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Fairey Fulmar: How ‘an absurd lumbering thing’ became Britain’s top-scoring naval fighter

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As World War II loomed into sight, the Admiralty was desperate for anything approximating a modern fighter aircraft. This need was met by a modified light dive-bomber originally intended for a cancelled RAF requirement. The resulting Fulmar shared the engine and armament with the Spitfire and Hurricane, but there though the similarity ended. With a pathetic flat-out speed of 247mph and a feeble service ceiling of 16,000’ it was far inferior to its contemporaries. More worryingly, it was also 30mph slower than the Luftwaffe’s Heinkel He 111 bombers. Fair to say as a fighter it made an adequate cancelled dive-bomber. So how did it became the top Royal Navy fighter of World War II?

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student.  He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.  

During World War II, no aircraft carrier force operated a greater number of types than the Royal Navy. Although partly due to the length of time Britain was involved in the conflict, the Admiralty’s haphazard approach to aviation doctrine and procurement bears a lot of the blame (although nothing can excuse the diabolical Blackburn Firebrand). It is still however something of an anomaly that the Fleet Air Arm’s highest scoring fighter of the war was the relatively slow and staid Fairey Fulmar —  with 112 kills (more than double the total achieved by the far more potent Corsair). Despite this, the Fulmar has never really caught the popular imagination.  Post-war historians have damned with faint praise by acknowledging that while it was at least capable of taking on torpedo-bombers, the Fulmar’s manoeuvrability was far inferior to Axis dive-bombers. To give some idea of the limited esteem in which it was held at the time, it is perhaps worth reading a verse from 809 Naval Air Squadron’s Fulmar Song (to the tune of ‘Any old iron‘:

‘Any old iron, any old iron,
Any, any, any old iron;
Talk about a treat
Chasing round the Fleet
Any ole Eyetie or Hun you meet!

Weighs six ton,
No rear gun
Damn all to rely on!

You know what you can do
With your Fulmar Two;
Old iron, old iron!’

Fighter Direction is everything

To understand this apparent contradiction, of how such a sluggish machine was the Navy’s best fighter, it is necessary to look at a technology that at the time made the aeroplane look positively middle-aged: radar. The Royal Navy had been at the forefront of developing naval radar, but even so, by 1939 its capabilities were extremely limited. Rather than the top down ‘God’s eye view’ of a modern display, operators would look at a single wiggling line with increases in amplitude indicating a contact. Despite entering the war without a full understanding of what radar could achieve – and after some teething troubles – the Navy soon found ways to make up for the deficiencies of its aircraft. This would allow Fairey’s converted dive-bomber to hold its own in aerial combat through the opening years of the war in a way that belied its poor headline performance. The actions in the Mediterranean to escort convoys to Malta showed time and again the value of Fighter Direction where controllers onboard ship would direct the aircraft to intercept incoming attacks. Often these aircraft would be Fulmars, which were in the front line throughout that period, before being relegated to the role of night fighter. Somewhat ironically, the addition of radar antenna for this role would finally render its performance unequivocally unacceptable. Fighter Direction would give the Fulmar the edge it needed to overcome its shortcomings while engaged in some of the heaviest aerial combat the Royal Navy would face during the Second World War.
The Royal Navy’s inter-war doctrine for the Fleet Air Arm, as described in an Admiralty Memorandum from December 1936, concentrated on the search for enemy shipping, air attack of that shipping, and subsequent observation of the fall of shot for the fleet’s big guns . It was considered that air superiority would be achieved by the immobilisation of the enemy’s carriers no apparent thought being given to air to air combat. The reverse was also true in that it was not considered possible for naval fighters to defend the fleet from air attack, especially when faced with land-based air forces able to deploy heavy bombers . To counter the air threat the Third Sea Lord, Rear Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson, decided that the next class of carrier would feature extensive armour plating turning the hangar into a protective enclosure for the air group able to resist a direct hit from 500lb bombs and 4.7” gunfire . The Dido class cruisers optimised for air defence would then provide the defence against air attack , in addition to the Illustrious classes own extensive outfit of sixteen 4.5” guns. That the doctrine was so un-ambitious can in part be laid at the confused status of naval aviation between the wars, it was, until 1938, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force not of the Royal Navy . In fairness to the Admiralty at the same time despite the Imperial Japanese Navy controlling its air arm its doctrine was also confused and poorly regarded by its air officers perhaps indicating the difficulties inherent in developing high level policy for a new form of warfare. The Royal Navy’s use of fighter aircraft would therefore have to develop as lessons were learnt. A memorandum from January 1940 while acknowledging the need to intercept enemy strikes and scouting aircraft as well as escorting the fleets own strikes still showed a degree of indecision over whether they would still require a second crewmember as the Fulmar did, a confusion that had not been resolved three months later . Ultimately this indecision would lead to both single and two seat fighters being produced for the Royal Navy. Where the Royal Navy had a serious disadvantage was in the actual procurement of aircraft where the Admiralty drew up the specifications for them while the Air Ministry then had responsibility for their design and production.41_803_sdn_fulmar_take_off.jpg

Due to the lack of air officers at the right level the Admiralty had scant expertise in the specification of aircraft which led to it entering the war with several poorly performing aircraft either in service or on the way. These included the Blackburn Roc, a turret equipped fighter which could barely stay airborne at full power; the Fairey Barracuda which provided panoramic views for the Observer but had a tendency not to pull out of dives , and the Blackburn Firebrand which took longer to develop than the war lasted. Consequently, at the outbreak of war the navy found itself back in control of its air arm, but with limited understanding of the capabilities air power brought, no real thought given to air defence of the fleet by aircraft, and a procurement plan that could best be described as flawed. It was from this background that the requirement for the Fulmar would emerge, to some extent explaining the compromises that were accepted.

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Though confusion over the use of naval air power was hampering the acquisition of suitable aircraft, by the late 1930s there was at least an acknowledgment that a new fleet fighter would be required. It was a pressing need, as the Skua it would replace was predicted to be obsolete by as soon as 1940. Consequently, it was a requirement that the chosen aircraft be in production by September 1939 which effectively limited the options to something already in production. The Admiralty’s preference was for a two-seat aircraft, due to the difficulties of navigating over the sea and communicating at long range from the carrier. Outright speed was considered less important as there was an assumption that the carrier-borne fighter would only encounter aircraft of other navies which would be similarly restricted. It is perhaps ironic that at the same time the most likely naval opponent was being designed by Mitsubishi in Japan, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a type which faced neither of these restrictions. The design selected for the Royal Navy was a modification of a design submitted to the RAF as a light dive-bomber. This RAF original requirement had been dropped, but prototypes had already been constructed – which allowed a rapid assessment to be made of their suitability. The Fairey P.4/34 bomber (with minor changes) thus became the Fulmar naval fighter (with a secondary reconnaissance role). The first production aircraft was completed in December 1939, effectively running around three months behind the Admiralty’s timeline.. or ahead of schedule compared to most defence projects. The Fulmar shared an engine, the Merlin, and armament, eight 0.303” guns, with the Spitfire and Hurricane. There though the similarity ended. The early Spitfire’s top speed was 364mph at an altitude of 18,500’ , the Fulmar by comparison had a maximum speed of only 247mph at 9,000’ and a service ceiling of 16,000’ (half that of the Spitfire).

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It faired similarly poorly against contemporary German fighters and was even 30mph slower than the Heinkel 111 bomber which it would come to face in the Mediterranean. There was however some method to the Admiralty’s madness, an aircraft engine supercharger optimised for power at high level wastes energy lower down in the atmosphere compressing excess air . With torpedo bombers having to drop their weapons near sea-level it would be logical to optimise a naval fighter to attack such targets. Indeed, when requesting a new engine design from Rolls-Royce for their next fighter the admiralty made low level performance a key requirement and later in the war the majority of Seafires were low level variants. The Fulmar specification also called for an endurance of up to six hours which compared favourably to the Spitfire which could realistically manage about an hour. This would allow a standing air patrol to be maintained while minimising the number of times the carrier would have to turn into wind to launch and recover aircraft. It was similarly well equipped with ammunition, contemporary fighters carried around 250 rounds per gun, enough for 15 seconds or so of sustained firing, the Fulmar carried up to 1000 which would allow it to engage far more targets, assuming it could catch them. The Fulmar then was not an outstanding fighter and opinion of it could at best be said to be divided, with those coming to the Fleet Air Arm from around 1941 considering it ‘an absurd lumbering thing of a so-called fighter’ while those who’d endured earlier aircraft found themselves going ‘nearly twice as fast as I had ever flown before’ and in a state of ‘near panic’ .

Perhaps the best judgement was given by renowned naval aviator and test pilot Captain Eric Brown RN who allowed that it at least had ‘innate soundness and competence’. It was  the best the Navy would have until at least 1942, but it would need help if it was to adequately defend the fleet.

 

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The RAF, responsible for the air defence of the UK, led the world in the use of radar for fighter direction, the first exercise in its use taking place in 1936. The Admiralty also developed an interest in the technology and in 1938 HMS Rodney and  HMS Sheffield were both fitted with rudimentary sets that could warn of approaching aircraft. Although this would alert the crew to approaching aircraft once conflict broke out it soon became apparent that the planned reliance on the ship’s AA armament as defence against attack was overly optimistic and better use of the information gained would be needed. Due to the general lack of interest in naval air defence the extant ‘doctrine’ essentially relied on the defending aircraft flying a search pattern, which could find them in the wrong place when the enemy approached or waiting above the fleet and then diving down on the attackers with the attendant risk of friendly fire. Alternatively, they could wait on the carrier and take-off in pursuit of the enemy to attack them on their way home, assuming they had the speed advantage to do so.

The first attempts at improving on this uninspired approach took place off the coast of Norway in April 1940 as efforts were made to stem the German invasion. The aircraft carrier Ark Royal was operating in support of the landing forces, although not fitted with radar herself, her escorts Sheffield and Curlew were, and could detect approaching raids around 50 miles away. It was soon realised that this information could be used to direct the Ark’s fighter aircraft to intercept the incoming raids, this initially took a rather crude form worked out on the initiative of the ship’s Air Signals Officer, Lt Cdr Coke. As the Sheffield and Curlew were not fitted with radios capable of talking to the aircraft, the range and bearing of incoming raids had to be passed to the Ark, generally by signal lamp or semaphore due to radio silence being in force. Here Lt Cdr Coke, assisted by his signalman, plotted the positions on a board before relaying the necessary information to the fighter patrol by Morse code. It took around four minutes to pass the position of the enemy to the patrolling Skuas. They would then be left to their own devices to figure out what to do with this information, the process becoming known as the ‘Informative Method’. However, with practice Lt Cdr Coke was able to monitor the position of the Ark’s aircraft as well as the enemy’s and could direct them to their targets. This ‘Directive Method’, gave them a much better chance of executing a successful intercept. The system was however not perfect, there was no filtering process for the information to determine what was high priority, and it took time to develop an efficient way of passing it to the aircraft. Despite Lt Cdr Coke’s best efforts, it was not therefore unheard of for pilots to realise they were being vectored to intercept themselves. Although basic and not always effective, in part due to the lack of height information from the radars, this early Fighter Direction was sufficient to drive a change in the Luftwaffe’s tactics so that they approached above the Skua’s operational ceiling, although this in turn reduced the effectiveness of their bombing. Operations off Norway had shown the effectiveness of Fighter Direction in even an elementary form, some months before the Battle of Britain would showcase its potential to the world. What the navy now needed was to build on this nucleus of experience and introduce better equipment to fully exploit it.

Blood in the Mediterranean 

In September 1940, the first of the armoured aircraft carriers, HMS Illustrious, arrived in the Mediterranean. It brought with her the Fulmars of 806 squadron in the type’s debut operational deployment. Illustrious was also the first carrier to be fitted with radar, which eased the job of the Fighter Director. He was now able to take the plot directly from the radar, considerably speeding up the decision-making cycle. It was not all plain sailing however: due to initial trials that had shown how easily a radar transmission could be followed back to its source there was a policy in place that restricted its use to one sweep every hour until contact was made. Although just about tolerable for use in tracking surface contacts, which would be hard pressed to approach undetected with closing speeds of around 30 knots, against air contacts it rendered the system almost irrelevant. It would also be some time before the Fighter Direction officer would have a purpose-built home rather than making space for himself in a corner of the ship’s island.

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Despite these initial handicaps the Fulmar was soon proving itself. It was shooting down shadowing aircraft, denying the enemy information on where to send their strike forces, and then breaking up any subsequent raids that did occur. During this initial period of operations against the Italian air force, the aircraft could play to its strength: its endurance. This allowed standing patrols to loiter at altitude, waiting for direction from the carrier. By loitering at 18000 feet, well above their nominal service ceiling, the Fulmars could utilise their dive-bomber heritage to gain a speed advantage by diving down on, typically low-flying, enemy aircraft. Thanks to the relatively lightweight, often wooden, construction of the Italian aircraft, a single firing pass from the Fulmars eight guns was generally sufficient to significantly damage or destroy them altogether. This was fortuitous, as having made their pass, the Fulmar would rapidly run out of speed, leaving it exceptionally vulnerable.

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It would have to laboriously climb back up to altitude if it was to repeat the trick. With the arrival of the Luftwaffe’s anti-shipping experts, the Fliegerkorps X, in the January of 1941, the Fulmar faced a more daunting prospect. As well as outperforming the Fleet Air Arm’s fighter the German aircraft were more strongly built than those of Italy and were able to survive attacks that would have downed their Axis partners. The deliberate targeting of Illustrious and her Fulmars that same month saw the Fighter Direction system overwhelmed, leading to extensive damage to the ship that saw her out of the war, for over a year . Despite this setback the value of Fighter Direction had been shown and work was in hand to improve the information flow and better equip the Fighter Director to carry out his role. In the meantime, HMS Formidable with her two Fulmar squadrons joined the Mediterranean fleet via the Red Sea and would continue to disrupt attacks sufficiently to prevent them having a significant effect on allied shipping and the vital convoys to Malta. Work was also being done to enable Fighter Direction from ships other than aircraft carriers, initially to streamline the process for aircraft operating from Ark Royal with Sheffield being fitted with suitable radio equipment to direct aircraft . This would pay dividends when they entered the Mediterranean in June 1940 and ultimately lead the way to Fighter Direction Tenders, essentially Landing Craft with a radar and basic communications fit, that would play a crucial role in the Normandy Landings and other amphibious operations.

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Between them Ark Royal and Formidable’s Fulmar squadrons claimed 86 aircraft shot down in the Mediterranean, their most successful day probably being 8 May 1941 when 6 Italian and 8 German aircraft fell to their guns for the loss of 2 Fulmars to enemy fire.

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The Fulmar had shown that as a naval fighter her strengths of endurance and firepower, could make up for her disadvantage in outright performance when coupled with an effective method of control. In fact, the performance of the aircraft was praised by no less than the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham who singled out their effective work during Operation Substance, a Malta convoy, and noted that ‘It is evident that the enemy hold our Fleet Air Arm fighters in higher esteem than do our own Fulmar pilots’ after an Italian pilot claimed to have been shot down by a Hurricane.

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The greatest test Allied Fighter Direction would face in the Mediterranean was probably Operation Pedestal, the all-or-nothing convoy to Malta of 1942. It would also be a swan-song for the Fulmar as a day fighter. With the lessons learnt through 1940 and 1941 the Fighter Directors in the fleet carriers, Indomitable and Victorious had a much-improved working environment with assistants, long and short-range plots, and dedicated communications facilities. The 16 Fulmars on Victorious carried out low level patrols with the new Sea Hurricanes and American supplied Wildcats providing point defence and high-level patrols respectively. The Fulmars gave a good account of themselves despite their age, downing nine enemy aircraft for three loses . However, what is more telling is that prior to the detachment of the carrier escort on the evening of the 12th August, no merchant shipping had been lost to air attack. Worse still with the loss of the Fighter Direction capable Nigeria to a torpedo attack that same evening the supporting RAF fighters from Malta were almost incapable of successfully intercepting enemy forces, despite stretching their endurance beyond what was sensible. Consequently, four vital merchant ships, over a quarter of the convoy, were sunk in subsequent air raids while a fifth, the Ohio, entered Grand Harbour with her decks awash and never sailed again . The two stages of Pedestal illustrate the crucial advantage radar and Fighter Direction gave the Royal Navy as without it the far more capable Spitfires and Beaufighters from Malta achieved far less than even the obsolete Fulmar had in defending the fleet. This lesson was also recognised by the United States Navy, who observing its success had started sending officers to the Royal Navy’s Fighter Direction School run by Lt Cdr Coke.

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Lost without a guiding hand 

Nor could it be said that the Fulmar had some unique hidden advantage that would have made it successful even without the benefit of a guiding hand. Shortly after the outbreak of war with Japan, a Royal Naval carrier force was sent to the Indian Ocean. At the same time two Fulmar squadrons that had been operating in North Africa, 803 and 806, were sent to Ratmalana airfield near Colombo Ceylon. Without advanced warning, the aircraft were caught on the ground when the Japanese navy attacked on April 5th. In the ensuing fight, four Fulmar were lost for only one of the attacking aircraft. Subsequent combat did not see the tide turn in the Fulmar’s favour. On the 9th of April the Japanese mounted an attack on Trincomalee, the Royal Navy base on the east coast of Ceylon. Responding to a radio call 273 Squadron the only RAF Fulmar unit flew to the aid of the light carrier Hermes under attack by 80 dive-bombers, which had been expecting to find the whole British fleet.

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Although later assisted by the two Colombo based squadrons the Fulmars did not fare well, claiming four aircraft shot down for three lost . To add insult to injury two of the Fulmars were shot down by the attacking Aichi D3A1 ‘Val’ bombers which proved faster and more manoeuvrable than the Fulmar after they had released their payload. Hermes herself was sunk along with her escorts . The Fulmar then performed as well as its detractors might have expected when operating without the benefit of Fighter Direction. A coda to this encounter is the subsequent high-level bombing attack on the Japanese fleet by Blenheim bombers. Without the benefit of radar the Japanese were unaware of the attacking aircraft until they released their bombs directly overhead, highlighting the value of this emerging technology.

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The outstanding question then is why none of the Fleet Air Arm’s more capable aircraft from the second half of the war scored so highly, they too having the advantage of Fighter Direction. Primarily this appears to be due to timing, the Fulmar serving throughout the heavy fighting of the Malta convoys, Operation Pedestal was the high-water mark in the Mediterranean after which the Axis forces started to diminish as other theatres called for their attention. Other Royal Navy operations in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean faced far less air opposition and it wasn’t until the British Pacific Fleet was off Sakishima Gunto during the Okinawa Campaign that it would face an equivalent aerial assault. By this stage the war was almost over and so the Fulmar, whose last front line sortie ended with a crash on deck, remains the Royal Navy’s highest scoring fighter aircraft.

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Credit: Tim Prosser

Timing, luck and direction 

The Fairey Fulmar then was a modestly performing aircraft that achieved more than could have been reasonably expected of it. Born of a desperate need by the navy to obtain a modern monoplane fighter to equip its carriers, its availability so soon after it was needed was due almost to pure luck, as the requirement for which it had originally been designed was cancelled. It was also fortuitous that despite no official guidance, Ark Royal’s air group started to develop the fundamentals of Fighter Direction at sea in the opening stages of the war. That the Admiralty recognised the advantage Fighter Direction could give them and rolled the capability out to its carriers and cruisers relatively rapidly perhaps belies some of the popular criticism of their lack of air mindedness. Without the ability to intercept incoming raids far from the ships it was defending the Fulmar (or indeed any aircraft) would have fared poorly in its primary role of defending the fleet. Fighter Direction allowed the Fulmar the intelligence needed to overcome its deficiencies, while operating against the almost overwhelming odds prevalent in the Mediterranean during the first half of the war provided it with an opportunity to prove itself that no other Royal Navy fighter would have.

Sadly, we are again way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going. You can really help. 

Thank you. 

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student.  He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.  

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“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’

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

 

I can do it with your help.

From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as

“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.

FEATURING

  • Interviews with pilots of the F-14 Tomcat, Mirage, Typhoon, MiG-25, MiG-27, English Electric Lighting, Harrier, F-15, B-52 and many more.
  • Engaging Top (and bottom) 10s including: Greatest fighter aircraft of World War II, Worst British aircraft, Worst Soviet aircraft and many more insanely specific ones.
  • Expert analysis of weapons, tactics and technology.
  • A look into art and culture’s love affair with the aeroplane.
  • Bizarre moments in aviation history.
  • Fascinating insights into exceptionally obscure warplanes.

The book will be a stunning object: an essential addition to the library of anyone with even a passing interest in the high-flying world of warplanes, and featuring first-rate photography and a wealth of new world-class illustrations.

Rewards levels include these packs of specially produced trump cards.

I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the book link .  

 

I can do it with your help.

Fighters in frame: How art fell in love with the aeroplane

banner041As soon as a new piece of technology comes along, people start portraying it in art, and the 20th century brought few greater gifts to the artistic world than the aeroplane. Small wonder the fighter plane has been immortalised in every medium from pencil to bronze.

Early aircraft were novel eccentricities, with huge comic potential, but were also very likely to kill pilots and passengers. We responded as humans always respond to the strange and scary: by drawing cartoons of it, alongside the sketches and photographs of gallant record-breakers.

The First World War changed the aeroplane from a harmless toy to a terrifying bringer of death from above, bombing and strafing soldiers, civilians and property. Airmen joined soldiers and sailors on propaganda material, while war artists depicted the hurly-burly of dogfights, but also captured the strange peace and beauty found on reconnaissance and spotting flights high above the action.

A good effort by the creator of this recruitment poster, who clearly has no idea how to aeroplane but does an excellent job of portraying the relief and gratitude felt by German pilots at being slain by noble British airmen.

The Dead Sea: An Enemy Aeroplane over the Dead Sea, Palestine – Sydney Carline

 Sydney Carline was a Sopwith Camel pilot before becoming an official war artist in 1918, documenting the air war in the Middle East and on the Italian front alongside his younger brother Richard. Also an artist, and also a member of the Royal Flying Corps, Richard was tasked with painting camouflage designs before he joined Sydney in producing luminous, Cubist-inspired aerial views.

Between the wars, as Italy stepped up its efforts to become the most modern and forward-looking country in Europe, the Futurist movement embraced the aeroplane. Futurists rejected the old and celebrated the new. Aviation fitted in not only with the movement’s love of clean lines, speed and modernity, but offered an entirely novel, aerial perspective on the world, with all the artistic possibilities that unlocked.

Aviation spawned its own Futurist mini-movement, Aeropainting, or aeropittura in its native tongue. In 1929, a group of nine artists signed the Aeropainting Manifesto, committing to paper the feeling that:

“The changing perspectives of flight constitute an absolutely new reality, one that has nothing in common with the reality traditionally constituted by earthbound perspectives.”

It’s worth mentioning, given the often masculine to the point of misogynist nature of Futurism, that one of the Manifesto signatories was a woman, Benedetta Cappa.

The aeropaintings of Enrico Prampolini, Tullio Crali and Giulio D’Anna convey the essence of aviation in geometric shapes. Curves suggest propellers in motion, while an aeroplane can be reduced to a blocky cross yet still retain a sense of grace and movement. Landscapes and city streets are simplified to reflect the view at speed from on high.

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‘Sudden uplift’: Tullio Crali’s Tricolour Wings, 1932. Photograph: Private collection/Tullio Crali

As the 1930s rolled on, Futurism, with its taste for vehicles, weapons and the mechanical, became more than a little bit Fascisty, with Mussolini rearing an abstracted depiction of his head amongst the bird’s-eye landscapes. Although the Aeropainting movement did not last, Tullio Crali, at least, retained his love of aviation, and in the 1980s produced a series of paintings celebrating Frecce Tricolori, the Italian national display team.

In the Second World War, official war artists were employed from the start, recording all aspects of life and death on the front line and at home. Established names like Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Edward Ardizzone committed their impressions of the air war to canvas.

One of the most striking pieces to come out of the era is Nash’s Battle of Britain. More than two metres wide, it’s a vast, operatic scene depicting an air battle over the mouth of a river. Dozens of planes are involved: some engaged in a dogfight, some trailing smoke as they plummet down, while fresh enemy fighters arrive in a menacing formation to join the chaos in the sky.

 

Eric Ravilious’s planes look peaceful by comparison. Lovingly shaded in watercolours, they have a nostalgic glow that wouldn’t be out of place on a birthday card for an elderly relative, even though the weaponry they portray was very contemporary and deadly (Ravilious was listed as missing in action in 1942, when the aircraft in which he was travelling failed to return from a mission over Iceland).

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Runway Perspective – Eric Ravilious

Aircraft aren’t always remote and above it all: in scenes portraying factories and repair depots, operations rooms, and pilots waiting for the order to scramble, men and women are shown purposeful and absorbed.

Meanwhile in the USA, lest you think this is all far too literal and insufficiently avant garde, Man Ray took an exposure of toy planes on photographic paper to create [Airplane shapes] (1945), thought to represent a coming airborne Allied victory.

The 1950s and onward brought beautiful, graceful aircraft designs, as form allied with function to break the sound barrier and the world looked forward to a peaceful future of space exploration and luxury travel. Oh—there were some wars, too.

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Enter probably the most famous fighter aircraft in art: the star of Roy Liechtenstein’s Whaam!, his vast 1963 piece that spreads a dogfight over Korea across two panels of primary colours and Ben-Day dots. Inspired by the artwork in kids’ comic All-American Men of War,

Liechtenstein’s collection of war comics must have been well-thumbed. Other works in his oeuvre that drew on rip-roaring aviation action include the onomatopoeic Blam!, Brattata and, confusingly, Bratatat!, as well as Okay, Hotshot, Okay, Live Ammo (Ha! Ha! Ha!) and Tex. (It was Live Ammo, incidentally, that sparked my lifelong interest in Pop Art.)

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Aeroplanes in art can symbolise war and death, but also hope, and a sense of rising above chaos to the peace and beauty of the heavens. From the shortbread-tin image of a shorts-clad schoolboy waving at a Spitfire to Liechtenstein’s cartoony destruction, the machine breaking the bonds of gravity speaks to us of freedom and our ability to curtail that freedom.

–––– Alice Dryden 

Notes

Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life at the Estorick Collection, London until 11 April 2020
https://www.estorickcollection.com/exhibitions/tullio-crali-a-futurist-life

In Air and Fire: War Artists, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz at the Royal Air Force Museum, London from 27 March 2020 until 28 March 2021

https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/blog/in-air-and-fire/

Sadly, we are again way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going. You can really help. 

Thank you. 

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F-15, JF-17 and Bison pilots describe fighting F-16s

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Whenever I interview a modern fighter pilot, the subject of how his or her fighter compares to the F-16 in a close-in fight is always brought up. Here we find out how pilots of the F-15C and JF1-7 rate the Viper. 

F-15C versus F-16

“Ok, first, most answers in air combat are…’it depends’. It depends on skill, experience, recency of experience, are we fighting where it is optimal for one plane and not the other? Assuming equal pilots (meaning both have the same air-air experienced and recency of experience), the F-16 is a more efficient turning plane. It enjoys a slight advantage in sustained turn ability, where as the Eagle has a slight advantage in instantaneous turn ability. The turn circles are almost identical. Depending on configurations, the thrust-to-weight ratio is all pretty close to equal.
So how did I fight an F-16? First I always assumed the pilot was awesome. Assuming we meet 180 degrees out with our speeds where we want them — and no one has an angular advantage I would elect to take the fight single circle (the tactical scenario may not favour this is a full up air battle). My goal is to get slow and use my ability to fly at higher AOA/slower speeds than the F-16 can. The F-16 has decent AoA capability, but the FBW (fly-by-wire) system is limited in speed of movement of the controls as it approaches its AoA limit. The F-15 has no such limits. In my experience I usually had more air-air experience (total and recency) than the vast majority of F-16 pilots and usually had little trouble neutralising and then killing them in close. Like all victories it comes down to flying your particular aircraft at the extremes and doing it more efficiently and precisely than the other pilot. That being said, an F-16 can win a single circle fight if the adversary is not on their game, it can also lose a 2 circle fight if they are not proficient at it.
Hope that helps!

Let me add this.  Air-to-air combat is incredibly fluid, it changes very fast.  So even though a F-16 may have a better sustained turn rate then an F-15C, if through my intercept I can achieve 30 or more degrees of lead turn, I will happily go 2 circle.  And that is the goal, to merge with an advantage, that way, any enemy advantage is minimised and maybe even negated and a quick kill follows. That is the goal!

In my 2000+ hours I fought the Viper a lot, I have flown against many Weapon School grads, and average pilots. In most all cases I did really well. For any fighter pilot, it is about controlling the fight and forcing the fight that favours your aircraft. Because most F-16 units don’t do much air-to-air (A/T=Adversary Tactics folks being the exception), their experience, especially recency, was often spotty at best. So was I confident ? Always. Did I do well? Usually. But everyone has bad days and good days. That is why there is no absolutes in air-air combat.”
— Shari Williams

JF-17 versus F-16

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Which threat aircraft is most challenging and why? “Definitely the Su-30 is the most difficult aircraft in terms of current Indian Air Force inventory but we regularly fly against the F-16 and more importantly AMRAAM, so Adder and Alamo seem less worrisome (smily face).”

How comfortable and ergonomic is the JF-17 cockpit?
“It is one of the most digitised cockpit I’ve flown till date. Even the F-16’s cockpit fades in comparison to the Thunder’s cockpit layout.”

In a WVR fight would you rather be in an F-16 or JF-17?
“F-16 .. for the initial 180deg turn, then Thunder all the way. JF-17 with PL-10 mod (currently in pipeline) will trump F-16 with AIM-9M any day of the week, but currently on brute performance F-16 has the edge.”

Full JF-17 pilot interview here.

MiG-21 versus F-16 

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How confident would you feel going against a modern F-16 or MiG-29?
“It is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Modern day fighters have systems assisting you. Superior radar, helmet-mounted sighting systems, great Radar Warning Receivers, counter missile systems, electronic warfare systems like the self protection jammers etc. The older version MiG-21 had none of these, so they are clearly out of the fray. The MiG-21 Bison is the most modern MiG 21, and it is formidable in all of these — the only downside being the limited endurance that a MiG-21-class of aircraft has. Eventually it is the man-machine combo that makes or breaks an air combat.

 Group Captain MJA Vinod, full interview here

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Pilots of 7 rival fighter aircraft types describe dogfights against F-16s here

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Pilots of 7 rival fighter aircraft types describe dogfights against F-16s

t9IS5OzvovNkxM0Pz9bKK0-IpVZ3hAVYY8-cxdYY5Eo.jpgWhenever I interview a modern fighter pilot, the subject of how his or her fighter compares to the F-16 in a close-in fight is always brought up. I collated these answers for a snapshot of how the pilots of other types (including the ‘Flanker’, Gripen and Rafale) rate the formidable Viper.

(The full interviews can be found on this site, I will link to them in a later edit) 

Mirage 2000 versus F-16 

“An interesting question – I must have flown against the F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18, Tornado F3, F-8 Crusader and the F-104 Starfighter in combat. The older generation didn’t stand a chance, but the F-16 block 50 was very good. One of the drawbacks of the Mirage 2000 being unique was that as we did a lot of 1vs 1 and 2vs 2 Mirage vs Mirage combat – you developed tactics and handling skills to fight Mirage vs Mirage. This actually was counter productive as these tactics -and the way you handled the aircraft – didn’t cross over to fighting other types. I got beaten by an F-16 by fighting him like a Mirage and learnt a painful lesson. “DACT was interesting in the M2000 – if your opponent was new to fighting a delta it could make his eyes water! At the merge the initial 9G+ turn was eye-watering, despite having a single engine it could still reach heights other fighters like the F-16 couldn’t. It also possessed, in my opinion, a far more sophisticated fly-by-wire system – it was in effect limitless. I managed to put a Mirage 2000 into the vertical whilst being chased and held the manoeuvre a few seconds too long – when I looked into my HUD I was in the pure vertical at 60 knots and decelerating ! As we hit Zero the aircraft began to slide backwards and the ‘burner blew out. My heart-rate increased. As the aircraft went beyond its design envelope, the nose simply flopped over pointing earthwards – with a few small turns the airspeed picked up. As I hit 200 knots I simply flew the aircraft back to straight and level. I admit that my opponent did shoot me down, but he did say it looked spectacular. This sort of carefree handling gave pilots huge confidence in the aircraft”

— Ian Black

Gripen versus F-16 

Would you be confident facing an F-16?

“Absolutely. I can’t think of anything the F-16 would be better at, if we don’t count ease of refuelling (F-16 is refuelled with a boom and the boom operator does much of the job). Of course, there’s a lot of details and circumstances here, but generally the Gripen is a step or two ahead, especially in my favourite areas. As mentioned, I really like pilot UI and large screens, and F-16 is lacking a bit in that area, so maybe I’m a bit biased. I do like the F16’s side-stick though! I have flown an F-16 and I loved the stick. It didn’t take many minutes to get used to the stiffer stick, and it’s more ergonomic for the pilot in high-Gs (and probably for long missions) to have it on the side. Flying in close formation with another fighter was almost as easy as with the Gripen.”

“I’ve flown against F-16s and F-18s. No surprises really, they are what they are. The F-16s are a lot like the Gripens but you can claw yourself closer and closer to their behind, if that is your goal.

For F-18s you have to look out for their ability to do high AOA turns for quick point-and-shoot. They will be sitting ducks after such a move though. The Gripen ‘carves’ through the air better then both and you will not lose as much speed when turning. Saying that, I believe that ACM is mostly a curiosity today, but a damn fun one and good for training aircraft handling. The IRIS-T missile is so good (and as are others) that everything you can see with your eyes is basically within your Weapon Employment Zone, WEZ. You can of course end up in a ‘furball’, having to fight your way out with guns, but it would suboptimal to craft fighters for that purpose today, as anyone with a missile left would win hands down. So, it’s always better to opt for one more missile than guns, if we’re talking ACM.

I know the guys in the Swedish Air Force are very keen to fly their Gripens in air combat manoeuvres against Denmark’s and Norway’s F-35s. I think you can guess why.”

 –– Lieutenant Mikael Grev, full interview here

F/A-18C Hornet versus F-16 

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What is the best way to fight an F-16? And the worst?

“Throughout my career I flew against F-16s many times and in my opinion, it was the hardest of the 4th generation fighters to beat. It was small, had a lot of thrust, and a very impressive 9G turn. The F-16 had a turn rate advantage and much better thrust to weight when compared to the F/A-18C. The F/A-18C had a better turn radius and could fly at a higher angle of attack (AOA) than the F-16. The best way to fight an F-16 is in a 1 circle fight, usually in the vertical. Getting the Hornet’s nose on first to try and get an early shot, whether with a missile or the gun. The key would be to get the F-16 reacting to the Hornet, bleeding energy, and getting slow. At slow airspeeds, the F/A-18’s AOA advantage meant I could point my nose easily and get a shot. The worst way to fight against an F-16 would be two circle fight on the Horizon. The F-16s 9G turn and superior thrust to weight would give him a better turn rate and the F-16 would out turn the Hornet. If an F/A-18 tried to match the F-16 turn rate, the Hornet would get bleed energy and its turn rate would continue to be less than the F-16.

Like all fighters, most of the ability of a fighter plane to fight is dependent on the skill of the pilot. The F-16’s performance, much like the Hornet’s, would suffer if it was carrying external stores. A slick Viper (F-16) flown by an experienced pilot was a beast and was always a tough fight. There was a Air Force reserve squadron out of Luke that was full of experienced pilots, all of them had at least a thousand hours in the Viper. They always flew slick Vipers and they were a tough fight for an F/A-18C which always had at least one external tank and two pylons. This reserve squadron also went on that Key West Det. From what I saw and experienced, in a pure visual fight a slick Hornet was better in the visual arena than a slick Viper. I rate the F-16 pilots from that reserve squadron in Luke as the best I ever fought and in the visual arena the Hornet more than held it’s own on that Key West det.”

Louis Gundlach, full interview here

Find out how F-15 and JF-17 pilots rate the F-16 here. 

Rafale versus F-16 

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Which aircraft have you flown DACT against?
“Against F-16, against Typhoon, against Super Hornets. Against Harrier. Against Alpha Jet. Against Mirage 2000.”

…which was the most challenging?
“The F-16 is pretty cool. Typhoon is a joke, very easy to shoot. F-16 actually was a good surprise actually, I found it to be a pretty good aircraft. I think the most challenging was the F-16, it’s a pretty small jet so it’s easy to lose sight of it. So I think that was the big one.”

Pierre-Henri ‘Até’ Chuet, full interview here 

 

Typhoon versus F-16

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What’s the best way to defeat an F-16 in within visual range fight? How difficult is it as an opponent? “The Typhoon is a superior fighter within visual range though we must always remember that we are not fighting the aircraft but the pilot.”

Of the aircraft you have you trained against — which was the hardest opponent and why? “I fought a Top Gun instructor out of Nellis Air Force base and he was in an F-16. I was not very experienced at the time though managed to defeat him – he did, however, make it very difficult!”

Squadron Leader Roger Cruickshank, full interview here 

MiG-29 versus F-16

 How confident would a MiG-29 pilot feel going against a modern F-16? 

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“In a modern MiG-29 like the upgraded one or the M version, and trained well, I feel the pilot should be supremely confident against the modern F-16.”

 — Air Marshal Harish Masand, full interview here

Su-30 versus F-16 

What was your most memorable mission?

“Well there have been many over the years but a few that stand out are as follows: –

DACT with F-16 Block 60*of Republic of Singapore Air Force.

(*Ed: think these are actually Block 52)

The strongest adversary that we could possibly face in our life as a fighter pilot was the F-16 of PAF (for obvious reasons). So the excitement of facing an F-16, even in a mock combat was unbelievable. The weight of the mission was overbearing! Perhaps that’s what makes it special. As the combat commenced, we manoeuvred for our lives and in very little time the situation was in our favour! The desperate calls from the F-16, “Flare, Flare, Flare!” are very distinctly audible in my ears even today! From that day, the anxiety that prevailed over facing an F-16 in combat was gone forever…. vanished! It was clear what the outcome would be!”

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“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30 & one MiG-21 BISON against three F-16 . As luck would have it, the BISON did not get airborne and now the game was one Su-30 vs three F-16 in a BVR scenario. Again, we pushed the envelope, manoeuvred between 3000 ft to 32000 ft, pulling up to 8 g, turning, tumbling, firing and escaping missiles in a simulated engagement. The crew co-ordination between us in the cockpit and the fighter controller on the ground was the best that I have ever seen! The results in a mock combat are always contentious but with ACMI, they are more reliable. End score: one F-16 claimed without loss. When we got out of the cockpit we were thoroughly drenched in sweat and tired from the continuous high G manoeuvring but all smiles for the ecstasy that we had just experienced.”

 

Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“In the Su-30 I have flown DACT with RSAF (Royal Singapore Air Force) F-16, M-2000 H /5[ FAF], MiG -29 amongst the ASFs. I think the most challenging was the M2000 in France. The carefree manoeuvrability of the Mirage its nose profile and avionics package perhaps gave it an edge over the others. The F-16 beyond the initial turn loses steam, the MiG -29 is very powerful but conventional controls maybe …. . A good Mirage guy can manoeuvre more carefree.”

Gp Capt Anurag Sharma, full interview here

Sadly, we are again way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going. You can really help. 

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Flying & fighting in the F/A-18 Hornet: interview with a USMC Hornet veteran

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The F/A-18 Hornet ushered in a new generation of ultra agile, ‘glass’ cock-pitted multi-role fighters. We spoke to former US Marine pilot Louis Gundlach about flying and fighting in the F/A-18 Hornet. 

Which aircraft have you flown and with which unit? “I was a Hornet guy my whole career. I flew the F/A-18C (Lot 11) attached to VMFA-232 twice. First tour was from 1995 to 1998 and the second was from 1999 to 2001. I was one the Marine Air Group (MAG) – 11 Weapon and Tactics Instructors for seven months and I flew F/A-18Cs and F/A-18Ds. I moved on to VMFA-323 where I flew F/A-18Cs (Lot-15) from 2001 to 2003. I finished up my career at VMFAT-101 (F/A-18 training squadron) and I flew F/A-18As, Bs, Cs, and Ds.”

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How do you feel about the aesthetics of the Hornet? “I grew up by El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California. The Marine Corps received their first F/A-18s in 1983. My Dad was a retired Marine so we would go on El Toro quite a bit, many times because I would bug him to take me so I could look at the jets. To a 14-year-old, the F/A-18 looked like a spaceship compared to the F-4s, A-6s, and A-4s that were also based there. The Hornet was sleek and new and did not have all the blisters and bumps that the older jets had. Obviously, I have been biased about the Hornet for a long time and I still am. It is still a cool looking jet.”

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What were your first impressions of the F/A-18? “I wrote about my first impression as a kid above. My first ride in a Hornet was cool. While waiting to go to flight school I was able to spend three months at El Toro attached to VMFAT-101. I got three rides in the Hornet while I was there, and it was amazing. The first ride was in a new F/A-18D. Getting in the jet, the cockpit still had a little bit of that new jet smell (like a ‘new car smell’ but in a jet!). The cockpit was overwhelming with the two DDIs (Digital Display Indicators) and the MPCD (Multi-Purpose Color Display). Taxing out I felt very high off the ground and like I was sitting out on the end of a stick. The takeoff was amazing, especially to someone who had only flown a Cessna 172 to that point. When you add power to the Hornet and hold the brakes to do a quick pre-takeoff checklist the jet will squat a little bit on the front nose wheel.

sharpshooter.jpgThe noise, the jet shaking just a bit, the other Hornet to our left on the runway was so cool. The takeoff roll started and then after a couple of seconds the pilot selected afterburner and felt like someone kicked that back of my seat. We were airborne quickly and the other Hornet joined up. The flight was a basic formation flight but to me it left a lasting impression. It was perfect California day over the Pacific. At one point in the flight when the instructor had the student doing break up and rendezvous maneuvers, the pilot asked me if I wanted to go Supersonic? I said yes but I remember being a little apprehensive. The pilot selected afterburner for about 10 seconds, the Mach meter went through Mach 1, and that was it. There was no boom, or shaking, or anything, just the number changing. I even got to fly a little bit from the backseat. I wanted to fly Hornets since the first time I saw the airplane, getting a ride in the jet had me sold.

Which three words best describe it?

Fun: The Hornet was fun to fly. I often said that I cannot believe they pay me to do this. Every flight was a blast.
Reliable: It always got me home. A few times single engine, but it was always was reliable.

Accurate: A lot of people focus on air to air, but the Hornet was a fantastic bomber. When I first got to the fleet, we were almost exclusively training to dumb bombs and the Hornet was so accurate. Put the designation or the CCIP (Constantly Computed Impact Point) cross over the target, be smooth during the release, and the jet would do the rest.

What is the best thing about it? “The Hornet was reliable. The systems, for the most part, were almost always working. The Marines working on the aircraft did a tremendous job keeping the Hornets flying and the systems working. Often at austere locations. This is not only a testament to the Marines who worked tirelessly on the jets but the reliability of the Hornet itself.”

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And the worst thing? “The lack of fuel, at least around the carrier. I flew the Hornet for a long time in a land-based squadron. I did not really understand the critique of the legacy (F/A-18 A thru D) Hornet not carrying enough gas. Fuel becomes a lot more critical when the runway is only open for 15 minutes every hour and a half or two hours. When flying missions that ended up at a runway, we would plan for having 2,000 pounds when we landed. We would fly our mission and when we hit bingo fuel (Fuel left was the 2,000 poundsds plus the fuel required to fly back to base) we would fly home and land. Carrier operations are much more complicated. At the ship, we would plan on landing at the max trap weight and depending on what we were carrying that could be 4,500 to 5,000 pds of fuel. Daytime carrier operations we could land with a lower fuel weight, if I remember correctly it was 3,500 pounds, but that 1,500 pounds is still more than 10% of your fuel load with two external tanks. Add to the fact that you had to wait for the ship to start recovery operations, you often would need to cut your mission short to conserve fuel so you would have fuel to hold and then land. For carrier operations the Hornet could have used more fuel.

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One of our jets. Goofy gas with three GBU-31 2000 pound JDAM.

How you rate the F/A-18 in the following categories?
Instantaneous turn

“The Hornet’s instantaneous turn was as good or better than any jet that I flew against.”

Sustained turn

“The Hornet had a good sustained turn, but it was outclassed by jets with better thrust to weight like the F-15C and F-16. This was especially true at higher altitudes or when the Hornet was loaded with drop tanks and pylons. A completely slick Hornet was a dog-fighting machine, but more on that later.”
High alpha

“The Hornet was excellent at high alpha flying. The Hornet was better than any jet I flew against in high alpha manoeuvring flight.”

Acceleration

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A picture of me landing at NAS Atsugi for the Atsugi airshow in 1996. A Japanese photographer gave me this photo the next day.

“Hornet was fair but outclassed by many other jets.”

Climb rate

“Once again the Hornet was OK, but outclassed by F-14Ds, F-15C, F-16. The F-16s out at Buckley ANGB in Denver would do an Immelmann at the end of the Runway on takeoff. They had to hit a certain altitude which I believe was above 11K MSL. I tried to do it in a Hornet once (F/A-18C with a centerline tank and two pylons)… nope, I did not make it. I was wallowing around at 10K ft and 100kts trying to comply with Departure’s new instructions. Good thing the Hornet was forgiving and was good at high alpha flight.”

Dissimilar air combat training (DACT)

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Flying over Mt Fuji on my first deployment.

“My first squadron was an F/A-18C squadron, VMFA-232, that would deploy to Iwakuni Japan for six-month deployments. We did Close Air Support and air-to-air training for over 90% of our training. We did not have to do the endless flights of Field Carrier Landing Practice or all the other months of workups the squadrons attached to a Carrier Air Wing had to. We also did not have to do all the Tactical Airborne Controller – Airborne and Forward Air Controller – Airborne (TAC-A and FAC-A) that the two seat F/A-18Ds had to do. We did a lot of air to air training, both similar and dissimilar. When we deployed to Iwakuni, the lack of air to ground ranges made us schedule even more air to air training. A few of the more senior pilots in the squadron were Desert Storm vets and grew up with the Hornet. They taught us how to fight the Hornet against the other 4th Generation fighters, the F-14s, F-15s, and F-16s.  The game plan against other teen fighters was pretty much the same, we wanted to get our nose on the opposing fighter first to either get the first shot or to cause the opposing fighter to react by matching our turn thus getting into a slow speed fight where the Hornet excelled. Transitioning to a one circle fight, usually at the initial merge or the second merge was the game plan. Some of our older pilots really pushed fighting in the vertical also. As one of the Desert Storm vets put it, “Going over the top in a fight you will quickly find out if your opponent is part of the BFM (Basic Fighter Manoeuvring) club”. There was a lot of learning to go with this advice. How to judge the other fighter’s position, energy, separation, etc. all had to be taken into account. Experience is the best teacher and we got a lot of air to air experience in my first squadron.

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My first squadron VMFA-232 did a photo shoot when I first joined the squadron. No, it is not me. They don’t let new guys do the good deal photo shoot.

The problem with game plan with the Hornet against the other teen fighters is that even though you could beat another 4th Generation Fighter by forcing it to fly where the Hornet had the advantage, manoeuvring around at below 200 kts in a rolling scissors or flat scissors is a terrible place to be in a multi-fighter engagement. A slow fighter is an easy kill for your opponent’s wingman and when you are dogfighting it is difficult to keep situational awareness (SA) of what is going on outside the visual arena. Through experience I found that keeping your speed up, getting a quick kill and leaving an engagement was a much better way to stay alive than getting in a turning engagement in a multi-bogey environment. A dogfight in a multi-fighter engagement will bring all the players to the fight like moths to a flame and if you are the guy fighting a one versus one at 180 knots in the middle of that fight, you are going to quickly find yourself on the receiving end of a missile shot.”

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My HUD (Heads up display) as I land on the USS Constellation

What is the best way to fight an F-14? And the worst? Which aircraft has the advantage?

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“My history of fighting against the Tomcat is broken into two parts. My first year in a fleet squadron flying against F-14As and then later in my career flying against F-14Ds. F-14As and F-14Ds were different airplanes. When I fought against the F-14As, they were really starting to show their age. The F-14A had TF30 engines which were unreliable, smokey and did not provide much thrust. The F-14A also had the AWG-9 radar which the Tomcat aircrew complained about, mostly for being old and unreliable. The F-14D had GE F110 engines which were much more reliable, did not smoke, and gave the Tomcat much better thrust. My first year in a fleet F/A-18 squadron we flew against F-14As based there and then on my first deployment to Iwakuni, Japan we flew against the F-14As based out of Atsugi NAF. The F-14 is a big aircraft and the Hornet’s radar could detect it and keep track of it at a considerable range. The F-14A’s smokey engines made tally’s (Visually picking up the jet) possible outside of 20nm. Having a Tally at range meant you could setup the merge to execute the Hornet’s WVR game plan. Usually this meant merging low to high and pulling aggressively in the vertical in a one circle fight. Usually the vertical maneuver would have an oblique aspect to it so we would be 45 to 60 degrees nose high and aggressively pulling to put our nose back on the adversary. I liked going in the oblique vertical vice the pure vertical because it gave me a chance to counter a jet that might also be coming in the vertical but was out turning your (usually another Hornet in a similar WVR fight). In my first fight against an F-14, which I think was my first fight against an dissimilar 4th Generation fighter (F-14, F-15, F-16) I came over the top and was surprised to see I had weapons separation for a missile shot. A quick Fox 2 (simulated missile shot) from me and a continue call from the Tomcat pilot. The F-14 pulled up to my altitude and we entered a flat scissors. The Hornet outclassed the F-14A (Flat scissors is a High Alpha Fight) and I was quickly above and behind the Tomcat when the F-14A pilot called knock it off (Stop the fight).
The first time I flew against an F-14D was several years later, on a training detachment (or det) to NAS Key West. I was had a lot more experience by this point in my career. I was a recent graduate of Top Gun and had over 1,000 hrs. of F/A-18 time. You could say I was in my prime. We also flew completely slick Hornets. No pylons or drop tanks, just a training AIM-9 and a TACTS (Tactical Air Combat Training System) pod. This was the only time I fought the Hornet with nothing on it. A slick Hornet was a BFM machine. I found it amazing that the removal of the centerline tank and the wing pylons would make such of difference, but it did. The Hornet accelerated much faster and its ability to fight in vertical was even more pronounced. To say the Tomcat, even a newer one with better engines, was at a disadvantage, would be an understatement. I only had one sortie against the F-14 during the det but I remember one of the sets pretty well, it was an abeam setup. On an abeam setup, the two fighters would setup at the 3 or 9 O’clock position of the other fighter. Distance would usually be 1.5 to 2 nautical miles, at a designated altitude, and between 300 to 400 knots. I was the flight lead for this fight, all BFM sorties designate a lead to control the setup, the fight, and ensure safety. The comms would go something like; “Speed and Angels on the right.” (I am at the briefed speed and altitude on the right) “Speed and Angels on the left”. “Check tapes on, turning in” (Check recording device on, turn toward each other), “Tapes on, turning in”. The two fighters would turn toward each other and at the merge (When the fighters pass each other) the fight would be on. On the fight that I remember, at the merge I turned hard across the Tomcat’s tail and then went into a max G oblique turn about 45 degrees nose up. The Tomcat matched my oblique turn and we had a second merge in the vertical inverted. The Tomcat was slightly out in front of me. His wings were fully forward, and he had a lot of vapes (vapors) coming over the wing roots. Being in a slick Hornet I was able to start and second climb, this one pure vertical and the Tomcat turned across my tail and then started a descent in a left hand turn to try and get his speed back. At about 70 degrees nose up I had enough separation and I executed a rudder pirouette to the right, I got the nose on, a lock on, and called two simulated missile shots. I remember the pirouette because it was so crisp. A slick Hornet was an amazing machine. Too bad you would never actually take a slick Hornet into battle.

Sadly, we are way behind our funding targets. This site is entirely funded by donations from people like you. We have no pay wall, adverts (any adverts you see on this page are not from us) or subscription and want to keep it that way– please donate here to keep this site going.

Thank you. 

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I also fought against F-14Ds while on cruise on the USS Constellation. This was totally different. Our Hornets had two tanks and all four pylons. We had one tank on the Centerline and one on the wing. We called it goofy gas. This put some limitations on the Hornet’s maneuvering. The Hornet in this configuration was a bit of a pig but it could still formidable if flown properly. As a more senior guy I fought against the more junior Tomcat pilots and held my own by sticking to the Hornet game plan. I altered the game plan a little bit by not going as high in the vertical so I would not get too slow and so I would have nose authority to pressure the Tomcat. The danger with the F-14D was that if you were not pressuring it, it could accelerate quickly and get airspeed to go into the vertical and get a shot on an opponent that does not have the air speed to match the vertical maneuver. The more senior Tomcat pilots did this to our junior pilots. It would have been interesting to fight some of the “Old Hand” Tomcat pilots, especially in a goofy gas configuration that was not advantageous to the Hornet. The Tomcat CO (Commanding Officer) on that cruise had a reputation of being an excellent BFM pilot and he could make the Tomcat maneuver in ways that most Tomcat pilots could not. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to see him fight the Tomcat firsthand.”

What is the best way to fight an F-16? And the worst?

“Throughout my career I flew against F-16s many times and in my opinion, it was the hardest of the 4th generation fighters to beat. It was small, had a lot of thrust, and a very impressive 9G turn. The F-16 had a turn rate advantage and much better thrust to weight when compared to the F/A-18C. The F/A-18C had a better turn radius and could fly at a higher angle of attack (AOA) than the F-16. The best way to fight an F-16 is in a 1 circle fight, usually in the vertical. Getting the Hornet’s nose on first to try and get an early shot, whether with a missile or the gun. The key would be to get the F-16 reacting to the Hornet, bleeding energy, and getting slow. At slow airspeeds, the F/A-18’s AOA advantage meant I could point my nose easily and get a shot. The worst way to fight against an F-16 would be two circle fight on the Horizon. The F-16s 9G turn and superior thrust to weight would give him a better turn rate and the F-16 would out turn the Hornet. If an F/A-18 tried to match the F-16 turn rate, the Hornet would get bleed energy and its turn rate would continue to be less than the F-16.

Like all fighters, most of the ability of a fighter plane to fight is dependent on the skill of the pilot. The F-16’s performance, much like the Hornet’s, would suffer if it was carrying external stores. A slick Viper (F-16) flown by an experienced pilot was a beast and was always a tough fight. There was a Air Force reserve squadron out of Luke that was full of experienced pilots, all of them had at least a thousand hours in the Viper. They always flew slick Vipers and they were a tough fight for an F/A-18C which always had at least one external tank and two pylons. This reserve squadron also went on that Key West Det. From what I saw and experienced, in a pure visual fight a slick Hornet was better in the visual arena than a slick Viper. I rate the F-16 pilots from that reserve squadron in Luke as the best I ever fought and in the visual arena the Hornet more than held it’s own on that Key West det.”

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A picture from a KC-10 of me tanking over Iraq during OIF.

What is the best way to fight an F-15C Eagle? And the worst?

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I do not think I ever fought a USAF F-15C in a pure 1 v 1 dogfight. We would always fight the F-15C in BVR fights that might end up in a multi-plane visual engagement. In the visual arena, the F-15C’s large size made it easy to keep sight of and keep situational awareness (SA) of all the bandits (bad guys) in a visual fight. I remember, on different engagements, being able to switch from one F-15 to another and get a shot outside my own fight, across the circle because I could keep SA on multiple F-15s.

I can tell you by experience the worst way to fight against an F-15 in to attempt a turning engagement up at 40,000ft. The Eagle, with its big wings and big engines has no problem turning up at 40,000ft, but the F/A-18C, with its little wings and smaller engines has trouble turning up at that altitude. On one fight out of Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Japan, when I was a junior pilot, I merged with a couple of Eagles above 40,000ft. I turned across the outside fighter’s tail and quickly found my turn rate was not very good at that altitude and I was bleeding energy quickly. The F-15s were able to keep a fair rate of turn and I quickly found myself defensive heading downhill.

I did fly many 1 v 1s against Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) F-15Js. The one circle, vertical manoeuvre game plan was very effective against the JASDF pilots. Often, I was able to get a shot on the F-15Js as I came over the top and then I could transition to offensive BFM on the Eagle.”

DACT
“Of the aircraft you have flown DACT with, which was the most challenging?
The F-16. It was small so it was difficult to see. Its 9G turn was eye watering and if you did not keep the pressure on a Viper it would out accelerate you and either out turn you or out climb you. If the F-16 pilot was experienced at dogfighting, it was always going to be a tough fight.”

What was it like fighting RAF Tornados? “I flew against GR1s, the ground attack version. Most of the flights we did were large engagements with many different types of aircraft. The Tornados flew strike missions during that exercise. I got a shot on one visually and it attempted to defend into me. The turn was not that impressive, but these were ground attack Tornados loaded with tanks and bombs. Air to Air was not their mission and the load-out was not conducive to manoeuvring.

D. Which foreign air force impressed you the most? The British and the Australians were just like flying with Americans, just with funny accents. Their professionalism and preparedness were the same as our air forces. I flew two DACT sorties against Singapore Air Force F-16s based out of Luke Air Force base. These sorties could have had a US instructor or exchange pilot in in the formation, but with a limited sample size, I was very impressed. The Singapore’s tactics and aggressive flying were equal to what we would see from the U.S. Air Force F-16s.”

Would you have felt confident going against in Flankers in a real-world situation?

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“Yes, especially 15 to 20 years ago. We had a better missile with the AMRAAM, and the Su-27 was inferior as far as a weapon system, except for maybe the electronic warfare systems at the time. The big reason I would have felt confident was because of training. We felt that our training would have given us the advantage against any potential adversaries at the time. We felt we had much more experience in realistic situations than potential foes. The current Flankers and their weapons from both Russia and China are different aircraft the original versions of the Su-27. They are much more deadly. It still depends on the pilot and his training though. Some famous dead guy once said, ‘The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it’.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

How did you feel when deployed to war? “Being a Marine, we have a different mindset. Nobody wants to go to war, but if your buddies are going you want to go with them. It is was we train to do. I also was fairly senior and had to volunteer to extend to go on cruise to the expected combat zone. I had watched Desert Storm as a brand-new Second Lieutenant on TV from school in Quantico, Allied Force as a Captain from another school in Quantico. I did not want to watch another conflict on TV while my friends were over there fighting. I also felt the readiest I would ever be. I had been flying F/A-18s for over eight years. I was a graduate of Top Gun and MAWTS-1 (Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One) Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course. I felt that I would never be as ready to go to combat as I was when I deployed on the USS. Constellation.

What was your most memorable mission and why?

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Finnish Hornet

“Probably the most memorable mission was a strike mission that got re-rolled to a Close Air Support mission on the outskirts of Baghdad. We launched as a section (two aircraft) loaded with three GBU-31s (2000 pd JDAM) each. I actually was the wingman and my lead was a brand new Section lead. This was his first mission as a Section Lead. I do not remember what our original target was but as we flew into Iraq we were switched to Marine Controllers. We were then tasked with supporting the Marines as they pushed into Baghdad from the east. When we switched up to the Forward Air Controller (FAC), he had an urgent target for us. The Marines were taking artillery fire from Iraqi positions along a highway that went into the city. The target coordinates were derived from counter battery radar. We had never practiced Close Air Support using counter battery radar coordinates. Even though I was not the flight lead I questioned the FAC to make sure he knew we had 2000 pd bombs on board. The FAC understood and cleared us in to drop. The weather was crappy that day. Layers of clouds all the way up the 35,000 ft and the bottoms were around 4,000 ft. We flew inbound in and out of the clouds and release all six of our GBU-31s on the coordinates given. I detached and flew down to just below the cloud bottoms. I broke out of the clouds about two seconds before the bombs hit. My FLIR had a good picture of where the bombs hit. When we reviewed the tapes back on the ship, we could make out six different artillery positions next to the highway. The FLIR we used during OIF was pretty antiquated and did not have great resolution, but we could make out a smaller star shaped blobs next a square shaped blobs. (Artillery with trucks next to them.) The GBUs hit right where the artillery was. When we checked out with the FAC, he said the artillery fire had stopped and gave us a “Good Job.” I was there to protect my fellow Marine, that Lance Corporal on the ground. It was good to have that gratification during a mission that you helped your fellow Marines.
11. Does a sailor or airman reserve the right to refuse a mission if he doesn’t agree with a war? Has your own personal morality ever been challenged by a mission?
I am sure you could refuse a mission once. You probably will not get the opportunity to do it again because I figure you will be taken off the flight schedule. My personal morality was never challenged by a mission. My ethos, as with most Marines I knew, were flying so that 19-year-old infantryman could make it home. The more of the enemy we took out and the more of his equipment we destroyed, the more of my brothers would stay alive. I never had an ethos problem during OIF because of this belief.

 Was there a piece of equipment or weapon that you wish the Hornet had during OIF? “I wish I had a better FLIR. Our FLIR was the AN/AAS-38 Nite Hawk pod. It was pretty old and it was built to hit buildings and bridges, not vehicles. The F-16s and the AV-8Bs had the Litening Pod. What a great piece of gear that was. I watched an F-16 tape from the Air National Guard guys from Buckley, Colorado. The F-16 pilot was finding a shed , behind a True Value store, in a little town, out in Colorado. From over fifty miles away, you could make out cars, stop lights, people. With the Nite Hawk I could not tell the difference between a tank and a truck even if I was right over it. We (my squadron) had a few missions where the AV-8Bs were finding targets and guiding our bombs to the targets because of their much better FLIR.”

How good were the aircraft’s sensors?
“The Hornets sensors were good but not great. The radar, APG-65, was reliable but it was getting older and it was a mechanical scan radar with limitations. Nothing like an AESA today. The FLIR was reliable but like I talked about above, it was becoming outdated. Our Electronic Warfare suite was adequate for the Iraqi threat, but I would not have wanted to bring it against a more advanced threat. For the conflict, the Hornets sensors were adequate to get the job done.”

Was the range sufficient?
“Our carrier was usually tasked with supporting the U.S. Army in western Iraq. We could make it there but our on-station time was usually pretty short. Near the end of the fight against the Iraqi Army, North of Baghdad, we started carrying three external tanks. Range was good enough, but we could have always used a lot more.”

Which weapons (if any) did you use and were there any surprises in how they worked in actual combat?
“No real surprises for me. I dropped JDAM and Laser Guided Bombs, along with shooting the gun. Our squadron did shoot a couple of SLAM-ER (Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response) missiles. The SLAM-ER were sophisticated and had a large pilot workload. The SLAM-ERs fired by my squadron worked as advertised and flew right into the target. The last frame of one of the missile’s recording was a close-up image of the tyre belonging to the target.”

Looking back, how do you feel about this time?
“I am proud of my service. As a Marine, my mindset separates me from the politics and the hindsight. If Marines are going to war, as a Marine I need to be there with them. I was highly trained and experienced at the time. If I did not go, someone less experienced would have probably taken my place. I was there to provide the best support to US forces on the ground. If even one of our soldiers, airman, sailors, and Marines made it home because of my actions, it was worth being there.”

How does the Hornet community generally feel about the F-35?

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“The USMC Hornet community has always been supportive of the transition to the F-35. The F-35 is a huge step up in technology and capability, especially for the USMC Hornet community which did not buy the Super Hornet. I have a quite a few friends who have transitioned to the F-35 and there are no major complaints. I have had them talk about the performance and unlike what you hear in the press, it is an impressive airplane. It is not a Raptor, but it is not a dog either. It is the systems onboard the F-35 that makes it a quantum leap above what a legacy Hornet was. The only complaints I have heard is that the F-35 is not optimised for Close Air Support or Recce missions as it could be.”

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A loaded Hornet out at 29 Palms for a Combined Arms Exercise (CAX).

 Is there a difference in tactical thinking in USMC aviation to the Air Force or Navy?
“There is a big difference in USMC aviation compared to the Air Force and the Navy and you probably can see it from my answers above. U.S. Air Force Tactical aviation is the center of their tactical thinking. Navy aviation, especially tactical aviation, has been the primary striking arm for the U.S. Navy with only Tomahawk Land Attack Missile adding to the strike capability during the last 30 years. In the Marine Corps, our mindset is different. It starts with all officers going to The Basic School where we learn how to be a Marine Officer and we learn infantry tactics. After our first tour, most aviators either go back to school, where they learn more about the tactical and operational level of war, from a ground-centric mindset, or we do a tour with ground units as a Forward Air Controller. USMC aviation exists to support the Marine on the ground. As a Hornet pilot, the ground Marines do not see us as much as the AV-8B force who deploys on Marine Expeditionary Unit deployments. Also, the Hornet missions of air-to-air and deep strike are unseen and under-appreciated by the ground units. It took me awhile in my career to realise that I needed to be a bit of a salesman, and explain why having the ability of shooting down enemy planes is important and why destroying enemy reserves or rear units (like artillery) was important to the USMC ground unit.”

What is the biggest myth about the Hornet?
“Around the aircraft carrier the Legacy Hornet could have used more gas, but compared to other land-based fighters, the Hornet had more fuel endurance. When fighting against F-16s, AV-8Bs, and F-5s we would have gas left over when those aircraft were “Bingo” (low enough fuel that they had to head home). This was often after flying farther to the training range and having farther to fly home.”

What should I have asked you?
“I am surprised you did not ask about the Canadian T-33s. I figured that was so far outside the norm that it would have been a question. The Canadian T-33s were still used for training into the 2000s. A detachment of them were down in Yuma, Arizona during the winter of 2001. They were part of some large force exercise we were a part of. On one of the strikes I was on, the T-33s were providing Red Air along with some F-16s and F-5s. The T-33s were simulating MiG-17s, which was pretty rare by that time. My division (four ship) were strikers and we had sweepers in front of us. As we headed down range the sweepers did pretty good work against the other Red Air and there was only one leaker that our Division lead shot with a simulated AMRAAM. We were up above 20,000 ft and as the radar cleared a ridge up a head, it broke out four contacts at low altitude. One was hot, one was cold, one was turning to the right and one was turning to left. (All this is relative to my radar) It was a perfect MiG wheel, an old Vietnamese Air Force tactic. It was very cool to see. The APG-65 radar did not have any problem breaking this out and at closer range a simulated AMRAAM was not an issue. Our Division shot all four with ease. Being a student of aviation history, I knew this tactic played havoc against the F-4’s radar and AIM-7 Sparrow missile during the Vietnam War. Add to the fact with laser guided bombs we did not have to descend to an altitude like the strikers in Vietnam where a MiG-17 would be able to climb and ambush us. This tactic had been passed by technology and time. It was still cool to see though.”

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How all fighter planes suck: an idiot’s guide to supersonic air intakes

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Jet engines need to breathe air that is travelling slower than the speed of sound, so how do you do that on an aircraft intended to travel far faster? We asked Jim Smith to take his torch and look up the intakes of the modern fighter aircraft. 

Three main considerations drive the type of intakes used for supersonic aircraft.

The first is that the air delivered to the compressor face of the engine has to be subsonic (slower than the speed of sound). The reason being that supersonic airflow would create shock waves to form across the fan and compressor blades, which would not only severely disrupt the normal flow through the engine, but could cause destructive vibrations which could destroy the engine.

The second is that, to maximise engine thrust, the energy losses in slowing the air to subsonic speed must be minimised. Finally, for some recent aircraft, radar signature must also be minimised. A fourth general consideration is that the intake must be able to operate satisfactorily over a wide range of flight parameters, including not just speed and incidence, but also pitch, roll and yaw angles and rates.

The management of shock waves by the intake system is one of the key ways in which the supersonic flight airflow is reduced to subsonic speed at the engine face.

Intake forms

Pitot Intake

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The simplest form of intake is the simple pitot intake, examples of which can be seen on early jet fighters such as the MiG-15, Dassault Ouragon and F-100 Super Sabre. At supersonic speeds a shock wave forms across the front of such intakes, and this form of shock wave is known as a Normal Shock (because the shock wave is at a right angle to, or Normal to, the flow).

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This type of intake is very simple, has no weight penalty, and is relatively insensitive to flow direction, at least partly because there are no fuselage surfaces ahead of the intake to provide disturbances of the flow, and no boundary layer from such surfaces, which can provide another source of flow disturbance into the intake.

Why don’t all supersonic aircraft use these intakes? Well, as the flight Mach Number increases, the strength of the Normal Shock increases. This means that the pressure drop through the shock wave increases, reducing the efficiency of the intake. In addition, the temperature of the airflow will also rise. Both these factors reduce thrust, and aircraft with pitot intakes are only really efficient at Mach numbers up to about 1.6.

Variable Geometry Intakes – Cones and Ramps

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The BAC TSR2 had shockcone intakes.  Image: author

Considering the discussion above, we can see that shockwaves are an important mechanism for reducing the intake airflow to a subsonic speed at the engine, but that a single Normal Shock becomes too strong and loses efficiency. What is needed is a means of producing the weakest possible shock system that still enables subsonic flow at the engine face. Shaping the inlet duct can assist in this, but generally some form of variable geometry is required so that the flow to the engine can be efficiently delivered over a range of Mach numbers.

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Any excuse for a Mirage 4000 photo!

A simple way of doing this is to provide a conical surface in the inlet, which can be moved to generate a shockwave at an angle to the flow (typically between the point of the cone and the intake lip). This oblique shock allows a weaker and more efficient Normal Shock at the intake lip. This type of design is seen in the MiG-21 and BAC Lightning, and a similar approach can be implemented for side intakes using a moveable half cone to generate the oblique shock wave, as seen, for example, on the Mirage series of aircraft, from the Mirage III to the Mirage 4000. The side intake may be desirable if a large nose-mounted radar is to be carried.

These variable geometry intakes are capable of working effectively up to speeds around Mach 2.2.

Another way of generating an oblique shock wave system allowing efficient flight at high Mach numbers is to use variable ramps ahead of, or inside, the inlet. This achieves the same effect as the variable Mach cone, but can achieve higher efficiency. Because it is possible to use more than one ramp, and to vary the angles of ramps to suit the flight speed, multiple oblique shockwaves can be formed, reducing inlet airspeed as required, but minimising pressure and thermal losses.

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Phantom power

This type of engine intake is used in many aircraft, but the F-4 Phantom provides a good example of a variable ramp intake. The efficiency which can be achieved is perhaps exemplified by Concorde, capable of super-cruising (flying supersonic without the use of afterburner) at Mach 2.02 and 54,000 ft. Another high-speed aircraft using this type of inlet is the MiG 31, which is capable of very high speeds – the maximum permitted Mach number is reported to be Mach 2.83 (Janes 1992-3).

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The biggest fighter intakes, on the MiG-31

The SR-71 is an example of a multi-shock conical inlet, with the multiple shocks arising from a combination of cone position, which locates the oblique shock, and inlet cone and duct shaping, which positions the Normal Shock. The variable geometry inlet was supplemented by auxiliary doors for lower speed flight, and a variable by-pass engine to ensure efficient flow through the engine at high speed. The complexities of coupling the variable geometry inlet to a variable by-pass engine resulted in a propulsion system capable of delivering very high cruise speeds in excess of Mach 3, but which could be very sensitive to varying conditions, leading to occasional engine ‘unstart’ issues.

Boundary Layer Diverters, Diverterless Intakes and Radar Signature Reduction.

Maintenance of stable flow conditions over a broad range of manoeuvre angles and rates is essential in a fighter aircraft. The development of early supersonic aircraft was plagued by engine-inlet related issues including shock wave ‘buzz’, adverse effects of gunfire, inlet flow instabilities, and unexpectedly low installed thrust.

For aircraft with side-mounted intakes (most aircraft not using a pitot intake) some of these issues arose from interactions between the flow on the aircraft fuselage and in the engine inlet. As a result, it was found desirable to stand the intakes off from the side of the fuselage, creating a passage to allow the fuselage boundary layer to flow past the intake without entering it and disturbing the flow to the engine. In many cases, further protection was achieved through the use of a splitter plate to ensure the separation of the boundary layer flow from the intake flow.

This type of arrangement, which is clearly visible on almost all jet aircraft with side intakes, is known as a boundary layer diverter. While this approach ‘does the job’ it also creates a deep channel alongside the intake which can increase significantly the radar signature, particularly in head-on aspects.

Head-on radar signature is particularly important for fighter aircraft because this is the aspect they generally present to opposition fighters and Airborne Early Warning aircraft. In addition, if untreated, the head on radar signature is likely to be large because of the fighter’s own radar, intakes, inlets and engines, cockpit, other sensor apertures and boundary layer diverter.

Treatments exist for many of these items through shaping, coatings and other measures, and, for a fighter with low observable aspirations, once the obvious major contributions have been addressed, the boundary layer diverter can become an issue.

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Bump ‘n’ grind with the F-35B.

In developing the F-35, Lockheed-Martin has developed a diverterless supersonic intake, consisting of a shaped ‘bump’ on the fuselage side, which acts like a ‘rock’ in the fuselage boundary layer ‘stream’, causing the boundary layer flow to part and avoid flowing into the intake. The ‘bump’ is coupled with a forward swept intake cowl, and it is claimed this offers a light-weight solution to providing an efficient intake for a supersonic aircraft, with the added advantage of avoiding the radar signature of a boundary layer diverter. This approach has also been used on the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder aircraft.

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Thunder bumps.

It is, perhaps, worth noting that neither the intake, nor the diverter system has any variable geometry. Consequently, the intake system is likely to act like a pitot system in some ways, limiting efficient flight speeds. This is perhaps less of an issue for the F-35, because it has very low signature, and also because it will be limited to about Mach 1.6 by wave drag. One might wonder, however, about the trade off for the JF-17, where perhaps a F-20 Tigershark-like intake with a variable ramp might, with a suitable engine, allow higher performance in the Mach 2 range.

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It is worth noting that the F-22 Raptor retains a boundary layer diverter, doubtless treated with RAM, combined with a number of other measures to reduce intake and engine signature in the forward aspect. The quoted maximum speed of Mach 2.25 is extremely creditable for an aircraft with a fixed inlet. The inlet itself is at an oblique angle to the airflow, and this, together with careful shaping of the internal duct may not only to reduce signature, but also increase the efficiency of  pressure recovery compared to a simple pitot intake, like the intakes of Concorde and the MiG 31, but without a variable internal ramp.

Interestingly, the intake of the YF-23 was also diverterless, but this was achieved using flow control rather than the geometric bump featured on the F-35. A technique called boundary layer suction was used to remove the boundary layer from the relatively short surface ahead of the intake. This is not a new technique, and indeed, is used on the boundary layer diverter plates of some aircraft, including the Typhoon. The end result for the YF-23 was a notably clean and simple looking intake. Like the F-22, one would expect shaping of the internal duct to be used to control the position of the oblique and normal shock waves and achieve an efficient intake system.

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One thing that surprised me was the F-22 max Mach of 2.25 (Jane’s) with fixed inlet geometry. This seems unlikely to be efficient, so could reflect  the brute force engine, or a willingness to trade range for dash speed in extremis. Or it could indicate they have done something very clever with the inlets and inside the engine ducts..

References: Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators NAVWEPS 00-80T-80 Naval Air Systems Command;

Janes All the Worlds Aircraft (various)

Lockheed SR-71 The Secret Missions Revealed, Paul F Crickmore

Wikipedia on JF-17 and F-22

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Are Swedish warplanes overrated?

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We all love Nordic things. These nations’ sensible, progressive laws, epic countryside, the lovely cars and the way they seem to get modernity just right. But could this love of Scandinavia be a trifle rose-tinted — and could it be affecting the way we consider their fighter aircraft, the Saab Gripen? 

In ‘The Almost Perfect People’,  Michael Booth, takes a look at the complex – and often dark reality behind the myth of a Nordic utopia. He finds a region in the grip of stifling conformism, with an alarming number of extremists. Of the Nordic nations, Sweden is the best at public relations. The fact that we even have a common idea of a nation with a population less than the city of Jakarta is a sign that they are indeed very good at public relations. Leaping to the obvious, we may even consider the popularity of IKEA furniture, despite the sagging sadness of the Billy bookcase (and the company’s sinister origins and use of forced labour) in the corner of your room. It’s enough to make you wonder if the almost universal aviation press approval of the Gripen is equally biased or if this tiny fighter really is as good as they say it is.

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Sweden is an oddball plane-making nation. No nation this small makes world-class fighter aircraft. In fact, very few nations make their own fighter aircraft. There are only six nations that make (mostly) indigenous fighter aircraft: the United States, Russia, China, India, France and Sweden. There’s a good reason for this: it is very expensive to make a fighter aircraft and they are made in small numbers, so buying them off the shelf or sharing the effort with a friendly nation makes sense. Of course no aircraft are completely indigenous in terms of design, production and all components – but some do come pretty close. Sweden’s policy of neutrality has driven their indigenous fighter, and it’s been making its own warplanes for a long time, and they’ve generally been excellent. Whereas France’s industry has been fortified by a nationalist socialism forged in a traumatising military defeat, Sweden’s has been built on social democracy, tactical neutrality and the presence of a worrying superpower neighbour. And tradition.

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Sweden leapt into the jet fighter age with alacrity: the SAAB 21R first flew in 1947, six months before the US’ F-86 Sabre. This was impressive – it was even one year ahead of the first French jet fighter, the Ouragan. A SAAB J 29B Tunnan broke the world record for the 310 mile (500 km) closed course in May 1954. The record had been held by the F-86 Sabre at 590 mph (950 km/h) but the Tunnan raised it to 607 mph (977 km/h).* The Lansen was next, followed by the Draken which achieved a great deal on half the installed thrust of the British Lightning, then the Viggen – which was probably more survivable than mere top trumps stats might suggest – and the tiny Gripen, which entered service in 1996. With a 6800 kg empty weight, the Gripen was a very different proposition to the European fighters that followed it: the Rafale enter service in 2001 and had an empty weight of around 10000 kg, the Typhoon (2004) was even heavier at 11000kg. 9000-CC-1986JAS-39-Gripen_01.jpg

Yet the Swedish midget would face-off against these far larger rivals in international competitions, a sign that it could punch above its weight. In 2008 the three Eurocanards (the European Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon all have a tail-first ‘canard’ configuration) fought to be procured by the Swiss Air Force.

*In January 1955, two Tunnan S 29Cs gained the world record for the 620 mile (1000 km) closed course achieving an average speed of 560 mph (901 km/h).

Swiss evaluation

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Arguably, leaks are the only way we can get meaningful information on how capable a warplane actually is. The manufacturers are only interested in sharing positive stories about their aircraft. The degree of honesty expressed by the operators varies  — they must balance the power display of deterrence with not looking naive or insane, and the fact that some of assessments are in the public domain. Boasting about your aircraft’s abilities often goes down well with a domestic audience, but if too silly will encourage international ridicule — as was the case with the Iranian IAIO Qaher-313. The media is generally interested in either a nationalistic chest-thump or a left-wing damning of the cost and folly of all military hardware. National competitive evaluations of foreign types do tell us something, but are all too often swayed by corruption and steered by political allegiances. The specialised press, badly paid and overworked, generally only have the time to reword a press release. So, for the nations that don’t have honest assessment results in the public domain this leaves us with leaks as the sole source of useful information… well, that and physics or a knowledge of budget size. Of course leaks happen with motive — and as we will see it’s not too hard to imagine who was behind the leak of the Swiss fighter evaluation results of 2008. This competition pitted the Gripen against the larger Typhoon and Rafale. The results were a savaging of the Gripen, which was seen to be inferior to the aircraft it was intended to replace, the F/A-18, in many key areas (though notably the Gripen’s electronic warfare systems performance was described as superior to the Typhoon). It needs to be noted that the Gripen has half the engine power of the Hornet*, the two types use the same US engine, the F404, but the Hornets have two per aircraft, Gripens only one. This should equate to lower running costs, and certainly does in the amount of fuel that will be consumed. Even factoring this in, the results were rather humiliating for Gripen. Chris Pocock quoted the assessors as saying “endurance, aircraft performances and aircraft weapon load were among the main limiting factors.” …before noting…“The evaluators said there was no sensor data fusion between the radar and EW suite, although the latter “was among the strong points of the Gripen.” 

*It has slightly more than half, Gripen C/D has 54 kN (12,000 lbf) in dry thrust dry and  80.5 kN (18,100 lbf) in reheat; Half of Hornet C/D thrust is 11,000 lbf (49 kN) thrust dry, 17,750 lbf (79.0 kN) with reheat. 

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Despite this the Gripen won, the Rafale being dismissed on cost grounds. Boeing believed from the outset that the conclusion had been made before the evaluation and had prematurely withdrawn its Super Hornet from the contest, probably a good decision  considering the result and following leak. The Gripen procurement didn’t happen though. The contest was then relaunched, but the nascent Gripen E was not eligible as it was immature at the time, and Saab pulled their offer in 2019. 

(The Gripen probably was the best fit for Switzerland, in terms of both cost and deployability, and in reality not much is asked of the Swiss Air Force anyway. It is  incapable of maintaining a state of 24/7 readiness due to limited budget and lack of staff  and is operated from 06:00-22:00 local time only. Hopefully potential enemies will respect office hours. Italian and French fighters are permitted to enter Swiss airspace to handle potential threat.)

 

 

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How Swedish is it? 

Leaked diplomatic cables from 2008 show Swedish requests for the US to supply AESA radar technology for the Gripen. As this potentially upgraded Gripen would have been a rival to the F-35, especially in the Danish competition, Sweden was keen to show the US that Gripen sales would be mutually beneficial. The report noted that Gripen contains 50 percent U.S. content, including engines, avionics and weapon systems. With this in mind it is clear that the Gripen is not as autonomous from US wishes as is often suggested. This has been since improved to some degree with the addition of the European Meteor (and European AESA for Gripen E/F).

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A place for surplus love

A friend of mine, a seasoned aviation writer, had an interesting theory: the British love of Swedish fighters stems, at least partly, from an absence of British fighters. British children, particularly boys, read books and play with toys which celebrate Britain’s glorious aeronautical past and the cult of the Spitfire. But Britain stopped making fighters when the last BAC Lightning rivet was screwed in for Saudi Arabia. so where could this surplus enthusiasm go? Let’s have a look at the likely candidates —French aircraft? The sting of envy was too great. US aircraft? Too gauche, and no underdog appeal. Soviet? Yes, but they’re the baddies so can’t show too much love. Chinese? Not very good and somehow absent of emotive appeal. Which left this notional British man of the 1970s with one strong candidate: Sweden. Their great cars, made by the same damn company that made the enormously charismatic Viggen, were a  gateway- (or perhaps ‘gateguard’-) drug to mainlining Volvo jet noise.  Added to this, is the connoisseur’s desire to avoid the obvious, steering them well away from American offerings. Sweden’s aircraft are pleasingly leftfield, and no-one outside of Scandinavia is offended by Sweden’s foreign policy (or even knows what it is).

Interview with a Gripen pilot here

Interview with a Viggen pilot here

10 most beautiful Swedish aircraft here 

But it is actually pretty good

The Gripen is relatively cheap to operate and can do the vast majority of missions a modern air force requires from it. Its electronic warfare suite is highly regraded, in a Hush-Kit interview, Justin Bronk noted:

“Against the Su-35S (a very capable heavy Russian fighter aircraft) Gripen would rely on the cutting edge EW capabilities which Saab builds the Gripen (especially the new E/F) around to hide the aircraft from the sensors of the Russian jets in much the same way as the Raptor relies on x-band stealth. These EW capabilities are so highly classified that there is simply no way to assess their effectiveness in the public domain. Having said that, RAF pilots who I have talked to with experience of the Saab fighter’s EW teeth first hand say that the ability of the aircraft to get alarmingly close without detection thanks entirely to EW is very impressive.”

Gripen offers great autonomy for operators than the F-35, less maintenance burden than the Typhoon, more commonality with widely used weapons than the Rafale. Against the F-16, for some parts of the world, it offers a less controversial allegiance. We asked a Gripen pilot how confident he would be fighting an F-16:

“Absolutely. I can’t think of anything the F-16 would be better at, if we don’t count ease of refuelling (F-16 is refuelled with a boom and the boom operator does much of the job). Of course, there’s a lot of details and circumstances here, but generally the Gripen is a step or two ahead, especially in my favourite areas. As mentioned, I really like pilot UI and large screens, and F-16 is lacking a bit in that area, so maybe I’m a bit biased. I do like the F-16’s side-stick though! I have flown an F-16 and I loved the stick. It didn’t take many minutes to get used to the stiffer stick, and it’s more ergonomic for the pilot in high-Gs (and probably for long missions) to have it on the side. Flying in close formation with another fighter was almost as easy as with the Gripen.”

Jim Smith, in assessing Gripen’s combat effectiveness, opined: “‘suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the government does not have global dominance in its agenda. … For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system”

Away from high Gs (but equally important) is faith that the chosen contractor can deliver on time and budget. What is most impressive about Saab is its efficiency. It is less bloated than its American rivals, less prone to pork-barrel politics and the Swedish approach does not financially reward programme delays in the same way as the British and US aerospace systems. Its factories are small and lean. This efficiency is very unusual, and probably unque. When Hush-Kit spoke to respected aviation reporter Bill Sweetman, we asked him the following:

The Typhoon, F-22 and F-35 programmes have all received a great deal of criticism; can you give an example of a well-run military aircraft project? “Almost anything from the land of blondes, aquavit and IKEA.”

The world knows this and everyone wants to jump into bed with Saab. An example being the Boeing/Saab T-7 Red Hawk and the UK’s attempts to seduce Saab to join project Tempest. But promiscuity may be Saab’s undoing — can it effectively firewall its uniquely functional culture from the corruption of the political- military -industrial mess in other countries? Another point: the US does not tolerate international competition. One way to quash potential rivals is to collaborate until the majority of the employees and orders are held in the US. Collaboration could be Saab’s undoing in the longterm.

Ethical?

Ethical arms exportation maybe a ridiculous (arguably oxymoronic) idea in most cases but how does the Gripen do in relative terms? Let’s have a look. (The common counter-argument for arms export limitation that “if we didn’t sell weapons to nation X, other nations would.”, doesn’t bear any scrutiny as a moral position). I have chosen the 2012 Human Freedom Index as the information is readily available and it seems a reasonable date point in the history of Gripen exports. Exports counted if some payment has been received and delivery is likely.

Gripen export operators ranked by position in 2012 Human Freedom Index (variation where better source available)

Brazil – Ranked at 82

South Africa – Ranked at 70

Thailand – not viewed as full democracy, in the 2012 Human Freedom Index  it was ranked at 86 of 152. *see notes 

Hungary – at 36, is pretty good.

Czech Republic – 21 (very good)

Lower score best

295 divided by 5

Average score: 59

Typhoon export operators ranked by position in 2012 Human Freedom Index 

Saudi Arabia -141

Oman – 45

Austria – 12

Kuwait – 59

Qatar – 140

389 divided by 5

Average score: 77.8

Though officially Saudi Arabia sales are suspended due to German insistence, Eurofighter continues support with RSAF and continues courting for further sales.

Rafale export operators ranked by position in 2012 Human Freedom Index 

Egypt: 136

India: 75

Qatar: 114

Average score:

325 divided by 3

108.33

Ethical export score

Rafale: 108.33 (worst)

Typhoon: 77.8

Gripen: 59

 

But Sweden does sell military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, but instead of a highly conspicuous fighter-bomber deal has supplied the extremely effective Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control System. Also, judging only the winners of international contests seems questionable; Gripen was offered to Saudi Arabia in the mid 1990s and failed to get an order. Though admittedly this took place when Saab had an arrangement with BAe.

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Green fighter  

Much like ‘ethical weapons’, the notion of Green weapons seems bizarre. Weapons are for destruction, not preservation purposes and war is a last resort, so surely a Green consideration is meaningless? Well not really, as most weapon’s use is in training and/or as a deterrent. Sweden is very good at this, and has led the way in lead-free ammunition.

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The Gripen uses the smallest engine (and only one per aircraft) of fighters in its class so this should mean it used less fuel for a given mission. But this must be balanced against other aircraft being able to carry more weapons for a single mission — this is rather complicated, and factors to consider when assessing this would be how frequently other aircraft (for example the larger Typhoon) expend all munitions in real missions. It appears likely that for a given mission objective Gripens would use less fuel, but in reality it is very hard to work this out. One further complication being the Gripen’s ‘short legs’ mean it is may be more dependent on air-refuelling aircraft than other aircraft.

Gripen pilot discusses Gripen E and C here. 

As the Gripen was a little earlier than the Rafale and Typhoon, it employs a more old-fashioned use of materials. Only around 30% of the Gripen is composite, compared to 82% for Typhoon. This means it may have sacrificed a weight saving (though this may be less clearcut than is commonly understood due to safety considerations) but is probably less hazardous in the case of a crash. When composite materials (including carbon fibre, fibreglass and kevlar) are involved on fire, they release toxic fumes — and
fibres may be released in the smoke plume. This is a significant hazards at accident sites and has been compared to the effects of breathing asbestos fibres. From this perspective 30% is better than 82%.. but still an issue.

One also wonders at which altitude aircraft exhausts are most environmentally deleterious — does the fact that the lower-powered Gripen spends less time at ultra-high altitudes than the Raptor and Typhoon make it Greener?

* I appreciate this is a very crude methodology (the top trumps stats for fighters never features an ethical angle so we’re inventing one here). But it tells us something, or at least starts a conversation. On this metric, the Rafale or rather Dassault, does particularly badly and the Gripen is a little better. Where more relevant, entries from different years/categories have been used. Again: this is a very rough-and-ready ‘prototype’ approach.

Gripen E interview here

I have no conclusion, just the rather jumbled musings above. What is worth considering is the language and preconceptions we bring when discussing aircraft of different national origins, especially when the aircraft comes from our own country. Away from this rationality, the romance of these rare characterful machines shaking the snow from the trees in the far north remains as compelling as ever.

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“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’

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

 

I can do it with your help.

From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as

“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft.

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I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the book link .  

 

I can do it with your help.

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Grey aircraft: who is to blame?

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USAF F-15C Eagles wear a two-tone grey scheme. (credit USAF/Tech. Sgt. Emerson Nuñez)

Why are almost all warplanes grey? We wanted to know more, so we approached the RAF Museum.

Grey is a miserable colour. It is the colour of desolate industrial areas, the sky on an unlovely Tuesday afternoon in England, or else the tone of faceless bureaucracy or unhappy vagueness. According to colour historian Eva Heller, “grey is too weak to be considered masculine, but too menacing to be considered a feminine colour. It is neither warm nor cold, neither material or spiritual. With grey, nothing seems to be decided.”

It is among the least popular colours – that is outside of the field of combat aircraft paint-schemes. In other times, warplanes were painted brilliant blue, left in the glorious shine of unpainted aluminium or resplendent in jungly green camouflage. Then everything went grey. Even the roundels –– those once colourful markings that show you which air force is operating the machine flying past – became washed out.

First World War origins

It was in the First World War that the application of camouflage became virtually universal for armed land forces, partly due to the threat of aerial reconnaissance. Likewise, aircraft needed to hide from each other, from anti-aircraft fire, and from being spotted on the ground by enemy aircraft while on the ground. Various schemes were used including the very distinctive German lozenge pattern, all-over olive green and even the application of transparent fabrics. Grey was also used. It is perhaps unsurprising, as grey (or grey-blue) already had a strong military association for ground forces. Early 19th century firing trials in Austria concluded that grey was a more effective camouflage for soldiers than green. A study carried out by Captain Charles Hamilton Smith came to the same conclusion in 1800: grey was a better than green at “a distance of 150 yards.” (advice ignored by the British Army which instead opted for green).

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Grey dyes were also inexpensive and easy to manufacture, something pivotal to the adoption of grey uniforms within the Confederate forces in the American Civil War. The German Army wore feldgrau (‘field-grey’) uniforms from 1907 right up until 1945, chosen for their camouflaging qualities at great distances – something that had increased in importance with a new generation of accurate long-range rifles and machine-guns. The French army lagged a little behind, with the ‘horizon-blue’ blue-grey uniform (so-called as it was thought to prevent soldiers from standing out against the skyline) approved on 10th July 1914, and making the French dangerously conspicuous from day one in their blue and red uniforms.

From uniforms to aircraft 

It’s likely that this culture influenced the choice of aircraft colour. Conversely, Britain had learnt the benefits of drab green, and particularly ‘khaki’, from its colonial fighting in mid-19th century Punjab. This unattractive style, went out of ‘fashion’, but returned due to it excellence as a camouflage. By 1902, both the British and American land forces had gone khaki, something echoed in many of their aircraft in World War I.

In World War I, Germany and France both had some grey military aircraft. Examples of the former include the LFG Roland C.II, and of the latter, the Nieuports. A light blue-grey Nieuport 11 was flown by the French ace Georges Guynemer, which he named Oiseau Bleu (Blue Bird) — and some Voisin IIIs were painted in the same colour. By mid-1916 a silver-grey aluminium dope became the standard for French Nieuports until it was phased out in favour of a more disruptive scheme. Some Austro-Hungarian aircraft, for example, were painted with grey-based ‘lozenge schemes’.

 

The most successful fighter pilot, the ‘Red Baron‘, painted his aircraft red. This not only aided visual identification among allies, a vital factor in a fast chaotic dogfight where fractions of a second matter, but also offered the psychological advantage of scaring enemy pilots aware of his reputation. It is interesting that the most effective ‘dogfighting’ pilot spurned camouflage. I asked the RAF Museum about this:

 

Considering the Red Baron had a red aeroplane, is there an argument that bright colours offer advantages over camouflage; is quick identification friend-or-foe sometimes more important than the advantages of camouflage?
“The Red Baron’s red aircraft and other highly decorated aircraft of the flying circus obviously made the aircraft easily identifiable, it could also be seen possibly as intimidatory to the opposition, however, Austro Hungarian ace Julius Arigi, abandoned his highly decorative aircraft as he found that it drew the attention of the enemy.”

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‘Sand and spinach’

By World War II, Britain’s fighter aircraft had disruptive two-tone uppers of earth and green, with a white (or black and white, or sometimes sky blue) lower half. In 1941, the Luftwaffe switched tactics: more fighting was taking place at higher altitudes where British schemes were dangerously visible. The Air Fighting Development Unit at Duxford considered the problem and concluded that the scheme should be toned down. The dark browns should be replaced with ‘Open Grey’ and the underside should be ‘Sea Grey’. A trend had started. Clearly, grey would be of the greatest benefit to the aircraft that spent the highest percentage of their missions at higher altitudes. With this in mind I asked the RAF Museum, if (as Thomas Newdick of AFM) believed, the all-grey scheme was first applied to the Welkin high-altitude fighter. ‘Welkin’ is a noun for the sky or heaven).
What was the first application of all-over grey as camouflage, was it the Welkin?
“It would appear that the first all grey trial occurred in May 1941 when a PRU Mosquito at RAF Benson was painted with a Medium Sea Grey/ Olive Grey scheme. It proved very effective, but it was felt it would be difficult to introduce to existing aircraft as the workload of stripping, priming and applying the new scheme would be too much work.
The first grey scheme to be used operationally was in June 1943 when it was approved for use on high level fighters, this included Spitfires, Welkins and some prototype aircraft.”

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Supermarine Spitfire P.R. Mk. XI

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How was grey decided upon?
“Grey was adopted for high altitude fighters on upper surfaces as when viewed from above the ground looked grey due to cloud or dust particles in the air below.”

What is the advantage of grey?

RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft markings in World War II moved away from dark colours towards paler, greyer tones. One exception, though, was the Luftwaffe’s move towards darker, more disruptive schemes than ‘ground camouflage’ as they began to lose the war.

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A P-38 wearing ‘haze paint’.

Low-viz markings: a mystery solved

Six years ago we tried to explain the mystery of ‘low-visibility’ national markings on military aircraft. Essentially we couldn’t understand why markings, something supposed to be clearly visible, were increasingly low-key on modern military aircraft. The idea of camouflaged markings seemed oxymoronic to the point of madness, but finally we can answer the question, thanks to the RAF Museum:

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Modern national markings, as seen on these USAF F-35As are hard to see. The symbols pay lip service to a 1944 convention.

Considering national insignia are intended to be seen, why are modern national markings painted in low observable colours? Is there a legal requirement to carry them?
“The reason for low-observable markings is to reduce the risk of compromising the aircraft camouflage paint scheme, aircraft rarely come into visual range nowadays and aircraft are most likely to be identified by IFF. Yes, it is a legal requirement under the Chicago Convention.”

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The signing of the Chicago Convention took place before women were invented.

Ah, so these markings are paying lip service to a law! So what was the Chicago Convention? It was a convention on International Civil Aviation, drafted in 1944 by 54 nations. The stated aim was to promote cooperation, friendliness and understanding around the world. The US government invited 55 states (some of whom were still occupied) to attend an International Civil Aviation Conference in Chicago. Travel for many of the attendees was very dangerous (the war was ongoing in many places), but all bar one managed to attend (we’re not sure which country failed to send a delegate – answer in the comments below if you know). By the end of 1944, 52 states had joined the convention, and by 2019 there were 193 members. Find out more about the Chicago Convention here.

Has the convention been broken? Well, various nations have operated unmarked state military or para-military reconnaissance and transport aircraft. The conflicting needs of camouflage and identifying markings have a parallel in the natural world – for example, in the balance between camouflage and breeding plumage in birds.

 

 

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1976-1985: The beginning of the end

In 1976 the F-15 Eagle entered service. It would define the Air Superiority fighter for thirty years, and was originally delivered in ‘Air Superiority Blue’. By 1978, though, new ones were being delivered in a ghostly two-tone wraparound grey, and repainting of old ones was well underway. Former F-15 pilot Paul Woodford, in conversation with Hush-Kit, noted- “Blue was too easy to see (we called it “tally ho blue”), gray was harder to spot”

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An F-15A in 1978 wearing ‘Tally Ho Blue’ Credit: Paul Woodford

This action led to the blandest revolution since the introduction of the USB, the Great Graying. The Eagle was followed by the equally blandly painted F-16 and F/A-18. With these aircraft, especially the Hornet and Eagle, the two tones appeared so similar in some light conditions they may as well have been all grey. Which raises the question, what was the first fully grey one-tone grey fighter of the modern age? I thought the RAF Tornado ADV that entered service in 1985, was a strong candidate, but on closer inspection I noticed it had a pale belly. This was followed soon after by Spain’s all-grey Hornets. If you know of earlier examples, let me know in the comments section.

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Soviet origins?

I’ve avoided the Soviet part of the story as it’s a story in its own right. The USSR had some grey fighters in World War Two and continued this with the early jets. Some MiG-17s were certainly allover grey, as were the aircraft of several export nations including Pakistan. The main motive for the grey paint on Soviet air defence fighters and interceptors may have been corrosion protection rather than concealment.

Mud-movers go grey

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A Russian Su-32 flouting the Western grey convention.

Western ground attack tactics crystallised in Desert Storm in 1991, favouring medium altitude attacks with precision-guided weapons to low-level operations. Two-tone disruptive schemes, intended to make it hard to see an aircraft from above against the background of ground terrain were now on the way out. This furthered the universality of grey, and by the mid-to-late 1990s, the RAF’s Tornado GRs had gone grey (albeit a darker shade than their air defence brethren). The same was not true of Russian Air Force aircraft, though, and many have retained disruptive tactical schemes.

Today, Western air powers remain in thrall to grey, though fortunately many African and Asian air forces have not abandoned colour.

Special thanks to the RAF Museum’s researchers. 

 

Thoughts on Boeing’s new armed recce helicopter from former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters

 

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Following on the heels of its four competitors, Boeing has released artworks of its candidate for the U.S. Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) programme. Equipped with a hingeless rotor and pusher propeller the design is reminiscent of Lockheed’s failed AH-56 Cheyenne first flown in 1967. We asked We asked Ron Smith, former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, for his thoughts on the return of a yet another futuristic, yet familiar, configuration.  

 

“All FARA contenders are constrained as follows (this information via Vertiflite, magazine of the Vertical Flight Society):

40 ft (12m) maximum rotor diameter
Maximum length 46.5 ft (17.2m)
Max gross weight 14,000 lb (6,350 kg)
180 kt cruise speed
3,000 shp GE T901 Improved Turbine Engine
Hover out of ground effect at 4,000ft, 95F
20mm Cannon and ability to integrate ‘current and future weapons’ (therefore presumably meaning Hellfire, possibly in both RF and laser guided forms).
Capability for “air-launched effects”
Modular Open Systems Architecture.
One can assume that other capabilities such as crashworthiness, the ability to operate in sand, dust, snow, etc. will also be incorporated, along with wire strike protection and so on. Operation in built environments (the so-called urban canyons) may throw up a number of challenges – not least co-ordination within and between units operating in the same areas.
The Boing aircraft has tandem seats (with a large expanse of cockpit glazing). It features a shaped fuselage and a rotorhead fairing, both reducing radar cross-section and (for the hub) parasite drag. A retractable undercarriage and internal weapons carriage is featured.

[Thus far, there is little that was not anticipated by Westland 45 and 47 some 35 years ago, which had a very similar gross weight]

There is an electro-optic sensor under the nose, and a 20mm cannon. There is a canted tail rotor to the rear and the tail of the aircraft has a pusher propeller. This latter has three potential advantages:

  1. By providing propulsive thrust, less main rotor cyclic and collective pitch range is required, and the rotor flight envelope will be improved (delaying the point at which stall flutter is encountered).

2. The ability to provide forward and reverse thrust will enable acceleration with only limited fuselage attitude change and increased deceleration capability, without encountering rotor overspeed in autorotation, where pitch attitude limits restrict the maximum deceleration that can be achieved.

3.  It may well be that limiting the amount of fuselage pitch attitude change with speed and acceleration / deceleration will simplify gun control and potentially increase the firing envelopes of other weapons.

The large area of cockpit glazing may create glint and specular reflection issues. One assumes that the crew will be equipped with helmet mounted displays and that the aircraft will be network-enabled and able to share target information (including identity / rules of engagement compliance data) with other ISTAR assets.

Without this capability, there may be a mismatch between weapon range and the ability of the on-board sensors to obtain positive identification of potential targets.”

Hush-Kit notes: Boeing hopes that their fly-by-wire experience with the Defiant and Comanche will overcome the kind of control issues suffered by the Cheyenne fifty three years ago. The compound helicopter, a helicopter equipped with an additional  propulsion system purely for forward flight, dates back to at least 1962 (the Lockheed XH-51 and Piasecki 16H Pathfinder being early examples) but as yet none have entered actual service.

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The Wise Report: The Monino monoliths

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The droop-snout of the Sukhoi T-4, a mach 3 bomber that first flew in 1972. Below 370 mph the flight crew could view the world from a window with an uncanny resemblance to a London Underground train; at higher speeds the nose swivelled up to form a sleek dart and the view was through a periscope. The T-4 project was cancelled in 1975.

We thought it was about time we had a regular columnist and so we turned to Sam Wise, a man who travels the world driven by an unquenchable desire to stand in the shade of vast aluminium, steel and titanium machines. In the first of what we hope becomes a monthly column, here is his report from arguably the best aviation museum in the world, Monino, home of the Central Air Force Museum in Russia. 

“Stalinist architecture is fascinating. Littering the former USSR and its satellite states are
hundreds of brutal, monolithic monuments to communism and Stalin’s ego, utterly striking in their scale and form. The Socialist-Realist movement was all-encompassing in the completely controlled artistic world of the Soviet Union, especially in the early years of the Union when the new country was keen to celebrate the success of the proletariat in the class struggle – and later the Red Army’s supreme victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War.

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A kind of missing link between the Sea Harrier and the F-35B, the Yakovlev Yak-43 was part of the Soviet navy’s ambition to create a supersonic ‘jump-jet’ force. As the Cold War ended, the US manufacturer Lockheed struck up a arrangement with Yakovlev to harvest its propulsion know-how to aid with its efforts to build the X-35, forerunner of today’s F-35B.

Stalin, the exemplar egomaniac, was hugely in favour of enormous testaments to his, and the USSR’s, power and influence, especially to his own people.
At its heart, this scale of architecture was intended to both impress and impose,
simultaneously inspire awe and dread at who was in charge. Much of Soviet art was like this – when we see posters, paintings and the like from the country it can seem drearily conformist – well, largely this was the intention. Too much individualism or creativity, and people start getting ideas.

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Interview with a MiG-27 pilot here.

 

Many such monuments are a glorification of socialism, communism and the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution that changed global history – giant statues of Lenin and Stalin (the latter mostly gone now), idealised tributes to labourers and workers that perhaps didn’t quite reflect the attitudes or opinions of those that built them. Even if you didn’t like them – hated them even – you knew they were in charge of your every move and you’d better play ball. Just look at the chilling and blankly named Rear-front Memorial looming over Magnitogorsk

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A Sukhoi Su-7. Over 90% of Russia is birch forests full of old tactical fighters.

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The Lavochkin La-250, which first flew in 1956, was an attempt to build a high-altitude interceptor large enough to carry a new generation of air-to-air missile. It was nicknamed ‘Anakonda’ for its snakelike appearance and unforgiving handling. Just about everything on the La-250 was never perfected, including a weak engine was weak, an unreliable radar, and a dangerous hydraulic system. It was axed and replaced with the vast Tupolev Tu-28, an interceptor as long as a Boeing 737! The Lavochkin bureau had created a vitally important fighter aircraft family in World War II, but didn’t last long in the jet age, the lamentable La-250 being their last attempt to build a fighter. The bureau then moved into the field of missile and spacecraft design.

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The Myasishchev M-55 was created to combat prying high altitude spy balloons. It was later adapted for reconnaissance and geophysical research. In a highly unlikely move, an Irish company offered the M-55 as a “digital communications station” for the South East Asian market!

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The MiG-105 was an experimental spaceplane built in support of the Spiral programme, It was developed by a team led by G.E. Lozino-Lozinsky.

But who could fail to weep at the majesty of Батьківщина-Мати in Kiev, the Mound of Glory (quiet at the back!) outside Minsk or, most breathtaking of all, the gargantuan Родина-мать зовёт! on the outskirts of Volgograd, site of that most bloody of battles.

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After all the USSR suffered at the hands of the German war machine – about 27 million people killed, or more than one in ten of the population – you can’t blame them wanting to shout to the heavens about their victory. The monuments to the war dead have tended to stay preserved but outside of Russia many of those other reminders of an unhappy past have become, justifiably, the subject of defacement and destruction, their illusions of a powerful and prosperous union no longer effective.

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The Tu-95 ‘Bear’ remains one of the longest serving military aircraft.

Aircraft engineers are somewhat more constrained by the physics of aerodynamics than
Soviet sculptors and so it’s rare to find an aircraft conforming to the ideals of
Socialist-Realism. When you look at the Myasishchev M-50, ignominiously dubbed the
‘Bounder’ by its NATO opponents, however, it’s hard not to imagine that Stalin’s ghost came back to influence its designers in some way. Only one ever flew and only one survives, as unique as any other testament to the Soviet Union’s prowess, and this now languishes in the famous Central Air Force Museum at Monino.

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For 52 years the V-12 has been unchallenged as the biggest helicopter ever built. Unsurprising really, as this awesome beast weighs in at 97,000 kg — or the same as four and a half fully-loaded Chinooks!

Even in a field of giants it towers over the rest of the museum, its bow proudly soaring into the sky unlike any other design there. It truly does look like an artist’s imagining of a
warplane of the time, unblemished curves and wildly placed wingtip engines, at once
beautiful and space-age.

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The Myasishchev M-50 (foreground) was not, as Aviation Week claimed in 1958, a nuclear-powered bomber. The Sukhoi T-4 closest Western analogue is the XB-70, but the T-4 flew eight years later.

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It’s quite hard to picture it flying – even just as an aeroplane its size and form belies any ability to take flight, particularly with the aforementioned engines sitting ungainly on the end of the wings. Somehow it fits the style. If it were carved from stone on some hill overlooking Plovdiv, or Novosibersk, or Kaunas it would look completely and wonderfully in place, a Soviet Monument to the Long-Range Aviators or some such title, deliberately designed to look imposing and formidable to those who saw it.

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Despite its fantastic appearance, the M-50 was far slower than desired.

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More on the Tu-141 here. And more on the MiG-105 here.

You really can’t shake the feeling that it was designed from the outset to make an aesthetic statement about the USSR’s new nuclear outfit despite all the impracticalities that that would entail for the jet.

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The first commercial supersonic aircraft to fly, the Tupolev Tu-144, towering above the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Though much maligned in the Concorde-centric West, many Russians have a different perspective on the Tu-144. The Su-25 is a tough and simple ‘flying tank’, described by one pilot as a 600mph ‘Jet-powered Toyata technical’.

Then again, that doesn’t sound completely wide of the mark either, does it?
Perhaps it’s vaguely fitting that the M-50 had no real impact on aviation history. For all the disinformation at the heart of Soviet sculpture, so too was the M-50 a Soviet failure. It didn’t set the world on fire and as a bomber didn’t go anywhere.

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The Myasishchev 3MD strategic bomber. The ‘Bison’ sat between the US B-52 and British Victor in dimensions and capability. Only nine of the 3MD variant, which could be armed with the P-6, KSR or Kh-10 missiles, were built before the Myasishchev OKB dissolved in 1960 (though the design bureau would be reborn in 1967).

Even in the museum, you’ve got much more successful bombers on show – the M-4 Bison behind it started the so-called bomber gap panic, the Tu-16s in front still fly in some form with the Chinese Air Force and, of course, the Tu-95 is very much at the frontline of Russian long-range aviation today. It came at a time when ICBMs rendered the nuclear bomber all but obsolete and it’s almost a wonder this unique and irrelevant airframe was preserved by the USSR. Despite how totally suitable it looks it’s a touch of serendipity that it looks so at home among the pantheon of Soviet Socialist-Realist monumentalism, in its own way reminding us of a culture and a mindset totally divorced from our own in the West.

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The first ‘Flanker’ airframe (given NATO reporting name ‘Flanker-A’) was the T-10-1, which flew in 1977. The aircraft had an ogival wing planform with an s-shaped leading edge. Following a troublesome gestation, the T-10’s form changed considerably: production Su-27s (Flanker-Bs onward) have a very different, and less beautiful, wing

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MiG built a family of monstrously fast and powerful fighter prototypes from 1959-61. The Ye-152M/1 (Ye-166) was the fastest single-engined aircraft ever flown, and built for flight at Mach 2.85.

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