Light Fighters – Are they worth the effort?

The MiG-31 interceptor, fully loaded, weighs the same as four double-decker London buses, whereas the svelte KAI FA-50 Golden Eagle is four times lighter than the MiG and far cheaper to operate. Modern light fighters, like the Gripen, boast of being credible deterrents to far heavier opponents – but are light fighters as good as their word, and are they worth the effort?Jim Smith investigates.

Throughout the development and application of aircraft to air combat, there have been proponents of both ‘Heavy’ and ‘Light’ fighters. In thinking about why this interest has been sustained, I realised that the close linkage between air combat and aerospace technologies has varied substantially over time, as new technologies have enabled new approaches to air combat, and challenged existing doctrine and policy.

So, we’ll start by considering the different ‘ages’ of air combat, and how the technologies available, and the capabilities they enable, have changed the attributes required of fighter aircraft, and how this has influenced design choices. In looking at the technology aspects, we will find that armament, propulsion, and sensors have perhaps been as significant as aerodynamics in fighter aircraft design, and, at times, more so. For each of the identified ages of air combat, I’ll identify some representative ‘Lighter’ and ‘Heavier’ fighters.

This review will bring out the differing circumstances in which ‘Light’ fighters have been favoured, and allow me to consider what aspects might favour the ‘Lighter’ fighter, and what the trade-offs might be against ‘Heavier’ fighter aircraft. Finally, we’ll speculate about the future, and consider whether ‘Light’ fighters are of continuing relevance, and if so, what their future roles might be.

This article has been prompted by a fascinating input from examining a series of light fighter concepts developed by US Aerospace Engineer Bud Nelson for first Boeing, and later Northrop. My intention is to use this piece to set out the landscape over the relevant period, to aid in understanding those concepts, which I look at separately here.

Before launching into this, a word to the reader. The review of air combat, and the place of the light fighter that follows is an overview. It is not a comprehensive all-encompassing study – were one to attempt that the result would be a book, not a Hush_Kit article. I have also excluded carrier-based fighters, partly because I am trying to keep this reasonably short, but also because carrier aviation tends to favour heavier aircraft, in pursuit of operational flexibility and reach. And I know there are exceptions to this (Escort-carrier-based aircraft, and the Grumman F-11F, for example).

Air Combat – Beginnings. First World War to the mid 1930s

This period began with aviation in its infancy, and ends with the last of the biplane fighters.

The challenges facing designers at the start of this period were propulsion, performance, armament and robustness, and these problems were gradually resolved through technology developments. To succeed in air combat, it was necessary to bring armament to bear on the opponent, preferably in a tactically favourable situation to achieve a rapid and successful outcome. However, it was inevitable that, at times, fighter pilots would find themselves in situations where there was no tactical advantage, in which case, manoeuvring air combat would be required, coupled with the ability to disengage by diving at high speed without hazarding the aircraft.

The Hush-Kit aviation podcast here

Key requirements were a powerful, reliable engine; high speed; a rapid climb rate; excellent turning performance; good armament; and a strong airframe. These requirements shaped the fighter aircraft of the day. Initially, the engines were largely rotary, offering light weight but relatively low power. Armament was a problem. Before the invention of interrupter gear, twin-boom pusher aircraft had a period of success, but once the problem of firing forward through the propellor had been solved, most fighters adopted a biplane configuration with a tractor propellor. Wire-braced monoplanes and triplanes were also used, the former offering higher speed for a given engine power, but perhaps with lower strength, and the latter great agility and climb performance.

Nieuport 24 from The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes.

As engines became more powerful and reliable, rotary engines were largely replaced with compact and powerful in-line, V-8 or radial engines, most being water-cooled. Over time, increases in power enabled increases in speed and operating altitude, as well as greater endurance. The lighter aircraft emphasised manoeuvrability, and the heavier aircraft speed, altitude performance and armament. Consequently, different tactics began to be employed, exploiting the different characteristics of the aircraft.

  • Light Fighters: Sopwith Tabloid, Fokker Eindekker, Nieuport 10. Later examples: Sopwith Camel, Nieuport 17, Fokker Triplane
  • Heavy Fighters: RAF SE 5a, Bristol F2B, SPAD XIII, Fokker D VII

Air Combat – The Piston Engine Supreme. Mid 1930s to the end of World War 2

In this period, the introduction of stressed-skin monocoque construction transformed the shape and potential performance of fighter aircraft. Combined with dramatic advances in engine power, the speed, altitude performance, armament, range and versatility of both fighter and bomber aircraft were transformed.

The fundamental requirements remained much the same as in the First World War. To succeed in air combat, it was necessary to bring armament to bear on the opponent, preferably in a tactically favourable situation to achieve a rapid and successful outcome. One difference from WW 1 was that ground-based radar installations and control systems could provide better awareness of the location and strength of airborne attack, aiding pilots in achieving a good tactical position at the start of combat.

Given the numbers of aircraft involved, it was still inevitable that, at times, fighter pilots would find themselves in situations where they were at a disadvantage. Cooperative tactics, coupled with high speed and evasive manoeuvring were required in these circumstances. Other advances, such as improved gunsights, heavy armament, and some armour protection were useful.

Key requirements remained a powerful, reliable engine; high speed; a rapid climb rate; excellent turning performance; good armament; and a strong airframe. To these might be added high octane fuels to enhance engine performance, one of the important technologies pursued by the combatants, whose engine development strategies had a key influence on fighter development.

In the UK, it was necessary to disperse production under the threat of Luftwaffe bombing, and, as a result, a limited number of fighters were used, principally the Hurricane, Spitfire, Typhoon and Tempest. The Spitfire was developed incrementally, more than doubling in both weight and power over the duration of the conflict, and effectively being transformed from a ‘Light’ fighter to at least a significantly heavier one.

Jeffrey Quill, speaking in 1976 at the RAeS Mitchell Memorial Symposium, noted that the Spitfire Mk I had a normal operating weight of 5820 lb, a maximum power of 1050 hp and maximum level speed of 362 mph. The final operational variant, the Seafire 47 had a max. overload weight of 12,500 lb, 2350 hp powerplant, and max. level speed of 452 mph. From a weight perspective, the Seafire 47 delivered its performance at a weight equivalent to a Mk I carrying 32 passengers (with baggage).

The Typhoon was developed into the Tempest and both aircraft represented a discontinuous increase in weight, power and performance over the Hurricane. The Mosquito and Beaufighter exploited their size to be successful heavily armed multi-role aircraft. These developments were very dependent on engine technologies, notably multi-stage supercharging, and the use of advanced material solutions to allow sustained high-power operation.

German developments followed a similar initial pattern, with incremental development of the Bf 109, and a jump in capability to the Fw 190 and incremental developments of that aircraft, with the Dornier 335 Pfeil being perhaps their ultimate piston-engine fighter, albeit too late to enter service. German engine developments gained advantages through direct fuel injection and clever internal design, but were handicapped by the inability to access some materials, and limited supply of high octane fuel.

The US developed, with the British Merlin engine, the excellent Mustang as a long-range escort fighter, but, aided (or perhaps compelled) by their development of the turbo-supercharger, embraced the ‘Heavy’ fighter, with the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt being the obvious examples. The US also made extensive use of large and complex radial engines, which were a feature of their bomber aircraft, and many of their Naval aircraft.

During this period, the development of Airborne Intercept (AI) radar enabled the development of effective night fighters, leading to a new class of radar-equipped heavy fighter, generally twin-engined and with multiple crew, due to the size and weight of early AI radars.

  • Light fighters: Early Spitfire Marks; Messerschmitt 109; Yak 3; Curtiss P-40
  • Heavy fighters: Late Mark Spitfires; Hawker Typhoon and Tempest; Focke-Wulf FW 190D; Dornier Pfeil; P-38 Lightning; P-51 Mustang; P-47 Thunderbolt
  • Night Fighters: Bristol Beaufighter; De Havilland Mosquito; Junkers Ju 88; Heinkel 219 Uhu; Northrop P-61 Black Widow

Air Combat – The Early Jets – 1944 to the mid-1950s

Towards the end of World War 2, notwithstanding a deteriorating military situation, and shortages of critical materials, German aerodynamic and propulsion research developments, led to another discontinuous jump in capability, with the Me 163 and V2 exploiting rocket propulsion, and the Me 262 emerging as a capable jet fighter. Parallel jet engine research in development led, in the UK, to the Gloster Meteor twin-engine jet fighter, which saw limited service in the closing months of the war.

In an interesting parallel to the early aircraft of WW1, early jet aircraft development was critically dependent on the performance and operational life of their engines. The relatively low thrust of early jet engines resulted in the twin-engine configuration of the Messerschmitt 262, but this was perceived to be an expensive and difficult to produce aircraft.

Competition for a lighter, simpler, single-engine fighter led to the development of the Heinkel 162 Volksjäger. This aircraft was developed in just 90 days, and used wood in the construction of the wings, fins and some other components. As a result, surprisingly large numbers were built in the short time between its first flight on 6 December 1944, and the end of the war in May 1945.

Following the Second World War, aircraft manufacturers and research agencies in (primarily) the US, UK and USSR sought to exploit captured German research data and research scientists to marry advances in jet engine design to the many and varied airframe concepts that had been considered, and in some cases, built, in Germany. Principle among these technologies was the swept wing, but flying wing, delta and variable-sweep wings were also investigated.

In the period considered, air combat was still primarily conducted by day, using cannon as the primary armament. Unguided rockets were available, but their use was primarily in attacking ground targets, or conceivably against bomber formations. This was a time of rapid development on jet fighters by all the major powers. In the US, the principal early jet fighters were the F-80 Shooting Star, F-84 Thunderjet and the F-86 Sabre. The UK used the Gloster Meteor and the de Havilland Vampire, with the Hawker Hunter and Gloster Javelin in development. The USSR used British jet engine technology to develop the superb MiG-15 and -17, following on from early straight-winged designs such as the Yak 17.

At the same time, the realisation of the threat of night bombing, and of atomic weapons, led to a need for all-weather day and night fighters, using onboard radar systems to locate targets. The first jet night fighter was the Douglas F3D Skynight. Large, and relatively slow, this aircraft had the distinction of making the highest number of US aircraft kills in the Korean War.

  • Light Fighters: de Havilland Vampire; F-86 Sabre; Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15; MiG-17; Heinkel Volksjäger
  • Heavy Fighters: Messerschmitt 262; Douglas F3D Skynight;

Air Combat – Radar and Guided Missiles – Mid-1950s to the 1970s

In this period, spurred by a continuing post-WW2 contest of ideologies between US-led capitalism and Russian and Chinese Communism, giving rise to conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and, following those, a continuing Cold War, aerospace technology continued to develop rapidly. The aerodynamic, propulsion and handling problems of the early jets were largely resolved, resulting in significant numbers of capable supersonic jet fighters becoming available.

On the other side of the coin, however, the improvements in Western fighters were mirrored by their opponents, and, to further complicate the situation, nuclear weapons proliferation resulted in much greater threats, initially from manned bomber aircraft. The first move to counter this emerging threat was to move away from the use of cannon as the primary anti-air weapon to the use of air-launched guided weapons instead. Coupled with the development of compact and effective fighter radars, heat-seeking or radar-guided air-to-air missiles (AAM) could allow fighters to engage each other, and bombers, at much greater distances. This not only offered greater prospects of survivability for the fighters, but also allowed the possibility of disrupting bomber attacks before they could reach their targets.

To achieve the capability required, fighters became larger, heavier, more powerful, more complex, and more expensive. But also much more capable, with the air-to-air effectiveness very dependent on missile capabilities, but the additional size and weapons capability allowing the flexibility to use the same airframe in strike and air-to-air roles.

In this period, a good US exemplar would be the F-4 Phantom II, which became a long-serving air defence and strike aircraft for many air forces over decades of service life. Carrying shorter range infra-red (IR) guided Sidewinders, and longer range, radar guided Sparrow missiles, with two crew, radar and two powerful J79 engines, the F-4 was developed for the US Navy, but later adopted by the USAF and proved to be exceptionally versatile in service. Initially flown with no cannon armament, experience in Vietnam led to the addition of this for later aircraft.

The UK were early entries into the world of missile-armed fighters, with the Gloster Javelin and the BAC Lightning both able to carry the Firestreak IR-guided missile, and the Lightning also carrying the longer-range Red Top IR-guided missile.

The USSR essentially replaced earlier MiG fighters with the fast and small MiG 21, a type which was incrementally developed over the years leading to innumerable variants, generally featuring additional fuel and improvements in the mission system – the radar, armament and defensive aids that enable an aging design to stay relevant.

Early air to air missiles such as the Sidewinder and Firestreak featured infra-red guidance. Initially IR AAM engagements were limited to stern attacks, but gradually became more flexible in operation as missile seekers improved. IR-guided missiles had an advantage over the early radar-guided missiles, as they required continuous illumination of the target by the fighter’s radar, which limited the pilot’s scope for manoeuvre.

In this environment, despite the major powers developing a range of highly capable heavy fighters, a class of small, agile, air defence aircraft emerged. These aircraft served two main purposes: meeting the needs of smaller Nations that required air power for defensive purposes, rather than to attack their neighbours; and to equip Client States of the major powers. These Client States were those countries, generally allied to the US or the USSR, that were supplied with large numbers of reasonably capable aircraft, at least in part to provide a means of the major powers distancing themselves from combat involvement.

Export sales of these lighter fighters was important in maintaining, and in some cases growing, industrial aerospace capability, as well as providing economic benefits, and maintaining Client States’ dependency on the major powers. In this context, the Mirage III became an important aircraft for France, as it proved both capable, and popular with non-aligned countries, and was exported in large numbers.

Light Fighters: F-104 Starfighter, Northrop F-5, Mirage III, MiG 21

Heavy Fighters: F-106 Delta Dagger; BAC Lightning; F-4 Phantom; SAAB Viggen; Sukhoi Su 15

The current day: BVR combat and Stealth

Over the past few decades, there has been a dramatic shift in air combat policies away from manoeuvring visual air combat – ‘dog-fighting’ to long-range engagements enabled by advances in guided weapon propulsion and seeker technologies, aircraft radar technologies, and the use of off-board information supplied through networked communications.

As a result, the desirable form of air combat is now beyond visual range, or BVR. Ideally, the fighter aircraft possesses longer-range missiles and sensors than its opponents, and has better situational awareness, allowing it to identify and engage opponents at distance. These combats preferably take place when the opponent is at a range where he is in the ‘no escape zone’ of your missile, but while you remain outside his ability to engage your aircraft. 

Key enablers for BVR combat have included the development of advanced radars, particularly those featuring Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESA). These radars can search for new targets, track previously detected targets, and provide datalink support to AAM after launch. Other advances in AAM technology have given greatly extended range capabilities to missiles like the MBDA Meteor through the use of rocket-ramjet propulsion systems. Missile seekers have also improved in range and aspect capability, enabling IR missiles to make all-aspect attacks at significant range.

One mechanism giving advantage in this sort of combat is to have very low detectability so that the opponent cannot locate and track your aircraft. Low radar signature helps to achieve this, but it must be remarked that the low signature also has to be achieved against Infra-Red sensors as well as a wide range of radar sensors which may be feeding information to opposition fighters.

Achieving a low radar signature requires the majority of weapons to be carried internally, increasing the size of the aircraft, limiting the number of weapons available, and potentially using space that might have been used for fuel, but delivering the intent of ‘first look, first shot and first kill’ capability.

Although this environment is challenging, there still remains space for the lighter fighter. As the systems and missiles have improved in capability, it has become possible to equip relatively small single-engine aircraft with capable radar, networked information systems and long-range weapons. Such aircraft are particularly useful as Air Defence rather than Air Superiority assets, largely because their small size limits the internal fuel that can be carried.

Light Fighters: Mirage 2000; SAAB Gripen; HAL Tejas

Heavy  Fighters: F-15 Eagle; F-20 Raptor; Shengdu J-20; MiG 29; MiG 31; Su-35 and derivatives; Su-57; Dassault Rafale; PANAVIA Tornado; Eurofighter Typhoon

Light Fighters: What’s in it for me?

When we review the development of air combat, we can observe that despite the enormous changes in technology that have occurred in the last 110 years or so, ‘Light’ fighters continue to be developed alongside heavier alternatives.

This section identifies the main drivers for this, and shows they are not as simple as the assumption that light weight gives greater agility. It does, but there other reasons that may make the lighter alternative attractive, as well as many reasons which may favour the flexibility gained through the use of a larger and heavier aircraft.

  • Technology

At a couple of points in the development of air combat, technology constraints have favoured the ‘Lighter’ fighter. These two points were:

  • at the start of the First World War, where immature engine technology favoured the light fighter, and the greater performance and agility that came with light weight
    • at the beginning of the jet age, where the higher speed and altitude achievable with jet engines was a prize worth having, but the low power available favoured a small, light design.
  • Cost

While deeply unpopular with Industry and with requirements staffs, the truism that heavier aircraft cost more, has not been seriously countered. Every attempt to produce an aircraft that breaks this paradigm has failed. This may be considered a bold statement, but I stand by it, at least until I see evidence to the contrary.

The cost-weight relationship is a key tool used by Treasury Departments to put pressure on new aircraft development proposals. Historically, the correlation  between weight and cost has been relatively robust, and has allowed early and penetrating analysis of suggested unit costs.

Industry and operators will argue that new technologies allow lighter airframes and more capable systems, delivering more capability for a given weight. Treasury sceptics will point to the cost and risk of developing new airframe materials, and the cost and complexity of validating and certifying software intensive complex systems. In the end the result is usually a draw, with pressure being placed to reduce mass as a way of reducing cost – not least because weight and cost are both much easier to measure than capability.

Low cost is desirable, as greater numbers of aircraft can be procured from a given budget, and, if care is taken at the design stage, cheaper, simpler, lighter aircraft might even prove to be cheaper to operate.

  • Production

Dr Ron Smith documents, in his British Built Aircraft 5-part series, the large numbers of aircraft built during World War I. In the period of that conflict, the British produced some 55,000 airframes; the French nearly 70,000 aircraft and more than 85,000 engines; the Germans nearly 50,000 aircraft and about 40,000 engines, with significant numbers also being produced by the USA and Italy. In four years, the equipment of the RFC/RAF grew by a factor of eighty, and the production rate by a factor of fifty.

The Second World War prompted an even greater surge in both technology and production capacity. Figures available for aircraft production in the 1939 to 1940 period do vary, but British, German, Soviet and American production numbers were in the order of 130,000, 120,000, 160,000 and 325,000 respectively.

Some countries became concerned about the availability of strategic materials for aircraft production, leading, at least in WW 2, to the exploration of lighter fighter aircraft, using wood rather than metal as the principal material for their construction. Examples of this include the British Miles M20 and Mosquito; German Ta 154 and Heinkel Volksjäger; and American Bell XP-77.

Miles M20 art by Teasel Studio from The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes
  • Capability

Can cheaper, lighter, aircraft do the job?

Firstly, it should be said that air combat up to the time of the Korean War was conducted principally in daytime and under visual conditions. In these circumstances, lighter fighters had the potential to offer higher manoeuvrability compared to heavy fighters, but would perhaps have lower maximum speed and range, and generally have lighter armament.

These capabilities could, and did, lead to different tactics being employed, with light fighters seeking to exploit manoeuvrability, while heavy fighters used high-speed passes with minimum manoeuvring air combat.

As a comparison between a heavier, and a lighter fighter, consider the Hawker Hunter and the Folland Gnat, both designed in the UK. This example is drawn from Jet Fighter Performance, Korea to Vietnam by Mike Spick, Ian Allan, 1986.

The Hunter was a relatively heavily armed day fighter with four 30 mm Aden cannon, which entered RAF service in 1954, and was extremely successful once fully developed. Widely exported, and respected for its good handling, a few examples remain in use today. The primary intent of the design was the engagement of Russian bombers, but roles inevitably diversified over time, and the aircraft was very often used in the ground attack role. In service, it was complemented by the heavier Gloster Javelin night fighter, with missile armament, two crew and a large airborne intercept radar.

The Folland Gnat was broadly contemporary with the Hunter, its initial prototype, the Midge, making its first flight in the same year that the Hunter entered service. The Gnat was about 2/3 of the size of the Hunter, and weighed about 40% of the Hunter with a gross weight about 3 tonnes, compared to the Hunter’s 8 tonnes.

With closely comparable wing loading, slightly higher aspect ratio and 20% greater thrust to weight ratio, the Gnat had exceptional handling and higher climb rate than the Hunter, but only half the firepower, with two rather than four 30 mm cannon, partly because its role was seen as air defence against fighters, rather than bombers. In air combat with the Indian Air Force, the Gnat proved to be both agile and effective, hard to track visually, and with good climb performance.

The job to be done by the fighter aircraft changed dramatically with the introduction of capable, long-range AAM to air combat. Capability in current air combat situations has been explored in a couple of previous articles for Hush_Kit, looking at what makes a good BVR fighter, and at the future of air combat. These can be found at the following links:

This discusses what capabilities you need to provide Air Defence, and to establish and maintain Air Superiority, and discusses how these capabilities drive towards somewhat different requirements.

This covers the future of air combat, emphasising the system-of-systems approach on which the major players appear to be converging as a means of delivering air power, in the broadest sense.

Some key points arising from these articles are:

  • A distinction between Air Superiority, where the desire is to establish temporary or enduring air control over hostile territory, and Air Defence, where the focus is on deterring and defeating enemy air attacks and on ensuring air control over one’s own territory;
  • The importance of sensors and systems in enabling long-range engagements whenever possible, using long-range and highly capable missiles;
  • The importance of the electronic domain in ensuring and maintaining situational awareness across the battlespace, as well as providing opportunities to deceive and nullify opposition sensors and situational awareness;
  • The emergence of low observable operations as a pervasive feature of future air operations.

Big as the damn world: Strategic considerations

Some geo-political and geographical considerations have worked in favour of lighter fighters. For some countries, engaged perhaps in a contest of political ideologies and looking with suspicion at others, it has been useful to build alliances with smaller countries, under the guise of providing defensive aid. Yes, we are looking at the USA and the USSR in the period of the Cold War, but this is not to exclude other possibilities.

A number of benefits flow from supplying their friends and allies with large numbers of light fighters, including:

  • provision of a defensive umbrella so that if local disputes erupt into conflict, this can be kept remote from the homeland;
  • maintaining the allies and friends (Client States) in a position where they are dependent on the homeland for support, hence helping to ensure political alignment;
  • limiting the capability to primarily defensive, rather than offensive capabilities, aiding political stability;
  • and providing business to maintain homeland armaments industries.

Light Fighters – Advantages

Summarising, we can observe the following benefits of light fighters:

  • Low cost
  • Simplicity, leading to
    • more rapid production
    • higher reliability
    • easier training
    • and availability in greater numbers
  • Small size and weight, leading to
    • greater agility
    • potentially higher climb rate and performance
    • less visual signature
    • potential ability to use shorter airstrips and more austere bases
    • delivery of complementary tactical capabilities to heavier fighters
  • Potential to further broader strategic aims
    • The Client State approach
    • Support to Industrial capability

Trade-offs compared to heavier fighters

One of the attributes strongly linked to the weight of a fighter is size, and, via size, the surface area and volume. This might seem academic, but for the fact that it is the volume of the aircraft which is available for payload and fuel.

In the case of a fighter aircraft, the payload is not just armament, but also sensors and systems, a myriad of which are critical to modern fighter aircraft, and some of which have certainly been critical for older designs. Obvious examples include radar, communications equipment, optical sensors, defensive aids like chaff and flares, electronic combat equipment such as jammers, missile launch and approach warners.

The surface area of the aircraft is most evident in the wing area, and the relationship between this and the weight of the aircraft will play a key role, not just in determining turn performance, but also take-off and landing requirements, as well as space for the carriage of external stores and sensors.

The fuel available for the aircraft is directly linked to the internal volume available – i.e. that space not already occupied by the structure, powerplant and intake system, undercarriage, pilot and the other systems which deliver flight control, armament management, displays and so on.

To generalise, a larger, heavier, fighter will be able to carry a greater proportion of sensors and fuel than a smaller, lighter aircraft, and is also likely to be able to carry a wider range of armament. However, it is likely that the wing loading of the aircraft will be higher, implying lower agility and greater take-off and landing requirements.

Sweating the elephant: Design and policy choices

Of course, all these aspects are subject to choices by the designer. If the agility is not sufficient, larger engines will help, but will consume more fuel. Multi-axis thrust vectoring can provide great agility but will increase weight and engine and flight control system complexity. Similarly, more complex wing designs incorporating variable sweep and high lift devices can improve take-off, landing and manoeuvre performance, but will come at the expense of complexity and additional weight.

These design choices have tended to lead to heavier fighters, with more powerful engines, driven by two principal factors. Firstly, there is a desire to engage at greater range, using long-range missiles. This is enabled by the use of powerful sensors, and assisted through the integration of both onboard and off-board systems, to aid the missile attack, and to confound enemy missile attack.

Secondly, there is a desire to reduce the size and cost of armed forces, so for most air arms there is continuing pressure for each aircraft type to be more capable than the last, again tending to increase size, weight and complexity, which in turn drives up the size of powerplant required. Paradoxically, the result is not just increased capability, but increases in the unit cost of the aircraft, although fewer will be purchased, and savings in manpower may also be made.

Investing in reduced signature, or low-observable aircraft, has three effects. Success means greater capability because of the ability to engage when the opposition is unaware of your presence, or, perhaps, your location. Along with this success comes significant cost increases due to the need for advanced production and maintenance processes, and the specialist materials required. In addition, internal carriage of stores is likely to result in a competition for internal volume between fuel and weapons, which may in turn impact on external aerodynamics and performance.

Measures to combat the trend of ever increasing cost, complexity and weight   include extensive use of airborne refuelling aircraft, which can enable extended patrol times without increased fighter size and weight. However, provision of extensive air-to-air refuelling introduces its own vulnerabilities and costs, particularly if offensive operations, rather than air defence, are to be conducted. A force-mix approach may also be used, with high-end air superiority roles restricted to a smaller number of high-performance strategic fighters, while lower-performance or shorter-range aircraft are used for strike operations or local air defence tasks.

Most major forces are now adopting a system of systems approach, devolving some systems to co-operating unmanned assets with roles varying from electronic combat to strike, air refuelling, communications relay and, perhaps in the future, air combat. Geography, and strategic intent also have a part to play here. Defence of a large homeland with many possible directions of attack, is likely to require high-speed, long-range interceptors, probably backed up by numerous smaller and reactive fighters providing local air defence against possible ‘leakers’ that have evaded interception.

Aspirations for global air dominance drive in the direction of air superiority systems, creating an environment for long-range strike operations, using manned or un-manned assets, and potentially, significant numbers of tactical fighter and strike assets to provide air cover and support to surface-based operations.

Will light fighters continue to be relevant?

Earlier in this article, I referenced a couple of other pieces covering BVR air combat, and future developments in air combat. In general, these articles suggest a future drive towards combat persistence and range, coupled with advanced sensors, long-range weapons and stealth to deliver Air Superiority. This would be backed up by a mix of advanced sensor and electronic combat platforms, and an extensive networked information capability. Strike missions would be delivered by a mix of manned, unmanned and autonomous systems, with target location, confirmation and dissemination a key enabler.

At first glance, these points suggest that there might be little room for ‘light’ fighters in delivering these capabilities, but that would be to ignore the opportunities which may lie in the systems-of-systems approach. For example, options may exist to use shorter-range, highly reactive and manoeuvrable light fighters to provide Air Defence capabilities, as well as protection for high value assets. These would exploit third party sensing and targeting system to ensure rapid and effective reaction to threats, or to provide reactive tactical support to ground forces.

In addition, as identified in the BVR combat article, some Nations have a need for Air Defence to deter potential aggressors but have no desire to impose their political ideologies outside their own borders. For such nations, a small, networked air defence aircraft, equipped with advanced radar, infra-red tracking capability, and long-range anti-air weapons might be sufficient, noting that any such aircraft would also have some capability as a strike aircraft if necessary.

From a capability perspective, for those Nations which do require an ability to deliver Air Superiority outside their own borders, a light fighter might provide a niche capability, focusing on responsive air defence, but also providing additional numbers to strengthen tactical support. In addition, of course, such an aircraft might also provide sufficient capability for regional Client States, as outlined earlier.

Industrial considerations are also important. Many nations enter the world of aerospace manufacturing through the production of advanced training aircraft, and over time, manufacturing capability improvements can bring the production of light fighters within reach. Given a reasonably benign operating environment, this may be sufficient to meet National needs, noting that if necessary, manufacturers of more advanced aircraft will generally be only too enthusiastic to fill any remaining capability gaps.

An emergent need for light fighters might be in the loyal wingman concept, if applied to air combat. By removing the pilot and his support systems, a new class of highly manoeuvrable unmanned weapons platforms might emerge, with higher manoeuvre capability, and, in extremis, expendable. Such systems might function as a disruptive element to force combat with enemy defensive assets, causing them to expend weapons and fuel, and diminishing their ability to respond to air superiority or strike elements.

Are Light Fighters worth the Effort?

It depends who you are. For a large nation seeking to be at the cutting edge of everything, your need might be rather niche. Advanced trainers that can be militarised and exported or used for initial air combat training – perhaps.

A nation with a large geographic area offering many possible lines of attack for an opponent – almost certainly useful as an adjunct to your reactive strategic fighter force; to cover less likely avenues of attack, and greater areas of your airspace; and as Air Defence assets for your Client States.

A nation seeking to enter the aerospace manufacturing arena – certainly.

A manufacturer – perhaps, but perhaps as a partner in a risk-shared programme, or as a means of gaining access to new markets.

As a DARPA equivalent – Highly likely, looking for novel ways to reduce the cost of low signatures; increase agility without compromising signatures; examine the human factors, technologies and robustness of unmanned air combat and loyal wingman concepts.

–Jim Smith

10 Reasons I loved flying the Super Hornet

To be frank – if it’s good enough for Tom Cruise it’s probably good enough for me. We probably have to accept that a significant amount of allegiances to aircraft types are not rational or explicable. Most grew out of simply liking the aesthetics of a type, which is fair enough. But then again we should be able to explain why we love our aeroplanes, particularly one that I have publically stated is the best multi-role platform in the world. Wouldn’t it be nice, in a boring sort of way, if you were only allowed to like an aircraft based on how good it was compared to its peers? So I’ll have a go with the F/A-18E Super Hornet. It obviously has a slightly less cool ‘almost twin’ brother in that there is a twin-seat, or family, model knocking around. But I flew those on very few occasions. It has an even less cool but amazingly effective cousin in the EA-18G Growler and I didn’t fly them at all – but watching one have an inflight engagement with the USS George HW Bush and lose the subsequent tug of war with a Nimitz Class carrier was easily one of the top ten coolest things I ever saw. We used to call the jet the Rhino. I’m not sure of the exact reason why but was told that it was because the ‘Ball Call’ needed only two syllables. It was my great privilege to join that bunch of warriors who have uttered ‘Rhino Ball’ at one point or another. Here are the top ten reasons that I loved flying the Super Hornet.

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

Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here

10. Multi-Role.

Actually multi-role. Not just the usual definition which involves an air-to-air missile or two, some air-to-surface weaponry, and a targeting pod. Multi-role in the case of the F/A-18E actually means it; in a way that quite a few designers and operators would choose to ignore as it’s a little inconvenient when a competitor gets it right. In fact, I’m not sure it’s all the way down at 10 but I wanted you to read it first. Multi-role in the case of the F/A-18E includes the AGM-88 HARM and its stablemate the AARGM. That brings a true self-escort strike capability to the party. If you don’t have ARMs and you are not a LO platform you might want to think about staying at home. This is a non-negotiable rule of warfare that people tend to forget. You have to survive to fight. You must be lethal, but to be lethal you need to be survivable. Quite a few aircraft do this using the assumption that someone else will do it for them. Seems somewhat risky. If you have a look, you’ll also see that multi-role for F/A-18E includes the Harpoon and the Quick Strike. That’s right. Anti-shipping missiles and sea mines. Now we’re talking true multi-role, the ability to affect the naval battle as much as the air and the land equivalents. Need some gas? Well, that’s doable if you have a F/A-18E/F with a tanking store close by. Not much by way of give compared to the wide bodies, I get that, but now we’re talking multi-role in a way that no other aircraft types can manage. We’ll talk about the plethora of strike weapons available further down. I can’t give up too much subject matter as we’re only on point 10, but multi-role and multi-basing option are two complementary things. Any of you boys seen a carrier around here?

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9. Night trap. I’m not saying this for effect. I enjoyed the deck at night. I found the deck during the day to be a bewildering morass of procedures. The night trap was like the day trap, but without all the things that could put you off, for example, convoluted procedures, anxiety about where other jets were and visual illusions from deck heave. Plenty of people have disagreed with me on this one but for me it really did boil down to needing to see three things; meatball, line up and angle of attack. At night those were the only three you could see! Simples. At night, or in poor weather the USN uses an approach pattern called the Case 3. The RN does too. Case 1 is when you can find the boat all on your lonesome and Case 3 is an approach using the ship or onboard systems to get you down to a position where you can pick up the ship and land. Case 2 was an unholy amalgam of the two. I never used it. The Case 3 allowed you to marshal at your given range at a given height on a specific radial and then come inbound to the boat at a given time. This made everything very simple. So long as you got the timing right and sorted your fuel to be at ‘Max Trap’ as you came over the round down then it was an exercise in instrument flying and the Super Hornet could give you both altitude hold and auto-throttle to get set up. There were three separate systems to follow – a TACAN and two precision approach aids and that all led to being on the ball, in good shape with only the 18 seconds of impending disappointment and the trap itself to be worried about. Yes, it was a pulse raiser, but what do you expect when you’ve got 44,000lbs or so of jet, fuel and weapons strapped to your backside?

8. Catapult Shot. I’m putting this in even if there is a strong argument for the removal of the cat shot from the list altogether. The catapult shot is like a fairground ride. Followed by a fairground ride. I genuinely believe that there is nothing in aviation as thrilling as the yellow-coated shooter beating their hands on their chest to signify that you are now theirs. This is the very end of the ballet that is deck ops. From dropping the weight chit off, to finding the aeroplane, to getting it ready in all respects. Aircraft systems, nav systems, comms systems, weapon systems – all checked and ready to go, and then with chocks and lashings removed you follow the marshallers’ every signal to get to and over the Jet Blast Deflectors and before you know it the holdback is fitted, you’ve acknowledged the weight board, the T-bar is in the shuttle and you’re under tension. Given the wind-up signal you go to full power and check you have ‘full and free’ controls. What a rush. So what’s not to like? What happens next! The cat shot is ferocious, Ferocious enough to throw feet pedals, to throw mask across face, loft some of your saliva into an eye or two. And at the end of the cat run when Mr Bernoulli is invited to take over it’s like running into a wall. An amazing achievement for mankind, but one I can’t say I actually enjoyed. More a case of ‘proud to have done’.

7. Air-to-Surface weaponry. Air-to-Surface made easy. The weapon systems available to the Rhino could be thought of as a bewildering array of potential destruction. Only they weren’t bewildering because the aircraft integration was so good. Getting the aircraft into an air-to-mud role was a single button push and thereafter the stores selection was common for the weapons – whatever they were – which came from a ‘too long to write out’ list. However, from a PGM point of view the basic weapons were probably the JDAM from a GPS point of view and the GBU-49 from a LGB point of view. These weapons could be used in any of their 500lb, 1000lb or larger guises. However to them were added various stand-off weapons such as JSOW, Maverick and SLAM. The key to their use and the utility of the jet and the need to keep the training burden reasonable – was that as an operator there really wasn’t that much to care about because the modes all looked and smelt the same; whilst the ranges from which you could employ changed, the symbology didn’t. That meant that a pilot’s job of being in the right bit of sky on the tactical display was the same for all of them. The aircraft also had a very good dumb weapon model. Against one target dropping from medium level I witnessed a four aircraft strike generate a target coordinate at range and then flow in for an attack using unguided free-fall weapons. Result: four weapons getting a ‘metal on metal’ hit on the target which was an F-4 minding its own business and trying to enjoy its retirement in the desert. As ever, there was one last trick, the cannon. Aimed using a simple dot, it really was a case of ‘put the thing on the thing and press the thing’. I did hear once that one pilot had managed to fire all 400+ rounds in a single pass. Good effort!

6. Monster racks.

Let’s be honest, if anything on your aircraft is called ‘The Monster’ then it’s going to be worth talking about. With the monster racks came the ability to fight in a fit I’d seen at an airshow – 10 AIM-120 and 2 AIM-9X. And a gun. Yes, some of the weapons weren’t perfectly aligned with the aircraft and yes lugging metalwork through the air is tiresome from a physics point of view, but when 2 of you can take down the entire opening Red Air presentation at Red Flag that’s got to be a good thing. The real convenience of it was that in exercise it removed the necessity to count. Gone we’re the ‘Dirty Harry’ days of ‘Have I fired 4 shots or 3?’. They had been replaced with the carefree knowledge that you couldn’t possibly have fired all 10! It also allowed you to be a little more flexible with the mission plan because if anyone ever suggested adopting a ‘missile conservation mindset’ then you would look at them like they were insane. You could fire the first for a laugh and the next just to get something downrange if you really felt like it.

5. Handling and Angle of Attack. All jets have limits to the angle of attack you can use and this usually reflects itself in how hard you can pull and how slow you can fight. The Super Hornet didn’t have one. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that pilots are naturally lazy, quite the opposite. But something eventually has to give and one of them is the ability to store every limit and parameter in your head. What could therefore be better than finding out that there was no alpha limit? Technically I suppose you could forget the fact that there was nothing to remember. Yes, there were angles of attack at which it was sensible to fight, but there was no limit. There were some very clear times when you would think an alpha excursion was a good idea and the jet would simply give you what you needed. To be able to put both hands on the stick and pull it back to the stops, thereby asking the jet to give you all it had – and know that it was going to deliver was awesome. Some of the other manoeuvres were equally rewarding to fly. The Super Hornet had a means, at high angle of attack to pirouette. It took some bullying on the controls and was only to be used for defensive means really – but if the idea of having someone in your shorts was getting tiresome the ability to throw your own tail in the opposite direction was really handy. Yes, the jet was still bound by the laws of physics, but it did seem to be pretty good at negotiating some flexibility with them.

4. Radar. There are sensors and there are sensors. This is where I may start to court an element of controversy. A jet’s goodness in the modern age, dating back to about 2010 is measured in three bins. Sensor, weapon and datalink. They are all underpinned by performance but most jets are actually ‘much of a muchness’ performance-wise. The entry point for fighters for each of the bins changes with time but essentially nowadays it boils down to needing an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), a long-range weapon and a full-up Link-16 fit. If any of those are missing, go and talk to Dad and don’t come out to play until it’s sorted. Back in Sea Harrier days you might expect to have well-formed tracks on F-15 size-targets at 30 or so miles, F-16s a little less and developmental Eurofighters a whole heap more. That gave you enough time to get in order for a shot. With an AESA this could be three or four times that amount with no need at all to ‘neck down’ the search to get more ‘trons on target. The result is phenomenal. Consider a fighter with a mech scan radar to be like a single man, in a warehouse, at night, with a pencil torch, trying to work out where the bats are. The APG-79 gave the same man the ability to switch on every fluorescent strip in the house.

Night and day. It was also a nightmare to fight against. On the occasions that I used APG-73 against APG-79 it was like using your pencil torch to shine up range whilst the screen told you that someone was shining the sun back. The radar had so much time on its hands because it wasn’t wheeling a plate from left to right that it even looked in places you hadn’t asked it to – just in case you missed something. It was so quick and so powerful that there was simply no point dividing up the sky and each looking in different bits. In legacy fighters, a formation might decide between them as to who looked high, who looked low etc. With the APG-79 one could simply ask it to look at everything. This had one massive technical advantage on top of the obvious ones. Anything you threw out on link was a very tight low latency track. That made everyone’s life easier, apart from the enemy’s who would probably rather it didn’t. In fact, the APG-79 may not have been a radar. I suspect it was actually the Eye of Sauron.

3. Mirrors. Mirrors are very simple in that they show you what is going on in front of them, backwards. There are two mirrors you should think twice before using. The first is a mirror on a boat – because the chances are that your inner ear is suffering enough already and being in synch with a reflection is unlikely. The other mirrors that you may want to avoid are mirrors that show you what a simply amazing Flight Control System is doing on your behalf with the surfaces that lurk behind you. So number 3 isn’t really the ability to use a shiny surface to look behind you. It’s what you see in those shiny surfaces that tells you in no uncertain terms that the jet is fine and it’s going to deliver a response to your inputs, and you really don’t need to concern yourself with how it’s doing it. In the slow-speed fight in particular the jet was superb. The canted tail added greatly to aft end lift and the multiple surfaces moving in, and out, of synch to give you control was as heartwarming as it was startling. This jet gave you what you needed, even if how it was doing it was a bit of a mystery. Another way of demonstrating the same point was to look at another aircraft when they deployed the airbrake. Obviously termed speed brake in US parlance. The argument about whether you are braking air or speed is semantic and tedious. The interesting piece is that there was no brake to deploy whether you fancied getting rid of speed or using air. The jet simply deployed aerodynamic surfaces in whatever way it thought best to slow you down.

2. Redundancy and general hardness.

Redundancy in the aviation sense is only bad for one reason, that you have to learn about 3 systems wherein UK ground school one would do. With two engines and various backup systems the Rhino was ideally set up to allow you to keep fighting and get you home. You could even use the Auxiliary Power Unit to add another trench to the defence if you wanted to. With hyds (hydraulics) and electricals having triplex redundancy this was a very clever system of systems. The other thing about the jet was how tough it was. Upon landing, you could use the fuel and engine page to record fault codes from the jet called BLINS. I can’t remember what that stood for or what the individual codes were but there were two for the time that the aircraft sensed a heavy landing. When I watched the Growler engage in flight I was very close. I was getting fuel near the island and was arrayed across the ship, with my nose a few feet from the wing tip safety line. I heard the Landing Signals Officer scream ‘Power, Power, Power!’ and looking to my right I saw a Growler in plan form tail-walking down the deck…grabbing a wire as it did so. The jet was in full blower and settled above the flight deck pointing up at a daft angle. God was obviously watching and after enough time to take in the spectacle adjudicated in the boat’s favour and the jet came crashing down between me and the bow. A crash almost vertically onto the deck. It sat shaking like a wet labrador as the Flight Control System attempted to make sense of what its crew had just put it through. Not a single BLIN. The jet just walked it off and as the crew made their way sheepishly into the superstructure the jet sat and waited for its next ride. These things are tough.

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1. The whole package. I’m sure most folk remember certain programmes being talked about in terms of sensor fusion. Mainly in the sense that it didn’t work. Sensor fusion is about the ability to be sure that the radar track is the same enemy aircraft as the link track – and therefore present the pilot with a single track with additional information rather than two contacts. It is possible on a badly fused system to think that you are up against 3 contacts when in fact you are looking at radar track and Interrogator hits from your own system, plus a track from a buddy and they are all actually the same enemy aircraft. The obvious downside is that you might get a little anxious and hoof off three shots when one would do. The Super Hornet inhabited the very end of the fusion scale. A track from the radar would be backed up by link, with the IFF latched to it. The jet was even clever enough to lock the targeting pod to the air target. Sadly I was never clever enough to check how it was getting on. I ran out of capacity and the jet never did!

Paul’s 10 fav things about flying the Sea Harrier can be found here

You may also enjoy interviews with pilots of the following aircraft: F-104, F-106, F-4, SR-71 and B-57,

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Check out this rather good Super Hornet model here

So in summary. A superbly integrated jet. Harder than granite. Equipped with the all-seeing eye and a plethora of air-to-surface weapons; and one of the more absurd air-to-air fits available. Capable of taking a whole heap of pain, of looking after itself on the way to and from the target whatever the threat. It got you back to the boat with minimum of fuss, having probably never explored its extraordinary flight envelope. In fact the only bad thing about the Super Hornet wasn’t the jet, nor the boat, it was what waited for you after that. Burger and fries or beer and wine? The USN’s opinion on the matter was bitterly disappointing.

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Life and death in the ‘Delta Queen’: My time on the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber

B-58 (modified).jpg

Fast, accurate and survivable, the Convair B-58 Hustler was a sexy Cold War totem. Its glamour belied the grimness of its intended role as a strategic nuclear bomber, a task it thankfully never performed. As we find out from Colonel George Holt Jr – a Navigator/Bombardier on this Mach 2 monster –  the Hustler was a brilliantly engineered and utterly potent aircraft retired in its prime. Holt was part of the B-58equipped 305th Bomb Wing at Bunker Hill AFB (now Grissom AFB) close to Peru, Indiana from 1960 to 1969.

What was the best thing about the Hustler?

It had a very high probability for penetrating enemy defenses and accurately delivering its weapons on assigned targets.

..and the worst? 

My brother, Tech Sergeant John Holt was assigned to B-58 maintenance from 1963 to 1968.  He noted that the B-58 experienced excessive downtime after a mission, as discrepancies had to be cleared before the next flight.  Before any maintenance could begin on the aircraft, a ground air conditioning unit had to be hooked up and cooling air had to be supplied to the aircraft before he could turn the power switch on. Unlike most bombers, the Hustler was a very tight aircraft and panels had to be removed before most maintenance could begin.

Then there were the ‘Hangar Queens’ those few aircraft that had numerous repeatable maintenance problems that no one could figure out.  Quite often, those problems were associated with the Bomb/Nav system.  Lt. Colonel Tom Hatch remembers one flight where the Bomb/Nav system started to overheat and the air conditioning was switched to ‘reverse flow’— a condition that forced cooling air into the electronic equipment before entering the crew station area.  On one mission, the heat was so unbearable that he had to strip down to his bare chest.  However, incidents like this were the exception rather than the norm and in May 1968 the entire fleet of B-58s started receiving an improved version of the AN/ASQ-42 Bomb/Nav system, along with new technical data and spare parts. In my three years of flying in the B-58, I never experienced a ‘reverse flow’ condition. 

Some maintenance personnel said they “hated working on this airplane” but in almost the same breath, they would say, “they wouldn’t trade it for the world.”  Like the aircrews, the B-58 maintenance folks were an elite group and proud to have worked on the Hustler.  They were the best, and the best way to measure their performance is to note that B-58s, on a daily basis, were able to meet their SIOP (war plan) commitment of having 32 alert-ready aircraft, refuelled with weapons loaded and ready to go to war at a moment’s notice.

What was its Cold War tasking? 

It was in the bomber component of the United States nuclear triad consisting of land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. Each B-58 alert crew stood ready to launch within minutes of a confirmed attack on the U.S. to deliver five weapons on assigned military targets in enemy territory.

What were you first impressions of the B-58?

In the Spring of 1966, my Wing Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Pease AFB, New Hampshire asked if I’d like to be reassigned to B-58s. For six years I’d flown as a navigator/bombardier in the B-47, but all B-47s were being retired so it was an honour to have been selected, because the Convair B-58 Hustler was the most sophisticated and technologically advanced aircraft of its day and back then you could not just volunteer for B-58s you had to be selected and recommended by your wing commander.

I was fortunate to be paired up with Major Al Dugard, an outstanding pilot who had been with the 509th for many years. Al successfully passed his F-102 transition training while I was at Mather AFB, CA for B-58 Nav training. Al and our Defensive Systems Operator (DSO), Major Bob McCormack then went to Bunker Hill AFB, Indiana, for flight training in the TB-58.

When I arrived at Bunker Hill (later renamed Grissom AFB) I was quite amazed at my first sight of a B-58. This baby looked fantastic. It was much bigger than I had imagined and you could tell it was built for speed with those four brute-force J-79 engines strung beneath its delta wing. With a sharply tapered needle-nose, it looked ready to break the sound barrier while still on the ground. This racehorse was itching to get out of the stable and run with the wind. I found it hard to believe that I’d be riding this beast in that second cockpit.

Al and Bob had already logged a number of hours in the plane with an instructor pilot, but my first flight meant going up with Al on his first solo ride. It would be a normal mission – high altitude navigation, inflight refuelling with a KC-135 tanker and high and low altitude nav runs with simulated bomb drops being scored by radar bomb scoring sites.

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I had some hesitation as we headed out to the aircraft. Something didn’t feel right. I had my helmet and oxygen mask and my Nav kit – but something was missing. My shoulders felt light. Then I realised I didn’t have a parachute. After ten years of flying in tactical and strategic bombers wearing a fairly heavy parachute for hours on end, I suddenly realised those days were over – no parachute required in the Hustler. The escape capsule had its own installed parachute, so this would be shirt-sleeve flying.

The B-58 was also the only bomber aircraft I know of that had a single pilot with two navigators on board – the DSO was a rated navigator. The crew sat in tandem, one behind the other in three isolated cockpits – no standing room available.

I’ll always remember the take-off and climb-out of my first mission. We were sitting on the runway with four engines in full afterburner. Then at brake release I felt pushed back in my seat as we made a rapid roll to lift off and then a climb at 425 knots until we reached altitude. Of course, after takeoff we had to throttle back out of afterburner to prevent this racehorse from running wild.

Its four J79 engines produced 62,400 pounds of thrust, so the B-58 with an empty weight of only 55,650 pounds had an outstanding thrust-to-weight ratio. 

People often asked, “Did you become claustrophobic sitting in such a confined space for hours on end?”  My reply was always, ”No. I was just too darned busy during the mission to have any time to think about being claustrophobic.”

Describe the B-58 in three words?

Fast, Accurate and Survivable. Let me explain:

Fast: The B-58 was fast and had a range of airspeeds. At its maximum speed of Mach 2.2 (1,452 mph) it was 2½ times faster than the muzzle velocity of a .45 caliber bullet. Although it was a strategic bomber it could outmaneuver, outturn, and out-climb most fighter aircraft of its day. But it was also fast while flying at low level. On the deck we would skirt the treetops just below the speed of sound. This amazing bomber captured numerous international speed records winning five aeronautical trophies: The Thompson, Bleriot, Mackay, Bendix and Harmon trophies.  The B-58 Hustler also set 14 world speed records in international competition; and in 1962, a Hustler carried a payload of 11,000 lbs. to an altitude of 85,360 feet.

Accurate: It was unbeatable in navigational and bombing accuracy. Its Doppler, Stellar, and Inertial navigation system was quite unique for its day. Before it was fully combat-ready, a B-58 crew, competing against more experienced B-47 and B-52 crews, did the unthinkable.  It took first place for bombing accuracy at the 1960, Strategic Air Command, Bombing Competition. I would often fly “radar silent” going from standby to radar-on just for the few seconds required to position my crosshairs on navigation checkpoints, however the Bomb/Nav system of the Hustler was so accurate that quite often the crosshairs would be laying directly on the checkpoint when radar was turned on.

Survivable: In the 1960s, improvements in Soviet surface to air missiles (SAMs) forced the B-58 from a high-altitude supersonic penetration of enemy airspace to a low-level penetration and a high subsonic speed run to its targets, just below Mach-1. The Hustler adapted to this new profile exceptionally well. The B-52 was also forced to go in at low-level but it had a huge radar image and its lower speed held no comparison to the B-58 whose radar image was virtually undetectable. Flying low and fast it was hard for radar sites to pick us up amongst the radar ground clutter and its ability to fly ‘silent’ with no electromagnetic emissions made it virtually undetectable in enemy territory. I can attest to how the B-58 was like a stealth bomber on low-level bomb runs. Quite often when we approached a Nike bomb scoring site, we were asked to pop up so they could obtain a radar lock-on.

What is a particularly dangerous aircraft?

I would describe a dangerous aircraft as one where you risked life or limb at a much higher probability compared to other aircraft. I flew for six years in the B-47 six-engine jet bomber and never felt comfortable on take-off and landings because I knew if I had to eject at that low altitude, in my navigator’s downward ejection seat, my chance of survival was close to zero.

Tell us about the escape pod.

It was quite a relief to find out that the Hustler, not only had upward ejection seats for all three crew members, but we would also have our own escape capsule.  This capsule was amazing. The pilot’s capsule is shown in the closed position. His capsule included the flight control stick allowing him to control the aircraft while encapsulated up to the point of ejection.  The B-58 was the first Air Force aircraft to have a capsule ejection system to allow safe ejection at supersonic speed. And it worked at any airspeed from 100 knots to above Mach 2 and from ground level to 70,000 feet.  This capsule would get you out of the aircraft safely.  It had an independent pressurisation and oxygen supply system, shock absorbers to ease the impact on touchdown, and it even floated on water. 

Do you think it was more survivable than the B-52?

It was much more survivable than the B-52 for a number of reasons. If we had to go to war, it could take off much faster than the B-52. At low level, it could penetrate enemy defenses at a much higher speed and coped much better in heavy turbulence. Most of all it was much harder to detect on enemy radars.

The Studies and Analysis Directorate at the Pentagon ran computer simulations comparing the B-58 with the B-52.  They concluded that the B-58’s speed advantage and its very low radar signature gave the Hustler a higher probability of evading detection by enemy radars.  This held true even when the B-58 was programmed to fly at a higher altitude than the B-52 during low-level penetration to the target.  In comparing radar signature differences, I remember one of the evaluators saying, “The difference between the B-58 and the B-52 was like comparing a postage stamp to a barn door.”

Here’s how my former B-58 pilot compared the two aircraft when I asked him which was more survivable.  “I have over 3500 hours in the B-47, close to 1,000 hours in the B-52, with 350 in combat missions in Vietnam, including flights over Hanoi and Haiphong. As a weapons machine for use in both peacetime deterrence and war conditions, the B-58 was exceptional.” 

He went on to say, “Having flown the B-52 into a highly defended enemy target complex, it is apparent to me that the B-52 was highly vulnerable to enemy defenses. Having survived the onslaught of surface to air missiles (SAMs) due only to electronic countermeasures and seeing missiles fired even before our initial turn to target, I am convinced that the B-52 for all its great capability was a large detectable target, easily identified and vulnerable to the SAM complexes. The B-52 at low-level had this same huge radar image and due to its lower speed held no comparison to the B-58 whose low-level speed was much greater and the B-58’s radar image was virtually undetectable.”

You may also enjoy interviews with pilots of the following aircraft: F-104, F-106, F-4, SR-71 and B-57,

Why was it retired, and was it too early? 

By 1967, all major improvement modifications had been completed on the B-58 and like its big brother the B-52, it could have remained in the inventory for many more years.  Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even the Office of the Secretary of Defense, despite initial misgivings about the Hustler, came to realize its value as a strategic bomber and by January 1969, it had been given a new lease on life.  It was certainly a weapon system feared by the Soviets. But because of an indisputable blunder by Strategic Air Command, during a time when they were under pressure to cut costs, they decided to trade off all of the B-58s in hopes of retaining some older model B-52s.  They got their trade off from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Then, within months, they were also forced to phase out those older model B-52s they had hoped to keep.

What was special about the B-58?

It was an airplane you could fall in love with. It was a pleasure to fly. Among all the pilots I’ve known in my three years of flying in the B-58, none thought the B-58 was hard to fly. In fact, they thought it was the smoothest airplane they ever flew. Especially those who had flown fixed-wing B-47s and B-52s. Its delta wing gave the Hustler a smoother and more stable ride than other aircraft. Responsiveness to controls was instantaneous and you didn’t wait for a wing to respond to control movement.  Formation flight i.e., Air Refueling was much easier due to the stable platform.”

Your most memorable mission?

I actually had two very memorable missions. I had mentioned earlier that the B-58 had a range of airspeeds. The following illustrates how slow and how fast  the Hustler could fly.

There’s no doubt that the B-58 had an amazing high-speed capability. Now, let’s take a look at the Hustler’s slow speed ‘floating leaf’ capability.

I had my share of ‘shacks’ i.e., putting a bomb directly on target with zero error, and never had a bad bomb score in my three years of navigating and bombing in the B-58. But came close when I was running high altitude simulated bomb drops on a Nike site one evening over Chicago.  We were in a racetrack pattern and getting excellent scores from the Nike radar bomb scoring unit. However, we were flying in one humongous jet stream, well over 200 mph.  Our inbound run to the target was very slow and our outbound on the racetrack was like a ‘Bat out of Hell’ with that ferocious tailwind kicking us in the rear.

Nike sites scored bomb runs by acquiring the inbound aircraft on radar.  The aircraft’s track was drawn in ink on a large horizontal whiteboard. The track was based on the aircraft’s ground speed and true course.  Ten seconds before bomb release, I would transmit a constant tone.  At simulated bomb release the tone stops and the pen on the plotting board lifts up.  At that point, the Nike site operators would extend the track based on the time of fall for the bomb type and the best-known wind data.  Altogether, this determined how close the bomb came to the target.

Well, on this particular evening, I was getting somewhat bored on my fourth inbound to the target.  We were fighting that tremendous headwind and it seemed like it was taking forever to get to the target. So I decided to try something different. I computed an indicated airspeed (IAS) for Al Dugard, my pilot, to fly that would make our true airspeed equivalent to the speed of the jet stream.  If Al could hit that speed, then our groundspeed would be zero.  We had just flown a seven-hour mission and the Hustler was real light with just enough fuel, plus some reserve, to get us back to Bunker Hill, 15 minutes away.  Al was not sure, he could hold such a low airspeed for too long, but he was willing to try.

He started throttling back on the engines, careful to keep the Hustler above the stall speed and I kept my eye on the groundspeed indicator.  Son of a gun, we were approaching zero groundspeed.

Al said, “George, I can keep this airspeed and angle of attack, but I’m beginning to lose some altitude to maintain it.”

“OK, Al, we just hit zero groundspeed.  Hold it a bit longer and then we can accelerate to keep the bomb run going.”

Then we started getting panic calls from the Nike site because the pen plotting our track, inbound to the target, had stopped its forward motion.  That meant only one thing to the Nike bomb plot people on the ground—we must have either blown up in the air or crashed to the ground.

“Delta 23 this is Nike bomb plot.  Do you have an emergency?  Come in Delta 23.”

Al came over the interphone, “George, I’ll respond to Nike so they don’t get too panicky and declare an emergency on us.”

“Nike bomb plot.  This is Delta 23.  Sorry for the delay.  We just stopped for a while to open and eat our flight lunches.  We’re now continuing into the target.”

“Roger 23” – a long silence and then, “Your pen plot has started to move again.”

They probably could not believe what just happened and never asked for an explanation.  I was just lucky they did not retaliate by giving me a bad bomb score. 

Now let’s take a look at how fast this beautiful lady could fly. Here’s a mission I was on in March 1967, out of Fort Worth, Texas:

B-58 Taxi (AFMUS).jpg

“Foxtrot one five, this is Carswell Tower, you’re cleared for takeoff.  Center has cleared an unrestricted climb to 24,000 feet.”

“Roger, tower.”

“OK, Crew, we’re ready to roll.  Advancing power to 100%, engines stabilized, kicking in AB, and releasing brakes.”

I felt the afterburners kick in and said, “Al, I’ve started my stop watch, let me know when you level off at 24,000 feet.”

“Roger that.  S1, passing the 1,000-foot marker.  S2, rotation, lift off, climbing.”

“Al, my altimeter is spinning like crazy back here.”

“Mine, too.  We’re approaching 15,000 feet and I can see the end of the runway below us.”

“Ft Worth Center, this is Foxtrot one five, passing through 15,000 feet.”

Center didn’t believe us. “Foxtrot 15, say again altitude?” 

“Flight Level 19 Zero, and now leveling off at 24 Zero.”

“Al, you won’t believe this but my stopwatch reads 48 seconds and that was from brake release.”

“I believe it, George.  It’s the lightest fuel load we’ve ever had.  That climb was like sitting on the head of a rocket.  I couldn’t level off quick enough and finally hit the top of the parabola at 26 thousand feet and dove back down to the assigned altitude of 24.  That was a blast.  What’s our heading to The General Dynamics rehab base at James Connolly?”

“Pick up a heading of one seven four degrees.”

I was the Navigator/Bombardier in that one-minute conversation with our pilot, Major Al Dugard, as we departed Carswell Air Force Base, enroute to James Connolly Air Force Base.  Our Defensive Systems Operator, Major ‘Mac’ MacDonald was also on board. 

Convair_XB-58_Hustler_during_takeoff - public domain.jpg

Our mission was to ferry a B-58 “Hustler” to James Connolly for a modification on the wing root and other mods to extend the life of the B-58 well into the 1970s.  While at James Connolly, we picked up an aircraft that had already been modified and flew it back home to Bunker Hill Air Force Base, Indiana.

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Engaging, beautifully illustrated and fascinating, The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes.

Was Mach 2 possible, did you reach it? 

Mach 2 was more than possible. The thrust of the four J79 engines could push the B-58 well beyond Mach 2. The limiting factor was aircraft skin temperature. When a B-58 crew set a transcontinental speed record in 1962 they monitored the skin temperature gauges to ensure they did not exceed 125 degrees centigrade (125°C = 257°F.) 

I’ve often been asked, “What was it like when the B-58 went supersonic?”  Unlike the loud boom, someone on the ground would hear, my first experience passing through the sound barrier was remarkably quiet.  Unless you were looking at your instruments, you would never know you had gone supersonic. There was not even a small shudder within the aircraft—nothing, except a fluctuation on the altimeter. The reading would drop around 500 feet and then bounce back to the proper altitude. The B-58 was capable of delivering bombs at Mach 2 but it could be tricky. Travelling at 23 miles per minute. You had to acquire the target as early as possible and once your crosshairs were locked on target any further movement of the crosshairs could result in very steep bank angles as the aircraft turned to reacquire the target.

How fast and smooth was the ride at low levels?

The B-58 was very fast and very smooth and quite stable even when flying in low level turbulence. When other larger bombers on a low level route aborted their mission due to heavy turbulence, we would come in behind them and successfully complete the mission experiencing only light to moderate turbulence. That’s the advantage of a delta wing design. The B-58’s wingspan was short, solid and stable, unlike aircraft with large wingspans where turbulence can induce oscillating forces on the wings. It was much faster than the B-52 at low level.

Hush-Kit podcast here

How good were the weapons and sensors?

All bombs were dropped with a drogue retarded parachute to allow safe escape from the bomb blast. The Defensive Systems Operator (DSO) controlled a powerful electronic counter-measures (ECM) system to blind enemy radars, including an active jammer and a chaff dispenser. The defensive armament of the B-58 had a six-barrel, 20-mm rotary cannon (Gatling gun) with a maximum firing rate of 4000 rounds per minute.  The radar for the tail gun was located in a bullet fairing above the tail cone.  The gun was aimed remotely by the fire control system in the tail, but there was a radar (automatic) fire control panel and a manual fire control panel located at the DSO’s station.  The firing zone was any target within a 60-degree cone. The defensive ECM system gave early warning of enemy radar systems to deceive, confuse, or jam them.  The system also had radar track-breaking equipment, that generated deceptive radar jamming signals. When radar tracking signals, locked on us, the track breaker generated and transmitted deceptive angle and range information back to the hostile radar tracking system.  A chaff dispensing system was also installed in each upper main gear fairing, with chaff being ejected through mechanically actuated slots in the tops of each wing fairing.

What should I have asked you? How about: Have you published any books about the B-58?

I have published a couple of books about the B-58. My best seller is “The B-58 Blunder – How the U.S. Abandoned its Best Strategic Bomber.” It details much more of what has been presented here and is available on Amazon where it has sold over 6,000 copies and received over 260 reviews. In it I describe how the B-58 came to a premature death, largely because of infighting among military and civilian leaders, who failed to understand the value and full capabilities of this fantastic airplane.  It was a technological marvel, years ahead of its time and it should never have been sent to the boneyard.

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Zipper over the Bathtub: I flew the F-104G Starfighter for the German Navy

Rolf Stünkel

It was my last long cross-country flight from Schleswig NAS via Lossiemouth, Scotland to Keflavik NAS in Iceland, back in July 1982. It was the year I left the Starfighter to fly Tornados.

MY LAST big cross-country with the F-104 was supposed to take place on July 9, 1982. That Friday I wanted to fly with my significantly more experienced comrade Georg (Schorse) Lange from Eggebek to Scottish Lossiemouth (EGQS), refuel and then jet on to Keflavik on the island of Iceland (BIKF). Our aircraft were fully packed for the weekend. We had a dark presentiment about the Icelandic summer weather and to be on the safe side, had warm jackets and pullovers with us.

Lossiemouth is an old Royal Air Force site, with multiple connections with the German Navy. British bombers set off from here in 1944 to sink the battleship Tirpitz; 14 years later, the new West German Navy commissioned their first Sea Hawk multipurpose squadron in the same location.

We landed our Starfighters, refuelled, submitted our flight plan to Iceland and took off. I had never been so far north and so far out over the sea in a single-engine aircraft; it wasn’t particularly reassuring to know that our radio equipment wasn’t configured for such routes. As mentioned, we only had military UHF radio communication on board, no civilian VHF or even HF.
We were soon out of reach of any coastal radio station. If one of us had to bail out, he could only hope that he would be picked up by a random passing ship. We reached Iceland in the best of weather and reported in to Keflavik tower. After a glance at our fuel gages – they showed sufficient fuel in both aircraft – we decided to go sightseeing.

We disappeared in the direction of the glaciers and mountains. What beautiful scenery! Elated, we let our Starfighters dance over the uninhabited natural wonder and turned back happily to the military airport. After landing, we checked into our room in a US Navy apartment block.

It was midsummer, with an outside temperature of a summery 12 degrees centigrade; the ladies were sunbathing in their bikinis, in front of coloured geothermally heated cement houses. On the weekend there was a cheerful hustle and bustle all over Reykjavik. At night, it was still broad daylight and the discos were full; young people lay in the grass with bottles of vodka. Party in the North! During the day we had the opportunity to discover the beautiful landscape. Geysers, hot bathing lakes in dazzling colours. Dried fish on wooden hanging racks. Clear air which made everything gleam like Kodachrome photographs. I had never seen anything like it.

Any US soldier who went to Keflavik could pick an assignment of his choice afterwards; all military personnel in the large canteen at the Keflavik Air Base made an appropriately satisfied impression.
When I started up the engine of my Starfighter 21+29 on Monday morning, the oil low-level warning light came on. I climbed onto the ‘roof’ and pulled the dipstick. It was as dry as a bone! All of the lubricant was certainly lost on our flight here, as there wasn’t a single drop to be seen under the aircraft.
The US Air Force mechanic shrugged his shoulders helplessly; then someone came with a ladder and tools and soon the ‘culprit’ was found under the cowling of my Starfighter. The main rubber oil pipe, strengthened with metal braiding, was faulty – the pipe, looking fine from outside, had rotted inside and become porous, so the oil from the main tank simply ran out.
With this shattering diagnosis, my F-104 was grounded. Nobody could know what damage had already been done to the engine; in all cases it had to be changed. We telephoned back and forth, until a Luftwaffe C-160 Transall transport with mechanics from the German Air Force base Hohn (near Rendsburg) was con-firmed for the following Thursday.

We used the compulsory break to continue our visit of Iceland with a rented VW Golf. The island was quite an experience; we could hardly believe the vastness and isolation. We met single people in the most remote areas who were fishing and camping. I had the impression that quite a few Icelanders drove an extra two hours through the wilderness just to be completely alone.

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Engaging, beautifully illustrated and fascinating, The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes.

When the team of engineers arrived from Germany on Thursday, my F-104 was already standing in the large aircraft hangar. The armed US guard observed the repair of my bird with interest. In no time at all the experts unscrewed and removed the tail of the F-104. Soon the new engine was in and the men did an obligatory test run in front of the hangar. Everything okay! Then the ‘social’ bit followed. The engineers went back to the hangar and opened a large tool box. The American guard stood open-mouthed with amazement: Huge amounts of schnapps and beer were stored inside. With a hearty swig we toasted the good work. The navy technicians had earned themselves a well-deserved weekend in Iceland and didn’t have to be back in Germany until Monday.

Enjoy the Hush-Kit podcast here.

There was something the navy mechanics hadn’t been able to repair: the arresting hook wouldn’t lock and had to be secured with an ’abdominal bandage’ around the tail. We thanked our team and climbed into the aircraft in strong winds. As I taxied to the runway next to Schorse and accelerated, the tower reported winds of over 50 knots – a record value during my entire military career. We took to the air with some distance as the swaying in formation would have been much too dangerous. Once airborne, it became immediately calm, and we flew to Lossiemouth with a comfortable distance between the jets.
Upon touchdown, the ‘abdominal bandage’ got loose, and the arresting hook emitted a spray of sparks onto the runway. Scottish mechanics crafted the hook back firmly. It held until Eggebek.

Rolf Stünkel

(from Mach 2: Flying the F-104 Starfighter)

Which exact variant did you fly and what systems and weapons did it use?
I was on the F-104G. Here is, some data from my book:

F-104G, German Navy
 Range: 6.68m, with tip tanks 7.62m
 Length: 16.69m
 Height: 4.11m
 Wing area: 18.22m2
 Engine: General-Electric J79-GE-11A
(from 1970: also MTU J79-J1K)
 Thrust: 7150 kp (70118 N)/4450/44522 N
with/ without afterburner
 Fuel flow: 17.500 l/hr 4700 l/hr. with/with-
out afterburner
 Empty weight: 6695kg
 Take-off weight 9435 kg (F-104 G, clean)
With tip tanks 10.637kg
With 4 tip + pylon tanks 11.598 kg
With pylon tanks + AIM-9B
Sidewinder missiles 11.045 kg
 Take-off speed: 190 kts, with tip tanks 200 kts
 Cruising speed: 450 kts low level flight, Mach
0.92high level:
 Attack speed: 540-600 kts
 Maximum speed: 750 KCAS, Mach 2.0 at 36.000ft
(without external loads)
 Service ceiling: 16.750m/55.000ft
 Landing speed: 175 kts with fully extended flaps/
195 kts with “takeoff” flaps
(plus additional weight)
 Max. load factor: +7.33 g and -3 g
 Climb performance: 2 minutes to 36.000ft/17.5 NM
(example: take-off weight, with tip tanks)
 Armament: 1 x 20-mm M61A1 Vulcan gun,
A1M-9B Sidewinder missiles, 2,75 in. FFAR unguided rockets, bombs, “Kormoran” Air-to-surface missiles, AS 20/30 missiles

When did you fly the F-104 and with which service?
After training with the USAF at Luke AFB, AZ in 1977/1978 I was posted to 1st Sqn. Naval Air Wing 1 (1. Staffel, Marinefliegergeschwader 1) at Schleswig-Jagel Airbase, Schleswig-Holstein, North Germany in 1979. Jagel was originally a WW2 Luftwaffe airbase, built in 1936. After the war, it was a RAF station and then returned to the German Navy, they started with Sea Hawks.

I flew the F-104G at Jagel NAS from 1979 to 1982, when our wing changed to the TORNADO as the first branch of the entire German armed forces.

Jagel was one of two German Navy fighter/bomber bases, the other one, Eggebek (EDCG) being located just a few miles north.

What was the best thing about the F-104G?
Well… in those days, it was considered the best-looking, best-accelerating, best-climbing, fastest fighter in the GAF/FGN inventory. In other words: a sexy aircraft for any guy in his mid-twenties.

Single-seat, single-engine, so sleek you could hardly see it approaching from the front or rear, a nightmare for other aircraft. A very stable weapons platform with excellent qualities.

..and the worst thing?
From my point of view, the only drawback was its single engine. Once over the Baltic near the WP coastline, you were hoping not to have an engine failure (unlikely with the J-79) or a birdstrike (very likely).

Another well-known problem was the poor turning radius. This would have caused problems in a dogfight, e.g., with a MiG-21.

What would have been the mission of your unit had World War 3 started?
We would have been tasked to protect the Baltic Sea approaches (exits and entries for Warsaw Pact naval movements) in close cooperation with our northern allies, by recce and attacks on ships and coastal targets.

How combat effective do you believe the F-104 would have been in this mission?
Given the 1970/80s WP and NATO weapon inventory, pretty good. We had an arsenal of forward-firing weapons (the Vulcan Gatling gun, 2.75in rockets), AIM-9L and stand-off weapons such as the AS-20, AS-30 anti-ship missiles and the advanced Kormoran sea-skimming missile. Our close cooperation with the Danish Air Force and our own Navy (where we all came from) was certainly an advantage. We knew the Baltic and North Sea inside out. The Baltic became so familiar we called it “bathtub”.

How would you rate the cockpit in terms of comfort and ergonomics?

I was a slim guy in my 20s, so comfort wasn’t much of an issue. The pilot fit snugly into his office. Due to the Martin-Baker GQ-7A ejection seat, the seating position was a bit upright, if not forward, compared e.g., to the Tornado. The original F-104 C-2 seat, they said, had a more inclined backrest. Otherwise, the cockpit was cramped with switches and clock-type gages. I remember two distinct disadvantages:
If you had an external tank transfer failure, the procedure was to pull a certain CB left and aft of the pilot. It wasn’t only difficult to reach but also located too close to some other circuit breakers – impossible to be pulled out with your fingers in fire-resistant gloves. So we were issued a small “official” custom-made “CB puller” (nail puller) we carried in our flight suit pencil pockets.

Photo: Vasil Dinev via

When I started flying the F-104G, we had the standard UHF radio panel on the right hand pedestal. Frequencies were dialled in either manually with rotating knobs or as preset channels. There was no indicator in the pilot’s field of view, you always had to look way down to the right to verify the correct frequency. In formation as wingman, this meant you had the choice of losing your lead, create a collision or just count the clicks when turning the frequency wheels. Fortunately, they later installed a digital repeater indicator on the glare shield.

How would you rate the aircraft in the following categories:

A. Instantaneous turn rate
Good. The F-104 G’s low level cruising speed was 450kts. If engaged, the flight accelerated quickly to 500+. At this energy level, pulling to the clean G-limit of 7,33 (5 for practice, with external tanks) gave you a decent chance for a defensive break.

B. Sustained turn rate
Obviously not good due to the tiny wings. Therefore sustained turning in a dogfight against an adversary wasn’t a good idea.

C. Climb rate
The initial climb rate to 5000 ft at 270 kts IAS was about 48000 ft/min. It was about 35000 ft/min to FL 240 at a speed of 350 kts.

D. Range
Most operational flights were done low-level with two tip tanks, giving you a flight time with reserves of about 1:30. At 450 kts groundspeed, this meant you could fly into the Baltic Sea beyond the island of Bornholm, investigate WP ships or aircraft, do some simulated attacks and fly home to Schleswig. With four external tanks, 2+ hours were possible.

High-level or high-low-hi, you could fly to South Germany, do some simulated attacks and come back. You could reach Bordeaux on a cross-country, for instance. “High level” with external tanks meant a fairly low cruising altitude of around 25,000 ft.

E. Ease of taking off and landing
Takeoffs were straight-forward. Max afterburner, go! And be aware not to overspeed the landing gear and flaps. Any speed above 300 kts on departure was considered safe.

Landings: stable but fast. The basic approach speed was 175 kts IAS with full flaps plus 5 kts per 1,000 lbs of fuel remaining above 1,000 lbs.

That meant, your normal approach speed was typically 180+ kts. With takeoff flaps – due to a restriction or strong crosswinds on the ground – basic approach speed was 195 kts, with the same additionals.

So imagine yourself on a winter day, wet runway, strong crosswinds, with 200+ knots on final. You were always close to a limiting speed: 235 kts for the Goodyear tires, 205 for the brake chute…

if you blew the brake chute or had a malfunction, the only other option to slow down was the arresting hook. The F-104G was only certified for rear-end (end of runway) cable arrestment, so you came smoking down the runway with your hook extended, hoping you would catch that No. 3 or 4 wire before you left the runway at the departure end, perhaps forced to eject.

F. Sensors
The F-104G had no radar warning device, but a fairly good NASARR radar with ground mapping and A/A capability. Of course the AIM-9 missiles were connected to the audio equipment so you could hear the seeker-head growl. We also had an inertial navigation system, the Litton LN-3. Very few aircraft, if any, had inertial navigation. Only one contemporary airliner, the Convair 990, had it, too.

G. Ride quality at low level
The ride was great. Very stable, no heavy turbulence bumps. A true pleasure.

What was considered the greatest threat to the aircraft? (ie SAMs, MiGs etc)
We were faced with the threat of SAMs and coastal/ship AA guns, both of limited range in those days. Yes, MiGs and other WP aircraft always constituted a threat. We assumed (and know today) that the Russians and other WP forces were always armed, but had a rigid command and control system – the individual aircraft or formation would probably not engage you unless their supervisor told them so. I know from friends in the former GDR air force that they were guided 100% of the time, to a target, a runway or whatever. So if you did see e.g., an East German MiG-21 formation over the Baltic, you were expecting it to fly its track and return to home base.

What is the greatest myth about the aircraft?
Perhaps the tiny wings and their razor-sharp leading edges. The F-104 is the only cold-war fighter with such trapezoid, symmetrical wings. That’s why they called it the ‘Zipper’ or the ‘missile with a man in it’.

How do you feel about the ‘widowmaker’ nickname?

It was justified in the 1960s. Poor management, training and maintenance facilities, combined with technical problems (the ejection seat, the afterburner – just to name two) led to disaster. After Gen. Steinhoff grounded the fleet and corrected the above mentioned problems, the Starfighter was considered a normal jet with a good safety record. I joined the community well over ten later, for me it was a trustworthy and safe machine.

Tell me something I don’t know about the F-104.
Ok… did you know about the Belgian guy who performed a touch-roll-touch manoeuvre?

Or the “slow” light that came on when you were on a Mach-2 run and had to throttle back?

Or the fact that on a certain weapon delivery (pop up maneuver) you were condemned to death if you pulled up and did not select takeoff flaps before turning the aircraft inverted and pulling back down towards the target in a steep dive? Once the aircraft had that sinkrate in clean configuration, nobody could recover from that dive.

Which weapons have you test fired and what did it feel like to do this?
We regularly fired the gun against range and aerial towed targets and AS 20/30 missiles (the latter against towed sea targets).

We also dropped practise bombs on the range (DM-18 and BDU-33), high-drag and low-drag types. I did not get to fire the Kormoran.

Using our weapons, including practise bombs, is a challenging tasks. You had the “iron” gunsight and corrected for wind just by judgement. As a beginner, I forgot to arm a switch or came down the dive with excessive pitch or speed. To hit a target with an “iron” bomb, you have to be at the right place at the right time: correct altitude, pitch, speed, g-force, aimpoint and so on. Even if things looked right in the gunsight, you never scored a bomb hit if you had g’s on the aircraft or your dive angle was off. Gun firing at a ground target was fun. You felt the vibration and knew that if you did not pull up in time, you would be hit by your own rounds.

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Did you feel you would have survived a war against the USSR?
In those days, perhaps. We trusted in our mighty allies, in our own system and in our personal capabilities. The good thing about German Navy flying was that we were already in the theatre, over the Baltic sea, full of WP ships, aircraft and helicopters. It was hands-on live training.

What kind of tactics did you practice?

We usually flew in box-type formations of 4 or 6 (with escorts), totally silent and spread far apart. Once an intruder was spotted, the flight accelerated to high speed and dove down on the “deck” over the sea.

We were constantly training on the firing range, at altitude (for basic fighter manoeuvres) and in large formations against a target, bounced by an attacker.

Which other aircraft types have you flown?
Before the F-104G: Training aircraft. For pilot screening, the P-149D piston aircraft. In the US, the Cessna T-37 and the Northrop T-38. In the Navy, the F-104G and the Tornado. I left the Navy in 1989 to join Lufthansa. I flew the B737, 747, A320, A330, A340, A350 (the latter four as captain) and retired in 2019.

Today, I’m a type rating instructor (TRI) on the A320 and a flight instructor for PPL.

Interview with Convair F-106 Delta Dart pilot

Sleek, sophisticated and supersonic, the F-106 was an interceptor tasked with defending North America. 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. The Genie rocket – this was a small nuclear warhead unguided rocket that was intended to detonate in front of attacking Soviet bombers and by its resultant blast, destroy multiple numbers of aircraft. 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 US Gallon 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.

– Intro by Peter Day

Paul Worcestor flew the F-106 as an Air National Guard member assigned solely to the 102nd Fighter Wing for 30 years. He flew the Six from September 1979 to December 1987. 

What were you first impressions of the aircraft?  As a young 2nd Lieutenant with barely 200 total flying hours, I was pretty overwhelmed with its complexity but loved its performance. 

What was the best feature of the aircraft? Its ability to cruise at very high altitudes and very high speed. High-altitude cruise – we often would cruise around 0.92 mach or greater if fuel was less of an issue in reaching whatever was our destination. The Dart would readily cruise above 40,000 feet with ease. The older generation of Dart pilots would say they would often fly above 50,000 feet when wearing pressure suits. This 50,000 foot limitation was in-place when I started to fly her. 

. ..and the worst?  It had no flaps, no ABS braking, and landed at very high speeds and in conjunction with that delta wing, it could be a real handful with crosswinds when trying aero-brake to stop.

On my during my last ‘Bear’ intercept.

Describe the aircraft in three words?  Fast, Fetching, and Fun! 

What was your unit’s role and did you ever intercept Soviet aircraft? We had primary NORAD air defense responsibilities for the busy northeast corridor. Yes, I intercepted pairs of Russian Bears on three separate occasions – September 1981, and twice a week apart in April 1982.

What stands out as the aircraft’s best piece of equipment?  Perhaps the AIR-2A Genie rocket – certainly as a deterrence weapon. 

. ..and what was its worst?  The Falcon missiles. Falcon missiles – were actually “hitttiles.” These air-to-air guided missiles had no proximity fuses and had to penetrate the adversary’s aircraft in order to set off the “crushable” fuses in the missile fins. Also, their success as an air-to-air weapon was marginal to okay depending on the jamming environment, adversary counter-measures, etc. 

How good were the sensors? For its day, they were extraordinary and ahead of their time.  

How effective were its weapons?  There was no beating the nuclear rocket, but the missiles were its challenge

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Please describe your most memorable mission

I had so many. I would have to say my first Soviet Bear intercept when I was paired with my good friend (we were both young lieutenants) and professionally escorted the pair down the east coast. I think senior leadership was a bit concerned “the kids” would screw it up! We didn’t! About three plus years later I had a mid-air collision at night with my vice wing commander. I was hit from behind and lost six feet of wing. I managed to land it at an air force base 40 miles away and my commander ejected from his. He hired me into the Air Guard so it was hard to be mad at him! Lol. We remained very close friends until his death in 2014.   

What was life like in your unit, what was the recreational side like? We were a Guard unit, so most members were employed elsewhere, mainly with the commercial airlines, so our social interactions took place as planned events vs. the active duty day-to-day living together on base. However, we played hard when we did!   

Tell me something I don’t know about the F-106?  I’d have to kill you for this! Lol. Gee, I guess you might not know the Six had a fully integrated flight and weapons control system whereby air defense ground crews could provide targets electronically on the jet’s display maps and actually fly the jet from their location on the ground via a data link. Pretty advanced system.  

How would you rate it in the following categories:

A. Sustained turn – not so good. 

B. Instantaneous turn – fantastic with that big delta wing but watch out for adverse yaw!  
C. Crispness of controls – very responsive fighter. 
D. Ergonomics – like most century series fighters, it was terrible. Switch locations were challenging and pre-upgrade instrumentation was awful. 
E. Climb rate – while it was not an F-15, it was pretty impressive! 
F. Range – extraordinary especially when air traffic control approved your cruise in the 40,000 foot range .

Complete this sentence: The F-106 is/was… a NORAD game-changer! 

What should I have asked you?  So you flew the F-15 after years in the F-106, what one did you like better? The F-15 was far more lethal, but the F-106 was far more challenging and fun to fly. No matter where you flew the Dart, people clamoured around you to see it up close and talk with you about it!    

Top 10 Criminally Overlooked Aircraft at RAF Museum London (formerly RAF Museum Hendon)

In an assuming suburb in North-West London can be found the fabulous RAF Museum London (though to Hush-Kit it will always be Hendon). As well as a wealth of A-listers including Spitfires, an English Electric Lightning and a Vulcan, it is home to world-class machines often criminally overlooked by more casual visitors. Hush-Kit asked Dr Peter Johnston, Head of Collections & Research at the museum, to share his favourite overlooked aeroplanes.

The Wild Goose project was developed to explore the advantages of variable-geometry or swing-wing aircraft. Sweeping wings backwards improved an aircraft’s shape for travelling at high speed. The aircraft was tested using unmanned models. These models were launched from a trolley and controlled by radio. Dr Barnes Wallis its designer who had previously invented the bouncing bomb reportedly claimed that more time was spent on designing the control system for the models than on the design for the aircraft itself. Wild Goose was never fully realised but its swing-wing concept continued to playa part in future aircraft designs. It is currently on display in the RAF – First to the Future exhibition in Hangar 1.

(Hush-Kit would like to thank Ajay Srivastava for his help in creating this article)

10. Bristol Beaufighter TF.X

The Beaufighter strike fighter, with its formidable armament, operated with distinction in North West Europe. Unlike the more famous Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft, it was also able to translate its success to different theatres, gaining a considerable reputation in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Operated by both the British and Australian air forces in the Far East it quickly became known to the Japanese as the ‘Whispering Death.’

This is a long way from the Beaufighter’s origins as a domestic night fighter. The prototype flew on 17 July 1939 and the first production Beaufighters were delivered to the Royal Air Force in the following April. The type was the first high performance night fighter equipped with airborne interception radar and successfully operated against the German night raids in the winter of 1940-1941. Later the Beaufighter was introduced into Coastal Command as a strike fighter. Its original formidable gun armament was retained but rockets and torpedoes were added giving it an even greater fire power.

5,562 Beaufighters had been produced by the time the last one was delivered in September 1945 and fifty-two operational Royal Air Force squadrons had been equipped with the type.

After its withdrawal from operational use many Beaufighters were converted to target tug duties and in fact the last flight of the type in Royal Air Force service took place on 17 May 1960 when a TT10 made a final target towing flight from Seletar.

9. Hawker Hart II

First flown in July 1928, the Hart day bomber was one of the most advanced aircraft of its time with exceptional capability. Although designed as a bomber it had a performance superior to any fighter aircraft then in existence.

Over four-hundred Harts were built for the Royal Air Force and seven home-based regular bomber squadrons were equipped as well as eleven auxiliary and reserve units. Less than two years after its introduction into service at home, Harts were being used by overseas squadrons in the Middle East and India.

With such an exceptional basic design Sydney Camm and the Hawker team were able to develop later versions. The Audax, Demon, Hardy, Hind and the Hector all show clearly how important the Hart influence was on a whole era of British aircraft design. A number of these later types saw limited operational use in World War Two. So advanced was the performance of the Hart bomber and its derivatives that the Royal Air Force’s training aircraft were incapable of providing adequate experience to the Service’s pilots. A trainer version of the Hart was therefore designed in 1932.

Ultimately, the Hart was one of a series of similar Hawker aircraft which were the mainstay of the Royal Air Force during the 1930s, which is perhaps why it is overlooked. As an interwar aircraft, it also suffers from serving in a period that is too often overlooked in favour of the conlficts that bracketed it, particularly the Second World War given the famous Hawker aircraft that fought there. Yet the Hart, and its variants, were instrumental in enabling the Royal Air Force to operate effectively in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world.

8. Consolidated B24 Liberator

Although often overshadowed by the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator was built in greater numbers than any other US military aircraft and served with distinction in both war and peace.

The first B-24 Liberator made its maiden flight on 29 December 1939. It had been designed by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation to rival and improve on the Boeing B-17, the type proved an outstanding success, with 18,500 aircraft being built by Consolidated, Douglas, North American and Ford between 1940 and 1945.

The RAF was the second-largest operator of Liberators. 1,900 B-24s were supplied to the Royal Air Force via purchase and through Lend Lease, with some of the earliest aircraft having originally been intended for France and the French l’Armée de l’Air in 1940 that were never developed. Others were transferred directly in theatre, bringing the RAF’s total to just over 2,000.

Liberators were used by RAF bomber squadrons in the Middle East, and from January 1944 became the principal RAF strategic bomber in the Far East. Liberators were also deployed by RAF Coastal Command, playing a key role in the war against Germany’s submarine fleet. Liberators also saw service as transports; indeed, (AL504 Commando) became the personal aircraft of Prime Minister Winston Churchill for a short time. While the Liberator is often overlooked in favour of the Lancaster and Halifax, and it’s public recognition undoubtedly suffers from the greater public attention given to the role of bombers in the strategic air offensive against Germany, it played a major role in the RAF’s war.

Liberators continued in use until December 1968 when the Indian Air Force retired its former RAF machines, and the Liberator on display in the Hangar 5 in London was presented to the Museum by the Indian Government in 1974.

7. Sepecat Jaguar GR.1

The Sepecat Jaguar was a tactical support and ground-attack aircraft, and the result of a joint Anglo-French design programme. As well as serving with RAF, it also served with the French and Indian air forces. Eight first-line RAF squadrons were equipped with the Jaguar from 1974 and was a major element in RAF Germany’s Cold-War era air capability until supplanted by the Tornado in 1985.

The biggest user of the Jaguar was RAF Germany where it was operated by five squadrons. Four squadrons were based at RAF Brüggen, the first of which, No. 14 Squadron stood up in April 1975, where Jaguars began replacing Phantoms in the strike/attack/reconnaissance role thereby releasing Phantoms to replace Lightnings in the Air Defence role; and it was to No. 14 Squadron that the Museum’s XX824 was delivered in late 1975. The fifth Squadron, No. 2 Squadron, stationed at Laarbruch operated Jaguar in the Tactical Reconnaissance role.

Of 400 Jaguars built 203 were delivered to the RAF. Jaguars of the Coltishall Strike Wing performed sterling work in the Gulf War of 1991 destroying Iraqi artillery and missile positions during Operation Desert Storm.

Jaguars were due to be used again in the skies over Iraq during the 2003 invasion, but the Turkish government forbade coalition aircraft based in Turkey from participating in the invasion and despite the recent upgrades, a Defence White Paper in 2004 brought forward the retirement of the type by two years with an out of service date of October 2007. With only five days’ notice this date was brought forward to 30th April 2007.

This rather hurried timetable meant that the Jaguar was slipped rather unnoticed into the pages of RAF history. But it had played a significant role in the RAF. For ten years from the mid-1970s it was the lead strike/attack aircraft of the RAF, and it was also the first aircraft in RAF service to be produced by an international partnership – a model which is now common in military aircraft design and production.

6. Sopwith Triplane

The world of First World War aviation is dominated by certain ideas and aircraft types. Thanks to Biggles, there is an enduring affection for the Sopwith Camel, and even for the S.E.5 of Wilks. When it comes to triplanes, few people look beyond Richthofen. Yet few realise that the Sopwith Triplane on display in Hanger 2 is both British and also played a major role in Richthofen’s rise to enduring fame.

The Sopwith Triplane prototype appeared in May 1916 and was found to be highly manoeuvrable with a phenomenal rate of climb. Both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service ordered the type but policy changes led to the Triplane only being used by the Royal Naval Air Service fighter squadrons on the Western Front.

Several of the Royal Naval Air Squadron pilots scored many victories while flying the type and it made such a profound impression on the Germans that a specific request was made to their aircraft manufacturers to design and produce triplane fighters. Only the Fokker Dr1 was built in quantity and it gained fame as the aircraft frequently flown by Richthofen. The triplane concept had a brief life and in less than two years it had been eclipsed by the new and more powerful biplane fighters on both sides.

5. de Havilland Vampire F3

The Vampire was a first generation jet fighter which saw service in the immediate post-war period with Royal Air Force front-line fighter squadrons in the United Kingdom and Germany, followed by further service with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

Work on the design of the DH100 began in May 1942 and the prototype made its first flight on 20 September 1943. Originally called the Spider Crab it was re-named Vampire when ordered into production for the Royal Air Force. The first aircraft did not become available until 1945 and the Vampire did not enter service until the early summer of 1946.

The Vampire F3 was a long-range version of the basic F1, with a re-designed tail unit. On 14 July 1948 six Vampire 3s of No.54 Squadron became the first ever jet aircraft to fly across the Atlantic under their own power.

This small unsophisticated aircraft, of relatively unusual design, was viewed with great fondness by many pilots who nicknamed it the ‘aerial kiddy car.’ Unassuming – almost comical in appearance – and as part of that transition from piston to jet engine, it is often overlooked.

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4. Bristol Belvedere HC1

Before the Chinook cam the Belvedere. The Belvedere was the Royal Air Force’s first twin engined, twin rotor helicopter to enter service. It was designed to carry supplies and freight – up to 2,720kg – in support of the British Army.

During its operational service Great Britain began the slow and sometimes painful task of withdrawing from its Empire and this aircraft was involved in many of those operations in the Middle and Far East. In 1963 the Belvederes of No. 26 Squadron based in Aden (now part of Yemen) operated against rebels in then-Tanganyika, now Tanzania, and then saw service in support of the Army in the Aden Emergency of 1963-67. It’s heavy lift capability proved crucial there.

In the Far East, belvederes of No. 66 Squadron were active in support of Army operations during the Brunei revolt of 1962-66. It was in this campaign that the aircraft received their nickname (which passed to the Squadron) of ‘the Flying Long-houses’, as the indigenous people had no word for helicopter in their language.

Unfortunately, the Belvedere suffered a number of problems, including a propensity to catch fire, and for this reason its service life was cut short. It’s relative short service period of just 8 years, and its involvement in the retreat from Empire, means it is not a recognisable as a type, and as such is sometimes neglected in a visit to the museum.

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3. Lockheed Hudson IIIA

The Lockheed Hudson was a military version of the American Lockheed 14 Super Electra airliner and was ordered for the Royal Air Force in June 1938. Hudsons entered service with Coastal Command in 1939. Used extensively over United Kingdom waters on anti-submarine and general reconnaissance duties, Hudsons were also used overseas. In total, the RAF received just over 2,000 Hudsons, 800 of which were purchased, the remainder supplied under American Lend-Lease contracts.

When Hudsons reached obsolescence in the maritime role they were stripped of their armament and re-employed as transports. Some of these aircraft were used in the very hazardous task of carrying Allied agents into and out of Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Hudson can claim an impressive list of firsts including being the first Allied aircraft to shoot down an enemy while operating from the British Isles. It was also the first aircraft to capture a U-boat when U-570 surrendered to a No.269 Squadron Hudson on 27 August 1941.
A Hudson was also the first aircraft equipped to carry airborne lifeboats for air sea rescue duties.

However, it was never in the forefront of wartime publicity, and the role of Coastal Command is likewise neglected in public recognition in favour of Bomber and Fighter Command. As such, the Hudson is often overlooked by our visitors, despite its significant history.

2. Fiat CR.42 Falco

Designed by Celestino Rosatelli, the Italian Fiat CR.42 was the last single-seat biplane fighter to be manufactured by any Second World War combatant. CR.42s took part in the invasion of Southern France, where early success gave a misleading impression of its combat performance and Italian tactics, and later fought against the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

While it was the best biplane in service in 1940, the CR.42 was completely outclassed by RAF fighters in the Battle of Britain. Those that were committed suffered many losses. Its armament of two machine guns was no more than a First World War fighter and it was unable to inflict major damage on its opponents

In October 1940, this CR.42 served with the ‘Corpo Aereo Italiano’. It force-landed at Orford Ness on 11 November 1940 during an Italian air raid on Harwich. The pilot, Pietro Salvadori, was taken prisoner and his aircraft was later repaired and tested by the RAF. It is one of only two intact, original CR.42s in existence and forms part of the Museum’s ‘Fighter Four’ display, a unique collection of the four principal single-seat fighters engaged in the Battle of Britain, each a genuine survivor of that conflict.

Yet because the role of the Italians in the Battle of Britain is not generally as well known, the casual museum visitor might see the biplane and think it belongs to a different era, and overlook its remarkable history

  1. Supermarine Stranraer

The Supermaine Stranraer was the final development of the Southampton flying boat to be put into production and was one of the world’s last biplane flying boats.

A production contract was placed in August 1935 for seventeen aircraft. The first joined No.228 Squadron at Pembroke Dock in early 1937. Two units were equipped with Stranraers during the early part of the Second World War. Withdrawn from operational service in March 1941, they continued to serve in a training capacity until October 1942.

Curiously, the Stranraer was built in greater numbers and had a longer service life outside the United Kingdom than with the Royal Air Force. Selected by the Royal Canadian Air Force, the type was put into production by Canadian Vickers who built forty. The Stranraer at the London site was built by Canadian Vickers at its St. Hubert, Montreal, Quebec Plant, using British equipment

Eight were in service with the Canadians at the outbreak of war. Hese aircraft were used for patrol duties both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They were finally retired from service in February 1945.

After retirement from service use, several Stranraers were registered for civil use. Queen Charlotte Airlines continued to use Stranraers into the 1950s, operating from Vancouver and providing a service along the pacific coast of British Columbia.

The Stranraer is the only aircraft at the RAF Museum site that has never moved, remaining in the same place since the museum first opened 50 years ago. While many visitors many be drawn to the Fighter Four from the Battle of Britain, or the Lancaster, they risk missing a key component of the Museum’s collection.

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Top Ten Criminally Overlooked Aircraft at the RAF Museum Midlands (formerly RAF Museum Cosford)

The RAF Museum Midlands (formerly RAF Museum Cosford) in the United Kingdom has one of the greatest collections of military aircraft in the world. We asked Tom Hopkins, Curator of Aircraft and Exhibits, at the museum to choose 10 aircraft often criminally overlooked by visitors.

(Hush-Kit would like to thank Ajay Srivastava for his help)

10. Bristol M.1C

Asked to think about aviation in the First World War, and most people would probably visualise bi- or even triplanes battling in the skies over France. If we think of monoplanes at all, then the German Eindecker series probably comes to mind – the villains of the ‘Fokker Scourge’ between July 1915 and early 1916.

However, the British also operated a small number of a single monoplane type during the War. Owing to an institutional distrust of monoplanes, only 125 Bristol M.1C airframes would be ordered. The M.1C’s streamlined design, and the lower drag experienced by the absence of a second pair of wings, resulted in an impressive performance, with a top speed approaching 130 mph/ 210 km/h. A small number were deployed to Palestine, where they were reasonably effective at deterring Turkish reconnaissance flights over allied positions. The M.1C proved even more successful on the Macedonian front, where the flying ace Captain Frederick Dudley Travers scored five of his nine kills.

Despite these successes, the M.1C was never deployed operationally to France and the type was quickly withdrawn from service at the close of the War in 1918. The RAF would not see another monoplane fighter until the introduction of the Hawker Hurricane in late 1937.

As well as an impressive top speed, the M.1C also had a respectable service ceiling. A Chilean example, piloted by Dagoberto Godoy, was the first aircraft to fly over the Andes.

9. Gloster Gladiator

From an early monoplane, we turn to a late biplane. In fact, the Gloster Gladiator was the last biplane fighter to enter service with the RAF, which it did in early 1937. This was around the same time that the Germans were introducing the Messerschmitt Bf 109, two years after the Soviets introduced the Polikarpov I-16, and five years after the Americans introduced the Boeing P-26 ‘Peashooter’ monoplanes. This goes to show just how committed the Air Ministry were to biplane designs, even as they became increasingly obsolete. That said, the Gladiator did have some modern features. It was the first RAF fighter aircraft to have an enclosed cockpit, and its armament of four .303 machine guns was double that of its predecessors.

Nonetheless, by the outbreak of the Second World War, the Gladiator was very much outclassed by newer designs. Relegated to secondary theatres, it performed better against less formidable opposition. In Malta, Gladiators flown by Fleet Air Arm and RAF pilots held their own against the Italian Air Force. For a time the Gladiator was the only aircraft type defending the islands, before they could be reinforced by Hurricanes. Gladiators also served with the British in Norway, North and East Africa, Greece, Iraq, and Syria.

The last known Gladiator victory of the War went not to the British but to the Finns, when in February 1943 a Soviet Polikarpov R-5 was shot down during the Continuation War.

State -of-the-art it was not, but the Gladiator deserves recognition for being the last and most advanced biplane fighter to serve with the RAF.

8. Boulton Paul Defiant

British aerial defence planning in the 1930s was dominated by anxiety about invincible enemy bomber streams bringing the fight right up to the towns and cities of the UK. In many respects this anxiety was not unfounded. Slow, hulking Zeppelins had brought terror in the First World War – but now bombs were carried by fast and sleek aircraft. Creative solutions had to be sought to address this menace, and one of the more radical ones was the concept of a turret fighter.

Early experiments had seen the Hawker Demon fitted with a hydraulically powered turret, but it was clear that something faster than this biplane was needed. So was born the Defiant. Able to push 300mph, its four-gun turret was able to operate across a very broad field of fire. This would allow a Defiant to catch up with and get itself into the best position possible to engage enemy bombers. The concept was promising, and the Navy even ordered their own turret fighter – the Blackburn Roc.

With the outbreak of War, the Defiant did score some successes but proved to be far too vulnerable to enemy fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109. It was quickly withdrawn to nightfighting duties, and in turn was replaced in this role from 1943 onwards.

As an aircraft type, the Defiant may have been underwhelming. But we are lucky to have an ex-307 squadron example at the RAF Museum Midlands. Not only is it the only Defiant to survive today, it was also built only a few miles from the Museum in nearby Wolverhampton.

7. Gloster Javelin

Anxiety about enemy bombers did not entirely go away with the end of the Second World War. The dawning of the nuclear age occurred with increasingly capable strategic bombers. By 1949, the Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear device and had successfully introduced the Tu-4, an unlicenced and reverse-engineered version of the B-29 Superfortress. By the early 1950s, the first Soviet jet bombers were entering service.

The British needed an aircraft that could fly fast and high enough to counter these new threats, around the clock and in all weathers. The Javelin’s huge and distinctive delta wing accommodated fuel, four ADEN canon and up to four Firestreak missiles. An extra crewmember sat behind the pilot to operate the navigation and radar equipment. Although untested in combat, the Javelin would have been more than capable of outpacing the first generations of Soviet Bombers when it entered service in 1956.  

Despite its striking appearance and adequate capabilities, the Javelin had a relatively short service life. By 1968 the last examples were replaced in the interceptor role by the poster-boy of Cold War RAF interceptors – the English Electric Lightning. The Javelin may have been less popular with air show crowds than its supersonic successor, but it nevertheless formed an important part of the UK’s air defences for over a decade.

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6. Canadair Sabre

One fighter of the 1950s had an even shorter service life with the RAF than the Javelin. The Canadair Sabre was a Canadian-built version of the American F-86 Sabre, provided to the British with American funding from late 1952. The context to this procurement was the appearance of the MiG-15 in the Korean War (1950-53), which had given the West a bit of a shock. The MiGs certainly outperformed the Meteors operated by the Royal Australian Air Force in Korea, and earlier American jets like the F-80 Shooting Star. The USAF rushed their F-86s Sabres into the War, where they proved a more formidable opponent to the Soviet jet.

Back in the UK, the RAF’s fighter strength was formed mostly of Meteors and Vampires. Newer types, such as the Hunter and the (ultimately far less successful) Swift would not start to be introduced until 1954. In part, the Sabre was procured as a stop-gap measure to ensure that the RAF had a fighter able to tackle an increasingly sophisticated Soviet Air Force in Europe. As soon as the more modern British-designed fighters came online, the Sabres were returned to US ownership. They were then gifted by the Americans to the Italians and (in the wake of the Tito-Stalin split) to Yugoslavia. This process was completed by 1958.

That short service life is probably one of the reasons why we think of Sabres with the silver finish of the USAF rather than the green and grey of the RAF.

5. Avro Lincoln

Ask someone to think about British bombers, and it is likely they will come up with two key groups – the three four-engined ‘heavies’ of the Second World War (Stirling/ Halifax/ Lancaster), or the three V-bombers of the Cold War (Valiant/ Victor / Vulcan). What is less obvious in the public consciousness is what came in between these two groups.

The Avro Lincoln was a development of the Lancaster. It was longer, had a wider wingspan, a higher top speed, a higher service ceiling, and a longer range. It was an all-round improvement on the Lancaster, but its introduction into service right at the very close of the Second World War meant that it played no combat role in that conflict. Perhaps that is why the Lincoln is largely forgotten amongst its immediate predecessors, but as a type they nonetheless played an important role in the RAF.

The Lincoln saw service during the Mau Mau rebellion (1952–1960) and the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960). It was also exported to Argentina, and produced in Australia for the RAAF. In total, over 600 airframes were built – not an inconsiderable number for a large aircraft that came online during a period of acute defence cuts. Replaced by the Canberra and the V-Bombers, the Lincoln nonetheless remained in service with the RAF until 1963, being last used in the signals development role.

4. Avro York

Just as the Lincoln was derived from the Lancaster, so was the Avro York. As a specialised transport aircraft, the York had a very similar tail (with just one extra fin) and wings to the Lancaster. It had the same configuration of four Rolls Royce Merlin engines mounted in nacelles under forward of the wings’ leading edges. Many of the components found in the York were identical to those found in the Lancaster. The real difference between the two was to be found in the York’s square-sectioned fuselage. This may have made for a boxy and ungainly appearance, but it gave the York around double the internal capacity of the Lancaster – an important consideration when it comes to humping freight and people over long distances!

Unlike the Lincoln, the York was introduced to service before the end of the War. However, with priority given to building bombers, production of the York proceeded at a slow pace, before accelerating in the post-war climate.

With the RAF, the York is most famous for its role in transporting Winston Churchill (amongst other VIPs) all over the World, as well as flying as a blockade runner during the Berlin Air Lift. While an important aircraft to the RAF in terms of logistics, the York will probably never win any prizes for beauty.

3. Short Belfast

Any discussion of transport aircraft in RAF service cannot leave out the mighty Short Belfast. With a wingspan approaching 160ft, and an empty weight of nearly 60 tonnes, the Belfast is by some definitions the largest airframe in the RAF Museum’s collection. At its very best performance, it could fly over 350mph and had a ferry range of over 6000 miles. It was capable of carrying cargo including a single tank, or up to four Westland Whirlwind helicopters, or up to 150 fully-equipped troops. When it was introduced in 1966, it was the largest aircraft to be operated by the RAF had yet operated.

For such impressive statistics, its perhaps surprising to hear that only ten Belfasts were ever completed. Shorts had proposed a number of derivatives for the civilian market, but no orders were forthcoming. The RAF retired the Belfast in 1976 after just ten years’ service, before selling of their second-hand airframes to various civil operators. One was flying in Australia as recently as 2004. One suspects the success of Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules came at the expense of the Belfast. Ironically, the RAF would later charter the services of these civilian Belfasts for jobs which were just too big for the Hercules to manage.

2. Douglas Thor

Now this is strictly a missile and not an aircraft, but it is a pretty big one. Standing at 65ft (19.82m), the Douglas Thor makes for an impressive sight in the Museum’s National Cold War Exhibition. As an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) with a range of 1500 miles, the Thor formed part of the UK’s nuclear arsenal between 1959 and 1963. 60 missiles were operational, spread across 20 bases in Eastern England.

It is safe to say that the Thor has been relatively forgotten in the face of the V-Bombers, and later submarine-based Polaris and Trident ballistic missile systems. This is partly due to their relatively short service life of just four years, straddling some of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. And maybe it is partly because the Thor just was not very good.

Unlike many American ballistic missile systems, the Thors were not kept underground in protected silos, but entirely above ground. Before being launched, they would need to be raised into position and fueled – a process that took around 15 minutes. If they were fuelled and not launched, the liquid oxygen present in the propellent would freeze certain components, and it would be some hours before the missile could be used again. In the face of an incoming ‘four-minute warning’ of impending nuclear attack, one wonders how much use the Thor would have been.

1. Fairchild Argus

The unimposing Fairchild Argus is the smallest aircraft on our list. It might appear to be just a civilian sporting aircraft in camouflage colours, and to an extent that is exactly what it is. The Argus was a commercially successful light aircraft that was produced from 1932. The USAAF showed an interest in acquiring the type for communications and light transport work and placed a contract, but under the Lend-Lease Act, these were transferred to the UK.

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As well as being operated by the RAF, the Argus served with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ATA was a civilian organisation, tasked with ferrying new aircraft from factories to airfields, and damaged aircraft from airfields to maintenance units. While an ATA pilot could expect to fly all sorts of aircraft types in use with the RAF, the service also needed a fleet of dedicated taxi aircraft to move crews in between jobs – and the Argus was just the right fit.

The history of the Second World War is about production and logistics just as much as it is about incredible machines and individual acts of bravery. Without the ATA and its Argus fleet, the RAF simply could not have operated on the scale that it did. The Argus might not have the glamour of the  Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito or Lancaster, but in its own way it made a massive impact on the British war effort.

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Ten Reasons I loved Flying The Sea Harrier FA2

“Have a look at number two’s flaps. They are UP not at MID like the rest of ours. Silly boy. I was number 3.”

Paul Tremelling flew the ultimate Sea Harrier, the formidable FA2, with Britain’s Royal Navy. This Cold War naval fighter was equipped with some of the most capable weapons and sensors in the world, and proved a dangerous opponent to those who underestimated the tenacious little jump-jet. As Paul explains, the Sea Harrier could also bite pilots who didn’t handle it with due care. Deadly, unique and characterful, those who flew the Sea Harrier inevitably fell in love with it. Here Paul shares ten fascinating reasons why he loved flying what was affectionately known as the ‘SHAR’.

“…if you flew a Sea Harrier in the speed band of 30-120 knots, with sideslip  – the jet had a little treat for you. It flipped over and you died.”

10. The boat

I know, it’s a ship. I said it just to annoy the people who get annoyed by that sort of thing. Going to the ship is special. It’s a heart-warming experience finding a slate grey bit of the UK bobbing around on the sea. Especially when your fuel plan allows you for not much more that ‘find ship and land’ at the end of a tactical rough and tumble. The only issue with a ship being our base was that absolutely everything became harder. It moved, in the sense of not being where it was supposed to be 100% of the time. It moved, in the sense of it would actually be pitching, heaving and rolling (and yawing) when you were trying to land on it. But it was home and it made us (almost) unique. It’s probably impossible to be almost unique. Being in the ship made things harder. It was harder to move between briefing rooms, it was harder to make phone calls to coordinate with other assets. It was harder to find your immersion suit. But it was also the most exciting form of ‘fast jet’ aviation available to a British pilot and it made you good at what you did. It put you in a variety of corners and offered you a simple choice – cope or be gone. There were plenty of differences to operating ashore that seem obvious but you did need to learn them. Things like having your ejection seat live whenever you were in the aeroplane. This wasn’t a thing at an airfield because the chances of you falling off an airfield and into the sea whilst strapped to a jet are minimal or nil. If you pitch up at an airfield either before or after your allotted landing time it is doubtful that you’ll have messed up the entire day for everyone who works there – that’s possible on a ship! There is also the much misunderstood notion of being amongst a platform’s primary outputs. This should not result in arrogance. This should result in humility and a desire to get things right. If a whole ship’s company is there to put you into the battlespace (repeat – amongst other key tasks) you had better not screw it up!

9. The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile

The Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile was, and remains, your best bet for coming home alive if you happen to get into an air-to-air engagement with someone else. It is on the one hand the weapon that sets the standard for all others and, because anyone who was sensible bought them, it is also the currency medium-range weapon of the free world. The Sea Harrier got it a little before everyone else and it was perfectly integrated into the machine. It seemed to have a holy marriage with the Blue Vixen and could be used to bring pain to the enemy in any weather by day or night. It is the AIM-120 and Blue Vixen combination that took the Falkland era FRS Mk 1 which was a simple jet with moveable nozzles – to the FA2 standard which was a decent air defender. The real joy of the Sea Harrier setup was that most aircraft at the time were used to enormous amounts of energy being needed to guide weapons onto them. This allowed them to use their warning receivers to detect weapons being launched at them. Not the Blue Vixen and AMRAAM combo. Sadly [or happily] never used in combat by the UK.

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8. The corners

There would be no real point in mastering a jet which didn’t need to be mastered in the first place. Part of being the pilot of a British machine was to acknowledge and overcome its shortcomings (one day we’ll invent something foible-free) or to avoid them altogether. The Sea Harrier had a couple of corners one had to avoid. It might sound a little far-fetched – but if you flew a Sea Harrier in the speed band of 30-120 knots, with sideslip, i.e. not going straight forward and with a raised angle of attack – the jet had a little treat for you. It flipped over and you died. Full stop; unless you were very quick at getting rid of one of those three conditions. You could fly around all day with two out of the three and be safe as houses – but all three brought doom, and quickly. Similarly, if you wanted a relaxing day at the office you knew how much fuel and water could be on board for the jet to hover and you never attempted to see what happened above those weights. Simple answer – a crash. The jet was actually quite good at telling you whether or not you could hover as the power the engine was developing as you passed 100 knots decelerating could give you an accurate estimation of that needed to hover. The last thing to be avoided at all cost was to go anywhere near the ramp without first having done the calculations to determine minimum and maximum deck run. If you tried to go from less than the minimum then you crashed. If you went from beyond the maximum it caused the nose wheel to collapse and, well, you crashed. Knowing and avoiding these corners was, in many ways, what being a Sea Harrier pilot was all about – bending this fabulous machine to your will!

7. The ramp

Let’s be honest, few people understand VSTOL, fewer people understand VIFF, fewer still understand the ramp. Think of it as a ballistic throw that allows you to accelerate on a runway that isn’t there. There were a couple of things to get right going off the ramp. As we mentioned above there was a maximum and minimum deck run that needed to be calculated on every launch. This would depend on aircraft weight, air temperature/pressure and individual engine performance. It would result in the two distances – and the nozzle setting to be used, snatched in by the left hand at ramp exit and also the tailplane setting. If you had a very short run the ramp looked like a wall in front of you. The minimum deck run was 200 feet. Any shorter and the engine would not spool up in time as you launched.

Early ramp test with Sea Harrier FRS.1 carried out on land.

On the boat, the technique was relatively simple and once all other procedures had been followed and the launch was ordered by the ship and one had been shown a green flag – it really was just a case of waiting. Waiting for the ramp to be going down through the far horizon before a smart slam to full power. By holding the brakes it was possible to momentarily delay travel to check that the engine appeared to be fine, before the aircraft skidded and it was time to release the brakes and go! The pilot pointed at the centre of the ramp, which by this time would be going back up and snatched in nozzle as jet parted company with ship. At night this took you from dim light to abyss in a heartbeat. A pretty cool way of defeating gravity. Whilst we’re on the subject – night approaches to the ship in a VSTOL fighter, without any night vision aid – is about as high end as it gets.

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This wasn’t just any old club. This was a club that was forged in a pretty gnarly furnace called combat. It was a club whose everyday business was single-seat flying from aircraft carriers. It had a heritage that harked back to one of the modern world’s most decisive air power results – the besting of everything that Argentina could throw at the Task Force. Sure, there are modern and accurate examinations of the war that throw new light on the efficacy of the Argentine attack – and yes the main attribute of the Sea Harrier itself was that it was there. But the Royal Navy and RAF aircrew who fought in the Falklands conflict and the maintenance personnel who gave them jet after serviceable jet – set a tone and an expectation that the community carried forward for its whole service life. This did lend itself to some of the training becoming a little bit of a rite of passage – but who would want to join a club that didn’t have some form of barrier to entry? Who would let sub-standard applicants into a club they cherished? Perhaps club is the wrong term, perhaps ‘community’ is a better one. Whatever we decide it doesn’t really matter – what mattered was that one way or another you were thought of as being connected to some amazing aviators, maintainers and other squadron personnel – who gave a land-based air force and its maritime sister service a kicking the world will never forget. 5000 miles away from home, operating from two smallish aircraft carriers. Every day as a Sea Harrier pilot is your job was to be a worthy successor to them.

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6. Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFFing)

 If V/STOL (see below) was about using the nozzles to take off and land efficiently, Vectoring In Forward Flight was the science/ art of using them to increase the combat effectiveness of the aircraft. Combat effectiveness is really only made up of two things. Lethality and survivability. In air-to-air combat it’s all about getting a weapon off at your adversary, from a position that it will actually work – whilst denying him/ her the chance to do the same. VIFF is, on the face of it, quite simple and is about moving the nozzles, whilst in flight, to point the thrust somewhere other than straight back. The nozzles could be used to bring the nose to bear when aerodynamic forces had already given their all. They could also be used to tighten turns towards an enemy and deny them a shot opportunity by giving them a massive closure problem to deal with. One could slow down rapidly with one big movement of the nozzles or use them in small ‘bites’ to gain a little advantage at a time. Again the nozzles were controlled using the simple lever on the left-hand side of the cockpit. If jet combat is quite a trial on the body, eyesight, inner ear and various other human bits and pieces – the injection of vectored thrust adds a further degree of brutality. What usually happened with nozzles was that people used them in a cycle. An application of nozzle would give you an advantage in a fight, for example using them fully forward to kill your speed and getting an adversary to overtake – straight into your missile envelope. This momentary success would result in a couple of months of nozzle-use in every fight. Some of these would give the user no advantage whatsoever as they bled energy off the jet, so had to be used judiciously. At some point the evil forces of over-use and complacency would coalesce and – in exactly the same situation as they proved so useful before – the nozzles would bite you, and hard. Nozzles had to be used sensibly and had a couple of handling instructions such as ‘Ease off the back stick before applying’. If this advice wasn’t heeded the jet would flick and start tumbling through the air. This was termed a departure from controlled flight. A good departure was a little eye-watering and would put you off nozzle use for a little bit. But then a day would come when a little VIFF was required – it would go well and the cycle could start again.  

5. Vertical/ Short Take-Off Landing

V/STOL. It has to be acknowledged that V/STOL never killed any bad guys – and was at least partially responsible for a few accidents along the way. The trick with Vertical/ Short Take Off and Landing was to maintain a healthy balance between familiarity and skill fade. To never allow fear or complacency to creep in. Thus the Sea harrier driver could take off vertical, almost vertically, using a short take-off technique – all of which used the nozzles; or indeed just do without them and take off like a normal aeroplane using aft stick at the correct speed. The number of different take-off techniques was matched by a similarly broad means of landing. All the way from the heart-pounding Conventional Landing which tended to be very fast – to the vertical landing we always used at the boat. A good example of which had a firm, but not teeth-chattering arrival at the far end. All these techniques relied upon the elegantly simple nozzle lever which deflected the nozzles from straight back, to 19 degrees forward. Somewhere at the heart of these was the ability to hover. To sit on a stack of air and, whilst monitoring thrust and precious little fuel, delight in having bucked a major law of physics using the amazing Pegasus engine. Like the Blue Vixen another masterpiece of engineering. At home in the hover, comfortable at 500 knots, able to cope with savage accelerations and decelerations if the Blue Vixen was the brains of the show – the Pegasus was a Harrier’s beating heart.

4. The Blue Vixen radar

British engineering has had a patchy history. One of the undoubted highlights, if not the zenith of our achievements is the Blue Vixen as fielded by the Sea Harrier FA2. It is quite hard to summarise briefly so I will use one word: Superb. The radar was easy to use, the switches were intuitive and the display simple. We used to compare it to US systems which I have since used – and I learned that it was streets ahead of them. It had a high enough power output to form tracks on adversaries at decent ranges – but was sufficiently subtle to go unnoticed too. As one of the first radars that didn’t need to illuminate a target to guide a missile onto its prey – this caught out quite a few exercise foes. The radar had an extraordinary capacity for showing multiple tracks at once and really only needed a single mode for an entire intercept which made it simple but effective. In slightly geeky radar speak it used the correct emissions to get the best results depending on whether it was looking up or down. It could be used in the visual arena to cue a Sidewinder onto a target when ‘in close and personal’; it could be used for a ‘self-talk down’ to the boat; it could be used to tighten up the bombing solution or to upgrade the gunsight. Fabulous system.

via @rowlandwhite/Twitter

3. Multirole

Everything in aviation is a compromise. Even the machines that don’t look like compromises are at some level – maybe in capability, possibly in the development budget. The Sea Harrier could make a fist of most roles including attack, reconnaissance and air defence. The nomenclature has changed over time but the essence of the missions hasn’t. The motto of the Sea Harrier headquarters Squadron, 899 Naval Air Squadron was Strike and Defend for good reason. For a significant part of its history, the Sea Harrier possessed the UK’s most potent air-to-air weapon in AMRAAM and its most potent anti-shipping weapon in Sea Eagle. It could also drop dumb bombs, with a weapon aiming system which was actually pretty accurate and the jet could be armed with cannon. It couldn’t do many of these roles at once – but few platforms throughout history have been able to. Almost forgot – it did have a decent, if basic reconnaissance camera – used in the Falklands, the Balkans and in Sierra Leone. The multi-role nature of the jet was reflected in the training, meaning that you had to stay up to speed on numerous roles and weapons. In peacetime there are few sorties as rewarding as fighting through an air threat, to deliver air-to-surface stores before doing the same again to get back to the boat.

2. Single-Seat Cockpit

Flying a single-seat fast jet is hard work – but also one of unbounded joy. There are a couple of ways of complicating already complex tasks. One of the best is to subdivide them further and assign them to different people whilst accepting that the two lists are interwoven and that any breakdown is sub-optimal. The obvious antidote to this poisoned line of reasoning is to equip a suitably able and trained person with all the tools they need to do the role on their own. In the aviation world, this results in the single-seat cockpit. The Sea Harrier had a superb integrated weapon system and all the information that the driver needed was readily available. It allowed one person of the requisite ability to fight the aircraft across its entire flight envelope and range of roles. What could possibly be better than being in complete charge of one’s own destiny when blasting off the front of the carrier (or getting back to it)? Yes, teamwork between jets was critical but teamwork between the self-sufficient was incredibly rewarding.

  1. The club

This wasn’t just any old club. This was a club that was forged in a pretty gnarly furnace called combat. It was a club whose everyday business was single-seat flying from aircraft carriers. It had a heritage that harked back to one of the modern world’s most decisive airpower results – the besting of everything that Argentina could throw at the Task Force. Sure, there are modern and accurate examinations of the war that throw new light on the efficacy of the Argentine attack – and yes the main attribute of the Sea Harrier itself was that it was there. But the Royal Navy and RAF aircrew who fought in the Falklands conflict and the maintenance personnel who gave them jet after serviceable jet – set a tone and an expectation that the community carried forward for its whole service life. This did lend itself to some of the training becoming a little bit of a rite of passage – but who would want to join a club that didn’t have some form of barrier to entry? Who would let sub-standard applicants into a club they cherished? Perhaps ‘club’ is the wrong term, perhaps ‘community’ is a better one. Whatever we decide it doesn’t really matter – what mattered was that one way or another you were thought of as being connected to some amazing aviators, maintainers and other squadron personnel – who gave a land-based air force and its maritime sister service a kicking the world will never forget. 5000 miles away from home, operating from two smallish aircraft carriers. Every day as a Sea Harrier pilot it was your job to be a worthy successor to them.

This site is facing a funding shortage and may pause or shut down in June, please consider donating. Our site is absolutely free and we want to keep it that way. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. Your donations keep this going.

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