Despite world-class aircraft designers, Italian fighter aircraft in the early part of World War II were stymied by weedy engines and a lack of serious firepower. The introduction of German engines and cannon to these transformed these mediocrities into some of the best fighter aircraft in the world, we spoke to author Marco Mattioli to find out more.
What was the C.200 and what were its strengths and weaknesses?
The Macchi C.200 Saetta (thunderbolt or arrow) was the best Italian fighter at the time in June 1940, the time Italy’s entered the War. Like most Italian aeroplanes, it was a delight to fly and was extremely manoeuvrable. Unfortunately, it didn’t win the favour of Italian fighter pilots. Most of the pilots were strongly conservative and used to open cockpits – and didn’t like the 200’s new-fangled enclosed cockpit with its sliding hood (they feared being trapped inside in the event of an emergency). Thus the subsequent variants of the C.200, in something of a retrograde step, were fitted with an open cockpit. The pilots still preferred to fly the more aerobatic Fiat CR.32 and CR.42 biplanes, despite them being far slower than the modern enemy monoplanes they would likely encounter in combat. The pilots were not entirely irrational in their distrust of the new machine as the Saetta had a dangerous quirk: a tendency to stall. If the aircraft stalled at high altitude and had an expert test pilot at its controls, it could recover with apparent ease. But, at low-level with a beginner at the controls, the aircraft was a deathtrap. Sadly, low-level stalls did kill several pilots. A solution was found by the chief designer of SAI Ambrosini firm, engineer Sergio Stefanutti with the assistance of test pilot Adriano Mantelli. The C.200 wing section was redesigned, replacing its former constant profile with a variable one. The wings’ sharp leading edges (in the centre) and wingtips were rounded off, gluing to them balsa wood strips, then shaped and covered with canvas.
The Saetta’s main strength was its excellent manoeuvrability. Its two main weaknesses: it was poorly armed (just two cowling-mounted 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine-guns) and underpowered. Its Fiat radial engine limited maximum speed to only 312 mph.
- How did it fare against Allied fighters?
Until the C.200s had to face the Gloster Gladiator biplanes over Malta, they had a degree of success. The biplane Gladiators, when flown by expert pilots, could seriously challenge C.200s. On paper, the C.200s had the advantage of speed, but the Gladiators were extremely manoeuvrable opponents that were dangerous to underestimate. Over Malta, there was one inconclusive dogfight on 11 June 1940. The Saetta pilot managed to drive his Gloster opponent away from the Italian bombers and one C.200 shot down (pilot becoming a PoW) by a Gladiator flown by Flt Lt Burges on 23 June 1940 (this C.200, being faster than the biplane, had overshot it, and the British pilot could shoot it down).
Over Greece, C.200s from 153° Gruppo met Gladiators from No 112 Sqn twice in the air: the first combat, on 22 March 1941, was inconclusive but for a No 80 Sqn Gladiator II set ablaze on the ground by the Macchis. Instead in the second action (26 March) the C.200s badly damaged one Gladiator (flown by Plt Off Neville Bowker) in the air and destroyed another from No 112 Sqn on the ground. Finally, on 14 April 1941, C.200s from 153° Gruppo clashed inconclusively with nine Greek Gladiators from the 21 Mira. To my knowledge, the Gloster Gladiators met over Malta were the first fighter opponents ever faced by the MC.200s
The going got tougher when Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived in-theatre. After that, performance parity, it was now purely the skill of the pilot that decided a dogfight’s outcome; when fighting the lethal, and far superior, Spitfire VB, the 200 pilots required extremely good luck to survive. In the fighter-bomber role, especially over North Africa and the Eastern Front, it performed well and proved to be a rugged aircraft.
- Why was it re-engined and what other changes were made to it to create the Macchi C.202 Folgore?
The Macchi C.200 was the foundation which led to create the Macchi C.202. Thanks to the Saetta’s manoeuvrability, its fuselage was deemed by Dr Engineer Mario Castoldi as a fair airframe to house the potent German-built Daimler Benz DB 601A-1 inline engine. This power unit was built under licence in Italy as the RA.1000 RC41-I Monsone (Monsoon). Initially, the C.202 was a re-engined C.200, and was 60 mph/96 kph faster (372 mph/599 kph) than the ‘original’ Saetta, thanks to the effective combination of the DB 601 power unit coupled with the streamlined frontal profile of the new Folgore fighter.
- What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the Macchi C.202 Folgore?
The Folgore’s main strengths were a marked increased speed, agility and rugged construction. Its weaknesses were a wingspan (34 ft 8.5 in/10.58 m) that was over two feet shorter than the one featured by the lethal Spitfire Vs and IXs. This detail affected Folgore’s performance at heights exceeding 20,000 feet (6,096 m), the routine starting altitude for much dogfighting. To make matters worse, the C.202’s radio proved to be so unreliable that the pilots decided to rely on hand gestures as a more reliable alternative. Besides, the undercarriages partially lowered due to high-g pullouts, not to mention faulty oxygen systems which plagued aircraft’s early actions. Finally, C.202’s light armament revealed itself really insufficient when facing newer RAF fighters armed with 20 mm cannon and both well-armed and armoured US heavy bombers.
- How did it compare to the Allied fighters it faced?
Folgores showed a marked superiority over the Tomahawks, Kittyhawks, Hurricane Is/IIs and Fairey Fulmars it faced all over North Africa and Mediterranean theatres. Anyway C.202s found their match with the Spitfire VBs/VCs, although veteran Italian pilots could hold their own when dogfighting with the RAF’s best fighter. As a matter of fact, since the autumn of 1942 Italian fighter groups were more and more confronted stiff opposition from Allied units equipped with Spitfire IXs, P-38 Lightnings and P-40 K/L Warhawks. All these fighter types not only performed equally or better than the Folgores, but were more heavily armed and overwhelming in numbers.
- What was the Macchi C.205 Veltro?
Through 1943, US medium and heavy bombers began to appear in increasingly large formations all over the Italian skies, escorted by potent new fighters. The Macchi C.202’s armament proved to be pitifully insufficient to shoot down these well-armoured and heavily armed intruders. A new powerfully armed fighter was needed. Engineer Mario Castoldi had been working on two such designs since December 1941. One of Castoldi’s designs, the Macchi C.205N Orione (Orion), never materialised made it into operational service due to the degree of redesign it required. But the other project, which combined the outstanding German DB 1475 hp DB 605A-1 (licence-built as RA.1050 RC58 Tifone – Typhoon) inline engine with the MC.200 wing and the MC.202 fuselage, was quickly developed. It was chosen because its upcycled construction, based mainly on C.202’s airframe, allowed a rapid development and service entry. Initially, it was designated C.202bis, before receiving the far better designation of C.205V Veltro (Greyhound). The Serie I Veltros were armed with four Breda-SAFAT machine-guns (two 12.7 mm cowling-mounted with 370 rounds per weapon, and two 7.7 mm others in the wings with 500 rounds each). The Serie III C.205Vs were armed with two cowl-mounted 12.7 mm machine-guns and two German-built 20-mm MG 151 Mauser cannon in the wings (with 250 rounds per gun).
The would-be Serie II, requested from the Fiat firm, never materialised because the Turin company was busy developing the G.55 Centauro fighter.
The decision to employ the proven C.202 airframes allowed Veltros to be delivered to Regia Aeronautica units by October 1942, a mere six months after the type’s maiden flight in April 1942. Brand-new Veltros featured an aerodynamic retractable tailwheel, while C.202s modified into Veltros kept a fixed tailwheel.
What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the Macchi C.205 Veltro?
The C.205V’s strengths had a high top speed of 399 mph, a high rate of climb (it could reach 20,000 ft in 4 minutes and 52 seconds), and the potent armament: which finally enabled the Italian fighter pilots to mete out serious damage to the Allied heavy bombers and their escort fighters. Weaknesses were a slight reduction in manoeuvrability above 20,000 ft – and a paucity of aircraft. Only 177 were examples built. This last fact was due to the devastating raids flown by RAF Bomber Command bombers on industrial targets in Northern Italy from the autumn of 1942 to August 1943. This meant that Fiat firm struggled to even produce a paltry 12 engines per month at its Turin plant.
- How well did it perform in combat?
The Veltro’s powerful armament finally allowed the Italian fighter pilots to destroy their Allied opponents, both bombers and escort fighters. As matter of fact, due to their reduced number (just 177 were built), frontline Veltros were usually assigned only to the aces and veteran pilots.
- What was the best Italian fighter aircraft of World War II, and why?
For the production number (nearly 1,300), agility and rugged construction the MC.202 Folgore; for its potent armament, despite their limited number, the Reggiane Re.2005 Sagittario (Archer), the MC.205V Veltro and the Fiat G.55 Centauro.
Tell us about your book
As an enthusiast of all things Italian, I am deeply fond of the Macchi C.202/205V fighters. My book examines in detail the operational careers of two of Italy’s best fighter aircraft in World War 2. The failure of engines’ pre-war designs of their own forced the Italians to ask German technology for good inline power units to be fitted on Regia Aeronautica fighters. The reliable DB 601s and DB 605s, coupled with good airframes, materialised the C.202 and the C.205V fighters. These outstanding aircraft allowed the Italian fighter pilots to be a match against the Allied fighters and bombers, prior to be overwhelmed by more potent Allied aircraft, through late 1942 to mid-1943. My text explores the war actions of the Italian Folgores and Veltros alike over several operational theatres as the Mediterranean, Malta, North Africa, the Eastern Front and Italy’s homeland skies. Not to mention C.202s and C.205Vs in foreign service with both Luftwaffe and Croat Air Force in WW2 and the Royal Egyptian Air Force in the First Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. The narrative is supported also with plenty of period photos and nice colour profiles of these aircraft types, often identifying for each aircraft the pilot who flew it.
What should have I asked you?
I think you should have asked me about the men who flew such machines as well as the episodes which saw them act as protagonists.
Franco Bordoni Bisleri Franco Bordoni-Bisleri (10 January 1913 – 15 September 1975) was an Italian aviator and racing car driver. He is one of the top-scoring aces of the Regia Aeronautica, with 19 air victories. His nickname was “Robur” (strength) and was painted on most of his aircraft and racing cars.
One among them was high scorer 19-kill ace Tenente (Lieutenant) Franco Bordoni Bisleri of 18° Gruppo Caccia who, on 1 November 1942, was leading a four-strong MC.202 patrol over Mersa Matruh. Suddenly the Italians were jumped by a stronger formation of 12 Kittyhawks from No 250 Sqn: in an hectic and wild dogfight which lasted ten minutes, Ten Bordoni and his wingman Sottotenente Roberto Caetani fared well, shooting down two and one P-40s respectively. This outstanding feat earned Bordoni and Caetani being both decorated with the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare (Silver Medal for Military Valour, Italy’s second-ranking award for bravery). For Bordoni that Silver Medal was his third one. Besides, you have to consider that even single aircraft have their own stories, often linked with the lives of the pilots which flew them. Please let me give some instances: the Macchi C.202 coded ’90-8′ of the 90^ Squadriglia (10° Gruppo, 4° Stormo) and serialled MM7906 had an interesting operational career: it was flown by Tenente Virgilio Vanzan to score a shared kill on 12 June 1942, shooting down a Kittyhawk I of No 260 Squadron, flown by Sgt R A Matthews, who baled out successfully. Vanzan’s Macchi was hit by South African anti-aircraft fire minutes later, but the Italian did succeed to make it back to base. On July 16th MM7906, this time piloted by Sottotenente Renato Baroni, scored a shared P-40 kill in combat against No 250 Sqn; however it was in turn stricken again during this action and forced to belly-land near El Daba. Let’s us pass to another really interesting aircraft, the one serialled MM7712 and coded ’97-2′: it was the mount at whose controls future ace Sottotenente Jacopo Frigerio of 97^ Squadriglia (9° Gruppo, 4° Stormo) on 30 September 1941 scored the first confirmed victory for the C.202 ever. He had downed an ‘Hurri-bomber’ from No 185 Sqn piloted by Plt Off D W Lintern, following an RAF raid over the Sicilian airfield at Comiso. MM7712 was one of the first production Folgores completed by Macchi firm, and had been ferried by Sottotenente Frigerio himself from Lonate Pozzolo to Gorizia. This machine was destined to feature a really long and varied operational career. After being fitted with a camera for reconnaissance role, the aircraft was posted to 54° Stormo, where it was also flown by ten-kill ace Capitano Adriano Visconti. Then it was transferred to 377^ Squadriglia Autonoma at Palermo-Boccadifalco and, coded ‘377-1’, saw action being piloted by five-kill ace Tenente Luigi Torchio. This latter pilot used MM7712 to claim a P-38 kill on 3 February 1943 near Punta Zafferano. However ‘377-1’ was damaged in the same engagement, forcing its pilot to belly-land at Palermo. Also the C.202 coded ‘151-1’ of 20° Gruppo, 51° Stormo and serialled MM9042 it’s worth being mentioned: it was ferried from Macchi firm to Rome-Ciampino on 16 June 1942, then reaching Sicilian Gela airfield on the 24th. This aircraft was the regular mount of ace Capitano Furio Niclot Doglio, 151^ Squadriglia CO, who was credited with six individual and two shared Spitfire kills over Malta. On 6 July 1942 Cap Doglio badly damaged the Spitfire flown by ace Sgt George ‘Buzz’ Beurling; but the Canadian pilot was to take his revenge 21 days later, when on 27 July he shot down Macchi MM9042, at whose controls Cap Doglio lost his life. For his distinguished service, the Italian ace posthumously earned the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare (Gold Medal for Military Valour – Italy’s highest award for bravery). And so on, we could continue for tens of individual stories.
What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding of Italian aircraft in World War 2?
Rather than the aircraft itself, it would be more pertinent to speak about the myths and misunderstandings regarding the Italian Air Arm as a whole. The main misunderstanding derived from the remarkable results achieved by Italy in the ’20s and ’30s with world speed and high altitude records, plus long-range individual and formation flights. These amazing performances, coupled with the wars in Libya, Ethiopia, Spain and Albania, which always saw Italy on the apparent winning side, led the world to consider the Royal Italian Air Force as an efficient, combat-proven, potent and innovative air arm. But this was only a dramatic facade, based on an overestimation. The myth would be tragically unravelled by the combat demands of World War II.
An incredible series of wrong evaluations made by Italy’s politics, industrial and military leaderships forced the Italian Armed Forces to wage a war with insufficient armaments against better-equipped adversaries, whose governments had been more far-sighted than Italy’s. And this was to be true for the Royal Italian Air Force too. The Italian pilots were skilled, but had to fight with both underarmed and underpowered machines, that were not a match for their opponents’ aeroplanes. Among the great mistakes Italy made before and after war’s own entry, was the lack of standardization of its armaments: it would have been better to concentrate the war production on few but really efficient designs, like the combat-proven Macchi C.202/205V for the fighters and the S.79, the would-be redoubtable Cant Z.1018 (this latter, due to several delays, never saw action) for the bombers.
Instead, the Italian war industries foolishly chose to scatter their war productions pursuing an excessive number of pointless projects, which also limited the number of spare parts available for the few operationally efficient aircraft types. Unfortunately for the Italians, though they had many although they had plenty of gifted aircraft designers, they lacked real war production leaders (like Lord Beaverbrook in Great Britain), who could centralise all production destined for the war effort. All this, coupled with the fact that Italy was a country poor in raw materials (fact this that not allowed Italian industries producing military craft in quantities sufficient to match Allied war productions) at the very end would result catastrophic. Often the Italians were considered less effective in combat than the Germans, while on the other hand, some Allied pilots admitted that their Italian opponents were brave. As matter of fact, the Italian fighter pilots, as they liked the aerobatic individual duel, often stayed in combat against their Spitfire and Hurricane adversaries. On the contrary, the more pragmatic German Jagdwaffe pilots would prefer to break off and looking for a better advantageous position during the dogfight. Paradoxically, if there is a myth, it lies on the fact that Italian aviators compensated their technical inferiority with their own boldness and courage.
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The Qatar Emiri Air Force (QUEEF) has grounded their new fleet of British-supplied Eurofighter Typhoons as initial inspections have revealed some latent homosexual tendencies in the multi-role fourth generation fighter aircraft. According to sources, “Though the aircraft are not completely gay, we do detect some signs that the airframes may have wanked a friend off in college.” This is potentially damaging to fleet availability as homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, with a punishment of up to seven years in prison and a fine (the death penalty is not ruled out).
The Air Force has yet to comment on the French-supplied Rafales, which are rumoured to be onnisexual, though are believed to operate in a culture of ‘Don’t Tell, Don’t Fly’.
Many have ridiculed the grounding, noting the extreme effectiveness of the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Gay F-16 force.
Hush-Kit met former RAF Tornado pilot and Senior Instructor, Tim Davies, to find out more about the dire situation the Royal Air Force finds itself in, and how it could be best rectified. Davies claims he risked, and lost, his previous civilian post as he had spoken out. Now he shares his views on what went so wrong with UK military training.
What is wrong with the training system?
In around 2006, the existing UK military flying training system that was run by the RAF was thought to be at risk of being unable to deliver the required quantity and quality of aircrew to meet entry requirements to the Operational Conversion Units and onto the frontline. This was due to dated aircraft and differing and multiple contractual arrangements for the provision of equipment and support. This led to the UK Treasury deciding that, to make the costs of UK military flying training more predictable, it would privatise it out and therefore be able to pay the same amount of money each year over a 25-year period. Figures changed a lot in the early days but it worked out at a total cost of about £6.25bn or £250m a year. The bid was won by Lockheed Martin and Babcock who created a company called Ascent Flight Training to run what was now called the UK Military Flying Training System or UKMFTS.
This partnership was known as a PFI (Private Finance Initiative) which was popular in the UK at the time. The RAF was known the world over for its superb and enviable flying training system and overnight, it had been privatised and was to be run by civilians.
The flying training system prior to UKMFTS wasn’t very pretty but the pilots and students made it work, it belonged to the UK military and there was an element of pride about it. I was an instructor both prior to and after the introduction of UKMFTS but I only look back at the older military-run system with any sense of pride and fond memories. UKMFTS was, to me, soulless with its new buildings and new aircraft; this should be a good thing, I know, but Squadrons before were just more authentic – hard to describe, but they had memorabilia on the walls that gave them a sense of history and past achievements and these were lost under UKMFTS.
The old flying system was also incredibly flexible as it was purely military-run – UKMFTS is lean, as you’d expect, there is no flex, few military pilots yearn to instruct in it and it has become a 9 to 5 job. Also, critically, there were initial contract issues where the provider, Ascent Flight Training expected the RAF to deliver instructors to them who were already trained to instruct but the Ministry Of Defence expected Ascent to train the instructors – this was never resolved and done on local agreements throughout the separate flight schools. This was a huge problem for me as OC Standards on the Hawk T2 at RAF Valley and I managed to shut the school down for 6 months in 2014 just so I could get my instructors trained as Ascent was prioritising student training over instructor training. This was understandable as they were financially incentivised to output students and there was no money for them to train instructors – you can see the problem here but without instructors, you don’t get students!
The flying training system will always be in trouble as I see it, precisely because it was privatised. Instructors are all still military on jets but all the other aircraft they can be civilian, too – I don’t see this as a big issue but the system being run by an external company was always a problem. Over the years, the military personnel on the bases actually got on really well with the Ascent employees they served with – they are all good people but the problems that existed centrally and at the top with Ascent HQ and the issues with the MOD too, always would filter down and cause friction.
Also, aircraft that were bought all had issues of some sort – I was the Requirements Manager who brought them all in but they were purchased before I got there. The Airbus helicopters had issues where the rear crew loadmaster struggled to operate safely, the Texan T6 wasn’t designed to be parked on a beach at RAF Valley and wasn’t allowed to fly over water because the wrong ejection seat harness had been fitted (MOD issue not Beechcraft – a lovely company), Hawk T2 (which is the only non-UKMFTS asset and belongs to the MOD) has the same issue as the Australian Hawks had with compressor blade cracking which I expect is coming to a T-45 Goshawk near you, soon) – it also has a huge and laborious minor modification programme to get through. Grob 120TP seems to be doing OK but its simulator was actually a procedural trainer and so a lot of training that was expected to be done in it couldn’t be done. In 2018, two of the five Embraer Phenom aircraft for multi-engined training, collided during a practice flypast session for the RAF’s 100th-anniversary flypast over London – I’m not sure they got all five flying again.
Also, the frontline changes in squadron numbers meant that student input figures had to be changed and the system couldn’t cope with the required flex – that’s a lean system for you. Apart from all of that, UKMFTS is great!
Why are there so few F-35 pilots?
The aircraft were delivered ahead of trained pilots, this makes some sense although pilots were being trained stateside ahead of the arrival. Many pilots just don’t fly that much and so leave for other jobs – the admin burden for an RAF or RN pilot on F-35 is high and they have mandatory courses to do (Inappropriate Behaviour Course, DIE etc which annoys them no end) and they spend a long time away from family. Also, the jets are based at RAF Marham in Norfolk – it’s remote as are all jet bases in the RAF and RN – pilots get bored of it eventually. There is a blockage in the Fast Jet Flying Training pipeline at the moment on Hawk T2 as previously mentioned which is also really not helping.
How should it be rectified?
Personally, I don’t think it can be when you have both flying training AND frontline issues together as they both feed into each other – the training system provides new pilots to the frontline and the frontline provides instructors back into flying training. At the moment they aren’t providing anything to anyone and this is the issue.
The current time for a fast jet student to reach the frontline is 8 years – why would you ever join to do that now?
How is it fixed, listen to me and my team back in 2014, I’d say.
Did the ‘capability holiday’ after the Harrier damage the FAA’s ability to use fast jets today?
The RN pilots are great people and I trained loads of them which I enjoyed as I was originally in Royal Navy myself. The RN was sensible and, when it lost the Sea Harrier FA2, it put pilots onto the RAF’s GR7 and GR9. It also prepped for the F-35 introduction by sending pilots onto USN F/A-18s – the RN was very good at doing this so, for them, there was no capability holiday.
What are your thoughts on the F-35B engine blank crash?
We are just learning the lessons from the past again. When I taught on the Hawk T1 which was introduced in 1974, the engine blanks were tied together with a bit of old rope so you couldn’t have left one in – if one was out, the other came out with it. The F-35’s engine blanks are further down the engine and harder to see, but that’s why they needed to build in something to prevent this and a simple piece of rope costing a few pence could have saved a $100m loss. The young pilot got out at least, legend!
What should I have asked you?
What lessons can I still bring to aviation?
Thanks for asking, lol.
I run a virtual flight school based on the RAF’s flying training syllabus that I taught on for a decade and I use the game Digital Combat Sim to do this, but it is more than a flight school as my students will tell you. Intense work for a couple of hours a week, whilst I teach you complicated flight profiles, changes the way people operate and lives improve and so do relationships. I see it as therapy but in a very manageable way. I run it on a subscription model and I’ve just introduced voluntary exercise and nutrition work and advice. I have all sorts in there from airline pilots, military students, doctors, retired police officers, builders – you name it, they are there and all with an interest in aviation – I’m just making it to be the school I would have wanted to learn in.
For 20 years I flew in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force on the Tornado GR4, spending the last decade as the Senior Instructor teaching Advanced Flying Training and Tactical Weapons on the Hawk T1 and T2.
My company, Fast Jet Performance is an aviation-based consulting company also specialising in risk and gamification.
I run a virtual flight school called Shadowlands Online Flying Training where I take people through 9 months of instruction using Digital Combat Sim and I run a YouTube channel and podcast also called Fast Jet Performance.
The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the site
Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here
Despite being rejected (or perhaps never having been seriously courted) by a series of secondhand buyers, and in an unhappy relationship with the RAF, the sexy 28-year-old fighter aircraft is doing just fine by itself. The RAF’s Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoon is hard to upgrade – and what to do with them has long been a problem for the air force. But according to this European stunner, he’s OK by himself.
A spokesperson from the RAF noted, “When I met him, he said this and that about what he was capable of – but he just isn’t maturing enough and we’ve grown apart. At the beginning it was magical, he had so much more energy than my ex (the Tornado). But he just refused to change and grow up. I started seeing Tranche 2 Typhoons years ago and we had so much more in common. The Tranche 2s are even cool with me seeing a younger model, in the gorgeous Tranche 3. Tranche 1 is needy, high maintenance and unable to accommodate my needs for an open architecture pan-European relationship. He says we don’t need AESA, but when we see F-35Bs bowling past us and laughing, I realize something has to change.”
The Tranche 1 Typhoon had an altogether different view, “I don’t really think I am defined by my relationship status..but a lot of this is hurtful. Yes, I know the RAF and MoD have long considered leaving me. They told me we would be together until 2040, then panicked and changed that to 2025. It leaves me feeling insecure. Banishing me to the fucking Falklands was a huge insult. Ok so I can’t carry Meteor, but the RAF only has about 3 of those so why all the fuss? Oh, and I can’t carry an AESA…like the T2 and 3s are carrying one…but they’re not! Or maybe it’s an issue that I can’t be fitted with conformal tanks that don’t exist? Or that my computers are too old, when the T1s and T3s ain’t exactly the latest iPhones themselves. I’m less than middle-aged in flight hours. It’s just bullying. I’m quite capable of catching a Bear or a Flanker thanks, and I would even play second fiddle as an aggressor (as I was once promised) if I had to…I’d be a damn sight better than a flipping Hawk. It’s all fine. Good luck with maintaining fleet numbers without me I say.”
After sobbing on our shoulder, the fourth-generation fighter added “I’m fine…I’m fine OK.”
Further salt in the wound for the ill-treated hunk came with the news that Spanish Tranche 1 aircraft were receiving upgrades.
The Tranche 1 Typhoon phoned us back at 2AM shouting about the unfairness of the F-35B getting a pass on being needy before singing Ode to Joy and passing out.
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Russia’s T-10 family, known in the west as the ‘Flanker’ series, is a heavyweight fighter aircraft range that forms the core of the Chinese air and naval air- forces. China’s Flankers (some of which may be illegal pirate copies) are so varied it’s hard to get your head around them, so we went to a leading authority on Chinese air power, Andreas Rupprecht, to find out more.
How many Chinese flanker variants are there?
Besides the Russian-imported variants (Su-27SK, Su-27UBK, Su-30MKK and Su-30MK – and Su-35), it is simplest to think of three individual branches: the fighters; the twin-seater multirole fighters; and the carrier-capable variants, let’s have a look in more depth.
- The fighter versions: Within the first branch these are the J-11, J-11A and J-11B as well as the twin-seaters J-11BS plus their equivalent naval (but not carrier-capable) variants, the J-11BH and J-11BSH. And finally, their updated variants J-11BG and J-11BHG. The final and probably most capable variant within this branch is the radically modernised J-11D, which did not enter service.
The Su-27SK is a simple fighter variant, the Su-27UBK is a simple fighter-trainer variant. The Su-35 is an advanced single-seat multirole fighter.
1A. J-11 series
J-11 = Su-27SK built under license by SAC
J-11A = slightly improved type
J-11B = indigenous fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics, weaponry, and WS-10 engines
J-11BH = land-based naval variant
J-11BS = indigenous fighter trainer comparable to J-11B
J-11BSH = land-based naval variant of J-11BS J-11BG/BHG = upgraded fighter variants after MLU new radar + AAMs)
J-11D = projected variant with new AESA and structural changes, not purchased
2. The twin-seater multirole fighters
The second branch consists of the J-16 and the EW-variant J-16D
Su-30MKK = imported from Russia, simple twin-seater multirole fighter variant
Su-30MK2 = imported from Russia, simple twin-seater naval multirole fighter variant
J-16 = indigenous twin-seater multirole fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics, weaponry, and WS-10 engines
J-16D = indigenous EW-/jammer variant
3. The carrier-capable
This is all the J-15 variants, namely the J-15,
J-15S twin-seater, the J-15D EW-jammer,
the J-15T catapult testbed and the most recent J-15B.
Once again simpler: J-15 = indigenous carrier-borne multirole fighter variant with updated Chinese avionics and weaponry
J-15S = indigenous carrier-borne twin seater
J-15D = indigenous carrier-borne twin seater for EW-/jammer role
J-15T = catapult capable demonstrator / prototype
J-15B = improved catapult capable serial variant based on the J-11D avionics
In fact this plethora of variants and subtypes was one major reason to add a recognition guide in my latest book.
What is the most advanced radar used on a Chinese Flanker and how does it compare to Russian radars?
If I knew such classified information, I would no longer work as a teacher! Depending on the role, the most capable fighter radar is the AESA type installed in the J-11D, which is now integrated into the J-15B (which is currently in production for the Type 003 aircraft carrier Fujian). For the multirole, air-to-ground and anti-shipping mission, the AESA installed in the late production J-16s, is said to be the second most capable AESA after that fitted to the J-20. However, for both no performance data is given, and not even their designation is known (but it can be assumed). But based on a very interesting interview with a former test pilot, who flew both the Su-35 and the J-16 – the latest Chinese radar is more capable than its Russian equivalent. This is mainly because the Chinese radar is an AESA type (a technology Russia has yet to field. But again, nothing is confirmed known.
What is the most capable Chinese flanker and how does it compare with the best non-Chinese Flanker?
Overall, I don’t like such questions, since we don’t know enough for a conclusive answer. However, as a fighter, I would most likely rate the J-11D project as the one with the biggest potential, as for ones in actual service these are the updated J-11BGs (which use the J-11D’s radar) and the soon-to-enter service carrier-capable J-15B, which is without any doubt the most capable carrier-borne Flanker ever. For strike and multi-role, it would be the J-16. Comparing this to Russian Flankers, I would rate the J-11BG on par with the Su-27M3, while the J-16 is more modern – based on radar, avionics, cockpit display and weaponry – than the latest Su-30SM (albeit without canards and thrust vector control engines.
How many Flankers does China have?
Difficult to say, for the regular Su-27SK/UBJ and J-11/J-11A series there are about 120-130, for the improved J-11B/BH/BG series I think about 150 (I’m quite certain of this number) plus around 90-100 J-11BS twin-seater. For the J-15 series perhaps 60-65 are in service and for the J-16 there are about 250-260 available.
<this gives an upper estimate of 705 aircraft>
Does China manufacture Flankers?
Yes, all of the variants currently in production are produced in China for China only.
Can China produce all components itself?
As it seems, yes. At least it is no longer reported that Russia contributes anything.
How good are the cockpit displays?
Sorry, here I have no confirmed facts, but given that the Chinese Flankers have been using a fully digital cockpit with multi-functional displays for decades, and that the J-16 even has a cockpit with two large flatscreen panels (and we all know where most LCD-screens are built), anyone can draw their own conclusion.
What are the best operational Chinese air-to-air missiles used by Flankers?
For the long-range air-combat scenario it is surely the PL-15, an AAM comparable in configuration and size to the AIM-120C or even AIM-120D. It is said to use a dual pulse rocket motor which could extend its kinetic range up to 200km; for the export version 145km is confirmed. As a short-range IR-guided AAM it is the PL-10, a new generation missile in the same class as the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, A-Darter, AAM-5, and IRIS-T. It features TVC and enables a range of 20 km. And finally, there is the PL-17 – its designation was just confirmed two weeks ago – which is an ultra-long-range AAM for a range of more than 300km against high-value targets like EW/AEW assets and tanker.
Does Russia approve of all Chinese flanker developments?
In fact this is one of the most controversial topics and also included as a sub-chapter in my book. This is easy to answer, at first glance at least. Based on what is known about the contracts, every Chinese ‘Flanker’ from the J-11B onwards is an illegal copy or illegal further development. According to the original contracts, China had the right to build 200 J-11s under a fairly strict licence manufacturing agreement. This specified an exact copy of the Su-27SK, no more, no less. But not everything here is as black and white as some would like to portray. The original J-11 and J-11A are clearly not illegal copies. They were all built according to the contract and are as such legal. The J-11B, however, is a different story. Here, most analysts agree that the moment SAC decided to add a Chinese radar, engines and weapons the aircraft must be rated as illegal. This is even more valid for the two-seat J-11BS since the licence agreement never included the trainer version, and again for the carrier-capable J-15 and the multirole J-16. Consequently, there is nothing to debate. All these are illegal copies and developments since Russia did not – at least not officially – agree to them. But at the same time, the situation is less straightforward than some would like us to think. Consequently, there have been several attempts to explain this. One theory revolves around still-unknown paragraphs in the original contract under which any further Russian debt could be compensated by additional ‘Flankers’. Other explanations suggest that Russia may have simply accepted the fact that there was nothing it could do about the situation. And since Russia has recently depended more on China’s money than China does on Russia’s technical expertise, Russia simply tried to maintain a good level of relations. And finally, there may have been a secret agreement according to which Russia continued to be paid or was paid differently via parallel trade or by other offset deals.
I don’t know for sure, but if Russia really considered that the production of more ‘Flankers’ was a breach of contract and the J-11BS, J-15 and J-16 were illegal developments outside the scope of the license, why was there not more political outcry? Why have there been no sanctions? Why have there subsequently been additional contracts for other Russian products, including engines, and finally the Su-35 deal? I’m sure this mystery will only be solved when the full contract is revealed but I don’t expect this to happen.
What are the strongest and weakest areas of Chinese avionics?
This is the most difficult question to answer. Overall, I think, the biggest strong points are that Chinese avionics are modern, fully digital and built indigenously. Since China manufactures most modern Western digital devices it, therefore, has a very clear understanding of what’s high-end – and China has the production capabilities to rapidly include more modern systems and updates in large numbers. Its weakness is at least said to be in sharing information: but how capable Chinese systems are in terms of netcentric warfare and joint operations is beyond my knowledge.
Will J-20s replace Flankers?
As it seems, no. Or at least not all units have been former Flanker operators. According to the first transitioned units, they were Flight Test & Training units replacing Su-30MKK and also the first operational unit at Wuhu, was flying Su-30MKK. Other units more recently converting were former J-10A/AS, J-10B, J-10C and J-11B/BS units.
Does China use thrust vectoring technology?
It is not yet operational on the J-20 but it seems like confirmed that the WS-15 will be a TVC-engine similar to the J-10B testbed shown on Zhuhai 2018 with the WS-10B-3 engine. Similarly, it is said that the same engine was tested on a Flanker and since June 2021, a single WS-15 engine with a TVC nozzle was fitted on a J-20 prototype testbed at CAC. The axial-symmetrical TVC nozzle appears similar to that of the WS-10B3 engine tested and these tests were continuing at the CFTE since late 2021.
In operational service, the PLAAF only uses 24 Su-35.
How good are the Chinese engines?
That’s probably the biggest question mark in an overall more than unconfirmed and often speculative topic. Yes, they had issues with the early WS-10-series of engines, but at least since 2009 no new-built Chinese Flanker – with the exception of the carrier-borne J-15s – is using Russian AL-31F engines and as such, since the crash rate is at least not an issue discussed in the public – comparable to several crashes of J-1A fighters related to failures of the AL-31FN – it seems to be stable, reliable and powerful enough. Especially since from mid-2019 on also all J-10C and J-20A are using variants of the WS-10 Taihang, it seems to be reliable enough for operational use. Any technical data and especially failure rate or lifecycle are speculative but said to be better than the Russian ones.
What should I have asked you?
Why I am so obsessed with Chinese military aviation and the PLAAF? Why I share all this information more or less for free on social media and why I’m not working for an institute or agency for a much better income? 😉
What roles do Flankers perform in Chinese service?
In PLAAF and PLAN Naval Aviation service the J-11-series is surely still most of all an air-superior fighter like the F-15. As such a fighter is primarily armed with air-to-air missiles. The J-15 was always more aimed for multirole including attack and anti-shipping roles besides being a fighter and the J-16 is a true multirole fighter developed for long-range precision strike and fighter roles.
Do they have a high accident rate?
Few Chinese Flankers have been lost. Or at least few reported – and even fewer are reported with the reason for the crash made public. It is reported, that besides a handful of known crashes in operational service, one J-11BS prototype was lost. The J-15 suffered a few more accidents. This is best explained by the fact they were the most frequent and intensively flown types during their early operational career – and that PLAN Naval Aviation initially had very little experience in operating aircraft from a carrier.
For more on Chinese Flankers we recommend Andreas’ new book Red Dragon ‘Flankers‘
No pilot has spent more time flying faster than the speed of sound than Mike Bannister. From becoming Concorde‘s youngest pilot to flying the iconic aircraft’s final commercial flight, on which passengers included Tony Benn (the man who put the ‘e’ in Concorde) and Jeremy Clarkson, Bannister’s flying career encompassed a time when flying was faster and more glamorous. We met Bannister to find out more about the most beautiful manmade object that ever flew.
Describe Concorde in three words...Fast, Elegant, Sublime
Was Concorde harder to fly than subsonic airliners? If so, why? No, just different and more complex. She was four aircraft in one – high, low, fast and slow. And aerodynamically different too.
What was the best thing about Concorde? The people. The people who flew in her, who designed her, who supported her and who cheered for her
..and the worst? Only 2.5 million people got to fly on BA’s Concordes
Biggest myth about Concorde? That she didn’t make money for BA
How would you rate Concorde in the following categories?
A. Take-off – Like a rocket
B. Landing – Like a swan
C. Pilot comfort – Like a limo
D. Cockpit ergonomics – Like a Chess Board
E. Acceleration – Staggering
F. Agility – Phenomenal
G. Ease of operation – A skill. That’s why it took Concorde Crews 6 months to learn to fly her rather than just 2 months for any other airliner
How many supersonic hours do you think – and do you know anyone who has more? I have almost 10,000 Concorde hours, of which almost 7,000 are supersonic. I’m told that is more than anyone else.
What was your most memorable flight and why? Flying at 325mph, at just 1,000 feet, with the Red Arrows down the Mall for HM The Queen’s Golden Jubilee – Why? It was huge fun!
Tell me something I don’t know about Concorde – She stretched up to 8 inches in flight as she heated up due to her speed through the air. As Concorde rushed along at Mach 2, 1350 mph, it heated up due to air friction and compression. The heating effect was huge. With outside temperatures of around minus 53 degrees, the nose of the aircraft would climb to as much as plus 127 degrees – a 180-degree rise. Heating metal causes it to expand. Concorde was made of metal – so it grew in flight. Up to 8 inches. The designers knew about this and built-in expansion joints. The one that could be seen was on the Flight Deck. A gap that was just fingernail thin on the ground could take your whole hand in flight. Fortunately, it cooled down again, and shrank, before landing.
Did Concorde make money for British Airways? Yes – about £500m in 2002 pounds. Almost a billion pounds in current values
What is the highest Concorde ever flew? With BA, 62,500 feet (almost 12 miles)
.and the fastest? She crossed the Atlantic, from New York to London, in 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds
Would you like to see the return of supersonic transport, and do you think it will happen? Absolutely and absolutely
What should I have asked you? Why did people always look up when Concorde flew over? The psychiatrists tell us that she appeals to both sides of the brain – the technical side for all of the ‘gee-whizz’ things she could do and the artistic side because she was so beautiful
How did you feel on Concorde’s retirement? Sad, but proud and privileged to have flown her for over 22 years.
Mike Bannister has written a book about his Concorde experiences you can order here
You can order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.
10 more terrible warplanes from the United Kingdom
Back in 2016 we lambasted 10 air-shits from the land of curry-stained sportswear, regret and high-speed prime ministerships. Today we return to Europe’s dodgy uncle, to handpick a further 10 appalling aeroplanes to drag through the cobbled streets, lock in stocks and throw rotten Greggs pasties at. Some were diabolically dangerous ideas, some wayward money pits and others the unfortunate victims of bad luck, either way they all are aircraft that should have never left the hangar. Gulp down your tea from a polystyrene cup, wrap your body in Union Jack bunting and talk a drizzly walk down a Zone 6 suburb named shame, for here are 10 more terrible British military aircraft.
(The Beardmore Inflexible was saved from inclusion by being German)
10. RAF BE.9 ‘Pulpit’ (1916) ‘Hellfire from the pulpit’
The worst aspect of the BE.9 was undoubtedly the precarious position of the gunner: ahead of the propeller in a pulpit-like plywood nacelle. The reasoning for this alarming configuration was that it would combine the best feature of a pusher, an unrivalled forward field of fire, with the high performance of a tractor (an aircraft with the propeller at the front). However, the propeller was unshielded, and the only thing that prevented the gunner being sucked into the propeller and processed into human pastrami was his deathly tight grip on his Lewis gun. This successfully made what was already one of the most dangerous jobs in human history, even more perilous. To add to the danger, the placement of an engine and propeller between gunner and pilot effectively prevented meaningful communication, something vital for any reasonable chance of survival. The ‘Pulpit’ was too mad for even the Royal Flying Corps, and its mediocre performance was not worth the likely risks.
The BE.9 was an attempt to counter a German technological lead that was costing British lives. The German Fokker Eindecker had arrived on the Western Front in 1915 armed with machineguns that could fire safely through the propeller arc thanks to an interrupter gear. This allowed easy accurate fire and proved devastating to opposing Allied aircraft. The BE.9 was developed as the British had so far failed to create a reliable comparable interrupter gear. However, in August 1916, at the time the BE.9 was first being flown, a more practical solution to forward-firing machine-guns had arrived in the form of the Constantinesco interrupter gear, happily allowing plans for BE.9 production to be quietly dropped.
9. Westland PV.7 (1933) ‘Penrose in the thorns’
The story of how test pilot Harald Penrose ended up breathless in a field holding frantically trying to hold up his buttonless trousers is a cautionary one.
The chief designer, of the PV.7, Arthur Davenport, had been reluctant to accept that the aircraft had issues with wobbly insecure wings. In an early flight he had been on board, Davenport demanded Penrose dive to prove the aircraft safe. A modest dive satisfied Davenport, but Penrose insisted on showing the over-confident designer a faster dive with full aileron. Davenport, secretly knowing the limitations of his design, interrupted by shouting, “Stop it! You’ll tear the wings off!”
Despite this test flying continued. The Air Ministry wished the PV.7 to perform overload diving tests with the centre of gravity moved further back. As Penrose took off for this test, a telegram arrived from the manufacturer to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment urgently warning that the flight must be cancelled. The manufacturer, Westland, claimed that they had just discovered the aircraft was too weak to withstand such an experiment. The PV.7 was a high brace winged monoplane and, like its stablemate, the rather weird Pterodactyl, had a tendency to wing torsional flexure (overly bendiness) at higher speeds. The telegram arrived too late and Penrose carried out the manoeuvre. While diving through unexpectedly rough air, the port rear main bracing strut failed catastrophically. The left wing left the aircraft, slicing off the tailplane as it did so. Penrose battled high Gs to escape through the tiny side door and successfully parachuted from the cartwheeling aircraft (the first escape from a British aircraft with an enclosed cockpit). Penrose’s ankles were badly injured by a hard landing, after which a strong gust of window caught his ‘chute and dragged him across a stubble field. Fortunately, a hedge stopped the bewildered test pilot and he struggled to his feet. An ‘attractive young lady’ peered through the hedge as the pilot struggled to hold up his now buttonless trousers and asked him if needed help.
The aircraft had been built to meet Air Ministry specification G.4/31, which included dive-bombing. Dive-bombing requires an extremely strong airframe, something the PV.7 clearly did not have. (The overly ambitious G.4/31 requirement was then won by the Vickers-Armstrong Type 253 biplane. But Vickers designers knew the 253 to be obsolete and instead schemed a far superior monoplane, which with a similar Pegasus engine was 70mph faster, could carry twice the load and had twice the range. This monoplane was the extraordinary Wellesley.) Westland failed to kill Penrose with the PV.7, but tried again with the Welkin (which gave him pneumonia) and the Wyvern (which would give any pilot the chills) – but he somehow survived all of these assassination attempts.
In the same way that most 20th century biographies feature a horrible father siring a great hero or heroine, the beastly PV.7 led to the wonderful Westland Lysander.
8. BAC TSR2 ‘Tory ‘spiracy rants 2’
In nominating the TSR2 as my choice of the worst British aircraft, I do so without making any adverse comment on the efforts of those highly skilled personnel at the British Aircraft Corporation and its predecessor companies who were engaged in the programme. Yes, it experienced teething troubles during its truncated flight test effort, but which advanced new aeroplane doesn’t? In that sense, there have been many far worse British aircraft — plenty, indeed, that should never have progressed any further than the drawing-board, if that. The likelihood is that those maladies would, given time, have been ironed out, with the result being an effective operational type. Again, nothing unusual there.
Rather, my antipathy towards the TSR2 concerns the way in which it has become totemic as a symbol of British decline, and, worse, of the simplistic notion that the nation’s military capability is unsafe under a Labour administration. Most readers of this piece will be familiar with the arguments. They have it that, with the TSR2’s cancellation, Britain’s aviation industry was dealt a blow from which it never recovered; that without the infamous decision by Harold Wilson’s government, we would have gone on producing indigenously designed front-line military aircraft in our own factories, without the need to engage in multi-national collaboration. Oh, I nearly forgot: I should have stressed, as so many authors for some reason feel the need to do, that it was down to Harold Wilson’s Labour government, lest anyone forget which party wielded the axe.
In both cases, its symbolism is entirely specious. It would, in my view, be a romantic, even a naïve observer who feels a go-it-alone attitude could have persisted much longer in the case of major programmes such as the TSR2. Never has any credible, hard evidence been presented to support theories of deliberate American sabotage of broader TSR2 sales prospects, such as to Australia. In any case, an Australian order would in no way have ridden to the programme’s rescue, and it is generally considered not to have been the right aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force — unlike the F-111, which was selected instead. Those who similarly contend, with hindsight’s benefit, that the TSR2 was the wrong aircraft for the RAF also have a point. This was an air force increasingly optimised for conventional operations on NATO’s Central Front, rather than the delivery of tactical nuclear weapons east of Suez or deep inside Warsaw Pact territory. Again, the TSR2 and its crews may very well, once in-service maturity had been achieved, have performed most effectively in any assigned role. But, in a quote attributed to various individuals down the years, it was a very expensive way of delivering high explosive.
And therein lies the nub of the TSR2 issue. It had simply become too costly. To cancel a project on the basis of significant budget over-runs, both existing and projected, was and is nothing unusual. In this instance, it can be seen to make sense. Without canning the TSR2, it is likely the pan-European MRCA programme would never have been embarked upon, yet in the resulting Tornado the RAF received a type very much optimised to the realities of both the developing strategic environment and the prevailing economic situation. Yet still, after more than half a century, there is widespread refusal to face up to these basic truths. Britain couldn’t afford it. International collaboration was inevitable and advantageous. None of the conspiracy theories about overseas interference, the rapid destruction of the jigs and toolings, Harold Wilson being a clandestine Commie and so forth hold water. And Conservative governments were responsible for just as many significant project cancellations during their contemporary periods in office as were Labour ones.
The TSR2 was not a bad aircraft. But its influence on decades of discussion about British aviation, and specifically British defence procurement, has been uniquely malign.
7. Hawker Tornado ‘Shitenado’
The fast well-armed Tornado got everything right, well apart from the wings, cockpit and engine. It is saved from a higher ranking by dint of rarity, as mercifully only four were created. Its tiny cursed life makes it all the stranger that the name would make a comeback in the 1970s starting a convention of naming European fighter-bomber after flawed Hawker designs from the 1940s. Weirder still, the namesake designs would be twin-engined, an approach detested by Hawker.
6. Nimrod AEW.MK 3/MRA.4 ‘Psychopathia Cometrosexualis’ + ‘Black Rod’
“Is it not a fact that the Mark 3 Nimrod saga is the worst procurement scandal since World War II? Will my right honourable friend have the courage to grasp the nettle and not put more good money after bad, but rather procure the E3A Sentry, which works, and which will bring commonality with the rest of air defences in western Europe?” – MP John Wilkinson, House of Commons debate, 11 February 1986
Perhaps subconscious, was there a modicum of nostalgia in Britain’s overly long relationship with the Nimrod? The Nimrod was a derivative of the first jet airliner, the Comet and as such, looking to US airframes may have been a sad reminder that grand British visions of aviation supremacy were long gone. The Comet and later the Nimrod had a protracted history of representing the best and worst of British aeronautical endeavours. The odd mixture of great ideas let down by carelessness, bodging improvisation or overly ambitious attempts at domestic solutions.
By the 1980s, the bizarre British reluctance to properly funding AEW&C aircraft left them what was essentially a 1940s bomber with a 1940s radar set. The Shackleton had no place in 1980s warfare and Britain set a course to make its next AEW&C, the best in the world. This new aircraft was intended to be better than the US’ E-3 as it would not have the obvious blindspot that a radar dish on the upper side has, instead the radars were in obscenely bulging nose and tail fairings and their ‘radar picture’ would be cleverly stiched together to form one fabulous all-round view. This advanced notion would have one element of risk and cost removed by using an existing proven airframe, that of the RAF’s Nimrod, a superb anti-submarine and maritime attack aircraft. Like pretty much all British defence programmes that happened during the Thatcher years (see SA80 for details) it was a disastrous and expensive project. The technology was really pushing the limit of what was possible, the central computer was expected to process data from the two radar scanners (which refused to sinc), the ESM (signal gathering) system, IFF (to identify friends or foes) and inertial navigation systems with a comically tiny 2.4MB. Meantime between failures was two hours (despite data loading taking 2.5 hours). There was also technical issues relating to detection and resolution of slow moving targets, such as maritime and land vehicles.The US JSTARS (below) aircraft would use Sideways Looking Airborne Radar to perform the latter, but the AEW3 antennae ‘looked’ fore and aft, not side-to-side, and were unsuitable. Among myriad other issues, the sensors were also confused by ocean waves. The technology could not be made to work and it left the British taxpayer with a staggering £1 billion loss with nothing to show for it. Essentially the aspiration of the project was a good one: two antennae pointed in opposite directions able to be integrated to provide a 360 deg picture (very much like today’s successful electronically scanned Wedgetail). The BIG problem being that airborne e-scan radars hadn’t been invented yet.
Britain learnt its lesson and never attempted a high tech upgrade of the Nimrod again. Well, not until the 1990s anyway, when it decided to junk all the systems in the trusted Nimrod MR.2 and replace them all, including wings, engines, sensors and weapon systems with lovely new stuff. Pretty soon it was £789 million over-budget and over nine years late. Rumours abounded that the irregularities in the size of pre-digitally constructed aircraft had not been taken into consideration and many components simply did not fit. Safety tests in 2010 found there were several hundred design non-compliances, including bomb bay doors functionality, and question marks about the landing gear and fuel pipe safety. The MRA.4 cost billions, and its failure left the UK without adequate defence of its waters for several years.
Some would argue that the MR4 was a missed opportunity, and could have been excellent. The case for the MRA4 would cite its superb mission system, which formed the basis of the Poseidon which eventually took the role, coupled with a massively more efficient propulsion system than the older Nimrod. Concerns leading to its cancellation included the risk of converting old airframes, each of which were likely to have had different corrosion issues, and worries regarding airworthiness management raised by the Haddon-Cave report into the tragic loss of Nimrod MR2 XV230 over Afghanistan in 2006. The aircraft was brought down by a British tradition more foolhardy than than cheese-rolling, that of adding a dangerous new flaw to the Nimrod every ten years*. But, recognising the risks, the aircraft were to have new-build wings, and the issues concerning XV230 should have been able to be resolved given lessons learned from the report. However, the government lost confidence in the suppliers’ ability to deliver the programme, and later opted for the US P-8 Poseidon instead, where risks generally fall on the US Navy and Australia. BAE Systems had also been very wary about its commercial position in relation to the project and the rising costs. Regardless of ‘what-iffery’ the actual result of MRA4 was a ‘capability holiday‘ and lot of money lost.
* “Design flaws introduced at three stages played a crucial part in the loss of XV230. First, the original fitting of the Cross-Feed duct by Hawker Siddeley12 in about 1969. Second, the addition of the SCP by British Aerospace13 in about 1979. Third, the fitting of the permanent Air- to-Air Refuelling modification by British Aerospace in about 1989.”
5. De Havilland Venom NF.3 ‘Steamy Widowmaker’ (1953)
Quite how the superb Vampire transmuted into the nightmarish NF.3 is anybody’s guess, but what is clear is that as an all-weather night fighter the NF.3 was a catastrophe. Let us start with the NF.3’s single engine, which had a tendency to flame-out, stop or catch fire. As much of the aircraft was ‘fuel-soaked wood’, fires spread extremely rapidly. One would hope for a reliable fire warning system for such a risky aircraft, but this would have been unjustified optimism, as the erratic system often gave false warnings. Crew were instructed to escape the aircraft in the event of an engine fire, though no ejection seats were provided. The two crew sat cramped side-by-side with a cockpit insufficiently roomy for the new ‘bone-dome’-style helmets. Visibility was practically zero from the windshield in rain (hardly ideal for an all-weather fighter), it would mist up at high altitude, and had a tendency to crack. The A.I.21 radar, the primary sensor, suffered extremely poor serviceability. The fuel gauges lied, the electrical system was unreliable, the aircraft was exhaustingly unstable demanding constant attention, it had lower performance than the earlier far lighter NF.2, the air brakes were poor and provided no use at all below 200 knots… the catalogue of failings goes on and on. We’ll leave the final word to Flying Officer Paul Hodgson as quoted in Peter Caygill”s brilliant book, Jet Jockeys, ‘The Venom NF.3 was the most unpleasant aircraft I have ever flown, and perhaps, the least suited for its intended role.’
4. Supermarine Attacker ‘The Spiteful Death of the Spitfire”
Flush from the success of making 22 slightly different versions of the same aircraft during World War Two Supermarine submitted a design to fill an Air Ministry requirement for a single engine jet-propelled fighter with a laminar flow wing. At this point the cynical aerosexual may think Joe Smith’s design team were phoning it in. While the good comrades at Mikoyan-Guervich were developing the MiG-15, Supermarine devised a way to put the same Nene turbojet in a Spiteful. Which if we’re being honest should just have been called the Spitfire Mk 25.
After the RAF lost interest in an aircraft whose performance was no better than the jets it already possessed Supermarine needed to find someone with a vague contempt for its aircrew to sell the Attacker to. Enter the Admiralty. To navalise it Supermarine added an arrestor hook and, showing the contempt for naval aviation that produced the Seafire, a derisory wingfold that reduced each wing’s span by about three feet. This would lead to the loss of at least two Attackers which had their controls lock up in flight after one of the wings folded, the first conducting a ‘safe’ 200 knots landing while the pilot of the second made the perfectly reasonable decision to eject. The use of an enlarged, but otherwise unmodified, Spiteful wing also meant the Supermarine design team provided the RN with the last tail dragging jet fighter to enter front line service, three years after the Yak-15.
By the time this happened in August of 1950 the US Navy’s F9F Panther had already scored its first kill over Korea. Which showed what you could do with a straight wing and a Rolls-Royce Nene derivative if you put your mind to it. For example, it had the benefit of hydraulicly boosted controls which gave Grumman’s cat lighter control forces and a faster roll rate. While a Panther pilot managed to down four MiG-15 in 35 minutes the Attacker was attempting mock dogfights with the Meteor where its performance was described as that of a ‘very average aircraft’.
Only in front line service from 1950 to 1954 true to form Supermarine managed to cram three variants into this short period, the final FB2 allowing the option of carrying bombs or rockets in addition to the four 20-mm cannon. In an apparent attempt to damage relations with the newly formed nation of Pakistan a de-navalised version of the latter was pressed on their air force as the only foreign sale, entering service in 1951 and equipping one squadron until they were replaced with F-86 Sabres in 1956. Which is what they probably wanted in the first place.
Some may attempt to excuse the Attacker’s lacklustre capabilities as Supermarine’s first try at a jet. But given how woeful the follow-on attempts were maybe fighters just weren’t their thing.
3. Tarrant Tabor ‘Godalminger’
Walter George Tarrant was a developer in Surrey and the Tarrant Tabor serves to demonstrate that it is not necessarily a good idea to let a builder make an aeroplane. The first thing one can’t help but notice is that the Tabor was, appropriately enough, the size of a building, and quite a big building at that. On completion it was, in fact, the world’s largest aircraft, and was intended to fly from British bases to bomb Berlin. Designed by Walter Barling and Marcel Lobelle (who would later be responsible for the highly successful Fairey Swordfish), the Tabor featured a vast and beautifully made lightweight wooden monocoque fuselage built of layered ply veneers that possessed great strength and an excellent aerodynamic shape. As originally designed it was to be a biplane featuring four 600hp Siddeley Tiger engines mounted in push/pull pairs. Unfortunately, production of the engines was delayed and the decision was taken to use six 450hp Napier Lions instead and add a third wing above the existing two. Four of the Lion engines were mounted in pairs as before but with the further two added between the upper two wings, a decision that was to have calamitous results.
The war for which the Tabor was designed came to an end before the aircraft was complete but construction continued as it was thought that it might make an excellent transport aircraft. Completed in May 1919, the Tabor was awesome to behold, with a wingspan 6 metres greater than an Avro Lancaster this was an aircraft that was vast by the standards of the day but its 11.36 metre (37ft 3in) height was utterly unprecedented. On 26 May after taxiing in a mile-wide circle to check ground handling, the first take off was attempted. Pilots Dunn and Rawlings accelerated the huge machine across the field, then the two upper engines were throttled up, the Tabor pitched forward and buried its nose expensively in the ground and all five of the crew on board were seriously injured (sadly Dunn and Rawlings both died later of their injuries).
To be fair, it may not have been entirely due to the problematic placement of the engines that the Tabor’s first attempt at flight proved so disastrous. The situation may also have been affected by the half ton of lead that was shoved into the nose just before the first flight (against the designers’ wishes) due to fears the Tabor might prove tail heavy.
And that would have been that – but then General Billy Mitchell somehow contrived to have Walter Barling design a distinctly familiar-looking six-engine triplane bomber of enormous size, the XNBL-1, for US service. No one could accuse Barling of failing to learn from his mistakes as this time all the engines were sensibly mounted between the lowest wings. Unfortunately the triplane layout proved to be essentially a built-in headwind and the huge aircraft could not exceed 154km/h (96mph) and boasted the tremendous range of 270 km (170 miles) rendering it essentially useless. This also suggests that, had it flown, the only thing that would have proved impressive about the Tabor were its insane dimensions. The XNBL-1 was unceremoniously burned in 1930. Meanwhile WG Tarrant built many houses all over Britain and, perhaps wisely, never attempted to construct an aircraft again.
- Edward Ward, contributing author to The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes
2. Hawker Typhoon ‘The Sabre Rattler’
by Edward Ward (with some nitpicking by Calum E Douglas)
An undoubtedly charismatic aircraft, the wartime RAF would nonetheless have been better off had it never had to deal with the brutish Typhoon. Despite being the first British fighter with a genuine 400 mph capability, and eventually possessed of a fearsome reputation as a ground attack fighter (a role, significantly, for which it had never been intended) the fact is that there was little that the Typhoon offered that could not be matched or bettered by other aircraft and with significantly less chance of experiencing engine seizure, or catching fire, or gassing the pilot, or simply falling apart in the process. No other major combat type used by the British Commonwealth caused so much heartache.
Intended as a replacement for both Hawker’s own supremely successful Hurricane and an obscure little fighter called the Spitfire, the new Hawker F18/37 airframe was sensibly ordered with two alternative brand new (massive) engine designs, the Vulture from Rolls-Royce and Napier’s Sabre powering aircraft named the Tornado and Typhoon respectively. Both offered power in the 2000 hp class and in the event one were to prove unsuccessful the programme could go ahead utilising the other. Unfortunately both proved to be, at best, highly problematic. To be fair to Napier, although the Sabre was (initially at least) woefully unreliable and prone to catastrophic failure, the Vulture was worse still and quickly discarded. Nonetheless the heavy and complicated Sabre’s reliability was appalling: when the Typhoon entered squadron service in 1941 the time between major overhaul of the Sabre was a mere 25 hours (though regularly it failed to achieve even this pathetic total and seized). For context, the recommended time between overhaul of the Rolls-Royce Merlin in the same tine period was 240 hours. 25 hours is the same figure as the famously unreliable Jumo 004 turbojets of the Me 262 of 1945 but the Jumo represented the application of a completely new technology in a failing state where the supply of even basic materials was impossible and the industrial complex was in the process of collapse – a situation that could not be said to apply to Napier’s Acton factory in 1941. Throughout 1942 Napier farted about with experimental superchargers trying to improve the Sabre’s altitude performance without attending to its basic reliability issues. So bad was the situation that the Government enforced the takeover of Napier by the English Electric company who promptly cancelled the supercharger development and improved reliability with impressive speed.
Despite the huge improvement in the Sabre’s reliability, the engine remained difficult to start, particularly in cold weather and was prone to catching fire. If the pilot inadvertently opened the throttle more than 5/8ths of an inch, the engine would flood and fail to start (and probably catch fire). Even were the pilot to adjust the throttle correctly, if the engine failed to start first try, there was an 80% chance of it catching fire on the second attempt. This all sounds like marvellous fun and probably serves to explain why there are no Sabre powered aircraft flying today. Provided the engine started successfully, the pilot then had to contend with carbon monoxide leaking into the cockpit, a problem that was never entirely solved, necessitating the use of an oxygen mask at all times the engine was running, which was just dandy in an aircraft known for its unpleasantly high cockpit temperature. To further delight pilots and ground crew alike, the Sabre was a very loud and high-pitched engine, which may not have been dangerous but was profoundly wearing.
Happily for the pilot the Typhoon was generally easy to fly and handled well. As a fighter it was noted for its exceptional steadiness, and despite possessing 24 cylinders and weighing over a ton, the Sabre was a notably smooth engine when it wasn’t catching fire or seizing. Unfortunately the Typhoon had a bunch of other disappointments and potentially deadly problems on offer. Firstly, although it could get to 400mph it was never as fast as Hawker said it would be and its speed performance was a disappointment to manufacturer and customer alike. The relatively thick wing was prone to compressibility, a condition where localised airflow exceeds the speed of sound, which results in very high levels of drag. Furthermore climb performance was below expectation due also to the wing thickness and high wing loading – the aircraft had ended up considerably heavier than intended. But to be fair the average Typhoon pilot was probably more concerned with the propensity of the tail to fall off – an aerodynamic quirk of the elevator led to aeroelastic vibration in the tailplane (flutter) at relatively low speeds when no ‘g’ was being applied. The flutter, over time, would lead to metal fatigue and failure in the rear fuselage and the inevitable loss of the aircraft and although easily solved by structural strengthening and adjusting the elevator balance, locating the problem in the first place was difficult with many Typhoons destroyed before the problem was rectified. And if you were unlucky enough to find yourself in a Typhoon without a tail, your mood probably would not have been lifted by the fact that it was extremely difficult to get out of. Early Typhoons were fitted with car-style side-opening doors which were virtually impossible to open at speed. The top of the canopy could be jettisoned in an emergency but the fact that this configuration was nicknamed the ‘coffin hood’ gives a fair idea of the affection in which it was held and in the first nine months of its service, more Typhoon pilots were killed in accidents than through enemy action. The very first Typhoons were also possessed of an extremely poor rearward view from the cockpit. When air ace Hugh Dundas complained to designer Sydney Camm, Camm retorted that his aircraft was “so bloody fast you will not need to look behind you!” Thanks Sid. It is notable that the Typhoon eventually got one of the earliest teardrop canopies fitted to a fighter and is said to have inspired the same modification to the superlative Mustang.
That the Typhoons problems were not just the result of exaggerated historical revisionism is made plain by the serious consideration given to cancelling the entire programme during 1942, the very moment when as the fastest British fighter it was most sorely needed to combat the Luftwaffe’s highly successful campaign of ‘tip and run’ raids utilising the new Focke Wulf Fw 190. Indeed a Typhoon contract for 270 aircraft actually was cancelled at this time. Nonetheless, the aircraft staggered on largely due to the enthusiasm of one man: Roland Beamont, CO of 609 squadron, who introduced the Typhoon to its second career of ground-attack sorties over Europe. This was lucky for the Typhoon as the Spitfire IX was available by the second half of 1942 and also possessed the performance necessary to deal with the Fw 190. Its career as a fighter bomber was famous but there is a lingering suspicion that the Typhoon was an overrated ground attack asset – postwar analysis of destroyed tanks found that only 4% of Typhoon tank claims by rocket attack could be verified but the results of this analysis are themselves questioned. What is not in doubt is the psychological effect of these attacks – however had they been delivered by another aircraft would the results have been any different? The Hurricane had already operated as a rocket firing aircraft for example, with sufficient escort to protect against interception would their losses have been any different to the more expensive and troublesome Typhoon? For Typhoon losses were themselves appalling, for example 90 were lost during August 1944 alone, virtually all to ground fire. Like all liquid-cooled aircraft, even a small calibre bullet hit to the radiator will cause the engine to seize within minutes and the almost inevitable loss of the aircraft. The P-47 Thunderbolt (coincidentally another fighter originally intended for high altitude combat), was fulfilling the same rocket firing tank-busting role for the Americans at the same time as the Typhoon was making its mark as a ground attack asset. But the Thunderbolt, with its air-cooled radial engine had an almost unbelievable ability to take battle damage and survive, there were occasions when Thunderbolts returned with entire cylinders shot off. Would British needs have been better served by simply buying or licence-producing Thunderbolts?
Even once the worst of its traits were largely ameliorated, the Typhoon programme was arguably a huge misappropriation of resources that could have been better spent elsewhere, simply on more Spitfires for example, a fact that did not go unnoticed even at the time. That the Typhoon painfully matured into a (probably) effective ground attack aircraft was due to almost superhuman persistence and was attained at the cost of many lives. Its greatest contribution was to give rise to the superlative Hawker Tempest II, powered by the Bristol Centaurus radial engine (flown on a Typhoon back in October 1941) which was likely the best RAF fighter to enter production during the war. It seems oddly fitting to the whole sorry Typhoon saga that the Tempest II failed to enter service before the end of hostilities.
- Avro Manchester ‘Manchester, so much to answer for’
Of 193 Avro Manchesters that saw service, 123 were lost. It was with good reason that assignment to the Manchester was seen by many in Bomber Command as a death sentence – and the aircraft described as a ‘bastard’. Mournfully underpowered by two unreliable Vulture engines, loss of power in one engine (an all too common event) was often disastrous. Up to February 1942, the average amount of serviceable Manchesters at once never exceeded 31*. When the Manchesters were not grounded or catching fire in flight, their were cases of hydraulic fluid spraying into the cockpit and temporarily blinding the crew. Even without engine or other system failures the unlucky aircrew were extremely cold, as there was initially no heating systems and the heated clothing intended to solve this proved dangerous. The Manchester was introduced in November 1940, and sensibly out out to pasture in 1942. The replacement of the two troublesome Vultures with four Merlins, showed the true promise of the airframe and merited a name change, to Lancaster.
(*which may seem terrible but astonishingly was better than the respective figures for the Halifax which was 23 and the Stirling at 21).
The first aircraft designed and built by James S. McDonnell’s new company, the Army’s XP-67, is one of the most unusually-shaped aircraft of all time and also one of the least documented. Its combination of pure curvaceous sexiness and a tantalizing (and frustrating) lack of photographic coverage have made it a cult favorite among aviation history buffs for decades. Attempts had been made to tap into historical records at Boeing (merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997) but the results were meager, to say the least.
We had retired from Boeing in St Louis and were looking for a project. We both love doing research. What better challenge could we have than to take a crack at XP-67? We started by revisiting the Boeing Historian’s office, but nothing new was found there. The National Archives and Records Administration was the next obvious place to look, and in fact there were a number of production drawings of piece parts in their collection. COVID disrupted our plans there, with NARA shut down to visitors for the entire time that we had been given to write a history of XP-67 for Osprey Publishers’ X-Planes series. We had to find other sources, and quickly.
Having made a number of contacts with individuals and organizations, we slowly began to piece together the history of XP-67 that included a variety of photos and drawings that had never been published. This research kept expanding in scope, bringing in all kinds of factors that we hadn’t been aware of. Along the way we uncovered many things that surprised us, given that we had previously only known the top-level story that has been repeated so many times over the years. Here are our top 5, and they may surprise you, too:
1. XP-67 actually did have a nickname! “Moonbat” wasn’t used at the time, but it’s completely understandable why it’s stuck informally for so long. The airplane does look bat-like, thanks to its use of extreme blending of the engine nacelles into the wing and the wing into the fuselage. In conventional aircraft the blending is much more restrained, and is called “filleting.” So, XP-67’s most distinctive external feature is what led Army test pilots to give it a nickname in their official report: “The XP-67 is known as the ‘Flying Fillet’; any longitudinal cross section through the airplane being an airfoil section.”
2. XP-67’s engines weren’t particularly troublesome! And they definitely weren’t prone to catching fire. Contemporary records don’t always make a clear distinction between overheating and actual fire, but in all but one case those events were due to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (MAC) designed peripherals such as ducts and valves rather than anything failing in the engines. Literally the only time that an engine component failed and started a fire was during XP-67’s last flight, after 8 months of flight testing had been completed. It’s worth noting that the only other aircraft ever to fly with the same Continental I-1430 engines was Lockheed’s XP-49, and no fires or serious mechanical failures occurred there either. It’s been said many times that they failed to deliver their full rated horsepower, which led to sluggish takeoff and high-speedperformance. But in fact, an Inter-Office Memorandum dated 19 January 1944, so early in the program that flight testing had barely begun, the Army program coordinator for XP-67 to the Chief of Aircraft Projects at Wright Field noted that as a result of extensive engine testing in the full-scale nacelle fixture “it is the opinion of this office that the engine has performed satisfactorily. This opinion is borne out by tunnel tests of the full-scale nacelle at Wright Field, during which engine difficulties were practically non-existant [sic] and the engine delivered its rated 1600 hp for protracted periods of time.” Later in the program, as rumors of fires apparently started to spread, the Chief of Technical Staff at Wright Field noted that apart from a fire on the first flight (resulting from failure of a duct carrying exhaust gases, nothing to do with the engine itself) – “The fifth flight occurred on 25 March 1944. Approximately fifty flights have been accomplished and no serious functional difficulties have been encountered.”
3. Army pilots only flew XP-67 a handful of times! Virtually all of the XP-67’s test flying was done by MAC Chief Test Pilot Ed Elliott. Three Army pilots flew a total of just five flights and a total of around 4 hours split between them, hardly enough time to become familiar with the aircraft, much less make more than superficial judgements about its performance. Some of their critiques are baffling, such as comparing the large twin-engine XP-67’s maneuverability and turn radius with that of a small single-engine P-51B and naturally finding that the latter was superior, a complete irrelevancy since XP-67 was meant to destroy bombers with its six 37mm cannon (never actually fitted) rather than dogfight with enemy fighters. There are indications in the surviving program correspondence that other Army pilots may have made single flights at times, but they appear to have been opportunistic rather than part of any organized test activities.
4. XP-67’s rollout and final demise happened very close to each other! McDonnell’s facilities at Lambert Airport in St Louis were at the north side of the field, and that’s where XP-67 was rolled out in November 1943. On a windy day in September 1944, it made its last flight, landing on fire and being abandoned by its pilot on a taxiway that was on the then-southwest corner of the airport, less than 1,000 yards from where it had been rolled out. We got permission to go inside the perimeter of today’s St Louis Lambert International Airport and stood on both sites, which were easily visible from each other.
5. XP-67 wasn’t the only “X-fighter” at Lambert Airport in 1943-44! McDonnell’s facilities were directly across the runway from the huge new plant that Curtiss-Wright had constructed for building mostly variants of the SB2C Helldiver family. At the same time that XP-67 was being developed, Curtiss-Wright was building their XP-55Ascender, which they rolled out in July 1943, just 4 months before XP-67 made its first appearance, and was lost in November 1943 while flying from Lambert, just two weeks before XP-67 left the assembly building. The second XP-55 saw daylight in January 1944, while XP-67 was in the process of making its first four flights from Scott Field in Illinois. But the XP-55 number 3 emerged in April 1944, while XP-67 was actively test flying from Lambert. It’s very likely that both aircraft were within sight of each other at one or more times, but sadly no photos have been found to show this. This near-neighboring of two Army WW2 fighter X-planes is unique!
Those were some of the most interesting things that we discovered while researching and writing our book. But on a personal note, the one that doesn’t get a mention is the fact that much of XP-67’s test flying and XP-55’s too, including (we believe) XP-67’s catastrophic final flight, took place in the airspace directly over our house! At the time it hadn’t yet been built, of course, but it’s still something that we like to imagine when we look up at the sky.
The deeply unconventional Vickers Wellesley had a vital and seldom discussed part in the Allies’ victory in World War II. An utterly unorthodox combination of cutting-edge technologies and decidedly old-fashioned thinking, the Wellesley was a world-record-setting aeroplane of beastly good looks.
10. Led to the Wellington
The redoubtable Vickers Wellington was the best bomber of Bomber Command in the early years of the War and found gainful employment in every RAF command. Key to its effectiveness was its ‘basket-weave’ geodetic construction that was both light and remarkably strong. The Wellington could not have happened without the maturation of geodetic aircraft construction via the Wellesley.
9. Low weight
The Wellesley’s structure weighed only two-thirds that of the more conventional Vickers Vincent
8. The mystery of Wellesley K7734
Shortly before midnight on the 23rd February 1938 two Vickers Wellesley aircraft of the RAF’s Long Range Development Unit took off from Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire. The aircraft were tasked with a long-distance ‘endurance flight’ around Britain. One of the aircraft never returned. Despite a vast air-sea search effort and news appeals for information, the aircraft and its aircrew were never found. No Mayday was sent, and its last signal was at 7.15 am on Thursday 24th February. The mystery has never been solved definitively, but on 22nd March 1938, a Dunlop tailwheel was found floating off Karmo, 25 miles north of Stavanger in Norway. The type matched that of the Wellesley.
7. Hercules testbed
The Hercules radial engine was a massive success, powering over 25 different aircraft types. The Wellesley Type 289 engine testbed was used to test the Hercules HE15 and was vital to its development.
6. Massawa naval base attack
Egypt contains the strategically vital Suez Canal. In the War, the Suez Canal connected Britain with its Empire, which was supplying huge amounts of critical material to the war effort. Without the Suez canal, Britain would be dangerously starved of oil and other vital supplies: it could easily have meant the end for the Empire. When Italy declared war on Britain and France in 1940, it left Egypt extremely vulnerable. The Italians had the Suez canal in their sights and massive numerical superiority in Africa, the Italians also had a powerful local naval force which was composed of nine destroyers, eight submarines as well as a squadron of fast torpedo boats.
Though the British lacked the most advanced warplanes in this region, there was a Wellesley force. No 14 Squadron, along with two other RAF squadrons, was equipped with Wellesleys and based in Sudan. On 11 June nine aircraft from No 14 Squadron mounted an audacious raid against the Italian naval base at Massawa. Massawa was the homeport for the Red Sea Flotilla of the Italian Royal Navy. At sunset 14 Squadron attacked at extremely low level, lower than 500 feet at times, and ignoring the tempting ships, ravaged the port’s fuel stores. The resultant firestorm destroyed an estimated 10,000 tons of fuel.
It is likely that the attempted Italian invasion of Sudan in July was stalled by fuel shortages caused by the raid, buying time for the arrival of later Indian reinforcements that would turn the tide of war. The plucky nine aircraft and their extremely brave crews achieved a great deal in their bold sunset raid on Massawa.
5. It didn’t kill Jeffrey Quill
The 2nd prototype Wellesley flown by test pilot Jeffrey Quill went into a spin and lost control at 10,000 feet on 5 July 1937. Quill pilot baled out and survived. The aircraft landed in the front garden of house in New Malden in South London, photographs taken by a schoolboy on his Box Brownie reveal how remarkably intact the airframe remained, a testament to its extremely tough construction. Quill was the 2nd test pilot to fly the Spitfire and masterminded the development and production test flying of all 52 variants of the Spitfire.
4. Incredible strength
To ensure new aircraft of the time were able to survive the extreme flight loads safely, they were subject to brutal tests that added weights to the airframe equivalent to five times the maximum expected flight loading. Whereas the Vickers Valiant barely survived this test, the prototype Wellesley’s fuselage had successfully endured a factor of 8! The wings had stood up to an astonishing factor of 11. Tests were only halted to prevent the destruction of the test rig. The Wellesley was built like a brick shithouse.
4B. Its looks
The Wellesley looked tough as hell.
3. Geodetic construction
A geodetic construction makes use of a rigid, lightweight, truss-like structure constructed from interlocking struts formed from a spirally crossing basket-weave of load-bearing members. Put simply the basket weave style is stronger and lighter than equivalent conventional structures. This style of construction was first adopted in German airships, then tried in an experimental French aeroplane before reaching maturity in the Wellesley from the design board of Barnes Wallis (famous for his renewable energy generator wrecking ‘bouncing bomb’). Wallis’ famous Wellington bomber could not have been developed without the pioneering design of the Wellesley.
2. Insanely long-range
The long-range capabilities of the Wellesley were astonishing. To demonstrate the startlingly effective work the RAF Long Range Development Unit (LRDU) had carried out on the Wellesley, a widely publicised long-range flight took place in November 1938. The flight was to use three of the five LRDU Wellesleys. These aircraft differed from standard Wellesleys in several ways each designed to maximise range, the most immediately obvious being the replacement of the characterful Townend ring with a slick NACA-style low-drag engine cowling housing a more powerful Pegasus XII engine. Less visible, but as important, was the addition of a slew of cutting-edge technologies that included a constant speed propeller, three-axis autopilot and automatic mixture and engine boost controls. The aircraft was also given plentiful additional extra fuel capacity, bringing the total load to 1,290 gallons. The three aircraft set off on a daunting adventure to fly non-stop from Ismailia, Egypt to Darwin, Australia, a distance of 7,162 miles (11,526 km) on the Fireworks Night 1938. Two days later two of the three aircraft arrived at Darwin (one landed to refuel at Koepang 500 miles short of Darwin, Australia). The result was a world distance record that smashed the previous Soviet-held record by a decisive 1500 kilometres. The record would stand for over seven years when it was beaten by a B-29.
- Recovering the Engima key
It is widely acknowledged that the cracking of Germany’s Enigma code was hugely important to the eventual Allied victory. Key to cracking the code was obtaining a codebook and an Engima machine, both of which were recovered from the German submarine U-559, thanks to a dramatic combined operation which featured an RAF Sunderland and four Royal Navy destroyers, and of pivotal importance – a Wellesley. At 12.34 on 30 October 1942, the 47 Squadron Wellesley spotted the periscope of the invaluable U-559 and attacked with depth charges. The submarine crew eventually surrendered without having time to destroy the coding equipment providing the greatest intelligence windfall of the War.