The end of the Cold War in the 1990s, and the former Soviet Union’s free and easy export of armaments, led to some utterly bizarre events. One of these is the surprising fact that the US Navy operated an advanced Soviet missile until 2007.
The Kh-31 anti-shipping missile terrified the US navy, skimming across the sea at close to Mach 3 and packing a 200-Ib high explosive warhead it had the potential to make mincemeat of the US Navy. The far slower (Mach 0.92) Exocet missile had wrought havoc on the Royal Navy in the 1982 Falklands War, so the Soviet Kh-31 was an extremely credible threat.
To develop counter tactics and test defensive weapons the Navy needed a target drone that could accurately simulate the weapon’s attack profile and performance. The Martin Marietta AQM-127 Supersonic Low-Altitude Target (SLAT) began test flights in 1987, but the project proved a joke – with only one of the initial test flights going to plan. Martin Marietta went back to the drawing board for twenty two months, before test flying a new improved SLAT in November 1990, however this test also failed – as did another attempt in 1991. While this was happening, the US’ traditional ‘cold’ enemy, the Soviet Union had disintegrated.
In the chaos that followed, the cash-strapped republics and individuals sold everything that could be sold, and made unlikely alliances (the fruits of one of these collaborations — the F-35B’s propulsion system — can be observed today). So it was that the US Navy bought the best possible system to portray the Kh-31, the Kh-31 itself!
In 1995, a contract was awarded to McDonnell Douglas for evaluation of the Kh-31 in the Supersonic Sea-Skimming Target role, this was an FCT (Foreign Comparative Testing) programme, which would evaluate a version of the Zveda-Strela Kh-31A missile as a target drone.
The Kh-31 was fitted with a US tracking beacon, telemetry and self-termination systems — and suitable suitable interfaces for fitment on the QF-4 Phantom II (the F-16N was also considered). Designated MA-31 for US service, the first launch of the missile took place in August 1996. It was evaluated against an improved MQM-8, and unsurprisingly proved superior. A contract for 34 missiles was placed in 1999.
The MA-31 targets were expended by the end of 2007. With the Duma now refusing export clearance, Boeing’s further upgraded proposal rejected and the arrival of the new GQM-163 Coyote – the MA-31 was retired.
— Special thanks to Thomas Newdick
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You may also enjoy Ten incredible cancelled Soviet fighter aircraft, Ten worst Soviet aircraft, Ten incredible cancelled military aircraft, Fighter aircraft news round-up, 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraft, Su-35 versusTyphoon, 10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoon, top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US.
From the perilous deck of an aircraft carrier, Pierre-Henri ‘Até’ Chuet took the Dassault Rafale M into combat in Iraq. We spoke to him to find out more about the Rafale, a remarkable fighting machine, a masterpiece of design and a strong contender for the title of best combat aircraft ‘all-rounder’.
First Impressions of Rafale?
‘It’s a space shuttle!’ was my first impression. It is very agile, very responsive* when you’re light and very very manoeuvrable… you can easily bump your head, I bumped my head twice on the first flight! Flight controls are very different as you can barely move the stick, it’s just centimetres compared to the former flight control system of the Super Étendard, so it took me couple of hours to get used to that. That’s the big difference. A lot of fun on that. First impression was the thrust, speed, comfort – the fact the aircraft was really sanitised for sound so you have no clue what speed you’re flying at — you really have to look at the instruments. And extremely responsive.”
(*Até actually used the English word ‘nervous’, not responsive, throughout his descriptions of Rafale. In French, the word ‘nerveux’ is often used to describe a twitchy, responsive car that is quick to accelerate, I have replaced nervous with ‘responsive’)
“Best thing about it. It is very very responsive, very good situational awareness if you know how to manage all the screens and everything. A lot of capabilities. the omni-role stuff is very impressive it can really switch extremely fast from air-to-ground to the air-to-air mission.”
And the worst thing? “The worst thing would be the noise. Pretty noisy aircraft. Like most of them, the ECS (environmental control system) is pretty noisy. Not the engines really, it’s the ECS.”
How you rate the Rafale M in the following categories?
Instantaneous turn/High alpha/Sustained turn
“It’s good, it’s very good. you have two types of ‘flying the aircraft’: you have the air-to air mode where you pull +9 Gs up to 11.Then you have with bombs and full tanks, when your performance is not as good: about +5g and about 200 degree roll rate less – so it’s two different aircraft. When you’re in air-to-air all this stuff is pretty good. Instantaneous turn and sustained turn pretty good. So it’s two different aircraft – when it’s in air-to-air mode it’s very good. It depends what you make of it – I’ve never had any issues.”
“Sustained turn is good.”
“Less than a Hornet, but still good. High alpha could be better, but it’s really what you make out of it — I’ve never had any issue.”
Acceleration & Climb rate
“The acceleration is insane! Climb rate is firm – to give you an idea: if we’re at 500 knots & 500 feet… put the afterburner on — wait for the afterburner to kick in — then put the nose up at 60 degrees so you’re feeling like you’re vertical because of the angle of the seat (that’s 30 degrees) and at some point you have to throttle back in the afterburner to make sure it doesn’t go supersonic…in the climb 60 degree nose up! So that’s for the climb rate.”
“Typhoon is a joke, very easy to shoot.”
As a carrier aircraft?
“And as a carrier aircraft it’s a good jet. Very versatile. Very robust. Really no issue on the carrier side. Fuel is efficient. You have enough fuel and it’s pretty fuel efficient. You’re burning less fuel in afterburner at high altitudes than Typhoon does without the afterburner.”
What was your most memorable mission?
“The best ones are air shows. Air shows are insane. Yeovilton air show was a blast. But combat mission wise, I had a mission back in 2016. I was leader to two Rafale in Northern Iraq. I was fitted with GBU-12. He was fitted with SBU-38 (Hammer) . My laser designation pod wasn’t working. My wingman’s one wasn’t working. And with ten minutes left of flying time basically on station and then hitting the refueller and transit back to the aircraft carrier that was in the Gulf. We were then instructed to go East, as US Marine Special Forces from a recon got ambushed and were getting shot at by a few snipers. So about 80 miles of transit and we had to redo everything. And my wingman and I had already dropped some bombs on enemy guys. And we had to redo everything: negotiate a new tanker; advise the carrier we’ll be late; come up with a game-plan. Pretty rushed and then on arrive on scene. It was quite difficult to spot the first group of snipers. They had ‘IR shields’ and stuff like that so we found them with the help of the SF on the ground using small UAVs and compare my footage with this SF UAV footage. I got rid of those two guys. They told me I had to drop on a third guy to the south. And I was completely ‘bingo’ on fuel…don’t tell anyone! The tanker was coming, so basically I decided to take my chances I couldn’t find a guy and my laser pod wasn’t very good that day. So I just went, ‘OK one or two metres‘, knowing there were virtually no civilians as it was in the desert, so I took my chance and it ended with me being at three metres to be efficient. But that was pretty memorable as sometimes you just have to take actions. And I guess it was a lucky bet…I’m not saying it’s a good thing to bet…it wasn’t that much of a bet as I had so much information and I actually had a very precise view on the enemy guys. So that as a pretty memorable mission. It went very well, the result was great. Everyone was happy. It took me out of my comfort zone and at that point it was one of the longest missions from the boat.”
“So come and get me with your S-400 if I’m at 200 feet above the ground — that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So I’m not afraid”
…which was the most challenging? 9.52
“The F-16 is pretty cool. Typhoon is a joke, very easy to shoot. F-16 actually was a good surprise actually, I found it to be a pretty good aircraft. I think the most challenging was the F-16, it’s a pretty small jet so it’s easy to lose sight of it. So I think that was the big one. The Harrier can really turn around pretty fast, so you have to play it very close so you have to be careful with that. And with the Alpha Jet don’t go into a slow fight with it. It can manoeuvre and do some rolls at pretty low speed, some barrel rolls at pretty low speeds so you really want to pay attention. You can easily be tricked at low speed by an Alpha Jet. So you want to keep your energy high.”
How good are the sensors?
“Sensors — we haves some pretty good sensors. The laser tracking device is being replaced now. It was ‘old skool‘ and not as good as it could have been. There’re doing a better job with the new one I’ve heard. Otherwise the other sensors are extremely good. The radar —— with the new one — is insanely great. The electronic warfare stuff is great as well. So it’s pretty good sensors. We have radar, we have electronic sensors, we have laser. We have basically, all the stuff. We have the small camera on the aircraft, it’s pretty good at day. You can use it air-ground or air-to-air – it’s a pretty good tool to have.”
How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?
“It’s an aircraft that’s easy to fly. It’s designed to be an easy aircraft to fly but one thing is you have a lack of feedback, you have no clue if you’re flying at 200 knots or mach 1.5. Same noise, same altitude, everything. It’s a big big trick and big concern in this generation of aircraft is feedback is poor, so deal with it. Be careful about time slipping by, be very very careful about your environment as you can be easily trapped we’ve had lots of close calls with young pilots getting trapped. Be very very careful about time slipping by or acceleration kicking in so you really want to be careful about that. So the lack of feedback is a difficult thing about the aircraft.”
What are the differences between the C and the M? Are there performance differences? “C and M difference is about 650 kg, we have a bigger landing gear, bigger structure, a small hydraulic pump, we have access to the flight-deck that’s integrated in the aircraft – and we have much better pilots of course. In terms of performance, because you have a 650-kg difference, the nose is going to feel heavier in a Rafale M. Rafale C might be able to endure better in air-to-air combat because it’s lighter. But it’s no major difference – no concern.”
How would you rate the cockpit? Do you like the head-level display?
“The cockpit is great. Very very immersive. Everything is well designed – maybe the position of the safety horizon at 30 / 30 degrees to the right and down isn’t optimum, but you prioritise other instruments. It’s not something you have to use very often in real life — like I never had to use it. I never had to use it in SE, never had any screen issues. So it’s a very reliable aircraft. The HUD is awesome – it’s pretty big. We’d all like to have head-up displays in our helmets, but that’s life – we don’t have it right now. But it should be in the pipeline for the future.”
The cockpit seems very snug, are there large Rafale pilots?
“We do have larger Rafale pilots! But trust me, when you come from the Super Étendard you find the cockpit to be large! So really, no concern about that.”
Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like?
“Yes. Dropped bombs, shot missiles — it’s pretty cool. The aircraft is a very stable platform. I’ve shot with the gun too. The firing system is well done. It’s a bit stressful because you don’t want to fuck up when you’re dealing with real ordnance. You really don’t want to fuck up. From a general point of view every time you step into an aircraft you really have to be careful – so just keeping up the mindset and dealing with the pressure. Making sure you are prepared.”
Against a Super Hornet? “Honestly the issue is comparing aircraft all the time. Life isn’t that easy. Combat is unfair. It’s never going to be fair. It isn’t designed to be fair. If you get into fair close combat you’re a bad pilot. Don’t put yourself in a fair fight in real life as that’s stupid. Manoeuvre — take advantage and surprise your enemy. It’s not about one individual defeating an enemy, you’re here to get results. We are result-driven personnel. It’s not all about me. You’ve got thousands of people building a Rafale, and building and maintaining carrier. There’s thousands of people making sure I can take-off -— if I want to go fair-against-fair, I’m stupid. What I want to is make sure I win. Why do I say that? If I’m going to fight against a Super Hornet, I’m going to find a tricky way to defeat him. Look at the Messerschmitt 262 back in World War Two, most of them got shot down on landing. An aircraft shot down still makes the count. If we have to face the US Navy, it’s going to be disproportionate in terms of numbers – it’s going bring entire tactics to another level. Now, you want me to do a fair 1-v-1 fight with a Hornet in close combat, actually I’d rather a Super Hornet; I find the C to be more manoeuvrable than the Super Hornet. As a Rafale we can take an advantage on a Hornet again. What I would be careful of is their AIM-9X and helmet visors. So I would be very careful about that.”
Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.
The Rafale and Typhoon are often compared, how confident would you be fighting against a Typhoon? And why?
“I don’t know why they’re compared so often – it’s really not the same design, ideas or philosophy. We’re a truly omnirole platform. Typhoons are great, they like to use their big engines at 40,000 feet. I can’t count how many times I’ve shot down Typhoons at 45,000 feet in the contrails. And my radar off, everything off, I was coming from 100 feet below, supersonic in the climb from below. Absolutely undetected. So I have absolutely no fear of the Typhoons. Both the tactics used by the Typhoons, the agility and the cockpit of the aircraft make it easier for us to take the advantage — basically we have better fusion of the sensors — so we can be way more aggressive in terms of tactics. It’s a great aircraft at high level, but we’re not dumb enough to try to fight Typhoons at 50,000 feet or 45,000 feet. We’re going to put them outside their comfort zone. Against devious tactics. Now if you want to rate a Typhoon with AMRAAMs against a Rafale at 50,000 ft, then, yeah, Typhoon is going to have better performances for sure. But as a Rafale pilot, I’m stupid if I take him on like that, so I’m going to move the combat a bit. I”l fake a combat at 50,000 feet and I’m going to send a guy sneakily low level to surprise the Typhoon, it’s more easy than you think!”
Interview with Typhoon pilot here.
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“It is an aircraft that didn’t sell. It was truly finished before 2014 anyway in terms of omnirole. Once the aircraft was fully operational it sold right away. It’s not a bad aircraft, but it just took a while to develop, a lot of strategic reasons behind that, and now it’s developed it’s an awesome jet.”
How combat effective is it?
“It is really combat effective. You can switch to one mission from another.”
It is easy to maintain?
“I’m not a maintainer, but It looks easier to maintain than Super E and we have less emergencies than earlier generations.”
Something I don’t know about Rafale?
“I don’t know what you know! Oooh…ECS is loud as fuck! You lose the ECS and you think you have a two engine fire! It happened to me once.”
Tips for new Rafale pilots?
“Keep it simple and stupid. Back to basics. Fly the aircraft first and don’t get tricked into trying all the buttons and the screens. Make sure you fly the aircraft. It isn’t giving you any feedback so you’re your own worst enemy in the cockpit — so make sure you don’t fuck up. It’s going to accelerate very fast. Scan your instruments and make sure you keep that airspeed under control.”
How would you rate the Rafale’s ability to land back on deck with a heavy load of unused munitions and fuel? “It’s much less of an issue than it was maybe for the Super E, you have a better and more reactive engine so honestly when you come back heavy there is not a big difference for the pilot.
Hardest manoeuvre to pull off?
“Downward combat spiral from, maybe 45,000 feet to 5,000 feet, you are extremely close to your enemy — and it takes practice. You are metres away and spirally down together. Slow airspeed. And you’re just spirally down together at an extremely close distant, you are so close you can basically see what is on the other guy’s knees! And then spiralling further down – and first time you have to do that single-seat it’s quite an experience. You cannot do that in a Super E because you’re using the delta to sit the aircraft at a high AoA.”
Personal opinion: what should the Indian Aircraft Force procure?
“Pass. I’m not an expert. Recent experiences show, they could do with a couple of Rafale, maybe with full French stuff or maybe working with a mix of a different type of technology is good. French is good because there’s not as many limits as the US (like trade restrictions) and there’s some pretty nice stuff. I think the Indians are getting a really nice advanced version of Rafale. They should just get more.”
What should I have asked you?
“What was the biggest shock on Rafale? When you reduce the power. Go idle power power, airbrakes out at a low level — it’s impressive how fast it decelerates. It’s just insane. It’s actually almost more astonishing than the acceleration. When you cut the engine, go to idle power and put the ‘boards’ out – it’s impressive. On the other side, above mach 0.69 on the afterburner at low levels at air shows you’re just holding on to the stick and it’s a pretty unique sensation.”
What did you feel on your first deck launch and recovery?
“First deck launch is fun, you don’t have to do much. First recovery you’re stressed, you’re getting graded… there’s a lot of pressure and you’re just relieved.”
Navy or air force pilots…and why?
“Not sure I even have to answer that question. People will know anyway. Jokes aside, if the air force could land on a boat they would be doing it. We’re truly omni-role, we don’t have a choice. And also we have a more diverse type of flying. I was flying airshows and then I deployed like two weeks after switching from airshows to combat mission in a very short amount of time develops unique sets of adaptability. And most important a respect of timing – In Navy we try to go plus or minus two second s when we land. Lots of reasons behind it, but a small aircraft carrier gives you lost of constraints. so we’re really into precision and we’re more disciplined than the air force guys. I’ve got nothing against air force pilots, my dad was air force fighter pilot — they’re good guys. It’s just a bit different- our environment is so much more complex — so we have that increased discipline that really makes a difference.”
What equipment would you like to see integrated on the Rafale?
“A remote jammer that you can carry behind you — I think the Indians are going to get it — that’s something I’d like to see- like a towed decoy. It’s great. I think it would be good to communicate with the onboard systems, you can trick the missiles. And you can be more aggressive in terms of tactics if know the first missile is not going to hit you but is going to destroy your towed decoy.”
How would you rate the MICA?
“Is great… I like the singer. Jokes aside. MICA is a good missile. What really surprises people is its IR/EM capability – you can really switch. Overall it’s a good missile. I can’t complain but I haven’t used it in combat yet — a good training missile. Good stuff. I think it’s going to be good with the Meteor as well. Not unhappy with my missiles, but never used it in combat.”
How good is the high altitude performance?
“High altitude performance is great. It can take a couple of Gs even at 50,000 ft – you have two engines – and you can tell.”
Has the Rafale sufficient engine power, would you like more?
“You never have enough power. You find a guy who tells you he has too much power- he’s a liar – or he’s not manoeuvring his aircraft hard enough. The aircraft is overpowered in air show conditions — you know when you’re flying with all the bombs and stuff it’s not the same aircraft at all. Air-to-air it’s a good jet, but we could always always use more power – but then that means using more fuel maybe. I’ll go with a nine ton version – right now its 7.5 tons per engine – I’d go with a 9 ton version any day. That’s just how we are – we want extra power all the time.”
Do you feel confident flying against modern air defences in a non-stealthy aircraft?
“Great question. I’m not sure an aircraft’s stealthiness is going to make much difference anyway against very modern stuff. We’re not afraid of low level penetrations in the french air force. So come and get me with your S-400 if I’m at 200 feet above the ground — that’s not going to happen anytime soon so. I’m not afraid. It’s something we’re trained in and so it’s part of the job. And if you want a lot munitions or stores you’re going to lose on your stealthy signature anyway. So it’s not something of much concern – that’s why we train to keep current at very low level penetration. Which is really good as we get to fly at low level – which is awesome. I can’t complain.”
Rafale is described by many as the most beautiful fighter in production – how do you rate the aesthetics of Rafale?
“I like it, I must confess I find the Mirage 2000 very good looking as well… and slimmer and maybe faster looking — and it is faster than the Rafale. Rafale is slower than the Mirage 2000. We’re talking Mach 1.8 against 2.2. But I like the design of Rafale aircraft a lot. I think it’s a good-looking aircraft, but then again, it’s like asking a dad if he thinks his kids are good-looking or not! So we’re biased anyway. But compared to Typhoon you can tell it’s a good-looking aircraft. I like the Hornet’s shape, I think that’s a good-looking aircraft too. And the F-22 is one of my favourite looking aircraft! The F-35? I really don’t like the design, I think it’s a shitty looking aircraft to be honest…but don’t quote me on that!”
How confident would you feel fighting a F-22 in WVR DACT?
How confident would you be fighting a F-22 Raptor in within-visual range air combat?
“Obviously you have seen videos (see above). Is it going to be guns only? Is it going to be Sidewinders? If it’s gun only I don’t have any issue – if it’S Sidewinders — and he has his helmet-mounted stuff* and 9X then I’m going to be careful — I would be concerned. I definitely don’t have no concerns otherwise: it would be tougher for me because he has his 9X and mounted vizor. If I play my cards correctly there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be OK. I have questions, like what is the set-up? is it going to be ‘Butterfly’ with one close to the other one? It really depends on these situation. But guns only? Honestly, no concern. And it’s a big aircraft so it’s easy to shoot at.”
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*Editor note: as far as I know Raptors have not been fitted with HMS.
When did the French Navy procure the Rafale M and where were you trained?
“We got it in 2000/2001 as a replacement for the F-8 Crusader. I got trained back in 2014. I got my ground training with the French air force and I was fully trained. We all had different trainings possible and I went the full solo direct. I never flew with the air force. I only flew single seat Rafale M directly. So ground school with the air force and back to Landivisiau. Taxi the aircraft up to 200<100?> knots, abort the take-off. Then next mission you take off and you fly on your own, you break through the sound barrier and all that stuff. I did all my training on a single-seat Rafale never flew a two-seater.”
According to a study by the Californian Institute of Cool, the long revered job role of fighter pilot is to become uncool by 2025. This alarming development is the result of the increasing safety of the role and the supremacy of digitalisation.
The paper shows an alarming trend historical trend, one being the nature of the lifestyle. In 1917 many fighter pilots flew while under the influence of cocaine, from an open cockpit firing two machine-guns, wearing a fur coat and facing mortal danger every day; in 1943 things were equally exciting and the jackets were really cool — however by 2019 fighter pilots spend an estimated 43% of their time looking forward to software updates and 4% Googling jobs in civil aviation.
The study is causing shockwaves throughout the fighter pilot fraternity who have been forced to stop speaking in cliches and reading car magazines long enough to read the 80-page paper. One fighter pilot we spoke to on condition that we mentioned his name and the size of his watch* commented, “If I’d known I’d be using middle management jargon, talking about nodes, hubs, situational awareness and software iterations I would have become a firefighter. I feel like a boring guy who just happens to be able to travel really fast to blow up goatherds. I also spent too much of my time killing one AK-armed teenager with a $200,000 weapon dropped by my $65 million jet – with the support of a vast, errrr infrastructure. I mean the optics on that are not great right?” Another pilot, who insisted his callsign was CobraSword, noted that – “We’re not even allowed to blow shit up anymore – we administer kinetic effects. I don’t even have a jet these days – I have an ISR platform. If we’re not considered cool anymore they’re going to have start paying us properly. If I can’t pull a girl in a Cardiff pub off the back of my job, then what’s the point?”
*Col. Gary ‘Splat’ Doberman, 4-cm wide and 1-cm thick
Today, Airbus stunned observers by the revealing the existence of the LOUT low observable unmanned air vehicle testbed. Jim Smith shares his first impressions on this exciting news.
The revelation of the Airbus Defence and Space LO UAV testbed (LOUT) is an interesting development, particularly as it throws down a credibility marker for the Franco-German-Spanish FCAS program, in the same way that Taranis provides a capability indicator for BAE Systems and the Tempest programme.
However, unlike Taranis, LOUT appears to have been focused on exploring the issues associated with designing a credible LO (low observable) concept, rather than building a flying vehicle. So, in some ways, there is a parallel is with earlier UK FOAS (Future Offensive Air System program) and its Replica Demonstrator exploring the issues of fabricating a LO strike aircraft, rather than building a flying demonstrator.
What can we infer from the appearance of the LOUT? It appears to me entirely consistent with the statements reported by Craig Hoyle of FlightGlobal.com, and highlighted on Twitter by Tim Robinson of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and Gareth Jennings.
LOUT has a delta planform with a swept-forward trailing edge, with engine intakes and exhaust on the upper surface of the vehicle. This suggests that the key concern is shielding from ground-based systems, indicative of a design mission focussed on the attack of defended high-value targets.
The stated focus has been on the testing of LO materials, particularly for the engine ducts, and assessing radar signature and IR suppression. Mention was also made of the conduct of aerodynamic testing and acoustic modelling. In addition, LOUT is said to have been used to investigate sensor apertures, and is seen in the photographs to have a cockpit-like feature, and centreline weapons bay.
What else might be inferred from the pictures available, and the statements made by the FCAS program manager, Mario Herzog?
Well, here are some guesses.
My conjecture is that a key role of LOUT is model validation. What do I mean by this? Well, the first step in establishing the confidence and competencies necessary to design a LO air vehicle, is to be able to predict the behaviour of such a vehicle.
To do this one needs the necessary modelling tools to predict the radar, infra-red and acoustic signatures; to predict the aerodynamic characteristics of unusually configured aircraft; to design with confidence propulsion systems, flight control systems and sensors; and to understand the impact of necessary apertures for the weapons bay, cockpit and sensors on both LO design and aircraft configuration.
To ensure that the tools to refine and optimise such a design to meet real, or at least realistic, mission requirements, are reliable and fit for purpose, a demonstrator like LOUD could be very useful. It would provide a reference shape for which aerodynamic, structural, propulsive, signature, control system and sensor models could be developed, and then tested by comparison with ‘real-life’ testing of the demonstrator. The simple shape, and the rather triangular leading-edge profile, are suggestive of this purpose for LOUT, as a step to perhaps a more refined design for which actual flight test could be an objective.
What else? Well, the design is modest in size, but the relevance of this is uncertain. It may be ‘just the right size’ for an affordable LO UAV demonstrator – I am unconvinced that LOUT is intended to actually fly, let alone be a mission capable system. What it is likely to have done is to provide confidence in design methodologies and models which can be applied to a future operational FCAS design, or, indeed, to LO UAV adjuncts to a manned FCAS.
A mission capable system would probably be sized by the carriage of the weapons required to meet its design mission, and by the fuel required to meet the payload-range requirements, with some dependency on the availability of a suitable propulsion system.
Challenges likely to be faced in developing and optimising LOUT-like systems, will include all the usual air vehicle challenges of meeting payload-range and point performance requirements, while also being constrained to provide a solution with low radar, infra-red and acoustic signatures.
In particular, aspects such as designing a flight control system able to cope with highly non-linear aerodynamics, using novel control strategies and effectors to also meet low signature requirements, may prove to be difficult and require innovation.
The inherent characteristics of a near-delta wing are likely to lead to the need to manage relatively high landing speeds, and the lateral-directional characteristics may well result in significant constraints arising from crosswind and/or gust limitations.
— Jim Smith
Special thanks to Jim for a late-night writing session (in Australia) to get this story out quickly)
References – Tweets by Tim Robinson and Gareth Jennings; Article by Craig Hoyle of FlightGlobal.com quoting statements by Mario Herzog, program manager, FCAS
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That’s all. See you over there.
Following the defeat of nazi Germany, the aircraft designer Kurt Tank — creator of the world-beating Focke-Wulf Fw 190 — went to Argentina. Here he worked on jet fighters, before heading to India with a great deal of research material. Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL) worked with Tank on an exceptionally sleek new fighter, the Marut. Seldom remembered, and when recalled often written off as a failure, the Marut actually had the potential – but not the requisite good fortune – to have become an exceptional machine. We spoke to former IAF pilot Vijainder K Thakur about flying and fighting in Kurt Tank’s final fighter.
Which three words best describe the Marut?
“Pretty, Promising, Played.”
What were your first impressions?
“Having already flown the Hunter, a similar class aircraft, at Operation Conversion Unit (OCU) the move to Maruts wasn’t daunting. The Hunter had a better thrust-to-weight ratio than the Marut. However, the Marut’s supersonic design, spacious cockpit and pleasant cockpit interiors looked inviting. There was also the hope that the aircraft would get a better engine gaining speed and punch.”
What was the best thing about it?
“Good low-level handling – fast and responsive. We could clock 620 kts at 500 ft in the late production (extended chord) D series and around 650 kts in earlier BD series. Twin engines ensured safety from bird hits at low levels and a spacious cockpit facilitated map storage and reading. “
And the worst thing?
“The large number of technical issues that plagued the aircraft. The Marut’s high pressure (4000 psi) hydraulic system was prone to failures. Backup manual controls mitigated the impact of such failures but there was always the fear of the leaking hydraulic fluid catching fire. There were several cases of compressor blades rubbing against engine casing leading to catastrophic failures. Poor HAL workmanship caused fatal accidents such as canopy jettisoning failure!”
How do you rate the Marut in the following categories?
A. Instantaneous turn
Good at low levels, with turn rate limited by G limit.
B. Sustained turn
Reasonably good at low levels as long as you didn’t excessively bleed your speed below 420 kts.
C. High alpha
Sluggish but safe.
Good at low levels up to speeds of around 580 kts. Poor at higher altitudes.
E. Climb rate
Good at low levels.
When did India procure the Marut and where were you trained?
“The Marut was operationally inducted into the IAF on April 1, 1967 at Armament Training Wing (ATW), Jamnagar with the standing up of No. 10 Squadron (Daggers), which had been number-plated since April 1964. The squadron was raised with 12 prototype and pre-production Maruts and two Hunter T 66 trainer aircraft. Prior to their operational induction, these Maruts had been test flown and evaluated by the IAF’s Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit (A&ATU), the predecessor to the present day Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE). The initial batch of Marut pilots underwent pre-solo conversion on the Hunter T 66 trainer aircraft practicing take-offs, circuits and landings flying at speeds and using patterns and glide slopes identical to the Marut. Within two months of operational induction, there were two major Marut accidents – a fatal crash and an ejection.
After requipping and becoming operational with Maruts, No 10 sqn took on the role of Marut training squadrons and helped raise two additional Marut squadrons – 220 (Desert Tigers) and 31 (Lions).
Around May 1969, 10 squadron moved from Jamnagar to Pune; shortly thereafter, 220 sqn was raised from pilots and aircraft that had accreted to 10 sqn since its raising. The two Marut squadrons moved to Jodhpur in December 1970.
“The Marut was built tough. Dr Kurt Tank designed the Marut to be tough enough to slice a tree in half with its wing… its fin could cut through high tension cables with just a gash to show for it. A gash that could be easily repaired to preclude raising even an incident report or linking it to a massive power failure south of Jodhpur!”
What was its combat record?
“During the 1971 ops, 10 and 220 squadrons operated from Jodhpur and proved their mettle flying Close Air Support and Interdiction missions. Three Maruts were lost to enemy ground-fire.
The Maruts reportedly flew around 300 sorties during the 1970 Ops. Those who participated in the ops feel that the aircraft was grossly under-utilised. For example, its very potent 30-mm Aden cannon and T-10 / Matra rockets, and the safety accruing from two engines, could have been used to augment the firepower of the Hunters at Longowal. The reason why Op planners overlooked the Marut was probably lack of knowledge about the aircraft’s performance and capability!
Besides ground attack, Marut scored one air combat kill without any air-to-air losses. The air combat kill was claimed by Sqn Ldr KK (Joe) Bakshi when his strike mission was bounced by four PAF Sabres resulting in a melee.
Joe was pulling out of a strafing run when he saw a Sabre flying across his bow at close quarters. His finger on the trigger already, Joe reacted instantly and fired his twin 30-mm Aden cannons at close quarters as the Sabre disappeared in his hind quarters. Flt Lt KP Sreekant (later Air Vice Marshal) was part of the same formation. He was trying to gain positional advantage on a Sabre ahead when he saw another Sabre criss-crossing trailing black smoke. Joe was awarded the kill based on an R/T call made by KPS about the Sabre trailing black smoke, since there was no way of physically confirming the kill.
The 3rd and final squadron of Maruts was raised in 1973 with 31 sqn (Lions) converting from Mystères to Maruts.
I was posted to 10 Sqn in end 1975 for my type conversion, after I completed my training at Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) in Kalaikunda, West Bengal. Post conversion, I moved to the Lions where I remained until 1981 logging around 650 hrs. During my tenure, the Maruts were grounded over safety issues for long spells on two occasions and for short spells on several occasions. The total grounding period was around 1 yr 6 months.”
What was your most memorable mission?
I readily recall three missions – two of them out of a sense of accomplishment and the third out of a sense of the bizarre.
In March and April 1979, while preparing for a forthcoming DASI (Directorate of Air Staff Inspection) visit, our CO, Wing Commander SK Sonpar (Stona), put the squadron through the hoops with DACT. We worked meticulously – planning and sketching coordinated manoeuvres to ward off Type 77 (MiG-21) aircraft attacks, practiced the manoeuvres, and spent hours debriefing. In April 1979, I flew several DACT 2 vs 1 combat sorties with Type 77 aircraft which felt so much more real than practice with a Marut as attacker. Our ability to hold our own through early spotting and teamwork gave me a lot of satisfaction and confidence.
Flt Lt VS Kochar (Koch) and I volunteered to take on the DACT exercise with the two of us executing a coordinated strike and a DASI inspector in a Type 77 bouncing us.
A fatal accident on range cut short the DASI visit and we never got a chance to shake down a DASI inspector in a T-77. Word about our squadron’s intensive DACT preparations must have reached the ears of DASI inspectors because they assessed the squadron as Average plus based purely on the squadron’s performance on the range. The DASI could have opted to withhold a rating and make another visit.
In October and November 1979, ahead of South Western Air Command (SWAC) inter squadron steep glide bombing competition, our squadron started working on the theory and practice of steep glide bombing, determined to win the trophy.
The key to accurate steep glide bombing is getting the 45-deg dive right and the Lion bombing team comprising Stona, Sqn Ldr SK Sanadi (Sandy), Sqn Ldr KR Singh (Keru), Flt Lt James Sebastian (Jimmy) and self initially perfected our dive angles by doing bombing runs over the Jodhpur runway, using the R/W markers as accurate cues.
Later, we practiced on Pokhran range. Eventually, it was time to practice with live bombs. The effectiveness of our mathematics based training surprised us. Hitherto, steep glide bombing had been notorious for large errors upto 100 yards. When we started dropping bombs, we didn’t drop one more than 20 yards off. Typically, the bombs dropped on the Bulls eye or within 10 yards. No other SWAC squadron stood a chance. We won the trophy easily.
The bizarre mission that I referred to wasn’t planned. In March 1979, I had just completed a front gun firing dive at Pokharan when I got a R/T call* from Jodhpur ATC.
“Jodhpur, Go ahead”
“83, Have you finished your ammo”
“Roger, make your guns safe. Wait for 33 SU instructions.”
“83, this is 33 Su.”
“Climb to 10G and steer course 270 for interception. Check your fuel state.”
“Good for 20 mins loiter”
I don’t remember the fuel that I had. I was flying in clean configuration and Jaisalmer wasn’t far. So I told the radar I was good.
Having settled on an interception course that was very obviously taking me towards the Pakistan border, my heart started to beat a little faster.
The excitement was short lived. Within a minute 33 SU instructed me to return to base.
The incident happened after a day or two after Pakistan’s supreme court turned down former Pakistan Prime Minister ZA Bhotto’s appeal against his death penalty. Indian intelligence had indicated that Bhutto might try and escape by air to India and apparently 33 SU had picked up a track.
Think about it! With a little bit of luck, I would have made one line nondescript entry into history books!”
Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“During my Marut tenure, the MiG-21 (Type 77) and MiG-21M (Type 96) were the most advanced fighters in the IAF inventory. Those were the days when the IAF had 30 squadrons of MiG-21s!
Most DACT involved MiG-21s intercepting low-level Marut strikes.
Despite its significantly lower thrust-to-weight ratio, the Marut was no walkover. I will explain why. MiG-21s of yore had intercept radars with no ‘look down’ capability. For intercepting Marut strikes, the MiGs relied heavily on voice vectoring by controllers of ground based radars such as the mobile P-18 VHF early warning radars of 254 SU deployed near Jodhpur. At 500-ft, the preferred cruising height of Marut strikes, detection range was severely limited by radar horizon, while detection quality was constrained by the two dimensional tracking by the radar. Following the operationalisation of 33 SU equipped with the French THD-1955 high power three dimensional radar near Jodhpur the vectoring became more effective.
When MiG-21 vectoring did succeed, Marut pilots were instinctively inclined to stay in their comfort zone – low levels where the aircraft was fleet footed and very responsive. Visually sighting Maruts flying nap-of-the-earth was challenging. It became even more challenging when in the late 70’s HAL decided to desert camouflage the aircraft.
Based on the IAF’s air combat experience in the 1971 war, Tactics Development Establishment (TACDE) at Jamnager developed air combat tactics that focused on positional manoeuvring and the Marut squadrons were quick to embrace these tactics. Wing Commander SK Sonpar (Stona), a Fighter Combat Leader (FCL) who commanded 31 sqn from Nov 1977 to September 1980, pioneered the switch to positional air combat from the traditional energy and manoeuvre focused air combat.
No more would you see two Maruts on a strike mission in the same glance. They would be 2-3 kms apart and abreast of each other, ready to quickly sandwich any hostile that came astern of either or both through a simple hard turn. The sandwich would force the attacker to break and give a chance for the Maruts to hit the deck and escape. A four aircraft strike would be spread over 9 sq. kms and a six aircraft strike over 12 sq. kms!
“The Marut was a sweet lady, not a bitch!”
Under Stona we developed and practiced tactics that would allow us to attack enemy ground targets while providing mutual cover and retaining full positional and energy advantage. The effectiveness of our tactics gave us complete confidence in our ability to strike targets despite the threat of superior enemy fighters. The key to the success of our tactics was spotting the MiGs before they closed in to missile / gun kill ranges.
Our confidence levels rose to an extent where we started playing with the MiGs. I remember one exercise; I was part of a formation led by Stona that bamboozled the MiGs by zooming up after striking the target and cruising back to base at 15,000 ft! The hot in-pursuit MiGs missed us completely… they kept looking down while being vectored. The radar controllers at 33 SU, despite the height readouts on their scopes, never realised what was going on! So confident were we of our positional manoeuvring, we didn’t think we were taking a risk by cruising at 15,000ft!
TACDE developed positional manoeuvring notwithstanding, many Marut stalwarts remained convinced that your best bet against Type-77 was to hit the deck and get the hell out of there. It’s indeed moot how accurately a Type-77 would be able to engage a Marut flying at 200-ft and 620 kts.”
How good were the sensors?
“Other than its gunsight, the only sensors in the aircraft were our eyeballs and trust me they were very good because our lives depended on them. We maintained them in perfect order through exercises! To begin with, the Marut had a gunsight similar to the Hunter. The D variants, that I flew, had an ISIS gunsight that was very stable and accurate.”
How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?
“The Marut was easy to fly with reasonably good cockpit visibility. The controls were responsive during the entire flight envelope. Departure of any sort was unheard of.
As per the SOPs, you were required to enter a looping manoeuvre at around 460 kts, an embarrassingly high speed for a fighter aircraft. To increase pride and confidence in newcomers, Marut stalwarts like Sqn Ldr SK Singh experimented and progressively reduced entry speed. Eventually, Marut pilots started entering a loop at 350kts. On top of the loop, the speed would drop to around 60kts but the aircraft would go around with ease, sluggish controls notwithstanding.
Pilot error accidents in Maruts were rare and always on account of misjudgement, not failure to extricate the aircraft from a departure. The Marut was a sweet lady, not a bitch!”
Is the cockpit tiny?
“The cockpit is spacious and well laid out.”
How would you rate the cockpit?
“Excellent. Perhaps roomier than required! Each and every switch or circuit breaker is easily accessible.”
Have you fired live weapons – if so, what was it like?
“Besides its twin 30-mm Aden cannons, the Marut could carry T-10 rockets and 1000-lb bombs. Dr. Kurt Tank designed the Marut as a twin seater. In the fighter variant the rear seat was replaced by retractable stack that could hold around 50 Matra rockets! Yes, it had an internal weapons bay! Later, before I joined the Maruts, carriage of Matra rockets was discontinued and the rear cockpit space was utilised to carry extra fuel.
Post 1971, HAL attempted to fit 4 Aden cannons on the Marut. The attempt was abandoned following a fatal accident during trials over the sea, when excessive vibrations caused the aileron lugs to get detached causing the aircraft to roll into the sea.
ASTE tested the Marut with S-24 stand off rocket bombs but by the time I left the fleet the weapon had not been inducted into squadron service.
Gun and rocket attacks involved shallow 12-15 deg dives, but bombs had to be released in a 45-deg steep glide because they were not retarded. The attack profile involved zooming up to 15,000 ft and bleeding speed to around 250 kts, throttling back and then rolling into a kamikaze like dive hanging by your straps under zero g, and positioning the gun sight on the target catering to calculated wind induced drift. Once settled in the dive, the heavily laden aircraft would accelerate rapidly, the altimeter would start to spin down crazily and tracking with the gunsight would become challenging. Releasing the bombs at the right height, irrespective of the state of your target tracking, was critical because in case of release failure you would be pulling out of the 45-deg dive with 2000 lbs more than you planned!
After 1971 ops, HAL attempted to arm the aircraft with four 30-mm Aden cannons instead of two. During the gun trials we lost a test pilot when because of excessive vibrations aileron lugs got detached and the aircraft rolled into the sea. This issue was never fixed and the aircraft was limited to firing two guns at a time and later the two outer guns were removed.”
What is the greatest myth about the Marut?
“That the aircraft didn’t meet expectations. The aircraft met expectations, the project didn’t! Because MoD never put into the aircraft the engines that the aircraft was built for.
When I was posted from Maruts to Jaguars in 1981 it dawned on me how hopelessly doomed the Marut had become. Aviation technology had moved so far ahead while HAL had struggled to fix Marut manufacturing shortcomings.
The future doesn’t depend on what you do today. It depends on what you did yesterday. What you do today depends on the follow-up required on what you did yesterday. How long could the aircraft remain relevant with the 1952 vintage Orpheus 703 interim engine?”
How combat effective was the Marut?
“The Marut’s limited range and weapon load didn’t make it a very effective combat platform. I don’t believe the three Marut squadrons were ever a great worry for the PAF. The aircraft had the potential to become a great worry for the PAF. That potential was never realised.”
How reliable and easy to maintain is it?
“In the 650 hrs that I flew the Marut, I didn’t encounter a single technical failure. During the 425 hrs that I flew the Jaguar I had an engine fire that mandated a single engine landing. Going by my own experience, the Marut was as reliable as any contemporary fighter. But there is no denying that Maruts were plagued by technical problems that led to frequent loss of life and write-offs.
There were no serious maintenance issues. The Lions operated with 100% serviceability on many occasions during my tenure, even when we had more aircraft on strength than the establishment. The fact that HAL technicians were always on hand to help fix issues was a factor.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the Marut
“The Marut was built tough. Dr Kurt Tank designed the Marut to be tough enough to slice a tree in half with its wing! I don’t believe that capability ever came to be tested, but Marut pilots know for a fact that its fin could cut through high tension cables with just a gash to show for it. A gash that could be easily repaired to preclude raising even an incident report or linking it to a massive power failure south of Jodhpur!
What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the Marut?
“Watch your G when pulling out of dives on range or when turning at high speeds because she will do as you bid!”
What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a Marut?
“Flying at the 300-ft AGL over the Rajasthan desert! Believe me it’s difficult! Stona grounded me for 2 full days while we were on detachment to Uttarlai. He spotted me at a much lower height and I had no choice but to tell him tongue-in-cheek that I found it too hard to maintain level flight at 300-ft. Many years later, when Stona visited our house in Austin, Texas, he recited the incident to my highschool-going daughters with mock indignation and feigned hurt.”
What should I have asked you?
“What was your biggest takeaway from the Marut flying experience? My answer would have been: God loves me! Flying Maruts, I realised low level strikes are a lot more fun than air combat. I just came to believe, hitting the adversary with bombs and rockets was a lot more fun than running around in circles with the adversary! I believe providence had a hand in my subsequent posting to Jaguars.”
I would like to thank Marut stalwarts Wg Cdr DK Cooper, Air Vice Marshal KP Sreekant, Wg Cdr KR Singh and Wg Cdr VS Kochar for their suggestions and review of my responses.
I served in the IAF for 20 years (1974 – 1994) flying the HF-24 Marut and the Jaguar. After taking premature retirement, I learnt software programming. In 1998 I took up a job in the US and stayed there till 2006 after which I resigned and returned to India.
I am a military technology enthusiast, particularly military aviation technology. I blog on Indian weapon system procurement and defence posture. I write for print and online publications. I am frequently quoted by the online and print media.
I have authored a fictional romance thriller set in the IAF.
*(For clarity, I have used straight forward call signs. Not that I remember the actual callsigns of that day!)
Despite first flying over sixty years, the pugnacious MiG-21 remains in frontline service in the Indian Air Force. Fast, agile and brutally simple – the elderly Cold War fighter jet is still capable of biting complacent opponents, and even has some tricks up its sleeve that more sophisticated enemies cannot match. We spoke to Group Captain MJA Vinod (formerly of the Indian Air Force) about flying and fighting this lightweight Soviet ‘rocketship’.
Which three words best describe the MiG-21?
“Fast, agile and extremely manoeuvrable.”
When did Indian procure the MiG-21 and where were you trained?
“It was in 1961 when India went in for MiG 21s, I was trained here in India.”
What were your first impressions of the MiG-21?
“I did my training in the Kiran (an Indian version of the British Jet Provost) Mk I and Mk II, by the time I came to fly the MiG-21 at the MiG Operational Flying Training Unit (MOFTU) I had about 250 hours of jet flying experience. Even then, the first thing that hits you is its speed. The speed at which things happen. I remember an incident very vividly, one of my course-mates reached the top of a climb even before he had raised his undercarriage. Yeah! I was extremely lucky to fly MiG-21, especially a Type-77.”
What is the best thing about it?
“It’s a completely a manual aeroplane, with very simple systems. If one masters it, this aircraft can manoeuvre better than most modern aircraft, provided it is flown by someone who has mastered the aircraft.”
“I once flew a DACT mission against two MiG-29s, I didn’t engage them in a turning fight. I kept my fight vertical and got two kills.”
And the worst thing?
Being a manual aircraft, safety needs to be observed as it is not ensured by inherent safety features and design features that of a modern aircraft. In a MiG-21, being an older generation aircraft, sometimes this thin line has been transgressed by a few good men inadvertently and I lost some of my friends. This is something that was corrected in the Midlife upgrade. MiG 21 Bison has good safety features.
How you rate the MiG-21 in the following categories?
A. Instantaneous turn
“The MiG-21’s instantaneous turn has very little meaning in combat. Being a swept-back delta, the lift/per deg of angle of attack that she produces is not nothing to write home about.”
B. Sustained turn
“Being a delta planform, the drag that she generates as the angle of attack increases is high, so its sustained turn rate (compared to any modern-day fighter) is not very high either. Despite this, she is able out manoeuvre modern fighters, how? That is an interesting question.”
C. High alpha
“Oh! The MiG-21 can reach very high alpha, much higher than any modern fighter. This is because modern-day fighters have systems that prevent the pilot from reaching vey high alpha — as they reach very high alpha a protection measures kicks in and limits them. I used this feature later in life to take to take MiG-21 to a very low speeds and watched a Eurofighter typhoon shoot past me.”
“Indian MiG-21 has something called an emergency power reserve (EPR) aka second reheat. With EPR she accelerates much faster. I remember doing a DACT (dissimilar air combat training) with one other fighter (wouldn’t like to name it) and being a superior fighter, he was supposed to demonstrate his acceleration to me, little did he know that at the end of the acceleration run I matched him. Thanks to second reheat.”
E. Climb rate
“The MiG-21 is like a rocket with small wings to keep it in the air. It was designed to shoot down aeroplanes like the U-2 spy planes. Its dynamic thrust goes up to 9900 kgf, it can practically accelerate in a vertical climb. In matter of seconds it reaches its ‘business ‘altitude of business’.”
What was your most memorable mission?
“This was 1995 and we were being inspected by an agency from headquarters, a potentially prestigious moment for any squadron to perform well and get good scores. I was still a Pilot Officer (A rank now retired by the IAF) and I was ground standby for one of the four aircraft strike plus two aircraft for the escort mission. Visibility was very poor, barely 2-3 kilometres. Being the most junior member I made the map for the entire formation, therefore I knew the route by heart. This was a mission to be flown at low level over the Thar Desert. The Commanding Officer was leading the mission with the Flight Commander being the deputy leader (the two senior-most Squadron leaders being the other two members). The escorts were MiG-29 from the adjacent base, but owing to the bad visibility they never turned up. The interceptors were pilots of the inspection agency. On the day of reckoning my CO took off and one of his undercarriages didn’t go up, however he still gathered the formation and put them on the first course. He then peeled off and asked me to slot in as number four. I got airborne and by then the formation was fifty kilometres from me. Since I made the map I exactly knew where the formation would be in terms of time. Remember that over desert, ground features are sparse and sometimes there are none. Be that as it may, I cut corners and managed to join up with the formation, navigating purely on time and direction. In 1995, there was no GPS or other navigation system to assist you, navigation was purely carried out using direction, speed, time and of course your Eye Ball Mk II (a jokey pilot term for human eyeballs).
You may also enjoy this interview with a HF.24 marut pilot.
As soon as I joined up, two of the interceptors showed up — one behind my sub section leader and the other one trailing him. I shot both down (meaning took pictures of them through my gun camera) — and lo and behold lost sight of my other formation members who by then were reaching their waypoint from where they were getting into formation for weapon release. I went at very high speed and caught up with them, and dropped my weapon — which was on the pin. All this when I had very little experience on type. I was adjudged exceptional for that mission. Air Commodore of the inspection agency (later retired as an Air Marshal) came up on the podium and lauded my flying, situational awareness and mission accomplishment. There was a big party after that. Once of my colleague (whom I lost later in a crash, may his soul rest in peace) started calling me Douglas Bader after that. This was one of the most memorable missions that I flew. In time, later in life there were many. Yeah ! This really stand out as most exciting peacetime mission.”
Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“I have flown DACT against most aircraft of IAF’s inventory and against the Eurofighter Typhoon. I would say fighting a Typhoon was very challenging. It was October 2010, when Eurofigher Typhoons visited Kalaikunda Air Base as part of Exercise Indradhanush.
I was commanding a MiG-21 unit there, when Group Captain John Hitchcock Station Commander of RAF Coningsby, the team leader of the Indradhanush exercise was detailed to fly with me in MiG-21 trainer. My wingman was a young British pilot flying a Typhoon. It was a mission where the Typhoon was to going demonstrate its capability and we were supposed to observe.
Typhoon did everything it should – extremely well – like picking us up on its air-to-air radar and locking onto us and joining up with us using onboard avionics etc. All these were perfect until it came to low-speed manoeuvring. That is when, modern aircraft with all its safety systems onboard do not let you do things which only a manually flown fighter can do. In the low-speed regime Typhoon whizzed past in front of us like an arrow… and I wasn’t even manoeuvring.
That’s when he probably realised the true meaning of man-machine combo. We repeated this in straight and level flight — and in a turning fight where below a certain speed a modern fighter just slides ahead of a MiG-21… unless he turns away and comes back around to finish you off. For him to execute this he needs to have sufficient information and situational awareness. After landing, Group Captain John Hitchcock presented me with his first ever Typhoon badge and called me ‘A hell of a pilot’.”
How good were the sensors?
“The MiG-21 has many versions in the IAF, Type 74 (which I haven’t seen, as it went back to Russia when Type 77s were inducted) to MiG-21 Bison. The Type-77, when it was inducted, had a very potent air-to-air radar which for its time was very advanced. It had a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), a datalink system (called Lazur), radio altimeter, a non-toppling Artificial Horizon called the ‘Agada’ etc. For its time, the older version of MiG-21 was state of the art — and an enigma for the Western world. That was until Operation Diamond happened and Munir Redfa defected with an Iraqi MiG-21 to Israel.
The same is the case with the modern MiG-21 Bison, it has a state-of-the-art radar, beyond visual range missiles and a great navigation system etc. This was the very type of aircraft that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman flew and brought a Pakistan’s F-16 down.”
How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?
“I wouldn’t say it is easy to fly a MiG-21, it takes a while to master this aircraft. Most pilots will tell you this, hardest thing is landing a MiG-21. It has the highest landing speed in the world, at high altitude airfields she can clock a landing ground speed of 450km/h. For some of the training aircraft it is beyond the Velocity Never Exceed (VNE). The MiG-21’s airspeed indicator starts at 200km/h, Russians didn’t find the need to show you speeds less than 200km/h. Imagine that.”
Is the cockpit tiny?
“Yes, it is a snug fit, therefore there are stringent anthropometric requirement to fly this aircraft. Tall pilots, especially ones with long legs or torsos, cannot fly this aircraft. Long legged pilots would not have the requisite clearance required to eject, lest you hurt your leg in the process. Long torso pilots cannot sit in the aircraft and close the canopy.”
How would you rate the cockpit?
“Ease of access, over the shoulder visibility, feeling of you strapping an aircraft to yourself because of the snug fit of the cockpit; I personally would rate the cockpit very high. The comfort level in the cockpit of a MiG 21 is very high. Some critical switches can be reached without even taking your hands off the throttle and stick, this was designed in a time when HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) was a concept that was unknown to the world.”
Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like?
“I have fired all weapons that a MiG 21 can fire, both air-to-air and air-to-ground. Like I said before, being a manual aircraft the deciding factor of the weapons delivery accuracy was your skill… completely. In the older versions of MiG 21 you fired eye-balling through a gunsight estimating ranges through the sight and your seat-of-the-pants. I can safely say, I was good at it and people who know me will vouch for it. There was a time when my rocket firing score was ‘zero metres’ meaning all were on the pin. Same goes for my bombing scores, they too were exceptional. Air-to-air firing too, I guess I excelled in it.
In a nutshell, I would say, the MiG-21 bolstered our (many other pilots like me ego ) well!”
“In the low-speed regime Typhoon whizzed past in front of us like an arrow… and I wasn’t even manoeuvring. That’s when he probably realised the true meaning of man-machine combo.”
How confident would you feel going against a modern F-16 or MiG-29?
“It is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Modern day fighters have systems assisting you. Superior radar, helmet mounted sighting systems, great RWR, Counter missile systems, electronic warfare systems like the self protection jammers etc. The older version MiG-21 had none of these, so they are clearly out of the fray. The MiG-21 Bison is the most modern MiG 21, and it is formidable in all of these — the only downside being the limited endurance that a MiG-21-class of aircraft has. Eventually it is the man-machine combo that makes or breaks an air combat.
What is the greatest myth about the MiG-21?
“The epithet ‘Flying Coffin’ that was thrust upon it by some people; nothing could be farther from the truth. A couple of things need to be understood by all and sundry. Firstly, the MiG-21 is a fighter designed in the ’50s and inducted in the ’60s. Show me one fighter of that era which has a better safety record than a MiG-21. It is a single-engine fighter and when it loses that engine, it needs to be re-started (called a ‘relight’). More often than not it relights, but it takes a finite amount of time to relight any jet engine, so if you are below the minimum height (so with insufficient time to relight) you have to leave the aircraft. I haven’t heard of a single time when MiG-21 ejection seat quit on someone. I have had engine quitting on me, on take-off, and here I am giving this interview. I think calling the MiG-21 as ‘flying coffin’ is the biggest myth. Our previous Air Chief, ACM BS Dhanoa proved to everyone that indeed it is the safest of aircraft, by flying it as and when he could. In fact, his last flight was with Wing Commander Abhinandan.”
How combat effective is the MiG-21 today?
“MiG-21s have served its time well in the IAF and in couple of years we will see them being retired gracefully in totality. Even today MiG-21 Bison is serving IAF well. In the recent skirmish, remember it was the MiG-21 which got us an air-to-air kill.”
How reliable and easy to maintain is it?
“Like I said before, its safety record — in its class — is the best. You can’t compare it to modern fighters, you need to compare its safety record to Chinese Q-5s, American Phantoms, Starfighters, and English Electric Lightnings. It is a fighter of that time. Comparing with those fighters, it outlasted its peers easily. Why? Because of its performance and its ease of maintenance.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-21?
“The air intake cone that you see in front of a MiG 21, is not a simple cone. It is bi-conic: at high mach speeds two shockwaves form one oblique wave at the point where the cone angle changes angle and one at the intake lip. Both these shockwaves capture maximum pressure and slows the air down to 0.4 mach in front of the engine for it to work efficiently. This is not a well-known fact.”
What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the MiG-21
“Well there are no real MiG-21 pilots left in the world, not many young pilots are going to MiG-21 squadrons. The ones there are, they know everything that it is to know about it.”
Should it be retired?
“It is nature, everything, like you and me, will live our useful life. Humans who were originally associated with this beautiful machine are all long gone. She too will be retired one day, gracefully.”
“Our seniors told us do not engage a Harrier in a turning fight. Seduce him to go vertical then you can have him, post VIFFing she would take a long time to accelerate, that is the time to catch him. That’s what we did with the harrier, let him fall out of the sky and pick him. If you aren’t careful, the Harrier would have you, fair and square.”
What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a MiG-21?
“An outside drop. You can’t for certain say, you will be able to pull off and outside drop on a MiG-21 perfectly, every time. Outside drop is a manoeuvre in which you drop on to an enemy fighter who is turning away from you and you have to outmanoeuvre you aeroplane to reach the kill zone behind that aeroplane, perfectly.
What should I have asked you?
“You questions are well-designed. However, this interview is not enough to talk about everything that is interesting about the MiG-21. She is an institution in itself, being the jet fighter produced in the greatest number, and it has seen more action that any other jet fighter. It’s a ‘been there, done that’ aeroplane. I don’t think there will ever be a fighter that could come anywhere close to what the MiG-21 has achieved in its lifetime.”
In air combat with a MiG-29, who would have the advantage and why?
“Like I have said before, the MiG-21 is a pure manual fighter. She fights beautifully in the vertical plane, that’s why instantaneous and sustained turn rates aren’t relevant fighting a MiG-21. Vertically down or up, she can turn and catch any fighter at rates more than 90degs a second. I once flew a DACT mission against two MiG-29s, I didn’t engage them in a turning fight. I kept my fight vertical and got two kills. The deal with the MiG-21 is you cannot pitch your weakness against enemy’s strength. The MiG-21 fights well in the vertical plane and one shouldn’t be reluctant to use its vertical plane to fight.”
How would it perform in within-visual-range combat against a Hunter?
“I may be only few who flew against a Hunter and a Harrier. I must tell you this, in a low speed fight both these fighters will spin web around a MiG-21. MiG-21’s strength is in its speed, so the deal is keeping your speed high take them on in the vertical. Both will fall out of the sky, that is the time to pick them from top, like a hawk picking it pray from above.”
Hawker Hunter versus MiG-21
“This sortie was flown when Hunters were towing the target for us for air-to-air firing. Having finished the requisite numbers of missions, my CO decided to fly against a Hunter. The Hunter in turned around and scored a kill. A repeat manoeuvre was the same story. One couldn’t outmanoeuvre a Hunter in a turning fight, but the Hunter was a subsonic aircraft and beyond a particular speed she just wouldn’t accelerate. The key was to create separation from the Hunter and come from top, like a hawk.”
Sea Harrier versus MiG-21
“The story is similar with the Sea Harrier. The Sea Harrier does something called a VIFF (vectoring in forward flight) where she would turn around like a top in turning fight. Our seniors told us do not engage a harrier in a turning fight. Seduce him to go vertical then you can have him, post VIFFing she would take a long time to accelerate, that is the time to catch him. That’s what we did with the Harrier, let him fall out of the sky and pick him. If you aren’t careful, the Harrier would have you, fair and square.
At the end of the day, at the cost of repetition I say this: it is your ‘sang froid’, mastery of the machine, situational awareness and knowledge of the enemy aircraft. These is the sure recipe for a successful outcome in air combat.”
Manual aircraft have an advantage over fly-by-wire designs?
“These can’t be compared; modern machines are built with a purpose. The pilot is also an input in the control loop. His manoeuvring inputs are demands that the aircraft tries to meet, within the safety and manoeuvring parameters. Modern aircraft have many aids to assist the pilot and controller on ground or on the AWACS to make an informed decision. They all form important elements — spokes in the wheel — with the wheel being warfighting. Modern day warfighting is complex, spread out over hundreds of kilometres — and more often than not you will never get to see your kill. This is all opposed to an aircraft, like the MiG-21. The MiG-21 has no frills, only the joy of pure flying, akin to barnstorming if you will. It would be unfair to compare the MiG-21 to more modern aircraft, except in one aspect. That is: below the safety speeds — if you can still manoeuvre — manual aircraft let you do it. The danger involved in doing this is high though. In an FBW aircraft, below safe speeds or safe angles-of-attack the aeroplane takes control of the machine and only hands it over to you once you are safe to manoeuvre again. This is where manual aircraft can score over modern aircraft with FBW. But then in modern warfare it is not envisaged that you will ever get into such a scenario. If you do, you would either be long shot down or the enemy has run out of ammo and he is now engaged with you to finish your fuel and make you eject. There is no reason why a modern aircraft would engage you in low-speed fight if he knows he is at a disadvantage.”
Special thanks to Group Captain Vinod and Angad Singh.
Intercepting bombers at night was a desperate and demanding mission. For the night fighter pilot the stakes were extremely high: if the bombers get through they will kill your countrymen and destroy your cities. Guided (if you were lucky) by primitive radar and armed with weapons that often temporarily blind you, the night fighter pilot faced vast dark skies full of formations of aircraft armed with dozens, or even hundreds, of guns looking to shoot him down. In World War II, carrying the heavy armament and radar required for the mission, while remaining fast enough to catch intruders required the power of two engines.
The chaos and deliberately distorted reportage of ‘kills’ in wartime make the actual combat effectiveness of World War II hard to ascertain. There were more than ten night fighters worthy of inclusion: the Heinkel He 219 has a brilliant reputation, especially its reputation against the “untouchable” de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers”. One source* mentions that “In the next ten days the three Heinkel He 219A-0 pre-production aircraft [shot] down a total of 20 RAF aircraft, including six of the previously invincible Mosquitos. But no Mosquito losses were recorded in this period by the RAF and there is no record of any He 219 pilot claiming a Mosquito at this time, yet the myth of the He 219’s hammering of Mosquitos persists. The 219 was definitely a good night fighter though it was very heavy (the empty weight was greater than that of a fully loaded Mosquito), and its wing loading was very high for the period, though it was very well armed. With only 300 built however its historical importance was not enough to get it a top 10 placing. Likewise the Messerschmitt 262 certainly deserves a honourable mention.
10. Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu
Ki-45s were used as bomber escorts during the 1942 attacks on the Chinese city of Guilan where they were severally mauled by the P-40s of the Flying Tigers. Ki-45s met resistance in Hanoi later that year with the same devastating result. Realising this twin-engined heavy fighter was no match for fast agile single-engine opponents, it found gainful employment in the roles of ground attack, anti-shipping and fleet defence but it was in the interception role that the Ki-45 found its niche. The heavy armament of 37- and 20-mm cannon proved to be effective against the B-29 Superfortress raids which started in 1944. The Ki-45 KAId, was developed specifically as a night fighter, and it was intended to equip them with centimetric radar (though this never happened). The aircraft took part in night defence of the Home Islands with air wings from the autumn of 1944 to the war’s end. They obtained notable successes, and one Ki-45 sentai claimed 150 victories, including eight USAAF B-29 Superfortresses during their combat debut.
The first aircraft in the world designed from the outset to carry radar, the Black Widow was the largest fighter of the war. Despite being the size of a medium bomber (the P-61A’s wingspan was five inches less than a B-25J and its empty weight about 3000 lb greater) its performance was good, particularly climb rate. The P-61 pioneered the use of spoilers as its primary means of lateral control and it was surprisingly agile. It was therefore reasonable to assume the Black Widow should have had a spectacular career but it never quite lived up to its potential. The SCR-720 radar, the most radical design aspect of the aircraft, gave little trouble in service but there were other teething issues: canopies imploded and the turret caused protracted problems. Furthermore the P-61 arrived just as Axis air activity was winding down, targets were scarce and most German fighters and bombers by this stage of the war were faster than the enormous Northrop. Ultimately the P-61’s greatest contribution to the European campaign was probably as a ground attack aircraft. Nonetheless three P-61 pilots and two radar operators became ‘aces’ with five or more victories.
But probably the greatest problem the P-61 struggled to overcome was that it wasn’t the aircraft the Air Force wanted. That aircraft was the Mosquito, but due to the demand from the RAF none could be spared for the US until very late in the war. Despite more than one fly-off ‘proving’ the P-61 was the better aircraft, possessing better speed, rate of climb and manoeuvrability, doubts lingered amongst senior US personnel. Colonel Winston Kratz, director of night fighter training in the USAAF, who organised one of the fly-offs went so far as to suggest his own conspiracy theory concerning the RAF aircrew flying the Mosquito on test: “I’m absolutely sure to this day that the British were lying like troopers. I honestly believe the P-61 was not as fast as the Mosquito, which the British needed because by that time it was the one airplane that could get into Berlin and back without getting shot down…The P-61 was not a superior night fighter. It was not a poor night fighter. It was a good night fighter. It did not have enough speed.”
The Beaufighter was the best Allied night fighter until the advent of the Mosquito and operated at the time when the Luftwaffe was most active against the British Isles. On the 23rd of July 1940 a Bristol Blenheim (from which the Beaufighter was derived via the Beaufort torpedo bomber) had achieved the first ever successful interception using the revolutionary technology of airborne radar. Whilst incredibly significant, the Blenheim was an ineffectual fighter, slower than many of the aircraft it was intended to intercept. Luckily within less than two months of that first interception Beaufighters began operating with airborne radar, although it would take until November for the first radar-assisted Beaufighter ‘kill’. Compared to the aircraft it replaced the Beaufighter was in a different league. Although no one would ever describe it as particularly fast, especially when compared to the superlative Mosquito that would largely replace it, the Beaufighter had the performance necessary to deal with all German bombers.
The Messerschmitt Bf 110 ‘Zerstörer’ (‘Destroyer’) was truly a jack of all trades, but it was as a night fighter it did best. It was the mount of Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, the most successful night fighter pilot in history and he scored all off his 121 of his kills in it, including nine Lancasters on one night.
Initially built as a long-range escort fighter for Germany’s bombers, it saw moderate success in Poland, Norway, and Denmark—where it flew in a permissive environment and against poorly equipped opponents. However, its lack of manoeuvrability and poor tactics worked against in in the Battle of Britain. Forced to fly as a close escort to Luftwaffe bombers; the large, lumbering Zerstörer was easy prey for the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires.
In Africa and Russia; its speed, cannon armament, and ability to sling bombs also allowed it to perform well in the ground-attack role. But in the night fighting role that the Zerstörer truly came into its own. As a heavy fighter, it had space the accommodate a FuG 202 Lichtenstein radar as well as a dedicated radar operator. The radar had a rather modest range by today’s standards: a mere four kilometres. Nevertheless, with ground controllers vectoring night fighter units to within half a kilometre of enemy bomber formations, the set was good enough to accurately fix the bombers and allow the fighters to creep up on them from the rear.
Another plus in favour of the Zerstörer was its firepower. The front-firing 20-mm and 30 mm-cannon were powerful enough to damage or destroy Allied bombers within a few short bursts. Later variants, equipped with an upward-firing ‘Schräge Musik’ autocannon fitted in the rear cockpit, proved lethal. The RAF’s Lancaster and Halifax bombers—which lacked belly turrets—were particularly vulnerable. As the war wore on, however, the Bf-110 found its capability diminishing. In 1943, the US Eighth Air Force commenced daylight raids on Germany. The shift to daylight bombing, coupled with the B-17’s rearward and bottom-facing turrets neutralised the Zerstörer’s main advantage: stealth. No longer could night fighter units be relied upon to successfully shoot down Allied bombers while limiting their own losses. By 1944, as the USAAF began escorting its bombers with P-51 Mustangs, the writing was on the wall for the Bf 110. As with the Battle of Britain, the aircraft struggled against nimble, single-engine fighters, and the fleet suffered heavy losses. It was phased out of production by mid-1944.
(Incidentally Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, survived a mass of dangerous mission only to die from a fractured skull caused by a car crash in 1950 when his Mercedes was hit by a truck near Bordeaux.)
4. Douglas F3D Skyknight
Despite being saddled with possibly the worst nickname ever given to an aircraft: ‘Drut’ (the ‘sophisticated’ nature of which becomes clear when read backwards), the F3D was arguably the finest early jet to serve with the US Navy and the best night-fighter of the early ‘fifties. Because of the massive fire control equipment of the time, which required the use of three different radars, the Skyknight was a decidedly large and not exactly sleek aircraft but what it lacked in looks it more than made up in capability. The fire control system was extremely sophisticated for its era and proved effective, despite being a product of maintenance heavy pre-transistor valve technology.
Marine Corps F3Ds were deployed to Korea barely a year after the aircraft entered service and during the conflict scored more air-to-air victories than any other Naval type, despite there never being more than 24 aircraft in theatre. Much larger and considerably slower than its principal opponent, the vaunted MiG-15, somewhat surprisingly the hefty F3D could out-turn the Soviet fighter. More importantly its powerful electronics allowed it to locate and destroy other fighters by night whereas its opponents could only be guided towards targets by ground based radar. Over Korea the Skyknight became the first jet aircraft to intercept another jet at night as well as recording the first air-to-air victory achieved solely by radar, without visual contact between the aircraft and its target.
The F3D found itself increasingly outclassed as a fighter but the Skyknight was still in the frontline when the US found itself committed to war in Vietnam. Now designated the EF-10, with all its contemporaries long since retired, the Skyknight not only continued combat operations but again made history when it conducted the first Marine corps airborne radar jamming mission in 1965.
The Skyknights worked hard until they were eventually retired during 1970, a remarkable longevity of service for an aircraft of the F3D’s vintage. Even then its usefulness had not expired, the capacious fuselage and benign flying characteristics lent themselves to a swathe of experimental purposes and the Skyknight flew on into the 1980s.
3. Sopwith Camel ‘Comic’
2. Junkers Ju 88
Likely the most useful aircraft Germany ever produced, the Ju 88 excelled in every role it undertook. Its operational career in its design role as a bomber was winding down when it enjoyed a renaissance as the Reich’s most important night fighter of the late war period. Despite its bomber origins, the Ju 88 was a faster night fighter than the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and was notable for its manoeuvrability. Its greatest asset over the Messerschmitt fighter though was probably its endurance. With the forward bomb bay utilised for ammunition storage, the rear bay was used to carry fuel. The Ju 88G had an internal fuel capacity of over 2000 litres and boasted a prodigious loiter time, reassuring for crews – some earlier Wilde Sau night fighters had crashed due to running out of fuel before they could land. Early night fighter variants were something of a lash-up, retaining the bomb aimer’s gondola, which contributed to drag but by the end of 1943 Junkers were mass producing the purpose-built Ju 88G. Initially fitted with 1700 hp BMW radials, the Ju 88G-1 dispensed with the gondola and sported Ju 188 tail surfaces for improved handling. Standard armament was four 20-mm cannon in an under fuselage pod and some aircraft were fitted with two more cannon in a Schräge Musik installation. Crews had an array of sensors to home in on targets, most Ju 88Gs sporting FuG 220 Lichtenstein SN-2, the standard Luftwaffe intercept radar as well as FuG 227 Flensburg which detected signals from bombers employing the Monica tail warning radar, and FuG 350 Naxos Z which could detect H2S signals at ranges as great as 35 km. Most formidable of all to actually achieve anything like widespread service was the Ju 88G-6 which combined 1750 hp Jumo 213A V12 engines for a sparkling performance (though still some 50 mph less than the contemporary Mosquito NF Mk.30). A few were fitted with the outstanding FuG 240 Berlin radar, derived from captured British cavity magnetron technology. Probably the most formidable German night fighter, like many other brilliant Axis aircraft it was all a case of too little, too late.
- de Havilland Mosquito
The oft used expression “if it looks right it flies right” is a fallacy, but a fallacy that the Mosquito does its best to validate. Of course the looks are only the starting point; the combination of twin Merlins, good handling, slippery aerodynamics, and a composite structure that would only become the vogue decades later when everyone else discovered carbon fibre made for an aircraft with very few peers throughout the 1940s. It should come as no surprise then that the Mossie, conceived as an unarmed bomber but rapidly morphing into a multi-role combat aircraft, became a night fighter. The first deliveries of the NF Mk II, the first night fighter variant to see service, began in January 1942. The first nocturnal kill came in June, the first of over 600 before the end of the war. Truth be told it was actually the first two with Wing Commander Smith having a brace of successful interceptions on the one night. The Mosquito’s then radical construction readily lent itself to adaptation.
A crucial advantage during a period when the nascent science of airborne radar was leaping forward, a time when the war for technical supremacy as well as tactical was becoming ever more crucial. New improved sets could be accommodated, and the cockpit adapted to suit, with relative ease. True, the thimble-nosed NF.XVII was pug ugly but that is a minor consideration. More important was the deadly armament carried throughout. Four 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon kicking their staccato war cry through the airframe as bomber after bomber would come to meet their fate over England’s sleeping towns and cities. When the Luftwaffe retreated back across the Channel the Mosquito had the range to go hunting in foreign skies. Intruder sweeps, loitering around enemy airfields waiting to pounce on returning aircraft, even dawdling about pretending to be a four engined heavy. The faithful Mosquito carried her crews in relative comfort as they went looking for trouble, and had the capability to keep them safe when they found it. Few aircraft achieved so much, or stir the soul, like the Mosquito. In the rarefied world of those who seek their prey in the night sky no other aircraft even comes close.
*That’s from wiki but my own copy of Bill Gunston’s ‘The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Combat Aircraft of World War II’ (Salamander Books 1978) states:“The first six night sorties resulted in the claimed destruction of 20 RAF bombers, six of them the previously almost immune Mosquitoes!”
Woken up drunk in air combat with no idea who the enemy are? It’s happened to all of us, now thanks to this handy guide you will be able to tell your ‘Flankers’ from your Gripens, and avoid the embarrassment and social stigma of fratricide.
Some fighters look like a triangle with another smaller triangle in front, these are canard deltas.
A box that looks like a packet of tin-foil near the top of the tail. A big bent ‘walking stick’ near the front. And the ‘mouth’ is in two parts (on either side of the lower body) each shaped like a kidney. The front triangles (or canards) are close to the back triangles (the wings).
Relatively rare. Can be seen in France or in hot countries with poor human rights.
A big mouth like a VCR player (millennials will need to Google this). Sausage-like pods on the extreme wing tips – never missiles A lop-sided frog eye on one side near the window bit. Front triangle is a little further from the back triangle than the others.
Pretty common, can be seen in five European countries or hot countries with poor human rights.
Saab JAS-39 Gripen
Only one engine (the bum-hole at the back) and the little triangle is sharply swept. The mouths look like they could suck up a standing suitcase. It’s also smaller and more svelte than the other and has a pinched waist like it’s wearing a corset.
Relatively rare, can be seen in Central/Eastern European countries popular for stag-dos, Sweden and some other popular holiday destinations.
One bum-hole..is that the Gripen? Nope- it’s the J-10. Note the rounded wing tips and two little fins on the bottom near the back. Has a mouth like a small VCR player. Also, like the Rafale has a walking stick bit sticking out the front near the window.
Common…if you’re in mainland China, otherwise extremely unlikely to see.
Should be an easy one to spot. It’s MASSIVE. Has two vertical tails (unlike any other canard delta aircraft). Two bum-holes. Weird boat-like hull shaped body (like an F-22 or F-35). Wings are relatively small compared to the main body and the little triangles are extremely far from the big triangles. Like the J-10, it has little fins on the rear underside of the body. Looks like a cool futuristic baddy plane (bit like Firefox).
Rare unless you’re in mainland China, which as you’re reading this on the open internet, I assume you’re not.
These all have twin vertical tails (those big vertical fin things at the back on the top).
These guys have a big triangle at the front at a little triangle at the back, which looks more traditional.
Lockheed Martin F-22 Lightning II
The Raptor is big and loud and the cockpit canopy (the big glass window) reflects with a weird gold sheen (like that of the Rafale and F-35 it contains gold I think). The wings and tail are weirdly angular as if designed by a nerd with a ruler. Stealthy fighters look a bit like they haven’t been taken out of their packaging yet. The bum-holes look like zig-zaggy paddles or the vizor on a Gothic suit of armour. Zigzagged panel lines are there to help aircraft hide from radar, so are seen on stealthy designs like the F-22, F-35, J-20 and to a lesser extent, Rafale.
Rare, even in America.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
Is that an F-22? Nooooooooooo. Similar look, but whereas the Raptor looks like a perky athletic Alsatian guard dog with alert eyes and tail high, the F-35 looks a fatter hound drooping from exhaustion. F-35 has one bum-hole and smaller less swept wings. The F-35 is also smaller. The Chinese J-31 looks like it but hasn’t entered service yet, so let’s ignore it for now.
Reasonably common in the US, and in small communities around the world in rich countries. Sound cool by calling it by its US nickname of ‘Panther’.
McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
A proper round forward fuselage and great big ramped mouths on the sides. Note how the tails don’t cant out like those of the Raptor or Hornet. A huge round nose and a massive canopy. Looks a bit like a F-22 that’s been taken out the box, or a female version. Long stalky undercarriage (the wheels and the sticks that hold them on). Like with most US and Russian aircraft, the bum-holes are not right at the back but tucked in a bit, the horizontal tail is the furthest rear section.
Common in the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan with a sprinkling in some other countries.
Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’
Wait, is this an F-15? NO you dummy! It’s a ‘Flanker’. Looks more like a lovely bendy squashed swan than does an Eagle. Look how the mouths (the intakes for the engines) are lower, slung underneath the fuselage, and the nose curves down. The canopy is smaller and the bum-holes (the exhaust nozzles) go further back than the horizontal tail.
Here’s an Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers.
Common in Russia and with the airforces of everyone who hates (or is hated) by the US. Also found in India and Ukraine.
Mikoyan RAC MiG-29
Wait, this is just a little ‘Flanker’ right? Yes, in many ways it looks like a scaled-down Flanker. As it’s smaller, the canopy appears relatively bigger and the whole aircraft looks stubbier. Those flabby armpits (LERXes) that join the wing to the fuselage look bigger and more curved than a Flanker’s – also no bee sting.
Common in Russia and with the airforces of everyone who hates (or is hated) by the US and hasn’t got much money. Also found in India and Ukraine.
Interview with a MiG-29 pilot here.
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet & Boeing Super Hornet
The Super Hornet only got funding by pretending to be a Hornet, so despite being far bigger and containing mostly new stuff it retains a similar configuration. The main identifier is the intakes – like kidneys on the old Hornet and like slanted boxes on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Unlike a MiG-29, the intakes are mostly level with the fuselage, rather than underslung. The intakes are much further back than an F-15s and the vertical fins canted outwards. The Hornet also has a very long nose.
Mikoyan MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’
Does that F-15 look super hench? Has it Russian red stars on the wings? Do the intakes and exhausts look over-sized? That’s not an F-15, it’s a MiG-31. Unlike the F-15, the vertical fins are snipped diagonally at the top and it has ventral fins.
Commonish in Russia. Bizarrely also possible to see in Kazakhstan (my wifeeee etc.).
Grumman F-14 Tomcat
If you’re in Iran and see something that reminds you of Tom Cruise <insert joke about gay rights in Iran here>, then it’s an F-14. Unlike anything else, the wings swing and it has twin tails. Also has ventral fins.
Rare, but possible to see in Iran.
Tailess deltas have a big triangle wing and no little triangles.
Pretty. A simple shape, a big triangle wing, one bum-hole. The front (or leading-) edge of the wing is relatively straight. The intakes have spikes in them.
Pretty common in hot countries.
This a Mirage 2000? No! It’s smaller and the inboard section of the leading edge of the wing is at a shallower angle to the outboard section. It is also has a daintier rear end; it is the Kylie to the Mirage 2000’s Jennifer Lopez (or the Justin Timberlake to the Rock for non- gynephiles)
The other guys
Has a hole with a cone in it for a nose and a straight leading edge.
Has a hole with a cone in it for a nose and a straight leading edge and a kinked leading edge. Actually not all J-7s have a kinked wing, but I’ll leave you to work that out here. Little known fact, the NATO codename for F-7’s is ‘Fishcan’. It’s basically a MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ anyway.
Common in skint countries.
Lockheed F-16 & Mitsubishi F-2
A single vertical fin, a cropped delta wing and horizontal surfaces at the rear. One bumhole. A smiling mouth under the fuselage, a sleek look and on the petite side. Big bubble canopy. If it looks like an F-16 but has a different canopy and big red circles on it it’s a Mitsubishi F-2.
F-16: Common across the world.
F-2: Rare, Japan only.
CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder
Though CAC/PAC is a deeply unappealing name, the Chinese/Pakistani Thunder looks OK. Big round armpits, a single vertical fin, ventral fins and intakes with the outer lip forward. Build looks less plasticy and more old school than other fighters up close. Common in Pakistan, rare in Myanmar and likely to come to Nigeria soon.
Interview with a JF-17 pilot here.
Northrop F-5 series
Two tiny bum-holes – can I go home yet? Also, whole aircraft is tiny. Teensy little intakes. If it has twin tails than it’s the Iranian HESA Saeqeh, but that’s highly unlikely. Let’s have two pictures of the Saeqeh anyway, because it looks cool.
Dassault Mirage F1
Come on, how many more of these do I have to do? Bet some pedant notes a type I haven’t included and tweets me at 2AM to let me know in a pissy way. Alright, alright, it has ice cream cones in the intakes like the Mirage 2000 and looks pretty normal.
AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo
You will only see this is Taiwan. It looks like a mash-up of all the 4th generation fighters. You’re just not going to see this OK? Unless you’re in Taiwan and in that case look out for kidney shaped intakes, a single fin and conventional layout.
Right that’s it, I’m having a glass of wine and publishing this damn thing.
(You know what an F-4 looks like)