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The Top 15 Captured Warplanes

The Soviet MiG-15 scared the bejesus out of US pilots in the Korean War. It was equal to the best American fighter, the F-86 Sabre, and in some respects it even had superiority. Nine years earlier, in 1941, Britain’s RAF faced an even more challenging inequity with the arrival of the formidable Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Countering these threats meant knowing their strengths and weaknesses inside out, and the only way to do that was to get hold of the aircraft in question and fly it. Whether by pilot incompetence, subterfuge, political or personal asylum seeker or good fortune, enemy aircraft were delivered into the hands of their opponents. 

15. Soviet F-5E ‘красный тигр’24852496_1494123060642734_8365020479742080393_n

Much has been written about USAF’s secret fleet of Soviet fighters, but far less known is the counter story of the American fighter that ended up deep in Russia during the Cold War. 

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At the end of the war in Vietnam, the USSR received several samples of US aviation equipment captured by the victorious Vietnamese communists, among them was a F-5E light fighter-bomber (of a total of 27 that the North Vietnamese found). The F-5E, serial number 73-00807, was delivered to the Soviet Union. It was an extremely valuable intelligence coup that could tell the Communist super state much about American design and this mass produced aircraft’s capabilities, and how to counter it.

This exceptionally interesting trophy was sent to the VVS airbase in Chkalovsky before being transferred to the Akhtubinsk base. A test team comprised of engineering staff from an aeronautical research institute was formed to investigate, develop and test the American machine. The engineers and technicians were impressed by the design, and especially admired the F-5Es ease of maintenance and flying operation. The wing design also impressed the Russians for it conferred the F-5E with an impressive ability to fly at minimum speeds and high angles of attack.

From the end of July 1976 to May 1977, a full-scale flight test of the Tiger II took place at the air force research institute. Flying was carried out by two exceptionally experienced pilots, A.S.Byezhyevets and V.N. Kondaurov, both decorated Heroes of the Soviet Union.


The results were shocking. In terms of manoeuvrability the F-5E was considerably superior to the Soviet MiG-21 fighter, a highly capable dogfighter itself. Further tests show a similar advantage over the most advanced Russian fighter, the MiG-23. However, the American plane was at a significant disadvantage in vertical manoeuvrability and energy compared to the MiG-23. Critically, it also lacked beyond visual-range medium-range missiles, something the MiG-23 did have.


The Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) in Moscow performed static tests on the aircraft and the results were comprehensively recorded. Intriguingly, some of the design features of the F-5E made it onto the Soviet T-8 and T-10 projects (the latter becoming the famous ‘Flanker’).

In the 1990s the nose section of the aircraft was moved to a display area known as ‘Hangar 1’, which today is virtually impossible for outsiders to visit.

Rumours persist of Iranian F-14s and F-4s that were assessed behind the Iron Curtain but concrete evidence has not been produced.



14. Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

On 27 March 1999 a USAF F-117 ‘stealth fighter’ was shot while attacking a target in Yugoslavia. On May 7, 1999 the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was bombed by USAF B-2s. It was said to be accidental but there was quite a few odd things about the attack (including the fact that the CIA had provided the co-ordinates despite the embassy being on a ‘no-strike’ list with correct co-ordinates at the time. The Chinese never believed the the US explanation of the event as an accident, and there is some anecdotal evidence that some of the wreckage from the F-117 was being held at the embassy. It is likely that the Yugoslavian government shared wreckage with both the Russian and Chinese governments. The degree to which this would have been useful is hard to ascertain.

13. USAF 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron fleet/Constant Peg/’Red Eagle’

Ever wondered which aircraft had the missing ‘century-series’ designations between F-111 and F-117? It was a secret force of purloined Soviet designs operated from the enigmatic ‘Area 51’ used by the USAF for threat assessment and training. Sourcing, maintaining and flying these aircraft –in secret – for the years from 1980 to 1990 was an impressive, and often dangerous, undertaking. On 26 April 1984, USAF Lieutenant General Robert M. ‘Bobby’ Bond was killed while flying the unforgiving YF-113/MiG-23. A deliberately vague press release about the tragic event, that was unusual in not specifying the aircraft type, attracted press attention. Their findings were extremely useful, among them that the MiG-23 was an absolute pig,..but dangerously fast: a two-ship of MiG-23s that used speed to their advantage could be extremely potent. They also learnt never to get slow with a MiG-17. 

Generally security was surprisingly good considering many US fighter pilots trained against the 4477th. A ‘foreign force’ remains active today which includes at least two ‘Flankers’, at least one of which is rumoured to have a missionized cockpit capable of simulating different ‘Flanker’ models sensors and capabilities. 


YF-110B Soviet MiG-21F-13
YF-110C Chinese Chengdu J-7B (MiG-21F-13 variant)
YF-110D Soviet MiG-21MF
YF-113B Soviet MiG-23BN
YF-113E Soviet MiG-23MS NATO:”Flogger-E”
YF-114C Soviet MiG-17F
YF-114D Soviet MiG-17PF



12. RAF Focke Wulf Fw 190A-3

In June 1942, after shooting down a Spitfire, a Luftwaffe pilot named Armin Faber landed his Fw 190A-3 at RAF Pembrey in Wales (believing it to be France). Because of an unfortunate inability to distinguish the Bristol Channel from the English Channel said Armin let his plane get into the grubby hands of the RAF, with barely a scratch. Given its total superiority to any Allied fighter then in service, this unexpected gift was insanely valuable to the technical experts of the RAF. In fact, so desperate were the British to get their hands on one that a Commando raid had been planned to steal an Fw 190 from a French airfield. This was immediately called off and a bunch of Allied test pilots enjoyed the delights of cutting-edge German engineering: note the distinctly smug expression of the pilot in the photograph. The Fw 190 gave British designers pause for thought, not least in its remarkable light weight when compared to the ever-larger fighters being developed by the Western Allies and its design directly influenced the Hawker Fury in particular.
Faber’s Fw 190 was painted in Darth Earth and Dark Green over Trainer Yellow undersides – the standard colour scheme for prototype, experimental and training aircraft and remained in these colours until at least the spring of 1944 when it appeared in a private colour cine film of a US airman. The curious thing aesthetically, is how much better it looks in British markings. The angular airframe is softened somewhat by the roundels and serve to make the aircraft look more noble than the Luftwaffe markings. In its standard German colour scheme the Fw 190 looks like a killing machine. This is of course totally subjective.
However, and very much to display how much different markings alter the character of any given aircraft, have a look at this Fw 190A-5 that was tested by the US Navy and repainted by them in their standard ‘Tri-Color’ mid-war scheme. No colour photograph exists of this aircraft so a picture of a scale model of the aircraft is also included (courtesy of Scott van Aken’s terrific Modeling Madness website) so you can see just how insane it looks. Wearing colours that we are used to seeing on rotund Corsairs and Hellcats serves to emphasise the diminutive size of the Focke-Wulf and just how angular and neat it is. 


The windscreen of Armin’s actual Focke-Wulf (he visited in 1991) may be seen at Shoreham Museum.

11. Luftwaffe Supermarine Spitfires 

Faked “combat” photograph from the Federal German Archive of a Spitfire attacking a Do 17. Note the spurious roundel position on the wings.

Look at this to see one of at least thirteen Spitfires unintentionally transferred to the Luftwaffe inventory ‘attacking’ some German bombers in a staged propaganda film. Sloppy looking stuff. By 1965 even the youngest plastic model aircraft kit builder was doing a better job with early model Spitfires than these guys. Perhaps they were just in a rush.
However, the Germans were not just using their recently acquired Spitfires for spurious battle footage though. For reasons unknown they also decided to re-engine a Spitfire VB with a Daimler-Benz DB 605. The fuselage profile was found to be near identical to the Messerschmitt Bf 110, facilitating the installation but new engine mounts had to be fabricated and the whole aircraft rewired to accept a 24 volt electrical system instead of the Merlin’s standard 12 volt output. Despite there being no record of quite why they did this, the performance of the new ‘international’ Spitfire variant was recorded and we know that it was superior to the standard Spitfire V, not just in speed and climb but apparently in handling as well, one Luftwaffe pilot describing it as “a dream of an aircraft”. Sadly it was destroyed by US bombing in 1944.

Sighting opportunity: Science Museum, London, England

10. Imperial Japanese Army Curtiss P-40E

Japan captured about ten flyable P-40Es, this one was used for training by the Akeno fighter school. A teensy clue as to its previous ownership may be seen showing through the Japanese markings.

Quite why the Japanese Army decided to use three captured P-40s operationally is something of a mystery (for a start where would they get the right spanners?). Nonetheless the fact remains that the Japanese air defence of Rangoon in Burma was (partly) handled by the 50th Hiko Sentai equipped with three of Curtiss’s finest at Mingaladon airfield. The obvious potential pitfalls of this kind of thing were dramatically demonstrated on the night of the 21st of March 1943 when a formation of Mitsubishi Ki-21 bombers returning from a raid were diverted to Rangoon and intercepted by the P-40s, damaging two and causing one to crash land with the loss of four crew. This seems very much like adding insult to injury as the very same aircraft had been intercepted by American P-40s over their target. It would appear that the P-40s were simply unable to stop shooting down Japanese aircraft even when flown by Japanese pilots. Perhaps because the P-40 sported so many different schemes during its remarkable career, the Japanese markings don’t massively jar the eye in the case of the Curtiss. 

Nice Australian Kittyhawk may be seen at: Australian War Memorial, Canberra


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9. Rudolf Hess’s Messerschmitt Bf 110C VJ + OQ

Rudolf Hess in happier times (for him at least)

Insane aircraft are brilliant. But what if it is the pilot who is mad? Does an aircraft count as captured when it has been wilfully given to your side and is wrecked on arrival? What then to make of Hitler’s pal Rudolf Hess’s Messerschmitt Bf 110?

The Zerstorer is among the premier aircraft of the 1939-45 air war. Of all this type’s adventures its most singular is the flight of top Nazi playa Rudolf Hess across the North Sea on an unauthorised peace mission. For his trouble, Deputy Fuehrer Hess was rewarded with imprisonment into and then beyond the age of ABBA. Children evacuated to a dairy estate from inner Glasgow in 1941 remember the excitement of Hess’s not bizarre and sudden arrival in their area like it was yesterday. Pieces of the Bf 110 in question may be seen in various locations.

One of the bigger bits.

8. KG-200’s Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses

An Axis fighter pilot’s first encounter with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was usually a sobering one.  Those pilots were awed by the sheer size of the Fortress, its enormous defensive firepower, and the speed and altitude they could operate from. As soon as possible, wrecks were scavenged and eventually flying examples were Frankensteined into service. The Luftwaffe maintained an entire structure throughout the war just for such tasks that eventually handled a whole swathe of non-German aircraft. Under escort and carefully pre-cleared with air defences, captured B-17s were flown around the Third Reich for research and training purposes. They were done up in sadly unimaginative colour schemes with yellow tails and exaggerated markings.


World War II was a golden age for captured warplanes but operational use of them was exceedingly rare. Kampf Gruppe 200 offers something of an exception utilising B-17s in particular on long-range reconnaissance missions and for minor special forces work. Even by Internet standards the details remain sketchy but the latter seems to have included dropping SS parachute formations into central France in 1944 to attack resistance fighters. Luftwaffe markings seem to make the B-17 look even bigger than it actually is. 



7. Liaison types: USAAF/Luftwaffe/Danish Piper J-2 Cub, RAF Fieseler Fi 156 Storch

“Shall we paint out the swastika as well as the crosses?” “Nah, just stick ‘Don’t Shoot! USA’ on the nose, that’ll be better” (photo courtesy of the Piper cub Forum)

Strangely everyone in the Second World War seemed to regard the light aircraft of the other side as better than their own. A proven design when the war started, the Piper Cub, in militarised form as the L-4 Grasshopper, was perfect for the low-and-slow jobs of mid-century warfare. These included scouting, target marking and intelligence gathering duties, VIP transport, mail runs and even stringing field telephone cable. Hence the sensible thievery of the Luftwaffe in helping themselves to several Danish-built examples when they occupied Denmark in 1943. Sensible also were the US Army personnel who stole one right back in 1945. Did they give it back to the Danes come VE Day? Did they bollocks. Luckily Piper Cubs are usually not hard to find today. It is facetious to state that the Germans were the ‘baddies’ in 1939 to 45 but it is amazing how this innocuous aircraft is rendered ‘evil’ by slapping a swastika on the tail.
Meanwhile, Fieseler Storches were in demand by every Allied General worth his salt. Countless examples were snaffled up all over the place such as this excellent example painted with probably the worst executed RAF roundel in history. To be fair they probably had more important things on their mind than doing a neat and tidy circle. But still.

“Shall we draw it on in pencil first?” “No what for?”

6. ATAIU-SEA Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero

“I tell you what’d be funny: Let’s just fly to Pearl Harbor and see what they do”

When these Zeroes were captured in 1945 they were pressed into service by the Allied Technical Air Intelligence Unit, South East Asia (ATAIU SEA). Its technical weaknesses were well known by VJ day and the Zero had been largely outclassed by the Hellcat and Corsair. These aircraft were flown by Japanese pilots and used to inform remote Japanese units of the end of hostilities. Most Japanese aircraft only ever wore Japanese markings so seeing these Zeroes in British markings really makes them look profoundly different, despite the standard IJN green scheme. Even more so perhaps, are these Mitsubishi J2M Raidens which look positively cuddly sporting their new identities.

Part of one of the Zeroes on the photograph is preserved at: IWM London

5. US MiGs

Under constant guard by Air Police at a U. S. Air Force installation on Okinawa, reassembly of the MiG-15 is completed on the flight line. After careful ground testing, the Russian built fighter was flown by five U.S. Air Force pilots during a week of extensive tests. (USAF Photograph)

After the Berlin airlift of 1948 the Cold War would get out of hand again in Korea. Western airmen flying for the United Nations were made very uncomfortable indeed by the MiG-15. So when the USAF got their hands on one in the autumn of 1953 they sent for the very best they had. The job of assessing the MiG-15 went to  Chuck Yeager. Terrible weather and the paucity of information about the Russian jet made for a rough, rushed assignment retold in Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Right Stuff’.  The MiG-15 was found to have some important advantages over western fighters but also specific weaknesses. And thus a very expensive race for technical domination in Cold War skies was kicked off. Helpfully for everyone the USAF a short film detailing their findings which may be viewed here. Of all the aircraft on this list the MiG-15 is the one you and your mates actually stand a reasonable chance of buying.

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As you can be seen, the MiG-15 in US markings doesn’t differ massively from the MiG in Soviet markings. Bare metal and stars. It could quite easily be an obscure early fifties US fighter prototype. Likewise, when they got their hands on a MiG-21, it could be an obscure late fifties US fighter prototype. Why go to the trouble of getting the premier Soviet fighter at the height of the Cold War then make it look so boring?

“Here I am, flying the plane”

4. Messerschmitt Me 163B-1A Komet

Kaptured Komets in the West and East respectively.

Komets were bagged in numbers by the western Allies in 1945. A further tiny handful went to the USSR. Radical in design, the Komet had a novelty factor that remains intact to this day. The fastest aircraft of the war represented a mixture of the futuristic with miserable Fascist policies. As the Third Reich met it’s end a quasi-secret array of ridiculously high potential weapon systems was revealed. Prototypes and research findings from these programs would come to be absorbed into the technical mainstream of the victorious countries and examples of the Comet are on display in Australia, Germany, the UK, and the United States so you have a reasonable chance of seeing one wherever you live. Two seized Komets also found their way to Canada and the one at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum reveals something of the social state of things in the Thousand Year Reich. During a restoration in the 1970s it was discovered that French workers had sabotaged its Walter engine and the glue holding the aircraft’s laminated wood wings together.  They also drew a cartoon inside the aircraft telling us their heart’s were not in it. If war takes the fun out of something like the Komet, you know it’s bad. Post capture, in RAF colours the Komet looks kind of cuddly but strange. Soviet stars on the other hand suit the ‘power-egg’ down to the ground.

3. Fokker D.VII 6810

Despite surviving the Great War this Fokker D.VII received its worst damage in the 1920s when a cleaner accidentally put a broom through it. Go and see it at Brome County Historical Society.

Do you think you would like to see a Great War aircraft still wearing its original doped fabric covering?  Especially if it was widely acknowledged to be the finest combat aircraft of that conflict? Thanks to this business of capturing flying machines you can. When it is safe to do so you must travel to the Lac Brome region of Canada’s francophone province, Quebec. There, the museum of Brome County Historical society preserves one of only five surviving Fokker D.VIIs in the world and the only one preserved in its original four-colour lozenge fabric. This aircraft was put in the museum in 1921 when many D.VIIs were still in front line service and as such is a remarkable time capsule.
Back in 1918 though, so taken were the Allies with the D.VII that this example was apparently used to reconnoitre enemy positions, in 3D!

Image Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland


2. Italian Hawker Hurricane

To the victor go the spoils. However, occasionally you get a spoil or two even when you aren’t very often the victor. Have a look at this Italian-owned Hawker Hurricane, acquired not from the RAF but from the Yugoslav air force. Italian colour schemes were impressively original at the best of times and seeing so familiar a shape as the Hurricane in a natty Regia Aeronautica paint job is eccentric in the extreme. So unusual was it that even il Duce himself came to have a look at it. Although the exact shades are unknown it is clear that there are three camouflage colours on the upper surfaces and it looks to have been very carefully done – not the upper colours extend right over the leading edge. The nose appears to be yellow.

Hurricane sighting opportunity: Cosford, England

1. Viktor Belenko’s Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat

From Viktor, the spoils. Appropriately grainy picture of Belenko’s Foxbat on the grass at Hakodate airbase, Japan.

Where else can we find the little Piper Cub on the same top list as the hunch-shouldered fire breathing dragon that is the Foxbat? Well, if not for one of the more dramatic, yet totally unscripted moments of the Cold War, the answer would be nowhere. Without even stealing so much as a map beforehand, a Soviet fighter pilot with emotional problems, one Viktor Belenko, went screaming off at wave top height in a stainless steel superfighter.

Viktor’s ID. Now held by the CIA museum in Langley, Virginia, USA.

He was defecting in a beast built to kill SR-71s and XB-70s that is eight feet longer than a Handley-Page Halifax. A Foxbat once blew off an Israeli intercept attempt at Mach 3. Are we hyperventilating yet? The crudity of the MiG-25 was revealed by rapidly dismantling it after a quick check for explosive booby traps tucked in among its vacuum tubes. Thus reduced to junk the big MiG was sent back to the USSR in a box. Tucked inside was a bill for forty thousand dollars worth of damage to runway 20E, much perimeter fencing and an adjacent miniature golf course caused by the big interceptor’s arrival at Hakodate, Japan. Who can ever forget that crazy day in 1976? Certainly not the mini-golfers.

Sighting opportunity: Indian Air Force Museum, Palam

By Stephen Caulfield, Ed Ward & Joe Coles 



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

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

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

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  • Engaging Top (and bottom) 10s including: Greatest fighter aircraft of World War II, Worst British aircraft, Worst Soviet aircraft and many more insanely specific ones.
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Fairchild AU-23A Armed Pilatus Turbo-Porter 72-3 Janes – Sufficient put into service to not be relevant.

*Pave Coin Beech A36 Bonanza Janes 72-3. Other aircraft included the Piper PE1 Enforcer (turbine Mustang) – Janes 81-2, AU-23 and 24 (above), Cessna O-1, U-17 and O-2 and Cessna A-37.

SAAB-MFI-17 (only 300kg external load capability) 72-3 Janes


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A_captured_Focke_Wulf_Fw_190A-3_at_the_Royal_Aircraft_Establishment,_Farnborough,_with_the_RAE's_chief_test_pilot,_Wing_Commander_H_J__Willie__Wilson_at_the_controls,_August_1942._CH6411 copy


The RF-4C: Last Manned USAF Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft by Col. Eileen Bjorkman

Photo 1_RF-4C_68-0568_at_Zweibrucken_Air_Base,_West_Germany
The McDonnell RF-4C ruled the tactical reconnaissance skies for the U.S. Air Force from 1964 through the early 1990s. The aircraft’s main job was the first step of John Boyd’s famous OODA loop—observe, orient, decide, act, repeat. After all, you can’t even get started without observing. And before remotely piloted vehicles came on the scene, the best way to get near-instantaneous information over a specific target was to send in manned tactical reconnaissance aircraft.

Designed to overcome shortcomings of the RF-101, rather than just hang a bunch of cameras on an existing F-4 models, engineers went back to the drawing board and lengthened the existing F-4 nose to fit in sophisticated sensors: film and infrared cameras, along with an advanced side-looking radar. The longer-nosed variant also became the basis for the F-4E model.
The YRF-4C prototype first flew on August 9, 1963 and the first production aircraft flew May 18, 1964, followed shortly after by deliveries to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. Although a weapon systems operator (WSO) later flew in the rear cockpit, the USAF initially used two pilots, funneling an inexperienced pilot into the rear cockpit as a Pilot Systems Operator, abbreviated as PSO and pronounced ‘pay-so.’ After initial training, pilots moved to the first operational squadron to fly the RF-4C, the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS), also at Shaw. On October 27, 1965, 16th TRS pilots ferried nine aircraft to Vietnam, landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon on October 31. RF-4Cs later arrived at Udorn Royal Thai AFB in Thailand.

Photo 2_Rf-4c-14trs-udon

A typical reconnaissance mission in Vietnam might include taking pictures of trucks destroyed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Enemy gunners on the ground often waited for the RF-4C crews as they neared a target and crews quickly developed deceptive manoeuvres to counter the gunners. Pilots climbed to a high altitude after takeoff, but nearing a target, they descended to 3,500 feet to both give them good photo coverage and keep them above 50-caliber machine gun range. About three miles from the target, the front-seat pilot yanked into a 75-degree bank turn and then rolled out, held it for 15 seconds, then did another rapid turn and roll out, and then turned on the radar for one second to make the North Vietnamese think the aircraft was headed someplace else. The whole sky still filled with bullets, but the maneuvering largely kept aircraft from harm.


Recce crews also discovered that the RF-4C was surprisingly speedy and could outrun many threats. Designers had expected the new airframe to have more drag than the earlier models, but the opposite was true. However, crews often couldn’t take full advantage of that speed over North Vietnam—cruising faster than 480 knots made navigation harder, increased fuel consumption, and the increased turn radius made threat evasion maneuver less effective. In addition, the RF-4C’s fighter escorts, often heavily laden with external munitions, couldn’t keep up at the higher speeds.
For defenses against surface-to-air missiles, the RF-4C had chaff dispensers on the rear of the aircraft to fool the radar guided missiles and a radar warning receiver in the cockpit that alerted pilots to a lock-on and launch via chirping in headsets and cockpit displays. Pilots could often outmaneuver the missiles, and with two engines, even a damaged aircraft could sometimes limp home or make it out over the Gulf of Tonkin where an ejection was more likely to result in a rescue. Not everyone was so lucky, though. On August 12, 1967, an RF-4C from the 11th TRS flying from Udorn was hit by a SAM, forcing the crew to eject (see USAF photo 4 below). Captains Edward Atterbury and Thomas Parrot were captured; Atterbury later died after an escape attempt and Parrott was released in 1973 after the war ended.
The RF-4C had important Cold War missions as well, including Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO) flights along the DMZ between North and South Korea. To peer into North Korea, crews used a telephoto camera mounted in a monstrous “Bench Box” pod hung so low under the fuselage that pilots had to be careful not to snag arresting cables at the end of the runway.

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Additional upgrades sustained the RF-4C into the 1990s: improved navigation equipment, the Pave Tack laser targeting system, a terrain following system, and the Tactical Electronic Reconnaissance (TEREC) system, a pod loaded with radar detection equipment for locating SAM sites. The TEREC system, although highly capable, moved the aircraft’s center of gravity aft, which may have contributed to several mishaps in the 1980s. Pilots and WSOs quickly became wary of the system.
By the 1980s, the aircraft were ageing rapidly and becoming difficult to maintain, including the RF-4Cs that I flew in at Edwards AFB, California as a flight test engineer. We had quite a few Tactical Air Command (TAC) “hand-me-down” RF-4Cs; the cameras in three of them had been removed to make room for flight test instrumentation to support USAF Test Pilot School training flights and other test activities, such as safety and photo chase. One aircraft even had my name stenciled under the rear canopy. TAC pushed many other RF-4Cs into Air National Guard units as well, where they picked up new missions that included drug interdiction and disaster relief.

Photo 5_Eileen Bjorkman-RF-4C

As unmanned reconnaissance aircraft began to debut, the RF-4Cs began heading for the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, but the aircraft had a brief renaissance in 1991 during Desert Storm, after commanders realized they didn’t yet have enough unmanned aircraft to do the first part of the OODA loop. RF-4Cs stationed at Zweibrucken Air Base, Germany, about to head to the boneyard, were diverted to the Gulf instead.
The RF-4Cs that I flew at Edwards have scattered and I don’t know where all of them are. Two are on display in Quartzsite, Arizona. Another Edwards RF-4C, referred to as ‘Balls Four,’ suffered a hydraulic failure in 1965 while assigned to a TAC unit; the resulting hard landing punched one strut through a wing and damaged the other strut. The aircraft apparently never fully recovered from its landing incident and wound up at Eglin AFB, Florida as a test support aircraft and then later moved to Edwards, where it had a reputation as a hangar queen. RF-4C is now on display at Edwards and will eventually be moved into the Air Force Flight Test Museum when its new building is constructed.

Photo 6_RF-4C 004
For more information on the RF-4C and some great pilot and WSO stories, please see my full article that first appeared in Aviation History last year.
Eileen Bjorkman is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former flight test engineer who writes about aviation history. Her second book, Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind, will be released on September 1, 2020.


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

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

HUSHKITPLANES_SPREADS4_4.jpg“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

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



  • Interviews with pilots of the F-14 Tomcat, Mirage, Typhoon, MiG-25, MiG-27, English Electric Lighting, Harrier, F-15, B-52 and many more.
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  • Expert analysis of weapons, tactics and technology.
  • ssdd.jpg
  • A look into art and culture’s love affair with the aeroplane.
  • Bizarre moments in aviation history.
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Photo 5_Eileen Bjorkman-RF-4C

Our Top 45 aircraft


We asked 45 people to describe their favourite aircraft in only 200 words. Here are the results. 


“The Vietnam War; perhaps summed up most commonly by exciting new aircraft like Phantoms, Skyhawks, Super Sabres, or the terrifying giant B-52, was also the last outing for a slew of World War II-era designs that suddenly found themselves thrown back into the rainy, humid, mud-spattered fray. Models like the A-1 Skyraider, a late war design intended to be both a dive-bomber and strike aircraft was a perfect fit for the ‘Sandy’ (SAR) missions, that became a harrowing and regular part of the Vietnam air war. But the best example of this however, was the re-duxing of the A-26 (which some call a B-26 due to utterly confusing US Military penickityness). A late World War II light-bomber, the A/B-26 was initially stripped of its gun turrets and pressed into attack roles in the murky early 60s era of ‘not quite admitting we are fighting in Vietnam’, having already flown in Korea. In time the chunky, but somehow rather graceful, machine was upgraded to specialise in attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail. Wing tip tanks upped loiter time, eight guns clustered in the nose, and the ability to carry large amounts of external arms ranging from napalm, to rockets, to conventional and cluster bombs, made the Invader to top scoring traffic destroyer in Vietnam. Sometimes it’s good to be slow and old.”

By Bruno Bayley, Managing editor of Vice Magazine

My favourite aeroplane in 200 words #2: Blackburn Buccaneer by Dr. Raymond N. Wolejko, MD


Blackburn Aircraft Limited produced some of the worst aeroplanes ever made. From the TB of 1915 (an engine start set the float on fire), the Sidecar of 1919 (sold at Harrods, but couldn’t fly), the Roc (a fighter of 1938, that was slower than any bomber), and the pathetic Botha (underpowered, impossible to see out of in rain), through to the shameful Firebrand (late, extremely dangerous to pilots- but scandalously pushed into service with a hush-up that resulted in many deaths)- their track record was pretty appalling, so it is all the more impressive that they went on to make the wonderful ‘Bucc’, a masterpiece from 1958.

The Buccaneer was designed to counter the threat of Sverdlov-class cruisers. It was prepared in great secrecy, as a fast, low-level maritime attack aircraft capable of using nuclear weapons. The S. Mk.1 was underpowered, as test pilot Dave Eagles quipped in his recent Hush-Kit interview it “relied on the curvature of the earth to get airborne ”. This was solved when the S.Mk 2 was introduced in 1962, powered by the Spey. The result was a superb low-level aircraft with a long-range (longer even than the Tornado), a virtually indestructible construction and a rock-steady low-level ride. The type proved its worth in Desert Storm, and remained to the end of its life a potent weapon.


You may also enjoy Ten incredible cancelled Soviet fighter aircraftTen worst Soviet aircraftTen 

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #3 English Electric Lightning by Consolata García Ramírez

English Electric Lightning. Three words which sit so beautifully together (ignoring the tautology of ‘electric’ lightning). The charged air of English skies ripped apart by riveted lunacy.

The Lightning was quite mad- a greedy machine set on eating fuel and turning it into speed. It was so greedy its great gaping mouth was half-full, trying to eats its own nose. Its hunger saw it eating up sky to reach altitudes where few could reach it. Unlike anything else, its engines were stacked one on top of each other, making it stand monstrously tall on the ground.

The Lightning would scorn today’s tedious drones controlled by gamers in porta-cabins. The Lightning was the anti-thesis of the UAV- it was a manned missile, tricksy and twitchy – and it killed more of its own pilots than it did enemies.

It could outfly and outfight any of its peers, but like an English genius, they neglected it and tried to kill it. The English Electric P.1A flew two months after Alan Turing died, another English product killed by a nation that loves to punish its greatest children.

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The Supermarine S6 earned itself the position of the ultimate racer built for the Schneider Trophy by securing the 2nd and 3rd consecutive wins for Great Britain. Every inch the thoroughbred, she boasted a Rolls Royce R Type engine so closely cowled that the cam covers were a part of the streamlined outer surfaces. No ounce of excess weight was allowed, nor any square inch of unnecessary cross sectional area. I used to think that, as the fastest machine of her day, she was hugely sophisticated but having seen one stripped down at Southampton I realised the opposite is true – and that she is the better expression of the ultimate for it. There is no crudity to the design but rather a simplicity that speaks of clarity of purpose. High speed aerodynamics, minimal packaging and maximum cooling are the only considerations. All this and achingly beautiful too.

Her legacy is also impeccable, though with no direct lineage lessons learned here greatly influenced the Merlin and Spitfire.   So – successful, pivotal and displaying the pure aesthetics born from the focused pursuit of speed. By default a shining example of the Bauhaus ideals of Walter Gropius.

There can be no finer aircraft.

Stephen Mosley is an artist and aeronautical engineer

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MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #6 de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide by David Piper


Peter Pendragon and Louise Laleham, the heroes of Aleister Crowley’s searing novel Diary of a Drug Fiend, hurtle headlong into the pitchblack night and intense love, in the freezing cockpit of Peter’s plane, fantastically high on beautifully pure cocaine. They first met a few hours ago, and neither of them have ever taken drugs before.

Jack Parsons was a very handsome man; a wayward father of modern rocketry, explosives expert, explosion addict, practising sex magician, OTO lodge leader, and mentor to L. Ron Hubbard. A week after he performed the Babalon Working ritual in the Mojave desert (against Crowley’s wishes), the remarkable Marjorie Cameron, a flame-haired visionary artist exactly matching the depiction of the goddess he’d invoked, knocked on his door and became his lover.

In my head there is a brilliant Hollywood biopic of Parsons. One sequence, amidst all the flame and fire and red desert smoke, shows Jack and Marjorie becoming Peter and Louise, flying through the night, lit by pale cold terrifying brilliance, howling wind, and mad passion, from the California desert to Thelema, Crowley’s judgement, and rebirth. The only aeroplane beautiful enough to carry them is the de Havilland Dragon Rapide.

David Piper is Commander of Special Operations for Hendrick’s Gin


My favourite plane in 200 words #5: BAe 146 by Caroline Kiernan


Keep your modern fighter planes, they’re just a noisy way to burn money. All they do nowadays is bomb – where’s the romance in that?

If I loved pewter and ale (and dressing up in my grandmother’s clothes) I might love old warbirds, but I don’t and I don’t.

Big airliners? You might as well be on a ferry. If I wanted to watch Jennifer Aniston movies while developing deep-vein thrombosis, I would have stayed in Eastbourne.

The ‘whisper-jet’ slips quietly from chic-city to city. A petite, elegant jet for those who know that understated is the only cool worth having.

She first flew the day that the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women came into effect. In the same month the sensuous TGV train service began in France. She was born of a month of intelligence and quiet speed.

She colonised the skies above Dalston long before the shouting jumble-sale of fashionistas had set (ridiculous and self-aware) foot down below. She remains the aviation world’s quietly spoken traveller, not boasting of her hour in Geneva or evening in Berlin. And I love her (even if she took her first flight on the day Fearne Cotton was born).

Caroline Kiernan is a Casting Director and stunt-kite flyer

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #7 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II by Jack Luttrell


The Producers tells the story of a theatrical producer and an accountant who want to produce a Broadway flop. They borrow outrageous amounts from investors, knowing that nobody ‘follows the money’ after a failure. Following this, they planned to abscond to Brazil as millionaires.

The plan went badly wrong when the show turned out to be a surprise hit. Despite a pro-nazi theme and a terrible cast, it succeeded. How did they get wrong so wrong? Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon would take no such risks …

It must be made to fail, mustn’t it? Here are the golden rules of making a fighter, they have been proven repeatedly over the last 90 years (with few exceptions):

  1. Fighters must be fast and agile
  2. Never plan any aircraft as ‘multi-role’
  3. You can’t make a fighter out of a bomber
  4. Never rely on one unproven technology as a lynchpin

Space limits me from listing the others…the F-35 has broken ALL of them.

Has the F-35 been schemed by a joker seeking to high-light the insanity of military procurement? Or maybe somewhere there are two men in Hawaiian shirts packing suitcases? Either way the F-35 is my favourite comedy.

Hush-kit is reminding the world of the beauty of flight.

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MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #8 Westland Wyvern by Ed Ward

ImageLike all the most interesting aircraft, the Wyvern was slightly obscure, not particularly successful, and quite dangerous. Weighing 650 pounds shy of a loaded Dakota it was nonetheless expected to operate off dinky 1950s RN carriers. Tellingly, its main claim to aviation immortality derives not from any superlative quality of the aeroplane itself but a desperate desire to escape it: the world’s first underwater ejection was from a Wyvern. Suffering from the standard post-war British aircraft ailments of lengthy development and unrealised potential but unlike such ‘world-beaters’ as the perennially overrated TSR.2, it did make it into service. Wyverns even flew strike missions over Suez.
But this is by the by, for the Wyvern remains the most fantastic looking airscrew driven aircraft ever to fly, a nose that goes on forever surmounted by contra-props, an elliptical Spitfire-esque wing, slightly cranked a la Corsair, a massive, elegantly curved fin and rudder that is impossible to draw properly (try it) combined with pretty elliptical tailplanes topped off with finlets. (Finlets!) Also it is a post-war FAA aircraft and therefore blessed with the most attractive camouflage scheme ever to grace a military aircraft.
Like its namesake, the Wyvern is unlikely, brutish and wonderful.
Ed Ward is an illustrator, writer, historian and regular Hush-Kit contributor (like the Wyvern, he is unlikely, brutish and wonderful)
See his fantastic artwork 
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MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #9 Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird by Tim Robinson


Sleek, supersonic and superbly sinister the Lockheed  SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft is in a class of its own in aviation terms.

Incredibly, its Mach 3+ performance at the edge of space (85,000ft) came nearly 20 years after 400mph propeller fighters were state-of-the-art in WW2 (its predecessor, the even faster A-12 , first flew in 1962). No wonder people thought we’d be living on Mars by 1980.

Even more astoundingly, this record-beating aircraft was designed using slide-rules, pencils and notepads. CFD computer analysis was unknown and that goes for all the aerodynamics, thermodynamics and one-off systems that the Blackbird incorporated. Pure engineering genius.

Today the US struggles to get a hypersonic scramjet to ignite and run for more than a few seconds at a time. But in the 1970s – Mach 3+ flight was routine for the Blackbird’s highflying spy missions, taunting Cold War enemies with its swiftness. Plus, just LOOK at it – from all angles it looks like an alien spaceship, not of this planet.

Other aircraft may be national icons, or perhaps have greater historical significance, but the SR-71 still looks like it belongs in the future. One day we’ll catch up with it.

By Tim Robinson, Aviation Journalist


MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #10 de Havilland Vampire by Luke Holt

Fighter jets should inspire fear; their vicious appearance should carry some of the beastliness of their task. The Messerschmitt Me 262- a shallow-water killer, looked every inch the flying shark. The F-4 Phantom II was a flying ironclad, billowing satanic black smoke behind it. The de Havilland Vampire..well, it was cute. It didn’t look like it was going to kill anything, if anything it looked like it needed looking after.

Stand next to one and it will cower in your shadow: it is tiny. The happy dog-like nose, jelly bean of a fuselage and fragile twin-boom, give it a very friendly appearance. Over 3,000 were built and today over 20 remain displayed in public places. The eccentric little Vampire seems to enjoy these retirement shows, and even in these conditions it retains its perkiness. Some aircraft become sad lonely hulks when consigned to a life on a display pole, but the plucky Vampire has enough personality to remain positively zingy. I was delighted to stumble upon one in a small park in Switzerland in 1988.


The Vampire was more agile, cheaper and longer-ranged than the Meteor. More importantly, the Vampire was the cheekiest little jet fighter ever made.

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11. Bristol 188

The 188 was built to fulfil requirement ER.134. This was intended to support a very high-speed bomber, the Avro 730. When the 730 was cancelled in 1957, work on the 188 continued.

The 188 was built to fulfil requirement ER.134. This was intended to support a very high-speed bomber, the Avro 730. When the 730 was cancelled in 1957, work on the 188 continued.I love the incapable and that’s why I love the Bristol 188. Britain’s ‘SR-71’, was a ‘double-barrelled’ monster made to explore prolonged flight at over Mach 2.6. Aluminium cannot tolerate the heats experienced at such high speeds, so what material should be used? Faced with the same problem, the US chose titanium for the triumphant SR-71 Blackbird.Britain had better ideas, and built the 188 from far heavier stainless steel. Instead of adapting the powerful Olympus engine, the rather weedy Gyron was selected.

The Bristol 188 was slower than the RAF’s top fighter of the time the EE Lightning (lined up on the ground). If the 188 had been built from titanium and powered by the Olympus or Avon it may have achieved its goals. The US’ SR-71was built to spy on the Soviet Union, ironically the titanium it was built from was secretly-sourced from the very country it was made to spy on! It didn’t fly until 14 April 1962 (twelve days before the Lockheed A-12, precursor to the SR-71). The 188 proved barely able to get to Mach 2, let alone flying for extended periods at 2.6. Since its commission in 1954 the project had become the most expensive British research aircraft ever made. It failed to carry out its only job. 

Two years after the 188’s first flight, the USSR succeeded in producing a high-speed aircraft from steel; the MiG-25 was capable of flight at speeds exceeding Mach 2.8. 

Alexander Shchemelev is an engineering historian

12. McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15C Eagle by Scott Bachmeier


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What is wrong with you Europeans? Half of the airplanes written about here as favorites are ‘quirky’ or ‘flawed’? I like things because they’re the best, not because they’re crap.

The F-15 Eagle has been the world’s best fighter since it entered frontline USAF service in 1976… I hear you spitting out your martinis as you read that. You leap to your feet. “RAPTOR!” you scream, the buttons on your cardigan exploding off in fury.

I disagree.

The F-22 is the flash, top-of-the-range guitar hanging on a $900 rack on the wall of a wannabe rockstar. It’s too pricey to be played, what if it was scratched?

The F-15 on the other hand is the battered old Fender that has proved time and time again its power to rock the joint. The F-15 is longer-ranged than the F-22, it has better short-range air-to-air missiles (X-Rays)..more vitally, it has a helmet system that can target designate- an entry-level technology that even F-16s have. It has an unprecedented kill-to-loss ratio of 104/0. Nothing else has anything approaching that.

Viva La Eagle!

PS my wife is European.


13. Kalinin K-7 By Oleksandra Bondarenka


The Kalinin K-7 was a cathedral, a battleship- all of the brutality and ambition and darkness and hope of the Soviet Union wrought into a vast bomber. Engines were fitted and it was time to test them. The machine began to vibrate wildly, as if each part longed to leave this monster and become autonomous once again. The machine’s wishes were ignored and the mechanical surgeons brought in. At night welders sparked. Crude steel bracing encased the siamese bodies of the booms.

The 11th August 1933 and the population of Kharkov looked up in mutual awe. An uncanny eclipse powered by seven droning engines. Had Kharkov fortress scorned its comrades and become an angel? No, this was man-made.


The uncanny bird flew on. Each flight it moaned and moaned. On the ninth flight it got its wish and its back broke. It shook itself to pieces.

Semerenko survived. “I counted 15-20 major shudders. Suddenly, to the noise of running engines was added the sound of the left tail boom braking apart.. I was waiting for the end. Controls were still locked still dead. Smash…”  He was one of 5 survivors. 15 onboard were killed. The designer, Kalakin was later executed.

Then silence. Only the sound of the sea, chewing away at the edge of the rocky beach, where the bits and pieces of the Iron Man lay scattered far and wide.”

Ted Hughes, The Iron Man

14. Dassault Mirage III by HP Morvan


Marcel Bloch was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp for eight months. The aircraft industrialist had refused to collaborate with the nazis, even when threatened with hanging. He survived and was reborn as Marcel Dassault, a surname derived from the French for ‘battle-tank’. Following her liberation, France would never again undervalue the fighter plane. Accordingly the air force released a fighter specification in 1953, demanding unprecedented levels of performance. Dassault responded with the futuristic Mirage I. A modestly updated ‘II’ was considered, before Dassault leapt to the bigger, faster and better-armed Mirage III.


The delta-wing is a symbol of this era of speed- an arrow pointing to the future. By 1958 the Mirage III had comfortably exceeded Mach 2, the first European aeroplane to do so.

Dassault stated that for an airplane to fly well, first it must look good. The Mirage is certainly gorgeous, but it is far more and proved itself innumerable times in combat.


Its polished aluminium body and red-painted air intakes are the epitome of an era of excess, daring technology and (popular) achievements in aerospace. Elegance is key. It is a glorious symbol of France’s renewed independence.

For me it conjures up memories of watching my uncle’s childhood TV series, The Aeronauts, and reading the Adventures of Tanguy & Laverdure. A la chasse…

by HP Morvan, reader in applied fluid mechanics, research engineer & aero-fan.


by Sotirios Bahtsetzis

She accused me of being unromantic and I knew sooner or later, my boring ways would leave her cold.

Not on my watch.

After checking in depth to find the best price, I planned an irresistible display of the piratically exciting nature of my love for her. She was curating a show in New York (I live in London) and would not be expecting a visit. I would cruise unbidden to Newark, and in the snow of Central Park present her with the ring. Engraved with our favourite line from our favourite song. We would be engaged and take the city in before we flew back together.

In theory.

Two hours after we met in New York, I was single. I sat stunned at Newark, trying to summon up the will to eat what was optimistically described as a sandwich. Flight delayed. Singled out at security. Board. Sleep. I woke up high above the Atlantic. Felt calm. Knowing no-one knew where I was, high above the Atlantic at night. Above the bottomless dark of the water. Cradled in the belly of a 777. I didn’t want to feel anything, just the perfection of the 777 carrying me away from the pain.

Sotirios Bahtsetzis is heartbroken

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE in 200 WORDS #16 C-130 HERCULES by Eamon Hamilton

The mother of the last C-130 Hercules pilot hasn’t been born yet.

Dwell on that thought. The prototype C-130 flew in 1954, the same year that Monroe married DiMaggio, and Murrow unravelled McCarthy. Competitors have come and gone, and yet the Hercules will fly on its centenary.

More startling is how little it has changed since Lockheed’s Willis Hawkins drafted it in 1951 – and it was hardly a revolution then.

Germany coined the modern airlifter layout with the Ar-232 in 1941. America followed with the C-123 in 1949, and Britain with the Beverley in 1950.

The famous Kelly Johnson warned Lockheed that the C-130 would ruin the company. Instead, its had the longest running military aircraft production in history.

That history is filled with stunning highs and lows.  The thrilling success of Entebbe.  The bitter disappointment of Desert One. Saving Batman in The Dark Knight.

Ignore anyone who tells you the insides are a failure of 1954 ergonomics. The thrum of turboprops has either lullabied me to sleep when I needed it, or been the soundtrack to some of the best flights of my life.

So be nice to the pregnant lady on the street. Her future grandkids might be Herky drivers.

Eamon Hamilton, Public Affairs, Royal Australian Air Force. Follow on Twitter @eamonhamilton

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MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #17 Panavia Tornado ADV by Gary Burton


It’s normal to go for someone who is the opposite of your last lover. The RAF certainly did when they put the Tornado ADV into service. It was very much an anti-Lightning. The Lightning was fast-climbing, agile (for its time) and happy up high. It was also poorly armed (a mere two, completely geriatric, missiles), had a radar little better than the naked eye and had enough range to scare the birds away, so the Phantoms could be scrambled. The Tornado ADV was the complete opposite, a tough bomber crammed inelegantly into the high-heels of a fighter.

It was a swiz from the start. The British had to deliberately mislead the other partners (West Germany and Italy), telling them it would involve tiny alterations to the baseline IDS, to get it accepted. It was very different, but suffered for its bomber lineage. The engines were optimised for low-level fight and were terrible for the interception mission. We were told its lack of agility was not an issue as it would be picking off bombers at beyond-visual ranges (tell that to the ‘Flanker’ escorts).

But, just look at it, a very British Tomcat: a noble, towering fighter- what a beauty!

Gary Burton is a musician and a lover of loud things

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MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #18 Fairey Barracuda by Matt Willis


The Fairey Barracuda. Unloved – derided even. Unattractive, certainly. Subject of more derogatory songs than any other aircraft. “You must remember this… A Barra’s poor as piss…

But the Barracuda doesn’t need your sympathy. It may have looked like an accident that had just happened… early on, too many accidents did happen… but the Barracuda hit the enemy like few other types.

Historian Norman Polmar called the Barracuda ‘almost useless as an attack aircraft’. Yet this ‘almost useless’ aircraft sunk 40,000 tons of shipping in 10 months, crippled Germany’s most powerful battleship, and equipped 26 front-line squadrons over a 10-year career.

The Albacore and Swordfish were obsolete as strike aircraft by 1943, so the Barracuda became available none too soon. The Mediterranean war ended as the Barra arrived, but in Northern latitudes it was just the aircraft needed. Barracudas carried out devastating attacks on German convoys and put the Tirpitz out of the war for months by pinpoint dive bombing. In the Far East it was almost the right aircraft… asthmatic in the hot climate, it still achieved success against targets in the East Indies. It then served quietly, but well into the 1950s. The Barracuda deserves your respect.

Matt Willis, @navalairhistory

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #19 McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II by Gareth Stringer

I grew up in Hertfordshire, an area that sees very little active military traffic, which meant that
family holidays to the likes of East Anglia, and of course the airshow season, were the main means
by which my desire to see fast jets in the flesh, were satisfied.

Sometimes however, my Dad could be persuaded to take me on a day trip so we could hang out by
a perimeter fence somewhere and see what came our way, camera at the ready. By far the easiest
place for such a visit was RAF Alconbury, near Huntingdon, home to USAFE RF-4Cs, as well as
TR-1s and F-5Es.


The first time we visited, the resident ‘Rhinos’ had some friends visiting, more RF-4Cs, from Shaw
AFB in the USA, an incredible piece of good fortune. Those smoky, reconnaissance Phantoms were
in the circuit all day and we got the lot – run and breaks, burner overshoots, singletons, pairs and
four-ships. I’ll never forget it.

I love the Phantom, full-stop, but the RF-4C will always occupy a special place in my heart.

The Alconbury-based jets, along with their colleagues from the 26TRW at Zweibrücken AFB in
Germany were regular sights in the UK – how I miss them!

Gareth Stringer, Editor of



Until that day I hated low-flying aircraft. Like many I saw them as a reminder of how daft the English are.

I was not the best-looking boy in my village (or even in my house as my dad kindly reminds me). I was a straggly half-hearted Mod.

Lowri  lived two streets down from me and was so good-looking I wasn’t sure if I had the right to speak to her.


When I did, it felt a little naughty, like drawing a knob on the Wailing Wall or making a lion wear a bobble-hat. How dare I waste her time? So it came as an unbelievably wonderful surprise when on the 30th June 1986, me and Lowri had sex.

Afterwards we had a post-coital beer and gazed down the hills that led to Dolgellau. As the first sip met my lips, a Jaguar gambolled through the valleys. It was as joyful as I was and surfed from side-to-side like a marble on a helter-skelter.

Since then, I love the Jaguar jet (so much so, that I even travelled to London in 2010, to see Fiona Banner’s show, which featured one offering its belly to be tickled).

Bryce Gillam is an illustrator who has yet to finish his website. His other failures include being a stand-up comedian without a booking agent.
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21. Boeing 737

Let’s forget Boeing’s dark side– that its aircraft have killed more people than those of any other manufacturer: in the 1940s B-17 Flying Fortresses battered Germany; the B-29 Superfortress incinerated Japanese cities and made Hiroshima and Nagasaki place names we’re all aware of; the crumple-skinned B-52 was the dreadnought of the 1960s, nicknamed the BUFF (standing for Big Ugly Fat Fucker) it battered seven shades of crap out of North Vietnam

But as I said, forget this.

I don’t know if you’re white. I don’t know if you’ve had a homosexual experience, or whether you’re a Capricorn with a dirt-bike. What I do know is that you’ve flown on a 737. Everybody has.

Seven weeks before Sgt. Pepper was released, the Boeing 737 first flew. Since then, production of the airliner has never ceased. Think about that.

There are 1,700 737s flying right now. One takes off or lands every two seconds. They have carried more than 15.6 billion passengers. 737s brought in truly affordable flying, they have reunited families and taken millions of couples on their honeymoons. It is the most important aeroplane in the world and you should know about it. Google it.

Clementine Norton is currently single.

22. Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde by Mark Broadbent

Coming soon

23. Mikoyan MiG-31 by Alex Eybozhenko

Any nation with the suicidal urge to invade the Russia Federation would have to answer to the Mikoyan MiG-31. At maximum speed the MiG-31 is uncatchable, travelling an incredible fifty kilometres a minute. Not only is it the fastest fighter in the world, but it is armed with the longest range air to-air missiles, the Phoenix-like R-33.

With the TKS-2 secure data-link a wolf-pack of four MiG-31s can share targeting data and cut a 800 km wide swathe of airspace. The centre of the weapon system is the powerful Zaslon radar, which was the world’s first electronically scanning fighter radar. The weapon system is highly automated; a test pilot charged with destroying four widely spaced target drones, commented that “It was too easy, almost disgustingly so.”

Weeks after an announcement by a US spokesman that the USSR was incapable of destroying cruise missiles in flight, a MiG-31 proved him wrong with an impressive live fire demonstration. For close-in engagements it is armed with the GSh-6-23 cannon, capable of spitting out 8,500 rounds per minute (the highest rate of any aircraft gun).

..and the Mikoyan MiG-31 is big. Very big. In fact a fully-loaded MiG-31 weighs around the same as six fully-loaded MiG-21s!

Alex Eybozhenko, painter & decorator

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #24 Saab 37 Viggen by Alice Dryden

Your friend is running an aviation role-playing game. You need a character and an aircraft, and you don’t want to be British or American because everyone else is.

You remember an airshow, early 1990s, you and your dad gazing at a silver fighter with unusual wings. You say: OK, my pilot is Swedish, his name’s Lars, and he flies a Saab Viggen.

The more you research your chosen plane, the more you’re smitten. It can take off and land on motorways! It’s technically a biplane! You build the 1:144 Revell kit; find the Matchbox model at a boot sale. You visit the Gothenburg Aeroseum and sit in that huge, high cockpit, in a Cold War hangar hacked from solid rock.

In 2012, the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight restore their Viggen to flying condition and announce a display at Sanicole Airshow in Belgium. On your birthday.

So on a sunny September Sunday you watch that silver fighter rise on the lift from its delta wing and canard foreplane, showing off its unique silhouette for you just like twenty years ago, and you learn that this particular Viggen was actually made in the year of your birth.

It’s your birthday Viggen.

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #25 de Havilland DH 106 Comet by Margaret Coogan


The Douglas DC-3 was the dominant airliner in the late 1940s, and it had a top speed of 180 miles per hour. Britain’s de Havilland company, in an act of incredible audacity, were working on an airliner more than two and half times as fast (480 mph).  This enormous leap was thanks to a hot new technology- the jet engine. However, the vast majority of airlines were not interested. The jet technology of the time offered superior speeds, but at a massive price, in both development, procurement and running costs. The new jet aircraft would be very expensive, so the air carriers looked instead to the DC-7, a super efficient piston-engined aircraft.


In 1949 the world fell in love. The Comet flew on 27 July 1949 and astonished onlookers with both its performance and its angelic, futuristic beauty. It entered commercial service, with BOAC, on 2 May 1952 and proved a triumph. Passengers were enamoured by its quietness and smoothness. Vitally, it was also turning a profit. Fortune magazine declared that “1953 is the year of the Coronation and the Comet”.

In 1954, Comets began crashing. An investigation determined the causes and an improved Comet was built. But, by this time, Britain had lost her lead.


Margaret Coogan is an historian specialising in post-war Britain

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #26 Sud-Est Baroudeur by Michael Fleet


The Fiat G.91 is the Kevin Bacon of European aviation: every military aircraft that followed can be linked to it very easily, normally in one or two degrees of separation. The Sud-Est Baroudeur is no exception to this rule.

Aeroplane designers hate wheels. Wheels are for cars. The weight and complexity of a retractable undercarriage is a huge nuisance. Why not do away with them altogether? The Nazi Germans were very keen on this idea and built a series of aeroplanes that took off from trolleys. The aircraft would uncouple itself from the trolley as it took-off, the trolley remaining behind on the runway. The aeroplane would land on simple skids.

SE.5000 Baroudeur

A trolley take-off would free an aeroplane from the need for vast, vulnerable runways. It was far easier to achieve than vertical take-off and landing. And so it was that the Sud-Est SE.5000 Baroudeur (‘adventurer’) took its first flight on 1 August 1953.

It was superb. Trolley take-offs proved effortless, skid landings a delight (even in crosswinds). It could be rapidly rearmed and refuelled, and would have made a superb tactical fighter. A souped-up version was offered for a NATO competition, but lost out to the Fiat G.91.

Michael Fleet is currently researching spatial disorientation

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

Alice Dryden [] appreciates well-built Scandinavians.



Aeroplanes are indecipherable to most of us. They loom, like giant birds above us, ploughing through the sky like a tank through a garden fence. Unlike most of the people who read this site (I imagine), I don’t know how planes work. I even visited an exhibition about the Wright Brothers (in Rockford, Illinois) and came away none the wiser, despite there being an exact replica of the Wright Flyer II there, accompanied by a detailed diagram that let the visitor know exactly how the thing worked. “Whatever”, I thought, “it’s witchcraft”. I still feel like Conan O’Brien in his 1860s baseball re-enactment sketch, shouting “What ho! What is that demonry?” at a passing plane.


That’s why the simple, uncomplicated paper plane is my favourite form of flying vehicle [not usually used as vehicle- Ed]. They make sense to me, though I can barely fashion one myself. I know what they are made of and they travel at a speed I can understand. They are aerodynamic, a word I do not properly understand. Perhaps it is a memory of lost innocence although, to be honest, my school days weren’t full of carefree paper plane flying. That kind of thing seems to only exist in the pages of Just William but maybe we have a collective consciousness that, when faced with something like a paper plane, evokes happy schoolyard days. I can’t tell you too much about that but I can tell you that if I saw a paper plane now, well, I just might smile. Smile, and then cry for a childhood I never had.

Oscar Rickett writes regularly for Vice and has written for The Observer, The Sunday Times and Time Out, among others. You can read some of his articles here and follow him on Twitter here


MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #28: Yakovlev Yak-1 by Anna Morózova


There have only ever been two female fighter aces: ‘Katya’ Budanova and Lydia Litvyak. These two Soviet air force pilots fought in World War II, battling Germany’s Luftwaffe over Stalingrad.


Litvyak was a lover of flowers, and she painted a white lily on the side of her Yakovlev Yak-1 fighter, leading to her popular title- the ‘White Lily of Stalingrad’.  Her good friend and comrade, Budanova, was a cheerful, energetic woman. For a time they fought in an all-female fighter unit, an elite force equipped with the Yak-1. Another operator of the formidable Yak was the Normandie-Niemen, a Free French fighter squadron (later three), that fought on the Eastern Front with Soviet forces. An official statement from this ferocious unit to the female Soviet pilots read:  “If we could pick all the flowers of the earth and lay them at your feet, they would not suffice as recognition of your valour.”

The Yak-1 spawned the Yak-3, -7 and -9, and if they are counted together as one aircraft type (there is more similarity between a Yak-1 and 9, than there is between a Spitfire Mk. I and F Mk. 24), it is the most produced fighter in history (as noted by Bill Gunston), with over 37,000 built.

Anna Morózova is studying history in Russia



Like me, I’m sure that many youngsters with an aviation interest grew up dreaming of flying the fast jets.  Also like me, I’ll wager that many never stopped long to think about the learning involved in flying those fast jets. I didn’t give it much thought until I spent time at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, where I met, and fell in love with, the Jet Provost, or ‘Jay Pee’ as she is forever to be known. Pleasing to the eye and a joy to fly, the JP was a product of the heyday of British aviation. It was a development of the piston-engined Provost, and one of the final designs from Hunting Percival Aircraft, before the company became part of the powerful British Aircraft Corporation (BAC).

Sadly, this site will pause operations in June if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.


First flown in 1954 she trained thousands of future front line pilots and I have yet to meet a JP pilot, either past or present, who doesn’t enjoy flying with her. She was so popular with pilots that a weapons capable version was developed, called the Strikemaster. Sadly the type was retired in 1993 but many found their way into the hands of civilian pilots. Most are privately owned and sometimes are displayed at airshows. If you ever get an offer to fly in one, take it!

Lorne ‘Moth’ Murphy, pilot and photographer 
See Moth’s blog here

Pre-order your copy of The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here

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

HUSHKITPLANES_SPREADS4_4.jpg“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

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



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

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #31 Saab JAS 39 Gripen by Joanna Sjölander

“My flying experience in Gripen pushed me over the edge forever” Joanna Sjölander

I’ve always appreciated machines with plentiful horsepower.

I’ve sighed longingly upon seeing power measured in numbers. Power displayed in courageous designs. I have dreamt about Lamborghinis and Koenigseggs…

…though I usually get more excited about things I can actually get my hands on. So a whole new playground of the mind opened up, when I realised that these objects of desire did not have to be on four wheels: nothing embodied all of these traits better than Gripen.


The more I learned about how it, the more I fell in love. And the more I got involved in its story and shaping its future, the more devoted I was.

My flying experience in Gripen pushed me over the edge forever.

You have no idea how smart and how efficient the design teams at Saab are in their very creative work. As a part of an engineering body, they are constantly calculating and testing the boundaries. In a humble workshop, they sweat away, because they have to. Because there is always limited time, limited resources and limited leverage. But working with limitations is something the Swedes excel at. The result is a handsome beast, with an efficiency that is envied by all. But only a lucky few get to truly enjoy it.

Joanna Sjölander, a dedicated Gripen fan and once in a lifetime Gripen pilot

Coming soon to Hush-Kit, Joanna describes her fantastic Gripen flight in detail.

If you enjoyed this, you may get a thrill from this love letter to Swedish aeroplanes or this Viggen tribute.


MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #32 Pitts Special by Lauren Richardson

Lauren Richardson enjoying the world upside-down.

Lauren Richardson enjoying the world upside-down.

I love the Pitts Special – she has taught me more about my own nature and abilities than anything else in life ever has. Demanding and capable, this little beast will talk to you, guide you and help you through – she is almost viceless in the way she handles.

No single aircraft has so easily defined the nature of true fun flying and aerial acrobatics over the years as the iconic Pitts Special. Designed way back in the early 1940s by the American legend, Curtiss Pitts, this little biplane is still competitive in the world of aerobatics, even today!

Donate to the Hush-Kit blog if you love aircraft- buttons above and below.

 Betty Skelton rocking the Pitts!

Betty Skelton rocking the Pitts!

The Pitts is also something special to all women in aerobatics – look back at the early days with Betty Skelton and Caro Bailey being the very best in what was also the very best aeroplane.

Beautiful and purposeful, carrying a great deal of joyful performance, whatever this aircraft may lack it more than makes up for in character.


With symmetrical wings, the S1S is just as happy to view the world turned upside-down as ‘the right way up’. The world looks very different and perhaps more beautiful when you have to look up to see it.


Lauren Richardson, is Britain’s top female aerobatic pilot. She would love to display for you, offering you an unforgettable glimpse of the powerful and dynamic world in which she operates . Lauren is also the founder of the founder of The Aerobatic Project

Find out about the latest Hush-Kit articles on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Who was Sweden’s flying farm girl?

MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #33 Cessna 172 by Jakob Whitfield

I couldn’t tell you my favourite aircraft type – how to choose? But I could immediately tell you my favourite individual aircraft: on the 14th of September 2002 a Cessna 172, N9017H, won my heart. I’m probably not alone; with over 48,000 built, the 172 is the most produced aircraft in history (I just asked Cessna so I know this figure is right).


I encountered my Skyhawk on a summer internship in the US as a local flying school was offering a half-hour taster lesson for $49. The control panel seemed somehow familiar (as a teenager I’d clocked up countless hours flying Cessnas in Microsoft Flight Simulator on my ancient PC).



As we taxied out I realised that real flight offered an excitement that simulations could not even hint at. Everything was pure sensation- every bump and movement through the seat. Pedestrian though the Skyhawk might seem to some, for the duration of two circuits and bumps I was transformed. I was Blake, the pagan bird-man from JG Ballard’s story ‘The Unlimited Dream Company’. I was a godling at one with the aircraft.

Landing was as much an emotional as a physical come-down.

I never had a second lesson; Lack of funds and my return home meant a return to silicon-bound flying. But I still smile whenever I see a 172.

Jakob Whitfield has been obsessed with aeroplanes from a very early age. He keeps an occasional blog about the history of technology at

34. Avro Canada C.102 Jetliner by Stephen Caulfield


In the turbulent 1970s there was a saying about Canada: we could have had French food, British government and American technology but instead we wound up with American food, French government and British technology.  Well, this over-populated, over-heated world has pretty much gone to shit and now everybody everywhere is up to their neck in cheap plastic crap made in China.  Yes, times change and the potential greatness just swirls off like some beautiful chemtrail in a carbon-laced sky.  Take the Avro Canada C.102 Jetliner, a four-Derwent airliner prototype from 1949. Ahead of the Boeing 707, the Jetliner was Canada’s first jet design and North America’s first jet airliner.  It was the premier regional jet, beating the Sud Aviation Caravelle by a decade and Bombardier by a lifetime.  The C.102 carried the first ever jet air mail: Toronto to New York City in an hour.  Howard Hughes took it for a spin, loved it so much he leased it for six months.  Damn English carpet-baggers running Avro Canada dropped this handsome, commercially promising bird to soak the RCAF budget with the CF-100 instead.  Good work federal government, Trans Canada Airlines and Avro Canada.  It was the perfect prelude to the capable, expensive and cruelly quashed CF-105 Arrow.

So where is the C.102 now? Well, the nose is in a museum in Ottawa. Oh, and the landing gear ended up on a farm wagon some place.
Stephen Caulfield cleans limousines around the corner from what was once the Avro Canada plant.  He appreciates writing, art, aeroplanes and the tragic nature of modernity in pretty much equal parts these days.  His blog is


MY FAVOURITE AEROPLANE IN 200 WORDS #36: Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk by David Vanderhoof


Alone, unafraid, the glow of CRTs and a prayer you won’t be seen.

A fighter that wasn’t a fighter.  A black project that was in fact black.  The F-117A was all of this.

The arrowhead shaped aircraft was the tip of the spear.  One man alone in the darkest hours before dawn only armed with two 2000 pound laser guided bombs and the technology not to be seen by RADAR.   The ‘117 made Stealth from black to light.  It became the face of the first Gulf War.

59 F-117As were built entirely by hand. Each a living, breathing machine, had its own personality. No one would call the stinkbug pretty.  But everyone is beautiful when you turn out the lights.

It took a lot to fly the aircraft physically, mentally, and emotionally. Three men died trying to learn the aircraft: spatial disorientation at night the cause.  Your first flight was your first solo, and at night. And when you got your Bandit call sign you couldn’t tell anyone.

Stealth now is a commonplace word. November 8, 1988 warfare changed, a new shape had appeared. That shape has returned home to Tonopah Range where it all began, retired.  Or is it?

By David M. Vanderhoof, The Airplane Geeks Podcast Co-Host & Plane Crazy Down Under’s Historian in Residence.

Hush-kit is reminding the world of the beauty of flight.

follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit


38. Capelis XC-12 by Nick Pardo


It seems unsporting to mock anything Greek at the moment. But, this is about a Greek-American ‘achievement’.. and I’m half-Greek, so I guess it’s OK.

The Capelis XC-12 of 1933 was described in a 1973 letter to Air Enthusiast from John H.Murphy thus “The airplane was designed by Greeks, built by Greeks, and the venture was promoted by a Greek- and every Greek restaurateur on the West Coast stuck a few bucks in.. it succeeded in breaking just about every law of common sense, the Aeronautics Bureau of the Department of Commerce, and those of nature, including gravity” self-tapping screws were used, which shook themselves loose during flight “And its performance? Lousy- depending on how many screws were loose”.

But it had unexpected glory.. as a film star! It featured in the following films: Five Came Back (1939) Flying Tigers (1942), flown by John Wayne, Invisible Agent (1942), Night Plane from Chungking (1943), Action in Arabia (1944) and Dick Tracy’s Dilemma 1947 (models of it featured in even more films).


If the Capelis XC-12 teaches us anything- it’s that success sometimes come in unexpected ways. Alternatively, it may teach us that when designing an aeroplane, it’s probably best to use an experienced team of aeronautical engineers.


Nick Pardo

Film aficionado and reluctant Capricorn, he strongly recommend you check out this blog

38. Antonov An-225 ‘Mriya’

Antonov_An-225_front_viewCredit: Paul Smit

There is only one An-225. Not even enough to breed.

I recently watched an American documentary on the Antonov An-225 and was drowned in hyperbole relating to the aircraft’s size. It’s the biggest, but I don’t want to bore you by telling you how many blue whale tits would fit inside it or how many buses stacked up would equal it or any of that; it is the appearance of the machine that I love – SIX ENGINES, the best-looking tail of any aircraft since the P-61 and a comically multi-wheeled main gear all add up to make a very special aircraft.

As a brattish child prodigy once pointed out to Alan Partridge,’You can’t have gradations of uniqueness.’, something is either unique or isn’t, and the sole An-225 is indeed unique. There is an incomplete second An-225 in Kiev that Russia was eyeing up as a potential mothership for its next generation spaceplane. But considering the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, the An-225 – like other freakishly oversized birds before it-  may one day (in the next twenty years or so) become extinct.


Find out about the latest Hush-Kit articles on Twitter: @Hush_kit

My favourite aeroplane in 200 words #39: Vought Vindicator


The Vought Vindicator isn’t a superstar. It didn’t set any records, it didn’t win any major battles and it wasn’t famous in its own time. It was the first monoplane to equip a US Navy squadron, but by the time World War II rolled around it had largely been superseded by more advanced planes. It wasn’t particularly well-liked by its pilots; they called it names like the “wind indicator” and the “vibrator”. So why, then, does the Vindicator hold such a special place in my mind? Partly for for that very reason. Flying for the US Marine Corps and the French Navy, Vindicators played their part in the early stages of World War II despite insurmountable odds. At the battle of Midway, Captain Richard Fleming won a posthumous Medal of Honor flying a Vindicator, and French Navy Vindicators flew perilous raids against the advancing Germans. We tend to gloss over the support players in history, the ones who for whatever reason never become truly famous despite contributing their share to its outcome. But as the Vindicator shows, even the most seemingly insignificant figures have their stories to tell. So here’s to the Vindicator—and the underdog in all of us.

— Gray Stanback, college student and aviation enthusiast 


My favourite aeroplane in 200 words #40: North American 0-47

101st_Observation_Squadron_O-47.jpg“Favourites?  Mustang, Spitfire, yeah…boring.  Mythologies rather than experiences. The closest any of us have gotten to the royalty of the air are plastic models or a glimpse at an airshow.

Not me.  As a kid, I spent hours surrounded by the scent of aluminium, old oil, and rubber… in my own plane.

It was an 0-47.

The 0-47 was so anonymous that the Army didn’t even give it a name.

No Storch, no Lystander, just a number.  Starting with a Zed.

North American built 250, a tiny number… [for America]   

No guns, it was designed to observe with a mile long greenhouse on top and a fat belly underneath with camera ports.

It was my airplane.

On a sleepy country airport one sat derelict axle deep in weeds.  Just a mile of walking, carrying a camp stool for the missing pilot seat, my sister and my best friend could fly to Europe destroy the Axis.

The pilot’s stick still waggled the bare ailerons who, like rudder, it’s yaw buddy, had lost their fabric years ago.


No cowling, prop, nor glass in the canopy, but deep inside it’s green cavernous interior, sitting at the observer’s station, the two camera port doors could be cranked open pushing the weeds aside to reveal the Japanese fleet..

The 90 degree Oklahoma Summer, the sound of cicadas, and this thing that once flew, were a 10 year old’s perfect day.

There is a flying example in California.  Now, for me as a pilot, the need is great…”

– Jack Murphy


My favourite aeroplane in 200 words #41: Rockwell XFV-12


Argue with me, if you will, about whether the XFV-12 was an “airplane”, on the pedantic grounds that airplanes can leave the ground under their own power. Point out to me, kindly or with malice, that its 70s Kustom Van paint job, reminiscent of some early arcade cabinet or Sandy Frank sci-fi epic, is a gleaming disguise for the Frankensteinian joining of Phantom and Skyhawk parts, intended to save time and money during the US defence establishment’s post-Vietnam doldrums.

Don’t care. The love of warplanes is a vice, and the XFV-12, with its inability to carry its own weight let alone a bombload, is the aviation equivalent of a very tasty lite beer. Relieved of considering any moral dimensions, we can focus on the aesthetics of this hopeful monster, and fully appreciate its melding of the beautifully sleek with the slightly clumsy and the subtly alien. The rakish, confident twin tails, framing the slick landing gear enclosures! The huge yet somehow elegant diamondesque canards! The faintly toylike proportions and ever so slightly silly nose. I want to put on a PVC flight suit marked with Rockwell’s corporate-slick logo, climb into this plane, and blast off towards a future painted by Syd Mead, rising on a white-hot column of pure techno-fantasy.

(Rik Haines lives in Cascadia, uses unusual pronouns, and plays too much Kerbal Space Program.)


42. Martin-Baker MB3


Despite never entering service, the MB3 has been indirectly responsible for saving 7553 lives (and counting). Friends and partners, James Martin and Valentine Baker had been designing unconventional monoplanes since the early 1930s. From the start they believed that aircraft should be as simple as possible. The MB3 was their response to a wartime RAF requirement for a fast, heavily armed, fighter. Formidably furnished with six 20-mm cannon, it was also designed for ease of maintenance and manufacture (unlike the Spitfire). Tests flights, which started on 31st August 1942, proved it was both highly manoeuvrable and easy to fly. Its top speed of 415 mph was a touch faster than the contemporary Spitfire Mk VIII. The main load-bearing structures were constructed of heavy tubing (or built-up spars) so it would have been able to survive greater battle damage than an equivalent stressed skin aircraft. It was not to be however: on a test flight on 12th September 1942, the engine failed soon after take-off, and the MB3 crashed in a field and killed its pilot, Capt. V Baker. Though the team had been investigating the idea of escape seats since 1934, it was Baker’s death that motivated Martin to focus exclusively on ejection seats.

–– Lucy Bentham 


It also also makes an appearance on the 10 worst US aircraft here

My favourite aeroplane in 200 words #43: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105


In 1965 the Soviet Union started a top secret project lead by the engineer Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy. Known as ‘Spiral’, its aim was to build a spaceplane that could have been used for a variety of purposes including aerial reconnaissance, space rescue, satellite maintenance, and as a space interceptor to sabotage enemy satellites. Yes, I did say ‘space interceptor’, but let’s add another element of excitement: it was to be launched from the back of a Mach 6 mothership (to be built by Tupolev). Once thrown into the air by the mothership, its own detachable rocket would boost it into space. The  MiG-105 was built as a research aircraft in support of the Spiral, to demonstrate landings (made on skids) and low speed handling. It made its first subsonic free-flight in 1976, taking off under its own power from an old airstrip near Moscow. It made only eight flights before the project was cancelled in favour of the Buran, a knock-off of the US Shuttle. Though the MiG-105 never made it into space, its sister, the unmanned БОР (‘BOR’) did. Now exhibited at the Monino museum, The MiG-105 is (like me) a Muscovite — which is clearly another reason to love this little flying shoe.

— Ria Timkin, Musician (you can support her music here. She currently has no songs about spaceplanes)


44. Supermarine Walrus by Jane Morton


The Walrus doesn’t look like air is its natural element. It’s an amphibian, but even the wheels look like an afterthought. No, it’s all about water; its star sign is Aquarius.

Is that surprising? It has a bilge pump, it carries an anchor. From its looks, you’d say Reginald Mitchell spent his holidays on the Norfolk Broads and was inspired to graft bi-plane wings and a pusher engine onto a cabin cruiser. It was intended for catapult launch from battleships, so he built it like one. You can loop a Walrus, but first check there’s no seawater in the bilges.


The small bomb load proved enough to sink a U-boat. But just as the Walrus was not quite an airplane, it was not quite a warrior. When the better, faster and meaner came along, it was given over to air-sea rescue. It found its true calling in saving, not killing.

For the half-drowned, who know hypothermia isn’t far off, a Shagbat was a blanket, a thermos of hot tea laced with rum, it was life. And when the weight of ten Americans from a ditched B-17 couldn’t be lifted, the pilot just pointed the bow towards England, and taxied home.


Jane Morton is a coder involved in an East-Anglian start-up technology company, and a sometime snowboard instructor. She likes flying boats and airships, especially British ones

Favourite aircraft No. 45: Airbus A320


Kick-started by vast military orders, the US company Boeing wisely invested a great deal into developing very fine airliners. With great products, a big home market and governmental support it wasn’t surprising that Boeing soon dominated the civil marketplace. It was sheer madness to take this titan on, but that’s exactly what Airbus did. This upstart from the Old Continent smashed the door open with the A300 in 1974, but it was the A320 (entering service in 1988) that established Airbus as the ‘other’ big plane-maker. The A320 was the F-16 of the airliner world, introducing both the side-stick controller and fly-by-wire to the commercial world. The A320 scared the bejesus out of Boeing: at last the 737 had a worthy adversary. The A320 family grew, and soon Airbus was selling as many airliners as Boeing. By late May 2014 Airbus had produced 6,092 members of the A320 family. This year the lean and green A320neo will join the series. The future looks bright for the neo: In 2011 Malaysia’s AirAsia ordered 200 for 12.7 billion. By late 2013 Airbus was happily holding an order book for 2,523 neos. By becoming the Pepsi to Boeing’s Coca-Cola, Airbus powered an efficiency ‘arms race’ that benefited the holiday-maker and airlines alike. We salute the A320!

Marie Boustani

Pre-order your copy of The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here

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

HUSHKITPLANES_SPREADS4_4.jpg“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

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



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

  • 335828main_EC97-43902-1_full


Interview with Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward, Part 1: Sea Harrier FRS Mk 1 & Air combat


“One of the most staggering facts about Sea Harrier and the Falklands was that we went to war less than three years after receiving the first aircraft in service and were fully prepared for combat. This in itself was an extraordinary achievement by the engineers and aircrew of the Sea Harrier world and the strong support of our aircraft carrier ships’ companies. Incidentally, we also had the best flight safety record of any jet aircraft entering UK military service.”

What were your first impressions of the Sea Harrier?

“My first impressions of this wonderful aircraft were formed when I was the MoD Naval Staff desk officer for the Development and Production of the Sea Harrier from 1976 to 1979. The principal Contractors for the aircraft were a closely knit team consisting of: John Fozard, British Aerospace; Greg Stewart, Ferranti; Andy Cameron, Smiths Industries; Dowty and others. All were pulling strongly in the same direction.

The modification from the already well-proven ground attack Harrier was a design masterpiece. It included a raised cockpit, a superb albeit physically tiny mono-pulse radar, the Blue Fox, a very reliable inertial standard navigation system (NAVHARS) and a very user-friendly Head-Up Display weapons aiming system including a hotline gunsight.

I was given immense latitude and governance over all project matters, whether associated weapons and missiles, costings or equipment selection. The only guidance I received from my Director was that if I wished to spend more than £5 million over and above agreed project costs, then I should clear it with him. But there was no need. It was the first UK fighter jet program in history to be on cost and on time! (A far cry from collaborative Tornado and Typhoon programmes.)

Having said that, it was not always easy working with the MoD Procurement Executive desk officers based in St Giles Court. The Director Harrier and Commander Richard Burn AFC, Sea Harrier Project officer, were excellent fellows and very supportive but some of their subordinates could be very difficult and stubborn. One of my main concerns with moving on from Harrier to Sea Harrier was the dreadfully unreliable radio, PTR 377. It consisted of five or more modules, each of which was packed with a tight bundle of wires: none of which were identified, coded or marked. Repairing the radio modules was therefore a nightmare for the RAE Farnborough boffins and there was a backlog of 3000 awaiting repair at a cost per module of several thousand pounds sterling. I was adamant that this radio should not be fitted to my new Sea Harrier, the pilots of which would rely heavily for their safety and mission success on good radio communication when flying alone over vast expanses of ocean by day and by night. It proved to be a long battle with the Procurement Executive but eventually, I prevailed. The radio that I chose was the one in use with U.S. Navy fighter aircraft. However, although the direct procurement cost of each radio was just US$8,000, Procurement Executive bureaucrats managed to put the cost to the Service up to £15,000!

After I was appointed to command the Intensive Flying Trials Unit, I visited BAe Dunsfold with my family on the invitation of their Senior Test Pilot, John Farley, to view the first aircraft being prepared for delivery. It was an exciting visit. John was just brilliant! He treated my lads like royalty and then climbed into the new jet and proceeded to give us a private flying display; including his famous vertical take-off transitioning into a near vertical climb away. Despite having already flown 30 hours in the ground attack Harrier, I was more than impressed, I was awestruck.

Flying the new aircraft in the Flight Trials Unit, 700A Squadron, proved to be extremely rewarding. Our Blue Fox radar had not yet been fitted but there was much to do before it arrived in service. We were blessed with extraordinarily dedicated and enthusiastic engineers and aircrew who, through their diligence, provided the strong foundation for eventual deployment to and victory in the Falklands air war.

The key to this victory lay in our development of the aircraft into a superb within-visual-range air combat or dogfighting vehicle. We proved this in the early days with dominant performances against the USAF Aggressor Squadron F-5E’s and the Bitburg frontline Squadron F-15 Eagles. This set alarm bells ringing around the fighter world. We were on a roll that continued with increasing momentum.

However and although fighter combat was the love of my life, the standout early memory of our little jump jet must be a public relations affair, that is to say my landing at ‘Pebble Mill at One’ BBC studios in the centre of Birmingham. It was transmitted live to the British public.


We had only recently received our first aircraft and I had completed just a handful of flights in it. Neil Rankin, my Air boss and Ted Anson, my Admiral got in touch saying, “Sharkey, the Royal Air Force has been asked to land a Harrier at Pebble Mill at One studios in the centre of Birmingham. They have declined, saying that it is too dangerous and risky. Would you like to give it a go?” I said that I would have a chat about it with John Farley and then give an answer. John’s advice was excellent. He covered all the pros and cons and safety measures required and told me it should be no problem. And so it worked out. A host of Navy VIPs, families and friends and the press gathered on the roof of the studios as I landed the aircraft safely in the small field by the building. I missed the champagne and small eats party because I had to be ready to take off under live broadcast at the end of the programme. But I did get a big kiss on the cheek from Elaine Chase, London’s Cockney superstar.

What was your most memorable Sea Harrier mission…what happened?

OPERATION CORPORATE proved to be a relatively short but very intense conflict both for our land forces, our warships, submarines and for the fixed and rotary wing aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. There was no land-based air defence support. We were isolated 8,000 miles from home in the turbulent South Atlantic seas with temperatures near zero. The world at large openly discussed the chances of our success. Unanimously, the pundits declared that a small band of 20 Sea Harrier jump jets could not defend the task force from up to 200 Argentine fighter and ground attack aircraft. Indeed and as Rear-Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward, Commander Carrier Battle Group stated after our victory, “it was a very close call”. How right he was.

My United States Marine Corps aviator friends have described it to me as the last of the conventional wars. They are probably right – two sides battling it out in total isolation from the rest of the world and with winner takes all. Putting it all in context, it was the boots on the ground of our Amphibious Brigade led by Julian Thompson and Jeremy Moore that secured the hard-fought victory. In conventional military wisdom, an invasion force needs to be three or four times the size of the established force holding the contested territory. This was turned on its head for Operation Corporate. Our land forces numbered about 4,000 whereas the Argentine incumbents numbered 8,000. So on land and in the air we were heavily outnumbered. But on the surface of the sea and beneath the waves we had a trump card. That was our surface warships and submarines who were there in strength and lived up to the best traditions and historical achievements of the Royal Navy. They provided critical medium and short-range air defence and vital antisubmarine operations in protection of the Carrier Battle Group and the Amphibious Task Group ably led by Commodore Michael Clapp.

It was a very professional team effort – but that is what Royal Navy Expeditionary Task Force operations have always been about.

Returning to the air war, the limited number of fighter aircraft and aircrew demanded 24/7 intense combat effort from the ship’s crews of both carriers, HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. And for my pilots, this meant almost continuous heavy fatigue: not just flying airborne missions but also sitting in the cockpit at alert on deck regularly with outside air temperatures of 2°C and no heating in the aircraft (other than occasional mugs of hot chocolate provided by our wonderful ground crew).

I trust that the above sets the scene for the manner in which our little jump jets contributed to eventual victory. The air war was won by the combined efforts of our surface warships and our Sea Harrier combat air patrols. The number of kills achieved by both parties against the sustained attacks of Mirage V, Skyhawk and Étendard was about equal. The significance of Sea Harrier was however twofold.

First, and in air-to-air engagements, our jump jet achieved 25 kills without losing an aircraft. But that is not the complete story.

Our reputation had preceded us and the Argentine fighters and ground attack aircraft had been told to avoid contact with Sea Harriers at all costs – even when it meant aborting attack missions. My Squadron, 801, conducted all its combat air patrol missions at low level or very low level, especially in defence of the San Carlos beachhead. (800 Squadron from Hermes held their patrols at 20,000 feet above the amphibious landing force.) The low-level 801 CAP stations up threat of the beachhead resulted in more than 450 Argentine aircraft attack missions being aborted. I learnt this directly from the Defence Attaché of the Argentinian Embassy in London just after the war.

One of these CAP Missions is a definite candidate for “my most memorable mission”.
Allow me to quote from my book, “Sea Harrier over the Falklands”, Chapter 23.
“Steve and I flew the next mission as a pair. There was no trade for us under the now clear blue skies but we could see that to the south of the Sound HMS Ardent had seen more than enough action for the day. She was limping northwards and smoke was definitely coming from more places than her funnel. We were to see more of her on our third and final sortie of the day.

For this final `hop’ we were given the station to the west of San Carlos over the land. We descended from the north east and set up a low level race track patrol in a wide shallow valley. As always, we flew in battle formation side by side and about half a mile apart. When we turned at the end of the race track pattern, we always turned towards each other in order to ensure that no enemy fighter could approach our partner’s 6 o’clock undetected. I had just flown through Steve in the middle of a turn at the southerly end of the race track when I spotted two triangular shapes approaching down the far side of the valley under the hills from the west. They were moving fast and were definitely Mirages, probably Daggers. I levelled out of the turn and pointed directly at them, increasing power to full throttle as I did so.

`Two Mirages! Head on to me now, Steve. 1 mile.’ My voice was so excited and garbled that Steve couldn’t understand a word.

`Passing between them now!’
I was lower than the leader and higher than the Number Two as they flashed past each side of my cockpit. They were only about 50 yards apart and at about 100 feet above the deck. As I passed them I pulled hard to the right, slightly nose high, expecting them still to try to make it through to their target by going left and resuming their track. I craned my neck over my right shoulder but they didn’t appear. Instead I could see Steve chasing across the skyline towards the west. My heart suddenly leapt. They are going to stay and fight! Must have turned the other way.

They had turned the other way but not to fight! They were running for home and hadn’t seen Steve at all because their turn placed him squarely in their 6 o’clock. Steve’s first missile streaked from under the Sea Harrier’s wing. It curved over the tail of the Mirage leaving its characteristic white smoke trail and impacted the spine of the jet behind the cockpit. The pilot must have seen it coming because he had already jettisoned the canopy before the missile arrived; when it did, he ejected. The back half of the delta winged fighter bomber disappeared in a great gout of flame before the jet exploded.

I checked Steve’s tail was clear but he was far too busy to think of checking my own 6 o’clock. Otherwise he would have seen the third Mirage closing fast on my tail.

Steve was concentrating on tracking the second jet in his sights and he released his second Sidewinder. The missile had a long chase after its target which was accelerating hard in full burner towards the sanctuary of the west. At missile burn out the Mirage started to pull up for some clouds. The lethal dot of white continued to track the fighter bomber and as the jet entered cloud, I clearly saw the missile proximity fuse under the wing. It was an amazing spectacle.

Adrenaline running high, I glanced round to check the sky about me. Flashing underneath me and just to my right was the beautiful green and brown camouflage of the third Dagger. I broke right and down towards the aircraft’s tail, acquired the jet exhaust with my Sidewinder and released the missile.


My missile chases the fleeing Dagger.

It reached its target in very quick time and the Dagger disappeared in a ball of flame. Out of the flame ball exploded the broken pieces of the jet, some of which cartwheeled along the ground before coming to rest, no longer recognisable as parts of an aircraft. The air combat engagement had lasted for roughly a minute and although it all happened incredibly fast, in my mind it registered as spectacular slow motion.

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Later I was to discover that the third Mirage Dagger had entered the fight from the north and found me in his sights. As he turned towards the west and home he had been firing his guns at me in the turn but had missed. It was the closest shave that I was to experience.


Steve & Sharkey’s Dagger kills.


We were euphorically excited as we found each other visually and joined up as a pair to continue our Combat Air Patrol duties. We had moved a few miles west during the short engagement and now steadied on east for some seconds to regain the correct patrol position. As I was looking towards San Carlos, about 10 miles distant behind the hills, I noticed three seagulls in the sunlight ahead. Were they seagulls?

I called Brilliant, `Do you have any friendlies close to you?’



HMS Brilliant.

`Wait!’ It was a sharper than usual reply.

A second or two later, Brilliant was back on the air. `Sorry, we’ve just been strafed by a Mirage! Hit in the Ops Room! Man opposite me is hurt and I think I’m hit in the arm. No, no friendlies close to us.’ The cool-headed Direction Officer was Laon Hulme who was later decorated for his extraordinary performance under fire. (There must have been a fourth Mirage! The one that got away!)

Full power again. `Steve, those aren’t seagulls ahead, they’re Sky Hawks!’ What had looked like white birds were actually attack aircraft that had paused to choose a target. As I spoke, the three `seagulls’ stopped orbiting, headed towards the south and descended behind the line of hills. And from my morning flight I knew where they were going.

`They’re going for Ardent!’ I headed flat out to the south east, passing over the settlement of Port Howard at over 600 knots and 100 feet.

In quick time I cleared the line of hills to my left and was suddenly over the water of the Sound. Ahead and to the left were the Sky Hawks. To the right was the stricken Ardent, billowing smoke like a beacon as she attempted to make her way to San Carlos. I wasn’t going to get there in time but I knew that Red Section from Hermes should be on CAP on the other side of the water.

`Red Section! Three Sky Hawks, north to south towards Ardent! I’m out of range to the west!’

Red Section got the message and appeared as if by magic, hurtling down from high-level above the other bank of the Sound. I saw the smoke of a Sidewinder and the trailing A 4 exploded. The middle aircraft then blew up (a guns kill, so I heard later) and the third jet delivered its bombs into Ardent before seeming to clip the mast with its fuselage.



The gallant Ardent.

I looked around to see where my Number Two had got to.

`Steve, where are you?’ He should have been in battle formation on the beam. No reply. My heart missed several beats. There was only one answer, he must have gone down!

I called Brilliant. `Believe I’ve lost my Number Two to ground fire. Retracing my track back to the CAP position to make a visual search.’ I didn’t feel good. My visual search resulted in nothing. But I did hear the tell tale sound of a pilot’s SARBE rescue beacon. Maybe that was Steve? `Brilliant, I can’t locate my Number Two but have picked up a SARBE signal. Could be him or one of the Mirage pilots. Can you send a helicopter to have a look, please? I’m very short of fuel and must recover to Mother immediately.’

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I felt infinitely depressed as I climbed to high level. Losing Steve was a real shock to my system. At 80 miles to run, I called the ship.

`Be advised I am very short of fuel. I believe my Number Two has been lost over West Falkland. Commencing cruise descent.’

`Roger, Leader. Copy you are short of fuel. Your Number Two is about to land on. He’s been hit but he’s OK. Over.’

`Roger, Mother. That is good news. Out’.

Invincible could be clearly seen at 60 miles. She was arrowing her way through the water towards me like a speedboat, leaving a great foaming wake. Good for JJ! He doesn’t want to lose a Sea Jet just for a few pounds of fuel. My spirits had suddenly soared and it felt great to be alive.”

Special thanks To Rowland White

Pre-order your copy of The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here


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HUSHKITPLANES_SPREADS4_4.jpg“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

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  • Interviews with pilots of the F-14 Tomcat, Mirage, Typhoon, MiG-25, MiG-27, English Electric Lighting, Harrier, F-15, B-52 and many more.
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Ten Unusual Aircraft Design Solutions


HH-43B_Huskie_during_a_firefighting_exercise_c1960sWhat makes an unusual design solution, and how have we selected the ten examples we are presenting in this article? Well, an ‘unusual design’ is clearly a flexible concept. As time and technology changes, so too does our notion of what a ‘normal’ aircraft design looks like. So, there is clearly a link to technology, and clearly early adopters of new technologies will be considered ‘unusual’ when they emerge. In this list, for example, we could have included the Messerschmitt Me 262, with its jet propulsion and swept wings. But with only a list of ten to work with, we chose the Me 163 instead, which featured not only a swept wing, but also rocket propulsion. Importantly, too, the Me 163 also pioneered a new role, that of the point-defence interceptor, and this links to another important reason for inclusion in this list, design to meet an extreme or specialist requirement.
Several examples of aircraft addressing such extreme or specialist requirements are included in this list. In discussing these aircraft, we attempt to explain how the designers have responded to the requirement in shaping the aircraft, its propulsion or other systems to meet the requirement or role. Examples of such aircraft include the U-2 and SR-71 among others.

Finally, we have included some aircraft with more general requirements, but where, for specific reasons, unusual design choices have been made, leading to designs which differ markedly from other contemporary aircraft seeking to meet similar needs. These examples of original thinking are included as a reminder that innovation and originality remain a great aspect of the aviation business.
We have decided only to include in this list aircraft which could be regarded as successful, a consideration which eliminated numerous research aircraft, and also designs which, for whatever reason, had not been selected for operational use. However, there remain many others which met our criteria, and which we could easily have selected. If @Hush_Kit readers are interested in a further discussion of unusual design solutions, or if you vigorously disagree with our selections and would like to propose others – let us know through your comments on this piece.

By Jim & Ron Smith 
10. Lockheed U-2 ‘Gaz’s prison bus’ 

The Lockheed U-2 was designed in 1954, in response to a requirement for an aircraft to overfly the USSR at an altitude of at least 70,000 ft. This requirement was prompted by events such as the detonation of the first Soviet Hydrogen Bomb in August 1953, years earlier than expected by the US. This showed that the US lacked accurate technical intelligence about the capabilities and intentions of the USSR, particularly its emerging capability to directly threaten the United States homeland.

Screenshot 2020-05-22 at 20.54.11
Initial design work was directed to an Air Force requirement, but when Lockheed’s proposal, the CL-282, was rejected, Lockheed approached the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), resulting in the establishment of Project Aquatone, approved in December 1954. After rapid development, in great secrecy, by the Lockheed Skunk Works the U-2 made its first flight on 29 July 1955, and made its first operational mission over the USSR just under a year later on 4 July 1956.


Francis Gary Powers (right) with U-2 designer Kelly Johnson in 1966. Powers was a USAF fighter pilot recruited by the CIA in 1956 to fly civilian U-2 missions deep into Russia. Powers and other USAF Reserve pilots resigned their commissions to become civilians. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Despite hopes that the high altitude flightpath would prevent detection by Soviet radars, this proved not to be the case, and while overflights of the USSR would continue up to May 1960, these were terminated following the shooting down of Gary Powers’ U-2 over Sverdlovsk.
The initial role of the U-2 was high-altitude photographic intelligence gathering. Although flights over the USSR ceased from 1960, U-2s were used over Cuba in the context of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and over mainland China in 1963. The sensors developed for the aircraft were critical to its success, with high-resolution, long focal length cameras developed by Dr Edwin Land, specifically to achieve extraordinary resolution of ground targets from the operating altitude of 70,000 ft.
The roles of the aircraft gradually broadened to include Electronic Intelligence gathering (ELINT), atmospheric high-altitude research including sampling radio-active products of nuclear tests and testing various sensors. Along with these developments came significant weight increases and erosion of the aircraft’s altitude capability.
This led to the development of the second-generation U-2R, which is considerably larger than the original aircraft, and has greater thrust. The U-2R first flew in August 1967, and a further production batch, designated TR-1A were ordered in 1979. The role of the U-2R/TR-1A is now to deliver network-connected real-time intelligence via SATCOM for air and ground assets and command decision making. A wide range of sensors are available, and other capabilities include ELINT, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) mapping.

The U-2 and U-2R/TR-1 are unusual because of their high-aspect ratio un-swept wings, their low-wing loading, and their two-point centre-line landing gear. The driving requirement for the design is to be able to operate at very-high altitude over extended ranges, carrying a significant sensor payload. The aircraft operate close to their maximum achievable altitude, and typically cruise near the maximum lift coefficient available from the wing. Because the aircraft operate at such high lift, it is important that their lift dependent drag is minimised, as this will minimise thrust requirements and maximise range. The distinctive high-aspect ratio wing is used to achieve this, and it is notable that other aircraft with similar high altitude mission requirements, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and the Myasishchev M-17 and M-55 adopt a similar approach.
At high altitude, the speed of sound is less than at sea level, and high local Mach numbers occur on the wing as a result of its pressure distribution at high lift. In the cruise the aircraft operates in an approximately 10 kt window where it can fly above its low-speed stall, without high local Mach numbers causing a high-speed, or compressibility, stall.
The extreme requirements, for the aircraft to deliver its mission at very high-altitude, result in a number of other operational complications. Structural margins on the aircraft are reduced to achieve a lighter structure; the thrust required at high altitude far exceeds the thrust required at lower altitudes, and an extremely steep climb on take-off is usually used, both to limit loads on the airframe, and to limit exposure of the mission to prying eyes.

The U-2 is notorious for being difficult to land, and operationally is generally talked down onto the runway by an external observer following the aircraft in a high-speed car. This is because precise handling is required to achieve the correct landing attitude and to avoid excessive bounce or float on landing.
The aircraft first flew in 1955, and remains in service. More than 100 aircraft of all variants were built, and there are currently no plans for its retirement.
9. Tupolev Tu-95 and Tu-142 ‘Bear’ ‘The Tupo-leviathan’ 

The Tu-95 Bear was designed as a long-range strategic bomber, able to deliver thermonuclear weapons over a very long range. Since first flying in 1955, the aircraft has remained in service, and has been upgraded and modified to deliver a number of roles. The origins of the aircraft go back to the Second World War – it is no coincidence that the fuselage diameter is the same as that of the B-29 Superfortress, as the DNA of the Bear goes back to the Tupolev Tu-4 copy of the Boeing design. Developments of that aircraft, the Tu-80 and Tu-85, led to the Tu-95 when it was realised that the use of powerful and efficient turbo-prop engines could allow a transformation in speed, range and payload to be achieved.


Today, the principal roles of the Bear are the delivery of a variety of nuclear and conventional cruise missiles, allowing strategic power projection, with a global reach enabled by air-to-air refuelling. In addition, specialist variants are, or have been, used for electronic intelligence gathering, maritime reconnaissance and targeting, Anti-Submarine Warfare and as long-range communications platforms.

The Bear is unusual because it uses a unique combination of swept wings and very large turbo-prop engines. The Tu-142 version was developed initially for maritime reconnaissance and ASW, and uses the 14,795 hp Kuznetsov NK-12M powerplant, driving 18ft 4in (5.59m) diameter contra-rotating propellers, and also has an extended fuselage. The propellers are operated at a very coarse pitch setting, which allows them to generate the necessary cruise thrust while operating at low rpm, avoiding high blade-tip Mach numbers. Combined with the wing sweep of 37 deg (at ¼ chord), these powerplants and the configuration enable the aircraft to achieve both high speed and very-long range.
Quoted performance figures vary depending on source and variant. A maximum speed of 450-500kt with full payload, and a maximum unrefuelled range with a 25,000 lb weapons load of 7,800 miles, or 9,300 miles with no payload have been stated.

The requirements that drove the development of the Tu-95/142 were, as is normal for a strategic bomber, range, speed and payload. The aircraft was developed at a time when USSR turbo-fan engine development was insufficiently mature to match the thrust and fuel economy available through use of turbine-driven large-diameter contra-props. The use of slow-rotating contra-props and a swept wing enables high-speed, in addition to the range and payload conferred by the large size of the aircraft and its economical powerplant. The initial engine power of 9,750 hp was increased to 12,000 hp in the production Tu-20, and to 14,795 hp in the Tu-142. The Kuznetsov NK-12M is easily the most powerful turbo-prop engine built to date.
The aircraft has been an outstanding and long-lived success for its designers and operators, remaining in active service with the Russian Air and Naval Aviation Forces. It was also operated in limited numbers by the Indian Navy and Ukraine. Wikipedia lists more than twenty variants of the aircraft, and notes that many other sub-variants have been used.

8. Shin Meiwa Flying Boats ‘Hyper Sunderland’

The Japanese company Shin Meiwa (later renamed ShinMaywa) have produced a series of large amphibious flying boats for use on anti-submarine patrols (PS-1) and search and rescue operations (US-1A and US-2). The PS-1 was a pure flying boat, but carried its own retractable beaching gear. The US-1A and US-2 are amphibian flying boats with retractable undercarriages and can operate from hard runways, or from the open ocean.
In the 1950s, the Shin Meiwa company began to investigate how to create a flying boat of improved performance that could provide year-round operations in the seas around Japan. To achieve this, the performance requirements are somewhat extreme, combining a range of some 2,000 nm, carrying extensive mission equipment and the ability to routinely operate with wave heights up to 3.0 metres. This is coupled with the ability to take-off and land in extremely short distances at maximum weight.
Shin Meiwa initially extensively modified a Grumman HU-16 Albatross as an experimental aircraft to evolve their ideas and to demonstrate to the Japanese authorities. This aircraft, the UF-XS, pioneered many of the features later incorporated on the operational designs.
After several years of development, in 1966 the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) awarded a contract for the development of an anti-submarine patrol flying boat. Two PS-X prototypes were built, one of which demonstrated the ability to land successfully in four-metre high waves during trials in 1968.
As a result, a production order was placed for 21 PS-1 aircraft. The PS-1 flying boat was powered by four 3,060 shp General Electric T64-IHI-10 turboprop engines, built under license by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI), supplemented by an additional 1,250 shp General Electric (GE) T58 turboshaft engine solely to provide blowing air for the boundary layer control system fitted to the high-lift flaps, elevator and rudder control surfaces.
The PS-1 is a large aircraft, with a span of 108 ft 9 in and a length of 109 ft. Its maximum weight is 94,800 lb (43,000 kg). The effectiveness of the BLC system is such that the aircraft can take-off from a calm sea in 250m and land in 180m. Nine crew are carried, comprising pilot and copilot; flight engineer; radio operator; radar operator; MAD operator; two sonar operators; and a tactical coordinator. The PS-1 was withdrawn from service in 1989, having been replaced in the ASW role by the Lockheed P-3 Orion.
The JMSDF requested the development of a search-and-rescue (SAR) variant. The resultant aircraft, designated US-1 deleted most of the PS-1’s mission equipment (other than the search radar), allowing a considerable increase in fuel capacity.
A large sliding door was built into the starboard side of the aircraft to allow launch and recovery of an inflatable rescue dinghy, with a hoist fitted above the sliding door. The US-1 had a crew of eight, including pilot; copilot; flight engineer; navigator; radio operator; radar operator; and two observers. Up to five medics or rescue divers could also be carried. The aircraft could accommodate 12 stretchers and three sitting passengers, or 36 sitting passengers.

The US-1 has an amphibious capability with a fully retractable undercarriage and was first flown on 15 October 1974, with a total of twenty aircraft being procured. After the seventh aircraft, an uprated version of the T64 engine was used rated at 3,490 shp, all aircraft being modified to this US-1A standard. Take-off weight was increased to 45,000 kg.
The final variant of the aircraft is the ShinMaywa US-2, which was first flown on 18 December 2003. This type has several aerodynamic refinements and a pressurised upper cabin, together with improved avionics and a new search radar. Power is provided by four Rolls-Royce AE2100 engines, each of 4,592 shp, driving six-bladed propellers. The APU is replaced by a 1,360 shp LHTEC CTS800-4K turboshaft. Take-off weight is increased to 47,700 kg and range to 2,500 nm. The US-2 can take-off at maximum weight from a hard runway with a ground run of 500 metres. Planned procurement by Japan is fourteen aircraft, and sales of the type have been discussed with India, Indonesia, Thailand and Greece, although no overseas sales have so far been reported.
A number of videos showing the impressive take-off performance of the aircraft can be found on the internet – see, for example:

7. Kaman helicopters ‘Intermeshion’

The Kaman helicopter family is a series of helicopters with twin intermeshing rotors that make use of a novel control system. The design is particularly suited for operations that require primarily hovering and low speed flight in roles such as cargo and freight transfer between ships, plane guard duties and aircraft crash rescue and firefighting. More recently, the civilian K-Max has found a role in the civilian heavy lift market.
Charles H Kaman was an engineer working for United Aircraft (the parent company of Sikorsky) at Hamilton Standard who developed novel ideas about how to control a helicopter rotor. After establishing that United Aircraft would not support a second helicopter enterprise within their business, Kaman left and set up the Kaman Aircraft Corporation on 12 December 1945.

Douglas A-1H

There are two main features to the design, the rotor configuration, and the flight control system employed.
• Rotor Configuration: The Kaman family of helicopters feature two intermeshing contra-rotating two-blade rotors, geared together so that they cannot rotate independently. The toque of the two rotors cancels each other out, so that no tail rotor (and associated supporting structure) is required. This configuration originated with the German Flettner designs (such as the FL282 Kolibri) and was also investigated by the Kellet Aircraft Corporation in the United States.

• Rotor Control: rather than use conventional cyclic and collective pitch control by using pitch-change bearings at the blade root with pitch links controlled by a swashplate, Kaman decided to use a much-simplified head with no pitch change bearings. Instead, control was achieved by fitting controllable servo flaps at about three-quarter radius on each blade. Deflection of the flaps caused the blade to twist, increasing or reducing its lift. Symmetric operation of the flaps applied collective pitch; differential operation resulted in cyclic pitch control. This system is unique to Kaman’s designs, and its operation is analogous to the warping wing controls used in some pioneer fixed wing aircraft.
The main requirements leading to Kaman’s design were light weight, efficient hover performance and effective control independent of wind direction. The configuration saves weight by eliminating the weight and power penalties associated with the rear fuselage, tail rotor and associated gearboxes and drive shafts.
The low inertia of the servo-flap systems means that control loads are minimal and responsiveness is excellent, meaning that Kaman rotors can be controlled manually and therefore do not need hydraulic control actuators. The presence of two separate rotor hubs and their support pylons introduces a drag penalty, but this is not a major consideration in the main roles for which these types have been used.
By any measure, the Kaman intermeshing rotor designs have been very successful and established some notable firsts, including the world’s first turbine powered helicopter, America’s first twin turbine helicopter and the world’s first remotely-controlled helicopter.

Kaman HH-43B
After two prototypes (K-125, K-190), production commenced with the K-225. 11 were built, primarily for crop dusting, with one exported to Turkey and four going to the US services. One K-225 was experimentally fitted with a Boeing 502-2 turboshaft engine, becoming the world’s first turbine powered helicopter, when flown of 11 December 1951.
Military acquisition built up with the 235 hp HTK-1, 29 being acquired by the US Marines (plus one HTK-1K modified for pilotless flight as the world’s first drone helicopter). One was modified with twin Boeing 502-2 turboshaft engines, becoming the first US twin-turbine helicopter when it flew on 26 March 1954.
Production continued with 81 HOK-1 (US Marines OH-43D), 24 HUK-1 (US Navy UH-43C) and 18 HH-43A (USAF). These aircraft were all powered by the 600 hp Pratt & Witney R-1340 piston engine.

The larger HH-43B and HH-43F followed for rescue and fire-fighting duties. The HH-43B was primarily used by the USAF. First flown on1 November 1958 and powered by an 860 shp Lycoming T53-L1B, 208 HH-43B were built, the type also being supplied to Colombia, Burma, Morocco, Pakistan, and Thailand.
The HH-43F provided better performance in hot and high conditions, being powered by a 1,150 shp Lycoming T53-L-11A flat rated to 825 shp. The HH-43F was first flown in August 1964, with 32 being supplied to Iran and 5 to Burma. Two pilotless QH-43G were also built, together with a single civil prototype designated K-1125.

The final design in this family is the Kaman K-1200 K-Max Commercial single seat heavy lift and fire-fighting helicopter. This type remains in production with some 53 built. The K-Max was first flown on 23 December 1991 and is powered by one Honeywell T53-17 turboshaft, flat rated to 1,500 shp for take-off and 1,350 shp in flight. The K-Max has 6000 lb external lift capacity, exceeding the aircraft’s empty weight of 5,145 lb.
Nearly 470 Kaman intermeshing rotor helicopters have been built, including two prototypes (K-125, K-190), eleven K-225, 152 piston-powered HTK, HOK, HUK & HH-43A, 248 turbine-powered HH-43B, HH-43F, QH-43G and K-1125, and (to date) 53 K-1200 K-Max.
6. English Electric Lightning ‘The Double Decktric’


Credit: BAE Systems

The English Electric Lightning was developed as a specialist point-defence interceptor. The specific requirement was to defend the RAF nuclear deterrent V-bomber bases, against attack by the USSR. The term ‘point-defence’ is used because the requirement was to defend specific locations, close to the aircraft’s operating base, by intercepting and shooting down attacking aircraft. The development aircraft (P-1A) first flew in August 1954, and the Lightning entered service with the RAF in 1960, serving until 1988.

The Lightning’s Air Defence role evolved over time, in response to technical developments in threat aircraft and missiles. As air-launched cruise missile systems were developed, allowing threat bombers to launch their weapons at significant stand-off range, it became apparent that point-defence interception was no longer a viable approach. Consequently, the Lightning was developed to provide additional fuel in the wing, and in a larger under-fuselage fuel tank, and the role of the aircraft switched to combat air patrol, supported by aerial tankers. In addition, the nuclear deterrence role was transferred to the Royal Navy missile submarine force, removing the specific requirement for a point-defence aircraft.


Credit: BAE Systems

Three main variants were developed. The initial F1/F1A used the 14,430 lb thrust Avon 200 engine, and had the distinction of being able to take-off, cruise and land on either of its two engines, and could even maintain supersonic flight on one engine. The F1A added air-refuelling capability to the F1. Armament was 2 30mm cannon and 2 Firestreak air-to-air missiles.
The F2 was an interim version with an improved reheat system, and the next major variant was the F3, which introduced Avon 301 engines with 16,300 lb thrust, and an enlarged fin. The F3 could carry either Firestreak, or the larger Red Top missile, but the cannon armament was deleted. The F3A introduced an enlarged ventral fuel tank.
The final variant, the F6, introduced a new wing with extended and cambered leading edges, which allowed more fuel to be carried, and also reduced subsonic drag. The cannon armament, which had been deleted for the F3, was re-introduced for the F6, mounted in the front of the significantly enlarged belly fuel tank, which had been introduced in the F3A.


Credit: BAE Systems

Unusual features of the aircraft were the very highly-swept wing, and the arrangement of the two engines, which were stacked in the fuselage, with the lower engine forward of the upper one. This engine arrangement was fed from a common nose inlet, featuring a central cone, which contained the aircraft’s Air Intercept radar.
The configuration of the aircraft was driven by the need to achieve a very rapid rate of climb, and high intercept speed, to minimise the time to achieve an interception from a ground alert status. This placed an emphasis on rapid climb to height, which is a driver for thrust to weight ratio and low drag; and high-speed dash, which requires low supersonic wave drag. High sweep back, minimal frontal area, powerful engines, and light weight, including minimal fuel in early versions, are all consequences of this point-defence interception requirement. The aircraft ws renowned for its excellent handling, and for its ability to cruise at supersonic speeds in dry thrust.
Quoted performance figures for the Lightning include a climb rate of 20,000 ft/min, a maximum speed of Mach 2.0, and the ability to climb to 36,000 ft in less than three minutes.
The Lightning was operational with the RAF from 1960 to 1988, and 337 were built. The aircraft was also used by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.


5. Transavia PL-12 Airtruk ‘Pellarini’s Flying Mango’


The Transavia Airtruk is a crop-spraying aircraft with a most extraordinary configuration. The aircraft has a truncated pod fuselage with the pilot sat high and well forward above, and only just behind, the engine. The main 36 cubic feet chemical hopper is immediately behind and below the pilot and there is space in the truncated fairing behind the hopper for the carriage of two ground crew. Power of the standard PL-12 design is provided by a 300 hp Continental IO-520-D piston engine.

Rather than being at the end of a conventional rear fuselage, the rear control surfaces are carried at the end of two well-separated tail booms, each of which carries a fin and rudder topped by a high set tailplane and elevator. The two tail booms attach at the mid-span point on the port and starboard upper wings of the sesquiplane biplane wing structure. The spacing of the tail booms provides a clear space of 11 ft 5 in width between the tailplanes.


The configuration is a classic case of the engineering form following function. Some of the main advantages are listed below:
• The space between the tail booms allows rapid direct filling of the chemical hopper from a truck approaching from behind the aircraft
• The high seating position provides exceptional forward view from the pilot and prevents them from being crushed between the engine and hopper in the case of an accident
• The absence of the rear fuselage structure saves weight and means that this area cannot be contaminated by chemicals
• The strut-braced sesquiplane wing structure is structurally efficient and provides plenty of wing area for manoeuvrability and low stall speed (60 mph for the standard aircraft)
• A wide track (8 ft 0 in) tricycle undercarriage is provided, with the main gear mounted from the lower wing
• The aircraft empty weight is 1,850 lb, while the maximum weight in agricultural operations is 4,090 lb, providing an impressive disposable load of 2,240 lb (or 120% of the empty weight)
• The fuselage pod allows the aircraft to carry its ground crew on board, while positioning to and from operational sites
Variants include the PL-12(U) utility aircraft, which first flew in December 1970. The chemical hopper is removed from this aircraft and the reconfigured cabin volume allows four passengers to be carried in the lower cabin, with one further passenger rearward-facing behind the pilot. The T-300 Skyfarmer has a 300 hp Lycoming IO-540-KIA5 engine, while the T-320 uses a 320 hp Continental Tiara 6-320-2B.

Screenshot 2020-05-22 at 19.47.45
A total of some 118 aircraft were built, with aircraft operating in Australia, Denmark, India, Kenya, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa and Thailand. A number of aircraft were assembled in New Zealand by Flight Engineers Ltd.
4. Dornier Do 335 ‘Pfeil’ ‘The X-Pfeils’ 

do335_06 (1)
The Dornier 335 Pfeil (Arrow) has been described as ‘the most audacious fighter of the Second World War’ . The Pfeil was produced in three variants – Fighter-Bomber, Zerstorer (Night Fighter) and trainer. As, a twin-engine fighter-bomber, its role is broadly comparable with the de Havilland Mosquito FB VI. Like that aircraft, it was both heavily armed, with one 30-mm cannon and two-15 mm cannon, and had both an internal weapons bay capable of carrying two 250 kg bombs, and external hardpoints for a further two 250 kg bombs. The more heavily armed Zerstorer had three 30-mm cannon and two 20-mm cannon, but used the internal weapons bay as an additional fuel tank.
The Mosquito FB VI Series 2 carried the same bomb load, but was more heavily armed, with four 20-mm cannon and four Browning machine guns, and had greater range, but had a maximum speed some 100 mph slower than the Pfeil.

The Pfeil featured a unique engine arrangement, with both a conventional front-mounted engine, and a centre-fuselage engine driving a pusher propeller located behind a cruciform tail. This tandem-engine arrangement minimised the frontal area of the aircraft, while retaining a clean wing, with sufficient volume available for an internal weapons bay. In addition, avoiding a twin-boom arrangement would have reduced roll inertia and improved manoeuvrability.

The driving requirements were to maximise speed, manoeuvrability and payload (gun armament and bombs). One of the fastest piston-engine fighters ever built, the Pfeil is described by Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown as ‘very fast and quite manoeuvrable’ and as ‘the fastest piston engined machine in the world’. The aircraft is unusual because the tandem engine arrangement is a key enabler for the high speed achieved by the aircraft.
An indication of the aircraft’s capabilities is given by this description of an attempt by two Tempests to engage a Dornier Pfeil at low altitude .

“Throttle full open, I tried to cut inside his turn, but he was moving astonishingly fast. Longley was better placed and fired at him, but without effect. The strange aircraft completed his turn and flew off at full speed. He really was an extraordinary looking customer. His tailplane was cruciform, and it looked as if he had not only a normal propeller in front but on top of that a pusher propeller right in the tail, behind the rudder. His front engine was an ‘in line’ with a cowling like a DB603 in a Focke-Wulf Ta 152C with a ring-shaped radiator; the other engine was buried in the fuselage, behind the pilot. The two long grey trails in his slipstream showed he was using a supercharger, and the thread of white escaping from his exhausts showed that he was using GM-1. I toyed with the idea of bringing my supercharger into action, but even with 3,040 hp we wouldn’t be able to get him. We were doing nearly 500 mph and he was easily gaining on us.”
The Dornier Pfeil was completed too late in the war to achieve true operational service, although it had been used for operational trials and tactics development, and clearly experienced at least one combat engagement. A total of 11 production aircraft, two trainers and 12 prototypes were completed, with a further 15 aircraft in final assembly when the factory was captured. The aircraft is included in this list because, had circumstances allowed, it would clearly have been used operationally by the Luftwaffe.


3. Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet ‘Taschenrakete’

Messerschmitt Me 163B
The Messerschmitt Me 163 was a small rocket propelled air defence aircraft, and was one of the most dramatic developments in wartime combat aircraft design. Its role was to deliver what was itself a new concept, point defence interception. An example of its operational use was the defence of synthetic oil manufacturing facilities against Allied bombers.

The ground-breaking features of the aircraft included its tailless swept-wing airframe, liquid-fuelled rocket propulsion, and its small size and light weight. To reduce weight the Me 163 dispensed with a conventional undercarriage, taking off using a wheeled dolly, dropped once airborne, and landing using a simple skid. The armament carried was two 30-mm cannon.

As a point-defence interceptor, the aircraft needs to achieve high climb rate to reach operational altitude quickly, and high speed to achieve a rapid interception. As discussed in another piece for Hush-Kit on aircraft design, climb rate is maximised by combining high thrust with low weight and drag. The Me 163 achieved its extraordinary climb rate through its rocket propulsion, minimum size and weight airframe, and its use of swept wings.
The climb performance of the Me 163 was probably not matched in an operational aircraft until the introduction to service of the Lightning. The extraordinary test pilot, Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, reports reaching 32,000 ft in 2 ¼ minutes in his first powered flight in the aircraft . Fully operational aircraft could climb to 39,500 ft in 3 ½ minutes, and attaining a maximum speed of 596 mph.

The Me 163 was operational from July 1944 to the end of the Second World War. Its success was somewhat limited, however, despite being armed with twin 30mm cannon. The very high speeds achieved by the aircraft resulted in very rapid closing rates against bomber targets, even in a stern attack. Combined with a relatively low rate of fire from its cannon, this resulted in firing opportunities typically limited to a few seconds only. This problem was exacerbated by the low powered endurance, which was typically less than 5 minutes at altitude. More than 300 aircraft were delivered.
2. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird ‘Trisonic Turdus’

The Lockheed A-12 and SR-71 are high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft, capable of sustained operation at more than Mach 3.0. They were designed to conduct intelligence gathering and reconnaissance flights over unfriendly territories at altitudes and speeds that make them difficult, if not impossible, to intercept. An additional variant operated as a drone carrier aircraft, while the YF-12 air combat variant was never deployed operationally.
These aircraft feature unique configurations and construction materials, driven by high-speed and high-altitude requirements to be out of reach of SAM-systems. This leads to a highly-swept blended delta configuration with twin variable by-pass turbo-ramjet engines. These aircraft were also designed for reduced radar signature with RAM wedges incorporated in leading and trailing edges.\

The aerodynamic heating, encountered at cruise speeds in excess of Mach 3, means that Aluminium cannot be used for their structures. As a result, the main structural material is Titanium, which is notoriously difficult to work, but can withstand the high skin temperatures. The outer layer of cockpit glazing is of quartz, to withstand local temperatures in excess of 300 degrees Celsius.
The Lockheed A-12 was developed for the CIA as a secret project of Kelly Johnson’s Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’. The A-12 was a single seat aircraft and was the precursor to the twin-seat Lockheed YF-12 prototype interceptor, the M-21 (launcher for the supersonic D-21 drone), and the SR-71 Blackbird. The codename for the A-12 programme was Oxcart and the aircraft flew for the first time on 26 April 1962. Thirteen A-12 aircraft were built, together with two M-21 two-seat aircraft designed to carry and launch the D-21 supersonic ramjet-powered drone.

Three prototype armed YF-12A were built. These were twin-seat aircraft armed with the AIM-47 Falcon air-to-air missile. The YF-12A can be distinguished by its nose radar, cut-back chines and twin ventral fins.
These aircraft were followed by the Lockheed SR-71 two seat strategic reconnaissance aircraft, which was slightly stretched (increased in length by 5 ft 2 in) and had a significantly higher maximum weight (172,000 lb versus 117,000 lb) than the A-12, together with aerodynamic refinements to the forward chine shapes.
The SR-71 flew for the first time on 22 December 1964 attaining a speed in excess of 1,000 mph on its first flight. (Ref: Lockheed’s Skunk Works: The First Fifty Years, Jay Miller). The SR-71 was used to set absolute speed and altitude records and several point-to-point speed records. These included an absolute speed record of 2,193.17 mph and 2,092.29 mph over a 1,000 km closed circuit, with a maximum sustained altitude of 85,069 ft. In operations, the aircraft routinely cruised at Mach 3.2 at altitudes above 75,000 ft.
Production comprised 13 A-12 and 2 M-21 (drone carriage); 3 YF-12A and 31 SR-71 plus one aircraft from salvaged YF-12A and SR-71 static test article. Thrust for the SR-71 was provided by two 34,000lb Pratt & Whitney JT11D-20A (J58).

No aircraft were shot down during operational sorties that included flights over Libya, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, the Kola Peninsula and the Baltic and other areas of conflict such as the Yom Kippur War.
The SR-71 was initially withdrawn from service in 1989, with the last operational mission October 1989. However, the decision was taken in September 1994 to reactivate three aircraft, with the first example becoming operational in June 1995. The last SR-71 flight being made on 9 October 1999. During its operational career with Strategic Air Command, the SR-71 accumulated more than 50,000 flight hours, nearly 12,000 of these being at speeds in excess of Mach 3.
1. Lockheed F-117 ‘The Woblin’ Goblin’ 

The Lockheed F-117 broke new ground as the first operational low-observable tactical strike aircraft. The outcome of a process which started with a DARPA study into reduced signature fighters in 1974. Out of this emerged the radical ‘Have Blue’ concept demonstrator program, and the F-117 itself, which achieved initial operational capability in 1983.

The aircraft’s role has been the attack of heavily-defended, high-value targets, at night, using precision laser guided bombs, carried in an internal weapons bay. The F-117 was the first true ‘stealth’ aircraft, designed to counter radar and infra-red sensors, while minimising its own electronic emissions. Every feature of the aircraft is influenced by the approach taken to minimise these signatures.
A key element in the management of radar and IR signature so as to avoid detection and prevent successful engagement was the ability to predict the signature of the aircraft, and to design a flyable shape with low signature. At the time of its development, signature prediction capabilities were limited, but it was realised that if a flyable aircraft could be developed using a finite number of flat surfaces, then it would be possible to predict and minimise its signature.

The benefit of using a faceted design, with careful control of geometry to align edges and surfaces, is that radar returns can be essentially limited to a number of ‘flashes’ with very narrow dispersion, directed at a large angle to the illuminating radar. As a result, not only would a F-117 be difficult to detect, it would also be very difficult to track. The unique faceted, highly-swept configuration of the F-117, with its triangular fuselage cross-section, is a consequence of this design approach.
Additional features of the aircraft contributing to its low signatures include gridding of the intakes and sensor window, and gold flashing on the canopy, to prevent radar reflection from these cavities; a large weapons bay to allow all stores to be carried internally; a narrow letter-box exhaust located on the upper surface of the aircraft to minimise infra-red signature; and retractable communications aerials.

After take-off on a mission, these aerials are retracted, and the aircraft performs the mission with no external communication being used. Mission planning is critical, as is a knowledge of the ‘Electronic Order of Battle’ – the location and nature of any radar systems which might detect the aircraft. This information is used to plan ingress and egress to avoid directing radar return ‘flashes’ at threat sensors, minimising the likelihood of detection or tracking.

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Doors covering all apertures on the aircraft, such as the weapons and undercarriage bays, have distinctive serrated edges, and the entire aircraft has a special coating applied to further reduce radar signature. Examination of the aircraft on its first public appearance revealed the use of ‘RAM putty’ to fill fastener heads, as part of the LO maintenance of the aircraft.
59 aircraft were produced, and the first operational use of the aircraft was in Gulf War 1 in 1991. Despite having been first flown in production form in 1982, its existence was not formally acknowledged until November 1988, and the aircraft was revealed to the public (and the author) on 21 April 1990 at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
Although supposedly retired in April 2008, examples are still flying for undisclosed purposes, assumed to include testing defences against similar capabilities.

Stealthy stars and stripes

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  • 03-14b


What is the new plasma ‘foo-fighter’ technology and is it responsible for the Hornet UFO footage?


The US Navy has filed patents relating to Laser Induced Plasma Filiments to counter infra-red missiles.  We asked former British technical liaison Jim Smith to explain this exotic technology and consider if it offers a solution to the mysterious UFOs spotted by US Navy Hornets’ targeting pods. 

Hush-Kit asked me to have a look at this article from The article draws attention to a US Navy patent suggesting that Laser-induced Plasma Filaments might be used to provide agile, frequency-variable decoys to defeat imaging infra-red missile seekers.

I’ll have a go at explaining the technology, and how it is supposed to work, and then I’ll try and identify some of the elements which might be a bit tricky. I should explain that, despite having once funded, and observed the demonstration of, a quite impressive neutral particle beam, I am not a high-energy particle or optical physicist, so my explanations may be a little simplistic.

Lasers and Plasmas


So, Laser-Induced Plasma Filaments (LIPF) – what are they, and how might they be used to generate decoys?

Lasers (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) are, despite the complex expansion of the acronym, very familiar objects in today’s world. They are essentially a coherent light source that can be used for anything from entertaining your cat to measuring the distance to the moon, or, if you are old-fashioned enough, playing the music encoded on a Compact Disc.

Lasers have been being investigated as the basis of Directed Energy Weapons for some time, and these weapons themselves can vary considerably in nature. A common feature of the lasers employed in proposed lethal and non-lethal weapons systems is that they are much more powerful than those encountered in the hardware or stationery store serving as tape-measures or pointers to aid presentations.

The lasers used in the application covered by the Forbes article, and the US Navy Patent to which it refers, are pulsed at a very high frequency, and at high power, which allows them to generate plasma as they pass through air, and to exploit that plasma to form self-focussing beams and plasma filaments.

What is a plasma ? A plasma is a gas, which has been ionised, generally through the application of very high temperatures, and is therefore conductive. Ionisation refers to the stripping of electrons from the atoms of the gas. These conduct electrical currents, and the remaining positively charged atoms are the Ions of the element concerned. A natural example of a plasma is a lightning bolt, and a man-made example is a Neon sign.

Laser-Induced Plasma Filaments and Decoys

What does the US Navy Patent describe? The process starts with a very high-power, tunable, pulsed laser. By tunable, the Patent states that the laser wavelength, spatial and temporal (shape, duration and size) ‘and etc’ of the pulses can be varied. This variation allows plasmas to be produced which can emit spectra across a range of frequencies of interest, from Infra-Red through Visible to Ultra-Violet.

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At sufficiently high power, a process called the Kerr effect allows the laser to produce a self-focussed beam, or plasma column which has a small diameter and high intensity. Broadly speaking, a sufficiently high energy pulse, through the Kerr effect, causes the laser beam to focus to an energy level where a plasma is formed. This tends to de-focus the beam, which in turn reduces the degree of ionisation and allows the beam to re-focus. This repetitive process is referred to as self-guiding, and, when completed, results in the generation of a steerable, tunable plasma filament, which can then propagate out through the air as a LIPF.


The emerging plasma beam can be rastered – i.e. scanned from side to side as in an old-fashioned TV set or cathode ray tube, and adjusted in distance, so that an apparent three-dimensional object can be created at a distance to the plasma projector, and it is this that creates the decoy. In principle the nature of the image, and its apparent frequency content can be adjusted to optimise the decoy, and it can be repositioned, essentially arbitrarily quickly. The distances achievable are said to be about 10 times greater than achievable without self-focussing of the beam.

The Forbes article in the link at the start of this item itself contains a link to a video apparently demonstrating the generation of images by a low-powered system.  The patent claims the ability to generate large ghost images as decoys, and suggests that multiple images could be produced. Reference is made to the use of a 248 nanometer, Krypton-Flourine excimer laser to generate the decoy images – this type of laser is in common use, suggesting that the patent is claiming to use available technologies.

Tricky Elements

The patent makes clear that the management of the laser, specifically the energy, pulse shape, duration and repetition rate, are critical in determining the nature of the plasma beam produced. It is claimed that the output decoy can have an extremely broad-spectrum response, from broadband to gamma rays. Generating and optimising the appropriate decoy spectrum is clearly one challenge.

Another will be the process of pointing and rastering to generate a coherent image, and then the management of that image so as to seduce the missile seeker to follow the decoy, and to maintain that lock-on to the point where the genuine target cannot be re-acquired.

A critical element of that image generation process is ensuring that the propagation range of the rastered plasma filaments making up the image is tightly controlled, otherwise coherence will be lost. This seems likely to require extremely precise control of the driving parameters of the laser system, and unsurprisingly, no explanation is provided of how this is to be achieved.

Patents, in general, seek to talk up the widest possible range of applications and attributes of the technology being patented. There are some suitably ambitious claims made in the patent, including the vast range of spectrum over which decoys could be produced, the range of electromagnetic systems which could be used as the basis of decoys, and the ability to generates decoys over an area large enough to protect a fleet of ships, or even a city.

Are plasma flares the basis of the UFOs?

Well, obviously, I don’t know. The technologies accessed in the paper appear plausible. The Kerr effect, self-focussing, and Laser induced plasma filaments are all real, and an afternoon spent cruising around the many available sources on the web will turn up a heap of other fascinating applications as well.

Can sufficiently credible images be constructed at a workable distance, and with the right attributes to decoy a missile? Again, I don’t know, but in principle, I don’t see why not, if the Tricky Elements (above) can be managed.

Hush-Kit asked physicist Brian Clegg for his opinion, he noted that “Clearly you can create a glow etc. by heating air – its effectively what lightning is – so the plasma filament idea seems entirely feasible. I’m not as sure about how you create a ball of plasma at a position in midair as lasers don’t stop (it’s the old light sabre problem).”

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Two aspects concern me. If this system works as advertised, and if it were mature enough to generate the images seen in the US Navy videos, it’s surprising that we have not seen something like this in service.  Similarly, I would have expected any promising system like this, related to new countermeasures against advanced IR seekers, would not be accessible through the open internet. The content of such a patent would be classified and only available to those with a need to know.

The UFO community also cite the apparent detection on radar of the UFO-like images in the released videos, as evidence that they are not plasma decoys; question why the patent would appear some years after the apparent use of a similar technology in the videos; and why such a technology would be trialled against evidently unbriefed Navy airmen.

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I have no answers to these points. One tantalising reason why a patent might appear in a public forum is that the technology is known to all the key players already, and the US is able to counter it.

Or else this is another disinformation effort to distract our attention from the real aliens. …


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

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

HUSHKITPLANES_SPREADS4_4.jpg“the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”.

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



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  • Engaging Top (and bottom) 10s including: Greatest fighter aircraft of World War II, Worst British aircraft, Worst Soviet aircraft and many more insanely specific ones.
  • Expert analysis of weapons, tactics and technology.
  • ssdd.jpg
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Flying & fighting in the Lockheed EP-3E Aries II: Interview with Cold War spy


EP-3E and EA-3B's Straits

For over fifty years the EP-3 has been sticking its beak in were it is not wanted, gathering signals intelligence for the US Navy. Hoovering up the signals, active sensor transmissions and communications of non-consenting parties is the stock-in-trade of the Navy’s oldest flying spy, the Lockheed EP-3. We spoke to Captain ‘Dirty Duck’ Niemyer to find out more about this shadowy aircraft. 

Tell us a little about what kinds of reconnaissance missions the US Navy was flying in the Cold War and the risks involved?

“The very short answer? While the US Navy’s photoreconnaissance effort, from various carrier-based aircraft, including AJs, F9Fs, F2Hs, RF-8s, RA-5Cs and even the RA-3B was well known, the Navy’s other reconnaissance effort, that of signals intelligence collection, in both tactical and strategic applications, is intentionally far less known or written about. Throughout most of the Cold War, and beyond, the US Navy mounted nearly daily flights in international airspace to provide information of a technical nature, often with very real-time analytics, to tactical and strategic decision makers and to help build the database on emitters and other information. The programme remained very intentionally obscured until the early 2000s.

EP-3E VQ-2 RAF Fairford 1978

Caveat: This is my version of things. It’s true, because I’m telling the story. Your version may be different.) Short of the outstanding, multi-part series of the history of the US Navy’s two SIGINT collections squadrons written by the late Captain Don East and published in the Hook magazine (The journal of the Tailhook Association), this downloadable monograph, ‘A Dangerous Business’, published by the historical branch of the National Security Agency on the occasion of the dedication of an actual Douglas EA-3B airframe at NSA Headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, will really give readers an in-depth history of the Navy’s role in the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program, PARPRO.


These flights were both land and carrier-based and involved several types of aircraft over the decades. The two aircraft I flew in as a Naval Flight Officer serving as a Senior Tactical Electronic Warfare Evaluator, SEVAL, were the Douglas EA-3B Skywarrior, more popularly known as the ‘Whale’, and the Lockheed EP-3E ARIES.”

Ranger 21 and Ranger 12 Rota 1976
 What was the role of the aircraft
“The EP-3E was the natural follow on to the early PB4Y-2’s, P4M-2Q’s and the Lockheed EC-121s that it directly replaced. (The very first were EP-3B’s, but they were very narrowly modified and proved the concept admirably). It had a large crew in the back end to fulfil the SIGINT collection mission, with a commensurate larger crew of operators and coordinators. At the time I flew in them, mainly to hone my skills as a Senior Evaluator-in-Training, they were far, far more dedicated to flying on nationally-tasked reconnaissance missions, including the Caribbean, Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean, even the North Cape and environs on occasion.”

[NOTE: The EP-3E has gone through constant improvements in airframes, engines and above all the collective systems in the back-end over the years. The EP-3Es that went to war in 1991 were way different from the EP-3E’s of the 70s and early 80s, just as the EP-3Es currently flying bear only a superficial resemblance to those EP-3E’s that were flying in 2003]


What was the best and worst features of the aircraft?
“The absolute best feature, from a purely technological aspect, is one that, honestly, isn’t still talked about much, and won’t be here. From an operator’s POV, the collective ARIES (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System) remains, through its many manifestations, a very impressive system, especially its ability to fully integrate data from across the RF spectrum and give both real-time situational awareness as well as to preserve signals for further technical analysis, post-mission. The fact that instead of being a simple ‘vacuum-cleaner’, sucking up data, you have real people in the loop, makes a huge difference for lots of reasons.

Additionally, besides flying reconnaissance missions assigned by Higher Authority, the EP-3E was certainly seen and appreciated as a “Fleet Asset.” So much so that if they were flying one flavour of reconnaissance tasking and they came across things that Commander Sixth Fleet and the various Med naval forces would need to know about, they were authorised to leave that mission and prosecute those emitters, platforms, etc. And anytime we had various NATO or US Fleet exercises, the EP-3E’s were big players.

The other thing the EP-3E brought to the reconnaissance table was the fact that its physical architecture was such that its reconnaissance capabilities could be reconfigured in the field, by the Squadron itself. That lent itself to a lot of flexibility and the ability to try things based on real-world experiences, and to do so very quickly. That paid off a number of times out in the real world.


The platform, the Lockheed P-3, was designed for lower altitude use as an anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The EP-3E’s mission required flight up much higher and I think that required a lot more handling finesse by the pilots. The fact that our USAF peers were flying much higher and much faster in their RC-135’s made the comparison tough to consider. Of course, for a lot of reasons, we justifiably thought we did a whole lot of things better than they did. One thing for certain was that since we were a Mediterranean-based squadron, we knew our theatre of operations intimately, day in and day out, whereas they’d fly out from Omaha, do their thing, then go back to “The World.”

I would be remiss if I did not add that, from a crew point of view, the EP-3E did have a significant advantage: Whale crews went, mainly, to the Boat. EP-3 crews went to big, nice bases all over, often with contract hotel rooms, great chow and were paid per diem for every day they were away. That led to some pretty hard feelings between the two aircraft types that existed in the squadrons at the time.”

What was the hardest system to operate?
“I think it really took a lot of time and real-world experience to master all the intricacies of the many bits and pieces that made up the ARIES systems. Then, to add the added coordination and mission leadership skills needed to be a good SEVAL, to it, meant that it generally took at least a year for a SEVAL to be initially qualified, leaving him with only about 24 months to get really good at his job before transferring.”

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What was the most effective system and why?
“I think it’s exceedingly difficult to point to one particular receiver system and say it was better or worse than another. The individual Electronic Warfare Operators (“EWOP’s”) had their likes and dislikes when it came to individual operator positions, most of them became specialised in a particular position and part of the RF spectrum. I think it was easier to get the hang of coordinating folks during the course of a mission, but very, very hard to do it well and to do real-time analysis on what all this data that was coming at you was really telling you.”

Interview with RC-135 pilot here

How effective was it and why?
“EP-3E’s started flying missions in the 1970’s, and while the actual airframes are much, much newer, here they are, at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st Century and they are still out there, doing missions they were never originally envisioned to be doing, and doing them incredibly well. The EP-3E has been involved in most of the Cold War and every hot war the US has been involved in, as well as a lot of other things we may finally hear about at some unknown date in the future. I really think the US Navy and the nation has more than received their monies-worth on their investment. We really screwed up by thinking the MQ-4 is ever going to really replace it. (Don’t get me started, for heaven’s sake).”


How well would it have survived in a full-scale war with the USSR?
“What mission are you envisioning? Let’s face it, the P-3 is not a fighter, so as the NSA commemorates, blood has been spilled by the ELINT community for decades. That’s the price of vigilance, and it always will be. It’s considered a “National Asset” so I would hope that the people who planned that stuff may have thought that putting too close to something like a Very Longe Range SAM envelope or subject to fighter intercept in a shooting war wouldn’t be doing a lot for asset protection.”

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What was your most memorable missions and why?
“I got most of my EP-3E flight time as part of my training as an EA-3B SEVAL, but one mission does stand out. For reasons, we felt, of sheer perversity, the Soviets would always sortie various ship types out from the Soviet Baltic and Northern Fleets to the Med, with estimated arrivals in the vicinity of the Straits of Gibraltar either on December 24/25 and/or December 31st. This, of course, led our being tasked, along with the local Navy P-3 VP Detachment, to go out on those nights waiting to see if we could pick up any presence of the passage of their submarines. As a ‘Geographic bachelor’ I was picked to spend a Christmas Eve, along with a bunch of other hand-picked folks who were ‘voluntold‘ that we’d spend the night flying to the west of the Straits. I manned a plotting position for most of the evening, as we drilled holes in air, wishing only the worst for Ivan for having screwed up the holiday. And yes, they did it every year.”

Was it better than the Nimrod R.1?

“I had a shipmate who was able to do an exchange tour on 51 Squadron and the R.1s. He admired the fact that the RAF’s operational mindset was much more attuned to how the US Navy did things (anything not specifically prohibited was implicitly permitted) than the USAF. He liked the available range and altitude advantage it had over the EP-3E, but also mentioned that while the two systems were complimentary, each had features he’d have liked to have seen on the other. He just wished the RAF had many more of them.

I also flew missions with the USAF in the RC-135 Rivet Joint in an advisory capacity. Great birds, but their way of doing things, back then, differed significantly to ours. Not in a bad way, per sé, just ‘different’. I’m sure they looked on us the same way.”


Incident Over The South China Sea, 4/2001 by Ronald Wong

Tell me something I don’t know about the EP-3?
“Right after take-off in the generation of EP-3E I flew in, there was a requirement for certain portions of the fuselage under the floorboards to be inspected, I presume for leaks, things being where they’re supposed to be, smoke, fires (!) and nothing askew. Or something, I never quite knew. It’s quite a sight on initial climb out to see certain designated aircrew running up and down the cabin, to and fro, opening and slamming hatches in no apparent coherent order.”

Describe the aircraft in three words
“Ubiquitous, under-appreciated, well-used”

What should I have asked you?
“Do I have a favourite among the three? Yes. No. Each airplane taught me a whole lot, about flying, airmanship, crew resource management, carrier operations, air warfare, the ‘Big picture’, intelligence collection and analysis, strike warfare, life, the universe and everything.

And yes, there was another aircraft type you didn’t ask about, the one I have the most flight time in of the four: The Douglas KA-3B Skywarrior, the long-range pathfinder/refueller in which I gained ~1900 of my nearly 3200 Navy flight hours.”


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


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

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


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Flying & Fighting in the A-3 Skywarrior


Catapult take-off in an aircraft that weighs the same as fifteen wartime Corsairs is a daunting prospect, yet the US Navy’s Skywarrior served with aplomb from US aircraft carriers for 35 years. Ed Heinemann’s ‘Whale’ was huge, fast and challenging — and could do almost anything asked of it. We spoke to Captain ‘Dirty Duck’ Niemyer to find out more. 

What was the role of the aircraft?
“Shortly after debuting as a purpose-designed carrier-based strategic nuclear bomber, the Navy and Douglas’s legendary Ed Heinemann recognised its immense and roomy fuselage design would lend itself to a variety of other tasks. This included a design change that would beef up pressurisation and make the cockpit, companion-way and bomb-bay area one large, sealed and pressurised vessel, allowing room for massive amounts of equipment, including four extra systems operators and equipment to fulfill a CVA-based electronic/signals intelligence collection capability. After a few A3D-1Q’s, the Navy went on to build around 20 or so A3D-2Q/EA-3B’s over the years, including the conversion of several VA-3B’s and TA-3B’s to replace losses. The ‘Whales’ provided a fused SIGINT product that could be passed to Battle Group Commanders, strike leaders and strike packages in real and near-real time, as well as collecting important and new data for later, fine-grain analysis by other entities.”

VQ-2 EA-3B Ranger 14 touch and go #2
What was the best and worst features of the aircraft?
It’s size and it’s size. The A-3 was huge, for it was designed to fulfil a late-1940’s NAVAIR requirement for a nuclear bomber with a roughly 2000-NM range at high altitude and very high sub-Mach 1 cruise speed. Ed Heinemann was incredibly proud that his design came in well, well under the 100,000-pound projected maximum gross weight, with performance numbers well ahead of its competition. Nonetheless, with a demonstrated max catapult weight of 83,000 pounds (Routinely kept to 73,000 pounds in actual use) and a very long unrefuelled, still-air range in excess of 2000NM, the Skywarrior was over 74 feet long and its long, high aspect ratio swept wings were over 72 feet wide. (Which meant line-up at the boat was everything. Don’t be drifting or lining up to the right!) See why it almost immediately got the fleet nickname of the ‘Whale’?


That size meant that she rapidly became a jack-of-all trades. Nuke and conventional bomber and minelayer, the last two of which they did during Vietnam; reconnaissance; trainer; VIP transport, tanker-jammer, tanker, EW aggressor; developmental testbed. All these and more made the Whale a unique and valued platform. The range we offered meant that an Admiral, who wanted information, that morning, on what the various elements of the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet might be up to, could dispatch us over the course of a day to acquire what information we could from all of the three major SOVMEDFLT anchorages. Something we called “Getting a hat-trick” on the day. (At that time, due to our slim fuel reserves brought about by our high empty gross weight versus maximum landing weight of only 50,000 pounds, we did only daytime carrier operations. That later changed.)


That size also made us hated by the Flight Deck and Hangar Deck Officers. Our so-called “Flight Deck Multiple”, or footprint, with wings folded was huge. We simply took up, in theirs and often the carrier CO’s and even sometimes CAG’s (Carrier Air Wing Commanders) eyes, too much room they could use stuffing in more shooters and bomb-droppers. For us VQ bubbas, depending on who had been “read in” on our mission and its value to the Wing and the Battle Group, that meant that sometimes we were made welcome and other times made us the true cross-eyed stepchild in the Air Wing. (At the time I flew in the EA-3B we didn’t do the extensive pre-deployment work-up cycle stateside. We joined the Air Wing when it in-chopped the Med as a Detachment and left when the carrier left the Med for home)


The Whale was NOT easy to bring aboard, in the least. The Pratt & Whitney J-57 was a straight axial-flow engine with attendant lag in spool up and the jet had the low thrust-to-weight ratio of its era. So, pilots had to constantly be anticipating their next power response well ahead of when that was going to be needed. They learned the individual characteristics of each boat we cruised on, as each seemed to have its own characteristics. Some moved in a unique way, others’ turbulence aft of the ship, the ‘burble’, was unique.


NRA-3B ‘Snoopy’

The distance between the pilot’s eyes and the hook point to capture the cross-deck pennant was significant, so most pilots I flew with, in both the EA-3B and later, when I was a navigator up front in the KA-3B, flew the Whale seeing the ball in the optical landing system, the “Meatball,” about ½ ball higher from what was considered optimal in other aircraft. The Whale had very narrow main landing gear track, and at the high tire pressures called for in carrier operations, when combined with a perhaps excessive descent rate, maybe a little bit of left or right wing down, or even worse, an in-flight engagement of hook before the wheels actually hit the deck or a too-flat attitude could lead to, well, spectacular results. Not in a good way. Which see: Whale Dance. (I’ll save that for another time).


Oh, did I forget to mention, we didn’t have ejection seats. In the late 1940’s ejection seat technology wasn’t very good and when needed most, on launch and recovery, one was already outside the speed and altitude envelope. So, we had individual parachutes, two overhead ditching hatches, one in the cockpit and other in the EW compartment, a large emergency bailout hatch on the right side of the EW compartment and the main entry/exit door that could be blown and locked down as a bailout slide. Looking back at it, out of the 282 Whales manufactured, over 125 were either lost or damaged enough to be struck from the register including several EA-3B’s. We tended towards dark humor as a result. “What are you going to do to me? Make me fly Whales? Off the Boat? You don’t scare me, there’s a reason it was originally known as ‘All 3 Dead,’ I’m a dead man walking already.”

EA-3B ECM Compartment

Rare view of the ECM console of the EA-3B

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The other thing the Whale had working against it was both the airframe design age (Late 1940’s) and actual manufacturing age. The last Whales came off the El Segundo line in January 1961. By the late 1970’s, they’d been rode hard and put away wet. Aircraft parts failed more frequently, and parts were hard to find for both our sister squadron, VQ-1 in Guam and us. The Maintenance Man hours/flight hours ratios were not good at times. On more than one occasion we would literally have to divert from an in-flight mission back to Rota to get the plane fixed, leaving the Det on the boat to wait, often days, for our return. That loss of capability often hurt.

VQ-2 EA-3B's over Gibralter (2)

On the other hand, the back-end systems were being constantly updated. We had a mix-and-match of “Old, but reliable,” “Old, and needs a lot of TLC” and “New, cool (For 1978) tech” gear. But constant catapult shots and arrested landings take their tolls on anything electronic and we sometimes worked with some systems working a little less well than we would have liked. But the data we could collect was wide across the spectrum and a good crew at all five stations could collect a massive amount of useful information.

What was the hardest system to operate?
“Each of the five operator positions, four in the EW compartment and one in the cockpit was equipped with receiver equipment able to collect data from various parts of the RF spectrum, with some cross-coverage between individual stations. In the most general sense, it depended on the operator himself. (No women flew the EA-3B when I was flying these missions) Some operators could be running different bands of the spectrum through two receivers, one going in each ear and know when he had a ‘hit’ just from the audio sounds generated by the specific receiver. He could then look at the signal analysis equipment and know if he had an emitter worth focusing some detailed analytic attention upon. Sometimes we focused on what the emitter was and the weapons system associated with it and other times we wanted to know where it was radiating from. Sometimes, both. Adding in other source data, we were able to build a much more complete picture of what was happening involving the platform, etc. That was the stuff worth getting.

EA-3B Cockpit from Pos 4

That being said, for me, the hardest system to get to work right was the massive data recorder, using what was for the 1970s, state-of-art wide magnetic tapes to record any data of high interest we were collecting. The tapes were heavy and huge, and the recorder was a bitch to operate. You’d thought you’d recorded a real signal of interest only find out when it got back for analysis that it didn’t collect squat.”


What was the most effective system and why?
“The generation of EA-3B I flew in was equipped with an updated ‘system of systems’ contracted and put together by GE, called Seawing. As a collective system, it was incredibly effective in extending the carrier battle group commander’s situational awareness. When all the receivers were working well and with an experienced crew of operators, we were able to do a job, with just five of us, that many larger platforms couldn’t do. Plus, the system allowed us, in the right scenarios, to be incredibly effective in giving carrier air strikes valuable I&W of the air defence systems they were facing and how effective their countermeasures may be, in real time.”

Kuznetsov from EA-3B (1)

Keeping an Eye on Ivan, Kuznetsov from an EA-3B

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How effective was it and why?
“The EA-3B was, when properly tasked by the BG commander and/or often “Higher Authority,” incredibly effective. We had an inherent taking flexibility that neither of the predominant land-based assets possessed. We were part of the Carrier Air Wing we were assigned to and we felt it our duty to look out for our fellow fliers as best we could and to help them do their mission, be it offensive or defensive. When teamed up with the E-2, S-3 and the EA-6B we could add a significant ISR and I&W package to any operation, before we called it “ISR” or “I&W.” That came in very, very handy when the carrier group would start to nose its way south or east in the Med towards littoral nations that may not have seen us as the loveable liberty risks we really were.

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We always considered a huge compliment if, when debriefing any operation where instead of just taking off and heading over the horizon on our own (“Don’t ask and we won’t have to lie to you”) we worked with the fighter and attack squadrons, they’d ask “How the hell did you guys know that? That made a huge difference!”


How well would it have survived in a full-scale war with the USSR?
“Like all air assets, that depends. Because we normally operated at high altitudes, well above where most of the Air Wings of that era operated, we had incredible stand-off range from any of the SAM’s that then equipped the Soviet Med Fleet’s and their allied nations’ assets. Plus, with the equipment we had, the Whale’s max speed and other factors, any land-based aircraft intercept would be very hard-pressed to get to where we were when he launched, much less get to where we’d be by the time he got to the first point. We were way more concerned about the Soviets’ subs sinking “mother.” After all, that’s where the food was! Plus, the Soviets maintained an AGI off Rota pretty much 24/7/365. We knew Homeplate was a primary target. Something you simply accepted.”

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What was your most memorable missions and why?
“The ones I feel most comfortable in talking about were a series of daily reconnaissance missions we flew in early 1979 off Libya while operating from USS Eisenhower. Tensions were more than a little ratcheted up and there was some genuine concern that the Libyans might do something stupid. We flew two-three missions a day, with two crews swapping out between launch and recovery cycles. We had a bird with tight systems and the mission ‘take’ was good. (We’d write up a daily mission summary and send it out via message).


When we returned, our Commanding Officer, a man I always held in the very highest respect, for a whole different number of reasons, came out and met us on the parking ramp in front of the squadron. He told us to our faces that we had done “spectacular” work out there. He took me aside and told me he’d been up at a regular conference at  Commander in Chief, Europe ( Commander in Chief, Europe) headquarters and that then CINCEUR, General Haig, had told him he’d been reading my nightly messages and asked him to pass on his personal “Attaboy” to me specifically for the missions and the results we were getting.


As well as frontline duties, the A-3 served as a testbed for weapon systems. An XAIM-54A Phoenix air-to-air missile is launched from the Douglas NA-3A Skywarrior on 8 September 1966. Note that the NA-3A has been fitted with an AWG-9 radar. These tests were vital in the development of the F-14 Tomcat.

As a junior officer, flying a ‘Cats-and-Dogs’ aircraft, in an obscure squadron and with a personal reputation among some of the ‘older’ folks for being a bit of a loose cannon and overall crazy man, to know that what I was doing was being noted at that level and that our missions were being briefed daily to the National Command Authority, was pretty affirming stuff.”


Tell me something I don’t know about the aircraft?
“Until the advent of the FA-18, no US Navy aircraft normally cruised at the altitudes and speeds the Whale did. Our most fuel-efficient flight was 420-480 knots TAS and well in the 30,000 feet and well above altitude range. The FA-18 only matched us on its emergency fuel ‘bingo profile.'”

Describe the aircraft in three words
“Big, fast, challenging.”

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