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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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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Here are some brilliant machines we’ve been thinking about for a while and not known what to do with.
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.
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.
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
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
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?
“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?
“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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
China 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.
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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Everyone loves the F-4 Phantom, a brutal smoking Cold War monster that polluted the sky in an apocalyptic belch of black sooty thunder. As thrilling as the actual Phantoms that entered service were, there is a tantalising family of F-4s that almost made it into the real world. Several of them were cancelled for being too good and threatening sales of newer aircraft — and one succeeded in its role as a unique test aircraft. Here are some of the Phantoms that never were.
RF-4X Mach 3 Hellraiser
In the 1970s, the Israeli air force wanted a reconnaissance aircraft capable of carrying the extremely impressive HIAC-1 camera. The F-4 was considered, but the G-139 pod that contained the sensor was over 22 feet long and weighed over 4000 pounds – and the Phantom did not have the power to carry such a bulky store and remain fast and agile enough to survive in hostile airspace. One solution was to increase the power of the engines with water injection, something that had been done for various successful F-4 record attempts. This combined with new inlets, a new canopy and huge bolt-on water tanks promised a mouth-watering 150% increase in power. This would have allowed a startling top speed of mach 3.2 and a cruising speed of mach 2.7. This level of performance would have made the F-4X almost impossible to shoot-down with the technology then in service.
The F-4X would also have been a formidable interceptor – something that threatened the F-15 development effort, causing the State Department to revoke an export licence for the RF-4X. Even with the increase in power, the Israeli air force was still worried about the huge amount of drag, but a solution came in the form of a slimmed-down camera installation in a specially elongated nose. This meant the interceptor radar had to be removed, which assuaged the State Department’s fears and the project was allowed to continue. However worries from the F-15 project community returned (as did worries about how safe the F-4X would have been to fly) and the US pulled out. Israel tried to go it alone but didn’t have enough money, so the mach 3 Phantom never flew.
F-4E(F) ‘Ein Mann’
The Luftwaffe are cheapskates: historical examples including their desire to procure a Eurofighter ‘Lite’ with no sunroof, stereo or defensive aids — and the fact they kept the F-4F in service until 2013! To be fair, their less than zealous desire for free-spending militarism is probably a good thing considering the 20th century. Their Deutschmark-saving instincts for poundshop versions of popular aircraft applied to the Phantom, and a simplified single-seat F-4E was considered. This intriguing option was passed up for a simplified F-4E, dubbed the F-4F (which later became formidable). I couldn’t find any illustrations of this variant so have included a mock-up of a speculative RAF single-seater.
RF-4M ‘Big nosed Brit’
When the RAF ordered Phantoms they considered a dedicated reconnaissance version. McDonnell (it being 1966 — a year before the merger with Douglas) proposed a F-4M airframe with internal reconnaissance equipment. Known as the RF-4M (model 98HT), the longer camera nose would have made the aircraft over two and-a-half feet longer longer than a F-4M. Range would have been greater than a Phantom with an external recce pod, as this left the centreline station free for a drop-tank — and the removal of the Fire Control System and AIM-7 related hardware reduced weight. After considering the cost of such an undertaking, the RAF instead opted for an external recce pod meaning that any airframe in the fleet could perform the reconnaissance mission without sacrificing a beyond-visual-range weapon. Fascinating interview with a British Phantom pilot here.
F-4T Phantom ‘Not a pound (or Deutsche Mark) for air-to-ground’
In the late 1970s McDonnell Douglas proposed a dedicated Air Superiority variant of the F-4E, the F-4T. More spritely performance was expected as all systems associated with the air-to-ground role were to be removed, making a significant weight saving. It was to be armed with M61A1 cannon, four AIM-7 Sparrows and four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, or an alternative war-load of six AIM-7 (as seen in this computer generated image). Additionally, a new digital computer would have been at the heart of its weapon system. It is unclear who the intended launch customer for this variant was — Iran, Britain, Israel, Japan or West Germany may all have found the type useful. No customer went for the T as either a new-build or an upgrade — as those air arms requiring a high level of Air Superiority could turn to the F-15 Eagle which was already in production (and was significantly more capable the proposed F-4T even its it early iterations).
Read why the F-4 was the world’s best fighter in 1969 here.
F-4 (FVS) The Phlogger and the Phitter
The US Navy’s F-111B project was looking distinctly shaky in the mid-1960s. It was too heavy and too sluggish, so the Navy looked around for alternatives, a search which would eventually led to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The McDonnell company offered an unsolicited solution, a variable geometry wing variant of the hugely successful F-4 Phantom II. An assessment of this proposal, given the provisional designation F-4 (FV)S, revealed that this it was lacking in several key areas, notably combat effectiveness: the AN / AWG-10 radar and AIM-7F missiles would be a significant downgrade from the desired AN /AWG-9/AIM-54 combination. Scorned by the Navy, McDonnell offered the aircraft to Britain as a cheaper alternative to the Anglo-French AFVG then under consideration. This aircraft would have been powered by the British Rolls-Royce RB-168-27R and given the designation F-4M (FVS). This promising project never left the drawing board.
Boeing PW1120 Phantom/IAI Super Phantom
By the 1980s, the Phantom’s geriatric J79 powerplant was a liability — its poor thrust-to-weight ratio, mass of smoke and Oliver Reed-esque thirst did not belong in an age of efficient powerful turbofans. Replacing the J79 with the Pratt & Whitney PW1120 (a derivative of the F-15’s F100 for the abortive Israeli Lavi) was an obvious solution – offering a massive 25% increase in dry thrust and a whole 30% greater thrust in reheat. The new Phantom would have been a hotrod: capable of Mach 1+ speeds in dry thrust alone. The aircraft would also have an 1,100 US gal (4230 litre) conformal fuel tank under the fuselage, offering an increase in range. The proposal was cancelled early on as some thought it was a threat to F/A-18 and F-15 sales. Despite this, Israel Aircraft Industries liked the idea of PW1120s in Phantoms, partly as this promised parts commonality with the Lavi and partly because Israel had a big Phantom force. IAI’s F-4 Super Phantom or F-4-2000 was displayed at the 1987 Paris Air Show, but, like the earlier US concept, was also quashed.
YRF-4C PACT demonstrator CCV ‘You canard handle the truth!’
Aircraft 62-12200 was a very important airframe, after life as the RF-4C prototype it did the same for the cannon-armed F-4E project. Its testing life was still not over — in 1972 it became part of a fly-by-wire (FBW) research effort. A FBW system was fitted to what was now known as the Precision Aircraft Control Technology (PACT) demonstrator. Following the successful completion of the FBW tests, it was fitted with a set of canard foreplanes mounted on the upper air intakes. In order to shift the centre of gravity to the rear and to destabilise the aircraft in pitch, lead ballast was added to the rear fuselage. It is not known if this aircraft was the source of the continued American distaste for canards!
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Prior to flying the F-35B Lightning II, RAF Wing Commander James Schofield flew and fought in RAF Harriers. We interviewed him to find out more about mastering the immortal jump-jet.
What were your first impressions of the Harrier?
“Coming from the Hawk T.1 with its analogue dials and navigating by map and stopwatch, its one type of takeoff and three types of landing (normal, flapless and glide), on arriving at the Operational Conversion Unit in 2000 reading the Harrier GR.7 groundschool notes gave a good impression of the step increase in capability ahead! The systems included a GPS/INS, frequency-agile radios, colour moving map, Zeus electronic warfare (EW) system and infra-red camera both integrated into the head-up display, angle-rate bombing system with a TV/laser tracker… Then there were rockets, freefall bombs, retarded bombs, cluster bombs, practice bombs, laser guided bombs, infra-red guided Maverick missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles… The laser could come from your aircraft (via the TIALD targeting pod), a wingman or a chap on the ground. There were manual releases, computed impact point releases, automatic releases, toss/loft releases. There was visual targeting, GPS/INS targeting, TV targeting, laser targeting. Also chaff, flares, night vision goggles. A lot to read up on!
But before you got to play with much of that you had to learn how to take off (conventional, short, strip, creeping vertical or vertical) and land (conventional, fixed-throttle variable-nozzle, slow, rolling vertical, creeping vertical, vertical). Additional variables were the use of auto flap or STOL flap, and the use of water injection to augment the thrust. You could land on normal runways, roads, grass, on perforated steel planking runways and aircraft carriers. Each of those combinations had a prescribed technique, often complicated and challenging, that you strayed from at your peril. Before every flight you put the aircraft tail number, temperature, pressure and stores configuration into a computer and it told you what nozzle angle to use for whichever flavour of takeoff you were going to attempt, and how much fuel/water you could hover or try a rolling vertical landing with.
Key indicators to watch like a hawk in order to make it to the bar that evening without an ejection and a trip to hospital were: the velocity vector in the HUD which became an inertial vertical speed indicator in the hover (watch out for any unwanted descent!), the “Billy Whizz” hexagon diagram in the HUD telling you how close you were to the most limiting engine parameter (be it RPM, jet pipe temperature or the non-dimensional fan speed), and the unique wind vane in front of the cockpit that enabled you to minimise potentially fatal crosswinds. Oh, and a vibrating rudder pedal that you had to stamp on at your soonest convenience if you ignored the vane.
Every aircraft has its challenges/foibles but I remember getting the books out and thinking “bugger me, there’s a lot here”! Looking back on it now, there was an awful lot to not get wrong but at the time we flew daily which made a big difference. I remember feeling rusty on a Monday morning having had a weekend off!
There were also a fearsome array of limitations to remember, both engine and airframe, which varied depending on aircraft build standard, load-out and speed.
Memories of flying the beast will always stay with me. A fantastic view from that big bubble canopy, a neat and well-laid out cockpit, on the ground the impingement of the jet efflux on the tailplane making it tremble like an attack dog straining to be released, massive air intakes right next to you with a loud whine at full power, brutal acceleration during takeoff, a very responsive aircraft to fly, a strange rumble at idle power as air spilled from those intakes, the laws of physics overpowering common sense as you decelerated towards the hover between swaying trees over some nondescript field in Rutland, cows looking on curiously, your throttle hand advancing all the time as wing lift receded, in your multi-million pound jet fighter. Halcyon days.
I don’t think I was alone, however, in spending most of each flight worrying about the landing – something the Harrier and the Pitts Special sports biplane have in common!”
What is the hardest thing about flying the Harrier?
“Not screwing up in the VSTOL regime.”
What was your most memorable Harrier mission or flight?
“There were hundreds of memorable moments, but I’ll pick my first takeoff from an aircraft carrier. You read the notes, you’re talked through the procedures by an instructor, then you walk out to the aircraft, fire her up and line up on the deck. Although the ski jump is only at an angle of 12 degrees, it looks like a vertical wall in front of you! Up to full power, release the brakes only when the tyres start to skid and you’re off. Screaming down the deck towards the ramp wondering idly if this is actually going to work or whether it’s all an incredibly elaborate wind-up! Up the ramp, lower the nozzles at the top, and you’re airborne. Ease the nozzles aft. Huh, it worked. Time to start worrying about the landing a mere hour away…
Rate the Harrier in the following:
A. Instantaneous turn rate.
“Good, particularly with Vectoring In Forward Flight (VIFF).”
B. Sustained turn rate.
“OK at low level, not much good at medium level.”
C. Climb rate.
“With a thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1:1 it went up very nicely!”
D. High AoA performance.
“Although there were no AoA limits in the earlier aircraft with small LERX (leading edge root extensions) – just handling limits, it wasn’t built for large angles. The larger LERX came with a 24 AoA limit so couldn’t quite match a Hornet (60 AoA) in a nose-pointing contest!”
“Eye-watering going down the runway, disappointing at high speed (all that drag…).”
Did you fly the Harrier in combat? How combat effective was the type?
“Yes, over Iraq in 2003. It was very effective; flexible basing options, lots of hardpoints, a good all-rounder. Obviously combat missions come in a range of exciting flavours. In 2003 over Iraq ours involved both close air support (CAS) and strike missions.
The background to all of this starts back in the UK where we had the luxury of an extensive pre-deployment training period. This was interspersed with intelligence briefs so you’d know what the enemy order of battle was, location of units and so on. We were also very focused on understanding how all of the extra gear worked in the various pockets our jackets were festooned with – mostly survival gear – and what the plans were for egressing on foot if we had to.
In theatre, you’d have regular intelligence briefs to keep abreast of what was always a fluid situation on the ground. On the day, you’d have a weather brief and would then be allocated a piece of sky to hold in and wait for tasking (for CAS) or you’d be given target details (for strike). Significant planning was required to understand what was expected of us, particularly critical given that there would be myriad other air and ground assets in the area, all with their own missions. It was always obvious that we were just one part of a much larger war effort.
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The missions themselves were fairly tense at the start of hostilities as each side assessed what was being brought to bear against them. As things progressed it was easier to get into a rhythm, whilst always trying to guard against complacency. There’s nothing like getting shot at over barren, hostile territory to focus the mind back on the task at hand! It’s difficult to convey how stressful releasing live ordnance over a battlefield is, particularly with CAS where friendlies are often perilously close. One incorrectly typed digit, or the slightest ambiguity on the radio leading to misidentification of the target area, could lead to disaster. Clearly, there were well-honed procedures to mitigate against these risks but when the chap on the ground is shouting at you to get the bomb off because he’s under attack – you need to be disciplined under pressure.
There’s always a sense of relief after a mission, but it may not be long until you’re off again…”
Are there any things a Harrier can do that a F-35B can’t?
“Not many – bow in the hover; operate from a grass runway; punish the pilot for careless handling. That’s your lot!”
Was the Harrier the most demanding aircraft you have flown?
“It’s certainly in the top three; take the rolling vertical landing (RVL) for instance. You’re on final approach to a 1000 foot long strip at night in rain: fore and aft on the stick initially controls flightpath as you’d expect. You then move the nozzle lever to the hover stop to decelerate at which point you use the stick to control pitch attitude. At 50 knots groundspeed you select a lesser nozzle angle to stop decelerating and the stick then controls groundspeed. Just prior to touchdown it reverts to pitch attitude. So four control strategies with just one of the three hand controllers (stick, throttle, nozzle lever) in under 30 seconds while trying to execute a precise landing with little margin for error – lots of armchair flying required for that one!
The up-and-away handling was occasionally a little tricky too. During an air-to-air refuelling test flight in a very aft CG configuration I was working so hard just to put the probe in the basket I lost the power of speech! Requiring full back stick around finals was common in the two-seater; if the nose carried on dropping the only way out was to add power, which was somewhat counter-intuitive.
It would potentially depart from controlled flight due to intake momentum drag if you let sideslip build up during the transition to or from the hover, with fatal consequences – hence the wind vane in front of the cockpit, and rudder pedal shakers if you didn’t notice the vane!
High speed departures were also not unheard of and could be violent, particularly if you exceeded the lateral stick limits and/or reversed the roll rate rapidly.
Flying at low level at night also had its moments, and no one enjoyed landing on the carrier at night!”
What were the best and worst things about the Harrier?
“The best things were its V/STOL capabilities and its ability to reliably project air power for a reasonable cost; it was ultimately a relatively simple aircraft which kept costs down and reliability up.
The worst things were the unforgiving handling (however, the satisfaction of successfully operating a challenging aircraft was half the appeal) and the V/STOL design compromises meaning we always got whooped during air combat training by F-15s / F-16s / F/A-18s.”
What equipment/weapons or sensors would have you liked to have seen added to the Harrier?
Easy – radar and AMRAAM. Having some Harrier II+ configured aircraft would have been fantastic.
What is the biggest myth about the aircraft?
“That the whining doesn’t stop when you turn off the engine! (The joke being that Harrier pilots whinge incessantly. I mean, have you ever met an F.3 pilot??)”
Is STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) a good idea?
“If you’re confident that any conventional runways you may operate from – either at home or at a forward operating base – are invulnerable then you don’t need it. I would opine that such a stance would be foolhardy. Also, stopping then landing on a carrier will always be easier and cheaper than landing then stopping (acknowledging that this leads to design compromises, e.g. a single engine, large intakes or a lift fan).”
Was the absence of cannon and radar problematic?
“The lack of radar did get you looking out of the window a lot, and building a mental picture of the tactical situation from radio transmissions was a cherished skill. At times you did feel like you were stumbling around in the dark – the absolute opposite of the level of situational awareness that today’s F-35 brings. At least we had a very good EW system, the display for which was in the HUD, to let you know who was looking at you and from what angle.
As for the gun, it’s always nice to have a cheap forward-firing weapon but the attempts to fit a 25mm derivative of the Aden cannon failed and, anecdotally, at that point there was no money to buy the GAU-12 5-barrel cannon (drool).”
What advice would you give to Harrier pilots?
“To any US Marine Corps, Italian Navy or Spanish Navy Harrier pilots; I envy you – enjoy it while it lasts!
Which three words would you use to describe the Harrier?
“Best. Of. British. (Harrier GR.3 / FA.2)
Revolutionary, legendary, challenging!”
Do you think the British got rid of their fleet too early? And what do you think about what happened to the air frames?
“Absolutely, but as I understand it the MoD had to save a load of money and they couldn’t bin the Tornado GR.4 due to its unique (at the time) ability to carry Storm Shadow. We’d have much rather seen the airframes continue to fly than mothballed and used for spares, but the GR.9 was so different from the USMC’s aircraft that they would effectively have had two fleets, which wouldn’t have been a practical proposition.”
What should I have asked you?
“F-35 or Harrier? F-35 for everything bar the satisfaction of mastering the handling challenge of the Harrier.”
Would Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFFing) have been useful in a dogfight?
“Using a smidge of nozzle at higher speeds was a valid proposition to gain a little more turn performance. Using a lot of nozzle at lower speeds gave a marked increase in turn rate, but physics being what it is the side-effect was a large reduction in energy which left you a sitting duck if your attempt to snap the nose around for a missile shot failed. I usually found that VIFFing worked quite well when pulling down from the vertical – people weren’t expecting a Hornet-like ability to nose-point – but if I was fighting in the horizontal the nozzle lever often led to disappointment! Putting the nozzles all the way forward in a “Braking Stop Spiral” manoeuvre meant you could descend vertically at a ridiculously low speed and often opponents couldn’t stay behind you. But you had to leave plenty of height to recover…”
How good was the GR9 at the time of its retirement?
“As with most aircraft when they’re retired, it had never been better and had an amazing future ahead of it! I started flying the GR.7 in 2000 and the GR.9/9A was retired in early 2011; by then it had been fitted with a larger engine (GR.9A) and some truly cutting-edge avionics, sensors and weapons: the excellent Sniper targeting pod, the TIEC datalink which went some way to offsetting the lack of radar, the Paveway 4 GPS/laser bomb with which we could simultaneously release six bombs against six different targets through cloud, the Brimstone anti-armour weapon, the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, encrypted radios…such a shame it went before its time.”
With which units did you fly the Harrier and what was your rank?
“I served on No 3 (Fighter) Squadron (2000-2003) at RAF Cottesmore, and the Fast Jet Test Squadron (2005-2006) at MoD Boscombe Down, both as a Flight Lieutenant.
(I joined the RAF in 1996 as a Pilot Officer and left as a Wing Commander in 2016.)”
Tell me something I don’t know about the Harrier
“Flying through hail would smash the EW “tusk” fairings under the nose. Ask me how I know…”
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Ever since the Lilienthal brothers bird-like gliders of the 19th Century, Germany has been batshit crazy about flying machines. Rocket fighters, suicide pulse-jets and airships over three times longer than a 747; seemingly nothing was too crazy for the Germany aviation industry to try in the 20th century. Here is a kladderadatsch of unheimlich German aircraft that will make you spit out your Spätzle with profound fremdschämen.
10. Messerschmitt Me 210 ‘Hochgeschwindigkeits-Rufmörder’
If ever you wish to challenge the famed German stereotype of meticulous efficiency, then you need look no further than the Messerschmitt Me 210, an aircraft that looked great on paper but didn’t look so great anywhere else – in the sky for example.
It all started off well enough: As well as possessing aviation’s most emphatic forehead, Willy Messerschmitt had delivered the Bf 109, which by the outbreak of war was arguably the best single-seat fighter in the world. He had followed that up with the Bf 110 which was arguably the best twin-engine fighter in the world. Messerschmitt tried for many years to design a replacement for the 109 but any new aircraft he came up with was either inferior to its great rival the Focke Wulf Fw 190 or could offer nothing more than an updated model of 109 and as a result no new design proceeded past the prototype stage. By contrast there was no obvious rival in production to the 110 and a replacement would surely be needed (an opinion strengthened by the apparently poor showing of the 110 during the Battle of Britain – though this was arguably down to inadequate understanding of the tactical limitations of this class of aircraft rather than any particular intrinsic fault of the 110 itself. Thus the requirement for the 210 was born. Unfortunately for customer and designer, Messerschmitt’s reputation was riding high on the incredible and ongoing success of the 109 and 110 and apparently he could do no wrong. An order for 1000 of the new twin-engine fighter-bomber was placed, off the drawing board, before the new aircraft had even flown.
But fly it did and then the terrible mistake became apparent. The Me 210 was a purposefully good looking aircraft but that was about it. The new aircraft was underpowered and its handling was so bad that it was dangerous to fly, being prone to enter a sudden and vicious stall under the least provocation. The chief test pilot commented that the Me 210 had “all the least desirable attributes an aeroplane could possess.” It took the ridiculous total of 16 prototypes and 94 pre-production models to iron out the worst of the problems that bedevilled the 210. To put this in context the Fw 190, a contemporary (but very successful) aircraft which also took considerable development to get ‘right’ went through five prototypes and 28 pre-production examples. And then, even after all this time and effort was expended the 210 was not an acceptable machine. Compared to the 110 it was replacing the 210 was slower and shorter-ranged as well as possessing appalling handling qualities. Even the undercarriage was lousy and kept failing on the 210. The 210s that had managed to make it into service, nearly three years after the first flight, were withdrawn after a month and superseded by the very aircraft they were supposed to replace. The production line was shut down and the Bf 110 was put back into production fitted with the 210’s better streamlined engine nacelles. Willy Messerschmitt’s reputation was in tatters and his resignation was officially demanded from the company that bore his name.
Worse was to come. Back when it still looked like the 210 might mature into a decent fighter, permission had been granted to Dunai Repülőgépgyár Rt. (Danubian Aircraft Plant) to build the 210 under licence and Hungarian authorities decided to continue development even after production in Germany was halted. The Hungarian aircraft utilised the more powerful DB 605 engine and a lengthened fuselage which transformed the aircraft into something generally acceptable. The colossal irony is that a lengthened fuselage was demanded by the test pilot on the Me 210’s first flight back in September 1939. Willy Messerschmitt had refused, pointing out that to alter the fuselage would require scrapping millions of Reichsmarks’ worth of production jigs. The Hungarian aircraft Me 210Ca was generally popular in service and proved that a lengthened fuselage would have solved literally years of painful development. And of course, that it took the Hungarians to solve the problems that the supposed finest designers of Germany apparently could not overcome was unbearable to the hyper-nationalistic Third Reich. Eventually a German redesign of the 210 with yet more powerful DB 603 engines was accepted into service but re-designated the Me 410 Hornisse to make it seem like it was a completely new design (it wasn’t). The Me 410 was a decent enough aircraft but was at least two years too late – had it been available when it should have, back in 1941, it would have been sensational.
9. Messerschmitt Me 321/Me 323 Gigant
The success of the Bf 109 should not obscure the story of the most calamitous aircraft to emerge from the Messerschmitt aircraft company, the ‘321/323. To invade England, the fast movement of tanks and artillery was essential. In the absence of a route by land, air transport was the obvious solution. Messerschmitt initially proposed towing winged battle tanks, a daft concept that proved bizarrely ubiquitous to World War II technical advisors. A less mad idea was the creation of large unpowered gliders, and by large I mean large: we are talking a wingspan of 55 metres… almost that of a Boeing 747! Junkers initially won the German Air Ministry contest with the Ju 322, but even a wartime assessment team couldn’t turn a blind eye to the fact a tank fell through the weak wooden floor of the ‘322. They went back to Messerschmitt, who created an aircraft too large to be launched. Even with 3280 horsepower, the Ju 90 airliner struggled to tow this behemoth sky-bound. So they tried tying it to three (yes three!) Bf 110 fighters to drag it into the sky (in a triangular ‘troika schlepp’ formation) which, of course, proved problematic. The next attempt to create an adequately powerful tow aircraft involved bolting two bombers together resulting in the conjoined He-111Z Zwilling — which was also far from ideal. Even strapping rockets to the machine wasn’t getting the desired results. While these slapstick endeavours had been taking place, Messerschmitt had been simultaneously working on a powered version – the Me 323. This worked, but was so slow and cumbersome that in contested airspace proved abysmally vulnerable. In 1943, in desperate need of resupply, General Rommel’s Afrika Korps was sent 300 tons of equipment in 16 Me 323s. Only two reached their destination, 14 had been shot down.
8. Dornier Do 31E
As with the Royal Air Force, in the early 1960s, the Luftwaffe became concerned about the vulnerability of aircraft operating from large air bases. The British developed and eventually deployed the Harrier; the Germans, in a frenzy of innovation, developed and flew, but did not put into service, two potentially supersonic VTOL fast-jets, and a VTOL transport, the Do 31E. They also experimented with a zero-length launch system for the Starfighter, the ZELL (based on ideas from the rocket genius and occultist sex magician Jack Parsons). The Do 31, as a production aircraft, was envisaged as supplying tactical logistic support to the fast jets, itself using as forward operating bases the airstrips on which the ZELL Starfighters were expected to land using arrester gear.
The tactical and logistic support of forward air operations, it turns out, can be well supported by another aircraft which was in development at the time – the Fiat G222. This has now been developed into today’s C-27 Spartan, which offers similar payload-range performance to the Dornier 31E, albeit with STOL rather than VTOL capability, at a fraction of the cost, risk and complexity of a production Do 31.
The Do 31 was an impressive answer to a question that shouldn’t have been asked. Technical progress and ambition had run ahead of operational analysis, resulting in flawed requirements.
More on the Do 31 here
7. Baade 152 Baade to the Bone
That the wretched Baade ever got built says much for the charm of its designer Brunolf Baade. From 1936 he worked for Junkers and was involved in the design of the Ju 88, Ju 188, Ju 388 and Ju 287. Following defeat and partitioning, the Soviet Union took many German aerospace experts — including Baade— to aid in the development of new military projects. The Soviets had a pressing need for a fast twin-engine jet bomber, and the German boffins set about designing one. The resultant EF 150 was conceived by Baade, Hans Wocke and other former Junkers staff. Hugely delayed by engine problems, the aircraft ended up having to compete and lose out to a greatly superior aircraft from a newer generation, the Tu-88 (which became the Tu-16 ‘Badger’).
Despite this, Baade may not have been having such a bad time. It is rumoured that Baade’s winning personality made him a favourite with his Russian masters, and that while his colleagues were enduring the biting 1947 Moscow winter he was enjoying a holiday in Crimea. In 1953 the Germans were sent back to East Germany, where some attempted to start an aviation industry for the new nation.
A new jetliner was desired, and Baade initiated a project — dubbed the Type 152 — based on the EF 150. This was a terrible basic design for a jetliner. For a start, it had a bicycle undercarriage — meaning the aircraft could not rotate promptly on take-off and it required great precision to land precisely (something they attempted to rectify with a later, somewhat bizarre, configuration). It also had terrible engines, Pirna 014s based on wartime technology, which offered a miserly 3:1 thrust-to-weight ratio (compare this to the 4.5: 1 of the Pratt & Whitney JT3D which first ran a year earlier than the Pirna) and a lousy specific fuel consumption. The wings were the wrong shape and in the wrong place: a low aspect ratio broad chord slab that was far from ideal for cruising efficiency. The high placing of the wings obstructed the cabin, while the space under the floor was occupied by the undercarriage.
The maiden flight of this aircraft took place on 4 December 1958. Four months later the aircraft took its second flight and crashed killing all on board. In mid-1961 the East German government stopped all aeronautical industry activities, as the Soviet Union did not want to buy any of these aircraft or support a potential rival to their own Tu-124. This mercifully put an end to what would have certainly been a horrible airliner.
6. Heinkel He 177
The eternally repeated adage, ‘if it looks right, it will fly right’ is proved by the giant Heinkel He 177, four-engined bomber; even before entering service it attracted the epitaphs of ‘widow maker’ and ‘flying coffin’. Göring called it a ‘misbegotten monster’.
Conceived as a long-range bomber to attack targets beyond the Soviet Urals or operate against convoys in the North Atlantic, it was too late to make a difference. It is the only example of a German design, equivalent of the American YB-17 design and the British plans, including R J Mitchell’s B16/36, for long-range strategic warfare. The Heinkel design was immediately beset by compromises, engine issues and top-level mind-changing.
Even in its development, Oberst Ernst Udet caused a fundamental re-design by requiring a dive-bombing capability. The engineers were in despair, the dive-bombing profile would require fuselage and wing strengthening, increasing the empty weight significantly. Then, in September 1942, after the work had been done, Göring rescinded the requirement.
So, it had a flawed operational requirement; an inadequate power plant with four engines, driving two huge propellers and surface evaporative cooling in place of conventional radiators. Engine fires were frequent during trials and by the time it came into service, the there was no fuel. Even so there was a plan to convert it into a rocket-carrying fighter! Final words to Winkle Brown: “it was one of the very few German aircraft I did not enjoy flying.”
Paul Beaver is the biographer of Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown
5. Siemens-Schuckert Forssman Großernutzloser Ladenhüter
Virtually all First World War aircraft were, by modern standards, hopeless and awful. However Siemens-Schuckert’s first foray into the world of large bomber aircraft was a stand-out example of dreadful uselessness, an aircraft so woeful that it eventually collapsed in an act of overdue self-destructive embarrassment. The Forssman’s problems began before even the first wood was cut, canvas sewn or the workers got out of bed in the eponymous form of Villehad Forssman, the luckless aircraft’s Swedish designer. German aviation benefited immensely from at least one aircraft designer from a neutral nation in the form of Dutchman Antony Fokker, a notorious self-publicist but undeniably an engineer of talent. Sadly Forssman was no Fokker, and his engineering abilities would not prove equal to his Jules Verne-eque dreams of giant aircraft.
It would appear that the Forssman aircraft was ‘inspired’ (less sympathetic voices might say ‘a copy’) of Igor Sikorsky’s impressive Ilya Muromets, the world’s first four engine aircraft. A famous photograph depicts one of these aircraft in flight and the first thing one notices is the two stalwart Russian cavalry officers promenading on the roof of the aircraft as if taking a stroll on an aircraft during flight were the most normal thing in the world. One of the other things one may notice is that the pilot is shoving in downward elevator as though his life depended on it, as indeed it might. In other words it appears to be tail heavy. When Forssman designed his own aircraft for German cavalry officers to stroll on the roof of, he apparently decided being insanely tail heavy was also definitely the way to go, a situation that would prove almost fatal to the test pilot once the aircraft actually managed to fly. However, any proper idea of flight was a long way off yet as during taxi trials and minimal hops, many of the faults of Forssman’s creation became apparent. The structure was deemed to be too weak and was beefed up, not least by adding more wing struts, the first of an unprecedented five major, and ultimately futile, rebuilds and redesigns. There was insufficient tail area, so a second rudder was added and the wings were rigged with slight dihedral. At the same time an attempt to balance the tail-heaviness issue was made by crudely adding a tub-like gunner’s position on the nose.
Further short hops revealed that the modifications had not made the aircraft anywhere near acceptable. Any reasonable manufacturer would have cut their losses, dumped this hopeless aircraft and moved on but Siemens-Schuckert were determined that they should get some kind of return for their investment and besides, Vilehad Forssman had by now severed connections with the company so, they reasoned, a different (better) engineer should be able to rework the aircraft into something acceptable. Harald Wolff, who would later design Siemens-Schuckert’s excellent fighter aircraft, was the man chosen for this unenviable task. Wolff Added more powerful Mercedes engines in the inboard positons, leaving the outer engines as they were. All the engines received streamlined and strengthened mountings and the whole nose of the aircraft was reworked into a pointed shape with massive round windows. The pilot now sat in comfort under a fully enclosed cockpit, an incongrously advanced feature. Unfortunately the designated test pilot, after some ground runs and despite his comfortable enclosed cockpit, refused (wisely) to fly the aircraft. Siemens-Schuckert managed to persuade air-ace and pre-war test pilot Walter Hohndorf to perform the first flight but in September 1915, whilst completing another test hop, something went awry, the aircraft turned onto its back and was partially wrecked.
Siemens-Schuckert, who were nothing if not persistent, mended the wings of the aircraft and fitted another new nose. Now desperate to get something – anything – for their hopeless machine, Dr Reichel the technical director of Siemens-Schuckert persuaded the Army to lower the specification the aircraft was required to achieve before they would buy it in return for a reduction in the purchase price. The new specification required the aircraft to reach 2000 meters in 30 minutes carrying a useful load of 1000 kg and enough fuel for 4 hours. Meanwhile he offered Bruno Steffen, himself a successful aircraft designer, 10% of the sale price if he could make the acceptance flight which was scheduled for October. Despite warnings from friends regarding the structural safety of the aircraft, Bruno decided after inspecting factory drawings and the aircraft itself that it was strong enough. However he was concerned that he would lack the strength necessary to operate the massive tail surfaces. On the day of the flight Steffen invited five passengers to accompany him, including members of the Army acceptance commission but all politely declined.
On take off Steffen found that the Forssman’s tail-heaviness meant that he had to push the control column fully forward to maintain level flight. To make turns he had to pull it back to the neutral position, turn the wheel as quickly as he could, and immediately return it to the fully-forward position to avoid a stall. The aircraft was virtually uncontrollable. Nonetheless it achieved the required 2000 metres in 30 minutes and the Army agreed in April 1916 to buy it as a trainer, despite its total unsuitability for that or any other task. Luckily for everyone however the rear fuselage collapsed when the engines were run up on the ground and no one else had to risk life and limb in Forssman’s pathetic aircraft.
And that would have been that except for one strange coda – in 1918 a truly gigantic ten-engine triplane named ‘Poll’ after the town of its construction was designed. It was structurally weak, of unprecedented size and ludicrously tail-heavy, which sounds oddly familiar. It was intended to bomb New York but construction was halted due to the armistice. Its designer was Villehad Forssman and one wonders how he managed to persuade anyone to build this new ridiculous aircraft. A single giant wheel from the Poll survives to this day in the collection of the Imperial War Museum to remind the world of Forssman’s folly.
4. Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet ‘Wie Ein Floh, Aber Oho!’
Although it was a horrific death trap with a litany of flaws, no one could deny the Komet was amazingly impressive. The fastest aircraft of the second world war, Messerschmitt’s rocket plane also possessed the best climb rate of any aircraft in the world until the supersonic (and strictly research) Bell X-1. Its vertical performance could not be bettered by any combat aircraft until the mid-1950s. In every other respect of course the Komet was totally appalling:
The first problem, and worst when looked at from a tactical point of view was its endurance. The Walter HWK 509 rocket motor that imparted the Komet with its blistering performance was colossally thirsty and only eight minutes of fuel could be carried. The engine was either on or off, there was no ability to cruise or throttle back which led inexorably to its second major flaw – the closing speed between it and its target was so great that it was extremely difficult to aim and fire with any hope of success. This problem was compounded by the powerful MK 108 cannon. The low muzzle velocity of this weapon meant it was only effective at close range and this was difficult to achieve as the Me 163 flashed past its intended target. Thirdly, once the rocket fuel was expended the aircraft had to glide home. Totally immune from fighter attack while under power, the Komet was vulnerable as a glider. True, it was fast and handled nicely but eventually it would have to land, and, unable to move, could be destroyed at will by any pursuing aircraft.
Its woeful endurance led to the Komet employing the weight-saving feature of jettisoning undercarriage. The wheels were attached to a dolly that was dropped as the aircraft climbed away from the airfield. If dropped too high, they would be destroyed. However if dropped too low there was a danger that they would bounce off the ground and into the aircraft with disastrous results. On occasion the wheels got stuck: test pilot Hanna Reitsch was nearly killed attempting to land a Komet with its wheels still attached. Even if the take-off was successful, landing the Komet was fraught with danger. Landings were unpowered so there was no option to go around if something went wrong and the aircraft landed on a retractable sprung skid which had to be lowered to provide shock absorbing, if it stuck up or the pilot forgot to lower it the result was often a fractured spine.
But absolutely the worst aspect for the pilot was the fuel. The Komet was propelled by two toxic liquids called C-stoff and T-stoff that explode when brought into contact. Indeed, T-stoff would cause virtually any organic material such as leather or cloth to spontaneously combust, furthermore it would dissolve human flesh. When the luckless Joschi Pöhs crashed an early Komet on landing in 1943 he was covered in T-stoff and, despite wearing a protective suit, “his entire right arm had been dissolved by T-stoff. It simply wasn’t there. The other arm, as well as the head, was nothing more than a mass of soft jelly.” Regular aviation fuel is dangerous enough but this was nightmarish. Even if the landing were successful, the shock of landing could rupture a fuel line or slosh any residual propellants into contact with each other and a catastrophic explosion would be the near inevitable result. So volatile were the fuels that there are accounts of Komets spontaneously exploding for no apparent reason whilst simply sitting on the ground.
But if the pilot survived the take-off, the landing, the fuels, and prowling enemy fighters the Komet had one final trick up its sleeve. Despite having generally exemplary handling characteristics the Me 163 entered an unrecoverable condition known as the ‘graveyard dive’ if its speed exceeded Mach 0.84, which was not difficult in a Komet, and the results were invariably fatal.
Despite all these horrific issues combat operations were maintained from May 1944 to spring 1945. During this time, there were nine confirmed kills, with 14 Me 163s lost. Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert was the most successful pilot, with three bombers to his credit but he was killed when his Komet exploded on take off. Despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious catastrophic flaws, the Komet remains one of the most charismatic aircraft in history.
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3. DFW T.28 Floh Lustiger kleiner knuddliger Kerl
Back in 1915 people still didn’t know what aeroplanes were supposed to look like. At least that’s the only explanation I can think of to explain the delightfully chunky appearance of DFW’s T.28, cheerily named Floh (flea), the cuddliest combat aircraft ever built. There seems to no other reason for building this tiny yet simultaneously weirdly massive machine. Despite being reputedly very fast, because of its daft shape the Floh was never a serious contender for fighter operations. The main problem was visibility, which was excellent so long as you only wanted to look upwards. The pilot’s view forwards for take off and landing was non-existent and the massive triangular tail surfaces conspired with the biplane wings to obscure the view of more or less anything below the aircraft. With all that fuselage side area and only a relatively modest rudder, one can only assume that directional control was not the aircraft’s strong suit. Add to that a perversely narrow undercarriage and it should come us no surprise that the Floh crashed on landing after its first test flight. On the upside the arrangement of intakes on the aircraft’s nose gives it the appearance of a jolly smiling face – always a major boon for an aircraft intended for the deadly skies over the Western front. Just to prove that he wasn’t insane or obsessed with giving aircraft a Rubens-esque profile, Herman Dorner, who designed the Floh, went on to produce the outstanding Hannover CL series of two-seat fighters which were boringly slender by comparison, did not feature a jolly smiling face, and proved highly successful.
2. Zeppelin L 2 Wasserstoffbrennstoff Feueranzünder
Zeppelins are preposterous. That such a ludicrous vehicle could inspire such panic from people on the ground (which it did) seems, with the benefit of hindsight, insane. Of course no one had experienced a sustained strategic bombing campaign back then and facing such attacks for the first time was and is a scary prospect, The sheer inexorable massiveness of the rigid airship is also certainly compelling. Back in the first couple of years of the First World War they were the only aerial vehicle with a useful disposable loaded the range necessary to mount meaningful bombing attacks deep behind enemy lines. But the fact is that the Zeppelins of World War One consisted of a fabric bag filled with between about one and two million cubic feet of hydrogen, the most flammable element in the universe. Zeppelins are huge and inflammable, present an unmissably massive target, are slow and susceptible to bad weather. Bizarrely, despite having more than enough carrying capacity to reasonably carry them, German airship crews chose not to bother taking parachutes on missions. Presumably being able to escape having to choose between plummeting to one’s death or being incinerated in a hydrogen-fuelled inferno was just too namby-pamby for the stalwart Zeppelin men of the Imperial German Navy. And that was a choice that became increasingly commonplace after the first Zeppelin was shot down over Belgium in June 1915.
That the Navy persisted in using these giant airships for bombing raids was largely down to the insistence of one dangerously psychopathic zealot, Kapitän zur See Peter Strasser. Despite ever-increasing evidence of the ever-decreasing effectiveness of the Zeppelin as a bombing aircraft, Strasser continued to demand his crews fly strategic raids over London with ever greater losses. “We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as ‘baby killers’ … Nowadays, there is no such animal as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.” he said in answer to criticism of the morality of strategic bombing. This may have been true but does not exactly paint a glowing picture of Strasser’s character. It feels like a there was a certain poetic justice at work when, after this particular baby-killer had chosen to ride along with Zeppelin L 70 on what would be the last airship bombing raid attempted against Britain, Strasser’s Zeppelin was intercepted by a DH-4 piloted by Egbert Cadbury (of the noted chocolate making family) and shot down in an example of the afore-mentioned hydrogen-fuelled inferno. The crew did not have parachutes.
But all this was in the future in 1913 when Navy Zeppelin L 2 chugged its way over Berlin and into the somewhat obscure history books. That the Zeppelin was a bizarrely horrific weapon of war for all concerned is not in doubt but the L 2 was probably the most hopeless of them all. Not content with being an impractical and dangerous vehicle when under attack by a determined enemy, L 2 showed the world that Zeppelins were dangerous and impractical when there were literally no threats present at all, unless you consider a warm day or the aircraft itself a ‘threat’. First off the engines wouldn’t start, which caused a delay in take off which allowed the hydrogen to expand in the gas bags due to the warm sun. Once the engines were persuaded into life the Zeppelin shot into the sky due to the hydrogen expansion. The normal cure for this is to release some of the gas and stop the aircraft rising. Unfortunately the hydrogen vented from L 2’s gasbags was sucked into the forward engine and exploded, which caused a fire and further explosions resulting in the destruction of L 2 along with the death of all 28 people on board (in a hydrogen-fuelled inferno). That this occurred only six weeks after the navy’s other Zeppelin, L 1, had been caused to crash (with 14 fatalities) by cold rain causing the gas to contract makes one wonder why the German Navy persisted in the development of large airships at all. Zeppelin eventually delivered over 100 large rigid airships during the First World War, with Schütte-Lanz delivering about 20 more.
Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg
Imagine yourself as a plucky young Luftwaffe pilot in 1944. You have a talent for flying, and the Nazi propaganda machine has filled you with a mad zeal to fight. You leap at the chance to fly an experimental aircraft—a futuristic aeroplane that could turn the tide and save your nation. You are shown a sleek, sexy, jet-propelled Wunderwaffe that makes the latest Fw 190 look positively ancient. Or perhaps you’re a bewildered child pushed into a moribund hell that was not of your making. Either way you’re absolutely fucked, because your new steed is essentially a V-1 flying bomb with a human guidance mechanism. Say ‘guten morgen’ to the Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg.
The Reichenberg had a quick development period, probably too quick. The German Research Institute for Sailplane Flight started development in mid-1944, and had a prototype ready for testing within days. A cramped cockpit with a jettisonable canopy was placed just under the pulse-jets air intake, and flight controls were rudimentary, although straightforward. After release from a carrier aircraft, the Reichenberg was meant to be piloted towards a target and put into a dive, following which the pilot baled out. Pilot survival was optimistically rated as being “most unlikely” (it was estimated at a terrifying 1% due to the proximity of the pulsejet’s intake to the cockpit).
Tricky landing controls ensured that two test articles crashed during developmental trials, and although the designers claimed a distinction between their Selbstopfermänner and the Japanese Kamikaze, to the pilot there was little difference. Thankfully for the young men expected to fly this screaming tomb, it was quickly abandoned after Albert Speer and Werner Baumbach pleaded with Hitler that suicide was not in the German warrior tradition.
Don’t skim read this last bit:
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Twenty years prior to 1969 most air forces had been flying piston-engined fighters essentially no different from those of World War II. In the following twenty years, top speeds almost quadrupled and cannons were complemented with guided missiles capable of destroying an enemy thirty miles away. To survive the carnage of the Middle East and Vietnam air wars, aircraft became ever more potent and by 1969 had become extraordinarily sophisticated killing machines. The fighters of this time were also far more demanding and dangerous to their own pilots than today’s generation of digital fighters, and these brutish machines were unforgiving of mistakes. Here are the 10 best fighters of 1969.
10. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 ‘The Fighting Farmer’
Like most MiG fighters, the ’19 was a rough and ready hotrod. Agile, powerful and capable of gut-wrenching acceleration— it was also ill-equipped, unforgiving and brutal. Armed with three cannon and two K-13 missiles, a well flown MiG-19 remained an opponent to be respected in 1969, however its lack of a modern radar and modest top speed of mach 1.22 put it at a distinct disadvantage. Pakistan Air Force MiG-19 pilot Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum told Hush-Kit, “We did not fear fighting any opposing aircraft. The Intel, at the time, was that we were most likely to face the Hunter in the war as that was the aircraft which was to cross over the border to do battlefield air-interdiction and airfield strikes. The Hunter was a manoeuvrable aircraft like the F-86, and we had gained valuable experience during DACT with our F-86s. So we pretty much knew what tactics to employ. Firstly, force the Hunter to get into a vertical plane combat where our superior thrust-to-weight ratio would give us a distinct advantage. Secondly, allow the Hunter to exit and then catch him with the MiG-19’s excellent acceleration and let the heat-seeking Sidewinder do the rest.” The type served in several air wars including Vietnam; Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) received their first MiG-19 at the end of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1968. Relatively small numbers of MiG-19s were involved in extensive combat during Operations Linebacker and Linebacker 2. The aircraft could easily outturn the Phantom (and out accelerate it up to Mach 1.2) and VPAF MiG-19 downed seven F-4 Phantom IIs. Among its failings were its endurance, which was exceptionally poor.
Armament: 3 x 30-mm cannon (type dependent on variant), up to four short range air-to-air missiles (K-5 or AIM-9) (note: VPAF aircraft were cannon only)
9. Folland/HAL Gnat ‘Petter’s Pocket Rocket’
Though highly specialised as a short range dogfighter, the tiny and viciously manoeuvrable, Gnat developed a fierce reputation in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war— earning the nickname ‘Sabre-slayer‘. The Gnat shot down seven Pakistani Canadair Sabres, though two Gnats were downed by PAF fighters. During the the Battle of Boyra, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Gnats downed two PAF Canadair Sabres in minutes and badly damaged another. Another notable dogfight over Srinagar airfield saw a lone Indian pilot hold out against six Sabres scoring hits on two of the Sabres in the process before himself being shot down. The lighter, more modern, Gnat with its higher thrust-to-weight ratio had an advantage against the Sabre in the vertical plane.
Designed by W. E. W. Petter, who also created the EE Lightning, this subsonic British pugilist punched well about its weight, but in a world of supersonic radar-equipped fighters it is questionable how effectively it would have performed against a well-equipped enemy. The Gnat was the smallest jet fighter to ever see service and may well have been the tightest turning — it also had a climb rate twice that of the Sabre.
(Note: The Gnat has knocked the F-86 out of our top ten, but the Sabre was still a respectable fighter in ’69, notably where it was armed with Sidewinders.)
Armament: 2 x 30-mm ADEN cannon
8. Joint place: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17/Dassault Super Mystère/ Lockheed F-104 Starfighter ‘The Outsiders’
These fighters each had huge advantages and disadvantages and were the hardest to place in the top 10.
Any enemy foolish or ignorant enough opponent to fight the MiG-17 in the 300-330 knot regime was likely to learn a particularly nasty one-off lesson, as many did in Vietnam. Above 450 knots however, it was a pig — and its equipment was primitive; without hydraulic assistance much of the MiG-17’s manoeuvrability depended on the physical strength of its pilot! The MiG-17 was very tough and extremely reliable, but by 1969 was verging on obsolescence.
The French Super Mystère was Europe’s first supersonic fighter, but by 1969 was also showing its age, despite its good performance in the Middle East. It was liked by Israeli pilots and fought in the 1967 Six-Day War and it was said to be a decent counter to the MiG-19. During this conflict, Super Mystères achieved a number of air victories: two IL-14, one MiG-17 and two MiG-21s.
Many would argue the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter deserves a higher ranking, but the fact USAF did not use it as a fighter is revealing. That most operators used the aircraft in the fighter-bomber or maritime attack role point to the type’s limitation as a pure fighter, notably its infamously poor agility. It speed was exceptional, its armament decent and it had a large cockpit with excellent visibility for the pilot. Its combat record was at best mediocre: on 6 September 1965, a Pakistani F-104 may have shot down an IAF Dassault Mystère IV and damaged another (though this claim is disputed). The PAF lost one F-104 Starfighter during the 1965 operations, and achieved two kills (however, one of the F-104 Starfighter’s victims was a portly Breguet Alize of the Indian Navy, hardly the most challenging opponent). Later, in the 1971 war, it was trounced by the MiG-21.
On 13 January 1967, four Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-104G aircraft engaged 12 MiG-19s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force over the disputed island of Kinmen. Two MiG-19s were destroyed, one of the F-104s did not return to base and its pilot was claimed as MIA.
7. Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter ‘Schmued’s Switchblade’
Though relegated to the fighter-bomber role in US hands, the F-5 was an extremely capable air-to-air fighter, in which role it served with several air forces in 1969 (including Taiwan). In this role it is closely comparable, and in some ways superior, to the MiG-21. Later Soviet studies of captured F-5s revealed the type to have superior manoeuvrability to the MiG-21, and more benign low speed and high angle of attack handling characteristics.
Armament: Two Pontiac M39A2 20-mm cannon
6. English Electric Lightning ‘The Double Decker’
The fastest climbing and one of the most agile fighters on this list, the Lightning also boasted the best acceleration and highest service ceiling. The Lightning was a rocketship; everything was sacrificed for performance, notably endurance and the number of missiles. Though it is the received wisdom that the F2A was the best model, former Lightning pilot Ian Black noted to HushKit that this is maybe a myth, and though the F2A was the best for low level air defence over Germany, the best all-rounder was probably the F6. In an interview with Hush-Kit, pilot Ian Black noted the following aspects of life in the Lightning, “Lack of fuel was the obvious one. From a handling point of view it was gloriously over-powered, something few aircraft have. With its highly swept wing and lack of any manoeuvre /combat flaps or slats the aircraft was often flown in the ‘light- heavy buffet’ which masked any seat-of-the pants feeling of an impending stall. It actually had few of the traditional ‘vices’ but could be a handful on landing with its big fin and drag chute, which made the aircraft weathercock on a strong crosswind landing. Tyres were also by necessity very thin to fit into the wing and high pressure, so didn’t last long.”
The Lightning was superior to the F-4 in dogfight, a British Phantom pilot we spoke to opined that “You have to take advantage of the things that work for you and don’t work for him. He can out-turn you, he can out-climb you, but he ain’t going to be able to do it for very long. You can see him from a long distance, so you can get your shots off without him even seeing you. If that failed, it would be best to remain unseen. You wouldn’t voluntarily get into a turning gunfight with a Lightning, as you’re probably going to lose. Then whoever runs out of fuel first – and it’s probably him- has lost the fight. He’s got to bug out. As I said, take advantage of your own strengths and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent.”
The Lightning was never proven in combat.
Armament: Two Redtop or Firestreak missiles and/or 2/4 30-mm ADEN cannon (variant dependent)
5. Saab Draken J-35 Draken ‘Delta Berserker’
Delta wings, a data-link, a Mach 2 top speed, the ability to operate from short runways and an infra-red search and track sensor are common features for 21st century fighters but the Swedish J-35F(2) was boasting these back in 1969. It was also rumoured to have the lowest radar cross section of its generation (the MiG-21 is another likely contender for this title). The Draken was a sneak preview into the future, remarkably it did all this with half the thrust of the Lightning (the Draken had one Avon, the British aircraft two). The Draken was neither combat proven nor very agile, though uncoupling the flight control could allow pilots to perform what would later be known as the ‘Cobra’, a dramatic manoeuvre in which the nose is raised momentarily beyond the vertical position, before dropping back to normal flight. One F-15 pilot we spoke to was not impressed by the Draken, and after ‘fighting’ against it in training described it as an “underpowered MiG-21”.
Whereas the Falcon missile had a bad reputation in US service it is believed that the Swedish version, the Rb 28 with its unique seeker-head, was a superior weapon. The J-35F(2) variant was the most capable Draken in 1969.
Armament: 4 x Rb 28 Falcon or 4 x Sidewinder + 1 x 30-mm ADEN (some variants 2 x 30-mm ADEN) cannon
4. Mikoyan MiG-21 ‘Fishbed‘ – ‘Soviet switchblade’
Fast, agile, tough and small – the MiG-21 was an excellent dogfighter and the most numerous supersonic jet fighter in history, with a staggering 11,000 produced in total. The mainstay of the Warsaw Pact air forces, it served with an unparalleled 56 air arms. The lightweight Mach 2 MiG fought in Vietnam and the Middle Eastern wars. In 1969 the most capable ’21 was the SM, a comprehensively upgraded (M = Modernizirovannyy ) MiG-21S using the R13-300 engine and with a built-in GSh-23L cannon, as well as a considerably updated avionics package. The type’s greatest weaknesses were a poor endurance and lack of a medium-range weapon. When ex-MiG-21 pilot Air Marshal M Matheswaran (retd) spoke to Hush-Kit he noted the type’s fantastic acceleration, electric instantaneous turn rate and tiny radar cross section. The Soviet Union had produced a small, cheap and rugged type that could take on the best fighters of the West, a remarkable achievement.
Armament: 1 x GSh-23L cannon, two K-3 or K-13 missiles
3. Dassault Mirage III ‘Le Triangle Fantastique’
The Mirage III proved itself devastatingly effective in Israeli hands in the 1960s. The French fighter was a dependable jack of all trades, according to Mirage III pilot Gonzalo O’Kelly, “The Snecma Atar 9C was a very reliable engine, very resistant to compressor stalls and almost immune to flame out in flight. It was very easy to fly if you had enough speed, and stable around its envelope. We always flew with two supersonic fuel tanks but the aircraft behaviour was very docile. It was also very strong. It had a landing gear that would have been strong enough for carrier landings and it wasn’t unusual to see 30 people over the wings and fuselage posing for a photo. We didn’t need any ground support to start the engine, which was very good for detachments. It was very good at accelerating in a dive, no aircraft of that time could follow us. The aerodynamics were excellent but designed for high speed.” Counting against the Mirage were its relative lack of power, claustrophobic & cluttered cockpit and limited armament. According to Israeli sources, during the Six Day War of 1967, a mere twelve Mirage IIIs shot down 48 Arab aircraft.
2. Vought F-8 Crusader ‘The Last Gunfighter’
The US Navy adage, “When you’re out of Crusaders, you’re out of fighters” speaks volumes. The Crusader was an agile, responsive hotrod beloved by its pilots. Unencumbered by the weight that the long range fleet defence origins had imposed on its service rival the F-4, the Crusader was a superior dogfighter. Vought wrapped the smallest lightest airframe around the most powerful engine, gave the pilot excellent visibility and created a machine that was a delight to fly and devilishly hard to beat in a dogfight. The Crusader also carried internal guns throughout its career, a dangerous omission on earlier Phantoms, which earned the F-8 the nickname, ‘The Last Gunfighter’. According to its pilots it was ‘simply unbeatable’ in the merge, though the Crusader had an inferior armament and radar to the larger F-4. Aerodynamically the French F-8E(FN) was superior to other variants, with significantly increased wing lift due to greater slat and flap deflection and the addition of a boundary layer control — and enlarged stabilators. The US F-8L was probably the best equipped variant at this time.
- McDonnell Douglas Phantom II ‘Big Ugly’
No surprises for the top spot, the fabulous Phantom was a vast ugly battleship of a fighter, quite unlike anything else flying. The Phantom had twice the air–to-air weapon load of any other aircraft on this list, and as the F-4J, had a radar that was far superior to anything else. The Phantom also had an excellent range, was exceptionally tough and had the benefit of a two-man crew. It was the most powerful fighter on the list, with almost 36,000Ib of reheated thrust. Choosing the most formidable Phantom variant of the time is trickier — it’s a toss-up between the F-4J with its (at the time) unique ability to ‘look down’ and ‘shoot down’ (its new fangled pulse doppler radar denied opponents the liberty of hiding from radar by flying low) and the internal gun toting F-4E. Though the F-4J and F-4E were technically the most formidable Phantoms of ’69, they had yet to score a kill — and both would have to wait to be blooded in air combat (the former scored its first kill in 1970, the latter in ’72).
(It should be noted that the Royal Navy’s F-4K was also well-equipped.)
Disadvantages of the Phantom included a large size and smoky engines that made the aircraft easy to acquire visually, in this interview Gonzalo O’Kelly noted, “it was very easy to spot Phantoms from 6 or 7 miles because that huge black smoke trail that their engines left behind (except in afterburner) and because it was a big bird.” Flown and fought carefully by well-trained battle-hardened crews the Phantom was devastatingly effective and was certainly the best fighter in the world in the last year of the 1960s. The Phantom was responsible for 147 aerial victories in the Vietnam War, far more than any other US type.
|20 mm gun||3||0||1||4|
Armament: 1x 20-mm M61 rotary cannon (F-4E) + 4 AIM-9C + 4 AIM-7E2
Thank to the following people who kindly offered advice and valuable opinions in the creation of this article: Former Lightning pilot Ian Black, Jon Lake, Dave Donald, Steve Trimble, Thomas Lovegrove, former F-15 pilot Paul Woodford and Mihir Shah.
Top fighters of 1985 here. Top fighters of 1946 here. Top fighters of 2018 here. Top fighters of 1918 here.
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(Reality does not confirm to a top ten, so while our panel has taken considerable consideration in choosing the rankings the type’s relative position are to some extent arbitrary with each excelling in certain ways and lacking in others. Dedicated interceptors, such as the F-106, Su-15 and MiG-25 were excluded from selection. The Hunter, F-100 and F-86 were very close to making this list. The A-4 was disqualified on role allocation, likewise the F-105, despite 27.5 kills)
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The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as
“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.
The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.
- Interviews with pilots of the F-14 Tomcat, Mirage, Typhoon, MiG-25, MiG-27, English Electric Lighting, Harrier, F-15, B-52 and many more.
- Engaging Top (and bottom) 10s including: Greatest fighter aircraft of World War II, Worst British aircraft, Worst Soviet aircraft and many more insanely specific ones.
- Expert analysis of weapons, tactics and technology.
- A look into art and culture’s love affair with the aeroplane.
- Bizarre moments in aviation history.
- Fascinating insights into exceptionally obscure warplanes.
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