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New sixteen kill F-14 pilot interview

Saying goodbye to the British Airways’ Boeing 747 with pilot Lyndsay McGregor (with incredible photos from Rich Cooper)

Rich Cooper/COAP

One moody day in October the ‘Queen of the Skies’ landed for the final time. We spoke to 747 pilot Lyndsay McGregor about the aircraft and her feelings on saying goodbye to this majestic machine.

Which three words best describe the 747? Iconic, majestic, recognisable.

Best and worst things about the aircraft? Best: It’s versatility. Freight, people, military, civil, telescopes, laser beams and space shuttles all in and out of a normal size airport.

Credit: Lyndsay McGregor

Worst: Fuel efficiency and environmental impact. In its day it was amazing but today’s big twins show the 747 is past its prime.

Unlike the 380, the 747 has huge cargo capacity which can make for some really interesting ‘passengers’. As well as the standard dog and cat, it’s been know to transport F1 race cars, horses, exotic animals and tons of bees!

Rich Cooper/COAP

How would you rate it in the following categories:

Ease of flying

7/10. The 747 in comparison to the newer fly-by-wire jets is conventional and requires more ‘piloting’. Controlling the speed with the thrust levers, manual trimming and a large control wheel is not much different to flying a 707 back in the 1950s.

Credit: Lyndsay McGregor

Passenger comfort

6/10. Despite its low cabin altitude, the 747’s air conditioning system don’t compare favourably to modern systems. After long flights the dry atmosphere can make you feel dehydrated. Most 747’s cabins are beginning to show their age and the design of the overhead lockers tend to close the cabin in. But, the 747 is still the private airliner of choice for the rich and famous with plenty of room for your banqueting table, comms suite and lazy boy chairs!

Ease of landing 9/10. The large wing means the 747 is forgiving when it comes to landing. Once in ground effect, get it just right and it will reward you with the smoothest of landings. In strong crosswinds you need to bring your ‘A’ game as even after touching down you have to ‘fly the wing’ as you decelerate to avoid scraping a low-hanging outer engine.

Reliability. 10/10 Joe Sutter, the 747’s designer wanted the Jumbo to be the safest jet in the sky. He engineered systems that were both highly reliable and had plenty of back-up. This redundancy means that failure after failure can occur without compromising the integrity of the flight.

Credit: Lyndsay McGregor

Pilot comfort 10/10 The flight deck is smaller than it’s big twin sisters, it’s noisy as we fly so quickly, and well designed with a few nice touches such as cup holders, foot warmers and an ensuite! I was going to give it 7/10 with 1 point lost for no tray table, another for non electrical seat adjustment and another for temperature control on a hot day, but you can look down on every other jet at the airport and so that alone gets full marks!

Aesthetics

Rich Cooper/COAP

10/10. Recognisable from any direction, the 747 pulls off the trick of being huge and beautiful. In plan form those 37.5 degrees of sweep give it a retro look.

Cockpit displays

7/10. The round dial ‘Classics’ were a marvel; some had mechanical vertical tape engine instruments. The -400 has CRT displays with double the display area of the 767 but they are a few generations behind the technology in the 787s and 350s.

Bill Withers used to fit 747 toilets for Boeing

Agility

Rich Cooper/COAP

7/10 I wouldn’t say the 747 is particularly agile, I would compare her to a cruise liner rather than a speed boat. That said, when flying her, she is very responsive especially in roll – and turns with such elegance.

Climb rate

10/10. With four Rb211 engines punching out 56,000lbs of thrust per engine its climb rate can be awesome.

Top speed

Rich Cooper/COAP

9/10 Due to its swept wing, the 747 can comfortably achieve cruising speeds in the region of Mach .85. It’s great racing other jets home across the Atlantic and winning!

Tell me something I don’t know about the 747:

Bill Withers used to fit 747 toilets for Boeing or; Nobody thought that the 747 would be a success or; A 747 was fitted with a super high-powered laser as the YAL-1 to shoot down nuclear missiles in flight.

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What is the biggest myth about the 747?

Rich Cooper/COAP

That you have to be big and manly to fly such a large aircraft

How did you feel about its final BA flight, what was it like?

Her final flight felt like the end of an era and I was disappointed due to the weather on the day, she didn’t get the send-off she deserved. Whilst sad, it’s a reminder of how aviation is a progressive industry with newer technology and more efficient jets. I felt very proud to have been a part of her legacy and doubt that few airliners will hold the title of ‘Queen of the Skies’.

What was your first flight at the controls like?

Rich Cooper/COAP @coaphoto on Twitter @richcooperuk on Insta

It was such a rush and I couldn’t decide if I was excited, nervous or a mixture of the two! I had never flown a Boeing before let alone the 747 and I will never forget the rumble of the four RB211 engines spool up as we took off on our way to Cape Town. It felt like all the hard work, commitment and sacrifices made through my career had built up to that one moment

Which aircraft will you return to after maternity leave, and how do you feel about the prospect?

Rich Cooper/COAP

I am excited and looking forward to returning to work. Whilst I am kept (very) busy during the day, it will be good to have some sort of structure and normality back to my routine. My hope is to return to the A350 or 787 as I enjoy the lifestyle and operational complexities of long haul operations. Whatever type I fly I know it will come as a shock to the system when I have to engage my brain again and start learning!

Do you have personal preference for Boeings or Airbuses, if so why?

Rich Cooper/COAP

I started my career on the Airbus and spent the first 7 years on the A320 family, so its the jet I feel the most comfortable and at home with. That said, I have enjoyed the Boeing as it feels like a ‘real aircraft’ to fly and I find the manuals and Quick Reference Handbook easier to navigate. When people ask, it’s much cooler to say you fly the Boeing 747, but the Airbus does have a tray table, which makes it a tough call. All things considered, Boeing wins the day

3 reasons why a 747 is better than an A380

Looks. The 747 looks majestic in the sky. When you see her turn it’s with such poise and elegance and the A380, well, you don’t quite get the same vibe.

Convenience. The 747 is nicknamed the ‘ensuite fleet’ as the flightdeck has its own toilet and bunks. You can access all of the home comforts without leaving the fight deck.

Cargo. Unlike the 380, the 747 has huge cargo capacity which can make for some really interesting ‘passengers’. As well as the standard dog and cat, it’s been know to transport F1 race cars, horses, exotic animals and tons of bees!

How would you summarise the BA career of the 747 and its historical importance?

BA really spans the full life of the 747, from joint launch customer of the -100 (as BOAC), to Combis, to launching the -400 in 1989, to losing one to mortar fire in the invasion of Kuwait, to being the largest operator of the 747 for most of its operational life. There were even 747-8Fs in BA colours operated by GSS. For years the 747 was the workhorse of the airline, giving BA its famous ‘billion dollar route’.

Farewell to the ‘Queen of the Skies’ Rich Cooper/COAP @coaphoto on Twitter @richcooperuk on Insta

The greatest aircraft of the Indian Air Force, Part 1: The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 by KS Nair

In the first of our celebrations of the most significant aircraft of the Indian Air Force we’ll look at the MiG-21. Fast, agile and extremely manoeuvrable, this Soviet ‘pocket rocket’ has served for almost 80% of India’s history as an independent nation.

“I once flew a DACT mission against two MiG-29s, I didn’t engage them in a turning fight. I kept my fight vertical and got two kills.” -–– Group Captain MJA Vinod (full interview here)

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 was first inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1963. That was fifty-seven years ago, and the induction was of six aircraft. In the nearly six decades since then, the IAF has flown something approaching nine hundred examples of the type. And three-quarters of that number were built in India. On that basis alone, it is one of the most important Indian warplanes. The acquisition was transformational for the IAF, and in some ways beyond the IAF, for India. For a sense of where the transformation began, for the first ten years after Independence, India had genuine financial incentives to source imports from the UK. Hence the acquisitions of Tempests, Vampires, Hunters and Gnats. By the late 1950s India was seeing value in diversifying its sources of weaponry. Hence that initial batch of six Soviet MiG-21s. The MiG-21 was the first major non-Western weapon system India ever acquired. It was a huge change, going far beyond the language of the manuals. The Soviets had completely different design philosophies and combat doctrines, so completely different maintenance and operational practices.

In what would have been a case study in the private sector, the IAF made a conscious decision to acquire the technology – but to not adopt the procedures and tactics. The IAF planned from the start to use MiG-21s the way Western air forces use their interceptors; in independent squadrons, mobile between bases operating other types as well. This was different from Soviet / Warsaw Pact practice, of operating in regiments, about two or three times the size of a squadron, and generally operating one regiment of a single type from a base. Simplifying somewhat, this was also substantially the way the Luftwaffe had operated in WW2 – their deployable unit was the Gruppe, not the Staffel.

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The IAF used the MiG-21, and other Soviet hardware later, in ways their designers had never intended. The Soviets, planning for massive continent-wide land battles, built and deployed the MiG-21, as they did most of their military kit, in vast numbers, intending to stockpile them at different locations throughout Central Europe. They were essentially disposable assets, to be abandoned after a short cycle of intense operations. Operating life in war would have been measured in days, or at most weeks. India needed different ancillary equipment, maintenance schedules, and much else.

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When she procured the MiG-21, initially largely as a response to Pakistan’s acquisition of F-104 Starfighters, they were considered high-value assets, to be husbanded and carefully used primarily against those Starfighters. This use imposed different maintenance needs, quite different from the Soviet. The IAF developed maintenance processes, schedules for replacing parts, spares inventory requirements, geared in ways the Soviets had never planned for. In the acid test, the MiG-21 met Indian expectations in combat. In Indian hands it outfought some Western types, including USAF F-15s during one of the first exercises with them. The unique ways the IAF operated the MiG-21 were a product of unique times and circumstances.

Many of them have now changed, and the IAF is able, and recognised for its ability, to mix and match technologies from different sources. This makes for less than optimal fleet management and inventory constraints, certainly – but it does say something about Indian ingenuity and jugaad. Some difficulties notwithstanding, particularly during the disruption of spares supplies in the 1990s, a new generation of Indian aviators still fly the MiG-21. They include some of the first few Indian women combat pilots. At a time when more modern types are in the news, we might remember that India has used MiG-21s on a scale that even their designers didn’t think of.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR K S Nair has written two books, most recently The Forgotten Few, and about 70 articles on the Indian Air Force and military issues in developing countries. His next book, to be published by HarperCollins in 2021, will cover the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, during which the MiG-21 came into its own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profile illustrations by The Teasel Studio.

Halloween Warplanes!


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

10. Lockheed AC-130 Spectre/Spooky/Ghostrider

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

9. Grumman Goblin

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

8. McDonnell F2H Banshee

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


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


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

7. Yakovlev Yak-25RV ‘Mandrake’

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


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

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6. Nakajima Ki-49 Donryu ‘Storm Dragon’

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


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

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5. Westland Wyvern

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


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

4. McDonnell F3H Demon

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


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


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

3. PZL M-15 Belphegor

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

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

2. McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

Ice Storm by RadoJavor

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

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


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


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

1. de Havilland Vampire

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

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

-SEAN KELLY

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

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

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

Spain to buy more Typhoons?

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

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

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New European trainer

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

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

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

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

—Hush-Kit

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

Credit: USAF

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

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

I couldn’t resist commenting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonopah_Test_Range_Airport_-_1990
Tonopah Test Range Airport (USAF photo)

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

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Eagle versus the Russian Flanker here

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

4477th_Test_and_Evaluation_Squadron_MiG_21_Landing
Red Eagle MiG-21 Fishbed (USAF photo)

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

MiG-23 Flogger (photo credit: unknown)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: USAF

The most under-rated Soviet combat aircraft?


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

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

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

The Soviet approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red defenders

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

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

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

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

Comparison with Western interceptors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: Harrier 809 by Rowland White

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

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

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

What was the Sea Harrier?

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may order his book here, you may order the similarly essential Hush-Kit Book Warplanes here.