Few things say ‘Britain’ and ‘aviation’ more than the Supermarine Spitfire. This aircraft has become the icon of a time. Its fame has crossed well beyond the borders of the British Isles and Europe reaching people in different continents and times. Nowadays, the aircraft is part of popular culture. ‘Spitfire’ has become a synonym for World War II fighter aircraft in a similar way to that has made Cessna the generic name for every small, single engine piston-powered aircraft, no matter the actual type or manufacturer. I’m pretty sure I can ask my father or my son “have you ever seen a Spitfire?” and get a “yes” as an answer. Indeed, everyone knows the ‘Spit’.
Although I’m not particularly keen on World War II aircraft (to be honest I’m a technology geek and tend to focus on modern fighters from Generation three onwards) the Spitfire is surely the foreign aircraft from World War II that I love the most. Neither the fastest, not even the most manoeuvrable, nor the sturdiest aircraft of the War — the Spitfire is to my eyes one of the most beautiful. Her gentle curves, attractive aerodynamic shape and signature wing have even contributed to her success because, you know, ‘beautiful aircraft fly better’. I can’t exactly remember when I first saw the iconic aircraft. It must have been at an airshow in the UK or at her ‘home’ at Duxford. Still, I’m sure about the last time I saw one — it was not too long ago, when I once again visited the marvellous Italian Air Force Museum in Vigna di Valle near Rome that hosts a restored —and controversial – because of the slightly modified camouflaged colour scheme — Spitfire Mk. IX in the markings of the 5° Stormo (Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare. What an amazing plane!
David David Cenciotti is the creator of The Aviationist
A hundred years ago the armistice of November 11th 1918 ended the fighting on the Western Front and largely brought to a close four years of continuous frenetic aviation development. Had the fighting continued into 1919 these are the types that would have been in the front line; Snarks and Rumplers would have been as well known today as Camels and Fokkers.
This group represents the ultimate development in Great War fighter aircraft yet despite their potential, none of these aircraft saw operational service before the end of hostilities and chances are you’ve never heard of any of them (unless you’re over 100 years old and happened to be employed in the aviation sector in the early interwar period).
In 1918 aircraft designs were churned out at an astounding rate, for example the Fokker V20 of early 1918 was allegedly designed and built in six and a half days. As a result the aircraft below are limited to single seat, single engine aircraft only to limit the potential entries and help maintain the sanity of the compiler.
Honourable Mention: Orenco-Curtiss Model D
Despite being the first nation to actually fly an aeroplane, US aviation lagged behind the European powers when they entered the conflict in 1917. All the combat aircraft operated by the American Expeditionary Force over the Western front were either French or British. In 1919 however the first indigenous American fighter design to enter production (though still equipped with a French engine) took to the air in the form of the Orenco Model D.
The aircraft was apparently excellent, test pilot Clarence Coombs (who gained second place in the inaugural Pulitzer Trophy the following year in the Curtiss Kitten) reporting “This aircraft performs better than the Sopwith Camel and Snipe, the Thomas-Morse, the Nieuport and Morane Parasol, the Spad and S.V.A.” which was praise indeed, and thus the Army ordered a batch of fifty production aircraft. So why is Orenco virtually unknown today? Well it turned out that the US Army had bought the rights to the design from Orenco and then offered a tender to companies to actually build the production aircraft. In a cruel twist, the winning (i.e. cheapest) bid came not from Orenco themselves but from the aviation giant Curtiss. Curtiss tinkered with the design a little and duly manufactured the fifty fighters.
Orenco meanwhile folded shortly afterwards and became largely forgotten by history.
10. Sopwith Snark
Likely possessing the coolest name ever applied to an aircraft, the Sopwith Snark was a crazy blend of the somewhat old-fashioned and incredibly futuristic. The Snark’s triplane format was generally considered passé by the end of the war but its revival by Sopwith (whose Triplane of 1916 was one of the greatest successes of the conflict) was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. One of two fighters proposed by Sopwith (the other being a run-of-the-mill biplane named the Snapper) in 1918 to replace its own Snipe, which was then entering service, the Snark was intended to operate at high altitude and the low wing loading offered by the triplane layout was seen as ideal to maintain manoeuvrability at height. It also conferred upon the Snark a prodigious weight-lifting capacity which was employed to carry the Snark’s unprecedented armament of six machine guns. This installed armament made it the most heavily armed fighter of the Great war period and would not be equalled until the prototype Gloster Gauntlet took to the skies in 1932 with the same arrangement of four wing-mounted Lewis and two fuselage Vickers gun installation. Even then the Gauntlet reverted to just the twin Vickers armament in its production guise.
Similarly forward-looking was its construction, the Snark featured a wooden monocoque fuselage that conferred high strength for low weight. It would be the last RAF fighter, experimental or otherwise, to fly with such a fuselage until the prototype Mosquito fighter W4052 of 1941. The Snark appeared in public on just one occasion and it was noted that it ‘chucked stunts’ and seemed ‘uncommonly fast’. Upon landing out popped test pilot Harry Hawker, who was flying without a coat, though ‘everybody else was cold enough though well wrapped up.”
Massive cuts to the armed forces at the end of the war meant that there would be no production order for the forward-looking, stunt-chucking and demonstrably warm Snark, thus depriving aviation writers the opportunity to use the phrase ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ in articles and features for evermore. A cruel blow.
Despite a nearly-successful entry into the motorcycle manufacturing business (Under the name ABC motors), Sopwith was saddled with insurmountable tax debts from its massive wartime production and was wound up in 1920. Though Tom Sopwith, Harry Hawker and three others immediately bought the assets of Sopwith as the H.G. Hawker Engineering company which would ultimately become a giant of the British aviation industry.
9. Zeppelin D.I
Designed by Claude Dornier, the Zeppelin D.I was one of very few truly revolutionary aircraft in aviation history. The first aircraft to be built and flown with a stressed-skin metal construction throughout, the Zeppelin was the progenitor of virtually all modern fixed wing aircraft but never entered service and today is obscure in the extreme.
Zeppelin’s name is inextricably linked with airships but the company were (and indeed still are) specialists in more general aluminium engineering so it was hardly surprising that they would seek to apply this material to aircraft construction. In the case of the D.I, construction was of duralumin (an alloy of aluminium and copper) throughout. This alloy would later be used to build the ill-fated Hindenburg passenger airship.
Zeppelin’s D.I was present, though not an official entry, at the second fighter competition at Adlershof but was struck by incredible ill-fortune. Despite being grounded at the factory’s behest pending fitment of the correct wing attachment, the Zeppelin was flown anyway and fatally crashed when the upper wing departed from the aircraft, killing ace Wilhelm Reinhard. Curiously The D.I had been flown minutes earlier by Herman Goering and one wonders how history would have changed had he been the victim rather than the luckless Reinhard. This accident, though seemingly the result of ill-luck rather than any flaw in the aircraft inevitably coloured opinions. Whether or not this had an effect when the Zeppelin appeared at the next fighter contest is open to question but despite its promise the metal aircraft did not put up a particularly good showing, even when fitted with Germany’s best inline engine, the 185 hp BMW. “Does not possess characteristics of a modern fighter. Ailerons too heavy.” noted Heinrich Bongartz, commander of the Aircraft Test Centre at Aldershof in a remarkably succinct but damning report. Had fighting continued it is likely that a developed version would have addressed the shortcomings this aircraft possessed.
Unlike so many other hopeful German types, work on this fighter did not cease with the treaty of Versailles so we are granted a tangible glimpse of how this machine would have evolved if the conflict had continued. Dornier developed the design into the monoplane Dornier Do H ‘Falke’ (Falcon) of 1922, five examples of which were built in Switzerland and Italy. The Falke demonstrated a terrific turn of speed but never entered production, being apparently just too ahead of its time. The US Navy for example declared it was ‘too advanced’ for their needs after evaluating the aircraft in 1923.
8. Pfalz D.XV
Recipient of a major production order exactly one week before the end of hostilities, the Pfalz D.XV bid fair to reverse the prevailing attitude that Pfalz fighters were invariably inferior to their Fokker rivals. An unusual design, the fuselage of the Pfalz was placed halfway between upper and lower wing and attached to both by complex struts, resulting in a distinctly ungainly look. The D.XV was notable also for its complete absence of bracing wires as both wings were cantilever units. Despite its clumsy appearance, the new Pfalz was an impressive performer. When both were fitted with the same BMW engine, it was slightly faster than the Fokker D.VII and the new Pfalz matched its rival for rate of climb.
Entered into the third fighter trial at Adlershof, the performance of the D.XV was sufficient to warrant an order despite issues of tail-heaviness (which should have been relatively easy to cure) and being difficult to land – neither seen as particularly serious when weighed against the aircraft’s excellent performance. It was also noted that Pfalz’s production capacity was superior to Fokker and for this reason alone, the new fighter, at least as good as the D.VII but available quickly in great numbers made the Pfalz an extremely attractive machine to the Inspektion der Fliegertruppen (Idflieg).
The D.XV immediately entered production but time was not on Pfalz’s side and not a single example of the D.XV was to reach the front. It is not definitely known how many complete aircraft were built, probably no more than four, but in 1919, when Allied officials inspected Pfalz’s Speyer factory, they found 74 complete fuselages on the production line. Curiously, two D.XVs were exported to Italy for evaluation as late as 1920, presumably licence production there was being considered. The ultimate fate of both these aircraft sadly remains unknown.
Despite never again building a complete aircraft, Pfalz Flugzeugwerke still exists today, as a component subcontractor to both Airbus and Boeing amongst others.
7. Nieuport Nighthawk / Gloster Mars
Had the war continued into 1919 the British would have had a serious problem as virtually all their future aircraft types were designed around the ABC Dragonfly, a radial engine that promised much but delivered little. One such was the outstanding Nieuport Nighthawk, the design of which would set the standard for British fighters for the next twenty years. Despite its name, the Nieuport and General Company, often referred to as ‘British Nieuport’, was a completely separate entity to Nieuport in France. It had been set up to construct Nieuport aircraft under licence, hence the name, but by 1918 was building Sopwith Camels and eventually set up its own design office under Henry Folland, who had earlier designed the superlative SE5a.
When the Dragonfly engine was running properly, the Nighthawk demonstrated superior characteristics to the Sopwith Snipe, and was the first of an array of radial-engined biplane fighters that formed the backbone of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s fighter force until the arrival of the Hurricane and Spitfire in the late 1930s. Despite being the ancestor of virtually all British inter-war fighters, the Nighthawk itself was plagued by the hopelessness of its engine. The Dragonfly never developed its advertised power, was prone to colossal overheating – Nighthawks under test were recorded landing with charred propellor hubs – and most seriously of all the engine had been inadvertently designed to run at its own resonance frequency, meaning that simply switching the engine on caused it to shake itself apart.
The Nieuport and General Company closed down in 1920 but all was not lost for their seemingly unlucky aircraft. The Nighthawk was known to be an excellent design let down solely by its unreliable engine and production was continued by the Gloucestershire Aircraft company (later to be known as Gloster) who snapped up both development rights and designer Folland. At Gloster the Nighthawk was renamed the Mars, re-engined with a selection of motors that actually worked, and then developed into a confusing swathe of broadly similar types that served with distinction in many air arms across the globe. Examples included the Gloster Nightjar, essentially a Nighthawk with a Bentley rotary, which served operationally as a carrier fighter, and the similar Gloster Sparrowhawk, the first fighter operated by the Japanese Navy. Meanwhile on land a Nighthawk had been fitted with a Napier Lion and shorter wings, inexplicably named the Bamel, and became for a brief period the fastest aircraft in the world. Folland’s designs at Gloster progressed by a process of evolution by way of the Grebe, Gamecock and Gauntlet, to the famous Gladiator, the last fighter biplane of the RAF and a direct descendant of the Nighthawk.
6. Fokker V29
Fokker built the best fighting monoplane and biplane to serve the Central powers in significant numbers during the war, the V.29 prototype sought to combine the best of both worlds by marrying the fuselage of the biplane D.VII to the cantilever parasol wing of the D.VIII. This simple scheme resulted in an excellent aircraft that shared top place at the third Adlershof fighter competition in 1918 with the Rumpler D.I (of which more later). Pilots universally adjudged the V29 to have the best handling of all aircraft at the competition. If the war had continued the new fighter would have entered service as the Fokker D.IX and would likely have proved formidable. As it was, the amazing and continuing success of Fokker’s D.VII meant that there was no great rush to put the new monoplane into production and only the prototype was ever built. Some years later Fokker, by now operating once more in his native country of the Netherlands, built eleven of the D.X, a Hispano-Suiza powered development of the D.VIII which saw service in Spain and Finland and bore more than a passing resemblance to the earlier V29.
Unlike nearly every other manufacturer on this list, Fokker enjoyed great success producing both civil and military aircraft for many years until finally ceasing aircraft manufacture in 1996.
5. Rumpler D.I
The height at which aircraft were compelled to operate had inexorably risen throughout the war and the tubby Rumpler D.I possessed unmatched high altitude performance. Described as ‘perhaps the best fighter Germany never had in 1918’, the D.I appeared in ever more developed form at three of the Adlershof fighter competitions and was declared joint winner of the third in concert with the lash-up Fokker V29.
Both were fitted with the exceptional BMW 185hp engine, specifically designed for high altitude performance and the results were impressive. During the competition the Rumpler was the only aircraft able to gain an altitude of 8200 metres, which was spectacular stuff indeed for 1918.
Despite immediately placing an order for 50 however, not a single machine made it to the front, though a total of 22, including prototypes, appears to have been built before fighting ceased. The cause for the delay seems to have been teething problems that Rumpler engineers could never quite overcome before the armistice; the D.I was a complicated aircraft fitted with such luxuries as cockpit heating, oxygen and radio equipment, and a monocoque fuselage and as such pointed the way forward not only to future fighters of greater sophistication but also ever-greater design and development timescales. Engineers at Rumpler had been tinkering with the design of what would become the D.I since mid 1917, a stark contrast to the rapid turnaround of designs at Fokker.
Rumpler Flugzeugwerke was liquidated in 1920, though Edmund Rumpler went on to design the remarkable Rumplertropfen car which was a technical triumph but a commercial failure. Only 100 were built of which two survive today. Rumpler himself, being Jewish, had his career ruined after the Nazis gained power and was briefly imprisoned. He died in 1940.
4. Gordou-Leseurre Type B (later GL-2)
Probably the best aircraft designed and built by brothers-in-law, the Gordou-Leseurre Type B was just beginning deliveries when the conflict ceased. The French were less monoplane-averse than their British allies and the Type B was the best of the numerous ‘parasol’ types built by the French during the war. As you may have guessed, the Type B was preceded by the Type A which was very fast indeed (in tests it was nudging 250 km/h which made it unofficially the fastest aircraft in the world) but doubts over the structural integrity of the wing mounting led to a modest redesign with a generally lightened structure and heavily reinforced wing. This process delayed service entry of the new aircraft, now named Type B, and as a result this extremely promising high speed monoplane missed the war, a mere 20 examples being manufactured of the initial 1918 version.
This was not the end of the story as developed versions saw limited production for the Aeronavale first as a fighter and then as an advanced trainer. This latter version conducted carrier trials aboard France’s first aircraft carrier Bearn and was adapted for use as a carrier reconnaissance aircraft.
Handfuls were produced for the air arms of Yugoslavia, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Finland and ultimately around 130 aircraft were built. The final three off the production line were civilian versions constructed in the early 1930s for use in competition aerobatics.
As is invariably the case with in-laws, relations between Gordou and Leseurre became strained and after producing a few modestly successful designs the company closed down in 1934.
3. Siemens-Schuckert D.VI
As everyone knows, the First World War ended in 1918. Except, of course, that it didn’t. It is true that the fighting ceased (mostly) in November 1918 but that was only an armistice. The war was actually brought to a close on the 28th June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In the intervening seven months, the German military had somewhat cheekily, but undeniably prudently, maintained aviation development work and even held a competition for new fighter aircraft at Adlershof between February and March 1919. Likewise Siemens-Schuckert flew the D.VI, their final aircraft design, in 1919.
Essentially a monoplane version of the earlier Siemens-Schuckert D.IV, the D.VI retained the exceptional rate of climb that had made its progenitor probably the best interceptor of the war and conferred upon it a useful increase in speed. The D.VI is also notable for being the only aircraft on this list powered by a rotary engine. Rotaries had been dominant as fighter powerplants in the mid-war period but had reached the limits of their development potential by 1919. The eleven cylinder Siemens-Halske Sh.III fitted to the D.VI represented the zenith of this engine type and its choice was no doubt influenced by its being built by the same parent company that made the airframe. By dint of an ingenious crank and gearing system, the torque that proved so deadly on other rotary powered aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel had been virtually eliminated and the high compression ratio meant that the Sh.III maintained an impressively high power output at altitude. As a straightforward development of a proven and formidable aircraft there is every chance the D.VI would have made for a potent fighter. As it turned out one of the prototypes was lost during testing and the other was unceremoniously burned to avoid it falling into Allied hands.
Germany had been notably more interested in the safety of their pilots than any of the other fighting powers – German fighter pilots were unique by the end of the war in that they were provided with parachutes. The D.VI continued this trend, its fuel tank was mounted externally and could be jettisoned if set on fire, giving the pilot a fighting chance to bring the aircraft safely down. Meanwhile pilots of all other nationalities could expect to burn to death in the event of their aircraft catching fire.
2. Martinsyde F.4 Buzzard
The best British fighter aircraft of the war was doomed by bad timing to remain little more than a footnote in aviation history. Its success seemed assured with an order for 1450 from the RAF and several thousand more planned to be obtained or licence built by the US and France. A development of the earlier F.3, which despite excellent performance had been cursed by the non-availability of its preferred Rolls-Royce Falcon engine (which was required for the highly successful two-seat Bristol F.2b), the F.4 featured a modest redesign and mounted a more powerful Hispano-Suiza 8 delivering 300 hp. Thoroughly conventional, the Buzzard was well designed and sturdily built and its principle advantages lay in its colossal speed and exceptional rate of climb, both superior to any other British fighter.
Delays in engine availability resulted in a mere 48 (or 57, depending on which source you believe) being delivered by the armistice, none of which made it to an operational squadron, though a handful were used by the Central Flying School. With the incredibly savage cutbacks to the RAF in the immediate postwar period, the Sopwith Snipe, an inferior aircraft in nearly every measurable performance parameter was selected as the RAF’s standard fighter, mainly because it was cheaper but also because it wasn’t powered by a foreign engine. Although, given the horrific debacle of the ABC Dragonfly, the fact that it was powered by a Hispano-Suiza rather than the benighted British radial would have counted massively in the Martinsyde’s favour if operational flying had continued into 1919. However all was not totally lost for Martinsyde, as the Buzzard enjoyed modest export success, ultimately flying in small numbers with the air forces of thirteen nations. Major users included Finland, Spain and the Soviet Union and eventually the creditable total of about 370 aircraft was built.
Despite never serving its home nation operationally, it did see action with pro-treaty Free State forces during the Irish Civil war and despite being completely outdated performed limited operations during 1936 with the Republic Air force in the early stages of the Spanish Civil war. Amazingly Buzzards were used for training by Finland as late as 1940. Belgium was another potential export customer, the Belgian Air Force extensively tested an F.4 Buzzard as part of a competition to select a fighter to supplement their Fokker D.VIIs. The Buzzard lost out to the aircraft detailed below.
Like Sopwith, Martinsyde attempted to stave off postwar bankruptcy by manufacturing motorcycles. The motorcycles were excellent and quite successful but a factory fire in 1922 forced the company into liquidation.
1. Nieuport 29 (later Nieuport-Delage Nid.29)
Winner of an exhaustive competition to select a replacement for the outstanding SPAD XIII, the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 would have been built in enormous numbers had war continued. Even with the outbreak of peace over 1500 of these excellent machines were built, roughly half by Nieuport, 600 of them under licence by Nakajima in Japan with SABCA in Belgium and Macchi and Caproni in Italy building a few hundred more.
Nieuport’s chief designer Gustave Delage was the fighter king in 1916 and 17, with thousands of his diminutive sesquiplane fighters swarming through the skies. Nieuports were operated by all the Allied nations and built under licence in most of them. Captured examples even served the Central powers in significant numbers. By 1918 however SPAD had stolen the top spot; in November 1918 literally every operational single-seat fighter in the French air force was a SPAD. The competing Nieuport 28 had to suffer the ignominy of being rejected for service by its home nation and palmed off on the Americans. Delage and Nieuport had to come up with something special to regain their ascendency and the magnificent Nieuport 29, an aircraft that would prove to be the fastest and highest flying in the world, was the result.
By the spring of 1918 Monsieur Delage had been tinkering with a succession of prototype fighters to replace the Nieuport 28 on the production line. When specifications were announced for a new fighter by the Section Technique de l’aéronautique (STAé) Delage took what the best of these prototypes and modified it further. First flown in mid-1918 (sources differ on the date) the Nieuport 29 competed with the SPAD XXI, the Martinsyde Buzzard, and the Sopwith Dolphin (in its Mk II form developed and built by SACA in France) to fulfil the new fighter requirement. All four aircraft were equipped with the same Hispano-Suiza 8fb 300 hp engine and all were impressive performers. At this stage the 29 proved the fastest of the competitors but the Buzzard demonstrated the best rate of climb. The Nieuport also failed to attain the altitude required in the original specification. Delage quickly increased the span of the new fighter and lightened the structure resulting in a significant increase in both ceiling and climb rate and in this form the Nieuport 29 was considered the best of the competing types.
Prudently the French ordered large production of all the entries except the poorest performer, the SPAD XXI. However the continuing success of the earlier SPAD XIII in service lent no great urgency to the development of the new aircraft types. Concurrent delays in production of the all-important Hispano-Suiza 8fb engine meant that by the armistice not a single Martinsyde nor Nieuport 29 had been delivered to the Armee de l’air Français, and only 20 or so Dolphins had been completed by SACA. The coming of peace led to an immediate wind-down of French aircraft requirements, orders for the British designed Buzzard and Dolphin were cancelled and development of the new Nieuport proceeded at a more leisurely pace.
And so the best French fighter to fly during the Great war finally entered service in 1922 as the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29, the change of name being considered necessary to distinguish the French company from its British offshoot Nieuport and General. It was the fastest fighter aircraft in service anywhere in the world.
In the intervening three years Nieuport-Delage had been far from idle, developing versions of the NiD.29 for both speed and altitude. The NiD.29V was the high-speed variant and was distinguishable from the standard NiD29 by its shortened wings. It set the first post-war official speed record with pilot Joseph Sadi-Lecointe on February 7 1920 and later became the first aircraft to exceed 300 km/h in level flight. NiD.29Vs also won both the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe and Gordon Bennett cup air races in 1920. Meanwhile the NiD.40R, an extended span version with a Rateau turbocharger was piloted by Sadi-Lecointe to ever-greater heights culminating in a record of 11,145 m (36,565 ft) on October 30 1923.
The military NiD.29s gave excellent, reliable service in France throughout the 1920s, equipping some 25 squadrons of the French air force, and three examples were used in combat during the Rif war in Morocco in 1925. The only other nation to use the NiD.29 operationally was Japan. Despite beginning withdrawal of their licence built version (the Nakajima Ko.4) in 1933, many were still in service when the Sino-Japanese conflict erupted in 1937 and saw brief service over Shanghai and Manchuria. A remarkable longevity of front-line service for a 1918 design.
Nieuport dropped the Delage name in 1932 after Gustave Delage’s retirement when it merged with the Loire aircraft company. Loire-Nieuport became a component part of the nationalised SNCAO concern in 1936.
If you want to see any of these aircraft in real life your best bet at present is to go to the Finnish Air Force Museum (Suomen Ilmavoimamuseo). There the sole remaining examples of the Martinsyde Buzzard and Gordou-Leseurre Type B are exhibited not just in the same location but the same room. The last surviving Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 is in the collection of the Musée de l’air in Paris but is not apparently on display at the moment. Sadly, not a single example of any of the other aircraft in this fascinating list has survived to the present day.
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
― William Shakespeare,
Project Tempest is a team of British and Italian companies looking for leadership of a new-generation ‘do everything’ stealth fighter. Ambitious and bold it may be, but is it a good idea — and will it actually happen?
A life-size plastic model of a stealthy fighter was unveiled at the Farnborough airshow. The model and accompanying press briefing was from a team that comprised the British Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, European defence giant MBDA, Rolls-Royce, and the Italian company Leonardo. This was the public birth of Project Tempest, intended to develop new aircraft technologies and find partners for a future fighter project. The mock-up’s exact shape may be a placeholder, but having a physical manifestation at an airshow was a symbolically strong move, as was the name. Normally new fighter project names are a series of letters (FEFA, JSF, ACA, TFX etc.) and the use of an emotive word is a public relations coup. Following the use of other former wartime Hawker fighter names — Tornado and Typhoon — Tempest is a predictable choice. The name may also hint at the desire for this to grow into a wider pan-European collaboration. If the British defence sector wishes to stay in the fighter market (outside of its US and Turkish involvement) post-Brexit it will need to show willing, confidence and initiative — and Team Tempest is just such a move. It has been stated that BAE Systems wants leadership if such a new collaboration starts, but should it? Is Team Tempest a good idea, and will it work? Though Team Tempest is already international it is intended to be British-led. Arguments for a new British-led tactical fighter will revolve around five perceived needs: let’s have a quick look at them.
The make-up of Britain’s current fighter force reveals what the RAF will need in the future. Tornado is on the way out, Typhoon is the current mainstay, and a mixed Typhoon/F-35 force represents the medium term. I have avoided mentioning FCAS and the plethora (sorry Paul Beatty) of British paper studies over the last 25 years in any detail as they’re too numerous to mention. They generally centre on a mixed force of manned and unmanned stealthy aircraft. It is likely that any fast jet would be used in conjunction with a subsonic flying wing UCAV if these don’t fall out of favour before entering service outside of the US.
There are rumours going around that many in the RAF and MoD do not want the full 138 F-35s on order. Insiders suggest a ‘silver bullet’ force akin to USAF’s 1990s F-117 fleet is being mooted in high places. Stealth is not required for all missions, and comes at a great cost (though the F-35’s situational awareness advantage is useful for many missions). It is likely that fewer aircraft will be delivered and to protect the RAF’s independence some of these will be F-35As.
Procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way. With the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile a likely weapon for Tempest, Air Superiority, or at least a strong Swing Role capability, is likely. The RAF will need a replacement for Typhoon.
The British military doctrine and inventory currently has little provision for the idea of fighting a powerful well-equipped enemy without assistance from the US and /or NATO.
Analysis of the design can be found here.
Having a high technology base is probably good for a nation’s economy, and many are returning to the idea of nation states above internationalism. Could high technology levels be maintained without a new fighter? British-made defensive aids and sub-systems are widely respected – featuring on the F-22, F-35 and advanced F-15s among others – so even without Tempest it is likely Britain could continue to create high-end military aerospace technology.
Though a 30-year old design, the EJ200 turbofan engine that powers the Typhoon is widely respected, with many technical observers putting Britain in the number-two slot of advanced jet producers (behind the US). In Europe, only France has the ability to create fighter engines. This technology is very hard to develop if lost, or never achieved – as evident in the experiences in China and India.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced, “We have been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology, and this Strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way…British defence industry is a huge contributor to UK prosperity, creating thousands of jobs in a thriving advanced manufacturing sector, and generating a UK sovereign capability that is the best in the world.. Today’s news leaves industry, our military, the country and our allies in no doubt that the UK will be flying high in the combat air sector as we move into the next generation.”
Britain’s global position
Historian David Edgerton noted in conversation with Hush-Kit, “It is not historical destiny which makes the British warlike, but particular political and military programmes of the recent past. So I would say that in the early twentieth century the United Kingdom was more warlike than myth suggested, much more so, but it is only in recent years that we have had a gleeful indulgence in military adventurism overseas. The United Kingdom did once have a major world role, now it just pretends to. It is now really a big Canada, but political leaders want to see themselves at the head of a small United States.” This bloated self-perception sometimes leads to Britain going it alone on military procurement programmes its smallish domestic market cannot justify. This can lead to a higher unit price, which leads to a lack of export success, which in turn keeps the unit price high. With this in mind partners are needed.
Divided by politics, losing support from its European friends, and tied to an increasingly erratic US, Britain needs a shot in the arm. Ambitious military equipment projects are popular with large sections of the public and demonstrate confidence in the future. To others the idea will seem wasteful, irrelevant and unlikely to come to fruition. Some may point out that huge national problems, like the record homelessness epidemic, are more pressing than billion-pound plastic planes (though the £2billion figure has been earmarked for several years).
Does BAE Systems deserve the gig?
BAE Systems sells more to the US Department of Defense (DOD) than the UK MoD, and needs to keep a cordial relationship with the US. It currently has a 13-15% workshare of each F-35 Lightning made* — so aggressively pursuing export sales at the expense of British or European needs is not at the top of its agenda. It also has pretty lamentable track record — other than the Hawk trainer, the last new military aircraft project it led was the disastrous Nimrod MRA.4. Before that the British Harrier GR.5 lagged behind its US brother the AV-8B; the AV-8B served with distinction in Desert Storm, whereas the British GR.5 was considered too immature to deploy. BAE Systems is good at high technology, has an exceptionally large portfolio and is world-class. That the F-22 and the highest spec F-15s carry BAE Systems tech is testament to this. In short, BAE Systems could do it, but it would probably be slow and expensive.
(*While BAE Systems claims a 13-15% workshare on the F-35 on their website, the F-35 site says the total British workshare (from all British companies) is 15%. We spoke to BAE Systems who commented “To clear it up, 15% is the correct number for all British industry, whereas 13-15% is BAE Systems globally, including our businesses in the US and Australia. Numbers differ depending if you include propulsion.”)
Analysis of the design can be found here.
Military aircraft design and production workforces are very vulnerable. BAE has frequently cut or threatened to cut staff when aircraft do not sell well — the Typhoon being a case in point. As an employment-creation scheme, the military aviation sector is very expensive, and demonstrably unstable.
A 2035 in-service date seems unlikely, with fighters outside of China and Sweden taking about 25 years from initial ideas to frontline service. If all went well and Tempest followed this pattern, we would be looking at 2043 as the earliest in-service date.
Technologically, the watchword is ‘Everything’! A feast of exotic technologies discussed include disruptive energy weapons, stealth, virtual cockpits,variable cycle engines, hypersonic missiles, thrust-vectoring control, massive onboard electrical power generation, sensors operating in weird bandwidths, and optionally manned. This is a vision of ambition. So far, the only air forces to have indigenous stealth fighters in service are the US and China. The ‘optionally manned’ feature of Project Tempest has raised a few eyebrows, with many experts seeing it as path to getting the worst of both worlds.
Claims that Team Tempest will use new ideas to move quickly and affordably are reminiscent of early JSF talk, when the F-35 was predicted to cost $28 million a unit thanks to an innovative contract type, and design and manufacturing techniques (in 2018 the F-35 project is now celebrating some models’ price tags going under 100 million, which even allowing for time and inflation puts it into a different category from the low-cost aircraft it was originally supposed to be).
Britain, the black sheep of Europe, will struggle to find a willing team with its neighbours. France, has always prioritised autonomy and design leadership, and Germany is the least militaristic of the major European players. Franco-German concepts for a Future Combat Air System for Europe (below) have been notable by their exclusion of UK involvement, something that has alarmed BAE Systems no end. When things were easier for military projects Europe (and NATO) still struggled to unite on common procurement programmes. The 1980s offered a perfect storm for the development of a new fighter: a relatively strife-free EU, a tangible advanced threat, and much larger orders (Britain originally wanted 250 Typhoons). Even in these fertile conditions, the effort that led to Typhoon was a struggle, so looking further afield for partners is likely.
The Swedish firm Saab is the most successful manufacturer of fighter aircraft in terms of achieving – or coming closest to – predicted schedules and budgets, and its model could be one to follow.
Typhoon and Tornado suffered from an overly democratic concept-definition process, whereby compromise was put ahead of overall effectiveness. Attempts at fairness in design-sharing and production allocation led to some odd decisions (such as Germany leading the flight control system for Typhoon and a cumbersome and expensive production line). The arrangement of Eurofighter made upgrades slow and tortuous, and left the consortium little room for initiative.
The bright news for a new fighter programme is the multitude of nations, including Turkey, Japan and South Korea, desiring fighters of their own and open to collaboration. A prime contributing factor in this worldwide trend for indigenous fighters is the absence of an exportable F-15 replacement. While updated F-15s, F/A-18s, Eurocanards and late F-16s are impressive, in the long term there are no high-end Air Superiority fighters available for Western friendly nations.
Is project Tempest a serious thing, or an attempt by a nation on the back foot to appear confident? Time will tell.
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The British test pilot John Farley, famous for his work on the Harrier jump-jet, passed away in June. The artist and aeronautical engineer Stephen Mosley shares a personal recollection of an immensely skilled and principled man.
I first met John when he gave a talk in Gosport to an air enthusiasts group, the second time when I invited him to give a talk to my local Rotary club. In each case the subject matter was the same – “How to Fly a Harrier” – but the content was totally different, with each tailored to the specific audience. This gives an insight into an aspect of John’s character that I think elevates him to a credible candidate for being the best test pilot that Britain has ever produced. The stereotypical image of the test pilot promulgated by Hollywood is that of the loner, the rebel who pushes the boundaries for the thrill of it. However what you actually need is someone who can fly reliably to set parameters, deal calmly with high pressure situations and who can impart information to others as the core of a team. John’s flying ability is something I only know of through reputation but the way he tailored his talk was, to me, indicative of the “emotional intelligence” that must have made him such a valuable part of all the projects he was involved in.
My next meeting with John was when he joined the Farnborough-Aircraft.com air taxi team as a consultant. There were about a dozen or so of us and as we were introduced each of us told him, to his slight embarrassment, when we had met him before. Invariably it had been at some talk or lecture and equally invariably it had left an impression on all of us. I always found John’s innate modesty to be a curious thing. His continual surprise that anyone should wish to spend time with him, or to call in and chat was undoubtedly genuine yet given his achievements who of us wouldn’t wish to sit and listen to him? Something I had the singular honour of doing whilst Wills and Kate were getting hitched. Our wives were both going to be watching the wedding so I popped over to John’s and we sat talking in his study for a couple of hours – or at least I prompted occasionally and just sat back.
His early flying career, the Paris Air Show Tu-144 crash, accidentally testing the strength of the Vulcan undercarriage, landing the Spitfire and his views on Chuck Yeager. All were gone into along with various other aspects of his career including, of course, the Harrier. That deep rooted ability to impart information in an interesting manner, relaying the incredible and the exceptional as if it were the everyday, once more shone through. Something that undoubtedly informed the way he influenced those he worked with. More than one colleague from the Farnborough-Aircraft days has remarked how he had a way of explaining something you’d missed as if it was based in some minor oversight on your part rather than his own keen and insightful engineering ability.
John’s flying exploits are a matter of public record with the key points of his life recorded in his excellent autobiography. As regards the man behind those all I can say is that he was a genuinely nice person who coupled an exceptional ability with modesty and a highly developed intellect with a sincere consideration for those around him. I truly believe that Britain has lost one of its finest test pilots with John’s passing, certainly one who was involved in some of the most exciting developments in British aviation since the war. Those of us who were lucky to know him have also lost a very dear friend.
Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. We asked his opinion on what we can learn from looking at Britain’s next potential fighter, Project Tempest.
Hush-Kit has asked me to provide some quick analysis of the BAE Systems Tempest 6th Gen combat aircraft concept announced on 16 July. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to comment, although much that follows will be speculative, and perhaps based on a view of what this concept might become, rather than a detailed analysis of what looks like an early placeholder which will be refined through further study.
Because I am currently travelling (and indeed writing this at 5:30 local in the airline lounge in Dubai) I have had the opportunity also to read Justin Bronk’s comments, which strike me as very sound. What can I add?
Well my first question, which will perhaps come as no surprise, is – what is Tempest intended to do? From a configuration perspective, this looks to me to be deliberately flexible at this point. The graphics show the aircraft firing a Meteor-like missile – no surprise there, given MBDA’s stated involvement, and the excellence of the weapon – and hence suggesting a BVR combat role. From the size of the aircraft, (which is driven by payload-range) this looks to be targeted at the air superiority rather than air defence role.
My earlier piece discussing BVR combat aircraft draws a distinction between the air defence role as one performed at or near the boundary between own and threat airspace, and air superiority, which depends on an ability to penetrate and fight in defended threat airspace. This becomes a driver for longer-range, and hence bigger aircraft; signature management and comprehensive EW for survivability; and powerful and sophisticated sensors aiming at a shoot-before-detected capability.
Tempest looks to have aspirations in all these areas, with space provided for internal carriage of weapon, and by implication, stores, sensors and fuel.
What should Tempest be? In my view there is the opportunity here to build a worthy successor to Typhoon and Tornado. This will only be realised if the MoD resist the urge to squeeze every ounce of weight out of the aircraft by attempting to pare cost by reducing the aircraft BME (Basic Mass Empty). Ideally Tempest should be designed to have managed signature, with internal weapons carriage, and sufficient range to conduct penetrating Offensive Counter Air (OCA) ops, while still retaining enough internal volume to carry air to surface stand-off weapons. For the BVR and strike roles, a reasonable level of agility would be required, but thrust-to-weight and energy manoeuvre capability are likely to be less than an air-to-air configured Typhoon.
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Looking at the upgradeable part of the slide, it appears external conformal tanks (above the wing ?) and conformal external sensor or weapons packs are a possibility – this approach could yield a 6th gen F-15 like capability, with the clean aircraft having somewhat more agility compared to the conformal ccarriage configurations providing both range and payload options (like the F-15C compared to the F-15E, but stealthier and probably with a bit less agility), which might even include a dedicated EW capability (like a stealthy F-18G, at least until the EW kit fires up).
On basic aircraft configuration, this looks close to the sort of sweep, aspect ratio and planform I would expect to come out of a design optimisation process for an aircraft with decent mission performance (good payload range), managed signature, and good enough manoeuvre capability (point performance) for a BVR fighter. It does not, however, look particularly like a dog-fighting aircraft, and nor need it be.
What are the points to worry about?
I agree with Jason Bronk that optionally manned is the worst of both worlds. But is there a scope for an unmanned wingman concept, where weight is saved by removing all the man-supporting elements? I’m still not sure this would be an optimal solution, but significant weight could be saved, and coupled with an FCS adapted to exploit the structural strength to the max, i.e. up to the aerodynamic and structural capability of the aircraft, rather than the 9g human limit, might have some advantages.
I cast some dark looks at the intakes, which have no boundary layer diverter, but also no ‘diverterless’ intake bump, such as is used by Lockheed and others. Managing the fuselage boundary layer is essential to get good engine and intake performance, but this is also a risk area for signatures.
Otherwise, there may be difficulties incorporating the conformal tanks/stores carriers in a stealthy design, and some aspects of the rear end design look a bit untidy at present.
My main message would be to hope BAE and the MoD keep this as a flexible, truly multi-capable aircraft, and not squeeze the life out of it in a mistaken attempt to minimise cost. If they do, any savings will come at the expense of future capability.
The British Ministry of Defence today unveiled a new £2 billion project, dubbed Tempest, intended to lead to a 6th generation fighter to be ready in the 2030s. Following Brexit, Britain fears isolation from the next European fighter and Tempest is likely an attempt to keep Britain in the game. Hush-Kit spoke to RUSI defence analyst Justin Bronk to find out more.
“The Tempest mock-up and virtual concept art unveiled at Farnborough , whilst clearly very early stage ideas rather than anything approaching a prototype or tech demonstrator, do tell us a few things about British thinking in terms of a new combat air platform for the late 2030s.
Firstly, the concept still includes canted vertical fins which indicates a preference for retaining some fighter-like agility and stability in extreme flight regimes. This is in marked contrast to various concept artworks released by US OEMs in recent years which have typically eschewed vertical tail surfaces, presumably to aid all aspect signature reduction.
Secondly, the concepts feature a sleeker, longer fuselage than the F-35 and are clearly twin engined. This suggests an emphasis on endurance and unrefuelled range over low costs and simplicity compared to the latter and a desire to carry a larger and presumably modular payload internally. In many ways, it is remarkable the extent to which the Tempest physical and virtual mock ups unveiled mirror the design choices made by Chengdu for China’s J-20A. Large, twin engine with small canted vertical surfaces and strong F-22 Raptor influences showing around the nose and especially canopy/cockpit shaping.
Thirdly, the concept has been described as optionally manned. This suggests a British governmental approach which is not comfortable with risking calling the new combat aircraft manned or unmanned at this stage, but unfamiliar with the reasons for going in either direction. In my personal opinion, optionally manned is a terrible way of designing a new combat air system because it gives you the downsides of both without many upsides. Sure, your new combat air system could be sent in on high-threat missions without risking a pilot, but the extra electronic complexity and programming risk for developing a combat aircraft capable of operating autonomously is still required. Meanwhile, the cockpit, life support, controls and HMI still have to be included with consequent penalties over an unmanned design in weight, space, complexity and RCS reduction potential. Furthermore, aircrew still have to be trained and maintain currency on the new type, meaning one of the key cost efficiencies promised by UCAVs – not having to physically fly for currency, training in peacetime – is significantly eroded. Call me pedantic or pessimistic but for my money, optionally manned should be banned as a term in developmental projects. If you are not willing to take the risk of saying you are developing a UCAV from the outset – forget about unmanned during the development phase and concentrate on keeping costs and complexity down for your new manned fighter!
In terms of the funding announced – the UK is committing £2bn by 2025. That is a decent start and will get the UK’s foot in the door in some sort of new European combat aircraft collaborative effort (and it will of course need to be collaborative especially with France and Sweden in order to make technical and financial sense). What it will not do is fund a new combat aircraft during active testing, prototyping and development up to procurement. That will need much more than £2bn from the UK after 2025 and as such that funding will have to come from somewhere. Assuming no major uplift in defence spending – the only likely place where a new combat aircraft can be funded from within the MoD Equipment Plan in the late 2020s and 2030s is by cutting F-35 numbers from the 138 which the country still doggedly insists it will buy even though few seriously believe that by the time the last aircraft is ordered (2040ish) it would still be the best option. However, the US will react furiously to any announcement that the UK intends to curtail its F-35 buy and so for now the government is having to pretend that in combat air, as in so many areas at the moment, it can have its cake and eat it too!
Re. the wing shape: I would guess that it’s a placeholder without obvious radar return issues pending proper aerodynamic testing of actual test concept mock ups rather than plastic showpieces.”
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