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5 Things I learnt writing a book about the McDonnell XP-67 ‘Moonbat’ experimental fighter

The first aircraft designed and built by James S. McDonnell’s new company, the Army’s XP-67, is one of the most unusually-shaped aircraft of all time and also one of the least documented. Its combination of pure curvaceous sexiness and a tantalizing (and frustrating) lack of photographic coverage have made it a cult favorite among aviation history buffs for decades. Attempts had been made to tap into historical records at Boeing (merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997) but the results were meager, to say the least.

We had retired from Boeing in St Louis and were looking for a project. We both love doing research. What better challenge could we have than to take a crack at XP-67? We started by revisiting the Boeing Historian’s office, but nothing new was found there. The National Archives and Records Administration was the next obvious place to look, and in fact there were a number of production drawings of piece parts in their collection. COVID disrupted our plans there, with NARA shut down to visitors for the entire time that we had been given to write a history of XP-67 for Osprey Publishers’ X-Planes series. We had to find other sources, and quickly.

Having made a number of contacts with individuals and organizations, we slowly began to piece together the history of XP-67 that included a variety of photos and drawings that had never been published. This research kept expanding in scope, bringing in all kinds of factors that we hadn’t been aware of. Along the way we uncovered many things that surprised us, given that we had previously only known the top-level story that has been repeated so many times over the years. Here are our top 5, and they may surprise you, too:

1. XP-67 actually did have a nickname! “Moonbat” wasn’t used at the time, but it’s completely understandable why it’s stuck informally for so long. The airplane does look bat-like, thanks to its use of extreme blending of the engine nacelles into the wing and the wing into the fuselage. In conventional aircraft the blending is much more restrained, and is called “filleting.” So, XP-67’s most distinctive external feature is what led Army test pilots to give it a nickname in their official report: “The XP-67 is known as the ‘Flying Fillet’; any longitudinal cross section through the airplane being an airfoil section.”

2. XP-67’s engines weren’t particularly troublesome! And they definitely weren’t prone to catching fire. Contemporary records don’t always make a clear distinction between overheating and actual fire, but in all but one case those events were due to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (MAC) designed peripherals such as ducts and valves rather than anything failing in the engines. Literally the only time that an engine component failed and started a fire was during XP-67’s last flight, after 8 months of flight testing had been completed. It’s worth noting that the only other aircraft ever to fly with the same Continental I-1430 engines was Lockheed’s XP-49, and no fires or serious mechanical failures occurred there either. It’s been said many times that they failed to deliver their full rated horsepower, which led to sluggish takeoff and high-speedperformance. But in fact, an Inter-Office Memorandum dated 19 January 1944, so early in the program that flight testing had barely begun, the Army program coordinator for XP-67 to the Chief of Aircraft Projects at Wright Field noted that as a result of extensive engine testing in the full-scale nacelle fixture “it is the opinion of this office that the engine has performed satisfactorily. This opinion is borne out by tunnel tests of the full-scale nacelle at Wright Field, during which engine difficulties were practically non-existant [sic] and the engine delivered its rated 1600 hp for protracted periods of time.” Later in the program, as rumors of fires apparently started to spread, the Chief of Technical Staff at Wright Field noted that apart from a fire on the first flight (resulting from failure of a duct carrying exhaust gases, nothing to do with the engine itself) – “The fifth flight occurred on 25 March 1944. Approximately fifty flights have been accomplished and no serious functional difficulties have been encountered.”

3. Army pilots only flew XP-67 a handful of times! Virtually all of the XP-67’s test flying was done by MAC Chief Test Pilot Ed Elliott. Three Army pilots flew a total of just five flights and a total of around 4 hours split between them, hardly enough time to become familiar with the aircraft, much less make more than superficial judgements about its performance. Some of their critiques are baffling, such as comparing the large twin-engine XP-67’s maneuverability and turn radius with that of a small single-engine P-51B and naturally finding that the latter was superior, a complete irrelevancy since XP-67 was meant to destroy bombers with its six 37mm cannon (never actually fitted) rather than dogfight with enemy fighters. There are indications in the surviving program correspondence that other Army pilots may have made single flights at times, but they appear to have been opportunistic rather than part of any organized test activities. 

4. XP-67’s rollout and final demise happened very close to each other! McDonnell’s facilities at Lambert Airport in St Louis were at the north side of the field, and that’s where XP-67 was rolled out in November 1943. On a windy day in September 1944, it made its last flight, landing on fire and being abandoned by its pilot on a taxiway that was on the then-southwest corner of the airport, less than 1,000 yards from where it had been rolled out. We got permission to go inside the perimeter of today’s St Louis Lambert International Airport and stood on both sites, which were easily visible from each other.

5. XP-67 wasn’t the only “X-fighter” at Lambert Airport in 1943-44! McDonnell’s facilities were directly across the runway from the huge new plant that Curtiss-Wright had constructed for building mostly variants of the SB2C Helldiver family. At the same time that XP-67 was being developed, Curtiss-Wright was building their XP-55Ascender, which they rolled out in July 1943, just 4 months before XP-67 made its first appearance, and was lost in November 1943 while flying from Lambert, just two weeks before XP-67 left the assembly building. The second XP-55 saw daylight in January 1944, while XP-67 was in the process of making its first four flights from Scott Field in Illinois. But the XP-55 number 3 emerged in April 1944, while XP-67 was actively test flying from Lambert. It’s very likely that both aircraft were within sight of each other at one or more times, but sadly no photos have been found to show this. This near-neighboring of two Army WW2 fighter X-planes is unique!

Those were some of the most interesting things that we discovered while researching and writing our book. But on a personal note, the one that doesn’t get a mention is the fact that much of XP-67’s test flying and XP-55’s too, including (we believe) XP-67’s catastrophic final flight, took place in the airspace directly over our house! At the time it hadn’t yet been built, of course, but it’s still something that we like to imagine when we look up at the sky.

– Steven Richardson was an aero engineer who worked at McDonnell and Boeing, and Peggy Mason was in comms at Boeing, You can order their McDonnell XP-67 “Moonbat” (X-Planes) book here. Review here.

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10 Reasons the Vickers Wellesley was amazing (and how it won the War)

The deeply unconventional Vickers Wellesley had a vital and seldom discussed part in the Allies’ victory in World War II. An utterly unorthodox combination of cutting-edge technologies and decidedly old-fashioned thinking, the Wellesley was a world-record-setting aeroplane of beastly good looks.

10. Led to the Wellington

The redoubtable Vickers Wellington was the best bomber of Bomber Command in the early years of the War and found gainful employment in every RAF command. Key to its effectiveness was its ‘basket-weave’ geodetic construction that was both light and remarkably strong. The Wellington could not have happened without the maturation of geodetic aircraft construction via the Wellesley.

The Wellington could absorb a huge amount of groundfire and return to base, thanks to its unusual structure.

9. Low weight

The Wellesley’s structure weighed only two-thirds that of the more conventional Vickers Vincent

8. The mystery of Wellesley K7734

Shortly before midnight on the 23rd February 1938 two Vickers Wellesley aircraft of the RAF’s Long Range Development Unit took off from Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire. The aircraft were tasked with a long-distance ‘endurance flight’ around Britain. One of the aircraft never returned. Despite a vast air-sea search effort and news appeals for information, the aircraft and its aircrew were never found. No Mayday was sent, and its last signal was at 7.15 am on Thursday 24th February. The mystery has never been solved definitively, but on 22nd March 1938, a Dunlop tailwheel was found floating off Karmo, 25 miles north of Stavanger in Norway. The type matched that of the Wellesley.

7. Hercules testbed

The Hercules radial engine was a massive success, powering over 25 different aircraft types. The Wellesley Type 289 engine testbed was used to test the Hercules HE15 and was vital to its development.

6. Massawa naval base attack

Egypt contains the strategically vital Suez Canal. In the War, the Suez Canal connected Britain with its Empire, which was supplying huge amounts of critical material to the war effort. Without the Suez canal, Britain would be dangerously starved of oil and other vital supplies: it could easily have meant the end for the Empire. When Italy declared war on Britain and France in 1940, it left Egypt extremely vulnerable. The Italians had the Suez canal in their sights and massive numerical superiority in Africa, the Italians also had a powerful local naval force which was composed of nine destroyers, eight submarines as well as a squadron of fast torpedo boats.

Though the British lacked the most advanced warplanes in this region, there was a Wellesley force. No 14 Squadron, along with two other RAF squadrons, was equipped with Wellesleys and based in Sudan. On 11 June nine aircraft from No 14 Squadron mounted an audacious raid against the Italian naval base at Massawa. Massawa was the homeport for the Red Sea Flotilla of the Italian Royal Navy. At sunset 14 Squadron attacked at extremely low level, lower than 500 feet at times, and ignoring the tempting ships, ravaged the port’s fuel stores. The resultant firestorm destroyed an estimated 10,000 tons of fuel.

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It is likely that the attempted Italian invasion of Sudan in July was stalled by fuel shortages caused by the raid, buying time for the arrival of later Indian reinforcements that would turn the tide of war. The plucky nine aircraft and their extremely brave crews achieved a great deal in their bold sunset raid on Massawa.

5. It didn’t kill Jeffrey Quill

The 2nd prototype Wellesley flown by test pilot Jeffrey Quill went into a spin and lost control at 10,000 feet on 5 July 1937. Quill pilot baled out and survived. The aircraft landed in the front garden of house in New Malden in South London, photographs taken by a schoolboy on his Box Brownie reveal how remarkably intact the airframe remained, a testament to its extremely tough construction. Quill was the 2nd test pilot to fly the Spitfire and masterminded the development and production test flying of all 52 variants of the Spitfire.

4. Incredible strength

To ensure new aircraft of the time were able to survive the extreme flight loads safely, they were subject to brutal tests that added weights to the airframe equivalent to five times the maximum expected flight loading. Whereas the Vickers Valiant barely survived this test, the prototype Wellesley’s fuselage had successfully endured a factor of 8! The wings had stood up to an astonishing factor of 11. Tests were only halted to prevent the destruction of the test rig. The Wellesley was built like a brick shithouse.

4B. Its looks

The Wellesley looked tough as hell.

3. Geodetic construction

 A geodetic construction makes use of a rigid, lightweight, truss-like structure constructed from interlocking struts formed from a spirally crossing basket-weave of load-bearing members. Put simply the basket weave style is stronger and lighter than equivalent conventional structures. This style of construction was first adopted in German airships, then tried in an experimental French aeroplane before reaching maturity in the Wellesley from the design board of Barnes Wallis (famous for his renewable energy generator wrecking ‘bouncing bomb’). Wallis’ famous Wellington bomber could not have been developed without the pioneering design of the Wellesley.

2. Insanely long-range

 The long-range capabilities of the Wellesley were astonishing. To demonstrate the startlingly effective work the RAF Long Range Development Unit (LRDU) had carried out on the Wellesley, a widely publicised long-range flight took place in November 1938. The flight was to use three of the five LRDU Wellesleys. These aircraft differed from standard Wellesleys in several ways each designed to maximise range, the most immediately obvious being the replacement of the characterful Townend ring with a slick NACA-style low-drag engine cowling housing a more powerful Pegasus XII engine. Less visible, but as important, was the addition of a slew of cutting-edge technologies that included a constant speed propeller, three-axis autopilot and automatic mixture and engine boost controls. The aircraft was also given plentiful additional extra fuel capacity, bringing the total load to 1,290 gallons. The three aircraft set off on a daunting adventure to fly non-stop from IsmailiaEgypt to DarwinAustralia, a distance of 7,162 miles (11,526 km) on the Fireworks Night 1938. Two days later two of the three aircraft arrived at Darwin (one landed to refuel at Koepang 500 miles short of Darwin, Australia). The result was a world distance record that smashed the previous Soviet-held record by a decisive 1500 kilometres. The record would stand for over seven years when it was beaten by a B-29.

  1. Recovering the Engima key

It is widely acknowledged that the cracking of Germany’s Enigma code was hugely important to the eventual Allied victory. Key to cracking the code was obtaining a codebook and an Engima machine, both of which were recovered from the German submarine U-559, thanks to a dramatic combined operation which featured an RAF Sunderland and four Royal Navy destroyers, and of pivotal importance – a Wellesley. At 12.34 on 30 October 1942, the 47 Squadron Wellesley spotted the periscope of the invaluable U-559 and attacked with depth charges. The submarine crew eventually surrendered without having time to destroy the coding equipment providing the greatest intelligence windfall of the War.

10 myths you shouldn’t believe about the Messerschmitt 262

When it comes to German World War II aircraft, busting myths is a risky business. There’s such a wealth of surviving primary source material sitting around in archives that it would take a brave individual to stick their neck out and attempt to disprove what’s commonly regarded as fact today. With suitable caveats firmly in place then, Dan Sharp, author of Messerschmitt Me 262 Development & Politics, presents 10 ‘myths’ about the famous German jet fighter

10. The Luftwaffe and Air Ministry threw all their resources at the Me 262 because jets were cheap.

The Jumo 004 was cheaper to produce than, say, a DB 605 or BMW 801, but the Me 262 needed two of them. And the debate about whether to cancel piston engine production continued essentially until the war ended. It was acknowledged that although jets worked well as bomber interceptors, poor acceleration and a very wide turning circle meant they weren’t ideal for combatting enemy fighters – particularly low-flying fighter-bombers – nor could the 004 maintain power above 11,000m (36,000ft – some de Havilland Mosquito variants, for example, could fly significantly higher than this). And range was poor compared to piston engine types. Therefore, the Luftwaffe continued to invest a great deal of time and vast resources in piston engine types such as the Fw 190/Ta 152 and Do 335. Even the Bf 109 somehow struggled on in mass production till the end.

9. The glass-nosed Me 262 variant with prone bomb-aimer was a weird curiosity.

Widely known today as the Me 262 A-2a/U2, from June to December 1944, this type – known then as the Me 262 A-3 – was regarded as the most important one. When Hitler decided that the 262 had to be a pure bomber, Messerschmitt was immediately tasked with working out how to change the design from that of a fighter (don’t call it that!) to a bomber. Downwards visibility from the standard 262 was rather poor and the aircraft was very fast, so it was decided that a dedicated bomb-aimer was needed. Early designs involved a second crewmember seated behind the pilot – like the trainer variant. However, this would have required a 2m long periscope to give the back-seater a view past the bomb hung below the aircraft’s nose. Therefore a prone bomb-aimer seemed like the best compromise. Work on it largely stopped when Hitler rescinded his ‘bomber-only’ order in November 1944.

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8. The Me 262’s full designation has a little ‘a’ on the end, i.e. Me 262 A-1a or Me 262 A-2a. The little ‘a’ seems to have first appeared in October 1944 when the 004 engine shortage likely to occur in December 1944 was first identified. It was hoped that this anticipated shortfall could be mitigated by fitting some 262s with BMW’s 003. That being the case, 004-engined machines would get the little ‘a’ and 003-engined ones would get a little ‘b’. So a BMW 003-engined standard Me 262 fighter would be Me 262 A-1b. But of course, the 003 wasn’t ready in time and the 004 shortage proved to be fairly brief. Some contemporary sources do continue to use the little ‘a’ but many don’t. Any Me 262 made before October 1944 was certainly an ‘A-1’ or ‘A-2’ without the little ‘a’ and even for those made thereafter, it’s not really essential to add the ‘a’.

7. The Me 262’s final configuration wasn’t determined until the autumn of 1944. Preparations for full series production of the Me 262 had commenced before the end of 1943 – with full blueprints drawn up and ready to use. The standard A-1 design appears to have been completed during the autumn of 1943. In April 1944, the Luftwaffe officially accepted delivery of 17 Me 262s – some of these were pre-production models but the basic configuration had been established.

6. The Jumo 004 jet engine had a service life of only 10 hours in the Me 262.

Horror stories of the 004’s incredibly poor endurance appear to be somewhat exaggerated. The 10-hour figure was evidently the worst-case-scenario period between engine-out overhauls. The 004 B-1 wasn’t a disposable unit but it does seem as though actual total service lifespan was initially still only around 25-30 hours. It could last somewhat longer if the pilot was careful but most weren’t. This wasn’t much of an issue though, since very few Me 262s apparently lasted beyond 25-30 hours – most being wrecked due to pilot error, according to official figures. Engine lifespan was dramatically increased – to 100 hours or more – with the introduction of ceramic turbine blades in early 1945.

5. It was the poor state of the Jumo 004 engine which delayed the Me 262.

A Jumo 004 engine being studied by Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory engineers of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1946

Given the tremendous difficulties faced by BMW, Heinkel and indeed Daimler-Benz, Anselm Franz and his team at Junkers Motoren seem to have had a relatively easy time designing the 004. By early 1943 they were lobbying the Air Ministry for more airframes in which to test their engines because Messerschmitt had hardly built any of the 20 that had been on order since July 1940. The 004 A ate up too much in the way of scarce metals, the B-0 used too few scarce metals and the B-2 programme collapsed but the B-1 represented a sweet spot that was relatively economical to make and worked passably well. Contemporary records appear to show that there were sufficient engines to power every 262 airframe built, up to around December 1944, when there was indeed a brief shortage. At no other point were there airframes sitting around waiting for engines.

4. Bombs didn’t delay the Me 262.

Willy Messerschmitt told Hitler during a personal audience in September 9, 1943, that the Me 262 would make a great aircraft with which to bomb Britain. Hitler seems to have thought about this and on October 27, 1943, issued an order that every Me 262 should be built as a fighter-bomber. The distinction here between fighter, fighter-bomber and bomber is crucial. Göring passed this order on to Milch and his senior staff on October 28, who then passed the message on to Willy Messerschmitt. From this time on, the Me 262 would have to carry bombs – but it could also be flown on fighter operations as needed. Fast forward to May 1944 and the first 100 Me 262s are in production. At a meeting with Hitler on May 23, Milch and his staff reassure Hitler that everything is fine with the Me 262 fighter-bomber. But on May 24, at a meeting without Hitler, the German Air Ministry’s chief of development Siegfried Knemeyer expresses concerns to Göring that not only are the first 100 not being wired-up to carry bombs, but that no Me 262 will be capable of carrying bombs owing to centre of gravity issues. Göring is horrified – did his staff just lie to Hitler yesterday? Eventually, it’s worked out that this is actually wrong and everything IS fine, but Hitler has already, somehow, got word of the confusion. He’s furious and issues an order on May 26 that now the 262 must be a bomber. Not a fighter-bomber. A bomber. He expressly orders that it CAN NOT be used for fighter operations. It is forbidden even to refer to it as a fighter. Limited fighter testing can still take place, but henceforth, the Me 262 is to be called a ‘fast bomber’. It will be operated by bomber units as a bomber. But no Me 262 has ever dropped a bomb. They haven’t even designed bomb racks for it, nor fitted a bomb-aiming device. Hitler refuses to revoke this order till November 1944.

3.

Willy Messerschmitt was the Me 262’s greatest champion, battling Luftwaffe and Air Ministry indifference. This is the narrative that both Messerschmitt himself and his staff presented to Allied interrogators shortly after the war ended: the failure of the Me 262 to reach the front lines in time was down to the German Air Ministry. The truth, however, is somewhat different. In fact, the Minister of State for Aviation, Erhard Milch, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland decided in May 1943 to cancel the Bf 109 and build the Me 262 in its stead, with production of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 being ramped up in the meantime to cover the unavoidable dip in overall fighter production. Willy Messerschmitt appears at this time to have experienced the revelation that his company had developed a product in the Me 262 which made practically all of its existing products obsolete. Building the Bf 109 (and Bf 110, Me 210 and Me 410) was a vast and vastly profitable enterprise involving huge supply chains. Not only that, Messerschmitt had been banking for years on building a successor to the 109 – initially the 309 and by this point the 209, which was intended to share around 50% of its parts with the 109 to minimise supply chain disruption. Dismantling all that in favour of the Me 262 would be a disaster for the company, particularly since very little work had been done on the 262 for around 18 months. Messerschmitt, therefore, went to Hitler and had him overturn the 109/209 cancellation, which effectively kicked the 262 into the long grass. In truth, while the Luftwaffe and Air Ministry were desperate for the 262 by May 1943, Willy Messerschmitt, through his friendship with Hitler, was able to successfully frustrate their efforts to get it into production early, thereby rescuing his company from another disaster.

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2. There was a big celebration following its first successful flight with Jumo 004s. Mano Zielger described the scene at Leipheim on July 18, 1942, in his book Hitler’s Jet Plane: “The flight had lasted 12 minutes in all. And then it was all jubilation: onlookers running from the airfield buildings, the groundstaff crowding round to offer their congratulations, an exultant Willy Messerschmitt.” This appears to be a work of fiction. By all (contemporary) accounts, no one other than those physically involved in the flight test were really aware of it, and none of them was aware of its significance. Willy Messerschmitt, in particular, was thoroughly distracted, struggling through the aftermath of a rolling catastrophe which threatened to destroy both his company and his own career – the failure of the Me 210. Immediately after the war, Messerschmitt commercial director Rakan Kokothaki confessed that no one in management noticed the Me 262’s first successful jet-powered flight at the time.

1. The Messerschmitt Me 262’s nickname was ‘Schwalbe’, German for Swallow.

This name appears all over the place in connection with the Me 262. It’s on the cover of books, the National Air and Space Museum in the US uses it in its official description of the aircraft, ditto the Imperial War Museum, so it must be right, right? Well, yes and no. Delving through archival material you might expect to find references to the ‘Schwalbe’ sprinkled through various German documents. You would soon discover, however, that ‘Schwalbe’ doesn’t seem to appear in… well… ANY German WW2 documentation. ‘Sturmvogel’? Yes, various sources. ‘Silber’? Also yes, albeit from fewer sources. ‘Schwalbe’? Not a one (at least nothing yet discovered!). So where did it come from then? Curiously, British and American publications – magazines and newspapers – seem to have begun using the ‘Schwalbe’ name at least a year before the war ended. It reached a point where practically every photo of a captured Me 262 was captioned using ‘Schwalbe’. Could it be that the Swallow name was actually an invention of the Allies? It seems at least possible.

Messerschmitt Me 262 Development & Politics by Dan Sharp is available here

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How East Germany made the world’s worst airliner

Baade 152 Baade to the Bone 

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That the wretched Baade ever got built says much for the charm of its designer Brunolf Baade. From 1936 he worked for Junkers and was involved in the design of the Ju 88Ju 188Ju 388 and Ju 287. Following defeat and partitioning, the Soviet Union took many German aerospace experts — including Baade—  to aid in the development of new military projects. The Soviets had a pressing need for a fast twin-engine jet bomber, and the German boffins set about designing one. The resultant EF 150 was conceived by Baade, Hans Wocke and other former Junkers staff. Hugely delayed by engine problems, the aircraft ended up having to compete and lose out to a greatly superior aircraft from a newer generation, the Tu-88 (which became the Tu-16 ‘Badger’).

Despite this, Baade may not have been having such a bad time. It is rumoured that Baade’s winning personality made him a favourite with his Russian masters, and that while his colleagues were enduring the biting 1947 Moscow winter he was enjoying a holiday in Crimea. In 1953 the Germans were sent back to East Germany, where some attempted to start an aviation industry for the new nation.

Flugzeugwerk Dresden, Flugzeug 152

A new jetliner was desired, and Baade initiated a project — dubbed the Type 152 — based on the EF 150. This was a terrible basic design for a jetliner. For a start, it had a bicycle undercarriage — meaning the aircraft could not rotate promptly on take-off and it required great precision to land precisely (something they attempted to rectify with a  later, somewhat bizarre, configuration). It also had terrible engines, Pirna 014s based on wartime technology, which offered a miserly 3:1 thrust-to-weight ratio (compare this to the 4.5: 1 of the Pratt & Whitney JT3D which first ran a year earlier than the Pirna) and lousy specific fuel consumption. The wings were the wrong shape and in the wrong place: a low aspect ratio broad chord slab that was far from ideal for cruising efficiency. The high placing of the wings obstructed the cabin, while the space under the floor was occupied by the undercarriage.

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The maiden flight of this aircraft took place on 4 December 1958. Four months later the aircraft took its second flight and crashed killing all on board. In mid-1961 the East German government stopped all aeronautical industry activities, as the Soviet Union did not want to buy any of these aircraft or support a potential rival to their own Tu-124. This mercifully put an end to what would have certainly been a horrible airliner.

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McDonnell XP-67 “Moonbat” X Planes book review

As far as I am aware this is the first book solely about the lusciously sexy XP-67. This is a very welcome subject as the cancelled ‘Moonbat’ is certainly one of the most charismatic aeroplanes ever flown.

Whereas most other aircraft of the time (1944) were of the conventional ‘sausages with planks’ configuration, the XP-67 interceptor was of sleek blended form and featured a raft of radical new technologies, but it was not the Moonbat.

For Moonbat fans such as myself, the rather brutal dismissal of the nickname ‘Moonbat’ in the introduction (apparently it was not used at the time of the project) was disappointing – as this nickname was perfect for the aircraft, and certainly superior to the ‘Flying Fillet’ title actually used by the USAAF. The XP-67 is deeply Batmanesque in appearance, and the name Moonbat seems absolutely apt. The word ‘moonbat’ is a pejorative term in the US to describe a person with extreme left-wing political views (which considering how far right much of the US has swung today, would include anyone not in favour of invading and colonising Canada). Its origins may lie with the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 when the New York Sun ran a fake story about a civilisation of winged bat people on the moon – or a poem from 1890 that employed the term to refer to unsound ideas. Significantly it was also used as a name for a spaceship in the 1947 sci-fi short story Space Jockey by Robert A. Heinlein, himself an aeronautical engineer, and naval officer

Space Jockey by Robert A. Heinlein

The blended approach used by the XP-67 was an idea put forward by Russian aerodynamicist Nicolas Woyevodsky in 1921, and explored by the British aircraft company Miles. The form was intended to add additional lift from an aerofoil cross-section fuselage and provide greater interior volume at a smaller drag penalty. On a blended platform, the wing and fuselage are blended together for superior aerodynamics. This is described in excellent detail in the book as are the many other weird and appealing technologies featured in ’67.

The authors

Steven Richardson was an aero engineer who worked at McDonnell and Boeing, and Peggy Mason was in comms at Boeing and USAF, and their insider access has clearly been a help as the selection of photographs and diagrams are an absolute feast. The text is dense with technical insights and a great deal has been packed into this 80-page paperback. The density of information is relieved by some first-class profiles and action-packed digital artworks by Adam Tooby. The research effort that has gone into this book is extremely impressive and suggests a labour of love. Perhaps the authors’ professional backgrounds led them to a fascination with this as the first real McDonnell design. This is the aircraft that started McDonnell’s legacy and led to its dominance of the fighter world from 1960 until the end of the 20th century.

The XP-67 came at the most exciting time in fighter development when the need was greatest, the piston engine was reaching its performance zenith and the immediate future form of fighter aircraft was utterly unpredictable. As the book describes, the influence of the Moonbat (there I said it!), like many innovative aircraft, was subtle and long-lived. The curves and the research data would inform the Phantom I and Banshee, and in turn, Phantom II, and the culmination of the blended wing effort can be seen in today’s B-1B and B-2, as well as many UCAVs and future airliner concepts. Along the way, some other extremely beautiful blended forms were studied, notably (as the book mentions) the wonderful somewhat Bugatti 100-like McDonnell-Douglas Model 226 Quiet Attack Aircraft, an early US Navy stealth study that inherited much from the Flying Fillet.

I wholeheartedly recommend this as the go-to book for anyone interested in the magnificent XP-67. This an extremely illuminating book on the sexiest aircraft McDonnell ever built. A word of caution though, it comes out on exactly the same day (November 24 2022) as the incredible Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes so you should start saving!

RATING: 4/5

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We flew the F-14 Tomcat, here’s why it was the most important Cold War warplane

By former F-14 pilot Jon Schreiber, with former Topgun instructor and F-14 RIO Dave Baranek

The F-14 Tomcat, born of lessons learned and policy denied1, became a star of the US Navy’s combat weaponry and the silver screen but more significantly, it was the most important warplane of the Cold War. Yes it was! Here’s why.

The F-14 embodied the broadest capabilities of any airplane ever designed for and flown in combat. It was a tactical airplane with strategic capabilities. Genius.

For today’s mission we won’t compare the Tomcat /AIM-54 missile combination to the Flanker /AA-10C. Instead, we’re going back to when the F-14 first brought sensational performance to American carrier flight decks.

The F-14 had the capability of destroying ANY opposing aircraft ANY where in the world. No other Cold War aircraft had the single mission capability to send two nuggets on a “standard” mission from the CV and trap two Aces a few hours later. The AIM-54 and the AWG-9 enabled incredible combat capability. With the AWG-9 able to track two dozen separate targets and feed the data to a swarm of million-dollar missiles doing their job, two J.Os3 could find themselves at the tactical pointy end of a powerful strategic spear. This capability was on American flight decks SEVENTEEN YEARS before the AIM-120 provided multi-shot capability to other American fighters. Additionally, the F-14 was armed with weapons that can kill from inside 1000 feet (the M61 Gatling gun) to 70 nautical miles with the Phoenix air-to-air missile, and the Tomcat was designed with an incredibly versatile performance envelope that boasted high-g manoeuvring, high-speed, great endurance. The Tomcat’s godlike potency captured the aviation world’s attention when it was introduced as one of the earliest 4th generation fighters.

Leveraging the Tomcat’s versatility during FleetEx 83 (April 1983), several F-14s reportedly overflew a Soviet military base near the Kamchatka peninsula – proving the assertion of Admiral Watkins, then CNO, that the USSR was “as naked as a jay-bird” in that AOR. Following the FleetEx 83 F-14 flyover, which caused a political stir, Able Archer 83 demonstrated NATO’s first strike capability in November 1983. Coincidence? We think not. The F-14 demonstrated it was capable of first strike. But how did a tactical airplane enable such a strategy?

In 1986, the F-14 proved that its extraordinarily capable weapon system and its endurance could create a “strategic-tactic,” variously known as Chainsaw and Tanksaw, enabling a single F-14 to achieve a kill volume covering approximately 2% of the Pacific Ocean. Kills at 700NM from the carrier meant anti-ship missiles carried on aircraft like the Bear and Badger were no longer a sure threat to the U.S. Navy’s fleet, allowing carrier-based and other long range strike aircraft to be flown feet dry over the USSR. The F-14 had completely amputated the air leg of the Soviet triad.

In a scenario where a Tanksaw F-14 shoots down outbound Soviet bombers while they are still feet-dry over the USSR, the cognisant Soviet Air Force General, who was just handed his retirement by a couple of Navy flyers, will need to temper his response to losing those capital assets so early in the campaign. His problem is not the aggressive F-14; his problem is that the standard USN F-14 always travelled with a team of “goodfellas.”  Goodfellas in the form of one or more Battle Groups, and during the cold war a Battle Group deployed with organic strategic capabilities. If F-14s are able to kill bombers feet dry over the Soviet Union then the organic assets of the Battle Group have the ability to strike critical C4 targets in country. By severing critical C4 links across several Soviet regional C4 facilities the U.S. will have gained a great advantage of shortening the Soviet strategic decision-cycle time from about 40 minutes to less than 10 minutes. That advantage could disable initiation of the Soviets MAD3 response thus decapitating the entire context of the Cold War conundrum. Tactical to strategic, indeed.

The versatility of the F-14 was a triumph, forged in titanium, of the West’s ability to thwart any threat, thus ending the cold war and reserving a spot for the USSR on the “ash heap of history.” 2 While many other aircraft can claim a supporting role in ending the cold war, the key aircraft that crippled the air leg and MAD response of the Soviet Stratigiya was, unquestionably, the Tomcat.

Notes:

  1. The F-14 incorporated many lessons from the ongoing air war in Vietnam, as did the F-15 Eagle. These included the importance of good maneuverability and cockpit visibility, the value of a built-in gun, and many more. As far as policy denied, this includes the failed attempt to force the Navy to accept the F-111B when it needed a versatile fighter and the missile-only armament of other recent American fighters.
  2. In his “Westminster Speech” of 18 June 1982, US President Ronal Reagan said, “…The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history….”
  3. Abbreviations used in the article that may not be common knowledge: J.O. = junior officer; CNO = Chief of Naval Operations; AOR = area of responsibility; MAD = Mutually Assured Destruction.

Authors:

  • Jon “Hooter” Schreiber is pappy to three cute as the dickens girls, father of two cool sons, and husband with limited fashion sense. He is a retired US Navy fighter pilot (F-4s and F-14s) and active GA pilot. Opinions offered free of charge. 
  • Dave “Bio” Baranek is enjoying retirement with his wife. He occasionally writes and creates aviation-related videos. He is a retired US Navy F-14 RIO and former Topgun instructor.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and are not endorsed by any organization.

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The Scopophiliac’s Guide to Aircraft Manufacturers Part 2: Convair aircraft ranked by beauty

The “airmail gaze” invokes the sexual politics of the gaze and suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowers AvGeeks and objectifies aeroplanes. In the airmail gaze, the aircraft is visually positioned as an “object” of aerosexual desire. Within this outlook, aircraft types may be reduced to being ranked on desirability alone with no appreciation of their flying qualities or historical importance. To understand the airmail gaze we must first embrace it. So let’s judge aircraft manufacturers through the utterly disgraceful metric of which produced the highest percentage of beautiful aircraft types.

28. Model 111 Score: 27

(1940s)

27. XC-99 44 (1947)

26. Stinson 108 50 (1944)

25. Model 106 Skycoach

57 (1946)

24. Model 110

58 (1946)

23. CV-240

58 (1947)

22. CV-340 58 (1951)

21. CV-440 Metropolitan 58 (1955)

20. CV-600

58 (1965)

19. CV-640 58 (1965)

18. R3Y Tradewind (1954)

60

17. Vultee XA-41

61 (1944)

16. C-131 Samaritan

62 (1949)

15. Model 116

63 (1946)

14. Convair XF-92

63 (1948)

13. Model 118

64 (1947)

12. Consolidated Vultee XP-81

61 (1945)

11. XB-46 68 (1947)

10. Convair Model 48 Charger

9. Convair 880 75 (1959)

8. Convair F2Y Sea Dart 77 (1953)

7. F-102 Delta Dagger

79 (1953)

6. YB-60 83 (1952)

5. XFY Pogo

83 (1954)

4. 990 Coronado – Fastest subsonic airliner

84 (1961)

3. B-36 Peacemaker/NB-36H 86 (1946)

2. B-58 Hustler

90 (1956)

  1. F-106 Delta Dart, 93 (1956)

AVERAGE 66%

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I flew the SR-71 Blackbird in the Cold War, here’s why it was so important

SR-71 In the Cold War

By BC Thomas

The SR-71 has the deserved reputation of being the most unique air-breathing aircraft ever built.  No other could fly as fast, as high, or carry thousands of pounds of equipment above 80,000 feet.  It was the primary strategic reconnaissance asset for the Free World during the latter 25 years of the Cold War. The SR-71 could sustain continuous Mach 3+ flight for over an hour while obtaining the highest quality reconnaissance information from multiple sensors, and with aerial refueling, the aircraft could have circumnavigated the Earth in one flight.  The aircraft was one of the first to employ stealth technology, thereby ensuring that the airplane was almost invisible to radar.  Its speed and altitude also cloaked its presence.  During this time of sparse reconnaissance satellite coverage over potential enemy targets, the SR-71 could sneak up, gather vital information, and leave the area without warning, and often without notice.

The SR-71 was never successfully intercepted by surface-to-air missile or aircraft.  It had a state-of-the-art electronic defensive system which would defeat an incoming missile’s homing and steering.  Detectors on board would alert the crew of a missile launch instantly and, since the SR-71 did not normally fly at its maximum speed or altitude, the aircraft’s defense was simultaneously to jam the missile’s guidance while accelerating, climbing, and turning with 45º of bank.  No surface-to-air missile could out-turn, thus hit, an SR-71, a fact demonstrated many times, especially during the Vietnam War.  Attempts to shoot down an SR-71 continued until August 25, 1981, which was the last time an enemy (North Korea) fired a surface-to-air missile at an SR-71; that mission was flown by Maury Rosenberg, pilot, and Ed McKim, Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO). 

It missed.

We carried an array of sophisticated sensors and recorders which could glean reconnaissance data with cameras capable of high-quality photographs horizon-to-horizon.  We also had radar imagery capable of one-foot resolution.  This was the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS), which could deliver readable radar pictures night or day, bad weather or clear.  I’m no photo interpreter, but even I could tell what was pictured.  The SR-71 also carried electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems which are still classified.  We advertised that the SR-71, within 24 hours notification, could be over any target on earth and be capable of surveying 100,000 square miles of terrain each hour.  It was no idle boast.

The SR-71’s potential versatility is not widely known.  Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson, the genius designer of all ‘Blackbirds’, was diligent in assuring that the Mach 3+ Blackbird aircraft could fulfil several roles, if needed for national contingencies.  The first version was the A-12 aircraft, built for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  This was a single-person airplane and carried as principal sensor, one very high-resolution optical camera. 

A differently capable aircraft was the YF-12, the Mach 3+ fighter/intercepter version of the Blackbird’s basic design.  It was developed as part of Kelly Johnson’s “Universal Aircraft” concept of adapting the fore-body section to accept reconnaissance equipment, air-to-air missiles, or four nuclear weapons.  Thus, the Mach 3+ Blackbird type could have been straight reconnaissance, a nuclear bomber, an interceptor, or recon/strike.  There is at least one video, available to the public, which shows an actual missile launch from a YF-12 at Mach 3.  I’ll add parenthetically that it was also outfitted to be a Mach 3 drone-launch vehicle, but the first test deployment of the D-21 drone failed and resulted in the loss of the Blackbird M-21 launch aircraft.

So it was versatile.  But did it deliver? 

By the late 1950s, we knew the Soviet Union had better, more capable rocket launch systems than any North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country.  This was dramatically evidenced by two sudden leaps in Soviet advanced technology: 1957, Sputnik, the first artificial satellite; 1961, first man in space to orbit the Earth.  These notable achievements shocked the people of the United States and indeed, the Western World.

Knowledge of the military and industrial strength of Communist states was extremely important, and reconnaissance missions against the Soviet Union started as early as 1947. Several American aircraft conducted these flights: the RB-29, RB-47, RB-50, C-130, PB4Y-2, U-2, and the Ryan 147 remotely piloted vehicle (RPV).  Reconnaissance flights penetrated Soviet airspace, overflew the land mass, and many were shot down.  The Los Angeles Times, 11/12/1992, reported that 40 such reconnaissance aircraft were lost and 200 American airmen died conducting these flights.  That number of lost personnel was confirmed by Paul Glenshaw in his article: “Secret Causalities of the Cold War,” Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, December 2017.

So aerial reconnaissance flights against potential enemies (the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, the Middle East) were a top priority.  These flights had to be conducted routinely and had to be survivable.

The SR-71 was developed to fill that need.  From 1966 to 1990, the SR-71 flew over 3,500 operational reconnaissance missions while logging 11,000 hours in a flight environment which was most hostile: aircraft skin temperature averaged 620º F, outside air pressure was 0.4 pounds-per-square-inch (psi), altitude was 15-16 miles straight up, aerodynamic damping was low, and true airspeed was typically 2,000 to 2,100 miles-per-hour, making pitch controllability critical.

For operational survivability, the SR-71 was one of the safest military aircraft, as no Air Force crew member was killed while flying one, a testament to outstanding aircraft maintenance and crew training.  A remarkable record given its extreme flight envelope and potential attack risk.

I’ll summarize the importance of the SR-71 missions by quoting Paul Crickmore, noted aviation historian and Blackbird author, in a letter to me.

In theatre, the SR-71 proved the concept of high-Mach, high-altitude flight, to obtain vital aerial reconnaissance.  The SR-71 regularly conducted reconnaissance missions in the skies over North Vietnam – particularly around Hanoi in 1968-70 which at the time, was the most highly defended area on the planet.

The Blackbirds provided superior flexibility compared to satellites, time after time, specific examples—Yom Kippur War 1973, Yemen 1979, Cuba 1977—1990, Lebanon October 1983 (following the truck-bomb attack killing over 240 US Marines), Libya 1986, The Persian Gulf 1987, but perhaps most importantly, the on-going monitoring of Soviet nuclear submarine fleets for the US Navy—particularly the Northern Fleet with their submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), capable of hitting large areas of the United States, as well as all Allied Countries.

The simultaneous, synoptic coverage of information gathered by the SR-71s sensors, provided the intelligence community and national leadership—with photographic imagery (PHOTINT), radar imagery (RADINT) and electronic intelligence (ELNT), that unquestionably helped to keep the Western World free.

Richard H Graham, Colonel, USAF (ret) was an SR-71 Instructor Pilot, Squadron Commander, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing Commander, and assigned to the Headquarters USAF (Pentagon) to supervise Programs and Resources as a Strategic Force Programmer.  His evaluation of the SR-71’s worth as a reconnaissance asset is quoted from his book: “SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of the Blackbird, The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane.”

…the synoptic coverage (displaying conditions as they exist simultaneously over a broad area) provided by the SR-71 was far superior to satellite reconnaissance.  Broad-area coverage from different approach angles, in a relatively short time span, produced considerably better intelligence than a predictable, single satellite pass, every ninety minutes.  In 1990, the SR-71 was the only airborne reconnaissance platform that could penetrate hostile territory, accomplish wide-area synoptic coverage, and still survive.  It could also be tasked reasonably quickly and had the element of surprise.


Photographs of two SA-2 surface-to-air missiles which were launched against SR-71 #976, July 26, 1968 in the vicinity of Hanoi, Vietnam. Tony Bevacqua (Pilot), Jerry Crew (RSO).

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As someone who has actually jumped out of a Boeing 727 I can say DB Cooper was a fucking idiot, here’s why…

DB Cooper is the nickname of a mysterious hijacker, who in 1971, hijacked a Boeing 727 before escaping by parachute with a bag of money – and has never been identified or apprehended. With the recent release of ‘D. B. Cooper, where are you?!’ on Netflix there is renewed interest in this intriguing enigma. Cooper has always interested me, even more so after I took up skydiving myself. Over the years I racked up six hours and fourteen minutes in freefall time, at 72 seconds per jump,  and was also able to join the small number of people who have actually jumped from a 727, at the World Freefall Convention in 1996. So while I’m not going to claim to be an expert in hijacking, I can argue that my viewpoint isn’t totally uninformed.

For the West Coast skydiving community DB Cooper is a semi-mythical figure with a strong Robin Hood vibe. The bedrock assumption was that he was an experienced jumper. Questioning the idea that he was competent would go about as well as mentioning the teachings of The Man In Red (an aggressively Santa-denying teacher) in the presence of small children.

With hindsight, this is really odd. While the public perceives skydivers to be a cross between The Dude from The Big Lebowski and Biggles (Ed: I don’t) the truth is that they are usually smart, calculating people who think several steps ahead and plan things in detail. While a group of skydivers might look chaotic as they leave a plane, the reality is that everything is planned down to the second and the inch. You know exactly where you put your hands and feet at different stages of the exit. People even have specific jobs – I was a rear-rear-float. What looks like random chaos to outsiders is in fact just as carefully planned as the activities of a Premier League football team. Which makes the unwillingness to question DB Cooper’s competence really odd, as any experienced jumper planning it would have not made the dreadful social and fashion choices he did.

Faux Pas #1: Never ask someone if you can borrow one of their outfits in the middle of a soirée

Experienced jumpers hate borrowing gear. Buying your own rig is the first thing you do when you finish training. It’s not that you’re afraid that borrowed gear won’t work – it’s that the handles will be in slightly different places, and life is much simpler if they are always in exactly the same place when you reach for them, not two inches to the left. There’s also the issue of being dependent on somebody else’s stuff being available, and the risk that you might damage it. 

This means that if an experienced jumper decided to do what DB Cooper did, the starting point of their plan would be to use their own rig. OK, maybe not their own gear, but obtaining a second rig that can’t be traced to you is not that hard if you are in the sport and know where to look.  Asking the government to provide you with a parachute doesn’t make any sense, as you’d be telegraphing your plan to the authorities.

Let’s look at that plan for a second. If you ask the Feds for a parachute the obvious concern is that they’d give you a non-functioning one. In practice, I think people overestimate the risk of this. It would be hard enough to obtain one which works at minimal notice, never mind persuade a parachute rigger to sabotage somebody else’s rig and hand it to a man who showed up out of the blue and claimed to be from the government.  But Cooper asked for two sets of gear, presumably to rule this out.

Asking for one parachute makes your intentions obvious and starts a nationwide manhunt. Asking for two turns that into a North-America-wide hostage rescue situation and means that every law enforcement agency within 2000 miles will be sitting, ready for a call, to pounce on anyone who parachutes from anything, anywhere.

So, the obvious thing to do is obtain another rig before your flight and bring it aboard hidden in a carry on. You can then pretend it’s a ‘normal’ hijacking, but bail out, leaving a suitably incoherent and psychotic ‘suicide note’. They’ll know you jumped, but only after the fact. They will be looking for a body, not a fugitive. The idea that an experienced jumper planning a hijacking wouldn’t think of this strikes me as absurd.

Nobody will want to hear this, but the bottom line is that if you look at the DB Cooper story from the perspective of an experienced jumper it simply doesn’t make sense. While it’s clear he had some exposure to aviation, the truth of the matter is his plan was poorly thought through. We live in a culture where almost all entertainment portrays criminals as brilliant masterminds, invariably pursued by over-motivated detectives with out-of-control personal problems. This is not how real crime works. The Dunning Kruger effect that leaves the inept least equipped to judge their own limitations is as common in the criminal community as it is in the rest of society, and we have a tendency to mistake breathtakingly stupid, but original for audacious.

Faux Pas #2: Never wear slip-on shoes to a Jet Jump

The second terrible fashion choice was his footwear. DB Cooper was observed to be wearing slip-on shoes. In freefall, everything which isn’t extremely firmly attached will flutter rapidly and violently. I once forgot to tuck in the end of the strap which kept my helmet on, and in 72 seconds it not only hurt like bejesus but managed to draw blood. Slip-on shoes would be gone within a second. Any experienced jumper planning this would have opted for boots or shoes with really good ankle protection, especially as the chosen drop zone was rough terrain. Are we supposed to believe that he smuggled a pair of boots aboard, but didn’t think to bring his own rig?

Let’s also look at the choice of drop-zone.  The region he jumped into is about 50% trees. Wooded terrain sounds wonderful at first, but have you ever tried removing a parachute from a tree, at night, with no shoes? If you can’t hide the parachute you are in deep trouble.  At dawn, the helicopters that are part of the nationwide manhunt you’ve provoked will see it and will know your location to within a couple of miles. Then there’s the fact that trees are dangerous to land in. Smokejumpers, who land in trees for a living, have special clothing and bring equipment to escape from a tree when their parachute gets caught in it. Now I come to think of it slip-on shoes were the least of his sartorial problems.

An entry in the author’s logbook for a Boeing 727 jump

Faux Pas #3: Never carry luggage that clashes with your outfit

The third faux pas was that having been given the money, he was observed to tie the bag to himself and the rig with paracord or string. This is a recipe to be beaten to death by your own stuff on the way down. There’s also no guarantee that the bag itself wouldn’t disintegrate when it hits the brutal airflow you encounter when you leave a 727. If you were planning on jumping from a 727 with a large bag of someone else’s money you’d need a custom container that integrates properly with your gear and is strong enough to withstand the forces you’ll encounter, while being capable of being carried out of a forest after landing. Once you owned such a bag you could use it as a carry-on, to bring your own parachute on board. But instead, we see a bizarre attempt to improvise. It’s the equivalent of turning up for a first date wearing a black plastic rubbish bag tied around the waist with string, but less sexy.

The Author’s California licence plate

Just because you want to believe something, doesn’t mean it’s true

People who have never been to the West Coast of the US don’t understand how ridiculously big it is, and how easy it would be to vanish and never be found. When Steve Fossett disappeared the search found eight other aircraft that had vanished before it gave up.  Once you understand this, the failure to find of DB Cooper is not mysterious.

Suitable attire for landing in a forest, from Wikipedia.

By David Rolfe

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Of course the Sabre was the most important Cold War aircraft, here’s why

The Cold War took a brief rest between the early 1990s and the 2010s, but serious tension between the largest former Soviet nation and the West has now returned. At the forefront of the original Cold War was air power, and this fearful age sired a multitude of incredible and often long-lived warplanes. In the second of a series of articles written by pilots and subject experts, we consider the question of which Cold War military aircraft was the most important. Let us turn start to Peter E Davies case for the F-86 Sabre.

In 1954 the massive Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, later to host Red Flag and other spectacular USAF training activities and projects, was already an exciting place for new pilots. It hosted the F-86 Sabre, the world’s premier fighter at the time and one which became a seminal influence on most subsequent fighter designs. Sabre pilots had roundly defeated communist MiG-15s over North Korea, and many of those wartime pilots (including seventeen aces) were now instructors at Nellis. For new trainees the chance to join that exclusive fraternity was compelling. The Sabre’s reputation as the West’s first true jet dogfighter was well established. Before technology took over the combat cockpit it was also the last fighter in the tradition of the Spitfire and Mustang in which the pilot had full manual control. During the Cold War the Sabre and its pilots kept alive the dogfighting tradition at a time when caution and cost-cutting in training programs actually prevented many trainee pilots from indulging in realistic air combat manoeuvres. That continuity paved the route for a later generation of versatile air-fighters including the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. Conventional late-1950s wisdom advocated aerial combat with large aircraft firing missiles from long distances.

The Sabre’s outstanding combat record was founded in its design’s many technical advances at a time when most designers were still simply adding jet engines to WW II-style airframes. In 1943 North American Aviation (NAA), decided to avoid direct competition with Lockheed’s straight-winged F-80 Shooting Star, the USAF’s first successful jet fighter. The company initiated a new German-inspired wing in 1945, swept at 35 degrees. It was a bold step as the few previous swept-wing designs had exhibited instability problems.  Large, automatic wing slats and hydraulically boosted ailerons were the innovative NAA solution, giving superb transonic handling. A unique blown plastic cockpit canopy gave all-round vision unequalled in fighters until the advent of the F-15 Eagle. NAA developed manufacturing techniques for a thin wing with machined-plate, double layer skins. The F-86E version introduced the now-universal powered, ‘all-flying’ tailplane.

Sabres retained gun armament, either the standard six .50 calibre machine gun fit or (in later Sabres) 20mm cannon. Guns disappeared from many other Cold War fighters in favour of missiles, but the Vietnam war showed that to be a mistake. However, the Sabre also pioneered the use of air-to-air missiles in the radar-equipped, all weather, rocket firing F-86D version (added in 1949). It included an early afterburner and a complex Hughes E-4 fire-control system. It became the most prolific Sabre variant with over 2,500 manufactured, pioneering radar-based interception in many air forces of the Cold War era.

Early jet engines of the time were often unreliable, but NAA designers chose the best available option, the Allison J35 in the F-86 prototype which first flew on October 1, 1947 and achieved supersonic flight in a shallow dive the following year as the first service-capable fighter to achieve that speed safely. The engine was replaced by the General Electric J47, also selected for the B-47 Stratojet bomber. It became an outstanding powerplant in Korean combat and effectively proved that jet fighters could be as effective and reliable as their prop-driven predecessors – and a lot faster. Cold War fighter designers throughout the world benefited from that bonus.

When the Korean War began in June, 1950 the small Allied air forces in South Korea relied on WW II propeller-driven aircraft and early, straight-winged F-80 and F-84 jets. None matched the Soviet MiG-15, a broadly similar swept-wing jet to the Sabre. F-86As were urgently deployed to counter this unanticipated threat. Despite the MiG-15’s altitude advantage and its pilots’ proximity to their home bases the outnumbered, but better-trained Sabre pilots soon regained air superiority. It was a scenario to be repeated in many respects in Vietnam over a decade later.

The Sabre’s success and influence are demonstrated by its unusually widespread use. Overall production ran to almost 9,000 aircraft, with licence production in Canada, Japan, Italy and Australia. No fewer than 35 air forces used Sabres, making it the most numerous Western Cold War jet fighter and giving many of those users entry to the jet age. It equipped many NATO nations, including Great Britain, to face the growing Soviet threat following the Berlin crisis in 1949. Some continued in service, and occasional combat until the mid-1980s.The US Navy’s used F-86 derivatives, culminating in the very capable, long-range FJ-4B fighter-bomber. They equipped 22 USN and USMC squadrons up to 1962. In US Navy training sessions a well-flown F-86 regularly beat F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader pilots in dogfighting practices.

An F-86 pilot allegedly achieved supersonic flight shortly before Chuck Yeager’s official sound barrier-smashing flight in 1947, but it was the success rate of twelve-to-one against MiG-15s (later to be scaled down to a still creditable 4:1) that lent the Sabre an almost legendary status and reminded future fighter designers that manoeuvrability, ease of operation and gunfighting capability were still relevant in the supersonic era. While some might champion aircraft like the Hawker Hunter, F-4 Phantom or MiG-21 as the most influential Cold War fighters there is no doubt that the F-86’s wide range of ground-breaking achievements in design and worldwide service easily give it that accolade.

Peter E Davies. September 2022, Peter Davies is based in Bristol and has written or co-written 16 books on modern American combat aircraft, including four previous Osprey titles and the standard reference work on US Navy and Marine Corps Phantom II operations, Gray Ghosts.

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