If you were unlucky enough to still be flying a piston-engined fighter in 1949 you’d better hope your enemy didn’t have jets. The piston age was over. Though the ultimate piston-engined fighters were still serving they were now well out of their depth. The jet generation was just too fast to catch… but they were also very thirsty, short-ranged and extremely dangerous to fly.
1949 is an intriguing transitory period, many of the fighters you may have expected to be included hadn’t actually entered service yet, so no Tunnan, no F-94, no Venom, no Meteor F8, no CF-100, no Sea Hawk, no Saab 21R and, notably, nothing French. While the Arab–Israeli War (1948–1949) was little different to World War II in terms of the fighters types, with Spitfires and Bf 109 derivatives, a new age of aerial warfare was about to explode. The best of 1949 would not have to wait long for a baptism of fire in the unforgiving skies of Korea.
12. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 ‘Unwell Fargo‘
The I-300 had been the first Soviet pure jet to fly, a winning coin toss deciding its place in history in favour of the Yak-15 (which flew later on that same day in 1945). It was a horrible beast to fly, during a flight in 1946 it uncontrollably pitched down, crashed into the ground and killed its test pilot, A.N. Grinchik. He was replaced by the master test pilot Mark Gallai (a kind of Soviet Winkle Brown), who encountered the same pitch-down issue, which snapped one of the tailplanes off and ruptured the main fuel tank. Instead of bailing out, he made a remarkable, and successful, deadstick unpowered landing. Despite its many flaws, the I-300 was commissioned as a fighter, and assigned the designation MiG-9. The MiG-9 was predictably awful. One of its major issues was the engine flame-outs that occurred when the guns were fired at high altitudes. This was a major problem for a fighter. Its top speed of 537mph (slower than the I-300) was not great for a jet fighter, inferior to even the Me 262 clone Avia S-92. Still, it would have been fast enough able to run away from a Sea Fury. Its armament consisted of the hugely destructive Nudelman N-37 37-mm cannon and two Nudelman-Suranov NS-23 23-mm cannon. Though several advanced versions were tested, including one fitted with an afterburner capable of 600mph, they were not pursued. As soon as the superior MiG-15 was on the scene, it soaked up almost all resources available to develop fighter aircraft, starving lesser aircraft like the MiG-9.
11. Avia S-92 Turbína ‘Czech your privilege’
On liberation, Soviet forces seized all the German tools, jigs and components for Me 262 production they found in Czechoslovakia. These extremely useful scavenged parts were gifted to the new Czechoslovakian government. Avia had enough parts to build 19 aircraft. There is some debate as to whether this small force was active in 1949 (some sources say 1950). But it is interesting to note that four years after the War, what was essentially a Me 262A was still an effective fighter. With a top speed of 560mph it could decide when to fight, even against the most potent piston-engined fighters in service such as the Sea Fury, Twin Mustang, Bearcat and Sea Hornet. The inclusion of the S-92 above the finest piston-engined is debatable, it could be said to depend on whether you want greater speed performance with shitty BMW 003s which nobody would trust to keep running for very long or better range and utterly reliable engines. In general, it is probably fair to say a pilot would have been safer in peacetime in the final piston aircraft, and safer in a dogfight in one of the early jets, with his superior speed enabling him to dictate whether to engage. It is on these grounds that the questionable S-92 and lamentable MiG-9 are chosen over the wonderful final aircraft of a dying generation.
The S-92 had the advantage of a swept wing, still a relatively novel feature for fighter aircraft of 1949. Yugoslavia expressed an interest, but with the arrival on the scene of new Soviet designs, this did not happen.
10. Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star ‘Dove from above’
While the Bell P-59 was technically the US Army Air Force’s first jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was the first to enter series production and see operational service. The prototype XP-80 first flew on 8 January 1944 and within eighteen months, the type was series production. The P-80A reached Squadron service by the end of 1945 and continued to fly alongside the newer P-80B for the next few years. The P-80As and Bs were both developed during wartime and funded through wartime contracts, but the next evolution, the P-80C (soon to be F-80C after June 1948) was the first Air Force type to reach production that was funded postwar.
Top fighters of 1945 here
By 1949, the F-80 had racked up an impressive history. With the blockade of Berlin in 1948, the 61st Fighter Squadron’s F-80Bs under 56th Fighter Group commander Col. Dave Schilling departed Selfridge Air Force Base on 12 July 1948 and headed across the Atlantic in order to protect the Allied aircraft of the Berlin Airlift. The mobilization, known as Fox Able One proved a fighter squadron could self-deploy overseas on short notice. When the squadron’s deployment ended in early summer 1949, Schilling led Fox Able Two, taking another squadron from the 56th across the Atlantic to replace them.
The 36th Fighter Group followed the 61st FS to Europe by 13 August 1948 and by the 20th were established at Furstenfeldbruck, Germany. The 36th spent the next eight months protecting Berlin Airlift aircraft from potential air threats from aggressive Russian pilots. But that was not the 36th’s only mission while at Furstenfeldbruck. During a training flight returning from Malta in 1949, members of the Group’s 22nd Fighter Squadron began practicing precision formation flying. Upon returning to Germany, those 22nd FS pilots began practicing standard formation aerobatics in the F-80B and the Skyblazers were born. The Skyblazers were actually the second USAF demonstration team, preceded by the stateside Acrojets a year prior. The Acrojets began flying F-80As but transitioned to the F-80C in 1949.
Top fighters of 1939 here
On the other side of the globe, Japan had become the Asian bulwark against Communist aggression, just as Germany had in Europe. The 8th, 49th and 51st Fighter Groups were all flying F-80B and C models from bases on Okinawa and the Japanese home islands. During the relatively calm days of 1949, the majority of Japan-based F-80s were arrayed against threats from newly Communist China, flying from Naha (51st) on Okinawa and Itazuke (8th) on the Japanese home islands. On the northern end of Honshu, the 49th flying from Misawa AB focused its attention northward, as the closest fighter unit to the Soviet Pacific Fleet homeport of Vladivostok.
The F-80 lineage diverged in 1949 with the first flight of the YF-94 Starfire on 16 April. The new all-weather interceptor was the first Air Force type fitted with an afterburner, giving the aircraft up to 6000lbs thrust. It also included a sophisticated fire control suite linked to a new air intercept radar controlled by the backseater. The weapons officer in the back seat would run the radar and direct the pilot to his target at night or in bad weather.
The F-80 of 1949 served in another distinct role as well. Fitted with a pair of K24 cameras in place of the machine gun armament, the FP-80 and after June 1948, the RF-80, provided critical tactical reconnaissance duties with the 363rd stateside and Japan with the 8th Reconnaissance Squadron. But due to peacetime budget constraints, the Air Force determined that reconnaissance squadrons were not critical infrastructure, and the 363rd Recon Group was deactivated in August 1949 after only two years of operation. One of the 363rd’s squadrons, the 161st was reassigned to the 20th Fighter Group at Shaw AFB, where it continued on as one of the only two reconnaissance squadrons in the air force.
In 1949, the Shooting Star still had somewhat of a technological edge, although that was rapidly fading as the F-84 and F-86 entered service. Improvements in the engine, weapons, and avionics allowed it to stay competitive as an air superiority fighter, despite the relative maturity of the design. The F-80 was not the fastest, nor the highest climbing, but it was good at what it did, both as an early interceptor and later as a fighter bomber. Later designs like the F-84 and F-86 built on the lessons learned by the F-80 programme even as they fought alongside the Shooting Star just a year later.
A 1948 fly-off assessment against the supposedly superior F-84C revealed that the older P-80 was more manoeuvrable, had a better low altitude climb rate and a shorter take-off run. It also was tough enough for rough field operation. The C model had greater firepower and more thrust than the B. With a top speed of 594mph, six fifty cal machine-guns and up to sixteen 127-mm unguided rockets it was not a fighter to be trifled with. But technology was moving so fast it would soon be easy meat for the MiG-15. Around half of the F-80C’s built would be lost to operational causes, 133 of the 277 lost would be destroyed by groundfire.
9. Yakovlev Yak-23 ‘Flora’
Highly manoeuvrable, with brisk acceleration and a good climb rate, the Yak-23 was a decent design doomed to obscurity by the appearance of far superior designs. It enjoyed a good thrust-to-weight ratio at normal operating weights of 0.46, superior even to that of the F-86 (0.42) thanks to its Soviet-built Rolls-Royce Derwent V engine. Its small size and great manoeuvrability were hallmarks of designer Alexander Sergeyevich Yakovlev. He had pushed for a lightweight and small design against official recommendations (the Yakovlev bureau’s larger Yak-25 fighter had been cancelled, proving markedly inferior to the rival La-15 and MiG-15, and dangerously prone to buffeting). The Yak-23 was fast, a top speed of 575mph at sea level was good for 1949, and the ‘Flora’ – with its twin 23-mm cannon – would have proved a handful for almost any opponent.
It would later snatch a world climb record.
8. Republic F-84D Thunderjet ‘Thunderjets are gauche’
By 1949, it was clear that Republic’s F-84 Thunderjet had failed to meet initial expectations. There had been hopes that the new Thunderjet would be a worthy successor to the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt – such that a contract for 25 YP-84As for evaluation and a further 75 production P-84Bs was placed even before the first prototype made its maiden flight on February 28th, 1946. But the type’s rehabilitation as a tough, fast fighter-bomber, combat proven in Korea, lay some way in the future, and in 1949 the Thunderjet was still in the process of working through a succession of teething troubles! The F-84B became operational with 14th Fighter Group at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine in December 1947, but within weeks was subject to a range of restrictions and limitations due to control reversal, and wrinkling of the fuselage skin. The F-84B was grounded on May 24th, 1948 after further serious structural problems were uncovered. The F-84C was powered by the much improved J35-A-13 engine, and featured fuel, electrical and hydraulic systems refinements, but both of these early models were judged unsuitable for their assigned role – neither being considered operational nor capable of executing any aspect of their intended mission. The J35 engines of the F-84B and F-84C had a 40 hour time between overhauls, preventing their use in Korea. The Thunderjet’s reputation was saved from ignominy by the service entry of the structurally improved F-84D in 1949. The F-84D’s wings had thicker aluminium skin, and the wingtip fuel tanks gained small triangular fins to relieve their tendency to cause excessive wing twisting (leading to structural failure) during high g manoeuvres. The further improved F-84E also entered service in 1949, with further reinforcement of the wings, a 12 in extension to the fuselage in front of the wings and a 3 in plug aft of the wings. The new variant had a roomier cockpit and enlarged avionics bay, and could carry an additional pair of 230 gallon fuel tanks underwing, extending the combat radius from 850 to 1,000 miles. Serviceability remained obstinately poor, however, and it would be another two years before the definitive plank-winged ’84, the F-84G, entered service. The Thunderjet did form the basis of the much better swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak and RF-84F Thunderflash, but that is another story altogether
– Jon Lake, author of dozens of books about military aircraft
Top fighters of 1946 here
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The F-84B and Cs had been a huge disappointment and it was only the promised improvements of the D variant that saved the type from the axe. The D entered service in 1949 with the improved J35-A-13 engine, and with a wealth of enhancements including greatly improved fuel, hydraulic and electrical systems. The Thunderjet was now pretty hot stuff. It could carry a greater bombload than the P-80, and was faster, with better high altitude performance and a greater range. With a top speed of 587 mph at 4,000 ft it was no slouch.
7. Gloster Meteor F. Mk 4 ‘Mr Mature’
With the definitive F.Mk 8 yet to enter service, the F.Mk 4 was the hottest Meteor in 1949. It was massively more powerful thanks to its two Nene V engines each pumping out an additional 50% greater thrust than the earlier Derwent IV engines of the later F.Mk 3s. In fact, it was so powerful it needed its wings strengthened to keep up with the extra speed. A new stronger clipped wing was introduced, which increased possible roll rates by 80 degrees a second and made the carriage of 2,000Ib of munitions on the wings possible. The F.Mk 4 was a full 80mph faster than the 3. A slightly modified* version of the F.Mk IV** snatched the world speed record in 1945 at over 606mph, a huge jump from the previous official record of 1939 469mph figure by the Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 (though several aircraft had gone faster since notably the Me 163 and 262, none had been officially recorded). With a top speed of 590mph, four 20-mm cannon in the nose and a ceiling of over 44,000 feet the Meteor F.Mk 4 was a machine to be respected, only let down by a thick unswept wing that limited its top speed. Despite first flying in 1945, the F.Mk 4 was not rushed into service. Britain had lost her lead.
*VHF mast and armament removed, high-speed finish applied to both aircraft. Painted yellow for the benefit of speed cameras **the RAF abandoned its rather pretentious and inconvenient use of Roman numbers for aircraft marks in June 1948)
6. McDonnell F2H Banshee ‘The Screaming Reborn Phantom’
During its first test flight, the nascent Banshee famously demonstrated a climb rate twice that of the F8F Bearcat, then the US Navy’s hottest interceptor. In August 1949 it set a US Navy jet fighter altitude record of 52,000 ft (16,000 m). Carrier jets were in their infancy; the first US example FH-1 Phantom had only made its first carrier landing three years earlier. The Banshee was a vastly improved and far larger fighter based on the Phantom. The Phantom had been the first jet aircraft concieved from the outset for shipboard operation, and was a case of an over zealous embrace of an immature technology – or to be kinder, a vital stepping stone. For a minute advantage in top speed over the best piston-engined rivals (it was a piffling 4mp faster than the British Hornet) it offered far greater peril and worse handling. Though it would mature into capable machine, in 1949 the Banshee was still suffering teething problems. In Wings of the Navy, the greatest British test pilot Eric Brown rated the Banshee F2H-2 as inferior to the Meteor IV. The large Banshee rectified most of the Phantom’s shortcomings and at 580mph had decent top speed, but in 1949 it was not the capable machine it would later become.
5. de Havilland Vampire FB.5 ‘Bantamweight bloodsucker’
Image: BAE Systems. DH100 Vampire FB.5 (VV217) air-to-air on 8th March 1949
Shortly after World War 2, the RAF decided to embrace the Meteor as its standard day fighter. This left de Havilland at something of a loose end until they decided to promote the Vampire’s potential as a ground attack aircraft. Having convinced the authorities this would be a good idea a few changes had to be made to accommodate the change in operating altitude. The wings were strengthened with extra stringers and thicker skins. They also had wiring for rocket rails and bomb racks fitted to augment the four 20-mm cannon. Perhaps more drastically a foot was cut from each tip which improved low-altitude manoeuvrability and made the ride smoother. This arguably also made probably the world’s cutest jet fighter even cuter. As a nod to the ground attack role some armour was added around the engine, which was hopefully some comfort to the pilots given it was found to be impossible to fit an ejector seat in the snug cockpit. At least not if he wanted to keep his arms. In 1947 the new model was designated the Vampire FB5, which gives an average of a Mark every 9 months since the Vampire’s first flight. Which is less time than it can take to get a warning label moved these days. By December of the following year No. 16 Squadron started to receive aircraft to become the first operational squadron. The FB5 of 1949 was a punchy ground attack aircraft that was still able to take on enemy fighters after delivering its payload. That could be up to two 500lb or 1000lb bombs and eight rockets, which compares well with what the Harrier was delivering during the Falklands Conflict. Although in the latter case the rockets were probably more accurate than the WW2 era 60lb models the Vampire used which, if the pilot was lucky, went in the general direction they were pointed without damaging the aircraft. With an endurance of around two hours or 1,000 nautical miles it didn’t suffer the small bladder issue of other early jets even if the pilots might. Its relative simplicity and ruggedness also made it capable of rapidly redeploying to a new base if required. Indeed, by late ’49 No. 6 Squadron were based at Deversoir in the Canal Zone while deploying to remote airfields around the Middle East. Although not quite as fast or exciting as some of the jets in service in 1949, and still featuring a wooden fuselage, the Vampire benefited from several years of development making it a more complete aircraft than any of its competitors.
Plus, did I mention how cute they were? Though tasked as fighter-bomber, the Vampire could eat the Meteor in a dogfight. Vampire pilots enjoyed excellent visibility out from the bubble canopy (except in rain), and were enamoured of the tiny fighter’s benign handling characteristics. With lighter ailerons than the Vampire F.3, the FB.5 had a sparkling roll rate at higher altitudes, probably better than any other aircraft on this list. Its rate of turn was also superb, as was its turn radius: the FB5 could turn in three-eighths of a mile (the Meteor needed a whole mile) at 5,000 feet altitude, which increased to one mile at 35,000 feet (again smashing the Meteor, which required 1.7 miles). In 1948 a Vampire reached the astonishing altitude of 59,430 ft, setting a world record. Not bad for a fighter type first flown in 1943. The FB.5 Vampire had a top speed of 548mph, outrageous agility and powerful armament in the form of four 20-mm short barrel Hispano cannon.
– Bing Chandler/Joe Coles
4. Grumman F9F-2 Panther ‘Panther Burns’
Like the Army Air Force, the Navy’s experience with jet aircraft started during World War II. Due to Naval Aviation’s unique requirements, the Navy experimented with a few different types including composite airplanes like the Ryan FR-1 Fireball, which used both jet and piston engines. The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom became the Navy’s first pure jet powered airplane, first taking to the air in June 1945. But just two years later, it was deemed obsolete and relegated to a training role. That same year, the Grumman XF9F-1 took to the air for the first time. Grumman had provided the bulk of the Navy’s fighters during World War II and was eager to continue the tradition.
The new XF9F Panther had some initial teething problems but entered series production as the F9F-2 in 1948, with the first production models reaching the fleet in the Spring of 1949. VF-51 stood up in May and by summer the squadron was headed to the USS Boxer (CV-21) for carrier qualification. The squadron completed carrier quals by September and was declared operational.
The Panther was powered by a Pratt & Whitney J42 (manufacturer designation JT-6B), a license-built version of the British Rolls Royce Nene, that produced 5000lbs of non-afterburning thrust. The J42 gave the straight-wing Panther a top speed of 575mph, which was significantly slower than the Russian MiG-15 which was powered by roughly the same engine; a reverse engineered Nene designated the VK-1.
Unlike the Air Force’s F-80, which was originally designed as an interceptor and then evolved into an interceptor, the Panther had been built as a fighter bomber. It was armed with four AN/M3 20mm cannon with 190 rounds per gun and was capable of carrying 3,000lbs of bombs and rockets for close support and interdiction work. This capability was critical for the next squadron qualified in the type; the Marines’ VMF-115, who along with VMF-311 would take the type into combat alongside Navy squadrons the following year. F9F-2B BuNo 123526, on exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps would lead the first Marine Corps jet combat mission in Korea on 10 December 1950.
While 1949 was a significant year for the Panther’s introduction to squadron service and the first mass production of a Navy jet fighter, another significant development that would improve the design also occurred that year. The F9F-5 first took to the air in December 1949 and offered significantly better low-speed handling characteristics, which greatly improved landing approaches. The newer model was lengthened by sixteen inches and housed the more powerful J48 engine, producing nearly 2000lbs more thrust than the J42. The F9F-5 would be the ultimate version of the straight-wing Panther, reaching squadron service by the end of 1950 and entering combat just over a year later. The Panther would go on to score the first jet-versus-jet kill.
– Jonathan Bernstein is an aviation author, historian, former attack helicopter pilot and Arms & Armor Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. You can buy his book on P-47s here
The Panther was developed following the entirely unsatifactory study of a four-engined Grumman two-seat night fighter. The new design was small, tough and agile. Like the MiG-15 and some Vampire variants, the Panther was powered the British-designed Nene turbojet, licence produced in the US as the Pratt & Whitney J42. The F9F-4 model was delivered from late 1949 but did not enter operational service that year, it included the fuselage extension of the -5 without the powerplant upgrade. The -5 also made its first flight in ’49 but was in not service. It featured an Allison powerplant, the J33-A-16, which featured water injection to boost take-off thrust. In this time the Panther was more mature than the Banshee, and offered very similar capabilities (including the same armament) in a smaller airframe. Armed with four-cannon and ‘built like a Grumman’, it was tough sound design featuring the on-trend tip mounted fuel tanks (‘tiptanks’).
3. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15
In 1949 every preening fighter pilot* in the Soviet Union wanted to fly the MiG-15. A wonder in polished aluminium with a bright red star on the tail it could achieve the almost unbelievable speed of 669 mph at Sea Level thanks to secret German research from the mid-40s that led to it having a wing swept to 35 degrees. Compared to the straight-winged MiG-9 or the piston-powered Yak-9 this was clearly the future. While the West were still getting to grips with putting the Nene engine into the comparatively conservative Sea Hawk and the positively pedestrian Attacker the Soviet Union was forging ahead by putting their ‘equivalent’ RD-45 into the MiG. It’s almost as if letting Rolls-Royce sell the Soviet Union 25 Nene for ‘civil use only’ was a mistake. In fact, the Sea Hawk was still four years from entering service while the Soviet honchos were enjoying the benefits of ejection seats, the decadence of air conditioning, and a maximum speed of Mach 0.92 to the Sea Hawk’s 0.84.
All was not totally rosy in the final year of the ‘40s however. At this stage in its career the MiG was only to be flown on fine days, while aerobatics or combat manoeuvring were out of the question. There were also a few teething problems, for instance, if you went too fast the lack of quality control on the production line would lead to uncontrollable rolling which initially had to be fixed with manual trim tabs added to the ailerons. This probably wasn’t helped by the lack of hydraulic assistance on the early MiG-15’s flying controls. Still at least the air brakes were hydraulic. Even if they caused the aircraft to pitch up when they were deployed and didn’t really slow the aircraft down enough.
Assuming the pilot managed to overcome these issues with a combination of luck and skill there were also slight issues with the armament. Although the choice of two 23-mm and one 37mm-cannon provided plenty of punch, the differing ballistics of the two rounds could make aiming tricky with one set of rounds going above the target and the other below.
The good comrades at MiG were aware of these shortcomings and even as the first aircraft were being delivered to the VVS they were preparing to produce the MiG-15bis which would feature stiffer wings, servos for the controls and effective airbrakes along with a host of other minor modifications. This however wouldn’t enter service until 1950. In 1949 the MiG-15 looked like the future while being a terrifying thrill ride that could appear barely under the pilot’s control.
The MiG-15 could out-turn, out-accelerate and out-climb the early Sabre. It was an utterly formidable machine. Early variants of the F-86 could not outturn, but they could outdive the MiG-15. The early MiG-15 was superior to the early F-86 models in ceiling, acceleration, rate of climb, and zoom. It had better high-altitude performance than the Panther or the P-80, and was faster by a hundred miles per hour.
* Is there any other sort?
2. Lavochkin La-15 ‘The unlucky Fantail’
The Lavochkin La-15 had superior manoeuvrability to the MiG-15, and with a top speed of 626 mph (some sources say 638 mph) was almost as fast. It had excellent handling chracteristics and was superbly reliable. It entered service in the VVS Autumn of 1949. It was smaller and lighter than the MiG-15 and did enjoy the stellar climb rate, though still climbed very well for the time.
It was powered by the RD-500, essentially a Soviet-built British Derwent, and armed with two 23-mm NS-23 cannon. It was rather harder to produce than the MiG-15, relying on many milled parts, and this was a major factor in the Lavochkin’s relative lack of success – only 235 aircraft were produced. It remained in service until 1954. It was the beginning of the end for the Lavochkin design bureau fighter line that had been so vital to the Soviet Union’s war effort. Lavochkin La-200 flew in 1949 but failed to secure orders, as did the later La-250. Lavochkin was reborn as a creator of surface-to-air-missiles and spacecraft. Today, the company is working on the appallingly named Mars-Grunt space robot.
- North American F-86A Sabre ‘Jet spitfire’
An astonishing top speed of 679 mph at Sea Level and excellence in every category a fighter needs, North American Aviation did the almost impossible and built an aircraft even more outstanding for its generation than its P-51 Mustang, which first flew a mere seven years before the F-86.
The Sabre started life as a straight wing jet based on the even more staid FJ-1 Fury of the US Navy. By making it lighter North American Aviation managed to, just about, match the performance of the other aircraft submitted to the USAAF (which would become the USAF three weeks before the sound barrier was broken in 1947). Realising radical steps needed to be taken to come up with a winning design, they took the only logical step and like the Soviets used secret German research from the mid-40s. This led to the incorporation of a thinner wing swept to 35 degrees giving the resultant design the ability to go supersonic in a dive. So successful were these changes that if you’re the kind of person who likes winding people up and invoking the wraith of the Yeager crowd up you can argue the XP-86A and George Welch were first to break the sound barrier.
Interview with Sabre pilot here
The F-86A entered frontline service in February of 1949 with the 94th Fighter Squadron who also seem to have been instrumental in giving it the name ‘Sabre’. Despite barely being out of trials the Sabre was already a delight to fly. Unlike the MiG-15 it had hydraulic boost for the flying controls, was well enough put together to remain controllable as it approached and passed the sound barrier, and air brakes that were effective. Leading-edge slats also made it much safer to fly at low speeds. Together with the all-round visibility provided by the Sabre’s bubble canopy these factors would give it the edge against the MiG in combat even allowing for the latter’s better thrust-to-weight ratio.
The F-86A wasn’t quite perfect, unlike the E model introduced in 1951 it lacked a ‘flying tail’ arrangement where the entire tail surface acts as the elevator. Instead, it had conventional elevators while the tailplane’s incidence could be adjusted via the trim system. As aircraft approach the speed of sound air over the wing surfaces accelerates to above Mach one, this causes shock waves to form at the hinge lines of control surfaces. These shock waves blank the control causing it to be less effective. In the A model Sabre above Mach 0.97 this meant pitch control was almost entirely reliant on the trim. Indeed, if the elevator alone was used to pull out of a supersonic dive there were generally less rivets in it on landing. Still, this was a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent aircraft.
If the MiG-15 was a diamond in the rough in 1949, the Sabre was the finished product noted test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown even going as far as praising the ground handling and nose wheel steering system. – Bing Chandler
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Swedish aircraft are a breath of fresh air. Idiosyncratic, clever and unorthodox, they have often been the result of a different way of thinking and peculiarly Swedish needs. That such a small nation makes its own combat aircraft is a quirk of history. Sweden’s non-aligned neutrality policy, which lasted until 2009, had its roots in the calamities suffered during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. The disastrous results included a loss of over a third of Sweden’s territory, most notably Finland, were not soon to be forgotten. A policy of avoiding military intervention and international allegiances wherever possible began in the early 19th century. In the 1930s, fearing a second world war, Sweden massively increased its defence spending. The War showed that neutrality was not always easy or carried out to the letter. In World War II, Sweden made itself very unpopular with the allies by supplying large amounts of vital iron ore to Nazi Germany, though Sweden was also exporting significant quantities of ball bearings to the Allies. There were trade agreements between Sweden and the Allies for these purposes, and during the latter parts of the War this included limiting Swedish exports to Germany (once Germany was too weak to pose a significant threat to Sweden anymore). Such is the delicate complicated position of non-alignment. This policy of ‘armed neutrality’ required indigenous armaments to avoid dependence or allegiance to a foreign power. From the mid-1940s Sweden’s Försvarets forskningsanstalt (FOA) intended to develop it own nuclear deterrent, an ambition it chose to give up when it joined the non-proliferation treaty in 1968.
It was the smallest nation, in terms of both population and economy, to design and build its own advanced military aircraft. But there are shades of ‘indigenous’ as no country other than the US and Russia (and lately China) has access to the full spectrum of technologies required to make a modern fighter. The Gripen, for example, uses a British ejection seat, an (essentially) American engine, pan-European air-to-air missiles and a German gun. The reliance on US tech has enabled the US to block export licences in order to scupper several potential Saab exports that threatened US sales, most notably Indian interest in the Viggen in the 1980s.
Let’s head North to the icy beauty of Sweden to choose twelve incredible Swedish aeroplanes.
12. Saab 21 (1943)
There are reasons that propellers are at the front, and most of them relate to that being the way engines are designed to turn them. The perils of the pusher are such that the US Army banned pusher designs in 1914. Shame though, as a pusher means you can have your guns very easily placed on the centreline, a shorter fuselage and a greatly improved view for the pilot.
The Saab 21 did not have a spectacular performance; 400 mph may have been insanely fast in 1940, but by 1945 when the J 21 entered service it was decidedly mediocre. To avoid a diced pilot, an ejection seat was required, the J 21 being the first non-German aircraft to carry an ejection seat as standard. The aircraft was well-armed, with one 20-mm cannon and two 13.2mm heavy machine guns in the nose and two more heavy machine-guns in the wings.
Powered by the Daimler-Benz DB 605 that had powered the cream of axis inline fighters, the J 21 was hampered by the war ending and the 605 line ending. Intriguingly, there were plans for a more advanced version with a Rolls-Royce Griffon and a Mustang-style bubble canopy, these never happened as the jet age had arrived. The J 21 become part of one of the very rarest aircraft breeds, those that went from piston to jet propulsion as the J 21R.
11. Saab B 17
No, not that one. The B 17 was Saab’s first aircraft and Sweden’s first indigenous ‘modern’ stressed-skin monoplane. Unusually conventional by Saab standards, the aircraft had already been designed by ASJA, the catchily named AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstädernas Aeroplanavdelning (Swedish Railway Workshops’ Aeroplane Department) thus joining the likes of the Henschel 129 and the English Electric Lightning in the surprisingly crowded pantheon of aircraft built by railway locomotive manufacturers. The B 17 was a workmanlike design that compared well with contemporary single-engine light bombing aircraft. And if you think it looks particularly similar to US designs of the era, the fact that between 40 and 50 American engineers were employed by ASJA on its development might not come as a total surprise. Intended for the dive-bombing role, the B 17’s wing wasn’t up to the strain of this form of attack and required strengthening. Although subsequently cleared for diving attacks, the B 17 was limited to a shallow angle of dive for the rest of its career. Speed in the dive was limited by the large undercarriage doors which functioned as dive brakes when the B 17 made its attack and on the subject of undercarriage, the wheels of the undercarriage could be switched for retractable skis for winter operation. To add even more variety 38 examples of a reconnaissance floatplane version was also built.
Entering service in 1942 over 300 were built, most of the B 17 bomber version, with just over 20 of the S 17 reconnaissance aircraft also constructed. The Saabs remained in frontline service until 1950 though continued in second line roles for a further time, latterly as a target tug into the early 1960s. A potentially exciting aside occurred during the war when 15 B 17s were loaned to exiled Danish forces in Sweden to support a Danish invasion intended to liberate that nation from German occupation, known as Danforce. Thankfully the war ended before Danforce were committed to retaking Denmark, the Danish markings on the Saabs were painted out and the aircraft returned to Swedish control. Around the time that the aircraft was being withdrawn from Swedish service, 47 were bought for use by the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. Ethiopian Saab 17s would be the only examples to fire their guns in anger, at least once, when several were used to attack a group of Somali criminals who had derailed and robbed a train. The Saab 17 was operated by Ethiopia until 1968 and thus the last frontline examples of this Scandinavian aircraft saw out their careers under the African sky. Of five survivors, one example remains airworthy at the Swedish Air Force Museum at Linköping.
10. Saab JAS 39 Gripen (1988)
On 29 March 2011, the Swedish Air Force sent combat aircraft to war for the first time since 1963. Eight Saab Gripens supported by a Saab 340 AEW&C and a C-130 Hercules tanker were deployed in support of the No-Fly Zone over Libya. The small fighter-bomber performed well. Initially, it was tasked purely with counter-air, but NATO planners noticed the Gripen had a very capable reconnaissance pod (the SPK 39) and its responsibilities were accordingly widened.
A rather boutique operation, the Saab Gripen has seen a small factory create around 280 aircraft since the type first flew in 1988. It has served in unobtrusive numbers around the world for sensible air forces on a budget. It is considered by many to have the lowest cost per flight hour for a modern fighter, and is relatively easy to maintain. I spoke to a Gripen maintainer a few years ago and he complained of not having enough to do, he had come from a MiG background. It is comparable with a top of the range small car, coming with a wealth of high-end accessories which include one of the world’s best helmet display and cueing systems, the formidable IRIS-T infra-red missile and the well trusted ‘404 engine. Perhaps the most impressive ‘accessory’ is the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile, giving a bantamweight the reach of the heaviest heavyweight. Much of the Gripen’s magic comes from a wealth of invisible capabilities: its electronic warfare suite is extremely well-respected by pilots who have ‘fought’ against the Gripen in international exercises. The basic philosophy of the Gripen was to create the smallest possible aircraft that wouldn’t be laughed out of a war with the Soviet Union. According to Tony Inesson, “Swedish defense planning also more or less assumed a NATO intervention. The Soviets never really considered Sweden a truly neutral power, but rather as being aligned with the West.” Building an air force that could take the USSR on its own terms was impossible, but one that could slow an invasion down until NATO leapt into the fray was possible. In the 1970s when what became the Gripen was first being considered Sweden’s defence planners had a big think. The cost of new, ever more complex, combat aircraft was generally spiralling out of control, one exception to this was the US F-16 which was smaller and lighter than the aircraft it replaced. Saab studied the F-16 with interest and wondered whether something even smaller might be able to replace its Viggens. Advances in materials and electronics, as well as engine technology, aerodynamics and flight control systems, enabled the Gripen to emerge as a bantamweight fighter with a hell of a punch. The new fighter, which first flew in 1988, was 6,000-Ib lighter than the Viggen and in aerodynamic form showed the future path of European combat aircraft. It was the first of a new class of canard-deltas, and has since been joined by the European Rafale and Typhoon, and the Chinese J-10 and J-20.
The next-generation Gripen will be the E (and two-seat F.) These are larger heavier aircraft powered by the F414, they are set to enter service soon.
(Some have argued that the Gripen’s use in Libya was largely a PR exercise to promote the Gripen for export, but Fredrik Doeser has argued that this view does not hold water as it could have been deployed to Afghanistan and the aircraft was already favourably viewed, something that could have been changed by any teething issues in its first combat deployment)
9. Saab 340
Had the Habsburgs stuck around long enough to get into the aircraft-making business, their offering would’ve been something like the Saab 340. It’s reliable and innovative, sturdy, loved for its handling and cost-effectiveness, loathed for its noisiness and its less-than-luxurious accommodations, lacking space for all its baggage (in the overhead bins, anyway), pretty to look at until you start adding military bits and bobs to it, and managing to stick around long after conventional wisdom deems it out of fashion. Sometimes it hears its name mentioned in a not-so-friendly way (though not due to any fault of the aircraft itself), but, at the end of the day, as regional airliners go, you could do a hell of a lot worse. After all, you don’t enjoy a nigh four-decade lifespan, hear your number called for hauling passengers and freight on three-hour hops to remote Alaskan airstrips, and get adapted for the maritime surveillance role (Japan Coast Guard) and airborne command and control (Swedish and Royal Thai Air Forces) if you’re not doing something right. The Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control System fitted to the 340 AEW (among other airframes) has an AESA radar as its primary sensor and is widely considered world-class.
The 340 has gotten a lot of undue flak on the Internet, mostly from travel bloggers who seem to have severe allergic reactions to anything vaguely resembling a propeller, which is unfortunate, as it’s proven to be an excellent aircraft throughout its career, replete with forward-thinking technology like diffusion welding instead of rivets and, with the Saab 340B Plus variant, a noise and vibration reduction system (which, alas, came too late to help the poor 340’s reputation for being loud). It’s carried presidents and popes, and plenty of happy passengers.
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The extended version, the fifty-seat Saab 2000, had the misfortune of coming on scene just as airlines were transitioning over to regional jets, and only sixty-three were built. As for the 340, production capped at 459 airframes, and, while there’s a trend among the major air carriers moving away from aircraft in the 340’s capacity category (generally 34 to 37 seats), and the 340 is getting up there in years, the type can still be found with about forty airlines and air arms. Regional turboprops might lack the sex appeal of fast jets like Drakens or Viggens or Gripens—though I should reiterate that, military variants notwithstanding, the 340 is quite a cute little fellow—but the 340 has certainly done more than enough to earn a place on any list of Sweden’s finest flying machines.
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8. Saab 37 Viggen
It is said that Sweden could either afford the Viggen or the bomb, but not both. Sweden chose the Viggen and gave up its nuclear ambitions. Clint Eastwood asked for the Viggen to star alongside himself in his wild 1982 Cold War espionage thriller Firefox. The aircraft would have played the futuristic MiG-31 ‘Firefox’. On looks alone, can you blame Eastwood? The Viggen looked like the future, and in many ways it was.
The first thing you notice is the configuration. Aside the kidney-shaped air intakes, ahead of the main wings are a small set of ‘wings’ known as canards. Canards had been fitted on the American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, the Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-8 and a few other experimental types, but the Viggen was the first modern canard-equipped aircraft to enter service. Unlike later canard-deltas, these were not all-moving, but they were fixed with a moving trailing edge flap. Not only do they render the Viggen, arguably, a Mach 2-capable biplane but they do other, more tangible, things. The Viggen also has an unusual wing shape. Having two angles of leading-edge sweep-back (the ‘kink’ or ‘dog leg’) allows for greater amounts of more stable lift from a wing of less relative area. This happens because the change in leading-edge angle keeps lift-generating air vortices from originating at the wing root. The earlier Draken and (later mark) Vulcan also featured rather different kinky deltas. India’s Tejas fighter has opted for a similar wing design solution to the Viggen.
Short-take off and landing was a key requirement for the type. To stop the aircraft without the fuss and hazards of a brake chute, an impressive thrust reverser mechanism – unique on a combat aircraft at the time, was added. Consisting of three triangular steel plates, it was closed up to redirect engine thrust forward through the side slit below the tail. The pilot could actually reverse his machine on the ground without the aid of a ground vehicle. Most famously, and a Swedish air show perennial, the Viggen could do a fast touch-and-go manoeuvre in which it would come in hot, arrest itself on landing with reverse thrust and then via a so-called Y-turn change the direction it was facing and rip right back into the sky on afterburner. All in a few seconds! Try that in a General Dynamics F-111. The Viggen was expected to operate from 500 to 800 metre lengths of motorway or damaged bases and be readily looked after by reservists and conscript groundcrew. It had fairly tall tandem main landing gear with anti-lock brakes. The Viggen almost seemed to handle like a sports car on the ground.
That was far from the only innovation in the Viggen: at the heart of the Viggen’s system was the CK 37 central computer (Central Kalkylator 37), the world’s first airborne computer to use integrated circuits. Many nearly boutique-level design touches were incorporated all across this aircraft’s systems. The earlier Saab 35 Draken was intended for the same ground-controlled, high altitude missile interceptions of the Convair F-102/106 or the Sukhoi Su-15; the JA 37 fighter variant of the Viggen embodied a dark recognition that future armed conflict might be a little more dirty and tactical – and require greater intelligence.
The Viggen came in five flavours: the AJ37 attack version, SK37 two-seat trainer, SH- and SF37 reconnaissance variants and the final version, the JA37 fighter-interceptor.
The Viggen had an impressive early example of a centralized computer to support the pilot by integrating and partly automating tasks such as navigation and fire control. The Central Kalkylator 37 was connected to a head-up-display and an X-band radar set. This gear meant the Viggen could meet a requirement for single-pilot operation. Performance metrics would also have been impaired thanks to the weight and space requirements of accommodating a second crew member so the dependence on technology was vital. The Viggen is most often celebrated for its out-of-the-box structural engineering but its avionics package ultimately is what made it the right investment for the Flygvapnet into the 2000s.
The Viggen was so clever in so many ways.
Its vertical fin could be folded down with dispersal to hardened bunkers or caves in mind? The outdoorsy Swedish jet made some of its Soviet and Western contemporaries look like precious hangar queens dependent on massive budgets and large, vulnerable air bases. In the Viggen, Sweden was able to extend the achievements of the Draken program and impress the world. A high-intensity R&D programme – fully funded and supported by the Swedish government – and a national flair for industrial design, combined with the employment of U.S.-licensed engine brought forth a winner.
7. Saab B 18
With its funky pusher propeller fighters, crazy double deltas and early adoption of the canard for jet fighters, it is difficult to accuse Saab of being a slave to convention. Thus at first glance, their only twin piston-engine bomber, the B 18, looks disappointingly ordinary, sort of halfway between a Ju 88 and a Hampden. But this elegant twin rewards a closer look as its arguably humdrum appearance was somewhat deceptive. First off, the cockpit is offset to the left, and as anyone who has ever glanced at a Sea Vixen or a Canberra PR.9 knows, offset cockpits are cool. Secondly, despite looking rather outdated considering it entered service in 1944, its performance was distinctly impressive with a top speed only 20 km/h slower than the vaunted de Havilland Mosquito FB.VI despite carrying three Swedes rather than the mere two of the Mosquito, one of whom got to wield a defensive machine gun. The Mosquito similarities didn’t end there: limited numbers of both (18 Mosquitoes and 52 Saabs) were equipped with a large calibre gun for the anti-shipping role. Weirdly both aircraft went for a 57-mm weapon.
And both aircraft were effective multi-role platforms before multi-role was really a ‘thing’ and could carry a vast array of different weaponry. The Saab however was never developed into a night fighter, for that role the Swedish used the J 30: which was their designation for the Mosquito! Most surprising of all perhaps is the fact that this fairly normal-looking WWII medium bomber was fitted with ejection seats. Sadly this was due to the Saab 18 garnering something of a reputation for crashing by the late 1940s. Ah well, the dangerous planes are always the most exciting right? For a Swedish aircraft the Saab 18 also pushed the envelope when it came to Sweden’s famed neutrality. In the reconnaissance role, B 18s were utilised during 1945 and 46 to overfly Baltic ports and photograph all Soviet shipping they found. In the course of these missions the Saabs were routinely subject to interception attempts by Soviet fighters but their speed rendered them essentially invulnerable, notably unlike other aircraft operating as spyplanes – Sweden lost an ELINT C-47 to Soviet fighters in 1952, then the search and rescue Catalina they sent out to try and find the missing aircraft was shot down too three days later sparking a major diplomatic incident. The B 18 remained in service until the late ‘fifties with the reconnaissance variants the last to be retired in 1959, replaced by another cool-looking Saab product (of course), the Lansen.
6. Saab 29 Tunnan (1948)
Aren’t Tunnans Brilliant. It’s 1948 and Europe’s aircraft manufacturers are busily reading captured German documents to learn about swept wings. But while Hawker and Supermarine are messing around with attaching them to a couple of spare airframes for research purposes, SAAB are test flying Europe’s first non-fascist swept wing production fighter. By 1951 the J29 Tunnan is in squadron service while the RAF are enduring the more pedestrian looking de Havilland Venom. To add insult to injury the shiny Swede used the same Ghost engine as the Venom to go faster, claiming two FAI speed records for the 500km and 1000km closed circuits. It could also carry 700kg more, which makes you wonder what de Havilland were doing. By 1954 the J29 had even gained an afterburner, one of the first aircraft to do so. But beating the low hanging fruit of de Havilland’s difficult second jet fighter isn’t all the Tunnan has going for it. SAAB’s most produced aircraft with 662 built, it served until 1967 as a front-line fighter and was still in use as a target tug until 1976. It was also the only SAAB to date to see combat helping with peacekeeping efforts in the Congo under the control of the United Nations. This saw 9 J29Bs and two S29C photoreconnaissance aircraft adorned with UN markings, literally just a big U and N painted on the fuselage, and operated by F22 Wing of the Swedish Air Force. Despite taking ground fire on numerous occasions while carrying out strikes on secessionists and mercenaries no Tunnans were lost in combat. Ironically after surviving the civil war all but four were then destroyed at their base in 1963 as it wasn’t considered cost-effective taking them back to Sweden. Objectively good looking and a technological trail blazer*the Tunnan is a brilliantly packaged little fighter, just look at how the landing lights drop down from the nose and the main gear tucks into the fuselage. The J29 also fitted an ejector seat before they became de rigeur.
5. FFVS J 22 (1942)
By 1940, the fighter component of the Flygvapnet consisted mostly of the Gloster Gladiator (designated J 8 in Swedish service) which were looking increasingly old hat when compared to the latest monoplane fighters busily shooting each other down all over Europe. In an attempt to maintain a credible defensive force Sweden ordered large numbers of the Seversky P-35 and Vultee P-66 Vanguard from the US only for the Americans to slap an embargo on the export of all arms to any country except the UK after only 60 P-35s had been delivered. To be fair this may have been a blessing in disguise as the P-35 (J 9 in Sweden) was a pretty woeful fighter. Sweden looked around for a replacement and intriguingly considered the Mitsubishi A6M Zero amongst others (concern about the practicality of delivery put paid to that idea). Orders were ultimately placed for the outdated Fiat CR.42 (J 11) and Reggiane Re.2000 (J 20) but neither was considered entirely satisfactory and the decision was taken to manufacture a fighter domestically instead. Sweden’s only major aircraft company, Saab, had their hands full manufacturing the B 17 (not that one) and B 18 so, impressively the Swedish government created a firm and factory from scratch specifically to design and build a new fighter: the Kungliga Flygförvaltningens Flygverkstad i Stockholm (“Royal Air Administration Aircraft Factory in Stockholm”) shortened to FFVS. From the start the aircraft was intended to be relatively light and simple and to utilise the reliable Pratt and Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp which was also the engine of the Seversky P-35/J 9. Unfortunately Sweden had no means to procure any more R-1830 engines from the US due to the embargo and no spare engines had been delivered with the batch of Seversky fighters that had been delivered. Therefore the Swedes elected to copy the engine and start production domestically, no small undertaking in the absence of any plans or drawings. The unlicensed Twin Wasp copy, designated the STWC-3, eventually powered most of the J 22s but the engine programme ran slightly behind schedule and to make up the numbers 100 R-1830s managed to be procured from the Vichy french regime. The purposeful looking FFVS J 22 was conventional in layout, apart from the undercarriage which was unusually narrow for its height and retracted into the fuselage in a unique arrangement. The construction method used was novel with plywood sheets cladding a steel-tube frame, the plywood skin being partially load bearing. The J 22 flew for the first time in September 1942 and considering this was the first fighter aircraft designed in Sweden since the Svenska Aero Jaktfalkenof 1929 and that the engine was of significantly lower power than was considered necessary for a fighter by other nations in 1942, it turned out to be a remarkably good aircraft. Intended to roughly match the performance of contemporary Spitfire and Bf 109 models when the design was finalised, designer Bo Lundberg had admirably stretched what was possible with the limited power of the R-1830 to achieve just that. With barely more than 1000 hp available from the STWC-3, the J 22 possessed decent performance and its handling was highly praised by pilots.
Looking somewhat like an unholy union between an Fw 190 and an F8F Bearcat, the J 22 was touted as being the fastest aircraft in the world ‘relative to engine power’. Though this was not true (the Mark I Spitfire was faster still with an engine of roughly the same rated power output), the J 22 was no slouch, though it must be admitted that by the time the first of the 198 production J 22s entered service in October 1943 its performance was not quite level with the world’s best. Nonetheless, when tested in mock combat against the P-51D Mustang (J 26) after the war the J 22 could reportedly hold its own at low and medium altitude. The power of the Twin Wasp copy fell off abruptly over 15,000 feet and this was probably the type’s most serious flaw. Its armament was also underwhelming, initially two 13.2mm (0.52in) Akan M/39A and two 8mm machine guns, later aircraft had four 13.2mm guns which was better (but still somewhat lacking).
The J 22 makes for an intriguing comparison with two other aircraft produced by nations with limited fighter experience, Australia’s Commonwealth Boomerang and Finland’s VL Myrsky. All three were designed and built to make up for an uncertain supply of foreign designs, were intended to be simple to build and maintain, all used the R-1830 Twin Wasp and all three were surprisingly effective. The J 22 was the fastest of the lot and proved popular and reliable, had it been produced in a different time by a nation not categorically wedded to the idea of neutrality, it may well have proved a successful export, being quite fast, simple, and reliable. As it was the J 22s served Sweden until 1952 and arguably more importantly gave the Swedish Aircraft Industry invaluable experience that it would put to good use in the years to come. Three are known to survive, one in taxiable condition, and another is being restored to fly.
4. Saab 32 Lansen (1951)
Hermann Behrbohm was a German mathematician who had worked for the Messerschmitt aircraft company from 1937. He contributed to high-speed trials of the Bf 109 fighter, and the development of the Me 163 and Me 262. His colleagues included the great Alexander Lippisch, father of the modern delta wing. Behrbohm’s most influential work was on the P.1101 fighter series, conceived as part of the Jägernotprogramm emergency fighter programme of 1944. This unflown remarkable jet fighter design, with its nose-mounted air intake and swept wings would inform the post-war F-86, MiG-15 and the Swedish Lansen. Following the war, Behrbohm was much sought after by nations wishing to harvest his remarkable know-how. He chose to move and work in Sweden. His influence on the Saab 32 Lansen, an attack aircraft built to replace the B 18, saw the aircraft adopt an exceptionally clean aerodynamic form. It is said to be the first aircraft created with a fully detailed mathematical model of its outer-mold line. The aircraft was capable of supersonic flight in a shallow dive. Behrbohm would also work on the Draken and Viggen, notably on the latter’s canard-delta form.
3. Svenska Aero Jaktfalken (1929)
After landing the Jaktfalken, Swedish Air Force test pilot Nils Söderberg declared“this is the best aircraft that I have flown so far”. The influence of Germans in Swedish aircraft is a recurrent theme, the Jaktfalken is no exception, as it was designed by the German Carl Clemens Bücker (famous for his Jungmann and Jungmeister). It was a world-class fighter but was never ordered in numbers, it won a single export order from Norway, and by single we mean one aeroplane.
2. SAAB 90 Scandia (1946)
Many nations’ aircraft industries grew fat and strong from the glut of wartime orders, and aeroplane production reached an all-time high. Sweden was no exception. In fact, being neutral and mostly spared from heavy strategic bombing (apart from that one time the Soviets had a go at Stockholm) its industry needn’t worry about such trifling matters as production lines being reduced to dust and cinder. When the war ended, SAAB’s future became uncertain. What would they do without the threat of an imminent invasion motivating combat aircraft production on a massive scale? What would they do with all their employees in the factories and design rooms? The good folks at SAAB, decided the only sensible thing to do was to branch out into the civilian sector and create the other SAAB (Svenska Automobil Aktiebolaget) as well as putting the original SAAB (Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget) to work building the most modern, comfortable airliner in the world: the SAAB 90 Scandia.
Carrying thirty passengers up to 650 miles at a 211 mph cruise speed and up to 279mph in a hurry, the Scandia featured novelties such as a tricycle landing gear, and an airfoil designed using NACA profiles. Its two 1820hp Pratt & Whitney R-2180-E twin wasp radial engines provided ample power, allowing a loaded Scania to take off on just one engine. This of course drastically improved safety, especially in the take-off and landing phases, safety was further enhanced by the superior pilot view provided by the tricycle gear. The Scandia improved upon all the best qualities of the 1930s era DC-3 which was the airliner at the time. Entering production in 1946, SAAB had a real winner on its hands.
Except there was one little thing the execs at SAAB had overlooked. Or rather, there were 10,781 things that they had overlooked. That’s how many DC-3s and C-47s were built in total and now that the war was over, they were being sold for practically nothing. There was simply no way for SAAB to compete with those kinds of numbers and it looked like the future was again dark for the Swedish aeroplane manufacturer. Luckily for them, the start of the cold war meant SAAB soon received an order for 661 J-29 fighter jets. The Scandia was put aside after a meagre 18 were built and fell into obscurity.
The SAAB 90 did fly for Aktiebolaget Aerotransport (ABA) from Sweden, but spent most of its career in the warmer climate of the jungles of Brazil, in the service Viação Aérea São Paulo S/A (São Paulo Airways) until 1969.
–– Sebastian Craenen
1. Saab 35 Draken (1955)
That the Draken was a decent candidate for the best fighter in operational service in 1960 is a huge accolade for Sweden, and the result of the nation’s extremely smart defence policy of the 1950s. The Royal Swedish Air Force realised that any chance of survival against a Soviet invasion depended on departing air fields at the first whiff of war and hiding in the sticks. It was apparent that large fixed airbases were easy to locate and attack, so the Swedish Air Force went ‘off-base’. The Draken was intended to employ an indigenous jet engine design, the STAL Dovern, which was tested on a Lancaster. But the British Rolls-Royce Avon, which would also power the Lightning, was deemed a superior choice.
The policy of domestic aircraft creation has always been extremely costly and vulnerable to cancellation by politicians seeking to save money. Whereas the US could afford cost overruns, Swedish aircraft projects were under a lot more scrutiny (this continues to the present day).
Though initially excellent, the J 29s introduced in 1951 would struggle to effectively counter the fast Soviet Tu-16 bombers coming into service in 1954. With excellent foresight, work on a faster replacement for the J 29 had begun before the Tunnen had even entered service. The next fighter was to feature a radical new wing design, a world-leading datalink and would be easy to maintain and operate from reinforced sections of motorway. It would also be extremely swift, at mach 2, around twice as fast as the J 29. This remarkable project seemed to be going extremely well –– and then along came Wennerström.
During the 1950s, Swedish air force Colonel Stig Erik ‘The Eagle’ Constans Wennerström leaked Swedish air defence plans, including a wealth of information about Saab Draken fighter jet project, to the Soviet Union. Security forces suspected him and employed his maid as an agent who discovered rolls of films hidden in his house. Despite Wennerström’s treachery the Draken emerged as a remarkably effective machine. The wing was an absolute masterpiece of aerodynamics, an avant-courier of the LERX of the later F-16, MiG-29 and Hornet which gave the aircraft performance far exceeding the expectations of international observers. On half the installed the thrust of a Lightning, the Draken offered similar performance, three times the air-to-air missile weapon load and a far longer range. Not only that, it managed to achieve this remarkable performance with fixed air intakes, a fact that is often overlooked.
Then there’s the ability to ‘cobra’ by turning off the flight control limiters, known to the Swedish pilots who discovered this as “kort parad”, or “short parry“. And there’s the infra-red sensor – and the datalink. All of which added up to a remarkable whole. The Draken was a masterpiece of strategic thinking, aeronautical design and engineering.
(Special thanks to Tony Ingesson)
You cannot be a world-class psychopathic narcissist unless you have your own aircraft. Now, while one man’s ‘strong leader’ is another’s dictator we can be certain that all the human entrants in this list are or were prize bell-ends. Stephen Caulfield chooses 12 infamous aeroplanes that have perfected despot delivery.
12. Fokker F28 Fellowship Kalayaan (Republic of the Philippines)
Autocrat or not, the leader of an archipelago nation has good reason to fly. Hence, the Philippine people find themselves supporting the 250th Presidential Airlift Wing. That unit operated a Fokker F28-3000 Fellowship for state executive purposes starting in the stupidly decadent days of the Marcos family. The Fellowship was replaced only last year with a brand-new Gulfstream G280. This new aircraft lends a much slicker, up-to-the-minute corporate look to the law-and-order strongman presiding over a nation where vast economic inequalities are entrenched in daily life.
Non-political technical point: F28s feature a split tail cone air brake like that on a Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft.
11. Hawker-Siddeley HS-121 Trident
People’s Republic of China
Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou-en-lai shared a British-built Trident airliner. The Trident supplemented, and then replaced, an Ilyushin Il-18 Coot. Zhou-en-lai was the first Premier of China and served as Mao Zedong’s right hand. They were among the post-war world’s longest serving leaders, lasting from 1949 until the days of the Sex Pistols. Considering the poverty and turmoil of China in these years the idea of leaders looking down at the put-upon masses from a private jet strikes one now as something Communism would have eradicated. Or at least limited to really, really special occasions. Oh well, plus ca change. Though to be fair, the Trident was used as a domestic aircraft by the state owned airline CAAC who had a fleet of about 35. Having a British-made VVIP plane wasn’t entirely about looking down on the masses as China is a big country and the leadership needed to get around, but the optics were still far from perfect.
Once a common sight flying between the UK and western and southern Europe none remain in service anywhere. China’s VIP transport example bounced around for a time after retiring. Last word, the tired Trident was being dragged off from the shopping mall where it had been on display. It was increasingly found to just be in the way of people parking their BMWs. China’s all-business political elites now have access to Boeing 747s.
Non-political technical point: the Trident began life as a de Havilland design referred to as the DH.121
10. Airbus A319 (Bolivarian State of Venezuela)
Does oil and gas wealth ever bring a country happiness? Ignoring the Black Swan of Norway, consider Venezuela. In 2002 twelve protesters are gunned down by security forces loyal to President Hugo Chavez. Days later, he takes delivery of an Airbus. Apparently he’d seen one owned by an Emirati Sheik at some international conference. One phone call and US$65 million later he has a replacement for the ageing Boeing 737 he’d been putting up with. This and the massacre of his own citizens became twinned unforgivable moments for the majority of Venezuelans. Many of whom live in utter poverty despite the country’s huge fossil fuel reserves. The military then remove Senor Chavez from power. Two days later he’s back in office. He keeps the Airbus and some other privileges until his death from cancer in 2013. George Orwell weeps. So do a few others.
Non-political technical point: the A319/A320 program was a pioneer of commercial fly-by-wire and side stick control systems.
9. Airbus A340 (State of Libya)
Moammar Gadaffi typifies the classical career path of dozens of post-1945 liberationist revolutionaries who morphed into police-state despots. While seemingly an eccentric individual he ruled the masses with the an unimaginative mix of bribery and deep brutality. He relied on a privileged clique of family and close confidants to maintain power for forty-one years. None of this nonsense ever ends well. To wit, his last official plane has been rotting at an airport in southern France for years now. Another thriftless monument to dictatorship in a world littered with them. His choice of such a full on machine capable of transoceanic journeys seems a little off, too. This guy was welcome in fewer and fewer places worth visiting until his death at the hands of angry rivals in 2011. Grey leather sofas, a luxury suite with shower and a flat-screen TV should have made this jetliner a quick sell but post-coup legalities have complicated its disposal.
Non-political technical point: the A340 was the world’s longest airliner until the Boeing 747-8 appeared.
8. Ilyushin Il-62 Classic Chammae-1
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
It’s unclear what level of interior customization Chairman Kim Jong-Un’s official aircraft has been given. A safe bet is something superior to what you experienced on your last flight. Kim Jong-Un’s father used this handsome plane, one of only three designs ever configured with four engines mounted in twin nacelles under a T-tail. It seems everything in North Korea is subsumed into a military- and prison-industrial complex of the harshest kind. So, planning for a new airplane for the dictator of North Korea is probably the least excessive thing on the go there at the moment. North Korea is a hefty importer of cognac, luxury cars and pianos. This suggests an epic hypocrisy by the elites behind an old school Stalinist facade. Until a Prague Spring arrives in Pyongyang we won’t know the truth around this aircraft, it’s VIP passengers or the country employing it. What an unfortunate use for a wonderful plane. Bigger and faster than a Vickers VC-10 the Il-62 continues to impress.
Non-political technical point: the Il-62’s first Aeroflot passenger run was in 1967 with a non-stop trip from Moscow to Montreal.
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7. Boeing 707
Socialist Republic of Romania
A dictator’s aircraft you could actually go online and buy this year! You’d have had to outbid a private aerial refuelling contractor to get it. In storage for years, this 707 was bought by Omega Air and converted to approximate a Boeing KC-135 aerial refuelling tanker. The opportunity for this was, ahem, dictated by the underperformance of USAF programmes intended to replace their fast-ageing KC-135s. Where to start with the ironies? A long-time Marxist leader travelling about in a symbol of western privilege and consumerism from the heyday of mid-century air travel? Now it’s a privately-owned gas truck for the Pentagon in its so-called ‘Forever Wars’. As Ceausescu’s nepotistic regime became unpopular he imposed a ferocious austerity with a cruel rationing of daily essentials for the masses. His cult of personality falters and collapses. His own country is left an economic cripple and international pariah. Even Moscow starts to find Ceausescu repellent and before long a coup sweeps him from power and into the next world with a bullet. Unlike the Shah of Iran, Ceausescu, and his equally detested wife, were not able to flee in their luxury, long range airliner with a custom interior said to be equal to America’s Air Force One.
Non-political technical point: the tube protruding forward from the top of the 707’s vertical tail is an HF radio antenna.
6. Boeing 747
Imperial State of Iran
From 1953 until 1978 Iran was perhaps America’s single most important client state. Washington took its management of the oil-rich, strategically-placed nation with extreme seriousness. Braced by US patronage and unchecked police brutality, Shah Reza Pahlavi ruled Iran for a quarter century.
Oil and gas export revenue let Iran spend lavishly on infrastructure and imported food and weapons from the west. In such a reality a wide-bodied, twin-aisle, two-deck passenger jet would have seemed like a natural platform for conversion into a super-luxury air yacht for the Shah.
By 1978, he had done so much harm he managed to trigger an unstoppable Muslim fundamentalist counter attack. The collapse of US-Iranian relations sent shock waves through the Middle East. Indeed the world felt them and continues to watch the Persian Gulf with a weary geopolitical eye. How bad had it all gone by 1978? Well, the man who modelled his governance on the great Persian emperors had to flee for his life in that personal Jumbo Jet. The one with gold toilet fittings.
Non-political technical point: maximum takeoff weight for -200 and -300 series 747s is equal to about 378 Jaguar E-type FHC sports cars.
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5. Ilyushin Il-96-300PU
Oil and gas revenue mixing with nationalist oligarchy results in some interesting privileges for the ones in charge. Post-Communist Russia is no exception. Rappers, Saudi Princes, upper echelon athletes, tech billionaires, hedge fund managers and even Donald Trump may have something to envy in Vladimir Putin’s executive airplane. With its sheer size, long range and very shiny interiors this aircraft embodies concentrated political and economic power in the age of a fractious global economy gone hog wild. Where a western lottery winner or mid-level celebrity gets an Embraer EMB-500 Phenom Vlad gets a flying five-star-plus hotel and command post. Naturally enough, the top dog in a nuclear-armed country physically larger than all others should have a hot, thoroughly modern aircraft at his disposal. This is absolutely what that looks like. Mr. Putin was elected, yes, but Russia’s recent backsliding on democracy and the fact he embodies the deeply historical Russian preference for ultra-strong leaders earns this ex-KGB officer and his ride a place on our list.
Non-political technical point: the long dorsal fairing on the 300PU model is not found on the commercial versions of the Il-96 and suggests an allocation of communications and protective electronic warfare systems deemed appropriate to Mr. Putin.
4. Mil Mi-8 Hip EW-001DA
Republic of Belarus
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head! So goes the nursery rhyme in 1984, George Orwell’s chilling novel of totalitarian life. Official news clips from Belarus this summer show us that novel will probably never be irrelevant. In them, we see President Victor Lukashenko flying back to Minsk in a Mil Mi-8, AKS-74U at his knee. Clad in a tactical vest we see the unsmiling leader of a nation in turmoil barking orders into a phone. He surveys a highway jammed with protestors he has earlier that day referred to as vermin. On the ground to oversee forceful countermeasures to a sustained democracy movement, Lukashenko stops to hail a squad of black-clad riot police. Having rigged his country’s last election to appear to have given him an 80% majority the autocratic and corrupt Lukashenko must now cope with a massive populist backlash. Delivering Eastern Europe’s equivalent of Tony Montana that day in August was an absolute classic of Soviet era helicopter development, a Mil Mi-8. The one-time workhorse of the Warsaw Pact is a wonderful platform and in the case of Belarus case probably highly effective in all the wrong jobs.
Non-political technical point: the ‘Hip’ series made its first flight in 1961 and is still in production making it the most-produced helicopter in history.
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3. Dassault Aviation Falcon 900
Syrian Arab Republic
The brutal news from Syria’s civil war, amplified at every turn by foreign intervention, makes the presence of any luxury jet a bit of a mind-bender. And what a toy for the man residing over such a heartbreaking mess, Bashar al-Assad. At the factory gate in France a Falcon 900 is worth over US$40 million. Adding a luxury master suite with full bathroom and then communications and security gear for someone with a serious penchant for control and this aircraft comes to symbolise high privilege wrapped in a cloak of evil. Fast moving and capable of unrefuelled trips of many thousands of kilometres the Falcon is perfect for the diplomatic pouch and other high-level errands. Fleeing from disaster should also be easy in a Falcon. As long as you had a place to go and could trust the crew and your security detail, that is. Soon enough, neither may be a reasonable expectation for Mr. Assad.
Non-political technical point: the 900 series Falcons feed air to the centre engine via an S-duct like the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar did.
2. Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor Immelman I
Hitler didn’t like flying. As an aspiring European land emperor he would have been fine with luxurious working trips on a well-protected private train. Before his ascension to power, Hitler overcame his fear to tap the time-saving economics of flying to rallies and appointments. Nazi propaganda made strong use of imagery of Hitler rushing about the country in planes or coming down from the clouds to Nuremberg. His rich sponsors supported his air travel at first. Then official aircraft were available after 1933. The Junkers Ju-52/3m, sensible and rugged with its corrugated metal skin and three engines, was just right for the hectic early days. Later, the speed and altitude performance of a four-engined aircraft was recommended by his personal pilot, an SS officer named Hans Bauer. Remembered for an early period of success in the Battle of the Atlantic, the elegant Condor was a natural choice of transport for Hitler. Bauer was an important part of a retinue that catered to the führer. He carried the registration numbers two-six-zero-zero over to the Condor in deference to Hitler’s superstitiousness, for example. He also saw to the aircraft’s meticulous inspections including Hitler’s comfy chair which had an armoured back plate half an inch thick. Extreme secrecy and a flight of single-engine fighters usually saw to the Condor’s protection.
Non-political technical point: in 1938 a Condor prototype was the first aeroplane to fly from Berlin to New York City non-stop and did so fitted with two-bladed propellers. It was fitted with a fuselage full of temporary fuel tanks so wasn’t a standard flight. With passengers and baggage a more normal range would be Berlin to Athens, which was still quite good for the era.
1. Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 81 Pipistrello Tataruga
Of all the murderous idiots upending the world in the last century Mussolini is perhaps the one who most embodies the inextricable relationship between Fascism and aviation. As a young journalist he was thrilled by the speed and dynamism of this new, new thing. The conquest of the air meant a radical new world. In power after 1922 Mussolini invested heavily in Italy’s civil and military aviation.
Il Duce, thanks to Allied wartime propaganda, is remembered as a nasty clown with a case of Hitler envy. He was a qualified pilot in his younger days, however. Later, Mussolini’s personal enthusiasm for aviation informed his choice of executive aircraft. For flights from Rome to Italy’s regions or countries neighbouring his own the Pipistrello was perfect. A militarised version of an airliner of moderate performance it was given a special white paint job, too. Mussolini’s Pipistrello was camouflage painted as the war ground on and notably it managed to survive Italy’s defeat.
In service until the 1950s, the Pipistrello had an easier fate than its most privileged passenger. When he was deposed and waiting for his execution by Communist partisans Mussolini must have looked back on his Pipistrello and so many life moments in the air with fondness, even gratitude. The hour he spent at the controls of Hitler’s Kondor perhaps cheered Il Duce a little before he was shot then hung up and mutilated in public. Hitler had invited his ally to tour their diabolical handiwork in Russia and Ukraine. On the way back, Mussolini asked to fly the big Condor. Intra-dictator etiquette being what it was nobody could refuse. Accounts of the flight record an increase in cabin tension as Mussolini adjusted his seat straps and took the controls. Hans Bauer remained in the cockpit as co-pilot. Mussolini flew steadily westward asking Bauer to work the throttles as the Itailan dictator gently completed a half dozen wide banking turns because he could. How many perished in the greatest war in human history during that single hour of airborne indulgence?
Non-political technical point: the Pipistrello entered service before the S.M. 79 Sparviero the much more powerful bomber/torpedo bomber it closely resembles.
(Dishonourable mention: Erich Honecker’s An-26)
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The Gloster Javelin was the world’s first twin-jet delta-wing fighter. It was the Royal Air Force’s best interceptor of the 1950s, and was almost brilliant. It did what it was asked to do. It was a large heavily armed (albeit subsonic), day-night all-weather fighter. Unfortunately, the opposition moved the goals by developing air-launched stand-off missiles, requiring the sort of high-speed interceptor performance that simply could not be delivered by the Javelin. We spoke to former Javelin pilot Peter Day to find out if it deserved its bad reputation.
“I joined the RAF Javelin ‘Force’ via an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) in 1965 as a very young pilot with 248 all jet flying hours, as was the habit in those days, and arrived on the frontline in 1966 with an additional 60 hours divided between Javelin T Mk 3 and FAW Mk 9. These recollections are from a frenetic first tour based in Singapore but with frequent detachments to Butterworth in Malaysia, Borneo and ultimately Hong Kong. The role was effectively ‘Colonial Policing’ in the Tropics which as I rapidly discovered was a million miles (5880 nautical miles actually) away from night/all-weather high level air defence as taught on the OCU. I had to immediately get to grips with ISA +15 operations* in 80% humidity at low level over jungle and sea, with the occasional medium level dissimilar combat flight or transit to outstations, not to mention the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Conversion Zone) which conspired to provide dense cloud, rain and lighting at the most inconvenient moments. Quite a first tour education. I eventually flew 565 hours on three Javelin variants.”
“With due regard to Top Gun who probably learnt it from the Javelin, the use of airbrakes to embarrass an opponent in close combat, force a fly through or past or at least negate a guns solution was a well know party trick.”
*15 degrees warmer than International Standard Atmosphere for a given altitude
Which units were you with on the Javelin and when?
“No 228 OCU RAF Leuchars Dec 1965 – Apr 1966. No 60 Squadron RAF Tengah Apr 1966 – May 1968.”
How would you describe the Javelin in 3 words?
“Stable, controllable, effective.”
What was the best thing about it?
“Relative simplicity, if it started it would fly and the systems were robust and would usually work, mostly due to the considerable efforts of the groundcrew.”
And the worst?
“1950s design e.g. Sapphire engine, a quaint starting system of electrically fired cartridge initiated AVPIN, Wellington ‘bomb slips’ as undercarriage uplocks, the relative inaccessibility of most aircraft components – Gloster must have had shares in the panel screw makers. Finally there were flight envelope peculiarities due to the ‘delta’ configuration.”
“A complete box of Tiger Beer would fit into each gun magazine and be perfectly cooled after flight”
The Javelin has a bad reputation, is this deserved?
“It was routinely developed in line with contemporary knowledge, modified and updated by Mark in service to compete with ‘Warsaw Pact’ aircraft development, but as a 1950s night/all-weather bomber destroyer it was very effective. If pilot’s took liberties with the flight envelope, which in fairness was not very well described, bad things would happen e.g. at very low speed the elevator artificial feel system would command nose-down pitch, reminiscent of a recent Boeing ‘safety’ device, which was unhelpful in vertical manoeuvring demanding a large increase in pilot stick input to overcome which lead to looping being banned for all the wrong reasons. The ‘rolling ‘g’ limit’ was eventually discovered to be +2g at full aileron deflection.”
How would you rate the weapons effectiveness?
“The four Aden cannon cross-harmonised for tail intercept were very effective indeed and provided a great surprise fired air-into-air at high level during the OCU course accompanied by gun clatter, cordite smell and a flame enveloped upper wing. Air-to air gunnery on the flag was very hit and miss as the ‘cold war’ gun harmonisation did you no favours with a calculated ‘in-range’ bracket of 10yds, one hit was a triumph. The air-to-ground ‘sniping’ carried out towards the end of it’s career was usually very enthusiastic and very inaccurate.
The de Havilland Firestreak fitted from 1959 was an infra-red target seeker with an effective range of about 3km in a 30º tail cone in Northern Europe. In warmer climes the seeker head would follow anything but the desired target, sun, water reflection, moon on occasions but luckily the 4.5inch parachute flare which was the firing target for missile practice launches. My allocated Firestreak worked as advertised and the flare dropping Canberra crew didn’t get too excited but it did cost beer.
How would you rate the radar’s effectiveness?
The airborne radar AI17 was basic having developed from wartime radar technology. B/C scopes (range+azimuth, range+elevation) without PPI so relatively poor situational awareness unless very experienced. Intercepts without Ground Control were not in any way guaranteed and reliance on scan with some height/range clues made for a lot of ‘seat of the pants’ intercept geometry. “A peep is worth several sweeps” came into play a lot. Fighter lane operations were planned in the UK in the event of total GCI outage.
Operation at low level with ground clutter and high temperature/humidity rendered it a very fine art form indeed. Interestingly there was the capability to reproduce the ‘locked-on’ blip on the pilot’s collimator gunsight with an added horizon reference for close quarters identification operations. However, this could be inaccurate, misinterpreted and lead to some very unusual aircraft attitudes at very low level. Definitely used with enormous caution, mostly verbal from the back seat.”
What is the biggest myth/misunderstanding about the Javelin?
“It couldn’t turn. Thrust/weight ratio was 0.79 with a relatively low wing loading of 34 lb/sq ft (170 kg/m2) so with 4+g available it could corner high or low but at altitude it was very effective with reheat engaged.”
Was it well made?
“The airframe was pretty impervious – ‘boiler plate’ weighing 14 tonnes unfuelled. Some individual electrical components e.g. fuel contents sensors, radio aids and radar were frequently in need of attention due to poor waterproofing.”
Hunter versus Javelin: which cockpit would you choose to be in if they faced each other in a dogfight and why?
“Assuming my Hunter had the ‘shiny switches mod’ and it was a clear air mass then turning performance should win the day. There is some HOTAS in my Javelin and two-person cockpit helps with radar ranging and missile lock but I would have to see first and sneak round to 6 o’clock, so night or weather (NAW) preferred. Hunter for day, Javelin for NAW.”
“Very moderate at low level as relatively low power, low ‘g’ could not take advantage of the low wing loading. At altitude increased power and sufficient ‘g’ would produce quite a good turn but speed would be sacrificed.”
“Quite respectable at low level as the factors combine to produce quite a small radius, likewise at altitude.”
“Low level the engines will fly the airframe beyond the speed limit quite quickly which incidentally roughly coincides with maximum available tailplane angle so level flight cannot be maintained. At altitude using reheat acceleration from .7M to .93M is seconds not minutes, but drag e.g. underwing tanks or missiles are a considerable disadvantage low or high.”
“High level pretty good, low level very good but thirsty.”
“5400fpm S/L ISA”
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“As a 1954 era night/all weather bomber destroyer very good. In the colonial policing role it is difficult to answer as you’d have to interview the insurgents. But it certainly had loiter time and a heavy guns capability albeit inaccurate.
Quite what we were hoping to achieve with the aircraft in Hong Kong during the communist riots escapes me, but it was probably a statement of intent rather than a show of force against a particular threat.”
“It had a large cockpit with everything to hand and easy to operate EXCEPT the TMk3 emergency undercarriage release handle on the right sidewall behind your elbow. Considerable contortions were required to select down as happened one night on the OCU course much to the amusement of my ‘new’ navigator partner in the rear seat. The FAW Mk9 had no such secondary system hence the occasional asymmetric gear landing.”
What was your most notable mission?
“At the risk of overindulgence – two. Well they won’t be as notable as Mandy weeing into a bottle over the desert.
Staging from Tengah, Singapore to Kai Tak, Hong Kong via Labuan, Malaysia and Clark Field, Manila with a point of no return over the South China Sea on the last leg.
The Hong Kong trip was notable in that it had a nightstop on Labuan Island, a nightstop at Clark Field, Manila and then just over an hour and a half to Kai Tak, Hong Kong with no credible destination alternate other than the other side or end of the main runway and ‘mind the airliners’. The only available ‘crash’ diversion if Kai Tak became unusable was Sek Kong airfield in the New Territories which was a disused WWII airfield with no aids in a bowl in the hills used for Gurkha field regiment driver training. It therefore became a ‘point of no return’ operation from Clark to Kai Tak and once you descended you were going to Hong Kong, no weather alternate and no sensible ‘crash diversion’. During the subsequent week long detachment ‘flag waving’ no-notice practice diversions and low approaches were flown through the hills and over Sek Kong much to the chagrin of the driving instructors and alleged discomfiture of the driver trainees who could be seen taking avoiding action in all directions although I couldn’t possibly comment. Reports were received!
Leading a Diamond 9 formation as a junior pilot ‘lucky winner’.
The Diamond 9 is a personal thing only and frankly not reportable as it was absolutely routine as a last flight of the month event and the lucky junior pilot got to lead.”
How combat effective do you think it would have been?
“Very against Soviet era medium bombers at all altitudes Bison, Badger, Bear and Brewer where tail quarter missile attacks or ‘vis-ident’ to line astern guns were high probability kill options. More so in poor weather or at night when bomber awareness would be reduced.
In the Colonial Policing role it was fairly effective, the FAW 9(R) with 4 tanks had good range, heavy firepower and the afterburners lit with an audible bang which anecdotally frightened the dissidents.”
How did it compare with its Russian and American counterparts?
“The USA was embarking on a whirlwind development of the Century series clear airmass day interceptors to replace the F-86 Sabre; the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief, F-106 Delta Dart and eventually the F-4 Phantom. The direct competition in age and role were the Northrop F-89 Scorpion 1950 (2 crew, 2 engines, good radar, 6 cannon, A/A rockets and basic IR missiles) and F-101B Voodoo 1957 (2 crew, 2 engine, radar and data link GCI, 4 missiles).
The Scorpion was ‘clunky’, a very basic all-weather fighter with less performance than the Javelin but very similar radar and early IR missile performance.
The Voodoo was the 2 crew derivative of the F101 ‘one-oh-wonder’ interceptor and had supersonic performance, slightly improved missiles but only fire-control radar relying on data-link for direct control of the aircraft during interception. Not a firm aircrew favourite.
The Soviet (Russian) air order of battle included MiG 17 Fresco, MiG 19 Farmer , MiG 21 Fishbed and Sukhoi Su-9 Fishpot . All relied on GCI and were clear air mass interceptors with GCI assistance. Direct competition was the Yakolev Yak-25 Flashlight ’A’ 1955 (2 crew, 2 engines, good radar, twin cannons, A/A rockets), Yakolev Yak-28P Firebar 1964 (2 crew, 2 engines, 2xAA-3 Anab missiles, one semi-active radar, one IR).
The NATO codename ‘Flashlight’ featured wing installed engines and a fairly aerodynamically efficient fuselage with room for a powerful radar and lots of fuel. On introduction to service only unguided A/A rockets and twin cannon were available, missile technology never caught up with the aircraft and it remained undeveloped. Similar speed as the Javelin but much lower ceiling.
The ‘Firebar’ was faster and could climb higher than the Javelin with longer endurance. It carried an improved radar over ‘Flashlight’ and a choice of missile guidance but only 2 and no guns.”
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What equipment would you have liked to have seen added to the Javelin?
“If the fuel control system could have been modified and fuel flow rates improved to allow for efficient reheat at low level the Javelin would have been quite a handful, but there was no identified fighter threat other than the Indonesian “Mad Major” in his Mustang at Medan staging a trophy raid. The usual plea from the back seat for a PPI radar or any range improvement would have had a significant effect.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the Javelin.
“FAW Mk 9(R) carried up to four underwing tanks on cranked pylons to avoid the main undercarriage doors, and a scaffolding pole bolted to the fuselage next to the cockpit canopy as a probe, extending some 5ft beyond the radar nose introducing ‘the sport of kings’ air-to-air refuelling or at least a new jousting format.
A complete box of Tiger Beer would fit into each gun magazine and be perfectly cooled after flight.”
Did the aircraft have a nickname?
“The flying flatiron.”
What was it designed to intercept / fight against?
“Soviet medium/heavy strategic bombers 1955-65.”
What was the operational concept?
“Parallel displaced, crossing or overtaking radar or visual interception to stern attack for either vis-ident followed by guns or a heat-seeking missile launch.”
Could it intercept a Victor, or Vulcan, or Canberra PR9 at max altitude?
How long did the gas last in afterburner?
“Not a simple answer but at low level a matter of a few minutes. The Javelin had a 12% augmented reheat not afterburner so an unusual fuelling and control design. It was On/Off, no modulation and had first usage of the FCU fuel available from the HP pumps reducing the feed to the hot core reducing engine rpm. Although 20,000ft and above was the design usage altitude, cross over was about 8000ft depending on entropy and below that it was a ‘local scaring’ fuel dumping device. Real performance improvement was achieved above 20,000ft but loss of RPM at low level could be 15%.”
How good / bad / reliable, etc was the radar?
“The AI17 was a development of the wartime MkIXC and as mentioned above was moderately low power, low definition and a less than desirable mix of presentations. It’s performance was very yes it’s on or no it’s broken and temperature/humidity had much to do with that. If it switched on, at low level looking up and at medium and high level it was 20nm+ scan on a similar target but lock was unpredictable affecting missile usage, and level or look down at low level was non existent.”
What was it like to fly? Any major operational restrictions?
“It was very pleasant to fly with no heavy stick forces at all but as we eventually discovered it had a very low rolling ‘g’ limit with full aileron defection limited to +2g. This limit either was not included or was so well hidden in the Release to Service that no thought was given to that aspect of the performance envelope. Although night/all weather operations might not have required dynamic manoeuvring, Colonial Policing required more flexibility and it cost an airframe and lives.”
Anything it could do that would surprise an opponent?
“Specifically fitted for use during radar interceptions the ‘barn door’ airbrakes were designed to stop you immediately from your sensible overtake speed into a ‘visual’ position behind a hostile. With due regard to Top Gun who probably learnt it from the Javelin, the use of airbrakes to embarrass an opponent in close combat, force a fly through or past or at least negate a guns solution was a well know party trick. However it did leave you perilously short of energy but 4 Adens went a long way towards rectifying that disadvantage.”
It had an unhappy development history – any problem with stalling behaviour in service?
“No-one in their right mind would deliberately stall a Javelin. There were suitable warning systems in place and the elevator artificial feel system was designed to introduce nose-down pitch at very low speed assuming you had slowed beyond the light aerodynamic warning given by the vanes on the wing top surface. Incidentally these vanes were a serious threat to health on cockpit evacuation if you chose or were forced by water/fuel/ice to slide down the wing towards the tip on your rear. Immersion suits and other things were egg sliced during this manoeuvre.”
Was it reliable? Did it have maintenance bug-bears?
“Although the ground crew liked the aircraft in general there were individual system issues and many were very difficult to access for rectification. If there was an engine starting issue, particularly with the Mk9 and (R) electrically fired cartridge initiated AVPIN, things got out of hand very quickly and rapid evacuations were required upwind. The TMk3 relied on a large gas generating cartridge screwed into the starter motor and fired electrically, simple and effective but very heavy and tricky to change.
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Sapphire engine ‘centreline closure’ (CC) was a ‘thing’ and after several unexplained aircraft losses the problem was identified in 1962 as the compressor casing cooling faster than the drum when in cloud causing the fixed stator shrouds and blades to foul the rotating shrouds catastrophically. The problem had been present since the introduction of the more powerful engine but operations in the Tropics in the ITCZ with Cb penetration increased the severity and incidence. The “Rockide” abrasive compound solution caused the rotating blade tips to be ground down on the coated casing, coarse but effective.
This issue was to cause me, not to mention my ‘first tour’ navigator, several tense minutes during a post CC engine change flight test when half way through the schedule on the ‘new’ engine the existing engine exhibited CC symptoms and failed followed by our expeditious return to Butterworth single engine and retire to the bar.
Added to this, scheduled engine strip-down had discovered harmonic vibration fatigue and operation below 10,000ft other than for take-off or landing was banned in 1965. This was quite quickly rescinded but the the rpm band 86-92% was embargoed so low level operations were conducted one engine up, one engine back.
It was old, fairly fatigued due to enthusiastic low level operation and prone to water ingress issues from standing outside in monsoons. But unless it caught fire or exploded it flew very precisely if sedately and had a small bag of tricks for the unwary opponent.”
Was the Gloster Javelin Actually Terrible?
By Jim Smith
What a fabulous, futuristic-looking aircraft was the Javelin. Flown for the first time on November 26 1951, the Javelin was described (admittedly in 1955) as ‘Structurally and aerodynamically, the Javelin night and all-weather interceptor fighter is perhaps the most impressive aircraft yet produced to fulfil this role’. While today one might regard this as a bit of an over-statement, there’s no denying that the Javelin is an impressive looking aircraft.
It is important to recognise that its contemporaries in this field in US service were the F-89 Scorpion, the F-94C Starfire, the F2H Banshee and the F3D Skyknight, all of which would have been easily out-performed by the Javelin. The three US aircraft were to be replaced in service by the F-101D Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-106 Delta Dart and the F-4 Phantom, all much more capable aircraft. Meanwhile, the UK went down a different path leading to the Lightning point-defence interceptor, the F-4K Phantom, and the Tornado F3.
Context and Requirements
When assessing an aircraft, it is important to consider the requirements which drove the design, and consider how they affected the choices made in developing the aircraft. The Javelin was brought into service in an environment where there was intense competition between the US and its Allies, and Russia. The tension had been ramped up by the Russian blockade of Berlin, leading to the Berlin Air Lift, and it was clear that a new Cold War had replaced the conflict of the Second World War. The Korean War had started during the development of the aircraft, and had shown the capabilities of both Soviet and American combat aircraft.
In addition, aircraft and weapons technology was advancing at a furious pace, driven by this contest between Nations and ideologies, and by the opportunities presented by the availability of jet engine technology, allied with (largely) German aerodynamic knowledge. Furthermore, the lead in atomic weapons established by the explosion of the Trinity device on July 16, 1945, was rapidly evaporating, with Soviet development of the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb following much more closely than expected.
The first Soviet Atomic bomb test had taken place in August 1949, followed by a Thermo-nuclear device in August 1957. With the rapid pace of aeronautical development, it was clear to Defence planners that air defence would soon be required capable of deterring and defeating jet bombers able to carry atomic weapons, and that in the event of an attack, interception of the bombers would need to be achieved before they could reach the UK to drop their weapons.
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Moreover, this new capability would be required at night, and in all weathers, meaning that the air defence aircraft would have to carry radar to allow interceptions to be carried out at night, and in poor visibility. This was not going to be possible in the single-seat fighter aircraft being developed in parallel, the Hunter and the Swift, and a specialised all-weather and night fighter was needed. This was to be the Javelin.
The aircraft was developed in response to specification F4/48, which called for a two-seat, twin-engine all-weather interceptor fighter, that would counter enemy aircraft at heights of up to at least 40,000 feet. It would also have to reach a maximum speed of at least 525 knots at this height, and be able to reach an altitude of 45,000 feet within ten minutes of engine ignition.
Additional requirements included a minimum flight endurance of two hours, a take-off distance of no more than 4500 ft, and the equipment of the aircraft with airborne interception radar, and communication and navigational aids.
The threat that the aircraft was expected to counter would have been nuclear armed jet bombers, with broadly the performance of the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan, which were being developed for RAF service. In practice, the Tupolev Tu-16 ‘Badger’ and Tu-20 ‘Bear’ would have been the main targets of interest. To counter these aircraft, the Javelin was initially armed with 4 30 mm Aden cannon, and later 2 cannon and 4 Firestreak air-to-air guided missiles.
Given the payload, performance and endurance requirements, the Javelin was always going to be a large aircraft. The delta wing configuration was selected to provide a big wing area to meet altitude performance requirements, and significant internal volume to meet endurance requirements. The trade-off here was that the relatively thick wing of the Javelin limited it to subsonic speeds – but that was OK because it was designed to combat a subsonic threat.
The choice of a tailed-delta configuration is of particular interest, and was driven by the requirement to operate off a relatively short 4500 ft runway. To take-off and land the relatively heavy aircraft, which had a loaded weight of up to 19.9 tonne, off such a runway would require some form of high lift system, something that is not normally possible on a pure delta, because of the difficulty of trimming the aircraft once flaps are deployed. The T-tail provided the necessary control authority to trim the aircraft with flaps deployed, and the flaps gave an added benefit for night operations, in avoiding the high angle-of-attack and poor forward visibility on the approach of a pure delta configuration. The relatively thick wing section not only allowed good internal volume for fuel, but would, with the flap system, have allowed a slower approach speed for landing.
The demanding requirement for endurance, heavy armament, two crew, and a large radar drove the size and weight of the design. When combined with equally demanding take-off and landing requirements, the tailed delta became a successful solution, with airbrakes and flaps minimising the approach speed, and improving forward visibility.
Development of the aircraft was a little problematic. The first issue to come to light was the loss of a prototype due to elevator flutter, both elevators being lost in flight, and the aircraft recovered with superb airmanship, using tail trim and engine throttle to control the aircraft down to a forced landing. Eventually, the aircraft was fitted with an all-moving tailplane to resolve this issue. A second aircraft was lost due to a deep stall accident, and further aircraft were lost after failing to recover from spins. These accidents resulted in aerodynamic modifications, including the fitting of vortex generators to the wing and fitting a stall warning system. In addition, modifications were made to the rear fuselage and engines to cure buffeting of the rudder, and to increase thrust. Two alternative radar systems were also used, the British AI 17 radar, and the American AI 22.
While the development programme is sometimes referred to as protracted, the aircraft transitioned from first flight on 26 November 1951, to entry into service in February ’56, just over 4 years later. Delivery of the final FAW 8/9 variants started in 1957. The FAW 9 was essentially an FAW 7 brought up to a similar standard to the FAW 8. 6 years from first prototype to fully developed capability, with good endurance, and heavy armament really does not seem too bad an achievement.
So far, JSF development has taken 20 years to progress to the delivery of its baseline capability, albeit with a number of outstanding risks and issues. A modernisation program is now underway, albeit (according to the GAO) without a fully defined and costed business case, and FOC has yet to be achieved.
From a slightly later period than the Javelin, it is worth taking a look at the development of the Convair F-102. This was evolved from the less-than-successful XF-92A, which might be seen as a demonstrator aircraft. The first YF-102A flew on 24 October 1953, and the first fully developed aircraft flew in May 1957, in which time the aircraft had acquired a new fuselage, 11 ft longer than the YF-102A, a new canopy, new air intakes, a new larger fin, modified undercarriage and airbrakes, and a new cambered wing. This rather comprehensive development was followed by a modernisation program that added a datalink, changed the fire control system and added an IR tracker.
So, Was the Javelin Actually Terrible?
This sort of question should only be answered in the historical context. Of course, the Javelin’s performance looks pedestrian when you compare it with the Lightning. The P1B first flew in April 1957, and the first Lightning Squadron stood up in July 1960. The early Lightning offered double the speed, but about a quarter of the endurance, and half the armament of the Javelin. It really was a point-defence interceptor.
The Javelin was designed when the threat was essentially subsonic bombers, carrying gravity-drop nuclear weapons. Once the threat had changed to nuclear-armed stand-off weapons, requiring rapid reaction response from either Quick Reaction Alert or standing Combat Air Patrols supported by air-to-air refuelling tankers, the subsonic Javelin became largely irrelevant, at least in terms of the air defence of the UK.
At the time, however, the UK still maintained its interest in air policing the far-flung colonies, particularly those East of Suez or in the Tropics. In these arenas, particularly operating from Tengah, Singapore during Indonesia – Malaysia tensions in the early 60s; in Hong Kong during the Chinese Cultural revolution; and in Zambia during the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence crisis, the Javelin could still play a useful deterrent role.
So, was the Javelin actually terrible? Surprisingly, my answer is no. It did what it said on the packet. Large, heavily armed, with good endurance, and day-night all weather capability, it delivered the specified performance. The real problem was that the unsporting opposition had moved the goalposts. The emerging needs for eye-watering acceleration, climb rate, and dash speed to counter cruise-missile carriers, simply could not be met by the Javelin, with its thick wing.
Relaxation of the short runway requirement, and with the adoption of more powerful engines, a more sophisticated intake system, an area-ruled fuselage, and a thin wing, and the UK might have had a Mirage-like world-beater in the late-fifties. Given the 1957 Duncan Sandys death-blow, leading to an interregnum in manned fighter design, and the fact that the Lightning was already in development, the thin-wing Javelin was a non-starter. The Javelins were withdrawn from operational service in April 1968. A few remained serving the needs of the school of Air Traffic Control at RAF Shawbury for a while, with the very last flying aircraft remaining at Boscombe Down until 1975.
More of Peter Day’s exploits can be found in Gloster Javelin: an operational history by Michael Napier (Pen & Sword Aviation)
Ever since the Lilienthal brothers bird-like gliders of the 19th Century, Germany has been batshit crazy about flying machines. Rocket fighters, suicide pulse-jets and airships over three times longer than a 747; seemingly nothing was too crazy for the Germany aviation industry to try in the 20th century. Here is a kladderadatsch of unheimlich German aircraft that will make you spit out your Spätzle with profound fremdschämen.
10. Messerschmitt Me 210 ‘Hochgeschwindigkeits-Rufmörder’
If ever you wish to challenge the famed German stereotype of meticulous efficiency, then you need look no further than the Messerschmitt Me 210, an aircraft that looked great on paper but didn’t look so great anywhere else – in the sky for example.
It all started off well enough: As well as possessing aviation’s most emphatic forehead, Willy Messerschmitt had delivered the Bf 109, which by the outbreak of war was arguably the best single-seat fighter in the world. He had followed that up with the Bf 110 which was arguably the best twin-engine fighter in the world. Messerschmitt tried for many years to design a replacement for the 109 but any new aircraft he came up with was either inferior to its great rival the Focke Wulf Fw 190 or could offer nothing more than an updated model of 109 and as a result no new design proceeded past the prototype stage. By contrast there was no obvious rival in production to the 110 and a replacement would surely be needed (an opinion strengthened by the apparently poor showing of the 110 during the Battle of Britain – though this was arguably down to inadequate understanding of the tactical limitations of this class of aircraft rather than any particular intrinsic fault of the 110 itself. Thus the requirement for the 210 was born. Unfortunately for customer and designer, Messerschmitt’s reputation was riding high on the incredible and ongoing success of the 109 and 110 and apparently he could do no wrong. An order for 1000 of the new twin-engine fighter-bomber was placed, off the drawing board, before the new aircraft had even flown.
But fly it did and then the terrible mistake became apparent. The Me 210 was a purposefully good looking aircraft but that was about it. The new aircraft was underpowered and its handling was so bad that it was dangerous to fly, being prone to enter a sudden and vicious stall under the least provocation. The chief test pilot commented that the Me 210 had “all the least desirable attributes an aeroplane could possess.” It took the ridiculous total of 16 prototypes and 94 pre-production models to iron out the worst of the problems that bedevilled the 210. To put this in context the Fw 190, a contemporary (but very successful) aircraft which also took considerable development to get ‘right’ went through five prototypes and 28 pre-production examples. And then, even after all this time and effort was expended the 210 was not an acceptable machine. Compared to the 110 it was replacing the 210 was slower and shorter-ranged as well as possessing appalling handling qualities. Even the undercarriage was lousy and kept failing on the 210. The 210s that had managed to make it into service, nearly three years after the first flight, were withdrawn after a month and superseded by the very aircraft they were supposed to replace. The production line was shut down and the Bf 110 was put back into production fitted with the 210’s better streamlined engine nacelles. Willy Messerschmitt’s reputation was in tatters and his resignation was officially demanded from the company that bore his name.
Worse was to come. Back when it still looked like the 210 might mature into a decent fighter, permission had been granted to Dunai Repülőgépgyár Rt. (Danubian Aircraft Plant) to build the 210 under licence and Hungarian authorities decided to continue development even after production in Germany was halted. The Hungarian aircraft utilised the more powerful DB 605 engine and a lengthened fuselage which transformed the aircraft into something generally acceptable. The colossal irony is that a lengthened fuselage was demanded by the test pilot on the Me 210’s first flight back in September 1939. Willy Messerschmitt had refused, pointing out that to alter the fuselage would require scrapping millions of Reichsmarks’ worth of production jigs. The Hungarian aircraft Me 210Ca was generally popular in service and proved that a lengthened fuselage would have solved literally years of painful development. And of course, that it took the Hungarians to solve the problems that the supposed finest designers of Germany apparently could not overcome was unbearable to the hyper-nationalistic Third Reich. Eventually a German redesign of the 210 with yet more powerful DB 603 engines was accepted into service but re-designated the Me 410 Hornisse to make it seem like it was a completely new design (it wasn’t). The Me 410 was a decent enough aircraft but was at least two years too late – had it been available when it should have, back in 1941, it would have been sensational.
9. Messerschmitt Me 321/Me 323 Gigant
The success of the Bf 109 should not obscure the story of the most calamitous aircraft to emerge from the Messerschmitt aircraft company, the ‘321/323. To invade England, the fast movement of tanks and artillery was essential. In the absence of a route by land, air transport was the obvious solution. Messerschmitt initially proposed towing winged battle tanks, a daft concept that proved bizarrely ubiquitous to World War II technical advisors. A less mad idea was the creation of large unpowered gliders, and by large I mean large: we are talking a wingspan of 55 metres… almost that of a Boeing 747! Junkers initially won the German Air Ministry contest with the Ju 322, but even a wartime assessment team couldn’t turn a blind eye to the fact a tank fell through the weak wooden floor of the ‘322. They went back to Messerschmitt, who created an aircraft too large to be launched. Even with 3280 horsepower, the Ju 90 airliner struggled to tow this behemoth sky-bound. So they tried tying it to three (yes three!) Bf 110 fighters to drag it into the sky (in a triangular ‘troika schlepp’ formation) which, of course, proved problematic. The next attempt to create an adequately powerful tow aircraft involved bolting two bombers together resulting in the conjoined He-111Z Zwilling — which was also far from ideal. Even strapping rockets to the machine wasn’t getting the desired results. While these slapstick endeavours had been taking place, Messerschmitt had been simultaneously working on a powered version – the Me 323. This worked, but was so slow and cumbersome that in contested airspace proved abysmally vulnerable. In 1943, in desperate need of resupply, General Rommel’s Afrika Korps was sent 300 tons of equipment in 16 Me 323s. Only two reached their destination, 14 had been shot down.
8. Dornier Do 31E
As with the Royal Air Force, in the early 1960s, the Luftwaffe became concerned about the vulnerability of aircraft operating from large air bases. The British developed and eventually deployed the Harrier; the Germans, in a frenzy of innovation, developed and flew, but did not put into service, two potentially supersonic VTOL fast-jets, and a VTOL transport, the Do 31E. They also experimented with a zero-length launch system for the Starfighter, the ZELL (based on ideas from the rocket genius and occultist sex magician Jack Parsons). The Do 31, as a production aircraft, was envisaged as supplying tactical logistic support to the fast jets, itself using as forward operating bases the airstrips on which the ZELL Starfighters were expected to land using arrester gear.
The tactical and logistic support of forward air operations, it turns out, can be well supported by another aircraft which was in development at the time – the Fiat G222. This has now been developed into today’s C-27 Spartan, which offers similar payload-range performance to the Dornier 31E, albeit with STOL rather than VTOL capability, at a fraction of the cost, risk and complexity of a production Do 31.
The Do 31 was an impressive answer to a question that shouldn’t have been asked. Technical progress and ambition had run ahead of operational analysis, resulting in flawed requirements.
More on the Do 31 here
7. Baade 152 Baade to the Bone
That the wretched Baade ever got built says much for the charm of its designer Brunolf Baade. From 1936 he worked for Junkers and was involved in the design of the Ju 88, Ju 188, Ju 388 and Ju 287. Following defeat and partitioning, the Soviet Union took many German aerospace experts — including Baade— to aid in the development of new military projects. The Soviets had a pressing need for a fast twin-engine jet bomber, and the German boffins set about designing one. The resultant EF 150 was conceived by Baade, Hans Wocke and other former Junkers staff. Hugely delayed by engine problems, the aircraft ended up having to compete and lose out to a greatly superior aircraft from a newer generation, the Tu-88 (which became the Tu-16 ‘Badger’).
Despite this, Baade may not have been having such a bad time. It is rumoured that Baade’s winning personality made him a favourite with his Russian masters, and that while his colleagues were enduring the biting 1947 Moscow winter he was enjoying a holiday in Crimea. In 1953 the Germans were sent back to East Germany, where some attempted to start an aviation industry for the new nation.
A new jetliner was desired, and Baade initiated a project — dubbed the Type 152 — based on the EF 150. This was a terrible basic design for a jetliner. For a start, it had a bicycle undercarriage — meaning the aircraft could not rotate promptly on take-off and it required great precision to land precisely (something they attempted to rectify with a later, somewhat bizarre, configuration). It also had terrible engines, Pirna 014s based on wartime technology, which offered a miserly 3:1 thrust-to-weight ratio (compare this to the 4.5: 1 of the Pratt & Whitney JT3D which first ran a year earlier than the Pirna) and a lousy specific fuel consumption. The wings were the wrong shape and in the wrong place: a low aspect ratio broad chord slab that was far from ideal for cruising efficiency. The high placing of the wings obstructed the cabin, while the space under the floor was occupied by the undercarriage.
The maiden flight of this aircraft took place on 4 December 1958. Four months later the aircraft took its second flight and crashed killing all on board. In mid-1961 the East German government stopped all aeronautical industry activities, as the Soviet Union did not want to buy any of these aircraft or support a potential rival to their own Tu-124. This mercifully put an end to what would have certainly been a horrible airliner.
6. Heinkel He 177
The eternally repeated adage, ‘if it looks right, it will fly right’ is proved by the giant Heinkel He 177, four-engined bomber; even before entering service it attracted the epitaphs of ‘widow maker’ and ‘flying coffin’. Göring called it a ‘misbegotten monster’.
Conceived as a long-range bomber to attack targets beyond the Soviet Urals or operate against convoys in the North Atlantic, it was too late to make a difference. It is the only example of a German design, equivalent of the American YB-17 design and the British plans, including R J Mitchell’s B16/36, for long-range strategic warfare. The Heinkel design was immediately beset by compromises, engine issues and top-level mind-changing.
Even in its development, Oberst Ernst Udet caused a fundamental re-design by requiring a dive-bombing capability. The engineers were in despair, the dive-bombing profile would require fuselage and wing strengthening, increasing the empty weight significantly. Then, in September 1942, after the work had been done, Göring rescinded the requirement.
So, it had a flawed operational requirement; an inadequate power plant with four engines, driving two huge propellers and surface evaporative cooling in place of conventional radiators. Engine fires were frequent during trials and by the time it came into service, the there was no fuel. Even so there was a plan to convert it into a rocket-carrying fighter! Final words to Winkle Brown: “it was one of the very few German aircraft I did not enjoy flying.”
Paul Beaver is the biographer of Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown
5. Siemens-Schuckert Forssman Großernutzloser Ladenhüter
Virtually all First World War aircraft were, by modern standards, hopeless and awful. However Siemens-Schuckert’s first foray into the world of large bomber aircraft was a stand-out example of dreadful uselessness, an aircraft so woeful that it eventually collapsed in an act of overdue self-destructive embarrassment. The Forssman’s problems began before even the first wood was cut, canvas sewn or the workers got out of bed in the eponymous form of Villehad Forssman, the luckless aircraft’s Swedish designer. German aviation benefited immensely from at least one aircraft designer from a neutral nation in the form of Dutchman Antony Fokker, a notorious self-publicist but undeniably an engineer of talent. Sadly Forssman was no Fokker, and his engineering abilities would not prove equal to his Jules Verne-eque dreams of giant aircraft.
It would appear that the Forssman aircraft was ‘inspired’ (less sympathetic voices might say ‘a copy’) of Igor Sikorsky’s impressive Ilya Muromets, the world’s first four engine aircraft. A famous photograph depicts one of these aircraft in flight and the first thing one notices is the two stalwart Russian cavalry officers promenading on the roof of the aircraft as if taking a stroll on an aircraft during flight were the most normal thing in the world. One of the other things one may notice is that the pilot is shoving in downward elevator as though his life depended on it, as indeed it might. In other words it appears to be tail heavy. When Forssman designed his own aircraft for German cavalry officers to stroll on the roof of, he apparently decided being insanely tail heavy was also definitely the way to go, a situation that would prove almost fatal to the test pilot once the aircraft actually managed to fly. However, any proper idea of flight was a long way off yet as during taxi trials and minimal hops, many of the faults of Forssman’s creation became apparent. The structure was deemed to be too weak and was beefed up, not least by adding more wing struts, the first of an unprecedented five major, and ultimately futile, rebuilds and redesigns. There was insufficient tail area, so a second rudder was added and the wings were rigged with slight dihedral. At the same time an attempt to balance the tail-heaviness issue was made by crudely adding a tub-like gunner’s position on the nose.
Further short hops revealed that the modifications had not made the aircraft anywhere near acceptable. Any reasonable manufacturer would have cut their losses, dumped this hopeless aircraft and moved on but Siemens-Schuckert were determined that they should get some kind of return for their investment and besides, Vilehad Forssman had by now severed connections with the company so, they reasoned, a different (better) engineer should be able to rework the aircraft into something acceptable. Harald Wolff, who would later design Siemens-Schuckert’s excellent fighter aircraft, was the man chosen for this unenviable task. Wolff Added more powerful Mercedes engines in the inboard positons, leaving the outer engines as they were. All the engines received streamlined and strengthened mountings and the whole nose of the aircraft was reworked into a pointed shape with massive round windows. The pilot now sat in comfort under a fully enclosed cockpit, an incongrously advanced feature. Unfortunately the designated test pilot, after some ground runs and despite his comfortable enclosed cockpit, refused (wisely) to fly the aircraft. Siemens-Schuckert managed to persuade air-ace and pre-war test pilot Walter Hohndorf to perform the first flight but in September 1915, whilst completing another test hop, something went awry, the aircraft turned onto its back and was partially wrecked.
Siemens-Schuckert, who were nothing if not persistent, mended the wings of the aircraft and fitted another new nose. Now desperate to get something – anything – for their hopeless machine, Dr Reichel the technical director of Siemens-Schuckert persuaded the Army to lower the specification the aircraft was required to achieve before they would buy it in return for a reduction in the purchase price. The new specification required the aircraft to reach 2000 meters in 30 minutes carrying a useful load of 1000 kg and enough fuel for 4 hours. Meanwhile he offered Bruno Steffen, himself a successful aircraft designer, 10% of the sale price if he could make the acceptance flight which was scheduled for October. Despite warnings from friends regarding the structural safety of the aircraft, Bruno decided after inspecting factory drawings and the aircraft itself that it was strong enough. However he was concerned that he would lack the strength necessary to operate the massive tail surfaces. On the day of the flight Steffen invited five passengers to accompany him, including members of the Army acceptance commission but all politely declined.
On take off Steffen found that the Forssman’s tail-heaviness meant that he had to push the control column fully forward to maintain level flight. To make turns he had to pull it back to the neutral position, turn the wheel as quickly as he could, and immediately return it to the fully-forward position to avoid a stall. The aircraft was virtually uncontrollable. Nonetheless it achieved the required 2000 metres in 30 minutes and the Army agreed in April 1916 to buy it as a trainer, despite its total unsuitability for that or any other task. Luckily for everyone however the rear fuselage collapsed when the engines were run up on the ground and no one else had to risk life and limb in Forssman’s pathetic aircraft.
And that would have been that except for one strange coda – in 1918 a truly gigantic ten-engine triplane named ‘Poll’ after the town of its construction was designed. It was structurally weak, of unprecedented size and ludicrously tail-heavy, which sounds oddly familiar. It was intended to bomb New York but construction was halted due to the armistice. Its designer was Villehad Forssman and one wonders how he managed to persuade anyone to build this new ridiculous aircraft. A single giant wheel from the Poll survives to this day in the collection of the Imperial War Museum to remind the world of Forssman’s folly.
4. Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet ‘Wie Ein Floh, Aber Oho!’
Although it was a horrific death trap with a litany of flaws, no one could deny the Komet was amazingly impressive. The fastest aircraft of the second world war, Messerschmitt’s rocket plane also possessed the best climb rate of any aircraft in the world until the supersonic (and strictly research) Bell X-1. Its vertical performance could not be bettered by any combat aircraft until the mid-1950s. In every other respect of course the Komet was totally appalling:
The first problem, and worst when looked at from a tactical point of view was its endurance. The Walter HWK 509 rocket motor that imparted the Komet with its blistering performance was colossally thirsty and only eight minutes of fuel could be carried. The engine was either on or off, there was no ability to cruise or throttle back which led inexorably to its second major flaw – the closing speed between it and its target was so great that it was extremely difficult to aim and fire with any hope of success. This problem was compounded by the powerful MK 108 cannon. The low muzzle velocity of this weapon meant it was only effective at close range and this was difficult to achieve as the Me 163 flashed past its intended target. Thirdly, once the rocket fuel was expended the aircraft had to glide home. Totally immune from fighter attack while under power, the Komet was vulnerable as a glider. True, it was fast and handled nicely but eventually it would have to land, and, unable to move, could be destroyed at will by any pursuing aircraft.
Its woeful endurance led to the Komet employing the weight-saving feature of jettisoning undercarriage. The wheels were attached to a dolly that was dropped as the aircraft climbed away from the airfield. If dropped too high, they would be destroyed. However if dropped too low there was a danger that they would bounce off the ground and into the aircraft with disastrous results. On occasion the wheels got stuck: test pilot Hanna Reitsch was nearly killed attempting to land a Komet with its wheels still attached. Even if the take-off was successful, landing the Komet was fraught with danger. Landings were unpowered so there was no option to go around if something went wrong and the aircraft landed on a retractable sprung skid which had to be lowered to provide shock absorbing, if it stuck up or the pilot forgot to lower it the result was often a fractured spine.
But absolutely the worst aspect for the pilot was the fuel. The Komet was propelled by two toxic liquids called C-stoff and T-stoff that explode when brought into contact. Indeed, T-stoff would cause virtually any organic material such as leather or cloth to spontaneously combust, furthermore it would dissolve human flesh. When the luckless Joschi Pöhs crashed an early Komet on landing in 1943 he was covered in T-stoff and, despite wearing a protective suit, “his entire right arm had been dissolved by T-stoff. It simply wasn’t there. The other arm, as well as the head, was nothing more than a mass of soft jelly.” Regular aviation fuel is dangerous enough but this was nightmarish. Even if the landing were successful, the shock of landing could rupture a fuel line or slosh any residual propellants into contact with each other and a catastrophic explosion would be the near inevitable result. So volatile were the fuels that there are accounts of Komets spontaneously exploding for no apparent reason whilst simply sitting on the ground.
But if the pilot survived the take-off, the landing, the fuels, and prowling enemy fighters the Komet had one final trick up its sleeve. Despite having generally exemplary handling characteristics the Me 163 entered an unrecoverable condition known as the ‘graveyard dive’ if its speed exceeded Mach 0.84, which was not difficult in a Komet, and the results were invariably fatal.
Despite all these horrific issues combat operations were maintained from May 1944 to spring 1945. During this time, there were nine confirmed kills, with 14 Me 163s lost. Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert was the most successful pilot, with three bombers to his credit but he was killed when his Komet exploded on take off. Despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious catastrophic flaws, the Komet remains one of the most charismatic aircraft in history.
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3. DFW T.28 Floh Lustiger kleiner knuddliger Kerl
Back in 1915 people still didn’t know what aeroplanes were supposed to look like. At least that’s the only explanation I can think of to explain the delightfully chunky appearance of DFW’s T.28, cheerily named Floh (flea), the cuddliest combat aircraft ever built. There seems to no other reason for building this tiny yet simultaneously weirdly massive machine. Despite being reputedly very fast, because of its daft shape the Floh was never a serious contender for fighter operations. The main problem was visibility, which was excellent so long as you only wanted to look upwards. The pilot’s view forwards for take off and landing was non-existent and the massive triangular tail surfaces conspired with the biplane wings to obscure the view of more or less anything below the aircraft. With all that fuselage side area and only a relatively modest rudder, one can only assume that directional control was not the aircraft’s strong suit. Add to that a perversely narrow undercarriage and it should come us no surprise that the Floh crashed on landing after its first test flight. On the upside the arrangement of intakes on the aircraft’s nose gives it the appearance of a jolly smiling face – always a major boon for an aircraft intended for the deadly skies over the Western front. Just to prove that he wasn’t insane or obsessed with giving aircraft a Rubens-esque profile, Herman Dorner, who designed the Floh, went on to produce the outstanding Hannover CL series of two-seat fighters which were boringly slender by comparison, did not feature a jolly smiling face, and proved highly successful.
2. Zeppelin L 2 Wasserstoffbrennstoff Feueranzünder
Zeppelins are preposterous. That such a ludicrous vehicle could inspire such panic from people on the ground (which it did) seems, with the benefit of hindsight, insane. Of course no one had experienced a sustained strategic bombing campaign back then and facing such attacks for the first time was and is a scary prospect, The sheer inexorable massiveness of the rigid airship is also certainly compelling. Back in the first couple of years of the First World War they were the only aerial vehicle with a useful disposable loaded the range necessary to mount meaningful bombing attacks deep behind enemy lines. But the fact is that the Zeppelins of World War One consisted of a fabric bag filled with between about one and two million cubic feet of hydrogen, the most flammable element in the universe. Zeppelins are huge and inflammable, present an unmissably massive target, are slow and susceptible to bad weather. Bizarrely, despite having more than enough carrying capacity to reasonably carry them, German airship crews chose not to bother taking parachutes on missions. Presumably being able to escape having to choose between plummeting to one’s death or being incinerated in a hydrogen-fuelled inferno was just too namby-pamby for the stalwart Zeppelin men of the Imperial German Navy. And that was a choice that became increasingly commonplace after the first Zeppelin was shot down over Belgium in June 1915.
That the Navy persisted in using these giant airships for bombing raids was largely down to the insistence of one dangerously psychopathic zealot, Kapitän zur See Peter Strasser. Despite ever-increasing evidence of the ever-decreasing effectiveness of the Zeppelin as a bombing aircraft, Strasser continued to demand his crews fly strategic raids over London with ever greater losses. “We who strike the enemy where his heart beats have been slandered as ‘baby killers’ … Nowadays, there is no such animal as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.” he said in answer to criticism of the morality of strategic bombing. This may have been true but does not exactly paint a glowing picture of Strasser’s character. It feels like a there was a certain poetic justice at work when, after this particular baby-killer had chosen to ride along with Zeppelin L 70 on what would be the last airship bombing raid attempted against Britain, Strasser’s Zeppelin was intercepted by a DH-4 piloted by Egbert Cadbury (of the noted chocolate making family) and shot down in an example of the afore-mentioned hydrogen-fuelled inferno. The crew did not have parachutes.
But all this was in the future in 1913 when Navy Zeppelin L 2 chugged its way over Berlin and into the somewhat obscure history books. That the Zeppelin was a bizarrely horrific weapon of war for all concerned is not in doubt but the L 2 was probably the most hopeless of them all. Not content with being an impractical and dangerous vehicle when under attack by a determined enemy, L 2 showed the world that Zeppelins were dangerous and impractical when there were literally no threats present at all, unless you consider a warm day or the aircraft itself a ‘threat’. First off the engines wouldn’t start, which caused a delay in take off which allowed the hydrogen to expand in the gas bags due to the warm sun. Once the engines were persuaded into life the Zeppelin shot into the sky due to the hydrogen expansion. The normal cure for this is to release some of the gas and stop the aircraft rising. Unfortunately the hydrogen vented from L 2’s gasbags was sucked into the forward engine and exploded, which caused a fire and further explosions resulting in the destruction of L 2 along with the death of all 28 people on board (in a hydrogen-fuelled inferno). That this occurred only six weeks after the navy’s other Zeppelin, L 1, had been caused to crash (with 14 fatalities) by cold rain causing the gas to contract makes one wonder why the German Navy persisted in the development of large airships at all. Zeppelin eventually delivered over 100 large rigid airships during the First World War, with Schütte-Lanz delivering about 20 more.
Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg
Imagine yourself as a plucky young Luftwaffe pilot in 1944. You have a talent for flying, and the Nazi propaganda machine has filled you with a mad zeal to fight. You leap at the chance to fly an experimental aircraft—a futuristic aeroplane that could turn the tide and save your nation. You are shown a sleek, sexy, jet-propelled Wunderwaffe that makes the latest Fw 190 look positively ancient. Or perhaps you’re a bewildered child pushed into a moribund hell that was not of your making. Either way you’re absolutely fucked, because your new steed is essentially a V-1 flying bomb with a human guidance mechanism. Say ‘guten morgen’ to the Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg.
The Reichenberg had a quick development period, probably too quick. The German Research Institute for Sailplane Flight started development in mid-1944, and had a prototype ready for testing within days. A cramped cockpit with a jettisonable canopy was placed just under the pulse-jets air intake, and flight controls were rudimentary, although straightforward. After release from a carrier aircraft, the Reichenberg was meant to be piloted towards a target and put into a dive, following which the pilot baled out. Pilot survival was optimistically rated as being “most unlikely” (it was estimated at a terrifying 1% due to the proximity of the pulsejet’s intake to the cockpit).
Tricky landing controls ensured that two test articles crashed during developmental trials, and although the designers claimed a distinction between their Selbstopfermänner and the Japanese Kamikaze, to the pilot there was little difference. Thankfully for the young men expected to fly this screaming tomb, it was quickly abandoned after Albert Speer and Werner Baumbach pleaded with Hitler that suicide was not in the German warrior tradition.
Don’t skim read this last bit:
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Twenty years prior to 1969 most air forces had been flying piston-engined fighters essentially no different from those of World War II. In the following twenty years, top speeds almost quadrupled and cannons were complemented with guided missiles capable of destroying an enemy thirty miles away. To survive the carnage of the Middle East and Vietnam air wars, aircraft became ever more potent and by 1969 had become extraordinarily sophisticated killing machines. The fighters of this time were also far more demanding and dangerous to their own pilots than today’s generation of digital fighters, and these brutish machines were unforgiving of mistakes. Here are the 10 best fighters of 1969.
10. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 ‘The Fighting Farmer’
Like most MiG fighters, the ’19 was a rough and ready hotrod. Agile, powerful and capable of gut-wrenching acceleration— it was also ill-equipped, unforgiving and brutal. Armed with three cannon and two K-13 missiles, a well flown MiG-19 remained an opponent to be respected in 1969, however its lack of a modern radar and modest top speed of mach 1.22 put it at a distinct disadvantage. Pakistan Air Force MiG-19 pilot Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum told Hush-Kit, “We did not fear fighting any opposing aircraft. The Intel, at the time, was that we were most likely to face the Hunter in the war as that was the aircraft which was to cross over the border to do battlefield air-interdiction and airfield strikes. The Hunter was a manoeuvrable aircraft like the F-86, and we had gained valuable experience during DACT with our F-86s. So we pretty much knew what tactics to employ. Firstly, force the Hunter to get into a vertical plane combat where our superior thrust-to-weight ratio would give us a distinct advantage. Secondly, allow the Hunter to exit and then catch him with the MiG-19’s excellent acceleration and let the heat-seeking Sidewinder do the rest.” The type served in several air wars including Vietnam; Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) received their first MiG-19 at the end of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1968. Relatively small numbers of MiG-19s were involved in extensive combat during Operations Linebacker and Linebacker 2. The aircraft could easily outturn the Phantom (and out accelerate it up to Mach 1.2) and VPAF MiG-19 downed seven F-4 Phantom IIs. Among its failings were its endurance, which was exceptionally poor.
Armament: 3 x 30-mm cannon (type dependent on variant), up to four short range air-to-air missiles (K-5 or AIM-9) (note: VPAF aircraft were cannon only)
9. Folland/HAL Gnat ‘Petter’s Pocket Rocket’
Though highly specialised as a short range dogfighter, the tiny and viciously manoeuvrable, Gnat developed a fierce reputation in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war— earning the nickname ‘Sabre-slayer‘. The Gnat shot down seven Pakistani Canadair Sabres, though two Gnats were downed by PAF fighters. During the the Battle of Boyra, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Gnats downed two PAF Canadair Sabres in minutes and badly damaged another. Another notable dogfight over Srinagar airfield saw a lone Indian pilot hold out against six Sabres scoring hits on two of the Sabres in the process before himself being shot down. The lighter, more modern, Gnat with its higher thrust-to-weight ratio had an advantage against the Sabre in the vertical plane.
Designed by W. E. W. Petter, who also created the EE Lightning, this subsonic British pugilist punched well about its weight, but in a world of supersonic radar-equipped fighters it is questionable how effectively it would have performed against a well-equipped enemy. The Gnat was the smallest jet fighter to ever see service and may well have been the tightest turning — it also had a climb rate twice that of the Sabre.
(Note: The Gnat has knocked the F-86 out of our top ten, but the Sabre was still a respectable fighter in ’69, notably where it was armed with Sidewinders.)
Armament: 2 x 30-mm ADEN cannon
8. Joint place: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17/Dassault Super Mystère/ Lockheed F-104 Starfighter ‘The Outsiders’
These fighters each had huge advantages and disadvantages and were the hardest to place in the top 10.
Any enemy foolish or ignorant enough opponent to fight the MiG-17 in the 300-330 knot regime was likely to learn a particularly nasty one-off lesson, as many did in Vietnam. Above 450 knots however, it was a pig — and its equipment was primitive; without hydraulic assistance much of the MiG-17’s manoeuvrability depended on the physical strength of its pilot! The MiG-17 was very tough and extremely reliable, but by 1969 was verging on obsolescence.
The French Super Mystère was Europe’s first supersonic fighter, but by 1969 was also showing its age, despite its good performance in the Middle East. It was liked by Israeli pilots and fought in the 1967 Six-Day War and it was said to be a decent counter to the MiG-19. During this conflict, Super Mystères achieved a number of air victories: two IL-14, one MiG-17 and two MiG-21s.
Many would argue the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter deserves a higher ranking, but the fact USAF did not use it as a fighter is revealing. That most operators used the aircraft in the fighter-bomber or maritime attack role point to the type’s limitation as a pure fighter, notably its infamously poor agility. It speed was exceptional, its armament decent and it had a large cockpit with excellent visibility for the pilot. Its combat record was at best mediocre: on 6 September 1965, a Pakistani F-104 may have shot down an IAF Dassault Mystère IV and damaged another (though this claim is disputed). The PAF lost one F-104 Starfighter during the 1965 operations, and achieved two kills (however, one of the F-104 Starfighter’s victims was a portly Breguet Alize of the Indian Navy, hardly the most challenging opponent). Later, in the 1971 war, it was trounced by the MiG-21.
On 13 January 1967, four Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-104G aircraft engaged 12 MiG-19s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force over the disputed island of Kinmen. Two MiG-19s were destroyed, one of the F-104s did not return to base and its pilot was claimed as MIA.
7. Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter ‘Schmued’s Switchblade’
Though relegated to the fighter-bomber role in US hands, the F-5 was an extremely capable air-to-air fighter, in which role it served with several air forces in 1969 (including Taiwan). In this role it is closely comparable, and in some ways superior, to the MiG-21. Later Soviet studies of captured F-5s revealed the type to have superior manoeuvrability to the MiG-21, and more benign low speed and high angle of attack handling characteristics.
Armament: Two Pontiac M39A2 20-mm cannon
6. English Electric Lightning ‘The Double Decker’
The fastest climbing and one of the most agile fighters on this list, the Lightning also boasted the best acceleration and highest service ceiling. The Lightning was a rocketship; everything was sacrificed for performance, notably endurance and the number of missiles. Though it is the received wisdom that the F2A was the best model, former Lightning pilot Ian Black noted to HushKit that this is maybe a myth, and though the F2A was the best for low level air defence over Germany, the best all-rounder was probably the F6. In an interview with Hush-Kit, pilot Ian Black noted the following aspects of life in the Lightning, “Lack of fuel was the obvious one. From a handling point of view it was gloriously over-powered, something few aircraft have. With its highly swept wing and lack of any manoeuvre /combat flaps or slats the aircraft was often flown in the ‘light- heavy buffet’ which masked any seat-of-the pants feeling of an impending stall. It actually had few of the traditional ‘vices’ but could be a handful on landing with its big fin and drag chute, which made the aircraft weathercock on a strong crosswind landing. Tyres were also by necessity very thin to fit into the wing and high pressure, so didn’t last long.”
The Lightning was superior to the F-4 in dogfight, a British Phantom pilot we spoke to opined that “You have to take advantage of the things that work for you and don’t work for him. He can out-turn you, he can out-climb you, but he ain’t going to be able to do it for very long. You can see him from a long distance, so you can get your shots off without him even seeing you. If that failed, it would be best to remain unseen. You wouldn’t voluntarily get into a turning gunfight with a Lightning, as you’re probably going to lose. Then whoever runs out of fuel first – and it’s probably him- has lost the fight. He’s got to bug out. As I said, take advantage of your own strengths and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent.”
The Lightning was never proven in combat.
Armament: Two Redtop or Firestreak missiles and/or 2/4 30-mm ADEN cannon (variant dependent)
5. Saab Draken J-35 Draken ‘Delta Berserker’
Delta wings, a data-link, a Mach 2 top speed, the ability to operate from short runways and an infra-red search and track sensor are common features for 21st century fighters but the Swedish J-35F(2) was boasting these back in 1969. It was also rumoured to have the lowest radar cross section of its generation (the MiG-21 is another likely contender for this title). The Draken was a sneak preview into the future, remarkably it did all this with half the thrust of the Lightning (the Draken had one Avon, the British aircraft two). The Draken was neither combat proven nor very agile, though uncoupling the flight control could allow pilots to perform what would later be known as the ‘Cobra’, a dramatic manoeuvre in which the nose is raised momentarily beyond the vertical position, before dropping back to normal flight. One F-15 pilot we spoke to was not impressed by the Draken, and after ‘fighting’ against it in training described it as an “underpowered MiG-21”.
Whereas the Falcon missile had a bad reputation in US service it is believed that the Swedish version, the Rb 28 with its unique seeker-head, was a superior weapon. The J-35F(2) variant was the most capable Draken in 1969.
Armament: 4 x Rb 28 Falcon or 4 x Sidewinder + 1 x 30-mm ADEN (some variants 2 x 30-mm ADEN) cannon
4. Mikoyan MiG-21 ‘Fishbed‘ – ‘Soviet switchblade’
Fast, agile, tough and small – the MiG-21 was an excellent dogfighter and the most numerous supersonic jet fighter in history, with a staggering 11,000 produced in total. The mainstay of the Warsaw Pact air forces, it served with an unparalleled 56 air arms. The lightweight Mach 2 MiG fought in Vietnam and the Middle Eastern wars. In 1969 the most capable ’21 was the SM, a comprehensively upgraded (M = Modernizirovannyy ) MiG-21S using the R13-300 engine and with a built-in GSh-23L cannon, as well as a considerably updated avionics package. The type’s greatest weaknesses were a poor endurance and lack of a medium-range weapon. When ex-MiG-21 pilot Air Marshal M Matheswaran (retd) spoke to Hush-Kit he noted the type’s fantastic acceleration, electric instantaneous turn rate and tiny radar cross section. The Soviet Union had produced a small, cheap and rugged type that could take on the best fighters of the West, a remarkable achievement.
Armament: 1 x GSh-23L cannon, two K-3 or K-13 missiles
3. Dassault Mirage III ‘Le Triangle Fantastique’
The Mirage III proved itself devastatingly effective in Israeli hands in the 1960s. The French fighter was a dependable jack of all trades, according to Mirage III pilot Gonzalo O’Kelly, “The Snecma Atar 9C was a very reliable engine, very resistant to compressor stalls and almost immune to flame out in flight. It was very easy to fly if you had enough speed, and stable around its envelope. We always flew with two supersonic fuel tanks but the aircraft behaviour was very docile. It was also very strong. It had a landing gear that would have been strong enough for carrier landings and it wasn’t unusual to see 30 people over the wings and fuselage posing for a photo. We didn’t need any ground support to start the engine, which was very good for detachments. It was very good at accelerating in a dive, no aircraft of that time could follow us. The aerodynamics were excellent but designed for high speed.” Counting against the Mirage were its relative lack of power, claustrophobic & cluttered cockpit and limited armament. According to Israeli sources, during the Six Day War of 1967, a mere twelve Mirage IIIs shot down 48 Arab aircraft.
2. Vought F-8 Crusader ‘The Last Gunfighter’
The US Navy adage, “When you’re out of Crusaders, you’re out of fighters” speaks volumes. The Crusader was an agile, responsive hotrod beloved by its pilots. Unencumbered by the weight that the long range fleet defence origins had imposed on its service rival the F-4, the Crusader was a superior dogfighter. Vought wrapped the smallest lightest airframe around the most powerful engine, gave the pilot excellent visibility and created a machine that was a delight to fly and devilishly hard to beat in a dogfight. The Crusader also carried internal guns throughout its career, a dangerous omission on earlier Phantoms, which earned the F-8 the nickname, ‘The Last Gunfighter’. According to its pilots it was ‘simply unbeatable’ in the merge, though the Crusader had an inferior armament and radar to the larger F-4. Aerodynamically the French F-8E(FN) was superior to other variants, with significantly increased wing lift due to greater slat and flap deflection and the addition of a boundary layer control — and enlarged stabilators. The US F-8L was probably the best equipped variant at this time.
- McDonnell Douglas Phantom II ‘Big Ugly’
No surprises for the top spot, the fabulous Phantom was a vast ugly battleship of a fighter, quite unlike anything else flying. The Phantom had twice the air–to-air weapon load of any other aircraft on this list, and as the F-4J, had a radar that was far superior to anything else. The Phantom also had an excellent range, was exceptionally tough and had the benefit of a two-man crew. It was the most powerful fighter on the list, with almost 36,000Ib of reheated thrust. Choosing the most formidable Phantom variant of the time is trickier — it’s a toss-up between the F-4J with its (at the time) unique ability to ‘look down’ and ‘shoot down’ (its new fangled pulse doppler radar denied opponents the liberty of hiding from radar by flying low) and the internal gun toting F-4E. Though the F-4J and F-4E were technically the most formidable Phantoms of ’69, they had yet to score a kill — and both would have to wait to be blooded in air combat (the former scored its first kill in 1970, the latter in ’72).
(It should be noted that the Royal Navy’s F-4K was also well-equipped.)
Disadvantages of the Phantom included a large size and smoky engines that made the aircraft easy to acquire visually, in this interview Gonzalo O’Kelly noted, “it was very easy to spot Phantoms from 6 or 7 miles because that huge black smoke trail that their engines left behind (except in afterburner) and because it was a big bird.” Flown and fought carefully by well-trained battle-hardened crews the Phantom was devastatingly effective and was certainly the best fighter in the world in the last year of the 1960s. The Phantom was responsible for 147 aerial victories in the Vietnam War, far more than any other US type.
|20 mm gun||3||0||1||4|
Armament: 1x 20-mm M61 rotary cannon (F-4E) + 4 AIM-9C + 4 AIM-7E2
Thank to the following people who kindly offered advice and valuable opinions in the creation of this article: Former Lightning pilot Ian Black, Jon Lake, Dave Donald, Steve Trimble, Thomas Lovegrove, former F-15 pilot Paul Woodford and Mihir Shah.
Top fighters of 1985 here. Top fighters of 1946 here. Top fighters of 2018 here. Top fighters of 1918 here.
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(Reality does not confirm to a top ten, so while our panel has taken considerable consideration in choosing the rankings the type’s relative position are to some extent arbitrary with each excelling in certain ways and lacking in others. Dedicated interceptors, such as the F-106, Su-15 and MiG-25 were excluded from selection. The Hunter, F-100 and F-86 were very close to making this list. The A-4 was disqualified on role allocation, likewise the F-105, despite 27.5 kills)
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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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.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 save the Hush-Kit blog. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Your donations, however big or small, keep this going. Thank you.
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
Russia mature Russia emergent
Su-57 Mig 41
Europe mature Europe emergent
Rafale Airbus-Dassault FCAS
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)
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
Role: Air Combat (with numerous other variants)
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.
Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)
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.
Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Area Denial, Precision Strike)
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.
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.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 save the Hush-Kit blog. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Your donations, however big or small, keep this going. Thank you. Notes: if thrust vectoring is fitted to the J-31- as has been tested- it will be virtually unbeatable in the close-in combat regime.
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.The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here
USAF 6th Generation Fighter F-X
Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)
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)
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
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.
Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike)
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)
Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)
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.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 save the Hush-Kit blog. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Your donations, however big or small, keep this going. Thank you.
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:
US: F-X, F/A-XX
Sweden: Gripen E/F
UK & partners: Tempest
Or a joint program with Airbus-Dassault and BAE Systems
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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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.
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
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 SnarkLikely 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.
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
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’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.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
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.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)
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.The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
8 ‘Article 468’
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.
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
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 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.
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.
6. Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
- 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 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 Satellite. Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. a
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The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.
- Interviews with pilots of the F-14 Tomcat, Mirage, Typhoon, MiG-25, MiG-27, English Electric Lighting, Harrier, F-15, B-52 and many more.
- Engaging Top (and bottom) 10s including: Greatest fighter aircraft of World War II, Worst British aircraft, Worst Soviet aircraft and many more insanely specific ones.
- Expert analysis of weapons, tactics and technology.
- A look into art and culture’s love affair with the aeroplane.
- Bizarre moments in aviation history.
- Fascinating insights into exceptionally obscure warplanes.
The book will be 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.
Rewards levels include these packs of specially produced trump cards.
Pre-order your copy now right here
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