‘The Cricklewood Crippler’: The Halifax heavy bomber in 12 questions with Jon Lake

Serial killer Dennis Nilsen wasn’t the only killer from Cricklewood, there was also the Handley Page Halifax. This heavy bomber is always overshadowed by the Lancaster but matured into an excellent aircraft depsite an undeservedly poor reputation. We spoke to the much-respected veteran aviation journalist and author Jon Lake to find out more.

“Some 29% of Halifax aircrew survived being shot down, compared to just 11% of Lancaster aircrew. Unfortunately, though, live aircrew in the Stalags and Offlags were of little interest to Bomber Harris.”

Complete this sentence:

“The Halifax was.. Very much better than many would have you believe!”

How did it compare to its peers? “Comparisons are difficult, since the pace of development was so rapid. The tendency is to compare the Halifax with the Lancaster and the two aircraft were not really contemporaries. The Halifax was designed to a specification that included peacetime limitations on wingspan, and the type made its maiden flight on 25 October 1939, and flew its first mission on 11/12 March 1941. The Lancaster made its maiden flight 15 months later than the Halifax, and entered service one year later. This meant that the Halifax was broadly contemporary with the Spitfire V, while the Lancaster’s timing made it closer to the Spitfire IX. Comparing the Halifax with the Lancaster is thus a bit like comparing the Blenheim with the Mosquito, or the Gladiator with the Hurricane. There is also the fact that the Lancaster represented Avro’s ‘second bite at the cherry’ – having failed to dramatically with the Manchester, Avro were able to address all of its problems and weaknesses with a radical redesign, where Handley Page had to pursue a more evolutionary approach. Moreover, the earliest Halifax variants were operational just when Bomber Command was suffering its heaviest losses, before tactics and techniques had been refined, and the type became associated with this failed phase of the bomber campaign. However, at the peak of its service career, the Halifax equipped 35 frontline squadrons, with about 1,500 aircraft in service and the type dropped more bombs on Germany than the Battle, Blenheim, Boston, Fortress, Hampden, Manchester, Mitchell, Mosquito, Stirling, Ventura and Wellington put together! The Halifax was certainly a vast improvement over the Stirling, and indeed the Wellington and the remainder of its contemporaries. It was only by comparison with the Lancaster that the Halifax fell short – and then it did so arguably only in its early form. But an over-concentration on the aircraft types used in the Wartime bomber campaign – the tools – may be an unhelpful distraction from the big picture. It doesn’t really make much difference if the Lancaster dropped a few more bombs on slightly more distant targets. It doesn’t even matter terribly whether losses of one type were marginally higher than for another. A more interesting question is whether using heavy bombers for area bombing attacks against enemy cities was either the best solution militarily or morally, and I remain fascinated by how the course of the war might have been altered if every Stirling had instead been two Whirlwinds, and every Lancaster and Halifax had been two Mosquitos.”

Why is it less famous than the Lanc and is this fair? “The rival Lancaster was built in larger numbers, flew more sorties, and dropped a higher tonnage of bombs, and enjoyed more high-level support and a better reputation. The Lancaster equipped more Bomber Command squadrons, and enjoyed a longer career, far more aircrew flew in the Lancaster than in the Halifax, more groundcrew serviced it, and more people saw it fly. Bomber Harris was scathing about the Halifax, famously saying: “I will state categorically that one Lancaster is to be preferred to four Halifaxes…. The Halifax suffers about four times the casualties for a given bomb tonnage when compared to the Lancaster. Low ceiling and short range make it an embarrassment when planning attacks with Lancasters.” This isn’t the whole story, and it’s far from fair. The early Halifax was a whole lot better than its Avro contemporary, the dreadful Manchester, and later radial-engined Halifaxes were probably better aircraft than the Lancaster. But reputations are sometimes hard to live down. In a pilots’ air force, the Lancaster was nicer to fly than the Halifax, and this counted for a great deal back in the 1940s. My Dad flew Lancasters at the RAE post war, and preferred the Lanc to the Liberators he flew during the war, and to the Lincolns, Halifaxes and Fortress that he flew at Farnborough. But while he liked the Lanc as a ‘flying machine’ he was always glad that he hadn’t had to go to war in one!”

What were the best and worst things about the aircraft? “One could be a smart-arse and say: “Best thing: It wasn’t a Stirling. Worst thing: It wasn’t a Mossie!” The Halifax was under-powered and draggy in its early form, and the original tailfins gave inadequate directional stability, and a tendency to irrevocable rudder ‘hard overs’ if the aircraft was mishandled during violent manoeuvres (eg during an evasive corkscrew). Early aircraft had to be stripped of armour and some defensive armament as a weight-saving measure. The Halifax had a relatively roomy interior, and it was possible to walk from one end to the other without having to scramble over or around the wing spar. This gave the aircraft a degree of multi-role versatility, and also (together with bigger, better located escape hatches) made it much easier to abandon if things went badly.”

What did crews like and not like about it? “Halifax crews had very different experiences of the war. If you were unlucky enough to be flying B.Mk Is or B.Mk IIs at the beginning of the aircraft’s career, there would not have been much to like. If you were flying B.Mk Vis in 1945, it was a very different matter!

How did its construction compare to the Lancaster, Stirling and Wellington? “Of these aircraft, only the Wellington’s construction was notably different, with its fabric-covered geodetic structure. Because the Manchester (on which the Lancaster was closely based) was designed in part as a torpedo bomber it had a much deeper bomb bay, and this was the key to the Lancaster’s success. The other bombers, by contrast, had a shallow bomb bay that proved inadequate for wartime bombloads. The Halifax, for example, could carry a 4,000-lb ‘cookie’, but only with the bomb doors partially open, with a significant drag penalty.”

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Was it fast enough? “Could it carry enough and go far? None of the wartime heavies were fast enough to avoid being mauled by German defences, but the Halifax was not significantly slower than any of its rivals. Early variants perhaps didn’t have a high enough ceiling. The Halifax did carry a reasonable bombload, and could reach the furthest targets. It could not carry the really over-sized weapons that the Lancaster took in its stride. The average Lancaster would deliver 154 tons of bombs in its 27.02 sortie lifetime, while the average Halifax dropped just 100 tons. And the Halifax was more expensive to build, too! But might the Halifax have got more of those 100 tons on target? We will never know!”

How many were built? Was it exported? “6,178. In addition to its wartime service with RAF, RAAF, RCAF, Free French and Polish units, the Halifax was operated post-war by the Royal Egyptian Air Force, the Pakistan Air Force and the French Air Force. The Pakistani aircraft were apparently the last in service, being retired to storage in 1954.”

How survivable was it? “What were loss rates like? A Lancaster lasted, on average, 27.2 sorties, while Halifaxes were lost after 21.05 sorties on average. This was much better than the loss rate for the Stirling which reached one per 10.7 sorties! And the Halifax loss rate was distorted by heavy losses suffered in 1941 and early 1942 – before the Lancaster was even in service. In Pathfinder service, and in the daylight missions at the end of the War, Halifaxes returned a lower loss rate than the Lancaster. In fact, it seems that the later Hercules-engined variants tended to survive longer than contemporary Lancs. Moreover, while the average early model Halifax crew may have been slightly more likely to be shot down than a Lancaster crew, they were much more likely to survive the experience. Some 29% of Halifax aircrew survived being shot down, compared to just 11% of Lancaster aircrew. Unfortunately, though, live aircrew in the Stalags and Offlags were of little interest to Bomber Harris.”

What were the engines and how well did they perform? “Early Halifaxes were powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin, but the installation in the Halifax was not as aerodynamically efficient as the ‘power egg’ installation in the Lancaster. The earlier 1130 hp Merlin X was not as reliable as the later 1280 hp Merlin XX, but the Merlin XX was ‘worked harder’ in the Halifax than in the Lanc, which needed higher boost just to cruise at a reasonable speed. The Halifax B.Mk III introduced the Bristol Hercules XVI radial engine, with an output of 1675 hp. With the Hercules engine, the Halifax could achieve a cruising speed of 225 mph at the service ceiling of 24,000 feet, bettering the Lancaster. The Halifax B.Mk VI was powered by the 1,800 hp Hercules 100 and had a maximum speed (in ‘Full Speed’ supercharger mode) of 309 mph at 19,500 ft and a cruising speed of 265 mph.

Notable raids or missions? “The bomber war was not about individual missions – which Harris regarded as unwelcome diversions from his single-minded campaign to pulverise the Reich into submission. Such high profile raids were, in any case largely given to the Lancaster (Augsburg, Op Chastise, missions against the Tirpitz) or to the Mosquito.”

What should I have asked? “You could have asked me where Hush-Kitters could read more about the Halifax – giving me a chance to plug the book I wrote for Osprey on the aircraft, or where they could put the Halifax in context alongside other RAF heavies, in which case I could have plugged the bookazine that Dave Willis and I produced for Key on just that subject!”

Top 10 Cold War Carrier Planes


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

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

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

10. Hawker Sea Fury


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

Interview with Sea Fury pilot here.

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

The ten best piston-engined fighters here

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

9. Douglas A-1 Skyraider 


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

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

8. Hawker Sea Hawk 


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

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

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

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

7. Grumman F-14 Tomcat


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

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

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

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

Interview with an Iranian Tomcat ace here

6. Douglas A-4 Skyhawk 


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

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

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

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

5. Grumman A-6 Intruder 


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

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

Interview with A-6 Intruder aircrew here

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

5. Blackburn Buccaneer 


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

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

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

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

3. Chance-Vought F-8 Crusader


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

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

2. BAe Sea Harrier 


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

Interview with Sea Harrier war hero Sharkey Ward here

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  1. McDonnell Douglas Phantom II

VF-151-Vigilantes-009 In July 1959 the Royal Navy formed its first Sea Vixen squadron, an all-weather two-seat twin-engined carrier fighter that could just about break the sound barrier downhill. Rather un-sportingly 18 months later the USN formed its first F-4 Phantom squadron which could go twice as fast, carrying twice as many air-to-air missiles, while also hauling a selection of air-to-ground weaponry. It’s as if the Admiralty and British industry had had a total lack of imagination, although requiring the Sea Vixen to be able to conduct a free (catapult-less) take-off from the deck suggests they may have been smoking something.

Interview with F-4 pilot here

F-4J_Phantom_VF-92_launch_CVA-64_1973 First flying in 1958, the same year as the Buccaneer, the Phantom used boundary layer control almost as much as the British aircraft*. Both aircraft also featured ailerons that drooped compensating for relatively small flaps in the take-off and landing configuration. Originally designed as an all-weather fleet defence interceptor the Phantom was seemingly capable of almost any role, being able to carry 16,000lbs of pretty much anything in the US or NATO inventory. In the case of the RF-4B it also carried out photoreconnaissance for the USMC from afloat and ashore. It was one of the first carrier aircraft to have an automatic landing capability, first trialled on 12 converted F-4Bs. They had been fitted with a system allowing them to be controlled by AWACs or surface ships to conduct interceptions, resulting in a change of designation to F-4G (a decade before the USAF F-4G). By using a retractable radar reflector in front of the nose gear the aircraft carrier could use the system to control the aircraft on approach to the deck. Although the interception capability never saw widespread use the deck landing capability was retrofitted to standard F-4Bs. 01d_fm2015_carriergaggle_live Like the Intruder the Phantom saw its combat debut in Vietnam where it operated in the fighter and bomber roles. Unlike the Intruder it would also see service with the Royal Navy in a modified form, the J79 turbojets being replaced with Spey turbofans. Famously despite increasing the available thrust this reduced the top speed by around 0.2 Mach due to the drag from the larger intakes. They did however make the UK’s Phantoms the fastest accelerating up to around 400knots. They were also briefly considered for the USN as the F-4L for operations off the smaller Essex class carriers. However, a lack of commonality with the other US models and the potential threat to the Nimitz-class programme ended the idea. f4_bombs The Phantom remained in frontline service with the USN until 18 October 1986 when the type made its last carrier landing almost exactly 25 years after the first front-line squadron became carrier qualified. This period was the peak of the Cold War and throughout the F-4 proved a carrier aircraft could equal the best of any Air Force, if only because most of them ended up buying it.

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*The only difference being an unblown tailplane. The resulting increased size being needed so full elevator authority would be available while operating at high Mach when the shift in centre-of-pressure increases the aircraft’s stability.  I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the book link .  


safe_image.jpg “If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’ I’ve selected the richest juiciest cuts of Hush-Kit, added a huge slab of new unpublished material, and with Unbound, I want to create a beautiful coffee-table book. Here’s the link to pre-order your copy HUSHKITPLANES_SPREADS4_6 From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines. The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is a beautifully designed, highly visual, collection of the best articles from the fascinating world of military aviation –hand-picked from the highly acclaimed Hush-kit online magazine (and mixed with a heavy punch of new exclusive material). It is packed with a feast of material, ranging from interviews with fighter pilots (including the English Electric Lightning, stealthy F-35B and Mach 3 MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’), to wicked satire, expert historical analysis, top 10s and all manner of things aeronautical, from the site described as “the thinking-man’s Top Gear… but for planes”. The solid well-researched information about aeroplanes is brilliantly combined with an irreverent attitude and real insight into the dangerous romantic world of combat aircraft. FEATURING
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Thug life: The Bristol Brigand in 11 questions & answers

Bristol Brigand (RH811) air to air.jpg
Photos: BAE Systems except when noted.

Bristol’s thuggish Brigand was a tough torpedo bomber tracing its lineage back to the Blenheim. We spoke to author Alex Crawford to find out more about this fascinating machine.

So, what was the Brigand made to do? 

“Initially the aircraft was designed as a replacement for the Beaufort torpedo bomber. By late 1941 the Beaufort was no match for the German convoy defences and the ever increasing numbers of ‘flak’ ships. Considering the time it takes to develop new aircraft the Air Ministry looked at other possibilities and in the end the Beaufighter was modified to take a torpedo. This was only to be a stop gap until the new aircraft was developed and put into production.”

Only 148 aircraft made, why so few?

“The design process started in February 1942 and by the time the first aircraft came off the production line WWII was over. The aircraft were to have replaced the Beaufighter torpedo bombers of the Coastal Command Strike Wings but these were all cut back after WWII to just two Squadrons. With the advent of missiles the idea of a Coastal Command Strike Wing was abandoned and the Squadrons were disbanded. With no need for a torpedo bomber the fate of the Brigand hung in the balance and the contract was cut back.”

Did it see combat? Was it effective?

“Yes, the Brigand B.1 saw combat operations in the Middle East and Far East. 8 Squadron carried out a few operational strikes against dissident Arabs in the Mid-East, while 45 and 84 Squadrons flew over 3,500 strike sorties during the Malayan Emergency from April 1950 until February 1953 when the aircraft were withdrawn from service.

The B.1 could carry 3,000lb of bombs and 8 rocket projectiles and had a range of 1,850 miles. This gave it the ability to cover the whole of Malaya and it could also loiter over targets if the weather was poor and wait for it to clear. As a bomber it was very effective. The aircraft would carry out pin-point dive bombing attacks and then follow this up with rocket strikes and strafing runs with its 4 x 20mm cannon.”

What was best and worst about the aircraft?

“I suppose the best feature of the Brigand was its range and payload.

The worst feature? Well there were several. Throughout its service life the Brigand was plagued with hydraulic issues. Hydraulic pump failures were a constant problem. If the pump failed then the undercarriage couldn’t be raised or lowered. There was a lever next to the pilot so he could hand pump the undercarriage up or down. There was also a back-up that would blow pressure through the system to operate the undercarriage. If all these failed then the end result was a wheels up landing. One Squadron had 18 hydraulic pump changes in one month alone.

Poor quality rubber seals were also an issue. These would degrade and break up and get into the hydraulic system causing the undercarriage jack to seize. Again this would cause undercarriage failure and the possibility of a wheels up landing.

With the cannon being mounted far back from the nose the blast tubes were longer than normal. With poor fume extraction, gases from the fired rounds would build up and on occasion these caused the High Explosive rounds to explode. With control and oil feed lines running close to the canon bay these could be damaged. In fact a few aircraft were lost to this cause. For a while the aircraft were banned from using the cannon until modifications to the blast tubes could be implemented.

Structural issues were also a problem. The Brigand was designed as a torpedo bomber. Dive bombing put a great strain on the airframe causing the skin to ripple and crack. Limits were put on the number of ‘G’ the aircraft could carry out. Propeller blades failed and broke away causing an imbalance in the engine, which would then be torn loose from its mounting. A number of aircraft were lost to this. Towards the end of 1952 cracks appeared in the spars and after two aircraft were lost after losing a wing when recovering from a dive, the B.1 fleet was grounded and withdrawn from service.”

What did pilots think of it?

“I haven’t read much about the pilots experience but from what I understand the aircraft was quite pleasant to fly with good handling qualities, although it had to be ‘flown’ all the time and could be very tiring, especially after a 2-3 hour sortie. 8 Squadron were quite famous for their tight four aircraft formation flying with the starboard engine feathered. From the ground it looked quite graceful but from the cockpit the navigators stated that the pilots had a trying time keeping the aircraft together and were physically exhausted after the flight. Pilots, and crew for that matter, had a great respect for the aircraft and treated every flight with some caution, as anything could and sometimes did go wrong during the flight.”

How did it compare to the Sea Hornet, are they comparable?

“You can’t really compare the two aircraft. The Sea Hornet was a naval fighter while the Brigand was initially a torpedo bomber then a dive bomber. The Sea Hornet was over 100mph faster than the Brigand and it could outmanoeuvre the bomber with ease.

The Sea Hornet could and did carry up to 2,000lb of bombs under the wings or 8 rockets. The RAF Hornet was used to good effect over Malaya and eventually replaced the Brigand with 45 Squadron.”

Was it fast for its time?

“The Brigand B.1s top speed was 358mph with a cruising speed of 292mph. Although it wasn’t as fast as the Mosquito it had roughly the same range although its bomb load was 1,000lb less. There was no aerial opposition for it to contend with during operations in the Middle East and Far East so a high speed was not a major factor. It could carry a large payload a long way and that was important.”

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Was it well-armed?

“The B.1 could carry 2 x 1,000lb bombs on centreline racks with 1 x 500lb bomb under each wing giving a maximum bomb load of 3,000lb. At the same time it could also carry 4 rocket projectiles under each wing out board of the bombs. Later, trials were conducted with double tier rocket rails and for a while it would carry 16 rockets, although at that time the bomb load had been reduced to 4 x 500lb bombs due to stress on the airframe around the centreline bomb racks.”

Bristol Brigand flying.jpg

Was it related to the Beaufighter?

“The Brigand can trace its lineage right back to the Blenheim. The Beaufort was a variant of the Blenheim and used a large number of the same components. The Beaufighter was a fighter version of the Beaufort and likewise used a number of the same components. The initial design for a replacement Beaufort was to use the Beaufort fuselage and mate it to the Beaufighter wings, engines and tail. This was soon abandoned.

Another design used the wings and tail from the Beaufighter with a new fuselage and engines. The tail planes were mounted slightly higher up on the tail and this was initially called the Buccaneer. With insufficient power from the engines this design was also abandoned.

Eventually Bristol settled on using the wings and tail from the Buckingham with a new fuselage housing a crew of three in a single cabin. This slimline fuselage did bear some resemblance to the Beaufighter fuselage but there the similarities stopped. The new aircraft sported a twin tail larger wingspan, more powerful engines and was much larger than the Beaufighter.”

What should I have asked you?

“Why choose to write about the Brigand?”

“I was surprised that there had not been any major book written about the Brigand. There are a couple of bookazines by Warpaint and Phil Listemann plus several articles but nothing substantial. The Brigand is a fascinating aircraft. Yes it was plagued with problems from the offset but it was used when no other aircraft was available to the RAF during the Malayan Emergency. It had the range and payload capability. There had to be more to it than just being a dodgy aircraft to fly. It was actually very capably of doing the job it was not really designed to do, that of a dive bomber. Ground crews worked tremendously hard to keep them in the air. Spare parts were always an issue. There were never enough, especially hydraulic pumps and parts. They were constantly being modified to overcome the various snags that cropped up. The two Squadrons in Malaya flew over 3,500 operational sorties and lost between them 13 aircraft from all causes with 19 fatalities. Each Squadron had a total strength of eight Brigands and the average serviceability rate per Squadron was normally 4-5 aircraft per day.  As well as the operational flying the Squadron had to maintain their monthly flying programme with training flights and as well as bombing practise. There is much more to the Brigand than just being a flawed aircraft. The book is being published by Mushroom Model Publications and I hope it will be out towards the 4th quarter of next year. It will deal with the design and development and operational service of the Buckingham, Brigand and Buckmaster. The Buckingham was originally planned as a bomber version of the Beaufighter and it was given the name Beaumont. Changes in design and specification resulted in a much different looking aircraft called the Buckingham. By the time it rolled off the production lines in 1944 it had already been superseded by other better aircraft such as the Mosquito and it never saw service. Most went into storage and then scrapped. The Buckmaster was a two seat trainer version of the Buckingham that was used to train Brigand pilots. It served that role admirably until the Brigands were withdrawn from service and it was no longer required. The title will be; The Bristol Buckingham, Brigand and Buckmaster.”

Describe the brigand in 3 words

“Graceful, Deadly and Dangerous.”

Hush-Kit spoke to Alex Crawford author of several books on military aircraft including a forthcoming title on the Bristol Brigand

Bristol Brigand Aircraft flying in formation
Photo: Brigand Boys

Flying & fighting in the F-111: Interview with Aardvark Weapon System Officer Jim Rotramel

General Dynamics F-111D in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“I think the fastest anyone ever claimed to have gotten was Mach 2.91.”

Hans Christian Andersen’s story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ tells of a swan’s egg unknowingly pushed into a duck’s nest. Once hatched, the bird endures a miserable life, awkward and unloved by its duck peers before learning he was really a swan. Once he joins a bevy of swans he finds acceptance and lives happily ever after. The F-111 had a similar life-story, pushed onto the Navy as a fighter interceptor as part a multi-service do-everything concept, it disappointed and was cancelled. After a dangerous and painful early life it emerged as an Air Force interdictor par excellence. Extremely long-ranged, carrying a fearsome bomb-load that could be delivered with remarkable ac curacy, the F-111 was a formidable Cold War warrior, proving its horrifically destructive power in the deserts of Iraq in 1991. We spoke to former USAF F-111 WSO Jim Rotramel to find out more about the mighty Aardvark.

Special thanks to David Riddel

What was the cockpit like? What are the pros and cons of side-by-side seating?
“First, you need to realise that the Navy insisted on side-by-side seating and an escape capsule as part of their plan to make the jet so heavy that they could justify getting out of the program. Also, their Korean War vintage F3D Skyknight and the F6D Missileer (pictured) that was replaced by the TFX also had side-by-side seating.”

“The advantages were that it made communication between the crew members easier—I could point to an instrument I wanted the pilot to look at or show him a chart. The main disadvantage was that visibility out the other side of the jet was very limited.”

What were the best and worst things about the F-111?
“When everything was working, it was awesome. When everything didn’t work right, it could be awesome in a completely different way!”

We had a challenge within the squadron once to ‘attack’ a train station in Scotland from behind a hill so we wouldn’t be able to see the target until after the simulated ‘bomb’ had been released. I picked the route and offset aimpoints I wanted to use and off we went. Getting a good positional ‘fix’ required updating not only latitude and longitude, but also elevation. We approached the hill (small mountain) from over the water where I got an altitude calibration to take care of the elevation part of the equation. As we went up the back side of the mountain, there was a small rock outcropping where I took care of the latitude and longitude. We went into “the pull” and “released” our simulated bomb. As we cleared the hill, I switched to PAVE Tack video and saw a stone bridge just to the north of the train station. I was able to drag the cursors over to the train station by the time the ‘bomb’ impacted. When we got back home, the guy who set up the challenge admitted that the coordinates he’d given us were for the bridge, not the train station, figuring that no one would be that close and the bridge coordinates would be good enough. That was the last time I trusted anyone to give me target coordinates!

“After the Cold War ended, USAFE apparently invited some Soviet military to a friendship visit. As part of the visit they had a static display including the F-4, F-15, F-16, etc., and the F-111. By far, the Soviets were most interested in the F-111, shocking their American hosts. It turns out that, aside from the SR-71, the F-111 was the plane they considered the greatest threat.”

We had a mass launch exercise with airplanes from all over the UK in the air simultaneously. Our particular flight air refueled from a KC-135 and then was tasked to ‘attack’ a RAF Bloodhound SAM site in East Anglia not too far south of ’The Wash’ body of water that lays just north of East Anglia. There was a light ship moored in the middle of The Wash that we often used to take fixes off of. As we headed south, I put my cursors on the light ship, then as we were crossing the coast, I’d picked the end of a line of trees as a second offset. We flew right over the Bloodhound site at less than 500 feet. My pilot was pretty excited and the guys at the missile site really enjoyed the show, too!


We deployed to Spain one spring instead of our normal trip to Turkey. While the night life was certainly better, the flying was much more restricted; with the exception of one day, we weren’t allowed to fly low level—just go to the bombing range and drop bombs. The F-111 carried 30,000 lbs. of fuel internally (more than a combat loaded F-16, including bombs). That was enough to stay aloft for nearly three hours including (in England) flying high level to and from Scotland, flying low level for a half hour or so and spending 15-30 minutes dropping practice bombs. So, with our flights in Spain pretty much limited to going to the range, we had a LOT of fuel to burn. Rather than spending a LOT of time in the landing pattern, we started picking out ‘targets’ to find on the base or in downtown Zaragoza using PAVE Tack. It was easy! Ridiculously easy! I remarked at the time that if we were ever unleashed in combat where we could attack from medium to high altitude instead of low level like we trained for, it would almost be unfair to those we were attacking. That is precisely what happened during Desert Storm.”

With which unit did you serve and on which models of the F-111?
“Trained on the F-111D in late 1981. F-111F WSO from 1982-87. F-111D WSO 1987-91.”

The top speed is quoted as M2.5 – did it ever reach such speeds? Could it?
“99% of the time was spent subsonic—going fast uses lots of gas and most of our missions required us to penetrate deep behind enemy lines so gas was always at a premium. But, if you needed to go fast, you could. Most of the really high speed stuff was done during Functional Check Flights. In the UK, when we flew up the east coast to Scotland, it took about 45 minutes. The FCFs did the high & fast part of the flight returning from Scotland—in about 15 minutes. I wasn’t an FCF guy, but there were stories of planes landing with their antennas melted off. One time we flew 70-2376, which had been Mountain Home’s bicentennial jet soon after an FCF and the paint at the leading edge of the inlets had partially burned off. revealing the b-c paint underneath.

“There were stories about guys seeing how fast the Vark would go. There was NO specified maximum speed. What we had was a heat sensor on the windscreen. When the sensor got hot enough, it cause a caution light to illuminate and an egg timer located behind the WSOs head to start. The warning was that if the timer reached five minutes, the windscreen would melt. I think the fastest anyone ever claimed to have gotten was M2.91. In any event no one ever saw the jet stop accelerating—everyone decided to back off before testing the egg timer…

In its early development it had many problems – do you think this is why only Australia was the only export user?
The UK dropped the TSR.2 in favour of the F-111K, but backed out when the wing structural issues arose and ended up with F-4K/M until getting Tornados. Aside from that issue, the F-111 was expensive to operate and that was probably a factor in the decision.”


What equipment would you have liked added to the aircraft?
“For its time, it had top-of-the-line equipment. Toward the end, some jets even got GPS and multi-function displays, but that was after I left. Some of the stuff that came along later, like night vision goggles, synthetic aperture radar and digital map displays would have been useful. Also, a more reliable INS would have been VERY welcome.”

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Was the EW/EW equipment good enough?
“Apparently, as none were lost during Desert Storm. We had internal ECM that was useful against older SAMs and ECM pods to deal with the newer systems.”


Why did Australia purchase the aircraft?
“The F-111 could carry a lot of bombs a long way—we could get deeper into Eastern Europe from Lakenheath than Tornados could from German bases. It handled about the same no matter what it was loaded up with. The RAAF needed a jet with long legs for it to have a creditable offensive capability. I suspect that was their main rationale for getting it, but you need to ask them to be sure.”

Do you miss the aircraft, have fond memories of it?
“It’s been 30 years, and you tend to remember the good bits and forget the bad ones. We lost six jets and two crews in the first 18 months I was at Lakenheath. Nobody who flew fast jets in those days didn’t know guys who were happy and healthy in the morning and didn’t go home that night. That said, it was the most fun job I ever had.”

What was the hardest system to master?

“A Test WSO from Edwards AFB, who’d flown lots of different aircraft, visited us at Lakenheath. He told us that the F-111F was the most challenging aircraft for WSOs in the USAF inventory—including the SR-71. Basically, if we could conquer the ‘F’ we could handle anything else the USAF could throw at us.”

The bombing range could be very challenging as it took about 13 steps to get a bomb to come off the airplane, so while you were trying to copy down the score from your previous bomb, you were also setting up the switches for the next bomb and getting back in the radar for its delivery.

The most problematic system was the inertial navigation system, which failed more often than anything else. There were backup procedures, but they were very workload intensive and not terribly effective.’

What are your feelings/thoughts on the Tornado and Su-24?

The European Tornado was a smaller later fighter-bomber similar in role and configuration to the F-111.

“The Tornado had better (newer) systems, but a much smaller range and payload capability than the Vark. As I understand it, the Russians referred to the Su-24 as the ‘Suitcase’. I’’ve heard that it only had a Doppler navigation system—no INS, so that would have limited its effectiveness. I wouldn’t trade the Vark for either, especially the Su-24.”

How combat effective was it?

“Ask the Iraqis. After Desert Storm, we learned that during daytime airfield personnel would hide in harden aircraft shelters (HAS) because they felt safe from attacks by fighters dropping unguided bombs. At night, they only felt safe outside the HASs because the F-111Fs would conduct attacks using a tactic called “consecutive miracles” where the first LGB would punch a hole in the HAS roof followed milliseconds later by a second bomb going through that hole to explode within the confines of the HAS totally devastating everything inside.
Likewise, Iraqi tank crews learned quickly that sleeping in their nice warm tanks at night wasn’t a good idea. They didn’t worry too much about the dumb bombs being dropped during the day, but when the F-111Fs showed up at night, it was one-LGB per tank. It was soon decreed that F-16s weren’t allowed to attack the tanks after 4PM so that the heat from their misses wouldn’t distract the F-111Fs crews at night that were actually destroying tanks. F-111Fs destroyed nearly as many tanks as A-10s.”

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Gen. Schwarzkopf's Famed News Conference - YouTube

“As I sat out the war in New Mexico, I watched Gen. Schwarzkopf’s 5 o’clock follies (er briefings) every day. He never mentioned F-111s, not even crediting them for their ‘tank-plinking’ that allowed the ground war to start, but talked a lot about the USAF’s favourites, the F-15Es and F-117As. But nearly all the video shown was from F-111Fs! The most interesting thing to me was that the video was sometimes reversed or tilted to one side or the other. It turned out that a WSO from my squadron had been in charge of putting together the video clips used every day. He explained that the general couldn’t figure out from which directions the bombs were entering the video, so decreed that he always wanted them to come from the upper right corner!

After that war demonstrated the clear advantage of using smart bombs like those employed by the F-111F & F-117A the US pretty much abandoned “dumb bombs” and procured much better targeting pods than the LANTIRN pods used during Desert Storm by F-15Es. And the smart bombs themselves have been greatly improved.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the F-111

Black and white, four-photo series showing the sequence of a F-111A sweeping its wing for supersonic flight.

“People who flew the MiG-23 described adjusting the wing sweep as a terrifying experience (actually, several things about the Flogger qualified for that description!). The F-111 (and other western variable geometry aircraft) had two trim systems, called parallel and series. Series trim is what the pilot controlled and acted like trim in any aircraft. Parallel trim was where the magic happened. It worked in background to automatically compensate for aerodynamic changes caused by the wings movement. I’ve watched the wings move and there was absolutely no physical sensation in the cockpit that anything was happening.”

What should I have asked you?
“After the Soviet Union collapsed, the military had to absorb the ‘peace dividend’. Big Air Force had never liked the F-111 (except when something actually needed to get done) and they rationalised that they would never need the F-111’s range and payload capability again, so they retired the last of the fighters in 1996. In 2001, that assumption was proved foolish when we found ourselves fighting in Afghanistan.”

What was considered the main threat nation and how would the F-111 have fared against its defences?
“The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were the obvious threat US F-111s were directed against, China for the RAAF. After the Cold War ended, USAFE apparently invited some Soviet military to a friendship visit. As part of the visit they had a static display including the F-4, F-15, F-16, etc., and the F-111. By far, the Soviets were most interested in the F-111, shocking their American hosts. It turns out that, aside from the SR-71, the F-111 was the plane they considered the greatest threat.”

Anything a F-111 could do that a F/A-18F can’t? How did you feel about the transition?

F-111 Super Hornets - Australian DoD

“Torch (aka dump and burn)?! After retiring from the USAF, I worked for the USN as a contractor, primarily on the F/A-18 programme. The Super Hornet systems are fantastic compared to what we had in the F-111. The main advantage the F-111 had was range and payload. The F-111C with the Avionics (Australian?) Update Program (AUP) certainly featured many improvements over the Varks I flew, but the F/A-18F systems are infinitely more capable.”

I flew Kurt Tank’s final fighter

Interesting facts about the HAL HF-24 Marut aka Spirit Of Tempest

A sleek silver dream, the Marut fighter was a bold statement by a newly independent nation. India’s first indigenous fighter-bomber and the first Asian jet aircraft to enter service, the ‘Spirit of the Tempest’ never lived up to its full potential.  One pilot noted “She’s a beauty, no doubt on that. It is also the only aircraft, I know, where nothing moves faster than the fuel gauge.” We spoke to former Indian Air Force pilot Dara Cooper to find out more. 

“I flew the Marut in two short spells. My background was flying ground attack and photo recce roles on Vampires and on the Mystère (leaving aside my experience on the T 66 Hunter –  the standard trainer for Maruts till late 70s) when the type trainer came from HAL. I converted from Mystère 31 Sqn to Maruts at Hindon (1974)and then sqn moved to Jodhpur to join 220 and 10 Sqns.

I remember you saying you wanted to make comparisons with latter day aircraft including the MiG-23 and MiG-27. Don’t know if I got that right or not. However, I think that would be comparing chalk and cheese. I would stand the Marut up against the Hunter, Mystère and the MiG T-77 (the Type 77 better known as MiG-21FL). The first two were near peers in class though the Marut never lived down its underpowered rating. (Air Mshl Johnny Greene, an ace in days gone by, was Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) of South Western Air Command (SWAC) and I remember receiving him after his first solo. He said, “I say Coops, Amazing aircraft! Only thing that moved on the take-off roll was the fuel gauge!” Great guys and their great sense of humour). The only MiG variant that we flew in contention with it was the T – 77 CAP and can say honestly, I cannot remember a single occasion when the Marut didn’t slip away unscathed.

Interesting facts about the HAL HF-24 Marut aka Spirit Of Tempest

To get back to the beginning I first saw the first Marut in physical form in Hindon, though I had heard stories about it. She was a feast for the eyes, that was my first impression. First sit in the cockpit was a relief after the cramped Mystère. I also noticed that the workmanship was shoddy compared to the Hunter and Mystère. It was my first experience of nose-wheel steering, and I found it exceedingly comfy to turn her (after my past experience of using brakes). The first air experience was surprisingly pleasurable, despite it being summer. I remember the take-off was slightly longer than that of the Mystère and considerably longer than the more powerful Hunter. It took her some time to build up initial speed but once she crossed 400 knots she was a different beast altogether all the way up to 580 kts, the most I remember clocking level with D/Ts. There are peeps who took her up to 600 knots and a wee bit more. High G turns at low level were smooth and steady though at times it bled off fast, especially while taking avoiding measures (evasive manoeuvres). At low level performance (good at height) gradually petered off.

The avionics, by today’s standards were as expected, a good Integrated Strike and Interception System (ISIS) gunsight but not much by way of any navigational aids. Easy to fly, easy to handle and as stable as a rock. The airframe was rock solid. But as for its role, ground attack and close air support, it was tailor made for the role.

I had two short spells in 1974. I converted and did a bit of the ops syllabus before being brought down by cerebral malaria following a trip to Jamnagar for sustained range firing. Followed a long spell of low med cat, I managed to fill the gap with the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC )in 1979. Then back to 220 Sqn this time (1980 – 81) when the fleet was disbanded and only the target tow flight moved out to Bakshi ka Talab. Total flying on type was a little over 200 hrs. Enjoyed every bit of it.

What I didn’t like was what I consider the biggest goof up of all time. We were predominantly a MiG-21 and Su-7 air force then and their prize qualification was an FCL from the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment. So during my second tour, two of the Sqn Cdrs were MiG FCL (Fighter Combat Leader, fighter weapons course trained) types & Chief Operations Officer another of the same, popularly known as ‘Alley of the Valley’. The third squadron Cdr was Joe Bakshi, a dyed-in-the wool Marut guy and also a VRC (Vir Chakra gallantry medal) from 71, commanding 10 Sqn which was the training squadron. He too despaired. Somehow the first three took it upon themselves to make Marut pilots ace air defence pilots. So when I got back to Maruts after DSSC was shocked to see the ops syllabus. Almost 40% devoted to high level air combat and a quaint exercise called pair manoeuvres! Being a senior in the squadron spent hours pleading, begging, being down right insubordinate with my boss about this air-to-air fetish. We were a ground attack squadron flying an aircraft specific to that role. Couldn’t get him to write a paper on why waste a/c hrs on doing something we were not capable of? We flew sorties amongst ourselves and spent hrs on briefing and de-briefings on “I was here and you were there, and I percehed blah blah blah”. What we needed was more low level strikes with bouncers from other types, that was our role and not converting speed into height! But alas….

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Some rare experiences. We had got on to doing slow speed aerobatics to gain confidence. If I remember right the entry speed for a loop was 500 kts (cant remember) and we gradually kept reducing. One such sortie in a trainer was on top of the loop and looked in to check speed (40 – 50 Kts) looked out to see a huge buzzard practically scraping the canopy. Both of us ducked, check altimeter reading 12,000′! Remember telling the other pilot, F@@ck if it had hit us, no one would have believed us. Been up chit creek facing a Court of Inquiry at the very least for unauthorised low flying outside low flying hours. Another speciality of the Marut was hydraulic failure. Lives there a Marut pilot who only had one hydraulic failure? Take me to him! That was some hydraulic system. But its outstanding feature was the airframe. I am desperately trying to locate a photograph of a Marut that belly-landed in a field, except for the belly touching the ground there is no other visible damage. I will send it later when I see it. I have seen a jock bring back a HT cable stuck in the rudder, lashing along on landing. The espirit de corps saved him, Shashi Ramdas cleaned up the rudder and Rajasthan went into a two day black-out. Keru came out smiling and smelling of roses!

The diciest mission was at Jaisalmer. It was a four-aircraft lead check, I was No 4 in LL nav ending in a live F/G strike at the range. I was flying a known underpowered aircraft. As we finished firing, ATC told us a guy had got lost and just landed downwind with engine flaming out on R/W. As Jodhpur was under repairs we catered only for diversionary fuel to Uttarlai, also under repair but usable parallel taxi track. As a tractor was already towing the a/c away decided to orbit at Jmer and land. LL fuel blinker, 120 gals, started on in orbit No 1. I eventually switched off 34 gals. Did heave a bit of a sigh and managed to get out of the chit thanks to my friends. I had seen the blinker on a few times, but never for this long!

Sustained turn at low level was good but below 420 speed washed off fast. At high level, it was below average. Acceleration after 420 was a piece of cake. Building up to 360 took some time. The Marut crowd, all three squadrons was something else. No petty envy, no back-biting, plenty of healthy competition, still around 75 of us friends who meet occasionally, have get-togethers, know families and keep in touch. My blog MarutFans is ample proof of that.

Oh yes, it had a lot of tech problems almost to the end of its life thanks to shoddy HAL workmanship. Last one I heard was someone pushed left rudder, nose wheel turned right. The Hydraulic lines were inter-changed!”

The greatest feeling I got from flying this aircraft? “It was the pride to be flying India’s first full-blown fighter. Secondly, guys who were already legends Kapil Bhargava, Babbi Dey, Prithi Singh, Shashi Ramdas, Chuchu Tilak had nursed it through its trials and tribulations.”
Saddest bit? “Politics & poor foresight eventually struck off over 100 serviceable aircraft, some with less than 200 hrs on the airframe, written off at the stroke of a pen.”

Top 58 fastest aeroplanes

These are the 58 fastest manned aircraft that ever flown. As you’ll see, the age of speed peaked in the 1960s: today the US Navy hasn’t a frontline aircraft that comes close to making it into the top 58!

58. Avro CF-105 Arrow (1958)


57. Northrop YF-17

Mach 2. Oh, and I should also add the Convair B-58 Hustler here, also at Mach 2. And the Gripen.

B-58 (modified).jpg

56. BAe Experimental Aircraft Programme (1986)

BAe EAP ZF534 07-1988

Mach 2.

55. Saab 35 Draken (1955)

Mach 2

54. Northrop F-20 Tigershark (1980)

F-20 flying.jpg

Mach 2

53. Sukhoi Su-57 (2010)

Mach 2 (est)

52. North American A-5 Vigilante (1958)

Mach 2

51. Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket (1953)

Mach 2.005

50. Dassault Mirage IIIV (1965)

Mirage III V: origins, characteristics and performance data

Mach 2.04 (Fastest ever VTOL aircraft). Should also include the Grumman F11F-1F Super Tiger here at Mach 2.04.

F11F-1F NAN12-56.jpg

49. Tupolev Tu-160 (1981)

Tupolev Tu-160 RF-94109.jpg

Mach 2.05. (I should have also added the Eurofighter Typhoon here which has also gone M2.05)

48. General Dynamics F-16 (1974)

Mach 2.05

47. English Electric Lightning (1957)

Mach 2.1 (fastest British aeroplane)

46. Saab 37 Viggen (1967)

Mach 2.1 (fastest Swedish aeroplane)

45. Helwan HA-300 (1964)

Mach 2.1 (Fastest African aircraft)

(I should have added Chengdu J-10A here at Mach 2.1, awaiting verification)

44. Republic F-105 Thunderchief (1955)

Mach 2.1

43. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 (1955)

A MIG-21 aircraft flies past during the inauguration of the 12th edition of AERO India 2019 air show

Mach 2.1

42. Tupolev Tu-144 (1968)


Mach 2.15

41. Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-8 (1962)

Ron Eisele on Twitter: "29 June 1962. First flight of the Mikoyan/Gurevich  Ye-8/2. Second prototype supersonic jet fighter developed from and to  replace the MiG-21. Powered by a Tumansky R-21 turbojet.…  https://t.co/avU1sxtv1k"

Mach 2.15

40. Sukhoi Su-15 (1962)

Mach 2.16

39. Nord 1500-2 Griffon II (1957)

Nord 1500 Griffon II.jpg

Mach 2.19

38. Mirage F1 (1966)

Mach 2.2

37. Mirage 2000 (1978)

French Mirage 2000 fighters kill 50 Islamic insurgents in Mali

Mach 2.2

36. Mirage IV (1959)

Dassault Mirage IVP, France - Air Force AN0758316.jpg

Mach 2.2

35. Dassault Mirage III (1956)

Mach 2.2

34. Dassault Mirage 5 (1967)

Mach 2.2

33. Dassault Mirage F2 (1966)

Mirage III F2 F3: origins, characteristics and performance data

Mach 2.2

32. McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (1958)

Why You Need to Respect the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II Fighter | The  National Interest

Mach 2.2. It is rumoured that the prototype XF4H-1 reached Mach 2.6 and that a special recon variant reached even greater speeds.

31.. Rockwell B-1A ‘Excalibur’ (1974)

Mach 2.2

30. Sukhoi Su-11 (1958)

Index of /image/idop/fighter/su11

Mach 2.2

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29. Northrop YF-23 (1990)

Mach 2.2 1990

28. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (1954)

F-104 Starfighter | Lockheed Martin

Mach 2.2

27. Sukhoi Su-47 (1997)

Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut: an advanced Soviet fighter jet on a test flight

Mach 2.21

26. Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde

Max recorded 2.23 (Normal Mach 2)

25. Mikoyan Project 1.44 (2000)

MIG Project 1.44 MFI [HD] - YouTube

Mach 2.24

24. Mikoyan MiG-29 (1977)

Mach 2.25

23. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor (1997)

An F-22 Raptor flies over Kadena Air Base, Japan on a routine training mission in 2009.

Mach 2.25

22. Panavia Tornado ADV (1979)

Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado F3 Lofting-3.jpg

Mach 2.27

21. Dassault Mirage 4000 (1979)

Dessault Mirage 4000 - France | Fighter jets, Aircraft, Fighter aircraft

Mach 2.3

(The IAI Kfir is also quoted as Mach 2.3 though verification is sought)

20. Dassault Mirage G (1967)

Mirage G: origins, characteristics and performance data


19. Grumman F-14 Tomcat (1968)

Mach 2.34

18. Sukhoi Su-27 (1977)

Mach 2.35

17. Mikoyan MiG-23 (1967)

Mach 2.35

16. Chengdu J-20

anil chopra, air power asia, J 20, Stealth, China

Estimated Mach 2.35 (Expected to get to 2.5 with future engines)

15. Convair F-106 Delta Dart

Convair F-106: The Ultimate Interceptor

Mach 2.39

14. Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III (1958)

Mach 2.39

13. Shenyang J-8II (1984)


Mach 2.4 (limited to 2.2 in peacetime)

12. Bell X-1A (1953)

Bell X-1A Archives - This Day in Aviation

Mach 2.44

11. General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark (1964)

An air-to-air left front view of an F-111 aircraft during a refueling mission over the North Sea DF-ST-89-03609.jpg

Mach 2.5 (though some pilots have said it was actually lower, maybe 2.2-2.3). One pilot has claimed M2.91.

10. McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle (Fighter) - Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

Mach 2.54 (Really prob 2.2 for in-service aircraft) 1972

9. Mikoyan MiG-31

Mach 2.83 (LIMITED TO M1.5 in peacetime)

8. Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-152-1 (1961)

Mikoyan/Gurevich MiG Ye-150/-152('E-166')/-152A | Secret Projects Forum

Mach 2.85

7. North American XB-70 Valkyrie (1964)

Mach 3.1

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6. Bell X-2 (1955)

Mach 3.196 (air-launched)

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5. Mikoyan MiG-25 (1964)

Mach 3.2 (normal limits 2.83) (FASTEST NON US AIRCRAFT)

4. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (1964)

Mach 3.3

3. Lockheed YF-12 3.35 (1963)


2. Lockheed A-12 3.35 1962

  1. North American X-15 (1959)

Mach 6.72

What made the Mosquito fighter-bomber so special? We spoke to Bill Ramsey from the People’s Mosquito

Loading "Cookie"
Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) for loading into a De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV (modified). The specially-modified Mosquitos were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. (IWM CH12621) via People’s Mosquito

The People’s Mosquito is a charity with the sole aim of restoring and returning a UK-based DH.98 Mosquito to British and European skies. We spoke to their Operations Director Bill Ramsey to find out what makes the ‘Wooden Wonder’ so special.

Describe the Mosquito in three words
“Fast, innovative and multi-role.”

What was unusual about the Mosquito’s construction? Were any aircraft made in similar ways?
“Wooden composite for the entire airframe, giving strength, light weight and streamlining (no rivets) – as others designed for combat operations then you are looking at the gliders such as the Horsa used for paratroops.”

How did its performance compare to other aircraft of the time?
“During its trials on 16 January 1941, W4050 outpaced a Spitfire at 6,000 ft (1,800 m). The original estimates were that as the Mosquito prototype had twice the surface area and over twice the weight of the Spitfire Mk II, but also with twice its power, the Mosquito would end up being 20 mph (30 km/h) faster.”

Melancholy Atomic, 1945, Salvador Dali

What was best and worst about how the RAF operated the type in World War Two? What were the greatest triumphs and mistakes?
“The most famous action of the Mosquito was the Amiens Prison raid in February 1944, a precision strike which released captured resistance leaders who had knowledge on some plans for D-Day. The saddest raid by Mossies would be the successful strike on Gestapo HQ in Copenhagen, Denmark in March 1945, called Operation Carthage. The raid was successful in destroying records and preventing the collapse of the Danish resistance fighters, but tragically a Mosquito was lost and crashed near a school; other Mosquitos mistakenly then though the school was the target. Civilians, including many children, were killed.”

NF landing
The People’s Mosquito Ltd was formed around the remains of NF.36 RL249, one of the very last batch of Mosquito NF.36s to be built

What were the type’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
“Speed, versatility, and the ability to outsource manufacturing to alternative industries e.g. cabinet makers, reliability, good range, and good survivability on raids compared to other types. Weaknesses, well very few, but one all pilots respected was that both engines props turn the same way and as you take off there was a vicious tendency for the aircraft to swing violently. Another would be that if a fully fuelled and loaded Mossie had an engine failure on take-off below 160 knots then the aircraft would not climb and your only course of action would be to belly-land the aircraft. This actually affected all aircraft fuelled and bombed up, but the Mossie needed a high rate of speed to then take-off on one engine fully armed.”

What are the advantages of twin-engines versus single or four engines? Depends on the mission type, for the Mossie she operated well in many roles whether bombing, intruding or photo-reconn at good speed, range and versatility versus some single engined types (range / mission) and four engined (size / weight and speed).  

In terms of survivability and carry a certain size bombload a certain distance hope how does a Mosquito compare to a B-17? “The Mossie had a higher survivability over all the four-engined bombers used by the allies. Its size, speed and manoeuvrability gave the allies the ability to do precision strikes and great close air support. But Mosquitos were used as an effective light bomber force, used very effectively to mark targets and aircraft were often detailed to do two Ops in an evening. The early Mosquito bomber versions could carry 2,000 lb of bombs, but the later B.XVI could carry 4,000 lbs in an enlarged bomb bay. It is a myth it carried the same as the B-17, this carried 6,000 lbs of bombs and was used in strategic bombing.”

487 FBIVs
Mosquito FB.VIs of No. 487 Sqn RNZAF (IWM) via People’s Mosquito

Could a Mosquito do well in a dogfight against a single-engine fighter? “Yes and no. If the single-seater engaged the Mosquito low level, with height and speed it (the single-seater) had tremendous advantage in a dogfight. The Mosquito’s strength was its ability to hit and run. Not to engage in twisting dog-fights, the Mossie crews would engage once with an advantage and speed off to fight another day.”

How many export operators did it have? Did Mosquitos perform in any wars in ways that we are unlikely to have heard of? “Circa 12, including Canada and Australia. It operated in the Chinese Civil War 1945-47 and was used by the Israelis in the early Arabic wars in the Middle East.”

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What is the biggest myth about the Mosquito?
“It carried the same bomb weight as a B-17.”

What was the strangest role or mission that the Mosquito had? “Flying with a passenger in the bomb bay?”

Could it take a lot of gunfire and fly on compared with its contemporaries?
“Yes and depending on damage repairs could be done in service at the field.”

Complete this line, the Mosquito was the great because….
“It could do any mission you asked of it!”

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How dangerous was it being a pilot assigned to a Mosquito unit?
“Less dangerous operating the four-engined aircraft – as survivability was higher.”

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Which enemy aircraft was most comparable to it and how does it compare?
“None, in my opinion it was unique for its type and era.”

Which modern aircraft could you compare it to and why?
The F-35, as this is also a composite multi-role combat aircraft.”

How many are airworthy?
“Currently three and all in the USA. There is one in Canada requiring work to regain airworthiness”

Heinkel He 177: the Bomber that Won the War: or ‘Grief of the Greif’

Over the course of the 20th century there are very few aircraft that can claim to have been truly decisive, whether by accident or design. The list might Include such worthies as the P-51 Mustang or the Hurricane. It is doubtful that Heinkel’s much derided He 177 would be included in such a list but nonetheless the case can be made that it was one of the most influential aircraft on the course of the Second World War. Unfortunately for Germany it was influential in exactly the opposite direction they intended. Named the ‘Greif’ (Griffon) the mighty aircraft promised much and delivered considerably less. Unlike dragons, griffons do not breath fire but fire was to prove particularly pertinent to the He 177 programme.

The Nazis were a government of fantasists, they fantasised about a huge German Empire, arranged on strict psuedoscientific racial lines that rated hair colour over talent. They fantasised about enormous ugly buildings, so large they would experience internal weather conditions. They fantasised about murdering a large swathe of their population on the basis of who their grandparents were, and unfortunately for everyone else, many of their fantasies spilled over into reality. One thing that you can’t accuse them of is a failure to ‘think big’ and so it was, just as with big tanks and big trains, they fantasised about big aircraft. The origin of what would become the He 177 lay in a somewhat murky programme for a big aeroplane, developed by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) under the leadership of Generalleutnant Walther Wever, impressively named the ‘Ural Bomber’. Wever envisioned a strategic bombing arm for the Luftwaffe and was closely aligned with the prevailing theories then governing the development of air power in the UK and USA. To that end he approached aircraft manufacturers Junkers and Dornier, in secret, that would be able to attack Soviet industry in the event they moved their factories eastwards during a future war. The Do 19 and Ju 89 produced for the Ural Bomber programme flew in 1936 and 37 respectively and were decidedly humdrum. Meanwhile Wever died in an air crash in 1936 leaving the Luftwaffe bereft of a strategic bombing proponent. Wever’s replacement was Albert Kesselring, a talented General who oversaw development of the Messerschmitt 109, but he was far more interested in medium bombers. Ernst Udet headed up the Luftwaffe’s technical division and was totally fixated on dive bombers (which was to prove significant to the He 177 down the line) inasmuch as he was fixated on anything other than partying with plenty of alcohol and attractive women. Erhard Milch, their superior, was fully aware that Germany lacked the industrial capacity at this point to produce strategic bombers in any meaningful quantities. Between them they persuaded Herman Goering to drop the Ural bomber programme and concentrate on tactical bombers, a strategy that was, initially at least, very successful but was to cost them dear later on. Goering is alleged to have stated, “The Führer will never ask me how big our bombers are, but how many we have.” Nonetheless, with the unfocussed strategy typical of the Nazi period, the idea of a strategic bomber was not completely quashed, indeed work on very large strategic aircraft was resuscitated with the requirement, issued in 1937, for an aircraft capable of carrying a five tonne bomb load to New York which really was in the realm of fantasy in the late 30s.

Out of all this muddled thinking and vacillation came the He 177: once the tepid performance of the Ural bomber contenders became known, a more modest requirement, named ‘Bomber A’ was issued by Wever on the very day of his death. The specification called for an aircraft to carry a tonne of bombs over a range of 5000 km at a speed not less than 500 km/h (311mph). This was an exceptionally challenging specification and the speed element alone put the bomber into territory beyond that of contemporary fighters, being known as the Schnellbomber concept, the same basic idea would result in the incredibly successful De Havilland Mosquito, but was to be the source of much heartache for the Luftwaffe.

Heinkel, well respected for the successful (and fast) He 111 that was then gainfully being employed laying waste to large areas of metropolitan Spain, responded to the tender with Projekt 1041, building a full scale mock-up by November 1937. Coincidentally Heinkel had been working on ways to wring the maximum speed out of aircraft design and had lighted on an almost pathological obsession with reducing drag – a process that resulted in the undeniably graceful He 119 which featured a smoothly tapering fuselage from nose to tail with no unsightly windscreens or other excrescences to spoil the streamlining. Significantly they had powered the He 119 with two Daimler Benz DB 601 engines mounted side by side in the fuselage and geared together to drive a single airscrew. Designated the DB 606 and known, rather grandiosely as a ‘power system’, the siamised engines had performed sufficiently well in the He 119 for Heinkel to propose two such ‘power systems’ for Projekt 1041, a decision that would see a significant reduction in drag over a similar aircraft with four separate engine nacelles but was to prove disastrous to the programme as a whole. But this would be only the most serious of the manifold problems of the He 177, virtually every major design decision Heinkel made was ill advised at best, as follows:

The DB 606 had caused no problems onto He 119 but in the He 177 the ‘power system’s were an incredibly tight fit in their cowlings. Both engines shared a common central exhaust manifold serving a total of 12 cylinders, the two inner cylinder banks of the component engines. This central exhaust system would often became extremely hot, causing oil and grease which routinely accumulated in the bottom of each engine cowling to catch fire. this problem was compounded by the fact that there was a tendency for the fuel injection pump on each engine to lag in their response to the pilot throttling back in such situations, deliver more fuel than was required and thus fuel the fire, in addition the fuel injection pump connections often leaked. Furthermore, to reduce the aircraft’s weight no firewall was provided, and the back of each engine was fitted so close to the main spar, with two-thirds of each engine being placed behind the wing’s leading edge, that fuel and oil fluid lines and electrical harnesses were crammed in with insufficient space and the engines were often covered with fuel and oil from leaking fuel lines and connections. At high altitude the poorly designed lubrication pump led to the oil foaming, reducing its lubricating qualities. Insufficient lubrication ultimately resulted in connecting rod bearings failing (which also befell the Avro Manchester but that aircraft was quickly altered into the superlative Lancaster), resulting in the conrods sometimes bursting through the crankcases and puncturing the oil tanks, the contents of which would then empty onto the white hot central exhaust manifold. The tightly packed nacelles in which the engines were installed on the He 177A, with many of the engine’s components buried within the wing led to very poor ventilation as well as poor maintenance access. In the words of one aviation historian, the engine accessories and cowling of the He 177 were ‘almost wilfully badly designed’. Essentially the He 177 was a fire waiting to happen.

But there was more. In an effort to fulfil their obsessive desire to reduce drag, Heinkel decided to use cutting edge technology to provide the aircraft’s defensive weaponry in three remotely controlled turrets. These offered other advantages such as reducing the vulnerability of the gunners and providing them with the best possible view. Unfortunately development of the remote turrets lagged behind the airframe and the aircraft had to be redesigned to allow manned gun position to be fitted, this required strengthening the aircraft in the affected areas and increased weight again. Eventually, later production He 177s got one remote turret at least. The manned tail gun position was always problematic, initially requiring the gunner to lay prone at his position, production aircraft at least gave him a seat but the field of fire was always very limited. 

Weight growth meant that the original single wheel undercarriage would be insufficient to handle the ever-enlarging He 177. The undercarriage legs needed to be long to allow ground clearance for the unusually large propellers (required for the mighty power of the DB 606). With limited room in the nacelle and wing for a larger undercarriage unit, Heinkel adopted the unique expedient of having two separate legs, each with its own wheel, that retracted in opposite directions up into the inner and outer wing simultaneously. Ironically, given that this system was adopted due to weight growth, the undercarriage design was very heavy and contributed to weight growth. Furthermore it added complexity for servicing, just changing a tyre required two hours of work and involved the use of a massive 12 tonne capacity jack.

As if this weren’t enough tests on the first A-1 production aircraft revealed that the wing had been improperly designed and would begin to fail after only 20 flights (provided the engines hadn’t caught fire by then) and extensive redesign and strengthening was undertaken requiring further time and increasing weight.

Meanwhile, the specification changed. After the death of Wever, the impetus for strategic bombing was lost. At the same time Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers were proving impressively successful in Spain. Contemporary German bombsights were pretty inaccurate (as were most bombsights at the time to be fair) and experience in Spain demonstrated that dive bombing was more effectively destructive than level bombing by conventional medium bombers. And thus, if a small aircraft could cause so much devastation by dive bombing, imagine how much potent that would be if the dive bomber were a large aircraft. On 5 November 1937 the RLM issued the stipulation that the He 177 should be capable of shallow angle dive bombing. Ernst Udet mentioned this to Ernst Heinkel when inspecting the He 177 mock-up on the same day. Heinkel stated that the 177 would ‘never’ be capable of dive bombing. 

Despite Heinkel’s response, the design was modified to possess the structural strength to safely pull out of shallow dives, thus beginning the aircraft’s inexorable increase in weight before it even existed, just in time for the requirement to be altered again to demand the He 177 be capable of 60 degree dive bombing. This is very steep, especially for such a large aircraft, the design was altered and strengthened again, this time causing a large jump in weight. If you are sniggering over the idea that such an obviously unsuitable aircraft as the 32 tonne, 100 foot wingspan, He 177 could be even considered for dive bombing, it is worth remembering that this wasn’t solely just some madcap Nazi scheme – the specification that called for the eminently sensible (ie dull) Handley-Page Halifax four engined heavy bomber of roughly the same dimensions and weight also stipulated that it be capable of dive bombing. Air forces across the world were painfully aware that the accuracy of level bombing was pretty woeful and were attempting to change that state of affairs. However, the British Air Ministry actually listened to Frederick Handley-Page when he told them the Halifax would never be capable of dive bombing. The RLM chose to ignore Ernst Heinkel to pursue their dive bombing dreams, which would never be realised, and paid for them with wasted time and weight growth 

The first He 177 flew on 9 November 1939 and all seemed broadly well despite its litany of questionable design choices and ongoing wrangling over its application. But then the engine temperatures soared and the aircraft had to return hurriedly to the ground, a fairly accurate premonition of what was to come. Similarly, the hopelessness of the dive bombing concept was made very apparent very quickly when the second prototype undertook the He 177’s first diving trials and promptly broke up in mid air, killing all on board. Just to make sure the point was adequately made though, during further diving trials the fourth prototype then dove straight into the Baltic Sea, killing all on board. The fifth prototype was the first to catch fire and was lost, followed by a further three.

The biggest myth about WW2 aviation is…

…that the Battle of Britain was a close run thing, won by a narrow margin.  It really wasn’t.  The Luftwaffe were whipped and whipped badly.  I can produce all number of stats to prove my point but perhaps this isn’t the place.

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Nonetheless, when working properly the He 177 possessed a performance that could not be ignored and the aircraft entered production, beginning with 35 A-0 pre production models followed by 130 A-1s, the latter all built under subcontract by Arado. virtually all of these aircraft were kept in second line service due to ongoing teething troubles. KG 40 were the first unit to attempt to use the bomber operationally in the maritime role during the summer of 1942, but this proved premature and they reverted to their Fw 200 Condors. The A-3 was an improved version, though still problematic, 170 of which were built. Further effort yielded the A-5 with more powerful DB 610 ‘power systems’ and many of the problems ameliorated if not solved and some 350 of these left the factory. Further developments led to the A-6 and A-7 of which a handful were built by which time development had switched to the He 177B with four conventional separate engines (and which would never progress beyond the prototype stage).

In service the He 177 never served in the numbers required to really make a difference and only became a mature enough design to commit to mass usage at around the same time that Germany effectively ran out of fuel. It is not known what proportion of the 1169 produced saw service but estimates range as low as 200. What is known is that hundreds of He 177s appeared parked at bases on Allied reconnaissance photographs and contemporary photographic interpreters stated “absence of track activity suggests that these aircraft are not being worked on.” 

To be totally fair to the He 177 it should be pointed out that it could prove to be effective on operations, it had, for example, the lowest loss rate of any German bomber during the ‘Baby Blitz’ of 1944 though the overall loss rate of all types was an eye-watering 60%. It was also formidable as an anti-shipping platform equipped with the Fritz-X radio controlled glide bomb, though on its debut in this role, the captain of the ship being attacked noted that one of the aircraft appeared to burst spontaneously into flame, which may not come as a great surprise to those familiar with the aircraft. “For five or six seconds we saw a large flame coming from the port engine and then the aircraft was enveloped in a dense black cloud of smoke. When I last saw the aircraft it was at an angle, which may have been done deliberately to blow the flame away, or it may have been losing height. It went into cloud and I did not see it again.”

The facts were that the He 177 was too accident prone, too late and too resource heavy. It is difficult to quantify exactly how many manhours were expended on its development and production but as this was at exactly the same time Heinkel were developing the world’s first jet fighter (that would ultimately never see production due to inexplicable official indifference) it was obvious that there were more worthwhile things they could have been doing. As to how much material went its production, each He 177 consumed four DB 601 or DB 605 engines for its ‘power system’s. With 1169 built that’s enough for 4676 single engine fighters, all of which never existed to attack Allied aircraft or strafe Allied troops. The empty weight of each aircraft was 16.8 tonnes, that is a lot of aluminium and steel to not be made into other more useful, aircraft (for comparison, a BF 109G weighed about 2.2 tonnes).

But perhaps the timing was the worst of all. The He 177 could deliver the goods in terms of speed, range and payload, at least when everything was working. But the desultory expenditure of time on tinkering with the design to try and make it work properly, which it didn’t really do for about five years, meant that the bomber essentially joined a war already lost. To put this into perspective, the He 177 flew for the first time in November 1939, a month after the Handley page Halifax, yet the Halifax began operational service in late 1940 and contributed much to Bomber Command’s horrific campaign against German urban centres. If one were to imagine an He 177 force, and the 177 was arguably a more potentially formidable aircraft than the Halifax, available at the end of 1940 then the destruction meted out to British cities would have been an order of magnitude higher than it transpired to be. The He 177 could carry more than any other German bomber and was extremely difficult to intercept by 1940/41 standards, even more so by night when it would have been effectively immune to night fighters, at least until the advent of the Mosquito.

Thus the badly designed large aircraft that, unavailable at the right time, built to a requirement its operators found uninteresting, consumed much industrial effort and material and required many trained aircrew who could have been flying something else. 

Did the He 177 cause the Allies to win the war? In reality, almost definitely not, Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union basically sealed the fate of Germany in June 1941. But it is not hard to imagine that a combat capable He 177, available in numbers in 1940, would have had a tremendous effect on the UK which could have adversely affected US commitments to its ally. Meanwhile a force of He 177s in the maritime role could have caused havoc with British naval operations. All of which does rather presuppose a massive production effort on the big Heinkel, which may have been beyond Germany’s ability to supply at that time. Nonetheless Goering summed up the effect of Germany’s fixation on the tactical medium bomber fleet in 1943, ”Well, those inferior heavy bombers of the other side are doing a wonderful job of wrecking Germany from end to end”, had the Greif been the priority earlier perhaps it would have been Luftwaffe heavy bombers wrecking Britain from end to end. It’s absence, whilst probably not decisive, was colossally influential.

He 177 engine run

This is the helicopter we need for the most dangerous threat we face

A Helicopter the World Needs

Dr Ron Smith joined the British helicopter company Westland in 1975, working in Research Aerodynamics, remotely piloted helicopters, before becoming Head of Future Projects. He had a strong influence on the design of the NH90, and was involved in the assessment of the Apache for Britain. We asked him what to consider what helicopter the world most needs.

The Problem

Having been asked the question “what helicopter does the world need?”, I am thrown back to a query raised with me a couple of years ago. “Could you develop a fire-fighting or crane helicopter with a water / fire suppression load of 20 tonnes or more?”

With climate change, there is an increasing wildfire risk worldwide. There is a very good discussion of this at www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-how-climate-change-is-affecting-wildfires-around-the-world

In recent years there have been significant fires affecting Australia, the Amazon region, the US West coast from Washington State down to California, Indonesia, southern Europe and Central and Southern Africa. With climate change in the far north, significant fires have also broken out in both Alaska and Siberia.

Given this wide geographic spread, fire seasons are now occurring pretty much throughout the year, and indeed seasons are beginning to overlap in geographically dispersed locations such as those listed above.

The US Forest Service’s Aerial Firefighting Helicopters

Notable on the above figure is the markedly increased risk of severe fire risk weather conditions in Southern Europe and Southern Africa in addition to significant percentage increases in many of the current high-risk locations.


So, what do we need and how do we get it?

I see this as having some parallel with the difficulties currently being experienced in dealing with the present COVID-19 pandemic.

One’s first reaction is – well, fix the emissions and it will go away. However, the world’s scientists and governments have known about climate change for decades and (despite some encouraging changes in direction in the US Administration) there is a lack of effective global coordinated action. Nowhere is this more evident than in Australia, where the Government seems more focussed on maintaining its coal exports to China than on reducing emissions.

In the case of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation has said that effective vaccination is needed world-wide, but many wealthy nations are taking the ‘after we’ve looked after ourselves’ approach. This despite the acknowledged rationale that any pool of unvaccinated populations will provide a source of mutated variants that could stretch the crisis out for years.

So past and current behaviours tell us that there isn’t going to be a magic reduction in world-wide emissions (and even if there was, the path is already set for significant climate change).

There does not seem to be a military need for large crane helicopters and the largest helicopter available today originates from Russia, which is currently something of a problem child in terms of global diplomacy, and this type is not available in a fire-fighting variant.

The largest lifting capability currently in servie is the Erickson CH-54B / S-64K Skycrane fleet operating at up to 47,000 lb max weight and the Billings and Columbia CH-47 adaptations at around 50,000 lb max weight. Some 31 Erickson Skycrane have been built.

Mil Mi-26 helicopter - development history, photos, technical data

A high-capacity fire-fighting crane could potentially be generated using a Mil Mi-26 dynamic system (rather like the Mil Mi-10K derived from the Mil Mi6) but this note examines what a new-build aircraft for the role might look like.

A helicopter makes a night water drop on the leading edge of the Lake fire which has burned more than 10,000 acres near Lake Hughes north of
Los Angeles. (Photo by David Crane)

How would it be Funded?

With no military need, could funding be raised from concerned nations? Europe, the United States and Australia might head that list, but past and present behaviours suggest that those, with existing helicopter design and manufacturing capability, would lobby to have any such work placed with their own domestic industries.

The future wildfire risk forecast suggests European nations, particularly Italy and France, which have significant land areas near the Mediterranean, and strong helicopter industries; and the US, which has been having significant fire problems, particularly in the West, might be best to develop this capability.

While noting these countries as having the greatest need and the requisite capabilities, in the absence of any current project activity, I am forced to leave the question of funding and acquisition management on one side for the moment.

What is the operational vision? There probably needs to be around 60 – 80 aircraft allocated to this task, with greater numbers concentrated where there is the greatest risk to human life and economic impact. The fleet would be dispersed with perhaps 10 in southern Europe, 20 on the west coast of the United States, 15 in Australia, 10 in South America and a reserve fleet to respond to emergencies elsewhere and to provide a surge capability when required.

The climate data indicates that additional capability might be required in Southern Africa and in Russia, should funding become available. In view of the global nature of the problem, consideration should be given as to whether there might be support available from the UN, as well as an assessment of the level of interest in countries such as Russia and China, both of which are likely to have future need for such a helicopter.

The Air Vehicle and Equipment

Drawing on my thirty-year old experience of helicopter preliminary design, I will outline some very basic rule-of-thumb thoughts on what a new fire-fighting crane might look like.

The discussion will necessarily be highly simplified at this stage but will give some idea of how to get into the ‘right ballpark’. From there, we can evaluate what other areas would need to be investigated to harden up the design.

The Mil Mi26 will give some idea of the size of helicopter required. The quoted figures for this type include an empty weight of around 62,000 lb, a ‘gross weight’ of 109,000 lb and a maximum take-off weight of 123,000 lb. The aircraft has an eight-bladed rotor of 105 ft diameter and is powered by two ZMKB Progress D-136 engines, each rated at 11,400 shp.

Where to Start?

We start with some ground rules for the new design:

  • The helicopter must use engines that are already certified and in production in the west. The parallel development of a new powerplant would result in excessive risk to the project.
  • The target payload is 20 tonnes (roughly 45,000 lb)
  • Design ambient conditions should reflect those in typical fire risk regions – perhaps 2,000 ft and ISA +30C (although this aspect can be subject to confirmation).
  • The aircraft needs to be capable of regional self-ferry operations. Possibly three hours endurance at 125 kt+. In actual use, most drop operations are likely to be between hover and minimum power speed. Modular arrangements to allow long range tanks to be fitted should be investigated.
  • The rotor should be optimised for hover and low speed operation, thereby maximising payload and endurance. This implies composite blades with modern aerofoils and a non-linear blade twist of perhaps -14 degrees, probably with an anhedral tip. Between six and eight blades would be used and, for hover efficiency, the rotor tip speed would probably be around 660 ft/sec (similar to that of the Sea King and AW101).

Where do these assumptions lead us?

The above constraints allow us to make the following decisions:

(i) The aircraft is likely to be in the same weight class as the Mil 26 and therefore we are looking for an in-service powerplant in the 11,000 shp class if two engines are to be used. The only candidate currently available is the Europrop TP400-D6 used on the Airbus A400M aircraft. Basic information has been drawn from the EASA Type Certificate Data Sheet (TCDS) for this engine. The 5 minute take off rating of this engine is 8,251 kw (11,000 hp).

(ii) The likely payload fraction of the helicopter is estimated at 45%, although 50% may be achievable for a crane configuration. This implies a maximum weight of around 100,000 lb. Taking a hint from the Mil Mi-26, we will assume a rotor diameter of 100 ft.

(iii) Will the power be sufficient? Our data suggests that two of the TP400-D6 engines used on the A400M, coupled with an appropriate main rotor gearbox, would be likely to be sufficient.

Clearly, a proper design with detailed weight estimation and specific attention to both engine and gearbox rating structures would be required to firm up the figures suggested in the text box. A key question in respect of the Europrop engine would concern the implications of providing a short duration contingency rating to be used to fly-away following an engine failure.

Gearbox Requirements

Mi-26 helicopter firefighters

The existing TP400 engine comes with a propeller reduction gearbox that reduces the take-off prop rpm to 864, from an output shaft speed of 8580 rpm. For the helicopter, the proposed tip speed of 660 ft/sec on a 100 ft diameter rotor implies a nominal rotor rotational speed of 126 rpm.

The helicopter gearbox is likely to be lighter if the A400M propeller reduction gearboxes are not used and the overall reduction is accomplished within the main gearbox. This implies an overall ratio of around 68:1 between the engine output shaft and the main rotor drive.

The TP400 engine would need to be certificated for helicopter applications, whether or not the existing reduction gearbox was retained. One specific consideration would be the vibration environment to which the engine would be exposed in any helicopter application.

Notionally each engine would be spaced outboard of the helicopter main gearbox. A bevel gear would redirect the drives toward the gearbox. A further bevel gear would turn the drives vertically into two planetary (or epicyclic) stages to drive the main rotor shaft. A tail rotor drive would be provided to the rear, with an accessory gearbox mounted forward.

This arrangement provides four reduction stages (two bevel stages and two planetary stages). The overall 68:1 ratio would be provided using an average reduction of around 2.8:1 per stage.

Other aspects of the airframe design would broadly be similar to an enlarged version of the Sikorsky S-64.

Sikorsky S-64 Sky Crane | Aircraft |

Fire-fighting equipment

Delivery of water, fire suppressant chemicals, or a mix of the two is anticipated to be through the use of a fire-fighting turret, as this provides an opportunity for greater precision in application than a simple water drop system, The directional fire-fighting turret could be mounted on a suspended water tank arrangement. Arrangements to stabilise the position of the turret with respect to the helicopter are likely to be required. (This would be needed to control the cg position of the heavy load and should also lower operator workload and ease the design of the helicopter Flight Control System.)

The operator could use sensors to define the jet aim point(s) and an active control system could then adjust the fire suppression jet onto the target, or along a defined line. An increased payload (longer delivery time) and targeted delivery should significantly increase efficiency and reduce operator workload.

Provision will also be required to allow the helicopter to take on water through a suction pump arrangement similar to that used by many other fire-fighting helicopters. This will allow flexible operation, particularly where lake, dam or oceanic water is available close to the location of fires.

Unanswered Questions and Risks

Identification of funding and commercial principles.

Market analysis and solicitation of government, national park agencies, fire services and end-user opinions.

Selection of helicopter manufacturer based on facilities, experience, capacity, etc. Almost certainly an existing helicopter manufacturer.

Allocation of sub-contract and supplier elements. This to include selection criteria and sub-contractor qualification and management.

Powerplant development and certification for helicopter applications.

Understanding of powerplant constraints, including physical, electrical, electronic / digital interfaces, engine vibration and other environmental clearances.

General engine performance characteristics – power / fuel flows vs altitude & temperature; intake and exhaust constraints; particle separation.

Definition of engine and gearbox rating structures (including contingency rating(s) and one engine inoperative operation). Possibly linked to dynamic simulation of post-engine failure fly-away manoeuvres.

Mass estimation and loads modelling including crashworthiness

Flight performance modelling

Manufacturing tooling of 50 ft composite blades (tape laying, autoclaves, etc). There are likely to be significant non-recurring costs for such items, to be amortised over a relatively short production run.

Main gearbox test facility compatible with engine power available, another significant non-recurring cost to be amortised.

Structural static and fatigue test rigs

Rotor head and blade design. Control power when operating high inertia system in turbulence?

Fatigue life of critical components (and their validation / verification)

Digital architecture and flight control system design (hardware & software)

FADEC responsiveness (taking into account the fluctuating power requirements likely to be found in the turbulent conditions encountered in the vicinity of large fires).

Failure modes and effects analysis, Health & Usage Monitoring Systems

Cockpit design / human factors – for both pilot and fire suppression system operation

Design and development (hardware and software) of fire suppression stabilised turret

Vibration control and structural dynamics

Flight test and certification

In service support

The overall task would be managed with a defined work breakdown structure (WBS) such as Mil Std 881D:

This would typically include

a. Integration, Assembly, Test, and Checkout

b. Systems Engineering

c. Program Management

d. System Test and Evaluation

e. Training

f. Data

g. Peculiar Support Equipment

h. Common Support Equipment

i. Operational/Site Activation

j. Industrial Facilities

k. Initial Spares and Repair Parts

Included within item (a) above is the design, integration, assembly, test and certification of all Air Vehicle elements and systems / sub-systems.

Planning (including taking account of long lead items) for all the above activities will be required to generate an overall development programme. This plan, with suitably realistic contingency allowances, will be required to establish programme costs and the associated spend (and investment) profile.

Overall Conclusion

A new large crane helicopter could feasibly be developed based on the use of a pair of Europrop TP400-D6 engines adapted for helicopter use.

There is a clear need for a helicopter of this type based on current experience and projected increases in wildfire events worldwide.

Bringing such a project to fruition requires a significant effort on a number of fronts. Not the least of the challenges is the raising of investment funds (possibly on an international or global basis) to see the project through to completion.

Without the availability of a significantly increased fire-fighting capability, there is likely to be a severe penalty in terms of the loss of property, livelihoods and lives, in a number of the widespread regions that are at risk. The potential economic damage of future wildfires is such that investment in the development of a modern, capable, helicopter system to fight these fires appears not merely prudent, but essential.

RV Smith

May 2021