Since the Korean War of the early 1950s, the aircraft designation ‘MiG’ has a had powerful association to many Westerners: MiGs were fast, agile and hostile fighter planes flown by dastardly communists — and they were shrouded in mystery. Whereas Western fighter designs were publicly promoted years before their first flight, new Russian MiGs were revealed in blurry photos from spy satellites, as if from nowhere in formations over parades in Moscow or eviscerating NATO opponents in exciting artist’s impressions released by the US Department of Defense. They were perceived as deadly and mysterious, and this was convenient for Western propaganda purposes. The MiG mystique naturally inspired a raft of fictional aircraft waiting to be blown from the sky by heroic Americans. Here are some of the fictional MiGs that appeared in books, TV shows and films in the late 20th century.
Gerry and Slyvia Anderson created a series of British television puppet shows from the 1960s, including Joe 90. Joe 90 took place in the future — or rather what was the future, as it was set in the 2010s. It was about a nine-year-old boy who could essentially Google things with his mind, which is not too far off Googling it with your fingers but this was 1968, so meant he was employed by the World Intelligence Network (WIN) as its ‘Most Special Agent’. The shows had a boyish obsession with fantastical vehicles, many of which were informed by Gerry’s personal love and great knowledge of real-world machines. The first episode of Joe 90 featured the MiG-242. This model was extremely futuristic for 1968, but was clearly a chimera of contemporary aircraft. The MiG-242 had twin outboard-mounted tails, variable geometry wings and was launched from a pivoting platform for near-zero runway length launches.
The Soviets were interested in zero-length launch platforms in reality, and considered using rocket-assisted take-off aircraft for the point defence protection of airfields and critical targets using MiG-19s. Tests with MiG-19/SM-30 ‘Farmer’ (with the PRD-22R booster unit) were semi successful but it was clear that this was a role that was better suited to surface-to-air missiles, a rapidly maturing technology.
In the US, Boeing proposed a Mach 2.8 carrier fighter operating from a vertical platform in the 1960s, the ultra-sleek ‘Nutcracker’.
The MiG-2000 was a notional threat aircraft devised by General Dynamics’ Richard Ward, of what a follow-up to the MiG-29 might look like. It was intended to give the international F-16 community an idea of what they may be up against in the year 2000. This was based on Ward’s observations of several technologies the Soviets appeared to be very interested in, most notably thrust vectoring and the canard-delta arrangement. According to Bill Sweetman (in conversation with Hush-Kit) there is a misinformation in Ward’s artwork – as he had a good knowledge of key stealthy design features actually being developed in the classified world and deliberately avoided them in his artwork and description.
Mikoyan MiG-37 (1989)
In 1989, stealth was a hot topic. One of the first books on this topic was Stealth Warplanes, by Doug Richardson. It looked to many observers that MiG-37 seemed the most likely designation for the first Soviet stealth fighter (see Testor’s MiG-37 below). Soviet developments could not be ignored by the book, despite the fact that at this time, nothing about Soviet stealth projects was known by the press. So the ‘Mikoyan MiG-37’ was pure conjecture, based on the pure ‘conjecture’ of the MiG-2000 above.
One of the fascinating features of this book was its strong belief in ‘round stealth’. Many of the hypothetical aeroplanes in this book feature rounded-off wingtips, noses and fin-tips of the hypothetical aircraft. Radar returns would be scattered from these curves:
“…the rounded planform (of the MiG-37) shown here would ensure that reflected energy was scattered over a range of directions.”
In reality, this design idea was never used (albeit to a small degree on some cruise missiles), and it could be argued that the cultivation of this idea was the result of deliberate disinformation by several companies. Loral, Northrop and Lockheed (in several ATF artworks) may have been actively involved in this attempt to draw attention away from the F-117-faceting and B-2 flying wing approach. This idea can be seen on most ‘F-19s’ and is evident on this MiG-37.
Of course complex curves are used in modern low observable designs, but this ‘round stealth’ is not like the two US schools of stealth that have emerged, the Lockheed approach (sharp angles and flat surfaces) and the Northrop approach (as flat as possible, and of the flying wing configuration for subsonic designs, as seen on the B-2, Lockheed Martin RQ-170, Dassault NeuroN etc). When Northrop and McDonnell Douglas designed the YF-23, they incorporated the ‘flat as a pancake’ Northrop approach.
The notional MiG-37 is a tactical fighter that weighs around 50,000 lb and is powered by two 30,000 lb (in reheat) thrust class turbofans. It has two-dimensional vectored thrust provided by ‘slotted low-RCS nozzles’. It is a two-seater, with a canard delta planform and two canted out vertical fins. The concept emphasises performance and reduced radar cross section.
Did history provide us with a real MiG-37 to compare it to? The simple answer is yes. The Mikoyan Project 1.44/1.42 was a technology demonstrator that first flew in 2000. It displayed some similarities to Richardson’s MiG-37.
It was a canard delta, it did have twin outwards-canted tails. The thrust class was similar, though the real aircraft was even more powerful, with two Lyulka AL-41F turbofans rated at 176 kN (39,680 lb) in reheat. Weight was between 42-62,000 lb depending on fuel load, test equipment etc, so again- excellent guesswork. It certainly did not have rounded-off wingtips or tail-fins. The nozzles were not flat, despite the stealth advantages these could have conferred. The reason for the inclusion of round exhaust nozzles could have been one or more of the following-
1. 3D vectoring was envisioned, requiring a circular nozzle (perhaps extreme manoeuvrability was considered more important than minimum RCS)
2. Russian metallurgy was not good enough to make square nozzles which could withstand the high temperatures of a vectoring jet nozzle
3. The actual production version if made, would have featured 2D nozzles
4. They were not required or were not consider a suitable design feature
(Though recently photographs have come to light of Soviet mock-ups of fighter designs with 2D vectoring thrust nozzles)
It was claimed that the aircraft would feature plasma stealth technology, an exotic idea that a General Electric employee had filed patents relating to in 1956. Little has been heard about plasma stealth since, though the fact that the later PAK FA is so carefully shaped suggests it is not a technology that was made to work satisfactorily. Problems in developing working plasma stealth include the generation of sufficient power to create the required plasma layer, and the operation of radar and radio in what amounts to a ‘radio blackout’. Talk of this technology may have been deliberate disinformation.
The MiG 1.44/1.42, a candidate for the Mnogofunksionalni Frontovoy Istrebitel (Multifunctional Frontline Fighter) programme was cancelled (though some contend that research from this effort found its way into the Chengdu J-20 project though there is no direct evidence of this). Sukhoi’s rival S-47 ‘Berkut’ took a radically different approach and adopted canards with forward swept wings, as can be seen from later developments this configuration appears to have been a design dead-end, at least for the time being.
In reality, thirty plus years later, MiG has only got far as the MiG-35
MiG-31 Firefox (film version) (1982)
The Firefox is a splendidly ambitious design, supposed able to achieve Mach 6 and to embody a range of advanced technologies, including thought control of it weapons systems (as long as you can think in Russian). Other claimed characteristics include 2 x 50,000-lb thrust engines, flight at up to 130,000 ft, internal carriage of 6 AA-11 missiles, 2x 23mm cannon and chaff and flare dispensing pods.
Hush-Kit’s Editor asked Jim Smith for his thoughts on the MiG-31 Firefox.
“Apart from a few obvious blunders, I really quite like the Firefox. If one imagines a strategic air defence aircraft, capable of taking on the XB-70, SR-71, and other high-flyers like the U-2, a configuration which borrows from the Valkyrie makes some sense.
My biggest concern with the Firefox is the propulsion system, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment, and suppose sufficient thrust is available. The highly-swept near delta wing looks to fit inside a Mach 2.9 Mach cone, and it would be plausible to achieve that sort of speed without excessive wave drag and heating, assuming the stated materials for the structure. Mach 6, even for brief periods, does not look likely, particularly given the propulsion system. I like the use of the canard and the fold-down wing tips, both clearly borrowed from the Valkyrie, and the essentially high-speed bomber/transport-like configuration would be well suited for high-speed interception of strategic targets at high altitude. I would, however, expect any kill to be achieved using internally carried long-range air-to-air weapons. There is no need to carry 2 x 23mm cannon, and one cannot readily conceive a situation where this aircraft would be used in WVR combat.
Here are a few other (unsuccessful) aircraft designed with the same sort of performance goals (M 2.5 or thereabouts):
I particularly like the Douglas one, whose canard and wing resemble the Firefox quite closely, although it has a different propulsion arrangement and a single fin rather than twin fins.
What about propulsion? Well, what we do know about high-flying fast aircraft is that they have large engines, and truly enormous propulsion systems. Managing the intake compression process to bring airflow to the engine front face at stable subsonic speeds requires a very large and complex intake system. Look at Concorde, the XB-70, the MiG-31 (the real one) and the SR-71, and what you will find is huge engines behind bigger intake systems.
I used to attend meetings occasionally with Rolls-Royce at Filton. On the wall of their management conference room, occupying the entire length of the room was a fabulous full-scale drawing of the engine installation of the Olympus 593 in Concorde. Truly, engineering as art. But driven by the physics of getting the air to the engine in a usable state – stable in flow, and at the temperature and pressure required.
There is no way Firefox would work with anything that could be described as a high-bypass ratio turbofan. Something I recall being referred to as ‘a leaky turbojet’ would be more likely. But probably installed either like the Concorde in underwing nacelles, or like the Douglas supersonic transport or the XB-70.
The two twin-engine aircraft known to have this sort of performance are the remarkable SR-71, where the engines have been described as turbo-ramjet, and the MiG-31. For the SR-71, both the intake and ejector exhaust nozzle are critical to engine performance, and very complex airflow management is required. For the MiG-31, the powerplant is the Soloviev D-30R, which is a ‘leaky turbojet’ with a by-pass ratio of 0.57, but only about 2/3 the proposed thrust of the Firefox engine. In describing the earlier MiG 25, Jane’s stressed that most of the thrust at high speed comes from the intake and nozzle, and these are pretty complex for both the MiG-25 and 31.
I regard the splitting of the intake path both by the wing and the fin structure as a concern, given the known complexity and sensitivity of the intake systems for similar aircraft. I do not believe the system, as drawn, could get the aircraft to Mach 6, and possibly not even to Mach 3.
On the whole, I suggest the aircraft would be suited to two engines installed like Concorde, or indeed like current Sukhoi aircraft essentially in nacelles fed by underwing intakes. If the target performance were to be Mach 3-ish, as suggested by the appearance of the airframe, it does not seem evident that 50,000 lb thrust engines are required, leave alone additional rockets. It’s worth noting that the stated dimensions of the Firefox are significantly smaller than those of the SR-71, supporting the view that 50,000 lb thrust engines would not be required.
But then, all you would have is a sexier MiG-31, not at all what was envisaged by the film script.
What about thought-control? We already have voice control for a number of functions in some advanced aircraft. Thought control might be quite difficult, but programs have existed where there was conceptually a progressive hand-over of autonomy from pilot to system as pilot workload went up, allowing fuel to be managed without intervention, for example. However, I would think that thought-controlled weapons systems would be among the last to be implemented, because of the need to track ‘who did what’, both for training, and to provide an audit trail for decisions to employ lethal force.
I admire the ambition of the Firefox, and the recognition of the importance of advanced systems as well as the right airframe. There’s no way the stated design would achieve Mach 6, and given that, I prefer to view Firefox as a strategic interceptor, operating at a maximum of Mach 3+, heavily armed and with good systems. But no cannon, no auxiliary rockets, and somewhat smaller thrust. Otherwise, I think that the forward part of the aircraft does look somewhat crude, and would probably produce unacceptable high-speed drag.”
MiG Project 701/Sukhoi T60S
An intelligence blunder made the West believe that what was actually a MiG concept for high-speed replacement for the MiG-31 was actually a Sukhoi bomber. Though not fictional as such, this is a good excuse to mention an interesting design. As of 2020, work continues on a high-speed replacement for the MiG-31.
Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-28 (1985) Top Gun
Real Soviet fighters were not available for the 1986 Top Gun movie so US Navy F-5s (operated by the real Top Gun aggressor units) were painted black and given Communist-style markings. The black paint was sleek and sinister, and made the aircraft both easier for the audience to see and to clearly differentiate from the ‘goody’ F-14 Tomcats. The MiG-28 is is highly described as manoeuvrable, but somewhat slower than the F-14 Tomcat, both of which are true of the F-5. The American pilots are warned that the MiG-28 was armed with the AM 39 Exocet, this is a real French anti-ship missile which earned notoriety in the Falklands War which took place four years before the film. The nationality of the air force operating the MiG-28s is not stated but according to a director’s commentary was originally intended to be North Korea, though there is also nods to it Libya or the Soviet Union. Intriguingly, the Soviets had some actual F-5s of their own.
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (Kfir)
The Iron Eagle films started bad and got progressively more dire. Simplistic, atrociously scripted and ridiculous – this was fun ’80s action propaganda at its best. It was a paean to the F-16, in the same way that Top Gun drooled over the F-14. Though the poster for the film portrayed USAF F-16s, all the aircraft in the film were (somewhat bizarrely) provided by the Israeli air force. This is said to be due to USAF’s long-standing policy of not cooperating on any film with a plot that involves the theft of an aircraft. If this rule is real it makes one wonder why the USAF appears to have assisted in the 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L. which features an electronically enhanced child stealing a Blackbird.
Where this rule comes from and why it is in place is unclear, but this led the filmmakers turned to turn to Israel. As well as F-16s, the Israeli Air Force operated Kfir’s (a heavily Isreli adaption of the French Mirage 5) and this unfamiliar aircraft was an excellent choice to portray the ‘MiG-23’s of the Bilyan air force (Bilya being a fictional North African nation)
Iron Eagle II MiG-29 (F-4E Phantom)
For Iron Eagle II (1988) big lumbering F-4E Phantoms of the Israeli Air Force were cast as the small nimble MiG-29. The times they were a changin’ and so this time the Soviet MiGs were allies of the US’. This concord, which happened to a lesser degree in reality, didn’t last and today the DoD has going back to its comfort-zone of hating/posturing of hating the Russians. Either for legal or safety reasons, real Soviet markings were not used and a made-up hammer & sickle rondel was stuck over a standard 1980s three-tone Israeli camouflage scheme.
Mikoyan MiG-31 ‘Firefox’ (book)
The MiG-31 ‘Firefox’ of the 1977 novel incorporated stealth technology, was capable of hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 (partly thanks booster rockets) and had a thought-guided weapons system. The real MiG-31 is a very fast, though not as fast the ‘Firefox’, interceptor known by the NATO reporting name of Foxhound.
The idea of a superior Soviet fighter plane eclipsing the West’s machine echoed the panic expressed by defence planners on the perceived capabilities of the real-world MiG-25. Indeed the original frontcover depicted a MiG-25. I don’t have a copy of this novel to hand so welcome any readers to share descriptions of the aircraft’s appearance in the comment’s section below, just to be clear I mean the novel only as I’m fully aware of what the film version looked like.
According to Doug Richardson’s 1989 ‘Stealth Warplanes’,“In the autumn of 1987, the US plastic model manufacturer Testors.. launched its model of the “MiG-37B Ferret E”- a Soviet equivalent to the Lockheed stealth fighter. Its appearance must have caused a few smiles around the Mikoyan design bureau. As its manufacturer admitted.. Its reception in the Pentagon must have been less amusing. Here in widely-distributed form was the first model to widely illustrate the use of RCS reduction technique.” It seems that the concepts of a gridded intake and a surface made of flat panels was already there for those looking. And Testors’ model designer John Andrews certainly seemed to have his ear to the ground. Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes, from ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. He was asked by the British Government to assess the YF-22 and YF-23; we wondered what he would make of a totally fictional aircraft, the MiG-37B model kit of 1987.
“The Testors toy company released this model 2 years after their very successful F-19 kit and only about a year before the F-117 appeared in public. It’s a pretty ugly beast, but, let’s not hold that against it, given the impact that designing for low signature had on Have Blue and the F-117. So what have Testors’ done in ‘Russianizing’ their F-19 stealthy strike concept? Well, somewhere along the way, the Testors team appear to have heard some whispers about ‘The Black Jet’, as insiders were referring to the F-117. The MiG-37 model has outward canted fins, and has a facetted structure, while retaining the letterbox-slot exhaust of their F-19 concept. While the appearance of these features may have caused some disquiet in some circles, there was by this time some awareness of strange black aircraft operating up in Tiger Country (the far reaches of the Nellis, Tonopah and Area 51 complexes). In addition, the Pentagon was moving towards first, disclosure that the F-117 existed, and then, the presentation to families and the media which I attended.
As well as some of the F-117 features, Testors has done quite a good job of giving the aircraft a Russian look. Partly, the use of a MiG-23- like undercarriage, and partly subtle stylistic and colour scheme aspects which just convey a less-Western look. Paradoxically, the crude-looking faceted shaping turned out to be more accurate than the smooth surfaces of their F-19 concept.
From a propulsion perspective, the intakes perhaps look a little more likely to work than those of the F-19, and still bear no resemblance to those of the F-117. From a stealth perspective, however, the whole aircraft is full of changes in angle which look counter productive to maintaining a low signature. In particular, the under-surface of the aircraft does not feature the flat surface of the F-117, and appears unlikely to be successful in managing the MiG-37 ‘s signature. In addition, the changes in sweep of the planform, the gaps and joins around wing slats and other features, and the intakes all suggest a less successful stealth design.
Aerodynamically, the MiG-37 concept would probably have been more efficient and easier to manage than either the F-19 or the F-117, as the moderately swept wings would allow the use of high lift devices and a significantly lower take-off and landing speed. Like the F-19, the relatively conventional cockpit would probably have resulted in a less constrained environment for the pilot than the essentially pyramidal F-117 cockpit.
I am a bit concerned about the extremely large fins, coupled with the anhedral of the wing, which might lead to unusual lateral-directional handling, but again, there is nothing terrible about the configuration (given the open-minded approach I am adopting). It is very ugly, but it is not alone in that.
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Like the F-19 forward fins, I do have a gripe – the dorsal airbrakes just don’t make sense. There-s no way this aircraft would be used as a dive bomber, and the configuration is likely to be draggy enough that airbrakes are unlikely to be needed to manage the approach. Plus they have the disadvantage that they would deny the opportunity to use uber-cool black silk parachutes deployed by the 2 F-117s that came ‘out of the black’ at Nellis in April 1990.
Summing up the MiG-37 – ugly, but closer to the appearance of the F-117 than the F-19. In the aerodynamics vs stealth trade off, perhaps the solution has better aerodynamics than stealth.”
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What is the forum & why did you set it up?
“Secret Projects Forum is both a discussion forum and a database. It’s a place to discover and share interesting nuggets of aviation history, with a particular emphasis on prototypes, cancelled and unbuilt projects, with like-minded people from around the world. It’s been running since December 2005 and hasn’t run out of steam yet, though Facebook groups like ‘The Greatest Planes That Never Were‘ are mounting a challenge.
I was always an aviation nerd and an avid reader; Airfix kits of WW2 aircraft on the ceiling, aircraft books on the shelves. When I got to secondary school I found a copy of Derek Wood’s book ‘Project Cancelled’, which blew my mind with its array of fantastic-looking British designs which were never built, or were cancelled. For someone who felt pretty knowledgeable about aircraft it was like a whole new horizon opening of things to know about. That was the start of something. ‘Warplanes of the Future’ by Bill Gunston showed me a bright future of non-yet-built aircraft.”
‘Stealth Warplanes’ by Bill Sweetman blew the lid on the fascinating world of Stealth. These would be my version of the holy Trinity. Sweetman’s now a member of the forum, by the way.
I failed to make it though an aero engineering degree, the first time I’d failed at anything academically — and in a fit of pique I threw away most of my aircraft book and magazine collection and decided to pursue an English degree instead. I did well enough at that to get funded for a scholarship for a masters, but doing that masters course (medieval English) cured me of ever wanting a career in academia. I ended up with a career in IT (systems sngineer) mostly by accident.
The internet revived my interest in aviation. A largely solitary interest from my childhood was now something you could share with people all around the world. The chances of finding people interested in such a niche subject in your immediate peer group is tiny, but multiplied across the billions of people in the world, you can form sizeable communities. I lurked on a number of existing aviation forums, posting things I found interesting, but none were quite aligned with my interests, though the www.whatifmodelers.com forum was closest. I met fellow travellers interested in the same things I was, so I decided to start my own forum. It was pretty easy, people joined up in decent numbers, and once there was some content for Google to index, more like-minded people searching for this stuff inevitably found their way to the forum.”
Why do you think there is such an interest in secret & cancelled aircraft?
“Partly I think because there are relatively few new (manned at least) aircraft in development. Mining the rich vein of aviation’s past is one way to keep discovering interesting ‘new’ designs when nobody is building them. Also, it’s interesting to see the what-ifs, the designs that could have been built instead of the planes we know. Having done some archival research, it’s clear that the process of choosing a winning design is often only loosely aligned with what is technically the best proposal. Of course, unlike real aircraft, designs that weren’t built never suffer the indignity of failing to achieve their promised performance, so you need to guard against believing everything in the brochure. ‘It would have been great’ ignores the giant chasm separating a brochure from an actual finished aircraft.”
Personally, I am very interested in the whole design and engineering process — from first sketch to final hardware for iconic planes such as the F-16, far more than I am interested in their subsequent operational history. There’s a great design progression linking the F-111 to the F-16, unlikely as it seems, and the process of refining the design, the alternate approaches considered, the rival designs proposed by other manufacturers. There’s an interesting book in that, I think. I may have to write it one day.
What is your favourite aircraft and why?
“Probably the MiG-29 and Su-27. I grew up buying the Observers Book of Aircraft, and recall buying a volume where suddenly these cool new planes were included (in artist’s impressions).
They looked very un-Soviet, but they were still largely unknown, mysterious and alluring. I remember my copy of Air International dropping through the mailbox in 1986 with photos of the MiG-29 visit to Finland – I did a lot of drawings inspired by it that week. I went to the Farnborough Airshow in 1988 with my dad, and wasted two rolls of film taking terrible photos of the MiG-29 there. I saw the grainy Su-27 photo in Flight International in late 1987, then a few years later I was watching it do the ‘Cobra’ at an airshow. I have an amazing book on the Su-27 (Su-27 Fighter: Beginning of Story by Ildar Bedretdinov et al) but sadly part two is only released in Russian, so I can only look at the pics. Part 1 is the kind of detailed engineering history I love: 360 pages just covering Su-27 development up to the T-10 prototype.
What is your favourite cancelled British fighter and why?
“Probably the Hawker P.1216 V/STOL fighter from the early 1980s, which was passed over in favour of the Eurofighter. The Typhoon is a bit of a ‘meh’ design, workmanlike but nothing very interesting or innovative. P.1216 would have been a much more interesting aircraft, and Ralph Hooper felt it was achievable whereas the P.1154 was a step too far in the early 1960s. If co-developed with McDonnell-Douglas for the Marines, it might have altered the direction of the later F-35 programme.”
Aurora – fact or fiction?
“Fiction. The ‘Aurora’ name comes from a B-2 related funding line item. Researcher Dan Zinngrabe did think that something classified and fast was flown at least in a prototype form in that timeframe, so I wouldn’t rule out something experimental and fast existing. There’s no infrastructure or funding to support an operational fleet of cryogenically-fuelled aero-spaceplane reconnaissance aircraft. There’s no Mach 6 SR-71 replacement in service, or Lockheed Martin wouldn’t be promoting their SR-75.”
Biggest aircraft myth?
“MiG-25 as a “big bad” prior to Belenko’s defection. Sober intelligence agency analysts correctly saw it from 1967 as an interceptor with limited manoeuvring capability, but a politically useful consensus emerged from the Air Force’s own pet intelligence analysts that it was some kind of Mach 3 super-fighter built from titanium that made the F-4 obsolete, and that helped sell Congress on the F-15. Same people who insisted on a “bomber gap” that never existed but helped fund a pile of B-52s.”
Favourite secret or cancelled US type and why?
YF-23. If there’s ever been a fighter which looked like the future, its the YF-23. The F-22 resembles a warmed over F-15 in comparison. Would it have made a better choice for the US Air Force? No idea. It would have looked awesomely cool though.
How many Black projects do you believe are flying now and what are they likely to be?
I’m sure there are demonstrators which have not yet been revealed, most likely in the unmanned space. Northrop Grumman seemed to have something more than the B-2 on their stealth CV to get the B-21 program. I’m on the the fence about the Northrop Grumman RQ-180, it makes sense, but I’ve not seen the evidence.”
What is your favourite cancelled Soviet type?
Sukhoi T-4MS. A variable geometry blended-body intercontinental bomber design that lost to Tupolev’s rather pedestrian design that evolved into the Tu-160. It had a very high lift/drag ratio, but would have been a challenging design to build, and Sukhoi really had enough on their plate with the Su-27 and other projects.
What should I have asked you & why?
What’s been the best thing to come out of running the forum?
“I got to meet Tony Buttler and Chris Gibson virtually, and then in person, and that led directly to me writing a book on the Hawker P.1121. I got to fly to England, visit Scale Modelworld in Telford and do a book signing. That was awesome.”
Tell me about an aircraft type I don’t know about
“I don’t know what aircraft you don’t know 🙂
An oddball one-off aircraft was the Acme Sierra / Sierra Sue, a Y-tail, pusher prop light aircraft built by Northrop engineers Walt Fellers and Ron Beattie in their spare time from 1948 and which first flew in 1953. Walt Fellers revisited this Y tail layout in 1968 for the N-308, a Y-tail pusher turboprop that was for a time the preferred configuration of Northrop’s A-X (A-10 Warthog rival), and Sierra Sue flew some test flights in connection to the Northrop A-X program.
Sadly requirement changes forced Northrop to drop the turboprop design and move to jets. Aesthetically, it was a much more interesting design than the built YA-9, which is rather dull.”
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Today we are quite used to aircraft such as the B-52 having been in service since the time of the dinosaurs but this is a relatively modern phenomenon. It was rare until well after the Second World War for a combat aircraft to serve much longer than a decade. Here’s a look at some of the more famous long-serving combat aircraft of history and the rather more obscure tales of where and when their fighting careers actually ended.
North American P-51/F-51 Mustang
Top of the tree when it comes to longevity amongst Fighters of the Second World War, the Mustang’s usefulness and availability saw it appear in the inventories of various air arms for many years. Curiously the US Army even bought a pair of reconditioned P-51Ds as late as 1968 to operate as chase planes for the Cheyenne attack helicopter program despite the Mustang having been withdrawn from Air National Guard service 11 years earlier. Despite losing its last aerial combat action to a Corsair the Mustang outlived the Vought fighter in service, the Dominican Republic finally retired their P-51s in 1984, a mere 42 years after the type first entered service with its first operator, the RAF.
Vought F4U Corsair
Victor (and victim) in the final combat between piston-engined aircraft ever fought, the Corsair was second only to the Mustang in longevity. Its very long production run (1942 – 53) meant there were airframes and spares in abundance for years to come and the game-changing naval fighter of the Pacific spent its dotage flying and occasionally fighting for a variety of Central American nations. Its final combat occurred during the so-called Football war between Honduras and El Salvador. On the 17th July 1969, Ferdinando Soto shot down a Salvadorean Mustang and two Goodyear-built FG-1 Corsairs, becoming the last known pilot to destroy an enemy aircraft in a piston-engined fighter. His F4U-5 is preserved in ground-running condition in the Honduran Aviation museum after finally being retired in 1981.
Republic P-47/F-47 Thunderbolt
Despite being complex and expensive to operate, the P-47 was rugged, potent and reliable. After 1945 the Thunderbolt was eagerly snapped up by a swathe of nations, particularly in Central and South America. Nicaragua was a major user of the type and loaned a handful to the CIA-backed Guatemalan insurgent Air Force in 1954 who used the Thunderbolts in the early stages of a successful coup to oust the democratically elected government and install the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. The final aerial combat for the mighty ‘Jug’ came in January 1955: during a border dispute, Gerald Delarm Amador (who has earlier flown in the same aircraft in the Guatemalan coup) shot down a Costa Rican Mustang in a Nicaraguan F-47N. This aircraft survives in the collection of the Commemorative Air Force in the US. Last user of the Thunderbolt though was Peru, the last operational Peruvian Thunderbolts were withdrawn in 1966.
Twenty years after entering service, everyone’s favourite flying British cliche was still plugging away. Only this time it wasn’t standing fast as a bastion of the free world against the massive industrial might of Nazi Germany but flying ground attack missions in Burma against Communist fighters in 1957 during the seemingly perpetual Burmese civil war. These aircraft were ex-Israeli and Italian Mk IXs supplemented with Griffon-powered Seafire Mx XVs and this was the last combat use of the aircraft.
Post-war Spitfire air-to-air combat by comparison is somewhat bizarre as, apart from a single one shot down by an Avia S-199 (of which more later), every Spitfire shot down after the end of the Second World War was itself downed by another Spitfire. The very last Spitfire kills occurred in 1948 and early 1949 in a confusing three-way encounter in the Middle East. Some (neutral) RAF Spitfires were attacked on the ground by Egyptian Spitfires who had misidentified them as Israeli Spitfires. A later attack by five Egyptian Spitfires resulted in all five being destroyed, three by ground fire, two by British Spitfires (the last of which remains the most recent victory in air combat by an RAF pilot in an RAF aircraft). Some days later Israeli Spitfires mistook British Spitfires for Egyptian Spitfires and shot down two. In a rare non-Spitfire kill the very final Spitfire victory was scored by American Bill Schroeder in a Spitfire IX on the 7th January 1949 when he shot down an RAF Hawker Tempest (again, apparently, mistaking it for an Egyptian aircraft). A messy aerial finale for this most famous of British aircraft.
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Hawker Sea Fury
A surprisingly high achiever, given that the F-86 and MiG-15 were both flying by the time it entered service, the Sea Fury was exported to a swathe of nations across the globe. Its final combat action came over Cuba during the infamous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite air strikes that destroyed all but three of the Sea Furies, and their best fighter pilots being in Czechoslovakia (learning to fly the MiG-21), the Cuban aircraft wreaked havoc on the invasion force. Cuba’s main ‘fighter’ was the T-33 jet trainer and this scored the majority of kills but two B-26s were shot down by Sea Furies on the 17th April 1961, the second and last being achieved by Lieutenant Douglas Rudd at 9.30 am. Having already been credited with a MiG-15 shot down over Korea in Royal Navy service, this makes the Sea Fury one of very few aircraft to have scored victories for both sides during the Cold War. The Sea Fury’s career ultimately ended over Germany, sixteen civil-registered examples were operated as target tugs until 1970.
Grumman F6F Hellcat
Sidelined by 1945 by the superior Corsair and replaced by its successor the Bearcat, the Hellcat saw no air to air combat after 1945. It was however used as a guided missile(!): in late 1952 F6F-5K drones, flying from USS Boxer and each carrying a 2,000 lb bomb, were used to attack bridges in Korea, radio controlled from an escorting Skyraider.
However, the final combat use of the F6F was in French hands: Aeronavale Hellcats were heavily committed to ground attack operations over Indochina until the French withdrew in 1955.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
As produced by its parent nation, 109 use ceased in May 1945 but production of the Messerschmitt fighter continued in Spain and Czechoslovakia. Spanish 109s ended up being built with Hispano-Suiza engines as the Hispano Aviación HA-1112-K1L and finally with Rolls-Royce Merlins as the Hispano Aviación HA-1112-M1L ‘Buchon’ (Pigeon). Buchons were manufactured as late as 1959 and served in Spanish colonial territories in Africa until December 1965 and may have seen some action against rebel groups (the historical record is unclear). Ultimately these aircraft achieved cinematic immortality by starring as their Bf 109E ancestors in the 1968 film ‘Battle of Britain’.
Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia the Avia aircraft company found itself with a fully operational 109 production line and restarted production for its own Air Force. Faced with a shortage of Daimler Benz engines (due to an explosion at a storage facility) Avia re-engineered the 109 airframe to accept the Junkers Jumo 211, such as was fitted to the Heinkel He 111 bomber, the resulting aircraft being known as the Avia S-199. Despite allegedly atrocious handling characteristics, performance was good and over 500 were produced and served in Czech units until 1957. Rather more excitingly the nascent Israeli Air Force got hold of a few and, despite low serviceability and general unpopularity, Avia S-199s officially scored six kills against aircraft from Egypt, Syria and Jordan, including the first ever Israeli air-to-air victory. Last aircraft shot down by an S-199 was its old rival, a Spitfire, destroyed by Rudy Augarten on the 16th October 1948. It is somewhat ironic that the final combat use of this Nazi fighting machine should occur in the defence of a Jewish state.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
It is a pleasing irony that an aircraft most famous for starting fires all over Europe for a couple of years then spent decades putting fires out. The career of the Flying Fortress in its intended role was limited after 1945, the advent of the B-29 rendered it obsolescent in its home nation, yet it was too big, expensive to operate, and sophisticated for most developing nations. As a result most of the B-17s operated by air forces after 1945 were utilised as transport craft. The one great exception was Israel which operated three Fortresses for years, bombing Cairo in 1948 to great psychological, though militarily insignificant, effect. The mighty B-17 ended its conventional bombing career by attacking Egyptian targets during the Suez crisis in late 1956.
However, the Fortress’s ‘bombing’ career did not end there. Various private operators bought up surplus B-17s to use as firefighting aircraft. With its prodigious load carrying ability and pleasant flying characteristics the Fortress was a popular choice of air tanker and its immensely strong structure was well able to deal with the punishingly turbulent air in the vicinity of a fire. The final B-17 firefighting operations were flown as late as 1985 and most of the preserved airworthy B-17s today are ex-firefighting aircraft.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
With its roomy fuselage and massive range the Liberator was an attractive prospect for many operators and the B-24 flew in the air arms of 19 nations. The B-24’s last use in anger was with both sides during the Chinese civil war until 1949. Last operator of the Liberator though was India. Lacking a heavy bomber, during 1948 the Indian Air Force realised there were a large number of ex-RAF Liberators abandoned since 1945 as scrap at Kanpur airfield. Despite their state 42 of these aircraft were flown (by a single pilot, Jamshed Munshi, who had no previous experience flying B-24s – or indeed any four-engine aircraft) to HAL aircraft for refurbishment. The only incident during these undoubtedly risky trips was a small in-flight fire in the cockpit that was extinguished with a flask of coffee. Post refurbishment the Liberators served until 1968, and despite never engaging in combat, they were used for leaflet dropping during India’s annexation of Goa in 1961.
Consolidated PB4Y Privateer
Although essentially an offshoot of the Liberator, the Privateer had a busy postwar career so warrants its own entry. Despite being used by the French as a bomber in Indochina until 1954, the Privateer’s main strength was its vast range and it was used extensively as a long-range patrol, reconnaissance and intelligence aircraft, a US Navy example being shot down by Lavochkin La-11s in 1950 off the coast of Latvia. Final combat involving the Privateer occurred as late as February 1961 when a Taiwanese PB4Y was shot down by a Burmese Sea Fury while it was attempting to carry supplies to Nationalist Chinese forces fighting in Northern Burma.
Like the B-17 the Privateer was a popular choice for firefighting but it outlived the Boeing aircraft in this role for decades. It was only a fatal accident in 2002 (caused by poor maintenance and not due to a fault of the aircraft), that brought the PB4Y’s career attacking fires to an abrupt end some sixty years after the aircraft first flew.
Post-war use of the Lancaster was relatively limited, Canada and France both used the aircraft for long range maritime patrol but it was Argentina that was the last to take the bomber into combat. During the Revolución Libertadora of 1955, Argentine Lancasters flew bombing sorties for both sides in the ultimately successful coup d’etat that ousted Juan Peron from office and installed a military dictatorship. The final flight of an operational Lancaster occurred in 1965 in Argentina, the fleet being finally struck off charge in 1966. One Lancaster was modified as an air tanker in Canada to fight fires but its career was brief and by 1974 it had been sold into preservation.
de Havilland Mosquito
The ‘Wooden Wonder’ also saw its last combat in Israeli hands. Despite the punishing effects of the Middle Eastern climate on its wooden airframe, the Israeli air force was an enthusiastic Mosquito operator. Its unrivalled performance made it essentially immune from air attack and Mosquitoes were heavily employed in the reconnaissance role until the end of 1956. Even after Arab air forces introduced the MiG-15 jet fighter, Israeli Mosquitoes flew deep into their neighbour’s territory and not one was ever lost to enemy action during these missions. Final combat use of the Mosquito came during November 1956 when, as part of Operation Kadesh, the Israeli contribution to the Suez action, 110 squadron Mosquito FB.VIs attacked Egyptian armour and encampments in the Sinai in force repeatedly over four days. 110 squadron was disbanded less than two months later and the Mosquitoes sent to storage.
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India’s 4th generation fighter, the pocket-sized Tejas, is an intriguing design. Resembling a mini Mirage 2000 with the wing of a Viggen — and an empty weight smaller than that of the tiny Gripen — it is an unusual lightweight fighter that is largely misunderstood outside of India. We spoke to test pilot Group Captain Rajeev Joshi to find out more.
What were your first impressions of Tejas?
“As you walk up to it, you tell yourself – that’s a small one! The notion of aerodynamic shapes come to your mind next; you walk around the nose and find yourself short of words to explain the wing shape… then you recall – ‘Ah! This is what the reverse compound delta they spoke of looks like’. The ‘Light Aircraft’ part also hits you — literally on the head —when you try to peek into the undercarriage well without bending close enough to the ground. Yet, despite its compactness, the aircraft has a feeling of solidity. Contrary to what you would expect from an aircraft which looks so small, stepping into the seat and looking around for left to right checks is reassuring, and you think ‘Hey, this is not such a tiny cockpit after all’. Once you strap yourself up, it feels just as comfortable as any mid-size fighter, but don’t include the ‘Flanker’ in that comparison! Neatly laid-out switches, logical control grouping and the glass cockpit seems neat. Reach seems optimal, though higher percentile fellows do report some knocked elbows! Jokes aside, it’s a good cockpit. View over the nose and off your shoulder is good, if not the best in the business. Checks and procedures are minimal, and one could get off the blocks in as less as couple of minutes.
“The full authority Auto Low Speed Recovery makes the aircraft truly carefree, more so than any other fighter in the world…Throw it around as much as you can — when she says ‘no’, she will take over and recover the situation for you. “
It taxies well enough at idle power, and the crisp feel of the nose wheel steer takes you by mild surprise at first, especially if one is used to the steady and comparatively slower feel of the Russian types, but it is easy to get used to it. The checks for take-off, are essentially minimal, and you soon find yourself pushing the GE 404 to the gate. In a clean fighter, take-off acceleration is impressive and likeable. Controls are crisp on the take-off roll, with nose held at the correct angle neatly. The growling of the ‘404 does not show up much in terms of cockpit noise. With a reassuring ‘all-clear’ on the undercarriage panel, you are up and away!”
What is the best thing about it?
“The small size and the good sensor package. The ability of the avionics design to absorb changes and upgrades seamlessly is a positive advantage. The biggest strength of the programme comes from the fact that the design and integration is indigenous. This gives the aircraft the ability to match the best in terms of features, utilities and modes. Small size and low (radar) signature, coupled with a good sensor package, puts the Tejas in a good advantageous spot with respect to bigger birds. The typical ‘first look, first kill’ works very well for the Tejas in a fight, both in the beyond visual and the visual realms. The Helmet Mounted Display System works well in a snap engagement and the coupled missile ‘line of sight’ (LOS) modes allow the first shot to be good. The HMDS is a very versatile piece of equipment for a number of tasks. The handling of the flight control system is fabulous and is being refined continuously. Based on the operational feedback from the fleet, the build up of rates is being refined to make it crisper and yet more responsive. In this area too, the 100% indigenous flight control system is a winner. It’s ours, and can be tweaked continuously. The process is very robust and the feedback about handling and what would ‘feel’ better is addressed very quickly. The full authority Auto Low Speed Recovery makes the aircraft truly carefree, more so than any other fighter in the world. This may be contested, but I’m willing to defend this position in a debate! The ALSR and other higher control law modes put this a notch higher. Throw it around as much as you can — when she says ‘no’, she will take over and recover the situation for you. The control and handling in high gain tasks like aerial refuelling is superb. It will beat contemporaries or older birds in this area. It really makes you feel like a great pilot!”
…and the worst?
“Ironically, the size! It invariably tends to get compared to its bigger cousins in the business. The size essentially limits internal fuel and hence the shorter legs as compared to others. However, if the focus is kept on the fact that it was intended as a light fighter, the fuel fraction is reasonable. The ‘404 and aircraft combo is frugal, and with external tanks and a high flow-rate aerial refuelling system, it’s ok…..”
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How would your rate Tejas in the following categories:
A. Instantaneous turn
“Snaps into it! However, the traditional drag of the delta platform does start showing after a while.”
B. Sustained turn
“Mid mach numbers and mid altitudes, good. Like an aircraft of its size, affected by stores carried.”
“Climbs well, and the acceleration is good. The continuing refinement in the drag department is an ongoing process which aims to make this better still. With every drag count being ‘counted’ with a fine tooth comb, it will only get better”
D. Climb rate
“Reasonable and meets the specs laid out.”
E. High alpha performance
“Fabulous! Difficult to enter a difficult situation with respect to this… a very robust control law makes the Tejas a winner here. Do remember though, that comparisons with itsthrust-vector control- equipped Russian cousins would be unfair here. The nose holds up well in low speed fight, and the ALSR makes you trust the aircraft. High angles of attack manoeuvres and reversals are comfortable, albeit with a little ‘barrellish tendency’. Though like any flight control system controlled fighter, the rate of roll and pitch rate does go down with high AoA and/or high pitch angles.”
What is the cockpit like?
“You would not call it a mansion, it’s better described as ‘neat’. Like I said earlier, the space inside is surprisingly un-congested, despite what its external size might suggest. I am a lower percentile fellow, but the some of the jocks flying the Tejas operationally would certainly tip the percentile scales at the top end, and they do not complain!
The existing switchery is minimal and simple. As Tejas is a platform which is operationally evolving, there is space for new hardware panels to come in… it’s been catered for, and that is a good thing. What also helps is that being an open architecture based platform with full glass cockpit, most of what needs to be added is done so in the system. It is handled via existing software and programmable multi-functional (MFDs) and other displays, so the available real estate (though frugal) seems adequate.
The air-conditioning is extremely efficient, perhaps a little too much! You do feel the need to crank up the temp at times. Having operated it across the length and breadth of our country (and we are BIG and touch all extremes!), I have never found it wanting. The initial rush of air feels a lot and is very loud, but the auto management quickly kicks in to make it a comfortable cockpit. The Martin-Baker seat is a good fit, angled so that you take the G’s well. To sum it, long hauls with air-to-air would be welcome. The three MFDs allow you to see anything on any surface, with an efficiently utilised Up Front Control Panel that lets you handle everything that you are carrying with ease. It is HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) rich! That part is further sweetened by a ‘near HOTAS’. At Hand Control Panel next to your throttle. Almost all controls for all systems are duplicated across these surfaces, so losing some to a malfunction, does not raise a sweat at all. These retain a good capacity to absorb further systems and their associated controls without maxing out.”
How mature is it? “It is in an operational unit. So that speaks for itself. Open source news source would tell you that the jets in final operational configuration would be delivered soon, and the upgrade to the Tejas Mk 1 is already on! For us, it is a heady new experience, an operational fighter that is evolving. Sound self-contradictory? No, it is mature enough to fight, and yet youthful enough to continuously evolve.”
How does it compare with other fast jets you have flown? Which aircraft has most similar flight characteristics?
“A lot of inspiration for the Tejas came from the Mirage 2000. Of course, the Mirage was a worthy template to look up to, and hence it is quite like it. Flight characteristics-wise? Closest to the Mirage 2000. Lovely similarities in feel and handling.
What is the biggest myth about Tejas?
“Before we can tackle the biggest myth, we must first acknowledge the biggest truth. It has taken long years to come, it’s true – you can see this in open sources, it’s no secret. And that leads us to answer the biggest myth about it: that it is not only too late but also less than what was asked for. Now that is a myth. The aircraft is exactly what was asked for. It is nimble, swift, light and frugal. It is also very capable of absorbing new systems for (and I stake my reputation on this) a decade and half to come. It fits right into the slot of a well-made light fighter, which can carry all sorts of heavy and heady new tech for years to come. (tech mind you <Ed: not a super heavy weapon load> as it’s still a light fighter and will always be).
Want some specifics? We’re talking about a superior new radar (either indigenous or imported), superior new missiles (both indigenous and imported), new guided munitions from both our own ODL and new radio; new and more powerful indigenous mission computers and architecture, more powerful displays. AND- the amazing leap-frogging from an air force bird to getting its wet wings! Yes, I am proud of our achievements and I refer to the Tejas Navy having very successfully demonstrated its carrier landings and take-off!
How combat effective is it in its current state?
“It will hold its own with honour in a BVR (beyond visual range) to close-in fight. It can deliver precision guided munitions and iron bombs where they are needed. It’s got aerial refuelling with fat tanks. With this, it is in an operational unit with more coming up. It’s upgrade is rolling: watch out for the Mk 1A in a few years. Teething troubles? Yes of course, they are there, but that is an absolutely normal part of the settling down a fleet from design and development to operational units. So for combat effectiveness, do the maths.”
What was your most memorable flight in Tejas?
“Without a doubt the flight in which I carried out the first aerial refuelling contact of the Tejas.”
Which Tejas variants have you flown?
“The Prototype vehicles, limited series vehicles and of course the in-service series production variant.”
What equipment or kit would you like to see added to Tejas?
“Smaller smart precision munitions for air-to-surface work, to be carried in greater numbers.”
What have been the biggest problems facing the programme?
“Very simply – the time taken in development of multi sectoral multi-dimensional critical core indigenous technology. And very simply again – blessings come along with sanctions: the problems have been overcome and are now simply our strengths.”
What should I have asked you?
“The Tejas story, nay saga…. but honestly, better answered some other time and place. Because now you see, we are busy with the future.”
What do you see as the future of the aircraft?
“A robust and well-rounded upgrade which will be the reason of a successful in service fighter fleet in the short to mid-term, with increasing indigenous systems. The mid to long term future belongs to the next generation birds that will be born out of the success of this one. They are different creatures born out of family. The Medium Weight Fighter and the AMCA are well along in design and may be game changers. Heady days to come.”
How would you change the programme?
“I wouldn’t. It’s reached this point, and despite its own trials and tribulations, it has done so with an enviable safety record. We, have to just sustain this record with a faster pace (and that is a very tough challenge to rise up to), until one day Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles will ask a test pilot on the MWF and AMCA to answer a few questions on those birds — for a bottle of decent Malbec maybe?”
Special thanks to Harsh Vardhan Thakur
I considered calling this article ‘Flying & Fighting in the Hawker Hurricane: yes, but not quite a first-hand account) to tie in with this sites series of excellent pilot interviews. Hush-Kit readers are accustomed to informed, authoritative articles, on flying and fighting in various exotic, high-performance aircraft, representing the best of both Western and Russian technology. These first-hand accounts come straight from experienced practitioners. The Second World War is in a different category. Few experienced practitioners from that war are still with us. Of course, articles from former Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, on flying and fighting in the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, would be fascinating. Thankfully, there are many fine books available, which capture those experiences in the authentic words of people who were there. But accounts by those who flew specifically in the Burma-India theatre are still relatively rare – and accounts of Indian and Burmese personnel rarer still. My book, The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II (HarperCollins India, 2019) makes an attempt to capture some of them.
The Forgotten Few is the first narrative history of the Indian Air Force’s involvement in the Second World War. Informed by access to Indian Air Force squadrons’ war diaries, and first person inputs compiled from over two dozen veterans of the time, it showcases first-person content straight from those veterans, describing the experience of flying and going into combat in Hurricanes, Spitfires and other aircraft of that era. And that experience was very different from the air war over Europe.
The Indian Air Force’s war, indeed that of all the Air Forces in India, was far from being a simple replication of the Battle of Britain in tropical environs. The physical and meteorological environments were completely different, which drove many changes in equipment and operating procedures. Even flying clothing had to be re-designed, as may be imagined. Most importantly, the tasks of the Air Forces in India were different from those of the RAF at home. They were less about shooting down bombers than about supporting ground (and occasionally naval) forces, by the delivery of fire upon the enemy, sometimes within yards of our own troops; and about reconnaissance and the collection of information, on terrain and enemy dispositions, in an environment with none of the infrastructure that could be taken for granted on the Home Front or in Europe. This was all less spectacular than swirling Battle-of-Britain-type dogfights, but of crucial importance to winning the war in this theatre.
Of course, there were some Battle of Britain parallels. Some fine RAF veterans of the Battle of Britain, and also of the Dams Raid, went on to serve in India; and as elsewhere, they were accorded immense respect. They and their comrades of the Indian Air Force and the Burma Volunteer Air Force (as well as the RAAF, the RCAF, the RNZAF and the South African Air Force, all of which served in the theatre) wore mostly identical uniforms, and frequently played cricket or football between flying and fighting. Like them, the Indian Air Force flew Hurricanes (although only from 1943 onwards) and Spitfires (although only when the RAF was moving on to Thunderbolts). They were all young, high-spirited, and given to schoolboy jokes and pranks. They too, like the mythical Kilroy, Were There.
Indian airmen served during the Second World War in far smaller numbers than Indian soldiers, but again like Kilroy, they showed up in many theatres. Indian Air Force personnel served in the skies over England and France, and also in the Middle East and North Africa. Broad recognition of Indian contribution has improved in the last few years, prompted partly by commemorations and publications around the centenary years of the First World War. But the Second World War was a more complex involvement. Indians took on more complex roles, sometimes in the face of strong imperial prejudice.
For the most part, India embraced its role. Indian princely families made significant contributions to the war effort, and some young princes joined the Indian Air Force, just as during the First World War some Indian princes joined elite cavalry regiments. The Indian film and entertainment industry actively supported the war effort, and outside official view there were some unscripted romances between dashing young flyboys and glamorous figures from the film industry, even across national divides. There were also connections to the Indian cricket world, although Indian cricketers did not have the celebrity status then which they enjoy now.
Beyond fighting and flying in Hurricanes and Spitfires, there is an incredibly rich vein of Second World War stories in India. This book starts to tell a few of them.
— K S Nair
It seems hard to even mention Blackburn (‘Blackburn Aircraft Limited’ – and boy, weren’t they) without eliciting anecdotes about terrible, stolid, ugly or fatal aircraft. But does Blackburn deserve this reputation? Matthew Willis finds out.
A few years ago this author proposed, half-jokingly, the Twitter hashtag #FirebrandFriday which was met, within minutes, with shrieks of horror – ‘but it was a godawful deathtrap!’ – from a prominent defence expert not entirely unknown to this blog. Mention of the Skua invariably leads to someone repeating ‘a seabird that folds its wings and dives into the sea’ before too long. The Botha is one of those aircraft about which a mythical test pilot is rumoured to have written ‘entry to the aircraft is difficult. It should be made impossible.’
Half of the aircraft on this list of the 10 worst British aircraft are from Blackburn
Blackburn seems alone in the largely awful reputation of its products. No UK aircraft manufacturer has escaped its share of unfortunate aircraft – much of the latter designs of Supermarine were clumsy, dangerous and had a loss rate that made them virtually disposable. Avro, meanwhile proved itself incapable of designing an airliner bigger than a regional feeder machine that didn’t kill frighteningly high numbers of passengers. In most cases this didn’t define the company. With Blackburn, it seems, all the mud stuck.
The company was one of the earliest manufacturers in Britain to attain much success. Robert Blackburn was an engineer who became obsessed with flight in the 1900s while working in France, taking more time off work than his employers appreciated to go and see the Wrights, Blériot and Hubert Latham in their ‘flying machines’. On his return to England in 1908, he immediately began his efforts to emulate these pioneers, and built a monoplane that was completed the following year. This was a rather unconventional affair with several touches that marked it out as the product of an engineer rather than an aeronaut. For one thing, it was built for strength – something that Blackburn products would be accused of throughout the company’s life – and incorporated interesting features such as a fore-and-aft sliding seat to adjust the centre of gravity. The general arrangement was disposed to confer great stability in the air, with all the heavy items – pilot, engine and fuel/coolant tanks – suspended well below the wing. Blackburn failed to appreciate that this might involve too much of a good thing. He made a few hops with this aircraft along a beach in Yorkshire, but sideslipped into the ground on attempting to turn, against the mass trying to prevent the aircraft from rolling.
Top 16 Royal Navy aircraft here.
Unhurt and undeterred, Blackburn tried again, and this time produced an elegant if conventional monoplane that flew well. At this point he went into the aircraft-manufacturing business, offering to build aircraft to others’ designs, while putting the successful second monoplane up for sale. A larger development of this aircraft, called the Mercury, was produced in 1912 and nine of them were built – a decent production run for a pre-WW1 aircraft. Further aircraft along the same lines were produced in ones and twos, each slightly more refined than the last, until the outbreak of war in 1914.
If Blackburn had continued remained unambitious, perhaps it might have become known as a competent if unimaginative maker of attractive aeroplanes. The outbreak of war, however, saw Blackburn’s unconventional, engineering mindset imposing itself once again. The Admiralty called for an aircraft of unparalleled endurance that could hunt Zeppelins, remaining aloft for many hours, even through the night, on patrol for the menacing dirigibles. For its ‘TB’, Blackburn came up with a layout that wasn’t repeated on a production aircraft until the P-82 Twin Mustang of 1945 – two fuselages, each with an engine and cockpit (although only one had controls).
The TB was intended to be powered by a new 150hp engine of low fuel consumption, but beginning something of a trend for Blackburn, this powerplant failed to become available and it had to make do with lower-powered units. The TB was perhaps over-ambitious, and an alarming flex between the two fuselages could never quite be overcome. Not giving up, Blackburn went back to the drawing board and applied the TB’s wing cellule to a conventional twin-engined layout, with a long, narrow fuselage. The resulting aircraft, known as the Kangaroo, was pretty good, and with decent power (250hp RR Falcon), it made the perfect long-range anti-submarine aircraft. In August 1918, a Kangaroo of 246 Squadron RAF discovered the U-boat UC70 lying on the bottom, reported its position and bombed it, causing sufficient damage that it was easy prey when a Royal Navy destroyer reached the scene.
Seafire story here
Blackburn was best known over the company’s life as a provider of aircraft carrier-based aeroplanes. Unsurprisingly this began with an aircraft that was as innovative as it was clunky. Blackburn was developing a talent for creating solutions that were elegant in engineering terms while being shockingly inelegant visually. The 1919 Blackburd – yes, that was honestly what they chose to call it – torpedo bomber was among the most hideous of the company’s many unattractive products. The reason for this was mostly in its fuselage. For many years aircraft manufacturers had simplified wing construction with constant-section mainplanes.
For the Blackburd, Blackburn applied this principle to both wing and fuselage. This had certain advantages – the four longerons were identical to each other, as were all the vertical and horizontal members. It was ideal for wartime mass production – a feature which was largely useless now the war was over – but conferred the aesthetics of a brick.
The Admiralty rejected the Blackburd, and Blackburn tried again in 1920. This resulted in the Dart, an aircraft that was beautifully svelte compared to the Blackburd and unappealingly stodgy compared with just about everything else. But the Dart was a fine aeroplane. It handled beautifully and was a thoroughly practical carrier aircraft. It was easy to land on the small carriers of the early interwar period, even at night, and served for ten years. The Dart was replaced by evolutions of the concept, the Ripon and Baffin, which made Blackburn the sole supplier of torpedo aircraft to the RN between 1921 and 1936.
With the follow-up to the Baffin, the Shark, they almost did it again. The Shark was a thoroughly modern machine for the time (more modern than its competitor from Fairey). Unfortunately for Blackburn, this was where things started to go wrong. Blackburn wanted the Bristol Pegasus engine, but the Air Ministry insisted on the unreliable Armstrong Siddeley Tiger. Problems with the oil system and engine mount were easily resolved, but gave the aircraft a terrible reputation with aircrews (unsurprisingly, given that the engine on the Mk.I had the unpleasant habit of trying to detach itself in flight). Sharks were introduced in 1935 and retired in 1937, despite being fundamentally a good design.
The next two service types from Blackburn only served to reinforce this ill fortune, in many respects ill-deserved though it was. The Skua dive bomber-fighter was, again, in many respects a very good aeroplane. It was a superb dive-bomber, but the Admiralty had decided in its wisdom that it needed its dive bomber to be a fighter too, and this was the use to which it was most often put in the early years of WW2. Once again, Blackburn did not get its choice of engine, and a two-seat fighter stressed for dive-bombing with a 900hp Bristol Perseus was never going to sparkle in the air. In 1940, the idea of a fighter with a maximum speed of 225mph was laughable to everyone but the aircrews who had to go to war in it. It didn’t help that being the first monoplane in service with the Fleet Air Arm meant a painful adjustment to new characteristics. The Skua could catch the unwary with its stall. Then there was the fact that the worn-out machines were repurposed as fighter trainers, and most pilots’ experience of them was in this state – hardly likely to endear itself to would-be aces. The Skua’s contemporary, the Botha, was intended to be a coastal bomber and torpedo aircraft on the same lines as the Bristol Beaufort. While both the Botha and the Beaufort ended up overweight, only Bristol was granted permission to use more powerful engines. The Botha was retired ignominiously in less time than the Shark had been.
Blackburn’s follow-up to the Skua was typical of the company in so many ways. Innovative engineering, solid – perhaps too solid – construction, but denied the best engine, and suffering from official meddling and poor timing. The Firebrand started life as a two-seat fighter and was endlessly mucked about with by changing Admiralty requirements and Air Ministry diktats. The original, Hercules-powered aircraft was to have a lightweight fixed undercarriage and twin tails.
The next iteration was to be even more unconventional, with full-span slotted flaps and spoiler-type ailerons allowing good carrier landing characteristics with a smaller wing for higher performance. It was poked and prodded into a Napier Sabre powered single-seat fighter, then attack aircraft, with by now conventional wings. Again, it had much going for it – a huge load-carrying ability and range, and despite its large size, it was reasonably manoeuvrable, including being fully aerobatic with a torpedo attached. Then the Air Ministry struck again, insisting that the Navy could not have any Sabres and the Firebrand would have to be redesigned with Bristol Centaurus power. Years were spent working the Firebrand into a useful aircraft, and it could have been something like a British Skyraider, but we will never know as it could only be accommodated on the larger fleet carriers, and none of these took part in the Korean conflict. (The RN’s Nato commitments also meant that it had to retain torpedo squadrons in Northern waters).
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After WW2, Blackburn continued to plug away, submitting designs for Air Ministry requirements and mostly being rejected. They built a prototype strike aircraft based on Firebrand experience but there was no call for it, and a prototype anti-submarine aircraft that lost out to the Fairey Gannet.
The one major success of the immediate postwar period – the Beverley transport aircraft – began life as a General Aircraft project and was only inherited by Blackburn when it took over that company in 1949. The company’s redemption, when it came, was dramatic. Finally, by the mid-50s as naval aircraft were approaching transonic speeds, it was appropriate to build them like tanks. The NA39 – later named Buccaneer – was tendered for a requirement for a nuclear-armed carrier strike aircraft to operate at high subsonic speeds at low levels. Blackburn pulled its trademark characteristics together – innovation, engineering elegance, pugnacious appearance and bulletproof construction. And this time, it all came right. Well, almost – as usual, it was the engines that initially let the Buccaneer down, with the de Havilland Gyron leaving the Buccaneer S.1 somewhat underpowered. The RR Spey-engined S.2, however realised the huge potential in the Buccaneer and the aircraft proved a potent weapon in the FAA’s armoury from 1960 until the service gave up fixed wing flying in 1978 (including a ‘show of force’ to persuade Guatemala not to invade Belize in 1975), and then for the RAF until 1994 (including highly accurate strikes during the first Gulf War of 1991).
Blackburn was undoubtedly unlucky with some of its aircraft. Had things turned out differently, the Shark might have been the hero of Taranto and the Bismarck, the Skua might have been the British answer to the Douglas SBD, the Firebrand might have been a feared mud-mover in Korea. The unfortunate looks of many Blackburn aircraft probably didn’t help. After all, in a world where the myth of ‘If it looks right, it probably flies right’ still persists, looks count.
I say it’s time to celebrate Blackburn. Sure, it never produced anything with the perfect poise of a Spitfire, Mosquito or Hunter, but most of its machines were surprisingly good and the Buccaneer was one of the outstanding strike aircraft of the 20th century.
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Matthew Willis’ book on the Blackburn Shark, featuring 100 historic photographs, detailed scale plans, and colour artwork by Chris Sandham-Bailey, is now available from MMP Books
The F-16, the best designed fighter jet of the 20th century, has proved an excellent aircraft to modify, build upon and generally mess around with. Here are some of the unlikely Vipers that have flown over the last forty years, we have also cheated to include some unofficial clones that cheekily borrowed a little F-16 DNA.
Diverterless supersonic inlet ‘Bump Rider’ (1996)
Jet engines cannot handle supersonic airflow, which considering fighters go at twice the speed of sound is a problem. So the airflow is slowed down before it enters the engine. There are various ways to do this and they are heavy, require maintenance and tend to be highly visible to enemy radars. The diverterless supersonic inlet, however, is an elegant and clever solution.
It is simply a bump that slows down the airflow, while also blocking enemy radar’s view of the engine compressor face (a highly reflective surface). It was used on the F-35 Lightning with and achieved a 30% weight saving over the traditional solution. I’m not (necessarily) saying that Chinese designers stole the idea, but have a look at the Chengdu J-10B/C, CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder, Chengdu J-20, Shenyang FC-31 and Guizhou JL-9.
General Dynamics F-16XL ‘Hyper Viper’
The leading edge of Concorde’s wing reduces in sweep as it runs from the fuselage to the wingtip. The reason being that a traditional delta wing, like that of the Mirage III has pretty ropey low-speed handling qualities. The XL began life as an effort to see if technologies from supersonic transport, such as the cranked delta, could benefit military aircraft. The first of two F-16XLs flew in 1982 and the results were dramatic: there was a 25% improvement in maximum lift-to-drag ratio in supersonic flight and an 11% while in subsonic flight. Compared to a regular F-16 the ride was smoother at high speeds and- somewhat surprisingly – at low altitudes. The baseline F-16 was already the longest-legged fighter in USAF, but the fuel was could now be increased by a hefty 82%. The F-16XL could carry twice the ordnance weight of the F-16 and deliver it 40% further.
Before the XL had flown, USAF had launched the Enhanced Tactical Fighter to replace the F-111. USAF essentially wanted a fighter-bomber capable of deep air interdiction missions without fighter or jammer support. Something based on the F-16XL could clearly be a strong contender and so General Dynamics entered the fray, eventually losing out to the F-15E. The XL lost, as unlike the F-15E it varied a great deal from the aircraft it was based on and would likely have incurred greater development costs. The larger more powerful twin-engined aircraft was also seen as more survivable and future-proof.
The aircraft then went to work for NASA, exploring the use of holed laminar flow wings. The intention was to explore whether these laser-cut holes could suck turbulent airflow over the wing, restoring laminar flow. Around this time the second XL, which was a two-seater, was re-engined with the monstrous -229. With this new engine it accidentally achieved supercruise (reaching and sustaining supersonic speed without recourse to afterburner) getting to Mach 1.1. After various research for NASA in support supersonic transport research, including sonic boom characteristics and engine noise, the XLs ceased flying in 1999.
Unusual F-4 Phantom IIs here
Lockheed F-16U ‘The Delta Belter’ (1991)
In the early 90s the United Arab Emirates was after a fighter with a long range and a large weapon load, capable of mounting attacks deep into Iran. General Dynamics, which had just been absorbed into Lockheed, came up with a strong concept – a delta F-16. A cranked ‘arrowhead’ delta wing had been tested on the F-16 already and had boosted fuel capacity by up to 82%. GD’s new delta F-16 would use a cropped wing design it had developed for the ATF effort that led to the F-22. The UAE was willing to pay for development on the condition that USAF purchased a wing’s worth of F-16Us. This was an offer USAF could not agree to as devotion to JSF (later F-35) was sacrosanct and the lower risk F-16U threatened to steal funding, and possibly the security of the whole JSF effort . Others were afraid of the F-16U too. Aerospace reporter Bill Sweetman noted that prominent members of the Eurofighter consortium believed the aircraft would have ‘killed’ the Typhoon. If it had been built it is likely the F-16U would have been an extremely capable aircraft that would have dented the eurocanard’s global sales severely.
Hawker Siddeley P.1200 ‘Kingston Rudeboy’
This isn’t really a F-16 but is worthy of inclusion in this list.
In the mid 1970s, the British company Hawker Siddeley developed a concept for a medium-weight fighter for the Royal Air Force strongly influenced by the US’ F-16. This series of ‘P.1200’ concepts came from the company’s Kingston division. Though considerably larger than the F-16, most of the P.1200 designs featured a similar air intake, canopy, leading edge root extensions and general wing configuration.
Strangely the P.1202 design was offered with either two RB.199s or a single RB.431. The RB.199 was then in development for the Tornado, but as experience would show with the ADV, it was not a suitable fighter engine; it was tailor-made for the low-level regime and was a poor performer at the medium and high altitudes that an air superiority fighter needs to operate in. The RB.431 study was essentially a Pegasus with reheat and no vectored thrust nozzles, though powerful it again seems an odd choice for a supersonic fighter.
The initial design, from November 1975, featured a canard layout with square shoulder-mounted intakes, similar to the later Saab Gripen. Further designs utilised a conventional tail and dorsal intakes. Internal armament for the early P.1200 designs was two 27-mm Mauser cannon. Air-to-air armament was expected to be AIM-9 Sidewinders and SkyFlash medium-range missiles. In the secondary air-to-ground role it could have carried four bombs in a low-drag recess.
By 1977 the aircraft had become even more strongly influenced by the F-16. Both single and twin vertical fin configurations were tested. The twin-tailed P.1202 pictured above, would have had superior high alpha performance to the F-16, and given a suitable engine, would have made a formidable dogfighter.
Mitsubishi F-2 ‘Mamushi moshi’ (1995)
If Japan’s desire to keep its aerospace industrial base alive is an expensive vanity project, then a prime example is the F-2. It’s a pretty average F-16 in capability, yet costing around four times per unit! Still, with its fantastic paintjob the F-2 is the most attractive member of the Viper family. The US negotiated an exceptionally aggressive technology transfer agreement whereby the US benefits from any unique tech that Japan develops for the F-2. The F-2 has a larger wing than the F-16, more composites in the structure and a stronger (more conventionally braced) canopy. The wing, and indeed the F-2 itself, was based on the Agile Falcon, a proposed low cost complement to the ATF programme that led to the F-22.
Unusual F-4 Phantom IIs here
Whereas the Mitsubishi F-1 was essentially an unlicensed pirate copy of the Jaguar (an aircraft JASDF had assessed in detail), Mitsubishi did not dare the same approach with the US. One of the most expensive aircraft in the world, it is at least a real looker. It could also be argued that the F-2 kept the Japanese aerospace industry technologically relevant – something vital to Japan’s ambitious new fighter, the nascent F-3.
Lockheed Martin built 40% of the F-2. Comapred to a baseline F-16C, the F-2 has a larger nose, more internal fuel, greater wingspan and wing area, with two more hardpoints. It may be the only F-16 with 13 hardpoints, making an eight air-to-air missile load-out conceivable. It would appear to have the largest radar array of any F-16 variant — and Japan has recently upgraded their AESA.
F-16 VISTA MATV ‘Hasta la VISTA’ (1992)
The most manoeuvrable jet America ever produced was the F-16 Variable stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA) — a project started to investigate future fighter technologies that later went on to include a radical new control technology. Fitted with an Axisymmetric Vectoring Exhaust Nozzle (AVEN) 3D-vectored thrust nozzle and a flight control system able to handle the extreme nature of post-stall supermaneuverability, the VISTA could fly in seemingly impossible ways. The multi-axis thrust vectoring (MATV) engine nozzle made active control of the aircraft in a post-stall situation possible, with extremely dramatic results.
The aircraft has demonstrated a sustained angle of attack of 86 degrees, and a transient angle of attack of 180 degrees (meaning the aircraft could fly backwards). The degree to which thrust-vector control is tactically applicable remains hotly debatable, though it can allow for dramatic and unexpected last-ditch missile shots. The argument against TVC’s use in air combat points to the perilously low-levels of energy the post-stall aircraft suffers, the weight and complexity of the nozzle and the ability of modern fighters to cue high off-boresight missiles with a helmet or on- or off-board sensor. Essentially why move the whole aircraft a head movement or sensor on another aircraft could tell the missile which portion of sky to target.
The VISTA also pioneered voice control (something already explored to some degree with the British EAP) and the virtual HUD, both of which would be used on the F-35 Lightning II. Today no Western fighters use 3D TVC, though the Russian Su-30, Su-35S and Su-57 do.
Mikoyan MiG-33/35 ‘F-16ski’ (1981)
Because it’s interesting, let’s bend the rules again and include another aircraft that is not an F-16. In the 1980s, the Mikoyan design bureau tinkered with a simple, single-engine warplane similar in concept to the original version of Lockheed’s F-16 lightweight fighter. Like the F-16A, the new Soviet plane would be simple, manoeuvrable and inexpensive.
The Project 33 design, sometimes – and perhaps erroneously – referred to as the MiG-33 or MiG-35, featured a single Klimov RD-33/93 afterburning turbofan, two of which power the larger and more complex MiG-29. According to a 1988 report in Jane’s Defense Weekly, Project 33 was “seen as a complementary combat aircraft to the powerful MiG-29.” Where the MiG-29 boasts some multirole and beyond-visual-range capability, the Project 33 was a short-range, point-defence fighter. Here was a MiG-21 for the 1980s – an ideal fighter for friendly states on a budget.
Mikoyan didn’t get very far with Project 33, as Soviet leadership apparently preferred to devote the USSR’s resources to more sophisticated aircraft. But Project 33’s DNA perhaps survives to some extent in the Chinese-made FC-1 export fighter.
Mikoyan reportedly sold the Project 33 design to China after it became clear there would be no Soviet market for the plane. China folded elements of Project 33 into the FC-1, which itself evolved from the joint U.S.-Chinese Super 7 light fighter, work on which collapsed following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In a weird sort of aerospace-design convergence, the Super 7 had also drawn inspiration from the F-16.
Powered by a single RD-33/39-powered FC-1, the FC-1 (also known as the JF-17) today is one of Pakistan’s most important fighters, serving alongside…you guessed it… F-16s.
– David Axe War is Boring
Unusual F-4 Phantom IIs here
General Dynamics F-16 SFW (Swept Forward Wing) ‘Windscreen Viper’ (1980)
You can do anything with an F-16: Stick a delta wing on and you’ve got a long-range attack aircraft (F-16XL), change the landing gear you can make a decent naval fighter (V-1600). So why not make a forward swept wing demonstrator? In 1976, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded funds to General Dynamics, Rockwell and Grumman under the Forward-Swept Wing Program. The engineers at General Dynamics, of course, suggested fitting a FSW to their F-16. In 1981 DARPA decided to opt instead for the Grumman X-29 based on the F-5/F-20, a decision many said was due to the F-16s over -representation in upcoming DARPA test programmes. In the end the X-29A featured a load of F-16 components, including an adapted form of its fly-by-wire system.
Vought/General Dynamics 1600 series ‘Sea Viper’ (1973)
The F-16 won the USAF Light Weight Fighter contest in the early 1970s, so it made sense – in terms of commonality and economy of scale – to suggest a version for the Navy. The Navy wanted a replacement for the F-4 and A-7 that was smaller and cheaper than the F-14 Tomcat. Having no carrier aircraft experience, General Dynamics teamed up with Vought to offer the 1600.
It would have differed from the early F-16 in several ways, including a beefier undercarriage and the ability to use AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. The Navy decided against it in 1975, preferring the twin-engined F/A-18 (based on the Northrop F-18L) offered by McDonnell Douglas.
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The world is burning. Infernos rage across the globe, and Australia is still in the grip of fires of biblical proportions. Facing these firestorms is a motley force of aircraft, crewed by heroic and exceptionally skilled pilots. Converted World War II fighter-bombers, helicopters, custom-made flying boats and even massive airliners have been sent into on the ‘War on Fire’. Flying directly into these smouldering hell-scapes to extinguish the flames requires supreme flying skills and nerves of steel. Here are ten of the best aerial firefighting aircraft.
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As Hush-Kit’s Ted Ward noted: “Whilst looking for fire-bomber stuff I have come to the conclusion that the US’s approach to fire control was insane. Essentially they just left the madly dangerous world of aerial firefighting to a bunch of cowboys who flew any old thing and gave the contract to the lowest bidder with inevitably fatal results.”
“Have you checked out the death rate of firefighting pilots in the US? Anyway it all went tits up when that Hercules crashed in 2002, followed within two months by a Privateer operated by the same outfit. Incidentally, the Privateer’s wings apparently failed downwards due to metal fatigue causing the main spar to fail when the water was dropped. This led to possibly the only folk song I’m aware of about a civil plane crash:
“Massive maintenance oversights meant fixed-wing firefighting was stopped for a while until proper standards were put in place and that’s when most of the WWII stuff got sidelined, which is sort-of-good because otherwise those wankers would have crashed them all, but sort of bad because it was kind of exciting. Nonetheless 38(!) aircrew were killed between 2003 and 2012 (which is after standards were tightened), or 5% of active crews. Anyway, the upside of that is historically they converted anything they could get their hands on and there were some pretty ‘unconventional’ choices. I maintain that the sexiest of all the air tankers was the Tigercat. Pretty dangerous though – three crashed in 1973 alone, for example.”
11. Grumman TBF Avenger ‘The Roast Turkey’
Although the bigger aircraft like the B-17s and Catalinas garnered more fame, the portly Grumman Avenger was for a long time the most popular air tanker and formed the backbone of the US firefighting fleet throughout the 1960s and 70s. The Avenger was also used to systematically study the physics of freefall water-drops for firefighting in an effective and immensely influential 1954 study, imaginatively named ‘Operation Firestop’. Although firefighting by aircraft had been considered since the 1920s, attention had generally fixated on delivering water ‘bombs’ which did not work very well. All that changed when it was realised that dumping water ballast (used to simulate passenger load) from the prototype DC-7 saturated a wide area of runway, and the potential of freefall dropping a large amount of water was seriously considered for the first time. Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz and his Avenger were hired by the University of California’s School of Forestry to assess this potential new firefighting method. After trying a plywood water tank (which leaked) and dropping a weather balloon full of water from the Grumman, Mantz fitted a proper metal tank into the bomb bay of the Avenger and for Operation Firestop made many successful test drops at different heights and in different wind conditions, measured for dispersal, effectiveness, area covered and so on. The results were thoroughly collated and assessed and formed the basis for aerial firefighting techniques that are used to the present day. There was little delay before Operation Firestop saw practical results: Mantz himself made the first water drop by an Avenger against a genuine wildfire in 1958.
This was followed up by thousands upon thousands more and the Grumman bomber became the true workhorse of aerial firefighting. Peak usage occurred in 1971 when a colossal 43 were engaged fighting fires. Largest operator was Forest Protection Ltd (FPL) of New Brunswick who operated 12. FPL was also destined to be the last user of the type, retiring its last Avenger on 26 July 2012. In service the Avenger was reliable, spares were plentiful, the bomb bay was roomy, and like all Grumman military aircraft, the TBF was exceptionally strong. This is of considerable importance when dealing with the often violently turbulent air around a major fire – several air tankers have suffered catastrophic structural failure over the years but the Avenger never gave cause for concern. Compared to the very few aircraft that preceded it (mostly Stearman biplanes), it carried a far more meaningful payload, usually about 625 US gallons, and it was relatively fast compared to such alternatives as the lumbering PBY Catalina.
Eventually, like the other warbird-derived tankers, the Avenger became uneconomical to operate and other aircraft were either cheaper, faster, could carry more water or a combination of all three. Nonetheless the sturdy TBF Avenger had made its mark, giving yeoman service for decades and laying the foundations of effective aerial firefighting that could be built on by newer, more potent aircraft.
10. BAe 146‘The Whispering Firefighter’
Famed as the last ever all-British jet airliner and also blessed with more nicknames (‘Four hairdryers in close formation’ ) than ANY other aeroplane – the BAe 146/Avro RJ passenger jet has now entered a second life as an airborne firefighter. One of the original regional jet generation, the 70-110 seat ‘Baby Jumbo’ was first introduced into service in 1983 before production finally ceased in 2002. Nearly 400 were produced – making it the most successful all-British jet airliner ever built. However, due to a mix-up in the design office when a blueprint was photocopied twice, the 146 ended up having double the number of engines as its regional competitors – making it increasingly difficult to market to airlines as time went on. Overtaken by newer twinjets from Bombardier and Brazilian upstart Embraer, the ‘Jumbolino’ has soldiered on in service thanks to its quietness and its ability to get in and out of airports with restricted terrain or buildings nearby – such as London City. Cargo conversions have also been popular.
Manufacturer BAE Systems, acutely aware that the type’s passenger airliner career was coming to an end, had throughout the 2000s been promoting spin-off conversions for the quad-jet – including military transports, aerial refuelling tankers and VVIP corporate jets with custom interiors or even luxury ‘safari’ style built-in awnings for the extremely well-heeled. All of these came to naught – but one area where the aircraft has seen success has been in conversion to the aerial water-bomber role. After tragic accidents in 2002 involving a C-130A and Catalina which broke-up in flight, the US Forest Service (USFS) set out to modernise the aerial water-bomber fleet with newer, jet-powered firefighting aircraft. Flight tests with the 146 were conducted in 2004, where the type’s slow-speed handling and steep approach made it a perfect fit for the water-bomber mission. With support from BAE Systems for the conversion, a wraparound belly tank can be fitted, giving a capacity of 3,000 gallons of water/fire retardant. As well as the type’s legendary steep approach capability, it is dirt cheap to acquire and there are plenty of airframes as feedstock available for conversion. Meanwhile, the type’s four engines (‘4 oil leaks connected by an electrical fault’ being another nickname) – a maintenance nightmare for commercial airlines – turns out to be a welcome safety feature for aerial firefighting role, where pilots will fly dangerous low-level water attack runs in minimum visibility over hills and even mountains.
So far now there are 14 146/RJs in service in the US with Canadian-headquartered Conair and Neptune Aviation – with more aircraft reportedly being converted by another operator Air Spray. As well as firefighting missions in the US, 146 water-bombers have flown firefighting missions in Chile and most recently Australia – where Conair water-bombers have joined over 60 fixed-wing and 45 rotary-wing aerial firefighting aircraft in an effort to stem the extreme wildfires.
The butt of many an aviation joke (‘Smurf Jet’, ‘Fisher Price Starlifter’) around crewrooms and pilot bars the world over, the hard-working BAe 146/RJ is set to have the last laugh in its twilight years with a critical aerial firefighting mission – one that will only increase in importance if the current wildfires are anything to go by. A fitting finale for the Baby Jumbo from Hatfield.
By Tim Robinson, Editor in Chief of AEROSPACE – the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
9. Beriev Be-200 ‘T-tailed Taganrog Turbine’
Jet seaplanes are among the most exotic types of aircraft, with only a handful of designs ever having entered actual service. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can name them all from memory: the Beriev Be-10 and Beriev Be-200 – wait, I think that’s it… only two? That’s even rarer than I first thought. Despite a first flight in 1998, so far only 15 of these sexy amphibians have been built. The first operational use of the Be-200 was in 2004, when a Be-200ES was operated from Sardinia by SOREM, the official operator of firefighting equipment of Italian Civil Defence Department.
The aircraft, flown by a joint Russian-Italian flight crew, performed more than 100 flights – the aircraft dropped 324 tons of water while attacking four forest fires. In 2005, the partnership was renewed, this time the Russian aircraft delivered a total mass of over 3,175 tonnes (3,500 tons). Since then the aircraft has fought fires around the world, in Azerbaijan (the only export operator), Israel, Portugal, Greece, Serbia and Russia.
8. de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver ‘Beaver patrol’
The endearing de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver is the imperishable aviation product of Canada’s busy twentieth century. Equipped with two external rotary drums, the Beaver Mk III was a pioneer of aerial firefighting too. Later models would capture water in their floats and in Ontario they had ‘bomb racks’ for dropping supplies to firefighters on the ground.
Before the Grumman Avengers, bucket-slinging helicopters and retired Cold War types and before the brush-drenching rockstar the Canadair CL-215, the Beaver was fighting fires. If low, slow and noisy flying is the most enjoyable kind – just ask Harrison Ford – the Beaver is without equal in several niches and firefighting came naturally to the type. Unlike the hulking Boeing 747s now slathering this overheated world with water and chemicals in amounts as much as eighteen thousand gallons at a time, the stupefyingly utilitarian little Beaver (coincidently my nickname in school) seems to have been simply born in the right place at the right time for aerial firefighting.
Operating out over Canada’s profitable forests without much public attention, they were also a staple of Toronto’s waterfront Labour Day air show right through to the late 1970s. In front of Canada’s largest city, they did low-altitude water drops onto demonstration fires to the pure 1940s sound of their Pratt & Whitney Wasps. Bright yellow, to contrast the deep green and blue of Ontario in summer and her winter white, that province’s Ministry of Natural Resources Beavers were the visual opposite of the expensive and lethal jets whose afterburners blast them to high altitude invisibility in seconds. The Canadian embrace of nature as a thing to cherish and protect whilst brutally exploiting it led to the DHC-2. The rugged glamour of bush flying was bound to blend almost immediately with water bombing.
With just ninety gallons in those open-topped cable-actuated tanks, the Beaver proved the principle of rapid, concentrated air attack on fires before they get out of hand. The Beaver might do little against fires at the scale we’ve seen them this century in California, Siberia and now Australia. Yet, it’s also hard to imagine having aerial firefighting at all without them.
A place in our hearts for the Beaver? Always!
— Stephen Caulfield
Stephen Caulfield cleans limousines around the corner from what was once the Avro Canada plant. He appreciates writing, art, aeroplanes and the tragic nature of modernity in pretty much equal parts these days. His blog is www.suburban-poverty.com
7. Air Tractor Fire Boss ‘Sex Tractor Fan’
Designed as a tough-as-hell crop-spraying aircraft, the Air Tractor took on the role of firefighting with aplomb. In addition to the 820 US gallon standard fuselage-mounted retardant tank, the Fire Boss can have optional 35 US gallons foam tanks when fitted with floats. When equipped with amphibious floats, the AT-802F becomes the Fire Boss Scooper Air Tanker, able to land on and scoop water from lakes, rivers or reservoirs. From a local water source, then Fire Boss can deliver up to 14,000 gallons per hour for “extended attack or ground support”, according to Air Tractor, noting that “an unimproved runway or water-side ramp and fuel are all it needs to be a highly cost-effective forward attack air tanker”. The Fire Boss can be considered the A-10 of the firefighting world: cheap to operate, able to withstand extremely dangerous conditions and return again and again right where the enemy doesn’t want it.
6. Douglas DC-10 ‘The Size Queen’
Take an airliner with a maximum weight of half a million pounds and turn it into a hotrod flying fire engine (or ‘firetruck’ to our American friends). One drop from the DC-10 is equivalent to 12 from a Grumman S-2 Tracker. Dropping 12,000 US gallons of anything onto a fire is going to have a big effect. A beast.
5. Lockheed C-130 Hercules (with MAFFS kit) ‘You do the Maffs’
The C-130 is the Dame Judi Dench of aviation: much-loved and able to excel in every role it’s given. That the C-130 Hercules’ origins as a tactical transport able to operate in austere conditions give it the benign low-altitude slow-speed performance required for ‘low down and dirty’ firefighting.
To be effective, aerial firefighting aircraft must operate at very low altitudes and slow speeds, often over rugged terrain in reduced visibility due to smoke. This creates a very high risk environment for any aircraft.
4 . Evergreen 747 Supertanker ‘Jumbo on a gap year’
The largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world is also one of the largest aircraft in the world full stop. It is somewhat bizarre that the much-loved 747, famously known as an airliner, should take on such a gritty harsh role, but it has — and it brings a lot to the party – 18,600 US gallons to be precise. Developed by Evergreen International Aviation in Oregon, the first operational Supertanker was based on a 747-100 manufactured in 1971 for Delta Air Lines. It entered service in 2009, fighting a fire in Cuenca, Spain. Its first American operation was August 31, 2009 at the Oak Glen Fire in California. It has since been retired. The other operational 747 Supertanker was converted by Global Supertanker Services (which had acquired most of Evergreen’s assets). The Global Supertanker is a Boeing 747-400 named the ‘Spirit of John Muir’ (a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and pioneering advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the USA). It was certified for firefighting flights in September 2016 and has since travelled the world fighting fires in Chile, Israel, California wildfires in 2017. In August 2019 it fought forest fires in Bolivia.
3. Sikorsky/Erickson S-64 Aircrane ‘Aircrane in the membrane’
Variously compared to a giant grasshopper, a stick insect or a dragonfly, the Aircrane is in increasing demand around the world as a serious ‘go-to’ solution for fighting forest fires – particularly when these are threatening built-up areas.
From California to the Mediterranean and down to Australia, the Aircrane is in year-round demand worldwide. The somewhat extreme appearance of the Aircrane is a classic case of form following function. The aircraft has to lift the maximum load possible from the hover, requiring an efficient rotor (of large diameter and significant blade twist) and a lightweight and robust structure. In this case, the structure is essentially reduced to a series of box beams.
Speed is unimportant, so the engines and gearbox are essentially uncowled, saving weight and cost and providing maximum ease of access for maintenance and inspection – tasks that may well be carried out under very basic conditions. Less obviously, the gearbox and rotor shaft are tilted three degrees to the left, cancelling the side thrust of the tail rotor, so that the aircraft hovers with the cockpit level when picking up cargo (or water, in the case of firefighting operations).
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The aircraft has a characteristic forward crew pod that, critically, provides all-round vision for the crew. It is designed around up to five crew. The upper cabin contains a forward-facing cockpit for pilot and co-pilot. While the lower rearward facing cockpit has an additional pilot station facing the slung load (or water pick-up and delivery system) and two further seats for mechanics. The provision of the mechanic seats reflects the likelihood that the aircraft may operate in remote locations for extended periods.
The Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane started life as a load carrier for the US Army. After the piston-powered Sikorsky S-60, the company invested in three private venture prototypes of the turbine-powered Sikorsky S-64A. Evaluation of four YCH-54As by the US Army (and two in Germany) led to production of 54 CH-54As (Sikorsky designation S-64E) for the US Army, followed by 35 CH-54Bs (S-64F). Sikorsky sold seven S-64E aircraft for civil use.
In 1992, Sikorsky sold the Skycrane Type Certificate to Erickson Air Crane Inc. This included all manufacturing and support rights for both the S-64E, with a 20,000lb payload, and the S-64F, with 25,000lb payload. At light weights, the S-64F has high power reserves, reflected in it gaining a number of helicopter time-to-height records and a record for sustained flight at an altitude of 36,122ft. Erickson has built-up 35 Aircranes since purchasing the Type Certificate. These are created by the conversion of ex-US Army machines, which are stripped down and rebuilt in three modules: the cockpit, central fuselage, and a new-build tail boom.
Erickson says that almost a third of the Aircrane fleet is occupied year-round on long-term firefighting contracts, cycling between the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons in Greece, Italy, Turkey and Australia. Erickson operate a fleet of 20 Aircranes.
The Erickson S-64F is fitted with a 2,650-gallon water tank. Its ram scoop hydrofoil attachment refills from freshwater or saltwater sources in as little as 30 seconds and the original ‘hover snorkel’ (my nickname in school) design refills within 45 seconds from freshwater sources as shallow as 18 inches.
One of Erickson’s important customers is the Korean Forest Service, which is acquiring a fleet of eight Erickson-built S-64Es. As part of Erickson’s continuing development of the type, the latest build standard includes firefighting tanks, sea snorkel, foam cannon, glass cockpit, composite main rotor blades and full night-vision compatibility.
Erickson acquired the Type Certificate for the 4,800hp JTD12A-5A from Pratt & Whitney in 2013, allowing it to develop further enhanced support capabilities for S-64 operators.
2. Martin JRM Mars ‘Mars attacks’
If an aircraft’s success is measured solely by longevity of service then the Martin Mars ranks as one of the greatest aircraft ever to fly. Conceived as a maritime patrol aircraft and first flying in June 1942, JRM Mars remains potentially operational as of 2020. Regarded as obsolescent in its designed role, the US Navy decided to operate this massive aircraft as a transport aircraft and although the end of the war meant only the prototype and six production aircraft were ever built, the Mars was used extensively -– in the process setting a passenger-carrying record in 1949 by carrying 269 people from San Diego to Alameda, California. After about a decade, the remaining examples were retired in 1956, and there the story would have ended were it not for Forest Industries Flying Tankers, a consortium of British Columbian forestry companies, which bought all four Mars survivors in 1959. Converted for the firefighting role by Fairey Aviation, the Mars was by a considerable margin the largest air tanker in the world. In the 1960s and 70s, PBY Catalinas were the most common flying-boat air tankers and could carry 1,000 US gallons of water or retardant. By contrast, the Mars carried the awe-inspiring load of 7200 US gallons. Like the Catalina, the Mars was equipped with scoops to allow it to refill its tanks from any sufficiently large body of water whilst skimming the surface, the full 7200 gallons (30 tons) being taken on in 22 seconds. The sheer size of the aircraft and its huge capacity proved its worth in service. Most air drops are conducted in the path of a fire to contain it, and the Mars could cover three to four acres in a single drop, and then continue picking up and dropping more water for as long as the fuel lasted. Normal duration of operations was around five and a half hours, potentially dropping hundreds of tons of water and retardant into the path of a wildfire.
Of the four JRMs to enter firefighting service, Marianas Mars was lost in a fatal crash in 1961, Caroline Mars was written off when it broke free from its moorings during Typhoon Freda in 1962, but Philippine Mars and Hawaii Mars II served constantly until 2006 when Philippine Mars was withdrawn (it remains stored in an airworthy condition). Hawaii Mars II last fought a fire in 2015 and was offered for sale or lease in 2016, however, no buyer was found. The aircraft remains in the ownership of Coulson Aviation, who applied a great deal of effort modernising the Mars in the early 2000s with a glass cockpit, updated safety standards and various drop aids and equipment. At present the aircraft is being advertised for familiarisation purposes to aspiring Mars pilots, though the $25,000 per person for a two-day course with an hour’s flying time might discourage the less wealthy flying-boat enthusiast. However, Coulson still lists the Mars as part of their active firefighting fleet along with their more prosaic C-130s and 737s and it is quite possible that this, the greatest of the Second World War vintage firefighters, could yet see action again.
1. Bombardier 215 and Viking 415 ‘Fire Berserkers!’
The best aerial firefighter is the only one that was built for the job – the heroic ’15 series. It was the first and only aircraft created to do the job and Canadair certainly delivered. The ’15s are tough, reliable amphibious flying-boats that can go anywhere and kill fires with aplomb. It started life with the two of the mighty R-2800 radials – the engine of the wartime Thunderbolt and Corsair – giving it well over 4,000 horsepower. Today, turboprops give it close to 5,000 horsepower, and a wealth of modern avionics adept at both detecting and suppressing forest fires.
According to the Spanish association for the promotion of sociocultural activities (a group as averse to hyperbole as their drab name suggests), “This is the most efficient tool for the aerial combat of forest fires, key to the organisation of firefighting in a large number of countries. The continuous improvements to meet the needs of forest firefighting have made these aircraft the aerial means most in demand over more than 30 years.”
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Any excuse to include the coolest aircraft in production
Some used in France and the US.
Alenia C-27J Spartan
Love the Spartan, love that they’re giving it a waterbomber option. To be seen in the sky above Transylvania soon in Romanian air force service.
Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey
“Why? Because it’s badass, fitted with PCADS or Bambi, this VTOL type has the ability fly like a helicopter or a plane. It can hover and drop or airdrop like an air tanker. The V-22 can provide a rapid direct attack asset that can pre-position firefighters to remote or hard-to-access areas, deliver, set up filling stations and operate out of a Fire FOB (Forward Operating Base) until reinforcements can join up. Having highly trained crews flying fire missions is the name of the game. Rapid Insertion and Direct Attack, take the fight to the fire…” Not in service yet, but still impressive idea.
—Ty Bonnar, Saint Industries
Grumman S-2 Trackers/Turbo Firecat
Should have made top ten, but space didn’t allow- worthy.
Consolidated PBY Catalina
Mi-8/Mi-24 and many helicopters
Too many to mention.
Douglas A-26 Invader
Currently doing its bit in Australia.
Technology was advancing rapidly towards the end of the war with the most powerful piston-engined types the world had ever seen fighting alongside or against the first jet aircraft. But how did they compare?
(The following is from Spitfires over Berlin by Dan Sharp)
There were around 20 high performance fighter types at least nominally in service in Europe* when the war there came to an end. Each had its strengths and weaknesses – a higher top speed, a better rate of climb or simply being quicker in a turn, but it is worth bearing in mind that even the best aircraft in the hands of a novice was usually a poor match for a lesser machine in the hands of an experienced ace.
The ‘official’ statistics available for each machine have been endlessly scrutinised in the decades since the war’s end and some of the figures, for example for top speed, were achieved only under special conditions – with particular equipment fitted and at a particular altitude. The fastest Messerschmitt Bf 109, the K-4, for example, has an ‘official’ top speed of 440mph, but this could only be managed with methanol-water injection (MW-50) to allow increased boost pressure in its DB 605 DB or DC engine, and then only for a maximum of 10 minutes. It also required a broad-bladed 3m diameter VDM 9-12159A propeller and even then the 440mph was only achievable at 24,600ft.
Without MW-50, the Bf 109 K-4’s best performance was 416mph, at 26,528ft. These figures also relate to well-built aircraft running high octane fuel in engines allowed to run at full power. De-rating engines had been a common practice in the Luftwaffe, to reduce maintenance time, since the beginning of 1944. Fuel shortages meant there was no opportunity to thoroughly test engines and aircraft before they were accepted into service either. And by the end of the war, many if not all of Germany’s aircraft manufacturers were relying on slave labour to produce components and assemble the finished product. Sabotage and shoddy workmanship were routine – a situation that worsened as the end of the war approached. Hans Knickrehm of I./JG 3 wrote about the new Bf 109 G-14/AS aircraft received by his group from the manufacturer in October 1944: “The engines proved prone to trouble after much too short a time because the factories had had to sharply curtail test runs for lack of fuel.
“The surface finish of the outer skin also left much to be desired. The sprayed-on camouflage finish was rough and uneven. The result was a further reduction in speed. We often discovered clear cases of sabotage during our acceptance checks. Cables or wires were not secured, were improperly attached, scratched or had even been visibly cut.” These issues were typical of many new aircraft being delivered to German front line units. The available statistics for the aircraft examined here, regardless of their origin, do not include measurements for some of the most important aspects of performance either – such as manoeuvrability, rate of turn, rate of roll or dive speed. For these, anecdotal evidence must suffice.
In addition, several of these aircraft were only available in tiny numbers and so were unable to make any real impact on the outcome of the war – such as the Heinkel He 162 and Focke-Wulf Ta 152. Some types, such as the Me 163 Komet, were of greater value for the fear they instilled in Allied bomber crews and Allied intelligence than for the pitifully small number of aircraft they were actually responsible for shooting down.
Had they been urgently needed, jets such as the Gloster Meteor F.3 and Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star could have been rushed to the front line and brought into action far sooner – hence their inclusion here. Similarly, the Bell P-63 Kingcobra was delivered to the French too late to see combat and was supposedly only used on the Western Front in small numbers by the Soviets. It was available in 1945, however, and did see combat against Luftwaffe types.
The ultimate piston-engined fighters here.
*Note: this article is about aircraft in the European Theatre of World War II in 1945
The aim here is simply to provide a statistical comparison between the most powerful and advanced aircraft available in Europe. Five British types have been chosen for inclusion – the Supermarine Spitfire LF.IX, the Spitfire Mk.XIV, the Hawker TyphoonMk.1b, the Hawker Tempest V and the Gloster Meteor F.3. The four American types are the North American P-51D Mustang, the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, the Lockheed P-38L Lightning and the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star.
The four Soviet types are the Lavochkin La-7, the Yakovlev Yak-3, the Yak-9U and the Bell P-63A Kingcobra – an American fighter but initially flown almost exclusively by the Russians. Finally, seven German machines are included: the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-9, the Ta 152 H-1, the Fw 190 D-9, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 K-4, the Me 262 A-1, the Me 163 B-1 and the Heinkel He 162 A-2.
Some contemporary types, such as the Bell Airacomet, are omitted because they were never considered for front line duties, and others, such as the Hawker Tempest II and de Havilland Vampire, have been left out because they were simply not yet ready for action.
Supermarine Spitfire LF.IX
The Merlin 66-engined Spitfire LF.IX was the workhorse of the RAF’s fighter squadrons from its introduction in 1943 through to the end of the war. The original Mk.IX had been introduced as early as mid-1942.
Compared against a captured Bf 109 G-6/U2 with GM-1 nitrous oxide injection by the Central Fighter Establishment in late 1944, the LF.IX was found to be superior in every respect except acceleration in a dive. Manoeuvrability was found to be “greatly superior” and it was noted that the LF.IX “easily out-turns the Bf 109 in either direction at all speeds”. By 1945, the LF.IX was beginning to show its age. Figures given for its top speed vary but it was undoubtedly among the slowest of the 20 aircraft being assessed here in a straight line. It could out-climb and fly higher than most of its opponents, however, even out-performing many of the most advanced German types.
There were few to rival it for manoeuvrability either, making it worthy of inclusion here, and explaining why it remained on the front line for so long even when more ‘advanced’ types were becoming available to replace it.
Supermarine Spitfire Mark XIV
Combining the Spitfire Mk.VIII airframe with a two-speed, two-stage supercharged 2220hp Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 engine resulted in the Mk.XIV. Introduced in 1943, in appearance it was similar to the Spitfire XII with normal wings but with a five-bladed propeller. The rudder was also enlarged and an extra internal fuel tank was fitted.
The huge increase in power meant the XIV was a match for most of its piston-engined contemporaries, the only exception being the Ta 152, and the two are believed never to have met in combat. Its range was short and its manoeuvrability was inferior to that of the Spitfire LF.IX, but nevertheless the XIV was one of the best fighters of the war’s final months.
Flight Lieutenant Ian Ponsford, who shot down seven enemy aircraft while flying a Spitfire Mk.XIV with 130 Squadron, remembered: “The Spitfire XIV was the most marvellous aeroplane at that time and I consider it to have been the best operational fighter of them all as it could out-climb virtually anything.”
“The earlier Merlin-Spitfire may have had a slight edge when it came to turning performance, but the Mark XIV was certainly better in this respect than the opposition we were faced with. The only thing it couldn’t do was keep up with the Fw 190 D in a dive.
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“It could be a bit tricky on takeoff if one opened the throttle too quickly as you just couldn’t hold it straight because the torque was so great from the enormous power developed from the Griffon engine.
“One big advantage that we had over the Germans was that we ran our aircraft on advanced fuels which gave us more power. The 150 octane fuel that we used was strange looking stuff as it was bright green and had an awful smell – it had to be heavily leaded to cope with the extra compression of the engine.”
During the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, Israeli pilots flew both Mk. IX and Mk. XIV Spitfires bought from Czechoslovakia against Egyptian Spitfires and concluded that the IX was better due to its superior manoeuvrability.
Hawker Typhoon Mk.1b
The history of the Typhoon is too long and troubled to detail in full here, suffice to say that it was a failure in the high-altitude interceptor role for which it was designed. Although it was the RAF’s first fighter capable of more than 400mph, climbing speed was regarded as inadequate and a series of structural failures in the fuselage caused significant delays in its production.
Having entered service in 1941, it is one of the oldest of the 20 aircraft examined here and was beginning to struggle against more advanced competition by 1945. Pilots had to wear an oxygen mask from the moment the engine was switched on due to heavy carbon monoxide contamination in the cockpit, and the level of noise and vibration made life at its controls doubly uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, as history shows, it proved to be a deadly fighter-bomber when armed with rockets or bombs, and many Fw 190 pilots were unpleasantly surprised to discover that despite its size and weight – being one of the largest and heaviest single-engined aircraft here – it had a very short radius of turn and rolled well.
It could also carry a heavy load with relative ease, which meant it could be fitted with four powerful 20mm Hispano Mk II cannon – a weapon originally designed as an anti-aircraft gun – in addition to its bombs/rockets.
Hawker Tempest V
Big, heavy and fast, this thin-wing upgrade of the Typhoon design was undoubtedly one of the best fighters of the Second World War and at low altitudes could give either of the two Spitfires detailed here a run for its money.
It had the same Napier Sabre IIA engine as the Typhoon but range was extended by moving the engine forward 21in to make room for a 76 gallon fuel tank. Tail surfaces were enlarged and a four-bladed propeller was fitted. While the first 100 built had the Typhoon’s four Hispano Mk II cannon, the Series II Tempest V got the Hispano Mk V cannon – the weapon’s ultimate wartime development. The first Tempests reached squadrons in January 1944 and they were initially used to combat Fieseler Fi 103 V-1 flying bombs. When they were moved on to the Continent, it quickly became clear that below about 8000ft the Tempest dramatically outperformed the very best aircraft that the Luftwaffe could throw at it – such as the Fw 190 D-9 and the Bf 109 K-4. Tempest pilots were also responsible for shooting down a number of Me 262s.
According to Hubert Lange, a pilot who flew 15 missions in Me 262s with JG 51, the Hawker Tempest was the German jet’s most dangerous opponent, “extremely fast at low altitudes, highly manoeuvrable and heavily armed”.
Gloster Meteor F.3
Powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Derwent I jets with a static thrust of 2000lb each, the Meteor F.3 began to enter service in early 1945. Deliveries of its predecessor, the F.1, had begun in June 1944.
While the first Meteors were actually slower than the fastest piston-engined fighters then available, such as the Spitfire XIV, the F.3 offered much higher performance.
It was field tested from bases in Belgium with 616 and 504 Squadrons during the last weeks of the war primarily in the fighter reconnaissance and ground-attack roles. It never met the Me 262 in aerial combat but some were shot down by Allied flak due to their superficial resemblance to the German machine.
As a result, Meteors were given an all-white paint scheme to make them more easily recognisable to friendly units.
Like all in-service jets in 1945, the Meteor was at the cutting edge of performance, and in good weather handling was described as “pleasant”, but the F.3 suffered from ‘snaking’ – directional instability – which made it more difficult to target an aerial opponent effectively. A report from the Central Fighter Establishment noted: “The failure of the Meteor to come within an acceptable standard is due to the directional snaking which occurs in operational conditions of flight so far experienced and the heaviness and consequently slow operation of the ailerons to bring the sight back on to the target.
“This snaking tends to increase with increase of speed and once it has commenced it is impossible to correct it within the limits of time available during an attack.”
Whether this would have proved to be a fatal flaw in actual combat or merely an annoyance to the type’s pilots will never be known.
It says a lot about the fortunes of Britain in the war and the role of the Meteor that a large section of the CFE report is devoted to how difficult it would be to fly in formation. It is impossible to imagine the Germans, desperate to rush their jets into action, bothering to do the same for the Me 262.
North American P-51D Mustang
Flown in huge numbers while escorting American bombers, the Mustang is widely accepted as having been the USAAF’s most successful air superiority and escort fighter.
In P-51D form its performance was excellent at high altitude. Powered by a Packard-built version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and featuring a bubble canopy, it boasted a good though not sparkling rate of climb and exceptional visibility.
It retained a good measure of agility even above 400mph and was a very stable aircraft with few vices to punish the inattentive. At low altitude and in low speed encounters with enemy aircraft however, its large turn radius became a real disadvantage.
In addition, as a high performance long-range escort, it was lightly built and poorly armoured – rendering it vulnerable to even slight battle damage. Many American pilots using the Mustang for strafing ground targets found that even a light flak hit could be fatal.
In high speed, high altitude encounters, the Mustang was able to reach its full potential and there was little to match it in this, its own stomping ground – as Fw 190 and even Me 262 pilots discovered.
Republic P-47D Thunderbolt
Faster and higher flying than even a Mustang, the P-47D Thunderbolt was a big, heavy aircraft – the Tempest to the Mustang’s Spitfire. As such, it could also soak up more battle damage and could carry a heavier weapons load too.
On paper, the Thunderbolt seemed to have the edge over the Mustang, but pilots told a different story. The Mustang was simply more agile – it handled better and was easier to fly well. Against German fighters, the Thunderbolt seems to have been just as effective at all altitudes. In the end, the Thunderbolt lost out simply because fewer were used in situations where they were likely to enter aerial combat with German fighters.
One source gives the total number of enemy aircraft shot down by the P-47 as 3662 compared to the P-51’s 5944. General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland’s Me 262 was shot down by a P-47 Thunderbolt though, not a P-51.
Against the Spitfire XIV, neither the P-47 nor the P-51 could be said to have had a clear advantage. Both were slower, less manoeuvrable at all altitudes and less able to climb at speed – but they had the capacity to keep up with high-flying B-17s and B-24s long after a Spitfire XIV would’ve had to turn for home.
Lockheed P-38L Lightning
The oldest of the three piston-engined American fighters featured here, the P-38, had matured by 1945 and had been available in its definitive P-38L form since June 1944.
Its twin engines made it heavy and gave it a very broad wingspan, but since these were set back from the cockpit they also allowed the pilot an excellent view in all directions.
It wasn’t astonishingly fast in a straight line but the Lightning had an exceptional rate of climb. And its counter-rotating propellers meant there was no torque effect in flight and enabled the Lightning to turn equally well to the left or the right. In addition, it had cutting edge features such as power boosted ailerons and electrically operated dive flaps.
However, the Lightning was complicated and pilots had to manage twice the number of engine controls while watching twice the number of gauges. Also it’s armament, while a good average for a late war fighter, was not exceptionally heavy.
It therefore must come last when compared against its American contemporaries.
Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star
Just two pre-production YP-80A Shooting Stars saw active service during the Second World War, operating briefly from Lesina airfield in Italy with the 1st Fighter Group. Another two were stationed at RAF Burtonwood in Cheshire for demonstration and test flying.
Powered by a single General Electric J-33-GE-9 jet engine mounted centrally in its fuselage, the Shooting Star was aerodynamically clean and was therefore able to reach an impressive 536mph in level flight at 5000ft – though only when fully painted and without wingtip fuel tanks. In natural metal finish and with those range extending tanks, performance tests carried out by the USAAF’s Flight Test Division showed top speed to be just over 500mph – placing it behind all of its jet-powered contemporaries. Many postwar comparisons of wartime jets have been overly favourable towards the P-80 and tend to take their figures from later, improved versions. The aircraft available during the last four months of the war was somewhat less impressive. Without wingtip tanks, its range was that expected of a short-distance high-speed interceptor – 540 miles – yet with them its range improved but its best rate of climb was down to just 3300ft/min. Armament was six .50 calibre machine guns – the same as that of a Mustang – but these were concentrated in the nose, giving it a more effective fire pattern.
Based largely on the earlier La-5 fighter and powered by an air-cooled 1850hp ASh-82FN radial engine, the La-7 incorporated more alloys in place of the original wooden structure. The cockpit got a rollbar, the landing gear was improved and a better gunsight, the PB-1B(V), was installed along with a new VISh-105V-4 propeller and an enlarged spinner to improve streamlining. Unfortunately, the bigger spinner meant less air reached the engine for cooling so a fan was fitted behind it. Visibility was excellent and either a pair or trio of 20mm cannon gave good though not exceptional firepower.
The Soviets at the time honestly believed that the La-7 was the best fighter in the world for dogfighting and it was certainly faster and more manoeuvrable than the older marques of Fw 190 A that it typically faced on the Eastern Front.
In company such as that discussed here, however, it fails to make the grade. The latest and last Fw 190, the D-9, outperformed it in most areas when using MW-50. Small and lightweight, the La-7 had to be flown at low level because it simply couldn’t manage at high altitude. It was available in big numbers though, and that the Germans were simply unable to match.
The Russians did their best to develop small lightweight fighters that could be produced in huge numbers and this design philosophy had its greatest success in the form of the Yak-3. Work on it commenced in 1941 but was seriously hampered by first a lack of aluminium and then the German invasion which resulted in design work actually being halted.
As the tide of battle turned, Yakovlev picked up where it had left off and produced the Yak-1M, a lighter, shorter-winged version of the Yak-1. This embodied many technological advances such as a mastless radio antenna, reflector gunsight and better armour. It was meant to have a 1600hp Klimov M-107 V12 engine but this was unavailable and the 1300hp M-105 had to be used instead.
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Even with this relatively small powerplant fitted, the redesignated Yak-3 was still 40mph faster than the Yak-9, which despite its name actually entered service first.
The fact that the Yak-3 can be found somewhere towards the bottom of every table associated with this comparison belies its greatest strength – its ability to out-turn both the Bf 109 and the Fw 190 below 20,000ft. Pilots who were new to the Yak-3 found it easy to fly but its true potential was only realised in the hands of an experienced flyer.
Against the best of the Luftwaffe’s machines, performing at their best, the Yak-3 would have been found sorely lacking but it was ideal for low-level skirmishing and could face standard German types on an footing.
The first Yak-9s off the production line were fitted with the same Klimov M-105 as the Yak-3 and being substantially heavier paid a big price in performance. Top speed was just 367mph – about the same as that of a Spitfire Mk.I in 1939.
However, when the Yak-9 was fitted with the Klimov M-107A, which delivered 1650hp, its performance dramatically improved. Like the Yak-3, it offered excellent all round visibility but armament was somewhat lacking – with just a single 20mm cannon firing through its propeller hub and a pair of .50 calibre machine guns mounted in its engine cowling.
Like the La-7 and the Yak-3, the Yak-9U did its best work at low altitude. It was heavy only when compared to the Yak-3 and even with the more powerful M-107A it could still be considered underpowered in this company. It was manoeuvrable and had better armour than the Yak-3 but it was still no match for the likes of a Fw 190 D-9 or a Bf 109 K-4 on a good day.
Bell P-63A Kingcobra
The Americans did not think too highly of Bell’s Kingcobra. They had thought even less highly of its predecessor, the Airacobra, largely because it had been designed to fly with a turbosupercharger but was put into production without one.
The Soviets, however, who received hundreds of Airacobras from the Americans on a lend-lease basis, rather liked it. Much has been written about the Airacobra’s strengths as a ground-attack aircraft, even though the Soviets themselves never regarded it as such and tended to use it for air-to-air interception missions instead.
The Kingcobra saw the turbosupercharger finally installed and the overall design modified to incorporate technological advancements – such as laminar flow wings, a redesigned tail and a four-blade propeller. The first XP-63, a converted XP-39E, was first flown on December 7, 1942.
From the outset, the Soviets were involved in the development process to the extent of supplying personnel to fly the prototypes at Bell’s factory.
Overall Kingcobra production ran to 3303 examples and 2397 of them were supplied to the Soviet Union. No Kingcobra ever saw combat with a USAAF squadron, which is not surprising since the P-63’s range was limited and its performance was poor at high altitude – making it useless as an escort fighter.
The ultimate piston-engined fighters here.
At low level, however, where the Soviet fighter pilots flew, it was effective. Like the other high performance fighter aircraft flown by the Soviets, its top speed and rate of climb were by no means sparkling but it was highly manoeuvrable below 8000ft.
Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-9
The Fw 190A was the fastest production fighter aircraft in the world when it first appeared in 1941. Once overheating problems with its powerful BMW 801 engine were largely overcome, it joined the Bf 109 as one of the Luftwaffe’s two front line fighters.
In 1944, with the streamlining of German aircraft production, unprecedented numbers of Fw 190s were churned out, mostly in A-8 form. All the while, BMW had been attempting to improve its engine design with little success.
Unfortunately the company had succeeded in producing an engine that had very little development potential. The standard Fw 190 engine was the BMW 801 D-2 and the firm’s engineers were aiming for a model they called the 801 F. This, though, was taking years to perfect – years that Germany didn’t have.
Therefore some of its components were fitted to the standard engine as an interim measure. First these were used to create the 801 U, which had 1730hp at 2700rpm at sea level, compared to the standard D-2’s 1700hp. Then they managed to use more components, creating the 801 S or TS, with a much more impressive 2000hp.
It was this engine which was fitted to a largely unmodified Fw 190 A-8 airframe to create the type’s final form – the Fw 190 A-9. The first production model appeared in August 1944 and production continued until the end of the war.
BMW was heavily bombed towards the end of the war, reducing production of the 801 S to a snail’s pace so fewer than 1000 A-9s were built. In combat, the Fw 190 A-9 gave its pilots a greater edge over their Soviet adversaries but the Allies’ machines were still markedly superior.
Its performance at high altitude was poor, the Fw 190’s rate of turn was never a match for that of the Spitfire and even the aircraft’s exceptional roll rate and dive speed was being cancelled out by the raw power of types such as the Spitfire XIV.
Unlike the Spitfire IX, the Fw 190 A was largely obsolete by 1944 but the Germans had little choice but to keep on producing it since so many assembly lines had been geared up for it and every fighter was sorely needed.
The Fw 190 A-9’s BMW 801S (TS) engine was a compromise but still produced a respectable 2000hp. Note the bubble canopy and the broad paddle blades of the VDM-9 propeller on this example.
A Fw 190 A-9 leads a line-up of captured Focke-Wulf machines shortly after the war’s end. The A-9 might have been produced in greater numbers had BMW not been so heavily bombed. As it is a lack of production figures for 1945 means it will never be known precisely how many were made.
Focke-Wulf Fw 190 D-9
German pilots were largely thrilled by the performance of the Fw 190 D-9 – a stretched Fw 190 A powered by the Junkers Jumo 213 A-1 which could be boosted up to an output of 2000hp with MW-50 injection.
The ‘long nose’ D-9 lost some of the Fw 190 A’s handling and manoeuvrability as the trade-off for its increased speed however.
Focke-Wulf designer Kurt Tank never intended the D-9 to be the next step in the Fw 190’s evolution however – that was the Ta 152 – instead he was on record as saying that the existing airframe simply needed an alternative powerplant since BMW’s factories were being so heavily targeted by Allied bombing.
There has been some suggestion that without water-methanol injection, the D-9’s top speed was around 390mph. The Soviets who tested examples they captured intact but without MW-50 were certainly deeply unimpressed by the performance of its Jumo 213 A engine. The long nose restricted forward and downward visibility, which became a problem because the aircraft had a high wing loading – its wings were the same as those used on the A-8 – and it therefore needed a fast landing and stalled easily. Having to put the aircraft down fast and being unable to see where you were going was a bad combination. Even so, German pilots still considered the D-9 easier to land and take off in than any Bf 109 variant due to its wide-track landing gear.
Armament was a pair of wing-mounted 20mm cannon and two .50 calibre machine guns in the engine cowl – not outstanding but still sufficient, particularly against lightly armoured opponents such as the Soviet types.
Focke-Wulf Ta 152 H
The Ta 152 was effectively brought into being on the same day that its predecessor the Ta 153 was cancelled – at meeting on August 13, 1943. Tank suggested at the meeting that the same benefits of the Ta 153, which was almost entirely a new machine, could be achieved by simply extending the wings and fuselage of the existing Fw 190 airframe with inserts. The Ta 152 would be only 10% new and as such was approved for development. The Fw 190 D-9 was an even simpler conversion.
Bringing the Ta 152 to production took longer than expected due to delays in the development of the engines that were to power it. In the end, the Ta 152 C standard fighter version only reached the prototype stage and just a handful of high-altitude Ta 152 Hs were built and saw combat.
Powered by the long-delayed but finally sorted supercharged Junkers Jumo 213 E-1 engine, the 152 H was the fastest piston-engined aircraft to see combat during the war by a considerable margin. It also had a decent rate of climb, the highest ceiling of any piston-engined fighter of the war and a remarkable wingspan of 47ft 4½in.
Even its armament was good – two 20mm cannon in the wings and a single 30mm cannon in the nose – though in practice problems were encountered with jamming. There was no chance of development work to resolve the issue since by this stage the factories that built the Ta 152 H had already been overrun by Soviet troops.
Precisely how manoeuvrable the production Ta 152 H-1 was is largely based on speculation. After the war its surviving pilots defended its reputation to the hilt – standing by their claim that it was better than almost anything else in the sky by the end of the war.
Top 10 fighters of World War II here.
However, there are no flying examples available today and even while the type was briefly in service it was prone to sudden and mysterious failures which on a couple of occasions resulted in the death of the pilot.
It seems to have enjoyed mixed fortunes in combat against the excellent Hawker Tempest V and somewhat more success against Yak-3s but it never faced a Mustang or Thunderbolt in their high altitude area of operations, as far as is known. If it had done, it might have faced them on at least an equal footing.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 K-4
The final production version of the long-serving Bf 109 design was the K-4. The first production examples of the type, conceived in the mid-1930s as a lightweight highly manoeuvrable fighter, flew in 1937, making it easily the oldest type here.
The Bf 109 that saw a vast increase in production alongside the Fw 190 A-8 was the Bf 109 G-6 and later versions were produced in progressively smaller numbers. Shortly before the war’s end, Willy Messerschmitt had been preparing his company to wind up production of the 109 in preparation for a wholesale switch to the Me 262 and its projected successors.
The K-4 was an attempt to give the basic design a cleanup using all the available technological advances to produce something close to the ultimate Bf 109. It was also a move intended to remove the need for the bewildering variety of sub-variants spawned as part of the Bf 109 G series.
Further K series 109s were projected beyond the K-4 but none made it to production.
The K-4’s cockpit canopy was altered to the less-heavily framed Erla/Galland design to provide improved visibility and a powerful Daimler-Benz DB 605 DC engine was installed, producing 1800hp during takeoff, rising to an incredible 1973hp with MW-50. This in an aircraft that was lighter than any of the lightweight Soviet designs.
At its best, the Bf 109 K-4’s performance figures were nothing short of astounding. Its boosted top speed of 440mph put it in the same league as the Spitfire XIV and P-51 Mustang, and a climb rate of 4500ft/min was among the very best.
Armament was a problem, however. The K-4’s standard load was a 30mm MK 108 firing through the propeller hub and a pair of MG 131 .50 calibre machine guns mounted in the engine cowling. There were difficulties in getting the MK 108 to work properly in this configuration though which meant that the gun jammed easily if attempts were made to fire it while manoeuvring.
In practice, many Bf 109 K-4s reached the front line without their MW-50 kits fitted or with some other defect whether as a result of deliberate sabotage or simply poor craftsmanship on the part of the forced labourers who built many of their components. The type was therefore seldom able to reach its dazzling full potential in combat.
Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1
The Me 262 was the first operational jet fighter anywhere in the world when it equipped Erprobungskommando 262 and then KG 51 in May-June 1944 and began to enter combat against Allied aircraft.
Some American writers such as Robert F Dorr have attempted to advance the claim of the Bell P-59A Airacomet to being the first operational jet fighter – since it entered ‘service’ in late 1943, but in practice this was little more than part of the development process. The Me 262 was a high performance combat machine that could outrun anything short of a rocket-powered Me 163, was armed with four 30mm cannon and potentially R4M air-to-air rockets – making it the most heavily armed aircraft here – and could handle sufficiently well to make good use of its other virtues.
Its design was futuristic – those swept-back wings were revolutionary – and a lengthy period of development before it entered even service testing meant many, though by no means all, of its early foibles had been worked out and eliminated.
In combat it was by no means indestructible and its engines had only a very limited operational lifespan before they needed to be removed and overhauled. Its nosewheel was notoriously weak, acceleration was slow, landing speed was high and the aircraft was so fast in combat that pilots unfamiliar with jets – in other words most of its pilots – struggled to hit their targets.
But still, the Me 262 was a deadly opponent for any Allied fighter. It could be outmanoeuvred by a Spitfire but it was very difficult to catch. Even its cruising speed, 460mph, was above anything the Allies could match except in a dive.
It has been endlessly opined that had the Me 262 been built in much larger numbers – or fractionally sooner – the war might have had a different outcome, but in reality it was at the very edge of what was technologically possible for 1945 and its engines were the source of its worst problems. They simply could not be made good enough fast enough.
Messerschmitt Me 163 B-1
The first rocket-powered aircraft in the world was the tailless Ente or ‘duck’ – a glider designed by Alexander Lippisch powered by an engine produced by rocket pioneers Max Valier and Friedrich Sander at the behest of car company publicist Fritz von Opel.
After Opel left Germany in 1929 and Valier was killed in 1930, Lippisch went to work for the DFS – the German glider research organisation. Here he produced several revolutionary tailless designs and in 1940 these were fitted with a powerful liquid rocket engine designed by Hellmuth Walter, the HWK 109-509, and the Messerschmitt Me 163 was created.
The tiny lightweight interceptor had two ‘fuel’ tanks, one filled with a methanol, hydrazine hydrate and water mixture known as C-Stoff and the other with a high test peroxide known as T-Stoff. When combined, these volatile liquids produced a powerful jet or sometimes a catastrophic explosion.
This was enough for just seven and a half minutes of powered flight, although during that time the aircraft could reach a speed of nearly 600mph and an altitude of nearly 40,000ft. This performance put every other Second World War aircraft in the shade but it was also the Me 163’s undoing as a fighter.
It was armed with a pair of 30mm MK 108 cannon – sufficient to destroy any aerial target, bomber or fighter, with only a couple of hits – but the Komet closed so rapidly on its target that it was very difficult for the pilot to hit anything. There was usually only enough time and fuel for a couple of passes at enemy bombers before the Me 163 was forced to begin its unpowered glide back to base – often at the mercy of Allied fighters. For all its years in development, the deaths of several of its pilots and the huge efforts required to maintain it in service, the Me 163 is believed to have achieved only nine aerial victories.
Heinkel He 162 A-2
More so than the Me 163 – which had actually been in development when the Third Reich was at its peak – the Heinkel He 162 was a product of desperation.
Its overall layout was informed by experiences of the Me 262, with its single BMW 003 jet mounted above the fuselage so that when it crashed the precious engine had a better chance of survival. In addition, its major structural elements were made mostly out of wood.
An ejection seat was fitted but this was ineffective at low altitude. Design work was started by Heinkel as the P 1073 in July 1944 and submitted as the company’s attempt to meet an RLM requirement for a cheap jet that was easy to build and easy for a novice to fly, a people’s fighter, or Volksjäger, two months later. Once it was declared successful on September 23, 1944, the Heinkel design was modified and rushed into production. The first test flight took place on December 6, and efforts to bring it into front line service were being made as the war ended.
The He 162 had a hidden problem however. The design should have used Tego film plywood glue – which was in common use with other German aircraft types – but the factory that made it at Wuppertal was destroyed in an RAF bombing raid and an alternative was needed to ensure He 162 production could go ahead.
The replacement glue, unbeknownst to Heinkel, had a gradual corrosive effect on wood and the He 162s that were produced began to suffer from mysterious structural failures. It didn’t help that the BMW 003 wasn’t ready for service either and was prone to flameouts.
When the He 162 was working properly and not falling apart in the sky, pilots regarded it as an excellent aircraft with light controls that was stable at high speed. While its speed couldn’t match that of the Me 262, or even the Meteor F.3, it could out-climb either of them.
Its armament of two MG 151/20 autocannon was relatively light but the small aircraft simply wasn’t up to housing the twin MK 108s originally projected.
Given more time and better glue, the He 162 might conceivably have been a contender but in the event it was a non-starter.
So which was the best?
From among the 20 aircraft examined here, there are some obvious dropouts when it comes to deciding which was best. The British Hawker Tempest V was a better fighter than the Typhoon, so the latter can be safely ruled out.
The same applies to the Focke-Wulf Ta 152 and both of the Fw 190 A types. The A-9 and the D-9 can be ditched. Similarly, the Me 262 would have been the better fighter even if the He 162 could have been made to work flawlessly so the notorious Volksjäger has got to go. The Me 163’s endurance was too brief to make it an effective fighter so it can also be taken out of contention.
The slowest of the American types was the P-38 Lightning. It climbed well but was surpassed as a dogfighter, therefore it too has to go. Though they were good at low-level fighting they were not superior to the most exceptional of their contemporaries so all four of the Soviet types can be excluded too.
This leaves a top 10 of the Tempest V, Spitfire IX and XIV, Meteor F.3, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, P-80 Shooting Star, Me 262 A-1, Ta 152 and Bf 109 K.
The non-operational Meteor F.3 and P-80 can probably be ruled out due to ongoing development issues, the Bf 109 K could not be said to have surpassed the Ta 152 in performance, the P-47 Thunderbolt was less manoeuvrable than the P-51 and the Spitfire IX lacked the raw speed to keep up with the new German jets, so a reasonable top five would be the Tempest V, Spitfire XIV, P-51 Mustang, Me 262 A-1 and Ta 152.
Here the narrowing down gets more difficult. The Ta 152 was designed as a high altitude fighter and relied heavily on its complex engine to give it its amazing turn of speed. Its guns were prone to jamming and its reputation rests on only a handful of accounts by decidedly partisan witnesses. It ought therefore to be excluded.
The Tempest V was fast and deadly but it lacked performance at high altitude and straight line speed. Would it have been able to best a Spitfire XIV in a dogfight? Maybe, maybe not.
The choice really comes down to three machines – the Spitfire XIV, the P-51 Mustang and the Me 262 A-1. All three were potent dogfighters, loved by their pilots and feared by their enemies. The P-51 was the best aircraft in the world for its particular role – escorting bombers over long distances at high altitude – but was it the best fighter of the three finalists?
It lacked the speed of either the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt and its rate of climb was significantly below that of the other two. Its manoeuvrability was excellent but it did not surpass that of the Spitfire.
The Me 262 represented the future of air combat. It could outrun almost anything and its armament was second to none – yet it had serious problems in operational service.
Built by dedicated German engineers rather than slaves, flown in numbers from well-defended airfields and kept well supplied with fuel and fresh engines, it would undoubtedly have had the edge over the Spitfire, but in reality Germany’s war situation coupled with its own design flaws served to handicap the world’s first truly successful jet fighter.
In the final analysis, there have to be joint winners – the British Supermarine Spitfire XIV and the German Me 262. The Spitfire Mk.XIV was faster than any other piston engine aircraft bar the Ta 152, its manoeuvrability was outstanding, it could perform exceptionally at any altitude and its rate of climb was stupendous. Its short range made it unsuitable for escort missions but in a straight fight it was simply very hard to beat. Nevertheless, in one-on-one combat, a Spitfire Mk.XIV pilot would have found it very difficult to best a Me 262 – particularly with the latter able to fly 93mph faster. The Spitfire pilot would have enjoyed greater horizontal manoeuvrability and acceleration but would still have had to surprise the Me 262 or the Me 262 pilot would have had to make a fatal error.
After the war, former Luftwaffe General of Fighters and Me 262 pilot Adolf Galland said: “The best thing about the Spitfire XIV was that there were so few of them.”
Claimed top speed
1. Me 163 B-1 596mph
2. Me 262 A-1 540mph
3. P-80A Shooting Star 536mph
4. Meteor F.3 528mph
5. He 162 A-2 522mph
6. Ta 152 H-1 462mph
7. Spitfire Mk.XIV 447mph
8. P-47 Thunderbolt 443mph
9. Bf 109 K-4 440mph
10. P-51 Mustang 437mph
11. Tempest V 432mph
12. Fw 190 D-9 428mph
13. La-7 418mph
14. Yak-9U 417mph
15. P-38L Lightning 414mph
16. Typhoon 1b 412mph
17. P-63 Kingcobra 410mph
18. Spitfire LF.IX 409mph
19. Fw 190 A-9 404mph
20. Yak-3 398mph
1. Ta 152 H-1 49,540ft
2. Meteor F.3 46,000ft
3. P-80A Shooting Star 45,000ft
4. P-38L Lightning 44,000ft
5. Spitfire Mk.XIV 43,500ft
6. P-47D Thunderbolt 43,000ft
7. P-63A Kingcobra 43,000ft
8. Spitfire LF.IX 42,500ft
9. P-51D Mustang 41,900ft
10. Bf 109 K-4 41,000ft
11. Me 163 B-1 39,700ft
12. He 162 A-2 39,400ft
13. Fw 190 D-9 39,370ft
14. Me 262 A-1 37,565ft
15. Tempest V 36,500ft
16. Fw 190 A-9 35,443ft
17. Typhoon 1b 35,200ft
18. Yak-3 35,000ft
19. Yak-9U 35,000ft
20. La-7 34,285ft
Rate of climb
1. Me 163 B-1 31,000ft/min
2. Spitfire Mk.XIV 5100ft/min
3. Spitfire LF.IX 5080ft/min
4. La-7 4762ft/min
5. P-38L Lightning 4750ft/min
6. He 162 A-2 4615ft/min
7. Bf 109 K-4 4500ft/min
8. Tempest V 4380ft/min
9. Yak-3 4330ft/min
10. Fw 190 D-9 4232ft/min
11. P-80A Shooting Star 4100ft/min
12. Meteor F.3 3980ft/min
13. Ta 152 H-1 3937ft/min
14. Me 262 A-1 3900ft/min
15. Fw 190 A-9 3445ft/min
16. Yak-9U 3280ft/min
17. P-47D Thunderbolt 3260ft/min
18. P-51D Mustang 3200ft/min
19. Typhoon 1b 2740ft/min
20. P-63A Kingcobra 2500ft/min
Range (without external drop tanks)
1. P-51D Mustang 950 miles
2. P-47D Thunderbolt 800 miles
3. Ta 152 H-1 745 miles
4. Tempest V 740 miles
5. Me 262 A-1 646 miles
6. He 162 A-2 602 miles
7. Fw 190 A-9 569 miles
8. P-80A Shooting Star 540 miles
9. Fw 190 D-9 520 miles
10. Typhoon 1b 510 miles
11. Meteor F.3 504 miles
12. Spitfire Mk.XIV 460 miles
13. P-38L Lightning 450 miles
14. P-63A Kingcobra 450 miles
15. Spitfire LF.IX 434 miles
16. Yak-9U 420 miles
17. La-7 413 miles
18.Yak-3 405 miles
19. Bf 109 K-4 404 miles
20. Me 163 B-1 25 miles
1. P-38L Lightning 52ft
2. Ta 152 H-1 47ft 4½in
3. Meteor F.3 43ft
4. Typhoon 1b 41ft 7in
5. Me 262 A-1 41ft 6in
6. Tempest V 41ft
7. P-47D Thunderbolt 40ft 9in
8. P-80A Shooting Star 38ft 9in
9. P-63A Kingcobra 38ft 4in
10. P-51D Mustang 37ft
11. Spitfire Mk.XIV 36ft 10in
12. Spitfire LF.IX 36ft 8in
13. Fw 190 A-9 34ft 5in
14. Fw 190 D-9 34ft 5in
15. Bf 109 K-4 32ft 9½in
16. La-7 32ft 2in
17. Yak-9U 31ft 11in
18. Yak-3 30ft 2in
19. Me 163 B-1 30ft 7in
20. He 162 A-2 23ft 7in
1. P-38L Lightning 12,800lb
2. Meteor F.3 10,517lb
3. P-47D Thunderbolt 10,000lb
4. Tempest V 9250lb
5. Typhoon 1b 8840lb
6. Ta 152 H-1 8640lb
7. P-80A Shooting Star 8420lb
8. Me 262 A-1 8366lb
9. Fw 190 D-9 7694lb
10. P-51D Mustang 7635lb
11. Fw 190 A-9 7055lb
12. P-63A Kingcobra 6800lb
13. Spitfire Mk.XIV 6578lb
14. Spitfire LF.IX 6518lb
15. La-7 5743lb
16. Yak-9U 5526lb
17. Yak-3 4640lb
18. Bf 109 K-4 4343lb
19. Me 163 B-1 4200lb
20. He 162 A-2 3660lb
This article was an extract from Spitfires over Berlin, thanks to author Dan Sharp
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Two years ago MiG-27 pilot Anshuman Mainkar gave us a thrilling interview about flying this Soviet hot-rod. With the news that the type has now retired from IAF service we asked Mainkur to reflect on this significant event.
The MiG-27 has now retired from the IAF, how does that feel for you?
“Not only has the MiG-27 retired, but also the #Flogger saga in the IAF has drawn to a close. Inducted during the early 1980s, during a modernisation cycle that also included other platforms, these variants served with many units, delivering sterling service to the nation.
State of the art for their times in terms of BVR capability (even when the relative nascency of the MF is considered compared to the later MLD, et al variants) and nav/attack suite for the BN/ML (including the unique laser range-finder/designator), the aircraft in spite of legacy (under refinement since the early 60s, and giving way to next-gen platforms of the age – Su-27/MiG-29, et al) were taken through the paces well by pioneers who studied the package well and designed SOPs that became the gold standard for operations specifically suited to the IAF.
With this in context, I feel extremely privileged to have flown a remarkable platform, and having learnt from a great set of mentors and tutors who taught me the nuances of flying but also of life. And while it is with a tinge of sadness that I enjoyed the festivities of the winding down ceremony, I am happy that the culture, bonding and associations with the machines and the men and women who cared and nurtured it in the IAF will remain with me for eternity.
Speaking of the MiG 27 in particular, it was the last of the variants to be inducted and de-inducted, and it played.”
What was the aircraft’s greatest moments in IAF service?
“They were ample moments – technology/weapon integration, firing competitions, operations, etc. A few that people will relate to would definitely include its involvement in Kargil, when it (along with the BN), were tasked heavily, performing admirably given the nature of terrain and targets.
It must be mentioned that the pioneers had envisaged much in advance the requirement of a Kargil-like deployment/employment, and therefore the fleet was well-equipped and trained for the hostilities that were thrust upon them. That they were ready, raring and prepared was a product of the fleet stalwart vision and initiative.”
Now the aircraft has retired can you share anything you could not have shared before?
“A popular pilot quip was a wish to begin the syllabus on the fighter first – (even without dual trips, a testimony to the comfort and aesthetic of the jet), and then convert on to the trainer (which in many terms was a different aircraft).”
How many active ’27 pilots were there at the point of retirement – what will they do now?
“A squadron worth, plus a few more – not current, but in various staff/piloting appointments across the Air Force. There isn’t a fleet for them to come back to, but they sure are a valuable asset for the Air Force. I’m sure they’ll get their due, and the Air Force will find them worthy appointments/responsibilities to pursue.”
How did it compare to the Jaguar?
“As far as mud-sweepers go, the Jaguar took its role too seriously. It hesitated to take off, and as a popular saying goes, it only took off because of the Earth’s curvature. But that was on a lighter note, the Flogger fleet and Jaguar boys sure loved a good roast!
During it’s heyday, the MiG-27 avionics suite – autopilot/nav/attack/recovery systems were truly fantastic, better than the initial Jaguars. The Jaguar has matured well in Indian service, though. Being the only dedicated striker in IAF service, it has done well for itself, and its bag of tricks will stand it in good stead for some time to come.”
What will happen to the airframes? What would you like to happen?
“Gate guardians, mostly, adorning prominent locations across many cities, including its own bases. Ideal candidate too, takes up less space with max sweep :)”
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