VICKERS FB5 (‘GUNBUS’)

On 19 November 1912, the Admiralty placed an order with one of its favoured armaments contractors, Vickers, Son & Maxim, who had opened an aviation department the previous year, for a ‘fighting aeroplane armed with a machine gun’, presumably intending it to be employed in the defence of its shore bases. It seems probable that development of the new machine was already underway at the time of the Admiralty order and that the decision by Vickers to initiate the project had been influenced by the F.E.2.

The new machine designed by A. R. Low was of a pusher configuration and given the type number 18. Its two bay wings were of unequal span and were heavily staggered, the slope of the interplane struts being repeated in those separating the tail booms. Lateral control was by warp and the undercarriage comprised of two wheels mounted on half axles with a central skid. The nacelle had a framework of steel tubing and was covered in aluminium alloy sheeting. Power was provided by a water-cooled V8 Wolseley engine rated at 80 hp and a Vickers belt-fed machine gun was fitted in the nose of the nacelle where it enjoyed a 60 degree cone of fire. The assembled, but as yet untested, machine was exhibited at the Aero Show held at London’s Olympia in February 1913 as the Destroyer, although it would appear that its designers referred to it as the 18. Unfortunately, it proved nose heavy and was wrecked during its first attempt to take off. However, the design had promise and work began on a modified version designated as the 18a.

This variant, almost a complete redesign, had no stagger and its undercarriage was incorporated in twin skids. The nacelle had clear panels in the sides, presumably to improve the view downwards, and power was provided by a 100-hp Gnome rotary engine. Testing by company test pilot Harold Barnwell commenced around October 1913.

A further development designated as the model 18b, without the clear panels to the nacelle and fitted with ailerons on all four wings, was at Brooklands in January 1914 and exhibited at Olympia in March. It was later fitted with a triangular fin. Both 18a and 18b were purchased by the War Office, an order also being placed for a further six examples.

A further development of the basic design—with a new nacelle and with the gun mounted above the cockpit rim thereby increasing its field of fire—was designated as the EFB4 (Experimental Fighting Biplane No. 4) with the previous machines now being regarded retrospectively as EFB1-3. The new machine had the same wings as its predecessor with tubular steel struts and a similar undercarriage (with longer skids) and a modified nacelle and tail surfaces. Following testing, it was delivered to the Admiralty in fulfilment of the original order for a fighting biplane early in 1914 and was given the serial number 32 (in accordance with current practice, the Navy’s type number for the design). During 1914 and early 1915, it was stationed at RNAS Eastchurch to intercept Zeppelins attacking London, but there is no record of any action. It was transferred to No. 2 Squadron RNAS in March 1915 but was replaced shortly afterwards.

EFB5 differed from previous examples with a further modified nacelle and revised fin. Also, the rudder and struts were of spruce instead of steel employed previously. Power remained the 100-hp Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine. Completed by mid-July 1914, it was flown by Harold Barnwell from Joyce Green near the company works at Crayford to Brooklands on 17 July. EFB5 was then flown to Farnborough a few days later for testing by the AID. On 21 July, it was flown by three RFC pilots, Major H. R. M. Brooke-Popham, Capt. R. Cholmondeley and 2 Lt T. O’B. Hubbard, whose opinions were generally favourable, especially regarding the provision of the machine gun. Col. F. H. Sykes, then commanding the RFC, forwarded their three reports to the Director General of Military Aviation with a recommendation that an order be placed. On 25 July, EFB5 was blown over in a high wind and was returned to the workshops to be repaired.

A further development with unequal span wings, EFB6 had no decking between the two seats. Tested at Brooklands on 14 July, it was decided that the EFB5 should be the version adopted for production, its designation changing to Fighting Biplane No. 5 or FB5. Officially named as the Vickers Fighting Biplane, it was dubbed more affectionately as the Vickers Fighter by those who flew it. The name ‘Gunbus’ appears to have been invented by the press and applied indiscriminately to any armed pusher.

In response to demands for aeroplanes to expand the flying services, six machines were delivered after the outbreak of the war. This completed the order placed at the end of 1913 and were allocated the serial numbers 649, 664, 682, 686, 704 and 747. These also included the experimental models FB4 and FB6 with the former becoming 664 and the latter 704. None of these machines went to France although the first machine delivered, 664, was taken on charge on 10 September 1914. This particular FB5 saw action on Christmas Day when it was piloted by 2 Lt M. R. Chidson and took off from Joyce Green to intercept an enemy Friedrichshafen floatplane that was following the course of the River Thames. It was chased out to sea where the FB5’s gunner, Corporal Martin, fired at it and reported that the enemy aircraft has been damaged.

A few weeks later, another FB5 from Joyce Green, flown by Capt. Robert Maxwell Pike—a former naval officer who had trained as a pilot and joined the RFC despite a limp caused by an injured knee—took off in pursuit of a Zeppelin raider, but engine failure cut the mission short. Force landing in the dark, the FB5 hit a dyke and overturned. The resulting crash caused extensive damage to the FB5 although Pike and his gunner, A. M. Shaw, were unhurt. 647 and 682 were assigned to No. 7 Squadron during October 1914 and by the following January, 649 and 664 had been converted to dual control, the former being assigned to No. 11 Squadron during February. 747 was transferred to the RNAS at Dover in February, but was struck off charge by the middle of April.

It is probable that Vickers put the FB5 into production immediately as the design was finalised before the outbreak of war and the first production example was completed during October 1914. It differed from the prototype in having a straight trailing edge to the rudder so that all surfaces were almost rectangular in shape, presumably to simplify production. Orders were placed both by the Admiralty (861–4) and War Office (2340–7) on 14 August 1914 with the War Office placing three further orders, each for twelve machines, over the next few months. Serials assigned to these were 1616–27, 1628–39 and 1640–51. An enlarged rudder with a curved trailing edge was introduced from serial number 1638. Additional machines were ordered with deliveries being almost continuous and manufacture was also under taken by Darracq S.A. in France.

The first Vickers fighter to go to France, 1621, joined No. 2 Squadron on 5 February 1915 and acted as an escort to its reconnaissance machines where it was flown by 2 Lt Chidson. It then took up a similar role with the newly formed No. 16 Squadron a few days later and more machines joined other squadrons on the same piecemeal basis as soon as they became available. 1621 had a fairly brief operational career as it came down behind enemy lines on 2 March and was captured intact. No. 5 Squadron received at total of nine FB5s between February and June 1915, but only had three on strength by the end of that period. It operated one flight of fighters plus two reconnaissance machines the fighters were intended to protect. However, the Vickers were unable to escort the reconnaissance machines due to a disparity in speed, the Vickers proving slower than their unarmed companions and so patrolled the area ahead of their intended operations. Fredrick Powell, then a newly qualified pilot with No. 5 Squadron, recalled:

It was an interesting little aeroplane with a Monosoupape engine which had no throttle. You couldn’t go fast or slow, it only had one speed: flat out. We used to do two-hour patrols. It had petrol for 2½ hours, so that allowed 15 minutes each way to get to the lines.

The Monosoupape engine was far from reliable with those built under licence by Peter Hooker Ltd proving even worse than those manufactured in France and engine failures were common leading to aborted patrols and forced landings. So bad was the situation that Col. Brooke-Popham, then a staff officer in France, complained to the War Office that one Vickers pilot had suffered twenty-two forced landings due to engine failure in thirty flights and demanded an improvement in engine reliability. However, although such an improvement was eventually achieved, the engine never lived down its reputation for unreliability.

A few of the first machines were fitted with a belt-fed Vickers machine gun instead of the lighter drum-fed Lewis that was quickly standardised. Initial problems with the gun mounting resulted in several changes of design, the Vickers No. 2 Mk 1 eventually being adopted. This, however, was far from perfect and several improved variants were developed by squadron engineers in France. The Lewis guns had the barrel cooling jackets removed, reducing their weight as it was considered that the air flow over the weapon would provide sufficient cooling; however, it was not unknown for the barrel to overheat and gunners restricted themselves to ten-round bursts.

In April, No. 7 Squadron flew to France with two flights of R.E.5 bombers and one of Vickers fighters, including 1637 and 1651, adding to the number patrolling over the lines. Other squadrons operated the type, in addition to their other machines, in a similar role. Lt W. Acland of No. 5 Squadron with A. M. Rogers as his observer shot down an enemy machine on 15 May, their Vickers armed with a rifle as well as a machine gun.

The first squadron fully equipped with the FB5 and the RFC’s first ever squadron dedicated solely to aerial fighting was No. 11 that first formed in February 1915. It flew to France on 25 July with eight FB5s in two complete flights, including 1632, 1641, 1643, 1647 and 1650. It received a further three aircraft via the Aircraft Park in a week with the third flight being made up to full strength soon after. By the end of August, the squadron had been issued as replacements with two machines: 5454 and 5455 built by Darracq. The squadron began patrolling its section of the front almost as soon as it arrived in France. Capt. Lionel Rees with Flt Sgt Hargreaves in the front cockpit shot down a Fokker on 17 July despite damage to their own machine.

However, pilots often found that the enemy was disinclined to fight and often being faster than the FB5, simply sped away to avoid combat. This, however, was counted as a success as it freed the skies of enemy machines and allowed the RFC to carry out their duties of reconnaissance, bombing, photography and artillery observation unmolested.

But not all enemy machines refused to fight. On 5 September, another No. 11 Squadron machine flown by 2 Lt Cooper with 2 Lt A. J. Insall as his observer was patrolling near Gommecourt at about 9,000 feet when they spotted an LVG below them. As they dived down in pursuit, the enemy gunner—who occupied the rear cockpit and was equipped with a swivel-mounted machine gun—returned fire. When they grew level, the LVG turned broadside so it could continue to bring its gun to bear. Shots continued to be exchanged in this way until the LVG plunged into a steep dive with black smoke and flames pouring from its exhaust. Indeed, witnesses on the ground confirmed that the LVG was in a steep dive when it ploughed into the ground. Insall later wrote in his account of his part in the war this appreciation of the Vickers FB5 and its noisy rotary engine:

It never pretended to be capable of setting speed or height records. It was quite happy bumbling along above the German Army, booming it its sonorous defiance for all to hear and never evading a trial of strength.

Two days later, a No. 11 Squadron FB5 flown by Capt. Playfair also encountered an LVG; however, it dived away rather than fight. Later the same day, Capt. Darley had a similar experience with an Aviatik, an experience reported several times by other crews over the next few days. Other squadrons had similar experiences although on 29 July, Capt. Reese and Capt. Kennedy from No. 4 Squadron attacked an enemy two-seater that descended into a steep spiral. It returned fire up at the Vickers and hit it in the lower wing damaging both spars, cutting several wires and breaking a rib, although the machine landed successfully.

19 September saw No. 5 Squadron’s Lt F. J. Powell together with A. M. Shaw on patrol to the east of Polygon Wood when they observed an LVG below and dived down to attack. The enemy promptly dived away but they spotted a large twin-engine enemy machine and closed to within 100 yards before opening fire, the enemy returning fire from two separate guns. Shaw’s aim was true as an engine stopped and the enemy machine dived for the ground while trailing black smoke.

On 31 August, Capt. Lionel Rees with Flt Sgt Hargreaves claimed an Albatros CII. On 21 September, they added an Ago C.I to their score and seven days later spotted an enemy two-seater some 2,000 feet below them, and dived to attack. Their opponent turned out to be both faster and superior than the Vickers having two guns to their one; however, they pressed home their attack and were rewarded by seeing it crash just inside the German frontline. Rees was awarded the Military Cross for this action and other similar examples of courage in the face of superior forces, and eventually scored a total of seven victories flying the FB5, the highest score of any pilot of the type. Hargreaves was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in the successes.

26 October saw 5459, a No. 5 Squadron machine flown by the famous actor and pioneer airman, Robert Loraine, dive after an Albatros two-seater. He gave chase from 9,000 feet to just 600 feet with the observer, Lt. the Hon. Eric Lubbock, firing at it and Loraine joining in with a pillar-mounted Lewis gun. The enemy pilot, a corporal, was fatally hit and the machine crashed 20 yards from the frontline held by the Canadians. The observer, Lt Buchholz, who was just 17 years old and wounded in the stomach, was taken prisoner and extensively interrogated, a great deal of useful information being obtained. Both Loraine and Lubbock were awarded the Military Cross for the action. Loraine later dropped a message onto the German aerodrome giving details of the crew’s fate and returning the pilot’s personal effects. Loraine’s was not the only Vickers FB5 armed with a second Lewis machine gun. At least one machine of No. 11 Squadron was similarly equipped, although the task of aiming the swivelling gun while flying the aeroplane meant that the chances of hitting a target was virtually nil.

Capt. Rees scored again on 31 October, claiming an LVG two-seater driven down, his observer on this occasion being Flt Sgt Raymond.

On 7 November 1915, 2 Lt Gilbert Insall of No. 11 Squadron was flying 5074 with AM T. H. Donald in the front seat patrolling the Adinfer-Bapaume area when at 2.30 p.m., they spotted an Aviatik some 1,000 feet above them and Insall immediately climbed to attack. The enemy machine began to move away, trying to lead them into range of an anti-aircraft rocket battery. However, Donald’s shots found their mark and the Aviatik was shot down and landed heavily in a ploughed field. As the crew struggled away from the machine, Insall returned and dropped an incendiary bomb that left the Aviatik wreathed in smoke. Under fire from the ground, the Vickers headed back and crossed the lines at 2,000 feet where it was hit in several places, including the petrol tank. This caused the engine to stop and Insall managed to land about 500 feet behind the lines in the cover of small wood. Although they were unable to observe the aircraft, German artillery began shelling the area. Around 150 shells were fired, fortunately none further damaging the machine and after nightfall, they managed to repair the machine by the light of screened lamps and took off at dawn where they returned to their aerodrome. Insall was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage but was unable to be invested with the medal as both he and Donald were shot down and captured a week later. Insall managed to escape on his third attempt in August 1917 and returned to active service with No. 51 Squadron.

During the summer of 1915, the enemy introduced the Fokker monoplane fighter armed with a forward firing machine gun. This innovative design changed the nature of aerial combat overnight; however, the Fokker, along with other similar designs, was initially available in very small numbers. Despite the FB5’s obsolescence, the type was obliged to continue in service, to counter the new oppositions as best it could, and on 19 November, the number operating in France increased by the arrival of No. 18 Squadron that was equipped with it. Losses increased and victories became ever more elusive, especially as most enemy machines were faster than the FB5. When during November 1915, a No. 11 Squadron machine courageously attempted to engage a Fokker, the enemy simply sped away in a steep dive.

On 16 March 1916, over a year since the type first entered service in France, Trenchard wrote to the Deputy Director of Military Aeronautics to state that ‘The Vickers Fighters, in their present condition, are now hopelessly outclassed and must be considered as quite out of date.’ Trenchard’s wish was granted and the type was withdrawn from active service from the spring of 1916. A number of machines were reassigned to training units in the UK. No. 18 Squadron exchanged its FB5s for the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b, although No. 11 Squadron soldiered on with their Vickers until July.

The type had made a big impact and lived on in spirit after its withdrawal from the Western Front. When Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron) achieved his first victory on 17 September, he claimed that he had shot down an F.E.2b when it was a FB5. Twelve were built under licence in Denmark and were completed around March 1916. Although they saw no action, the Danish FB5s remained in service until 1924, the last of the design to survive.

In an attempt to improve the performance of the fighter, a modified design, the FB9, appeared in late 1915. Slightly smaller than the FB5 with a wingspan of just under 34 feet, it had rounded tips to the wings and tailplane, and was braced by streamlined Rafwires. Like the previous variant, power was provided by the 100-hp Gnome Monosoupape. The nose contour of the nacelle was more streamlined, giving an improved appearance as did the vee undercarriage, similar to that which had replaced the twin-skid version on some later production FB5s. Prototype 7665 was tested by the Central Flying School on 5 January 1916 and was sent to No. 11 Squadron in France for evaluation by service crews the following day. Opinions by pilots were generally favourable although observers were somewhat critical of the reduced leg room afforded by the revised nose contours and of the gun mounting.

7665 appears to have remained with No. 11 Squadron for on 2 April, it was flown by Capt. Champion de Crespigny with 2 Lt J. Hughes-Chamberlain as his observer and attacked a group of five enemy aircraft. One was shot down and a second dived out of control before the FB5 was shot up so badly with the rudder controls inoperative, it crash landed and was struck off charge. A total of ninety-five FB5s were built by Vickers with a further twenty-four built by Darracq, several of which found their way to No. 11 Squadron, the first, 7812, arriving on 19 May. One of these, 7828, scored a combat victory on 1 July 1916 while flown by Lt Moyes and Sgt Glover.

Like the FB5, the FB9 was withdrawn from frontline service by the end of July. Many finished their careers with training units where some were provided with dual controls, the nacelle noses being modified to improve leg room.

Antonov An-32

The Antonov An-32 (NATO reporting name: Cline) is a turboprop twin-engined military transport aircraft.

An-32 is a twin engine, tactical light transport aircraft designed and manufactured by Antonov Design Bureau of Ukraine for the Indian Air Force (IAF). Its Nato reporting name is Cline. The An-32 is derived from the An-26 transport aircraft.

The IAF awarded a $400m contract to Antonov in June 2009 to overhaul its existing 105 An-32 fleet with advance avionics, communication equipment, and landing aids. The upgrade will increase the lifespan of the aircraft by 15 to 40 years.

The first 45 An-32s were modernised before 2015 at the Military-Industrial Complex of Ukraine, while the remaining 60 are being overhauled at the BRD-1 aviation plant of the IAF in Kanpur. Ukrainian special export company SpetsTechnoExport (STE) was responsible for providing spares as part of the agreement.

The first batch of upgraded aircraft and the equipment required to establish aircraft repair facilities in India was delivered to the IAF in June 2011. The second batch of ten upgraded aircraft was also delivered by the end of 2011.

An IAF An-32 aircraft went off the radar after taking off from Jorhat Air Force Station on 3rd June 2019. The missing aircraft’s wreckage was found in Arunachal Pradesh and the remains of the 13 IAF personnel were recovered.

An-32 development details

The An-32 prototype took its maiden flight in July 1976. Its engine was replaced with AI-20DM engines and development of the three pre-series An-32 aircraft was completed in October 1982 at the Aviant Plant in Kiev.

The state acceptance tests started in 1983. The first production An-32 aircraft completed its maiden flight in June 1983 and entered into service with the IAF in July 1984.

The Soviet Air Force procured 25 An-32s in 1987. Four An-32s were delivered to Libya in 2005, while the Afghan Air Force also received four in 2008.

As of July 2019, the production of the An-32 has been suspended. Antonov is currently testing a demonstrator aircraft, An-132D, which is a prototype of the An-132. The An-132D will be the successor of the An-32. It has been designed for flights in hot climates and mountainous terrain.

An-32 design and features

Designed to suit both military and civil operations, the An-32 can take-off and land on rough airfields and dirt runways. The aircraft is designed to manoeuvre day and night in tropical and mountainous regions, even in hot climatic conditions (up to 55°C).

The aircraft features a high mounted wings design consisting of engine mounts over the wing. Its fuselage is tubular with a rounded nose section and stepped cockpit. The empennage is unequally tapered, featuring blunt tip and angular fairing.

The aircraft can transport either 7.5t of cargo, 50 passengers, 42 paratroopers, or 24 patients and three medical crew over domestic and international air routes.

An-32 features advanced cargo handling devices and a cargo door fitted with a ramp to ease the loading or unloading of freight. It is also incorporated with an upper cargo handling device to load and unload 3,000kg of payload.

The packed cargoes are placed on the pallet by a demountable roller.

Semi-automated locks fitted in the roller equipment detach the pallets and decrease the aircraft’s idle time. The pressurised cabin of the aircraft carries heavy cargoes, automotive wheeled vehicles, and cars.

Cockpit and avionics The air-conditioned glass cockpit can accommodate two pilots and a navigator. It has space to accommodate an additional seat and a flight engineer workstation when required.

An-32’s cockpit is equipped with a Garmin GMX-200 multifunctional display, a Chelton 4 Tube electronic flight instrumentation system, a Collins VHF-22C or CTL-22C communication system, a Collins VIR-32 or CTL-32 navigation system, a ART-2100 radar sensor, and a Bendix or King KHF-950 high- frequency system.

The avionics suite installed in the aircraft encompasses a Bendix or King KRA-405B radar altimeter system, a Bendix or King KDF-806 ADF system, an L3 Skywatch HP TCAS I system, a NAT N301A audio system, and an Artex C406 ELT with navigation interface.

Engine and performance

An-32 is powered by two Ivchenko Progress AI-20DM single shaft turboprop engines with each producing 3,864kW of output power. The engine was designed and manufactured by Ivchenko Progress.

The length and width of the engine are 3.09m and 8.42m respectively, while the height is 11.8m. The dry weight is 1,040kg and the engine’s lifespan is 8,000 hours.

An-32 can fly at a maximum speed of 530km/h and its cruise speed is 470km/h. The range and service ceiling of the aircraft are 2,500km and 9,500m, respectively. The aircraft weighs around 16,800kg and its maximum take-off weight is 27,000kg.

Variants

    An-32: Twin-engined transport aircraft

    An-32A: The first civil variant, the majority of the 36 aircraft built were delivered to various government factory enterprises, for use in transporting assemblies between plants.

    An-32B: Improved version

    An-32B-100: Modernised version of the An-32B. Maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) increased to 28.5 tons, payload increased to 7.5 tons.

    An-32B-110: New avionics allowing aircraft to be operated by two crew members. Metric (Russian) avionics variant.

    An-32B-120: Imperial (non-Russian) avionics variant of An-32B-110.

    An-32B-300: Version fitted with Rolls-Royce AE 2100 turboprop engines, providing 4,600 hp each.

    An-32LL (Letayushchaya Laboratoriya flying laboratory): The An-32 first prototype was equipped with a large SV-36P eight-bladed propeller and D-236 engine on the port side for testing, in place of the standard engine and propeller. The increased noise produced by the experimental installation (115-120 dB) outweighed the modest gains in performance.

    An-32MP: Marine Patrol version.

    An-32P Firekiller: Aerial firefighting version. Special category type certificate granted on 10 March 1995. A total of eight tons of liquid can be discharged from the two external tanks simultaneously or one after the other. Drops are conducted at 40–50 m above ground level and 240 to 260 km/h. Can be used as a cargo aircraft when not fighting fires.

    An-32V-200: A tactical transport/cargo aircraft outgrowth from the An-32B-100, with more modern avionics allowing two crew operation. Intended for export; despite reasonable interest few have been sold.

    An-32 RE: Modernised version of the An-32B. MTOW increased to 28.5 tons, payload increased to 7.5 tons. New avionics.

Specifications (An-32)

General characteristics

    Crew: 4

    Capacity: 42 paratroopers/50 passengers/24 Casualties on stretcher with three medical personnel / 6,700 kg (14,771 lb) max payload

    Length: 23.78 m (78 ft 0 in)

    Wingspan: 29.2 m (95 ft 10 in)

    Height: 8.75 m (28 ft 8 in)

    Wing area: 75 m2 (810 sq ft)

    Empty weight: 16,800 kg (37,038 lb)

    Max takeoff weight: 27,000 kg (59,525 lb)

    Powerplant: 2 × ZMKB Progress AI-20DM turboprop engines, 3,812 kW (5,112 hp) each

    Propellers: 4-bladed constant speed propellers

Performance

    Maximum speed: 530 km/h (330 mph, 290 kn)

    Cruise speed: 470 km/h (290 mph, 250 kn)

    Range: 2,500 km (1,600 mi, 1,300 nmi) with 3,700 kg (8,160 lb) payload, no reserves

    Service ceiling: 9,500 m (31,200 ft)

NORTH AMERICAN XF-108 AND F-108A RAPIER

Artist’s impression of two F-108s attached to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. Note: Top aircraft’s weapons bay opening.

Full-scale engineering mockup illustrating the round porthole-type window for the FCO. Taken on July 27, 1959, this is the latest known mockup photo, proving that the round FCO window was final.

This three-view shows a late configuration F-108A study, featuring pre-porthole FCO windows and ventral stabilizers extended circa early 1959. G. De Chiara © 2015

On September 23, 1959, the USAF abruptly cancelled the North American Aviation F-108A Rapier program. No further explanation was given.

The USAF Air Defense Command had planned to procure as many as 420 F-108 Rapiers to equip fighter-interceptor squadrons located at bases best suited to protect the US borders.

A great deal of speculation preceded the development of these planes, since the Hughes AN/ASG-18 radar and missile/rocket fire control system and Hughes GAR-9 (later designated AIM-47A) development programs were expected to be used in another interceptor that was under development. As it turned out, this speculation proved correct: in February 1964, the existence of the Lockheed YF-12A interceptor was announced by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The history of the F-108 traces back to October 6, 1955, when the USAF ARDC issued a general operational requirement (GOR 114) that called for the development of an advanced long-range interceptor, experimental (LRI,X) for its Air Defense Command. It was to be capable of flying and fighting in any environment, armed exclusively with air-to-air missiles and/or rockets.

NAA received a letter contract on June 6, 1956, calling for a LRI with a combat speed of at least 2,000 mph (3-plus Mn) that could operate at seventy thousand feet in all types of weather, day or night. It was to be a complete weapon system (WS-202A) propelled by two afterburning turbojet engines, armed with nuclear warhead air-to-air guided missiles, and controlled by a two-man crew (pilot and weapons system operator).

COMPETITION

North American Aviation wasn’t the only airframe contractor to offer LRI designs to the USAF.

Martin initially suggested its Model 302, followed by its Model 308 (Model 302 alternate one) and Model 314 (Model 302 alternate two), before bowing out of the competition.

McDonnell offered several designs under its Models 109A and 109B, 110A, and 110B, and Model 111A; most of these featured the use of two afterburning Wright J67-W-1 turbojet engines. McAir Model 110A featured the use of three J67-W-1s.

Northrop came up with several offerings of its own. The first of these was its Model N-126 Delta Scorpion. The second was Model N-144, which it dubbed Long-Distance Interceptor. It then offered its Model N-167, which it referred to as a Two Engine Long Range Interceptor.

Republic offered its AP-75, which didn’t get further than the drawing board.

It’s unclear if some other airframe contractors, possibly Douglas or Lockheed, had also entered the LRI fray, but it is likely that they did.

In any event, it was the offering from NAA that got the nod—to no avail, as it turned out.

SUMMARY

The F-108A was expected to fly in March 1961 and to begin initial operations in January 1963, but the program was cancelled eighteen months prior to its projected first flight.

The abrupt cancellation of the F-108 Rapier program in September 1959 was shocking to say the least, for it had nearly come to fruition as far as its design and mockup development programs were concerned. That is, North American was nearly ready to cut first metal for the assembly of the prototypes, and was only waiting for a go-ahead with the award of a production contract. NAA had satisfied the demands of USAF ADC and it was ready to proceed to the next level. Even though NAA continued its development well into 1960, the USAF’s decision stood firm and its cancellation was final.

Why did the USAF cancel the F-108 program? Most aviation historians believe the reason was the advent of Lockheed’s family of A-12 aircraft, which produced the YF-12A. This aircraft carried the same radar and missile fire control system and missile armament slated for use by none other aircraft than the Rapier.

Specifications (XF-108)

General characteristics

    Crew: two

    Length: 89 ft 2 in (27.2 m)

    Wingspan: 57 ft 5 in (17.5 m)

    Height: 22 ft 1 in (6.7 m)

    Wing area: 1,865 sq ft (173.4 m2)

    Aspect ratio: 1.68

    Empty weight: 50,907 lb (23,098 kg)

    Gross weight: 76,118 lb (34,527 kg)

    Max takeoff weight: 102,533 lb (46,508 kg)

    Powerplant: 2 × General Electric J93-GE-3AR afterburning turbojet, 20,900 lbf (93 kN) thrust each dry, 29,300 lbf (130 kN) with afterburner

Performance

    Maximum speed: 1,980 mph (3,190 km/h, 1,721 kn)

    Stall speed: 105 mph (169 km/h, 91 kn)

    Combat range: 1,162 mi (1,870 km, 1,010 nmi)

    Ferry range: 2,487 mi (4,002 km, 2,161 nmi)

    Service ceiling: 80,100 ft (24,400 m)

    Rate of climb: 45,000 ft/min (230 m/s)

    Wing loading: 40.8 lb/sq ft (199.2 kg/m2)

    Thrust/weight: 0.77

Armament

    Missiles: 3 × Hughes GAR-9A air-to-air missiles in a rotary weapons bay

Avionics

    Hughes AN/ASG-18 look-down/shoot-down fire control radar

Flying Rats I

Struggle is the origin of all things, for life is filled with opposites: love and hate, white and black, day and night, good and evil. And as long as these opposites do not maintain a balance, struggle will determine human nature as the final power of fate.

Mussolini

With victory over Abyssinia, Italy erupted in jubilation. Adowa had been avenged. The Italian tricolor waving over Addis Ababa was a glorious sight to the Duce’s fellow countrymen. But henceforward, with only two brief intervals, they would be at war for the next nine years.

The smoke of battle had hardly cleared over East Africa when Mussolini received an urgent appeal for help from Francisco Franco, leader of the Nationalist cause in Spain. In February 1936, a liberal-leftist coalition calling itself a ‘Popular Front’ won the country’s national elections by a slim margin. Immediately thereafter, radical socialists in the coalition pushed loudly for revolution. All political organizations and newspapers outside the far Left were criminalized, churches vandalized, nuns raped and priests beaten to death by incensed mobs raging through the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. Strikes spread everywhere, as military uprisings reduced the country to anarchy. On 26 July, the watchful Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, took advantage of Spanish internal distress, which he saw as an opportunity for establishing his long-dreamt-of foothold in Western Europe.

He dispatched more than 2,000 ‘military advisors’ to the new government leaders, who liquidated their liberal predecessors in the best Stalinist tradition, then set up an openly Marxist regime in Madrid, calling themselves, ‘Republicans’. Soon, 240 warplanes, 1,200 artillery pieces, and 700 tanks poured into Spain from the USSR. Soviet aid did not come cheap though, and Stalin had no qualms about bilking fellow Communists for more than $315 million, which represented Madrid’s entire gold reserve.

To counter the influx of men and arms from Russia, the Nationalists needed to transfer their army, stranded by these chaotic events in Morocco, to Iberian battlefields at once. But they lacked the means to do so. “Could we Fascists leave without answer that cry,” the Duce asked, “and remain indifferent in the face of the perpetuation of such bloody crimes committed by the so-called ‘Popular Fronts’? No. Thus our first squadron of warplanes left on 27 July 1936, and that same day we had our first dead.”

For his part, Hitler ordered an air fleet of transport planes to North Africa, from which they ferried the Nationalist army to Spain. He thus envisioned and enacted the first military airlift in history. As the Führer remarked later, “Franco ought to build a monument to the Ju-52”. The Junkers Ju-52, affectionately known as Tante Ju, or ‘Aunty Ju’, by its crews, was the aircraft that flew in Nationalist troops from North Africa. In fact, aviation was to play a more pivotal role in the Spanish Civil War than any previous conflict, and proved to be its decisive factor.

Most mainstream historians, discounting another influential component–ideological rivalry–have long insisted that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were only interested in the conflict as an opportunity to test their weapons for a future, more serious confrontation. But larger considerations were actually at stake. Hitler eventually regretted his aid to the Nationalists, because Franco later declined to reciprocate when Germany wanted Andalusian bases for the capture of Gibraltar. Mussolini was genuinely alarmed at the prospect of a Red presence in the Mediterranean, however. The venerable Continent seemed about to be surrounded, especially in view of Stalin’s oft-repeated promise to transform the world into “a dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e., the Soviet state) during his lifetime.

Franco’s appeal for help coincided with important, not unrelated events inside Italy itself. Beginning three years earlier, Mussolini had been faced with the most serious challenge to his power since he became Prime Minister. Giustiziae e Liberta was a well-financed, competently led underground of dedicated anti-Fascists formed in Turin. Although propaganda activities took place mostly in the city’s working class districts, specifically targeting the important Fiat manufacturing plant there, its leadership was made up mostly of upper middle class intellectuals, many of them with influential university positions.

They did not confine themselves to surreptitiously distributing handbills critical of the regime, but sought recruitment for its violent overthrow. Assassination of Fascist leaders, not excepting the Duce himself, was advocated and planned, and activists were busy infiltrating several important institutions, especially newspapers and schools. Although Giustiziae e Liberta organizers seemed to steer an indefinite political middle-road, the movement’s Marxist sympathies were not easily disguised, and their appeal to former leftists was beginning to attract followers among academics at some major northern universities.

Giustiziae e Liberta was a child of its time. With Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Stalin was concerned that Fascism, no longer confined to Italy, was spreading, and needed to be stopped. Similar movements during the 1930s were active in virtually every European country, where supporters, like those of Britain’s Sir Oswald Moseley or Holland’s Anton Mussert, ran, collectively, into the hundreds of thousands. Soviet operatives were watched with growing concern by agents of OVRA, the Organizazione Vigilanza Repressione Antifascismo, or Fascist secret police. When moderate Fascists expressed misgivings about the implications of such a clandestine arm of government, Mussolini reminded them that even the benevolent Emperor Hadrian found need for a similar organization, the frumentarii. “Whenever respect for the State declines,” he said, “and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, nations are headed for decay.”

After three months of investigation, the authorities were alarmed to discover that Giustiziae e Liberta was a hybrid underground of native Italian Communists and professionally-trained propagandists (some of them expert saboteurs) who had covertly entered the country from the Soviet Union. And the anti-Fascist underground found particularly fertile ground among the country’s numerically insignificant Jewish communities, mostly in Turin. One of its members later immigrated to England, where Massimo Coen’s Parla Londra! (‘London Calling!’) was a series of radio broadcasts blasting Mussolini in the Italian language and which were heard around the world. In fact, the founder of Giustiziae e Liberta, Tancredi Duccio Galimberti, was himself a Jew.

From its inception, however, Fascism was not inherently anti-Semitic, with minimal Jewish participation in its revolution, although some Jews held key positions in government, like the Grand Rabbi of Rome, who was likewise the capital’s political leader. During an interview in 1932 with the famous German-Jewish author and journalist, Emil Ludwig (patronym Cohn), Mussolini condemned anti-Semitism as divisive and “not part of the new Italy. Race: it is a feeling, not a reality. Ninety-five per cent a feeling”. Yet, he spoke out against the Jews in no uncertain terms for the first time just a year later, in August, when he felt his regime was seriously jeopardized by Giustiziae e Liberta. The following month, as some indication of his change of sentiment, he sent a personal delegation to the Nazis’ national congress in Nuremberg. It was headed by Professor Arturo Marpicati, Vice Secretary of the Fascist Party, who was allowed to address the delegates in Italian, and, for the first time, publicly broached the subject of cooperation between the two ideologically kindred movements.

In standard biographies of Mussolini he is portrayed as initially indifferent to the Jews, and only assumed the guise of anti-Semite in 1938 to curry Hitler’s favor. Actually, it was his fear of Giustiziae e Liberta with its Communist activists that elicited his first hostile statements about the ‘Jewish Question’ in 1933. The Race Law he passed five years later was exceptionally mild in comparison with Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, and did little more than forbid marriages between Italians and Jews.

The armed forces, police and all Fascist organizations were henceforward closed to Jews, but the royal House of Savoy, which effectively controlled the Army and Navy, prevented all Jews already enlisted from being removed. Even in the Fascist Party and government, their few Jewish members mostly continued to serve unmolested. During the war, Adolf Eichmann complained to his SS superiors that the French, Yugoslav and Greek zones occupied by Italians had become ‘Jewish refuges’. Italy’s Race Law mostly impacted Italian education, where schools of every level were required to teach students about ‘Jewish perfidy’.

Years before the passage of this anti-Semitic legislation, Mussolini was an ardent Zionist, going so far as to initiate important contacts with leading figures in the movement, including Bernard Baruch. The Duce heartily agreed that the only solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ was the creation of a Jewish state, where the world’s Jews could be resettled. At one time, he even proposed setting aside territory in conquered Abyssinia as ideally suited for the creation of a 20th Century Israel, if only because large numbers of Falasha Ethiopians already regarded themselves as Jewish. Baruch declined the offer on the grounds that urbanized Jews in the United States or Europe would never consent to living in East Africa. The Duce was somewhat put off by his rejection.

“If Ethiopia is good enough for my Italians,” he sniffed, “why isn’t it good enough for your Jews? You tell me they have been horribly persecuted in many parts of the world. If so, I imagine they would be happy to find refuge anywhere they can live in peace. Well, no one can say I didn’t try. It will take a more adept statesman than myself to solve this age-old problem to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Henceforward, Mussolini’s ardor for Zionist solutions noticeably cooled.

For nearly three years, an intense, underground war was waged between determined OVRA operatives and elusive Giustiziae e Liberta subversives. whose influence in northern Italy appears to have peaked by mid-1935. War in Ethiopia that year generated a national wave of patriotic fervor that mostly extinguished anti-Fascist activism, succeeding where OVRA’s counter-subversive measures failed. Even Vittorio Emanuelle Orlando, the prominent and outspokenly anti-Fascist liberal politician ousted from office by Mussolini after the March on Rome, arose from the obscurity of his legal practice to loudly praise the Ethiopian Campaign.6 Thanks to majority public support for the invasion, the fires of resistance were effectively dampened, although they were not entirely extinguished, and smoldered unseen until, eight years later, the changing winds of Mussolini’s fortune fanned them to life once again.

As some measure of Giustiziae e Liberta’s impact on the regime, of the 4,000 persons in Italy arrested for anti-government activities between 1927 and 1940, more than half took place from 1933 to 1936, the underground movement’s brief years of florescence. So too, eight of the ten men and women executed by the Fascists in that same thirteen-year period belonged to Giustiziae e Liberta.

Despite accusations of political oppression, Mussolini showed an early clemency toward his opponents he later came to regret. His most public enemy prior to achieving power in 1922 was Palmiro Togliatti, founder of the Italian Communist Party. After the March on Rome, Togliatti was unmolested until 1926, when, frustrated by Fascism’s spreading popularity, he began working underground for a Socialist revival. When that also failed, he fled to Moscow, but, courtesy of the Anglo-American invasion of Italy, returned during March 1944 to reestablish the Communist movement there.

Flying Rats II

Many government officials particularly criticized Mussolini for his mild treatment of Amedeo Adriano Bordiga. It was deemed too extreme even for his fellow Marxists, who expelled Bordiga from the Italian Communst Party; he was briefly interned in 1925, later freed under police surveillance.

The last arrests of Giustiziae e Liberta adherents had just been made when Mussolini received Franco’s request for help to defend his country from the same internal forces that bedeviled Italy. The Duce was hardly alone in his concern for events in Spain. They deeply touched most Italians, who regarded the Spaniards as not only fellow Latins, but Catholics suffering a wave of church desecrations and bloody atrocities at the hands of a militantly atheist government. People worried that the Russian calamity of 1917 was about to repeat itself, and this time not that far away. They clamored for a modern crusade to extirpate the Communist infidel from Western European soil.

But Italy’s military had been worn out by the Abyssinian experience. The Army and Air Force were in need of refitting. Mussolini was at first able to spare Franco only nineteen warplanes, which would be up against far more enemy aircraft. These included sixty French Breguet XIX reconnaissance bombers, forty Nieuport-Delage Ni.52 fighters, fourteen Dewoitine D. 371 and ten D.373 pursuit planes, plus 65 Potez Po.540 medium bombers, together with twenty British Vickers Wildebeest torpedo-bombers. Aiding the Italians were nine, wheezing biplane fighters which comprised the entire Nationalist Air Force, and ten German tri-motor transports.

On 29 July, the Morandi sailed from La Spezia for Melilla, a port in Spanish Morocco. The large freighter carried abundant supplies of ammunition, bombs, aviation fuel and aircraft for Franco’s forces. The next day, a flight of nine Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers landed at Nador outside Melilla, the first of some 720 aircraft and 6,000 aircrews Mussolini dispatched to the Nationalist cause. They were intended to support the more than 70,000 Italian soldiers that would eventually serve in Spain.

Throughout most of the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans continued to enjoy a numerical edge over their opponents, thanks to help from Russia and covert armaments smuggled across the Pyrenees by a sympathetic French Premiere, Leon Blum. At the behest of the League of Nations, along with most other world leaders, he had signed a non-intervention agreement that excluded outside involvement in the Civil War for the expressed purpose of containing hostilities in Iberia, thereby preventing them from widening into a general conflict. Although publicly avowing non-participation in the sharply drawn ideological struggle, Blum covertly slipped French arms and supplies to the Republicans, and allowed his border patrols to look the other way when leftist volunteers wanted to cross the mountains into Spain.

But other heads of foreign governments likewise paid little more than lip-service to official non-participation. U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt, who vigorously condemned the Nationalists, did not prevent thousands of Americans from joining something called the ‘Abraham Lincoln Brigade’. This was an armed assortment of socialist intellectuals, fire-breathing Communists, bored dilettantes, desperately unemployed men, one-world idealists, and Jews alarmed at the rise of European anti-Semitism who fought on the Republican side.

With its Wagnerian name, Operation Feuerzauber (‘Magic Fire’) was supposed to have been nothing more than a training exercise provided to Franco’s mechanics by a handful of German aeronautical ‘advisors’ at the Tablada airfield, near Seville. From these humble, thinly disguised beginnings, however, a Kondor Legion of Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka dive-bombers swiftly evolved. League of Nations deputies entrusted with international enforcement of the non-intervention agreement had no control over Mussolini after he stomped out of their Geneva headquarters over the Ethiopian affair, and the Soviet Union was not a member, never having been asked to join, so neither Italy nor Russia were constrained from sending men and equipment to Spanish battlefields and airfields.

Republican warplanes unquestionably dominated the skies from the beginning of the conflict. But they were challenged during August by the arrival in Seville of Savoia Marchetti and Caproni Ca.135 aircraft in two bomber squadrons. Together with the original dozen Fiat fighters dispatched by Mussolini, they comprised an early nucleus for the Italians’ Aviazione Legonaria, which eventually fielded 250 aircraft of various types. And their pilots would achieve distinction as the world’s best during the mid-1930s.

Some, like Maresciallo Baschirotto, became aces, shooting down at least five enemy a piece. His experience in Spain prepared him for duty in World War Two, when he destroyed six more Curtiss P-40s, Beaufighters, and Hawker Hurricanes during the North African Campaign. Baschirotto’s last victory was over a Spitfire near the island-fortress of Pantelleria, on 20 April 1942. “It was a happy birthday present to the German Führer,” he told a reporter for one of Italy’s oldest, most widely read newspaper, the Corriere della Sera.7 Hitler had on that day celebrated his 53rd birthday.

His comrade in Spain was Group Commander Ernesto Botto, who received the Gold Medal for downing four Republican aircraft. Although he lost a leg during their destruction, he volunteered for frontline flying two years later, when Italy went to war against Britain. Botto went on to claim another three ‘kills’ in the skies over the Libyan Desert, earning him the nickname, Gamba di Ferro, or ‘Iron Leg’.

The aircraft men like Maresciallo Baschirotto and Ernesto Botto were supposed to fly for Franco were not always as physically fit as themselves. The SM.81, for example, had already seen service during the Abyssinian Campaign in transport and reconnaissance duties. Its three 700-hp Piaggio P.X RC.35 nine-cylinder radial engines gave the Pipistrello, or ‘Bat’, as the rugged aircraft was affectionately known by its crews, 340 km/hr at 9,800 meters, with a range of 2,000 kilometers carrying a bomb payload of 1,000 kilograms–not bad for 1936. The Caproni was a more modern, twin-engine medium-bomber with a sleek fuselage and twin-boom tail. Faster by 60 km/hr than the Pipistrello, and able to deliver an additional 1,000 kilos of bombs, its three 12.7mm machine-guns in nose, dorsal and ventral turrets foreshadowed future developments.

For escort, the bombers were protected by the Fiat CR.32, generally considered the best pursuit model at the beginning of the war, “soon gaining a reputation as one of the outstanding fighter biplanes of all time,” according to British aviation historian, David Mondey.8 Agile, quick and tough, the Fiat’s extraordinary aerobatic characteristics and top speed of 375 km/hr at 3,000 meters enabled its pilots to take on maneuverable ‘double-deckers’ like itself, such as the Soviets’ Super Chata, or more modern monoplanes, including the formidable Mosca. Eventually, 380 CR.32s participated in the Spanish Civil War. But during the conflict’s first months, just a handful of Italian bombers and fighters were General Franco’s first and, for some time, only support aircraft. Terribly outnumbered as they were in 1936, their technological superiority over the Republicans’ French and British machines, together with the Ethiopian experience of their aggressive crews, made the Aviazione Legonaria a force to be reckoned with from the start.

During late August 1936, the Italian airmen launched their first sorties against enemy strongholds in the north, where the Fiats swatted Nieuports and Dewoitines, while the Pipistrellos and Capronis were dead-on target with their destructive payloads. To combat these intruders, a famous French Communist author, Alfred Malraux, helped raise twelve million francs for the purchase of new warplanes as needed additions to his Escuadrilla Espaía. Based in occupied Madrid, his fiery oratory attracted foreign volunteer pilots from France, Britain and Czechoslovakia. Not to be outdone, Mussolini rushed additional squadrons of CR.32s to Seville.

They arrived just in time to confront a major enemy offensive during September, and contributed decisively to the battle. Malraux’s elite squadron was badly mauled, as the Popular Front offensive folded under the bombs of SM.81s and CA.135s. By December, with half its aircraft destroyed, the Escuadrilla Espaía disbanded; survivors melted into the regular Republican Air Force. Replacements came in the form of fifty Russian SB-2 Katuska bombers and I-15 Chata fighters. Later, after the New Year, Leon Blum quietly slipped another twenty state-of-the-art Loire 46 pursuit planes across the Pyrenees. More troublesome for the Italians was the appearance of a remarkably advanced Soviet bomber, the Tupelev SB-2, over Cordoba. It was faster than the quick Fiats, and could even out-climb them after dropping its bombs.

For weeks, the unassailable Tupelevs ranged over Nationalist territory, wrecking havoc on troop concentrations and supply depots. All attempts to intercept them met with failure. In January 1937, a Spanish pilot, Garcia Morato, noticed that the bombers were in Cordoba skies every morning at precisely the same time and altitude. Jumping into his CR.32 before they arrived, he climbed to 5,030 meters, well above the lower-flying enemy. They appeared like clock-work, and Morato pounced on them, his 7.7mm Breda machine-guns blazing. Two of the swift Russian aircraft fell flaming to earth, and the rest frantically jettisoned their payloads to beat a hasty retreat. Nationalist fighter pilots learned from his experience. If they were given sufficient advance warning, their Fiat fighter-planes, with remarkable service ceilings of nearly 8,840 meters and a swift rate of climb, could dive on the redoubtable Tupelevs from above.

But the speedy bombers were not the only quality aircraft sent from the USSR. Squadrons of nimble biplane fighters, the Polikarpov I-15, arrived in Madrid, together with numbers of an altogether different design, the I-16. The stubby monoplane more physically resembled a trophy-racer of the era than a military machine. It was the product of a prison experience endured by Dmitri Gregorovich and Nikolai Nikolayevich Polikarpov.

By late 1932, their new I-15 was despised by Red Air Force test-pilots unhappy with its instability at high speeds, and its gull-wings which prevented the airmen from seeing the horizon while in flight and obscuring the ground on approach, making landings hazardous. Enraged by the negative reports of his test-pilots, Stalin threw Russia’s leading aeronautical inventors into prison, together with every member of their design teams, until they came up with a fighter for the Soviet Union at least as good as contemporary examples from other nations. With their freedom and, ultimately, their lives at stake, the hapless engineers, still behind bars, put their heads together for the creation of an aircraft ahead of its time.

The I-16’s successful debut on New Year’s Eve 1933 coincided with the designers’ release from behind bars. An innovative, retractable landing-gear made it the first monoplane of its kind to enter service. The cantilever, or internally braced, low metal wing, plus all-wood monocoupe fuselage, resulted in a solid form easy to maintain in frontline conditions, able to take terrific punishment, and strong enough to survive the high-speed maneuvers that broke apart lesser aircraft. As one commentator observed, “its rolls and loops could be quite startling.” Powered by a 1,000-hp M-62 radial engine, Polikarpov’s best effort flew higher by 670 meters and faster by 115 km/hr than Italy’s finest fighter, and totally outclassed the Heinkel 51, Germany’s early rival for Spanish skies.

Mysterious Flights Over the Kremlin

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In the vicinity of Moscow, the night of 9/10 February 1943 was full of mysterious events. About 19.20 soldiers at Observation Post No. 2 of the 1204th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, located near the village of Chernaja Gryaz on the Leningrad highway, heard the faint noise of an engine. The observers took it for a car on the road. But then there was a series of explosions and machine-gun fire. Later it turned out that several other observers had seen a plane without any identification markings. By the sound of the engine, they had identified it as a Soviet R-5 biplane. No hostile aircraft could possibly be flying just 6km from the suburbs of Moscow Khimki and only 25km from the Kremlin itself! Only the crew of a searchlight position of the 251st Independent Anti-Aircraft Artillery Division suggested from the engine sound that it might be a German Hs 126. Seven high-explosive bombs were dropped by it, as a result of which houses in the village of Elino were destroyed and troops from a unit marching along the Leningrad highway were also killed or injured.

In fact, the aircraft was an He 46 of 1.Behelfsst LK Ost. This squadron was a German response to the actions of the harassing Soviet U-2 aircraft, which annoyed German troops every night. These biplanes flew at low level, suddenly appearing from behind the trees and dropped small bombs on the Germans’ billets. German biplanes repaid the Russians in the same coin. 1.Behelfsst LK Ost (in summer 1943 renamed 1./Stoer/LF6) used a variety of older aircraft such as the Ar 66, Go 145, He 46 and Fw 58.

In 1943, Moscow’s air defences were the most powerful in the Soviet Union. The Moscow PVO front consisted of fifteen anti-aircraft artillery divisions (ZenAD), three anti-aircraft machine-gun divisions, four anti-aircraft searchlight divisions and two VNOS divisions. They were armed with 1,447 guns, 30 fire-direction stations and several radar stations. The 6th Fighter Aviation Corps (6th IAK) consisted of 450 aircraft, including the British Hurricane, and the American Bell P-39 Airacobra and Curtiss P-40. But these forces were formidable only in the daytime. At night, the airspace around Moscow was in complete chaos. Many Russian bombers were carrying out air attacks on German-held territory. Despite strict prohibitions and penalties, Russian pilots regularly violated their instructions, flying directly over the cities and even the Kremlin. They often lost their bearings and dropped bombs on friendly towns and villages. For example, on the evening of 15 May, a Pe-8 heavy bomber dropped seven high-explosive bombs near the village of Sinitza, and an Il-4 bomber was caught in the searchlights over Moscow, but the pilot of the fighter sent to intercept it managed to correctly identify the aircraft before he opened fire. The next night, a Russian plane accidentally dropped an incendiary bomb on the village of Kudrino, resulting in the destruction of seven buildings. And such events occurred regularly.

This chaos was added to by the Luftwaffe. In the Moscow area night reconnaissance Do 217s of 2.(F)/Nacht, Bf 110 night fighters from NJG100 and the ‘disturbing bombers’ of 1./Stoer/LF6 all regularly flew. The Russians monitored their airspace, but in complete darkness could not correctly identify all aircraft. All this allowed the Luftwaffe to deliver agents directly to the vicinity of the Soviet capital.

A typical story took place in the Moscow region on the night of 2/3 May 1943. At 23.45 near the city of Aleksin a twin-engined aircraft was seen heading north-east towards the city of Kashira. VNOS posts confidently identified it as ‘one of our Il-4s’. Flying along the bend of the Oka river and past the city of Kolomna, it passed near the town of Yegoryevsk and turned to the north. There was nothing suspicious about this: almost every night dozens of Soviet bombers returned to their airfields around Moscow. Flying directly over Moscow was strictly forbidden, so all the crews had to go around it in an arc. But when the strange plane reached the city of Orekhovo-Zuyevo, it, later identified as an ‘Li-2’ (a licensed Soviet copy of the American DC-3 (C-47) Dakota), turned back, followed the same course to the south-west and at 01.22 retired towards the city of Orel.

Later it was reported that in the area of Gubino (east of Orekhovo-Zuyevo) one high-explosive and five incendiary bombs had been dropped by this ‘Li-2’. A few hours after that it became known that near the town of Petushki two agents who had been dropped from the lone plane had been arrested. In their testimony, they explained that the plane really was a Dakota.

Another flight by the German Dakota was recorded on the night of 12/13 May. At 23.10 it had attached itself to a flight of Russian bombers returning from a raid and was 10km south of the city of Kashira, north of Koloma. Then it separated from the bombers and, passing south of Yegoryevsk, disappeared to the east. At 02.11 it was sighted again, north of Ryazan, then it flew between the cities of Kolomna and Kashira, over Tarusa and Detchino and on into German-held territory. Given its long flight in Soviet airspace, it had probably delivered agents and saboteurs somewhere in the Gorky region. The headquarters of the Soviet air defences concluded that this captured aircraft was being used for secret missions. The crew obviously had knowledge of Russian air operation and routes, and knew the terrain.

At 00.57 on 26 May two agents were dropped from the German plane near the city of Pogoreloe Gorodishhe. In the morning one of them surrendered to the chairman of the local village council in the morning, handing over weapons and explosives given to him by the German secret service. The second agent was arrested by the council chairman and a gunner from the anti-aircraft battery near the village of Ivashkovo.

On the night of 3/4 July, flights by Bf 110s and Hs 126s were recorded over Moscow (as the Russians always identified the He 46s and Go 145s of 1./Stoer/LF6). In addition, a suspicious aircraft identified as a ‘captured Il-4 bomber’ was spotted. It flew over Airfield No 3 where it was illuminated by searchlights, immediately firing a flare signalling ‘I am a friendly aircraft’. Russian night fighters were unable to intercept any of the targets. At 00.14 near the village of Ochnikovo the mysterious aircraft dropped a group of three agents, one of whom in the morning surrendered to the Soviet authorities. The other two fled, but were later arrested by NKGB officers.

On the night of 5/6 July, agents disguised as Red Army captains were dropped from an aircraft (again identified as an ‘Il-4’) in several places (such as the village of Duhovka and Konstantinovka station), some of whom were detained ‘in hot pursuit’.

Late in the evening on 27 July, six aircraft identified by the Russians as ‘Me-110s’ (Bf 110s), conducted reconnaissance and bombing in the areas of Gzhatsk, Vyazma and Temkino. North-east of Vyazma alone fifty high-explosive bombs were dropped on various targets. The 263th OZAD opened fire fourteen times, expending almost 1,000 shells. Between 23.10 and 02.17 an aircraft, again identified as an ‘Il-4’, flew along the route Sychevka–Novo-Zavidovo–Pereslavl-Zalessky–Alexandrov–Dmitrov–Volokolamsk–Sychevka and then to Smolensk. In the forest north-east of Moscow the next group of agents was delivered.

On the night of 27/28 July, another group of agents was delivered from an unidentified aircraft south-east of the city of Ryazan (south-east of Moscow). One of them was arrested at noon the next day near the village of Bogdanov (17km south-east of Ryazan). When caught the ‘Red Army soldier’ was found with a radio, a revolver and 43,500 roubles. Some saboteurs were arrested immediately at the time of the sabotage. However, the object of the diversion raises a question about the intellectual suitability, both of the agent and his teachers in the intelligence school. On 27 July the commander of one of the VNOS posts, Makarov, arrested a German agent who was trying to set fire to a field of rye with an incendiary bomb.

RAF Set To Retire Older Typhoons, Chinooks And Other Types Following The Defence Review. Here’s Our Analysis. — The Aviationist

The Defence Review, which will radically transform the Royal Air Force, Army and Navy by the next decade, has been described as one of the largest since the Cold War. The UK’s government published the […] The post RAF Set To Retire Older Typhoons, Chinooks And Other Types Following The Defence Review. Here’s Our Analysis.…

RAF Set To Retire Older Typhoons, Chinooks And Other Types Following The Defence Review. Here’s Our Analysis. — The Aviationist

THE BIRTH OF A WARHORSE I

Thomas Murray was born in Dorset at the end of May 1918, four months after the RAF was created from the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Thomas’s father, a former Royal Marines officer, had been involved at its inception, setting up the RAF’s secretarial branch, and rising to the rank of Group Captain. Charles Murray, however, wanted his son to go into his old service – the navy – and although young Thomas grew up in an RAF family, he hadn’t initially felt any great interest in flying himself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t make model aircraft or read books about the heroics of the early aviators. But in 1929, when his father was stationed at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire, all that changed.

‘I remember the moment I knew I was going to be a pilot. I was lying in a field near my school, right next to the airfield. The sun was out and I was watching a Hawker biplane. He performed a spin right over my head! I was totally captivated – as he spiralled down, he was pointing straight at me. I knew, at that moment, I would go into the Air Force. My first flight was at the age of eleven at RAF Halton. The pilot told me what a wonderful privilege it was to be up in the air, at one with the birds. To show this, he found a heron flying along a stream, which he formatted on!’

Thomas underwent a full medical examination at his father’s RAF station and had several hours’ experience under his belt by the time he went up to the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. On 5 February 1937 he first went solo – ‘Fifteen glorious minutes of freedom! – Aerobatics and spinning, with some low flying thrown in for good measure!’ He also learned that ‘just flying the aircraft, performing aerobatics well, and formation flying, were not the only skills to be mastered for the new era of RAF pilot. The importance of being able to fly on instruments [flying ‘blind’ in cloud or at night] was becoming a higher priority.’

Thomas joined the RAF at a time when it was expanding and changing. Bomber Command was formed in July 1936, and during the second half of the decade a number of twin-engined bombers were belatedly developed – Blenheims, Hampdens, Whitleys and Wellingtons. But there was a need for heavier, longer-range aircraft that were also capable of carrying a bigger bombload.

The first of these four-engined bombers to enter service was the Short Stirling – notoriously difficult to handle on take-off and landing – in 1940. The Handley Page Halifax followed in November that year. It wasn’t the answer either. Crews quickly nicknamed it the ‘Halibag’. It could carry a 14,500lb payload, but not high enough to avoid enemy interceptors. More powerful engines were installed, but the capacity of its bomb bay couldn’t be increased. The Stirling was withdrawn from Bomber Command service about halfway through the war. The Halifax flew on operations until the end. But something better was needed.

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The Avro Lancaster was something better. It came into existence almost by accident, and as a result of private determination rather than official encouragement, born of its forerunner, the ‘Manchester’.

A. V. Roe & Company was founded in 1910 in Manchester by Alliott Verdon Roe and his brother Humphrey. In 1911, Alliott hired the volatile but gifted eighteen-year-old Roy Chadwick as his personal assistant. By 1918, Chadwick, a talented draughtsman, had become a designer in his own right. Avro ran into financial difficulties owing to a lack of post-First World War orders, and by 1935, both founding brothers having left the company, it had become a subsidiary of Hawker Siddeley. Chadwick stayed on as designer-in-chief, and paired up with a new managing director, the energetic and equally fiery Roy Dobson, who’d joined in 1914 at the age of twenty-three. By mid-1940, they were working on a new, improved version of their twin-engined bomber, which they’d named after the city of their birth.

At the time of the Manchester’s introduction in November 1940, Thomas Murray was an experienced and seasoned pilot on Hampdens. Thomas flew his first sortie as a second pilot/navigator on 21 December 1939 against the pocket battleship Deutschland, holed up in a Norwegian fjord. ‘We never found it as we had no radio transmitters then, and had to send each other coded letters via a signal lamp, which made things even more complicated. I remember seeing something which looked like a pocket battleship, so we all roared towards it with open bomb doors. It turned out to be a lighthouse on a low-lying island! We must have scared the lighthouse-keeper somewhat.’

Mine-laying and ‘nickelling’ sorties (dropping propaganda leaflets over German cities) followed. At this early stage of the war, ops were usually limited to small numbers of aircraft. The crews were trailblazing for Bomber Command – six-hour night flights, with no autopilot, navigating by compass and stopwatch – and the lessons learned would be invaluable later.

When the first Manchesters were delivered to Thomas’s squadron at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, they were seen as a big improvement on the twin-engined aircraft already in service with Bomber Command. With a crew of seven, it was ultimately powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Vulture IIs, comprising four cylinder blocks from the earlier Peregrine engine, joined by a common crankshaft and mounted on a single crankcase. They delivered around 1,500 horsepower, about 250 less than anticipated, and once in operational service, from early 1941, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t capable of climbing above German anti-aircraft fire. Worse still, the engines were prone to sudden failure, and if one Vulture failed, the remaining engine couldn’t bridge the gap. Improvements were attempted, but with little effect.

Thomas Murray took a Manchester up for the first time on 1 May 1941, and then flew them for a week or so to ‘really get to grips with its handling’, prior to his unit’s conversion from Hampdens. ‘My first impression was that it was a very big aircraft compared with the Hampden. Although it was pleasant to fly, light on the controls, it was colossally underpowered. Our training was on the squadron and not all that methodical – we learned as we went along. These were desperate times, so the aircraft was rushed into service long before it was operationally fit, and while it still had many teething problems. It was light on the ailerons, but unfortunately not at all reliable.’

The authorities had indeed been frantic to get a new, improved bomber into the skies, and turned a blind eye to the Manchester’s failings. Always a man of measured judgement, Thomas Murray became increasingly sceptical. ‘When you were taxiing out with a full bombload, the centre of gravity was slightly wrong, so that the tailwheel would shimmy and be damaged. It meant changing that wheel before you took off. That delay killed a friend of mine. He was at the end of the runway waiting to have his tailwheel changed. As he took off and climbed away, a [marauding German] fighter took him out.’

He had further concerns: ‘The engines themselves were totally unreliable. There were spots where the coolant couldn’t reach so the engines would overheat and start engine fires after a few hours’ running. The hydraulics system, on which the operation of the flaps, undercarriage, bomb doors and turrets depended, was subject to leaking and consequently failure.’

Thomas felt that flying a Manchester demanded the advanced skills of a test pilot, rather than those of a ‘regular’ bomber pilot. Unnervingly, the aircraft were grounded again and again during May 1941 due to recurring engine problems, and when they did fly, ‘I remember my first full bombload take-off. I got the thing airborne and that’s all I could do. It flew along the runway but it looked as if I’d hit the hedge at the end. So I banged the aircraft back down on the ground and fortunately it bounced back into the air, staggering over the hedge. RAF Waddington is on a ridge, and as I went over the edge I managed to get the aircraft’s nose down and increase the speed sufficiently to climb away. We had to fly straight ahead, carrying on for about 5 miles before we dared turn. If you had an engine go on take-off you were a goner.’

A desperate plan was concocted to fly a Manchester continuously around the country until an engine failed, in the hope that the aircraft would nevertheless be able to land safely, the faulty component be identified and sent to Rolls-Royce for examination. On one such flight, Thomas Murray’s own squadron commander headed for Land’s End before turning north towards the Isle of Man. Hardly had he done so than the starboard engine caught fire. He immediately lost height, and ordered the crew to jettison the guns and the dummy bombload to lose weight. He changed course again – for a fighter base near Perranporth in Cornwall, where the strip was too short to land the giant bomber so they had to retract the undercarriage. Skidding along the runway they smashed through two hedges and across a road before a parked lorry finally brought them to a standstill. ‘So Rolls-Royce got their engine and I had to fly down and pick up the crew the following day.’

Thomas Murray flew his last raid in a Manchester over the Krupp’s plant in Essen, in the Ruhr industrial area – ‘Happy Valley’ as the bomber crews called it – with a new navigation system on several of the aircraft. Known as GEE (Ground Electronic Equipment), it received two synchronised pulses transmitted from Britain and determined its position – accurate to within a few hundred yards and effective at up to 350 miles – from the time delay between them. But there were teething troubles. During Thomas’s Krupp’s raid, the GEE-equipped aircraft marking the target with flares were followed by bombers with incendiaries, which obscured the view of the target, causing the next wave to drop their high explosives to little effect.

‘It was one of the worst trips I had to the Ruhr,’ Thomas recalled.

This failure added to the increasing despondency of Manchester pilots. Pip Beck, a nineteen-year-old WAAF radio operator at Waddington, summed up the situation: ‘Anyone who could survive a tour on a Manchester could fly, and was also lucky!’

Further development of Vulture engines was cancelled at the end of 1941 – ‘much to the relief of Rolls-Royce’, as Thomas said – and the Manchesters were withdrawn in mid-1942, after nearly two years’ service, during which they managed 1,269 sorties and dropped 1,826 tons of bombs. Only 209 were built, a disastrous 40 per cent were lost on operations, and a further 25 per cent crashed.

The Ministry of Aircraft Production requested that the Avro plant now be turned over to production of the Halifax, but Avro’s Chadwick and Dobson believed that within their failed twin-engined bomber lay the seeds of a much better, four-engined aircraft. And many of the machine tools used in the production of the Manchester could continue to be used in its production, thus avoiding huge extra costs. So it was that Roy Chadwick persisted in the teeth of initial indifference and even obstruction in official circles, and he and Roy Dobson finally won through. Their partnership – overseeing design and production respectively – was, fortunately for Britain, a brilliant one.

After a series of successful test flights at Ringway (now the site of Manchester International Airport) by test pilot Harry Albert ‘Sam’ Brown, the first four-engined Manchester III BT308 was delivered in late January 1941 to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire for evaluation. As well as a distinctive twin-finned tailplane, it boasted an extra fin at the rear of the fuselage. A second prototype, fitted with four improved Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engines, took to the skies in mid-May, minus the middle fin. This prototype, DG595, was to be the model for future production, which continued with little variation, except for adaptation for specific tasks and to carry specific bomb-loads, throughout the war.