Posts Tagged ‘Aircraft’

I can’t believe it’s already October!  This year has rocketed by.  The fall colors, which we suspected would be pretty dismal due to our super-dry summer, have exploded in an array of colors I never would have imagined.  The reds and yellows and oranges are spectacular, offset by skies as blue as azure and temperatures that have been perfect.  We still aren’t getting any precipitation, but this weather has been awesome.

So it’s a bit of a shame that I’m still laid up.  The herniated disk (disc?) continues to frustrate me some, but at this time tomorrow morning (~7:30am), I’ll be heading into surgery.  The surgeon predicts a “LensCrafters” performance (success…in about an hour).  It’s my first time under the knife (not counting wisdom teeth), so I’m a bit nervous, but if they can get things squared away, that would be great.

October 1, 1947.

It was on this day that test pilot George Welch took to the skies in a revolutionary new aircraft.  Well, it was revolutionary for the United States.  The XP-86 was North American Aviation’s first serious jet fighter, and it was the first American jet to be produced with swept wings.  But we got a little help on this one.

North American’s P-51 Mustang was, quite probably, the pinnacle of piston-engine aircraft.  Range, speed, climb, maneuverability, the Mustang had it all.  As the Second World War wound down, it dominated the skies, regardless of theater.  But by 1944, even it’s most ardent fans knew the proverbial writing was on the wall.  Jet power was the wave of the future, as it promised far better performance.  And what’s more, Germany’s Luftwaffe was already putting jet power to use.  The Me-262 and the even faster (though much less practical and less safe) Me-163 entered production before the end of the War, putting the world’s air forces on notice as to what was possible.

So it’s somewhat understandable that the Allied race to Berlin (Russia from the east, the U.S. and Britain from the west) was about more than securing territory and ending the fighting.  Each side, while warring against Germany, was in a battle to capture these German scientists before the other in order to gain a competitive advantage in what was shaping up to be a post-war “falling out of the Allies.”

Back to our story.

North American’s first attempts at jet aircraft involved basically hooking jets up to Mustang wings and airframes.  But even with piston engines, the P-51 had reached the limits of its potential.  The straight wings simply created too much resistance as it was.  There was no way jets could be used.  But the German scientists had figured out several years prior that swept wings allowed for higher performance by greatly reducing drag, and any loss of low-speed stability could be countered by the simple addition of leading-edge slats.

The engineers took these ideas, headed back to the drawing boards, and revamped their design.  The aircraft that took to the skies on this day was the beginning of yet another remarkable product from North American.  Though initially under-powered, the XP-86 would evolve into one of the finest fighters of its generation.  It flew with great distinction in the Korean War as well as dozens of conflicts around the world in the service of other air forces.  There were numerous variants produced, both here and in other countries under license, and they served for years, with the last Sabres being retired from the Bolivian air force in 1994.

The United States Air Force dropped the “P” (for “Pursuit”) designation, replacing it with “F” (for “Fighter”).  So our XP-86 became, in production, the North American F-86 Sabre, and more Sabres were produced (upwards of 10,000) than any other jet-powered U.S. fighter.

And one other thing…

There are unsubstantiated claims that Welch’s first flight also included the first trip beyond the sound barrier…achieved in a shallow dive.

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When the British approached North American Aviation about building Curtiss P-40 Warhawks for them, James Kindelberger (North American’s president) told the British he could design and build something better than a Warhawk in less than 120 days…less time, it turns out, time than it took to re-tool his factory.  And Kindelberger was true to his word.  I believe the first plane was ready to fly in 117 days, though delays in getting the engines from Allison would hold things up just a bit.

Still, that’s pretty remarkable in light of how long the procurement process for weapons systems takes now.  But that’s to be expected when one compares the complexity of a P-51 Mustang with, say, an F-15 Eagle (to say nothing of government red tape, bureacracy, and gobs of paper-shuffling).  McDonnell Douglas was awarded the contract for the “Project F-X” (which became the F-15) the last week of 1969, but rather than 117 days to first example, it was two-and-a-half years…June 26, 1972.

And these days, we often hear of project delays and cost overruns in government projects.  But McDonnell had done a really good job.  In his book on the fighter, Dennis Jenkins writes, “At that point, the program was essentially on schedule, with costs cited as below target, in contrast to the significant overruns and schedule slips so obvious on the F-111 and C-5A programs.”  And like the Mustang, it was those pesky engines holding things up.  Jenkins continues, “Although the airframe and avionics efforts were on schedule, Pratt & Whitney was still running behind on both deliveries and testing.”

It was true that costs were greater than expected in some areas, but McDonnell had pared back where it could on the “luxury” items.  Conventional instrumentation was used rather than more sophisticated electronic systems.  The multi-sensor display were held off for a future phase, as were helmet-mounted sighting (which has really only become prominent in our latest-generation fighters anyways) and the electro-optical sighting system.

While it can be said that the elimination of some of these systems would limit the aircraft a little bit in its initial configuration, the first F-15 that rolled off the assembly on this day in 1972 was still a formidable platform.  For sure, it was the first pure air-superiority dogfighter the inventory had seen in 20 years.

Recommended Reading:  McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

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The MiG-25 Foxbat was the Soviet Union’s response to the North American XB-70 Valkyrie.  The Valkyrie, an awesome, super-sized, six-engined beauty, was designed as a high-altitude Mach-3 bomber that could carry a large payload deep into enemy territory.  Unfortunately, North American’s masterpiece also came with a super-sized price tag, one that the U.S. military was unwilling to pay, and the Valkyrie never entered production.

But the potential of the XB-70 was enough to make the Foxbat a reality.  It was a high-flying, high-speed interceptor, capable of speeds well over twice the speed of sound.  It’s job was to make sure that the XB-70 didn’t reach its target, and it didn’t return home to come back another day.

When the U.S. military first saw the MiG-25 in the late 1960’s (at a Russian air show), they were stunned.  The Foxbat appeared to be a fighter of awesome performance, beyond anything in the U.S. inventory.  If there was any good news out of the “reveal”, it was that the Air Force set immediately to work and, with the help of McDonnell-Douglas, created the F-15 Eagle, the West’s finest air superiority fighter.

The Soviets continued building Foxbats, and nearly 1,200 entered service.  But during the Cold War era, only one of them really mattered to NATO, and that was the one flown by Soviet Air Force Lt. Viktor Belenko on September 6, 1976.  It was his aircraft that landed at a Japanese airfield (on the island of Hokkaido) when the officer defected from the Soviet Union.

Air Force engineers pounced on the aircraft like flies on your picnic goodies.  And like years before, they came away from the Foxbat stunned…but for entirely different reasons.  As it turned out, the Foxbat had no fighter capability to speak of.  It was massively heavy, weighing in at more than 30 tons unarmed.  It couldn’t pull more than 4.5g’s in a turn (Eagles were capable of 9g’s).  And its electronics were very outdated.  The Foxbat was a fairly poor-quality airframe built around two massively powerful engines.  It was a drag racer, not a fighter.

It reminds me of that commercial that’s currently playing on TV with the snake that tries to frighten the rabbit by attaching a baby rattle to its tail…this commercial.  It sounds all threatening and everything, but in reality, it’s a big joke.  And that was kind of the MiG-25’s story.

Truth be told, there were some things the Foxbat could do very well, like reconnaissance and spy work.  And with electronics upgrades to carry the more advanced Soviet missiles, it was a pretty good interceptor.  But as the U.S. could already attest, the interceptor role was a theoretical mission that didn’t play out well in real life.  Interceptors still needed to be able to fight other airplanes in close combat…they needed to be fighters.

Lt. Belenko was granted asylum, (I believe) given U.S. citizenship, and received a nice pension from the U.S. government.  The MiG-25 was studied (and kind of snickered at) by the U.S. and then sent back to the Soviet Union…in a bunch of crates.

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When we took off from Sky Harbor Airport last Sunday to return home from Phoenix, our airplane got delayed a bit.  An airplane in front of us had a mechanical issue and had to stop, turn around, and return to its gate.  This meant that every plane behind it (of which ours was one) got held up.  We sat at our gate for an extra 20 minutes or so, then had to join what appeared to be a 25-plane procession to the runway.  Needless to say, we left the ground almost 40 minutes later than planned.

But oh boy, did we leave the ground in a hurry!  I don’t fly all that often, so I probably don’t have a great frame of reference, but our pilot seemed to tilt that plane on end and give it the beans, rocketing us skyward.  For a guy that already doesn’t much like to fly, it was a bit disconcerting.  He then came on the intercom and told us we’d be landing on time…uh, what?!?  He said our initial “at altitude” speed would be 530mph, but he’d be bumping it up “just a bit” from there once we burned a bit of fuel.  I don’t know how fast we were going, but it was fast.  But still, he was going to make up 40 minutes in a two-and-a-half-hour flight?  He most certainly was, and he most certainly did…I believe we landed one minute late.

So that’s flying at a pretty high speed, but it’s a far cry from what Major James Sullivan achieved on September 1, 1974.  He piloted his aircraft from New York City to London (roughly 3,500 miles) in 1 hour, 54 minutes, and 56 seconds.  Of course, Sullivan wasn’t flying a Canadair CRJ900.  He was strapped into a Lockheed SR-71 BlackbirdWe’ve talked about that plane – no, it’s really not a plane, it’s a faster-than-a-bullet missile that can be steered by man – on a couple of occasions.  That amount of distance in that period of time translates to well over twice the speed of sound…nearly 1,450mph.

Keep in mind that, at that speed, the Blackbird burns fuel at a prodigious rate, so a slowdown (to about 350mph) was required for in-flight refueling.  It’s not unlike Usain Bolt (the world’s fastest human) running the 100-meter dash, stopping to tie his shoes, and still finishing in 9.70 seconds.  For the sake of comparison, the Concorde (the world’s fastest passenger jet) requires an additional hour to make the trip, and a standard passenger jet takes twice as long as the Concorde.

Highway speeds in many places are 60mph, but at “maximum warp” (the term is strangely appropriate here), the Blackbird is covering 33 miles…per minute.  Thirty-three miles in one minute.  At Lenscrafters, you can get eyeglasses “in about an hour.”  Have 20/20 vision?  Borrow a Blackbird and travel from New York City to LA in the same time.  Des Moines to Chicago in 10 minutes.  It’s sickeningly fast.  Speeds like this are really, really hard to comprehend.

But for an SR-71 Blackbird, it’s just another day at the office.

Recommended Reading: SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story

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When I was in college, I took a two-part course in Military History…History 389 & 390.  In the first course, I was required to write a paper, and I chose to focus on advances made in aviation during the Second World War.  As I recall, I did reasonably well on the paper (though thinking back, I’m not sure it was all that good).

But if my writing was worth a grain of sand (it’s hard to recall almost 20 years down the road), hopefully I spent a little time talking about the rapid advances made just by Grumman just during the war’s first couple of years.  The F3F, introduced in the mid-1930’s, was the last biplane flown the U.S. Navy.  But by the time the bombs and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor were bringing America into the war, it had been relegated to trainer status.  It was followed by Grumman’s F4F Wildcat, a fairly capable monoplane design that borrowed heavily from the F3F.  But even the Wildcat’s successor was on the drawing board before America entered the war.

For Navy pilots, however, Wildcats were the best available aircraft, so Wildcats were what they used.  While it was a good aircraft, it quickly became apparent that it had distinct disadvantages in a fight with Japan’s primary fighter, the Mistubishi A6M Zero.  It couldn’t turn as quickly as a Zero (very few aircraft could), and it couldn’t climb as quickly (Zero’s were relatively light).  But a Wildcat could dive faster (it was heavier), and a Zero didn’t have anywhere nearly the Wildcat’s armor protection for the pilot.

And since the Navy was discovering all this good information while designing and building a new airplane, it was the perfect time to try and address the shortcomings.  The single biggest fix was more power (it’s the answer to all car problems, too).  The Wildcat’s 1,200-horsepower engine was replaced with a 1,700-horsepower beast.  These were air-cooled radial engines, as liquid-cooled engines were a bit more complicated to service in a carrier environment, to say nothing of how all that radiator ducting added numerous points of failure out over the water.

And by the time the first F6F Hellcat (as the replacement was designated) took to the skies on June 26, 1942, another upgrade was already in the works.  The engine had been upgraded yet again to 2,000 horsepower.  The airplane was significantly larger than the Wildcat it replaced, but the cool part (for the Navy anyways) was that two planes looked remarkably similar.  So when Japanese pilots used their “Wildcat tactics” against the new mark, they got a nasty surprise.

With a 380mph top speed, the Hellcat was 50mph faster than the Wildcat, climbed 50% faster, featured better range and much heavier armament.  With the larger Double Wasp engine, it was better than the Zero in almost every aspect.  And that was made abundantly clear when it entered service later in 1943.  Extensively used from September of 1943 until the end of the war, it was responsible for shooting down more than 5,000 enemy aircraft for a loss of fewer than 300 of its own.  It bears pointing out that, by this time, most of Japan’s better pilots were already dead, with poorly-trained pilots as their replacements.  But even assuming equal talent behind the stick, the Hellcat was the superior plane…and it wasn’t really close.

The F6F Hellcat would remain the U.S. Navy’s primary fighter until the war ended, and it’s successor, the lightweight super-fast F8F Bearcat, would only see a handful built.  And then Grumman’s jet-powered aircraft were on the scene.  In little more than 7 years, Grumman had advanced from biplanes to jets.  And right in the middle was the best known of all of them.  The F6F Hellcat.

Recommended Reading:  Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

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The North American P-51 Mustang was a plane that very easily could have been relegated to the archives of “also-ran” aircraft.  When we first looked at it almost 18 months ago, we noted that pilots praised its performance at medium altitude.  Fast, nimble, forgiving, and very manueverable, the P-51 was a joy to fly…as long as the altitude didn’t soar.  When it did, the Allison engine, a very capable powerplant, simply ran out of juice, leaving the plane sluggish and unresponsive.

So initial Mustangs were used predominantly in the close-air support (CAS) and reconnaissance roles, and they were very good.  They finished the Second World War with the most bombs delivered per sortie of any fighter-bomber.  But this role presented another weakness, again the result of the engine.  The Allison engine was water-cooled, not air-cooled like radial engines (that powered, say, the P-47 Thunderbolt).  So while they were hard to hit with ground-fire at low altitude, a lucky shot that damaged any part of the radiator or ducting could bring a Mustang down.  This made them vulnerable as dive-bombers, coming in at a fixed angle of attack and maintaining speed until the bombs were dropped.

I suppose it was inevitable that, with the quality of the Mustang’s airframe, someone would suggest a change of powerplant.  In April of 1942, the Chief Test Pilot for Rolls-Royce, Ronald Harker, took an Allison-powered Mustang up for a 30-minute flight.  And after giving it some thought, he sat down with pen and paper on May 1, 1942 and wrote the words that would alter the Mustang’s history forever:  “This aircraft could prove itself a formidable low- and medium-altitude fighter.  It closely resembles the Me 109F, probably due to its being designed by one of the Messerschmitt designers, who is now working for North American Aviation Co. . . . The point which strikes me is that with a powerful and a good engine, like the Merlin 61, its performance could be outstanding, as it is 35mph faster than the Spitfire V at roughly the same power.”

And while Harker got the part about the Messerschmitt engineer wrong, the Rolls-Royce team (the builder of the Merlin engines) agreed with the rest of his assessment, and five aircraft were converted.  What they saw in return was more than just a 4-bladed propeller that replaced one with 3 blades.  They also got a staggering improvement in performance.  Top speed jumped to nearly 440mph (H-models which saw very limited production were 40mph faster yet).  Climb rates improved dramatically.  The Mustang had been transformed from a medium-altitude fighter-bomber to a full-fledged escort fighter.

And the sounds!!  If you’ve never heard a Merlin-powered Mustang, you’ve missed a treat.  I was afforded the chance to see one in a local one-plane airshow many years back (a P-51B), and I still get goosebumps thinking about it…I’ll never forget it.

Anyways, enemy aircraft such as Germany’s Me 109 and Fw-190 were not only equalled, they were bettered.  In the Pacific, the Japanese marks were swatted from the skies with an inevitability that shocks reason.  They stood no chance against the Mustangs.  Exploits like those of Major James Howard were made possible by the mixing of the Merlin engine (from the Spitfire) with the incredible airframe from North American engineer Raymond Rice and designer Edgar Schmued.  At Nuremburg, Hermann Goering testified that when he saw fighters escorting bombers over Berlin, he knew the war was lost.  The fighters he saw were Mustangs.

After the war, Mustangs continued in front-line USAF service until the 1950’s.  By then, jet-powered planes were available, and the days of piston-engined fighters were finished.  But the Mustangs lived on in the National Guard and were used by smaller air forces all over the world into the mid-1970’s.

Today, Mustangs are coveted by pilots and racers all over the world.  Of the more than 16,500 produced, only several hundred remain, of which fewer than 200 are considered flyable.  And those that do fly are maintained by their owners with fanatical care.  Priced at roughly $40,000 in 1940, they now routinely fetch more than $1 million.

Saying anything is “the best” is fraught with peril.  It tends to be subjective and opens a can of worms for an argument.  And there were numerous high-quality planes when the war ended in 1945.  Grumman’s high-powered, high-speed F8F Bearcat.  The Hawker TempestVought’s F4U-Corsair.  The Fw-190D.  Late-edition Spitfires.  All could make a claim.

But I personally consider the Mustang to be the best piston-engined fighter of all time.  It is stunningly beautiful, stunningly fast, and stunningly sonorous.  Years ago, Luke Swann put together a video series called Great Planes, which was picked up by the Discovery Channel in the late 1980’s.  I recorded the Mustang episode and watched it dozens of times…I really wish I still had it.  I can’t remember his exact quote at the end, but in speaking of piston-engined planes, he says something very close to:  “Compare the others to one another.  The Mustang stands alone.”

I completely agree.

And if someone has gobs of money and has no place to spend it, please buy me a P-51D (H- or K-models would suit, too).

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story

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When any of us boards an airplane, I wonder if we ever give any real thought to how much work, design, and planning went into building and testing it.  I’m not a big fan of flying by any means, so I usually hope that the plane I enter merely conquers gravity for the 90 minutes or 2 hours I’m in its clutches.  I’m too preoccupied to give much thought to testing.

But it’s the testing that, even more than the construction, proves the designers got it right.  The real-world, gravity-defying arena of “in the air” is where the truth is verified.  That is true for any aircraft that has entered production, starting with the one Orville and Wilbur crafted more than a century ago.  So while this topic could be written about any plane, I choose to focus on McDonnell Douglas’ fabulous F-15 Eagle.

As avid readers will remember, the F-15 first flew in July of 1972.  You might also recall that it was born of two parents.  The father was the realization that interceptors (like the F-102/106 Delta Dagger/Dart and F-4 Phantoms) couldn’t really fight other aircraft very effectively without the use of sophisticated avionics and stand-off missiles…this was the story of the air war in Vietnam.  The mother was the more immediate issue of answering the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat, the ultimate interceptor that initially looked like a fighter to the West.

So the baby that was the F-15 was not just the continuation of an existing concept, but a radically new design built out of new thinking using new, lightweight, exotic materials.  And once built, these would all be asked to operate in a performance envelope (high maneuverability and Mach 2+ speed and standoff capability) that stressed them to their limits.

Which meant that, after that first introductory flight, the Eagle would spend more than 2 years in verification tests.  The radar systems had to be checked out.  The landing gear needed to be checked…no fair having to land on its belly.  The massive Pratt and Whitney turbofan engines (the pair of which gave the fighter the ability to accelerate while completely vertical) were run through an entire battery of tests.

The advanced airframe was tested at (and beyond) its limits, which included one of the most dangerous maneuvers for a test pilot…the spin tests.  Here the pilot purposely induced a flat spin to test how the plane can be made to recover before becoming a smoking hole in the ground.

Over and over the new mark was put through its paces, with adjustments and tweaks made all along the way.  So when President Gerald Ford visited the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis on November 14, 1974 and took delivery of the first production F-15 (a single-seat A model), the Air Force he commanded knew it was getting an aircraft that was not only superior to any other fighter on the planet, but one that had been extensively tested.

I hope every airplane in which I’m forced to fly has been tested as thoroughly.

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Let’s talk airplanes, and let’s be brief about it.

War, whether it’s hot or Cold, seems to make for really rapid advances in technology.  We’ve seen that in our discussions of the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and General Dynamics (now Lockheed) F-16 Fighting Falcon.  I think it’s been interesting to discover how each mark sort of led to the next.  The F-15 was the be-all, end-all air superiorty fighter, but its expense meant a cheaper variant would be needed for true mass sproduction.  Enter the F-16, one of the most capable multi-role fighters in the world.

But the U.S. Air Force didn’t corner the market on forward thinking.  Our Cold War opponent didn’t sit idly by.  The Soviets had built the MiG-25 Foxbat, which looked to be a fighter of awesome potential (and directly led to creation of the F-15).  Reality found it to be a straight-line, flat-out, high-speed interceptor…and little else.

But Soviet intelligence was picking up signals that the U.S. was working on a “stealthy” supersonic bomber (what turned out to be the gorgeous B-1 Lancer) and low-altitude, high-subsonic-speed guided missiles (the now-famed cruise missiles that can be launched from numerous and varied platforms).  Foxbat was good at altitude, but it couldn’t fly well at low altitude and its technology was outdated.

So the Soviets created the MiG-31 Foxhound, which is sort of the “son of Foxbat” while simultaneously being the bigger brother.  The new mark featured bigger engines, a bigger fuselage, bigger wings, and way bigger fuel tanks.  First flown on September 16, 1975, it was labelled as an “air superiority” aircraft (like the Eagle), but in truth was just a larger, badder interceptor with a little better maneuverability.  To its merit, its performance “on the deck” was vastly improved.  Stronger wings meant the Foxhound could now achieve supersonic speeds at low altitude, a nice feature when trying to close the distance on a cruise missile.

And oh, by the way, it only possessed the most powerful radar ever seen in an aircraft that didn’t have a large, rotating dish on top of it.  If you ever needed to burn holes in stuff, the Zaslon S-800 could probably fill the bill.  Most radar systems of the day were fine for scanning the skies, but when the radar was tilted toward the earth, ground clutter made it nearly impossible to find low-flying objects.  The Foxhound’s look-down, shoot-down radar (the first of its kind in any plane) was powerful enough to burn through the noise and find the target.

A B-1 at 60,000 feet?  No problem.  A low-altitude penetration using F-111 Aardvarks?  The Foxhound had it covered.  A cruise missile?  I see it…I got it.

Ok, that’s some of the detail.  What the Soviets really had with the Foxhound was a slightly slower (and much heavier) Foxbat with a better overall performance envelope holding a truckload of fuel and a killer radar.  When the SR-71 Blackbird was retired in the early 1990s, the Foxhound took over as the high-speed king.  But by then, the Soviets were looking at bankruptcy and building aircraft, particularly those of a 1970s design and a 1950s mentality, just didn’t make sense.  Foxhound production was limited to a couple hundred examples.

Many are still flying in the Russian air forces and have been updated considerably.  They’re expensive to fly and maintain, but it’s still a capable aircraft, due more to the improved radar technology and superb missiles they carry than to the airframe itself.

That wasn’t very brief…

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As we’ve looked at various aircraft, there’s a trend of “action-reaction” that I hope you’ve noticed.  An airplane was produced (North American’s XB-70 Valkyrie), which prompted the Russians to produce an aircraft (the MiG-25 Foxbat).  The Foxbat caused the U.S. military immense alarm, and that led to the incredible McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle.  Cause and effect…action and reaction.

The subject of Today’s History Lesson is the “reaction” to the F-15, though not the Soviet response (which was the MiG-29 Fulcrum, a remarkable airplane that also deserves its day on these pages).  Rather, this response actually came from the U.S. military itself.

The Vietnam War brought to light a real deficiency in military thinking with regards to airpower.  Up until then, “interceptors” were the rage…planes with high straight-line speeds loaded with missiles for long-range, standoff attacks.  High manueverability, low wing-loading, and dogfight capabilities were not deemed relevant anymore…until Air Force interceptors-turned-fighters (like the F-4 Phantom II and, to a lesser degree, Republic’s F-105 Thunderchief) started getting swatted from the Southeast Asian skies with alarming frequency in close-in engagements with true enemy fighters.  All of a sudden, the “lightweight, gun-carrying fighter” concept from World War II suddenly looked a lot more enticing.

The military went to work, requesting proposals for a lightweight fighter design.  And then the Soviet Foxbat was spotted, and the lightweight fighter was temporarily shelved in favor of the F-15 Eagle.  But the idea of a true dogfighter was never forgotten.  As the F-15 came to production, it became clear that, despite its awesome capabilities, its fly-away cost-per-plane was going to be very large.  The idea of a smaller, less expensive compliment was raised and, suddenly, the lightweight fighter was back on the table.

Five companies submitted design proposals, and two (Northrop and General Dynamics) were selected by the Air Force as worthy of actual prototypes.  The first “official” flight of the YF-16 was scheduled for (and performed) on February 2, 1974.  But its first actual flight was back on January 20th, due to a malfunction.  While accelerating the plane to near-takeoff speeds, oscillations forced the test pilot to lift off for a 6-minute unplanned flight in order to prevent damage.

In the end, Northrop’s proposal, the YF-17, finished second in the competition, but would later be modified and purchased by the Navy and Marine Corps as the F-18 Hornet.  The winner of the competition, the YF-16, would be purchased by the Air Force and christened the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

We’ve covered very little of the plane’s actual capabilities, we’ve not spoken at all of its widespread use all over the world, nor have we mentioned the fact that, 35 years after its first flight, it’s still in production (though not for domestic purchase).  But we’ll talk more about the F-16 in the future as anniversary dates arrive, because there’s a lot to talk about.

Recommended Reading: World Air Power Journal – Volume V focuses on the F-16 (as do a couple others).  Now out of print and nearly impossible to find, this $19-per-quarterly-issue subscription was a tour-de-force.  The finest periodical ever.  I treasure my copies.  Or, fly an F-16 yourself!!

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It’s an airplane that spent most of its life shrouded in secrecy.  The missions it flew were even more top secret.  It leaked fuel like a sieve when it sat on the ground, but it could tear through the air!!  It flew faster than the rotational velocity of the earth, giving it the appearance of out-pacing the sun.  You could eat breakfast in New York City, fly to LA in this plane, and eat another breakfast earlier (time-wise) than you ate in New York.  At full chat, this airplane covered 33 miles a minute, making it faster than the bullet fired from a 30-06 rifle.

That’s the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in a nutshell.  Developed by Kelly Johnson’s “Skunk Works”, the SR-71 was another in Lockheed’s rather unconventional designs that just flat-out worked, such as the P-38 Lightning and U-2. Like the U-2, the Blackbird was designed for high-altitude reconnaissance.  Unlike the U-2, it was meant to fly at extremely high speed.

The designation “SR-71” is actually connected with another plane we’ve discussed:  the XB-70 Valkyrie (see?…70…71).  After its failure to reach full production, the Valkyrie was considered as a recon plane, but when Lockheed showed off its aircraft (called the A-12), the Air Force chose it, calling it the SR-71.

In order to fly so quickly, Lockheed used special engines.  At lower speeds, they operated like a standard turbojet engine.  But they became ramjets at extremely high speed, as the cone on the front of the engine would slide back, allowing air to pass into the engine.  When the air went around the cone, it was compressed, generating heat that, when combined with fuel and exploded, produced even more power.  It takes a scientist to fully understand it…and I’m not one of those.

The intense heat of air friction expanded the plane several inches as it flew (and heated the skin to well over 500°F), so at rest, the panels were gapped slightly, sort of like expansion joints on the Interstate.  The fuel cells were similar, so they leaked on the ground.  The plane would take off and, after sufficiently warming up the skin (and sealing the tanks), the Blackbird would refuel for its missions.

The plane was packed full of cameras and sensors and recorders for use in its spy work, which it did for nearly 25 years.  From its first test flight on December 22, 1964 until its final retirement in 1998, the SR-71 was the primary spy plane of the United States.  Only 32 were built (the tooling was destroyed in 1968).  12 were lost in accidents, but only 1 crew member perished.

Though now retired, the Blackbird’s mission is still important.  Satellites provide good coverage, but their regular orbits provide the enemy a “satellite schedule”.  Aircraft provide additional, on-the-spot coverage for which the enemy cannot plan.

Maybe the SR-71’s successor is already flying…maybe it’s the Lockheed Aurora…maybe it’s not.  Whatever the case, that successor has a most formidable reputation to uphold.

Recommended Reading:  SR-71 Revealed:  The Inside Story – Ok, this is one I don’t have in the inventory, but is it too late to get it on my Christmas list?

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Years ago, dad and I went over to Omaha, NE and visited the SAC Museum at Offutt Air Force Base.  They had a building full of cool stuff, but what I remember most was the outside displays.  There were a host of aircraft and, though one couldn’t climb inside the cockpit, one could stand next to them, stand in the bomb-bays (of the bombers), and (if one wanted to get in big trouble) climb on the wings.  I did the first two…not the third.

I had seen and knew something about nearly all the planes on display, but seeing them “in-person” for the first time was a whole different experience.  One never gets the proper perspective of a plane’s size until a bunch of different ones are put together.

Which brings us to today’s topic:  the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, and it’s a gigantic plane.  It’s nearly 3 feet longer than a B-52, and it’s wingspan is 230 feet (remember a football field with no end-zones is 300 feet), 45 feet longer than a ’52.  One cannot fully grasp the proportions unless it’s seen in person.  It’s the largest non-cargo plane ever used by the U.S. military, and one of the largest ever.

The most recognizable feature of the B-36 is the engines.  The props are mounted in a push position (behind the wings), a design that reduced turbulence over the wings.  The prototype (shown above) and all initial models were powered by 6 radial engines with 3,000 horsepower each.  But takeoffs still required too much runway, so later models got bigger engines, and two turbojets were fitted to the outer wingtips on all Peacemakers.

The B-36’s first flew on August 8, 1946 and entered service two years later.  But advancements in jet propulsion meant its life on the front line would be short.  By 1959, all Peacemakers were “resting in peace”, having been retired from active service and replaced by Boeing’s legendary B-52.

But I still marvel at the behemoth that is the B-36, and there are still a handful of them in existence that you can see and touch.  The SAC Museum has moved from Offutt AFB since I visited (just a few miles away to Ashland), and the Peacemaker moved with it.  If you ever get a chance, go see one.  If I can find the photos of my visit, I’ll scan those of the Peacemaker and post them.

Recommended Activity:  Visit the SAC Museum and see all the aircraft and displays.  You won’t have to look hard to find the B-36.

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It’s nice to be back home after an exhausting “vacation”.  A missed flight, lost luggage, and some doofus who dinged up our rental car (thank God for the $40 we spent on insurance) made the down time more stressful, but our time in Seattle was still pretty good.

As I get back into the swing of writing, I want to take to the skies again.  Today’s History Lesson actually has, as its roots, a topic I covered back in June: North American’s XB-70 Valkyrie.  The Valkyrie, designed as a super-fast, high-flying bomber, succeeded at both.  But its cost, as well as Soviet advances in missile technology, put paid to the B-70’s chances of entering production.

From the Soviet perspective, however, the B-70 was a huge threat to their security.  Yeah, they had missile technology, but with massed high-altitude bombers attacking at Mach 3, there was a sizeable risk that the bombers would reach their targets.  Their response?  The MiG-25 Foxbat.  The Foxbat was the ultimate expression of the Cold War concept of the Interceptor – a concept which emphasized raw speed and standoff air-to-air missile attack rather than maneuverability.  The U.S. built an entire series of interceptors in the late 50’s and 60’s culminating in the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, though none could match the straight-line speed of the Soviet mark.

The U.S. saw the Foxbat, mistook it for a fighter of awesome performance, and went to the drawing board.  What came out of the fire was also from McDonnell Douglas (today part of Boeing) and was christened the F-15 Eagle.  You can see some of the Foxbat in the Eagle, but similarities end there.  The Foxbat was an interceptor and the Eagle was designed from the outset as a dogfighter.  So it was given a gun (the first fighter since the F-100 to have one)…the M61A1 cannon.  Standoff capability was added with an advanced Hughes radar suite and short- and medium-range missiles.  Finally, because air superiority was crucial, an emphasis was placed on low wing loading and powerful engines.

The Eagle, first flown on July 27, 1972, would be extensively tested, delivered in 1974, and enter front-line service in 1976 as the premier fighter of its day.  It could continue its front-line duties for another 15 years.  My love for aircraft in general, and the ’15 in particular, means we’re 100% sure to discuss this plane again as its various milestones show up on the calendar.

As a side note, our son commissioned into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant at Fort Lewis on Friday morning (hence our trip out West).  It’s been wonderful to watch him grow and mature into a leader.  We’re so proud of you!!

Recommended Reading: Storm Over Iraq – Air Power and the Gulf War – The F-15, like so many of our weapon systems, was untested until this conflict.  The F-15, like so many of our weapon systems, passed with flying colors.

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I think the North American XB-70 Valkyrie is one of the coolest airplanes to never enter military service.  First flown in 1964, the aircraft had its roots in design and feasibility studies from the mid 1950’s.  At that time, the Strategic Air Command had Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress as its primary heavy bomber.  It carried an enormous payload for long distances, but it was a slow subsonic aircraft.  SAC also had Convair’s B-58 Hustler coming online (it entered service in 1960), and it was a relatively small, supersonic “dash-and-blast” bomber.  It set all kinds of speed records in its day, but didn’t have good range or payload capacity.

The XB-70 was designed to be the best of both, combining Mach 3 speed with huge range and payload capacity.  North American Aviation, already famous for the P-51 Mustang (and the F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre), was selected for the project.  Every possible bit of technology was utilized to make the monstrous B-70 a reality, but the neatest was the use of compression lift.  Designers built the outer wingtips to tilt down at supersonic speeds, which trapped the shock waves between the wingtips and engine nacelle, providing even more lift.

The first prototype was beset with problems, mostly due to the advanced designs being implemented and exotic materials being used, but many of them were fixed in the 2nd prototype, which first flew in 1965.  And fly it did!!  In 1966, it flew at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) on several occasions, maintaining that speed on May 19th for more than 30 minutes.  The XB-70 achieved its top speed of Mach 3.05 on June 6th.

But just two days later, on June 8, 1966, disaster struck.  The XB-70 was flying in close formation with several other planes in a photoshoot for General Electric (the Valkyrie used six massive GE engines in a “six-pack” configuration), when an F-104 Starfighter flying behind it rolled over the top of bomber, clipping its wing and destroying the rudders.  The 104 exploded (killing its pilot) and the XB-70 spun out of control and crashed, and while the pilot was able to eject, the co-pilot could not and was killed as well.  The photo to the left was taken just after the mid-air collision.

But it was the mid-60s now, and missile technology had advanced to the point that even a bomber flying at 70,000 feet could be shot down, and the B-70’s prodigous cost couldn’t be justified.  The program was cancelled with just the one aircraft (prototype 1) remaining.  It flew tests for NASA for several years and was then retired.

I think the XB-70 Valkyrie was, without question, one of the most beautiful and unique aircraft ever to lift off.  If you ever get a chance, see the remaining XB-70 at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio.  I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.

Recommended Reading: North American XB-70 Valkyrie – A Photo Chronicle – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve leafed through my copy.  This plane continues to fascinate me.

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In the mid 1930’s, the German Air Force was taking delivery of its primary fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf-109, and it had proven to be a very capable aircraft.  But the Air Ministry was concerned about maintaining its competitive edge.  As Hitler became bolder and the threat of war increased, France and Great Britain began testing and production on advanced aircraft of their own, such as the Dewoitine D.520 and Supermarine Spitfire.

Germany wanted to stay ahead, so they contracted with the Focke-Wulf aviation company to put together a prototype.  Focke-Wulf, the creator of the first true helicopter, had a reputation for ingenuity and innovation and its design leader, Kurt Tank, was well-respected.  Plus, they had the added benefit of not having a major project on which to work.  So they set to it and designed what came to be known as the Fw-190.

First flown on June 1, 1939, the Fw-190 prototype was lauded by test pilots.  It had great power, great speed, great manueverability, strong firepower, and good endurance.  Though it entered service too late to make a difference in the Battle of Britain, the Fw-190A was immediately superior to the Spitfires, as well as the German Bf-109’s at low altitude.

There were a bunch of variants of the 190 that were produced, and they took on nearly every role imaginable, from fighter to attack to close air support and even light bombing.  But I think it’s easiest to break all of them into two basic categories: 190’s with radial engines and those with inline engines.  The former were fitted BMW radial engines and were generally very good performers at low and medium altitudes, but suffered greatly as the fight climbed past 15,000 feet.  To that end, Kurt Tank went to work, modifying the plane and testing various engine configurations.

In the end, an inline engine producing more than 2000 horsepower proved the winning match and was introduced in the Fw-190D models, which were subsequently renamed the Ta152 (“Ta” in honor of Kurt Tank).  While still not fully up to par at high altitude, the new plane was, at medium altitudes, considered superior to all enemy aircraft in Europe, including late-model Spitfires and Merlin-powered Mustangs.  Later variants had even more powerful engines and were among the fastest piston-engined planes produced.

But by this time, Allied bombers and fighters were roaming the skies and destroying German production at will.  So many of the later models came way too late and in too small numbers to really be of any use to the German war effort.

Still, when matched up against the best Allied planes of the day, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 gave a very good account of itself.  It was certainly the best piston-engined plane built in Germany.  More than 20,000 were produced, more than nearly every other aircraft of the period.

Recommended Reading: Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

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I was poking around the Internet today and came upon another “today-in-history” event that I had totally missed.  It involved aircraft, and I LOVE aircraft.  More than that, it concerned military aircraft, and I REALLY LOVE military aircraft.  Even more than that, it was about WWII military aircraft and, well, you get the picture…

The Supermarine Spitfire was born in the mid-1920’s in the era of seaplane racing.  In fact, as the name implies, Supermarine was best known as a seaplane company, and was attracted to the Schneider Trophy, which was essentially a drag-race for seaplanes.  Supermarine won the Trophy in 1927 with the famous S.5 (the first real ancestor of the Spitfire), and again in 1929 and 1931 with the S.6 and S.6b, respectively.

The British Air Ministry recognized the need for an upgrade from the bi-planes it was using and on March 5, 1936, a Spitfire prototype made its first flight (lasting about eight minutes) through the air over Southampton, England.  Subsequent flights so impressed the Air Ministry that, within months, the first orders were placed.

And the orders kept coming…and coming.  And war threatened and the orders came.  And war broke and the orders continued.  And the war expanded, and still more were produced.  More than 20,000 Spitfires rolled off assembly lines in variants too numerous to mention. They flew in Africa. They flew in Europe.  The flew in the Mediterranean.  They flew in Scandanavia.  They flew in Australia.  They flew off aircraft carriers as Supermarine Seafires.  But they gained their legendary fame right at home, fighting (and winning) the Battle of Britain (Spring-Autumn 1940).

The Spitfire was quick, powerful, maneuverable, easy-to-handle, and very forgiving.  It’s only real knock was its lack of range (particularly in the early models), but when the plane was most needed (in the skies over England and the English Channel), it fought at home, so range wasn’t an issue.

Spitfires were flown in RAF service into the 1950’s, and in numerous countries longer than that.  And it all began with just eight minutes on this day in March…

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The Avro Lancaster was, without question, the finest night-time heavy bomber used in WWII.  And it needed the dark, because while most variants were powered by Merlin engines (the same engine type used in Spitfires and Mustangs), it was one of the slower four-engine bombers, reaching top speeds of only about 290 MPH.

But what it lacked in speed, it made up for in bomb capacity.  In its standard configuration, it could carry seven tons of bombs, a payload only surpassed by later variants of Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress and its bigger brother, the B-29.  Modified Lancasters also dropped WWII’s version of the MOAB in three flavors; huge (8,000 lbs in 1942), gigantic (12,000 lbs in 1943), and colossal (22,000 lbs in 1945).

Lancasters also took part (at pretty low altitudes) in the famous dam-busting missions in the Ruhr Valley, which inspired the movie The Dam Busters.

Nearly 7,400 Lancasters were built in Britain, Canada, and Australia, flying well over 150,000 sorties.

But on this date in 1942, Avro’s “heavy” was introduced to combat and flew its first missions in more mundane fashion, laying mines near Brest, France.

And while there were plenty of these bombers around during the War, finding good photographs that are legal to display has proven problematic. So, I’ll link you to a nice RAF site which also contains a LOT of good information and some photos…here you go.

Recommended Reading: The Vital Guide to Fighting Aircraft of World War II – a handy, almost pocket-sized book.  There isn’t a ton of detail here, but it’s hard to beat for a quick reference.

In addition, http://www.dambusters.org.uk is a great site dedicated to the specialized dam-busting missions.

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