Category: Top Tens

Top Combat Aircraft of 2030


Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. We asked him to predict the top combat aircraft of 2030. This paper speculates about the future in the air combat domain. It draws on available open-source information about current aircraft and projects, and adds a healthy dose of pure speculation about the nature and objectives of possible future systems.

Looking ahead 10 years from today, what are the key trends for future combat aircraft?

In considering this, I assume continued proliferation of highly-capable long-range ground-based missile systems, coupled with continuing advances in radars, electro-optic sensor systems, long-range air-to-air missiles, and the emergence of operational hypersonic weapons.

How does this affect the design and/or development of future air combat systems?

To me, one emergent feature is a tendency to convergence in future technical solutions. The hostile air and ground counter-air environment is likely to ensure all future combat aircraft will seek to be stealthy, certainly in radar signature, but also as far as possible in the IR. There is already a detectable trend towards larger, longer-range platforms, capable either of wide area response to counter air threats, or the long-range delivery of strike and area-denial weapons at significant stand-off ranges, at least for those operators with large geography to protect or control.

Additionally, the range, and hence size of air-launched weapons is increasing, again promoting a trend towards larger platforms. When this is coupled with a need to carry powerful sensors, and to be, as far as possible, stealthy, it is likely that platform agility will become less of a driver. Propulsion technologies continue to advance, and may, in some instances pace airframe development.

So what form does this convergence in platform design take? At present there appear to be three favoured configurations:

  1. Large, twin-engine, closely-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-22 and the Su-57, this configuration appears to be aimed at the manoeuvrable, air-superiority role, with an additional emphasis on all-aspect stealth. It is expected to be used to control and deny contested airspace, and to create local air superiority to enable other missions.
  2. Smaller, single or twin-engine, close-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-35 (single engine) and J-31 (twin-engine), this configuration appears to be primarily aimed at multi-role missions delivering strike, with an organic air combat capability. Penetration of contested airspace will be required to deliver the strike role, but supersonic performance and energy manoeuvrability will not be as great as the F-22/Su-57 class.
  3. Large, twin-engine, long-coupled canard, near-delta. Exemplified by the J-20, this class of aircraft appears to maximise payload-range and weapons flexibility, with some potential compromise to signature and manoeuvre capability. One key, and new, role could be as Area Access Denial systems, using long range weapons to engage (or deter) not only threat combat aircraft, but enablers such as tankers and AEW platforms.

Notwithstanding this convergence in high-end air combat capabilities, small Nations seeking to deter and defend against aggression, rather than to dominate outside their borders, are likely to continue to need an agile, rapid response, interception capability, probably supplemented by the best available ground-based systems. Some older platforms, with suitable long-range weapons and system upgrades, will still have capability in this role, and some emerging projects exist that appear to be adopting J-31-like (twin-engine F-35) configurations.

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It is important to realise that the delivery of air capability will be dependent not only on platform capabilities, but much more critically, on the total air combat system. In the end, any of the future combat aircraft discussed below will also rely on the performance of on-board and off-board sensors; command and control, communications, networking and datalinks; weapons capabilities; organic and off-board electronic warfare and protection systems, and so on. Material on US projects suggests the use of cooperative autonomous systems to enable strike operations,  including targeting, deception, communications relay and electronic attack.

Consequently, the trend for further integration and networking of air and ground-based sensors, and on-board and off-board electronic warfare systems will continue, in an effort to gain a situational awareness advantage, and to deny situational awareness to threats. This itself, is likely to increase pressure to further develop cyber and deception capabilities, to degrade and dis-integrate opposition air defences. It is also possible that future efforts by the three big players (US, Russia and China) may seek to exploit some space-based capabilities, beyond the current pervasive use of GPS.

This piece is speculative. It does not draw on any special knowledge. Instead, I consider what might be likely responses to the developing environment. As guesses about the future are notoriously unreliable, I expect many will disagree with my assessments. That’s OK – I don’t pretend to know the future, but I’m happy to provoke a bit of debate.

Air combat systems – 2030

At the end of the next decade, the mature and emergent systems are likely to be:

US mature US emergent

F-22 F/A-XX

F-35 F-X

Russia mature Russia emergent

Su-57 Mig 41

Su-35 derivatives

China mature



Europe mature Europe emergent

Typhoon Tempest

Rafale Airbus-Dassault FCAS

Gripen E

Other emergent

TFX Korea

F3 Japan

India ?

Brief comments on these systems follow, indicating my view of the current state of play, and expressing some views on capability in the 2030 timeframe, program aspects etc. starting with the those that are likely to be mature in 2030.

2030 Mature Systems

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor 


Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: Mature

2030 Status: At life-of-type

The aircraft is successful in service, but has poor availability, and is (by US standards) small in numbers. As a result, F-22 presence is often in the form of small deployed detachments rather than significant numbers.

The enigma about the F-22 is that there has been continued resistance to proposed upgrade programs. This suggests that US plans for a replacement are already in hand and perhaps proceeding in the Black world. While the F/A-XX program is examining replacements for the F-18 E/F, there is little visibility of the USAF F-X program intended to replace the F-22.

If a future program fails to mature in time, an upgrade may be required. This would be likely to address electronic obsolescence, and bring radar, EW and other systems up to the state-of-the-art. A desirable, but unlikely, upgrade would be a fuselage stretch to increase fuel capacity and increase weapons-bay length, increasing mission flexibility.

Breaking news, as this article was being prepared, is a pitch from Lockheed-Martin to the DoD (and possibly Japan), to upgrade F-22 with elements of the F-35 mission system, as well as some changes to structure and coatings.

Lockheed F-35 Lightning II 


Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Situational awareness node)

Configuration: B (single engine)

2018 Status: In development, and in service

2030 Status: Mature

The F-35 is set to be the mainstay of many Nations’ air capability for the next two decades. At present, although the aircraft is in service, the development program continues.

The initial challenges in the program were seen to lie in developing a common configuration meeting Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps needs, with stealth, good supersonic and manoeuvre performance, and, where required ASTOVL and carrier capability. In practice, the real challenge has turned out to be software integration and qualification, for the many diverse systems incorporated in the aircraft.

By 2030, the aircraft and its systems should be fully mature, and at the peak of its capability. In USAF service, the aircraft is seen as a strike adjunct to the F-22, but is perhaps increasing in importance as the availability of the F-22 has been relatively poor. The enabling aspects of JSF in providing and distributing situational awareness within and across the force is a key, and perhaps under-appreciated capability.

Sukhoi Su-35 derivatives


Image Credit: Jacek Siminski

Role: Air Combat (with numerous other variants)

Configuration: Conventional

2018 Status: Mature

2030 Status: Obsolescent

I would not consider the Su-35 to be a major capability in 2030, except, perhaps in the Air Defence role, where its long range, high speed, large radar, and ability to carry large numbers of long-range AAMs, should continue to provide significant deterrence against all but the highest-end threats.

Sukhoi Su-57


Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: In development, just entering service

2030 Status: Mature

The Su-57 could turn out to be an enduring and significant air combat capability. In 2018, the type has just been operationally deployed for the first time, and, assuming development continues, the aircraft should eventually provide a significant air superiority capability, with low signature, good performance and range.

How successful the program will be in delivering a well-integrated, well-armed, highly capable low signature fighter remains to be seen. With good program outcomes, this could be the Su-27 for the 2020s and beyond. At the time of writing, limited production is in progress, and there is some suggestion that the pace of the program has been slowed, either to await the readiness of the production standard engine, or in response to economic conditions.

There is a potential for large numbers of aircraft to be produced to replace both the MiG-29 and Su-35 in Russian service, and a somewhat variable prospect that the Su-57 might be co-produced in India to meet their future heavy fighter requirements. While the aircraft is still in development, final program outcomes are unknown, but I would expect Su-57 to emerge as a highly capable, well-equipped and mature capability by 2030.

Chengdu J-20


Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Area Denial, Precision Strike)

Configuration: C

2018 Status: In development, just entering service

2030 Status: Mature

The J-20 represents the first of what is, in my view, a new class of combat aircraft. While the aircraft could easily deliver a MiG-31-like large area air defence capability, I believe it has a broader remit, dependent on the availability of large, long-range, and possibly hypersonic weapons.

The long-coupled canard near-delta configuration should deliver a broad centre of gravity range. When this is coupled with the large size of the aircraft, its high fuel capacity and large weapons bays, I suggest that the J-10 would be well suited to what we used to call in the UK the Control and Denial of Theatre Airspace, over very large geographic areas.

The aircraft has just entered service, and has attracted recent attention as it has been seen carrying an external targeting pod. Future roles are going to be dependent on weapons integration, but long-range air defence, including access denial to not just combat aircraft, but AWACS, tankers and ships is not beyond the realms of possibility. Currently, China seems to have the ability to develop and field complex systems with remarkable speed. The J-20 is likely to be a significant player within a decade.


Shenyang J-31

Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Carrier Air Defence)

Configuration: B (twin engine)

2018 Status: In development

2030 Status: Mature

The J-31 is a twin-engine F-35 look-alike, and appear to have been designed to deliver similar roles, although it is not entirely clear whether the primary Chinese role will be as a carrier-borne aircraft or not.

The configuration is very similar to the F-35, but it is suggested that the aircraft may carry the PL-15 missile, which is similar to the MBDA Meteor.

By 2030, the J-31 should be mature and in service, presumably with the Chinese Navy carriers, but possibly also with other Nations, as the system appears to be being offered for export. However, the likely customers are perhaps limited (Pakistan, Egypt?). Much will depend on how well integrated and networked the J-31 turns out to be.

That said, as a carrier-based strike aircraft, with the additional capability of carrying effective and long-range AAMs, the J-31 could still fill a useful niche in tactical control, for example, of South China Sea airspace.

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Eurofighter Typhoon/Dassault Rafale


Role: Multi-Role (Air Superiority, Air Defence, Strike)

Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

2018 Status: Mature, but in spiral development

2030 Status: Mature

Typhoon and Rafale represent high-end 4th generation capability. Equipped with a wide range of weapons systems, their capabilities continue to be enhanced. The introduction of Meteor on both aircraft, and active e-scan radar on Typhoon, should ensure that these capable aircraft remain effective for some time to come.

Both aircraft have some signature reduction measures in place, but are not considered stealthy. As a result, over time, their ability to deliver Air Superiority may diminish somewhat. That said, the long-range of the Meteor AAM should mean their effectiveness is retained against all but the most challenging threats. In permissive environments, their flexibility in the strike role should ensure their continued effectiveness out to 2030.

Saab Gripen E/F


Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Strike, Situational Awareness)

Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

2018 Status: Completing development

2030 Status: Mature

The Gripen E is a highly integrated agile air defence aircraft, with a robust and flexible strike capability. The E/F-model, particularly when operating in a networked environment, will remain a capable air defence aircraft out to 2030 and beyond. Although not a stealth aircraft, its ability to use and share networked information allows third-party targeting and high situational awareness. Armed with Meteor and IRIS-T, and with an active e-scan radar, Gripen E/F will remain a capable air defence aircraft in the 2030s environment.

However, it is likely that by the 2030s, the proliferation of highly capable surface-to-air systems and stealthy air defence platforms will increasingly challenge Gripen in the air superiority and strike roles. Gripen has been quite widely exported, and should retain significant capability as a regional air defence and strike system against all but the most capable threat systems.

Speculation – Developmental Systems

The systems discussed below are those about which little is known at present, and, in some cases, are just conjecture. For convenience, I’ll consider the known or likely needs of the key players – the US, Russia, China, Europe and other nations.

US – future systems

As we have seen from the earlier discussion, there is an emerging capability gap around USAF air superiority systems, given the lack of a program for a capability upgrade to the F-22. A replacement program, F-X, is in existence, but little hard information is available. There is also a lack of clarity about future US Navy plans to replace the F/A-18 E/F/G under the F/A-XX program.

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USAF 6th Generation Fighter F-X


Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: In development (?)

2030 Status: Entry to service

The limited information available suggests that the USAF is seeking a system-of-systems approach, where a range of sensor, communications, electronic, cyber, platform(s) and weapons would deliver its future capability. There is an indication that the platform element of this would gave significantly greater range and payload than the current F-22, while retaining the ability to be both stealthy and supersonic.

One enabler for this is seen as the use of variable cycle propulsion systems, offering modes at higher bypass ratio for the cruise, and lower bypass ration for take-off, acceleration and dash. Adjunct systems are likely, and might include long-range ground-based air defence systems; stand-off, and possibly space-based, sensor systems; and, speculatively, some autonomous systems which might deliver targeting, communications relay or EW capabilities.

Given US conviction of its superiority in LO technologies, this aspect is likely to be emphasised. Consequently, I would not anticipate a J-10 style solution as the US believe canards too much of a compromise in this area. There has been substantial research in unconventional control devices for LO systems, and there is a US desire to avoid vertical tail surfaces if possible.

Based on all this – a large highly swept delta, with minimal tail surfaces, and active use of innovative control systems appears likely. To be effective, such a platform would need to carry highly effective and long-range AAMs, and would be supported by networked detection, tracking and targeting systems, as well as stand-off electronic warfare and cyber capabilities.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.



Role: Multi-role (Air Defence, Strike, EW)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: In development (?)

2030 Status: Entry to service

The F/A-XX program reflects a US Navy need to replace the F/A-18 E, F, and G in the mid-2020s as these platforms reach their service lives. Compared to the USAF requirement for a 6th gen fighter, the future F/A-XX is likely to constrained by carrier deck size and possible weight constraints, and also by the necessity to operate within the deployed environment of the carrier battle group.

The available material discussing the project expresses similar aspirations to F-X in terms of the system being networked and integrated with other components in order to achieve the required capability effects. That said, there are suggestions that the US Navy may seek a somewhat more agile system that that proposed for the USAF.

There are some interesting programmatic issues, not least the question as to why the Navy doesn’t simply acquire more F-35C to replace the Super Hornets. My guess is that the Navy will seek to have a program which draws on the technologies being developed for F-X and F/A-XX, but will seek to acquire a Navy-specific solution rather than a common system.

On configuration, I think a Navy F/A-XX would be smaller and more agile than the Air Force F-X. It will also need compromises to be made to achieve the deck landing and take-off requirements, and these may result in a somewhat less stealthy solution than the F-X.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.

Russia – future systems

RAC MiG MiG-41


Role: Air Defence (Area Denial?)

Configuration: Unknown (A?)

2018 Status: In Development

2030 Status: Entry to service

The MiG 41 is a replacement for the MiG 31 interceptor, currently in service with the Russian Air Force. Very little information is available, and what is available appears contradictory and unlikely.

There is discussion of an aircraft capable of Mach 4+; reference is made to the MiG 41 being a totally new design; but other sources suggest it will draw heavily on the in-service MiG 31.

What can be said is that the MiG-41 will be large, fast and heavy. All these attributes are driven by the geography of Russia and the consequential vast area of airspace that the interceptor force would seek to control. We can also say that the aircraft will carry high powered electronically scanned radars, will have good electronic attack and protection systems, and will deploy large, long-range, and probably hypersonic air-to-air missiles.

Although I would expect some efforts to be made to reduce the signature of the aircraft compared to the MiG 31, I doubt this will dominate, because the interception mission is likely to involve high-speed and high-power operations, resulting in a significant IR signature. Also, I would expect the Russians to seek to out-gun their threats by using very long-range high-speed weapons, enabling the carrier aircraft to stay out of harm’s way.

A possible configuration would be a twin-engine, close-coupled tailed near-delta, significantly larger than the F-22. I’d expect a more shaped and slender appearance than the current MiG 31, and large internal weapons bays to support long-range hypersonic AAMs and area denial weapons.

European – future systems

Team Tempest Tempest

Team Tempest infographic CREDIT BAE SYSTEMS

Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike, EW)

Configuration: Unknown (A?)

2018 Status: Concept Development

2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

At this stage, not too much should be read into the configuration shown at the recent Farnborough Show. The general shape and size, however, and the associated presentation material, are well-aligned with the hypothesis that the future direction for air combat systems is towards large, stealthy, very flexible platforms, operating in a highly cooperative networked system-of-systems.

The final form of Tempest will depend on which Nations come on board to participate in the project. In essence, the choice here is a bit limited, as France and Germany have announced their own project and are thus ruled out, at least for the moment. In addition, Tempest would be competitive with future US systems, and there are strong disincentives for BAE to collaborate on this project with the US, as this would result in significant constraints due to US International Traffic in Arms Regulation legislation, and might also impact on its desire for design leadership.

Who else might become involved? Possibilities would appear to include Italy, Sweden and Turkey, all of which are not strongly aligned with the US, and are likely to have future air combat needs. Japan can be ruled out, due to its close ties with the US, and India is also unlikely, due to its recent technical alignment being with Russia rather than the West.

Whatever partners are involved, alignment of requirements will be the key. This might just be a problem for Sweden, which despite strong past industrial cooperation between SAAB and BAE Systems, might just prefer a smaller, more agile local air defence solution rather than the ambitious air superiority and penetrating strike capabilities at which Tempest appears to be directed.

Airbus-Dassault FCAS


Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: Concept development

2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

Airbus Defence and Space of Germany, and Dassault of France, have agreed to cooperate on the FCAS project to develop a future European combat aircraft. The information available on this project is very slight, but follows the familiar themes of being stealthy and operating as part of a networked system-of-systems.

Material from Airbus includes a twin-engine, tailed, near-delta configuration with twin vertical fins. Dassault material includes a significantly more challenging twin-engine tailless delta, with no vertical surfaces. Both concepts appear somewhat smaller than the BAE Systems Tempest configuration shown at Farnborough, and may thus be aimed at the fighter mission with a secondary strike capability, rather than a true multi-role platform.

Key issue for this program will be alignment with potential customer requirements, workshare, and whether Europe can sustain two ambitious combat aircraft development programs.

Other future systems



Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, plus Strike)

Configuration: B (twin engine)

2018 Status: Proposed development

2030 Status: Uncertain

The KFX and TFX are similar twin-engine F-35 look-alikes. Both Nations expect to operate the F-35, although this currently looks a bit uncertain for Turkey. Consequently, the rationale for developing a similar configuration and size of aircraft appears questionable. My interpretation is that both Nations are seeking to enhance their Industrial capability in the aerospace sector, and the FX projects provide a way of achieving this.

I would expect both aircraft to focus on the Air Defence role,  because this would provide an opportunity to supplement rather than simply duplicate F-35 capability. It is not clear whether a secondary strike role for the aircraft is envisaged.

The KFX is slightly smaller than the otherwise similar TFX, and is likely to be powered by two (probably license-built) GE F414 engines. The TFX is the subject of a technical agreement with BAE, and interestingly two EJ200 engines are proposed.

Both programs are to some extent at political risk. It is far from clear how the relationship between South Korea and North Korea will develop, and this, together with the relationship between South Korea and the USA, is likely to have a strong influence on the KFX. Equally, Turkey’s aspiration to operate the F-35 is at substantial risk because of the poor current relationship with the USA. If that situation is not resolved, Turkey may follow a different path, resulting also in a change in direction for the TFX program.

Minor update for the TFX: It has recently been reported that GE F110 (probably the -129 version) was selected for the prototype(s)

Indian AMCA


Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: Immature concept development

2030 Status: Unlikely

The AMCA is an attempt to leap from the much-delayed Tejas to a high-end Indian F-22. On the face of it the design appears to be immature. There would need to be significant advances in Indian capabilities to field the engine, develop and refine a true stealth configuration, and integrate the aircraft and weapons system.

The only way I could see this aircraft being realised in the supposed time-scale would be with very significant assistance from a third party. India has had talks with Russia about the Su-57 for this role, and the very existence of the AMCA project suggests that these have not been successful.

I’m calling this one improbable at this stage. The project is possibly a fall-back option should the Su-57 approach fail, but in that event, it is unclear who might be approach to assist in development.

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All the major air combat players appear to be taking the view that Air Superiority and Strike in the 2030s will be delivered by a networked system-of-systems. The air platforms will be generally large, stealthy, and capable of delivering Air Superiority and Strike capabilities. It is likely that long-range AAMs and strike weapons will be used, and the platform capabilities will be supplemented by adjunct systems, which might include targeting, electronic attack, decoy, communications and cyber capabilities. China and Russia are likely to deploy long-range hypersonic weapons with the intent of creating an Area Denial capability.

It would be surprising if the US were not to follow suit, and given the time required to develop complex air combat systems, it would be surprising if substantial F-X and F/A-XX related activities were not underway in the Black Project world. The recent floating by Lockheed-Martin of a proposal to upgrade the F-22, using the systems developed for the F-35, may indicate an emerging need for a capability sustainment program to keep the F-22 in service longer, while awaiting the outcome of a replacement program.

The most significant air combat systems in 2030 would appear likely to be:

Air Superiority


Russia: Su-57

Access Denial

Russia: MiG-41

China: J-20

Air Defence

France/Germany: FCAS

Sweden: Gripen E/F

China: J-31


UK & partners: Tempest

Or a joint program with Airbus-Dassault and BAE Systems

US: F-35

What else could be out there?

This paper does not consider purely Strike systems. It is, however likely that all the major parties will continue the development of stealthy autonomous strike systems. In the US this might be the Lockheed SR-91, or its Boeing competitor.

All the major parties are also focussed on hypersonic weapons systems. Not only are such systems hard to defeat, they almost inevitably have long-range. Applications are likely in area denial, and in countering high-value assets. Boost-glide vehicles are a possibility, offering the prospect of rapid (non-nuclear) strategic strike capability.

Autonomous vehicle applications are already extending beyond strike and reconnaissance, into tankers, communications relay, and electronic warfare, and this trend will continue.

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The Ultimate World War I Fighters

“Biplanes are soooo 1918”

A hundred years ago the armistice of November 11th 1918 ended the fighting on the Western Front and largely brought to a close four years of continuous frenetic aviation development. Had the fighting continued into 1919 these are the types that would have been in the front line; Snarks and Rumplers would have been as well known today as Camels and Fokkers. 

Mehr davon bitte! The SPAD 13 was amongst the best fighters of 1918, what would take the top spot in 1919?

This group represents the ultimate development in Great War fighter aircraft yet despite their potential, none of these aircraft saw operational service before the end of hostilities and chances are you’ve never heard of any of them (unless you’re over 100 years old and happened to be employed in the aviation sector in the early interwar period).

In 1918 aircraft designs were churned out at an astounding rate, for example the Fokker V20 of early 1918 was allegedly designed and built in six and a half days. As a result the aircraft below are limited to single seat, single engine aircraft only to limit the potential entries and help maintain the sanity of the compiler.

Honourable Mention: Orenco-Curtiss Model D

“I am quite attractive and historically significant, why did not they save me from the scrapman?”

Be an American Eagle! (fly a French plane)

Despite being the first nation to actually fly an aeroplane, US aviation lagged behind the European powers when they entered the conflict in 1917. All the combat aircraft operated by the American Expeditionary Force over the Western front were either French or British. In 1919 however the first indigenous American fighter design to enter production (though still equipped with a French engine) took to the air in the form of the Orenco Model D.

The aircraft was apparently excellent, test pilot Clarence Coombs (who gained second place in the inaugural Pulitzer Trophy the following year in the Curtiss Kitten) reporting “This aircraft performs better than the Sopwith Camel and Snipe, the Thomas-Morse, the Nieuport and Morane Parasol, the Spad and S.V.A.” which was praise indeed, and thus the Army ordered a batch of fifty production aircraft. So why is Orenco virtually unknown today? Well it turned out that the US Army had bought the rights to the design from Orenco and then offered a tender to companies to actually build the production aircraft. In a cruel twist, the winning (i.e. cheapest) bid came not from Orenco themselves but from the aviation giant Curtiss. Curtiss tinkered with the design a little and duly manufactured the fifty fighters.

Orenco meanwhile folded shortly afterwards and became largely forgotten by history. 

10. Sopwith Snark

“Do you like Lewis Carroll?” “Not really, no”

Likely possessing the coolest name ever applied to an aircraft, the Sopwith Snark was a crazy blend of the somewhat old-fashioned and incredibly futuristic. The Snark’s triplane format was generally considered passé by the end of the war but its revival by Sopwith (whose Triplane of 1916 was one of the greatest successes of the conflict) was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. One of two fighters proposed by Sopwith (the other being a run-of-the-mill biplane named the Snapper) in 1918 to replace its own Snipe, which was then entering service, the Snark was intended to operate at high altitude and the low wing loading offered by the triplane layout was seen as ideal to maintain manoeuvrability at height. It also conferred upon the Snark a prodigious weight-lifting capacity which was employed to carry the Snark’s unprecedented armament of six machine guns. This installed armament made it the most heavily armed fighter of the Great war period and would not be equalled until the prototype Gloster Gauntlet took to the skies in 1932 with the same arrangement of four wing-mounted Lewis and two fuselage Vickers gun installation. Even then the Gauntlet reverted to just the twin Vickers armament in its production guise. 

The four square patches visible on the lower wing provided access to the ammunition drums of the Lewis guns. The firepower of the Snark would not be surpassed by a British fighter until the prototype Hawker Hurricane was fitted with eight Brownings in August 1936.

Similarly forward-looking was its construction, the Snark featured a wooden monocoque fuselage that conferred high strength for low weight. It would be the last RAF fighter, experimental or otherwise, to fly with such a fuselage until the prototype Mosquito fighter W4052 of 1941. The Snark appeared in public on just one occasion and it was noted that it ‘chucked stunts’ and seemed ‘uncommonly fast’. Upon landing out popped test pilot Harry Hawker, who was flying without a coat, though ‘everybody else was cold enough though well wrapped up.” 

Massive cuts to the armed forces at the end of the war meant that there would be no production order for the forward-looking, stunt-chucking and demonstrably warm Snark, thus depriving aviation writers the opportunity to use the phrase ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ in articles and features for evermore. A cruel blow.

Despite a nearly-successful entry into the motorcycle manufacturing business (Under the name ABC motors), Sopwith was saddled with insurmountable tax debts from its massive wartime production and was wound up in 1920. Though Tom Sopwith, Harry Hawker and three others immediately bought the assets of Sopwith as the H.G. Hawker Engineering company which would ultimately become a giant of the British aviation industry. 

9. Zeppelin D.I

In 1918, Germany’s strict Irony laws (die Ironiegesetze) decreed that all metal aircraft had to be photographed in front of trees.

Designed by Claude Dornier, the Zeppelin D.I was one of very few truly revolutionary aircraft in aviation history. The first aircraft to be built and flown with a stressed-skin metal construction throughout, the Zeppelin was the progenitor of virtually all modern fixed wing aircraft but never entered service and today is obscure in the extreme. 

Zeppelin sold two D.Is to the US in 1921. One was evaluated by the Navy and this one by the Army Air Service. Despite being earmarked for preservation it was scrapped in 1926.

Zeppelin’s name is inextricably linked with airships but the company were (and indeed still are) specialists in more general aluminium engineering so it was hardly surprising that they would seek to apply this material to aircraft construction. In the case of the D.I, construction was of duralumin (an alloy of aluminium and copper) throughout. This alloy would later be used to build the ill-fated Hindenburg passenger airship. 

Zeppelin’s D.I was present, though not an official entry, at the second fighter competition at Adlershof but was struck by incredible ill-fortune. Despite being grounded at the factory’s behest pending fitment of the correct wing attachment, the Zeppelin was flown anyway and fatally crashed when the upper wing departed from the aircraft, killing ace Wilhelm Reinhard. Curiously The D.I had been flown minutes earlier by Herman Goering and one wonders how history would have changed had he been the victim rather than the luckless Reinhard. This accident, though seemingly the result of ill-luck rather than any flaw in the aircraft inevitably coloured opinions. Whether or not this had an effect when the Zeppelin appeared at the next fighter contest is open to question but despite its promise the metal aircraft did not put up a particularly good showing, even when fitted with Germany’s best inline engine, the 185 hp BMW. “Does not possess characteristics of a modern fighter. Ailerons too heavy.” noted  Heinrich Bongartz, commander of the Aircraft Test Centre at Aldershof in a remarkably succinct but damning report. Had fighting continued it is likely that a developed version would have addressed the shortcomings this aircraft possessed.

Too advanced for you: Dornier Do H Falke

Unlike so many other hopeful German types, work on this fighter did not cease with the treaty of Versailles so we are granted a tangible glimpse of how this machine would have evolved if the conflict had continued. Dornier developed the design into the monoplane Dornier Do H ‘Falke’ (Falcon) of 1922, five examples of which were built in Switzerland and Italy. The Falke demonstrated a terrific turn of speed but never entered production, being apparently just too ahead of its time. The US Navy for example declared it was ‘too advanced’ for their needs after evaluating the aircraft in 1923.

8. Pfalz D.XV

“Am I not a looker?”

Recipient of a major production order exactly one week before the end of hostilities, the Pfalz D.XV bid fair to reverse the prevailing attitude that Pfalz fighters were invariably inferior to their Fokker rivals. An unusual design, the fuselage of the Pfalz was placed halfway between upper and lower wing and attached to both by complex struts, resulting in a distinctly ungainly look. The D.XV was notable also for its complete absence of bracing wires as both wings were cantilever units. Despite its clumsy appearance, the new Pfalz was an impressive performer. When both were fitted with the same BMW engine, it was slightly faster than the Fokker D.VII and the new Pfalz matched its rival for rate of climb.

Entered into the third fighter trial at Adlershof, the performance of the D.XV was sufficient to warrant an order despite issues of tail-heaviness (which should have been relatively easy to cure) and being difficult to land – neither seen as particularly serious when weighed against the aircraft’s excellent performance. It was also noted that Pfalz’s production capacity was superior to Fokker and for this reason alone, the new fighter, at least as good as the D.VII but available quickly in great numbers made the Pfalz an extremely attractive machine to the Inspektion der Fliegertruppen (Idflieg).

“No, I am not”

The D.XV immediately entered production but time was not on Pfalz’s side and not a single example of the D.XV was to reach the front. It is not definitely known how many complete aircraft were built, probably no more than four, but in 1919, when Allied officials inspected Pfalz’s Speyer factory, they found 74 complete fuselages on the production line. Curiously, two D.XVs were exported to Italy for evaluation as late as 1920, presumably licence production there was being considered. The ultimate fate of both these aircraft sadly remains unknown.

Despite never again building a complete aircraft, Pfalz Flugzeugwerke still exists today, as a component subcontractor to both Airbus and Boeing amongst others.

7. Nieuport Nighthawk / Gloster Mars

“Tonight I’m going to party like I’m Negative no.1999”

Had the war continued into 1919 the British would have had a serious problem as virtually all their future aircraft types were designed around the ABC Dragonfly, a radial engine that promised much but delivered little. One such was the outstanding Nieuport Nighthawk, the design of which would set the standard for British fighters for the next twenty years. Despite its name, the Nieuport and General Company, often referred to as ‘British Nieuport’, was a completely separate entity to Nieuport in France. It had been set up to construct Nieuport aircraft under licence, hence the name, but by 1918 was building Sopwith Camels and eventually set up its own design office under Henry Folland, who had earlier designed the superlative SE5a. 

A Nighthawk demonstrating that it really can fly. This one has sensibly been re-engined with an Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar.

When the Dragonfly engine was running properly, the Nighthawk demonstrated superior characteristics to the Sopwith Snipe, and was the first of an array of radial-engined biplane fighters that formed the backbone of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s fighter force until the arrival of the Hurricane and Spitfire in the late 1930s. Despite being the ancestor of virtually all British inter-war fighters, the Nighthawk itself was plagued by the hopelessness of its engine. The Dragonfly never developed its advertised power, was prone to colossal overheating – Nighthawks under test were recorded landing with charred propellor hubs – and most seriously of all the engine had been inadvertently designed to run at its own resonance frequency, meaning that simply switching the engine on caused it to shake itself apart. 

Marketing a fighter aircraft to the public as a ‘sporting plane’ on the basis of compartments for ‘compact load’ suggests an air of desperation on the part of Nieuport and General.

The Nieuport and General Company closed down in 1920 but all was not lost for their seemingly unlucky aircraft. The Nighthawk was known to be an excellent design let down solely by its unreliable engine and production was continued by the Gloucestershire Aircraft company (later to be known as Gloster) who snapped up both development rights and designer Folland. At Gloster the Nighthawk was renamed the Mars, re-engined with a selection of motors that actually worked, and then developed into a confusing swathe of broadly similar types that served with distinction in many air arms across the globe. Examples included the Gloster Nightjar, essentially a Nighthawk with a Bentley rotary, which served operationally as a carrier fighter, and the similar Gloster Sparrowhawk, the first fighter operated by the Japanese Navy. Meanwhile on land a Nighthawk had been fitted with a Napier Lion and shorter wings, inexplicably named the Bamel, and became for a brief period the fastest aircraft in the world. Folland’s designs at Gloster progressed by a process of evolution by way of the Grebe, Gamecock and Gauntlet, to the famous Gladiator, the last fighter biplane of the RAF and a direct descendant of the Nighthawk.

6. Fokker V29

“Where the hell is my lower wing?! …Oh yeah, my mistake”

Similar but not the same: the Fokker D.X of 1921.

Fokker built the best fighting monoplane and biplane to serve the Central powers in significant numbers during the war, the V.29 prototype sought to combine the best of both worlds by marrying the fuselage of the biplane D.VII to the cantilever parasol wing of the D.VIII. This simple scheme resulted in an excellent aircraft that shared top place at the third Adlershof fighter competition in 1918 with the Rumpler D.I (of which more later). Pilots universally adjudged the V29 to have the best handling of all aircraft at the competition. If the war had continued the new fighter would have entered service as the Fokker D.IX and would likely have proved formidable. As it was, the amazing and continuing success of Fokker’s D.VII meant that there was no great rush to put the new monoplane into production and only the prototype was ever built. Some years later Fokker, by now operating once more in his native country of the Netherlands, built eleven of the D.X, a Hispano-Suiza powered development of the D.VIII which saw service in Spain and Finland and bore more than a passing resemblance to the earlier V29.

Unlike nearly every other manufacturer on this list, Fokker enjoyed great success producing both civil and military aircraft for many years until finally ceasing aircraft manufacture in 1996.

5. Rumpler D.I

Air ace Ernst Udet (left) chats with Edmund Rumpler in front of a D.I. Both survived the First World War only to die during the Second.

The height at which aircraft were compelled to operate had inexorably risen throughout the war and the tubby Rumpler D.I possessed unmatched high altitude performance. Described as ‘perhaps the best fighter Germany never had in 1918’, the D.I appeared in ever more developed form at three of the Adlershof fighter competitions and was declared joint winner of the third in concert with the lash-up Fokker V29.

Spot the difference: this earlier iteration of the D.I sports a more rounded rudder and different ailerons. Rumpler fiddled with the same basic design for over a year.

The Rumplertropfen was aerodynamic, refined and a massive flop. Several can be seen in Fritz Lang’s epic ‘Metropolis’.

Both were fitted with the exceptional BMW 185hp engine, specifically designed for high altitude performance and the results were impressive. During the competition the Rumpler was the only aircraft able to gain an altitude of 8200 metres, which was spectacular stuff indeed for 1918. Despite immediately placing an order for 50 however, not a single machine made it to the front, though a total of 22, including prototypes, appears to have been built before fighting ceased. The cause for the delay seems to have been teething problems that Rumpler engineers could never quite overcome before the armistice; the D.I was a complicated aircraft fitted with such luxuries as cockpit heating, oxygen and radio equipment, and a monocoque fuselage and as such pointed the way forward not only to future fighters of greater sophistication but also ever-greater design and development timescales. Engineers at Rumpler had been tinkering with the design of what would become the D.I since mid 1917, a stark contrast to the rapid turnaround of designs at Fokker. 

Rumpler Flugzeugwerke was liquidated in 1920, though Edmund Rumpler went on to design the remarkable Rumplertropfen car which was a technical triumph but a commercial failure. Only 100 were built of which two survive today. Rumpler himself, being Jewish, had his career ruined after the Nazis gained power and was briefly imprisoned. He died in 1940.

4. Gordou-Leseurre Type B (later GL-2)

Flash Gordou: the world’s sole surviving Gordou-Leseurre is this Finnish GL.22 at the Finnish Air Force Museum.

Probably the best aircraft designed and built by brothers-in-law, the Gordou-Leseurre Type B was just beginning deliveries when the conflict ceased. The French were less monoplane-averse than their British allies and the Type B was the best of the numerous ‘parasol’ types built by the French during the war. As you may have guessed, the Type B was preceded by the Type A which was very fast indeed (in tests it was nudging 250 km/h which made it unofficially the fastest aircraft in the world) but doubts over the structural integrity of the wing mounting led to a modest redesign with a generally lightened structure and heavily reinforced wing. This process delayed service entry of the new aircraft, now named Type B, and as a result this extremely promising high speed monoplane missed the war, a mere 20 examples being manufactured of the initial 1918 version. 

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The first French ‘arresting gear’ consisted of cables weighed down with sandbags. It didn’t work very well.

This was not the end of the story as developed versions saw limited production for the Aeronavale first as a fighter and then as an advanced trainer. This latter version conducted carrier trials aboard France’s first aircraft carrier Bearn and was adapted for use as a carrier reconnaissance aircraft.

Handfuls were produced for the air arms of Yugoslavia, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Finland and ultimately around 130 aircraft were built. The final three off the production line were civilian versions constructed in the early 1930s for use in competition aerobatics.

As is invariably the case with in-laws, relations between Gordou and Leseurre became strained and after producing a few modestly successful designs the company closed down in 1934.

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3. Siemens-Schuckert D.VI

The D.VI demonstrates its ability to levitate its tail using only the power of ‘the Force’.

As everyone knows, the First World War ended in 1918. Except, of course, that it didn’t. It is true that the fighting ceased (mostly) in November 1918 but that was only an armistice. The war was actually brought to a close on the 28th June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In the intervening seven months, the German military had somewhat cheekily, but undeniably prudently, maintained aviation development work and even held a competition for new fighter aircraft at Adlershof between February and March 1919. Likewise Siemens-Schuckert flew the D.VI, their final aircraft design, in 1919.

The stubby D.VI was fast and agile but no one would call it pretty. This in-flight photograph is a fake.

Essentially a monoplane version of the earlier Siemens-Schuckert D.IV, the D.VI retained the exceptional rate of climb that had made its progenitor probably the best interceptor of the war and conferred upon it a useful increase in speed. The D.VI is also notable for being the only aircraft on this list powered by a rotary engine. Rotaries had been dominant as fighter powerplants in the mid-war period but had reached the limits of their development potential by 1919. The eleven cylinder Siemens-Halske Sh.III fitted to the D.VI represented the zenith of this engine type and its choice was no doubt influenced by its being built by the same parent company that made the airframe. By dint of an ingenious crank and gearing system, the torque that proved so deadly on other rotary powered aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel had been virtually eliminated and the high compression ratio meant that the Sh.III maintained an impressively high power output at altitude. As a straightforward development of a proven and formidable aircraft there is every chance the D.VI would have made for a potent fighter. As it turned out one of the prototypes was lost during testing and the other was unceremoniously burned to avoid it falling into Allied hands.

Germany had been notably more interested in the safety of their pilots than any of the other fighting powers – German fighter pilots were unique by the end of the war in that they were provided with parachutes. The D.VI continued this trend, its fuel tank was mounted externally and could be jettisoned if set on fire, giving the pilot a fighting chance to bring the aircraft safely down. Meanwhile pilots of all other nationalities could expect to burn to death in the event of their aircraft catching fire.  

2. Martinsyde F.4 Buzzard

Any British equipment associated with the First World War was contractually obliged to be photographed surrounded by mud.

The best British fighter aircraft of the war was doomed by bad timing to remain little more than a footnote in aviation history. Its success seemed assured with an order for 1450 from the RAF and several thousand more planned to be obtained or licence built by the US and France. A development of the earlier F.3, which despite excellent performance had been cursed by the non-availability of its preferred Rolls-Royce Falcon engine (which was required for the highly successful two-seat Bristol F.2b), the F.4 featured a modest redesign and mounted a more powerful Hispano-Suiza 8 delivering 300 hp. Thoroughly conventional, the Buzzard was well designed and sturdily built and its principle advantages lay in its colossal speed and exceptional rate of climb, both superior to any other British fighter.    

Spanish F.4 showing off. Airshows were more fun in 1928.

Delays in engine availability resulted in a mere 48 (or 57, depending on which source you believe) being delivered by the armistice, none of which made it to an operational squadron, though a handful were used by the Central Flying School. With the incredibly savage cutbacks to the RAF in the immediate postwar period, the Sopwith Snipe, an inferior aircraft in nearly every measurable performance parameter was selected as the RAF’s standard fighter, mainly because it was cheaper but also because it wasn’t powered by a foreign engine. Although, given the horrific debacle of the ABC Dragonfly, the fact that it was powered by a Hispano-Suiza rather than the benighted British radial would have counted massively in the Martinsyde’s favour if operational flying had continued into 1919. However all was not totally lost for Martinsyde, as the Buzzard enjoyed modest export success, ultimately flying in small numbers with the air forces of thirteen nations. Major users included Finland, Spain and the Soviet Union and eventually the creditable total of about 370 aircraft was built. 

This Buzzard is flying in the King’s Cup air race of 1922. It didn’t win.

Despite never serving its home nation operationally, it did see action with pro-treaty Free State forces during the Irish Civil war and despite being completely outdated performed limited operations during 1936 with the Republic Air force in the early stages of the Spanish Civil war. Amazingly Buzzards were used for training by Finland as late as 1940. Belgium was another potential export customer, the Belgian Air Force extensively tested an F.4 Buzzard as part of a competition to select a fighter to supplement their Fokker D.VIIs. The Buzzard lost out to the aircraft detailed below.

Like Sopwith, Martinsyde attempted to stave off postwar bankruptcy by manufacturing motorcycles. The motorcycles were excellent and quite successful but a factory fire in 1922 forced the company into liquidation. 

1. Nieuport 29 (later Nieuport-Delage Nid.29)

The best fighter in service anywhere in the world 1922.

Winner of an exhaustive competition to select a replacement for the outstanding SPAD XIII, the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 would have been built in enormous numbers had war continued. Even with the outbreak of peace over 1500 of these excellent machines were built, roughly half by Nieuport, 600 of them under licence by Nakajima in Japan with SABCA in Belgium and Macchi and Caproni in Italy building a few hundred more.

Nieuport’s chief designer Gustave Delage was the fighter king in 1916 and 17, with thousands of his diminutive sesquiplane fighters swarming through the skies. Nieuports were operated by all the Allied nations and built under licence in most of them. Captured examples even served the Central powers in significant numbers. By 1918 however SPAD had stolen the top spot; in November 1918 literally every operational single-seat fighter in the French air force was a SPAD. The competing Nieuport 28 had to suffer the ignominy of being rejected for service by its home nation and palmed off on the Americans. Delage and Nieuport had to come up with something special to regain their ascendency and the magnificent Nieuport 29, an aircraft that would prove to be the fastest and highest flying in the world, was the result. 

To emphasise its inherent Frenchness Gustave Delage made sure the new Nieuport 29 was always photographed near a major French landmark.

By the spring of 1918 Monsieur Delage had been tinkering with a succession of prototype fighters to replace the Nieuport 28 on the production line. When specifications were announced for a new fighter by the Section Technique de l’aéronautique (STAé) Delage took what the best of these prototypes and modified it further. First flown in mid-1918 (sources differ on the date) the Nieuport 29 competed with the SPAD XXI, the Martinsyde Buzzard, and the Sopwith Dolphin (in its Mk II form developed and built by SACA in France) to fulfil the new fighter requirement. All four aircraft were equipped with the same Hispano-Suiza 8fb 300 hp engine and all were impressive performers. At this stage the 29 proved the fastest of the competitors but the Buzzard demonstrated the best rate of climb. The Nieuport also failed to attain the altitude required in the original specification. Delage quickly increased the span of the new fighter and lightened the structure resulting in a significant increase in both ceiling and climb rate and in this form the Nieuport 29 was considered the best of the competing types.

Major users of the NiD.29 included France, Japan, Italy, Siam (later Thailand) and, as seen here, Belgium.

Prudently the French ordered large production of all the entries except the poorest performer, the SPAD XXI. However the continuing success of the earlier SPAD XIII in service lent no great urgency to the development of the new aircraft types. Concurrent delays in production of the all-important Hispano-Suiza 8fb engine meant that by the armistice not a single Martinsyde nor Nieuport 29 had been delivered to the Armee de l’air Français, and only 20 or so Dolphins had been completed by SACA. The coming of peace led to an immediate wind-down of French aircraft requirements, orders for the British designed Buzzard and Dolphin were cancelled and development of the new Nieuport proceeded at a more leisurely pace.

Sadi-Lecointe on his way to winning the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe for fastest moustache.

And so the best French fighter to fly during the Great war finally entered service in 1922 as the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29, the change of name being considered necessary to distinguish the French company from its British offshoot Nieuport and General. It was the fastest fighter aircraft in service anywhere in the world.

In the intervening three years Nieuport-Delage had been far from idle, developing versions of the NiD.29 for both speed and altitude. The NiD.29V was the high-speed variant and was distinguishable from the standard NiD29 by its shortened wings. It set the first post-war official speed record with pilot  Joseph Sadi-Lecointe on February 7 1920 and later became the first aircraft to exceed 300 km/h in level flight. NiD.29Vs also won both the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe and Gordon Bennett cup air races in 1920. Meanwhile the NiD.40R, an extended span version with a Rateau turbocharger was piloted by Sadi-Lecointe to ever-greater heights culminating in a record of 11,145 m (36,565 ft) on October 30 1923. 

The high-altitude NiD.40R shows off its natty extended span wings. All aircraft are best observed whilst reclining in the long grass.

The military NiD.29s gave excellent, reliable service in France throughout the 1920s, equipping some 25 squadrons of the French air force, and three examples were used in combat during the Rif war in Morocco in 1925. The only other nation to use the NiD.29 operationally was Japan. Despite beginning withdrawal of their licence built version (the Nakajima Ko.4) in 1933, many were still in service when the Sino-Japanese conflict erupted in 1937 and saw brief service over Shanghai and Manchuria. A remarkable longevity of front-line service for a 1918 design.

Nakajima Ko.4: The Japanese were keen to make the NiD.29 look like it was from the 19th century for some reason.

Nieuport dropped the Delage name in 1932 after Gustave Delage’s retirement when it merged with the Loire aircraft company. Loire-Nieuport became a component part of the nationalised SNCAO concern in 1936.


If you want to see any of these aircraft in real life your best bet at present is to go to the Finnish Air Force Museum (Suomen Ilmavoimamuseo). There the sole remaining examples of the Martinsyde Buzzard and Gordou-Leseurre Type B are exhibited not just in the same location but the same room. The last surviving Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 is in the collection of the Musée de l’air in Paris but is not apparently on display at the moment. Sadly, not a single example of any of the other aircraft in this fascinating list has survived to the present day.

Top 10 beyond visual range fighter aircraft 2018: selection process and the science of BVR combat

beast-from-east-by-abiator.jpg ‘The Infinity of Lists’ by Umberto Eco is book that covers the topic of lists. Examples cited in the book range from Hesiod‘s list of the progeny of gods to Rabelais’ list of bottom-wipes. Listing, the compulsive mind’s attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe is everywhere, and is especially popular on the odious and wonderful thing you’re now using, the internet. The top ten format of ‘listicle’ has long haunted the internet, leading me to take the rather lazy step of adopting it for this blog. Since this site started five years ago I’ve created a bunch of top 10s, ranging from the predictable (like the ‘Best fighters of World Two‘) to the deliberately silly (Top ten pusher aircraft, allegedly- but not actually – written by Werner Herzog). The furious responses the selections generated is both puzzling and to be expected. It’s odd in that you wouldn’t expect anyone to believe that reality actually conforms to a ‘top ten’ approach, and predictable in that the articles are intended to provoke debate; in some cases we have made deliberately contentious choices in our top 10s to catalyse such responses. Curiously, the fact that these articles could be said to trivialise or possibly celebrate war machines by using a format conceived for promoting pop music has not provoked any response. Which, almost, neatly brings us to the Top 10 BVR fighters. BVR may be a daunting term, but simply stands for ‘beyond visual range’. Our top 10 is an attempt to choose the ten fighters that are best at shooting down other aircraft at ranges where the pilot cannot see the opponent with his or her eyes. That I decided to separate the aircraft into within-visual range (WVR) and BVR categories is a completely artificial device, but I hope, an interesting way to consider their relative merits. Each time I have assembled this annual list I have quizzed experts in the field (though many, including Jim Smith, may not self identify as such) to help me reach my conclusions. Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. When I asked him to order operational fighter aircraft in a top 10, he asked me to consider the nature of BVR combat and sub-categories within it. As his answers were fascinating in themselves, I have presented them here as a teaser preceding the sharing of our top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. Over to Jim….
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BVR Fighter Assessment

Birds of a feather ...

OVER VIRGINIA — An F-15 Eagle is joined in formation by F-16 Fighting Falcons during a training sortie here April 19. The F-15 is assigned to the 71st Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va., and the F-16 is assigned to the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing in Richmond. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker)

I am going to start by considering what is different about BVR combat, and what system characteristics are needed to succeed? From there, I’ll go on to examine whether the scenario or setting for the air combat makes a difference to the system requirements, and then have a go at ranking aircraft in different scenarios.

I’ll leave it to you, to draw on your sources on the current state of development of the various systems. Were I to attempt this, I’d need to be aware of material I certainly could not bring to this forum.

What is required to deliver a BVR air combat capability?

Here’s how I look at BVR as a capability:

The 4 things you need to achieve, all in the context of survival, are:

Locate the target


at a sufficient distance to be able to decide what to do

– preferably without being detected yourself

These two elements of locate then push you towards platforms that

– have powerful on-board detection systems, such as Electronically-scanned radars, big radars, Low Probability of Exploitation (LPE) radars, and Infra-Red Seeker Trackers (IRST)

– and/or operate in a well-integrated system of systems, with datalink support, off-board and third-party sensors

– and may be supported by other systems countering opposition sensors, including surface and airborne radars

– and/or can operate with stealth including secure LPE communications and datalinks

As a consequence of the above, interoperability becomes important, as third parties may be providing target information, datalinks, tankers and logistics. This drives towards

compatible secure communications, IFF, tanker/refuelling systems, in turn requiring

trusted information sharing protocols and procedures between coalition allies

or the alternative approach of a self-sufficient integrated air defence system (e.g. Russia, China, Sweden)

Engage and defeat the target


Outside the opposition’s ability to engage effectively, and ideally inside your missile no escape zone

This drives you towards

 – long range missiles such as Meteor

– Third-party support, including targeting and datalink support

Dassault Rafale C Fighter Jet (8).jpg

Disengage at will

This is to allow you to either re-position for another engagement, or to withdraw

This favours

– Platforms with high energy manoeuvrability

– or all aspect stealth (generally not both high energy manoeuvrability and stealth, at least without compromise e.g in number of weapons carried)

– AESA radar to allow high-off boresight datalinks

– or third-party datalinks

Repeat as necessary

This requires the ability to

– carry enough weapons

– have good combat persistence

– and, often ignored, have sufficient availability and numbers to deliver a campaign rather than just an engagement

What does this imply for the top ten candidates ?

Situational awareness, weapons capability and combat persistence are probably more important than manoeuvre capability (g), although transonic and supersonic acceleration is helpful in creating opportunities to survive/win multiple engagements.

Situational awareness (SA) is vital because Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat, by definition, precludes visual identification of opposing systems. Electronic systems must be used instead, and so on-board and off-board radars and electronic surveillance and protection measures become very important.

There is also the interaction between SA and stealth. If you have a stealthy airframe (F-22, F-35 for example) there are likely to be big benefits in the engaging fighters running in passive and using third-party sensors to set up the engagement. If you don’t do this your stealth advantage evaporates, as the opposition knows where you are.

If you are not very stealthy, and if your primary concern is to knock down enemy strike aircraft and bombers. what you want is a very long-range missile with a large no escape zone, like Meteor. This allows you to stand off outside the kill zone of the opposition.


Another big issue is the effectiveness of any detection technologies against stealthy aircraft. Ground-based multi-static radars; lower frequency radars; AESA radars and IR Seeker Trackers will all have some capability. And who knows whether means exist of exploiting the LPE radars and comms. systems of stealthy aircraft. Once missiles are deployed, other detection opportunities may exist, including increases in signature as weapons are deployed; launch detection; detection of the missile plume etc.

Then you have the problem of numbers, closely connected to the number of BVR weapons carried, and the effectiveness of those weapons in a modern counter-measures environment. Not to mention tactics … and whether multiple engagements will be required.

Good things to have:

1) Situational Awareness

    Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radars are better than Passively Scanned Arrays; either of these is better than mechanically scanned radar

    Off-board sensors able to provide big picture good; better still if 3rd party targeting available.

2) Low observability

    But caution if this means less weapons; less platform performance; less persistence and need for 3rd party EW to avoid compromising LO by transmitting

3) High-capability weapons

    Long-range, high-speed, large No Escape Zone

    High resistance to countermeasures

    More than 2 BVR shots (ideally)

4) Sufficient combat fuel available

    To take advantage of the weapons load out

5) Good energy manoeuvrability

    To engage and dis-engage at will

    To rapidly accelerate to maximise weapon effectiveness

6) Good EW and countermeasures available

    To decrease opposition situational awareness and increase survivability.

Scenarios and broader requirements


One of the key problems to be addressed is ‘what is the scenario?’ And are other attributes also required?

What about considering 2 different views of BVR combat – Air Superiority, where the battle is taken to the opposition, and Air Defence, where the focus is on deterring and preventing incursion.

Starting with Air Defence, let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.

On the other hand, Air Defence of Russia drives you towards the MiG-31. You have to have a big, fast, aircraft because you can’t avoid the possibility of having to cover a fair distance at high speed to meet the threat. Being big means a big sensor and long-range weapons are available, and both are likely to be needed. You may be less concerned about signature and platform manoeuvrability because your ideal approach will be to stand back and hit bombers rather than engage fighters.

raf-eurofighter-typhoon-2016 Air Superiority, or perhaps Air Superiority and Offensive Counter Air is a bit of a different proposition. A key difference is that you are seeking to dominate outside your borders (or your host Nation’s borders when deployed elsewhere). It helps to be big, because you can carry a lot of fuel to allow you to be a penetrating escort to strike packages. But it also helps to be stealthy to reduce your vulnerability to ground-based systems and air defence aircraft. And it may help to be really agile – if you are going to need to disengage and re-engage, for example, or against the contingency you get forced into WVR combat.

So F-22 should be excellent at most of this, but might lack a bit in the way of combat persistence. As an OCA adjunct, able to use surface weapons to hit radars, and anti-air weapons to counter opposition Air Defence aircraft, F-35 would be excellent, but perhaps best with its pal in the F-22 nearby to ensure the F-35s could stay out of WVR.


The Su-35 and Chinese derivatives would also be strong players here. These Su-27 developments have plenty of fuel, plenty of weapons and plenty of agility. In Air Superiority some of the older variants may be looking a bit dated, but their fuel capacity, general availability in significant numbers and weapons and EW capability mean that they could be quite challenging as escorts. I think the size is driven by the geographic challenge (like the MiG-31); once you’ve got the size, fuel weapons and agility the escort role is a natural. But signature differences would give an initial advantage to stealthier systems.

The strength of Rafale and Eurofighter is their ability to take different weapons loads so they can swing between the Air Superiority role at the start of a conflict (particularly once Meteor and AESA come along) and the OCA/strike role with an Air Defence capability once Air Superiority is established.

I’d expect China to be doing dome different things with the J-20. With a hypothetical really long-range anti-air weapon, this relatively stealthy platform could force essential support assets such as tankers and AEW platforms to stand back, reducing situational awareness and combat persistence for opposition aircraft. It might also be a deterrent to maritime operations if an air-surface strike weapon were to be available. Perhaps the J-20 should be thought of as a stealthy MiG-31, aimed at large area airspace denial rather than air superiority per se.

Broader requirements may also arise, particularly given the interplay between National aspirations, geography and budget. It is only the largest economic powerhouses with global aspirations that can afford optimised specialist solutions for Strategic Strike, Tactical Strike, Air Superiority and Air Defence.

As an example, due to its perceived role in regional security, the UK is looking to mush of its future air capability being delivered by a mix of Typhoon and JSF. Strategic strike would be delivered by other systems such as cruise missiles, and it appears Typhoon will swing between Air Superiority and Strike roles as required, while JSF provides a stealthy strike capability.

Making an Assessment

So, how to go about defining a Top Ten? A decision needs to be made about whether the Top Ten focuses solely on Air Superiority, or whether the flexibility of role, which may suit many Nations economically, is an additional measure. Further, where do the specialist Air Defence aircraft like MiG-31 and Gripen fit in? If the somewhat platform focussed approach of the 2017 list is followed these should do well, as with a long-range weapon either could be a very effective deterrent against a threat strike package.

aGripen-JAS-39C-MS20-matric-262-foto-Saab (1)

A Governmental approach to ranking these systems would be reliant on extensive system modelling, intelligence data, consideration of whole life costs and so on. Even them, great care would be required to ensure the modelling represented like with like – for example matching projected future capabilities against realistic projected threat capability rather than current capability.

None of these techniques are available to me, and if they were, I could not report the outcome! Instead the assessments below are judgement-based against various roles for which the candidate aircraft might be used.

Air superiority:


1: F-22

2: Typhoon and Rafale (once Meteor and AESA are integrated)

3: F-15 and Su-35 [I’d need to know more about these systems to separate them] 

4. J-11, Su-30

Air Defence:


1: F-22 (but should be doing Air Superiority)

2: Gripen and MiG-31 – noting a limitation to Defence of the homeland 

3: Typhoon and Rafale (with or without Meteor, but would be better with Meteor and would then place above Gripen)

4: F-15, Su-35, J-11, F-35 (unsure about where to place F-35; its lack of energy manoeuvrability and low number of long-range weapons is offset by stealth)

5: J-20 (likely to improve as system matures)

6: Su-30/ F-18E/F


1: F-22 (but should be doing Air Superiority)

2: Su-35/J-11/Su-30 (Primarily because of fuel capacity)

3: F-35 (self-escort role)

4: Typhoon/Rafale (with or without Meteor, but with Meteor would be better)

 Offensive Counter Air/Strike


1: JSF (stealth, fuel)

2: Swing-role Typhoon and Rafale

3: J-20 as specialist AEW and tanker killer, and threat to maritime systems 

4: F-18E/F

5: F-16

This excludes specific strike systems such as F-15E, Su-34

Taken overall, it depends what you are looking for. The best out-and-out BVR fighter is the F-22, and it would be good for Air Defence as well.

A champion all-round capability for a non-US, Western nation, would be Typhoon or Rafale plus JSF. For Russia or China, Su-35 plus MiG-31 or J-20 plus J-11, plus specialist strike aircraft

If your focus is only on defence, then F-22, Gripen, MiG-31 and perhaps J-20 are all strong.

If your budget is limited to one combat aircraft type and your geography is limited, Gripen would be excellent. If you have a large geographic area to manage Su-35, or F-35 with tanker support.

Jim’s opinions and observations will be used in the compilation of the top 10 BVR fighters of 2018 coming very soon to

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The 10 Worst French Aircraft

mir3v_02 2 When compiling this list of terrible French aircraft we ran up against an unexpected problem: France hasn’t made many terrible aeroplanes. In creating features on the worst British, American and Soviet aircraft (reminds me, we should do German) the shortlist had to be (Frank) whittled down from thirty apiece, but here we had to work a little harder. France certainly made some mediocre aeroplanes, and some flawed designs, though few compete with some of the truly nightmarish offerings of the 20th Century’s other great aviation nations. Don’t worry though, we found a bunch of wonderfully weird French losers. Light up a Gitanes, stick Gainsbourg on the stereo and prepare to meet the ten worst French aircraft.  10. Blériot 125 ‘Verne Baby Verne’  hqdefault
After flying across the channel in his excellent Type XI monoplane, Louis Blériot spent the whole of the rest of his life trying to detract credibility from himself and his achievement. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series of large aircraft his company built throughout the 1920s. Seemingly engaged in a competition with himself to produce the aircraft most resembling an illustration from a Jules Verne novel, Blériot produced a series of unsuccessful bombers and airliners whose outlandish appearance were in direct proportion to their operational mediocrity and chief among these incredible duds was the 125. In October 1927 Blériot saw Fritz Lang’s seminal film ‘Metropolis’ and, taking the idea that life imitates art at glaringly face value, set about building an airliner to encapsulate the science fiction aesthetic he had so enjoyed on that autumn night at the Gaumont Palace cinema, Montparnasse. This, though almost undoubtedly untrue, is the only way to explain the appearance of the Blériot 125 when, in 1930, it emerged from the chrysalis of its hangar like a fantastical butterfly from a daring Art Deco future. Regrettably, an airliner carrying its passengers in twin fuselages resembling railway carriages whilst housing its engines and luckless pilots in a teeny car-shaped pod atop the single massive wing turned out not to be the way forward, as the complete and ongoing absence of aircraft of this configuration serves to prove on a daily basis. Even at the time people were confused, there are many contemporary references to the radical design of the aircraft but no mention anywhere of what possible advantage this configuration is supposed to confer.

The 10 sexiest French aircraft here

As it turned out, the Blériot 125 turned out to be underpowered and exhibited severe controllability issues and one can hardly be surprised given the encumbrance of those two draggy fuselages combined with the modest power available from its two Hispano-Suiza engines plus the sheer amount of aircraft optimistically expected to be directed about the sky by its two teeny tiny rudders. At least with the massive side area provided by its mighty fuselages, not to mention the engine/crew pod, the 125 must have possessed impressive directional stability. The problems ultimately proved insuperable and after three years of tinkering the 125 still wouldn’t fly properly and was ignominiously scrapped having never carried a fare paying passenger. To be fair to Blériot Aéronautique S.A. they did produce a few relatively acceptable designs, unremarkable and largely forgotten now but who cares? Blériot’s crazed failure from a beautiful alternative future that would never come to be remains far more entertaining.
9.Mignet HM.14 Pou du Ciel (Flying Flea) ‘Micro-lousy’

Pauvre Henri Mignet. The tragic tale of the H.M.14 ‘Pou-de-Ciel’ (in English, literally ‘Louse of the Sky’) could so easily have been completely different. A mere six inches or so of wing overlap separated unprecedented success from tragic disaster. Mignet was a romantic figure, a radio engineer (though some sources claim he was a furniture maker, whatever) with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a fascination with flight, and a chronic inability to fly a conventional aircraft. The latter quality inspired him to try and develop a new type of aircraft which would be simple, easy and safe to fly. The Pou-de-Ciel would ultimately achieve two out of three of these qualities.

Furthermore this was to be an egalitarian aircraft, straightforward to construct and designed to be built at home in a four metre square room.


In designing an aircraft easy for non-pilots to fly (“leave aviation to the aviators” he once quipped) Mignet’s aircraft was genuinely revolutionary. The Pou-de Ciel had no ailerons, lateral control deriving from the rudder and its interaction with the pivoting front wing. The only controls were the throttle and the stick, which operated the pivoting wing and rudder and flying the Pou proved easy and intuitive. Remarkably the aircraft was designed to be impossible to stall, if the front wing did enter a stall, the airflow from it over the rear wing forced the nose down slightly and the Pou automatically recovered. The future appeared bright for Mignet’s machine, especially after he and his wife flew their Pou-de-Ciel’s over the channel to Britain (where it was dubbed the Flying Flea) and there began a short-lived craze for building and flying Mignet’s creation. Unfortunately the phrase ‘short-lived’ would prove all too accurate in a rather more literal sense.

Between August 1935 and May 1936 seven H.M.14s were lost in inexplicable fatal accidents and the authorities in both France and the UK grounded all Flying Fleas. Wind tunnel tests were undertaken in both nations and it was discovered that the air flow from the pivoted front wing when pulled back, to point the aircraft up, increased lift from the rear wing, pointing the aircraft inexorably down: ironically the same effect that prevented a stall occurring and made the aircraft ‘safe’. If the Pou-de-Ciel entered a 15 degree dive, recovery was impossible and the luckless pilot was carried into the ground in the appropriately coffin-shaped fuselage and the French and British immediately banned the unfortunate aircraft. Mignet developed a successful fix for the suicidal tendency of his creation with creditable speed (basically moving the rear wing back the afore-mentioned six inches) but neither his own nor his Flea’s reputation ever fully recovered (though many modified variants of the basic design have since been constructed). A curious aside of this sorry tale is that, because none were flown after 1936, many original H.M.14s survive to the present day, so it is likely that you won’t have to travel far if you want to have a look at the deadly Sky Louse in the flesh.

8. Dassault Balzac/Mirage III-V ‘Harrier Carrefour’ Dassault-Mirage-IIIV1 As F-4s and MiG-21s poured off production lines in their thousands, aircraft designers looked for unconventional ways to kill test pilots, spend billions and make aircraft that nobody wanted – the best solution to this was the vertical take-off & landing fighter. When NATO issued Basic Military Requirement No. 3 in the early 1960s aircraft manufacturers swarmed around like wasps to ice cream. NATO wanted a common supersonic fighter capable of vertical take off and landing. If World War III kicked off, the type would be based in austere locations away from known airfields, and drop retaliatory tactical nukes on the invading Soviet hordes. The fact that at the time of the brief there wasn’t even a subsonic jet VTOL fighter didn’t stop this ambitious concept. Anyone who was anyone in fighter design submitted a proposal; Dassault submitted a concept based on the Mirage III. Vertical propulsion would be provided by eight small lift jets embedded in the fuselage. Lift jets, it was hoped, meant vertical flight without the perils of tail-sitting and without the limitations of (inevitably non-afterburning) vectored thrust. The planned fighter, the III-V was to be large (around the length of a Super Hornet), but a smaller testbed – the Balzac –  was modified from a Mirage III prototype. One lethal crash later many were questioning the sense of the project. It had many problems, including gross instability, stall-inducing exhaust re-ingestion and debris-sucking, a troublesome main engine and underpowered lift engines. Even if all of these were solved (and some were in its later big brother the Mirage III-V) there were the still the unsolvable issues of the terrible payload, terrible range (thanks to the Gainsbourgesque thirst of the lift-jets in the hover and their taking up most of the internal space where fuel tanks could have been located) and horrendous maintenance requirements of multiple engines. When the large Mirage III-V crashed in 1966, it was time to knock the whole thing on the head. Still at least, the Mirage III-V grabbed the absolute speed record for a VTOL aircraft at Mach 2.03,  a record unlikely to ever be surpassed (incidentally, the Mirage G.8 still holds the European speed record at Mach 2.34).

The Balzac was not named for the French writer Honoré de Balzac, but after the phone number (BALZAC 001) of a famous Parisian movie advertising agency, following the decision that, the first aircraft would be given the unimaginative designation ‘001’.

NATO never managed to get its shit together and mass order a single fighter type, despite the huge cost savings inherent in such a scheme. (By the way, Britain’s entry, the P.1154 won the contest). 7. Airbus Helicopters Tigre ‘HAPless in Seattle’  Tiger_01.jpg While the Opel Tigra car, developed by Germany, France and Spain, is a huge success, its rotary-craft (almost) namesake (created by the same nations) has proved a huge disappointment. It’s a bit of push to blame the Tigre purely on France, but as it’s now under the Airbus Helicopters label (headquarters at Marseille Provence Airport), it’s fair game. To be fair, Spain and Germany, must shoulder some of the responsibility for what has been described as ‘a Ford attack helicopter at Lamborghini prices‘. Development was very slow, the requirement was issued in 1984 yet the type didn’t enter service until 2003 (even then it couldn’t do much).  Integration of weapons systems proved slow and VERY expensive. Only one export customer bought the Tigre (or Tiger as other nations know it), the Australian Army. The first two helicopters were delivered to Australia in 2004. Full operating capability was planned for 2011, in reality it didn’t happen until 2016. In 2012, after multiple incidents with cockpit fumes that endangered aircrew, Australian pilots refused to fly the Tiger until all safety concerns were resolved.  In 2016, an Australian Defence White Paper announced that the Tiger helicopters would be replaced with other armed reconnaissance aircraft in the mid 2020s – hardly a long life for such an expensive acquisition (the US Army have flown Apaches since 1986, and in updated form the type remains in production today).  Issues cited by the Australian Paper included the shipping time of sending parts across the world for repair, a lack of commonality with other Tiger variants and the high maintenance cost of the engines. In 2013 prices a French HAD cost US$49m a pop (the 2014 unit price of the far, far more capable AH-64E was US$35.5M). It’s hard to know how they got it so wrong as France is great at building helicopters and their military equipment also tends to be first-rate. Perhaps the difficulty of the task was underestimated- or the failure of the partners to agree on a single variant is to blame, whatever the reason, it ended up as a very costly way to not buy Apaches. 853371-20090929raaf8208246_0025-jpg 6. Nieuport-Delage NiD 37 Type CourseAprès moi le Délage’  IMG_8398.jpg The French philosopher Michel Foucault was sceptical of absolute ideas. Perhaps Foucault would have approved of the ‘sesquiplanes’ designed by Gustave Delage which denied such absolute notions as being either a monoplane or a biplane, instead opting to be ‘one-and-a-half- planes’. These made great fighters in World War One, so Delage kept going with the concept for his post-war racers. He flirted with pure biplanes with the  Nieuport-Delage NiD 29V which smashed the world speed record in 1920 at an impressive 194.4 mph, but returned to his 1½ obsession with the Nieuport-Delage Sesquiplane. The following year the new aircraft bettered the ’29V by clocking 205.23 mph (a speed cars would only take seven years to equal, with Campbell’s Bluebird). At the Coupe Deutsch race this same racer crashed for reasons unclear (perhaps wing flutter or maybe a birdstrike), in the capable hands of Sadi Lecointe . In 1922 Delage came out with an even faster Sesquiplane, the NiD 37 Type Course (racing type, as opposed to the Type Chasse fighter). The ’37 looked, and was, weird: it had a broad aile inférieure (the wing-like shoe for the main landing gear or half-wing that defines the sesquiplane), minute wings and a sleek streamlined fuselage that resembled a bomb painted red and white (to add to its eccentric appearance, the radiator hung under the nose in a ‘lobster-pot’). On the day of the first flight attempt the test pilot (again the heroic Sadi Lecointe) sat astride the engine (with the pedals attached to the back of the 407 hp motor) ready for the type’s first flight. At full throttle the machine raced across the airfield displaying no intention whatsoever to leave the ground. Lecointe tried repeatedly to coax the reluctant machine into the air. He gave up when the carburettor burst into flames and burnt his feet. 5. Simplex-Arnoux (1922) Race with the devil’

A aircraft seemingly designed to test an atheist’s resolve.

René Arnoux had pioneered tailless flying wings, designing his first as early as 1909. When he put his mind to creating the fastest possible racer he retained his disdain for the tail, seeing a potential weight and drag saving. The racer, which was powered by the 320 hp Hispano-Suiza, was built to win the Coupe-Deutsch race of 1922. It was to be flown by the national hero Georges Madon, a fighter ace in the First World War. The resulting aircraft, the Simplex-Arnoux, was tiny- the fuselage being essentially an aerodynamic fairing that covered the engine – and lethal. Interwar racing pilots were used to limited views from the cockpit and vicious handling characteristics, but even by these standards the Simplex-Arnoux was a nasty aeroplane. The enormously broad-chorded wing obscured the view down, the barrel radiator obscured the view ahead (and blasted the unfortunate pilot with scorching hot air). It had also had appalling control authority as Madon found on a pre-race trial flight. The Simplex-Arnoux was too much to handle, even for a pilot with 41 confirmed victories and 64 probables, and the resultant crash caused Madon severe injuries. 4. Antoinette ‘Monobloc’ ‘Ian Dury & The Monobloc-heads’ Antoinette-Monobloc2 In the very early days of aviation the ‘Antoinette’ monoplane was massively successful, a supremely elegant machine when compared to the Wrights, Farmans and Voisins that were its contemporaries. At its heart was the world’s first V-8 engine, patented by Léon Levavasseur, intended for speedboats, and named Antoinette after the daughter of his financier Jules Gastimbide. And what an engine it was, boasting (for its time) exceptional smoothness and refinement, its power to weight ratio was not surpassed for 25 years and it is hardly surprising that early aviation pioneers beat a path to Levavasseur’s door to obtain an example of his brilliant engine. Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis made the first aircraft flight in Europe and was powered by an Antoinette, Samuel Cody made the first flight in a British built aircraft with an Antoinette engine, and an Antoinette powered Paul Cornu’s helicopter, the first to leave the ground, to name but three. When Levavasseur branched into building complete aircraft around his engine the future looked bright indeed, especially when famed Anglo-French pilot Hubert Latham started to set altitude and distance records in them. The company helped set up a flying school (incidentally training, amongst others, the first female pilot to fly combat missions, Marie Marvingt) and developed the world’s first flight simulator. Antoinette was on top of the world.

Hubert Latham

Thus the utter and complete failure of the Antoinette Monobloc was tragic indeed. The aircraft was years ahead of its time, the world’s first cantilever monoplane wings, fully faired undercarriage in huge spats and a beautifully streamlined fuselage which completely enclosed the Antoinette engine. For 1911 this was futuristic indeed. Unfortunately it couldn’t fly. The Monobloc was (under)powered by the 50 hp V-8 engine that had propelled its immediate predecessor, the Antoinette VII which had weighed 590 kg and could hurtle to a maximum speed of 70 km/h. All the fascinating features of the Monobloc had pushed its weight up to 935 kg and 70 km/h (or indeed any speed at all) would remain an unattainable dream. Nonetheless Hubert Latham took it to the Concours Militaire at Rheims where he gamely demonstrated its utter inability to fly to the assembled military dignitaries of many nations. Within a year the Antoinette company was liquidated. 3. Spad S.A ‘Free Spadicals’ SPAD_S.A-2_belonging_to_Escadrille_N49_at_Corzieux

Have you ever stood inches in front of the whirling propeller of a frontline fighter from the First World War? Have you then made a small wood and canvas box to sit in, have someone bolt it to the front of said fighter, then got in it, with the whirling blades of the propeller maybe a foot away from your precious head, whilst an undertrained adolescent flies it (and more importantly you) up into the sky in which lurks hundreds of people in better aircraft who are literally trying to kill you? Of course you haven’t because you’re not an idiot. Yet that was exactly the fate of the observer of the SPAD S.A, an aircraft apparently designed to maim, kill, or, at best, terrify one of its occupants.

The design was a cruelly logical response to the problem of firing a machine gun through the airscrew arc of a conventional tractor aircraft. If you can’t shoot through the propeller, just attach the gun in front of the propeller – and the gunner to fire it. The idea was not unique either, the Royal Aircraft Factory in the UK built the experimental B.E.9 with the same layout, however the British machine was wisely discarded but the SPAD S.A. went into service.

It was not popular.

As well as the obvious inherent horror of the design the gunner’s perilous nacelle was prone to extreme vibration and on several occasions detached from the rest of the aircraft with lethal consequences. Communication between the crew was impossible, and in the event of the aircraft tipping onto its nose (a common occurrence at the time) the observer would be crushed. A British evaluation of the type came to the chillingly sardonic conclusion that “it would be expensive in observers if flown by indifferent pilots”. Contemporary French reports suggest the S.A was little used and many were offloaded onto the Russians as soon as possible. In Russian service the S.A was similarly unpopular and its only effect on Russian servicemen was to prove their Imperialist masters really did have it in for them and hasten the revolution. It also didn’t help that the acronym SPAD phonetically translates as ‘plummet’ in Russian.

2. Bloch 150 (early) ‘Bloch Party’  bloch.png By 1935 it was a fair bet that any new conventional aircraft built by an experienced design team would be able to fly. However every now and then a machine unable to leave the ground would emerge to challenge such assumptions and the Bloch M.B.150 fighter was just such an aircraft. Attempts to get the new fighter off the ground were abandoned in 1936. As well as being embarrassing, the ensuing delay as the aircraft was redesigned cost precious months and meant that, when the Bloch fighter was most desperately needed it was not available in sufficient numbers. It is probably an exaggeration to claim that the failure of the original M.B.150 to fly cost France victory in the air but it certainly didn’t help. bloch_mb-157 Even once the Bloch had been developed into an aeroplane that could actually fly it wasn’t exactly a stellar performer. With its wonky nose (the engine was pointed slightly to the left to counteract airscrew torque), slab sided fuselage, apparently undersized wings, cumbersome tail unit and crudely massive gun barrels it could hardly be described as a looker either. It was, at least, incredibly strong and able to survive remarkable levels of combat damage, which was lucky given its lack of speed or agility and the M.B.150 and its slightly improved M.B.151 and 152 variants served valiantly but not particularly effectively throughout the Battle for France. A considerably better variant, the M.B.155 was just entering service as France capitulated and served in the Vichy air force but the final development, the M.B.157, boasted truly outstanding performance. Unfortunately the single example suffered the ignominy of only ever flying in German colours. Ultimately Marcel Bloch changed his name and that of his company to Dassault consigning the embarrassment of the M.B.150 to another age, and, to the casual observer, another aircraft company. 1. Potez 630 and 631 (fighter variants)  ‘Le Bf 110′ MAN_Oct_1939.jpg

Had the Potez 630 and 631 fighters been able to avoid combat it would have been just another pre-war mediocrity hardly worthy of mention. Unfortunately for it and its crews it was committed to aerial combat against, amongst others, a far superior aircraft that it just happened to uncannily resemble.

During the 1930s most of the world’s major air forces flirted with the idea of twin-engined ‘heavy’ fighters. These shared a common concept that a larger fighter aircraft could effectively escort bombers deep into enemy territory, making up for any deficiency in agility deriving from their size, when compared with opposing single-engined fighters, with heavier firepower and speed. Aircraft such as the Westland Whirlwind and Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu were all variations on this theme. Sadly the concept was flawed, World War Two era twin engine fighters were never a match for their single engine counterparts as the debacle of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 in the Battle of Britain serves to demonstrate. The Messerschmitt was an excellent aircraft (its rate of climb was greater than that of the Spitfire for example) yet it was unable to survive against determined fighter opposition, ultimately needing to be supplied with a fighter escort even though it was supposed to be an escort fighter. Imagine then how much worse it would have been if it hadn’t been such an excellent aircraft and one has a reasonable idea of the hopelessness of the Potez 630.


The Potez 630 family was a diverse group of aircraft with pleasant flying characteristics comprising derivatives optimised for every conceivable role from Army co-operation to bombing, and in general it performed adequately if not spectacularly during the fighting over France and after. The fighter variant was, at least, well armed boasting two 20-mm cannon in a ventral gondola and two fixed machine guns (one firing backwards!) plus a machine gun on a flexible mount for the second crewman. However it never had sufficiently powerful engines to propel it to a decent speed and proved to be slower than many of the German bombers that it was supposed to be shooting down. Against modern fighters it had no chance at all. The afore-mentioned Messerschmitt 110 with an extra 750 hp on tap was a full 120 km/h faster and unfortunately for the Potez, from most angles it looked very similar indeed to the German fighter. It is not known how many ‘friendly-fire’ incidents resulted in losses but there are many documented instances. Pity the poor Potez pilot – strapped into an aircraft with inadequate performance, expected to chase down bombers that he is unable to catch, and shot at by friend and foe alike in invariably superior aircraft.


To be fair to the French, the limitations of the Potez as a fighter were well known by 1939 but the fact was (in an annoyingly non-stereotypical act of engineering efficiency) it was so well designed for mass production that it was available in great numbers immediately, plus it was very cheap: despite being a fairly large twin-engined aircraft the Potez 630 could be built in fewer man-hours and for less money than a Morane-Saulnier 406, the commonest French single-engine fighter in 1940 (and also not that great a combat aircraft). Ultimately even the standard escape route for inadequate twin-engined fighters, night-fighting, provided no solace for the Potez. In the absence of any kind of guidance system the best it could do was fly around at night hoping to blunder into an enemy aircraft and it is fair to say that its service as a night fighter was effectively irrelevant. At least it was nice to fly and the three examples that somehow contrived to survive the conflict were used postwar as trainers for the reconstituted Armee de l’Air.

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Also check out: Top 11 cancelled French aircraft

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future. Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplane DoisneauAvionPapa  Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

The top fighter aircraft of 2017 (BVR combat)


Picture credit: Jamie Hunter

To excel in Beyond Visual Range air combat a fighter must be well-armed and equipped with capable avionics. It must be able to fly high and fast to impart the maximum range to its missiles, allowing them to hit the enemy before he is even aware of their presence. The aircraft must give its crews sufficient situational awareness not to shoot their friends down, and be easy to operate so it can deploy its weapons quickly and accurately. The black magic of the aircraft’s electronic warfare suite can also come into its own, reducing the opponent’s situational awareness.

Hardware is generally less important than training and tactics — removing these human factors from the mix allows us to judge the most deadly long-range fighting machines currently in service. The exact ordering of this list is open to question, but all the types mentioned are extraordinarily potent killers. This list only includes currently active fighters (so no PAK FAs etc) and only includes weapons and sensors that are actually in service today. The Chengdu J-20 is not considered mature enough to make this list. 

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(This list is BVR only, for WVR see here)

10. Lockheed Martin F-16E/F

joint-place with 

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet


A great sensor suite, including a modern AESA and comprehensive defensive aids systems is combined with advanced weapons and a proven platform; a small radar cross section also helps. However, the type is let down by mediocre ‘high and fast’ performance, and fewer missiles and a smaller detection range than some of its larger rivals. With Conformal Fuel Tanks its agility is severely limited.

Armament for A2A mission: 4 x AIM-120C-7, 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon).

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

dsc_3153 (1).jpgWell equipped with a great defensive system and excellent weapons the Super Hornet has much to offer. It is happiest at lower speeds and altitudes, making it a fearsome dogfighter, but is less capable at the BVR mission; a mediocre high-speed high-altitude performance disadvantage the ‘Rhino’ as does a pedestrian climb rate and poor acceleration at higher speeds. The touch screen cockpit has disadvantages, as switches and buttons can be felt ‘blind’ and do not require ‘heads-down’ use. The much-touted AN/APG-79 AESA radars introduced on Block II aircraft has proved unreliable and has enormous development problems. One scathing report said ‘ …operational testing does not demonstrate a statistically significant difference in mission accomplishment between F/A-18E/F aircraft equipped with AESA and those equipped with the legacy radar.’

Read an exclusive interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.

This list, which for the sake of brevity (largely) treats aircraft as isolated weapon systems, does not favour the Super Hornet: in reality, with support from E-2Ds and advanced other assets, US Navy Super Hornets would be extremely capable in the BVR arena against most adversaries.

Armament for A2A mission: Super Hornet (high drag ‘Christmas tree’) 12 x AIM-120, realistic = 6 x AIM-120C-7  + 2/4 AIM-9X ) (1 x 20-mm cannon)

9. Sukhoi Su-30MK


The most capable official members of Sukhoi’s legacy ‘Flanker’ family are the export Su-30MKs. Agile and well-armed, they are formidable opponents. Armed with ten missiles the Su-30 has an impressive combat persistence and is able to fly remarkably long distance missions. The radar is a large, long-ranged PESA (featuring some elements of an AESA) and Indian aircraft carry particularly good Israeli jamming pods. The type has proved itself superior to both the RAF’s Tornado F.Mk 3 and USAF’s F-15C in exercises, though the degree of dominance over the F-15C is marginal to the point that superior training, tactics and C3 saw the US lord over the type in later exercises. The pilot workload is higher than in later Western designs, the engines demanding  to maintain and the vast airframe has a large radar cross section.

A2A armament: 6 x R-77, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)

8. Shenyang J-11B


The Chinese pirate version of the ‘Flanker’ features a reduced radar cross section and improved weapons and avionics. With the latest Type 1474 radar (with a 100 miles + range) and the highly-regarded PL-12 active radar AAM, it is an impressive fighter.

6 x PL-12, 4 x PL-10 (or R-73E) + ( 1 x 30-mm cannon)

7. Mikoyan MiG-31BM


The MiG-31 is designed for maximum BVR performance. Against bombers and cruise missiles it is superbly capable (and would be ranked higher on this list), however as a defensive interceptor it is vulnerable to more agile and stealthier fighter opponents. The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. Until the advent of Meteor-armed Gripens, no operational aircraft had a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33, which can engage targets well over 100 miles away. The recent K-74M, which is believed to be in limited operational service, is even more potent and may even have some advantages of Meteor.

Designed to hunt in packs of four or more aircraft the type can sweep vast swathes of airspace, sharing vital targeting information by data-link with other aircraft. The enormous PESA radar was the first ever fitted to a fighter. The type is marred by a mountainous radar cross section and abysmal agility at lower speeds. More on the MiG-31 here and here. 

4 x R-33, 2 x R-40TD (1 x 23-mm cannon)

6. Sukhoi Su-35 


The Su-35 is considerably more capable than earlier ‘Flanker’ families and would pose a significant challenge to any ‘eurocanard’. Su-35S were deployed in Syria in 2016 to provide air cover for Russian forces engaged in anti-rebel/ISIL attacks. The Su-35 is even more powerful than the Su-30M series and boasts improved avionics and man-machine interface. More on the Su-35 can be found here. Teething problems encountered in Syria are now being rectified, though the type still lacks maturity.

A2A armament: 6 x R-77, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)


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

Singapore Airhow 2012

Though the famously one-sided score sheet of the F-15 should be taken with a pinch of salt (Israeli air-to-air claims are often questionable to say the least), the F-15 has proved itself a tough, kickass fighter that can be depended on. It lacks the agility (certainly at lower speeds) of its Russian counterparts, but in its most advanced variants has an enormously capable radar in the APG-63(V)3. The F-15 remains the fastest Western fighter to have ever entered service, and is currently the fastest non-Russian frontline aircraft of any kind in the world. The type is cursed by a giant radar cross section, a massive infra-red signature and an inferior high altitude performance to a newer generation of fighters.

A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7, 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon)

4. Dassault Rafale

Joint with

 Eurofighter Typhoon 


In 2018 the Rafale F3R will be in service with both AESA and Meteor — giving the Typhoon more than a run for its money. However, though testing has been completed with Meteor, Rafale does not yet carry it. The maturation of the Rafale’s AESA pushes the Rafale from its previous number 7 to a very respectable number 4. 

The Rafale is extremely agile, with one of the lowest radar cross sections of a ‘conventional’ aircraft and its defensive systems are generally considered superior to those of its arch-rival, the Typhoon (though the Typhoon’s have been considerably updated). It falls down in its main armament, the MICA, which is generally considered to have a lower maximum range than later model AMRAAMs. It has a little less poke than the Typhoon in terms of  thrust-to-weight ratio leading some potential customers in hot countries to demand an engine upgrade. It has yet to be integrated with a helmet cueing system in operational service.

A2A armament: 6 x MICA (possibly 8 if required, though this has not been seen operationally)  (one 30-mm cannon)

Eurofighter Typhoon

A high power-to-weight ratio, a large wing and a well designed cockpit put the Typhoon pilot in an advantageous position in a BVR engagement. Acceleration rates, climb rates (according to a German squadron leader it can out-climb a F-22) and agility at high speeds are exceptionally good. Pilot workload is very low compared to most rivals and the aircraft has proved reliable. The type will be the ‘last swinging disc in town’ as it will be among the last modern fighters to feature a mechanically scanned radar; the Captor radar may use an old fashioned technology but is still a highly-rated piece of equipment. The Typhoon has a smaller radar cross section than both the F-15 and Su-30 and superior high altitude performance to Rafale. Combat persistence is good and the AIM-132 ASRAAM of RAF aircraft are reported to have a notable BVR capability. On the recent Atlantic Trident exercise where the F-22 ‘fought’ alongside F-22s and F-35s it was praised for its defensive aids (which have undergone some updates).

A2A armament (RAF): 6 x AIM-120C-5, 2 x AIM-132 (1 x 27-mm cannon)


3. Saab Gripen C/D


In our original list from four years ago, the Gripen did not even make the top ten. Its dramatic jump to the number two position (see last year’s list here) was due to one reason: the entry into operational service (in April 2016) of the MBDA Meteor missile. The Gripen is the first fighter in the world to carry the long-delayed Meteor. The Meteor outranges every Western weapon, and thanks to its ramjet propulsion (an innovation for air-to-air missiles) it has a great deal of energy, even at the outer extremes of its flight profile, allowing it to chase maneuvering targets at extreme ranges. Many air forces have trained for years in tactics to counter AMRAAM, but few know much about how to respond to the vast No Escape Zone of Meteor. This combined with a two-way datalink (allowing assets other than the firer to communicate with the missile), the aircraft’s low radar signature, and the Gripen’s pilot’s superb situational awareness makes the small Swedish fighter a particularly nasty threat to potential enemies. The Gripen is not the fastest nor longest-legged fighter, nor is its radar particularly powerful. It would have to be used carefully, taking advantage of its advanced connectivity, to make the most of its formidable armament.

4 x MBDA Meteor + 2 x IRIS-T (1 x 27-mm cannon)

2. Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II

AIM-120 201.jpg

The F-35A makes its debut on this list in the number two slot. Stealth and unparalleled situational awareness make a potent beyond visual fighter of the F-35A, despite its pedestrian kinematic performance. The F-35A has gained a formidable reputation in large-scale war-games; against conventional opponents the F-35 raking up a reported 17-1 simulated aerial victories. The F-35, if it is to stay in a stealthy configuration, has fewer missiles than its rivals. It also lacks the agility and high altitude performance of the F-22, Rafale or Typhoon.

4 x AIM-120C-5 (1 x 25-mm cannon)

1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor


Undisputed king of beyond-visual range air combat is the F-22 Raptor. Its superbly stealthy design means it is likely to remain undetected to enemy fighters, calmly despatching its hapless opponents. The type’s excellent AESA radar is world class, and its ‘low-probability of interception’ operation enables to see without being seen. When high-altitude limitations are not in place (due to safety concerns) the type fights from a higher perch than F-15s and F-16s, and is more frequently supersonic. High and fast missile shots give its AMRAAMs far greater reach and allow the type to stay out harm’s way. Firing trials have been completed with the latest AMRAAM, the longer-ranged and more sophisticated AIM-120D, but this has yet to enter service. 

The F-22 is expensive, suffers from a poor radius of action for its size and has suffered a high attrition rate for a modern fighter. 

6 x AIM-120C-5 + 2 x AIM-9M (1 x 20-mm cannon)

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By Joe Coles &  Thomas Newdick (Airforces Monthly)

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You may also enjoy A B-52 pilot’s guide to modern fighters, Flying and fighting in the Lightning: a pilot’s guideInterview with a Super Hornet pilot, Trump’s Air Force Plan, 11 Worst Soviet Aircraft, 10 worst US aircraft, and 10 worst British aircraftMiG-21s, MC-21s and the overrated Typhoon: In conversation with FlightGlobal’s Stephen TrimbleThe F-35 will fail, until the US learns to shareAn air force of my own #1Top 8 Mach 3 fighters

Not forgetting:  11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker.



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

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



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

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

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

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


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Top 8 Mach 3 fighters


As well as being a razor, mach 3 is a speed. It’s very fast. Flying at mach 3 produces oven-like skin temperatures and requires aircraft with exotic propulsion systems, and structures wrought from unusual metals that refuse to behave as well as aluminium. Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, several mach 3 fighters have been considered. Some have even flown.


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8. Mikoyan ‘MiG-41’


The Russian MiG bureau has barely kept its head above water over the last 25 years, but according to some reports it is quietly working on a mach 4+ interceptor to replace the MiG-31, dubbed the ‘MiG-41’. You never know what to believe when it comes to Russian military aircraft, though it seems doubtful that Russia could afford such a programme if it couldn’t even fund the PAK FA by itself (it required reluctant Indian investment). If it is ever made, it will require a revolutionary form of propulsion – perhaps a modern variable-cycle interpretation of the J58 that powered the SR-71?

7. Dassault Mirage  (cancelled)


For thirty years the French solution to anything was the Mirage. VTOL fighter? Try a Mirage. Swing-wing fighter? Try a Mirage. Nuclear medium bomber? Same again. So it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that several mach 3 Mirage concepts were studied. Butch intakes, new transparencies and huge engines would have given the MD 750 a formidable appearance. Generally the French air force prefers lighter fighters, and like many heavyweight Dassault concepts this failed to get funding.

6. North American XF-108 Rapier (cancelled)


Of the slew of unflown mach 3 interceptor designs considered by the USAF in the 1950s, the North American XF-108 Rapier got the closest to being fully developed. If it had entered service it would have been exceptionally advanced: it was intended to carry the Hughes AN/ASG-18 radar, the first pulse-Doppler fighter radar set with a look-down/shoot-down capability (something that didn’t become common until the 1980s). It was also to be equipped with an infra-red search and tracking (IRST) system, and Hughes GAR-9 (missiles capable of destroying bombers over 100 miles away). Powered by two of the same engines as the equally ambitious XB-70 Valkyrie (and equipped with the same escape system), the F-108 would have been impressive but insanely expensive – in 1959 dollars the project would have cost four billion! The project was scrapped, which though a sane act, did deprive the world of what would have been the epitome of a kick-ass fighter. Its unfortunate name was temporarily carried by the F-22. 

5. General Dynamics/MD RF-4X Phantom II (cancelled)



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. rf-4x_4

4. Republic XF-103 (cancelled)


In 1949, the USAF issued the Weapon System WS-201A request for an advanced supersonic interceptor, which became better known as the ‘1954 interceptor’. The brief was demanding — perhaps too demanding. It called for an extremely fast all-weather interceptor with a sophisticated radar and air-to-air missile armament. A mach 3 top speed was sought, which would be over three times faster than the fastest contemporary fighter. One of the main stumbling blocks to achieving mach 3 was the fact that jet engines of the time simply weren’t up to the task. Enter Alexander Kartveli. Born Alexander Kartvelishvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, he was a hugely important designer, who worked on the potent P-47 Thunderbolt, the beautiful and impressive Republic XF-12 Rainbow, and the slightly shabby Gloster Javelin. To solve the propulsion problem he proposed using a Wright J67 turbojet (essentially a Bristol Olympus) supplemented by a RJ55-W-1 ramjet. Though the project was eventually cancelled in 1957 without ever flying, the design did inform the Republic RF-84F Thunderstreak and later F-105 Thunderchief (notably in the intake configuration)

3. Mikoyan MiG-25 (1964)

1259071601_image_114Yes yes- I

Yes, yes – I can hear all you dorks shouting ‘the MiG-25 is limited to mach 2.83, and as low as 2.5 operationally’. But it can go mach 3. Famously an Egyptian one (admittedly the recce version) legged it across Israeli airspace at a whopping 3.2, ruining the engines according to legend. The MiG-25 was the only mach 3 capable fighter (yes, yes—fighter interceptor if you’re going to be a dick about it) to enter service. At speeds above mach 2.5 aluminium is not much good so an alternative was needed. Mikoyan adopted a radically different solution to Lockheed’s: instead of using titanium as the primary material (which was difficult to work with, expensive and mostly being shipped to the US) the MiG-25 used 80% nickel-steel alloy, 11% aluminium, and only 9% titanium. I seem to remember it also contains 5kg of gold. The British had experimented with steel for their utterly crap Bristol 188.

Despite its limitations (terrible agility, range and avionics), the MiG-25 has proved surprisingly capable in air-to-air combat, downing a brace of Iranian F-4s (and an F-5s). The most successful Iraqi MiG-25 pilot was Colonel Mohammed Rayyan, who was credited with 10 kills. In Desert Storm the type shot down a US F/A-18 Hornet, and even put up a spirited dogfight against the then invincible F-15.

2. Mikoyan MiG-31 (1975)


The MiG-31 is the Volkswagen New Beetle to the MiG-25’s Volkswagen Beetle. Beefier and far technologically superior, the MiG-31 remains in service with the Russian air and space force today.

In 1986 six MiG-31s intercepted an SR-71 over the Barents Sea by performing a coordinated interception. It is rumoured that after this interception, no SR-71 flew a reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union.

Structurally, it’s a little different to the MiG-25, being 49% arc-welded nickel steel, 33% light metal alloy, 16% titanium and 2% composites. It is also an absolute beast, with a maximum take-off weight the same as a Boeing 737 airliner — or more than five MiG-21s! Armed with the longest range air-to-air weapon outside of Sweden and comfortably able to outdrag a Raptor, the MiG-31 remains in a league of its own.


1. Lockheed YF-12 (1963)


Not only did the YF-12 actually fly, it could also comfortably exceed mach 3. It was the largest and fastest fighter that ever flew, and smashed a load of speed and altitude world records. When the F-108 was cancelled in 1959, it seemed a waste to junk the advanced radar and missiles so someone had the bright idea to stick them on a top secret spyplane airframe then in development: the A-12 (which later evolved into the famous SR-71 Blackbird). Ironically, it was designed to shootdown Soviet bombers, yet was made from Russia-sourced titanium (it had been procured with an innocent-sounding cover story).President Johnson announced the existence of the YF-12 in 1964, allowing it to be used as a cover story for any observed test flights of the still-secret A-12/SR-71. Stealthy, supercruising and capable of flying at extremely high altitude, the YF-12 was in many ways the grandfather of the F-22 Raptor.


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You may also enjoy B-52 pilot chooses Top 10 Cold War bombers, Flying & Fighting in the Mirage 2000: a pilot interview, The World’s Worst Air Force, 10 most formidable dogfight missiles, The ten coolest cancelled airlinersTen incredible cancelled Soviet fighter aircraftTen worst Soviet aircraftTen incredible cancelled military aircraftFighter aircraft news round-up,  11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versusTyphoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

The 10 coolest cancelled airliners


Every now and again, I get a pang of guilt for celebrating military aircraft and ignoring the world of commercial aviation. But as soon as I start reading about modern airliners I start remembering important tasks that need doing, like buying biros or cleaning my shoes. However, not all airliners are dull – the following would have been extremely beautiful, brutish or decadent- or in some cases all three.

 Unfortunately they were all destined to be discarded in the overhead locker of history.

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Choosing number 10 was particularly hard: one of the proposed Northrop flying-wings as seen in the picture above? Barnes Wallis’ supersonic swing-wing Swallow? The Ye-155 business jet variant based on the MiG-25? The Horten 70-ton transport? All would have been deserving aircraft but we could only have ten. I hope you enjoy our selection. 

10. Norman Bel Geddes Air Liner 4 (1929) ‘Steam-punk dream-liner’

BelGeddes_AirlinerPlan2.jpgDrawing inspiration from the Dornier X, the ‘4 would have been a flying ocean liner- complete with a crew of 155 to serve the 451 passengers. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes and Otto Kröller, this swept flying-wing design would have offered lucky passengers viewing verandas, baths, private suites and a stylish bar. Sadly nobody was crazy, or forward-looking, enough to build this wonderful machine and it remained firmly on the drawing board.

9. Tupolev Tu-244 ‘The lost Red hope’


Rarely discussed is the fact that from 1979-1993 Tupolev were working on a ‘super Concordski’, faster than Concorde and capable of carrying an additional 200 passengers. Building on experience with the Tu-144 and Tu-160, the Tu-244 would have been a remarkable aircraft to showcase the Soviet Union’s aeronautical prowess. Unfortunately for the project, the Soviet Union ceased to be from 1991, and Russia’s situation in the 1990s made the completion of the aircraft impossible. It was reported that it would have been powered by a hydrogen-powered variant of the engine that powered the Tu-160 and ‘144LL but this seems unlikely.


8. Fairey Rotodyne (1957) ‘The screaming commuter’


Streaking from city centre to city centre with a top speed twice that of helicopters of the time, the Rotodyne, could have been a major transport innovation. As the world’s first vertical take-off airliner it could have revolutionised air travel, removing the need for remote airports for everything but long haul journeys. 

The concept was extremely innovative: for takeoff and landing, the rotor was driven by tip-mounted jet engines. The air for the tip-jets wasn’t bled from the engines. The engines were connected with clutches to axial compressors in the rear of the nacelles, which had flush inlets above the wing, and the compressors fed the rotor. The turboprop-powered propellers on the wings provided thrust for horizontal flight while the rotor autorotated (‘autorotation’ is when rotors turn around while unpowered, but in flight). Thanks to its tip-mounted jets, the Rotodyne was exceptionally noisy, an undesirable trait in a city centre airliner, and was cancelled. Debate still rages about the degree to which the Rotodyne’s noise levels could have been reduced.

7. Bristol Brabazon ‘The Filton Stilton’


On 4 November 1909, John-Moore Brabazon put a small pig in a bin tied to a wing-strut of his aeroplane, to prove that pigs could fly. He later headed the wartime Brabazon Committee, an effort to ensure Britain had a strong start in the postwar airliner industry. Though well-meaning, not all of the predictions of the committee would prove accurate. It imagined that transatlantic flights would largely be for exceptionally wealthy people requiring a (very) comfortable journey. The Brabazon would have made today’s A380-business class passengers green with envy: each passenger in luxury class would have had 270 ft³ (8 m³) of room, and access to a sleeping berth, a dining room, a 37-seat cinema, a promenade and a bar. This titan was to have a wingspan greater than that of the biggest 747 and was ten metres longer than a B-1B bomber. One demolished village later (levelled to make room for the runway) the vast Brabazon flew in 1949. It was a brilliant piece of engineering, with superb handling and an exceptionally smooth ride- however, an aircraft of this size would have to wait for the arrival of the high bypass turbofan engine (rather than eight radial engines driving four sets of contra-rotating propellers) to make economical sense. 

6. Tupolev Tu-344 ‘Twisted Backfire-starter’ 


I’m not sure a biz-jet counts as an airliner, but there’s no way I’m ignoring this one.

If you want to make an impression, travel to business meetings in a supersonic swing-wing converted soviet bomber – and make the owners of Gulfstreams look like a bunch of total arseholes. Hard to think of a way to burn more fuel for only 8-12 passengers, but this isn’t about being sensible. c0jyis9xcaafilh

Based as it was on the Tu-22M, it’s hard to imagine that the ‘334 would have offered similar ride quality and cabin noise levels to a Dassault Falcon, but who gives a shit- this aircraft would have been incredible. 

5. Saunders-Roe Princess ‘Maritime people’s Princess’


Imagine an airline that put the magic realist writer Italo Calvino in charge of procurement and you can be sure they would have had a large fleet of Princesses. The aircraft was vast, gorgeous and could land on water. The Princess was much more advanced than the Brabazon: the entire flight control system was electro-hydraulic, with the power units inside the pressure hull, and it had integral fuel tanks. Sadly by 1952 (when it first flew) the days of flying boats were over. With innovative rocket fighters, jet-powered seaplane fighters and giant flying boats, Saunder-Roe’s remarkable designs were out of step with the rest of the world. The Princess was the last true aircraft they built, though they did make some hovercraft.

4. Republic RC-2 ‘Sequel to the Arsey One’


In many ways, the XF-12 Rainbow was the most advanced piston-engined aircraft ever built, and it was also one the most beautiful. Disobeying comedians’ rule of threes- the Rainbow  ‘flew on all fours’: four engines, 400 mph cruise, 4,000 mile range, at 40,000 feet. It was the only four-engined piston-engined aircraft to achieve 450mph. Intended to serve in the high altitude reconnaissance role, Republic also envisioned an airliner variant. The RC-2, as it became known, would have been five feet longer than the spyplane and would have carried 46 passengers in style and comfort. But the radial-engined Rainbow first flew in ’46, in a world about to turn to turboprops and jet engines for high performance aircraft. USAF refused to buy the Rainbow, deciding instead to use the plentiful B-29s and ‘50s until the new generation jet B-47 entered service. Without military backing, the project died.

3. Tupolev Tu-404 ‘Aeroflot flapjack’


As the Soviet Union chaotically disintegrated in 1991, designers at Tupolev escaped into happy fantasies of incredibly advanced concepts. The Tu-404 studies for an ultra-large long-range airliner included a flying-wing powered by six giant turboprops capable of carrying 1214 passengers over 13,000 kms. Tupolev remains interested in unconventional designs lacking a traditional tubular fuselage, as can be seen by the illustrations of the proposed PAK DA bomber, which may or may not enter service in the 2020s.

2. Avro Atlantic ‘Are you a Vul-can or Vul-can’t?’


There’s nothing that warms the cockles of a British aviation enthusiast more than the Avro Vulcan. Sure, it was designed to indiscriminately vaporise millions of Soviet civilians, but what a great noise! Exceptionally advanced for its time, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that an airliner variant was proposed.

The 1952 Avro Atlantic would have taken around 100 passengers over the Atlantic at Mach 0.9 (a smidgeon faster than modern airliners).The airliner lost out to a rival bid from Vickers, the V-1000. Delta wings for subsonic airliners would prove a non-starter. 

  1. Convair 58-9 SST ‘Hustler’s Unconvention’


The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first operational bomber capable of Mach 2, so why not create an enlarged version (hypothetically) suitable for taking 52 brave passengers on holiday at Mach 2.4? General Dynamics promised they would be able to get a prototype into the air within three years of an order being placed- because everyone wants such an ambitious project to be rushed. An even more alarming idea can be seen below, this is a five person external pod- an ‘intermediate’ step toward the final supersonic airliner, and presumably toward five heart attacks.


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You may also enjoy B-52 pilot chooses Top 10 Cold War bombers, Flying & Fighting in the Mirage 2000: a pilot interview, The World’s Worst Air Force, 10 most formidable dogfight missiles, The ten coolest cancelled airliners, Ten incredible cancelled Soviet fighter aircraftTen worst Soviet aircraftTen incredible cancelled military aircraftFighter aircraft news round-up,  11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versusTyphoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US


The 70-ton Horten just missed inclusion on this list.


We had to share this biz-jet MiG-25 variant.

10 Incredible Soviet Fighter Aircraft that never entered service


Faced with such a mouth-watering menu of Soviet fighter projects that never entered service, it was almost painful to select a mere ten. I won’t promise anything, but when the Hush-Kit writers are next sufficiently sober we may create a part two.

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10. Mikoyan MiG-33/35 “F-16ski”
In the 1980s, the Mikoyan design bureau tinkered with a simple, single-engine warplane similar in concept to the original version of Lockheed’s F-16 lightweight fighter. Like the F-16A, the new Soviet plane would be simple, manoeuvrable and inexpensive.
The Project 33 design, sometimes — and perhaps erroneously — referred to as the MiG-33 or MiG-35, featured a single Klimov RD-33/93 afterburning turbofan, two of which power the larger and more complex MiG-29. According to a 1988 report in Jane’s Defense Weekly, Project 33 was “seen as a complementary combat aircraft to the powerful MiG-29.” Where the MiG-29 boasts some multirole and beyond-visual-range capability, the Project 33 was a short-range, point-defence fighter. Here was a MiG-21 for the 1980s – an ideal fighter for friendly states on a budget.
Mikoyan didn’t get very far with Project 33, as Soviet leadership apparently preferred to devote the USSR’s resources to more sophisticated aircraft. But Project 33’s DNA might survive to some extent in the Chinese-made FC-1 fighter built for export.
Mikoyan reportedly sold the Project 33 design to China after it became clear there would be no Soviet market for the plane. China folded elements of Project 33 into the FC-1, which itself evolved from the joint U.S.-Chinese Super 7 light fighter, work on which collapsed following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In a weird sort of aerospace-design convergence, the Super 7 had also drawn inspiration from the F-16.
Powered by a single RD-33/39-powered FC-1, the FC-1 (also known as the JF-17) today is one of Pakistan’s most important fighters, serving alongside — you guessed it — F-16s.
– David Axe  War is Boring
 See the 11 worst soviet aircraft here
9. Nikitin-Shevchenko IS-4 (1941)

Picture the scene: it’s the late thirties, you are aircraft designer Vasili Nikitin and you are puzzling out the future of the fighter aircraft whilst living in the terrifying day-to-day world of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Yakovlev came up with a nice little fighter and was given a car. Yet Polikarpov showed a bit too much cockiness and was thrown in jail. And right now everything is awkward: The speed of the monoplane seems to be pointing the way to the future yet the biplane still has superior manoeuvrability, short field performance and climb-rate. What the hell are you supposed to do? Suddenly up pops seemingly crazed test-pilot Vladimir Shevchenko who explains over a couple of cups of kvass how you could achieve both in the same airframe with a hare-brained scheme he dubs the ‘folding fighter’. Against all better judgement the entire lower biplane wing hinges and retracts into the fuselage side and upper wing, transforming the handy but slow biplane into a sleek monoplane at the flick of a switch. You wonder if the idea is insane – but after due consideration you decide it may well be the next big thing in aerospace technology

Somehow the approval of the Chief Directorate of the Aviation Industry was obtained, and a folding fighter was built: the IS-1. Amazingly for such a seemingly radical machine it performed excellently. A productionised version dubbed the IS-2 was quickly developed but its monoplane abilities were insufficiently competitive and Nikitin devised the considerably more formidable IS-4. The design of the wing(s) remained basically unchanged but this is where the similarity ended as the IS-4 was to be fitted with a bubble canopy, tricycle undercarriage and the M-120: a 16-cylinder X-configuration engine delivering 1650 hp. With the M-120 engine a top speed of 447 mph was forecast in monoplane configuration, heady stuff indeed for 1941, yet transformed into a biplane a landing speed of merely 66 mph was projected. An aircraft offering this astonishing breadth of performance would have been invaluable for the Soviet air force, especially early in the war when their fighters were required to operate from rough fields where the docility and inherent STOL capability of a biplane would have been greatly appreciated. It is also worth pondering what might have been had the design been known to the contemporary outside world, the folding fighter concept has obvious potential for carrier based aircraft for example. Likewise the inherent liabilities of the type were never to be operationally evaluated, what would happen if the lower wing deployed asymmetrically for example? Nikitin had designed a lock to prevent this from occurring yet who knows what would happen in combat. Similarly the undercarriage could not be lowered in monoplane configuration. Were the wing and wheels to stick ‘up’ for any reason the resulting forced landing would be highly dangerous and almost definitely result in the loss of the aircraft.

But this was all to remain academic as fate intervened (as for so many other hopeful Soviet armament projects) in the form of a massive German invasion curtailing work on promising new aircraft to concentrate on existing types. To be fair, things had already begun to unravel somewhat for the IS-4 when the M-120 engine was cancelled and the lower-powered Mikulin AM-37 (as fitted to the less than spectacular MiG-3) had to be substituted as the only alternative inline power unit available. Nonetheless the IS-4 was apparently flown in the summer of 1941 but records of what flight testing was done were lost when the design bureau and workshop were evacuated ahead of the advancing German forces.


An engine, yesterday.

Despite the recorded completion and flight of the IS-4, I have searched online for nearly five whole minutes and not been able to find a single photograph of the complete aircraft. There’s three-views and an oft-reproduced drawing of the aircraft in its M-120 engined form hurtling skyward in dramatic fashion but that’s about it. Given that every other obscure fighter I can think of has at least turned up in at least one photograph (even the long lost PZL.50 Jastrząb) it does seem to cast doubt on the flight claims of this amazing aircraft. Or maybe I just didn’t look hard enough. However the cancellation of the IS-4, whether or not it actually flew, brought to an end the development of the world’s first serious attempt at a variable-geometry fighter, closing the door on a conceptually unique aircraft that appeared to have a great deal of potential.


The less than stellar MiG-3.

8 ‘Article 468’

IMG_20160825_0001 (2).jpg

No-one but the Soviet Union could name things as well without naming them. Just take the satellite planned to be the first manmade device in space that was given the mundane and yet somehow awesome moniker ‘Object D’. Another example of this minimalist naming policy was a rocket-powered interceptor developed by the research institution OKB-2 in the late 1940s, ‘izdeliya (article) 468’. The 468 was somewhat ambitious for the late 1940s, an era when the major military nations expected fleets of supersonic bombers penetrating their airspace at high altitude would be the main threat in the immediate future. The Soviet Union had been working on rocket-powered research aircraft since the early 1930s, and work on a rocket interceptor, the B1, began in earnest in 1940. In many ways, the 468 was the culmination of this effort – a slender dart with surprisingly small delta wings and a surprisingly huge tail fin, aided by large fins under the wings that also housed the landing skids.


It is not known if stolen Soviet plans aided the design of Roger Ramjet’s aircraft.

 The Soviet space programme proved there was nothing wrong with its rocket technology. In truly Dan Dare fashion, the 468 would take off using a rocket-powered dolly, before using its multi-chamber, four-nozzle liquid rocket motor to climb 72,000 feet in two and a half minutes, guided to its target at up to Mach 2 by radar in the nose. The design was expected to be impressively stable in flight but would have been interesting to land, given that its wing loading was more than double that of standard contemporary fighters. It’s a shame that none of the many pure-rocket interceptors of the late 40s and early 50s made it into the air, especially the 468, which made aircraft appearing 20 years later look a bit staid. All that remains of the 468, following its cancellation in 1951, is a wind-tunnel model at the museum of technology at Dubna.

-Matt Willis Naval Air History

7. Polikarpov I-185

Nikolai Polikarpov’s I-185 was an excellent aircraft stymied by engine trouble, politics, timing, and outright bad luck. It should have been the finest fighter the USSR fielded during the Great Patriotic war with 2000hp on tap, slightly smaller than a Grumman Bearcat but weighing 1900 lb less in normal loaded condition, faster than the contemporary Bf 109F at all altitudes up to 20,000 feet, its handling was immeasurably better and it was recommended for immediate production in the Autumn of 1942. Yet it ended up merely an also-ran. The problems began way back in 1937 when Polikarpov’s incredibly successful I-16 was fighting in the Spanish Civil war. Republican forces captured a Messerschmitt Bf 109B which was evaluated thoroughly by a team of Soviet experts. The consensus was that the 109 was inferior in virtually every regard to the latest I-16 Type 10. Whilst this was true, it was unfortunate that the Soviets failed to envisage the incredible rate of development of the 109; had they captured one of the considerably better 109Es that were fielded in Spain in the latter stages of the Civil war it might have encouraged greater urgency in developing a successor to the I-16. As it was, work on an I-16 replacement proceeded in a somewhat leisurely fashion and aimed for rather conservative performance improvement.


The early Bf 109s were considered inferior to the Soviet I-16 Type 10s in almost all regards.

The fighter that emerged was the named I-180 and looked very much like stretched I-16. Development seemed to be going well until December 1938 when the test pilot Valeri Chkalov was killed in the prototype. Unfortunately for Polikarpov, Chkalov was a bona fide national hero of immense popularity. Whilst his body lay in state and was visited by all the principal military and civil dignitaries, the NKVD started arresting members of the design team on suspicion of sabotage. It is said that only the personal intervention of Stalin prevented Polikarpov himself being packed off to the gulag. Work continued on the new fighter, though the programme was somewhat under a cloud. Meanwhile Chkalov’s home town was renamed in his honour and in 1941 a biopic of his life was made entitled ‘Red Flyer’.

After Chkalov’s death a major redesign was implemented and the resulting I-180S looked a lot less like the I-16 which had spawned it. Unfortunately for the new fighter two prototypes were lost in spins in quick succession resulting in the death of another test pilot, Tomass Susy. Although 10 pre-series examples were built during 1940 the performance of the aircraft was tacitly admitted to be lagging behind world-class and a further redesign was undertaken. The resulting aircraft was the I-185 and it was intended for either the M-90 or M-71 engine offering nearly double the power of the M-88 fitted to the I-180S. Both engines were troubled but the M-90 particularly so and it was abandoned. The M-71 eventually achieved sufficient reliability to power the first I-185 to fly in February 1942. The aircraft flew beautifully and the M-71 was getting over its teething troubles, when it functioned properly the performance was spectacular (a speed of 426 mph was ultimately to be recorded) and the future finally should have looked rosy for Polikarpov’s purposeful fighter.


Chkalov meeting one of the Mario Brothers.

However, by this time everything had been thrown into chaos by the Germans having invaded and begun their headlong rush towards Moscow. The Soviets needed lots of fighters immediately and didn’t have the luxury of waiting for promising prototypes. Unpopular but available fighters were produced in their thousands and gradual evolution rather than completely new types ultimately yielded the two major Soviet fighter series from Lavochkin and Yakovlev. Yet the I-185 was so good that it refused to die. In November 1942, the three prototypes were sent to the front to be evaluated under operational conditions. The report was unambiguously favourable: “The I-185 outclasses both Soviet and foreign aircraft in level speed. It performs aerobatic manoeuvres easily, rapidly and vigorously. The I-185 is the best current fighter from the point of control simplicity, speed, manoeuvrability (especially in climb), armament and survivability.” Plans were begun to start production forthwith and a ‘production standard’ aircraft was completed. Unfortunately the engine failed and it crashed. Development continued with the original three prototypes, one of which crashed and killed its pilot after another engine failure in January 1943. The M-71 was rapidly being considered a dead end.Plans to produce the I-185 with the reliable but lower-powered M-82 were eventually abandoned as the M-82 was required for the inferior (but good enough) La-5 that, crucially, was already in production and the I-185 programme was formally cancelled in April 1943, finally depriving the Soviet Union of its finest piston-engined fighter. A little over a year later Nikolai Polikarpov was dead and his design bureau was eventually absorbed into Sukhoi.

–Ed Ward


In 1939 Nikolai Polikarpov was ordered to take a work trip to Germany. While he was away, all his mates fucked him over. His plant director, chief engineer, and the design engineer Mikhail Gurevich suggested a new fighter (the I-200) and got the go-ahead from Artem Mikoyan (whose brother was a senior politician- just saying). On his return, poor Polikarpov found that his bureau no longer existed, with his engineers at the new MiG bureau. Just goes to show, never go on holiday if you work with knobs.

 6. Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut


While the US was entranced by stealth, Russia was seduced by super-manoeuvrability. A fighter based on the Su-47 Berkut would have been incredibly agile.


In some parallel universe where Salamander’s Future Fighters is an aviation history book, crowds at airshows today are wowed by weird-looking fighters performing impossible manoeuvres, with their wings seemingly stuck on back-to-front. Here production versions of the Grumman X-29, British Aerospace P.1214 rub shoulder-pads with Russia’s Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut – a forward-swept wing (FSW) experimental heavy fighter from the 1980s. Like shoulder-pads, FSWs were briefly fashionable in the 1980s, as they promised enhanced agility, lower take-off and landing distances and better controllability at high angles-of attack.

While Russia had toyed with a captured Ju-287  bomber after the war and tested their own Tsybin LL-3 in 1948, the concept had to wait for fly-by-wire technology and composite materials for designers to be able to create a practical aircraft – because of the extreme instability and the strong wings needed.

Enter Sukhoi, which in 1983, was given the go-ahead to develop the Su-47 (originally Su-37) demonstrator – based on the Flanker family but with fly-by-wire, forward swept wings and canards.

The Su-47’s development was disrupted by the end of the Cold War and it didn’t get into the air until 1997, a dark time for Russian aviation (though Sukhoi was in a better position than most thanks to Flanker export sales)  Technology, too, had moved on.


The truly extraordinary Belyayev DB-LK swept-forward wing bomber of 1940 will be covered in our forthcoming article on cancelled Soviet bombers.


Another company interested in forward-swept wing was Northrop. This advanced tactical fighter concept is from the 1980s, and it bears interesting comparison with the Berkut.The Su-47’s development was disrupted by the end of the Cold War and it didn’t get into the air until 1997,

While its fly-by-wire controls and composite structure undoubtedly fed into Sukhoi’s Su-35 and PAK-FA programmes – its radical forward swept wings did not. FBW and thrust-vectoring means the Su-35 today can perform jaw-dropping aerobatics without needing canards or FSWs. Stealth too, where the alignment of edges is the first step in lowering RCS, would also present a unique problem for anyone designing a FSW fighter now. While only one was made, the Su-47 still looks unbelievable cool.


Tim Robinson, Editor-in-Chief. AEROSPACE magazine @RAeSTimR

5. Sukhoi Su-37/S-37 


As the Cold War was reaching its (thankfully low key) climax, the craze across the fighter houses of Europe was for canard-deltas. Soviet designers had been studying canard foreplanes on jet fighters since the 1950s, and were re-awakened to the idea by both advances in flight control software and the Western trend. It was at this time, in the late 1980s, that Sukhoi was considered a new ground attack aircraft. It was planned that it would combine the canard delta configuration with several unusual features.

The Sukhoi bureau developed plans for what was dubbed ‘Su-37’ or ‘S-37’ (this designation was later recycled for a ‘Flanker’ variant, which is unrelated to this project) as a single-engined single-seat fighter. Learning from experience in Afghanistan the ’37 was designed to replace Soviet Aviation’s ‘Fitters’, Floggers and Frogfoots (or is it Frogfeet?). Again echoing trends in West defence planning, the Su-37 was intended to combine the ground attack and air-to-air role, with an emphasis on the first role. Consequently, it had 18 external hard points able to carry 8300kg of stores together with an internal 30mm gun. Of contemporary Western aircraft only Tornado could lug more around and they’re not as pretty. To assist the pilot in carrying out these disparate roles an ambitious avionics package was planned with multi-mode radar capable of terrain following and simultaneous tracking of up to 10 targets against background clutter.


An integrated electro-optical system and defensive aids suite (DAS) were also planned, today technologies found on the F-35. Unlike the F-35 it also had 800kg of armour plate for the pilot and other sensitive areas. To reduce vulnerability on the ground it also, oddly for a non-naval aircraft, had folding wingtips allowing more to be packed into a hardened air shelter Alas with the ending of the Cold War funding for this supersonic Sturmovik was not to be and instead we enthusiasts of Russian metal must be content with endless tedious Flanker derivatives.

— Bing Chandler, former Lynx helicopter Observer (now works in flight safety)

4 Yakovlev Yak-43


Russia (and the Soviet Union) is often accused of stealing US aircraft concepts and technologies. In reality there has been give and take (as well as similar design solutions resulting from parallel teams working to solve similar problems).

That Lockheed bought research from Yakovlev on the STOVL propulsion system of the Yak-41 (or 141 if you prefer) is pretty notable. The Yak-41, impressive though it was, was merely a stepping stone to the formidable Yak-43 fighter. The Yak-43 would have been far faster and versatile than the Harrier, with a performance comparable to the MiG-29. The tumultuous transitional period that made the collaboration with Lockheed possible also killed the Yak-43, but its DNA lives on today in the F-35B.

Ten best fighters radars here

Analysis of latest fighter aircraft news here

3. Grokhovsky G-38


Source: Deviant Art

In the mid-1930s, the concept of the ‘cruiser fighter’/ ‘Zerstörer’ was very popular in design and planning circles. The Grokhovsky G-38 was one of many examples of this class of fighter that never left the drawing board. It was a twin-boom, multi-seat heavy fighter comparable in concept to the Dutch Fokker G.1 or American Lockheed P-58 ‘Chain Lightning’. The G-38, however, was remarkable in a number of respects, most significant of which was the execution of the twin-book concept. The Fokker and the Lockheed were large, bulky, even clumsy aircraft, as was the original take on the G-38. When Grokhovsky hired the young Pavel Ivensen to work on the project, however, the aircraft was transformed into something rather exciting. Ivensen started from a clean sheet. The new G-38 was tiny for a three-seat aircraft, with a wingspan of 13.4 m (compared with 16 m for the P-38 and 17 m for the Fokker G.1) and ultra-neat packaging. The crew were contained in a torpedo-shaped pod faired into the broad wing centre-section, and the two Gnome-Rhone radial engines tapered to super-slender booms. It had an incredibly low frontal area for an aircraft of its class, and a high wing loading for the time, and it’s safe to say that it would have been fast. Most remarkable of all was the fact that the preliminary designs were approved in 1934, making the highly modern looking G-38 contemporary with the Hawker Hurricane and Curtiss P-36. Had it not been cancelled (for ‘unknown reasons’, around the time of the major Stalinist purges), it is intriguing to consider what the aircraft might have done for the otherwise lacklustre heavy fighter class.

2. Grokhovsky 39
On 8 September 1914, the Russian Imperial Air Service pilot Pyotr Nesterov performed the first aerial ramming aircraft attack, using his aircraft itself as an offensive weapon. Though very dangerous, the use of ramming as a last ditch tactic proved popular with Soviet pilots.

In 1932, the Soviet air force began a classified project to produce a purpose-built ramming fighter. This effort, dubbed Project ‘Taran’ (battering ram) considered various manned and unmanned solutions before settling on Grokhovsky’s G-39 project. Grokhovsky was a highly-skilled pilot, aircraft designer and inventor; he created the world’s first cotton parachutes, and designed items as varied as cargo containers for airborne troops, rocket artillery, armoured hovercraft and even a weaponised snowmobile (it is not known whether the Saatchi artist Katya Grokhovsky, below, is a descendant). 3.jpg

The G-39 design was a monoplane pusher with rudders on the outer sections of the wing instead of a conventional tail unit. The most unusual feature of the G-39 was its weapon: two steel wires running from a boom on the nose to the wingtips, intended to slice through enemy aircraft. In case the wires snapped, the wing’s leading edges were made exceptionally strong. The exceptionally brave (or unfortunate) G-39 pilots would have had a degree of protection from a retractable bullet-proof windscreen. This extremely strange machine was readied for flight in 1935, but refused to take-off. With its 100hp engine, the G-39 was woefully underpowered. Work on the G-39 was discontinued. Like many others, he would was crushed by Stalin’s brutal state- Grokhovsky was arrested in 1942 and died in prison four years later.

  1. Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-150 family


Ye-150 series were wildly high performance heavy interceptors. They could out-drag and out-climb any fighter in the world, and they also looked exceptionally mean. Despite taking its first flight in 1959, the Ye-150 could reach an astonishing Mach 2.65 (some sources claim even higher speeds) and could reach altitudes above 69,000 feet (remarkably all of this was achieved with the same installed thrust as today’s rather more pedestrian Gripen). This series of four experimental fighter prototypes were built in the effort to create a new, highly automated fighter to defend the Soviet union against a proliferating Western threat (including the supersonic bombers like the B-58- then in development). To catch and destroy these fast high-flying intruders the interceptor was to be automatically steered under the guidance of ground radars before engaging its own cutting-edge detection and weapons system. But it was a case of too much too soon; the ferociously exacting requirements on the electronics, missile and powerplant were too demanding, and each suffered severe delays and development problems. What could have been the best intercepter in the world was cancelled in 1962.

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You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versusTyphoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. a

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

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The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes (Hardback)

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

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

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

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


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

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


The 10 worst US aircraft


Abraham Lincoln noted that America will never be destroyed from the outside. Likewise the most serious threats to the US aircraft industry have always come from within, as demonstrated by the following inglorious parade of folly and nincompoopery. No nation has created as many aircraft types – or types that so comprehensively occupy the spectrum from superb to shit. 
(You can see the 11 worst Soviet aircraft here)

To keep this blog going- allowing us to create new articles- we need donations. We’re trying to do something different with Hush-Kit: give aviation fans something that is both entertaining, surprising and well-informed. Please do help us and click on the donate button above – you can really make a difference (suggested donation £10). You will keep us impartial and without advertisers – and allow us to carry on being naughty. Once you’ve done that we hope you enjoy 10 Incredible Soviet fighter Aircraft that never entered service. A big thank you to all of our readers.

10. Fisher P-75 Eagle
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Long before the F-15 was even thought of, its illustrious namesake was the physical embodiment of audacious corporate fraud. The original Eagle was a poor aircraft built by General Motors with an ulterior motive that sucked in over $50 million in the middle of the most destructive war in history. Great things were expected of the Eagle, its designation P-75 had been specially allocated, P-73 and P-74 having been missed out, to allude to the French 75-mm gun of the Great war – regarded as a symbol of victory. The appellation “Eagle’ boasted of American greatness and nobility – and extensive media interest surrounded the programme. It was trumpeted as a ‘wonder plane’ before its first flight (less so afterwards) however the Eagle itself was a Frankenstein’s Monster of an interceptor, cobbled together out of bits of other, better, aircraft. The Eagle’s wings were taken from the P-40, its undercarriage from the F4U Corsair and the tail was appropriated from the SBD Dauntless. This approach appeared to yield distinct advantages: the aircraft could be built quickly as all these parts were already in production and (most attractively) the new fighter should be cheap as so much of it already existed. Unfortunately the design also employed the Allison (itself a division of General Motors) V-3420, a 24-cylinder engine that promised much but delivered considerably less, not least its rated horsepower and the Eagle’s performance was underwhelming. That aside, the XP-75 suffered from poor handling, dreadful spin characteristics and inadequate engine cooling. To further muddle an already problematic programme the Army decided it required not an interceptor but a long-range escort fighter. The XP-75 was redesigned, negating the advantage of using the pre-existing elements of its original design and emerged as a broadly acceptable aircraft in late 1944, by which time P-51s were proving spectacularly successful in the escort role rendering the Eagle superfluous, production terminated at the sixth airframe and that appeared to be that.
However all was not as it seemed, General Motors, who designed and built the P-75 at its Fisher Body Division, were tied up in a great many wartime programmes and believed they were overcommitted. When the USAAF came calling to try to get them to build B-29s, GM were desperate not to join in. With the knowledge that USAAF Materiel Command had the power to compel GM to build B-29s, they (allegedly) came up with an alternative and overriding commitment: development of the war-winning P-75! The USAAF bought it (in both senses) and GM never built a Single Superfortress. Looked on in this way, the P-75 was a resounding success.
9. Bell FM-1 Airacuda ‘Francis Ford Cuppola’ 
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Bell were a new player on the scene in 1937 and their first aircraft design combined futuristic looks with unconventional features but its striking looks concealed a litany of flaws, questionable design choices and unsatisfactory performance in its designed roles. Firstly, the FM-1’s combined engine nacelle/gun positions gave the 37-mm weapons mounted therein a good field of fire for intercepting bomber formations but the pusher engines constantly overheated and the rear mounted propellors rendered death inevitable for any gunner who attempted to bail out. Actually firing the guns caused the gunner’s station to fill with choking smoke. Sensibly the aircraft was usually flown with the nacelles unoccupied. Accepting that the gunners were best left behind, their guns could be operated remotely from the cockpit but the aircraft was too draggy and slow to stand much chance of intercepting any modern bomber. Its manoeuvrability was also poor, had it ever faced contemporary fighters it would have been cut to pieces.

As if this wasn’t enough the Airacuda was expected to be able to perform ground-attack missions as well, its bombload of a mere 600lb would have been acceptable in 1918 but on the eve of the Second World War it was pathetic. To add considerable injury to insult the electrical system of the aircraft was extensive, complicated and unreliable. The FM-1 was the only aircraft to require a full-time supercharged auxiliary engine to power its own electrics as well as the fuel pumps. In the event of this engine failing (and it frequently did) the crew lost the use of the undercarriage, flaps and most importantly, the engines. Amazingly the FM-1 did enter limited operational service, equipping one squadron from 1938 to 1940. With only one recorded fatality whilst flying the Airacuda, the US Army got off surprisingly lightly.
8. Convair NB-36 ‘Atomic wait’
Of all the starkly insane ideas of the 1950s, the idea of putting an operating nuclear reactor in an aircraft remains particularly chilling. Yet both the Soviet Union and the USA did exactly that. The NB-36 ‘Crusader’ was a massive, terrifying ecological disaster waiting to happen every time it took to the sky. Yet take to the sky it did on no less than 47 occasions. Intended merely to test the feasibility of operating a nuclear reactor in flight prior to the development of a true atomic-powered aircraft, the NB-36 hauled a three megawatt reactor aloft. As a result of the shielding required to keep its crew alive, it remains by far the aircraft with the greatest amount of lead in its airframe: the rubber and lead-lined cockpit area alone weighed eleven tons.
A measure of its frightening potential can be gleaned from the fact that every time it flew it was accompanied by a team of support aircraft including a C-97 filled with a platoon of Marines who, in the event of a crash, or the reactor being jettisoned, were to parachute down, secure the site and attempt immediate clean-up, a task that would probably have cost them their lives. The NB-36 was also the only aircraft fitted with a hotline to the President’s office to be used in case of impending or actual disaster. This hotline was actually used when a smoke marker exploded in the reactor compartment (harmlessly as it turned out). Imagine taking that call.
As it turned out, the reactor was switched on for a total of 89 hours in flight and all was well, the NB-36 survived to be scrapped and the radioactive parts of the airframe were buried. However when one considers that 32 standard B-36s were written-off in accidents from 1949 to 1957 and even though this was a very good safety record for the time, it does make one wonder about the responsibility (or lack of it) of combining 1940s aeronautical technology with a potential Chernobyl.
7. Wright Flyer
Just because an aircraft is epoch-making doesn’t make it any good. The Wright Flyer was, according to the Smithsonian Institution, “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard” and they should know as they spent a great deal of time and money trying to prove that it wasn’t. However it should be pointed out that this sustained flight lasted an absolute maximum of 59 seconds, was more or less out of control, and covered a mere 852 feet. It flew four times on December 17 1903 but never again because the Flyer was essentially uncontrollable – and it should be noted that the Wright’s had plenty of experience flying gliders of the same configuration over long distances for years before they attempted powered flight. With the elevator mounted at the wrong end of the aircraft and too close to the centre of gravity, wing-warping rather than ailerons, and a rudder that was too small, the Flyer was dangerously unstable about all three axes, particularly longitudinally – in all four flights the Flyer undulated violently. Added to this was its inability to take off under its own power without the aid of a launching rail, visible in the famous photograph above (some deluded groups, almost exclusively Brazilian, believe this feature makes it ineligible as the world’s first aircraft and favour Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis, which flew without the need for a launch rail in 1906. The fact that Santos-Dumont was also Brazilian obviously having no bearing on their opinion whatsoever). The one undeniably decent aspect of its design was its engine, which the brothers designed themselves and was remarkably powerful for its size – though not nearly as good as the Manly-Balzer radial fitted to Langley’s Aerodrome (of which more later). The Wrights themselves held the Flyer in no great esteem, after storing it for nine years, Wilbur was asked what they intended to do with it and replied that they ‘would most likely burn it’. It was a dreadful, dangerous, flawed aircraft but it was the first.
6. Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel ‘King Arthur Daly’
From a purely aeronautical point of view there is nothing wrong with the VH-71 Kestrel, yet it is not in service and as an example of eye-watering cost overruns it is without parallel, and that’s including the F-35 programme. It’s not even as if it were a new aircraft but instead a version of the AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin, a successful (-ish) medium-lift helicopter first flown in 1987 and serving in the air arms of 13 nations. Unit cost for the Merlin is approximately $21 million. In 2002 Lockheed Martin and AgustaWestland agreed to jointly develop and market the helicopter in the US. In 2005 this aircraft won the competition to replace the fleet of helicopters operated by the Marines as Presidential transport. By 2009, the contract had ballooned from its original allocation of $6.1Billion to over $11.2 billion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was dragged to go to Congress for a review of the project. The price continued happily rising. Some blame the rises on additional requested equipment that was not in the original brief, others point to improper lobbyist ties or erratic asset management. Its pretty hard to run a US military aircraft project so badly that it is killed (the A-12 being an notable exception) – the F-35 and C-5 proving the point, but this was a during a recession. Some pointed out, not entirely in jest, that this huge sum would do more to safeguard the President if it were spent on stabilising the economies of the world’s poorest countries.
President Obama doomed the Kestrel to cancellation with an injection of fiscal rationality in 2009 with the mild words “the helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me.” The nine Kestrels that had been built ended up being sold to Canada as spare parts for their AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant fleet (a somewhat more successful Merlin variant) for a mere $164 million, only $2.84 billion less than had already been inexplicably spent on their construction. Seven of these remain airworthy and there is the possibility that Canada may yet put these into service, an intriguing possibility for an aircraft that literally cost more than its weight in gold.
5. The Langley ‘Aerodrome’ ‘Pierpont Zero’
Samuel Pierpont Langley was a brilliant inventor, astronomer and scientist who happened to be secretary of the Smithsonian institution. He had built an excellent model aircraft that flew over a mile in 1901 and decided, reasonably, to scale it up and make the world’s first manned, powered flight. The Aerodrome was beautifully made and its 52hp radial had the best power-to-weight ratio of any engine, a record it held until 1919(!) – but it couldn’t fly. Twice the Aerodrome was flung off its catapult and plunged into the Potomac River. Nine days later the Wright brothers flew their aircraft into the history books, Langley died in 1906, and that should really have been that for the Aerodrome but fate decreed its story was not yet over.
The Wrights were as litigious as they were diligent and busily sued anyone who built a successful aircraft. In 1914 this included the talented pioneer Glenn Curtiss who came up with a brilliant scheme to flip the litigation on its head. If he could prove that the Aerodrome was capable of flight then the Wright’s patent would be invalid and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like the fact that it wasn’t stand in his way. After extensive modification including a new V-8 engine, approved by the Smithsonian who despised the Wrights for beating them into the air, Curtiss managed to coax it aloft for an awe-inspiring five seconds. Modifications removed, the Aerodrome was fraudulently placed on show as ‘the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight’. Thus began an ignoble tradition of deception, foul-play and skulduggery that has sustained the US aviation industry for well over a century.
4. Lockheed XFV-1 Salmon ‘Salmon fishing in no man’
The US military was full of bizarre ideas throughout the fifties, and luckily for us they were so prudence-crushingly rich that many of them actually got built. One of the craziest was the XFV-1 and its superior competitor the Convair XFY-1 ‘Pogo’, the last two airscrew-powered aircraft designed for the fighter role. Inspired, like all the best aviation ideas of the 1950s, by the flights of fantasy of the dying Third Reich (a regime not well known for rationality and good sense) the Pogo and Salmon were loosely derived from a Focke-Wulf design study for a fighter called the Triebflugel. This was to have a mid-mounted rotor/propellor powered by ramjets and the whole point of the idea was that it could take off vertically, ideal for a point-defence interceptor. The downside for the pilot of this and the subsequent Pogo and Salmon was that they had to land vertically – backwards – the pilot inching the aircraft back down onto to its tail. Nonetheless the US Navy couldn’t ignore the utility of a fighter aircraft that could be based on any ship large enough to mount a helipad, two prototypes were ordered, and a production contract was expected for whichever proved the better design. Quite apart from the landing problem, both programmes were condemned to employ the Allison XT-40 turboprop, a desultory engine with a disarming tendency to rip itself to pieces which was to prove the kiss of death to several other more conventional aircraft. Engine failure is not to be taken lightly in any aircraft but when one is hovering, nose vertical, a hundred or so feet above the ground, the prospect of that engine ceasing to work is a sobering one. Nevertheless Convair managed a few vertical take-offs and landings with their Pogo but the poor Salmon was not so lucky, a ton heavier than the Pogo, it was decided that it lacked necessary power for its weight to attempt either.
Lockheed XFV-1.jpgSo, whilst Convair found their Pogo was possible to land – though it was regarded as almost impossible even by their exceptional test pilot ‘Skeets’ Coleman – Lockheed had to fly their Salmon with an embarrassing fixed undercarriage more appropriate for a 1920s airliner than a state-of-the-art interceptor. Both programmes were cancelled at the request of their manufacturers in 1955 (which was a shame, imagine these two dogfighting MiG-17s over Vietnam). Nevertheless, to their possible credit, they did try, Lockheed’s great designer Kelly Johnson said of the Salmon “We practised landing on clouds, and we practised looking over our shoulders. We couldn’t tell how fast we were coming down, or when we would hit. We wrote the Navy: ‘We think it is inadvisable to land the airplane.’ They came back with one paragraph that said ‘We agree.'”

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3. Rockwell XFV-12 ‘The Rockwell tart’
Generally, by the 1970s, it was a fairly safe bet that prototype fighter aircraft emerging from the world’s biggest, richest, and most successful aviation industry would be capable of flight. Yet in 1977 the Rockwell XFV-12 ingloriously proved that such assumptions are not always as safe as one might imagine. Rockwell’s XFV-12 certainly looked exciting with its canard layout and wingtip tail surfaces cunningly obscuring the parts that had been lifted off other, existing, aircraft – the intakes were from the F-4 and the whole cockpit and landing gear had been nicked from the Skyhawk. The concept of the XFV-12 was intriguing, a system known as a ‘thrust augmentor wing’ channelled engine exhaust downwards to enable vertical flight. Unfortunately someone at Rockwell had augmented the maths: thrust ‘augmentation’ from the system was 30% less than expected and as a result the engine was capable of lifting only three-quarters of the aircraft and the aircraft never flew. Despite this, tethered trials were carried out but with the obvious inability of the aircraft to support itself in the air the whole programme was terminated in 1981. After the expenditure of an estimated billion dollars on the programme the Navy stated that it had ‘learned all it could’ from the XFV-12 i.e. nothing.
2. De Lackner DH-4 Heli-Vector/HZ-1 Aero-cycle/YHO-2 ‘The Devil’s Hoverbike’
In the 1950s the US Army decided that only snow-eating Commies walk into battle and that having their infantrymen hover into action like elves or fairies on dangerous one-man helicopters was much more appropriate for the modern battlefield. The De Lackner DH-4 was the worst of the prospective designs to answer this idiotic request and one of the most terrifying machines ever to grace the sky. The true horror of this vehicle becomes clear when one studies a photograph of the DH-4 in flight and realises that the contra-rotating rotor blades are mounted approximately four inches under the feet of its luckless pilot, who was not provided with a seat and was compelled instead to balance on a tiny platform directly over the rotor hub. Standing above the whirling, unprotected rotors the infantryman of the future was required simply to lean in the direction he wished to go, much like a modern Segway. The difference being that a Segway is unlikely to chop one’s body into small pieces should you fall off. Eventually the realisation that the DH-4 was capable only of rendering the modern soldier a better target by raising him, terrified, a few feet above the ground, very noisily and at great expense, caused the programme’s demise. To be fair to the DH-4, it was at least relatively fast, being capable of a horrifying 75mph. This compared well to the rival Hiller Pawnee which at 16mph could be outrun by a not-particularly vigorously ridden bicycle.
1. Christmas Bullet ‘Unhappy Christmas’
Quite likely the Worst Aircraft Ever Built, and the only aircraft on this list that can be justifiably said to have been designed by a psychopath, the Christmas Bullet was a scandalous mockery of an aeroplane capable only of climbing high enough to guarantee the death of its pilot. Dr William Whitney Christmas MD was a seemingly respectable physician who had some unconventional ideas about aircraft development and coupled them with a plethora of lies both about his own achievements – he claimed for example to have invented the aileron – and his designs: he stated that he had received an offer of a million dollars to ‘take over’ Germany’s air force, and was swamped with orders for Bullets from Europe. Luckily for everyone, only one of his designs was to be built, less fortunately, and for no good reason, it was built twice. The Bullet was a stubbily purposeful looking aircraft and the US Army had gamely yet inexplicably (this was wartime and Armies seldom lend prototype military equipment to private individuals) loaned Christmas the prototype of its new Liberty L-6 engine, though they stated that they were to inspect the new aircraft before its first flight, a proviso Dr Christmas ignored.
On first inspection the Bullet appeared quite conventional until one noticed the paper-thin wing unbraced by struts or wires, that was free to flap (‘like a bird’) rather than remain rigid – this being Dr Christmas’s great idea.
Despite the fact that even a cursory glance at the wings makes it plain that they are going to fall off, Christmas managed to persuade an out-of-work pilot named Cuthbert Mills to take the Bullet up. In a twist of fate reminiscent of the worst kind of melodrama, the doomed Mills even invited his mother along to watch him fly the new fighter. The Bullet took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. Undeterred, unrepentant and un-prosecuted Christmas built a new Bullet. It took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. At least this time his mother wasn’t present. A mere month earlier this second Bullet had been on (static) display at the New York Air Show, where it was billed as the ‘safest, easiest controlled plane in the world’. Whilst showing no remorse for losing the lives of two pilots, nor apparently any concern about destroying the Army’s precious new L-6 engine against the their specific instructions, Christmas billed the Army $100,000 for his ‘revolutionary’ wing design. His gifts of persuasion must have been better than his skill as a designer for they duly paid up.
In a final ironic twist the chief designer for the Continental Aircraft company – who had actually built the Bullet for Dr Christmas – was one Vincent Burnelli, who dedicated the remainder of his working life to designing lifting-body aircraft of immense strength and safety. One cannot help but wonder if the horror of the Christmas Bullet inspired this brilliant designer to devote his considerable talent to making aviation safer. Google_Books_Christmas_Bullet_4-210x300.jpgWilliam Christmas died in 1964 ‘with money in his pockets and blood on his hands’. As the historian Bill Yenne put it, ‘his was the kind of tale they used to write folk songs about‘.

(Hush-Kit only exists because of the kindness of our readers, if you’d like to donate you’ll find a PayPal button above and below- thank you)


To keep this blog going- allowing us to create new articles- we need donations. We’re trying to do something different with Hush-Kit: give aviation fans something that is both entertaining, surprising and well-informed. Please do help us and click on the donate button above – you can really make a difference (suggested donation £10). You will keep us impartial and without advertisers – and allow us to carry on being naughty.  A big thank you to all of our readers.

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

 Edward Ward’s world of mechanical whimsy and tomfoolery can be enjoyed here.

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

XFY-1 POGO (29).jpg

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

NOW AVAILABLE: The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, a gorgeous heavily illustrated – and often irreverent- coffee-table book covering the history of aviation 1914 – the present.

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XFY-1 POGO (29).jpg