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The first working submarine appears to have been invented as long ago as 1620 by Cornelius Van Drebbel whose demonstration of his creation on the Thames was recorded by Constantijn Huygens (below). The first manned flight took place under a balloon of the Montgolfier brothers just outside Paris in 1783. Despite 133 years of opportunity though the history of airborne anti-submarine warfare doesn’t really get going until September of 1916 when two aircraft of the Austro-Hungarian Navy sunk a French submarine, not bad considering the Austro-Hungarian Naval Air Service had only formed that August.
Anti-submarine aircraft spend their time hunting something that might not be there. Those of you who’ve read your Clancy will be familiar with the basics of modern Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), dipping sonar, bistatic sonobuoys, caterpillar drives and what have you. All of which are mostly irrelevant to this article as bar about four exceptions every submarine sinking by an aircraft took place in WW2 before such things were invented. The contents of the list is also massively skewed by the efforts of the Kreigsmarine who managed to lose 287 U-Boats to aircraft, more than the total number of submarines lost by the Royal, US, and Imperial Japanese Navies combined. 
Consequently, no German or Japanese aircraft appear, the former apparently only sinking two submarines from the air, both by Do-17. The Imperial Japanese Army do however deserve a special mention for equipping one of their Aircraft Carriers, the Akitsu Maru,with Kokusai Ki-76 observation aircraft to provide anti-submarine protection for their convoys. On November 15th, 1944, these may have spotted the USS Queenfish shortly before she fired the torpedoes which sank the carrier. This more or less finished the IJA’s involvement with anti-submarine warfare (ASW), despite some pioneering research into the use of auto gyros. The Imperial Japanese Navy in the meantime had commissioned the Kyushu Q1W1, probably the first aircraft in the world designed from the outset to find and attack submarines. Featuring either a magnetic anomaly detector or radar set, panoramic cockpit loosely based on that of the Ju-88, and an optional 20mm cannon fit, the 901st Kokutai claimed to have sunk seven enemy submarines while operating the Lorna. Post war records indicate this is probably over-claiming by at least seven.
It’s worth noting that all kill numbers listed here are at best provisional due to the difficulty of confirming a) if you’ve really sunk a submarine and b) which one it was. It was only as recently as May 2021 that the fate of HMS/M Urge was confirmed when her wreck was found just off Malta remarkably free of damage from Italian fighters, but with a big hole where the bow should be, just like you’d get if you hit a mine. 
Around 30 types have been involved in sinking submarines, the third of them in this run-down aren’t necessarily the top scorers but do have a certain je ne c’est pas that lifts them above the rest.
 79, 52, and 128 to all causes respectively.
Wessex/Lynx/Wasp – Joint placing for the only aircraft to sink a submarine post-WW2.
Only one submarine has been sunk by aircraft since the end of World War 2. This unfortunate vessel was the ARA Santa Fe, whose origin as the USS Catfish in 1944 means no post-war submarine has been sunk by enemy action. 
On the morning of 25 April 1982, the Santa Fe was departing Grytviken in South Georgia, having landed supplies for the Argentinian forces occupying the island. The captain planned to hide in deep water off the coast before returning that night to an isolated bay to fully recharge the vessel’s batteries for the journey back to the mainland. Unfortunately for the Santa Fe she was detected on radar by the Wessex HAS3 from HMS Antrim before she was in an area to submerge. Approaching from the stern the Wessex was almost overhead before the crew saw it, moments later two depth charges fell towards the submarine. The damage from this first strike was sufficient to prevent the Santa Fe diving, if only because it was unlikely she’d ever surface if she did.
A running battle would now ensue as the Argentinians attempted to return to Grytviken while the Lynx from HMS Brilliant made strafing runs and Wasps from HMS Endurance and Plymouth fired multiple AS.12 missiles. Although the Santa Fe managed to return to the dock her war was over, and she remained there until 1985 when she was towed out to sea and scuttled.
At a stroke the Argentine active submarine force had been reduced by half, which in percentage terms places the Wessex, Lynx, Wasp combination in first place for effect on an enemy force. Meanwhile the ARA’s other active submarine, the San Luis, spent most of the conflict loitering around East Falkland as the most advanced ASW force in NATO failed to pick it out from the myriad wrecks in the area. Which is why the Sea King isn’t on this list.
 The North Koreans appear to have lost a submarine to a fishing boat in 1998. It probably wasn’t deliberate.
Lohner L – First aircraft to sink a submarine
Someone has to be first, and despite what the RAF Museum’s website may say, in the case of airborne ASW it wasn’t the UK. Confusingly it was the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Despite now being two medium sized land-locked European countries in 1914 their combined empire included most of what is now
Yugoslavia Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Which gave them an extensive Adriatic coast. As such they had a substantial navy with 13 battleships, 18 destroyers, 6 submarines, an Air Service, and one Lt von Trapp who’d later gain fame for escaping Nazi Austria with a singing nun. 
On 15 September 1916 the French Navy’s Foucault was patrolling near the entrance to the naval base at Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro). Enter two Lohner L flying boats of the Austro-Hungarian Naval Air Service, which despite in many ways looking like what would happen if an engineer took the phrase ‘flying boat’ literally and just added a couple of wings to a rowing skiff, could carry a few hundred kg of bombs at ‘speeds’ of 57 knots. Although submerged the clear waters of the Adriatic allowed the crew of the two aircraft to spot the Foucault easily and, presumably after checking it wasn’t one of their submarines, attack it. Four bombs were dropped at least one hitting the submarine causing it to lose power and start sinking. Realising they’d broken the first rule of submarining,  and with a fire adding to their woes the French somehow managed to get to the surface. Facing an untenable situation, the Captain ordered the powerless submarine scuttled. To add insult to injury the crew were then rescued by their attackers who landed on the water to look after them until a torpedo boat could come to take them into captivity.
Almost definitely the slowest aircraft on this list the Lohner L does have the distinction of proving aircraft have a part to play in sinking submarines.
 Not totally relevant but he also married the granddaughter of the inventor of the torpedo.
 Don’t let water into the people tank.
Although a relatively obscure type the Potez-CAMS 141 has the highest ratio of submarines sunk per airframes built of all time. Admittedly this is because only one of them was built, but it did at least manage to sink U-105 on 2 June 1943.
The Potez-CAMS 141, also known as the Antarès, was designed and built to a 1935 French Admiralty specification for a long-range maritime reconnaissance flying boat. Essentially a gallic Sunderland, Saint-Nazaire if you will. Oddly for a French inter-war aircraft it was very nearly aesthetically pleasing. Really only marred by the placing of a conservatory on either side of the fuselage just aft of the cockpit, presumably so the crew had somewhere to smoke Gauloises and discuss Sartre during long sorties.
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With the prototype flying in 1938 the programme showed the kind of urgency that the Tempest project manager has nightmares about with orders for an additional 19 airframes being placed by September 1939. However, with the factory coming under new management in June of 1940 no further airframes were actually completed. The sole example led a somewhat nomadic existence initially operating out of Morocco, by September of 1940 it was patrolling from Dakar as part of the Vichy French forces. With the Allied landings in North Africa in late 1942 the Antares changed sides again, paving the way for its successful prosecution of the U-105 just south of Dakar seven months later.
Alas being from a production batch of one and with few spares available by the beginning of 1944 she was nearing the end of her operational life, having flown around 1800 hours. Disappointingly the airframe appears to have been scrapped in Africa meaning there are few if any remains of what by at least one measure was the most successful anti-submarine aircraft of all time.
Curtiss H-12 – Responsible for both U-boats sunk by the RNAS.
The Royal Navy tried a variety of tactics to counter U-Boats during the First World War, before grudgingly accepting that, despite not being particularly Nelsonian, escorting merchant ships in convoys might be a more effective way of stopping them being sunk than trying to find a submarine to sink. Which to be fair was still a World War quicker than the US Navy took to come round to the idea. Around the same time convoys were being introduced in early 1917 the Admiralty were also receiving the first examples of the aircraft that would allow it to attack U-Boats from the air. The Curtiss H-12. These started a long tradition of the UK buying an American aircraft and improving it by changing the engine, think Mustang with the Merlin, think Boeing 707 with Conways, think Phantom with err… Speys? In the case of the H-12 the original 160hp Curtiss VX were replaced with Rolls-Royce Eagles with 375hp, more than doubling the installed power. This at least made the H-12, also known as the Large America by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), able to take-off from the water. Something the VX powered versions had difficulty with.
On 27 May 1917 Large America 8656 operating from the Isles of Scilly sighted UC-66 on the surface to the north of the archipelago. The pilot dropped the payload of 100lb bombs two of which seemed to have hit the U-Boat as it soon sank by the stern not to be seen again until 2009. Inconveniently in her dying moments UC-66 had managed to get a few rounds off at 8656, which then flew back to its base on Tresco with the Mechanic holding rags over a resultant leak in the starboard radiator.
At the other end of the English Channel on 22 Sep 1917 H-12 8695, escorted by two Camel fighters, attacked a surfaced submarine in the vicinity of West Hinder Light Vessel, about 20 miles off Ostend. After also being hit by two bombs it was seen to heel over and sink, leaving wreckage and oil on the surface. Initially identified as UC-72, its having been sunk by mines a month earlier rules it out as the actual victim. It’s now thought 8695 sank UB-32.
As an indicator of the effectiveness of the RNAS’ patrols only five merchant ships were sunk when in convoys with a combined air sea escort. Despite the paucity of actual sinkings by aircraft their presence was sufficient to warn off the U-Boats. On top of probably being responsible for 2/3rds of submarines sunk by aircraft in the First World War, Curtiss H-12s were also responsible for shooting down several Zeppelins. Which given its top speed of 87kts must have made for some of the most slowing moving dog-fights in history.
Grumman’s stubby first fighter on a list of submarine killers? What next the Hellcat in the top 10 of mine hunting aircraft? 
Although the Wildcat doesn’t appear to be solely responsible for the sinking of any submarines it was involved in the destruction of 27 of them. It kicked this streak off while operating with 802 NAS from HMS Audacity, along with one Lt Winkle Brown. In this case aircraft patrolling from Audacity to intercept German reconnaissance aircraft spotted U-131 on the surface near Madeira and carried out strafing runs while a group of destroyers and sloops closed to deliver the coup de grace with gunfire and depth charges.
More typically, and because it’s not clear you could get enough 0.5” ammunition into a Martlet for it to sink a submarine on its own they were more normally paired with either a Swordfish or Avenger. The vast majority of their assisted kills being while operating from the decks of a USN Escort Carrier alongside its Grumman stable mate. The Wildcat carrying out strafing runs while the Avenger positioned for a depth charge or torpedo attack. The torpedoes in question being code named Fido, were the first homing torpedoes and sought out the noise from the submarine’s propellers. Although a technical marvel it suffered slightly from having a top speed of 15 knots, slightly slower than the surfaced speed of most U-boats. The continual harassment from the Wildcat playing no small part in slowing them down or causing them to dive at which point they struggled to make 8 knots and became easy prey for Fido.
The Wildcat then wasn’t an out and out submarine killer, but it would happily kick them in the gentleman’s parts before its bigger friends delivered the knock-out blow. Like Mini-Me to the Avenger’s Dr Evil.
 Yes, yes it is. Didn’t attack many submarines though.
Confusingly for the layperson the main aim of anti-submarine warfare isn’t necessarily sinking submarines. Although it’s always nice if you can. The primary goal is generally to stop the submarine sinking your ships. This is especially true if your ships are carrying supplies that are keeping the country alive. So during the Battle of the Atlantic escorts that managed to sink five U-boats while their convoy was decimated could be viewed less favourably than ones who managed to bring their charges across without loss to either side. This was an area where aircraft could excel merely by flying around and causing the submarine to remain submerged for fear of being spotted. Unlike modern nuclear-powered vessels, which are faster submerged than on the surface, the diesel-electric craft of the first half of the 20th century were much slower underwater. A typical U-boat could manage 17 knots surfaced but only around 7 knots submerged, and then only for a limited time 5 knots being more sustainable. With a typical convoy progressing at around 10 knots, it became impossible for the submarine to catch its prey while underwater unless it was inside an area in its path the extents of which are known as the Limiting Lines of Approach (LLA). These also apply to nuclear powered submarines although in their case the limit is defined by the speed above which the propellers start to cavitate and create enough noise for Evelyn Glennie to detect them while headlining Wembley.
With this in mind Fairey’s better contribution to the art of naval warfare deserves a special place on this list. In total the Swordfish is credited with 25 submarine kills, which places it 9th overall on pure numbers.  However, its ability to operate not just from Escort Carriers but the even smaller flight decks on Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs) enabled them to provide an almost continuous aerial escort across the Atlantic. MACs were as the name suggests merchant ships with a wooden flight deck just 410’ x 62’ built over the holds, as such they had a limited top speed of around 12kts and carried at most four Swordfish. Despite their limited capability their presence forced the opposition underwater keeping the LLA as favourable as possible. Which goes someway to explaining why in the 207 convoys escorted by Swordfish operating MACs only 9 ships were lost to U-boats despite none having been sunk by the embarked aircraft.
 22 U-boats, 1 Italian sub torpedoed off Libya, 1 Vichy French submarine off Madagascar, and an unfortunate incident with the Free French Submarine Perle.
At 7 knots U1 can’t intercept the merchant ship, after 1 hour she’s in the same position relative to it that U2 was at the beginning of the hour. U2 at 7 knots has meanwhile just fallen further behind the merchant ship.
Sunderland or Catalina
In a world where runways are everywhere it’s easy to forget that before the rapid increase in their numbers during the Second World War water was considered a suitable surface for large aircraft to take-off and land on. Thus, interwar long-distance travel saw the use of the Boeing Clipper and Shorts C-Class Empire flying boat. It’s not surprising then that long-range patrol aircraft would use the same format in the early stages of the war. For ASW the best of these was undoubtedly the Consolidated Catalina. Able to carry out a two-hour patrol at 800 miles from base, two hundred more than the Shorts Sunderland, taking the fight far out into the Atlantic. Despite only having half the engines of the Sunderland the Catalina could carry almost the same weapons load and had the advantage of also being able to use torpedoes, something it used in anger against Japanese shipping around Guadacanal.
In terms of anti-submarine activity, the Catalina sank 40 submarines, 14 more than the Sunderland and equal second overall with the Avenger.
On top of its exploits in the North Atlantic, a Catalina sank two IJN submarines in the Pacific, and for fans of long-range air travel instigated the Double Sunrise service from Ceylon to Western Australia, the usual stop offs in Rangoon and Singapore having issues with take-off and landing rights. The stripped-down aircraft on this service carried three passengers, 152lbs of essential mail, and 1988 gallons of fuel to give it a range of 3600nm for the 3500nm route. Taking between 27 and 33 hours to complete, and with no choice of in-flight movie, this was a test of endurance for both the aircrew and the passengers. Even Ryan Air’s worst flight presumably not having to contend with the threat of being intercepted by the Japanese Air Force over the dark waters of the Indian Ocean.
World War II saw the RAF sticking to their pre-war doctrine that strategic bombing would solve everything. If bombing land locked towns in Germany wasn’t stopping U-boats from attacking convoys, then the answer must be to bomb them harder. This plan didn’t prioritise aircraft for Coastal Command, the defence of merchant shipping apparently being incidental to ensuring the Air Force had the supplies and fuel it needed to wage war. Even by 1941 the best they could hope for were cast offs that Bomber Command didn’t want. Enter the Wellington.
Initially operating a handful of Wellington Mk1Cs with a limited anti-U-boat capability in 1942 the better equipped GR MkVIII became available. As well as the ASV II radar that some Mk1s had had fitted for detecting surfaced submarines it also featured the first use of the Leigh Light a powerful spotlight, and a radar altimeter to allow them to descend safely over the sea at night. After detecting a U-Boat using radar the Wellington would descend to 250’ to make its attack run, as the contact disappeared into the clutter at the bottom of the radar display the Leigh Light would be turned on illuminating the target and allowing the pilot to complete the attack visually. On 4 June 1942 the first such attack was made by a Wellington of 172 Squadron against the Italian submarine Luigi Torelli which was transiting the Bay of Biscay and suddenly found itself lit up like Elvis headlining Vegas. Shortly after that it found itself surrounded by four depth charges. Although the submarine survived the attack it was sufficiently damaged to force a return to port. More was to follow with another three boats forced back to base that June. From being relatively safe waters, the Bay of Biscay now had to be transited submerged, reducing the time that could be spent in the operational areas of the Mid-Atlantic by five days. In July worse was to come for the Kreigsmarine as the first U-boat was sunk by a Wellington as it was returning to France from the Caribbean.
From sinking no U-Boats in the first half of 1942 Coastal Command found itself responsible for 13 and a half in the period from August to December. At a time when ‘Bomber’ Harris was telling Churchill that Coastal Command was ‘merely an obstacle to victory’ this was fortunate indeed. Although the Wellington didn’t have the range to protect convoys in the mid-Atlantic gap, generally managing around 2 hours 500 miles from base, it made the waters around the U-boats’ French bases far more dangerous and pioneered tactics that would be used by Coastal Command to turn the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1943 onwards.
While the Swordfish was a good carrier borne ASW aircraft it suffered in a few areas, mainly speed and crew comfort. And contrary to popular opinion it wasn’t as sturdy as you might want when landing on a deck that’s moving up and down by 20 or 30 feet, even if it was easy to repair. If you really wanted to kill submarines while operating off a ship the Grumman Avenger on the other hand suffered none of these issues.
The extra speed not only allowed it to cover a greater search area in a given time, but also meant that during an attack run it would be exposed to the U-boats gunfire for a shorter period. About half in fact. On top of this it made it much easier for other Avengers to make follow up attacks as they’d have a chance to get to the scene of the action before contact with the submarine was lost. Most U-boats being sunk due to a continued aggressive attack rather than a single killer blow. U-118 for instance being attacked with depth charges from 8 Avengers from the USS Bogue before submerging for the final time, which appears to be the record for attacks by a single aircraft type.
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The Grumman Ironworks approach to aircraft construction meanwhile meant the Avenger suffered far less damage during carrier operations. Analysis by the RN not only showed the American aircraft suffered 1/7th the rate of damage the Swordfish did, but that the lower risk of damage meant carriers were more likely to actually fly them.  Which is very much the first stage in detecting a submarine with an aircraft. Having done the analysis, the Fleet Air Arm prioritised its Avengers for anti-submarine warfare, until everyone realised it was better at most things than the Barracuda and they went to the Pacific to be used as bombers.
These advantages, together with being with the convoys the submarines were trying to find, place the Avenger at number two on the all-time list of submarine killing aircraft, with 35 U-boats and at least 5 IJN submarines falling to it.
 Directorate of Naval Operational Studies. ‘Achievements of British and US Escort Carriers’. Admiralty, 12 February 1944. ADM 219/95. The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.
The Kreigsmarine lost 287 U-Boats to aircraft, a quarter of these were lost to the Liberator. Which by all accounts makes it the most submarine killingest aircraft of all time.
The first Liberators delivered to the RAF were considered unsuitable for combat over Europe, Bomber Command therefore magnanimously gave them to Coastal Command who received 20 ex-USAAF B-24As in 1941. These gained the relatively basic ASV Mk II radar, and a less basic semi-retractable pack of four 20mm cannon in the forward bomb bay to attack ships and U-boats with. They could also make a more traditional attack with up to six depth charges while some would receive fittings to carry 60lb rocket projectiles either side of the forward fuselage.
The later Liberator GR Mk III was based on the B-24D as used by Air Forces various, however for the anti-submarine role certain changes were made. The self-sealing liners to the fuel tanks and most of the armour was removed. The turbo-superchargers for the engines that maintained performance at high altitude were deleted, relatively few U-Boats being found above 5,000’. The ventral gun turret was also removed ultimately providing a location for a more advanced centimetric radar. Having undergone the kind of diet that gets you a shot at being the face of Weight Watchers the spare capacity was taken up with over two thousand gallons of fuel and a payload of eight depth charges. As an example of what this allowed on 17 March 1943 a Liberator of 86 Squadron left Aldergrove for an eight-hour fifty-minute flight to join convoy SC122, attacking U-439 on the way causing it to remain submerged for the rest of the day. On reaching SC122 the aircraft came under the orders of the Escort Group Commander and proceeded to sweep the convoy’s route, during which she attacked U-338, again forcing it to submerge. After 11 hours airborne she then returned to base finally landing at Eglinton, short of fuel, 18 hours and 20 minutes after taking off.
In this later Very Long Range (VLR) configuration the Liberator, together with aircraft from Escort Carriers which came into their own around the same time, solved the Mid-Atlantic Gap where U-boats had previously operated without fear of attack from aircraft. The majority of kills were made by aircraft of Coastal Command, however the USAAF’s anti-submarine squadrons were responsible for at least 7 sinkings before they handed over responsibility to the USN’s PB4Y Liberator squadrons. To give some idea of the scale of the Battle of the Atlantic the Liberator was also the second most successful submarine killer in the Pacific. Where it appears to have sunk three IJN submarines.
With endurance, a range of armaments, and able to be modified as new sensors became available the Liberator is the most successful anti-submarine aircraft of all time. Its capabilities again beating housewives’ favourite the B-17 and its paltry 11 sinkings.
A Submariners’ War, The Indian Ocean 1939-45, Michael Wilson
Business in Great Waters, John Terraine
Japanese Anti-Submarine Aircraft in the Pacific War, Ishiguro and Januszewski
The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War, David Hobbs
Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.
Dear supporter/aviation obsessive/patient friend,
There’s big news at the end of this but first:
The final design for the cover is done and it looks gorgeous. Courtesy of the sleek design skills of Art Director Mark Ecob.
I can’t wait to have this beautiful badboy in my greedy hands (may need to work on phrasing here). If you have a friend who wishes to have their name featured in this book they better move fast as the design will be frozen quite soon, so do send them our way.
The release date for The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, which we’ve long known, has now been declassified. It is Summer 2022 (we’re actually aiming for Father’s Day but keeping it slightly vague to allow for the usual unforeseen chaos of the universe). I know the wait is agonisingly long, I certainly find it so, but that’s how long these things take.
As we’ve got to a 180% funding-level we’ve unlocked a new pledge level. This is a very special and utterly bespoke treat: Hush-Kit creator Joe Coles (me, that is) will draw a unique (and possibly quite silly) hand-drawn sketch of an aircraft in the front of your book. Hopefully you won’t all go for this or I’ll get repetitive strain injury (that’s a joke as I already have RSI)!
The really freaking big-as-an-Antonov-225-massive news is we are VERY soon to Launch the fundraising stage for Volume 2 of the Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes. There is such a wealth of material to share (and a bunch of new unreleased stuff) we couldn’t fit it all in volume 1 so we’re planning a Mk II, which like most Mk IIs, will be faster – we’ve planned for a far faster turnaround time to completion. I’ve learned a great deal over during the creation of Volume 1, and Volume 2 is going to be an even deeper dive into the narcotically addictive world of military aviation. This endeavor would not be possible without the brilliant success you have already made of the forthcoming Volume 1. Volume 2 can only start by you pre-ordering it and it reaching 100% funding. FINGERS CROSSED.
Thank you so much for making this possible. The book is being made with love and care and I hope you enjoy it.
Yours in love and aeroplanes,
If you’ve ever fallen off a bicycle you’ll know that exactly the worst thing that could possibly happen would be if that bicycle were raised into the sky beforehand. Nonetheless, several hardy souls have decided that the generally earthbound state of “the most civilised conveyance known to man” is a ludicrous hindrance and have pedalled their way to the heavens with hugely differing levels of success: usually briefly and invariably slowly.
10. Gehrhardt Cycleplane
You’ve probably already seen the Gehrhardt Cycleplane, it appears in an oft-repeated montage of newsreel films of various ‘hilarious’ unsuccessful early aircraft which appears in ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’ and ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’. The seven-winged Cycleplane trundles along for a short distance before collapsing in a heap (ha ha) and the film cuts to the ‘Pitts Sky Car’ (a V-8 powered VTOL machine that succeeds only in bouncing violently on the spot). However if you were to find out that the Gehrhardt Cycleplane was the first human-powered heavier-than-air aircraft to take off under its own power, would it seem so funny then? Well perhaps it would, as it is clearly totally ludicrous. However the Cycleplane really did earn an obscure niche in history by flying, once, on human power alone during 1923.
William Gehrhardt of the Aeronautical school at Michigan University designed the Cycleplane in his spare time while working as an aeronautical engineer at McCook airfield in Dayton, Ohio. The aircraft was built by off-duty members of McCook’s Flight Test Section, initially in secret. Officials from the base’s Engineering Section later allowed the aircraft’s final assembly and storage to take place in a hangar on the field. First flight was achieved in July 1923 when the Cycleplane was towed aloft by a car and demonstrated to be adequately controllable over the course of several towed flights. Eventually a hop of about 20ft was made with the aircraft attaining the lofty altitude of 2 feet. Modest perhaps but this was the first attested flight by a human-powered heavier-than-air aircraft. Unfortunately however this would remain the only powered flight of the Cycleplane, soon after this momentous hop, its undignified collapse was caught on camera and as a result the stake it has claimed in comical history has proved more stubbornly lodged in the collective consciousness than its genuine (small) achievement in aviation history. Which is a shame, (although it is really quite funny).
9. HPA Toucan
If you have never ridden a tandem bicycle, you might be surprised to find out just how much faster they can go than a regular bicycle. A tandem weighs less than two solo bicycles, possesses roughly the same aerodynamic drag and yet boasts literally double the power. There’s a reason tandems have massive brakes. Thus it remains slightly surprising that more ‘twin-engine’ human powered aircraft have not been built. The only example known to have actually flown was the Toucan.
Developed by the Hertfordshire Pedal Aeronauts (who were mostly employees of Handley Page) the Toucan was intended to win the Kremer prize. There were actually a series of Kremer prizes, all sponsored by Latvian-born British industrialist Henry Kremer, but the most prestigious and the one invariably referred to as ‘the’ Kremer Prize was £50,000 to be awarded to the first human-powered aircraft to fly a figure eight around two markers one half mile apart, starting and ending the course at least 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground. Despite doubling up the motive power, the Toucan failed to grasp the prize, managing a maximum flight length of 640m. Toucan? Tou-couldn’t as it turned out. Nevertheless with its completely transparent fuselage and two (count ’em!) crew, the Toucan wins enough extra points for aesthetics and novelty to justify its inclusion here.
Whether you regard the colossal effort both to build and to fly a human powered aircraft as either a massive waste of time or an incredible and noble endeavour, it is abundantly clear that making such a flying machine work is extremely difficult. Thus it seems the ultimate expression of masochism to make such an endeavour even more difficult by applying a form of propulsion singularly absent from the man-made aviation scene and get your chosen human to power your aircraft by flapping its wings like a bird. Who would take such an obviously self-defeating step?
Enter Canada: Snowbird is the world’s first fairly successful human-powered ornithopter. Fairly successful because it can’t take off under its own power, needing a tow from a car, but then able to maintain powered, controlled flight solely using human-muscle powered flapping wings for a considerable distance. Plus it looks cool. Built by the University of Toronto Institute for Aviation Studies, Snowbird flew for the first time on 31 July 2020 (and for the last time three days later) and many sources claim it to be the world’s first human powered ornithopter. This however is not true, Alexander Lippisch, who is most famous for designing the Messershmitt 163 ‘Komet’ rocket powered interceptor of the Second World War flew a human-powered ornithopter as early as 1929 (which also required a towed launch) but it is unclear whether it could truly sustain flight. Adalbert Schmid built a successful aircraft in Munich powered by flapping wings in 1942 but it had a pair of larger conventional wings ahead of the flapping ones which seems a little like cheating – then he went the whole hog and put a motorcycle engine in it. Frenchman Yves Rousseau’s human-powered ornithopter managed to fly 64 metres in 2006 (also with an initial tow) but horrifically crashed on its next flight, gravely injuring the pilot and rendering him paraplegic. With a flight of 145 metres Snowbird remains to date the most successful muscle powered ornithopter (with the exception of virtually all birds and literally billions of insects).
7. Aerovelo Atlas
Whether you persist in regarding the colossal effort both to build and to fly a human powered aircraft as either a massive waste of time or an incredible and noble endeavour, it is still abundantly clear that making such an aircraft work is extremely difficult. Thus it seems, if anything, even more masochistic to get your chosen human to power a massive helicopter and take off vertically. It took decades of painful development to get a helicopter to work properly with the obvious advantage of a powerful engine, who would be crazy enough to attempt to build a human-powered VTOL machine?
Enter Canada again. The very same University of Toronto team who developed the Snowbird also built the insanely huge quad-rotor Aerovelo Atlas which, with a tip-to-tip rotor span of 154 ft (47 m) is the second largest helicopter ever to fly, after the Mil V-12, though its empty weight of 55 kg (122 lb) makes it one of the world’s lightest helicopters – and a mere 69 tonnes and 45 kg lighter than the aforementioned Mil. It is also the first human-powered helicopter to attain an altitude of 3 metres and stay aloft for 60 seconds. As such it won the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition and netted $250,000 in prize money. The record breaking 2013 flight represented the culmination of a tight battle with the University of Maryland’s Gamera II human-powered helicopter but the Canadians pipped them at the post thus making up for years of Canadian resentment at suspected US involvement in the cancellation of the Avro Arrow.
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6. Bossi-Bonomi Pedaliante
After the ludicrous self-collapsing Cycleplane, the first serious attempt at a human powered aircraft was the German HV-1 Mufli which was well-designed and flew well but could only take off with catapult assistance. Subsequently Europe’s other major fascist state decided that aviation development could best be advanced by pedal power and offered 100,000 lire for the first human powered aircraft to fly for one kilometre. Enter serial-overachiever Italian-American Enea Bossi who had, amongst other things, designed and constructed the first Italian-built aircraft in 1909 with his pal Guiseppe Bellanca, flown as a bomber pilot in WWI, designed the first aircraft wheel braking system, and licence built the Savoia Marchetti S.56 in New York.
Bossi became interested in the prospect of human-powered flight when he heard of an aircraft that had flown with an engine of less than one horsepower which seemed to imply that human-propelled flight might be possible. Bossi approached the problem with a scientific rigour, conducting experiments with gliders towed by bicycles (similar experiments would take place half a century later in the development of the Gossamer Condor) and eventually came up with the unusually elegant Pedaliante. Equipped with two counter rotating airscrews to cancel out the surprisingly high level of torque found to be generated by such large propellers, Pedaliante took shape in the workshop of glider manufacturer Vittorio Bonomi. Intended to weigh a featherweight (for its time) 73kg, Pedaliante suffered its first major setback when the Ministero dell’Aeronautica mandated that it be built to the same structural strength requirements as an engine-powered aircraft. As a result the completed aircraft weighed a somewhat gargantuan 100kg and the future looked less than rosy for Bossi’s overweight (though exceptionally strong and beautifully well-made) aircraft. Luckily Bossi managed to enlist the help, and more importantly the legs, of Major Emilio Casco of the Italian Army, a cycling enthusiast noted for his enormous strength.
In early 1936 Casco pedalled mightily and managed to haul Pedaliante into the air for a 91 metre flight. This achievement was apparently beyond the ability of a ‘typical person’, whatever that means, but the Pedaliante proved that it could take off and fly by human power alone, even if it required an exceptional human to supply that power. Many later flights were catapulted assisted and Pedaliante managed a flight of over 1 km following a launch to 9 metres. The possibility of what this undoubtedly advanced and well-though-out machine could have achieved had it been built to its original lighter specification remains one of the most tantalising ‘what-ifs’ of human powered flight.
5. SUMPAC (and Puffin)
The first human-powered flight to be officially witnessed and accredited (and filmed for a Pathé news reel just to really hammer the point home) was achieved by SUMPAC (Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft), which had been built by students between 1960 and 1961 to make a bid for the Kremer prize. To pilot the craft, a professional cyclist was to be trained how to fly a glider by the exceptionally talented pilot Derek Piggott. As it turned out, the cyclist turned out to be untrainable and Piggott ended up gamely pedalling SUMPAC into the air, and the history books, himself.
SUMPAC flew around 40 times, achieving a maximum flight distance of 594 metres and making turns up to 80 degrees before a crash in 1963 caused sufficient damage that the decision was made to retire the aircraft. Although it was unable to capture the Kremer prize SUMPAC officially proved that controlled, sustained human powered flight was possible. SUMPAC’s achievement was almost immediately overshadowed somewhat though by the HMPAC Puffin (Hatfield Man Powered Aircraft Club – a group of de Havilland employees), which flew shortly after SUMPAC and set a distance record of 910 metres, a world record that would stand for a decade, but the Kremer prize remained just out of reach.
4. Musculair I and II
The world’s fastest human powered aircraft and the only such aircraft to have taken aloft a human passenger, the unpleasantly named Musculair 1 was developed by German engineer Günther Rochelt in 1984 with the aim of snaring two of the remaining Kremer prizes still up for grabs. Displaying an unusual hiring policy, Rochelt enlisted his own ‘not particularly athletic’ 17 year old son Holger as pilot and remarkably, shortly after the aircraft’s first flight, young Holger achieved the first of the two goals by winning the Kremer prize for the first non-US human powered aircraft to achieve a figure of eight flight over a mile-long course in June 1984. Later the same year he also attained a second Kremer prize for maximum speed by pedalling Musculair 1 to a giddy 35.7 km/h. Holger also took his younger sister Katrina up for a short trip but sadly Kremer had been remiss in sponsoring a prize for the first human powered aircraft to carry siblings.
Sadly, in February 1985 the original Musculair was damaged beyond airworthy repair in a road accident whilst in its trailer. Undeterred, the Rochelts built an improved Musculair II with the aim of exceeding the record set by Musculair 1 and winning a third Kremer prize for the fastest human powered aircraft flight. And yes, the aircraft mixed Roman and Arabic numerals, being named Musculair 1 and Musculair II, thus scaring away any OCD sufferers who might have been interested in the project. The rules stated that to win the prize, the maximum speed had to be raised by at least 5% over the previous best, which was widely believed to be unbeatable.
Nonetheless, Holger Rochelt proved once more how not particularly athletic he was by piloting and propelling Musculair II to the world record speed of 44.26 km/h, nearly 30 mph, in 1985. This was fast enough that the Royal Aeronautical Society, which oversees the awards of the Kremer prizes, decided that a further increase of 5% was impossible and withdrew the speed prize from further attempts. Musculair II thus remains the fastest pedal powered aircraft yet flown and survives to the present day on display in the Deutsches Museum Flugwerft Schleissheim in Oberschleißheim near Munich. Musculair 1 meanwhile is part of the collection of the Deutsches Museum, Munich.
3. Myers Sky-Cycle
One of the earliest human powered aircraft was also by far the most successful commercially and in terms of longevity. A decade before the Wright Brothers used an internal combustion engine (ie cheated) to shove their rickety Flyer into the air, Carl and Mary Myers were gamely pedalling about the heavens with their ‘Sky-Cycle’. However, unlike the secretive Wrights, the Myers demonstrated their aircraft in front of thousands of people, on one spectacular occasion in 1895 they allowed a reporter to pilot the Sky-Cycle across New York City. As a result there is not a hint of doubt that the Myers actually achieved what they claimed but this is largely irrelevant today as the question ‘Who was the first person to successfully fly a pedal-powered airship?’ is one seldom asked: a sorry reflection on the tediously predictable predilections of modern aviation enthusiasts.
The Sky-Cycle started life as a spherical hydrogen balloon to which Mary, a highly experienced balloonist (who made hundreds of demonstration flights as ‘Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut’), added a rudder and hand driven airscrew to better allow her to navigate air currents, thus creating the first balloon which could be steered and propelled, albeit in a limited fashion. Carl improved this further by elongating the balloon envelope into a more aerodynamic shape and having the airscrew powered, bicycle style, by the pilot’s legs. In this form the aircraft was variously dubbed the ‘Air Bicycle’, ‘Gas Kite’, ‘Aerial Velocipede’, and the ‘Aerial Bicycle’, before ultimately settling on the pleasingly punnish ‘Sky-Cycle’. Test flights of the Sky-Cycle were made from the Myers’ ‘Balloon Farm’ in New York state in 1885 before Carl started to demonstrate the aircraft at various shows and fairs, eventually making hundreds of flights in thirteen states over the course of ten years.
The Sky-Cycle was apparently easy to fly, the pilot simply leaning fore and aft for control in the vertical plane and to either side to make turns. Initially fitted with handlebars controlling a rudder, Myers had discovered these were unnecessary and added hand cranks to supplement the pedals in powering the airscrew. It’s ease of control undoubtedly encouraged Myers’ surprising willingness to let others fly the Sky-Cycle: a reporter named WP Pond flew a Sky-Cycle in formation with Carl pedalling a second machine as early as 1890 (thus achieving the first recorded powered formation flight in history). Pond wrote an excellent account of his adventure in Frank Leslie’s Pictorial Magazine in September of that year concluding “These machines are everything that the inventor claims for them, and will one day in all probability be placed upon the market for sale…The boys of the future have a great treat in store”.
Five years later an anonymous journalist from ‘The New York World’ took an improved Sky-Cycle, now with a cylindrical envelope and fitted with wings for added lift, on its sensational flight over New York city. Starting at the Rockwell Leather Works factory at the corner of Flushing and Classon avenues, Brooklyn, this indomitable reporter flew across the East River, receiving the toots and whistles of steamships on the river in salute, before turning and travelling the length of Manhattan island and crossing the Bronx to land without incident in Yonkers. This was the first dirigible flight over New York and The World delightedly reported of the “First Trial in New York of a Device By Which Man May Really Soar”.
Myers further developed the Sky-Cycle and it became one of vey few human powered aircraft to become a motor driven vehicle when he fitted it with a Curtiss engine. As his balloon and airship business took off (pun intended), Myers effectively abandoned the pilot as powerplant and developed a swathe of advanced airship concepts whilst maintaining his career as a manufacturer of balloons and exhibition balloonist until his retirement in 1909.
2. Daedalus 88
Blessed with the name most likely to be shared with a 1980s animated TV series, Daedalus 88 totally smashed the flight distance record for human-powered aircraft and remains the world record holder, having flown an incredible 115 km from Crete to Santorini in April 1988. A conventional aircraft by the whimsical standards of human-powered flight Daedalus was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and two Daedalus aircraft were built. The first, Daedulus 87 was thoroughly tested at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California, eventually suffering a crash caused by insufficient rudder authority but the second, Daedalus 88 was destined for greater things.
Both Daedalus aircraft made great use of carbon fibre and kevlar in their airframes for lightness and strength though much of the structure consisted of the somewhat less exotic expanded polystyrene, the whole lot being covered with Mylar film. Despite possessing a wingspan of over 34 metres, the aircraft weighed a teensy 39kg, that’s less than half the mass of John Travolta (at the time of writing the most famous person with a pilot’s licence for whom I could find a vaguely reliable weight figure).
Like SUMPAC nearly thirty years earlier, Daedalus 88 was intended to be flown by someone proven to be good at cycling. The MIT team sensibly recruited five serious cyclists and taught them how to fly (one was already a qualified glider pilot). Three of them were keen amateur cyclists, one was a former US professional cyclist and the fifth was a former Olympian and fourteen time Greek National road racing champion, Kanellos Kanellopoulos. That the massively more successful Kanellopoulos subsequently flew Daedalus 88 on its momentous journey doesn’t feel entirely surprising but apparently it was merely his turn when conditions became perfect. Hmmm. Anyway, there’s a pleasing symmetry in the fact that a modern Greek flyer should recreate the legendary journey of the second most famous Ancient Greek flyer.
At 7.06am on 23 April 1988, Kanellopoulos, wearing nothing but cycling shorts (into which he had cut holes to save weight), lifted off from an airstrip in Crete. Enjoying a light tail wind and escorted by boats, Daedalus 88 headed out over the Aegean. Every turn and a half of the propeller required a complete turn of the pedals and any slackening of the pace resulted in the aircraft noticeably dipping towards the surface of the sea. After 2 hours and 49 minutes Kanellopoulos and Daedalus broke the previous endurance record for a human powered aircraft. Unlike an earlier human powered Greek pilot, Kanellopoulos did not fly sufficiently close to the sun to melt the aircraft, as he prudently maintained a constant altitude of around 15 metres.
After nearly four hours Kanellopoulos approached the island of Santorini. By this time the sun had sufficiently warmed the black sand of the beach to create an updraft and headwind that was beyond the power of Kanellopoulos’s fatigued legs to overcome. Turning parallel to the beach to attempt a landing a gust of wind caught the aircraft’s wing, the sudden stress caused first the tail boom to fail with an audible crack, then the wing folded and Daedalus 88 plunged into the sea. The exhausted Kanellopoulos was helped ashore and various crew members jumped into the waves to salvage the broken but triumphant Daedalus. Hal Youngren, the project’s Chief Engineer, was interviewed in the water, grasping one end of the crumpled wing he was salvaging. ‘This is easily the coolest airplane crash I’ve ever seen!’ he exclaimed from the waves.
Kanellos Kanellopoulos had expended the same amount of energy as if he had just run two marathons back to back or, perhaps more relevantly, cycled a conventional bicycle at a constant 37 km/h (23 mph) for six hours. In doing so he and Daedalus 88 had set two world records for human powered aircraft, one for flight distance at 115.11 km and the other for flight duration at 3 hours and 54 minutes. Both still stand 33 years later.
- Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatros
What else could it be? Human powered flight had been in the doldrums for a while and a Japanese aircraft called Stork looked likely to nudge the distance record up a bit when Paul MacCready burst onto the scene and took the Kremer prize with the remarkable Gossamer Condor before following it up in fairly short order with a flight across the English channel.
Surprisingly, MacCready came up with the idea of winning the Kremer prize primarily as a money making scheme, because he was $100,000 in debt. In the mid 1970s the exchange rate hovered around $2 to the pound so winning the £50,000 prize would essentially solve his monetary problems in one fell human-powered swoop. Obviously fixating on the prospect of pedalling an aeroplane around a difficult course, a feat no one had achieved before despite the best attempts of several highly professional individuals and organisations, would not necessarily be the best course of action for the average debt-ridden engineer but MacCready was far from being an average debt-ridden engineer. Trained as a naval aviator at the tail end of the Second World War, MacCready was a three time national glider champion who gained his PhD in aeronautics in 1953. He invented a device that informed the pilot of the best speed to fly a glider, depending on conditions and based on the glider’s sink rate at different speeds. Glider pilots still use the “MacCready ring” (no sniggering at the back) and adjust the “MacCready Number”, to optimise their flying speed.
Inspired by their knowledge and experience of hang glider design, Macready and his associate Peter B. S. Lissaman built the Gossamer Condor with an unusually low aspect ratio wing compared to previous human powered aircraft, though still a very high aspect ratio wing in conventional terms. After a short flight with a proof-of-concept vehicle, the Gossamer Condor in its initial form, lacking the enclosed cockpit and some other features, was first flown by MacCready’s son on 26 December 1976 at Mojave airport.
With nacelle fitted and the design tweaked to its final configuration, the Gossamer Condor was ready for an attempt on the Kremer Prize by mid 1977. For pilot MacCready had enlisted Bryan Allen, an amateur cyclist and self-taught hang glider pilot who thus combined the two most important requirements for a Human powered aeronaut: good low speed piloting experience and proven leg power. On 23 August 1977 at Minter Field in Shafter, California, observed by the Royal Aeronautical Society, Allen piloted (and powered) the Gossamer Condor off the ground, over a 10ft height marker before flying (slowly) a mile long figure of eight before clearing the same height marker and descending to a safe landing. The Kremer prize was won, MacCready was £50,000 richer and the Gossamer Condor had booked its display space at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Everyone was delighted.
But MacCready was still in debt. The costs required to develop and build the Gossamer Condor had been substantial and MacCready had only managed to knock off around a third of what he owed. Then, as if by magic, the munificence of Henry Kremer smiled on MacCready once more: a new prize was offered for the first human powered aircraft to cross the English Channel. And this time the money was doubled to £100,000 which would easily cover MacCready’s remaining liability and more. The aircraft that MacCready produced was essentially an improved version of the Gossamer Condor, with a higher aspect wing of slightly greater span and the pilot now seated atop a saddle in a more conventional fashion than the recumbent set up of Gossamer Condor. Named the Gossamer Albatross, the pilot was once again to be Bryan Allen but this time the distance required to remain aloft was daunting: the Channel flight would require the aircraft to traverse 22 miles of open sea. The attempt was made on a dead calm 12 June 1979, Allen took off (slowly) slightly before 6 am from Folkestone and headed eastwards out to sea. Things began to go badly, the weather deteriorated and Allen had to battle headwinds as he edged towards France. The crossing was estimated beforehand at two hours and Allen was provided with a two hour water supply. But two hours in and Allen was dehydrated, suffering cramps, the water had run out and the French coast was still not in sight.
Allen signalled to the escorting boats that he was going to give up and climbed slightly so that he could drop a line and be taken in tow. However, this minor change of altitude revealed calmer conditions at this slightly higher altitude so Allen decided instead to press on. 49 minutes later, after sometimes dropping within centimetres of the surface and at times able to pedal with just one leg, Allen and the Gossamer Condor triumphantly crossed the shoreline at Cap Gris-Nez and landed (slowly) on the beach.
MacCready’s money woes were erased and pleasingly he ploughed the prize money back into his company Aerovironment which went from strength to strength, developing solar propulsion technology that culminated in the remarkable Helios UAV (via, amongst others, the Gossamer Penguin, the world’s first solar powered aircraft, the Solar Challenger which flew 262km from just north of Paris to Manston airfield in Kent, and the amazing Sunraycer solar car that won the first Solar road race from Darwin to Adelaide). MacCready won a slew of engineering and environmental awards and honours. Today Aerovironment is the primary supplier of small drones to the Pentagon and valued at $508 million. None of this would have been possible without the Gossamer Condor and Albatross, proving that in this case at least, developing a human powered aircraft was not just the whim of an eccentric engineer chasing an amusing but pointless dream. As well as directly financing the company, the extreme lightweight structural technology utilised in the Gossamer Condor and Albatross directly informed the solar powered aircraft that would cement MacCready and Aerovironment’s reputation. A fitting legacy to a pair of spectacular, delicate, and very slow aircraft.
But there’s more! If you want to see some of these aircraft in action here are some useful links:
- The Gehrhardt cycleplane collapses
- Pedaliante maintains altitude after a cable launch
- SUMPAC flies for Pathe news
- Daedalus II crashes into the sea, the rest of this documentary is worth watching too
- 50 minute long, Emmy award winning 1979 documentary on the Gossamer Albatross (totally worth it if you have time)
- 1978 documentary on the Gossamer Condor
- Prize-winning flight of the Aerovelo Atlas
- The surprisingly elegant Snowbird ornithopter
- Poor quality but quite exciting film of Musculair II flying the figure of eight Kremer course demonstrating high speed and remarkable manoeuvrability for a human powered aircraft, with German commentary
Enjoy, fellow potential aircraft powerplants!
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An exhausting round-up of the month in aviation news from Hush-Kit’s own post-truth correspondent, Vince Besmislica.
SOMEWHERE IN EUROPE, — Eurofighter announced they are going to try and integrate technology available on US aircraft 20 years ago for potential export customers, “We know people like the stuff that is already available, so we thought we might, maybe, try and put it on our aircraft at some point. We have already completed some plastic models so it’s probably cheap and easy to make actual stuff..maybe Finland want it?” stated Eurofighter’s Head of Old Ideas, Klaus Plagiat. The UK’s MoD had decided to opt out of the proposed upgrade noting that they could achieve similar results while charging the British taxpayer more by doing it alone and in a different way.
The aircraft is now to be referred to as the Supermarine-British-Beef Typhoon in RAF service as the previous manufacturer name proved unpopular with 50% of the British public. The name-change proved bitterly divisive with many British people polled preferring the name Missed-Holiday-in-Provence Typhoon.
All Tranche 1 Typhoons are to be retired as testing revealed these aircraft to just be a child on another child’s shoulder’s wearing a trenchcoat. It had been planned to use the aircraft as ‘gate-guards’ but it has come to light that upgrading the aircraft for this role would prove too costly.
Gray Slug News
Lockheed Martin’s F-35’s Head of Augmented Unreality, Karen Welpayd, noted that supersonic flight is unnecessary for a 5th Generation combat aircraft before putting on an F-22 baseball cap, turning to the other side of the room and stating (in a clearly fake Texan accent) that a 5th Generation fighter mush have the ability to supercruise to be defined as 5th Generation.
American aircraft carriers USS Queen Elizabeth Warren and USS Prints of Whales are delighting US Navy and Marine Corps leadership alike. “We don’t have to pay a bean for them! They carry our aircraft, carry out our foreign policy and yet the silly old Brits pay them!” Giggled Rear Admiral Lower Half of a Centaur Michael M. Ghilliesuit.
Sukhoi Fool’s Mate
“We do not expect it to enter service by 2022, as this is impossible, but I’m going to say that it will. Between you and me, we hope to it in service by 2035, essentially a generation later than when the first 5th Generation fighters entered service. Also we’ve added short-field performance as a criterion of what makes an aircraft 5th Generation so there…we’ll probably add some other stuff later using a semantic additive process pioneered by the US.” –– Khitryye Pretenzii, Head of Russian Aircraft Optimist Boasts
ZHUKOVSKY, Russia — Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi showed off its new Fool’s Mate unflying fighter aircraft during the MAKS 2021 airshow, presenting it as a fifth-generation fighter.
A spokesman for Bostick, which owns Sukhoi parent company United Aircraft Optimistic Press Releases Corporation, told Hush-Kit that the firm is “targeting potential sales in countries that the US declares to be of the wrong religion for the F-35.“
The current Block 4 upgrade for the F-35 can be operated by two out of the three Abrahamic religions. Only by Block 6, slated for 2034, will it have the teleological software offering compatibility with nations of Religious Operating Systems developed after the 1st Century A.D. Meanwhile, Dassault boast that their Rafale is compatible with both pre- and post Abrahamic faiths.
Critics of the Fool’s Mate have noticed that its software will not work within a Jehovah’s Witness’ operating system.
Green bucks for Green fucks
Major jet propulsion companies are exploring new green technologies. Explaining their part in this effort, Prat-Royce’s Head of Unshitting Keith Keithaway, noted: “To put this into context – if you wanted someone to create a dogshit-free park you would naturally go to the dog owner whose dogs had been shitting in the park for sixty years. Or to put it another way, if you wanted the solution to noses broken by gangsters you would naturally want to pay the gangster generously to re-train as a surgeon. I for one would love to have rhinoplasty from Al Capone.” Boning’s Head of Internet Quotes Bambrage Aloysius opined, “As we have massively profited from a climate changing industry it is only right, that as a responsible company, we should profit from the creation of less damaging technologies in some far away future..”
Vince Besmislica entered journalism as way to show off he knew about different planes and tanks. He has got into airshows for free for the last twelve years.
Russia has probably won the proxy war in Syria, partly due to its use of air power. Compared to the Western approach, Russia’s use of military aircraft has been low-tech, relying largely on older airframes, such as the Su-25 and Su-24, using unguided bombs. Despite some successes, many aspects, especially its aircraft carrier capabilities, proved underwhelming. In the second part of Guy Plopsky’s analysis of Russian air power for Hush-Kit we take a detailed look at Russia’s bloody Syria campaign.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Russian Air Power* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) with Guy Plopsky: Part 2 – Russian Air Power in Syria
What has been the most active Russian combat aircraft in Syria?
In terms of number of combat sorties flown, the two most active Russian combat aircraft earlier on in the conflict appear to have been the Su-24M and Su-25SM. For nearly the first two years of Russian air operations, the Su-24M (including the M2 version) was the most numerous type of combat aircraft deployed to Syria, and it was heavily used. In March 2017, Interfax news agency, citing a video clip shared by Russia’s then-Deputy Prime Minister, reported that Su-24Ms accounted for “over half” of all combat sorties flown since air operations began some 1.5 years prior. While this figure was never officially confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry, Su-24Ms nevertheless likely flew more combat sorties than any other Russian aircraft during this time period. Even after the first two years and up until at least the end of 2018, the Su-24M remained deployed in Syria in greater numbers than most/any other type of Russian combat aircraft, and likely continues to account for a large percentage (if not the largest percentage) of total Russian combat sorties flown since the beginning of air operations.
Su-25SMs were also among the most numerous Russian combat aircraft initially deployed, and they, too, saw active use in Syria. According to the Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer (Military-Industrial Courier), Su-25s (predominantly the SM version) accounted for approximately 3,500 of the “over 9,000” combat sorties flown by Russian aircraft during the first five and a half month of air operations (that is, until the March 2016 drawdown). It should be noted that the “over 9,000” figure, which was announced by Russia’s Defense Minister in March 2016, may not be accurate because a month earlier the then-head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces (VKS) stated that “over 11,700” combat sorties had been flown. Either way, 3,500 combat sorties is a very sizable portion. The Su-25SM has often been praised by Russian analysts and media for requiring a relatively short pre-flight preparation time and turnaround time, which contributed to its achievement of high daily sortie rates when necessary. Consequently, though all Su-25SMs were reportedly withdrawn from Syria during the March 2016 drawdown and were subsequently deployed again in smaller numbers only in early 2017 (or possibly earlier), they likely still accounted for a sizeable portion of the total combat sorties flown by Russian aircraft during approximately the first two years of air operations. Indeed, while the percentage of total combat sorties flown by Su-25SMs during this time period is not known, in late August 2017 the deputy chief of the Russian General Staff stated that Su-24Ms and Su-25SMs had performed “50 percent of the main tasks for the aerial destruction of enemy objects” in Syria.
Another Russian combat aircraft that saw active use in Syria is the Su-34. Initially, only a small number of Su-34s were deployed to Syria; however, in late 2015 their number was increased. Su-34s are also known to have flown sorties against targets in Syria from Krymsk Air Base in southern Russia and Hamadan Air Base in northern Iran in November 2015 and August 2016, respectively. While some of the Su-34s in Syria returned to Russia as part of the March 2016 drawdown, satellite imagery shows that by late 2017 the number of Su-34s deployed in the country had greatly increased, exceeding that of any other Russian combat aircraft in Syria at the time. Satellite imagery also suggests that the Su-34 was one of the most numerous types of Russian combat aircraft deployed in Syria throughout much of 2018 (and quite possibly still is to this day). Given the numbers of Su-34s deployed in Syria at times and their active use, the Su-34 likely also accounts for a large percentage of the total combat sorties flown by Russian aircraft since the beginning of air operations.
How many aircraft are deployed in Syria and where are they based?
Initially, Russia deployed some 50 aircraft to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria’s Latakia Governorate. These included 12 Su-24M/M2s, 10 Su-25SMs, 4 Su-30SMs, 4 Su-34s, 2 Su-25UBs, 1 An-30, 1 Il-20, 12 Mi-24Ps and 4 Mi-8AMTShs. Since then, the size and composition of Russia’s air group in Syria has varied greatly. It has included fixed-wing combat aircraft such as the Su-27SM3, Su-35S and MiG-29SMT (9-19R), rotary-wing combat aircraft such as the Mi-35M, Mi-28N and Ka-52, and various other manned and unmanned assets (for example, the A-50U airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and Forpost unmanned aerial system (UAS). Several types of prototype/pre-production aircraft (systems) were also deployed to Syria for testing under real combat conditions (notably, the Su-57, Mi-28NM, and the Inokhodets UAS).
In the second half of 2018, Russia erected 18 aircraft shelters at Khmeimim. Nine helicopter shelters were also constructed at the base at a later date. Satellite images taken after late 2018 therefore reveal only some of the aircraft present at Khmeimim at the time they were taken. As a result, the approximate number of Russian aircraft currently deployed in Syria is not known. It’s quite possible that, as I mentioned earlier, the Su-24M and Su-34 have remained the two most numerous types of Russian combat aircraft deployed in the country throughout much (or all) of the time since late 2018. Apart from erecting aircraft shelters, Russia has conducted other infrastructure expansion work at Khmeimim. Notably, the western runway was upgraded to allow use of the air base by additional aircraft types, including the Tu-22M3. In late May 2021 the Russian Defense Ministry published footage showing three Tu-22M3 bombers arriving at the base for the first time to carry out training activities (and possibly also strike sorties). While Tu-22M3s previously flew strike sorties against targets in Syria, they did so only from Russia and from Hamadan Air Base in Iran. The Tu-22M3 deployment was followed by the deployment of an Il-38 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft and two MiG-31K strike aircraft to Khmeimim in late June. The latter is notable because it marks the first deployment of the MiG-31K to Syria (and abroad in general).
Apart from Khmeimim, which is Russia’s main operating base in Syria, the Russians have used al-Shayrat and T-4 air bases (both located in Homs Governorate) as “forward aerodromes” for rotary-wing aviation. Russian helicopters were reportedly first spotted in Shayrat in late 2015. At the end of March 2016, there were 12 rotary-wing aircraft visible at the base on satellite imagery published by IHS Jane’s. Among them were modern Mi-28N and Ka-52 attack helicopters. Satellite images suggest that Russian rotary-wing aviation continued to use the base until at least early 2017. As for T-4, which is located just over 60 km east of Shayrat, five Russian attack helicopters (likely Mi-24Ps) were reportedly forward deployed to the base in late 2015. Satellite imagery published by Stratfor shows that in mid-May 2016 there were four Mi-24Ps (or Mi-35Ms) and one Mi-8 present at the base. Notably, despite denial by the Russian Defense Ministry, these four Mi-24Ps (or Mi-35Ms) were destroyed on the ground when the base was shelled by IS forces that same month – their wreckage is visible in satellite imagery taken several days later (also published by Stratfor). More recently, Russian helicopters were also forward deployed to Qamishlo Airport near the Syrian town of Qamishli, which sits on the border with Turkey. Footage released by the Russian Defense Ministry in mid-November 2019 shows the arrival of two Mi-35Ms and one Mi-8AMTSh at the airport. Satellite imagery from March, May and June 2020 shows four helicopters at Qamishlo (2 Mi-35Ms and 2 Mi-8AMTShs).
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The only manned Russian fixed-wing combat aircraft that is known to have been deployed at an air base inside Syria other than Khmeimim is the Su-25SM. Satellite imagery from early May 2019 shows a pair of Su-25SMs forward deployed at T-4 Air Base along with two helicopters (a Mi-35M and a Mi-8), while satellite imagery from later that month published by CSIS shows two more Su-25SMs (i.e. a total of four) parked on the ramp nearby the two aforementioned helicopters. As for unmanned fixed-wing aircraft, T-4 is also known to have hosted a Russian unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV); recently declassified footage from Syria, which was first aired on the state-owned “Russia 1” TV channel earlier this year, briefly shows an armed UCAV (part of the Inokhodets UAS) taking-off from the base at an unspecified date. Given that strikes using the Inokhodets UAS were conducted in Syria for the first time in 2019, this brief footage was filmed either that year or more recently.
What are the roles of Russian aircraft in Syria?
Russian aircraft have carried out a wide range of tasks/missions in Syria. These have included: airlift (equipment, supplies and personnel); intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition (including, for example, the use of UAVs for bomb damage assessment (BDA) and artillery spotting); patrol and escort (using fighters and attack helicopters); combat search and rescue (CSAR); close air support (CAS); strategic attack (for example, against IS oil infrastructure and transport targets); and air interdiction. With regard to the latter, some interdiction missions have involved the use of fixed/rotary-wing combat aircraft to “free hunt” for IS and various opposition forces in assigned areas. Similarly, some strategic attack missions involved the use of combat aircraft to free hunt for IS tanker trucks.
What has been the greatest achievement of Russian air power in Syria?
Despite its many limitations, Russian air power was instrumental in enabling pro-Assad forces to regain control over large parts of Syria. Forces loyal to Assad often proved poorly trained, disciplined and/or motivated, necessitating the embedding of Russian military advisors and the use of some Russian ground forces (many Russian private military contractors were also deployed); nevertheless, Russian air power proved sufficiently effective to prevent the need for a large contingent of Russian ground forces in Syria. While the effectiveness of Russian air operations very early on was limited, already in November 2015 Russia was able to achieve a marked improvement in the effectiveness of air operations by applying experience acquired under real combat conditions and by making increased use of more modern capabilities.
What have been the greatest failures?
The brief participation of Russian carrier aviation in air operations over Syria has widely been regarded as a failure. While the then-commander of the Russian force grouping in Syria boasted that aircraft from the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier group flew a total of approximately 1,170 sorties over a period of about two month (November 2016 – January 2017), only 420 of those were combat sorties – an average of just 7-8 combat sorties per day – and only 117 of the combat sorties were flown at night (an average of just 2 per day). Moreover, in January 2017, U.S. officials told Fox News that during this two month period only 154 sorties were flown from the Kuznetsov’s deck (the others being flown from land), though it is unclear if they were referring only to sorties flown by the carrier group’s fighter aircraft or also to those flown by its helicopters. In any case, it indeed appears that the carrier group’s fighters flew most of their sorties out of Khmeimim Air Base rather than from the Kuznetsov heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser. Satellite imagery from mid-November 2016 published by IHS Jane’s shows eight (i.e. almost all) of the carrier group’s Su-33s parked at the air base. One of the carrier group’s MiG-29KR fighters was also present at Khmeimim at the time the imagery was taken.
The decision to transfer most of the carrier group’s fighter aircraft to Khmeimim was likely prompted at least in part by apparent issues with the Kuznetsov’s arrestor gear. Indeed, early the following month one of Kuznetsov’s Su-33 fighters fell off the deck after an arrestor cable snapped during landing. This was the second non-combat loss of an aircraft suffered by the carrier group during its deployment. The first non-combat loss took place in mid-November and involved a MiG-29KR, though the circumstances of that crash are less clear as there are contradicting reports and theories as to what happened. The non-combat loss of two carrier-based fighters over a period of just two month is a major failure considering that the Kuznetsov’s entire fighter complement for this deployment numbered less than 15 aircraft.
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As for the contribution of carrier aviation to Russian air operations over Syria, in early January 2017 the then-commander of the Russian force grouping in Syria claimed that “1252 terrorist targets were struck” by the carrier group’s aircraft. However, the effectiveness and capabilities of Russia’s carrier aviation have been heavily criticized, even in Russia. Well-respected Russian military analyst Anton Lavrov, for example, called the participation of the Kuznetsov carrier group’s aircraft a “complete failure,” correctly pointing out that “deck aviation radically lacked capabilities when compared to ground-based aviation.” According to his assessment, Russian carrier aviation “failed to produce a noticeable effect on the battlefield.”
One of Russia’s other notable failures is the continued inability to field a robust unmanned strike capability. While the Syrian conflict has seen Russian forces employ UASs on an unprecedented scale, it was not, as noted earlier, until 2019 that UCAV strikes were first carried out in the country as part of tests of the Inokhodets UAS. Consequently, only a small number of unmanned strike sorties have been flown so far, with Russia having yet to employ armed UASs in Syria more widely. Indeed, with the exception of several types of loitering munition systems (which have also seen limited use), all other Russian UASs being employed in Syria are unarmed. The lack of an organic strike capability means that a target acquired by a UAS must then be prosecuted either by artillery, a manned aircraft or a different shooter, increasing the time necessary to complete the kill chain. This can complicate the effective conduct of dynamic targeting against time-sensitive targets.
Guy Plopsky is the author of a number of articles on air power and Russian military affairs. He holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University Taiwan.
On December 17, 1965, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson met with his advisers in the White House. Johnson wanted to halt the air campaign over Southeast Asia in order to give diplomats a chance to work out some kind of peace agreement that might end the war.
Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara warned Johnson that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would oppose de-escalation. Johnson was insistent. “Try to sell our enemies [the idea] that we want peace,” he said. “We owe this to the American people. We can’t do this if we are dropping bombs on the enemy.”
The bombing pause began on December 24, 1965 and lasted until January 30, 1966. The military halted raids by manned aircraft, but continued to send reconnaissance aircraft, including Lightning Bug drones, north into enemy territory.
The drones flew into a solid wall of enemy fire. Twenty-four missions resulted in the loss of 16 Model 147s, 10 of them new G-models. “Without the confusion of an accompanying air strike, the unmanned Ryan birds became very vulnerable north of the demilitarized zone and so the attrition rate went up sharply,” historian Bill Wagner explained.
In a panic, SAC pleaded with Ryan Aeronautical to develop a decoy drone to fly along with the camera-equipped Lightning Bugs in order to draw away missiles and gunfire. Ryan Aeronautical said it could do it, no problem. The requirement was so urgent that the Air Force waived all normal acquisitions rules.
Ryan Aeronautical employee Dale Weaver paired up with Maj. Harold Smith, an Air Force maintenance officer at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, where much of the Lightning Bug development took place.
For two weeks in early 1966 Weaver and Smith scoured Air Force depots for equipment. They located 10 early-model Lightning Bugs and, enlisting airmen for “free” labour and over a period of ten days installed on the drones traveling wave tubes that boosted their radar signatures.
These Model 147N decoys arrived at Bien Hoa in March 1966. “The theory was to launch one of the high-altitude G or other operational birds almost simultaneously with an N decoy,” Ryan Aeronautical’s Bob Reichardt explained. “They would be programmed to fly parallel for a while and then diverge as they approached the target area.”
“They would be programmed to fly parallel for a while and then diverge as they approached the target area,” Reichardt added. “The split pattern would confuse the enemy’s ground radars, by giving them a choice of two birds at which to fire.”
The Lightning Bug team didn’t expect the Model 147Ns to return from their missions. There were no plans to recover them, so Ryan Aeronautical replaced the drones’ parachutes with sandbags. This resulted in a few farces on those rare missions where the decoy drones managed to avoid enemy fire. The decoys returned to Da Nang and circled until their fuel ran out.
But on most missions, the Model 147Ns did what Ryan Aeronautical designed them to do. They flew high, broadcasting a huge radar signature and drew fire from North Vietnamese air-defenders.
The Model 147Ns also managed to “shoot down” five North Vietnamese fighters, albeit indirectly, when the fighters ran out of fuel chasing the decoys. A North Vietnamese SAM battery accidentally shot down one MiG that was in hot pursuit of a drone. A MiG in similar fashion inadvertently shot down a second MiG that was tailing a Model 147N.
The 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing expended all the Model 147Ns in the course of nine missions between March and June 1966. Strategic Air Command in August 1966 placed an order for 10 more decoys. The command hoped the new decoys might draw fire from its lumbering B-52s.
Ryan Aeronautical modified another batch of older Model 147s into Model 174NXs, this time adding a recovery parachute plus a simple camera with six-foot resolution. The camera on the recce Model 147s shot at a resolution of one foot.
That way, if a decoy did manage to survive its mission, it also could feed some film to the processing lab in Saigon. Who knew what kind of intelligence the Air Force might derive from it. “Trucks and things like that could be identified,” Wagner noted.
SAC headquarters wanted more low-altitude drones, but Ryan Aeronautical drone manager Bob Schwanhausser pushed back. “I didn’t think it was a very good idea,” he explained, citing the Model 147C’s abortive career. But SAC insisted. The command gave Ryan Aeronautical one day to draw up a proposal and one month to produce the first airframe.
Ryan Aeronautical decided to base the new, low-flying drone on the high-altitude Model 147G it already was producing. The first Model 147J was ready for testing in January 1966.
Aerodynamically, the J was a dog. Its big wing, a feature the J-model inherited from the G-model on which it was based, was more efficient at altitude.
One test flight over California on Jan. 3, 1966 nearly ended in disaster when the drone sharply pitched up shortly after launch and collided with the DC-130 mothership. The collision demolished the drone and knocked the propellers off the DC-130’s number-four engine.
The first three J-models all suffered catastrophic failures during trials. The fourth J worked as designed, however. It flew seven successful test flights before Ryan Aeronautical shipped it to Bien Hoa for operational missions.
Model 147J-4 flew five good missions in three months starting in March 1966.
In ramping up low-level flights with the Lightning Bugs, the team at Bien Hoa discovered a flaw in the drone’s systems, one that wasn’t evident or even problematic on high-level flights. Many of the low-level Lightning Bugs launched perfectly, successfully avoided getting shot up and even recovered without incident. But their missions still were failures.
Because, it turned out, they flew a course that was just a few miles to the left or right of a track that would bring them over the target. At high altitude, a few miles didn’t make any difference to a camera whose side-to-side field of view might be a hundred miles or more.
But at low altitude, the camera might see just a mile across. If the drone’s flight path deviated by a few miles, it might result in the vehicle photographing … nothing of interest. Trees. Villages. Rice paddies.
The problem actually started with the C-130 launch plane. The mothership’s Doppler radar as being accurate only to a few miles, meaning it was entirely possible the C-130 would be a few miles off-course when it launched its Lightning Bugs.
Meanwhile the drones’ own navigation systems were accurate only to around three percent of the distance the aircraft traveled from the launch point. After a few hundred miles, a Lightning Bug might be as far as 12 miles off-course. In that case, its film probably captured nothing useful.
Fewer than of the low-level missions succeeded in capturing imagery of their intended targets.
The navigation inaccuracy was a fixture of the J-model low-level drones. But the J-models also helped to introduce major advancements in drone operations.
The Model 147J boasted two cameras instead of the one on earlier Lightning Bugs. Where older drones had just the front-to-back scanning camera, the J also featured a side-to-side camera.
The arrangement resulted in some remarkable photographs. On one mission, Model 147J-14 snapped a photo of a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile barely missing the drone. The J’s low-level photos of ships in Haiphong Harbor were “unbelievable,” according to one Ryan Aeronautical employee.
The J’s excellent photography was no accident. It was the first Lightning Bug to carry two cameras. The standard, downward-looking Hycon HR233 camera with its 24-inch focal length plus a Fairchild KA-60 for side-to-side scans that captured the ground beneath the drone from horizon to horizon.
The KA-60 like all contemporary panoramic cameras was an engineering marvel. It managed to produce reasonably high-resolution, wide-angle photos with a lens that wasn’t wide. To accomplish this, Fairchild added a cylindrical prism in front of the lens. The prism rotated, compensating for the drone’s forward movement as the camera peered from side to side.
Granted, with its three-inch focal length and 4.5-by-9.4-inch format, the KA-60 was a lower-fidelity camera than the Hycon Model 233 was. But in photographing from horizon to horizon, it mitigated the navigational drift that plagued all low-level Lightning Bug missions.
Another advancement that coincided with the Model 147J’s arrival in South Vietnam resulted in a profound overall improvement in the Lightning Bugs’ usefulness.
On four of the initial Model 147J missions in the spring of 1966, the Air Force recovered the drone by way of its new “mid-air retrieval system,” or MARS.
MARS entailed a cargo plane or helicopter trailing a long hook to snag a payload while it was descending toward Earth under a parachute. The Air Force first deployed MARS, on the C-119 cargo plane, during tests of early Q-2 target drones in 1955. Starting in 1959, the National Reconnaissance Office borrowed the method, equipping C-119s and C-130s to snatch film capsules from the earliest Corona spy satellites. The U.S. Army tinkered with a similar concept, but using helicopters instead of cargo planes. But by 1965 the Army programme was idle for a lack of funding. A Ryan Aeronautical employee named Fred Yochim heard a rumour about the Army effort and tracked down the captain who had flown the test-recoveries for the ground-combat branch at a base in New Mexico.
The captain happily handed over his records and equipment. Yochim showed it to the Air Force. “We got the programme up and going,” Yochim recalled.
Modified for helicopters and drones, MARS worked like this. The drone deployed its recovery parachute at 15,000 feet over the recovery zone. The main ‘chute trailed a smaller ‘chute. For the MARS crew, the latter was the target.
Flying 3,000 feet below the drone as it popped its main ‘chute, the helicopter crew angled toward the secondary ‘chute, aiming to snag that ‘chute’s line with the grappling hook extending aft from the ‘copter’s belly.
After the helicopter grabbed the line, a mechanism on the main ‘chute collapsed the larger canopy. Now the drone was hanging more or less free from the helicopter. The ‘copter crew reeled in the drone until it trailed just 15 feet or so from the rotorcraft. The crew then flew the drone back to base and gently deposited it on the tarmac.
MARS radically improved the Lightning Bug programme’s mission success rate. Where before there was a roughly even chance of a recovery failing or at least damaging the film — to say nothing of endangering the soldiers whose job it was to retrieve landed drones — with MARS missions that didn’t result in a shoot-down or a crash almost always ended in a successful recovery.
Between 1966 and the end of the Vietnam War, Army helicopters attempted 2,745 mid-air drone recoveries and completed 2,655 of them. A 96.7-percent success rate.
––– David Axe
The above article is an excerpt from Drone War Vietnam by David Axe