled pilot but despite winning French invention of the year, it was not to be.

Hurel-Dubois HD.34

Note the importance of a double-barrelled name in the manufacturer, be it English or French.

The HD34 is a perfect example of the French going it alone*, in this case to an absurd degree considering the aircraft’s very limited role of aerial mapping. Whereas less proud nations might have procured a clapped-out airliner and drill holes in the floor (the more conscientious might even attach a camera), the French followed the HD series 31 and 32, with 34. It shared the high aspect ratio wing concept of the earlier types, as favoured by designer Maurice Hurel and was powered by two Wright Cyclone radial engines. Its sole operator was the French National Geographic Institute (Institut Geographique National).

–– Joe Coles & Dorian Crook

Flying & fighting in the Gloster Javelin: Hot & humid in the ‘Flying Flat-iron’ – an interview with an RAF Javelin pilot

The Gloster Javelin was the world’s first twin-jet delta-wing fighter. It was the Royal Air Force’s best interceptor of the 1950s, and was almost brilliant. It did what it was asked to do. It was a large heavily armed (albeit subsonic), day-night all-weather fighter. Unfortunately, the opposition moved the goals by developing air-launched stand-off missiles, requiring the sort of high-speed interceptor performance that simply could not be delivered by the Javelin. We spoke to former Javelin pilot Peter Day to find out if it deserved its bad reputation.

“I joined the RAF Javelin ‘Force’ via an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) in 1965 as a very young pilot with 248 all jet flying hours, as was the habit in those days, and arrived on the frontline in 1966 with an additional 60 hours divided between Javelin T Mk 3 and FAW Mk 9. These recollections are from a frenetic first tour based in Singapore but with frequent detachments to Butterworth in Malaysia, Borneo and ultimately Hong Kong. The role was effectively ‘Colonial Policing’ in the Tropics which as I rapidly discovered was a million miles (5880 nautical miles actually) away from night/all-weather high level air defence as taught on the OCU. I had to immediately get to grips with ISA +15 operations* in 80% humidity at low level over jungle and sea, with the occasional medium level dissimilar combat flight or transit to outstations, not to mention the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Conversion Zone) which conspired to provide dense cloud, rain and lighting at the most inconvenient moments. Quite a first tour education. I eventually flew 565 hours on three Javelin variants.”

“With due regard to Top Gun who probably learnt it from the Javelin, the use of airbrakes to embarrass an opponent in close combat, force a fly through or past or at least negate a guns solution was a well know party trick.”

*15 degrees warmer than International Standard Atmosphere for a given altitude

60 Sqn over the Malacca Straits with the legendary ‘fish traps’ in the background. The fish traps look like the stars at night, which is very disorienting and cluttered the radar.

Which units were you with on the Javelin and when? 

“No 228 OCU RAF Leuchars Dec 1965 – Apr 1966. No 60 Squadron RAF Tengah Apr 1966 – May 1968.”

How would you describe the Javelin in 3 words? 

“Stable, controllable, effective.”

What was the best thing about it?

Peter Day today, standing next to a Folland Gnat.

“Relative simplicity, if it started it would fly and the systems were robust and would usually work, mostly due to the considerable efforts of the groundcrew.”

And the worst?

“1950s design e.g. Sapphire engine, a quaint starting system of electrically fired cartridge initiated AVPIN, Wellington ‘bomb slips’ as undercarriage uplocks, the relative inaccessibility of most aircraft components – Gloster must have had shares in the panel screw makers. Finally there were flight envelope peculiarities due to the ‘delta’ configuration.”

“A complete box of Tiger Beer would fit into each gun magazine and be perfectly cooled after flight”

 The Javelin has a bad reputation, is this deserved? 

“It was routinely developed in line with contemporary knowledge, modified and updated by Mark in service to compete with ‘Warsaw Pact’ aircraft development, but as a 1950s night/all-weather bomber destroyer it was very effective. If pilot’s took liberties with the flight envelope, which in fairness was not very well described, bad things would happen e.g. at very low speed the elevator artificial feel system would command nose-down pitch, reminiscent of a recent Boeing ‘safety’ device, which was unhelpful in vertical manoeuvring demanding a large increase in pilot stick input to overcome which lead to looping being banned for all the wrong reasons. The ‘rolling ‘g’ limit’ was eventually discovered to be +2g at full aileron deflection.”

How would you rate the weapons effectiveness?

“The four Aden cannon cross-harmonised for tail intercept were very effective indeed and provided a great surprise fired air-into-air at high level during the OCU course accompanied by gun clatter, cordite smell and a flame enveloped upper wing. Air-to air gunnery on the flag was very hit and miss as the ‘cold war’ gun harmonisation did you no favours with a calculated ‘in-range’ bracket of 10yds, one hit was a triumph. The air-to-ground ‘sniping’ carried out towards the end of it’s career was usually very enthusiastic and very inaccurate. 

The de Havilland Firestreak fitted from 1959 was an infra-red target seeker with an effective range of about 3km in a 30º tail cone in Northern Europe. In warmer climes the seeker head would follow anything but the desired target, sun, water reflection, moon on occasions but luckily the 4.5inch parachute flare which was the firing target for missile practice launches. My allocated Firestreak worked as advertised and the flare dropping Canberra crew didn’t get too excited but it did cost beer. 

How would you rate the radar’s effectiveness?

The airborne radar AI17 was basic having developed from wartime radar technology. B/C scopes (range+azimuth, range+elevation) without PPI so relatively poor situational awareness unless very experienced. Intercepts without Ground Control were not in any way guaranteed and reliance on scan with some height/range clues made for a lot of ‘seat of the pants’ intercept geometry. “A peep is worth several sweeps” came into play a lot. Fighter lane operations were planned in the UK in the event of total GCI outage.

 Operation at low level with ground clutter and high temperature/humidity rendered it a very fine art form indeed. Interestingly there was the capability to reproduce the ‘locked-on’ blip on the pilot’s collimator gunsight with an added horizon reference for close quarters identification operations. However, this could be inaccurate, misinterpreted and lead to some very unusual aircraft attitudes at very low level. Definitely used with enormous caution, mostly verbal from the back seat.”

What is the biggest myth/misunderstanding about the Javelin? 

“It couldn’t turn. Thrust/weight ratio was 0.79 with a relatively low wing loading of 34 lb/sq ft (170 kg/m2) so with 4+g available it could corner high or low but at altitude it was very effective with reheat engaged.”

Was it well made? 

“The airframe was pretty impervious – ‘boiler plate’ weighing 14 tonnes unfuelled. Some individual electrical components e.g. fuel contents sensors, radio aids and radar were frequently in need of attention due to poor waterproofing.”

Hunter versus Javelin: which cockpit would you choose to be in if they faced each other in a dogfight and why? 

“Assuming my Hunter had the ‘shiny switches mod’ and it was a clear air mass then turning performance should win the day. There is some HOTAS in my Javelin and two-person cockpit helps with radar ranging and missile lock but I would have to see first and sneak round to 6 o’clock, so night or weather (NAW) preferred. Hunter for day, Javelin for NAW.”


“Very moderate at low level as relatively low power, low ‘g’ could not take advantage of the low wing loading. At altitude increased power and sufficient ‘g’ would produce quite a good turn but speed would be sacrificed.”


“Quite respectable at low level as the factors combine to produce quite a small radius, likewise at altitude.”


“Low level the engines will fly the airframe beyond the speed limit quite quickly which incidentally roughly coincides with maximum available tailplane angle so level flight cannot be maintained. At altitude using reheat acceleration from .7M to .93M is seconds not minutes, but drag e.g. underwing tanks or missiles are a considerable disadvantage low or high.”


“High level pretty good, low level very good but thirsty.”


“5400fpm S/L ISA”


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“As a 1954 era night/all weather bomber destroyer very good. In the  colonial policing role it is difficult to answer as you’d have to interview the insurgents. But it certainly had loiter time and a heavy guns capability albeit inaccurate.

Quite what we were hoping to achieve with the aircraft in Hong Kong during the communist riots escapes me, but it was probably a statement of intent rather than a show of force against a particular threat.”


“It had a large cockpit with everything to hand and easy to operate EXCEPT the TMk3 emergency undercarriage release handle on the right sidewall behind your elbow. Considerable contortions were required to select down as happened one night on the OCU course much to the amusement of my ‘new’ navigator partner in the rear seat. The FAW Mk9 had no such secondary system hence the occasional asymmetric gear landing.”

What was your most notable mission? 

“At the risk of overindulgence – two. Well they won’t be as notable as Mandy weeing into a bottle over the desert.

Staging from Tengah, Singapore to Kai Tak, Hong Kong via Labuan, Malaysia and Clark Field, Manila with a point of no return over the South China Sea on the last leg.

The Hong Kong trip was notable in that it had a nightstop on Labuan Island, a nightstop at Clark Field, Manila and then just over an hour and a half to Kai Tak, Hong Kong with no credible destination alternate other than the other side or end of the main runway and ‘mind the airliners’. The only available ‘crash’ diversion if Kai Tak became unusable was Sek Kong airfield in the New Territories which was a disused WWII airfield with no aids in a bowl in the hills used for Gurkha field regiment driver training. It therefore became a ‘point of no return’ operation from Clark to Kai Tak and once you descended you were going to Hong Kong, no weather alternate and no sensible ‘crash diversion’. During the subsequent week long detachment ‘flag waving’ no-notice practice diversions and low approaches were flown through the hills and over Sek Kong much to the chagrin of the driving instructors and alleged discomfiture of the driver trainees who could be seen taking avoiding action in all directions although I couldn’t possibly comment. Reports were received!

Leading a Diamond 9 formation as a junior pilot ‘lucky winner’.  

The Diamond 9 is a personal thing only and frankly not reportable as it was absolutely routine as a last flight of the month event and the lucky junior pilot got to lead.”

How combat effective do you think it would have been?   

“Very against Soviet era medium bombers at all altitudes Bison, Badger, Bear and Brewer where tail quarter missile attacks or ‘vis-ident’ to line astern guns were high probability kill options. More so in poor weather or at night when bomber awareness would be reduced.

In the Colonial Policing role it was fairly effective, the FAW 9(R) with 4 tanks had good range, heavy firepower and the afterburners lit with an audible bang which anecdotally frightened the dissidents.”

How did it compare with its Russian and American counterparts? 

A Gloster Javelin FAW.9R of No 23 Squadron banks away from the camera showing the missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. IWM (RAF-T 2151)

“The USA was embarking on a whirlwind development of the Century series clear airmass day interceptors to replace the F-86 Sabre; the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief, F-106 Delta Dart and eventually the F-4 Phantom. The direct competition in age and role were the  Northrop F-89 Scorpion 1950 (2 crew, 2 engines, good radar, 6 cannon, A/A rockets and basic IR missiles) and F-101B Voodoo 1957 (2 crew, 2 engine, radar and data link GCI, 4 missiles).

The Scorpion was ‘clunky’, a very basic all-weather fighter with less performance than the Javelin but very similar radar and early IR missile performance. 

The Voodoo was the 2 crew derivative of the F101 ‘one-oh-wonder’ interceptor and had supersonic performance, slightly improved missiles but only fire-control radar relying on data-link for direct control of the aircraft during interception. Not a firm aircrew favourite.

The Soviet (Russian) air order of battle included MiG 17 Fresco, MiG 19 Farmer , MiG 21 Fishbed and Sukhoi Su-9 Fishpot . All relied on GCI and were clear air mass interceptors with GCI assistance. Direct competition was the Yakolev Yak-25 Flashlight ’A’ 1955 (2 crew, 2 engines, good radar, twin cannons, A/A rockets), Yakolev Yak-28P Firebar 1964 (2 crew, 2 engines, 2xAA-3 Anab missiles, one semi-active radar, one IR).

The NATO codename ‘Flashlight’ featured wing installed engines and a fairly aerodynamically efficient fuselage with room for a powerful radar and lots of fuel. On introduction to service only unguided A/A rockets and twin cannon were available, missile technology never caught up with the aircraft and it remained undeveloped. Similar speed as the Javelin but much lower ceiling. 

The ‘Firebar’ was faster and could climb higher than the Javelin with longer endurance. It carried an improved radar over ‘Flashlight’ and a choice of missile guidance but only 2 and no guns.”

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What equipment would you have liked to have seen added to the Javelin? 

“If the fuel control system could have been modified and fuel flow rates improved to allow for efficient reheat at low level the Javelin would have been quite a handful, but there was no identified fighter threat other than the Indonesian “Mad Major” in his Mustang at Medan staging a trophy raid. The usual plea from the back seat for a PPI radar or any range improvement would have had a significant effect.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the Javelin.

“FAW Mk 9(R) carried up to four underwing tanks on cranked pylons to avoid the main undercarriage doors, and a scaffolding pole bolted to the fuselage next to the cockpit canopy as a probe, extending some 5ft beyond the radar nose introducing ‘the sport of kings’ air-to-air refuelling or at least a new jousting  format.

A complete box of Tiger Beer would fit into each gun magazine and be perfectly cooled after flight.”

Did the aircraft have a nickname? 

“The flying flatiron.”

What was it designed to intercept / fight against?

“Soviet medium/heavy strategic bombers 1955-65.”

What was the operational concept?

“Parallel displaced, crossing or overtaking radar or visual interception to stern attack for either vis-ident followed by guns or a heat-seeking missile launch.”

Could it intercept a Victor, or Vulcan, or Canberra PR9 at max altitude?


How long did the gas last in afterburner?

“Not a simple answer but at low level a matter of a few  minutes. The Javelin had a 12% augmented reheat not afterburner so an unusual fuelling and control design.  It was On/Off, no modulation and had first usage of the FCU fuel available from the HP pumps reducing the feed to the hot core reducing engine rpm. Although 20,000ft and above was the design usage altitude, cross over was about 8000ft depending on entropy and below that it was a ‘local scaring’ fuel dumping device. Real performance improvement was achieved above 20,000ft but loss of RPM at low level could be 15%.”

How good / bad / reliable, etc was the radar?

“The AI17 was a development of the wartime MkIXC and as mentioned above was moderately low power, low definition and a less than desirable mix of presentations. It’s  performance was very yes it’s on or no it’s broken and temperature/humidity had much to do with that. If it switched on, at low level looking up and at medium and high level it was 20nm+ scan on a similar target but lock was unpredictable affecting missile usage, and level or look down at low level was non existent.”

What was it like to fly? Any major operational restrictions?

“It was very pleasant to fly with no heavy stick forces at all but as we eventually discovered it had a very low rolling ‘g’ limit with full aileron defection limited to +2g. This limit either was not included or was so well hidden in the Release to Service that no thought was given to that aspect of the performance envelope. Although night/all weather operations might not have required dynamic manoeuvring, Colonial Policing required more flexibility and it cost an airframe and lives.”

Anything it could do that would surprise an opponent?

“Specifically fitted for use during radar interceptions the ‘barn door’ airbrakes were designed to stop you immediately from your sensible overtake speed into a ‘visual’ position behind a hostile. With due regard to Top Gun who probably learnt it from the Javelin, the use of airbrakes to embarrass an opponent in close combat, force a fly through or past or at least negate a guns solution was a well know party trick. However it did leave you perilously short of energy but 4 Adens went a long way towards rectifying that disadvantage.”

It had an unhappy development history – any problem with stalling behaviour in service?

“No-one in their right mind would deliberately stall a Javelin. There were suitable warning systems in place and the elevator artificial feel system was designed to introduce nose-down pitch at very low speed assuming you had slowed beyond the light aerodynamic warning given by the vanes on the wing top surface. Incidentally these vanes were a serious threat to health on cockpit evacuation if you chose or were forced by water/fuel/ice to slide down the wing towards the tip on your rear. Immersion suits and other things were egg sliced during this manoeuvre.”

Was it reliable? Did it have maintenance bug-bears?

“Although the ground crew liked the aircraft in general there were individual system issues and many were very difficult to access for rectification. If there was an engine starting issue, particularly with the Mk9 and (R) electrically fired cartridge initiated AVPIN, things got out of hand very quickly and rapid evacuations were required upwind. The TMk3 relied on a large gas generating cartridge screwed into the starter motor and fired electrically, simple and effective but very heavy and tricky to change.

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Sapphire engine ‘centreline closure’ (CC) was a ‘thing’ and after several unexplained aircraft losses the problem was identified in 1962 as the compressor casing cooling faster than the drum when in cloud causing the fixed stator shrouds and blades to foul the rotating shrouds catastrophically. The problem had been present since the introduction of the more powerful engine but operations in the Tropics in the ITCZ with Cb penetration increased the severity and incidence. The “Rockide” abrasive compound solution caused the rotating blade tips to be ground down on the coated casing, coarse but effective.

This issue was to cause me, not to mention my ‘first tour’ navigator, several tense minutes during a post CC engine change flight test when half way through the schedule on the ‘new’ engine the existing engine exhibited CC symptoms and failed followed by our expeditious return to Butterworth single engine and retire to the bar.

Added to this, scheduled engine strip-down had discovered harmonic vibration fatigue and operation below 10,000ft other than for take-off or landing was banned in 1965. This was quite quickly rescinded but the the rpm band 86-92% was embargoed so low level operations were conducted one engine up, one engine back.

It was old, fairly fatigued due to enthusiastic low level operation and prone to water ingress issues from standing outside in monsoons. But unless it caught fire or exploded it flew very precisely if sedately and had a small bag of tricks for the unwary opponent.”

Was the Gloster Javelin Actually Terrible?

This FAW 9(R) is over Borneo escorting a Hastings airdrop.

By Jim Smith

What a fabulous, futuristic-looking aircraft was the Javelin. Flown for the first time on November 26 1951, the Javelin was described (admittedly in 1955) as ‘Structurally and aerodynamically, the Javelin night and all-weather interceptor fighter is perhaps the most impressive aircraft yet produced to fulfil this role’. While today one might regard this as a bit of an over-statement, there’s no denying that the Javelin is an impressive looking aircraft.

It is important to recognise that its contemporaries in this field in US service were the F-89 Scorpion, the F-94C Starfire, the F2H Banshee and the F3D Skyknight, all of which would have been easily out-performed by the Javelin. The three US aircraft were to be replaced in service by the F-101D Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-106 Delta Dart and the F-4 Phantom, all much more capable aircraft. Meanwhile, the UK went down a different path leading to the Lightning point-defence interceptor, the F-4K Phantom, and the Tornado F3.

Context and Requirements

When assessing an aircraft, it is important to consider the requirements which drove the design, and consider how they affected the choices made in developing the aircraft. The Javelin was brought into service in an environment where there was intense competition between the US and its Allies, and Russia. The tension had been ramped up by the Russian blockade of Berlin, leading to the Berlin Air Lift, and it was clear that a new Cold War had replaced the conflict of the Second World War. The Korean War had started during the development of the aircraft, and had shown the capabilities of both Soviet and American combat aircraft.

In addition, aircraft and weapons technology was advancing at a furious pace, driven by this contest between Nations and ideologies, and by the opportunities presented by the availability of jet engine technology, allied with (largely) German aerodynamic knowledge. Furthermore, the lead in atomic weapons established by the explosion of the Trinity device on July 16, 1945, was rapidly evaporating, with Soviet  development of the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb following much more closely than expected.

The first Soviet Atomic bomb test had taken place in August 1949, followed by a Thermo-nuclear device in August 1957. With the rapid pace of aeronautical development, it was clear to Defence planners that air defence would soon be required capable of deterring and defeating jet bombers able to carry atomic weapons, and that in the event of an attack, interception of the bombers would need to be achieved before they could reach the UK to drop their weapons.

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Moreover, this new capability would be required at night, and in all weathers, meaning that the air defence aircraft would have to carry radar to allow interceptions to be carried out at night, and in poor visibility. This was not going to be possible in the single-seat fighter aircraft being developed in parallel, the Hunter and the Swift, and a specialised all-weather and night fighter was needed. This was to be the Javelin.

The aircraft was developed in response to specification F4/48, which called for a two-seat, twin-engine all-weather interceptor fighter, that would counter enemy aircraft at heights of up to at least 40,000 feet. It would also have to reach a maximum speed of at least 525 knots at this height, and be able to reach an altitude of 45,000 feet within ten minutes of engine ignition.

Additional requirements included a minimum flight endurance of two hours, a take-off distance of no more than 4500 ft, and the equipment of the aircraft with airborne interception radar, and communication and navigational aids.

The threat that the aircraft was expected to counter would have been nuclear armed jet bombers, with broadly the performance of the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan, which were being developed for RAF service. In practice, the Tupolev Tu-16 ‘Badger’ and Tu-20 ‘Bear’ would have been the main targets of interest. To counter these aircraft, the Javelin was initially armed with 4 30 mm Aden cannon, and later 2 cannon and 4 Firestreak air-to-air guided missiles.

Given the payload, performance and endurance requirements, the Javelin was always going to be a large aircraft. The delta wing configuration was selected to provide a big wing area to meet altitude performance requirements, and significant internal volume to meet endurance requirements. The trade-off here was that the relatively thick wing of the Javelin limited it to subsonic speeds – but that was OK because it was designed to combat a subsonic threat.

The choice of a tailed-delta configuration is of particular interest, and was driven by the requirement to operate off a relatively short 4500 ft runway. To take-off and land the relatively heavy aircraft, which had a loaded weight of up to 19.9 tonne, off such a runway would require some form of high lift system, something that is not normally possible on a pure delta, because of the difficulty of trimming the aircraft once flaps are deployed. The T-tail provided the necessary control authority to trim the aircraft with flaps deployed, and the flaps gave an added benefit for night operations, in avoiding the high angle-of-attack and poor forward visibility on the approach of a pure delta configuration. The relatively thick wing section not only allowed good internal volume for fuel, but would, with the flap system, have allowed a slower approach speed for landing.

The demanding requirement for endurance, heavy armament, two crew, and a large radar drove the size and weight of the design. When combined with equally demanding take-off and landing requirements, the tailed delta became a successful solution, with airbrakes and flaps minimising the approach speed, and improving forward visibility.


Development of the aircraft was a little problematic. The first issue to come to light was the loss of a prototype due to elevator flutter, both elevators being lost in flight, and the aircraft recovered with superb airmanship, using tail trim and engine throttle to  control the aircraft down to a forced landing. Eventually, the aircraft was fitted with an all-moving tailplane to resolve this issue. A second aircraft was lost due to a deep stall accident, and further aircraft were lost after failing to recover from spins. These accidents resulted in aerodynamic modifications, including the fitting of vortex generators to the wing and fitting a stall warning system. In addition, modifications were made to the rear fuselage and engines to cure buffeting of the rudder, and to increase thrust. Two alternative radar systems were also used, the British AI 17 radar, and the American AI 22.

While the development programme is sometimes referred to as protracted, the aircraft transitioned from first flight on 26 November 1951, to entry into service in February ’56, just over 4 years later. Delivery of the final FAW 8/9 variants started in 1957. The FAW 9 was essentially an FAW 7 brought up to a similar standard to the FAW 8. 6 years from first prototype to fully developed capability, with good endurance, and heavy armament really does not seem too bad an achievement.

So far, JSF development has taken 20 years to progress to the delivery of its baseline capability, albeit with a number of outstanding risks and issues. A modernisation program is now underway, albeit (according to the GAO) without a fully defined and costed business case, and FOC has yet to be achieved.

From a slightly later period than the Javelin, it is worth taking a look at the development of the Convair F-102. This was evolved from the less-than-successful XF-92A, which might be seen as a demonstrator aircraft. The first YF-102A flew on 24 October 1953, and the first fully developed aircraft flew in May 1957, in which time the aircraft had acquired a new fuselage, 11 ft longer than the YF-102A, a new canopy, new air intakes, a new larger fin, modified undercarriage and airbrakes, and a new cambered wing. This rather comprehensive development was followed by a modernisation program that added a datalink, changed the fire control system and added an IR tracker.

So, Was the Javelin Actually Terrible?

This sort of question should only be answered in the historical context. Of course, the Javelin’s performance looks pedestrian when you compare it with the Lightning. The P1B first flew in April 1957, and the first Lightning Squadron stood up in July 1960. The early Lightning offered double the speed, but about a quarter of the endurance, and half the armament of the Javelin. It really was a point-defence interceptor.

The Javelin was designed when the threat was essentially subsonic bombers, carrying gravity-drop nuclear weapons. Once the threat had changed to nuclear-armed stand-off weapons, requiring rapid reaction response from either Quick Reaction Alert or standing Combat Air Patrols supported by air-to-air refuelling tankers, the subsonic Javelin became largely irrelevant, at least in terms of the air defence of the UK.

At the time, however, the UK still maintained its interest in air policing the far-flung colonies, particularly those East of Suez or in the Tropics. In these arenas, particularly operating from Tengah, Singapore during Indonesia – Malaysia tensions in the early 60s; in Hong Kong during the Chinese Cultural revolution; and in Zambia during the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence crisis, the Javelin could still play a useful deterrent role.

So, was the Javelin actually terrible? Surprisingly, my answer is no. It did what it said on the packet. Large, heavily armed, with good endurance, and day-night all weather capability, it delivered the specified performance. The real problem was that the unsporting opposition had moved the goalposts. The emerging needs for eye-watering acceleration, climb rate, and dash speed to counter cruise-missile carriers, simply could not be met by the Javelin, with its thick wing.

Relaxation of the short runway requirement, and with the adoption of more powerful engines, a more sophisticated intake system, an area-ruled fuselage, and a thin wing, and the UK might have had a Mirage-like world-beater in the late-fifties. Given the 1957 Duncan Sandys death-blow, leading to an interregnum in manned fighter design, and the fact that the Lightning was already in development, the thin-wing Javelin was a non-starter. The Javelins were withdrawn from operational service in April 1968. A few remained serving the needs of the school of Air Traffic Control at RAF Shawbury for a while, with the very last flying aircraft remaining at Boscombe Down until 1975.

More of Peter Day’s exploits can be found in Gloster Javelin: an operational history by Michael Napier (Pen & Sword Aviation)

(RAF-T 4036)

How good is China’s J-10C fighter? We ask Justin Bronk from the RUSI think-tank

119589_88539_800_auto_jpg.jpg The Chinese J-10 is in service in large, and growing, numbers. The latest version, the J-10C, is a formidable machine. We spoke to Justin Bronk, Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at the RUSI think-tank to find out more.  No nation has more new aircraft programmes than China, and the progress it has made in the twenty years has been spectacular. In the field of fighter aircraft much media attention has been paid to the rather spectacular J-20, a monstrous stealthy combat aircraft comparable in some respects to the US’ F-22, while less has been paid to the J-10. J-10C RCS about 1 square meters, basically can be said to be a quasi stealth fighter.jpg The J-10 entered service in 2006 and since than around 350 have been built, more than the number of French Rafale, or Swedish Gripen and very close to the number of F-35s. With an estimated empty weight of 8850 kg and maximum weight of 19277 kg it is comparable to the F-16, as is its reheated thrust of around 130kN. The latest version, the J-10C, is the most potent – with a modern AESA radar and the ability to carry the PL-15 long range air-to-air missile, a formidable weapon in the same class as Europe’s much lauded Meteor. We asked Justin Bronk how the aircraft would fare against the F-16, the most widely used modern fighter aircraft. 137115186_15238844456601n.jpg “On J-10C in Beyond Visual Range combat; kinematically, it is likely to be somewhere close to a later Block F-16; the original J-10A’s thrust-weight ratio most likely having degraded due to weight growth as more advanced sensors, stores and kit such as HMS have been added.” — the J-10C’s thrust-to-weight, an important measure for how ‘energetic’ the aircraft is, remains decent- above 1.1 -1 in a typical combat configuration. “With a light airframe, relaxed stability, decent (although not stellar) thrust to weight ratio and large canards, the J-10C is very agile in airshow configuration and the option for thrust vectoring only increases this capability at low speeds. However, the light airframe and small size relative to fighters like the J-20, Typhoon or F-15 mean that external stores and fuel tanks will have a more serious impact on both performance and agility than on larger fighters.”

D0ViGLvW0AATKCg.jpgChina has long struggled with aero-engine technology, so how good are the J-10C’s WS10s? “The WS-10 series has suffered from persistent problems with engine life, mean time between failures and throttle-spool response time. Whilst it has improved sufficiently to enter quantity production for later J-10Bs and J-11s, the Russian AL-31FN Series 3 developed for the J-10B is still a superior engine on almost all metrics aside from cost. Chinese military turbofan engines are improving rapidly but are at best only at par with Russian equivalents and are not yet in a position to compete directly with European or American designs.”

The PL-15 missile is something of a bogeyman to US planners, as if fully operational and as good as the Chinese say it condemns AMRAAM-armed legacy platforms to a position of vulnerability. web7-2017-3-j-10c-new-aams.jpg Bronk believes the Pl-15 is not yet fully operational, “The PL-15 is certainly being shown off on carriage flights with a number of different PLAAF types, so being somewhere around what we in the West would term Initial Operating Capability but not near Full Operational Clearance is probably a decent bet. There is a fair bit of concern in the US fighter community about the PL-15; its size and design should allow it to technically outrange the AIM-120 series and a proper active radar seeker head gives a lot more tactical options than older semi-active Russian and Chinese ‘sticks’.” Though mechanically scanned radars are considered a technologically of the past, they remain the most common fighter sensor in the West. The J-10C has an Active Electronically Scanning Array radar, “Finally, its AESA radar should give the J-10C a significant advantage over older Mech-Scan equipped F-16s in the BVR arena; although having a great deal more experience in the technology, American fighter AESA sets are likely to remain superior where fitted especially in terms of advanced low-probability of intercept/detection (LPI/LPD) scanning modes.” In summary, Bronk firmly places the J-10C in Generation 4.5* “All in all, the J-10C is a significant leap into true ‘4.5th Generation’ capability for the PLAAF compared to the earlier variants of this distinctive bird.  *something he defines as including “low-observability to radar; the ability to supercruise (fly at supersonic speed without using afterburners); and extreme manoeuvrability at all speeds.”.
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Phantom pregnancies: F-4 variants that never were

mcdonnell_f-4fvs-06-680x536 Everyone loves the F-4 Phantom, a brutal smoking Cold War monster that polluted the sky in an apocalyptic belch of black sooty thunder. As thrilling as the actual Phantoms that entered service were, there is a tantalising family of F-4s that almost made it into the real world. Several of them were cancelled for being too good and threatening sales of newer aircraft — and one succeeded in its role as a unique test aircraft. Here are some of the Phantoms that never were.  RF-4X Mach 3 Hellraiser  rf-4x_3.jpg In the 1970s, the Israeli air force wanted a reconnaissance aircraft capable of carrying the extremely impressive HIAC-1 camera. The F-4 was considered, but the G-139 pod that contained the sensor was over 22 feet long and weighed over 4000 pounds – and the Phantom did not have the power to carry such a bulky store and remain fast and agile enough to survive in hostile airspace. One solution was to increase the power of the engines with water injection, something that had been done for various successful F-4 record attempts. This combined with new inlets, a new canopy and huge bolt-on water tanks promised a mouth-watering 150% increase in power. This would have allowed a startling top speed of mach 3.2 and a cruising speed of mach 2.7. This level of performance would have made the F-4X almost impossible to shoot-down with the technology then in service. rf-4x_4.jpg The F-4X would also have been a formidable interceptor – something that threatened the F-15 development effort, causing the State Department to revoke an export licence for the RF-4X. Even with the increase in power, the Israeli air force was still worried about the huge amount of drag, but a solution came in the form of a slimmed-down camera installation in a specially elongated nose. This meant the interceptor radar had to be removed, which assuaged the State Department’s fears and the project was allowed to continue. However worries from the F-15 project community returned (as did worries about how safe the F-4X would have been to fly) and the US pulled out. Israel tried to go it alone but didn’t have enough money, so the mach 3 Phantom never flew. f-4x03.jpg F-4E(F) ‘Ein Mann’  RAF F-4M-GA PHANTOM FG3.02_zps0yrydewe.jpg The Luftwaffe are cheapskates: historical examples including their desire to procure a Eurofighter ‘Lite’ with no sunroof, stereo or defensive aids — and the fact they kept the F-4F in service until 2013! To be fair, their less than zealous desire for free-spending militarism is probably a good thing considering the 20th century. Their Deutschmark-saving instincts for poundshop versions of popular aircraft applied to the Phantom, and a simplified single-seat F-4E was considered. This intriguing option was passed up for a simplified F-4E, dubbed the F-4F (which later became formidable). I couldn’t find any illustrations of this variant so have included a mock-up of a speculative RAF single-seater.
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RF-4M ‘Big nosed Brit’  McDonnell Report B617 RF-4M When the RAF ordered Phantoms they considered a dedicated reconnaissance version. McDonnell (it being 1966 — a year before the merger with Douglas) proposed a F-4M airframe with internal reconnaissance equipment. Known as the RF-4M (model 98HT), the longer camera nose would have made the aircraft over two and-a-half feet longer longer than a F-4M. Range would have been greater than a Phantom with an external recce pod, as this left the centreline station free for a drop-tank — and the removal of the Fire Control System and AIM-7 related hardware reduced weight. After considering the cost of such an undertaking, the RAF instead opted for an external recce pod meaning that any airframe in the fleet could perform the reconnaissance mission without sacrificing a beyond-visual-range weapon. Fascinating interview with a British Phantom pilot here. F-4T Phantom ‘Not a pound (or Deutsche Mark) for air-to-ground’c65d7712966b318e30b0a7f82f03b1be-img00002.jpg In the late 1970s McDonnell Douglas proposed a dedicated Air Superiority variant of the F-4E, the F-4T. More spritely performance was expected as all systems associated with the air-to-ground role were to be removed, making a significant weight saving. It was to be armed with M61A1 cannon, four AIM-7 Sparrows and four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, or an alternative war-load of six AIM-7 (as seen in this computer generated image). Additionally, a new digital computer would have been at the heart of its weapon system. It is unclear who the intended launch customer for this variant was —  Iran, Britain, Israel, Japan or West Germany may all have found the type useful. No customer went for the T as either a new-build or an upgrade — as those air arms requiring a high level of Air Superiority could turn to the F-15 Eagle which was already in production (and was significantly more capable the proposed F-4T even its it early iterations).

Read why the F-4 was the world’s best fighter in 1969 here.

F-4 (FVS) The Phlogger and the Phitter mcdonnell_f-4fvs-06-680x536 The US Navy’s F-111B project was looking distinctly shaky in the mid-1960s. It was too heavy and too sluggish, so the Navy looked around for alternatives, a search which would eventually led to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The McDonnell company offered an unsolicited solution, a variable geometry wing variant of the hugely successful F-4 Phantom II. An assessment of this proposal, given the provisional designation F-4 (FV)S, revealed that this it was lacking in several key areas, notably combat effectiveness: the AN / AWG-10 radar and AIM-7F missiles would be a significant downgrade from the desired AN /AWG-9/AIM-54 combination. Scorned by the Navy, McDonnell offered the aircraft to Britain as a cheaper alternative to the Anglo-French AFVG then under consideration. This aircraft would have been powered by the British Rolls-Royce RB-168-27R  and given the designation F-4M (FVS). This promising project never left the drawing board. mcdonnell_f-4fvs-08-680x576 Boeing PW1120 Phantom/IAI Super Phantom

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By the 1980s, the Phantom’s geriatric J79 powerplant was a liability — its poor thrust-to-weight ratio, mass of smoke and Oliver Reed-esque thirst did not belong in an age of efficient powerful turbofans. Replacing the J79 with the Pratt & Whitney PW1120 (a derivative of the F-15’s F100 for the abortive Israeli Lavi) was an obvious solution – offering a massive 25% increase in dry thrust and a whole 30% greater thrust in reheat. The new Phantom would have been a hotrod: capable of Mach 1+ speeds in dry thrust alone. The aircraft would also have an 1,100 US gal (4230 litre) conformal fuel tank under the fuselage, offering an increase in range.  The proposal was cancelled early on as some thought it was a threat to F/A-18 and F-15 sales. Despite this, Israel Aircraft Industries liked the idea of PW1120s in Phantoms, partly as this promised parts commonality with the Lavi and partly because Israel had a big Phantom force.  IAI’s F-4 Super Phantom or F-4-2000 was displayed at the 1987 Paris Air Show, but, like the earlier US concept, was also quashed. YRF-4C PACT demonstrator CCV ‘You canard handle the truth!’ fbw_phantom Aircraft 62-12200 was a very important airframe, after life as the RF-4C prototype it did the same for the cannon-armed F-4E project. Its testing life was still not over — in 1972 it became part of a fly-by-wire (FBW) research effort. A FBW system was fitted to what was now known as the Precision Aircraft Control Technology (PACT) demonstrator. Following the successful completion of the FBW tests, it was fitted with a set of canard foreplanes mounted on the upper air intakes. In order to shift the centre of gravity to the rear and to destabilise the aircraft in pitch, lead ballast was added to the rear fuselage. It is not known if this aircraft was the source of the continued American distaste for canards! McDonnell-Douglas-YF-4E-CCV.jpg

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