The artist Montague Black was famous for his work for the White Star Line shipping company. In 1926 he created a new piece of art for London Underground, a painting set a century in the then future. His vision of 2026 was a city dominated by two things: the aeroplane and the ‘Overground Line.’ This may seem prescient, but Black’s ‘Overground’ was not one of trains, but by a far more remarkable form of passenger transport – airships.
Black’s painting isn’t the only reminder of London (and indeed Britain’s) airship past. A physical one can be found at Cardington, a village just outside Bedford within the London commuter belt. There, two massive airship sheds still stand. Today they play host to a new British airship, the Airlander 10. The sheds were originally assembled for an even grander scheme, to connect London to its Dominions – the Imperial Airship Service, which promised not just to cut ocean crossing times by a half to a third, but also to do so with a degree of grace and ease that few steamships could match.
Britain is late to the party
Britain came late to the airship game, only developing larger rigid dirigibles after London had been bombed by Zeppelins, starting in May 1915. Those attacks highlighted just how effective airships could be and with the threat of even larger Zeppelins on the horizon, the UK Government decided to accelerate its own development plans.
This was not to say that there hadn’t been British efforts in this area before the First World War. Small airships funded by wealthy individuals had been built in earlier days and in 1909 Flight Magazine ran an ‘Airships for the Nation’ campaign and some supportive government funding emerged. Even at this stage this was largely a reaction to German efforts in this area, led by Graf von Zeppelin.
It was ultimately the war though that pushed British airship development forward and by the Armistice, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) operated 103 dirigibles, albeit all smaller than their rival Zeppelins. Most had a semi-rigid design rather than the robust German fully-rigid design, which had airbags enclosed in a metal frame (known as a ‘hull’).
Vast distances by airship
One of the main attractions of airships during the war for Germany, Britain, France and Italy had been range. This was epitomised by L 59 (Zeppelin works number LZ.104) which undertook the longest airship flight of the whole war. Departing from Bulgaria with critical war items in 1917, it was intended to resupply General von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa, one of Germany’s (if not the war’s) most creative and successful commanders.1 It flew non-stop over the Mediterranean, the Sahara and part of British-controlled Africa, only turning back when it received word that the General had been forced to cede the Zeppelin-friendly flatlands of the colony to the British and withdraw to the mountains.
Von Lettow-Vorbeck pinned down over 300,000 allied soldiers in Africa for four years with a force that at its largest comprised only 14,000 men. He returned, undefeated, to a hero’s welcome in Germany after the armistice. A noted anti-racist, when offered the role of Ambassador to Britain in the thirties by Adolf Hitler, the General infamously told the Fuhrer to ‘go fuck himself.’
By the end of its unplanned return flight L 59 had flown a total distance of 4,199 miles in 95 hours, a world record 99 years ago and one that remains impressive even now. No commercial airplane could stay aloft that length of time in 2016, except with multiple repeat episodes of in-flight re-fuelling. By comparison the Zeppelin did it with only one extended-range load of fuel. This range was useful in wartime, but was equally useful when peace came, and it was not long before airships were being seen as a possible option for getting from London (and the rest of Europe) to America.
The British R.34 (a derivative of the wartime Zeppelin designs, particularly the LZ.76) flew to New York and back in 1919, a voyage plagued by adverse winds. A Zeppelin (works number LZ.126) was built by Germany for the USA as war reparations and was also flown across the Atlantic in 1924 and giving its name to a popular fox-trot dance song at the time ‘On the ZR-3’. It also carried mail – a valuable revenue earner.
ZR-3 “USS Los Angeles” moored to a USS Pakota in 1931
By the 1920s the potential for these colossal vessels to become profitable peacetime long-distance passenger ‘air ships’ was seen as obvious. Indeed Black not including one in his painting would have likely been more controversial than the opposite. In everything from Black’s painting to hundreds of children’s books and magazines, and many forward-thinking learned articles and books, the skies of the future were lousy with airships.
The poor cousins
At the time airships certainly seemed as viable a transport option as aeroplanes. Both had begun development at about the same time, but the latter were small, uncomfortable, unreliable, noisy and (in most cases) extremely draughty. Although faster than dirigibles, aeroplanes had to land every few hours to refuel and had extremely limited passenger and payload capacity, so were not seen as a serious contender for long-distance transportation or mail service.
In comparison, dirigibles could fly for days without stopping and carry dozens of passengers in smooth comfort, and tons of mail and freight. Airships also offered passengers ocean liner comfort without the sea-sickness and with a shorter journey time. Over land, no train could compare to the stability and calm ride of airship travel, at least in good or average weather. Airships could navigate around most bad weather.
By 1924 airships had a cumulative 72 years of airborne operating experience, much accelerated by the war, whilst aeroplanes had only 16 years. Both means of aerial transport had made three Atlantic crossings each, but airships had carried a total of 72 people whilst aeroplanes had carried only six. More importantly, only three Atlantic airship crossings had been attempted and all of them had been successful. The same was not true for aeroplanes, which had a number of fatal failed crossings on their scorecard.
Opening of the Royal Airship Works
Cardington, five miles south east of Bedford, is where the Shorts Brothers Engineering Company, having won a contract for the construction of an airship in 1916, set up their manufactory. The presence of numerous locally-based light engineering companies and a gentle prevailing wind were key reasons for the site’s selection. This airship base was nationalised in 1917 under the Defence of the Realm Act and renamed the Royal Airship Works.
Cardington is 44 miles north of Whitehall as the airship flies. Before you reach for your period Bradshaws, there were four weekday trains between St. Pancras and Cardington (changing at Bedford) on the Bedford-Hitchin line, or you could go from Kings Cross to Hitchin and change there. Branch line and fast London connections ranged from good to awful, and the typical journey took 1½ hours to well over 2 hours.
As a result for passengers there would likely have been a special airship train (like an ocean liner train service) to Cardington had regular airship services become the norm. Such a journey would have been about 1¼ hours. There was railway freight track right into the Royal Airship Works, which would be ideal for bringing passengers right into the base.
Cardington’s airship shed was by far the largest building in Britain at that time, and was large enough to construct and house airships to rival the largest future Zeppelins. This was crucial, as the size and range of an airship was above all limited by the size of the shed it was built in.
At the 1921 Imperial Conference proposals were tabled for an Imperial Air Service. This would service passenger and mail routes between London and key parts of the Empire – most notably South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand.
The proposal caught the eye of aeronautical engineering firm Vickers. By 1921 Vickers had already dipped their toes into airship design with their R.80 dirigible in November of 1917. R.80 was originally designed in the traditional Zeppelin Zahn shape – cylindrical with streamlined ends – but Chief Designer Barnes Wallis2. soon decided to reshape the envelope of the airship. The result was a constantly curved, streamlined design that massively reduced air resistance.
One of the finest aeronautical engineers of the 20th century, Barnes Wallis was also responsible for the Wellington Bomber and the ‘Bouncing Bomb.’
Sensing an opportunity, Vickers and Shell Oil floated the idea of creating a company which would build and operate a five-airship Empire service for the British government in 1922. Initially, this would fly bi-weekly to India and Australia. The airships would be about 3.8 million cubic feet in size (as large as the later Graf Zeppelin LZ.127) with a cruising speed of 55 knots (63 mph). These two companies expected that the service would lose money in its first two years, but turn a profit once construction costs and depreciation were paid off.
The proposal included stop-over bases with mooring masts, with the following timetable from London:
|City||Steamship (days)||Airship (days)|
In 1923 Vickers formally proposed the plan to the Government. It was rejected, but it planted a seed in the minds of several politicians.
The Air Ministry steps in
Alongside Vickers’ efforts, the Air Ministry itself had constructed a number of airships. The largest of these was R.38 in 1921, which was part of an export order to the United States (based on the lightweight Zeppelin LZ.96 design). Tragically whilst executing a turn at full speed in calm weather, she broke in two mid-flight and fell to earth, where she then caught fire. The accident resulted in a heavy loss of life and the subsequent inquiry determined that the Air Ministry had not performed any calculations whatsoever of the aerodynamic forces acting on the ship in flight.
Rescuers clamber over the wreckage of R.38, courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.
In turn, the Air Ministry blamed the R.38 disaster on her naval designers. R.38 had originally been destined for uS military service and they had designed the airship to German wartime specifications. Those specifications placed a strong emphasis on keeping overall weight extremely low – necessary in wartime where there was a need to avoid anti-airship fire from ground-based guns, but far less critical once R.38’s role had changed to that of a peacetime craft.
None of this should have excused the Air Ministry from performing any structural analysis of the R.38 design, nor from realising that German bombing Zeppelin had very different design needs to a civilian airship.Despite this, none of the Air Ministry officials in charge of developing were disciplined or held accountable in any way.
The Imperial Airship Scheme
In 1924 Britain elected its first Labour Government. The new Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was keen to demonstrate the superiority of state-run enterprises. One flagship project which soon emerged was the Imperial Airship Service – a new strategic plan for airships to carry passengers, post and parcels on ‘All-Red-Routes’ linking British territories across the Empire, with London as the hub. The requirements were for two airships, larger than any existing or planned dirigibles at that time, to fly with one stop from London to India.
Alternatively known as the Imperial Air Communications Scheme, it was also in part seen as a way of binding the Empire more closely together, reduce the isolationist tendencies of some Dominions and keep the Empire commercially competitive with the United States. To many, it was the obvious way forward and would demonstrate Britain’s continuing scientific advancement and technical innovation, led by her finest engineers and minds. It was a popular scheme with cross-party support, and development continued even after the Labour government had fallen and the Conservatives returned to power.
The endeavour was the largest project of its kind, and its only competition in the mid- and late 1920s was from Germany’s smaller Graf Zeppelin LZ.127. This was planned to be the pioneer airship of a new fleet of Zeppelins which would be larger still (these eventually appeared in the mid-1930s as the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin II).
Construction began on the LZ.127 Graf Zeppelin in the mid-1920s, after the delivery of the LZ.126 to the United States. This was the first German airship to be constructed without risk of prohibition or enforced seizure by the Allies for reparations after WW1 (LZ.120 and 121 were seized, and 122-125 were prevented from being constructed). Nevertheless the Graf Zeppelin was delayed by funding difficulties.
In August 1929, sponsored by William Randolph Hearst the US media magnate, she made the first around the globe airship flight between New York City (Lakehurst airfield is actually in New Jersey), Friedrichshafen, Tokyo via the USSR, Los Angeles and returning to New York City. There were also start and finish flights from Friedrichshafen to New York, and return.
Britain looks to lead
Graf Zeppelin’s development and global circumnavigation may have been much publicised, but Britain was set to leapfrog Germany in the airship race. Not until the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin II seven years later would Germany construct passenger airships of similar size, range and carrying capacity to the planned British Imperial Airship fleet.
Part of the thinking behind the Imperial specification was for the airships to carry 200 soldiers and kit over long distances in case of war. Alternatively the airships could become aerial motherships for four or five biplane fighters for home defence, carried up to 15,000 feet and released to intercept enemy bombers off the coast. This was based upon plans for the R.33 to carry a parasite fighter, which was trialled a year later with a small De Havilland DH. 53 Hummingbird. The Hummingbird was successfully launched and retrieved. Full size RAF Gloster Grebes were then launched from the R.33, and returned to airfields.
The Cabinet Committee appointed to investigate the airship scheme determined that this would be an ideal competition between state and private industry, so they let concurrent contracts for the private sector. Vickers were to design and construct the R.100, with the Air Ministry at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington designing and building the R.101 to the same specification.
The Imperial Airship Competition
It was felt by the Cabinet Committee that having two competing prototype designs would double the level of innovation.
These airships were planned to be larger and more innovative than any other existing.
The Imperial Airship specification was for two airships with:
- a structural weight not exceeding 90 tons
- 62 tons disposable lift
- accommodation for 100 passengers
- fuel for 57 hours’ flight
- a cruise speed of 63 mph (55 knots/101 kmh) and maximum speed of 70 mph (61 knots/110 kmh).
This would result in airships capable of flying from Cardington to India in six days, Australia in ten (both journeys with refuelling stops), and Canada non-stop in three.
The R.100 and R.101 each had an initial budget of £350,000 (about £26m at 2021 value), but the overall budget including research, infrastructure and flight testing was £2.4m (equivalent to an astonishing £178 million in 2021 pounds).
Airships of 5 million cubic feet of gas capacity, and approximately 735ft long, were calculated to satisfy these requirements. To put into perspective, this is only slightly shorter than One Canada Square at Canary Wharf turned on its side and three times longer than an Airbus A380.
Neither Vickers nor the Royal Airship Works were deterred by the then-recent airship disasters of the R.38, France’s Dixmude (lost in a thunderstorm, originally the German LZ.114), or Italy’s Roma. The Roma was the world’s largest semi-rigid airship at 1.2 million cubic feet and had been sold to the US Navy and crashed apocalyptically during testing. Both British design bureaus believed that these disasters could have been prevented with better designs, and that hydrogen airship travel could be made acceptably safe.
Both the R.100 and R.101 were almost identically streamlined. They used the same principles as R.80, with long pointed tails shaped like a teardrop for maximum aerodynamic efficiency. Both ships also incorporated their passenger compartments within the airship itself. Combined, these innovations made them the most aerodynamic airships constructed to date.
Both ships went with internal passenger and crew accommodations for a number of reasons. The original Zeppelin style gondola slung under the hull limited the configuration to a long narrow space. Moving the passenger area internally allowed a much more spacious layout, created less aerodynamic drag, and reduced the effect of passenger movement on the trim of the ship. The disadvantage was the loss of approximately 100,000 cubic feet for gas, but on the long voyages for which these ships were designed this was more than counteracted by the reduced drag and consequent fuel requirements.
On each airship, an internal gangway extended from near the nose, where the passengers boarded, along the bottom of the hull to the passenger and crew accommodations, to the fins, to the very tail where a lookout position was placed. In addition there was a two man winching position at the very tip of the nose, with a bow lookout 20 feet back to oversee the mooring approach and process. A ladder up the centre of the ship opened to a hatch to allow access to the top of the hull, from whence sextant navigation sightings were made.
A general issue with airships of that era was how best to compensate for the weight of engine fuel consumed during flight. To maintain the ship’s equilibrium as the ship becomes lighter, traditionally lifting gas was vented (ie wasted). The Graf Zeppelin used ‘blaugaz’ for fuel, chemically similar to coal gas. It was non-explosive, and because it weighed approximately the same as air, burning it and replacing its volume with air did not lighten the airship.
An elegant Imperial solution incorporated into both ships was a rainwater collection system along the top of the hull. This accumulated water ballast to compensate for the loss of weight of the consumed fuel, keeping the weight of the ship constant, and preserving the hydrogen.
To help avoid potentially dangerous storms, both ships’ control cabs were equipped with the latest radios to receive weather forecasts and conditions. They also both carried an experienced meteorologist on board and their higher maximum speeds gave them greater ability to avoid bad weather.
Telegraphs, and speaking tubes in case of electrical failure, connected the control car to the engines and other positions within the ship.
Strategic sausage skins
Dirigibles contained very large gas cell bags, each made from goldbeater skin painstakingly sewn together from the intestines of 50,000 cattle by a Zeppelin subsidiary in Germany. Goldbeater skin is the processed outer membrane of an animal intestine, valued for its strength against tearing.
Goldbeater skins had been a major strategic material for Germany during the Great War, to the extent that occupied territories in Poland, and northern France, as well as the citizens of Austria, had been banned from making sausages so that the skins would be available for Zeppelin manufacture.
The gas bags unfortunately absorbed moisture quite readily, which weakened them and made them susceptible to rip if exposed to the wind by a break in the cover.
Safety was designed into both airships, in the form of gas bag valves and internal wiring to hold the gas bags securely in place. Shifting of airbags in turbulent air greatly magnified flight trim and control problems.
R.100 over the Canadian Bank of Commerce building in Toronto in 1930, then the largest building in the Empire. Courtesy City of Toronto.
Pressure relief valves were fitted to the gasbags of each dirigible to deal with unexpectedly large rates of ascent, set at 2,500 feet per minute, such as might be experienced near a thunderstorm. The impetus for this was the loss of the airship USS Shenandoah in such a storm in September 1925. This was a US-built airship using a strengthened version of the lightweight LZ.96 design, with German technical assistance, and operational from 1923. Its last flight had been insisted on by the Navy Department for promotional purposes, despite the poor weather anticipated. Gas bags were ruptured by excessively fast height gain, and there was also a major hull structure failure.
In the wake of the R.38 disaster in 1921, the Air Ministry Inspectorate introduced new rules for airship safety in 1924. These required extensive stress calculations to be performed on the ship’s structure, rather than relying on empirical data as was the Zeppelin practice.
A subsequent effect was that both R.100 and R.101 had fewer longitudinal girders to simplify the stress calculations, thereby making the structure lighter as well. The stress calculations performed by both design teams are remarkably close to modern practice.
To house and build the new fleet, Cardington No. 1 Shed was lengthened in 1927 by 10m (30ft), and the shed from H.M. Airship Station, Pulham3., was dismantled in 1927 and re-erected at Cardington as No. 2 Shed, with additional sections added to make it as long as No. 1 Shed.
The Royal Airship Works itself was expanded to include a hydrogen plant, foundry, rolling mill and factory to manufacture duralumin alloy. The Meteorological Office established a Research and Forecasting Station there as well to track and predict weather conditions on the main Empire routes.
Cardington also became home to one of the most innovative docking technologies of the airship age. For the first time, an airship mast was developed to resist a pull of 30 tons in any direction, obviating the need for very large ground handling parties to bring a dirigible in to land. The 200ft high mast also contained a passenger lift which could accommodate twelve passengers at a time, as befitted the distinguished passengers expected. The Royal Airship Works mast was completed in 1926.
In the next part of this series we will look at the construction of the two airships in detail as well as their flights (planned and actual) between London and the world.
RAF fighter pilot Tom Hammond swapped his Harrier cockpit for that of the sleek CF-104 Starfighter. We met Tom to find out more.
Describe the CF-104 Starfighter in three words…
Legendary fast interceptor.
How did you get to fly it?
I went on Exchange with the Canadian Air Force at CFB Baden–Soellingen (in what was West Germany) 1982-85 after two RAF Harrier tours. The conversion course was completed in Canada at CFB Cold Lake in northern Alberta.
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What’s the best thing about it?
Pure speed and a smooth ride at low level with the small wings.
..and the worst?
Not enough fuel as with most aircraft meant the flight was over all too soon sometimes.
What was its biggest achievement?
Time to height and pure altitude records in the 60s.
How would you rate it in the following:
Not great unless flaps were down and without tip tanks then good.
Again without tips sustained 7 g with some flap. Also good when supersonic.
Excellent, 20000ft within 4 miles of the runway.
Ride at low-level
Very smooth all the way up to supersonic even on turbulent days.
Nice big cockpit and the comfortable absence of G suits (CF104)
What are the biggest myths about the aircraft?
That it was the “widowmaker”, a term hated by all who operated it. Some other aircraft were just as dangerous, and some more so although to be fair they were also single-seaters: Harrier (which I also flew) and Lightning.
Tell me something I don’t know about the CF-104
We used to carry envelopes full of cut-up foil as one-shot “chaff” stuck inside the speedbrakes, placed there by a brave technician after start. If not used in flight they were latterly discharged on landing as we always landed with the speedbrake out.
What was your most notable mission or flight?
No actual war missions. The ones I remember most were the Mach 2 run on the conversion, having the engine nozzle stick closed one day and not being able to get the speed below 300kts clean. Any range trip firing the awesome CRV7 rocket.
What would enemy aircraft types would it likely face in war and how would it fare against them?
In my time were up against MiG-21s, -23s primarily. We had, on 441Sqn, a secondary air defence role within the Canadian Air Group, so had the all-aspect sidewinder missiles which would have helped but ultimately running away at ultra-low level was the last resort.
What systems or weapons did it lack?
With Mk 82 bombs, BL755 cluster weapon, CRV7 rockets, and the 20-mm Gatling gun it was well-armed but lacked the capacity to carry a significant amount of firepower. The LW33 nav system was very good.
Five-engined aeroplanes are rare beasts, and as you will shortly find out, a generally cursed form of transport. Let us know three more in the comments below and we can expand this list into a top 10.
Ok, this didn’t actually get to the prototype stage but we would be remiss to not share this incredible machine. Designed by Kurt Tank and powered by five Nenes fed by unusual annular intakes, this could have catapulted Argentina into the major league of advanced airline manufacturers. With a projected top speed of 590 mph and range of 3,100 miles it appeared to offer much. It was cancelled in 1958.
6. Caudron C.53 (1919)
This rather handsome 8-passenger aircraft was a development of the three-engined C.39, its designer Paul Deville was clearly unaware of the curse that affects five-engined and only one was produced. Its five Le Rhône 9C 9-cylinder rotary engines combined to pump out 400HP.
5. Felixstowe Fury
Not the Felixstowe fury that occurs every Friday after pub kick-out, but the Felixstowe Fury seaplane of 1918. At its maiden flight, it was the largest seaplane and British aeroplane ever flown. The five Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII V-12 water-cooled piston engines, 334 hp (249 kW) combined to create less power than a single Spitfire Mk 24 engine. Still, different times. Only a single example of the ‘Porte Super-Baby‘ was ever made. DNA tests revealed it to be the great-grandfather of heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury.
4. Zeppelin-Staaken R.V (1918)
That strategic bombers existed in World War One with 42-metre wingspans is so weird my mind keeps blanking it out. The rather terrifying (to both opponents and crew) R.V had two engine pods, each with two engines paired, driving single propellers through clutches, gearboxes and shafts. So basically the conceptual grandad of the He 177. It also had a tractor propeller on the nose. Only one was built. It flew sixteen operational missions.
The German bombing in World War One, caused widespread terror across Britain. Though the airship raids are better known today, there was actually more raids by aeroplanes and they were responsible for the death of more British civilians. Airships made 51 bombing raids on Britain and killed 557 people. By 1917 it was apparent that airships were too vulnerable and aeroplanes took over. German aeroplanes carried out 52 raids, dropping 2,772 bombs for the loss of 62 aircraft, killing 857 people. The final and largest aeroplane raid took place on the night of 19 May 1918. A total of 38 Gotha G.Vs and three Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI Giants (a close relative of the R.V) were dispatched to attack London. A total of 49 people were killed and 177 injured that night.
3. Heinkel He 111Z Zwilling
The Messerschmitt Me 321 was a military transport glider with a wingspan as big as a B-52’s. The Germans had nothing powerful enough to tow it in to the sky so mated two He 111 together and added an extra engine. Twelve to fifteen were produced, making this the most prolific five-engined aircraft we can think of.
2. Richard-Penhoët 2
A rather unpowered twenty-passenger flying boat designed by one Lewis Quincé. Sadly, much like the owl and the pussycat, the ungrateful Richard-Penhoët 2 dined on Quincé, killing him during a test flight on the Loire estuary.
- Tupolev ANT-14 (1931)
“Writers build castles in the air, the reader lives inside, and the publisher inns the rent.”
― Maxim Gorky
Named for the writer Gorky, the Soviet propaganda squadron had as its flagship the enormous Tupolev ANT-14 ‘Pravda’. This vast machine was put to use publicising the achievements of the young Soviet Union. It was to transport inspiring figures like farmers who’d made their quotas and other heroes of the Revolution, as well as Moscow sightseers. It had a 40-metre wingspan and could carry up to 36 passengers, only one example was built. It enjoyed by far the longest service life of a five-engined type: It was flown for ten years during which it carried more than 40,000 passengers.
A massively modified Martin B-57 Canberra, the RB-57F was there when America needed something done at very high altitude. Its duties were wildly varied, from photographing the eye of a hurricane to classified nuclear snooping. We spoke to former RB-57F pilot David Baird about flying this incredible machine.
The Blackbird pilot B.C. Thomas said that you were interested in talking to an F model pilot. I flew it in the early ‘70’s. I checked out at the same time as the first NASA guys and in recent years was the President of the B-57 Canberra Assn.
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How high could the B-57 fly? The F’s max altitude is about 70,000 feet. Most missions were flown at a pre planned altitude, usually 55-65,000. My primary mission, “Cold Bounce “ was always at 62,000.
What was the role of the type?
To the role of the F , I can best say, varied! The primary squadron mission was radioactive sampling in the upper atmosphere. Nearly all airplanes were capable of sampling. Individual airplanes were also configured for specific programs for specific customers. Aircraft “500” which flew “Cold Bounce “ was equipped with an airborne laser package. The mission was mostly flown from Wright-Patterson AFB for the AF Avionics Lab. Other missions included photo recon, ADC Interception exercises, Earth resources, air pollution research, and some actual Weather Reconnaissance! Project Storm Fury studied thunderstorm development and dissipation. I can recall sampling and photographing a huge New Mexico cell that topped 60,000’ and was building at about 5000’ per minute! Los Alamos Scientific Labs (LASL) was our main customer and I can’t go into much detail about their projects, even now. LASL scientists flew in the back seat sometimes and I’d just fly the profile they wanted. We flew weather recon for manned space shots at Cape Canaveral and for certain other classified launches. Four times a year we flew Project Airstream. This was upper atmospheric radiation sampling during a nine-day period flying out of Fairbanks, AK, Albuquerque, Panama and Mendoza, Argentina.
Takeoffs were exciting! Try to hold the brakes while setting take-off power, release brakes and your head snapped back against the headrest. In less than 2500’ , at 120K relax forward pressure on the yoke and it leaps into the air.
At 150 knots (min single-engine control speed) push the power up to max and start pulling back, back, back on the yoke to prevent exceeding max IAS (185kias), continue climb at about 60 degrees of pitch. It would go through 50,000’ with the VVI pegged at 6000’ per minute. Landing was a bit tricky because of the tremendous amount of lift and power (even at idle thrust).
Max Mach is .80 and is super critical. Normal cruise was / is .72. About the same as a Boeing 737.
Approach speed was typically around 110 K, and touchdown 2 knots below approach. If flown faster than recommended, it would float “forever “! Brakes were the weak point in the design. No anti skid, so application had to be judicious. The entire VFR traffic pattern was normally flown at idle power, even with the gear down and spoilers open. There was also a 3 1/2 degree bank limit at touchdown to prevent wing tip runway contact. This made the crosswind limit 15 K.As You asked about handling- excellent at all altitudes. At 60,000’ it could roll right into a 45-60 degree bank turn. Stalls weren’t a problem. The nose would drop very slightly and start flying again. Over speed was a huge danger and was to be avoided. Not a big problem as long as the pilot was paying close attention.
To continue… the best thing about the program was the people! The squadron was selectively manned with all volunteers, so we had the best. We also operated more like a wing. The Commander was a full colonel, we had our own maintenance section, our own medical section with 2 flight surgeons, plans and current ops, and, of course, a large life support section to provide and maintain the full pressure suits. Everyone worked well together and were very good at their jobs!
I can’t think of anything particularly bad about the “F” other than that it was old technology as far as instruments and basic airplane systems. It wasn’t especially fast, but at our operating altitude headwinds weren’t a factor. At those altitudes, everything was critical so staying alert wasn’t a problem. .72 Mach was about 128 knots and stall speed about 118 knots (IAS).
3-word description? Really special, really spectacular! My last flight was out of Yokota on a cold winter day and went through 33,500’ 18 miles from the approach end the runway! By the way, we were at Yokota waiting to sample a Chinese atmospheric nuclear test. Jan, 1974. Everywhere we went we received wonderful support which made for effective mission accomplishment. It was a wonderful time in my life and I wouldn’t change a thing!
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It is an old and often repeated story that the Soviet MiG Project 33 fighter design influenced the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17, and in my opinion, there is NOTHING in it. The FC-1 aka JF-17 had already well advanced through the original CAC conception, then through the Sino-US cooperation with Grumman under the Super-7 name – and finally by CAC with Pakistani participation. When the “Russians” stepped in, that at least in my opinion it was much too late to gain any substantial redesigns by adding Project 33 (often known incorrectly by its never allocated designation of MiG-33)-genes. Additionally, I’m also convinced that Project 33 ever progressed far to have anything to meaningfully contribute. All I have seen from the Project 33 are a few quite crude desk models and drawings, but I have seen no true detailed blue-print. As such, I’m quite sure, the Russian participation was to modify the airframe – eventually most of all the intake’s airflow – to fit a different engine. As such their contribution was mostly one of engine integration, similar to the integration of the AL-31FN to the J-10.
My main argument for this is that the external shape of the JF-17 fixed, and here I must add a rather weirder idea than Russian influence. It is barely known fcat, that China had originally its foot in the door in the Romanian IAR-95 fighter project, which was to use a WS-9 – aka a RR Spey Mk. 202 (?) – as its powerplant.
And if you compare this very early IAR-95 wind-tunnel model with an early JF-17/FC-1 wind tunnel model in Pakistan, it has at least, I’m my, opinion, more similarities (besides a different tail, saw-tooth in the wing’s leading edge and a slightly different aka lower-placed wing) than to any Project 33 model I know.
In consequence, I would rate Jane’s report as on a major Russian involvement on the design as false – and I know there is a similar claim for the J-10-Lavi connection, all based on an interview with an unknown (he wanted to remain anonymous) Russian technician, who was allegedly involved in that project.
I would say there was for sure a certain Russian involvement, but that certain engineer simply hyped up this involvement – may be to diminish the Chinese part, or to over-emphasize the Russian, or perhaps his own personal contribution – and now after decades it is a de facto accepted fact on social media and no-one is willing or even able to check the facts.
Drawing considerable attention at the Dubai Air Show has been a mock-up of a new Counter-Insurgency (COIN) and Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft, the Calidus B-350 from Abu Dhabi. The aircraft is a scaled-up version of the B-250 from the same Company, which had the general form and capabilities as the Embraer Super Tucano.
In contrast, the B-350 is very significantly larger, with a wingspan of about 50 feet (15.5 m), and an all up weight of about 20,000 lb (9 tonnes). This puts the aircraft into the same weight and size category as the Vietnam-era Douglas A-1 Skyraider, and the aircraft does, in many ways resemble that aircraft, particularly in the wall-to-wall array of underwing pylons and stores presented on the aircraft at the show. Where it differs, of course, will be in the technology employed in the mission systems, the weapons and sensors, and in the use of a turboprop engine, the 2600 hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PW 127.
Missions and Capabilities
So, what can we say about the mission applications of such an aircraft? Hush-Kit has previously published an article on COIN aircraft, containing this memorable quote:
“The thing about counterinsurgency is it doesn’t work. If you are doing counterinsurgency there’s a strong chance you’re in the wrong, either ethically, tactically or strategically and probably all three. Still, putting big guns on, often tiny, aeroplanes is pretty exciting stuff.” – from a Top 10 of cancelled COIN aircraft
And this comparison of the British and US experience with Counter Insurgency (the ‘Air Policing’ of the 1930s), is from my piece on the BAe SABA project:
“… after the First World War, Britain made a great thing of policing its Empire by air, having worked out that this solution was cheaper, and quicker, than sending ground forces out to deal with trouble spots. In doing so, it was exploiting superior mobility, enabled by the fact that the, generally poorly-equipped, opposition had no effective anti-air weapons other than the possibility of a lucky shot with a rifle. The aircraft used at the time, and indeed up to the Second War, were basically general-purpose biplanes, capable of carrying limited numbers of bombs, and the odd machinegun.
After the Second war, the Empire became the Commonwealth, as Britain set about divesting itself of its colonies. There were, of course, still hot spots to deal with, including troubles in Africa, Malaya and the Middle East, but a wide range of capable aircraft was also available to help manage these, making the development of new types unnecessary. An eventual decision to cease involvement ‘East of Suez’, pretty much took the UK out of the COIN game for a while, although an eye to the export market did result in modest successes with aircraft like the Strikemaster.
In the US, however, a combination of a post-war vision of that Nation somehow being empowered as a World Policeman, National testosterone, and a fear of Communism, led to the US being involved in many conflicts, of scale ranging from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to the Invasion of Grenada. The Vietnam experience revealed the surprising utility of aircraft like the AD-1 Skyraider in suppressing ground forces, and ever since Vietnam, there has been a healthy succession of US efforts to field similar capabilities, delivered with some quite impressive aircraft, including the Cessna A-37, B-26K Counter-Invader, OV-10 Bronco and, at the extreme tank-busting end, the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
Today, the field remains active, with high-end operators like the USAF and US Marines operating the A-10, AV-8B Harrier and even AC-130 variants, alongside armed UAVs such as the MQ-9 Reaper. The Su-25 Frogfoot provides a good example of a Russian solution to the COIN/CAS requirement, and the L-15B has been suggested as filling this role in future for China. Inevitably, of course, some Armies have preferred to regard Attack Helicopters as the best source of CAS, particularly since these generally fall within the Army command chain.
Client states and smaller Nations are operating a range of other aircraft, notably the A-29 Super Tucano, AT-6 Wolverine and the Ag-plane-derived IOMAX Archangel. The B-350 really represents this latter group of turbo-prop COIN aircraft on steroids, basically following the same general approach, but exploiting the benefits that a larger aircraft offers. These include greater payload-range; a more numerous and more diverse weapon, sensor and defensive aids capability; and greater loiter capability, if used to provide a ‘cab-rank’ style CAS-on-demand service.
So, the Calidus B-350 might well satisfy the needs of Nations requiring a capable air-to-surface strike aircraft to attack a variety of forces and targets, reflecting either internal dissent or external land threats, but lacking the resources required to operate high-end jet-powered solutions, or really capable armed UAVs.
While the latter might seem attractive, there are substantial infrastructure requirements if strike operations are to be successfully conducted with unmanned systems, particularly if this were to be required in a CAS situation, in relatively close proximity to friendly forces. In practice, the two-man crew of the B-350, aided by appropriate target location, tracking and designation equipment, might well provide a more robust solution, at lower cost, than use of a capable armed UAV.
One has, however, to ask – does the capability make sense? And if so, is there a sufficient market to justify the investment required?
Looking at the market side of the question first, it is clear that the UAE has the resources to develop the aircraft to meet its own needs, if it wishes to do so. It has the experience of operating the IOMAX Archangel alongside the AH-64 Apache, and has also had the opportunity to consider the smaller B-250 design from Calidus. It may also be seeking to develop an Industrial position as a regional arms provider.
Would export opportunities exist? Well, it is not hard to envisage a number of countries with Governments that are concerned about insurgency, insurrection, or external threats from non-state actors, or even neighbouring states. However, a moment’s consideration suggests that the attraction of this type of solution may be somewhat limited.
One problem is that, to be viable, air superiority has to be assured, as aircraft in this category would be vulnerable to almost any higher-performance armed airborne threat. Were such a threat to be present, the survivability of a B-350 would be very dependent on the quality of its defensive aids, and on whether it has the ability to carry AAM.
That said, there have been many recent circumstances where conflicts have taken place when air superiority has been assured. But there remains a substantial vulnerability to Man-Portable Air Defence (MANPAD) systems, and these are widely available to almost everyone, not just those with tanks, tilt-rotors and attack helicopters at their disposal.
Despite these concerns, there is no denying the success of the AT-29 Super Tucano, which has achieved widespread sales in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The B-350 undeniably offers greater potential capability, not just through additional weapons, but also through the ability to carry targeting and other sensors while still retaining numerous pylons available for air-to-surface and anti-air weapons.
It also has the attraction of being a relatively simple airframe, powered by a well-proven turbo-prop engine, with a configuration that should deliver good field performance from unprepared surfaces. Assuming the policy of keeping the technologies in the aircraft free of US-imposed International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) constraints carries over from the B-250 to its larger development, the B-350 may be an attractive proposition to users seeking greater capability than offered by the AT-29 or AT-6.
– Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith
One was the biggest catastrophe in human history and the other was a lovable British situational comedy from the 1960s, we are of course speaking of World War II and Dad’s Army. In this extremely culturally specific article, we will pair combat aircraft of the Second World War with characters from Dad’s Army.
Capt. Mainwaring – Brewster Buffalo
Outdated, overconfident, not much use – and with a hot little dad bod, we are talking about the Brewster Buffalo. Like Mainwaring its bad reputation overshadowed the fact its pugnacious bravery when the chips were really down.
Good things about the Buffalo?
The Buffalo was the first modern fighter designed for carrier use, complete with a retractable undercarriage and all-metal construction. It had a very good range and excellent handling characteristics. It was unfairly dismissed despite proving incredibly effective in Finnish service. The early models, unencumbered by heavy armour, proved formidable over Finland, they were also pleasant to fly and proved popular with Finnish aircrew.
Bad things about the Buffalo?
It couldn’t handle a Mitsubishi Zero due to its inferior agility and speed. It also had inadequate armament, an absence of armour (in earlier variants) for the pilot and lacklustre high-altitude performance. That not enough? How about a tendency for engine overheating and poor cockpit controls.
Statistically the finest fighter of all time for the ratio of kills to airframes made – 509 made – 800+ kill/loss. In Finland, it had a kill loss ratio of 26/1 (in World War II this is second only to Finland’s G.50s) it is claimed that it destroyed 477 Soviet aircraft in combat for the loss of 19 buffalos. We’re not sure of Mr Mainwaring’s kill – loss ratio. The Buffalo also had some cool nicknames in Finnish, translating as ‘bustling Walter’ and the flying beer bottle.
Sergeant Wilson – Westland Lysander
Quiet, understated, old and still effective in a new role, Sgt Wilson is of course the Westland Lysander. Both character and machine shared an air of mystery. The Lysander was originally intended as an army co-operation aircraft, but today is famous for its covert work landing at night in remote locations in occupied Europe, supporting resistance fighters, dropping and retrieving agents. Wilosn
Quiet sophistication, though both Wilson and the Lysander appear old fashioned in the mannered conventional appearance they are both quietly sophisticated. The Lysander featured fully automatic wing slats and slotted flaps and a variable incidence tailplane, rather advanced stuff in 1936.
Scapegoated by Arthurs The Westland design, internally designated P. 8, was the work of Arthur Davenport under the direction of “Teddy” Petter. Petter would later blame Davenport for problems with the development of Wyvern carrier-borne attack aircraft. Wilon was often scapegoated by Mainwaring (played by an Arthur).
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Good things about the Lysander
Amazingly short take-off and landing, and a very low stall speed. Unlike its German counterpart, the skinny Storch, the Lysander can carry more – and you can drop a bomb.
If it meets any enemy fighters, it’s dead. Shockingly vulnerable, slow and badly armed. It suffered many losses in France – It cannot survive by day (unlike Wilson who could survive by day though like the Lysander saw a great deal of nocturnal action).
In September 1939, four squadrons were dispatched to France with the British Expeditionary Force to operate as artillery spotters and light bombers. By June 1940, more than two-thirds of the fleet had been lost.
Lance Corporal Jones – Gloster Gladiator
Looks older than it actually is, very manoeuvrable (Clive Dunn did his own stunts), used in the colonies: the Gloster Gladiator is a perfect match for Cpl Jones. Both served in South Africa. Whereas Dunn was a POW, the Gladiator was imprisoned in the Luftwaffe as a small number of ex Latvian and Lithuanian machines were pressed into service. Phoney war stories! The Gladiator took part in the phoney war – Jones had some phoney war stories.
As an aside, the South African pilot Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle was the top Gladiator ace with 15 victories with the type (he was also the top Hurricane pilot).
Both Jones and the Gladiator were in the wrong age, a biplane soldiering on into the monoplane age.
Good things about the Gladiator…
Good turn rate, good roll rate, good climb rate – lovely to fly.
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Slow, not well-armed (four 303s) – couldn’t catch bombers. If a clever man said, ‘I am going to build a big thing that will burn better and quicker than anything else in the world,’ and if he applied himself diligently to his task, he would probably finish up by building something very like a Gladiator.— Roald Dahl, “A Piece of Cake”, from the short story collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Long careers – Portugal retired their aircraft in 1953. The Luftwaffe used captured Latvian Gladiators as glider tugs.
The Finnish Air Force was the last to use the Gloster biplane in combat. It was under Finnish insignia that the Gladiator achieved its last air victory. During the Continuation War, against the Soviets, Glosters supported the advance of the Karelian Army around Lake Ladoga. On 15 February 1943, 1st Lt Håkan Strömberg of LLv 16, during a reconnaissance mission along the Murmansk railway, between the White Sea and the Lake Onega, spotted, on Karkijarvi, a Soviet Polikarpov R-5 taking off. Stromberg dived on it and shot it down into the forest near its airfield with two bursts. This was the last confirmed victory in the Gladiator.
Private Pike – Westland Whirlwind
A slim overlooked immature fighter with a medical/engine condition. The young Pike is a match for the Westland Whirlwind. Pike is the son of Wilson, and the Whirlwind is from the same manufacturer as the Lysander, so is sorta the son of the Lysander.
Good things about the Whirlwind
Very fast at low level, extremely well-armed, great gun placement, great pilot view. Good armour. Easy to maintaine. On its debut, it was the heaviest armed fighter in the world with four 20-mm automatic cannon.
Bad things about the Whirlwind
Too late – if it had been available in the Battle of Britain it would have been spectacular. Short endurance. bad performance at altitude. Used an engine that was sidelined by its manufacturer Rolls-Royce show were busy with the Merlin. Limited to 3g in steep turns due to elevator issues. Too radical.
Weird or notable thing?
First British fighter designed from the start with autocannon.
Private Joe Walker – Fisher P-75 Eagle
Looks good, sleek American style, but is a huge scam. We must be talking about the Fisher P-75 Eagle. Both Walker and the Eagle love pinching (or recycling) things they’d found. The Eagle used the outer wing panels from the North American P-51 Mustang (and P-40), the tail assembly from the Douglas A-24 (SBD), and the undercarriage from the Vought F4U Corsair. Walker ‘found’ things and sold them on the black market.
What was good about the Eagle?
Very long-ranged and very fast escort fighter. Using commercial off the shelf parts of other aircraft was a smart move.
..and what was bad about the Eagle?
It was shit in almost every day: poor handling, dreadful tendency to spin and underwhelming performance later in its very short life. The Eagle was probably a case of fraud, it was made deliberately shit to avoid dragging General Motors into building B-29s; they did not want further government work as they were already overstretched.
Walker was played by actor James Beck. Sadly, like the Eagle, Beck died young. He died due to a combination of heart failure, renal failure and pancreatitis, aged 44.
Private Charles Godfrey MM
Let’s go with the Westland Wapiti (everyone’s a bloody Westland!). It was very old in World War II the Wapiti entered service in 1927 and the wings were actually lifted from the World War I DH.9 but was still operational during War World II. The actor who played Godfrey, Arnold Ridley, was wounded at the Somme (AND fought with the BEF in France in 1940) so both have WWI and WWII connections. The Wapiti is most famous for its civilian achievement of flying over Everest and Ridley was actually a very successful playwright in the ’30s, so both enjoyed civilian fame in the interwar period.
On the subject of old fighters, the oldest type to score an air-to-air kill was the Bristol Bulldog. Finnish Bulldog shot down two Tupolev SB bombers in 1939 and 1940. The Bulldog first flew in 1927.
Good things about the Wapiti? Unlike Godfrey it was very reliable and rugged.
Bad things about the Wapiti?
Really absurdly old, really absurdly slow and and very vulnerable.
Private Frazer – Yokosuka MXY-7 ‘Ohka’
An undertaker and a rocket-propelled flying coffin are a perfect match. Pilots of the air-launched Yokosuka MXY-7 ‘Ohka’ kamikaze rocket bomb were indeed “doomed”.
What was good about the ‘Ohka’?
It was very fast in the dive (575 mph terminal, and we mean terminal, velocity). It was also well armed with a
1,200 kg (2,600 lb) Ammonal warhead.
Bad things about the Okha?
Not effective as a weapon and the worst survival rate of any warplane for its luckless pilots. Four were successfully deployed. 56 were either destroyed with their ‘Betty’ parent aircraft or in making attacks.
Mainwaring’s wife: The Heinkel 113 fighter was never seen but often reported, likewise the mysteriously reclusive Elizabeth Mainwaring.
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(Oldest type to capture another aircraft: A Finnish Gloster Gamecock surprised an Ilyushin DB-3 being refuelled on the ground by a second DB-3. The attacking Gamecock caused the two crews to make good their escape in one of the aircraft leaving the secind to be picked up by Finnish forces. The Gamecock first flew in 1925.)
By Stephen Caulfield
Fire-breathing monsters, deadly fireballs and earth-shattering noise, there has never been a sport as exciting as air racing. We take an adrenaline-scorched run through the Top 11 racing aeroplanes.
11. Bleriot Type XI / Curtiss No. 2
When was the first air race held? The day the second aeroplane was built. From modest beginnings, it rapidly grew in prestige and scale. No mistake, air racing has been a serious business since the pioneering era of flying. This mad new sport drew huge attention, at stake was a brace of trophies and substantial prize purses often posted by circulation-hungry daily newspapers. Racing proliferated and quickly entered the popular culture almost as soon as the first powered, heavier-than-air machines were available. Races would draw crowds by the tens of thousands. Many got their first, unforgettable, sight of aviation at races featuring craft like these two. Aviation pioneer and founding father of the American US aircraft business Glenn Curtiss locked horns with his French equivalent Louis Bleriot at early air races in France and California. They flew in aeroplanes of their own invention, the Bleriot Type XI and Curtiss No. 2.
Maximum speed: depends
Spiritual equivalent: Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart
10. Travel Air 4000
What do you call a woman flying a plane? The pilot.. or ‘aviatrix’ if you’re in the 1920s. The superlative Travel Air 4000 is remembered as the winning machine in the Women’s Air Derby of 1929, with Louise Thaden at the controls. Thaden departed Santa Monica, California for Cleveland, Ohio, with twenty other entrants. It would become an arduous nine-day test of women and machines. One flyer would even lose her life. Along the way, there would be all the hazards of early cross-country flying: navigation errors, bad weather, mechanical failures, engine fire – as well as a possible incident of sabotage.
As we might expect given the year, these trials were accompanied by much sexist commentary. In spite of how many perceived the pilots, they achieved a remarkable feat completing (and surviving) this epic race.
The aeroplanes themselves were also stars. Travel Airs worked hard during Hollywood’s golden age, finding their way into many a popular flying-themed feature. Appearing at the close of the great barnstorming era, the Travel Air 4000 had a brief moment to shine and it did so with incandescent glamour. They remain examples of what lovely things biplanes can be.
Maximum speed: 120 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Great Lakes Sport Trainer
9. Hughes H-1 Racer
A streamlined all-metal low-wing monoplane, with an enclosed cockpit, powerful radial engine and a retractable undercarriage was absolutely cutting edge configuration when the H-1 appeared in 1935. Only the Polikarpov I-16, then the best fighter in the world, could boast such a sleek combination of technologies, but Howard Hughes was never a man to do things by halves. This racing plane was also, in many ways, the most advanced aeroplane of its time. Huge efforts were made to make it as aerodynamically efficient as possible, Hughes even pioneered the use of individually machined flush rivets to keep the aluminium skin as smooth as possible. Everything was done in the name of speed, and it paid off. Hughes smashed the world landplane speed record in the H-1 in1935, clocking an impressive 352.39 mph (567.12 km/h). This was the last time an air speed record would be held by a private citizen and the last time it ended with a crash in a beetroot field. Had this been developed into a fighter, USAAC would have had a worldbeater, but for some reason (Hughes believed a reactionary fear on new technology) they declined Hughes’ overtures. Instead, the United States would enter the War with mediocre indigenous combat aircraft, and not have a world-class fighter until the P-51 of 1942.
Maximum speed: 352 mph
Spiritual equivalent: everything from the IAR 80 to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
8. Granville Gee Bee Models R & Z
Air racing is a bit of a blood sport. Testimony to that is the Gee Bee family of racers. Freakishly superlative, they were simply too hot to handle. The following footage from 1931 may cause distress to some viewers.
Maximum speed: 294 mph
Spiritual equivalent: everything from the Boeing P-26 Peashooter to the Focke-Wulf Fw 190A
7. Caudron-Renault C.450/561
The two decades between 1919 and 1939 were mad rollercoasters of high hopes, heartbreak and nihilism for the entire continent of Europe. Perhaps that explains some of the attraction to air racing during those years? Or perhaps air racing was just very exciting. It certainly was exciting when it involve the Caudron, this long-nosed French classic looked very fast even when sitting still on the tarmac waiting to race. Not a rivet on these aircraft is wasted on anything other than turning tightly and going as fast as possible for as long as possible. The Caudron’s claim to fame is the Coupe Deutsche de la Meurthe races. By 1936, entrants in this event were reaching speeds of 300 mph across a thousand-kilometre run, a considerable increase from the first race in 1912 covering one hundred kilometres with a best speed of 75 mph. The Caudron also gave rise to a lightweight fighter family– the C.710 series.
Maximum speed: 310 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Messerschmitt Me 209
6. De Havilland DH-88 Comet
Some extroverted racers roar around the pylons thrilling the crowds, others are lonely soloists performing feats of navigation and endurance out over the dangerous seas, mountains and deserts. The Comet was an utterly elegant example of the soloist. Every time this pretty thing left the ground it seemed to set new records. In fact, the word ‘pretty’ hardly does justice to the most beautiful manmade object ever made. Its supreme achievement was the 1934 England-to-Australia MacRobertson Trophy Air Race. Barely half a dozen were built, including modern replicas, yet the impression this aircraft left on aviation is remarkable. The Comet is an achingly gorgeous marvel that perfectly encapsulates the look and dynamism of the Art Deco era in living breathing flying form.
Maximum speed: 237 mph
Spiritual equivalent: DH-98 Mosquito
5. Hawker Sea Fury
The finest British prop fighter ever built and probably the most potent from any nation, the Sea Fury demands your respect. Built at the zenith of the prop fighter age it was (and still is) one of the fastest piston-engined and blessed with extremely fine handling characteristics. It was an obvious choice for air racing. A dozen or so Sea Furies have been active at the National Championship Air Races held near Reno, Nevada for decades.
These racing Sea Furies have unique colour schemes and are significantly modified. At various times they have sported clipped wing tips and rudders and lowered cockpit canopies to reduce drag. Also, their original sleeve-valved Bristol Centaurus powerplants were swapped out years ago for more reliable Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Majors. Remember, this engine produces 4,300 horsepower compared to the Centaurus’s output of 2,520. It was hardly weedy before this soup-up, even with the Centaurus, a Sea Fury was already one of the fastest piston-engined aircraft ever built!
Maximum speed: 403.274 mph (2019 Reno Unlimited Gold category winning speed)
Spiritual equivalent: Grumman Bearcat
4. Scaled Composites Model 158 Pond Racer
Warbird enthusiast Bob Pond was horrified at the use of increasingly rare warbirds like the Bearcat, Corsair and Sea Fury in the dangerous world of racing. The enormous stresses placed on modified airframes and engines by racing (to say nothing of crashing) struck Pond as reckless and wasteful. Pond, looking for a solution, turned to aviation freethinker Burt Rutan to build him a prop-driven hot rod that would match the excitement of the old warbirds. Commissioned in the late 1980s the resultant machine was a single-aircraft project powered by two supercharged Nissan automotive racing engines. Sadly, a fatal crash after an oil leak terminated the programme early on, though there was a ton of potential in this exciting design.
Maximum speed: 400 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Lockheed P-38 Lightning
3. North American P-51 Mustang
Individual Mustangs have been absolute legends of air racing since 1945. Tweaked here and there, the Mustang remains a natural racer. Clean aerodynamics, near laminar-flow wings and a Packard-built version of the Rolls Royce Merlin contribute to its beastly good performance. Fifteen thousand were built during the war and afterwards, a handy supply of them and their bits and pieces was available. There was also a community of technicians and enthusiasts able and more than willing to support air racing. Among competition warbirds only the North American T-6 Texan/Harvard has outnumbered the Mustang.
A Mustang named ‘Voodoo’ is currently the world’s fastest piston engine plane. It hit a 531.64mph average over two runs in 2017. Hurrah for Merlins! Though due to a clerical quirk the Bearcat still holds the record despite it being slower. Did it have a normal Merlin? Not a very normal Merlin no. It was apparently producing 3100hp (and it broke). I think the key to the Mustang is how slippery it is. And they did a load of fluid dynamic work on the record plane to improve the streamlining further, it has an altered wing profile for instance that apparently raises the critical Mach number allowing for an extra 28mph. The clerical quirk was that Rare Bear flew 528mph in 1989 and garnered the ‘unlimited’ piston engine record. That class of record no longer officially exists, having been replaced by 23 weight categories each with its own record holder. The Mustang gained a record in its own category of 531 but for the ‘unlimited’ record to be declared null and void it had to exceed the previous speed by over 1%. Thus it is the fastest aircraft ever flown but didn’t break Rare Bear’s record. Incidentally, the 531 was an average over two runs – the first run was clocked at 554.69mph (!) over 3kms. That’s pretty quick. The record was flown at about 100 feet!
Maximum speed: 554 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Supermarine Spitfire F. Mk. 24
2. Zivko Aeronautics Edge 540
An Edge 540 can climb at ferocious 3,200 feet per minute, which is 400 feet per minute more than a Messerschmitt Bf-109G-6 fighter of World War II. It can turn through a rather alarming 420 degrees in one second. For 15 years the Red Bull Air Races jazzed up the world of air racing and instigated a revival of the sport among the wider public, before its sad ending in 2019. Red Bull’s pylon races combined aerobatics and timed runs over water in exotic locations (and London’s Docklands) with a crowd slightly on edge from the ingestion of free energy drinks. Yes, there was a lot of hype, but the most common aircraft during Red Bull’s heyday was very much the real thing and the pilots were some of the best in the world.
Maximum speed: 260 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Yakovlev Yak-3
1. Condor Aviation White Lightning
The White Lightning is the first electric aircraft to appear in a Hush-Kit Top 10, and there are many other amazing things about this machine, too. Not only does each set of props contra rotate, but each of the motors driving them also does too! The White Lightning is a heavily modified version of a Cassutt Special, a hot little racing number in its own right. The White Lightning debuted at the Dubai Airshow in 2020 ahead of a much-anticipated all-electric air racing series.
Industry giant Airbus had thrown its weight behind the Air Race E World Cup before the plague ruined everyone’s fun. Expect to see more of the White Lightning, and its potential rivals, as the world returns to some kind of normalcy.
Maximum speed: 300 mph
Spiritual equivalent: K5054