The death of the Republic XP-69 superfighter
The Republic XP-69 would have been a fast and well-armed menace, capable of blasting enemy aircraft to pieces, even at extreme altitudes. But, it was swatted from history by bad luck.
Contra-rotating propellers (two sets of propellers sharing an axle and counter-rotating) are fuel efficient and offer a far great amount of power for a given frontal cross-section, but they’re frightening loud and hideously complex. A British invention, the contra-rotating propeller was thought of by the utterly brilliant polymath Frederick W. Lanchester some time before 1909. Though he may have looked like a supporting cast member in feel-good comedy set in the North of England, he was an astonishing man in many ways comparable to Nikola Tesla. Much like Tesla, he was brilliant at everything. He was excellent at singing, radical new automotive ideas, aerodynamic theory and poetry among many other talents. In fact he was pretty brilliant at everything, apart from capitalism. He contributed much to the world but was always short of money.
The British used this configuration on all their most unlucky aircraft: the fabulous capable but ill-fated Martin-Baker MB.5, and the technically brilliant and commercially unfortunate Brabazon and Princess. Only the unfeasibly hideous Westland Wyvern, Gannet, Sturgeon and admittedly passible Shackleton made it into service on contra alone (others, such as the Spitfire and Seafire, had a contra version). The French tried a racer, the gorgeous Bugatti 100P, a promising design thwarted by the German invasion of France. The Soviets, managed to get a four-engined fast bomber into service, the Tu-95/142, as well as an airliner derivative (the Tu-114) and a terrible VVIP transport, the Tu-116. The US gave its most eccentric aircraft concepts of the 1940s and ’50s contra-rotating propellers.
The Reluctant Rocket
In 1941 the USAAF, keen to shake-off the American love affair with mediocre and overly conventional fighters, asked aircraft manufacturers to submit unorthodox 450mph fighters for consideration. To make it even more high-risk they also invited engine manufacturers to submit new and unorthodox ideas. Republic responded to the request for fighter submissions with the AP-12 ‘Rocket’. With its mid-mounted engine and contra-rotating props it shared much conceptually with the Bugatti 100P. It did badly when assessed against the other designers, achieving 12th or 13th ranking. Republic went back to the drawing board.
They responded with plans for a high-performance high altitude interceptor, the XP-69, which was designed for a top speed of 450mph+, armed with one or two 37-mm cannon and two .50 cal heavy machine guns. The aircraft was in many ways an excellent design by a superb design team, but its downfall was technical risk. The fighter combined the incomplete 42-cylinder R-2160 engine with a new propeller configuration, and a pressurised cockpit. When the engine programmed struggled, USAAF turned to another Republic aircraft, the XP-72.
Cock & Bear story
The failure of the R-2160 impacted on some other promising designs, notably the Lockheed XP-58 Chain Lightning and the Vultee XP-68 Tornado. Today, the unholy row of contra-propellers can be heard on the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bombers of the Russian Air Force, and if still flying, the Antonov An-22. Will this technology die with the ‘Bear’? Probably not, as whenever aviation fuel prices get high enough, designers turn back to studying the Lanchester’s contra-rotational ideas.
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FOX TWO, POP ONE
Paul Woodford is a former F-15 pilot and the following is a guest post from his excellent blog.
The F-22 Raptor, originally meant to replace the F-15 Eagle, has finally scored an air-to-air kill. Just a hundred and three to go, boys and girls, and you’ll catch up to the Eagle. If luck smiles upon you, not all future engagements will be against defenseless unarmed non-maneuvering stationary targets!
I should be embarrassed: in the days leading up to the shutdown, I didn’t think it’d be doable with air-to-air missiles, either radar or heat-seeking, and that some poor fighter jock was going to have to try to gun it down, which would have presented all manner of tricky problems. I went public with a tweet to that effect.
It turned out I was wrong, and the balloon was destroyed with what was almost certainly a heat-seeking missile, an AIM-9X. The AIM-9Ls & Ms I’m familiar with from my days flying F-15s had incredibly sensitive seeker heads, but there was no way they could’ve seen a balloon; the X must represent a giant step in technology.
If today’s AIM-9 missiles are able to track the minuscule IR energy of a balloon, than today’s radar-guided AMRAAMs might be good enough to guide on the tiny radar return from a balloon’s payload or sensor package. But I wouldn’t want to risk it; if I’d been in charge of the mission, I’d have done just what the Air Force did: go for a heat-seeker shot. Why? Radar guided air-to-air missiles have a lower probability of kill than heat-seekers, and you’d want to splash the target on the first try. Especially since everything you do will be plainly visible to thousands of taxpayers down on the ground. Go, Air Force — you did it right!
I’m also proud the Air Force used Frank 01 and Frank 02 callsigns for the Raptors sent to shoot down the balloon. Frank Luke was a WWI ace with 19 kills, most scored against German observation balloons. Luke, an Arizonan, was popularly referred to as the “Arizona Balloon Buster.” Luke AFB in Phoenix, where I trained on the F-15 (and where new F-35 pilots train today) is named after him. I can’t help but think that in addition to acknowledging part of its heritage, the Air Force (and the spirit of Frank Luke) also saw the humor in it.
Because you know F-22 pilots will forever more be the butt of balloon jokes. I hope they have thicker skins than Chinese President Xi Jinping, who so hates being reminded who he looks like he puts people in prison for pointing it out and has banned the movie Christoper Robin, an adaption of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. You did notice Winnie on the patch, right? Genius.
On the political side, I don’t have much to say. Had I been President, I hope I would have done exactly as Biden did, ignoring the squealing of Republicans and MAGAts and waiting patiently until the wind blew the balloon over water, then downing it quickly and decisively. Will it impact our relations with the Chinese? Sure. And so what? What a stupid way to spy on other countries, anyway, launching balloons that can’t be guided and are totally at the mercy of winds aloft. That’s what satellites are for, and doesn’t China have a bunch of those in orbit already?
Howdy! I’m Paul, and this is my blog. It’s the best blog. You can buy me a cup of joe if you agree!
© 2023, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.
The Chinese spy balloon shootdown and a brief history of anti-balloon warfare
Yesterday, a Langley-based F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft destroyed a snooping un-crewed Chinese reconnaissance balloon in US waters. The balloon had already crossed Canada and the US, but it was deemed safer to shoot it down over water. The balloon was shot down with an AIM-9X infra-red guided missile. With the balloon at around 65,000 feet, this was one of the highest altitude aerial kills in history and the first air-to-air ‘kill’ for the F-22. But this is just the latest in a story that is over a hundred years old.
25 years ago Western fighters failed to down a scientific despite over 1000 20-mm cannon rounds being fired. This may not have surprised fighter pilots of an earlier generation, the ‘balloon busters’ of World War One who took on the enemy’s artillery-spotting balloons with mixed success. Normal bullets proved ineffective for anti-balloon duties. This was not reliably rectified until the arrival to the Western Front of Pomeroy incendiary – and Buckingham flat-nosed incendiary bullets in 1917. Unguided rockets were less accurate and potentially more dangerous to the launch platform.
Belgian Willy Omer François Jean baron Coppens d’Houthulst DSO MC was the ‘top balloon buster’ with 35 victories. He was first assigned to the the Sixieme Escradrille as a sergent 1st class (Sergeant First Class) on 8 April 1917, with a brief stint flying BE-2c two-seaters. He was quickly moved to Quatrieme Escadrille, which was equipped with Farman pushers. By May he had moved onto the Sopwith 1½ Strutter and almost immediately took the type to combat.
Not staying rooted for long, by mid July, he moved to the single-seater pursuit fighter unit 1ère Escadrille de Chasse (1st Pursuit Squadron). He was given a Nieuport 16 (the rest of the unit flew the superior Nieuport 17). No other pilots accepted the offer of the new Hanriot HD.1, but Willy’s enthusiasm (and success) convinced others, who took his lead. Coppen’s adopted the tactic of opening fire at extremely close range with extreme effectiveness, blasting both air balloons and aeroplanes from the sky. Even without incendiary ammunition he destroyed many balloons or forced their occupants to abandon their aircraft in flight. He was one of many ‘balloon busting’ aces.
Project Mogul was a 1940s effort by the US to use infra-sound-sensor-equipped balloons to detect atomic explosions. The cover-up of one Mogul balloon crash with a deliberate lie, resulted in the Roswell myth of alien spacecraft in US hands. In the Cold War the West used surveillance balloons over the USSR, we spoke to a former Soviet air force Su-15 pilot noted, “The regiment was constantly on combat readiness. Two aircraft were always in a state of quick readiness alert: One for high altitude target interception (with four air-to-air missiles), and the second for the “work” purposes of the low-speed interception of reconnaissance air balloons (four air-to-air missiles, two GSh-23 cannon pods on hardpoints).
The high altitude performance of surveillance balloons, that generally operate from 60-120,000 feet can be challenging targets to fighter aircraft that are generally limited to 50,000 feet altitude. Historically, pressure suits were required in the event of pressure loss above 50,000 feet, though with increased systems reliability, the pilots of newer fighter aircraft (particularly the F-22, Typhoon, Rafale and Su-57) fly extremely high without them. The higher thrust-to-weight ratios and lower-wing loading of these aircraft makes them far more effective in the thin air of high altitude than older fighters like the F-4 Phantom II.
With their long endurance, ability to loiter and high altitude performance aerostats remain an effective way of gathering information, they are also less predictable and cheaper than satellites, and less hazardous (both to the crew’s safety and in politically terms) than manned heavy-than-air reconnaissance aircraft.
I flew Sea Harriers for the Indian Navy
The Sea Harrier served the Indian Navy until 2016. We spoke to Commodore Jaideep Avinash Maolankar (retired) to find out more about this unique British fighter-bomber.
Describe the Sea Harrier in 3 words
Can I use three phrases instead?
Feral yet refined (think Lord Greystoke/Tarzan)
Separated the men from the boys (wink-wink “Harrier Boys”).
No respect for seniority, only for skill and wakefulness
Flying the Sea Harrier
Is the Sea Harrier harder to fly (and land / take off) than other types?
By the time the Sea Harrier came around, it had already accumulated over twenty years of iterative evolution from the original P1127. Combined with Hawker’s impeccable flight control pedigree (think Seahawk/Hunter), the recipe made for a superb ‘conventional’ aircraft with a huge array of unconventional possibilities. All unique flight characteristics of the Harrier family could be traced directly to its VSTOL design features – very high T/W, vectoring thrust, reaction controls and high wing loading. Often these created adverse side effects, but always made for exciting flying.
Up & Away
When flown conventionally she handled just superbly – great harmony, terrific roll acceleration etc. I would go so far as to say – like a very high T/W Hunter. Although, to be honest, some of the V/STOL-mandated design features had interesting knock-on effects, not readily apparent to the naked eye.
The mid-fuselage location of the Pegasus engine meant that the tailplane was always deeply immersed in its jet wake. That made for near-neutral speed stability if the engine was spooled up (seen as virtually no pitch trim changes with speed). The good – no need to remember to retrim specifically for A/G weapons release after an ACM scrimmage. The not so good – it made her very easy to overstress. Lacking any pitch control gearing mechanism and only a ‘g’ feel bobweight, stick loads remained light until after the g had built up. Only those who hit upon “Smooth onset of g / flying with one’s wrist/elbow on the thigh” could maintain an overstress-free record. And oh yes, one had to remember to fly with the flaps partially deflected throughout! – except when extending/trying to accel – and then remember to put them back down before turning, else overstressing just became that much easier!
Conversely, much of this speed agnostic ‘equilibrium’ disappeared with a change of power setting, especially if one throttled right back. Not surprisingly, coaxing precision flying out of the beast meant absolutely avoiding power changes. The key to a happy instrument rating test was thus to set the power for each manoeuvre in one big plug (hence necessarily from memory) as opposed to small continuous incremental changes advocated by purists. The relevant cheat code was obviously to set the smallest possible increment one could get away with, ride out the initial boorish response and then finesse the manoeuvre. That would often leave the examiner tut-tutting about “your lack of hormones” while grudgingly admitting that the “height/speed variations were within standards”. Not without reason was the briefing guide titled “IRT without Tears”.
An existential need to hover efficiently over a wide range of fuel states/external stores drove the designers to minimise thrust wasted on trimming. The serendipitous discovery of VIFF also demanded controlled pitch effects when vectoring thrust. All this meant that the engine’s thrust vector had to always pass through or close to the aircraft’s c.g. at all deflection angles. Hence the thoroughbred Pegasus incorporated a surprising range of engineering tweaks to keep the thrust centre invariant across the vectoring range. Alongside, the whole Harrier family’s core DNA sought to maintain its c.g. nearly invariant across the full range of configs and fuel states. A simple/elegant fuel transfer sequence and deliberate alignment of all store pylons made the aircraft behave extremely consistently. As a result, there were few if any flight manual handling entries unique to individual configurations.
When completely wing-borne, the high wing loading gave it a Starfighter/MiG-21-like demeanour. The high T/W, a near-delta planform (look again, it’s not that far off!) and powerful pitch control flight over authority offered a wide range of angles of attack, with retention of control down to very low speeds (even without the benefit of reaction controls). In fact, controlled flight was possible at speeds low enough for some of the more exotic forces to manifest themselves. Rare is the ‘conventional’ fighter pilot who cares about gyroscopics and show me one other pilot strain that has even heard of ‘intake momentum drag yaw’.
At low speeds, she was quite happy to fly to any angle of attack so long as you didn’t let her “slot” (sit with a fixed sideslip angle). A good SHAR bobby, with a lively pair of feet working autonomically (I use that word with precision!) driving the sideslip vane up front, could easily find himself scissoring at 100 KIAS! Any unwanted gyroscopics were fortunately taken care of by the Pegasus’ contra-rotating spools.
Unfortunately, at higher Machs, a really strong wing rock dramatically limited the usable AoA. Snapping the stick back at high speeds could thus lead to indescribable manoeuvres, apart from overstress.
The absence of reheat meant there was no dramatic penalty by way of heat signature or fuel consumption at combat power ratings. Hence one could use Combat power for ACM with abandon, even against all-aspect IR missiles. Or for that matter even ignore the fuel gauge – the other guy would invariably call ‘Bingo’ first!
F-14 versus F-15 here
The ability to combine jet-borne and wing-borne lift in virtually any ratio meant it could perform an essentially limitless variety of takeoffs/launches and landings. Besides the obvious effect on takeoff/landing speed, she changed character quite significantly according to which element was preponderant. The weird undercarriage layout imposed another unique constraint – all landings/takeoffs had to be flown in a fixed pitch attitude throughout -‘Four Square’ in QFI speak (used to be a popular cigarette brand in the 80’s)! This was a weird world, unique to the Harrier family and made for rather interesting flying.
The launch involved probably the fiercest acceleration any pilot could ask for – with longitudinal acceleration somewhere between 0.6 and 1.1g. The standard ‘Short Take-Off’ required rotating the nozzles coupled with a perfectly timed and entirely instinctive pitch correction that was coarse in any language. Done properly, to quote one of my anglophile instructors, she would “leap enthusiastically into the air!” Attempting to unstick by the obvious artifice of pulling back on the stick (as in a conventional take-off) led to an exceedingly ugly bounder. Only to be expected once you notice that the outriggers were visibly abaft the main leg and would obstinately resist any attempt at nose-up rotation or handsome departure. Many years later, deja-vu said “you should’ve known this” during just such an ugly takeoff – on the first flight of the LCA (Navy), but that’s a story for another day. Lateral handling on the ground was superb though – a very innovative slider linkage in the NWS offered Formula-1 car level steering.
The stock landing used 60° nozzle resulting in about equal amounts of wing and jet-borne lift. As speeds were reduced on the approach, with progressively increasing nozzle deflection, the aircraft had to be flown using the classic “Power for slope – Stick for AoA” technique – to that one would have add “Rudder to keep her from going wherever she wanted!” Per a vocabulary that I acquired only many years later, she was quite “decoupled” – significant attitude changes could be made with minimal effect on the flight path and vice versa!
Counter-intuitively, most VSTOL work was done with nose-down pitch trim settings! At the slower end, one could almost hit the forward stop. I remember thinking, for my very first simulator check ride, that “nose-down” couldn’t be correct, the QFI must’ve meant “nose-up 5°”; the ensuing wild pitch-up is seared in my memory! Conversely, during a “conventional” landing, one could just as easily find oneself running out of stick, bumping against the ejection seat-pan handle! Harrier tribal knowledge of powering one’s way out of this fix, rather than merely hoping for more stick, helped me avoid a Jaguar mess one other day (she wouldn’t flare due to a mismanaged fuel sequence – Don’t even get me started about that particular example of British design!)
The most magical of all landings would have to be the “Nozzly” or “Fixed Throttle Slow Landing”. Freeze the power at whatever was available and then manage one’s speed purely by the use of nozzles. Of course, all changes in flight path would be achieved much more slowly. But, for anybody who loves just really flying the thing, just incredibly satisfying. Pretty useful too for nursing a sick bird home after having flown through a flock of birds; or a surge in an air test!
Through all these weird combinations of wing/thrust-borne flight, the one thing that never failed to impress as one slowed down, was the seamless transition from aerodynamic to reaction controls. An incredible piece of British design as it should be!
Naturally, with the range of such quirks, there were few, if any, fence-sitters amongst those who flew her. Whilst the saner ones struggled to analyse their way out of trouble, the weirdos revelled in her brutishness. At least in the Indian Navy, pilots were ‘naturally selected’ to fly the SHAR (as theorised by one C. R. Darwin, M.A.), on the basis of skill levels demonstrated in prior training. Unfortunately, many of the techniques emphasised on more conventional aircraft as ‘good habits’ were of little use to the Harrier. Hence, anyone unwilling to abandon their hard-won “skills” would struggle to make the shift, cursed by their prior success. And there were plenty of those good sticks who couldn’t reconcile with the beast, with those converting onto the Harrier too late in life tending to suffer the most. Again, exactly as postulated by the Rt. Hon. Gentleman himself.
Have you flown DACT from the Sea Harrier, if so which types and how did it go?
Being the only ‘fighter’ child in the Indian Navy meant that DACT was essentially limited to the big sky-blue bruisers who lived up North. Therefore all the DACT stories are framed by the Air Force-Navy culture wars that Sharkey Ward has set to music so profusely! In a hilariously macabre twist worthy of Hawkeye Pierce’s personal scriptwriter, we were deemed too ‘dangerous’ (Maverick #1 style) to be allowed DACT with anyone other than the IAF’s Top Guns at TACDE. Far from complaining, these proved to be terribly fruitful sessions, both ways I dare say. Inevitably, each phase would begin with the stated aim of teaching the Harrier hill-billys the art of manoeuvre against the ‘superior’ performance of a MiG-21. A few turns, zooms and reversals later this would transition to a more egalitarian “Sport of Kings’. True learning would then ensue amidst much more appropriate bonhomie.
Even after one got past the sky-blue tinted lenses, the Sea Harrier DACT experience could be largely described as the swagger of the unwary ‘conventional’ knight, scornfully appraising a strange misshapen beast he viewed as beneath his station. While the discerning could sense the rhino-like energy beneath a stubbornly subsonic Dad-body, few if any appreciated Taylor-Scott’s superb weapon-sensor-ergonomic integration hidden in the cockpit. The sheer simplicity of a two-command “Accept-Reject” style UI is something that I have hoped to recreate in all my cockpit work ever since. Hence, even the legacy (non-upgraded) SHAR, brought to bear an advanced weapon system centred around the Magic-2 missile. I suspect the Falklands performance with the 9-Lima had a lot to do with that very elegance.
And then, in its incorrigible desire to be different, the SHAR upended even the no-brainer thumb rules of air combat – clean up, jettison stores etc..
Most SHAR pilots preferred to fight with the appropriately named Combat Tanks installed as the aircraft seemed to actually handle better and with little discernible loss of performance. I had actually resolved to understand this anomaly, via a full Test-pilot style study, during my squadron command tenure; the full 22 yards – flight manual comparisons, stab & control flight evaluations, comparative performance tests etc. But as with all good resolutions…. Whatever the reasons, it allowed one to gain moral ascendancy as each DACT rodeo progressed; by retaining drop tanks while the opposing DACTees inevitably slicked-up their jets in an attempt to restore the natural order of things.
The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, is a gorgeous heavily illustrated – and often irreverent- coffee-table book covering the history of military aviation 1914 – the present.
To this day I feel pretty smug about having gotten away with the final LUSH kit configuration. I mean disguising a really smart datalink as an ACMI debrief tool under the gobbledygook acronym of CMMFR deserves some kind of an award. “
Similarly, the mandated config of Flaps to Mid (rather than fully up) being preferred for air combat was equally inviting of inquiry. For the purists, Mid after having selected fully Up, not Mid from fully Down. While this was more directly understandable, I still wonder how Hawker-Siddeley Aviation got past the Procurement Executive with this heresy! If one was a glutton for workload, useful advantage could be gained by timely retraction for acceleration and back to mid for manoeuvre.
Conversely, the highly anticipated ‘difference’ that rarely materialised was the use of nozzles for manoeuvre. Although dutifully trained per a syllabus of ‘bite’ turns and VIFF, surprisingly few SHAR pilots learned to extract significant combat advantage from the nozzles. The core problem was of course the loss of performance accompanying every short-lived manoeuvre enhancement. Exaggerated nozzle vectoring as a one-shot measure did obviously have its benefits but most pilots needed significant goading to employ this tactic during actual air combat situations. An extensive campaign we ran in-house, with dedicated setups necessitating a healthy usage of nozzles, did convince most pilots of the benefits but that nagging feeling of loosening of control remained disconcerting to many. Paul Tremelling has done a lot more justice to this aspect of VIFF on the SHAR in his various writings.
The last ‘myth’ – ability to manoeuvre at very low speeds due to its reaction controls – was just that, a myth. Additional control power was potentially available by deflecting nozzles beyond the 16° (?? – my memory fails me) needed to activate the reaction controls. For one, it wasn’t really necessary as the aerodynamic controls remained quite powerful. On the other hand, it was often an actual nuisance. One couldn’t keep the nozzles deflected permanently and the alternating addition/subtraction of control power with intermittent use was more distracting than useful.
As the novelty of the SHAR wore off for the Air Force, we were of course allowed some DACT with other types (disclaimer – my operational tenure was solely on the non-upgraded SHAR). One mission that sticks in the memory is of a radar-silent interception of a Mirage 2000 jammer pair, because it embodied some very Harriery (is that an adjective?) attributes. For background, the pair were supposed to provide Stand-off screening to another ‘Strike’ pair attempting to molest our ‘Mother’ (Those who know, know. Those who don’t, well good luck!). Quixotically, the old Blue Fox would dutifully continue to scan the skies even when it was silenced. As the Jammer pair were triggered into responding by the ships’ radars, a jamming strobe dutifully lit up on the SHAR CAP’s radar scope. Demanding ‘lock’ on this strobe yielded the extremely useful attribute of accurate angles-only tracking along with the vital ‘target cross’ on the HUD. The naked man’s eye, aided unfairly thus, achieved an absurdly long-range visual ‘Tally’. One peek is worth a thousand radar sweeps later, a mildly aggressive pull down through the blind spot above every fighter pilot’s helmet ended up with the SHARs in the saddle, just begging for a photo for bragging rights. Not via the sh!##~ 16 mm HUD camera, but the more professional 70 mm film of the F95. For the uninitiated, this was the side/slightly downward-looking camera intended for photo recce. To capture an aircraft in the frame, one had to come up abreast and above (or level but banking away). To all appearances, this position was indistinguishable from an unsighted pilot narrowly escaping a mid-air collision! Much recrimination and name-calling on the R/T followed, exacerbated by disbelief based on our radar silence and the irritation of blue-bloods having to tangle with street urchins. Eventually, this was only settled in the debrief with the flourish of some perfectly framed F95 images! A true embodiment, if any, of the classic EW proverb that a grizzled old Israeli colonel had tried gamely to drum into my head – “One man’s jammer is another man’s transponder – the methods are the same – the difference lies only in the context”.
- The best DACT sessions, by far, were the annual Varuna series of exercises with the French Navy’s Lascars! But more on that later. Sea Harrier Equipment
Was the Sea Harrier lacking any important equipment when you flew it? Almost unanimously, most pilots would say, an autopilot. Especially since every cockpit carried a few redundant gauges implying that one had been intended. I remember discovering in later years the reason why it wasn’t added – something about the control authority that could be safely handled in hard-over failure cases being inadequate and vice versa. And even while understanding that rationale as a Test Pilot, I still believe that it could’ve been done with the prevalent tech had it been wanted badly enough. I know in my heart that it would’ve saved several pilots, besides making a ‘night’ in the office, especially afloat, pretty much just another day’s work!
NOTE FROM EDITOR: In reply to the autopilot comment above I received the following email:
“I never thought I’d get to correct an Indian Commodore, but there you go. Not a lot of people know this and very, very few care – but I wrote the Safety Case for the SHAR Autopilot, so I surmise the reason that Commodore Maolankar didn’t get to use autopilot was financial, not technical…
The way it worked was this. The SHAR autopilot was connected to the Inertial Platform in the jet. Contrary to Cdr M’s comments, it actually had very low authority, around 10% of full deflection, so it wasn’t going to break the jet. (Actually, and even less interestingly, it had full authority in the pitch axis, but only at the speed of the trim, so again, it wasn’t going to break the jet.)
However… the IN platform was simplex, and rather fallible. So the scenario that I pointed out might be problematic was not some big violent jerking failure, but a slow insidious drift that wouldn’t get the pilot’s attention. Imagine – top of climb, into cloud, select autopilot, attend to some high-workload switchery, platform quietly wanders off by itself and drags the autopilot along with it at 1.05g, only clue before the enormous splash being that the wind noise would have increased.
This was problematic to the OEM and to Boscombe Down. The discipline of System Safety had been invented along time after the Harrier, and was being inflicted on it in retrospect. We all know the basic design was solidly happy with its compromises – the IN wasn’t going to get tripled (doubled doesn’t help – one fails but you don’t know which one.) But everyone needed a clearance and the autopilot would of course actually be helpful to workload.
The clearance, therefore, was for use of autopilot “with frequent cross-referencing to the flight instruments.”
A task that was supposed to be a forty-hour job for the New Boy (me) turned into a 250-hour monster with multiple tedious meetings with Boscombe who could never remember what it was they had agreed to last month. That money wasn’t spent on making anyone any safer, the OEM wasn’t making more money and no-one was having fun. They weren’t ungrateful for me spotting something no-one else had worried about, but, you know. Also it seemed to me that an autopilot that required cross-referencing was intellectually bankrupt (how pompous of me, but not totally stupid; and since then I’ve learned that pilots would have kept a wary eye on things as a matter of course, never mind my little line deep in the manual.) So I didn’t last long in Engineering but used my Russian language skills within the same organisation to go do fun things like an airline for Kazakhstan and ultimately, the roaring success that was NATO upgrades to Mi 24s for Eastern European nations. The GEC Marconi jackboot and FCPA sent me on my way after almost fifteen years of fun, and I now work as an Aerospace Subject Matter Expert at a major management consultancy.
So I suspect the Indian Navy chose not to pay for autopilot as a costed option – they were famously stingy, and the OEM wasn’t necessarily keen to give “additional capability” (hah !) away.
My opposite number back in the day used to go off to Lancashire occasionally to tackle System Safety for Nimrod. Given the tragedy that ended in, I do wonder what stories he might have to tell. – Ian Ferguson”
Now back to Mao…
Was there any kit you would have liked to have seen added? The Varuna series of Indo-French naval exercises included, from the year 2002 onwards, a serious air group element. That was the first time we were allowed to play well outside our league. Imagine a two SHAR CAP trying to work around a Rafale fighter sweep while attempting to poach a multi-SuE strike, overall backed up by an E2C. And multiple repeats of the same! These came as a well-deserved yet refreshing cultural shock – imagine having one’s headquarters-approved draft of rules of combat being brusquely dismissed during the planning conference as “what you’re proposing isn’t air combat, just fly swatting”! Certainly helped to kick off a much deeper understanding of BVR combat (particularly in the at-sea context) and an overall revolution in exercise realism.
It was this series of exercises that germinated the kernel of the LUSH configuration. While Naval HQ was keenly pushing for integration of the Derby BVR missile on the SHAR, the blinkers were clearly on – a dead giveaway was the very name of the project – Limited Upgrade of Sea Harrier! But the deeply imbibed lessons from the Ex-Varuna DACT clearly showed that besides the obligatory radar upgrade, meaningful capability would only be achieved if it included a deeply integrated datalink and a host of features/applications riding on this infrastructure! Having been deeply imbued with the “White Tigers” ethos of “if anything goes wrong, you are most likely to be Exhibit ‘A’. Or if you’re particularly lucky, then Witness no 1. Hence if you aren’t willing to accept No for an answer – don’t ask for permission”. Or as Dan Wieden, of Nike fame, would put it – Just do It! The result of all unavoidable subterfuge undertaken in the national interest was that we actually got just what we needed – while avoiding the very problems that bedevilled the F/A2 upgrade (new radome shape leading to engine surges, too heavy for tropical climes etc.).
To this day I feel pretty smug about having gotten away with the final LUSH kit configuration. I mean disguising a really smart datalink as an ACMI debrief tool under the gobbledygook acronym of CMMFR deserves some kind of an award. But I also know that we missed a trick or two – I had thought true HOTAS with a new throttle grip incorporating all the radar controls would not have been possible, hence we remained mired in the old ‘one left hand three levers’ concerto (throttle, nozzle and radar hand-controller). And the really big miss was not utilising the underbelly gun mounts for an additional pair of BVR rails (a-la F/A2)! Instead, we wasted our energies and money on a Derby/Magic twin rail clunker on the outboard pylons with entirely predictable disappointing results.
Was it the right choice for the Indian Navy?
It was a great choice for its time. We needed to sustain an afloat air wing with affordable aircraft carriers and this was about the best we could have chosen. The only problem is we didn’t go in the whole hog – if it’s worth doing in the first place then it’s worth overdoing it is a slogan that needs regular reminding. We should have bought more than 23+4 to begin with, then supplemented that with an attrition buy (which never happened, okay just two beat-up trainers) and finally a mid-life upgrade (much earlier than we eventually did).
Was it a particularly dangerous aircraft to fly?
Yep. Of course, the youthful mind rationalised it as “difficult” rather than “dangerous”. Still, one was acutely aware that “the cold clammy hand of the Harrier never strayed very far from your family jewels”. She remained terribly unforgiving of carelessness and made it a point to periodically remind even high-timing veterans that howsoever high and mighty you may be ….
Apart from the obvious VSTOL hazards, she seemed to be particularly prone to inducing disorientation. The difficulties of instrument flying were exacerbated by an essentially circular HUD picture which seemed to be particularly seductive if kept at higher than the bare minimum brightness. That lesson has meant that I have explored the lower end of many HUD brightness knobs on all manner of aircraft!
What was the best thing about it?
Given the overall size of the aircraft and its 1960’s DNA, I now know that we have to thank John Farley for the absolutely wonderful SHAR cockpit. The enhanced all-round visibility must have required serious engineering effort while Taylor-Scott’s work on the Cockpit ergonomics was just exceptional. The utter elegance of a “Mode” selector followed by ‘Accept or Reject” as the core HOTAS controls allowed true multi-role exploitation with certainty and ease. And just how good was the layout of the warning lights? A simple array along the instrument panel coamings accommodated a surprising number of lights with no obstruction to external vision. And had the effect of permitting intuitive appreciation of any light’s criticality as the vital ones were closer to the HUD and less critical ones further away. In fact, given some experience, one could unerringly guess the specific nature of a warning through one’s peripheral vision, even without actually looking down to read the caption.
And of course her unmistakable signature, the turbofan “whine”
….and the worst?
I basically flew the 2nd batch configuration, newly delivered just as I joined the White Tigers. For the first decade or more, the aircraft, at least the single-seaters, were essentially bulletproof. Just can’t remember any inflight emergencies and really very few snags. Naturally, this could not be sustained in later years. And that’s when one realised the cost incurred for housing such a big engine in the middle of such a small fuselage. Nearly all major mechanicals were buried under the engine – hence this would have to be removed for most repairs. To make matters worse, much of the electronics were in the bay aft of the engine with nearly all the related wiring routed to the cockpit through the single-piece wing. Hence any repairs to thingamajigs below the engine, demanded the removal of firstly the wing, then the engine to access and when putting everything back one realised that nearly all systems had been disturbed due to the wing removal. The overall maintenance workload was not sustainable once the aircraft started ageing.
The core of the aircraft’s capabilities revolved around the actual engine thrust available in installed condition and extremely rapid thrust modulation capability for VSTOL. Given the complex hydro-mechanical engine fuel controls, these required careful setup to achieve a safe aircraft. A&E check flights were therefore essentially a series of trial-and-error attempts at finding the correct settings. Particularly fidgety was the Pressure Ratio limiter for high-altitude operations. If one was sloppy, she just wouldn’t climb to ceiling; and if one overdid it, there was the obligatory pop-surge waiting. I actually believed that one could judge the material state of a SHAR squadron simply by reading the air test records. That’s in addition to the state of the canopies of course!
If a Sea Harrier faced an F-16 in a dogfight, how should the Sea Harrier pilot fight?
Hard to spot?
She always was small, hence difficult to spot. The original two-tone colour scheme of the 1st batch aircraft (Dark Sea Grey uppers and White underside) wasn’t particularly stealthy, at least for the role of interception of low-flying strike aircraft. Besides being impossible to keep the white underbelly presentable, the dark grey stuck out as a black speck against the sky! The 2nd batch of aircraft was delivered with light grey undersides. But these were only slightly more presentable, yet equally inappropriately camouflaged.
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We undertook a complete revamp of the paint scheme in the last third of its life which made the aircraft light grey all over. This was frighteningly effective even at surprisingly close ranges. The prototype of this modification used matt finish paint which very rapidly accumulated a ‘patina’!! rendering it even harder to spot. Sadly this had to be reverted to a gloss finish for husbandry reasons. Besides the overall colour change, this scheme also introduced a host of detail elements which I am still proud of. Most of these were completely functional design elements intended to either enhance medium-close range camouflage also or aid inflight visual inspection of critical elements. A few were simply to mask the inescapable grimy elbows and knees of a VSTOL bird. And of course, how could one fail to include an odd flourish to emphasise the Tiger iconography, all while still serving a functional purpose?
How well-armed was the Sea Harrier?
Fit for purpose for the absolute prime task of “Get the MR!” Two Magics was more than enough.
A bit short of breath for the Alt-prime task of thwarting multi-directional attacks by ASM armed strike aircraft. Two Magics just weren’t good enough. Unfortunately, the Falklands lessons-learnt driven “Twin-Magic” config was just too ponderous for air combat while also being too heavy for a safe recovery in our tropical climes. Obviously, things became a lot better with the introduction of the Derby BVR AAM, but I never stood CAP or Condition 1 deck alert with that! And the twin Derby/Magic combo, although very real, was even more of a work of fiction!
Unfortunately, the Sea Eagle was a bit of a damp squib. Great on paper, but we really could never get it to work reliably. As young guns, we considered the anti-ship strike task a little grungy, especially the unguided weapons bits. Besides unfavourable thrill quotient comparisons with air-to-air missions, the prospect of overflying angry ships didn’t sound too inspiring. Although, I dare say we were damn good at it, having a deeply empathetic understanding of ships as only guys who have stood watches on deck can. With age and a little exposure to the French carrier force with their investments in the un-sexy Super E, I realise we really missed a trick there. A very short and twisted ‘counterfactuals’ mind game of ‘reductio ad absurdum’ or ‘exaggerate to see if it still makes sense’, would’ve made us see the light. As the fleet aged and the air wing size shrank, the air defence task quickly became unachievable well before its anti-ship potential became irrelevant. In hindsight, if one had to choose just one, an air wing capable only of strike with anti-ship missiles would’ve probably served us better than a force solely capable of air-to-air. But for that, we first need a doctrinal debate on “What is an Aircraft Carrier? Why do we want one? Or two, or three!”
Which weapons did you fire from the Sea Harrier and what was it like? What was it like firing the cannon?
The whole range of unguided weapons in copious amounts. The quantities fired really took a quantum leap once we convinced the Navy to stop counting weapons expended for air displays against our training quotas. Honestly felt a bit like Milo Minderbender while justifying that policy change, as that was the Trojan horse for a similar justification regarding the flying hours permitted – so that the mindless hours of “ironing the air” didn’t count against pilot training!
During my front-line tenure I managed to fire one Magic-1 air-to-air missile. Despite all the briefing, the surprising pull of the rocket motor before the detents let go was surpassed only by the speed of closure of the debris cloud after the missile hit its target. Several years later, as part of the LUSH of course I made sure to corner most of the developmental Derby firings, claiming Test Pilot privilege.
The Aden cannons were pretty anti-climactic to fire. Their belly installation ensured a much attenuated visceral feel to the actual firing. And the link ejection mechanism was always cranky, inevitably leading one to walk away with a few link strikes on the tailplane. Actually they were much more fun to see from the outside. Watching firing on the splash target towed astern the carrier is a fun way to spend a lazy afternoon.
Do you miss the Sea Harrier?
Well, I shed literal tears when I handed over command of the White Tigers, convinced that was the last time I would ever fly her. And then had to do it all over again at the end of the LUSH upgrade program – but this time I knew it really was the end.
So many little design details I admired about her are buried as easter eggs in the design of the LCA Tejas and even more so, the LCA (Navy).
In later years, I’ve pretty much scoured Amazon for the full range of Sea Harrier books. Soaked up the wonderful hours upon hours of oral history in the Imperial War Museum’s absolutely amazing sound archives (Bill Bedford, John Farley, Sharkey Ward, Tim Gedge ….)
Come to think of it, a recent experience of just standing silently in the presence of a P1127/Kestrel mash-up at Cosford was the closest I’ve been to a spiritual rapture.
So, maybe I do miss the old girl a bit.
What was your most memorable experience on the Sea Harrier?
Without a doubt, the opportunity to give back to the fleet via the LUSH upgrade. It was an exceptionally well-conceived and executed upgrade, even if I say so, undertaken without any involvement of the aircraft’s OEM! Essentially I was loaned to M/s Elta who were responsible for putting the whole kit together. They, in turn, were smart enough to see this as an opportunity to stitch together a properly engineered weapon system that would be attractive to other customers too – as opposed to just trying to maximise profits off this single contract. Thus they were open to a 1st principles approach to design of the upgrade, even if it led well beyond the letter of the contract. Not having to fight the prime contractor thus left me free to focus on the difficult task of flight testing the new equipment. With neither, the Indian Navy nor M/s IAI (who were responsible for flight test) having deep design knowledge of the aircraft, we essentially ran a full analogy/regression based flight test programme. The basic aircraft was first mapped over the full flight envelope and then a complete set of regression tests with the new configurations was used to check for anomalies. The opportunity to see the whole programme through, from concept to proof firing, virtually single-handedly was just exactly what I needed to equip me to take on the LCA (Navy) programme. The learning value of this programme was such that, despite my complete lack of conviction about the twin missile configurations, I chose to go through with it as a training ground for the next generation of Navy test pilots. Essentially threw him into the deep end and said “you are welcome to join the LCA programme if you make it through!” Of course, by then there were enough guardrails to the playpen, but I doubt I let him know that.
Besides LUSH, I would think the sheer bull-headedness required for night operations afloat was personality transforming. Achieving the capability to launch into a dark blackness, and undertake a bunch of rough and tumble air interceptions good enough to qualify as operations-ready was by itself worth something. And then being able to switch the brain to Zen mode constantly minimising errors and deviations while coming in for recovery. Even one’s sweat smelt different after a Dark night recovery on a carrier. Never mistook it for fun, but always knew that one was at the cutting edge of the Navy’s sword.
Tell me something I don’t know about the Sea Harrier
After 5000 words of rambling, I’m not sure there’s much left to surprise you with!
What should I have asked you? “How do you recognise a Sea Harrier driver?” – by his autonomic feet movements, hyperactive left hand, multi-disciplinary thinking and oversized but entirely justified ego!
Hawker Typhoon versus Eurofighter Typhoon
Aircraft take on their historical namesakes in air-to-air combat
The comedian and historian Al Murray suggested that I compare historical namesakes. As he had me in a headlock at the time of asking, I felt compelled to consider the idea. I pleaded with him that this concept couldn’t be easily described in an internet-friendly title, but as the oxygen drained from my brain I relented. Join us in fantastical anachronistic air combat as aircraft take on their historical namesakes.
Hawker Typhoon Versus Eurofighter Typhoon
One was intended as a high-powered fighter interceptor, endured a long problematic development with several name changes, and when at war was actually largely used as a bomber and CAP platform, and the other was…wait that’s both of them. Let’s try again, one was vital commercial follow-up work to a smash hit that was far from future-proofed…wait that’s both of them. Ok, one was fast and agile, with a big bubble canopy, had a gaping underslung intake, notable for its use against unmanned aircraft and had less range than its rivals…damn! Done it again.
World War Two’s butchest fighter-bomber takes on the plastic fantastic in an intergenerational brawl! FIGHT’S ON!
I once asked a Eurofighter Typhoon pilot how his aircraft would fare in combat against a Spitfire, the answers are utterly pertinent to the question of Typhoon versus Typhoon:
You have flown both the (Eurofighter) Typhoon and Spitfire: Imagining a situation where a guns-only fight between a Eurofighter Typhoon and a cannon-armed Spitfire took place — which aircraft would have the advantage and why?
“Unsurprisingly the Typhoon – by a country mile. The context is important, but everything in the Typhoon is geared to give you situational awareness. Your radar and various sensors tell you what is around you (imagine how much they would have wanted a datalink with the air picture transmitted to them in WWII) and you have vital information and weapons solutions displayed in the visor in front of your eyes. WWII pilots were reliant on fighter controllers (over the UK) and their own eyes – Typhoon has a huge advantage in finding the enemy. This gives you a huge advantage.
The Typhoon pilot would know exactly where to find the Spitfire in our imaginary flight to ‘the merge’ (where the two come together and start fighting). I will assume that the ‘guns only’ point means that Typhoon would not shoot the Spitfire down at range, but it would have the advantage entering the fight. The pilot could fly the intercept to make use of environmental conditions to arrive behind the Spitfire unseen.
The radar on the Typhoon gives a highly accurate gun sight (it is constantly updating range aspect closure etc), so the pilot would just have to put ‘the pipper’ on and pull the trigger. No deflection shooting – aiming off as the pilots had to in WWII because their gunsights were fixed and the cannon ‘zeroed’ at a point about 150 yards away where the bullets would converge.
If the Spitfire did manage to get into a turning fight, the Typhoon would likely make the most of its enormous power advantage and use the vertical rather than turn. The Typhoon pilot would point straight up, light the burners, keep an eye on the Spitfire (probably the hardest thing so far given that the radar won’t be pointing at it) and look to come back down in a position of advantage (hopefully out of the sun to avoid a visual pick up).
If I was in the Spitfire, I would try and point at the Typhoon to close the range as quickly as possibly, but would be aware of the fact that if I pulled hard to turn, I would bleed a lot of my speed off and would probably have to point downhill to get it back…the Typhoon could roll in behind easily.”
The reason I specified ‘guns-only’ as if missiles are involved the Hawker Typhoon would have little or no chance of survival. Whereas first generation infra-red guided missiles would have struggled to ‘see’ a piston-engined fighter from behind, as highlighted in early 1960s tests with a EE Lightning against a Spitfire, an ASRAAM would likely have little problem. Likewise the Typhoon’s radar should have no issues detecting the Typhoon even in ground clutter.
Firepower-wise its one 27-mm auto cannon versus four 20-mm cannon,
Wing area: Hawker: 25.9 m2 – Eurofighter 50 m2
Number of operators:
Westland Whirlwind aeroplane versus Westland Whirlwind helicopter
Fighting a cannon-armed fighter at least three and half times faster than you with depth charges and torpedos is a bad position to be in and the helicopter’s best chance of survival is evasive nap-of-the-earth manoeuvres. Unfortunately, low-level is exactly where the four-gunned Whirlwind aeroplane likes to hunt. The Whirlwind helicopter’s unlikely ace-in-sleeve may be the shallow detonation of a depth charge (perhaps against land) ahead of the pursuing aeroplane.
Former Royal Navy helicopter Observer ‘Bing’ Chandler noted: “You’d either need a direct hit as it flew underneath, or at low level drop so the pursuer flies through the plume of water from the explosion. The trigger only lets it explode under water so you couldn’t use it for an above water explosion without replacing that with a different design… the same basic design has been in use since World War 2 so the same ones were used on the Lynx!“
We asked helicopter-expert Ron Smith his opinion, he opined that the best approach may be “Depth charge attack – fly low over the sea and release a depth charge with minimal depth setting, so that the aircraft gets taken out by the water explosion. I seem to recall that dropping a bouncing bomb resulted in aircraft hit by spray. Much worse with depth charge exploding.”
But would the radar-less Whirlwind aeroplane be able to even find the helicopter? Back to Bing “Having done fighter evasion exactly twice against Hawks, use the terrain to hide and then dash for the next bit of cover after they’ve flown past you and are turning around. Certainly when we did it I spent most of my time telling the Hawk where we were so they could make an attack run for us to practice countering! They often still couldn’t spot us. If they did stay low at fly at speed towards them. This will force them to lower their nose to get a shot in which starts to get dangerous for them. Slightly different over the Bristol channel where we ended up in a turning fight wondering if we could elevate the gun enough for a shot. We could effectively out turn them but it left us vulnerable to their wingman when he realised he couldn’t find the Lynx he was supposed to be chasing. Turns out if you don’t follow the pre-briefed route the Hawks had no chance of finding you!“
Easier with a radar? “To be honest having spoken with people who did fighter evasion against Tornadoes in the Falkland Islands a radar doesn’t always help!”
Theoretically the Whirlwind could fire a heavy machine-gun or even MANPAD from the door though this must be discounted as it did not happen in reality (we can’t even find historical examples of the Whirlwind carrying a light defensive machine gun but do share evidence if you have some) .The first MANPAD used by British forces, the Stingers in the hands of the SAS were introduced around a week after the last Whirlwind SAR squadron (84) converted to the Wessex in March 1982. According to Bing, “Mind you we were advised to land and get something tube shaped to wave in the direction of the attacking fighter. So a length of drain pipe might work… although given how hard the fighters seemed to find spotting a helicopter I’m not sure if they’d see the people never-mind the tube!” We also can’t think of any examples of a cabin-fired MANPAD as the back blast into the cabin would be a big issue!
Modern helicopters versus fixed wing aircraft
A well equipped attack helicopter flown by a trained crew will defeat most fighter airplanes in 1v1 air combat, should the fighter be foolish enough to drop down to try and engage,’ Nick Lappos, Technical Fellow Emeritus at Sikorsky and former U.S. Army AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter pilot, said on Quora. ‘A helicopter immersed in ground clutter is very hard to detect by almost any means, and so is hard to engage. Meanwhile, the helicopter can be equipped with air to air missiles and large caliber guns that easily engage fighters as they maneuver at low altitudes against a blue sky in their attempts to engage the helicopter. The helicopter if properly flown will always maneuver to cut off the angle from the airplane, forcing impossibly steep closure maneuvers for the fighter. Typical helicopter turn rates are 30 to 40 degrees per second, three times that of the fighter, even at high g, so the fighter will find the helicopters weapons always engaging it during any serious contest. If the helicopter gun and missiles were selected for anti-aircraft (like the 30mm guns on the Mi-24 and KA-50/51), the results are that the attack helicopter becomes like a rapidly mobile SAM site, a very dangerous target.’
Lockheed F-35 Lightning II versus English Electric Lightning
Yes we could have chosen the P-38, but this is a far more interesting fight. The EE aircraft is faster, both in top speed and climb rate but is mercilessly outclassed in situational awareness. The F-35 Lightning II would certainly spot the Lightning first release an AMRAAM before the Lightning was aware of the F-35. The Lightning has no chance in any scenario with open rules of engagement. If a visual ID is required – which could be accomplished at some distance by the EO systems – or the Lightning is not considered hostile until the last moment a dogfight is possible.
The F-35 though G-limited to 7, is broadly comparable to the F-16. Lightning pilot Ian Black flew against teen fighters in training:
“How did Lightnings do against teen series fighters in BFM/DACT (dogfight training) exercises? What tips would you offer in these situations?
Lightnings fought F-14, F-15, F-16 and F-18s. At long ranges Lightnings would have been shot down with radar-guided missiles- with no RWR (radar warning receivers) the Lightning would not have stood a chance. Against the teen series the Lightning did OK in close-in combat, but the best version for air combat was the F.Mk 3 and that had so little fuel you could really only one last for one engagement.
B-1B Lancer versus Republic P-43 Lancer
The name Lancer hasn’t really caught on in the B-1B’s 36-year career with most calling it the B-1B, B-1 or Bone. The P-43 was the wild troubled older brother of the Thunderbolt.
Though the P-43 would be hard pressed to intercept an offensive B-1B, an ambush while the bomber was at lower speed. The B-1B has a cruising speed of 647 mph and the maximum of the P-43 is 356mph. Though the B-1B has no defensive armament the P-43 would have to be extremely fortunate to catch the aircraft, and even then its .50 cal rounds would only have a glancing opportunity: however, in optimal head-on conditions the heavy machine-gun rounds could have a closing speed of over 3,000mph. In offensive terms the B-1B would be limited to a manoeuvre or jet efflux wake kill.
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Interview with Merlin helicopter pilot
Commander ‘Grassy’ Knowles gives us the low-down on flying and fighting in this 14-ton Anglo-Italian masterpiece of helicopter design. ORDER THE HUSH-KIT BOOK OF WARPLANES HERE
|Describe the Merlin in three words? Flexible, Fast, Maritime. |
What’s the best thing about it? Its flexibility, for a naval aircraft which all suffer what I call the tyranny of dispersion – you can’t have lots of specialist aircraft because you haven’t the space and you’re a long way from home when the job requirements change – I’ve launched for a 20-minute job and landed 6 hours later having done 15 different tasks before now, it excels at Anti Submarine Warfare but is also great for Search And Rescue and troop/cargo movement.
And the worst? Reliability, due to the size of the fleet, not enough aircraft means very expensive to support which results in low availability. A political decision to support Westlands (not a wrong choice) that means the Royal Navy pays a very large premium cost of ownership.
“As for Merlin vs Seahawk, just ask any US Submariner who they’d rather face…. it isn’t Merlin!”
How do you rate it in the following:
Excellent ASW Radar and Sonar, ESM seriously needs modernising. Lack of Navigation Sensors in the Mk 2, (no Radio Nav aids not even an ILS) make it sometimes ‘interesting’ getting in and out of international civilian airfields. Mk 4 well equipped in that regard.
B. Noise in cabin.
Pretty noisy cockpit due to numbers of fans to keep all the displays cool. However still quieter than most comparable aircraft and really great for lack of vibration due to the ACSR (Active Control of Structural Response).
C. Human Machine Interface
Pretty great from a ‘flying’ perspective. I was very picky when I was the Mk 2 Project Pilot and critical of it but compared with other aircraft it’s pretty good. Interactions with the Mission System from the cockpit could be better.
D. Climb rate
It’s pretty well powered in any temperate conditions and even at Maximum All Up Mass had a good climb rate. Somewhat limited when ‘hot and high’ but then it wasn’t designed to be there. But performed far better than the Lynx escorts in Basra for performance and surprised the Blackhawks when we powered past them during joint Ops.
E. Ease of take-off and landing
Pretty good handling qualities although it’s mismatched in roll versus pitch control power so if you watch any Merlin takeoff they’ll wobble left and right whilst the pilots brain re-learns the compensation required. Landing is always limited by its high nose-up attitude in the hover vs tail rotor risk of impact so it’s tricky to stop and land quickly and dynamically. You’ve got to get rid of forward speed/momentum early.
F. Hover characteristics
Great Automatic Flight Control System hover and reliably gets you in and out of the hover with nil external references. Can take a while to learn to be truly precise with it manually as the trim isn’t quite as fast as a Wildcat so many pilots end up trim releasing a lot as a control strategy, which takes away a lot of stabilisation.
G. Ease of loading
Bit of a pain, cargo door is very high, and in normal ASW etc role normally has a number of seats and ASW kit in the back, but that said, still manages to show flexibility in moving stuff and people around the fleet. Mk 4 obviously better suited but the ramp is quite steep and can get slippy from experience in Basra etc.
H. As a transport
That flexibility thing again, you can actually take all the mission kit out of a Mk 2 and turn it into a large transport aircraft, I remember thinking ‘we’ll never do that again’ after demonstrating it during acceptance. Couple of months, later Operation Gritrock, the UK support to the Ebola crisis and cue 3 Mk2 Merlin, kit stripped out, providing excellent support as a transport aircraft. You can also fast-rope from all marks of Merlin with a LOT of troops and it’s very quick, very smooth and surprisingly (until the last few seconds) quiet from the ground. It became a firm favourite of the troops in theatre due to that. Being able to arrive quickly and in a fit state to fight is after all the primary aim.
5. Do you feel an emotional attachment to Merlin?
God yes! One of the first ab-initios on the Mk1, a rarity as an exchange pilot on Mk3 during Op TELIC, the Mk2 Project Pilot as a Test Pilot and the aircrafts Capability Manager in HQ in several guises, CO of 820 NAS taking Merlin back into proper Carrier deployments and bringing CrowsNest into Service, I’ve lived and breathed Merlin my entire career. I’ve poured sweat, blood and tears into its development and life.
Biggest technical challenge to the programme? For the Mk 2 programme I would say the new Mission System upgrade, For Mk4 integrating a folding tail into a ramped helo and for CrowsNest, overcoming the sales pitch of a ‘known mission system going into a known aircraft will be low risk’ it isn’t, it’s an engineering compromise and always was going to be.
Enough power? I heard stories of air con being removed from Merlin’s in the Middle East
Yes, tricky hot and high as it’s optimised for Atlantic ASW or European Plains Trooping by design. Normally runs out of Turbine Temperature first (TIT) before Torque. Wasn’t much point having the Air Con packs in Middle East anyway as the doors were always open for self defence weapons.
What should I have asked you? And what’s the answer? Where next for Merlin? I was intimately involved in the recent move to extend the Merlin’s life to 2040; apart from the CrowsNest AEW role, supposedly that is going to a UAV by 2030 but we’ll see, I’ve yet to see the replacement capability have a serious programme. I think the Royal Navy should invest in a midlife upgrade/obsolescence package to modernise the Merlin systems. At the moment there are lots of bespoke processors, chassis and card. This could make cost of ownership cheaper, and help develop the technology and de-risking of the eventual replacement, especially if the intent is for it to be uncrewed. An example of this: You should be able to reduce crew by introducing more automation too if you want to eventually bring uncrewed aircraft into the mix.
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What was your most memorable mission in Iraq?
27th March 2008. During the Battle of Basra, I was day tasker Captain, we had an intense day operating as a 2-ship with the IRT aircraft (captained by Flt Lt Kev Harris, an awesome bloke, humble and great pilot who had been my Captain during my first Basrah deployment and taught me loads) he rightfully earned a DFC for his actions during those days, all I can say is that as the other aircraft Captain he earned it. We had awoken somewhat surprisingly to find ourselves supporting a major offensive by the Iraqi Army which hadn’t been well planned or coordinated it felt and we were on the back foot. Those few days were seriously hectic, flying into and out of a lot more dynamic fighting than we had been used to recently and with the Iraqi troops taking a lot of injuries as were some of the U.K. embedded mentors. That day I remember we flew multiple 2 aircraft trips into Basrah Palace, Old State Building and I think at one point 5 mile market, flying as a 2 ship was always more fraught, you’re a richer target for indirect fires (mortars etc) and it just made for a frantic, dynamically planning and replanning and reacting kind of a time. Little glimpses jump out from those few days, the moment an American embed grabbed my crewman and yelled something like “Don’t leave us here man, don’t forget about us.” Like a scene from a Vietnam film, only to have said crewman reply in his B-road Irish accent “We’re only popping back to the base for more water fella, we’ll be back in half an hour!” Those funny little moments of levity that keep you sane in high pressure times are peppered across my deployments in Iraq.10. Which piece of equipment did you wish it had during your time in Iraq Mini-Gun. Never really had much faith in the GPMGs as self-defence weapons.
What’s its closest US counterpart and how do you believe they compare? Any opinions you’ve heard on Merlins from US helo crew or soldiers? Seahawk for Mk 2, Blackhawk for Mk3/4. US were always surprised how fast we were and that we could/would fly in conditions they wouldn’t/couldn’t. I once flew Gen Petraeus during the Battle of Basra and he was ‘perplexed’ that he was riding in a Brit helo when the Blackhawks wouldn’t fly. As for Merlin vs Seahawk, just ask any US Submariner who they’d rather face…. it isn’t Merlin!
Is it good having 3 engines? Nope. It’s a good idea to only lose 1/3rd of your power during an engine failure, especially when you spend so much time in the hover, but 2 good engines where you had better One Engine Inoperative performance would be better; less weight (not just extra engine but very complex Gearbox to incorporate 3 inputs), plus massively decreased maintenance and support costs.
If you could change one thing about it what would it be? Be more reliable, and to be fair that’s not about the aircraft but the support solution. There’s not a great deal of Merlins across the world so the spare and support is very expensive per aircraft/per flying hour as a result. If you’re going to support a sovereign industry then you need to accept it might be more expensive to do so and fund accordingly.
The Worst French aircraft manufacturer?
Is this aircraft company the French Blackburn?
If there’s one thing that social media knows about aircraft, it’s that the Blackburn Blackburn is the perfect meme. Of course, I must remember my social media may be different to yours, and you might not be mired in the Groundhog Day of aviation twitter, where ancient jokes are denied a dignified death – and exist in a parody of life, like severely injured sea turtles in a Buddhist rescue centre. But if you are aware of this ‘Av-Geek*’ online world you will know the Blackburn Blackburn is a visual punchline to expectations of the beauty of flight; its chonky earnestness has cemented its manufacturer Blackburn’s reputation as uniquely gifted constructors of ugly airframes. And the existence of the Beverley, Roc (below) and just the mere name of the Blackburd have only added to whatever we’re supposed to call the antithesis of mystique. The problem is that jokes about Blackburn become a little stale when everybody is making them.
To hell with bad British aeroplanes.. what you really want is a lot more mon dieu, mes yeux!
The joy of the Anglo-centric experience is the great treasures our ignorance has hidden. As we listen to the tiresome Hurricane-defenders and provocative Defiant-apologists we are missing out on a wealth of French aircraft, some of them delightfully rubbish. So join us as we leave the browning cliffs of Dover and meet a parallel universe Blackburn, where the designers had better sex and coffee yet STILL created av-bominations. Allow me to introduce you to the grisly Gaulish output of Avions Farman.
*The term ‘av-geek’ is an imperialist move by the geeks to rob an intrinsically cool subject of its cool, and debase it in the sexless muck of the hoarding data-collators
The Farman Voisin / Farman III
Like the American Wright Brothers, Henri Farman was a skinny guy with an interest in bicycles and natty headwear. Like so many other great innovators, Farman started with a plane built by somebody else. Henri bought his first aircraft from Gabriel Voisin in 1907 and soon started making improvements of his own, which Voisin then incorporated into production aircraft. It was one of these hybrids that Farman used to set records for distance, duration, and actually landing where you intended to. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the design, however, is that if you cover over the tail with your hand, it now looks like Henri is flying a much later biplane backwards.
Unfortunately, the partnership with Voisin was short-lived. French aviation was notoriously fractious, and having previously fallen out with Bleriot, Voisin now angered Henri by selling the intended Farman II to the perfidious English. Piqued, Farman went and designed his own version, the Farman III, which was to become hugely influential. With a leading elevator extended forward on twin booms and a pusher prop, the “Farman type” was widely copied elsewhere and known by that name. The genuine Farman III would set several national firsts around the world, including as far afield as Japan where the one original survivor (the first powered aircraft to fly in the country) can be found.
Other good, early Farman designs include younger brother (and business partner) Maurice’s MF.7 Longhorn (left) – one of which holds the dubious honour of being the first military aircraft to be shot down in air-to-air combat – and his slightly more modern-looking MF.11 Shorthorn, which would enter history as the aircraft that the fictional character Biggles first learned to fly in.
The F.60 Goliath
By the end of the Great War, Farman had moved away from pusher props and also embraced and a far less delicate look, one that fans of Blackburn’s output will love. The 60 Goliath was intended as a heavy bomber but found the role disappearing with the end of hostilities. Not wanting to lose commercial opportunities, Farman rapidly converted the nascent bomber to become one of the first airliners by (apparently) sticking some windows in the bomb bay and calling it a day.
Despite flying characteristics that weren’t ideal – and marred by the inconvenience of asking the rear passengers to shuffle forward to try and get the tail off the ground – the Goliath was a commercial success. It was later converted back to a heavy bomber, a role in it which was also successful. Whether the bombs were ever asked to scooch up to help the pilot is unrecorded.
Perhaps the oddest – yet successful – developments of the Goliath was as a torpedo carrying floatplane. This continued a long tradition of naval feuding that had begun with a Japanese Shorthorn attacking a German cruiser in 1914 – the first recorded naval strike in history. I wonder whatever happened to the Japanese and that idea?
The Super Goliath and, er, the other Super Goliath
Farman struggled to repeat the success of the Goliath, so much so that two entirely different designs were given the “Super Goliath” name. The first, the BN.4, was another slab of what might politely be described as utilitarian design and an example of the 1920s urge to do-the-same-thing-but-bigger. With the ability to haul two and a half tons of bombs skywards, the BN.4 could certainly deliver, but the French military were undergoing one of their regular phases of being utterly skint.
On landing outlying bits of the Super Goliath stopped well after the main undercarriage, giving the alarmed crew an intense jolt and tipping the aircraft frontwards. An additional nose gear was added to soften the inevitable upset.
The second attempt at a Super Goliath, the 140, wasn’t exactly super either. Although three experimental prototypes and six production aircraft were delivered, a series of major structural failure led to the French grounding all their multi-engined Farman designs including the hitherto solid Goliath variants. Wondering whether the wings were about to fall off is the sort of thing that leads to a loss of confidence in a design though.
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The F.120 Jabiru – ‘All-aspect ugly’
And now we’re really into the good stuff. The 120 and its bafflingly large family of related oddballs are where Farman’s true genius finally blossomed, achieving the rare distinction of producing aircraft that managed to look ugly from every conceivable angle, except – possibly – from the inside. Available with anything from two to four engines, depending on how little confidence you had in them, and occasionally with an extra pair of stubby little wings to put them on, the overall effect is of airliners designed by someone who only had hearsay to go by.
Defying engineering convention – and in an echo of the Blackburn Blackburn, which was perfectly decent at its role – the 120 and related freaks looked wrong and flew right. They were award winning aircraft in their day, being given half a million francs in the 1923 Grand Prix des Avions de Transports. Possibly under the condition they just took them away. Quickly.
Incidentally the Jabiru is named after a type of stork. I don’t even want to think about the babies.
The F.170 Jabiru
Having tried all number of engines, Farman tried taking the 120 family and just putting one, albeit massive, prop at the front. They then made a mockery of the stork nickname and cut its legs off. The result looks – from the front at least – like a typical modern light aircraft that has badly overdone the Christmas celebrations. Despite this a NACA report was broadly favourable, reporting that the 170 was “practically independent of possible errors in piloting”. It’s not clear why this is a good thing – it appears to mean that if the pilot screws up it’s his own fault, still, that would sound pretty good in the marketing material.
Now I know this isn’t technically a plane, but let’s be honest – all the best planes secretly want to be boats. Think of the purposeful majesty of the Sunderland, the extravagant lunacy of ekranoplans, or the staggering performance of the Shinmaywa US-2, a plane that apparently flies using the power of cheat codes alone. And in the 1920s Farman cut straight to the chase with the Hydroglisseur.
Seemingly the result of trying to fly a seaplane through a bridge that was a lot narrower than expected, this Farman airboat was allegedly capable of nearly 70 knots. That’s pretty rapid when your firm-buttocked le cul is two inches above the water, although the name “Le Ricocheur” – the bouncer – suggests that either the directional control or ride comfort might not have been all that it was cracked up to be. Or just that you weren’t coming on board if you were wearing trainers.
As with many Farman ventures the market was less enthusiastic, and by the end of the decade they’d reverted to being a pure aeroplane manufacturer. Oh, and they also tried cars, though that idea sank without a trace too.
The F.180 Oiseau Bleu (Bluebird) ‘1927’
The Bluebird was conceived for a non-stop crossing between Paris and New York, an attempt that was quietly shelved after somebody finally noticed the 650-mile range and spent an educational, if somewhat chastening, afternoon staring at an atlas in disbelief. Still at least it was only spirits that ended up dampened, and the three 180s that were completed seem to have performed perfectly adequately shuttling between European capitals. For a Farman design the 180 was relatively good-looking, although the latent desire for oddity did lead them to compensate with a tandem power unit in the upper wing, a pusher prop adding its effort to the more conventional one in an effort to gain more power with less drag.
The F.190 & F.280
I don’t care how good and popular the 190 (below) was. It still looks like something has sat on it.
A development using the same wing was the F.280, which was intended as a mail courier. There are only really two requirements of a mail plane: it ought to be quick, and it ought to be able to carry lots of mail. To a degree these aims are contradictory, and in the case of the 280 Farman compromised by attempting neither of them. Despite being blessed with no fewer than three engines, the top speed never exceeded 230km/h despite being reengined twice, and the two examples were quietly and unceremoniously dumped by the newly formed Air France.
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The other stuff…
Farman’s output trailed off somewhat in the 1930s, presumably due to the headwinds and political pressures that led to the nationalisation and rationalisation of the French aircraft industry in 1936. This denied us the opportunity of seeing what Farman could have achieved in the age of the jet engine, which to judge by their earlier experimental aircraft is a massive loss to the history of flight.
Blessed with an outsized wing that implies Farman’s main ambition was to blot the sun out completely, the F.1000 series was designed to investigate the difficulties of high altitude flight.
Slightly safer was the F.1020, built to investigate what would happen if Farman put all the spare curves they’d been saving from their remorselessly angular wings into one half-pancake. Apparently it was nearly impossible to spin, though without any other qualities to recommend it. Similarly unimpressive was the F.370’s monocycle landing gear, although its racing career was cut short due engine overheating – likely a consequence of packaging everything tightly to minimise drag.
The difficulties of high altitude flight were as nothing compared to the difficulties of Farman’s idiosyncratic design decisions. Wishing to make the pressurised cockpit as airtight as possible, Farman fitted just two side windows. For landing, when a view ahead is generally considered helpful, the pilot would open a hatch, raise the rudder pedals vertically, plug in a second stick (or possibly just attach it to the one below – logic has long since left the building) and then sit on top of the fuselage to fly the plane. And yes, this did all go badly wrong and kill the test pilot.
The F.1010, on the other hand, answered a dangerous question that nobody was asking – namely “what happens if you squeeze the barrel of the 33-mm cannon between the engine cylinders and fire it through the spinner of the propeller?”. Despite the excitement of the premise it turned out the main thing that happened was you spent ages working out how to make it possible to manoeuvre a plane that’s now 10% cannon by weight. You give up, that’s how.
The French Blackburn?
Even Blackburn weren’t the equivalent of the internet’s “Blackburn” – a practical joke played upon an unwitting world of aviation, whose unsuccessful designs are best viewed in the dark. You don’t build thousands of planes without some of them doing at least part of what was asked of them. But you want a moment of genius that caps years of underwhelming, slightly funny looking designs? The Farman III does the Buccaneer thing – being the golden child of a cursed family – it just does it at the other end of the story. The various iterations of the Jabiru are aesthetically the equivalent of the Blackburn Blackburn, and even suffer by being judged by the cover in a similar way. Want a Blackburd? Well, god help you, but the Goliath could haul a great big torpedo around and could even drop it without the undercarriage having to fall off. Okay, so there’s no Roc, but if any manufacturer was daft enough to take on the challenge of making it half-work.
I should probably add at this point that Henri Farman’s dad was an Essex-boy and his mum was born in Kent, and despite being born in Paris, Henri did not adopt a French nationality until 1937. Perhaps at least some of the company’s incompetence was British in origin, indeed perhaps Farman was a British ‘Blackburn’.
*in the original sense of “I wonder what the hell they were thinking?”
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US Army Fighters of World War II ranked by ‘kills’
Top 10 USAAF warplanes of World War 2
Over 21,000 Axis aircraft were claimed destroyed in flight by the Army Air Force of the United States in 1941-1945. The vast majority of these were by the top 5 aircraft in this list. Mired in the morass of war and the chaos of counterclaims, the exact numbers are up for debate. And obviously these are confirmed victory claims – not confirmed enemy losses. Though sporting words like ‘score’ and ‘victories’ may put us in a coolly comparative or even recreational frame of mind, it must be remembered that any score was marked in gore and grief.
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15. Seversky P-35 (1935) ‘Thundercrap’
Number of aerial victories: 1 or zero
Despite featuring most of the latest technologies, the first modern monoplane fighter of USAAC had rather pedestrian performance for its time. It was markedly inferior in almost all measurable qualities to the most potent fighter of 1935, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. The P-35 was operated by the Far East Air Force (FEAF) a part of the United States Army in the Philippines (then a colonial territory or protectorate) formed a few weeks prior to the US entry into World War II in 1941. Despite having taken its first flight three months later, the P-35 was far inferior to the best fighter of its time, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. It was the first USAAC single-seat all-metal fighter with retractable landing gear and an enclosed cockpit, but despite these modern features by 1941, the War would reveal the P-35 to be horrifically obsolete. Unlucky pilots of the 34th and 21st Fighter Squadrons of the 4th Composite Group were based at Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.
Slow, lightly armed with neither sufficient cockpit armour or self-sealing tanks the P-35 was nether-the-less the frontline of defence for the Philippines. As the Japanese invasion began, this lack-lustre monoplane would face the formidable Mitsubishi Zero with predictably dire results. The P-35 force was smashed to pieces on the ground and in the air. Some sources cite a single aerial victory in the defence against Japan, whereas other put the figure as zero. The US was seemingly slow to realise the importance of armour, and the absence of armoured fuel tanks, or any meaningful armour, made the P-35 particularly vulnerable. Some reports credit the P-35 with one kill, others with none. This bitter lesson in survivability was certainly taken onboard by the manufacturer, who under a new name were then developing the astonishingly tough P-47 Thunderbolt.
Intriguingly, both the USAAC and the Japanese Navy had operated the type. In what was seen by many as a ‘dick-move’, the US company Seversky (later Republic) secretly sold 20 2PA-B3s to the Japanese Navy in 1938. Used in the the Second Sino-Japanese War, this two-seat variant of the P-35 was known as the Navy Type S Two-Seat Fighter or A8V1 (Allied codename ‘Dick’).
This is clearly not the place to mention it served with the Swedish air force, but as it looked so beautiful in Swedish colours (colors) I am compelled to share a photo.
14. de Havilland Mosquito ‘Wooden Oner’
Number of aerial victories: 1
An aircraft that managed a single kill in US colours was the magnificent de Havilland Mosquito. The story of it losing a performance trial against the P-61 Black Widow in front of American General Carl Spaatz is somewhat controversial, with some saying the RAF rigged the Mosquito to lose as it didn’t want hand over its brilliant night fighter to the US in large names. Others note that a second trial also saw the P-61 prove superior. Regardless, the exceptional Mosquito did little air-to-air fighting with the two Night Fighter Squadrons (416th and 425th) it served with from 1944.
13. Douglas P-70 ‘Nighthawks in the death diner’
Number of aerial victories: 2
Radars were essential equipment for night fighters, but the US had none of its own. As an interim measure Douglas P-70 Havoc, a cumbersome A-20 bomber fitted with a U.S. version of the British Mk IV radar. The type was unfit for purpose, and largely used for training, but managed to notch up two victories before standing aside for the far superior Beaufighter
Which leads us to the Douglas P-70 Havoc/Nighthawk/Boston/A-20/A-20B/ DB-7 – which had many more names than victories; the P-70 Nighthawk served as a night fighter and managed all of two victories.
12. Boeing YB-40 (1942) ‘Flying Fortmess’ – 3 victories
Number of aerial victories: 3
This fighter is, as you have no doubt spotted, a B-17. Imagine ‘mixing it’ with the 109s in this. In 1942 the Eighth Air force thought they might create an effective escort by slinging a massive amount of guns into a bomb-free Flying Fortress. No aircraft has ever flown with such a formidable defensive armament. Unfortunately this made the aircraft so draggy and heavy that it couldn’t keep up with the bombers it was supposed to be protecting.
11. Boeing P-26 Peashooter (1932) ‘Jesus versus the Zeroes’
Number of aerial victories: 4
The P-26 deserves an honourable mention for this tiny, trail-blazing monoplane fighter of the 1930s fought tenaciously for the Chinese Air Force in the Sino-Japanese War with John Buffalo Huang and John Wong Panyang both using the type on the way to acedom. Almost all the P-26s had been decommissioned by Pearl Harbor but there was a squadron left on the Philippines commanded by Jesus A.Villamor, which valiantly fought a massed formation of Zeros and a G3M. They shot four aircraft down and Villamor was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Oak leaves cluster. A magnificent way for a historic plane to bow out, as the aircraft would soon after be burned to prevent capture.
10. Curtiss P-36 Hawk ‘Curtis may field overly conservative fighters’
Number of aerial victories: 6
Flying 23 days before the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Curtiss were pretty quick into the game of modern fighters with all the mod-cons. Here was a high-performance stressed-metal monoplanes with retractable undercarriages. If anything they were perhaps a little early, arriving before the great Merlin engine was readily available. Our number 10 entry Curtiss P-36 Hawk scores only in single figures. The Hawk proved an excellent fighter for the French – but managed just 6 victories for the US, all during the Pearl Harbor attack, before it quickly stood aside for the superior P-40.
9. Bristol Beaufighter ‘The Bristol Bastard’
Number of aerial victories: 31
When the USAAF formed its first radar-equipped night fighter squadron in January 1943, the only American aircraft available was the rather unsuitable Douglas P-70, a cumbersome A-20 bomber fitted with the U.S. version of the Mk IV radar. The P-70 proved lacklustre, but there was no suitable indigenous design to replace it. Buying British was the solution, and the US adopted the most successful British twin-engined fighter of all time, Thus the first USAAF night fighter squadrons went to war in the Bristol Beaufighter. It proved excellent as a night fighter during the first US deployment in North Africa, Sicily and Italy but was phased out when US night fighter models became available, notably the P-61 Black Widow.
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8. Northrop P-61 Black Widow ‘The Night of the Hunter‘
Number of aerial victories: 126.5
Aces: Eugene Axtell 5, Herman Elliott 5, Paul Smith 5
The first purpose-designed night fighter was the Black Widow, a sinister deathly cathedral of a warplane. Towering above just about anything, fully loaded it was around six tons heavier than a similarly maxed-out Mosquito. The biggest and heaviest true fighter of the War carried an arsenal of four 20-mm cannon, and for the first time since the legendary Boulton Paul Defiant, a four-machine gun turret behind the pilot. But, unlike that of the Defiant, this turret was low-drag, remote-controlled and could fire forwards. The Black Widow scored victories in the West and the Pacific, and created three aces. One of its most notable missions was to fly acrobatics over a prisoner-of-war camp on the island of Luzon, Philippines where hundreds of US prisoners awaited execution – this distracted the guards while a force of US Rangers got into place for a successful seizure of the camp, saving hundreds (this event is depicted in the 2005 film The Great Raid but in the absence of an airworthy P-61, the film has to make do with a Lockheed Hudson instead).
7. Bell P-39 / P-400 Airacobra ‘The Cursed Bell-end’
Number of aerial victories: 320.5
Aces: Bill Fiedler 5; Tommy Lynch 3 (of 20); George Welch 3 (of 16)
The unconventional Airacobra, with its engine mounted behind the pilot, found a desperately unreceptive audience when trialled with the RAF, who promptly sent the aircraft on to the Soviet Union for evaluation. The USAAF weren’t too impressed either and nor were its pilots. A slightly upgraded version called the P-400 became the butt of a joke that it was ‘a P-40 with a Zero on its tail’. In North Africa, the type was primarily used for ground attack, and suffered heavy losses while scarcely scoring. Yet the joke was on the RAF (and USAAF) when the Soviets decided to use it instead of the Spitfire and eventually took delivery of over 4,700. The low-level performance and the large cannon in the propellor hub were ideal for the air battle on the Eastern Front, and the Airacobra is credited with about 6000 claims. Bearing in mind Luftwaffe losses were lower on the Eastern Front than even North Africa and the Med in 1943-44, this is very likely to reflect a very high overclaim factor. Only one pilot aced for the USAAF, Bill Weidler, although a couple of major aces scored with it, including the Pearl Harbour hero, George Welch.
6. Supermarine Spitfire ‘The defaming of the Shrew’
Number of aerial victories: 379
Aces: Frank Hill (7 kills)
Featuring well up the charts is the plane that is obviously the greatest fighter of all time and which equipped two US fighter groups, the 31st and the 52nd, through late 1943 and 1944 in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. In the air battles following Torch, they were involved in probably the last battle when the Luftwaffe was still at its peak, with Focke Wulf Fw190s, Me109Gs and a host of great aces like Muncheberg, Bar, Reinert and Rudorffer. The new American groups did well, the 135-victory Muncheberg was lost in a collision with a US Spitfire, and several aces were created in the Med campaign before the groups switched to Mustangs in mid-1944.
5. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Fort Knocks’
Number of aerial victories: approximately 2500
“Against 20 Russians trying to shoot you down, or even 20 Spitfires, it can be exciting – even fun. But to curve in towards 40 Fortresses, all your past sins flash before your eyes,” Hans Philipp, JG1 Kommodore, with 206 victories.
B-17 air gunner aces: Michael Arooth 17 (tail); Donald Crossley 12 (tail); Benjamin Warner (waist) 9; Thomas Dye 8 (ball).
While victories by fighter type have been calculated and published, there’s nothing to go on with regards bombers, who undoubtedly shot down a lot of Luftwaffe and Japanese aircraft. So this is a very crude number.
As Hans Philipp’s quote shows, attacking formations of B-17s, each with 13 50-cal heavy machine guns wasn’t a pleasant proposition for fighters – another Luftwaffe ace famously likened the experience to having sex with a porcupine. However, it became rapidly evident during World War 2 that air gunners are much more prone to overclaiming than fighter pilots, probably to the tune of about seven to ten to one actual claim. One anecdote perfectly illustrates this. On an early B-17 bombing mission escorted by Spitfires, the Spitfire pilots reported that no German fighters were encountered, while several Spitfires had been hit (although all returned) by gunners who claimed 25 fighters shot down. However, there is very little doubt B-17 and B-24 gunners did shoot down a lot of Luftwaffe (and Romanian, Italian and Hungarian) fighters and sensible estimates suggest they were responsible for about 12-15% of all Luftwaffe fighters shot down during the ‘Defence of the Reich’, with escorts claiming the bulk of the rest.
I’ve included just one bomber type on this list – but it is highly likely that others could feature in this top ten – like the B-24 Liberator, the B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder. However, information is scant compared to that for fighters. Interestingly the US Navy classifies 306 victories for the Privateer (the naval version of the Liberator) – only the Hellcat, Wildcat and Corsair scored more highly. There are a few B-17 gunners who qualify as aces – and while he didn’t achieve this status, the most famous air gunner of all was one Clark Gable, who flew several missions in a B-17 as a waist gunner. Another noteworthy air gunner was John P Quinlan (tail gunner) who aced with the Memphis Belle (earning a depiction by Harry Connick Jr.). He also flew as tail gunner in a B-29, claiming three more.
4. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk ‘The Carolina Killer’
Number of aerial victories: 2225.5
Aces: Bob Neale 13; John F.Hampshire 13; Bruce Holloway 13; Dave ‘Tex’ Hill 12.25
The one competitive single engine army fighter at the start of the war, its Allison inline engine replacing the Twin Wasp of the surprisingly effective P-36 which was the most effective French fighter in 1940. In fact, the P-40 was the most successful export fighter for the war, performing well for the Soviets, the RAF, South African Air Force, RAAF in North Africa (and the latter in the Pacific), and of course the legendary American Volunteer Group’s Flying Tigers in China. Pearl Harbor famously saw just two P-40 pilots* get in amongst the attacking Japanese – Kenneth Taylor and George Welch, who had been partying until 6 the night before (and wearing part of their tuxedo outfit in the rush to get to their plane). The P-40 also had the best nose art – the Flying Tigers sported the famed shark’s teeth copied from 112 Squadron in the Libyan Desert.
*This apparently is a myth – as many as fourteen US aircraft may have got into the air, while Welch and Taylor were able to do two sorties, scoring at least four victories.
3. Lockheed P-38 Lightning ‘Hits from the Bong’
Number of aerial victories: 3785
Top aces – Richard Bong 40, Tommy Maguire 38; Charles MacDonald 27
Like the British Mosquito, the Lightning was a light low-drag twin-engine aircraft of extremely high performance. Once you’ve decided to go twin-engined, and wish to include the bulky US exhaust-driven turbo-superchargers of the day, each engine pretty much needs a fuselage of its own. A twin-boom arrangement was far simpler than the only other option, the push-pull configuration later adopted by the Do 335. The slightly earlier Dutch Fokker G1 had successfully adopted the same twin-boom solution.
This was the first design in what would become known as Lockheed’s Skunk works, a lean hived-off secretive design practice which would later produce the SR-71. As a fighter the P-38 was upgraded throughout the war but found its place in the battles around New Guinea and the Philippines, where the top two US air aces of all time, Richard Bong and Tommy Maguire flew it to great effect. Both sadly would die shortly before the end of the conflict. However, it was less effective in the western theatre, where it struggled against Focke-Wulf Fw 190s in particular and would be by and large replaced by the P-51. It was used extensively in the Mediterranean campaign, where it got to run up high totals against the Luftwaffe and Regia air transport fleet during the Axis evacuation of Tunisia while RAF Spitfires ‘deloused’ the escort fighters.
2. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt ‘Jugular vane’
Number of aerial victories: 3795
Top aces – Francis Gabreski 28; Robert S.Johnson 27; Dave Schilling 22.5; Neel Kearby 22
The greatest fighter ever designed by a Georgian was the titanic Thunderbolt. There is a loud school of aviation historians that regard this agile behemoth as the best fighter of all time. It has a strong claim, not as the best fighter, but the best fighter-bomber. Its toughness was a vital commodity when flying through flak where water-cooled fighters like the Mustang and Spitfire were more vulnerable (though it should be noted that even radial fighters have a potential weak-spot in the oil cooler system). Seversky, renamed Republic, in 1939, learnt a lesson from the failures of their earlier rather fragile fighters. They identified speed and a tough battle-resistant construction as essential for survivability, and so created a vast flying bruiser able to soak-up brutal ill-treatment and return home.
The decision to use a turbocharger instead of supercharger, and the routing of the ducting for it for optimal performance of it dictated the large tubby appearance, much of the airframe essentially becoming a turbocompressor housing.
The survivability of the P-47 meant that only one of its top ten aces, Neel Keerby, failed to survive the war. Kearby was the top P-47 ace in the Pacific and was shot down by an Oscar.
1. North American P-51 Mustang ‘Fangs of the ‘Stang’
Number of aerial victories: 5944
Top aces – George Preddy 23.83 (of 26.83); John C.Meyer 25.5
We looked into why the Mustang was so brilliant here. It served in all four theatres of war, but the decisive aspect in its ranking in this list was the fighting over Northern Europe, where it scored 4,239 victories. Note the figure here includes victories scored by the A-36 ground attack version of Mustang, which was essentially a P-51A with airbrakes. This takes its overall score (including RAF) to 6,209, about 130 behind the Spitfire. The quality of the P-51 meant that it amassed a huge number of victories despite the relatively modest scoring of its aces – just three, George Preddy, John C.Meyer and John Voll scored over 20. One Mustang ace, Kenneth Dahlberg, would find infamy later as a Republican apparatchik named in the Watergate scandal.
NOW AVAILABLE: The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, a gorgeous heavily illustrated – and often irreverent- coffee-table book covering the history of aviation 1914 – the present.
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10A. Republic P-43 Lancer
With leaky wing fuel tanks, an unreliable turbo supercharger and less than stellar manoeuvrability it would be easy to write off this ‘missing link’ – or perhaps cul de sac – in the long painful evolution that would culminate in the P-47. Another factor that counted against it: the US was generally slower than Britain to incorporate self-sealing fuel tanks or sufficient armour in fighters, and the P-43 was no exception. In air combat its fuel tanks proved considerably more vulnerable than those of the P-40. It was generally considered obsolete a year after its 1940 service entry. It did however boast good roll rate, and an exceptionally high service ceiling making the only available USAAF type able to effectively meet the ‘Dinah’ at height prior to the P-38. It served in relatively small numbers, and someone managed six kills before it was pushed aside by better machines.
Figures cover USAAC/USAAF and not Navy
By Eddie Rippeth, Joe Coles and Edward Ward
Aviation book reviews January 2023: Part 1
January 2023: Part 1
Aviation Quiz Book : From Airbus to Zeppelin
Khalem Chapman & Martin Needham
Devilishly tough and well researched. Much of the online quizzes are pretty ropey, so lovely to have a quiz book made with such attention to detail and subject knowledge. In fact, that this encourages socialisation, as opposed to solo time online, is to be applauded. The love of nomenclature and sub-variant identification will not be to everyone’s taste, and it leans a little dry at times, though this is offset by many wonderful photographs (especially the lovely image of the Supermarine Attacker). That it combines civil and military is interesting, considering as they are often a different audience, and makes you wonder how smaller volumes separated into military and civil would have sold. Can’t wait to try going head-to-head on this quiz against another plane-bore!
Soviet Lend-Lease Fighter Aces of World War 2
Not a new book but one worth mentioning, this interesting book covers Soviet aces who flew Western-provided fighters. As such it is intriguing parallel universe for those used to Euro- or US-centric histories of World War 2 air combat. Spitfires, Hurricanes, P-40s, Airacobras and Thunderbolts formed the bulk of the land-lease fighters, and it reveals how they performed in the dirty, often cold and low-level conditions that typified the Soviet air war. Much has been made over the last twenty years of how the Soviets generally preferred the Airacobra to the Spitfire in World War II, and this book adds more to the story.
Extremely fine, and appropriately grubby, profile artworks by Jim Laurier are what first impresses the reader. For a reference work this is excellent, those more interested in the human story may require a longer work.
We need to review our own book, but I’m not allowed to do that so I’ll share an Amazon review:
5.0 out of 5 stars Far More Than Another Warplane Book! Reviewed in the United States on 27 December 2022
The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a completely unique form of literary art! Fantastic photos and rich illustrations abound. They are accompanied by a deeply researched and hilariously irreverent text.
Many subjects are covered. From ‘best’ and ‘worst’ listings (with detailed documentation to justify the listings) to rare aviation art of lost projects and concepts, this book deftly explores both familiar and esoteric subjects. One of my personal favorites is the Freudian analysis of night fighter designs. Hilarious and thought provoking!
Joe Coles has created a thoroughly unique book on warplanes. From Great War ( World War I) combatants to World War II legends and losers to the most modern 2022 superfighters, The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes provides an immersive experience in the things that make warplanes so fascinating!
Kamikaze: Japan’s Last Bid for Victory
by Stewart Adrian
Pen & Sword
This is a welcome relief from the many turgid military aviation books. Adrian is a confident clear writer covering a potentially ghoulish subject with sensitivity and panache, while consciously avoiding many of the cliches often encountered in books on Japanese air power. The dreadful slide from volunteer to forced (by social coercion as much as anything) kamikaze pilots is covered in a fascinating and human way by a capable writer and excellent researcher.
Interview with Test Pilot of the First African-designed Attack Helicopter
Barely known outside of South Africa, Petri van Zyl test flew the rarest attack helicopter in the world, the extremely capable Rooivalk. We talked to him to find out more about the continent’s first purpose-designed attack helicopter.
What is the best thing about it?
The best thing about the Rooivalk, was the incredibly low workload that the pilot had in flying the helicopter. The handling qualities and the performance of the aircraft was superior to anything I have flown up to that stage giving the pilot a stress-free environment to concentrate on the mission and not battle the aircraft into accurate flying. On top of that, all systems were designed to manage the aircraft by itself leaving the pilot free to concentrate on the mission elements.
My first contact with the Rooivalk was when I became part of the development team as a Test Pilot on the project, around the time of the first flight of the EDM model. The basic airframe was thus already developed using the XDM version. The EDM version had undergone a major weight reduction exercise as well as a full avionic update to represent the production models and still needed lots of development test flights to tweak, change and qualify all the new systems. My first flight was on the XDM model though and I was super impressed with the low-workload and vibration-free environment of the helicopter coupled with its brute power and performance, even at 10,000 feet density altitude. I could not stop smiling for a week.
Describe the Rooivalk in 3 words
Awesome, Smooth and “I am in love”.
What was your role in the project?
I started on the project as a developmental test pilot and my biggest role was to develop and qualify the helmet mounted display systems with NVG, the digital autopilot as well as the weapons systems. In the latter part of the project, I was the Chief test pilot concerned with the qualification test flying of the whole aircraft and systems.
What is the worst thing about it?
It gets very hot in the cockpit when the air conditioner fails.
In your opinion how does it compare with other attack helicopters, such as the Apache?
It is a difficult question to answer as I have never flown an Apache. I can thus only say that the Apache has been proven in various operational scenarios and proved to be an excellent attack heli. Rooivalk has been exposed to limited operational duty but proved itself from the first moment to be up to the challenge.
What was the biggest challenge to the programme?
The programme was hampered by a lot of politics and I have never seen a programme survive such opposition, with so many stops and starts and still survive. The helicopter was developed in a time when the politics in South Africa changed totally and the new government unfortunately did not put all its weight behind the programme until it was too late to rescue. Internationally, it had to deal with a lot of challenges as it used engines and blades and other stuff from international suppliers. This came with the sanction that in certain markets it could not compete with products of those countries. Potential customers always feared that those companies would not support the product after sales.
How would you rate the cockpit? Is there a helmet display/cueing system?
The cockpit of the Rooivalk is brilliantly designed around the pilot and weapon system operator. Incredible detail planning went into it and the end product was almost and extension of the pilot’s body. Visibility out of it is incredible and the machine was optimised for the low-level nap-of-the-earth (NOE) environment. It was the launch customer for the bi-ocular Helmet Mounted Display system, which was perfected by some brilliant engineers in South Africa.
How you rate the aircraft in the following categories:
A. Man Machine interface – I believe the acceptable term these days is Human Machine Interface (HMI). I have never seen a programme put in more time and effort into the HMI design than on this programme. Like I said, the HMI on this machine was an extension of the pilot’s body.
B. Combat effectiveness – I have never taken the Rooivalk into combat so I cannot comment from personal experience. But its successes with the United Nations in the DRC speaks for itself. The biggest advantage of the Rooivalk is that it can be supported in remote conditions with very little ground support. The helicopter is designed to operate in dusty, hot and remote locations and support by less than a handful of ground crew.
C. Reliability – The reliability of the helicopter has never been in doubt. It was based on the Oryx Helicopter which has proven itself over and over in extreme conditions and is maintaining the same reliability.
D. Performance – Designed for South African conditions, the design factor was for performance at a density altitude of 8000 feet plus. The performance of the two Makila 1k2 engines are simply super and it has adequate performance at this altitude even at maximum all up mass. The aircraft cruises easily at 130 KIAS with full armament even in hot and high conditions.
E. Climb rate – The climb rate starts of at around 2600 feet /min at sea level. The aircraft has adequate climb rate throughout the operational configurations. It has a service ceiling of 20 000 feet which was easily attained during certification testing.
F. Agility – Anyone that has ever seen an air display of the Rooivalk helicopter will be witness to the super agility of the helicopter. Although it is not fitted with a rigid rotor system, we performed loops, rolls and all the necessary combat manouvres with her. The incredible handling qualities of the aircraft are mainly due to the 50 knot sideways and rearward envelope which it handles with extreme ease and the incredible digital artificial flight control system. During envelope expansion the helicopter has been flown to figures in excess of twice the rearward limits to prove the stability and controllability. It is just an absolute pleasure to fly the machine and I personally have never flown another helicopter even closely in the same class.
G. Armour/survivability – Rooivalk does not carry any armour except for the seats. The design drivers of the survivability of the aircraft were:
“Do not be seen, if seen, do not be hit, if hit, do not crash, if you have to crash, survive the crash.”
The helicopter had two major crashes in the early years during flight testing. During both crashes, the crew walked away unharmed. This was an indication of the exceptional survival design.
H. Situational awareness – The helicopter is almost totally free of vibration feel inside the cockpit. This in itself already lowers the workload on the pilot tremendously. Combining this to the excellent performance, handing qualities and HMI and the pilot is free to concentrate on the mission whilst flying the helicopter is stress free and the pilot can fully concentrate to what is going on around him.
What was the aircraft originally created to do- and is it capable of doing that today?
The helicopter was designed as an attack helicopter and it is being applied in that role today.
What is the aircraft’s current status?
The Rooivalk is fully operational in the SAAF
Why did SA not buy an off-the-shelf foreign system?
The development of Rooivalk started in the 1980s under the sanction years when off the shelf systems were not available to South Africa. When the markets opened up in 1994, the aircraft was already so far developed that it would have been a stupid decision to go after something else. In any case, most of the off the shelf items would not be compliant to the desired user specification for the South African environment.
Is the aircraft related to the Puma, if so how?
Denel developed the Oryx helicopter based of the S1 Super Puma. The Oryx thus were related to the Puma. The development of the Rooivalk from the same manufacturer thus maintained the same type of blades and engines. But that is as far as the relationship stretches.
What are its likely roles and threats in a war situation? Would you be confident taking it to war?
The Rooivalk can take on all the roles required of an attack helicopter. It is busy proving itself with the United Nations as a firm favourite.