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The Blohm & Voss BV 155: The Luftwaffe interceptor that time forgot


Only two BV 155 B prototype high-altitude fighters were completed by Hamburg-based Blohm & Voss Flugzeugbau during the Second World War and today the last one sits largely forgotten in long-term storage at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E Garber Facility in Maryland. It is a fitting home for an aircraft developed because the Germans feared the introduction of American bombers against which they could offer no defence.


Given the level of secrecy that exists in American military contracting today it is hard to believe that during the summer of 1941 the ‘secret’ work of companies such as Boeing and Consolidated in designing high-altitude aircraft was openly discussed in popular American magazines such as Aviation and Model Airplane News.39650217 (1).jpg

German intelligence officers sent home reports about future US bombers with pressure cabins and operational ceilings above that of the Bf 109 and when America entered the war in December 1941 the German Air Ministry became deeply worried about attack from unassailable altitudes. The discovery of Spitfires with pressure cabins in 1942 and the increasing appearance of high-flying Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft suggested that the British were pursuing similar avenues of development.

In response, Messerschmitt was commissioned first in May 1942 to create a high-altitude version of the Bf 109 and then again a year later to create an ‘extreme’ high-altitude fighter capable of operating at 16km (52,493ft). Unfortunately, the firm was sorely lacking in manpower to fulfil its many burdensome responsibilities, including development of the Me 262 jet fighter, Me 163 interceptor, Me 209 fighter, Me 264 bomber and Me 328 light bomber, plus ongoing support for the Bf 109, Bf 110, Me 323 transport and Me 410 heavy fighter.


Blohm & Voss, meanwhile, had made its name building ships and submarines but had diversified into aviation when the Nazis started handing out lucrative aircraft manufacturing contracts during the 1930s. As might be expected, it specialised in seaplanes.


In order to help Messerschmitt, Generalfeldmarschall Erhard Milch, head of the German Air Ministry, simply cancelled all of Blohm & Voss’s seaplanes and handed the resulting free capacity over to Messerschmitt on condition that it was committed to a single project rather than dispersed across all of them. Messerschmitt gave Blohm & Voss the extreme high-altitude fighter.

Everything went well until the two companies fell out – ostensibly because Messerschmitt scheduled a meeting then changed the venue at the last minute without informing Blohm & Voss. The outrage which followed may in reality have been Blohm & Voss manoeuvring to take sole charge of the project, a gambit which quickly succeeded.

After largely throwing out most of Messerschmitt’s original design for the Me 155 B (there never was an ‘A’), the company came up with its own design using the Bf 109 rear fuselage and some wing components but was otherwise entirely new. The BV 155 B had a DB 603 engine in its nose linked to a Hirth TKL 15 supercharger and two intercoolers behind the pilot’s pressure cabin by tubes running down the exterior of the fuselage. High-altitude performance demanded an enormous 20.33m wingspan (compared to, say, the Ta 152 H’s not insubstantial 14.44m) and huge wing-mounted radiators.


Halfway through building the first of five BV 155 B prototypes, Blohm & Voss switched to a single chin-mounted radiator for the production model BV 155 C – 30 of which were ordered. The BV 155 B V1 was completed and test-flown a handful of times before Luftwaffe pilot Kurt Reuth wrecked it during a crash landing at Klein Kummerfeld airfield on April 23, 1945. The BV 155 B V2 was finished but never fully assembled and was captured by Allied forces at Blohm & Voss’s Finkenwärder facility in Hamburg.

The BV 155 had been an insurance policy against a disaster which never befell the Third Reich. Those high-altitude bombers failed to appear and the Allies ensured that they didn’t need to. But the BV 155 might – had the war continued – have been able to give those pesky Spitfires and Mosquitos a run for their money




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Top 10 Cancelled British Fighters



From the dawn of the aeroplane until the 1960s, Britain produced world-class fighter aircraft. As well as the designs that actually felt the air beneath their wings, there is a tantalising treasury of designs that never made it. Here are ten of them. 

10. British Aerospace P.125 ‘Have Not Glass’ (1985)


The long history of British expertise in stealth technology has not been discussed a great deal. Britain pioneered radar absorbent material for aircraft, working on reduced radar observability for nuclear warheads in the early 1960s and was able to create a world class stealth testbed in the Replica model. Prior to Replica, in the 1980s, Britain was working on an aircraft concept so advanced it was classified until 2006.
The BAe P.125 study was for a stealthy supersonic attack aircraft to replace the Tornado. It was to be available in both a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) and a conventional variant. The conventional variant would feature a central vectored nozzle, the STOVL version would have three vectoring nozzles. In some ways the P.125 was more ambitious than the F-35, the aircraft was to have no pilot transparencies, with the reclined pilot immersed in synthetic displays of the outside word.
It is likely that this formidable interdictor would have been even less visible to radar than the F-35 (though the absence of planform alignment is noteworthy). Despite its 1980s vintage many of its low observable features are reminiscent of today’s latest fighters – others such as its unorthodox wing design, are unique. The project was quietly dropped when Britain joined the JSF programme in the 1990s.


It is likely that the absence of a cockpit transparency on the P.125 was to protect the pilot from laser dazzle weapons (a weapon inaccurately feared to be in widespread use by the soviet union). Even now a synthetic cockpit is considered a daunting technological prospect, why BAe didn’t opt for an unmanned configuration remains something of a mystery.


 9. British Aerospace P.1214  ‘Bond’s X-wing’ (1980)


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

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


Supersonic aircraft have their jet exhausts at the back, and there is a simple reason for this: anything in the way of the jet efflux will be exposed to a destructive barrage of heat and vibration. This presents a problem to supersonic STOVL designs wishing to use vectored thrust — to have sufficient thrust and acceleration jet flow far hotter than the Harrier’s is required. One way to solve this is to have no rear fuselage.



8. Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 ‘The Squirt Queen’ (1947)


The aircraft was first proposed in mid-1943, the combination of jet engine speed and the flexible basing options of a flying-boat being regarded as advantageous in the Pacific theatre. Development lagged, and the aircraft did not fly until 16 July 1947. Three aircraft were built, two of which crashed. The simultaneous development of the Princess contributed to the slow development of the SR.A/1, and this was compounded by the decision of Metropolitan-Vickers to cease turbojet engine production.


SR.A/1: Although exhibiting quite sprightly performance, by the time it had flown, the Pacific war was over, and no requirement for the aircraft existed. In addition, the Fleet Air Arm was operating numerous aircraft carriers, and the development of capable jet-powered carrier-based aircraft allowed power projection without the need for airfield construction. Additionally, of course, the large number of airfields constructed during the war also provided many basing opportunities for conventional land-based aircraft.


— Jim & Ron Smith, full article here

7.  Saunders Roe SR.53 (1957)


Fast…but outpaced by changes in the threat, and in government policy.

The Saunders Roe SR53 was proposed to meet a requirement for a point-defence interceptor capable of climbing to 60,000 ft in two minutes and 30 seconds. The driver for the requirement was concern about the threat posed by Soviet bombers armed with nuclear weapons.
The SR53 was a compact, delta-winged mixed power aircraft with 1,640 lbst Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine and 8,000 lbst de Havilland Spectre rocket. The armament was intended to be the Blue Jay infra-red air-to-air missile. The operational concept was to climb to altitude using the rocket motor, accelerate up to a maximum speed of Mach 2.2, complete a ground-guided interception, and then return to base using the jet engine.
The contract to develop the aircraft was signed on 8 May 1953. Although Saunders-Roe’s initial schedule called for a first flight in July 1954, development of the aircraft and its rocket motor took longer than expected, and first flight did not occur until 16 May 1957, with the second prototype following in December of the same year. The aircraft was reported as pleasant and easy to fly. The second aircraft was lost in a fatal aborted-take-off accident in June 1958, and the program was eventually cancelled in July 1960, after 56 test flights. The highest speed reached in the flight test program was Mach 1.33.

During the seven year development and flight programme, a great deal of change had occurred in aerospace capabilities: jet engine development had produced high power, reliable engines; radar had improved its ability to detect targets at long range; the Soviets had moved towards the development of stand-off weapons; and surface-based guided missiles had improved in capability. These technical advances had the effect of invalidating the operational concept for the aircraft. In future, it would be possible, and necessary, to defeat threats at a greater distance, before the release of nuclear stand-off weapons, and there was no way a short-range point-defence interceptor such as the SR53 could achieve this. Furthermore, the first flight of the aircraft occurred just two months after the Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper, which suggested new manned aircraft were no longer required for air defence, and that surface-based air-to-air missiles would in future fill this role. The first flight of the SR 53, just after this policy announcement, could not have been more badly timed, but the operational concept had already been superseded.

Top 10 cancelled French aircraft here

The programme left no direct legacy. Air defence has evolved through point defence interception, to barrier combat air patrols, and to beyond-visual-range engagements using air-to-air missiles, supported by distributed and networked sensors. Low signature capabilities and geo-political instabilities are pushing air defence in the direction of cooperating manned and unmanned aircraft, armed with long-range weapons, and supported by distributed and networked sensors.

— Jim & Ron Smith, full article here

6. Thin Wing Javelin ‘Terrific Tripe Triangle’ (1953)

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The much maligned Javelin got everything right apart from the aerodynamics — and it could easily be argued that if a major war had started in the early 1960s it might have given a better account of itself than the venerated Lightning. The Javelin had space for a large radar, a good range, powerful engines and twice the air-to-air weapon load of its English Electric successor. It also had twice the crew – an important consideration considering the difficulties in flying, navigating and operating the weapons systems of 1950s aircraft. The main flaw of the Javelin was a massively thick wing, something Gloster was quick – but not quick enough – to identify. Before the Javelin even entered service, in 1953, they had begun research on a thin wing design capable of Mach 2.Screenshot 2019-12-30 at 14.11.14.png

In 1955 this design was seriously considered, partly as a contingency in case the Lightning didn’t deliver on its promise. The Air Ministry were initially skeptical of Gloster’s performance claims but when they eventually studied it in depth they were very impressed. Though the design would sacrifice some of the Javelin’s excellent range, in other areas it could produce an aircraft competitive with the latest US designs. The aircraft’s panned dimensions grew longer and more powerful engines were considered, and soon it shared little with the original Javelin. The concept was starting to show great promise, however when the UK’s Ministry of Supply were shown classified papers detailing the fantastic capabilities of the nascent CF-105 Arrow being developed in Canada, this warmed over design started to seem pedestrian.  The supersonic Javelin seemed an expensive distraction that could only produce a mediocre design with limited development potential, and it was cancelled in 1956. A shame really, as if it had worked out it could have resulted in a versatile aircraft with better agility than the US F-4 Phantom II, itself a radical revamp of a disappointing design.

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Full size thin wing Javelin mock up with Red Dean missiles.

5 Fairey Delta 3 ‘The Delta Belter’ (1956)

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This Fairey Delta 2 experimental aircraft was the first aeroplane to exceed 1,000mph, and took the World Air Speed Record to 1,132 mph. It was a beautifully simple design with the delta wing’s inherent advantages of low supersonic drag and great structural strength. A year earlier the Air Ministry had issued requirement Specification F155T for a supersonic interceptor able to intercept Mach 1.3 bombers at 60,000ft. After initially proposing a modestly updated weaponised FD2, Fairey came forward with the mighty Fairey 3 — a vast super high-performance interceptor with state-of-the-art technology -—and won the contest.

Top 10 cancelled spyplanes here 

Mixed propulsion (jet and rocket) was necessary to meet the extremely demanding requirement which called for the fighter to reach 60,000 feet at a range of 70 nautical miles from base in six minutes at a speed of at least Mach 2. The maximum climb rate would been phenomenal, leaving even the Lightning for dust — and even rivalling today’s fastest climber, the Typhoon. The thrust levels were astonishing – according to some sources it was to have two Rolls-Royce RB-122 engines— each of which which had a dry thrust of 19,500lbf, and 27,800lbf with reheat – greater than the present day ‘Flanker’*. And that’s not taking into account the additional rocket engines! Not bad for an aircraft that had normal operating weight of just over 50,000Ibs. Top speed was estimated at between Mach 2.3 and 2.5.

To soak up the heat generated by high speed supersonic flight much of the fuselage was to be built from steel (a material used on the Bristol 188 and MiG-25 for the same reason). It was to be armed with two of the giant Red Dean missile, which despite being thirty years before AMRAAM and even ten before the AIM-54, was planned as an active radar-guided missile.

Top 10 cancelled Soviet fighter here


Heavy ultra high performance heavy interceptors did not prove popular in the West. The XF-108 Rapier, CF-105 Arrow, YF-12 and Mirage 4000 were all cancelled; they were too expensive and air forces instead opted for more modest interceptors backed up by surface-to-air missiles. The Fairey 3 may have suffered the same fate had it survived Duncan Sandys ill-conceived crusade against manned aircraft of 1957, which it did not.

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Fairey’s later F.155T  proposal dwarfed its original, the E.R. 103 entrant (though this silhouette seems to share more with the FD2).  One spin-off from the aborted E.R.103 was the AI23 radar which saw actual service on the English Electric Lightning.

*These thrust figures admittedly stretch credulity, so please let us know in the comments section if you have better info from a good citable source.

4. Hawker P1103/P1121 ‘Super Hunter’


Supermarine was not the only aircraft manufacturer that tried to adapt a transonic design into a supersonic fighter. Hawker tried the same with their own, already highly successful fighter, the Hunter. This was also offered in response to Operational Requirement F.155. 

The limitations of the Hunter were already apparent, in particular the lack of air-to-air missile capability, decent radar and the ability to reach supersonic speeds. The new fighter interceptor would include a completely redesigned fuselage and wing (changing more profoundly than Trigger’s Broom), a seat for the radar operator, a far more powerful engine and missile armament. To make room for the new radar, a chin intake was adopted. 

10 exotic cancelled fighter planes from countries you didn’t expect here

As with the Vickers 559, the original design included booster rockets for added climb speed, though in practice operational versions would have likely omitted them. 

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The P1103 was quickly knocked out the contest. One reason for this being the Ministry’s contention that Hawker had not embraced, nor even fully understood, the idea of the aircraft as a ‘weapon system’. But Hawker had faith in the design, and continued it as the self financed P1121. Power was to come from a single de Havilland Gyron jet engine*, and it was to be armed with Red Top missiles, rockets and Aden 30-mm cannon.  Maximum speed was estimated at an astonishing Mach 1.35 at sea level — and a rather more believable Mach 2.35 at higher altitudes. The Air Staff still didn’t want it and reluctantly reconsidered the design before again turning their noses up at. The 1957 Defence White Paper put further nails in its coffin, though Hawker persisted with the idea for another year before giving up.

Ten incredible cancelled military aircraft here

The design would likely have inherited some of the fine handling characteristics Hawker had instilled in earlier aircraft such as the Hunter and Fury. The somewhat generous wing area and decent thrust-to-weight ratio (for the time) meant the ‘Super Hunter’ should have enjoyed good turn rates for its generation. A well balanced sensible design with impressive performance, the P.1121 could have enjoyed good export sales and offered the RAF a more versatile and combat effective fighter than the Lightning, and one that could have performed with excellence in both the air superiority and ground attack role. 

*Jim Smith has noted, in conversation with Hush-Kit, Hawker’s predilection for single-engined fighters.

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Despite looking somewhat like an F-16, this aircraft would have been more in the Su-9/11 and F-101 Voodoo class. 

3. Martin-Baker MB.3/MB.5 ‘Martin Baker Tie Fighter’

Bearing a superficial resemblance to the P-51D Mustang, the MB.5 was 500 hp more powerful, faster, better armed, and (surprisingly) possessed a superior range on internal fuel. 

I’m cheating a bit here, including two separate designs as one entry but Martin-Baker’s final two fighters were inextricably linked, one being a development of the other, both were outstanding and neither made it to production. Martin-Baker was (and indeed still is) an aviation component manufacture who produced, seemingly out of the blue, two of the best fighter aircraft ever flown anywhere.


The MB.3 appeared in 1942 and was the result of a prudent Air Ministry decision in 1939 to obtain a powerfully armed fighter as an alternative to the Hawker Typhoon in the event that aircraft programme ran into difficulties. The aircraft that emerged looked sensational, especially when the unprecedented armament of six 20-mm cannon was fitted. Despite looking insane, it was unusually sensible: a multitude of access panels made it far easier to maintain than its contemporaries, and its tough structure (a more advanced version of the load-bearing tubular box type favoured by Hawker) would have given it greater survivability. It was apparently easy to handle and extremely fast.
The MB.3’s flying career was short: the engine failed on its tenth flight, killing test pilot Val Baker and destroying the aircraft.
Unfortunately we don’t know exactly how fast, because less than two weeks after the first flight the Napier Sabre that powered it did what Napier Sabres were doing in droves in 1942 and packed up. The MB.3 was destroyed in the subsequent forced landing which also killed test pilot Valentine Baker (the ‘Baker’ of Martin-Baker). This was a serious blow to the company and so affected designer James Martin (the ‘Martin’ of Martin-Baker) that he devoted the rest of his career to making aircraft safer by developing ejection seats which Martin-Baker produce to this day.


Despite the crash it was apparent that the MB.3 was worthy of further development. Baker proposed a Rolls-Royce Griffon powered version, the MB.4 but a more thorough redesign was favoured by the Air Ministry and the MB.5 was the result. The best British piston-engined fighter ever flown, the MB.5 was well-armed (though with the less impressive total of four rather than six cannon), very fast, and as easy to maintain as its predecessor. Flight trials proved it be truly exceptional, with a top speed of 460mph, brisk acceleration and docile handling. Its cockpit layout set a gold standard that Boscombe Down recommended should be followed by all piston-engined fighters.


The only thing the MB.5 lacked was good timing, it first flew two weeks before the Allied Invasion of Normandy. Appearing at the birth of the jet age, with readily available Spitfires and Tempests being produced in quantity, both of which were themselves excellent fighters, there was never a particularly compelling case for producing the slightly better MB.5. There is also a suggestion that the MB.5 never received a production order because on the occasion it was being demonstrated to assorted dignitaries, including Winston Churchill, the engine failed. If this is true, it must rank as the most pathetic reason for non-procurement of an outstanding aircraft in aviation history.


Inexplicable official indifference, 

Other aircraft perceived to be good enough already, 

Bad timing

Martin Baker MB5 at Chalgrove 4

2. Miles M.20 ‘The damned Captain Sensible’ (1940)


The M.20 was a thoroughly sensible design, cleverly engineered to be easy to produce with minimal delay at its nation’s time of greatest need, whilst still capable of excellent performance. As it turned out its nation’s need never turned out to be quite great enough for the M.20 to go into production. First flying a mere 65 days after being commissioned by the Air Ministry, the M.20’s structure was of wood throughout to minimise its use of potentially scarce aluminium and the whole nose, airscrew and Merlin engine were already being produced as an all-in-one ‘power egg’ unit for the Bristol Beaufighter II. To maintain simplicity the M.20 dispensed with a hydraulic system and as a result the landing gear was not retractable. The weight saved as a consequence allowed for a large internal fuel capacity and the unusually heavy armament of 12 machine guns with twice as much ammunition as either Hurricane or Spitfire. Tests revealed that the M.20 was slower than the Spitfire but faster than the Hurricane and its operating range was roughly double that of either. It also sported the first clear view bubble canopy to be fitted to a military aircraft. 


Because it was viewed as a ‘panic’ fighter, an emergency back-up if Hurricanes or Spitfires could not be produced in sufficient numbers, production of the M.20 was deemed unnecessary since no serious shortage occurred of either. However, given that much of the development of the Spitfire immediately after the Battle of Britain was concerned with extending its short range, as the RAF went onto the offensive over Europe, the cancellation of a quickly available, long-ranged fighter with decent performance looks like a serious error. Exactly the same thing happened with the Boulton Paul P.94, which was essentially a Defiant without the turret, offering performance in the Spitfire class but with heavier armament and a considerably longer range. The only difference being that this aircraft was even more available than the M.20 as it was a relatively simple modification to an aircraft already in production.



The M.20 popped up again in 1941 as a contender for a Fleet Air Arm catapult fighter requirement, where its relative simplicity would have been valuable. Unfortunately for Miles, there were literally thousands of obsolete Hawker Hurricanes around by this time and with suitable modifications they did the job perfectly well.


Inexplicable official indifference, 

Other aircraft perceived to be good enough already


1. Hawker Siddeley P.1154 ‘The Hyper Harrier’

The dream of a supersonic STOVL (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) fighter has been striven toward for over half of the history of heavier-than-air flight. When the F-35B reached real operational readiness with the USMC, it was a very significant event. Lockheed Martin succeeded where dozens of the world’s greatest aircraft design houses have failed. The tortuous road which led, via the Harrier, to the F-35B started with NATO requirement NBMR-3 of 1961. This almost led to a British superfighter, the Hawker P.1154.

The author of Catch-22, Joseph Heller, fought with the 340th Bomb Group in Italy as a bombardier on B-25s. His commander was one Colonel Willis Chapman. Following the war, Chapman set up USAF’s first jet bomber force. In 1956, Chapman was sent to Paris as part of the Pentagon’s Mutual Weapons Development Plan (MWDP) field office. His mission was to source and help develop new military technologies from European sources and strengthen Europe’s contribution to NATO.


By the mid-1950s it was obvious to many western military planners that, in the event of war, Warsaw Pact forces would quickly obliterate NATO airbases. For NATO aircraft to mount counter- attacks (some with tactical nuclear weapons), they would need to operate from rough unprepared airstrips. This capability could turn air arms into survivable ‘guerrilla’ forces able to fight on after the apocalypse. VTOL was also tempting to many navies as it could eliminate the traditional hazards of carrier landing. If an aircraft could ‘stop’ before it landed, the task of landing on a tiny, pitching deck would be far easier. Likewise, it could liberate ships from the need to carry enormously heavy catapult launch systems, and could even allow small ships to carry their own, high performance, escort aircraft.

Here he encountered an idea from a French engineer Michael Wibault – steering jet thrust through steerable pipes to enable vertical take-off and landing.  Chapman was very impressed and brought the idea to the attention of Dr. Stanley Hooker, director of the British Bristol Aero Engine Company. At this time Bristol were at the forefront of jet technology.

Hooker was also impressed. The VTOL research aircraft then flying used a series of batty principles which either involved rotating the whole fuselage (the tail-sitters), the engine of the aircraft (sometimes with the whole wing) or carried a battery of auxiliary lift-jets which once in flight were dead weight. All were complex and involved very large design compromises. Contrary to this, Wibault’s principle was simplicity itself; it involved a single fixed-engine, and would allow for the precise control of the vectored thrust.

Hooker led a team to develop the BE.53, a vectored thrust engine based on the first two- stages of the Olympus engine. Hooker teamed up with the designer of the Hawker Hurricane, Sydney Camm, to develop a light fighter concept powered by the BE.53.

At the 1957 Farnborough air show Hooker and Camm met Chapman. They showed him the design for P.1127. By early 1958 the MWDP were funding the BE.53 engine. The P.1127 fighter was struggling to get funding, as Britain’s Ministry of Defence believed that there would be no future manned bombers or fighters. This belief was expressed in the 1957 White Paper on Defence (Cmnd. 124) by Duncan Sandys — the most hated document in British aviation history.


Duncan Sandys had been Chairman of a War Cabinet Committee for defence against German flying bombs and rockets during World War II, and during this tenure he had accidentally revealed information about where the V1s and V2s were landing. This was a shocking error, allowing the Germans to accurately calibrate their weapons trajectories and endangering British lives. It also threatened to uncover Agent Zig-Zag, the famed double-agent, who at the time was feeding German intelligence false reports of bomb damage in London. His wartime experiences may have informed his belief in the late 1950s that missiles could take over from manned aircraft.

His 1957 report was also ill-judged, as 58 years later the UK received a new manned fighter (the F-35B) which is expected to remain in service for the next forty years.

As there was little official support in the UK, Hawker decided to fund the building of two prototypes itself, with some research support from NASA (who noted that, unlike rival VTOL aircraft, the P.1127 would not need a complex auto-stabilisation system). By the time Hawker had started building the prototypes, the MoD was interested and funded four more. The P.1127 first flew on 19 November 1960 and proved very successful. It could take-off and land vertically with ease, something dozens of research aircraft around the world had failed to do. But, it shared a deficiency with its rivals; an aircraft with a high enough thrust-to-weight ratio to lift vertically could carry little in the way of fuel or payload. This is where the P.1127 really came into its own. It was discovered that by putting the exhaust nozzle into an interim position (45 degrees) the aircraft could take-off in very short distances at very low speeds (60 knots, around half the taking-off or ‘rotation’ speed of a Hawker Hunter). At this point VTOL gave way to V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing).

The MoD was now warming to the idea of a P.1127-based type and the RAF prepared a draft requirement (OR345) for a new V/STOL fighter of modest capabilities.

In 1961 NATO Basic Military Requirement 3 (NBMR-3) was issued. This followed on from the 1953 NBMR-1 (for a light weight tactical strike fighter, which was won by the Fiat G.91 and the Breguet Taon – though the Taon never entered service). The NBMR-2 was for a maritime patrol aircraft, and was won by the Breguet Br.1150 Atlantic.

NBMR-3 specification called for a single-seat tactical close-support and reconnaissance V/STOL fighter. The requirement demanded a combat radius of 250 nautical miles at a minimum sea level speed of Mach 0.92, and 500 ft altitude, while carrying a 2,000 lb store. This was a doomsday fighter-bomber, able to launch a retaliatory tactical nuclear strike from whatever improvised airstrips were available – even including selected motorway sections, heavily cratered main runways or worse.


The prospect of providing NATO with a common fighter soon attracted most major Western aircraft companies. NBMR-3 became the biggest international design competition ever held. Two months later NBMR-3 was split into two; AC 169a would cover a F-104G replacement, and kept the original demands: AC 169b was to be a Fiat G.91 replacement. AC 169b differed to AC 169a in calling for a lower payload-range requirement of 180 nautical mile range with 1,000 lb store.

Enter P.1154

At this point OR345 was dropped in favour of NBMR-3. Hawker Siddeley’s bid was the monstrous P.1154 powered by the insanely powerful Bristol Siddeley BS.100 engine.

The BS.100 was designed to produce a mighty 33,000 lb of thrust in reheat, around twice the power of the most powerful fighter engine then in service. The only engine with more power at the time was the Pratt & Whitney J58, which had yet to fly. The J58 was being developed for the top-secret Lockheed A-12 spy plane, which evolved into the SR-71 Blackbird. However, unlike the BS.100, at the speeds the J58 produced its maximum thrust, it was effectively a ramjet. As another example of how powerful the BS.100 was, the first fighter engine with greater power did not enter service until 2005 (44 years later). The engine was the Pratt & Whitney F119 and the aircraft was the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The BS.100 also introduced a bold new technology, Plenum chamber burning. Whereas a traditional afterburner pumps and ignites fuel where the cold bypass air and hot jet core turbine airflow are blended, the PCB only acts in the turbofans cold bypass air.





The potent BS.100 would have given the P.1154 a Mach 1.7 top speed, an unprecedented thrust-to-weight ratio and a scorching rate-of-climb. The aircraft was to be far more than just a brutish hot-rod, it was to be equipped with some very advanced avionics. Ferranti would provide the P.1154 with a radar which was at least a generation ahead of any other. The radar would feature both air-to-air and terrain-following modes. This was a true multi-mode radar, planned at a time when the world’s best fighters were carrying crude air interception radars with tiny ranges. The P.1154 would also have one of the world’s first Head-Up Displays (HUD). The HUD is a piece of glass in front of the pilot with vital flight information projected onto it, which allows the pilot to keep his eyes up and looking ‘out’ and not to be distracted by looking down at instruments in the cockpit. The aircraft would also be fitted with another piece of innovative equipment, Inertial Navigation System (INS), a technology first seen in the V2 rockets that Sandys’ had accidentally aided!

But Hawker Siddeley was not the only company to be lured in by the big bucks promised by NBMR-3. Italy had been fucked over by NBMR-1. The contest had declared Fiat’s G.91 the winner, but nationalism got in the way. National governments which had been more than happy to support their own bids to the contest grew shy when Italy won the contest, and the G.91 did not receive orders on the scale that could have been expected.

This time Fiat entered the handsome G.95. France, Germany, and even the Netherlands, submitted designs. The Netherlands’ Fokker D.24 Alliance, to be produced with help from US’ company Republic, was also powered by the BS.100. The very ambitious D.24 was also variable sweep (swing-wing).


Hawker and Bristol’s P.1154 was declared the winner, but history repeated itself. Though nobody was tied to buying the winners of NBMR contests, it still seems unfair that no country outside of Britain was forthcoming in wanting to invest in P.1154. Hawker had been stitched-up far worse than Fiat. Still, at least Hawker still had a generous MoD budget to work with, and the type was elected to replace RAF Hunters and RN Sea Vixens —what else could go wrong? Two things. The first was the differing needs of the Royal Navy and the RAF. The RAF wanted a single-engined, single-seater. The Navy wanted a two-seat, twin-engined aircraft. To some degree both the Navy’s wants may have been driven by safety regulations regarding nuclear-armed aircraft (though the single-seat Scimitar carried the Red Beard tactical nuclear bomb). The Royal Navy was also impressed by the McDonnell (later MD) F-4 Phantom II, and there were some within the Admiralty which considering this a safer option. Giving the P.1154 twin engines would involve a complex modification of the design. The BS.100 was too big, so Rolls-Royce Speys were selected. To stop a twin-engined P.1154 flipping over in the event of a single engine failure, a complicated twin-ducting concept was added (comparable to the V-22 Osprey’s transmission system). The Royal Navy also wanted a larger radar.

On top of this, P.1154 threatened the existence of the Navy’s big carriers, if these new machines could take-off in next to no distance, why did the navy need massive expensive carriers? It should be noted that the Navy intended to catapult-launch their P.1154s, using an US style of operation. The Navy’s self-preservation instinct was kicking in. While the RAF P.1154s could have been made to work (with limitations), many (even at Hawker) doubted the viability of the naval variant.A Royal Navy P.1154. It is likely the aircraft would have been very potent in the air-to-air arena.

Technical problems

If the first major problem facing the P.1154 was inter-service differences, the second set were technical. The P.1154 would be firing hot, after-burning exhaust from its front nozzles down onto runways or carrier decks. The temperature was great enough to melt asphalt or distort steel- this was a big problem (the Yak-141 would later encounter similar problems). It would also churn up a potentially dangerous cloud of any present dirt.

Added to this was hot gas re-ingestion (HGR). The aircraft would be ‘breathing in’ its own hot exhausts on landing. This re-circulating hot air would raise the temperature in the engine to more than it liked, a very serious problem.

On 2 February 1965, the incoming Labour government, led by Harold Wilson, cancelled the P.1154 on cost grounds. Was this to be the end of V/STOL fighters? Well, fortunately not. While the P.1154 was being designed, Hawker had been busy developing the P.1127 into the Kestrel, with the help of funds from Britain, West Germany and the USA (initially from the US Army). This of course led to the Harrier, the famous jump-jet which today remains in service with the United States, Spain and Italy.

Hush-Kit would like to thank: Chris Sandham-Bailey from for his wonderful profiles, and Nick Stroud for providing access to his photographic archive.

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Extract from Combustion and Heat Transfer in Gas Turbine Systems by E.R. Norster

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Dassault Rafale M versus F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: carrier fighters compared

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Less than a thousand days separated the service entry of the French Rafale M and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. These two extremely potent fighter-bombers are that rare breed, a fast jet able to operate in the punishing environment of the aircraft carrierOne represents the centrepiece of US naval air power build by the biggest aeronautical company in the world, the other a proudly independent France’s first true carrier fighter — let’s find out how they stack up. 

We asked Justin Bronk, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)’s Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology, to compare the latest operational variants of the Rafale M and Super Hornet.

Rafale M versus Super Hornet

For this article, I will be comparing the latest variants of each type – so an F/A-18E Super Hornet Block II and an F3R-standard Rafale M.


Both the Block II Super Hornet and the F3R-standard Rafale M are equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars as their primary sensor. The Super Hornet Block II is equipped with the APG-79 while the F3R-standard Rafale M is equipped with the RBE2-AA. As AESA radars, they are both able to perform simultaneous scan and track functions of air, maritime and ground targets simultaneously. They are also able to track a large number of targets at once and at least theoretically perform more simultaneous engagements than pilot workload or missile carriage would allow in practice.


Interestingly, both the Rafale and the Super Hornet are limited by similarly small nose apertures. This restricts the number of transmit and receive (T/R) modules that can be mounted in a fixed radar array, as well as making options to increase scan width such as rotating mountings more complex compared to AESA-equipped fighters with larger noses such as the F-15 and F-22. However, both beat many competing types to the milestone of fielding an operational AESA radar.

Detailed performance figures for AESA radars are highly classified but there are some things we do know, such as the fact that the Rafale’s RBE2-AA can perform more simultaneous scan and track functions but at a slightly reduced maximum range compared to the Super Hornet’s APG-79. The APG-79 has also been notable for a litany of poor test and evaluation reports, from both the dedicated department of test and evaluation (DOT&E) and the US Navy’s own Operational Test and Evaluation Force. It has suffered from numerous reliability and operational suitability deficiencies since introduction in the late 2010s, and fixes and improvements such as built-in electronic attack options have been repeatedly deferred. Competitive evaluation and mission analysis in the early 2010s found that there was no significant difference in mission effectiveness between Super Hornets with the APG-79, and those with legacy mechanically scanned radars. Dassault has also proven capable of excellent mission system and sensor integration in the Rafale within the bounds of what the design is capable of mounting. Combat trials over Iraq and Syria with the land-based Rafale variants with the same radar and software fit produced very favourable results according to the Rafale pilots I have spoken with. Therefore, it is probably reasonable to conclude that the Rafale M in F3R configuration has the superior radar in most multirole scenarios compared to the Block II Super Hornet.


The Rafale M also carries the OSF (optronique secteur frontal) electro-optical and infra-red search and track, and video imaging sensor suite in a permanent mount on the nose ahead of the canopy. This system comprises a pair of sensors. The first is an IRST* designed for BVR scan and tracking of air targets at medium ranges without emitting any detectable radiation, which also has a secondary capability to scan for land or maritime targets at much shorter ranges and can function as a FLIR for the pilot in low-visibility conditions. The second part is an electro-optical/IR video imaging sensor for use within around 35-40km, and which includes a laser range finding capability. The Damocles targeting pod is also regularly carried for multirole or strike missions, which includes full IR/EO imaging and laser designation and spot track capabilities, as well as datalink relay node for transferring ISR data to tanker and AWACS assets in flight. However, the Damocles lags behind the AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod carried by the Super Hornet in terms of resolution and multi-spectral imaging capabilities. On the other hand, the Rafale’s OSF is a core part of the aircraft’s sensor suite and has been since early development due to the fact that the Armée de l’Air and Aéronavale maintained a medium-range IR seeker missile in the form of the MICA-IR to allow fully passive BVR engagements. By contrast, the podded IRST and sensor pod options for Super Hornet are all external additions to date, and the aircraft as a whole does not have a flawless reputation for integrating new sensors with high mission availability and reliability.

Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.



In all, I would assess the Rafale M F3R-standard as having a significantly more capable fused situational awareness picture against aerial, ground and maritime targets than a Super Hornet Block II, if operating alone. In reality, however, the Super Bug routinely draws on situational awareness from a range of other fleet assets – most notably the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye (which France has also purchased but not yet received), and AEGIS-equipped vessels in the battlegroup, and integrates them seamlessly into both its RWR and main radar displays for the pilot. 

*Editor note

IRST is probably not operational 

F3R standard does not include IRST, though it should be return on the future F4 standard. The removal of the IRST came with the upgrade of the OSF to OSF-IT standard. This improved the TV sensor, but deleted the IRST section. Any new F3R won’t have IRST capability, unless it is taken from older Rafales.

In 2013 standard F3-04T saw the removal of the IR channel in favour of an improved TV sensor the OSF-IT. There is currently a plastic placeholder in its position. 


Within visual range combat 


Within visual range, the Rafale M would be in a very dominant position against a Super Hornet in almost all circumstances. The Super Hornet has pedestrian energy retention and acceleration capabilities, and its performance falls off dramatically with external loads and at altitudes above 25,000ft. The Rafale M itself is most at home at altitudes below 35,000ft and can best the Super Hornet in instantaneous and sustained turn rate at all comparable loadings at all altitudes. The Super Hornet has superior high-alpha ‘nose pointing’ capabilities in the initial merge, but if the pilot fails to kill the Rafale M during that one initial manoeuvre then they will find themselves with almost no energy and struggling to sustain manoeuvres or accelerate away, while the Rafale M generates massive lift and has much better thrust-to-weight at combat loadings and superior acceleration too. The Mica and AIM-9X are both lethal WVR weapons with significant off-boresight capabilities, including ‘Parthian shot’ capability in the case of the Mica. Mica also has greater kinematic energy compared to the AIM-9X, being faster off the rail and with a longer burn, and able to pull 50g. However, only the Super Hornet currently has an operational helmet mounted sight in the shape of the proven Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), increasing the odds of a kill during the initial merge and ‘bug nose pointing magic’ turn.

Top WVR fighters of 2019 here

If in a guns-only situation, with both aircraft slicked off; the Rafale M will eat the Super Hornet at any altitude. A head-on would be the Bug’s only chance assuming a 1v1 with reasonably comparable pilot skill.

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Beyond visual range combat 

With a slight advantage in general radar detection range for the APG-79 on the Super Hornet over the RBE but a significantly lower frontal radar cross section and better ECM capabilities on the Rafale, the Rafale will probably get the first look.

A F3R standard Rafale M brings the very-long ranged Meteor missile to the BVR arena, comfortably out-ranging the F/A-18E even from a similar launch speed and altitude with AIM-120D. Rafale is also capable of supercruising comfortably at around 30,000ft, with the option of going higher without issues, whilst the Super Hornet cannot supercruise and is more comfortable at lower altitudes, meaning its missiles start with significantly less energy at launch. Therefore, even though the APG-79 would probably detect the Rafale at longer ranges than the AIM-120D’s no-escape launch zone, the Rafale M would detect the Super Hornet in time to launch Meteor with a good Pk from significantly futher out. First shot and first kill are likely to go to the Rafale M.

Top BVR fighters 2019 here. 

Acceleration/ climb rate / top speed/ ceiling 

The Rafale M wins comfortably over the Super Hornet in all these categories, despite being considered somewhat underpowered compared to dedicated air superiority fighters like the F-15, Typhoon, Su-35 and F-22.F-15, Typhoon, Su-35 and F-22.

Instantaneous turn rate / sustained turn / High alpha / G loadings/ sustained G

Here again, the Rafale M wins on most counts, with the advantage in instantaneous turn, sustained turn and sustained G turning performance. The Rafale M is cleared to +9G whilst the Super Hornet is limited to +7.5G. However, if carrying a multirole load, both would likely be limited in terms of permissible G loading more by stores than airframe strength. The Super Hornet wins on high alpha but not by as much as when compared to many other aircraft.

Defensive aids and radar conspicuity 

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The latest version of the SPECTRA electronic warfare and countermeasures suite on the F3R standard of Rafale (both naval and land based variants) is widely considered one of the most capable self-defence suites in operational service today. Having chosen to forgo development of stealth aircraft, France has put significant resources into the SPECTRA suite – counting on it, coupled with the standoff range of the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée Amélioré (ASMPA) missile to allow penetration of the latest enemy air defence networks for the airborne nuclear delivery mission. In 2011, the Armée de l’Air showed that it was able to strike targets within Libya before the main US Air Force suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) strikes had taken place by relying on the SPECTRA system for self-protection.  The Rafale M also benefits from a reduced frontal RCS compared to the Super Hornet, although given the AESA radars mounted by both types, this would be of limited usefulness in a 1v1 especially with external stores mounted. India’s Rafales will include a Rafael manufactured new X-Guard towed decoy but it is not clear whether the Aéronavale’s Rafale Ms include a similar system.

Typhoon versus Rafale here

The Super Hornet Block II has the improved AN/ALQ-214 Integrated Defensive Countermeasures (IDECM) system which includes a highly capable radar warning receiver, automatic chaff, flare and decoy programmes and various options for self-protection jamming. It also carries the combat-proven ALE-55 towed decoy, meaning that it stands a reasonable chance of absorbing at least one radar-guided missile which makes it to terminal homing without damage. However, in general, the electronic warfare and RCS reduction options potentially available to the Super Hornet have not been prioritised during Block II development, due to the standard presence within the air wing of dedicated EA-18G Growlers to support the Super Hornets in these areas.

Human machine interface/situational awareness


The Super Hornet has a relatively straightforward and ergonomic cockpit design with an emphasis on safe deck operations and multirole combat capability over specialisation. Its three large MFDs ensure that information from the various sensors and weapons systems being carried are easily displayed. However, there is little in the way of sensor fusion techniques, beyond the integration of off-board situational awareness data via Link 16, which is displayed on both the main attack radar display and RWR/EW pages. The use of the JHMCS adds an additional layer of situational awareness during stressful combat situations when heads-up time is at a premium. In all, the Block II Super Hornet is a fairly middle-of-the-road advanced fourth generation aircraft in HMI and SA terms.

The Rafale M, by contrast, has an ergonomically slightly cleaner design with minimal knobs and switches included in favour of five full colour MFDs and an electronic ‘knee-board’ tablet carried for additional flexibility and ease of access to information. In the F3R standard, there is a greater emphasis on post-sensor fusion than on the Super Hornet Block II – with tracks from the SPECTRA system, RBE2-AA and OSF all processed and shown on a single situational awareness display as standard, with the option to open separate windows for each if required. However, compared to something like the F-35, there is still a great deal of mental multi-tasking required for pilots processing information from multiple displays simultaneously in different sections of the cockpit.

Overall, however, the F3R-standard Rafale M beats the Super Hornet Block II on cockpit interface and general SA, but in a WVR or otherwise stressful ‘heads up’ situation, the lack of a helmet mounted display leaves it behind the Super Hornet in HMI.

Sortie rate/maintainability/spares cost/unit cost of aircraft/cost of operating


The French Aéronavale has been pleased with the ability of the Rafale M to generate multiple sorties per day and be rapidly turned around when required. Readiness and spares availability is helped by the close synchronisation between the specialised Aéronavale Rafale M fleet and the refit/work up/deployment schedule of the sole French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle. The latter provides a predictable basis for planning aircraft maintenance, upgrade work, stockpiling spares and getting personnel qualified and current when needed. When the carrier is at sea, the Rafale M’s are ready to deploy and operate with high efficiency. However, if viewed as a long-term multi-year enterprise, only periodic capability is generated in return for significant costs.

The Super Hornet has had more issues with spares and availability in recent years, but this has at least as much to do with the US Navy’s carrier groups and air wings operating far above long term planning assumptions for many years as it does anything to do with any inherent properties of the Super Hornet itself. Exceptions would be continued problems with the on-board oxygen generation system (OBOGS), and APG-79 radar issues. However, the sheer size of the Super Hornet fleet in US Navy service, as well as with overseas customers like the Royal Australian Air Force leads to significant economies of scale in terms of operating costs and spares costs compared to the small Rafale M fleet.

Landing/take-off handling? 

Sadly I wouldn’t know – not having deck landed either of them. Whichever of Dassault or Boeing gives me a backseat cat and trap ride first will win! 😉


Range is extremely subjective for combat aircraft since a huge amount depends on the weapons and other stores carried, the external fuel tanks carried, mission profile flown, time on station required at the destination, and reserve allocation for recovery to deck or diversion. Both Rafale M and Super Hornet are also capable of air to air refuelling using probe and drogue equipped tankers, or buddy buddy refuelling.


However, with a significantly greater payload capacity, less draggy airframe and ability to fly higher and faster especially in dry power, it is safe to say that the Rafale M has a significantly greater overall combat radius for most missions than the F/A-18E.

Weapons options 

The Super Hornet is the winner on most counts on weapons options. Whilst the Rafale M can carry a significantly greater external payload, especially when also carrying three external fuel tanks, the Super Hornet benefits in terms of flexibility and cost of munitions from being cleared to carry and deliver practically every weapon in the vast US air-launched inventory. This gives it relatively affordable options for close air support, interdiction, long range strike, anti-shipping strikes and air superiority, as well as the ability to draw on forward position stocks all over the world during deployed operations.

By contrast, the Rafale M relies predominantly on the excellent but extremely expensive AASM-Hammer series of guided bombs. These include dual-mode laser and GPS/INS guided and IR guided variants, as well as extended range kits with a rocket booster motor. It is also, however, cleared for delivery of the Paveway II/III series of laser guided bombs too for a lower cost direct-attack option. In terms of standoff attack, the Rafale M can fire the SCALP (also known as Storm Shadow) low-RCS cruise missile, and the Exocet anti-ship missile. Both remain expensive compared to their US-made equivalents. The same is true of the MICA medium/close range missile which is extremely capable within around 20km but struggles to compete with AIM-120C, let alone AIM-120D in longer range BVR engagements. However, the MICA-IR does give a rare Western option for fully passive (i.e. non-radar dependent) medium range engagements in conjunction with the OSF system. Meteor – now integrated in F3R standard Rafale M aircraft – is undeniably expensive, but offers better range, terminal performance in long distance engagements, and reportedly better resistance to DRFM jammers than AIM-120C or AIM-120D. 

Rafale-M-03c (1).jpg

Interview with a Rafale M pilot here


Biggest plus and minus for each aircraft 

For Super Hornet

+ huge user community resulting in affordable spares and upgrades, as well as docile handling, excellent high-alpha performance in a merge, and access to the full suite of US air-delivered weaponry.

– Underpowered for its weight especially at high altitudes, and high-drag pylon arrangement means external stores drag penalties are increased. 

For Rafale M

+ advanced aerodynamic design and avionics fit at least half a generation ahead of the Super Hornet, with brutal WVR performance below 35,000ft

– relatedly small user community and French-specific weapons and systems mean operating costs are higher and global spare parts base is much more restricted. Also still not operating with a HMS.


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‘Madame MiG’: The bizarre story of supersonic pilot and UFO hunter Marina Popovich

Born Marina Lavrentievna Vasiliyeva in 1931, the aptly monikered ‘Madame MiG’ lived her 86 years on and above planet Earth to the full.

So often overlooked as an icon of female aviation history, Marina set an astonishing 102 world records in over 40 types of aircraft – including becoming the first soviet woman to break the sound barrier. She earned not only the Orders of the Red Banner, Red Star and Badge of Honour, and the Honoured Master of Sports, but also won the FAI Great Air Medal for as she had “contributed greatly to the development of aeronautics.” 

A steep trajectory
Marina had learned to fly as a child, but the Soviet Union barred women from serving as military pilots following World War II. Undeterred from her self-appointed destiny, she wrote to Soviet Marshall Kliment Voroshilov and persuaded her way into the Novosibirsk Aviation Technicum, She graduated in 1951, aged just 20. Four years earlier she’d told Voroshilov she was 22.

She joined the first female cosmonaut programme in 1961, but lasted only two months. Redirecting her indefatigable ambition, she had become a Soviet air force pilot by 1963. By 1964 she was a military test pilot, and was first to break the sound barrier in a MiG 21. In the meantime, husband Pavel Popovich was no slacker, becoming the eighth person to go into space, aboard Vostok 4 (he was also among the tiny amount of people to win an FAI Gold Medal).


A record-breaking 80s
Marina became a formidable go-to test pilot for the Soviet air force, thanks to her unrivalled skills and insights, and her willingness to push boundaries in pursuit of continuous aeronautical advance. Entering the military reserves in 1978, she then joined the Antonov design Bureau as a test pilot. She set ten of her world records – most for speed – in the Antonov An-22, which remains the world’s largest turboprop and is still in service.

An otherworldly talent
On ‘retiring’ in 1984 at the height of her game, Marina wrote prolifically, authoring nine books and two screenplays. She also spoke openly about her experience of UFOs during her flying career – in her writing, and in person through public lectures and interviews. She claimed Soviet military and civilian pilots had confirmed 3,000 UFO sightings, and that the Soviet Air Force and KGB had recovered fragments of five UFOs from sites at Tunguska, Novosibirsk, Tallinn, Ordzhonikidze and Dalnegorsk. She also claimed to have met a yeti.

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In 2007, Vladimir Putin awarded Madame MiG the Order of Courage. She passed away on November 30, 2017, and was buried with full military honours at the federal military memorial cemetery, north of Moscow.

— George Caveney

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Everything you need to know about Green aviation technology in 2 minutes


As the world grows perilously close to mass environmental catastrophe, mass jet air travel is no longer appropriate. Fortunately, the Electric Age of air travel has already begun: the world’s first fully electric commercial aircraft took its first flight last week. But is it plausible and what are the other key Green aviation technologies out there? We spoke to Tim Robinson from Editor in Chief of Aerospace – the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Electric engines/hybrid-electric

Electric pretty well for smaller aircraft (eg motorised gliders, two seat trainers) – and hybrid-electric types – are getting bigger all the time, with the market gravitating to an ideal 19-seat.

Biggest advantage – (as well as zero carbon and reduced noise) is operating costs. Electric motors could deliver 50-75% reduction in operating costs – opening up the possibility of cheap, clean, quieter aircraft flying point-to-point from smaller airfields.

Disadvantage. Range and battery weight. Unfortunately, kerosene is still more energy dense than batteries – so you will never see an all-electric 777 or A380 any time soon – the weight of the batteries would simply be too much. Even if you had batteries that were 30 times as energy dense as the ones we have today – it would mean a single-aisle aircraft like an A320 would be able to carry half its payload for one fifth of its range, compared to a jet-powered airliner – a big drawback. Electric or hybrid/electric aircraft also may have to fly slower than current jets to optimise battery power – which may mean a change in the productivity or how many legs an airline can fly in one day. Hybrid-electric though might offer the way forward for single-aisle airliners. Electric aircraft also weigh the same on landing as when they take-off – so will fuel savings be undermined by needing stronger landing gear and a beefier structure?

Likelihood of happening – accelerating fast with Canadian seaplane operator just flown a re-engined 1940s vintage electric de Havilland DHC-6 Beaver this week. In the UK, a Twin Islander is to be retrofitted with electric engines, while Eviation Alice – a new design – stole the show at the Paris Air Show in 2019. Industry meanwhile is already looking at larger hybrid-electric airliners in the 2030s.



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At the research stage – although one company is set to trial a six-seat hydrogen fuel-cell/electric aircraft in the UK in 2020.
Advantages – Very clean fuel (only produces water ) – more energy dense than kerosene, acts as heatsink to absorb excess heat of electrics.
Disadvantages – volume, cryogenics storage, Hindenburg flashbacks, fuel infrastructure, did we mention Hindenburg again?
Will it happen? Perhaps more of a longer-term solution. Hydrogen make the perfect fuel for rockets, but airlines are understandably nervous about turning Heathrow into Cape Canaveral with cryogenics fuel storage. Hydrogen also takes up more volume than kerosene, making for bulbous Guppy-like concepts with higher drag (although a blended wing body aircraft may solve this).

Concept mostly well understood, but suffers from ‘snigger’ factor (Flying Bum headlines) and a feeling that fixed wing technology overtook them in the 1930s for very good reasons, not just pictures of an unlucky Zeppelin burning its passengers to death (other aircraft were crashing with frequency too at that time). Beloved by steampunks and Philip Pullman, current next generation airship projects are underway in US, UK, China, Russia and France.

Advantages – uses less fuel than equivalent aircraft, can carry very heavy loads, and (with electric power – there is lots of space for solar panels) could conceivably be a very green or zero carbon mode of mass aerial transport.

Cons Slow – will the travelling public accept that journeys will take far longer? Constrained more by the weather than fixed-wing aircraft. Needs space for landing/docking (eg a mast).

Will it happen? A niche market at the moment in heavylift and VIP sightseeing, airships were heading for a Renaissance as military ISR platforms when the US generals got cold feet and backed out. An accident involving Airlander (a slow-speed crash, ironically demonstrating the types safety) has set back the UK’s big hope for lighter-than-air revival. However, there are some encouraging signs – a recent British Airways study saw travellers express an interest in flying slower if it could be made greener.

Quick wins

Environmental quick wins. There are many technologies or operational concepts that don’t require inventing super-efficient battery or convincing an airline that airships are back.

ATM (air traffic management) – especially in Europe. Despite sharing a currency, many countries in the EU are very reluctant to share or at least make their airspace more efficient. The result is that airlines spend an in-ordinate amount of time weaving around empty military flying areas, restricted zones etc or stuck in the hold when you get to your destination. The technology is here for flying direct – so why can’t we?

Sustainable aviation fuels – drop-in alternatives such as biofuels is already happening and many airlines have conducted trials with blends. The technology is here, but the sticking point is the cost compared to regular jet fuel. This will come down as more sustainable fuel production facilities come online – but could be incentivised to happen far quicker by governments.


Flying in formation – Airbus (and others) have noticed that migrating geese fly together in formation not because it looks cool, but because it saves energy. By surfing the lead aircraft’s vortex from up to 3km away, the fuel burn could be reduced by 5-10% (a big saving considering that say A320’s ‘Sharklets’ winglets save 3.5%). Challenge here is in the operational aspect and getting airlines to synchronise their flights this closely – but Airbus believe it could be rolled out in the mid-2020s.


Electric vehicles at airports – a personal bugbear. The latest eco-efficient airliner drops you off at a budget terminal. The stairs are down, the weather is good and it would take literally 60 seconds to walk to the terminal. However, for some strange reason, instead a dirty diesel bus will sit alongside for 15minutes chugging particulates into the atmosphere until everybody has deplaned, only to chug over to disgorge everyone. There’s also solar panels at airports and even tapping into geothermal energy to melt ice and snow on runways – that could make for net zero airports.

Ditch the inflight magazines and duty free to save weight – some have already cottoned on to this, but why are we flying acres of dead trees around, booze, perfume and trinkets that no-one buys? Surely put the magazine content on IFE and have the passenger pick up the duty free when then land? It’s not like they are going to be smoking 200 Benson & Hedges during the flight, is it?

Avoid contrails – (or persistent contrails in the atmosphere) can cause radiative forcing – making the planet hotter. However, weather modelling and real-time communications means that airliners could be vectored around (or under) particular cold fronts where these high-altitude contrails form. Only a tiny number of flights would be affected – but the impact on the formation of these persistent contrails would be huge.

What should I asked you?
That aviation meeting the challenge of climate change is not just about making Guardian readers feel ethically smug when visiting their Tuscan villa every weekend. The 2% of CO2 produced by aviation is likely to get larger in comparison with other industries as they electrify and go green. Unfortunately, fossil fuel is almost perfect for aviation – energy dense, works at low temperatures, stored easily etc and the physics make replacing it on bigger aircraft a challenge.

Climate change and aerospace is also not just a challenge for civil aviation – it also has implications for military operators – just look at the extreme storms that have wrecked US air bases recently. Climate change also means adapting to reduced take-off performance in hot areas, stronger jetstream and clear air turbulence.

Finally (and the boring bit when ‘selling’ what aviation is doing already) is that there is no one silver bullet of technology or operations that is the answer. Increased efficiency of current engines, electrification, operational changes, new materials will all make a difference – but it won’t be overnight.

However, as in the past when given a big challenge (flying the Atlantic, breaking the sound, travelling to them) aerospace steps up to the challenge and scientists and engineers manage the impossible. The zero-carbon challenge is just the latest one.

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Valentina Tereshkova – The First Woman In Space.


“I could see fires in South America and cities at night”

Valentina Nikolaeva-Tereshkova was born in 1937. After her father’s death in the ‘Winter War’ she was raised by her mother, a cotton mill worker. She began formal education aged 10 and graduated the Light Industry Technical School aged 23. In 1961 she joined the soviet space programme, and by 1963 she was the first woman in space; although her only flight, it would turn her — with a little help from Khrushchev and his government — into a national icon.

Among her other achievements Tereshkova graduated Zhuykosky Air Force Engineering Academy (1969): achieved a degree in technical science (1976); built a successful political career and remained in the Russian Air Force until her compulsory retirement aged 60 having reached the rank of Major General (hon.).


Space programme officials looking to study the effects of space travel on female bodies recruited Tereshkova. Her experience as an amateur parachutist landed her the job (pun intended). After spending less than two years in training, including 6 months training and selection for the Vostok 6 mission, she was selected against 400 others for the 7 hour and 50 minute solo flight, (to this day she is the only woman to have flown a solo space mission), accumulating more flight hours than all American astronauts combined to that point.

The launch, described in her debrief as “excellent”, took place on the morning of June 16th 1963. Tereshkova said she had “no problems” with the launch, zero G or communications, but had issues with manual orientation; which took 2 attempts. She complained that the spacesuits and craft were designed for men, making it hard to complete certain objectives. She did not perform biological experiments, for example, because she “could not reach the equipment” and said she had some issues going to the loo.  Some 40 years later she would reveal that she very nearly didn’t make it back to Earth as a coding error disrupted her re-entry sequence, almost sending her back into space. Thankfully she realised and was able to rectify the error.


Due to various issues with the spacecraft the Soviet Space programme decided to stop the Vostok missions shortly after Tereshkova’s flight — and with it the training of female cosmonauts. Tereshkova was to be the only woman to have been into space until Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.

Upon completion of her mission Valentina Tereshkova was used by the Soviet Union and its media as a figurehead to inspire young girls within the USSR to embark upon a scientific career, and also to demonstrate the role of the Soviet Union in improving the condition of women in Russia. The Soviet newspaper Pravda published a radio conversation between her and Khrushchev which allegedly took place while she was on Vostok 6. Khrushchev repeatedly called Tereshkova “Our girl” and proudly claimed that “among our women there is rejoicing”. This desire by the Soviet Union to politicise her accomplishments would put Tereshkova at the forefront of Soviet identity politics. Less than one week after her mission, Moscow hosted the International Women’s Congress where she was greeted by over 2,000 women and awarded the order of Lenin. Between the years 1963-1970 Tereshkova made 42 diplomatic visits, more than any other cosmonaut. She met key world leaders including Castro and Elizabeth II, and represented the Soviet Union at the World Peace council and the UN conference for International Women’s Year. During this time Tereshkova maintained an active role in the domestic policy of the Soviet Union firstly on the local Yaroslav soviet and then  on the supreme soviet in 1967, (the Soviet Union’s national parliament). Tereshkova was elected to the state duma (the Russian lower house) in 2007 and still holds that position to today.

—   By Thomas Hilless and Evan Miller

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Campaign for Ukrainian MiG-25 for UK museum?


This MiG-25 is displayed in good condition at the national aviation museum, but several airframes are deteriorating in the museum’s storage area.

Ukraine has several MiG-25 airframes in storage. How about one of these is taken to the UK for museum display? Reasons for this:

— It would prove a major attraction as would be the first on display in a British museum — It is a powerful symbol to encourage interest in Cold War history

— It could trigger further aircraft – Ukraine has a wealth of Cold War Soviet types in storage.

So, should we start a campaign? If so, which UK museum should it go to?


10 most important military aircraft in service today


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Choosing these was hard. Criteria included military, political and design significance, as well as the number in service. Several aircraft almost made the grade, including the F-15, F/A-18E/F*, King Air, and the US Doomsday plane. We were also tempted to include a jet trainer – arguably an essential type, but on reflection opted not to. The final top 10, as you will see, meaningfully deviated to include an entry which is not an aircraft and one that includes four aircraft. 


10. Lockheed C-130 Hercules ‘Fat Immortal Albert’


The original C-130 was so expensive to develop that legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson predicted it would kill Lockheed.  His prophecy proved spectacularly wrong, and the type become synonymous with the tactical transport. The masterstroke of America’s new transports was the use of the turboprop, making the Hercules faster than piston-engined airlifters, and less thirsty and intolerant of bad conditions than jets. The C-130 was in production for an insanely long time: it started in the presidency of Eisenhower and ended in that of George W. Bush! No aircraft but another Hercules could replace it and in 1999 the C-130J Super Hercules entered service. The C-130J is a Hercules in appearance and general form only, as virtually every system is new. Following a rather shaky start, the C-130J is now a huge success and serves around the world with just about every air arm that isn’t on a boycott list. It has spawned maritime patrol, gunship, special forces support, tanker, weather reconnaissance and civilian variants. It has also appeared in number of films, including Jurassic Attack.

9. Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker (T-10 series and Chinese derivatives) — ‘T-10 out of 10’

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The bulk of the Chinese, Indian and Russian heavy fighter force — the Russian T-10 series is formidable family of aircraft. The type catalysed the development of, and to some extent, defined the F-22 and Typhoon. It remains the only credible non-European counter to US high end teen fighters available in large numbers, and much of its DNA has gone into Russia’s next generation fighter, the Su-57. It has been developed into a medium range bomber (the Su-34), a carrier fighter and several multirole variants. Around 6% of the fast combat jets now active are members of the T-10 family, making it the most popular non-Western aircraft.

A small secretive force of Flankers is operated by USAF for threat awareness training allegedly including a Su-30 with an adaptable cockpit that can simulate different Flanker variants.

Interview with ‘Flanker’ pilot here

8. S-400 ‘Triumph of the East’ 


So the S-400 isn’t really an aircraft, it’s an air defence system but I want to include it to illustrate its importance. NATO planners take ‘Flanker’s and the arrival of the troubled Su-57 seriously, but what really puts the willies up the West is the S-400. So much so, that the US barred Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme and sacrificed a multi-billion dollar deal from the Turkish air force — when Turkey opted for the Russian system. The multi-layered air defence system includes the 40N6E missile, which has a Mach 14 speed and a maximum range of around 400km- the key to the type’s strategic significance.

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7. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper – ‘Jeepers creeper, where’d you get those Reapers’ 


Building on the Predator’s legacy, the Reaper was the first practical modern unmanned combat air vehicle, and has introduced a new era in air warfare. Crews based in the continental United States are flying a wide range of combat missions around the globe, 24 hours a day. Using beyond-line-of-sight links, a smaller number of personnel deployed at forward locations manage take-off and landing operations for the combat drone, simplifying command and control functions as well as logistical supply challenges.

“Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons — it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.” according to the USAF.

Used for everything from drug interdiction in the Caribbean, conducting the US ‘ghost wars’, battling forest fires or assassination, the terrifying Reaper is a menacing presence in the skies of many regions around the world. It is a must-have item for any operator who can afford it and has sufficient security clearance.


6. Lockheed Martin F-16 ‘The Forty-year-old teen’ 


If it was’t so common we’d be able able to fully appreciate that the F-16 was the best designed fighter of the 20th century. Even today, 45 years after it first flew, it remains an absolutely monster in a close-in dogfight. In reality however it hasn’t done much air-to-air fighting in a  long time, partly because barely any happens and partly because operators have exploited the type’s surprising long range and used it as a bomber. Other than its insane agility and long range, early F-16s couldn’t do a great deal — but air forces around the world bought it because it was American. Initially it had a poor radar, no beyond visual-range weapons and up until the mid nineties (as Desert Storm had shown) wasn’t much cop as a bomber. Sure if used well, as the Israeli’s had, it was capable of remarkable things, but it wasn’t until the avionics and weapons matched the airframe’s superlative performance that it attained its full potential. This was a far cry from the simple red hot dogfighter the Fighter Mafia* wanted the F-16 to be. Regardless, it is today the backbone of the USAF fast air – with around 900 in service. It also serves – or has served – with over 25 nations. With approximately 2,140 planes in active service it represents around 13% of the world’s military fast jets.

Along with the F/A-18, it defined a new generation of fighter; it pioneered the relaxed static stability/fly-by-wire flight control system, a feature now de rigueur — and the side-stick controller, something found in the cockpit of the US F-22, F-35 and French Rafale. As a threat to counter, it was instrumental in the creation of MiG-29. It has fought around the world, notably in Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Afghanistan. It has performed operationally in a wide array of roles including air-to-air fighter, long range bomber, reconnoissance and close air support.

*A tiny maverick group of military planners trying to counter the US’ obsession with ever heavier, costlier aircraft dependent on untried technologies.


5. Nuclear capable bombers (B-52H/B-2/Tu-95/Tu-160/H-6) – ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomber’


If global warning doesn’t kill us all then one or more of the these aircraft might. This bunch of genocidal hellhounds are long-ranged and capable of ruining everything with an indiscriminate nuclear holocaust. So yes, pretty damn significant.

The B-52 is the most important in this class – around 76 remain in service and are set to remain operational until at least 2050. As with the KC-135, Tu-95 and Hercules it is likely to spend its 100th birthday on the job.

Interview with B-52 pilot here. 


4. Mil Mi-24 series ‘Satan’s Chariot’


The first dedicated Soviet attack helicopter, the Mi-24 is big, well-armed and extremely fast (grabbing a slew of world speed records in the 1970s). Since its introduction in 1972 it has become the most widely used combat aircraft of all time, fighting in over 30 wars across the world with a staggering 68 operators. It is unique in being an attack helicopter with a sizeable troop compartment, suitable to accommodate up to eight passengers. As with the Su-25 — the simplicity, durability and insensitivity to rough in-the-field maintenance keeps it going when other more exquisite machines are grounded.

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Interview with Mi-24 pilot here. 

3. Mil Mi-8 series — ‘Communist time bandits’

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Over 17,000 have been made since 1966…and production continues. Compare that to the piffling 4,000 Black Hawks or paltry 697 Pumas – the only thing that comes close— the Huey — is over 1,000 airframes behind, and is no longer of global significance. An astonishing total of over 80 countries have procured, as have a litany of private contractors. It has served in more war zones than any other aircraft in history. Wherever there is pain in the world there is likely a ‘Hip’ nearby making it better or worse.

2. Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk (and whole H-60 series) – ‘Black Hawk Town’


The US’ armed forces are the most significant in the world — starting and getting involved with more conflicts than any other — and does little that doesn’t involve the extremely tough, extremely versatile H-60 series. One observer unkindly noted that the US stopped winning wars when they started using helicopters, if true it is probably not fair to lay all blame/credit at the skids (or un-retractable undercarriages) of rotary wing aircraft.

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Today the US loses wars with the help of the tough versatile H-60 series. They serve around the world with a bewildering number of operators in  surprisingly varied roles, and have played a pivotal part in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan among other places. It also has the honour of a Chinese rip-off, the Z-20.

Interview with Blackhawk pilot here. 

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  1. Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker –  ‘The Internal Flying Gas Station’


The arteries of the most powerful air force in history, few of the USAF operations of the last 62 years could have happened without this elegant tanker. While its glamorous fast-jet clientele garner a great deal of attention, the KC-135 seldom receives the attention it deserves. Over 400 remain in service providing the bulk of US and allied air refuelling needs. The farcical dismissal of the excellent KC-45 and the calamitous development of the KC-46 ensure it keeps busy today and is expected to survive until the 2030s, and possibly even the 2050s — not bad for an aircraft that took its first flight in 1956.

— The story of one badly behaved  KC-135 navigator here

The usual disclaimer applies: reality does not conform to the top 10 format and this more an opportunity to consider the most significant military of the present day than give a definitive answer.  Feel free to write your own candidates in the comments section below.

Special thanks to Thomas Newdick  

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*There is a strong case for the Super Hornet which not only represents 7% of the global fast jet force, but is also is the backbone of US Naval air power. We chose to rank it at 11.

Flawed Concepts: a Litany of Failed British Aircraft


“We are all failures – at least the best of us are”.

—  J.M. Barrie   (author of Peter Pan)

The British love a failure — from the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade, hair-raising stunts of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ to the jokes of Sir Alan Sugar, failures are far more acceptable than successes. And so it is with the history of British aircraft, where some deeply flawed machines are lovingly remembered. Of course, Britain has created some excellent aeroplanes — moments where engineering genius, right-headedness and timing where all happily aligned. But let’s turn our backs on the Spitfire, Lancaster and Mosquito and other success stories, and instead turn toward some aircraft with more complicated stories. Many of the aircraft listed below were not absolute stinkers — in fact one of them was the pinnacle of technology — but they were (often brilliant) answers to the wrong questions. I turned to brothers Jim and Ron Smith , two unsung heroes involved in the development of many British aircraft, to look into these intriguing stories. 

“The history of British aviation is littered with designs that appeared to hold great promise, and on which a great deal of money, time and effort was spent, but which ultimately were failures. The reasons for failure were many and various, including the following: 

Brilliant innovative concepts let down by unexpected issues. These would include design and technology aspects, together with the late realisation that apparently ‘peripheral’ issues were critical to the success of the concept.

Ghastly blunders, often due to heading down blind alleys – typically total failure to understand the market

Wasteful duplication of effort

and Flawed requirements.

This list is predominantly made up of post-war programmes, with the exception of one glaring example of a flawed wartime requirement. It is perhaps a sad reflection on the state of the industry during this period (and the opinions and constraints imposed by the state airline, governments, civil servants and the RAF), that an initial list of possible aircraft to include ran to more than 30 different types!
10th Place: de Havilland DH106 Comet I


Design purpose / intent
The World’s first jet airliner to enter service, intended to offer fast comfortable travel on BOAC’s routes to South Africa, Japan and Singapore.

Key features
The elegant Comet featured four Ghost engines, a pressurised cabin allowing flight above the weather, and a passenger capacity of 36 – 44 seats. It offered a cruising speed around 460 mph at 36 – 40,000ft, about 50% faster than contemporary piston airliners. London to Johannesburg (five stops) was scheduled for 21hr 20 min, with London to Tokyo (nine stops) in 46 hr. The Comet also introduced high pressure refuelling to speed turn-round times at intermediate stops.

First flown on 27 July 1949, and entered scheduled airline service from London to Johannesburg on 2 May 1952. A source of immense pride in Britain and, shortly after the death of King George VI, seen as heralding ‘a new Elizabethan age’. The BOAC Chairman at the time said that the Comet would “mark a new era in aviation history and will in effect halve the size of the World.” Unfortunately, early operations were marred by take-off accidents at Rome and Karachi; a break-up in mid-air near Calcutta and landing incidents at Entebbe and Dakar.

Reasons for Failure
The end came with the mid-air break-up of G-ALYP near Elba on 10 January 1954. This resulted in a suspension of Comet flights, which resumed on 23 March 1954. Just 17 days later, on 8 April 1954 G-ALYY broke-up in similar circumstances near Naples. After the recovery and reassembly of wreckage and fatigue testing in a water tank of the fuselage of G-ALYU, it was concluded that these two accidents were caused by fatigue failure of the fuselage after a much lower number of cycles than Hawk Sidd Comet 4 small a.jpghad been anticipated.

The vulnerability of the construction to pressurisation fatigue failure was unexpected and perhaps only anticipated by the writing of the engineer – author Nevil Shute Norway in his book ‘No Highway’, first published in December 1948, some seven months before the Comet’s first flight.

It was to be April 1958 before the definitive Avon-powered Comet 4 was flown, entering operational service in October 1958. The Boeing 707 eclipsed the Comet in terms of sales, but it was the Comet that had demonstrated that civil jet transport would be both popular and commercially viable.

Changes in design assumptions and new structural test and certification procedures were introduced following the Comet accidents to create ‘fail safe’ structures and ‘safe life’ components. This approach has served the word-wide industry, and its many passengers, well ever since. The development of the ‘black box’ flight safety recorder was also prompted by the Comet accidents.
9. Fairey Rotodyne

A very advanced concept for a VTOL transport rotorcraft that was undoubtedly ahead of its time. Streaking from city centre to city centre with a top speed twice that of helicopters of the time, the Rotodyne, could have been a major transport innovation. As the world’s first vertical take-off airliner it could have revolutionised air travel, removing the need for remote airports for everything but long haul journeys. 

The concept was extremely innovative: for takeoff and landing, the rotor was driven by tip-mounted jet engines. The air for the tip-jets wasn’t bled from the engines. The engines were connected with clutches to axial compressors in the rear of the nacelles, which had flush inlets above the wing, and the compressors fed the rotor. The turboprop-powered propellers on the wings provided thrust for horizontal flight while the rotor autorotated (‘autorotation’ is when rotors turn around while unpowered, but in flight). Thanks to its tip-mounted jets, the Rotodyne was exceptionally noisy, an undesirable trait in a city centre airliner, and was cancelled. Debate still rages about the degree to which the Rotodyne’s noise levels could have been reduced.

Design purpose / intent
Commercial city centre to city centre passenger transport (e.g. London – Paris) using advanced VTOL configuration.

Key features
The Rotodyne had an 89 ft diameter rotor driven by tip jets in hover, with pressurised air supplied from two 3,000 ehp Napier Eland NEL.3 turboprop engines. Fuel was supplied along the blades and burnt in the tip jet units (hot jet) to power to the rotor for the hover. Cruise was achieved using wing lift and propeller thrust (with the rotor autorotating, benefitting its rotor flight envelope). Prototype all up weight was 33,000 lb with capacity for 40 passengers.

Initial research was carried out on the small scale Gyrodyne and Jet Gyrodyne (with cold jet tip drive). A single Rotodyne XE521 was built, and flown for the first time on 6 November 1957. The first transition from hovering to forward flight was made on 10 April 1958. XE521 set a 100km closed circuit record at 190.9 mph, well above the maximum speed of contemporary helicopters. The Rotodyne could also hover with one engine shut down. By the end of its flight test programme, the Rotodyne had flown almost 1,000 people for 120 hours in 350 flights and conducted a total of 230 transitions between helicopter and autogyro flight.

Reasons for Failure
Although only required for a few minutes at take-off and landing, the external noise of the hot jet tip drive was unacceptably high. Various contemporary sources quote the noise as ‘intolerable’, ‘the chief deterrent to would-be purchasers’, and ‘from two miles away it would stop a conversation …’

The project was further hampered when, after the enforced take-over of Fairey’s helicopter activity by Westland Helicopters in 1960, it became clear that substantial further development would be required to meet BEA’s desired performance. Furthermore, this would require more powerful engines when Napier had decided not to develop the Eland further. The production machine was being proposed around two 5,250 shp RR Tyne engines, rotor diameter of 104 ft and all up weight of 53,500 lb to provide a 60 passenger capacity – a complete re-design, requiring considerable investment from both manufacturer and airline customer.

The Chairman of BEA was quoted as saying “the Corporation wants the Rotodyne … provided we can operate it. We don’t want to spend £5 million on an aircraft, if the Minister says it is too noisy and that we can’t operate it from city centres.” In the event, letters of intent from BEA and the RAF were not converted to orders and Westland ceased investment in absence of BEA order. Let down by the failure to realise that acceptable noise in the hover was a critical success factor for city centre operations.

A really advanced compound helicopter concept. High speed rotorcraft are the focus for current US Army developments (FARA). The Eurocopter X3 and Airbus Racer adopt similar configurations to the Rotodyne, albeit without the noisy tip drive rotor.

Ahead of its time; with modern materials, engines and control technologies, the Rotodyne could have been successful – if only the noise problem could be solved.

8th Place: Short Sperrin and Supermarine Swift
Two different outcomes from parallel risk reduction development programmes.

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Design purpose / intent
Sperrin: Back-up aircraft due to perceived risk in V-Bomber programme.
Swift: Duplicated super-priority programme (with the Hunter) to produce a high-subsonic swept wing fighter

Key features
Sperrin: an enlarged four-engine Canberra. Four Avon engines.
Swift: Similar in many respects to after-burning Hunter.

Sperrin: Two prototypes. Second used for engine test (Gyron) and bomb development trials.
Swift: Two Type 541 prototypes and 193 production aircraft in six Marks. WK198 broke World speed record 737.7 mph September 1953 (broken 8 days later by Skyray).

Reasons for Failure
The Sperrin was a complete success. It was simple and sound, but was simply not needed, due to the success of all three V-bombers (itself representing considerable duplication of resources).
Swift: The type suffered from development issues, poor serviceability and handling deficiencies, particularly pitch-up in turns, with a high accident rate in operation despite a long list of flight restrictions. The photo-reconnaissance Swift FR.5 was used for low level operations, thereby avoiding the engine, handling and flight control issues encountered at altitude. By the time the problems of the Swift were sorted, investment in Hunter (even though it had its own problems initially) was seen to be a better bet.

Sperrin: Contributed to engine and bomb development. Swift: Most of the issues were solved by the appearance (too late) of the Swift F7. Although still having inadequate manoeuvrability, the 12 F.7s that were built were used by No1 Guided Weapons Development Squadron at Valley for development trials of the Fairey Fireflash air-to-air missile,

Two investments in parallel programmes with different outcomes. The Sperrin was a complete success, but totally redundant in the light of the success of all three V-bombers (Valiant, Vulcan and Victor) all of which achieved full production and Squadron operational service.



Copyright BAE Systems

The Swift was a failure, ordered into production as a super-priority design and proved to have handling problems, engine afterburner constraints, a very poor accident record and inadequate agility for an interceptor fighter. Thank goodness that the Hunter became a complete success, possibly due to the underlying merit of the design combined with Hawker’s ability to troubleshoot and cure deficiencies more effectively than was achieved at Supermarine at this time.


Copyright BAE Systems

7th Place: de Havilland DH 108

A step too far on the path to a transonic fighter



Design purpose / intent
Initially proposed as a demonstrator for the Comet airliner, when first boldly proposed as a tailless flying wing. Subsequently developed to investigate its potential as a transonic fighter configuration, and to inform the design of the DH110, which was later developed into the Sea Vixen.

Key features
The aircraft used a lengthened Vampire fuselage, with a single fin added. The wing was swept at 43 degrees for the first aircraft, and 45 degrees for the other two. Control was by rudder and elevons; powerplant was a single Goblin engine.

Three prototypes were built, and all were destroyed in fatal accidents. The first aircraft was to investigate low-speed flight and featured a 43 deg sweep wing with fixed outboard slats. This aircraft flew on 16 May 1946, and was limited in speed to about 200kts. It was destroyed in low-speed trials on 1 May 1950, failing to recover from an inverted spin, the pilot being killed when his parachute failed to open in time.
The second aircraft flew in June 1946, and had a 45 deg sweep wing with automatic leading edge slats. This aircraft crashed in a high-speed accident on 27 September 1946, killing the pilot, Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. The accident resulted from a massive structural failure, the cause of which seems to have been a high-speed pitch oscillation at about Mach 0.9.
The third aircraft featured a more refined fuselage and cockpit shape, a more powerful Goblin 5 engine, and, critically, power-boosted (hydraulic) elevons. This aircraft made its first flight on 24 July 1947, and on 6 Sept 1948 exceeded Mach 1 in a shallow dive, the first British-built aircraft to achieve this. The aircraft was lost in another fatal accident on 15 February 1950, again following a structural failure, possibly following pilot incapacitation due to oxygen system failure.


Reasons for Failure
Loss of control of the second aircraft in transonic flight. The DH108 had low pitch inertia because of its tailless design. At transonic and supersonic speeds, changes in the pressure distribution over the aircraft result in the centre of lift moving aft, requiring nose up control input to trim the aircraft. Given the short distance between the DH108 elevons and its centre of gravity, control loads are likely to have been high, and with low inertia in pitch, pitch oscillations are likely, and appear to have resulted in structural failure and the loss of the aircraft.
As a result of the loss of the second aircraft, the third DH 108 was built with hydraulically-assisted pitch controls, a key step in the development of supersonic aircraft. Powered controls enable the trim change associated with high-speed flight to be negotiated safely.

Improved control systems allowing transonic and supersonic flight to be achieved safely. The next aircraft to use this configuration after the DH108 was the Northrop X-4. This also had manual controls, and suffered from significant transonic pitch oscillations. The X-4 was never flown at supersonic speeds. However, the Vought F7U Cutlass used a similar configuration, but with powered controls. The F7U was a particularly unsuccessful aircraft, suffering a 25% accident rate in service, although this was probably due to the combination of an under-developed engine rather than control problems.
6th Place: Armstrong-Whitworth AW 52

Visionary concept for the aerodynamicist’s ultimate airliner, paradoxically defeated by a previously unknown aerodynamic problem.


Design purpose / intent
Half-scale prototype for a proposed six-jet flying-wing airliner, intended to have low drag due to extensive laminar flow over the wing (see below for explanation).


Key features
Twin-engine aircraft with an unswept centre-section and outboard wings with 35 degree sweep. Control by elevons, wing-tip-mounted fins and rudders, and spoilers. It was built to the highest possible standards with the intention of maintaining laminar flow over the wing. The desired wing profile was maintained to within 2/1000th of an inch (.05 mm).

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The proposal for the intended turbo-jet flying wing airliner dates back as far as 1943. The first step was the construction and test of a sub-scale glider, the AW52G, half the size of the 90 ft wing-span AW52, which made its first flight on 2 March 1945.
Following a successful test program of the AW52G, the first AW52, itself half the size of the proposed airliner, flew on 13 November 1947, followed by the second on 1 September 1948.
The second aircraft suffered an accident on 30 May 1949, due to a pitch oscillation, thought to have been caused by elevon flutter. In ejecting from the aircraft, the pilot became the first to be saved by a Martin-Baker ejection seat. Following this, the first aircraft was passed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) for aerodynamic research.


Reasons for Failure
It proved to be impossible to maintain laminar flow on the outer wings of the aircraft. Laminar flow is achieved if the air next to the wing surface (in the boundary layer) can be maintained in steady and smooth flow. This is desirable, as it results in less drag than the alternative turbulent flow, where the flow in the boundary layer is unsteady. Maintaining laminar flow requires a smooth surface, and careful attention to the shape of that surface to delay the transition to turbulent flow in the boundary layer as long as possible. Laminar flow aerofoils were researched extensively by NACA, and appeared in operational use on the P-51 Mustang, and the P-38 Lightning.
The AW52 was unable to deliver the expected laminar flow on the outer wing because of a previously unrecognised phenomena called attachment line transition (ALT). The attachment line is the location along the leading edge of a wing, dividing the flow which passes above the wing from that which passes below. On a swept leading edge, a flow develops along the leading edge from root towards the wing tip, and at some point along the span, this flow will itself naturally transition and become turbulent. Once the attachment line has become turbulent, laminar flow can no longer be sustained over the wing.
Research at RAE showed not only that ALT was occurring on the AW52 and limiting its performance, but that it also occurred on all contemporary swept-wing aircraft, including, for example, the Sabre. Consequently, the performance achieved by the AW52 was disappointing and there was no civil or military customer interest to fund further development.

Improved understanding of swept-wing aerodynamics. Development of devices to prevent the fuselage boundary layer from being entrained into the wing attachment line, delaying ALT as far as possible.

5th Place: Saunders-Roe SR53

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Outpaced by changes in the threat, and in government policy.
Design purpose / intent
The Saunders Roe SR53 was proposed to meet a requirement for a point-defence interceptor capable of climbing to 60,000 ft in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The driver for the requirement was concern about the threat posed by Soviet bombers armed with nuclear weapons.

Key features
Compact, delta-winged mixed power aircraft with 1,640 lbst Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine and 8,000 lbst de Havilland Spectre rocket. The armament was intended to be the Blue Jay infra-red air-to-air missile. The operational concept was to climb to altitude using the rocket motor, accelerate up to a maximum speed of Mach 2.2, complete a ground-guided interception, and then return to base using the jet engine.

The contract to develop the aircraft was signed on 8 May 1953. Although Saunders-Roe’s initial schedule called for a first flight in July 1954, development of the aircraft and its rocket motor took longer than expected, and first flight did not occur until 16 May 1957, with the second prototype following in December of the same year. The aircraft was reported as pleasant and easy to fly. The second aircraft was lost in a fatal aborted-take-off accident in June 1958, and the program was eventually cancelled in July 1960, after 56 test flights. The highest speed reached in the flight test program was Mach 1.33.


Reasons for Failure
During the 7-year development and flight programme, a great deal of change had occurred in aerospace capabilities. Jet engine development had produced high power, reliable engines; radar had improved its ability to detect targets at long range; the Soviets had moved towards the development of stand-off weapons; and surface-based guided missiles had improved in capability.
These technical advances had the effect of invalidating the operational concept for the aircraft. In future, it would be possible, and necessary, to defeat threats at a greater distance, before the release of nuclear stand-off weapons, and there was no way a short-range point-defence interceptor such as the SR53 could achieve this.
Furthermore, the first flight of the aircraft occurred just two months after the Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper, which suggested new manned aircraft were no longer required for air defence, and that surface-based air-to-air missiles would in future fill this role. The first flight of the SR 53, just after this policy announcement, could not have been more badly timed, but the operational concept had already been superseded.

The programme left no direct legacy. Air defence has evolved through point defence interception, to barrier combat air patrols, and to beyond visual range engagements using air-to-air missiles, supported by distributed and networked sensors. Low signature capabilities and geo-political instabilities are pushing air defence in the direction of cooperating manned and unmanned aircraft, armed with long-range weapons, and supported by distributed and networked sensors.


4th Place: Boulton Paul Defiant / Blackburn Roc turreted fighters


A flawed concept that could never have competed with higher speed, more manoeuvrable fighters with forward-firing cannon armament.

Design purpose / intent
Turreted interceptor fighters (Defiant for RAF, Roc – carrier based for fleet defence). Intended to achieve kills by surprise and defend easily against tail attack.

Key features
Two crew and four-gun turret. Defiant powered by 1,030hp Merlin III; Roc by 890hp Perseus XII engine.

Mk1_Defiant (1).jpg

Defiant: First flown in August 1937 and entered service in December 1939 with 264 Sqn. Achieved some initial success over Dunkirk – mainly because it was misidentified by the Germans as a Hurricane. Thereafter suffered crippling losses and was withdrawn from daylight operations after August 1940. Later used with some effect as a night fighter and subsequently as a target tug. 1,060 Defiant aircraft were built.

Blackburn Roc followed the same concept with the additional penalties associated with carrier operation. First flown in December 1938 and having a gross weight of 7,950 lb (compared with a Hurricane at 6,447lb) and 890hp (rather than 1,030hp) its performance was entirely inadequate for the role.


Operational use of the Blackburn Roc
The Roc was flown operationally by squadrons including 800, 801 and 803 in 1939 and
1940, initially with patrols over the North Sea from RNAS Hatson. The type operated briefly, and in small numbers, from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal early in the Norwegian campaign; 801 Squadron brought three of the turret-fighters aboard along with its Skuas, though they were little used due to their low performance and poorer endurance than the Skua. Rocs also took part in operations from airfields on the south coast of England during the Dunkirk evacuations, and it was during this period that the type scored its first and only air-to-air kill, shooting down a Ju 88.
A long-standing myth has arisen that the Roc never flew in combat and never landed on an aircraft carrier, thanks to this being stated in a number of older published sources. Both assertions are incorrect, and more recent books on the Fleet Air Arm by David Hobbs, Peter C Smith and Matthew Willis (as well as John Dell) set the record straight. The Roc was withdrawn from front-line service in 1940 but continued in second-line roles until 1944. — Matt Willis 


Reasons for Failure
Lack of fixed forward firing armament, weight and manoeuvrability penalties. Low overall firepower. The performance penalty of carrying the turret armament can be gauged by the fact that the empty weight of the Defiant was within 200lb of the gross weight of the similarly powered Hurricane. The Blackburn Roc barely went to sea and some aircraft ended up as airfield defence posts.

The Defiant has been described (by FK Mason) as “hopelessly inept … quite useless in combat … lamentably possessing no fixed forward firing guns”. These statements apply equally to the Blackburn Roc, although perhaps ‘woeful performance’ could be added in that case, with a maximum speed of barely 220 mph.

There is little more to say about these two-seat turreted fighters, other than that they proved to be a fundamentally flawed concept, particularly given the lack of any fixed forward-firing armament.
Subsequent experience has shown that a two-seat fighter with higher firepower (20-40mm cannon and, later, missiles and target acquisition sensors) allows greater stand-off ranges and higher lethality, while sharing the crew workload.

3rd Place: Saunders-Roe Princess and SR.A/1




The victims of ill-judged requirements, which failed to account for legacy infrastructure from WW II

Design purpose / intent
Princess: Spacious, indeed luxurious, transport from London to New York, and on broader routes around the Empire to destinations that did not have large airports.
SR.A/1: Pacific War concept to provide air superiority over archipelagos without needing to build runways.


Key features
Princess: The largest all-metal flying boat ever to have been constructed. Powered by no less than 10 Proteus turboprops, it was capable of carrying 105 passengers, at the modest cruise speed of 360 mph.
SR.A/1: Flying-boat fighter, powered by 2 Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl turbo-jets. A small, single-seat, airframe armed with 4 20mm cannon.


Princess: Developed in response to a 1946 Contract from the UK Ministry of Supply for a long-range civil flying boat, 3 aircraft were built, but only one was flown. This made a total of 46 flights between 22 August 1952 and 27 May 1954, totalling 100 flight hours. The prototype and two other essentially complete airframes were stored for an extended period before being scrapped in 1967.
SR.A/1: The aircraft was first proposed in mid-1943, the combination of jet engine speed and the flexible basing options of a flying-boat being regarded as advantageous in the Pacific theatre. Development lagged, and the aircraft did not fly until 16 July 1947. Three aircraft were built, two of which crashed. The simultaneous development of the Princess contributed to the slow development of the SR.A/1, and this was compounded by the decision of Metropolitan-Vickers to cease turbojet engine production.

Reasons for Failure

Princess: The initial interest in the aircraft had come from BOAC, whose predecessors had operated large flying boats across the British Empire between the wars. However, as a consequence of World War II, runways of suitable size for commercial aircraft had been built world-wide, removing a key rationale for a flying boat airliner. A further key issue was the decision by BOAC to operate the de Havilland Comet. The huge leap in speed and comfort offered by this aircraft only under-scored the significant performance and operating cost penalties of the large flying boat, with its 10 turbo-prop engines and cruise speed at least 100 mph less than even the early Comet.
SR.A/1: Although exhibiting quite sprightly performance, by the time it had flown, the Pacific war was over, and no requirement for the aircraft existed. In addition, the Fleet Air Arm was operating numerous aircraft carriers, and the development of capable jet-powered carrier-based aircraft allowed power projection without the need for airfield construction. Additionally, of course, the large number of airfields constructed during the war also provided many basing opportunities for conventional land-based aircraft.

Japan and Russia continue to operate capable military flying boats and amphibians. No large flying boat airliners or fighters are in operation.

2nd Place: Bristol Brabazon
A ‘Jumbo’ airliner for the privileged few.


Credit: BAE Systems

Design purpose / intent
Trans-Atlantic passenger operations. Type 1 from the Brabazon Committee’s range of projects intended to revitalise the British commercial aircraft industry.

Key features
Luxury travel, eight 2,360hp Centaurus XX piston engines, 230 ft wing span, 20 ft diameter fuselage with accommodation for 96 day passengers or 52 in sleeping compartments. Target performance was 5,000 miles range cruising at 20,000 ft and 250 mph, with a maximum speed 300 mph at 25,000ft. All up weight 290,000lb.

Two prototypes, of which only one, registered G-AGPW, was flown, taking to the air for the first time on 4 September 1949. Its construction led to the building of a large three bay, eight-acre, assembly hall and lengthened runway at Filton. A crew (flight crew and cabin staff) of fourteen was envisaged, serving 94 passengers.
By 1952, it was clear that there was no customer interest in the type and Bristol were, by that time, heavily engaged in the design of the Bristol Britannia. The project was quietly abandoned, the prototype being scrapped in October 1953 after only 400 hr flying. The second prototype G-AIML was substantially complete but was never assembled.

Reasons for Failure
The fundamental failure was that the Brabazon Committee failed to recognise that the future of flying would be to offer affordable travel for the masses, not the privileged few (who had formed much of the pre-war airline customer base).
Linked to this was a failure to appreciate that the key parameter for profitable airline economics were load factor (percentage of seats occupied by paying passengers) and aircraft operating cost per passenger seat mile.
In this context, it is worth noting that the Brabazon wing span and area were similar to those of the Boeing 747-400, for a payload of, at best, 96 passengers.

Years ahead of its time, as shown by the success of the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. The project provided Bristol Aircraft with the experience to produce the Britannia, which proved to be a successful design once its development problems were solved.

1st Place: BAC / Aerospatiale Concorde

BAC Concorde Oshkosh C small (1).jpg

Credit: Ron Smith

Pinnacle of aerospace technology and an iconic symbol of supersonic passenger travel.

(Editor note: We know it’s half-French, but thought it gallant to take it as British in this context.)

Design purpose / intent
Supersonic passenger transport worldwide.

Key features
Advanced ogival wing planform, four Olympus 593 engines 38,050 lbst with afterburning, intake management, M=2 supercruise, carbon fibre brakes, drooping nose, fuel management to control centre of gravity, electrical flight and engine controls. Carried 100 passengers on trans-Atlantic routes, typically cruising at M=2.02 and 58,000ft.

Concorde display screen.jpg

Anglo-French collaborative programme. Manufacture comprised two prototypes; two pre-production; two production prototypes, and 14 production aircraft. The Governments wrote off the development costs (£1.3 billion) and seven production aircraft were used by each of the national flag carriers (British Airways and Air France).
First flight of first prototype F-WTSS 2 March 1969; entry into passenger service 21 January 1976; withdrawal from service 23 October 2003. Fatal accident to F-BTSC on 25 July 2000 after hitting debris on the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Reasons for Failure
Despite its technical brilliance and unmatched capability, Concorde was ultimately commercially unsuccessful. A major constraint was that the aircraft was not allowed to fly supersonically over land due to concerns over its sonic boom. Airport noise was also a concern, considerably delaying approval to fly into the New York’s John F Kennedy Airport.
The aircraft’s economics were impacted by the OPEC-inspired oil price rises of 1973. In today’s world, it is possible that the decision to write off the substantial development costs would be seen as an inappropriate government subsidy under World Trade Organisation rules.

Brit Air Coro Concorde a small (1).jpg
Other considerations included the inability to develop the aircraft further; a finite spares pool; and the cost of certification of any new modifications required.
The price of speed was high and, ultimately Concorde travel became the province of the select (and wealthy) few – the very market originally envisaged for the Bristol Brabazon.

BAC Concorde CNV00021 (2).JPG

Many aspects of the technology remain in use across the spectrum of civil and military aerospace. The programme established certification approaches for aircraft with novel technologies and operational envelopes. There remains on-going interest in supersonic flight with reduced sonic boom energy, and in supersonic business jets.

This article is restricted to a top ten. This has been achieved by focusing on aircraft that actually flew and for which there was a genuine expectation of production and sales. This has meant excluding many well-known concepts (for example Vickers 1000, Hawker P.1154, HS681 V/STOL transport) that never reached flight status. Also excluded are research aircraft such as the Handley Page HP115, Hunting 126, Boulton Paul P.111, designed to examine specific configurations and/or technologies.

Even with these restrictions, there are plenty of other types that could have been included. This list does not include, for example, the Westland Wyvern, Armstrong Whitworth Apollo, Short Belfast, Nimrod AEW, Nimrod RMPA or the TSR.2.

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How the Apache became the world’s most deadly close air support aircraft


The AH-64 was not supposed to be a close air support platform. Designed to employ its three weapon systems against enemy tanks from a hover and then move from battle position to battle position flying at treetop height, the Apache was a tank killer from its inception. Two major events in 1972 directly influenced the mission set for the concept that would evolve into the Apache. The April 1972 Battle of An Loc saw High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rocket-armed AH-1G Cobras and TOW missile-armed NUH-
1Bs destroy numerous tanks, blunting the North Vietnamese invasion. While the majority of the actions fought during An Loc were classic Close Air Support missions over friendly troops in contact, the Army focused on the attack helicopter’s successes killing tanks, and the rest as they say, is history. The cancellation of the AH-56 Cheyenne programme in August 1972 was the other. The Cheyenne was designed as a CAS platform from the beginning to support troops on the ground. Able to carry eight 19-
shot rocket pods or a mix of rockets and TOW missiles; and mounting two turreted weapons, a single Cheyenne carried more than twice the combat load of the AH-1G. But the Cheyenne’s technology was not yet mature, and after several years of delays and reduced interest by the Army, the program was cancelled with only ten aircraft built.
The day after Cheyenne’s cancellation, the Army initiated the Advanced Attack Helicopter programme, which would yield the AH-64 just a few years later. Gone was the primary requirement for supporting troops on the ground, and instead, the helicopter was built around the new anti-tank missile; the AGM- 114 Hellfire and designed as a tank killer. The Apache was to be the great equaliser, protecting the Fulda Gap from the Soviet armoured hordes invading Western Europe in a future World War III. It was to
sit at a hover, moving from battle position to battle position, unleashing Hellfires at maximum range and reducing Soviet tank numbers before they got within range of friendly armour. Surprisingly, the Apache’s 1989 combat debut in Panama was as a fire support platform, where its Night Vision System was a key asset in targeting Panamanian resistance and directing troops on the ground.

Lieutenant General Carl Steiner, Commander of XVIII Airborne Corps during Just Cause praised the AH- 64s capabilities by saying it could “Fire a hellfire missile through a window at five miles away, at night”. The ability to precisely engage such a small target from miles away was designed to be effective against tanks, but served the AH-64A well in Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 when AH-64As of 1-101st Aviation Regiment, destroyed several key antiaircraft radar stations along the Iraq-Kuwait border,
knocking out a 20-mile wide portion of the Iraqi early warning Air Defense network and opening the door for coalition air assets to begin striking targets inside Iraq. Apache battalions acquitted themselves well during the short conflict, performing battlefield interdiction missions well forward of the rapidly shrinking front lines, destroying over 500 tanks and hundreds of other vehicles before the cessation of hostilities.

However, as with most combat aircraft, the Apache’s three decades in service have seen its role evolve with the conflicts in which it has participated and its mission capabilities mature. In the aftermath of 9/11, Apaches deployed to Afghanistan to combat Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, where the armour threat was minimal. It was there that the AH-64 returned to the attack helicopter’s roots as a Close Air Support platform.

The operational environment in Afghanistan is harsh. Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are not the pilots’ only concerns, as high altitude and high temperature can have more of an adverse effect on helicopter performance than enemy fire. The hover fire tactics that Apache pilots had trained on since the type went operational in 1984 were not possible in hot/high conditions and pilots were forced to resort to the running/diving fire techniques perfected by their Cobra pilot brethren a generation earlier.


These fast moving techniques allowed better freedom of movement and coordination with troops on the ground, and became the standard for Apache operations in Afghanistan. The following year saw the invasion of Iraq and the combat debut of the AH-64D, which brought the Apache into the digital age and increased its ability to conduct the CAS mission even further.



ah-64-apache-apach-udarnyy.jpgThe Longbow Apache’s digital cockpit greatly enhanced situational awareness for both crewmembers, and the introduction of the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire allowed crews to attack targets that were blocked by smoke or other obscurant that the helicopter’s laser designator could not penetrate. Now troops on the ground only needed to pass along a GPS grid coordinate to the Apache crew, and the Longbow Hellfire could be fired right at those coordinates. The first Longbow Hellfire used in combat was fired against an Iraqi T-72, but many more would be fired at a multitude of targets in the first weeks of the invasion of Iraq.

The operational environments in Afghanistan and Iraq forced a return to providing close support (now called Close Combat Attack by the Army) to troops on the ground. They became so effective that enemy combatants often refused to engage US forces if Apaches were in the area. New versions of the Hellfire like the AGM-114N thermobaric Hellfire were ideal for taking out caves or buildings with minimal collateral damage. The night vision system was updated in 2008 with the addition of the Modernized Target Acquisition/Designation Sight and Arrowhead Pilot’s Night Vision System, allowing unprecedented image clarity from miles away in complete darkness. In 2010, the capability to receive UAV video feed was incorporated into the Apache’s repertoire, even further increasing the coordination between the helicopter and the troops it supports. Lastly, in 2012 the adoption of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System turned the standard Hydra 70 rocket family into precision guided munitions and boosting the Apache’s lethality against precision targets. The ideal melding of evolving sensors, weapons and techniques have evolved the Apache into not only the world’s premiere attack helicopter, but the premiere Close Combat Attack platform in the world. Operational necessity brought the AH-64 back to the role it was destined to fill, even though shortsightedness initially overlooked that role.

  • Jonathan Bernstein is the Supervisory Museum Curator, US Army Air Defense Artillery Museum at US Army

He has written these books on the Apache, P-47 and AH-1.


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