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Flying & fighting in HAL Tejas: Interview with test pilot Rajeev Joshi

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Tejas pilots enjoy the benefits of the Elbit helmet which displays vital information and can be used to cue a weapon with a turn of the pilot’s head.

India’s 4th generation fighter, the pocket-sized Tejas, is an intriguing design. Resembling a mini Mirage 2000 with the wing of a Viggen — and an empty weight smaller than that of the tiny Gripen — it is an unusual lightweight fighter that is largely misunderstood outside of India. We spoke to test pilot Group Captain Rajeev Joshi to find out more. 

What were your first impressions of Tejas?

“As you walk up to it, you tell yourself – that’s a small one! The notion of aerodynamic shapes come to your mind next; you walk  around the nose and find yourself short of words to explain the wing shape… then you recall – ‘Ah! This is what the reverse compound delta they spoke of looks like’. The ‘Light Aircraft’ part also hits you — literally on the head —when you try to peek into the undercarriage well without bending close enough to the ground. Yet, despite its compactness, the aircraft has a feeling of solidity. Contrary to what you would expect from an aircraft which looks so small, stepping into the seat and looking around for left to right checks is reassuring, and you think ‘Hey, this is not such a tiny cockpit after all’.  Once you strap yourself up, it feels just as comfortable as any mid-size fighter, but don’t include the ‘Flanker’ in that comparison! Neatly laid-out switches, logical control grouping and the glass cockpit seems neat. Reach seems optimal, though higher percentile fellows do report some knocked elbows! Jokes aside, it’s a good cockpit. View over the nose and off your shoulder is good, if not the best in the business. Checks and procedures are minimal, and one could get off the blocks in as less as couple of minutes.

“The full authority Auto Low Speed Recovery makes the aircraft truly carefree, more so than any other fighter in the world…Throw it around as much as you can — when she says ‘no’, she will take over and recover the situation for you. “

It taxies well enough at idle power, and the crisp feel of the nose wheel steer takes you by mild surprise at first, especially if one is used to the steady and comparatively slower feel of the Russian types, but it is easy to get used to it. The checks for take-off, are essentially minimal, and you soon find yourself pushing the GE 404 to the gate. In a clean fighter, take-off acceleration is impressive and likeable. Controls are crisp on the take-off roll, with nose held at the correct angle neatly. The growling of the ‘404 does not show up much in terms of cockpit noise. With a reassuring ‘all-clear’ on the undercarriage panel, you are up and away!”

What is the best thing about it?

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“The small size and the good sensor package. The ability of the avionics design to absorb changes and upgrades seamlessly is a positive advantage. The biggest strength of the programme comes from the fact that the design and integration is indigenous. This gives the aircraft the ability to match the best in terms of features, utilities and modes. Small size and low (radar) signature, coupled with a good sensor package, puts the Tejas in a good advantageous spot with respect to bigger birds. The typical ‘first look, first kill’ works very well for the Tejas in a fight, both in the beyond visual and the visual realms. The Helmet Mounted Display System works well in a snap engagement and the coupled missile ‘line of sight’ (LOS) modes allow the first shot to be good. The HMDS is a very versatile piece of equipment for a number of tasks. The handling of the flight control system is fabulous and is being refined continuously. Based on the operational feedback from the fleet, the build up of rates is being refined to make it crisper and yet more responsive. In this area too, the 100% indigenous flight control system is a winner. It’s ours, and can be tweaked continuously. The process is very robust and the feedback about handling and what would ‘feel’ better is addressed very quickly. The full authority Auto Low Speed Recovery makes the aircraft truly carefree, more so than any other fighter in the world. This may be contested, but I’m willing to defend this position in a debate! The ALSR and other higher control law modes put this a notch higher. Throw it around as much as you can — when she says ‘no’, she will take over and recover the situation for you. The control and handling in high gain tasks like aerial refuelling is superb. It will beat contemporaries or older birds in this area. It really makes you feel like a great pilot!”

…and the worst?

“Ironically, the size! It invariably tends to get compared to its bigger cousins in the business. The size essentially limits internal fuel and hence the shorter legs as compared to others. However, if the focus is kept on the fact that it was intended as a light fighter, the fuel fraction is reasonable. The ‘404 and aircraft combo is frugal, and with external tanks and a high flow-rate aerial refuelling system, it’s ok…..”

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How would your rate Tejas in the following categories:

A. Instantaneous turn
“Snaps into it! However, the traditional drag of the delta platform does start showing after a while.”

B. Sustained turn
“Mid mach numbers and mid altitudes, good. Like an aircraft of its size, affected by stores carried.”

C. Acceleration
“Climbs well, and the acceleration is good. The continuing refinement in the drag department is an ongoing process which aims to make this better still. With every drag count being ‘counted’ with a fine tooth comb, it will only get better”

D. Climb rate
“Reasonable and meets the specs laid out.”

E. High alpha performance
“Fabulous! Difficult to enter a difficult situation with respect to this… a very robust control law makes the Tejas a winner here. Do remember though, that comparisons with itsthrust-vector control- equipped Russian cousins would be unfair here. The nose holds up well in low speed fight, and the ALSR makes you trust the aircraft. High angles of attack manoeuvres and reversals are comfortable, albeit with a little ‘barrellish tendency’. Though like any flight control system controlled fighter, the rate of roll and pitch rate does go down with high AoA and/or high pitch angles.”

What is the cockpit like?

“You would not call it a mansion, it’s better described as ‘neat’. Like I said earlier, the space inside is surprisingly un-congested, despite what its external size might suggest. I am a lower percentile fellow, but the some of the jocks flying the Tejas operationally would certainly tip the percentile scales at the top end, and they do not complain!

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The existing switchery is minimal and simple. As Tejas is a platform which is operationally evolving, there is space for new hardware panels to come in… it’s been catered for, and that is a good thing. What also helps is that being an open architecture based platform with full glass cockpit, most of what needs to be added is done so in the system. It is handled via existing software and programmable multi-functional (MFDs) and other displays, so the available real estate (though frugal) seems adequate.

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The air-conditioning is extremely efficient, perhaps a little too much! You do feel the need to crank up the temp at times. Having operated it across the length and breadth of our country (and we are BIG and touch all extremes!), I have never found it wanting. The initial rush of air feels a lot and is very loud, but the auto management quickly kicks in  to make it a comfortable cockpit. The Martin-Baker seat is a good fit, angled so that you take the G’s well. To sum it, long hauls with air-to-air would be welcome. The three MFDs allow you to see anything on any surface, with an efficiently utilised Up Front Control Panel that lets you handle everything that you are carrying with ease. It is HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) rich! That part is further sweetened by a ‘near HOTAS’. At Hand Control Panel next to your throttle. Almost all controls for all systems are duplicated across these surfaces, so losing some to a malfunction, does not raise a sweat at all. These retain a good capacity to absorb further systems and their associated controls without maxing out.”

How mature is it? “It is in an operational unit. So that speaks for itself. Open source news source would tell you that the jets in final operational configuration would be delivered soon, and the upgrade to the Tejas Mk 1 is already on! For us, it is a heady new experience, an operational fighter that is evolving. Sound self-contradictory? No, it is mature enough to fight, and yet youthful enough to continuously evolve.”

How does it compare with other fast jets you have flown? Which aircraft has most similar flight characteristics?

“A lot of inspiration for the Tejas came from the Mirage 2000. Of course, the Mirage was a worthy template to look up to, and hence it is quite like it. Flight characteristics-wise? Closest to the Mirage 2000. Lovely similarities in feel and handling.

What is the biggest myth about Tejas?

“Before we can tackle the biggest myth, we must first acknowledge the biggest truth. It has taken long years to come, it’s true – you can see this in open sources, it’s no secret. And that leads us to answer the biggest myth about it: that it is not only too late but also less than what was asked for. Now that is a myth. The aircraft is exactly what was asked for. It is nimble, swift, light and frugal. It is also very capable of absorbing new systems for (and I stake my reputation on this) a decade and half to come. It fits right into the slot of a well-made light fighter, which can carry all sorts of heavy and heady new tech for years to come. (tech mind you <Ed: not a super heavy weapon load> as it’s still a light fighter and will always be).

Want some specifics? We’re talking about a superior new radar (either indigenous or imported), superior new missiles (both indigenous and imported), new guided munitions from both our own ODL and new radio; new and more powerful indigenous mission computers and architecture, more powerful displays. AND- the amazing leap-frogging from an air force bird to getting its wet wings! Yes, I am proud of our achievements and I refer to the Tejas Navy having very successfully demonstrated its carrier landings and take-off!

How combat effective is it in its current state?

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“It will hold its own with honour in a BVR (beyond visual range) to close-in fight. It can deliver precision guided munitions and iron bombs where they are needed. It’s got aerial refuelling with fat tanks. With this, it is in an operational unit with more coming up. It’s upgrade is rolling: watch out for the Mk 1A in a few years. Teething troubles? Yes of course, they are there, but that is an absolutely normal part of the settling down a fleet from design and development to operational units. So for combat effectiveness, do the maths.”

What was your most memorable flight in Tejas?
“Without a doubt the flight in which I carried out the first aerial refuelling contact of the Tejas.”

Which Tejas variants have you flown?
“The Prototype vehicles, limited series vehicles and of course the in-service series production variant.”

What equipment or kit would you like to see added to Tejas?
“Smaller smart precision munitions for air-to-surface work, to be carried in greater numbers.”

What have been the biggest problems facing the programme?
“Very simply – the time taken in development of multi sectoral multi-dimensional critical core indigenous technology. And very simply again – blessings come along with sanctions: the problems have been overcome and are now simply our strengths.”

What should I have asked you?
“The Tejas story, nay saga…. but honestly, better answered some other time and place. Because now you see, we are busy with the future.”

What do you see as the future of the aircraft?
“A robust and well-rounded upgrade which will be the reason of a successful in service fighter fleet in the short to mid-term, with increasing indigenous systems. The mid to long term future belongs to the next generation birds that will be born out of the success of this one. They are different creatures born out of family. The Medium Weight Fighter and the AMCA are well along in design and may be game changers. Heady days to come.”

 How would you change the programme?
“I wouldn’t. It’s reached this point, and despite its own trials and tribulations, it has done so with an enviable safety record. We, have to just sustain this record with a faster pace (and that is a very tough challenge to rise up to), until one day Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles will ask a test pilot on the MWF and AMCA to answer a few questions on those birds — for a bottle of decent Malbec maybe?”

Special thanks to Harsh Vardhan Thakur

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The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force’s contribution to World War II

 

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I considered calling this article ‘Flying & Fighting in the Hawker Hurricane: yes, but not quite a first-hand account) to tie in with this sites series of excellent pilot interviews. Hush-Kit readers are accustomed to informed, authoritative articles, on flying and fighting in various exotic, high-performance aircraft, representing the best of both Western and Russian technology.  These first-hand accounts come straight from experienced practitioners. The Second World War is in a different category.  Few experienced practitioners from that war are still with us.  Of course, articles from former Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, on flying and fighting in the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, would be fascinating.  Thankfully, there are many fine books available, which capture those experiences in the authentic words of people who were there. But accounts by those who flew specifically in the Burma-India theatre are still relatively rare – and accounts of Indian and Burmese personnel rarer still. My book, The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II (HarperCollins India, 2019) makes an attempt to capture some of them.

The Forgotten Few is the first narrative history of the Indian Air Force’s involvement in the Second World War. Informed by access to Indian Air Force squadrons’ war diaries, and first person inputs compiled from over two dozen veterans of the time, it showcases first-person content straight from those veterans, describing the experience of flying and going into combat in Hurricanes, Spitfires and other aircraft of that era. And that experience was very different from the air war over Europe.

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The Indian Air Force’s war, indeed that of all the Air Forces in India, was far from being a simple replication of the Battle of Britain in tropical environs.  The physical and meteorological environments were completely different, which drove many changes in equipment and operating procedures.  Even flying clothing had to be re-designed, as may be imagined.  Most importantly, the tasks of the Air Forces in India were different from those of the RAF at home.  They were less about shooting down bombers than about supporting ground (and occasionally naval) forces, by the delivery of fire upon the enemy, sometimes within yards of our own troops; and about reconnaissance and the collection of information, on terrain and enemy dispositions, in an environment with none of the infrastructure that could be taken for granted on the Home Front or in Europe. This was all less spectacular than swirling Battle-of-Britain-type dogfights, but of crucial importance to winning the war in this theatre.

Of course, there were some Battle of Britain parallels. Some fine RAF veterans of the Battle of Britain, and also of the Dams Raid, went on to serve in India; and as elsewhere, they were accorded immense respect.   They and their comrades of the Indian Air Force and the Burma Volunteer Air Force (as well as the RAAF, the RCAF, the RNZAF and the South African Air Force, all of which served in the theatre) wore mostly identical uniforms, and frequently played cricket or football between flying and fighting.  Like them, the Indian Air Force flew Hurricanes (although only from 1943 onwards) and Spitfires (although only when the RAF was moving on to Thunderbolts).  They were all young, high-spirited, and given to schoolboy jokes and pranks.  They too, like the mythical Kilroy, Were There.

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Indian airmen served during the Second World War in far smaller numbers than Indian soldiers, but again like Kilroy, they showed up in many theatres. Indian Air Force personnel served in the skies over England and France, and also in the Middle East and North Africa.  Broad recognition of Indian contribution has improved in the last few years, prompted partly by commemorations and publications around the centenary years of the First World War.  But the Second World War was a more complex involvement. Indians took on more complex roles, sometimes in the face of strong imperial prejudice.

For the most part, India embraced its role. Indian princely families made significant contributions to the war effort, and some young princes joined the Indian Air Force, just as during the First World War some Indian princes joined elite cavalry regiments. The Indian film and entertainment industry actively supported the war effort, and outside official view there were some unscripted romances between dashing young flyboys and glamorous figures from the film industry, even across national divides. There were also connections to the Indian cricket world, although Indian cricketers did not have the celebrity status then which they enjoy now.

Beyond fighting and flying in Hurricanes and Spitfires, there is an incredibly rich vein of Second World War stories in India.  This book starts to tell a few of them.

— K S Nair

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The worst British aircraft company? Blackburn – a history of infamy

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It seems hard to even mention Blackburn  (‘Blackburn Aircraft Limited’ – and boy, weren’t they) without eliciting anecdotes about terrible, stolid, ugly or fatal aircraft. But does Blackburn deserve this reputation? Matthew Willis finds out. 

A few years ago this author proposed, half-jokingly, the Twitter hashtag #FirebrandFriday which was met, within minutes, with shrieks of horror – ‘but it was a godawful deathtrap!’ – from a prominent defence expert not entirely unknown to this blog. Mention of the Skua invariably leads to someone repeating ‘a seabird that folds its wings and dives into the sea’ before too long. The Botha is one of those aircraft about which a mythical test pilot is rumoured to have written ‘entry to the aircraft is difficult. It should be made impossible.’

Half of the aircraft on this list of the 10 worst British aircraft are from Blackburn

Blackburn seems alone in the largely awful reputation of its products. No UK aircraft manufacturer has escaped its share of unfortunate aircraft – much of the latter designs of Supermarine were clumsy, dangerous and had a loss rate that made them virtually disposable. Avro, meanwhile proved itself incapable of designing an airliner bigger than a regional feeder machine that didn’t kill frighteningly high numbers of passengers. In most cases this didn’t define the company. With Blackburn, it seems, all the mud stuck.

The company was one of the earliest manufacturers in Britain to attain much success. Robert Blackburn was an engineer who became obsessed with flight in the 1900s while working in France, taking more time off work than his employers appreciated to go and see the Wrights, Blériot and Hubert Latham in their ‘flying machines’. On his return to England in 1908, he immediately began his efforts to emulate these pioneers, and built a monoplane that was completed the following year. This was a rather unconventional affair with several touches that marked it out as the product of an engineer rather than an aeronaut. For one thing, it was built for strength – something that Blackburn products would be accused of throughout the company’s life – and incorporated interesting features such as a fore-and-aft sliding seat to adjust the centre of gravity. The general arrangement was disposed to confer great stability in the air, with all the heavy items – pilot, engine and fuel/coolant tanks – suspended well below the wing. Blackburn failed to appreciate that this might involve too much of a good thing. He made a few hops with this aircraft along a beach in Yorkshire, but sideslipped into the ground on attempting to turn, against the mass trying to prevent the aircraft from rolling.

Top 16 Royal Navy aircraft here. 

Unhurt and undeterred, Blackburn tried again, and this time produced an elegant if conventional monoplane that flew well. At this point he went into the aircraft-manufacturing business, offering to build aircraft to others’ designs, while putting the successful second monoplane up for sale. A larger development of this aircraft, called the Mercury, was produced in 1912 and nine of them were built – a decent production run for a pre-WW1 aircraft. Further aircraft along the same lines were produced in ones and twos, each slightly more refined than the last, until the outbreak of war in 1914.

If Blackburn had continued remained unambitious, perhaps it might have become known as a competent if unimaginative maker of attractive aeroplanes. The outbreak of war, however, saw Blackburn’s unconventional, engineering mindset imposing itself once again. The Admiralty called for an aircraft of unparalleled endurance that could hunt Zeppelins, remaining aloft for many hours, even through the night, on patrol for the menacing dirigibles. For its ‘TB’, Blackburn came up with a layout that wasn’t repeated on a production aircraft until the P-82 Twin Mustang of 1945 – two fuselages, each with an engine and cockpit (although only one had controls).

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The TB was intended to be powered by a new 150hp engine of low fuel consumption, but beginning something of a trend for Blackburn, this powerplant failed to become available and it had to make do with lower-powered units. The TB was perhaps over-ambitious, and an alarming flex between the two fuselages could never quite be overcome. Not giving up, Blackburn went back to the drawing board and applied the TB’s wing cellule to a conventional twin-engined layout, with a long, narrow fuselage. The resulting aircraft, known as the Kangaroo, was pretty good, and with decent power (250hp RR Falcon), it made the perfect long-range anti-submarine aircraft. In August 1918, a Kangaroo of 246 Squadron RAF discovered the U-boat UC70 lying on the bottom, reported its position and bombed it, causing sufficient damage that it was easy prey when a Royal Navy destroyer reached the scene.

Seafire story here

Blackburn was best known over the company’s life as a provider of aircraft carrier-based aeroplanes. Unsurprisingly this began with an aircraft that was as innovative as it was clunky. Blackburn was developing a talent for creating solutions that were elegant in engineering terms while being shockingly inelegant visually. The 1919 Blackburd – yes, that was honestly what they chose to call it – torpedo bomber was among the most hideous of the company’s many unattractive products. The reason for this was mostly in its fuselage. For many years aircraft manufacturers had simplified wing construction with constant-section mainplanes.

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the aesthetics of a brick.”

For the Blackburd, Blackburn applied this principle to both wing and fuselage. This had certain advantages – the four longerons were identical to each other, as were all the vertical and horizontal members. It was ideal for wartime mass production – a feature which was largely useless now the war was over – but conferred the aesthetics of a brick.

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The Blackburn Blackburn, so bad they named it twice. 

The Admiralty rejected the Blackburd, and Blackburn tried again in 1920. This resulted in the Dart, an aircraft that was beautifully svelte compared to the Blackburd and unappealingly stodgy compared with just about everything else. But the Dart was a fine aeroplane. It handled beautifully and was a thoroughly practical carrier aircraft. It was easy to land on the small carriers of the early interwar period, even at night, and served for ten years. The Dart was replaced by evolutions of the concept, the Ripon and Baffin, which made Blackburn the sole supplier of torpedo aircraft to the RN between 1921 and 1936.

With the follow-up to the Baffin, the Shark, they almost did it again. The Shark was a thoroughly modern machine for the time (more modern than its competitor from Fairey). Unfortunately for Blackburn, this was where things started to go wrong. Blackburn wanted the Bristol Pegasus engine, but the Air Ministry insisted on the unreliable Armstrong Siddeley Tiger. Problems with the oil system and engine mount were easily resolved, but gave the aircraft a terrible reputation with aircrews (unsurprisingly, given that the engine on the Mk.I had the unpleasant habit of trying to detach itself in flight). Sharks were introduced in 1935 and retired in 1937, despite being fundamentally a good design.

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The Shark was a thoroughly modern machine for the time (more modern than its competitor from Fairey)

The next two service types from Blackburn only served to reinforce this ill fortune, in many respects ill-deserved though it was. The Skua dive bomber-fighter was, again, in many respects a very good aeroplane. It was a superb dive-bomber, but the Admiralty had decided in its wisdom that it needed its dive bomber to be a fighter too, and this was the use to which it was most often put in the early years of WW2. Once again, Blackburn did not get its choice of engine, and a two-seat fighter stressed for dive-bombing with a 900hp Bristol Perseus was never going to sparkle in the air. In 1940, the idea of a fighter with a maximum speed of 225mph was laughable to everyone but the aircrews who had to go to war in it. It didn’t help that being the first monoplane in service with the Fleet Air Arm meant a painful adjustment to new characteristics. The Skua could catch the unwary with its stall. Then there was the fact that the worn-out machines were repurposed as fighter trainers, and most pilots’ experience of them was in this state – hardly likely to endear itself to would-be aces. The Skua’s contemporary, the Botha, was intended to be a coastal bomber and torpedo aircraft on the same lines as the Bristol Beaufort. While both the Botha and the Beaufort ended up overweight, only Bristol was granted permission to use more powerful engines. The Botha was retired ignominiously in less time than the Shark had been.

Blackburn’s follow-up to the Skua was typical of the company in so many ways. Innovative engineering, solid – perhaps too solid – construction, but denied the best engine, and suffering from official meddling and poor timing. The Firebrand started life as a two-seat fighter and was endlessly mucked about with by changing Admiralty requirements and Air Ministry diktats. The original, Hercules-powered aircraft was to have a lightweight fixed undercarriage and twin tails.

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The next iteration was to be even more unconventional, with full-span slotted flaps and spoiler-type ailerons allowing good carrier landing characteristics with a smaller wing for higher performance. It was poked and prodded into a Napier Sabre powered single-seat fighter, then attack aircraft, with by now conventional wings. Again, it had much going for it – a huge load-carrying ability and range, and despite its large size, it was reasonably manoeuvrable, including being fully aerobatic with a torpedo attached. Then the Air Ministry struck again, insisting that the Navy could not have any Sabres and the Firebrand would have to be redesigned with Bristol Centaurus power. Years were spent working the Firebrand into a useful aircraft, and it could have been something like a British Skyraider, but we will never know as it could only be accommodated on the larger fleet carriers, and none of these took part in the Korean conflict. (The RN’s Nato commitments also meant that it had to retain torpedo squadrons in Northern waters).

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After WW2, Blackburn continued to plug away, submitting designs for Air Ministry requirements and mostly being rejected. They built a prototype strike aircraft based on Firebrand experience but there was no call for it, and a prototype anti-submarine aircraft that lost out to the Fairey Gannet.

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Amazingly, the aircraft that defeated the B-88 to receive an FAA order, the Fairey Gannet, was even uglier.

The one major success of the immediate postwar period – the Beverley transport aircraft – began life as a General Aircraft project and was only inherited by Blackburn when it took over that company in 1949. The company’s redemption, when it came, was dramatic. Finally, by the mid-50s as naval aircraft were approaching transonic speeds, it was appropriate to build them like tanks. The NA39 – later named Buccaneer – was tendered for a requirement for a nuclear-armed carrier strike aircraft to operate at high subsonic speeds at low levels. Blackburn pulled its trademark characteristics together – innovation, engineering elegance, pugnacious appearance and bulletproof construction. And this time, it all came right. Well, almost – as usual, it was the engines that initially let the Buccaneer down, with the de Havilland Gyron leaving the Buccaneer S.1 somewhat underpowered. The RR Spey-engined S.2, however realised the huge potential in the Buccaneer and the aircraft proved a potent weapon in the FAA’s armoury from 1960 until the service gave up fixed wing flying in 1978 (including a ‘show of force’ to persuade Guatemala not to invade Belize in 1975), and then for the RAF until 1994 (including highly accurate strikes during the first Gulf War of 1991).

Blackburn was undoubtedly unlucky with some of its aircraft. Had things turned out differently, the Shark might have been the hero of Taranto and the Bismarck, the Skua might have been the British answer to the Douglas SBD, the Firebrand might have been a feared mud-mover in Korea. The unfortunate looks of many Blackburn aircraft probably didn’t help. After all, in a world where the myth of ‘If it looks right, it probably flies right’ still persists, looks count.

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I say it’s time to celebrate Blackburn. Sure, it never produced anything with the perfect poise of a Spitfire, Mosquito or Hunter, but most of its machines were surprisingly good and the Buccaneer was one of the outstanding strike aircraft of the 20th century.

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#FirebrandFriday anyone?

— Matthew Willis

Matthew Willis’ book on the Blackburn Shark, featuring 100 historic photographs, detailed scale plans, and colour artwork by Chris Sandham-Bailey,  is now available from MMP Books 

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Viper variants: Unusual F-16s

The F-16, the best designed fighter jet of the 20th century, has proved an excellent aircraft to modify, build upon and generally mess around with. Here are some of the unlikely Vipers that have flown over the last forty years, we have also cheated to include some unofficial clones that cheekily borrowed a little F-16 DNA. 

Diverterless supersonic inlet ‘Bump Rider’ (1996) 

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Jet engines cannot handle supersonic airflow, which considering fighters go at twice the speed of sound is a problem. So the airflow is slowed down before it enters the engine. There are various ways to do this and they are heavy, require maintenance and tend to be highly visible to enemy radars. The diverterless supersonic inlet, however, is an elegant and clever solution.

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It is simply a bump that slows down the airflow, while also blocking enemy radar’s view of the engine compressor face (a highly reflective surface). It was used on the F-35 Lightning with and achieved a 30% weight saving over the traditional solution. I’m not (necessarily) saying that Chinese designers stole the idea, but have a look at the Chengdu J-10B/C,  CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder, Chengdu J-20, Shenyang FC-31 and Guizhou JL-9.

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General Dynamics F-16XL ‘Hyper Viper’

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The leading edge of Concorde’s wing reduces in sweep as it runs from the fuselage to the wingtip. The reason being that a traditional delta wing, like that of the Mirage III has pretty ropey low-speed handling qualities. The XL began life as an effort to see if technologies from supersonic transport, such as the cranked delta, could benefit military aircraft.  The first of two F-16XLs flew in 1982 and the results were dramatic: there was a 25% improvement in maximum lift-to-drag ratio in supersonic flight and an 11% while in subsonic flight. Compared to a regular F-16 the ride was smoother at high speeds and- somewhat surprisingly – at low altitudes. The baseline F-16 was already the longest-legged fighter in USAF, but the fuel was could now be increased by a hefty 82%. The F-16XL could carry twice the ordnance weight of the F-16 and deliver it 40% further.

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Before the XL had flown, USAF had launched the Enhanced Tactical Fighter to replace the F-111. USAF essentially wanted a fighter-bomber capable of deep air interdiction missions without fighter or jammer support. Something based on the F-16XL could clearly be a strong contender and so General Dynamics entered the fray, eventually losing out to the F-15E. The XL lost, as unlike the F-15E it varied a great deal from the aircraft it was based on and would likely have incurred greater development costs. The larger more powerful twin-engined aircraft was also seen as more survivable and future-proof.

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This 1990s Sukhoi study shares an, at least superficially, similar wing shape to the F-16XL.

The aircraft then went to work for NASA, exploring the use of holed laminar flow wings. The intention was to explore whether these laser-cut holes could suck turbulent airflow over the wing, restoring laminar flow.  Around this time the second XL, which was a two-seater, was re-engined with the monstrous -229. With this new engine it accidentally achieved supercruise (reaching and sustaining supersonic speed without recourse to afterburner) getting to Mach 1.1. After various research for NASA in support supersonic transport research, including sonic boom characteristics and engine noise,  the XLs ceased flying in 1999.

Unusual F-4 Phantom IIs here

Lockheed F-16U ‘The Delta Belter’ (1991)

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In the early 90s the United Arab Emirates was after a fighter with a long range and a large weapon load, capable of mounting attacks deep into Iran. General Dynamics, which had just been absorbed into Lockheed, came up with a strong concept – a delta F-16. A cranked ‘arrowhead’ delta wing had been tested on the F-16 already and had boosted fuel capacity by up to 82%. GD’s new delta F-16 would use a cropped wing design it had developed for the ATF effort that led to the F-22. The UAE was willing to pay for development on the condition that USAF purchased a wing’s worth of F-16Us. This was an offer USAF could not agree to as devotion to JSF (later F-35) was sacrosanct and the lower risk F-16U threatened to steal funding, and possibly the security of the whole JSF effort . Others were afraid of the F-16U too. Aerospace reporter Bill Sweetman noted that prominent members of the Eurofighter consortium believed the aircraft would have ‘killed’ the Typhoon. If it had been built it is likely the F-16U would have been an extremely capable aircraft  that would have dented the eurocanard’s global sales severely.

Hawker Siddeley P.1200 ‘Kingston Rudeboy’

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This isn’t really a F-16 but is worthy of inclusion in this list.

In the mid 1970s, the British company Hawker Siddeley developed a concept for a medium-weight fighter for the Royal Air Force strongly influenced by the US’ F-16. This series of ‘P.1200’ concepts came from the company’s Kingston division. Though considerably larger than the F-16, most of the P.1200 designs featured a similar air intake, canopy, leading edge root extensions and general wing configuration.

Strangely the P.1202 design was offered with either two RB.199s or a single RB.431. The RB.199 was then in development for the Tornado, but as experience would show with the ADV, it was not a suitable fighter engine; it was tailor-made for the low-level regime and was a poor performer at the medium and high altitudes that an air superiority fighter needs to operate in. The RB.431  study was essentially a Pegasus with reheat and no vectored thrust nozzles, though powerful it again seems an odd choice for a supersonic fighter.

The initial design, from November 1975,  featured a canard layout with square shoulder-mounted intakes, similar to the later Saab Gripen. Further designs utilised a conventional tail and dorsal intakes. Internal armament for the early P.1200 designs was two 27-mm Mauser cannon. Air-to-air armament was expected to be AIM-9 Sidewinders and SkyFlash medium-range missiles. In the secondary air-to-ground role it could have carried four bombs in a low-drag recess.

By 1977 the aircraft had become even more strongly influenced by the F-16. Both single and twin vertical fin configurations were tested. The twin-tailed P.1202 pictured above, would have had superior high alpha performance to the F-16, and given a suitable engine, would have made a formidable dogfighter.

 

Mitsubishi F-2  ‘Mamushi moshi’ (1995)

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Notably, the F-2 was probably the first operational fighter to carry an AESA radar. Note the distinctive clipped shape of the tailplane.

If Japan’s desire to keep its aerospace industrial base alive is an expensive vanity project, then a prime example is the F-2. It’s a pretty average F-16 in capability, yet costing around four times per unit! Still, with its fantastic paintjob the F-2 is the most attractive member of the Viper family. The US negotiated an exceptionally aggressive technology transfer agreement whereby the US benefits from any unique tech that Japan develops for the F-2. The F-2 has a larger wing than the F-16, more composites in the structure and a stronger (more conventionally braced) canopy. The wing, and indeed the F-2 itself, was based on the Agile Falcon, a proposed low cost complement to the ATF programme that led to the F-22.

Unusual F-4 Phantom IIs here

Whereas the Mitsubishi F-1 was essentially an unlicensed pirate copy of the Jaguar (an aircraft JASDF had assessed in detail), Mitsubishi did not dare the same approach with the US. One of the most expensive aircraft in the world, it is at least a real looker. It could also be argued that the F-2 kept the Japanese aerospace industry technologically relevant – something vital to Japan’s ambitious new fighter, the nascent F-3.

Lockheed Martin built 40% of the F-2. Comapred to a baseline F-16C, the F-2 has a larger nose, more internal fuel, greater wingspan and wing area, with two more hardpoints. It may be the only F-16 with 13 hardpoints, making an eight air-to-air missile load-out conceivable. It would appear to have the largest radar array of any F-16 variant — and Japan has recently upgraded their AESA.

F-16 VISTA MATV ‘Hasta la VISTA’ (1992)

The most manoeuvrable jet America ever produced was the F-16 Variable stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA) — a project started to investigate future fighter technologies that later went on to include a radical new control technology.  Fitted with an Axisymmetric Vectoring Exhaust Nozzle (AVEN) 3D-vectored thrust nozzle and a flight control system able to handle the extreme nature of post-stall supermaneuverability, the VISTA could fly in seemingly impossible ways.  The multi-axis thrust vectoring (MATV) engine nozzle made active control of the aircraft in a post-stall situation possible, with extremely dramatic results.

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The three best Western dogfighters ever flown. From left to right, F-18 HARVX-31, and F-16 MATV.  Much of the VISTA effort was primarily about replicating the control system and handling of other aircraft. It was converted for the MATV then presumably converted back — and used to test the F-22 and X-35 flight control software.

The aircraft has demonstrated a sustained angle of attack of 86 degrees, and a transient angle of attack of 180 degrees (meaning the aircraft could fly backwards). The degree to which thrust-vector control is tactically applicable remains hotly debatable, though it can allow for dramatic and unexpected last-ditch missile shots. The argument against TVC’s use in air combat points to the perilously low-levels of energy the post-stall aircraft suffers, the weight and complexity of the nozzle and the ability of modern fighters to cue high off-boresight missiles with a helmet or on- or off-board sensor. Essentially why move the whole aircraft a head movement or  sensor on another aircraft could tell the missile which portion of sky to target.

The VISTA also pioneered voice control (something already explored to some degree with the British EAP) and the virtual HUD, both of which would be used on the F-35 Lightning II. Today no Western fighters use 3D TVC, though the Russian Su-30, Su-35S and Su-57 do.

 

Mikoyan MiG-33/35 ‘F-16ski’ (1981)

Because it’s interesting, let’s  bend the rules again and include another aircraft that is not an F-16. 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.

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The Project 33 design, sometimes – and perhaps erroneously – referred to as the MiG-33 or MiG-35, featured a single Klimov RD-33/93 afterburning turbofan, two of which power the larger and more complex MiG-29. According to a 1988 report in Jane’s Defense Weekly, Project 33 was “seen as a complementary combat aircraft to the powerful MiG-29.” Where the MiG-29 boasts some multirole and beyond-visual-range capability, the Project 33 was a short-range, point-defence fighter. Here was a MiG-21 for the 1980s – an ideal fighter for friendly states on a budget.

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Mikoyan didn’t get very far with Project 33, as Soviet leadership apparently preferred to devote the USSR’s resources to more sophisticated aircraft. But Project 33’s DNA perhaps survives to some extent in the Chinese-made FC-1 export fighter.
Mikoyan reportedly sold the Project 33 design to China after it became clear there would be no Soviet market for the plane. China folded elements of Project 33 into the FC-1, which itself evolved from the joint U.S.-Chinese Super 7 light fighter, work on which collapsed following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In a weird sort of aerospace-design convergence, the Super 7 had also drawn inspiration from the F-16.
Powered by a single RD-33/39-powered FC-1, the FC-1 (also known as the JF-17) today is one of Pakistan’s most important fighters, serving alongside…you guessed it… F-16s.

– David Axe  War is Boring

Unusual F-4 Phantom IIs here

General Dynamics F-16 SFW (Swept Forward Wing) Windscreen Viper’ (1980)

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You can do anything with an F-16: Stick a delta wing on and you’ve got a long-range attack aircraft (F-16XL), change the landing gear you can make a decent naval fighter (V-1600). So why not make a forward swept wing demonstrator? In 1976, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded funds to General Dynamics, Rockwell and Grumman under the Forward-Swept Wing Program. The engineers at General Dynamics, of course, suggested fitting a FSW to their F-16. In 1981 DARPA decided to opt instead for the Grumman X-29 based on the F-5/F-20, a decision many said was due to the F-16s over -representation in upcoming DARPA test programmes. In the end the X-29A featured a load of F-16 components, including an adapted form of its fly-by-wire system.

Vought/General Dynamics 1600 series ‘Sea Viper’ (1973)

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The F-16 won the USAF Light Weight Fighter contest in the early 1970s, so it made sense – in terms of commonality and economy of scale – to suggest a version for the Navy. The Navy wanted a replacement for the F-4 and A-7 that was smaller and cheaper than the F-14 Tomcat. Having no carrier aircraft experience, General Dynamics teamed up with Vought to offer the 1600.

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It would have differed from the early F-16 in several ways, including a beefier undercarriage and the ability to use AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. The Navy decided against it in 1975, preferring the twin-engined F/A-18 (based on the Northrop F-18L) offered by McDonnell Douglas.

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11 best firefighting aircraft: a fundraiser for Australia

 

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The world is burning. Infernos rage across the globe, and Australia is still in the grip of fires of biblical proportions. Facing these firestorms is a motley force of aircraft, crewed by heroic and exceptionally skilled pilots. Converted World War II fighter-bombers, helicopters, custom-made flying boats and even massive airliners have been sent into on the ‘War on Fire’. Flying directly into these smouldering hell-scapes to extinguish the flames requires supreme flying skills and nerves of steel.  Here are ten of the best aerial firefighting aircraft. 

Donate generously here to Australian Red Cross to help the fire cause in Australia

Please note: donate in link in line above for fire cause, other donate button on this page is for the site itself. 

As Hush-Kit’s Ted Ward noted: “Whilst looking for fire-bomber stuff I have come to the conclusion that the US’s approach to fire control was insane. Essentially they just left the madly dangerous world of aerial firefighting to a bunch of cowboys who flew any old thing and gave the contract to the lowest bidder with inevitably fatal results.”

 

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Top marks for rarity: the F-15 (not that one) Reporter

“Have you checked out the death rate of firefighting pilots in the US? Anyway it all went tits up when that Hercules crashed in 2002, followed within two months by a Privateer operated by the same outfit. Incidentally, the Privateer’s wings apparently failed downwards due to metal fatigue causing the main spar to fail when the water was dropped. This led to possibly the only folk song I’m aware of about a civil plane crash:

 

“Massive maintenance oversights meant fixed-wing firefighting was stopped for a while until proper standards were put in place and that’s when most of the WWII stuff got sidelined, which is sort-of-good because otherwise those wankers would have crashed them all, but sort of bad because it was kind of exciting. Nonetheless 38(!) aircrew were killed between 2003 and 2012 (which is after standards were tightened), or 5% of active crews. Anyway, the upside of that is historically they converted anything they could get their hands on and there were some pretty ‘unconventional’ choices. I maintain that the sexiest of all the air tankers was the Tigercat. Pretty dangerous though – three crashed in 1973 alone, for example.”

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Least sexy, maybe the B-18 Bolo?

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Top marks for craziness: turboprop B-17

 

11. Grumman TBF Avenger ‘The Roast Turkey’ 

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Although the bigger aircraft like the B-17s and Catalinas garnered more fame, the portly Grumman Avenger was for a long time the most popular air tanker and formed the backbone of the US firefighting fleet throughout the 1960s and 70s. The Avenger was also used to systematically study the physics of freefall water-drops for firefighting in an effective and immensely influential 1954 study, imaginatively named ‘Operation Firestop’. Although firefighting by aircraft had been considered since the 1920s, attention had generally fixated on delivering water ‘bombs’ which did not work very well. All that changed when it was realised that dumping water ballast (used to simulate passenger load) from the prototype DC-7 saturated a wide area of runway, and the potential of freefall dropping a large amount of water was seriously considered for the first time. Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz and his Avenger were hired by the University of California’s School of Forestry to assess this potential new firefighting method. After trying a plywood water tank (which leaked) and dropping a weather balloon full of water from the Grumman, Mantz fitted a proper metal tank into the bomb bay of the Avenger and for Operation Firestop made many successful test drops at different heights and in different wind conditions, measured for dispersal, effectiveness, area covered and so on. The results were thoroughly collated and assessed and formed the basis for aerial firefighting techniques that are used to the present day. There was little delay before Operation Firestop saw practical results: Mantz himself made the first water drop by an Avenger against a genuine wildfire in 1958.

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This was followed up by thousands upon thousands more and the Grumman bomber became the true workhorse of aerial firefighting. Peak usage occurred in 1971 when a colossal 43 were engaged fighting fires. Largest operator was Forest Protection Ltd (FPL) of New Brunswick who operated 12. FPL was also destined to be the last user of the type, retiring its last Avenger on 26 July 2012. In service the Avenger was reliable, spares were plentiful, the bomb bay was roomy, and like all Grumman military aircraft, the TBF was exceptionally strong. This is of considerable importance when dealing with the often violently turbulent air around a major fire – several air tankers have suffered catastrophic structural failure over the years but the Avenger never gave cause for concern. Compared to the very few aircraft that preceded it (mostly Stearman biplanes), it carried a far more meaningful payload, usually about 625 US gallons, and it was relatively fast compared to such alternatives as the lumbering PBY Catalina.
Eventually, like the other warbird-derived tankers, the Avenger became uneconomical to operate and other aircraft were either cheaper, faster, could carry more water or a combination of all three. Nonetheless the sturdy TBF Avenger had made its mark, giving yeoman service for decades and laying the foundations of effective aerial firefighting that could be built on by newer, more potent aircraft.

Ted Ward, Artist

10. BAe 146‘The Whispering Firefighter’ 

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Famed as the last ever all-British jet airliner and also blessed with more nicknames (‘Four hairdryers in close formation’ ) than ANY other aeroplane – the BAe 146/Avro RJ passenger jet has now entered a second life as an airborne firefighter. One of the original regional jet generation, the 70-110 seat ‘Baby Jumbo’ was first introduced into service in 1983 before production finally ceased in 2002. Nearly 400 were produced – making it the most successful all-British jet airliner ever built. However, due to a mix-up in the design office when a blueprint was photocopied twice, the 146 ended up having double the number of engines as its regional competitors – making it increasingly difficult to market to airlines as time went on. Overtaken by newer twinjets from Bombardier and Brazilian upstart Embraer, the ‘Jumbolino’ has soldiered on in service thanks to its quietness and its ability to get in and out of airports with restricted terrain or buildings nearby – such as London City. Cargo conversions have also been popular.

Manufacturer BAE Systems, acutely aware that the type’s passenger airliner career was coming to an end, had throughout the 2000s been promoting spin-off conversions for the quad-jet – including military transports, aerial refuelling tankers and VVIP corporate jets with custom interiors or even luxury ‘safari’ style built-in awnings for the extremely well-heeled. All of these came to naught – but one area where the aircraft has seen success has been in conversion to the aerial water-bomber role. After tragic accidents in 2002 involving a C-130A and Catalina which broke-up in flight, the US Forest Service (USFS) set out to modernise the aerial water-bomber fleet with newer, jet-powered firefighting aircraft. Flight tests with the 146 were conducted in 2004, where the type’s slow-speed handling and steep approach made it a perfect fit for the water-bomber mission. With support from BAE Systems for the conversion, a wraparound belly tank can be fitted, giving a capacity of 3,000 gallons of water/fire retardant. As well as the type’s legendary steep approach capability, it is dirt cheap to acquire and there are plenty of airframes as feedstock available for conversion. Meanwhile, the type’s four engines (‘4 oil leaks connected by an electrical fault’ being another nickname) – a maintenance nightmare for commercial airlines – turns out to be a welcome safety feature for aerial firefighting role, where pilots will fly dangerous low-level water attack runs in minimum visibility over hills and even mountains.

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So far now there are 14 146/RJs in service in the US with Canadian-headquartered Conair and Neptune Aviation – with more aircraft reportedly being converted by another operator Air Spray. As well as firefighting missions in the US, 146 water-bombers have flown firefighting missions in Chile and most recently Australia – where Conair water-bombers have joined over 60 fixed-wing and 45 rotary-wing aerial firefighting aircraft in an effort to stem the extreme wildfires.

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The butt of many an aviation joke (‘Smurf Jet’, ‘Fisher Price Starlifter’) around crewrooms and pilot bars the world over, the hard-working BAe 146/RJ is set to have the last laugh in its twilight years with a critical aerial firefighting mission – one that will only increase in importance if the current wildfires are anything to go by. A fitting finale for the Baby Jumbo from Hatfield.

By Tim Robinson, Editor in Chief of AEROSPACE – the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

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9. Beriev Be-200 ‘T-tailed Taganrog Turbine’ 

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The Be-200 can carry a maximum payload of about 12,000 litres (3,200 US gal) of water, making “scoops” in suitable stretches of water in 14 seconds.

Jet seaplanes are among the most exotic types of aircraft, with only a handful of designs ever having entered actual service. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can name them all from memory: the Beriev Be-10 and Beriev Be-200 – wait, I think that’s it… only two? That’s even rarer than I first thought. Despite a first flight in 1998, so far only 15 of these sexy amphibians have been built. The first operational use of the Be-200 was in 2004, when a Be-200ES was operated from Sardinia by SOREM, the official operator of firefighting equipment of Italian Civil Defence Department.

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The aircraft, flown by a joint Russian-Italian flight crew, performed more than 100 flights – the aircraft dropped 324 tons of water while attacking four forest fires. In 2005, the partnership was renewed, this time the Russian aircraft delivered a total mass of over 3,175 tonnes (3,500 tons). Since then the aircraft has fought fires around the world, in Azerbaijan (the only export operator), Israel, Portugal, Greece, Serbia and Russia.

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8. de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver ‘Beaver patrol’

 

The endearing de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver is the imperishable aviation product of Canada’s busy twentieth century. Equipped with two external rotary drums, the Beaver Mk III was a pioneer of aerial firefighting too. Later models would capture water in their floats and in Ontario they had ‘bomb racks’ for dropping supplies to firefighters on the ground.

Before the Grumman Avengers, bucket-slinging helicopters and retired Cold War types and before the brush-drenching rockstar the Canadair CL-215, the Beaver was fighting fires. If low, slow and noisy flying is the most enjoyable kind – just ask Harrison Ford – the Beaver is without equal in several niches and firefighting came naturally to the type. Unlike the hulking Boeing 747s now slathering this overheated world with water and chemicals in amounts as much as eighteen thousand gallons at a time, the stupefyingly utilitarian little Beaver (coincidently my nickname in school) seems to have been simply born in the right place at the right time for aerial firefighting.

Operating out over Canada’s profitable forests without much public attention, they were also a staple of Toronto’s waterfront Labour Day air show right through to the late 1970s. In front of Canada’s largest city, they did low-altitude water drops onto demonstration fires to the pure 1940s sound of their Pratt & Whitney Wasps. Bright yellow, to contrast the deep green and blue of Ontario in summer and her winter white, that province’s Ministry of Natural Resources Beavers were the visual opposite of the expensive and lethal jets whose afterburners blast them to high altitude invisibility in seconds. The Canadian embrace of nature as a thing to cherish and protect whilst brutally exploiting it led to the DHC-2. The rugged glamour of bush flying was bound to blend almost immediately with water bombing.

With just ninety gallons in those open-topped cable-actuated tanks, the Beaver proved the principle of rapid, concentrated air attack on fires before they get out of hand. The Beaver might do little against fires at the scale we’ve seen them this century in California, Siberia and now Australia. Yet, it’s also hard to imagine having aerial firefighting at all without them.

A place in our hearts for the Beaver? Always!

— Stephen Caulfield 

Stephen Caulfield cleans limousines around the corner from what was once the Avro Canada plant. He appreciates writing, art, aeroplanes and the tragic nature of modernity in pretty much equal parts these days. His blog is www.suburban-poverty.com

7.  Air Tractor Fire Boss ‘Sex Tractor Fan’ 11-5-6W169 (1).jpg

Designed as a tough-as-hell crop-spraying aircraft, the Air Tractor took on the role of firefighting with aplomb. In addition to the 820 US gallon standard fuselage-mounted retardant tank, the Fire Boss can have optional 35 US gallons foam tanks when fitted with floats. When equipped with amphibious floats, the AT-802F becomes the Fire Boss Scooper Air Tanker, able to land on and scoop water from lakes, rivers or reservoirs. From a local water source, then Fire Boss can deliver up to 14,000 gallons per hour for “extended attack or ground support”, according to Air Tractor, noting that “an unimproved runway or water-side ramp and fuel are all it needs to be a highly cost-effective forward attack air tanker”. The Fire Boss can be considered the A-10 of the firefighting world: cheap to operate, able to withstand extremely dangerous conditions and return again and again right where the enemy doesn’t want it.

 

6. Douglas DC-10 ‘The Size Queen’

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Take an airliner with a maximum weight of half a million pounds and turn it into a hotrod flying fire engine (or ‘firetruck’ to our American friends). One drop from the DC-10 is equivalent to 12 from a Grumman S-2 Tracker. Dropping 12,000 US gallons of anything onto a fire is going to have a big effect. A beast.

5. Lockheed C-130 Hercules (with MAFFS kit)You do the Maffs’

The C-130 is the Dame Judi Dench of aviation: much-loved and able to excel in every role it’s given. That the C-130 Hercules’ origins as a tactical transport able to operate in austere conditions give it the benign low-altitude slow-speed performance required for ‘low down and dirty’ firefighting.

To be effective, aerial firefighting aircraft must operate at very low altitudes and slow speeds, often over rugged terrain in reduced visibility due to smoke. This creates a very high risk environment for any aircraft.

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4 . Evergreen 747 Supertanker ‘Jumbo on a gap year’

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The largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world is also one of the largest aircraft in the world full stop. It is somewhat bizarre that the much-loved 747, famously known as an airliner, should take on such a gritty harsh role, but it has — and it brings a lot to the party – 18,600 US gallons to be precise. Developed by Evergreen International Aviation in Oregon, the first operational Supertanker was based on a 747-100 manufactured in 1971 for Delta Air LinesIt entered service in 2009, fighting a fire in Cuenca, Spain. Its first American operation was August 31, 2009 at the Oak Glen Fire in California. It has since been retired. The other operational 747 Supertanker was converted by Global Supertanker Services (which had acquired most of Evergreen’s assets). The Global Supertanker is a Boeing 747-400 named the ‘Spirit of John Muir’ (a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and pioneering advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the USA). It was certified for firefighting flights in September 2016 and has since travelled the world fighting fires in Chile, Israel, California wildfires in 2017. In August 2019 it fought forest fires in Bolivia.

 

3. Sikorsky/Erickson S-64 Aircrane ‘Aircrane in the membrane’ 

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Images: Erickson 

Variously compared to a giant grasshopper, a stick insect or a dragonfly, the Aircrane is in increasing demand around the world as a serious ‘go-to’ solution for fighting forest fires – particularly when these are threatening built-up areas.
From California to the Mediterranean and down to Australia, the Aircrane is in year-round demand worldwide. The somewhat extreme appearance of the Aircrane is a classic case of form following function. The aircraft has to lift the maximum load possible from the hover, requiring an efficient rotor (of large diameter and significant blade twist) and a lightweight and robust structure. In this case, the structure is essentially reduced to a series of box beams.

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Speed is unimportant, so the engines and gearbox are essentially uncowled, saving weight and cost and providing maximum ease of access for maintenance and inspection – tasks that may well be carried out under very basic conditions. Less obviously, the gearbox and rotor shaft are tilted three degrees to the left, cancelling the side thrust of the tail rotor, so that the aircraft hovers with the cockpit level when picking up cargo (or water, in the case of firefighting operations).

Donate generously here to Australian Red Cross to help the fire cause in Australia

The aircraft has a characteristic forward crew pod that, critically, provides all-round vision for the crew. It is designed around up to five crew. The upper cabin contains a forward-facing cockpit for pilot and co-pilot. While the lower rearward facing cockpit has an additional pilot station facing the slung load (or water pick-up and delivery system) and two further seats for mechanics. The provision of the mechanic seats reflects the likelihood that the aircraft may operate in remote locations for extended periods.
The Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane started life as a load carrier for the US Army. After the piston-powered Sikorsky S-60, the company invested in three private venture prototypes of the turbine-powered Sikorsky S-64A. Evaluation of four YCH-54As by the US Army (and two in Germany) led to production of 54 CH-54As (Sikorsky designation S-64E) for the US Army, followed by 35 CH-54Bs (S-64F). Sikorsky sold seven S-64E aircraft for civil use.
In 1992, Sikorsky sold the Skycrane Type Certificate to Erickson Air Crane Inc. This included all manufacturing and support rights for both the S-64E, with a 20,000lb payload, and the S-64F, with 25,000lb payload. At light weights, the S-64F has high power reserves, reflected in it gaining a number of helicopter time-to-height records and a record for sustained flight at an altitude of 36,122ft. Erickson has built-up 35 Aircranes since purchasing the Type Certificate. These are created by the conversion of ex-US Army machines, which are stripped down and rebuilt in three modules: the cockpit, central fuselage, and a new-build tail boom.

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Erickson says that almost a third of the Aircrane fleet is occupied year-round on long-term firefighting contracts, cycling between the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons in Greece, Italy, Turkey and Australia. Erickson operate a fleet of 20 Aircranes.
The Erickson S-64F is fitted with a 2,650-gallon water tank. Its ram scoop hydrofoil attachment refills from freshwater or saltwater sources in as little as 30 seconds and the original ‘hover snorkel’ (my nickname in school) design refills within 45 seconds from freshwater sources as shallow as 18 inches.

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One of Erickson’s important customers is the Korean Forest Service, which is acquiring a fleet of eight Erickson-built S-64Es. As part of Erickson’s continuing development of the type, the latest build standard includes firefighting tanks, sea snorkel, foam cannon, glass cockpit, composite main rotor blades and full night-vision compatibility.

Erickson acquired the Type Certificate for the 4,800hp JTD12A-5A from Pratt & Whitney in 2013, allowing it to develop further enhanced support capabilities for S-64 operators.

Ron Smith, Former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters and Author of  Two Up

 

2. Martin JRM Mars ‘Mars attacks’ 

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If an aircraft’s success is measured solely by longevity of service then the Martin Mars ranks as one of the greatest aircraft ever to fly. Conceived as a maritime patrol aircraft and first flying in June 1942, JRM Mars remains potentially operational as of 2020. Regarded as obsolescent in its designed role, the US Navy decided to operate this massive aircraft as a transport aircraft and although the end of the war meant only the prototype and six production aircraft were ever built, the Mars was used extensively -– in the process setting a passenger-carrying record in 1949 by carrying 269 people from San Diego to Alameda, California. After about a decade, the remaining examples were retired in 1956, and there the story would have ended were it not for Forest Industries Flying Tankers, a consortium of British Columbian forestry companies, which bought all four Mars survivors in 1959. Converted for the firefighting role by Fairey Aviation, the Mars was by a considerable margin the largest air tanker in the world. In the 1960s and 70s, PBY Catalinas were the most common flying-boat air tankers and could carry 1,000 US gallons of water or retardant. By contrast, the Mars carried the awe-inspiring load of 7200 US gallons. Like the Catalina, the Mars was equipped with scoops to allow it to refill its tanks from any sufficiently large body of water whilst skimming the surface, the full 7200 gallons (30 tons) being taken on in 22 seconds. The sheer size of the aircraft and its huge capacity proved its worth in service. Most air drops are conducted in the path of a fire to contain it, and the Mars could cover three to four acres in a single drop, and then continue picking up and dropping more water for as long as the fuel lasted. Normal duration of operations was around five and a half hours, potentially dropping hundreds of tons of water and retardant into the path of a wildfire.

Of the four JRMs to enter firefighting service, Marianas Mars was lost in a fatal crash in 1961, Caroline Mars was written off when it broke free from its moorings during Typhoon Freda in 1962, but Philippine Mars and Hawaii Mars II served constantly until 2006 when Philippine Mars was withdrawn (it remains stored in an airworthy condition). Hawaii Mars II last fought a fire in 2015 and was offered for sale or lease in 2016, however, no buyer was found. The aircraft remains in the ownership of Coulson Aviation, who applied a great deal of effort modernising the Mars in the early 2000s with a glass cockpit, updated safety standards and various drop aids and equipment. At present the aircraft is being advertised for familiarisation purposes to aspiring Mars pilots, though the $25,000 per person for a two-day course with an hour’s flying time might discourage the less wealthy flying-boat enthusiast. However, Coulson still lists the Mars as part of their active firefighting fleet along with their more prosaic C-130s and 737s and it is quite possible that this, the greatest of the Second World War vintage firefighters, could yet see action again.

1. Bombardier 215 and Viking 415 ‘Fire Berserkers!’

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The best aerial firefighter is the only one that was built for the job – the heroic ’15 series. It was the first and only aircraft created to do the job and Canadair certainly delivered. The ’15s are tough, reliable amphibious flying-boats that can go anywhere and kill fires with aplomb. It started life with the two of the mighty R-2800 radials – the engine of the wartime Thunderbolt and Corsair – giving it well over 4,000 horsepower. Today, turboprops give it close to 5,000 horsepower, and a wealth of modern avionics adept at both detecting and suppressing forest fires. 

According to the Spanish association for the promotion of sociocultural activities (a group as averse to hyperbole as their drab name suggests), “This is the most efficient tool for the aerial combat of forest fires, key to the organisation of firefighting in a large number of countries. The continuous improvements to meet the needs of forest firefighting have made these aircraft the aerial means most in demand over more than 30 years.”

 

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ShinMaywa US-2

Any excuse to include the coolest aircraft in production

Douglas DC-6/7

Some used in France and the US.

Alenia C-27J Spartan

Love the Spartan, love that they’re giving it a waterbomber option. To be seen in the sky above Transylvania soon in Romanian air force service.

Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey

“Why? Because it’s badass, fitted with PCADS or Bambi, this VTOL type has the ability fly like a helicopter or a plane. It can hover and drop or airdrop like an air tanker. The V-22 can provide a rapid direct attack asset that can pre-position firefighters to remote or hard-to-access areas, deliver, set up filling stations and operate out of a Fire FOB (Forward Operating Base) until reinforcements can join up. Having highly trained crews flying fire missions is the name of the game. Rapid Insertion and Direct Attack, take the fight to the fire…” Not in service yet, but still impressive idea. 

Ty Bonnar, Saint Industries 

Grumman S-2 Trackers/Turbo Firecat

Should have made top ten, but space didn’t allow- worthy.

Consolidated PBY Catalina

Again, worthy.

Mi-8/Mi-24 and many helicopters 

Too many to mention.

Douglas A-26 Invader 

Just because.

Boeing 737

Currently doing its bit in Australia.

 

 

The best single-seat fighters of 1945: European Theatre World War II

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Technology was advancing rapidly towards the end of the war with the most powerful piston-engined types the world had ever seen fighting alongside or against the first jet aircraft. But how did they compare?

(The following is from Spitfires over Berlin by Dan Sharp)
There were around 20 high performance fighter types at least nominally in service in Europe* when the war there came to an end. Each had its strengths and weaknesses – a higher top speed, a better rate of climb or simply being quicker in a turn, but it is worth bearing in mind that even the best aircraft in the hands of a novice was usually a poor match for a lesser machine in the hands of an experienced ace.
The ‘official’ statistics available for each machine have been endlessly scrutinised in the decades since the war’s end and some of the figures, for example for top speed, were achieved only under special conditions – with particular equipment fitted and at a particular altitude. The fastest Messerschmitt Bf 109, the K-4, for example, has an ‘official’ top speed of 440mph, but this could only be managed with methanol-water injection (MW-50) to allow increased boost pressure in its DB 605 DB or DC engine, and then only for a maximum of 10 minutes. It also required a broad-bladed 3m diameter VDM 9-12159A propeller and even then the 440mph was only achievable at 24,600ft.
Without MW-50, the Bf 109 K-4’s best performance was 416mph, at 26,528ft. These figures also relate to well-built aircraft running high octane fuel in engines allowed to run at full power. De-rating engines had been a common practice in the Luftwaffe, to reduce maintenance time, since the beginning of 1944. Fuel shortages meant there was no opportunity to thoroughly test engines and aircraft before they were accepted into service either. And by the end of the war, many if not all of Germany’s aircraft manufacturers were relying on slave labour to produce components and assemble the finished product. Sabotage and shoddy workmanship were routine – a situation that worsened as the end of the war approached. Hans Knickrehm of I./JG 3 wrote about the new Bf 109 G-14/AS aircraft received by his group from the manufacturer in October 1944: “The engines proved prone to trouble after much too short a time because the factories had had to sharply curtail test runs for lack of fuel.
“The surface finish of the outer skin also left much to be desired. The sprayed-on camouflage finish was rough and uneven. The result was a further reduction in speed. We often discovered clear cases of sabotage during our acceptance checks. Cables or wires were not secured, were improperly attached, scratched or had even been visibly cut.” These issues were typical of many new aircraft being delivered to German front line units. The available statistics for the aircraft examined here, regardless of their origin, do not include measurements for some of the most important aspects of performance either – such as manoeuvrability, rate of turn, rate of roll or dive speed. For these, anecdotal evidence must suffice.
In addition, several of these aircraft were only available in tiny numbers and so were unable to make any real impact on the outcome of the war – such as the Heinkel He 162 and Focke-Wulf Ta 152. Some types, such as the Me 163 Komet, were of greater value for the fear they instilled in Allied bomber crews and Allied intelligence than for the pitifully small number of aircraft they were actually responsible for shooting down.
Had they been urgently needed, jets such as the Gloster Meteor F.3 and Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star could have been rushed to the front line and brought into action far sooner – hence their inclusion here. Similarly, the Bell P-63 Kingcobra was delivered to the French too late to see combat and was supposedly only used on the Western Front in small numbers by the Soviets. It was available in 1945, however, and did see combat against Luftwaffe types.

The ultimate piston-engined fighters here.

*Note: this article is about aircraft in the European Theatre of World War II in 1945
The aim here is simply to provide a statistical comparison between the most powerful and advanced aircraft available in Europe. Five British types have been chosen for inclusion – the Supermarine Spitfire LF.IX, the Spitfire Mk.XIV, the Hawker TyphoonMk.1b, the Hawker Tempest V and the Gloster Meteor F.3. The four American types are the North American P-51D Mustang, the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, the Lockheed P-38L Lightning and the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star.
The four Soviet types are the Lavochkin La-7, the Yakovlev Yak-3, the Yak-9U and the Bell P-63A Kingcobra – an American fighter but initially flown almost exclusively by the Russians. Finally, seven German machines are included: the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-9, the Ta 152 H-1, the Fw 190 D-9, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 K-4, the Me 262 A-1, the Me 163 B-1 and the Heinkel He 162 A-2.
Some contemporary types, such as the Bell Airacomet, are omitted because they were never considered for front line duties, and others, such as the Hawker Tempest II and de Havilland Vampire, have been left out because they were simply not yet ready for action.

 

Supermarine Spitfire LF.IX

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Later production models of the Spitfire LF IX were fitted with the pointed tail fin that was also a feature of the Spitfire XVI. Production of the Mk.IX continued until the end of the war and it was the most numerous type of Spitfire built.

The Merlin 66-engined Spitfire LF.IX was the workhorse of the RAF’s fighter squadrons from its introduction in 1943 through to the end of the war. The original Mk.IX had been introduced as early as mid-1942.
Compared against a captured Bf 109 G-6/U2 with GM-1 nitrous oxide injection by the Central Fighter Establishment in late 1944, the LF.IX was found to be superior in every respect except acceleration in a dive. Manoeuvrability was found to be “greatly superior” and it was noted that the LF.IX “easily out-turns the Bf 109 in either direction at all speeds”. By 1945, the LF.IX was beginning to show its age. Figures given for its top speed vary but it was undoubtedly among the slowest of the 20 aircraft being assessed here in a straight line. It could out-climb and fly higher than most of its opponents, however, even out-performing many of the most advanced German types.

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Flying Officer George Lents of 341 Squadron pictured in front of his Spitfire LF.IX in Sussex, June 1944. By 1945, the Spitfire IX had been completely outclassed in straight line speed by newer types, but it could still climb faster and manoeuvre better than many of its opponents.

There were few to rival it for manoeuvrability either, making it worthy of inclusion here, and explaining why it remained on the front line for so long even when more ‘advanced’ types were becoming available to replace it.

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A line-up of Spitfire LF IXs at an advanced landing ground on the Continent in late 1944.

Supermarine Spitfire Mark XIV

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The Spitfire XIV sacrificed some manoeuvrability for raw speed but was still capable of out-turning and out-climbing almost any opponent.

Combining the Spitfire Mk.VIII airframe with a two-speed, two-stage supercharged 2220hp Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 engine resulted in the Mk.XIV. Introduced in 1943, in appearance it was similar to the Spitfire XII with normal wings but with a five-bladed propeller. The rudder was also enlarged and an extra internal fuel tank was fitted.
The huge increase in power meant the XIV was a match for most of its piston-engined contemporaries, the only exception being the Ta 152, and the two are believed never to have met in combat. Its range was short and its manoeuvrability was inferior to that of the Spitfire LF.IX, but nevertheless the XIV was one of the best fighters of the war’s final months.
Flight Lieutenant Ian Ponsford, who shot down seven enemy aircraft while flying a Spitfire Mk.XIV with 130 Squadron, remembered: “The Spitfire XIV was the most marvellous aeroplane at that time and I consider it to have been the best operational fighter of them all as it could out-climb virtually anything.”

“The earlier Merlin-Spitfire may have had a slight edge when it came to turning performance, but the Mark XIV was certainly better in this respect than the opposition we were faced with. The only thing it couldn’t do was keep up with the Fw 190 D in a dive.

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“It could be a bit tricky on takeoff if one opened the throttle too quickly as you just couldn’t hold it straight because the torque was so great from the enormous power developed from the Griffon engine.
“One big advantage that we had over the Germans was that we ran our aircraft on advanced fuels which gave us more power. The 150 octane fuel that we used was strange looking stuff as it was bright green and had an awful smell – it had to be heavily leaded to cope with the extra compression of the engine.”
During the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, Israeli pilots flew both Mk. IX and Mk. XIV Spitfires bought from Czechoslovakia against Egyptian Spitfires and concluded that the IX was better due to its superior manoeuvrability.

 

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Sporting a large five-bladed propeller, the Spitfire XIV was tricky on takeoff due to the enormous torque produced by its Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 engine.

 

Hawker Typhoon Mk.1b

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It was uncomfortable to fly but the Typhoon was agile at low level despite being a large aircraft and could carry a heavy weapons load, making it particularly useful as a fighter-bomber.

The history of the Typhoon is too long and troubled to detail in full here, suffice to say that it was a failure in the high-altitude interceptor role for which it was designed. Although it was the RAF’s first fighter capable of more than 400mph, climbing speed was regarded as inadequate and a series of structural failures in the fuselage caused significant delays in its production.
Having entered service in 1941, it is one of the oldest of the 20 aircraft examined here and was beginning to struggle against more advanced competition by 1945. Pilots had to wear an oxygen mask from the moment the engine was switched on due to heavy carbon monoxide contamination in the cockpit, and the level of noise and vibration made life at its controls doubly uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, as history shows, it proved to be a deadly fighter-bomber when armed with rockets or bombs, and many Fw 190 pilots were unpleasantly surprised to discover that despite its size and weight – being one of the largest and heaviest single-engined aircraft here – it had a very short radius of turn and rolled well.
It could also carry a heavy load with relative ease, which meant it could be fitted with four powerful 20mm Hispano Mk II cannon – a weapon originally designed as an anti-aircraft gun – in addition to its bombs/rockets.

 

Typhoon 2

Typhoon MN686 was one of Hawker’s development machines, photographed here in late 1944. The Typhoon was fast but poor in a climb.

Hawker Tempest V

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Hawker Tempest Vs from 501 Squadron pictured 1944. The Tempest V had a quartet of 20mm cannon, giving it a deadly punch, and at low level was capable of overmatching even the Luftwaffe’s finest fighters.

Big, heavy and fast, this thin-wing upgrade of the Typhoon design was undoubtedly one of the best fighters of the Second World War and at low altitudes could give either of the two Spitfires detailed here a run for its money.
It had the same Napier Sabre IIA engine as the Typhoon but range was extended by moving the engine forward 21in to make room for a 76 gallon fuel tank. Tail surfaces were enlarged and a four-bladed propeller was fitted. While the first 100 built had the Typhoon’s four Hispano Mk II cannon, the Series II Tempest V got the Hispano Mk V cannon – the weapon’s ultimate wartime development. The first Tempests reached squadrons in January 1944 and they were initially used to combat Fieseler Fi 103 V-1 flying bombs. When they were moved on to the Continent, it quickly became clear that below about 8000ft the Tempest dramatically outperformed the very best aircraft that the Luftwaffe could throw at it – such as the Fw 190 D-9 and the Bf 109 K-4. Tempest pilots were also responsible for shooting down a number of Me 262s.
According to Hubert Lange, a pilot who flew 15 missions in Me 262s with JG 51, the Hawker Tempest was the German jet’s most dangerous opponent, “extremely fast at low altitudes, highly manoeuvrable and heavily armed”.

 

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Similar to the Typhoon, the Tempest’s redesigned wing and enlarged tail were big improvements. These 486 Squadron Tempests are pictured at Lübeck shortly after the war’s end.

 

Gloster Meteor F.3

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The first Gloster Meteors on the Continent during 1945 were painted white to avoid ‘friendly’ fire. The jet’s handling was described as pleasant but it suffered from directional snaking, particularly in poor weather.

Powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Derwent I jets with a static thrust of 2000lb each, the Meteor F.3 began to enter service in early 1945. Deliveries of its predecessor, the F.1, had begun in June 1944.
While the first Meteors were actually slower than the fastest piston-engined fighters then available, such as the Spitfire XIV, the F.3 offered much higher performance.
It was field tested from bases in Belgium with 616 and 504 Squadrons during the last weeks of the war primarily in the fighter reconnaissance and ground-attack roles. It never met the Me 262 in aerial combat but some were shot down by Allied flak due to their superficial resemblance to the German machine.
As a result, Meteors were given an all-white paint scheme to make them more easily recognisable to friendly units.
Like all in-service jets in 1945, the Meteor was at the cutting edge of performance, and in good weather handling was described as “pleasant”, but the F.3 suffered from ‘snaking’ – directional instability – which made it more difficult to target an aerial opponent effectively. A report from the Central Fighter Establishment noted: “The failure of the Meteor to come within an acceptable standard is due to the directional snaking which occurs in operational conditions of flight so far experienced and the heaviness and consequently slow operation of the ailerons to bring the sight back on to the target.
“This snaking tends to increase with increase of speed and once it has commenced it is impossible to correct it within the limits of time available during an attack.”
Whether this would have proved to be a fatal flaw in actual combat or merely an annoyance to the type’s pilots will never be known.
It says a lot about the fortunes of Britain in the war and the role of the Meteor that a large section of the CFE report is devoted to how difficult it would be to fly in formation. It is impossible to imagine the Germans, desperate to rush their jets into action, bothering to do the same for the Me 262.

 

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A Meteor in flight. The type was Britain’s first operational jet fighter and while its performance on paper was not dramatically dissimilar to that of the Me 262, the Meteor’s handling was probably inferior.

North American P-51D Mustang

 

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Beloved of its pilots, the P-51D was an excellent air superiority fighter, though it was poorly armoured and could be a handful at low level. This is serial number 44-14955 ‘Dopey Okie’ of the 487th Fighter Squadron, part of the 352nd Fighter Group.

Flown in huge numbers while escorting American bombers, the Mustang is widely accepted as having been the USAAF’s most successful air superiority and escort fighter.
In P-51D form its performance was excellent at high altitude. Powered by a Packard-built version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and featuring a bubble canopy, it boasted a good though not sparkling rate of climb and exceptional visibility.
It retained a good measure of agility even above 400mph and was a very stable aircraft with few vices to punish the inattentive. At low altitude and in low speed encounters with enemy aircraft however, its large turn radius became a real disadvantage.
In addition, as a high performance long-range escort, it was lightly built and poorly armoured – rendering it vulnerable to even slight battle damage. Many American pilots using the Mustang for strafing ground targets found that even a light flak hit could be fatal.
In high speed, high altitude encounters, the Mustang was able to reach its full potential and there was little to match it in this, its own stomping ground – as Fw 190 and even Me 262 pilots discovered.

 

North American P-51 Mustang

North American P-51D-5-NA Mustang serial 44-13926 serving with the 375th Fighter Squadron. The famous ‘Cadillac of the sky’ was America’s best regarded fighter of the war. It was capable of flying huge distances and performed exceptionally well at high to medium altitude.

 

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

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P-47D-30 Thunderbolt 44-32760 ‘Shorty Miriam’ of the 354th Fighter Group. The Thunderbolt was a huge, powerful fighter and in the right circumstances could beat the Messerschmitt Me 262. It gave continual mechanical problems, however, and was less able than the P-51D.

Faster and higher flying than even a Mustang, the P-47D Thunderbolt was a big, heavy aircraft – the Tempest to the Mustang’s Spitfire. As such, it could also soak up more battle damage and could carry a heavier weapons load too.
On paper, the Thunderbolt seemed to have the edge over the Mustang, but pilots told a different story. The Mustang was simply more agile – it handled better and was easier to fly well. Against German fighters, the Thunderbolt seems to have been just as effective at all altitudes. In the end, the Thunderbolt lost out simply because fewer were used in situations where they were likely to enter aerial combat with German fighters.
One source gives the total number of enemy aircraft shot down by the P-47 as 3662 compared to the P-51’s 5944. General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland’s Me 262 was shot down by a P-47 Thunderbolt though, not a P-51.
Against the Spitfire XIV, neither the P-47 nor the P-51 could be said to have had a clear advantage. Both were slower, less manoeuvrable at all altitudes and less able to climb at speed – but they had the capacity to keep up with high-flying B-17s and B-24s long after a Spitfire XIV would’ve had to turn for home.

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Like the Hawker Typhoon, the P-47 achieved great success as a fighter-bomber, though it was also a superb fighter. Pictured here is P-47D-25 42-26641 ‘Hairless Joe’ of the 56th Fighter Group.

Lockheed P-38L Lightning

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The P-38L was used by fighter squadrons of the 1st Fighter Group in Europe. Pilot 2nd Lieutenant Jim Hunt of the 27th Fighter Squadron sits atop P-38L ‘Maloney’s Pony’. The aircraft was never flown by its namesake, 1st Lieutenant Thomas Maloney, because on August 19, 1944, his P-38 (a different one) was forced down on the French coast. While walking along the beach to find help, he trod on a landmine and was badly injured – spending the next three and a half years in and out of hospital.

The oldest of the three piston-engined American fighters featured here, the P-38, had matured by 1945 and had been available in its definitive P-38L form since June 1944.
Its twin engines made it heavy and gave it a very broad wingspan, but since these were set back from the cockpit they also allowed the pilot an excellent view in all directions.
It wasn’t astonishingly fast in a straight line but the Lightning had an exceptional rate of climb. And its counter-rotating propellers meant there was no torque effect in flight and enabled the Lightning to turn equally well to the left or the right. In addition, it had cutting edge features such as power boosted ailerons and electrically operated dive flaps.
However, the Lightning was complicated and pilots had to manage twice the number of engine controls while watching twice the number of gauges. Also it’s armament, while a good average for a late war fighter, was not exceptionally heavy.
It therefore must come last when compared against its American contemporaries.

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A Lockheed P-38L Lightning in flight. Thanks to its powerful twin engines, the ‘L’ could climb at an incredible rate and it boasted cutting edge technology – but it was behind the P-51 and P-47 in manoeuvrability.

 

Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star

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Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star 44-85004 in flight. The production P-80A was fitted with wingtip fuel tanks which extended its range but resulted in performance-sapping drag.

Just two pre-production YP-80A Shooting Stars saw active service during the Second World War, operating briefly from Lesina airfield in Italy with the 1st Fighter Group. Another two were stationed at RAF Burtonwood in Cheshire for demonstration and test flying.
Powered by a single General Electric J-33-GE-9 jet engine mounted centrally in its fuselage, the Shooting Star was aerodynamically clean and was therefore able to reach an impressive 536mph in level flight at 5000ft – though only when fully painted and without wingtip fuel tanks. In natural metal finish and with those range extending tanks, performance tests carried out by the USAAF’s Flight Test Division showed top speed to be just over 500mph – placing it behind all of its jet-powered contemporaries. Many postwar comparisons of wartime jets have been overly favourable towards the P-80 and tend to take their figures from later, improved versions. The aircraft available during the last four months of the war was somewhat less impressive. Without wingtip tanks, its range was that expected of a short-distance high-speed interceptor – 540 miles – yet with them its range improved but its best rate of climb was down to just 3300ft/min. Armament was six .50 calibre machine guns – the same as that of a Mustang – but these were concentrated in the nose, giving it a more effective fire pattern.

 

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The faster of the two XP-80A Shooting Star prototypes, 44-83021 ‘Gray Ghost’. While this aircraft was given an all-over pearl grey paint job, the other XP-80A, ‘Silver Ghost’, was left in bare metal finish for comparative tests. These showed that just painting the Shooting Star had the effect of increasing its top speed. The P-80 was quicker than Gloster’s Meteor but still failed to beat the Me 262.

 

Lavochkin La-7

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It boasted a powerful radial engine which gave it a performance advantage over older Luftwaffe types but the La-7 was falling behind as the war ended.

Based largely on the earlier La-5 fighter and powered by an air-cooled 1850hp ASh-82FN radial engine, the La-7 incorporated more alloys in place of the original wooden structure. The cockpit got a rollbar, the landing gear was improved and a better gunsight, the PB-1B(V), was installed along with a new VISh-105V-4 propeller and an enlarged spinner to improve streamlining. Unfortunately, the bigger spinner meant less air reached the engine for cooling so a fan was fitted behind it. Visibility was excellent and either a pair or trio of 20mm cannon gave good though not exceptional firepower.

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The Soviets at the time honestly believed that the La-7 was the best fighter in the world for dogfighting and it was certainly faster and more manoeuvrable than the older marques of Fw 190 A that it typically faced on the Eastern Front.
In company such as that discussed here, however, it fails to make the grade. The latest and last Fw 190, the D-9, outperformed it in most areas when using MW-50. Small and lightweight, the La-7 had to be flown at low level because it simply couldn’t manage at high altitude.  It was available in big numbers though, and that the Germans were simply unable to match.

 

 

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Yakovlev Yak-3

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A Yak-3 pictured in Poland during 1945 beside the carcass of a Bf 109. Its high power to weight ratio meant that it handled extremely well with an expert pilot at the controls.

The Russians did their best to develop small lightweight fighters that could be produced in huge numbers and this design philosophy had its greatest success in the form of the Yak-3. Work on it commenced in 1941 but was seriously hampered by first a lack of aluminium and then the German invasion which resulted in design work actually being halted.
As the tide of battle turned, Yakovlev picked up where it had left off and produced the Yak-1M, a lighter, shorter-winged version of the Yak-1. This embodied many technological advances such as a mastless radio antenna, reflector gunsight and better armour. It was meant to have a 1600hp Klimov M-107 V12 engine but this was unavailable and the 1300hp M-105 had to be used instead.

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Even with this relatively small powerplant fitted, the redesignated Yak-3 was still 40mph faster than the Yak-9, which despite its name actually entered service first.
The fact that the Yak-3 can be found somewhere towards the bottom of every table associated with this comparison belies its greatest strength – its ability to out-turn both the Bf 109 and the Fw 190 below 20,000ft. Pilots who were new to the Yak-3 found it easy to fly but its true potential was only realised in the hands of an experienced flyer.
Against the best of the Luftwaffe’s machines, performing at their best, the Yak-3 would have been found sorely lacking but it was ideal for low-level skirmishing and could face standard German types on an footing.

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The diminutive Yak-3 in flight. The aircraft was primitive in comparison to other nations’ fighters but could still skirmish effectively at low altitude.

Yakovlev Yak-9U

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Visibility from the Yak-9U’s cockpit was good and it manoeuvred well at low altitude but its performance was unremarkable compared to its more powerful peers.

The first Yak-9s off the production line were fitted with the same Klimov M-105 as the Yak-3 and being substantially heavier paid a big price in performance. Top speed was just 367mph – about the same as that of a Spitfire Mk.I in 1939.
However, when the Yak-9 was fitted with the Klimov M-107A, which delivered 1650hp, its performance dramatically improved. Like the Yak-3, it offered excellent all round visibility but armament was somewhat lacking – with just a single 20mm cannon firing through its propeller hub and a pair of .50 calibre machine guns mounted in its engine cowling.
Like the La-7 and the Yak-3, the Yak-9U did its best work at low altitude. It was heavy only when compared to the Yak-3 and even with the more powerful M-107A it could still be considered underpowered in this company. It was manoeuvrable and had better armour than the Yak-3 but it was still no match for the likes of a Fw 190 D-9 or a Bf 109 K-4 on a good day.

Yakovlev Yak-9U 1.jpg

A Yakovlev Yak-9U of the 151st Guard Air Fighter Regiment at Yambol in Bulgaria. The original Yak-9, fitted with a Klimov M-105, was a poor performer, but once it had the Klimov M-107A it joined the front rank of fighters available in 1945.

 

Bell P-63A Kingcobra

Bell P-63 Kingcobras at Bell factory.jpg

Row upon row of P-63 Kingcobras lined up at the Bell factory prior to delivery to the Soviet air force.

The Americans did not think too highly of Bell’s Kingcobra. They had thought even less highly of its predecessor, the Airacobra, largely because it had been designed to fly with a turbosupercharger but was put into production without one.
The Soviets, however, who received hundreds of Airacobras from the Americans on a lend-lease basis, rather liked it. Much has been written about the Airacobra’s strengths as a ground-attack aircraft, even though the Soviets themselves never regarded it as such and tended to use it for air-to-air interception missions instead.
The Kingcobra saw the turbosupercharger finally installed and the overall design modified to incorporate technological advancements – such as laminar flow wings, a redesigned tail and a four-blade propeller. The first XP-63, a converted XP-39E, was first flown on December 7, 1942.
From the outset, the Soviets were involved in the development process to the extent of supplying personnel to fly the prototypes at Bell’s factory.
Overall Kingcobra production ran to 3303 examples and 2397 of them were supplied to the Soviet Union. No Kingcobra ever saw combat with a USAAF squadron, which is not surprising since the P-63’s range was limited and its performance was poor at high altitude – making it useless as an escort fighter.

The ultimate piston-engined fighters here.

At low level, however, where the Soviet fighter pilots flew, it was effective. Like the other high performance fighter aircraft flown by the Soviets, its top speed and rate of climb were by no means sparkling but it was highly manoeuvrable below 8000ft.

 

Bell P-63 Kingcobras with Soviet air crew

Pilots of the Soviet 66th Fighter Wing take a break beside their Bell P-63s. More than two-thirds of all Kingcobras built went to the Russians.

 

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-9

Fw 190A-9 2The Fw 190A was the fastest production fighter aircraft in the world when it first appeared in 1941. Once overheating problems with its powerful BMW 801 engine were largely overcome, it joined the Bf 109 as one of the Luftwaffe’s two front line fighters.
In 1944, with the streamlining of German aircraft production, unprecedented numbers of Fw 190s were churned out, mostly in A-8 form. All the while, BMW had been attempting to improve its engine design with little success.
Unfortunately the company had succeeded in producing an engine that had very little development potential. The standard Fw 190 engine was the BMW 801 D-2 and the firm’s engineers were aiming for a model they called the 801 F. This, though, was taking years to perfect – years that Germany didn’t have.
Therefore some of its components were fitted to the standard engine as an interim measure. First these were used to create the 801 U, which had 1730hp at 2700rpm at sea level, compared to the standard D-2’s 1700hp. Then they managed to use more components, creating the 801 S or TS, with a much more impressive 2000hp.
It was this engine which was fitted to a largely unmodified Fw 190 A-8 airframe to create the type’s final form – the Fw 190 A-9. The first production model appeared in August 1944 and production continued until the end of the war.
BMW was heavily bombed towards the end of the war, reducing production of the 801 S to a snail’s pace so fewer than 1000 A-9s were built. In combat, the Fw 190 A-9 gave its pilots a greater edge over their Soviet adversaries but the Allies’ machines were still markedly superior.
Its performance at high altitude was poor, the Fw 190’s rate of turn was never a match for that of the Spitfire and even the aircraft’s exceptional roll rate and dive speed was being cancelled out by the raw power of types such as the Spitfire XIV.
Unlike the Spitfire IX, the Fw 190 A was largely obsolete by 1944 but the Germans had little choice but to keep on producing it since so many assembly lines had been geared up for it and every fighter was sorely needed.

Fw190A-9 1

The Fw 190 A-9’s BMW 801S (TS) engine was a compromise but still produced a respectable 2000hp. Note the bubble canopy and the broad paddle blades of the VDM-9 propeller on this example.
A Fw 190 A-9 leads a line-up of captured Focke-Wulf machines shortly after the war’s end. The A-9 might have been produced in greater numbers had BMW not been so heavily bombed. As it is a lack of production figures for 1945 means it will never be known precisely how many were made.
Focke-Wulf Fw 190 D-9

Fw 190D-9 1.jpg

The Fw 190 D-9 was regarded by those who flew it and those that flew against it as a development of the Fw 190 A. In fact, it was simply Focke-Wulf’s attempt to provide an alternative engine for the Fw 190 airframe in case the supply of BMW units was disrupted. This example, WNr. 210051, has just rolled off the production line at Bremen-Neuenlanderfeld. It was later delivered to III./JG 54

German pilots were largely thrilled by the performance of the Fw 190 D-9 – a stretched Fw 190 A powered by the Junkers Jumo 213 A-1 which could be boosted up to an output of 2000hp with MW-50 injection.
The ‘long nose’ D-9 lost some of the Fw 190 A’s handling and manoeuvrability as the trade-off for its increased speed however.
Focke-Wulf designer Kurt Tank never intended the D-9 to be the next step in the Fw 190’s evolution however – that was the Ta 152 – instead he was on record as saying that the existing airframe simply needed an alternative powerplant since BMW’s factories were being so heavily targeted by Allied bombing.
There has been some suggestion that without water-methanol injection, the D-9’s top speed was around 390mph. The Soviets who tested examples they captured intact but without MW-50 were certainly deeply unimpressed by the performance of its Jumo 213 A engine. The long nose restricted forward and downward visibility, which became a problem because the aircraft had a high wing loading – its wings were the same as those used on the A-8 – and it therefore needed a fast landing and stalled easily. Having to put the aircraft down fast and being unable to see where you were going was a bad combination. Even so, German pilots still considered the D-9 easier to land and take off in than any Bf 109 variant due to its wide-track landing gear.
Armament was a pair of wing-mounted 20mm cannon and two .50 calibre machine guns in the engine cowl – not outstanding but still sufficient, particularly against lightly armoured opponents such as the Soviet types.

Fw 190D-9 2.jpg

An early production Fw 190 D-9 stands out in the snow prior to delivery to III./JG 54, the first unit to operate the type, in September 1944. In combat, the D-9 was fast with MW-50, particularly in a dive. Its performance surpassed that of the Fw 190 A types but Allied types such as the Mustang still eclipsed it.

Focke-Wulf Ta 152 H

ta-152h-1.jpg

Focke-Wulf Ta 152 H W.Nr. 110003 of JG 301 as it appeared having been captured by the Allies and shipped to America with the Foreign Equipment number 112. The abilities of the Ta 152 H remain difficult to assess since so few were made. On paper it was, perhaps, the best piston-engined fighter of the war.

The Ta 152 was effectively brought into being on the same day that its predecessor the Ta 153 was cancelled – at meeting on August 13, 1943. Tank suggested at the meeting that the same benefits of the Ta 153, which was almost entirely a new machine, could be achieved by simply extending the wings and fuselage of the existing Fw 190 airframe with inserts. The Ta 152 would be only 10% new and as such was approved for development. The Fw 190 D-9 was an even simpler conversion.
Bringing the Ta 152 to production took longer than expected due to delays in the development of the engines that were to power it. In the end, the Ta 152 C standard fighter version only reached the prototype stage and just a handful of high-altitude Ta 152 Hs were built and saw combat.
Powered by the long-delayed but finally sorted supercharged Junkers Jumo 213 E-1 engine, the 152 H was the fastest piston-engined aircraft to see combat during the war by a considerable margin. It also had a decent rate of climb, the highest ceiling of any piston-engined fighter of the war and a remarkable wingspan of 47ft 4½in.
Even its armament was good – two 20mm cannon in the wings and a single 30mm cannon in the nose – though in practice problems were encountered with jamming. There was no chance of development work to resolve the issue since by this stage the factories that built the Ta 152 H had already been overrun by Soviet troops.
Precisely how manoeuvrable the production Ta 152 H-1 was is largely based on speculation. After the war its surviving pilots defended its reputation to the hilt – standing by their claim that it was better than almost anything else in the sky by the end of the war.

Top 10 fighters of World War II here.

However, there are no flying examples available today and even while the type was briefly in service it was prone to sudden and mysterious failures which on a couple of occasions resulted in the death of the pilot.
It seems to have enjoyed mixed fortunes in combat against the excellent Hawker Tempest V and somewhat more success against Yak-3s but it never faced a Mustang or Thunderbolt in their high altitude area of operations, as far as is known. If it had done, it might have faced them on at least an equal footing.

 

Messerschmitt Bf 109 K-4

Bf 109K-4 2.jpg

Messerschmitt Bf 109 K-4 WNr. 330130 at a Messerschmitt factory during the autumn of 1944. In all round performance the K-4 surpassed the final development of its great rival, the Fw 190 A-9, but still suffered from its antiquated narrow track undercarriage and small wings.

The final production version of the long-serving Bf 109 design was the K-4. The first production examples of the type, conceived in the mid-1930s as a lightweight highly manoeuvrable fighter, flew in 1937, making it easily the oldest type here.
The Bf 109 that saw a vast increase in production alongside the Fw 190 A-8 was the Bf 109 G-6 and later versions were produced in progressively smaller numbers. Shortly before the war’s end, Willy Messerschmitt had been preparing his company to wind up production of the 109 in preparation for a wholesale switch to the Me 262 and its projected successors.
The K-4 was an attempt to give the basic design a cleanup using all the available technological advances to produce something close to the ultimate Bf 109. It was also a move intended to remove the need for the bewildering variety of sub-variants spawned as part of the Bf 109 G series.
Further K series 109s were projected beyond the K-4 but none made it to production.
The K-4’s cockpit canopy was altered to the less-heavily framed Erla/Galland design to provide improved visibility and a powerful Daimler-Benz DB 605 DC engine was installed, producing 1800hp during takeoff, rising to an incredible 1973hp with MW-50. This in an aircraft that was lighter than any of the lightweight Soviet designs.
At its best, the Bf 109 K-4’s performance figures were nothing short of astounding. Its boosted top speed of 440mph put it in the same league as the Spitfire XIV and P-51 Mustang, and a climb rate of 4500ft/min was among the very best.
Armament was a problem, however. The K-4’s standard load was a 30mm MK 108 firing through the propeller hub and a pair of MG 131 .50 calibre machine guns mounted in the engine cowling. There were difficulties in getting the MK 108 to work properly in this configuration though which meant that the gun jammed easily if attempts were made to fire it while manoeuvring.
In practice, many Bf 109 K-4s reached the front line without their MW-50 kits fitted or with some other defect whether as a result of deliberate sabotage or simply poor craftsmanship on the part of the forced labourers who built many of their components. The type was therefore seldom able to reach its dazzling full potential in combat.

Bf 109K-4 1

The ultimate development of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 to actually reach front line service was the K-4. It was a remarkable upgrade of the type but was often let down by shoddy workmanship and sabotage. This one is WNr. 330230 ‘White 17’ of 9./JG 77 at Neuruppin in November 1944.

 

Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1

Me 262 2

The Me 262 took years to develop but the end result, when its engines had been freshly reconditioned and everything was working correctly, was spectacular. Pictured here is Me 262 A-1 ‘White 4’ of JG 7 at Achmer in Germany towards the end of 1944.

The Me 262 was the first operational jet fighter anywhere in the world when it equipped Erprobungskommando 262 and then KG 51 in May-June 1944 and began to enter combat against Allied aircraft.
Some American writers such as Robert F Dorr have attempted to advance the claim of the Bell P-59A Airacomet to being the first operational jet fighter – since it entered ‘service’ in late 1943, but in practice this was little more than part of the development process. The Me 262 was a high performance combat machine that could outrun anything short of a rocket-powered Me 163, was armed with four 30mm cannon and potentially R4M air-to-air rockets – making it the most heavily armed aircraft here – and could handle sufficiently well to make good use of its other virtues.
Its design was futuristic – those swept-back wings were revolutionary – and a lengthy period of development before it entered even service testing meant many, though by no means all, of its early foibles had been worked out and eliminated.
In combat it was by no means indestructible and its engines had only a very limited operational lifespan before they needed to be removed and overhauled. Its nosewheel was notoriously weak, acceleration was slow, landing speed was high and the aircraft was so fast in combat that pilots unfamiliar with jets – in other words most of its pilots – struggled to hit their targets.
But still, the Me 262 was a deadly opponent for any Allied fighter. It could be outmanoeuvred by a Spitfire but it was very difficult to catch. Even its cruising speed, 460mph, was above anything the Allies could match except in a dive.
It has been endlessly opined that had the Me 262 been built in much larger numbers – or fractionally sooner – the war might have had a different outcome, but in reality it was at the very edge of what was technologically possible for 1945 and its engines were the source of its worst problems. They simply could not be made good enough fast enough.

Messerschmitt Me 262

The first jet fighter to begin combat operations anywhere in the world, the Me 262, was an engineering masterpiece and remains a design icon. Not only that, it was also an excellent fighter. One of the best known Me 262s, the unpainted WNr. 111711, was surrendered to the Americans by Messerschmitt company pilot Hans Fay at Rhein-Main airfield on March 30, 1945.

 

Messerschmitt Me 163 B-1

Me 163 1.jpg

Filled with volatile explosive chemicals that provided enough thrust for only seven and a half minutes of powered flight and lacking even a proper undercarriage once it had been glided back to the airfield, the Me 163 was as much a danger to its pilots as it was to the enemy.

The first rocket-powered aircraft in the world was the tailless Ente or ‘duck’ – a glider designed by Alexander Lippisch powered by an engine produced by rocket pioneers Max Valier and Friedrich Sander at the behest of car company publicist Fritz von Opel.
After Opel left Germany in 1929 and Valier was killed in 1930, Lippisch went to work for the DFS – the German glider research organisation. Here he produced several revolutionary tailless designs and in 1940 these were fitted with a powerful liquid rocket engine designed by Hellmuth Walter, the HWK 109-509, and the Messerschmitt Me 163 was created.
The tiny lightweight interceptor had two ‘fuel’ tanks, one filled with a methanol, hydrazine hydrate and water mixture known as C-Stoff and the other with a high test peroxide known as T-Stoff. When combined, these volatile liquids produced a powerful jet or sometimes a catastrophic explosion.
This was enough for just seven and a half minutes of powered flight, although during that time the aircraft could reach a speed of nearly 600mph and an altitude of nearly 40,000ft. This performance put every other Second World War aircraft in the shade but it was also the Me 163’s undoing as a fighter.
It was armed with a pair of 30mm MK 108 cannon – sufficient to destroy any aerial target, bomber or fighter, with only a couple of hits – but the Komet closed so rapidly on its target that it was very difficult for the pilot to hit anything. There was usually only enough time and fuel for a couple of passes at enemy bombers before the Me 163 was forced to begin its unpowered glide back to base – often at the mercy of Allied fighters. For all its years in development, the deaths of several of its pilots and the huge efforts required to maintain it in service, the Me 163 is believed to have achieved only nine aerial victories.

 

Heinkel He 162 A-2

He 162 3.jpg

Most photographs fail to capture just how small and light the He 162 was – this image of a captured one taking off at Muroc Flight Test Base, California, shows the test pilot, Bob Hoover, looking surprising large in relation to the machine.

More so than the Me 163 – which had actually been in development when the Third Reich was at its peak – the Heinkel He 162 was a product of desperation.
Its overall layout was informed by experiences of the Me 262, with its single BMW 003 jet mounted above the fuselage so that when it crashed the precious engine had a better chance of survival. In addition, its major structural elements were made mostly out of wood.
An ejection seat was fitted but this was ineffective at low altitude. Design work was started by Heinkel as the P 1073 in July 1944 and submitted as the company’s attempt to meet an RLM requirement for a cheap jet that was easy to build and easy for a novice to fly, a people’s fighter, or Volksjäger, two months later. Once it was declared successful on September 23, 1944, the Heinkel design was modified and rushed into production. The first test flight took place on December 6, and efforts to bring it into front line service were being made as the war ended.
The He 162 had a hidden problem however. The design should have used Tego film plywood glue – which was in common use with other German aircraft types – but the factory that made it at Wuppertal was destroyed in an RAF bombing raid and an alternative was needed to ensure He 162 production could go ahead.
The replacement glue, unbeknownst to Heinkel, had a gradual corrosive effect on wood and the He 162s that were produced began to suffer from mysterious structural failures. It didn’t help that the BMW 003 wasn’t ready for service either and was prone to flameouts.
When the He 162 was working properly and not falling apart in the sky, pilots regarded it as an excellent aircraft with light controls that was stable at high speed. While its speed couldn’t match that of the Me 262, or even the Meteor F.3, it could out-climb either of them.
Its armament of two MG 151/20 autocannon was relatively light but the small aircraft simply wasn’t up to housing the twin MK 108s originally projected.
Given more time and better glue, the He 162 might conceivably have been a contender but in the event it was a non-starter.

 

He 162 1.jpg

The very first He 162 V1, W.Nr. 20001. When it remained in one piece, the He 162 was a fine fighter aircraft, yet it still matched the speed and hitting power of the Me 262.

 

 So which was the best?

 

From among the 20 aircraft examined here, there are some obvious dropouts when it comes to deciding which was best. The British Hawker Tempest V was a better fighter than the Typhoon, so the latter can be safely ruled out.

The same applies to the Focke-Wulf Ta 152 and both of the Fw 190 A types. The A-9 and the D-9 can be ditched. Similarly, the Me 262 would have been the better fighter even if the He 162 could have been made to work flawlessly so the notorious Volksjäger has got to go. The Me 163’s endurance was too brief to make it an effective fighter so it can also be taken out of contention.
The slowest of the American types was the P-38 Lightning. It climbed well but was surpassed as a dogfighter, therefore it too has to go. Though they were good at low-level fighting they were not superior to the most exceptional of their contemporaries so all four of the Soviet types can be excluded too.
This leaves a top 10 of the Tempest V, Spitfire IX and XIV, Meteor F.3, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, P-80 Shooting Star, Me 262 A-1, Ta 152 and Bf 109 K.
The non-operational Meteor F.3 and P-80 can probably be ruled out due to ongoing development issues, the Bf 109 K could not be said to have surpassed the Ta 152 in performance, the P-47 Thunderbolt was less manoeuvrable than the P-51 and the Spitfire IX lacked the raw speed to keep up with the new German jets, so a reasonable top five would be the Tempest V, Spitfire XIV, P-51 Mustang, Me 262 A-1 and Ta 152.
Here the narrowing down gets more difficult. The Ta 152 was designed as a high altitude fighter and relied heavily on its complex engine to give it its amazing turn of speed. Its guns were prone to jamming and its reputation rests on only a handful of accounts by decidedly partisan witnesses. It ought therefore to be excluded.
The Tempest V was fast and deadly but it lacked performance at high altitude and straight line speed. Would it have been able to best a Spitfire XIV in a dogfight? Maybe, maybe not.
The choice really comes down to three machines – the Spitfire XIV, the P-51 Mustang and the Me 262 A-1. All three were potent dogfighters, loved by their pilots and feared by their enemies. The P-51 was the best aircraft in the world for its particular role – escorting bombers over long distances at high altitude – but was it the best fighter of the three finalists?
It lacked the speed of either the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt and its rate of climb was significantly below that of the other two. Its manoeuvrability was excellent but it did not surpass that of the Spitfire.
The Me 262 represented the future of air combat. It could outrun almost anything and its armament was second to none – yet it had serious problems in operational service.
Built by dedicated German engineers rather than slaves, flown in numbers from well-defended airfields and kept well supplied with fuel and fresh engines, it would undoubtedly have had the edge over the Spitfire, but in reality Germany’s war situation coupled with its own design flaws served to handicap the world’s first truly successful jet fighter.
In the final analysis, there have to be joint winners – the British Supermarine Spitfire XIV and the German Me 262. The Spitfire Mk.XIV was faster than any other piston engine aircraft bar the Ta 152, its manoeuvrability was outstanding, it could perform exceptionally at any altitude and its rate of climb was stupendous. Its short range made it unsuitable for escort missions but in a straight fight it was simply very hard to beat. Nevertheless, in one-on-one combat, a Spitfire Mk.XIV pilot would have found it very difficult to best a Me 262 – particularly with the latter able to fly 93mph faster. The Spitfire pilot would have enjoyed greater horizontal manoeuvrability and acceleration but would still have had to surprise the Me 262 or the Me 262 pilot would have had to make a fatal error.
After the war, former Luftwaffe General of Fighters and Me 262 pilot Adolf Galland said: “The best thing about the Spitfire XIV was that there were so few of them.”

 

 

Claimed top speed

1. Me 163 B-1 596mph
2. Me 262 A-1 540mph
3. P-80A Shooting Star 536mph
4. Meteor F.3 528mph
5. He 162 A-2 522mph
6. Ta 152 H-1 462mph
7. Spitfire Mk.XIV 447mph
8. P-47 Thunderbolt 443mph
9. Bf 109 K-4 440mph
10. P-51 Mustang 437mph
11. Tempest V 432mph
12. Fw 190 D-9 428mph
13. La-7 418mph
14. Yak-9U 417mph
15. P-38L Lightning 414mph
16. Typhoon 1b 412mph
17. P-63 Kingcobra 410mph
18. Spitfire LF.IX 409mph
19. Fw 190 A-9 404mph
20. Yak-3 398mph

Ceiling

1. Ta 152 H-1 49,540ft
2. Meteor F.3 46,000ft
3. P-80A Shooting Star 45,000ft
4. P-38L Lightning 44,000ft
5. Spitfire Mk.XIV 43,500ft
6. P-47D Thunderbolt 43,000ft
7. P-63A Kingcobra 43,000ft
8. Spitfire LF.IX 42,500ft
9. P-51D Mustang 41,900ft
10. Bf 109 K-4 41,000ft
11. Me 163 B-1 39,700ft
12. He 162 A-2 39,400ft
13. Fw 190 D-9 39,370ft
14. Me 262 A-1 37,565ft
15. Tempest V 36,500ft
16. Fw 190 A-9 35,443ft
17. Typhoon 1b 35,200ft
18. Yak-3 35,000ft
19. Yak-9U 35,000ft
20. La-7 34,285ft
Rate of climb

1. Me 163 B-1 31,000ft/min
2. Spitfire Mk.XIV 5100ft/min
3. Spitfire LF.IX 5080ft/min
4. La-7 4762ft/min
5. P-38L Lightning 4750ft/min
6. He 162 A-2 4615ft/min
7. Bf 109 K-4 4500ft/min
8. Tempest V 4380ft/min
9. Yak-3 4330ft/min
10. Fw 190 D-9 4232ft/min
11. P-80A Shooting Star 4100ft/min
12. Meteor F.3 3980ft/min
13. Ta 152 H-1 3937ft/min
14. Me 262 A-1 3900ft/min
15. Fw 190 A-9 3445ft/min
16. Yak-9U 3280ft/min
17. P-47D Thunderbolt 3260ft/min
18. P-51D Mustang 3200ft/min
19. Typhoon 1b 2740ft/min
20. P-63A Kingcobra 2500ft/min

Range (without external drop tanks)

1. P-51D Mustang 950 miles
2. P-47D Thunderbolt 800 miles
3. Ta 152 H-1 745 miles
4. Tempest V 740 miles
5. Me 262 A-1 646 miles
6. He 162 A-2 602 miles
7. Fw 190 A-9 569 miles
8. P-80A Shooting Star 540 miles
9. Fw 190 D-9 520 miles
10. Typhoon 1b 510 miles
11. Meteor F.3 504 miles
12. Spitfire Mk.XIV 460 miles
13. P-38L Lightning 450 miles
14. P-63A Kingcobra 450 miles
15. Spitfire LF.IX 434 miles
16. Yak-9U 420 miles
17. La-7 413 miles
18.Yak-3 405 miles
19. Bf 109 K-4 404 miles
20. Me 163 B-1 25 miles
BOXOUT 5>
Wingspan

1. P-38L Lightning 52ft
2. Ta 152 H-1 47ft 4½in
3. Meteor F.3 43ft
4. Typhoon 1b 41ft 7in
5. Me 262 A-1 41ft 6in
6. Tempest V 41ft
7. P-47D Thunderbolt 40ft 9in
8. P-80A Shooting Star 38ft 9in
9. P-63A Kingcobra 38ft 4in
10. P-51D Mustang 37ft
11. Spitfire Mk.XIV 36ft 10in
12. Spitfire LF.IX 36ft 8in
13. Fw 190 A-9 34ft 5in
14. Fw 190 D-9 34ft 5in
15. Bf 109 K-4 32ft 9½in
16. La-7 32ft 2in
17. Yak-9U 31ft 11in
18. Yak-3 30ft 2in
19. Me 163 B-1 30ft 7in
20. He 162 A-2 23ft 7in
BOXOUT 6>
Empty weight

1. P-38L Lightning 12,800lb
2. Meteor F.3 10,517lb
3. P-47D Thunderbolt 10,000lb
4. Tempest V 9250lb
5. Typhoon 1b 8840lb
6. Ta 152 H-1 8640lb
7. P-80A Shooting Star 8420lb
8. Me 262 A-1 8366lb
9. Fw 190 D-9 7694lb
10. P-51D Mustang 7635lb
11. Fw 190 A-9 7055lb
12. P-63A Kingcobra 6800lb
13. Spitfire Mk.XIV 6578lb
14. Spitfire LF.IX 6518lb
15. La-7 5743lb
16. Yak-9U 5526lb
17. Yak-3 4640lb
18. Bf 109 K-4 4343lb
19. Me 163 B-1 4200lb
20. He 162 A-2 3660lb

This article was an extract from Spitfires over Berlin, thanks to author Dan Sharp 

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Bell P-63 Kingcobras at Bell factory

MiG-27 pilot says farewell to the Indian Flogger

mig 27 retirement-1577459700.jpg

Two years ago MiG-27 pilot Anshuman Mainkar gave us a thrilling interview about flying this Soviet hot-rod. With the news that the type has now retired from IAF service we asked Mainkur to reflect on this significant event. 

 

The MiG-27 has now retired from the IAF, how does that feel for you?
“Not only has the MiG-27 retired, but also the #Flogger saga in the IAF has drawn to a close. Inducted during the early 1980s, during a modernisation cycle that also included other platforms, these variants served with many units, delivering sterling service to the nation.

State of the art for their times in terms of BVR capability (even when the relative nascency of the MF is considered compared to the later MLD, et al variants) and nav/attack suite for the BN/ML (including the unique laser range-finder/designator), the aircraft in spite of legacy (under refinement since the early 60s, and giving way to next-gen platforms of the age – Su-27/MiG-29, et al) were taken through the paces well by pioneers who studied the package well and designed SOPs that became the gold standard for operations specifically suited to the IAF.

With this in context, I feel extremely privileged to have flown a remarkable platform, and having learnt from a great set of mentors and tutors who taught me the nuances of flying but also of life. And while it is with a tinge of sadness that I enjoyed the festivities of the winding down ceremony, I am happy that the culture, bonding and associations with the machines and the men and women who cared and nurtured it in the IAF will remain with me for eternity.

Speaking of the MiG 27 in particular, it was the last of the variants to be inducted and de-inducted, and it played.”

What was the aircraft’s greatest moments in IAF service?

“They were ample moments – technology/weapon integration, firing competitions, operations, etc. A few that people will relate to would definitely include its involvement in Kargil, when it (along with the BN), were tasked heavily, performing admirably given the nature of terrain and targets.

It must be mentioned that the pioneers had envisaged much in advance the requirement of a Kargil-like deployment/employment, and therefore the fleet was well-equipped and trained for the hostilities that were thrust upon them. That they were ready, raring and prepared was a product of the fleet stalwart vision and initiative.”
Now the aircraft has retired can you share anything you could not have shared before?

“A popular pilot quip was a wish to begin the syllabus on the fighter first – (even without dual trips, a testimony to the comfort and aesthetic of the jet), and then convert on to the trainer (which in many terms was a different aircraft).”

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How many active ’27 pilots were there at the point of retirement – what will they do now?

“A squadron worth, plus a few more – not current, but in various staff/piloting appointments across the Air Force. There isn’t a fleet for them to come back to, but they sure are a valuable asset for the Air Force. I’m sure they’ll get their due, and the Air Force will find them worthy appointments/responsibilities to pursue.”

 How did it compare to the Jaguar?

“As far as mud-sweepers go, the Jaguar took its role too seriously. It hesitated to take off, and as a popular saying goes, it only took off because of the Earth’s curvature. But that was on a lighter note, the Flogger fleet and Jaguar boys sure loved a good roast!

During it’s heyday, the MiG-27 avionics suite – autopilot/nav/attack/recovery systems were truly fantastic, better than the initial Jaguars. The Jaguar has matured well in Indian service, though. Being the only dedicated striker in IAF service, it has done well for itself, and its bag of tricks will stand it in good stead for some time to come.”

What will happen to the airframes? What would you like to happen?

“Gate guardians, mostly, adorning prominent locations across many cities, including its own bases. Ideal candidate too, takes up less space with max sweep :)”

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Super Tejas — what’s the point? Opinion on twin-engine Tejas from Shiv Aroor

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We met up with leading Indian defence reporter Shiv Aroor to find out more about the mysterious ORCA artworks revealed by a Tejas test pilot. 

What is the point?
“Well to start off, these aren’t official renders by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) that administers Tejas, but, as I understand it, from some folks at HAL which builds the Tejas. Now to the point. The ADA tells me it was ‘forced’ to propose a twin-engine Tejas design specifically because the Indian Navy has put a hard stop to ambiguity over whether it will operate the existing N-LCA. The sense I got directly from the top is that the team isn’t particularly pleased with the idea of ditching the N-LCA for the twin-engine configuration. So the point, if there is one, is to meet the Indian Navy’s requirement under existing commitments to supply a carrier-compatible fighter. That this will involve an air force variant is obvious. But it’s important to acknowledge that there would be no twin-engine Tejas design of any kind if there was no Indian Navy stipulation to the effect. So this springs from the Indian Navy, not the Air Force.”

Is it a good idea?
“Like a lot of things, this looks like robust on paper. I’ve seen reports that there’s a six-year development path to first flight and highly optimistic pathways to getting this project off the ground. If those timelines are even remotely realistic, it could be a good idea. ”

Will it happen?
“While I fully support indigenous aerospace design, I very much doubt this will be a reality for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I don’t think Indian Navy requirements have ever compelled major aircraft design decisions in the country — and they’re not about to start. Even the N-LCA was an afterthought. The Indian Air Force might be more inclined towards a lower-risk LCA Mk.II/MWF that was revealed in concept form a year ago. The IAF has only just begun warming to the Tejas Mk.1 and looks forward to the Mk.1A. I doubt it’ll be looking to see another development path towards a fourth-gen fighter. My sense is it would rather see design hours and resources dedicated to the stealthy AMCA. And I agree with that inclination. Finally, budgetary resources are already stretched thin between committed purchases and existing projects like the AMCA. Adding a new one will merely slow things down.”

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Giant Super Tejas revealed: Our analysis

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The Tejas effort to create an indigenous fighter for India took a dramatic turn with last week’s reveal of a plan for a twin-engined variant with twice the thrust and almost doubled weight. The new aircraft is a close-coupled canard delta in the same class as the Rafale. Jim Smith gives his analysis. 

Update here. 

“At the turn of the year, Harsh Vardhan Thakur, a test pilot with Hindustan Aerospace, released an image of a twin-engine version of Tejas, identified as ORCA – an acronym for Omni-Role Combat aircraft. Subsequently, comments on the ORCA rendering were made by defenceupdate.in, and by ndtv.com. Having provided a couple of quick comments to @Hush_Kit on the ORCA image, I have been asked to provide an item for the blog.

Firstly, it is apparent that, as is normal with Tejas, the story is not as simple as at appears at first sight. In addition to ORCA, a concept for a twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) also exists, and if such a project were to proceed, ORCA would essentially be an air force variant, with lower weight, as, among other changes, the deck-landing capable undercarriage could be replaced with lighter landing gear. Neither of these variants relate to the existing air force or navy procurement plans, or directly to the development of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a future Indian-developed stealthy fighter, although some technology developments for ORCA and TEDBF might provide risk reduction for AMCA.

Configuration Design

 The ORCA rendering shows a close-coupled canard using the Tejas wing planform with twin-engines. Dimensions, weights, engine-specifics are unstated, but the render shows a significant external weapons payload, and what appear to be conformal fuel tanks located on the upper shoulder of the fuselage, as in late-model F-16s.

Initial commentary by defenceupdate.in appears to assume the use of two GE F404 engines, rather than the more powerful F414 engines, and draws attention to the significant design changes that would be required to develop this configuration from the existing Tejas.

Subsequent commentary by ndtv.com provides significantly more detail, focussed primarily on the TEDBF variant. This indicates that TEDBF would be a significantly larger aircraft than Tejas, would feature wing fold and would use two GE F414 engines. These engines are stated (Janes All the Worlds Aircraft) to have a maximum take-off thrust of 22,000 lb (97.9 kN), compared to 18,000 lb (80 kN) for the GE F404 variant fitted to Tejas. The GE F414 is the engine for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while the GE F404 is the powerplant of the F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornet.

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The most startling aspect of the TEDBF discussion is the stated weight of the aircraft, which is quoted as 23 tonnes, compared to 13.5 tonnes for Tejas Mk1. As an indication, 23 tonnes is close to the max overload weight of the Typhoon, and similar to quoted maximum take-off weights for Rafale. So TEDBF is in no way the cheap and cheerful solution that might originally have been considered as an outcome of Tejas.

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In addition, the TEDBF is expected to carry a significantly greater weapons payload than Tejas, stated to be 9 tonnes, and to have an integrated sensor and avionics suite including AESA radar, IRST, datalinks and sensor fusion.

 

Configuration comments

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 On the whole, the illustrations available of TEDBF and ORCA appear credible as twin-engine evolutions of Tejas. However, there are some interesting differences between the designs, and some questionable features. Firstly, the ORCA rendering does not seem to allow sufficient fuselage width to accommodate two engines, noting that there will need to be a strong firewall between the two engines. For TEDBF, it would appear logical to use such a structure as the anchor point for the arrestor hook, but no hook is apparent in the illustrations.

The fuselage of TEDBF appears slightly longer than shown in the ORCA illustration, resulting in a slightly further forward position of the canard relative to the wing. Of course, this might result from the concept drawings representing as-yet unrefined designs, or perhaps related designs at different stages of concept definition. In my view, both ORCA and TEDBF would benefit from a fuselage plug to lengthen the aircraft and position the canards slightly further forward, so that they do not overlap the wing leading edge. I would expect this to improve the canard-wing aerodynamics and lift-dependent drag, as well as increasing fuselage fineness ratio, which should improve wave drag slightly, and provide additional volume for fuel or avionics.

 

Of course, the big unanswered question is whether the aircraft has GE F404 or F414 engines. I would assume the latter, given the quoted weights, and if so, the larger fan diameter, and airflow requirements for the engine are likely to require larger intake ducts than in the original Tejas.

Tejas: thoughts on an unusual wing here

 

 

Development Issues

 The ndtv.com commentary on the TEDBF quotes project sources as indicating a cheap and rapid development path exists, building on Tejas experience, and further suggests a development timescale of 6 years from go-ahead.

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Let’s consider what would need to be done. Firstly, the propulsion system change will require substantial redesign of the fuselage, together with revision of the structure to accommodate the additional weight and size of the airframe. While some aspects (such as the wing) appear to re-use Tejas components, I suggest this is a superficial resemblance, since the use of a canard, rather than Leading-Edge Vortex Controllers (LEVCONs), will change the aircraft aerodynamics, stability and control and control laws. The significantly higher weight will result in increased loads and require redesign of the structure. Additionally, the landing gear will need to accommodate higher weights, and, presumably will be rearranged for the TEDBF so that the arrestor hook can take advantage of the engine-bay firewall as an attachment point.

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To deliver the required operational flexibility and capability, a substantial weapons, sensors and avionics integration programme will be required. Much of this might piggyback on existing or planned integration work for Tejas and other platforms, but type-specific weapons integration, carriage and release programmes will also be required.

 

Should all this development work succeed, the operational TEDBF will emerge as an aircraft with the same size, weight, configuration and, perhaps, capability as the Rafale aircraft currently just being delivered to India. They would supplement the capability of that aircraft, and would have the imprimatur of being Indian designed and built. Could the ORCA variant then replace the SU-30 MKI? Perhaps, but this seems to be the intent for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme.

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Where would ORCA sit compared to the AMCA? If that aircraft is to be stealthy, a further increment of technical difficulty is added in configuration design, manufacturing and propulsion and sensor integration. If the ultimate aim is for India to be able to design its own 5th or even 6th generation stealthy fighter, then the necessary confidence in aerodynamics, control system design, propulsion and system integration gained in a ORCA/TEDBF programme would de-risk at least some platform and system elements. But ORCA/TEDBF could at best be a reduced signature aircraft – more significant configuration changes would be needed to achieve a low signature outcome.

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Notwithstanding some risk reduction for AMCA from ORCA/TEDBF, the challenges of materials, build standard, internal weapon and, integrated sensors, stealth system maintenance and operations planning of a 5th or 6th generation system would still remain as the step up to AMCA.”

Update here. 

We spoke to Tejas test pilot Harsh Vardhan Thakur who noted – ” These are (one of) many concept drawings. There are many more. Canards will not overlap with the main planes.” So perhaps caution should be exercised in reading too much into the artwork.

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Hush-Kit to return to YouTube

When I discovered someone had pinched a Hush-Kit article and fed the text to a robot voice on YouTube I was initially annoyed. Then I looked at the viewing figures. If this chancer was doing so well with one of those infuriating robot voices maybe there was an appetite for ones with real voice-overs. Making the films was a steep learning curve. Finding an appropriate voiceover artist, learning how to record and edit the audio, learning how to source and edit appropriate footage — and then making the thing – all took a great deal of time. It was all a bit of a ball-ache, and took me away from what I enjoyed: researching and writing.  But I was gratified to find people were watching. Wading through the abusive comments you receive as a YouTuber, deleting the mad racist crap and replying to the hundreds of questions also takes a great deal of time. We then had some issues with YouTube, but touch wood these are now resolved and we hope to make more films. We will restart production when we get to 30K viewers. You can help by subscribing here.