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Downwash: our new aviation news summary

General Charlie Brown, Head of the US Air & Face Force, laughing at a man without a hair transplant.

An exhausting round-up of the month in aviation news from Hush-Kit’s own post-truth correspondent, Vince Besmislica.

Vince Besmislica

SOMEWHERE IN EUROPE, — Eurofighter announced they are going to try and integrate technology available on US aircraft 20 years ago for potential export customers, “We know people like the stuff that is already available, so we thought we might, maybe, try and put it on our aircraft at some point. We have already completed some plastic models so it’s probably cheap and easy to make actual stuff..maybe Finland want it?” stated Eurofighter’s Head of Old Ideas, Klaus Plagiat. The UK’s MoD had decided to opt out of the proposed upgrade noting that they could achieve similar results while charging the British taxpayer more by doing it alone and in a different way.

The aircraft is now to be referred to as the Supermarine-British-Beef Typhoon in RAF service as the previous manufacturer name proved unpopular with 50% of the British public. The name-change proved bitterly divisive with many British people polled preferring the name Missed-Holiday-in-Provence Typhoon.

All Tranche 1 Typhoons are to be retired as testing revealed these aircraft to just be a child on another child’s shoulder’s wearing a trenchcoat. It had been planned to use the aircraft as ‘gate-guards’ but it has come to light that upgrading the aircraft for this role would prove too costly.

Gray Slug News

Lockheed Martin’s F-35’s Head of Augmented Unreality, Karen Welpayd, noted that supersonic flight is unnecessary for a 5th Generation combat aircraft before putting on an F-22 baseball cap, turning to the other side of the room and stating (in a clearly fake Texan accent) that a 5th Generation fighter mush have the ability to supercruise to be defined as 5th Generation.

HD wallpaper: sci-fi, battle, spaceship | Wallpaper Flare

American aircraft carriers USS Queen Elizabeth Warren and USS Prints of Whales are delighting US Navy and Marine Corps leadership alike. “We don’t have to pay a bean for them! They carry our aircraft, carry out our foreign policy and yet the silly old Brits pay them!” Giggled Rear Admiral Lower Half of a Centaur Michael M. Ghilliesuit.

Sukhoi Fool’s Mate

We do not expect it to enter service by 2022, as this is impossible, but I’m going to say that it will. Between you and me, we hope to it in service by 2035, essentially a generation later than when the first 5th Generation fighters entered service. Also we’ve added short-field performance as a criterion of what makes an aircraft 5th Generation so there…we’ll probably add some other stuff later using a semantic additive process pioneered by the US.” –– Khitryye Pretenzii, Head of Russian Aircraft Optimist Boasts

MiG-37B assessment: The Stealthy Soviet that never was | Hush-Kit


ZHUKOVSKY, Russia — Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi showed off its new Fool’s Mate unflying fighter aircraft during the MAKS 2021 airshow, presenting it as a fifth-generation fighter.

The Queen's Gambit | Netflix Official Site
Can the Fool’s Mate cash in on the success of The Queen’s Gambit?

A spokesman for Bostick, which owns Sukhoi parent company United Aircraft Optimistic Press Releases Corporation, told Hush-Kit that the firm is “targeting potential sales in countries that the US declares to be of the wrong religion for the F-35.

Bible Scene Posters | Fine Art America

The current Block 4 upgrade for the F-35 can be operated by two out of the three Abrahamic religions. Only by Block 6, slated for 2034, will it have the teleological software offering compatibility with nations of Religious Operating Systems developed after the 1st Century A.D. Meanwhile, Dassault boast that their Rafale is compatible with both pre- and post Abrahamic faiths.

Critics of the Fool’s Mate have noticed that its software will not work within a Jehovah’s Witness’ operating system.

Green bucks for Green fucks

Major jet propulsion companies are exploring new green technologies. Explaining their part in this effort, Prat-Royce’s Head of Unshitting Keith Keithaway, noted: “To put this into context – if you wanted someone to create a dogshit-free park you would naturally go to the dog owner whose dogs had been shitting in the park for sixty years. Or to put it another way, if you wanted the solution to noses broken by gangsters you would naturally want to pay the gangster generously to re-train as a surgeon. I for one would love to have rhinoplasty from Al Capone.” Boning’s Head of Internet Quotes Bambrage Aloysius opined, “As we have massively profited from a climate changing industry it is only right, that as a responsible company, we should profit from the creation of less damaging technologies in some far away future..”

Vince Besmislica entered journalism as way to show off he knew about different planes and tanks. He has got into airshows for free for the last twelve years.

Successes and failures of Russian air power in Syria

Russian Bombers In Syria Are A Threat 40 Years In The Making

Russia has probably won the proxy war in Syria, partly due to its use of air power. Compared to the Western approach, Russia’s use of military aircraft has been low-tech, relying largely on older airframes, such as the Su-25 and Su-24, using unguided bombs. Despite some successes, many aspects, especially its aircraft carrier capabilities, proved underwhelming. In the second part of Guy Plopsky’s analysis of Russian air power for Hush-Kit we take a detailed look at Russia’s bloody Syria campaign.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Russian Air Power* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) with Guy Plopsky: Part 2 – Russian Air Power in Syria

What has been the most active Russian combat aircraft in Syria?

In terms of number of combat sorties flown, the two most active Russian combat aircraft earlier on in the conflict appear to have been the Su-24M and Su-25SM. For nearly the first two years of Russian air operations, the Su-24M (including the M2 version) was the most numerous type of combat aircraft deployed to Syria, and it was heavily used. In March 2017, Interfax news agency, citing a video clip shared by Russia’s then-Deputy Prime Minister, reported that Su-24Ms accounted for “over half” of all combat sorties flown since air operations began some 1.5 years prior. While this figure was never officially confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry, Su-24Ms nevertheless likely flew more combat sorties than any other Russian aircraft during this time period. Even after the first two years and up until at least the end of 2018, the Su-24M remained deployed in Syria in greater numbers than most/any other type of Russian combat aircraft, and likely continues to account for a large percentage (if not the largest percentage) of total Russian combat sorties flown since the beginning of air operations.

These are the 11 Russian military aircraft in Syria right now

Su-25SMs were also among the most numerous Russian combat aircraft initially deployed, and they, too, saw active use in Syria. According to the Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer (Military-Industrial Courier), Su-25s (predominantly the SM version) accounted for approximately 3,500 of the “over 9,000” combat sorties flown by Russian aircraft during the first five and a half month of air operations (that is, until the March 2016 drawdown). It should be noted that the “over 9,000” figure, which was announced by Russia’s Defense Minister in March 2016, may not be accurate because a month earlier the then-head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces (VKS) stated that “over 11,700” combat sorties had been flown. Either way, 3,500 combat sorties is a very sizable portion. The Su-25SM has often been praised by Russian analysts and media for requiring a relatively short pre-flight preparation time and turnaround time, which contributed to its achievement of high daily sortie rates when necessary. Consequently, though all Su-25SMs were reportedly withdrawn from Syria during the March 2016 drawdown and were subsequently deployed again in smaller numbers only in early 2017 (or possibly earlier), they likely still accounted for a sizeable portion of the total combat sorties flown by Russian aircraft during approximately the first two years of air operations. Indeed, while the percentage of total combat sorties flown by Su-25SMs during this time period is not known, in late August 2017 the deputy chief of the Russian General Staff stated that Su-24Ms and Su-25SMs had performed “50 percent of the main tasks for the aerial destruction of enemy objects” in Syria.

These are the 11 Russian military aircraft in Syria right now

Another Russian combat aircraft that saw active use in Syria is the Su-34. Initially, only a small number of Su-34s were deployed to Syria; however, in late 2015 their number was increased. Su-34s are also known to have flown sorties against targets in Syria from Krymsk Air Base in southern Russia and Hamadan Air Base in northern Iran in November 2015 and August 2016, respectively. While some of the Su-34s in Syria returned to Russia as part of the March 2016 drawdown, satellite imagery shows that by late 2017 the number of Su-34s deployed in the country had greatly increased, exceeding that of any other Russian combat aircraft in Syria at the time. Satellite imagery also suggests that the Su-34 was one of the most numerous types of Russian combat aircraft deployed in Syria throughout much of 2018 (and quite possibly still is to this day). Given the numbers of Su-34s deployed in Syria at times and their active use, the Su-34 likely also accounts for a large percentage of the total combat sorties flown by Russian aircraft since the beginning of air operations.

A Russian strike aircraft operating over Syria. Russian Defense Ministry Photo

How many aircraft are deployed in Syria and where are they based?

Initially, Russia deployed some 50 aircraft to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria’s Latakia Governorate. These included 12 Su-24M/M2s, 10 Su-25SMs, 4 Su-30SMs, 4 Su-34s, 2 Su-25UBs, 1 An-30, 1 Il-20, 12 Mi-24Ps and 4 Mi-8AMTShs. Since then, the size and composition of Russia’s air group in Syria has varied greatly. It has included fixed-wing combat aircraft such as the Su-27SM3, Su-35S and MiG-29SMT (9-19R), rotary-wing combat aircraft such as the Mi-35M, Mi-28N and Ka-52, and various other manned and unmanned assets (for example, the A-50U airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and Forpost unmanned aerial system (UAS). Several types of prototype/pre-production aircraft (systems) were also deployed to Syria for testing under real combat conditions (notably, the Su-57, Mi-28NM, and the Inokhodets UAS).

In the second half of 2018, Russia erected 18 aircraft shelters at Khmeimim. Nine helicopter shelters were also constructed at the base at a later date. Satellite images taken after late 2018 therefore reveal only some of the aircraft present at Khmeimim at the time they were taken. As a result, the approximate number of Russian aircraft currently deployed in Syria is not known. It’s quite possible that, as I mentioned earlier, the Su-24M and Su-34 have remained the two most numerous types of Russian combat aircraft deployed in the country throughout much (or all) of the time since late 2018. Apart from erecting aircraft shelters, Russia has conducted other infrastructure expansion work at Khmeimim. Notably, the western runway was upgraded to allow use of the air base by additional aircraft types, including the Tu-22M3. In late May 2021 the Russian Defense Ministry published footage showing three Tu-22M3 bombers arriving at the base for the first time to carry out training activities (and possibly also strike sorties). While Tu-22M3s previously flew strike sorties against targets in Syria, they did so only from Russia and from Hamadan Air Base in Iran. The Tu-22M3 deployment was followed by the deployment of an Il-38 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft and two MiG-31K strike aircraft to Khmeimim in late June. The latter is notable because it marks the first deployment of the MiG-31K to Syria (and abroad in general).

syria.mil.ru

Apart from Khmeimim, which is Russia’s main operating base in Syria, the Russians have used al-Shayrat and T-4 air bases (both located in Homs Governorate) as “forward aerodromes” for rotary-wing aviation. Russian helicopters were reportedly first spotted in Shayrat in late 2015. At the end of March 2016, there were 12 rotary-wing aircraft visible at the base on satellite imagery published by IHS Jane’s. Among them were modern Mi-28N and Ka-52 attack helicopters. Satellite images suggest that Russian rotary-wing aviation continued to use the base until at least early 2017. As for T-4, which is located just over 60 km east of Shayrat, five Russian attack helicopters (likely Mi-24Ps) were reportedly forward deployed to the base in late 2015. Satellite imagery published by Stratfor shows that in mid-May 2016 there were four Mi-24Ps (or Mi-35Ms) and one Mi-8 present at the base. Notably, despite denial by the Russian Defense Ministry, these four Mi-24Ps (or Mi-35Ms) were destroyed on the ground when the base was shelled by IS forces that same month – their wreckage is visible in satellite imagery taken several days later (also published by Stratfor). More recently, Russian helicopters were also forward deployed to Qamishlo Airport near the Syrian town of Qamishli, which sits on the border with Turkey. Footage released by the Russian Defense Ministry in mid-November 2019 shows the arrival of two Mi-35Ms and one Mi-8AMTSh at the airport. Satellite imagery from March, May and June 2020 shows four helicopters at Qamishlo (2 Mi-35Ms and 2 Mi-8AMTShs).

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The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes by Joe Coles (editor): Unbound

The only manned Russian fixed-wing combat aircraft that is known to have been deployed at an air base inside Syria other than Khmeimim is the Su-25SM. Satellite imagery from early May 2019 shows a pair of Su-25SMs forward deployed at T-4 Air Base along with two helicopters (a Mi-35M and a Mi-8), while satellite imagery from later that month published by CSIS shows two more Su-25SMs (i.e. a total of four) parked on the ramp nearby the two aforementioned helicopters. As for unmanned fixed-wing aircraft, T-4 is also known to have hosted a Russian unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV); recently declassified footage from Syria, which was first aired on the state-owned “Russia 1” TV channel earlier this year, briefly shows an armed UCAV (part of the Inokhodets UAS) taking-off from the base at an unspecified date. Given that strikes using the Inokhodets UAS were conducted in Syria for the first time in 2019, this brief footage was filmed either that year or more recently.

These are the 11 Russian military aircraft in Syria right now - We Are The  Mighty

What are the roles of Russian aircraft in Syria?

Russian aircraft have carried out a wide range of tasks/missions in Syria. These have included: airlift (equipment, supplies and personnel); intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition (including, for example, the use of UAVs for bomb damage assessment (BDA) and artillery spotting); patrol and escort (using fighters and attack helicopters); combat search and rescue (CSAR); close air support (CAS); strategic attack (for example, against IS oil infrastructure and transport targets); and air interdiction. With regard to the latter, some interdiction missions have involved the use of fixed/rotary-wing combat aircraft to “free hunt” for IS and various opposition forces in assigned areas. Similarly, some strategic attack missions involved the use of combat aircraft to free hunt for IS tanker trucks.

What has been the greatest achievement of Russian air power in Syria?

Despite its many limitations, Russian air power was instrumental in enabling pro-Assad forces to regain control over large parts of Syria. Forces loyal to Assad often proved poorly trained, disciplined and/or motivated, necessitating the embedding of Russian military advisors and the use of some Russian ground forces (many Russian private military contractors were also deployed); nevertheless, Russian air power proved sufficiently effective to prevent the need for a large contingent of Russian ground forces in Syria. While the effectiveness of Russian air operations very early on was limited, already in November 2015 Russia was able to achieve a marked improvement in the effectiveness of air operations by applying experience acquired under real combat conditions and by making increased use of more modern capabilities.

What have been the greatest failures?

The brief participation of Russian carrier aviation in air operations over Syria has widely been regarded as a failure. While the then-commander of the Russian force grouping in Syria boasted that aircraft from the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier group flew a total of approximately 1,170 sorties over a period of about two month (November 2016 – January 2017), only 420 of those were combat sorties – an average of just 7-8 combat sorties per day – and only 117 of the combat sorties were flown at night (an average of just 2 per day). Moreover, in January 2017, U.S. officials told Fox News that during this two month period only 154 sorties were flown from the Kuznetsov’s deck (the others being flown from land), though it is unclear if they were referring only to sorties flown by the carrier group’s fighter aircraft or also to those flown by its helicopters. In any case, it indeed appears that the carrier group’s fighters flew most of their sorties out of Khmeimim Air Base rather than from the Kuznetsov heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser. Satellite imagery from mid-November 2016 published by IHS Jane’s shows eight (i.e. almost all) of the carrier group’s Su-33s parked at the air base. One of the carrier group’s MiG-29KR fighters was also present at Khmeimim at the time the imagery was taken.

The decision to transfer most of the carrier group’s fighter aircraft to Khmeimim was likely prompted at least in part by apparent issues with the Kuznetsov’s arrestor gear. Indeed, early the following month one of Kuznetsov’s Su-33 fighters fell off the deck after an arrestor cable snapped during landing. This was the second non-combat loss of an aircraft suffered by the carrier group during its deployment. The first non-combat loss took place in mid-November and involved a MiG-29KR, though the circumstances of that crash are less clear as there are contradicting reports and theories as to what happened. The non-combat loss of two carrier-based fighters over a period of just two month is a major failure considering that the Kuznetsov’s entire fighter complement for this deployment numbered less than 15 aircraft.

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As for the contribution of carrier aviation to Russian air operations over Syria, in early January 2017 the then-commander of the Russian force grouping in Syria claimed that “1252 terrorist targets were struck” by the carrier group’s aircraft. However, the effectiveness and capabilities of Russia’s carrier aviation have been heavily criticized, even in Russia. Well-respected Russian military analyst Anton Lavrov, for example, called the participation of the Kuznetsov carrier group’s aircraft a “complete failure,” correctly pointing out that “deck aviation radically lacked capabilities when compared to ground-based aviation.” According to his assessment, Russian carrier aviation “failed to produce a noticeable effect on the battlefield.”

Russian Aircraft Carrier Is Called Back as Part of Syrian Drawdown - The  New York Times
Credit: Norwegian air force

One of Russia’s other notable failures is the continued inability to field a robust unmanned strike capability. While the Syrian conflict has seen Russian forces employ UASs on an unprecedented scale, it was not, as noted earlier, until 2019 that UCAV strikes were first carried out in the country as part of tests of the Inokhodets UAS. Consequently, only a small number of unmanned strike sorties have been flown so far, with Russia having yet to employ armed UASs in Syria more widely. Indeed, with the exception of several types of loitering munition systems (which have also seen limited use), all other Russian UASs being employed in Syria are unarmed. The lack of an organic strike capability means that a target acquired by a UAS must then be prosecuted either by artillery, a manned aircraft or a different shooter, increasing the time necessary to complete the kill chain. This can complicate the effective conduct of dynamic targeting against time-sensitive targets.

Guy Plopsky is the author of a number of articles on air power and Russian military affairs. He holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University Taiwan.

In Syria's Skies, Close Calls With Russian Warplanes - The New York Times

Drone War Vietnam

Various subvariants of the Model 147S flew more than half of all Lightning Bug sorties between December 1967 and the end of the war in 1972. The four longest-serving Lightning Bugs were Model 147SCs, most notably “Tom Cat,” which completed 68 missions, compared to just three missions for the typical Lightning Bug. Teledyne Ryan photo

On December 17, 1965, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson met with his advisers in the White House. Johnson wanted to halt the air campaign over Southeast Asia in order to give diplomats a chance to work out some kind of peace agreement that might end the war.

Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara warned Johnson that the Joint Chiefs of Staff would oppose de-escalation. Johnson was insistent. “Try to sell our enemies [the idea] that we want peace,” he said. “We owe this to the American people. We can’t do this if we are dropping bombs on the enemy.”

The bombing pause began on December 24, 1965 and lasted until January 30, 1966. The military halted raids by manned aircraft, but continued to send reconnaissance aircraft, including Lightning Bug drones, north into enemy territory.

The drones flew into a solid wall of enemy fire. Twenty-four missions resulted in the loss of 16 Model 147s, 10 of them new G-models. “Without the confusion of an accompanying air strike, the unmanned Ryan birds became very vulnerable north of the demilitarized zone and so the attrition rate went up sharply,” historian Bill Wagner explained.

In a panic, SAC pleaded with Ryan Aeronautical to develop a decoy drone to fly along with the camera-equipped Lightning Bugs in order to draw away missiles and gunfire. Ryan Aeronautical said it could do it, no problem. The requirement was so urgent that the Air Force waived all normal acquisitions rules.

Ryan Aeronautical employee Dale Weaver paired up with Maj. Harold Smith, an Air Force maintenance officer at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, where much of the Lightning Bug development took place.

For two weeks in early 1966 Weaver and Smith scoured Air Force depots for equipment. They located 10 early-model Lightning Bugs and, enlisting airmen for “free” labour and over a period of ten days installed on the drones traveling wave tubes that boosted their radar signatures.

These Model 147N decoys arrived at Bien Hoa in March 1966. “The theory was to launch one of the high-altitude G or other operational birds almost simultaneously with an N decoy,” Ryan Aeronautical’s Bob Reichardt explained. “They would be programmed to fly parallel for a while and then diverge as they approached the target area.”

“They would be programmed to fly parallel for a while and then diverge as they approached the target area,” Reichardt added. “The split pattern would confuse the enemy’s ground radars, by giving them a choice of two birds at which to fire.”

The Lightning Bug team didn’t expect the Model 147Ns to return from their missions. There were no plans to recover them, so Ryan Aeronautical replaced the drones’ parachutes with sandbags. This resulted in a few farces on those rare missions where the decoy drones managed to avoid enemy fire. The decoys returned to Da Nang and circled until their fuel ran out.

But on most missions, the Model 147Ns did what Ryan Aeronautical designed them to do. They flew high, broadcasting a huge radar signature and drew fire from North Vietnamese air-defenders.

The Model 147Ns also managed to “shoot down” five North Vietnamese fighters, albeit indirectly, when the fighters ran out of fuel chasing the decoys. A North Vietnamese SAM battery accidentally shot down one MiG that was in hot pursuit of a drone. A MiG in similar fashion inadvertently shot down a second MiG that was tailing a Model 147N.

The 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing expended all the Model 147Ns in the course of nine missions between March and June 1966. Strategic Air Command in August 1966 placed an order for 10 more decoys. The command hoped the new decoys might draw fire from its lumbering B-52s.

Ryan Aeronautical modified another batch of older Model 147s into Model 174NXs, this time adding a recovery parachute plus a simple camera with six-foot resolution. The camera on the recce Model 147s shot at a resolution of one foot.

That way, if a decoy did manage to survive its mission, it also could feed some film to the processing lab in Saigon. Who knew what kind of intelligence the Air Force might derive from it. “Trucks and things like that could be identified,” Wagner noted.

SAC headquarters wanted more low-altitude drones, but Ryan Aeronautical drone manager Bob Schwanhausser pushed back. “I didn’t think it was a very good idea,” he explained, citing the Model 147C’s abortive career. But SAC insisted. The command gave Ryan Aeronautical one day to draw up a proposal and one month to produce the first airframe.

Ryan Aeronautical decided to base the new, low-flying drone on the high-altitude Model 147G it already was producing. The first Model 147J was ready for testing in January 1966.

Aerodynamically, the J was a dog. Its big wing, a feature the J-model inherited from the G-model on which it was based, was more efficient at altitude.

One test flight over California on Jan. 3, 1966 nearly ended in disaster when the drone sharply pitched up shortly after launch and collided with the DC-130 mothership. The collision demolished the drone and knocked the propellers off the DC-130’s number-four engine.

The first three J-models all suffered catastrophic failures during trials. The fourth J worked as designed, however. It flew seven successful test flights before Ryan Aeronautical shipped it to Bien Hoa for operational missions.

Model 147J-4 flew five good missions in three months starting in March 1966.

In ramping up low-level flights with the Lightning Bugs, the team at Bien Hoa discovered a flaw in the drone’s systems, one that wasn’t evident or even problematic on high-level flights. Many of the low-level Lightning Bugs launched perfectly, successfully avoided getting shot up and even recovered without incident. But their missions still were failures.

Because, it turned out, they flew a course that was just a few miles to the left or right of a track that would bring them over the target. At high altitude, a few miles didn’t make any difference to a camera whose side-to-side field of view might be a hundred miles or more.

But at low altitude, the camera might see just a mile across. If the drone’s flight path deviated by a few miles, it might result in the vehicle photographing … nothing of interest. Trees. Villages. Rice paddies.

The problem actually started with the C-130 launch plane. The mothership’s Doppler radar as being accurate only to a few miles, meaning it was entirely possible the C-130 would be a few miles off-course when it launched its Lightning Bugs.

Meanwhile the drones’ own navigation systems were accurate only to around three percent of the distance the aircraft traveled from the launch point. After a few hundred miles, a Lightning Bug might be as far as 12 miles off-course. In that case, its film probably captured nothing useful.

Fewer than of the low-level missions succeeded in capturing imagery of their intended targets.

The navigation inaccuracy was a fixture of the J-model low-level drones. But the J-models also helped to introduce major advancements in drone operations.

The Model 147J boasted two cameras instead of the one on earlier Lightning Bugs. Where older drones had just the front-to-back scanning camera, the J also featured a side-to-side camera.

The arrangement resulted in some remarkable photographs. On one mission, Model 147J-14 snapped a photo of a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile barely missing the drone. The J’s low-level photos of ships in Haiphong Harbor were “unbelievable,” according to one Ryan Aeronautical employee.

The J’s excellent photography was no accident. It was the first Lightning Bug to carry two cameras. The standard, downward-looking Hycon HR233 camera with its 24-inch focal length plus a Fairchild KA-60 for side-to-side scans that captured the ground beneath the drone from horizon to horizon.

The KA-60 like all contemporary panoramic cameras was an engineering marvel. It managed to produce reasonably high-resolution, wide-angle photos with a lens that wasn’t wide. To accomplish this, Fairchild added a cylindrical prism in front of the lens. The prism rotated, compensating for the drone’s forward movement as the camera peered from side to side.

Granted, with its three-inch focal length and 4.5-by-9.4-inch format, the KA-60 was a lower-fidelity camera than the Hycon Model 233 was. But in photographing from horizon to horizon, it mitigated the navigational drift that plagued all low-level Lightning Bug missions.

Another advancement that coincided with the Model 147J’s arrival in South Vietnam resulted in a profound overall improvement in the Lightning Bugs’ usefulness.

On four of the initial Model 147J missions in the spring of 1966, the Air Force recovered the drone by way of its new “mid-air retrieval system,” or MARS.

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The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes by Joe Coles (editor): Unbound

MARS entailed a cargo plane or helicopter trailing a long hook to snag a payload while it was descending toward Earth under a parachute. The Air Force first deployed MARS, on the C-119 cargo plane, during tests of early Q-2 target drones in 1955. Starting in 1959, the National Reconnaissance Office borrowed the method, equipping C-119s and C-130s to snatch film capsules from the earliest Corona spy satellites. The U.S. Army tinkered with a similar concept, but using helicopters instead of cargo planes. But by 1965 the Army programme was idle for a lack of funding. A Ryan Aeronautical employee named Fred Yochim heard a rumour about the Army effort and tracked down the captain who had flown the test-recoveries for the ground-combat branch at a base in New Mexico.

The captain happily handed over his records and equipment. Yochim showed it to the Air Force. “We got the programme up and going,” Yochim recalled.

Modified for helicopters and drones, MARS worked like this. The drone deployed its recovery parachute at 15,000 feet over the recovery zone. The main ‘chute trailed a smaller ‘chute. For the MARS crew, the latter was the target.

Flying 3,000 feet below the drone as it popped its main ‘chute, the helicopter crew angled toward the secondary ‘chute, aiming to snag that ‘chute’s line with the grappling hook extending aft from the ‘copter’s belly.

The Sikorsky CH-3 helicopter became U.S. Strategic Air Command’s standard helicopter for drone-support missions. The CH-3s transported recovery crews, lifted drones back to base from their rural landing zones and, following the 1966 introduction of the Mid-Air Recovery System, snatched Lightning Bugs from the air as they descended underneath their parachutes at the end of their sorties. U.S. Air Force photo

After the helicopter grabbed the line, a mechanism on the main ‘chute collapsed the larger canopy. Now the drone was hanging more or less free from the helicopter. The ‘copter crew reeled in the drone until it trailed just 15 feet or so from the rotorcraft. The crew then flew the drone back to base and gently deposited it on the tarmac.

MARS radically improved the Lightning Bug programme’s mission success rate. Where before there was a roughly even chance of a recovery failing or at least damaging the film — to say nothing of endangering the soldiers whose job it was to retrieve landed drones — with MARS missions that didn’t result in a shoot-down or a crash almost always ended in a successful recovery.

Between 1966 and the end of the Vietnam War, Army helicopters attempted 2,745 mid-air drone recoveries and completed 2,655 of them. A 96.7-percent success rate.

––– David Axe

The above article is an excerpt from Drone War Vietnam by David Axe

Drone War Vietnam (Hardback)
Click on image to order

Clash of the Cancelled, Round 4: World War II Fighter Aircraft, Heinkel He 100 versus Martin-Baker MB 3


martin-baker-mb3-runup

History chewed out and spat out some incredible aeroplanes. We drag these rotting morsels out of the compost mulch of history and drag them to our laboratory/fight-club for autopsy. To assist us in our morbid analysis is Hush-Kit’s tamed scientist and engineer Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith (a key figure in the Typhoon and UK JSF programmes among others). To further our thrills we shall pit these dead aeroplanes against each other!

How The Heinkel He 100 Changed The World Of Fighters And Then Vanished -  World War Wings

A pair of particularly neat and tidy high-performance fighters which share many common facets in their development stories. Both were seeking to replace current production aircraft, whose performance they exceeded; both had interesting technical features and were beautifully engineered; and both missed out, largely for reasons of industrial policy in time of war, driven by pressure on the availability of suitable powerplants, and a desire not to disrupt the production of in-service operational aircraft.


“When matched against each other in air combat, the MB 3 pilot would have been well advised to avoid a sustained turning combat, and would instead seek to make slashing attacks, taking advantage of its high speed and heavy firepower to inflict damage without seeking to out-manoeuvre its opponent.”


Heinkel He 100


The Heinkel 100 emerged as a result of the Heinkel company’s frustration with losing out to the Messerschmitt Bf 109 in being selected as the Luftwaffe’s single-engine fighter monoplane in 1936. Heinkel’s entry in that competition had been the Heinkel 112. The Messerschmitt design had proven successful largely because it was smaller, lighter, faster, and simpler to build. It did, however, have a few less satisfactory points, with a small, cramped cockpit, narrow track undercarriage and relatively short range.
Following the fighter decision, Heinkel had been advised that they were to concentrate on bomber aircraft, while Messerschmitt concentrated on fighters. However, when the authorities began to consider possible successors to the Bf 109 towards the end of 1937, Ernst Heinkel and Heinrich Hertel did not allow this advice to stand in their way.


Instead, they considered the lessons to be learned from the Heinkel 112, and set out to design a fighter which combined exceptional aerodynamic cleanliness with the simplest and lightest possible structure, while also addressing the perceived shortcomings of the Bf 109. In designing the He 100, they also drew on the experience of the He 119 private venture high-speed reconnaissance aircraft and bomber, designed by Siegfried and Walter Gunter under the guidance of Dipl-Ing Heinrich Hertel.

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The He 119 had a number of radical features, including a cooling system which essentially used the structure of the aircraft as a radiator, enabling an exceptionally clean airframe. The cooling system was pressurised, and relied on expansion of the coolant to steam, which was then condensed and returned in liquid form to the engine. The successful application of this so-called ‘evaporative cooling’ system in the He 119 led to its adoption for the Heinkel 100.


The He 100 really was a superbly conceived aircraft, with the lower forward fuselage doubling as the mount for the Daimler-Benz DB601 engine and almost no excrescences to mar the clean lines of the aircraft, apart from a small retractable oil cooler used principally for take-off and climb. This was a result of the use of the evaporative cooling system, which enabled externally mounted radiators to be dispensed with. The aircraft featured a notably roomy cockpit, largely uncluttered by cockpit framing, a wide-track, inward-retracting undercarriage, and a massively simplified structure compared to the He 112.
To further emphasise the performance superiority of the aircraft, the specially prepared V-8 prototype was used to raise the world absolute speed record to 463.92 mph in March 1939. The developed He 100D fighter is stated to have had a maximum speed and range of 416 mph and 553 miles respectively, compared to figures for the Bf 109E (also with the DB 601 engine) of 336 mph and 410 miles.
However, the program did not succeed in winning a Service production order. The reasons for this appear to be hotly debated, but, apart from the policy that Heinkel should build bombers, appear to have revolved around the difficulties Germany was experiencing with producing sufficient DB 601 engines, and maintaining their performance in service. Although Heinkel had been offered the possibility of an order should the He 100 be redesigned to use the Jumo 211 engine, this was not a viable solution, as that engine could not use a pressurised cooling system.


Twelve production series He 100D-1 aircraft were built and eventually used to form a local air defence unit at the Heinkel factory at Marienehe. These aircraft were also used for propaganda purposes, being painted in various unit colours to suggest that significant numbers of the aircraft were in operational service.


Martin-Baker MB 3


The Martin-Baker MB 3 was intended to provide a step forward beyond the performance of the Spitfire and Hurricane, and to exploit the additional power available from the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. However, that engine experienced a lengthy development, and was not available to the company, who were required to fit a Napier Sabre II engine instead.


The design drew on lessons from the earlier MB 1 and MB 2 aircraft, and combined aerodynamic cleanliness with heavy armament and a sturdy, yet lightweight structure that was designed to be easy to maintain and repair. The engine installation was particularly neat, and the cooling system featured low-profile oil and engine cooling radiators carried under the wings.


The structure featured a steel tube framework carrying light removeable metal panels which provided great access for maintenance while preserving smooth external lines. The wing was built around a strong tapered metal torsion box, built up around a laminated steel spar, and carrying a simple yet robust wide-track undercarriage.


Another feature of the aircraft was the carriage of six 20-mm cannon as armament, enabled to fit in the simple tapered wings by a patented ‘flat-feed’ ammunition stowage system, and designed to be easy to access for both maintenance and re-arming.

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Development of the aircraft was delayed by the difficulties in engine development, and the original Contract, signed in June 1939, was replaced in August 1940 by a new Contract specifying the use of a Napier Sabre engine. However, the ongoing, and successful, development of other types, notably the Typhoon and Tempest, and the continued development of the Spitfire, had resulted, in late 1941, in a decision that no production order would be placed for the MB 3, although the prototype would still be completed.


The MB 3 had a very short flying career, making its first flight on 31 August 1942, and being destroyed in a fatal accident on its 10th flight on 12 September 1942. In the limited testing that was completed, handling and performance had both been shown to be excellent, with a reported maximum speed of 430 mph being demonstrated. However, the loss of the prototype due to engine failure on take-off, and the death of Company co-founder Captain Valentine Baker in the accident, were heavy blows for the company.


Eventually, the fully-developed, Griffon-engined, Martin-Baker MB 5 emerged, making its first flight on May 23, 1944. Viewed by many as the finest piston-engine fighter ever flown, the aircraft was largely irrelevant, as by then, the focus for future fighter development was on jet propulsion.

All MB3 images: Martin-Baker

Heinkel He 100D and Martin Baker MB 3 – Air Combat Comparison


Having looked at the data for these two aircraft, I was reminded of the contest between the fast, rugged, and well-armed Grumman Hellcat, and the smaller, lighter, more agile, and more fragile Mitsubishi Zero.
Heavily armed, with six cannon, and very robustly constructed, the Martin-Baker MB 3 was more than twice the weight of the Heinkel 100D. As a result, it had a higher wing loading, and, despite having a 2000 hp Napier Sabre engine, a lower power loading than the He 100D. It also had a lower aspect ratio wing, but seems likely to have been slightly faster than the Heinkel.


In favour of the MB 3, however, was its immensely well-engineered airframe, designed to be strong, yet very easy to service, maintain and repair. The other major aspect in favour of the MB 3 was its armament of six 20-mm cannon, compared to the intended one cannon, plus two 7.92 mm machine guns, of the He 100D.


The He 100D offered good speed and manoeuvrability, and might have been expected to be a real handful in turning air combat. However, the key to its performance lay in the evaporative cooling system for the engine, which, although it delivered unmatched aerodynamic cleanness, was also extremely complex and likely to be vulnerable to battle damage.


When matched against each other in air combat, the MB 3 pilot would have been well advised to avoid a sustained turning combat, and would instead seek to make slashing attacks, taking advantage of its high speed and heavy firepower to inflict damage without seeking to out-manoeuvre its opponent. Even if such an engagement could not be avoided, the firepower of the MB 3 greatly outweighed the 3 machine guns actually fitted to the few production He 100D aircraft.


In terms of sortie generation, one suspects the He 100D would have been a nightmare. The complex cooling system required 22 electrical pumps, and these appear to have had a high failure rate. In addition, the system was pressurised and used the wings and parts of the fuselage as cooling surfaces. The system was likely to be very vulnerable to battle damage, as almost any damage to the structure might also damage the engine cooling system.
In contrast, the MB 3 is reported to have had extremely rapid servicing times, due to the provision of many access panels, allowing rapid re-armament and replenishment of fuel and oil. The primary structure was of robust steel tubing, designed to be easy to replace or repair. Sortie generation would be a clear area of advantage for the MB 3.

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Heinkel He 100 and Martin-Baker MB 3 Assessment

How to compare two aircraft that were brilliant examples of the ‘state of the art’ and yet not wanted by their respective production authorities? Both aircraft had first class aerodynamics, high performance, and good handling qualities. Both aircraft suffered from having the ‘wrong’ engine, in that the DB 601 was not going to be made available for production He 100 aircraft, and the Griffon was never going to be available in time for the MB 3. Both manufacturers were not perceived by the authorities as mainstream fighter designers, and yet both aircraft had also been designed with an eye to significant improvements over the aircraft they were intended to replace.


The case for the He 100 is that it was eventually fully developed, and demonstrated the performance expected from the design. However, one of the key enablers of that performance, the evaporative cooling system, was inextricably linked to the DB601 engine, preventing re-engining with the Jumo 211, which might have won a production order. The cooling system was also very complex, and, as much of the aircraft surface effectively served as a radiator, could have been very vulnerable to battle damage.

He-100: Heinkel's Mythical Super-Fighter


The case for the MB 3 rests on its impressive performance and handling, its heavy armament, and the ease of maintenance and repair of its structure. Against this must be set the small size of the Company developing the aircraft, the delays to that development, the unavailability of the Griffon engine, and the disastrous consequences of the failure on take-off of the prototype’s Napier Sabre.


Both aircraft became irrelevant, largely because their competitors came up with first class products to perform the intended role. In Germany’s case, the Focke-Wulf 190, using the BMW 801 radial engine, and in Britain’s case the Hawker Tempest, with the Napier Sabre, and later Bristol Centaurus engine.


So, which was best? Aerodynamically, the Heinkel. Mechanically, the MB 3. A developed six-cannon MB 3 would have been formidable, and the MB 5 gives an indication of where a Griffon engine would have taken the aircraft. For me, the He 100 cooling system, brilliant though it was in enhancing performance, remains an Achilles Heel, as it stifled development opportunity by its linkage to the DB 601, and would probably have been very vulnerable to battle damage. So, by a narrow margin, my choice of better loser goes to the MB 3, even though this was an aircraft which only completed nine successful flights.

An Utterly Adorable Guide to the World’s Cutest Aircraft

HC-2 Heli Baby helicopter AZ-Model CZ01

Some aircraft are fearsome in appearance, others sexy and some utterly grotesque. Others elicit a more unlikely response from the observer, the desire to protect. Armed only with a teddybear and tiptoeing so as not to wake them we went in search of the 10 cutest aircraft.

Perceiving some animals as ‘cute’ is probably a byproduct of our own maternal and parental instincts, as we tend to see cuteness in animals that resemble human babies. This isn’t even limited to animals – we even see cuteness in machines. When an aeroplane is anthropomorphised its canopy is seen as an eye or face, its nose as a nose and its general proportions are compared to human physiques. Let’s meet the world’s cutest aircraft..

CREDIT: RAF HENDON

Despite being the most formidable fighter aircraft in the world in 1946, and enjoying a deliciously sinister name, the Vampire could inspire lactation in a three mile radius. Its cute tadpole-like shape, pudgy nose and dimensions tiny enough to be looked down on by a jockey give an utterly false impression of a red-blooded killer.

Yakovlev Yak-14

Nothing in the universe is less cute as an idea than a Soviet battlefield assault aircraft, yet weirdly the Yak-14 glider, which is just such a thing, is adorable. Perhaps it’s the oversized humped cockpit section or the clumsy high sides but we’re desperate to clean that chocolate off its little face and put a plaster on its hurty knee.

Edgley Optica

Edgley EA-7 Optica Observation Aircraft - YouTube

Curves of some kind are essential for a cute aeroplane and the Optica, Britain’s answer to the unasked question ‘What if we pretended helicopters hadn’t been invented?’, has some darling little curves. The Edgley Optica was probably the most important aircraft in history not to have contributed anything to history. Its cute credentials are somewhat marred by its butch, distinctly agricultural, tail (as with the author).

Antonov An-14

The Antonov An-14 was created by the Soviet Union in an attempt to make the West so brainlessly broody it would renounce capitalism and liberate the proletariat. This didn’t work but the An-14 ‘little bee’ did succeed in winning our hearts. Who’s a good little Antonov? You’re a good little Antonov.

Stits SA-2A Sky Baby

If ownership of a large vehicle belies a smaller penis, then engineer Ray Stits (above) must have been hung like a fucking Blue Steel Vulcan. The minute Sky Baby was surprisingly fast, clocking a somewhat alarming 185mph.

GAF Pika

The GAF Pika was Australia’s daring attempt to see if ‘cute’ could combined with ‘cool’. The result was just cute and Australia gave up the experiment.

GAF Pika - Destination's Journey | Pika, Experimental aircraft, Commercial  aircraft

Orlican M-2 Skaut

Czechoslovakia spent its brief existence resenting the Soviet Union and making exceptionally cute flying machines, like mummy’s favourite, the M-2 Skaut.

Gonzo - História lietania ČR

MiG-105

I don’t want to go into space, I want to sit in a high chair and drink apple juice.

My favourite aeroplane in 200 words #43: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105 | Hush-Kit

Starr Bumblebee II

So cute was the Starr Bumblebee II that was entirely held aloft by aunties pinching its little chubby cheeks.

Image

Colomban Cri-cri

It is not unusual for owners of the French homebuilt Cri-Cri aircraft to keep a one-way baby alarm in the hangar to check if it wakes in the night crying out for oil, fuel or a cuddle. The world’s smallest twin-engined manned aircraft is utterly adorable.

Aero HC-2 Heli Baby

 The first and the only Czechoslovakian-designed helicopter to be produced, the HC-2’s engine vibrated at a frequency that caused involuntary ovulation.

Aero HC-2 Heli Baby, National Technical Museum (Prague).JPG

According to the Czech proverb ‘Baked pigeons don’t fly into your mouth’ (Pečení holubi nelítají do huby) – indeed they don’t.

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The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes by Joe Coles (editor): Unbound

This article was suggested by Hush-Kit patron Chris Williams.

Bell reveals High-Speed VTOL Concept Based on a Folding Tilt-rotor: Our Analysis from Helicopter Expert Dr Ron Smith


Yesterday, Bell Helicopters revealed a futuristic stop-fold aircraft concept combining the advantages of a tilt-rotor with potentially higher top speeds. We consider the proposal with the help of former Head of Future Projects for Westland Helicopters, Dr Ron Smith.

New ideas in rotorcraft technology never die, but sometimes they remain in a state of metaphorical autorotation until the technology reaches appropriate maturity. The tilt-rotor is a very old idea, dating back to the 1909 Dufaux triplane from Switzerland, but it wasn’t until 98 years later that the concept became an operational reality with the V-22 Osprey. Clearly some ideas take a very long time to leave the experimental phase and enter service; Could the same be true of the stowed stop-fold prop rotor? The advantages of tucking away the huge prop-rotors of a tilt-rotor and switching to jet propulsion are obvious, you frontal cross-section is massively reduced and you can potentially break the 540mph barrier that has long limited propeller-powered aeroplanes.

According to Ron Smith, “This concept dates back to 1967 with the Bell Model 627. In 1967 the US Air Force solicited proposals for `low-disc-loading [Vertical Takeoff and Landing] configurations suitable for high-speed flight.’ Bell responded with a proposal for a folding proprotor design. Development and analysis included design studies, leading up to a 1972 test with a full scale 25 foot diameter pylon and rotor assembly wind tunnel in the NASA-Ames Large Scale Wind Tunnel. The original Bell Helicopter proposed stop-fold tiltrotor design allowed for vertical take-off and landing. Take off was followed by a tilt rotor transition sequence rotating the pylon rotor assembly from helicopter to airplane mode, with wing lift supporting the aircraft.


A final conversion sequence involved slowing and then stopping the rotors and folding the blades rearward along the pylon, with propulsion being taken over by direct jet engine thrust.
The Bell Helicopter report of the full-scale blade fold tests (Report D272-099-002, May 1972) is available here.
The images to the left have been extracted from that report and make an interesting comparison with the imagery recently released by Bell.


The current Bell HSVTOL imagery from their recent press release is shown above.

Bell’s press release summarises the capability objectives as follows:
“HSVTOL technology blends the hover capability of a helicopter with the speed, range and survivability features of a fighter aircraft. Bell’s HSVTOL design concepts include the following features:
Low downwash hover capability Jet-like cruise speeds over 400 kts
True runway independence and hover endurance
Scalability to the range of missions from unmanned personnel recovery to tactical mobility
Aircraft gross weights range from 4,000 lbs. to over 100,000 lbs.


Bell’s HSVTOL capability is critical to future mission needs offering a range of aircraft systems with enhanced runway independence, aircraft survivability, mission flexibility and enhanced performance over legacy platforms.


With the convergence of tiltrotor aircraft capabilities, digital flight control advancements and emerging propulsion technologies, Bell is primed to evolve HSVTOL technology for modern military missions to serve the next generation of warfighters.”


The downwash velocity comment depends on the comparison being made. Tilt rotor designs will have higher downwash velocity than a single rotor helicopter at comparable all up weight. They will, however, have greatly reduced downwash compared with jet or fan-lift concepts. There will be drag penalties associated with the rotor and rotor nacelle assemblies, even when folded, but a speed range up to 400 kt seems quite credible.
There is also no fundamental reason why the concept should not be scalable over a wide range of roles and all up weights.


The artists impressions show designs that incorporate some fuselage faceting to reduce radar signature. Despite this, one suspects that real world excrescences associated with blade fold mechanisms will impact both airframe drag and radar signature. The image also shows three different intake arrangements and optimisation of the engine installation will necessarily depend on both radar and IR signature requirements. It is not clear whether an entirely separate propulsion engine is used in addition to a powerplant to provide shaft power to the rotors, or whether a variable cycle engine is proposed that can deliver a controllable mix of jet thrust and shaft power.

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The starting point for a demonstrator would probably avoid the risk and complexity of developing a variable cycle solution simultaneously with a new airframe configuration.
The Bell report from 1972 lists key risks. Not surprisingly, these focus on static and dynamic loads during the blade fold sequence. Having said that, this test programme extended to 40 start / stop transition sequences conducted at full scale in the Ames Wind tunnel. Even though this data was collected some 50 years ago, it does represent (along with more recent experience) a significant contribution to risk reduction.
The risks identified in the 1972 Bell report were (my interpretation of the findings):
• Proprotor instability (alleviated by folding the blades before reaching the high speed flight regime).
• Potentially large amount of blade flapping during the blade fold sequence, requiring flapping restraint and associated dynamic loads. A short duration blade fold sequence would limit the number of cycles to which the system is exposed.
• Dynamic excitation of the wing and pylon structure during the blade fold sequence. During testing, this was found to be associated with blade / wing aerodynamic interference.
• The report also comments that it was found that the mechanisms associated with the folding-proprotor concept are a significant design challenge from the standpoint of achieving a reliable mechanism at a reasonable weight.
All-in-all, Bell Helicopters appear to be well placed to pursue this development. The challenge will be to secure a stable funding stream for the lengthy design and development program that will be involved. The Army is showing sustained interest in high-speed rotorcraft and one imagines that there would be significant interest across the US armed forces in understanding the options to replace the V-22 Osprey.


This could be a starting point and technology demonstration at lower weights could spin off additional applications.

r/WeirdWings - Bell/Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor. A forward swept wing tiltrotor that transforms into a supersonic jet fighter. One of many exotic designs spawned from the LHX program. (Early ‘80s—Early ‘90s)
The stop-fold tilt-rotor idea has long been studied by Bell. This extremely exciting Bell/Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor was forward swept wing tiltrotor that transforms into a supersonic jet fighter. This was one of many exotic designs spawned from the LHX programme. (Early ‘80s—Early ‘90s).

What is the real-world need do you think?

“Bell would say – Civil: executive helicopter replacement (- like the Bell 609 tilt rotor now moved to Leonardo). Air taxi operations?

Military applications – combat search & rescue, special forces, Osprey replacement, armed UAS?”

What are the advantages?

“Primarily speed, possibly manoeuvrability, external noise. (Could be like Osprey – makes the naval fleet operation less vulnerable).”

What are the disadvantages or potential problems?

“Complex transmission and propulsion arrangements, load prediction, certification, failure modes? (but not much worse than tilt-rotor).”

Is it worth the effort? 

“Only if there is a genuine requirement backed up by funding / political support and timescales that are achievable.”

What will be the hardest aspect to master if it goes ahead? 

“Certification, complexity. Accommodating associated military requirements (crashworthiness? radar & IR signatures, weapon system integration, defensive aids, sensors, operation in adverse environments, survivability, etc.). Weight (issue for anything VTOL), achieving predicted payload and range. Development cost & timescales. (Just like any other military procurement).”

Do you think it will happen? 

“Very hard to answer. If it starts to look like a threat to other programmes, their respective protagonists will lobby against it. I can see smaller variants being pursued because something civil might spin off into an armed UAS. Work on smaller platforms will ultimately de-risk more ambitious developments. I’d say less than 50% chance but higher than that for something at the technology demonstrator level with an eye on actual applications.”


Ron Smith
August 2021

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Soviet World War II Combat Aircraft (but were afraid to ask) with author Edward Ward

Regular Hush-Kit contributor and High Priest of the Cult of the Wyvern, Edward Ward, has written a book on Soviet military aircraft of World War II. We took the time to grill Ed on Soviet warplanes and other perversions.

What is the biggest myth or misconception about Soviet aircraft in WW2?

“There are a few prevalent in the West largely due to the paucity of information available during the Cold war, a time when trashing Soviet engineering in general, even historically, was politically expedient. At the same time, the exploits of Western aircraft in Soviet service was played down by Soviet authorities for exactly the same reason. Subsequently the truth has filtered out but the old myths are stubborn. A good example is that of the P-39 Airacobra, an aircraft rejected from operations by the RAF and unloved by the USAAF. Subsequently palmed off on the USSR, most reference works stated for years that the P-39 found a measure of success over the Eastern Front in the ground attack role due to its heavy armament. We now know that the Airacobra was never employed in ground attack units and was only ever used in the air superiority role, at which it excelled. It was so good in fact that it replaced the Spitfire in service with several units, a fact that would have left British and American pilots aghast. The reason for the disparity in experience was that the P-39 turned out to be, largely by accident, ideally suited to the combat conditions it was committed to. The P-39’s primary failing was that its altitude performance was poor, in the East this was irrelevant as most combat took place at medium and low level and at these altitudes the Airacobra was fast and handled very nicely – it is not a coincidence that a P-39 won the first post-war Thompson Trophy against much more fancied Mustangs, Thunderbolts and Lightnings. It was very reliable and rugged, easy to fly, and its tricycle undercarriage was well suited to the rough fields it had to operate from and Soviet pilots rated it as equivalent or superior to contemporary models of Bf 109 and Fw 190 in aerial combat. Grigory Rechkalov scored 48 of his 54 confirmed ‘kills’ in a P-39, the highest score by any pilot flying a US-built aircraft in the Second World War and its diminutive nickname of Kobrushka ‘Little Cobra’ gives one an inkling of the affection it engendered. None of this was widely known until fairly recently.”

What were the three most important Soviet types and why?

“Difficult to say definitively but I would go for the Yak fighters, the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik and the Polikarpov U-2/Po-2. The Yaks were the most important Eastern front fighter type, continually improved throughout its life and built in insane numbers (about 40,000). The Il-2 has become emblematic of Soviet air power to the extent that it gave its name to a (very good) Flight Simulator in the 21st century and also serves as the perfect demonstration of the Soviet fixation on air power as a tactical extension of its ground forces. The U-2/Po-2 is the most produced biplane of all time and as well as being a perfectly good trainer and general purpose machine in the mould of the Tiger Moth, more importantly served as the particularly Soviet ‘light nuisance bomber’. A maddening attacker that caused little material damage but was constantly operating over German positions by night, was virtually uninterceptable and impossible to detect coming (approaches were usually made with the engine off and thus in virtual silence). German soldiers could seldom get a good night’s sleep and its psychological effect cannot be overstated. For the chauvinistic German army the fact that many of these terrifying attacks were flown by women was almost unbelievable and led to their nickname of the Nachthexen – Night witches. The Germans also copied the Soviet tactics with their own biplane trainers. Later the same aircraft became notorious as ‘Bedcheck Charlie’ of the Korean War, this time disturbing American sleep.”

How important was the Il-2?

“Simultaneously unbelievably important yet not as important as everyone thought at the time if that isn’t straying too far into cognitive dissonance territory. An Il-2 attack was a terrifying and demoralising experience but much like the Typhoon in the West, its actual destructive effect was overestimated, especially when attacking with rockets. But then, all wartime unguided rockets were appallingly inaccurate. But the Il-2 had a secondary role as a kind of icon – like the Spitfire in Britain, it become symbolic of a specifically Soviet fight back against the invader and as you are probably aware was built in greater numbers than any other combat aircraft in history (sort of – the Yak fighters are all more or less the same but get counted as separate types, if they are all considered the same aircraft then they are the most produced combat aircraft of all time).”

Edward also created this superb Soviet Spitfire design exclusively for Hush-Kit

What is the stereotype of Soviet WW2 aircraft and how true is it?

“The Western stereotype is, I suppose, of a badly built, primitive, probably outdated aircraft, likely to achieve success against the much superior German machines only through weight of numbers. This is not true, though like most stereotypes there is a grain of truth at its heart that has been grossly exaggerated. For the fact is that Soviet aircraft, especially early in the war, did lack many refinements common on comparable contemporary aircraft. Early MiG-3s didn’t even have a fuel gauge for example. There has also been a distinct cold war bias when describing the same technology when used by the Russians rather than the Western allies. The use of composite wooden construction on the de Havilland Mosquito for example is generally presented as absolutely fucking mindblowing yet the use of composite wooden construction (for the same reasons) in Soviet fighters especially is usually served up as evidence of their primitive nature. The Lavochkin fighters for example used ‘delta drevesina’, a composite wooden material consisting of layers of birch strip bonded with bakelite film, this material being both appreciably stronger than any untreated wood and fire resistant. Both wing and fuselage were covered with a stressed skin of bakelite ply, minimising the usage of steel and aluminium in the airframe. There was a huge shortage of steel in particular in the USSR in the early war period.”

What was the finest Soviet fighter of the war and how did it compare with its German/Brit/US counterparts?

“It’s a toss-up between the late Yaks and the Lavochkin La-7, given that one of these is a lightweight inline powered fighter and the other a somewhat heavier radial machine, this mirrors the situation in Germany with the Bf 109 and Fw 190 as well as the American P-51 and P-47. There is a general correlation with the dainty Spitfire and heavyweight Typhoon/Tempest as well. Looked at in statistical terms all Soviet fighters were notably smaller and much lighter than their contemporaries, especially the Yaks. Both types were very highly rated for handling both by Soviet pilots and by test pilots from other nations, even the Germans had nice things to say about them in this regard. Performance wise, in say mid 1944, both the La-7 and Yak-3 are beginning to appear in large numbers and compare very favourably with the world’s best. The La-7 manages 423 mph at its best altitude and the Yak 447 mph. By contrast the Tempest V tops out at 427 mph, the Spitfire XIV at 448 mph, the P-47D at 428 mph and the P-51D at 437 mph. On the other side, the 109G-10 is capable of 428 mph and the Fw 190D-9 of 440 mph so everything is in the same sort of area speed wise, although they are all attaining these at different heights. The Tempest was probably the Western Allies best performing fighter at low and medium altitude so is the most directly comparable. The Soviet fighters cannot match the altitude performance of the others but that is irrelevant for their operating environment. In armament terms there is probably the biggest disparity, the La-7 has two 20-mm ShVAK cannon and the Yak-3 just the one, backed up with two 12.7-mm BS machine guns. Soviet fighters always had an armament considered inadequate by other nations. In range performance both the Soviet types lag behind their allies, though the special long-range Yak-9DD was developed for escort duties with a 1300 mile range so it’s not a complete walkover as that’s the same as the operational range of the P-51D (with drop tanks), a fighter known for its long legs.”

Edward Ward designed this t-shirt exclusively for Hush-Kit.

What were the biggest strengths and weaknesses of Soviet aircraft designs?

“Like most nations, the Soviets built a range of aircraft that possessed differing strengths and weaknesses but one area in which they lagged somewhat was in engine technology. The Klimov M-105 fitted to all the Yak fighters for example was essentially an outgrowth of the Hispano-Suiza 12Y and its power output was comparatively modest compared to the Merlin, though both started in roughly the same horsepower class, by 1945 the most advanced Klimovs were delivering around 1300hp whilst the Merlin was offering 2000hp or more. Soviet inline engines could never match the reliability of Western engines either due to lesser build quality. The radials were better but as these were all developed out of 1930s American designs (the Shvetsov Ash-82 derives from the Wright Cyclone for example) one can’t help but think they were cheating a bit. By contrast Soviet aerodynamic science was arguably better than that of the West. The USSR never found much use for the P-47s they were sent through lend-lease, regarding it as aerodynamically primitive, but they were astounded by its build quality and the powerplant design was intensively studied. The Soviets were perfectly happy to copy the best bits of other nations aircraft too – they bought a Ju 88 and a Dornier 215 from Germany before Hitler invaded and the Ju 88 in particular considerably influenced the design of the Tu-2.”

Did Soviet aircraft design influence other nations’ aircraft design?

“Not much to be honest. Or at least not directly anyway. The Polikarpov I-16’s impressive showing over Spain could be argued to have spurred the speedy and very successful development of the Messerschmitt 109 but the fact that it was the world’s first low wing, cantilever monoplane with a retractable undercarriage seems to have gone largely unnoticed when it appeared in the early 30s. To be fair, Soviet aircraft didn’t get out much. Later on, the Yak-3 had a sufficiently impressive combat performance to provoke a Luftwaffe general directive to ‘avoid’ combat with it below 5000 metres (which more or less ruled out all combat on the Eastern Front) but the Germans never attempted to emulate the Russian aircraft, even if grudgingly impressed by it. Japan got hold of a LaGG-3 but didn’t think much of it, which was quite reasonable as the LaGG was a pretty terrible aircraft.”

Why was so much fighting at low level on the Eastern Front?

“The simple answer is because neither side was particularly interested in strategic bombing (though both engaged in it a little) and the air war in the East saw the clash of the two greatest tactical air forces the world has ever seen. By contrast, the main thrust of the Allied air effort in the west from the Battle of Britain to D-day was strategic bombing, effective anti aircraft defences had forced bombers to operate higher and higher to survive and therefore it became a relatively high-altitude theatre. But if you look at what the 9th AF and 2 TAF were doing in the west from D-day onwards you see a similar situation emerge as in the East, a lot of low-level tactical short range CAS by fighter bombers and heavy employment of medium bombers. It is no coincidence that the most numerous lend-lease bomber supplied to the Soviets was the Douglas A-20. This wasn’t what planners in the USSR were expecting though, as proved by the large scale production of the MiG-3, a dedicated high-altitude interceptor. The poor old MiG then got itself a pretty poor reputation by being employed almost exclusively in combat at an altitude for which it had not been designed which seems rather unfair.”

How important was Soviet air power to the defeat of Germany?

“The short answer is very. Was it as important as Western air power? Difficult to say. The Eastern Front is generally considered to have absorbed roughly 80% of the German war effort in total but this is not equally distributed amongst the fighting forces. If you look at German aircraft loss statistics, whilst there are peaks and troughs depending on what’s going on at any given time, the general rule is that the losses are split (very) roughly half and half between east and west. The Soviet air force was fighting initially at a qualitative and numerical disadvantage but domestic aircraft production capacity was huge (German intelligence disastrously underestimated it), vast numbers of Western aircraft were supplied to the USSR effectively for free, and aircrew training greatly improved from the dark days of 1941 for the next four years. By 1945 the Red Army was arguably the most effective combined arms fighting force in the world and you can’t deny the devastating effect that air power played in its eventual victory.”

Russian Aircraft of World War II - Technical Guides (Hardback)

So Russia bombed Berlin? What is the story?

“Just like everyone else in the interwar era, the USSR got simultaneously hugely excited by and terribly worried about the potential of long range bombing. The Soviets developed the impressive Tupolev TB-3 in the early thirties, a strategic bomber ahead of its time but then seemed to largely forget about strategic bombing. The TB-3 was still in service in 1941 but was looking distinctly long in the tooth and the Berlin mission, though well within the range capability of the TB-3 would probably have proved suicidal for the lumbering, fixed-gear Tupolev. It was decided nonetheless that in the first months of the Great Patriotic War that Berlin must be bombed as a morale boosting measure and to prove to the Germans that the Soviets could strike back in response to Luftwaffe bombing of Moscow. Weirdly, the first aircraft to do so were naval Ilyushin DB-3T torpedo bombers of the Red Banner Fleet as the commander of the Soviet naval aviation, S.F. Zhavoronkov, proposed a bombing strike on Berlin and formulated a plan during July 1941. Admiral Kuznetsov approved the plan and on 7 August 1941 fifteen DB-3Ts flew from the Baltic island of Ösel off the Estonian coast. Five aircraft bombed Berlin, the others attacking secondary targets. German radio announced the raid as having been by British aircraft and stated five aircraft had been shot down. In reality none had been lost (one aircraft crashed on landing). Further raids were made over the following weeks and during August the crews of two naval squadrons, made 86 sorties, bombed Berlin 33 times, dropping 311 bombs with a total weight of 36,050 kg. Berlin was visited by the four-engine Pe-8 bomber for the first time on 10 August 1941 and the Soviets regularly bombed the German capital, as well as other cities, for the duration of the war. The loss rate was staggeringly low by contemporary standards – in 1942, one Pe-8 was being lost for every 106 missions (it got worse later) but the numbers of aircraft involved was pathetic, there never being more than 30 operational Pe-8s at any given time and the efforts of the Soviet bombers were essentially unknown in the rest until comparatively recently. The fact that I own a book named ‘The Allied Bomber War 1939-45’ (published 1992) and it does not mention a single Soviet mission or aircraft in any of its 207 pages is fairly indicative.”

What is your fav Soviet aircraft and why?

Asisbiz Soviet AF Polikarpov I 153 Chaika Red 59 destroyed on the ground by  Luftwaffe straffing Barbarossa

“It changes on an almost daily basis. However I have always had a penchant for Polikarpov’s fighters. I like rotund aircraft and the I-16, I-15 and I-153 are certainly not sleek. For now I will say the I-153 Chaika. I love that it’s a biplane fighter yet it replaced a monoplane fighter at the front and aesthetically it is unique, a gull-winged, retractable undercarriage biplane which from many angles resembles a barrel.”

Tell us about your book

“It’s a straightforward primer on Soviet aircraft of World War II, part of a series of Technical Guides published by Amber Books, fellow Hush Kit alumnus Thomas Newdick wrote the German entries in the series. I like to think of it as the modern equivalent of those excellent little Salamander Guides in the 1980s. Although it is relatively compact I hope I’ve got some fun nuggets in there, hopefully there’s some aircraft you’ve never heard of (the Shche-2 anyone?) and some surprises: perhaps the world’s first rotorcraft to see combat action? I have also tried to approach every type with an open mind, refer to Russian sources and not just repeat the clichés, fabrications and omissions I read over and over again in the (Western) books of my childhood. Oh and although it’s named ‘Russian Aircraft of World War II’ it is actually Soviet aircraft but the publisher informed me that the word ‘Soviet’ makes people automatically think of the Cold War and who am I to argue?”

What should I have asked you?

“How many Soviet aircraft were designed by people in prison? – the answer is a lot. My next book is on German aircraft of the First World War and it’s surprisingly pleasant not having to deal with designers being thrown in gulags or shot because their aircraft wasn’t immediately perfect.”

KEEP THIS SITE GOING BY SUPPORTING US ON PATREON The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from this site along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes hereThank you. Our controversial merchandise shop is here and our Twitter account here @Hush_Kit. Sign up for our newsletter here. The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from this site along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes by Joe Coles (editor): Unbound

Which aircraft is most like you and why?

Blackburn B-24 Skua | BAE Systems | International
PHOTO: BAE SYSTEMS

“Blackburn Skua: British, mildly interesting in a way, and possessed of much potential in its early days but ultimately flawed, outdated and slow.”

IL2 Sturmovik guide: how to play IL2 Battle of Stalingrad | Wargamer

Clash of the cancelled Round 3: Myasishchev M-50 ‘Bounder’ versus North American B-70 Valkyrie

History chewed out and spat out some incredible aeroplanes. We drag these rotting morsels out of the compost mulch of history and drag them to our laboratory/fight-club for autopsy. To assist us in our morbid analysis is Hush-Kit’s tamed scientist and engineer Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith (a key figure in the Typhoon and UK JSF programmes among others). To further our thrills we shall pit these dead aeroplanes against each other!


This comparison showcases two outrageously ambitious supersonic bomber concepts, the US B-70 Valkyrie and the Myasishchev 103-M from the Soviet Union. Designing any long-range aircraft to fly at sustained supersonic speeds is a challenging exercise, and most such aircraft have really been designed with a supersonic dash capability, rather having a long-range supersonic cruise capability. The two aircraft considered here date from the 1960s, with the Myasishchev M-50 having less ambitious performance goals than the XB-70A, which was a bold and unsuccessful attempt to replace the B-52 with an aircraft capable of cruising at Mach 3.


Myasishchev M-50

Myasishchev M-50 / M-52 Bounder | Old Machine Press

The M-50 was a delta-winged bomber, which first flew in October 1959. The aircraft caused a sensation with its appearance at the 1961 Soviet Aviation Day fly-past at Tushino. With an approximate loaded weight of 320,000 lb, the M-50 was intended to cruise at subsonic speeds, but was capable of a supersonic dash at speeds up to about Mach 1.5. The propulsion system consisted of four podded engines. The inboard pair were mounted on pylons at about the mid-point of each wing, and were fitted with afterburners. The outer pair of engines had no afterburners, and were carried on the extreme wing tip.


The aircraft had a delta wing and a low-set tailplane which have been described as generically similar to a scaled-up MiG 21. While this may be true for the planform shapes, the overall appearance is quite different, and extremely imposing, and ‘futuristic giant bomber’ is what springs to mind.



While appearing extremely spectacular, the M-50 was intended to be further developed into service, the production version to be the Myasishchev M-52. The various reference sources available quote a wide variety of performance figures, but, as it is believed the prototype made only 19 flights, I would conclude that performance was disappointing. This would have been at least partly due to the unavailability of the 40,765 lb thrust Zubets RD-16 engines proposed for the production aircraft, and their substitution with Dobrynin RD-7 engines of 35,275 lb thrust (afterburning) and 20,945 lb thrust (dry).

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The M-50/M-52 programme was cancelled, with the Tushino appearance of the aircraft in 1962 being the final flight of the M-50 prototype, and the M-52 not proceeding to flight test. As with most of the major powers, a combination of issues, including the vulnerability of manned strategic bombers; advances in the capability of ballistic missiles; and the development of submarine-based nuclear deterrent strategies lead to the cancellation of the programme.


North American XB-70A Valkyrie

Even today, nearly 60 years after the first flight of the Valkyrie, on Sept 21, 1964, the performance aspirations for the aircraft seem incredible. The intention was to replace the B-52 with an aircraft cruising at Mach 3.0 at 70 – 80,000 ft with an unrefuelled range of 7500 miles. The airframe to deliver this performance was an astonishingly beautiful slender canard delta, powered by no less than 6 General Electric YJ-93 engines, each delivering about 19,500 lb thrust dry, or 31,000 lb in afterburner.


The engines were carried in a wedge-shaped common nacelle forming the fuselage below the wing, while above the wing a slender circular fuselage extended ahead of the wing, carrying the crew compartment and canard. The lower fuselage was shaped so that, in combination with the folded down outer wing, lift could be gained through the shockwaves generated by the aircraft at its Mach 3.0 cruise speed. This arrangement also reduced trim drag, and increased lateral and directional stability at high speed. The wing planform was a pure triangle, with 65 ½ degrees leading edge sweep and a straight trailing edge.


Because of the high cruise speed envisaged for the aircraft, the structure of the Valkyrie was largely stainless steel, with extensive use of honeycomb panels, and some use of titanium. Stainless steel honeycomb structures have proved to be troublesome in other applications, and significant electrolytic corrosion was found at a late stage in the construction of the first aircraft, requiring a partial re-build.


During the development of the aircraft, parallel developments in Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology and concerns about the effectiveness of surface to air missiles against even the fast and high-flying XB-70A, resulted in President Kennedy declaring in March 1961 that America’s forthcoming missile capability “makes unnecessary and economically unjustifiable the development of the B-70 as a weapon system at this time”. The effort was reduced to two aircraft, which would deliver a programme of research into high-speed flight, and would retain a capability to be developed as a weapon system if necessary.


The aircraft proved capable of achieving its design cruise speed of Mach 3.0, although the lateral and directional behaviour of the first aircraft was unsatisfactory at high speed, and it was eventually limited to a maximum speed of Mach 2.5. The second aircraft was built with a dihedral of 5 deg rather than the slight anhedral of the first aircraft, and this change resolved the high-speed stability problems. Unfortunately, the second aircraft was lost in a mid-air collision on 8 June 1966.


Myasishchev M-50 ‘Bounder’ and North American XB-70A Valkyrie Assessment
Two spectacular-looking supersonic bombers, one Soviet, one American. Both aircraft were ultimately unsuccessful in being developed into operationally useful capability, with the M-50 making only 19 flights, and the XB-70A requiring significant redesign to cure lateral-directional stability issues.
No air combat comparison is presented. The M-50 appears to have been a failure. The XB-70A demonstrated very impressive high-speed cruise capability, but was not developed as a weapon system.
That said, it is an easy decision to make on which of these was the better aircraft. The M-50 never got to fly with the planned production engine, and some reports question whether it was even able to fly at supersonic speeds. The XB-70A was able to demonstrate sustained flight at just over Mach 3, and performed valuable service for NASA in aerodynamic and sonic boom trials.


Both aircraft looked extremely futuristic, and particularly impressive in flight, but the XB-70A Valkyrie gets my vote as the better loser, as it came much closer to its design objectives. The requirements for both aircraft were essentially overtaken by events, as their intended strategic nuclear strike role passed into the realm of the ICBM, whether land-based or submarine-launched.

KEEP THIS SITE GOING BY SUPPORTING US ON PATREON The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from this site along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes hereThank you. Our controversial merchandise shop is here and our Twitter account here @Hush_Kit. Sign up for our newsletter here. The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from this site along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.

Five Fun Vaguely Flight-Related Facts about Ascension Island with author Oliver Harris

Pin on Aircraft

Having spent the last couple of years writing a spy thriller set on Ascension Island I was interested to see this mysterious bit of British volcano surfacing in the news recently, once as a place the Home Secretary thought might be good to send asylum seekers, once turning up on the UK’s Green List of holiday destinations that required no quarantine.

Those who explored it as an option for a getaway might have been disappointed. An eight square mile lump of rock in the South Atlantic, halfway between Brazil and Angola, Ascension is one of the most remote islands in the world. Anyone researching their trip to its beaches would have seen that it contains a lot of satellite dishes, a golf course made of ash, two military bases (US and UK) and a village with a school and convenience store. But they’d also learn that potholes on the runway have meant that all MOD flights from Brize Norton (previously the only straightforward way to reach the place) have been suspended for the past four years, and you now need to get three flights in each direction (available once a month), or buy yourself a yacht. You also need permission from the island’s Administrator to stay there. And the only hotel has recently closed down. All of which provokes the question: what’s there? And why?

It was this enigmatic oddness that me think it would be a great setting for a novel (Ascension, pub. this month by Little, Brown). In the name of plugging it to the esteemed readers of Hush Kit, I present five vaguely flight-related nuggets about the island.

1. The name refers to the flight of Christ

Jesus Gif GIF - Jesus Gif Flying - Discover & Share GIFs

Although the island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1501, it was so unappealingly barren that no one bothered to pass on the news, which meant it had be re-discovered two years later by the naval officer Afonso de Albuquerque who spied it on Ascension Day, the church feast day that celebrates Jesus flying up into Heaven after his resurrection.

It was still too unappealing to claim, though. No one wanted it until 1815, when the British came along, having incarcerated Napoleon on St Helena a few hundred miles away. A small British naval garrison was stationed on Ascension to deny it to the French. For administrative reasons, the island was classified as a stone ship – ‘HMS Ascension’ – to be operated at the discretion of the Admiralty. This made the commandant of the island technically a ship’s captain, with all the legal powers that the role implies. Every child born on Ascension from 1815 to 1922 was officially recognized as having been born at sea.

2. The US built the runway incredibly fast

During the Second World War, it was decided that an airfield on Ascension would be a good idea. The US and UK settled on a location in the south-west of the island named Wideawake Field after the numerous sooty terns (also known as wideawake birds) that inhabited the area.

Wideawake Airfield runway construction

The U.S. Army’s 38th Engineer Combat Regiment arrived in March 1942 and spent the first 27 days unloading 8000 tons of equipment they had brought with them. A lack of sand and stone to make cement meant they had to use volcanic ash mixed with sea water and bird droppings. The operation proceeded 24/7, with soldiers working under camouflaged lighting systems at night so as to shield their activity from enemy ships.

The runway – 6,000 feet long and 150 feet wide – was completed in just 91 days. Its first visitor was an American Consolidated B-24 Liberator by the name of Our Kissin’ Cousin en route to Natal (in South Africa) from Accra in Ghana. As a refuelling station, Wideawake Airfield facilitated indispensable aviation support for British troops in North Africa when Rommel was launching his offensive on Cairo. It also provided a base for anti-submarine raids, sinking numerous German U-boats and dampening Axis naval pursuits in the South Atlantic. One of the biggest dangers, however, involved the wideawakes themselves. Pilots had to take caution when landing and taking off, as birds could get caught in aircraft engines or break a window. During the height of their breeding season, the airfield had to shut down.

Wideawake Airfield (2)

3. Birds on Ascension

The island provides one of the most important homes in the South Atlantic for several species, including the sooty tern, the red-footed booby and the Ascension Island frigatebird, but things haven’t always been easy for its feathered population. In 1815, the British introduced cats to sort out a rodent crisis arising from rats that had got aboard from ships in the early days. But the cats were far more tempted by the seabirds, and soon the bird population had been decimated, with survivors only hanging on in cat-inaccessible locations. In 2000, a project to eradicate feral cats from the island was begun (using traps and cages) and within two years they’d been largely destroyed. So had 38% of the domestic cat population, causing some public consternation. But all in all it was a happy ending, and five seabird species have now recolonized the mainland. The wellbeing of the rats remains unknown.

4. Falklands usage

Victor at Ascension 1982 1

On 5 April 1982, Nimrods were deployed to Wideawake airfield to support the war against the Argentinians, first being used to fly local patrols against potential Argentine attacks, and to escort the British Task Force as it sailed south towards the Falklands, then as communications relay support for the Operation Black Buck bombing raids.

Operations Black Buck 1 to 7 involved extremely long-range ground attack missions by RAF Vulcan bombers against Port Stanley Airport in the Falkland Islands, then occupied by the Argentinians. The raids, at almost 6,600 nautical miles (12,200 km) and 16 hours for the return journey, were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history at that time.

Because the Vulcan was designed for medium-range missions in Europe it lacked the range to fly to the Falklands without refuelling several times. The RAF’s tanker planes were mostly converted Handley Page Victor bombers with similar range, more often seen refuelling fighters scrambled in response to incursions into British airspace by bombers from the Soviet Union, so they too had to be refuelled in the air, involving relays of aircraft. A total of eleven tankers were required for two Vulcans (one primary and one reserve), which would have been an impressive logistical effort even if they hadn’t all been sharing the same runway.

aar vulcan-victor

In the end, the raids had minimal impact on Port Stanley airport, and the damage to Argentine radars was quickly repaired. It has been suggested that the RAF wanted to be involved in the conflict as a guard against further budget cuts.

5. Spaceflight

Although the US initially abandoned the airfield at the end of the Second World War, they returned in 1956. The runway was lengthened and widened to allow for larger aircraft, and later to provide emergency landing for the Space Shuttle. At the time, it was the world’s longest airport runway.

This was just the start of Ascension’s role in the space program, though. In 1967, NASA established a tracking station for Apollo and other spaceflights in a remote area of the island known as Devil’s Ashpit. There are rumours suggesting that the island was used for training the astronauts as well – getting them used to isolation – and even that its surreal rockscape served as the backdrop for a faked moon landing. While these remain unconfirmed, it’s a matter of record that the Devil’s Ashpit station was the first on earth to receive the words: ‘The Eagle has landed.’

NASA staff kept a pet donkey named J.J. outside the operations building, a descendant of donkeys left on the island by Portuguese sailors two centuries earlier. ‘She was there at the tracking station to greet us every morning,’ Harry Turner, a data and antenna programmer wrote in 2003. “We were in the middle of the Apollo 11 mission and we lost all hydraulics to our antenna, meaning that within a short time we would lose the signal from the spacecraft. We ran out to the antenna and found that J.J. had backed her butt into the emergency stop switch.’

Ascension’s remote location continues to make it a good place to keep an eye on things up above us. The new US Space Force has a unit on the island, operating a Meter-Class Autonomous Telescope as part of a space surveillance system for tracking orbital debris (amongst other things?). They also use the Global Positioning System monitoring site at Ascension, which involves one of the four dedicated ground antennas that GPS relies on (the others are on Diego Garcia, Kwajalein (Marshall Islands), and at Cape Canaveral). Meanwhile, post-Brexit, the two European Space Agency Galileo Sensor Stations located on the Falklands and Ascension Island are being removed. The stations host cryptographic material which, in accordance with the EU security rules, can’t be located in non-EU territory.

All of which makes for an odd moment in the history of this British lump of lava. Will it end up in US hands entirely? Is it already? Is the long-overdue repair to the runway connected to plans for a new spaceplane? Or a desire to keep the island inaccessible? Any attempts to put the island’s business on a more democratic footing – for example, by granting citizenship to some of its more longstanding residents – have been quashed. Half a millennia after its discovery, Ascension remains as mysterious as ever, just a lot more busy.

Ascension by Oliver Harris is published by Little, Brown on July 15 (and by HMH Books in the US on the same date).

Ascension by Oliver Harris | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk)

Ascension | HMH Books

Ascension Island and Britain's presence in the South Atlantic