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Saab J 29 Tunnan and JAS 39 Gripen compared: Part 2, Airframe and Flight Control


The JAS 39 Gripen entered service with the Swedish Air Force in June 1996 and is now the sole combat type in the Flygvapnet. Paul Stoddart compares this fourth generation aircraft with its ancestor, the portly yet effective, J 29 Tunnan which entered service 46 years earlier. 

Part Onecan be read here. 

Saab began its J 29 work by considering a straight wing design but in November 1945 obtained some German swept wing research data. The benefits of sweep back prompted a very rapid re-evaluation of the project and by February 1946, a 25-degree swept wing design had been selected for development. Automatic leading edge slats were fitted to prevent the airflow over the wings from separating in high AOA manoeuvres. At the transonic speeds achieved by post-war jets, shockwaves forming on the tailplane would render conventional (ie trailing edge mounted) elevators, downstream of the shock, ineffective. Those speeds also moved the mainplane centre of pressure rearwards resulting in pitch-down that the ineffective elevators struggled to correct. The solution was the flying tail in which the entire horizontal tailplane could move in pitch. Shockwaves still formed on a flying tail but its area ahead of the shock front would remain an effective control surface. As stated earlier, the Tunnan was the first Western European jet fighter to have this system and it has become standard for transonic and supersonic aircraft of conventional tail layout. Fighter agility depends, inter alia, on a rapid roll rate.

e744460985f7695a61cfb83832a744df.pngThe J 29 prototype featured full span ailerons but these produced an excessive rate of roll of 180 degrees per second. They were superseded by ailerons of around 65% span with the remaining inboard section replaced by flaps.

From March 1953, the J 29B became the standard Tunnan version. The major change was the installation of internal wing tanks that added 154 Imperial gallons (700 litres) of fuel taking the internal total to 462 Imperial gallons (2,100 litres), a 50% increase. Twin 99 Imperial gallon (450 litre) drop tanks could also be carried so offering a total load of 660 Imperial gallons (3,000 litres). The tanks were fitted at roughly mid-span on the outer of the two main pylons with the inboard hardpoints retained for weapons. The original Gripen uses a 242 Imperial gallon (1,100 litres) drop tank that can be fitted on the centreline and inboard underwing pylons. With three tanks in place, total fuel carried is 1,386 Imp gallons (6,300 litres); the internal load being 660 Imp gallons (3,000 litres).

The Tunnan’s wing was shoulder mounted, meeting the fuselage somewhat above the centreline. The wing was a one-piece structure and ran straight through the capacious fuselage passing just behind the cockpit rear pressure bulkhead and above the intake duct. Gripen also has a shoulder-mounted wing, which is set roughly at the centreline of the slim fuselage. This is slightly below the level of the canards that in turn are mounted just below the upper surface of the intakes. Fuel tanks are fitted in the upper part of the fuselage middle section with the intake duct(s) and main undercarriage bays placed below.


A one-piece wing could have been mounted level with the fuselage upper or lower surfaces as per the Jaguar and Phantom respectively. A low mounted wing on the diminutive Gripen would have offered insufficient ground clearance for loading underwing stores without a longer and heavier undercarriage. To achieve favourable interaction, the canards have to be set above the level of the mainplanes. Lack of suitable alternative mounting points for the canards would rule out the high wing location option. Furthermore, in order to reduce drag, it is best to avoid forming acute angles at wing-fuselage fairings. A mid wing configuration arguably offers the best overall solution in this and the other respects; it is therefore an entirely reasonable design choice.


The Tunnan was of monocoque structure built from aluminium alloy. High strength and stiffness were required to withstand the loadings imposed by transonic flight and a very fine standard of surface finish was also achieved in order to reduce skin drag. In structural terms, the Gripen marked a major change for Saab with composite materials (carbon fibre, glass fibre and Aramid) accounting for 20% of the structure by weight. Fatigue life consumption is reduced by a gust alleviation system. Aircraft disturbance is sensed by the flight control system, which prompts control surface reaction to alleviate the loads imposed.


The most obvious difference between these aircraft is in their lifting and control surfaces. Although radical at its inception for its swept wing and flying tail, the J 29 was standard in being longitudinally stable with a conventionally sited tailplane. Such tailplanes apply a download to balance the mainplane’s lift (the mainplane’s centre of pressure being behind the centre of gravity). In turn, the mainplane must generate additional lift to counter the tail’s down force and as a result lift-induced drag is increased. The Tunnan’s primary flying controls were the tailplane for pitch and the ailerons for roll. By contrast, the Gripen controls pitch by the canard while the inboard and outboard elevons on the delta wing act in both pitch and roll. The canard applies a lifting force to balance the mainplane and this co-operative interaction reduces the overall lift-induced drag.


Saab originally reversed the traditional arrangement with the Viggen and adopted a tail-first or canard design although it retained natural longitudinal stability. With the JAS 39, the full potential of the canard was realised. Full time, full authority, digital, fly by wire flight control system (FCS) allowed the adoption of artificial stability in pitch with attendant gains in agility and aerodynamic efficiency. At supersonic speeds the centre of lift on all wings moves aft promoting a nose down moment. A conventional aircraft trims this by increasing the tailplane download whereas the opposite applies with the canard, a more efficient solution. An unstable canard design offers more lift during take-off and landing, better supersonic turning performance and lower supersonic drag. The FCS keeps the Gripen’s instability in check and allows the full envelope to be exploited without the risk of overstress or departure from controlled flight. This carefree handling facility enables the pilot to concentrate on the mission while the FCS controls the load factor, AOA, angle of sideslip and roll rate. Another function unavailable to the Tunnan is CG control. The fuel control system not only monitors the fuel remaining but also balances the amounts drawn from the various tanks to keep the CG within limits.

Weapons and Systems


The early swept wing combat aircraft were designed as gun-fighters and the Tunnan was no exception. Its original standard armament was a battery of four 20 mm Hispano cannons with 180 rounds per gun. Stemming from an original design of the early 1930s, the Hispano weighed 84 lb (34 kg) and fired a 4.88 oz (138 gram) round with a muzzle velocity of 2,880 ft/sec (878 m/sec). The muzzles were spaced circumferentially on the underside of the nose, a short distance back from the intake. Some jet fighters (eg the Hunter F.1 with its axial Rolls Royce Avon 100 series) experienced considerable engine problems through the ingestion of the shock waves of their cannon shells. A centrifugal compressor may be broader than its axial flow equivalent but it is inherently more tolerant of disturbed airflow. Cannon blast ingestion was inevitable on the Tunnan but no engine surge problems appear to have been experienced.


Two factors combined to make cannons alone an insufficient armament for air combat. The speed of jet fighters made for only fleeting firing opportunities while their stronger structures (for the high aerodynamic loads) could withstand cannon shell damage – up to a point. Cannons therefore required both a high rate of fire and a heavy high velocity round but these features tended to oppose each other. The more powerful cannons had a slow rate of fire and the faster models had less punch. One attempted solution to this problem was to fit fighters with batteries of unguided air-to-air rockets that would be fired in a barrage of a dozen or more in the hope of at least one hitting a fighter target or several hitting a bomber. The Tunnan was fitted with twenty-four 75 mm (2.95 in) diameter rockets carried in vertical stacks of four on three close-set hardpoints inboard of each wing drop tank. In the event, such rockets were to prove a blind alley and although adopted by several air forces they were superseded by guided missiles. From 1963, the J 29E could carry a pair of Sidewinder air-to-air missiles (AAM) termed Rb 24 in the Flygvapnet inventory. This addition helped keep the Tunnan viable until it went out of service in May 1967, the Saab Draken having progressively taken over the fighter role from 1959.


Proving to be a fine weapons platform during testing, the Tunnan J 29B was applied to the ground attack role with the new designation A 29B. The four Hispanos were retained and either fourteen 14.5 cm (5.7 in) anti-armour rockets or four 18 cm (7.1 in) rockets for hard, fixed targets could be carried. As mentioned above, the drop tanks were fitted to the outboard main pylons where they would have helped relieve the wing bending moment. Inboard of the tanks, there were up to four hardpoints under each wing. The 14.5 cm rockets were carried in six vertical pairs plus a single rocket on the furthest inboard position to avoid a clash with the undercarriage door. The 18 cm rockets had individual pylon mountings. All the Tunnan’s weapons bar the Rb 24 Sidewinder were unguided whereas the opposite obtains with the majority of the Gripen’s armament. Although guided weapon unit cost is greater than the ballistic equivalent, their higher accuracy makes for better cost-effectiveness. As fewer rounds and aircraft sorties are needed to destroy a target, the result is a lower overall cost in weapons plus likely lower aircraft and aircrew losses.


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The USAF had expended time, effort and lives but the B-36 was still just as v

The JAS 39’s interceptor predecessor, the JA 37 Viggen was equipped with the 30 mm Oerlikon KCA cannon, a weapon of exceptional performance. With the high muzzle velocity of 3,937 ft/sec (1,200 m/sec), it could engage targets at 1.25 miles (2 km). The KCA was simply too bulky for the diminutive Gripen and instead it has a single 27 mm Mauser BK27 cannon (as used in Eurofighter Typhoon) with 120 rounds. It is fitted in a semi-scabbed arrangement in the port lower fuselage behind the cockpit and with the muzzle emerging about 0.5 m ahead of the intake. Although a lighter weapon than the Oerlikon, it has a higher rate of fire, 1,700 rounds per minute compared to 1,320, so putting out 28% more shells in any burst. It fires the 9.2 ounce (260 gram) rounds at a muzzle velocity greater than 3,280 ft/sec (1,000 m/sec). There is a 300 rounds per minute option for air-to-surface targets; barrel life is extended in this mode. The cannon is deleted from the trainer in order to free internal volume for the second seat.

In the air-to-air role, the Gripen’s main weapons were originally the Rb 74 Sidewinder (the AIM-9L variant) and the RB 72 AIM-120 AMRAAM. Later, the IRIS-T (Rb. 98), A-Darter and MICA were cleared. One Rb 74 is carried on each wingtip; the four underwing hardpoints can each carry an Rb 72 although a typical fit might see the two inboard missiles replaced by drop tanks. The integration of radar guided AAMs in Saab aircraft began with the Draken, the Tunnan never gaining such a weapon. In the Gripen, the core of the system is the Ericsson Microwave Systems PS-05 pulse-Doppler radar that has look-down, shoot-down capability for the air defence mission. Moreover, it is a multi-mode radar with full, rather than secondary, attack and reconnaissance functions available in the one package. The PS-05 was based on the GEC-Marconi Blue Vixen (also the basis of the Typhoon’s CAPTOR radar) and was regarded as having similar performance to the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-66(V)2 radar of the F-16AM.

For air-to-surface, the Saab-Bofors Rbs 15F radar homing missile is the main anti-ship weapon with the infra-red imaging Rb 75 employed for high value land targets. The latter is the Swedish designation for the Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick; it is a fire-and-forget weapon with its own seeker image displayed in the cockpit before launch to allow target selection. For anti-ship missions, the radar is operated in search mode while the Rbs 15F has its own radar allowing the Gripen to turn away after launch. It is also fitted with a jet engine rather than a rocket motor so conferring greater range for a given size; rockets are not efficient at low altitude. The precision, long-range, Taurus KEPD 350 stand-off weapon has also been flown on the aircraft.

Other than its radar, Gripen also has several systems that were simply not available in the Tunnan’s day. Through its encrypted tactical datalink, a JAS 39 can receive updates on the battlespace from a ground controller, airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft or other Gripens. Its navigation suite is based on a ring-laser gyro integrated with GPS (global positioning system) satellite navigation. Head down information is presented on three screen displays while a head up display (HUD) provides the essential flight and aiming cues. By contrast, the Tunnan pilot had a map, compass and stopwatch for navigation and his head-up information was limited to a gyro gunsight. The main JAS 39 system and weapon functions are selected through HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick). Weapon selection is through stick-mounted switches. The throttle has two pistol grips; sensor controls (radar range and scan angle) are on the upper with the lower switches providing airbrake selection and certain navigation functions. The Litening G111 FLIR/LDP (forward looking infra-red/laser designator pod) has been integrated to support the use of the GBU-12 and GBU-16 LGB (laser guided bombs). Systems integration is achieved on Gripen through a MIL-STD 1553 databus, a massively more advanced technology than that of the J 29. The Swedish developed datalink of the JAS 39 A/B is not compatible with any NATO datalink, nor was the Swedish Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) compatible with the NATO equivalent. By contrast, the Gripen C/D is NATO compatible featuring a Link 16 datalink (essential for operating alongside US aircraft) and NATO IFF Mode 1-4.

This article is Paul’s personal view of the development of the Tunnan in comparison with the Gripen A.  It contains no implication of Ministry of Defence policy nor should any be inferred.

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What makes an aeroplane beautiful?


The ‘neanderthal  B-1B’

People often call aircraft beautiful. There’s no disputing that the act of flight itself is a thing of beauty. Breaking the shackles of gravity, reaching for the freedom that only the sky allows, that is a truly wondrous thing, but it’s a much more intangible thing to discuss the actual looks of the aircraft that do it themselves.

By Sam Wise
No doubt there have been hideous aircraft, this website alone is testament to that. Which aircraft are actually beautiful, which evoke a sense of aesthetic pleasure, is a different matter. On the face of it, it’s a very subjective subject – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. This oft-repeated phrase is always trotted out when someone is called out on a claim that an objectively ugly plane is good-looking – see, for example, the mistaken belief that the neanderthal-looking B-1B is the aesthetic superior to the heart-achingly beautiful Tu-160.


 The heart-achingly beautiful Tu-160.

So people will debate for hours on the subject of which of their favourite aircraft is beautiful and which aren’t, often confusing capability with looks and almost always leaving people scratching their heads wondering how on earth ​that​ could be called good-looking.

“It is unlikely that Keats knew much of Cold War bomber aircraft (probably) but his famous line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” rings just as true for Mach 2.2-capable commercial airliners as it does for Greek pots.”

If we want to take a firmer, more definitive approach to the matter, as with all things in aviation we must turn to the wisdom of our forebears and of the ancients. It’s evident that the physical appearance of the aircraft plays a role in producing its beauty. As Aristotle describes in his ​Poetics​, “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must … present a certain order in its arrangement of parts”. There is a clear “look” that lends itself to this evocation, something organic. Note the moth-like planform of the Avro Vulcan or the curves and symmetry of the Spitfire vs the angular and brutish lack of appeal of the likes of the F-22 and F-35. Certainly Aristotle could think of beauty as something calculable and mathematic, something you could take in a vacuum, apply a formula to and see if it checks all the boxes. But beauty is an inherently emotional response to an object or vision, and there’s plenty of emotion in aviation.


The Mirage 2000 is the platonic ideal of a delta-winged fighter. 

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Plato disagreed with Aristotle’s views. For Plato, beauty was an inherently spiritual concept. Taking his concept of beauty from the ​Symposium​, we cannot understand the beauty of an aircraft based purely on its lines, its form, its shape, rather it has to be part of the Form of beauty, an unchanging and eternal truth that defines whether something is beautiful or not. Plato describes the advancement through the realisation of beauty – from love of the physical object, through the to the love of the soul, transcending to the love of knowledge, of laws, to a final understanding and love of Beauty itself, an appreciation of the actual existence of that concept.



“Man that Typhoon has an ugly intake!” 

It is unlikely that Keats knew much of Cold War bomber aircraft (probably) but his famous line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” rings just as true for Mach 2.2-capable commercial airliners as it does for Greek pots. I’m not talking about the plainly untrue line “if it looks right it flies right”, but a far more metaphysical concept of aviation truth. This truth isn’t some capability stat, or top speed, or record broken, it’s a moment of aviation that is evoked across the ages, a representation of the ‘truth’ of the beauty of flight itself. Much like Keats’ Peloponesian vase, it is not so easily defined in terms of this line or that curve but the feeling it creates within us, when we look at a beautiful aircraft and ​understand​ the beauty of flight. This, in aviation, is the Form of beauty that Plato proposes.


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An aircraft’s looks and the feeling of the freedom that flight offers earthbound humans are one and the same. An ugly aircraft cannot offer us that dream of flight in the same way that a beautiful one can but at the same time that beauty is only derived from that feeling. This could be perfectly encapsulated in the Mirage IV. On the face of it, there are several things that you could say make it less than stunning – the poor positioning of the probe, the harshness of the canopy, the size of the tail. And yet, it is a beautiful aeroplane. Something about the jet scream ‘flight.’ It speaks to us of the joy of riding the clouds, of looking down on the Earth from above, the unbound liberty of taking to the air. The Mirage IV is a beautiful aircraft.


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Top 11 Parasite Aircraft

Space Shuttle Enterprise, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft flies over the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York. Is it our number one? (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Albert Robida drew this transatlantic airship with attendant parasite airships in the late 19th century. This fantastical concept became a reality of sorts in the early 20th.

Since well before heavier than air flight was even possible, parasite aircraft have held a curious attraction. There is something compelling about the idea of a smaller flying machine being launched from a larger one, even more so if that aircraft can be recovered too. Parasite aircraft sometimes make a good deal of sense but on the whole their disadvantages outweigh any practical benefit to be had from parasitism. Here are the best of this scarce but brilliant breed.

11. Bristol Scout and Felixstowe Porte Baby

Porte’s three-engine flying boat was enormous by the standards of late 1915. The parasite concept worked but was not taken up. (Imperial War Museum photo)

This massive flying boat designed by John Cyril Porte and named with lazy irony ‘Baby’ was designed and used as a maritime patrol aircraft. First flown in late 1915, 11 were built and remained in service until the armistice in 1918, a remarkable longevity of service for an aircraft of this generation. For its entire operational life the Baby was the largest flying boat built in the UK. The appearance of the Baby also happened to coincide with the high point of the Zeppelin raids on Britain. This bombing campaign inspired an almost hysterical response, not least because there was simply no effective defence in 1916 and the enormous airships seemed to be able to operate over Britain with impunity.

One of the many schemes proposed to counter the Zeppelin menace was to mount a small fighter aircraft onto the long-ranged Baby which would then patrol over the North Sea, east of the British Isles. If a Zeppelin were encountered, the fighter would be released to effect an interception and then fly back to land if near enough or ditch in the sea. The flying boat could then pick up the (hopefully) victorious pilot and everyone would fly back for tea and medals. Thus the prototype Porte Baby was modified as the mothership for a standard Bristol Scout. Fairly obscure history was made when Bristol Scout number 3028 piloted by Flight Lieutenant MJ Day successfully separated in flight from the Baby (flown on this momentous occasion by Porte himself) at a height of 1000 feet over Felixstowe. Despite the project ultimately going nowhere, the Admiralty deciding (prophetically) that it was too clumsy and dangerous to pursue further, the Bristol Scout had become the first parasite aircraft in history.

10. Messerschmitt Me 328 and Dornier Do 217

Not as insane a project as many late-war German schemes, the Me 328 was a decent little aircraft stymied by the lack of a viable engine.

Given the somewhat fantastical nature of the parasite fighter as a concept, it should come as no surprise that Nazi Germany (ever willing to try something crazy) spent a lot of money and time on the idea. It should also come as no surprise that the German entry in this select field was ill-conceived, dangerous, built on the cheap, and ultimately contributed nothing to the German war effort. It all started in the standard fashion, massive Luftwaffe bombers were being designed and an effective means of defence for them was sought. The idea that they could take along their own escort fighter was an attractive one. Messerschmitt started work on such a design in 1941, envisioning an aircraft towed aloft by an He 177 or Ju 388 on the end of a flexibly-mounted rigid bar, or carried on the back of their own giant Me 264 bomber. From the outset the concept was muddled, both a fighter (Me 328A) and bomber (Me 328B) were proposed and the emphasis of development would flit back and forth between the two, before all manner of different schemes of varying levels of impracticality would be proposed. None came to fruition.

The Me 328 first flew as a glider. No powerplant at all turned out to be the most effective for the Me 328.

Despite being regarded as a semi-disposable aeroplane, the Me 328 as it emerged was impressive on paper: costing about a quarter of the price of a conventional fighter such as the Fw 190, it was intended to have a top speed of around 500 mph. The fighter version was to be armed with two 20-mm cannon. As a bomber the aircraft was intended to be flown to the East coast of the US and then released to deliver a 500 kg bomb at a speed rendering it effectively beyond interception. The pilot was to ditch at sea and be rescued by a U-boat.  Construction was mostly of wood but the most radical aspect of the design was its engines – the Me 328 was to be powered by two Argus pulse jets, identical to those that powered the V-1 flying bomb. Ultimately it would be the engines that doomed the programme.

Despite looking like a rusty old length of drainpipe, the Argus pulse jet was simple and powerful but also incredibly noisy and vibratory

It started well enough though, two prototypes were built and glider flights were made from a Do 217 carrier aircraft. In unpowered flight the aircraft was promising and seven powered prototypes were built. Unfortunately the pulse jets caused such appalling vibration (as well as being deafeningly loud) that the Me 328 was virtually uncontrollable. The pulse jets were tried fitted to the rear fuselage and under the wings but nothing could stop the shakes, there is an unconfirmed report that one of the prototypes actually vibrated itself apart in flight. Whether or not that actually happened, flights ceased and the programme was effectively over by mid 1944.

Despite the fact that the aircraft was totally unsatisfactory, the Me 328 popped up in countless other proposals right up to the end of hostilities. Me 328s were envisioned to be fired from rails and fired from U-boats and used as a suicide weapon (probably – it is unclear if the pilot was definitely intended to die, it would have been exceptionally difficult to get out). The proposed Me 328C was to be powered by a turbojet which should have cured the vibrations but construction never began.

9. Mcdonnell XF-85 Goblin and Boeing B-29 Superfortress

Trapezes are best left in circuses. They should not be extended from the bomb bay of a B-29. The looped structure under the XF-85 Goblin is its ’emergency’ landing skid – it made seven free flights, landing on the skid on four of them. (USAF photo)

In the Convair B-36 the USAF had a bomber of hitherto unprecedented size. Impressive though it undoubtedly was, doubts were tacitly admitted as to its ability to defend itself even with the prodigious armament of sixteen 20-mm cannon lavishly distributed amongst nose and tail turrets along with six remotely controlled retractable turrets. The B-36 was possessed of such enormous range that a conventional escort fighter would be impractical, however taking along a parasite fighter to chase off any hostile aircraft impertinent enough to attempt an interception was an entirely different matter. Hence the existence of the XF-85 Goblin, by a considerable margin the smallest jet fighter ever to fly.

“Ain’t no fancy golden helmet gonna stop you looking like a jerk in this tin barrel son. Stare into the middle distance long as you like, I ain’t going nowhere” (USAF photo)

Opinions were, and remain, divided as to the practicality of the F-85/B-36 combination. Designed by a team led by Herman D. Barkey, who would later oversee the development of McDonnell’s slightly more successful F-4 Phantom, the tiny McDonnell, despite its comical appearance, was an extremely well executed response to the parasite requirement. Nonetheless its ability to adequately defend its mothership, or even itself, is open to question. The cuddly Goblin first flew some eight months after the rather more imposing MiG-15 and although the XF-85 apparently handled well, its projected top speed was slower than the Soviet aircraft (and the projection turned out to be rather optimistic) and it was armed with a mere four .50 cal machine guns. Furthermore, given that the Goblin’s dimensions were precisely tailored to the size of the B-36 bomb bay development potential was necessarily limited. Having said that, the Goblin’s projected performance was generally up to the standards of the day and the USAF was very keen on the parasite fighter. It was planned at one stage for every tenth B-36 to be a dedicated fighter carrier with provision for three or four Goblins although all B-36s would have the provision to carry at least one.

Goblin mock-up demonstrates the design’s folding wings while the pilot attempts to look serious.

In the absence of a B-36 with trapeze equipment fitted, initial flight tests were to be handled by a suitably modified B-29, nicknamed ‘Monstro’. After a few tests to check the flying characteristics of the combined B-29/XF-85 combination, the Goblin made its first free flight on 23rd August 1948. Released from 20,000 feet, test pilot Edwin Schoch flew the aircraft for about ten minutes before attempting to hook back on to the trapeze. This was expected to be the trickiest aspect of parasite fighter operation and so it proved. Turbulence around the underside of Monstro was more severe than expected and the tiny jet collided hard with the trapeze, smashing the canopy and tearing off Schoch’s oxygen mask and helmet. An observer on the B-29 saw the helmet fall away and thought it was Schoch’s head. He succeeded in landing the aircraft conventionally (with head still attached) though the XF-85 was damaged in the process and seven weeks would elapse while repairs and modifications took place.

Crash bang wallop: at left, the moment of impact as test pilot Schoch smashes into the trapeze, leading to the battered but mostly intact aircraft on the right. Note absence of glass in the canopy frame. (USAF)

Further attempts were a mixed bag. Schoch succeeded in engaging with the trapeze on the second free flight in October 1948. However when the definitive retractable hook was fitted, severe aerodynamic buffeting added to the difficulty of the hooking process. In seven flights the XF-85 managed to re-engage the trapeze on only three occasions. The last (unsuccessful) attempt was made by Schoch in April 1949 and ended with a landing on the skid at Muroc field. The tubby Goblin flew for a total of two hours 19 minutes during its short life and had proved that the concept was at least possible, though apparently difficult. To further muddy the waters, some years later no less a personage than Chuck Yeager stated that he thought the XF-85 a good idea and that the reason for its failure was the lack of flying skill of Edwin Schoch. However poor Schoch was unable to answer this accusation having been killed in a flying accident in 1951. To be fair, over the years Yeager seems to have had an extremely poor opinion of virtually everyone’s flying skill except his own.

It’s tight in there: note pilot’s hand visible through windscreen. Wingtip fins were added in an attempt to improve control and stability when hooking on. (USAF)

McDonnell proposed a swathe of changes to improve the ability of the aircraft to engage the trapeze, most significantly a telescopic trapeze structure extending beyond the turbulent air below the carrier aircraft. But it was not to be, Air Force command, under pressure to curtail spending (as usual), cancelled the XF-85 project citing its relatively modest performance and the high level of pilot skill required to reattach the aircraft to its carrier. This was the end for the egg-like Goblin but did not spell the end of USAF interest in other parasite aircraft, as we shall see…

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8. Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne and White Knight

Whether you like it or not, it is hard to disagree that the SpaceShipOne/White Knight combination is aesthetically ‘striking’. (NASA)

Winner of the $10 million Ansari X prize for for the first non-governmental organisation to launch a reusable crewed spacecraft into space twice within two weeks, SpaceShipOne achieved its design goals in a mere six powered flights. The project was first considered in 1994 and schemed by Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites, the announcement of the Ansari prize the following year adding impetus to its development. However it should be noted that although it did indeed win the $10 million, the whole program cost about $25 million. The project would never have seen the light of day of it weren’t for the support of billionaire and aviation enthusiast Paul Allen who completely funded the project.

Rutan has a history of designing aircraft that feature unusual structures or layouts and the White Knight/SpaceShipOne was no exception. The twin booms, high engine placement, and flattened ‘W’ shape of White Knight are all features epitomising it for its role as a mothership. So far, so strange looking but the real icing on the cake is its crazed forward fuselage design sporting a profusion of small circular windows scattered seemingly at random around its nose. The same forward fuselage design with 16 portholes is shared by both aircraft. The small, thick windows are arranged so as to give a clear view of the horizon in all of the standard flight attitudes and were as large as engineers would allow for the immense pressure differences they would need to handle at the edge of space. This makes perfect sense for SpaceShipOne but why apply the same configuration to White Knight? The answer is twofold, firstly replicating the forward fuselage for both aircraft helped keep costs down. But intriguingly the second reason is that White Knight was designed as a ‘flying simulator’ to act as a training vehicle for SpaceShipOne pilots and be able to mimic the flight characteristics of the spaceplane. The cockpits of the two aircraft are basically identical. Of the tiny windows Doug Shane, the project’s operations director and one of its four test pilots said that “While it’s certainly not the best visibility of any airplane, it’s more than adequate”

Not “a half-assed job”. Mike Melvill in SpaceShipOne returns to Earth after its second powered flight.

SpaceShipOne seems to have a more conventional layout than White Knight but it has one particular trick that is not at first apparent in the form of its ability to ‘feather’. This entails the entire rear section of the aircraft swinging upwards, transforming it into an aerodynamically stable shape with very high drag. As such it descends relatively slowly back down to Earth after its short sharp Mach 3 scramble up and out of the atmosphere. Despite the high ground speed, indicated airspeed never exceeds about 270 knots due to the very thin air at the altitudes it travels through – topping out at the Kármán line, internationally regarded as the edge of space, which equates to an altitude of 100 km (or 328000 ft, reflected in SpaceShipOne’s N328KF registration). Perhaps surprisingly, given the nature of most 21st century craft, the spaceplane is manually controlled and there is no autopilot. “If you get in there and do a half-assed job, you’ll go to only 200,000 feet.” said Mike Melvill, one of the other test pilots and the first to take SpaceShipOne to the 100 km design altitude on July 21st 2004.

SpaceShipOne demonstrates its ‘feather’ mode with its pilot, X-Prize winning commercial astronaut Brian Binnie making sure it stays on the ground. (X-Prize photo)

Ultimately SpaceShipOne first achieved its goal and won the prize on October 4th 2004 in the hands of Brian Binnie. further flights were planned but Rutan made the decision not to risk the craft now that it had made history and all future flights were cancelled. SpaceShipOne now resides at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and is currently displayed with the Bell X-1 and Linbergh’s transatlantic Ryan NYP. Meanwhile White Knight was utilised as a carrier aircraft for drop tests of Boeing’s unmanned X-37 spaceplane. In 2014 White Knight flew for the last time, to Everett field and retirement as part of Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection. Since then a developed version designed for six passengers and two crew, the imaginatively named SpaceShipTwo, carried by White Knight Two, has been developed. The first example tragically broke up killing one of its two crew in 2014. A second example is undergoing testing at the time of writing.

White Knight Two carries SpaceShipTwo aloft. SpaceShipTwo made its first spaceflight in December 2018.

7. Short Mayo Composite: Short S.20 ‘Mercury’ and S.21 ‘Maia’

This view shows the modifications required to transform the Short C-class into the lower half of the composite. The hull was flared outwards to increase buoyancy and engines mounted further away from the fuselage to allow clearance for Mercury’s floats.

Imperial Airways were proud of their composite. The cover of the March 1938 issue of the Imperial Airways Gazette shows the first successful separation on February 6th.

Throughout the 1930s, the Atlantic mesmerised airlines. A potentially exceptionally lucrative market, it was known that it could be crossed since 1919, Lindbergh emphatically reinforcing the point in 1927 but it remained tantalising just out of reach, in a practical sense at least, until the very last weeks before war erupted in September 1939. The big problem was that the amount of fuel required to get an aircraft from London to New York for example, was so great that the aircraft could carry no passengers or cargo. In the absence of a suitable aircraft, means were sought to cheat the problem. Imperial Airways spent a great deal of time and effort developing in-flight refuelling (with some success) but also pinned their hopes on parasitism, with this: the Short Mayo Composite.

To be strictly accurate of course, two commercial aircraft had crossed the Atlantic several times with fare-paying passengers aboard in the form of the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. The latter’s fiery demise rather put people off the prospect of crossing the Atlantic suspended under a massive inflammable gasbag however and emphasis shifted to making the journey in a conventional heavier-than-air machine. Lacking an aircraft with sufficient endurance, Robert Mayo, Imperial Airways’ Technical General Manager proposed a system wherein a small, long-range seaplane on top of a larger carrier aircraft, using the combined power of both to bring the smaller aircraft to operational height, at which time the two aircraft would separate, the carrier aircraft returning to base while the other flew on to its destination. The upper component aircraft was not intended to carry passengers but air mail.

The Mayo composite entered British popular culture to an unprecedented degree. Curiously this Dinky toy version is suffering from the great curse of later British airliners – metal fatigue.

The aircraft that emerged was undeniably spectacular, consisting of a fairly heavily modified Short C-Class ‘Empire’ flying boat named ‘Maia’ and designated S.21, and a totally new design, the Short S.20 named ‘Mercury’, the messenger of the Gods – though its not clear that the Romans had the delivery of air mail in mind for him originally. Maia flew first in July 1937 with Mercury following it into the air a couple of months later. The connecting mechanism was ingenious, allowing for limited movement of both components relative to each other. When release was imminent, the flying trim of Mercury could be checked before the pilots released one lock each. The final lock holding the craft together was automatic, releasing Mercury when it achieved 3000 pounds-force (13 Kn). This meant that Mercury was effectively straining upwards and the effect was that on release Maia would tend to drop away whilst Mercury climbed sharply, minimising any chance of collision. The first separation was achieved in February 1938. This was followed up by the first transatlantic flight on July 21st. After the Composite took off from Southampton, Mercury was released over Shannon in Ireland and continued alone to Boucherville, near Montreal in Canada. This represented the first commercial crossing of the Atlantic by a heavier-than-air aircraft. This was followed up by a record-breaking flight of 6,045 miles (9,728 km) from Dundee in Scotland to Alexander Bay in South Africa, between 6 and 8 October 1938. This remains the longest flight ever achieved by a seaplane.

As an obviously spectacular civil project the Mayo Composite was much photographed. It was a success in that it achieved everything that was expected of it but simpler concepts prevailed.

Ultimately aircraft development caught up with the Mayo composite. Although it achieved its design goal with aplomb, it seemed an excessively complicated way to carry 1000 lbs of mail to America. A year to the day after Mercury’s transatlantic flight the Short S.26 G-Class flying boat flew for the first time. The G-Class had non-stop transatlantic ability effectively rendering the Mayo concept obsolete at a stroke. One month later in August 1939 Imperial Airways began a scheduled transatlantic mail service, utilising a regular C-Class flying boat, refuelled in flight to enable it to make the crossing non-stop. Sadly the outbreak of war prevented the G-Class ever seeing service on its designed route and caused the air-refuelled service to cease less than a month after it began. Maia was destroyed by German bombers in Poole Harbour in May 1941 and Mercury was used by 320 Squadron RAF for a time before being broken up for scrap in August 1941. An ignominious end for a briefly glorious seaplane.

6. Rockwell International Space Shuttle Orbiter and Boeing 747 SCA

Endeavour and Shuttle Carrier over the Mojave desert in 2008 (Nasa photo)

Taking parasitism to a new level, the world’s first flying spaceship needed to be tested before being fired into the cosmos. Furthermore since the very beginnings of the project it was known that the shuttle orbiter would have to be ferried from airbase to airbase. Initially the specification required for conventional air-breathing engines to allow the shuttle to fly under its own power in the atmosphere. Unfortunately this was problematic, the orbiter was roughly the same size as a DC-9 but over twice the weight and much less aerodynamic yet could carry far less fuel. With five engines (as opposed to a DC-9’s two) the maximum ferry range considered possible by a self-propelled orbiter was 500 miles, which was not acceptable. An alternative system was sought and coincidentally Robert Salkeld of the System Development Corporation was making presentations around this time on the subject of air-launched fully-reusable spacecraft during which he would show images of the aforementioned Short Mayo composite as an example of a large two-stage aircraft. Nasa had made thousands of unpowered landings with F-104s, and later the X-15 and the Northrop lifting body aircraft, which demonstrated that repeated, accurate landings from high altitude in fast aircraft with small wings were relatively simple. A series of tests with a Convair 990 and B-52 proved that dead stick landings in large aircraft were not only adequately safe and controllable but arguably easier than conventional approaches: on one occasion a Nasa pilot who had never flown a multi-engine aircraft before successfully landed a B-52 unpowered – when tasked with landing the aircraft in a standard shallow-angle powered approach he was unable to do so.

Shuttle Carrier N905NA, here releasing Space Shuttle Enterprise on a glide test, was originally manufactured for American Airlines. Following a drop in passenger numbers, American Airlines sold them to NASA, hence the distinctive American Airlines’ cheatlines on the fuselage. (Nasa)

And so it was decided that the Shuttle Orbiter would glide to landing. To ferry and test the spacecraft a carrier aircraft would be required, Nasa toyed with the idea of a new build aircraft (John Conroy of ‘Guppy’ fame proposed an enormous twin fuselage monster of an aircraft bearing a distinct resemblance to Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch) but time and budgetary considerations compelled Nasa to seek an off-the-peg solution. Only two contenders were seriously considered, the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and the Boeing 747. The choice fell on the latter after it was discovered in wind tunnel tests that if the C-5 pilot failed to execute the separation manoeuvre perfectly, the Orbiter would tear the tail off the aircraft. As a T-tailed design that would effectively mean the loss of the airframe (and likely the crew as well) as all the rear control surfaces would be removed. The aerodynamics of the 747 naturally aided separation, and even if the worst happened, the 747’s horizontal tail surfaces would be unaffected and the aircraft was known to remain controllable even with a substantial chunk of vertical tail missing.

First flight of the combined 747 and Orbiter took place in February 1977, with the first in-flight separation taking place six months later. This was Space Shuttle Enterprise (OV-101), built purely for atmospheric test and never fitted with engines or a functional heat shield. Five free flights were made from the 747 carrier aircraft followed by many, many captive trips. Since the retirement of the shuttle, Nasa’s shuttle carriers found themselves without a purpose – though N905NA was utilised on one occasion to ferry Boeing’s Phantom Ray UCAV from St. Louis, Missouri, to Edwards Airbase. Both are now retired and preserved.

This is Space Shuttle Endeavour and Shuttle Carrier N905NA on approach to Los Angeles LAX after its final spaceflight. N905NA is now preserved at Space Center Houston, Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Imagine this flying over as you drive to work. (Nasa)

5. Leduc 0.10/0.21 and Sud-Est Languedouc/AAS.01

Leduc 0.10 and its Sud-Est Languedoc carrier aircraft as they appear in the excellent 1951 documentary ‘Renaissance de l’aviation Française’. The fact that the Leduc ramjet was a 1930s design is staggering.

After the war the French aviation industry worked incredibly hard in an ultimately successful attempt to drag itself back up to world standard. There was no shortage of crazy French research types throughout the late forties and fifties, now mostly obscure outside of francophone aviation enthusiast circles. One of the most impressive and successful was the Leduc series of ramjet aircraft. Ramjets are fascinating engines, so simple that they contain no moving parts, yet efficient at supersonic speeds up to about Mach 4. Unfortunately they won’t work at all at standstill and produce negligible thrust until about half the speed of sound. Any ramjet powered flying machine is therefore a great contender to be a parasite aircraft and construction of a French ramjet powered aircraft with a top speed of Mach 0.85 (about 650 mph or 1000 km/h) had begun as early as 1937(!). Amazingly the semi-completed ramjet was kept secret at the Breguet factory and escaped the notice of the German occupiers throughout the war. Work resumed on the radical aircraft in 1945.

Cold Air Sheath anyone? This remarkably bad cutaway does (kind of) show the salient points of the Leduc 0.21. If you look very hard you can see the pilot gamely attempting to ignore the horrifically bent nose whilst trying not to question the reasoning behind his nocturnal flight over Paris.

The aircraft was the brainchild of René Leduc, an engineer whose background was in thermodynamics rather than aviation. Leduc worked for the Breguet aircraft company in the 1920s and whilst here he began to consider alternative forms of power to the standard piston engine and propellor arrangement of all aircraft up to that point. In 1930 he attempted to patent a pulse jet only to find it had already been invented. The same thing happened again when he tried to patent the ramjet in 1933 but found that it had been proposed by Rene Lorin in 1913. However, although he hadn’t been the first to invent the ramjet, Leduc was the first person to actually build and demonstrate a working ramjet engine in 1936. This was sufficiently impressive for a scaled up version to be commissioned to power a manned aircraft, the Leduc 0.10, and after the drawn out construction period necessitated by the small matter of a world war, all was ready for the first powered flight in 1947.


From some angles it was difficult to believe the Leduc was an aircraft at all. This is the interim Leduc 0.21, as depicted in the cutaway above.

First flight of the Leduc was from the mighty AAS.01/He 274, seen here with the SNCASO SO.M1 on its pylon. Later flights were made from the less powerful but more practical Languedoc.

First powered flight occurred on 21st April 1949 over Toulouse. On that occasion the mothership was the remarkable AAS.01, this being in actual fact a prototype of a four-engined derivative of the wartime Heinkel He 177, originally designated He 274. Two prototypes of the He 274 were built by Breguet during the war and were ready for flight testing as Allied forces approached. The order was given by the German authorities to destroy the new aircraft to prevent them falling into enemy hands, however this order was carried out in a less than enthused fashion and both prototypes survived with only minor damage. After the war both were completed to flying status and saw extensive service on various research programmes.

Initial flight tests were encouraging, the Leduc 0.10 flew at 420 mph on its first flight and subsequent tests eventually saw it attain Mach 0.85 which was pretty hot stuff for 1949. The two original Leduc 0.10s (a third was built somewhat later) were not the first ramjet powered aircraft to fly, but they were the first manned aircraft wherein a ramjet was the sole means of propulsion. After this proof of concept, Leduc shifted his attention to the Leduc 0.21, essentially similar to its predecessor but scaled up by around 30%, with tip tanks added to the wings. The new aircraft was still air launched and completed a detailed flight test programme from 1953 to 1956 to develop an automated control system for the ramjet. A total of 284 free flights was made during which the 0.21 reached a top speed of Mach 0.95.

“Mon dieu! C’est un peu serré…” Yvan Litoff demonstrates the ‘glass ring’ cockpit of the 0.21 which massively improved visibility but did nothing for claustrophobia. In the event of an emergency the entire cockpit was to be ejected and parachute to a soft landing.

Buoyed by the relative success of his ramjets so far Leduc moved on to the next version, the 0.22. The air-launched Leducs were purely research aircraft but the end result was always intended to be an interceptor. This time the aircraft was not a parasite. It was equipped with a regular turbojet and could take off conventionally and accelerate to a speed whereby the ramjet could function. Unfortunately, although designed for Mach 2, the Leduc had not been area-ruled and was subject to so much transonic drag that it was unable to break the sound barrier. This setback could probably have been overcome with a redesign but the Leduc was cancelled as part of a swathe of government cuts to French aviation projects. French hopes were pinned on the Dassault Mirage III instead – probably correctly as it turned out given the immense success of that aircraft. With no state funding Leduc was forced to wind up the aviation side of his business but happily Rene Leduc’s company is still in operation today producing hydraulic equipment.

4. Project Tip Tow, Tom-Tom, and FICON: Republic F-84 and Boeing B-29/Convair B-36

The B-36 and F-84 combination of FICON was ostensibly operational for about a year in the reconnaissance role. Implementation of the system was described as ‘difficult’. (USAF photo)

After the less than stellar experience gleaned with the XF-85 Goblin parasite fighter one might have assumed the USAF would avoid flirting with further unconventional parasite projects but the concept persisted. Attention shifted from the purpose-built tiny aircraft that could be wholly contained within the fuselage of the carrier aircraft to some means of bringing a conventional fighter aircraft along for the ride.

The focus of initial development was on wingtips. German engineer Dr Richard Vogt had come up with the concept of increasing range by connecting two aircraft at the wingtip and experiments in support of this had been conducted in Germany on two light aircraft during the war. Having emigrated to the US under the auspices of Operation Paperclip Vogt’s concept of wingtip towing provoked interest, initially in the concept of a manned light aircraft acting as a fuel tank for the larger aircraft. Experiments began with a C-47 and a Culver PQ-14, the two aircraft were not able to engage or disengage but were attached by a leather strap that was slack for take off and landing allowing the two aircraft to fly in formation. At altitude the strap was winched in by the C-47 until the wingtips abutted.

Culver PQ-14 flown by Clarence E ‘Bud’ Anderson having successfully coupled in-flight with the C-47. Anderson had flown in the same squadron as Chuck Yeager during the war, coincidentally Yeager was the fourth test pilot to couple the PQ-14 during these tests. (USAF)

Meanwhile it was realised that as well as a fuel tank the wingtip towing system might work with an escort fighter that could attach or detach at will. The B-29 and F-84 were selected as the obvious choices for this application but as no studies had been done on the feasibility of the system the USAF returned to the C-47/PQ-14 pairing for further experiment. In the course of tests flown in 1949 it was found that the little Culver could indeed dock and undock from the C-47’s wingtip but that it was not easy at first. Vortices around the wingtip of the larger aircraft were difficult to overcome and once attached the pull on the Culver’s wingtip constantly tried to roll the aircraft over. Test pilot ‘Bud’ Anderson found he could counteract the rolling tendency by using the elevators (somewhat counter-intuitively) but the rolling issue was a harbinger of things to come. Despite early difficulties Anderson found that with practice coupling and uncoupling the aircraft could be achieved relatively easily, even at night. Not everyone had the same experience, of the nine pilots who ultimately flew these tests, two were unable to achieve contact.

Experience garnered from these experiments suggested that a F-84 Thunderjet/B-29 Superfortress combination was potentially practical. Flight test of suitably modified F-84s and B-29 began in 1950 codenamed Project MX-1016 but more commonly known as Tip-Tow. From the outset this was a more difficult prospect than hooking up the little Culver to a C-47. Wingtip vortices were more severe and the wing of the B-29 proved considerably more flexible than the C-47. Nevertheless, hook-ups and disconnections were demonstrated, first with one fighter and then with a pair, the first hookup of both F-84s with the Superfortress occurred on 15th September 1950.

Not as crazy as many 1950s projects, Tip-Tow was demonstrated to work even though it proved to be catastrophically fatal. (USAF photo)

The pilots of the F-84s found that they could shut off their engines and restart in flight and the whole concept appeared to be feasible, subject to overcoming some teething issues. Chief amongst these was that, just like the Culver attached to the C-47, the Thunderjet pilots had to continually control their aircraft in the tow to prevent them rolling over onto the Superfortress. Republic Aircraft developed an automatic control system to prevent this which was in testing by March 1953. On 24 April 1953, the left-hand F-84 hooked up and the automatic system was switched on. The F-84 immediately flipped over onto the wing of the B-29 and both crashed with loss of all five B-29 crew and the F-84 pilot. The pilot of the right-hand F-84 of the bomber was Bud Anderson but he was able to pull up and away from both aircraft. This accident effectively ended Project MX-1016 but it did not quite spell the end for the wingtip attachment concept.

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The USAF had expended time, effort and lives but the B-36 was still just as vulnerable as when they had started and a different parasite concept was now proposed. If the large and slow B-36 were vulnerable, why not have not have it carry a small, fast aircraft to the vicinity of the target and have that deliver a tactical nuclear weapon while the big B-36 aircraft loitered safely out of range of any air defences? This concept came to be known as FICON for FIghter-CONveyor. Once again the F-84 was chosen as the parasite, an F-84E was modified with a nose hook and a B-36 was fitted with a trapeze. Initial tests, once again flown by Bud Anderson, proved that the concept was workable but the F-84, most of which stuck out below the carrier plane, was causing too much drag and compromising range capability. The decision was made to switch to the swept-wing F-84F and to get more of the new aircraft to fit into the bomb bay its tailplane was given extreme anhedral. At the nose the aircraft received the all important hook to achieve recovery. It was a tight squeeze – once loaded into the bomb bay of the B-36 there was only 6 inches of ground clearance and the parasite’s external fuel tank (or atomic weapon).

FICON Republic RF-84K in the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The FICON RF-84s served as conventional reconnaissance aircraft for years after the demise of the FICON programme. Note insane amount of anhedral on the tail. (USAF photo)

Although a possible nuclear strike role remained as an option for the combination, the primary role for the aircraft was now seen as strategic reconnaissance. During 1953, whilst the new parasite was being prepared, the original F-84E and B-36 combination flew simulated reconnaissance missions against Air Force Base targets in the US. USAF fighters were only able to intercept the ‘hostile’ aircraft on two out of six missions and it was concluded that the FICON system had a good chance of successfully penetrating the air defence network of the Soviet Union. The success of these missions and the suspicion that the B-52 (which had first flown in 1952) would soon render the system obsolete added an urgency to the programme and developmental flying continued apace. The ubiquitous Bud Anderson flew the first trapeze tests with a swept wing F-84 and Republic built 25 production RF-84Ks specifically for the FICON role. On December 7th 1955  the first operational hook-ups of B-36 with parasite RF-84K fighters was achieved. Capt. Bobby Mitchell took off in his RF-84K from Larson AFB and rendezvoused with Maj. Clyde Perry’s crew in their GRB-36D bomber. Mitchell flew his Thunderflash onto the trapeze and Lt. O.C. Rutter raised the RF-84K into the bomb bay. Once safely stowed with the bomb bay doors closed up against the fighter’s fuselage, Mitchell climbed out to greet Rutter. After a cup of coffee with the crew, Mitchell climbed back into his fighter, was lowered, restarted his engines and flew off. A couple of hours later, Lt. Walter Rudd became the second parasite pilot to hook up and detach. Before releasing the second fighter, the GRB-36D made a low pass over Larson AFB and Maj. Oscar L. Fitzhenry, the 348th BS operations officer, was quoted as saying, “Results proved to be above and beyond our greatest expectations.” Perhaps. In reality hookups with the carrier aircraft proved challenging for experienced test pilots under ideal conditions. In combat or in adverse weather, by regular service pilots, they proved extremely difficult and several RF-84Ks were damaged attempting the manoeuvre. Operations were maintained for a year or so but the success of both air-refuelled B-52s and the U-2 in the nuclear strike and reconnaissance roles respectively doomed the obsolescent B-36 and FICON was consigned to history.

Not sure who they were selling it to exactly but this glorious Convair FICON advert is pleasingly economical with the truth. ‘The most effective and versatile aerial weapon in history’ Hmmm.

Bizarrely, whilst FICON development was in full swing, it was decided to have a look at wingtip-towing again. One of the FICON B-36s was suitably modified for towing swept wing RF-84Fs using a claw system. As before, wingtip vortices made hooking up difficult and the procedure was just as problematic as ever. Eventually on September 23rd 1956 test pilot Beryl Erickson made contact with the wing tip of the JRB-36F with a small angle of yaw. Immediately, his Thunderflash started to pitch up and down violently. There was no emergency method to sever the connection between the aircraft, so the RF-84F ultimately tore the wingtip clean off the larger aircraft, part of the JRB-36F scissors mechanism remaining firmly clamped in the jaws of the Thunderflash’s claw. No one was hurt but this incident predictably ended Project Tom-Tom flight tests.

Project Tom-Tom utilised a claw method to fulfil the same function as Project Tip-Tow. The results were identical, though mercifully not fatal this time. (Lockheed Martin photo)

3. Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk and USS Macon and Akron

A Sparrowhawk hooks onto USS Macon’s trapeze. The horseshoe shaped object at the left will swing down on its arm to steady the rear fuselage, before the aircraft is pulled up into Macon’s hangar. (USN)

The US Navy stuck with the large rigid airship as a potential instrument of war long after other major powers had abandoned these giants as impractical and dangerous. At least, as the world’s sole major producer of helium, the American airships were an order of magnitude less flammable than their European equivalents. The fantastic endurance possible with a large airship operating in a scouting role was attractive but the vulnerability of such a massive and relatively slow vehicle could not be overlooked. It was schemed that the airship would not directly reconnoitre anything of interest but stand off at a safe distance and despatch conventional aircraft to investigate more closely. Following successful trials with a Vought UO-1 and the Zeppelin-built USS Los Angeles, the trapeze system for launching and recovering aircraft in flight was fitted to the Navy’s two newest dirigibles USS Akron and the slightly later Macon. The aircraft ultimately employed for the task, the Curtiss F9C, was a pre-existing design that Curtiss had developed in response to a requirement for a lightweight carrier fighter. The original requirement was abandoned, though the Curtiss had been adjudged the best of the three designs submitted for test and thus when the new requirement for a similar aircraft for airship use came about, with an emphasis (for obvious reasons) on small size and low weight, the Curtiss fighter fitted the bill more or less off-the-shelf. Or at least up to a point, the F9C was advanced in that it was Curtiss’s first aircraft to feature a metal monocoque fuselage as well as stamped aluminium wing ribs but it was hardly suited for the observation role it was ostensibly tasked with. The pilot had a hell of a lot to keep him occupied, ‘normal’ 1930s reconnaissance aircraft took along a second crewman as an observer and operate the radio but no room for him in the Sparrowhawk. The tiny cockpit had nowhere convenient to put the radio morse key, and where it ended up made its use awkward. There was no room at all for the navigation/scouting board, so it was mounted on the control column. Interestingly the F9C retained its carrier capability, an arrestor hook could be fitted and on at least one occasion the Sparrowhawks flew down from their unique aerial aircraft carrier to land on the conventional nautical aircraft carrier USS Lexington. Ultimately eight would be built including two prototypes. All would see service from the flying aircraft carriers, with brief but considerable success.

The immense size discrepancy between the airship and its fighters is vividly displayed by USS Macon and two of her Sparrowhawks approaching the trapeze. A mere 40 feet shorter than the Hindenburg, Macon and Akron remain the largest flying objects ever built in the USA. (USN)

First of the dirigibles to fly in September 1931 was USS Akron which could carry three of the diminutive parasite Sparrowhawks. As first flown however, neither Akron’s trapeze system nor her aircraft were ready and it would be a full seven months before she could boast her full complement of scouting aircraft and the crew to fly them. By then the necessity for her aircraft had became painfully obvious. In January 1932 Akron failed to find an “enemy” flotilla during an exercise, embarrassingly (though unsurprisingly perhaps) the massive airship was herself spotted by two destroyers within the force she was unable to find. The first F9C hooked on to Akron’s trapeze in May 1932 but she was again aircraft-less when she participated in June’s Pacific fleet exercises. Akron at least managed to sight the ships she was scouting for this time but was immediately intercepted by 13 carrier aircraft. Her commander Charles E Rosendahl gamely stating that it was “perfectly apparent” the Sparrowhawks would have fended off their attackers had they been aboard. Over the next few months launching and recovery operations from Akron’s trapeze were perfected but time was not on their side as Akron was lost in a thunderstorm less than a year later on April 3 1933. Tragically only three men survived from the crew of 84.

The amusing badge sported by the Sparrowhawks of USS Macon delights in its trapeze imagery. Higher command disapproved however and these were removed from the aircraft for their last few months of operations.

Barely a fortnight later USS Macon emerged from her hangar for the first time. Modified with experience gained from the Akron she was a notably more successful ship capable of carrying five Sparrowhawks as opposed to the earlier airship’s three. Over the next two years the Macon and her Sparrowhawks would be kept busy, developing the art of operating from the trapeze and eventually becoming a well-honed and efficient scouting platform. In the course of these operations it was realised that the aircraft did not require their landing gear so it was removed and replaced with an external fuel tank, allowing a 30% increase in range. Her greatest moment occurred in July 1934 when Lieutenant Commander Herbert Wiley, one of the three survivors of the Akron crash, took the Macon on an unauthorised jaunt to show his superiors what she was capable of. Wiley knew that President Franklin Roosevelt was due to be travelling from Panama to Hawaii aboard the heavy cruiser Houston with a second cruiser as escort. With nothing more than newspaper reports to go on, he calculated an intercept course from Moffett Field, California (named incidentally, after Admiral Moffett who had lost his life in the Akron disaster) based on his estimate of the Houston’s course and speed and set off to prove the value of the airship as a strategic scouting platform. At 10am the next day Wiley believed they should be at the correct position to effect an interception and launched two Sparrowhawks. Sure enough, just before noon, the aircraft found the President’s ships.

A blurry image but this is one of relatively few known photos showing a Sparrowhawk after its undercarriage had been removed. (USN)

On board the Houston, confusion reigned as to where these small aircraft had come from as all US carriers were known to be in the Atlantic at that time. Confusion briefly turned to fear as some observers mistook the Sparrowhawk’s belly fuel tank for a bomb. But more knowledgeable heads pointed out the telltale ‘skyhooks’ mounted on the top wings of the mystery aircraft. After returning to the Macon, the Sparrowhawks flew low over the Houston and dropped the latest newspapers from San Fransisco as well as stamps franked with a special Macon cachet – Wiley knew Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector. “The president compliments you and your planes on your fine performance and excellent navigation” radioed the Houston. Navy top brass were less thrilled by Wiley’s failure to reveal the true nature of the trip and the fact that Macon had been out of communication for many hours. Disciplinary action was threatened but ultimately called off, allegedly after the intervention of Roosevelt himself. Buoyed by his success, Wiley was eager for the Fleet manoeuvres set for Spring 1935, training in air operations had been intense and the Macon was now fitted with a radio homing beacon allowing the Sparrowhawks to return to the airship no matter what course they or it followed after launch. This feature made it the first, and to date only, genuinely effective airborne aircraft carrier. It was arguably the finest  very-long-range airborne early warning system of the pre-radar age and Wiley was keen to prove his ship’s true worth.

In-flight retrieval of the Sparrowhawks was acknowledged to be difficult. However, no serious mishaps befell any of the eight built while operating from the airships. (USN)

However it wasn’t to be, the Macon had suffered damage in severe turbulence over Texas in April 1934. Temporary repairs had been made but never completed and when she was caught in gusty conditions over the Pacific in February 1935 an ill-defined report of damage in the area where the repairs had not been completed led Wiley to order ballast to be dropped and the engines throttled to idle. Either too much ballast was dropped or the engines were delayed in idling as the Macon shot up above her ‘pressure height’ (the altitude at which the gasbags start to automatically vent helium through emergency valves to prevent from rupturing). She remained above pressure height for a full sixteen minutes, venting helium until the inevitable happened – too much gas was lost to sustain flight and the huge Macon plunged, relatively slowly, but uncontrollably, into the water, taking four Sparrowhawks with her. Lessons had been learned since the loss of the Akron, Macon carried lifejackets and rafts both of which had been absent from Akron, and only two of the 83 men on board lost their lives. Herbert Wiley had now survived the loss of both the US Navy’s most advanced airships. Sadly, there was no longer an appetite to replace such a costly behemoth as the USS Macon and the world’s only flying aircraft carrier was consigned to history.

2. North American X-15 and Boeing NB-52

Less than a second after release, the X-15 drops away from its NB-52 mothership (the ‘N’ stands for NASA). Every photo taken of X-15 operations looks utterly terrifying. (NASA photo)

Most of the US X-planes were parasites and the most exciting of the lot was the X-15. Back in 1947, Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 past the speed of sound and into the history books. Back then Yeager had the luxury of being able to hang out in the relative comfort of the B-29 mothership until they were high enough to begin his flight, then he just had to climb into the X-1, close the door and whizz off into the wild blue yonder. Ten years and 3000 mph later the X-15 was too big to be crammed into a fuselage, even in the cavernous bomb bay of a Stratofortress. The X-15 pilot had to sit in his restrictive pressure suit in the tiny cockpit of the X-15, slung under the wing of the NB-52, from before take off all the way up to release altitude.

When the chase plane is an F-104 chances are whatever it’s chasing is very fast indeed. However, the lack of exterior frost on this particular X-15 belies the fact there’s no fuel on board and that this was an unpowered test. (NASA photo)

The X-15 flights may have taken place over fifty years ago but they are still incredible. In 199 flights over just under ten years it repeatedly exceeded height and speed records and remains the fastest manned aircraft ever flown (Mach 6.7 which equates to 4520 mph (7274 km/h) or a shade over 2 km per second). On two occasions it exceeded the Kármán line, 100 km up, and as such is generally considered to have entered outer space. The NB-52 that launched nearly all these tests was possessed of some interesting superlatives too. NB-52 ‘Balls 8’ was built in 1955 as an RB-52 reconnaissance model and was acquired by NASA in 1959 specifically for X-15 mothership use. Fitted with a pylon between the fuselage and engine pod, Balls 8 was subsequently employed on many other projects, particular highlights being the hypersonic X-43, various lifting bodies such as the X-24 and Pegasus, a rocket capable of taking a payload from the NB-52 to low Earth orbit. Balls 8 was eventually retired on 17 December 2004 (101 years to the day after the Wright Brothers’s first flight) at which point it was the oldest active B-52 in service and the only active B-52 still flying that wasn’t an H model. Somewhat counterintuitively it also had the lowest total airframe time of any operational B-52. It is now on public display at Edwards AFB.

Who’s this cool customer? He made the longest duration X-15 flight ever (12 minutes) but he’s more famous for his adventures in a different vehicle. That’s right: it’s everyone’s favourite purveyor of small leaps and giant steps, Neil Armstrong. I guess the X-15 represented one medium leap for mankind. (NASA)

The X-15 programme was extremely successful and unusually safe considering the extreme nature of the flight regime it was exploring. But there were accidents, one X-15 broke its back on landing, another rolled on landing, leading to crushed vertebrae for its pilot John McKay. Worst of all was Flight 191. Due to the aircraft yawing in the extremely thin air at 266,000 feet (82 km), the X-15 ended up entering denser air at lower altitudes whilst at right angles to its direction of flight. At 230,000 feet the aircraft entered a Mach 5 spin. Despite managing to recover from the spin at 118,000 ft pilot Michael Adams found himself hurtling downwards, upside down, at over four times the speed of sound. It should have been a relatively simple matter for Adams to roll the aircraft back to normal and effect a landing but a fault in the X-15s control system led to the aircraft pitching up and down wildly, pulling 15G with each oscillation. The aircraft disintegrated 10 minutes, 35 seconds after launch, killing Adams.

Sadly, this site will pause operations if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here and keep this aviation site going. Many thanks

NB-52 ‘Balls 8’ at altitude before dropping a fully fuelled X-15. Note the white patches on the fuselage where ice has formed on the liquid oxygen tanks. (NASA)

The accident completely changed the attitude of both the Air force and NASA to the X-15 and despite both parties agreeing to finance further tests throughout 1968, only another eight flights would be made. The potential benefits of X-15 flights were no longer considered worth the high cost and considerable risk and the final flight was made by Bill Dana in October 1968. Thus ended the flying career of the most spectacular parasite aircraft in history. Never again would a research aircraft be this thrilling.

1. Звено’ SPB: Polikarpov I-16 and Tupolev TB-3

The TB-3/I-16 Zveno-SPB remains the only manned parasite combination to be used in combat. It was surprisingly successful.

In July 1941 an oil depot in the Romanian town of Constanţa was dive-bombed by Polikarpov I-16s. Not in itself, one would think, a particularly surprising act given that the war on the Russian Front had begun in the previous month. However this particular raid caused considerable confusion amongst the Germans and Romanians who witnessed it. Constanţa was well beyond the range of a Polikarpov I-16, let alone one loaded down with bombs, so where had these fighters come from?

The answer of course was that they had been carried there under the wings of a mothership. They were the parasitic attacking component of the ‘Sostavnoi Pikiruyuschiy Bombardirovschik’  (‘Combined Dive Bomber’), and were the ultimate expression of a concept called the ‘Zveno’ (‘Link’) or ‘Aviamatka’ (Aerial Mothership). The Zveno was the brainchild of Vladimir Vakhmistrov, engineer and occasional test pilot of the Soviet Air force test institute (the NII VVS). He had worked on the concept for a decade before the beginning of hostilities and now was its time to shine.

The first iteration of Vakhmistrov’s Zveno concept featured a Tupolev TB-1 bomber and two Tupolev I-4 fighters.

The method for getting the parasites onto the wing of the TB-1 was simple but effective: shove them up a ramp.

Vakhmistrov had specified four potential applications for his Zveno concept, the delivery of fighters beyond their conventional range, providing bombers with escort fighters all the way to and from the target, the ability to equip fighter-bombers with heavier bombs than they would be able to take off with on their own, and the simple expedient of using the added thrust of parasite aircraft to get a heavily laden bomber into the air. Initial experiments involved a twin engine TB-1 bomber and two I-4 parasol monoplane fighters. The I-4 was normally a biplane but for Zveno use the bottom wing was removed in order to clear the TB-1’s propellors, with apparently no discernible change in performance or handling. First flight of this combination ‘Zveno-1’ occurred 3 December 1931 with the I-4s piloted by A. F. Anisimov and a pre-fame Valery Chkalov, who would later attain something akin to superstardom for his test piloting exploits in the mid-thirties. Vakhmistrov himself directed proceedings from the front turret of the bomber.  An error in the sequence of releasing the parasites by the bomber crew resulted in one of the fighters prematurely separating and the other remained firmly locked to the wing. However the TB-1 and attached I-4 remained in controlled flight and the second fighter was soon released without further incident. Later, release control would be handled by the pilots of the parasites, normal procedure being to release the tail lock first so that the aircraft came under the control of the pilot, then pull back on the stick to separate completely from the TB-1.

The world’s first docking between two fixed wing aircraft in flight was accomplished with ‘Zveno-5’, comprising a TB-3 and a Grigorovich I-Z. This procedure has hardly become commonplace however, which is something of a shame.

With the concept proved to be workable, Vakhmistrov set about testing various combinations of aircraft and theorising operational uses for his Zveno. Early experimentation was largely concerned with discerning which aircraft types were best suited to the system and maximising the amount of aircraft that could be connected. A TB-1 with the somewhat more potent Polikarpov I-5 as the parasites flew in 1933 designated Zveno-1a. More radical was Zveno-2 which added a third I-5 over the fuselage, this time to a four engine Tupolev TB-3. As with Zveno-1, the addition of the extra thrust of the added aircraft more than overcame any drag or weight penalties they incurred and performance was actually enhanced over a conventional TB-3. Fitting the I-5s to the wings was a relatively simple affair utilising ramps and muscle power but attaching the central Polikarpov onto its mounting was an order of magnitude more difficult. Rather than going through the rigmarole of getting it into position the I-5 was just locked in place, acting as a fifth engine for the TB-1. Eventually the wings and tail were removed and the Polikarpov fuselage acted solely as an engine nacelle, albeit one with a ‘pilot’ on board to operate the engine controls.

Zveno-3 reversed the overwing approach taken so far and fitted two parasites under the wings of the TB-3, these being Grigorovich I-Z monoplanes. The I-Z was itself an interesting design in its own right, being a fighter fitted with two single-shot 76.2-mm (3 inch) recoilless cannon though these were removed for the Zveno trials. Despite being a monoplane, the fixed undercarriage I-Z possessed extremely limited ground clearance under the wing of the TB-3. This problem led to an unfortunately cumbersome system of operation wherein the wheels of the parasites and TB-3 all rested on the ground – the parasite mounting permitted vertical movement of the two underwing fighters relative to the TB-3 so that they could roll over uneven ground on take off. Once airborne, the parasites were to lock their respective mountings in a fixed position for flight; if the parasites were not rigid in flight, the bomber became extremely difficult to control. This unfortunately led to the only serious accident of the whole Zveno project when I-Z pilot Korotkov incorrectly timed the locking manoeuvre, broke the docking frame and crashed into the underside of the TB-3’s wing. As the bomber came in for an emergency landing with both fighters still attached, the slow landing speed of the TB-3 fell below the stalling speed of the I-Z, which fell away, killing Korotkov.

This accident was in contrast to the general success of the Zvenos so far and Vakhmistrov started looking at the possibility of re-docking the parasites in flight. It was felt that turbulence above the mothership would probably be severe and that a ventral trapeze would be the best approach for attempting the first in-flight attachment. This time the position of the trapeze precluded a conjoined take off so the two aircraft flew to altitude separately. On 23 March 1935, the TB-3 and I-Z performed the world’s first mid-air docking between two fixed wing aircraft to become Zveno-5.

Poor but genuine photo of the six-plane ‘Aviatmaka’, two I-5s, two I-16s, an I-Z and the TB-3 mothership. Although successful there is something faintly crazy about the whole thing. The combination was unofficially nicknamed ‘Vakhmistrov’s Circus’.

Attention had now shifted to an exciting new fighter, the Polikarpov I-16. The world’s first low-wing, retractable undercarriage, cantilever monoplane fighter was somewhat beyond the state-of-the-art in military aircraft design of the early thirties. One feature in particular lent itself to Zveno use: retractable undercarriage. When mounted under the wings of the TB-3 with gear up, the I-16 offered sufficient ground clearance to do away with the unwieldy attachment of the I-Zs. Vakhmistrov set to immediately with Zveno-6 which mounted two I-16s under the wings. Despite the groundwork of Zveno-5, these were not able to reattach in flight but the developed Zveno-6 featured a retractable trapeze under each wing onto which the I-16s could attach or detach at will. The procedure, whilst demonstrated to be possible, was deemed too difficult for service use however.

Final fling of Vakhmistrov’s pre-war experiments was the ‘Aviamatka’ which appeared in public carrying five parasites, the lower component of which could attach or detach at will. Vakhmistrov’s plan was for one TB-3 to be accompanied by eight I-16 parasites as a form of long-range airborne patrol craft. The parasites would never all hook on at once but rotate, attaching or detaching as required. They could also take on fuel from the mothership. Although some tests were carried out in support of this concept, including in flight fuel transfer, the full eight-parasite composite never saw the light of day. The Aviamatka was seen as simply too cumbersome to be effective. Despite this, interest in a simpler twin-parasite I-16 carrier to function as a composite bomber continued, especially from the Navy. Ultimately only six operational Zveno-SPB’s comprising six TB-3s with twelve I-16s were delivered, forming the 2nd ‘Special’ Squadron attached to the 32nd IAP (Fighter Regiment) of the 62nd Aviation Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet. They were stationed in Crimea.

Pictured with two 250 kg bombs, more than double its normal bombload as a conventional fighter-bomber, the diminutive I-16 mated to the TB-3 vindicated the Zveno concept in action. Further development did not arise.

In the opening stages of the Great Patriotic War, the Black Sea Fleet Air Force was tasked with destroying industrial targets in Romania. The most important of these was the King Carol I bridge over the Danube which carried the Ploiești-Constanţa oil pipeline from the oilfield at Ploiești and was critical for the Axis war effort. After several attempts to destroy the heavily defended bridge with conventional bombers, the target was given to the Zveno-SPB squadron though as a combat test, it was decided to attack the oil depot first. On 26th July 1941, two Zveno-SPB aircraft performed a textbook attack on the depot in daylight with no losses. The fighters disconnected 40 km (25 miles) from the target and returned home under their own power. After this convincing demonstration, two raids on the bridge were flown, on the first the parasites successfully dive-bombed from an altitude of 1800 m (5,900 ft) and again returned home with no losses despite heavy anti-aircraft fire. The second raid took place on the 13th August 1941. Three Zveno-SPBs approached the target and the six fighters scored five direct hits on the bridge, completely destroying one of its spans. On the way back, the fighters strafed Romanian infantry and once again suffered no losses.

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It is not known how many missions were flown in total but it was probably around 30. As well as severing the oil pipeline, Zveno-SPBs were responsible for destroying a dry dock in Constanţa and a bridge across the Dnieper. This garnered some attention at high level as Soviet forces in general (and the air force in particular) were on the back foot in the first months following the launch of Operation Barbarossa. The main obstacle to getting more Zvenos into the air was the lack of TB-3s available fitted with the Mikulin AM-34FRN engine, variants with other motors not being sufficiently powerful to carry the bombed up I-16s. Admiral Kuznetsov asked Stalin for additional AM-34FRN-engined TB-3s from the Air Force so they could be converted to Zveno-SPB carriers but the request was denied. Aircraft losses were so great at this early stage of the war that the Air Force needed every conventional aircraft it could lay its hands on. The success of the Zveno-SPBs was acknowledged but it was undeniably a complex system and seen as a luxury the Soviets could ill-afford at this stage in the war. Operations continued into 1942 but by then it was becoming apparent that both the I-16 and especially the lumbering TB-3 were too vulnerable in the face of German numerical and technical air superiority and the briefly effective fighting career of Vakhmistrov’s incredible creation was over.


This book can only happen with your support. Preorder your copy today here. 

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


This book can only happen with your support. Preorder your copy today here. 

Myths & mistakes of the Falklands War: We ask Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward


Commander Nigel David ‘Sharkey’ Ward, DSC, AFC  is a retired British Royal Navy officer who commanded 801 Naval Air Squadron during the Falklands War. We asked him his view on British air operations during the 1982 war in which he fought. 

If you could have changed one thing about British air operations in the Falklands what would it have been?

“There are two subjects that continue to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

One is the completely disingenuous propaganda campaign conducted by the Royal Air Force immediately after the war which sadly persuaded the gullible British public that they, the RAF alone, had won the air war over the Falklands. The full story of this deception and attempt to rewrite history is told in detail in my new book, soon to be published.

Suffice it to say here that the Sea Harriers of the Fleet Air Arm conducted 1,500 war missions over the Islands. The small detachment of RAF ground attack Harriers in HMS Hermes flew about 150 sorties of which less than half were combat oriented. All the air to air combat kills were achieved by naval aircraft (indeed, it is worthy of note that all air to air kills by British forces since 1948 have been achieved by naval aircraft – not one by RAF aircraft – and yet they claim they won the air war in Operation Corporate, the Falklands war).


Adding insult to injury, the propaganda campaign glorified the small but extremely expensive part that RAF Vulcan bombers played in the conflict. The real facts are that of the 63 bombs dropped by the Vulcan in three missions against Port Stanley runway, only one bomb was on target and that only damaged the side of the runway which was repaired on the same day. The four other Vulcan missions delivering anti-radar missiles only managed to hit one small radar emitter, that of a radar-controlled anti-aircraft gun on the outskirts of Port Stanley. These seven missions had no material effect whatsoever on the course of the Falklands conflict. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking.

The suggestion that the Nimrod aircraft played any effective part at all in or near the combat zone is also facetious propaganda.

The second ‘bad taste’ is an in-house naval affair.

HMS invincible had been formally given the responsibility of Anti-Air Warfare Control (AAWC) ship which principally meant having full and direct control over all Sea Harrier assets, including those in HMS Hermes, for Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties on the outer ring of Task Force air defence. The AAWC established three permanent CAP Stations to the South-West, the West and the North-West of the San Carlos beachhead. Invincible’s instructions to the Sea Harrier air groups onboard each carrier were very clear. Each station had to be manned by a pair of Sea Harriers who would have to conduct their patrol at low level, thereby providing an up-threat barrier against incoming Argentine attack aircraft. HMS Hermes, the flagship, had 50% more Sea Harriers than Invincible and these were needed to ensure a complete and secure barrier against incoming threat aircraft.

What happened? Without informing Invincible, the Flagship ignored the AAWC and instructed their Sea Harrier CAP aircraft to station themselves directly above San Carlos Water at 20,000 feet.

This provided no deterrence at all to attacking aircraft. Low-level CAP Stations were left empty and through these empty stations came the enemy fighter bombers and delivered their attacks against beachhead units and forces. As a direct result, several warships were attacked and disabled or sunk: including HMS Ardent and HMS Coventry. After releasing their weapons and as they left the beachhead area, more than a few Argentine aircraft were destroyed by the overhead CAP aircraft – but it was “after the horse had bolted” and at the unnecessary cost of many brave lives and several ships. The loss of HMS Sheffield in the open ocean was also a direct result of the Flagship re-tasking CAP aircraft from the air defence barrier to search for surface contacts, again without any ‘by your leave’ to Invincible. An Étendard aircraft penetrated the empty CAP station and delivered its deadly Exocet attack.

Despite all this Flagship interference, 801 Squadron low-level CAP aircraft managed to turn away more than 450 Argentine attack missions. Without this success, the war could well have been lost.”
What was the biggest mistake of the Royal Navy?

“Bearing in mind that this round of Hush-Kit interviews relates to Operation Corporate and retaking the Falkland Islands, I find this question rather odd and misleading.

When Argentina invaded South Georgia and the Falklands, the firm response (to Maggie Thatcher in the hastily convened War Room) from the Chief of the Air Staff and the Chief of the General Staff was that the Air Force and the Army were powerless to intervene. The then Defence Secretary, John Nott, who was a rabid critic of maritime power (about which he knew nothing) immediately tried to prevent the Prime Minister from listening to the Chief of the Naval Staff and First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach. Nott was overruled and Sir Henry informed Mrs Thatcher, “Yes, Prime Minister. I can assemble a Task Force forthwith and retake the Falklands.” Delighted, she told Sir Henry to make it so.

That was how Operation Corporate was born.

Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief Fleet was appointed Task Force Commander and Royal Marine Major-General Jeremy Moore was appointed Land Forces Commander. He in turn appointed Brigadier-General Julian Thompson as Amphibious Brigade Commander. Sir John Fieldhouse appointed Rear-Admiral Sandy Woodward, then Flag Officer Mediterranean, as Commander Carrier Battle Group and Commodore Mike Clapp as Commander Amphibious Group. The Naval Service therefore provided all the Commanders of the Task Force elements (the Royal Marines, of course, being part of that Naval Service). By their own admission, the RAF could not provide any combat aircraft in support of the Task Force.

In four short days, the Naval Task Force was gathered, provisioned, armed and the Carrier Battle Group with 20 Sea Harriers embarked in HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible set sail for the South Atlantic amidst huge patriotic fervour. Two days before sailing, Air Vice Marshal “Blue Rinse” Menaul appeared on public television and stated categorically that the Task Force would fail ‘because it had no fighter air defence capability’! How wrong he was!

In relation to the Falklands War, the Royal Navy made no big mistake. They and the Amphibious Brigade land forces contrived and achieved a remarkable victory against all odds. The only major failure was that of the Royal Air Force who, despite their earlier outrageous claims to Ministers, were unable to provide the Task Force with any air defence or antisubmarine capability en route to the conflict or during combat operations. They have not yet been held accountable for this abysmal failure.

My new book attempts to rectify this.”

What is the greatest myth about air combat in the Falklands?


“Without banging the drum too much, the greatest myth about air combat in the Falklands is that generated by the RAF propaganda campaign post the conflict. They proclaimed loudly and strongly to the British public that the Royal Air Force had won the air war over the Islands and, thanks to the extraordinary silence of the Naval Staff, they were allowed to get away with it.

They managed to convince the British public through disingenuous inference and innuendo that the fighter combat that took place over the Islands was at the hands of the RAF. The very existence of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and Carrier air power was neither mentioned nor alluded to. And yet, clearly, it was carrier-borne Sea Harrier fighter aircraft and Royal Navy surface warships which won the day.


This was a disgraceful attempt to rewrite history and, because it was believed by gullible ministers and civil servants, resulted in a severe and misguided decline in investment in true maritime/Fleet power that may well come to haunt us in the near future. China’s claims over the South China Sea, through which much of our trade passes, will soon reach critical mass. We and our allies need to be able to contain China’s territorial aggrandizement. If we do not wish to become embroiled in a fighting war, we and our allies need to be able to deter this emerging military giant.


Our other interviews with Sharkey Ward are here and here

Deterrence through visible strength is the key to maintaining an acceptable peace.

And so the media, the Secretary of State, the House of Commons Defence Committee and our politicians should now be asking the question:

‘Following the investment of hundreds of billions of pounds sterling in land-based combat aircraft and supporting units over the past four decades, what can the RAF do in the South China Sea to deter the power grab by China?’

One or two Typhoon fighters supported by a £1 billion Voyager tanker flying out of Singapore on short range missions cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered an effective 24/7 show of force. Only well-armed fleets at sea can deter or effectively counter this sinister Chinese initiative.”





This book can only happen with your support. Preorder your copy today here. 

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


This book can only happen with your support. Preorder your copy today here. 


What the hell are ekranoplans and why they have they never really taken off?


Ekranoplans are among the most extraordinary machines ever built. The Soviet KM remained the largest aircraft in the world during the entirety of its existence. It was 20 metres longer than a Boeing 747, weighed over a million pounds and flew faster than a Spitfire just above the surface of water. Ever when Ekranoplans or ‘wing-in ground-effect’ vehicles are not warlike giants they are unique. Here’s an explanation of how they work, and perhaps why the big breakthrough has not yet happened. 

By Jim Smith
What is an Ekranoplan? Well, Ekranoplan is the Russian term for a class of air vehicle otherwise known as a Wing-in-Ground-Effect craft, or WIGE.
The best-known example of an Ekranoplan is the Caspian Sea Monster, otherwise more properly known as the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau KM, a very large WIGE weighing 240 tonnes empty, and up to 500 tonnes at maximum weight. The KM could cruise at up to 230 knots and was designed to operate at about 10 m above the surface of the water. The envisaged role was as a high-speed, high-payload, troop or equipment carrier, flying below radar detection over the sea.

So, let’s unpack Wing-in-Ground-Effect craft, to explain their operating principles, and from there, discuss their potential applications, and some of the issues that may affect their operation.

Wing Lift and Downwash
A conventional lifting wing can be thought of as generating lift through circulation about the wing, the circulation being shed at the wing tips as trailing vortices. These are the familiar vortices, often seen behind manoeuvring aircraft, but also visible as part-span vortices trailing from flaps, because of the change in circulation at the end of the flap. The circulation is generated as a result of the shape of the aerofoil, its camber and its angle to the airflow.
If we want to consider a simple representation of a lifting wing, we can represent this as a ‘bound’ vortex, lying across the span, with trailing vortices at the wing tips (this is called a lifting-line representation by aerodynamicists). In a steady flow, this representation will result in additional local air speed above the wing, and reduced speed below, and the pressure difference between the two surfaces of the wing will generate lift. Considering this model a little more, we can see that a lifting wing will generate an upwash ahead of the leading edge and outside the wing tips, and a downwash behind the wing, and between the trailing vortices.


This is a simplified representation is valid for low-speed flows without considering air viscosity. However, despite this, the model works surprisingly well, in describing the flow about a lifting wing.

Incidentally, the upwash outside the wing tips is why migrating geese travel in large V-shaped formations – each bird is exploiting the upwash outside the wing tip of the neighbouring bird ahead of it, reducing the energy it needs for flight.
Ground Effect
Pilots and their passengers are familiar with ground effect as a cushioning influence felt as the aircraft flares for touchdown. From a flow perspective, the ground or sea surface acts like a mirror. As the aircraft approaches the ground, the flow around it is changed because the downwash generated by the aircraft is modified.
Mathematically, this can be represented by introducing a mirror image of the aircraft into the flow, with the ground surface acting as the mirror. The equal and opposite influence of the mirror image aircraft increases as the physical aircraft and its virtual mirror image near the ground. The aircraft experiences greater lift, and less drag than in its usual free-air flying conditions.

Diagram 2
This results in the ‘float’ experienced by the pilot as the aircraft nears the ground. Normally, at least for light aircraft pilots, this is not a problem, and generally increases the pilot and passengers satisfaction with the flight. But if you have a large wing-span, like a sailplane or a U-2, ground effect can be a real issue – hence the need for spoilers, brake chutes and so on.
For civil transports, float is not good either, as it increases field length required, and can be particularly dangerous in wet conditions. A very gentle touchdown for an airliner will not only have used more runway than necessary, it can, in wet conditions, cause the aircraft to aquaplane, reducing braking action and dramatically increasing landing distance. Hence the desirable airliner landing is actually ‘firm’, and will be followed by the use of spoilers, lift dumpers and reverse thrust, all of which reduce landing distance and the likelihood of aquaplaning in wet conditions..

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Wing in Ground Effect Craft
Flying in ground effect seems to me a bit like slipstreaming a truck going uphill in my kombi. You get a boost from the aerodynamics of the truck, or from flying within a wingspan of the surface. The reduction in drag (and increase in lift for a WIGE craft) is real, and beneficial. Less power is required to lift a given load, or to get up the hill at the speed of the truck, and, for an Ekranoplan or WIGE, you can travel far faster than any boat.
But the geometry is a constraint. I don’t really recommend slipstreaming trucks in the kombi, because great awareness is required, and the penalty for mistakes could be severe. For WIGE, the beneficial effects taper off to near zero at about one wingspan above the surface. At this low altitude, the scope for manoeuvre is limited, because any significant roll angle may bring the ‘down’ wing tip too close to the surface. Similarly, the ability to climb to greater than a wingspan above the surface may be helpful in avoiding surface obstructions, in manoeuvring, or in passing over coastal features, but will come at the expense of requiring additional power.
What does this mean for WIGE design? At present, practical WIGE seem to fall into two distinct categories – relatively small people movers and absolute behemoths.
The smaller craft typically have capacity from 2 to a dozen or so people. The larger end of this group is represented by the Sea Wolf Express, proposed for use as a Baltic Ferry, while craft such as the RFB X-114 represent the sporting and utility end of the market.

The most successful Ekranoplan is the 125 tonne A-90 Orlyonok, but this has itself been dwarfed by the Caspian Sea Monster, and would have been further dwarfed by the Boeing Pelican Ultra concept, which was for a ground effect aircraft with 500 ft wingspan and a payload of 1270 tonne. The Pelican was supposed to take-off and land from the ground, but cruise over the sea most of the time.
Contrasting attitudes to WIGE Craft
One of the most interesting aspects of Ekranoplans or WIGE, is that there is some uncertainty about whether they are boats that fly, or flying-boats operating only at low altitude. The conceptual difference may appear trivial, but it seems to lead to substantial differences of view about their attraction or utility.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has identified three classes of Ekranoplans, which apply for craft carrying 12 or more passengers, based on the heights at which the craft can operate.

These are defined as follows:
Type A: capable only of operating within Ground-Effect i.e. no more than 1 wingspan above the surface;
Type B: temporarily capable of flying out of ground effect, but at no more than 150m above the surface;
Type C: capable of flying out of ground effect, at heights above 150m.
If we consider these vehicles to be ‘craft’ rather than ‘aircraft’, we can see some attractions. For example, a vehicle like the Sea Wolf Express could make a very impressive fast passenger ferry, as is envisaged for that craft, operating between Estonia and Finland.

A smaller version with perhaps two-seats, could be great fun as a sort of ‘flying jet-ski’ for whizzing about over rivers, lakes and calm seas.
And, if you are in the invasion or urgent freight business, the Russian Ekranoplans or Boeing Pelican, with payloads in the hundreds of tonnes and speeds above 200 knots look pretty impressive.
Potential Issues
So, what are the drawbacks? Why are sporting WIGE, fast ferries and Ekranoplan freighters not everywhere?
If we look at each of these potential uses in turn, we can see some potential issues. For all of these craft, the ability to become airborne will require quite a lot of power, mainly to overcome water drag up to the point where the craft can reach planning speed across the surface.

Diagram 2
This implies, for the sporting end of the market, significantly increased cost compared to a jet-ski. In addition, thinking about the alternative uses of sporting boats, it is not going to be possible to either fish, or tow water-skiers, behind a flying craft. Great for a runabout, or for what the Australians would call ‘hooning about’, but potentially an expensive alternative to either a jet-ski or a speedboat.

Operating economics are going to be the key driver for the fast ferry application, as well as safety and environmental considerations. One key problem faced by many operators of such craft is that, generally, the waterborne small fast ferries cannot carry cars, and this is likely also to be true for Sea Wolf Express class WIGE. As a result, operations are generally limited to passenger carriage, such as the routes operated in Sydney Harbour, along the Brisbane River or the Thames in London. Combinations of factors, such as bridges, tides and noise constraints, are likely to limit the practical applications of WIGE ferries around cities. This is not to say that short, high volume passenger services, linking destinations with good public transport at each end, such as proposed across the Baltic, would not be viable. But it is to suggest that this might be rather a niche market.
What about the behemoths? Well, the Russian giants have certainly demonstrated that such vehicles can be built and flown, and provide evidence that the carriage of a large payload is going to require huge dimensions and plenty of engine power. The Boeing Pelican Ultra concept is an interesting case study – although only a concept, the eventual design was huge, with 500ft wingspan, and a payload well in excess of 1000 tonnes. So, it can be done – why is this not happening? Well, largely because the commercial freight business is insanely competitive. Costs are pared to the minimum, and great attention is paid to operating economics. If, for example, you are shipping cars to the US in volume, it makes no sense to look at anything other than a ship (or building the cars in the US in the first place). The degree of urgency that would require such freight to arrive in a couple of days simply is not there. Far better and cheaper, to use either a container ship for general freight, or a specific type of vessel for more specialist needs.


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




Who has the ability to ignore these commercial realities? Well, the military, who might have a need for rapidly, and relatively covertly, landing tanks, troops, vehicles and artillery on the beach of some neighbouring country. Hence the proposed applications of the giant Ekranoplans are exclusively military. An additional factor seems to be that for these craft size does matter, and, in general, the bigger things are, and the more engines they need, the more they cost, not only to develop, but to acquire and operate.
The other common issue that will undoubtedly require some thought is the licensing of operators. The IMO approach is all very well, but, if the intent of flying out of ground effect (Class B and C) is to fly over bridges, vessels, potentially isthmuses and small islands, then the operation is moving into a zone where aircraft operating requirements may come into play.
Ekranoplans as Aircraft
What happens if you look at Ekranoplans and WIGE, not as watercraft, but as a new class of flying-boat? A couple of big issues immediately become apparent.
Firstly, if even a small WIGE is going to require a pilot’s license for its operation, and all the reporting and maintenance procedures that come with aviation, then the costs of either commercial or private operation are going to increase markedly.
And secondly, the existing airborne alternatives are immediately going to come to mind. One only has to consider aviation in Alaska to identify the large market for small utility aircraft operating as floatplanes. At the small to medium size level of operation, there is certainly a valid question as to whether a Cessna 206 or 208, or a Twin Otter class floatplane, might not be a better bet, particularly where something of the nature of a Cessna Grand Caravan on floats could be used, giving the flexibility of either land or water-based operation. All at a higher cost than a conventional ferry, of course, but fast and flexible.

Indeed, at this scale, it is difficult to regard the WIGE as anything other than an inefficient flying-boat, with small wing size that constrains operations to very low level, and increases the power needed to get airborne, and hence acquisition cost.
There is currently no military equivalent to the Ekranoplan ‘deliver the landing force to the beach’ capability except, perhaps for the large hovercraft used in small numbers by some Nations. But the utility of using 747 and similar freighters for delivering urgent air freight has become all too apparent in recent weeks as PPE and other equipment is moved, largely from China, to the rest of the world. And it is hard to look past the fleets of military freight aircraft as a capability for moving urgent military supplies to wherever the operational need demands.

So, reluctantly, I am forced to the view that the current Ekranoplan and WIGE systems are niche capabilities, looking for a viable market. I’d love to have a go in a small 2-person flying jet-ski, especially if no special operating license is required. But even given that desire, I am not sure I could get sufficient utility out of such a device to justify buying one.

The Sea Wolf Express Baltic fast ferry venture is an exciting opportunity, and there may well be other routes where similar ventures would be attractive, such as Vancouver to Victoria BC, or even Southampton to the Isle of Wight.
However, any operator is going to look hard at the alternatives – conventional vessel, hydrofoil, hovercraft or aircraft.
Anyone fancy building an Ekranoplan ferry for the ride across to Tasmania from Melbourne?

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. 

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9 gloriously weird aircraft (and one utterly weird British interplanetary spacecraft)


Here are ten monstrous flying machines that had they voices would have probably rasped, “master, why did you create me?”


9. Bartini Beriev VVA-14 (1972) ‘Millenium Balkan’


Robert ‘Ludvigovich’ Bartini was an aristocratic Italian aircraft designer. The Italian Communist Party sent him to the USSR following the Fascist take-over of Italy. It was the intention of the ICP that he would bring modern Italian know-how to the Soviet aviation industry to aid its fight against fascism.


Being an aircraft designer was an extremely dangerous occupation in Stalin’s terror state, being a foreign aircraft designer even more perilous. In 1938 Bartini began an eight year prison sentence. Despite spending the Great Patriotic War imprisoned, he still did a huge amount of design work, notably on the Tu-2 bomber.


Bartini also proposed the A-57, a long-range strategic bomber that could land on water and refuel by submarine.

He became one of the most important Soviet aircraft designers, and survived to design the exceptionally unusual VVA-14, designed to counter the threat of Polaris missile submarines. This was a wing-in-ground-effect vehicle, a type of aircraft which sits on the recirculated air that forms beneath wings at extremely low altitudes. Capable of taking off from land or water, the vehicle could fly far faster than any boat at ultra low-level while carry large loads. It could also fly at higher altitudes as a true aeroplane.


In collaboration with the Beriev Design Bureau, Bartini planned to develop the prototype VVA-14 in three phases. The initial M1 was to be an aerodynamics and technology testbed. The M2 would have a battery of 12 Rybinsk RD-36-lift engines to give full VTOL capability, and was to be fitted with one of the world’s first fly-by-wire flight control systems. The M3 would integrate weapons (including depth charges, torpedos and anti-shipping missiles), the Burevestnik computerised anti-submarine warfare (ASW) system and the huge Bor-1 magnetic anomaly detector (MAD).



Bartini died in 1974 and with him the momentum that drove the project. Like all Ekranoplans, being neither fish nor fowl no one quite knew what to do it with it and the the VVA-14 never entered service.


8. THK-13 Flying Wing Glider ‘Turkish Spirit’


Not outright weird but definitely an unorthodox design for its time. From an unexpected country with little or no background in aircraft production, the THK-13 flying-wing glider deserves to be on this list.

Met with harsh criticism for its looks, the THK-13 glider was a product of Turk Hava Kurumu (THK – Turkish Air Association), the aviation bureau of the young Turkish Republic. THK was established in 1925, only two years after the foundation of the republic itself. THK quickly set up a production facility and trained a core engineering team. It created several aircraft and glider programmes from the THK-1 to the THK-16. Of these, the THK-5 twin engine light transport and THK-15 two-seat trainer were the most successful.


The THK-13 design work was started in 1943 by senior engineer Yavuz Kansu. The prototype made its maiden flight on 26 August 1948 in Ankara, and was towed into the air by a Focke-Wulf Fw 44. During take-off, the towing cable ripped off and the glider went out of control, resulting in an emergency landing in a nearby field. The pilot, Kadri Kavukcu, survived without a scratch — and the prototype was quickly repaired in the field. Several hours later, it made another ‘first flight’, again towed by the Fw 44. This time landing safely back at the THK airfield.

Upon the news of the crash, local media jumped on the opportunity to blame THK for designing such a ‘weird’ aeroplane, speculating that such an unlikely looking machine was sure to fail.  The project was shelved until the next year. A flight on 29 September 1949 ended in a more severe crash, seriously wounding the pilot and sealing the fate on this extraordinary glider.

 Arda Mevlutoglu

You can find more unusual flying machines here. 


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7. Mississippi State University XV-11 MARVEL ‘The Marvel Superfan’

Looking like it flew straight through a wind tunnel taking the fan with it, the first all-composite aircraft was the Mississippi State University XV-11 MARVEL. MARVEL is a backronym standing for ‘Mississippi Aerophysics Research Vehicle with Extended Latitude’. The aircraft was build to continue research for the military into boundary layer control, an effort that had been ongoing since the 1950s. Accordingly, the MARVEL employed a blower driven by the engine to draw suction through more than one million tiny holes in the wings and fuselage. 40462-e7f78ebb18ce7e0561f87800be264cebThe aircraft also spurned conventional flaps in favour of wing warping to deflect the wing trailing edges. So far, so weird, but the good people of the Department of Astrophysics and Aerospace Engineering at the Mississippi State University weren’t stopping there and added a ‘Pantobase’ or ‘rollerboot’ undercarriage with tandem wheels fitted within two sprung wooden pontoons which were intended to allow operations from rough surfaces or water.

The ducted pusher propeller returned with little success in the Edgely Optica and RFB Fantrainer. 


The technologies of the XV-11 were first tested on the Mississippi State University XAZ-1 Marvelette of 1962

6. Tumonecotrans Bella 1, Russia (1994) ‘The Swamp Monster’


Our initial efforts revealed that Google video searches for ‘Trans Bella’, while distracting, are not helpful for researching rare Russian aircraft. What was useful however, was an ancient Russian website looking for investors in an utterly bizarre form of transportation.

The story starts in the Soviet Union in 1989. Alexander Filimonov wanted to build an aircraft that could operate from the Arctic regions, Siberia and the far east of Russia without airfields. According to the aforementioned (and extremely quaint) website “70% of aircraft maintenance costs in this region relate to airfields”.


On the other hand there are numerous natural flat airstrips in the form of lakes, rivers, marshes and fields. But even a rugged seaplane will struggle with marshes, and a helicopter or aeroplane needs special adaption (and a brave pilot) to operate from very thick snow or long grass. As the company’s website notes, “For example, the well-known Russian An-2 aircraft has three changeable takeoff and landing devices: wheel, ski and hydrofloat. The first two require runways.”



So how could an aircraft deliver cargo or people to such austere locations? Filimonov believed the answer was to combine the advantages of a ‘wing-in-ground’ effect ekranoplan with a conventional aeroplane. The result is a strange hybrid, with a horizontal ducted helicopter-like fan, a hovercraft-like ‘skirted donut’  – and pusher engines and wings. Here was a machine that could make very short take-off from extreme terrain, and do it in terrible weather conditions. Funding was never found for this extremely unusual project.


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5. Vought V-173/VF5U ‘Zimmers Skimmer’ 


The handsome Vought XF5U


In the 1930s, Charles H. Zimmerman advocated the  ‘discoidal’ aircraft with its  pancake-shaped fuselage acting as a lifting surface. Zimmerman had worked on NACA’s (later renamed NASA) early wind tunnels. Influenced by the circular designs of Cloyd Snoder, and the less ridiculously named Steven Nemeth and Richard Johnson, he took this concept a step further. He wanted to produce a circular VTOL aircraft capable of flights at unbeatable speeds and altitudes, and able to hover like a helicopter. This proved overly ambitious with contemporary technology, but earned Zimmerman a prestigious NACA award. Vought_V173_Rear_View

Zimmerman believed that discoidal aircraft could be capable of near vertical take-off and landings. They also promised excellent manoeuvrability, high speed and great structural strength.

The concept, nicknamed the ‘Zimmer Skimmer’, was radical and unlikely-  so Zimmerman set about demonstrating its veracity with a series of prototypes for both himself and the Vought company. The V-173 flew in 1942. Soon local residents were reporting UFOs, or they would have if the term existed (‘UFO’ was coined in 1953 by USAF). Nazi sympathiser and general douche Charles Lindbergh flew the type and found it handled extremely well, especially at low speed. Initial problems were centred more around the propulsion system, which used a complex geared system to route power to the propellers from the engine than the novel aerodynamic configuration.

One propulsion failure led to a dramatic emergency landing on a beach. As the aircraft landed the pilot spotted two utterly bewildered bathers in the aircraft’s path. Full braking effect was applied, resulting in the aircraft somersaulting over on itself. Thanks to the aircraft’s immense strength both the pilot and aircraft emerged unscathed.

HA-NH-MJ-19 1

Before the V-173 had flown, Zimmerman was working on its weaponised successor, the the Vought XF5U ‘Flying Flapjack’ for the US Navy. Fast, agile, well armed (six 50 cals or four 20mm cannon) and with a tiny take-off run the aircraft was a tantalising prospect as a carrier fighter. The geared propulsion system again proved troublesome, as did repeated operation of piston-engines and very large propellers at very high angles of attack. Development dragged on, and the war ended.

By 1947 the XF5U-1 was finally ready to fly. But propellers were passé, Vought was busy moving to Dallas and the ‘Pancake’ had run out of luck. Unusually, the US Navy ordered the aircraft be reduced to scrap. Vought’s chief test pilot Boone Guyton had been looking forward to flying the aeroplane and was extremely upset by this wanton destruction. He tried to physically stop the wrecking crew, but failed. The wrecking ball took a long time to destroy the immensely tough airframe, but eventually succeeded.

After it was destroyed and sent to the scrapheap someone remembered that the gearbox contained $6000 ($71,713 in 2020 dollars) worth of silver. Staff and security personnel scoured the scrapheap but failed to find the missing silver. Eventually the local scrap dealer who had hauled the wreckage away was caught by the FBI trying to sell the silver. But as Vought had made the mistake, it was found that the dealer’s actions were completely legal. The dealer kept the silver, and Vought was forced to pay back the Navy.

Screenshot 2020-06-18 at 18.54.41

The German AS-6 V-1 was a wartime effort by Arthur Sack. It is likely that Sack was influenced by the worker of Zimmerman.


4. Antonov An-14SH ‘Clodhopper’


The West believes the world should adapt to support its aeroplanes, whereas the Soviet Union believed the aeroplane should adapt to function in the world as it is.


The Antonov An-14 was a small tough short take-off and landing transport. It was intended to replace the hugely popular An-2 biplane, the only problem being that the An-2 was still doing its job very well and didn’t need replacing. Antonov gave up after only 332 units – which is small potatoes compared to the 18,000-plus An-2s. Perhaps as a punishment for lack of success, Antonov used the unlucky type for multiple experimental purposes. On January 22 1983, one aircraft took the sky with the indignity of a hovercraft undercarriage. This would have allowed the An-14Sh to have taken off or landed from any flat (or almost flat) surface from rivers to bumpy fields.  The huge drag and reduction in range and payload were unacceptable and the project did not carry only beyond the prototype stage though the idea may have influenced the later Bella 1.


3. Piaggio P.180 Avanti ‘The Buzzing Carp’ (1986)

If you’re a multimillionaire and you want a new private jet, you have many obvious if slightly unadventurous choices. Textron, Dassault, Bombardier, Gulfstream or Beechcraft will be happy to sell you a sleek, safe and refined jet that will perfectly fit any brief. If you’re feeling a bit quirky, you might even take a look at Pilatus and their PC-12, or maybe the stiletto-inspired HondaJet.


But if you’re not just a run of the mill multimillionaire, you’ll want a jet which will stand out on the apron when you fly into Samedan for a spot of snow polo. In that case, there’s only really one choice. The wonderfully weird Piaggio Avanti P.180.



Piaggio also used pusher propellers on P.166 which made an appearance in the 1960 film Plein Soleil

Ok, from some angles it’s a bit carp-like, but most of the time the Avanti gives off strong Thunderbirds-meets-Flight of the Navigator vibes. The fact that the turboprop engine and its propellers point backwards, the third, anhedral lifting surface at the front, the wing shaped fuselage, the T-tail and massive delta fin strakes, the scimitar shaped blades in the latest EVO version… it all adds up to something a child of the 60s would have imagined we’d all be flying around in today. Jeff Tracy would have definitely flown in an Avanti to get to and from Tracy Island.



Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Avanti is so different, because Piaggio has a history of making decisions against the grain. First, there was the P.2, an aerodynamically clean monocoque, low wing monoplane which flew in 1923, when most other manufacturers were busy bracing the wings of their biplanes with wires. But Piaggio’s place in the heritage of weird planes is assured by the P.7, an amphibian racer built to compete in the famous 1929 Schneider Cup Race, which forced designers and manufacturers to make ever more low drag designs and liquid-cooled engines, inspiring the Spitfire and the P-51 Mustang.


The P.7 had a streamlined and stunningly beautiful look, and to avoid the drag and weight of floats, it used hydrofoils to take off from the water. To make it “work”, the Italians came up with a very convoluted take-off procedure. To reach the speeds needed to attain lift on the hydrofoils, the P.7 had a water propeller at the back as well as an airscrew up front. Once the hydrofoils lifted the aircraft out of the water, a clutch would be engaged and switch the power to the front. It was an utterly mad idea and it never got airborne, but without that adventurous heritage which inspired the Avanti, the world of private aviation would be a lot more boring.

Conrad Quilty-Harper

2. Avro Canada VZ-9 Avrocar ‘The Malton Saucer’ (1959)

Wobbling drunkenly into this house party of weirdos, our next guest is a two-
place, triple-jet, circular wing, VTOL concept demonstrator with a special take on aerodynamics. A secretive joint undertaking of the Canadian government, Avro Canada, the US Army and the USAF from the late 1950s the Avrocar was a mid- century effort to embrace a scientific principle called the Coanda effect. This is the Bernoulli-like business of deliberately bending a jet of air flowing over a curve to generate controllable lift. In other words, the Avrocar is the silver, convex-bodied aerospace equivalent of Theremin music.

Bench testing and wind tunnel findings aimed at further harnessing Coanda theory remained inconclusive in the mid-1950s after some interest in the 1930s and 1940s. Everything from flying jeeps mounting recoilless rifles to big supersonic NORAD interceptors were briefly envisioned using this handy principle and a circular wing.

Exploded view of the Avrocar. (U.S. Air Force photo)
This being that gilded era of fabulous prototypes money was available to be thrown at a Coanda-based project, though not the CF-105 Arrow, apparently!
The result does look pretty cool to our jaded 2020 eyes, a throwback to shiny,
imagined futures long given up on. Unhappily, the gyroscopes of the day couldn’t regulate the Avrocar’s tendency to pitch and roll without constant pilot input. A t-tail and other modifications designed to further refine and direct airflow lent only minor improvements to controllability. Wheels were added in place of fixed circular moon lander style feet because the Avrocar couldn’t transition safely out of ground effect. It was only nominally safe in untethered flight at all and right away those two lovely plastic bubble canopies were replaced on the first example with racing car style roll bars at the cockpits. Luckily, the domes remained on the example sent to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and which you can see at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The Coanda effect was never harnessed well enough here to eliminate the dinner plate hanging from a string effect visible in film footage of the Avrocar taken outside
Avro’s plant in Malton, Ontario. Helicopters, STOL aircraft, hovercraft and motor
vehicles were already doing more than the Avrocar ever would. Perhaps some day composite materials and digital flight controls will combine to unweird the circular ducted flow wing and truly unleash the Coanda? We can only hope.

– Stephen Caulfield 

  1. British Rail Flying Saucer (1970)


British Rail, the much missed national rail service, couldn’t make a decent sandwich – but that didn’t stop them flirting with interplanetary nuclear fusion powered flying saucers. Simply squirt liquid fuel beneath the aircraft, ignite it with a series of lasers, create a nuclear fusion explosion and contain the highly radioactive explosion within a magnetic field. Then you can take 22 people to the moon (probably sustained on terrible sandwiches squeezed from toothbrush tubes). Unsurprisingly this radical patent was seen as a being rather too ambitious, but who knows, perhaps one day science will catch up with the imagination of Charles Osmond Frederick, a 1970s locomotive engineer.

You can find more unusual flying machines here. 


We launch our new beautiful book!


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

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


I can do it with your help.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Rewards levels include these packs of specially produced trump cards.

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


Top 10 Cold War Combat Carrier aircraft


By Bing Chandler. Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a British Pacific Fleet roundel sticker he can now fix you up.

The Cold War is generally considered to have lasted from 1947 with the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, to support free peoples resisting subjugation, to 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union. Initially it didn’t appear a promising time for carrier aviation, nuclear bombs were the future of warfare and at that time the only aircraft that could carry them were strategic bombers. These would not fit on a ship, although the USN had some ‘interesting’ ideas involving P2V Neptunes and one-way missions. With the invasion of South Korea by the North in June of 1950 conventional forces experienced a sudden re-interest, Mutually Assured Destruction sort of working by preventing the two super-powers annihilating the planet. Carriers and their aircraft would go on to see action in most of the events in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

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This Top 10 concentrates on combat aircraft in a vague attempt to keep to an actual ten for once, hence the absence of aircraft like the S-3 Viking, Gannet, and Vigilante. In an attempt to address obvious criticism just outside the 10, and in no particular order, were the Corsair II – which only stayed in production a few years longer than the A-4 which it was supposed to replace; the Super Étendard – couldn’t do anything a Sea Harrier couldn’t and needed a catapult to get airborne; Grumman Panther – did get the first carrier jet-on-jet kill, but barely had the performance of a Sea Hawk despite getting the more powerful Tay derivative of the Nene jet engine.

10. Hawker Sea Fury


Arriving just too late to see combat in WW2 the Sea Fury represents the final evolution of piston-engine fighters alongside the Bearcat and the Sea Hornet. All three of which have broadly similar performance and weaponry. Unlike the latter two however, the Sea Fury saw combat from the deck of a carrier.
Taking over from the Seafire FR47s onboard Triumph (not on this list because they were so damaged by carrier landings that the squadron AEO would only allow them to fly under wartime regulations, grounding them once the ship left Korean waters) the Sea Furies of HMS Thesus were the first to conduct patrols over the Korean Peninsula in 1950. These would be maintained by aircraft from Ocean, Glory and the RAN’s Sydney for the rest of the conflict.
Perhaps most famous for 802 NAS’ Sub-Lt ‘Smoo’ Ellis shooting down a MiG-15 on 9 Aug there was also at least one other probable MiG kill by Lt ‘Toby’ Davis also of 802 NAS the following day. As well as their air-to-air ability the Sea Fury could carry two 1000lb bombs or a collection of 60lb rockets. The former soon becoming the weapon of choice when it was realised the Fury’s bubble canopy gave the pilot an advantage in the dive-bombing role compared to the Firefly. These were used to great effect conducting close-air-support for Commonwealth troops and strikes on enemy and tactical positions. The pilots could also direct naval gunfire support, a task not without its problems such as asking a ship to correct its fire by nine miles, or the USS Missouri almost shooting the spotter down. [1]


Interview with Sea Fury pilot here.

After it was discovered that wing spars were being damaged catapulting them with bombs attached it was decided aircraft would be launched using RATOG. Between aircraft trickling off the front end of the ship after they failed to ignite and entering a vertical climb because the trim was set incorrectly it’s a wonder anyone ever got around to actually engaging the enemy! But they did with both Ocean and Glory achieving a record 123 sorties in a day between their Fury and Firefly squadrons, at least one Fury pilot conducting five sorties in a day.

The ten best piston-engined fighters here

As well as the Royal Navy the Sea Fury also operated from the carriers of the Australian, Canadian, and Dutch navies. Fast, well-armed, and with only a fair chance of flipping upside if the throttle is slammed open at low speed, the Sea Fury was the ultimate piston carrier fighter.
[1] Alan Leahy. Sea Fury From the Cockpit. Ringshall: Ad Hoc Publications, 2010. 68-69

9. Douglas A-1 Skyraider 


 ” …the greatest workhorse the Navy ever had. It was loved and trusted by those who flew it. A pilot who trusts his plane is a bold pilot. And bold pilots really do the job. “   Adm. Tom Connolly

Another design that entered service too late for the war for which it was intended the Douglas Skyraider was a single seat piston-engined aircraft that shot down MiGs. There the similarity with the Sea Fury more or less ends as the A-1 was designed as a dive/torpedo bomber rather than a fighter. Intended to replace the Avenger and the Dauntless the XBT2D-1 Destroyer II first flew in March of 1945, by April the USN had placed an order for 548 and thankfully changed the name to the AD-1 Skyraider. Part of the success was due to Ed Heinemann’s design team’s emphasis on weight reduction and simplicity inspired by an information bulletin that showed for each 100lbs of weight saved take-off would be reduced by 8’, combat radius increased 22 miles, and rate of climb increased by 18’ per minute. In total the team saved 1800lbs enabling the Skyraider to carry 8000lbs of weaponry, in something of a worrying trend for the USN this included plans for one way trips with a nuclear weapon.
Thanks to its promise and relatively low-cost orders for the AD-1 were not cut back at the end of the Second World War and the first squadron was formed in December 1946. With the invasion of South Korea Skyraiders from Valley Forge were soon in action conducting ground attack and minelaying operations. The following year VA-195 and VC-35 onboard the Princeton were called upon to make an attack on the Hwacheon Dam. Despite little training in the use of torpedoes the necessary modifications were made to the aircraft to allow them to carry the weapons including disabling the airbrakes. On 1 May, in what to date was the last aerial torpedo attack on a surface target, eight Skyraiders attacked the dam successfully disabling the control gates and preventing Communist forces from controlling water levels.
Remaining in service until 1968 AD-1s were also active in Vietnam, where as well as attack, close air support, and rescue missions they shot down two MiG-17s. The Skyraider’s only other naval user was the Royal Navy who operated it in the AEW role.
Remarkably long lived for an aircraft that was designed at the dawn of the jet age the Skyraider is probably unique in being the only aircraft to have been developed into single, two, three, and four seat combat variants.

8. Hawker Sea Hawk 


The Sea Hawk started as a private venture by Hawkers under the lead of Sydney Camm, also responsible for the Sea Fury. The initial concept being to replace the later’s Centaurus engine with a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet. After what, it must be assumed, was a lot of development work the P.1040 emerged as a tapered wing jet with the intakes and bifurcated exhaust based in the wing roots. Despite a lack of interest (this is disputed by some) from the Admiralty and the Air Ministry Hawkers produced three prototypes, the first flying in September of 1947 (again there is some debate on the prototypes’ chronology). Following successful carrier trials, the Royal Navy ordered 151 with the first front line squadron, 806 NAS forming in 1953. Ironically after all that effort, Hawkers only built the first 35 Sea Hawk Mk1 before turning over their Kingston factory to producing its ultimate evolution the Hunter. Development and production were transferred to their subsidiary Armstrong Whitworth who went on to produce over 500 in 6 principle marks adding bombing and ground attack capabilities to the basic day fighter’s 4 x 20mm cannons.

Arguably one of the most beautiful aircraft to take to the sky the Sea Hawk served with 13 front-line RN squadrons. In 1956 seven of these took part in the Suez conflict, with little air opposition they conducted bombing, strafing, and close air support missions. During one of these their strafing was accurate enough that the paratroopers they were supporting felt confident enough to advance while it was taking place. [2] Only two Sea Hawks were lost during the action, both pilots surviving, while a number of other aircraft recovered even with severe damage.

By the end of 1960, the Sea Hawk had left front line service with the Royal Navy having also conducted operations in Aden from Bulwark in 1958. At the same time, it was entering service with what would be its final operator the Indian Navy. Operating from the Majestic class carrier INS Vikrant the Sea Hawks of 300 INAS, the White Tigers, took part in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War which led to East Pakistan gaining its independence, becoming Bangladesh. Despite catapult problems the 18 aircraft of 300 INAS ranged across Bangladesh attacking air bases, ammunition dumps, and troop positions. Battle damage was repaired on board and all the aircraft remained serviceable during the ten days of operations.[3] Although formally leaving service in 1978 a Sea Hawk met the first three Sea Harriers for the Indian Navy over the Arabian Sea in 1983.

Also operational with the Royal Netherlands Navy until 1961 the Sea Hawk’s viceless handling, excellent visibility, and rugged construction make it one of the standout aircraft of the early cold war.
[2] Brian Cull. Wings Over Suez. London: Grub Street, 1996. 302
[3] Michael Doust. Sea Hawk From the Cockpit. Ringshall: Ad Hoc Publications, 2007. 60-61

7. Grumman F-14 Tomcat


To some the F-14 is the ultimate naval fighter, and they might not be wrong. However, in terms of the Cold War it doesn’t quite make the top ranks. Entering service in 1972 with VF-124 the F-14A inherited the TF30 engines from the F-111. These were less than ideal for a fighter, rapid throttle movements, especially pulling the throttle to idle, could cause the engine to stall. Like in that film you’ll have seen, where due to the wide spacing of the engines a flat spin developed due to the asymmetric thrust. There were similar issues operating above 30,000’ which forced crews to operate lower than ideal reducing range and endurance.

All these problems were solved, the range greatly increased, and take-off performance improved by the introduction of the F110 engine in the F-14B. These only started to enter service in 1987 though, four years before the end of the Cold War. By that point at least 24 Tomcats had been lost due to engine issues, around 28% of all losses. For variety one had also managed to shoot itself down with a Sparrow missile…

Despite this the F-14A did manage to cover the withdrawal from Saigon on its maiden cruise, engaged two Libyan Su-22 in the 1981 Gulf of Sidra incident, and engaged two Libyan MiG-23s in the 1989 Gulf of Sidra incident. Which at least shows a degree of consistency on the part of the USN and the Libyan Air Force. They also covered the Invasion of Grenada and intercepted the Egypt Air 737 carrying the hijackers of the MS Achille Lauro, appearing alongside the aircraft at night while an EA-6B jammed radio communications. Oh and one shot down a USAF RF-4C during an exercise, which is taking inter-service rivalry a bit far.

The F-14A was the Cold War Tomcat, it wasn’t perfect, and the pilots flew the engines as much as they flew the aircraft, but it was still a capable fleet defender.

Interview with an Iranian Tomcat ace here

6. Douglas A-4 Skyhawk 


Following on from the success of the Skyraider Ed Heinemann and his team produced a proposal for its successor. The USN specified an aircraft of no more than 30,000lbs to meet their range criteria for carrying a 2000-lb ‘special’ (in that way that a nuclear bomb is ‘special’) weapon. Laughing in the face of such limitations the Douglas design was half the weight while still meeting the requirements. The ‘special’ weapon leading to the characteristic stalky undercarriage. One of the weight saving measures was restricting the wingspan to 27’ enabling them to fit down carrier lifts without folding, removing the need for hydraulic actuators and allowing 2000 litres of fuel to be carried in each wing.

With the first operational squadron forming in 1956 two years later the Skyhawk was in action over the Lebanon. This and subsequent action in South East Asia led to improvements to the A-4s conventional weapons capabilities which expanded to carry a wide range of unguided and guided weaponry. At the same time max payload increased from 5,500lbs in the A-4A to 9195lbs in the A-4M.

Although the USN retired the A-4 from front line service in 1976 they were still operating from US carriers until October of 1999 in the training role. The Royal Australian Navy operated them from 1967 embarking on HMAS Melbourne until it was retired in the early ‘80s, the A-4G being wired for Sidewinders to provide an air defence capability. This was something the USN had also done for operations from its smaller ASW Carriers. The Comando de la Aviación Naval Argentina received 16 A-4Cs in 1971, later replaced with A-4Qs, to operate from the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, previously HNLMS Karel Doorman, previously HMS Venerable. However, due to issues with her catapult the majority of the Skyhawks missions were flown from shore, perhaps not surprising when using a third-hand carrier.

The Skyhawk was a classic of Cold War naval aviation, proving its capability and perhaps uniquely for this list a new operator took it to sea almost a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Brazilian Navy taking delivery of 23 ex-Kuwaiti Air Force A-4KUs in 1998 and by 2001 these were operating from the carrier Minas Gerais.

5. Grumman A-6 Intruder 


Following the Buccaneer into frontline service by around 18 months the first operational Intruder squadron VA-75 formed in November of 1963. The requirements that led to the Intruder were similar if slightly less ambitious than the British bombers, a two-man crew, radius of action of 300nm for close air support and 1000nm for long range interdiction, with a speed of 500knots. [4] Unlike the Buccaneer the Intruder also had a STOL requirement for USMC use during amphibious assaults, this led to the engine exhaust being deflected by 23° although ultimately this only featured on the first seven examples. It was however used during the types first flight the exhausts remaining vectored downwards throughout. After initial trials showed that the fuselage mounted airbrakes caused excessive turbulence over the tail plane when deployed they were moved to the wingtips giving the aircraft a distinctive appearance in the approach configuration. In a novel move to increase lift almost the entire trailing edge was used as flap with roll control being achieved through use of spoilers on the upper wing surface.
By 1965 VA-75 – The Sunday Punchers, were at war, using the advanced all-weather systems in the A-6 to strike targets at night, previously the North Vietnamese forces ally. Unfortunately, the systems were a bit too advanced and initially the aircraft suffered a 35% reliability rate. Improvements came with new radars and updates to the attack system known as DIANE. At the same time the USN undertook an effort to update all its mapping of North Vietnam, some of which was several miles out, to make sure the targets were where the Intruders’ systems thought they were.

The A-6 underwent a number of upgrades ultimately evolving into the A-6E with a sensor turret housing an infra-red camera and laser designator which were integrated with the avionics systems. After Vietnam, the Intruder took part in raids on Lebanon, Libya, Iranian shipping during the tanker wars, and as something of a swan song took part in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

Interview with A-6 Intruder aircrew here

After over three decades of service the A-6 was retired with no true replacement, diminishing the striking power of the USN’s carriers.
[4] Robert F Dorr. Grumman A-6 Intruder. Over Wallop: Osprey, 1987. pp 9

5. Blackburn Buccaneer 


Britain’s aircraft manufactures have never had much success making carrier aircraft, or land ones if you look at the Supermarine Swift and Gloster Javelin. It’s something of a surprise then that a company that had previously produced such crimes against aviation as the Blackburn Blackburn and the Firebrand somehow pulled it out of the bag with the Buccaneer.

Demonstrating that the Admiralty could do asymmetric warfare if they put their minds to it the Buccaneer specification was drawn up in response to the emergence of the Soviet Navy’s Sverdlov cruisers. This called for an aircraft able to carry a variety of stores, including a 2,500kg Red Beard tactical nuclear bomb, the abortive Green Cheese anti-ship missile [5], or 4000lbs of conventional bombs, at speeds of at least 550kts at sea level, with a minimum radius of action of 400NM at low level. [6] For 1954 these were ambitious criteria, so much so that Percival Aircraft after asking to tender read the full requirements document and changed its mind. Fitting it into the limited dimensions of a British carrier called for novel solutions. While some aircraft had used high-pressure air from the engines blown over the flaps to improve take-off and landing performance the Buccaneer took the concept to the next level. Bleed air from the engines was ducted over the wings from just aft of the leading edge, the flaps, and the tail plane. This increased the coefficient of lift and the angle of attack at the stall allowing smaller wings and tail plane. In turn this gave a smoother ride at low level where a larger tail plane would have made the aircraft overly sensitive. For comparison with a 25% bigger wing at a weight of 33,000lb the Sea Vixen had an approach speed of 125kts to the Buccaneers 124kts. [Ref]
In something of a Blackburn tradition, the initial Buccaneer S1 was under-powered, on launching from a carrier the acceleration was around 1kt per second. Unusually plans to rectify this were in hand as the S1 entered service and the S2 fitted with the Spey was operational only three years later. This improved the acceleration after take-off to 7kt per second and let later Buccaneers leave the carrier with a full load of fuel rather than having to take some from a passing Scimitar.

The Buccaneer is also notable for being the first aircraft to have a head-up display, providing steering cues to the weapons release point as well as an indication of the distance to go and the air speed.

Having a relatively peaceful time in RN service its major actions were helping enforce the Beira patrol in support of sanctions against Rhodesia, bombing the stricken tanker Torrey Canyon off Lands’ End in an attempt to burn off the crude oil, and launching from Ark Royal in mid-Atlantic to conduct a show of force over Belize to deter a Guatemalan invasion. Which is the kind of thing someone should write a book about.
[5] This was ultimately cancelled in favour of just lobbing tactical nuclear bombs in the general direction of enemy shipping before Martel was invented and some sanity restored.
[6] Tony Butler. British Secret Projects – Jet Bombers since 1949. Hinckley: Midland Publishing. Chapter 5
[Ref] Flight International 14 Jan 1971. 55-59

3. Chance-Vought F-8 Crusader


Attempting to prove anything the British could do the Americans could do better Vought produced two terrible jet powered fighters, the F6U Pirate and the F7U Cutlass. For professionals such as Supermarine this would have been considered a good warm up before producing something truly average like the Scimitar, Vought however fumbled the ball and produced the outstanding F8U Crusader instead.
Although powered by a Pratt & Whitney J57 like the F-100 Super Sabre the Crusader could fly further, faster, and higher while carrying more. To assist in getting the supersonic fighter onboard Vought used a variable incidence wing this allowed the pilot to maintain sight of the ship while flying slow enough to safely land. These were later modified to incorporate boundary layer control over the flaps, initially to allow the French Navy to land the Crusader on its smaller carriers by reducing the landing speed by 15kts.

The Crusader was active during the Vietnam War where it scored 19 air-to-air victories for 3 losses, the best ratio of any US aircraft. Armed with 4 x 20mm cannon it has frequently been called the last of the gunfighters, however it was upgraded through its life to carry an increasing range of stores allowing it to be used for ground attack missions as well as air defence. To provide the Essex Class carriers with an all-weather fighter from the F-8C onwards a new Magnavox radar was introduced with a larger dish. This allowed it to operate the AIM-9C, the only version of the Sidewinder to be radar guided giving it a head-on capability the IR version wouldn’t get until the AIM-9L in 1977. [Ref] However, being closely tied to the Crusader’s radar the 9C gave up the Sidewinders ability to be hung on nearly anything and didn’t equip any other type.
Entering service in 1957 the Crusader served with the USN as a fighter for 20 years and remarkably was only retired by the Aéronavale in 1999 after 35 years of service.
[Ref] Ron Westrum. Sidewinder, Creative Missile Development at China Lake. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. Chapter 14

2. BAe Sea Harrier 


Books could, and have, been written on the inter-service shenanigans that led to the Royal Navy acquiring the Sea Harrier. Suffice to say with the writing clearly on the wall for its conventional carriers the emergence of the Harrier in the late ‘60s offered a potential solution to the task of maintaining air cover over the fleet without relying on shore based aircraft. The FRS1 essentially added a radar and a navigation system that could be aligned at sea to the basic Harrier GR3 airframe. It also removed as much magnesium as possible from the structure due to its tendency to fizzle in the presence of water.
Intended to ‘Hack the Shad’ by taking out Bear reconnaissance aircraft of Soviet Naval Aviation forces the Sea Harrier was initially armed with 30-mm cannons and 2 x Sidewinders. Alternatively, dumb bombs or rocket pods could be carried. Justifying the S in FRS1 it could also carry a WE177 nuclear bomb, while a Vinten F.95 camera took care of the R. First flight was in mid-1978 and in a move that would shock the F-35 development team one training and two operational squadrons, 899, 800, and 801 respectively, were formed at Yeovilton by February 1981.

Interview with Sea Harrier war hero Sharkey Ward here

In April 1982 both front line squadrons would be deployed to the South Atlantic as part of the British Task Force to retake the Falklands Islands from Argentina. In total 28 sea harriers would be deployed, the final 8 with the reformed 809 NAS which joined the carriers in the South Atlantic allowing some of the pilots to tick off their first air-to-air refuelling and deck landing sorties. There were further trials involved in deploying the aircraft with development radars being used to get sufficient operational Sea Harriers. Despite this, and predictions that the complete force would be wiped out in a matter of days, the Sea Harrier became the first fighter to achieve 20 air-to-air kills for no losses. All without using vectored thrust in forward flight, or VIFF, despite the insistence of multiple internet pundits. [Ref]

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Post war the aircraft received a number of upgrades, including the ability to carry four Sidewinders and integration of the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile which had been interrupted by the conflict. Further upgrades would lead to the F/A.2 with AMRAAM capability, but these didn’t enter service until 1993. The Cold War Sea Harrier would however remain in service with the Indian Navy’s 300 INAS until 2016 operating from another Falklands veteran the ex-HMS Hermes, INS Viraat.
Although smaller, slower, and less well armed than the aircraft it replaced the Sea Harrier showed the world that there was an alternative to the American route of ever larger super-carriers in conditions where even they would have trouble operating.
[Ref] This is the sort of thing that will feature in a Top 10 of FAA Myths just as soon as I finish it.

  1. McDonnell Douglas Phantom II


In July 1959 the Royal Navy formed its first Sea Vixen squadron, an all-weather two-seat twin-engined carrier fighter that could just about break the sound barrier downhill. Rather un-sportingly 18 months later the USN formed its first F-4 Phantom squadron which could go twice as fast, carrying twice as many air-to-air missiles, while also hauling a selection of air-to-ground weaponry. It’s as if the Admiralty and British industry had had a total lack of imagination, although requiring the Sea Vixen to be able to conduct a free (catapult-less) take-off from the deck suggests they may have been smoking something.

Interview with F-4 pilot here


First flying in 1958, the same year as the Buccaneer, the Phantom used boundary layer control almost as much as the British aircraft*. Both aircraft also featured ailerons that drooped compensating for relatively small flaps in the take-off and landing configuration.
Originally designed as an all-weather fleet defence interceptor the Phantom was seemingly capable of almost any role, being able to carry 16,000lbs of pretty much anything in the US or NATO inventory. In the case of the RF-4B it also carried out photoreconnaissance for the USMC from afloat and ashore. It was one of the first carrier aircraft to have an automatic landing capability, first trialled on 12 converted F-4Bs. They had been fitted with a system allowing them to be controlled by AWACs or surface ships to conduct interceptions, resulting in a change of designation to F-4G (a decade before the USAF F-4G). By using a retractable radar reflector in front of the nose gear the aircraft carrier could use the system to control the aircraft on approach to the deck. Although the interception capability never saw widespread use the deck landing capability was retrofitted to standard F-4Bs.

Like the Intruder the Phantom saw its combat debut in Vietnam where it operated in the fighter and bomber roles. Unlike the Intruder it would also see service with the Royal Navy in a modified form, the J79 turbojets being replaced with Spey turbofans. Famously despite increasing the available thrust this reduced the top speed by around 0.2 Mach due to the drag from the larger intakes. They did however make the UK’s Phantoms the fastest accelerating up to around 400knots. They were also briefly considered for the USN as the F-4L for operations off the smaller Essex class carriers. However, a lack of commonality with the other US models and the potential threat to the Nimitz-class programme ended the idea.

The Phantom remained in frontline service with the USN until 18 October 1986 when the type made its last carrier landing almost exactly 25 years after the first front-line squadron became carrier qualified. This period was the peak of the Cold War and throughout the F-4 proved a carrier aircraft could equal the best of any Air Force, if only because most of them ended up buying it.

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*The only difference being an unblown tailplane. The resulting increased size being needed so full elevator authority would be available while operating at high Mach when the shift in centre-of-pressure increases the aircraft’s stability. 

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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

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Top 10 Dive Bombers

Italy never developed a decent dive bomber but in 1939 Tullio Crali painted the best dive bombing picture: ‘Nose Dive on the City’.

 Take a deep breath and shove the control column forward as you plummet into the hellscape of the top ten dive bombers. You knew we were going to do this some day and here we are. One is even a jet.

Dive bombers are rarely pretty, but what they lack in beauty they make up for with structural strength; some of these airframes are among the strongest ever built. They needed to be strong, as diving at a steep (sometimes near vertical) angle and then abruptly pulling-up after weapons release puts great strain on the airframe –and the pilot. A diving attack had greater precision than a conventional approach, but it was also exceptionally dangerous. Ground-fire, fast enemy fighters and the rapidly approach ground itself savaged the unlucky. Dive bomber pilots and their back-seaters had to be young and fit, and capable of ice-cold aggression. These are some of their machines.

10. Henschel 132

Only one ‘photograph’ exists of the complete Hs 132 and this is it. As you can see it has been heavily retouched to make the aircraft look more finished than it actually is. “Not a photograph at all, rather a remarkably lifelike drawing by artist Gerd Heumann” – Dan Sharp

Henschel rinsed the Third Reich for seven bazillion Reichsmarks-worth of weapons systems. These were sometimes impressive (like the Tiger tank) but often crap.

What is up with the fascination for Nazi prototypes anyway? They were hastily assembled, with cheap plywood construction and short-lifespan turbojets clamped to all the wrong places? It’s like Scrapheap Challenge for racists with a uniform kink.

Prior to the War, Henschel were a locomotive manufacturer who noted that Germany was going a teensy bit belligerent, and decided to cash in on this trend by building tanks and combat aircraft. The Hs 132 was intended to be the world’s first jet-propelled dive bomber but it was never finished. The world is still waiting patiently for a jet dive-bomber to make an appearance.

The only reason it made it onto our list is that it attempted to address the primary failing of the dive bomber: its inability to get away from fighters. That is prototype, with its unlikely prone pilot position, is here at all.

Nemesis: the violent, unstoppable, global military-industrial effort of the entire Allied nations.


 “The actual Hs 132 V1 prototype apparently looked like this when it was captured by Soviet forces.” Dan Sharp 

9. Loire-Nieuport LN.401


Hitting something as big as a city with aerial bombs wound up being tougher than martial theoreticians advocating such things really appreciated in the 1920s and 1930s. When the target is compact, like a warship, and also moves and might be firing back, it’s even harder. The dive bomber offered a terrifying accuracy.  Nonetheless, there were no guarantees, as we can see with the suspiciously Stuka-like LN.401.  Reaching the end of its development cycle and entering service as the sitzkrieg concluded was a guarantee of punishing obscurity for this aircraft.


In 1940 the LN.401 took very high losses and achieved little. Some attempt was made to restart development of this aircraft after the war but the market was by then non-existent as the dive bomber was known worldwide mainly as a dangerous deathtrap flown by baddies.


Nemesis: its owners & the Third Reich

8. Vultee A-31/35 Vengeance

The Vengeance performed well, if obscurely, on the Arakan front against the Japanese. (IWM photo).

When it came to supporting the soldiers on the ground, the Allies had an embarrassment of riches. There were many fighter-bombers types capable of getting down low and attacking with rockets.

Hence the uncinematic life of the Vengeance.

This aeroplane was another middle child in a family of reasonable-to-mediocre aircraft available at the opening of World War II. The Darwinian pressures of combat would very soon determine which had enough capacity to evolve, to become winners, and which machines didn’t. The robust-enough Vultee never left the lower rank. The Vengeance got sidelined to training tasks, and was palmed off to desperate Allies and operated in theatres with less severe Axis fighter opposition.

Nemesis: industrial considerations and the tactical eclipse of dive bombing.

7. Blackburn B-24 Skua

In real life Skuas were not see-through. L2925 was flown by Lt William Paulet Lucy who led the strike that sank the Königsberg. Art by Ed Ward.

A wild admixture of potency and vulnerability marked the dive bomber’s life and saw early expression in the Royal Navy’s first all-metal monoplane, the Skua. In April 1940 Skuas sent the cruiser Königsberg to the bottom near Bergen, Norway. This was the very first sinking of a capital ship in war by dive bombers. Indeed, much of the best of the hateful work this aircraft type did would be visited on big warships. In turn, though, the Skua would be close to hopeless against Luftwaffe land fighters with more powerful engines. In dive bomber terms this was par for the course but the poor Skua was rather unfairly expected to act as a fighter as well and the results were predictable. Target towing however was a perfectly sensible second career for the Skua and after February 1941 this is exactly what the Skua did. Atomic bombs would make the main selling point of this aircraft type, accuracy, seem kinda, well, boring. Towing targets is a good, honest job.

Nemesis: Messerschmitt Bf 109

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

6. Fairey Barracuda

The Barracuda was also used as a torpedo bomber. The Royal Navy liked to get its money’s worth from its aircraft. IWM photo)

Dive bombers represent a sub-group of aircraft far from generic in appearance. A Fairey Barracuda is rarely confused with another type thanks to its braced T-tail, thick shoulder-mounted wings, a continuous canopy for its crew of three and big Fairey-Youngman flaps. Fairey-Youngman flaps were a feature of the Swordfish, Albacore and Firefly. They were attached to struts below the wing’s trailing edge a position that improved airflow over them, they could be deflected 30 degrees upwards to act as dive-brakes. These all-important dive brakes bringing some control in the attack and easing carrier landings. Most of the aircraft mentioned here made themselves felt in the war at sea. For the Barracuda, this meant a series of attacks against the Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz, hidden for most of its service life in Norwegian fjords. These were difficult operations against a massively well-defended prestige target. Later in the war it was used against Japan. By 1945 it was one of the most common Fleet Air Arm machines. Unfortunately, the Barracuda faced a number of developmental difficulties. Designed for the mighty Roll-Royce Griffon, production shortages meant all the wartime versions were (under) powered by the Merlin. Another rather serious flaw came in the form of leakage into the cockpit of ether-laced hydraulic fluid. This is very bad, as ether can cause drowsiness, dizziness and vomiting.

To date, no other dive bomber has received a musical tribute approaching the power of John Cale’s song for the Barracuda. (Editor: I prefer The Standell’s tribute)

Note: neither of these are actually about the aircraft

Nemesis: 2-cm & 8.8-cm Flak, smoke generators, Messerschmitt Bf 109.

5. Curtiss SB2C Helldiver / A-25 Shrike

In 1939, a student took a model of the new Curtiss XSB2C-1 to the MIT wind tunnel. Professor of Aeronautical Engineering Otto C. Koppen was quoted as saying, “if they build more than one of these, they are crazy”.

What great aircraft is not beset by problems? These seem to have been as prevalent in 1940 as they are in 2020 but the Helldiver seemed to have more than its fair share of them. Despite being possessed of possibly the best name of any combat aircraft the Helldiver was saddled with stability issues that were never eradicated  — and the aircraft ordered by the Royal Navy were rejected on account of the Helldiver’s “appalling handling“. After being wrestled more-or-less into shape, the Helldiver, in concert with the Grumman TBF Avenger, fought effectively throughout the US Navy’s Pacific island-hopping campaign against the Japanese. Somewhat harder-hitting than the Dauntless, the Helldiver also featured perforated flaps. These reduce tail buffeting during that crazed, noisome trip down to the target.

Ultimately the SB2C sunk more shipping than any other Allied dive bomber. Curiously, despite never being operated by the RCAF or Canadian Navy, over a thousand Helldivers were built in Canada. Italy was the last country to retire the Helldiver and they did so in the year that Bobby Darrin’s Mack the Knife hit number one on the pop charts, 1959.


This being the final service use of any purpose-built dive-bomber. Prior to the war, a naval biplane had carried the name Helldiver, the Curtiss SBC. Before that and the Stuka prototypes, dive bombing had remained a topic for command-level debate based upon undeniable but casually-gained successes between 1914 and the 1930s. Not until all-metal monoplanes were available, that could handle near vertical dive angles and the recovery therefrom, did dive bombing enjoy its professional heyday.

Nemesis: Mitsubishi A6M Zero

4. Petlyakov Pe-2

With 11,427 units the Pe-2 was most-produced dive bomber of any type. It was also the third most numerous of World War II’s twin-engine warplanes after the Ju 88 (15,000+) and the Wellington (11,462). It is perhaps telling that how little recognition this vital warplane receives outside of Russia.

This is the biggest and most powerful aircraft on our list, as well as the fastest to actually fly. Alas, the political reality of the USSR affects our consideration of this aeroplane right away, how on earth the people designing the Pe-2 got such a good result while in the imprisoned in the abject misery of a gulag is a testament to their fortitude. It also reflects the existential danger facing the USSR after the German invasion (the design team had been arrested for typically tenuous reasons during an earlier high altitude fighter project). Their next ‘assignment’ was to a medium bomber project, the Pe-2. Perhaps Soviet officialdom had been impressed by word of the Stuka and the D3A enough that they ordered the Pe-2 converted to a dive bomber. Forty-five days were allotted to get that done. How well this worked out is reinforced by the combat record of the Pe-2 and the fact Poland kept it in service until the year Jerry Lee Lewis released Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

Nemesis: Focke Wulf Fw-190

3. Aichi D3A Val


Notable on the D3A is the long telescope bomb-sight in front of the pilot’s windscreen.

Aichi consulted Heinkel Fleugzeugwerke in designing the D3A and the outcome is a lot easier to look at than the Stuka. As Japan lashed out in the Pacific it called upon the D3A to ratchet up the infamy again and again. The Val slapped three Allied navies with a bill that was probably still being paid when the Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Instrumental to the Pearl Harbour attack, the D3A was crazy good at its job. Vals teamed up with torpedo bombers to destroy even heavily defended fleet carriers like the USS Lexington. As with all these aircraft, the Val’s nemesis was never far off, though the D3A was noted as a capable dogfighter for the first year or so of the Pacific war (at least once it had divested itself of those pesky bombs). From headline-grabbing success, the Val turned into the victim in a flash, and many were transferred to suicide units.

Nemesis: M2 BMG calibre .50 & the AP Mk.1 1600-lb bomb

2. Douglas SBD Dauntless


Approaching obsolete status just as the Pacific war got going the Slow But Deadly still managed a starring role in the (short) age of the dive bomber.

Some twenty or so Dauntlesses remain in the world – dive bombers are built to last (at least if not being shot at). The Dauntless is remembered as the US carrier aircraft that turned the tide in the Pacific, the Helldiver may have sunk more ships but the Dauntless did the job when it really mattered: at the Battle of Midway it sank or fatally damaged all four Japanese fleet carriers present, disabling three of them in the span of just six minutes. Yet amazingly it came through the war with the lowest crew loss rate of any US carrier aircraft despite being present at harrowing moments like Midway. Look at those perforated dive brakes. Twinned aft-firing machine guns show us where danger truly lay for all dive bombers. Also, the Dauntless has a classic piece of dive bomber safety hardware in the form of a trapeze to swing the bomb below the arc of the propeller before releasing it.

Nemesis: Mitsubishi A6M Zero

1. Junkers Ju-87 Stuka


The screaming gull-winged spectacle of the Stuka from Spain, to Poland, the low countries, France and the USSR is written into the darkest chapters of the twentieth century with good reason. It should be giving you a shiver right now, too.



Stukas (a contraction of the German Sturzkampfflugzeug ‘dive-bomber’) has huge success as flying artillery in aid of armoured breakthroughs. Then came fighter opposition. Pursuit by a fighter with six or eight more guns and a 150-mph speed advantage undermined the Stuka’s resume in drastic fashion. Yet, more than any other plane here the Stuka would be re-employed from pure dive bombing to combat roles where speed wasn’t an issue. Tank-busting Stukas in particular would prove a nasty feature of the grim fallback to Germany’s 1939 borders. Rolling nicely into furious descents for the cameras had had its day by 1943 but the Stuka persevered.

Top Stuka trivia: despite its fame as a bomber a Ju 87 managed to score the first air-to-air kill of the Second World War, shooting down a Polish PZL P.11c on the morning of the 1st of September 1939.

Nemesis: Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, Fairey Fulmar, Yakovlev Yak-9.

–––––  Stephen Caulfield

We launch our new beautiful book!



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

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


I can do it with your help.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Rewards levels include these packs of specially produced trump cards.

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


How the name of an aircraft determines it fate

The Sam Wise Report

Nominative determinism in people is a well known reality. It’s why every Smith you’ve ever met has their own anvil and all Coopers supply breweries with their barrels. I myself, as an incredibly intelligent person, am living proof of this. As I often do I was thinking about aviation one afternoon when I started wondering about aircraft names and the effect they have on both the perception of the aircraft but possibly even the actual success itself. It’s long been remarked that looks play a huge part in the success of an aircraft, with very few truly hideous designs getting to production, but how about their names? I decided to turn my mighty brain to this matter and investigate.


Nothing moves an Englishman more than the pleasing roar of a passing Shrew.

It’s hard to think of many properly successful aircraft that have genuinely atrocious names. Indeed, in hindsight maybe the aircraft go on to make the name famous after the fact. The Spitfire, icon of freedom and defiance, has cemented that word in history as a symbol of aviation design. Imagine if its original name – the Shrew – had stuck. Would we still talk about the aircraft in just reverent tones now? Likewise, the B-17, the Flying Fortress. As incredibly campy a name as it is, it more than does what it says on the tin with its famous defensibility and wall of lead it could put into the air against its attackers.


A hot mess

On the other hand, let’s talk about the utterly dismal Airacuda. I mean…Airacuda. How did anyone think that could be taken seriously? It’s a total non-word meant to sound “sky-y” and it’s little wonder that the engineers couldn’t be bothered to actually design something worth flying when they had to read that word every day in the office. The design was atrocious anyway, a real hot mess of aerodynamic design, but it’d have been a hard sell PR wise. (Note, the similarly named Airacobra gets a pass here because “cobra” is at least a word on its own. Then again, it wasn’t very well-received in the Anglophone countries, get its sterling reputation as a fighter on the Eastern Front with the USSR – perhaps Аэрокобра has some extra contextual meaning in Russian folklore, or something.)


Polish marketing inspiration

Another aircraft with a pretty dreadful name is the PZL M-15 Belphegor. Ok, if you know that its namesake is a biblical demon your first thought is that it’s a pretty rad name for a jet plane, right? But perhaps those Poles that bestowed this nickname upon it were unaware that Belphegor is the demon of the cardinal sin of Sloth. Then again, maybe they did – with a maximum speed of 200kph the M-15 is the slowest production jet in history, designed for and not very good at crop-dusting and other agricultural work. It’s also, perhaps appropriately, sinfully ugly. The thing is, I’m not sure if the name engenders a distaste for the aircraft and perhaps the reputations it has developed, or if the aircraft’s general shitness creates a negative association with the name. Pretty sure it’s the former, though, given what an ugly word it is.

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


It’s little wonder that the Gloster Gladiator – a warrior, a fighter, often to the last breath – fared better in the public imagination than the Gloster Gamecock.


Gamecock. Keep bloodsport human for naming purposes.

I’m being serious, would we really tell tales of Faith, Hope and Charity, those mythical….Gamecocks? Still, it’s better than the Gnatsnapper, insert crying-with-laughter emoji here! The single Sopwith Sociable was used on a thoroughly unsociable and totally failed bombing attempt on German docks before being abandoned for being too introverted, and do I really need to explain how utterly, utterly garbage a name the X-20 Dyna-Soar was?



On the other hand, despite having a thoroughly unpleasant title, the Pipistrel Virus has absolutely followed its calling with a highly successful run of over 1000 built for customers all round the world – you could say it’s gone globally viral, though there’s been congestion on the production line for its sister-design the Sinus (is that enough topical virus jokes?). I firmly believe that no one would’ve bought a plane called the Virus if it weren’t absolutely set in the stars that such a name would have to spread far and wide.

However, by far and away the worst name any unsuspecting aircraft has ever had bestowed upon it has to be the Aviation Traders Accountant. I actually yawned while typing that. You name an aeroplane something so achingly ennui-inducing as that you absolutely deserve to fail. And the good thing is, as demonstrated above, the universe will make sure you do.

  • Sam Wise 
  • We launch our new beautiful book!



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

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


    I can do it with your help.

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

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

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

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


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

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

    Rewards levels include these packs of specially produced trump cards.

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


A name to stir the imagination

Top 10 or 11 Naval Helicopters 2020


Navies have been interested in helicopters almost since they were a practical proposition. If you include the Kriegsmarine towing gyrocopters behind U-boats actually a little before that point.  The British Admiralty were even proposing the use of helicopters for convoy protection as early as 1943, which demonstrates an attitude to the expendability of aircrew the Japanese would have admired. This run down will consider aircraft that specifically affect the battle at sea, ones that can engage in anti-submarine (ASW), anti-surface (ASuW), or to some extent anti-air warfare. So, despite having the word NAVY written on the side such greats as the Merlin Mk4 and CH-53 are excluded. This may cost me drinks unless I can persuade Hush-Kit to let me write ‘Top 5 Amphibious Assault Helicopters’ (HK: You’ve twisted my arm). Similarly, the mighty Sea King is no longer on the list as the majority still in service seem to be for utility work rather than hunting submarines. It also discounts such wannabes as the Army Air Corps Apache AH-1, which despite getting some water wings has a laughable sensor suite for maritime warfare. The max radar range on the AH.1 being less than the shortest the Lynx HAS3 could display, which means any ships it shows would also be visible out of the windows.
The capability of naval aircraft is primarily in their sensor and mission systems, predictably the true abilities of these are closely guarded secrets and can vary considerably between versions of the same aircraft sold to different countries. Consequently, the ranking below is partly subjective and may well have consisted of aircraft names being shouted across a socially distanced office to be met with the response ‘what that piece of $h1t?’. To keep the arguments going longer than necessary they’ve also been compared to cars, which could backfire on me terribly…

11. Kaman SH-2 Super Seasprite ‘Obey Your Thirst for vintage helos’ 

If you want a small ships helicopter and have some sort of aversion to the Lynx or Panther families, you may be able to pick up a Sea Sprite on the second-hand market. Barely used if you find any ex-Australian examples.

Originally designed in 1956 with their retirement by the US Navy at the turn of the century a handful have been upgraded for international users. The Australian upgrade programme being so ambitious it was eventually cancelled in 2008 after kind of just about entering service. Some of the airframes going to New Zealand who’d actually ordered five new build aircraft in 1997.

Broadly comparable to the Lynx in size and mission systems it’s perhaps notable that there are less in service among 4 international operators than the Royal Navy has Wildcats. There are also reports that Poland is unable to obtain manufacturer support for its four aircraft hastening their withdrawal from service.

The aviation equivalent of a 1960s Mini 998, yes you can update them but honestly, they’re not as fun as you remember and getting parts is starting to be tricky.


10. Kamov Ka-27 ‘Helix’ ‘Hormone replacement therapy’

The Ka-27 started development in 1969 as an evolution of the Ka-25 ‘Hormone’ with improved night and poor weather capability. Entering service in the early ‘80s there are now 46 upgraded Ka-27M in service with the Russian Navy. China, India, Syria, Vietnam, and Yemen have all received examples of the Ka-28 export variant, while Ukraine has some Ka-27 left over from the dissolution of the USSR.

The co-axial rotor system allows all the available power to be used lifting the aircraft, and arguably makes working on the flight deck safer. It also allows for a more compact footprint although it does require increased head room in the hangar due to the taller rotor mast. This has led to some interesting hangar designs on Russian warships which can feature retracting roofs.

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

Primarily an Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft the Helix has radar, dipping sonar, and a sonobouy system tied together by a mission system. Disappointingly although it has an internal weapons bay this limits it to only carrying one torpedo, and that at the expense of sonobouys. Considering the older Sea King can carry four this is something of a limitation when hunting submarines. Typically, in war time once detected the plan would be to focus the submarine commanders mind by ensuring there was always an active torpedo in the water, for the ‘Helix’ this would appear impossible unless operating on top of its own task group.

11 June 07 Helix flyby again

Credit: author

As with all Russian operated equipment there’s also the question of its material state. In 2007 your author had a ship’s tour of the Admiral Chabanenko during a multi-national exercise.

07 June 07 Helix in Hangar

Credit: author

11 June 07 Helix flyby HMS Portland

Credit: author

The embarked Helix had tyres that would fail a MoT, the underlying canvas being visible, a hole through one of the vertical stabilisers due to corrosion, and a bungee cord holding the pilot’s windscreen wiper against the windscreen. This in no way made seeing it approaching head on in flight any less terrifying. Like a brick under two circular saws…

The TATA Truck of naval aviation, probably sporting moderate body damage with some parts pop rivetted back on.

9. Changhe Z-18 ‘The Blue Sea Panda’ 


The Z-18F is a development of a development of the Aérospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon (the original ‘super hornet’). As such it’s more powerful and heavier than the Gallic original with a redesigned fuselage and greater use of composites.
For ASW work the Z-18F (can we get NATO reporting names for these things?) has dipping sonar, sonobouy dispenser, and some form of camera sensor pod. Be warned as this list progresses it will be increasingly hard to make that sound exciting or unique. The People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) are also developing an AEW version, the Z-18J, this has a radar scanner that folds down from the aft ramp area in flight.

Physically the Z-18F is bigger than the Merlin, although the max all up mass is about a ton less, as such it seems to currently be limited to operating from the PLAN’s carriers and amphibious landing ships. Additionally, the radar’s placement will create a blind arc to the rear limiting its ability to maintain contact with targets of interest when returning to mother. Hopefully, it at least sector blanks* or the aircrew are unlikely to have children.

(Sector blanking is when a radar doesn’t transmit for part of its scan. So that sector is blank on the radar screen. Generally done to avoid exposing something to lots of radio waves, e.g. when a helicopter is landing on a ship they’ll sector blank the approach path on the high power radars.)

A Shuanghuan Sceo when you really wanted a BMW X5.

8. Sikorsky MH-53 Sea Dragon – Niche capability at a cost.

The MH-53E was developed from the CH-53 Sea Stallion operated by the USMC for amphibious assault and by the USN for carrying really heavy stuff to a ship.


Entering service in 1987 with HM-14 the Sea Dragon tows a hydrofoil through the water which can set off mines either by sounding like a ship passing overhead or by creating an electric field to trigger magnetic mines. Being a fairly niche capability, the only other operators of the Sea Dragon have been Japan and Taiwan, countries with something of an interest in maintaining open sea lanes due to a slightly overbearing neighbour.

The size of the aircraft has required Sea Dragon squadrons to embark on amphibious assault ships, during the 1990-91 Gulf Conflict this led to the LPH USS Tripoli effectively acting as a 20,000-ton minehunter. Embarrassingly she also demonstrated that any ship can be a minehunter at least once by hitting one.


Current plans see the MH-53 remaining in service until 2025 when the capability will be replaced by a package of features on the Littoral Combat Ship. A programme that’s such a dumpster fire it makes the F-35 look like a model of procurement.

5 Aug 10 Sea Dragons Umm Qasr Iraq

5 Aug 2010 Sea Dragons Umm Qasr Iraq (author) – 

If you absolutely, positively need a helicopter to sweep for mines it’s basically a Sea Dragon or a Merlin. On the down side the MH-53 requires a big ship to operate from and has a significantly worse safety record than the AW-101 being the US Navy’s most accident prone helicopter.

Like a 1960s Ford 250 Pick-Up, it can tow stuff and it can carry stuff. Just don’t expect sophistication.

7. Airbus Helicopters AS565 Panther ‘Panther burns’ 

Despite Aerospatiale have 30% of the production work for the Lynx, and the Marine National operating the type, in typical Gallic fashion it was decided to produce a version of the Dauphin with almost identical capabilities. Presumably, it was felt having an aircraft with Anglo-Saxon rotors was unacceptable [3]. With only 16 being procured for l’Aéronavale there was obviously an eye to the export market however only a relatively small proportion of the military Dauphin derivatives sold have been for the naval versions and even then, many have been simple utility aircraft.

Most Panthers in service have been equipped for surface search, however in 2014 Indonesia became the first customer to configure theirs with dipping sonar for ASW to make sure the cabin is as cramped as possible.


Able to carry a broad range of weapons from torpedoes to the AS.15TT light anti-ship missile naval AS565 have been sold to Indonesia, Israel and Saudi Arabia who attacked Iraqi patrol boats with AS.15 during the Gulf War.

Based on a civil helicopter the Panther has been modified for the naval role with an enlarged fenestron to improve out of wind hover performance and an extended nose for a forward scanning radar and avionics. This may have been a hinderance in the export market where the Lynx, designed from the outset for ship borne operation, has far outsold it for maritime use.


Some sort of small sporty French number, probably a 205GTi. But only the 1.6 litre model.

6. Sirorsky CH-148 Cyclone ‘The Cyclone Wars’ 

In 1993 the Canadian government cancelled its order for up to 50 Merlins to replace their ageing Sea King fleet incurring fees of $470 Million. In an attempt to prove they were the equals of the UK Government when it came to aircraft procurement the subsequent programme suffered a level of delay and near cancellation that the experts at the MoD and Westlands can only have viewed with admiration. An order for 28 Cyclones, based on the Sikorsky S-92, was made in 2004 with deliveries expected four years later. Only two years late first deliveries of the CH-148 were announced, to an interim standard, and with an engine upgrade already planned because the originals weren’t powerful enough. These deliveries were delayed. By July of 2012 with no mission capable aircraft delivered and up to $88 Million of fines due the programme was clearly going badly and by 2013 there was a brief flirtation with buying Merlin. Deliveries finally started in late 2015 to an interim standard that allowed shore-based training with operationally capable aircraft starting to arrive in 2018. So only about a decade late.

Modification from the baseline H-92 includes strengthened undercarriage and deck-handling gear, main and tail rotor folding, anti-corrosion measures, and optional air-to-air refuelling. They have presumably also had the modifications to the oil system that were rolled out post the 2009 crash of a civilian S-92.
Now in service the Cyclone appears to deliver what you’d want in an ASW helicopter, endurance, internal volume, and the ability to land on a Frigate or Destroyer. So much like the Merlins they could have had, but a few decades late and with all the development costs borne by the Canadian Government. With only 28 CH-148 planned and no other purchasers of the naval H-92 airframe future development costs are also likely to be high. Overall it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Cyclone has been an expensive way of not buying Merlins.

A Cadillac CT6-V with all the optional extras selected because after two changes of partner you’re still not allowed a Bentley.

5. Westland Super Lynx – Set the standard for small naval helicopters. ‘The Yeovil Yoda’ 

There are two types of helicopter on this list. Ones that were designed for naval operations from the outset, and ones that are adaptions of land-based aircraft. The Lynx family fall firmly into the former category. The requirement to operate to a small ship’s flight deck in sea state 6 resulted in an aircraft with a rigid rotor head [4] made of a lump of titanium making it highly responsive to the pilot’s inputs. To absorb the shock from landing a long stroking undercarriage was fitted that could deal with the ship rising up to meet the aircraft at the wrong moment. A capability enthusiastically demonstrated by the instructor on the author’s familiarisation flight by dropping the collective while in a 20’ hover.

21 JUNE 07 Lynx on Portland USS Laboon in background

21 JUNE 07 Lynx on Portland USS Laboon in background (credit: author)

A harpoon deck lock system was fitted immediately below the rotor head which allows the aircraft to attach itself to a flight deck equipped with a compatible grid. Together with the angled main undercarriage and castoring nosewheel this permits the Lynx to turn to face into wind independently of the ship’s heading. This allows operations in restricted waters or if the ship is operating a towed array sonar and manoeuvring would interrupt its use.

19 JUNE 07 Lynx on Admiral Chabanenko

19 JUNE 07 Lynx on Admiral Chabanenko (credit: author)

In Royal Naval use the Lynx was operated in the Anti-Surface Warfare role in which it excelled in the Falklands and Gulf conflicts. It also had a side-line in delivering torpedoes or depth charges to submarines detected by other helicopters or surface ships. With a peak of seventeen operators of the naval variant there are a bewildering array of sensor options, the majority now feature a 360° scan radar, never a feature of UK models even if the RN splashed out on the radome. Most employ some form of camera turret on the nose, while some have a true ASW capability with a dipping sonar fitted in the cabin. Leonardo’s Yeovil are carrying out modernisation programmes for several Lynx operators including Brazil and Portugal with the type expected to remain in service for years to come.
The Lynx is the go-to small ships helicopter able to operate in the harshest of conditions and able to carry a range of weapons. The only downside is the limited endurance compared to larger aircraft.

A classic that’s still being remanufactured into as new condition, the Lynx is the E-Type.

 4. NHIndustries NH90 ‘Flash ‘arry’

A broadly Seahawk sized aircraft, the NH-90 was designed to meet a range of requirements for France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, the UK dropping out of the programme in 1987. Design work started in the early 90s making it one of the newest designs in this survey. Produced in two version, the Tactical Transport Helicopter and the NATO Frigate Helicopter it’s notable for being the first production Fly-By-Wire helicopter with a quadruplex control system. Because nothing says you trust a system like having four copies of it. This has a number of advantages over conventional mechanical controls including weight saving and the elimination of adverse handling characteristics. Deliveries of the TTH began in 2006 with the first NFH finally being delivered to the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) in 2010 after delays due to problems with the mission system software. It would be a further three years before the RNLN received aircraft to the initial full operational capability.

For the NFH role the NH-90 can be configured with a variety of sensors for ASuW and ASW including dipping sonar in the cabin. Similarly, a range of external stores can be carried including torpedoes, anti-ship, and Stinger air-to-air missiles.

Although on paper the NH-90 appears a capable naval aircraft its introduction to service has not been without problems.


Embarrassingly for a naval helicopter the first deployments, by the Royal Netherlands Navy, revealed problems with corrosion leading to compensation payments and a suspension of deliveries until a solution was found. Other operators have had problems with windscreen cracking, oil cooler fans failing, and a cabin floor that’s unable to withstand the impact of soldiers’ boots. In Australia’s case the shortcomings and delays to its TTH were so significant that they received an additional aircraft free of charge. Consequently, they chose the SH-60R to replace their SH-60Bs in preference to the NFH.
Overall, the NH-90 has potential but is only now putting its development woes behind it.

A Tesla, lots of shiny technology which you then find doesn’t work how you thought.

3. Leonardo AW101 Merlin ‘What’s up the wizard’s sleeve?’

The EHI-01 Marlin programme stemmed from a UK requirement to replace the Sea King which was merged with a similar Italian requirement. Thanks to multiple typographic errors this became the EH-101 Merlin, a small bird of prey being a less obvious successor to the Swordfish, Albacore, and Barracuda than a large sport fish with an extend spike-like bill. [5] Although development started in 1984 as with most late Cold War programmes the introduction to service was delayed with the first production aircraft flying over a decade later in 1995. The situation was not improved when one of the pre-production aircraft was lost after the rotor brake applied itself in flight. This didn’t stop the rotors, but it did melt the brake which then made its way through bits of the aircraft that don’t like having molten metal interact with them. Further development and flight trials permitted the Merlin to finally enter service in 2000 with 824 NAS at RNAS Culdrose.
With a similarly demanding operating profile as the Lynx and Wildcat the Merlin can operate to the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigates in the most demanding conditions. It just looks a lot scarier as the pilot appears to be trying to put himself inside the hangar in order to get the main landing gear on the deck. Westlands and Agusta also came up with a novel way to meet the challenging One Engine Inoperative (OEI) requirements by having three engines, any two of which will cover you for most stages of flight.
As an ASW helicopter the Merlin is hard to beat with room for a range of sensors, endurance that makes you fear for the crew’s bladders and the ability to carry up to four torpedoes.


The Italian Navy also use theirs for AEW with an enlarged ventral radome, the RN meanwhile introducing a similar capability in the near future with the slightly less elegant solution of strapping a Searchwater radar to the side. The other major naval user is the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force which replaced its Sea Dragons with Kawasaki built Merlins modified to tow a mine-sweeping sled and equipped with a laser mine detection system. The main drawback is its size, which even on the Type 23 which was designed to take it can make operations more challenging than they would be with something like the Wildcat.

Cam_5_v8_hr 1920 x 670
Bentley Mulsanne, big, fast, expensive.

2. Leonardo AW159 Wildcat HMA Mk2 ‘Missing Lynx’ 

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

Many people will tell you the Wildcat isn’t a Lynx, including the manufacturer and my Boss. The cynical will point out a lot of the transmission system was carried over, and many part numbers start with an LX, but the airframe is a significant redesign using a monolithic structure, the mission system makes even the final Lynx HMA8 [6] look like it was using an abacus, and the engines can provide about twice as much power.

Learning from 30+ years of embarked operations by the Lynx the Wildcat maintains the ability to operate to and from small ship flight decks in sea states where eating seems ill-advised, despite being a ton heavier and with further growth potential. The sensor suite has been completely revised from the Lynx with AESA radar, multi-mode E/O turret, and an ESM and RWR fit that doesn’t appear to be left over from World War II. It’s also possible to fit a dipping sonar in the cabin, an option chosen by South Korea and the Philippines.
A wide range of anti-surface and anti-submarine weapons can be carried. The Royal Navy’s can also be equipped with an aerodynamic weapons wing that offsets the weight of the stores. With increasing concern over swarming attacks by multiple small craft, especially in maritime choke points, the Wildcat’s ability to carry 20 lightweight multi-purpose missiles gives it an edge compared to other naval helicopters.


Armed with the ‘West Country Organ’

The major downside to the Wildcat is the limited endurance which hasn’t improved on that of the Lynx. While the cynical may consider the author’s bias has placed it so high on the list it should be noted South Korea a country virtually at war with its neighbour [7] selected the Wildcat in preference to the next aircraft.

If the Lynx is an E-Type, the Wildcat is an F-Type the 21st Century reinvention of a classic.

  1. Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk ‘Romeo Syndrome’ 


The Seahawk is the naval development of the ubiquitous Blackhawk. The initial SH-60B version was primarily an ASuW aircraft fulfilling a similar role to the Lynx. To replace the Sea King the SH-60F introduced dipping sonar for close in protection of the carrier battle group. At the beginning of the 21st century the Romeo model entered production which combined the abilities of both in one airframe. As such it’s a jack-of-all-trades and now equips all previous SH-60B and F squadrons.

Flying the Blackhawk in combat with Jack McCain here

Compared to the Blackhawk the basic Seahawk airframe has a revised undercarriage with the tail wheels moved forwards to the transmission joint [8] reducing the deck footprint. A Recovery Assist, Secure and Traverse System (RAST) is fitted which although more involved in operation than the Harpoon system used by the Lynx, Wildcat and Merlin will also move the aircraft into the hangar reducing the number or personnel required to work on deck. A folding tail, electric blade folding, and an emergency flotation system complete the navalisation.

HSM 37 Helicopters Fly In Formation Around Oahu
With over 300 produced the SH-60R is in use with navies around the world, frequently replacing the Sea King. Able to conduct ASW or ASuW with a range of weapons including Hellfire missiles there seem to be few downsides to the latest version of the Sea Hawk. The broad range of capabilities will however make maintaining currency in all of them a challenge for the aircrew.


Yes, I know the helo is not a Seahawk.

Competent in all areas, it’s the choice you don’t want to make to avoid being predictable. So basically a 3 Series.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. He struggled to find an alternative to a 3 series so ended up with a coupe to try and retain his youth. If you want a British Pacific Fleet roundel sticker he can now fix you up.

[1] Wilson, Michael. A Submariners’ War: The Indian Ocean, 1939-1945. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2000. 135-146
[2] CinC Western Approaches. ‘Minutes of Conference on Operation of Aircraft from Escort Carriers, Held at Derby House’, 26 November 1943. ADM 1/13781. National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.
[3] In a conventional helicopter the designer has a choice in direction of rotation of the main rotor blades. This affects which pedal the pilot has to push when he raises the collective. Traditionally French and Russian types rotate clockwise when viewed from above, American and British anti-clockwise.
[4] Helicopter blades need freedom to feather to change pitch, to flap as the lift force changes during each rotation, and to lead and lag as the drag forces change during each rotation. Earlier types achieved this with actual hinges and a lot of inertia. The MB-105 and Lynx were the first production aircraft to achieve this with only a feathering hinge, flapping and lead lag forces being absorbed by flexing of the rotor head itself.
[5] Brown, D. K., and George Moore. Rebuilding the Royal Navy: Warship Design since 1945. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2012. Chap. 7
[6] There were multiple upgrades to the HMA8 mission system the final one even replacing the vacuum tube tactical display with a high-resolution flat screen monitor as if it was the 21st century.
[8] Where the fuselage is attached to the tail boom.

We launch our new beautiful book!


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

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

I can do it with your help.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Rewards levels include these packs of specially produced trump cards.

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

I can do it with your help.