I flew the most secret MiG fighter in the world for the US Air Force: Red Eagle pilot gives the low-down on America’s MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’

Name: Brian McCoy
Rank: Captain
Service: United States Air Force

How did the MiG-21 differ from the F-5E?
The biggest difference for the pilot would have to be familiarity. The F-5E is essentially a beefed-up, fighter version of the Northrop T-38 Talon … an aircraft every USAF pilot had experience in during basic flight training.

First Impressions?
Small airplane! Small cockpit, archaic instrument panel, high canopy rails.

How would you rate the cockpit for the following:

a. Ergonomics?
Ergonomics wasn’t yet a thing when the ‘Fishbed’ was designed.

b. Pilot’s view?
Outward visibility contends for the worst single problem encountered by the Fishbed pilot during air combat manoeuvring. Fighting the MiG-21 required deliberate manoeuvring simply to keep the adversary in sight … regardless of the tactical advisability of such manoeuvring.

The blind zone behind the pilot (due to the ejection seat and structural members behind the seat) extends at least 40 degrees either side of the tail. The wings are not visible to the pilot – neither is the vertical tail.

The blind zone under the high canopy rails extends about 70 degrees either side as measured from the pilot’s butt centerline (aircraft structure).

The blind zone out front is about 10 degrees either side of the nose (tall instrument panel; poorly-placed gun camera; combining glass supports; thick, translucent Pexiglass sheet placed in front of pilot as protection from B-52 tail gunner).

c. Comfort

i. While not really a concern for the designers, it’s not any more uncomfortable than other fighter designs from the era. And they did paint the instrument panel a soothing shade of green specifically to calm the pilot.

d. Instrumentation
i. Primarily the instruments we used were factory-installed … with Cyrillic characters and metric system measures and graduations – neither of which were familiar to the average American fighter pilot. Luckily our outstanding maintenance professionals placed green arcs for normal operating ranges and red radials for system limits. At some point, numbers are numbers.

Our jets had American altimeters, airspeed indicators, radios, transponders, oxygen regulators and drag chutes (for the Soviet jets … F-7 jets came from the factory with drag chutes).

Yes, the ejection system was factory installed. For the older Soviet jets, that meant a 57mm mortar shell fired to propel the ejection seat (and pilot) from the aircraft. It also brought along the forward-hinged canopy which attached to the headrest of the pilot’s seat and then folded down in front of the pilot as a shield from windblast. (The canopy and related support members probably weighed 250 – 400 pounds!) The later F-7 jets featured a rocket-propelled seat that had nearly 0/0 capability (the pilot was on his own against the breeze). The fabulous ACES-II ejection seat installed in the F-15 and F-16 aircraft (among others) used similar rocket tubes that fired sequentially to keep the G-loading associated with riding the seat during ejection down to a maximum of about 16 G’s. The F-7 rocket tubes fired all at once … giving the ejectee a spine-compressing 21 G “boost” from the aircraft.

Against the F-16?
a. In WVR: Which aircraft would have the advantage and why?
i. The F-16 holds every advantage: Higher thrust-to-weight ratio, vastly better outward visibility, higher instantaneous turn rate, much higher sustained turn rate, better weapons, much better cannon and gunsight, better man/machine interface, better acceleration … the only potential advantage the ‘Fishbed’ pilot might enjoy is if the speeds in the fight slow below 250 KIAS – well below. The slower the fight gets, the more the advantage swings to the MiG.

b. Which set-ups and altitudes would the MiG-21 favour?
i. Offensive perch at 1,000 foot range in solid gun tracking solution … LOL.
ii. Side-by-side, line-abreast 500’ spread, 150 KIAS (or less), 20,000 feet MSL.

c. How should the MiG-21 pilot fight?
i. Call for help, stay close to the Viper, get slow (and hope the Viper follows suit), keep pointing the nose at the Viper to threaten him, call for help, look for any opportunity to leave the fight, consider pre-emptive ejection, call for help!”

d. Who would you put your money on?
i. It might be obvious that I’m leaning toward the F-16.
ii. But this question opens a line of consideration I’ve encountered several times on related FB posts … the idea that the superior aircraft always – and almost automatically – wins. For nearly eight years I flew nothing but air-to-air in engagements ranging from 1v1’s to Red/Green/Maple Flag exercises. I’ve led small missions and those Flag exercises. Debriefed both using high technology or chalkboards in as much detail as the situation required to illustrate the learning points involved. I estimate I’ve been in 4,500 engagements during those years. As I learned more and more about air combat and experienced varied tactics, aircraft capabilities (or lack thereof) and the occasional imposition of simple luck … the more I came to realise the skill, daring and bravado of the pilot in that other airplane was far more important in determining an engagement’s outcome than the type aircraft he was strapped into.
iii. But I’d rather be in the F-16 for such a fight.

About 60 – 70% of our ‘adversaries’ paid attention in our pre-mission briefings and avoided fighting in such a way as to maximise our limited list of potential advantages. They kept their energy up, kept their distance, threatened us enough to force us to bleed energy and then killed us quickly and cleanly. We lost nearly all of these sorts of engagements – just as intended!

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20 – 25% of our adversaries either ignored our briefings or intentionally sought to see what happens when they ‘stepped into the phone booth’ with us. We’d win well over half of such fights … pretty good considering we almost always started out defensively.

The rest either had a bad day, didn’t have a plan, or were so overcome by the situation that they forgot what to do. We knew what to do.

iii. We normally started on the DEFENSIVE perch, allowing frontline pilots the opportunity to watch the threat aircraft do it’s thing while they were looking out their front windows … much easier than assessing performance while looking over their shoulders.
iv. I had memorable engagements against F-15’s, F-16’s, A-4M’s … but perhaps especially against the original F/A-18.

Best thing about the MiG-21?
a. Simplicity

Worst thing about the MiG-21?
a. Toss-up between abysmal outward visibility, incredible susceptibility to battle damage and astounding energy bleed-off during heavy manoeuvring.

How would you rate the MiG-21 in the following areas:
a. Instantaneous turn rate
i. Totally dependent on airspeed. Nothing special until below 250 KIAS – then it became startling. The rate did not increase at the lower speeds … it simply did not fall off as much as expected.
b. Sustained turn rate
i. Woeful. A 4+G level turn in full AB bled a bit over 1 knot per degree of heading change. Impossible to assess a “sustained turn rate” with bleed off like that.
c. Weapons platform
i. Keep in mind we flew very early export model ‘Fishbeds’ – MiG-21 F-13’s and F-7’s. Not the most advanced Fishbeds built.

ii. We simulated carriage of the IR-guided AA-2 Atoll … a direct copy of the AIM-9B Sidewinder. Not an impressive missile. Fishbeds also carry the AA-8 Aphid IR missile … a short range missile with impressive cornering capability.

iii. As a gun platform the Fishbed suffers from an incredibly unstable gunsight … useless above 2.5-3 G’s. The gun itself suffered from poor rate of fire and low muzzle velocity … but at least it didn’t carry many rounds.
d. Acceleration
i. Acceleration of the early-model Fishbed was actually quite good. Less than late- model F-16’s but on par with F-15C’s.
e. Top Speed
i. We lived with a self-imposed limit of 600 KIAS … enough for perhaps Mach 1.3 at altitude. It’s reportedly a Mach 2 capable airframe. I see no reason to doubt that capability.

Read what fighting these MiGs was like from an F-15 pilot here

f. Take-off characteristics
i. Tonopah Test Range Airfield sits at about 5,600 feet above sea level – enough altitude to seriously reduce takeoff performance. We never flew the Bandits from a lower field elevation.
ii. Temperature varied considerably at TNX – also effecting flight performance drastically.
iii. Taking the runway, I’d lock the nosewheel in the straight-ahead position and select nosewheel braking to aid in any abort situation. Once cleared for takeoff (except for that ONE time!), I’d run the power up to MILITARY while holding the brakes. When prepared to launch, I’d simply release brakes and note the acceleration sensation at the small of my back. After perhaps 2 seconds of acceleration at just MIL, I’d thumb the release and select MAXIMUM power. The afterburner lightoff process took a few seconds (and featured a very good opportunity for the engine to cease operating altogether), caused several expected engine instrument fluctuations and normally resulted in much higher thrust output. (Sensing the differing acceleration rates of the two power settings gave me another check for normal engine operation.) Once lit, the afterburner made things happen much more quickly.

iv. The MiG-21 typically rolled about 3,500 to 5,000 feet before attaining takeoff speed at about 150 KIAS. Climbout was always in full afterburner until reaching 10,000 feet MSL. (This was to get us as quickly as possible out of the more dangerous low altitude ejection envelope.) We typically climbed out at 300 KIAS with a very steep climb angle.

v. The aircraft was designed to takeoff from even unprepared fields, climb quickly to high altitude, accelerate to supersonic speed … and run down attacking B-52 bombers. I never took off from a plowed field, so I can’t verify that specific capability – but the airplane’s delta wing made it very capable of quick climbs and rapid acceleration.

g. Landing characteristics
i. Oh, boy! Do we have to do this?
ii. First of all, refer back to the section where I discussed the limited forward visibility. Nowhere is that more relevant than during each mission’s landing phase.

Pilots had to fly the overhead traffic pattern looking obliquely forward during the final turn. This is completely natural and how every final turn is flown in every fighter jet.

When rolled out on final, that same oblique viewpoint (out both sides now) has to be used to fine-tune runway alignment … and it works okay. But the normal down-the-runway cues most guys use for rounding out and flaring to land are hidden, so peripheral vision has to substitute perceived sink rate to help ‘feel’ for the runway. This skillset needed some development. (It wasn’t as bad as the wall in front of Charles Lindbergh in the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ … but it wasn’t as good as looking through your car’s windshield, either.)
iii. The engine’s extremely slow windup makes the landing pattern the most dangerous phase of flight for the unwary or careless ‘Fishbed’ pilot.

Idle to MILITARY power took as much as 13 seconds … almost a quarter of a minute!! Imagine a ‘Fishbed’ pilot allowing the engine’s rpm to decay all the way to idle while at low altitude, low airspeed and high sink rates – as normally occur during any routine traffic pattern.

One of the signs of low thrust availability came anytime engine rpm dropped below 80% N1.
a. The extended windup time was less than the 13-second Idle to MIL marathon … but even 5 or 6 seconds waiting for useable thrust could be critical.
b. The exhaust nozzle opened fully right around that 80% N1 reading, dropping the effective thrust to nearly nothing. That was the true danger of allowing the engine rpm to decay.
c. Instructor pilots flying chase aircraft (AT-38B’s) could visually monitor the exhaust nozzle during traffic patterns with new pilots so as to provide warning and guidance in case of decayed engine rpm … or other issues with transitioning pilots’ traffic pattern work.

An AT-38B Talon aircraft flies over the plains during a 479th Tactical Training Wing Lead-In Fighter Training (LIFT) flight near Holloman Air Force Base. Training on the Talon, LIFT pilots and weapons systems officers become familiar with fighter tactics and maneuvers which they will eventually use tactics and maneuvers which they will eventually use when flying more technologically advanced aircraft.

d. While potentially dangerous, this condition was easily avoided by simply not allowing the engine rpm to slow below the 80% N1 level. As a result, we flew wimpy wide traffic patterns with very gradual turns and descents.
iv. The Fishbed was actually easy to fly through it’s landing pattern … so long as the pilot was aware of and prepared for the unusual and potentially dangerous pitfalls unique to the aircraft.
v. Being a single-engine aircraft, we spent a lot of time thinking about and training for flameout recoveries. Our glide profile was flown at 250 KIAS … the same speed we used for other emergency recoveries.
vi. While TNX was our prime recovery field, flight conditions at the time of the emergency could make landing there impossible due to distance. There were several contingency landing possibilities in the area – like old, inactive runways or dry lake beds. (Necessity is the mother of invention.)
vii. We used drag chutes on every landing to extend brake and tire life.

Read what fighting these MiGs was like from an F-15 pilot here

h. Climb rate
i. The aircraft could climb rapidly and steeply to whatever altitude was required. Once level, the Fishbed could quickly accelerate to supersonic speed.

i. Range
i. This is an astonishingly short-ranged aircraft … even for a fighter. I’ve taken off from TNX, climbed to meet an adversary almost directly overhead the runway, fought three engagements and left the range with need to land immediately due to fuel considerations … ten minutes after takeoff!
ii. I flew 287 ‘Fishbed’ sorties in my Constant Peg career – logging 134.5 hours … a bit under 0.47 hours per sortie. We weren’t trying for long sorties and made liberal use of afterburner, so your results may vary.
iii. We never flew the Bandit jets with external fuel tanks or in a cross-country fuel-efficient mode … at least not while I was there.

j. Sensors
i. Mark-1 eyeballs were our best set of sensors – by far! Our best-in-the-business GCI controllers were a close second.
ii. There was no onboard Airborne Intercept search-and-track radar.
iii. There was no IRSTS.
iv. There was a range-only radar system that displayed information on a meter equipped with lights to indicate “In Range.” It was a pathetic system useful only when I pointed the jet straight down to get altitude verification. I suppose it may have been effective against relatively cooperative, bomber-sized targets.

Biggest myth about the MiG-21?
a. That it is not an effective combat machine. With well over 11,000 copies built over a very long production run, it remained deadly due to sheer numbers for decades.

What should I have asked you?
a. How many times did the MiG-21 try to kill you? [Tried hard only once]
b. Would you willingly fly the MiG-21 into combat? [No.]
c. Was the MiG-21 easy to taxi? [Not Day One … or Day Two]

Describe you most memorable exercise in the MiG-21?
a. Describe a typical MiG-21 fight
b. How did the Soviets fight and where did this knowledge about their tactics come from?
i. I’m unsure of the remaining classification status of some aspects of this sort of information and not comfortable discussing it. It’s probably now unclassified since the USSR is out of business but I’d prefer to leave this topic alone.
c. Which model of MiG-21 was it and where did it come from?
i. We flew the MiG-21 F-13 (an early export model best known for combat operations versus United States aircraft in Southeast Asia.) We also flew later license-built (?) F-7 aircraft. Where these aircraft came from is frankly more than I personally know or am willing to discuss.

d. What was life like between missions? How did the desire for secrecy change things in your life?

i. We left Nellis AFB every morning via MAC-owned/operated C-12 executive transport aircraft (Beechcraft King Airs). We returned almost every evening after the day’s flight operations were complete. This travel was required to enable face-to-face debriefings with our adversary aircrews. Non-pilot personnel typically traveled to Tonopah on Monday mornings and returned to Nellis Friday afternoons. There were adequate dormitory, mess hall and recreational facilities to accommodate all assigned personnel. Pilots each had a full-time dorm room in case they needed to remain overnight.

ii. Details of our squadron’s operations were classified – but the fact that something special was going on was not a closely-guarded secret. We were treated with something like lofty respect by the Nellis fighter community – and granted unquestioned ‘expert’ status in matters regarding adversary aircraft.

iii. I could not share specific information with my family. If I’d been killed while flying a MIG – my family would have been told a cover story.

iv. One night at home my heart nearly stopped during a local news broadcast clearly showing a MiG-21 taking off at Tonopah! I couldn’t say a word about what I’d seen on the TV … thankfully my young family couldn’t tell a MiG-21 from a B-29 … but my jaw dropping to the floor might have drawn attention.

Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-21
a. It accelerates right with the MiG-27 … knot for knot!

Describe the MiG-21 in three words
a. Surprisingly nimble $hitheap!

Quickest way to lose a fight with a MiG-21?
a. Failure to pick him up visually before he’s in firing position. With a wingspan under 24’ … it’s very hard to see!
b. Slowing down with him (assuming he’s willing and able to fight at very slow speed)

Against the F-15
a. How does the MiG-21 compare to the F-15 in WVR?
i. Each of the advantages enjoyed by the F-16 in the previous discussion also apply to the F-15’s advantages (except that acceleration is basically a draw) – with the additional factor that the Eagle is even better than the ‘Fishbed’ at slow speeds. The MiG is considerably smaller and much harder to see and perhaps keep track of in a visual fight.
b. What was your most challenging opponent in BFM/DACT and why?
i. Not really a definitive single answer to this question – owing to the pilot skill factor brought up above.
ii. Need to mention that most Constant Peg engagements went according to plan.

In a 1v1 between an F-5E and a MiG-21 which aircraft would you rather be in and why?
a. If life and death is not on the line, I’d prefer to be in the MiG-21. Knowing what I know, I can control the fight, bring it to a situation I can completely control and confidently maneuver to win the fight … decisively.
b. If life and death is on the line … give me the F-5E. (Damn few ‘Fishbed’ pilots realise they can fight that jet down to 30 KIAS. The better survivability of the F-5E can’t be denied.)

What was Constant Peg and how did it work?
a. Constant Peg was a flight program utilising actual threat aircraft to expose frontline American fighter crews to the sight of an aircraft they’d expect to kill. There was some exposure to fighting that aircraft – with the expectation that they would not encounter more skilled pilots anywhere else.
b. Normally selected units deploying to Nellis for Red Flag exercises were given the opportunity to spend part of their time with us.
i. They would operate out of Nellis – just as they did for Red Flag.
ii. We’d inbrief them into our program – usually on a Saturday.

During this inbrief each pilot would sign a sheet informing them of the penalties for divulging information about our program.

We’d also brief them about the aircraft they’d be flying against. (This was when we’d tell them not to go into the phone booth with the ‘Fishbed’!)
iii. We would wait on the ground until GCI told us our adversaries were inbound to our operating areas at the extreme northwest corner of the vast Nellis airspace complex. Our flight time was extremely limited, so saving fuel was a primary … and constant! … concern.
iv. Immediately after takeoff (we most often took off in pairs), we’d run a Soviet-style tactic for our adversaries to practice their radar work. They’d also run a stern-conversion on us to get us quickly together to get on with the meat of our mission.
v. Participating pilots had to first experience a Performance Profile mission with one of our pilots. This was a sophisticated ‘show and tell’ mission where the Red Eagle pilot described identifying features of his aircraft (without actually naming the aircraft … never know who’s listening!), coordinated a drag race to compare acceleration capabilities and led an advanced-handling demonstration.

vi. Once completing a PP with a ‘Fishbed’ pilot, our adversaries normally got a second PP with a Flogger pilot.
vii. After flying a PP with both aircraft, they were cleared to fly BFM missions with us.

BFM missions with the ‘Fishbed’ were full-up fights. We’d normally begin out front in the defensive position … allowing our adversary to watch us do our thing out their front window. Most of the time we’d start at about 20,000 feet, with about 400-450 knots on both jets and the adversary about 9,000 feet behind at the MiG’s 4:30 or 7:30 position. We’d usually get two long or three short engagements before the ‘Fishbed’ was out of fuel.

Who would win Eurofighter Typhoon versus Dassault Rafale? Analysis here

BFM missions with the Flogger were not very challenging for our adversaries … the Flogger couldn’t turn well at all. But seeing that in person was an important thing to learn.
viii. Once completing BFM missions with both aircraft, adversary pilots moved on to DACT missions – normally against one ‘Fishbed’ and one ‘Flogger’. (We rarely flew DACT sorties since so much emphasis was put on the BFM missions.)
c. We also participated in actual Red Flag missions – either with the Bandit aircraft or our AT-38B’s … or sometimes with both! (Our participation limited the Red Flag scenario to American participants only – due to the classification of our program.)

Why were you chosen for this effort and how would you describe the other individuals in your team?
a. I sometimes wonder why I was selected for this program. I volunteered, had built a solid reputation within the USAF fighter community and had appropriate experience that allowed me to be considered. Only Aggressors, Fighter Weapon School graduates and former Topgun Instructors were considered to become Bandits! I was an Aggressor. Bottom line? I got lucky!!
i. Even with those prerequisites, a prospective Red Eagle had to pass muster with the current Red Eagles. One vote, “No” … and you were out.
ii. Three personal interviews took place: two with individual General Officers – in their offices. Not intimidating at all! The third … and most important … was with the Red Eagle Operations Officer. Fail that one – and the outcome of the other interviews didn’t matter.
iii. Needed a security clearance a notch above Top Secret to play. Not routine.
b. Everyone that wore a Red Eagle patch was absolutely top-notch! The pilots I flew with – USAF, USN and USMC – were extremely skilled aviators. I’d go to war with any one of them … or all of them! Red Eagle GCI controllers were the absolute best. Our maintenance folks were beyond comparison … best in the business! They could build an airplane from spare parts without any problems – or they could fashion parts if none existed! We pilots routinely placed our lives in their hands without batting an eye. We also entrusted our lives to the Life Support technicians that worked directly for me (I was the Squadron Life Support Officer) but needed no direction from me. (There were two ejections while I was there … both pilots survived without meaningful injuries – thanks in part to the efforts of my guys.) We had dedicated professionals manning the firetrucks, security posts, refueling trucks, cooking our meals, cleaning our rooms, filling out our paperwork … at every level of effort – amazing, hand-picked personnel volunteered to pull classified duty at a classified location for several days each week away from home. I’m still impressed by the numbers of highly-qualified people that supported our unique mission. And kept it all secret until the program was declassified in 2006!

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Cold War Fighter Pilot selects Top 10 Fighter Aircraft of 1960

The Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow first flew in 1958, and was a high performance interceptor with great potential. It does not make this list as it was cancelled in February 1959.

The ‘Top 10 fighters of 1960’ will be a controversial selection, however impartial and numbers based the process someone will be offended and re-arrange the order or promote their favourite chariot despite it being pug-ugly and with the performance of a foil-wrapped brick.

This is my version with supporting narrative, experience flying some of them, advice from some sage contemporaries and I believe the basis for reasonable discussion. 

1960 was a watershed year in the leap from first generation jets – guns and ‘mind of their own’ missiles if any – to supersonic turning fighters with beyond visual range (BVR) missile capability. The Korean War was in the rear view mirror, Vietnam was on the near horizon and no longer just a French colonial issue as the USA was supporting the regime in the south but not yet with ‘fast air’ in theatre; meanwhile NATO was generally concerned with shooting down the Warsaw Pact (WP) nuclear bomber whilst deploying fighter bombers (FB) to stop a potential mechanised army attack into Europe from the east. 

The missiles (BVR) versus guns argument was intensifying, leading to some strange anomalies; sacrificing manoeuvre/agility for weapons payload, the 1957 Defence White paper eviscerating the UK aircraft industry, slaughtering many sacred cows and forcing industry amalgamations. Surface-to-air missiles were the new ‘must have’ and the English Electric Lightning only survived because it was so far along the development trail that cancellation was too much bother. 

The Soviet Union had learned lessons from Korea despite participation being vehemently denied and the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) design bureau capitalised. Because of the vast area to protect Soviet air-defence philosophy leaned towards point defence of critical assets rather than area denial for interceptors. China commenced negotiations to licence build Soviet fighter aircraft.

The USA was awash with design teams and manufacturers generating research vehicles and prototypes aiming to fulfil the slightly confusing Department of Defence proposals or profit seeking with unsolicited proposals. In the late-50s period 8 manufacturers produced 14 fighter types, but nuclear bombers were the priority and air defence picked up the scraps. Many pure interceptors failed the test and became fighter-bombers.

Industrial homework in Europe produced some innovative and effective designs for national procurement until $$$ overtook NATO air planning/procurement and some offers became too good to refuse. Unfortunately one strong contender was born just too late for selection: Dassault Mirage IIIC ‘the one that got away’ initially delivered to FAF in July 1961.

Europe feared a cold war incursion and North America both the nuclear bomber threat and an asian hot war. Different imperatives: point defence interceptor, area defender against the nuclear bomber, limited war fighter bomber with offensive capability, or an amalgam of them all which of course produced some ‘bastards’ a few ‘Jacks of all trades’ and the odd classic.

Aerodynamic breakthroughs, material breakthroughs, radar and weapons development – radar BVR missiles, early Infra Red (IR) seekers, beam riders and Semi Active Radar Homing (SARH) terminal guidance all played their part.

The late 50s/early 60s was a period of major next generation fighter development from the ‘first’ or early jet iterations to a researched product driven by perceived threats and actual combat experience. Aerodynamics, propulsion, sensors, weapons all improved in leaps and bounds but were not necessarily integrated or even compatible, certainly many systems didn’t talk to each other well, if at all, and weapons employment was quite ‘hit or miss’.

Missiles were generally ‘hitiles’ with small warheads and initially primitive impact fuzing then proximity, but all very similar in concept.

There are over 30 fighters to choose from but other than personal opinion and preference what criteria have been used? Design freaks, errors, prototypes, wishful production and obvious stupidity have been discarded and the aircraft must have actually entered service. Utility, peer comparison in the role, capabilities – numerical and performance – and any actual 1v1 results have been extensively reviewed. Some aircraft are at the end of their service life others are brand new and there are a couple of ‘near misses’. Rated on my objective values of: performance, sensors, armament and the eye test, does it look ok and would I step into it? Luckily I have in 3 cases. 

10. Hawker Hunter F6

Arguably the prettiest but probably the least powerful of the selection, but if it looks right it probably flies right.  With a low Thrust/Weight (T/W) 0.56 and light Wing Loading (W/L) 252Kg/m² it was certainly one of the easiest to fly and fight in what was its original role of day-fighter interceptor relying on clear airmass or Ground Controlled Interception (GCI). The F6 was the sports car model delivered in October 1956 unencumbered by the 4 tanks and pylons or rocket rails of later models but with the characteristic ‘dogtooth’ leading edge step to cure high Mach No. ’pitch-up’ and the uprated Avon 203 engine. Fitted with a quick-turnaround replaceable four 30-mm Aden cannon pack and 150 High Explosive rounds per gun it had a big punch which you could smell in the cockpit ‘I love the smell of cordite in the morning’ but they did act as a retro device when fired, equivalent to opening the spade airbrake, and quite a few knots were lost. 

Energy retention was good in manoeuvre at high indicated airspeed to more that 7g with a ‘combat flap’ setting (one notch = 15º or 2 = 23º) available up to 350kts but subject to aerodynamically ‘blowing in’ if over-stressed; lack of tailplane pitch authority above Mach 0.9 with flap down reminded you to bring them in. Instantaneous maximum turn would generate an energy loss although flap would improve the turn rate at low speed which was otherwise poor, but again at an energy cost. A medium speed turning fight was the much preferred option if surprise could be achieved. Good engine acceleration allowed separation from an engagement with supersonic just achievable in a dive from medium level but outrunning an opponent, especially missile armed, was not really an option. It retired from day fighter operations in 1963, replaced by the English Electric Lightning with many converted to the close support role as Hunter FGA9s.

It had also excelled as an RAF Black Arrows formation aerobatic team aircraft completing the 22 aircraft loop at Farnborough in 1958 followed by a 16 aircraft roll. Major Bill Beardsley USAF exchange to the RAF in1959 described it as a cross between an F-86F and an F-100.

Great fun dog-fighter, short range weapons, clear airmass, subsonic but beautiful to see and fly.

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9. North American F-100A/C/D Super Sabre (‘Hun’)

Conceived as ‘son of’ the legendary F-86 Sabre, the F-100A series introduced to the USAF from 1954 was conceptually smart with advanced aerodynamics, a high speed point interceptor which could fight its way out of trouble, but it was very unforgiving and had to be ‘flown’ constantly in manoeuvre. It had a low T/W 0.55 and medium W/L 352Kg/m² but a high angle of attack (AoA-⍺) ‘pitch up’ followed by random roll one way or the other into aerodynamic departure. The engine generated gyroscopic effects during acceleration and suffered compressor stalls; adverse yaw from the ailerons at low speed and high ⍺ caused opposite roll departure (the ailerons produced more drag than lift). The handling answer was rudder authority and less aileron at high ⍺. “Only way to control the ’Hun’ at high ⍺ is rudder” commented John Boyd of Nellis Fighter Weapons School” but noted, it could fly “Severely supersonic” and was capable of intercepting the B-47 state of the art strategic bomber at altitude – much to SAC’s displeasure. Despite its exciting performance and four 20-mm cannon with 200 rounds per gun, it was obviously a handful for the average squadron pilot as many accidents proved, so in 1958 the USAF commenced phasing it out having already requested an FB version which appeared in 1956. A yaw damper, pitch damper and up rated J57 engine partially resolving the compressor stall produced a more benign and eventually AIM-9 equipped ’C’ model which performed in the FB and secondary fighter role in Vietnam from 1961 supplemented by the ‘D’ model, which had itself suffered development issues with the constant speed drive, electrical generation, undercarriage and brake parachute. A few ‘kills’ versus MiG-17s were recorded early on but FB operations became the norm and MiG-21s were to be avoided at all costs. The ‘A’ model re-appeared in USAF cameos for another few years as International tensions rose and fell while the ‘C’ and ‘D’ models became successful NATO partner exports. Both the USAF Thunderbirds in 1956 (F-100C/D), and USAFE Skyblazers in 1956 (F-100C) found it quite compatible with close formations display flying. 

Overall a considerable if challenging step up in the USAF fighter inventory. ‘Severely Supersonic’ but with short range weapons initially and very esoteric handling qualities.

8. Republic F-105B/D Thunderchief (‘Thud’)

Developed as a follow on to the F-100 series the Mach 2 nuclear capable fighter bomber was introduced into service in 1958 equipped with a 20mm M61 Vulcan rotary cannon and AIM-9 missiles carrying a nuclear weapon internally for high-speed low-altitude visual penetration. A respectable T/W of 0.74 gave great energy advantages when clean and with a reasonably high W/L of 450Kg/m² it had good stability at low level and as a weapons platform but not sparkling agility.

Conventional FB interdiction operations were an option from the outset carrying several tonnes of ordnance externally on up to 4 underwing pylons and multi-carriers plus a centreline tank. The swept wing and powerful J75 engine concept was complemented by an area rule fuselage and forward swept variable-geometry intakes minimising transonic drag. All weather operations were enabled by the inclusion of NAASAR R-14A search and ranging monopulse radar and ASG-19 Thunderstick fire control system (FCS) in the ‘D’ model introduced in late 1960 although the mission was gradually changed from nuclear to conventional in Europe. Serviceability issues dogged both the ‘B’ and ‘D’ models initially and early offensive capabilities were described as ‘triple threat’ – it could bomb you, strafe you or fall on you. Despite this pessimism, straight line speed, a big gun and AIM-9s later produced many kills against MiG-17s in Vietnam justifying the design although ‘turning and burning’ with MiGs was not a recommended tactic despite the +8.67 g limits, especially if loaded out with bombs, so disengaging cleaning off and re-entering the fight at speed was popular.

Republic F-105B-6-RE (S/N 54-0111) take off. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Front view of Republic F-105B with avionics layout. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Loss of control due to a spin from the complications of swept wing adverse yaw in manoeuvre required deliberate pilot recovery input but recovery would be immediate, assuming you had sufficient altitude which was generally not available in the European theatre but became the norm during medium level operations in Vietnam! Spin recovery was seen as the procedure to provide a “stable platform from which to eject”

Perhaps it’s best not to investigate the F-105 flypast during a Vietnam dedication ceremony at the USAF Academy which cost a fortune in broken windows. The Thunderchief also flew six displays with the USAF Thunderbirds in 1964 but an over-stress accident forced a change back to F-100. Undoubtably an FB workhorse which pilots remember fondly, it put up quite a good performance against the MiG-21 during HAVE DOUGHNUT reinforcing mutual support and the saying ‘speed is life’ but not one to take into a turning fight.

7. Lockheed F-104A Starfighter

Formation of two Lockheed F-104A-15-LO (S/N 56-0769 and 56-0781). (U.S. Air Force photo)

Designed by Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson at Lockheed, Burbank, California the F-104 was planned to out-fly the MiG-15 and was marketed as ‘the missile with a man in it’. It was to be simple and lightweight with maximum climb and speed performance, in fairness it could achieve Mach 2.0 with a T/W of 0.76 loaded and a high W/L of 510Kg/M².          

It entered service in 1958 equipped with a 20-mm M61 Vulcan cannon wingtip AIM-9B and was in action that year in the Second Taiwan Crisis. An earlier exchange that year between Taiwanese F-86s and Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) MiGs had lead to the loss of an AIM-9 which did not fuze but lodged in the fuselage of a MiG-17 allowing it to be recovered and reverse-engineered into a Soviet K-13 (Atoll). The USAF 83rd FIS was detached to support the Nationalist Chinese against the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Quemoy and Matsu islands. Very visible ‘flag waving or sabre rattling’ patrols were flown along the Taiwan Straits and also directly towards the Chinese mainland and by October a ceasefire had been signed and the F-104’s were withdrawn.

The aircraft was optimised for performance above Mach 1.2 at altitude and if used for surprise ‘hit and run’ attacks it could be a formidable opponent but dragged into a turning fight it was vulnerable. At low level and high indicated airspeed (600kts<) it was a very stable platform and as such a useful nuclear delivery vehicle. A large turn radius at low level despite 7g available, generated a humorous colloquialism from Edwards AFB Test Centre pilots ‘banking with intent to turn’. High ⍺ stalling and pitch-up behaviour from 15°⍺, which required constant attention if large excursions and rapid roll/yaw coupling was to be avoided, lead to the installation of a ‘stick shaker’ and a ‘stick pusher’. 

Despite its startling interceptor performance and an AN/ASG-14T1 radar with 20 mile ranging and 10 mile tracking, it suffered from short range, obsolete avionics and an occasionally unreliable early J79-GE-3B afterburner. Even worse the early versions had the Stanley C-1 downward firing ejector seat and after several lives were lost the C-2 upward firing version was fitted.

Take-off speeds were high and close to nose wheel retraction limits, as were landing speeds with added increments for fuel, crosswind, stores and gusts. The boundary layer control system required a minimum power setting above 82% and therefore a shallow approach. Throttling back on the approach caused instant loss of lift, many undershoots and ejections. Powerful brakes and a drag chute reduced the landing roll-out but not by much hence the ‘standard’ NATO 3km runway in Europe.

But there was a ready NATO overseas market for an interceptor/nuclear fighter bomber under the Military Aid Program and Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada and Italy joined a consortium for licensed production (amid some unusual financing arrangements as it was later discovered) and the type flourished.

The USAF handed their ‘A’ models off to the Air National Guard (ANG) after less than a year in service opting for longer range fighters with heavier weapons payloads. Blinding speed, low conspicuity and missiles, things were looking up. It had been fun while it lasted and continued to be for various allies.

6. McDonnell F-101A/B Voodoo

McDonnell F-101A (S/N 53-2425) from Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Originally designed to fulfil the bomber escort role for SAC, which was cancelled as the Korean war ended and the jet powered B-52 emerged, the elegant looking single seat ‘A’ model was rapidly re-invented as a long range nuclear capable fighter bomber for TAC and introduced to service in 1957 with two J57-P-13  engines. A T/W of 0.74 and a W/L of 610Kg/m² made it stable, reasonably manoeuvrable at 6.33g and quick at altitude with Mach 1.52 speed. A large internal fuel capacity allowed for 4 hours plus flight and it was fitted with the Low Altitude Bombing System for nuclear delivery, an FCS and four 20-mm M39 revolver type cannon. Offensive weapons included the Mk 28 nuclear bomb and other variants.

Like most swept wing fighters of its time it suffered from ‘pitch up’ at high ⍺ which was never successfully eradicated and was described as a ‘monumental challenge’ to its pilot. Conversely it was also described as a ‘superlative’ aircraft by its pilots who called it the ‘One-Oh-Wonder’. General Robin Olds even created an F-101C display team of 5 aircraft at RAF Bentwaters in 1964 although it gained him a grounding for ‘not going through channels’.  ‘A’ production was limited to 77 with a further 35 built as the sensibly two-seat RF-101A reconnaissance version.

Robin Olds with his F-101.

Meanwhile the USAF search continued for an interceptor with range, speed and payload so the reworked ‘B’ model entered service with USAF Air Defence Command (ADC) in 1959 powered by the uprated and more reliable J57-P-55 as a response to the F-100’s operating difficulties in the day interceptor role, the F-102’s poor performance in the all weather role and the F-104’s short endurance and lack of weapons payload. A second seat and a Hughes MG-13 FCS previously employed in the F-102 were installed, the cannon were removed and a rotating belly door fitted with 4 x GAR-1 or 2 (AIM-4A or B) Falcons in optional SARH or IR modes, with the operational tactic of firing an IR first followed by an SARH missile. From 1961 some ‘B’ models could carry the AIR-2 Genie nuclear missile. A total of 479 ‘B’ were built including the Canadian version.

Success is relative but the F-101 continued in USAF air defence service for another 12 years followed by another 10 with the ANG. Continuous in-service modifications and weapons updates maintained the F-101 as the backbone of all weather supersonic defence, complimenting the F-106 in Air Defence Command. It was quick, all weather and heavily armed a quantum leap in fighter capability. 

5. Convair F-106A Delta Dart

National air defence competed with SAC nuclear deterrence for budget and influence throughout the 50s (B-47 ISD 1951, B-52 ISD 1955) but the all-weather bomber interceptor kept rising to the top of the procurement chain and the frequent ‘failures’ along the line were relegated to the FB role with NATO, the Military Aid Program or politically expedient allies. So when the F-106 entered service in 1959 as a development of the F-102 there were sceptics especially as engine and avionic performance were poor in development. But Convair had done their research and with a T/W of 0.71 and a low W/L of 250Kg/m² it was quick and manoeuvrable with agility at low and medium speed coupled with light buffet warning of impending high ⍺ oscillations.The fuselage was ‘area ruled’ for aerodynamic efficiency and with a J75-P-17 in excess of Mach 2 at altitude was achieved with ‘super cruise’ (supersonic cruise without AB) a reality. Vertical manoeuvring in visual combat was very effective as was the ‘blow thorough’ weapons pass. Eventually Convair built 277 ‘A’ models. Yet again during USAF procurement the pilot got the rough end of the stick and ejector seat design was woefully inadequate, pilots were most concerned about high and fast but designers with low and slow. Two early seats by Weber Aircraft Corporation (not BBQ fame) suited neither regime and 12 lives were lost until a rocket catapult ‘zero-zero’ seat was installed.

Doctrinally lacking guns or external weapons carriage, but with an internal weapons bay for four AIM-4 A or B (GAR1 or 2) Falcons or a mix with a nuclear AIR-2A Genie unguided rocket it was well armed for the role. Employing the Hughes MA-1 weapons control system in conjunction with the Semi-Autonomous Ground System (SAGE) intercepts were considerably simplified. The combat philosophy became ‘get there the firstest with the mostest’. Two supersonic 360 USGallon tanks could be carried underwing and a gun was fitted to later versions. 

The aircraft acquitted itself well during Project HAVE DRILL versus MiG-17F Fresco (YF-114C) in the late 60s and during Project HAVE FERRY against a second MiG-17F (both originally made in Poland as Lim-5s and exported to Syria – procurement clue). It remained in ANG service until 1988. This may have been the ‘Last Starfighter’ that got away, it was very quick, it could turn, had interception assistance from the ground and a usable internal weapons menu.

4. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19P/PM (NATO ‘Farmer’ B/E)

“The engines were powerful enough to get you out of a bad situation and the acceleration they provided was excellent, especially with afterburners. “There were quite a few bad qualities but the worst, in my opinion, was the thick wing which made transonic speeds (just short of Mach 1) very rough to ride through and almost uncontrollable, although it employed ‘short arm’ and ‘long arm’ technology to cater for it. In three words:  “Challenging – Powerful – Fun” – Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum (Rtd), MiG-19 pilot (full interview here)

Introduced to a group of somewhat shocked NATO military attachés on 3 July 1955 during a Soviet Air Forces (VVS) 48 MiG-19  flypast at the Tushino Airshow, Moscow the Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB-155 (experimental design bureau 155) MiG-19 was intended to have a greater range than the MiG-15 or 17, supersonic speed in level flight and an all-weather radar interception capability.  A T/W of 0.85 and W/L of 300Kg/M² promised speed and manoeuvrability but as usual with Soviet designs there were some caveats. Development had been very variable with engine afterburner improvements needed to achieve supersonic flight, if the rear fuselage did not catch fire first or the fuel tanks explode. The bane of swept wing fighter design, high ⍺ departure into a spin through adverse yaw, was prevalent resulting in ludicrously large wing fences and a lower all moving ‘slab’ tailplane for supersonic control. Mach 1.35 was achieved with a ceiling above 55,000ft which was quite respectable especially as it had a 6g good instantaneous turn wing and was quite agile at medium and low altitude even if not great in a sustained turn. This was to be demonstrated in Vietnam where the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-6s (three cannon MiG-19S type day fighters) achieved six guns ‘kills’ versus US aircraft. With considerable power available, fighting ‘in the vertical’ was the early MiG-19s forté but the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) later found the Mirage IIIEP (the one that got away) had more success in the turn avoiding its speed and missile threat as it re-entered the merge.

In the ‘P’ model the RP-1 Izumrud (NATO ScanFix) radar was fitted with a scan range of 7 km and no lock.  RP-5 Izumrud was installed later increasing range to 12km with auto lock out to 4km using probably the first Track-While-Scan (TWS) mode hence NATO ScanOdd.  Two wing root NR-23-mm 75 rounds per round cannon were installed initially then upgraded to NR-30mm 75 rounds per round with pylons for an unguided rocket pack and a ‘5g’ fuel tank under each wing, jettison-able for combat. This fit was hastily (for the Soviets) adjusted for the carriage of 2 Vympel NPO K-13 (AA-2 Atoll) missiles once the reverse engineering had been completed from the ‘Taiwan incident’ acquisition (see above). 

Natural development into the MiG-19PM (NATO Farmer-E) occurred as the cannon were removed (mirroring a USAF trend or possibly because the SRD-3 Grad gun sight was so poor) and up to 4 Kaliningrad K-5M (NATO AA-1 Alkali) missiles fitted. Two underwing fuel tanks could replace missile on ‘wet’ pylons.

Multiple interceptions of NATO reconnaissance aircraft by PVO Strany (Anti-Air Defence of the Nation) occurred in the late 50s. The first U-2 sighting seems to have been in 1957 and at least one MiG-19 was involved, and possibly shot down inadvertently, during the ‘Gary Powers’ U-2 incident on 1 May 1960. The MiG-19 was gaining a bit of a ‘cavalier’ reputation, the pilots anyway, shooting down an RB-47H in International airspace over the Arctic in July the same year.

As an all-weather interceptor which could fight for its life with one eye on the fuel gauges, the MiG-19 was undoubtably a success with the combat experience and export orders to prove it. Never a flying member of the Tonopah Red Eagles, in 1970 a J-6  exploitation was carried out under Project ‘HAVE BOAT’ in Taiwan. Contemporary knowledge has it that against Western type opposition in Asia it was better than an F-100 with missiles, powerful and with a punch.

3. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21F-13 (NATO Fishbed C)

“The MiG-21 was the result of continuous Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB-155 development and research looking for a combination clear airmass point interceptor/air superiority fighter design in one airframe to compliment the MiG-19 series all-weather interceptor. The first generation MiG-21F (‘Forsirovannyy’ – uprated) was introduced to PVO Strany in 1959, and the F-13 model, signifying Vympel K-13 (NATO AA-2 ‘Atoll’) missile carriage, entered service a year later. This was an unusually fast Soviet air-to-air weapons philosophy change, airframe integration and missile manufacture, undoubtably driven by the ‘Taiwan incident’ (see above – there’s a lot for the USA to answer for in that fuzing failure).

The aircraft had mid-mounted delta wings with small square tips which was excellent for climb but an energy absorber in prolonged hard turns up to 7g (6g with C/L tank) causing speed ‘bleed off’ but reducing the turn radius. Small training edge high lift devices ( 3 position flaps – up, take-off, land) caused high landing and T/O speeds. A relatively low power Tumansky R11F (R-25)—300 turbojet with AB in the slim body, which had been a serious design consideration, was regulated for supersonic flight by an automatic 3 position inlet cone with manual back-up. It had a slow ‘spool up’ from low power (14 secs idle to full mil) and the AB only lit once 100% RPM was achieved. The fuselage has a small belly fin under the rear section to assist yaw stability and a large dorsal spine flush with the bubble canopy reducing rearward vision and limited vision over the relatively long nose. The tail fin sweeps back and is tapered with a square tip. This produced a T/W of 0.76 and W/L of 425Kg/m², a mid range combination similar to the F-101 or F-104 but of course T/W improved rapidly as fuel was used. Mach 2.05 was achieved up to 58,000ft but it was only supersonic above 15,000ft due transonic drag in thick air. Reports of the precise fuel capacity vary but the answer is ‘not much’, approx 2000kg (2500L) internal fuel in poorly placed tanks ahead of the CG caused handling problem and reduced airborne time to 45minutes. A C/L 400L or 490L tank was added to assist CG control and add endurance, attempting to resolve an inherent full flow issue exacerbated by manoeuvre and variable engine compressor tank pressurising air. 

An SRD-5ND Kvant ranging radar was fitted, the ubiquitous Sirena-2 radar warning receiver (RWR) a Gorizont GCI link and an ASP-5ND optical ‘iron’ gunsight. Originally fitted with 1 x NR-30 and 2 x NR23 cannons with only 60rpg, the ‘F’ version dispensed with the 2 x NR 23s and gained 1 x K13 ‘Atoll’ on each inboard pylon. Hit and run or ‘blow through’ tactics soon became the norm but required GCI, clear airmass or ‘smokey’ target engines ( F-4 ).

An interesting and amusing ejection system was installed initially where the forward hinging canopy acted as a blast deflector for the final portion of the pilot’s departure up the seat rails, disengaging from the seat before parachute opening.

This early MiG-21 ‘does what is says on the tin’ was nimble, tight-turning, with a twenty minutes endurance with burner, small and very difficult to see or acquire on air-to-air radar. It had limited speed below 15,000ft and excellent operational capability above. Adequate ‘buffet warning’ was available at high ⍺ and the best manoeuvre speed was 460-540kt. Described as ‘light, agile, beautiful to handle even at low speed’ it is the most built supersonic jet fighter ever – 11,496 a complete era in itself – the veritable Kalashnikov of fighters.

On 16 Aug 66 an Iraqi defector presented an aircraft to Israel and the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Foreign Technology Division, TAC Project ‘HAVE DOUGHNUT’ produced a Comparisons Report (unclass) covertly designating it the YF-110. Despite their confusion over whether they had assessed a 1962 MiG-21F-13 (Fishbed C – likely) or a MiG21-PF/PFS 

(Fishbed E – unlikely), it concluded that the aircraft “has an excellent operational capability in all flight regimes” with minor caveats. It is undoubtably well worth a place on the podium.

“It’s completely a manual aeroplane, with very simple systems. If one masters it, this aircraft can manoeuvre better than most modern aircraft, provided it is flown by someone who has mastered the aircraft. Being a manual aircraft, safety needs to be observed as it is not ensured by inherent safety features and design features of a modern aircraft. In a MiG-21, being an older generation aircraft, sometimes this thin line has been transgressed by a few good men inadvertently and I lost some of my friends.” – Group Captain MJA Vinod, full interview here.

2. English Electric Lightning F1

Developed from a 1947 British Industry private initiative Mach 1.5 fighter design by ‘Teddy’ Petter (Canberra, Folland Gnat) then ’Freddie’ Page (TSR2) and Ray Creasey, it was first flown on 4 August 1954 by ‘Rolly’ Beaumont as the English Electric P1. The P.1 had a ‘stacked’ engine configuration producing twin-engined thrust for the drag equivalent of 1.5 engines. Named ‘Lightning’ in 1956 it was tasked with defending ‘V’ bomber bases against Soviet nuclear armed bombers. Performance emphasis was on rate-of-climb and speed rather than range in anticipation of very short radar detection to interception times. A range of 150nm from the airfields was specified and of course they were to be based towards the East coast of the UK. It survived the Duncan Sandys’ policy of an all missile defence of the UK in the Defence White Paper of 1957, perhaps because it was a fully integrated weapons delivery platform or it was just too much bother to cancel. 

The ’small fin’ F1 had a T/W 0.78 < 1.1 at low fuel and W/L 350Kg/m² achieving 650kts<Mach 1.7 up to 60,000+ft with 2 x Avon-200R series engines with AB. 2500kg internal fuel (including the flaps) and 5.0g limit > 3.0g above Mach 1.6. A good combination of power and agility.

It was armed with two 30-mm Aden revolver cannon with 120 rounds per gun ahead of the cockpit, an optional interchangeable belly pack of 48 x 51mm (2 inch) unguided air-to-air rockets or an additional two Aden cannon, plus two Firestreak passive IR missiles on fuselage stub pylons. The radar was the Ferranti AI-23 ‘AIRPASS’ monopulse set with automatic tracking and ranging for all weapons and it had a gyro gunsight . The Firestreak was almost double the size of the AIM-9 Sidewinder/K-13 Atoll or AIM-4 Falcon as a result of a much larger warhead (22.7kg annular blast fragmentation) but with similar range and speed. All missile aerodynamics and engines were developing along very similar lines at this stage, although the Firestreak was a fairly  maintenance unfriendly weapon with a toxic motor propellant and ammonia seeker head cooling bottles in the launch shoe. Acquisition and launch were constrained by many natural phenomena, cloud, sun, sea, OAT therefore target radar lock was no guarantee of missile success.

Formal entry into RAF service was May 1960 and No. 74 Sqn ‘The Tigers’ formed at RAF Coltishall in July. Further F1s with improved avionics, radar and in-flight refuelling provision were delivered to an additional 2 Squadrons later in the year as the F1A. Unfortunately ‘over and under’ engines were a recipe for leaks of all sorts onto the lower engine in a packed fuselage and many aircraft were lost to fires. It had short range but startling performance and was well armed for 1960, featuring a ridiculous rate of roll approaching that of the Folland Gnat (420°/sec), a great turning radius and acceleration, however, it was a fuel emergency from take-off!

Such was the success of the introduction, after some early engineering familiarisation issues, that in 1961 No. 74 Squadron was designated the Fighter Command aerobatic team with 9 aircraft performing displays around the UK including the SBAC Show at Farnborough that year.

Deke Slayton (USAF Test Pilot and Mercury Astronaut) flew it in 1958 and said “The P.1 was a terrific plane, with the easy handling of the F-86 and the performance of an F-104. Its only drawback was that it had no range at all. . . Looking back, however, I’d have to say that the P.1 was my favourite all-time plane.

Reliably described as flying like a Hunter with enormous power, although at 5g in manoeuvre it feels like constant pre-stall buffet. A contemporary manned rocket with weapons, well worthy of second place.

1. Saab J35A Draken

Avoiding a solely NATO versus Warsaw Pact competition, the No. 1 choice fighter is from a ‘neutral’ country and was created as a purely national self defence initiative. Designed in response to a Swedish Air Force 1949 requirement for an all-weather fighter to intercept the high altitude transonic nuclear-armed bomber and also engage fighters, Erik Bratt at SAAB led the team which proposed a single-pilot, single-engine delta wing aircraft with supersonic performance, capable of austere runway operations and servicing by conscripts (under the BASE90 dispersed airfield scheme). A top speed of Mach 1.7 was planned and a radical ‘double delta’ planform envisaged to provide the most effective solution to very high speed, required fuel and weapon load and short runway performance. The J35 (‘Jaktflygplan’ – pursuit aircraft) ‘Draken’ (Dragon or Kite – your choice) had a T/W of 0.7 and W/L of 230Kg/m² quite powerful, quite light (12T) and quite agile. Powered by one RB6B (a license built RR Avon 200 series) with an indigenous Ebk65 AB and 1,800 kg fuel carried internally. Later ‘Adam’ models were equipped with a more powerful and longer AB requiring ‘dolly wheels’ under the tail (differentiated as the Adam ‘kort’ short or ‘lång’ long). No conventional tailplane was fitted and elevons were installed inboard, manoeuvre was limited to 7.0g. and it entered service in March 1960 with Fighter Wing 13 at Norrköping. Export orders followed amongst the Scandahoovians and eventually second-hand to Austria.

The initial radar installation was an analogue PS-02 (Thomson-CSF Cyrano I) single pulse radar capable of target detection, tracking, weapons solution calculation including gun sight solutions with ground mapping by Ericsson. No auto ‘Stril 60’ GCI control link was fitted at this stage. 2 x 30mm Aden 90rpg in the wing roots, 2 x Rb 24 (licensed built AIM-9B) under each wing and a wet C/L pylon with 420kg tank was the standard fit.

High ⍺ manoeuvring produced a form of ‘pitch-up’ or ‘super stall’ which was recognised as controllable and lead to a form of ‘Cobra’ manoeuvre (‘kort parad’- short parade but ‘short show’ is more descriptive) and is possibly the origin of the Top Gun airbrake/pitch up and opponent fly through manoeuvre. The airframe is always ⍺ limited (15 ok, 22 critical) in manoeuvre rather than ‘g’ – structural limit +12g.

Despite the primary interceptor design it was more than adequate as a dogfighter and has been described as a tougher Mirage III with better radar and runway performance.

With overall excellent performance it is very stable and easy to fly, has a very good roll rate and good instantaneous turn, but like all swept wing aircraft speed bleeds off in continuous min radius turns. Mach 1.8 up to max 66,000ft has been demonstrated and ≍720kt at low level.

It is more capable, faster, has better avionics, gunsight and lookout, more armament and better endurance for its size than any contemporary airframe. In comparison the MiG-21F-13 was faster and possibly more agile at high altitude but had poor avionics and weapons and limited visibility.

As a tribute to its unusually benign but aggressive performance envelope the US National Test Pilot School (civilian) purchased six course curriculum aircraft (see picture below). It was described by an RAF pilot on an exchange tour with the RDAF as a ‘supersonic hunter with benefits’ and incidentally had a perfect combat record – as a neutral – therefore a very worthy winner in my view.

This selection has run the gamut from the gun-armed subsonic clear airmass day fighter Hunter through the ever evolving ‘Century Series’, the MiG Design Bureau’s top selling economy models and English Electric’s ‘Gentleman’s Fighter’ to the heavily armed supersonic all-weather dogfighting ‘Scandi’ Draken. A series of completely different designs and configurations all aiming to produce better combat performance in very varying geographical circumstances. The major constraints were invariably technology – aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics and missiles – very occasionally finance, politics or pilot interface, despite which all of these aircraft saw more than 20 years of service as the original or later marks and some are still being operated. Improvement is obvious through the list and although arguably not one of the greatest periods of fighter design the foundations were being laid for startling generational development. As capabilities increased or improved industrial espionage, reverse engineering, inspired development or pure experimentation drove manufacturers to build the next MiG and Tupolev killer or Peoples Air Defence Forces Defender of the Nation. These 10 set the standards for the next iteration of complete air defenders or specialist fighter bombers.

Suffix – Near Misses

There were a few fighters that came very close to selection which deserve exclusion explanations, so in alphabetical order:

Dassault Mirage IIIC

Mirage IIIC – the one that got away? 

Designed as a radar equipped single seat interceptor with two guns, two missiles and pylons for air-to-ground weapons it entered service with the French Air Force in July 1961, remaining in service for 27 years and being very successfully exported. It was supersonic it could turn despite the ‘delta’ configuration and was all-weather with the Cyrano radar. 

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Pre-order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

Originally designed for the USN all-weather carrier interceptor role it was issued to the USAF under a Defence Secretary unified fighter procurement decision with added FB capability. A re-working of the F-3H Demon design for more range, better performance and weapons carriage it reached the USN Fleet Replacement Air Group on 30 December 1960 – probably a paper transfer –  and was on a deployable squadron by July 1961. A consummate performer it would go on to populate most ‘best of’ lists for years to come but not yet.

Interview with F-4 Phantom II pilot here.

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Vought F-8A Crusader

A carrier based air superiority fighter replacing the F-7U Cutlass in December 1956 through the ‘step improvement’ procurement method of the time. Single engine, revolutionary ‘variable-incidence’ wing to aid carrier landing, four unreliable guns and a belly tray of unguided rockets, soon to be deleted, it was hardly a success on arrival. Day clear airmass operations only with a considerable mishap record it needed continuous development with added fire control radar and missiles on stub pylons to make it a reasonable ‘bomb truck’ by the mid-60. Interview with Crusader pilot here.

Happy Birthday Spitfire special!

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Photos: Paul Godfrey

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes manuscript is now with the editor and it’s the Spitfire’s 85th birthday! Let’s talk Spitfires!

After flying Harrier and Typhoons for the Royal Air Force, fighter pilot Paul Godfrey took the equally enviable task of flying Spitfires for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. We spoke to him to find out more. 

Of the Spitfire variants you have flown which is your favourite and why?

“An easy answer.  The BBMF Mk V, AB910.  I guess this is because this was the first Spitfire that I flew that really felt like a Spitfire.  It sounds strange, but MK356, the Mk IX, was the first I flew (AB was the second), but MK, although amazing (she was painted silver at the time and you really never get over seeing the classic elliptical wing out of the window) she didn’t feel overly different to the Hurricane.  However, I got into AB and you could immediately feel the difference in balance on the controls – they were so light!  As soon as I throttled up, the tail lifted (she is light) and we shot off.  Unbelievably manoeuvrable, I displayed at 500 feet and then 100 feet and she flew like a dream.

However, as I came into land on the short cross-runway at Coningsby, I forced the tail down to try and get her slowing down and this caused an unexpected leap to the right (apparently, she went right on landing anyway).  Before I knew it, the left wing had lifted and I arced majestically off the runway and almost hit the windsock!  I eventually got her under control and made it back to the runway.

We had an understanding after that and I always gave her a kiss before we went flying.  She never treated me badly again.

There was also a personal connection with a good friend of the flight and mine, Tony Cooper.  Tony had flown Spitfires in WWII and had actually flown AB when she was at Hibbaldstow at the end of the war.  I have never seen anything like it, when Tony came into the hangar and was reunited with her for the first time in 70 years.”

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How would you rate the cockpit for the following:


“I like the cockpit.  Lots of room and a fantastic view with that canopy around you – much better than the Hurricane which feels like you are sat inside a greenhouse!  The sitting position is comfortable and it is easy to reach the stick and pedals (the pedals are adjustable).”

Pilot’s view

“Very good.  It feels like you have strapped the aircraft to yourself (rather than sat inside it).  The bubble canopy on the BBMF Mk XVI TE311 reminded me of the view in the F-16!”


“Very comfortable.  Although it does get warm in the cockpit (clearly you can open the canopy for max air-con).  The sitting position is good and the stick sits naturally in your hand.  The spade grip is very comfortable and the controls are balanced differently depending on the mark and the individual aircraft!”


“Standard instrumentation you would expect in a warbird.  A large Altimeter, Attitude Indicator, Turn and Slip and Airspeed Indicator as the main instruments, with smaller engine, fuel and oxygen gauges.  The BBMF aircraft are relatively authentic, although none have working gunsights.  They do all have modern radio and IFF fits, with a small GPS built into the radio.  They also carry FLARM for collision avoidance.”

You have flown both the Typhoon and Spitfire: Imagining a situation where a guns-only fighter between a Eurofighter Typhoon and a cannon-armed Spitfire took place — which aircraft would have the advantage and why?

“Unsurprisingly the Typhoon – by a country mile.  The context is important, but everything in the Typhoon is geared to give you situational awareness.  Your radar and various sensors tell you what is around you (imagine how much they would have wanted a datalink with the air picture transmitted to them in WWII) and you have vital information and weapons solutions displayed in the visor in front of your eyes.  WWII pilots were reliant on fighter controllers (over the UK) and their own eyes – Typhoon has a huge advantage in finding the enemy.  This gives you a huge advantage.

The Typhoon pilot would know exactly where to find the Spitfire in our imaginary flight to ‘the merge’ (where the two come together and start fighting).  I will assume that the ‘guns only’ point means that Typhoon would not shoot the Spitfire down at range, but it would have the advantage entering the fight.  The pilot could fly the intercept to make use of environmental conditions to arrive behind the Spitfire unseen.

The radar on the Typhoon gives a highly accurate gun sight (it is constantly updating range aspect closure etc), so the pilot would just have to put ‘the pipper’ on and pull the trigger.  No deflection shooting – aiming off as the pilots had to in WWII because their gunsights were fixed and the cannon ‘zeroed’ at a point about 150 yards away where the bullets would converge.

If the Spitfire did manage to get into a turning fight, the Typhoon would likely make the most of its enormous power advantage and use the vertical rather than turn.  The Typhoon pilot would point straight up, light the burners, keep an eye on the Spitfire (probably the hardest thing so far given that the radar won’t be pointing at it) and look to come back down in a position of advantage (hopefully out of the sun to avoid a visual pick up).

If I was in the Spitfire, I would try and point at the Typhoon to close the range as quickly as possibly, but would be aware of the fact that if I pulled hard to turn, I would bleed a lot of my speed off and would probably have to point downhill to get it back…the Typhoon could roll in behind easily.”

Which set-ups and altitudes would the Spitfire favour?

“If I was flying the Spitfire, I would take this down to ground level (at least treetop) and try to force the Typhoon pilot into a mistake or fool the radar.  If I was ‘bounced’ at medium altitude, I would try and use clouds (although note that the radar is still going to see me).”

How would the Spitfire pilot fight?

“Turning towards the Typhoon and then using altitude below me to get speed back up (to allow me to turn).”

Who would you put your money on? 

“The Typhoon.”

— which qualities do the Typhoon and Spitfire share? 

“A great view out of the cockpit.  Very nice handling.  A responsive engine(s).”

What is the best thing about the Spitfire?

“Compared to the other fighters of the day, it was the turn performance and its ability to climb to altitude relatively quickly.  The advantage of altitude (view, potential energy, fuel efficiency) cannot be overstated.”

.…and the worst? 

” Aircon.  The cockpits would have been roasting in the summer and freezing in the winter.”

Which of the Spitfire variants you have flown is the best in the following categories: 

Instantaneous turn rates 

“The Mk II and V because they were lighter.”

Sustained turn rates

“The Mk XIX because it Is so powerful.”

Weapons platform (informed guess)

“Later marks because they engines had more power, therefore they could carry more/better calibres.”


“Early mark Spitfires, although the MkXIX is ridiculously powerful (but heavier). ”

Top speed

“Mk XIX.”

Take-off characteristics

“Mk IX – not too powerful (where you need a large rudder to counter the gyro effect) and not too light which can be ‘skittish’.”

Landing characteristics

“Mk IX.  Certainly the BBMF Mk IX (MK356) was very docile on landing.”

Climb rate

“Mk XIX – the 1945 equivalent of the Typhoon.”


“Mk XIX.  Designed for long range high altitude flight.”


What’s the biggest myth about flying the Spitfire?

“That you need to be a very experienced pilot to do it.  It is just like flying any other aircraft.  In 1939 and through the war, 18-20 year olds would fly it.  The issue today is the cost of repairing should something go wrong…so it is better to use more experienced pilots.  It was a war of national survival in 1939 and you could replace a pilot or aircraft.”

What should I have asked you?

“Have I ever said ‘dagga dagga dagga’ whilst pretending to shoot down another aircraft?  Clearly the answer is yes!”

Describe your most memorable flight in a Spitfire? 

“A tricky question as so many spring to mind.  You never forget the first time you take off and see the legendary elliptical wing through the canopy, however I think the one that I talk about the most (and have mentioned on @pilotepisodepod) is flying from Goodwood on 16 Sep 2012.  I’d been at Goodwood for the weekend, the first time I had visited the Revival.  I had flown MK356 (the BBMF Mk IX) in on the Friday evening.  I had last landed at Goodwood in 1989 on a solo cross country in a Cessna whilst 17 and doing my PPL) and so to land there in a Spitfire on a Friday evening, where you could see the blue flames in the exhaust stacks was a dream come true.  On the Sunday I was tasked with a flypast of Westminster Abbey for the annual Battle of Britain Service and I was also flying my favourite aircraft AB910.

I took off out of Goodwood and the weather was amazing (the visibility was so good you could see the back of your head!) and headed up to the east end of London where I was due to meet Andy Millikin in the Hurricane.  Unfortunately, he had a brake issue and so it was just me on my own.  I could see the London eye and set off on time.  Flypasts can be tricky to get the route and timing right and even Westminster Abbey is difficult to spot, but I knew if I could make it to the Eye, then I wold be ok.  As I approached central London, I was ‘on track on time’ and began to relax and really take in the sights.  I could actually see the people in the London Eye as I flew past clearly wondering what on earth a Spitfire was doing there.  I found the Abbey and did a large wingover to change direction (a flypast wasn’t allowed) and could see the assembled masses, including many of the surviving Battle of Britain veterans down there watching.  It honestly brought a lump to my throat.”

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I departed London to the South West, overflying Wimbledon Centre Court and then down to Goodwood and landed during a gap in the motor racing.  As I taxied the Spitfire to a halt in the replica Battle of Britain dispersal, at a Battle of Britain airfield having flown over central London and seen Battle of Britain veterans looking up at me, I realised what a special trip that had been.  I joined the RAF because I saw a Spitfire and Hurricane at the Kenley Airshow in 1978 as a 6 year old and became fascinated by the aircraft and pilots.  To be able to honour them in that way 34 years later was truly amazing and made me realise how lucky I am.”

ONE DAY ONLY: Support the Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes and pre-order here. Use SPITFIRE20 on March 5th for a 20% discount

What is the biggest myth about the Typhoon?
“Cost. It can be more cost-effective to own, maintain and operate than pretty
much anything else in its class. The comparison data is in the public domain if
you look in the right places.”

Where? “The data is out there in the public domain.  No further comment from Klax here.”

What should I have asked you? “What is like to wear a business suit instead of a flying suit? But that’s a whole new interview.”


“If you have any interest in aviation, you’ll be surprised, entertained and fascinated by Hush-Kit – the world’s best aviation blog”. Rowland White, author of the best-selling ‘Vulcan 607’

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Spitfire versus Messerschmitt Bf 109: A comparison of the Spitfire and the Bf 109 in the early years of World War II


This is a question that often comes up in discussions on airpower in World War II: how did the two iconic fighters of the War—The British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109—compare? Was either machine demonstrably better? In the following article, I evaluate the two on the basis of six rectally extracted parameters that I think are important in fighter-versus-fighter comparisons. The scope of the assessment has been limited to the period between 1939 and 1941, when these aircraft fought each other on roughly even terms. So we shall mostly stick to the variants that were in service in this timeframe: the Spitfire 1A/B and Spitfire V; the Bf 109E and F.



“…the Me 109F has a slightly superior performance to the Spitfire V”

– Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, September 1941.

“I also thought the Bf 109F was slightly superior to the Spitfire V”,

– Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, circa 1941.

The Bf 109, in its initial avatars, was generally regarded as marginally superior to contemporaneous variants of the Spitfire. At low to medium altitudes, where much of the air combat in the early war occurred, the Bf 109 had the upper hand. However, the Spitfire was superior at higher altitudes. This was chiefly because its Rolls Royce Merlin engine had a higher critical altitude (the altitude at which the supercharger is operating at full capacity, and beyond which engine power rapidly decreases) than the Messerschmitt’s Daimler-Benz DB 601.

The Bf 109 employed several advanced technologies that gave it an edge. For instance, its DB 601 engine was equipped with an automatic variable-speed supercharger that ensured better power delivery from the engine. The Bf 109E-3’s supercharger, for instance, gave it a 200 hp advantage over the Spitfire 1A at low altitude. The engine also utilised fuel-injection technology, which allowed the aircraft to pitch forward into a dive; the Merlin’s carburettor would stall the engine if this were attempted in a Spitfire. The Spitfire therefore had to roll over and dive, which cost precious seconds in combat. Yet another example would be automatic leading-edge slats that prevented the Bf 109 from going into a stall at low speeds or in high-G turns.

The Spitfire’s advantages were its tighter turning circle and faster turn rate, which allowed it to outmanoeuvre the Bf 109 in the horizontal plane. But the Bf 109, owing to its higher climb rate, could sustain climbing turns that the Spitfire was unable to keep up with. This gave German pilots more freedom to engage and disengage from dogfights with British fighters. Two quotes illustrate this advantage rather well:

“When it comes to fighter vs. fighter and the struggle for the altitude gauge, we must expect for the time being to be at a disadvantage as compared with the improved Me-109 [this is the Bf 109F, being compared to the Spitfire V] we are now meeting”

– Memo to Air Marshal Sholto Douglas, AOC-in-C Fighter Command, from the Senior Staff Air Officer, April 1941.

“I preferred the 109F because it flew well at any altitude, was fast as most . . . had a superior rate of climb and could dive very well. Most of all, it instilled confidence in its pilot.”

– Franz Stigler, date unknown.

 Top 10 fighters of World War II here

The Bf 109F-3 and F-4 models, introduced around mid-1941, improved on the E models with the help of the more powerful DB-601E engine. The new engine gave the aircraft a 30 km/h speed advantage over the Spitfire V. They also featured improved high-altitude performance; their critical altitude was 1,000 feet higher than that of the Bf 109Es.



Combat ranges were comparable. Both designs were initially designed to defend airbases against enemy bombing, and that was reflected in their range figures on internal fuel—680 km for the Spitfire I A/B and about 660 km for the Bf 109E.

The Bf 109 was the first to be forced into an offensive role: first as a fighter that would provide top cover to an advancing German Army, and later as an escort for Luftwaffe bombers attacking Britain. The lack of range proved to be a major constraint in the second instance. It is well known by now that a Bf 109 taking off from Northern France had about 10 minutes of flying time over London, not nearly enough to battle it out with RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes. What isn’t so well known is that this was when the planes undertook independent fighter sweeps. When tasked with as bomber escorts, the need to fly at sub-optimal altitudes and speeds often increased fuel consumption to the point where the 109s were forced to return to France before the bombers had reached their objectives.

Spitfires tasked to carry out offensive fighter sweeps and raids over Northern France in 1941 faced the same issue. The reason Fighter Command didn’t suffer very heavy losses was that the Luftwaffe was by then fighting over Russia. The few fighters left to defend the western front seldom rose up to meet the RAF’s challenges.



Armament-wise, neither aircraft ever had a clear advantage over the other. But it is still useful to study how the initial designs started off, and how the rapidly changing requirements of a modern air war forced changes to the weapon fit.

Both machines where primarily designed with aerodynamic performance in mind, with armament being a secondary consideration. They therefore made use of thin, tapering wings. These were excellent for speed and turning performance, but bad for firepower. There simply wasn’t any space to mount machine guns (leave alone cannon) in the wings.

The Supermarine Type-300 (an early prototype of what would become the Spitfire) was initially designed to be armed with only two machine guns. The Bf 109 wasn’t very different. The German the aviation ministry (RLM) specified two rifle-calibre (7.92 mm) machine-guns that the biplanes of the mid-30s carried. These were easy enough to concentrate in the nose. Willy Messerschmitt always wanted his fighter to be “a true application of light construction principles”. By mounting the guns in the nose and attaching the cantilever undercarriage to the fuselage rather than the wings, he could make use of a small, simple, low-drag wing that could be detached easily for maintenance and road transport.

However, this relevance on a mere two machine-guns was to change. The RAF’s requirements branch came to believe that two machine guns were inadequate to shoot down modern metal-skinned fighters, and in 1935, the RAF specified that it wanted eight machine guns on all new fighters. It was also asserted that this was an interim requirement. Follow-on designs would have to be armed with cannon. This was easy enough to accommodate in the Hurricane’s thick wings. But the Type-300’s thin, tapering wings had to be abandoned in favour of elliptical wings to house the increased armament. The Germans reached similar conclusions in combat over Spain. The Bf 109 would require cannon armament to damage metal airframes.

But this was easier said than done. The requirement for increased firepower led to persistent teething troubles with the armament of both aircraft well into their service lives. The Spitfire’s machine guns tended to freeze solid from the cold at high altitudes (this issue also affected Hurricanes). Initially, Fighter Command had Spitfires take off with adhesive tape covering the gunports in order to prevent the condensation from entering and icing the gun barrels. This did not always work. Later, a portion of the engine exhaust was ducted into the wing to heat the guns. This system proved to be mechanically complex and unreliable. It wasn’t until electric heating was introduced that the issue was fully resolved. Integrating 20mm cannon was also a great challenge. The belt that fed rounds to the weapon would frequently jam. The technical issues plaguing the Spitfire 1B proved so problematic that the type was withdrawn from service and replaced by the 1A.

Following feedback from pilots of the Condor Legion, Messerschmitt also modified the Bf 109 prototypes with a 20 mm cannon mounted between the engine cylinder banks, firing through the propeller hub. However, the vibration from the cannon was so severe that it proved to be unworkable. This problem was resolved much later in the war. In the meantime, several alternatives were trialled. The Bf 109B utilised an engine-mounted machine gun in place of the cannon. This, too, proved to be problematic. The Bf 109C featured a redesigned wing to accommodate two 7.92 mm machine guns, with ammunition boxes stored in the fuselage. The system worked in tests, but failed under the strain of air combat. The Bf 109D carried four guns – two in the nose and two under the wings. Bf 109E-1s carried the same armament. The E-3 models, though, were equipped with a 20 mm cannon under each wing, installed in two streamlined blisters along with a 60-round ammunition drum. Finally, the issues with the engine-mounted cannon were resolved in the F-4 model, which flew with a 20mm cannon that proved to be very accurate.



In terms of ease of operation, there were advantages and shortcomings to both designs. The Spitfire’s bubble canopy and large mirrors offered excellent views and better situational awareness to the pilot. The Bf 109s angular canopy with its thick frame fell short. On the other hand, the Bf 109’s Revi gunsight was far ahead of the early Spitfire’s ring-and-bead type sight. It eliminated parallax errors and made deflection shots more accurate. The aircraft’s engine and propeller controls were also more automated, which reduced pilot workload.

On the flip side, the Bf 109’s small size made the cockpit very cramped. Not only was it uncomfortable, it also restricted the force that pilots could apply on the controls, with obvious effects on flight performance. Post-war testing by the RAF revealed that under certain conditions, the force that pilots could exert on the Bf 109’s control column was only 40% of what they could apply in the Spitfire. In an era when hydraulically boosted controls were not available, this was a serious deficiency. The Spitfire’s two-step rudder pedals also allowed the pilot to raise his feet high during high-G manoeuvring, delaying the onset of blackout. The Bf 109 had no such pedals.


The Bf 109 also suffered from handling challenges, both in the air as well as on the ground. The most critical one was the issue with its undercarriage. There were two major problems with the landing gear design that caused serious losses of Bf 109s on take-off and landing. One was the tendency to ground loop. The Bf 109’s canted undercarriage often caused aircraft on landing runs to suddenly spin around and suffer serious damage if one wheel lost traction. On rough airstrips that were cobbled together in the later stages of the war, this problem was particularly acute.

Secondly, Willy Messerschmitt wanted his aircraft structures to be as light as possible. That structure lacked the strength to endure hard landings. As the Bf 109’s received more powerful engines and armament, it got heavier, which led to increased wing loading and higher landing speeds. That put additional strains on the landing gear. The result was that quite often, even experienced pilots ended up collapsing the undercarriage. In 1939 alone, the Bf 109 fleet suffered 255 landing accidents that resulted in damage to the airframe. The Spitfire, Hurricane, and Fw-190, with their “vertical” landing gear and heavier structures, fared much better.


The changing nature of the air war over Europe drove a slew of upgrade programmes for both aircraft. But the Spitfire—with its larger airframe, stronger structure, and superior engine—was better able to support the installation of advanced engines, armour, and heavier armament.

The Spitfire IX, often seen as the ultimate evolution of the type, was able to outclass the Bf 109G as well as the newer Focke-Wulf Fw 190A in combat. Its superlative Merlin 61 engine (powered by 100-octane fuel of US origin) gave it a 110 hp advantage over the DB 605-powered Bf 109G at sea level. But it truly came into its own at high altitude: At 30,000 feet, its two-stage supercharger gave it a whopping 300 hp advantage over its German counterpart. Further, its armament of two 20mm cannon and four 0.303 inch machine guns packed a formidable punch against not just aircraft, but also ground targets.


The Bf 109’s simplicity and light weight, however, proved to be its Achilles heel. Accommodating a more powerful engine, increased armament, new radios, and armour plate within the Bf-109G’s tiny airframe was a major challenge. The aircraft’s small cowling was inadequate for heat dissipation, which made the DB 605 engine prone to overheating and catching fire. Its firepower was only about half of what the Spitfire IX carried: two nose-mounted 7.92mm machine guns in the G-1 variant (upgraded to 13mm guns in the G-5) and one 20mm cannon firing through the propeller hub.

With the steady increase in weight, the Bf-109G’s handling qualities suffered. As the wing loading increased, so did the demands on brute muscle power to actuate the controls. Capt. Eric Brown, a Royal Navy test pilot who evaluated a captured Bf-109G, commented that “in a dive at 400 mph, the controls felt as though they had seized!” The addition of a water-methanol tank—whose contents were injected into the engine to provide a short burst of additional power—adversely affected the centre-of-gravity and made handing unpredictable in some portions of the flight envelope. The uparmed BF-109G-6, often equipped with 20mm or 30mm underwing cannon to attack Allied bombers, proved so sluggish in combat, that its pilots nicknamed it the Kanonenboot (Gunboat).

The larger, structurally stronger Spitfire IX suffered no such problems. Indeed, the powerful Merlin 61 and four-bladed propeller allowed it to outrun, out-turn, and out-climb the Bf-109G. The ‘quantum leap’ in performance that the Spitfire IX achieved over the Bf-109G was never reversed.


Ease of manufacture

This is one area where the Bf 109 comes out the clear winner. The Spitfire’s complex design, coupled with Supermarine’s utter lack of experience with modern production line techniques made Spitfire production problematic. Its elliptical wing proved to be difficult to fabricate. Delays in transferring knowledge and drawings to various subcontractors slowed down production. And the fine tolerances demanded by the design team—not something that British industry was used to—led to quality issues. The company faced major schedule slippages in delivering the initial batch of 310 fighters, and the RAF at one point considered cancelling the order outright. The Bf 109’s transition to production, on the other hand, was very smooth. The RLM was able to have it mass-manufactured without much of a hassle.

This disparity is clearly visible when you look at the numbers. In January 1940, it took 15,000 man-hours to build a Spitfire 1A and 9,000 to build a Bf 109E. By 1942, that gap had only widened. The Bf 109F needed only 4,000 man-hours to build whereas the Spitfire Mk V required 13,000.

In a Wehrmacht that had increasingly begun to equip itself with poorly conceived, overly-complicated weapons whose paper performance was never quite realised in the field (*cough* Me-262 *cough*), the Bf 109 stood out as a rare example of German engineering that was cheap, reliable, maintainable, and easy to manufacture—all while delivering superb performance on the battlefield. There’s a reason that more than 34,000 were built despite the Germans’ severe mismanagement of production resources at the strategic level. It remains to this day the third most produced aircraft in the world.

My favourite Spitfire #1 – Spitfire Mk XIV by Paul Beaver


For some time, I have trying to decide which is my favourite of the 73 variants or sub-variants of that most iconic of fighter aeroplanes, the Spitfire. Now I have the opportunity to put my thoughts on paper and it has been most rewarding.

Like many pilots, the first thought is to the aeroplane of which one has personal experience. That would be the Mk IX with both Merlin 66 and Packard-Merlin 266 engines. But what about the Mk V with floats? As a seaplane pilot, I love the challenge of operating off water in such a powerful machine. Then, my thoughts went to those young men who were the spear tip of the Battle of Britain defence of the country, so the Spitfire Mk IIa. The high flying and super-fast PR Mk XI perhaps whose pilots showed another type of courage to go unarmed deep over enemy territory. There’s event the Seafire FR Mk 47 from the Korean war, surely the ultimate warbird of the whole family.

But in the end, it was the Spitfire Mk XIV which won out. I am not alone in thinking the Griffon-powered, bubble-canopy fighter is a favourite. Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown thought so too. Whenever the Spitfire was mentioned, he would talk about low level trials in the Mk VIII or flying high over France in a Mk IX with the Canadians. I have not had those privileges but I am now sure the Mk XIV is the one and as Eric would say “it was the best fighter of the Second World War”.

Paul Beaver FRAeSAuthor of SPITFIRE PEOPLEThe Men & Women who made the Spitfire the Aviation Icon

My favourite Spitfire #2: Like a Duck to Weightlifting, the Seafire LIII


The Spitfire wasn’t a natural carrier aircraft, the undercarriage was weak and narrow, and the fuselage was fragile; the endurance made a permanent combat air patrol impossible if the carrier had to be somewhere other than where the wind was coming from. Fortunately, by the time the Mk III was released to service most of these flaws had been addressed…in the same way credit card debt can be addressed by getting more credit cards.  The extra metal of the tail hook, and reinforced fuselage, put the Centre of Gravity right at the aft limit of acceptability. The fix was a 3-lb mass added to the control column that pulled it forwards under g, preventing the pilot pulling too tight a turn (which could make the wings fall off).  But by putting the Merlin 55M into the LIII, Supermarine also created the fastest naval fighter of the war below 10,000 feet – where the majority of naval interceptions took place (presumably because that’s where most of the ships were).  Around 20mph faster than the Hellcat or Corsair at 6000’, both of which were at least 40mph faster than the Zero, it was also the only one that could out-climb the Zero.  In the final days of the war the Seafire LIII flew low level combat air patrols over the fleet as the last layer of defence against the Kamikaze threat, as well as escorting strike missions leading it to claim the last aerial victory of the war over Tokyo Bay.  The Griffon Seafires may have had more power, which caused its own problems, but none would be as iconic as an LIII in British Pacific Fleet markings screaming over the waves at low level.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student.  He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.  

My Favourite Spitfire #3 – the Mk.XIV


Instead of the dainty archetypal Merlin Spitfires, I have always preferred the Griffon powered variants and my favourite is probably the Mk XIV. I love the brutish quality it has when compared to earlier marks with that long, long nose topped off with a five-bladed propeller, the most aesthetically pleasing number of blades. I like its relative obscurity: no Battle of Britain, no Douglas Bader. I love that it was available as a FROG kit complete with a V-1 for it to chase. Like nearly all the most successful Spitfire variants, it was an ad-hoc lash-up, a 2035 hp Griffon 65 bolted onto a barely modified Mk VIII airframe with a potentially dangerous swing on take-off replacing the totally innocuous handling of the Merlin Spitfires. 


It was an outstanding aircraft. First combat occurred on 7 March 1944, three months before the showoff P-51D, an aircraft offering 600 less horsepower than the Spitfire and unable to best it it in any performance parameter with the sole exception (critically) of range. In RAF comparative trials against a Mustang III, Tempest V, Me 109G and Fw 190, the Mk XIV possessed “the best all-round performance of any present-day fighter”. But the main appeal for me remains aesthetic, I prefer the high-back non-bubble canopy version coupled with the clipped wingtips that seem almost crude in their abruptness. The whole thing exudes a murderous sense of purpose when compared to the early marks, and finally made the Spitfire look like what it is: a weapon.

— Edward Ward

My Favourite Spitfire #4 by The Aviationist’s David Cenciotti

Few things say ‘Britain’ and ‘aviation’ more than the Supermarine Spitfire. This aircraft has become the icon of a time. Its fame has crossed well beyond the borders of the British Isles and Europe reaching people in different continents and times. Nowadays, the aircraft is part of popular culture. ‘Spitfire’ has become a synonym for World War II fighter aircraft in a similar way to that has made Cessna the generic name for every small, single engine piston-powered aircraft, no matter the actual type or manufacturer. I’m pretty sure I can ask my father or my son “have you ever seen a Spitfire?” and get a “yes” as an answer. Indeed, everyone knows the ‘Spit’.

Although I’m not particularly keen on World War II aircraft (to be honest I’m a technology geek and tend to focus on modern fighters from Generation three onwards) the Spitfire is surely the foreign aircraft from World War II that I love the most. Neither the fastest, not even the most manoeuvrable, nor the sturdiest aircraft of the War — the Spitfire is to my eyes one of the most beautiful. Her gentle curves, attractive aerodynamic shape and signature wing have even contributed to her success because, you know, ‘beautiful aircraft fly better’. I can’t exactly remember when I first saw the iconic aircraft. It must have been at an airshow in the UK or at her ‘home’ at Duxford. Still, I’m sure about the last time I saw one — it was not too long ago, when I once again visited the marvellous Italian Air Force Museum in Vigna di Valle near Rome that hosts a restored —and controversial – because of the slightly modified camouflaged colour scheme — Spitfire Mk. IX in the markings of the 5° Stormo (Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare. What an amazing plane!

David David Cenciotti is the creator of The Aviationist 

My favourite Spitfire #5 – Supermarine Spitfire P.R. Mk. XI


In World War II, aerial photo reconnaissance was scientific — a rigorous and methodical observation of the enemy’s strength. The Photo Reconnaissance Spitfire became the chief Allied tool of this undertaking, alongside the de Havilland Mosquito. Allied aerial reconnaissance gave the Manhattan Project and Bletchley Park a run for their war-winning money for its scale and cleverness. Within this effort, the Supermarine Spitfire excelled as an intelligence-gathering machine whose pilots had a secretive, heroic job performed alone over enemy territory.

The Spitfire, born as a fighter, roared into this new role with alacrity. Before even the Battle of Britain it was serving the PR mission with aplomb. Cameras, with lenses wider than our heads, displaced guns. This brought extra capacity for missions eventually to Norwegian fjords, radar sites in occupied France, German industrial cities. Never glamorous in appearance, the P.R. Spits wore mostly grey-blue or dull pink paint schemes, like something from our stealthy era.

Pride of the Kriegsmarine, the battleship Bismarck, was spotted readying for her fatal high seas debut by a P.R. Spitfire pilot. The very last Royal Air Force operational flight by a Spitfire utilised a P.R. Version, in 1954! All the milestone editions of the Spitfire included camera-equipped versions. The P.R. Mark XI, in the very middle of the Spitfire line, is a wonderful thing. Look for camera ports, pointy fin and rudder and an enlargement to the underside of the nose for the bigger engine oil tank needed on those long, cold flights that helped win a war.

Stephen Caulfield is a civilian employee of the Salvation Army “stationed” on the frontlines of North American consumer insanity in a modern recycling plant where he finds the occasional Spitfire.

My Favourite Spitfire #6 the Mk.VIII

Supermarine Spitfire IMG_6280.jpg

Colour photos: Jim Smith 

“My favourite fighter was the Spitfire VIII with clipped wings. It had power and good armament. It could roll quickly and out-turn any enemy fighter we encountered.” 

 —  Robert Bracken, Spitfire, The Canadians

Supermarine spitfire 4e.jpg

“The Mk VIII lacks the fame of its relatives.  It did not fight in the Battle of Britain as did the Mk I and II.  It was not built in the greatest numbers; that was the 6,787-fold Mk V.  It did not reset the balance against the Focke-Wulf 190 in 1942; that was the immortal Mk IX’s achievement.  Yet the Mk VIII deserves attention.  As was not uncommon in the tangled Spitfire family, the Mk VIII entered service 13 months after the Mk IX.  It was the intended successor to the (rather out performed) Mk V but necessity prompted the very successful interim option of the Mk IX that remained competitive from its introduction in mid 1942 to the end of the war. 

The Mk VIII was the most advanced Merlin powered Spitfire.  It was designed from the start for the two-stage 60-series engine and had a beefed up fuselage structure to handle the increased weight and power.  It carried more fuel (leading edge tanks) and had the retractable tail wheel (designed for the Mk III) that cut drag and cleaned up the aft lines. 

 Later versions featured the bigger fin and rudder (for lateral stability) with a better proportioned outline that the original, rather minimal design.  In short, it had the performance of the Mk IX and the best looks of any Spitfire, Merlin or Griffon powered.  It was suave, refined and very effective; the finest of the Merlin generation. 

Paul Stoddart served in the Royal Air Force as an aerosystems engineer officer and now works for the Ministry of Defence.  His interests include air power and military aircraft from the 1940s onward.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.  


How to draw a Spitfire


One of the hardest aeroplanes to draw well is the Spitfire. We turned to WestlandWyvernophile and aeroplane drawerer par excellence Ted Ward to show us the way.

“Don’t bother, they’re impossibly difficult, that’s my advice.

Actually, although everyone always goes on about the wings, beautiful though they are, they are not an overly complicated shape to render convincingly. The main stumbling block in my opinion is the fin and rudder on the early models. It’s a really odd shape. Griffon marks are easier to draw.The other thing I think that people should take into account is that the Spitfire has a quite pronounced dihedral angle on the wing and there is a tendency amongst some to flatten them. You see it a lot on built model kits. And in the less well-drawn Commando picture libraries. Here’s a good example:


To be fair virtually everything is wrong with that image but dihedral is one of those things.However one of the Fleetway artists (no idea of name – they never get credited) drew some of the most consistently pleasing Spitfire drawings I have ever seen.


Perhaps the most useful resource I have for you though is Frank Wootton’s splendid little 1941 volume How to Draw ‘Planes. Scans depict how to draw a Spitfire.


And ‘Spitfires against Alto-Cirrus’ which is a painting. No idea where this painting might actually be though. Furthermore I contend that it is a lot more difficult to draw alto-cirrus than any aircraft from the 1939-45 period.


It’s funny, since writing that about the Fleetway artist doing consistently good Spitfires, I have noticed that on the one on the left he (I’m guessing it’s a man, but I’m not sure) has put the tailwheel in completely the wrong place. Huh. He still shits all over the competition though. Apparently he just wanted to fuck and burn!”

Could the cancelled TSR-2 super bomber have won us the lost Eurovision song contest?

The British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2 was the most advanced combat aircraft in the world when it clawed its way into the sky in 1964. Yet this British masterpiece was axed in 1965 – a savage misjudgement that had knock-on effects still felt to this day. We look at some of the pivotal moments in world history that could have been radically different had the Wailing Martyr of Wiltshire’ been saved.

The TSR-2, the culmination of almost sixty years of British aviation know-how was crucified on a crucifix hewn from socialist lies nailed with the myopic hammer of pacifism and burned on a pyre of ragged post-Colonial national euthanasia. Had things been different and this magnificent nuclear totem been erected how might history have changed? We ask Sir Neville Shaman-Squalane, author of Bombed Out: How Britain was destroyed by Ghost Bombers & the Beast of Bodmin Moor to consider a world in which the TSR-2 had survived.

The Three-Day Week

The Three-Day Week was one of several measures introduced in the United Kingdom by the Conservative government in the mid-1970s to conserve electricity – the generation of which was restricted severely thanks to industrial action by coal miners. If the RAF had a fleet of 100 TSR-2s at the time, their turbine powerplant could have been used to generate up to 5400 gigawatts a week, enough to light every home in Great Britain and up to ten discos per town. An example of the Avon engine, not dissimilar ton the TSR-2’s Olympus, can be found at Didcot Power Station in the United Kingdom, where four Avon generators are used to provide Black start services to help restart the National Grid in the event of a system-wide failure – or to provide additional generating capacity in periods of very high demand.

The sinking of the Titanic

The sinking of the passenger ship RMS Titanic cost the lives of some 1,500 people and many millions of hours of cinema-goers’ time. The ship sank as a result of hitting an iceberg. Had this iceberg been attacked by a four-ship of TSR-2s armed with free-fall nuclear bombs, the Titanic would still be operating today… perhaps, by now, as an airliner. But sadly this did not happen. Another victim of the foolish Labour Government that peed on the last vestige of Britain’s great aerospace industry, a great multi-headed edifice that had created the immortal Brabazon, indomitable Firebrand and unimpeachable Wyvern.

The death of Princess of Hearts Diana

In the early hours of 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, died in hospital after being injured in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Her partner, Dodi Fayed, and the driver of the Mercedes-Benz W140, Henri Paul, were pronounced dead at the scene. This tragic loss was felt by a nation, but could have been avoided. The crash was largely caused by paparazzi photographers on mopeds and in unarmoured cars. A force of RAF TSR-2s based at RAF Marham would have had the range to reach Paris and neutralise this threat within 24 minutes. Low-yield precision guided bombs, or even a ‘show of force’, could have deterred the photographers and prevented this national tragedy. A top speed of mach 1.1 at low level, advanced electronic counter-measures and terrain-following radar, could have allowed this force to penetrate French airspace safely and carry Diana back to the up-lit pastures of England.

Eurovision humiliation

In the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest, the UK-entry Jemini’s excellent ‘Cry Baby’ crawled in at a humiliating 26th place. The event took place in  Riga, Latvia – well within the striking range of the TSR-2’s 2,550 nautical-mile range.  Terry Wogan, long-time commentator on the contest for the BBC, said that the UK was suffering from a “post-Iraq backlash” which affected its low score. Perhaps if Kuwait had been defended by a large force of TSR-2s, it could have defended itself from the 1990 Iraq invasion, killing Hussein and freeing the UK from the woeful mire of the later Iraq invasion and occupation. Perhaps the Baghdad air defences would have scored ‘nul points’ when faced with the might of a low-level interdiction attack by 12 TSR-2s armed with retarded 1000-bombs. It was Britain’s failure to preserve an indigenous military aircraft capability that allowed us to be mocked at Eurovision, proof of which can be seen readily in the scandalously high scores of France and Sweden across the years of this extremely important competition.

As we have seen, TSR-2’s short-sighted cancellation had devastating consequences.

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Join us for the solstice on Bodmin Moor where we will be performing a crystal energy ritual that we hope will bring the superbomber back to life and start a grand new age.

We asked a private-jet interior designer to judge 8 fighter cockpits

First we asked a Topgun instructor to rate 8 cockpits, then we asked an art historian – and now we turn to a designer of private jet interiors. Alexander McDiarmid rates the interior design style of 8 fighter cockpits.

Convair F-106A Delta Dart

Information overload in a very small space. All text is small, difficult to read and so many dials and switches! You can introduce mirrors to make smaller spaces appear bigger but in this case that would only add to the problem. Is this where Bell & Ross get their watch inspiration from?

Grumman F-14A Tomcat

As above but slightly less cluttered due to one joy stick however the seat material both in colour and fabric adds a little warmth. While the dominant, black half moon window frame is a serious ‘statement piece’ (Kelly Hoppen speak) it’s no Gulfstream G550.

General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon


Modernity is starting to appear along with greater user functionality and the side stick gives an impression of more central space. Thought should be given in how best to use the extra space with the integration of perhaps a foldout tray table and wireless device charging. The seat design is very Bauhaus, simple yet effective and very much form following function. The battle ship grey interior paint against the black wool (cashmere, angora?) seat is a challenging cmf (colour material finish) palette and desperately in need of some warmth perhaps inspired by a falcon’s plumage and colouring.

Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker B’

The Trabant blue colour for such a small space is commanding on the eye, one wall/surface only in blue, to set the interior design tone would be on trend. The interior does not look very solid, flimsy almost but not cluttered and overfilled unlike the others.

Why use MDF when oak is available? The layout has a simplistic yet functional Soviet era charm and design pieces from this period are very both praised and collectible. This is certainly a stand out piece of interior design.

Panavia Tornado F3

Finally, elements of symmetry in the cockpit. Period industrial design aesthetic with a less is more philosophy, the dominating angular design really dominates the space with 1980’s electronic Tomy games and Casio watches for inspiration. The heads up display makes for a great statement piece.

Somewhat of an arcade game aesthetic for a young bachelor pad perhaps or games room.

Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet

Great, modern and ordered industrial design aesthetic with glorious mood night lighting offering a calm environment and cozy feel. Definitely somewhere one might want to relax in after a long day and especially on a cold night. The heads up display makes for a great statement piece and really grounds yet balances the space much like a central, crystal chandelier. In terms of a pleasing piece of aesthetic interior design this is the best in the article.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Very modern aesthetic with the Tesla inspired screen but somewhat of a brutal and cold aesthetic. Not a very elegant interior design like the F/A-18E Super Hornet, and getting Blaupunkt in car radio vibe coming too… There is no sense of harmony or flow from the brutal interior to sublime exterior. While the two-tone exterior matte grey painting creates visual interest, it could have been used in the interior sensitively. Budget problems? Plus side is the large fan intake for cockpit air conditioning I assume. Any A/C interior grilles should be painted in the same exterior grey matte paint.

Is the RAF’s ‘Go-Go Gadget Plane’ a good idea? Analysis of the Aeralis concept

The Aeralis Modular Training Study – Platform and System Aspects

Jim Smith, who spent much of his career close to the world of military aircraft acquisition, reflects on the radical new Aeralis training system

Hush-Kit have asked me to look at the Aeralis modular training family of aircraft and systems, recently reported in the media following the award of a research contract by the Royal Air Force. The intent is to provide a family of aircraft which are enabled to address a range of requirements in the general area spanning basic trainer to light combat aircraft, through the use of an innovative modular design approach. A common forward and centre fuselage module is used, and, with the use of alternative wing, propulsion system, cockpit and empennage modules, variants can be generated to meet this broad range of requirements.

The modular configuration bears interesting comparison with the Rockwell HiMAT (Highly Manoeuvrable Aircraft Technology) remotely piloted test aircraft of the late 1970s. It was planned that it could be fitted with different wings, control surfaces and exhaust nozzles.

While, in all cases, the aircraft are subsonic, a larger and less-swept wing discriminates the elementary trainer from the advanced trainer and light combat variants. Three propulsion modules are envisaged – a lower and a higher-thrust single-engine configuration, and a twin-engine variant. Two crew and single seat versions would be available to meet the differing needs of training and air combat, but these would retain the same external lines for commonality of structure and aerodynamics, with the freed-up volume of the single-seater being available for additional fuel.

Systems aspects are enabled by exploiting the flexibility and commonality of digital systems, providing not only the capability to vary the displays as required, but also the ability to synthesise targets for training; to integrate with different external sensors and stores; and a comprehensive ability to monitor and manage airframe, engine, and system usage and maintenance requirements.

Aspects to consider

Given the attractive sounding capabilities described above, what are the issues to look out for? I’ll try and group these under Technical, Marketing, and Decision-making, and I must state from the outset that my comments are based on general analysis of the problem. My list is absolutely not intended to imply that these issues are not being addressed. Its rather to indicate to the Hush-Kit readership, those areas which are likely to be important for anyone proposing a modular aircraft solution to fit a range of roles from training to combat. And, as usual, this represents my opinion, which has no connection with, or influence on, any serious decision making about modular training platforms and systems.

Key technical issues:
• Potential weight or other penalties in achieving commonality
In order to achieve the desired modularity, production breaks have to be introduced to the airframe. These are the structural joints where, for example, the alternative outer wings are attached to the common centre fuselage. Other breaks in the structure will be required at the join between the rear fuselage and the centre fuselage, and at the junctions between the propulsion module, the centre fuselage and the rear fuselage.

Credit: Aeralis

In addition to these structural joints, some elements of the structure for the lower performance variants may have to be ‘over-engineered’, as they will have to sustain the higher loads generated by higher weight or higher performance variants. As an example, if the basic trainer were stressed to 6g, and the combat aircraft variant to either a higher weight or higher g limit, the centre fuselage wing carry through structure used by the trainer would need to be stressed to the higher loads experienced in the combat variant

Because of the desire to be able to fit alternative engines, in different configurations, alternative propulsion modules are required. As a result, and to also allow alternative outer wing planforms, it is proposed to stow the undercarriage in external pods at the trailing edge of the common fuselage/inner wing structure. While this makes a lot of sense as an enabler to the modular design approach, there will be a drag penalty, and possibly a weight penalty, compared to a fuselage mounted main undercarriage, like that used for the Alpha Jet.

Ability to integrate diverse systems for the differing variants
This is an area where a well thought through and well-executed approach is central to much of the operational flexibility being sought in this modular design approach. An advanced jet trainer should be able to replicate the look, feel and function of the operational systems to which the trainees will graduate. It will be desirable to configure the cockpit displays to represent differing graduation options – for example in the UK, future trainees might graduate to the Tempest or F-35B. But if other Nations adopt the trainer variant, their operational aircraft might be, for example, the Tejas and the TEDBF.

As well as being able to represent differing cockpits, there are significant differences in equipment that may be required by the differing variants. While all variants will require flight and engine control systems, utility systems like undercarriage, oxygen, pressurisation, electrical and communications, and health and usage monitoring systems, some will require additional capabilities. For example, an advanced trainer, or dissimilar combat aggressor would require the ability to simulate radar and IRST systems, and to have simulated targets or cooperating manned or unmanned assets injected into those systems so as to stimulate required training responses. Air combat replay and recording facilities such as ACMI or RAIDS pods would be required, and there might also be a need to at least simulate some ground targeting and practice weapon capabilities

The architecture for these system capabilities is likely to become quite complex, given the alternative requirements of differing potential customers as well as the diverse capabilities required for the various roles. Particular attention will be needed to ensure physical, electrical, network, software and hardware interfaces are well understood and specified for all the various systems.

Propulsion system matching
Three different engine configurations are proposed: a low-power and a high-power single-engine installation; and a twin-engine solution. Considering the twin-engine solution, it is evident that this will come with differing system requirements than a single-engine solution. For example, consideration will have to be given throughout to the implications of an engine failure, shutdown or fire. This sort of event will require a fuel system capable of supplying either engine separately, or both together. Similar considerations will apply to the implications of single-engine failure on the electrical, system management, hydraulics and other aircraft systems.

The high-power variant appears to have a variable nozzle, suggesting use of an afterburner – while this seems unlikely in a subsonic aircraft, additional power, coupled with a slightly more swept wing, will result in different ability to accelerate and potentially different handling qualities, particularly at high subsonic speeds. Consequently, the philosophy for control law development will require careful thought. One option would be to minimise changes so that the trainee has to accommodate to the greater system capability and performance of the advanced trainer and air combat variants. Alternatively, the control laws for each variant could be tweaked so as to minimise the change in feel and behaviour.

The discussion above shows the criticality of system integration across the variants proposed, and also provides some indication of the opportunities presented by such a software-enabled training system. A difficulty lurking in the wings behind all of these capabilities is certification. Given the options include two wing configurations, three engine options and two cockpit layouts, I think it is safe to say that the approach to certification will be a key area to be managed.
Aspects will include the certification of the necessary software, and the variations required for the differing versions, or for optimising individual variants for different customers. Additionally, the differing wing planforms will have differing aerodynamics, differing loads and may require differing control laws. The weights, and potentially centre of gravity, of the variants will differ and the impact of this on certification will be compounded should there be a desire, or a requirement, to offer differing g-capability.

In addition, the twin-engine variant will need to demonstrate how engine failure cases can be safely managed, and any variants able to carry and/or release weapons will need to show that this can be done safely. Similarly, variations in the fuel system for the twin-engine and for the single-seat variants will need to be assessed and certified.

Possible marketing issues:
Differentiation from existing highly capable and competitively priced alternatives


Having once been dominated by the Hawk, the Aero 39 and its developments, and the Alpha Jet, the range of capable and effective jet trainers, light combat and strike aircraft has burgeoned in recent years. While this may seem a harsh question, I think it is fair to ask what this family of aircraft could do, that could not be done as well by the latest two-seat Hawk, working in tandem with a new generation Hawk 200 single seater. Or, indeed single and two seat variants of other recently produced designs such as the Leonardo M346 Master.

There are answers to this question available in the advanced, integrated and flexible software-driven systems capabilities proposed, which are indeed a key feature enabling this modular approach. But these systems are also a key risk. They have to be right, they have to be timely, they have to be sustainable, and they have to be certified. And, of course, the digital-capable single-seat variants to operate as partners generally do not exist

Dealing with the related question – why not a supersonic version like the Boeing/Saab T-7A Red Hawk?

There is a different niche in the market, spanning the advanced supersonic trainer, the air combat trainer and operational light combat aircraft. The Boeing/Saab T-7A sits in this general area as a T-38 replacement, but perhaps the Korean KAI T-50, TA-50 and FA-50 is a better exemplar. In essence, this aircraft shows an alternative vision, where a relatively simple trainer can bring pilots up to the capability to take on the advanced trainer T-50, and move up from there to an aircraft capable of taking on substantial air combat and strike training, and indeed limited operational capability.

Such an approach offers the prospect of downloading more training hours from the really expensive and capable operational fast jets, albeit at the expense of itself being a much more complex and expensive offering than a modular aircraft covering the flying training, advanced training and initial combat capability spectrum.

Decision-making aspects:
• Convincing decision makers that 3 variants, optimised for Basic Training, Advanced Training, and Light Combat, is a more cost-effective solution than either a single fleet, or a two-type solution
This is the nub of the issue in marketing to, for example, the UK Government. Delivery of the indicated capability through a number of modular variants based around the same common fuselage module will need very persuasive analysis. The basis of that analysis should be the demonstration that the proposed solution represents best value-for-money based on whole-of-life costs, discounted to net present value.
There are a lot of technical terms there, but really, what is being asked is how much would it cost to deliver (for example) 30 years of the capability, where the costs have to include development, manufacture, certification, introduction to service, operation, maintenance, and an upgrade cycle (probably). The costs would also cover ground equipment, simulation, training material and differences (positive or negative) in manpower costs to run the system. Net present value means ‘in today’s money’.

BAE Systems Lead-in fighter diagram

To answer my question, you would have to examine the costs, not only of the Aeralis system, but also the cost of, for example, rival systems based around my suggested Hawk plus new generation Hawk 200, and perhaps even consider the alternative of moving to a more capable Boeing/Saab T-7A or KAI T-50 approach, aimed at saving money by downloading more training from Tempest/F-35B.

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• To achieve the required flexibility, the training/weapon system of the modular solutions will need to be heavily software-dependent, and developing an approach to convince acquisition agencies that the risks in developing, integrating and certifying the necessary software are being well managed will be vital.
This reflects the integration and certification issues I pointed to as key technical issues, but seen through the risk management lens likely to be used by Government.

If you think about the development program for JSF, you can see that it’s really difficult to design a supersonic stealthy fighter, capable (in different variants) of meeting the needs of the Marines for STOVL, the Navy for Carrier operations, and the Air Force for Strike ‘On the First Day of the War’.

Well, actually, no – most of that was at least partially demonstrated in the SDD phase. What’s really difficult is getting the systems integrated, every aspect of the software, the sensors, the displays, the EW and defensive aids – the whole weapon system, qualified, accepted and certified for operational use.

The more complex, the more flexible, the more software-driven, and the more capable your system is, the more difficult it will be to certify, even if your platform has all the attractive modular capabilities proposed by Aeralis. The opportunity exists to do this, and do it right, but the emphasis on the integration of the digital system must be at least as great, if not greater than the attention paid to platform modularity.

10 Worst Helicopters

Helicopters allow you to hover hundreds of feet above the ground just by making small movements with your hands. This god-like power makes is the cause of much resentment from those lesser mortals who can only fly fixed wing aircraft. Plus the first man-made aircraft to fly on another planet (ignoring the nonsense of Soviet Venusian balloon probes) is going to be a helicopter, so suck on that plank drivers.

Bing’s views do not represent that of this site, or the Navy or the Church of the Wyvern

When NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flies on Mars it will demonstrate to any Martians that the fixed-wing aeroplane is an embarrassment to be left back on Earth. It will also prove there isn’t a quiet holiday destination left in the solar system that some twit with a drone isn’t buzzing.

As a brief primer for the lesser mortals in the audience: in a helicopter the stick between the pilot’s legs is called the cyclic. This alters the pitch of the blades as they revolve around the mast, cyclically you could say, which allows the disc to be tilted in any direction moving the thrust vector accordingly. The handbrake-like lever to the left alters the pitch of all the blades collectively, hence it’s imaginative name of the collective, this will increase or decrease the amount of thrust broadly speaking allowing the aircraft to go up or down. Note this is unlike most cheap quadcopter type drones which vary the rotor RPM to climb and descend. Finally, the yaw pedals in the footwell provide somewhere for the pilot to rest their feet and if the urge takes them rotate the helicopter around the rotor mast by varying the pitch on the tail rotor blades. Obviously that final part doesn’t apply to something like a Chinook which doesn’t have a tail rotor and it has to be assumed is manoeuvred by witchcraft. Or differential vectoring of the two rotor discs. So probably the witchcraft thing. To be clear this is a gross simplification and if you want to know more about how to fly a helicopter read ‘Chickenhawk’.

The prototype Chinook used witchcraft for directional control.

The ten aircraft below have unfortunately let the side down and generally suffer from being poorly designed, used for the wrong role, being overly ambitious or some combination of all three.

10. Percival P.74

The 50s were a time of great advances in aviation, the Percival P.74 was responsible for none of them. Looking as if the company’s designers were tasked to make a workable helicopter from a drawing by the director’s three-year-old child it featured a bulbous fuselage with tiny wheels and a comically out of proportion tail rotor. Presumably feeling there was nothing left to lose it was decided to power it by using tip-jets to drive the rotors and control their pitch with full-span trailing edge ailerons. The observant reader will notice both these features have failed to make it into widespread production. Or even into a niche.

To provide air for the tip jets two Napier Oryx gas turbines drove air compressors the combined exhausts from both turbine and compressor then being ducted to the rotor tips. As someone had decided to put the engines in the belly this involved large ducts of hot air going up either side of the cabin, splitting it in two. Probably kept it warm though. More worryingly the only access to the cockpit was through the gap between these ducts, the sole door being at the back of the aircraft.

After five years of development, and presumably the delight of the test pilots, the first flight was aborted as despite the efforts of all involved it failed to leave the ground. Despite further tinkering with the engines to produce more gas flow the P.74 never left terra firma and was eventually wheeled across the airfield and forgotten about. As if to make sure all traces would be forgotten, shortly afterwards the Percival name was replaced with that of Hunting.

9. Hughes XH-17

Proving that it wasn’t just the British that could pursue aviation’s dead ends the XH-17 also featured tip jet driven rotors. At which point any similarity with Percival’s attempt ends. Starting life as a rotor test rig under the auspices of the Kellett Aircraft Corporation the XH-17 ducted bleed air from the compressor sections of two GE J35 jet engines. After travelling 65’ to the ends of the oversized rotor blades fuel was added to the airflow and ignited giving four distinct jet plumes in the trailing edge. And a noise signature like an AC/DC concert, complaints being received from eight miles away.

In June of 1948 facing financial issues Kellett sold the XH-17 and their interest in the programme to the only company mad enough to take it on. The one run by a man who watched movies for four months, while not cutting his nails, storing his urine in bottles, and without their even being a global pandemic. Yes, the Hughes Aircraft Company. [1]

After finding a pilot willing to fly the XH-17, one Gale Moore, the first intentional flight took place on 16 Sep 1952 at which point Moore discovered the control balance was ideal for a rotor test rig. [2] Unfortunately, it was less useful for any fine control the beast bouncing up and down until Moore managed to dump it onto the ground firmly enough to stay there. After some tinkering Hughes managed to resolve the control issues and the XH-17 entered an intensive 10-hour test programme, at which point the rotors fatigue life was used up.

Although there was a proposal for a four bladed production version of the XH-17, the XH-28, the Army eventually decided not to pursue it. There presumably not being a massive requirement to move tanks across the battlefield at 70knots while being heard by everyone in the same county.

Despite this inauspicious start Hughes would go on to produce some half decent helicopters you may have heard of. Such as the Apache.

[1] The author once worked for an oil field services company that was taken over by the Hughes Tool Company. It was not as eccentric as he hoped.

[2] The first unintentional flight having occurred 2 years earlier when a control link broke and resulted in the rig part, but oddly not the rotors, having to be rebuilt.

8. De Lackner HZ-1

This is almost definitely a helicopter and was evaluated by the US Army as part of their plans to kill their own soldiers in new and imaginative ways. Eschewing such fripperies as a fuselage, seats, or actual controls the HZ-1 was steered by the ‘pilot’ leaning in the direction he wanted to go. For those wondering if they can build one in their own garage [3], the most complicated bit, the engine, was a converted Mercury outboard motor so the answer is probably yes. This drove two 15’ diameter contra-rotating rotor blades that, in two fingers to occupational health and safety, were placed below the sacrificial offering. In the pros column in trials soldiers learnt to fly it with only 20 minutes of instruction, before speeding across the landscape at up to 75 mile an hour. Although with a range of 15 miles it’s not obvious that was particularly useful.

In the cons column the HZ-1 suffered two accidents, apparently non-fatal, where the contra-rotating blades clipped each other and then stopped working. More worryingly NACA were unable to repeat the phenomena in their wind tunnel, proving that even rocket scientists don’t understand helicopters. Combined with a rare outbreak of sanity in the US Army, who realised there wasn’t actually a lot of utility to the personal helicopter idea, this led to the end of the programme.

[3] For legal reasons Hush Kit does not advise this, but if you do, please mention us in the inevitable YouTube video of your demise.

7. Agusta A106

Despite having to remove the doors to meet the range requirement when carrying a WE177C depth charge the Westland Wasp manages to avoid being on this list due to probably being the only ASW helicopter to have actually damaged a submarine. Which makes you ask what the rest of them have been doing with their time. The Agusta A-106 however does not have that advantage.

With a max take-off mass lower than the Wasp’s empty weight the A106 was truly dinky, at 1400kg fully loaded it probably weighed less than your car. This almost anorexic look was achieved by only providing seating for a pilot while two Mk44 torpedoes could be hung under the fuselage, at which point you have to ask how much of the 800kg payload remained available for fuel. The absence of any other crew would have limited the A106 to carrying its payload where it was told to and then dropping it. Hopefully someone would then be available to tell the pilot how to get back as well, photos of the cockpit showing it to be remarkably lacking in avionics. It’s at this point you start to wonder if Agusta realised they had created a manned version of the QH-50 DASH torpedo carrying drone which had already entered service two years before the 106’s first flight in 1965.

Although some sources claim it had an acoustic submarine detection system it’s not obvious where this would have gone, nor how the sole occupant would play the roles of sensor operator, tactics officer, and pilot. So, they should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, at best it may have been able to deploy sonobouys for other aircraft and ships to listen to. In the end only the two prototype A106s were built. The Italian Navy presumably deciding that if it was going to the trouble of having manned aircraft on its ships they may as well be able to do something useful when there wasn’t an ASW exercise to take part in, like collecting the mail.

6. Westland 30

Credit: Joe Coles

It’s the late ‘70s and everyone’s favourite Somerset based aircraft manufacturer is having something approaching success with its Lynx maritime attack helicopter. The next obvious move was to build on that by making a civilian version for the offshore and VIP market. Obvious if you’re not familiar with the Lynx anyway which is an ergonomic and audible nightmare, with average endurance, and a maintenance hours per flying hour problem…

The Westland 30-100 used the same rotors, engines and transmission as the Lynx but mated it with a boxier fuselage which could apparently seat 22. Which would have been a claustrophobic experience if sitting in the back of a 9-passenger configured Lynx is anything to go by. The Westland 30 was also a heavy aircraft with a max take-off weight of almost six tonnes, a figure the Lynx wouldn’t get close to until the Mk8 in the mid-90s. This didn’t do anything for the performance the early Gem engines not being up to hauling around something that heavy.  Consequently, the WG30 was poor in range, power, and operating costs. On the plus side it meant it rarely flew with more than about 10 people in the back which must have made it quite roomy.

In 1985 in an attempt to prove Westlands was a going concern and maybe worth another company, Sikorsky say, investing in the Thatcher government convinced India to purchase 21 WG30s. Using a UK funded grant of £65 million and offers of further aid. Which sounds a lot like bribery. In four years of service the aircraft posted a £5.6 million operating loss, were limited in passenger capacity to ensure safe they met the performance requirements for safe operation, and required engine servicing every 70 hours. After two fatal crashes in 1988 and ’89 the fleet was grounded. Operators in the USA meanwhile seemed no more enamoured of them with issues around the auto-stabilisation system, the levels of maintenance required, and lack lustre customer support. Issues that wouldn’t have surprised any Lynx operator.

The obvious solution to many of the WG30’s woes would be to add more power, however there’s only so much you could usefully put through the four rotor blades. By the time Westlands bit the bullet and produced the bigger better -300 series with a five bladed rotor head, CT7 engines, and modern avionics it was too little too late. [4] Even attempts to sell it to the UK military failed in favour of the Merlin HC3. Ultimately Westlands asked for the type certification to be cancelled ensuring none of the 41 Westland 30-100s that were been built can fly again.

[4] The single built example of this and the -200 are now at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare.

5.Mil Mi-10 ‘Harke’

The Mi-6 managed to combine a steam punk aesthetic with being the World’s largest production helicopter, it was a truly glorious machine and the lack of a nose mounted conservatory in its successor the Mi-26 leaves us all the poorer. The Mi-10 on the other hand was a flying crane derivative of the Hook which failed to live up to the glory of its older sister.

Removing the bottom half of the fuselage the resulting gap between the aircraft and the ground was filled with a stalky 3.75m tall 6m wide undercarriage. For reasons to do with helicopter aerodynamics the right-hand legs were 300mm shorter than the left.  Having built possibly the most ridiculous looking landing gear known to man there must have been some disappointment when it was found to shimmy while ground taxing.

It was also discovered that carrying underslung loads was difficult due to the poor view from the cockpit even when using the built in CCTV system.

Realising the requirement to carry a bus or prefab building underneath the fuselage wasn’t the killer feature the USSR needed the later Mi-10K featured a 2m shorter undercarriage and a second aft facing cockpit underneath the first. Because nothing says we got it right first time like giving the pilot somewhere else to sit. This made it much better for carrying underslung loads up to around 11 tonnes in weight. Or about what you could get inside a Mi-6. Which probably explains why only 55 or so Mi-10 were built in total, there only being so many times you need to move something you can’t get in or under a Hook.

4. Yak-24 ‘Horse

As part of a Stalin ‘inspired’ post war rush to revive helicopter development Yakovlev were ‘invited’ to design a heavy lift helicopter. The task seemed simple, make a boxy fuselage to put everything in and put a rotor at each end to lift it off the ground. As with most things helicopter related it turns out nothing is that simple.

Power was to be provided by the same Shvetsov Ash-82V engine, gearbox, and rotors as used in the Mi-4 Hare. Except two of them. Presumably due to issues of sanity one was placed just above the loading ramp and the other was tilted over and squeezed behind the cockpit. To stop the blades from clashing a synchronisation shaft connected the two gearboxes and also allowed power to be transferred front to rear, or vice versa, in the event of an engine failure. Outside of this list, this has not proved a popular configuration.

The first indication that everything may not be right with the Horse came during ground testing when the rear rotor vibrated itself and its gearbox free and committed seppuku ripping the fuselage apart. Further trials revealed that behaving like a tumble dryer with a brick in it was actually a feature of the Yak-24 and that it might be an idea to design it out. Eventually, and possibly in a fit of frustration, the problem was solved by removing half a meter from the end of each rotor. Despite these setbacks command economies wait for no man and the aircraft entered state trials in late 1953 barely a year after the programme had started. During these another prototype was lost but it was the ‘50s so no one seems to have minded although it probably didn’t help with the final development, the complexity of which delayed service entry by two and a half years to 1955.

Despite having a briefly record setting lift capability as few as 40 and at most 100 Horses were produced with vibration and accidents plaguing its career. Still at least Yakovlev could fall back on producing world-beating VSTOL fighters to make ends meet…

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3. Bristol Belvedere ‘Bevel Drive Box’

Form follows function and that’s as true for the Bristol Belvedere as any other helicopter. Unfortunately, the function it followed was that of an anti-submarine warfare helicopter, and despite the Admiralty deciding to go with a licence-built version of the Sikorsky S-58 Bristol didn’t see any reason to radically change their design. So, they didn’t and sold it to the RAF as a transport helicopter instead. To be fair the RAF don’t seem to have thought to ask for any changes either.

This left troops trying to board through a door four feet off the ground as the fuselage was still high enough to allow torpedoes to be loaded on the underside. Which turned out not to be a major requirement in the jungles of Borneo due to the paucity of submarines. Taking a leaf out of Yakovlev’s book Bristol put the engines at either end of the cabin. Going one further they positioned the rear one in the fuselage precluding the use of a loading ramp. Meanwhile the one at the other end blocked access to the cockpit, which was probably a smart move but was ultimately defeated by installing a bulge on the left of the fuselage. To make matters more interesting for the pilot the engines were started with AVPIN a substance which helpfully doesn’t need oxygen to burn and will happily do so if mishandled. This left them with the choice of squeezing back past the on-fire engine compartment or jumping to the ground and breaking an ankle.

Introduced into service in 1961 the Belvedere could carry 19 troops or 6,000lbs of cargo, which sounds moderately impressive. However, that year also saw the Wessex Mk1 join the Royal Navy and with only half the Gazelle engines it could carry 16 troops or 4,000lbs of cargo and was less complicated to maintain. With all its shortfalls it’s something of a surprise that Bristol’s managed to sell any Belvederes, but as a portent of the RAF’s future attitude to helicopters they actually bought 26.

2. Aérospatiale Puma HC1

Pumas are painted green to help hide their shame

The Puma HC1 entered service with the RAF in 1971 and inexplicably wasn’t upgraded for 40 years. Which is probably some sort of indication of the high regard rotary wing aviation is held in by the bits of the Air Force that control the money. During that time there were 20 crashes, none of which were attributable to enemy action, killing 31 people. [5]

This somewhat excessive accident rate was at least partly due to the engine controls not featuring anticipators. Fitted in most helicopters these increase the speed of the engine as the pilot raises the collective before the extra drag from increased pitch on the rotors slows their rotation. On its own this wouldn’t be the end of the world however the Turbomeca Turmo engines also took around five seconds to spool up from idle to a speed where they were actually turning the rotors. But why would it be at idle you may ask. Well in certain conditions it’s possible for the aerodynamic forces to drive the rotor system rather than the engines. Typically, when slowing in level flight. If the rotor speed goes above the level for normal flight the engine governor will reduce fuel flow to prevent an overspeed. As this will have no effect the governor will keep reducing fuel flow until it hits the idle stop. In these situations, as the aerodynamic forces drop off there will be nothing driving the Puma’s rotors for several seconds and inertia only gets you so far. On the plus side this gives an opportunity to check all the blades are still there while waiting for normality to resume. Assuming you haven’t hit the ground by then. To be fair to the Turmo it provided sterling service to SNCF powering their trains.

To add insult to injury the early Puma models narrow track undercarriage and high centre of gravity leave the aircraft relatively unstable on the ground.  This has resulted in Puma’s being blown over when the wind unexpectedly changed direction. Which is embarrassing if you’ve left them parked unattended. It also probably explains why the UK have never cleared theirs to operate off ships.

For those wondering Eurocopter did fix these problems fairly early in the production of the Puma with the Makila engine solving all the Turmo’s problems and being a suggested upgrade to the RAF’s for three or four decades before it actually happened in 2012. The Super Puma models having also helpfully moved the main gear further outboard to increase stability on the ground. Although the latest models have introduced a new problem of the rotor head coming off. Which is as fatal as it sounds.

[5] Tip of the hat to UK Serials which has more accessible records of UK military accidents than the UK military. Even if you’re in the UK military.

  1. Robinson R-22

The Robinson R-22 is about as light and simple as you can make a helicopter. For instance, the rotor brake appears to be connected to the operating handle by an easily broken, if shockingly expensive, sink chain and the whole aircraft is so light it can be wheeled in and out of the hangar by one person. This lightness makes it cheap to operate. Unfortunately, it also makes it extremely attractive for flying schools despite there being much better training aircraft available. [6]

There are two major issues with the R-22, and to some extent its bigger siblings the R-44 and R-66. Firstly, the lightweight main rotor has very little inertia, so if the engine stops there’s only around a second to lower the collective before the rotors are no longer spinning fast enough to sustain auto-rotation. This also makes practice auto-rotation relatively terrifying for the first few hundred goes as the lack of inertia makes the rotor speed race up and down at the slightest movement of the controls.

The second issue is known as mast bumping and is a phenomenon unique to helicopters with two bladed main rotors. As the blades rotate, they flap up and down as the amount of lift generated changes due to the altering airflow and pitch. Generally, up on the side going forward relative to the airframe and down on the retreating side. If there are only two blades as one goes up the other goes down, like a seesaw, and in extreme cases the root of the downward going blade can strike the shaft. [7] This is at least as bad as it sounds and can lead to the blade removing the tail boom, cockpit roof, and the entire rotor head departing the aircraft. This is most likely to happen in low-g situations, such as in turbulence, where the fuselage no longer hanging from the rotor disc will roll right due to the side thrust from the tail rotor. At this point any rational person would apply left cyclic to level the aircraft. Which will cause mast-bumping, rotor separation, and death. In that order.  R-22 training therefore includes a heavy emphasis on avoiding turbulence and if the aircraft rolls right unexpectedly counterintuitively pulling back on the cyclic to increase the g and load up the rotor system. The FAA require a separate logbook signature to state this training has been conducted before you’re even allowed to fly a Robinson product solo while EASA require it as part of the type rating. Despite this there have been multiple accidents which cannot be explained by turbulence or mishandling alone.

To be fair some people say that if you train on something that’s difficult to fly everything else will be easy, presumably these people were also taught calculus before basic addition and learnt to drive in a Formula 1 car. To give an illustration of why that idea is complete bobbins between 1997 and 2010 the R-22 was responsible for 28% of civilian helicopter accidents in the UK, while only making up around 8% of rotary wing aircraft on the G register. [8]

[6] Your author gained his PPL(H) and CPL(H) on an R-22, after already learning to fly helicopters on the Squirrel and 50 hours hands-on time in the Lynx. Which is about the right lead in for the R-22.

[7] This is also known as a teetering head due to the ridiculous American English use of the name teeter-totter for a seesaw.

[8] 104 R22 in the G-INFO database at the time of writing the article against 1208 UK registered civilian helicopters.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and CPL(H), who has spent the last eight years working in Air Safety. He also supplies holy vestments for the Church of the Wyvern.

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Top 10 Real Flying Saucer Aircraft

There is undoubtedly a certain fascination with UFOs of the alien variety. While my personal view is that the whole concept was a fabulous disinformation campaign, delivered through the USAF Project Blue Book, there is a community that strongly believes that Earth has been repeatedly visited by alien entities and flying saucers.

For American readers, I am aware that all of us foreigners are aliens, and creatures from other worlds are referred to as ‘space aliens’. As this usage is, like their curious reversed dates (the month preceding the day), their irrational hatred of the letter ‘U’, an inability to pronounce the name ‘Craig’ and some other aberrations, confined to the USA, I will ignore it. If you are American, for ‘alien’, read ‘space alien’

Sadly, for the UFO community, this article is not about alien-flown UFOs, but aircraft featuring (broadly) a wing with either a circular, or an annular, planform. There are a surprising number of these, and quite a few have even been flown. In coming up with a top 10 selection, I have been biased towards those that did actually become airborne, but have also been attracted to those which either feature purity of form, or alternatively are so spectacular that they cannot be ignored. Of course, in a list of ten, readers’ favourites will have been left out, or put in the ‘wrong’ place. The selection and ordering of aircraft in any Top Ten list is always going to be subjective, so I accept responsibility, but make no apology for my choices

Before launching into our list, I feel I should say a word about the aerodynamics of circular-winged aircraft. If you are in search of a quick fix you may jump straight into the top 10 below; for those wishing to know more, I’d like to explain a little about the aerodynamics of the flying saucer, mainly because having a circular wing is largely such a bad idea. The issues I will raise may not be insuperable, but their impacts do have an influence on the configuration, control and performance of circular and annular winged aircraft.

The most obvious problem is going to be the lift-dependent drag of the aircraft. Liftdependent drag is the drag caused by the generation of lift. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in aerodynamics and if you order a bigger portion you’re going to get a bigger bill (unlike in nouveau cuisine where the inverse occurs). This is proportional to lift squared, divided by aspect ratio (a measure of the slenderness of the wing as viewed from above or below). The larger the aspect ratio, the smaller the lift-dependent drag at a given lift. This is why sailplanes have long slender wings, and for low-speed aircraft, high aspect ratio is a good indicator of efficiency.

For a circular wing, the Aspect Ratio is 4/Pi, or about 1.27. An equilateral triangle has an aspect ratio of about 2.31, and a typical modern airliner will have an aspect ratio around 10.0 or more. So circular wings are inefficient.

A second impact of having a low aspect ratio is that the lift curve slope is low. This slope is the amount of lift generated per degree of angle to the airflow. As a generalisation, a circular wing will require about twice the angle to the airflow to generate the same lift as a high aspect ratio wing of the same area. So, in addition to having high lift dependent drag, we can expect our circular wings, at low speed, to have high angle of incidence, to need high power, and, perhaps to have significant forward visibility issues.

Stability and Control
What of stability and control? Well, one issue is going to be to have sufficient control power. Because of the compact nature of a circular wing, the arm available for rear-mounted control surfaces is likely to be relatively small, compared to the conventional rear-fuselage-mounted tail surfaces.

From a longitudinal stability point of view, care will be required, for a non-spinning circular configuration, to manage the longitudinal stability. If the centre of gravity is at the point of radial symmetry, the configuration will be longitudinally unstable, because the centre of lift will, at subsonic speeds, be ahead of this. For simple light aircraft applications, the centre of gravity will generally be designed to avoid this issue, for example by having a forward located engine. For radially symmetric designs, low speed stability is likely to be significant problem, unless the whole airframe is spun, like a frisbee, so that a combination of angular momentum and gyroscopic precession provides a measure of longitudinal stability.

From the lateral perspective, there is no reason to anticipate that a flying disc at low incidence would be anything but neutrally stable. However, at the relatively high incidences which might be required for take-off and landing, it is probable that vortices would be shed from the highly swept outer wing leading edge, which would be destabilising in both pitch and yaw, hence requiring some form of fin, rudder and aileron control.

Annular Wings
Annular wings, in the form of a disc with a circular hole in the centre, have also proven a popular form for innovators. From an aerodynamic perspective, these may be thought of as a pair of wings in tandem, joined at the tips. Because the rear part of the wing sits within the downwash field of the front part, it will experience a lower aerodynamic incidence, which does have the advantage that an annular winged aircraft will generally naturally pitch nose down at the stall. Otherwise, the aerodynamic qualities are likely to be similar to those of a circular wing.

This annular wing aircraft is would refer to as a ‘ring wing’. Rather than wrapped around the body, I am referring to a wing in the same plane as the fuselage, just like the Lee-Richards monoplane. I don’t think ring wings look sufficiently saucer like.

For a given diameter, an annular wing will have less area than a circular wing, and would be likely to have a more complex and heavier structure. However, other considerations, such as the view on landing, and possibly somewhat higher lift curve slope and lower lift dependent drag might prove advantageous. That said, the flows around an annular wing could well be interesting and highly dependent on yaw as well as pitch, assuming the near streamwise edges at the wing tips, and at the outer portion of the central aperture, all shed vortices at high incidence.

Spinning discs

From Atlas Obscura “An articulated view of a Discopter in flight, floating through the night sky above the San Francisco Bay. WITH PERMISSION FROM DISCOPTER.COM

What about spinning discs? Well, evidently, frisbees can glide for significant distances, and are relatively stable in flight, so why not a spinning disc? Well, maybe in an unmanned application, but a human pilot is going to need to be facing more-or less in the direction of flight, and maintaining that with a spinning wing is going to be difficult. Not impossible (see helicopters for example), but certainly complex and heavier than not spinning the wing.

An interesting aspect of spinning discs is that necessarily, the centre of gravity also will be the centre of rotation, to ensure the device is rotationally balanced. The implication of this is that spinning discs are aerodynamically unstable at subsonic speeds, when the centre of lift will be ahead of the centre of gravity. The nose-up pitching moment which results is, however, converted through gyroscopic precession into an oscillation in roll, and moreover this is itself stabilised by the rotational inertia of the spinning disc.

Control of a spinning wing will also be difficult as both gyroscopic precession, and differential lift on the advancing and retreating side of the wing is going to complicate any control system markedly – again, see helicopters.

Are there benefits?
Clearly proponents of circular-wing designs have been able to persuade investors and governments to part with significant resources to construct and fly a surprising variety of designs. Given the disadvantages, difficulties and complications I have highlighted, what might be the sales pitch? We have seen that circular wings have a low aspect ratio and a low lift curve slope. As a consequence, a circular-winged configuration will give you a lot of wing area for a given span, and, provided you can manage the forward visibility of flying an approach at fairly high incidence, slow approach and landing speeds. Further, a low wing span for a given area should result in a relatively light structural design, as wing root bending moment will be reduced. These characteristics might have some attraction for carrier-based operations, especially if the need for a folding wing can be avoided.
In principle, manoeuvre performance could be quite good, as long as one is considering roll rate and instantaneous turn rate, that is. Both of these should be good, firstly due to low roll inertia because of reduced wing span, and secondly due to large wing area and high stalling incidence. Sustained turn rate, however, is likely to be horrible due to high lift-dependent drag.

Have any supersonic disc-wings been built? Well, there are rumours that this might have occurred. I am quite sceptical about these because wave drag could be quite high unless an Aerospike or extended fuselage nose were used to keep the aircraft bow shock away from the wing leading edge.

“But what about supersonic flying saucers?”, I hear the true believers cry. Well, I am a sceptic, principally on propulsion grounds. I can see that rotation could manage some of the stability issues, in principle at least, but I can’t resolve how sufficient thrust could be delivered to propel a spinning disc at supersonic speeds, or how such a vehicle could be crewed and controlled. But then, I don’t have access to alien technologies or knowledge.
With this introduction in place, and if we’re all sitting comfortably, let’s begin?

Lee-Richards Annular Biplane and Monoplane

The Lee-Richards Annular Biplane and Monoplane appears first in this list, in recognition not only of the early date of these pioneering aircraft (1911 – 1914), but also because of the development programme which eventually led to the relatively successful Annular Monoplane.The Annular Biplane was developed from a prototype built by G J A Kitchen, who had patented the concept of an annular winged aircraft. The prototype, and the patent were both purchased by Cedric Lee, who then, with George Tilghman Richards, set about developing it for flight trials. In 1911, the completed aircraft, with a 50 hp Gnome engine, was taken to Famine Point at Heynsham for trials, which have been described as “not particularly satisfactory” [British Aircraft 1809-1914, Peter Lewis, 1962].

It remains unclear whether powered flights were successfully completed by this machine, which was destroyed when its hangar was blown down in a gale on 4th-5th November 1911. Other accounts suggest the aircraft was only flown as a glider.
Some readers may either have noted its appearance in the early part of the film ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ or have come across the non-flying replica built for that movie, which is now with the Newark Air Museum. The replica has small ailerons mounted on the interplane struts, twin rudders, and an elevator attached to the trailing edge of the upper wing.
Perhaps the real significance of the Lee-Richards Annular Biplane was the demonstration that wings of this planform could form the basis of a flying machine. Following the loss of the biplane, Lee and Richards conducted a detailed programme of experimentation and research, including experiments with model gliders, and a year later were flying a Sesquiplane glider at Kirby Lonsdale. This aircraft featured a circular lower wing and a crescent-shaped upper wing.
Additionally, in what may well have been a first in the UK, wind tunnel tests were made at East London College and in the National Physical Laboratory, which showed the wing as continuing to produce lift at incidences of up to 30 degrees, with a gentle stall.

With this encouragement, a thoroughly convincing annular-winged monoplane was designed, and built at Shoreham. This aircraft flew successfully on 23 November 1913, although handling was plainly initially somewhat difficult. Again, accounts differ somewhat, but it is clear that the aircraft crashed and was re-built at least twice, with modifications introduced to improve elevator control.

Over the three versions of the aircraft, a total of 128 hours was flown, and the developed aircraft was said to be easy to fly and control, and able to take off with full load at only 30 mph. Maximum speed was 85 mph, landing speed 45 mph, and endurance 3 ½ hours, all creditable figures for a 1914 aircraft with an 80 hp engine. Wingspan was only 22 ft for an aircraft weighing 1680 lb when fully loaded, and the aspect ratio was 1.72.

The initial aircraft was followed by orders for two more, which were, in April 1914, being built for the Gordon Bennett air race. It is likely that these aircraft would not have been completed due to the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914, but the original aircraft continued flying up to September 1914.

Strong Points: The transition from the biplane to the monoplane design seems to have been well researched, and as a result, the monoplane was substantially successful, delivering good performance for an early aircraft, along slow take-off and landing speeds.
Weak Points: It is uncertain whether the biplane ever flew. The monoplane underwent a range of modifications to reduce stability and increase controllability.

Our interview with a SR-71 pilot here

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9. Feast Circle CW

The Feast Circle appears at number 9 in this list, primarily to show that the pioneering spirit of Lee and Richards is alive and well, and living in Australia.

The Feast Circle is an aircraft very much in the spirit of the Lee-Richards monoplane. Following experiments by Ron J Feast using a series of flying models, a small annular wing single-seat aircraft of wood and fabric construction was designed and built, starting in 1997, and making its first flight in July 2001. Where the Lee-Richards aircraft used an 80 hp Gnome engine, the CW used an 80 hp Rotax. The exterior of the wing planform was circular, but the interior featured a straight line at the tip, no doubt making the wing easier to construct, but also something of a joined-wing design, with curved front and rear wings joined by the tip pieces.
As might be expected, while the aircraft proved able to fly quite successfully, it had a very slow landing speed. Elevators were fitted to the trailing edge of the rear wing, and ailerons to the trailing edge of the front wing, and lateral control at the low landing speed proved to be difficult, leading to a number of modifications.

These included a change to a tricycle undercarriage, and a fairly drastic revision of the wing planform, with the rear wing being moved forward, shorter tip pieces being fitted to accommodate the new rear wing position, and dihedral being introduced. Both the ailerons and the elevators were also substantially increased in area. Interestingly, the Lee-Richards monoplane had also been modified to reduce its excessive stability, and had larger control surfaces fitted as well.

The aircraft was successfully flown in its new configuration in 2005, but, by January 2009, had been donated to a museum. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement in the modern regulatory environment to fly such an unconventional aircraft, and have it registered by the airworthiness authorities, hence my decision to include the CW in this list.

Strong points: A recent and successful attempt to build and fly an annular winged aircraft.

Weak points: As might be expected, the usual problems of stability and control, particularly at slow speed. Performance might not have been all that sparkling either, but nevertheless able to deliver a low take-off and landing speed.

8. Nemeth Roundwing

The Nemeth Roundwing is the first circular-winged aircraft appearing in this list. The aircraft, as appears to have been the case for many of this type, was developed following initial trials with flying models built by its designer, Steven Paul Nemeth.
These trials led to a large model of the aircraft being tested in the wind tunnel at University of Michigan in 1929, with encouraging results, which in turn resulted in the development of a full-size aircraft, the Nemeth Roundwing, also known as the Umbrellaplane.
In its initial form, the aircraft was based on the lengthened fuselage of an Alliance Argo light aircraft, and was powered by a 90 hp Lambert engine. The 16 ft diameter circular wing was mounted above the fuselage in a parasol position, and the fuselage retained the empennage of the Alliance aircraft. The rear part of the wing featured a split flap, and the outer part of the wing trailing edge carried the ailerons. Construction of the aircraft was completed in 1934, and was carried out as a student project at the University of Miami. One cannot but feel some envy at this opportunity for the students.

The aircraft flew successfully, but was significantly modified over the next two years. A more powerful Warner Scarab engine of 120 hp was fitted, and the wing trailing edge was significantly refined. Photographs of the later version of the aircraft show Youngman-like flaps and ailerons have been fitted. These have a significant gap between the wing and the control surface/flap, which would greatly improve effectiveness, allowing flight at very low speeds. Maintaining the tailplane of the original aircraft would be vital to allow the aircraft to be trimmed because the flaps would produce a significant pitching moment when deployed.
Given the 125 hp engine, the high lift devices, and the aerodynamic characteristics of the circular wing, it is not surprising that extremely short take-off and landing distances of 63 ft and 25 ft have been quoted. The aircraft was said to be incapable of stalling and easy to fly, with a landing speed of 30 mph. The aircraft does have a notable high ground angle, and this is presumed to have been used to allow landings to be made at high incidence and low speed.

Strong Points: Flew successfully, and was easy to control. Looks fun, and a great student project.
Weak points: Required a fuselage and tailplane to deliver stability and control, so although disc-winged, not really a flying saucer..

7. Snyder ARUP

The Snyder ARUP was an attempt to create an easy-to-fly aircraft for the masses – a popular theme that appears to have been doomed to failure at every attempt. The attraction of using a very low aspect ratio wing for this purpose reflects what we have observed with all these light aircraft projects. With a large wing area, and the ability to fly at very low speeds, the prospect appears at hand of an aircraft which is both easy to fly and able to operate from small fields. Combined with a small span, making the aircraft easy and cheap to store when not in use, the attraction seems obvious. ARUP was selected as a name for the aircraft from a contraction of ‘Air Up’ – a reflection of an intent to produce a plane for the masses.
In the case of the ARUP, development by Snyder, assisted by Raoul Hoffmann, followed the usual pattern of balsa wood models, followed by development of a glider, and then fitting a small motor to the glider. As a powered aircraft, the initial S-1 design did fly, but was not a great success, proving to be difficult to control.

Nevertheless, the results were sufficiently encouraging to lead to the development of three further aircraft, the ARUP S-2, S-3 and S-4. The S-2 flew for the first time in 1933, and was a small single-seater with a half-moon shaped wing, with straight leading edge and rounded training edge. Control was achieved using trailing edge elevons, operated together for elevator control, and in opposition for roll control, for which they were supplemented by small ailerons at the wing tips.
The S-2 flew well and was widely demonstrated across the US, both in air-shows and to both NASA and the US Army. The S-2 could be flown at up to 35 deg incidence without stalling.

It is worth commenting that the ability, shared by all these low aspect ratio aircraft, to take-off and land very slowly becomes of less consequence once they are constrained to operate from the hard surfaces of current runways. It is very easy to land at 30 mph directly into a head wind, but a significant crosswind on a narrow fixed runway could result in drift angles approaching 45 deg, leading either to a tricky landing on the runway, or perhaps a deliberate and slow off-piste landing elsewhere on the airfield.
The S-3 variant of the aircraft made one flight only before being destroyed by a fire, thought to be the result of arson. The S-4 was very similar to the S-2 and S-3, the main differences being a cleaner cockpit enclosure and the use of larger ailerons at the trailing edge of the outer wing, and a fin-mounted tailplane and elevator. The S-4 first flew in 1935, and remained in use until the Second World War.
Strong points: A practical aircraft, successfully developed and demonstrated over a number of years
Weak Points: Control system changes over time suggest that the ability to approach and land at low speed is a positive, but also that control power at low speed was an issue.

6. David Rowe UFO

The David Rowe UFO (Useless Flying Object) earns its place on this list as a modern example of a light aircraft with a circular wing. Like the previous examples, the UFO started life in model form and was then developed through a series of prototypes, with revisions to power, centre of gravity, undercarriage and controls. The exercise appears to have been driven more by a belief that it could be done, rather than by an ambition to produce a production design.

The first ‘full-size’ aircraft was the Rowe Wild Thing, which was registered in 1995, powered by a 28 hp Cuyuna snowmobile engine. With this engine, the Wild Thing proved to be under-powered, and the next development was the Rotax-powered UFO. This proved relatively successful, although a little tail heavy, leading to further design revisions to produce the UFO-3.
The UFO-3 used a different wing section, and featured a re-positioned cockpit and engine, resulting in an improved aircraft which was flown for 13 years, commencing in 2000. By any measure, this aircraft must be considered a success, although an attempt to create a two-seat version had to be abandoned when entry to the aircraft was found to be too difficult, perhaps reminding one unfairly of the reputed Boscombe down comment on the Blackburn Botha “Entry to this aircraft is extremely difficult – it should have been made impossible”.

The latest aircraft in the series is another single-seater with a tail-wheel manually retractable undercarriage. This aircraft can be seen flying in the attached video clip

The UFO earns its place in this list because of its original design, its evident enduring success, and the sense of fun involved in creating a one-man UFO for the entertainment of both the pilot and ground observers.
Strong points: What’s not to like. The UFO manages to be cute, fun and a successful design, all at the same time
Weak Points: OK, getting into it by crawling along under the wing is perhaps a little undignified; I’m guessing, but it seems likely that a sustained steep turn might involve a bit of height loss.

5. Astro V Dynafan

And now for something completely different, the Astro V Dynafan. One of the reasons for including the Dynafan in this list is because it uses a completely different approach to the generation of lift.
The Dynafan seeks to exploit the Coanda effect. What is the Coanda effect? Well, that august body of learning, Wikipedia, provides this definition:
The Coandă effect (/ˈkwɑːndə/ or) is the tendency of a fluid jet to stay attached to a convex surface. It is named after Romanian inventor Henri Coandă, who described it as “the tendency of a jet of fluid emerging from an orifice to follow an adjacent flat or curved surface and to entrain fluid from the surroundings so that a region of lower pressure develops.”
So, if you blow a jet of high velocity air across a convex surface, not only will the jet curve to follow the surface, but air will be entrained to flow over that surface as well, causing a region of low pressure to develop. In the Astro Kinetics Corporation’s Dynafan, a Chevrolet Corvair engine was used to drive a 2-bladed propeller which pushed air through a converging duct so that it passed over the aerofoil-profiled ring below the duct.

The circular jet not only generated lift from the aerofoil, but also entrained (sucked along with itself) more air, helping to generate additional lift. The whole device was radially symmetric, and was demonstrated in tethered flight in San Antonio on December 16, 1964, making 9 successful ‘flights’ in front of an audience of 200 people.

Great things were expected of the Dynafan, claimed by its manufacturers as easy to scale up, and cheap to build – a production 2-seat version could be available for the cost of a family car, and the demonstration model was said to be designed to fly for 150 miles, and be capable of 86 mph.

However, the real target of the Dynafan was the helicopter market, where its simplicity of design and construction were claimed to lead to drastically reduced production and operating costs compared to complex rotorcraft. Skycrane-type heavy lift operations were viewed as an ideal application, and the company’s press release claimed a 100ft diameter Dynafan would be capable of lifting a 250,000 lb payload.

Control of the Dynafan appears to have been achieved by varying power to the motor, and by the use of four small flaps to vary the width of the slot, at the front and rear to control pitch, and on either side for Roll. Torque was to be balanced, and yaw controlled, through the use of four small surfaces positioned in the jet flow.
It is unclear whether un-tethered flight was attempted or achieved by the Dynafan.
Strong points: A combination of the Coanda effect and an ejector-augmentor propulsion/lift system; demonstrated to be able to perform a tethered hover; very ambitious scale-up plans
Weak Points: To contrast the aphorism about aircraft that look good being good – ‘If it looks like a lash up maybe it won’t work’. The control system looks rudimentary, and it’s likely that the small ‘rudders’ on the outside of the lower ring would have been inadequate to control torque. The control system shows no signs of considering gyroscopic effects.

4. Couzinet RC-360 Aerodyne

The Couzinet RC-360 has been chosen for this list as it is, perhaps, the purest instance of man-made ‘flying saucer’; because it raises some interesting technical questions; and because it provides an opportunity to showcase one of the 30s prettiest airliners, the Couzinet ‘Arc en Ciel’ (Rainbow).
Photo Arc en Ciel
In January 1933, this elegant aircraft crossed the South Atlantic from Senegal to Natal, Brazil in 14 ½ hours, as part of a notable flight linking Paris and Buenos Aires. This flight led to a regular postal service across the South Atlantic commencing in 1934.
In 1955, Couzinet began a project to build a vertical take-off aircraft, the Aerodyne and registers a patent for it on May 25, 1955, number 1.129.038 and titled “Aerodyne with multiple wings”, patent which will be published in 1957, after his death. A non-flying 60% scale model of the Aerodyne is built and shown to the press.
Photos of the RC-360
The concept was a small radially symmetric craft, featuring a pair of contra rotating discs surrounding a stationary cockpit, each disc carrying 96 small wings on its circumference. The winged discs were enclosed in a fairing, and were to be powered by three pairs of Lycoming engines. In addition, a small turbojet was added to provide horizontal thrust.
In the end, the full-size Aerodyne was never completed and never flew. So why is it of interest? Well, apart from its fabulous appearance, the use of contra-rotating spinning discs poses interesting questions about control.
The spinning discs are proposed for a good reason. By having a pair of discs rotating in different directions, the torque required to drive the discs can be balanced out, providing the means of stopping rotation of the aircraft. The same approach is used in the Kamov series of helicopters to dispense with the need for a tail rotor.

How would controlled flight be achieved? In yaw, this would be easy, as small differences in power to the discs can be used. But control in pitch and roll is another question, due to a physical effect called gyroscopic precession. This is a fairly familiar phenomena which has the result that a force applied to a rotating object produces a response at 90 degrees to the applied force.

Suppose you wish to pitch a helicopter. What you do is apply cyclic controls so that the lift on one side of the disc is increased, and decreased on the other. Because of gyroscopic precession, the rotor will not roll, but will respond in pitch.
Now consider a force trying to pitch the Aerodyne. For example, because the centre of gravity is behind the centre of lift, the result for a non-spinning disk would be a nose up pitching moment. For one spinning disc, the actual outcome would be a rolling moment, but for two discs spinning in opposite directions, two rolling moments in opposite directions would be generated, resulting in no disturbance in pitch or roll.
Which is fine, but does raise the question of how the Aerodyne would be controlled?
A question which fortunately never arose, because it never flew.

Strong points: The purest and most futuristic looking flying saucer, somehow with a touch of French élan
Weak Points: Never built at full-scale and never flown. Unclear how a control system could have been successfully developed.

3. Vought V 173

The Vought V 173 arose as a result of US Navy interest in the ideas of Charles H. Zimmerman, who, possibly influenced by having witnessed demonstration flights of the Snyder ARUP aircraft, became interested in possible applications for “discoidal” aircraft i.e. aircraft which, like the ARUP, featured very low aspect ratio wings.One of the characteristics of this type of aircraft is its ability to fly at slow speeds, a characteristic which might prove useful for a carrier-based aircraft. Zimmerman conducted trials at NASA Langley (then the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory) in 1935 showing that low aspect ratio discoidal wings could generate maximum lift coefficients of 1.8 at about 40 degrees incidence.
In 1937, Zimmerman left Langley, having been employed by Vought Aircraft, a move which facilitated development of his ideas following the normal path of testing flying scale models. In turn, this led to interest from the US Navy, more wind tunnel testing, and the construction of a proof-of-concept aircraft, the Vought V 173. US Navy interest had been sparked by the events at Pearl Harbour, which had confirmed the importance of aircraft carriers to the US Navy, and suggested that a very compact and STOL fighter might allow operation from merchant vessels, and would also allow aircraft to be carried in greater numbers.

The V 173 was an extraordinary-looking aircraft. Not content with merely adopting a low aspect ratio wing like that of the ARUP, the V 173 also featured large diameter propellers positioned at the extreme wing tips, bathing the entire lifting surface in propwash, helping to ensure controllability down to very low flying speeds.

As a consequence of the low lift curve slope, the aircraft would need to fly at significant incidence when approaching to land, and accordingly, the V 173 featured an extraordinarily tall undercarriage, giving a resting ground angle of 22 degrees, which also provided ground clearance for the large 16 ft 6 in diameter propellers. To provide an adequate view, the pilot was located at the extreme front of the aircraft, and the underside of the nose of the aircraft was made transparent to facilitate the view ahead when landing.

Aircraft control was facilitated by twin fins and rudders placed in line with the propellers, tailplanes with control surfaces attached to the rear of the wing, and a pair of moveable control surfaces located at the trailing edge of the wing.

Testing of the aircraft was somewhat delayed because of vibration in the propulsion system – each of the propellers was driven through a long shaft and a gearbox transferring power from the engines. Eventually, however, the aircraft flew on 23 November 1942, with no major problems encountered, apart from high control forces. The aircraft demonstrated extremely short take-off and landing characteristics, with a typical take off run of 200 ft, and a landing after its first flight of 50 ft.
The aircraft completed its flight test programme through 1942 and ’43, eventually making its last flight at the end of March 1947. By this time, it had made 190 flights totalling 131.8 hours, and had caused a bit of a sensation amongst those who assumed they were seeing a bright yellow UFO over Connecticut.

Strong points: Outstanding appearance; Numerous flights; Amazing ground angle
Weak points: Heavy controls; low power; high drag; vibration problems in drive train

2. Vought XF5U-1

The Vought XF5U-1 makes second place on this list mainly because of the audacious leap of faith by the US Navy and Vought in going for such a radical scale up from the V 173 proof of concept aircraft, particularly when the concept demonstrator had done little, other than to demonstrate the slow landing capability of the configuration, and its marginal controllability.

But, hey, the US Navy was reaching out towards an aircraft it hoped would fly at 500 mph and land in a very small space. So, the Vought XF5U-1 was developed in the form of one structural test article and one flyable prototype. The main differences from the demonstrator aircraft were the weight (about 5 times heavier), and the installed power – two 1400 hp P&W R2000 radial engines as opposed to two 80 hp Continental engines. The airframe to be propelled by this 17.5 to 1 increase in power was similar in size to the lightweight wooden demonstrator, just 2 feet longer and with 4ft greater span.

The look of the prototype, dressed up in USN Blue, with its enormous, helicopter rotor-like flapping propellers, was aggressive and startling, with its low aspect ratio wing and 18 degree ground angle. Interestingly, the published three-view drawings indicate that the aircraft could not take-off or land with the fuselage horizontal – the propeller blades would have struck the ground.
What could go wrong? Well, in the end, the rapid advance of jet aircraft technologies and the end of the Second World War probably had as much to do with the demise of this high-risk, low payoff venture as anything else. By the end of the programme, in March 1947, jet engine aircraft were coming into US Navy service, and even had the aircraft flown successfully and delivered its projected performance, it would have been uncompetitive as a fighter.

It seems unlikely that the aircraft ever flew. Even though reference is made to short hops in the very poor Wikipedia article on the aircraft, this seems unlikely to have occurred. In the ground testing that was conducted, there appears to have been significant vibration issues with the propeller drive system. The use of propellers with flapping blades, and generally complex and immature shaft drive would represent significant risk areas for the project.

But the look is fabulous, and the ambition colossal, so I make no apologies for placing this bold but unsuccessful design at number two in my list.
This link, buried deep in the otherwise useless Wikipedia article, provides what appears to be a credible, detailed and realistic version of the V 173 and XF5U-1 story, including a first-hand account of the first flight of the V-173.

Strong points: Fearsome appearance; Ambitious and aspirational.
Weak Points: Where were the Risk team on this one? The demonstrator had shown poor performance, likelihood of vibration problems and possible control issues. So we’ll add flapping propeller blades for a bit more fun.

  1. Avro VZ-9-AV Avrocar

The Avro Avrocar comes in at number 1 on my list for three reasons. Firstly, the purity of the concept in the popular image of a flying saucer is perhaps only matched by the impractical and unsuccessful Couzinet CP-360. Secondly, the grand vision for the whole concept of producing a supersonic weapon system, designed to be stable at supersonic speed, and to manage the inevitable instability at subsonic speeds. And thirdly, the magnificent disconnect between the initial intentions and what was finally achieved.
The project started out with the ambitious objective of producing a VTOL fighter aircraft which could take off vertically, transition to forward flight, accelerate to supersonic speed, and transition back to a vertical landing. The project was developed within a Special Projects Group at Avro, and funded initially by the USAF. Early objectives included an ability to reach a speed of Mach 3.5 at 100,000 ft.

The design was to be powered by a novel propulsion system, and ground testing of this proved somewhat difficult and dangerous, raising questions about the viability of the design. Out of this uncertainty emerged the Avrocar as a small proof-of-concept demonstrator that could both establish the viability of the propulsion system and demonstrate that satisfactory stability and control could be attained. At the same time, the demonstrator could serve as a prototype to meet a US Army requirement for a ‘Flying Jeep’. While the requirements for this were quite modest (25 mile range with a 1000 lb payload, for example), the projected performance was far higher, with a 130 mile range projected with the same payload, and a maximum speed of 225 kt.
The key element of the Avrocar was its Turborotor engine, located at the centre of the radially symmetric craft. Three Continental J69 engines were arranged so that their exhausts drove a 124 blade turbo rotor – a turbine attached to the outside of a fan which pulled air through a central intake, distributing it downwards to provide lift, and radially to provide a control system. The control system involved using the Coanda effect to assist in redirecting the radial jet through the use of a circular ring-like surface immersed in the jet. An interesting aspect of the design was the exploitation of the gyroscopic forces generated by the large Turborotor to assist in stabilising the craft.

Naturally, in subsonic flight, the Avrocar was aerodynamically unstable because the centre of gravity, at the centre of the circular craft, was behind the centre of lift. However, the spinning Turborotor provided a degree of gyroscopic stabilisation, rather in the manner of a frisbee. However, a combination of the aerodynamic forces and gyroscopic precession resulted in a periodic oscillation in pitch and roll called ‘hubcapping’, which proved difficult to manage, and was never entirely resolved.
Two Avrocars were built, and flight trials revealed a series of problems. Apart from ‘hubcapping’, operation of the Avrocar at relatively low speeds, close to the ground, made it vulnerable to hot gas ingestion, which reduced thrust, and the control system did not have sufficient authority to control the unstable aircraft in horizontal flight.

In the end, this remarkable design could not be described as a success. Although a horizontal speed of 100 kt was eventually demonstrated, the Avrocar proved incapable of operation out of ground effect. Paradoxically, had a rubber skirt been added at an early stage, to contain the ground cushion generated by the Turborotor, Avro would have been in a good position to have invented the hovercraft, in parallel to the Saunders-Roe SRN-1, which also ‘flew’ for the first time in 1959

Strong Points: Radially symmetric flying saucer configuration; Novel propulsion system
Weak Points: Unstable, with unresolved control problems. Unable to achieve flight out of ground effect.

Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes from ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. He was also Britain’s technical liaison to the British Embassy in Washington, covering several projects including the Advanced Tactical Fighter contest. His latest book is available here.

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Whatever happened to the Westland WS-70 Blackhawk?

A long time ago Britain was marketing its own variant of the H-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Then, the project quietly disappeared. We asked Ron Smith, former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, to solve the mystery of the the WS-70.

The Westland affair arose from cashflow problems at Westland. The Thatcher government did not regard Westland a sufficiently strategic business to warrant the investment of public money to rescue it. This obviously drove the need for external investment. Was this to come from Europe (as supported by Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence), or from Sikorsky?

The proposition that Westland should produce the Blackhawk helped to make the Sikorsky investment seem more logical – particularly if Westland could sell in a range of markets that Sikorsky could not, or would not, seek to enter, (Westland had successfully tailored the Sea King to individual customer requirements and extensively developed the aircraft over time).

At the time, Blackhawk was a candidate for an RAF medium support helicopter requirement against AST404. It seems likely that the proposed deal with Sikorsky would have protected any Westland work, should Blackhawk be selected for AST404, which was seen to be the Operator’s preferred option at that time.

There was a perception that Sikorsky would primarily want to offer standard production aircraft on an FMS basis for any overseas sales. Westland-built aircraft would struggle to compete in price with FMS aircraft straight off the US production line because there would have been significant UK non-recurring costs, including learning and process approvals, to be amortised, had the programme gone ahead at any scale.

The success of the Westland Sea King over many years had made Sikorsky very chary about offering the same development rights to Westland on Blackhawk. Any restrictions in this area would reduce Westland’s scope for world-wide export sales. The sales and development rights offered to Westland on Blackhawk are reputed to have been more limited than had been agreed in respect of the Sea King.

It was announced in July 1988 (reported in 1990 Janes All the World’s Aircraft) that Saudi Arabia had signed a provisional agreement with the UK government for the purchase (among other equipment) of 88 Blackhawk helicopters to be supplied by Westland. In the event, this part of the proposed deal failed to come to fruition. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, the changes both in the political and military situations that resulted, meant that the contract for the WS-70 was not proceeded with.

Two aircraft were flown in the UK: ZG468 / G-17-70 was assembled by Westland from a kit manufactured by Sikorsky; and G-RRTM / N3124B, which was converted to be powered by the Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines. The fitting of RTM322 engines would probably have been beneficial in a hot, or hot and high, environment, but not otherwise (due to gearbox limits). (Certification of this change would also have increased cost).

The Westland demonstrator ended up in Bahrain as RBAF961. G-RRTM returned to the United States and was subsequently converted to S70C Firehawk N70C.

As part of the fall-out from the ‘Westland Affair’, a statement was made in the House of Commons on 9 April 1987 that 25 Utility EH101 would be purchased for the RAF. This was ultimately held to be a Governmental commitment (and therefore not subject to a procurement competition). The resultant Merlin purchase consumed all the funds that might otherwise have been used to buy a modernised medium support helicopter fleet. The same statement announced the decision of the UK to withdraw from the NH90 programme (and by implication also eliminated the Blackhawk as too small to meet UK needs).

Consequently, there was no money available for AST404, or Blackhawk, or NH90. In the longer term, the RAF Merlins were transferred to the Navy to support the Commando Force. Additional funds were subsequently found (under intense political pressure) to expand the Chinook force and to modernise the Puma fleet.

The NH90 programme (now reduced to France, Germany, Italy & Netherlands) has progressed to full production and has been notably successful in attracting sales outside the partner nations. Over time, NH90 (although very slow to come to fruition) has penetrated a number of the markets which Westland might otherwise have targeted with the WS-70.

Extract from statement made in the Commons 9 April 1987 (from Hansard):

HC (09/04/1987) Volume 114, columns 471, 472

Secretary of State for Defence George Younger statement on helicopter orders

Until 1985, it was envisaged that both RAF Puma and Wessex support helicopters would be replaced one-for-one by a helicopter of similar size.

That approach, however, came increasingly into question as a result of trials conducted by 6 Airmobile Brigade that suggested a requirement for an increased number of larger helicopters. A comprehensive review of the requirement for support helicopters in all roles well into the next century was therefore set in hand.

That work showed the need for additional large helicopters in the central region, capable of lifting a platoon—that is, about 30 men and their equipment—or a substantial logistic load. Those large helicopters, together with some Lynx battlefield helicopters, would enable the Army to provide an airmobile capability and thereby enhance our defence contribution in Germany.

The choice for the large helicopter lies between additional Chinooks, which are already in service in Germany, and the introduction of a utility version of the Anglo-Italian EH101 helicopter, which is due to enter service in the naval version in the early 1990s. The Government have decided that the right choice is to introduce the utility EH101 to meet that requirement. The choice will build on the investment that we have already made in the naval version and reflects our policy on European helicopter collaboration.

We have at the same time reviewed the case for continued British participation in the NH90 collaborative helicopter project beyond the study phase that was recently completed. NH90 is a smaller helicopter than EH101 and will be available later. With the decision that we have now reached on the future composition of our support helicopter force, we no longer have an early requirement for a helicopter in the NH90 class, nor is there the money to fund both participation in the NH90 definition and development programme — which is due to begin soon — and an early purchase of other helicopters. We are therefore informing our partners that we do not intend to proceed to the next stage of the NH90 project.

In reaching a decision on the choice between alternative support helicopters, and particularly on the timing of orders, I have had much in mind the workload at Westland Helicopters, until work builds up on the naval version of the EH101. Subject to satisfactory resolution of the contractual and other issues with the companies concerned and our Italian partners, we intend to place an order for an initial batch of 25 utility EH101s for delivery in the early 1990s.

I also intend—subject to satisfactory contractual negotiations—to order a further 16 Lynx helicopters for the support of airmobile operations. The cost of the orders—which have a total value well in excess of £300 million — will be contained within the overall public expenditure planning totals. They are in addition to an order already announced for a further seven Sea King helicopters for the Royal Navy, which I hope to place soon, following the completion of contractual negotiations.

We asked a former RC-135 pilot to choose the Top 10 ‘Spy-Planes’ (though don’t call them that!)

When we asked former Blackbird, B-57 and U-2 pilot BC Thomas for his thoughts on the Top 10 spy planes he wasn’t comfortable with the term, noting “The SR-71 was a Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft, not a ‘spy plane.’  The practice of calling the SR-71 a ‘spy plane’ is so prevalent that I have stopped trying to correct the error, and it is no longer important since the SR-71 is no longer flying, although the U-2 pilots have cause to resent their being called ‘spy pilots.’  We have resented that moniker because of the formal, international consequences of being captured as a spy, as opposed to a military man flying a marked military aircraft, while wearing a military uniform with name and rank displayed, and carrying a military identification card which is also a Geneva Convention Identification card.  Our status as a military pilot on a military mission was supposed to carry with it certain prerogatives which other countries were “constrained” to recognise, but whether they did or not was another question.  Routinely, spies are summarily executed; military men captured, are supposed to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.“.

With this cautious note in mind, we hand you over to former RC-135 pilot Robert S Hopkins III:

Compiling a Top 10 list on any subject is fraught with the risk of being ostracised for omitting some obscure subject or slighting someone’s Number One. The benefits, however, outweigh the opprobrium, as these lists tend to foster (spirited) discussion. ‘Spyplanes’ are no different.

The first challenge is defining ‘spyplanes’. Thaddeus Lowe’s US Civil War balloon and observer would certainly qualify, as would a First World War biplane with a chap standing up in the back seat holding a camera. Spitfires and Mustangs equipped with cameras count for reconnaissance, but not necessarily ‘spyplanes.’ To this end, I’ve elected to use the following criteria to compile this list (in no particular order):

Manned aircraft. I’m not ready to deal with drones. Besides, there’s always the dismal MOBY DICK balloon debacle to muddy the waters. I’m also not willing to include satellites, the X-37B, or programs like Dyna Soar and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL).

Project 119L was a Cold War reconnaissance operation  in which large balloons floated cameras over the Soviet Union. Project Moby Dick used much smaller balloons launched from what was called a “Covered Wagon”.

Peacetime operations. During wartime you can make anything into a reconnaissance platform. Just too many options, especially the esoteric one-offs.

Collects intelligence related to national security. There, I said it—strategic. Putting a camera in a Viggen to take pictures of Soviet boats in the Baltic may update an Order of Battle but doesn’t necessarily influence Swedish national security decisions. (Yeah, I know, exceptions).

Motiv: Flygplan SF 37 Viggen märkt nummer 02 från F 13 Bråvalla flygflottilj i luften. Ur Flygvapenmuseums bildarkiv.

Length of service and variety of use. Ranking the very top of the list requires some kind of discriminator, and this is as good as any. No flash-in-the-pan, one-trick ponies here.

Impact. A wild card that recognizes the long-term effect a spyplane has on the intelligence community, diplomacy, national security, and even popular culture.
And now, Dear Reader, for your consideration, The List.
Caveat lector.

10. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25R Foxbat

Converted from the MiG-25 high-altitude, high-speed interceptor, the recon Foxbat carried cameras and electronic sensors in Soviet service, as well as a handful of export versions. The Foxbat earns the clean-up spot on the list because of its impact as an intelligence collector on the international stage. The March 1971 deployment of Soviet MiG-25s and pilots to Egypt and their unopposed overflights of Israel were a shock to the West. Although their contributions to Egyptian security and intel were minimal, their impact on Israeli security was profound. Even with only two Mach 2.5 overflights a month, the inability of Israeli F-4s and Mirage IIIs to intercept and destroy the Foxbats raised serious questions in Tel Aviv and in Washington about the ability of Western aircraft to engage what was considered—in this pre-Belenko time—the most dangerous Soviet aircraft yet. The MiG-25R photo intelligence (PHOTINT) overflights were significant escalations in the so-called War of Attrition, which led to the 1973 October War and the brief superpower diplomatic confrontation over possible unilateral Soviet intervention on behalf of the encircled Egyptian Third Army. For the first time thanks to the Foxbat, Western military leaders had to take Soviet aerial reconnaissance seriously.
Did I mention the MiG-25RR sample collectors that monitored Chinese nuclear tests? Now that’s cool.

Our interview with a MiG-25R pilot here

Credit: In photo

9. Biz jets

“For decades, few nations could afford the sufficiently large and equally expensive platforms needed to conduct routine communications and electronic intelligence (COMINT and ELINT) collection. That changed with the availability of smaller sensors and on-board analyzers as well as the reduced need for multiple operators, resulting in the procurement and conversion of SIGINT variants of large business jets or regional airliners such as Sweden’s Gulfstream IV and Israel’s G550 Nahshons, and Britain’s Bombardier Global Express Sentinel R1s. Even the United States, with its putatively bottomless budgets, is exploring the use of biz jets to replace its ageing fleet of RIVET JOINTs. After decades of just RC-135s, EP-3s, and C-130-IIs in American service, Nimrod R.1s in RAF colors, and the occasional French DC-8 and Soviet/Russian Coot, at last nations such as South Korea, Argentina, India*, Brazil, and Mexico can afford a ‘poor man’s Rivet Joint.’

Yes, I know India has one ‘RC-707’ (permanently) parked on the ramp, which is why they want to replace it with a biz jet. Iran has one too (anyone seen it flying recently?). And the lone Saudi RE-3. My point remains: only nations with deep pockets can afford to buy and sustain regular peacetime SIGINT operations with these dinosaurs. Biz jets change that equation entirely.”

Credit: In photo

8. Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter 

“If you believe that Boeing’s B-29 bomber converted into an airliner modified into a tanker was just another airplane dripping oil on the ramp, think again. A handful of the venerable C-97s was configured with ultra-discreet intelligence systems and operated for years in plain sight. That was precisely what the US Air Force intended.
Beginning in the early 1950s, a little-known Texas organization installed a 20 ft focal length BIG BERTHA camera in a C-97. Through the clever use of mirrors and masterful camouflage of the aircraft’s exterior, the PIE FACE C-97 was indistinguishable internally and externally from any other trash hauler. Based at Rhein-Main AB in West Germany, PIE FACE quickly began taking superior-quality images of Soviet and East German forces along the border. Although restricted to flying no higher than 10,000 ft, it routinely flew into Berlin along the three air corridors from the West, earning the squadron the nickname “Berlin for Lunch Bunch.” Despite its unassuming appearance, the Soviets were keenly aware of its clandestine role. In a chance meeting between pilots after the Cold War ended, a Soviet pilot asked a C-97 pilot, “Which were you, pictures or beeps?” The same company modified other C-97s to collect PHOTINT and ELINT from the Baltic to Africa to Southeast Asia. One variant even collected Cuban television and radio broadcasts. The Cloudmaster C-97 was envisaged with huge wings and jet engines, designed to operate at altitudes above 60,000 ft but never made it off the drawing board. The C-97’s operational life as a spyplane lasted nearly 25 years, with the final example retiring in 1975.
What about that little-known Texas organization? BIG SAFARI would become the world’s largest and most successful converter of aircraft into spyplanes, a legacy which it continues today. That alone merits the C-97’s inclusion on the list as the patriarch of the many BIG SAFARI spyplane descendants.”

Credit: Ralf Manteufel

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7. Lockheed EP-3

“The US Navy pegs its first spot with the spooky version of its antisubmarine warfare P-3. In 1963 the CIA wanted a replacement for its RB-69s (converted P2V Neptunes) used in covert reconnaissance and insertion operations in Europe and China. By 1964 three P-3s were configured for ELINT and COMINT. Two years later they were transferred to Taiwan’s secret Black Bat squadron. Reportedly equipped with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for self defense, they flew peripheral SIGINT missions off the coast of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Eventually these were returned to the US Navy and by the late 1960s became part of the small EP-3 fleet that operated in conjunction with EA-3s and EC-121s. These missions, which continue today, largely focus on maritime operations and peripheral sorties along coastal areas of interest to the US Navy. Arguably the most famous EP-3 is the one struck by a cowboy PRC Shenyang J-8 pilot while on a peripheral sortie in April 2001 and made a forced landing on Hainan Island. The aircraft and its contents were exploited by the Chinese, but the crew and airplane were all repatriated. The EP-3 has become the mainstay of US Navy long-range peacetime intelligence collection effort.”

Credit: US Navy

6. Douglas EA-3 Skywarrior

An EA-3B Skywarrior on a catapult during flight operations aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70).

“As the US Navy sought to increase its role in delivering nuclear strikes from carriers during the budget battles of the 1950s, the Douglas A3D emerged as a twin-engine “heavy” bomber. Known variously as “the Whale” and “All Three Dead” (it lacked ejection seats), this relatively capacious airplane was soon carrying out ELINT missions. This proved especially valuable as some of the most precious Soviet naval ELINT was obtainable only during short periods of intense blue-water operations that could not be covered by land-based aircraft. Launching an EA-3 (and RA-3 variants) from a nearby carrier group often bagged the latest data on new shipboard missiles and radar that had cognate systems on the ground such as the SA-N-1 Goa, the same as the land-based SA-3. Several EA-3 aircraft were also collected telemetry intelligence (TELINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) associated with Soviet ballistic missile tests. Operations included missions from Shemya AFB, AK (original home of the COBRA BALL) and British bases in the Indian Ocean. By the time VQ-2 retired its last EA-3 in 1991, it had accumulated more than three decades of maritime intelligence and peripheral ELINT collection.”

Our interview with a Skywarrior pilot here.

Credit: US Navy

5. Boeing RB-47 Stratojet 

“Along with the B-36, Boeing’s B-47 acquired a reputation for never having fired a shot or dropped a bomb in anger. While this may have been true of the B-47 bomber, it did not apply to the reconnaissance versions of the Stratojet. When the US Air Force and Strategic Air Command (SAC) realized that piston-powered RB-50s and RB-36s were vulnerable to Soviet MiG-15s, they pinned their hopes on the speedy, high-flying B-47. Its first overflight of the USSR was a B-47B PHOTINT mission above the Chukotskii Peninsula in October 1952, attracting considerable attention from MiGs. Another overflight followed with the April 1954 RB-47E PHOTINT mission over Murmansk, where it was chased by dozens of MiG-15s and MiG-17s before safely recovering in the UK. The RB-47’s most significant overflight of the USSR was the HOME RUN series in early 1956. Flown from Thule AB in Greenland, 20 PHOTINT-configured RB-47Es, SLAR-equipped RB-47Es, and ELINT-configured RB-47Hs conducted 156 deep overflights of the USSR. Amazingly, none were shot down.
Sadly, three RB-47s were lost to hostile fire. In April 1955 the Soviets shot down the ROMAN I RB-47B off Kamchatka as it flew in international airspace, killing the crew of three. On 1st July 1960, exactly two months after the Soviets used an SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) to shoot down CIA pilot Frank Powers and his U-2, a MiG-19 pilot shot down an RB-47H in international airspace near the Kola Peninsula. Four crew were lost, and the two survivors eventually repatriated. In April 1965, North Korean MiG-17s attacked an RB-47H in international airspace. The crew was able to land safely in Japan but the airplane was scrapped. Copilot Captain Hank Dubuy returned fire and shot down one of the MiGs, the first jet bomber to claim a fighter kill.
In addition to the RB-47 ELINT missions, three EB-47E(TT)s flew TELINT missions from Turkey and Alaska to collect data on the Soviet ballistic missile program, leading to the development of the RC-135S COBRA BALL. Moreover, three ERB-47Hs flew specialized ELINT missions as the precursor to the RC-135U COMBAT SENT.
Between 1956 and 1967, RB-47s flew thousands of daily, routine missions from bases in the US, England, Japan, and Turkey that established and validated the routes and procedures that SAC and its successor Air Combat Command would use to the present day. It was truly the pioneer of Cold War peacetime aerial reconnaissance.”

Our interview with a RC-135 pilot here

Credit: US Air Force

4. Canberra/B-57

The RB-57D seen here, was a twin-engined underpowered aircraft with delicate wings (one fell off while taxiing one time), and limited altitude with a light payload. However, the RB-57F was four-engined (two TF-33s and two J-60s) aircraft which could reach 70,000 feet while carrying 10,000 lbs of equipment.  NASA still flies three of them, but without the J-60 engines.

“If there is a grandfather of modern high-altitude, jet-powered reconnaissance airplanes, it would be the English Electric Canberra. When the U-2 first overflew Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1956, the Soviets misidentified it as a Canberra, attesting to its reputation as a high flyer. The PR.3 was reportedly the first purpose-built photo reconnaissance airplane for the RAF, entering service in 1952. By the following year it was flying ELINT missions from West Germany over the Baltic, as well as sorties over the Black and Caspian Seas and from Iraq. No, a Canberra did not overfly Kapustin Yar in 1953.
License-built by Martin in the United States as the RB-57A, a handful of these conducted high-altitude overflights of the USSR, PRC, and North Korea under programs like HEART THROB and SHORT CUT. Three heavily modified RB-57Ds conducted SAC’s last overflight of the USSR in December 1956. Other missions included Baltic sorties and flights from Turkey. Taiwan operated RB-57Ds on overflights of China. The loss of one of these in October 1959 is believed to be the first airplane shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a lesson not fully appreciated until six months later over the USSR. Further modified into the RB-57F, the “big wing Canberra” collected ELINT and PHOTINT as well as particle sampling to detect atmospheric nuclear tests. Sweden and Pakistan were among the countries that used the Canberra or RB-57 to conduct peacetime ELINT and PHOTINT missions. The PEE WEE RB-57Fs in Pakistan also monitored Soviet ICBM tests in evaluation sorties on behalf of the US. “

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“Although RB-36 peripheral recon sorties could operate as high as 50,000 ft, its slow speed and large size made it an appealing visual and radar target. The Canberra met the need to go faster and higher to fulfill peacetime intelligence collection by pushing the 60,000 ft mark, later eclipsed by the U-2 at 70,000 ft and finally the SR-71 at 80,000 ft. The Canberra’s spyplane legacy, however, goes beyond its airframe. Many of its pilots went on to fly the U-2, including RAF pilots seconded to the CIA.”

Credit: US Air Force

3. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

““What did the Blackbird offer that satellites could not?”  According to BC Thomas, “Our advantage, owing to stealth, speed, altitude, sensor operation, and defensive systems would let us be over any spot on earth at any given date and time without too much worry about being shot down.  And the pictures were good.  How can you get any better a reconnaissance aircraft than that?”

How could this not be the Number One Spyplane of All Time? It’s so cool! I grew up at Beale AFB, CA, where this was stationed. My family was closely connected with the Habu community: Jerry O’Malley flew B-47s with my father, Jamie Kraus was my best friend, and our house was filled with swag like pachinko machines and Honda 70 minibikes brought back from Okinawa in the supporting KC-135Qs. Did I mention it was cool?
Lockheed’s SR-71 was—and remains—the ultimate aircraft used as a spyplane. Mach 3+ at 80,000 ft, exotic fuel, Dave Clark space suits (the same as the U-2 and RB-57 drivers wore), black, enigmatic, small fleet, and sure to please crowds and aviation enthusiasts everywhere surely have to count for something.
Both the CIA’s A-12 and SAC’s SR-71 first saw operational service over North Vietnam on PHOTINT missions. Its height and speed made it the ideal replacement for the U-2 on overflights of hostile territory. By the time they entered service in the 1960s, however, peacetime US overflights of everywhere but China were prohibited.

BC Thomas disagrees with this, “The declaration that the SR-71 did not overfly any country except China is wrong on two counts.  We did not overfly China or the Soviet Union at all, but we did overfly other countries.

We routinely overflew Cuba* except for most of President Carter’s administration.  We also overflew territory claimed by North Korea, the Middle East, and Central American countries like El Salvador when Communist insurgencies were operating.  We did not overfly China or the Soviet Union, but we penetrated inside the National boundary which each claimed.  They claimed 100 nm, we flew within 12.5 nm (the international norm is 12 nm).”

*see below

The D-21 was an unmanned derivative of the A-12 and flew a few failed missions over China. After President Richard Nixon ended Taiwanese/CIA U-2 overflights of China in 1971 to improve relations, the need for peacetime overflights was at an end (Cuba was an exception until President Jimmy Carter put a moratorium on them). Consequently, other less-expensive platforms could and did undertake peripheral intelligence missions, and the SR-71 was suddenly an outstanding capability in search of a mission.

Once the war in Southeast Asia ended, the Habu found work in the timely collection of high-value intelligence, often in conjunction with other platforms. SR-71 RSO Tom Veltri joked that after a coordinated sortie with an RC-135 over the Barents Sea, he and pilot Duane Knoll were back at RAF Mildenhall, played 18 holes of golf, and were already the center of attention at The Bird in Hand pub before the RC-135 even landed. This made it ideal for missions like the 1973 butt-busters flown from the US to the Middle East (the first of these was flown by Jim Shelton, my next-door neighbor). The addition of an ELINT capability added to the Habu’s repertoire, but it was still constrained by the need to return from a sortie, download the collection, and then get it analyzed. The Habu’s flying speed no longer translated into the ability to get results faster in front of decision makers. Plans to incorporate a downlink to accelerate this process ran afoul of budgetary considerations.
By the late 1980s, SAC was caught in a monetary bind: plenty of money for new strategic programs like the B-2 but asked to cut corners to help pay for them. The US Navy loved the SR-71 for its ability to monitor the Soviet Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula, but wasn’t enthusiastic about footing the bill. With satellites increasingly able to meet US intelligence requirements, the two unique things which the Habu offered the intel community—its speed and height—were no longer worth the cost. Far more than just a budget battle, the SR-71 was a capability whose time had passed.

Our interview with a SR-71 pilot here

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Credit: Paul Crickmore

2. Boeing RC-135

“For years, a huge black-and-white picture of an RC-135U hung on my bedroom wall (no, I didn’t have THE Farah poster). Now living at Offutt AFB, NE, home base of the majority of the RC-135 fleet, I saw these jets every day while volunteering at the SAC Museum at the end of the closed runway. I had an inkling of what they did, and my early exposure to British aviation magazines led me to appreciate the mystique they possessed when visiting RAF Mildenhall in England.

‘That’ Farah poster not owned by Robert

Fast forward a dozen years, and I arrived at Eielson AFB, AK, as a copilot newly assigned to fly the RC-135S COBRA BALL. Three years later, I was back at Offutt AFB as an RC-135 aircraft commander flying the RC-135V/W RIVET JOINT and RC-135U COMBAT SENT. But it wasn’t until I wrote a book about the KC-135 and its variants that I fully understood the history and significance of the RC-135 fleet.
For 15 years SAC’s reconnaissance fleet was dedicated to PHOTINT and ELINT which had direct applicability to the success of its nuclear war plan and to the defense of the US from a Soviet nuclear attack. COMINT was not a high priority, and was undertaken on behalf of the US National Security Agency (NSA) largely by C-130s filled with linguists flying along the periphery of the Communist Bloc. The loss of one of these in 1958 emphasized the need for additional platforms, preferably a long-range, high-altitude jet capable of carrying a sizeable number of linguists and their gear. An excess of transport C-135s proved to be the ideal solution, and the RC-135 lineage was born in 1962 with the OFFICE BOY KC-135A-IIs.

Over ensuing decades, other variants rolled out of BIG SAFARI and other programs. The next version to see service that same year was the RC-135S RIVET BALL (later COBRA BALL), designed to replace the EB-47E(TT) which lacked any optical collection capability. The Manual Tracker sat with his head in a plexiglass bubble atop the fuselage and tracked incoming re-entry vehicles with the many sensors on board. By 1965, Boeing delivered 10 new RC-135Bs to replace some 35 E/RB-47Hs used to collect ELINT, but these were not delivered until 1967 as BIG TEAM RC-135Cs. Other variants were dedicated to monitoring atmospheric nuclear tests using both sensors and air filters. Indeed, a small fleet of WC-135s flew daily missions around the world collecting not only weather data while secretly acquiring air samples that revealed the presence and sophistication of foreign nuclear tests. Budget and turf battles between SAC and NSA led to the integration of the OFFICE BOY and RC-135M COMBAT APPLE COMINT missions with the BIG TEAM ELINT mission, resulting in the 1974 RIVET JOINT common platform.

Recounting the thousands of daily RC-135 missions around the globe and their significance would glaze the eyes of even the most devoted fan. Suffice to say that nearly 60 years after the first RC-135 reconnaissance sortie, the fleet is still flying while simultaneously undertaking tactical missions in support of theater combat operations begun in 1991 with Operation DESERT STORM. The RC-135 may not have the global reputation as a Cold War rock star like the SR-71, but it has quietly conducted missions essential to US national security.
And no, those “cheeks” don’t contain side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), nor do they contain (as one air show visitor told me with absolute certainty) nuclear missiles with which to start World War Three. Did I mention that the RAF decided to replace its ageing Nimrod R.1s with three ageing RC-135Ws? Go figure.”

Credit: US Air Force

  1. Lockheed U-2 ‘Dragon Lady’

“Unless you were an #AvGeek or devoted reader of Aviation Week in the 1950s, no one had heard of the U-2 until May 1960, when Frank Powers and the CIA exploded onto the front page of newspapers around the world. The U-2 Incident has spawned books, TV documentaries and a dramatic series (Call to Glory), a Tom Hanks movie, and is a central feature in Cold War history books after it scuttled the Paris Four-Power Summit in 1960 (Khrushchev had already decided to do this, but used the U-2 as justification). Since then the Dragon Lady has largely returned to the shadows while continuing its peacetime collection duties.
The U-2 earns megapoints for its longevity. The first overflight of the USSR took place on 4th July 1956 with Hervey Stockman at the controls. It remains in service today, along with an elite cohort of airplanes designed by slide rule that are still flying: Boeing’s B-52 and KC-135, Lockheed’s C-130, and Northrop’s T-38. The U-2 is more than a high-altitude flying camera. It carries a variety of sensors that can be uploaded as needed, including ELINT and COMINT. SAC first used the U-2 for both peripheral PHOTINT sorties as well as the CROW FLIGHT High Altitude Sampling Program (HASP) nuclear detection mission. Surprisingly, its OLIVE HARVEST PHOTINT collection is shared with Israel, Egypt, and Syria as part of the cease-fire agreement for the 1973 Arab-Israeli war (not sure how it works today with Syria, though). The U-2 has a distinctive panache, including a reputation as the most-difficult airplane to fly (and especially land).
Apart from its longevity, the U-2 is arguably the most significant spyplane in terms of its impact. Images from overflights of the USSR debunked the Missile Gap, and missions over the Middle East in 1956 forewarned the US of the impending Suez Crisis and reassured President Dwight Eisenhower that the Soviets were not moving troops to Syria in response to the Franco-British/Israeli invasion. A SAC U-2 took the photographs which showed President John Kennedy the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba during the 1962 Crisis, and the loss of U-2 and pilot Rudolf Anderson from a Cuban SA-2 SAM nudged global nuclear tensions closer to the breaking point. China shot down four Taiwanese U-2s in their ongoing argument over independence.
Despite this high visibility, the U-2 continues discreet peripheral peacetime intelligence missions in places like the border between North and South Korea and along the coast of civil-war-torn Syria. If there is an icon of Cold War spyplanes, Kelly Johnson’s U-2 is surely that jet.”

Credit: Bob Archer

Which ones did I miss, overlook, or ignore? 

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