The Tornado F.Mk 3 retired from RAF service in 2011. The type was derived from a bomber and earned a reputation for poor agility and performance, especially at medium and high altitude. Though its crews will defend its abilities, and are keen to point out that it was good at what it was designed to do (the long range interception of bombers over the North Sea), in international exercises where it faced opposition from modern fighters it was always fighting from a back foot. Occasionally superior tactics allowed it to do well (once a single F.3 ‘downed’ three F-15s, though admittedly the Tornado was the only ‘survivor’ from a flight of four), but generally it suffered from over-specialisation and an engine designed for low-level flight. It was also hindered by the weight of variable geometry wings (one pilot who had flown both the F-14 and F-15 noted what a dog the former type was in the merge, saying that the ‘Top Gun’ film was rather misleading). It benefited from long-range, a decent data-link and a two man crew. Its Sky Flash missiles (prior to AMRAAM replacing them) were reported to have been the most reliable medium-range missile of all time, with a probability of a lock-on far greater than even the AIM-120 AMRAAM, though it did have a notoriously short-range. The Tornado was rather late in receiving AMRAAM and struggled when set against active radar missile armed fighters in exercise.
But in judging the effectiveness of the F.Mk 3 there is one facet of its performance that has only recently been declassified. According to two Tornado F.Mk 3 pilots that Hush-Kit spoke to, the radar had some secret modes that in the event of war would have given the fighter an unfair advantage: powerful ‘aggressive’ electronic warfare capabilities. That this has only recently come into the public arena begs the question if other fighter radars of this generation had similar capabilities.
Perhaps it was these that led to the short-lived EF-3 concept, an ALARM-armed role for the Tornado F.Mk 3 from the early 21st Century that could have prolonged the type’s service life.
I get it. Some people find aircraft and aviation all-consuming and fascinating. They cream their keks over the physics of it all. The turbines, the atmospheric pressures and gravitational forces at work on the fuselage at speed and altitude. The engineering and science that made it possible to send tons and tons of metal into the sky and keep it there – and even control it to get from A to B without incident (eventually). All this progress within, what, 30 years of the 20th century? Yes, it’s staggering. Yes, there is beauty and wonder in it all. But that’s what makes the whole nerd thing a bit weird to me: it’s all entirely subjective.
I love to look at aircraft as aesthetic pieces. Creatures, if you like – each with a humble, unquestioning work ethic – that reluctantly took their forms to serve a higher purpose. Sleek or lumbering, monolithic or slight and nimble – all had their origins in human agendas. Agendas like ‘being the first’, ‘puffing chests out to potential enemies’, and if we’re lending humanity any faith: ‘to discover what’s possible and improve life on earth’.
Pipes and clap
I’ll quite happily shuffle around a museum and look at engines, cockpits and pretend payloads, and gasp at the size of wings. I’ll readily read the stories of the scientists and test pilots who, albeit under the wagging finger of wealthy governments, put their lives on the line for progress. I love to imagine myself born into those innocent, pioneering times, and I wish we could still gather at air shows with hampers and pipes and clap at the achievements that fly by.
What I don’t get, is the obsession. The submersion, the insatiable thirst to know everything about a particular model – its inner workings, how much it weighs, how much its riveted panels shrink or expand in extreme environments. Why Jerry ‘Kettle-Face’ Johnson insisted on wearing ladies’ underwear on every third testing mission he flew from Edwards Air Force base after 13 December 1974 (or some insist, 22 January the following year).
Nor do I understand why those afflicted with such passion (in its true sense – i.e. emotionally driven madness) think you’re a weirdo and a heretic if you’re not wearing a flak jacket, baseball cap and oversize training shoes laced up way too tight – and don’t spend at least ten minutes at every exhibit, rocking back and forth with your hands behind your back.
Sure, for some, there is greater meaning and emotional attachment to a lost era. Lost colleagues, the tension of the Cold War, the reality behind the TV soap, Vietnam. But I don’t want to feel guilt or inadequacy for just looking at aircraft and being bowled over for my own inexplicable reasons. Reasons I wouldn’t want to decipher or disseminate through deeper knowledge, because that often spoils the wonder. We can’t yet explain love, and hopefully we never will. And often, when you nail something to the floor, it withers and dies. Our appreciation for beauty and awe is only common in the language we use to express it, which will never be sufficient. Evocative, maybe. But defining? No.
The end of an affair?
So stop it. Stop it at once. Empty your study of all the literature you’ve amassed in your pursuit of what will essentially be the end of your love affair: defining why you’ve amassed them in the first place. Erase your hard drive of all but the images and schematic diagrams that simply inspire you, and leave it at that. Put your hands up in the air, and shout, ‘I don’t know why, I just fucking love B-52s, and I don’t care who knows my knowledge on the matter is incomplete!’
I went to Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona – and its boneyard – in 2010. I’m not an aviation enthusiast; I just know that some aircraft, up close, move me in mysterious ways. I don’t need to know why, or chase that feeling down – it’s enough in itself. I bought a coffee mug that says, ‘I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning’ and moved on.
Perhaps some people thrive on obsession – but the ones I’ve met didn’t look to0 good on it.
By George Caveney musician, writer, cynic and firefighter.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary has announced that: “Yesterday the air worthiness authorities for the US navy and US air force approved the F-35 fleet to return to flight,” raising the question of whether the type will be able to make its much-hyped appearance at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK. He continued “We remain hopeful that the F-35 can make an appearance at the Farnborough airshow. This information is an encouraging step, but no final decision has been made at this time.”
Carrier-borne fighters are a rare beast, with only the US boasting a sizeable force. Selection for a top ten was easy, as there’s barely ten types in total! The ordering of these types was a lot harder and to some extent subjective, though the winner is certainly an extraordinary aircraft.
10. Lockheed Martin F-35B/C Lightning II
Strictly speaking the F-35 doesn’t deserve a place on the list as it’s not yet operational, but as training as begun (and we’re short of an aircraft), we have included it. The next new naval fighter after the F-35 may be India’s equally long-delayed Tejas. In time the B and C will deserve separate entries.
9. BAe Sea Harrier FRS.Mk 51
Indian’s aged Sea Harriers are not considered as capable as the FA.2s that Britain’s Royal Navy used to operate and of the thirty delivered only around 11 are still flying. However the Limited Upgrade Sea Harrier (LUSH) upgrade gave aircraft the Elta EL/M-2032 radar and the potential to use the Rafael ‘Derby’ medium-range beyond visual range air-to-air missile.
8. McDonnell Douglas AF-1 (A-4) Skyhawk
Brazil’s A-4s remain a viable aircraft despite the almost prehistoric airframe design. A host of promised, and in some cases, fulfilled upgrades have kept the beloved Scooter going on the deck of Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier São Paulo. Long-promised weapons-options include the were MAA-1B, Python 4 and Derby AAMS. Maybe one day they could be replaced by Sea Gripens.
7. Boeing AV-8B+ Harrier II/EAV-8B Matador
A mature platform with AMRAAM capability and a wide range of air-to-ground stores the modern Harrier is a well-equipped fighter-bomber that proved itself in the Close Air Support role in Afghanistan and the recce/attack/CAP roles over Libya. Sadly the Harrier is the most dangerous aircraft in US service with a shocking attrition-rate that is around three times higher than the F/A-18. As well as a high attrition rate the type is considerably slower than most of it peers. The aircraft is operated by the USMC and the Italian and Spanish Navy.
6. Sukhoi Su-33
The Sukhoi Su-33 was intended to serve on Soviet aircraft carriers, however by the time it entered service the nation it had been developed to protect had disappeared. Only a small number were produced and were considered rather inflexible (with limited weapons options). Now their avionics suite is obsolete and they face the indignity (at least in Sukhoi’s eyes) of being replaced with the smaller MiG-29K.
5. Shenyang J-15
Though not yet mature, the Chinese navy’s pirate ‘Flanker’s promise to be formidable machines. Utilising the best of China’s indigenously developed (and highly-respected) weapons and sensors the J-15 will be a sophisticated, highly agile and long-ranged fighter. In terms of all-out performance it will enjoy a significant advantage over the Hornet family in several respects, notably high altitude performance.
4. McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C/D Hornet
The plucky Bug is now in the twilight of it carrier. When it arrived on the scene in 1983 it was extremely advanced and trail-blazed many of the features that have since become de rigueur for fighters, especially in the field of cockpit design and multimode radar. It remains the fighter to beat at low altitude and is still held in awe as a dogfighter (according to pilots it has the edge on its larger brother in a ‘knife fight’). It was always a short on ‘legs’ (range) and struggled at the right hand corner of the performance envelope. The F/A-18 will be replaced in US Navy and USMC service by the F-35.
3. Mikoyan MiG-29K
When Russia selected the Su-33 for its carriers many thought it had gone for the wrong type as the smaller MiG-29 offered more versatility. A complicated saga ensued, made more complicated by the fall and then rise of the Russian economy, MiG’s precarious position and the Indian Navy’s order for the type. The MiG-29K is a world away from the original ‘Fulcrum’ in terms of range, pilot interface and sophistication and is one of the nastiest naval fighters to tangle with in the within-visual range merge. It is no slouch in the BVR regime either, with an advanced radar and the widely-feared R-77 ‘AMRAAMSKI. India has 45 on order (and has received more than 30), the Russian Navy has ordered 24).
2. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The Super Hornet rectified the legacy Bug’s main shortcomings of limited range and bring-back (the weight of stores that the aircraft can bring back to the carrier after a mission). It also featured radar cross section measures which are rumoured to make it the stealthiest fighter (in terms of frontal cross section) this side of the F-22 (though Dassault may dispute this). The Super Hornet retains the ‘Turbo Nose’ of the Hornet (the almost uncanny ability to point the aircraft quickly and accurately). Though the APG-79 AESA radar of Block II aircraft has been plagued with unreliability issues, it was one of the first to offer simultaneous air and ground modes. The Super Hornet is fitted with some great kit and is compatible with a larger range of stores than any fighter on this list. Where it falls down is its poor performance at higher altitudes and speed, where its relative lack of poke is an issue. Despite this the Super Hornet has repeatedly proven its ability to rise to any challenges as a robust and reliable fighter. (All US Navy fighters are supported by the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, a powerful force multiplier with a ‘stealth-busting’ UHF radar).
1. Dassault Rafale M
Dassault’s Rafale is a masterpiece of aeronautical engineering. Despite being burdened with the additional weight of being a carrier fighter it can mix it with the best fighters in the world. In performance it is closely matched to the Typhoon, with the French fighter enjoying an advantage at lower altitudes. Few fighters excel at both the fighter and the bomber mission, the Rafale is a rare exception. According to one test pilot the Rafale’s flight control system is unmatched in its responsiveness and precision (and markedly superior to the F-16) , an important consideration, especially for a carrier fighter. Defended by SPECTRA, which some regard as the best defensive aids suite in the world, guided by one of the world’s most sophisticated radars and well armed with weapons which include the most advanced aircraft cannon, the Rafale is the hottest naval fighter in the world.
You can find out about the worst carrier aircraft here
“Never fly the ‘A’ model of anything” expect amends to this article over the next few weeks.