I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is with about this aeroplane that I like so much. Maybe it’s the lovely wing-sweep angle and the slim area-ruled fuselage*. Maybe it’s the typically down-to-earth practical Soviet solution to a problem unique to their country, as it was (of course, the Soviet bloc has now broken up). Possibly it’s the idea of a dedicated pure interceptor designed solely to shoot down enemy nuclear bombers over huge mission distances. Or perhaps it’s the whole ‘Cold War’ flavour of the whole thing; an aeroplane which, when it was designed, was at the forefront of its technology era. And based at freezing cold, snow-covered airfields in some of the most remote places on Earth.
The Tu-128 is the largest interceptor ever built, measuring nearly 100ft long and with a 57ft wingspan. Although its NATO reporting codename was ‘Fiddler’, the initial ‘F’ signifying a fighter, this aircraft was never designed to go into combat with other fighters. The Tu-128 was designed purely to shoot down intruding enemy nuclear bombers, those entering Soviet territory over the more remote of their borders.
Some understanding of this huge aircraft can be gained by looking at an atlas. What was then called the Soviet Union had an air defence problem of truly mammoth proportions, and no amount of money could ever provide a totally comprehensive defence of the entire frontier. While most of the Soviet Union’s population and industry (and therefore the really heavy air defences) was concentrated in Western regions, there were still many important regions in the interior of that vast country which would have been vulnerable to attacks from aircraft entering via the more remote frontiers, for example, from the Arctic Ocean direction and/or over Siberia.
The aircraft had to be so big in order to house all the fuel necessary for it to be able to fulfil its role, that of ‘long-range interceptor’. It would most likely have been used to mount standing patrols in times of tension, and then directed to its targets by radar-equipped airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Certainly the aircraft would have been vectored (steered) to its target by radar controllers, whether ground-or air-based, because the speeds and distances involved would have been so great.
We can understand, then, that the operational requirement for the role was for a supersonic aircraft with enormous fuel tanks for both a good patrol time and a long range, a capable radar, and the most powerful air-to-air missiles possible. And so they came up with the 43-tonne Tu-128, of which weight about a third was taken up by fuel. It was capable of Mach 1.5 speed, and with a combat radius of about 1,600 miles and an armed ceiling of about 51,000 feet. However, with a maximum g-loading of only 2.5g, it was certainly never going to be dogfighting with small fighters. But that wasn’t what it was designed for anyway.
Armed with four Bisnovat R-4 air-to-air missiles (NATO codename AA-5 ‘Ash’), two of which were radar-homing and two of which were heat-seekers, a Tu-128 would likely have been more than capable of knocking down one or two American B-52s, should the unthinkable ever have happened.
Here’s a series of shots showing the crew getting out of their aircraft, and then the instrument panels in the front and rear cockpits respectively.
I get the impression that the whole operation would have been carried out mainly by remote direction; a radar controller would detect targets and guide the interceptor into the correct position for it to acquire the target using its own radar, and then it would proceed to attack the bomber using its own fire-control systems. All the time, the pilot himself would have been only the driver, obeying commands from the ground or AWACS plane at first, then relying entirely on the radar officer in the back seat to complete the weapons acquisition and release. But it would get the job done.
I particularly like this fascinating picture; you can see where there’s been a dog patrol walking round the aircraft, and also where the ground crew have been walking around her in order to clear snow and ice from the airframe:
Here’s another of my favourite shots of this aeroplane – the supersonic area-rule design* is clearly visible, and you get a good look at all four of the missiles on their pylons:
This next shot is a classic Russian winter shot, in Siberia perhaps?
So, there she is, the Tu-128 ‘Fiddler’; an odd-looking aeroplane in many ways, but she certainly has a fascination all of her own. Another ‘Beautiful Destroyer’.
*Area-ruling is an aerodynamic principle seen in most supersonic aircraft, that is, those that can fly at speeds faster than the speed of sound. It can be seen easily in the Tu-128 in the views from above; the ‘wasp-waisted’ shape of the fuselage is the key giveaway. The fuselage is wider nearer the front, tapers inwards to a narrower ‘waist’ and then flares outwards again towards the rear.
It’s been a while since my last post in the series ‘Beautiful Destroyers’. But here the series is back on track again with some lovely pictures of three beautiful aircraft participating in the joint Royal Air Force/Indian Air Force exercise ‘Indra Dhanush 07’, which took place in, you’ve guessed it, 2007.
In these pictures, we see the RAF’s latest fighter, the Eurofighter Typhoon, flying in formation with the RAF’s other main front-line fighter, the Panavia Tornado F3, and the Russian-designed Sukhoi SU-30MKI, which still carries the NATO reporting codename ‘Flanker’, which is currently in the inventory of the Indian Air Force. For identification purposes, in the header picture for this post and in the shot below, the aircraft nearest the camera is the Tornado, then the Typhoon, and the one furthest away is the Su-30.
Clever stuff, all that formation flying; amazing what you can do with being able to keep an aeroplane straight and level. I’ve done formation flying myself only once, and I was too busy avoiding collisions to take any photos. But it’s an amazing feeling, seeing an aeroplane only a few metres away (in this case piloted by my son) and seeing it just like floating there. A photo doesn’t really do it justice; it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen. There’s this plane just hanging there in the clear air, and you can see there’s nothing really holding it up. Remarkable.
Anyway back to the pictures:
In the picture above, you can see the Su-30 in more detail. An extremely powerful, agile and well-armed aeroplane, the Su-30 (which is a derivative of the original Su-27) is a very capable combat aircraft, in fact probably one of the best in the world. She weighs 22 tons but her pilots throw her around the sky like she’s a Spitfire….
And finally, another photo like the main header photo above, but taken from a slightly different angle. And it’s bigger….
So there we go. Sorry to have kept my aviation-fanatic readers so starved over the last couple of months. I know of one guy at least who only reads my blog for the aviation stuff; Captain ‘Pyet’, this one’s for you mate 🙂
The DeHavilland Sea Vixen is a gorgeous vintage jet fighter from the same era as many of the aeroplanes in this series, including the Hawker Hunter, the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ and the Vulcan.
My regular readers will know that although I love modern military aircraft, I have an especial love for jets of the ‘Golden Age’ of combat jets, mainly from the Cold War era.
In that period of history, jets were far from the all-singing, all-dancing marvels of technology that we have nowadays; aircraft like the Typhoon, Tornado and Su-30 which can handle more or less any role that is thrown at them. Back in the late 40’s and early fifties, when the Sea Vixen and its contemporaries were specified, designed and developed, the concept of the jet-powered combat aircraft was still in its infancy. These aircraft were, like most of their contemporaries, right at the forefront of what was possible given the engineering, weapons technology and materials science of the day – still marvels of technology, of course, and even then they were extremely capable aircraft.
And the Sea Vixen was no exception. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon 208 engines, she was just capable of supersonic speeds in a shallow dive. She was not only capable of performing her design role as an all-weather fighter, but was also designed to operate as a fighter-bomber as well.
With six weapons pylons (those vertical white parts under the wings, two of which are occupied by white fuel tanks in the above photo), she could carry Red Top or Firestreak air-to-air missiles, fuel tanks, bombs, rocket pods or Bullpup air-to-surface missiles. Although the original design was for the Sea Vixen to carry four 30mm Aden cannon, none were fitted in the production versions.
The thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that the Sea Vixen (although you might have guessed it from the name!) was a carrier-based fighter; that is, she was designed to operate from aircraft carriers, with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. A carrier-based aircraft has to be not only built to be capable of performing all its intended roles, but also to be able to cope with the huge stresses of launch from the flight deck of the ship by means of a steam catapult. Landing on an aircraft carrier is even more stressful because you’re thumping some fourteen or fifteen tons of aeroplane down onto a solid deck that is moving in four different directions all at once,* and then being stopped by snagging a big hook under the rear of the aircraft onto a thick cable (known as an ‘arrester wire’) strung across the deck, which yanks you from your flying speed of about 150mph down to a dead stop in a matter of 200 feet or so. Now that means that your aeroplane has to be unbelievably tough! In fact you could even say it’s more like a ‘controlled crash’ than a landing… 😉
Here’s a photo of Sea Vixens operating from the steam catapults of HMS Centaur in 1964:
…and then another of a Sea Vixen less than a second from catching the arrester wire, again on HMS Centaur in 1964:
I have to say at this point that this is what I call amazing flying. Even at Bodmin Airfield, where I have been based for the last few years, the main runway is a mere 600 metres long. That looks tiny from the air, and requires precision flying to get in safely even in an aeroplane that lands at about 50mph and weighs just a bit less than a car. It’s much harder than landing at, say, Exeter, with their 2076 metre tarmac runway, and requires skill and experience. Compare that with landing fifteen tons of metal at 150mph on a pitching, rolling flight deck which looks to be the size of a postage stamp (your landing area is only a few tens of metres!), in the middle of nowhere, maybe in the dead of night, possibly also in atrocious weather – now that takes a level of skill and guts possessed by few individuals. It makes my kind of flying look like a walk in the park. All respect to these guys!
I love the shape of the Sea Vixen; she combines lovely lines, sleek and graceful, with an underlying toughness that is of course essential for a carrier-based aeroplane. Sheer beauty and class.
The Sea Vixen is a really photogenic aircraft, as are many Cold War jets, and she presented some great photo opportunities when recently she flew in formation with other Cold War jets like in the air-to-air picture below (sadly not taken by me!):
And this is a really lovely shot of the Vixen and the Vulcan together – a sight we shall never see again, since dear old ‘558, the Vulcan, will never fly again:
Finally, here’s a great video of the Sea Vixen in a recent display at RNAS Yeovilton, where she is (very fittingly**) based:
And at the time of writing, I am really looking forward to seeing this aeroplane display again when she comes to the Torbay Airshow, not far from where I live.
Anyway I hope you have enjoyed this little foray, not only into the history of this beautiful aeroplane, but also into aircraft carrier operations and the incredible skill involved in flying aircraft from carrier decks.
Beautiful Destroyer – the Sea Vixen. What a beauty!
*Four directions? Yes: the carrier could be pitching (tipping forwards and backwards), yawing (swinging left and right) and rolling (tipping from left to right) and all the while it is moving forwards through the sea at a speed of something like 35-40mph. At least airfields stay still when you’re trying to land on them; aircraft carriers don’t!
**Why is it fitting that the Sea Vixen is based at Yeovilton? Because that’s the main Fleet Air Arm airfield in the south-west of England (there is another at RNAS Culdrose) and it’s also the location of the Fleet Air Arm Museum which has a huge collection of historic Fleet Air Arm aircraft, and some of their erstwhile enemies too, including a MiG-15. It’s well worth a visit if you’re down this way. And there’s a Sea Vixen among the exhibits there too.
Without a doubt, the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ has to be one of the most incredible aeroplanes ever built, while at the same time being one of the most beautiful. Few aircraft invoke such a visceral sense of awe amongst aviation enthusiasts as this one does!
She was futuristic, stealthy, and with a performance more akin to a spacecraft than an atmospheric ‘air-breathing’ aircraft.
Her stated performance was impressive; however, as she was a secret ‘spy plane’, her true performance was not released until after she was retired from service. She holds the ‘official Air Speed Record for a manned air-breathing jet aircraft’ of 2,193 mph (around Mach 3.2; 3.2 times the speed of sound), set in 1976, and a reported ceiling (maximum altitude) of 80,000+ ft (which is all the US Air Force will admit to). However, on the return transatlantic flights of the Blackbirds back to the USA from their deployment bases in the UK, higher figures of 2,275mph were reported (possibly apocryphally!) and altitudes (depending on the source) of between 87,000 and 100,000ft. Of course, even the Blackbird needs sufficient air for the engines to function – it is not a rocket, after all! – and a more reasonable figure of 85,000ft as a designated maximum altitude, with inadvertent flight up to 87,000ft, has been reported, again unofficially*. And she could maintain that performance for over an hour! This is noteworthy since most supersonic aircraft (a notable exception being the Concorde) can only maintain their top speeds for a few minutes at best.
So, an aircraft steeped in mystery, but somehow even more impressive for all that.
The Blackbird, though, unlike all the aircraft I have covered so far in this series, was not an armed combat aircraft. She wasn’t made in order to bomb or shoot anything; she was a reconnaissance aircraft. She was designed to go and look at things in hostile territory, to see what is there. And in order to do that, she had to have a performance that would ensure her survival. Hence, Mach 3.2+ and above 80,000ft, for long enough to make a difference.
Whereas fast jet aircraft from the Sea Vixen to the Typhoon have been designed in more or less similar ways, essentially including the same conventional technology of other aircraft of the time, in terms of engines, aerodynamics and materials science, what made the Blackbird so special was that she was conceived in a completely different manner and using so many advances not only in technology but also in design philosophy. If you like, the aircraft was designed ‘from the ground up’ to operate in that specific performance envelope. The factor that made the similarly – performing XB-70 Valkyrie obsolete was the rapid advances in surface-to-air missile (SAM) technology, that is, missiles fired from the ground in order to shoot down their targets. The SAMs could now reach fast, high-flying aircraft, and so their threat was what forced other reconnaissance and bomber aircraft of the time to abandon the upper air altogether and rely on low-flying in order to accomplish their missions. This is why all modern air forces practice low-flying. And this is why the XB-70 was abandoned – because her incredible performance had become irrelevant.
But the Blackbird had to be designed in order to operate at such extreme altitudes and speeds, and with the range she required in order to complete her mission, because she simply had to fly high enough to be able to see what she needed to see, because she was a reconnaissance aircraft, and from higher up you can see more. Low level was not an option for the Blackbird’s mission. And so, several design factors had to be built into her from the start, in order to give her the performance she needed to survive in the SAM threat environment.
The first factor was in the Blackbird’s engines. To make things simple, I will eventually put all the technical stuff on a separate page, but basically the Blackbird’s engines were a type of hybrid engine known as a ‘turboramjet’. At high speeds, all of the thrust was provided only by the air intakes and the afterburners, and the actual jet engine in between could be, well, essentially shut down. This produced an incredibly efficient engine in terms of thrust per unit of fuel, far more efficient than the simple afterburning turbojet engine.
The next factor was of course her speed and altitude performance. Blackbird could fly higher than the XB-70, but even so, it is virtually impossible for a manned combat aircraft, even the Soviets’ MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ interceptor, to intercept an aircraft flying that high and that fast, and then actually get into a position to shoot it down. In addition, Soviet air-to-air missiles (missiles launched from an intercepting aircraft in order to shoot down another aircraft) simply did not have the performance, at those altitudes, to be able to catch a Blackbird.
Which leaves the question of how the Blackbird managed to avoid the SAM threat, when the nearly-equally-performing XB-70 couldn’t.
The SR-71 has the (as far as I know) unique reputation that not one example of the aircraft has been lost to enemy action, even though used operationally in hostile airspace.** Even though the performance of the SR-71 is similar in many respects to that of the XB-70 Valkyrie, whose development as a manned combat aircraft was discontinued because it would have been vulnerable to interception by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), it was still not vulnerable to SAMs as the XB-70 would have been, despite its blistering performance. This is because the SR-71 had not only powerful electronic jammers to fool hostile radars, but also an excellent combination of stealth technologies including radar-absorbent paint; radar-absorbent material wedges in the leading edges of the stabilisers, wings and fuselage; blended wing/fuselage shape and so on, which gave it the same radar visibility as a small aeroplane like the ones I fly. In other words, it looked tiny on radar.
This meant that the SAM operators would have far less time to alert their systems; in fact, not enough time for any launched SAM to get up to the Blackbird’s altitude. And the same would apply to any defending fighters, for whom their performance (and that of their missiles) would be so much inferior to that of the Blackbird that she would be long gone by the time they got up to anywhere where an air-to-air missile just might be able to bag her.
And so that was how the Blackbird managed to survive the – literally thousands – of SAMs fired at her. A combination of sustained high performance, and stealth technology which together minimised the engagement envelope of the opposing air defence system.
The end of the Cold War signified the deactivation of so much of the Western military; the Blackbirds, however, soldiered on until about 1998. There’s always a need for reconnaissance! There are two airworthy examples which are however no longer operated, but the rest are in museums. Here’s a photo of the example at the USAF museum at Duxford, UK:
And finally, here’s a lovely poetic piece expressing the sense of wonder engendered by this amazing aeroplane, by the brilliant Jeremy Clarkson:
There we are then. The amazing SR-71 Blackbird – not a Destroyer per se, but beautiful nevertheless.
For a couple of interesting anecdotes about this aeroplane, check out my previous blog posts here and here.
*However, the Blackbird’s Flight Manual, released now to the public, specified that operations above 85,000ft had to be ‘specially authorised’ (whatever that means!) and it is also apparent from that manual that the maximum airspeed depends largely on the external air temperature, in order to maintain the aircraft’s outer skin temperature within safe limits.
**Actually, now I think about it, the Vulcan was used on live combat missions into hostile airspace in the Falklands War of 1982 without losing one to enemy action; however, one was interned in neutral Brazil for nine days when it had to make an emergency landing there due to an aircraft technical fault.
Today’s Beautiful Destroyers post is just a little bit different, because not only do I showcase the legendary Boeing B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’, but I also present a little game you might like to try.
The B-17 ‘Fortress’ was the mainstay (along with the B-24 ‘Liberator’) of the United States 8th Air Force, flying from bases in the UK during World War II. This aeroplane has long been one of my favourite American aircraft from WWII.
Here’s the mighty B-17G Fortress ‘Sally-B’, one of the (happily) many airworthy examples flying today. She’s dressed up as the legendary B-17F* ‘Memphis Belle’, which was the first Fortress to complete the required 25 missions to enable her crew to return home to the United States.
The doctrine which inspired the design and construction of the B-17 was that ‘The Bomber Will Always Get Through’; an inter-war concept whereby bombers would be designed that were so fast and high-flying that fighters (which when the doctrine was formulated, had similar performance to the bombers) would not be able to intercept them. However, by the time the early B-17’s were designed, they knew that the fighters would most likely be able to catch the bombers. And so the Fortress was designed, basically with guns providing all-around firepower protection; defences covering every possible approach angle so that enemy fighters would have to run the gauntlet of heavy defensive fire no matter where they attacked from – hence the nickname ‘Flying Fortress’. And so, with the benefit of this all-round armament, the Fortress was supposed to have been able to make it all the way to the target (The bomber will always get through!), without fighter escort, and defend itself (and its squadron mates, with which it flew in a defensive ‘box’ formation to maximise mutual supporting firepower) all the way to the target and back.
Of course, however, as with all such combat doctrines, the reality did not match up with the theory. Although at first, the B-17s could indeed get through to the target without serious losses, and deliver their bombs reasonably accurately, this did not last long. On the first daylight bombing mission, on 17th August, 1942, only two bombers suffered minor damage. However, the German fighter leaders of course developed tactics which they used successfully against the Fortress formations. This is what professional soldiers do well; if there is a tactic that works (in this case, massed formations of machine-gun toting bombers), you develop a counter-tactic, and so on. One of the primary such tactics was to attack the bomber formations head-on, where a) the bombers had weaker defensive weaponry (at some angles, just a single machine gun), and b) the closing speed was so high (of the order of 600mph) that accurate fire was difficult. But still the Fortresses had to go in in daylight – the whole idea was that they could actually see the target they were dropping their bombs on, unlike the RAF night raids where the bombers relied on a combination of good navigation and luck in order to hit their targets – if indeed they did hit their targets.
And so they found that the Fortress benefited from a fighter escort almost as well as did the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Both sides had learned that unescorted bombers iin daylight are vulnerable – but still the B-17 was far more capable of defending itself than were the much more lightly-armed German Heinkels and Dorniers they used in the Battle of Britain. In fact it wasn’t until early 1944 that the Fortress got a fighter escort all the way to the target; on the notorious raids on Schweinfurt and Regensburg in August 1943, the Fortresses lost nearly ten percent of their strike force, being escorted only about 25% of the way there and for the last 25% of the flight back. In October 1943, the second Schweinfurt mission resulted in such catastrophic losses (about 20%) that these missions in fact foretold the failure of the concept of deep-penetration unescorted daylight raids over Germany, in spite of the Fortress’s heavy defensive armament, and while raids continued unabated for the rest of the War, unescorted deep-penetration raids did not. Not until late 1943 were long-range escort fighters sufficiently long-legged to make it all the way to targets deep in Germany and back.
In fact, eventually, the US long-range escort fighters performed so well that some B-17 crews flew two 25-mission tours without ever seeing an enemy fighter.
The Fortress was held in high regard by its crews, because even though the bombers were regularly clobbered good and proper by both enemy fighters and flak (anti-aircraft fire), they had a reputation for being unbelievably tough.
“There were occasions where, any other airplane, took hits the way it took….wouldn’t’a brought us back…”
“God love ’em. They’d bring you home when you didn’t think you had a prayer, and, … they’d never let you down….”
“When you see what the B-17 went through, in combat, and still make it back home … it was a miracle to me”
Some Forts were indeed able to make it back home with some of the most incredible battle damage; damage that would easily have felled any other combat aircraft in the War. Some examples are given here. This Fortress, for example, was damaged in a collision with a German fighter which tracked its wingtip down across the rear fuselage and took off the left tailplane (horizontal stabiliser) too.
Or this Fort, where a Flak shell had exploded directly in front of the nose of the aircraft:
…and they incredibly managed to fly that aeroplane home! This, while extreme, is typical of the kinds of damage these aeroplanes used to absorb and still survive.
In this picture, you can see the contrails (the white vapour trails) of escorting Allied fighters above the B-17 formation:
Here’s a lovely picture of a B-17G on its bomb run. Note the spiral contrails induced by the spiral propeller wash.
And another incredibly atmospheric shot, this time a backlit picture of the propeller tips forming their own slipstream vortices:
And another beautiful picture of a B-17 formation and its contrails – beautiful but deadly. These contrails made it impossible for the defending German fighters to not see the American formations approaching.
So, the B-17 Fortress – another Beautiful Destroyer. Loved by its crews, but suffering heavy losses until the advent of 100% fighter escort.
And now for the little game, which I appreciate will only be of interest to WWII geeks 😉 I call this little exercise the ‘8th Air Force Legacy’.
During World War II, several tens of airbases were constructed during 1942-1943, in East Anglia – roughly the area east of Cambridge/Peterborough – in the United Kingdom. These bases were to be home to the tens of thousands of American servicemen whose mission it was to launch daylight air raids into Occupied Europe in order to cripple Nazi Germany’s war machine industry.
Whereas the RAF conducted its bombing campaign at night – largely a fairly indiscriminate ‘terror campaign’ waged against Germany’s civilian population (although many raids were also sent against German industrial targets in areas like the Ruhr Valley) – the US Army Air Force doctrine called for daylight precision bombing – attacks so accurate that the targets would be hit and hit hard.
The bases were placed in East Anglia so that they would be at the nearest practical ‘jumping-off point’ for raids into Europe. Raids began in August 1942 when twelve B-17s of the 97th Bombardment Group attacked the railway marshalling yards at Rouen. Within months, it became common for the skies above East Anglia to be filled with the reverberating snarl of aircraft engines as hundreds of bombers assembled their formations before commencing their long, freezing flights out over Nazi Germany and back again. Visions of the ground crews waiting anxiously for the first sound of approaching B-17s, returning from storms of flak and rivers of bullets. The culmination of the campaign against the Nazi war machine was in August 1943, where two raids were conducted against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt, and the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, both deep in Germany, as already mentioned.
These air bases were absolute hives of activity. Thousands of personnel, hundreds of aircraft, thousands of vehicles, tons of ammunition, bombs, fuel, spare parts; busy hangars and repair shops, briefing and canteen facilities, chapels, stores, barracks – each airfield was a small town and was more-or-less self contained.
Many of these bases were closed at the end of the War, some were kept going, but now, over seventy years after the end of the War, there is in some cases little left of these once bustling places. Like navvy shanty-towns, they served their purpose, and were then left to fall into decay. Places full of memory, full of history, are now once again reverted to being farmers’ fields or other uses. Polebrook, Kimbolton, Snetterton Heath, Bassingbourn, Thorpe Abbots. Names that evoke visions of B-17s running up their engines, long grass waving behind in the prop wash, the thunder of engines as the heavily-laden B-17s rumble down the runways and lurch into the air, men playing baseball until the returning bombers could be heard, red flares on final approach to signify that the bomber had wounded aboard, wheels-up landings on one engine….
Now, here’s the game. Use Google Maps/Google Earth (satellite view) to search for the place names given below, and see if you can see the bases, or what’s left of them, nearby**. Or even just if you can see where they were. As an aid, you can type in the names of the bases into Wikipedia, and get an idea of what the shapes of the airfields were like. In Wikipedia, add RAF in front – RAF Polebrook, for example. Clue: Most of the airfields had three intersecting runways arranged in a rough overlapping triangle pattern. And take a look at what some of them are used for now – Snetterton Heath is a good example. Also, where possible, try the Google Street View on them – at Rattlesden you can even look along one of the runways that used to be used for B-17s (it’s now a gliding airfield). Would you believe that a very few of these are still active airfields in one form or another!
Here are the names you’re looking for:
Alconbury (an easy one to begin with)
Bury St. Edmunds
Podington (I think this is a drag-racing track!)
Chelveston (a very hard one!)
Each of these bases was near(ish) to the village from which it took its name. Thorpe Abbotts is a bit further away, but that’s part of the fun. Look at the Google Maps from different heights and try to to spot the patterns in the ground. Polebrook is a particularly difficult one, as are Knettishall and Kimbolton. Give it a go and see how you get on. And, as always, comments are welcome 🙂
And finally, I found on the Internet a very moving picture of an unidentified young lady (whose face I have pixellated) walking on a disused runway at one of these old airfields***.
Look carefully above her head….
*The B-17F didn’t have the chin turret that the ‘G’ had (the twin-gun turret under the nose). The ‘Sally-B’ is a B-17G model.
**Because this article is about the B-17 ‘Fortress’, the bases included here are the ones that B-17s used for most of the war. There were also other bases, used by B-24 ‘Liberator’ heavy bombers, that were just as much a part of the 8th Air Force as the B-17s were.
If you would like to try the game with B-24 bases, here is a list of them:
Horsham St. Faith
Again, good luck!
***The airfield in the ‘ghost B-17’ picture is one of those listed on this page. The challenge, of course, is to find out which one. Answers on a postcard please 😉
I did say, when I began this series, that despite it being called ‘Beautiful Destroyers’, not all the aircraft featured would be military aircraft.
And today’s aircraft is the first civilian aircraft I am featuring in the series. The Cessna 152, first manufactured in 1977 and produced until 1985. The ‘152 is probably the most popular basic training aircraft in the world. Multitudes of pilots have learned to fly in this aircraft; it is steady and reliable, easy to fly, and a real delight. It’s a bit cramped with two people on board, but it does have a better load-carrying capacity than the Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, another popular training aeroplane (and the type I fly at present).
The C152 has a maximum ‘never-exceed’ airspeed of 174kt (1kt = 1.14mph), a speed we’d never get near in practical flying, as at that speed the tail reportedly falls off. Maximum normal level speed 110kt; economical cruise speed 90kt or as near to 100mph as makes no difference. Ceiling (maximum altitude) is reportedly 14,500ft but all the Cessnas I have ever flown can make 10,000ft but will struggle to go any higher; there’s not a lot of oomph left by the time you get up there. Not that we can take them any higher than that anyway, as most Flying Clubs have rules routinely restricting pilots to 10,000ft due to lack of oxygen at altitudes any higher than that. Certainly at 10,000ft you can feel your heart beating faster, tingling in your fingers and toes, increased respiration rate and a slight dizziness; all signs of impending hypoxia (oxygen starvation).
I learned to fly on the C152, at Plymouth Airport in Devon. During that time, I discovered that different aircraft of the same type can have very diferent handling characteristics, and so the Pilot develops a preference for certain specific aeroplanes over others of the same type, based on the ‘feel’ of the aeroplane. My favourite aircraft at Plymouth was C152 G-BSTO, ‘Tango-Oscar’. She had such lovely clean, sharp, responsive handling characteristics, along with an engine of decent power and decisive power response, I couldn’t help but favour her over the other two Cessnas at Plymouth Flying School. She always felt like an extension of my body – well, actually, all aeroplanes that I fly do, but especially Tango-Oscar. And she was the aeroplane in which I flew my first solo, which is described here. Tango-Oscar now lives at Newquay airport (just 20 miles from Bodmin), with the flying school there, and it was always strange, when flying out of Bodmin, occasionally to hear Newquay Radar talking to ‘Golf-Tango-Oscar’ and have to resist the temptation to reply to them. It took some getting used to to remember that someone else was flying Tango-Oscar at the time, and Newquay Radar weren’t actually talking to me. Here’s Tango-Oscar taxying at Cardiff Airport, with an unknown Pilot in command:
(The header image of this post shows me taking off from Bodmin in Tango-Oscar, in May 2009. The full story can be found at the bottom of this post).
Here’s another picture of Sierra-Mike at Compton Abbas in July 2013, this time on the ground and taxying for departure with David in command:
Note the elevator is fully raised – stick right back – and this has the effect (which can be clearly seen) of raising the nose away from the ground, to minimise the chances of a prop-strike (that’s where the propeller chews into the ground). It doesn’t do either the prop or the ground much good if that happens.
Finally for Sierra-Mike, here is the original photo, taken by an unknown photographer, that I use in my blog’s header image. It shows me flying Sierra-Mike down short finals for Runway 26 at Compton Abbas, 14th July 2013:
What is it that I love about the Cessna 152? Well, she has clean lines, a simple, uncomplicated design, docile and gentle handling characteristics, she’s easy yet still fun to fly, stable and reliable, and I am so familiar with the type that when I fly one she, more than any other aircraft type, feels like a part of me, like an extension of my body and senses.
What’s it like to fly a Cessna 152? Well, for starters, here’s the instrument panel on Tango-Oscar, in flight over Teignmouth, Devon, en route to Exmouth at 2,250ft, looking from the passenger seat. It looks complicated at first, but believe me, you soon get used to all those switches and dials. It’s not so much, ‘What does that one do?’, but that you need some information, like ‘How fast are we going?’, and so you know to look at the airspeed indicator, which is the top left dial. Or you need to perform a task, like go into a climb, so it’s throttle to full power (the black knob next to the red Mixture control knob) and up you go. The picture is fully zoomable; click it once to download it to your browser, then click again to zoom, and scroll around as you like. many of the controls are actually labelled with a little caption saying what they do. You might find it interesting to take a closer look.
And another shot, this time a pilot’s eye view of the panel of Yankee-Hotel, again in flight, levelling out at 3,000ft and just finishing the turn on to heading:
And finally, here’s a little video shot by my friend Steve, where you get to see what it’s like to fly in one of these beauties (Yankee-Hotel) in short-field, grass-strip operations from Bodmin Airfield. Startup, taxying, takeoff, then rejoining the circuit (we’d probably been off to bomb Colliford Lake or something), final approach and landing. Points to look for: the building whine of the instrument gyros spinning up; the call of ‘Clear prop!’ before engine start; the bumpy ride on the takeoff roll (grass runway!) transitioning instantly to smoothness as she gets airborne; the final approach with the runway getting bigger; a little bit of sideslip at 5:50, where I dip the nose to lose a bit of excess height, and the extremely quick landing (not as rough as it looks) with hardly any hold-off at all. This was because it was a short-field landing: a landing flown with airspeeds ‘on the back of the drag curve’ at about 55kt or so. This means that as the nose is raised, the airspeed decays very rapidly and the aircraft comes down quite quickly. Which is what you need if you’re on a short runway. We were down, and slowed, and off the runway in 200 yards or less. That’s how it’s supposed to be done!
So, there she is. The Cessna 152, probably my all-time favourite aeroplane to fly, and for reasons that are probably obvious by now!
For more information on the Cessna 152, check out the Wikipedia entry on the type here.
Edit: You could in fact call the Cessna 152 a ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ in that we regularly used them to ‘attack’ the dams on local reservoirs. Tip in towards the target, a shallow dive to pick up airspeed, then race across the water at low level and high speed. Call ‘Bombs away!’ and then a sharp, high-g pull-up into the vertical and climb away. Most exhilarating, tremendous fun, and your grin is fixed for at least a week afterwards.
Well, when I first began the Beautiful Destroyers series here on my blog, I did say that I would not always be featuring military aircraft.
If you remember, the most beautiful aeroplanes are often the ones that are designed to break things belonging to other people, hence the title ‘Beautiful Destroyers’, and I said I would also feature civilian aircraft from time to time. I’ve already featured one of my favourite civilian aeroplanes last time – the Cessna 152 – and today I am going to feature another of my favourite aeroplanes to fly – the Piper PA-28 Cherokee, also known as the ‘Warrior’. And, although she’s not a ‘Destroyer’ (although actually there are some military versions), she’s still beautiful.
The Warrior exists in various versions, and the one in the title picture, G-CIZO (‘Zulu-Oscar’), is actually a PA-28-161 ‘Cadet’, incorrectly listed in Wikipedia as being a two-seat variant. It’s not; there are definitely four seats in Zulu-Oscar! And four sets of seatbelts and four sets of headphone jacks.
And this is the aeroplane that I flew a couple of weeks ago, in order to convert back on to the Warrior after nearly sixteen years away from the type.
But that aside, the Warrior is, in my opinion, the prettiest of the light aeroplanes that I have flown. I love the double-taper wing shape; here is a lovely photo of Zulu-Oscar showing off her beautiful lines really nicely:
In the past, when I have flown a Cessna 152, it always felt as if I was putting on my second skin, so familiar am I with the aeroplane type. The aircraft very smoothly becomes an extension of me, my senses, my body, you get the picture.
And I am thrilled to have been reminded that it’s the same with the Warrior. Even after sixteen years of not flying the type, I have to say that I took to it immediately. Having completed my hour and a half conversion flight with an Instructor, five days later I took the same aeroplane up solo for a skills consolidation flight and it was just like I had never been away from the type, so delightful is this aeroplane to fly. It was like putting a glove on; she instantly becomes a part of you. She’s smooth, steady and stable, responsive and light to the touch. A real pilot’s aeroplane.
The Warrior I have flown most in the past, at Plymouth (where I learned to fly) is G-BTSJ ‘Sierra Juliet’.
Since Plymouth Airport closed a few years ago, Sierra-Juliet has lived at Newquay (where Plymouth Flying School relocated to) and I had seen her occasionally at Bodmin (where I flew after Pymouth closed) when she was there for maintenance. Now, however, she has been bought by my flying school at Exeter and I am looking forward to taking this dignified old lady up into the skies once again. She’s the aeroplane I was flying when we had the humorous ‘Forced Landing’ incident I related previously.
So, as I said, a couple of weeks ago, I flew in Zulu-Oscar, with veteran flying instructor Mike, for my type refresher conversion. Why? Well, unless you have flown it recently, you can’t really just jump into a new (to you) aircraft type and fly it, at least not safely; you need to know where all the switches are, how to handle emergencies, and especially what speeds to fly for climbing, gliding, cruise, final approach, all that sort of thing. These are what’s known as the ‘V Speeds‘. My instructor Mike is a great bloke whom I have known for most of my flying career; he was an Instructor at Plymouth just after I finished my PPL and he’s patient, unflappable and great to work with. So off we toddled up towards Cullompton and Wellington, two towns to the north of Exeter, for General Handling practice including steep turns, stalls and a PFL. Then across the moor to the busy local General Aviation (GA) aerodrome at Dunkeswell for circuits and touch-and-go landing practice. Because Dunkeswell were using their shorter Runway 17, I had to relearn very quickly about the Warrior’s acceleration/deceleration characteristics. The PA-28 is a very slippery aeroplane and, while she accelerates readily, slowing down is really not that easy. And so I had to fly four circuits of precision flying, controlling height, heading and speed accurately as well as communicating with the ground radio people, keeping a lookout and maintaining high situational awareness because of the busy circuit traffic at Dunkeswell that day. My first landing was admittedly more of a controlled crash; after raising the nose for the flare (just before landing), my airspeed fell off a little too quickly and I came down like it was on an aircraft carrier. Boomps-a-daisy. And to cap it all, on our last final approach, they decided to chuck a load of parachutists out over the airfield and they were coming down all over the place. But they kept to their area of the airfield and away from the active runway, so all was well, although Mike did double-check with the ground people to make sure they were happy with us continuing our approach (they were). So, a quick full-stop landing for refuelling, then it’s off to Exeter again, land there, get my logbook signed to say I’d requalified on the Warrior and the job’s a good ‘un.
Here’s a profile view of Zulu-Oscar:
Look at those lovely, clean lines and the beautiful curves on the tailfin. Also worthy of note is the ‘slab tailplane’. The entire tailplane – that’s the small wing-like structure at the back end – is what’s known as an ‘all-flying tailplane’, ‘stabilator‘, or ‘slab tailplane’. What this means is that, instead of the tailplane being fixed but with separate moving surfaces (known as ‘elevators’) as the part of the tailplane that controls the ‘attitude’ or ‘pitch’ (nose-up/nose-down) of the aeroplane, instead, with a slab tailplane, the entire tailplane moves as a single piece to provide this control. Because the slab tailplane has such a large area when compared to normal elevators, this means that this sort of tailplane confers excellent ‘pitch authority’, in that the aeroplane responds decisively and enthusiastically to pitch control inputs. This gives a very ‘positive’, yet also very light, feel to the controls when flying this type. In addition, unlike the Piper PA-38 ‘Tomahawk’ that I also fly, which has a high ‘T’-tailplane, the lower tailplane on the Warrior sits in the propeller slipstream – the ‘wash’ of high-speed air blown backwards along the aeroplane by the propeller – and this gives it even more pitch authority. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible for the tailplane to enter a dangerous ‘deep stall‘ condition, which makes for a much safer aeroplane.
So, there we go, that’s the Piper Warrior. I’ve not given much detail on performance or stuff like that, but instead a proper ‘pilot’s-eye’ view of a lovely aeroplane which flies as nicely as it looks. Here’s a final shot of Zulu-Oscar, taken just after my consolidation flight last week:
The F-86 ‘Sabre’ is certainly one of the most beautiful aeroplanes from the Cold War era, and is an icon of the classic jets genre.
First used in combat in the Korean War, the Sabre soon proved itself to be the best of the fighter aircraft in the United Nations’ arsenal, and it was the only fighter capable of facing the North Koreans’ MiG-15 fighters on equal terms. Other fighters fielded by the UN were either slower piston-engined prop jobs like the F-51 Mustang, or straight-wing jets such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Gloster Meteor, which were a good deal slower than the MiG-15.
But the Sabre was fast (it was just supersonic in a shallow dive), manoeuvrable, had good visibility from its bubble canopy, and was often flown by experienced combat veterans who had fought in WWII. In many ways, the Sabre and MiG-15 were virtually equal aircraft, each with strengths and weaknesses with respect to the other, very much like the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt 109 were in the Second World War. Here are a preserved Sabre and MiG-15 seen together at an airshow in the USA (photo is clickable to magnify):
But the Sabre is just plain beautiful, and that’s one reason why I’m featuring it in ‘Beautiful Destroyers‘. Look at those lovely clean lines, the perfect wing sweep angle, the sleekness of the curves of the fuselage…this is a beautiful aeroplane in the same league in the beauty stakes as the Hawker Hunter.
In the photo above, you can clearly see the ‘bubble’ shape of the canopy; this gave the pilot an excellent all-round field of view; this is very advantageous in close-in air combat. There is an old fighter-pilots’ adage: ‘He who sees, wins’ and the Sabre’s canopy certainly fits the bill for that purpose.
Armed with six 0.50″ machine guns, the Sabre packed quite a punch – the six 0.50-cal machine guns were a proven weapons fit from the Second World War – but they did not have quite the range of the cannon with which the Soviet fighters like the MiG-15, and jet bombers like the Ilyushin-28, were armed.
Indeed the early Sabres were in some ways some of the last of the gun-only armed aircraft; changes in the performance of jet bombers meant that there had to be new developments in air-to-air combat that would enable fighters to bring down Soviet bombers which had nearly as good speed and altitude performance as the fighters that would be trying to stop them in the event of a war.
Eventually, the ability to stop fast jet bombers was realised by the advent of air-to-air guided missiles; indeed the Sabre was one of the first aircraft to be fitted with early versions of the AIM-9 ‘Sidewinder’ heat-seeking missile. But in the meantime, other methods had to be developed to enable interceptors to attack enemy bombers without being exposed to withering cannon fire from the tail turrets of aeroplanes such as the Tu-95 ‘Bear’. (Remember that at this time in history, the ‘Cold War’, the threat of nuclear war was ever-present, and the West and the East both poured tons of money into developing effective defences against enemy nuclear-armed bombers). The temporary stop-gap measure adopted by the USA and Canada, at least, was to arm their interceptor jets with many unguided ‘folding-fin aerial rockets’ (FFARs) which had explosive warheads but which had to actually hit their targets directly in order to cause damage. A good number of these rockets were carried by various interceptors, from 24 in the F-86D (below) and F-102A, to a massive 108 FFARs in the Northrop F-89D ‘Scorpion’. The idea was to attack enemy bombers using a single head-on pass, using a specialist radar-guided attack computer which launched all the FFARs at the target in one (hopefully devastating) salvo. Hopefully, the combination of reasonably accurate aiming and the ‘shotgun’ effect of having so many FFARs in the air at the same time, would bring down the enemy bomber before it got to its target. That’s what interceptors are supposed to do.
And so was born the F-86D ‘Sabre Dog’; the FFAR-armed interceptor version of the F-86. The inclusion of the fire control radar and the retractable rocket tray meant that the airframe shape was nowhere near as graceful as the gun-armed F-86s, but I suppose it was for a reason and it did its job. The F-86D was never intended for fighting against enemy fighters, though; its entire armament for its mission was based around the single salvo of FFARs, to be used to intercept a single enemy bomber. You only got the one shot. Here is the F-86D, and another shot showing its retractable rocket tray, which was just under the cockpit:
The big black dome on the nose of the Sabre Dog (which I feel spoils its lines!) is the radome containing the fire control radar for the FFAR aiming computer. Here’s another shot of the whole FFAR salvo going off:
Now, this is more like it. Here is a gorgeous painting of an F-86 punching off its drop-tanks as it prepares to engage a North Korean MiG-15:
Drop tanks were an idea from the Second World War, where fighters could extend their range by carrying extra fuel in external tanks. Because these external tanks increased the weight and drag of the aeroplane, they could be dropped, or ‘punched off’, as the enemy was sighted, hence the name ‘drop tanks’.
The fighter would then be lighter and cleaner and better able to engage the enemy. The idea was that you would use the fuel from the drop tanks first, so that the tanks would hopefully be empty by the time you ran into trouble and jettisoned them. Or, if you didn’t make contact with enemy aircraft, you could just bring the tanks home empty and use them again.
The Sabre served with many nations’ air forces , including the Royal Air Force, for many years and in many operational theatres, with the last ones being retired from service in the Bolivian Air Force in 1994.
So, there she is; the F-86 Sabre. Beautiful lines, sleek, fast and deadly. A ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ for sure.
This instalment of ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ is a little different, as I am not showcasing a particular aircraft. Instead, I’m looking at the origins of military aviation and also sharing a lovely piece of music. Enjoy!
As both a military historian and an aviator, I am of course passionately interested in the use of aircraft in military operations – or ‘military aviation’. The history of the military use of aircraft is in itself a fascinating tale of high-end technology (military aircraft have always been at the forefront of technological development), courage, technical skill, determination, tactical development, trial and error, mistakes and success. Of course, warfare is an unforgiving crucible, and because of this it is one of the major motivating factors in the development of technology of all kinds. Military aviation is a prime example of this, if not indeed the pinnacle of modern military technology. It was realised fairly early on in World War I (1914-1918)* that control of the skies was of paramount importance in tactical (and later strategic) warfare. This continues to be axiomatic in modern warfare; he who controls the skies, controls the battle.
But of course it had to start somewhere. The first recorded use of aircraft in military operations was (as far as I know) the use of manned observation kites by the Chinese in the late sixth century – about 594CE. Hot air balloons were first used decisively by the French in 1794; however, although balloons continued to be used for observation purposes for long after, these kites and balloons were of course tethered to the ground and couldn’t really go anywhere. Military aviation therefore really only came into its own during World War I, because with the advent of powered aircraft like aeroplanes and airships, people could actually go more or less where they wanted to go in the skies, rather than having to stay in the same place; this operational flexibility, of course, meant that virtually anything was possible from then onwards. But even then, fully-dirigible (that is, mobile and steerable) aircraft were still in their infancy; airships had been around for only two or three decades, and as for aeroplanes (or ‘flying machines’ as they were often called back then), the first powered aeroplane flight was only in 1903, so the technology was still very much experimental, and flying aeroplanes was very much a hit-and-miss affair (in other words, dangerous) because of this. So it was an historical period quite unlike any other as far as military aviation was concerned.
Having just finished an excellent book on British aerial combat operations in WWI, Fighter Heroes of WWI, by Joshua Levine, I bought the DVDs of the 1970s classic BBC series ‘Wings‘, which for some reason I was completely unaware of at the time (that is, in 1974-76 when it was being shown on TV) – which is a shame as it would have been right up my street. It’s an absolutely superb series with excellent characterisation, engrossing story writing, great acting, historical accuracy and (most importantly to me!) superb and authentic flying sequences. Anyone interested in the early development of military aviation will not fail to be captured by this series; it’s simply brilliant.
And the theme music is gorgeous. In fact, despite my lengthy preamble, this music was actually the main inspiration for this post today – it is simply lovely. It has a nostalgic ‘music-hall’ feel to it, with a beautiful chord structure and bass-line, and above all, a catchy and poignant melody. And I recommend you listen to it on headphones if possible, in order to catch all the lovely nuances.
So, here we are – the theme music from ‘Wings‘, composed by Alexander Faris:
Gorgeous. Hope you liked it!
The theme music for the series ‘Wings‘ was released as a 45rpm vinyl record in 1977, and since first writing this article, I have managed to buy one. You can pick up a copy of your own from Amazon if you like; click the cover graphic below to go to the sales page:
In case they have sold out, here is the title track as an orchestral arrangement, digitised from the A-side of the record:
During one of the early episodes in Series 1, some of the characters in the screenplay can be heard singing a military-style pub drinking song to the same tune. Since I like to have the lyrics for any songs I really like, I was delighted to find that the B-side of the record contained this vocal arrangement, entitled ‘A Sussex Lad’, which is the same song that the characters sang in the episode. The whole feel of the song is just so World War I; it’s a perfect song for the series:
And finally, here are the lyrics so you can sing along:
I’m a gentle lad from Sussex With a heart that’s light and free So a frown did pass across my brow When my girl said to me “They are fighting on the land, Jack, And they’re fighting on the sea Will you be a sailor-boy Or will you join the New Army?”
I’m a loyal lad from Sussex With a heart that’s brave and free But the Sergeant-Major’s language, Lord! It simply horrified me! And I would not join the Navy For I’ve never liked the sea So I put my brave heart to the test And joined the RFC
I go skimming the tops of the mountains And soaring all over the sea I think of my girl as I’m flying And I know she is thinking of me
I’m an airborne lad from Sussex With a heart that’s flying free I’ve a pair of wings upon my chest My girl’s so proud of me They can keep the Royal Navy They can […] the infantry For the sky is now my pasture It’s an airman’s wings for me!
I’m a daring aviator And I fly so skilfully But my aeroplane lacked common sense And crashed into a tree Now my wings are lying broken And my girl she weeps for me For I’ve left this world and God’s unfurled These angels’ wings for me
The inclusion of this blog post in my series ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ was apt, I thought, because it describes the very early origins of military aviation. Without the tireless efforts of those pioneers of the past, our ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ would never have existed.
The aeroplane in the header picture is a flying replica of a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c, the mainstay of the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, when the series ‘Wings’ is set. A very stable aeroplane, and ideal for its designed purpose of reconnaissance (being a stable camera platform), it was not really designed to fight other aircraft; the idea of aeroplanes fighting each other hadn’t really been thought of when this aeroplane was designed! The image is a direct screenshot from the opening titles of Series 1 of ‘Wings’. I’m not sure there are any replicas still flying nowadays; remember this series was made in the mid-1970s 🙂
*Hostilities in World War I, known at the time as the ‘Great War’, ceased when the Armistice was signed on the 11th November, 1918. The War was formally ended in June, 1919, with the Treaty of Versailles. This explains why the dates on some war memorials say 1914-1919.
It’s been a while since I have done a post on the Beautiful Destroyers – the ironic observation that some of the most beautiful aircraft ever built were made with the express purpose of breaking things belonging to other people.
Today, I would like to introduce you to the Vought F-8 Crusader.
The Crusader was a carrier-based air-superiority fighter designed in the mid-1950s, and used by the US Navy, the US Marine Corps, the French Navy and the Philippine Air Force. A real ‘hot ship’, she was the US Navy’s first real supersonic fighter; previous fighters could go supersonic in certain circumstances (usually a powered dive) but the Crusader could do it in level flight. The Crusader was also known as the ‘Last Gunfighter’ because she was fitted from the outset with four 20mm Colt cannon, in an era where fighter jet designers were moving away from gun-armed fighters and majoring on missile-armed interceptors.
In the Vietnam War, however (1965-1972) the ‘missile-only’ tactical doctrine was revealed as essentially flawed, as North Vietnamese MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters, which were (in the case if the MiG-17s and MiG-19s) much older than the American fighters and indeed almost obsolete, were able to get ‘in close’ and use their guns, where the Americans couldn’t fire back. This was because not only were missiles quite unreliable in those days, but also they were not really designed to be launched from hard-manoeuvring aircraft at small, agile targets. They also had a ‘minimum range’ limitation and could not be launched if the target was too close – because they took time to arm themselves after launch.
For the Crusader, however, this was not a problem, because she already had her guns built-in. Indeed, so successful was the Crusader against the MiGs that the North Vietnamese pilots reportedly had far more respect for the Crusaders than any other American fighter.
It is also worth mentioning that, because of the lessons learned in Vietnam, the majority of today’s ultra-modern fighter aircraft, produced by all nations, now carry at least one internal gun.
So, what is it with the Crusader? Why do I find her so beautiful? Well, there’s the clean, sleek lines, the lovely wing shape, the huge air intake under the nose which suggests a belligerent, aggressive attitude, and to be honest she invokes in me a visceral ‘oomph’ sort of feeling whenever I see a picture one of these lovely aircraft.
And – she just ‘looks’ right! And as the old pilots’ adage goes, if an aeroplane looks right, she will fly right 🙂
She also has some interesting design features, particularly the ‘variable-incidence’ wing. The entire wing can be tilted ‘upwards’ so as to increase the lift capacity of the wing for slow-speed work, particularly when landing on aircraft carriers, which is what this plane is primarily designed for. In addition, since she’s a carrier-based aircraft, she has to be made tough and rugged; landing on an aircraft carrier is an entirely different concept from landing on a runway. I’ve described this in some detail in this article, but suffice it to say that an aeroplane rarely arrives on an aircraft carrier in a gentle manner 😉 The variable-incidence wing is visible in the ‘up’ position in this photo of an F-8 about to snag the arrester cables on its carrier’s landing deck*:
…and here’s a photo of a Crusader just about to undergo a steam catapult launch from its carrier:
The version above is the reconnaisance version of the Crusader, the RF-8; the difference is visible in the absence of the cannon muzzles and the addition of the side-facing camera apertures (the black rectangles on the fuselage of the aeroplane).
Earlier in this series, I posted an article on the Russian Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber, and pictures of various Western interceptors escorting them. The Crusader, of course, also routinely intercepted Bears, often performing reconnaisance over (or near) the aircraft carrier group. Here’s a US Navy F-8 shadowing a Bear:
…and then a lovely shot of a Bear flying right over the USS Oriskany, with its F-8 Crusader escort in attendance:
This sort of mission (for the Bears) would be primarily ELINT – Electronic Intelligence – the gathering of data on the other side’s electronic emissions, such as radar and communications. In those days, if you decided to fly near an American carrier group, you could guarantee that there would be a lot of radars looking at you, a fair bit of radio chatter, and you’d get some close-up photos of the aircraft that they sent up to take a look at you. And this sort of information would be priceless, should you ever need to fight a war against those people whose technology you are checking out. But the ‘defenders’ still need to send up interceptors, just to make sure that the visitors stay out of mischief 🙂
Here’s another shot of an RF-8 reconnaissance Crusader, showing off that lovely wing shape:
And finally, a monochrome shot of the prototype XF8U-1 Crusader, in 1955:
So there she is, the F-8 Crusader. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful of all the Beautiful Destroyers.
*Observant readers will notice that the Crusader in the carrier landing photo does not have its arrester hook extended. This means that the aeroplane will not stop on the deck; rather she will ‘bolter’, US Navy slang for doing a ‘touch-and-go’. The pilot will touch down on the deck, but will not snag a wire; instead, he will pile on the power and take off again. This sort of thing is done in order to practise approaches and landings, but without actually stopping, and it’s a very common practice also in land-based flight training at any level.
For more information on this beautiful aircraft, take a look here.