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“The operating costs of the F-35 are high because they are designed to be” interview with Dan Grazier from the Project On Government Oversight

Dan Grazier is a US Marine Corps veteran, journalist and is now part of the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan independent watchdog that investigates and exposes waste. We grilled him on the real cost of the F-35, what went wrong and what can be learnt for future military aircraft projects.

What is the real price of a F-35A/B/C? How does it differ from quoted prices and why does it?

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes off from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) during a U.S. Air Forces Central (AFCENT) Agile Combat Employment (ACE) event, March 1. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patrick Crosley)

“The real costs of all the F-35 variants can be found in the service’s budget documents, all of which are available online. The F-35A cost $110.3 million per aircraft in 2020, the F-35B $135.8 million, and the F-35C $117.3 million. These costs differ significantly from the advertised prices. The difference is that all the costs necessary to build each aircraft are spread across multiple budget years. The services budget for advance procurement to purchase components in earlier years, but then claim that the money spent in the actual production year is the total cost which is definitely not the case. This is a deliberate public relations ploy to make the F-35 look better on paper and make it appear as though the program is meeting its cost goals.”

How are quoted cost manipulated?

“Besides the advance procurement budgetary trick, the Pentagon also fails to factor in all of the other costs that go into producing a functional aircraft for the rosy figures quoted so often in the press. They don’t mention the research and development costs that should be distributed across each aircraft purchased, the cost to construct the specialized facilities wherever F-35s are based, and now the costs to “modernize” the F-35. It’s important for everyone to understand that much of the work the program managers claim is to upgrade the F-35 now is really to complete design work that was supposed to be included in the original R&D effort but was deferred in an attempt to stay within their budget and schedule forecasts.

Why is the F-35’s price per flight hour so high?

“The operating costs are high because they are designed to be so. From the very beginning of the program, the F-35 was set up to operate as a “total system performance responsibility” enterprise which meant that the services were intentionally surrendering a great deal of control over the maintenance and operations of the weapon they were buying to the contractors. This incentivised the contractors to design the aircraft in such a way that only their personnel could perform many of the maintenance actions on the aircraft. It is nearly always more expensive to use contractor personnel to perform work for the government, which certainly drives up the cost-per-flight-hour. It also means that the government has only one source bidding for these contracts, so there is little incentive to lower costs.”

“The operating costs are high because they are designed to be so.” so, this is a deliberate thing, did Lockheed know from early on it would not be the ‘affordable’ aircraft promised?

“That is perhaps a better question for them to answer. What we do know is that the real money to be made in a program like this is in the long-term sustainment contracts. It makes perfect business sense for a company’s leaders to take all the steps possible to ensure they receive those contracts.”

Is the F-35 a worse-run programme than other combat aircraft? Which other projects stand out as being badly run?

“That’s a difficult question to answer and probably isn’t the right one to ask at this point. I actually sympathise with the people running the program today. In many ways, they are victims of circumstance. They inherited a deeply flawed program and are now trying to make the best of things. The problems we see today with the F-35 stem from a flawed concept. The total system performance responsibility scheme is an obvious example. The F-35 should put the nail in the coffin on the idea that you can design and build a multi-role aircraft. That really bad idea, and people knew it was a bad idea as they were scratching out concept for the F-35 in the 1990s, was then compounded by trying to build an aircraft that could meet the needs of three different services, and then compounded again by trying to meet the needs of 8 different partner nations. With that level of complexity built into the basic concept of the F-35, the cost increases and schedule delays were absolutely inevitable. The real villains of the F-35 saga aren’t the people in charge today. Rather it is the people who made the decisions two decades ago that the people today have to live with. Of course, that does not absolve the people today who compound those bad decisions by not providing honest assessments about the F-35 to Congress and the American people. There are still decisions to be made in the years ahead about the future of the program. Without the whole truth, more bad decisions will pile on top of those already made.”

Which other military aircraft programmes stand out as well or badly run?

Boeing Flight Test & Evaluation – Boeing Field – KC-46, VH004, EMD2, PDL, Pilot Director Lights test, boom deployed

“At the moment, the KC-46 is a definite standout. The Air Force set out to build a direct replacement for the existing aerial refuellers. They were essentially trying to reinvent the wheel, not produce a design with new capabilities. They even began with a proven airframe in the 767 and still managed to bungle the effort by trying to add futuristic solutions like the remote boom operator station when the existing setups in the KC-135 and KC-10 work perfectly well.”

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Some in the Air Force want a new lightweight fighter to replace the F-16, what are the key lessons that should inform such a projects should it happen?

“A new lightweight fighter should begin with the same design principles of the original lightweight fighter program from the 1960s. It should be designed for that specific mission. Every effort should be made to keep the design as simple as possible. The aircraft should be designed in such a way that all but depot-level maintenance can be performed by uniformed crews in the field. The government should not sign a contract for the aircraft that does not include the government obtaining all the data rights. If foreign countries want to purchase the final product, the modifications they want should be made to the aircraft after it goes into production for the Air Force.”

Is the US structurally unable to run a swift economical military aircraft project, if so why?

“I think the challenge is overcoming cultural issues rather than anything structural. The military and by extension the defense industry, have an overall go-along to get-along culture. No one gets promoted by being the person who stands up and says there is a major problem with a pet project of their service or in any way impedes the free-flow of money from the Treasury to the defense contractors via the Pentagon. The defense contractors want to sell products to the military that are going to make them a lot of money, not just at the time of delivery, but throughout the product’s lifespan. Many of the people in uniform want to take their retirement and then get an even bigger paycheck on top of that through a sinecure in the defense industry. They know that if they stand in the way of a project, no nice person wearing a suit is going to come calling when retirement time comes around.”

Dan Grazier
Jack Shanahan Military Fellow, Center for Defense Information
Straus Military Reform Project

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Opinions expressed are those of the interview subject and do not necessarily reflect those of

An F-35B Lightning II assigned to the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron taxis into position on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on 23 September, 2020. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “The Wake Island Avengers” joined the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters” onboard the 65,000-ton carrier as she sailed for exercises with NATO allies in the North Sea.

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F-20 versus Lavi: The Tigershark, the Young Lion and the Viper

This is a story about US foreign policy and its intersection with aerospace. The relevant period is the ‘80s, but the interweaving of US industrial, trade, defence and foreign policy settings can be observed essentially continuously from the Second World War to today. This interaction has a number of objectives, which might be expressed benignly as a desire to strengthen the military capability of the US and its Allies, or, less benignly, to ensure that foreign competitor systems are, as far as possible, contained, in order to protect the position of US Industry.

No doubt, some will disagree with this latter perspective, but others will note the very few co-development programmes which have led to advanced equipment sales into the US. Leaving the difficulties of collaboration on one side, the US has always adopted a quite hard-nosed approach to acquiring Defence equipment from third parties. The recent history of the KC-135 replacement program is a good example, where the outcome of the competition was overturned on appeal, and the contract awarded to the Boeing KC-46 rather than the Airbus MRTT, a lower risk product which is giving good service with many air arms while the USAF struggles to achieve operational capability with the KC-46.

While this may legitimately be perceived in the US as the acquisition process simply playing out, it could also be characterised as one of a number of instances of the US ‘running interference’ to protect its aerospace industry from competition. Another approach has been the offering of alternative solutions, either legitimately in the hope of winning business, or perhaps disingenuously as an attempt to disrupt a potential competitor. As a couple of examples, which might represent this sort of behaviour, I will offer the F-111K/TSR2 saga in the UK, and, as a delivered solution, the CF-101 Voodoo/BOMARC in place of the Avro Arrow.

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However, I am not going to focus on ‘running interference’ aspects here, but rather on the effects of differences of view within the US Government, and how changes in policy across Administrations, have affected two programs, the Northrop F-20 Tigershark and the Israeli Aircraft Industries Lavi (Young Lion).

This article provides a brief overview of the technical characteristics and programme histories of the Northrop F-20 Tigershark and the IAI Lavi, and also provides some comparative data for these aircraft and the contemporary General Dynamics F-16C, officially named the Fighting Falcon, but frequently referred to as the Viper. The F-16/79, a competitor for the F-20 Tigershark, is also briefly discussed. Through the stories of these aircraft, we shall see glimpses of the complex interaction between the US State Department, Department of Defense, and industry in their efforts to influence worldwide politics and Defence capabilities, while supporting US export sales and industry products.

The Tigershark

“..built at the administration’s suggestion as a so-called nonprovocative fighter, which meant one that was designed to be sold to friendly countries but designed to be vulnerable to our own state-of-the-art interceptors. Arming our friends was good business, but being able to shoot them down if they became our enemies was good strategy. To build this kind of airplane required the permission and cooperation of the administration, which could otherwise block such hardware sales.” –– Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos, Skunk Works

The key strand running behind the Tigershark story is the FX program. FX (Fighter eXport) was a result of a decision by the Carter Administration in 1977 that sales of US front-line equipment would be restricted to NATO allies, Australia and Japan. The intention was for the US to be seen as a force for peace in the world, rather than a promoter of conflict through the export of highly capable weapons of war. Part of the context for this decision would have been the decision by the preceding Ford Administration to sell F-14s to Iran and F-15s to Israel

While this noble aspiration to be a force for peace sounded good, there were a few immediately evident problems. The first of these was that many nations that fall loosely into a political category of West-leaning democracies felt threatened by peers and neighbours who were operating Soviet-built equipment. In order to support these nations it would be necessary to make available capable, but not absolutely top-end, aircraft that would be able to defend against exported Soviet systems, while not making use of the most sensitive US technologies. This was the driving objective behind the FX program. A secondary factor was that, in the absence of US aircraft being available for export, other countries were turning to alternatives, notably the Dassault Mirage 2000, and this was threatening to impact on US Industry.

As may be inferred from the short description above, the FX programme was really addressing State Department and industry objectives rather than US Defense Department needs, and as a result, the two departments had rather differing degrees of interest in the programme. Differences of emphasis between these Departments would later significantly affect FX programme outcomes.

The requirements for the FX programme were rather unusual. The aircraft to be supplied under the programme would have to meet the following requirements:
• Performance, cost & capabilities should be between those of the F-5E and F-16A
• Optimised for the air-to-air role, and with deliberately limited strike capabilities
• Payload/range performance had to be substantially inferior to that of contemporary fighters in the US inventory
• Deployment and maintenance had to be easier.
These requirements defined a second-class aircraft, with offensive (strike) roles limited, and emphasis given to air defence capability. In addition, the DoD took the view that such an aircraft was unlikely to be required by the USAF, and in consequence development of the aircraft would be the responsibility of the selected contractor, although the State Department and Department of Defense would assist with sales efforts.
This approach to the FX programme represented a considerable risk to Industry participants, who would have to carry much of the cost of developing and producing FX aircraft, and in the event, there were only two bidders, Northrop with the F-5G/F-20 Tigershark, and General Dynamics with the F-16/79.

F-5G/F-20 Tigershark technical characteristics

The F-5G was a development of the F-5E, originally intended for sale to the air force of Taiwan, intended as a higher-powered version of the F-5E, offering enhanced performance at a reasonable cost. The F-5G would be fitted with the GE-F404 engine in place of the 2 General Electric J85 engines of the F-5. The result of this engine change would be an additional 60% thrust in an airframe weighing only 17% more than the F-5E.

This aircraft would perhaps have been an attractive option for Taiwan, but for a change in US policy in regard to the People’s Republic of China. President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 had begun a process of rapprochement and dialogue, and in pursuing this, the State Department were made aware of Chinese concerns about US arms sale to Taiwan. As a result of these concerns, President Carter blocked the sale of the F-5G to Taiwan, which then developed its own light fighter, the AIDC Ching-Kuo.

In early 1981, there was a change in administration in the US, with Ronald Reagan replacing Jimmy Carter as US President. In consequence, the attitude of the US to Arms Control began to change, and additional exceptions to the ‘no export of advanced weapons’ policy began to occur. Israel had already been allowed to purchase both the F-15 and F-16; following the change in US administration, a number of additional nations were authorised to procure the F-16A, including Pakistan, Egypt, Venezuela, Greece, Turkey, and South Korea. Other export sales to the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Israel were allowed under the earlier Carter policy.

Taiwan had been the main focus of the F-5G development, but sales to that nation had been blocked. In an effort to make the aircraft attractive to a broader customer base, Northrop approached the USAF and sought approval to re-badge the aircraft as the F-20 Tigershark, while at the same time introducing avionics and sensor upgrades to make the aircraft more competitive with the F-16.

Compared to the Northrop F-5E Tiger II, the most significant design changes for the Tigershark were the avionics upgrade, and the use of a single General Electric F404 engine, which was originally designed for the F/A-18 Hornet. The new engine provided 60% more thrust than the combined output of the F-5E’s two General Electric J85s. This improved the aircraft’s thrust-to-weight ratio substantially, and enabled an increase in maximum Mach to 2.0, with a ceiling over 55,000 ft (16,800 m).

The wing was similar to the F-5E, but had modified leading edge extensions (LEX), which improved the maximum lift coefficient of the wing by about 12% with an increase in wing area of only 1.6% and also reduced pitch stability. A larger tailplane was fitted to improve manoeuvrability, along with a new fly-by-wire control system.
The F-20’s avionics suite was significantly enhanced, adopting the General Electric AN/APG-67 multi-mode radar as the principal sensor, offering a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-ground modes. A large number of weapons, including Sidewinder and Sparrow air-to-air missiles, could be integrated on the aircraft, which was also armed with 2 30 mm cannon. Cockpit instrumentation and layout was brought up to the then-current state of the art, with a head-up display supplemented by two flat screen multi-function displays.

The small size of the F-20 meant that payload range was somewhat limited compared to larger contemporary fighters. Comparative data on the Tigershark, Lavi , F-16/79 and F-16 C can be found towards the end of this article. The F-20 was fast, agile and hard to spot visually due to its small size, but was perhaps less well armed and equipped than some of its competitors, at least partially as a result of the constraints imposed by the Carter administration’s export policies. Nevertheless, there was some interest from Bahrain and Morocco, and also some interest from South Korea.

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F-16/79 technical characteristics

General Dynamics responded to the FX opportunity with a low-risk down-grading of the F-16A in which the Pratt & Whitney F100 engine of the F-16A was substituted by a General Electric J79. This represented a reduction in thrust of some 28%, and came along with other penalties, including additional fuel consumption and additional weight for heat shielding. The reduction in thrust could be alleviated for short periods through the use of a ‘Combat Plus’ power setting, giving a maximum thrust of 92.8 kN, compared to the maximum normal thrust of 80.1 kN, and the 112.2 kN of the F-16’s F100 engine.

The engine required somewhat less airflow than the F100, resulting in a limited redesign of the intake. The rear fuselage was increased slightly in length because the J79 was 0.45m longer than the F100, and a transfer gearbox was added to allow the J79 to drive the engine ancilliaries (generator, hydraulics etc) of the F-16 airframe that had previously been driven by the F100. Overall, the change in engine and the consequential other modifications to the airframe increased its empty weight by 817 kg.

Inevitably, with less thrust and higher weight, the performance of the F-16/79 was degraded compared to that of the F-16. Nevertheless, it was still sufficient to attract interest from a number of air arms, so long as they were excluded from acquiring the F-16, and the F-16/79 was demonstrated to at least 20 air arms.

Robert Kemp, San Diego Air and Space Museum

What went wrong?
The FX , and with it, the fate of the F-20 Tigershark and the F-16/79, was largely derailed by three factors. Firstly, the objectives of the FX were of more value to the State Department than the Defense Department. However, the State Department did not have the knowledge and expertise to run an aircraft development program, and the Defense Department had no intention itself of operating additional, somewhat second tier aircraft. As a consequence, the second problem became the lack of a US acquisition, resulting in an inability to use established Foreign Military Sales procedures to market the aircraft, and reluctance of third parties to procure an aircraft not in US service.

The third major difficulty was that the US administration had changed, and with Republican Ronald Reagan as President, the US significantly relaxed the Democrat Jimmy Carter’s arms control policies, leading to numerous countries being allowed to procure the F-16. As if this was not enough, in 1983, Congress approved funding for the Israeli Lavi program, placing another sophisticated and capable combat aircraft on the table as a potential competitor to the FX aircraft.

In the end, after six years, no sales, and the expenditure of more than $1.2 billion of its own funds, Northrop bowed to the inevitable and cancelled its Tigershark program in late 1986. In the course of the program, two of the three aircraft had been lost in fatal accidents. Both accidents occurred in air display conditions, a demonstration flight in South Korea and an air display practice in Canada, and both were attributed to g-loc – loss of consciousness under high g conditions.

The F-16/79 had, by comparison, been a less risky project for General Dynamics. A key factor for General Dynamics was that the potential lost sales of the F-16/79 were being filled with orders for its ‘full-strength’ product, the F-16 Viper, due to the relaxation of export policies by the Reagan administration. The F-16/79 program seems to have eventually been seen as a distraction by General Dynamics, and efforts to market the aircraft had essentially ceased by 1985. Once it became clear that the US would sell you an F-16, no air arm was really interested in its less-capable brother, the F-16/79. The program is reported to have cost General Dynamics a total of $60 million.

The Young Lion
The Young Lion in this story is, of course, the Israeli Aircraft Industries Lavi. The Israeli Defence Force in the 60s had been a major user of French aircraft, notably the Dassault Mirage III. However, International reactions following the Six-Day War of 1967 had led to Israeli relations with the French cooling, exemplified by a refusal by France to deliver Mirage 5 aircraft to Israel, and the Israeli development of its own advanced Mirage derivative, the Kfir or Lion Cub.
In parallel, Israel successfully positioned itself with the US as a bastion of Western democracy in the Middle East, its existence threatened by its Arab neighbours, particularly the (then) Soviet-backed Syria, Libya and Egypt. This general pitch has continued today, with the position of chief threat being transferred to Iran, and its nuclear weapons program, and the now Russian-backed Syria. This has led to an on-going close Defence relationship with the US, leading to the supply of Defence equipment, weapons and aircraft, backed by strong political lobbying of, and by, the US Congress.

As a need to replace the Kfir emerged, Israel was successful in obtaining the supply of US F-15 and F-16 fighters, while looking to develop advanced technical capabilities of its own. This was partly to avoid a dependency on others, partly to ensure the availability of capabilities uniquely tailored to its geographic environment, and its seemingly unending state of tension and conflict with its neighbours, and partly to complement the capabilities available through the F-15 and F-16.

Israel’s aerospace capabilities had advanced significantly through the Kfir program, through the development of upgrades to other aircraft like the F-4 Phantom, and through the development of its own weapons and other defence systems.

In these circumstances, the time seemed ripe to embark on an Israeli-developed aircraft project to provide a multi-role fighter capable of strike missions, advanced training, and air defence. The scope of the requirements for the aircraft gradually grew, from a relatively simple and low-cost strike platform with some air defence capability, to a multi-role aircraft whose capability would be similar to, and in some areas perhaps exceed, that of the General Dynamics (now Lockheed-Martin) F-16 Viper.

Lavi technical characteristics
The aircraft developed between project launch in 1980 and project cancellation in 1987 turned out to be quite remarkable in its ambition and in its application of the latest ideas in aerodynamics, flight control and weapons systems. The embodied capability was a mix of US-developed and Israeli in origin, with some capabilities initially developed in the US to be transferred to Israel during the course of the programme. The programme was part- funded by the US.

The fundamental leap in technology was the use of an unstable canard-delta configuration, enabled through the use of a digital fly-by-wire flight control system. In addition the structure made extensive use of composite materials. In making these choices, the Lavi adopted a similar approach to the BAe EAP which was broadly contemporary in timescale, the two aircraft making their first flights within a few months of each other in 1986.

The benefits of the use of an unstable canard-delta configuration are the ability to obtain a highly responsive and manoeuvrable airframe, while also being able to minimise supersonic wave drag and lift dependent-drag. Today, the outcomes of fully-developed aircraft with this design approach can be seen in the highly capable Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, although both these aircraft benefit from a higher degree of instability than the Lavi, and greater combat thrust to weight ratios.

Unlike the BAe EAP, which was a technology demonstrator, the Lavi was the prototype of what was intended to be a production weapons system with deliveries expected to begin in 1990. The aircraft was, to quote contemporary material (Janes All the World’s Aircraft 1986) “expected to become the workhorse of the of the Israeli Air Force, which has a requirement for at least 300, including about 60 combat-capable two-seat trainers”.

The requirement for the aircraft was focussed an interdiction and strike, with a secondary air defence role. With these requirements, the Lavi can be seen as complementary to the early F-16 and F-15 fighter aircraft which were in service with the IDF, filling a role close to that of later-model F-16s, which are widely used as strike platforms rather than interceptors. It was intended to replace the A-4 Skyhawk, F-4 Phantom and the Kfir in Israeli service.
The aircraft was powered by the Pratt & Whitney PW1120 engine with 92 kN (20680 lb) thrust. This engine was specifically developed for the Lavi, and offered about 10% less thrust than the F100 engine of the F-16C. Overall performance included a maximum speed of Mach 1.85, and the ability to carry a wide range of weapons.
Comparative performance data for the Lavi, Tigershark, F-16 and F-16/79 are presented after discussion of the aircraft programmes.

The equipment for the Lavi represented the state-of-the art of the time, and included:

• Carbon fibre wing and fin structure
• 4 underwing hardpoints
• Lear-Siegler/MBT quadruplex digital fly-by-wire flight control system
• Elta EW, ECM and IFF systems, computer-based with active and passive countermeasures
• Hughes holographic head up display and 3 multi-function displays, integrated by Elbit
• Lear-Siegler/MBT quadruplex digital fly-by-wire flight control system
• Elta pulse-Doppler radar
• Elbit mission computer and stores management system with Mil-Std 1553 databus
• 30-mm cannon plus Python 3 Air-to-Air missiles.

As a minor sidenote, the PW1120 engine was tested in an Israeli Phantom. IAI showed a developed version of the Phantom at the Paris Air Show in 1987, complete with PW1120 engines, and an advanced avionic suite and cockpit displays. With a thrust increase of 17% over the F-4E, the modified Phantom could supercruise (maintain supersonic flight in dry thrust) and had a combat thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1.0. The potential of this project was not to come to fruition, however, as McDonnell-Douglas refused to sanction the modifications due to its performance being too close to that of the F-18.

Credit: Burkhard Domke

A teething lion cub
The Lavi programme was launched in February 1980, with full-scale development beginning in October 1982. Due to the technologies involved, and the selected propulsion system, there was considerable US industry involvement in the programme, with the involvement of at least 80 Companies. In some ways, the Israeli engagement with the US was the boldest and most innovative aspect of the program. In essence, Israel was launching a cutting-edge fighter program with neither the money nor the technology to do so. Both would be sought from the US.

Quite early in the programme, a problem emerged over the issue of licences to transfer critical US technologies for the Lavi project to Israel, and in the Spring of 1983, this led to a concerted lobbying effort to persuade Congress to provide funding to Israel through the foreign aid program and FMS credits to enable the development of the Lavi. This lobbying activity did not involve the Department of Defense, who had concerns about both the transfer of technology to Israel and the use of FMS funds to support overseas programs. In parallel with a separate effort to get the necessary technology transfer licenses agreed, the lobbying of Congress was successful, and significant US funding became available to the Lavi program.
Between 1983 and its cancellation in 1987, a total of about $2Bn is reported to have been provided by the US to fund the Lavi programme, the bulk of which was spent in Israel. During the development programme, increasing doubts began to be voiced in the US, focused on a number of issues:

• A perception by the DoD that support to Lavi was a mis-use of FMS funding, which was seen as intended to support US Industry;
• A perception by the DoD that advanced and sensitive technologies would be transferred from the US to Israel;
• A perception by the State Department that the programme was absorbing too much of the foreign aid budget, and moreover was seen by many as evidence of a US bias toward Israel in the Middle East;
• A perception that the programme was incompatible with the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction Act;
• A perception by Northrop that the US was unfairly subsidising an Israeli product that would compete with the F-20 Tigershark;
• Similar perceptions by McDonnell-Douglas and General Dynamics in regard of Lavi competing for the export markets of the F/A-18 and F-16; and finally
• A perception by the GAO (General Accounting Office) and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) that Israeli costings were unrealistic, and that the US would have to pay yet more to co-fund the production of the aircraft.
As a result of these concerns, the US withdrew funding from the programme, resulting in its cancellation by Israel in August 1987.

Through the Lavi programme, Israel succeeded in using largely US money and US technology to construct prototypes of a very advanced aircraft, which might have become a very effective weapons system. In addition, Israel gained insights on numerous advanced US technologies and manufacturing capabilities.

As an immediate consequence of the cancellation of Lavi, Israel was able to procure 40 F-16C Block 30, and 30 F-16D Block 40. In 1994 these purchases were followed by the F-15I, a version of the F-15E Strike Eagle. Procurement of advanced US aircraft has continued, including more than 100 F-16I, a version of the F-16C Block 52 in which much of the avionics suite is provided by Israel. With the release of all this defence capability to Israel, the Lavi programme was perhaps more successful in its failure than it would have been had it succeeded in developing a production aircraft.

How do the Lavi, the Tigershark, the F-16/79 and the F-16C stack up?

Comparison between aircraft using published performance data is often extremely difficult. Partly due to the limited data generally provided, and partly due to understandable inconsistencies, as the data is normally presented so as to show the product in the best light. For example, while the Maximum Mach number achievable will be a definite number, defined either by the drag of the airframe and the thrust available from the engine, nozzle and intake system, or by some structural or temperature limit, manufacturers are likely to present this figure at light weight, and with no external stores or fuel tanks. Similarly, range is likely to be presented for an aircraft with maximum fuel, possibly including oversized external ferry tanks, and in a clean configuration. No standard definition appears to exist of a combat configuration which might be used as a comparator

While one does sometimes see 50% internal fuel plus two AAM used, for example, detailed examination sometimes shows that the AAM are only short-range, or the gun ammunition, or the pilot or both have been omitted. Even were a standard combat weight to be defined, and data available, many other aspects of performance, such as radar range, signature, weapons capability and so on simply cannot be encapsulated in a few numbers. Inevitable, what follows is a simple snapshot, rather than a valuable comparison.

A further complication with these aircraft is that the F-20 and F-16/79 had deliberately limited strike performance, whereas the Lavi was intended to maximise strike performance, with a secondary air defence role. For the F-16, the original Light Fighter concept has developed over time from the lightweight air defence fighter of the F-16A, to the multi-role, versatile, and much heavier F-16C Block 50. Comparison of true multi-role aircraft would need to include consideration of mission performance as well, and would be well beyond the scope that can be achieved in unclassified material.

Lavi Tigershark F-16/79 F-16C Performance Wing Loading (Wref/S) 294.6 429.0 390.8 409.0 ITR

Performance Wing Loading (Wref/S)
(lower loading aids instantaneous turn rate)
294.6429.0 390.8409.0
Aspect Ratio (Span2/S) (higher number aids subsonic sustained turn rate) 2.33 3.55 3.03.00
Thrust/Weight (higher number aids Energy Manoeuvrability)0.960.990.87 1.16
Fuel Fraction (higher number aids combat peristence)0.28 0.280.29 0.28
ConfigurationUnstable canard-deltaConventional aft-tail, small strakeRelaxed stability, aft-tail, large strakeRelaxed stability, aft-tail, large strake

The data in this table is relatively firm. The reference weight is the empty weight of the aircraft, plus the maximum internal fuel weight. The same approach is used for all aircraft. As we have seen, the maximum turn rate depends on the lift available from the wing or structural limit (ITR), and the wing aspect ratio, lift, airframe drag and engine thrust (STR). A low wing loading, a high aspect ratio, and high thrust to weight ratio will increase sustained turn performance. A high Clmax will increase ITR, as will a reduced stability or unstable configuration.

On this basis, we might expect the unstable Lavi, with its much lower wing loading and unstable aerodynamics to have great ITR, while the Tigershark ITR would be reduced compared to the Lavi and the F-16. Both the F-16 and the Tigershark benefit from wing leading edge strakes, and, notably, all aircraft claim to be able to operate up to a 9g structural limit. The real issue here is for how much of the flight envelope is this capability available, and how much energy will be lost in such a manoeuvre.

1984 F-16 lineup. From the top F-16C , F-16A , F-16XL , F-16/79 and AFTI/F-16

On sustained turn rate, the trade-offs are more complex, but it is apparent that the F-16/79 is likely to be handicapped by its lower thrust to weight ratio. Note that the thrust used is a short-term power plus mode. At normal thrust, the F-16/79 has a thrust to weight ratio of around 0.75. The low aspect ratio of the Lavi, and its slightly lower thrust-to-weight ratio are likely to reduce STR, but the much lower wing loading will counter this to some extent.
Thrust to weight ratio is particularly important, as a high thrust to weight ratio will enable high energy manoeuvrability. This will allow a turning fight to be readily taken into the vertical, and, in BVR combat will allow rapid cycling between engagement, missile release, disengagement, acceleration and re-engagement. Of these four aircraft, the F-16C has a definite advantage in energy manoeuvrability, and the F-16/79 will be at a disadvantage.
The Table below presents some limited data for the four aircraft. The data reflect what could be gleaned from the web, and is not fully defined, in that aircraft configuration, altitude and Mach number are not generally available to fully define the quoted figures. As all aircraft claim to be capable of generating 9g, the small variation in ITR figures probably reflects differing altitude or speed conditions, although the higher value for the Lavi may reflect both its low wing loading and its unstable aerodynamics. The ITR for the F-16/79 is based on the assumption that the aircraft can reach the same CLmax, and has the same structural limits as the F-16. The F-16/79 would lose energy much faster than the F-16 due to its much lower thrust.

LaviTigershark F-16/79F-16C
Mach max 1.852.002.002.00
ITR max deg/s 24.3 20(24.9)24.9
STR max deg/s13.211.5 11.822.0

Maximum Mach number claimed for the F-20 and the F-16 is Mach 2.0, and this was also reported to be achievable in the F-16/79, which seems slightly surprising, but may be a result of better intake performance. The maximum Mach claimed for the Lavi is Mach 1.85.

It is notable that the higher thrust to weight ratio of the F-16C gives a significant benefit in Sustained Turn Rate – the figure noted comes from a dataset that suggests the F-16 is structurally limited in STR as well as ITR. The slightly higher ITR figure is at a lower speed, where the aircraft is lift-limited rather than g-limited. The impact of the low thrust of the F-16/79 is evident in comparison of its sustained turn performance with the F-16, and the F-20 Tigershark achieves similar STR, the higher thrust to weight ratio somewhat offsetting its higher wing loading. It should not be forgotten that the Lavi was really well ahead of its time in aerodynamics, control system and mission system design. Its nearest equivalent would probably be the Gripen, which made its first flight in December 1988, some 2 years after the Lavi.

In WVR combat, for example when used in dissimilar air combat training, the Tigershark might well have been a real handful because of its small size and relatively good thrust to weight ratio. Otherwise, the Lavi configuration should have high subsonic agility (through its good ITR), but would perhaps be susceptible to losing energy in turning combat. It should have low supersonic wave drag and could perhaps have developed into a good BVR platform.
From this analysis, we can see that both the Lavi and the Tigershark were very effective designs in terms of achieving their desired performance characteristics. The Lavi had great potential as a multi-role platform, and would have been effective against the threat aircraft of the time. The Tigershark was a small, fast and manoeuvrable light fighter, but was deliberately limited in strike capability.

Neither the Lavi, nor the Tigershark would have been able to match an air-combat-configured Viper, but the Lavi might have been a pretty close match in the strike role, and was certainly a big step forward from the Skyhawk and Phantom it was intended to replace. The F-16/79 was broadly comparable to the Tigershark, but only when able to access its short-term ‘Combat Plus’ engine mode. At the normal thrust setting which offered a maximum thrust of 80.1 kN compared to the short-term setting of 92.8 kN, it would simply not have been competitive.

Policy Considerations
In thinking about the sorry tale of the Tigershark, the Young Lion and the Viper, it is important to realise that, in the period concerned, there were five major players involved, each with somewhat different objectives.
The State Department seem to have had a fairly consistent view that armed conflict between nations was undesirable, and should be avoided. To ensure this, it seemed reasonable that ‘friendly’ Nations (I use the term loosely in view of a number of US misjudgements in this regard) should be enabled to protect themselves, but only to a level which would deter their competitors, and not to a degree which would encourage aggression. This was also desirable from a domestic economic perspective. Business would be generated for US industry, and nations would be able to deter aggression without involving US armed forces. Israel might have to be a special case given its difficult relationship with pretty much all of its neighbours, and the fact that some of those neighbours were receiving support from the USSR (or Russia in contemporary times).

The Defence Department was generally OK with the desirability of not getting dragged into other people’s conflicts, but had reservations about developing aircraft which were only going to be of interest to third parties. It had particular concerns about the potential for the transfer of sensitive technology overseas and the possible use of export fighters in aggressive rather than defensive operations. As the DoD and the Services had no intention of ordering any of these aircraft for USAF use, there was tension between DoD and State, because this would decrease the likelihood of orders. Finally, DoD was opposed to the use of FMS (foreign military sales) funding to develop the Lavi programme, as the funding would largely be spent in Israel rather than in the US. However, participation in Lavi was pushed through Congress, quite deliberately by-passing the DoD.

Industry found itself in a somewhat awkward position. Of course, any programme is a good programme if it maintains employment and a high-quality knowledge base in the US. In some ways, FX was an attractive programme, a bit like Marshall Aid following WW2, where US Sabres (and some other aircraft) were provided under FMS to pretty much every European air force. Good business for US industry, and an equally good means of slowing the development of European competitors.

However, there was much more risk in the FX programme, as the USAF would not operate the product. General Dynamics were OK – they could afford an each-way bet. Development of the F-16/79 was very low risk, and who knows, someone might buy it. Northrop were, however, much more exposed. The F-20 was a much bigger departure from the F-5E than the F-16/79 from the F-16. Much more risk was involved, and a much greater degree of systems development and integration was needed. Then along came ‘exceptionalism’, with many overseas F-16 sales, and to cap it all the Lavi project. Not only as a direct competitor, but as a source of technology improvements for a Super-Phantom which might also win sales. To cap it all, the programme was being lavishly funded using resources intended for US Industry.

What about the Politics? Well, Jimmy Carter’s policy of seeking to minimise conflict by providing friendly Nations carefully controlled capabilities to deter aggressors, while limiting their own ability to take aggressive action themselves, seemed like a good idea at the time. Particularly since there was a prospect of business for US Industry as well. And it might have proven to be a good idea, had the US been able to resist the opportunity to indulge in ‘exceptionalism’ – rewarding some Nations for perceived good behaviour, or exceptional need by provided them the advanced capabilities anyway. Under the Reagan Administration, the export controls were gradually wound back. Pakistan, Egypt, Venezuela, South Korea, Turkey and Greece could all buy F-16s, and Israel could buy the F-15C. And Israel could have US funding to support the Lavi.

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The Lavi story, and the reasons for US withdrawal from the programme have been detailed above. Unlike Jimmy Carter’s approach, which might have been ‘a good idea at the time’ had it been seen through, the decision to fund Lavi and expend some $2Bn of US resources earmarked for US Industry on an overseas program still looks like a ‘What were they thinking?’ moment. The Lavi program remains a lasting tribute to the power of advocacy and lobbying, and the skill with which the Department of Defense was by-passed so that a compliant Congress would pass the required legislation.

Concluding Observations
What were the outcomes? Northrop lost $750M of its own money on F-20, as well as losing 2 pilots in fatal accidents. No aircraft were sold. General Dynamics did OK, only dropping some $60M on F-16/79, and compensating that with increased sales of the F-16 worldwide. Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) took a short-term hit, but in the end had been exposed to significant US advanced technology. Israel lost the Lavi and the ‘Super Phantom’, but gained the F-15 Strike Eagle, Apache Helicopter, and greater numbers of more advanced F-16 aircraft. The US policy of supporting Israel appears fixed in concrete and immutable, assisted by Russia providing support to Syria, and Iran developing towards nuclear capability. IAI and other Israeli companies have become adept not only in manufacturing their own Defence solutions, but also in providing significant capability upgrades to equipment obtained mainly from the US.
Ideally, Nations should follow a path of ‘Joined-up Government’, where Foreign Policy, Defence, Overseas Trade, Employment and Industry Policies are all coherent, enduring and non-Partisan. Such a policy has never been achieved by a Western Democratic Nation, and it looks increasingly unlikely that it ever will. The FX and Lavi programmes are great examples of the consequences of a failure to achieve joined-up government.

In the past, the USSR tried its own variant of a coherent approach, but failed, largely because its economy proved unable to compete with the West in accessing advanced technologies and building the necessary industrial, economic and social infrastructure.

On the other hand, China seems to be giving such an approach a fair go at present, and appears to possess the resources, the technologies, and the will to achieve its aims of becoming a dominant world power.
Joe Biden may well respond “Not on my watch” – the rest of us will have to wait and see.

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Turning Performance – Sustained Turn Rate
To show some of the difficulties in simply accepting published data. Let’s consider sustained turn rate – a performance parameter of much interest, particularly to those who regard WVR air combat as important, rather than something to avoid. The key factors in determining sustained turning performance are drag and thrust, because the maximum sustained turn rate, STR, occurs when the aircraft drag is equal to the maximum thrust available from the engine. However, drag and thrust can be very sensitive to weight, altitude, aircraft configuration and Mach number.
The drag depends on the configuration and Mach number, through the zero lift drag element, Cd0 – carriage of external stores and tanks will increase Cd0, as will zero-lift wave drag if supersonic flows are present. The drag due to lift depends on weight, through the Lift Coefficient, Cl, squared (Cl2), and weight will depend on the stores carried and the fuel state of the aircraft, including whether tanks are carried. Subsonic lift dependent drag is inversely proportional to Aspect Ratio (the slenderness of the wing planform), so having a higher aspect ratio reduces subsonic lift dependent drag. However, a higher aspect ratio will increase supersonic wave drag. In addition, wave drag also varies with lift, and hence weight and configuration. The propulsion side of this balance also depends on Mach number, which affects intake and nozzle efficiency, and altitude, which affects both air density and temperature. Altitude also affects the drag, as the lift coefficient required increases as air density decreases. It is worth noting that maximum sustained turn rates will generally occur in subsonic flight, because of the absence of wave drag. Turning Performance – Instantaneous Turn Rate The Instantaneous turn rate (ITR) is the absolute maximum turn rate achieved by an aircraft, and, typically, is defined by either a structural or a lift limit. At given conditions, the ITR is reached when the pilot rolls the aircraft to wings vertical and pulls to achieve the maximum lift available from the wing, or reaches the structural design limit of the aircraft (maximum permitted ‘g’). Note that there is no requirement for this to be a balanced turn, and even at maximum thrust, most aircraft will be either losing speed or height when the maximum ITR condition is reached. At lower speeds or higher altitudes, the ITR is generally limited by the amount of lift that the wing can generate. At higher speeds and moderate altitude, pretty much all fighter aircraft will be structurally limited, generally to 9g, which currently represents a physiological limit for pilots. The speed and altitude combination where the aircraft reaches its structural limit and lift limit at the same time is known as the manoeuvre point, and for most fighter aircraft, this will generally be at medium altitude and a subsonic Mach number. From the discussion of turn rates, we can see why performance data is rarely presented for the professional in the form of simple data points. Instead, aerodynamic, propulsion and weights data is prepared, and will be validated through flight test. This data can then be used to predict performance, or to build validated performance models once flight-test proven data is available. These performance models will then show how differing performance measures vary with configuration, weight, altitude and Mach number. This then provides a mechanism to demonstrate that specified point and mission performance requirements can be met. An example of a point performance requirement might be to demonstrate a sustained turn rate of 12 deg/sec at 11 km altitude and Mach 1.4, in a defined air combat configuration. A mission requirement might be to take-off, climb to 11km, accelerate to Mach 1.6, jettisoning external tanks at Mach 0.95, fly out to an air combat, represented by performing 4 360 deg turns in full afterburner and the release of 4 AAM, and return to base at most economical cruise speed and altitude, descend to land, with a 30 minutes fuel reserve remaining. The specification would detail the mission profile, and the distance from base at which the air combat is to take place. None of this sort of data is available for the aircraft under discussion here at a level of detail to make robust comparisons. But this is not the end of the story. Key Parameters We can examine the key data on size, shape and weight of the aircraft and their engines, and consider how this might impact on performance. And we can report the limited performance data that is available, and see whether this is consistent with our analysis. Hard data (i.e. definite figures) is available for parameters such as the aircraft wing area, the aspect ratio of the wing, the planform, the type of intake, and the maximum thrust of the engine. Slightly softer data is available on aircraft empty weight and on internal fuel capacity, as well as information on weapons carried and some (very soft) data on claimed performance. From this data, we can assemble some key parameters, and use these to develop a view of how the aircraft compare with each other. In the absence of any form of mission modelling tool, I am going to look at point performance characteristics relevant to fighter aircraft, rather than considering strike roles, as these would be heavily dependent on the weight and drag of external fuel tanks, stores, targeting, electronic warfare pods and so on. To derive these parameters, I am going to make some consistent assumptions for the aircraft, particularly about their weight. The Table below provides some data which I will then discuss in terms of its anticipated impact on performance. All F-16/79 data assumes the use of the ‘Combat Plus’ engine setting.

Saddam Hussein had a gold-plated jewel-encrusted personal Spitfire aircraft and you can buy it

Former dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein was well known for his collection of gold-plated Kalashnikov rifles but it has recently come to light that he also owned a flyable gold-plated Spitfire. The World War II vintage aircraft is a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX formerly flown by the Royal Egyptian Air Force and gifted to the leader to celebrate the announcement of a 1981 trade agreement. The aircraft was apparently not to the dictator’s tastes and it was fitted with an additional 550 kg of gold, platinum and precious stones. After modification the aircraft was still flyable but reportedly limited to flights below 100 mph.

The aircraft was previously last seen in 1988 but until January 2021 its location has been unknown. During building work in the town of Kalam Farigh in West Iraq, contractors uncovered the buried aircraft carefully wrapped in tarpaulin. After display in a local museum the aircraft has been moved to Baghdad and will be auctioned in May. It is estimated to be worth around $34 million dollars.

Flak: myth versus reality with Donald Nijboer

Much feared by military aircrew, flak blew thousands of aeroplanes from the sky across the 20th century. We grilled Donald Nijboer author of Flak in World War II, about the dreaded flak.

What is Flak?

“Flak is an acronym/initialism for the German word, Flugabwehrkanone, meaning aircraft-defence cannon. When the Allies began to use the term is not known. It’s interesting that we continue to use the term today…’catching flak at the office’ as one example.”

How effective was it in WW2? 

“Flak in the Second World War was very effective. Most of the official Allied histories downplayed its role. Many postwar histories accepted the testimony of leading figures within the Luftwaffe that ground based AA defences achieved limited success in destroying Allied bombers.  After the war, the British Bombing Survey Unit (BBSU) continued this line of thinking describing German AA defences as “plentiful” but not “very lethal.” At the same time the official RAF history of the air war estimated that German flak accounted for 37 percent of Bomber Command’s losses between July 1942 and April 1945. Low and medium level flak was even more effective. More American 8th Air Force aces were shot down by flak than enemy fighters.”

How does it compare with fighter interceptors for effectiveness?

“The Germans and the Allies, to a certain extent, used the number of enemy aircraft shot down by fighters and those by flak as a measurement as to its effectiveness. But this was a false metric. It must be remembered that Flak defences were designed, not to shoot bombers down, but to force them to drop their loads from a higher altitude and thus reduce their accuracy. Aircraft shot down or damaged was a bonus. Flak proved a huge benefit to fighter pilots assigned to attack incoming raids. Flak-damaged bombers were forced out of formation, making them easy prey (for both Allied and Axis fighter forces) for marauding fighters. Flak damaged tens of thousands of bombers. These bombers required repair, causing service rates to fall and thus reducing the number of bombers available for new operations. AA shrapnel also killed and wounded tens of thousands of aircrew, significantly reducing the overall efficiency and morale.”

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How many shells are fired to down an aircraft? 

“The figure of 16,000 rounds of German 88mm ammunition being required to shoot down a heavy bomber is often quoted to show just how wasteful and ineffective antiaircraft fire really was. But that number is misleading. While it fits well into the Allied narrative of how the strategic bombing campaign robbed the German army of valuable munitions, it was only partially true.  Indeed when you compare these numbers to the more effective 128mm AA gun the numbers are intriguing. In 1944 the number of 128mm rounds per aircraft shootdown was 3,000, less than one-fifth the number expended by its 88mm counterpart. This doesn’t take into account the number of aircraft that were severely damaged by flak.”

Where was best defended by flak in WW2?

“I would point to the Luftwaffe flak defenses of the Ruhr, their larger cities like Berlin and their oil refineries. Their light and medium flak over the battlefield was also highly effective and took a great toll on Allied fighter bombers. Allied AA defenses were also effective, one example being the battles against the V-1 flying bombs and the fact that they chose to defend Antwerp against the V-1 using AA guns along is testament to their effectiveness.

7. What was the best AAA system of WW2?

The obvious choice would be the Luftwaffe’s AA defenses, but I would point to the US Navy’s development of the VT fuse or radar equipped proximity fuse. Built around a miniature radio transmitter and receiver, the VT fuse overcame the major disadvantage of the “time” and “contact” fuses and was capable of detecting its target and detonating within 75 feet. It was a game changer and fortunately for the US Navy they had it when the kamikaze appeared. Indeed, even before the kamikaze appeared the US Navy made major improvement to their ships AA defenses with better radar direction, improved AA directors and gunsights and most importantly, more guns. In 1944 the battleship USS Missouri bristled with twenty 5 inch, eighty 40mm and over forty-nine 20mm cannon.

What were the big innovations in AAA in WW2? 

“It was the invention of the VT radar proximity fuse. If the Luftwaffe had this shell the Allied bombing campaign would have been far more costly, or stopped altogether. Mention has to be made of the development of gun laying radar. This allowed for aiming at night and in bad weather.”

Which nation was best at using AAA and why? 

“I would say the Germans and the Allies had guns and systems that were equal in effectiveness. The allies had the edge with the VT fuse. The Japanese did not develop a robust AA defensive system. They lacked the guns, effective radar, and the cooperation between the Army and Navy was terrible. They never pooled their resources, instead each would go their own way, often siting individual radars in the same place.”

Tell me a myth about flak

“Two myths about flak: one it was not very effective, from an Allied point of view, and second the Allied bombing campaign against Germany created a ‘second front’ siphoning off thousands of men to man the guns and robbing the German army of valuable men. This was only partially true. You have to remember that the Luftwaffe flak arm played a dual role. Luftwaffe flak batteries could be assigned to the army at any time and thousands were. Shortly after D-Day the Luftwaffe transferred 140 heavy batteries and 50 light flak batteries to Normandy. This process continued for the last 10 months of the war, robbing German cities of vital flak defences. As the war progress and the manpower shortage increased thousands of able-bodied flak men were transferred to the army. In their place were hastily trained factory workers, schoolboys, prisoners of war, older men not fit for combat and by the end of the war they introduced the first batteries manned by women for the defence of Berlin. By April 1945 44 percent of the flak arm was made up of people unqualified for combat, foreign nationals or prisoners of war.”

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Which aircraft type could withstand the most damage? Was armour speed a better defence from flak?

“All aircraft were susceptible to flak. There were a few that were specifically armoured like the Russian Il-2  and German Hs 129 ground attack aircraft to withstand light flak hits. Most Allied bombers and fighters were armoured against fighter attack, but not flak. Speed was a factor, and most fighter pilots knew that when strafing a target you never made a second pass.”

When did radar guided AAA arrive? 

“At the beginning of the war, the first British gun-laying Mark I (GL I) radars entered service with several AA batteries. In many ways the term gun-laying was a misnomer when applied to the GL I. It was more of a gun-assisting radar with limited capabilities. Although it gave accurate ranges, it could not produce good azimuth indications or elevation figures.

By the summer of 1941 the Germans introduced their Wurzburg gun laying radar.”

Why should people buy your book?

“The story of flak in World War II is one of those forgotten stories of World War II. There was a reason the official histories downplayed the effectiveness of German flak. It took away from the narrative of how successful the Allied bombing campaign was and the heavy price they paid.

Thousands of aircraft were shot down, and tens of thousands were damaged, not to mention the horrendous cost in lives and those wounded. Flak in World War II takes the reader from the invasion of Poland in 1939 right to the last Japanese aircraft shot down by AA fire in August 1945. It examines heavy flak defences, flak over the battlefield, the failure of ship AA defences early in the war; specifically the Bismarck and the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in 1941, AA defences against the world’s first cruise missile (V-1), right up to the human guided missile that was the kamikaze in the Pacific.”

What led you to write about Flak? 

“I was inspired after reading Edward B. Westermann’s book Flak: German Anti-Aircraft Defenses 1914-1945. His in-depth and comprehensive study of German flak defences clearly showed how effective they really were. This led me to thinking of how AA guns and defences played a role in the air war over Europe and the Pacific. Most, if not all, of the histories deal with the great air battles strictly in terms of aircraft vs. aircraft; the great fighter aces and how many bombers were shot down by Spitfires, Bf 109s, Fw 190s and Me 110 and Ju 88 night-fighters. And when I started digging deeper, the number of aircraft shot down by flak was astonishing. German flak defenses were responsible for more than half of all Allied aircraft losses. Allied AA guns were equally effective. The Marine heavy AA guns on Guadalcanal, for example, in 1942 forced Japanese to bombers to fly higher reducing their accuracy to a great extent, but you never hear or read about it. The story mostly centres around the fighter defence and how the F4F Wildcat matched up against the vaunted A6M Zero-sen. Both AA guns and the defending fighters played a role in the defence of Guadalcanal. It not just one or the other.”

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Russian Air Power* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) with Guy Plopsky: Part 1- How good is Russian air force training?

How good is Russian air force training?

A good question. It’s a complex topic and it is difficult to give a straightforward answer given that detailed data often isn’t available. The average number of flight hours per year per Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) pilot pales in comparison to that of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in the late-2010s, but it markedly exceeds the abysmal yearly flight hours that Russian Air Force pilots averaged in the early and mid 2000s. It is also higher than Russian numbers from the late 2000s. The marked increase in average yearly flight hours in the 2010s certainly helped improve pilot proficiency. Recent statistics released by the Russian Ministry of Defense show that VKS pilots averaged “over 100” flight hours during the 2018 training year (junior pilots averaged “over 120” flight hours). In the 2020 training year, Military-Transport Aviation pilots averaged “over 140” flight hours (junior pilots averaged “approximately 120” flight hours), Long-Range Aviation crews averaged “over 100” flight hours, and Army Aviation pilots averaged “approximately 100” flight hours. It is important to note that average yearly flight hours for Russian pilots have differed substantially across Russia’s four (now five) military districts. Pilots in the Western Military District have typically averaged more flight hours per year than those in other districts. For example, according to Russian Defense Ministry statistics, during the 2012 training year, pilots in the Western Military District averaged 125 flight hours (Military-Transport Aviation pilots based in the district averaged “no less than 170” hours).

Going over the various training activities that Russian airmen conduct during VKS exercises would take up too much time, so I’ll only very briefly mention several things with a focus on combat aviation. VKS exercises vary in size and complexity. Some exercises are conducted at night and/or in adverse weather conditions (particularly in cold temperatures). Exercises can, among other things, include relocating and operating from alternative airfields. For some aircraft types, exercises can also include operating at very high altitudes and speeds or at low and/or very low altitudes (including in mountainous terrain for some units). In air-to-ground training, many VKS long-range aviation, operational-tactical aviation and army aviation units train to employ both guided and unguided weapons (some long-range aviation units train to employ only guided weapons). However, air-to-ground training for operation-tactical and army aviation is still heavily focused on executing missions with unguided bombs and rockets given that these weapons are expected to be used extensively in the event of conflict due to the limited availability of guided weapons. There are inherent disadvantages to conducting suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) and other missions with unguided weapons even if crews are well trained in their employment. As for air-to-air training, fighter aircraft crews practice air combat maneuvering, carry out interceptions of targets flying at various altitudes and speeds (including conducting simulated/live missile launches), practice escorting other platforms, etc.

Larger VKS exercises can include two or more different types of aircraft, including supporting platforms such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and tankers, giving crews the opportunity to practice aerial refueling and train with/against other platforms. They can also include VKS ground-based air defenses, which allows aircraft to train alongside air defenses to repel adversary air attacks and/or to practice air defense suppression and penetration. The VKS also participates in joint exercises with other Russian military service branches and/or the air arms of a number of other nations. Aggressor training for the VKS is done by the 116th Combat Employment Training Center, which is part of the VKS’ 185th Combat Training and Combat Employment Center. The 116th operates MiG-29UBM trainers and relatively capable MiG-29SMT (9-19R) fighters. Lastly, it’s important to note that the war in Syria has allowed many VKS air and ground crews to gain experience operating under real combat conditions and has led the VKS to implement changes in training. One apparent change includes greater focus on the employment of unguided weapons from medium altitudes by operational-tactical aviation during exercises. This change was driven by combat experience in Syria, which showed that Russian operational-tactical aviation largely had to avoid carrying out tasks at low altitudes due to the threat of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and air defense artillery.

Given that information about VKS exercises provided by Russian Defense Ministry media outlets and press releases is typically quite vague, it’s difficult to assess how good and realistic Russian Air Force training is. Based on what we can gather from press releases and media, the Russians appear well-trained in attacking pre-planned stationary targets. Training to conduct dynamic targeting – traditionally, a weak point for the Russian Air Force – is improving as well, in part due to the integration of relevant new technologies into training exercises. The Russians also seem well-trained in ground/air controlled interception; however, training to intercept a large number of targets without the support of ground-based assets or AEW&C aircraft has traditionally been another weak spot for them and the extent to which this has improved is unclear.

What about the quality of Russian air force student pilot training?

Today, the average flight time that a Russian cadet accumulates prior to graduation is drastically higher than in the early-mid 2000s, and considerably higher than in the late 2000s. In the case of the VKS’ Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots (fixed-wing aviation) this number is “over 200” fight hours per graduate, including, on average, 60 flight hours as part of the advanced flight training program (“over 200” flight hours is similar to USAF numbers from the mid 2010s). In the case of the VKS’ Syzran Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots (rotary-wing aviation), this number is “no less than 150” flight hours per graduate. Looking solely at these figures, however, will tell you little about the actual training quality of Russian cadets. Indeed, while flight hours are much higher than a decade ago, there are several major interrelated issues concerning the state of Russia’s trainer aircraft fleet that have hampered the quality of Russian cadet training over the past decade. These include a relatively limited inventory of trainer aircraft (particularly modern trainers), and low availability rates (even for modern trainers).

Credit: on image

News about Russian trainer aircraft availability issues occasionally surface. There are examples from the early 2010s and from more recent years. Notably, in December 2019, it was revealed that the availability rate of the VKS’ Yak-130 fleet at the time was a mere 56%. The Yak-130 is the only modern advanced/lead-in fighter trainer in use with the Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots (KVVAUL). The school has also been using it as a basic trainer aircraft (it is the only modern jet trainer available for this role, too). Due to the Yak-130’s low availability rate and small fleet size (The VKS’ entire Yak-130 fleet totaled only about 100 aircraft at the time), the school was still using its aging Aero L-39Cs jet trainers for its 4th and 5th courses (basic and advanced flight training programs, respectively). This was negatively impacting the quality of training that many cadets were receiving.

Why is that? Can you elaborate on the situation with Russian air force trainer aircraft?

You see, the L-39C has long been considered grossly inadequate for the 5th course; its avionics are rudimentary and dated (it lacks a glass cockpit), and its performance is lacking (for example, it is incapable of supersonic – or even transonic – speeds). Due to the absence of modern avionics, the L-39C has also been viewed as ill-suited for the 4th course. Consequently, cadets who got little or no flight hours in the Yak-130 ended up graduating pilot school inadequately prepared for subsequent combat training on modern high performance combat aircraft (Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-35S, etc.), with some graduates reportedly requiring a long time to qualify on their assigned aircraft type. To alleviate this problem, KVVAUL has been introducing modern simulators; however, these cannot fully replace real flying. The school also still operates a relatively small number of high performance jet trainers such as the MiG-29UB and Su-25UB which are used for the 5th course, but only the top performing cadets get to fly them. Moreover, like the L-39C, they, too, lack glass cockpits.

At present, it is unclear whether (or to what extent) L-39Cs are being utilized for the 5th course, but they certainly continue to be widely employed for the 4th course due to the ongoing shortage of modern trainer aircraft. Indeed, although the current availability rate of the Yak-130 fleet has not been publicized, the total size of the fleet has increased only marginally. In 2020, only four additional Yak-130s were delivered to the VKS and, according to some reports, these four were still not being employed for flight training as of early 2021. The Yak-130 was initially intended to replace Russia’s aging fleet of Aero L-39C jet trainers. It is a much more capable machine than the L-39C, and its service life is more than double that of what the latter was designed for. To replace the L-39C fleet, the Russian Defense Ministry previously planned to procure some 250 Yak-130s; however, just over 135 have been ordered to date, of which a little over 110 have been delivered since deliveries commenced over a decade ago.

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How many more Yak-130s might be ordered in the future is unclear. Whereas the twinjet Yak-130 is well suited for KVVAUL’s 5th course, it has long been deemed too complex and expensive to replace the single-engine L-39C in the 4th course. The aging L-39C fleet, however, has also seen low availability rates. Notably, in September 2019, Izvestia reported that aviation repair plants were struggling to repair L-39Cs in a timely manner, and that components were not being supplied on time in the required quantities. According to Izvesita, just one out of every three repaired L-39Cs was being delivered back to the VKS within specified timeframes. Based on various estimates, the number of L-39Cs in service with the VKS at the time stood at only 120-150 aircraft, with many not available for use at any given point in time.

Concerned by the situation with L-39Cs and other trainer aircraft, Russia’s Defense Minister instructed the problem of low availability rates to be resolved. Already in early April 2020 he announced that the availability rate of the VKS’ trainer aircraft fleet had risen from “about 50%” in September to “almost 90%,” noting that cadets will now be able to receive quality training. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, no details were provided as to what specific measures were undertaken to increase the availability rate so rapidly. It’s quite possible that, as some in Russia have suggested, in addition to improving the state of the aviation industry, many unserviceable trainers were simply written off. They were likely also stripped for parts.

In any case, to provide cadets with quality training, Russia will need to procure additional modern trainers, including new aircraft that are more suitable for replacing the L-39C in KVVAUL’s 4th course than the Yak-130. Aware of this, the Russian Air Force has been looking at options for a modern basic trainer aircraft for some time now. In the mid-late 2010s there was quite a bit of talk about the possible procurement of the forward-swept-wing SR-10 developed by Sovremennyye Aviatsionnyye Technologii (SAT) Design Bureau. A prototype of this modern single-engine jet trainer first flew in 2015; however, the Russian Defense Ministry hasn’t placed an order for the SR-10 and it’s unclear if it will. Indeed, in mid 2020, Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation announced that work was nearing completion on a modernized L-39 which features modern Russian avionics, so it is possible that the L-39C fleet will be modernized to this standard instead if testing is completed successfully.

In addition to having a shortage of modern trainer aircraft for the 4th course, KVVAUL is also still waiting on a modern replacement for the L-39C in the 3rd course (primary flight training program). It is planned that this role will be fulfilled by the Yak-152 primary trainer. The Yak-152 is a single-engine piston aircraft with a low operating cost (notably, its fuel consumption is far lower than that of the turbofan-powered L-39C). Unlike the latter, the Yak-152 also has a glass cockpit – a feature which will enhance the preparation of cadets for the transition to the Yak-130 (and to other modern trainers that may be introduced in the future). According to reports from the mid 2020, deliveries of the Yak-152 to the VKS are supposed to commence this year. It is not yet clear how many will be procured; however, this figure is likely to be in excess of 150 aircraft.

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As part of other efforts to improve the efficiency and quality of training at KVVAUL, the school has taken delivery of modern, glass cockpit-equipped Austrian Diamond DA42T piston twin trainers (assembled in Russia) and decided that some cadets will begin flight training at an earlier stage. Training at KVVAUL lasts five years and, until very recently, all cadets began flight training only in their third year (3rd course). In the 3rd course, cadets fly on either the L-39C or the twin-turboprop L-410. They then progress to the 4th course in which they fly on either the L-39C and/or Yak-130, or the L-410 and/or the twin-turboprop An-26, respectively (the An-26, by the way, is also used for the 5th course). Recently, however, the school has decided to begin flight training for some cadets (such as those training to become Military-Transport Aviation pilots) on their second year (2nd course) using the new DA42Ts. This approach allows for much more efficient use of time and funds because initial flight screening can now be done on the second year using the DA42T rather than on the third year using the much larger L-410, which has a higher operating cost. It also increases the availability of L-410s for other training tasks. So far, two contracts for a total of 55 DA42Ts have been signed by the Russian Defense Ministry. The first – for 35 aircraft – was reportedly completed in 2020, and training on the type at KVVAUL likely commenced that same year.

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.

10 Amazing Women in Aeronautical Engineering We Should be Shouting About

The month of March is often considered to be ‘Women’s History’ month, largely because International Women’s Day (IWD) is on 8th March, and doubtless there will be plenty of listicles of ‘top women’ or ‘first women’ in this or that field. Lists of women who are or have been significant in aviation generally focus on the famous European and American pioneering flyers, such as Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Valentina Tereshkova or Bessie Coleman. IWD 2021’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’, so for this guest blog I have chosen to challenge the commonplace lists of women pilots. Instead I offer a list of 10 women who have done significant work in aeronautical engineering of various kinds, in alphabetical order, mainly women of the past but starting off with a living example.

By Nina Baker, engineering historian

Mary Jackson With Model at NASA Langley

Jenny Body, CBE, FRS, FRAeS

An A400M (U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Ryan Crane)

Jenny Body was the first woman to become president of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2013. This society, perhaps because its history is so associated with a ‘new’ industry, was for decades the only professional body to admit women as members, even if it took a while longer for one to become its president. Jenny Body came from an engineering family and benefited from the combination of practical and academic training as an undergraduate apprentice with British Aerospace and Imperial College. Whilst in BAE’s avionics group she created the software for fly-by-wire aircraft. She worked on wing development as lead for the A400M team and established the Next Generation Composite Wing Programme, and in 2002 became engineering lead of the Nimrod wing design team. She was technical manager for wing assembly and retired from Airbus in 2010.

Her work both on the technical side and also her work in support of other women in her field have gained her a CBE, as well as many prestigious fellowships and an honorary doctorate.
Interestingly, Airbus’s lead engineer on the A380 wing design was another woman, Sue Partridge, who is now head of its ‘Wing of Tomorrow Programme’.

Madame Carlotta Bollée (née Messinisi) (c.1880-?)

Madame Carlotta Bollée is included here, to represent the many women who were ‘engineers by marriage’, like Bertha Benz, or by other family relationships, like Ella Pilcher who helped her brother Percy build his experimental planes, in an era when technical education and opportunities were largely closed to women. Many intelligent wives of prominent engineers assisted their husbands, learned engineering informally and unobtrusively.
She was born in Greece and married Léon Bollée, an early automobile designer who was from an old and large family of engineers. Her connection with aviation started in June 1908 when Wilbur Wright arrived in France, from the USA, with his plane. The Wright Flyer had been shipped to Le Havre by Orville the previous year, but had been seriously damaged when it arrived in France and was uncrated. Wilbur spent the whole summer of 1908 rebuilding the machine and getting it into flying condition and was invited to stay with the Bollées, whose reputation as friendly and hospitable made a great impression on the Wright family. Léon had offered him space in his car factory to re-assemble and repair his aeroplane (which had been damaged, possibly sabotaged, in transit) and was also making him two aeroengines. Wilbur and Orville Wright’s famous first flight had been at Kitty Hawk, USA in 1903 and the trip to France was largely to demonstrate the safety and reliability of their plane.
Wilbur and Léon did not speak each other’s languages so Carlotta acted as their interpreter as the technical chat went back and forth over several weeks. She was fluent in Greek, French and English and must have acquired sufficient technical knowledge via her husband to make accurate translations. She was pregnant with her daughter at the time, so all these late night engineering discussions must have been tiring. Wilbur promised that his first flight in France would be on the day her baby was expected, 8th August 1908. Baby Elisabeth actually arrived on the following day and Wilbur became her godfather.

For the rest of that summer, autumn and winter Wilbur Wright flew numerous times, generally taking a passenger with him. Bearing in mind that this was not a question of climbing into the cockpit from the ground but of climbing a tower from which the plane was suspended, we can understand why Carlotta waited until October before venturing aloft. The tower was a means of launching the plane, by a falling weight acting as a catapult. Her flight was typical of many, at an altitude of about 25m and lasting about 4 minutes.

Léon Bollée was president of l’Aéro-Club de la Sarthe, and following a flying accident in 1911, he never recovered and, even before he died in 1913, Carlotta had taken over the running of the Bollée engineering works. She ran the company successfully until she sold it to the British car company, Morris, in 1924. When Wilbur Wright also died prematurely in 1912, Carlotta kept in touch with Orville and his family and in 1920 travelled to their home in the USA to give them an album and memorabilia of Wilbur’s time with the Bollée family. In 1927 she donated an engine, which Wilbur and Léon had assembled from the 2 sent out from the USA, to the Museum of Le Mans. We do not know when Carlotta died.

Anne Burns (nee Pellew) BSc ( 23 November 1915 – 22 January 2001)

Burns was an aeronautical engineer and glider pilot, who became the world expert in ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ and its effects on aircraft safety. She gained a 1st class degree in engineering science from Oxford University (1936) and then joined the Structures and Mechanical Department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, Hampshire (1940), remaining there for her full career. She became expert in ‘flutter’ and clear air turbulence, was the first flight test engineer to use strain gauges and was involved in the investigations into the Comet disasters (1950s).
It is easy now to forget how dangerous flying was even by the mid-20th century. Burns was part of the first generation of aeronautical engineers who applied stringent mathematics and physics principles to test airframes for safety. Many military and civilian planes had design faults which only became apparent when ‘unexplained’ disasters befell them. It was Burns’ life work to find the explanations for such problems as ‘flutter” and the disastrous Comet airliner crashes. As a flight test engineer observer she had to fly in many planes known to be dangerous, whilst monitoring her innovative strain gauges. In the 1960s she became known world wide for her expertise and daring in seeking out clear air turbulence and studying the problems which airframes can experience.
Awarded the Queen’s Commendation for her bravery and contribution to Comet investigation (1955); R.P. Alston Medal by the Royal Aeronautical Society for this work (1958); Royal Aeronautical Society Silver Medal for Aeronautics (1966); Whitney Straight Award for her services to aeronautical research and flying (1968).

The now out-of-print biography of her life and work Clear Air Turbulence: A Life of Anne Burns by Matthew Freudenberg is worth hunting down.

Hilda Margaret Lyon MA., MSc., AFRAeS. (31st May 1896- 2nd December 1946)

Yorkshirewoman Hilda Lyon was of a generation of women who became engineers through their mathematical talents. Her mathematics degree from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1918 led to work as a technical assistant at Siddeley Deasy Motor company in Coventry, and then George Parnall & Co, Bristol aircraft manufacturer. In 1925 she joined the Royal Airship Works in Cardington, to work on the design and stress calculations of the R101’s transverse framing. She was soon considered an expert in this and the Aeronautical Journal published her first, and very important, paper on the strength of transverse frames of rigid airships in 1930. This won her the first R38 Memorial Prize to be awarded to a woman by the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Her experience with the design process of the R101 made her realise that wind tunnel testing, at that time, produced results that did not match real life. So she went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she got her first independent access to wind tunnels, enabling her to carefully eliminate the errors caused by turbulence due to model support wires etc. The outcome was her finding that airships could actually be less pointed at the front with no effect on air resistance. Decades later this discovery led to what is now known as the ‘Lyon Shape’, which is the basis for the shape of the American submarine USS Albacore, as well as many subsequent US submarines, and those of many other nations. She gained an MA for her thesis on The Effect of Turbulence on the Drag of Airship Models.

My book about Hilda Lyon can be obtained from Amazon, or signed copies direct from me.

That work took her next to Göttingen in Germany, where she conducted aerodynamics research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft für Strömungsforschung with Ludwig Prandtl for about 18 months.
Unemployed but still working on her research from 1933-37, she published 2 papers on streamlining and boundary layer effects in 1934 and two more, on wing flutter, in 1935 before the RAE employed her in its aerodynamics department in 1937. From 1937 onwards she was publishing frequently, mainly as official reports, up to and even after her death. Her war work included stability analysis of the Hurricane’s rudder and she was part of the post-war team which visited Germany to assess and retrieve aeronautical equipment and experts.

Her 1942 report on ‘A theoretical analysis of longitudinal dynamic stability in gliding flight’ was considered seminal and continues to be cited in various fields relating to streamlining and motion in fluids as well as contributing to the understanding of how to inhibit the dangerous ‘phugoid motion’ in aircraft.

In 1946 she died following an operation and is buried in her home town, Market Weighton in Yorkshire, where this now a commemorative blue plaque on her childhood home.

Elizabeth Muriel Gregory ‘Elsie’ MacGill, OC (March 27, 1905 – November 4, 1980)

Elsie MacGill’s cold-weather Hurricane was arguably the first winterized fast attack craft in the world and saw battle on the Eastern front.
MacGill with the Maple Leaf II Trainer. The Trainer was the first aircraft designed and built by a female aviation engineer.

Canadian Elsie MacGill is thought to have been the first woman to get a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering (1929). This, with her first degree, in electrical engineering, equipped her to get her first job, as an assistant aeronautical engineer at Fairchild’s Aircraft company. In 1942 she moved, to become Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry.

This meant she was the only woman in the world with such a senior post in the industry, initially designing the Maple Leaf trainer and then massively ramping up the factory’s production and efficiency to take on a huge wartime contract building Hawker Hurricanes. For use in Canada’s harsh winters, MacGill had to design de-icing improvements for the Hurricanes. Her role was high profile and the print media of the time nicknamed her ‘Queen of the Hurricanes’. Following her marriage to colleague Bill Soulsby in 1943 they were both dismissed from the company and set up an aeronautical engineering consultancy together. She has been honoured posthumously as one of the first inductees in the Women in Aviation, International’s (WAI) Pioneer Hall of Fame.
Bourgeois-Doyle’s 2008 biography, ‘Her Daughter the Engineer: The Life of Elsie Gregory MacGill’ is worth reading, not least for the extraordinary story of her mother’s life too.

Beryl Catherine Platt (née Myatt), Baroness Platt of Writtle CBE DL FRSA FREng HonFIMechE (18 April 1923 – 1 February 2015)

Baroness Beryl Platt was of the generation of women for whom the Second World War opened up a brief window of opportunity in engineering, only for the ‘marriage bar’ to shut it again. Her mathematical talent took her from Westcliff High School for Girls to Girton College Cambridge, to pass the mechanical science tripos with honours (1943) under the wartime accelerated degree programme. Cambridge of course did not at that time actually award the degrees which women had earned. The same programme directed her into aeronautical engineering at Hawker Aircraft Ltd, as a technical assistant in the experimental flight section of the Design Office. Her work analysed data from test flights of fighter planes, including the Hurricane. In 1946 she became a technical assistant in the performance and analysis section of British European Airways’ Project Department, testing new aircraft and ensuring compliance with UK and international safety regulations. However, in 1949 she married and the convention of those times was that married women retired from their paid employment. She then started a political career, rising from parish councillor to the House of Lords and chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Although her own career as an engineer had been brief, she did a lot to support the opportunities for women in engineering, in particular setting up the Women Into Science and Engineering Year in 1984. Her eminent career in support of equal opportunities for women and technical engineering education led to many honorary doctorates, the CBE in 1978 and the Freedom of the City of London in 1988.

Hawker Hurricane (U.S. Air Force photo)

Beatrice Shilling BEng, Msc, PhD, CEng, HonMWES (Mrs Naylor) (8th March 1909-18th November 1990)

The now out-of-print biography of her life and work ‘Negative Gravity: A Life of Beatrice Shilling’
by Mathew Freudenberg is also worth looking for.

She is principally celebrated today for her WW2 role in solving the carburettor problems of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines used in the Spitfires and Hurricanes, leading to her invention of the “RAE Restrictor” or, less officially, “Miss Shilling’s Orifice”.
However that was just one of many engineering jobs she was given at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. With the post-WW2 advent of the jet engine, her previous specialism in piston engines was less useful and she was asked to design, specify and commission a new High Altitude Test Plant to enable the testing of the ancilliary equipment for the new jet planes, including their hydraulics, fuel systems and cabin pressurisation equipment. These were all critical now that all planes, both civil and military, were flying faster and much higher. She also worked on the early rocket engines, in particular the fuel delivery systems which had to provide two fuels in very precise quantities at precise timings such as to control the explosive forces involved. Next she joined the many teams working on Cold War era guided weapons, including the ramjet engines for missiles, such as her work on the Blue Streak’s ‘boil-off’ of fuel during launch.

More high-profile than this top secret work was the investigation she led into the Munich air crash which killed the Manchester United footballers. Her expertise on cold weather problems meant she was able to exonerate the pilot who had been blamed for the crash, as it was actually due to runway slush dragging the plane’s speed down below that safe for take off. This work in the 1960s led her to become an expert in the interactions between tyres and runways at higher speeds and NASA consulted her before her compulsory retirement in 1969.

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Melitta Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg (née Schiller) (3 January 1903 – 8 April 1945)

Clare Mulley’s book, ‘The Women Who Flew For Hitler’ covers her life in detail, along with that of her contemporary but complete opposite, the Nazi Hannah Reitsch. Although this lumps them together and although they came from the same region, the two women could not have been more different. Reitsch was a devoted Nazi, right to the bitter end, but von Stauffenberg with her privileged background partially hiding (even from her initially) some Jewish ancestry was in a social milieu of secret hostility to the Nazis. Mulley’s excellent book describes them as the only female test pilots in Nazi Germany but almost certainly they were the only ones outside of the USSR at that time. The reason I include von Stauffenberg is the other key difference between the two women. Both were very talented test pilots with thousands of hours of risky flying to their names, but only von Stauffenberg, with her cum laude (meaning in the top 30% of the class) engineering degree, was an aeronautical engineer who could do all her own test flight analysis and design changes. When her husband’s involvement in the 20th July Plot to assassinate Hitler came to light, it was only her aeronautical engineering work that protected the family to a great extent. This impelled her to work harder and harder on her test flight work, to protect them. She became the technical director of the Versuchsstelle für Flugsondergeräte (Test center for special flight devices). She was unfortunately shot down by the USAF when she was flying in Bavaria to try to find and rescue her imprisoned husband. She died from her wounds in April 1945.

Johanna Weber Dr. Rer. Nat. (8 August 1910 – 24 October 2014)

Source: Concorde blog

Dr Johanna Weber, was one of the foremost aerodynamicists of her generation and contributed significantly to the design of the Concorde and other supersonic swept-wing aircraft.

Born in Düsseldorf, Germany she lost her father in the First World War, making her eligible for financial support for her education and graduated Dr. rer. nat. (a first degree but to doctoral level, in natural philosophy or physics) with first-class honours in 1935. She then did teacher training but was barred from such work due to not joining the Nazis. Rather oddly, this did not apparently bar her from work in armaments. She first did ballistics research for the Krupp company in Essen and later moved to Göttingen’s Aerodynamics Research Institute (Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt Göttingen) in 1939.

This started her career-long work with aerodynamicist Dietrich Küchemann in Germany and later in UK.

Frances Bradfield

At the end of the War, the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) recruited Küchemann and Weber, probably on the reccommendation of Hilda Lyon who wrote the report covering their work. Her initial work at RAE was in Frances Bradfield’s Low Speed Wind Tunnels division, on air intake cowlings for jet engines, on which she co-authored a series of papers. The work for which she is more remembered today was on wing design, showing that a thin delta wing could generate sufficient lift to for take-off and landing for supersonic planes. Her concepts were implemented in the iconic Concorde, VC10 airliner and Airbus A300B designs. She retired from the RAE in 1975 at the grade of Senior Principal Scientific Officer.

Weinling Women

The women of the Weinling family were the first women to be employed by the UK government in a technical role connected with aviation.
When balloonists started to use hydrogen gas as the lifting agent, instead of heated air, they sought a material that would be impermeable to the hydrogen’s tiny molecules. No such a fabric became available until the 1920s. In the meantime the solution was a product known as ‘Goldbeaters’ Skin’. Although this was, as the name shows, a long-known product, its use for hydrogen balloons was a secret known only by the people who made the balloons for Mr Herron, the Weinling family.
Goldbeaters’ Skin is made from the outer layer of the bovine caecum, also called the blind gut or appendix. After preparation it resembles thin parchment, but when damp it sticks to itself easily ( a bit like cling film or Saran Wrap) to make larger pieces without glue or stitching. Airship gasbags usually consisted of up to seven layers of skin, needing vast quantities of the guts, most being imported in barrels from the USA. The largest airships came to require a quarter to half a million pieces.
When the family first began work at the Royal Balloon Factory, it was an era when everyone expected the head of a household to be a man and there were clearly gendered lines of whether an occupation was for men or women. Fortunately for the Weinling women, the craft of processing Goldbeaters Skin was not controlled by any guild or trades group and women had probably always done at least part of the process. Frederick Weinling senior died in 1874 so that Ann was head of the household and leading her daughters, Matilda, Elizabeth and Eugenie in the business. In 1906 Eugenie has risen to become forewoman of the balloon making workshop at the Royal factory.

During the Boer War, the gas envelopes of goldbeaters’ skin were made in significant quantities for reconnaissance balloons, in 1901, the 4th Balloon section alone required £2000 spent on making or repairing some 14 medium to very large balloons and over 100 small ‘pilot’ balloons. The Weinlings were said to guard their ‘secret’ jealously but it is clear that the family must by now have been assisted by other workers, almost certainly local working class women, as well as having to train up soldiers in field repairs.
During the First World War, with airships demanding even vaster numbers of skins made up into gas envelopes, the Weinling women were supervising significant numbers of women and there were women working at commercial airship builders. None of these women, the Weinlings or those they supervised, would probably have considered themselves to be engineers and they certainly had no formal education or training in anything that might be so recognised at the time. They are examples of the thousands of women who would never be famous in aviation but, during 2 world wars, there was no part of an aircraft that was not made by women somewhere in the UK.

The Weinlings continued their service until about 1922 when new fabrics became technically feasible for containing the hydrogen gas.

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Mary Jackson With Model at NASA Langley

The F-36 Kingsnake: the ‘fifth-generation-minus’ fighter USAF wants

The F-35 is a Ferrari, the F-22 a Bugatti Chiron  – the United States Air Force needs a Nissan 300ZX. Both the F-35 and F-22 have higher levels of technology than USAF requires for the vast majority of its everyday tasks. They are very difficult and costly to maintain, operate and upgrade. What is needed according to the USAF’s Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr is an affordable, lightweight fighter to replace the F-16. It must be faster to develop and upgrade than the F-35 and need not feature such exquisite technologies. The only way to escape the exceptionally slow and expensive development process is to obey the following:

  1. A very fast project definition process. A sensible low-risk hard- and software solution is chosen and frozen within a year. Regular software updates are planned. A 1-year PD phase seems almost impossible if there were to be competition between L-M and Boeing. Single-sourcing without a contest would be necessary. The acquisition approach is likely to be a Government-directed prime contractor and engine supplier (P&W, on the grounds that the F-119 will be put back into production through this programme). Then a Skunk Works-like programme against a well defined, but small, set of mandatory requirements, with freedom given to the main contractor to choose sub-contractors. The Government will specify the weapons fit, digital interfaces for datalinks and weapons, all other sub-contractors to be selected by prime. The contract will be incentivised for rapid delivery, with stage payments for demonstration of successful integration of specific sensors and weapons systems. This approach should meet USAF objectives for timeliness, while ensuring a reasonable sharing of risk between Government and Industry. (If the PD phase is competed, you would need Boeing, L-M and N-G, and perhaps add at least a year to your schedule. But you might get a better price. One possibility is borrowing from old UK procurement policy: No Acceptable Price, No Contract, and deal with L-M, or have a 2-year competitive PD phase, with a model-based down-select to award a Prime Contractor.)

2. Move fast enough to minimise pork-barrelling. Bypass politicising the project through the removal of competitive element – all primary components sources decided at a very early stage unilaterally (and the same with secondary sources in the case of serious issues with primary contractors). As an alternative solution, 3D printing away from conventional factories could partly solve the pork barrelling issue.

3. A ‘Luddite Czar’ is appointed to block the addition of any new technologies, roles or excess weight increases during development. Personality required: exceptionally strong-willed, non-careerist disagreeable individual with high technical knowledge.

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Requirements creep is the enemy.

4. The smallest lowest tech production line possible is used. Plans are made for rapid expansion if large export orders are received.

5. Existing technologies used for engines, sensors and materials. Existing components are further simplified where possible.

6. A lower density design with surplus volume, surplus electrical generation. Minimum onboard computer intelligence and maximum data-linking. Remote mentoring as phase 2 enhancement once the technology is mature.

7. A simple fuselage shape with surplus volume that could potentially accommodate a game-changing advance in propulsion technology

8. Less emphasis on low radar signature than F-35 and F-22.

9. 3D printing used to maximum effect. Additive manufacturing. The application of 3D aerodynamic modelling to blended shapes.

10. Accelerated multiple prototype/test aircraft project concentrates on reliability and upgradability. Large test fleet is kept throughout aircraft’s left to robustly test updates.

We wondered what might a notional ‘F-36’* look like? I enlisted the help of Stephen Mcparlin who spent 22 years at RAE/DRA/DERA/QinetiQ at Farnborough, using low speed, transonic and supersonic wind tunnels, while evolving and validating aerodynamic design methodologies for mostly military aircraft and James Smith, who 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, and the illustrator Andy Godfrey from the Teasel Studio to provide a visual representation.

*Jumping back to into the vacant F-20s designations seems retrograde and would involve solving the riddle of the YF-24

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This is a new aircraft. What is the primary requirement? What we have come up with is a long range, supersonic, manoeuvrable BVR and WVR fighter. Of course, later in its life it will become an overweight bomb trucks, festooned with stuff, just like the F-16, but let’s not draw it in middle age just yet.

The design

The wing is based on that of the F-16XL. The cranked arrow has an inboard section of increased sweepback, creating a controlled high-lift vortex without the need for a foreplane. The wing is efficient at high speeds aiding in creating a faster fighter than the F-35. The F-35’s slowness is a disadvantage for the beyond-visual range mission. The wing also allows ample room for fuel (we can expect a higher full fraction for the whole aircraft than the F-22) and external hardpoints (one notable issue that requires long range is the likely ability of supercruising Chinese J-20s to outrange F-22s). The wing loading is lower than the F-35 for most given configurations. Rather than emphasising an extremely high speed that is rarely met (as the case with F-14 and F-15 etc) the F-36 is very comfortable achieving speeds in the mach 1.8-2 range, rather like the European Typhoon. The F-36 is designed for unreheated supersonic performance at M = 1.4 , using reheat for acceleration up to M = 2.0 .

On agility, the big wing will give great instantaneous turn rate, and energy manoeuvrability should be well up there with low wave drag and good T/W. As primary design is for BVR ,sustained turn performance is less important. Internal weapons are carried in intake trunking weapons bays, curving into the lower wing fillets. Likely weapons would include new generation long range air-to-air missiles.

F-36 mugs, t-shirts and much more available at our online shop

Engines considered included the F-15EX’s F110-GE-129 which would offer commonality but lack sufficient thrust or the F135 of the F-35 which is suffering technical issues. The chosen powerplant is a simplified version of F119 of the F-22. Returning the engine to production would also benefit the F-22 Raptor force. It is estimated returning the engine to production would take 3.5 years meaning early test aircraft would need to borrow from the Raptor. The F110-GE-129 is a lower risk option. Unlike the F-22 , the F-36 does not have thrust vector control. The F119 production re-start would be expensive however and an uprated F110 and or improved F135 should not be ruled out.


The primary sensor is the AN/APG-83 AESA and an IRST based on the LEGION POD.


The F-35’s cockpit concept was probably a little ahead of the state-of-the-art in some aspects. It has been criticised by pilots for its absent HUD and the lack of feel and unreliability of inputted commands relating to the touchscreen-centric approach. The F-36 cockpit will address both issues and will feature a widescreen HUD in conjunction with a Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), a cheaper option than the F-35 helmet system.


With modern infra-red missiles almost guaranteeing a kill before fighters reach the merge a gun may seem an archaic inclusion and certainly Stephen McParlin was sceptical of whether one was needed. There are several reasons that the F-36 has a gun. The first is political: gunless fighters have a bad reputation, the second is practical: any F-16 replacement is likely to end up performing the Close Air Support mission. The weapon is the M61 Vulcan mounted in the starboard wingroot. It is not ideal to use supersonic optimised fighters for CAS and ideally the F-36 would be complemented by new or existing subsonic aircraft better suited to the mission.

We showed our speculative design to Bill Sweetman who commented “I think Harry Hillaker would have approved”.


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The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.

I flew the most secret MiG fighter in the world for the US Air Force: Red Eagle pilot gives the low-down on America’s MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’

Name: Brian McCoy
Rank: Captain
Service: United States Air Force

How did the MiG-21 differ from the F-5E?
The biggest difference for the pilot would have to be familiarity. The F-5E is essentially a beefed-up, fighter version of the Northrop T-38 Talon … an aircraft every USAF pilot had experience in during basic flight training.

First Impressions?
Small airplane! Small cockpit, archaic instrument panel, high canopy rails.

How would you rate the cockpit for the following:

a. Ergonomics?
Ergonomics wasn’t yet a thing when the ‘Fishbed’ was designed.

b. Pilot’s view?
Outward visibility contends for the worst single problem encountered by the Fishbed pilot during air combat manoeuvring. Fighting the MiG-21 required deliberate manoeuvring simply to keep the adversary in sight … regardless of the tactical advisability of such manoeuvring.

The blind zone behind the pilot (due to the ejection seat and structural members behind the seat) extends at least 40 degrees either side of the tail. The wings are not visible to the pilot – neither is the vertical tail.

The blind zone under the high canopy rails extends about 70 degrees either side as measured from the pilot’s butt centerline (aircraft structure).

The blind zone out front is about 10 degrees either side of the nose (tall instrument panel; poorly-placed gun camera; combining glass supports; thick, translucent Pexiglass sheet placed in front of pilot as protection from B-52 tail gunner).

c. Comfort

i. While not really a concern for the designers, it’s not any more uncomfortable than other fighter designs from the era. And they did paint the instrument panel a soothing shade of green specifically to calm the pilot.

d. Instrumentation
i. Primarily the instruments we used were factory-installed … with Cyrillic characters and metric system measures and graduations – neither of which were familiar to the average American fighter pilot. Luckily our outstanding maintenance professionals placed green arcs for normal operating ranges and red radials for system limits. At some point, numbers are numbers.

Our jets had American altimeters, airspeed indicators, radios, transponders, oxygen regulators and drag chutes (for the Soviet jets … F-7 jets came from the factory with drag chutes).

Yes, the ejection system was factory installed. For the older Soviet jets, that meant a 57mm mortar shell fired to propel the ejection seat (and pilot) from the aircraft. It also brought along the forward-hinged canopy which attached to the headrest of the pilot’s seat and then folded down in front of the pilot as a shield from windblast. (The canopy and related support members probably weighed 250 – 400 pounds!) The later F-7 jets featured a rocket-propelled seat that had nearly 0/0 capability (the pilot was on his own against the breeze). The fabulous ACES-II ejection seat installed in the F-15 and F-16 aircraft (among others) used similar rocket tubes that fired sequentially to keep the G-loading associated with riding the seat during ejection down to a maximum of about 16 G’s. The F-7 rocket tubes fired all at once … giving the ejectee a spine-compressing 21 G “boost” from the aircraft.

Against the F-16?
a. In WVR: Which aircraft would have the advantage and why?
i. The F-16 holds every advantage: Higher thrust-to-weight ratio, vastly better outward visibility, higher instantaneous turn rate, much higher sustained turn rate, better weapons, much better cannon and gunsight, better man/machine interface, better acceleration … the only potential advantage the ‘Fishbed’ pilot might enjoy is if the speeds in the fight slow below 250 KIAS – well below. The slower the fight gets, the more the advantage swings to the MiG.

b. Which set-ups and altitudes would the MiG-21 favour?
i. Offensive perch at 1,000 foot range in solid gun tracking solution … LOL.
ii. Side-by-side, line-abreast 500’ spread, 150 KIAS (or less), 20,000 feet MSL.

c. How should the MiG-21 pilot fight?
i. Call for help, stay close to the Viper, get slow (and hope the Viper follows suit), keep pointing the nose at the Viper to threaten him, call for help, look for any opportunity to leave the fight, consider pre-emptive ejection, call for help!”

d. Who would you put your money on?
i. It might be obvious that I’m leaning toward the F-16.
ii. But this question opens a line of consideration I’ve encountered several times on related FB posts … the idea that the superior aircraft always – and almost automatically – wins. For nearly eight years I flew nothing but air-to-air in engagements ranging from 1v1’s to Red/Green/Maple Flag exercises. I’ve led small missions and those Flag exercises. Debriefed both using high technology or chalkboards in as much detail as the situation required to illustrate the learning points involved. I estimate I’ve been in 4,500 engagements during those years. As I learned more and more about air combat and experienced varied tactics, aircraft capabilities (or lack thereof) and the occasional imposition of simple luck … the more I came to realise the skill, daring and bravado of the pilot in that other airplane was far more important in determining an engagement’s outcome than the type aircraft he was strapped into.
iii. But I’d rather be in the F-16 for such a fight.

About 60 – 70% of our ‘adversaries’ paid attention in our pre-mission briefings and avoided fighting in such a way as to maximise our limited list of potential advantages. They kept their energy up, kept their distance, threatened us enough to force us to bleed energy and then killed us quickly and cleanly. We lost nearly all of these sorts of engagements – just as intended!

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20 – 25% of our adversaries either ignored our briefings or intentionally sought to see what happens when they ‘stepped into the phone booth’ with us. We’d win well over half of such fights … pretty good considering we almost always started out defensively.

The rest either had a bad day, didn’t have a plan, or were so overcome by the situation that they forgot what to do. We knew what to do.

iii. We normally started on the DEFENSIVE perch, allowing frontline pilots the opportunity to watch the threat aircraft do it’s thing while they were looking out their front windows … much easier than assessing performance while looking over their shoulders.
iv. I had memorable engagements against F-15’s, F-16’s, A-4M’s … but perhaps especially against the original F/A-18.

Best thing about the MiG-21?
a. Simplicity

Worst thing about the MiG-21?
a. Toss-up between abysmal outward visibility, incredible susceptibility to battle damage and astounding energy bleed-off during heavy manoeuvring.

How would you rate the MiG-21 in the following areas:
a. Instantaneous turn rate
i. Totally dependent on airspeed. Nothing special until below 250 KIAS – then it became startling. The rate did not increase at the lower speeds … it simply did not fall off as much as expected.
b. Sustained turn rate
i. Woeful. A 4+G level turn in full AB bled a bit over 1 knot per degree of heading change. Impossible to assess a “sustained turn rate” with bleed off like that.
c. Weapons platform
i. Keep in mind we flew very early export model ‘Fishbeds’ – MiG-21 F-13’s and F-7’s. Not the most advanced Fishbeds built.

ii. We simulated carriage of the IR-guided AA-2 Atoll … a direct copy of the AIM-9B Sidewinder. Not an impressive missile. Fishbeds also carry the AA-8 Aphid IR missile … a short range missile with impressive cornering capability.

iii. As a gun platform the Fishbed suffers from an incredibly unstable gunsight … useless above 2.5-3 G’s. The gun itself suffered from poor rate of fire and low muzzle velocity … but at least it didn’t carry many rounds.
d. Acceleration
i. Acceleration of the early-model Fishbed was actually quite good. Less than late- model F-16’s but on par with F-15C’s.
e. Top Speed
i. We lived with a self-imposed limit of 600 KIAS … enough for perhaps Mach 1.3 at altitude. It’s reportedly a Mach 2 capable airframe. I see no reason to doubt that capability.

Read what fighting these MiGs was like from an F-15 pilot here

f. Take-off characteristics
i. Tonopah Test Range Airfield sits at about 5,600 feet above sea level – enough altitude to seriously reduce takeoff performance. We never flew the Bandits from a lower field elevation.
ii. Temperature varied considerably at TNX – also effecting flight performance drastically.
iii. Taking the runway, I’d lock the nosewheel in the straight-ahead position and select nosewheel braking to aid in any abort situation. Once cleared for takeoff (except for that ONE time!), I’d run the power up to MILITARY while holding the brakes. When prepared to launch, I’d simply release brakes and note the acceleration sensation at the small of my back. After perhaps 2 seconds of acceleration at just MIL, I’d thumb the release and select MAXIMUM power. The afterburner lightoff process took a few seconds (and featured a very good opportunity for the engine to cease operating altogether), caused several expected engine instrument fluctuations and normally resulted in much higher thrust output. (Sensing the differing acceleration rates of the two power settings gave me another check for normal engine operation.) Once lit, the afterburner made things happen much more quickly.

iv. The MiG-21 typically rolled about 3,500 to 5,000 feet before attaining takeoff speed at about 150 KIAS. Climbout was always in full afterburner until reaching 10,000 feet MSL. (This was to get us as quickly as possible out of the more dangerous low altitude ejection envelope.) We typically climbed out at 300 KIAS with a very steep climb angle.

v. The aircraft was designed to takeoff from even unprepared fields, climb quickly to high altitude, accelerate to supersonic speed … and run down attacking B-52 bombers. I never took off from a plowed field, so I can’t verify that specific capability – but the airplane’s delta wing made it very capable of quick climbs and rapid acceleration.

g. Landing characteristics
i. Oh, boy! Do we have to do this?
ii. First of all, refer back to the section where I discussed the limited forward visibility. Nowhere is that more relevant than during each mission’s landing phase.

Pilots had to fly the overhead traffic pattern looking obliquely forward during the final turn. This is completely natural and how every final turn is flown in every fighter jet.

When rolled out on final, that same oblique viewpoint (out both sides now) has to be used to fine-tune runway alignment … and it works okay. But the normal down-the-runway cues most guys use for rounding out and flaring to land are hidden, so peripheral vision has to substitute perceived sink rate to help ‘feel’ for the runway. This skillset needed some development. (It wasn’t as bad as the wall in front of Charles Lindbergh in the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ … but it wasn’t as good as looking through your car’s windshield, either.)
iii. The engine’s extremely slow windup makes the landing pattern the most dangerous phase of flight for the unwary or careless ‘Fishbed’ pilot.

Idle to MILITARY power took as much as 13 seconds … almost a quarter of a minute!! Imagine a ‘Fishbed’ pilot allowing the engine’s rpm to decay all the way to idle while at low altitude, low airspeed and high sink rates – as normally occur during any routine traffic pattern.

One of the signs of low thrust availability came anytime engine rpm dropped below 80% N1.
a. The extended windup time was less than the 13-second Idle to MIL marathon … but even 5 or 6 seconds waiting for useable thrust could be critical.
b. The exhaust nozzle opened fully right around that 80% N1 reading, dropping the effective thrust to nearly nothing. That was the true danger of allowing the engine rpm to decay.
c. Instructor pilots flying chase aircraft (AT-38B’s) could visually monitor the exhaust nozzle during traffic patterns with new pilots so as to provide warning and guidance in case of decayed engine rpm … or other issues with transitioning pilots’ traffic pattern work.

An AT-38B Talon aircraft flies over the plains during a 479th Tactical Training Wing Lead-In Fighter Training (LIFT) flight near Holloman Air Force Base. Training on the Talon, LIFT pilots and weapons systems officers become familiar with fighter tactics and maneuvers which they will eventually use tactics and maneuvers which they will eventually use when flying more technologically advanced aircraft.

d. While potentially dangerous, this condition was easily avoided by simply not allowing the engine rpm to slow below the 80% N1 level. As a result, we flew wimpy wide traffic patterns with very gradual turns and descents.
iv. The Fishbed was actually easy to fly through it’s landing pattern … so long as the pilot was aware of and prepared for the unusual and potentially dangerous pitfalls unique to the aircraft.
v. Being a single-engine aircraft, we spent a lot of time thinking about and training for flameout recoveries. Our glide profile was flown at 250 KIAS … the same speed we used for other emergency recoveries.
vi. While TNX was our prime recovery field, flight conditions at the time of the emergency could make landing there impossible due to distance. There were several contingency landing possibilities in the area – like old, inactive runways or dry lake beds. (Necessity is the mother of invention.)
vii. We used drag chutes on every landing to extend brake and tire life.

Read what fighting these MiGs was like from an F-15 pilot here

h. Climb rate
i. The aircraft could climb rapidly and steeply to whatever altitude was required. Once level, the Fishbed could quickly accelerate to supersonic speed.

i. Range
i. This is an astonishingly short-ranged aircraft … even for a fighter. I’ve taken off from TNX, climbed to meet an adversary almost directly overhead the runway, fought three engagements and left the range with need to land immediately due to fuel considerations … ten minutes after takeoff!
ii. I flew 287 ‘Fishbed’ sorties in my Constant Peg career – logging 134.5 hours … a bit under 0.47 hours per sortie. We weren’t trying for long sorties and made liberal use of afterburner, so your results may vary.
iii. We never flew the Bandit jets with external fuel tanks or in a cross-country fuel-efficient mode … at least not while I was there.

j. Sensors
i. Mark-1 eyeballs were our best set of sensors – by far! Our best-in-the-business GCI controllers were a close second.
ii. There was no onboard Airborne Intercept search-and-track radar.
iii. There was no IRSTS.
iv. There was a range-only radar system that displayed information on a meter equipped with lights to indicate “In Range.” It was a pathetic system useful only when I pointed the jet straight down to get altitude verification. I suppose it may have been effective against relatively cooperative, bomber-sized targets.

Biggest myth about the MiG-21?
a. That it is not an effective combat machine. With well over 11,000 copies built over a very long production run, it remained deadly due to sheer numbers for decades.

What should I have asked you?
a. How many times did the MiG-21 try to kill you? [Tried hard only once]
b. Would you willingly fly the MiG-21 into combat? [No.]
c. Was the MiG-21 easy to taxi? [Not Day One … or Day Two]

Describe you most memorable exercise in the MiG-21?
a. Describe a typical MiG-21 fight
b. How did the Soviets fight and where did this knowledge about their tactics come from?
i. I’m unsure of the remaining classification status of some aspects of this sort of information and not comfortable discussing it. It’s probably now unclassified since the USSR is out of business but I’d prefer to leave this topic alone.
c. Which model of MiG-21 was it and where did it come from?
i. We flew the MiG-21 F-13 (an early export model best known for combat operations versus United States aircraft in Southeast Asia.) We also flew later license-built (?) F-7 aircraft. Where these aircraft came from is frankly more than I personally know or am willing to discuss.

d. What was life like between missions? How did the desire for secrecy change things in your life?

i. We left Nellis AFB every morning via MAC-owned/operated C-12 executive transport aircraft (Beechcraft King Airs). We returned almost every evening after the day’s flight operations were complete. This travel was required to enable face-to-face debriefings with our adversary aircrews. Non-pilot personnel typically traveled to Tonopah on Monday mornings and returned to Nellis Friday afternoons. There were adequate dormitory, mess hall and recreational facilities to accommodate all assigned personnel. Pilots each had a full-time dorm room in case they needed to remain overnight.

ii. Details of our squadron’s operations were classified – but the fact that something special was going on was not a closely-guarded secret. We were treated with something like lofty respect by the Nellis fighter community – and granted unquestioned ‘expert’ status in matters regarding adversary aircraft.

iii. I could not share specific information with my family. If I’d been killed while flying a MIG – my family would have been told a cover story.

iv. One night at home my heart nearly stopped during a local news broadcast clearly showing a MiG-21 taking off at Tonopah! I couldn’t say a word about what I’d seen on the TV … thankfully my young family couldn’t tell a MiG-21 from a B-29 … but my jaw dropping to the floor might have drawn attention.

Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-21
a. It accelerates right with the MiG-27 … knot for knot!

Describe the MiG-21 in three words
a. Surprisingly nimble $hitheap!

Quickest way to lose a fight with a MiG-21?
a. Failure to pick him up visually before he’s in firing position. With a wingspan under 24’ … it’s very hard to see!
b. Slowing down with him (assuming he’s willing and able to fight at very slow speed)

Against the F-15
a. How does the MiG-21 compare to the F-15 in WVR?
i. Each of the advantages enjoyed by the F-16 in the previous discussion also apply to the F-15’s advantages (except that acceleration is basically a draw) – with the additional factor that the Eagle is even better than the ‘Fishbed’ at slow speeds. The MiG is considerably smaller and much harder to see and perhaps keep track of in a visual fight.
b. What was your most challenging opponent in BFM/DACT and why?
i. Not really a definitive single answer to this question – owing to the pilot skill factor brought up above.
ii. Need to mention that most Constant Peg engagements went according to plan.

In a 1v1 between an F-5E and a MiG-21 which aircraft would you rather be in and why?
a. If life and death is not on the line, I’d prefer to be in the MiG-21. Knowing what I know, I can control the fight, bring it to a situation I can completely control and confidently maneuver to win the fight … decisively.
b. If life and death is on the line … give me the F-5E. (Damn few ‘Fishbed’ pilots realise they can fight that jet down to 30 KIAS. The better survivability of the F-5E can’t be denied.)

What was Constant Peg and how did it work?
a. Constant Peg was a flight program utilising actual threat aircraft to expose frontline American fighter crews to the sight of an aircraft they’d expect to kill. There was some exposure to fighting that aircraft – with the expectation that they would not encounter more skilled pilots anywhere else.
b. Normally selected units deploying to Nellis for Red Flag exercises were given the opportunity to spend part of their time with us.
i. They would operate out of Nellis – just as they did for Red Flag.
ii. We’d inbrief them into our program – usually on a Saturday.

During this inbrief each pilot would sign a sheet informing them of the penalties for divulging information about our program.

We’d also brief them about the aircraft they’d be flying against. (This was when we’d tell them not to go into the phone booth with the ‘Fishbed’!)
iii. We would wait on the ground until GCI told us our adversaries were inbound to our operating areas at the extreme northwest corner of the vast Nellis airspace complex. Our flight time was extremely limited, so saving fuel was a primary … and constant! … concern.
iv. Immediately after takeoff (we most often took off in pairs), we’d run a Soviet-style tactic for our adversaries to practice their radar work. They’d also run a stern-conversion on us to get us quickly together to get on with the meat of our mission.
v. Participating pilots had to first experience a Performance Profile mission with one of our pilots. This was a sophisticated ‘show and tell’ mission where the Red Eagle pilot described identifying features of his aircraft (without actually naming the aircraft … never know who’s listening!), coordinated a drag race to compare acceleration capabilities and led an advanced-handling demonstration.

vi. Once completing a PP with a ‘Fishbed’ pilot, our adversaries normally got a second PP with a Flogger pilot.
vii. After flying a PP with both aircraft, they were cleared to fly BFM missions with us.

BFM missions with the ‘Fishbed’ were full-up fights. We’d normally begin out front in the defensive position … allowing our adversary to watch us do our thing out their front window. Most of the time we’d start at about 20,000 feet, with about 400-450 knots on both jets and the adversary about 9,000 feet behind at the MiG’s 4:30 or 7:30 position. We’d usually get two long or three short engagements before the ‘Fishbed’ was out of fuel.

Who would win Eurofighter Typhoon versus Dassault Rafale? Analysis here

BFM missions with the Flogger were not very challenging for our adversaries … the Flogger couldn’t turn well at all. But seeing that in person was an important thing to learn.
viii. Once completing BFM missions with both aircraft, adversary pilots moved on to DACT missions – normally against one ‘Fishbed’ and one ‘Flogger’. (We rarely flew DACT sorties since so much emphasis was put on the BFM missions.)
c. We also participated in actual Red Flag missions – either with the Bandit aircraft or our AT-38B’s … or sometimes with both! (Our participation limited the Red Flag scenario to American participants only – due to the classification of our program.)

Why were you chosen for this effort and how would you describe the other individuals in your team?
a. I sometimes wonder why I was selected for this program. I volunteered, had built a solid reputation within the USAF fighter community and had appropriate experience that allowed me to be considered. Only Aggressors, Fighter Weapon School graduates and former Topgun Instructors were considered to become Bandits! I was an Aggressor. Bottom line? I got lucky!!
i. Even with those prerequisites, a prospective Red Eagle had to pass muster with the current Red Eagles. One vote, “No” … and you were out.
ii. Three personal interviews took place: two with individual General Officers – in their offices. Not intimidating at all! The third … and most important … was with the Red Eagle Operations Officer. Fail that one – and the outcome of the other interviews didn’t matter.
iii. Needed a security clearance a notch above Top Secret to play. Not routine.
b. Everyone that wore a Red Eagle patch was absolutely top-notch! The pilots I flew with – USAF, USN and USMC – were extremely skilled aviators. I’d go to war with any one of them … or all of them! Red Eagle GCI controllers were the absolute best. Our maintenance folks were beyond comparison … best in the business! They could build an airplane from spare parts without any problems – or they could fashion parts if none existed! We pilots routinely placed our lives in their hands without batting an eye. We also entrusted our lives to the Life Support technicians that worked directly for me (I was the Squadron Life Support Officer) but needed no direction from me. (There were two ejections while I was there … both pilots survived without meaningful injuries – thanks in part to the efforts of my guys.) We had dedicated professionals manning the firetrucks, security posts, refueling trucks, cooking our meals, cleaning our rooms, filling out our paperwork … at every level of effort – amazing, hand-picked personnel volunteered to pull classified duty at a classified location for several days each week away from home. I’m still impressed by the numbers of highly-qualified people that supported our unique mission. And kept it all secret until the program was declassified in 2006!

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Cold War Fighter Pilot selects Top 10 Fighter Aircraft of 1960

The Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow first flew in 1958, and was a high performance interceptor with great potential. It does not make this list as it was cancelled in February 1959.

The ‘Top 10 fighters of 1960’ will be a controversial selection, however impartial and numbers based the process someone will be offended and re-arrange the order or promote their favourite chariot despite it being pug-ugly and with the performance of a foil-wrapped brick.

This is my version with supporting narrative, experience flying some of them, advice from some sage contemporaries and I believe the basis for reasonable discussion. 

1960 was a watershed year in the leap from first generation jets – guns and ‘mind of their own’ missiles if any – to supersonic turning fighters with beyond visual range (BVR) missile capability. The Korean War was in the rear view mirror, Vietnam was on the near horizon and no longer just a French colonial issue as the USA was supporting the regime in the south but not yet with ‘fast air’ in theatre; meanwhile NATO was generally concerned with shooting down the Warsaw Pact (WP) nuclear bomber whilst deploying fighter bombers (FB) to stop a potential mechanised army attack into Europe from the east. 

The missiles (BVR) versus guns argument was intensifying, leading to some strange anomalies; sacrificing manoeuvre/agility for weapons payload, the 1957 Defence White paper eviscerating the UK aircraft industry, slaughtering many sacred cows and forcing industry amalgamations. Surface-to-air missiles were the new ‘must have’ and the English Electric Lightning only survived because it was so far along the development trail that cancellation was too much bother. 

The Soviet Union had learned lessons from Korea despite participation being vehemently denied and the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) design bureau capitalised. Because of the vast area to protect Soviet air-defence philosophy leaned towards point defence of critical assets rather than area denial for interceptors. China commenced negotiations to licence build Soviet fighter aircraft.

The USA was awash with design teams and manufacturers generating research vehicles and prototypes aiming to fulfil the slightly confusing Department of Defence proposals or profit seeking with unsolicited proposals. In the late-50s period 8 manufacturers produced 14 fighter types, but nuclear bombers were the priority and air defence picked up the scraps. Many pure interceptors failed the test and became fighter-bombers.

Industrial homework in Europe produced some innovative and effective designs for national procurement until $$$ overtook NATO air planning/procurement and some offers became too good to refuse. Unfortunately one strong contender was born just too late for selection: Dassault Mirage IIIC ‘the one that got away’ initially delivered to FAF in July 1961.

Europe feared a cold war incursion and North America both the nuclear bomber threat and an asian hot war. Different imperatives: point defence interceptor, area defender against the nuclear bomber, limited war fighter bomber with offensive capability, or an amalgam of them all which of course produced some ‘bastards’ a few ‘Jacks of all trades’ and the odd classic.

Aerodynamic breakthroughs, material breakthroughs, radar and weapons development – radar BVR missiles, early Infra Red (IR) seekers, beam riders and Semi Active Radar Homing (SARH) terminal guidance all played their part.

The late 50s/early 60s was a period of major next generation fighter development from the ‘first’ or early jet iterations to a researched product driven by perceived threats and actual combat experience. Aerodynamics, propulsion, sensors, weapons all improved in leaps and bounds but were not necessarily integrated or even compatible, certainly many systems didn’t talk to each other well, if at all, and weapons employment was quite ‘hit or miss’.

Missiles were generally ‘hitiles’ with small warheads and initially primitive impact fuzing then proximity, but all very similar in concept.

There are over 30 fighters to choose from but other than personal opinion and preference what criteria have been used? Design freaks, errors, prototypes, wishful production and obvious stupidity have been discarded and the aircraft must have actually entered service. Utility, peer comparison in the role, capabilities – numerical and performance – and any actual 1v1 results have been extensively reviewed. Some aircraft are at the end of their service life others are brand new and there are a couple of ‘near misses’. Rated on my objective values of: performance, sensors, armament and the eye test, does it look ok and would I step into it? Luckily I have in 3 cases. 

10. Hawker Hunter F6

Arguably the prettiest but probably the least powerful of the selection, but if it looks right it probably flies right.  With a low Thrust/Weight (T/W) 0.56 and light Wing Loading (W/L) 252Kg/m² it was certainly one of the easiest to fly and fight in what was its original role of day-fighter interceptor relying on clear airmass or Ground Controlled Interception (GCI). The F6 was the sports car model delivered in October 1956 unencumbered by the 4 tanks and pylons or rocket rails of later models but with the characteristic ‘dogtooth’ leading edge step to cure high Mach No. ’pitch-up’ and the uprated Avon 203 engine. Fitted with a quick-turnaround replaceable four 30-mm Aden cannon pack and 150 High Explosive rounds per gun it had a big punch which you could smell in the cockpit ‘I love the smell of cordite in the morning’ but they did act as a retro device when fired, equivalent to opening the spade airbrake, and quite a few knots were lost. 

Energy retention was good in manoeuvre at high indicated airspeed to more that 7g with a ‘combat flap’ setting (one notch = 15º or 2 = 23º) available up to 350kts but subject to aerodynamically ‘blowing in’ if over-stressed; lack of tailplane pitch authority above Mach 0.9 with flap down reminded you to bring them in. Instantaneous maximum turn would generate an energy loss although flap would improve the turn rate at low speed which was otherwise poor, but again at an energy cost. A medium speed turning fight was the much preferred option if surprise could be achieved. Good engine acceleration allowed separation from an engagement with supersonic just achievable in a dive from medium level but outrunning an opponent, especially missile armed, was not really an option. It retired from day fighter operations in 1963, replaced by the English Electric Lightning with many converted to the close support role as Hunter FGA9s.

It had also excelled as an RAF Black Arrows formation aerobatic team aircraft completing the 22 aircraft loop at Farnborough in 1958 followed by a 16 aircraft roll. Major Bill Beardsley USAF exchange to the RAF in1959 described it as a cross between an F-86F and an F-100.

Great fun dog-fighter, short range weapons, clear airmass, subsonic but beautiful to see and fly.

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9. North American F-100A/C/D Super Sabre (‘Hun’)

Conceived as ‘son of’ the legendary F-86 Sabre, the F-100A series introduced to the USAF from 1954 was conceptually smart with advanced aerodynamics, a high speed point interceptor which could fight its way out of trouble, but it was very unforgiving and had to be ‘flown’ constantly in manoeuvre. It had a low T/W 0.55 and medium W/L 352Kg/m² but a high angle of attack (AoA-⍺) ‘pitch up’ followed by random roll one way or the other into aerodynamic departure. The engine generated gyroscopic effects during acceleration and suffered compressor stalls; adverse yaw from the ailerons at low speed and high ⍺ caused opposite roll departure (the ailerons produced more drag than lift). The handling answer was rudder authority and less aileron at high ⍺. “Only way to control the ’Hun’ at high ⍺ is rudder” commented John Boyd of Nellis Fighter Weapons School” but noted, it could fly “Severely supersonic” and was capable of intercepting the B-47 state of the art strategic bomber at altitude – much to SAC’s displeasure. Despite its exciting performance and four 20-mm cannon with 200 rounds per gun, it was obviously a handful for the average squadron pilot as many accidents proved, so in 1958 the USAF commenced phasing it out having already requested an FB version which appeared in 1956. A yaw damper, pitch damper and up rated J57 engine partially resolving the compressor stall produced a more benign and eventually AIM-9 equipped ’C’ model which performed in the FB and secondary fighter role in Vietnam from 1961 supplemented by the ‘D’ model, which had itself suffered development issues with the constant speed drive, electrical generation, undercarriage and brake parachute. A few ‘kills’ versus MiG-17s were recorded early on but FB operations became the norm and MiG-21s were to be avoided at all costs. The ‘A’ model re-appeared in USAF cameos for another few years as International tensions rose and fell while the ‘C’ and ‘D’ models became successful NATO partner exports. Both the USAF Thunderbirds in 1956 (F-100C/D), and USAFE Skyblazers in 1956 (F-100C) found it quite compatible with close formations display flying. 

Overall a considerable if challenging step up in the USAF fighter inventory. ‘Severely Supersonic’ but with short range weapons initially and very esoteric handling qualities.

8. Republic F-105B/D Thunderchief (‘Thud’)

Developed as a follow on to the F-100 series the Mach 2 nuclear capable fighter bomber was introduced into service in 1958 equipped with a 20mm M61 Vulcan rotary cannon and AIM-9 missiles carrying a nuclear weapon internally for high-speed low-altitude visual penetration. A respectable T/W of 0.74 gave great energy advantages when clean and with a reasonably high W/L of 450Kg/m² it had good stability at low level and as a weapons platform but not sparkling agility.

Conventional FB interdiction operations were an option from the outset carrying several tonnes of ordnance externally on up to 4 underwing pylons and multi-carriers plus a centreline tank. The swept wing and powerful J75 engine concept was complemented by an area rule fuselage and forward swept variable-geometry intakes minimising transonic drag. All weather operations were enabled by the inclusion of NAASAR R-14A search and ranging monopulse radar and ASG-19 Thunderstick fire control system (FCS) in the ‘D’ model introduced in late 1960 although the mission was gradually changed from nuclear to conventional in Europe. Serviceability issues dogged both the ‘B’ and ‘D’ models initially and early offensive capabilities were described as ‘triple threat’ – it could bomb you, strafe you or fall on you. Despite this pessimism, straight line speed, a big gun and AIM-9s later produced many kills against MiG-17s in Vietnam justifying the design although ‘turning and burning’ with MiGs was not a recommended tactic despite the +8.67 g limits, especially if loaded out with bombs, so disengaging cleaning off and re-entering the fight at speed was popular.

Republic F-105B-6-RE (S/N 54-0111) take off. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Front view of Republic F-105B with avionics layout. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Loss of control due to a spin from the complications of swept wing adverse yaw in manoeuvre required deliberate pilot recovery input but recovery would be immediate, assuming you had sufficient altitude which was generally not available in the European theatre but became the norm during medium level operations in Vietnam! Spin recovery was seen as the procedure to provide a “stable platform from which to eject”

Perhaps it’s best not to investigate the F-105 flypast during a Vietnam dedication ceremony at the USAF Academy which cost a fortune in broken windows. The Thunderchief also flew six displays with the USAF Thunderbirds in 1964 but an over-stress accident forced a change back to F-100. Undoubtably an FB workhorse which pilots remember fondly, it put up quite a good performance against the MiG-21 during HAVE DOUGHNUT reinforcing mutual support and the saying ‘speed is life’ but not one to take into a turning fight.

7. Lockheed F-104A Starfighter

Formation of two Lockheed F-104A-15-LO (S/N 56-0769 and 56-0781). (U.S. Air Force photo)

Designed by Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson at Lockheed, Burbank, California the F-104 was planned to out-fly the MiG-15 and was marketed as ‘the missile with a man in it’. It was to be simple and lightweight with maximum climb and speed performance, in fairness it could achieve Mach 2.0 with a T/W of 0.76 loaded and a high W/L of 510Kg/M².          

It entered service in 1958 equipped with a 20-mm M61 Vulcan cannon wingtip AIM-9B and was in action that year in the Second Taiwan Crisis. An earlier exchange that year between Taiwanese F-86s and Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) MiGs had lead to the loss of an AIM-9 which did not fuze but lodged in the fuselage of a MiG-17 allowing it to be recovered and reverse-engineered into a Soviet K-13 (Atoll). The USAF 83rd FIS was detached to support the Nationalist Chinese against the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Quemoy and Matsu islands. Very visible ‘flag waving or sabre rattling’ patrols were flown along the Taiwan Straits and also directly towards the Chinese mainland and by October a ceasefire had been signed and the F-104’s were withdrawn.

The aircraft was optimised for performance above Mach 1.2 at altitude and if used for surprise ‘hit and run’ attacks it could be a formidable opponent but dragged into a turning fight it was vulnerable. At low level and high indicated airspeed (600kts<) it was a very stable platform and as such a useful nuclear delivery vehicle. A large turn radius at low level despite 7g available, generated a humorous colloquialism from Edwards AFB Test Centre pilots ‘banking with intent to turn’. High ⍺ stalling and pitch-up behaviour from 15°⍺, which required constant attention if large excursions and rapid roll/yaw coupling was to be avoided, lead to the installation of a ‘stick shaker’ and a ‘stick pusher’. 

Despite its startling interceptor performance and an AN/ASG-14T1 radar with 20 mile ranging and 10 mile tracking, it suffered from short range, obsolete avionics and an occasionally unreliable early J79-GE-3B afterburner. Even worse the early versions had the Stanley C-1 downward firing ejector seat and after several lives were lost the C-2 upward firing version was fitted.

Take-off speeds were high and close to nose wheel retraction limits, as were landing speeds with added increments for fuel, crosswind, stores and gusts. The boundary layer control system required a minimum power setting above 82% and therefore a shallow approach. Throttling back on the approach caused instant loss of lift, many undershoots and ejections. Powerful brakes and a drag chute reduced the landing roll-out but not by much hence the ‘standard’ NATO 3km runway in Europe.

But there was a ready NATO overseas market for an interceptor/nuclear fighter bomber under the Military Aid Program and Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada and Italy joined a consortium for licensed production (amid some unusual financing arrangements as it was later discovered) and the type flourished.

The USAF handed their ‘A’ models off to the Air National Guard (ANG) after less than a year in service opting for longer range fighters with heavier weapons payloads. Blinding speed, low conspicuity and missiles, things were looking up. It had been fun while it lasted and continued to be for various allies.

6. McDonnell F-101A/B Voodoo

McDonnell F-101A (S/N 53-2425) from Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Originally designed to fulfil the bomber escort role for SAC, which was cancelled as the Korean war ended and the jet powered B-52 emerged, the elegant looking single seat ‘A’ model was rapidly re-invented as a long range nuclear capable fighter bomber for TAC and introduced to service in 1957 with two J57-P-13  engines. A T/W of 0.74 and a W/L of 610Kg/m² made it stable, reasonably manoeuvrable at 6.33g and quick at altitude with Mach 1.52 speed. A large internal fuel capacity allowed for 4 hours plus flight and it was fitted with the Low Altitude Bombing System for nuclear delivery, an FCS and four 20-mm M39 revolver type cannon. Offensive weapons included the Mk 28 nuclear bomb and other variants.

Like most swept wing fighters of its time it suffered from ‘pitch up’ at high ⍺ which was never successfully eradicated and was described as a ‘monumental challenge’ to its pilot. Conversely it was also described as a ‘superlative’ aircraft by its pilots who called it the ‘One-Oh-Wonder’. General Robin Olds even created an F-101C display team of 5 aircraft at RAF Bentwaters in 1964 although it gained him a grounding for ‘not going through channels’.  ‘A’ production was limited to 77 with a further 35 built as the sensibly two-seat RF-101A reconnaissance version.

Robin Olds with his F-101.

Meanwhile the USAF search continued for an interceptor with range, speed and payload so the reworked ‘B’ model entered service with USAF Air Defence Command (ADC) in 1959 powered by the uprated and more reliable J57-P-55 as a response to the F-100’s operating difficulties in the day interceptor role, the F-102’s poor performance in the all weather role and the F-104’s short endurance and lack of weapons payload. A second seat and a Hughes MG-13 FCS previously employed in the F-102 were installed, the cannon were removed and a rotating belly door fitted with 4 x GAR-1 or 2 (AIM-4A or B) Falcons in optional SARH or IR modes, with the operational tactic of firing an IR first followed by an SARH missile. From 1961 some ‘B’ models could carry the AIR-2 Genie nuclear missile. A total of 479 ‘B’ were built including the Canadian version.

Success is relative but the F-101 continued in USAF air defence service for another 12 years followed by another 10 with the ANG. Continuous in-service modifications and weapons updates maintained the F-101 as the backbone of all weather supersonic defence, complimenting the F-106 in Air Defence Command. It was quick, all weather and heavily armed a quantum leap in fighter capability. 

5. Convair F-106A Delta Dart

National air defence competed with SAC nuclear deterrence for budget and influence throughout the 50s (B-47 ISD 1951, B-52 ISD 1955) but the all-weather bomber interceptor kept rising to the top of the procurement chain and the frequent ‘failures’ along the line were relegated to the FB role with NATO, the Military Aid Program or politically expedient allies. So when the F-106 entered service in 1959 as a development of the F-102 there were sceptics especially as engine and avionic performance were poor in development. But Convair had done their research and with a T/W of 0.71 and a low W/L of 250Kg/m² it was quick and manoeuvrable with agility at low and medium speed coupled with light buffet warning of impending high ⍺ oscillations.The fuselage was ‘area ruled’ for aerodynamic efficiency and with a J75-P-17 in excess of Mach 2 at altitude was achieved with ‘super cruise’ (supersonic cruise without AB) a reality. Vertical manoeuvring in visual combat was very effective as was the ‘blow thorough’ weapons pass. Eventually Convair built 277 ‘A’ models. Yet again during USAF procurement the pilot got the rough end of the stick and ejector seat design was woefully inadequate, pilots were most concerned about high and fast but designers with low and slow. Two early seats by Weber Aircraft Corporation (not BBQ fame) suited neither regime and 12 lives were lost until a rocket catapult ‘zero-zero’ seat was installed.

Doctrinally lacking guns or external weapons carriage, but with an internal weapons bay for four AIM-4 A or B (GAR1 or 2) Falcons or a mix with a nuclear AIR-2A Genie unguided rocket it was well armed for the role. Employing the Hughes MA-1 weapons control system in conjunction with the Semi-Autonomous Ground System (SAGE) intercepts were considerably simplified. The combat philosophy became ‘get there the firstest with the mostest’. Two supersonic 360 USGallon tanks could be carried underwing and a gun was fitted to later versions. 

The aircraft acquitted itself well during Project HAVE DRILL versus MiG-17F Fresco (YF-114C) in the late 60s and during Project HAVE FERRY against a second MiG-17F (both originally made in Poland as Lim-5s and exported to Syria – procurement clue). It remained in ANG service until 1988. This may have been the ‘Last Starfighter’ that got away, it was very quick, it could turn, had interception assistance from the ground and a usable internal weapons menu.

4. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19P/PM (NATO ‘Farmer’ B/E)

“The engines were powerful enough to get you out of a bad situation and the acceleration they provided was excellent, especially with afterburners. “There were quite a few bad qualities but the worst, in my opinion, was the thick wing which made transonic speeds (just short of Mach 1) very rough to ride through and almost uncontrollable, although it employed ‘short arm’ and ‘long arm’ technology to cater for it. In three words:  “Challenging – Powerful – Fun” – Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum (Rtd), MiG-19 pilot (full interview here)

Introduced to a group of somewhat shocked NATO military attachés on 3 July 1955 during a Soviet Air Forces (VVS) 48 MiG-19  flypast at the Tushino Airshow, Moscow the Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB-155 (experimental design bureau 155) MiG-19 was intended to have a greater range than the MiG-15 or 17, supersonic speed in level flight and an all-weather radar interception capability.  A T/W of 0.85 and W/L of 300Kg/M² promised speed and manoeuvrability but as usual with Soviet designs there were some caveats. Development had been very variable with engine afterburner improvements needed to achieve supersonic flight, if the rear fuselage did not catch fire first or the fuel tanks explode. The bane of swept wing fighter design, high ⍺ departure into a spin through adverse yaw, was prevalent resulting in ludicrously large wing fences and a lower all moving ‘slab’ tailplane for supersonic control. Mach 1.35 was achieved with a ceiling above 55,000ft which was quite respectable especially as it had a 6g good instantaneous turn wing and was quite agile at medium and low altitude even if not great in a sustained turn. This was to be demonstrated in Vietnam where the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-6s (three cannon MiG-19S type day fighters) achieved six guns ‘kills’ versus US aircraft. With considerable power available, fighting ‘in the vertical’ was the early MiG-19s forté but the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) later found the Mirage IIIEP (the one that got away) had more success in the turn avoiding its speed and missile threat as it re-entered the merge.

In the ‘P’ model the RP-1 Izumrud (NATO ScanFix) radar was fitted with a scan range of 7 km and no lock.  RP-5 Izumrud was installed later increasing range to 12km with auto lock out to 4km using probably the first Track-While-Scan (TWS) mode hence NATO ScanOdd.  Two wing root NR-23-mm 75 rounds per round cannon were installed initially then upgraded to NR-30mm 75 rounds per round with pylons for an unguided rocket pack and a ‘5g’ fuel tank under each wing, jettison-able for combat. This fit was hastily (for the Soviets) adjusted for the carriage of 2 Vympel NPO K-13 (AA-2 Atoll) missiles once the reverse engineering had been completed from the ‘Taiwan incident’ acquisition (see above). 

Natural development into the MiG-19PM (NATO Farmer-E) occurred as the cannon were removed (mirroring a USAF trend or possibly because the SRD-3 Grad gun sight was so poor) and up to 4 Kaliningrad K-5M (NATO AA-1 Alkali) missiles fitted. Two underwing fuel tanks could replace missile on ‘wet’ pylons.

Multiple interceptions of NATO reconnaissance aircraft by PVO Strany (Anti-Air Defence of the Nation) occurred in the late 50s. The first U-2 sighting seems to have been in 1957 and at least one MiG-19 was involved, and possibly shot down inadvertently, during the ‘Gary Powers’ U-2 incident on 1 May 1960. The MiG-19 was gaining a bit of a ‘cavalier’ reputation, the pilots anyway, shooting down an RB-47H in International airspace over the Arctic in July the same year.

As an all-weather interceptor which could fight for its life with one eye on the fuel gauges, the MiG-19 was undoubtably a success with the combat experience and export orders to prove it. Never a flying member of the Tonopah Red Eagles, in 1970 a J-6  exploitation was carried out under Project ‘HAVE BOAT’ in Taiwan. Contemporary knowledge has it that against Western type opposition in Asia it was better than an F-100 with missiles, powerful and with a punch.

3. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21F-13 (NATO Fishbed C)

“The MiG-21 was the result of continuous Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB-155 development and research looking for a combination clear airmass point interceptor/air superiority fighter design in one airframe to compliment the MiG-19 series all-weather interceptor. The first generation MiG-21F (‘Forsirovannyy’ – uprated) was introduced to PVO Strany in 1959, and the F-13 model, signifying Vympel K-13 (NATO AA-2 ‘Atoll’) missile carriage, entered service a year later. This was an unusually fast Soviet air-to-air weapons philosophy change, airframe integration and missile manufacture, undoubtably driven by the ‘Taiwan incident’ (see above – there’s a lot for the USA to answer for in that fuzing failure).

The aircraft had mid-mounted delta wings with small square tips which was excellent for climb but an energy absorber in prolonged hard turns up to 7g (6g with C/L tank) causing speed ‘bleed off’ but reducing the turn radius. Small training edge high lift devices ( 3 position flaps – up, take-off, land) caused high landing and T/O speeds. A relatively low power Tumansky R11F (R-25)—300 turbojet with AB in the slim body, which had been a serious design consideration, was regulated for supersonic flight by an automatic 3 position inlet cone with manual back-up. It had a slow ‘spool up’ from low power (14 secs idle to full mil) and the AB only lit once 100% RPM was achieved. The fuselage has a small belly fin under the rear section to assist yaw stability and a large dorsal spine flush with the bubble canopy reducing rearward vision and limited vision over the relatively long nose. The tail fin sweeps back and is tapered with a square tip. This produced a T/W of 0.76 and W/L of 425Kg/m², a mid range combination similar to the F-101 or F-104 but of course T/W improved rapidly as fuel was used. Mach 2.05 was achieved up to 58,000ft but it was only supersonic above 15,000ft due transonic drag in thick air. Reports of the precise fuel capacity vary but the answer is ‘not much’, approx 2000kg (2500L) internal fuel in poorly placed tanks ahead of the CG caused handling problem and reduced airborne time to 45minutes. A C/L 400L or 490L tank was added to assist CG control and add endurance, attempting to resolve an inherent full flow issue exacerbated by manoeuvre and variable engine compressor tank pressurising air. 

An SRD-5ND Kvant ranging radar was fitted, the ubiquitous Sirena-2 radar warning receiver (RWR) a Gorizont GCI link and an ASP-5ND optical ‘iron’ gunsight. Originally fitted with 1 x NR-30 and 2 x NR23 cannons with only 60rpg, the ‘F’ version dispensed with the 2 x NR 23s and gained 1 x K13 ‘Atoll’ on each inboard pylon. Hit and run or ‘blow through’ tactics soon became the norm but required GCI, clear airmass or ‘smokey’ target engines ( F-4 ).

An interesting and amusing ejection system was installed initially where the forward hinging canopy acted as a blast deflector for the final portion of the pilot’s departure up the seat rails, disengaging from the seat before parachute opening.

This early MiG-21 ‘does what is says on the tin’ was nimble, tight-turning, with a twenty minutes endurance with burner, small and very difficult to see or acquire on air-to-air radar. It had limited speed below 15,000ft and excellent operational capability above. Adequate ‘buffet warning’ was available at high ⍺ and the best manoeuvre speed was 460-540kt. Described as ‘light, agile, beautiful to handle even at low speed’ it is the most built supersonic jet fighter ever – 11,496 a complete era in itself – the veritable Kalashnikov of fighters.

On 16 Aug 66 an Iraqi defector presented an aircraft to Israel and the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Foreign Technology Division, TAC Project ‘HAVE DOUGHNUT’ produced a Comparisons Report (unclass) covertly designating it the YF-110. Despite their confusion over whether they had assessed a 1962 MiG-21F-13 (Fishbed C – likely) or a MiG21-PF/PFS 

(Fishbed E – unlikely), it concluded that the aircraft “has an excellent operational capability in all flight regimes” with minor caveats. It is undoubtably well worth a place on the podium.

“It’s completely a manual aeroplane, with very simple systems. If one masters it, this aircraft can manoeuvre better than most modern aircraft, provided it is flown by someone who has mastered the aircraft. Being a manual aircraft, safety needs to be observed as it is not ensured by inherent safety features and design features of a modern aircraft. In a MiG-21, being an older generation aircraft, sometimes this thin line has been transgressed by a few good men inadvertently and I lost some of my friends.” – Group Captain MJA Vinod, full interview here.

2. English Electric Lightning F1

Developed from a 1947 British Industry private initiative Mach 1.5 fighter design by ‘Teddy’ Petter (Canberra, Folland Gnat) then ’Freddie’ Page (TSR2) and Ray Creasey, it was first flown on 4 August 1954 by ‘Rolly’ Beaumont as the English Electric P1. The P.1 had a ‘stacked’ engine configuration producing twin-engined thrust for the drag equivalent of 1.5 engines. Named ‘Lightning’ in 1956 it was tasked with defending ‘V’ bomber bases against Soviet nuclear armed bombers. Performance emphasis was on rate-of-climb and speed rather than range in anticipation of very short radar detection to interception times. A range of 150nm from the airfields was specified and of course they were to be based towards the East coast of the UK. It survived the Duncan Sandys’ policy of an all missile defence of the UK in the Defence White Paper of 1957, perhaps because it was a fully integrated weapons delivery platform or it was just too much bother to cancel. 

The ’small fin’ F1 had a T/W 0.78 < 1.1 at low fuel and W/L 350Kg/m² achieving 650kts<Mach 1.7 up to 60,000+ft with 2 x Avon-200R series engines with AB. 2500kg internal fuel (including the flaps) and 5.0g limit > 3.0g above Mach 1.6. A good combination of power and agility.

It was armed with two 30-mm Aden revolver cannon with 120 rounds per gun ahead of the cockpit, an optional interchangeable belly pack of 48 x 51mm (2 inch) unguided air-to-air rockets or an additional two Aden cannon, plus two Firestreak passive IR missiles on fuselage stub pylons. The radar was the Ferranti AI-23 ‘AIRPASS’ monopulse set with automatic tracking and ranging for all weapons and it had a gyro gunsight . The Firestreak was almost double the size of the AIM-9 Sidewinder/K-13 Atoll or AIM-4 Falcon as a result of a much larger warhead (22.7kg annular blast fragmentation) but with similar range and speed. All missile aerodynamics and engines were developing along very similar lines at this stage, although the Firestreak was a fairly  maintenance unfriendly weapon with a toxic motor propellant and ammonia seeker head cooling bottles in the launch shoe. Acquisition and launch were constrained by many natural phenomena, cloud, sun, sea, OAT therefore target radar lock was no guarantee of missile success.

Formal entry into RAF service was May 1960 and No. 74 Sqn ‘The Tigers’ formed at RAF Coltishall in July. Further F1s with improved avionics, radar and in-flight refuelling provision were delivered to an additional 2 Squadrons later in the year as the F1A. Unfortunately ‘over and under’ engines were a recipe for leaks of all sorts onto the lower engine in a packed fuselage and many aircraft were lost to fires. It had short range but startling performance and was well armed for 1960, featuring a ridiculous rate of roll approaching that of the Folland Gnat (420°/sec), a great turning radius and acceleration, however, it was a fuel emergency from take-off!

Such was the success of the introduction, after some early engineering familiarisation issues, that in 1961 No. 74 Squadron was designated the Fighter Command aerobatic team with 9 aircraft performing displays around the UK including the SBAC Show at Farnborough that year.

Deke Slayton (USAF Test Pilot and Mercury Astronaut) flew it in 1958 and said “The P.1 was a terrific plane, with the easy handling of the F-86 and the performance of an F-104. Its only drawback was that it had no range at all. . . Looking back, however, I’d have to say that the P.1 was my favourite all-time plane.

Reliably described as flying like a Hunter with enormous power, although at 5g in manoeuvre it feels like constant pre-stall buffet. A contemporary manned rocket with weapons, well worthy of second place.

1. Saab J35A Draken

Avoiding a solely NATO versus Warsaw Pact competition, the No. 1 choice fighter is from a ‘neutral’ country and was created as a purely national self defence initiative. Designed in response to a Swedish Air Force 1949 requirement for an all-weather fighter to intercept the high altitude transonic nuclear-armed bomber and also engage fighters, Erik Bratt at SAAB led the team which proposed a single-pilot, single-engine delta wing aircraft with supersonic performance, capable of austere runway operations and servicing by conscripts (under the BASE90 dispersed airfield scheme). A top speed of Mach 1.7 was planned and a radical ‘double delta’ planform envisaged to provide the most effective solution to very high speed, required fuel and weapon load and short runway performance. The J35 (‘Jaktflygplan’ – pursuit aircraft) ‘Draken’ (Dragon or Kite – your choice) had a T/W of 0.7 and W/L of 230Kg/m² quite powerful, quite light (12T) and quite agile. Powered by one RB6B (a license built RR Avon 200 series) with an indigenous Ebk65 AB and 1,800 kg fuel carried internally. Later ‘Adam’ models were equipped with a more powerful and longer AB requiring ‘dolly wheels’ under the tail (differentiated as the Adam ‘kort’ short or ‘lång’ long). No conventional tailplane was fitted and elevons were installed inboard, manoeuvre was limited to 7.0g. and it entered service in March 1960 with Fighter Wing 13 at Norrköping. Export orders followed amongst the Scandahoovians and eventually second-hand to Austria.

The initial radar installation was an analogue PS-02 (Thomson-CSF Cyrano I) single pulse radar capable of target detection, tracking, weapons solution calculation including gun sight solutions with ground mapping by Ericsson. No auto ‘Stril 60’ GCI control link was fitted at this stage. 2 x 30mm Aden 90rpg in the wing roots, 2 x Rb 24 (licensed built AIM-9B) under each wing and a wet C/L pylon with 420kg tank was the standard fit.

High ⍺ manoeuvring produced a form of ‘pitch-up’ or ‘super stall’ which was recognised as controllable and lead to a form of ‘Cobra’ manoeuvre (‘kort parad’- short parade but ‘short show’ is more descriptive) and is possibly the origin of the Top Gun airbrake/pitch up and opponent fly through manoeuvre. The airframe is always ⍺ limited (15 ok, 22 critical) in manoeuvre rather than ‘g’ – structural limit +12g.

Despite the primary interceptor design it was more than adequate as a dogfighter and has been described as a tougher Mirage III with better radar and runway performance.

With overall excellent performance it is very stable and easy to fly, has a very good roll rate and good instantaneous turn, but like all swept wing aircraft speed bleeds off in continuous min radius turns. Mach 1.8 up to max 66,000ft has been demonstrated and ≍720kt at low level.

It is more capable, faster, has better avionics, gunsight and lookout, more armament and better endurance for its size than any contemporary airframe. In comparison the MiG-21F-13 was faster and possibly more agile at high altitude but had poor avionics and weapons and limited visibility.

As a tribute to its unusually benign but aggressive performance envelope the US National Test Pilot School (civilian) purchased six course curriculum aircraft (see picture below). It was described by an RAF pilot on an exchange tour with the RDAF as a ‘supersonic hunter with benefits’ and incidentally had a perfect combat record – as a neutral – therefore a very worthy winner in my view.

This selection has run the gamut from the gun-armed subsonic clear airmass day fighter Hunter through the ever evolving ‘Century Series’, the MiG Design Bureau’s top selling economy models and English Electric’s ‘Gentleman’s Fighter’ to the heavily armed supersonic all-weather dogfighting ‘Scandi’ Draken. A series of completely different designs and configurations all aiming to produce better combat performance in very varying geographical circumstances. The major constraints were invariably technology – aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics and missiles – very occasionally finance, politics or pilot interface, despite which all of these aircraft saw more than 20 years of service as the original or later marks and some are still being operated. Improvement is obvious through the list and although arguably not one of the greatest periods of fighter design the foundations were being laid for startling generational development. As capabilities increased or improved industrial espionage, reverse engineering, inspired development or pure experimentation drove manufacturers to build the next MiG and Tupolev killer or Peoples Air Defence Forces Defender of the Nation. These 10 set the standards for the next iteration of complete air defenders or specialist fighter bombers.

Suffix – Near Misses

There were a few fighters that came very close to selection which deserve exclusion explanations, so in alphabetical order:

Dassault Mirage IIIC

Mirage IIIC – the one that got away? 

Designed as a radar equipped single seat interceptor with two guns, two missiles and pylons for air-to-ground weapons it entered service with the French Air Force in July 1961, remaining in service for 27 years and being very successfully exported. It was supersonic it could turn despite the ‘delta’ configuration and was all-weather with the Cyrano radar. 

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McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

Originally designed for the USN all-weather carrier interceptor role it was issued to the USAF under a Defence Secretary unified fighter procurement decision with added FB capability. A re-working of the F-3H Demon design for more range, better performance and weapons carriage it reached the USN Fleet Replacement Air Group on 30 December 1960 – probably a paper transfer –  and was on a deployable squadron by July 1961. A consummate performer it would go on to populate most ‘best of’ lists for years to come but not yet.

Interview with F-4 Phantom II pilot here.

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Vought F-8A Crusader

A carrier based air superiority fighter replacing the F-7U Cutlass in December 1956 through the ‘step improvement’ procurement method of the time. Single engine, revolutionary ‘variable-incidence’ wing to aid carrier landing, four unreliable guns and a belly tray of unguided rockets, soon to be deleted, it was hardly a success on arrival. Day clear airmass operations only with a considerable mishap record it needed continuous development with added fire control radar and missiles on stub pylons to make it a reasonable ‘bomb truck’ by the mid-60. Interview with Crusader pilot here.