Gloster Rocket

The development of the jet engine revolutionized the design of both military and civilian aircraft, but it was the former, particularly the fighter platform, which benefited first. Frank Whittle’s achievement in developing the jet has been well covered, but the task of producing the first generation of aircraft designed to use his engines, mainly by the Gloster Aircraft Company, is not so well documented, especially some of its most obscure, early projects. One of those ‘block’ projects was the little know Gloster Rocket fighter.

The ‘Rocket’ proposal was briefly mentioned in an August 1943 declaration paper. In it, the company stated that “it marked the introduction of a new design for a fighter and shows the possibility of a future important advance along the road towards ultimate development. It outlines the prospect of achieving a low-level speed of 550 miles per hour and a climb rate, commencing at sea level, of around 9,000 feet per minute’.

The original Rocket design was similar in scope as the Gloster E.5/42 Ace, which although popular in many circles, never passed out of the mock-up stages. The main difference between the two proposals was the Rocket’s twin side-by-side engine installation which served almost as a single operating unit. Two prototypes Rolls-Royce B.37s occupied the same position in the rear fuselage area as the Halford engine had occupied in the original E.5/42 Ace. Of course, the air frame’s width was modified in order to accommodate the new format. The extra width was just about the level necessary to duct the air intakes on either side of the frontal frame section. Gloster engineers believed that the combine thrust of the two units, when fully developed, would be around 5,000lb. This increase on power was much more than could be effectively utilized from a single power plant in a similar aircraft-type.

Nevertheless, there were no profound differences between the E.5/42 and the Rocket. Those which could actually be seen were basically that of the fuselage length and the center wing structure. The frontal part of the airplane, outer wing sections, the undercarriage and tailplane were almost identically. The front part design was one of the first ergonomically concepts ever conceived. Besides housing the all important pressure cockpit, the section was filled with state of the art sensors and other related materials. The Rocket model was expected to use the newly high speed wing structure developed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment for the E.28/39 project.


Model of the Gloster Rocket. (photo, via author)

Because it similarities with the E.5/42, Gloster expected that full production, if ordered, would had been shift and relative, easy. The Rocket would have been fitted with B.37 engines. Each of them would supply around 2,200 pounds of thrust given the aircraft a top speed of 545mph at sea level. Climb rate was to be 7,650′ per minute. Operational ceiling was estimated to be at 55,000 feet.

On the morning of August 31st 1943, Gloster’s managers reported to Whittle about the possibility of installing the vaunted W4.100 engine on the E.5/42 platform. The idea was quickly nixed because it was ‘not a very suitable solution’ according to Whittle. Still, the inventor was reluctant to accept the tandem configuration. Early on the program life, the RAE and Gloster estimated that the Rocket pure, raw speed would be at around 449mph at sea leave. Impressive, but far below what the Royal Air Force desired.

On October 9th, Frank Whittle meet with Dr. Roxbee Cox and several high members of the RAE at Ministry of Aircraft Production. The conference centered on a new project, the M.52 supersonic research airplane and the Rocket. Whittle, now a full doubter of the whole twin engine configuration on the Rocket concept, stated that ‘if they (RAE) are going for a super fighter (Rocket), an aero plane which has not yet gone beyond the drawing stage, they should make a proper job and put it the most suited power plant, instead of fiddling with several units’.

No definitely conclusion was reach in the meeting. Engineers at Gloster would continued to work on the drawing for several more months before the whole idea was shelved in favor of a similar, but vastly more promising one: the E.1/44 Ace.

– Raul Colon

References:
Gloster Aircraft since 1917, Derek James, Putnam Books 1971
Interceptor, James Goulding, Ian Allan 1986

The Red Air Force: 1974 to 1985

The years between 1974 and 1985 brought many changes to the Soviet Union’s Air Force (SAF). Changes that augmented the SAF’s overall combat capability almost to a point of challenging the West invaluable air dominance in the projected battlefield. This was a dramatic shift that caught many Westerns observers by surprise. After decades of overall decay in the SAF’s structural profile, the 1970s ushered as new era in air operational planning. The Kremlin had finally woken to what conventional air power was really about.

Since its creation, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) had planned to counter the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact ground and air forces with their high tech air forces. At the front point of this assumption rested the idea that the Western powers could bring heavy concentration of fire to bear with extreme speed and unmatched accuracy at any point in the battle. It was always understood that, even if NATO had the manpower in strategic reserve to counter an all out attack by the Warsaw ground forces, the incorporation of those forces into the defensive forward positions would have taken time. It would not arrive in time to stall a Soviet-lead push into Western Europe. How to contain the Warsaw ground forces from breaking out.


A Tu-95 Bear-C escorted by US Navy F-4s. (photo, via author)

For NATO, air power filled this gap. It offered the ability to strike hard and repeatedly at the choke points along the two Germany’s frontiers where the Warsaw land offensive would have to squeeze through. At the same time, tactical implementation of air power would be projected strategically because a large amount of American tactical aircraft would fly to Europe in the event of an all out attack. The concept of Allied air power holding the front against a Soviet ground incursion, provided there were enough deployed aircraft to do it, was valid and reassuring, especially since the performance of modern tactical Allied aircraft, and the effectiveness and accuracy of their weapons, had climbed exponentially on the back of commercially competitive Western technology to achieve an overall capability undreamt of in term of World War II. Inside NATO’s war planning, this air superiority had long been a comfortable thought of state that many believed that it would endure forever. Bu by the early 1980s, the situation looked different.

Red Air Force combat jet aircraft made its world debuted in the Korean skies during the 1950s affair. By the early 1970, all of those, first generation aircraft, were withdrawn from active service. The second generation of fighters and bombers, originally designed in the late 50s and early 60s, reached its developmental peak in the early 70s.
By the mid 80s, only about 10 to 15 percent of second generation air platforms remained in front line service as the third generation began to assert itself on the overall force structure. Third generation fighters and bombers made their debuted in the early 1970s thus its numbers rose steadily through the decade. It was this generation that gave the Red Air Force a broadly force structure comparable to that of its Western counterparts, although the later were still reckoned to have a margin in detail capability in all aspects, especially where this was dependent on electronics and weapon technology.


A pair of IL-28 Beagle bombers. (photo, via author)

On sheer numbers of available airframes, the Warsaw Pact had always outstripped those of the Allies, in the mid 80s; broad parity in performance was also within its grasp. Added to the equation was the Soviet’s monumental investments in research and development with dwarfed that of all NATO nations combine, with the exception of the US. A fourth generation platform was well under development by the middle of US President Ronald Reagan’s first term. By 1985, the Red AF was in the process of completing pre-evaluation of its fourth generation, air superiority fighter. A platform sorely intended to out maneuver the premier US air superiority aircraft, the vaunted F-15 Eagle. The Soviets were also working on a dedicated V-STOL aircraft for naval operations.
In the summer of 1985, analysis estimated Russian tactical air forces in the western section of the country had increased by 35 percent. The Soviet naval air arm was also climbing. The number of strategic airlift airplanes and attack helicopter quadrupled between 1974 and 1985. In twenty five years, 1970 onward, the Red AF increased their operational scope and war-load capacity by a staggering 1000 percent. The air force progress was as equally impressive as the Red Navy’s. Admiral Gorshkov gets much of the credit, and deservedly so, for the development of the Navy’s Blue Water aspects; but Soviet AF generals are to be praised for the formation of a top rated force.

With its overall new power projection capability, the Red Air Force possessed the capability to venture into the Atlantic and engage NATO’s European targets, including the most important air bridge base in the Continent; the United Kingdom. A though inconceivable in 1970. The new found Red air power could, if the pattern continued for one more decade, have made the deployment of US strategic reserve units into Continental Europe that much difficult, if not impossible. In conclusion, Soviet generals believed that they were just 10 to 15 years away from having a war winning air strategy.

– Raul Colon

The L33 Raid: A game changer

On afternoon hours of September 23rd 1916, one of the ‘next generation’ super-Zeppelins, L33, took to the air for its first operational mission: the bombing of downtown London. Just a few months before, L33 was on the ground, getting its final fittings and adjustments. The L33 was truly a remarkable piece of engineering. She was 649′ long, with a 78 feet diameter and with a total gas capacity of 1,949,000 cubic feet. Six powerful Maybach 240hp Hslu engines gave the lumbering giant a top speed of 59 mph at a maximum operational ceiling of 13,500 feet. Beside its sheer size, what separated the L33 from its predecessor was its bomb load capacity. An impressive five tons of ordnance could be stored.

That fateful afternoon, L33 was accompanied by ten additional super-Zeppelins of the Imperial German Navy. The mission called for the eleven to reach the British coastline at the same time. After which, each craft will take off to its pre-designated target area. Eight Zeppelins were assigned to strike targets around the Wash. The remaining three units were to hit the British capital. Taking part in the London raid was L31 under the command of Heinrich Mathy, L32, lead by the enigmatic Werner Peterson and the L33, controlled by Alois Bocker.

L33, which departed Nordholz, was fitted with almost three tons of free fall bombs. At approximately ten o’clock GMT, L33 flew over Britain’s coast. The huge dirigible was spotted by some local boys near the Thames Estuary. From the Estuary, it moved on towards the north east in order to avoid the heavily saturated British defenses on the east. At the same time, L31 and L32 were crossing the coast headed towards Dungeness, a path seldom explored by German and British planners.

At 11:48 pm, Bocker ordered L33’s bombs to be dropped. Six high explosive bombs landed on Hornchurch. Twenty minutes later, the 33 craft was seen passing West Ham by a couple of street policemen. They promptly alerted the authorities. Searchlights blanketed the pass between Ham and London. After five intensive minutes of search, no Zeppelin was discovered, thus, the search was called off, for the time being.

A little over 12:05 in the morning, London’s powerful searchlights were turned on. The spotters must have seen the undisputed sight of the German slow moving dirigible, because an intense ground attack commenced shortly afterwards. Bocker’s airship was cruising at 12,000 feet following the Ham’s banks when fire erupted. Despite it all, he and his crew kept L33’s attack direction all the way up to Bromley-by-Bow, where the gas giant dropped its main ordnance. One 100kg bomb and five small, incendiary bomblets landed on St. Leonard’s and Empress Streets.

Four urban houses were damaged and six people were killed in this early stage of the raid. L33 went on to deliver several more bombs in and around Bow. But by this time, the airship was shadowed by British defenses. Low trajectory shells began to find their mark. Several fragments of high detonation shells exploded only a few feet away from the ship’s skin puncturing one gas cell. Now the big air platform was in trouble. It began losing altitude fast. At 12:20 am, L33 was seen crossing Buckhurts Hill, leaking gas. Besieged by heavy ground fire, and declining altitude, Bocker decided to dump water from the ship’s ballast tanks, which caused the L33 to regain some of the height it had lost. But the damage was done.

Near Kelvedon Common, a new and more ominous treat arrived: a British pursuit airplane. Second Lieutenant Alfred de Bathe Brandon was ready for the opportunity to engage the German ship. He had gained valuable experience in March 1916, when he almost single-handedly severely damaged L15. Brandon met L33 head on, emptying his Lewis gun, fifty explosive incendiary bullets, into the airship’s stern section. He swung around to hit the stern again, but his gun jammed forcing him to call off the engagement. L33 escaped, at least for the moment.

It was now 12:45 and the dirigible was passing by Chelmsford, still losing precious high. In an attempt to steam the decline, all non-essential materials aboard were jettisoned. Twenty five minutes after, at 1:10, Bocker’s ship passed over the Essex coastal area near Mersea Island. Its destination was the security of the Belgium skies. Unfortunately for Bocker and his crew, L33 was doomed. The Zeppelin was almost out of gas, losing altitude fast and its structure was compromised. It would go down, the only question for Bocker was where.

A crash landing at sea, at that hour, was deemed too risky. Better off, the commander thought, to make a semi-controlled decent in British territory, then deal with the imprisonment issue. Immediately, the ship began to turnaround, now headed back to Essex. She managed to enter the coast. Two and a half miles inland, at 1:20am, L33 went down on a deserted field near Peldon and Little Wigborough church. The crew managed to escape before the gas giant was engulfed in a fire storm.

Soon after the fire died down, and with the metal frame still standing, Bocker ordered his men to climb back into what was left of the super-Zeppelin to destroy any classified material. Despite their best efforts, the British still were able to gather many essential documents and systems out of the wreck. Data that would be later incorporated on the R33 platform.
When the crew saw the first police cars arriving on the field, they promptly left the area. But the trip back to the coast was short lived. Specialist, Edgar Nicholas, apprehended the entire crew without even taking a shot.

The crew of L33 was questioned extensively by British military and scientific personnel. Even psychologists were brought in to examine the men’s mental profile. Such was the depth of the debriefing phase. As for the dirigible’s debris, they were studied by engineers for days. After authorities were satisfied that every drop of information was collected, the ship’s frame was burn to the ground.

In the final analysis, the end of L33 did not alter the rate of Zeppelin attacks, but what it did was to enforce a view held by many German commanders, Zeppelins alone would not defeat Great Britain. A new weapon was needed. One year later, that weapon would make its present felt.

– Raul Colon

References:

World War I, HP Willmott, Covent Gardens Books 2003
The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2003
The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, Robert Jackson, Parragon Publishing Book 2002

The very first raid on England: LZ38 Bomb Run

“If one could set fire to London in thirty places, then what in a small way was odious would retire before something fine and powerful”, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, January 1915. With those words, the world was ushered into the age of aerial bombardment.

When the Great War broke in Europe on August 1914, the Imperial German Army, as well as the Navy, had their own Luftschiff Zeppelin airship fleets. The first German air attack against England was carried out in December 21st 1914, and, contrary to some accounts, it was not done by a dirigible. A Heinkel-designed Albatross sea plane dropped a pair of twenty pound, fragment bombs in and around the Dover area that fateful day. Although no injuries, and only a minor infrastructure damages were reported, the idea of a German-lead, massive air assault on the British Isles, an idea already sheared by many Brits, rapidly achieved almost mythological status.

From late 1914 to the early spring of 1915, there was profound discussion inside the German military and political establishment regarding the effectiveness of an all out bombing campaign against Great Britain. Not that there were doubts about attacking the British Empire, the question was more precisely: how to do it? On the one hand, there were those, mostly civilian leaders, who were in favor of an all out bombing campaign on military targets only. The other side of the isle belonged to the military which desired a truly universal campaign designed on infrastructure and moral attacks. In order to achieve both of those objectives, Germany must be willing to attack population centers without remorse, the thinking went. As with many major political decision, a compromise was reach were the Zeppelins would indeed operate against both military and civilian targets with the caveat that any attack on populated areas must be short in nature.

German Chancellor, Theodore von Bethmann-Hollweg, fearing a public backlash if civilian causalities started to mount do to the Zeppelin raids, added a clause to the newly adopted air doctrine. “Any attack on civilian centers must be undertaken by a few ships with long intervals between raids”.

On February 12th, German Kaiser Wilhelm II issued an Imperial Order that permitted attacks to take place on oil, petroleum and dock facilities in London. Although the order did not specifically called for the bombing of civilian, because of the inaccuracy of the dirigibles and the close integration in the British capital of civilian houses near the pre-selected target sectors, the decree, for all purposes, permitted airships formations to unleash terror from the skies upon the population of London.

On the afternoon of May 31st 1915, Luftschiff Zeppelin 38 took off from its pen at Brussels-Evere. Its mission profile called for a short bomb run of the important industrial east side of London. After encountering a brief, southwest thunder storm, LZ-38’s commander, Hauptmann Karl Linnarz, ordered a sharp east turn towards England’s south east coast. The massive airship was first sighted over Southend at around 9:15pm. By 10:50pm it was over the storied British capital. Flying at around 10,000 feet, at 10:59, Linnarz gave the order to ‘release bombs’. One hundred and twenty high explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on Stoke Newington and Dalston. Also hit were Hoxton, Whitechapel and Leytonstone.

At 11:01pm, members of the Home Guard, utilizing rudimentary anti-aircraft, commence to fire at Linnarz’s ship. Search lights pounded the London night sky in search of the intruder. Fighters took off in search and destroy missions. In a nut shell, all of the British anti air raid assets were deployed in a matter of just a few minutes. Unfortunately for the defenders, their turn of the century guns were completely ineffective falling to land a single shoot near the huge air platform. Search lights could not locate the ship either and the fighters took so much time getting into the Zeppelin altitude profile that by the time they arrive on one spot, the ship was surely to be somewhere else. Bottom line, no one that fateful night would find LZ-38.
On the ground, the effects of the bombing, seven Londoners perished and twenty five were reported injured, were minimal if compared to the carnage of the now dreaded Western Front, but, unlike the fields of northern France, this was the heart of the British Empire. For the first time since the Dutch raids of 1667, London was subject to bombardment.

The consequences of the attack were profound, not only in England but in Germany as well. England fell uncomfortably vulnerable while the German Reich was emboldened with a new sense of omnipotence. Omnipotence also carried out a felling of wondering. As a pure military operation, the LZ-38 was, at best, a side show. A distraction. No military target was hit during the fifteen minute raid. And although the civilian casualties were relative low for such an inaccurate attack, it did happen.

The image the world took out of LZ-38’s attack was that of a ‘Hun barbarians’. Germans attacking innocent civilians while praying, as was the case with a middle age couple who perish during the Stoke Newington raid while doing its night prayers, was the image British newspapers sold to the world. An image that was only enhanced a few moths later during the battles for Flanders.
Even if it was a military failure, the 38’s attack, German leaders though, proved to Britain, and to rest of the world one thing: that German technical superiority will help win the war for the Central Powers.

Back on England, the reaction assumed a more somber tone. As late as 1913, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, mocked the value of ‘these gaseous monster’ as tools of war. By June 1915, no one in the Admiralty was ridiculing the Zeppelins. As the summers months drag along, the British shifted resources to the development of long range anti aircraft guns, pure interceptors and the establishment of a coordinated airship detection units along the English Channel coast.

On July 11th 1915, Wilhelm lifted what ever constraints the German armed forces operated. Now ‘Huns’ Zeppelins were free to roam the London skyline. All targets around the venerable British capital were to be subjected to bombardment, all of them except St. Paul Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Historic structures that was closely associated with the Kaiser’s English royal relatives.

– Raul Colon

References:

Fire Over England: The German Air Raids in World War I, HG Castle, Secker & Warburg, 1982
Zeppelins Over England, EK Poolman, Evan Brothers 1960

The Supermarine Sea Otter

The Supermarine Sea Otter was a British designed biplane amphibian intended to replace the once venerable Supermarine Walrus in the Royal Air Force reconnaissance and search and rescue missions. It had the distinctions of being the last biplane flying boat to achieve front line service in Great Britain armed forces.

The Otter was a result of an Air Ministry’s specification request codenamed S.7-38 (Stingray). There was a considerable effort placed on the development of Project Stingray’s power plant. The original S.78-38 called for a Bristol Perseus XI engine configuration with a two bladed propeller arrangement. The Bristol Perseus configuration did not gave the platform the necessary thrust. A new arrangement was develop with a four blade propeller mechanism set at an angle of 35 degrees. A sharp departure from the frequently use 90 degree sets.

The first prototype, unit K8854, took to the air for its maiden flight on the morning of September 23rd 1938. Designed to take the place of the 1933-designed Walrus, the Otter differed from its predecessor in many characteristics. Most noticeable was its engine tractor configuration. The Walrus utilized a pusher system. The new aircraft was also faster, could fly farther and handled better in the water that its predecessor.


F-15 71-0290 in flight. (photo, via author)

Production was carried out by the front runner of British flying boats designs, Saunders Roe who acted as the only subcontractors to the Otter project. By the spring of 1939, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and much of the British air industry was gear up to produce badly needed fighters and bombers, so the production of the Otter was delayed by almost three full years.
The first production Otter was delivered to the RAF on January 1943. The original Air Ministry order was for 592 aircraft, but due to the tardiness of production and the end of World War II, only 290 were ever built. Production ran well into 1946 (July) before the halt order arrived.

The first operational Sea Otters were assigned to the RAF No. 277 Squadron. The Royal Navy (RN) also got into the act and acquired a number of Otters for costal recon operations. During WW II, Otters fielded nine RAF squadrons: No. 277, 278, 279, 281, 282, 292, No. 1350 Flight, 1351 and 1352. Other countries also operated the Otter. The Royal Australian Navy utilized the type to patrol the vastness of the Coral Sea. The Royal Danish Air Force, the Duct Naval Aviation Services and the French Colonial Service on Indochina; also employed the biplane.

After the Second World War was over, the RAF and RN promptly retired the Otter from front line service. This did not mean that the plane was useless. The RN Fleet Air Arm units remained in service until the spring of 1952.

Two versions of the Otter were produced, the Mk I and II. The amphibious Mk I carried bombs and depth charges while the Mk II was employ only as an air rescue platform. Of the 290 Otter built, only 40 were of the Mk II variety.

Today, only a nose section of a Royal Australian Navy Otter remains. Currently the section sits on permanent display at an Australian Naval Museum.

Power Plant One Bristol Mercury 855hp XXX radial piston engine
Wingspan 14.02m
Length 11.94m
Height 4.93m
Total wing area 56.67m square
Maximum Takeoff weight 4,912kg
Top Ceiling 4,877m
Operational Range 1,167m
Climb Rate 265m per minute

– Raul Colon

More information:
Supermarine Sea Otter
Sea Otter

NASA’s F-15s

There are few fighters that capture the imagination in the same way that the F-15 Eagle does. Almost all the pilots who flew the Eagles in peace and in war, acknowledge that it was a completely ‘different beast’. Its handling capability and its sheer power will be difficult to duplicate in a platform-era bases. To resume, the F-15 will most likely end up in history as the most feared and respected fighter of all time.

The Eagles had been guarding the peace now for more than a quarter of a century. It forms the backbone of, not only the United States Air Force, but most of the Allies, air dominance capability. The majestic ‘Bird’ has also been a fixture on NASA’s flying circles since the mid 1970s. The National Air and Space Administration had and still operate a small fleet of modified F-15s most of them for experimental purposes.

The first F-15 operated by the Administration was serial number 71-0281. The unit was utilized in December 1975 to test the thermal tiles implemented on the Shuttle program. The unit was sent back to the USAF in the spring of 1983. Sample 74-0141, an F-15B version, was use by NASA as an Aerodynamic Flight Facility from the summer of 1994. Those ‘B’ platforms were known inside the space agency as NASA 836 units. Their primary function was to carry a Flight Test Fixture (FTF) on its center pylon.
Inside each FTF were research systems, materials for testing and advance instrumentation. An example of this was the X-33 Thermal Protection System which was tested in FTF-II. The system calibrated, monitored and instrumented the many materials destined for the X-33 flight experimentation profile.

On January 5th, 1976 NASA acquired an F-15A (71-0287), the eight ‘A’ ever produce, designated NASA 835. The 835, which is NASA’s top operating Eagle, served as a test bed for futuristic propulsion systems, aerodynamics, control mechanism, flight techniques and fly-by-wire integrated computers. In 1982, the unit was modified to test the highly advance DEEC Engine Control System (ADECS). The ADECS was a platform utilized to evaluate and to achieve stall control of the engine’s margin under different operational parameters.


F-15 71-0290 in flight. (photo, via author)

After completing the evaluation with ADECS, the 835 was fitted with the Highly Integrated Digital Electronic Control (HIDEC), a new system intended to use computer power to detect loss of, or degradation of control surfaces. It was expected that after the problematic area was identified, HIDEC would re-configured the remaining control sections to compensate. At the same time, it would alert the pilot of the problem and generate a new, real time flight package to assist the pilot in keeping the plane flying.
NASA 835 also tested the controversial Self Repairing Flight Control System (SRFCS) in the autumn of 1989. The SRFCS was, in some ways, very similar to the HIDEC, but one thing that the Self Repairing system offered was an in depth analysis of failures other that that of the control surfaces. Hydraulics, mechanical and electronic systems were all monitored by SRFCS, which will make any correction needed to failing systems in order to keep the aircraft airborne.

In the summer of 1991, the 71-0287 was redesigned to be part of the Performance Seeking Control (PCS) program. The program main function was to optimize engine performance and assure safe operation of the power plants through digital monitoring of failures and digital control of the inlets, nozzles and flight control sections.

835 ended its long and distinguished NASA career flying as a Propulsion Controlled Aircraft (PAC). PAC was initiated because a series of crashed caused by loss of flight control prompted the agency to commence a program to determine whether was possible that a system could be design to maintain control of an aircraft by altering thrust parameters on a single power plant.
Initial results with PAC showed promise as it proved the concept of control through pitch with one engine, though asymmetric application of thrust from two engines was needed to alter heading and induce roll. NASA 835 was the only aircraft using PAC. In one test flight, the unit flew down to less than 10 feet above a runway at 150 KIAS utilizing thumbwheels. Successful landings at Edwards AF base in California proved the soundness of the concept.
The last PCA flying program attached to the 835 was that of the Landing/Maneuvering Technology Demonstrator (S/MTD) for testing emerging technologies for suitability to the USAF’s Advance Tactical Fighter program. Technologies used on the F-22 Raptor and the new F-35 Lighting II.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide, Gunter Endres and Mike Gething, HarperCollins Publishing 2002
Skunk Works, Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos, Back Bay Books, 1994
Concept Aircraft: Prototypes, X-planes and Experimental Aircraft, Jim Winchester, Editor; Thunder Bay Press, 2007

Air power in Venezuela’s 1992 coup attempt

If compared to the rest its South American counterparts, Venezuela enjoyed a relative stable form of government for much of the 1970s and 80s. As with the rest of the country’s military arms, the Fuerza Aerea Venezolana (FAV) suffered from a prolong period of budgetary restrictions and limitations that started in the mid 70s and lasted until the early mid-to late 80s. This period of stagnation left the once powerful FAV in a state of flux. During that time, most of the FAV assets became non-operational. But by 1987, the situation was commencing to improve with the acquisition by the Venezuelan government of top shelf equipment such as powerful United States’ build F-16A Falcon. The FAV also began a crash program to upgrade its Mirage units to 2000’s standards.
On February 24th, 1992, the paratroop units of Grupo Paracaidista Aragua, lead by Lieutenant Colonel, and current president of the republic, Hugo Chavez; staged a coup attempt. Although the coup was quickly squashed, feelings inside the air force remained high and volatile. So much so that on the 27th of November, a further attempt to rest power from the civilian government was made. Lead by the charismatic Brigadier General Francisco Visconti, lead elements of the FAV used the Air Force Day preparations to move units into the El Libertador Air Force Base at Palo Negro, Aragua.

The units included a sole NF-5B, five T-2Ds, six OV-10As, three OV-10Es and two A-27s. At 0330 on the morning of the 27th, Visconti’s forces seized the control of the important base. Supported by the vaunted 10th Special Operations Group, which operated most of the air force’s helicopter fleet, and the Grupo de Caza 11, Visconti’s men meet little opposition. But this does not mean that all base personnel were inboard with the coup. Two QRA aircraft from Grupo de Caza 16, managed to escape to Barquisimeto. A base that remained loyal to the republic’s president. The rest of Caza 16’s assets were captured. While the El Libertador operation was underway, supplemental units of the 10th were capturing the near by Mariscal Sucre air force base at Boca Del Rio, Maracay. Mariscal Sucre was the home of the FAV’s training fleet of EMB-312 Tucanos and T-34As trainers.


Mirage 50DV 2473 at El Libertador. (photo, via author)

That same morning in Caracas, three French-built Mirage 50EVs from Grupo 11 began strafing the Army’s barracks. Another force composed of Broncos, Tucanos and Buckeyes; attacked the presidential palace, the foreign ministry building, the police headquarters and the Presidential Guard barracks. Unlike previous attacks on El Libertador and Sucre, this time the attacking force meet resistance. Suddenly ad almost out of nowhere, the two F-16 Falcons that escaped Libertador appeared over the skies of the Venezuelan capital. It did not take long before the modern Falcons chased away the Tucanos and Broncos. Then, the heavily armed F-16s moved to Sucre and Libertador strafing anything that moved on the ground with their powerful 20mm cannons.

Also in the morning of the 27th, and while forces loyal to the government started to counterattack the rebel positions, insurgence Mirages and Broncos took off from Sucre to commence their attacks on Barquisimeto. There they proceeded to destroy three CF-5As and a civilian MD-80 airliner. Unfortunately for the attackers, Grupo de Caza 12 managed to scramble one F-16 and a NF-5A. They were able to shoot down two of the OV-10s. The F-16 also downed a sole Tucano without much effort.

When the afternoon hit, the once promising coup attempt stared to unravel. Another slow moving Bronco was downed over Caracas, most likely by small caliber ground fire. By 1300, with La Carlota Air Force Base, one of the main targets of the rebels, completely secure, government forces began their countermove. Elite elements of the Army and some paratroop formations loyal to the government began their ground assault on Libertador and Sucre. Supported by two tanks columns, the Army regulars entered the bases almost without firing a shoot.

Visconti knew the attempt was over and at 1400 ordered a complete evacuation of the bases. He and 92 co-conspirators took off of a Grupo 6’s C-130H Hercules transport bound for Peru, where they sought political asylum. Two Mirage 50Es from Grupo 11 made their way to the Island of Aruba in the Caribbean Sea. Only one rebel operated Bronco escaped. This OV-10 landed on another Caribbean Island, Curacao.

Almost one thousand officers, non commissioned officers and enlisted men where rounded up and arrested by Army police units. By the late hours of the evening, the November 27th coup attempt was history.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Air Power: The men, machines and ideas that revolutionized War; from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
Americas’ Wars, Joseph Thomas and Gregory Henn, Herms Publishing, 2000

Air Defense of the Giuk Gap: F-15 Eagle Territory

The Greenland, Iceland and United Kingdom air defense sector, better known as the Giuk Gap, was routinely utilized by the USSR’s long range heavy bombers and maritime reconnaissance platforms as a transit point towards the Atlantic Ocean. The pattern started when the Soviet Union decided to deployed their bombers or recon aircraft from bases located at Archangel and Murmansk. After departing the USSR’s airspace, the planes would stream down to the North Cape in Norway towards the Gap which was used as a doorway to the vast Atlantic. Most of the Soviet missions were destined to probe United States’ air defense along the North Atlantic and in the Caribbean where Cuba, the USSR’s most important satellite state outside continental Europe, rested. Such was the perceived threat from the Soviet incursions that it became a priority for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to demonstrate that the strategic Giuk passage would be monitored at all times. The best way to achieve this was to intercept and shadow all Soviet transits in and from the Gap.

The best opportunity to do this was when a formation flew through the relatively narrow space that separates Greenland and Great Britain. In the middle of this ‘gap’ lay the small country of Iceland. Iceland became a full time member of NATO in 1949, but due to its complete lack of military resources and the threat of Soviet air power, the country’s leaders officially agreed on May 5th 1951 to house what would become NATO’s most important North Atlantic base outside the UK, Keflavik. The new facility immediately became the home of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) or the ‘Black Knights’, in the fall of 1954. At first, the 1951 agreement called for the FIS to take direct action only if the country’s territory was penetrated but things changed a decade later when Fidel Castro’s Cuba became a communist nation. From that moment on, Soviet aircraft utilized more frequently the Gap in order to make calls to Cuban airbases and airports in an attempt to probe deeper inside the US eastern seaboard defensive area. To meet this threat, the US Air Force equipped the 57th with advanced fighter aircraft. In 1962 the FIS was augmented by the amazing F-102. In 1973, the big F-4C Phantom replaced the 102 as the force mainstay. A new Phantom, the F-4E, was incorporated to the 57th in the summer of 1978.

By 1984, the USSR had amassed a considerable submarine launched ballistic missile capability which complemented their already powerful ICBM force. The vast majority of the Soviet SSNB submarines, known as ‘boomers’, were based at Archangel and Murmansk. Their pre-launch stations were usually in the White Sea sector. Because of this, the US Navy devoted a large portion of its SSN submarines or ‘hunter killers’ to locate and then follow the movement of all Soviet SSNB boomers in the White Sea. To perform this task, US SSNs ran through the Giuk Gap en route to their patrol areas. To counteract the Americans, the Soviet navy began a pattern of deploying an ever increasing numbers of modified Bears, called Bear F, in an effort to track the US SSNs boats before they entered the Sea.

In another countermove, the US assigned its best fighter jet, the impressive F-15C/Ds to the 57th FIS. In November 1985, the first of twelve F-15C/Ds arrived at Keflavik. The Eagles stationed at the Iceland base were different from its North American counterparts. They were fitted with Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT). Each CFT could add up to 9,800 extra pounds of aviation fuel. Enough fuel to extend the overall operational range of the Eagles, thus giving the aircraft of the Black Knights the ability to intercept the Bears at a longer range. More fuel also meant that the planes from the 57th could shadow its target for a much longer time than before. The CFT became an integrated part of the F-15 deployed at Keflavik.

From January 1962 to the winter of 1991, Black Knights intercepted almost 3,000 Soviet long range aircraft. The most active period was between 1985 and 1986 when Icelandic Eagles netted 340 interceptions. Nearly all Soviet inbound air traffic towards the Gap was detected and tracked by the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s air defense centers. The RNorAF, with the strategic support of USAF Boeing E-3A AWACS from the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing, painted all Soviet air movement in and around the Giuk Gap during their incursions. It was relative easy to spot a Bear. Its massive Kuznetsov NK-12MV turboprop engines contra-rotating four sets of large diameter propellers made a huge radar reflection. After the RNorAF notified NATO command, the E-3 fleet was scrambled to acquire and track the inbound bogey. At the same time, the F-15s would be placed on high alert status. Well prior to the Soviet aircraft’s incursion into the Iceland Military Zone, two Eagles would be dispatched to meet the intruders. A KC-135 refueling tanker would follow half an hour later to keep the Black Knights topped off thus maintaining their ability to divert and re-engage.

Early on the Bears, which were the Soviets most visible platform at Giuk, flew a very predictable pattern flying at an altitude of 25 to 27,000 feet at a relative low cruising speed. The low altitude profile coincided with the aircraft’s primary operational goal: the proving of the outer rim of the American Defense Zone in the North Atlantic Sector. On one occasion, a night flying Bear turned up its powerful spotlight which was mounted on the empennage, in an effort to disorient an intercepting Eagle pilot. The pilot did not enjoy the sight and raced out ahead of the Bear, turning around and pointed at the huge bomber nose to nose. He proceeded to lower his gear which shined its landing light in the faces of the Bears’ pilots. The two aircraft flew at a ‘too high for comfort’ combined speed of 500 knots in a pitch black sky. It is safe bet that Bear’s pilot never attempted the maneuver again.

Such as this, there are many more stories of encounters between Soviet aircraft and Black Knights interceptors. But the fall of Red Russia in 1991 signalled the end of the Cold War. After 1991, no Bear or any other type of Russian airplane approached the Iceland Defense Zone. As for the 57th, they maintained their twelve plane strength for another three years before eight were re-assigned to US continental bases. On March 1st 1995, the Black Knights were officially disbanded as its mission was taken over by rotating Air National Guard units. The Guard maintained Keflavik alert status until 2005 when the last detachment of USAF aircraft departed Iceland. But with recent Russian flybys is not out of the realm of the possibility the Air Force will once again deploy interceptors to the remote country.

– Raul Colon

The Super Stirling

In the early part of 1941, inside the corridors of power of Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command, there was a growing concern regarding the Halifax and Lancaster bomber force in contrast to the Sterling platform. The perceived disadvantages of the Sterling had many in the Command clamoring for an upgrade to the existing aircraft. This lead to the RAF to send a formal request for an enhanced Sterling, in the form of Specification B.8/41. The result of this was the project called “Super Stirling” which was based on the new Centaurus CE3Sm radial engine.

The new blue print for the Short Super Stirling, tagged project S36, began with the introduction of the Centaurus CE3Sm radial engine early in the summer of 1941. With the power plant in hand, it was time for the engineering team at Short Brothers (from 1943 forward, the company was named Short Brothers and Harland) to start developing the S36 concept. The first thing they did was redesign the whole wing structure. The baseline Stirling fuselage was extended for the installation of a larger central bomb bay intended to carry the huge and still in the developmental stages 8,000lb free fall bomb. This alone represented a major upgrade over the original Stirling bomber. In addition, six more wing-based cells were installed. Each cell could carry up to 1,000lb of ordinance.

In the autumn of 1941, the RAF’s Controller of Research and Development (CDR) Department issued a paper covering, among other things, the expected operational characteristics of the S36 design. The CRD viewed the new bomber as a “typical night bomber having high useful load at a comparatively slow, economical cruising speed (214mph at 15,000′) just six miles per hour faster than the Stirling”. Despite the uninspired report, the CDR still recommended that the project go to full production mode.

The first, true outline of the project now known as the Stirling III, which was revealed to the RAF’s top brass in July 15th 1941, offered an insight into the Short engineers’ vision. The “III” design had a powerful defensive armament system. Two .5 inch machine guns were placed in the nose of the aircraft, four additional ones in both mid upper and tail turrets. Another machine gun, a .303 inch caliber, was installed under the fuselage in an under turret mechanism. Maximum takeoff weight for the new bomber was estimated at 103,100lb. Top operational speed was 311 mph at a 20,000 service ceiling. Maximum operational ceiling was determined to be 29,300′. In August a further revision of the S36’s profile was made. But the outlines of it were the same, a similar airframe to the original bomber with an increase bomb load and extended longer fuselage. The S36 was conceived to be able to carry a powerful 23,500lb total bomb load, compare to the original Stirling’s 14,000lb capacity, for 2,300 miles.

On the 19th of November 1941, the Air Ministry issued Specification Order B.8/41 to cover the program costs and allocation of resources. Nevertheless, questions were raised regarding the new aircraft’s feasibility. The Controller General Office was skeptical of the Stirling III production success. In a report made public in the fall of 1941-42, the CRD issued some reservations about the development of the S36 as it compared with the Halifax and Lancaster platforms. Or even the much anticipated Avro Super Bomber design, still years away from presentation. Still, the CDR endorsed the project with an order of two sample aircraft on 9th of January 1942. The CRD assigned serials JR540 and JR543 to the two units. One, without a certain operational requirement, the other ready to fly once completed.

It was estimated that the first unit would take to the air in the autumn of 1943. Shorts were also encouraged to prepare a production blue print for an Initial Production Order of twenty aircraft with a possible extension of 130 units. On May 11th, the Commander in Chief of the RAF’s Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris wrote that “the B.8/41 was expected to eradicate the weakness of the present Stirling force and with much bigger span wings should be a better aircraft. But the new potential given does not justify the change over, the switch will cost at least 126 Stirlings at Rochester plus a ratio of two B.8/41s for three Stirlings. The best course is to concentrate on the Hercules VI Stirling which will go a long way to improve the really weak feature, its operational ceiling at weak mixture. The Hercules VI should push this up to 19,000′ from 16,000′ which is superior to the B.8/41”. Coming from Harris, these words were gospel to the Air Ministry.

A fortnight later, Short brothers were told to cease all work on the S36 project. The Ministry estimated that by the time the S36 achieved operational status, and taking into the equation the expected increases in additional weight that usually goes into a new aircraft, the new profile of the bomb load would be insufficient to justify the losses of standard production Stirling. The decision stunned Shorts who, for a while, entertained the idea of privately continuing with the program. But on August 5th they decided to abandon the whole program. The valuable data gained during the program’s life was used on another air platform concept; the Vickers Long Range High Altitude Super Bomber.

– Raul Colon

References:
Air Power: The men, machines, and ideas that revolutionized war; from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
International Air Power Review, AIR Time Publishing, Volume 22, 2007

The Martin-Baker MB designs

One of the most obscure piston powered aircraft projects ever conceived by a British corporation has to be the Martin-Baker MB series. The small English company, founded by James Martin and Val Baker in the early 1930s, was at the outside looking in terms of the British Royal Air Force’s design and development programs. But that changed in the summer of 1938 (August 3rd) when the company’s MB-2 single seated fighter, powered by a Napier Dagger engine, took to the air on its maiden flight. The aircraft flew flawlessly prompting the RAF to take a hard look at the, by that time, unknown corporation. Martin-Baker followed the success of the MB-2 with the MB-3. The new air platform was design around a May 1939 Ministry of Defense (MoD) specification, F-18.39, which called for an aircraft that can ascertain speeds above 400 mph within a heavily armed airframe. The new 3 version would have been able to achieve the stated speed at an operational ceiling of 15,000 feet. It was designed with a powerful six 20mm cannons fitted along its wing structures. Only one MB-3 sample, unit R2492, flew. It did so on August 3rd 1942. Unfortunately the unit was lost a month later when during a routine testing exercise; the aircraft staled in mid air prompting the sample to plumb to the ground. The crash, not only put the entire MB-3 program in jeopardy, but the death of the test pilot, company founder Baker; was a serve blow that would have dire consequence for the small company in the years ahead.

Constant development and production delays assured that the MB-3 would never achieve full production status. In the sprig of 1943, the MoD canceled its pre-production order for the 3 version. With the end of the company’s biggest contract up to that date, James Martin was finally free of government constraints. Free to pursue his life log dream. Free to design the company’s greatest air structure, the MB-5. The version 5 of the basic MB concept was basically a redesigned MB-4, an air platform that was never developed past mockup status, with a more powerful engine base and a streamline fuselage. The new power plant planned for the 5 version was the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. The engine, coupled with a new teardrop canopy design and rear fuselage radiator gave the 5 a distinct flying capability.


The MB-5 in flight. (photo, via author)

Although different in many aspects from the 3 unit, the 5 was also loosely based on the same 18.39 specification. Martin’s new airplane made its maiden flight on the morning of May 23rd 1944. It only took one flight for Martin and the rest of his dedicated staff to know they had something special in the aircraft. With a top speed profile of 460 mph, the MB-5 was able to outrun the best of the Luftwaffe’s piston engine fighters. It flight operational ceiling was 20,000 feet which again, was better than any German piston aircraft of the times. The 5 unit was an overwhelming success that an Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment’s Boscombe Down report called the basic MB-5 design “an excellent and infinitely better, from the engineering and maintenance point of view, than any other similar type of aircraft”. The plane was also a big success with all the pilots who flew it. Its streamline airframe made it easy to maneuver it and its reinforced wing structure gave it the stability to become one of the world’s best gun platforms. Despite the high acclimates the aircraft ran into the same problem as the 3 version, delays. Add to this the fact that World War II has just ended, and the “writing was on the wall” when it came to the future of the whole 5 program. In the fall of 1945, the company finally pulled the plug on its most successful aircraft design.

Martin will go on with the design and development two jet powered aircraft, but by the late 1940s the company shifted its overall philosophy towards the production of ejection seats and area that made this little British company a household name.

– Raul Colon

More information:
The Royal Air Force and Aircraft Design 1923 to 1939, Colin Sinnott, Frank Cass 2001
Bristol Aircraft since 1910, C.H. Barnes, Putman Books 1964
Planemakers II, David Mondey, Jane’s Defense, 1982