Aviation beauty pageant 2019: Readers’ vote

airplane_jet_fighter_flanker_airshow_military_sukhoi_su_27-1170481We asked Hush-Kit followers to vote on the which aircraft were the most beautiful. Surprisingly, their voting choices were not completely insane. 

Round 1 

Widebody booty

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Boeing Dreamliner 787 Dreamliner

Versus

Airbus A350 XWB 

With its sharky tail, sawtooth engine nacelles and slimmer body we expected the Dreamliner to walk this, but the results were tighter than the elbows of EasyJet passengers. Both aircraft have lovely noses, with the A350 having a more distinctive cockpit windows, like a fast train wearing goggles. Wingwise the Dreamliner has the edge, with its lovely raked back tips and flappy flexibility.

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Round 2

European Middleweight clash 

Eurofighter Typhoon 

versus

Dassault Rafale 

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The Matt & Luke of the fighter world, the Typhoon and Rafale are very similar yet provoke more rows than almost any other two types. The Typhoon suffers from a plasticy look, a fussy boxy intake and a lack of curves, the Rafale a dorky 60s refuelling probe and what looks like a catering-size box of clingfilm strapped onto its fin. Clearly, this had to go to Rafale, because despite Typhoon’s noble canopy, lovely nose and decent proportions, the French aircraft is far prettier. Rafale TF-102-esque forward fuselage and kidney intakes are an absolute treat of delicious Henry Moore curves, the canards are a small and perky detail set neatly close to the not overly large wing. The overall design is compact with some lovely detail features such as the gold flash cockpit and serrated stealthy panel edges. The unusual jet nozzles are rather bland but overall the Rafale is a beautiful aircraft, something reflected in readers’ votes.

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Round 3

Fourth Gen Heavyweights 

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

Versus

Sukhoi T-10 ‘Flanker’ series 

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Bill Sweetman noted that the the ‘Flanker’ “..looks incomparably bad-ass, as if God designed a pterodactyl to go Mach 2.” and our readers generally agreed. The Eagle is beautiful too, but more butch than elegant (with its undercarriage out the F-15 does look very awkward).

 

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Round 4

Supersonic airliners 

Tupolev Tu-144

Versus

Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde

A poetic swan or Darth Vader’s weekend runaround? Come on!

 

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Almost the greatest fighter of World War II: The Martin-Baker MB5

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Photo copyright BAE Systems from the DH Propellers Archive

Imagine a world without Danny DeVito, Roger Daltrey and George Lucas. There’s a parallel universe where Rick Moranis played Schwarzenegger’s brother in Twins, where The Who never happened and where Star Wars was a military project to make Reagan hard and the Soviet Union broke. This speculative universe is one in which famous figures born in 1944 never happened. One star from 1944 that never happened in this universe was the Martin-Baker MB.5. This remarkable fighter flew as a prototype and demonstrated capabilities that left every other aircraft in the shade. This superb aircraft had everything going for it, apart from timing. We asked Dr RV Smith to tell its story.  

The Martin-Baker MB1 G-ADCS was a clean two seat low wing monoplane, which was built at Denham and first flown from nearby Northolt during March 1935. The company then turned its talents to the design of a series of high-performance fighter aircraft that set new standards for ease of maintenance and servicing. 

The MB2 (M-B-1/G-AEZD/P9594) first flew at Harwell on 3 August 1938; the MB3 R2492 first flew at Wing on 31 August 1942. Sadly, the MB3 crashed following engine failure on 12 September 1942 fatally injuring Capt. Baker.

Martin-Baker MB5

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The design of the MB3 was evolved into the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered Martin-Baker MB5 R2496. This imposing aircraft featured a large contra-rotating propeller, wide undercarriage track, straight-tapered wing of 35ft span mounting four 20-mm Hispano cannon, and an under-fuselage radiator unit, similar to that of the Mustang.

The cockpit was set well-forward under a blown canopy, providing excellent all-round vision and forward view over the slim downward-sloping nose.

The MB5 was flown for the first time at Harwell on 23rd May 1944.

The MB5 R2496 was displayed publicly at Farnborough in October 1945 and in June 1946. The latter display, flown by Jan Zurakowski, was described as ‘presenting one of the most brilliant flying demonstrations of the day and was outstanding for its speed, range and manoeuvrability’. Zurakowski later said it was ‘the best airplane I have ever flown’.

The comments below have been summarised from a number of articles, several of which draw upon a 1946 report “A&AEE Report 838 Pt 1 MB5 Engineering & Maintenance appraisal”, which is held in the National Archives.

Philip Jarrett comments in an article for Rolls-Royce Magazine that ‘the A&AEE report praised the MB5 in unusually glowing terms, using a generous number of superlatives’.

Perhaps the most striking comments, which are quoted in the Flight Magazine flight test article published on 18th December 1947 and written by Wing Commander MA Smith, DFC state:

“… this aircraft is excellent and is greatly superior, from the engineering and maintenance aspect, than any similar type. The layout of the cockpit might very well be made standard for normal piston-engined fighters, and the engine installation might, with great advantage, be applied to other aircraft.”

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Other articles also quote the statement that “The time necessary for a quick turn-around… would appear to be very low when compared with existing types of aircraft.”

Jarrett expands on this with the following description: “The 2,340hp Rolls-Royce Griffon 83 engine with its de Havilland contra-rotating propeller was carried on a special mounting that made its removal simple, and all of the cowling panels were also quickly removable, laying the engine completely bare ‘within a few minutes’.

Access to the carburettor main auxiliary gearbox, ignition system and Coffman cartridge starter was easy. All of the coolant radiators were enclosed within the rear fuselage, using a common intake and a controllable efflux.

Likewise, the fuselage panels were quickly detachable, allowing immediate access to all parts of the aircraft’s structure and the accessories and equipment. Every strut or member of the tubular fuselage frame was easily accessible and simple to replace in the event of damage.

The cockpit layout was described as ‘excellent.’ Martin-Baker’s patented control assembly could be removed en bloc by withdrawing a few bolts, without affecting the control settings. All three instrument panels, one in the centre and two at the sides, hinged fully forward when two quick-release handles were undone, permitting instruments to be changed with the minimum of effort.

Quickly opened bays in the upper surfaces gave access to the two 20mm Hispano cannon in each wing, with 200 rounds per gun fed by a Martin-Baker flat-feed mechanism. A servicing platform could be attached to ease the armourer’s task.”

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The Martin-Baker MB5 had a 35 ft wingspan and was 37 ft 9 in long. The undercarriage track was 15ft 2in. The MB5 had a maximum speed of 395 mph at sea level, 425 mph at 6,000 ft and 460 mph at 20,000 ft. The aircraft stalled at 95 mph in the landing configuration.

The MB5 had a quoted initial rate of climb of 3,800 fpm and could reach 20,000 ft in 6.5 minutes and 34,000 ft in 15 minutes. The aircraft had an empty weight of 9,233lb, a normal weight of 11,500lb, and a maximum weight of 12,090 lb.

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Some points made in the most interesting flight test report published in Flight International in December 1947 are summarised below:

“I was impressed by the size and somewhat brutal appearance of the power section and, in fact, of the whole aircraft.” The “clean-cut business-like appearance” of the aircraft “and its ‘office’ were confidence-producing”.

The “wide undercarriage gives a stable feel on the ground”. The stroboscopic effect of the contraprops when taxying toward the sun was most distracting.

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There was a tremendous response to throttle and the aircraft was delightful on take-off. The throttle was smooth and responsive, but the propeller pitch lever was rather sensitive with large response to small movement. The engine was virtually vibration-free and the noise level in the cockpit was low. The pilot cruised the MB5 at 315 mph at 8,000ft using 4lb boost and 2,250 rpm, these settings being being somewhat lower than those recommended.

The spring tab controls were said to give an air of laziness in response, their balance was commendable, but with a feeling of slight sponginess being commented on. Elevators and ailerons were “light, without being over-light, although the stick pressure required for a slow roll at about 315 mph was rather more than I had expected”.

Approaching the stall with flaps down at 3,000ft, the controls became sloppy around 110 mph, the aircraft rolling away to the left at just over 100 mph.

Approaching the airfield in a fast descent to about 1,200ft, the ASI showed about 465mph “the aircraft felt as smooth and solid as one could wish”. Putting the airscrew into fine pitch preparatory to landing “was like putting on a hand brake”.

The landing sequence was described as follows: Flaps down at 160 mph, power to adjust rate of descent. At around 130mph, the aircraft was trying to adopt the landing attitude, but still with a good forward view. Cross the hedge at around 115mph, throttle right back and flare, small attitude adjustment and the aircraft “sat down and stayed down on three points in a satisfactory manner”.

“I decided that the handling of the M-B 5 was pleasing in every way and that another hour or two on it would be a very enjoyable experience”.

The only cockpit criticisms were that “the ignition switches under the left elbow did not seem well positioned”, and that “the trim indicators were small and not too easy to read near the left hip.”

“However, in all important aspects of equipment and control, the M-B 5 definitely sets a very high standard.”

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Could the Martin-Baker MB5 have been improved upon?

It seems clear that the aircraft was superlative in terms of maintenance accessibility and possessed an excellent cockpit layout, subject to the minor points noted by W/Cdr Smith in his test report for Flight International. General handling and control harmonisation was clearly very good, although both W/Cdr Smith and, apparently Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, had some reservations about the crispness of the roll control.

Two aspects occur to me, The wing loading (wing area 262 Sq ft) was rather high at 46.1 lb/sq ft at 12,090 lb maximum weight, resulting in a stall speed close to 100 mph and possibly limiting sustained turning performance.

Comparable figures for other well-known aircraft are as follows: Tempest V at 11.500 lb 38 lb/sq ft; Spitfire FRXIVE at 8,475 lb 34.8 lb/sq ft; P-51D at 10,100 lb 43.3 lb/sq ft.

Given the high speeds attained, there might also be scope for the use of an improved aerofoil. The MB5 used the RAF34 wing section, which dated back to 1927, albeit with the excellent pedigree of being used on the DH88 Comet and the DH98 Mosquito.

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It is interesting to speculate that one of the Hawker aerofoils used on the Tempest and Sea Fury, might have reduced the type’s drag at high speed and/or increased its critical Mach number.

So, my imagination drifts in the direction of an MB5 fuselage, powerplant and cooling system married to a Hawker Tempest V (302 sq ft) wing, or, probably better, a Fury (280 sq ft) wing (less the port wing root oil cooler).

— Dr RV Smith, CEng, FRAeS

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Hipsters guide to aircraft

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OK, I know the word ‘hipster’ is terrible and used by your Tory uncle to describe anyone under 50, but bear with me. What I really mean is ‘snob’, for I am referring to the kind of aviation aficionado who will snort derisively at anyone who dares to say that their favourite aeroplane is the Spitfire or Concorde. For these snooty individuals you might as well have said your favourite album is the Greatest Hits of the Beatles. And yes, they judge you! Now I have planted the seed of insecurity, I will tell you the right thing to say to bluff your way into being accepted by this elitist group of fuck-nuts. Never again will you say anything as obvious or gauche as admitting love for the Vulcan or F-15 Eagle. 

World War II fighter

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Do say: Westland Whirlwind, Martin-Baker MB 5

Don’t say: North American P-51 Mustang, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109

A mere 116 Whirlwinds were built, which makes even the Raptor appear common. To steal a  P. J. R. Moyes quote from Wikipedia, “The basic feature of the Whirlwind was its concentration of firepower: its four closely-grouped heavy cannon in the nose had a rate of fire of 600 lb./minute – which, until the introduction of the Beaufighter, placed it ahead of any fighter in the world. Hand in hand with this dense firepower went a first-rate speed and climb performance, excellent manoeuvrability, and a fighting view hitherto unsurpassed. The Whirlwind was, in its day, faster than the Spitfire down low and, with lighter lateral control, was considered to be one of the nicest “twins” ever built… From the flying viewpoint, the Whirlwind was considered magnificent.”

It also looked fantastic. OK, so it had a high landing speed and test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown thought that it was underpowered and disappointing, but down and dirty at low level it was formidable.

Martin-Baker MB.5

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The best British piston-engined fighter ever flown. Well armed, very fast and easy to maintain. Flight trials proved it be truly exceptional, with a top speed of 460mph, brisk acceleration and docile handling. Its cockpit layout set a gold standard that Boscombe Down recommended should be followed by all piston-engined fighters. A multitude of access panels made it far easier to maintain than its contemporaries, and its tough structure (a more advanced version of the load-bearing tubular box type favoured by Hawker) would have given it greater survivability. The only thing the MB5 lacked was good timing, it first flew two weeks before the Allied Invasion of Normandy. Born at the birth of the jet age, with readily available Spitfires and Tempests this masterpiece of British engineering didn’t stand a chance. The fact it never entered service makes it even cooler.

Jetliner 

Do say: Tu-134, the Russian ‘Crusty’

Don’t say: Concorde, 747

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New Year’s Eve, and vodka-sozzled Zhenya Lukashin departs Moscow in a Tupolev Tu-134. Zhenya is the central character in the 1976 soviet romantic comedy The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!). Zhenya has left the snowy concrete jungle of Moscow for the identical snowy concrete jungle of St. Petersburg. The brief external shots of the aircraft in flight, with their distinctly dodgy special effects, have a certain magic about them. Though his destination maybe have been as dire as his point of departure, and his journey a soporific flight of drunkenness, the aircraft itself is decidedly (at least the exterior) otherworldly. The Tu-134, a twin-engined airliner in the same category as the equally attractive Caravelle. Its racy appearance is largely due to dramatically raked back wings which are set at an even more extreme angle than Britain’s exceptionally fast VC10. The 35 degrees of sweep was a ‘magic angle’ recommended by the central aerohydrodynamic institute (TsAGI) that was also adopted by the Tu-95 bomber.Best of all, the Tu-134 had a drag ‘chute! This very unusual feature, shared with its Tu-144 stablemate, was replaced with thrust reversers in later models.
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Do say: Chengdu J-20, Chengdu J-10B, AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo or Mitsubishi F-2
Don’t say: Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F-15 Eagle , LM F-16 Viper, LM F-22 Raptor

 

Asia is very much the vogue continent for modern fighters. Europe’s Typhoon is too plasticy, the US’ F-35 is too F-35 and Sweden’s Gripen too sensible. France’s Rafale is too beautiful and Russia’s Su-57 a cool aircraft in the making. This is why Asian fighters are undeniably on trend. Let’s start with China’s J-20, which despite being named after an over-priced fruit drink, is excellent. Think stealth Viggen or Firefox reboot (talking Eastwood films not browsers) and you almost have it. It’s big, mean and defiantly evil. The J-10B is nicely weird, like a Lavi that’s midway through digesting an X-32 — and so has to make the list.

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The exquisitely rare and expensive Mitsubishi F-2 is the best looking member of the F-16 family (bar the abortive XL) with a more elegant canopy, cooler tail and a camo scheme to die for (or not to die for as modern Japan is pretty cool at not starting wars). The AIDC F-CK-1 is dorky in that it’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s mashup of US fighters but it is rare (131 aircraft in total), Taiwanese (bonus points) and is basically called the ‘Fuck’ (big bonus points). Nice pair of intakes too.

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Cold War Fighter

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Do say: Grumman Panther, Saab Viggen

Don’t say: F-4 Phantom II, Dassault Mirage III, English Electric Lightning

 

The F-4 Phantom was (and is) weird, ugly and charismatic – but familiarity breeds contempt and thus is not a hipster choice. Similarly, having a guy called Mike prattle on about the Lightning in your local pub has robbed the ‘Frightening’ of a position it deserves. The Mirage is too much a part of French national identity and therefore too ‘establishment’.

Panther Burns

As ‘George the soundman’ pointed out in his guide to US aircraft , It’s got a bum like a dolphin, nature’s smartest and most fuckable mammal. The colour scheme is like a shiny pair of Nikes and the livery is tastefully understated. It also looks surprisingly good sitting on the tarmac which usually knocks a good few points off a plane’s attractiveness. This is the warplane to pick up a date in.”

The Saab Viggen lived in a cave like Batman, had a camouflage scheme better than the jacket of any rapper and was Swedish so must make the list.

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Business jet

Business jets are for twats. That is not a Bill Gunston quote as such, but I stand by it.

Cancelled Aircraft 

Do say: Anything other than the ones below.

Don’t say: BAC TSR.2, Avro Arrow

Helicopter

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Do say: Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne

Don’t say: Boeing AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Blackhawk, Bell 206

Wondering how you can get a guilt-free pass to appreciate a gunship helicopter? Just choose one that never got built, like the supremely bananas Cheyenne. Oh, and the original Blackhawk, the tragic S-67.

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Transport 

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Do say: Antonov An-22, Antonov An-225 and C-160 Transall

Don’t Say: Lockheed C-130 Hercules

The A400M Atlas is problematic – as a massive good-looking turboprop-powered transport it should score as a hit but it’s pan-European (with all the bland connotations of production sharing meetings in Toulouse), too new and too expensive. The An-22 is massive and crazy, the An-225 even more massive and can carry a space shuttle and the C-160 has the quaint left-field appeal of an old Renault 12.

Modern bomber 

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Do say: none

While our cognitive dissonance can stretch as far as enjoying modern fighters, modern bombers are just too depressing. Even the Russian bombers lost their cool when they began being used in combat. This leaves only the Chinese Xian H-6 , which is a little too sensible-looking.

Firebomber 

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Do say: Any

They pick up water from lakes, fly through actual fire and save lives. They’re all brilliant. Even the BAe 146, the Coldplay of feedliners, is cool as a firebomber. water-bomber.jpg

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The top 10 fighter aircraft of 2018 (BVR combat)

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This year’s list is out very late, due to a radically changed scene  — and some new sources of revealing information. This ranking may be the most controversial but I hope we make our reasoning clear — of course any top ten is not to be taken literally (reality does not confirm to the top 10 format) and each aircraft has a specialism of which it is king. The process we used is discussed here.

To excel in Beyond Visual Range air combat a fighter must be well-armed and equipped with capable avionics. It must be able to fly high and fast to impart the maximum range to its missiles, allowing them to hit the enemy before he is even aware of their presence. The aircraft must give its crews sufficient situational awareness not to shoot their friends down, and be easy to operate so it can deploy its weapons quickly and accurately. The black magic of the aircraft’s electronic warfare suite can also come into its own, reducing the opponent’s situational awareness. Situational awareness, weapons capability and combat persistence are probably more important than manoeuvre capability (g), although transonic and supersonic acceleration is helpful in creating opportunities to survive & win multiple engagements.

Hardware is generally less important than training and tactics — removing these human factors from the mix allows us to judge the most deadly long-range fighting machines currently in service. The exact ordering of this list is open to question, but all the types mentioned are extraordinarily potent killers. This list only includes currently active fighters (so no Su-57s etc) and only includes weapons and sensors that are actually in service today. 

(Contenders for the number 12 slot included the J-31B, FC-1,Iranian F-14 and Mirage 2000)

11. Lockheed Martin F-16E 

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OK, so we said ‘top 10’, but the F-16 deserves a mention. A great sensor suite, including a modern AESA (the APG-80) and comprehensive defensive aids systems is combined with advanced weapons and a proven platform; a small radar cross section also helps. However, the type is let down by mediocre ‘high and fast’ performance, and fewer missiles and a smaller detection range than some of its larger rivals. Older F-16s, including some USAF examples are being upgraded with the APG-83 AESA radar.  Israeli F-16s also deserve an honourable mention for their advanced jamming and avionics systems, but are largely tasked with ground attack. The next advanced variant of the Viper, the F-16V/Block 70,  has been ordered by Slovakia and Bahrain. 

Armament for A2A mission: 4 x AIM-120C-7 (Ds in some cases), 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon).

10. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet 

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The Super Hornet is akin to a luxury sports car without a big enough engine: it has all the ‘bells and whistles’ (a very powerful advanced radar, reduced radar cross section, an excellent cockpit, data-linking capability and good weapons) but lacks the grunt to make the most of its superb systems at higher speed and altitudes. The weapons carriage is also among the draggiest configuration.

Though in an actual BVR engagement pilot training levels and the aircraft’s place in a larger system are decisive, we are looking at the aircraft as a weapon system in a like-for-like way — so many of the US Navy’s Super Hornet’s advantages are removed. A planned Block III upgrade will see the addition of conformal fuel tanks to increase reach, further reduced radar conspicuity and the addition of a modern wide display cockpit.

Read an exclusive interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.

This list, which for the sake of brevity (largely) treats aircraft as isolated weapon systems, does not favour the Super Hornet: in reality, with support from E-2Ds and advanced other assets, US Navy Super Hornets would be extremely capable in the BVR arena against most adversaries.

Armament for A2A mission: Super Hornet (high drag ‘Christmas tree’) 12 x AIM-120, realistic = 6 x AIM-120C-7/D  + 2/4 AIM-9X ) (1 x 20-mm cannon)

9. Sukhoi Su-35

The Su-35 is considerably more capable than earlier ‘Flanker’s and would pose a significant challenge to any ‘eurocanard’. Su-35S were deployed in Syria in 2016 to provide air cover for Russian forces engaged in anti-rebel/ISIL attacks. The Su-35 is even more powerful than the Su-30M series and boasts improved avionics and man-machine interface. More on the Su-35 can be found here. Many of the teething problems encountered in Syria have now rectified.  One ace the Su-35 has in its sleeve is the inclusion of the R-27T medium range infra-red guided missile (seen on aircraft deployed to Syria) – which is potentially effective against low radar cross section aircraft and has no American equivalent. One Russian analyst we spoke to questioned the effectiveness of the R-77 noting Russia’s lack of investment in modernising the weapon and the glacial pace of development of ultra-long range weapons for the Su-35.

The Su-35 represents the Flanker series for this list but high-end T-10 series aircraft include the Su-30, J-11B and J-16. (See Idiot’s guide to Flankers here.)

A2A armament: 6 x R-77 or R-27T, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)

Location of target 

In terms of radars, the Su-35S’s Irbis-E PESA radar provides extremely high power levels allowing target detection beyond 300km (although without weapons which can engage at this range), as well as claimed advances in detecting low-observable threats such as stealth fighters at significantly beyond visual range. However, the downside to this is that the Irbis-E has to operate at extremely high power levels to achieve this performance and so is easily detectable and track-able at ranges beyond those at which it can track. All radars except AESAs with very low probabilities of intercept such as the F-22’s APG-77 suffer from this paradox but it is worse for the Su-35 because of the latter’s very large RCS and IR signature which means it must rely on out-ranging its opponents at BVR rather than trying to sneak up on them whilst relying on passive tracking.

Engage and defeat the target

Su-35 benefits from superb Russian missile design expertise. The multiple seeker-head mix which Russian fighters would fire in missile salvos in combat makes defending against them a very complicated task. At long range, the Su-35 can fire a mix of semi-active radar homing, anti-radiation (home on jam) and IR homing missiles, whilst at short range the ‘Archer’ series remains as deadly as ever. Typhoon has the excellent ASRAAM and IRIS-T short range IR missiles which can equal or surpass their Russian counterparts, but at long range the AMRAAM is showing its age and against Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jamming technology which the Su-35S employs, its Pk drops significantly to the point that multiple missiles would likely be required to kill each target.

BVR engagements are all about situational awareness, positioning/energy advantage, and persistence in terms of fuel and missiles. In all but the latter category the Su-35 is hopelessly outclassed by the F-22 (as are all other operational fighter aircraft). Even in terms of missiles, the Su-35 can carry up to twelve to the F-22’s eight but combat practice, especially against stealthy targets, involves firing salvos of six missiles with mixed seekers so the Su-35 only really has two credible shots

Disengage at will

Repeat as necessary

Abundant fuel reserves and a large weapon load.

8. Mikoyan MiG-31BSM ‘Foxhound’

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As a defender against bombers the MiG-31 may well be the most potent interceptor in the world. In our article that explained the judging criteria for this top 10, analyst Jim Smith noted ” (The) Air Defence of Russia drives you towards the MiG-31. You have to have a big, fast, aircraft because you can’t avoid the possibility of having to cover a fair distance at high speed to meet the threat. Being big means a big sensor and long-range weapons are available, and both are likely to be needed. You may be less concerned about signature and platform manoeuvrability because your ideal approach will be to stand back and hit bombers rather than engage fighters.”

Interview with a MiG-25 pilot here.

The MiG-31 is designed for maximum BVR performance. Against bombers and cruise missiles it is superbly capable (and would be ranked higher on this list), however as a defensive interceptor it is vulnerable to more agile and stealthier fighter opponents. The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83+, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. Until the advent of Meteor-armed Gripens and Typhoons, no operational aircraft had a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33, which can engage targets well over 100 miles away (it may well out-range the AIM-120D). The recent K-74M, which is believed to be in limited operational service (though there is no open source material to support this claim) is even more potent and may even have some advantages over Meteor.

Designed to hunt in packs of four or more aircraft the type can sweep vast swathes of airspace, sharing vital targeting information by data-link with other aircraft. The enormous PESA radar was the first ever fitted to a fighter. The type is marred by a mountainous radar cross section and abysmal agility at lower speeds. More on the MiG-31 here and here. 

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7. Dassault Rafale C

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The Rafale F3R upgrade standard — introducing Meteor capability— was qualified in late 2018 , but is not due to become operational until early 2019.  F3R involves major software upgrades, and the full integration of Thales TALIOS long-range airborne targeting pod. Though primarily an air-to-ground sensor the pod will improve target detection and identification.

Against the Meteor-armed Gripen and Typhoon, the French is aircraft is at a (probably brief) disadvantage. This is a reversal of the traditional position where Rafale has leapt ahead of Typhoon in weapon and systems integration (with some exceptions, like a helmet cueing system).  Other than real stealth, this is in the only real disadvantage suffered by the type, which has a good performance, an excellent defensive aids suite and a high level of sensor fusion. Rafale has a more advanced radar than the other European and Russian fighters and a weapon (the MICA) that the Russians and Chinese do not known as well as the elderly and universal AMRAAM, and thus may be less able to counter. When Rafale receives Meteor it is likely to leap up to a top three position.

6. Chengdu J-20

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2018 marks the J-20’s debut in this list. It also makes China the second nation in the world to put an indigenous stealth fighter into operational service.

With a hypothetical really long-range anti-air weapon, this relatively stealthy platform could force essential support assets such as tankers and AEW platforms to stand back, reducing situational awareness and combat persistence for opposition aircraft. Perhaps the J-20 should be thought of as a stealthy MiG-31, aimed at large area airspace denial rather than a air superiority fighter per se, though the J-20 is generally described as an F-22 Raptor-class aircraft. In many ways this is true, but the J-20 is particularly interesting because of its rather different configuration. The J-20 has a canard-delta rather than the (essentially) tailed-delta of both the Raptor and the Su-57 (which has yet to enter service). Additionally, unlike Typhoon, the canard is not closely coupled to the wing. The main benefit to be gained from this arrangement is the carriage of significantly more fuel, coupled with the scope for use of a longer weapons bay. The additional fuel could confer either additional range, or long combat persistence, and this suggests that, if armed with a long-range AAM a role as an anti-AWACS or anti-tanker system. The large weapons bay might also provide sufficient volume for a wide range of weapons. What of the compromises? I would suggest less energy manoeuvrability, as the configuration is likely to have somewhat higher transonic drag. In addition, signature (other than head-on) looks likely to be a bit greater. Head on signature could be comparable to competing systems if appropriate engine installation and airframe treatments are used. The canard, is likely, to be at low deflection for supersonic flight, especially if Su-35-like thrust vectoring is available to trim the aircraft. It is not clear from open source literature if this is the case, but it is likely the PLA are looking into it. It is only the type’s immaturity that keeps it from a higher placing, and it is likely to move up this list next year. 

Stealth, supercruise and the modern weapons mean the J-20 is likely to mature into an extremely capable, and unique, aircraft. Achieving this depends on the degree to which China can overcome its historical problems with engine developments.

Location of target 

The J-20 carries a modern AESA in a nose large enough to accommodate a set of 2000-2200 transmit/receive modules. Detection abilities are likely to be excellent.

Engage and defeat the target

Assessing the J-20s capability in this sense is hard. Giving the J-20 a very long range weapon would be a logical step and it is believed that this weapon is currently in testing. In 2016 China downed a target drone with a massive air-to-air missile. This could be a  very long range air to air missile (VLRAAM) with ranges exceeding 300 km. Far greater than any Western weapon. The PL-15 which is said to be operational is a Meteor equivalent, but the analyst we spoke to was sceptical about its current status. 

Disengage at will

Supercruise and a degree of stealth (though probably less than the F-22 from most aspects) will give the J-20 options, though it is likely to lack the energy manoeuvrability  of the F-22.

Repeat as necessary

Massive fuel reserves (if combined with an efficient engine) and a large weapons bay are likely to make the J-20 one of the best aircraft in this regard.

Armament: 6-8 x new generation PL-12C/PL-15s or new generation BVR missile  + 2 x PL-10

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5.  McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3/Boeing F-15SG/F-15SE Eagle 

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US F-15Cs were among the first fighters in the world to receive the AIM-120D AMRAAM, the best Western air-to-air missile after the Meteor.  With an estimated 100  mile range, new hardware and software systems for improved navigation, an improved HOBS (High-Angle Off-Boresight) capability, the D model offers a significant advantage. Though far from fleet wide, USAF has a number of F-15Cs fitted with both the  APG-63(V)3 radar and the AIM-120D, these Golden Eagles boast a superior radar to any non-US types. With a massive effective radar, good range, combat persistence and a high level of maturity, the Eagle remains extremely potent. 

Though the famously one-sided score sheet of the F-15 should be taken with a pinch of salt (Israeli air-to-air claims are often questionable to say the least), the F-15 has proved itself a tough, kickass fighter that can be depended on. It lacks the agility (certainly at lower speeds) of its Russian counterparts, but in its most advanced variants has an enormously capable radar in the APG-63(V)3. The F-15 remains the fastest Western fighter to have ever entered service, and is currently the fastest non-Russian frontline aircraft of any kind in the world (though an F-15 pilot we spoke to here said he’d never got a clean eagle over Mach 2.3). The type is cursed by a giant radar cross section, a massive infra-red signature and an inferior high altitude performance to a newer generation of fighters.

Though Saudi F-15SAs are extremely advanced they are not considered mature and rumours hint at problems with the aircraft. The latest F-15s will benefit from the greatest amount of computing power of any aircraft. The F-15X is a suggested variant with the latest technology and ‘missile truck’ mass AMRAAM load-outs.

A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7 or AIM-120D  2 x AIM-9X

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The F-15X is not yet real. It is could address USAF’s need for a fighter with many more missiles than carried by the F-22 and F-35.

4. Saab Gripen 

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Some caution could be expressed about the Meteor, as it is far from being a combat proven weapon. But the signs are encouraging, with the order-book stacking up and a large amount of time, money and effort put into the weapon’s development. In our original list from five years ago, the Gripen did not even make the top ten. Its dramatic jump to the number two position in 2016’s list here was due to one reason: the entry into operational service  of the MBDA Meteor missile. The Gripen was the first fighter in the world to carry the long-delayed Meteor. The Meteor probably outranges every Western weapon, and thanks to its ramjet propulsion (an innovation for air-to-air missiles) it has a great deal of energy, even at the outer extremes of its flight profile, allowing it to chase manoeuvring targets at extreme ranges. Many air forces have trained for years in tactics to counter AMRAAM, but few know much about how to respond to the vast No Escape Zone of Meteor. This combined with a two-way datalink (allowing assets other than the firer to communicate with the missile), the aircraft’s low radar signature, and the Gripen’s pilot’s superb situational awareness makes the small Swedish fighter a particularly nasty threat to potential enemies. The Gripen is not the fastest nor longest-legged fighter, nor is its radar particularly powerful. It would have to be used carefully, taking advantage of its advanced connectivity and superior Electronic Warfare systems to make the most of its formidable armament.

Let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.

4 x MBDA Meteor + 2 x IRIS-T (1 x 27-mm cannon)

3. Lockheed Martin F-35A/B Lightning II 

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The F-35 is perhaps the hardest aircraft to place on this list as its stealth and situational awareness should give it a very high ranking (it made position two last year) but reports continue to circulate regarding problems with the aircraft’s AMRAAM integration. It is (largely) this lack of a mature AMRAAM capability that stop it taking the number two slot that one might expect given of such an sophisticated system. Its appalling reliability and extremely high-maintenance demands (many shared with the F-22) also count against it. In 2017 the F-35 had a mission capable rate of 54.67%, which is terrible. To put this into perspective the B-1B which is very big, very complicated, old, has swing wings and four engines is only 2 or 3% worse! It appears that with a ‘fifth generation’ aircraft you get a mission capable rate of around 50% compared to 70% for a thirty year-old fourth generation aircraft (it is likely that the Eurocanards offer even better rates if assessed in the same way). How ever good a fighter is in theory, it has to be ready to fight to be able to fight.

In Location of target the F-35 scores very highly, being arguably the best fighter in terms of sensors and data connectivity. Stealth and unparalleled situational awareness make a potent beyond visual fighter of the F-35A, despite its pedestrian kinematic performance. The F-35A has gained a formidable reputation in large-scale war-games; against conventional opponents the F-35 raking up a reported 17-1 simulated aerial victories. The F-35, if it is to stay in a stealthy configuration, has fewer missiles than its rivals. It also lacks the agility and high altitude performance of the F-22, Rafale or Typhoon. A word of caution about the high ranking we have given the F-35: procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way. 

 

4 x AIM-120C-5 + 2 AIM-9X (1 x 25-mm cannon)

2. Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4

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In December 2018, the RAF launched Meteor-armed Typhoons on a Quick Reaction Alert mission — signalling it’s probable entry into service, and catapulting it to the number two position. Typhoon is now the best armed fighter in the world for beyond visual range combat, bar none. The Typhoon is very fast, high flying and energetic, imbuing its AMRAAMs and Meteor with a longer reach than those launched by lower performance aircraft. RAF Tranche 1 Typhoons are not Meteor compatible but will instead be fitted with AIM-120D in a deal that was signed in July 2018.

Its greatest weakness remains its lack of an AESA radar and its non-stealthiness. Against a stealthy opponent, for example the J-20 (when fully mature), the Typhoon will be at a large disadvantage and without the support of  an off-board sensors (from friendly F-35s for example) will struggle to get first-look and first-kill. The Typhoon is one only two aircraft on this list (the other is Gripen) with a mechanically scanned radar, a 20th century technology which leaves the sensor “… on the verge of complete obsolescence, with an inherently greater vulnerability to jamming and an inability to fully exploit the performance and capabilities of new weapons” according to some in the RAF Typhoon community. However, the radar is a decent size, with good detection range and is fully mature. Future Typhoons will carry the Captor E ‘Radar Plus One’, a new pivoted wide-view AESA, with the chance of an all new Radar Plus Two further in the future.

Interview with a Typhoon pilot here and here

A2A armament: Up to six Meteor/AMRAAM AIM-120C5 + 2 or 4 AIM-132 ASRAAM/IRIS-T

 

1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor 

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Undisputed king of beyond-visual range air combat remains the F-22 Raptor. Its superbly stealthy design means it is likely to remain undetected to enemy fighters, calmly despatching its hapless opponents. The only potential rivals, the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20, remain immature.

The type’s excellent, but ageing, AESA radar is world class, and its ‘low-probability of interception’ operation enables to see without being seen. When high-altitude limitations are not in place (due to safety concerns) the type fights from a higher perch than F-15s and F-16s, and is more frequently supersonic. High and fast missile shots impart the AMRAAMs with greater energy, and so range, and allow the F-22 to stay out of harm’s way. The recent addition of the AIM-120D to the Raptor’s arsenal give it a weapon of improved range and sophistication. Since 2017, the F-22 has carried the AIM-9X , which has a marginal BVR performance useful against stealthy opponents. 

The F-22 is now proven in combat; though it has not taken part in air-to-air combat, it has performed in the CAS, ISR and Combat Air Patrol missions over Syria, and more recently in Afghanistan.

The F-22 is expensive to operate and maintain, suffers from a poor radius of action for its size and has suffered a high attrition rate for a modern fighter. Issues with parts and software obsolescence have also dogged the aircraft, with recent efforts being made to provide more easily upgradable computer systems. The F-22’s ‘mission capable‘ rate is poor and getting worse, it plunged from a FY2014 high of 72.7% to an alarming 60% in 2016 to a lamentable 49.01% in 2017! This compares unfavourably with the 71.24% for the geriatric F-15C fleet in FY2017 (a figure that has stayed largely unchanging for five years). Its ability to share information with other aircraft is not first class: the F-22 does not have the ability to transmit on the standard Link-16 network—though it can receive data. The Talon HATE (it is unknown what the acronym stands for, assuming it is one) pod now being tested will allow the F-15 to connect with the Raptor’s Intra-Flight Data Link (previously a Raptor-to-Raptor only system). The IFDL has a low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection capability that offers a high resistance to jamming and eavesdropping. 

Location of target 

The F-22 is likely to detect anything now flying before it detects the F-22, with the possible exception of the F-35.

Engage and defeat the target

High energy, excellent situational awareness and the best US-made made air-to-air missile give the F-22 a high probability of winning a BVR engagement against anything else.

Disengage at will

This is to allow you to either re-position for another engagement, or to withdraw. In this category the Raptor scores highly. Its combination of high energy manoeuvrability, all aspect stealth, AESA radar and its ability to receive information from other aircraft allow it massive liberty in its options. 

Repeat as necessary

This requires the ability to carry enough weapons have good combat persistence and, often ignored, have sufficient availability and numbers to deliver a campaign rather than just an engagement. In this category the F-22 has failings, which include a low combat readiness and a small fleet. Six AIM-120s limits the extent to which the F-22 can exploit its relative invisibility, and compromises from its stealthy design mean it does not have the range one would expect of such a large modern platform.

Armament: 6 x AIM-120C-5 or AIM-120D  + 2 x AIM-9X or AIM-9M 

 

Interview with USAF spy pilot here

Top Combat Aircraft of 2030The Ultimate World War I FightersSaab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?, Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilotProject Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Top 10 carrier fighters 2018, Ten most important fighter aircraft guns

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. This site is in peril as it is well below its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

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Stealth attack helicopters for the US Army: RAH-66 Comanche & its exotic rivals

In the early 1980s the US Army had a good think about their helicopters, and how vulnerable they were to modern air defence systems. A vast and ambitious programme was started to address this concern, dubbed the Light Helicopter eXperimental (LHX).

The LHX was required to replace the UH-1 ‘Huey’ in the utility role as the LHX-U, and the AH-1 Cobra and UH-1M in the gunship role as the LHX-SCAT. The SCAT would also supersede the OH-6A and OH-58C for the ultra-dangerous scout/reconnaissance mission sets. In 1982, the US Army had a force of around 2,000 utility aircraft, 1,100 gunships and 1,400 scout helicopters — any replacement could expect enormous orders. Such large numbers meant a big budget for researching new technologies, big profits for the winning contractor and global dominance in the field of military helicopters. The study that led to the LHX noted that there was a lack of original thinking in US Army aircraft procurement and that bizarre, exotic and unconventional approaches to the problem should been encouraged.The use of advanced materials, avionics and new concepts – like stealth and a single-pilot crew – were also to be encouraged.

One way to reduce vulnerability was to make the LHX faster than existing helicopters, and a top speed of 345 mph was suggested. This is extremely fast for a conventional helicopter, even today the fastest helicopters rarely go beyond 200mph (for reasons explained here). All major US helicopter manufacturers leapt into the fray, fiercely fighting to win the golden ticket of LHX. The entrants were quite unlike anything else built before or since.

Bell & Sikorsky’s convertoplanes 

Convertoplanes are a category of aircraf which uses rotor power for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and convert to fixed-wing lift in normal. Their inflight fixed-wing configuration means they can fly faster than helicopters, but the technology took a tortuous path to the mainstream. Bell had been researching and building experimental convertoplanes since the 1950s and this technology had reached a new level of maturity with the Bell XV-15 of 1977. Bell could make an LHX convertoplane that would be far faster than a helicopter, an idea that Sikorsky would also explore.

Bell’s initial idea was revolutionary — a small fighter-like machine with a butterfly v-tail named the BAT (Bell Advanced Tilt Rotor). It was to weigh slightly more than 3.5 tons, with a maximum speed of 350 mph and armament options included four Stingers, four Hellfire anti-tank missiles or two 70-mm Hydra rocket launchers.

Sikorsky were more determined than anyone to win the deal. Their UH-60 Blackhawk was becoming the backbone of US Army helicopter fleet and Sikorsky had no desire to loose its position as top dog. It thus put together a dream team with Martin Marietta (for sensor and weapons control), Northrop (then secretly the world leaders in stealth technology as well as infra-red —and other — sensors and targeting systems ) and Rockwell Collins (advanced cockpit technologies and system architecture) .

Sikorsky early efforts were, like Bell’s, tilt-rotors. Their convertoplanes concepts were rather larger and heavier than Bell’s. Sikorsky soon become daunted by the technological risks involved in tilt-rotors and moved towards a more conventional solution.

A sketch of an early Sikorsky tilt rotor with a twin tailboom.

Sikorsky’s next proposal featured a coaxial scheme with an additional pushing screw in an annular fairing. Co-axials were popular with the Soviet company Kamov, who today employ the technology on the Ka-50/52 gunship. Though slower than a convertoplane it was expected to offer greater stability and manoeuvrability. Despite did not winning, the concept is still alive today and can be seen on the S-97 Raider.


One Sikorsky LHX SCAT concept with co-axial rotors and a pusher propeller again engaged in the anti-helicopter mission.  New rotorcraft concepts take a very long to perfect, and thirty five years later Sikorsky is developing the similar S-97 Raider. 

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Hughes

Hughes, then producing the world’s most advanced helicopter gunship for the US Army, the AH-64 Apache, felt they were in a strong position to win LHX. Their offer was extremely bold and quite unlike any flying machine before or since. The Hughes LHX SCAT had no tail rotor, instead using the NOTAR system allowing a shape that would have had far less drag than any other helicopter. The fuselage was an aerodynamically wasp-like pod with two sharply swept wings and a nose section closer in appearance to a supersonic fighter than an attack helicopter. Smaller than the other proposals, yet equally well armed and fast at an estimated 342mph. It is unclear what Hughes were offering the utility category for LHX.

Boeing

Boeing rejected the notion of very high speed, deciding that stealth and advanced sensors were the solution to the requirement for enhanced survivability. Their proposal was shaped for low radar observability — with weapons mounted internally. According to the writer Bill Gunston, the proposal rejected cockpit transparency (windows) in favour of sensors creating an artificial view of the world for the pilot; the reason for this is two-fold, transparencies create problems for stealthy designs and at the time there was a fear of laser dazzling weapons (also seen on the stealthy BAe P.125 concept). 

Boeing’s embrace of stealth over speed won out, and a 1984 review of the proposals agreed. An updated requirement was issued – LHX / LOA – which insisted that the new aircraft must be low-observable (to radar and infra-red sensors) . Such a brief immediately wiped out the chances of any tilt-rotor designs with their massive frontal cross-sections.


Boeing LHX SCAT.

Though knocked out of the LHX contest, American interest in high-speed battlefield tilt-rotors would soon return. Replacing the A-10 battlefield support aircraft with a vertical take-off aircraft could prove a boon for forward deployment and potentially offer far greater flexibility. In 1986, Bell and Boeing created a proposal for such a machine, dubbing it the Tactical Tiltrotor. This extremely ambitious machine promised supersonic performance, thanks to an ingenious propulsion system. On take-off, landing and speeds up to 186 mph the aircraft acted as a turboprop tilt-rotor with the engines fed from a central turbojet, above these speeds the rotors folded into the engine nacelle and the turbojet provided direct thrust. In this mode, a top speed of Mach 2 was anticipated. This already radical idea was to be combined with forward swept wings, canards and an internal weapons bay housing eight Hellfire or Stinger missiles. Work continued until 1990, when it was cancelled as the Soviet threat disappeared.


An artist’s impression of an early Bell / Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor concept. 


Various Bell / Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor layouts were studied, including versions with two turbojet engines. 


The novel internal arrangement of the Bell / Boeing Tactical Tiltrotor. 

This glamorous artist impression shows two Tactical Tiltrotors at extremely low altitude attacking with cannon and Maverick missiles. The Tactical Tiltrotor was probably an idea born too early, and included too many risky technical features.


This artist’s impression shows a glass two person cockpit and as a two-ship attack Soviet tanks on a bridge. 


In addition to the battlefield attack variant, a transonic combat utility convertoplane was considered. It appears that this design may have some external features designed to reduce radar conspicuity. 

Would the LHX Stingbat have been any good? Find out here.

Back to the LHX

The four big names in the US helicopter industry paired up into two teams: Bell and McDonnell Douglas formed the ‘Super Team’ and Boeing and Sikorsky formed the ‘First Team’.

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LHX requirement dropped the utility requirement in 1988, and by 1991 the Sikorsky-Boeing collaboration had been selected as the winner. This aircraft, the Boeing–Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, first flew in 1996. The 200 mph 11,000Ib Comanche was a very sleek machine with weapons and undercarriage stowed internally to minimise drag and, more importantly, radar cross section. Three Hellfire (or six Stingers) missiles could be held in each of two weapons bay doors complimented by a trainable 20-mm GE/GIAT cannon. It was intended that the two-person helicopter could sometimes be crewed by one, but this proved dangerous in practice (the single person attack helicopter has proved unpopular-  the sole operational example being the Russian Ka-50).

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The RAH-66 Comanche won the LH contest (the X by then dropped from the project name).

It was the first known helicopter designed with a high degree of low observability and was extremely sophisticated, but despite the $7 billion USD spent, it was not to be. It required substantial modifications to be survivable against modern air defences, dwindling orders were pushing the unit price up and the US Army thought it wiser to invest funds into upgrading existing platforms and into developing unmanned scouts that could do the job without risking a pilot’s life. Some also wondered how useful radar stealth was for an aircraft that would often be slow and low enough to be targeted optically. After a 22 year effort, the Comanche was axed in 2004.

Life after Comanche 

Not all was lost however, the LHTEC T800 turboshaft developed by Rolls-Royce and Honeywell for the Comanche has seen considerable use. It powers the Super Lynx 300, AW159 Wildcat, Sikorsky X2 (an experimental co-axial pusher), T129 ATAK gunship and even serves (as a boundary layer control compressor) on a vast flying boat – the ShinMaya US-2.

 

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The US-2 is an unlikely beneficiary of the LHX project.

The tilt rotor technology pursued for LHX (and other US programmes) eventually led to the V-22 Osprey, smaller AW609 and V280 Valor. The co-axial pusher, an idea that dates back at least as far as the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne, can be seen today expressed in the S-97 Raider now under development. It is likely that stealth technology developed for the Comanche found a home on the US Army’s secret fleet of stealth helicopters, famously (and accidentally) coming into the public eye during the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

Attempts to replace Army scout helicopters with the new, far less ambitious, Bell ARH-70 Arapaho also floundered when the project was found to be 40% over budget.

This article was inspired by this Russian language blog post, that I recommend you visit.

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Interview with USAF spy pilot here

Top Combat Aircraft of 2030The Ultimate World War I FightersSaab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?, Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilotProject Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Top 10 carrier fighters 2018, Ten most important fighter aircraft guns

 

Loneliness at Mach 3: Interview with a MiG-25 Foxbat pilot

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High-flying, insanely fast and untouchable, the MiG-25R Foxbat served the Indian Air Force with aplomb. We spoke to Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji about flying the world’s fastest operational aircraft.

What aircraft did you fly and how many hours do you have on type ?

“I retired 7 years ago at the age of 60, with over 3,400 hrs on jets. I had the distinction of Commanding three units. First, a MiG-29 Squadron, second a MiG-25R Squadron and lastly the Tactics and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) – the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF – which had the MiG-21, MiG-23U and the MiG-27. So, as a historical landmark, I am the only pilot in the Indian Air Force (and probably the Russian Air Force ?) to have ‘Commanded’ units with the MiG-21, MiG-23U, MiG-25R, MiG-27, MiG-29.”

What were your first impressions of flying the MiG-25R ?

“A 20-ton aircraft that carries 20 tons of fuel, flies in the stratosphere, cruises at Mach 2.5 in minimum afterburner and exceeds Mach 3.0 with ease when required, what can one say ? It was an awesome aeroplane. The fact that the ventral fuel tank was one MiG-23 (equivalent in fuel) under the belly, speaks for itself.”

Which words best describe the MiG-25 ?

 “Catch me if you can” 

What is the cockpit like and how pilot-friendly is it ?

“Most Russian aircraft cockpits evoke a feeling of comfort and familiarity to a pilot who has flown Russian aircraft before. Coming from the MiG-21 to the MiG-25R was an easy transition. As one of our Air Chief’s remarked when the aircraft was demonstrated to him and he was stepping into the cockpit, “This is rather familiar. And dammit, it even smells the same!” The cockpit was a little more spacious than the MiG-21, thankfully so, because we operated wearing the pressure suit (which, incidentally, was the same as that worn by Yuri Gagarin – so much for Russian sustainability and dependability).

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The two-seater (or Trainer version) was unique. It is the only aircraft I know (other than the Tiger Moth, I guess) where the trainee sits in the rear seat. The design, to my mind, was an aeronautical engineering masterpiece. To put it rather simplistically, the camera block was removed from a single-seater and a cockpit created in that space. The canopy, although the same as the other cockpit, appeared ‘flushed’ with the nose of the fuselage, as viewed from the rear cockpit. Thus the trainee felt he was sitting in a single-seater when in the trainer. The transition to going ‘solo’ was a piece of cake. With the nose-wheel located behind the rear cockpit, a 90 deg turn onto a taxi track entailed the front cockpit extending over onto the grass beyond the taxi track (at the ‘T’) before the turn was executed. A little unnerving initially for anyone (though airline pilots may not have felt uncomfortable).”

Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-27 here.

What can you say about the performance of the MiG-25 ?

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“It was a beast with immense power. It has been described by some as ‘an engine with place for a pilot and some avionics’. The Tumansky R-15B engines each provided more than 10 tons of thrust to produce the desired performance. In almost all the other aircraft I have flown, a regular climb was executed at constant TAS (True Air Speed, the speed of the aircraft relative to the airmass in which it is flying) with a progressive reduction of IAS as the altitude increased. The Foxbat climbs at constant IAS with an increasing TAS, crossing abeam the take-off dumbbell (if a reciprocal turn were to be executed after take-off), at 30,000 ft and increasing! She would be crossing 20km (65,000 ft) in 6.5 minutes from wheels-roll, at a rate of climb (ROC) of 100 m/sec (almost 20,000 ft/min) ‘like a bat out of hell’, if you did not come back from the Max afterburner regime – In comparison, the ROC of a MiG-21 was 110 m/sec at sea-level. Now, that is sheer performance. Cruising at 20+ kms with minimum afterburner (which, incidentally, provided best specific fuel consumption) she could execute a 45-50 deg bank turn with just a wee bit of additional power. There was no loss of height. Her systems and auto-pilot were coupled to provide an optimised “Little m=1” (remember the formula for maximum range ?). So, as the fuel depleted she would keep climbing (cruise climb) and a mission commenced at (say) 19.5 kms altitude would terminate around 22 kms with no change of throttle position. The climb was so gradual over the period of time and distance that it did not affect the photography.”

Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-25PU__53_blue__(38094148876)

What was the pilot workload ?

“With virtually a first generation inertial navigation system (coupled with the ground beacon RSBN), one could engage the auto-pilot at 50m (165 ft) after take-off and take your hands off the control column. The Foxbat would execute the complete mission, photography included, and return to base (or programmed airfield) descending to a height of 50m when the pilot needed to take control and flare out for a landing. All that the pilot was required to do through the entire mission was manipulate the throttle – From max afterburner at take-off, to min afterburner at about 60,000 ft, to idle throttle setting approximately 350 Kms from landing base (the MiG-25 would glide the distance), to 75% RPM on top of approach to landing. That’s it !”

Were you detectable by radar ? Were you susceptible to interception ?

Certainly we were detectable by radar, provided you were expecting us. The Foxbat operated covertly, seen just as a blip on the radar amongst other flying aircraft, but one blip would suddenly disappear. In normal ground radar settings the Foxbat generally operates at the highest fringes of the radar lobe, with the ingress and egress (through the radar lobe) often allowing one or two blips for the radar controller to perceive. Low transition times (because of the high speed) did not provide adequate reaction time to scramble fighters; and other than a pure head-on interception with look-up / shoot-up capability (from, say, 40,000 ft), the Foxbat could survive any fighter interception.”

Read about flying and fighting in the MiG-21 here

What were the limitations of the aircraft ?

“The fuel quantity, I guess. The engines were gas guzzlers and 20 tons of fuel (including the ventral tank and fuel in the vertical fins) was just adequate. In the regional perspective of India and its neighbours it would suffice but we always returned for landing with 200-400 kg of fuel remainder (200-250 kgs was the fuel required to execute one circuit and landing). We operated on the fringe. The runway had to be kept clear at landing base (no other flying permitted for fear of runway blockage) once the MiG-25 commenced his descent. We needed to give only three R/T calls – one for take-off, one for commencing descent and one for landing (in operational missions just two). There was no need to give any other R/T calls because you operated unhindered in the stratosphere.”

11C Pilot

What does operating in the stratosphere feel like?

The subtle change in the colour of the sky starts around 16 kms (50,000 ft), I guess, as the suspended particles which reflect / refract the sunlight start getting dissipated. The sky turns a distinct grey as you cross 20 Kms (65,000 ft) and continues getting darker as you transcend into those dizzying altitudes of 90,000 ft and 100,000 ft. You fly with cockpit lighting ‘ON’ (as for night flying). It is a little eerie, one must admit. Not natural. The earth is round, a fact we could confirm (!) because you can see the curvature of the earth very clearly from those altitudes. The sun, moon, stars and the illuminated ground below, are all visible at the same time. A glorious feeling.”

What special clothing did you need and how effective was it ?

“As mentioned earlier, the pilots used the same pressure suit that Yuri Gagarin wore as the first man in space. The suit was the same that was supplied to MiG-21 and MiG-23MF pilots for their high altitude interception roles. It was not the most comfortable of suits but then pressure suits had a purpose. One needed to wear silk ‘inners’ (full sleeve top and ‘long-john’ lower pants) to allow the skin-tight suit to be put on. Needless to say, it required the help of another person (trained airman) to assist the pilot. Once zipped up (suggest one uses the washroom before donning the suit), there was further tightening of the suit by means of laces (on the chest, belly, back, legs, arms) to ensure the tightest fit without causing breathing discomfort. It was difficult to tie your own shoe laces. The neck-ring (on which the helmet would be put and locked – it weighed 2.5 Kgs) had this latex bladder which came over the head and distributed around the neck, not unlike a condom. Over the pressure suit the pilot would wear a loose flight suit to obviate the snagging of the pressure suit laces with switches / levers in the cockpit.”

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“All this was fine in winters, but in summer, with the ambient temperature close to 40 deg C (104 deg F), the cockpit conditions with the canopy closed was a killer (start up time to take off approx 20 mts). Like other MiG aircraft, the heating system was brilliant, but the cooling system was designed to cut in only at 1 Km above ground level (and cut out at the same height during the return). Four layers of clothing – underwear, silk inners, pressure suit, flight suit – in those temperatures, meant you were soaked to the skin by the time you returned to the aircrew room. It needed an extra effort by the trained assistant to peel the wet pressure suit and wet inners off your body. Guess we got our share of sauna baths!”

What were your biggest fears in flying the MiG-25 or were there none? 

“When you are flying a virtual fuel tank, the biggest fear is the illumination of the “Fire” warning lamp. This was more so at operating altitudes in the stratosphere. The ejection seat in the MiG-25 was the same as that in the later models of the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The ejection seat had two settings (3 Kms / 10,000 ft and 6 Kms / 20,000 ft), to be set depending upon the terrain one was operating over. We set ours to 6 Kms. But operating at (say) 20-22 Kms altitude, where the ambient temperatures are around minus 85 deg C, an ejection meant a free-fall of 15 Kms (50,000 ft) before the seat separated and activated the parachute. Would you hit terminal velocity ? I guess you would. It was not a happy thought.

The other fear was that, God forbid, one had to eject over enemy territory. On landing, how fast could one get out of the pressure suit (without external help) and be unbridled and unhampered to scramble for an escape ? We practiced and mastered the art in the squadron.”

MiG-25RBV Foxbat-B camera bay

What improvements would you have liked incorporated in the aircraft?

“An in-flight refuelling system (but in those days the IAF never had an AAR /FRA) to increase its potential. Digitisation of its photo and ELINT systems could have upgraded the aircraft and extended its life for another decade at least.”

Can you tell us of any specific reconnaissance mission which produced exceptional results ?

Well, the photographs of the mountains and the terrain in the Kargil sector (15-18,000 ft) during the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict of 1999 are testimony to the photographic quality obtained from the MiG-25R. Every ridge, every crevasse, every approach and defile was clearly defined, all enemy positions and bunkers in the craggy and inhospitable mountain ranges lay exposed, providing immense information to the Indian Army and the IAF to conduct successful operations.”

Flying and fighting the MiG-19 here.

Can you describe any notable mission you have flown ?

“On 24 October 1995 the world witnessed a total solar eclipse and the path of the shadow traversed through North India. The Udaipur Solar Observatory requested the IAF to photograph the eclipse from the stratosphere, an exercise (to our knowledge) never done before. The purpose was twofold – to photograph the eclipse as it progressed, with a front looking camera in the cockpit and secondly, to photograph the traverse of the shadow over the surface of the earth, with the belly cameras. The high resolution, single-shot Hasselblad camera (20-25 frames/sec) provided for the front photography was a monster. It had to be fitted on top of the instrument panel and it blocked the forward visibility of the pilot. It was decided to use the two-seater and fit the camera in the front cockpit. The fitment, as any aviator would know, was a major task. Alignment with respect to the flight axis of the aircraft (angle of attack in flight) and the position of the sun was a major exercise. Scientists of astronomy from the Solar Observatory

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The ’starburst’ as captured by the MiG-25. The aircraft has been superimposed go give the effect to the article publicising the event. It was discussed by Bhatnagar, A & Livingston, William Charles, in Fundamentals of Solar Astronomy (2005). World Scientific. p. 157. ISBN 9812382445.)

 obtained charts from NASA (also) to determine the ambient conditions likely to prevail in the stratosphere at the appointed time and altitude. It was decided (scientifically) that an altitude of 24.5 Kms (80,000 ft) and a speed of 2.5M flown towards the sun (in the path of the shadow), would provide the desired results. After fitment of the camera, the aircraft had to be raised on jacks, wheels retracted to simulate flight conditions and a framework fabricated with a simulated sun erected in front at a prescribed distance to get the correct alignments. For eye protection it was necessary to fly with the seat fully lowered which posed a problem of tracking the sun accurately with respect to the camera. So we fabricated a “gun sight” for the rear cockpit. A small aluminium frame with a 2cm x 2cm window over which a graph paper was pasted constituted the gun sight. The centre of this graph paper (the point of origin) was where the sun had to be maintained. This point had to be ‘harmonised’ with the camera, a procedure familiar for fighter pilots of that generation. Special filters to protect us from the damaging rays of the sun had been obtained from Argentina and Mexico. These were pasted over the visor of the pressure helmet.

As luck would have it, the scientists discovered that about 8-10 days before D-Day, the moon was going to be in exactly the same position as the predicted sun position on the day of the total solar eclipse. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to get a practice mission, albeit at night. The time worked out by the scientists was 2335 hrs or so (if I remember right). The mission was flown and while the daylight camera could not provide the clarity, the alignments and the ‘gun sight’ were verified and fine tuned.

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On the day of the eclipse, at the pre-determined time, two MiG-25s, the MiG-25UB (two-seater) and a MiG-25R (to photograph the shadow) took off with the MiG-25R trailing 2 minutes behind. Timings were critical and they were met. We fed into the predicted path of the eclipse and started our photography about two minutes before the total eclipse took place. While it was getting darker by the moment, when the total eclipse took place we were enveloped in absolute pitch black conditions and the stars had a clarity and luminosity not seen otherwise. Everything was as per plan. The “gun sight” worked ! While the total eclipse was viewed from the ground for 42 secs, flying at 2.5M towards the sun allowed us to view the total eclipse for 2 minutes  and 25 seconds. The changes in the corona surrounding the sun in this period of the total eclipse were of immense value to the scientists, because with no suspended particles the clarity of the photographs was beyond their expectations. The “Diamond Ring” (the most popular photograph during an eclipse) was indeed delightful to see, but the ‘Piece de Resistance’ followed immediately afterwards – the “Starburst”, as the sun peeped through the ridges on the surface of the moon (the photograph is attached). An unusual mission but an experience of a lifetime.

Was the MiG-25 comfortable to fly after the MiG-21 ?

“A bullock cart, we would joke. She was heavy but responsive. Because of the weight there was a lot of inertia, requiring anticipation. To the ab-initio the aircraft would wallow on approach, if pilot anticipation and control input were not timely. She was steady as a rock during the climb and its stated mission profile. The two-seater was aerobatic and we did rolls, barrel rolls and rolls-off-the-top. The loop was prohibited because there was apparently inadequate elevator available to pull her through the manoeuvre. Ground handling was outstanding.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 3.jpg

Did you ever practice combat training – Practice Interceptions, etc ?

“The IAF MiG-25R was a purely reconnaissance version. PIs were conducted on us during various exercises. There were no successful interceptions to my knowledge.”

Flight pilot Helmet Pressure suit Cold War MIG 25 4.jpg

How difficult were the maintenance practices on the MiG-25R ?

“It was my first experience with (virtually) a modular concept of maintenance. Coming from the MiG-21 it was a pleasure to see the ease with which those massive engines of the Foxbat could be changed. The camera block lowered with winches and pulleys easily. The ELINT system was easily accessible. Because of its size, technicians could crawl in and out from access points for ease of maintenance.

Read about flying the B-52 here. 

Sure, you can call it an ‘archaic, unsophisticated machine’. But then there was no other ‘sophisticated’ aircraft to either match its performance or shoot it down ! With a navigation accuracy of (max) 10 kms off track over 1000 kms (with a lateral photo swath of 90 kms), strategic targets were never missed. It was amazing for its role.

We had problems with the tyres and the fuel in the initial years. The Russians did not clear the Dunlop manufactured tyres nor the Indian Oil manufactured aviation fuel for quite some time. We remained dependent on the USSR for the supply of these two major items. The on-going Iran-Iraq war curtailed supply through the Suez Canal. So our fuel and tyres would come by ship, around the Cape of Good Hope. This led to restrictions in our quantum of flying. The aviation fuel, as you would expect, had to be different from the regular aviation fuel. Regular aircraft were using fuel K-50 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.77) while we required fuel K-60 (Nomenclature for aviation fuel with SG 0.84). The higher specific gravity was essential to raise the flashpoint of the fuel because skin temperatures on the aircraft would exceed 300 deg C (ambient temp minus 85 deg C).

Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji (1)

The high temperatures also necessitated good cooling systems for the avionics and cameras. This was achieved by alcohol (98 proof !). The MiG-25 consumes almost 200 litres of alcohol per mission. Alcohol bowsers (tankers) were provided for replenishment which had a ‘tap’ provided at the rear (Aah ! Don’t you just love the Russians ?) – for purposes best left to your imagination! (venting, perhaps!).”

Read about Flying and fighting in the English Electric Lightning here 

For an operational mission what would be the approximate timeframes from receipt of task to the completion of photo processing ?

“Well, the MiG-25R was designed to carry out strategic reconnaissance. Targets for such missions are not generally time constrained as in tactical scenarios. However, if it came to a pinch, it would take about two hours of manual panning (with necessary intelligence inputs) on maps, feeding the way-points in binary onto the plates and running it through the ground testing system to check the veracity. Pilot briefing is concurrent because there are other pilots assisting with the map planning. ELINT programming would also be concurrent. Then the plates are slotted into the aircraft and the inertial platform erected (energised). This would typically take about 30 mins in winter and 45 mins in summer. During this time the pilot would be assisted into his pressure suit and he would proceed to the aircraft. From start to take off we may consider 15 mins and a one hour mission thereafter. Once on ground, the  camera spools would be off-loaded (simple procedure) and their analog processing in the dark room commenced. The specialist photo-interpreter would view the semi-dry negatives, identify the frames with the required targets and these would go into print positives. Thus the post flight procedure would also take roughly two hours. It would be safe to assume a mission, from start to finish would take about six hours. Add two more for delivery to the user. ELINT decoding would be simultaneous and coincidental to the photo processing.”

Were any special qualifications required to become a MiG-25 pilot ?

“Not really.  However, all pilots had extensive experience on MiG-21s.”

After the MiG-25 how did it feel to fly any other fighter ?

“They were all sports models! Perhaps the greatest joy was to be able to throw the fighter around in the sky with gay abandon (which you missed when you flew the Foxbat), do aerobatics, fire weapons and the adrenalin of doing air combat. We missed the ‘G’ ! Also the sheer thrill of seeing another aircraft in the same sky!”

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Were you ever concerned about enemy defences ? What actions would be initiated if you were painted on enemy radar?

It would be naïve of any warrior not to be concerned about his enemy. As I have mentioned before, missions were covert and silent. Just two R/T calls – for take-off and landing. There were no warning systems in the aircraft. The only warning that could be given was by our own ground radar picking up a possible interception. Depending upon the threat, it would entail moving the throttle up the quadrant and initiating a gentle climb. Secrecy, speed and altitude were our only weapons.”

 

Read about flying the Mirage 2000 here

Were there any aero-medical aspects that affected pilots flying aircraft such as these ?

“We were subjected to aero-medical scrutiny for the first year of operation of the aircraft. There were two issues of concern to the doctors. Firstly, the extent of exposure to UV Rays because of the clarity of the troposphere.  We were made to carry dosimeters on our person. The results indicated there was no cause for concern. The second was the phenomena of possible ‘Disassociation’ (In psychology, ‘disassociation’ entails experiences from mild ‘detachment’ from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences – phenomena involves a detachment from reality —– Wikipedia). This came into consideration because of the rather lonely and silent missions in the troposphere, detached and distant from regular flight profiles. The issue was discounted because of the relative short duration of the missions – one hour at best.”

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Some parting words?

“The MiG-25R was a superb flying machine, eminently suited to its task. It provided a feeling of immense power, invincibility and supreme confidence to the pilot in the execution of his mission.”

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The Top 34 pilot moustaches

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Along with a sense of dash, a disrespect for authority and a dog, the male pilot should have a moustache. When we asked our readers for their suggestions for the top 10 pilot moustaches, we were stunned by the huge response.  With this in mind, we have grown the list from 10 to a great hairy 34! 

(note to US readers: we are talking about mustaches)

34. Dick Dastardly “Curses, foiled again!”

Dastardly-and-Muttley Cartoon Pictures (1)

Dastardly’s appearance is based on Sir Percival Ware-Armitage from ‘The magnificent men in their flying machines’ (played by Terry-Thomas). Dick is penalised for not being real.

33. Chesley Sullenberger ‘Hudson-ducker proxy’

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Hero and a gentleman he may be, but the ‘Angry Neighbour’ is not a stylish moustache.

32. Chief Instructor CDR Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf

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Metcalf mastered the ‘your mum’s new boyfriend‘ look but as he did not exist outside the homoerotic naval recruitment film ‘Top Gun’ he has not received a high ranking.

31. Col. Chris Hadfield ‘Cosmic busker’

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“You know science can actually be fun…kids, where are you going?”

Orbiting Canadian busker Hadfield sports the ‘Scientist Uncle’ as also sported by your scientist uncle. Though being a spaceman is very impressive, this upperlip hair is far too sensible for this contest.

30. General Guishi Nagoaka ‘Hirsutie cutie pie’

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The second largest moustache in the world at the time, but alas, cheeky Nagoaka was not a pilot — though he did pioneer some aspects of balloon warfare. According to his wife, the moustache was unbearably tickly on her thighs.

29. C.J. ‘Heater’ Heatley ‘Strawberry Top Gun’

Heater

F-14 pilot, Top Gun instructor and photographer Heatley took pictures that inspired the Top Gun film. All very well, but his thespian moustache seems too conventional to earn many points despite its excellent condition and strawberry blond hue.

28. Adolf Galland ‘Gallanded Gentry’

Oberst Galland [Postkarte mit gedruckter Unterschrift]

104 aerial victories for the Luftwaffe and a tidy moustache.

27. Wing Commander Robert Stanford Tuck ‘Tuck shop’

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A classic fighter pilot look from Tuck here. After an extremely eventful World War II he made friends with Adolf Galland in later life and had a mushroom farm.

26. Hans Von Dortenmann ‘Focke!’

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Twat

This twat shot down 38 aircraft that were fighting the Nazis. He killed a relation (Tempest pilot F/Sgt Coles of 274 Sqn ) of the author —  which is probably going to lose him some points in this moustache contest.

25. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor ‘Headmaster wants to see you’

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If F-35 pilot Scott Williams hadn’t suggested Slessor’s inclusion on this list, it’s doubtful he would have made it (based on the image above anyway). Looking like the man who has just interrupted you sleeping with his wife, his stubbly shadow is below par.

24. René Fonck ‘Fonck you I won’t do what you tell me’

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In World War I, two American pilots bet Fonck a bottle of champagne that one of them would shoot down an enemy plane before he did. Fonck lost the bet, but rather than pay it off, he convinced the Americans to change the terms of the bet so that whoever shot down the most Germans that day would win.  Fonck went on to shoot down six enemy aircraft before the sun set. He become the top Allied Ace, with around 100 kills despite his unassuming moustache.

23. Glenn Curtiss ‘Curtiss may field first amphibious aircraft’

Glenn H Curtiss

Peaky Blinders-style bully boy Glenn Curtiss did everything, if you don’t know him already, have a look on Wiki. Even with his busy life he kept time to maintain a really tough tash.

22. Bob Hoover ‘Not the KFC guy’

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He could pour a cup of tea while performing a 1G barrel roll, and was one of the best pilots ever. Fairplay and a good ‘tash.

21. Charlie BrownPeanuts’

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Not to be confused with Charlie Brown from the Stigler incident , this Brown is a warbird pilot and owner of a pitch perfect handlebar.

20. Paul ‘Pablo’ Mason ‘The Mighty Fins’

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Outspoken Gulf War veteran Pablo Mason was a Tornado pilot. As well as sporting a large moustache à la hongroise – a Saxon warlord kind of a thing – he was fired from being an airline pilot for being too cool*. High scorer here.

*He let a passenger on a charter flight onto the flightdeck to allay the passenger’s fear of flying, something which was banned following 9 11. He had previously stripped to his underwear in a protest at overly fussy airport security.

19. Roscoe Turner ‘Roscoe Turner Overdrive’

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Somewhere between Dali and Vic Reeves, the surreal majesty of Turner’s Small Handlebar/Dali ‘tash look deserves celebration. Air-racing, lion-owning, DFC-winning Turner was a pretty amazing guy all round.

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18. Howard Hughes ‘Hunky Hughes’

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As well as collecting his own pee in jars and wearing Kleenex boxes for slippers, Hughes had an excellent understated moustache. Good to think of Hughes when considering if people like Bruce Wayne really exist.

17. Mike Napier ‘Hairy Tonka’

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Mike Napier’s solid ‘Nigel Mansell’ is rocksteady at low-altitude, perfect for flying a Tornado GR.1

16. Jimmy ‘Wacko’ Edwards

Jimmy_EdwardsDakota pilot and entertainment star, Edwards’ poetic lip border is a joy.

15. Captain O P Jones ‘Jimmy Hillfiger’

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Charismatic spiritual father to all British airline pilots, Jones was feared and revered. When the HP.42 he was flying was badly hit by lightning, jamming the cockpit door shut and damaging the rear of the aircraft, he reassured passengers by sliding a note through  a crack in the door. Despite this he has brought a piratical beard to a moustache contest and cannot be scored highly.

14. Adolphe Pegoud

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Insouciant as fuck, Pegoud catches the carefree elegance of French heroes with his rakish handlebar. He was the first fighter ace in the world, the first person to parachute from an aeroplane and the second (not the first as believed at the time) pilot to perform a loop. He was shot down and killed by a former pupil in 1915 at the tender age of 26.

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13. Group Captain Mandrake

Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). Credi

Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). Credit: Sony Pictures.

Failing to avert an apocalypse has never been done as stylishly as Peter Sellers’ Mandrake did it in the 1964 Dr Strangelove. I’m not sure this moustache was real, I know that Mandrake himself was not – so low points here.

(For reasons that remain unclear, ‘Mandrake’ is also the nickname of the editor of a popular aircraft magazine.)

12. Wiley Post ‘Post Modern’

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Pionnering the pressure suit, discovering the jet stream and decorated with a rakish little moustache, Post had it going on.

Wiley_Post

11. Muhammad Mahmood Alam

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“I may look like a supply teacher but I’m very good at what I do.”

Rumoured to have destroyed six IAF Hunters in one sortie — and with nine kills to his name, Alam was a hero to the Pakistan Air Force. The status of this F-86 pilot should not delude us into over-estimating his, at best, functional moustache.

12. Count Francesco Baracca ‘Ferrario’ 

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Do not mess with Baracca. The Red Baron was not the only aristoric ace of World War I, Count Baracca had 34 confirmed kills and a no nonsense cold-blooded moustache.  He painted his family crest on the side of his aircraft, a black prancing horse, which inspired the Ferrari’s iconic logo. He flew the Nieuport 17 and then, from March 1917, the SPAD VII.

11. Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard ‘Trenchard’s Furry Friend’

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You can almost imagine Trenchard’s 1000-yard stare looking back at you as you catch him scrumping apples from your garden. History will judge a man who was an early advocate of strategic bombing and one of the architects of the British policy on imperial policing through air control as a man with a workmanlike facial caterpillar.

10. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C T Dowding ‘Dowdy-Dudey’

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Dowdy Dowding was a spiritualist, a single parent, theosophist, anti-vivisectionist and a vegetarian — but his headmaster tash was not sexy. He was, however, very important in the Battle of Britain.

9. Gervais Raoul Lufbery — ‘Plucky Gervais’

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Another insouciant individual who looks like he could only smoked to give himself a break from kissing and reading philosophy, Lufbery was a French-born half-American who volunteered to fight before the US entered the war. Unlike many of the rather posh rich Americans who fought as early volunteers, he was from a humble background having worked in a chocolate factory before the war. I almost forgot to mention his moustache-  which is a micro-‘Lampshade’, and has a certain something.

8. Squadron Leader A H Rook 742814Leading a fighter squadron in Russia in 1941 demands a particularly brave moustache, so the RAF sent Rook. Good work.

7. Squadron Commander the Lord Flashheart

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Lothario, brawler and the mad bastard hero of the RFC, Lord Flashheart had an excellent handlebar moustache but loses points for being imaginary.

6. Wing Commander Roger Morewood

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Perfect

Morewood — one of the last of the Few (he died in 2014) and rocker of a perfect RAF handlebar. The platonic ideal of the dashing fighter pilot, Morewood is a heavy hitter in pilot moustache world as well as having a name any male porn actor would die for.

5. Air Cmde Suren Tyagi

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Come to ‘Fishbed’ eyes.

The Indian Air Force is an organisation that prioritises excellent moustaches over everything else (certainly over sensible procurement programmes). Thanks to this policy, Tyagi has created this luscious ‘Imperial’ style moustache, the perfect accoutrements for sitting in a MiG-21 or blasting a quail with a blunderbuss.

4. Flying Officer ‘Osti’ Ostaszewski-Ostoja

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In the September 1939 campaign, Osti fought in the Polish “Dęblin Group”, a desperate last-ditch defence force organised by instructors of the Fighter Pilot School in Ułęż. He later fought as a Spitfire pilot in the RAF. Excellent jawline and full moustache.

3. Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Karan Kohli ‘Dali Fulcrum’

Moustaches are an integral part of tradition and folklore in several parts of India, imbuing the grower with respect, honour and above all, a look that speaks of masculinity. Kohli can perform the famous Cobra manourvre in his MiG-29 using his moustache alone, which is pretty impressive. This is also an excellent moustache – so points all round.

2. Robin Olds ‘Olds pilot and bolds pilot’

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Tom Hardy? Nope, Robin Olds.

You don’t get more USAF than Robin Olds, having fought with aplomb in both the P-38 and P-51 in World War II — and later the F-4 in Vietnam. His extravagantly waxed non-regulation) handlebar moustache was an act of open defiance to authority and started a fashion that swept across the Air Force.  “It became the middle finger I couldn’t raise in the PR photographs. The mustache became my silent last word in the verbal battles…with higher headquarters on rules, targets, and fighting the war.”

When he was finally given a direct order to shave he did, which inadvertently inspired the Air Force tradition of “Mustache March“, in which airmen worldwide show solidarity by a symbolic hairy protest month against Air Force facial hair regulations. The moustache itself was a masterpiece of style, authority and dash.

  1. Orville Wright ‘Wright said Fred’

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The first aeroplane pilot in the world had an excellent moustache, Orville’s magnificent face candy matching his contribution to world history. Years later it would inspire bland women on Tinder to don fake moustaches to demonstrate their lack of personalities.

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RC-135 pilot interview: Cold War Spyflights

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The RC-135 has been quietly snooping and changing history for almost 60 years. Robert Hopkins flew the RC’ in the heat of the Cold War, braving intercepting MiG-31s and other threats to eavesdrop on the US’ potential enemies and hoover up vital intelligence for Presidents and generals. We met him to find out more.

What is the best thing about the RC-135?

“That’s a tossup: It has one of the best mission in the world, and it is crewed by some of the best people in the world. They naturally gravitate toward one another.”

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What were your first impressions of the aircraft?

“I saw RC-135s at Offutt AFB during the early 1970s while I was in high school in nearby Bellevue, NE. My favorite was the COMBAT SENT with the rabbit ears and cheeks. It was very “bad assed” looking, which was all that mattered to an impressionable teenager.

The day I arrived at Eielson AFB in 1987 as a new copilot I saw RC-135S 61-2663 on the ramp, and was struck with an extraordinary sense of responsibility. I would be part of a team that flies an amazing technical intelligence platform on short-notice launches from one of the world’s most inhospitable locations on a mission of such national importance that its results are often briefed at the highest levels of government. I also fell in love with the black wing, which remains on the CBs to this day as a symbol of the airplane’s importance and legacy.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the type?

“Despite the long association of the 55th at Offutt AFB and the RC-135, the early years of RC-135 operations were developed by other units.

The first ‘135 reconnaissance mission was undertaken on 30th October 1961 by a rapidly modified JKC-135A SPEED LIGHT-ALPHA to monitor the Soviet “Tsar Bomba” atmospheric test at Novaya Zemlya. This was flown by SAC tanker crews (there were subsequent missions) drawn from air refueling squadrons.

The next ‘135 reconnaissance missions were flown in January 1962 by a KC-135A known as NANCY RAE, with crews from Wright-Patterson AFB operating from Shemya AFB, AK. This was later redesignated as a JKC-135A and then WANDA BELLE and finally the RIVET BALL RC-135S. In December 1962 this was joined at Eielson AFB by three KC-135A-II OFFICE BOY COMINT/ELINT platforms.

The three SPEED LIGHT airplanes were based at Offutt AFB beginning in 1963 and assigned to the 34th AREFS, but at this time the 55th SRW still flew RB-47s and was based at Forbes AFB, KS. The 55th did not receive its first RC-135s until it relocated to Offutt in 1966 and acquired the BIG TEAM RC-135B/.

The SAC reconnaissance community is fairly small, and crews served in both units (as did I). It remained a matter of some pride, however, for the 4157th SW (later 6th SW/SRW) that the original RC-135 recon jets (especially those configured for aerial refueling like the RC-135S and KC-135A-II) were not 55th SRW assets. All in good spirits, unless fueled by “spirits.”

Why is it important?

“The RC-135 fleet (and its predecessors) entered service as a strategic peacetime asset, and flew missions as part of the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO). The airplanes served two roles: detection of long-term preparations for any impending attack on the US and its allies, and collection of intelligence data essential to allowing Strategic Air Command (SAC) and its successor to fulfill its Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP), the heart of “Deterrence”.

Since DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM in 1990/91, however, the RIVET JOINT mission has faded from view in light of the shift in focus toward “warfighter support” in the seemingly endless conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean and Central America, and events in North Korea and the South China Seas. It’s become increasingly difficult to separate these two peacetime and wartime functions, especially as new technologies alter the environment and platforms.”

Any tips for the new RAF RC-135 crews?

“Learn everything there is to know about your airplane and its mission, no matter what position you’re assigned. What you do is vitally important, and you need to do it very well and without hesitation. Although it may seem that your mission supports combat operations, it is equally essential in preventing unanticipated conflict—you are at the front line of peace. Never lose sight of this dual purpose.”

Worst behaviour you saw on an RC-135 mission or base? 

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Hopkins’ first combat flight.

“I see it today at command levels and higher. RC-135s that are intercepted are “victims” of “unsafe and unprofessional” hostile aircraft. This is cowardice to say. For decades reconnaissance aircraft have been intercepted in far more dangerous ways than getting “thumped” over the Baltic. Aircraft (RB-29s, RB-50s, RB-47s, P2Vs, etc.) have been shot down and crews lost. The RC-135 mission is not a business endeavor but a military operation. To reduce it to “unprofessionalism” ignores the critical nature of the mission: if the interceptor forces the RC-135 to go home, the interceptor “wins” and the RC “loses”, which means that the airplane and crew were needlessly put at risk without the fullest confidence from their commanders that they could accomplish the mission safely under extremely hazardous conditions. This is largely due to commander risk aversion—“not on my watch.” Commanders should focus on getting the mission done rather than protecting their promotion opportunities.

There have been only TWO recon collisions since 1946 (a FLANKER clipped a Norwegian P-3—both landed safely, and a PRC J-8 hit a USN EP-3E; the J-8 was lost and the EP-3E compromised). Characterizing every encounter today as “dangerous” belittles real risk and reflects a lack of historical understanding of the mission and its requirements. As the motto says, “Recon is my life, danger is my business.”

Cold War spy flights
What were US recce aircraft doing in the Cold War?

“As I noted in an earlier answer, they had two primary roles: early long-term warning of an impending attack by the USSR and its allies and to acquire intelligence needed to fulfill the deterrent strike mission. Most of this was undertaken by SAC to meet its intelligence requirements, but the US Navy flew a fair number as well, as did USAFE and PACAF in “electric” C-130s. Other nations did too, with both Britain and Sweden building modest but successful programs early on, followed by other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. We shouldn’t forget the CIA missions, including the 24 total U-2 overflights of the USSR (small by comparison to the 156 RB-47 overflights in 1956 alone).”

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Was it dangerous? What mistakes were made?

“These were very dangerous missions, not only because the USSR, PRC, and North Korea were willing and able to attack them and shoot them down, but because the airplanes were not always reliable or were too old. Sending RB-29s or RB-50s on missions where they were subject to attack by MiG-15s or MiG-17s was a horrible mismatch. Airplanes also struggled with breaking or other maintenance issues.

No doubt there were ill-considered decisions to undertake specific missions, and the subject of overflights remains highly contentious. In general, however, decision makers in the West acted out of genuine desperation to acquire intelligence they considered critical to the survival of the West in the face of what they saw as an existential communist threat to the liberal capitalist world order.”

What was the worst thing about the RC-135? 
“It’s hard to think of something bad to say about the RC-135. It was well designed as an airplane and the modifications added to its operational success.
As with any long-serving aircraft, and especially one with a very small fleet, it has its share of maintenance problems. Jets break unexpectedly and the maintenance folks work miracles in getting them flying again. The problem is not that this happens, but that increasingly this has become accepted as “normal”. I don’t ever recall having fumes in the cockpit during receiver air refueling in any RC-, EC-, or KC(RT), but it is a regular event these days (even raw fuel gushing into the Nav’s station), and commanders downplay this as not an emergency. The OPEN SKIES OC-135s and CONSTANT PHOENIX WC-135s, both flown by the 45th RS, have the worst maintenance record in the Air Force.
Until unit commanders admit they have a maintenance problem, maintenance commanders decide it’s time to stop doing things “the way it’s always been done” (then why do jets experience repeat failures of the same system after it’s “fixed”?), the Department of Defense decides that the RC-135 fleet is a top priority for all services, and Congress decides to spend the money to buy a new airframe, these 60+ year-old jets will continue to break and needlessly put crews and missions at risk.”
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A typical day at Shemya.

What was your most notable mission?
“There are a lot of candidates for “most notable mission:” first flight at Castle AFB in KC-135A 57-1432, first receiver air refueling in KC-135A(RT) 60-0362, first ops sortie and first MiG-31 intercept in RC-135S 61-2663, longest unplanned sorties in RC-135S 61-2663 (20.1 hours), first combat mission in RC-135V 63-9792, or final flight in RC-135W 62-4131.
The one that stands out the most is the first operational sortie in the RC-135X COBRA EYE. After a couple of years’ delay, the RC-135X (62-4128) finally arrived at Eielson AFB in August 1989. It was sponsored jointly by the US Army and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), and cost $1.4 billion dollars, making it among the single-most expensive airplanes in the world (and the most in the USAF at the time). The airplane carried a cryogenically cooled optical sensor in a compartment that was opened in flight. The super-cooled sensor could detect and discriminate objects based on their thermal signature, which would allow planned SDI defenses to target incoming warheads while ignoring decoys and other junk.
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Hopkins’ first KC-135 flight.

 

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RCX at Semya.

 

Larry Weber’s crew was primary for the COBRA EYE, as they brought it up from E-Systems and flew it to The Rock for its initial deployment. After two weeks the airplane hadn’t flown any ops sorties (just a few local check-out flights), so Weber’s crew came home and our crew replaced them. I was the copilot on Bill Zehner’s front-end flight crew, and Robert “Bo” Marlin was in charge of the back-end mission crew.
The first-ever ops sortie came on 15th August with mission TA016, call sign Blind 23. We had an alert launch (respond to airplane, back out of the new hangar, and launch radio silent all within 15 minutes) and headed to the sensitive area to await the incoming ICBM. After an hour or so we received an “X-Ray” notification that the launch had occurred and could expect re-entry within the next 30 minutes. As fate would have it, suddenly all the back-end computer systems shut down. We scrambled to reset everything from front-end electrical power to back-end computers—even the coffee maker! It must have been our lucky day, however, as everything “came back up” with about five minutes to spare. The sensor worked perfectly and we collected on the re-entry warheads and other items.
Our crew received the Air Force Association’s General Jerome F. “Jerry” O’Malley Award for the Best Reconnaissance Crew in the Air Force for 1989, the first RC-135 crew to receive this prestigious award. Jerry flew the first SR-71 ops sortie over North Vietnam in 1968, and was a good friend of our family from his time as a B-47 pilot with my dad at Plattsburgh AFB, NY. It’s a real honor to receive this award named in his memory. By the way, 62-4128 is still flying, although it has been converted into an RC-135S COBRA BALL.”

 

What was the legal status of reconnaissance flights?

“Peripheral reconnaissance flights were and are legal under a variety of international agreements (Paris, 1919, Chicago, 1944). Even the USSR accepted that peripheral recon missions were legal, although they justified attacking them on the grounds that they had (or could) violate sovereign airspace, which was just an excuse for their unwarranted actions.

Overflights were a different matter. By themselves they were not a casus belli, a reason to declare war. Neither Eisenhower nor Khrushchev was willing to launch Armageddon over a U-2 overflight. When they met at Camp David in September 1959, the U-2 overflights did not come up. Ike didn’t want to rub them in and Nikita didn’t want to admit vulnerability. Both accepted them as part of espionage in general. As aerial reconnaissance maven Dick Leghorn opined, the world should understand that an overflight is no different than a spy mission, and once the world accepted this there would be a significant reduction in tensions associated with these missions.

 Do you think all reconnaissance missions were necessary, ethical and effective?

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“All” is such a big basket. In general, they were necessary to reassure Western leaders that the threat from the secretive USSR was only hypothetical. In that case they were both ethical and effective. Conversely, many of the flights led to increased demands for atomic weapons and delivery systems to destroy the—literally—thousands of new targets discovered. U-2s alone added 20,000 designated ground zeros (DGZs) to the potential target list. This led directly to inflated demands for strategic weapons, which Eisenhower correctly criticized (but could not prevent) in his remarks about the military industrial complex using taxpayers’ money to support corporate profits based on unnecessary defense acquisitions driven in large part by intelligence collected from aerial reconnaissance missions.”

What was Britain’s role in Cold War spy flights?

“Britain had a unique place. It served as a base for US peripheral missions from the late 1940s until today. In the early 1950s, RAF crews flew SAC RB-45s seconded to RAF Sculthorpe on nine overflights of the USSR under the JU JITSU and JU JITSU II missions, and allowed one SAC RB-47E overflight of Murmansk in 1954. Britain originally agreed but later rejected to host CIA U-2 operations in 1956, which were relocated to Wiesbaden, FRG, and RAF pilots flew two U-2 overflights of the USSR. The loss of the RB-47H on 1 July 1960 changed the way Britain did business with the US. All future missions were subject to approval by the Prime Minister.”

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“Britain had its own aerial reconnaissance capability, known as “radio proving flights” for ELINT and COMINT, and flew high-altitude Canberra PR.9s on peripheral PHOTINT missions. I agree with U-2 expert Chris Pocock and others that the alleged 1953 UK ROBIN overflight of Kapustin Yar is a myth.

In recent years RAF’s 51 Squadron has fulfilled the strategic reconnaissance role, and suffered a terrible loss of life in Afghanistan. I understand the concerns about replacing the aging Nimrod MR.1 ELINT platform with a similarly ancient RC-135 that has less ELINT capability and more COMINT capability.”

 

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Canberra PR.9

 

Did all spy flights have the overview of national leaders? Did leaders always know what was happening and approve?

“Despite dramatic books, articles, and TV shows to the contrary, there is no verifiable evidence that these missions were undertaken en masse by military commanders intent on provoking World War Three. I believe I thoroughly debunked all of these claims in my book Spyflights and Overflights: US Strategic Aerial Reconnaissance, 1945-1960. As more and more documents are declassified, there is little doubt that Truman and Eisenhower knew about and approved all of US reconnaissance missions, including overflights. Writing in the pages of The New Yorker that Curtis LeMay wanted SAC recon flights to start global war on his terms without any supporting evidence of any kind may sell magazines but it isn’t history and it isn’t true.”

Why did the USSR not fly spy missions above the USA?

“It didn’t have to. To collect information on current B-36 production and operations, for example, Soviet spies operating freely within the United States could drive to Fort Worth and take pictures of the Convair production line or Carswell AFB, count the number of B-36s and their huge nose numbers, and report this to the Kremlin, along with latitude and longitude of everything on base. I recall sitting on alert and being told there was a “watcher” parked off the side of the road near the alert facility. A free society inherently allows foreign intelligence collection.

The USSR did establish a very modest ELINT program, and the loss earlier this year of one such airplane off Syria reflects this long-standing effort that was primarily conducted in the Baltic and around Western aircraft carrier groups.”

Were any spy flights shot down? What happened?

 

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US Navy PB4Y Privateer

 

“The first US reconnaissance flight to be shot down (others had been attacked) was a US Navy PB4Y Privateer over the Baltic in April 1950, and the last was a US Navy EC-121 off North Korea in 1969. There are many fine histories of all of these losses, including my own Spyflights and Overflights, as well as By Any Means Necessary, The Price of Vigilance, and The Little Toy Dog.”

 

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US Navy EC-121

 

It is worth noting that there remains no evidence that any of those airmen who may have survived the loss of their aircraft were incarcerated in Soviet prisons (Taiwan and PRC are a different matter). While there have been reports of survivors, none have been corroborated, and I think it’s a disservice to the crewmen and their families to perpetuate “conspiracy theory” quality claims.

What is the RC-135 and what do they do?

 

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Hopkins’ last RC-135 flight.

 

“RCs have three distinct mission:

The RIVET JOINT V/Ws have an ELINT/COMINT mission,

(ELINT or Electronic intelligence is intelligence-gathering by electronic sensors. The purpose is often to assess the capabilities of a target, such as the location and nature of a radar)

the COMBAT SENT Us have a specialised ELINT mission

(According to the USAF website, “The RC-135U Combat Sent provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information to the president, secretary of defense, Department of Defense leaders, and theater commanders. Locating and identifying foreign military land, naval and airborne radar signals, the Combat Sent collects and minutely examines each system, providing strategic analysis for warfighters. Collected data is also stored for further analysis by the joint warfighting and intelligence communities. The Combat Sent deploys worldwide and is employed in peacetime and contingency operations.”)

and the COBRA BALL Ss have a MASINT/TELINT mission.”

(Measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) serves to detect, track, identify or describe the signatures (distinctive characteristics) of fixed or dynamic target sources. This often includes radar, acoustic intelligence and nuclear chemical & biological intelligence.)

What should I have asked you?

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“My favorite intercept took place on 3 October 1988 while flying RC-135S 61-2662 with Major “Mad Jack” Elliott off Kamchatka. While proceeding northbound in our orbit I noticed a glint well off to the northeast. I followed it a bit, and figured it was an Il-76 on a cargo mission from Anadyr to Petropavlovsk. It disappeared and we continued our orbit. We had a quick visit by a MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ from “Pete”, and then it was all quiet again on a sweet sunny afternoon.

Shortly thereafter (again while heading north) I was stunned as a Tu-16 ‘Badger’ pulled up on our right wingtip in the tightest formation you could imagine. I waved to the pilot and he waved back. I broadcast the required HARVARD message (indicating that we were intercepted in international airspace) and then resumed our mission business. The Tu-16 stayed parked on our wingtip for the two hours or so. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

 

By this time we still had a lengthy launch window to cover and were running low on fuel, so we left the orbit and sensitive area to head to our tanker. The ‘Badger’ remained tucked into position. As we approached the tanker, their boom operator squeaked over the radio something like:

“COBRA 55 do you know you’re not alone?”

“Roger, we know.”

“What should I do?”

“Well, if he wants gas, give it to him.”

As we moved forward to the pre-contact position I noticed there was now a person with a huge movie camera in the plexiglas dome atop the fuselage aft of the cockpit. He filmed the entire air refueling procedure in close-up detail. After we had received our fuel I motioned for the BADGER to move into the recontact position (visions of a cover photo for Aviation Week danced in my head), but he declined. The pilot waved goodbye and headed south. I sent out our BROTHER message that our escort had departed and that was that!”

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“As best as I can guess, the Soviets wanted detailed video of a boom air refueling to evaluate. As we know they stuck with the probe-and-drogue method, but this mission likely provided them with data on how the boom worked.

There was no Soviet ICBM launch that day, and we headed back to The Rock after a 10.2-hour sortie.”

Tell me something most people don’t know about Cold War spy flights?

“There were a lot more than U-2 overflights to Cold War reconnaissance. There were just 24 CIA U-2 overflights of the USSR from 4 July 1956 to 1 May 1960. From March to April 1956 there were 156 RB-47E/H overflights of the USSR, although this was the single largest event.”

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Comparatively there were tens of thousands of peripheral reconnaissance missions around the Communist bloc between 1946 and 1992. SAC averaged 50-60 per month at the height of operations, not to mention US Navy and allied-nation flights.

What is a popular myth about aerial reconnaissance?

“The single most popular myth is that these flights threatened the Soviet Union and were, in the words of US diplomat George Kennan, “indistinguishable from a state of war.”

We now know (to quote a book title) that the flights were far less provocative to Soviet leaders. Declassified documents from the Soviet era, interviews, and brilliant scholarship (such as William Taubman’s biography of Khrushchev) show that the flights had little impact beyond irritants and “theater” at the UN or in the pages of the New York Times. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, attacks on Western reconnaissance aircraft began to dwindle as Soviet defense capabilities improved sufficiently to identify and track peripheral missions without the need to attack them. The evidence is compelling, and by 1960 these flights had become so routine that the Soviets could actually predict the exact arrival of WC-135s on daily aerial sampling missions, for example, and these were never considered a threat (the 1960 RB-47H loss was purely political, a decision made by Khrushchev).”

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About the pilot

What is your rank and unit, and when did you serve?

“I entered the USAF as a Second Lieutenant in 1984 after commissioning at Officer Training School (“90 Day Wonder”). I had three operational assignments: 70th AREFS at Grissom AFB, IN, 24th SRS at Eielson AFB, AK, and the 38th SRS at Offutt AFB, NE. I separated from the AF as a Captain after returning from DESERT STORM in 1991.”

Which types have you flown?

During training I flew the T-41A, T-37B, and T-38A.

Operationally I flew 17 different types of ‘135 tankers, airborne command posts, and reconnaissance platforms [KC-135A, A(RT) D, E, E(RT) R, Q, EC-135C, G, L, TC-135S, W, and RC-135S, U, V, W, X]

I also flew the T-37B in the Accelerated Copilot Enrichment (ACE) program, and logged pilot time in the OA-37B and F-15D.

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The Supersonic Rotor Helicopter

Westland SSRH 02 lrg (1) (2).jpgToday, thanks to former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, Dr Ron Smith, we have gleaned further information on this intriguing, and potentially word-beating, project. 

“The Supersonic Rotor Helicopter. this was a project
completed by the long-term Future Project Office prior to my joining
Westland in October 1975. A report summarising the work was needed to
secure contract payment and I was tasked with pulling it together
(based on the work already conducted by others).

The SSRH proposition is based on the fact that if you increase the
rotor tip speed, the retreating blade stall boundary goes out to a
higher helicopter forward speed. (It’s a function of the ratio of
forward speed to tip speed, which is known as the Advance Ratio).

Suppose the tip speed is Mach 0.6 and at a particular blade loading
(think weight), the retreating blade limit is at an advance ratio of
0.3. That means that retreating blade stall will occur at Mach 0.18
(about 230 mph). In this case, the VNE might be say 210 mph (10%
margin).

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If you double the tip speed to M=1.2, you can, in principle, fly at the
same advance ratio at double the speed (roughly 400 mph).

The study report (early 1976) looked at the shock wave propagation
geometries and a relatively basic performance calculation, in the
context of various designs targeted at naval roles. A range of
different tip Mach numbers were studied. WG32 was one of the sample
layouts (looking at them now, it appears that single, twin and three
engine variants were schemed). As far as I can tell, they were not
allocated separate WG numbers.

The obvious potential issues would be external noise and high power
requirements. But, in principle, it ought to work.

Although I wrote the report, I was not involved with any customer
meetings, but the feedback I was given by the Research Director was
that both he and the customer were very pleased with the report.

This was a piece of research to examine feasibility and highlight risks
and issues. I would imagine that it was felt that there was too much
risk to go down this route when conventional helicopter solutions could
probably provide adequate operational performance with lower risk in a
shorter timescale.

(Studies had already been completed on WG26 (Multi-Role Fleet
Helicopter) which went on via WG31 (Sea King Replacement) and WG34 to
become EH101 / Merlin).

I was not involved in any of these airframe studies, other than some
limited supporting work that I contributed to, in respect of the stall
flutter analysis of what became the BERP rotor blade.”PtVgAtsk.jpg

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