Phantom Phantoms & 4000 other Phantoms

On this day in 1971, the 4000th F-4 Phantom was delivered. To celebrate use discount code PHANTOM4000 for a phabulous 20% discount on The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes (today only). Pre-order here.

Everyone loves the F-4 Phantom, a brutal smoking Cold War monster that polluted the sky in an apocalyptic belch of black sooty thunder. As thrilling as the actual Phantoms that entered service were, there is a tantalising family of F-4s that almost made it into the real world. Several of them were cancelled for being too good and threatening sales of newer aircraft — and one succeeded in its role as a unique test aircraft. Here are some of the Phantoms that never were. 

RF-4X Mach 3 Hellraiser 


 In the 1970s, the Israeli air force wanted a reconnaissance aircraft capable of carrying the extremely impressive HIAC-1 camera. The F-4 was considered, but the G-139 pod that contained the sensor was over 22 feet long and weighed over 4000 pounds – and the Phantom did not have the power to carry such a bulky store and remain fast and agile enough to survive in hostile airspace. One solution was to increase the power of the engines with water injection, something that had been done for various successful F-4 record attempts. This combined with new inlets, a new canopy and huge bolt-on water tanks promised a mouth-watering 150% increase in power. This would have allowed a startling top speed of mach 3.2 and a cruising speed of mach 2.7. This level of performance would have made the F-4X almost impossible to shoot-down with the technology then in service. 


 The F-4X would also have been a formidable interceptor – something that threatened the F-15 development effort, causing the State Department to revoke an export licence for the RF-4X. Even with the increase in power, the Israeli air force was still worried about the huge amount of drag, but a solution came in the form of a slimmed-down camera installation in a specially elongated nose. This meant the interceptor radar had to be removed, which assuaged the State Department’s fears and the project was allowed to continue. However worries from the F-15 project community returned (as did worries about how safe the F-4X would have been to fly) and the US pulled out. Israel tried to go it alone but didn’t have enough money, so the mach 3 Phantom never flew. 


F-4E(F) ‘Ein Mann’ 

RAF F-4M-GA PHANTOM FG3.02_zps0yrydewe.jpg

 The Luftwaffe are cheapskates: historical examples including their desire to procure a Eurofighter ‘Lite’ with no sunroof, stereo or defensive aids — and the fact they kept the F-4F in service until 2013! To be fair, their less than zealous desire for free-spending militarism is probably a good thing considering the 20th century. Their Deutschmark-saving instincts for poundshop versions of popular aircraft applied to the Phantom, and a simplified single-seat F-4E was considered. This intriguing option was passed up for a simplified F-4E, dubbed the F-4F (which later became formidable). I couldn’t find any illustrations of this variant so have included a mock-up of a speculative RAF single-seater.

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RF-4M ‘Big nosed Brit’ 

McDonnell Report B617 RF-4M

 When the RAF ordered Phantoms they considered a dedicated reconnaissance version. McDonnell (it being 1966 — a year before the merger with Douglas) proposed a F-4M airframe with internal reconnaissance equipment. Known as the RF-4M (model 98HT), the longer camera nose would have made the aircraft over two and-a-half feet longer longer than a F-4M. Range would have been greater than a Phantom with an external recce pod, as this left the centreline station free for a drop-tank — and the removal of the Fire Control System and AIM-7 related hardware reduced weight. After considering the cost of such an undertaking, the RAF instead opted for an external recce pod meaning that any airframe in the fleet could perform the reconnaissance mission without sacrificing a beyond-visual-range weapon. Fascinating interview with a British Phantom pilot here.

On this day in 1971, the 4000th F-4 Phantom was delivered. To celebrate use discount code PHANTOM4000 for a phabulous 20% discount on The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes (today only). Pre-order here.

What is good and bad about the F-35 cockpit: A ‘Panther’ pilot’s guide to modern cockpits

The F-35 helmet: does it show too much too small?

My background – Current F-35 pilot and Weapons School graduate. I Have flown the Harrier II and F/A-18 Hornet operationally as well as instructing Tactics and Weapons training squadrons.

I can’t speak with much first-hand credibility about the fighters of the 50s-70s, nor can I tell you much about any twin-seat fighter aircraft. Probably the oldest cockpit I have flown in as captain was the BAe Hawk T1A in the RAF. It was totally ‘steam driven’ with no digital instrumentation, but as an advanced trainer of its generation it had everything you needed. Someone once told me that the gun/bombsight was the same as used in the Hawker Hurricane – whilst that may not actually be true it was certainly of a similar vintage! By the ’90s it was definitely showing its age and the jump from Hawk T1 to any of the RAF’s frontline aircraft was (avionics wise) too much.
The T2 (Hawk Mk 128) was introduced sometime in the 00’s and was designed to mirror the Typhoon more or less exactly. It had three MFDs and a HUD and the radar simulator was pretty much an unclassified version of the Typhoon’s radar. We found that students stepping from the T2 to Typhoon were coping so much better than those who had flown just the T1.

TODAY ONLY On this day in 1971, the 4000th F-4 Phantom was delivered. To celebrate use discount code PHANTOM4000 for a phabulous 20% discount on The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes (today only)

Harrier II (GR7/9 AV-8B)

I loved this cockpit, and to this day it remains my favourite ‘office’ of all I’ve flown. Plenty of space, a huge canopy with excellent visibility and reasonably well laid out instruments. It was a bit of a crossover between analogue and digital; it had a good HUD and two MFDs with the classic 20 pushbuttons around the outside. The Up Front Controller (UFC) was easy to use and well located, it made entering co-ordinates during CAS easy. Something that has been lost in all glass cockpits is the tactile feel of pressing buttons and knowing you got a response – I found you could enter Lat/Longs by feel whilst looking out the window. This is something you definitely can’t do ‘on the glass’ on current jets.
There was a lot of space taken up by the old analogue weapons control panel on the lower left, I’ve got to say I never used it other than to flick switches when I was bored on a long transit. The 6-pack of analogue flight instruments were purely there as a failsafe, although I have to say I loved the standby Attitude Indicator. It didn’t just tell you your attitude, but it also rotated and gave you a heading readout too – great for practice partial-panel approaches on your annual instrument rating checkride!
As for what made the jet unique, the nozzle lever. It was situated beside the throttle but was much smaller and of a different shape. We had it drilled into us during training that we had to be very sure which lever we were pulling in case we moved the wrong one. There was one crash during my time at an airshow on the South coast of England where the pilot moved the nozzles aft inadvertently when he should have moved the throttle to max. I will always remember the advice I was given by one of my instructors during the VSTOL phase of the Operational Conversion Unit – “if you move something in the cockpit and the jet does something scary – move it back!”

A Harrier GR.9 aircraft conducts a combat patrol over Afghanistan Dec. 12, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon/Released)

The HOTAS was intuitive and fairly common with most F-teen series jets. I particularly liked the Throttle Designation Controller (TDC) being on the top of the throttle and operated by your thumb – all those years of practice on the Playstation controller paid off and made slewing the Sniper pod second nature!

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/C Hornet

Being a McDonnell-Douglas design I found this cockpit easy to convert to after the Harrier. It had an almost identical UFC and the same MFDs on the left and right, but this time with an additional larger MFD in the middle. It felt more cramped than the Harrier, certainly narrower but it was still well laid out.
Of course this jet had two engines for the first time in my career but I didn’t really notice a difference after a flight or two. It only got weird when you had one throttle off or at idle when dealing with an emergency; this was exacerbated if you had the right engine off and were flying on the left throttle as the push-to-talk switch was on the right throttle. It took a bit of dexterity at times to make sure you were pressing the correct switch.
The Hornet was a jet you could fly purely by feel, and indeed sound at times. The sound of the airflow over the LEX at high alpha was known as the ‘waterfall’. When flying BFM, if you were trying to out-rate your opponent you pulled back on the stick until it felt like the jet was driving over a cobblestone road. If you wanted to tighten the radius a little you would pull a little harder until you heard what sounds like ‘standing at the top of a waterfall’ – it’s obvious when you hear it! When you needed to pull someone into your HUD for a guns kill you would bury the stick into your guts until it sounded like you were standing ‘at the bottom of a waterfall’. Talking of stick movements, I have never experienced such violent and aggressive movements of a control stick in an aircraft before, you would literally pull or push it to the stops as fast and as hard as you could. Definitely a jet built to take abuse.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Obviously I’m limited in what I’m allowed to tell you about this machine, but I’ll stick to what is available in the public domain. First up, there’s no HUD as its all integrated into the helmet. The technology of the helmet is great, but I’d take a HUD any day. It all comes down to physics – you can only shrink things so much before they start to become degraded, and HUDs have bigger optics than helmets…currently.

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The side-stick is something I thought would be difficult to convert to, but in all honesty it was a non-event. The rest of the cockpit is beautiful to look at – nothing analogue, all digital with about 10 actual switches in the cockpit. Notice I say beautiful to look at, not necessarily beautiful to interact with! In theory the all-glass display is great. It’s touchscreen, you can set it up to show pretty much anything you want in any layout you want. Take, for example, a fuel display. You can have it in a large window that shows you everything you could possibly want to know about the aircraft’s fuel system; the contents of each tank, which pumps are operating, fuel temperature, centre of gravity etc. Or you can shrink it into a smaller window that only shows more basic info. Or you don’t even display it at all because the Function Access Buttons (FAB) along the top of the display always has a small fuel section with the essential info visible at all times. That’s the beauty of the display – size and customisation. The drawback is in the complete lack of tactile response. It can be challenging to press the correct ‘button’ on the display whenever the jet is in motion as it is quite a bumpy ride at times. At present I am pressing the wrong part of the screen about 20% of the time in flight due to either mis-identification, or more commonly by my finger getting jostled around in turbulence or under G. One of the biggest drawbacks is that you can’t brace your hand against anything whilst typing – think how much easier it is to type on a smartphone with your thumbs versus trying to stab at a virtual keyboard on a large tablet with just your index finger.

Voice input is another feature of the jet, but not one I have found to be useful. It may work well on the ground in a test rig, but under G in flight it’s not something I have found to work consistently enough to rely on. I haven’t met anyone who uses it.

An F-35B Lightning II assigned to the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron taxis into position on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on 23 September, 2020. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “The Wake Island Avengers” joined the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters” onboard the 65,000-ton carrier as she sailed for exercises with NATO allies in the North Sea.

Having bashed the interface, the way this jet displays information to you is incredible. The sheer amount of situational awareness I gain from this aircraft and its displays is like nothing I’ve experienced before. The off-boresight helmet is much more accurate than legacy JHMCS systems and I find it clearer to read (although I still want a wide-angle HUD for flight and fight-critical data!). About the only thing missing from the whole cockpit is the lack of ‘feel’.

On this day in 1971, the 4000th F-4 Phantom was delivered. To celebrate use discount code PHANTOM4000 for a phabulous 20% discount on The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes (today only):

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I was the first foreign pilot to fly the Mach 2.8 MiG-31 interceptor, here’s my story

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Rhino charge! Flying & Fighting in the Super Hornet

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Eleanor D. Vara/Released)

‘Cruisebox*’ took the Super Hornet, workhorse of the US Navy, to war. We spoke to him to find out more about life with the ‘Rhino’.

(*name withheld on request)

Which types did you fly before the Super Hornet?

“The summer after I graduated high school I got my private licence flying Cessna 152s. After joining the Navy, because of my eyesight, I became a Naval Flight Officer or NFO, which is the back- or right-seater in most types. Flight school was T-34C, T-39G/N, and then I finished training in the TA-4J. After that, my first fleet squadron flew the Lockheed S-3B Viking and I flew mostly in the front right seat, with about a third of the time in the back right seat. After my first (and only) tour in S-3s, I transitioned to the Super Hornet – universally called the Rhino.”

“For a while, our squadron had a jet with no tanks on it that we were using for airshow practice. We’d take that thing out and BFM in it when we weren’t practicing. That thing would eat even the F-15s and F-16s for lunch.”

How did it differ from the type you were flying before?


“The difference between an analog submarine hunting aircraft and a digital strike fighter is the same as that between a 1976 Cutlass Supreme and a 2002 BMW. The only thing they had in common was that they both had a tailhook that made a nice solid thunk when you dropped them.”

“Another difference between the S-3 and F-18 was that in the S-3, I had a set of flight controls in the front right seat and would occasionally fly when the pilot was tired or bored. A question I’ve often been asked is, can you fly the Rhino from the backseat. The answer is usually no. A quick tour of my back seat office. Just like the front seat, I have the three video displays surrounded by buttons. Instead of a stick and throttles, I’ve got a set of hand controllers, one on each side of the cockpit. Each controller is shaped like a large joystick, and like the pilot’s stick and throttles, they are covered in knobs and switches that allow me to perform different functions with the jet or the sensors. You cannot, however, fly the aircraft with these controllers. Below and in front of my ejection seat on the floorboard is a small cutout with a nub that looks like a short piece of pipe sticking up. The Rhino is designed so that the back seat controllers can be removed and a stick and throttle installed to turn the jet into a conversion trainer for new pilots, giving both the student in the front seat and the instructor in the back seat a set of flight controls. I recall someone saying the conversion process takes about 8 hours, but I’m sure some Chief out there will call nonsense and let me know his or her crew out there did it in less time. At the F-18 schoolhouse in Lemoore, California numerous Rhinos are configured with stick and throttles in the back for initial training. Having flown the F-18 from the backseat as an instructor in this configuration, I can confirm that all that dazzling digital flight control technology in many ways makes the Rhino easier to fly than your doctor’s Beech Bonanza. In regular deploying fleet squadrons, we never put a stick and throttle in the backseat as both crewmembers are so busy doing their own job that we never fancied taking time to do the other person’s job.

First impressions?

“It no kidding smelt like a new car. The first Rhino I ever flew in had 25 hours on it. That included the flight from the factory.”

How would you rate the cockpit for the following:


“Excellent. All the switches were within easy comfortable reach. Neat detail: There were like four different switches to put out expendables (chaff/flares) in the backseat. That way even if you were using a grab handle to twist yourself around to look behind you, an expendable switch was no more than a thumb movement away.”

Pilot’s view

“The pilot’s view was exceptional. Of course, my view straight ahead was blocked by the pilot’s headrest. My view to the sides and behind was excellent.”


“For an ejection seat, the seat was comfortable, and the cockpit noise was easily shut out with just a normal helmet.”


“When plopping down into the cockpit of a Lot 25 Rhino, the first thing one notices are the three video screens arranged left to right, with the middle screen being slightly bigger. These video screens are the same regardless of if you are sitting in the front or back cockpit. Around each screen are twenty buttons, five on each side. The label describing what each button does is displayed adjacent to it in a three or four letter shorthand on the video screen. Pressing any of these buttons will cause the screen to change and bring up another twenty functions for the edge buttons. Well, it doesn’t take too much multiplication to figure out that the Rhino has hundreds of buttons hidden in its sub-menus. New aircrew spend much of their initial training building the muscle memory of learning where and under which menu each button hides. Later models of the Rhino have an even bigger middle screen in the back, with even more buttons around the side.

One thing I liked was that all the systems talked to each other, including the ATFLIR. If I designated something on my radar, I would see that track in a top down god’s eye view on the SA or Situational Awareness page. AND, if I pulled up my FLIR, it would be looking at that radar contact allowing me to identify him before coming into eyeball range. Same thing if I designated an air-to-ground target, all the sensors would look there, you didn’t have to cue each one individually.”

Against F-16s

In WVR: Which aircraft would have the advantage and why?

“A fight I had in 2009 is a good example of WVR against an F-16. We were on detachment to Key West (The Real Fighter Pilot Heaven). We were fighting against Air Guard pilots in their F-16Cs. I was a senior WSO paired with a new pilot who had been with the squadron less than a year, but who had flown combat with us in Afghanistan, all air-to-ground. The F-16 we were fighting was flown by an Air Guard Lt Col and armed with AIM-9M. He was experienced, but we had the JHMCS helmet and AIM-9X. I briefed up New Guy on a simple game plan that I thought would be easy for him to execute and was predicated on some assumptions I made about Air Force tactics. Often our Navy tactics were based on observing what the bandit does and then executing a game plan based on that. But because he was a new pilot, I instead scripted our first two moves so that new guy would have a very clear mental picture of what to do and be able to execute.

Our game plan was at the first head-to-head pass we would immediately go down in a split-S, regardless of what the F-16 did. Air Force doctrine is to not highlight yourself against a cold blue sky against a guy with an advanced heat seeker. So I assumed that he would come down with us. Then when we met him again, we would go down again, regardless. We would essentially be in a one circle fight going downhill with gravity helping us stay fast. The idea was that we would meet at the hard deck on the third pass and both aircraft would have a ton of speed, and then we’d pull the surprise. If my assumptions were wrong, it could get ugly fast.

We met out over the water in the mid-20s and the fight’s on was at wingline passages in a head-to-head left-to-left pass. New Guy immediately went down, and sure enough, the F-16 came down with us. The one circle geometry kept us inside his 9M forward quarter min range. A second head-to-head pass and we immediately went down again. The F-16 came down again. We now have a third merge just above the hard deck and both of us have a ton of energy. Now here comes the surprise … nothing slows down like a Rhino with those big goofy crooked pylons on the wings. AND, no airplane without vectored thrust can point its nose around at slow airspeed like a Rhino (or Hornet for that matter).

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At the merge, the F-16 started a high G turn, but with all the speed he had, he was cutting a pretty wide circle above the hard deck. When he looked over his left shoulder, he saw our jet pointing at him seeming to almost hang in the air. New guy had the F-16 in the HUD with a screaming AIM-9X tone.

You see, circa 2009, nothing in the regular inventory could slow down and point it’s nose like a Rhino (except maybe a helicopter). Now, we couldn’t come across the circle and chase the F-16 down. We were at very low airspeed and not really going anywhere at this point. But due to the phenomenal fight control computers banging around all 24 flight control surfaces multiple times per second, we’re able to keep flying and pointing our nose at him. The Colonel knocked it off and new guy had a sweet HUD tape of him nose on to an F-16 in plan view. Of course, if there had been more than one F-16, floundering around at low airspeed would have made us a tasty target for his wingman. But on this day, no wingman, no problem. The moral of the story is be careful getting into visual range with a Rhino … he can’t run away and will stay and fight because he has to.”

And in a long range BVR set-up

“Since we’d both be armed with AMRAAM, the advantage would lay with outside factors like quality of AIC control, environmentals, quality of wingman, etc. There are so many flavors of F-16 out there that it would also depend on what sort of radar was hanging on his nose.”

Which set-ups and altitudes would the F/A-18F favour?

“I’d like to be lower in the 20s or teens looking up at the F-16. The Rhino doesn’t do great up high (unless it’s clean, with no pylons) and of course, looking up at him makes things the easiest for my sensors (including eyeballs) and hardest for his.”

How would the SH pilot fight?

“At range, shoot and let the AMRAAM do its thing. If bandits were blowing up and their formations falling apart, go to the merge and press our advantage. If that wasn’t the case, we could fall back, re-group, and try again. Once you got to BFM, the Rhino will take most adversaries 1 circle.”

Who would you put your money on?

“A huge variety of factors would go into answering that question on any given day. Including lots of things that people don’t generally think about including, quality of maintenance, are all his systems working, are we in a sweep or defending a point, what other assets are supporting us, how often have the pilots flown in the last 30 days, etc., etc. That said, most days I was pretty happy to be sitting in a Rhino.”

How does the F-18F compare with the ‘Flanker’?

“I really wish I knew. In training our adversaries could simulated the expected shot ranges of the different flavors of Alamo missiles carried by the Flanker, but once you got to the merge, it’s still an F-16 or an F-5 or whatever.

That said, in most previous jets you had data link capability, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it wouldn’t, and sometimes you couldn’t see what everyone else saw, etc., etc. In the Rhino, the datalink not only always worked, it worked well with not only other aircraft but also with ships in the fleet. So my surmise is that I would have better big picture situational awareness than the typical ‘Flanker’ operator and be able to exploit that, but that’s just a surmise on my part.”

What was your most challenging opponent in BFM/DACT and why?

“We fought against F-22s once. The Raptor guys said they liked fighting against us because the fight would go almost 30* whole seconds before they had us, and that was much longer than against other types they fought. So they thought it was better training for them. Gee. Great.

We didn’t call the shots, because we wanted to mix it up with them, but at the time we had JHMCS and AIM-9X while they had neither. We could have just called “Fox 2” at the fights on, but there’s not really much training value in that for either side.”

What is the best thing about the F/A-18F?

“The fact that all the systems work well together and that it is a very reliable aircraft maintenance wise.”

*Postscript: “Now that I think about it, it was probably closer to 15 seconds before the F-22 had us. And by then had us saddled in our six o’clock. I really feel guilty because I’m sure there’s some F-22 guy out there who thinks, “30 seconds. Pffft, it doesn’t take that long.”

….and the worst?

“The drag from those dumb, goofy crooked pylons.”

Rate the F-18F in the following areas:

Instantaneous turn rates

“Outstanding. Better than anybody else out there we fought save the F-22.”

Sustained turn rates

“Good, but the Air Force jobs like the F-15 and F-16 were better unless we were completely slick (no tanks or pylons). For a while, our squadron had a jet with no tanks on it that we were using for airshow practice. We’d take that thing out and BFM in it when we weren’t practicing. That thing would eat even the F-15s and F-16s for lunch. We actually did the thing in the new Top Gun trailer where we came in at low altitude and then went straight up in between a flight of two jets (they and we weren’t as close to each other as in the trailer, but it did surprise the heck out of them to put it mildly). The only problem is that without extra tanks of gas, you couldn’t take it to war unless you were using it as a point defense fighter.

Weapons platform

“Excellent. I haven’t talked about it much yet, but the jet was great for air-to-ground. Even dropping dumb bombs it was very accurate.”


“Middle of the road for tactical jets.”

Top speed

“Who knows? It could go supersonic – sure. But once you did, the fuel quantity would count down faster than the airspeed would count up, so I don’t know that we ever got it to its maximum theoretical or placarded airspeed. You usually needed to turn or do something else before you did.”

Take-off characteristics


Landing characteristics

“It flew well around the boat. The approach speed was pretty low for a fighter jet. The Rhino’s approach speed is similar to that of an airliner which makes it a bit slower than Air Force jets.”

Climb rate

“Depended on loadout, but typical to above average for that generation of jet.”


“It could always be better, but we usually had enough to get where we wanted to go. However, unlike an F-16 or F-15 outfit, if we needed more gas we could just configure one of our own jets as a tanker instead of begging another unit for a KC-135 and hoping it showed up.”


“Excellent. And now the Rhino is even better with the AESA radar which basically sees everything in front of the jet, all the time, instantaneously.”

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What’s the biggest myth about the F-18F?

“We would always like more gas, but sometimes people talk about it like it could barely make it to the beach from the carrier. I can remember several missions where we ran land based types out of gas.

What should I have asked you?

Why does the Navy have some single seat and some two seat Rhino squadrons? The official, and largely true, reason is that the Forward Air Controller (Airborne), or FAC(A), mission is so complicated and dynamic that it really does take a crew of two to do it well. During this mission the pilot will typically be talking to soldiers on the ground while the WSO is talking to other aircraft and positioning them to come in for Close Air Support runs. They will then briefly talk to each other to coordinate and then go back to talking to different people on different radios. Meanwhile, their wingman will fly in a high cover position to keep a big picture view of threats beyond the immediate area. I do think this particular mission goes better with a two seat crew. In a Navy carrier air wing, only the F-18F squadron has qualified FAC(A) crews. The single seat squadrons don’t. At least, that was the way it was circa 2008.

The un-official, and largely true, reason is that just like Intruder and Tomcat squadrons of the 70s and 80s, half of the Navy fliers in the Pentagon during the development of the Rhino were NFOs, and they weren’t going to sign off on a program that removed NFOs from all Navy fighter and attack jets.

One neat trick a two seater can do that the single seater can’t is VID at long range with the ATFLIR. At maximum zoom in air-to-air mode, the image of a jet on the ATFLIR bounces around all over the screen as the system tries to stay pointed at a radar contact. If I take over manually and switch to EO (TV) mode, I can smooth the slewing with the thumb controller and identify the bogey as an F-5 or whatever well beyond visual range. Several times in training, I had a single seat Hornet or Rhino pilot ask to see my tapes because they didn’t believe I could visually ID a jet at that range.

  1. Describe your most memorable flight or mission in an F-18F? (long answer please)

It’s tough to pick out the “most memorable” mission. I guess I could tell you about the first time I dropped a bomb from a Rhino. We were flying over Iraq and it went something like this…

Okay, now I’m concerned. I should be scared, but I’m wrapped in a warm cloak of denial that anything really bad could happen to me. However, I am experienced enough to have known a few folks over the years who were convinced that nothing bad could happen to them either. This knowledge, combined with the brown-gray thunderstorm I’m now flying around in, is enough to at least upgrade me to concerned. We’re in the middle of a desert war, and there’s frost forming on the noses of my bombs and missiles. That can’t be good. At least the weather is so bad that nobody on the ground can shoot at us.

My pilot is working overtime in the front seat to stay in formation with the lead jet. We’re hanging out east of Baghdad at 12,000 feet in a small bowl of clear air, surrounded on all sides by dark thunderstorms. It’s the kind of dark overcast that makes you feel like you’re indoors, even in the middle of the afternoon. The clear area we’ve found is so small that we have to keep up a pretty good angle of bank just to stay in it. And we’d better stay in this clear area, since we can see visible lightning just to the north, leaping in and out of the clouds. Oh, by the way, this my pilot’s first combat mission.

As we come through the western part of the circle, the clear canopy above me is briefly pelted by pebble sized hail. Getting hit by hail in your car at 60 miles per hour can be an attention getter. At 290 miles per hour, it can be down right unnerving. Fortunately, we quickly pass out of it with no apparent damage, but the circle we’re scribing through the sky is small enough that I know it will be back in the hail in a few minutes.

Even though I’m in the second plane, I’m the senior member of the flight. That means I’m supposed to be conveying the wisdom and guidance of my years to the other members of the flight to prevent us from getting into situations that might just be a little over our heads. With lightning to the north, hail to the west, and Iran to the east, this might just be one of those situations. I’m torn between wanting to stay and complete the mission, and the fear of having to explain how I got my wingman struck by lightning because I didn’t know when to call uncle. Of course, it would be my wingman since, as covered previously, it couldn’t possibly be me.

Additionally, we’re not going to do anything out here today. The weather is miserable, and I haven’t seen the ground in a while. Even the insurgents must be at home sipping tea taking today off from the war. So if we’re not going to do anything, maybe we should call and ask to do nothing somewhere else.

I’m saved from having to make a decision when our controller tells us to proceed to a rendezvous with a tanker. The good news is we’ll have more gas, which in a jet means you’ll have more options. The bad news is we’ve got to go back through the thunderstorms to get there.

Our two jets huddle up close to one another so we don’t lose sight as we pass through the clouds. The medium grey jets can disappear from view easily when flying through clouds. Even though we are only a few feet apart, the other jet flashes in and out of existence as we hit the densest part of the clouds. There’s not much I can do in the backseat except sit there and hold on to the hand controllers on either side of the cockpit.

Just about the time I’m going to squeeze the black paint off the handgrips, we pop out. Hey, that’s much better. I glance at the radar on my right and start looking for a small green rectangle that might signify the presence of our tanker. Soon enough a promising contact appears on the scope right in the piece of airspace where it’s supposed to be.

As we first catch sight of the tanker, it’s nothing more than a small dark speck on the canopy. The speck starts to grow into an unfamiliar shape. It’s not a US Air Force tanker. Instead, our benefactor is a Royal Air Force L-1011. Well God Save the Queen! At the last tanker, my pilot had to take about three stabs at the basket before he got in. The RAF basket on this tanker is very much like the one on our tanker configured Rhinos, so we have a much easier time getting plugged in. Once we start taking gas I begin to relax, and even have time to notice the Rolls Royce engines on the British tanker – nice touch. With the weather as bad as it is, we’re definitely not going to do anything. In fact, they’re probably going to send us home early.

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Just about the time I’ve come to this conclusion, the WSO in the lead jet lets us know we’ve gotten immediate tasking to go bomb something for somebody named Gandhi 15. We’re passed a latitude and longitude of the target by Warhawk, the controlling agency. I enter the coordinates via touch keypad into the pre-planned JDAM checklist which is currently on my left hand display. Even as I’m putting the data in, I figure that the other jet will be dropping as lead, and as wingman and I will just get to watch on the FLIR.

The sun has set and it’s getting pretty dark by the time we switch from Warhawk to Gandhi 15. With a low key check in along the lines of, “Hey, how you guys doing,” Gandhi 15 is clearly a special forces guy. He wants us to bomb a weapons cache and is going to mark the target so that we’ll be able to see it on the FLIR. If he’s giving us the latitude and longitude, why does he need to mark the target? Whatever. I go through the JDAM pre-planned checklist two more times.

Lead asks, “Understand one JDAM”.

“Negative. We’d like two.”

“Okay, I’ll have my wingman come in thirty seconds in trail.”

Holy Cow we’re going to drop a bomb.

I now quadruple check the JDAM set up. Again, even though one of our Lieutenants is leading, I’m the most senior ranking person in the formation, so if anything goes wrong, it’s on me. Because of this, I now start to overthink things. I query lead about the distance of the friendlies because I mix up the meters and feet on the Collateral Damage Estimate page. I get tersely corrected, and he’s right.

I pull up the FLIR, and see the “target,” which looks like any other part of the bank of an aqueduct. In fact, it looks just like one of the countless aqueducts around our home base of Lemoore. I certainly don’t see any bunker type structure, but I do see the burning white glow of Gandhi’s mark. I try to slew the FLIR to look around the target, but it won’t move. There’s no north cue and no latitude and longitude information on the display. I could restart the FLIR to clear out this error, but it will take four minutes and that will be too long. It’s looking at the target – good enough.

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We see our lead’s jet in the data link on the center display. His is displayed as a green circle with a small stick coming out of it showing his direction of travel. This makes it much easier for us to get the correct thirty second spacing.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian Morales/Released)

Lead announces their drop with the standard “Thunder” call. Thunder is the term for a JDAM drop.

We’re getting closer. Normally we drop JDAMs from much higher and the little box on the SA page that we have to fly our jet into is much bigger. Down here at twelve thousand feet, the little window we have to fly into is positively minuscule. For a second I can’t even see it and have to zoom in closer. There it is. THUNK. The jet rolls slightly as the bomb falls away and I state “1 away” in the cockpit to let my pilot know that the weapons page has shown the correct symbology of a bomb leaving the aircraft.

Suddenly there is a large white bloom in the middle of the FLIR display. Lead’ bomb has hit the target in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, I’m staring into the FLIR. Waiting … and waiting … and waiting … geez, did it go into a frickin – BOOM! Right on target. An even bigger flash in the middle of the screen. Hey what do you know, those JDAMs work.

At this point, the pilot and I are way cooler than we have any right to be on the tape. In a low monotone I state, ‘Good impact,’ and he follows up with a simple, ‘Rog.’ We’re dropping bombs, which on the overall scale of life is pretty exciting, but we’re also Navy guys, so we’re supposed to act like we do this every day.

Gandhi is pleased with the effects, gives us an ‘atta boy,’ and sends us on our way without any amplifying information. Now we’re off to another tanker. This one is an Air Force KC-135 and thus has the metal basket that is difficult to get into. Based on the first 135 we hit today, I’m worried that my pilot isn’t going to be able to get in, and were going to have to divert to Al Asad. After two stabs at it though, he gets in. However, as the jet fills up with fuel and gets heavier, he falls out of the basket when the tanker goes into a turn. He quickly recovers and is able to get back in the basket and finish up.

We are topped off with gas, but running low on time. Our appointed time to return to the ship is coming up, and we’re still in southern Iraq. The other WSO and I quickly confer over the radio and I give the okay to go at military power all the way back to the ship. Military power is full throttle without being in afterburner. When we check in, we’re given direct vectors to the ship – no need to head to the Marshal stack. On the approach, my pilot gets low and catches a 1 wire. This will get him a poor landing grade from the LSOs and he’s audibly pissed up in the front seat as we taxi out of the landing area. I just laugh and tell him not to worry about it.

As we taxi up to our parking spot on the flight deck, several of our sailors point to the empty weapon station on our wing where the JDAM had been. I’ll find out later that one of our chiefs will plug into the turning tanker to tell the crew, ‘Hey 110 doesn’t have a bomb!’ We shut down and raise the canopy. As I climb out of my seat and move towards the boarding ladder, I make it a point to shake my pilot’s hand and give him a ‘good job,’ before he can even get out. Once I hit the flight deck I’m surrounded by a pretty sizeable gathering of smiling sailors full of questions. I think I wind up shaking the hand of half the sailors on the flightdeck. One yells in my ear, ‘the Skipper will be pissed,’ meaning that he didn’t get to be the first in the squadron to drop a bomb from a Super Hornet in combat. We didn’t win the war or even do anything particularly heroic, but you can’t tell from these excited 18-year-olds who just helped send out a bomb in anger for the first time in their Navy careers. A similar scene is played out over by lead’s jet.”

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Describe a typical mission in Afghanistan

“See above. Just like Iraq, it’s mostly brown and far from the ocean which a chance of occasional scattered JDAM.”

What was emotionally hardest about Afghanistan?

“It wasn’t the flying or combat. It was after you land, all the regular office work type reports and meetings that it takes to run a squadron that they don’t show in the movies get to be kind of a drag. Also being away from your family. After eight months you’re ready to go home.”

..and physically?

“Your butt, especially if you have a skinny, bony one like mine, would get pretty sore after eight hours.”

What was life like between missions?

“Well there’s the regular office work of running a squadron as described above. To the Navy, flying is your collateral warfighting specialty. Your primary job is taking care of sailors and ensuring that the squadron is meeting all of its requirements, some of which involve warfighting and some of it doesn’t.

Beyond that, there were movies in the ready room and an occasional port call. And if you hear any rumors that there was an aircrew-only casino with a craps table set up in one of the staterooms, then I can categorically state that you have heard that rumor and I have no amplifying information at this time.”

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Tell me something I don’t know about the F-18F…

“Later models of the F have a much larger screen in the middle of the backseat. This allows the WSO to see contacts via data link at much farther ranges, while still being at the same scale. This may not seem like much, but when you zoom out, all the little contacts just become a blob of symbology. Instead of zooming out, the larger screen allows the contacts to be displayed such that you can tell it’s a flight of two or whatever, while still being able to see very far downrange. It’s just another one of those things that gives an F-18F crew greater situational awareness over his opposition in say a ‘Flanker’.”

Describe the F-18F in three words “Reliable. Nimble. Fun.”

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Everything you always wanted to know about Chinese air power (but were afraid to ask) – Interview with Andreas Rupprecht

Few have written more on the subject of Chinese air power than Andreas Rupprecht. We grilled him on the hottest topics in that most dynamic of subjects, Chinese warplanes.

China appears to be producing new designs at a greater pace than other nations, is that true, and if so, why?

If they indeed are “producing new designs at a greater pace than other nations” (which I’m not sure is true) it it is because they have both the political will, the military ambition, and the money to make it happen. Also, for several years there are no longer only state-owned design and manufacturing companies, but universities and private enterprises. You only have to take a look at the UAV scene, and how many companies are currently developing in that area. They are willing to invest their own money – besides the official contracts – with the aim of earning money with it at some point. Additionally, in contrast to the West, the desire to serve national ambitions is much deeper embedded in China (at least to my perception). The aim is clear: China wants to be the dominant power in the Far East, inviolable from others and the goal is to be on a par with the USA.

What is the biggest strength of Chinese military aerospace technology?

In my opinion to put together the best available – or accessible technologies – from both East and West. To analyse competing products and to find – based on their own technical abilities – an indigenous solution. This is often made without much public announcement (in contrary to Russia and India where much is loudly promised and barely anything materialises). This is done with a huge budget behind it, and most importantly of all, the highest political and military support. The resultant aircraft types are most often put into service in an interim version that then receives continuous updates, modifications and new systems at a much higher pace one than one likes to accept or expects in the West.

What is the role of the J-20?

A good question and in fact one of the most controversial ones in social media groups. Quite interesting, the commonly often heard claim “it cannot be a fighter since it is so huge!” is based on very early and incorrect calculations of the J-20’s dimensions. It was first estimated to be a very long (23m+) and flat fighter and consequently several concluded as a fighter of that size with underpowered engines it might at best possess high speed and a long operational range but cannot be manoeuvrable like a true fighter. This became a constant theme in nearly all discussions and was surely assisted by a relatively modest aerobatic display in the Zhuhai 2016 and 2018 airshows. In essence the J-20 became a large lame duck that could only be a long-range supersonic striker like a modern F-111 or at best serve as an interceptor used to engage strategic assets like tanker and AEW types from far away.

However, all these conclusions ignore the surrounding evidence: first the J-20’s true dimensions, which is in fact shorter than the Russian ‘Flanker’ series, which is without doubt rated as one of the most manoeuvrable fighters. Second, there is a well-known study made by Song Wecong, the chief designer of the J-10 and mentor of the J-20 designer Yang Wei, that was posted in 2001 and clearly demanded that stealth aircraft “must have the capability to supercruise and perform unconventional manoeuvres such as post-stall manoeuvres.” Thirdly, the PLAAF itself praised repeatedly this type’s performance and expressed its satisfaction even with the interim engines. This surely can be rated as propaganda, like the official brochure, which explicitly stated the J-20 being capable of “seizing & maintain air superiority, medium & long range interception, escort and deep strike.” In summary, the J-20 is rated by the PLAAF a true multi-role fighter and I see nothing that contradicts this. How comparable the J-20 is to the F-22 and F-35 is another question, but this statement also applies to all other PLAAF operated types.

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I’m still going to ask you…how does the J-20 compare to the F-22?

Only the PLAAF and CAC know this for sure as such, I have to admit I don’t like questions like that. On the one hand because it is not my area of expertise and on the other hand because there is hardly any information available that enables an assessment. I also dare to doubt whether I could do this at all. For me, the question is more how the J-20 compares to its predecessor in PLAAF service and even more so, how the J-20 evolved. With this in mind, I am convinced that the F-22 was actually the benchmark for CAC but I am also convinced that it was clear to CAC that developing a twin-engine heavy fighter and a stealth aircraft for the first time after the J-10 would be a huge challenge. All of this coupled with the knowledge that one has hardly any experience in this area and, above all, that the engines will still only be temporary solutions. On the other hand, it has been around 15 years since the development of the F-22 and a lot has happened in China in the area of electronics, sensors and materials since then. But, it’s important to note that the predecessor of the J-20 in PLAAF service is the ‘Flanker’ and this came from a completely different period, was for a completely different requirement and was designed by a company with vastly more experience. So in conclusion, I am sure the J-20 is no worse than a J-11B in all areas of performance, but certainly – especially with the current interim engines – it does not come close to a F-22. I do not presume to make any further judgment.

How good is Chinese radar technology?

Similar to the previous question, I think I’m not able to answer this: Again barely any reliable information is available, most is based on hearsay. From what appears the most reasonable information, it seems as if China committed to AESA technology quite early on, and was able to equip most of its current generation types – the J-10C, J-16 and J-20 – with AESA radars. And even if I don’t know any specifications I’m sure the PLAAF wouldn’t use AESA radars them if they weren’t as powerful as conventional systems.

How good is Chinese aeroengine technology?

We surely know that China has some serious issues with previous generations of aeroengines, including the current ‘best’ Chinese engine, the WS-10, which had a very long and protracted development. As such this is surely the field of expertise in which China is still the most behind. How far, I don’t know.

But anyway, it seems as if they finally have a sufficiently powerful and reliable engine to power all its latest fighters. How reliable these engines are is (quite understandably) not known and I’m sure we won’t get any info on this any time soon.

What does China see as the priority threat to counter and does this manifest in their base locations and aircraft choices?

By my understanding, China has three priorities. To safeguard the own country from any internal threats, external threats and to protect its sphere of interest against any external interference. The first part includes operations other than true wars, like controlling unrest in certain areas especially Tibet and Xinjiang, but also to provide disaster relief and evacuating nationals abroad in emergencies. Here especially bases in Tibet and Xinjiang play an important role, but those are not necessarily PLAAF bases.

As for external threats, these generally fall into three areas: the priority is the Eastern Theatre Command standing against Taiwan, which includes the defence or at least deterrence of US forces that might intervene on Taipei’s side. Secondly, the Southern Theatre Command deals with the disputed South China Sea and the countless islands in and around the nine-dashed line (a demarcation line used by the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China for their claims of the major part of the South China Sea). And surely too, but to a lesser extent than India rates this hotspot, the Western Theatre Command with India (which also encompasses Tibet). And a similar important sector is the Northern Theatre Command against Japan, which again potentially faces US forces in that area and potential instability in North Korea.

In principle – at least today – the PLA’s traditional doctrine has focused on fighting regional conflicts and not global ones. However, in recent years this has changed dramatically, and can be seen not only by the introduction of more modern equipment, but also in the command structure (as well as the locations of their bases). During the early 2000s, a new doctrine was issued, that shifted the focus for the first time from pure defence to some sort of ‘proactively defeating enemies beyond China’s borders, including through preemptive strike if necessary’. In line with this, a limited capability for global expeditionary operations and governance missions (both to safeguard its rising political and economic interests and also to demonstrate its superpower status) were directly endorsed for the first time; the naval base in Djibouti and at Pakistan’s Gwadar port is a clear testimony to this shift.

Other than saying this, I won’t go any deeper into strategic matters. But this fundamental restructuring of the PLA has created a much faster-responding, more flexible and more lethal force, than the PLA has ever been. In achieving this there has been a move away from the traditionally all-dominant ground forces to an increased importance on the PLAAF, navy and rocket force. Additionally, there is the newly formed Strategic Support Force. How much this modern PLA already is able to fight joint operations is still not clear, but again, the PLA’s strategic objectives have dramatically expanded from pure territorial defence to regional dominance over East Asia and the western half of the Pacific. This will further expand into the Indian Ocean soon.

This is certainly manifested in their base locations and aircraft choices: The latter – new aircraft choices – is the part, which is commonly best known due to the rising interest in Chinese matters. As such nearly all enthusiasts of modern military aircraft know the Chinese latest fighters like the J-10C, J-16 and especially the J-20. But it’s not only the enigmatic fighters that are important. Of equal or perhaps greater significance –– are the modern training assets like the JL-10 and new transport aircraft like the Y-20. Never before in China’s history have so many modern types been introduced into the armed forces as within the last decade. To the final part of your question, as to where China sees the priority threat to counter and how this is manifested in basing locations: This is most of all the Eastern Theatre Command, which is most often the one which receives the most modern types and is surely the most capable regional force. Second to this comes the Southern Theatre Command, which is similarly equipped to the ETC and only then – even if India rates this quite differently – comes the Western Theatre Command facing India. The main reason for this is that China has other priorities – and the fact that against India is the well-secured border of the Himalayas. So this a well secured border for its core interests, not needing the fielding of many units.

What happened to the J-31?

To nit-pick … nothing. Since there is no ‘J-31’. The type often claimed to be a J-31 is in fact the SAC FC-31 and from all we know, the second flying demonstrator no. 31003 must have been transferred to the CFTE in Xi’an-Yanliang earlier last year. At least this was a clear hint that something changed and eventually its status from “manufacturer owned demonstrator for an export type” changed to something more PLA related. I try to be cautious as possible, since nothing is yet confirmed, but all hints towards the idea that this type has been selected by the PLAN as the J-15’s successor and future carrier-borne fighter. Allegedly named ‘J-35’, a first prototype is said be ready and we expect its unveiling if not even its maiden flight early this year.

How capable is the J-10C compared to Western types?

Once again a comparative question! Oh well, well I must give a brief answer given the paucity of reliable (or even official) information and even more since I hate such ‘4th Generation’ or even 4+ or 4++ generation discussions, these are just for fan-boys and the more or less uninformed public but in real life other factors are more important than an additional +. Therefore I refuse to give a clear statement like “it is better than the F-16” or “it is on a par with the Eurofighter or Rafale”. But I think from what is known, given the weapons we have seen, the systems, like its IRST and the AESA-radar, it is comparable to the latest Western generation. Surely its powerplant is (or at was for a long time) its Achilles heel. It seems to have, in comparison with the Rafale and Typhoon, a smaller weapons load, especially in terms of the number of weapons stations and overall load carrying capability. How effective its netcentric capabilities are is simply not known.

What is the biggest myth about Chinese warplanes?

That they are all unlicensed copies and clones, that they are worthless trash. This claim in fact drives me crazy since it is simply stupid. Many who always post this in social media or forums either have no clue, have not bothered to check the facts or their accusation is often politically motivated, and most often none of them are interested in facts anyway.

Therefore, first of all, before I go into more details why in my opinion this generalised claim is stupid, a short preliminary admission:
Yes, China has developed little or nothing on its own for decades.
Yes, China has built a lot under license for years; in fact, because there were licenses to do so.
Yes, China has further developed these types and has not always recognised the intellectual properties of other nations.
Yes, China does espionage on a large scale – as do other great nations too; Saab can tell you a thing or two about it

But, especially in the last decades there have been many projects that were also developed in cooperation with foreign (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) companies or for which they were contracted and paid: The Y-9 and Y-20 (with Antonov), CJ -7 and JL-10 (with Yakovlev) and Z-10 (to Kamov). So these are not copies or even stolen drafts.

And even if there are ‘similarities’ to other types, isn’t this the case with other types too? The South Korean KFX, the Turkish TFX and the Indian AMCA are all heralded in the media as indigenous concepts, great achievements of developing aerospace industries in order to develop fifth generation fighters, but only China is accused of having copied the F-35 as it is with the FC-31, but oh .. they added a second engine. But these are details one can easily ignore.

As such, none of that makes China’s aircraft clones and copies straight away. The main problem – and actually an interesting one because these accusations often contradict one another – is that it is (at least in my understanding) technically hardly likely and even less possible to copy something so easily without direct access to the original.

In addition, these ‘copies’ are equipped with different systems, powered by vastly different powerplants, have very different dimensions, they are built from different materials and therefore they have to be structurally different, ergo, they cannot be a copy or a clone, at least not under what I understand as a copy or clone. Despite this, this remains a constant meme in the Western media.

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Or perhaps China the only country able to copy someone else’s product simply by looking at a photo? This however would raise another question: If it is so easy to copy, why don’t other countries do it too? Surely it’s not just that other nations obey intellectual property laws? If China is indeed capable of such miraculous tasks, then it is extremely alarming. This however contradicts the second often claim: all of China’s copies are junk and worthless and they fall apart immediately.

So at least in my understanding, there is a contradiction here: On the one hand, portraying China as stupid and its products as worthless, while at the same time stirring up the great fear of China’s great ‘clone army’!
As I said, I don’t want to give China a blanket excuse, and no one denies that China did not always develop its ideas alone, but these allegations are often created from ignorance of the facts, and they are testimony to one’s own political convictions and bias, or simply stupidity and ignorance.

How does the Chinese air force compare with that of Russia?

Oh well, another difficult question to answer even more since I am not a specialist on Russian types nor the Russian Air Force, you probably should ask Piotr Butowski. I will try my best to answer. In my opinion – as in so many fields – China listened to others, adopted, copied, tried and tested, found its own solution to their own needs and most of all put a lot of money – surely much more than Russia – into its military in all important areas. So that today I would rate the Chinese air force better equipped, with more modern types in larger numbers, better connected and prepared for joint operations. The PLAAF operates more UAVs. They have more (both in number and sophistication) EW and AEW assets. Their fighter and strikers more frequently use precision munitions guided by targeting devices. The PLAAF operates several more UAVs and UCAVs, and they even more ahead in having a modern training system. The PLAAF has more and more modern trainers, the training syllabus, in my opinion, is closely related to the US training syllabus and the pilots train more, fly often and are most likely better paid. And finally, this all it embedded into a general command adapted to modern aerial warfare.


If this results in a more capable force, I don’t know for sure, since the PLAAF not only lacks a sufficient number of tankers and true strategic bombers – both which will be available in a few years – but most significantly lacks true combat experience. I must admit, however, that I don’t want to find out what the PLAAF can do in real combat.

How good is Chinese stealth technology?

Actually, I think besides the PLAAF and the individual design teams at CAC, SAC and XAC no one can say this for sure. Surely there is a lot of discussion going on in social media groups and by analysts as well, but at least for the social media sector most of these discussions are pure armchair-analyst’s conclusions based on eyeballing and I don’t want to participate on such discussion since in the end it most likely results in wrong conclusions. Most often such discussions are led by certain fan-boys and so consequently the outcome of any such discussion is most often already predetermined by a fixed opinion like “canards are not stealthy” or “the Russian Su-57 cannot be a stealth fighter” based on a layman’s opinion, bias and prejudice. Anyway, I would at least agree that the discussion of certain details like planform alignment, the treatment of seals and panels, the engines and so on is possible and as such it might be questionable if the J-20 and FC-31 are as stealthy as the F-22 or F-35, but to what degree, no one can tell for sure.

What is happening in the realm of hypersonics?

To admit, this is again not my field of expertise, but from what I see it seems as if the Chinese are highly active in this field since years, they seem to be quite successful, but to what extent the mentioned systems like the DF-17, the just recently spotted air launched ballistic anti-ship missile launched by the H-6N or the CJ-100 cruise missile I don’t want to assess.

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Do they have any operational stealthy UCAVS or UAVS?

This is again one of the biggest mysteries right now. ‘Yes’ if you rate the WZ-7 ‘Soaring Eagle II’ strategic reconnaissance UAV as a stealthy UAV and ‘uncertain’ for a true stealthy UCAV. We know for sure that in late 2013 the ‘Sharp Sword’ (Lijian) UCAV demonstrator flew for the first time. It seems as if a second revised prototype flew in 2016 and then it reappeared as the GJ-11 during the national day parade on 1 October 2019, indicating it might be in PLAAF service. However, the GJ-11 on display was clearly a mock-up only and even if we have seen several other UAVs – including the Soaring Eagle II – both at their factory, at various test units and frontline bases, this is not the case for the GJ-11; at least not to the public. Again, this does not exclude the type already being in service. AVIC claimed in late 2017 that after years of testing it was finally ready for production at Hongdu/GAIC and that this type is ready to enter PLAAF service “soon”, and that quite realistic scale models are available, again suggesting it to be ready since AVIC usually only does this after a type entered service, but we still lack any evidence like an image.

What is the most capable Chinese Flanker variant and how does it differ from Russian technology?

On paper this was in my opinion the J-11D fighter variant, a still mysterious and secret variant. Once planned as a further improved variant of the J-11B featuring a new AESA radar in a reshaped nose cone and an improved digital fly-by-wire system it was to be powered by uprated WS-10 engines with up to 14 tons of thrust two additional hard-points added for the latest generation of AAMs including the PL-10, PL-15 and ultra long-range PL-21. Radar Absorbent Material coating to reduce the Radar Cross Section, a refuelling probe, a new IRST/LR and other improved systems would have made a formidable Flanker. Maybe – if rumours are correct, a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) -equipped variant, on par with the Russian Su-35, was to be fitted with a more modern AESA radar and more modern AAMs. Why this variant was cancelled is still a mystery, maybe due to cost? The most capable Chinese ‘Flanker’ today is the J-16 striker, an indigenous development broadly comparable to the latest Russian Su-30SM albeit without canards and TVC. As such the J-16 has less of a focus on manoeuvrability and more on its avionics and the weapons it can use.

Do you believe the JF-17, J-10 and J-20 were based on Soviet/Russian designs?

The cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter

No, a clear NO. The J-10 is undeniable based on CAC’s own experiences with the J-9 project, that went through so many iterations during its long and protracted development and surely the influence of the Israeli Lavi. But from my understanding the Israeli contribution was more related to FCS-development and integration, avionics, and overall programme management than the design of the fighter itself.

Artist’s impression of the J-9 from

The J-20 – even if surely claimed in certain social media – is surely NOT a Mikoyan MFI Mark 2 even if again certain design elements might be ‘inspired’ by it, but based on official reports, the requirements which led to the J-20 were much closer to the specifications of the F-22.

Concerning the JF-17 I’m still not that sure, especially in regard to the often mentioned Mikoyan Izdeliye 33 (or Project 33), which was of conventional layout single engined MiG-29-look alike under development during the 1980s. But there are wind-tunnel models of the JF-17, which are of earlier origin and that are already closer to the final design. As such there was surely some Russian input – most of all due to the RD-93 – but I don’t think it is based on that failed MiG-33.

Mikoyan 1.44 MFI

What can we expect to see in Chinese military aviation over the next 20 years? “Should I take a look at my the crystal ball, I would say that we surely will get some more surprises. That will start this year with the new J-35 naval fighter, I wouldn’t be surprised if we actually see a J-20 two-seater soon and certainly more UAVs / UCAVs. Also I expect the KJ-600 carrier-borne AEW and other EW types, but I’m not expecting to see the H-20 stealth bomber yet this year. To look any further into the future is difficult, especially because that depends on the political and economic situation not only in China but acrossthe world.

China will certainly continue to move forward (esp. concerning sensors, avionics, engines), it will develop more indigenous systems, will rely more on autonomy and networking … and I fear if China remains politically and economically stable, some day we might be accused of copying Chinese designs and concepts. (just a joke!)

How does the Chinese approach to military aviation differ to the US approach?

Another difficult to answer question. In my opinion, China and its military are aligned with the United States in almost everything. At first this may be seen as a simple copying, but one could also say: China has great ambitions and the US systems and the structure of their armed forces have proven themselves in many ways. So why reinvent the wheel? (one of the most important differences to India, by the way). On the other hand, other factors play a role and these are responsible for the differences: first of all, the Chinese do not have exactly the same ambitions – for example to be a global policeman – or to carry out worldwide missions overseas (at least not yet). China is aware of its limitations, so cannot simply import all US military concepts. It also has its own social and historical factors that also play a major role. Finally, the technological gap with the USA is closing, which forces China to develop more and more its own solutions.

What should I have asked you?

Ha ha … a good question. Probably how do I still manage to follow the PLA so much besides all my private life and job? And I must admit … I don’t know.

How did you become interested in Chinese military aviation?

Oh well, that is a difficult question. At first when I was young and still building plastic model kits, I was interested in everything … fighters, bombers, and most of all US and Russian (then still Soviet) stuff. But later everything secret became more and more interesting. Everything around that buzzword ‘Stealth’ and what turned out to be the F-117, but also the latest Russian types, namely the Su-27 and MiG-29. After the Russians opened at least part of their archives and so much became public, the only two true nations that retained that exciting mystique of secrecy were Israel and China. This curiosity was spurred even more after the Lavi project was cancelled and rumours popped up that it would reappear in China. It did indeed, but not as expected – and still some claim – as a true copy but a very different albeit surely ‘inspired’ type. Regardless of what some claim, the J-10 is NOT a copy nor a clone; its larger size alone and the use of a Russian AL-31 exclude this option, but there were undeniable similarities and so I started to dig even deeper into this matter. And what I learned surprised me even more: There were indeed secret contacts, cooperation between the US and China – even so deep some in the USA today surely would like to ignore, contacts with Europe, Israel and Russia. And the deeper you dig, the more you find: old secret and long failed projects like the J-9 and J-13, the everlasting connection between politics and military desires. It was also fascinating to look at how this was affected by China’s technical and industrial shortcomings. And after years of watching China, its industries, and projects it became more and more apparent, that there is not only a great will to close this gap and to overcome these shortcomings, but also the political will to invest huge sums to solve it. And who knows China knows that everything is planned well in advance, with a lot of patience and perseverance. Most of all, however, I was fascinated by how China managed to move from merely copying and license producing aircraft to modifying and improving by integrating parts from different worlds – the East and West – to real indigenous developments. And yes, even if the J-10 looks like a Lavi on steroids and the J-20 features design elements from the F-22 and F-35, they are certainly not copies. This accusation is too simple, as if designing an aircraft by simply taking part A from here and part B from there and mating them together would work as if it is that simple. Frankly, don’t all other modern types look similar in some way too?

Check out Andreas’ excellent books on Chinese air power here.

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The strange Soviet aeroplanes of Mr. Moskalev

The Soviet Union had its fair share of brilliant aeronautical engineers and aircraft designers. The likes of Ilyushin, Mikoyan, Sukhoi, Tupolev, and the rest became household names, even in the West. They’ve been immortalised with monuments, buildings, airports, and, in at least one case, mountains named after them. But one of the most innovative minds in the Soviet aerospace realm doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page.

Alexandr Sergeevich Moskalev

Little is known about Aleksandr Sergeyevich Moskalev: where he came from, when he was born, if he preferred brandy over vodka, etc. His bio usually consists of a short blurb describing him as a young designer and lecturer who did most of his work without much (if any) support from the state, who got his start in Leningrad but soon set up shop in Voronezh. We know that his short-lived design bureau was shuttered shortly after the Great Patriotic War, after which he returned to teaching. A source that apparently discovered one of his memoirs also reveals that he blamed a different Aleksandr Sergeyevich, the one with the slightly better-known surname of Yakovlev, for one of his designs’ failures (more on that later). But that’s about it.

One thing we know for sure is that orthodoxy wasn’t in Moskalev’s ethos. He designed and built at least twenty-three aircraft and variants, and, when adding in the types he oversaw modifications of, is credited with around thirty-five distinct machines. Some were fairly conventional; most would be considered radical even in 2020. Moskalev’s lack of success can indeed often be attributed to the impracticality of his designs, though the conservative-minded bureaucrats that micromanaged all affairs of the Soviet state, loath to throw their support behind what they saw as far-fetched and futuristic (a bad word in Soviet circles) unless their hand was forced, bear some of the blame. Let’s take a closer look at what might have been had Moskalev achieved the successes of his peers.

Moskalev—sometimes transliterated “Moskalyev” or “Moskalyov”—cut his teeth in 1931 with the MU-3, also known as the SAM-2, “SAM” standing for Samolyot (aeroplane) Aleksandr Moskalev. This aircraft was a small, single-engine biplane flying boat intended as a trainer featuring a five-cylinder Shvetsov M-11 engine of somewhere between 100 and 200 horsepower fitted in the pusher configuration behind the top wing. The MU-3 was not an original design; rather, Moskalev, together with designers N.G. Mikhelson and O.N. Rozanov, modified an existing design, the Grigorovich MU-2, which was found to be overweight and sluggish. The MU-3 had a shorter bottom wing and improved hull and was over three hundred pounds lighter than its predecessor. However, a competing design, the Shavrov Sh-2, a parasol-wing amphibian, was found to have superior performance and was selected over Moskalev’s offering.

Undeterred, Moskalev set upon what would become his most successful project, the SAM-5, a single-engine, high-wing, all-metal monoplane that was also by far his most conventional design, looking somewhat similar to contemporaries like the Curtiss Robin. Moskalev promised that his remarkably lightweight aircraft would be able to carry five passengers at around 110 mph over a distance of 1,000 km (roughly 621 miles) using a 100hp M-11 engine. Convincing the state authorities that such a feat was possible proved difficult, but an endorsement from Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, destined to become one of the preeminent figures in the Soviet space program and already an influential voice in 1933, breathed life into the SAM-5 project.

Unfortunately, though the SAM-5 design was sound, the quality of workmanship on the first prototype was not, as workers at the nascent Voronezh Aircraft Factory lacked training and experience. Despite this, test flights showed promise, and the aircraft was modified into the improved SAM-5bis, with added wing struts, a slimmer fuselage, and parts of the airframe lightened by using fabric-covered plywood construction. By 1936, this variant was making extensive long-distance test flights; in October of that year, the SAM-5bis performed a 3,500-km flight from Sevastopol to Gorky (modern-day Nizhny Novgorod), with several stops in between, in a little over twenty-five hours—with just a single pilot onboard!

Moskalev would go on to improve and adapt the basic design, resulting in the SAM-5-2bis, a slightly smaller, aerodynamically superior rendition with better performance that was used on passenger flights from Moscow to Stalingrad, Tashkent, and Frunze (modern-day Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) even into the war years. This in turn was developed into several variants powered by inline engines, including the low-wing SAM-10 and amphibious SAM-11, as well as the radial-powered SAM-25 military transport version, used as an air ambulance during World War II. Around forty of all variants were produced.
The Sigma Projects
Even before the decidedly unassuming SAM-5 took flight, Moskalev was thinking way outside the box. In fact, even in 1933, he was hypothesizing about rocket-propelled fighters and sketching ogival delta-wing concepts that could reach speeds of up to 1,000 km/h—and, eventually, exceed the speed of sound. Working closely with future rocket science pioneer Valentin Glushko at the Krasnyi Letchik factory in Leningrad, he may have been the first in the world to embark upon an endeavor to achieve supersonic flight. The rocket fighter idea was soon abandoned, as it was thought that rocket engines with sufficient thrust for a viable combat aircraft were still years away—somewhat untrue, it’d seem, as German work on the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet began just four years later, but, considering what became of that monstrosity, it’s probably better that Moskalev quit while he was ahead.

The first of the concepts that came to be known as the Sigma projects, the SAM-4, appeared on paper as a piston-powered aircraft that was no less radical: something that looked like a persimmon leaf stuck to a propeller when viewed from above, with an offset cockpit and ovate endplates (vertical stabilizers) attached to the wingtips. These early drawings don’t do justice to just how forward-thinking Moskalev’s ideas for the aircraft truly were: he intended it to be a twin-engine machine, with 760hp Hispano-Suiza 12Y engines buried in the wing, similar to a modern stealth aircraft of the Northrop B-2 variety, driving coaxial contrarotating propellers with scimitar blades not unlike those found on the Airbus A400M.

Radical machines
Alas, the powers-that-be decided that the SAM-4 was just too radical, and it remains a paper airplane.
Drawings of the SAM-4 circulating around the Internet seem to show it having a fairly conventional two-legged retractable undercarriage, but Moskalev is known to have preferred a single-wheel (or even single-skid) arrangement to save weight. This concept did make it off the drawing board and into the air, albeit in a much less sci-fi manner. The SAM-6 airframe consisted of a rather ordinary (if a bit stubby) fuselage and empennage; the only thing that might’ve suggested anything extraordinary about it was the long, extremely broad wing fitted with the same endplates as those proposed for the SAM-4, albeit without rudders. Originally, skis were fitted under the fuselage and tail, with smaller skids attached to the wingtip fences; the aircraft would later be modified as the SAM-6bis, with enclosed cockpits and a wheel replacing the central ski. With a loaded weight of just 1,100 pounds, it performed adequately on a 65hp M-23 engine.
While the SAM-6 testbed proved that the single-wheel undercarriage concept was feasible, it would obviously not catch on; sailplanes and the U-2 spy plane are the exception rather than the rule. Moskalev did intend to use the arrangement on the next of his wild creations, but eventually opted for a more conventional approach—one of very few things conventional about the next of the Sigma projects, the SAM-7.
If you just look at the SAM-7’s forward fuselage, nothing seems terribly amiss about it. It has a sleek nose and streamlined cowling for its Mikulin AM-34 V-12 engine, which Moskalev was able to acquire while working on modifications for the Tupolev TB-3 bomber. The wingtips still feature those endplate stabilizers, but by now, you might just boil that down to one of the designer’s idiosyncrasies.
Then, it emerges completely from the hangar and…where’s the tail? There’s nothing behind the wing but what looks like a tail turret. No empennage whatsoever. The elevators, located on the inboard part of the twin-spar trapezoidal wing, were supposed to double as flaps.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the SAM-7 didn’t perform the way Moskalev wanted it to, unless his intention was to give Soviet test pilots heart attacks. Its inherent instability meant that it was reportedly very difficult to control, which, coupled with its relatively high stalling speed of 86 mph (cue the nearest Martin B-26 laughing hysterically), meant that its testing program was short-lived and the aircraft’s full performance envelope was never explored. Only one of the aircraft, which must’ve somehow been funded by Moskalev himself as no evidence of state support or approval has been documented, was ever built.

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Now as we’ve already established, the Soviet state was less than enthusiastic about Moskalev’s forays into radical aircraft design. However, even in 1936, the Soviets were worried about falling behind the Americans. So, when some scientists at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) became aware of US projects for flying machines that looked like they beamed down from outer space, featuring low-aspect-ratio wings and pilots seated in prone positions, the state became concerned about the possibility of a futuristic aircraft gap, and found Moskalev’s address crumpled in their wastebaskets. (In reality, the US ‘projects’ were little more than fanciful drawings in magazines that were never under any serious development consideration.)
What became of this quest was something far less impressive than Moskalev had envisaged, but still sufficiently radical: the SAM-9, known as the Strela, or “arrow.” It retained the leaflike wing shape of the SAM-4 drawings, but featured a traditional taildragger landing gear taken from the SAM-5 (originally with skis, later with wheels) and replaced the wingtip fences with a single central vertical stabilizer. In place of the Hispano-Suiza 12Y, the aircraft featured a license-built Renault 4P inline engine with a paltry output of either 140hp or 270hp, depending on the source; far from the supersonic speeds that Moskalev dreamed of just three short years earlier, the SAM-9 would achieve a maximum speed of 190 mph.
Thanks to Moskalev’s earlier work, the SAM-9 design was presented within three days (!), and a prototype was churned out in a mere seventy. Following promising wind tunnel tests at TsAGI, short hops were conducted starting in the spring of 1937. For the first flight, the controls were handed over to a budding N.S. Rybko, who would go on to break in some of the Soviet Union’s most impressive aircraft. But, in that instance, he couldn’t coax the aircraft more than twenty meters off the ground. It was soon deduced that the ogival delta wing necessitated a much higher angle of attack for low-speed flight—an extreme 22° to be exact. With this in mind, the aircraft was able to fly higher, but that angle of attack made landing it a harrowing exercise, and support was pulled later that year.

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While this was the practical end of the program that started with the SAM-4, Moskalev’s dream wasn’t dead yet. Rocket technology was advancing enough by 1944 that the original Sigma concept now appeared feasible—a perspective shared by Korolev, who once again voiced his support. The resultant SAM-29 would’ve featured the gothic delta wing and single vertical fin from the Strela, but with a sharply pointed nose and streamlined fuselage housing the Dushkin RD-2M-3V engine, propellant tanks throughout the airframe, and pair of cannons. Alas, by the time came to present the idea to the state, the war was over, and the project was deemed too revolutionary and unnecessary.
And that was the end of the Sigma project.

But Moskalev wasn’t wholly obsessed with his Sigmas. He did design a pair of promising warplanes in the 1940s, neither of which went into serial production but merit a mention. In fact, the SAM-13 fighter prototype might’ve been his most successful design of all if not for extenuating circumstances. Drawing heavy influence from the Fokker D.XXIII fighter of 1937, the SAM-13 sought to counter the problems of asymmetric power and frontal drag on a twin-engine aircraft by opting for the pusher-puller (or, more vulgarly, suck-and-blow) arrangement. With its short fuselage and twin-boom empennage, the SAM-13 looks very similar to the Dutch product, the main visual difference being that the smaller Russian product features a single vertical stabilizer centered on an oval tailplane rather than the twin tails attached to the booms on the Fokker. Had it gone into production, the SAM-13 would’ve been armed with four 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns, two in the nose and one in each wing.

The SAM-13’s streamlined design and lightweight construction (it was made mostly of wood) meant that its pair of 220hp Voronezh MV-6 (license-built Renault) inline engines gave it reasonably good performance, with flight tests reaching up to 323 mph and an estimated top speed of over 400 mph. This, combined with the engines cancelling out each other’s torque, was one benefit; however, it did have some drawbacks, as cooling the rear engine proved a challenge and it was prone to overheating, and the aircraft suffered from poor handling characteristics, had a dismal climb rate, and required a lot of ground for takeoff and landing.
This unsatisfactory performance conspired with a state policy prioritizing in-production warplanes over experimental projects to kill the SAM-13 after a few test flights. This is probably why Moskalev blamed Yakovlev, who was at the time Deputy People’s Commissar for the aviation sector and whose fighters were among those taking priority, for the SAM-13’s failure. But, ultimately, it was the Germans who put the final nail in the type’s coffin: those first flights took place on the eve of Operation Barbarossa. The prototype was destroyed as the Gromov Flight Research Institute was abandoned ahead of the German advance.
Another Moskalev design from around the same time, albeit existing only on paper, was the SAM-23 (also known as the LT) ground attack aircraft. Not to be confused with an assault glider with the same designation, this aircraft featured the twin-boom configuration of the SAM-13, again with a single vertical stabilizer intersecting the tailplane, but with only a single pusher engine, an M-11 radial of 150hp, very weak for a 1940s design. However, armed with two 20mm cannon, an equal number of 7.62mm machine guns, and up to four RS-82 air-to-ground rockets, it would’ve been quite formidable for its size.

The most curious aspect of the SAM-23, however, was its landing gear arrangement. The tailwheel was actually attached to a series of rods protruding from the nose; while retracted, it merely jutted out from behind the fuselage and functioned like any other aircraft’s. However, when lowered, the wheel and its elongated strut would roll along the ground as the aircraft flew overhead, acting as a sort of terrain-following device (we’re not entirely sure about about the concept behind this ‘whiskered undercarriage’).

So, you see, while men like Moskalev might not go down in history among the greats, the world of aviation is all the more colourful because of them. слава!

Miles M.30, the British ‘Moonbat’

There’s a good reason that the 1942 Miles M.30 reminds you of the later McDonnell XP-67 ‘Moon Bat’, as both were based based on the blended-wing body principles patented by the Russian aerodynamicist Nicolas Woyevodsky. Miles were embracing these futuristic ideas to create a radical new type of aircraft. Miles Aircraft was run by two aero engineers married to each other and was based in Berkshire in England. Maxine ‘Blossom’ Miles, as well as being an aviation engineer, was a socialite, and businesswoman. She became fascinated by aviation in the 1920s, and married her flight instructor, Frederick George Miles. Together they founded Miles Aircraft Ltd. The company specialised in innovative clever designs, such as the M.20.

Miles M.20 – The ‘F-20 Tigershark’ of the 1940s


The chunky, cheap and cheerful Miles M.20 would likely have proved a most useful aircraft in the early/mid war period.

The M.20 was a thoroughly sensible design, cleverly engineered to be easy to produce with minimal delay at its nation’s time of greatest need, whilst still capable of excellent performance. As it turned out its nation’s need never turned out to be quite great enough for the M.20 to go into production. First flying a mere 65 days after being commissioned by the Air Ministry, the M.20’s structure was of wood throughout to minimise its use of potentially scarce aluminium and the whole nose, airscrew and Merlin engine were already being produced as an all-in-one ‘power egg’ unit for the Bristol Beaufighter II. To maintain simplicity the M.20 dispensed with a hydraulic system and as a result the landing gear was not retractable. The weight saved as a consequence allowed for a large internal fuel capacity and the unusually heavy armament of 12 machine guns with twice as much ammunition as either Hurricane or Spitfire. Tests revealed that the M.20 was slower than the Spitfire but faster than the Hurricane and its operating range was roughly double that of either. It also sported the first clear view bubble canopy to be fitted to a military aircraft. M20FAA

In its final form as a potential Naval aircraft, the M.20 sported smaller undercarriage fairings and a lengthened rear fuselage.

Because it was viewed as a ‘panic’ fighter, an emergency back-up if Hurricanes or Spitfires could not be produced in sufficient numbers, production of the M.20 was deemed unnecessary since no serious shortage occurred of either. However, given that much of the development of the Spitfire immediately after the Battle of Britain was concerned with extending its short range, as the RAF went onto the offensive over Europe, the cancellation of a quickly available, long-ranged fighter with decent performance looks like a serious error. Exactly the same thing happened with the Boulton Paul P.94, which was essentially a Defiant without the turret, offering performance in the Spitfire class but with heavier armament and a considerably longer range. The only difference being that this aircraft was even more available than the M.20 as it was a relatively simple modification to an aircraft already in production.M20crash

Oh dear. The M.20 looking rather sorry for itself after overshooting on landing and ending up in a gravel pit.

The M.20 popped up again in 1941 as a contender for a Fleet Air Arm catapult fighter requirement, where its relative simplicity would have been valuable. Unfortunately for Miles, there were literally thousands of obsolete Hawker Hurricanes around by this time and with suitable modifications they did the job perfectly well. 

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Blended Wing Body Designs

Westland Dreadnaught

From 1938, Miles considered various size and roles of aircraft that could be better performed by a far ‘cleaner’ type of aeroplane, with buried engines and additional lift from an aerofoil cross-section fuselage. These aircraft promised unprecedented performance for their relatively modest installed power, hinting at low-cost flight.

These varied designs were studied under the designation M.26, with each having an individual X number. They ranged from small feeder-liners to vast 8-engined transatlantic transports.

Addressing much the same need as the Bristol Brabazon, the 55-seat Miles X-9 airliner was planned to feature eight engines buried in the wings, driving four sets of contra-rotating props. Range was calculated at a very impressive 3,450 miles. To investigate the blended wing/body Miles built a sub-scale flying model of the X.9 design, the M.30 X-Minor. The gorgeous M.30 first flew in February 1942 which provided useful data but Miles’ ambitious plans never came to fruition.


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McDonnell XP-67 ‘Moonbat‘ (1944)

The radical aerodynamics of the Moonbat gave this US fighter prototype the look of flying stingray. The design emphasised low drag and the harvesting of a high amount of fuselage lift through a blended wing/body design. The fuselage, like the wing, had an aerofoil cross-section. This idea had been seen earlier on the Westland Dreadnought based on the blended fuselage-wing ideas of Russian inventor N. Woyevodsky, a Russian emigre scientist who lived in England.

The first two manifestations of this design failed to arouse the USAAF, but promises of a 472mph top speed tantalised the authorities and funding was granted. McDonnell considered serious armament options including a 75-mm gun.

The resultant aircraft flew in 1944 and proved the unknown adage ‘if it looks like a stingray it will fly like one’. It was underpowered, with poor handling, a long take-off run, terrible fuel consumption and stall characteristics even a 1940s test pilot didn’t have the bottle to explore. A prototype crashed and the project was deemed too dangerous to continue.

The blended wing body concept however has not died. It was later used with great success, among other, the SR-71 Blackbird. It is also, in its purest form, being studied for a number of future airliners concepts.

Enter the Skyknight: Hornet pilot shares the dark history of the Douglas F3D ‘Night Killer’

Former US Marine Corps Hornet pilot Louis Gundlach takes an in-depth look at the ‘Night Killer’ of the Korean War, the Douglas F3D Skyknight.

In 1945, the U.S. Navy was alarmed that the Japanese air force was building jet-powered bombers and kamikaze aircraft. The Navy’s contemporary and planned propeller-driven fighters would be unable to intercept these extremely fast aircraft, especially at night. In response, the Navy put out a tender for a jet night-fighter that was to be equipped with an airborne intercept radar that could detect enemy aircraft out to 125 miles, an astonishingly demanding distance considering the then state-of-the-art. To put this into perspective, the detection of a small fighter out at 125 miles remains respectable in 2020! The Douglas Aircraft Company began work on a design built around the Westinghouse APQ-35 radar, which was actually a system made up of three radars. The main search radar, the APS-21, was equipped with a very large parabolic dish. This dish dictated that the nose of the aircraft would be very large. As well as being huge, the APQ-35 was also exceptionally complex and user intensive, so would require a dedicated Radio Operator. With these two design necessities in place, Douglas engineers designed a twin–engine aircraft with side-by-side seating. The aircraft became known as the F3D Skyknight.

The F3D-1 was equipped with two Westinghouse J-34 engines that each produced 3,400 pounds of thrust for a combined total of 6,800. While this was fairly good performance for a jet engine at that time, it wasn’t much grunt for an aircraft with a take-off weight of 25,414 pounds. The engines were also canted down, away from the aircraft, which further reduced the effective thrust of the engines. With the added drag of a large nose, two-place canopy, and large straight wings, the F3D was easily outperformed by the day fighters of the time. It first flew in 23 March 1948 and was in service by 1951.

It could climb to over 40,000 feet and reach a true airspeed of 500 knots at that altitude (around sixty knots slower than its day fighter contemporaries). The aircraft had combat radius of 500 nautical miles and with drop tanks added it had a radius of 590 nautical miles. It was armed with four 20mm cannon. The aircraft’s performance was less than ideal, but it was purposely built to be a night airborne interceptor.


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Like the Corsair in World War II and the Tigercat after the war, the Marine Corps came into possession of the Skyknight because of the type’s inability to operate from aircraft carriers. Though the F3D was found suitable for carrier operations, it would require a whole host of modifications to ensure safe operation onboard a carrier. Additionally, since the Navy had given the Marine Corps almost all of the radar-equipped Tigercats, the Navy did not have Radar Operators or a programme in place to train ROs. The APQ-35 was found difficult to operate and maintain, especially on the cramped confines of an aircraft carrier. The Navy also had not adopted new procedures for jet aircraft to operate from straight-deck carriers at night. Lastly, the F3D was a night interceptor only. It could not carry any bombs during its early years and the Navy was pushing for multi-role aircraft even back then. In the end, the U.S. Navy did not have the expertise to operate the radar, fix the radar, and operate the large Skyknight around the carrier at night, so they gave most of the F3Ds to the Marine Corps.

The F3D was built around the APQ-35 radar system. This radar had four functions: to search for airborne targets; to compute a gun solution for the 20mm cannon; to provide beacon interrogation and display beacon replies; and to provide a tail warning capability. As was mentioned, the APQ-35 was made up of three radars: The APS-21 was a long range search and intercept radar. It also supplied the beacon interrogation and display function; the APG-26 was a short-range gun aiming radar; the APS-28 was the tail warning radar. All three of these radars had separate radar dishes, transmitters, scopes, and controls. The APQ-35 had capabilities far exceeding other radars of the time, but it was nightmarishly laborious to use effectively.

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All of the controls for the three radars that made up the APQ-35 were found on the radar operator’s front console. Three scopes dominated the console along with various switches, knobs and buttons. The APS-21 radar was the primary search and intercept radar. The APS-21 had two dedicated radar displays dedicated to it. On the right side of the RO console there was a round C-scope which provided altitude and azimuth information to one contact. The primary scope for the APS-21 was a sector Plan Position Indicator (PPI) scope located on the left side of the RO console. The PPI provided range and azimuth indications on a display that was shaped like a third a piece of pie. The APS-21 had an elevation scan ability of -30 degrees below the horizon to +60 degrees above the horizon. Its azimuth search was up to 170 degrees and could locate fighter sized targets out to 40 nm. F3D ROs stated that the normal detection range for a fighter-sized target was around 18nm.

The APG-26 was a short-range gun aiming radar that could be used out to 4,000 yards. The APG-26 dish was located in front of the large APS-21 radar dish in the nose. The APG-26 radar scope was located on the right side of the pilot’s front console and was a C-scope. Controls for the APG-26 were located on the RO’s console. Range was provided via a dial beneath the scope that counted down from 2,000 yards. The target displayed on the scope was not a raw radar return, but a predicted target that was produced by the APG-26 ballistics computer. The APG-26 scope was round with vertical and horizontal cross hairs. The pilot would fly the target to the centre of the cross hairs and, when in range, could fire accurately without visually sighting the enemy aircraft.

The APS-28 was a rear warning radar and was based on the F4U-5N and the F7F-4N’s APS-19 radar. Controls for the radar were on the RO control panel along with its single scope. At the bottom of the scope were four red warning lights that would draw the RO’s attention to the scope in case a target was detected. The lights represented one quarter of the APS-28’s search area. The scope was an ‘H’ scope design that displayed two returns. The left return indicated azimuth and range, while the right return indicated altitude by referencing its position to the left return. It had a range out to four nautical miles and its operation was almost entirely autonomous.

Search and Intercept
The RO would use the APS-21 to search in front of the aircraft. While the F3D had exceptional radar capabilities for its time, it was still dependant on GCI radar. The radar would be set to search in 170 degrees azimuth with the range set at 80 nm. Elevation could be automatic, searching +60 degrees to – 30 degrees above and below the aircrafts nose position. Most ROs manually adjusted the elevation search using a 30 degree scan to search likely altitudes where enemy aircraft would be. The elevation control was a small switch which made accurate control difficult. The RO could also adjust the horizontal scan from 170 degrees to 30 degrees to look at a certain area. The only scope that would show airborne targets in search was the left PPI indicator. The PPI scope would show an airborne target that received a return from the transmitted radar energy.
Once a target was found on the radar that was to be intercepted, the RO would fine tune the radar to give more information on the target. The horizontal scan could be scaled down to 30 degrees to put more radar energy on the target. The RO would select the shortest range scale that would still have the target on the PPI. Then the RO would manipulate a range control knob to move a moveable range ring on the PPI scope. When the range ring intersected the desired target return, the target would then show up on the C scope. Once the range ring was over the target, accurate range was also displayed. If not already done, the RO would move the elevation scan to 30 degrees and centre the elevation around the contact on the C scope. Now the RO would begin to direct the pilot by directive then descriptive inter-cockpit communications. “Come left to 340 and climb, target bears 030, 25 miles, high” would be an example of the communications from the RO to the pilot. The RO could decipher basic heading and airspeed of the radar contact by the track the contact made across the PPI scope. There was not a set way to figure target heading and speed, only the RO’s experience and countless training runs would enable an educated guess. With help form the GCI controller, the F3D crew would manoeuvre the fighter to get behind the enemy contact at a desired range of about a mile and a half.
Once the aircraft closed to within 4,000 yards and the target is between 60 degrees horizontally and 30 degrees vertically from the nose and the range ring is over the target, a Gun Aim circle appeared on the C scope display. The RO could move the Gun Aim circle with the APG-26 radar controls to put the circle over the target return on the C scope. Once the Gun Aim circle was over the target return an On Target light illuminated and the target appeared on the pilot’s APG-26 gun scope. The RO could manually keep the Gun Aim circle over the target or he could actuate the lock button on his radar control panel. Once the lock button was pushed the APG-26 attempted to track the radar contact autonomously. With the target on the APG-26 scope, the pilot flew the target to the centre of the scope crosshairs. Inside of 2,000 meters, a range dial started to count down and the pilot could open fire inside 1,000 meters, with inside 500 meters being considered an effective range.

(Appendix 8 – APQ-35 airborne intercept interpretation.)

F3D Tactics
The Marine night fighter squadrons were excited to get the advanced F3D. When VMF(N)-542 left Korea, its aircrew, along with the aircrew of VMF(N)-531 received training in the Skyknight. Once they were done with their training, the aircrew, along with their F3Ds, were transferred to VMF(N)-513 located at Kunsan Airbase in Korea. VMF(N)-513 continued to operate as a composite night fighter squadron with the F3Ds operating along side the night Corsairs and Tigercats. The F3Ds initially had some maintenance problems and the Skyknight was grounded for a period of time in 1952. The Marine Pilots were anxious to try out the new jet fighter against the MiG-15s who had been operating at night since early 1951. The F3D would have been easy pickings for the MiG in the day time, but with its advanced radar, the aircrew felt the Skyknight was more than a match for the MiG-15 at night.

Initially the F3Ds operated in a similar fashion to the F4U-5N and the F7Fs. CAP positions were picked near the front lines in hopes of intercepting a communist night bomber or a MiG heading south. During the first couple months of action the Skyknights did not intercept any enemy aircraft and the aircrew had thought the air war had passed them by. During this time, the U.S. Air Force B-29s began to run into serious opposition at nigh due to MiG-15 intercepting them on their bombs runs into North Korea. The B-29s were restricted from flying in the day time because the MiGs had exacted a heavy toll on the bombers during daylight raids. The MiGs were beginning to have effects on the unescorted bombers at night. The U.S. Air Force’s night fighter, the F-94B was thought to be too valuable to fall into enemy hands and was restricted to South Korea. This left VMF(N)-513 and their F3Ds to provide cover for the bombers.

The F3Ds developed tactics to escort the B-29s that differed from the tactics used by the U.S. Air Force in World War II. The new tactics enabled the RO to work the radar and run an intercept away from the bombers. Coordination would start at the brief were on station times, frequencies, headings to and from the target, and the likely threat was briefed. Most of the squadrons F3Ds would be airborne to support these missions. If enough aircraft were available, a couple of F3Ds would launch as airborne spares, in case a primary aircraft had a maintenance problem. If unneeded, the spares would often set up a CAP to intercept communist night bombers. Other F3Ds would provide escort for the bombers, as well as a high and low barrier cap, and a target CAP. These missions would used in the future, with attached and detached escort, BARCAPs, and TARCAPS being standard missions flown by fighter pilots in the future

Two F3Ds would normally comprise the escort. These aircraft would operate a single aircraft and would be separated by altitude and range. The Skyknights would use their radar to intercept the bombers as they entered into enemy airspace. From the intercept, the night fighters join up with the bomber formations. The F3Ds would offset toward one side of the bombers as the fighters flew along side the formation. With the offset, the APS-21 would paint the bomber stream and a threat could be picked up trying to fly toward the bombers. These F3Ds would fly with the bombers until they reached the target area. At that point another two F3Ds would pick up the bombers and escort them out of enemy territory. These F3Ds would sometimes have part of the bomber formation within visual range along the route but mostly the bomber formations position was known by using the radar. This would become known as a detached escort. If the fighters were alerted by GCI that an enemy aircraft was closing, the F3D could leave the formation and intercept the enemy fighter.

Usually four other F3Ds would set up a barrier CAP on the south side of the Yalu River. Two of the jets would set up and orbit at around 15,000 feet and the other two would fly around 30,000 feet. These caps would form a barrier between the bomber formation and the MiG bases located in China. The CAPs would run in a racetrack type pattern that usually was 40 nm in length. The ends of the two cap positions were usually separated by 10 miles. The high cap could expect to experience the most action, as friendly GCI had trouble seeing the MiGs below 15,000 feet across the Chinese border. GCI would direct the fighters to intercept the MiGs as they crossed the border because the allied fighters could not fly into Chinese territory. The low cap could expect to pick up the contact on the APS-21 search radar and run an intercept without the help of GCI.
A single aircraft, usually manned by the most experience aircrew would orbit near the target area. The “target” cap would set up between the target and the threat sector. The F3D would position itself to intercept any MiGs attempting to attack the bombers in the target area. This F3D aircrew would also act as an airborne commander, making tactical decisions in relation to the other F3Ds airborne. If an F3D was experiencing radar problems, the target cap aircrew might direct an airborne spare to take its place. He might also move fighters into new positions in light of enemy movements.
(Appendix 9 – F3D escort of B-29 formation.)

The F3Ds quickly scored kills on the Communist fighters. The B-29s offered the bait for the enemy fighters to come up and the day fighters could not compete, at first, with the F3Ds sophisticated radar system. The first kill came on 3 November, 1952, with a barrier low cap aircraft intercepting a communist jet fighter.
On 3 November, 1952 at approximately 0107/I (Korea local time) at 14,000 feet, contact was made on radar. Unidentified at same altitude, heading approximately 330 degrees, speed 320 knots. Distance 7 miles. Contact lost, then again established, same distance. Closed to 2,100 feet. APG-26 [gun aiming radar] would not lock [and] visual sighting [was] made of single-engine jet-type aircraft identified as Yak-15 at 0110. After some delay, permission was give by Dutchboy [allied GCI] to “Bag Bandit.” Opened fire at approximately 0113 at 12,000 feet altitude. 1,200 feet from directly astern. First burst hit port wing of bands, second fuselage, third entered tailpipe, exploding therein. Three explosions in all were observed and plane smoke heavily as it went down. Last seen at 6,000 feet still on fire and smoking.

The kill was the first night kill between two jets in aviation history.  The actual identification of the enemy fighter is doubted because the Yak-15 was not widely produced or used.  It was possibly a follow-on Yak fighter, the Yak-23, which was reportedly seen by other allied pilots over Korea.
After achieving MiG kills escorting the B-29s in the early winter of 1952/53, the MiGs changed tactics and began to target the Marine F3Ds.  The communist GCI also showed signs of improvement during this time.  Lastly the communists started to jam the night fighter communications with GCI.  A tactic that was observed by the F3D crews during this time was one MiG would act as “bait” and fly in front of the F3D and another set of MiGs would climb from low altitude to attack the Skyknight which was distracted intercepting the “bait” MiG.  During this time the Chinese would jam the F3D communications which kept friendly GCI from warning the F3D crew.  If it was not for the APS-28 tail warning radar, a couple of Skyknights would have undoubtedly been lost to this bait tactic. 

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F3D Radar Control Panel.

F3D Pilot cockpit