If the Victor bomber’s wing design was so good – why is the crescent wing a dead concept?

Perhaps the very pinnacle of British aero-engineering was the superlative Handley-Page Victor nuclear bomber of 1952. The world’s greatest medium bomber, the Victor was far superior to rival designs. Key to its superiority was its distinctive crescent wing. Considering the excellence of the wing we wondered why this design solution is dead. We turned to Jim Smith to find out.

Hush-Kit asked me about the Victor crescent wing, and why it had not been more widely used. The answer needs a bit of discussion about what was being sought, and the problems of flight at high altitude and high transonic speed.

The Supermarine 545 at the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield in 1960. The Supermarine 545, derived from the Swift, had a three-stage sweep in its crescent wing. It was never flown.

The unusual Victor wing design is extremely interesting. Like all aircraft wing designs, it must balance the competing needs of required lift, altitude and speed capability, while carrying the powerplants and minimising structural weight – without falling off.

So… why the crescent shape?

This primarily derives from the desire to cruise at high subsonic speed and high altitude over long distances, going right back to the original requirement as a strategic nuclear bomber. This requirement means that it will be helpful to have good internal volume for fuel, in an aerodynamic shape that has low drag at speeds close to the transonic drag rise.

What’s that the transonic drag wave?

The transonic drag rise is the increase in drag of an aerofoil or wing as speed is increased towards the speed of sound. The rise in drag is typically due to the formation of shock waves in the flow as areas of locally supersonic flow develop over the wing. Bear in mind we are aiming for high altitude, so the wing will be having to generate reasonable lift coefficients (a daunting term that simply means the effectiveness of an aircraft wing) in the cruise, and those are generated by suction due to increased local air speed. Hence areas of locally supersonic flow may develop, which may result in the formation of shock waves and increases in drag. The speed at which shock waves first appear in the flow is called the critical Mach number, and it is at around this Mach number that potentially performance-limiting drag rise occurs.

Not only that, the shock waves that form are likely to interfere with the flow over the wing, and badly affect handling. For a conventional, straight-tapered, swept wing (Sabre, for example) at a given incidence, subsonic, the greatest lift coefficient will be at perhaps 70% span, and this area is likely to be where shock waves first appear in the flow as speed is increased. Because a shock wave is essentially a sudden jump in pressure in the flow, it can, and does, greatly affect the flow close to the wing surface in the boundary layer. At high speed and high altitude, this can cause the flow to separate, resulting in a drastic loss of lift, and a phenomenon called transonic pitch up.

All of the above can be delayed by a combination of wing sweep (which reduces local Mach number), and low thickness-chord ratio, which reduces local suction, hence delays formation of shock waves.

Now, to the Victor. The Victor was designed to achieve the same critical Mach number across the whole span of the wing. The wing design has a very large inboard wing chord, with high sweep, and this allows it both to have sufficient depth to accommodate the engines (more on this shortly), while still allowing a high critical Mach number. Outboard, the wing tapers, and reduces significantly in thickness, and moderately in sweep, these two factors resulting in a constant critical Mach number, and no tendency to transonic pitch up. Overall, the result is a max cruise speed of Mach 0.92 at 55,000 ft, which is a fairly remarkable achievement for an aircraft which first flew in 1952.

So why doesn’t every aircraft look like this? Well, there are two short answers to this – one, because they don’t need to, and two, because of the disadvantages of the engine installation. The Victor is a great package, but you don’t really want to bury the engines in the wings if you can avoid it, notwithstanding a certain post-war British fascination with doing just that.
If you bury the engines, you will have to redesign the wing if you choose to upgrade the engines – see Victor, Nimrod, Nimrod MRA4 for example, quite apart from the added time and cost of routine maintenance or engine changes. Intake design also turns out to be tricky, because leading edge intakes next to the fuselage will see substantial changes in flow with varying incidence and lift. In addition, there are structural benefits to distributing the engines across the span, due to something called inertia bending moment relief, which results in lower stresses at the wing root, and hence lighter wing structure. However, podded solutions at these high cruise Mach numbers will also be tricky to design, as they may well reduce critical Mach number.

The Naan Bread Triangle, Mr Old Skool and Captain Fantastic

Today’s airliners are among the most efficient aircraft ever made, and this has been achieved by not needing to do some of the things the Victor could do. If you do not need to travel at such a high cruise speed, you can go for structurally-efficient podded engines, and gain a bonus in upgradeability and maintenance costs, as well as lighter wing weights. The wings can be lighter as the weight of an engine on the wings gives relief from wing bending.

Additionally, at lower cruise speeds, and with modern aerofoil design methods, lower sweep and thicker wing sections can be used, and higher local Mach numbers can be tolerated without shock waves causing flow separations. All of this, and the use of new materials, result in lighter and more aerodynamically and structurally efficient wings.

The Victor and the Vulcan both resulted from a desire to cruise fast, high and for long-distances. With the exception of the B-2, the subsonic military transport and bomber aircraft of today are essentially transports, and are designed like transport aircraft. These aircraft are all vulnerable to advanced anti-air weapons, which is why the strategic capability now generally resides with submarines rather than aircraft. The B-2 (and B-21) are pursuing a different survivability route (stealth), which imposes its own constraints and compromises.

Supersonic aircraft tend to punch through the difficult transonic area at low lift coefficient, and are driven to completely different configuration solutions depending on their particular requirements.

Today only one or two business jets operate in the difficult transonic cruise environment, aided by advanced aerofoil design, and generally rear-mounted podded engines with integrated design of the fuselage, wings and engine pods to reduce drag. Respect is due to any aircraft capable of cruising at Mach 0.9+ for long distances, even though the Victor and Vulcan have passed into history.

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Thoughts on the F-35B fighter crash

The recent Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II (STOVL variant) accident at Fort Worth (see video) is, of course, subject to detailed investigation. Any speculation, of course, is just that, but there are some possible pointers in the video which may be worthy of comment.

The aircraft performs a low-speed, near-vertical, landing, and touches down with sufficient descent-rate to experience a bounce on landing. Following the bounce, it pitches rapidly nose down, strikes the ground, and falls over onto its side. The engine remains running, and thrust from the deflected rear nozzle drives the aircraft around in a circular motion on the ground. Towards the end of the sequence, the rotation of the aircraft on the ground reverses, suggesting that the fan may have re-engaged. The pilot ejects, and there is no fire.

What could have caused this mishap? The initial pitch down is immediate and quite rapid, suggesting a large thrust imbalance rather than an intentional manoeuvre. This might be caused by a fan system failure, noting that single point failure of the clutch, the gearbox, the drive-shaft, or of the fan itself could cause such a thrust imbalance. Of these, the clutch and gearbox appear most significant, given the apparent re-engagement of the fan, inferred from the reversal of the motion of the aircraft.

ASTOVL aircraft in jet-borne flight are vulnerable to single-point failures of this sort, as are helicopters. The cause of this particular accident should be relatively rapidly identified, given the apparently successful ejection by the pilot, the relatively limited damage to the aircraft, the available video imagery, and the lack of a post-crash fire.

Aspects of particular interest are likely to be the nature and cause of the initial failure; whether there was any adverse interaction between the propulsion control system and the flight control system; whether, and why, the fan re-engaged; and why the engine continued to run throughout the sequence, rather than being shut down automatically or through pilot control.

Creating a supersonic stealthy vertical take-off fighter is an extremely difficult task, and years of studies —and a healthy handful of initialisms and acronyms — paved the path to today’s F-35B. Jim Smith describes his role on the ASTOVL project and the challenges it faced here.

Top 10 RAF fighter aircraft of World War II ranked by number of ‘kills’

Top 11 RAF & Commonwealth warplanes of World War 2 Ranked by Total number of air-to-air victories

Which Royal Air Force aircraft type scored the most kills in World War 2? We ranked RAF and Commonwealth warplanes of the Second World War using a brutally simple metric: how many enemy aircraft they shot down. Assembling the information for this proved fiendishly complicated, but Eddie Rippeth (Hush-Kit’s tamed numbers-man) did it*. The results are extremely surprising in several cases.

Mired in the morass of war and the chaos of counterclaims, the exact numbers are up for debate. Some numbers are crude estimations based on best available sources, while others are well documented. If you can offer solid data that can improve this list, please add it in the comments section along with information about the source. These are best estimates based on the victory records of aces and near-aces, checked against squadron numbers – exactly as I did with the Spitfire count. And obviously these are confirmed victory claims – not confirmed enemy losses. Though sporting words like ‘score’ and ‘victories’ may put us in a cooly comparative or even recreational frame of mind, it must be remembered that any score was marked in gore and grief.

*A little more on how he did it at the end.

Before we start with the RAF aircraft, let’s get the Royal Navy’s top scorer out of the way, the Fulmar.

  1. Fairey Fulmar (1940) – 112

Aces: Stanley Orr 9 (of 10.5); Jackie Sewell (Eng) 8 (of 9.5); Graham Hogg (Sco)

The very similar cousin of the disastrous Fairey Battle, the technical performance of the Fulmar was every bit as modest, yet it outscored the Corsair, the Hellcat, the Wildcat and carrier versions of the Hurricane and Spitfire. As a concept, the long-range two-manned carrier fighter proved effective in the North Atlantic, and surpassed any reasonable expectations when it got embroiled in the air battles around Crete and Malta in early 1941. Only once, taking on Zeros in the attack on Ceylon, did it take anything like a beating. Elsewhere in the hands of superb FAA aces like Orr, Sewell and Hogg, it downed a good number of Italian and German bombers with minimal losses.

We cheated and added a number 11…

11. Boulton Paul Defiant (1937)148 victories

Leading aces: Edward Thorn 12.33; Nicholas Cooke 10; Michael Young 9.83

Opinions vary on the Defiant. Some see it as the one of the worst fighters of World War 2; others regard it as a very well-designed aircraft servicing a flawed concept – that as a bomber destroyer it only needed rear-facing guns. Some even argue that it was the victim of a conspiracy led by Keith Park and Hugh Dowding. The Defiant had one spectacular day of success over Dunkirk on May 29th, 1940, with 39 (or 38) claimed victories, but it was soon found wanting and after heavy casualties in the Battle of Britain, both squadrons were withdrawn. The Defiant then found work as a night-fighter, to which it was far more suited. It was a top scorer in the Blitz of 1940/41 until the development of on-board radar, where its single-engined layout precluded effective adaptation. Nonetheless, on its day of days, Nicholas Cooke and his air gunner, Albert Lippert, claimed eight victories plus two shared – an RAF record.

10. North American P-51 Mustang (1940) – 185 victories

Leading aces: Maurice Pinches 6.33; Basilios Vassiliados (Gr) 5.83; Eugeniusz Horbaczewski  (above) (Pol) 5.5 (of 16.5)

The RAF commissioned the Mustang and was its first user. The RAF deployed Mustangs in cross-channel operations (including Dieppe) to modest effect, but a number of squadrons, including 122 and the Polish 315, were equipped with the new Mustang IIIs in early 1944, where their main tasks were tackling V1s and escorting Coastal Command Beaufighters. Their finest moment came when 315 Squadron, led by the great Polish Battle of Britain veteran Eugeniusz Horbaczewski tackled 60 Fw 190s. 16 Fw 190s were shot down, but Horbaczewski was killed in the battle.

9. Hawker Tempest (1942) – 239 victories

Leading aces: David ‘Foobs’ Fairbanks (US) 12.5, Pierre Clostermann (Fr) 12; Warren ‘Smokey’ Schrader (NZ) 9.5

The Tempest, built as a thin-winged and more reliable successor to the Typhoon, was fortunately free of the Typhoon’s vices, and was among the fastest fighters of WW2. Initially deployed in 1944 as a V1 hunter, it shot down more pilotless bombs than any other type (638). It was also active in post-invasion Europe, where it was used to great effect by aces like Fairbanks, Clostermann and Schrader, who led the highly successful 486 RNZAF squadron. Tempests were also notable for the number of Me262s they shot down.

8. Hawker Typhoon (1940) – 246 victories

Leading aces: John Baldwin (Eng) 15.5, Charles Detal (Bel) 6.5, Remy van Lierde (Bel) 6

The troubled replacement for the Hurricane, the Typhoon’s excellent low-level performance meant it did two things rather well: ground attack, particularly during the invasion of Normandy; and intercepting low-level fighter-bomber ‘Jabo’ raiders. However, it suffered heavy casualties in this role – which, when coupled with early technical failings, gave the Typhoon an unenviable reputation. Of the aces, John Baldwin stands out, although his superb record of aerial kills was interrupted by involvement in two tragedies. First, he led his squadron in an attack on a mine-sweeping flotilla, sinking two vessels and crippling a third, only to discover that they were RN ships that had failed to identify themselves. Second, on 3 May 1945, Baldwin’s wing was involved in another anti-shipping operation, sending three liners believed to be packed with German troops to the bottom of the Baltic. Instead, several thousand concentration camp prisoners were drowned.

7. Avro Lancaster (1941) – 320 victories

There are three Lancaster air gunner aces: Wallace McIntosh 8, C. Sutherland 7; Bradford 6

Not a fighter, but with participation in so many massive raids, coming under relentless attacks by a highly effective night fighter arm, the Lancaster bomber with its three air gunners did claim some successes.

The 10 best fighters of World War 2 here

This is a crude estimate of claims, based on actual Luftwaffe night fighter losses. These were surprisingly high, with at least one nachtjager lost for every four RAF bombers shot down, even during the Battle of Berlin, which is regarded as their biggest victory. By the end of 1944, more night fighters were being lost than bombers. The majority of these were through accidents, with the rest split between air gunners and ‘bomber support’ Mosquitos and Beaufighters, although the latter became much more significant from mid-1944. While air gunner claims in daylight tend to lead to massive overclaiming (sometimes of the order of 10 to 1 and higher), paradoxically night claims tend to be more accurate, as actions tend to be one-to-one (rather than involving large formations, leading to many gunners making multiple claims on the same aircraft); and serious damage (involving explosions / flames) is easier to see, while light damage much more difficult to discern. For this list, I’ve not included other numerous bomber types like the Halifax (with one air gunner ace) the Wellington and the Bristol Blenheim (which had some fighter kills as well as one air gunner ace), which probably also amassed over one hundred claims, but I would be happy to receive more information on this (please add verifiable sources in the comments section).

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6. Gloster Gladiator (1934) – 304 victories

Leading aces: Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle (SAf) 15; William Vale (Eng) 11; Joseph Fraser (Eng) 9.25

Obviously, everyone knows everything already about the Gloster Gladiator, don’t they?

So, what nationality was the first pilot to score a kill in a Gladiator?

That’s right: American. John ‘Buffalo’ Wong, flying in the Chinese Air Force in 1938, shot down a Mitsubishi A5M, long before the ‘Flying Tigers’ had even been thought of. This kind of cosmopolitanism is typical of Britain’s last fighting biplane, as the Gladiator was little more than a convenient stop-gap to keep fighter numbers up until sufficient quantities of Hurricanes and Spitfires came on stream and was thus released for export at a fairly early date.

Curiously, the Gladiator pops up in an unusual number of far-flung and unequal conflicts where it was forced to operate (invariably heroically and to great propaganda value) in the face of numeric and technological superiority – thus conveniently mirroring the general experience of the biplane fighter in World War II. Flying for the Chinese against the Japanese, for the Finns against the Soviets, for the Belgians against the Luftwaffe and, most famously, for the RAF against the Italians over Malta, the Gladiator stoically defied the odds. More prosaically, when operated in numbers against a similarly equipped enemy, it performed excellently. A similar situation to the CR.32/I-15 situation in Spain developed over Africa, where it clashed regularly with the Fiat CR.42, which, though slightly faster, did not handle as well as the Gloster. Despite being the RAF’s last biplane fighter, it was also that service’s first fighter to sport an enclosed cockpit. There are not many aircraft that were simultaneously in the vanguard of development while being totally obsolete.

The Gladiator biplane produced the RAF’s first ace of the war, the Rhodesian Caesar Hull, during the Norwegian campaign. The biplane fighter went on to run up quite a total in the Mediterranean and in East and North Africa, usually against Italian biplane opposition, with two squadrons, 80 and 33, standing out. By the time the Luftwaffe got involved, the Gladiator had largely been replaced by Hurricanes, and escaped any serious maulings by the far more potent Me 109.

The 10 worst British aircraft here

5. Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk / Kittyhawk (1938) – 680 victories

Clive Caldwell (Aus) 20.5 (of 28.5); Billy Drake 17.5 (of 24.5); James Edwards 15.83 (of 19.08)

The best early-war American fighter made a major difference in the harsh environment of North Africa, where its low-level performance and ruggedness contributed to its success as a fighter-bomber. All its RAF scores were achieved in North Africa, where it supplanted, and in some squadrons replaced, the Hurricane as a fighter and fighter-bomber, particularly following the arrival of the Kittyhawk in 1942. Caldwell was just pipped as top ace in the theatre by Lance Wade (Hurricane / Spitfire). The ‘Star of Africa’ Hans-Joachim Marseille claimed to have shot down 96 P-40s – the highest number of any single type shot down by a single pilot.

4. de Havilland Mosquito (1940) – 835 victories

Branse Burbridge (Eng) 21; Charles Scherf (Aus) 14.5; John Watson Allen (Sco) 14

The fast, elegant Mosquito entered service a little later than the Beaufighter, and finished the war as the greatest night fighter of all time. Low drag, a light airframe and a high power-to-weight ratio combined with heavy firepower to create an aircraft that was both versatile and survivable.

I’ve seen figures of 478 and 600 attributed to the Mosquito, however my analysis of confirmed claims shows 523 ace kill claims, with aces accounting for, on average, 63% of kills in key Mosquito squadrons like 85, 418, 488 and 219 – so this higher number is solid. Mosquitos as night fighters had a much lower overclaim than single-seat fighters. The lower published figures might allude to night fighters only (Mossies flew Day Ranger missions with some success as well), or perhaps a measure of confirmed Luftwaffe losses.

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Note that John Watson Allen aced in a day in Sicily in a Mossie in June 1943, destroying four Ju 88s and a CANT Z.1007 Alcione, although arguably more impressive was Canadian Robert Kipp’s haul of four Focke-Wulf Fw 190s in a single night intruder mission over Munich (top Mossie ace Branse Burbridge also destroyed four Me110 night fighters in a single mission).

3. Bristol Beaufighter (1939) – 965* victories

Leading aces: John ‘Bob’ Braham 19 (of 29 on all types flown); John Cunningham 16 (of 20); Robert ‘Moose’ Fumerton 13

The biggest upset in this list was the startlingly high score of the Bristol Beaufighter.

It was the most heavily armed fighter in the world when it entered service, with four 20-mm cannon and six .303 machine guns. The twin-engined Beaufighter was a malevolent thug of a plane, causing carnage in all theatres on land, sea and air. Beaufighter pilots became aces all over – as premier night fighters from 1940-43, taking part in daring night intruder missions; as Coastal Command long-range fighters over Biscay and Atlantic; in Burma; and as a key element of the RAAF against the Japanese in the Pacific. In the Mediterranean they were used to great effect as a heavy fighter, notably intercepting air transport during daylight and scoring heavily against German and Italian bombers by night over Malta, North Africa, Sicily and Italy. On April 30th, Alwyn Downing aced in a day by bringing down five Ju 52s in one of these massacres.

For a British aircraft it was surprisingly easy to escape from in an emergency. Both crew had a large entry hatch in the fuselage floor. When opened it also served as a windbreak. The pilot simply lowered the rear of his seat and could then just drop out backwards, while the observer rotated his seat to the rear and could leap straight down and out. Page 38 in the pilot’s notes has an explanatory diagram.


Then there’s the alleged Japanese ‘Whispering Death’ nickname…which was made up. “And it was in Burma that the Beaufighter acquired its legendary nickname, ‘Whispering Death’ – a soubriquet which, despite the many versions of its origin published in the past, actually originated as the whimsy of an RAF officers’ Mess in India.” – Beaufighter at War, Chaz Bowyer, 1976, Ian Allan

The Air Ministry tried to royally fuck it up by fitting a turret to it (they did that to the Mosquito too). What else? I love the Beaufighter – the Mosquito was obviously better but the Beaufighter is so brutally unsubtle, it’s compelling. I want one. I hope that the one that’s been under restoration at Duxford seemingly forever actually gets to fly eventually. 

*The total figure here is higher than I’ve seen published, but I’ve checked in some detail the individual squadron scores, so it is likely to be pretty accurate.

2. Hawker Hurricane (1935) – 4540 victories (RAF only)

Leading aces: Marmaduke Pattle (SAf) 37 (of 51); Frank Carey (Eng) 26.5; Michael Crossley (Eng) 21
261 aces with RAF, RAAF, RN, SAAF, etc. Not included are 300-plus victories with the Red Air Force.

Hurricanes gained more aces in a day than any other RAF aircraft – and arguably had the first ace in a day of any country in World War 2, with Australian Les Clisbie in France on May 12 edging the first Luftwaffe pilot (unless one includes Sino-Japanese and Finnish Winter Wars). South African Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis was first to ace-in-a-day twice, nine days before Helmut Wick. And the top RAF ace of all, Pat Pattle, scored the bulk of his victories in the Hurricane. Not only that, but Germany’s top ace for the allies, Manfred Czerzin, scored all of his 15 victories in a Hurricane, while the fabulously famous children’s author Roald Dahl achieved acedom in a Hurri too, as recounted in his autobiography, ‘Going Solo’.

The Spitfire’s rugged partner, which some claim was the real winner of the Battle of Britain, struggled without its more photogenic brother-in-arms in Greece and Malaya.

  1. Supermarine Spitfire (1936) – 5950 victories (RAF only)

The beautiful Spitfire divides opinion between those who view it as an actual war-winner and those who see it as a shameless attention-grabber always turning up to claim credit for someone else’s victories. But contrary attempts to knock its from it perch can’t deny it was a potent interceptor, a beast of a dogfighter and future-proofed to the point that it fought with ferocious efficacy from 1939 to 1945.

It was a front-line fighter throughout the war, with notable campaigns in Dunkirk, Britain, the Channel, Malta, North Africa, Sicily / Italy, Burma, Australia, and from Normandy all the way to Berlin. Top aces include J.E. ‘Johnny’ Johnson (Eng) 36.91, George Buerling (Can) 31.33 and Adolphus Malan (SAf) 29.5.

Notably, it fought in most theatres where British forces won – and was absent during defeats, with some of the last aces of World War 2 flying the godlike Spitfire XIV. Top British ace of the War, Johnny Johnson, and created two aces in a day – Kiwi Brian Carbury, during the Battle of Britain, and Canadian Richard Audet in a Spitfire IX on 29 Dec 1944.

USAF and Red Air Force kills are not counted here (440 in all).


Disclaimers These are best estimates based on victory records of aces and near aces and checked against squadron numbers – I used exactly the same system I did with the Spitfire count. And obviously these are confirmed victory claims – and not confirmed enemy losses.

No unmanned aircraft/missiles included in scores – but I have figures for V1 victories by type here

Tempest – 638 (Joseph Berry 59, Remy van Lierde 36.5)

Mosquito – 623 (Francis Mellersh 39, Edward Crew)

Spitfire XIV – 305 (R.S. Nash 16.5)

Mustang – 232

Others – 158 (including Gloster Meteor with 14)

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The MiG-29 is a ‘Super Hunter’: Account from a MiG-29 fighter pilot


media-handler.jpgAir Marshal Harish Masand is a decorated veteran of the 1971 war, and a pioneer of the MiG29 force of the Indian Air Force. He is one of, if not the, the most celebrated Fulcrum pilot of the Indian Air Force. His solo MiG29 displays remain the stuff of IAF legend. We spoke to him about learning to master MiG-29 and its similarities to another fighter thoroughbred, the Hawker Hunter. 

“It was the autumn of 1986 when we landed up in Lugowaya, in Kirgistan, still a part of the USSR, to convert on the newly purchased MiG-29. The Indian contingent was about 200 strong with a large number of technical airmen, smaller number of technical officers, the core team of pilots from 47 & 28 squadrons, with me as the CO designate of 28 Sqn, and two controllers, if I recall correctly after almost two decades…

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Untangling Project Tempest, GCAP and British dreams of a Sixth Generation Combat Aircraft

What is or was Project Tempest and what is its relationship to GCAP? We untangle the Tempest.

In engineering slang, Project Tempest is a ‘pipe-cleaner’. The UK hasn’t built a supersonic combat jet since the EAP of the 1980s, and the early joint Typhoon development was years ago. Everyone who was worked on those projects has either retired or is about to. So Project Tempest was a dusting-off, assessment and cleaning up of Britain’s ability to create new advanced combat aircraft. It’s about retaining and building that capability and taking potential technologies through to maturity so the UK can hit the ground running. Designing and developing fast jets isn’t easy – witness to that is the fact that BAE Systems have been helping on the Turkish TFX programme as Turkey couldn’t do it alone, and the never ending saga of the Tejas in India. Retaining the hard-won capability to create advanced warplanes is crucial because not many nations have it and it’s exceptionally difficult to build it back up once it’s gone. The UK is one of the few nations that has all technologies required to make a modern warplane, but some of these capabilities are currently ‘rusting’ and may need an ‘oil’.

In essence, Project Tempest is about getting the organisations ready for GCAP, a British/Japanese/Italian 6th Generation combat aircraft effort announced last week. Britain and Japan have enjoyed successful collaborations for some time, and are currently working on a new air-to-air missile featuring propulsion technology developed for the MBDA Meteor with a seeker head based on Japanese innovations.

We know nothing (yet)

All of the interesting specifics about GCAP / FCAS are classified as secret, and a lot of the specifics are still being defined, so any journalistic articles claiming to offer specifics should be treated with extreme caution.

Technology demonstrator

For the moment let’s decouple Tempest and what has been announced last week as GCAP (although the aircraft in GCAP might end up being called Tempest, Tempesta or even Arashi, who knows). GCAP will be developing the successor to Typhoon with a proposed Entry Into Service of 2035. Tempest is the UK initiative that is effectively a ‘pipe cleaner’ for what was known as FCAS-AP but is now GCAP. It is within Tempest that tech is being developed in the UK for GCAP, and while this is being led by BAE, Rolls, Leonardo UK and MBDA, other UK based second tier suppliers and universities are involved. It was announced in parliament in July this year and at Farnborough that BAE Systems are building a flying demonstrator that will fly ‘within 5 years’.

There is a video about it on the BAE Systems website. No pictures on it and it’s mainly talking heads but don’t underestimate how critical this aspect of the programme is. It’s effectively a 21st century EAP, which helped very much helped inform Typhoon, but it wasn’t a prototype. The other component of Tempest is the technology development which isn’t just the aircraft systems but how it’s being designed and developed. This is not just the Tempest partners (BAE, RR, Leonardo UK and MBDA) but also other industry 2nd tier partners and university research. There is lots going on around model-based systems engineering to reduce development and qualification times as the goal is to have the production aircraft in service in 2035, but this is drifting into GCAP territory now. That goal of ten years between expected contract placement in 2025 and EIS, covering design, development, prototype, test flying and production start – is somewhat quicker than Typhoon. It also needs to be cheaper as Britain can’t afford to do it alone hence the GCAP announcement.

Global Combat Air Program (GCAP)

GCAP is much more complex and some kind of Eurofighter/Panavia-type organisation needs to be established to manage it. Each country has its own operational requirements as well as technology- industrial bases to consider. Technical details are vague if nothing else because it’s classified as secret and because of the potentially differing requirements. However it will be a Typhoon replacement that will also fly alongside the F-35 so you can probably extrapolate from that some of the roles it will likely perform, with air dominance high on the list of priorities. The slowness of Typhoon’s upgrade path will be a cautionary lesson to the new coordinating body, and they must work out a far better system of who ‘who will pay for what’ if new ideas are proposed. They must also work out how ideas are not ‘cock-blocked’ or sidelined by differing national needs.

Japan is an island facing off against China, so a major consideration will likely be a long-ranged ranged aircraft with the ability to counter (and possibly deploy) hypersonic weapons. GCAP also needs to be exportable to other nations who aren’t currently partners (and may not ever be) so the whole requirements question poses some interesting questions as to the design and trade-offs. Both the UK and Japan have historically run extremely costly aircraft projects, examples including the Japanese F-16 derivative (the Mitsubishi F-2) and the UK’s aborted Nimrod MRA.4; so a radically new approach will need to be found to avoid the mistakes of the past. Some in British aviation may recall the time Japan assessed the Anglo-French Jaguar, mulled over licence-production, before settling on building their own aircraft. Many eyebrows were raised at the similarity in overall configuration the resultant Mitsubishi F-1 had with the scorned Jaguar. They will be hoping a similar exercise in alleged tech harvesting will not happen in GCAP.

The Swedish defence and aerospace leader Saab once flirted with involvement, but now seem to be out of the picture. Rumour has it they were more interested in the unmanned adjunct, but then the MoD announced project Mosquito with Spirit in Belfast in 2021….then cancelled it this year citing developments in additive tech making the project obsolete. Then, at RIAT, BAE Systems showed two UAV concepts. Coincidence? I’m not one to gossip.

Of course the MiG-21 was the most important Cold War aircraft, here’s why

A Mach 2 ‘Flying Kalashnikov‘, the MiG-21 was the most widespread jet fighter ever made. Fast, agile and simple it foreshadowed the F-16 and, 66 years after its first flight remains an active geriatric brawler. Author Alexander Mladenov argues the case for it being the most important Cold War aircraft.

The MiG-21 (NATO reporting name: Fishbed) occupies a prominent position in the Soviet Union’s aviation history, as its most popular and successful jet fighter. The type also firmly holds the title of the most widely used and widely operated post-war jet, serving no fewer than 50 air arms worldwide. It is still in service in more than a dozen of countries, flying combat missions in some of these while the Fishbeds operated by the air arms of Croatia and Romania are even still held on quick reaction alert within NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence System.

Originally designed simply as a faster and lighter successor of the twin-engine/swept-wing MiG-19 ‘Farmer’, the single-engine MiG-21 pioneered Mikoyan’s concept of an affordable single-engine fast lightweight tactical jet. It was given the bare minimum armament and designed to intercept subsonic and supersonic high-altitude bombers, fighter-bombers and cruise missiles. It was initially limited to operations in clear-weather conditions only.

The chief reason for the MiG-21’s big success and its emergence as the most important Cold War combat jet was the basic design’s efficient performance, combined with exceptional simplicity, good reliability and great affordability, enabling it to be built in large numbers. MiG-21’s attributes, mass production and proliferation eventually established the rapidly-progressing Moscow-based combat aircraft experimental design bureau, founded by Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich, as the most important fighter design house in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and it had this prestigious status until the early 1990s.

The MiG-21’s low-drag fuselage design, conceived already at the time in 1954, was suitably combined with a lightweight and powerful enough afterburning turbojet engine, much better-performing and more reliable than the two jet engines powering its predecessor MiG-19. The slick fuselage with a small cross-section came coupled with an all-new tailed delta-wing layout with a relatively high wing loading. The successful design, featuring low structure weight and low wave drag, offered levels of performance that were very impressive for the second half of the 1950s.  

MiG-21’s high flight performance – in terms of maximum level speed, transonic/supersonic acceleration, rate of climb and service ceiling – was deemed essential for the new-style restricted-manoeuvrability air combats when pitted against NATO high-speed fighters and bombers, expected to be the prime targets in the coming decades. In overall, the all-new air combat concept adopted in the Soviet Union in the 1950s called for fighter aircraft to follow an optimum intercept flight path and mount a single fast attack pass to unleash a pair of guided missiles in salvo or fire the guns (often provided with a limited number of rounds), followed by immediate breakaway. This way the Korean War-style high-G turning dogfight between subsonic jet fighters was considered to have been consigned to the history books. Operating in such a manner, the new-generation high-performance tactical fighter, optimised for the point defence role with endurance of little over 30 minutes, was expected to be employed en masse and made capable of rapid take-off for joining the battle or intercepting nuclear-armed bombers and fighter-bombers . In fact, the MiG-21 saw the vast majority of its air combats well outside the Cold War environment, pitted against Mirages in the Middle East and F-4 Phantoms over Vietnam. 

As a small and affordable Mach 2/point-defence interceptor, the MiG-21F-13/PF/PFM had no direct analogues in the Western world in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to the Soviet Union and its allies, the affordable type proliferated in a good many non-aligned nations. Its subsequent tactical fighter derivatives, built in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, in an effort to alleviate the flaws of the baseline design, were considered better suited for low-altitude operations, such as those in the Middle East, than earlier versions, but sported inferior manoeuvrability due to the sharply increased weight and drag.

The latest MiG-21 versions introduced better armament and boasted expanded air combat and ground attack capabilities, while still retaining the key advantages of simplicity and affordability. Both the MiG-21MF and MiG-21bis were built and exported in huge numbers in the 1970s and the early 1980s, despite the availability of more modern Soviet fighters cleared for export, such as the MiG-23MS/MF/ML. As a consequence, the omnipresent Fishbed continued to be one of the principal fighters in the world in the 1980s, preserving this renowned status all the way until the early/mid-1990s.

The MiG-21 was the most important Cold War aircraft because it was fielded in service in huge number with both the Soviet Air Force in the 1960s and 1970s, to dominate in the skies of Europe, where a World War Three would have likely happened. The type was also in widespread service with all the allied nations, members of the Warsaw Pact Treaty Organisation, who had to support the Soviet Air Force in its offensive and defensive operations on the European war theatre. As a result, thousands of MiG-21s and their aircrews were kept in a high state of operational readiness in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War year, ready to fight the Western world, not only in the air superiority and air defence battles, but also in the ground attack role, including the delivery of atomic bombs in a massed manner.       

The MiG-21 stayed in series production in the Soviet Union for 28 years, considerably longer than both its predecessor MiG-19, and successor, the MiG-23, with no fewer than 11,000 examples rolled out at three plants in the Soviet Union and three more plants situated abroad – in Czechoslovakia, India and China. Furthermore, the MiG-21’s latest Chinese copies, sporting significant airframe and equipment improvements, continued in production for export to Third World states until mid-2013.

  •  Alexander Mladenov is the author of several Osprey books on Soviet military aircraft available here
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Top 12 tanker aircraft

Top 10ish Air Refuelling Aircraft

Source: https://www.55assoc.com/tanker-stories/

Fire up one of the virtual radars, set your map to cover a swathe of airspace that ranges from UK to Ukraine. Click the icon to lose the civil rubbish and you will see tankers, lots of tankers: KC-135s, A330 MRTTs, Voyagers, Extenders, even a KC-46 if it’s feeling like functioning. While slightly higher up most aviation enthusiasts’ hierarchy than helicopters, tankers are pretty low on the must-see list. They’re just airliners in khaki, aren’t they? I disagree. While air refuelling aircraft lack the attention-seeking psychopathy of the fast jets, in the modern battlespace, those same fast jets don’t get to anything without them. This is best summed up by the creaking old cliche (that fails to rhyme in most English accents): ‘Nobody kicks ass, without tanker gas.’

-Chris Gibson

Image credits: Terry Panopalis/Chris Gibson or https://www.55assoc.com/tanker-stories/ or as described

I have little interest in the fast jets beloved of everyone else, but find the ‘plus support’ side of military operations; AEW, ELINT, reconnaissance, refuelling and transport – even helicopters, endlessly, seductively fascinating.

When Hush-Kit asked me to draw up a Top Ten of tankers, I had one proviso: there had to be twelve on the list. There may or may not have been 99 tankers, but in at joint number 99 are the RAF’s Voyager (the Qatar World Cup of tankers) and the KC-46A Pegasus (the Liz Truss of tankers). I’ll get the rants out of the way first as the internet is pretty shit on the offshore oil rig I’m writing this from.

When the replacement for the RAF’s TriStar and VC10 fleet was being discussed in the late 1990s, Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) were all the rage in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Put very simply, a private company would foot the bill for the aircraft and the government would ‘rent’ the aircraft for operations. The PFI deal that led to the Voyager was severely criticised, with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge MP, revealing that the MoD had no idea as to whether it represented value for money. Well, it didn’t, and the word is that an entire fleet of tankers based on the Boeing 767 could have been acquired for the cost of one Voyager. Hyperbole perhaps, but another source states the same machines could have been bought for 30% of what the MoD paid for its Voyagers. Of course, it’s all the politicians’ fault, so as Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again. Freddie Laker must have been raging.


To add insult to injury, the Voyagers lacked defensive countermeasures. It’s not like they would be going to dangerous places, so why bother? More critically, they also lack a boom for refuelling US (and US-provided) aircraft (we won’t need that, we use probe and drogue). It was a shame then, that the RAF would then start operating types that have boom receptacles rather than probes. Extremely important aircraft too, three vital military aircraft: the E-7, P-8 Poseidon MRA1 and the RC-135 AirSeeker (presumably so-called because it deplores a vacuum, hence the dusty carpets) R1.

Open up your virtual radar and most mornings and you’ll see an RAF AirSeeker R1, bound for the Black- or Baltic Seas, being refuelled close to Lincolnshire by a USAF KC-135. The Voyager, superb in so many ways, would have made number three or even two in this list if it had a boom and was cheaper, but it hasn’t, it isn’t and it’s at joint 99th. Margaret Hodge will approve.

At joint 99th place is the KC-46A Pegasus. The USAF could have put a refuelling kit on the trusty 767 and ended up with the rather good KC-767s used by the Italian and Japanese air forces. Instead, they fiddled with everything and added every conceivable bell-and-whistle and ended up making a pig’s ear of the whole thing.

In the initial contest for a much-need new US tanker, the KC-46 was defeated by the superior EADS/Northrop KC-45. This was based on the Airbus A330, and was known as the MRTT. Boeing were damned if they would let Airbus get a foothold in USAF, and if they couldn’t win in an evaluation they could at least win in the courtroom. So despite many technical issues including fuel leaks (only allowed on the SR-71), comical cost over-runs and a potential 737MAX-like problem (as the Pegasus used a similar MCAS system) it was won an order. There was always a feeling that the KC-45 was a better machine and when faced with a choice, most overseas customers opted for the A330 MRTT.

The KC-46 be fine one bright day, once the problems have been trampled to death by Boeing. I have seen a few over my house, which seems to be the tanker crossroads of the UK (though they may have been Italian Air Force). Enough of me, let’s get to the list.

10. Avro Vulcan ‘The Juicy Naan Triangle’

‘Oh, that was a lash-up for the Falklands!’ says the man at the airshow with dead eyes, a massive zoom lens and a suspect tattoo. Yes and no. In July 1953 Alan Cobham, father of air-to-air refuelling, wrote to Air Chief Marshal Sir William Dickson, Chief of the Air Staff, with a proposal to fit the V-bombers (at this point only Valiant B1 and Vulcan B1) with a refuelling capability. This involved fitting two auxiliary tanks and a Hose Drum Unit (HDU) in the bomb bay. The Valiant proposal was taken up a few years later as the B(K)1, but the Vulcan proposal received a polite ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ response.

Fast forward 29 years to May 1982 when just about every tanker in the RAF was either at Wideawake Field in Ascension or supporting aircraft moving to and from it. The RAF still had commitments to air defence in the Greenland/Iceland/UK (GIUK) Gap, so to free up tankers for ‘down south’ the USAF fitted boom/drogue adapters (BDA) to some of its UK-based KC-135s and supported the RAF’s air defence Phantoms and Lightnings.

To address this lack of tankers (which the Air Staff had been aware of since the mid-70s, leading to the VC10K force) the RAF looked around for something to use as a tanker in the immediate term. Having a few Vulcans on their way out of service, the Air Staff blew the dust off Cobham’s brochure and approached BAe (née Avro) at Woodford.

Woodford advised that the bomb bay installation would not provide enough separation for the receiver, but if the HDU was moved to the ECM bay in the Vulcan B2’s rather capacious tailcone, it would be just fine. In next to no time (admirably quick actually) a fairing to house the drogue was designed, built, fitted and the HDU installed in a Vulcan. Some say it was a classic example of bodging but I’m not so sure. It worked and the Vulcan B2(K), complete with three auxiliary tanks in the bomb bay, was delivered to the RAF. Six were converted and operated in support of air defence operations and attracted much more attention than their Valiant predecessors. The Vulcan was the last of the bomber-to-tanker conversions carried out for a cash-strapped RAF, a lineage dating back to the Handley Page Harrow in the 1930s. Not dedicated, but they meant well.

9. Buddy-Buddy ‘Holly Holly

Back in 1983, I was in New Zealand on a university project. Between trips into the boonies to hit rocks with a hammer and pan for gold, I had blagged a visit to the RNZAF base at Ohakea. This was home to Skyhawks and Strikemasters, which the Kiwis affectionately referred to as ‘Blunties’, a superb name. Aside from a great lunch and the full tour, my very hospitable hosts presented me with loads of freebies; stickers, patches etc. Over the years and many house moves, most have been lost, apart from one of the ‘etc’. It is a photograph of two Skyhawks.

Ok, so I said I wasn’t a fan of the flashy loud jetset but add a buddy refuelling pod and you have my attention. Just about every fighter and strike aircraft has had a ‘buddy pack’ and extra fuel tanks added at some point, even the beatified TSR.2 was to be a tanker. Naval aircraft were an obvious choice for this, especially for carrier operations. The US Navy and Fleet Air Arm were great fans of the buddy pack, essentially an HDU in a drop tank, produced by companies such as Douglas, Sargent Fletcher and of course, Flight Refuelling Ltd, who have bought up everyone else and now trade as Cobham.

Buddy packs allow naval aircraft to be catapulted with maximum weapons load thanks to a reduced fuel weight, then refuelled by a buddy once in the air or on the way to or from the target. They also allow for some quite spectacular sights, such as four aircraft (A-3 Skywarrior, A-4 Skyhawk, de Havilland Sea Vixen and Supermarine Scimitar) daisy-chained by their buddy packs.

This brings me back to that photograph of the Skyhawks. Perhaps the most spectacular example of what can be done with a buddy pack was performed by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1982 when two Douglas TA-4Ks flew inverted. Over a volcano. In contact. Beat that!

8 – Tupolev Tu-16Z Badger

Badger?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why a Badger?’ Well, it’s different, so why not include it. It’s on the list as it is different and an example of a technological blind alley, an early attempt at transferring fuel that didn’t involve lowering jerrycans on a rope.

Both the USAF and RAF had tested similar line and grapple systems, but soon ditched them for probe and drogue or flying boom refuelling. I’ve never quite worked out the Tupolev refuelling system used by the Tu-16Z Badger: it involved trailing wires, shot lines and hoses and grappling hooks and running the hose from the bomb bay to the wing tip and frankly the explanation of how it works prompts the obvious response – ‘Anyone fancy a pint?’ so I won’t waste your time. I described it, just once, in a book on air-to-air refuelling aircraft and that was enough for me. If hose and drogue refuelling can be described as ‘a running fuck at a rolling doughnut’, I struggle to find a simile for the Tupolev system. I would not fancy doing it in the dark. That might explain all those medals on Russian Air Force officers’ chests.

Suffice to say it was only fitted to two types: the Tu-4 Bull (a reverse-engineered Boeing B-29 and one of the biggest engineering efforts in history) and the Badger. The receiver required special equipment on the wingtip and the whole system was complicated, even downright dangerous! Once the Bulls were scrapped the system was only operational on the Badger but not for long.

It had occurred to me that it was developed to avoid patent infringement, but soon put that daft notion out of my head as the Soviet Union wasn’t too bothered about the niceties of western patent law. But rather than admit it was rubbish, the Soviets charged ahead and put it into service. It could have been the Russian penchant for ballet that pushed the Tupolev system, as the process involved some intricate and precise movements, but once the hose was connected and fuel being transferred, the two Badgers did look rather graceful.

The Tupolev system didn’t last long as it was completely impractical in an operational setting and soon enough, the patents were being infringed. It couldn’t be used on the Bear and Bison bombers as their wings flexed too much so the Tupolev system was stripped out of the Badgers and a HDU was installed in the bomb bay of the Tu-16Z to produce the Tu-16N. Soon Bears and Blinders were sporting refuelling probes and taking on fuel from Badgers. Awkward, but interesting, the Badger should be in the Top Ten.

7. Ilyushin Il-78 ‘Midas‘ – ‘Red Gold’

Like the British, the Soviets converted bombers to the tanker role, and one of these, the Myasishchev Mya-4 Bison-A, was fitted out as a single-point tanker. As the US and UK discovered, single-point tankers were fine for supporting strategic bomber operations, but tactical support was a different kettle of fish. The RAF had fitted HDUs and pods to their tankers, but the USAF was wedded to the flying boom. The Soviets on the other hand could watch what was going on in the west and learn from the Americans and British.

As Flexible Response became the West’s policy for war fighting, the Soviet Union saw a need to support its Frontal Aviation during possible operations in western Europe. While the US air forces learned how to integrate tankers and strike aircraft in large strike packages during the war in Indo-China, the Soviets watched and learned. What they needed was a three-point tanker that could refuel tactical aircraft and selected the workhorse of the transport fleet for conversion.

The Ilyushin Il-76 Candid transport was converted to a tanker but was limited in its ‘give-away’ and thus deemed unsuitable. The Ilyushin design bureau then added two large fuel tanks in the Candid’s capacious cargo hold, added three UPAZ-1A refuelling pods and produced a machine with three times the give-away of the original Candid tanker. The Il-78 Midas appeared in 1984 and could be converted back to a transport, but in 1987 the dedicated tanker variant entered service, with the Il-78M Midas carrying three permanently installed fuel tanks in the cargo hold.

The Midas’ refuelling installation is unusual in that rather than a centreline HDU, it carries a third UPAZ-1A pod on the port side of the rear fuselage. The UPAZ-1A pod is unique in that rather than using a propeller to drive a generator like Western pods, it is fitted with a ram-air turbine which generates less drag than the propellors.

Both the Soviet/Russian types on the list are examples of different approaches the same problem. If you want an explanation of the Tupolev system, buy me a pint. Or three. It will take a while.

6. Lockheed C-130 Hercules Boomer Boomer’

I’m standing on a hillside in Wales, arguing the toss about TSR.2 or Tornado ADVs, sometimes poking about in the rock outcrops for something interesting, when the shout goes up ‘Traffic!’. It’s a Herk, in a steep bank as it weaves its way through the valley. Up come the cameras and the shutters make a noise like a MG42 machine gun at full chat. As it passes, still banking, I can see that the rear door is open and there’s two blokes sitting on the ramp, just chilling. It’s an MC-130J Commando II.

The omnipresent C-130 Hercules has been a fixture in Western air forces since the Jurassic Period and has operated as some sort of tanker since 1962. The US Marine Corps and RAF operated most of their tankers as, well, just tankers, but the USAF combined other roles including rescue and special forces support (culminating in the MC-130J that combines all three) These US Hercules tankers are fitted with underwing refuelling pods and refuel support aircraft and helicopters. The MC-130J also has a boom receptacle to receive fuel from USAF tankers to extend their range or time on station. Good gear as they say and worthy of a place in the Top Ten.


Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Hush-Kit depends on your donations to keep going, and funding is currently very low. If you love this madness then do support us, we may need to pause service if we can’t increase funding levels.

The RAF’s Hercules tankers of the Falklands era took a different tack. They were intended to support other Hercules and even heavies such as the Vulcan and Nimrod. Another important role was support of air defence aircraft based in the Falklands and until RAF Mount Pleasant opened, were the only large aircraft capable of operating from RAF Port Stanley. Installing the underwing Mk.20 pod probably required a lot of plumbing work and couldn’t deliver the fuel fast enough, so a Mk.17 HDU was installed on the cargo ramp, which was sealed and modified to accommodate the drogue. The fuel was held in two or four tanks, auxiliary tanks from the Andover C1, mounted in the cargo bay. Six Hercules C1s were modified as C1(K) and provided sterling service until the new runway was built at Mount Pleasant.

On reflection whatever the job, the Hercules can do it and the only role I can think of not being carried out by a Hercules is fighter, but I’m sure someone will produce a photo of a Herk sporting Sidewinders.

5 . Handley Page VictorHP Sauce Source

source: https://www.55assoc.com/tanker-stories/

Back in my days as a schoolboy in Scotland, I was absently looking out the window one endlessly long afternoon. My teacher droned on and on, and I was desperate for some stimulation. For some inexplicable reason, the teacher was talking about a young lad who had bought a unicorn at the flea market. This story meant nothing to me as a 13-year-old in an Ayrshire mining village, where the nearest thing to a unicorn was a greyhound with a carbuncle on top of his head. But what happened next certainly did mean a lot to me. It seemed to happen in slow motion, and it filled the sky, revealing its curvaceous wing, the carrots and the dayglo guide markings on its underside (this was 1975 after all). It was a Victor. I was smitten. ‘Gibson! Next word!’ the teacher shouted at me, but I had no idea what to say – I was utterly mesmerized by the appearance of this beautiful spaceship in the sky.

All three V-bombers ended their service lives as tankers, but the most successful of the three (in both roles) was the Victor. As the B2 variant came off the production lines, the Victor B1 fleet was fitted with Flight Refuelling Mk.20 Pods on the outer wings and replaced the various Vickers Valiant tanker variants that were stricken with metal fatigue. The Victor B(K)1 took on the tanker role and as a two-point refueller, supported fighters. They could still be used as bombers, hence the unusual designation, but as the conversions progressed, a Mk.17 Hose Drum Unit (HDU) was installed in the fuselage and fuel tanks in the bomb bay to make these Victor K1s, dedicated tankers that could refuel ‘heavies’.

You don’t leave with a party with the bottle of wine you brought, and it’s even worse manners to leave a refuelling with the tanker’s drogue. Source: https://www.55assoc.com/tanker-stories/

The K1s were a gap-filler and, as the Vulcans took over the bombing role in Strike Command, the Victor B2s traded their Blue Steels and Yellow Suns for an HDU and Mk.20 pods to become the K2. Anyone who says tankers are boring, I point them at the Victor – it just looks spectacular, even sitting on the ramp it looks like it should be in Star Wars and maneuvering a receiver aircraft to take on fuel from the centreline drogue must provide a most memorable vista. Without the Victor, the RAF’s operations in the South Atlantic, specifically Op Black Buck and support for the Nimrod SAR and maritime surveillance operations, would have been impossible. Similarly, Op Granby, the 1991 campaign to liberate Kuwait, saw RAF and Coalition operations supported by Victors. My only gripe is that the dark grey/dark green over light aircraft grey with the dayglo stripes was superseded by boring hemp.

4. Vickers VC10 ‘I did it Conway ‘

This would have been my Number One, but Dr ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins wouldn’t speak to me again – and quite possibly raise a posse from his mates in the KC-135 ‘community’ to seek me out and beat me with a refuelling boom (or worse!).

Even before Vickers’ VC10 airliner took to the sky in 1962, the Weybridge company was proposing military variants. These included ballistic missile carriers, maritime patrol, AEW and transports but only the transport and tanker variant reached service and it took the latter almost quarter of a century from first proposal to service entry.

By the mid-1970s Britain’s defence posture had pretty much settled down after the long retreat from Empire to focus on northwest Europe and the eastern North Atlantic. The GIUK gap was seen as a crucial theatre and the interdiction of NATO convoys by Soviet forces was viewed as a major threat. With Buccaneers to take out the surface threats and the new Tornado ADV to tackle Soviet air assets, there was a need to increase the RAF’s tanker force from the twenty-odd Victors then in service. Luckily, British Airways was dispensing with its VC10 fleet and, if a few more were acquired from airlines in east Africa, a couple of squadrons could be put together. So, the Air Staff got their tankers and the MoD saved money. It was trebles all round in Whitehall.

The converted airliners were fitted out as three-point tankers with the five K2s and four K3s based on the Standard and Super VC10 respectively with fuel tanks in the cabin, while the five K4s kept the cabin free to be a tanker/transport. In need of further tanker capacity in the late 1990s, the 13 surviving VC10 C1s were fitted with Mk.32 pods to become C1Ks.

The VC10 fleet proved capable, enduring and they looked good with a gaggle of Lightnings, even better with Tornado F3s, the type it was created to support. Unlike the Victor, the VC10 looked better in hemp, even better in Barley grey. You have to admit, the RAF’s primary tankers in the 90s had style.

3. Airbus MRTT ‘Probably the best tanker in the world’

Standing on the deck of an oil rig in the Beryl Field in the arse-end of the North Sea waiting for something to happen, I see a widebody twin heading our way. It wasn’t on the usual air lanes for the civil traffic, so I surmised it was a Voyager supporting a Bear hunt, but as it passed overhead I could see a boom under the rear fuselage. Ah, an A330 MRTT.

Number Three on this list should have been the RAF’s Voyager, but my reasons for it not being Number Three are laid out above. The Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) lives up to its designation. It can refuel anything (it has drogue pods and a boom), anywhere (it comes with a defensive countermeasures suite), any time while carrying cargo and/or passengers.

It says something about a military aircraft competition when the opposition’s argument comes down to the aircraft being too big and taking up too much space on the ramps, thus presenting a tempting target. This was the gist of Boeing’s questionable argument against the EADS/Northrop KC-45 when it was selected as the new USAF tanker. Boeing succeeded in killing the KC-45, leading to the adoption of the problematic Pegasus. Even in late 2022, the argument still rages with each company crying foul and providing plenty of letter-writing practice for m’learned friends.

Meanwhile, former users of the KC-135 such as France and Singapore, who had been considered certain customers for the Pegasus, opted for the A330 MRTT. OK, so the Europeans would have bought anything made by Airbus, but the A330 MRTT seems to be a good piece of kit. I wonder when the MoD will stick a boom on its Voyagers. Won’t be cheap and Margaret Hodge most definitely won’t be pleased.

2. McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender ‘Doogie Hoser, MD’

I was having a good old rummage in the National Archives at Kew in London. At the top of my list of priorities was the British Air Staff’s tanker policy and procurement (I am only human). One of the files held documents relating to an intriguing tale that involved Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Freddie Laker and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. It turned out Winston Churchill’s grandson was pimping out Freddie’s DC-10s as auxiliary tankers to a somewhat disinterested Air Staff in 1978. Jump back a few years to 1973, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 saw a massive airlift of US equipment to Israel. From this effort, the USAF identified the need for a modern aircraft that could operate as a tanker or transport. While this had been the role of the existing KC-97s and KC-135s they were designed to support strategic bombers and never really had sufficient lift capacity in terms of cargo or fuel loads for late-20th-century operations.

The resulting Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft requirement saw bids from Boeing with the 747, McDonnell Douglas’ DC-10 and Lockheed with the TriStar and Galaxy. The Galaxy and 747 were too big, TriStar was too small (admittedly not by much) but the DC-10 was the Goldilocks aircraft. It was just right, could operate from shorter fields than the others. The KC-10A Extender that followed is well-named, thanks its combination of boom and drogue refuelling systems it could support USAF, USN and USMC aircraft in the era of expeditionary warfare that began in 1990 with Operation Desert Shield.

If you have a fighter squadron to move across an ocean, the Extender is the best tool for the job. It can haul the spares, the support personnel and ‘drag’ the fighters. They looked best in Europe 1 camouflage but so did everything else. A worthy Number Two.

  1. Boeing KC-135 ‘Stratobladder’

I’ll be working in the garden or sitting proofreading in the sunshine, always with one eye watching the sky. To the south, a rapidly-moving contrail appears and as it goes overhead, I don’t need the bins to know that this four-engined jet aircraft going like the clappers and leaving the airliners for dead, is a member of the ‘135 family.

Frankly, mention air-to-air refuelling and the KC-135 is what comes to mind. Equipment doesn’t remain in service for 65 years without being extremely good. They’ve either done or been proposed for just about every support role imaginable. Number One. Nuff said.

Chris Gibson is the author of several books including t these two. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the site.

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10 Worst Aircraft Carriers

Seaborne airbases that didn’t quite float

Wildcats on the deck of the lamentable CVA-4.

Bing Chandler has tricked us. Here is an article that is more about bloody ships than planes. If I’ve used the wrong images it’s because all ships look the same to me. Over to Bing, former Royal Navy Lynx helicopter Observer and contributor to the fabulous Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes.

Aircraft carriers, big boats full of seamen and pilots, are basically massive floating aphrodisiacs – or money-burning toys for militarism – or vital tools for global security – all depending on your point of view. Britain gets bragging rights as their creator, converting an half-built Italian liner, the Conte Rosso into HMS Argus, the first recognisable aircraft carrier with a full-length flight deck which commissioned on 16 September 1918. In an interesting move both Britain and Japan can claim to have constructed the first carrier ordered and built as such from the keel up. Britain laying down HMS Hermes on 15 January 1918 but the Japanese completing the Hōshō on 27 December 1922, 14 months before Hermes, despite starting almost three years later. This is probably the sort of thing British industry should have taken as a warning at the time.

For those not of a nautical bent, ships size is generally talked about in terms of their displacement, not length or beam. For the benefit of comparison, a Nimitz class carrier is around 100,000 tons (the weight of 880,761 bearded pigs) while an Invincible class was around 20,000 tons (194,174 bearded pigs), while a cross Channel ferry is around 40,000 tons once you’ve filled it with tourists, duty free and second-rate fry-ups.

It’s scientifically impossible to make a bad aircraft carrier, however occasionally people make the wrong design compromises. Leaving them with something that could have been Top Gun but ends up being Ships with Wings. [1]

Not a bad carrier, we just couldn’t resist including this epic photograph of a Vigilante taking off from Enterprise with a Crusader.

[1] A 1941 British war movie in part filmed on Ark Royal

10. Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) ‘Slattery will get you nowhere’

Worryingly short of ships to put aircraft on the Royal Navy fell on the idea of one Captain Slattery RN to convert a merchant ship by fitting the minimum amount of equipment necessary to operate aircraft. This was instantly rebuffed by the Ministry of Supply who weren’t keen on losing valuable cargo capacity for the time it would take to make the conversion. Consequently, it wasn’t until mid-1943 that the first ship, Empire MacAlpine entered service and an aircraft landed on a merchant ship for the first time. Conditions were basic with a simple flight deck of around 140m built over the cargo holds which themselves held grain, stand fast one that was converted into a rudimentary hangar. The usual merchantman’s superstructure and bridge were replaced with what was apparently a small shed near the bow on the starboard side (pointy end on the right for the landlubbers).  Follow on conversions would include tankers which would not feature a hangar on something approaching health and safety grounds. For those wondering why these two classes of ship were chosen, both could be unloaded without having to access the holds from above where the flight deck now was. For oil tankers the fuel was pumped out via hoses while for grain ships it was sucked out via an industrial vacuum cleaner. A process still used today, and which is in no way annoying if circumstances have led to you living in a dockyard where it’s happening. For four days.

Operating 3 or 4 Swordfish, the only aircraft that could safely operate from something with a maximum speed of 15 knots, the air groups regularly suffered at the hands of the weather and landing accidents if not the enemy. Aside from three flights parented by 860 NAS of the Dutch Navy the other 16 ships embarked flights of 836 NAS which including spare aircraft at depots on both sides of the Atlantic parented around 100 Swordfish, probably the largest squadron ever to have existed, under the overall command of a Lieutenant Commander, something that today would require at least a Captain and a staff of Commanders.

For this great, and perilous effort, the MAC Ships were responsible for exactly no U-Boats being sunk. Although their presence was often a morale booster for the captains of the ships being escorted by early 1944 some were being used to transport a backlog of aircraft across the Atlantic instead of hunting for U-Boats. With limited utility in the vastness of the Pacific the first ships began to have their flight decks removed in October of 1944 in some cases having only entered service a year before.

On the plus side no MACs were lost to enemy action, and only a handful of ships were lost in convoys escorted by them the presence of the Swordfish arguably having kept U-Boats at a safe distance. However, the main reason for this apparent success was that by the time they were entering service the Battle of the Atlantic was if not won, firmly turned in the Allies favour. Depending on your point of view the Ministry of Supply either delayed the introduction of a convoy saving weapon or had a point about the effectiveness of the idea.

2 USS Ranger ‘Ranger danger’

Admiral Ernest King, USN Chief of Operations through World War Two could, if one was being cynical, be described as a bit Anglophobic. His refusal to adopt Royal Navy anti-submarine tactics on the United States entry to the war led to a second Happy Time for U-boat crews, this time along the US Eastern Seaboard. Later in the war he would go to great, but unsuccessful, lengths to prevent the RN becoming involved in the Pacific Theatre. He did however insist that no logistics support be provided by the USN leading to a black market in assistance to the British Pacific Fleet.

Given this he was faced with something of a predicament in late 1942 after the Battle of Santa Cruz had reduced his carrier fleet in the Pacific to the USS Saratoga. He could either ask for the Royal Navy to loan him a replacement or redeploy the USS Ranger from the Atlantic. That HMS Victorious spent Mar-Aug 1943 in the Pacific operating with the USN gives some indication of the deficiencies of the Ranger.

The first US carrier to be built from the keel up as such Ranger was relatively small as the USN had used up most of the tonnage available under the Washington Naval Treaty. [2] At 17,000 tons she was around 7,000 tons bigger than Hermes or Hōshō but the USN had somehow shoehorned 70 aircraft on her, to their 20, by making a few compromises. To keep things in trim and reduce the exhaust gasses the powerplant was small producing around 55,000 horsepower, for a top speed of 30 knots. As a weight saving measure there was no provision for a torpedo squadron as commissioned in 1934, one only being gained shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbour. More worryingly the rapid advance in aircraft sophistication and weight during the 1930s meant that by WW2 her flight deck wasn’t strong enough to support the air group. Which as that’s the point of an aircraft carrier did make her somewhat redundant. Consequently, apart from a brief stint attacking North Africa during Operation Torch and Norway in Operation Leader Ranger spent most of the war ferrying aircraft across the Atlantic and after a refit in 1944 to strengthen the flight deck as a training carrier in the Pacific.

The only pre-war US carrier not to see action against the Japanese, it arguably saw less action than any pre-war carrier aside from the French Bearn and forced Admiral King to face the ultimate indignity of asking the British to lend a hand.

[2] If you ever find yourself being asked why an inter-war ship has some ‘interesting’ design features just mutter ‘Washington Naval Treaty’ and nod sagely.

Top 10 naval helicopters here.

3 HMS Furious 1917 – 1920 ‘The Spurious’

HMS Furious was being used as an aircraft carrier before the Argus entered service, but not in a way that was recognisable to any sane person. Originally designed as a battle cruiser armed with two 18” guns, one at each end, the forward one was lost to a ten aircraft hangar and flying off ramp during build. [3] The more observant will have noticed the lack of any landing on facility. Despite this Sqn Cdr Edwin Dunning became the first person to successfully land on a moving ship by slide slipping his Sopwith Pup past the superstructure on 2 August 1917. The short coming in this process became obvious during his third attempt when the engine stopped on short finals leaving no option but to crash in the sea off the starboard bow resulting in the pilot’s untimely death.

In an attempt to rectify the issue, the aft 18” gun was also removed and a landing on deck was built in its place. In a case of close but no cigar, the superstructure remained in situ with nice little paths either side to allow aircraft to taxi around it. Despite this obvious shortcoming she was used to launch a successful raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, the first attack by aircraft launched from a ship at sea. Tellingly the direction for those aircraft making it back to the ship was to ditch alongside rather than attempting to land.

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After this interesting start Furious was extensively rebuilt in the inter-war period with a full flush deck and served through the Second World War as an entirely adequate aircraft carrier. Which is more than can be said for her two sisters Courageous and Glorious that both managed to get sunk within the first twelve months of the conflict.

[3] The forward gun was ultimately installed on the monitor HMS General Wolfe, a considerably smaller ship designed purely to bombard shore positions. Imagine something that looks like a barge carrying the guns to the bigger ships.

4 USS Langley ‘Kiss Kiss Lang Lang’

While most countries first aircraft carriers were conversions of existing ships, these were usually liners or battlecruisers, large fast ships. In a slightly perverse move what would become the largest proponent of naval aviation started off with a collier with a top speed of 15.5 knots. The conversion itself appears to have been done on something of a budget as the lift to the flight deck stopped some eight feet above the hangar deck. The hangar deck itself was open to the elements, being the original main deck with the flight deck mounted above it and was used for the assembly of aircraft stored in the ship’s now vacant coal holds. A time and motion study research project in itself this arrangement meant it took around a quarter of an hour to get an aircraft to or from the flight deck, never mind the time spent getting it up to the hangar deck. Initially this let the Langley operate all of 12 aircraft.

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Desperation being the mother of invention the USN reacted by inventing the deck park and developing techniques that allowed faster launch and recovery of the air group. By 1927 Langley’s air group was 36 aircraft and she was successfully carrying out mock attacks on the Panama Canal. More importantly the knowledge gained would inform the development of all subsequent US carriers.

Langley herself was converted a second time into a seaplane carrier in 1937, operating as an aircraft ferry she was sunk by the Japanese in early 1942.

5. FS Bearn ‘Feel the Bearn’

The Bearn was France’s first aircraft carrier and like most of the early attempts was tacked on to an already built hull. In this case although originally laid down in 1914 as a battleship she had spent most of the First World War being worked on very slowly between breaks for Gitanes and an absinthe. Finally in 1920 a wooden deck was built on top of the half complete hull while various trials were carried out using Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters and Hanriot HD.3s, meanwhile the Marine Nationale spent the best part of a year trying to decide whether or not to finish the top half as a battleship or an aircraft carrier. The Washington Naval Treaty finally forcing their hand in 1922 when further Battleship construction was effectively banned for a decade.

After studying the state of the art in the United Kingdom they came up with a typically French solution to the problem of the flight deck being unusable while the elevators were down. Giant clamshell doors that would serve as the flight deck while the elevator was shuttling aircraft between hangars although it’s not clear these really helped. Bearn could recover 15 aircraft in just over an hour thanks to the lack of crash barrier which meant each aircraft had to be placed in the hangar after it landed. For comparison without the benefit of fancy elevator shaft doors Glorious could manage 32 aircraft in 42 minutes despite also not having a crash barrier, while with one Saratoga could manage 40 in just under 11 and a half minutes. The French aviation industry didn’t help the situation, the Dewoitine D.376 fighter was a navalised development of the D.373 with wings that took an hour to fold.

With a top speed of only 21.5kts the Bearn was slow, which as well as making flight operations increasingly difficult as aircraft got bigger and faster, also made fleet operations challenging as she would be unable to keep pace with battleships.

The German invasion of France saw Bearn carrying reserves of gold to Canada and she was returning with a mix of Curtiss Hawk fighters, Stinson Voyagers, and surplus Curtiss Helldiver bi-planes when France fell. The highlight of her Vichy French war time carrier was discovering a propeller blade had fallen off while being serviced in Guadalupe. Switching to the Free French side with the rest of the French Antilles. Bearn spent 1944 being converted to an aircraft ferry, managing one trip in that role before the war ended.

The Bearn did manage at least one first however, when a Potez 565 landed and took off from her deck in September 1936, becoming the first twin engine aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier. Despite what’s claimed for Winkle Brown and the Sea Mosquito.

6 Avenger Class (All of them) – Avengers disassemble!

Before WW2 had even started the idea of using converted merchant ships as aircraft carriers had been advanced on both sides of the Atlantic. With the early loss of Glorious and Courageous and the impact of the Focke-Wulfe Condor on convoys the Royal Navy rapidly turned concept into practice by adapting a spare German merchantman they’d captured, it’s probably lucky that HMS Audacity was so successful during her short existence as the next batch of Escort Carriers as they came to be known may well have been more deadly to the Allies than the Axis.

Adapted from merchant hulls that were under construction at the time of Pearl Harbour Avenger, Biter, and Dasher (seemingly named after Dennis the Menace’s dogs) were small ships of 8,200 tons with an air group of up to 15 aircraft, typically Martlets or Swordfish. For the OCD inclined a fourth ship Charger was retained by the USN as a training carrier. As the ships were already half built when the decision was made to convert them into pocket carriers their basic design left a little to be desired when it came to being a warship. Although unlike Audacity they at least had a small hangar.

Top 10 carrier fighters here

After arriving in the UK Avenger acted as convoy escort to and from Russia where her Swordfish and Sea Hurricane aircraft made a valiant attempt at defence despite their various shortcomings, assisting in the sinking of U-589 and downing at least 5 aircraft. After this she took part in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, on the return from which she was hit by a torpedo from U-155. Unfortunately, this hit what was euphemistically referred to as the depth charge magazine, but which was really just an unarmoured part of the ship’s hold. The subsequent explosion destroyed the ship with the loss of 516 members of the ship’s company.

Biter fared slightly better, surviving the war, however she did manage to breakdown on her delivery trip to the UK and gain a Swordfish in the island during a landing accident the next day. To add insult to injury later in the war she was hit by a homing torpedo from one of her own Swordfish that crashed astern of her.

Dasher meanwhile also participated in Operation Torch where on D-Day she lost two thirds of her Sea Hurricanes due to geographical confusion among the aircrew. This was partly recovered after those that had landed ashore found fuel but on the second morning only 6 serviceable aircraft were available. The following year while departing for her second Arctic convoy Dasher suffered one of the engine breakdowns that cursed the class and returned to the Firth of Clyde where on the night of 27 March 1943, with no help from the enemy, she blew up. With the loss of 379 crew this was one of the largest maritime disasters in British waters. There was much finger pointing with the RN complaining of the inadequate fuel storage system on the American built CVEs which had led to a strong smell of petrol throughout Dasher. The US meanwhile blamed poor limey petrol-handling skills, although oddly they did also introduce some of the RN’s suggested fuel system modifications to all subsequent escort carrier.

4. Graf ZeppelinMax Plank

To counter the Royal Navy, second-rate painter and best-selling author Adolf Hitler proposed a decade long expansion of the German navy (the Kreigsmarine), known as Plan Z. Plan Z called for 10 battleships, 3 battlecruisers, 33 cruisers, and 4 aircraft carriers. Fortunately, as the plan was only authorised in January 1939 most of the construction didn’t happen and that which did had generally been started before the plan was even finalised. The Graf Zeppelin laid down in 1936 and would be as close to a carrier as Germany would get.

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At a projected 33,000 tons and able to carry 43 aircraft the Graf Zeppelin would have been broadly comparable to an Illustrious class carrier of the Royal Navy. For an air group the Kreigsmarine originally intended to use the Fieseler Fi 167 a purpose designed biplane torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Think the result of an illicit liaison between a Swordfish and a Storch. Due to delays with the Graf Zeppelin only a handful were completed and none of them ever went to sea. When construction of the carrier was briefly restarted in 1942 a navalised Stuka, was intended to take on the torpedo bomber role. Given the success of the Aichi D3A Val during the early years of the war in the Pacific this would almost undoubtedly have been outclassed if it had entered front line service at any point after 1943. The fighter element was to consist of a squadron of Me 109T, a number of which were built and in lieu of a ship to fly from provided point defence to Heligoland. Which was probably a good thing as it’s hard to imagine an aircraft less suited to carrier operations. Apart from the Seafire. With a similarly narrow track undercarriage and with a long DB601N V-12 in front of the pilot to obscure his view of the ship it has to be assumed the attrition rate through landing accidents would approach 100% on any reasonable length deployment. Still at least they’d have enough endurance to wait while the deck was cleared…

Top 10 US Navy aircraft of WW2 here.

The Graf Zeppelin itself was occasionally upgraded during the war with a fighter direction compartment and extra anti-aircraft weaponry installed, but never quite got to an operational state. She did however see sterling service as a timber store in the Baltic before being captured by advancing Soviet Forces in April 1945. After some desultory testing the Soviets sank the Zeppelin in 1947, which is a shame as it was probably the best aircraft carrier they ever had too.

3. Akitsu Maru

If you think the US Navy’s Army having an Air Force is odd, by the end of WW2 the Imperial Japanese Army had a Navy with an Air Arm. The Akitsu Maru was taken over by the IJA during build and completed as an amphibious warfare vessel, similar to the modern-day Wasp class. A flight deck was built over the main deck, which itself was used for storing aircraft in the absence of a hangar. Additionally, 27 landing craft were carried to allow men and light tanks to be put ashore.

Although intended to provide air support for amphibious landings the Akitsu Maru was of limited use in the role due to the lack of arrestor gear, IJA doctrine requiring a landing field ashore to be made available as soon as possible. Consequently, she spent most of her limited-service life employed as an aircraft ferry. However, the Kokusai Ki-76 spotter plane was able to take off and land on her flight deck, as was the Kayaba Ka-1 autogyro. [4] As the war progressed not necessarily to Japan’s favour these aircraft were pressed into service to search for submarines and armed with 60kg depth charges to attack them, allowing the Akitsu Maru to act as an escort carrier. As plans go this seems quite sensible and was basically what the Royal Navy were doing in the Atlantic. However, on one such mission on 15 November 1944 she was hit by torpedoes from the submarine USS Queenfish and sank in three minutes.

[4] Shockingly footage of this happening is available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EFt7cLCRSY

2. Kuznetsov ‘Smoke on the water’ or ‘The Flanker Tanker’

The Soviet Union and its successor have had something of a love hate relationship with carrier aviation. On the one hand claiming to have created a carrier killer, the ill-fated Slava class one of which is now resting on the bottom of the Black Sea due to mild weather, and on the other still seeing enough benefit in them to have one as the pride of its navy. The Kuznetsov is probably most famed for the plume of dark smoke that follows it everywhere but the engines running a bit rich is the least of her worries. [5]

Having failed to build a successful VSTOL fighter the Russian Navy decided to go with the worst of both worlds and equip their ship with a ski jump and arrestor wires and use conventional aircraft. Using a ski ramp with a conventional aircraft isn’t without its advantages versus flying off a flat deck but you still need a longer run than most carriers can provide to take-off at your maximum all up mass. [6] Which is why footage of the Kuznetsov’s flying operations don’t feature much weaponry beyond a few air-to-air missiles.

Soviet doctrine preferred equipment to be capable of multiple roles, attack helicopters that can carry troops that sort of thing. Consequently, like its predecessor the Kiev class the Kuznetsov has a range of missiles including 12 launch tubes for the 7-ton Granite missile in the forward flight deck. Which raises some interesting questions such as how long does it take to clear the FOD after a missile launch, or wouldn’t that space be better used for storing aircraft?

The main issue working against the Kuznetsov however is Soviet build quality and Russian maintenance. Since commissioning in 1991 she’s deployed 8 times, to the Atlantic or Mediterranean, which is an average of once every 4 years. During the most recent of which she lost two aircraft due to issues with the arrestor wires before giving up and sending the remainder of the air group ashore. Seemingly never a priority for funding previous refits have been drawn out and failed to meet the initially ambitious plans advertised by the Russian Ministry of Defence. To this the most recent has added an element of farce. In 2018 the floating dry dock she was in sunk while also dropping a 70-tonne crane through the flight deck. Over a year later a fire broke out causing around $8 million of damage. Finally in 2022 a special dry dock was constructed, apparently by digging a large muddy ditch to join two smaller ones together. Currently the Kuznetsov is expected to return to the Russian Navy in 2024, about 8 years after the refit started. Which is about the same length of time it took the UK to build two Queen Elizabeth Class carriers.

RAF Typhoons and the Russian carrier is smoky when moving at 20 knots.

[5] Pedants may like to point out that the Russian language refer to ships as masculine, which is correct. But this is written in English where they’re referred to as feminine.

[6] Helpfully if you can get up to the speed required it will probably break the nose gear as it hits the ramp.

1. Shinano ‘Shinano 21-speed gears of war’

Yamato and Musashi are well known as the largest and most powerful battleships ever constructed and if Space Battleship Yamato is to be believed the only to achieve faster-than-light travel. Less well known is their half-sister the Shinano, possibly because only two known photos of her exist and halfway through construction, she was converted into a 66,000-ton support carrier. To put that into context the Essex class attack carriers that formed the backbone of the US Fleet by the end of the war displaced only two-thirds as much and carried a striking force of 90 aircraft.

Laid down in May 1940 under great secrecy construction was paused in December 1941, presumably because the IJN had a lot going on that month. By June of 1942, the Battle of Midway led the IJN to be unexpectedly short of four fleet carriers and the decision was made to complete the Shinano as a carrier able to provide replacement aircraft to the rest of the fleet. In this role she was planned to carry 120 reserve aircraft while operating her own small air group of 18 Mitsubishi A7M fighters, 18 Aichi B7A torpedo bombers, and 6 Nakajima C6N reconnaissance aircraft. Or at least that was a plan.

With events increasingly turning against the Japanese Empire the construction of the Shinano was accelerated with the dockyard working with the kind of ‘hardcore’ practices favoured by Elon Musk. Finished some 7 months ahead of schedule she was launched in October 1944 with a build quality even British Leyland might consider suspect.

Shinano left the construction yard on 28th November with a cargo of Shinyo special attack boats and Ohka special attack aircraft, sailing to Kure where fitting out would be completed.’ On the 29th of November some nine hours after sailing, four torpedoes from the USS Archerfish hit her port side where thanks to bad damage control practices and the aforementioned build quality, they caused widespread flooding which took her to the bottom seven hours later. Thanks to the secrecy with which Shinano had been built the USN initially refused to believe the Archerfish’s Captain’s claim as it didn’t match with the location of any known carrier.

The biggest carrier ever built until the USS Forrestal was launched in 1954 the effort expended probably wasn’t worth it for a minor intelligence victory over the USN.


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Top 10 things fighter pilots really don’t want to hear

Thundering complaints from the angry man of the sky

We wonder which 10 things fighter pilots least wanted to hear so we looked for the biggest wristwatch in the bar and found it on the wrist of Paul Tremelling. After a life spent taming Sea Harriers, Harriers and Super Hornets, Paul has had his fill of terrifying, annoying or exasperating noises, here are his top (or bottom) 10.

Another way of looking at this is the Top Ten Things Fighter Pilots Find Most Annoying or Disappointing. We won’t waste words on things we should all despise: Pomposity and dishonesty, so you won’t find lying in the top ten. That’s a given. Who wouldn’t hate the crew that invent Situational Awareness for debrief purposes when they clearly had none in the air? Who wouldn’t scorn a unit with a miraculously low incident reporting rate that thought covering up errors made them look better? Who wouldn’t think ill of a squadron that dropped a Paveway on the pan but didn’t own up to it? So here goes. Cue some fitting music, like The Only Way is Up, as we find out the Top Ten things fighter pilots really don’t want to hear!

Glossary of terms

Gash = rubbish/garbage/crap/poor quality

Charlie = Idiot

Pillock = Idiot

Fratted = Killed by your own side, from ‘fratricide’

Have Quick = System to keep radio communications safe from enemy meddling or snooping

Og-Splosh = sea (corruption of Ogin)

Tracking juice = The psychological/physiological capacity for tracking things with eyes and interpreting that into hand movements. We use it to explain the fact that you can’t keep doing high workload hand eye coordination forever. So instead of saying ‘I could no longer keep the sight on the enemy aircraft’ we might say ‘I ran out of tracking juice’.

10. Helicopter crew radio transmissions

The kind of people that talk while you’re trying to watch TV.

You can mimic a helicopter crew radio transmission by standing next to a whining mosquito-killer, tapping your larynx at six hertz and sharing your life story. All the weary fast-jet jockey wants to do, as the life blood slips away from the sortie, is to get to an aerodrome and land. The only relevant communication is to say hello, say who you are and what you want to do:

“Yeovilton, SATAN, Join”.

Done. Dusted.

Nothing to say until you announce your arrival at the initial point with the even more elegant –

“SATAN, Initials”.

Imagine then rolling to the tower frequency – as distance-to-run disappears at 5 or 6 miles per minute – to be intercepted by one of the world’s more effective comm jammers – the Sea King Mk 4. Explaining (try not to fall asleep) that they had just lifted from somewhere, were going somewhere else, were following the poor weather route, they had set their altimeter correctly and their brother had been to a wedding once and had met the bass player from Ocean Colour Scene. Just when you thought you could get a word in edgeways some Lynx looker (Lynx helicopter Observer) would announce that they were going to cross, then re-cross, the main runway before making their way to the southern exercise areas at something akin to walking pace. As an aside (dear Lynx fellows) surely if you didn’t cross the runway, re-crossing would be unnecessary? At about this point the neatly dressed off four-ship of the Fleet Air Arm’s finest would be approaching the boundary fence with masks off – swearing into the ether – waiting to quickly shout “SATAN, past initials”!


The zenith of comm jamming could probably be awarded to the monologue that followed a rotary wing practice emergency. An interminable monologue made even worse by the announcement of ‘Practice PAN’ at the start needing to be repeated 3 times. Quite why this had to be verbalised for the entire western hemisphere I have no idea. It would be followed by the usual patter of where, who, what the non-existent problem was being imagined to be…sorry, drifted off even writing that bit…it even included a ‘when’ as if ‘now’ wasn’t fairly obvious. A well-constructed call could take a rotary wing operator as long to get through as it did for you to get back to Yeovilton from Exeter (two and a half counties!) – wondering why they weren’t just asking for the outcome they were after e.g. a running landing rather than explaining months of helo groundschool in a transmission that could easily make the Guinness Book of Records. Then again. Not much else for them to do to do I suppose.

World’s more effective comm jammer

9. Guns!

Simulated gun combat can result in severe FOMO or damaged egos.

This is probably the greatest thing to say and the worst to hear. Saying it means that you’ve put simulated, in my case (real in others), bullets through someone else’s aeroplane and are claiming a kill. The height of airborne one-upmanship. What could possibly be better? Wandering in with that ‘I’m-not-swaggering-swagger’ knowing that at some point you’ll bump into whoever it was that filled the gunsight. For once looking forward to the debrief in the absolute, 100%, certainty that there was no way on God’s green earth that the weapon had been mis-cued, fired at the wrong target, not supported – or heaven forbid launched at a friendly. The issue with hearing a guns call is that you’re, obviously, not the one who is making it. That could mean that someone else on your team has had more fun than you, maybe done a better job than you, is just generally better (at least for a fleeting second) than you. Pretty annoying. The alternative is horrendous. It’s you that’s being gunned and someone else is over you like a rash, on you like a cheap suit, riding you like a…you get the idea. Of course you’re magnanimous, of course you accept the kill, of course you don’t argue in the debrief…but deep down it burns like hell. Best to delay the drive home until the amygdala have chilled their herbs a little.

Satisfyingly/annoyingly uncountermeasurable gunfire.

8. Aircraft-X gunned an Aircraft-Y

If you’re boasting, you have an emotional horse in the race
Intergenerational air combat

There are a variety of themes on this one but the classic is of a data burst aimed at someone in a flying coverall by someone not in a flying coverall (plane-splaining). It is used by people who like a particular aircraft (usually for aesthetic reasons) to justify liking it and to show some form of ascendancy of their chosen champion over someone else’s. Usually that someone else is the coverall wearer and they are stood beside Aircraft Y hoping that the nice German gentleman with the in-depth technical questions doesn’t come back. It is delivered with confidence, even if it makes no sense, is clearly a statistical outlier, is being referred to as fact whereas it’s usually secondhand anecdote at best and has yet to be subjected to the rigorous test of ‘So fucking what?’. The fact is that all aircraft are a compromise of one form or another and if you look hard enough you can find evidence of every dog having their day. I watched aghast in a de-brief once as a mate squirmed his way through a tape showing how a Jaguar had shot him. Hat’s off to the Jag mate but it really doesn’t show much more than they, armed with a Winder, somehow managed a one-off against a bloke with radar and AMRAAM that really (really) (really) should have done better. The statement also usually completely disregards aircraft role, generation and investment when used to justify a particular programme. ‘I met a bloke once in an X-Wing who claimed a kill on a Sopwith Camel’ – well so they should! What’s your point? ‘I met a bloke once who gunned a F-15 in a Typhoon’. Excellent. Any chance the reverse is also true? Do me a favour lofty. Cut along to the beer tent and come back with an IPA.

7. Gash check-ins

Shut up already

Check-ins are used to confirm that you’re all on the same frequency. They also have a secondary unstated role of letting the team know that everyone is ‘up for this one’. Teeth sharpened, warpaint on.

They should go something like





Crisp, quick, immaculate.

Gash check-ins are the exact opposite, and fill a leader with seething rage. It’s not that hard and people being late, lazy or on the wrong frequency is just unacceptable. And for some reason you’re not allowed to unstrap, jog across the pan and shoot the miscreant in the face. Maybe it’s because that would put you further behind schedule and your schedule has been finessed to +/- 3 seconds. If you ever hear the sound ‘Bit. Dit. Blip. Bid. Blah. Lip’ in very quick succession it might be because you are in the middle of a radio check and some Charlie – who the King has entrusted with a precious, multimillion pound aircraft – cannot programme their bloody Have Quick. Have Quick jumps frequency to fool the opposition and there is a generally sound rule of thumb that it is so complex to use that first tourists can’t manage it. It isn’t complex. But it still results in check ins that go something like ‘SATAN Check’ ‘Two’ ‘Three’ ‘Dit, clip. Bib…’ as the whelp in the number four position looks helplessly around hoping that divine intervention will occur at some point. Poor check ins are actually so common they occur whilst attacking evil space stations. If I had been Red Leader in a galaxy far, far away I think I’d have fratted most of my own formation and a fair bit of the Gold section losers for their incredibly poor radio discipline. How can you possibly check-in in the order 10, 7, 3, 6 for fuck’s sake? Checking-in on time, on frequency and in order isn’t hard. Making it look hard is enough for one’s blood to boil.

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6. No Fault Found

Please don’t take any of this as unwarranted criticism of the wizards that keep fast jets airborne. But to tell someone that something’s wrong and for them not to find out what – is somewhat tedious. Mainly because you don’t do this for fun. It’s about the jets being mission ready. No Fault Found actually has an attendant running argument as to what constitutes a serviceable aircraft. Aircrew will argue it’s an aircraft with everything on the GO side of the GO/ NOGO equation working. Some disagree and have occasionally been heard to use phrases such as “This one’s fine but not according to the pilots”. The real trouble with No Fault Found is that usually it means ‘Fault will invariably crop up again in the next trip and probably at a really annoying time’. There are of course outliers explained by aircrew buffoonery. My favourite is the Incident Signal contained in the 800 Naval Air Squadron line book. The aircraft had been made unserviceable by a pilot who had ‘let it all go’ a little and had claimed that the small motor that powered the ejection seat up and down was faulty. The rectification action simply read ‘Seat tested with pilot below maximum boarding weight. Seat assessed serviceable’. The French fellows managed a classic No Fault Found when I was away with them. On two trips the boys snagged the aircraft fuel system of a particular Rafale. No Fault Found on sorties une et deux . On trip trois the same thing happened but this time left dear old Omar no option but to park the pretty Dassault chariot in the og-splosh and await the rescue helo. Fret not, he was in the bar with a neck brace that evening. No Fault Found? Turns out the aircrew weren’t lying!

5. Anything

This might sound a little odd. There is a general theme perpetuated by movies such as the majestic TOPGUN Maverick that crews talk all the time. They don’t. Nothing is said in the air that is either standard procedure or has been pre-briefed. The RAF tried to change this by insisting that formation changes were called and acknowledged once. Must have been an issue in the twin-seat community because our wing people (not a phrase used at the time) were all capable of working out what formation fitted the circumstances the best and being in it. I believe we called them ‘thinking wingmen’ which seems a small expectation of someone in a fast jet (Loyal Wingmen also seems a sleight). No need for extraneous comm. You don’t need to tell people that you are on track, on time because that was briefed. You don’t need to tell people that you are off track or late, because that’s obvious. You don’t need to tell people to watch out for fighters or SAMs because that’s their job and lethal threats will not be far from the front of the grey matter. What you might need is the bloody radio to be clear for really, really important stuff. For example the twin seaters are late, therefore the ALARMs (anti radar missiles for shutting down hostile air defences) aren’t going to be launched on time, therefore the Time On Target needs to be changed. If some turkey is telling you about stuff you already know at the time – that’s an issue! Furthermore – if you want the enemy to know that you’re coming – some pillock transmitting irrelevance on UHF, whether frequency agile, encrypted or otherwise is a great way to perk them up a bit. Zip lip. It makes sense.

4. Nothing

This may sound odd, after the above. But there is a logic to it. Words, air time and bandwidth are precious in a jet. So when you actually depress the Push To Transmit button it’s because you need a very important piece of information or need to speak to someone that is broadly speaking mission critical. Simple questions might be something like “Number 3, have you checked the weather at base?” asked in a passive-aggressive (actually just aggressive) manner because the reason you are asking is that you are past the pre-briefed time when he was supposed to find out for you. In this instance silence is infuriating. The same is true of external agencies. In all my time I don’t think I heard silence in a single case working with Forward Air Controllers or Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (same difference, UK FACs started calling themselves JTACs because the Americans had and it sounded cooler). But it was a very common occurrence working with ship’s Fighter Controllers – particularly the poor buggers who got to control once in a blue moon and had multiple other duties on the ship. Silence, from the one person you had actually set up the entire mission for. Not much you can do but go back to another frequency, tell someone else and hope they can rod through whatever the problem was. The same was invariably true of Red Crown who were the people in an Anti Air Warfare destroyer tasked with ensuring that goodies left and rejoined the fleet unassailed whilst baddies got a SAM in the face for their troubles. Important? More like critical. Easy? Piece of piss; just check in and say hello. Did the side breathers ever get it right? Well, never is probably a stretch but seldom is accurate. It was very common to spend an entire exercise off Scotland dutifully checking in with Red Crown, hearing nothing, getting bored and flying the mission. This would be followed by coming home, checking in with Red Crown, hearing nothing and calling the boat for recovery. Somewhere in a Type 42 or an Arleigh Burke a headset would be resting on a desk, crackling away to itself whilst the surface fleet do whatever it is they do in an exercise – mainly sitting around in funny white hats and gloves wondering when the next mess tin of stew will arrive.

3. The clangers and attention getters

An earlier Sea Harrier demonstrating a sensible height

An incredibly loud ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ sound accompanied by dizzying red flashing lights. I initially try and work out if this is just a middle-aged hangover. No, this is Major Warning Audio Alarm (I’m guessing the name) revealing that something very important has catastrophically failed. Now, I’ve said it before, the aviation gods are capricious and cruel– and they don’t spring these things on you when you are at your sharpest. They wait until you’re doing something a little complacently, or are already working so hard that a quick blast of emergency handling is bound to tip you over the edge. A classic of the former occurred off Gibraltar. There I was minding my own business on Combat Air Patrol when I looked down and saw a periscope making its way around the Mediterranean. This obviously called for a bit of low level ‘totally pointless but very good fun’ show-boating. So down the 20,000ft or so I went as quickly as seemed sensible (not that the whole thing was sensible) and waxed over the top at the sort of extremely low height that we used to be able to do. As I passed over the submarine, the flashers and the major warning light illuminated telling me I had an engine fire. Goddam, back to Gib’ for a fixed power approach. They’d been watching, and in this case rightly so! A good example of the second case would be coming to the hover alongside the boat on a lumpy day in the North Sea. Tracking juice was running out as ship heaved and I tried not to let my hands follow it. The major warning sounded and it turned out that the jet was now in ‘Manual Fuel System’ which meant that all the clever stuff which kept the mighty Pegasus in check had failed and my left hand was now essentially an ON/OFF switch for the fuel hose. No dramas at the end of the day but at max power alongside was  not the ideal time to find out that the engine was having a fairly significant malfunction and the chances of going for a swim had just taken a step change in the wrong direction.

2. Commitment issues

We’re not going. What do you mean we’re not going? How can we not be going? There are plenty of reasons to not ‘commit aviation’. Many if not all of them are common sense. That doesn’t make actually employing these reasons any more palatable. They can range from the ship being out of limits as it bobs around, the weather in the target area being so punk that parachuting ‘in the event of’ was likely to be fatal – to the more frustrating engineering issues that could occasionally crop up. A lost spanner needed to be found lest it was nestling in a control run – or the unbelievable but 100% true case whereby a hydraulic fluid pump was found wedged onto an oil canister. Did we have oily hyds or did we have pink oil? Hard to say…best ground the fleet. In this case the Hawk T1.

Whilst it might sound sensible to scrub missions occasionally, the issue is this. Flying fast jets is about knowing when to ‘push it’ and when to ‘call it a day’. You don’t get to be a force of good standing by calling it a day.

You are on a seam that civilian risk managers wouldn’t understand but the good Lord Flashheart would in the “Well, this isn’t a good use of my time and resources but I’m still going to do it” sort of way. Your job is to find a way. To come up with Plan D when A, B and 3 have all failed. To cobble something together. To make it work. Even when you can hear the nails going into your sortie’s coffin one by one – you’re not dead yet and you won’t be until that thing is double chained, padlocked and at the bottom of the ogin. But when it happens it’s the ultimate deflation. Mainly because the trips that get canned are the ones that take every single nano percent of your ability and guile to plan in the first place. The planning, the expectation, the slight gnawing sensation in the stomach all for nothing. Doubly annoying is that the decision is most often made by someone completely removed from the sortie. The zenith for me occurred strapped into the jet at the back of the boat in the Gulf of Bothnia. We were told to get out. A Harrier formation led by me, a flight commander, had been authed (authorised) to fly by my squadron CO from a ship commanded by a RN Captain (who hasn’t done badly since!). We were ordered to get out over the phone by a Flight Lieutenant from High Wycombe. White hot rage doesn’t come close. If that fucker had been on the ship I would have quite happily put a whole magazine of 9 mil through the bridge of his nose. And breathe. Suffice to say, cancelling when you’d worked hard to make it work makes a strong play for top spot. In fact – it’s just occurred to me. If you’re one of the folk who greet ‘We’re not going’ with an urge to kick your helmet into the nearest wall – you can be on my team. If you feel relief – you may not be a fighter pilot after all.

“The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes is authoritative and irreverent – a very tasty combination! It covers the complete spectrum of aviation (except helicopters) and includes excellent photos and artwork.” – Former TOPGUN Instructor, Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek

  1. ‘They’

So here it is, Number One, and it’s an odd one: They. This is an abstract concept. They are immeasurably powerful. They are omnipresent. They tinker with your life like a master of puppets. They are oft quoted. They appear in numerous conversations. They don’t exist.

They are the purveyors of neat, weapon-grade, perceived wisdom. Let me give you an example: The real reason that the UK bought the F-35B rather than the one that goes furthest or the one that carries the most is that ‘they’ will tell you the deck cycle is more efficient. The reason that Harriers never did flypasts in London is that ‘they’ will tell you that it’s perfectly fine to do so in a single-engine red Hawk but not the shiny grey VSTOL masterpiece. The reason the carrier didn’t go to flying stations between Suez and Bab-el-Mandeb is because ‘they’ said that flying in the Red Sea was impossible. People of generally sound mind would quote the raving musings of ‘they’ in important briefs and meetings.

The real issue with ‘they’ is that the Supreme Being that is ‘they’ was actually an all smothering form of abdication where one didn’t have to stand by a stupid opinion. One (it appears) could inject any opinion into a conversation if you attributed it to ‘they’. Which is ridiculous because warfare is about cold, hard fact. To get an opinion in Combat Air you need to come armed with facts to which you have applied conscious thought. Not third hand baloney. They may well think that you should add an extra mile or two to the shot ranges. But until ‘they’ turn up in the brief and explain themselves then you can shoot when the Air Warfare Instructor goddam tells you to shoot. They may well cancel flying on the forecast – but the bloody rule says to do it when the wind actually goes over 40 knots, not when the met man says it might. They may well cancel operational sorties when one half of the Stores Management System has a wobbly; but that’s why the amazing designers gave you two halves and the other one’s just fine and dandy. They may well say that jet Z is a masterpiece but when you’re on the pan wondering how much more fallout your mission can take – they are never there. They may well think the other jet can carry more than yours but they have once again forgotten that if it pickles off more than one bomb it might well drop the bloody targeting pod. If I ever do actually find ‘they’ blood will flow; there’s going to be an almighty fight.

So there you go. Everything from weather scrub, to radios, to perceived wisdom to the jet breaking. Something for everyone. Actually I’ve thought of one more. Tea. If I was prepared to make tea, I wouldn’t have asked the crew room ‘Who wants a coffee?’ would I?

By Paul Tremelling, author of Harrier: How to be a fighter pilot here

Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here and Super Hornet here.

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10 Obscure Cancelled French Warplanes of the 1950s

Hugo Mark Michel and Joe Coles previously took you on a tour of France’s strangest aeroplanes, and now, in the happy murk of a remote bar outside Toulouse, and high on fine cheese and wine, they have hatched a fresh conspiracy. They went in search of 10 thrilling – yet somehow scorned – French warplanes from the 1950s that have too long lurked in the shadows. Non, je ne regrette rien? Maybe a few…

10. Breguet Br 960 Vultur (1951) ‘Boule de feu’

France was determined to never again suffer the catastrophe of invasion. So with a blank cheque, the nation embarked on a major post-war shopping spree to radically modernise and reequip its armed forces. One of the big-ticket items was naval aviation, France’s ragtag fleet had three aircraft carriers: a vulnerably obsolete French design, the Béarn, suitable only for transporting aircraft; a British war veteran, Dixmude (A609), also unable to launch and recover aircraft effectively; and the Arromanches which was the sole functional carrier, was built for another age, and unsuitable for modern warfare. It was thus decided to build a new fast and light aircraft carrier, the PA 28 ‘Clemenceau’. But which aircraft should equip this new carrier? The piston-engined aeroplanes available to the French Navy had appeared obsolete with the appearance of the first jet, so several new types were desperately sought. One pressing need was for a maritime attack aircraft, capable of ground attack, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare missions. This diverse mission set would require an array of armament options including torpedoes, missiles and rockets. The engineers at Bréguet considered the problem and concluded that a fast multi-role long-range carrier aircraft could not be built with a simple existing engine. A combination was required, it would need to use both a turboprop and a turbojet. The turboprop would give it a reasonable patrol speed and superb endurance, while the turbojet would provide a combat dash capability to evade enemy fighters or assist a shorter take-off. The resultant aircraft was the characterful Br.960 ‘Vultur’. This smart two-seater was powered by two British engines type: an Armstrong Siddeley Mamba turboprop to drive the propeller* and a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engine, fed by discreet air intakes in the wing roots. Other than its novel propulsion, its configuration was quite conventional, with 16° swept wings and a tricycle landing gear. The side-by-side seat arrangement was adopted, as it was in the later Soviet Tu-91 and earlier US Skyknight.

 The first prototype made its maiden flight on 4 August 1951. It demonstrated an impressive endurance of 9 hours, and when the turbojet was fired up it hit a highly respectable speed of 850km/h (528mph). For comparison, the broadly comparable British Wyvern topped out at 383 mph, the US’ Skyshark at 492 mph.

With the second prototype arriving in 1952, landing tests were conducted from February to April 1953. It proved excellent, meeting or beating the expected specifications, especially in terms of maximum speed. However, the cancellation of the PA 28 aircraft carrier project spelled the end for the Vultur, as it was not built to operate from the existing aging carriers. Two other things counted against the promising Vultur. Firstly, the French navy wanted a purely jet fleet for its non-ASW force – for submarine warfare it believed a specialised- rather tha multi-role aircraft, was a better solution. To save their project, the Breguet engineers embarked on a campaign to modify the second prototype, which morphed into the Br.965 ‘Épaulard’, a specialised submarine killer. The aircraft stripped of its pure jet engine, and further refined for the ASW role became the Breguet Br.1050 Alizé, which served from 1957-1962.

* Unlike the similar US Ryan FR Fireball which used a traditional piston-engine

9. SE-2410 ‘Grognard’ ‘A taste for French growler’

The primordial soup of the early jet age spawned some extremely ugly aeroplanes – and the SE.2410 Grognard, known derisively as the ‘Bossu’ (hunchback) was one of them. Of many unusual features, its double-decked jet engine arrangement is the most notable, and was later adopted by the English Electric Lightning (and nothing else).

In 1948, the French Air Force announced that it needed a fast new twin-engine ground attack aircraft. It was a priority, so SNCASE (or Sud-Est) quickly responded with an extremely innovative and surprising concept, the SE-2410. Its two Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engines, built under licence by Hispano Suiza, were housed one above the other towards the rear of the aircraft, and fed by a dorsal air intake located directly behind the cockpit. This clever arrangement both reduced the forward cross-section area and created room for a neat internal weapons bay. The planned armament was two 30-mm Hispano cannons, and unguided rockets installed in a small folding weapons bay, as well as bombs. The SE-2410 made its maiden flight on 30 April 1950. It was named ‘Grognard’ (literally translating as ‘growler’) the nickname of the Napoleonic soldiers of the Grande Armée. Tests were carried out, revealing that the aircraft was in many ways excellent. After these encouraging first flights, the French Air Force ordered a second prototype, this time equipped with a two-seater cockpit, simply designated SE-2415 Grognard II.

It was in February 1951 that this larger second prototype made its first flight. Unfortunately for the Bossu, it was cancelled in early 1952, in favour of the blandly conventional Southwest SO.4050 Vautour. Before retiring, the two prototypes were used for weapons testing, notably in the support of the first French-produced air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles efforts. It became historically significant as the first French aircraft to fire a French-designed air-to-air missile. After that, the two prototypes were finally abandoned for good. 

8. Fouga CM-82 Lutin ‘Rainbow Reaper’ (never flown)

Another ground attack aircraft of the early 1950s was the Fouga CM-821 ‘Lutin’ (leprechaun). This was also a twin-engine aircraft but much lighter than the Grognard. Primarily designed to deploy unguided rockets, the little Lutin had a fuselage and canopy recycled from the Fouga CM.8 R.9 ‘Cyclops’ jet glider. Power was from two Turbomeca Palas engines mounted in nacelles under the wings. The most notable features of the design were the V-tail consisting of two ruddervators with no vertical tail and an almost glider-like high-aspect wing.

A model of the Lutin was displayed at the Paris Air Show in June 1951, which was held for the last year at the Grand Palais in Paris (it was later moved to Le Bourget). This intriguingly petite attack aircraft was never to fly. The CM-82, as well as other related projects varying in ambition, were all axed. This freed enough resources for the design office to devote their energies to developing the extremely successful CM 170 ‘Magister’ jet trainer.

The world would have to wait for the Reaper drone to see what an aircraft of the Lutin’s configuration could do in the attack role.

7. MD-550 ‘Mystère Delta’ (1955) ‘Mystery Jets!’

In February 1953, the French Air Force launched a tender for a new light jet interceptor. They wanted an inexpensive, but all-weather, machine, weighing less than 4 tonnes, and capable of climbing to 18,000 metres in 6 minutes. A speed of no less than Mach 1.3 in level flight was requested, as was the carriage of a 200-­­­kg missile, and a landing speed of less than 180 km/h. 

Despite the success of their swept-wing Ouragan and Mystère, MD looked to a new, and largely unproven, technology, the delta wing for the new interceptor. The triangular wing had never been used on an operational fighter. It had only been used on experimental aircraft, such as several French Payens, the US’ XF-92, Swedish Saab 210, and Britain’s nascent FD.2

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Two prototypes were ordered, the 01 then simply called ‘Mystère-Delta’ would be equipped with two British-designed Armstrong-Siddeley Viper turbojet engines built in France under licence and the second one, the MD-560 02, with two indigenous, and far more powerful, Turbomeca Gabizo turbojet engines. The 01, a small aircraft with a massive tail fin and razor-sharp nose, was completed in 1954, and flew on 25 June 1955 with Roland Glavany at the controls. Although considered underpowered, it reached Mach 0.95 on its second flight and during its fourth flight, reached Mach 1.3 in level flight.

While the 02 was still under construction, the 01 underwent numerous improvements across 1956, including the addition of an afterburner, a SEPR-66 rocket engine and even a Martin-Baker ejection seat. The airframe was also refined with a modified vertical stabilizer, air intakes and trailing edges. A new name was also given to the aircraft, a seductively commercial one; because it was said that one could see it, but never reach it, it was given the name ‘Mirage’.

With this raft of improvements, a new test campaign began and the aircraft lived up to expectations with a new top speed of Mach 1.6.  But this tiny, not overly powerful, machine’s armament was limited to a single air-to-air missile carried under its belly. The planned Prototype 02 would have had similar limitations, so instead work began on a new, truly impressive, aircraft. This, the MD-550 03, was 30% bigger, and the prototype for what became the hugely successful Mirage III. The MD-550 01, usefully twin-engined, continued flying until 1957 in support of the Mirage IV project.

It is because this prototype flew under the name of Mirage, and that the second prototype was never completed that the designation ‘Mirage III’ was somewhat confusingly adopted for the first operational Mirage.

6. Nord 5000 ‘Harpon’ ‘La fusée sexy’ (never flown)

Responding to the same 1953 call-for-tender as the MD-550 ‘Mystère Delta’, the project proposed by SNCAN was more powerful, far larger, and much faster than its competitors. Nord Aviation ambitiously demanded a Mach 1.6 top speed for their design, rather than the Mach 1.3 specified in the requirement. This sexily futuristic project was known as the Nord 5000 ‘Harpon’. The Nord 5000 was a delta-canard interceptor long foreshadowing the configuration of today’s European fighters. Its design was rather extreme, with wings were fixed very far back in the fuselage while its canard foreplanes almost at the very tip of the nose. finally. It singular appearance was utterly exciting, screaming speed, potency and modernity. A single-engine prototype was to be built fitted with a 1500-kg thrust SEPR rocket engine. A second, far larger twin-engine version would have followed. The story of which engine was intended for this aircraft is a convoluted one. Across the study, between 1952 to 1956 engine technology was evolving so fast that proposed advanced engines rapidly became obsolete. The single-engine variant was initially envisaged with a RR Nene, then an Atar 9, while the twin-engine version was first schemed around the Gabizo then the Orpheus 12. After extensive studies and tests with four models, Nord requested funds to build the first prototype. Unfortunately, for the 5000, the all-conquering Mirage III was already proving perfectly suitable and there was no need for two high-speed interceptors. Nord was not going to give up without a fight however, and pestered the authorities for the budget for at least one prototype in order to explore its advanced design and structure – and to explore the possibility of Mach 2 supercruise. But the authorities stubbornly denied funds and the thrilling 5000 was lost forever.

5. S.N.C.A.S.E. SE-212 ‘Durandal’ (1956) ‘Durandel, Durandel’

According to legend, the sword of the Frankish hero Roland, Durandel, was capable of slicing through giant boulders of stone with a single strike, and was indestructible. It was clearly a cool name for a combat aircraft.

In response to the same 1953 call for tender as the Nord 5000 ‘Harpon’ and the Dassault MD-550, the SNCASE (or Sud Est) design office studied an aircraft similar to the Mystère delta, but far larger. This delta-winged aircraft bore the name of a legendary sword, the Sud-Est SE.212 ‘Durandal’.

Designed to carry an air-to-air missile, but also to perform close support and anti-bomber interception missions, the Durandal was a delta with a single truncated air inlet reminiscent of the North American F-100.  Another point of divergence between the MD-550 and Durandal was the choice of engine. At SNCASE, a single French ATAR engine was selected. Initially equipped with a nationally built ATAR 101F turbojet engine, it quickly proved too weedy for Durandal, so the more modern, powerful and reliable Atar 101G was chosen for second prototype. The first SE.212 flew on 20 April 1956 and proved to be a good aircraft overall, but it was the second prototype equipped with the ATAR 101F that really impressed. Capable of flying at Mach 1.57 and reaching an operational altitude of 12,300m, it was spritely but it was another casualty to the new superfighter: It was killed by the appearance of the superior Mach 2-capable Mirage III. The programme was terminated in 1958 following the first orders for the Mirage III. The two SE.212 prototypes ended their careers as flying test beds for SNECMA engines.

The name would later be recycled for an anti-runway weapon, and one of the few French air-launched weapons adopted by the US.

4. SNCASO SO-4060 ‘Super Vautour‘The Vulture that had to feast on its own corpse’

SNCASO wished to build on the success of the formidable SO.4050 Vautour attack aircraft, and, to stay ahead of the game, create a supersonic successor. From 1953 onwards, a delta wing winged variant was studied, before eventually a swept wing was selected. The new aircraft was to be a two-seater heavy fighter. It wasn’t until 1955, that the French Air Force took a serious interest in the SO.4060 project, and asked the firm to design two versions: an all-weather interceptor capable of Mach 1.3 at 15,000 m and a bomber. A year later the air force’s requirements become even more demanding; this time they asked for a top speed higher than Mach 2. SNCASO’s planned engine, the ATAR 101, was now abandoned as it was not made for flight above Mach 1.3. The new powerplant would be ATAR 9. However, the construction of a prototype had already begun, and the change of engine could not be accommodated in this first example. In 1957 the heavy fighter project was cancelled in favour of the lighter Mirage III, which was already flying and looked extremely promising; the bomber project was also aborted in favour of another Dassault offering, the Mirage IV. The prototype was never finished and the once hopeful project was consigned to the boneyard of history.

3. MD-450 ‘Barougan’Dirtbike Hurricane’

Whereas many of the aircraft of the Second World War were content with semi-prepared runways in fields or dirt, the new generation of jet aircraft was rather refined in its tastes. These new softies, with their love of long concrete runways meant a single well-placed bomb could potentially paralyze the air defences of an entire region. Thus, in the early 1950s, there was a strong interest in interceptors capable of taking off from unprepared airfields. The best-known result of this research is undoubtedly the SNCASE SE.5000 ‘Baroudeur’, which took off from a rocket cart. But it is much less well known that Dassault were also working on the same problem. Their pleasingly simple solution used the Dassault MD-450 Ouragan, which had been flying since 1949. An Ouragan was specially adapted to take off from anywhere, with a new landing gear that was extensively modified, using twin wheels with low-pressure tyres on the main gear, as well as a braking parachute. The concept was unofficially named ‘Barougan’ (a cross between the Baroudeur and Ouragon). This first version of the all-terrain aircraft took off successfully on 24 February 1954, preceding the conversion of three more Ouragans. They were first tested in France, then directly on the ground in Algeria. Unfortunately for this robust and capable aircraft concept, due to budget cuts, neither the Baroudeur nor the Barougan were to be as the requirement was quietly dropped.

2. Sud-Aviation SA-X-600 (1959) ‘Jumping Jaques Draken’

France was an extremely active competitor in the frantic race to create a vertical take-off and landing fighter aircraft. Prototypes included the bizarre ATAR Volant, the even more bizarre Snecma C-450 ‘Coléoptère’ and the ravishingly sexy Dassault ‘Balzac’.

The Sud Aviation SA-X-600, was a VTOL interceptor study began in 1959. The concept changed a great deal over time, with the only constant being a delta wing and a battery of lift jets. These were RB162 engines, the number of which varied from 4 to 6 across the project. The RB162 was a very light simple jet, specifically designed by Rolls-Royce as a lift jet. The RB162 was employed by significant other VTOL types: the Do 31, Mirage IIIV and VFW VAK-191B.

Thrust for forward flight for the SA-X-600 was provided by an RB153 or RB168. The SA-X-600 was a single-seater, with a teardrop cockpit. Like the Mirage III it had semi-circular main air intakes, with moving conical hubs known as ‘mice’. The most advanced version of the aircraft was an exciting-looking machine, with a double delta wing, like the Saab Draken. No official order came and the aircraft, as promising as it was, was never developed. This was perhaps as the manufacturer had stated a 7-year development time, then considered a very long time.

Sud Aviation was not the only company to spot the potential of a Draken-like configuration for a ‘jump-jet’. On the less chic side of the Channel, in Derby in England, Rolls-Royce’s Geoffrey Light Wilde schemed a similar idea with a design even closer in appearance to the advanced Swedish tactical fighter. Even Hawker in Kingston-on-Thames considered a double-delta VTOL fighter from 1957.

1. Bréguet Br.1120 ‘Sirocco’Sirocco Siffredi’

A Sirocco is a hot dust-laden wind, blowing from North Africa across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. It can bring the eerie phenomenon of blood rain, in which it appears to rain blood*. It was an appropriate name for a bringer of death from the sky.

In 1956, the French Navy required a new aircraft. They wanted something multirole, with a top speed of Mach 1.8 (so far so Rafale) capable of operating from the new aircraft carriers ‘Foch’ and ‘Clemenceau’.  Dassault and Bréguet each proposed a solution. Dassault offered a navalized Mirage III and Bréguet, the Br.1120 ‘Sirocco’. Essentially an entirely new aircraft, it was a radical evolution of the unfeasibly handsome Br.1001 Taon. Whereas the flea-like Br.1001 had been spritely, the far beefier 1120 was outrageously swift. Powered by an ATAR 9 turbojet it looked to smash through the demanding Mach 1.8 requirement to reach Mach 2.2, making it even faster than the majority of land-based combat fighters (even today).  

Cannonless, it was to fully embrace the missile age, armed exclusively with guided air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. A feasibility study was also underway to equip it with an atomic bomb. A full-scale model of the Sirocco was built, resembling the future Mirage F1. The design had great potential but by the early 1960s, the Navy had grown impatient. Rather than waiting for this superb design to develop, it chose a combination of the foreign, but proven, F-8 Crusaders for the fighter role, and the indigenous Étendard IV for the attack mission. The extremely Sirocco project was now surplus to requirements and cancelled. Though looking at the later F1, its influence may have lived on.

*Caused by algae spores apparently

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