There is a certain irony in this: some of the most beautiful aeroplanes ever built were made with the express purpose of breaking things belonging to other people.
In other words, combat aircraft.
Of course, some of these aeroplanes have been built to break things belonging to other people, which are in themselves trying to break things belonging to the owners of the aeroplanes. For example, interceptor aircraft which are designed to shoot down bombers before they break something serious.
But, dark though the purpose of these aircraft may be, still, they are beautiful.
In this series, stretching over several posts, I will be showcasing some of these aeroplanes which I consider to be particularly beautiful, majestic and/or otherwise impressive. I’m going to post pictures of the aircraft, and in most cases a description which may be short, long or somewhere in between. And they’re not all going to be military aircraft, either.
And don’t worry: I will also be posting on matters spiritual too!
The Supermarine Spitfire is, I think, the most beautiful military aeroplane ever built. The wing shape, the fuselage shape, the proportions and the clean, sleek lines… the sound she makes – the Spitfire has to be the most aesthetically pleasing military aeroplane in history. And by all accounts she is also a real delight to fly – a real pilot’s aeroplane – light and responsive, powerful and agile, with lovely handling and few vices. I have flown several different aircraft types, but I’ve yet to fly one of these … well, I can dream, can’t I?! 🙂
The Spitfire is probably also the most famous fighter aircraft ever too. Most everyone has heard of the Spit!
Above picture is a Mark IIa
Designed in 1934 by Reginald Mitchell, the Spitfire’s technology was extremely advanced. I won’t bore you with the techy details but the Spitfire, along with the more numerous and slightly older Hawker Hurricane, was Britain’s mainstay during the Battle of Britain in July – September 1940. Here’s the painting ‘Achtung – Spitfire!‘ by aviation artist Roy Grinnell, used on the cover of the 1995 boardgame of the same name:
The Spit was the UK’s main front-line fighter aircraft for the whole of the Second World War. Also, the design was extremely flexible, and because of this the Spitfire was produced in many different versions throughout the War – fighter, fighter-bomber, trainer, reconnaissance and others. The picture below shows the Mark IX, here being flown by the late and legendary display pilot Ray Hanna in 2005.
And another couple of shots of the Mark IX, showing off the wing planform rather nicely:
…I mean, doesn’t that picture so capture this gorgeous aeroplane? And make you want to go fly one too?
This is the Mark IA, the mainstay during the Battle of Britain:
And finally, the version produced more than any other – the Mark V:
The Eurofighter Typhoon is the Royal Air Force’s newest front-line fighter aircraft. It’s a multi-role combat aircraft – as most combat aircraft have to be these days: they are so expensive that the same aircraft type has to be able to fulfil many roles!
One of the main characteristics of Typhoon is its agility. While, given the capabilities of modern air-to-air missiles, opposing aircraft might never actually see each other during a fight (because they can shoot down the enemy from beyond visual range), there is still the chance that fighters could close to within ‘knife range’, where agility becomes all-important. Of course, from the point of view of the aviation enthusiast and airshow-goer, this also means that watching one of these aircraft display is a feast of noise, power, speed and seemingly impossible high-energy maneuvers. Sometimes the aircraft changes direction so quickly that condensation – clouds – form in the low-air-pressure areas above the wings and fuselage, like this:
Note: If you click on some of the images in this post, you may well find that you get a very large version of the picture to look at, in all its detail. Give it a go!
The next couple of photos of this remarkable aircraft appear to have been taken in the area known as the ‘Mach Loop‘, a low-flying practice range in north-western Wales. Whereas the normal lowest allowed limit is 500ft, here in the Mach Loop many different military aircraft types fly as low as 250ft above the terrain. Typhoon, of course, is no exception:
That last photo also clearly shows the bright orange plume from the afterburner, or ‘reheat’ – a system whereby raw fuel is sprayed into the hot jet exhaust where it ignites to produce extra thrust. It’s a great way of gaining more power but at a tremendous cost in fuel. And it makes one heck of a racket – we were once camping in our caravan and I heard this deep rumbling noise; I recognised it as the engine sound of a Typhoon using reheat. Apparently there was a Typhoon displaying at Plymouth Navy Day – thirty miles away from where we were camping. Wow.
Those orange diamonds/discs in the afterburner plumes are what is known as ‘shock diamonds‘ – the visible part of the standing-wave patterns in the supersonic jet exhaust stream. When you are close enough to an aeroplane with its afterburners lit, you will be subjected to intense shock waves and you feel everything inside you shaking – it’s quite a feeling!
So, there you go. Typhoon – a ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ – but wow, what an aeroplane!
The Hawker Hunter is a British jet fighter designed in the 1950’s. It is just about capable of supersonic flight (in a dive) and is apparently a delight to fly. It’s certainly a delight to look at, both in the single-seat and two-seat versions. With its clean lines and lovely wing shape, swept curved tail fin and sleek fuselage, it’s simply gorgeous.
The Hunter was also flown by the Black Arrows, the forerunners of the famous Red Arrows:
The Hunter is one of those aeroplanes with a characteristic sound – the Vulcan has its ‘howl’, and so does the Hunter. Here’s a short video of Hunters making their characteristic ‘blue note’ howl:
A lovely sound, for those with ears to hear…..although I appreciate that not everyone likes jet noise!
So there she is – the Hunter. Another Beautiful Destroyer!
The Mosquito, or ‘Mossie’ for short, was one of the great British success stories of the Second World War and afterwards. Made from wood, and with two very powerful engines, she was the fastest aeroplane in the war until the advent of the Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighter.
The wooden construction meant that she was probably one of the first ‘stealth’ aircraft (because wood doesn’t show up all that well on radar). But the Mossie was a true multi-role combat aircraft, made in many different versions for many different roles, and displaying the design’s real versatility.
However, it was in the low-level role that the Mossie really excelled. On one famous occasion, a Mosquito raid breached the walls of the Amiens prison, where the occupying German forces were holding a number of French Resistance and political prisoners. The raiding aircraft went in at an extremely low-level, some 50 feet above the ground, and at a speed of about 300mph or so. That’s some flying!
To illustrate this, here’s a very special photo of a Mosquito flying under the Eiffel Tower in the autumn of 1944; you might need to click the photo to get the full-size image up so you can see the aeroplane:
As you can see from the last two pictures, the Mosquito has very clean lines and a small frontal profile; respectively, these features make for high speed and low radar signature (how well it shows up on radar – the less, the better)
Most of the photos on this page are of one of the two airworthy Mosquitos remaining in the world; this aircraft was stored in a field for 30 years or more. Restored over a period of eight years by New Zealand company AVspec, the aircraft now resides in the USA.
Here’s a shot of that aircraft flying low over a lake near the factory where it was restored:
So there she is – the Mosquito, another Beautiful Destroyer. Of course, this is yet another aeroplane I’d love to fly.
There really is no other aeroplane quite like the Avro Vulcan. Majestic, huge, loud, yet graceful, agile and just plain classy. Her beautiful, distinctive delta shape has graced our skies once more for the last eight years since her restoration to flight status, due both to the incredibly hard work and dedication of the owners of the last flying example of the type, and to the enthusiasm and doggedness of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people all across the UK who have supported her financially. In so many ways, she is indeed the ‘People’s Aeroplane’.
Sadly, I am writing this piece in the few days before our beautiful Vulcan takes her last ever flight. XH558, the world’s last flying Vulcan, is right at the end of her last season of flight – she cannot fly after this season because her technical support companies will be withdrawing their help. This is, amongst other reasons, because XH558 has now flown 10% more hours than any other Vulcan has ever flown, and she is now in uncharted territory, technically speaking. System failures are therefore very hard to anticipate, and it is of course extremely important for safety reasons to be able to perform preventive maintenance on any aircraft. But because of the ‘unknown’ element, this maintenance is becoming almost impossible to guarantee. Click here to go to the Vulcan company’s website for more details on this decision.
I think it’s fair to say that the Vulcan is the most popular aeroplane that has flown in recent British airshows. She draws crowds like nothing else. Even if there’s another aircraft performing its display, if the Vulcan is due soon, people are constantly on the lookout for her appearance in the distance. When someone spots her distinctive silhouette as she waits her turn a few miles from the display, the news spreads like wildfire and all heads turn to look where people are pointing. She has this effect like no other aircraft, and it’s what’s known as the ‘Vulcan Effect’.
Here’s XH558 arriving at Dawlish Airshow in Devon on August 22nd, 2015. We were there, and we thought this would be the last time we would ever see her flying – fortunately, though, we saw her again a week later when she made a late change of plans and decided to visit Dartmouth Regatta too.
The characteristic and awesome Vulcan Howl is apparent on that clip. It is so loud on that clip that it is distorted by the microphone, but at least it does succeed in drowning out the noise of nearby kids 😉 It’s caused by a resonance in the the air intake geometry, shifting a hundred kilograms of air per second into the engines, and it only occurs between about 87% and 95% power. So you tend to hear it more when the engines are spooling up to near full power, and it tends to be most easily heard if you’re standing somewhere more or less in front of the aeroplane.
Here’s a great YouTube video of Vulcan XH558’s Dawlish display:
The Vulcan bomber was originally designed as part of the ‘V-Bomber’ force, part of Britain’s nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. However, she was only used in action in one theatre of operations – during the Falklands War of 1982, when she flew the ‘Black Buck’ missions to deliver conventional high-explosive bombs to disable the runway at Port Stanley, to deny its use by Argentinian aircraft, and other strike missions against Argentinian ground forces such as search radar installations.
In the picture below, XH558 is visible flying a final ‘salute’ flight over Vulcan XM607 at RAF Waddington towards the end of the 2015 season, where ‘607 is the ‘gate guardian’. XM607 is the aircraft that flew the first of the Black Buck missions on 1st May 1982 under the command of Flt. Lt. Martin Withers, now XH558’s Chief Pilot.
Here’s a short clip (this one taken by me) of this magnificent aeroplane as she climbs away directly over our heads at Dawlish. The Howl happens just before the end of the clip:
More pictures of the Mighty Vulcan:
It’s almost unbelievable seeing a four-engined, 111ft wingspan aeroplane doing the things that the Vulcan does. The display pilots throw her around the sky, often going to inverted bank angles; her performance looks more like a fighter than a heavy bomber. In fact, the Vulcan even has a fighter-style control stick (a ‘joystick’) whereas most heavy aircraft have more of a ‘yoke’ arrangement, which is a bit like a steering wheel. Clearly Roy Chadwick, the lead designer of the Vulcan (and the chap who designed the famous Lancaster) knew what a ‘hot ship’ the Vulcan would be, and included the joystick controls to encourage the pilots to ‘maneuver’ the aircraft a bit…..
I remember in the ’70s and ’80s, watching four of these beauties scrambling (fast take-off) one after the other down the runway at both RAF Waddington and RAF Finningley (where ‘558 now lives). They were demonstrating a QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) scramble where they all get off the ground in under two or three minutes. Imagine it. Four Vulcans taking off in a row, followed by a full-power climb-out directly over the crowd, howls and all. Is it any wonder I love this aeroplane?
It’s going to be a sad day for me when they announce that Vulcan XH558 has made her last ever flight. But to quote Dr. Seuss,
‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened’
I think for me it will be a bit of each…..
[Edit: XH558 completed her final flight on 28th October, 2015. Farewell, dear old lady, we will miss you. Click here for a report on the fight]
During the Cold War, for various strategic reasons, having three methods of weapon delivery was preferred: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and manned bombers. These were also augmented by ground-launched and air-launched cruise missiles (GLCM/ALCM) in the latter part of the Cold War. All horrendous stuff, believe me.
But it was really the bombers that were the symbol of the times. These were the visible machines that would deliver the nuclear weapons should the unthinkable ever happen – machines that people could actually see for themselves. Ballistic missiles were hidden away, but everyone can see an aeroplane. Bombers such as the Vulcan, the B-52, the B-36 and other such aircraft.
However, in my opinion, no Cold War bomber epitomised the times as much as the Soviets’ long-range strategic bomber, the Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” (‘Bear’ was the NATO reporting code-name for the aircraft type; it was not what the Soviets actually called it) These snarling monsters were, and still are, the world’s fastest propeller-driven aircraft, huge, angular, threatening, and yet strangely still beautiful, majestic and impressive.
Although these aircraft were of course designed primarily for the delivery of nuclear weapons, in practice they were mainly used for electronic reconnaissance. The idea of this is that you fly near, but not quite in, a nation’s sovereign airspace where, naturally, you are ‘looked at’ by the nation’s air defence radars, and this gives you the opportunity to analyse the actual radar signals and communications protocols. This means that you can then develop methods for jamming or otherwise interfering with those systems at some point in the future, should you so desire. ‘Defending’ aircraft can’t shoot down these aeroplanes; technically they are doing nothing wrong! But you can intercept them – scramble a pair of armed fighters to make sure they don’t get up to any further mischief. Plus of course you can always take photos of each other, which are also useful for intelligence-gathering. The whole thing is quite fascinating, to be honest.
Flying close to Britain’s air defences throughout the 60’s and 70’s, ‘Bears’ were regularly intercepted and ‘escorted’ by RAF Lightnings:
…and even later, by Tornado F3s:
They’re still in use today, and are being used for exactly the same purposes – electronic reconnaissance – and have recently been in the news for causing the scrambling of several pairs of Typhoons to intercept:
Usually, the ‘photo opportunity’ yields some interesting shots. In this closeup of the tail gunner’s position and observation ‘blisters’, you can see two crewmen having a really good look at the intercepting fighters:
You’ve probably gathered by now that I think that this aeroplane is absolutely gorgeous.
But here is one of my favourite pictures of this beast, a real beauty showing how the strong twisting propeller-wash from those powerful engines disrupts the thin cloud layer that the aircraft has just flown through, before her pilot pulls her up out of the cloud:
Here’s another shot of the Bear, this time an early Cold War shot of her in formation with two Soviet MiG-17 fighters:
(The MiG-17 will probably also appear as a Beautiful Destroyer here sometime in the future 🙂 )
Now a plan-view of the Bear:
And, after a flight halfway round the world to wave at ‘enemy’ aircrew, what could be better than a safe landing at home plate, looking forward to a nice cup of tea – or maybe something stronger, tovarisch….
The runway/taxiway surface could do with a bit of a weeding, though….
So there she is: The Bear. Menacing, huge, impressive – and totally gorgeous.
For more on this amazing aeroplane, try searching for Tu-95 Bear on YouTube.
Here’s a couple of clips to be going on with. The first one is only really watchable for the first minute and a half; then they do an inflight engine stop/restart which is probably not all that interesting to most people But it does catch the menacing snarl of this monster aeroplane nicely:
…and then the second clip, which is a bit more jerky between scenes but you get to see a lot of the aeroplane:
And finally, there’s a lot of detail in this one, but sadly very little snarling noise:
The Messerschmitt Bf-109E (or Me-109E*) was the mainstay fighter aircraft of the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) during the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain. Although it was produced in many different versions, for me the definitive ‘109 is the ‘E’ version, or the ‘Emil’ as its crews used to call it.
More Bf-109s were produced in its ten years of production than any other aircraft in history, a testimony to its versatility, performance and reputation. Most of the pictures of the Emil on this page are of the example called ‘White 14’ which lives in Canada, but is reputed to be moving to the UK.
The design philosophy of fighter aircraft is displayed perfectly in the Bf-109. When designing a fighter aeroplane, performance is key. In order to get good performance, you need as light a weight as possible, combined with as much power as possible. So the solution is to get a tiny airframe and bolt a giant engine on to it, just like you would in, say, a sports car, and this design philosophy has continued to the present day even into the era of jet fighters. The ‘109’s engine, then, occupies most of that big yellow volume at the front of the aeroplane in these pictures – so you can see where all that power lives! And aircraft like the Hurricane and Spitfire are no different in this regard. A giant powerplant and a light airframe – it does the trick, all right.
The Bf-109 was the natural enemy of the Spitfire, and the story of the two aeroplanes during the War is one of development and counter-development; they were pretty well evenly-matched for much of the War. Apparently, because of the narrow-track landing-gear, though, the ‘109 was reputedly quite tricky to land.
Next is a particularly remarkable, classic photo of the 109E. The type was used in the Western Desert campaign in North Africa, and instead of the grey/green/olive camouflage scheme used in Western Europe, the scheme was made to match the appearance of the scrubby-surfaced desert.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Of course, because the aeroplane would be moving, it would be slightly easier to spot than the picture suggests – not quite invisible! – but it’s still a really good camouflage scheme.
So, there she is, the Bf-109, a lovely little aeroplane with, of course, a sinister purpose underlying her simple beauty. A Beautiful Destroyer.
*Note: The Bf-109 was also known as the Me-109, but Bf-109 was more commonly used. ‘Bf’ was an abbreviation for ‘Bayerische Flugzeugwerke’, or Bayerische aircraft works. The terms ‘Bf’ and ‘Me’ were used more or less interchangeably for the Me-109 and Me-110 aircraft; however, later designs such as the Me-163, Me-323 and Me-262 did not use the Bf designation.
The remarkable North American XB-70 Valkyrie was probably the most advanced aeroplane of its time. It was conceived and designed not long after the Second World War as a high-speed (Mach 3+), high-altitude (70,000ft+) bomber capable of striking targets in the USSR from bases in the USA.
The idea of a bomber aircraft’s design is to enable it to get through to its target, and then deliver its weapons effectively. Since the beginning of the history of bomber aircraft, then, they had been designed to fly ever higher and ever faster, in order to ensure penetration of enemy air defences to reach their targets – the idea being that the faster and higher you flew, the less exposure you had to your target’s defences. Traditional air defences up until the late 1950’s consisted of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) – meaning basically guns, also known as ‘flak’ – and manned interceptor aircraft. Already, by the end of the Second World War, designers of such defences recognised that high-flying jet aircraft would be almost completely immune to ground-based guns; the idea then behind making the XB-70 such a fast aircraft, as well as being high-flying, would be to also render it virtually immune to interception by manned aircraft. There are technical reasons for this that I will not go into right now*, but basically it would have meant that this aeroplane would have been unstoppable in its mission.
So, the XB-70 was designed to fly so high and so fast that nothing would be able to stop it from reaching its target.
You can be forgiven for noticing that there’s a lot of smoke! The XB-70 was powered by no less than six afterburning turbojet engines, producing 28,800 pounds of thrust each with full reheat.
The XB-70 was capable of Mach 3 speeds (three times the speed of sound or about 2,100mph) and altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet. An interesting (and as far as I know, unique) feature of the type was its ‘drooping’ wingtips, shown in the pictures below:
This feature gave several aerodynamic benefits, the most unusual of which was to compress the supersonic shockwave (essentially the phenomenon that causes the ‘sonic boom’) under the aircraft to produce extra lift, known as ‘compression lift‘. This increases the aerodynamic efficiency of the aircraft at higher speeds.
Sadly, though, the XB-70 programme was cancelled because of developments in Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) technology. Because of the effectiveness and high performance of the Soviet SAMs, speed and altitude were no longer necessarily an adequate defence against being shot down. The era of the ‘unstoppable’ fast and high-flying bomber was at an end; from now on, the principal tactic for a bomber to ‘get through’ would now be to go in at very low level, ‘under the radar’, which is why there is so much emphasis on practising low-level flying in today’s air forces. The XB-70’s performance was no longer going to help her ‘get through’, and other aircraft such as the Boeing B-52 could do the job, but at low level. So the XB-70 was no longer required and the program was cancelled.
However, the type had a temporary respite: because of its performance, which was right out on the limits of what was then (and even now!) possible, the two examples of the aircraft that had been built were adopted by NASA to explore the limits of aerodynamics in the kinds of high and fast flight regimes that the XB-70 was capable of.
Despite a double-fatality mid-air collision in 1966 with an F-104 fighter, which destroyed one of the XB-70s, the remaining example continued as a research platform until 1969, when she was retired and placed in a museum.
Even on her final flight to the museum, they used the flight to gather yet more research data! So I guess you could say that there was still life in the old girl even then….
So there she is: the XB-70 Valkyrie, a graceful, beautiful (if a little unusual-looking) aircraft that, despite her advanced and indeed totally awesome performance, was obsolete before she was able to really come into her own. What a gorgeous Beautiful Destroyer.
[Edit: I have just found this very informative YouTube video on the XB-70. If you can get past the over-dramatic music that most of these documentaries are plagued with, and if you can ignore the ‘face shots’ where the camera zooms in on the aircraft’s ‘face’ (the nose) like they would for a politician or someone, then it’s very good. Certainly it has footage I have never seen before. Take a look:
*The reasons why manned interceptor aircraft would not easily be able to catch the XB-70 are several-fold.
Firstly, it is to do with radar detection: aircraft travelling at extremely high speeds are difficult to track on radar and hence it would make it harder for fighter controllers to give correct guidance (known as ‘vectoring‘) to their interceptors; also, the time spent in range of each radar station would be drastically reduced (at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound), an aeroplane travels a mile in just under two seconds) and so the controllers would have insufficient time and/or co-ordination to be able to vector their interceptors to the bomber. And even then, this is assuming everything is up to scratch and working properly; in the event of the kind of war that the XB-70 was designed to fight in, there would be anything but this kind of efficiency. There would be radar jamming, there would be power failures and communications breakdowns, there would be nuclear weapons popping off all over the place, which would cause electrical system failures for several reasons, many of which would be unavoidable. These problems all compound the difficulties faced by the radar controllers.
Secondly, it is to do with the performance of the interceptors themselves. Even given adequate warning by radar, and efficient vectoring by fighter controllers, even the fastest and highest-performance jet fighters would have a hard time in both climbing to the bomber’s operating altitude – which many of them couldn’t anyway – and also to catch the bomber, which they couldn’t do in a ‘stern chase’ (trying to catch up from behind) because they weren’t fast enough, and for a head-on attack they would have to get to altitude well in advance of the bomber (which they couldn’t do because that requires far more space and time than would be available given the radar warning time), and even if they could position themselves properly, attacking a Mach 3 target in a head-on pass using the weapons of the time would not give a good probability of shooting it down. And of course there’s the tactical and strategic environment described above, which would compound the intercept problems considerably. This, then, is why the Valkyrie would have been immune to fighter interception.
In fact, the Soviet interceptor known as the MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ – the fastest-ever manned interceptor – was designed primarily as a response to the XB-70. You can find out more about it by clicking this link. No doubt the MiG-25 will turn up in this series soon, as it too is another amazing aeroplane! 🙂
Edit: Here is anoher interesting article on the XB-70 Valkyrie on the blog ‘This Day in Aviation’. Well worth a read if you are at all interested in this magnificent aeroplane.
I’ve always loved the F-111. Big, beautiful, fast, loud, capable – and packed-full of impressive features that, as with so many Cold War jets, were at the forefront of technology.
The F-111 (pronounced ‘F-one-eleven’) was operational with both the US Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force, and was originally notable for being the world’s first production aircraft that featured a fully-variable-sweep wing, or ‘swing-wing’; that is, the wing can be swept forward for slow flight – say for take-off or landing – or it can be swept fully aft for high-speed flight, or used at any angle in between. Here’s an excellent series of pictures showing the wing-sweep sequence:
It also pioneered both afterburning turbofan engines (as opposed to turbojet engines; turbofans are much more efficient), and automated terrain-following radar, in production aircraft. This latter enabled the aircraft to perform high-speed, low-level flight in all weathers and at night. Although a few military aircraft these days can do that, in those days this ability was absolutely revolutionary and really impressive, as indeed it still is.
F-111s were first used in action by the US Air Force in the Vietnam War, where three of the first six F-111 aircraft sent there were lost – but these aircraft were lost to structural failure rather than to enemy action. In all, F-111s flew more than 4,000 combat sorties and in all that action, only six were lost to enemy action. That is a really impressive combat record by any standards.
Although the ‘F’ designation in ‘F-111’ strictly speaking denotes a fighter aircraft, these aircraft, however, are bombers. True, they can carry air-to-air missiles for self-defence, but the primary role of the F-111 has always been that of precision all-weather strike. Here’s an Australian F-111C taking off for an evening practice mission – with full reheat:
You can just imagine the noise…..
During the Cold War, many F-111s were based in the UK, at RAF Upper Heyford and RAF Lakenheath. This F-111 is a Lakenheath bird – this is denoted by the ‘LN’ on the vertical stabiliser.
From these two bases, the US Air Force launched a strike mission against targets in Libya, on 15th April 1986; this was called ‘Operation Eldorado Canyon‘ and I remember it vividly – because I saw the F-111s on the outbound leg of their flight, on the evening of 14th April 1986. I can clearly remember having just got out of the car at a place called Yelverton, in Devon, UK – where we were on holiday for the week – and all of a sudden, a whole string of F-111s flew over us, one after the other. We heard of the air strikes the next day, and we wondered if those aircraft had been involved; only later were we certain when we saw maps of the route that the aircraft had taken. Quite a sobering thought, to think we had seen these aircraft setting off on a combat mission – one from which one aircraft – and both its crew – did not return.
Now for a series of dramatic pictures of this lovely aircraft. In this first one, we can see the feathers of vapour forming above the wing, as the aeroplane pulls appreciable ‘g‘-forces in its turn:
Here’s the same aeroplane pulling ‘g‘ again, this time with the wings swept back:
…and here’s another of my favourites: an Aussie F-111 buzzing the control tower at low level and high speed:
The aircraft was unofficially nicknamed the ‘Aardvark’ because of its long nose; interestingly, only on the type’s retirement from USAF service was the nickname ‘officially’ recognised.
Talking of low flying, here’s a dramatic shot of an F-111 running in fast and low with the wings swept fully aft – and with the ‘burners lit. This would have made quite a noise….but you’d not have heard it until the aircraft was nearly past you, if even then:
An interesting feature of the F-111 was that it had its fuel dump vent at the rear of the aircraft, between the afterburners. An aeroplane might need to perform a fuel dump (getting rid of unwanted fuel) for various reasons, and the idea is that the fuel can be dumped overboard safely without setting fire to the aeroplane, usually via fuel dump ports on the wingtips or similar. On the F-111, though, things are a little different because of the positioning of the dump vent between the tailpipes. Because of this, the F-111 can perform what’s known as a ‘fuel dump and burn’: by spraying the unwanted fuel out into the sky behind the aeroplane when the engines are running on afterburner, the fuel is ignited and it catches fire in a most impressive fashion:
I love this next picture in particular because it also shows the vortices of turbulent air over the wings, backlit in orange/red by the fuel burn flare:
I have been under an F-111 when this happened – we were at an airshow at RAF Finningley in 1977 when the displaying F-111 performed this trick over the crowd – back when display aircraft were allowed to fly over the crowd, that is! Even though he was probably several hundred feet above us, the heat was quite astonishing. What’s the point of the fuel dump and burn, apart from it being a spectacular crowd-pleaser? Well, all that hot gas behind the aircraft gives an excellent alternative target for heat-seeking missiles. In other words, that giant flame can defend the aeroplane by providing a decoy, thus distracting incoming missiles from their true target. Clever.
Two more shots of the F-111, then, before I finish. These are USAF models: the top picture is of an aircraft based at Upper Heyford (‘UH’ on the fin) and the one banking away from the camera is an F-111F version, this is apparent from the round dome of the PAVE TACK sensor pod visible under the fuselage.
What an impressive machine the F-111 is, or was at any rate. The type has been retired from USAF service now for nearly 20 years; the Australians retired theirs just over five years ago. Another Beautiful Destroyer.