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Contest: name the British Aerospace P.1214-3 jet fighter

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature some superb profile illustrations. The first we commissioned was the BAe 1214-3, an unrealised Harrier replacement I’ve been in love with since I learnt about it in Bill Gunston’s ‘Warplanes of the Future’ in the 1980s. Now we’re offering you the chance to name* the 1214-3.

Here’s a couple of teasers from our forthcoming book:

The Pegasus engine with its steerable thrust blesses the Harrier with the ability to take-off and land vertically — and even fly backwards. Unfortunately you can’t put conventional afterburners on a Pegasus engine; there are several reasons for this – the hot and cold air is separated, the inlets do not slow the airflow sufficiently for serious supersonic flight, and the jet-pipes would be too short- and it would also set fire to everything (it was tried from the 1960s and proved problematic). This is a shame as a Harrier is desperate for thrust on take-off and could do with the ability to perform a decent high-speed dash. Though conventional afterburners are out of the question, you could however use plenum chamber burning (PCB). This technology was developed for the Mach 2 Hawker Siddeley P.1154 (think the lovechild of a Harrier and a F-4, with the wingspan of a Messerschmitt Bf 109) – which never entered service. PCB chucks additional fuel into a turbofan’s cold bypass air only and ignites it (a conventional afterburner puts the burning fuel into the combined cold and hot gas flows). This is great, but how do you incorporate this into swivelling nozzles without destroying the rear fuselage with heat and vibration? BAe thought it found the answer – get ride of the rear fuselage altogether, and mount the tail onto two booms. Worried that this already eccentric idea might seem too conventional, BAe decided to add an ‘X-wing’ configuration with swept forward wings (which were in vogue in the early 1980s). This did produce the coolest fighter concept of the 1980s, even in the -3 variant shown which had conventional tails.

The P.1214 would have been extremely agile (and short-ranged), probably comparable to the Yak-41. The P.1214 lost its swept forward wings when further studies revealed them to be of no great value. It now became the P.1216, which was intended to satisfy the USMC and RN’s desire for a supersonic jump-jet (a need eventually met by the F-35B). A full-sized wooden P.1216 was built to distract Thatcher from stealing children’s milk, predictably (as it was British) the whole project was scrapped. This was arguably a good thing as British military hardware testing and development was at its lowest ebb in the 1980s (see the Nimrod AEW.3, SA80 battle rifle, Foxhunter radar, Harrier GR5 compared to the US AV-8B, etc for details).

Prize for winning entry: your chosen name will be used in the book as the name of the P1214-3.

How to enter: we will only accept submissions in the comments section below this article at

(*The name is unofficial and this competition is not affiliated with BAE Systems)

Profile illustrations by The Teasel Studio.

Halloween Warplanes!

It’s that time of year again. The time when we all dress in masks and think about death! Oh wait, that sounds like all of 2020. To hell with reality… here are ten (plus) aircraft named after monsters, ghouls, dark forces, supernatural beings, and other Halloween things that go ‘bump’ or roar in the night. Arghhhhhhhhhh!

10. Lockheed AC-130 Spectre/Spooky/Ghostrider

What better aircraft to personify the spooky season than one that not only wields monstrous firepower but literally has “Spooky” in its name? (The now-retired AC-130U variant, anyway, named in homage to the gunship Herc’s predecessor, the venerable AC-47.)

9. Grumman Goblin

There must be an unwritten rule stipulating a porky aesthetic for any aircraft named ‘Goblin.’ The Grumman Goblin—Canada’s name for the FF-1 (its nickname of ‘Fifi’ was the opposite of scary) biplane fighter, built under license by Canadian Car & Foundry—is svelte and elegant compared to the other Goblin, the McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter from around two decades later, but could still benefit from a few treadmill sessions.
RCAF Goblins were used early in World War II on the home front, even though Ottawa viewed them (correctly) as horrendously obsolete. A handful of Canadian-built Goblins were used by the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, one even shooting down a Heinkel biplane. But these were renamed ‘Delfin’ (Dolphin), so they forfeit their Halloween cred.

8. McDonnell F2H Banshee

In Irish folklore, the bean sí is a female spirit whose wailing heralds death. A number of them keening together means the death of a king or priest. Doesn’t get much more haunting than that!

While folklorists have sometimes erroneously described the song of a banshee as mellifluous and alluring, we now know that they sound like a pair of Westinghouse J34 turbojets. After all, the F2H was said to “scream like a banshee,” hence its official name. And these are people with an intimate knowledge of the metaphysical.

While the Banshee performed well, with excellent agility and high-altitude performance that made it the ideal escort for USAF bombers early in the Korean War, the boost in Halloween-ness that comes from being named for a Celtic myth is somewhat offset by the fact that it saw virtually no combat, being quickly outclassed by swept-wing types and doing its best work as a reconnaissance aircraft.

7. Yakovlev Yak-25RV ‘Mandrake’

While on the subject of beings with harrowing voices, how about an aircraft named for a plant used in witchcraft, whose root screams when it’s dug up and kills all who hear it?

This rather haphazard attempt at an answer to the U-2 spy plane is a bit more innocuous than its NATO reporting name suggests…except maybe to its pilots. Produced by taking a Yak-25 interceptor—known by the decidedly less Halloweeny code name of ‘Flashlight’—and replacing its swept wings with straight wings more than twice the span of the fighter, then offloading the cannons in favour of cameras, the end result was something that probably should’ve gotten an entirely new manufacturer’s designation, as the tail assembly was all the Mandrake had in common with its armed progenitor.
The aircraft proved challenging to fly at stratospheric altitudes—the margin between its maximum safe operating speed and stalling speed was only six miles per hour—which, combined with primitive systems, poor engine performance, and a reputation for excessive vibration made it a very taxing aircraft for its crew. A planned high-altitude interceptor variant was never built.

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6. Nakajima Ki-49 Donryu ‘Storm Dragon’

There is perhaps no beast as terrifying as a dragon. Seriously, have you not seen Game of Thrones? Didn’t you read The Hobbit? (You would be forgiven for not seeing the films, or forgetting that you had.) These are extremely accurate retellings of verifiable historical events!
These beasts have lent their names to a plethora of aircraft, from the excellent (Saab J35 Draken) to the useless (Douglas B-23 Dragon). But to see dragonized aircraft reach their most alluring, we’ve got to travel East.
Now, it’s prudent to remember that Eastern mythology regards dragons quite differently than that of the West. They’re less Drogon than they are demigods. The Chengdu J-10’s nickname of ‘Vigorous Dragon’ is probably the coolest ever bestowed upon an aircraft, but in China, dragons are often benevolent beings. In Japan, on the other hand, they’re usually not so friendly, and ‘Storm Dragon’ sounds pretty badass, too.

The Ki-49, officially the Army Type 100 Heavy Bomber (a misnomer if there ever was one, as its maximum bomb load was less than half that of a Vickers Wellington), was intended as a bomber that wouldn’t need a fighter escort. Contrary to the common narrative about Japanese aircraft, it was heavily armed and armoured, and later versions had self-sealing fuel tanks, and therefore, should’ve ranked high on the scary scale. However, the type proved underpowered and ultimately vulnerable, and was eventually relegated to less draconian tasks like transport and maritime patrol.

5. Westland Wyvern

It’s interesting how many Asian aircraft are named after dragons, as dragons are usually sea creatures in their myths and don’t have wings. Wyverns, on the other hand, do have wings. In fact, it’s been noted that many of the ‘dragons’ found in our contemporary stories are, in fact, wyverns.

Alas, the aircraft that bears their name was infernal in all the wrong ways. Though it did see some combat in the Suez Canal crisis, the Westland Wyvern was plagued by a litany of mechanical and performance issues; most notably, early carrier trials revealed a tendency for the turboprop engine to flame out under the high g-forces of a catapult launch. This particular problem would eventually be rectified, but more than thirty percent of the production run was written off, and the type served only five years.

4. McDonnell F3H Demon

When you name your aircraft the Demon, it’s either got to be either menacing or murderous. Alas, the F3H was very much the latter, seemingly in competition with the Vought F7U Cutlass to create the most dangerous (for its pilots) naval aircraft in history.

Awkwardly proportioned and ungainly in appearance when viewed from the side, the Demon nonetheless looks like it should be a very fast aircraft. But as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Despite its sleek shape, sharply swept wings, and afterburning turbojet engine, it was resolutely subsonic. Most of the type’s demons—pun somewhat intended—arose from poor powerplant choices. The F3H-1 featured the diabolical Westinghouse J40, which delivered only half the thrust it was supposed to and suffered from pitiful reliability. Eleven Demons were lost in accidents in just over three years, resulting in the deaths of four pilots, the entire fleet being grounded, a damning exposé in Time magazine, and a Congressional inquiry into the Navy’s aircraft acquisition process. The F3H-2M variant, upgraded to carry the then-new AIM-7 Sparrow missile, was fitted with the Allison J71, since unlike the far superior Pratt & Whitney J57, that engine could be inserted into the airframe without significant modification. With barely enough range to fly out of sight of the carrier, the new Demon was just as cursed.

But not all about the F3H was as devilish as things might seem. The type’s cockpit did possess excellent visibility—great for seeing the water rushing up to meet the doomed pilot as his mount plummeted off the catapult, its engine struggling to produce enough thrust to move a child’s wagon, if it hadn’t flamed out already—and it would go on to sire the #2 finalist on this list, which fared just a wee bit better.

3. PZL M-15 Belphegor

If naming an aircraft the Demon isn’t hellish enough, then how about one named specifically after one of the seven princes of Hell? Belphegor is an entity often associated with the sin of Sloth, appropriate for the slowest jet aircraft ever built, with a top speed of just 120 mph—significantly slower than that of the Antonov An-2 it was supposed to replace in the agricultural sphere. Being slower than an An-2 is blasphemy against the laws of physics, but the Poles somehow managed it (though the Belphegor’s stalling speed of 67 mph was a good bit higher than the Annushka’s). The prevailing wisdom is that the aircraft’s name was inspired by the fact that it’s so noisy; its Ivchenko AI-25 turbofan infamously sounds like an overpowered leaf blower. It’s also fitting that Belphegor the demon is said to seduce the unwary into thinking they’ve invented something that will make them rich. If that’s what the Soviets (at whose behest the Belphegor was conjured) thought they had with this thing, then the demon had surely deceived them, as it proved far too expensive to produce and operate on a large scale, difficult to handle compared to the famously docile An-2, and while effective enough at dusting crops, not so good as to justify the cost of replacing the trusty old Antonov.
The world’s only jet biplane gains significant Halloween cred because it shares its name with a death metal band. And because it’s ugly as sin. One can only imagine its creators extolling its ability to defend a field without spraying an ounce of chemical—one look at this ghastly thing coming, and every insect in Eastern Europe will instantly flee for its life.
To further highlight the demonic aircraft naming tendencies of a largely and adamantly Catholic (even in Communist times) country, we shan’t forget the seemingly innocuous and rather attractive TS-8 trainer, named the Bies—a folk name for Satan himself. I’m not sure what it says about a country’s aviation industry or its flight training curriculum when one of its instructional airframes is named after the personification of eternal suffering, but then, I’m not Polish.

I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the book link .  The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes. Preorder your copy today here!

2. McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

Ice Storm by RadoJavor

You might’ve heard of this aircraft. One was used to fly an organ transplant from North Dakota to San Francisco back in the Eighties. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!
(Get it? You didn’t see it, because it’s a phantom? Ha ha, I’m so clever.)

Note from Editor: that joke is unacceptably poor. Carry on.

The F-4 is the second USN jet fighter to be called the Phantom, hence ‘Phantom II,’ but despite (officially) being the first American jet to make a carrier landing, the FH-1 Phantom had few accomplishments beyond being the mount of an unofficial Marine Corps display team, cleverly called the Marine Phantoms, and only sixty production aircraft were built. The Phantom II exceeded that run by the small margin of over five thousand. That’s a spooky amount of warplanes! But, while it’s undeniably a legend, and a good-looking one at that—who are these so-called ‘enthusiasts’ who keep calling the F-4 ugly, and what’s wrong with their eyes?—should it really have been called the Phantom? With a radar cross section somewhere between six and ten square meters, it stands out on a scope like a nudist in a nunnery, and most versions’ J79 turbojets belch out black smoke as if to mark their ethereal territory with it. And, if happen not to see it, you’ll definitely hear it.

Whatever your position, let’s all agree: Phantoms Phorever.

1. de Havilland Vampire

Flames from the engine of de Havilland Vampire NF.10, WP252, of 25 Squadron are caught on start-up as the aircraft is prepared for night sortie from West Malling, Kent, on 25 February 1952. Copyright: © Crown Copyright / Ministry of Defence. Courtesy of Air Historical Branch (RAF)

Were you expecting any other winner than Dracula’s favorite aircraft?
I must say, it’s not a good look the British, and not the land whose gushing veins nurtured Vlad Dracul, produced this entry. Bloody hell, Romania, step up your game!


Flying & fighting in the Gloster Javelin: Hot & humid in the ‘Flying Flat-iron’ – an interview with an RAF Javelin pilot

The Gloster Javelin was the world’s first twin-jet delta-wing fighter. It was the Royal Air Force’s best interceptor of the 1950s, and was almost brilliant. It did what it was asked to do. It was a large heavily armed (albeit subsonic), day-night all-weather fighter. Unfortunately, the opposition moved the goals by developing air-launched stand-off missiles, requiring the sort of high-speed interceptor performance that simply could not be delivered by the Javelin. We spoke to former Javelin pilot Peter Day to find out if it deserved its bad reputation.

“I joined the RAF Javelin ‘Force’ via an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) in 1965 as a very young pilot with 248 all jet flying hours, as was the habit in those days, and arrived on the frontline in 1966 with an additional 60 hours divided between Javelin T Mk 3 and FAW Mk 9. These recollections are from a frenetic first tour based in Singapore but with frequent detachments to Butterworth in Malaysia, Borneo and ultimately Hong Kong. The role was effectively ‘Colonial Policing’ in the Tropics which as I rapidly discovered was a million miles (5880 nautical miles actually) away from night/all-weather high level air defence as taught on the OCU. I had to immediately get to grips with ISA +15 operations* in 80% humidity at low level over jungle and sea, with the occasional medium level dissimilar combat flight or transit to outstations, not to mention the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Conversion Zone) which conspired to provide dense cloud, rain and lighting at the most inconvenient moments. Quite a first tour education. I eventually flew 565 hours on three Javelin variants.”

“With due regard to Top Gun who probably learnt it from the Javelin, the use of airbrakes to embarrass an opponent in close combat, force a fly through or past or at least negate a guns solution was a well know party trick.”

*15 degrees warmer than International Standard Atmosphere for a given altitude

60 Sqn over the Malacca Straits with the legendary ‘fish traps’ in the background. The fish traps look like the stars at night, which is very disorienting and cluttered the radar.

Which units were you with on the Javelin and when? 

“No 228 OCU RAF Leuchars Dec 1965 – Apr 1966. No 60 Squadron RAF Tengah Apr 1966 – May 1968.”

How would you describe the Javelin in 3 words? 

“Stable, controllable, effective.”

What was the best thing about it?

Peter Day today, standing next to a Folland Gnat.

“Relative simplicity, if it started it would fly and the systems were robust and would usually work, mostly due to the considerable efforts of the groundcrew.”

And the worst?

“1950s design e.g. Sapphire engine, a quaint starting system of electrically fired cartridge initiated AVPIN, Wellington ‘bomb slips’ as undercarriage uplocks, the relative inaccessibility of most aircraft components – Gloster must have had shares in the panel screw makers. Finally there were flight envelope peculiarities due to the ‘delta’ configuration.”

“A complete box of Tiger Beer would fit into each gun magazine and be perfectly cooled after flight”

 The Javelin has a bad reputation, is this deserved? 

“It was routinely developed in line with contemporary knowledge, modified and updated by Mark in service to compete with ‘Warsaw Pact’ aircraft development, but as a 1950s night/all-weather bomber destroyer it was very effective. If pilot’s took liberties with the flight envelope, which in fairness was not very well described, bad things would happen e.g. at very low speed the elevator artificial feel system would command nose-down pitch, reminiscent of a recent Boeing ‘safety’ device, which was unhelpful in vertical manoeuvring demanding a large increase in pilot stick input to overcome which lead to looping being banned for all the wrong reasons. The ‘rolling ‘g’ limit’ was eventually discovered to be +2g at full aileron deflection.”

How would you rate the weapons effectiveness?

“The four Aden cannon cross-harmonised for tail intercept were very effective indeed and provided a great surprise fired air-into-air at high level during the OCU course accompanied by gun clatter, cordite smell and a flame enveloped upper wing. Air-to air gunnery on the flag was very hit and miss as the ‘cold war’ gun harmonisation did you no favours with a calculated ‘in-range’ bracket of 10yds, one hit was a triumph. The air-to-ground ‘sniping’ carried out towards the end of it’s career was usually very enthusiastic and very inaccurate. 

The de Havilland Firestreak fitted from 1959 was an infra-red target seeker with an effective range of about 3km in a 30º tail cone in Northern Europe. In warmer climes the seeker head would follow anything but the desired target, sun, water reflection, moon on occasions but luckily the 4.5inch parachute flare which was the firing target for missile practice launches. My allocated Firestreak worked as advertised and the flare dropping Canberra crew didn’t get too excited but it did cost beer. 

How would you rate the radar’s effectiveness?

The airborne radar AI17 was basic having developed from wartime radar technology. B/C scopes (range+azimuth, range+elevation) without PPI so relatively poor situational awareness unless very experienced. Intercepts without Ground Control were not in any way guaranteed and reliance on scan with some height/range clues made for a lot of ‘seat of the pants’ intercept geometry. “A peep is worth several sweeps” came into play a lot. Fighter lane operations were planned in the UK in the event of total GCI outage.

 Operation at low level with ground clutter and high temperature/humidity rendered it a very fine art form indeed. Interestingly there was the capability to reproduce the ‘locked-on’ blip on the pilot’s collimator gunsight with an added horizon reference for close quarters identification operations. However, this could be inaccurate, misinterpreted and lead to some very unusual aircraft attitudes at very low level. Definitely used with enormous caution, mostly verbal from the back seat.”

What is the biggest myth/misunderstanding about the Javelin? 

“It couldn’t turn. Thrust/weight ratio was 0.79 with a relatively low wing loading of 34 lb/sq ft (170 kg/m2) so with 4+g available it could corner high or low but at altitude it was very effective with reheat engaged.”

Was it well made? 

“The airframe was pretty impervious – ‘boiler plate’ weighing 14 tonnes unfuelled. Some individual electrical components e.g. fuel contents sensors, radio aids and radar were frequently in need of attention due to poor waterproofing.”

Hunter versus Javelin: which cockpit would you choose to be in if they faced each other in a dogfight and why? 

“Assuming my Hunter had the ‘shiny switches mod’ and it was a clear air mass then turning performance should win the day. There is some HOTAS in my Javelin and two-person cockpit helps with radar ranging and missile lock but I would have to see first and sneak round to 6 o’clock, so night or weather (NAW) preferred. Hunter for day, Javelin for NAW.”


“Very moderate at low level as relatively low power, low ‘g’ could not take advantage of the low wing loading. At altitude increased power and sufficient ‘g’ would produce quite a good turn but speed would be sacrificed.”


“Quite respectable at low level as the factors combine to produce quite a small radius, likewise at altitude.”


“Low level the engines will fly the airframe beyond the speed limit quite quickly which incidentally roughly coincides with maximum available tailplane angle so level flight cannot be maintained. At altitude using reheat acceleration from .7M to .93M is seconds not minutes, but drag e.g. underwing tanks or missiles are a considerable disadvantage low or high.”


“High level pretty good, low level very good but thirsty.”


“5400fpm S/L ISA”


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“As a 1954 era night/all weather bomber destroyer very good. In the  colonial policing role it is difficult to answer as you’d have to interview the insurgents. But it certainly had loiter time and a heavy guns capability albeit inaccurate.

Quite what we were hoping to achieve with the aircraft in Hong Kong during the communist riots escapes me, but it was probably a statement of intent rather than a show of force against a particular threat.”


“It had a large cockpit with everything to hand and easy to operate EXCEPT the TMk3 emergency undercarriage release handle on the right sidewall behind your elbow. Considerable contortions were required to select down as happened one night on the OCU course much to the amusement of my ‘new’ navigator partner in the rear seat. The FAW Mk9 had no such secondary system hence the occasional asymmetric gear landing.”

What was your most notable mission? 

“At the risk of overindulgence – two. Well they won’t be as notable as Mandy weeing into a bottle over the desert.

Staging from Tengah, Singapore to Kai Tak, Hong Kong via Labuan, Malaysia and Clark Field, Manila with a point of no return over the South China Sea on the last leg.

The Hong Kong trip was notable in that it had a nightstop on Labuan Island, a nightstop at Clark Field, Manila and then just over an hour and a half to Kai Tak, Hong Kong with no credible destination alternate other than the other side or end of the main runway and ‘mind the airliners’. The only available ‘crash’ diversion if Kai Tak became unusable was Sek Kong airfield in the New Territories which was a disused WWII airfield with no aids in a bowl in the hills used for Gurkha field regiment driver training. It therefore became a ‘point of no return’ operation from Clark to Kai Tak and once you descended you were going to Hong Kong, no weather alternate and no sensible ‘crash diversion’. During the subsequent week long detachment ‘flag waving’ no-notice practice diversions and low approaches were flown through the hills and over Sek Kong much to the chagrin of the driving instructors and alleged discomfiture of the driver trainees who could be seen taking avoiding action in all directions although I couldn’t possibly comment. Reports were received!

Leading a Diamond 9 formation as a junior pilot ‘lucky winner’.  

The Diamond 9 is a personal thing only and frankly not reportable as it was absolutely routine as a last flight of the month event and the lucky junior pilot got to lead.”

How combat effective do you think it would have been?   

“Very against Soviet era medium bombers at all altitudes Bison, Badger, Bear and Brewer where tail quarter missile attacks or ‘vis-ident’ to line astern guns were high probability kill options. More so in poor weather or at night when bomber awareness would be reduced.

In the Colonial Policing role it was fairly effective, the FAW 9(R) with 4 tanks had good range, heavy firepower and the afterburners lit with an audible bang which anecdotally frightened the dissidents.”

How did it compare with its Russian and American counterparts? 

A Gloster Javelin FAW.9R of No 23 Squadron banks away from the camera showing the missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. IWM (RAF-T 2151)

“The USA was embarking on a whirlwind development of the Century series clear airmass day interceptors to replace the F-86 Sabre; the F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief, F-106 Delta Dart and eventually the F-4 Phantom. The direct competition in age and role were the  Northrop F-89 Scorpion 1950 (2 crew, 2 engines, good radar, 6 cannon, A/A rockets and basic IR missiles) and F-101B Voodoo 1957 (2 crew, 2 engine, radar and data link GCI, 4 missiles).

The Scorpion was ‘clunky’, a very basic all-weather fighter with less performance than the Javelin but very similar radar and early IR missile performance. 

The Voodoo was the 2 crew derivative of the F101 ‘one-oh-wonder’ interceptor and had supersonic performance, slightly improved missiles but only fire-control radar relying on data-link for direct control of the aircraft during interception. Not a firm aircrew favourite.

The Soviet (Russian) air order of battle included MiG 17 Fresco, MiG 19 Farmer , MiG 21 Fishbed and Sukhoi Su-9 Fishpot . All relied on GCI and were clear air mass interceptors with GCI assistance. Direct competition was the Yakolev Yak-25 Flashlight ’A’ 1955 (2 crew, 2 engines, good radar, twin cannons, A/A rockets), Yakolev Yak-28P Firebar 1964 (2 crew, 2 engines, 2xAA-3 Anab missiles, one semi-active radar, one IR).

The NATO codename ‘Flashlight’ featured wing installed engines and a fairly aerodynamically efficient fuselage with room for a powerful radar and lots of fuel. On introduction to service only unguided A/A rockets and twin cannon were available, missile technology never caught up with the aircraft and it remained undeveloped. Similar speed as the Javelin but much lower ceiling. 

The ‘Firebar’ was faster and could climb higher than the Javelin with longer endurance. It carried an improved radar over ‘Flashlight’ and a choice of missile guidance but only 2 and no guns.”

What equipment would you have liked to have seen added to the Javelin? 

“If the fuel control system could have been modified and fuel flow rates improved to allow for efficient reheat at low level the Javelin would have been quite a handful, but there was no identified fighter threat other than the Indonesian “Mad Major” in his Mustang at Medan staging a trophy raid. The usual plea from the back seat for a PPI radar or any range improvement would have had a significant effect.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the Javelin.

“FAW Mk 9(R) carried up to four underwing tanks on cranked pylons to avoid the main undercarriage doors, and a scaffolding pole bolted to the fuselage next to the cockpit canopy as a probe, extending some 5ft beyond the radar nose introducing ‘the sport of kings’ air-to-air refuelling or at least a new jousting  format.

A complete box of Tiger Beer would fit into each gun magazine and be perfectly cooled after flight.”

Did the aircraft have a nickname? 

“The flying flatiron.”

What was it designed to intercept / fight against?

“Soviet medium/heavy strategic bombers 1955-65.”

What was the operational concept?

“Parallel displaced, crossing or overtaking radar or visual interception to stern attack for either vis-ident followed by guns or a heat-seeking missile launch.”

Could it intercept a Victor, or Vulcan, or Canberra PR9 at max altitude?


How long did the gas last in afterburner?

“Not a simple answer but at low level a matter of a few  minutes. The Javelin had a 12% augmented reheat not afterburner so an unusual fuelling and control design.  It was On/Off, no modulation and had first usage of the FCU fuel available from the HP pumps reducing the feed to the hot core reducing engine rpm. Although 20,000ft and above was the design usage altitude, cross over was about 8000ft depending on entropy and below that it was a ‘local scaring’ fuel dumping device. Real performance improvement was achieved above 20,000ft but loss of RPM at low level could be 15%.”

How good / bad / reliable, etc was the radar?

“The AI17 was a development of the wartime MkIXC and as mentioned above was moderately low power, low definition and a less than desirable mix of presentations. It’s  performance was very yes it’s on or no it’s broken and temperature/humidity had much to do with that. If it switched on, at low level looking up and at medium and high level it was 20nm+ scan on a similar target but lock was unpredictable affecting missile usage, and level or look down at low level was non existent.”

What was it like to fly? Any major operational restrictions?

“It was very pleasant to fly with no heavy stick forces at all but as we eventually discovered it had a very low rolling ‘g’ limit with full aileron defection limited to +2g. This limit either was not included or was so well hidden in the Release to Service that no thought was given to that aspect of the performance envelope. Although night/all weather operations might not have required dynamic manoeuvring, Colonial Policing required more flexibility and it cost an airframe and lives.”

Anything it could do that would surprise an opponent?

“Specifically fitted for use during radar interceptions the ‘barn door’ airbrakes were designed to stop you immediately from your sensible overtake speed into a ‘visual’ position behind a hostile. With due regard to Top Gun who probably learnt it from the Javelin, the use of airbrakes to embarrass an opponent in close combat, force a fly through or past or at least negate a guns solution was a well know party trick. However it did leave you perilously short of energy but 4 Adens went a long way towards rectifying that disadvantage.”

It had an unhappy development history – any problem with stalling behaviour in service?

“No-one in their right mind would deliberately stall a Javelin. There were suitable warning systems in place and the elevator artificial feel system was designed to introduce nose-down pitch at very low speed assuming you had slowed beyond the light aerodynamic warning given by the vanes on the wing top surface. Incidentally these vanes were a serious threat to health on cockpit evacuation if you chose or were forced by water/fuel/ice to slide down the wing towards the tip on your rear. Immersion suits and other things were egg sliced during this manoeuvre.”

Was it reliable? Did it have maintenance bug-bears?

“Although the ground crew liked the aircraft in general there were individual system issues and many were very difficult to access for rectification. If there was an engine starting issue, particularly with the Mk9 and (R) electrically fired cartridge initiated AVPIN, things got out of hand very quickly and rapid evacuations were required upwind. The TMk3 relied on a large gas generating cartridge screwed into the starter motor and fired electrically, simple and effective but very heavy and tricky to change.

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Sapphire engine ‘centreline closure’ (CC) was a ‘thing’ and after several unexplained aircraft losses the problem was identified in 1962 as the compressor casing cooling faster than the drum when in cloud causing the fixed stator shrouds and blades to foul the rotating shrouds catastrophically. The problem had been present since the introduction of the more powerful engine but operations in the Tropics in the ITCZ with Cb penetration increased the severity and incidence. The “Rockide” abrasive compound solution caused the rotating blade tips to be ground down on the coated casing, coarse but effective.

This issue was to cause me, not to mention my ‘first tour’ navigator, several tense minutes during a post CC engine change flight test when half way through the schedule on the ‘new’ engine the existing engine exhibited CC symptoms and failed followed by our expeditious return to Butterworth single engine and retire to the bar.

Added to this, scheduled engine strip-down had discovered harmonic vibration fatigue and operation below 10,000ft other than for take-off or landing was banned in 1965. This was quite quickly rescinded but the the rpm band 86-92% was embargoed so low level operations were conducted one engine up, one engine back.

It was old, fairly fatigued due to enthusiastic low level operation and prone to water ingress issues from standing outside in monsoons. But unless it caught fire or exploded it flew very precisely if sedately and had a small bag of tricks for the unwary opponent.”

Was the Gloster Javelin Actually Terrible?

This FAW 9(R) is over Borneo escorting a Hastings airdrop.

By Jim Smith

What a fabulous, futuristic-looking aircraft was the Javelin. Flown for the first time on November 26 1951, the Javelin was described (admittedly in 1955) as ‘Structurally and aerodynamically, the Javelin night and all-weather interceptor fighter is perhaps the most impressive aircraft yet produced to fulfil this role’. While today one might regard this as a bit of an over-statement, there’s no denying that the Javelin is an impressive looking aircraft.

It is important to recognise that its contemporaries in this field in US service were the F-89 Scorpion, the F-94C Starfire, the F2H Banshee and the F3D Skyknight, all of which would have been easily out-performed by the Javelin. The three US aircraft were to be replaced in service by the F-101D Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-106 Delta Dart and the F-4 Phantom, all much more capable aircraft. Meanwhile, the UK went down a different path leading to the Lightning point-defence interceptor, the F-4K Phantom, and the Tornado F3.

Context and Requirements

When assessing an aircraft, it is important to consider the requirements which drove the design, and consider how they affected the choices made in developing the aircraft. The Javelin was brought into service in an environment where there was intense competition between the US and its Allies, and Russia. The tension had been ramped up by the Russian blockade of Berlin, leading to the Berlin Air Lift, and it was clear that a new Cold War had replaced the conflict of the Second World War. The Korean War had started during the development of the aircraft, and had shown the capabilities of both Soviet and American combat aircraft.

In addition, aircraft and weapons technology was advancing at a furious pace, driven by this contest between Nations and ideologies, and by the opportunities presented by the availability of jet engine technology, allied with (largely) German aerodynamic knowledge. Furthermore, the lead in atomic weapons established by the explosion of the Trinity device on July 16, 1945, was rapidly evaporating, with Soviet  development of the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb following much more closely than expected.

The first Soviet Atomic bomb test had taken place in August 1949, followed by a Thermo-nuclear device in August 1957. With the rapid pace of aeronautical development, it was clear to Defence planners that air defence would soon be required capable of deterring and defeating jet bombers able to carry atomic weapons, and that in the event of an attack, interception of the bombers would need to be achieved before they could reach the UK to drop their weapons.

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Moreover, this new capability would be required at night, and in all weathers, meaning that the air defence aircraft would have to carry radar to allow interceptions to be carried out at night, and in poor visibility. This was not going to be possible in the single-seat fighter aircraft being developed in parallel, the Hunter and the Swift, and a specialised all-weather and night fighter was needed. This was to be the Javelin.

The aircraft was developed in response to specification F4/48, which called for a two-seat, twin-engine all-weather interceptor fighter, that would counter enemy aircraft at heights of up to at least 40,000 feet. It would also have to reach a maximum speed of at least 525 knots at this height, and be able to reach an altitude of 45,000 feet within ten minutes of engine ignition.

Additional requirements included a minimum flight endurance of two hours, a take-off distance of no more than 4500 ft, and the equipment of the aircraft with airborne interception radar, and communication and navigational aids.

The threat that the aircraft was expected to counter would have been nuclear armed jet bombers, with broadly the performance of the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan, which were being developed for RAF service. In practice, the Tupolev Tu-16 ‘Badger’ and Tu-20 ‘Bear’ would have been the main targets of interest. To counter these aircraft, the Javelin was initially armed with 4 30 mm Aden cannon, and later 2 cannon and 4 Firestreak air-to-air guided missiles.

Given the payload, performance and endurance requirements, the Javelin was always going to be a large aircraft. The delta wing configuration was selected to provide a big wing area to meet altitude performance requirements, and significant internal volume to meet endurance requirements. The trade-off here was that the relatively thick wing of the Javelin limited it to subsonic speeds – but that was OK because it was designed to combat a subsonic threat.

The choice of a tailed-delta configuration is of particular interest, and was driven by the requirement to operate off a relatively short 4500 ft runway. To take-off and land the relatively heavy aircraft, which had a loaded weight of up to 19.9 tonne, off such a runway would require some form of high lift system, something that is not normally possible on a pure delta, because of the difficulty of trimming the aircraft once flaps are deployed. The T-tail provided the necessary control authority to trim the aircraft with flaps deployed, and the flaps gave an added benefit for night operations, in avoiding the high angle-of-attack and poor forward visibility on the approach of a pure delta configuration. The relatively thick wing section not only allowed good internal volume for fuel, but would, with the flap system, have allowed a slower approach speed for landing.

The demanding requirement for endurance, heavy armament, two crew, and a large radar drove the size and weight of the design. When combined with equally demanding take-off and landing requirements, the tailed delta became a successful solution, with airbrakes and flaps minimising the approach speed, and improving forward visibility.


Development of the aircraft was a little problematic. The first issue to come to light was the loss of a prototype due to elevator flutter, both elevators being lost in flight, and the aircraft recovered with superb airmanship, using tail trim and engine throttle to  control the aircraft down to a forced landing. Eventually, the aircraft was fitted with an all-moving tailplane to resolve this issue. A second aircraft was lost due to a deep stall accident, and further aircraft were lost after failing to recover from spins. These accidents resulted in aerodynamic modifications, including the fitting of vortex generators to the wing and fitting a stall warning system. In addition, modifications were made to the rear fuselage and engines to cure buffeting of the rudder, and to increase thrust. Two alternative radar systems were also used, the British AI 17 radar, and the American AI 22.

While the development programme is sometimes referred to as protracted, the aircraft transitioned from first flight on 26 November 1951, to entry into service in February ’56, just over 4 years later. Delivery of the final FAW 8/9 variants started in 1957. The FAW 9 was essentially an FAW 7 brought up to a similar standard to the FAW 8. 6 years from first prototype to fully developed capability, with good endurance, and heavy armament really does not seem too bad an achievement.

So far, JSF development has taken 20 years to progress to the delivery of its baseline capability, albeit with a number of outstanding risks and issues. A modernisation program is now underway, albeit (according to the GAO) without a fully defined and costed business case, and FOC has yet to be achieved.

From a slightly later period than the Javelin, it is worth taking a look at the development of the Convair F-102. This was evolved from the less-than-successful XF-92A, which might be seen as a demonstrator aircraft. The first YF-102A flew on 24 October 1953, and the first fully developed aircraft flew in May 1957, in which time the aircraft had acquired a new fuselage, 11 ft longer than the YF-102A, a new canopy, new air intakes, a new larger fin, modified undercarriage and airbrakes, and a new cambered wing. This rather comprehensive development was followed by a modernisation program that added a datalink, changed the fire control system and added an IR tracker.

So, Was the Javelin Actually Terrible?

This sort of question should only be answered in the historical context. Of course, the Javelin’s performance looks pedestrian when you compare it with the Lightning. The P1B first flew in April 1957, and the first Lightning Squadron stood up in July 1960. The early Lightning offered double the speed, but about a quarter of the endurance, and half the armament of the Javelin. It really was a point-defence interceptor.

The Javelin was designed when the threat was essentially subsonic bombers, carrying gravity-drop nuclear weapons. Once the threat had changed to nuclear-armed stand-off weapons, requiring rapid reaction response from either Quick Reaction Alert or standing Combat Air Patrols supported by air-to-air refuelling tankers, the subsonic Javelin became largely irrelevant, at least in terms of the air defence of the UK.

At the time, however, the UK still maintained its interest in air policing the far-flung colonies, particularly those East of Suez or in the Tropics. In these arenas, particularly operating from Tengah, Singapore during Indonesia – Malaysia tensions in the early 60s; in Hong Kong during the Chinese Cultural revolution; and in Zambia during the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence crisis, the Javelin could still play a useful deterrent role.

So, was the Javelin actually terrible? Surprisingly, my answer is no. It did what it said on the packet. Large, heavily armed, with good endurance, and day-night all weather capability, it delivered the specified performance. The real problem was that the unsporting opposition had moved the goalposts. The emerging needs for eye-watering acceleration, climb rate, and dash speed to counter cruise-missile carriers, simply could not be met by the Javelin, with its thick wing.

Relaxation of the short runway requirement, and with the adoption of more powerful engines, a more sophisticated intake system, an area-ruled fuselage, and a thin wing, and the UK might have had a Mirage-like world-beater in the late-fifties. Given the 1957 Duncan Sandys death-blow, leading to an interregnum in manned fighter design, and the fact that the Lightning was already in development, the thin-wing Javelin was a non-starter. The Javelins were withdrawn from operational service in April 1968. A few remained serving the needs of the school of Air Traffic Control at RAF Shawbury for a while, with the very last flying aircraft remaining at Boscombe Down until 1975.

(RAF-T 4036)

The Javelin, the Kingfish & what’s wrong with the Typhoon: warplane thoughts

What was the father of the modern fighter? You could present a reasonable case for the Gloster Javelin, with its large radar, four-missile armament and delta wing. In fact we happen to be sharing an interview with a Javelin pilot this week on Hush-Kit, in which we learnt that the ‘Tripe Triangle’ probably wasn’t as bad as we always thought it to be. Then again, you could argue a case for the F-4 being the father of the modern fighter, but that would be too obvious. And anyway, outside of the Jaguar and Mitsubishi F-1’s rear fuselage shape its general configuration was a design cul-de-sac.

How about the Skyknight? Well, it was a pioneering ‘missileer’ (more so than the actual F6D ) but aerodynamically it was old hat before its first flight. My money is on something that did not fly and wasn’t even intended to be a fighter: Convair’s spectacular Kingfish. A boat-like fuselage, ‘pork chop’ intakes à la F-22, supercruise and accusations that sacrificed too much performance for stealth… now that sounds like a modern fighter. Not bad for 1959. It’s not too sad it lost the competition to replace the U-2 (now is it the band or the aeroplane that lacks the hyphen?) as the winner became the SR-71 Blackbird, which along with the bicycle, Concorde and Supernoodles is the zenith of human achievement.

Spain to buy more Typhoons?

Well I’m happy about that. Europe’s faith in the Typhoon is probably good news in the long term but I can’t help thinking they need to add something to Typhoon to visually differentiate newer models – what do they have now? Fuselage lugs for speculative conformal fuel tanks on newer models. Terrible. Now I like that the Heinz ketchup bottle (the glass one) remains unchanged and I like that Lyle’s syrup is still decorated with a decomposing lion-full of bees, but the Typhoon was never quite a design classic in the same way so change would be welcome.

Don’t get me wrong, from certain angles (especially from above and to the front) it can look very fast and, dare I say it, even noble. But it is no Rafale in aesthetics. I mean the Rafale is so fit that it even looks good with that refuelling probe, which resembles a broken section of kit sprue or the sting of a rather weedy robot scorpion, and it still looks handsome with two horrible bloated frankfurter tanks under the wings which on anything else would look like clown shoes. But Typhoon looks too plasticky and also looks a bit like a Mirage 2000 that’s been pimped up by a 19-year-old boy in the suburbs (or maybe in Theydon Bois). Actually, no. That would look amazing. It is more like a Mirage 2000 that has been too cautiously bastardised for a 90s anime (though admittedly it’s not bright red and piloted by a schoolgirl). The answer? Well if Eurofighter GmbH is listening I would propose the following: twin tails, a new intake, 25% more power and the mandatory adoption of either Swedish splinter or RAF Vulcan snow camouflage. Oh, and me and the boy in Theydon Bois (pronounced thae-don bwa or theydon boyz as you wish) both think it should have a metallic paint job.

New European trainer

Airbus is considering a new training jet (or rather a system including an aeroplane) for Spain with eyes on the rest of Europe. The AFJT, which pronounced in Spanish is quite like aHAVVVVVVEFYATTTT (the middle of the word being a very bronchial affair). Clearly Airbus putting a J in the middle of an aircraft name for Spain is an act of war. If it happens, the aircraft will be an agile little machine with secondary aggressor, light fighter or attack capabilities. Speculative jet trainers have a very high rate of cancellation (second only to COIN aircraft as a type) and the timing is awful, but the civil side of Airbus is doing well at the moment and this confidence is spilling into the more troubled military side, so it could happen. It would face stiff competition from Leonardo’s M346 and the US-Swedish T-7 though.

I keep thinking I should do a top 10 cancelled jet trainers, then I remember how much work it would involve and how no one would read it. Would you? If you have a favourite cancelled jet trainer please do mention it in the comments section below. One of my favourites was the EADS Mako, what do we bet the new aircraft will carry some of this project’s DNA?

The Australian CA-31, at the bottom of this page, was also wonderful.

Bed calls. Sending my love to the aeroplane fans wherever you may be. Fly safe.


My fight with secret MiGs: An F-15 Eagle pilot writes

Credit: USAF

The USAF operated a secret force of purloined Soviet fighters to expose USAF fighter pilots to the strengths and weaknesses of the aircraft they were likely to meet in war. Here former F-15 Eagle pilot Paul Woodford reveals his own personal encounters ‘fighting’ the air force’s strangest unit.

An aviation photographer and writer I follow on Twitter posted this the other day:

I couldn’t resist commenting:

My response triggered questions, mostly from people wanting to know when, where, and how it happened. Not that many years ago I could have gotten in serious trouble for even confessing to flying against a MiG, never mind sharing the details.

One of the aviation writers who participated in the discussion prompted me to tell the story on my blog. I’m flattered to learn a working aviation writer and journalist — someone who actually gets paid to do it — knows about my blog, but in fact I have told part of the story here. This is from a post I wrote in 2018:

In my day the USAF ran a super-secret program (finally declassified in 2006, which is why I can write about it now) called Constant Peg from an airstrip near Tonopah, Nevada, where it had a small squadron of MiG-21 Fishbeds and MiG-23 Floggers. Aircrews at Nellis AFB’s Fighter Weapons School, along with visiting aircrews taking part in Red Flag air war exercises, were able to go out in ones and twos to engage with the MiGs over Tonopah. It wasn’t adversary training, not really … it was a familiarization program, as in “here’s what a MiG looks like in the air, here’s how it flies and fights, here are its strengths and weaknesses” … the idea being to get the buck fever out of your system before you saw the real thing in combat. Great training, but strictly limited (as in you only got to do it once), rigidly scripted, nothing like actual air combat.

Here’s the rest of the story, as I remember it.

During my first two F-15 assignments, from 1978 to 1985, I frequently trained with and flew against USAF aggressor pilots trained in Soviet tactics and equipped with F-5E Tigers, roughly equivalent in size and performance to the MiG-21 Fishbed, which at the time was still one of the other side’s front-line combat aircraft. I’d heard whispers about a program where USAF fighter pilots got to fly against actual MiGs, but that was the extent of it — bar talk and rumor.

In 1984, I deployed from Alaska to Nevada for a Red Flag exercise. It was there I was read in to the Constant Peg program and realized I was going to get to see the MiG-21 and MiG-23 in action. The program was highly classified, not so much due to the fact we had MiGs, but to conceal how we obtained them. We had to be formally read in before participating; afterward we were read out and warned never to talk about it, even with F-15 squadron mates.

The MiG pilots were assigned to a unit called the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, the “Red Eagles.” They were experienced Air Force and Navy fighter pilots, a lot of them veterans of the F-5 Aggressor program, and many were “target arms” — Fighter Weapons School graduates. My Constant Peg flight consisted of me, a wingman, and two Red Eagle pilots — one flew the MiG-21, the other the MiG-23. We briefed at Nellis, three to four hours before our scheduled takeoff time. That allowed time for the MiG pilots to hop on their transport aircraft, a Mitsubishi MU-2, and fly uprange to the Tonopah Test Range airfield where the MiGs were based.

Tonopah Test Range Airport (USAF photo)

My wingman and I took off in our F-15s at the scheduled time, met a tanker over Caliente and topped off, and headed northwest to Tonopah. The MiG pilots monitored our progress on the radio, calibrating their takeoffs to give us maximum time with each. Which translated into the MiG-21 taking off just before we entered the working area over Tonopah and jumping us the second we did.

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Eagle versus the Russian Flanker here

We took turns dogfighting the Fishbed, which was (to me, anyway) surprisingly nimble and tight turning, hard to see due to its small size, and hard to get a guns tracking shot on. The Fishbed, if it uses afterburner (as ours did the entire time we fought with it) has enough gas to fly for about 20 minutes. It was a busy 20 minutes for both of us.

Red Eagle MiG-21 Fishbed (USAF photo)

As the Fishbed turned back toward Tonopah, almost directly below us, the Flogger joined our our wing. We didn’t do as much turning and burning as we had with the Fishbed. The Flogger, as we’d been briefed, doesn’t turn for crap, and bleeds off energy quickly. Instead, our MiG-23 pilot showed us how it flies, which is as poorly as it fights: difficult to control and unstable, especially with the wings swept aft. What it could do well, as its pilot showed us, was make a high speed, high-angle attack and then run. It accelerated away from us like nothing I’ve seen before or since, driving home the point that if you have a missile shot at a no-shit fast mover you’d better take it right now, because in a second it’ll accelerate right out of the firing envelope, and I guess that was the object of the lesson. The F-15 has the top speed advantage, but there isn’t enough fuel in the world to catch up with a Flogger determined to get out of Dod

MiG-23 Flogger (photo credit: unknown)

We did not land at Tonopah to debrief. The airfield was also home to the Black Jet, the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber, and everything there was classified to hell and gone, just like the airfield in nearby Area 51. Instead, we flew back to Nellis, followed a while later by our Red Eagle adversaries in their cushy little Mits.

One odd detail sticks in my memory. During the briefing and debriefing, I was distracted by the grotesquely long and curled pinky nail of our MiG-21 driver, apparently a fetish of his. In my Air Force, anything like that would have been a Be-No; apparently the Red Eagles had more freedom to indulge in personal eccentricities. Not sure why I’m sharing this memory, other than that it still gives me shivers.

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I believe Red Eagle pilots were dual-qualified, meaning that they flew and maintained proficiency in two aircraft simultaneously. Holding dual qualifications was common in the USAF of the 1950s and 60s but was rare in my day. I can’t recall if their other aircraft was the F-5 Tiger or A-7 Corsair II (probably the latter, since it was the aircraft their Tonopah colleagues, the F-117 pilots, were dual-qualified in). Perhaps someone who knows can enlighten us in a comment. Of course a few of the Red Eagles were also current in the Mits, the MU-2 twin turboprop they flew back and forth between Nellis and Tonopah.

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Well, those were the Reagan years, when budgets were fat and the military services could (and did) ask for the moon. The USAF had Constant Peg and three full-up F-5 Aggressor squadrons, one each in Europe, the Pacific, and CONUS. Imaging having all that, then asking Uncle Sam for a spiffy little business turboprop to get back and forth in — and getting it!

These programs ended, or were sharply curtailed, with the end of the Cold War. Constant Peg went away. The Aggressor squadrons were deactivated, eventually coming back in the form of what are today two small F-16 adversary training units, one at Nellis and one in Alaska, plus small contracts with civilian aggressors operating older foreign-built fighters (Hawker Hunters, Kfirs, and Mirages). With the post-Cold War integration of former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO, USAF pilots assigned to Europe have had limited opportunities to fly with, and train against, more modern Russian-built equipment. National air forces operating Russian aircraft now participate in Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB. Training opportunities are there, but they are a far cry from what we had in the early 1980s.

I have to say, I think I got to fly the F-15 Eagle at precisely the right point in history, and will be forever grateful for the experience.

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Credit: USAF

The most under-rated Soviet combat aircraft?

Speaking to a former Soviet air force pilot convinced me the Su-15 was far better, and certainly more significant, than is commonly thought. The Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 was one of the best interceptors of the 1960s and ’70s. It had better acceleration and initial climb rate than the US F-106; compared to the British Lightning it had double the weapon-load and double the endurance. Vitally, this supersonic warplane was available in far larger numbers than either its British or American counterparts.

Before interviewing former ‘Flagon’ pilot Valeri Shatrov I had a vague idea of the Su-15 as a primitive interceptor with obsolete systems that lacked agility. I found his opinions and recollections absolutely fascinating, and in some case revelatory.

I should also note that I do not take any pilot’s opinions as entirely objective as most pilots have a bias towards their machine, but Shatrov’s answers were candid – and at times critical enough to be credible.

The Soviet approach

The West’s opinions of Soviet warplanes have often been wrong. Some overestimated, some are underestimated – and some misunderstood. Analysts often saw Soviet aircraft as inferior facsimiles of Western types, or else wildly inflated their true capabilities. To be fair, the facsimile claims have a meaningful historical origin. The Tupolev Tu-4 was a reverse-engineered B-29 Superfortress. The Tu-4 was an epic project. It was no easy thing to copy the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. It took the expertise of over 850 factories and institutes, and involved the creation of over 105,000 drawings. However, with the brutal determination of Stalin driving its completion, quick work was made of it. The design was completed in less than a year and it entered service in 1947. The Tu-4’s (and so B-29’s) design informed the Tu-95 that remains in service today. 70 odd years later, the Russian Air Force’s ‘Bear’s carries Superfortress ‘DNA’ in its fuselage dimensions, circular cross-section, the pressurised shell fore of the wings and its thick wing roots.

This idea of Russia or the USSR lagging behind or aping the NATO nations’ weapons technology is misleading and far from a universal truth. Operational helmet-cued thrust vectoring weapons, true 2D IRST sensors, electronically scanning fighter radars and post-stall manoeuvrability were all Soviet innovations. But Russia has long had a bit of a chip on its shoulder about its technological sophistication compared to Western Europe, or rather lack of it. The Steel Flea by the Russian author Nikolay Leskov is a comical short story from 1881. In it Leskov makes light of a Russian inferiority complex and an envious competition with advanced British technologies. Of course there is also a great deal of pride in Russian and Soviet innovations, but the most cursory glance at YouTube comments beneath a film about a Russian military hardware subject will reveal an aggressively defensive position from Russophiles and Russians – revealing a deep insecurity. The opposite is true of America, with a historical tendency to overestimate their strengths (a sweeping generalisation but one with some truth, see the underestimation of Japanese aircraft and pilots in World War II as an example).

Then there is the Russian philosophy of robust reliability over exquisite technology, something inherited from the Soviet era. This is sometimes viewed as a result of technological inferiority rather than a considered approach. A Western-centric view of the Su-57 may see it as bad F-22, but that is a conceptual misunderstanding: it is a different kind of machine intended to fight in a different kind of way. High stealth is at odds with the Russian philosophy acceptance of the dirtiness of real wartime operations. The Su-57 is however an ‘anti-stealth’ fighter and its revolutionary low band width radar antennae may be useful in detecting F-35s and F-22s at longer ranges than X-band radars. If, and this is a big if, Russia gets the Su-57 right it will offer an adequate counter to the F-22 and F-35 without the pitiful availability rates of the US aircraft. Indians withdrawal from the project is not necessarily a sign that it is a bad programme, it may also be partly due to unfair Indian expectations of a radar cross section akin to a US fifth generation type.

To go back to the 20th century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted ‘The Russian Government has a different conception of the ends of life. The individual is thought of no importance; he is expendable. What is important is the state, which is regarded as something almost divine and having a welfare of its own not consisting in the welfare of citizens. This view, which Marx took from Hegel, is fundamentally opposed to the Christian ethic, which in the West is accepted by free thinkers as much as by Christians. In the Soviet world human dignity counts for nothing.” It could be argued that this outlook is reflected in the doctrine of massed inexpensive warplanes and the acceptance of high fatalities in military operations. Compare this to the culture of USAF between Korea and Vietnam. According to Frederick Corbin ‘Boots’ Blesse, a United States Air Force major general and flying ace, “Safety became more important the tactics, more important than gunnery, more important anything. Safety was king. Safety took over*.”

*Tiger Check, Automating the USAF pilot in air-to-air combat, 1950-1980

In the United States (in the air force at least) the pilot was precious and the increasingly expensive aeroplane was also precious. The same can be not said of the USSR at this time. The pilot was not precious and the aircraft itself was more disposable with an airframe, and especially engine, built for a shorter life. The new Russia’s first fighter, the Sukhoi Su-30, was an awkward half-way house between Soviet simplicity and Western complexity and proved (and still proves) labour intensive to maintain and operate (its small arm contemporary, the AN-94 assault rifle shared the new Russia’s brief flirtation with complexity).

Red defenders

Before the Su-57 and before the Su-27 ‘Flanker’, there was the Sukhoi Su-15, Su-11 and Su-9. These were similar in configuration to the MiG-21, tailed deltas with a nose intake. Nose intakes were becoming unfashionable as they limited both the radar size and internal fuselage volume compared to a cheek or shoulder-mounted intake. Entering service in 1965, the time had the unenviable task of defending the largest nation on earth against NATO, arguably the most powerful combined force in history. It was supported by the obsolete Yak-28, the extremely long ranged Tu-28 and later the extremely fast MiG-25.

The Su-15 would operate as an area defence interceptor, in an environment where any unknown aircraft crossing the air defence boundary could be treated as hostile. The intention was for the Su-15 to be guided to the interception point by a ground controller, using its relatively high-powered radar at the point of engagement to defeat any electronic jamming and to allow its radar guided missile to lock on to the target.
Key attributes for the interceptor role are rapid climb and acceleration, a good long-range radar, coupled with good air-to-air missiles, preferably of the fire and forget variety. The targets of greatest importance for the Su-15 would probably be the US B-52 Stratofortress, given its role in delivering the US nuclear deterrent. Aircraft manoeuvre performance in these circumstances is perhaps less important, unless your missile requires continuous radar illumination, when good turning performance is required once the missile goes active.

The Su-15 is best known today for its infamous accidental shoot-down of Korean Air Lines KAL007 in 1983 (another sad note: a recklessly flown Su-15 may have been responsible for the tragic loss of Yuri Gagarin’s MiG-15). It performed poorly against Turkish incursions, but this speaks more of the failure of integrated air defences of the time than the aircraft itself. Indeed a look at the long list of Cold War aerial defections shows that air defence networks in a peacetime posture were generally pretty hopeless.

Soviet interceptors were not widely exported, being too specialised and their capabilities too strategically sensitive. So the Su-15 has not the fame of the extremely popular MiG-21, nor the eye-popping performance that made the MiG-25 a flying myth. But is was a vitally important aircraft. The Soviet Union had a huge number of these interceptors — over 1290 were produced, which is a lot more than its closest US analogue, the F-106, of which there was only 340. According to Shatrov, the type was extremely reliable which would further enhance the available ‘air mass’.

Comparison with Western interceptors

“It was a good plane and exceptionally reliable. I always said that I loved it like a woman. And when you turned on the afterburner on take-off, you got a hefty push in the back from the ferocious power of two engines. The relatively long fuselage and delta wings allowed you to make a large number of barrel rolls from any rotation speed. What I like most about Su–15 was its ability to perform complex aerobatics at full power.”

The excellent handling off the later T-10 (‘Flanker’) series did not come from nowhere.

“The aircraft was manoeuvrable, as I have already mentioned. With the engines set at maximum thrust the Su–15 allowed you to perform a turn with a roll of almost 90 degrees. As for the service ceiling of the aircraft I personally gained a height of 23,000 metres (75,459 feet) where ‘a little higher – space begins’ as we joked in those days.The instantaneous turn rate was very good, with a G-force of up to 6. The high alpha of the aircraft was limited to this maximum overload, but the thrust of the engines allowed any horizontal aerobatics figures without loss of speed. ‘Split ‘S manoeuvres were allowed from a minimum altitude of 2.5 km up to the practical service ceiling.”

When one compares the Su-15 with the Lightning, Phantom and Delta Dart, there are some significant differences and some similarities. The largest numerical difference is in wing loading, where the large wing and relatively light weight of the F-106 suggests that this aircraft would have good instantaneous turn-rate compared to the others, although, with the lowest aspect ratio, and lower thrust to weight ratio, it is likely the F-106 sustained turn rate would be less impressive. The Phantom also has a large wing area compared to both the Su-15 and the Lightning, perhaps because its origins as a naval multi-role aircraft included a requirement to carry larger external loads than the other aircraft.

As might be expected, the Lightning emerges with the lowest endurance of the four aircraft. While stressing that this is a comparative rather than an absolute assessment, my estimates suggest quite comparable endurance for the other three aircraft, but that the Lightning, even in the F6 variant, offers the shorter endurance for which it was renowned.

In terms of claimed maximum speed, in the face of considerable discrepancies in the data, I can only suggest that the F-106 was likely to be slightly faster than the other aircraft, but overall, the differences in maximum Mach number appear relatively small. In practice, the speeds available would be highly dependent on the weapons loaded, and on any other applicable limitations, for example depending on whether drop tanks were retained or not.

Let us start with the wing. The closest Western analogue to the Su-15 was the US F-106. Whereas the F-106 had a large pure delta, from 1969 Flagons had a small compound tailed delta with the angle of sweep shallower on the outer wing (it started life as tailed pure delta). The wing planform is largely a measure to get some more lift out of the wing to reduce the landing speed, and possibly improve handling in manoeuvring flight. I asked Jim Smith his opinion, he noted: “It was introduced from the 11th aircraft, so the need was probably pretty compelling. The F-106 wing, in comparison, is huge. The F-106 weighs a bit less, but has nearly double the wing area. So I’d expect better instantaneous turn rate, and better performance at altitude from the 106, and better acceleration and initial climb rate from the Su-15, which has 24% higher thrust-weight ratio.” He also opined that “Compared to F-4, I’d expect better acceleration and climb rate due to slightly higher T/W. I’d also expect inferior manoeuvre performance due to higher wing loading, and I’d also expect to be somewhat out-gunned, with up to 4 Sparrow + 4 Sidewinder. But the Su-15 is primarily an anti-bomber aircraft, and would not be expecting B-52s to be escorted over Russia (bit of a one-way mission, that). “

The type had an impressive thrust-to-weight ratio for its generation. In combat configuration it was around 0.84. This compares well with the F-4 (0.77) and is far superior to the F-106 (0.68). Sukhoi’s taste for high thrust-to-weight ratios is also seen in the later ‘Flanker’ series.

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It is likely that expect more than double the endurance. Early Su-15s had a similar weapons fit, with one IR and one radar guided. According to Shartrov, “the first serial Su–15 modifications (the Su-15TM Flagon-F) were called ‘Hound dog’ (Гончая in Russian) for their extremely high landing speed and ‘Dove of Peace’ (Голубь Мира in Russian) for having only two air-to-air missiles. I was lucky – I flew and was on duty with four missiles and two cannon pods. And that version had leading edge extension on the wing, somewhat reducing the landing speed.”

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Later aircraft had four MRAAM or two MRAAM + two SRAAM plus a gun pod. So probably one kill per engagement for early aircraft, two per engagement for later aircraft. These were big missiles and probably had a big warhead. The Lightning carried two large infra-red missiles of two differing types, Firestreak and Red Top. Of the two, Red Top was the more effective, but could only be carried by ‘big fin’ Mk 3 and Mk 6 Lightnings, resulting in Firestreak remaining in service to arm the ‘small fin’ earlier aircraft. Late Mark Lightnings could also carry a gun pack, at the expense of trading away some of its limited internal fuel.

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The Delta Dart carried four Falcon missiles, but these seem to have not had a very good reputation. The F-4 carried four Sparrow MRAAM, and could also carry Sidewinder IR SRAAM. Experience in Vietnam showed that a gun was also required, and this was introduced in the F-4E model. From an armament perspective, it’s probably fair to say that all four aircraft did the best they could with the somewhat limited capability available at the time. It is an interesting detail that all were fitted with additional gun armament, having at one time or another had none.

The Sukhoi Su-15 is an impressive aircraft, whose role was essentially area air defence for the Soviet Union. Given this role, it might be expected to be a large, supersonic aircraft with a large radar and air-to-air missiles, and this is very much what we find. The aircraft (strictly weapon system) is very much optimised for high-speed interception, with small wings and relatively high wing-loading.

Contemporary aircraft might be the BAC Lightning, although this is very much a point-defence interceptor; the F-4 Phantom II, originally designed as a multi-role fighter-bomber for the US Navy; and the Convair F-106 Delta Dart.

Comparing these aircraft, in the absence of authoritative data, turns out to be somewhat difficult. In a former role, with access to aerodynamic modelling and weight estimation tools, this would be a breeze, but without these, and relying on somewhat doubtful estimates, I’ll simply make some observations, with which readers will doubtless disagree.

To illustrate the data problem, if you look at the Wikipedia entry for the F-4, you will find a quoted gross weight of 18824 kg, and an empty weight of 13757 kg. The difference between these is 5067kg, which is insufficient to account for the quoted internal fuel of 7550 litres (approx. 6040 kg), let alone 4 Sparrow missiles (~800kg), pilot and equipment, and gun ammunition. Even if the ‘empty’ weight is an empty equipped weight, there is still not enough margin to account for full internal fuel plus the pilot and his kit.

As indicated in the interview with the Su-15 pilot, the high wing loading of the aircraft will result in high take-off, approach and landing speeds. In this respect, the data suggests that the Lightning would need equal care, while the large wing area of the F-106, and the naval design heritage of the F-4, are likely to mean these two would be a little easier to land.

The wings of all four aircraft underwent modification in service, with conical camber being introduced to the Delta Dart; a conically-cambered leading-edge extension being fitted to the Lightning; introduction of manoeuvre slats on the F-4E; and introduction of a reduced sweep outer panel on the Su-15, at the position of the air-to-air missile pylon. For the Su-15, this discontinuity would introduce a highly-swept vortex, with similar beneficial effects to those seen on aircraft with leading edge root extensions like the F-16. The primary effect would be to maintain lift to a higher angle of incidence, with a secondary effect of improving the flow over the outer wing at high incidence.

The modifications to the Delta Dart and the Lightning were principally to reduce supersonic drag due to lift, and, in the case of the Lightning, to add a little more fuel, whereas for the F-4 and the Su-15, increases in lift and manoeuvrability appear to have been the main objective.
“Armament varies widely across the four aircraft. With four Sparrows plus sidewinders and a gun, the F-4E appears best equipped, although early Sparrows definitely had their limitations. The Su-15 could be flown with a mix of radar and Infra-red (IR) MRAAM, and later models could carry IR SRAAM or gun pods if required.” Were Soviet missiles more reliable? This is hard to ascertain but they could barely be worse than British and US missiles of the time for probability of kill. It should be noted that at this time Soviet rocket propulsion technology was probably superior.

Overall, the Su-15 seems to have been well suited to its task as an air defence interceptor. Fast, with good climb performance and acceleration, a big radar and a mixed IR and radar missile capability, it was well equipped to deter and defeat airborne attack on the homeland, focussing on the US and NATO bomber threat.

It was not designed as an air superiority aircraft capable of gaining control over contested airspace against Western fighter aircraft, and might well have found the manoeuvrable and heavily-armed Phantom a bit of a handful. In a defensive situation, the F-4 would be met by a massed armada of more agile MiG-21s and this in a forest of surface-to-air missiles and anti-air artillery, leaving the Su-15s to perform their intended role of destroying bombers.

I imagine a properly trained pilot would have found it an exciting aircraft to fly, and, with its size, high power, and relatively small wing span, must have made a good display aircraft – big, noisy, with high rate of roll, good acceleration and an impressively purposeful appearance.

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Book review: Harrier 809 by Rowland White

Rowland White had a smash hit a few years ago with Vulcan 607, the story how a farcically ill-equipped RAF managed to drop a bomb on a runway. The target was an occupied airport in the Falklands. The mission involved flying 6,600 nautical miles (12,200 km) and 16 hours for the return journey in terrible weather and facing enemy anti-aircraft defences. Organising the air-to-air refuelling effort for the mission was madly complicated; imagine the riddle of the chicken getting to the island cubed and you get the gist (or you might get a stock cube now I come to think of it). Rowland specialises in meticulous research and excellent story-telling, something he combines with an old-fashioned celebratory tone.

In this book he returns to the Falklands for the story of Harrier 809. Like Vulcan 607, the title includes a classic British aircraft name plus a number. The number refers to 809 Naval Air Squadron, a Fleet Arm Arm unit that was reformed in 1982 to take Sea Harriers to war.

The book features tropes long popular in military mythology – that of British forces being outnumbered and having to improvise to compensate for second-rate or incomplete equipment, unforeseen situations and leadership shortcomings. And of course, the perennial idiocy from Whitehall. Some very interesting historical examples of this rushed wartime improvisation are cited, such as the Royal Navy addressing the chronic shortage of fighter cover for merchant ships in World War Two with “A plan to fire knackered, battle-scared battle-scarred Hawker Hurricanes and Fairey Fulmars from merchant ships using catapults or batteries of 3-inch rockets was approved.”

What was the Sea Harrier?

According to a Sea Harrier pilot interviewed by this site it was an adaptation of land-based aircraft capable of a taking off and landing like a helicopter: “The modification from the already well-proven ground attack Harrier was a design masterpiece. It included a raised cockpit, a superb albeit physically tiny mono-pulse radar, the Blue Fox, a very reliable inertial standard navigation system (NAVHARS) and a very user-friendly Head-Up Display weapons aiming system including a hotline gunsight.”

But it was very slow for a fighter, and had short range and could only carry two guns and two missiles (large fighters of the time carried eight). It was not known how well it would perform against the Mirage, a type which had proven deadly in Israeli hands in the 1960s and 70s. Britain had had the wisdom to stay out of the Vietnam War, which meant it had little in the way (or likely no) combat seasoned pilots by 1982. The uncertainty of how well Sea Harriers would do in the war provides much of the tension in the earlier part of the book.

When we chatted earlier this year, I asked Rowland what he believed is the biggest myth about British Harrier operations in the Falklands War. He replied. “That twelve Phantoms aboard the old HMS Ark Royal would necessarily have done a better job than twenty Sea Harriers. In the end it was, as it so often is, more a numbers game than anything. The F-4 was undoubtedly a more capable naval interceptor than the Sea Harrier. Heavily-armed, long-legged and equipped with a powerful pulse-doppler radar, Phantom on CAP ‘up-threat’ of the islands would have wreaked havoc against incoming Argentine raids – including the Exocet carrying Super Etendards. But six weeks is a very long time to keep just twelve Phantoms and their crews flying without any possibility of reinforcement or replacement. The F-4 was maintenance heavy and temperamental in comparison to the SHAR which chalked up astonishingly high mission availability rates during the war. Then there was the weather. Given the conditions in which some of the Sea Harriers were able to get back on deck it’s hard not to imagine that some of the F-4s might, at the very least, have suffered damage in landing incidents. Once your force of twelve F-4s is reduced to ten, or eight, or six serviceable airframes it all starts to look a little more tenuous. The SHARs, on the other hand, could be reinforced almost as required by RAF GR3s. In what was a largely visual fight against enemy aircraft that had little or no radar capability of their own, Sidewinder-armed GR3s were a viable alternative.”

The research is again first-rate and offers many treats and insights for dedicated aviation enthusiasts. There is certainly enough technical information to satisfy any gear-heads, and much of it is refreshingly drawn from first-hand sources rather than the usual Gunstonesque canon.

The story itself is exciting. It is a little jingoistic however, which may put some readers off, but is likely to delight the core readership. To be fair it seems an old-fashioned world view, though it is created with an old-fashioned diligence. Rowland White is a superb communicator, taking herculean research efforts and transmuting them into an easy to understand story. In reviewing this I took a second look at his other books, in his Big Book of Flight I was again impressed with the clarity and confidence of his style.

Next in his series is Dambuster 617 which keep his title convention and is no doubt to be followed by Lightning 111 or Spitfire 29.

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66 years ago today a pilot ejected from an aeroplane trapped underwater!

The Westland Wyvern was a beast of an aircraft, dwarfing its companions on the decks of the Royal Navy’s carriers in the mid-50s. It is rightly world famous as the first turbo-prop strike fighter and the last fixed wing product from Westlands before they turned to the dark side of aviation. Less well known is another of its claims to fame as the platform for the first underwater ejection.

Wednesday 13 October 1954 was a relatively normal day onboard HMS Albion in the Mediterranean. 813 Naval Air Squadron had recently embarked for the Wyvern’s debut appearance at sea and Lt B D Macfarlane RN lined up his aircraft for take-off. Moments after the flight deck officer gave the signal for launch steam filled the catapult piston and accelerated the aircraft to 70 knots in the space of around hundred and fifty feet. At this point a design flaw that had somehow escaped discovery during the Wyvern’s eight years of development revealed itself.
A pump located on the centreline drew fuel from both wing tanks and then drove it forwards six feet to the 3,500hp Armstrong Siddeley Python turboprop. Unfortunately, the acceleration from the catapult caused the fuel in the supply pipe to move backwards starving the engine at which point it flamed out. Lt Macfarlane disconcertingly found himself just above stalling speed in an aircraft whose engine was running down and with 24,000 tonnes of carrier just over his shoulder. Shockingly the Wyvern made a poor glider, it did however make a passable impression of a brick and started to sink rapidly after it entered the water.

Image credit:

Trapped inside and without an air supply Lt Macfarlane fell back on his training, despite it not specifically covering ‘being in an underwater death trap’. First, he jettisoned the canopy and then as the hull of the carrier thundered overhead pulled the ejector seat handle. At which point nothing happened. Remembering a similar situation occurring on the ground training rig he desperately made a second stronger pull on the handle. This triggered the first explosive charge, the expanding gases starting the seat’s movement before a second stronger charge propelled it and its occupant clear of the aircraft. [1]

Westland Wyvern S4, VZ789, on a carrier deck with wings folded. Date:

Half drowned Macfarlane now found himself tumbling in the maelstrom of water under the Albion’s hull. As if that wasn’t enough, he soon realised he was being dragged deeper under the water. Somehow, able to free himself from the tangle of webbing that was his parachute he then discarded his dinghy pack and began to rise agonisingly slowly towards the surface. Staring death in the face for what must have been at least the fifth time that day Macfarlane desperately pulled the toggle that inflated his lifejacket. Moments later he burst out of the water less than two minutes after the Wyvern had staggered off the carrier’s deck.

Macfarlane was only the 53rd member of the Martin-Baker Club [2] and the first to use one of their seats underwater, a situation that at that time hadn’t been considered by the company in the design. With the confirmation that ejector seats could work submerged the Admiralty began a programme of research to inform future designs. The Wyvern can then add a major contribution to air safety to its list of accomplishments. [3]

[1] The sequential explosions being developed by Martin-Baker to reduce the peak g pilots would experience on the basic early seats.
[2] Consisting of people whose life has been saved by one of the company’s seats. You get a tie.
[3] Since Macfarlane’s escapade there have been at least two other underwater ejections, one USN and one IN.

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10 Fighter Aircraft Named After Fish

<David Attenborough voice>Ah, fish! Among these denizens of the deep are some of nature’s most sublime creations, evolutionary masterpieces that fill our oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and desktop bowls with vibrant colours and provide some of the most incredible spectacles seen anywhere in the natural world.

Alas, few creations in the realm of aviation seem to take inspiration from these magnificent creatures. There are exceptions, of course, and, were this a list of bombers named after fish, it’d have been much easier to compile, with legendary entries like the Fairey Swordfish, Martin Marlin, Blackburn Shark, Short Sturgeon, and the like.

The Bell XFM-1-BE Airacuda of 1937. The name is almost, but not quite, fishy enough.

But you know what they say about doing things the easy way. Today, we’re looking specifically at fighter aircraft. The namesakes of the world’s fighters are varied, encompassing big cats, forces of nature, and mythological figures. But often, fighters are named after birds, because birds…well, they fly. (Yes, there is such a thing as a flying fish, which Mother Nature clearly fashioned after the Fairey Barracuda, but it doesn’t actually fly but jump really far.)

Here are ten fighters whose namers dared to imagine a reality in which sky and sea were one…with decidedly mixed results.

10. Ryan XF2R Dark Shark

There is, perhaps, no creature of the sea so fearsome as the shark. These apex predators are fast, powerful, and terrifyingly beautiful, and so it’s no wonder that they’ve starred in some of Hollywood’s most iconic cinematic gems, such as Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and the Sharknado franchise. It should also come as no surprise that they’ve lent their names to a number of aircraft. The Dark Shark might be the most impressive of the bunch, or at least the most ambitious. The type was a product of a time when jet engines were seen as a promising new technology, but were often unreliable, insufficiently powerful, and very slow to spool up, to say nothing of their fondness for guzzling kerosene as if it were Guinness.

This mixed reputation led many to believe that a jet engine’s best use was to augment the power of a propeller-driven aircraft, and thus was born the mixed-propulsion fighter, most notably realised in the Ryan FR Fireball, which may or may not have made the world’s first jet-powered carrier landing (by accident), depending on who you ask. Though the Fireball was well-liked by its pilots for its exceptional manoeuvrability and cockpit visibility, the type’s name proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it was prone to landing gear collapses and structural failures. Perhaps not wanting to repeat that mistake, the folks at Ryan Aeronautical turned to the order Selachimorpha to christen their new fighter—which was little more than a Fireball with its Wright R-1820-72W Cyclone replaced by a General Electric T31 turboprop. Not only was the latter lighter and easier to maintain than its piston predecessor, but the aircraft no longer had to carry separate types of fuel!

By this time, however, the Navy’s interest in the mixed-propulsion concept had waned. The USAF showed some interest, though they insisted that the J31 turbojet inherited from the Fireball be replaced by a Westinghouse J34. While the Dark Shark was a significant upgrade over the Fireball in performance, problems with the turboprop and the rapid evolution of pure jets conspired to kill it in the womb*, and only a single prototype was built. ( *Maybe not whale sharks. Or basking sharks. Or frilled sharks, or…you get the idea.)

9. Sopwith Dolphin


“Fool!” I hear you say. “A dolphin is not a fish but a mammal!”
You are, of course, correct. However, one good look at the Dolphin’s round face would suggest that the aircraft is not named after Flipper at all, but rather for Coryphaena hippurus, also known as mahi-mahi, also known as the dolphinfish or, more colloquially, the dolphin.

This is probably not true, but it’s my story and I’m sticking with it. #AlternativeFact


Introduced in the last year of World War I, the Dolphin was a highly manoeuvrable fighter with excellent visibility. It was not without its demons, however, as its Hispano-Suiza 8B engine suffered from gearing and lubrication problems, and the swivel-mounted Lewis light guns that fired over the propeller arc had a terrible tendency to swing around in the pilot’s face. Many pilots simply removed the offending guns, which were only really useful for attacking targets such as reconnaissance aircraft from below (a task for which the Dolphin’s excellent high-altitude performance made it ideal), relying on the more conventional synchronised Vickers machine guns. The type was retired soon after the war.


As for the dolphinfish, after which the Dolphin is undoubtedly named? If you’re ever in Hawaii, you must try it. Your tastebuds will praise you as if you were the god of hedonism, Dionysus himself.

8: Grumman Tarpon

The Tarpon—the Fleet Air Arm’s original name for the TBF Avenger, which was soon discarded, presumably to avoid confusion and/or linguistic association with a feminine hygiene product, and replaced by the one the Americans gave it—is very much not a fighter, though it did play the part of one on occasion, hence its inclusion here.
Most notably, just three days after D-Day in Normandy, the dorsal gunner in an Avenger a Tarpon shot down a V-1 flying bomb that was overtaking it. Then, on 29 January 1945, an Avenger participating in Operation Meridian II over Sumatra was jumped by a pair of Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki fighters. Badly damaged, with its observer gravely injured, the British aircraft seemed dead to rights. But, in a feat that would’ve made Swede Vejtasa proud, a second Avenger swooped in, shooting down one of the fighters and driving off the other.

Such instances were, of course, the exception rather than the rule. But, for those ephemeral moments, the tubby Tarpon was able to stand tall on its lanky landing gear, puff out its torpedo-laden chest, and proudly declare in its Wright Twin Cyclone’s growling voice, “I was a fighter!

7. Short Gurnard

Why a fighter would be named after a bug-eyed bottom-dweller is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because of the latter’s wing-like pectoral fins?
The Gurnard was designed in response to a specification for a shipborne fighter that could double as a fleet spotting and reconnaissance platform to replace the Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Flycatcher. Two versions were built, both with 525hp engines: the Gurnard I landplane with a Bristol Jupiter X radial, and the float-equipped Gurnard II, later converted into a makeshift amphibian, fitted with a Rolls-Royce Kestrel.

Though a perfectly good aircraft, the Gurnard was bested by the Hawker Osprey in both performance and appearance—though, in fairness, few aircraft in history could compete with the Hawker biplanes of the late-1920s in the good looks department—and only the two were produced. I suppose one could argue that, like its namesake, it was stuck at the bottom.

6. EADS Mako

In a hierarchy of high-octane predators, the mako’s name commands particular fear and respect, what with its keen intelligence and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. It was only a matter of time before it became the namesake of…a homebuilt?!

Before the Lancair Mako hit the consumer market, there was the Mako high-energy advanced trainer (HEAT). While, as its project acronym suggests, the type was intended as a fighter trainer. This pan-European aircraft would’ve had an air-to-air capability, similar to the F-5 Freedom Fighters it was intended to replace (and the current Korean Aerospace T-50 Golden Eagle with which it shares a similar configuration). This could have made it an attractive primary fighter option for nations with smaller military budgets.

The Mako turned out to be an aircraft no one wanted, and though a few mockups were trucked to various air shows throughout Europe, a prototype was never built, and the project faded into obscurity without much fanfare. We’re zero-for-two on the shark-inspired fighters so far.

5. Lockheed XFV-1 Salmon

From nuclear-powered strategic bombers to hoverbikes for soldiers to the Piasecki PA-97 that simply must be seen to be believed, the United States has never shied away from spectacularly bonkers aeronautical exploits. The tailsitter fighter ranks right up there at the top of the list.
The concept of building a VTOL fighter that could hypothetically be based on any ship large enough to accommodate a helipad produced two designs, the Lockheed XFV and Convair XFY Pogo. This was a patently terrible idea, as the aircraft had to be landed backwards, with the pilot looking over his shoulder while carefully massaging the throttle. This was difficult enough in controlled conditions; imagine trying to finagle these contraptions onto a small, pitching deck in severe weather conditions!

It didn’t help that the Allison XT40 turboprops fitted to both prototypes were insufficiently powerful and not particularly reliable.
Unlike the Salmon (an unofficial moniker that may have been derived from Lockheed’s chief test pilot’s surname rather than the fish), the Convair product was successful—in that it actually did what it was supposed to and took off and landed vertically. The XFV never accomplished this feat, resulting in that gangly undercarriage that looks like it was lifted from a warehouse ladder. It did make a few transitions to the hover in flight, but within a year, the Navy Department came to the conclusion that every sane human had before either competitor had left the drawing board: this was never going to work.
Fortunately for fish-lovers, the salmon takes flight still, in the decidedly more benign form of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737…or should that be, Salmon-Thirty-Salmon?

4: Douglas F4D Skyray

There is perhaps no creature to grace our seas so elegant as the manta ray. Graceful yet powerful, these beings seem almost otherworldly. They are, however, fish. Specifically, cartilaginous fish, quite like sharks. Not aesthetically like sharks of course, but anatomically similar.

The Douglas F4D, or ‘Ford’ as it was inevitably nicknamed, gets its official name from its wing, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the manta’s massive pectoral fins. The type was a product of a time when the U.S. Navy was deeply in the market for radical aircraft designs, resulting in the likes of the spaceship-like Vought Cutlass and the sleek yet woefully underpowered F3H Demon.

Compared to many of its contemporaries, the Skyray had very few vices. Early flight tests revealed a tendency to pitch up, and it was slightly tail-heavy. This inherent instability is a common feature on modern warplanes, but in the 1950s, without the aid of fly-by-wire technology to keep it in check, it should’ve been a fatal flaw in the Skyray. Instead, pilots learned to leverage it, turning a weakness into a strength, and as a result, the Skyray was exceptionally agile for its time. This, coupled with its stellar climb rate and excellent performance from its Pratt & Whitney J57 afterburning turbojet, made it very popular with pilots. The only Navy squadron assigned to NORAD, VFAW-3 “Blue Nemesis,” had Skyrays as their mounts.
The type nonetheless enjoyed a brief career, being retired only eight years after entering service, largely due to it being a dedicated interceptor when the Navy and Marine Corps increasingly favored multirole aircraft. Douglas built an improved version, the F5D Skylancer, but this was shelved in favor of the Vought F-8 Crusader; some allege that this was a political decision due to Douglas having too much market share of military aircraft production. Imagine a politician today having the stones to say that to Lockheed Martin…

3. Xi’an JH-7 ‘Flounder’

A kind of TSR.2 coupe

Looking like a Jaguar on steroids, a Mirage F1 whose tail never stopped growing, or a Soko Orao that hadn’t yet been hit with an ugly stick, this menacing strike fighter is known in its FBC-1 export form as the ‘Flying Leopard’—a fitting enough name (though, let’s be honest, no one anywhere is ever topping ‘Vigorous Dragon’), but, for our intents and purposes, irrelevant. Fortunately for us, the fine folks at NATO stepped in to give it a more ichthyological moniker.

Of course, in typical NATO fashion, they just had to be pricks about the whole matter and name it after an ugly specimen, the one that spends its life lying on its side, so much that it’s evolved to have its eyes growing out the side of its head.

The JH-7, on the other hand, is quite an attractive beast, not unlike its equivalents in size and role, the Sukhoi Su-24 and F-111 Aardvark (though its weapons load is significantly smaller than either of those aircraft). The type does have some flounder-like qualities, however, as its final form was the one requested by the PLANAF (the PLAAF wanted theirs to have side-by-side seating, but it was deemed impractical to rework the design to accommodate their request, so they took the Navy’s version), and flounders hunt by ambushing their prey, similar to the air force version which uses terrain-following radar for low-level strikes.

2. Grumman XF4F-3S ‘Wildcatfish’

Somewhere along the evolutionary timeline, the forces of nature conspired to create the ultimate aquatic being by crossing a fish with that most illustrious of land animals: the cat. Alas, fearing that a hybrid of two of the finest lifeforms on Earth would just be too awesome, the powers-that-be in the universe punished Silurus glanis and all its myriad relatives by relegating them to the murky depths to feed on all sorts of nasty, slimy things.

But fret not, for the barbel-faced bottom-feeders found appreciation in the aviation sector. Early in the Pacific War, there was a fear within the U.S. Navy that the engineering units assigned to clear out jungle and build standing airfields on newly-conquered islands would be unable to keep up with the island-hopping campaign, leaving those territories vulnerable to counterattack as the fleet moved on ahead. Japan had conjured up something like a solution to this problem with the Nakajima A6M2-N, an offshoot of the wildly successful Mitsubishi Zero with a large pontoon under the fuselage and a set of fixed wing-mounted floats for stability.
Noting the modest success the Rufe had, the US Navy decided to give the concept a try. They started with an F4F-3 Wildcat, then contracted the EDO Aircraft Corporation, who specialised in floatplane conversions, to affix a pair of pontoons under the wings. Thus was born the Wild Catfish.
(Or is it Wildcat-fish? The proper division of the name would make for an intriguing expository debate in a Dan Brown novel.)

The aircraft proved to be a dud. Whereas the type’s enemy inspiration did perform as well as could be expected, particularly in the Aleutians campaign where it held its own early on, even racking up some victories on American P-38 Lightnings despite having its performance severely hampered by the dreadnought’s worth of parasitic drag hanging underneath, the concept’s flaws were apparent. Besides the decline in performance, floatplane fighters were highly vulnerable to rough seas, and many Rufes were destroyed on the water by storms. The Wildcat was already inferior to the Zero in nearly every performance metric; the modifications only served to slow it down and degrade its handling, and all sorts of bits and bobs had to be added for stability before it reached its ultimate layout. It didn’t help that the twin-pontoon arrangement was that much bulkier than the one fitted to the Japanese aircraft.

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The Wildcatfish first flew on 28 February 1943, and one hundred sets of floats were ordered for future conversions. The type quickly proved unnecessary, however, as the Seabees were clearing trees and building airfields in record time. The prototype ended up being the only one built.
Fortunately for all of us, the name would live on—the Catfish part, anyway—in a highly modified Boeing 757 used as a radar and avionics testbed for the F-22 Raptor.

1. Northrop F-20 Tigershark

Spectators gather around a Northrop F-20 Tigershark aircraft on display during a Department of Defense open house air show.

If you thought crossing cats with fish was a stoke of brilliance, then what would you call crossing that mightiest of felines, the tiger, with the shark, the king of the fishes?
Well…you’d call it a tiger shark, of course.
To impress just how terrifying these fish are, they’re part of a family commonly known as requiem sharks. A requiem, of course, is a service for the dead—because that’s exactly what you’ll be if you tangle with a tiger shark.

(Actually, it’ll probably just spit you out, as sharks find humans rather tasteless. Who said fish couldn’t possess the gift of wisdom?)
That brings us to the aircraft that bears its fearsome name: the F-20, the ultimate what-if of fighter aviation. Taking an already successful design in the F-5, giving it almost twice the thrust and a significantly better weapons system, and marketing it to those nations to whom the Carter Administration refused to sell the F-16. But not even an alleged bribery attempt in South Korea could save it from relaxed export rules under and US governmental favouritism toward the F-16. Two of the three prototypes were lost in crashes, and, to the chagrin of aviation experts and enthusiasts alike, the project was cancelled in 1986.

The only what-if when dealing with the shark, on the other hand, is which appendages will be ripped from your body if you happen to swim past it.
That puts us at zero-for-three on the sharks. Add in the Douglas A2D Skyshark attack aircraft, and we drop to 0-4.

Clearly, the moral of the story here is: never name your fighter plane after a shark. Tempting though it may be, fate does not like the shark-plane.

-Sean Kelly

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes. Preorder your copy today here. 

Qatari Air Force to have all aircraft types by 2023

Qatar surprised many observers by ordering not just one fighter-bomber aircraft type, but three: the French Rafale, US F-15QA and the European Typhoon. This has been followed in recent weeks with a serious interest in the F-35. In a surprise move by Major General Salem bin Hamad al Nabet today he announced the Qatar Emiri Air Force plans to have every aircraft type ever made in service by 2026. 

In press conference held at a branch of Nando’s in Doha, the Major General announced the radical plan. Holding aloft a copy of The Observer’s Book Aircraft with one and bottle of Peri-Peri sauce in the other he announced he wanted “everything“.

“It would be so cool to have Spitfires, and like Concordes and those swing-wing ones! I like fast planes.” Critics of the regime have plan have noted the major general’s attic full of unmade Airfix models he got three birthdays ago. According to Tozz Feek from the Kol Khara news network, “He has a massive Hurricane model, it’s like 1/24 scale…he started it like two years ago and hasn’t even put the wings on yet”

Despite this, he unveiled the air force’s long term acquisition plan, which begin with the opening of the first Avro Qatar factory which is slated to begin production of 125 Vulcan bombers in 2024. Other large bombers to be built in-country will include the Avro Lincoln and Convair B-36 Peacemaker.

Qatar will start with the letter A, procuring aircraft designed by Aachen Flugzeugbau working through to types from Azalea Aviation. According to Tammy Hopscotch from the aviation magazine Aerosemary’s Baby, “There are many rumours that Qatar is building a kind of ‘Noah’s ark’ of aeroplanes which once complete with every type will be launched into space.”

Representatives from Swedish fighter manufacturer Saab say they are playing it cool and though they admit going for an intimate dinner with the Head of acquisition, they will wait for him to call, “as they like him, but don’t want to look too easy.”