Bill Weaver climbs into an SR-71 at Palmdale.

The NASA SR-71B Blackbird in flight over the Sierra Nevada in 1994.

During the course of the A-12 program, the Air Force had been exceedingly helpful to the CIA. It provided financial support, conducted the refueling program, provided operational facilities at Kadena, and airlifted A-12 personnel and supplies to Kadena for operations over Vietnam and North Korea. Through it all, the Air Force remained frustrated that a strategic reconnaissance mission had been given to another government agency.

On July 24, 1964, at 3:30 p. m., president Lyndon Johnson held a news conference at the State Department Auditorium revealing to the world the existence of Lockheed’s Mach 3-capable reconnaissance aircraft:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to announce the successful development of a major new strategic aircraft system, which will be employed by the Strategic Air Command. This system employs the new SR-71 aircraft and provides long-range, advanced strategic reconnaissance plane for military use, capable of worldwide reconnaissance for military operations.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, when reviewing the RS-70, emphasized the importance of the strategic reconnaissance mission. The SR-71 aircraft reconnaissance system is the most advanced in the world. The aircraft will fly at more than three times the speed of sound. It will operate at altitudes in excess of eighty thousand feet. It will use the most advanced observation equipment of all kinds in the world. The aircraft will provide the strategic forces of the United States with an outstanding long-range reconnaissance capability. The system will be used during periods of military hostilities and in other situations in which the United States military forces may be confronting foreign military forces.

The SR-71 uses the same J58 engine as the experimental interceptor previously announced, but it is substantially heavier and it has a longer range. The considerably heavier gross weight permits it to accommodate the multiple reconnaissance sensors needed by the Strategic Air Command to accomplish their strategic reconnaissance mission in a military environment.

This billion-dollar program was initiated in February of 1963. The first operational aircraft will begin flight testing in early 1965. Deployment of production units to the Strategic Air Command will begin shortly thereafter.

Appropriate members of Congress have been kept fully informed on the nature of and the progress in this aircraft program. Further information on this major advanced aircraft system will be released from time to time at the appropriate military secret classification levels.

Although President Johnson’s announcement had no impact on the status of the program, the Air Force was now under great pressure to get the first aircraft completed and shipped to Lockheed’s Palmdale facility by October. Difficulties with vendors continued to plague the program. Finally, on October 29, 1964, the first SR-71 was surreptitiously delivered by truck convoy from Burbank to Palmdale for final assembly and preflight preparations. Engine runs were initiated on December 18, 1964. Three days later, the first taxi tests were undertaken. In his journal, Kelly Johnson wrote, “A large number of SAC people were here to see taxi test of aircraft 950. They were very much impressed with the smooth operation. I delayed the flight of the aircraft one day, due to unfavorable weather and to get it in better shape to fly.”

The next day, December 22, 1964, the first SR-71, with Skunk Works test pilot Bob Gilliland at the controls, flew aircraft 950 for the first time. Departing from Lockheed’s Air Force Plant 42 facility at Palmdale, it remained airborne for just over an hour and reached a speed in excess of one thousand miles per hour. Although the first SR-71 flight had been completed with few difficulties, ongoing flight testing of the aircraft had not been problem free.

During April 1965, fuel and hydraulic difficulties led to numerous test flight cancellations. Johnson noted, “We have gone through very extensive reworks of the electrical system and tank sealing on the SR-71s. Category 1 tests are way behind schedule, but so are Category 2 tests. The Air Force are very understanding. Our major problem now has to do with the range, where we are about 25% short. We have made our speed, altitude, and are getting good results with the sensor packages.”


The SR-71 flight test program, conducted at Palmdale, was not without its accidents. The first accident involved aircraft 952. On January 25, 1966, Skunk Works test pilot Bill Weaver and his back seater, Jim Zwayer, were to evaluate procedures for improving high Mach cruise performance by reducing trim drag. Although not a true ejection out of the SR-71, the following story told by Weaver is priceless in conveying the experience of departing a Blackbird at an altitude of fifteen miles and speed of Mach 3.2:

Among professional aviators, there’s a well-worn saying: Flying is simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. But I don’t recall too many periods of boredom during my thirty-year career with Lockheed, most of which was spent as a test pilot.

By far, the most memorable flight occurred on January 25, 1966. Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight-test specialist, and I were evaluating systems on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards Air Force Base. We also were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high- Mach cruise performance. The latter involved flying with the center of gravity located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a. m. and completed the mission’s first leg without incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to Mach 3.2 cruise speed, and climbed to seventy-eight thousand feet, our initial cruise-climb altitude.

Several minutes into the cruise, the right engine inlet’s automatic control system malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71’s inlet configuration was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate airflow in the duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine’s face. This was accomplished by the inlet’s center-body spike translating aft and modulating the inlet’s forward bypass doors.

Normally, these actions were scheduled automatically as a function of Mach number, positioning the normal shock wave (where air flow becomes subsonic) inside the inlet to ensure optimum engine performance. Without proper scheduling, disturbances inside the inlet could result in the shock wave being expelled forward-a phenomenon known as an “inlet unstart.”

That causes an instantaneous loss of engine thrust, explosive banging noises, and violent yawing of the aircraft-like being in a train wreck. Unstarts were not uncommon at that time in the SR-71’s development, but a properly functioning system would recapture the shock wave and restore normal operation.

On the planned test profile, we entered a programmed 35-degree bank turn to the right. An immediate unstart occurred on the right engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go.

No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride.

I attempted to tell Jim what was happening and to stay with the airplane until we reached a lower speed and altitude. I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 feet were very good. However, g-forces built up so rapidly that my words came out garbled and unintelligible, as confirmed later by the cockpit voice recorder.

The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal stability, increased angle of attack in the turn, supersonic speed, high altitude, and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded flight control authority and the Stability Augmentation System’s ability to restore control.

Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only two to three seconds. Still, trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces.

Then the SR-71 literally disintegrated around us.

From that point, I was just along for the ride. And my next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream-Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened.

I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad-just a detached sense of euphoria-I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead. But somehow I had separated from the airplane.

I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s faceplate had frozen over, and I was staring at a layer of ice.

The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen but also pressurized the suit, preventing my blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own escape capsule.

My next concern was about stability and tumbling. Air density at high altitude is insufficient to resist a body’s tumbling motions, and centrifugal forces high enough to cause physical injury could develop quickly. For that reason, the SR-71’s parachute system was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing chute shortly after ejection and seat separation. Since I had not intentionally activated the ejection sequence, it occurred to me the stabilizing chute may not have deployed.

However, I quickly determined I was falling vertically and not tumbling. The little chute must have deployed and was doing its job. Next concern: the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at fifteen thousand feet. Again, I had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work.

I couldn’t ascertain my altitude because I still couldn’t see through the iced-up faceplate. There was no way to know how long I had been blacked out or how far I had fallen. I felt for the manual activation D-ring on my chute harness, but with the suit inflated and my hands numbed by cold, I couldn’t locate it. I decided I’d better open the faceplate, try to estimate my height above the ground, then locate that “D” ring.

Just as I reached for the faceplate, I felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main-chute deployment.

I raised the frozen faceplate and discovered its uplatch was broken. Using one hand to hold that plate up, I saw I was descending through a clear winter sky with unlimited visibility. I was greatly relieved to see Jim’s parachute coming down about a quarter of a mile away. I didn’t think either of us could have survived the aircraft’s breakup, so seeing Jim had also escaped lifted my spirits incredibly.

I could also see burning wreckage on the ground a few miles from where we would land. The terrain didn’t look at all inviting-a desolate, high plateau dotted with patches of snow and no signs of habitation.

I tried to rotate the parachute and look in other directions. But with one hand devoted to keeping the faceplate up and both hands numb from high-altitude, subfreezing temperatures, I couldn’t manipulate the risers enough to turn. Before the breakup, we’d started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region. The SR-71 had a turning radius of about one hundred miles at that speed and altitude, so I wasn’t even sure what state we were going to land in. But, because it was about 3:00 p. m., I was certain we would be spending the night out here.

At about three hundred feet above the ground, I yanked the seat kit’s release handle and made sure it was still tied to me by a long lanyard. Releasing the heavy kit ensured I wouldn’t land with it attached to my derriere, which could break a leg or cause other injuries. I then tried to recall what survival items were in that kit as well as techniques I had been taught in survival school.

Looking down, I was startled to see a fairly large animal-perhaps an antelope-directly under me. Evidently, it was just as startled as I was, because it literally took off in a cloud of dust.

My first-ever parachute landing was pretty smooth. I landed on fairly soft ground, managing to avoid rocks, cacti, and antelopes. My chute was still billowing in the wind, though. I struggled to collapse it with one hand, holding the still-frozen faceplate up with the other.

“Can I help you?” a voice said.

Was I hearing things? I must be hallucinating. Then I looked up and saw a guy walking toward me, wearing a cowboy hat. A helicopter was idling a short distance behind him. If I had been at Edwards and told the search-and rescue unit that I was going to bail out over the Rogers Dry Lake at a particular time of day, a crew couldn’t have gotten to me as fast as that cowboy-pilot did.

The gentleman was Albert Mitchell Jr., owner of a huge cattle ranch in northeastern New Mexico. I had landed about 1.5 miles from his ranch house-and from a hangar for his two-place Hughes helicopter. Amazed to see him, I replied I was having a little trouble with my chute. He walked over and collapsed the canopy, anchoring it with several rocks. He had seen Jim and I floating down and had radioed the New Mexico Highway Patrol, the Air Force, and the nearest hospital.

Extracting myself from the parachute harness, I discovered the source of those flapping-strap noises heard on the way down. My seat belt and shoulder harness were still draped around me, attached and latched. The lap belt had been shredded on each side of my hips, where the straps had fed through knurled adjustment rollers. The shoulder harness had shredded in a similar manner across my back. The ejection seat had never left the airplane! I had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, seat belt and shoulder harness still fastened.

I also noted that one of the two lines that supplied oxygen to my pressure suit had come loose, and the other was barely hanging on. If that second line had become detached at high altitude, the deflated pressure suit wouldn’t have provided any protection. I knew an oxygen supply was critical for breathing and suit pressurization but didn’t appreciate how much physical protection an inflated pressure suit could provide.

That the suit could withstand forces sufficient to disintegrate an airplane and shred heavy nylon seat belts yet leave me with only a few bruises and minor whiplash, was impressive. I truly appreciated having my own little escape capsule. After helping me with the chute, Mitchell said he’d check on Jim. He climbed into his helicopter, flew a short distance away, and returned about ten minutes later with devastating news. Jim was dead. Apparently, he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed instantly.

Mitchell said his ranch foreman would soon arrive to watch over Jim’s body until the authorities arrived. I asked to see Jim and, after verifying there was nothing more that could be done, agreed to let Mitchell fly me to the Tucumcari hospital, about sixty miles to the south.

I have vivid memories of that helicopter flight as well. I didn’t know much about rotorcraft, but I knew a lot about “red lines,” and Mitchell kept the airspeed at or above red line all the way. The little helicopter vibrated and shook a lot more than I thought it should have. I tried to reassure the cowboy pilot I was feeling OK; there was no need to rush. But since he’d notified the hospital staff that we were inbound, he insisted we get there as soon as possible. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be to have survived one disaster only to be done in by the helicopter that had come to my rescue.

SR-71A Cutaway drawing

1. Pitot head

2. Alpha/beta probe, incidence and yaw measurement

3. RF isolation segment

4. RWR antennae

5. VOR antennae

6. Interchangeable nose mission equipment bay

7. Loral CAPRE side-looking ground-mapping radar antenna

8. Antenna mounting and drive mechanism

9. Detachable nose bay mounting bulkhead

10. Cockpit front pressure bulkhead

11. Fuselage chine section framing

12. Rudder pedals and control column, Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System (DAFICS)

13. Pilot’s instrument panel

14. Windscreen panels, port only with electrical de-icing

15. Heat dispersion fairing

16. Upward hinging cockpit canopy

17. Ejection seat headrest

18. Canopy actuator and hinge point

19. Pilot’s ‘zero-zero’ ejection seat

20. Side console panel with engine throttle levers

21. Canopy external release

22. Retractable ventral UHF antenna

23. Liquid oxygen bottles (3)

24. Rear cockpit side console with ECM equipment controls

25. Reconnaissance Systems Officer’s (RSO) instrument console and viewsight display

26. SR-71B dual control variant, nose section profile

27. Conversion Pilot’s cockpit

28. Elevated Instructor’s cockpit enclosure

29. RSO’s upward hinging cockpit canopy

30. RSO’s ejection seat

31. Cockpit sloping rear pressure bulkhead

32. Canopy hinge point

33. Honeycomb composite chine skin paneling

34. Astro-navigation star tracker aperture

35. Platform computer

36. Air conditioning equipment bay, port and starboard

37. Avionics equipment, port and starboard, access via nose undercarriage wheel bay

38. ELINT equipment package, port and starboard

39. Twin-wheel nose undercarriage, forward retracting

40. Hydraulic retraction jack

41. Infra-red unit

42. IFF transceiver

43. Flight refueling receptacle, open

44. Recording equipment bay

45. Starboard sensor equipment bays

46. Fuselage upper main longeron

47. Close-pitched fuselage frame structure

48. Forward fuselage fuel tankage, total internal capacity 12,219 US gal of JP-7 (80,280 lb)

49. Tactical Objective Camera (TEOC), port and starboard

50. Operational Objective Camera (OOC), port and starboard

51. Camera-mounting pallets/access hatches

52. Quartz glass viewing apertures

53. Stability Augmentation System (SAS) gyros

54. Forward/center fuselage joint ring frame

55. Center fuselage integral fuel tankage

56. Beta B.120 titanium skin paneling

57. Corrugated wing skin paneling

58. Starboard main undercarriage, stowed position

59. Intake center-body bleed air spill louvers

60. Bypass suction relief louvers

61. Starboard engine air intake

62. Movable conical intake center-body (spike)

63. Spike-retracted (high-speed) position

64. Boundary layer bleed air perforations

65. DIFACS air data probe

66. Diffuser chamber

67. Spike hydraulic actuator

68. Engine inlet guide vanes

69. Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning turbojet engine

70. Nacelle bypass duct

71. Bypass duct suction relief doors

72. Split nacelle and integral outer wing panel hinged to vertical for engine access/removal

73. Starboard outer wing panel

74. Starboard outboard elevon

75. All-moving starboard fin

76. Fixed fin root segment

77. Afterburner duct

78. Afterburner nozzle

79. Tertiary air doors

80. Exhaust nozzle ejector flaps

81. Variable area exhaust nozzle

82. Starboard inboard elevon

83. Inboard elevon hydraulic actuators (6)

84. Inboard elevon servo

85. Starboard wing integral fuel tank bay

86. Corrugated titanium skin paneling

87. Brake parachute housing

88. Parachute doors

89. Parachute, drogue and release linkage

90. Skin doubler

91. Center fuselage frame structure

92. Aft fuselage integral fuel tankage

93. Inboard elevon servo input linkage and mixer

94. Roll and pitch trim actuators

95. Fuel jettison

96. Port all-moving fin

97. Fin rib structure

98. Torque shaft hinge mounting

99. Rudder hydraulic actuator

100. Rudder servo and yaw trim actuator

101. Fixed fin root rib structure

102. Port engine exhaust nozzle

103. Ejector flaps

104. Port outboard elevon

105. Elevon titanium alloy rib structure

106. Honeycomb composite RAM trailing edge segments

107. Outer wing panel cambered leading edge

108. Leading edge RAM segments

109. Outer wing panel titanium rib and spar structure

110. Outboard elevon hydraulic actuators (14)

111. Outboard elevon servo

112. Engine bay tertiary air intakes

113. Engine nacelle/outer wing panel integral structure

114. Nacelle/outer wing panel hinge axis

115. Port nacelle ring frame structure

116. Inboard wing panel integral fuel tank bays

117. Multi-spar titanium alloy wing panel structure

118. Main undercarriage wheel bay

119. Wheel bay thermal lining

120. Hydraulic retraction jack

121. Mainwheel leg pivot mounting

122. Main undercarriage leg strut

123. Torque scissor links

124. Intake duct framing

125. Outer wing panel/nacelle chine structure

126. Three-wheel main undercarriage bogie

127. Port Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning engine

128. Afterburner nozzle

129. Afterburner fuel manifold, continuous cruise operation

130. Compressor bypass ducts (6)

131. Engine accessory equipment

132. Inlet guide vanes

133. Port air intake

134. Movable center-body (spike)

135. Spike honeycomb composite skin

136. Spike frame structure

137. Inboard leading edge RAM wedges

138. Leading edge spar

139. Inner wing panel leading edge integral fuel tankage

140. Wing root/fuselage attachment root rib

141. Close pitched fuselage frames

142. Wing/fuselage chine blended fairing panels


Vickers Vildebeest Mk I to IV

Vickers Vildebeest Mk. III

Vickers Vildebeest Mk. IV Perseus Engine Version

Vickers Vincent

In the period between the two world wars, the RAF operated a number of types of large single-engine biplanes, the Vickers Vildebeest being a typical example. Its origins went back to 1926, when Vickers tendered to Specification 24/25 for a torpedo-bomber to replace the Hawker Horsley. An Air Ministry order for a prototype was received, and as the Vickers Type 132 it flew from the company’s Brooklands Airfield, Weybridge, in April 1928, powered by a 460-hp (343-kW) Bristol Jupiter VIII geared engine, later going to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath for competitive trials with the Blackburn Beagle. Following these it was tested on floats at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe.

Initial problems were concerned mainly with engine cooling, and several versions of the Jupiter were tried without encouraging results. Eventually, a second prototype was built as a private venture: this flew from Brooklands in August 1930, powered by a geared Armstrong Siddeley Panther IIA engine, but its performance was, if anything, worse.

Finally, the 660-hp (492-kW) Bristol Pegasus became the standard Vildebeest powerplant, and with successful trials at last behind it the type was accepted, nine aircraft being ordered to revised Specification 22/31. In 1932 Vickers signed a licensing agreement under which 25 Vildebeests, with 600-hp (447-kW) Hispano Suiza 12Lbr engines, were built by CASA at Madrid for service with the Spanish navy.

Deliveries to the RAF began in 1933, when No. 100 Squadron at Donibristle received a batch of the first production Vildebeests, having had one aircraft for familiarisation for several months. The squadron moved subsequently to Singapore, and the type was to remain in service in the Far East well into World War II.

Further contracts followed, and improved marks of Vildebeest entered service. The Mk II, ordered in December 1933, was fitted with a 635-hp (474-kW Pegasus IIM3 engine, but when 30 had been built a modification was requested by the Air Ministry to a new specification, 15/34. A third crew member position was required and the rear cockpit was redesigned. In this form the aircraft was designated Mk III. Production aircraft were delivered to Nos. 22 and 36 Squadrons during 1935-6 and 12 were ordered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, another 15 being diverted later from the RAF order. The RNZAF Vildebeests had folding wings.

The final production version was the Mk IV, 56 of which were ordered in December 1936 with 825-hp (615-kW) Bristol Perseus VIII sleeve-valve engines, the first such engine to enter RAF service. Performance was considerably improved, and the first Vildebeest Mk IVs were delivered to No. 42 Squadron in 1937, remaining in service until replaced by Bristol Beauforts in 1940. The last Vildebeest IV was delivered in November 1937, and total production of the Mks I to IV amounted to 194.

At the outbreak of World War II about 100 Vildebeests were still in service, and the Singapore-based aircraft with Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons operated against the Japanese until Singapore fell in 1942.

Specification Type: two/three-seat torpedo-bomber Powerplant (Mk IV: one 825-hp (615-kW) Bristol Perseus VIII radial piston engine Performance: maximum speed 156 mph (251 km/h) at 5,000 ft (1525 m); service ceiling 19,000 ft (5790 m); range 1,625 miles (2615 km) Weights: empty 4,724 lb (2143 kg); maximum take-off 8,.500 lb (.3856 kg) Dimensions: span 49 ft in (14.94 m); length 37 ft 8 in (11.48 m); height 14 ft 8 in (4.47 m); wing area 728 sq ft (67.63 m) Armament: one fixed forward-firing 0.303-in (7.7-mm) machine-gun and one Lewis gun in rear cockpit, plus one 18-in (457-mm) torpedo or 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs Operators: RAF, RNZAF

Vickers Vincent

A need to replace the Westland Wapiti and Fairey IIIF general-purpose biplanes led the Air Ministry to order a modified version of the Vickers Vildebeest to Specification 21/33. A tour of RAF stations in the Middle East and Africa in 1932-3 by a converted Vildebeest had shown that the type would be a suitable replacement, and 51 were ordered on 8 December 1933 under the name Vincent. In place of the torpedo, the Vincent carried a long-range fuel tank beneath the fuselage, and other special equipment included message pick-up gear and pyrotechnics.

The first production Vincent, converted from a Vildebeest Mk II to the revised Specification 16/34, was seen for the first time in public at the 1935 RAF Display at Hendon. However, initial deliveries of production aircraft had been made to No. 8 Squadron at Aden in late 1934, eventually replacing the Fairey IIIFs then in service with Bristol Blenheims.

Total Vincent production was 171, and a number of others were converted from Vildebeests to bring the total to almost 200. More than 80 were still in service at the beginning of World War II, and Vincents saw action with No. 244 Squadron in Iraq in 1941, being replaced eventually by Bristol Blenheims.

Specification Type: three-seat general-purpose biplane Powerplant: one 660-hp (492-kW) Bristol Pegasus IIM3 radial piston engine Performance: maximum speed 142 mph (229 km/h) at 4,920 ft (1500 ml; service ceiling 17,000 ft (5180 m); range 625 miles (1006 km), or 1,250 miles (2012 km) with long-range tank Weights: empty 4,229 lb (1918 kg); maximum take-off 8,100 lb (.3674 kg) Dimensions: span 49 ft in (14.94 m); length 36 ft 8 in (11.18 m); height 17 ft 9 in (5.41 m); wing area 728 sq ft (67.63 w?] Armament: one 0.303-in (7.7-mm) forward-firing machine-gun and one Lewis gun in rear cockpit, plus up to 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs Operators: RAF, RNZAF

To Malaya

The Vildebeest first entered service with 100 Squadron at Donibristle in November 1932. The unit was shipped to Singapore as part of the beefing up of the naval base’s defences and was ready for duty at Seletar in January 1934. The resident 36 Squadron retired its Horsleys in July 1935 and converted to Vildebeests.


At 11:15 hours local on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. A day later, 6,800 miles (10,840km) to the east, the seriousness of the world situation was felt at Seletar. A 100 Squadron Association pamphlet relates that a film being shown in the station cinema was interrupted. A notice flashed on the screen ordering all personnel of `A’ and `B’ Flights of 36 Squadron and `B’ Flight of 100 Squadron to report to their hangars immediately. There is a note that those that got up and left did not get a refund!

Three Vildebeests of 100 Squadron were being prepared: K6384 (Flt Lt Smith, the flight leader), K6385 (Plt Off Richardson) and K6379 (Plt Off Davis). Each aircraft was to carry two more crew members, a mixture of wireless operator/gunners, fitters and armourers.

The commanding officer, Sqn Ldr R N McKern, set a sombre tone, explaining that the unit was on a war footing and wished the men good luck. The document takes up the story: “The three aircraft became airborne at 09:45 hours local on September 5, 1939, just 39 hours an 10 minutes after war was declared…

“As soon as the aerodrome was cleared, the pilots opened their sealed envelopes and then told their crews that their destination was Kepala Batas, north of Alor Star. [On the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, 20 miles from the border with Siam, today’s Thailand.] The aircraft set course for the northwest tip of Malaya and a loose formation was adopted. The flight took 4 hours 30 minutes and proved to be uneventful.”

After ‘tiffin’ at the government rest house at Kepala Batas, around 16:00, the nine men: “All got busy unpacking and `hunking’ around bombs, 112- and 250-pounders, both general purpose and armour piercing, which were stored there for emergency use. There were no trolleys nor any means of moving these bombs – only brute strength and sweat!

“Each bomb was in its own wooden crate which was screwed, not nailed, together. The bombs were manhandled to rows some distance from the aircraft and covered with tarpaulin sheets. They were completely safe – they hoped – and the fuzes were locked up well away from both the bombs and the machines, in the rest house. There were no torpedoes.

“Fifteen days later those nine men, with their Vildebeests, saw Seletar again.” The men of 36 and 100 Squadrons were thrown into the front line from December 1941 fighting rear guard action before Singapore fell to the Japanese.

The three aircraft that deployed to Kepala Batas on September 5, 1939 illustrate the fate of the Vildebeest force. While attacking a Japanese ship during the intense naval engagement off Endau up the eastern Malayan coast from Singapore, on January 26, 1942, K6379 was seen to dive into the sea. It was one of 13 of the torpedo-bombers lost that day.

Further up the eastern coast on February 9, the Vildebeests were flying from a strip at Kuantan and K6385 was destroyed on the ground by Japanese aircraft. By late February 1942 surviving British forces had regrouped in central Java, including two serviceable Vildebeests. On the 29th K6384 failed to return from a recce and it is believed to have been shot down near Semerang, east of Jakarta. With that the big biplane’s last stand was over

Disaster at Endau

From Brian Cull’s Hurricanes Over Singapore: RAF, RNZAF and NEI Fighters in Action Against the Japanese Over the Island and the Netherlands East Indies, 1942.

64th Sentai operated from Ipoh in January 1942, the 59th Sentai from Kahang.

The Hayabusa fighters of the 64th Sentai were among the very first fighters to saw action in the Pacific. The Ki-43s Hayabusa of Kato Air Group escorted Yamashita’s troop transports en route to invade Malaya and some were lost when they were unable to return to Pho Quok island a day before the war broke out. They flew air cover within the maximum operational range which was quite a feat in those days.

Hiroshi Onozaki was among the ‘Nate’ pilots who flew air cover over the Takumi’s invasion force at Kota Bharu beach on the first day of the war.

Even today in Japan his memory is kept alive by the popular song ‘Kato Hayabusa Sentoki Tai’ (Fighter Air Group Kato).

Cull states that Yasuhiko Kuroe was the only pilot of the 47th Independent at the “disaster at Endau”, the disastrous RAF attack on the 26th January 1942.  Pilots of the 1st and 11th Sentais also took part.

The Ki.44 entered combat for the first time on January 1, 1942, when a flight of three Ki.44s led by Captain Yasuhiko Kuroe attacked three Buffalos of 21 and 453 Squadrons in the vicinity of Johore Baru, just north of Singapore, with Captain Kuroe scoring that first kill.

The Ki-44 was quite fast compared with other Japanese fighters and most of the attacking British planes at Endau were very slow such as the Vildebeeste biplanes.

1st and 11th Sentai had Nates but no mention made of those units’ kills.

Japanese losses were two Nates,1st Sentai:

Lt Mizotani shot down but baled out safely

Lt Toshiro Kuboya, shot down and seriously wounded, died three weeks later.

RAF attacking force is given as 21 Vildebeest,3 Albacores,9 RAAF Hudsons,18 Buffaloes and 9 Hurricanes as escorts. The Japanese also claim a Dutch Catalina was encountered. A ABDA force of US B-17s from Java, via Sumatra, was requested as well but “arrived too late”.

RAF losses in the two raids are given as 10 Vildebeest,2 Albacores,2 Hudsons and 1 Hurricane. Two more Vildebeests were written off, too damaged. 39 aircrew were initially lost–28 killed, 2 taken prisoner, 9 who eventually made it back to Singapore.

N1K1J “George” fighter

From the standard reference by Rene Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War (UK: Conway Maritime Press, 1987; also in US by Naval Institute Press), pages 323-25:

“… [despite engine troubles] … In combat, however, the Shiden was a superlative combat aircraft and experienced pilots had little difficulty in engaging American aircraft and, under the code name GEORGE, it was considered by Allied personnel to be one the best Japanese aircraft.

“… In operation the N1K2-J revealed itself as a truly outstanding fighter capable of meeting on eqial terms the best Allied fighter aircraft. Its qualities were demonstrated spectacularly by such pilots as Warrant Officer Kinsuke Muto of the 343rd Kokutai who, in February 1945, engaged single-handed twelve US Navy Hellcats, destroying four (of them) and forcing the others to break off combat. Against the high-flying B-29s the Shiden Kai was less successful as its climbing speed was insufficient and the power of its Homare 21 (engine) fell rapidly at high altitudes.”


This engine was one of the main problems with flying the Shiden, since it could fail to run up to its full power for combat. The undercarriage was relatively weak as well. But once in the air and at full power it was a dangerous adversary.

There are three surviving N1K2-J examples left today, all in the US. One is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum near Washington, another in the US Air Force Museum in Ohio, and the third in the New England Air Museum in Connecticut.

In 1993, the Smithsonian’s Shiden was sent to the Champlin Fighter Museum in Arizona for its restoration. There had been a special job of rewiring the engine to match the original six-color, 12- and 16-gauge wiring and its braiding. The experts had enthused that even this job alone was almost a work of art by itself, a common sentiment in rare warplane restoration and maintenance.



Kawanishi N1K1-J Shiden George 11:


One Nakajima NK9H Homare 21 eighteen-cylinder air-cooled radial rated at 1990 hp for takeoff, 1825 hp at 5740 feet, 1625 hp at 20,015 feet.

Performance: Maximum speed 363 mph at 19,355 feet, 334 mph at 8040 feet.

Cruising speed 230 mph at 6560 feet, service ceiling 41,000 feet, cruising speed 230 mph at 6600 feet.

Climb to 19,685 feet in 7 minutes 50 seconds.

Normal range 890 miles at 230 mph at 13,120 feet, maximum range 1580 miles.

Weights: 6387 pounds empty, 8598 pounds loaded, 9526 pounds maximum loaded.

Dimensions: wingspan 39 feet 4 7/16 inches, length 29 feet 1 25/32 inches, height 13 feet 3 27/32 inches, wing area 252.95 square feet.

Armament: Two 7.7-mm Type 97 machine guns in the fuselage, two 20-mm Type 99 Model 2 cannon in the wings, two 20-mm Type 99 Model 2 cannon in underwing gondolas. Two 132-pound bombs or one 88 Imp gall drop tank could be carried externally.


N1K2-J Shiden Kai George 21:


One Nakajima NK9H Homare 21 eighteen-cylinder air-cooled radial rated at 1990 hp for takeoff, 1825 hp at 5740 feet, 1625 hp at 20,015 feet.

Performance: Maximum speed 369 mph at 19,355 feet, 359 mph at 9840 feet.

Cruising speed 230 mph at 9845 feet, service ceiling 35,300 feet, cruising speed 230 mph at 6600 feet.

Climb to 19,685 feet in 7 minutes 22 seconds.

Normal range 1066 miles at 219 mph at 9840 feet, maximum range 1488 miles with 88 Imp. gall. drop tank.

Weights: 5858 pounds empty, 8818 pounds loaded, 10,714 pounds maximum loaded.

Dimensions: wingspan 39 feet 4 7/16 inches, length 30 feet 7 29/32 inches, height 12 feet 11 29/32 inches, wing area 252.95 square feet.

Armament: Four 20-mm Type 99 Model 2 cannon in the wings. Two 551-pound bombs or one 88 Imp. gall. drop tank could be carried externally.


Minoru Genda’s elite 343 Kokutai flew the Shiden-Kai. Training began in January 1945 at Matsuyama Airfield, and the base of operations later moved to Kanoya (April 4), Kokubu (April 17), and Omura (April 25) in Kyushu.

During the Battle of Okinawa, the 343 Kokutai had the task of trying to clear the way for kamikaze planes as they flew from southern Kyushu to Okinawa during the Kikusui operations from April 6 to June 22, 1945. The Shiden-Kai pilots fought several fierce battles with American fighters over Amami Oshima and Kikaigashima. When American planes bombed Kyushu airfields to try to stop kamikaze attacks in April and May 1945, the 343 Kokutai at times engaged enemy aircraft although the Shiden-Kai was not intended for high-altitude interception of B-29s.

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai by Henry Sakaida and Koji Takaki.

All English-language names for Japanese fighters derived from Western Allied identification codes, in which male names were given to enemy fighters and female names to Japanese bombers. The Japanese Naval Air Force (JNAF) Zero, or Mitsubishi A6M “Reisen” (Zero-Sen), was the best fighter available in the Pacific in 1941. It was lighter, faster, and more maneuverable than American land-based aircraft. It also had a much greater range and more nimble handling than any U.S. carrier-based fighters. That gave the Imperial Japanese Navy a critical advantage in early carrier vs. carrier fights such as Coral Sea. The Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) flew three models of the Nakajima Ki-43 “Hayabusa” (“Falcon”). Designated alternately as “Jim” or “Oscar” by the Western Allies, these land-based JAAF fighters saw most service in China and Southeast Asia, flying cover over ground forces. They faced handfuls of older Soviet and other fighters in China until the arrival of American pilots and modern aircraft of the American Volunteer Group, or “Flying Tigers” (“Fei Hu”). Japanese pilots in Hayabusa also faced RAF Spitfire and Hurricanes in Malaya and over Burma. Western pilots were initially shocked at the excellent performance of the Hayabusa, whose characteristics were not known to British or American military intelligence. The JAAF also flew the very fast “Hein,” which reached speeds above 400 mph. The “Frank” (Nakajima Ki-84-Ia “Hayate”), introduced in 1944, and the excellent “George” (Kawanishi N1K1-J “Shiden”), introduced in 1944–1945, were also well-known to Allied sailors, troops, and flyers. But as improved as those aircraft were, neither model could match Western Allied fighters by that point in the war: the Japanese planes were relatively underarmored and undergunned, and by 1944 were usually flown by inexperienced, young pilots. However, over Japan the Hayate’s ceiling of nearly 38,000 feet and rocket weapons did pose a threat even to American B-29 bombers.

The USN F4F Wildcat was overmatched by Zeros in nearly all ways, an often-fatal disadvantage not overcome by introduction of new American fighters for the first two years of the Pacific War. But the USN controlled the skies of the Pacific after powerful Pratt & Whitney engines were put into its heavily armored F6F “Hellcats” and F4U “Corsairs.” The combination of power, climb rate, ceiling, and arms and armament allowed those aircraft to master the fast but lightly armored Zero and to splash hundreds of slow IJN and Japanese Army bombers. The USAAF also had inadequate and mostly short-range fighters at the start of the war. But by war’s end, the USAAF boasted several of the finest and most effective fighters in the world. Many U.S. fighters were shipped to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease, including 4,700 Bell P-39 “Airacobras” personally requested by Stalin. The P-47 “Thunderbolt” and P-51 “Mustang” dominated the skies of Italy, France, and Germany almost as soon as they were introduced in 1943. The P-51 may have been the fi nest fighter of the war. It was equipped with long-range drop tanks that permitted it to escort strategic bomber formations deep into Germany and to the home islands of Japan. Both the P-47 and P-51 were also fitted with rockets and used in a “tank buster” role. In combination with late-war deterioration in Japanese aviator skills, better trained American pilots with new and better tactics in much improved machines achieved a 10:1 or higher kill ratio in Pacific War dogfights.


N1K1 Kyofu

  • N1K1: only standard type as floatplane, which was used from early 1943.
  • N1K2: reserved name for an intended model with larger engine, not built.

N1K1-J Shiden

  • N1K1-J: Prototypes: development of fighter hydroplane N1K1 Kyofu, 1,357 kW (1,820 hp) Nakajima Homare 11 Engine, 9 built
  • N1K1-J Shiden (“Violet Thunder”) Navy Land-Based Interceptor, Model 11: first production model: 1,484 kW (1,990 hp) Homare 21 engine with revised cover, armed with two 7.7 mm (.303 in) Type 97 machine guns and two 20 mm Type 99 cannons. Modified total-vision cockpit.
  • N1K1-Ja, Model 11A: Without frontal 7.7 mm (.303 in) Type 97s, only four 20 mm Type 99s in wings
  • N1K1-Jb, Model 11B: Similar to Model 11A amongst load two 250 kg (550 lb) bombs, revised wing weapons
  • N1K1-Jc,Model 11C: definitive fighter-bomber version, derived from Model 11B. Four bomb racks under wings.
  • N1K1-J KAIa: experimental version with auxiliary rocket. One Model 11 conversion.
  • N1K1-J KAIb: conversion for dive bombing. One 250 kg (550 lb) bomb under belly and six rockets under wings.

N1K2-J Shiden-KAI

  • N1K2-J Prototypes: N1K1-Jb redesigned. Low wings, engine cover and landing gear modified. New fuselage and tail, 8 built
  • N1K2-J Shiden KAI (Violet Thunder, Modified) Navy Land Based Interceptor, Model 21: first model of series
  • N1K2-Ja,Model 21A: Fighter-bomber version. Four 250 kg (550 lb) bombs. Constructed by Kawanishi: 393, Mitsubishi: 9, Aichi: 1, Showa Hikoki: 1, Ohmura Navy Arsenal: 10, Hiro Navy Arsenal: 1.
  • N1K2-K Shiden KAI-Rensen (Violet Thunder Fighter Trainer, Modified) Trainer version of N1K-J Series with two seats, operative or factory conversions

Further variants

  • N1K3-J Shiden KAI 1, Model 31 Prototypes: Engines displaced to ahead, two 13.2 mm (51 in) Type 3 machine guns in front, 2 built
  • N1K3-A Shiden KAI 2, Model 41: Carrier-based version of N1K3-J, project only
  • N1K4-J Shiden KAI 3, Model 3: Prototypes, 1,491 kW (2,000 hp) Homare 23 engine, 2 built.
  • N1K4-A Shiden KAI 4, Model 4: Prototype, experimental conversion of N1K4-J example with equipment for use in carriers, 1 built
  • N1K5-J Shiden KAI 5, Model 25: High-Altitude Interceptor version. Project only

Total Production (all versions): 1,435 examples.

Factory Production

Bloch 150-157

Bloch 152C-1 of GC 11/1, in operational service when the Germans invaded France on 10 May 1940. On that date only two GC (Groupes de Chasse) were combat-ready despite the fact that well over 300 had been completed except for small but vital items. Total production was 140 MB. 151 and 488 MB. 152. Not especially good performers, they were at least tough. One 152C-1 landed on 15 May 1940 after a fight against 12 Bf 109s; it had 360 bullet holes.

French single-seat fighter aircraft. Designed to a July 1934 French Air Ministry specification, the Bloch 150 was an attractive, all- metal low-wing monoplane fighter with a retractable landing gear. However, the original prototype was considerably overweight, and two first-flight attempts, on July 17 and August 8, 1936, both proved abortive. Both failures were followed by extensive structural redesign, and eventually, on September 29, 1937, with wings of increased area and a more efficient 940-hp Gnome-Rhone 14N engine, a successful first flight was made. Even so, the design was considered unsuitable for mass production necessitating yet further redesign (as the Bloch 151) in order to implement the initial contract for 25 aircraft.

The first Bloch 151 (920-hp Gnome-Rhone 14N 11 engine) was flown on August 18, 1938, and more than 200 should have been delivered to the Armee de I’ Air from the SNCA du Sud-Ouest factories by April I, 1939. In fact, only one had been delivered by that date, and only 85 by the outbreak of war. Production was limited to 140 aircraft, and their disappointing performance, combined with problems of control and engine over- heating, led to their relegation, after modification, to a training role. Armament comprised four 7.5-mm (0.295-in) MAC 1934 machine-guns in the wings, outboard of the propeller disc.

The prototype of an improved version, the Bloch 152, had been ordered in April 1938. This aircraft, first flown on December 15 that year, was powered by a 1030-hp Gnome- Rhone 14N 21 engine. Production aircraft, built from 1939 in parallel with the Bloch 151, were powered by either a 1080-hp 14N 25 or 1100-hp 14N 29. Armament consisted of either two 20-mm (0.79-in) Hispano HS-404 cannon and two 7. S-mm MAC 1934 machine-guns, or four MAC 1934s. In flight the MB 152 displayed good maneuverability, was a stable gun platform, and could out dive other fighters with ease.

By the outbreak of the Second World War the Armee de I ‘Air had only one squadron equipped with the Bloch 152, and even these were non-operational. By the beginning of 1940 the Armee de I’ Air had just over 100 in flyable condition and nearly twice as many, lacking propellers, were non-operational. When the Germans attacked on May 10, 1940, eight French pursuit groups were equipped with Bloch 151 or 152 fighters.

The eventual total of Bloch 152s delivered was 482, of which about two-thirds were still effective till the end of July 1940. Many of these were used by the Vichy French air force, and Germany supplied 20 to its ally, Rumania. At about the same time, nine Bloch 151s (of 25 ordered) were supplied by France to the Royal Hellenic Air Force.

Like so many French aircraft of the time, the Bloch monoplane fighter story began badly, got into its stride just in time for the capitulation and eventually produced outstanding aircraft which were unable to be used. The prototype 150 was not only ugly but actually failed to fly. the frightened test pilot giving up on 17 July 1936. It was only after redesign with more power and larger wing that the aircraft finally left the ground. Bloch had been absorbed into the new nationalised industry as part of SNCASO and five of the new group’s factories were put to work making 25. But the detail design was difficult to make, so the MB-151 was produced with the hope that 180 would be made each month from late 1938 Orders were also placed for the slightly more powerful MB-152. but by the start of World War II only 85 Blochs had been delivered and not one was fit for use; all lacked gunsights and most lacked propellers! Eventually, after overcoming desperate problems and shortages. 593 were delivered by the capitulation, equipping GC 1/1. 11/1. 1/8. 11/8. 11/9. 11/10. 111/10 and III/9 The Germans impressed 173 surviving Bloch 151 and 152 fighters, passing 20 to Romania. The MB-155 had a 1,180hp engine and was used by Vichy France. The ultimate model was the superb MB-157. with 1,580hp 14R-4 engine and 441 mph (710km/h) speed, never put into production. By this time the firm’s founder had changed his name to Dassault. Units while equipped with Blochs shot down 156 German planes and lost 59 pilots.

The auxiliary units, known as the Escadrilles Légeres de Défense (ELD), or Escadrilles de Chasse de Défense (ECD), had been mobilized on 11 May 1940, although some local defence units were already established. These auxiliary units were mainly reservist pilots. Some of them were test pilots attached to aircraft factories. At the Chateaudun base one of the pilots flying a Bloch 152 shot down a He111 on 12 May. More of these local defence flights were called up to protect aircraft plants. In the majority of cases the aircraft they were flying had come straight off the production line and others were there for repairs. Many of the pilots were not, in fact, French Air Force at all, but were employed by aircraft companies. The majority of the units could muster no more than six aircraft. Most of them flew Bloch fighters, others Morane 406s or Dewoitine 501s and 510s. A number of Dewoitine 500s were also being flown.

One peculiar aircraft that was also used was the Koolhoven FK-58A. It was Dutch built and there were fourteen of them parked at Romorantin. Four of them were sent to Lyons-Bron, where former Polish Air Force pilots were being trained to use French aircraft. The Ecole de l’Air based at Salon was ordered to create another Polish unit with seven of these aircraft on 16 May. It actually received nine of them. The school itself had its own local defence flight with Dewoitine 520s. At Bourges, the defence flight was equipped with Curtiss Hawks, where ten were in service. They managed to shoot down a number of German aircraft. Meanwhile, on the front line, small numbers of French aircraft threw themselves at the advancing German ground forces. Little by little, attrition was beginning to make its mark. Between the period 26 May to 3 June 1940 the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BAE) and large numbers of French troops was being undertaken at Dunkirk. The RAF provided much of the air cover for this operation, but Bloch 152s of GCII/8, operating out of Lympne, were also on hand. These aircraft had left France on the afternoon of 30 May and had been ordered to support the 1st French Army, which by this time had been surrounded. There was a delay in being able to deploy them, as the engine oil designed for Hurricanes did not meet the Bloch 152s requirements. Oil did not arrive until 31 May. Also at Lympne were some Potez 63s belonging to GRI/14 and a pair of Glenn Martin 167s of GBI/63.

The Belgian army had surrendered on 28 May and on 31 May one of the Potez aircraft, escorted by Hurricanes, undertook a reconnaissance mission. Another Potez took off in the afternoon of 1 June, protected by eight Bloch 152s and Hurricanes. The mission was to spot German artillery positions so that the French artillery could zero in on the target. The aircraft arrived just as the Germans were launching a bombing attack against Dunkirk. The Bloch fighters shot down a He111, but then they were nearly attacked themselves by Hurricanes and French anti-aircraft batteries. Once the Dunkirk withdrawal had come to an end GRI/14 and GCII/8 returned to France.

The heaviest fighting had been taking place around the Somme. The French had lost 112 aircraft up to 25 May.

For all of the problems that the French Air Force had been struggling with in the run up to hostilities, and the appallingly bad showing that the French ground forces had exhibited during the campaign, the French Air Force’s record was comparatively good. In all, although the figures can only ever be approximate, the French Air Force lost 1,200 aircraft to all causes. Despite this, the strength of the French Air Force at the end of operations on 25 June 1940 was actually greater than when war was declared in September 1939. In the period from 10 May to 12 June, French industry had delivered 1,131 new aircraft; some 668 of these were fighters. Many of the French aircraft losses during this period had been of older types of aircraft, but all of the replacements were obviously modern ones.

The exodus of French aircraft from the mainland was by no means complete. Large numbers of aircraft, many of which had literally just been delivered, fell into German hands. This included 453 Morane 406s, 170 Dewoitine 520s, 260 Bloch 152s and a host of other aircraft, including Curtiss Hawks and Glenn Martins.

After France surrendered unoccupied France had several units with Bloch 152s and Bloch 155s, each with a strength of twenty-four aircraft.

A third version, the Bloch 155, entered production following its first flight on December 3, 1939, but only nine had been delivered before the fall of France. This version, at first armed similarly to the Bloch 152, was powered by an 1100-hp Gnome- Rhone 14N 49 engine, increasing the maximum speed (despite a higher gross weight) to 520 km/h (323 mph). The Bloch 155 was the first production French fighter to incorporate both belt-fed cannon and an armoured-glass windscreen. About 15 were built altogether these being used later by the Vichy air force until seized by the Luftwaffe in 1942.

The Bloch 153 and 154 designations were applied to proposed versions of the Bloch 152, fitted, respectively, with American Twin Wasp and Cyclone engines. Of these, only the Bloch 153 was flown in prototype form. Similarly, the Gnome-Rhone-engined Bloch 156 remained only a project.

The final development of this series of fighters was the Bloch 157, virtually a complete redesign by Lucien Servanty. The prototype was still under construction when France was overrun, but its completion was approved by the German authorities, and the Bloch 157 eventually flew in March 1942, powered by a 1590-hp Gnome-Rhone 14R 4 engine but without its intended six-gun armament (two cannon and four machine-guns). Subsequent test flights confirmed early impressions that the Bloch 157 was superior in all respects to its predecessors, performance including a maximum speed of 710 km/h (441 mph). However, no further development was undertaken.


Origin: SNCASO.

Type: Single-seat fighter.

Engine: 1 .080hp Gnome-Rhone 14N-25 14-cylinder radial.

Dimensions Span 34ft 6in (105m); length 29ft 10in (9 1m): height 13ft 0in (3 95m).

Weights: Empty 4.453lb (2020kg); loaded 5.842lb (2650kg).

Performance: Maximum speed 323mph (520km/h): climb to 16.400ft (5000m) in 6 minutes; service ceiling 32.800ft (10.000m); range 373 miles (600km).

Armament: Two 20mm Hispano 404 cannon (60-round drum) and two 7 5mm MAC 1934 machine guns (500 rounds each): alternatively four MAC 1934

History: First flight (MB-150) October 1937; (MB-151) 18 August 1938: (MB-152) December 1938: (MB-155) 3 December 1939: (MB-157) March 1942.

Users: France (Armee de I’Air, Vichy AF). Greece. Romania.

Boeing B-17s Fortress Mk.I and Mk.IIs in RAF Service

July 8, 1941: 90 Sqn debuted the Fortress Mk I in combat.

July 1942: The Boeing Fortress II entered service with 220 and 206 Sqns at Benbecula

Some 45 B-17E bombers were transferred to the RAF in late 1942 for use by Coastal Command designated as Fortress Mk IIA (the designation Fortress Mk I had been used for 20 B-17C aircraft) and, with the newer B-17F that had been delivered to the RAF earlier than the B-17E thus receiving the designation Fortress Mk II, served with four maritime and four meteorological reconnaissance squadrons.

The Fortress Mk. IIA was the British equivalent of the B-17E, as shown here by 41-9141 wearing a British-style camouflage finish via American manufactured paints, although this particular aircraft spent much of its time in the US

Before the British-built four-engined bombers became available, the government had purchased a quantity of Boeing B-17C aircraft which they christened Fortress I. These arrived in England on 14 April 1941 and were issued to No. 90 Squadron, who used them operationally for the first time on 8 July against Wilhelmshaven.

It is often forgotten that it was Britain’s RAF, and not the American services, which first flew the B-17 in combat, this taking place during July 1941.

The Americans had strongly urged that the aircraft should not be used operationally as they were still suffering from teething troubles, but this advice was ignored and they were introduced in an attempt to provide a high-altitude bombing force. During the next three months No. 90 Squadron encountered problem after problem, losing several aircraft to enemy fighters and unexplained crashes, which eventually led to the Fortress I being withdrawn from European operations by the RAF in September.

Coastal Command

By September 1941, eight of the original Fortresses Mk.Is had been lost through various causes. With newer and more reliable heavy bombers coming into service by October 1941, the remaining aircraft were absorbed by 220 Sqn, RAF Coastal Command, and based at RAF Wick in northern Scotland to be used as long-range maritime patrol aircraft. In July 1942, by which time 220 Sqn was based at RAF Ballykelly, Northern Ireland, it had received the Fortress Mk II, as did 206 Sqn based at RAF Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides; in December 1942, 59 Sqn based at RAF Thorney Island in Sussex, would also receive the Fortress II.

Starting in mid-1942 about 150 of the improved B-I7E were delivered to Coastal Command as the Fortress Mk II and Fortress Mk IIA, serving with Nos 59, 86, 206 and 220 Squadrons, operating from Benbecula, Chivenor, Thorney Island, the Azores and lceland, Although possessing shorter range than the B-24 Liberator, the Fortress contributed considerably to the patrol efforts demanded by the frequent sailing of wartime convoys, particularly at the height of the great U-boat campaign. ln the Atlantic, RAF Fortresses were employed on anti-shipping strike missions, their weapons being almost entirely confined to depth charges,

The Flying Fortress has generally been overlooked due to the successes of many other types involved in the war against the U-boats, such as the Sunderland, Liberator and even the Wellington. Nevertheless, it had more success than when it had briefly served with Bomber Command and, because of that, the significant part that it and its crews played in the Battle of the Atlantic should not be forgotten.

Testing the Fortress

Fortress Mark I

The promise of the well defended Boeing B-17 led initially to a small order for the -C model for the RAF; the first to reach the Boscombe Establishment, AN53 I. was delivered on 15 April 1941. The Fortress Mk I created a very favourable impression for its ease of handling. even with two engines at idle but not feathered, and particularly for its comfort.

Small stick movement by the pilot operated tabs on the elevator or rudder, but larger movements fed directly to these control surfaces: this feature together with an appropriate stability made handling easy and precise. Electric motors for flaps and undercarriage (40 secs to raise) were novel. The manual rudder trim had a wide operating range and, fully applied at 120 mph (indicated) enabled straight flight to be maintained with the two starboard engines alone at maximum cruising power without the use of the rudder pedal. Most praised was the warmth of the crew area at 30,000 ft (-55°C outside), and the relative quiet achieved with copious soundproofing combined with favourable positioning of the engine exhausts. The navigator’s position was roomy, with a good view; the only criticism of this first version of the type was the lack of blackout curtains. Performance with the Cyclone R-1820-73 was outstanding at height with a ceiling of 34,000 ft from a maximum weight (49,300 Ib) take-off, although great care had to be taken to avoid damage above 25,000 ft by overspeeding of the exhaust-driven turbocharger. Crews were carefully briefed on the special handling needed. From August 1941, A 519 also handled well at extended aft CG, but, even with by-pass flame dampers of RAE design, did not meet the requirements for invisibility at night from a distance greater than 100 yards. Armament trials were limited to assessment of the American bomb gear (the maximum normal load was four 600 Ib) and then, at the end of 1941, partially successful attempts to fit British carriers; restricted space in the bay rendered the usual bomb hoist, made by Stones, useless. A most surprising omission was the apparent absence of any trials on the five single handheld guns: operationally the defensive armament of this early version proved inadequate.

Fortress Mark II and IIA

Improvements in the next version. the B-17E or Fortress IIA were soon under scrutiny following arrival of the first, FK 187, in April 1942. A collapsed tail wheel (necessitating replacement by FL458) in August) and the need for modifications to the gun positions delayed completion until early 1943. The electro-hydraulic Sperry upper turret (two 0.5 in guns) was smooth and positive in operation up to 300 mph (indicated); some 9,700 rounds were fired. The two beam and twin tail guns were satisfactory, but the Sperry ball turret under the fuselage had a very poor view, was cramped and awkward to use, and suffered many early failures of the ammunition feed. Later in May and June 1943, FK211 with modified feed arrangements to the ball turret was assessed as satisfactory. Reports on bombing trials included ground assessments of the bomb aimer’s position, and checking of the various loads which could be carried. Seven flying hours with the Norden auto-flight system demonstrated its ability to control turns at all speeds and to hold heading even with two engines on one side fully throttled-the resulting sideslip was, however, uncomfortable. Following performance checks on FK 187 the Establishment extrapolated the figures and assumed a full load of 1,440 imperial gallons of fuel (plus 115 gal of oil) to give a take-off weight of 51,350 lb. With standard allowances, an average of 1.42 miles per gallon gave a theoretical range of 2,020 miles (1,620 miles for practical planning). The Establishment further extrapolated these figures assuming 600 gal in the bomb bay. and calculated a maximum still air range of 2,890 miles (2,360 practical); the exercise was to help the Air Staff to assess the type’s effectiveness for the maritime role, All Fortress IIs were used in this way by the RAF.

Flame damping was good on the Fortress IIA. and the navigational facilities adequate. including the astrodome in FA706 (a B-17F, Fortress II) in January 1943. Rocket projectiles, planned for the Fortress but never fitted, led to preliminary attitude measurements on FK211 early in 1943. A 40 mm Vickers gun was however, installed on FK 185 and tested from December 1942; about 700 rounds were successfully fired. A feature of the complementary handling trials was the increase in all up weight to 52,000 Ib: previous Boscombe flying had been limited to under 49,400 lb. The High-Altitude Flight used FK 192 for eighteen months from June 1943 on meteorological research.

The need for measurement of humidity was soon identified. and two types of hygrometer (modified from sea level types) were sent by distinguished scientists. but proved impractical. George Hislop, who, by late 1941 had a meteorological assistant with independent views, developed a nephelometer, testing it in a Fortress, thus becoming the first to measure humidity at altitude. Among discoveries was relative humidity of 105% – due, it was agreed, not to false readings. but to supercooled water droplets.

Fortress Mark III

The special electronic role of some RAF Fortress III (B-17G) was cleared for Service use by brief handling trials on HB767 at RAF Oulton: the lower than expected stalling speed was attributed to the pressure error caused by the H2S radar fairing. Further trials, also in July 1944. on HB774 established that the errors were. in fact. small. The Establishment used three Fortress III at Boscombe: H B702 briefly from November 1944 for gunnery, and K L835 from July 1945 to establish civil operating criteria.

Boeing B-17Gs in Coastal Command and Bomber Command’s No. 100 Group

Fortress Mk III

The RAF used the B-17G (Fortress Mk. III) for RCM duties with squadrons of 100 Group during 1944/45. This Mk. III with black-painted undersides has the prominent fairing under the forward fuselage for British H2S radar. A Consolidated Liberator is visible to the right.

With its forward fuselage (cheek) windows overpainted and a prominent `flame-damper’ visible beneath its outboard engine, Fortress Mk. III HB796 has the tall Type 313 transmission mast amidships, and smaller spine aerial for the Airborne Cigar jammer. It later served with 214 Squadron.

The tail `stinger’ of a 100 Group Fortress Mk. III; the TV-like aerials on each side were for Airborne Grocer equipment, aimed to jam German airborne interception radars. The smaller lower antenna was a Monica IIIE tail warning radar transmission aerial, its receivers being two diminutive blades on each side of the fin.

Many RAF 100 Group Fortress Mk. IIIs carried a large radome for British H2S radar equipment beneath the forward fuselage, where the B-17G’s chin turret was usually installed. Conversion work was carried out by Scottish Aviation Ltd at Prestwick.

In February 1944 the USAAF started to divert an eventual total of 98 B-17G bombers to the RAF, in whose service the type received the designation Fortress Mk III. Some of the aircraft were operated by Coastal Command for the long-range maritime and weather reconnaissance roles, but others were operated by two squadrons of Bomber Command’s No. 100 Group for a variety of electronic warfare tasks after specialised jamming and deception equipment had been installed.

The B-17G was supplied in comparatively small numbers to the RAF, and played a largely unpublicised but nonetheless important and specialised role.

Long before the dramatic exploits of the USAAF’s B-17G fleet had taken place, the first B-17s flown in combat were the early C models (Fortress Mk. I) of the RAF’s 90 Squadron, Bomber Command, during July 1941. Some historians state the lack of success achieved in these early operations as the reason why the B-17 never served in large numbers with the RAF. Whatever the reason, as recounted earlier in this book, the RAF received just a comparatively small total of B-17s of various versions. Twenty Fortress Mk. Is were followed by the Mk. IIA (B-17E equivalent) and the Mk. II (B-17F), both of which served with squadrons of Coastal Command where their exceptional endurance proved important on long-range antisubmarine patrols. One of the principal operators was 220 Squadron, which had flown Fortresses since receiving ex-90 Squadron Fortress Mk. Is during late 1941 and early 1942.

The B-17G was supplied initially to Britain during 1944 as the Fortress Mk. III, but this involved just 85 aircraft from Boeing and Lockheed-Vega production. Their serial numbers were HB761-HB820, KH998-KH999, KJ100-KJ127 and KL830-KL837. Of these, however, approximately 13 were repossessed for US service and were apparently not delivered for frontline RAF operations (some being assigned to the Eighth Air Force’s 388th Bomb Group) – which explains why some published sources state that the RAF actually received 85 Mk. III aircraft. In British service the B-17 of any version was usually referred to (including in official documents) simply as a Fortress and not `Flying Fortress’, and the Mk. III is often referred to as a B. III.

Clandestine war

Although Bomber Command had no use for the Fortress as a standard night bomber following the early war experiences with Fortress Mk. Is, the B-17G nevertheless was to play a vital role in the RAF’s night bombing offensive against Nazi Germany. This involved some Mk. IIIs being converted for Radio Counter Measures (RCM) work, later called Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), to fly with the RAF’s specialist 100 Group. Their role was to combat German defences, particularly radar, to protect the RAF’s Main Force of Lancaster and Halifax bombers. The Fortresses intended for this tasking were seconded to Scottish Aviation Ltd at Prestwick for conversion.

Most were fitted with a prominent radome under the forward fuselage for H2S radar equipment, replacing the standard Bendix chin turret of the B-17G. H2S was used as a ground mapping radar by the RAF as an aid to night area bombing, and was also fitted to Main Force Lancaster and Halifax bombers. There were many other alterations made to the Fortresses, including the installation of various jamming equipment. Indeed, it appears that no two aircraft were the same in their equipment fits. In addition, the RAF also received 14 specially converted B-17Fs directly from Eighth Air Force stocks for ECM work (additional to the aforementioned Mk. II/B-17F airframes), which are sometimes called Fortress Mk. IIIA (serials SR376-SR389). The Eighth Air Force was additionally involved in this form of clandestine and highly secret electronic warfare, and there was considerable collaboration between the RAF and USAAF on this tasking.

Two 100 Group squadrons flew the Fortress Mk. III on Electronic warfare operations. The first of these, 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron (code letters BU), was based at RAF Oulton from May 1944. Its Fortresses were joined by those of 223 Squadron (code 6G), a Consolidated Liberator unit at Oulton, late in the war; the latter unit flew its first RCM Fortress sorties in April 1945. The Fortress Mk. IIIs of these two squadrons flew in support of Main Force bomber operations with RCM, as well as `Window’ (chaff-dropping), support. A Fortress training unit, 1969 Flight, was also stationed at Oulton.

Involvement in the clandestine RCM war was no guarantee of safety for the Fortresses, however, and several were shot down by German defences. A particularly costly occasion was the night of March 14-15, 1945. Bomber Command’s targets that night included oil facilities in the Lützkendorf area, as part of the significant oil/gasoline bombing campaign. 214 Squadron provided jamming support, but its aircraft appear to have become detached from the Main Force bombers, allowing Luftwaffe night fighters the opportunity to make several successful attacks. It was also costly for 214 Squadron itself and two of its Fortress Mk. IIIs, HB802 and HB799 (one published source claims HB779). Both were attacked by aircraft of NJG 6, the two Fortresses probably successfully fired upon by the radio/radar operator of the Junkers Ju 88G-6 night fighter coded 2Z+MF of Hauptmann Martin Becker, Kommandeur of IV./NJG 6. Crew members of HB802 baled out before the Fortress crashed, but the pilot of HB799 managed to bring his crippled Fortress in for a crash-landing at Bassingbourn after the remaining nine crew members bailed out over German-held territory.

The conclusion of World War Two in Europe was the end of the road for many of 100 Group’s special Fortresses, and a number were put out to pasture at 51 Maintenance Unit, RAF Lichfield (Fradley). Most of the RAF’s Fortresses (except for the Mk. I examples) were supplied under Lend-Lease arrangements with the Americans, who did not require their return, so many were simply scrapped. However, some examples did soldier on into the early post-war era and the commencement of the Cold War. The need for ECM work did not stop with the end of World War Two, and several Fortress Mk. IIIs served with the Radio Warfare Establishment at RAF Watton in the months following the end of the war.

Images of Fortress Mk. IIIs in Coastal Command service are rare. Believed to have been photographed in the Azores while with 220 Squadron, HB791/ZZ-T (ex-42-98021) was fitted with a ventral radome for sea search configured H2S radar

Maritime operations

The B-17G also served with the RAF’s Coastal Command, albeit again in comparatively small numbers (code ZZ), which as recounted earlier in this chapter had flown Fortresses of various marks since receiving ex-90 Squadron Fortress Mk. Is during late 1941 and early 1942. According to the latest available research, Coastal Command Fortresses were involved in the sinking of 11 U-boats, either wholly or in conjunction with other Allied aircraft or ships. Five of these involved 220 Squadron aircraft, with 206 Squadron also featuring prominently – these `kills’ were achieved with earlier marks of Fortresses. 220 Squadron was based at Lagens in the Azores from the autumn of 1943 for long-range patrol work, and these aircraft helped alongside British-operated Liberators to close the `Atlantic Gap’, in which German U-boats had operated beyond the range of previous maritime patrol aircraft. In addition to its existing Fortresses, the squadron eventually received a small number of Fortress Mk. IIIs from the summer of 1944 onwards, an example being HB791 (ex- 42-98021) which was coded ZZ-T.

A further squadron that used late-model Fortresses, during 1945, was 251 Squadron (code AD), based at Keflavik airfield near Reykjavik in Iceland. Again this squadron was a long-standing operator of Fortresses of various types, and was engaged primarily in meteorological reconnaissance. It was in the latter role that Fortresses continued in Coastal Command service after the end of World War Two (251 Squadron was disbanded during October 1945), with several examples being Struck Off Charge as late as 1947, when the remaining Fortresses appear to have ended their association with the RAF.


The Tupolev Tu-128 ‘Fiddler’, armed with its four unique-to-type AA-5 ‘Ash’ air-to-air missiles, started to enter service with the PVO in the mid-1960s. By this time, the Soviet air defence force was just undertaking its seventh post-war structural reorganisation, the sixth such event having been completed within the period 1957-60. Both of these periods of reorganisation had been managed under the tutelage of the then C-in-C of the PVO, Marshal of the Soviet Union Sergey Biryuzov, and were considered to have introduced significant improvements to the air defence of the Soviet Union. Those changes introduced at the end of the 1950s involved a reduction in the overall area and extent of the boundaries of responsibility of the Homeland Air Defence Troops (Voyska PVO Strany). The new organisational structure more fittingly reflected these changes and eased the task of controlling air combat against aerial intruders in Soviet airspace, rather than being aligned with the boundaries of the military districts (voyenniye okrugy), as was the case previously. Instead of twenty major formations and units of Homeland Air Defence linked to the number of military districts, only thirteen formations were retained: two PVO districts (Okrugy PVO), five PVO armies (Armii PVO) and six PVO corps (Korpusa PVO). For the first time, the zones of responsibility of the restructured formations and units embraced the entire territory of the USSR and the vulnerable access points to the country.

The seventh structural reorganisation was directed mainly at regularising control within the units of the Homeland Air Defence Troops, with changes affecting control at the operational/tactical level (opyerativnyi urovyen’). PVO formations were reduced in number, albeit with an increased number of assigned personnel, and the ranking of formations was raised, while a programme of automation of the command and control process was set in train. Significant changes also affected the tactical level of control of the Homeland Air Defence Troops, and instead of individual air defence artillery and fighter air corps and divisions, mixed air defence units (smeshannyie aviatsionno-zenitniye korpusa i divizii) were created, with a regimental structure for all branches of PVO troops. Thus, two or three aviation regiments and one to three air defence missile regiments (or brigades), dependent upon equipment and personnel establishment levels, began to form part of a standard air defence division. The unified control of air and AAA resources which had been well tried in the Great Patriotic War at the operational level was now also being achieved at the tactical level. All the wartime established VNOS posts (Posty Vozdushnovo Nablyudyeniya, Opovyeshcheniya i Svyazi) were replaced by PVO radio-technical troops, operating a network of early warning and missile guidance radars, whereas the monitoring posts only provided visual air observation (vozdushnoye nablyudyeniye), air-raid warning (opovyeshcheniye) and communications (svyaz’).

It was within this new organisational structure of Homeland Air Defence that the first Tu-128s were delivered to the Moscow District of the PVO, the 14th Independent Army of the PVO, and the 10th Independent Army of the PVO. It was decided to equip 445 IAP with the Tu-128, then based at Khotilovo, this regiment forming part of the 2nd Corps of the PVO (2 Korpus PVO), with its HQ in the garrison at Rzhev. The adjective ‘fighter’ (‘istrebityel’nyi’) was dropped from the title of regiments that operated the Tu-128 after the adoption of a different level of equipment and personnel establishment (shtat) for this aircraft. So after receiving its first Tu-128s, it was the newly abbreviated 445 AP (445 Aviatsionnyi Polk) which relocated to its purpose-built base at Savvatiya to form part of the 3rd Corps of the PVO (3 Korpus PVO), headquartered in the town of Yaroslavl’. In southern Siberia the Tu-128 began to equip units of the 14th Independent Army of the PVO, the Army’s HQ being in the city of Novosibirsk. In spite of the fact that the Army’s HQ was located so far south, its zone of responsibility also embraced the vast territory of eastern and western Siberia, right up to the islands of the Arctic Ocean. The new interceptor equipped two air defence divisions: 33 Division of the PVO (33 Diviziya PVO), with its HQ in Semipalatinsk, and 39 Division of the PVO (39 Diviziya PVO), headquartered in Irkutsk. The first formation, 33 Division, had two regiments equipped with the Tu-128—64 AP at Omsk-North and 356 AP at Zhana-Semey. The third regiment, 350 AP, based at Belaya, formed part of the 39th ‘Irkutsk’ Division.

The most northerly situated major formation of Homeland Air Defence Troops was the 10th Independent Army of the PVO, with its HQ in Arkhangel’sk. The head of the 10th Army in the mid-1970s, Col. Gen. Dmitriev, described his subordinate units as comprising up to 100 AAA missile divisions, equipped with S-75 (SA-2 ‘Guideline’), S-125 (SA-3 ‘Goa’) and later S-200 (SA-5 ‘Gammon’) missile complexes, at the time the most modern systems in Soviet service. His fighter units consisted of 280 interceptors, including Su-9 ‘Fishpots’, Su-15 ‘Flagons’, Yak-28 ‘Firebars’ and, of course, Tu-128 ‘Fiddlers’, plus a squadron of Tu-126 ‘Moss’ long-range radar picket and fighter guidance aircraft (for airborne controlled intercept—ACI).1 The individual command posts of the fighter regiments and GCI stations were equipped with so-called ‘instrument guidance’ equipment (apparatura pribornovo navyedyeniya), a broadly generalised Russian term for what was, effectively, data-link control. Around 100 sub-units of radio-technical troops were equipped with several hundred radar systems of various types, operating in a variety of different frequency ranges. The 10th Army comprised around 56,000 personnel, including generals, senior, middle ranking and junior officers, warrant officers, sergeants and ordinary enlisted soldiers and airmen. Units of PVO radio-technical troops were deployed along the coast of the Barents, White and Kara Seas, on the island of Novaya Zemlya and the Franz Josef Land archipelago to conduct reconnaissance and provide early warning of flights by potential intruders into Soviet airspace.

The 10th Army’s zone of responsibility embraced a huge territorial expanse, from the borders of the USSR with Finland and Norway and along the entire northern coastline of Soviet High Arctic to the open surface of the Kara Sea and the North Pole. Falling under 10th Army control were the 4th, 5th and 23rd Divisions of the PVO, plus the PVO’s 21st Corps, with the Tu-128s of 518 AP at Talagi coming under the control of 23 Division, headquartered in the garrison at Vas’kovo (near Arkhangel’sk). The other northern Tu-128 regiment, 72 AP at Amderma, was subordinate to 4 Division of the PVO, with its HQ at Rogachyovo (aka Belushya Guba) on the island of Novaya Zemlya. The choice of base locations for the Tu-128 was not accidental but was determined by the importance of the task facing the Homeland Air Defence units. The main task of the ‘Fiddler’ during hostilities was to intercept missile-carrying bombers of the USAF, specifically the Boeing B-52 ‘Stratofortress’, before they were able to launch their weapons. Destruction of an intruding bomber was planned to take place at a distance of around 1,500 km (810 nm) from the coastline of the Kola Peninsula, i.e. over the open sea area of the Arctic Ocean.

A minimum of a pair of Tu-128s was required to achieve a 92 per cent kill probability against a single B-52. The number of interceptors could be increased depending upon the actual variant of bomber identified and its anticipated use of ECM. The kill probability for a single R-4 (AA-5 ‘Ash’) missile against the B-52 in the forward hemisphere was only 27 per cent. This seems extremely low by today’s standards, although it should be remembered that this would have been achieved at a significant distance from the launch boundary of the B-52’s cruise missiles. It must also be borne in mind that none of the interceptors of the 1960s and 1970s was capable of bettering or even achieving this performance.

In peacetime, the Tu-128 was also tasked with the interception and destruction of foreign reconnaissance balloons, known in Russian as ‘automatic drifting aerostats’ (Avtomaticheskie Dreyfuyushchiye Aerostaty or ADA), as well as escorting foreign reconnaissance aircraft in the 100 km (54 nm) exclusion zone off the coastline of the USSR. Additionally, they could be tasked with escorting and offering assistance to aircraft that had unintentionally violated Soviet airspace. Another supplementary task, during actual or simulated combat activity, involved the use of Tu-128s to clear (sanitise) the airspace and then escort Soviet LRAF medium and strategic bombers and provide top cover in their air-to-air refuelling zones. There was also an attempt to task the Tu-128 with the interception of the B-52’s North American AGM-28 ‘Hound Dog’ cruise missiles in flight. A research programme was set up by 518 AP at Talagi in the late 1960s with the objective of determining the possibility of intercepting and destroying ‘Hound Dog’ missiles after their release from the B-52. Maj.-Gen. Nikolai Skok took part in these trials as a junior officer and recalls the events:

A group of the most highly qualified and trained crews on our regiment was assembled, which also included myself, and was led by Colonel A. M. Megyera. The commission charged with undertaking the special trials was headed by the First Deputy Commander of the 10th Independent Army of the PVO, Twice Hero of the Soviet Union, Major General N. D. Gulaev.

The results of our intercepts of a Su-9, simulating the flight profile of a ‘Hound Dog’ missile, were not very encouraging: the radar cross-section of the Su-9 at closing speeds greater than 3,000 kph (1,620 kts) was less than the lock-on capability of the Smerch radar during a forward hemisphere attack. Lock-on was achieved too late and the range to the target was less than the minimum permitted for missile launch. After this disappointing result the order was given to study the possibility of intercepting the ‘Hound Dog’ using a rear hemisphere lag pursuit profile, since the missile’s speed exceeded that of the interceptor. The results were the same as before, although the crews who participated in the trials did obtain very useful practical experience of intercepting high-altitude, high-speed targets.

Following these trials, the plans to use the Tu-128 to intercept cruise missiles had to be shelved.

As already noted, the most vulnerable aerial approach direction over Soviet territory, which unquestionably called for obligatory and constant fighter protection, was from the north, representing the shortest distance between the USSR and the USA—the two superpowers of the Cold War period. However, in the mid-1960s, relations between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China had also deteriorated quite significantly, leading to the urgent need to establish another defensive sector focused on central China. Thus the fighter interceptor regiments of the 14th PVO Army would have to undertake combat air patrols in two separate sectors in the event of hostilities—in the north and along a central Chinese axis. The key installations which had to be protected by the 14th Army’s ‘Fiddler’ regiments were located in the vicinity of, inter alia, Novyi Urengoy, Surgut, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Novokuznetsk, Kemerovo, Barnaul, Alyeisk and Biisk. Between the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s it was believed that in the event of nuclear war, the potential enemy (at that time considered to be the United States of America and its allies) would carry out a strike in two waves:

•  an initial wave of B-52s with thirty ALCMs (Air Launched Cruise Missiles) and fifteen SRAMs (Short-range Attack Missiles)

•  a second wave of up to sixty-five B-52s with twenty ALCMs and 185 SRAMs.

It was expected that a strike deep into Siberian territory would be initiated some 7-9 hours after the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the likely launch boundary of American ALCMs being Cape Chelyuskin (Taymyr Peninsula), Kirov Island and Cape Sporyi Navolok (on Novaya Zemlya). The PVO’s fighter response would be based on these assumptions, and by way of example we list here the wartime tasks which would be carried out by the 1st and 2nd squadrons of 356 AP based at Zhana-Semey:

Wartime tasks of the 1st squadron of the 356th Aviation Regiment

The 1st squadron, comprising nine Tu-128Ms, in co-operation with the 2nd squadron of 356 AP and augmented by fighters from 849 IAP at Kupino in Novosibirsk Oblast, operating from an airfield QRA posture (dezhurstvo na aehrodromye)2 at Readiness 1, was tasked with the following missions:

•  prevention of enemy strikes on key installations in the Omsk and Novosibirsk industrial region and overflights by enemy aircraft towards key installations of the Kuzbass (Kuznetsk Basin) coal, iron and steel production area;

•  destruction of enemy aircraft along Defence Line No. 6, Bystriy to Ishim, and Defence Line No. 7, Zarya to Narym, at medium and high altitudes;

Additionally, to be prepared for deployment to the reserve airfield at Khatanga in order to:

•  reinforce PVO defensive capability using the regiment’s 3rd squadron and fighter squadrons of 849 IAP at Kupino, to neutralise enemy air power along the central Chinese axis from specific defence lines;

•  attack at medium and high altitude along Defence Line No. 12, Zharma to Gornaya Teli, from an airfield QRA posture at Readiness 1 and from airborne QRA (dezhurstvo v vozdukhye) in Zone Nos 3 and 4—see below;*

•  attack at medium altitude along the Defence Line No. 11 Kaskabulak– Nizhnyaya Tayinta–Novaya Shul’ba, from an airfield QRA posture at Readiness 1;

•  provide top cover for groups of forces of the Siberian Military District (Siberian Front) on their ‘route of advance’ between Biisk and Tashanta. In peacetime, the squadrons would be tasked with the destruction of military aircraft and drifting reconnaissance balloons of capitalist states if they violated Soviet airspace.

Wartime tasks of the 2nd squadron of the 356th Aviation Regiment

The 2nd squadron, comprising nine Tu-128s operating from an airfield QRA posture (dezhurstvo na aehrodromye) at Readiness 1, in co-operation with the 1st squadron of 356 AP, was tasked with the following missions:

•  prevention of enemy strikes on key installations in the Omsk and Novosibirsk industrial region and overflights towards the Kuzbass coal, iron and steel production area;

•  destruction of enemy aircraft at maximum possible range, before they could launch their air-to-ground missiles, operating either individually within a pairs formation or as two pairs using a forward hemisphere intercept profile at medium and high altitude along Defence Line No. 6, Bystriy to Ishim, and Defence Line No. 7, Zarya to Narym.

Additionally, to be prepared for deployment to the reserve airfield at Khatanga in order to:

•  reinforce PVO defensive capability using the regiment’s 3rd squadron and fighter squadrons of 849 IAP at Kupino, from an airfield QRA posture and from airborne QRA in Zone Nos 3 and 4;*

•  destroy enemy aircraft approaching from the central China direction along Defence Line No. 12, Novosibirsk to Gornaya Teli, and Defence Line No. 11, Ishim–Kaskabulak–Nizhnyaya Tayinta–Novaya Shul’ba.

*The regiment’s airborne QRA Zone Nos 3 and 4 were set up in designated airspace within the region of the towns of Yerofeevka and Aktokai respectively.

Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen

Twenty Arado Ar 234 Bs were produced and delivered by the end of June 1944. The only notable use of the plane in the bomber role was during the Ardennes offensive in winter 1944-45, and the most spectacular operational bombing mission was the repeated attacks by Ar 234 B-2s flown by III/KG 76 on the vital Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen in March 1945. The uninterceptable aircraft, though handicapped by fuel shortage, continued to see scattered front-line action for reconnaissance until Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.

The crew of a Multiple Gun Motor Carriage M16 relax on stand-by close to the famous bridgeat Remagen. The crew have toned down the appearance of the vehicle with hessian anda board over the tracks. Note the spare ammunition magazines.

Hermann Göring sought volunteers to fly suicide missions into the bridge, a proposal also intercepted by Allied eavesdroppers even before it was rejected as impractical by German commanders. Nearly four hundred Luftwaffe sorties were flown over Remagen, including missions by jet planes and antiquated Stuka dive-bombers; all could just as well have been deliberately suicidal. The marauders soon encountered twenty-five barrage balloons and nearly seven hundred antiaircraft guns—the Army’s densest concentration of World War II—under orders to shoot anything with wings. Each approaching enemy plane was said by one officer to “cost the American taxpayer a million dollars in antiaircraft ammunition,” and gunners would claim more than a hundred aircraft shot down. The intense fire inflicted two hundred friendly casualties on the ground, mostly welts and bruises from the spent .50-caliber slugs that fell like hard rain. On Hitler’s command, V-2 launch sites in Holland also fired eleven rockets at the bridge, the only tactical use of the weapon during the war. None struck home; the single near miss killed three GIs and a barnyard full of livestock several hundred yards from the river.

The Luftwaffe began attacking the Remagen Bridge almost immediately with the first few attacks on March 8. The expectation was that the Stuka would offer the best hope of a pinpoint attack on the bridge, but when all three Stukas were shot down on the first attack mission, it was obvious that another method was needed. German jet strike aircraft seemed a more survivable option since they could outrun Allied fighters and their speed might reduce their vulnerability to the growing anti-aircraft defenses the US Army was deploying around the bridge. At first, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring asked for volunteers to fly a suicide mission against the bridge, diving their aircraft directly into the structure. Although there were volunteers, the idea was quickly squashed by senior officers who pointed out that the bomb’s safeing and arming system would prevent the bomb from detonating in these circumstances.

The second day of Luftwaffe attacks began with an assortment of propeller driven aircraft including the ubiquitous Fw 190 and Bf 109, but also including the heavy “destroyer” fighters such as the Me 410. The first jet attacks began later that day including both the Me 262 and Arado Ar 234. This shows the attack by 8./KG 76, which staged three sorties that day. The Arado Ar 234 was Germany’s first dedicated jet bomber. It had first been deployed in 1944 on a trials basis in the reconnaissance role, but by 1945 the bomber variants were entering service in growing numbers. The first bomber missions by III./KG. 76 were conducted in December 1944 over Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.


Although overshadowed by the Me 262 fighter, the Arado was one of the most sophisticated aircraft of its day. It was heavier on take off than the Me 262, so required a rocket-assisted take-off system. The pilot sat in a forward cockpit with excellent forward visibility and a state-of-the-art navigation and bombing system. The usual attack mode was to place the aircraft into a shallow dive at the target, releasing the bomb with the aid of the PV1B periscopic sight tied into the aircraft’s BZA bombing computer. As an alternative to dive bombing when attacking area targets from high altitude, the pilot would put the aircraft under autopilot control and then aim at the target using the Lotfe 7K bombsight, which was integrated with the bombing computer to release the bomb automatically at the right moment, but this was not a popular tactic. A third method was the Egon flight-control system which was based around the aircraft’s FuG 25a IFF (identification-friend-or-foe) transceiver working in conjunction with two ground-based Freya radars and allowed for blind bombing in the event of cloudy conditions.

The jet attacks against Remagen on March 9 proved fruitless, in part due to the intense anti-aircraft fire near the bridge from five US Army anti-aircraft battalions including quad .50-cal. heavy machine guns, 37mm and 40mm automatic cannon, and even 90mm anti-aircraft guns.

Hermann Göring had long been out of Hitler’s favor for the continuing collapse of the Luftwaffe, and he attempted to re-enter the Führer’s good graces by promising that the Luftwaffe would destroy the bridge. The special squadrons for bridge destruction using the Mistel composite aircraft had already been committed to attack the bridges in the east being used by the Red Army, and bomber units using the Fritz-X guided bomb and Hs. 293 missile were inactive because of the lack of fuel and combat losses in 1944. The Luftwaffe in the west was too weak to launch massed attacks on account of the dominating presence of Allied fighters, but the 14th Fliegerdivision under Oberst von Heinemann attempted to stage numerous small-scale attacks with whatever fighters and fighter-bombers could be scraped together. An initial attack was conducted around 1645hrs on March 8 by three Stukas and an Fw 190- all were shot down by the half-tracks of the 482nd AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion, making it clear that dive-bombing was no solution. The only aircraft with a reasonable chance of surviving the Allied air cover were the new jets so Göring ordered the formation of Gefechtsverband Kowalewski, which combined about 30 Me 262A-2a jet fighter-bombers from II./KG 51 and about 40 Ar 234B jet bombers from Obst. Lt. Robert Kowalewski’s III./KG 76 into a special combined jet strike force.

On 8 March, early next morning the Reichsmarschall called KG 51 operations room to request volunteers to sacrifice their lives by diving bomb-carrying Me 262 s into the bridge. Two pilots stepped forward but were dissuaded by their squadron commanders at the last moment. Between 13 March and 20 April, I./KG 51 used the Autobahn between Leipheim and Neu-Ulm as its operational base. Since the delivery unit of the Kuno assembly works (a factory hidden in woods near Burgau ), and a similar plant near Leipheim aerodrome were nearby, this offered some limited opportunity for engine overhauls. At least two operations were flown from Giebelstadt against armour heading for Mainz, one of these against the important railway bridge at Bad Munster am Stein on 18 March 1945. These few operations fell well short of doing anything to change the situation or stop the Allied advance.

By March 9, there were five US anti-aircraft battalions protecting the bridge, running the gamut from quad .50-cal. machine guns up to 90mm guns. The attacks early in the day included the usual Bf 109 and FW 190 fighters, but also included improvised attacks by Me 410 heavy fighters. The first jet attacks on the bridge began on March 9 and included several Me 262 attacks, as well as three sorties by Ar 234s. One each of the jet types was lost to flak that day, and US units claimed 13 of the 17 German aircraft making attacks. The third day, cloud cover protected the bridge in the morning, but in the afternoon, some 47 attacks were made with the antiaircraft guns claiming a further 28 aircraft.

On the 10th the 359th escorted B-17s sent to bomb the marshalling yards at Hagen and Schwerte. Lt Col McKee led `A’ group and Capt Cox `B’ group, their meeting point with the `Forts’ being over the Dutch town of Egmond at 1210 hrs. There was solid cloud cover over the targets, and the bombs had to be dropped by radar. During the mission the 370th searched for jets reported over Koblenz, but found nothing. Escort was maintained until south-east of Koblenz, when a message came through ordering the group to an area east of the Remagen bridgehead. A second call directed the 359th specifically to the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen to search for Fw 190s and Ar 234 jet bombers attacking the span.

Unfortunately the American anti-aircraft gunners at the bridge were not told about the approaching Mustangs, and the 359th came under intense friendly fire, as well as fire from a German 20 mm flak gun situated on a nearby hillside. At 1525 hrs two Mustangs from the 368th, flown by Lts George H Blackburn (in P-51D-15 44-15067) and James W McCormack (flying P-51D-20 44-63740) were both hit by the German guns at 1000 ft. McCormack died when his P-51 crashed soon after being hit, and Blackburn perished when his fighter crashed into a wood near Windhagen, two-and-a-half miles away.

Capt Wetmore’s Mustang was also hit, but by the American gunners. A fire started in the right wing of his machine, but this soon died out and the ace flew to St Trond, in Belgium, and bellied in with fuel starvation problems and a jammed canopy. The latter had failed to jettison when it became snagged on a camera installed behind the armour plate aft of the pilot’s head. The drill was to crank the canopy back past the point where the cross-brace would catch on the camera before jettisoning it. Wetmore evidently failed to follow this procedure! He returned to base on the 12th.

The danger of low-altitude attacks led to attempts by the Ar 234 bombers to use the advanced Egon blind-bombing system from high altitude on March 12, but this was no more successful. This was the heaviest single day of air attacks involving some 91 aircraft of which the US AA units claimed 26 destroyed and eight damaged. Jet strikes against the bridge peaked on March 13 with 19 Ar 234 sorties out of the 90 sorties flown by the Luftwaffe that day; US AA units claimed 26 shot down and nine damaged. It was also the worst day of the campaign for the Me 262 fighter-bombers, losing five aircraft to flak and Allied fighters. The scale of Luftwaffe attacks dropped dramatically in the next few days because of the losses. By March 13, the anti-aircraft defense reached its peak, with 16 AA gun batteries and 33 automatic weapons batteries for a total of 672 AA weapons around the bridge. Remagen witnessed the densest concentration of US Army anti-aircraft fire anywhere during the war and it accomplished its mission. No German aircraft managed to hit the bridge in the ten days of attacks.

Luftwaffe repeatedly attack the Ludendorff Bridge with Me-262s, though German records indicate that due to bad weather no 262s flew on March 14. Eleven Ar-234s attacked the pontoon bridges south of the Ludendorff span that day, however, and two of four losses were attributed to P-38s.

When the German fighter force did decide to return to the skies on the 14th, Eighth Air Force fighters further reduced its inventory – 17 enemy aircraft fell during the day, four of them jets. One of the latter was credited to 13.333-kill ace Capt Don Bryan, who used his combat experience to the utmost in order to outwit the German pilot.

On March 14, Bryan flew a mission over the Rhine River in the P-51 Worra Bird 3. The plane was Lieutenant George A. Middleton’s, but Bryan, as flight leader, had the option of selecting the best aircraft available. Worra Bird 3 it was. In the air, he spotted a Blitz piloted by Captain Hans Hirschberger, who was making his combat debut. Hirschberger was a member of Kampfgeschwader 76 (KG 76), a Luftwaffe bomber outfit equipped with Ar 234s. Hirschberger was in the area as part of the German air effort to bust the Ludendorff Bridge and slow the flow of Allied forces into Germany.

Bryan kept his eyes on Hirschberger’s Blitz. He watched it pull off the bridge and maneuver into a tight turn to evade a formation of P-47s. The maneuver compromised the jet’s strongest asset: superior speed. Bryan positioned himself so his adversary would have to fly toward him. It was a maneuver he had carefully considered and rehearsed.

When he was ready, Bryan dived at the Blitz and fired a burst from his Mustang’s .50-caliber M2 Browning machine guns. He saw hits sparkling against the Blitz’s right engine housing. It wasn’t immediately obvious whether he’d disabled the engine, but now the jet was moving at a slower speed. Bryan was able to stay behind it, readjust his aim, and then open up again. “I don’t know what the hell was on his mind,” Bryan said of Hirschberger, “but he should have gotten out of that airplane while he was high enough. I think he was afraid I would shoot at him in his parachute, which I would never do.” Having waited too long to jettison the roof hatch, Hirschberger went down with his plane.

In his encounter report, Bryan wrote, “I hit him with the first burst and knocked his right jet out. He made a shallow turn to the right and started very mild evasive maneuvers. There was no jet wash or prop wash or anything [I needed to avoid], so I squirted him. The [Blitz] was emitting much white smoke. I do not believe the [Blitz] caught fire. I finished firing [and] he rolled over on his back and dived straight into the ground and exploded. Just before hitting the ground, the pilot jettisoned his canopy, but did not get out.”

Three days after Bryan’s triumph, the bridge soon to be known as the Bridge at Remagen collapsed. But by then enough Americans had reached the eastern bank of the Rhine to hold their ground. Reinforcements continued to pour over pontoon bridges. Nazi Germany’s final collapse was just weeks away.

Through March 17, the US Army estimated that the Luftwaffe had conducted about 400 sorties against the bridge of which 140 aircraft were claimed to have been shot down and 59 probably destroyed. Gefechtsverband Kowalewski had lost 18 jet aircraft in combat plus several more damaged aircraft crashing on landing, a total of about a third its original strength.

JG 53 was transferred closer to the middle Rhine sector, where US troops had unexpectedly seized a bridge across the river at Remagen. But after several days of costly missions in this area, the Gruppen returned to the Stuttgart region. So absolute was Allied air superiority by this stage that Oberstleutnant Helmut Bennemann’s pilots could now only operate during the hours of dawn and dusk. And still they were being forced to retreat.

At Himmler’s urging, Hitler ordered that the bridgehead area be wiped out using V-2 missiles regardless of civilian losses. Himmler dispatched SS-Abteilung 500, a recently formed missile battalion, to attack the bridgehead. The battalion was armed with an improved version of the V-2 missile with a special radio guidance upgrade, and launched 11 missiles during March 11-17 from bases in the Netherlands without scoring any hits. One missile came within a mile of the bridge, striking inside Remagen; aside from one other hit within the town, the rest of the missiles exploded harmlessly in the river or open countryside. Another special weapon to appear was the Karl 540mm super-heavy mortar. Karl-Batterie 638 with two of these massive weapons was sent to the Remagen area where some 14 rounds were fired starting on March 16; these did not hit the bridge but caused considerable damage within the town of Remagen itself.

Repairs on the Ludendorff continued for nine days even as tactical bridges carried most of the traffic across the Rhine. Between air raids and enemy shellings, two hundred welders, riggers, ironworkers, and carpenters swarmed over the structure, patching chords, stringers, and holes in the deck. Measurements showed the Ludy settling a bit on the upstream side, to the south, but engineers believed the structure had been stabilized.

It had not. Just before three P.M. on Saturday, March 17, a rivet sheared away with a sharp pop! Others followed, as if musketry swept the girders. A vertical hanger snapped. Dust billowed from the quaking deck. Timbers splintered and the squeal of steel on steel echoed against the Erpeler Ley. “Men on the deck dropped their tools and started to run,” an engineer colonel later testified. Many found themselves sprinting uphill as the center span twisted counterclockwise and buckled. Then the entire bridge seemed to fold in on itself, “gracefully, like an old slow-motion movie,” before pitching into the Rhine with a white splash.

Of those who rode the Ludy down, twenty-eight died and another sixty-three were injured. A major’s body found atop the east pier was recognizable only by his oak-leaf rank insignia; others vanished into the Rhine forever. Scaffolding and deck timbers threatened to ram through the treadways downstream until engineers with axes and poles pushed the debris away while boatmen fished survivors from the river. Precisely why the bridge collapsed would remain uncertain. Weakened by earlier Allied bombing and the botched demolition, the span had since been assaulted by hard winds, heavy traffic, welding, incessant hammering, V-2s, artillery, and the vibration of a thousand shells fired from an Army 8-inch howitzer battery less than a mile away. “Most of us,” an engineer told his diary, “are glad the damned thing is gone.”


Me 262 at Remagen

Goring called for volunteers from I./KG 51 at Hopsten to undertake self-sacrificial ramming operations against the great Ludendorff railway bridge at Remagen – a vital crossing point over the Rhine that the Americans had now reached and crossed. On 9 March, as Bonn and Bad Godesberg were captured by the US First Army, and other Allied forces continued to expand their bridgehead beyond the town, three Ar 234s from III./KG 76 attacked the bridge with 250 kg bombs, but without success. In response to Goring’s call, two pilots from KG 51 came forward, but the suicide sortie was never flown.

Eight aircraft from Gefechtsverband Kowalewski made an attack on the Remagen Bridge on the 12th, seven aircraft bombing it and the other machine targeting transport columns. A second attack on the bridge was flown later by eight more aircraft from III./KG 76 and I./KG 51. No jets were lost, but no success was recorded either.


Taking off from Rheine on 13 March, four Me 262s from II./KG 51 made an attack between 0905 hrs and 1002 hrs at an altitude of 5000 m on river crossings in the bridgehead area. The jets were each equipped with two AB 250 containers filled with SD 10 anti-personnel bombs. A formation of ten P-47s was encountered, but it was to be a fruitless engagement for both sides. Due to the presence of the US fighters, the effects of bombing were not observed. Two jets were lost on the return flight to Rheine, one making an emergency landing near Lüdinghausen due to a shortage of fuel. The other pilot bailed out when an engine unit failed, his aircraft crashing at Neuenkirchen, southwest of Rheine.

On the 18th operations resumed when, between 1138 hrs and 1238 hrs, three Me 262s of II./KG 51 mounted a high-level attack through clouds against the Remagen bridgehead from 6000 m using Egon control. Six 250 kg containers of SD 10 fragmentation bombs were dropped, but the effects were not observed. There was no contact with enemy aircraft.

The Germans improvised a system conceptually similar to Oboe, code named Egon, for bombing on the Eastern Front on a limited scale. It used two modified Freyas to play the roles of Cat and Mouse; these two Freya Egon sets were located about 93 miles (150 km) apart and the aircraft carried a two-channel IFF to respond to them. Voice radio directed the bombers. Despite the considerable effort the Germans put into other electronic navigation systems, they never took this concept further